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In December of 2017 I published my Christmas Catch-Up collection of short stories, featuring all of the couples who had found love at River's End Ranch up until that point, framed by the theme of motherhood. Readers wanted to know more about Dink and Jace's infertility journey, so I'm sharing this never-before-published scene with you:
“You wanna head to trivia tonight?”
Dink looked up from their tiny kitchen table, where she’d been staring out the window and nursing her coffee. For the last three hours. Since last fall, when the doctor had given them the news, she’d done this more and more.
“Hmmm?” she asked her husband, not sure if he’d said anything more and she’d just been too flaked out to hear him.
Jace’s handsome face softened. He stood by the front door to the tiny house they’d been renting for almost a year and a half, still bundled up in his winter gear. He held a handful of mail in one hand—they got all their mail directed to his accounting office here at River’s End Ranch—and was peeling off his scarf with the other.
Not for the first time, Dink wondered how someone as tall as her husband could manage to be comfortable in this tiny house. As it was, sitting at the kitchen table, she could reach out and touch him, standing at the front door. But they’d learned to manage, and it was fun. Besides, it was just the two of them.
Would only ever be just the two of them…
“I asked,” Jace repeated gently, “if you wanted to go to trivia tonight. We haven’t been in a while, and I recall you and I made a pretty good team.”
Dink snorted. “I recall you didn’t think I had anything to offer, Mr. Smarty-Pants.”
“You’re remembering incorrectly,” Jace deadpanned, slotting the mail into the appropriate “bills to be addressed” or “wastebasket” piles.
She lifted her coffee to sip, but it’d long since gone cold. “Did you just call me wrong?”
“I did!” Jace nodded too enthusiastically to be anything but teasing. “That’s the word I was looking for.”
A grin reluctantly pulled at Dink’s lips. How long had it been since she’d let herself go and really laughed? She and Jace were so very different, but they’d made the perfect odd couple, and were so good together.
It wasn’t until their infertility diagnosis that things had gotten choppy. After researching extensively, they’d decided not to tackle IVF—in-vitro fertilization—because of the strain it would cause on Dink, their savings, and their relationship…and because the doctor said there was a low likelihood of it working. Jace had made his peace with not having biological children, but there were days like today—beautiful winter days where the snow was just begging to be played in—that Dink couldn’t concentrate on her sewing, for all the obsessing she was doing over what it would be like to have a child.
Dink must’ve been quieter longer than she’d intended, because Jace stepped up behind her and rubbed his large hand down her back. She hummed in question, pretending she didn’t know what he was going to scold her about, and started gathering up her coffee mug and the napkin with the cookie crumbs scattered across it.
But he didn’t scold her for getting dreamy, or remind her they’d made the decision together. Instead, he dropped a kiss to her head. “I love you, Dink.”
She twisted in her chair and wrapped her arms around his waist, although she had to stretch up to do so. “I love you too,” she muttered against his jacket.
“So let’s get you bundled up, and go get some pizza, eh? I’ll bet we can kick Jaclyn and Simon’s team’s butt.”
She played along, knowing the only way to feel better was to pretend to feel better. Fake it ‘til you make it. “I think, since there’s so many of them, the correct term is butts, husband.”
“See?” He knocked her with his hip. “This is why I need you on my team.”
Pizza did sound good, even if it was a little early. “I’ll get my new scarf.”
“And I’ll get mine.” He’d left it hanging at home, since he claimed it clashed with his boring gray overcoat.
In December, Jace had asked Dink to teach him to knit so they could knit each other Christmas presents. The request had been out of left field, and she’d been totally shocked. After all, her husband was a no-nonsense, straight-laced accountant...not at all the artsy type.
It wasn’t until their second lesson—curled up together on their tiny couch—that Dink had realized the truth: Jace had asked not because he cared about the outcome, but because he’d wanted to spend time with her. The request, and their subsequent knitting sessions, had been her favorite Christmas present of the year.
So now she got her lumpy, lopsided beige scarf from its peg by the door…and Jace got his beautiful lime-green-and-lavender one too. And they smiled as they each wrapped up tight.
Her life might not be going exactly where she’d planned, but it was still pretty awesome.
Impulsively, she stretched up on her tip-toes to kiss him quickly. “I love you.”
“You do?” He frowned. “Are you sure?”
Her eyes widened. Had she done something to make him think otherwise? She’d been in a funk recently, but she always made sure he knew how much she appreciated his love and support. “Of course I do!”
