by Briar Rose
This is the first several chapters of a modern romance novel.
|Abby walked slowly, searching the crowd for the one face she would recognize. She heard her name and turned to greet the young man who came from the other side of the luggage carousel.
"Abby." It was a statement more than a greeting.
"Benjamin." They looked at each other, each unsure of the next move. They shook hands awkwardly and Abby laughed nervously.
"Yes, thank you."
"Oh, um, luggage?"
"It should be coming out on this one here." Abby pointed to the carousel closest to them and they both turned to watch the heavy black strips of rubber as they swished against the moving belt. This was, unfortunately, not enough of a distraction to prevent an awkward silence.
Abby could think of nothing to say other than inanities which would have eventually embarrassed them both. What did one say to a husband? Particularly a husband you had met only once?
She could not speak, but she did steal sidelong glances at this man, her husband. He looked so Texas, she had to laugh. He wore jeans, a white button-up shirt, and, of course, cowboy boots and hat. He had taken off his hat to greet her and now fidgeted with it, first in his left hand, then in his right, then back again.
He was tall, at least six feet, she guessed. She was glad he was tall; she was on the long end of five feet herself and, though she tried not to be, was self-conscious about it. Thankfully, even if she wore heels, Ben would still be taller.
Furthermore, he was blond and tanned and even more handsome than she remembered him. Thank goodness, Father had picked a handsome one.
Abby blushed and looked down when Ben turned in response to her glances, not as furtive as she had thought.
He did not say anything, apparently not offended, or perhaps he was simply as embarrassed and curious as she was. He looked at her a moment, then returned to his study of the luggage belt.
Finally, bags began to appear and wind past the waiting passengers.
Abby's suitcase was the third one through the chute. Her second bag, though, was long in coming. In fact, all but one of the crowd had dispersed long before Abby's bag finally appeared.
She sighed in relief and Ben stepped up to grab it. The silence was becoming agony now between the young couple and Abby was eager to get home. Home? Well, wherever they were going. Home was Wisconsin. Home was Father and Mama and eight sisters and three cats. Home was ... far away. Home was behind her now. She would have to adjust to a new home.
And wasn't that what she had longed for? Wasn't home what she had chafed against for three years now? Wasn't distance exactly what she wanted? Yes, she told herself, a decided yes.
The brutal heat of a Texas September took Abby's breath as the airport doors slid open. Back home, she had seen a few trees already turning to their autumn colors, but here in Texas, summer was still definitely in control.
Ben hefted the suitcase and her bag into the bed of his pickup. Abby smiled to herself. This truck must be the universal symbol for Texas with its chipped blue paint, numerous dents and rearview mirror held to the door with bailing twine.
She had stepped into a Tim McGraw video, she decided with a chuckle.
Ben saw her smile as he opened her door for her. He looked sheepish and said,
"Sorry about the truck. This is the one we use on the ranch usually. I would have brought the other but Sandy was working on it this afternoon. Fuel pump." He slammed the door shut and ran around to the driver's side.
As they merged from the ramp onto the highway, Abby asked,
"How long is the drive?"
"'Bout two hours. If you're tired, you could sleep. You won't miss much between here and there. The scenery is pretty much the same all along."
Abby was, at first, too on edge to sleep. Eventually, though, the steady rumble of the truck and the monotony of the scenery induced her to doze, her head resting against the seat back.
She was startled awake as the truck slowed and turned onto a dirt road. She sat up and tried to banish the lingering effects of sleep. First she noticed that dark had fallen. Then she noticed that her mouth was dry. Oh, dear. She groaned inwardly at the thought that she might have been snoring for the last hour. What would her new husband think if he realized he'd gotten stuck with a snoring wife? Her sisters had complained about it often enough, but she didn't mind torturing them with it. This stranger was a different matter, though. Well, if she had, there was nothing she could do about it now.
"I'm sorry. I didn't realize I was so tired. I didn't mean to sleep all the way here."
