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Authors: Loretta Chase Catherine Anderson Kathleen E. Woodiwiss

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BOOK: Three Weddings And A Kiss
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Unable to bear seeing the six-year-old cry, Rachel applied herself to the task or cheering him up. Since they had an oversupply of old newspapers and plenty of flour, she suggested they make Clint a gift from papier-mâché. They had decided that a bowl to hold his pocket change would be an ideal gift, and Rachel was just mopping up Cody’s last tears when a shout came from out in the yard. In a twinkling, she remembered her laundry. But by then it was too late. To say that it had gotten scorched was an understatement. Incinerated, more like.

Failure…It might not have been so hard to take if only she hadn’t come to care so deeply, not just about Clint, with whom she strongly suspected she was falling in love, but about Cody and Matt and all the others. Each of Clint’s brothers had become special to her in some way: Cody because he so desperately needed a mother, Matt because of his tendency to drink, and Cole because he needed help with his spelling, something Rachel was able to assist him with by having him spell out loud. The list went on and on. For the first time in her life, Rachel felt needed, truly needed. She wanted so badly to stay with the Raffertys, to feel as though she belonged with them, to know she wasn’t just a temporary fixture. Instead, because of her continual bungling, she half expected Clint to send her packing. She certainly wouldn’t have blamed him if he had.

To ensure that he didn’t, Rachel made plans to bake him a special cake for his birthday—chocolate with fudge frosting—according to Cody, his absolute favorite. On the big day, everything went perfectly. The cake came out of the oven looking divine. Her frosting was flawless, exactly the right consistency. When everyone gathered around the table to eat, Rachel was so proud of herself she had tears in her eyes.

Then Clint took his first bite of cake. Though he was far too polite to let on, Rachel knew something was wrong by the way his eyes darkened.

“What?” she cried.

He waved a hand and tried to smile. “It’s nothing,” he managed.
“Really, Rachel.”

She didn’t believe that for a second. She took a bite to see for herself.
Salt.
The frosting was delicious, but the cake itself tasted awful. Rachel nearly gagged. She couldn’t imagine how Clint managed to sit there, pretending it wasn’t so bad.

Suddenly, it was all just too much. In a twinkling, she remembered every disastrous mistake she’d made since coming there. Now, to add insult to injury, she had ruined Clint’s birthday. Even Cody looked at her with accusing eyes.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered to no one in particular. “I’m so—sorry.”

The final blow occurred when Rachel turned to flee the house. Useless was lying on the floor behind her, and with tears blurring her already poor vision, she mistook him for a rug, tripped over him, and sprawled face first on the floor. Matt reached her first. He was the one to help her stand, the one to check her hands for scrapes and brush her off. The others hovered around, all of them making sympathetic noises, none of them saying what she needed to hear. What that might nave been, Rachel didn’t know. She just knew she was humiliated to the marrow of her bones.

Looking up at Matt through her tears, she remembered his saying that he’d once advised Molly to run along home, not because he wished to hurt her, but because she needed the prompting. For different reasons, Rachel wished he’d given her the same advice.
Anything to have avoided this.

With agonized movements, she retreated toward the door. With each step she took, all their faces became less distinct.
Except for Clint’s, of course.
His, she decided, had been carved in her heart, never to be forgotten, never to blur, no matter how far away she was from him.

With a low sob she couldn’t stifle, she jerked open the door and fled. She couldn’t go on like this. It wasn’t just she who was suffering; all of them were.

9

F
or at least a full minute after Rachel fled from the house, no one spoke. Then everyone tried to say something at once. Clint held up his hands.

“I’ll go get her.”

Cody ran up to hug his leg. “Tell her it
don’t
matter. We can make another cake.”

“Sure we can!” Daniel agreed.

“She just needs more practice cooking,” Jeremiah insisted.

Glancing around at all their faces, Clint realized that his brothers were as hopelessly in love with Rachel as he was, albeit in a different way. He ruffled Cody’s hair. “I’ll bring her back, tyke. Don’t you
worry.
” Glancing at Jeremiah, he added, “This could take a spell. While you guys are waiting, why don’t you whip up another cake real fast?” He glanced meaningfully at Cody. “A birthday party just isn’t a birthday party without cake.”

Jeremiah nodded.
“Sure, Clint.
Just don’t expect much. My cake may not taste much better than Rachel’s.”

Clint nearly said that
anybody’s
cake would taste better than Rachel’s, but he bit back the words. The less said, the better, he decided.

He found Rachel hiding in the barn loft. She was weeping copiously, her sobs deep and tearing. Just listening to her was enough to break Clint’s heart. Swinging a leg over the top ladder rung, he stepped off into the loose hay and made his way toward her. Where bales were missing, there was no bottom to the softness, and he lurched. Dust particles seared his nostrils.

The instant Rachel sensed his
presence,
she held her breath to stop crying. Crossing his ankles, he dropped to a sitting position beside her, propping his elbows on his knees. After a long moment, he said, “You know, Rachel, none of us care if you can cook.”