“Hmmm.” He put his arms around her and pulled her closer. “Then you really should kiss me…” Leaning closer, he lowered his voice. “Like this.”
Dink hummed in agreement when his lips caressed hers, and wrapped her own arms around his middle—the highest she could reach. Even though they were both bundled up, she could feel his warmth and his touch.
She loved him so much.
“So, pizza?” he asked when they finally pulled apart.
“Pizza,” she agreed.
He was pulling open the door when his phone rang loudly in his pocket, so he shut it again quickly. “Sorry.” He pulled it out and checked the number. “It’s not five o’clock. Could be the office, but I don’t recognize the number.”
“Go ahead.” Dink nodded with a smile.
He clicked the green answer button. “Hello? Yes, this is Jace.”
Her husband’s eyes slowly round. “Wait, hold on. I’m going to put you on speaker. Dink’s here.”
He clicked the button, and held up the phone. “It’s Peggy, the social worker. Go ahead, Peggy.”
In the moment between the first sentence and the next, Dink’s heart seized up. Why was Peggy calling? Was it good news? They’d had their share of disappointments over the last few months, as potential adoptions had fallen through. Their preference was to adopt a baby, but there were so many being born with chemical dependencies and issues, it’d been nearly heartbreaking to decide what was best.
“Can you both hear me?” Peggy asked.
Dink’s throat had closed up, so she just nodded, even knowing the other woman couldn’t hear her. Thank goodness Jace was calm enough to say, “Yes, we can.” He fumbled for her hand, and Dink clasped it like a lifeline, even through two layers of gloves.
“Okay, you two. I know we’ve been through your limits of what kind of dependencies you’re willing to take in an infant. You said a non-smoker mother, so I need to ask you again: Are you okay with a mother who smoked occasionally during her second and third trimester?”
“Um…hold on.” Jace pressed the phone against his thigh, so Peggy wouldn’t be able to hear their conversation. “What do you think?” he asked Dink.
She just blinked up at him, not quite following this. Peggy was asking…what, exactly?
“Dink!” he prompted. “Are we okay with take a baby whose biological mother smoked occasionally?”
“Are we?” she whispered.
He took a deep breath, then let it out slowly. “I am. I’d obviously prefer no foreign substances during pregnancy, but that’s going to be hard to find. I think we should just say yes, so we can increase our chances of being matched with a baby.”
A baby. “Then yes,” Dink whispered. “I agree with you.”
His hold on her hand tightened, if that was possible, and he lifted the phone once more. “You still there, Peggy?”
“Yep. Did you discuss?”
“Yes.” He inhaled again. “We agree, as long as the tobacco use was only occasional.”
“Excellent.” Peggy sounded as if she was checking boxes. “And you said you were okay with a baby of mixed race, right?”
Dink snorted softly and offered Jace a watery smile. Her husband was not only biracial himself, he was a graduate of the state’s foster system. “Yes,” she said. “We most definitely are.”
“Okaaay…” It sounded like she was making more notes. “And you’ve passed all of the tests you need on this end. You think you could stop by the store and grab a carseat on your way to the hospital?”
Dink’s gaze slammed into Jace’s. His dark skin had gone pale in shock, and she imagined she looked much the same. Her heart was pounding in her ears so loud she didn’t think she’d be able to hear anything Peggy said anyhow, but she had to ask…
“Why?” Her strangled whisper wasn’t loud enough, but Jace repeated it.
“Why?” He asked into the phone.
There was a pause, and Dink stared into her husband’s eyes as a calm settled over both of them—over the whole house, the whole world.
“Because,” Peggy said lightly over the phone, “Your daughter was born yesterday, and is ready to meet you.”
There was probably some screaming, and yelling, and Dink definitely did some jumping up and down after the initial shock wore off. Thank goodness Jace was level-headed enough to take notes on everything they needed to know, because Dink didn’t think she could concentrate on anything longer than a moment.
A baby. They were going to meet their daughter. A daughter. Her eyes filled with tears. Their daughter. As Jace hung up the phone, she grabbed him around the middle.
“A daughter,” he whispered, and she could tell from the way his voice caught he was close to tears.
“We’re going to have a baby, Jace.”
He squeezed her. “Yeah, we are. A baby.”