Abby glanced over at Ben, but he made no response. He was concentrating on avoiding the deepest ruts. He was not entirely successful, Abby thought, as she put out a hand to steady herself.
Ben made no comment about her sleeping but said,
"One of our jobs for this winter is to fix this road. It's gotten worse with all the rain this summer. We're nearly there."
Abby was not sure where "there" was, but she figured she'd rather be "there" than here, getting her head knocked against the ceiling of the cab.
Abby finally decided that "nearly there" had been an exaggeration. They must have endured at least twenty minutes of jostling and, despite her best efforts, Abby had had her head knocked against the window several times. Ben finally turned into a drive and parked in front of a large house, apparently fairly new, with wood siding, large windows and a long, wide front porch.
Abby reached for the door handle and pulled, but nothing happened.
"Oh, that doesn't work from the inside. Hang on. Let me get it." Ben jumped out of the truck and ran around to her door.
"Thank you," Abby murmured. She tried to get out gracefully, but was only partially successful. A narrow denim skirt did nothing but contribute to her awkward slide from the seat.
Ben did not seem to notice, though, and quickly reached back for her suitcase and bag. Abby carried her purse, jacket and carry-on.
As Ben led the way up the short sidewalk, Abby put back her head and looked up. Well, the song was right, the stars at night ARE big and bright, deep in the heart of Texas. In fact, the stars seemed to hang low enough to touch and Abby wondered if they looked this way every night.
Ben set down her luggage on the front porch and took off his hat. Again, he started shifting it from hand to hand, creasing the crown over and over.
Why did he suddenly seem so ill at ease again? Numerous reasons flitted through Abby's mind, most of them centered on the fact that they were practically strangers, though a marriage license and mutual vows tied them together. And now they would be alone together and neither knew what to expect, from marriage or from each other.
Abby quelled the quiver in her voice and said in a rush of nervous words,
"Ben, I want you to know how happy I am to be here." She kept a steady gaze on her hands which were slowly twisting, despite the reprimand in her own mind. She shouldn't look nervous; she shouldn't BE nervous. She was the nervy one, the one who was never afraid or embarrassed. Well, that had been at home. This was uncharted territory. She plunged on.
"I have helped Mama with the housework and cooking and caring for the babies for so long that I am truly looking forward to caring for just one other person. So many nights, after cleaning up after everyone and seeing the last of the girls into bed, I prayed for just one man. One man to care for and to cook for." Her voice fell almost to a whisper. "I know I'll make you a good wife and I think I can make you happy."
She glanced up then. Ben's face was absolutely unreadable. Perhaps it was just the way the shadows fell, but could it be he looked even less at ease than he had before? He had stopped creasing the crown of his hat, but now he simply stared.
Abby was disconcerted. Apparently, Ben had nothing to say in response and Abby was suddenly ashamed of her own declaration. She had been foolish to tip her hand so early, before she knew much of anything about this man. Now he had the advantage on her.
Ben cleared his throat and shifted his weight.
"Well, we'd better get on in." He opened the door and allowed Abby to precede him into the flagstone entry hall.
As soon as she stepped through the door, she heard a loud whoop, then a thunderous rush of feet, immediately followed by the appearance of a human herd, tumbling and sliding on the flagstones. The tangle of adolescent arms and legs finally stopped in front of her and sorted out into five males, from one nearly as tall as Benjamin to one the size of an eleven year old boy.
After a moment of silent examination on either side, the tallest lad, reached out a hand and said,
"Hello, I'm Caleb."
Abby smiled uncertainly but shook the hand.
"Hello, Caleb. I'm Abby."
Ben stepped forward then. Going from tallest to shortest, Ben pointed out,
"Abby, this is Caleb, Daniel, Ephraim, Felix, and Gabriel."
The youngest, Gabriel, grinned at Abby.
"Where'd you get the shiner?" Abby said, smiling back at the boy.
