The chair sat empty. A hundred-eighty pound horse trainer should have taken up that space at her supper table. He should be wolfing down her pot roast, teasing his sons, and winking at his young daughter. He should be home with his family.
Annie chewed her lip as her mind churned all the while her feet propelled her from one end of the spacious room to the other. The setting sun continued to inch across the floor til it reached the vacant chair at the trestle table that had on numerous occasions accommodated Joe’s entire family. This roomy two-story home she felt so proud of, stood here because of his folks, not hers. And the sturdy furniture, well, a quick glance told her not to be too rash after all, her husband had been a prosperous man selling his horses. Still, the chair, empty again said too much.
Her children sat quietly eating their supper, but their uneasy gazes set her to pacing again. Her steps took her around one rocker after another, then back to her kitchen counter where her beautiful china sat in the open cupboard.
Her throat turned as dry as the mud she’d swished from the porch that morning. With only the slightest tremor to her hands, she dipped the cup in the bucket of water that had recently come from the well. Her gaze wandered through the glass panes to inspect her garden fenced in like a tiny fort. It was lush and green, the rows neat and straight just as she had planted them weeks ago. Cold wet dribbled down her chin, dropped in splats on her apron as she stood ramrod stiff. No one noticed her carelessness, well, least ways, no one said anything.
As if to confirm her torment, more so her determination, her eyes slid toward the table again, past her children. The chair would make good kindling, she’d have to remember that tomorrow. He never used it. Why keep the blasted thing? The ugly reminder could be used for firewood. Yes, by gosh, that’d show him what she thought of these absences.
The girl at the hearth cleared her throat, and Annie winced, remembering why young Hannah Carlson had come to watch over the children. Annie promised herself, if, when this happened again, she’d do it, she’d give Joe this one last chance. Her dearest friend and sister-in-law Christine had asked that. Yes, guess Joe deserved as much, and with a tight grimace to Hannah and a quick nod to her kids, Annie stepped toward the door. Simple orneriness made her walk through it. One last chance was all she’d give him, one.
Wisps of the pink and lavender sunset peeked through the hilly tree-lined road to Shadow Creek. The three mile trip to town hadn’t given her much time to form a plan, and despite the silky heat of the on coming night, she shivered. As she sat in her wagon along the main street of town, fire flies came out of hiding. Their little lantern bellies glowed, rested, then lit up again. One landed on the seat with a blink, blink. If a little bug could be brave against the night, so could she. Defiance strengthened her resolve, gave Annie the backbone to climb from the wagon and make her way toward the swinging doors Joe harbored behind.
Like a thief afraid of being noticed, she slipped inside. A piano tinkled out a tune, but with her breath panting in her ears she couldn't put a name to the song. Several men lounged at their tables while others leaned forward slapping cards down. The rest looked thirsty as they swallowed back their drinks as the few women sauntered about, their red mouths smiling wide. The smoke from numerous cigars left a bluish fog hovering above the lanterns and a cough chugged past her tightened lips before she could stop it. The half-dozen men who stood at the bar seemed oblivious to her scrutiny and her gaze moved on, landing quick on Joe across the room where he sat at a table with four men. The whiskey bottle to the right of him probably wasn’t his, but the pile of bills before him sure was. A cigar dangled between his teeth and bobbed when he grinned at something someone said. His smoky gray eyes crinkled and she knew there wasn’t a person in the room who hadn’t succumbed to her husband’s charm at one time or another.
"Are you lookin’ for someone special, honey?" A dark-haired woman walked up, her smile friendly. The whiff of sugary perfume made Annie frown, knowing full well she’d washed that womanly scent from her husband’s shirts too many times to count. Nerves sizzled and a nasty retort itched to let loose but she bit it back in the nick of time. "You look like a little lost angel standin’ there all alone," the woman said. "Heavens, you're Annie Douglas." Painted eyes lit up, darted over a bare and shapely shoulder. "I can get Joe for you, if you want me to," the woman began.
"That's all right, he'll see me soon enough," Annie muttered and the woman shrugged, not unkindly, before moving away.
Seemed as if every man in the place spotted her cowering by the door. Some commented on her nerve, others nodded politely, and the rest undoubtedly made crude comments about her.