They stood in silence for a long moment. All sorts of thoughts were running through her head. A bed for the baby. A changing pad, diapers, and wipes. Some infant layette, at least until Muz and Ellie can go buy tiny little girl clothes—and I know they will. What else do we need ASAP? Oh, formula and bottles, duh! Where are we going to put all this stuff? We’re going to need to look into larger apartments in town I guess…
It wasn’t until she noticed Jace’s silence that she stopped to wonder if he was thinking the same thoughts. “What’re you thinking about?”
His light brown eyes opened and he stared down at her. A rare smile curved his wide lips upwards. “A baby, huh? I’m going to be a daddy.”
I’m going to be a mommy. Wow. “Are you happy?”
He squeezed. “Only time I’ve been happier is that day—right here in this room—you agreed to marry me because I gave you those ridiculous boots!” They both chuckled at the memory. “Only…”
“Only…” He dropped a kiss on her forehead. “Only, this isn’t at all how I imagined my evening going!”
Laughing, she tugged him towards the front door once more. “This is better than trivia! Let’s go buy a carseat! And diapers. And some formula…”
I hope you enjoyed Jace and Dink's big news. Now they get to experience the joys of parenting, just like so many other new couples at River's End Ranch!
She’d be a fool to consider marrying a man she just met. But here she was considering it, and if that made her a fool, then so be it. Because she was doing more than considering it. She was seriously contemplating marrying him, because of the way he made her stomach flip and her nerves sing and warmth spread through her.
Her hesitation must have shown. “I’ll make you a deal.” She thought she nodded, and he continued. “Let me kiss you. After, if you say no, you don’t want to marry me, I won’t ask you again.”
It was a deliciously scary proposition. She could say no, and walk away, and never know what it was like to be kissed by him. She could accept the Colonel’s offer of an escort to Cheyenne and be on a train heading west in less than a week. She could go back home to San Francisco and hope that someone from the old neighborhood remembered her and could give her a job. She could spend the rest of her life sleeping alone, never having anyone else to rely on, to trust. Never having anyone to share in the joys and struggles of parenthood.
Or she could kiss him, now. Afterwards, she could still go to Cheyenne and get on with her life. But she’d know then, at least, what it was like to give free rein to the passion she’d felt creep through her veins every time Cam MacLeod touched her. She’d know what it was like to be really kissed.
So she nodded. She didn’t think she could speak, but luckily, he understood.
She felt one large hand touch the side of her neck, as if to guide her, and then his lips were on hers. It was a surprisingly gentle, delicate kiss from someone as big as he was. She would have expected to be overwhelmed, intimidated by someone so much larger, but he was soft. For a long moment they were still, and she thought he was letting her get used to the feel of him. It was very nice, but a little bit of a letdown after the shivers of anticipation she’d been experiencing in his presence.
Then his lips began to move against hers, and her pulse skyrocketed. Oh good Heavens, this…! This was something she couldn’t have imagined. It was nothing like being kissed by Joshua. It wasn’t gentle, either. It was deep and hot and ignited something in her belly that crept down to the place between her legs, something she hadn’t felt in a long time. His tongue stroked her lips, and she thought she might faint from the heady rush of pleasure it evoked. Unbidden, one hand rose to touch his cheek, and she felt his stubble under her fingers. She wondered if that explained the burn in her cheeks, or if that was all her body’s own doing. He groaned against her mouth, and she dropped her fingers, intent on the feelings coursing through her.
Much too quickly, she thought, he pulled away. Tess was disconcerted enough that she almost went with him, to pull him back to her. That fact, more than anything, snapped her attention back to the here-and-now, the reason behind the experiment. She forced herself to lean away from him, but couldn’t help that she was panting, or stop herself from fingering her swollen lips.
Then she saw the way he was sitting, hunched like he was in pain. He ran both hands through his hair, pulling at the curls between his still-trembling fingers. He was breathing just as heavily as she was, and Tess gasped when she realized that he was as aroused by the kiss as she had been.
He turned at her gasp, and this time the faint glow from the nearest lamp caught the green in his eyes. “Well, Tessa? What do you say to my offer?”
There she sat, fingers pressed to throbbing lips, and thought about her future. One path led to familiarity; working long hours to keep Jacob fed, falling into bed exhausted each night, and only allowing herself to truly live in her dreams. The other path led to an exciting new adventure; marriage to an eminently desirable man, having someone to share her burdens again, and helping to make his ranch a success. Most importantly, Jacob would have an honorable man to show him how to grow up, and a stable home in which to do so.
Put like that, it really wasn’t that hard of a decision after all.