Gabriel glanced at Ben but ignored the look he got. "Ben whu'pped me."
"Oh." Abby would not betray her inner startle.
"Now tell her what really happened," Ben prompted, calmly.
Gabriel's grin widened.
"I's fightin' at school."
Abby was relieved to know that at least Ben had not blackened the boy's eye. But he might have. What did she really know of this man, her husband?
Abby turned to the gathered crowd and said,
"Well, thank you for greeting me. Do you all live around here? I didn't think we passed any other places on our way here."
"You didn't," Caleb said. "We all live here." Surely she must have misheard the smug tone of his voice.
Abby's heart sank as she noticed the same brilliant blue eyes and blondish hair they shared with her husband. They were his brothers; no denying it.
In the ensuing silence, another male voice was heard from down the hall.
"Ben, bring her in here, will 'ya?"
Ben cleared his throat and motioned the way for Abby. The brothers parted to allow them to pass, then followed close behind.
At the end of the hall, they walked into a large, open room where a kitchen area looked into dining and living areas, with a massive stone fireplace dominating the entire space. The furniture was well-worn and was, in fact, sagging in several crucial places. Every flat surface was piled high with books and magazines. Here and there, Abby spotted what looked like horse tack and several hand tools. The entire room was dotted with clumps of dog hair.
All this Abby noticed in the moment before a huge black creature rushed at her and placed a pair of over-sized paws on her shoulders.
"Prince !" several voices shouted. "Down!"
Immediately the assault was over and a large dog, Prince by name, stood by Abby and wiggled in excitement. Abby smiled and petted the dog, not wanting to disappoint him. Prince seemed satisfied with that small attention and retreated to his place on the other side of the room.
Abby's attention turned to a man struggling to rise from a faded lounge chair in front of the empty fireplace.
Ben immediately rushed over to him,
"Now, Pop, don't be doing that."
"Benjamin, I'll rise when a lady enters the room." He steadied himself on his son's arm then extended his hand.
"Abby, I'm pleased to meet you."
Abby was glad for her parents' training then because she was able to function despite the numbing shock; the shock she kept at bay only by force of will. Do not let them see your confusion. You can sort this out when you know what it's all about.
She stepped forward and took the proffered hand.
"Nice to meet you, sir."
Ben stayed beside his father.
"Abby, this is my father."
"Ben, I'm all right." Mr. Wilton gently pushed his son away. "Why don't you get lemonade for all of us?" He sat down again when Ben had moved away.
"Please, sit down, Abby." Abby sank slowly and perched on the edge of the couch, still clutching her purse and jacket. Her carry-on slipped unheeded down her arm and landed with a thud on the floor.
Ben's brothers had followed them into the room and were now jostling each other and squabbling over the best seats. Felix seemed to be losing and was about to be consigned to the floor, when he lowered his head and rushed at Ephraim. The blow landed both lads on the couch beside Abby, who put up a hand to protect herself from flying elbows and fists.
Suddenly, Ben was there.
"That's enough!" He pulled Felix up by the hair and grabbed Ephraim by the front of his shirt. Both boys yowled in outrage, but submitted as Ben pushed them out of the room.
"Get out of here until you can be civilized." Ben turned to glare at the other boys in the room. "You guys get, too."
Caleb, comfortably installed in a tattered recliner, replied,
"C'mon, Ben. She's our housekeeper as much as she's yours. You just get to sleep with her."
While he spoke, Caleb kept a cool, hardened gaze on Abby. Abby kept her own face as unreadable as possible, though she was not sure she could disguise the shock and confusion she felt at this sudden, apparently undeserved, hostility.
Mr. Wilton spoke sternly,
"Caleb, you'll be polite to your new sister."
Caleb did not move his gaze from Abby, but replied with what might have been respect.
Mr. Wilton addressed the room.
"Maybe you fellas ought to go on to bed. Tomorrow's another early morning."