Joe’s grin had cranked way past cocky before his eyes landed on hers. Worry cut that short as his brawny frame eased out of his chair and he scooted between the tables, his eyes anxious as he shrugged off the jokes tossed at him. An invisible path opened up that reminded her of his stallion pushing through a mass of horseflesh in a race. On he came, til he towered over her, his dark hair rumpled, yet accented his rugged features to the point of distracting. A day’s growth of whiskers made him look more arrogant than dangerous. If only that was true.
"My God, Annie," he rasped. "What's the matter, darlin'?"
The worried fleck in his gaze tugged at her heart, and Annie shifted a bit at his scrutiny. "I was wondering the same thing, Joe."
"Whad'ya mean?" he asked hesitantly inching closer, the noise behind him seemed further away as he looked at her, his eyes deep cuts of concern.
"You, didn't come home, like you promised." She darted a look to see his reaction. "So, I thought I'd come see what's keeping you."
His mouth dropped down. "You gotta be kidding?"
Her peeved look told him she was not, but she chose not to voice it for all to hear.
"I'm in the middle of a game for damn sake. You nearly killed me from fright, Annie." He started to move her back out the door, but she scooted away as if they were playing tag with their children and he was it.
"Then, if you’re not ready to go just yet, I'll wait over there." Her legs actually took her where she wanted to go, and she didn’t turn back to see his reaction, but stood at the bar chasing after the nickel in her purse. The elusive coin slipped away til determination won out and she placed the money on the counter. "A draft, please."
Joe scowled, knowing old Charlie would draw the beer just to irritate him. That smug grin across the bartender’s face said all too easily that he thought Annie had guts to come looking. Charlie slid the beer across the bar, smiled his roguish grin to Annie then cast a challenging quirk to him.
"There's no need for a pretty thing like you to be buying your own drink,” said the man standing next to his wife as he pushed her nickel back towards her hand.
Joe didn’t catch her reply, her smile that softened the bastard’s face said more than enough. If she wanted to stand at the bar and drink beer, by god he’d let her, and he shuffled back to his table. But damn, if anyone besides Derek Tyler had wanted to buy his wife a drink, he wouldn't have cared near as much.
Annie had her back to him, but Joe got enough glimpses of her pert, smiling face to cause him sufficient anxiety for a damn long while. His wife had a refinement all her own, she wasn't stunningly attractive, but her beauty grew the more one watched her. She was kinda willowy, with soft curves that made his hands itch to touch her, and mixed with her reddish brown hair which was usually braided as it was now, gave her a flushed, excited look of a young girl. It was all too disturbing, especially now, damn it. The angelic look to her face with her clear blue eyes were particularly compelling, and her thick, smoky lashes caused too damn many hearts to stir.
Annie had had plenty of admirers, he remembered all too well. The threat of those many suitors had prompted him to marry her, when he vowed not to wed, no matter what. Another glance in her direction had him scowling. Her looks had always unsettled him, and he knew full well how alluring she was, not only to him, God take him, but to Derek Tyler as well.
Too many lately, reminded him he spent too much time at the saloon, ignoring his family, and he didn't like folks asking him questions he couldn't answer. More than a week had passed since he’d been home for supper. Damn, he was digging for trouble, and now this.
The next scoundrel to admire his wife was gonna find a fist in his face, which by the look of things was every man in the place, especially Derek Tyler. Setting that bastard on his butt would be pure enjoyment. If only his wife wasn’t possessed with a stubborn streak. It was her only flaw, but just the same, it caused him untold hours of worry, and Joe knew all too well if he didn’t get that delectable little woman out of there she would spend the evening smiling at every damn man in the saloon, except him.
Annie fumbled about, more befuddled than amused that Derek wanted to buy her a beer. The grin he offered relaxed her a bit. She slipped off her apron and folded it neatly, placing it on the counter, embarrassed that she’d forgotten to take it off.
Derek’s smile distracted her, but she tried to be mature about his teasing when his eyes flickered across her figure. Heat smacked her cheeks, and his laugh lit up his warm brown eyes and her breath came a little easier.