On the evening that she first kissed the smuggler, there was pluff mud oozing between Becks’ toes.
The mud had a distinct smell. It smelled of decay and rebirth and inconvenience and comfort…and home. The air tasted salty, but the slight breeze kept the humidity from being unbearable. Crickets chirped, and the occasional heron squawked, but they were far enough away to be ignored.
Besides the pluff mud between her toes, she could feel more of it drying high on her right cheek where she must have smeared it when she’d impatiently flicked hair out of her eyes. Her lower back ached from holding her bent position, and she squinted to see past the reflection of the setting sun on the water’s surface.
She couldn’t be happier.
This time of day, when the chores were done and her stomach was full, but there was still enough light left for fun… this was Becks Middleton’s favorite time. The day hadn’t cooled off enough to roll down her sleeves yet, and the gentle breeze blowing across the salt marshes carried the smells of sea life and salty decay. So many little creatures lived and died over there, across the river, and the incoming tide brought them all past her toes.
Sighing happily, she wiggled those toes deeper into the mud, glad for the opportunity to relax here in the water, appreciating the peace of another evening tide. Beckett Plantation—all Edisto Island, really—seemed unchanging in the day-to-day, and she was glad for it. She enjoyed the routine and harmony of a day’s work on land that she loved, but she liked the chance for a little fun in the evenings.
“Has he nibbled yet?” Pearl’s voice was strident in the evening peace. She never did think of this as fun, since she didn’t have the patience to stand so still that the incoming tide would make ripples around her calves. And Pearl would never deign to climb down the bank, to feel the pluff mud squishing between her toes.
So Becks ignored her, focusing her attention instead on her wily old adversary, willing him to inch his way closer.
“Shhh!” Becks didn’t bother looking towards her sister. Pearl was probably bored out of her pretty little head, and from the huff she let out —quieter this time—she wasn’t pleased about being hushed.
Bending closer to the water, Becks twitched the string tied to yesterday’s chicken bone, trying to make it wiggle enticingly. The crab was an old one, big and battle-scarred, and obviously used to staying alive. Grinning slightly, Becks reflected that his luck was about to run out, and then wondered what that said about her, that she could find joy in outwitting a… a crustacean.
The crab sidled closer, and she gently twisted the string around her fingers, pulling the bait towards her bit by bit. The crab followed, and she took a deep breath. Slowly, slowly, she lifted the long-handled net in her other hand, trying to keep her movements smooth and careful so that she wouldn’t spook him. With the net poised over the surface of the water, she twitched the string again, making the bait to skip back an inch. When the crab darted for it, she knew that she had him. Swooping down, she scooped him—and the bait—up in the net, and lifted it up out of the water with a triumphant laugh.
With a sarcastic laugh, Pearl clapped. “That’s right! You show that crab who’s boss!” She never did understand the need for cunning—and quiet—while crabbing. “Congratulations on outwittin’ a dumb little water-bug.”
Becks swung the net so that the long handle rested on her shoulder, ignoring Pearl’s groan of disgust at the way the water dripped everywhere. Putting her other hand on her hip, Becks stuck her tongue out at her sister. “You’re just pouting because during supper tomorrow, you’ll have to thank me. Between this one and those—” She nodded towards the other dozen crabs in the covered basket beside Pearl’s knee. “Lola will cook us up a fine soup, and I know you gobble her crab soup right up.”
Pearl frowned prettily, and flicked another of last fall’s acorns into the current beside Becks. “You know it. But there’s more to supper than some nasty mud-dwelling crustacean. I’ll help her shell the beans, and then you’ll have to thank me.” Pearl’s beautiful voice was marred only slightly by the stuffiness in her nose that afflicted her every spring.
“The difference being, of course, that I don’t like beans.” Pearl rolled her eyes. Her next acorn caught Becks on her elbow, who kept needling her sister. “Whereas you love crab soup. Why don’t you climb down here and help me catch another few big ones? We could have soup the day after next, too.”
“No, thank you.” Pearl’s exaggerated nose wrinkle was only partly an act. She really did hate the mud. “My feet are dark enough without coating them in that gunk. Pluff mud stains your skin, you know.”
Becks wiggled her toes again, reveling in the way it squished between them. “I know.” Her unrepentant grin made Pearl tsk and flick another acorn at her. This one hit her in the forehead—“Ow!”—and it was Pearl’s turn to stick her tongue out while Becks rubbed the spot ruefully.