With a catch in her voice, she cried, “What do you mean, you don’t care? That’s why you brought me here! To cook and clean and make the house nice.”

“And you’ve done that.” He recited a list of things she’d done. “Seeing Cody all cleaned up for supper every night, havin’ flowers on the table and the place all shiny clean, those are the things that matter. You bein’ a great cook doesn’t.”

“You’re just saying that!” she said shakily.

Clint turned his hands to gaze at his palms. As he listened to her stifled sobs, he curled his fingers into tight fists. “Rachel, I’m not just saying it. You’ve no idea what it was like around here for the boys before you came. Daniel and Cody used to have terrible dreams almost every night about our folks dyin’ and the hard times we went through after. Now they hardly ever wake up crying.” He waited for a moment to let that sink in. “Your bein’ here has given them a sense of security, that everything is okay in their world. And—” His throat went tight. “And, all that aside, I think I’m falling in love with you.”

She went instantly silent and turned to look at him. Clint met her gaze steadily.

“You’ll stop thinking so the minute you hear the truth,” she informed him in a tremulous voice. “I’m not just a bungler, like you think. I can’t see.”

“Can’t see what?”

“Anything!
I’m nearly blind. To see, I have to wear spectacles over a half inch thick.”

“I thought you said you didn’t have poor eyesight.”

She cast him a look that spoke volumes. “That wasn’t a lie. My eyesight isn’t poor, it’s downright awful.”

Clint regarded her for several long seconds, remembering all the times she’d looked up at him just as she was doing now. Before, he’d always believed she was enthralled and hanging on his every word. Now he realized she looked at him with that wide-eyed intentness because she was trying to see him.

“My God
?…
” he whispered. There had been so many signs. Now that she’d told him the truth, he couldn’t believe he’d been so blind. “Why haven’t you been wearing your glasses then, sweetheart?”

“They got broken. I always carry them hidden in my skirt pocket and only sneak them out when I have to. When I fell in the church, they got shattered. At home I have extra pairs, but here I don’t.”

“You should’ve told me! I would have gone to town and gotten your spare spectacles, honey. I can’t believe you’ve gone around all this time unable to see.” He signed. “As soon as I can get away—let me see—Saturday, I reckon. That’s only four days. I’ll take you into town and we’ll get your spare spectacles. Can you wait that long?”

Her chin started to quiver, and her beautiful eyes filled with sparkling tears. “You wouldn’t mind?”

“Mind what?”

“My wear—” Her voice broke.
“The spectacles?
How ugly they make me look? You wouldn’t care?”

It hit Clint then, like a fist in his guts. This girl that he was coming to love so much had been badly hurt, and he had a nasty feeling it had been by a man. He caught her small chin in his hand. “Rachel, you couldn’t look ugly if you tried.”

“Yes,” she squeaked.

That single word imparted a wealth of pain. Clint bent to kiss the tears from her cheeks. “Not in spectacles a half inch thick or even an inch thick. You’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen, Rachel, and I’d like to kill the bastard who told you otherwise. Who was he?”

“Nobody.
Nobody important, anyhow.
He left town after I told him about my eyes. He sort of eloped without me.”

Word by word, Clint dragged the story out of her and then pieced it all together. It sounded to him as though Rachel had come perilously close to being seduced by an opportunistic scoundrel. She’d been fifteen, only a year older than her sister Molly. The man, a Bible salesman who peddled tonics on the side, had reneged on his promise to marry her when he realized she had poor eyesight. The way Clint saw
it, that
had probably been Rachel’s lucky night. A man like that would have used her,
then
abandoned her along the wayside somewhere.

“No wonder you went after Matt with such vengeance when you thought he’d deliberately hurt Molly.” Clint drew her into his arms. “You were getting revenge for yourself as well.” He ran a hand up her back.
“Ah, Rachel.
So many wasted tears.
Don’t cry any more, sweetheart. I’ll think you gorgeous in spectacles, I promise.”

“You will?”

“Absolutely.”

She sniffed. “I won’t wear them except for when I have to. Like when I’m cooking and stuff.” She drew back slightly. “I’m really not a bungler that often when I can see what I’m doing.”

Clint smiled slightly. “You can wear your eyeglasses all you want. I’ll be so busy thinking about other things when I look at you, I probably won’t notice.”

“What other things?”

“Let me show you.” It was all the opening Clint needed. Bending his head, he settled his mouth over hers. “Oh, yes, Rachel, girl,” he whispered against her lips. “Let me show you.”

Rachel
…As their kiss deepened, her name was like a song in Clint’s mind. He peeled off his shirt and spread it over the hay to protect her from the scratchiness. Then, so sweetly he could scarcely credit it, she surrendered to him. Over the years, Clint had heard lovemaking described in every possible way, but this was the first time he had ever thought of it as sacred.

That was how it seemed with Rachel, sacred. She was like an angel in his arms. A silken, wonderfully warm little angel who made all his dreams
come
true. Never had he seen anyone so beautiful.
Ivory skin.
Full, perfectly shaped breasts with rosy tips that tasted like nectar.
A slender waist, just perfect for his hands.
Gently flared hips.
Long, shapely legs.
Clint went over every inch of her and decided there wasn’t a single thing about her he would change. Including her eyes…

He made love to her carefully, taking his time, lingering over her body to make certain she was as aroused as he was before he took her. It was the most incredible joining he had ever experienced, and judging by Rachel’s cries of elation, she felt the same way.