The remaining brothers gradually filed out, all except Caleb who continued to regard Abby with his cool stare until he rose, stretched deliberately and strolled out.
Mr. Wilton, Ben and Abby stared at the door in awkward silence for a moment until Mr. Wilton said,
"Ben, how 'bout that lemonade?"
Ben returned in a moment with three glasses of iced lemonade. Abby took hers automatically but did not drink. She was still distracted by the open hostility from Ben's brother. What had she done to make him so hostile? And what did he mean by that housekeeper comment?
Neither man offered an explanation for Caleb's behavior, but Mr. Wilton seemed eager to make Abby comfortable. He asked about Abby's family, her father in particular. The two fathers had been to college together years before.
Abby answered all of his questions and tried to converse casually, as if she was not wondering desperately what sort of situation she had gotten herself into.
"Well," Mr. Wilton finally sighed. "I 'spect you're pretty tired from your trip and I'm 'bout to turn into a pumpkin m'self. I usually get up and get breakfast around in the morning, but now that you're here, I s'pose I might just sleep in a bit." He smiled brightly at Abby. "Ben, why don't you give her a little tour of the place, let her get her bearings."
"Sure, Pop." Ben handed his father his cane and the older man limped out of the room, leaving Ben and Abby alone.
The silence which descended on the room was heavy with unanswered questions. Abby stared into the depths of her lemonade, seeming to hope for answers from within the glass. Ben stared at some point across the room and took an absent-minded drink occasionally.
Finally, he seemed to take courage and said,
"How about a tour of the place?"
Abby looked up silently at her husband. He seemed to take this for assent, and rose. Abby rose and followed. She couldn't think of what else to do.
"This is the family room here. Pop's bedroom is the first on the left down the hall here, and the bathroom right next to that. Pop moved down here when he had his accident so he wouldn't have to do stairs any more. He's been trying to do the house work, but he can't do much on that leg of his and things have run down a bit. But now that you're here..." Ben's voice trailed off and he glanced nervously at Abby. Abby, lemonade glass in hand, simply stared at him.
Ben cleared his throat and moved on.
"This here is the kitchen. Pop's cooking skills are pretty limited." Ben gave a nervous laugh. "But now that you're here..."
Ben stepped up to the sink which overflowed with dirty dishes.
"The dishwasher's been broken a long time now and we're none of us too keen on washing up. But now that you're here..."
Still, Abby could not force her mind to grasp what was going on. Caleb's housekeeper comment was beginning to make a frightening amount of sense.
"Back here is the laundry room." Ben opened a door which revealed a room piled high with muddy jeans and sweaty tee shirts and an unsightly number of boxer shorts. "There's a washer and dryer under there somewhere." Another nervous laugh.
Was that his attempt at humor? Abby wondered. Does he really think this is funny?
"Out that door," Ben gestured past the piles of laundry at a door covered in muddy paw prints, "is the garden. Mama kept a good garden when she was alive. We haven't done very well with it, but now that..."
"Now that I'm here," Abby interrupted.
Ben colored a little, but nodded.
As they passed back through the kitchen, Ben gestured toward the refrigerator and said,
"If you want to make a list, I'll take you into town tomorrow to get some groceries. The little market doesn't carry a lot, but twice a year we make a trip to Fort Worth and include a big grocery run then. That won't be for another couple of months, though."
By the time this was said, the two were once again standing in the family room.
Abby vaguely supposed she should say something, but all she could do was to stare into the empty fireplace.
Ben cleared his throat in the silence and finally said,
"I'm going back out to check the stock. I'll put your bags in..." he faltered for a moment, "the room. It's the first one on your right down the hall."
Abby thought of a question then.
"Where do the boys sleep?"
"We all...they all," he corrected himself self-consciously, "sleep upstairs in one big room."
"I hate to think what that room must look like," Abby said ruefully.
Ben just grinned and said, "It is a sight. But now that you're here..."
He sobered at Abby's blank stare.