“Besides, you look ridiculous out there.”
Looking down at herself, Becks had to concede that her sister was probably right. She was wearing her mother’s oldest skirt, pulled through her legs and tucked up into a belt, with her drawers rolled well above her knee. She probably looked like she was wearing a giant diaper or something.
Her faded red shirt was one of her favorites, which she’d “borrowed” from Moses four years before and kept “forgetting” to return. She only wore it when she was crabbing. Or fishing. Or shrimping. Or digging for clams… truthfully, she only wore it when she was doing something Moses himself had taught her how to do. Was it any wonder that it was one of her favorites, in spite of its threadbare elbows and mismatched buttons?
So she wasn’t about to agree with Pearl. Becks stuck her chin out and lifted one brow. “It’s serviceable, not ridiculous. I couldn’t very well stand here in a bustle.” They had two gowns each that required a bustle, and Becks hated all of them.
“It’s a miracle you’re not covered in mud.”
“I’m not that clumsy.” Although she probably was, and her sister was probably right. It seemed like half the times she climbed down this little beach to crab or shrimp she ended up slipping and falling, and having to wash her favorite shirt the next day.
“Your grandmama would pitch a hissy, if she saw you.”
“Well then—” Becks was getting irritated. “It’s a damn good thing she’s dead, isn’t it?”
Pearl gasped, dropping the acorns and covering her mouth with her hands in mock outrage. Still, Becks could see the amusement twinkling in her sister’s pale eyes. “Rebecca Beckett Middleton! You hush your mouth!” Pearl’s voice was muffled, and Becks had to smile at the act. “Your grandmama always said that a lady doesn’t curse.”
“A lady doesn’t stand ankle-deep in pluff mud, either.”
“True.” Pearl pressed her fingertips to her lips, the way she always did when she was trying to hold in her laughter. “And a lady wouldn’t be caught dead crabbing, either.”
“Well, if we ever meet one, we should ask her how she catches her supper.”
“She doesn’t catch her supper!” They were both trying their hardest not to snicker.
“Oh, the crabs just crawl into her net, then? Because she’s so lady-like?”
That did it. Pearl erupted in giggles, and Becks soon followed.
“Eugenia is a…” Pearl had to stop and clear her throat, swallowing down her laughter. “Your mama can be a perfect lady.”
“Only when she thought Grandmama was watching. She smokes a pipe, for Heaven’s sakes!” Becks blew a strand of light hair out of her face, and wondered if she could tuck it behind her ear without smearing any more mud anywhere. Unlikely.
“Well, she raised you to be a lady.”
“No, she raised us to know how to be ladies, and how to not be ladies if we wanted.”
Pearl’s teeth were white against her skin when she smiled, glowing like her namesake. “True. One of us follows better than the other.”
Becks smiled back at her sister. “True.”
Pearl was seated on one of the long, low limbs of Becks’ favorite oak tree, surrounded by the skinny brown leaves that always dropped off this season. This particular branch was so old it had long ago dipped down to rest against the dirt. It made a convenient seat as well as a perfect place for a little girl to practice climbing trees. Many childhood hours were spent in this tree, looking out over the cotton fields on one side and the marsh on the other. Becks cherished the memories of nestling in the crook of that tree, hiding among the shadows of the Spanish moss, watching the distant figures in the cotton fields and vegetable patches. Even today, when she was likely to be one of those distant figures bending over the plowed furrows, she loved the chance to sneak away here, to rest against the old bark of the oak, to contemplate the marsh grass and pluff mud and humidity.
Now Pearl stood, rubbing her backside delicately. Pearl did everything delicately, Becks reflected, not a little ruefully. Her sister had learned her grandmama’s lessons better than Becks had, that was certain.
“Where is Eugenia, anyhow? I figured she’d be down here with us, hollering advice at you about crabbing.”
Becks shrugged, not really bothered by her mother’s absence. She loved the older woman, sure, but this land had been Eugenia’s long before Becks was born, and her mother seemed to think that little fact meant that she knew it better. Crabbing was a lot more peaceful without her mother around. “She asked me if we’d be going to our usual spot, and when I told her yes, she looked at me funny and told me to have fun. Then she went to take a nap.”
“A nap? This late in the evening?”
“I know. I asked her if she was feelin’ poorly, but she just smiled.”