Derek grabbed their drinks, then set them on the empty table a few steps away. He held the chair out as if she was a princess, and her smile pressed back the urge to laugh as she took a seat. His lopsided grin landed much too close, and the urge to keep some distance pushed in on her. Then he was talking low and she had to lean in to hear him. "How is it Annie, you picked that no good gambler over me?"
Warm coffee-colored eyes sank into hers as a full roguish smile creased his face.
"Are you ready?" a soft growl landed in her ears when her husband loomed over her. His head angled down as his gaze pierced the haze.
Her blink went from sassy brown up to taunting gray eyes. "Why, I haven't finished my beer," she said, still unnerved at Derek’s boldness.
Familiar fingers folded around her mug, and the ale disappeared in a few long gulps. The empty glass landed back on the table with a quiet thunk that matched the granite eyes accusing her of being the unruly one. "Are you ready, now?"
She turned to Derek. "Thank you for," she started as Joe lifted her out of her chair, "everything," she mumbled before her husband whisked her up in his arms as if they were newlyweds.
“See you later, boys,” Joe’s deep voice reached every corner of the hall as he lumbered toward the door. Her eyes met the dark haired woman's, Ruby, as her apron was handed over, then her purse. They exchanged knowing glances, and Annie knew she blushed worse than any bride, but she waved to all the men laughing as Joe hauled her away.
A winning smile played about her mouth all the while her husband tied his horse to the back of their wagon. The warm spring night and clear, full moon made the short ride home enjoyable, even if Joe wore a scowl.
The corral and barn loomed large and dark when Joe pulled into the barnyard. But the house looked more welcoming with the lamps glowing from within. The second story windows glinted as clean as the others and Annie smiled proudly. Just last week Joe had climbed out a window and helped with the spring cleaning. She really should be more forgiving, and her garden blooming so nicely was because of his help with the hoeing. Weeds were always threatening to take over her tender shoots, but Joe had taken care of them in quick order. Their home was large and filled with nice things because of his generosity. Still, she couldn’t let his wanderings start up again. She’d never survive another summer being lonely and alone.
Once he helped her down she sighed in the safety of his arms, knowing full well how
obstinate he was, bull-headed even, and gambled so much it made her heart ache.
“Damn, Annie." Guilt filled his voice and kept right on going til it reached his somber eyes. “I don’t mean to be gone so much.” His mouth on hers blotted out the lingering unease in her gaze. “I’m sorry,” he whispered with such tenderness her breath grew raspy.
In the eight years they’d been married, this was the closest he had ever come to admitting they had a problem. The man in the moon washed down on them as Joe held her, and the soft breeze teased that everything could be as it was if she would only continue on silently and not disturb what they had.
Her lids sank shut at the despondency welling up in her chest, ‘cause she and Joe both knew a few kisses couldn’t fix what was wrong between them, even as she wished it could.
Agony kept Joe in the hotel room, not his seven year old son who needed watching, or his pa in the bed across the hall. Anguish, plain and simple, kept him from crossing the street and getting caught up in some damn card game. All weekend he had planned to gamble, had looked forward to it as much as a drunk looks toward his next swig of whiskey, but then his son had made that comment last night and Joe’s world had crashed in on him.
As the sun filtered its early morning rays in through the open window, Joe lathered his face, and his gaze caught his reflection in the mirror. A tired, haggard looking young man stared back at him, and with one piercing glance into his own eyes, Joe knew he was a long way from being done with the lure of gambling. That haunted hunger lurked deep in his gaze and he did his best to ignore it.
Through the night he decided how he was going to rid himself of this pest, the problem he reflected somberly, that had created an even bigger one, his son’s comment had verified that. He intended to kill it, starve it to death. It was the only way to win and he was damn good at winning. More than a week had passed since he’d picked up a card. Before long, it would be two weeks, then three and so on.
Sleep had come in short, fitful spells and Joe felt sluggish from a bad night’s rest. Yet, in his mind he felt alert, maybe too in tune with his surroundings as his reflection taunted him while he scraped against the whiskers beneath the sheen of soap. Years of experience forced him to mentally prepare for the race he was about to enter because too many wanted to best him. The thought that usually made him grin, did nothing to fan his interest this morning, and with a sigh of resignation he sloshed his hands and face in the basin, and grabbed for a towel.