When Ben had left the room, Abby stared again at the empty grate. Suddenly, she was tired, so very tired. It had been a long day, but it was more than that. This wasn't at all what she had expected. She had been getting away from constant cooking and cleaning and caring for many siblings. Or so she had thought.
Abby shook herself. "What is the use of standing here?" she thought. She returned to the kitchen and pushed back some dishes, careful not to upset the precarious balance, and set down her lemonade glass.
A list, she thought, she would start with a list, maybe several. She returned to the family room and found a pen and paper in her purse. She started with the upper cupboards and made a full inventory of staples needed and work to be done.
An hour later, Ben found her sitting at the trestle table, frowning over the lists, which by this time, had extended onto the back of an envelope. He leaned against the door frame, hands in pockets, and looked at his new wife.
He was reminded of the first time he'd seen her, three months ago now. She'd been serving dinner to her mother and many sisters, dealing patiently with the little ones and expertly directing the older ones, when Ben had come into the room with Abby's father. Abby had stood up from where she was bending over a toddler and looked steadily at the stranger as he was introduced as the son of a dear friend. Ben remembered her direct gaze, so much in contrast to the blushes and giggles and ducked heads of her sisters. He couldn't remember now what she had been wearing, but he remembered her hair, light brown turning blonder in the early summer sun, and long - nearly down to her waist. He had wondered then what it would look like out of its heavy braid, what it would feel like to touch that hair, to have it brush the back of his arm...
Ben gave an embarrassed cough and Abby raised her head.
"Oh, you're back." Abby said in surprise. "I lost track of time." She smiled, still under the calming effect of making her lists and beginning to tame the kitchen wasteland.
She ducked her head again, though, as she was recalled to her situation. Here was her husband, standing looking at her, on what was essentially their wedding night. Her heart skipped and raced in sudden desperation. She couldn't do this. She didn't know this man, let alone love him. What would he expect from her? That he expected her to cook and clean was obvious enough. Okay, then, she thought, if he wants a housekeeper, that's what he'll get. And that's all.
"Well, um, shall we go to bed?" That sounded lame, even to Ben's ears, but it was all he could think to say. He had meant to say something about how tired she must be and how he would sleep on the couch in Pop's room for the night, and that is what had come out?
Abby looked at him with that same serious gaze she had given him the day they had met. But this time there was more there, something burning behind the deceptively soft brown eyes.
"Shall we what?" She spoke with quiet calm. "I'll cook and clean for you, Ben Wilton, but you have no right to ask for more than that. If you married me to be your housekeeper, I'll stick to keeping house. How could you have let me go on about caring for just one man when you knew very well that wasn't how it is? You have no right to ask me to share your bed."
Ben's temper rose at this challenge, but he kept his voice quiet.
"No right? I have the right of a husband. I was under the impression that your father had taught his girls submission."
Abby's face flamed with anger. Her father's form of submission was exactly what she had been trying to escape. She should have known her father would marry her to a man as arrogant and oppressive as he was.
Ben saw her face and was immediately contrite. He had said that without thinking and simply to bait her.
Ben and Abby heard furtive feet and ill-concealed whispers on the stairs and knew that their conversation had witnesses.
Ben glanced toward the stairs and frowned.
In an instant, Abby knew she had to choose to be with or against her husband. She knew, or at least guessed at, what tortures Ben would endure if she made him look ridiculous in front of his brothers. She pushed aside her anger and hurt, forcing herself to believe that this argument could wait.
She stood and went to Ben and, ignoring his surprised look, took his hand. She said sweetly, but in a voice loud enough to carry well up the stairs.
"Oh, I am tired. Can we go to bed now?"
The giggles and poorly suppressed whoops told that the rabble had heard.
Without a word, Ben and Abby turned and walked down the hall. They stopped in front of the open door to the bedroom, listening to not-so-furtive footsteps retreat up the stairs. When all was quiet again, Ben and Abby let out their pent-up laughter.