“Well, you caught plenty of them critters without your mother’s interference. Get that nasty crab on up here with his sisters.” With a delicate—of course—curl of her lip, Pearl moved to the bank and held out her hand, offering to take the net from Becks.
“Thanks, but I’m done.” Becks picked her way past the oyster shells back towards the shore, which had been made much smaller by the incoming tide. An incoming evening tide like this was perfect for crabbing, and she’d decided to try it even this early in the season. The water was still chilly, but her bait had attracted enough of the creatures for the cook to make her famous soup. “I think this’ll be enough, especially if Lola tosses in some rice.” She threw a grin up at her sister while she slogged through the mud on the shore. “Besides, we could always come back out here for tomorrow evening’s tide.”
“Lord help us.” Pearl’s mutter was distracted, but she still quipped back, “I think I shall be… busy tomorrow evening. Doing something else. Doing anything else.”
Still, she pulled Becks up the bank, immediately backing away from the mud caked around Becks’ ankles and smeared up one forearm. Becks didn’t mind, though. Her sister might not love to spend so much time barefoot, or enjoy the pleasures of the river so much, but she was still Becks’ biggest supporter and closest friend.
She passed the net’s handle to Pearl, who stood holding it away from her body as if afraid that the now-subdued crab—or the old chicken—would drip on her. Becks used the time to wipe off her feet on the fallen leaves around the tree as well as she could. The tickle of the grass against her toes made her smile in contentment, and she pretended to ignore Pearl’s put-upon sigh.
Then, marginally cleaner, she took the crab back from Pearl and bent over the basket, focused on getting him to let go of the net while not allowing the others to escape. From the corner of her eye, she saw Pearl move towards the bank, her hand shading her eyes against the sunset.
After a moment, her sister’s low voice drifted back towards her. “Are we expecting company tonight?”
Success! The damn crab finally dropped into the basket with the others. Becks clamped the lid down tight and stood, wiping her hands on her skirt. “Company? Not that I know of. Why?”
Pearl was staring out across the marsh, at a downriver bend. “There’s a boat coming from Peter’s Point. Too far away to be from The Neck.”
Becks frowned and moved to stand beside her sister, peering northward. “I don’t see anything.”
But Pearl clucked in exasperation. “The tide’s not full yet, you ninny. The marshgrass is in the way…” She trailed off, and then suddenly pointed. “There! See?”
And Becks did see. Two heads sat facing one another, as if in a rowboat. Both were men, and neither had hats, but that’s all she could tell at this distance. Then they passed around another bend, and the marsh hid them.
The sisters stood silently, the crabs forgotten, peering downriver. The twists and turns the river took meant that they could see visitors long before they arrived. Still, it was another few minutes before the boat reappeared.
“Becks…” Still staring at the newcomers, Pearl groped for her hand, and Becks took it, surprised at the strength of her sister’s grip. “Becks, I don’t think that’s Joe and Jeremiah.” The two brothers were the only ones who visited from Peter’s Point to exchange goods and news a few times a month. Now that Becks squinted at the figures in the boat, she saw that they were too broad, too straight, to be the elderly brothers. And this boat was larger than the old flat-bottom skiff the Peter’s Point men used.
“Do you recognize them?”
“No, do you?” They were both whispering now.
“From this distance, they’re just dark blobs to me.” In the dimming light, she could see less than usual.
The boat carrying the strangers disappeared behind the next clump of marsh grass, and Becks swallowed past a suddenly dry throat. She told herself that there was no reason to be concerned; there was nothing to say these strangers were coming to Beckett, and even less reason to believe they were anything other than harmless visitors from downriver.
But still… “They’ll be coming past this beach soon.” Pearl sometimes teased her for calling it a beach when it was just a mudbank, but it was the most convenient mooring for downriver vessels. “Who do you think they are?”
“Maybe they’re…” Pearl gripped her hand even harder.
“What?” Her sister always had a better imagination than she did, and it was beginning to affect the usually-practical Becks. “Who?” she whispered, half-scared to hear Pearl’s thoughts.
“Smugglers, like Major Creel told your mother about.”
Becks blew out an exasperated breath. “For Pete’s sake, Pearl.” Her eye-roll was practically audible. “He just mentioned that there’d been reports, not that he was sure. And we’ve never heard of any smuggling.”
“We wouldn’t, would we?”
“They’re not smugglers, Pearl.”
That particular gem wrenched a hopeless chuckle from Becks. “Be serious. Maybe Joe and Jeremiah are just sick, and they’ve sent someone else in their place.”