“You gonna beat ‘em this morning, heh, Pa?” came the chirpy sass as his name-sake jumped out of bed and offered up an impish smile.
“Time’ll tell, son,” Joe said more out of habit than anything as he grabbed his shirt off the chair and slipped it on.
Joey laughed, “You always say that Pa, but you always win.”
“Nobody wins all the time,” he warned easily, reciting the familiar passage his own father had spoken to him so many years ago. “Winning a race depends on a whole lot of things.”
“But you got the best horse,” the boy bragged, pulling on his britches.
Joe’s chuckle rushed out quick, and made him feel better. “Time’ll tell, son,” he offered with a sly wink in agreement and reached for his boots.
The race started a mile from town in view of the river. Dampness seeped into Joe’s shirt and his horse already sweat in the humid air. Nearly thirty horses were lined across the dirt road, and Joe nodded to several men he had raced with on previous occasions as he adjusted his horse’s girth, tightened the straps one final time. His stallion stomped about, restless, sensing the nervousness of the other animals and Joe talked low, eased his hand over the coarse hide so his stallion wouldn’t bolt.
His father, Will, and Joey moved back with the rest of the crowd toward the shade of a few trees close to the water’s edge. His pa’s movements were stiff ‘cause his joints acted up in the mornings while his son skipped about, his gray eyes wide with excitement when he turned and waved.
Joe raised his hand knowing his youngster wished him luck, Lord only knew he needed it, especially after that comment at the diner the night before. The words clanged around in his head. “Derek said he wished he could afford the colt.” Joe’s gaze had caught the child’s innocent stare. “Who’s Derek, Joey?” But those thin shoulders had shrugged with uncertainty. “Just a man, Pa, who comes visiting from time to time.”
A half-hearted string of obscenities hissed out as Joe gathered his wits and eased into the saddle. His mount side-stepped in his eagerness and Joe tightened his hold, reined Samson back under control, and waited for the race to begin. ‘Just a man, Pa, who comes visiting from time to time.’
Others waited too, all anxious to gallop ahead and win the purse. The money didn’t seem important, and Joe usually knew which horse would give him a challenge to the finish line. Hell, he had no idea. A few high-spirited mounts caught his eye and he grunted in frustration. A gun went off, and despite the loud crack, it took a moment to comprehend the race had begun.
Samson surged into the chaos of other cantankerous horses. Dust kicked up behind the dozens of hooves, swirled into a cloud and left a fine layer on the leaves dangling from the trees. The powder sifted down to the bits of grass as well on the folks left standing there watching by the glimmering river. His horse charged onward while thoughts of Annie lulled around in his head. Damn, he sure as hell wouldn’t win if he kept thinking about her.
Another face pierced his mind, this one masculine and charming. Anger pushed in, riding him hard, til all he could think about was finishing the blasted race, so he could go home and kill Derek Tyler for sleeping with his wife.
Joe being gone for a night, let alone for a few days pinched Annie’s belly against her backbone. Derek knew Joe would be in that race in Paducah, her husband went every year, and for the last three, he had won.
Annie remembered standing on the porch, Joe’s arms pulling her close. Several of his young horses were up for auction and their son had watched them out in the barnyard while Joe had said his good‑byes. The heat had caused the horizon to shimmer in the distance, making the six horses look like a dozen.
"If you need anything, don't be afraid to send Ruffie over to Carlson's now, you hear?" Joe’s look had turned to a squint as if he had picked up on her anxiety and Annie assured him she was fine, and smiled to hide the worry that had sprung up behind her eyes.
"Come on Pa," she remembered Joey hollering from the hitching post, as well as Joe’s indulgent smile that said he was coming, then his eyes hung on hers a moment more before he scooped up Ruffie and Suzanne, nuzzled them til they giggled and her tears had built up again.
"What's the matter?" He had peered down at her, his voice gentle with worry, and he had waited for her to say something as the kids slid out of his arms.