"Thank you," Ben said, the smile lingering on his face. "You didn't have to do that."
"I know." Abby looked up at Ben, and grinned. "I'd hate for you to lose face in front of your brothers, though, being their foreman and all."
As the moment passed, they looked down to where they still held hands and each became self-conscious again. Then, hoping not to appear self-conscious, Ben stuffed both hands in his pockets and Abby smoothed her skirt.
After a long silence, Ben said,
"Look, I know you've had a long day. What I meant to say earlier was that I'll room in with Pop tonight. That way you can settle in and all."
Abby dared not look up and reveal the quick tears of exhaustion and gratitude which had risen.
"Thank you," she said quietly. "You didn't have to do that."
"I know." Ben looked down at his wife's bowed head. "I'm...well, good night."
Abby looked up and realized that Ben was gone and the door across the hall was closing.
"Ben!" she called out. His face appeared again in the open doorway.
"What about your brothers?" she asked faintly.
Ben smiled and said, "They won't know."
Abby awoke, bathed in sunlight. The bed was flanked by two floor-to-ceiling windows which were now admitting a great deal of Texas sunshine. As she blinked and rubbed her eyes, she looked around the bedroom. The night before, she had been too tired to take much notice of her surroundings, but this morning, she saw, to her right, a large stone fireplace with two comfortable chairs in front of it. At the foot of the bed was a cedar chest, and directly across from it was the door. In the room, there were also two dressers, two bedside tables, and an occasional chair against the wall, beside the bathroom door. She noticed that there were only one or two pictures, and they were hung at an awkward height, perhaps the height of a tall man in cowboy boots, she thought with a smile.
Suddenly noticing the angle of the sunshine on the hardwood floors, Abby realized that the morning must be far gone by now and she was still abed. A spurt of panic propelled her out of bed and into her robe. Seven hungry men would all be waiting for their breakfast and here she had been, sleeping the day away.
But, no, Abby thought, quelling her panic. They surely had made breakfast every morning for months before she came. Besides, she rebelled, they can't just expect me to jump right in my first morning. Can they?
Worried by an infernal sense of responsibility, Abby quickly dressed and braided her hair.
When she stepped into the kitchen, Mr. Wilton greeted her.
"Good morning, Abby. Thought I'd let you sleep in a little on your first morning here and all. Care for some pancakes?" He picked up a plate from beside the stove, scraped up four pancakes from the griddle, and handed her the plate.
Abby peered around nervously.
"Where's everyone else?"
"Oh, they've all left for school or chores already. I usually eat after they're all gone so I can read my newspaper while I eat." So saying, he filled his own plate and limped out to the table. "Help yourself to coffee there, too."
When they had settled to eating, Mr. Wilton excused himself, opened the paper, and read in silence, occasionally taking a bite of pancake or a sip of coffee.
Abby ate, gradually becoming more comfortable as she realized that no awkward questions were going to be asked about last night. No conversation was required. In fact, she thought, despite the fact that they were relative strangers, there was something very comfortable about Ben's dad. She had never felt so comfortable with her own dad even after twenty-one years under the same roof. Mr. Wilton didn't ask intrusive questions or give pop theology quizzes or ask for a reckoning of time spent or wasted. "He seems to simply accept me," she thought with wonder.
Abby jumped when the back door opened and the comfortable silence was broken. She was afraid it was the entire pack of Wilton boys descending on the kitchen. But no, it was only Ben and Prince.
Ben grabbed a mug from beside the sink, inspected it for coffee remains, shrugged his shoulders vaguely, and poured himself some fresh coffee.
Abby had to smile at the typically male way he did that. Then again, she realized that she did not really know what any male typically did, except her father, and he would never have done that. He would have sat at the table and asked one of his daughters to get the coffee for him - in a clean mug.
Abby had the thought that she would soon come to know a great deal about typical male behavior in her new home, overflowing as it was with typical males.
"Morning," Ben said to the room in general. He sat down across from Abby.