“Maybe they’re smugglers who have moored downriver, and are rowing down here to deliver their cargo.” Pearl’s imagination had a way of infecting them both. Becks tried to take a deep breath, but found that her sister’s worry had settled in her own stomach like a too-heavy cornbread.
So when Becks muttered, “You’re being ridiculous,” it didn’t have quite the scorn that she attempted to imbue it with.
“Maybe, but I don’t want them to see me when they come past here.”
Becks peeked back over her shoulder at the fields behind them, and then out to the river. The boat would be coming around this bend any moment now. The strangers might be harmless, or they might be just the sort that two unescorted young women abroad in the evening would want to avoid. Either way, leaving now seemed like the best choice. “You might be right.”
Pearl didn’t wait for her to say anything else. Without dropping Becks’ hand, she scooped up the crab basket and turned towards the house. But Becks pulled her to a stop before she’d even stepped over the low limb.
“Not that way. There’s nothing but open field between here at the drive.” Anyone coming around that bend would be able to see them. And if—God forbid—they stopped and planned to do harm, then the women would be as helpless as pheasants in a baited cornfield. If they’d started earlier, they would be halfway to the drive by now. Instead they were left with few options…
“Well?” Pearl’s whisper was near frantic, and Becks squeezed her hand again. “Where are were going to…?”
“Shhhh.” Becks looked around, desperate this time. “The tree. It’s dark enough now, and the tree will hide us.” Besides, this oak and the few around it were the only cover between the river and the fields.
“Fine!” Pearl practically leaped over the branch, and scuttled behind the thick trunk. Becks took a moment to study her sister’s hiding place, and nodded, assured that the shadow of the tree was large enough to hide even Pearl’s skirts.
Then, with one last glance towards the river, she jumped up on the trailing tree limb, and scurried up it, using her hands to steady herself. Despite the undefined danger of the situation, she reveled in the feel of the bark beneath her feet again. It had been too long since she’d climbed a tree.
“Becks! Becks, what are you doing?” Pearl’s whisper seemed faint with fear. “Girl, get yourself behind this trunk this instant!”
“Too late.” Becks knew that sounds traveled over water, and pitched her voice for Pearl’s ears alone. “I can see them.”
The boat glided around the bend in the river, and she knew that she’d made the right decision. There was no way the women would have been out of sight of the river by now if they’d tried to cut across the field.
Becks crouched ten feet off the ground, gripping the branch with slick hands, luckily hidden by the shadows and moss because this tree had dropped so many leaves this spring. From her precarious perch she watched them row straight for her beach. The men didn’t speak, but she could hear the creak of the oars against the locks.
The man rowing made a small correction, glancing over his shoulder to aim the bow closer to the beach, and Becks wished she’d been able to see his face more clearly. The man who sat facing her on the boat’s transom was big and dark, and that’s all she could make out of his features.
When the boat’s bow slid up on the mud, he splashed out with the painter. Pointing at the mud beneath his feet, he smiled, and she saw the white gleam of his teeth against skin that surely must be the darkest ever created. “See? I told you there was someone here.” His voice was a rumble that matched the breadth of his shoulders.
The other man was busy unshipping the oars, but glanced at where his companion pointed. “Footprints. So? It’s been hours since the last high tide. Anyone could have been by here.”
Both men kept their voices low, obviously used to keeping secrets on the water. Becks swallowed. Pearl’s concerns suddenly didn’t seem quite so far-fetched.
“There was someone here before we rounded that last bend, I’m tellin’ you.”
The rower slid over the transom of the boat now, and pushed the stern while the dark man pulled the painter. From their grunts, the rowboat—it was really more like a dinghy—was heavier than it looked. When it was high enough on the mudbank for his satisfaction, the rower sloshed his way over to his companion. “So there was someone here. They’re not here now, are they?”
“No, and that’s what worries me.”
The man grinned, and slapped his companion on the back. “You’re good at worrying, Robert. That’s why I bring you along.”
“You bring me along ‘cause none of the others can carry two of these barrels at once.”
Then the man tilted his head back to look up the bank, and Becks’ breath caught. He was… well, he looked just like a pirate from one of Pearl’s books, for certain. Dark hair fell in waves past his collar, and his mouth was just a little too broad, with a deep dimple above one brow. His wading didn’t seem to bother him, and the cool breeze that had come in with the tide now molded his trousers to his thighs. They certainly were… muscular, weren’t they? Becks caught herself staring, and dropped her gaze.