His shirt had hidden her face when she stepped into his warm embrace, and the sweet tobacco and sunshine smell of him had filled her senses. His love had wound around her as easily as his arms had while she nestled in his chest a moment longer. "I'm all right, really," she remembered sniffing as his lips caressed hers once more as she clung to him.
"Oh, gawd, girl, take heart." His teasing eyes had twinkled as his mouth hovered close to hers. "I got a two hour ride ahead of me, an' we don't have time." His moan still lingered soft and teasing in her mind, "To go inside before I leave."
"You stay outta trouble now, you hear?" she had warned just as she always had and he chuckled at last, saying the only trouble he was gonna have was getting on his damn horse, and she had smiled, kissing him once more before he left. And now, thinking how quickly he had disappeared and she was on her own, worry kicked up to keep her company.
The day had grown blistering hot and her thoughts wandered to Joe as she hung his shirts on the line. Determined not to dwell on what ifs, she set her anxiety on a shelf and treated her children to a picnic down on their patch of beach along the Ohio River.
The heat sweltered almost pleasant as she stretched out on the quilt in the shade of several scrub trees that lined the shore. A breeze flitted through the branches lifting the damp tendrils on the back of her neck which had escaped her braid. A handful of clouds drifted as if they were out on holiday, wandering through the countryside. An occasional slap at the water’s edge was the only evidence of the lazy moving current. She felt silly in her petticoat and bare feet, but it lent a festive mood with the children. Ruffie found a clam, and her two youngsters set about building a home for their new friend.
“Do you always smile to yourself like that?” the voice behind her made her gasp in surprise.
His devilish laugh flushed her cheeks as she grabbed her clothes. “Derek!” Her fingers crushed her blouse to her chest.
He left his horse in the shade of the trees before easing down beside her, acting as if she should have known he’d stop, and she shouldn’t be worried that he found her in her underclothes. As the afternoon melted away, she relaxed, some. He played with the children and didn’t seem to mind when his boots ended up wet. The white of his shirt became a sharp contrast to his tanned face. He wasn’t as brawny as Joe, but certainly as handsome with his dark eyes and a ready smile. What bothered her was every time their eyes caught her stomach fluttered. Still, she was a married woman and tried not to notice how he moved, or how he talked easy and friendly with her kids, or how she had left him for Joe all those years ago.
With that old admiration welling up, she watched him. He was a fine man, a good man, and he would make a wonderful father someday. Since she didn’t have another cup, she offered her own lemonade, and the intimacy of such an act didn’t go unnoticed from either of them.
He helped carry her things to the house. They sauntered up the tree-lined path in no particular hurry, her children racing on ahead. “You know,” he spoke as they walked along, his horse clomping quietly behind them. “I’d love them like my own.”
“Who?” She turned to face him, not realizing she had stopped. He paused along side her.
“Your children,” he said quietly, “I’d be a good father to them.”
“They have a father,” she sputtered, squinting at him when the sun peeked through the foliage and filled the place they stood full of sunshine.
“Yeah, but he ain’t around much, is he?” Derek asked softly. “I can see how lonely you are, Annie,” his voice quivered as she looked at him. “If you were mine, I’d never let you be lonely.”
“Derek, please, I love Joe,” she whispered a bit too earnestly, and the heat of the sun seemed to loom down on her, making her light-headed.
“Yet you’ve spent half the summer letting me visit.” He inched closer and her hand moved up to stop him. Strong fingers folded around hers, stilling her protests as he kissed the tips, massaged each before he drew his lips to the next. “Do you hate me for loving you, Annie?” Warm arms encircled her waist. Her children laughed at the top of the hill, but couldn’t see her with the trees closing in around them. “Lord knows, I do, you know I always have,” his voice dropped to a whisper as he pulled her close, and his breath on her cheek felt natural, stirred her senses into awareness of him as a man. “I’ll leave,” he moaned hoarsely as his worried gaze sank into hers. “I don’t want to, but I’ll go, if you tell me to.”
In that quiet hesitation, the birds didn’t chirp, the leaves refused to waver when his mouth nestled softly against hers. His touch grew warm, needful, and still the birds refused to sing. Even so, Annie knew she had made a choice. Right or wrong, she didn’t know, only that her life would never be the same.