"Morning," Abby replied. She glanced up quickly, then returned to the fascinating study of her own coffee mug. Yes, he was still nerve-wrackingly handsome: blond hair trimmed short, blue t-shirt reflected in blue eyes, faded jeans, and boots. What made her glance up again, though, were his arms. She had never seen such darkly tanned, tightly-muscled forearms. As Ben lifted his mug to his mouth, she found herself staring at the muscles as they flexed and moved. Abby had never been aware that a couple of forearms could make her face flush hot, but apparently they could. Her blush grew fierce as she narrowly conquered the urge to reach over and touch one of those arms.
"Pop, Sandy's got the fuel pump fixed in the truck, so I thought we might go into town." At least Ben seemed unaware of the effect he was having on her.
"Sure," Mr. Wilton replied, setting down his paper. "When do you want to go?"
"Now. It's supposed to rain later and I don't want to face that driveway in the rain if I don't have to."
Mr. Wilton chuckled, "No, I'm sure that's right. Well, go when you're ready."
Was Ben purposely avoiding looking at or referring to her? Abby wondered. Was he ever going to ask her if she wanted to go or was ready to go?
Mr. Wilton grabbed his cane and rose from the table. When he was almost out the door, he turned back, "Abby?" Oh, finally, Abby thought. "I have a real hankering for apple pie tonight, so pick up whatever you need for that, okay?"
Abby was glad that no response seemed necessary.
Ben drained his mug, set it down, and shoved away from the table.
"Okay, let's go." Ben turned and went down the hall. Abby heard the front door open, pause for a long moment, then close again.
Ben returned to stand in the doorway. He looked at Abby, still sitting at the table. His look of confusion was rather amusing, Abby thought, and made a most charming crease above his left eyebrow.
"What!" Ben said, slightly exasperated.
"Ben," Abby replied with a smile, "I'm sorry to tell you, but a woman cannot leave the house at a moment's notice." I may not have many rights around here, she thought, but I must establish a few ground rules before we go on.
"Oh." Ben rubbed a hand over his chin. "Yeah. Well, how much time do you need?" He looked worried, as if his bride might demand a day or two.
"Ten minutes," she said, standing. She then proceeded to efficiently clear the table, stack the dishes in the sink, clean off the counters, and set a pot of fresh coffee on to brew. She picked up her lists and purse, and was out the door in less than her requested time.
Slightly breathless, Abby pulled the truck door closed and allowed herself a small smile of satisfaction.
Ben turned the key in the ignition. "Ready?"
It was a small step, thought Abby, but at least he had asked this time.
Abby was determined to make some conversation. What she really wanted was to continue the conversation which had been interrupted by Ben's brothers the night before. She could think of no graceful way to introduce the topic, though, so she struck on something else.
"Ben, Caleb, Daniel, Ephraim, Felix, and Gabriel. They're in alphabetical order. But why did your parents skip A? Shouldn't you be Arnold or Alexander or...oh, they're all Bible names! What about Agamemnon?" Abby grinned.
"I don't think that's a Bible name, either," Ben said with a smile. "Actually, they didn't skip A." Ben sobered. "I had a brother named Adam."
Abby noted his use of the past tense.
"What happened?" she asked softly.
"He...died...in a car accident a couple of years ago." Ben seemed to have to force the words out.
"Oh, I'm sorry." That phrase of condolence always seemed so lame to Abby, but what else was there to say?
"Were you close to him?"
A strange look passed over Ben's face and he rubbed a knuckle over his tightened lips.
"I'm sorry." Abby looked down at her hands. "I'm prying. It's none of my business."
"Sure it is," said Ben with a sideways glance at her. "It's something that has affected our family and you're part of it now. It's just that...It's just something that's hard to talk about."
Abby stared out the window, happy to know that Ben thought of her as part of his family, but frustrated that her attempt at light conversation had turned awry.
"So, what sorts of things do you and your sisters do for fun?" Ben asked.