He was barefoot too, and she didn’t know what to make of that.
“Well, to set your mind at ease, my friend, let’s take a look around.” The pirate scrambled up the bank, using the same roots and rocks Becks had used mere minutes ago. Then, turning, he pulled Robert up behind him.
The two men stood above her beach, below her tree, and surveyed her land as if they belonged there. Hands on hips, chests equally broad, feet planted firmly… why, their stances were so identical that they could have been brothers. Except for the fact that they looked nothing alike, of course.
But what did that prove, anyhow? She and Pearl looked nothing alike.
Maybe she’d made a sound, or maybe Pearl had, or maybe something else caught the pirate’s attention, because his head suddenly whipped around in her direction.
“Mac?” The black-as-midnight man must not have heard it.
“I thought…” He took a step towards her tree, and suddenly she was looking down on a head of thick wavy hair. She wondered what it would feel like if she were to touch it. She wondered if it was as soft as it looked.
She wondered why she was breathing just a bit faster than normal. Was it just fear? She gripped the bark tighter, willing her pulse to slow and her breathing to even out. It was uncomfortable enough, crouched up here with her calves aching from the strain of holding still. She couldn’t afford to move even a smidge, or he might notice her.
Then she remembered the easy way he’d smiled, and wondered if it’d really be such a bad thing to be noticed by him. She squeezed her eyes shut and cursed herself silently. She was crouched on a branch ten feet in the air because of him; he could very well be a brigand or worse… and she was thinking about his smile? It must be the danger, the fear, affecting her brain and making her focus on irrelevant details.
When she snuck another peek down at him, he was looking away again, and she breathed a soft, silent sigh of relief. Now she could look him over without worrying about those bright eyes flicking up to find hers in the shadows.
His friend had called him “Mac,” but more interestingly, he’d called Robert “friend” in return. President Lincoln had freed the slaves fourteen years ago, and declared them equal to whites… but in South Carolina, it was still uncommon to find a white man willing to call a black man “friend”. That told her that these two were unusual indeed.
Of course, they’d rowed onto her land unannounced, and now she was hiding in a tree with her skirt still rucked up in her waist. There really wasn’t anything usual about this situation at all.
“Hmmmm…” Mac took another step closer, until he was standing almost under her branch. “I heard something.”
“Well, I saw somethin’, so now we’re even.”
Mac threw a grin back over his shoulder, and shook his head slightly. “Robert, you sound like an old woman.”
Robert said something under his breath that made Mac laugh, and Becks suddenly wanted very much to hear his laugh again. It was full and deep and mysterious, like him.
She shifted uncomfortably, to ease the cramping in her calves, and felt the bark chip beneath her feet. A few errant bits fell out of the tree, but he was looking in a different direction, and didn’t notice.
“Well, your mystery person was crabbing, I guess.” He bent out of her view, but when he straightened again, he was holding her net. “And the drumstick still has plenty of meat on it.”
Mac chucked again, and Becks sighed slightly to hear it. “Let’s hope it caught him some fat crabs, whoever he was.” He propped the net upright against the very branch Becks was clinging to, where it dipped closer to the ground. “I assume he’ll come back for it. It’s a valuable net.”
“Are you done doing your good deeds for the week? Let’s go see if she’s got the cart ready.” Robert’s words drew Becks’ brows in. A cart? Whose cart? For what?
“All right. Let’s go.”
But instead of setting off immediately, the man named Mac took another few steps in her direction, so that he was practically below her now. He stood with his fists on his hips again, staring at the dinghy pulled up at the beach, and his shirt moved slightly in the breeze. It was a dark gray, like his trousers, and rolled up to his elbows, making him look even more like a pirate. His left forearm was darker than his right, much darker, and Becks couldn’t figure out why. Was he wearing some sort of extra sleeve…?
She leaned slightly, to see if she could get a better look at it, and felt the bark slip under her at the same time she heard the little telltale crunch. It was the damned mud, still caked between her toes!
Fingers clawing at the oak branch, she willed her feet to stay where they were, to not slip any further. They didn’t seem to want to listen, and with sudden clarity she realized that she was going to fall out of the stupid tree. Detachedly, she could only think about her grandmama’s rule against ladies cursing.
Be sure to pick up your copy to find out how Becks is going to talk her way out this embarrassing encounter. I'll give you a hint: it does involve lips, but not for chatting. <wink>