Contentment…Utter fulfillment. Afterward, Clint held her in his arms, wishing they could stay right where they were and make love again and again. Instead he would have to pluck the hay from her hair and take her back to the house for his birthday party. Wasn’t that a fine kettle of fish? The only present he really wanted was to make love to his wife again, which he probably wouldn’t be able to do until everyone in the family went to bed that night.

Ah, but then, what a birthday celebration he would have. Clint sighed and pressed his lips against Rachel’s temple, promising himself he would make love to her all
night, that
dawn would find her still whimpering with pleasure in his arms.

 

The sun was just peeking over the horizon when Rachel opened her eyes the next morning. As usual, Clint’s side of the bed was empty. Running her hand caressingly over the sheet, she found it still warm from the heat of his long, lean body. Even as the memory of last night’s coupling ran through her, the familiar sound of the rustling husks under her fingers made her smile. While making love to her, Clint had cursed the husks for the noise they made and suggested they get a feather-tick mattress as soon as possible. When she had pointed out how many chickens would have to die to fill a mattress with feathers, he’d nearly laughed until he cried. Then he’d settled back down to making love to her again.
Sweet, wonderful love.

Finally, after a month of tension and nervous, sidelong glances, he’d decided to make love to her. And make love he had, taking her higher and higher until she was drenched in the purest bliss.

Even though her experience was admittedly limited, she was sure now that no wanton could have responded more totally. And, oh, how glorious it had felt to surrender to the man she loved.

She was well and truly a woman now.
A woman desperately, totally, and forever in love with her husband.
Her smile took on soft edges, and she let her eyes drift closed. Deep inside, where the sweetest of sensations still throbbed ever so gently, she felt different.
Changed.
And yes, beautiful.

All because Clint had touched her where she’d never been touched before.
And kissed her.
And fused his hard, strong body with hers until she’d nearly exploded with the pleasure and joy of it.

She’d expected pain, and he’d given her ecstasy. She’d be prepared for disappointment and found herself soaring. She’d feared a maidenly embarrassment, and instead had found herself entranced. Desire rose in her again like a river of warm honey, and, suddenly restless, she stretched out her legs. Beneath the faded quilt, her skin tingled, eager to feel again the slow stroking touch of Clint’s big hand.

Lifting drowsy lids, she looked toward the window where a blur of pink and gold promised a glorious sunrise and an even more glorious day. A good day for outside chores, she thought, pleased that she was beginning to think like a rancher’s wife.

After all, a rancher’s wife was just as involved with the successful functioning of the place as any hired hand. More so, she thought, thinking of the mountains of clean clothing required by eight men, not to mention the victuals they needed to fuel those active Rafferty bodies. Clint and Jeremiah had more fence wire to string today, and Zach needed to finish patching the roof on the chicken house. She herself had a mound of ironing to tackle right after breakfast, and she really should get to the mending today. And then there was bread to make, and while Cody was busy helping Daniel muck out the stable, she would try once more to bake him that mess of cookies he wanted so desperately.

An annulment?
Not on her life. She threw off the quilt with a newfound confidence. So what if she wasn’t the greatest cook in the county and the kitchen floor always seemed to need sweeping? Clint smiled a lot more often than he frowned these days, and Cody was thriving. She’d even heard Josh whistling in the bathtub Saturday night, and Matt hadn’t spent a Sunday nursing a hangover for more than three weeks running. As for Daniel, that boy was going to break hearts someday.

All because there was a woman in the house.
A married woman, she thought, reaching for her bloomers.
A wife and mother.

A mother?
Dear God, it was possible now.
More than possible.
Holding her breath, she reverently placed a hand over the slight swell of her belly. Oh, it would be so wonderful to know that a baby was already growing inside her.
Clint’s baby.

Tears came to her eyes at the thought of giving him a child of his own, perhaps a dark-haired little girl with the lopsided Rafferty grin she adored.
A sweet-smelling, pink-cheeked daughter, maybe even a whole passel of pigtailed little girls to spoil him rotten.
After all he’d sacrificed for his brothers, all the backbreaking hours of labor he’d put in to keep them fed and clothed and safe, he deserved to be pampered a little.

As she dressed hurriedly, she envisioned this same house with cheery wallpaper covering the rough-hewn logs and the happy laughter of children mingling with the deeper chuckles of adoring uncles. At Christmastime, Clint would play Santa Claus. And on Easter Sunday, after they’d all trooped home from church, Cody and Daniel would hide the colored eggs while she prepared perfectly brewed coffee and featherlight biscuits. And then, they would watch as the little ones searched for the eggs, one huge, happy family of Raffertys. Later, when everyone was bedded down, she and Clint would come together in this same bed.
Their marriage bed.

BOOK: Three Weddings And A Kiss
10.83Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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