Abby was surprised but delighted by Ben's apparent desire for conversation. She replied,
"Well,...uh...our definition of fun is a little different from most people." She smiled. "Father doesn't approve of most forms of entertainment, so we made our own."
"Your father is pretty strict?"
Abby wondered if Ben was aware of how close he was coming to bringing up last night's argument.
"Yes, he is very strict," she said, her voice tight with years of resentment. "He has kept Mama under his thumb all of these years and, so far, has kept all of us girls there, too. My only qualm in agreeing to marry you and move all the way down here was that I would be leaving Mama. I'm the only one who will talk back to him."
"Did that get you in a lot of trouble?" Ben asked.
Abby smiled bitterly.
"Yes, it did. I think he arranged my marriage so that he could get me out of the house. I know for a fact that I agreed to it because it got me out of there."
"So, you married me to escape your father," he said lightly. "Not very complimentary."
Abby shot him an angry glance.
"Almost as insulting as being married for your ability to clean a sink."
Ben was silent.
Abby plunged on, now that the topic had been opened.
"I don't know how much like my father you really are, but you certainly sounded like him last night, and I can tell you that my father's definition of 'submission'," she crammed as much sarcasm as she could into the word, "is not my definition of submission. I've given this a lot of thought and study and there is nothing but my father's word to say that women should wait hand and foot on their husbands and do whatever they say without a murmur or even a thought. He seems to have some Medieval idea of what submission is and claims that he has Scripture to back him up."
"What about the verse that says women should submit?" Ben asked mildly.
"What about the verse that says a husband should be willing to lay down his life for his wife? Does that only mean in a life or death situation, or is it a daily laying down?" Abby retorted hotly. "Really, if God intended women to be housekeepers and brood mares, why did He give us a brain?"
"So you could run the house more efficiently?" Ben asked. Abby completely missed the moment when the corner of his mouth quirked up.
"You ARE as bad as my father! You..."
"Here we are," Ben said as he steered the truck into a parking space. "Can you manage or shall I come along to lift the heavy stuff."
"Do as you like," Abby said and slammed the truck door.
In the end, Abby was glad that Ben was there to help carry groceries, for she had bought in bulk as much as possible. But never would she give him the satisfaction of hearing her say so.
By the time they climbed back into the truck, Abby's anger had burned down to a dull resentment. Hunger and weariness had blunted her original flare of temper, and now she only wished to get back to the ranch and escape to her room. How long it would remain her room alone she did not know, but for now, it was the only place that offered any sort of escape.
"Do you want to stop anywhere else?" Ben asked politely.
"No, thank you," Abby answered with equal civility.
Silence hung between the two as they drove home. Abby leaned her head against the window and pondered heavily on her seemingly impossible situation. She had left her home so many miles away, left the comfort of all that was familiar in order to live with strangers, a crowd of shaving, spitting, scratching strangers, no less. And for what? She had escaped her father to marry her father? How could she live with a man who agreed with her father in any way?
And yet, Abby could not quite see Ben in the same way that she saw her father. There were moments of laughter between them when they seemed to share something more than was common. Why could he not always be the charming cowboy?
By the time they pulled up to the ranch house door, Abby knew she had to escape Ben's presence immediately. Her feelings had only become more tangled, more conflicted, the longer she thought about him. She knew she ought to help unload the supplies and start organizing the kitchen, but she needed some time to compose herself.
Ben turned off the ignition. He fiddled with the keys in his hands, then turned to look at her.
"Excuse me." Abby yanked open the door and ran into the house.
Half an hour later, Abby emerged from her room, feeling once again in possession of her emotions. Nothing had changed or been resolved, but time to be alone and pray had made a world of difference in her ability to handle what had to be done.
Nevertheless, she was relieved to find that the kitchen was empty, and she only had piles of groceries with which to contend. She dug into her job happily.
It didn't take long before Abby began to sense that what she really needed to do was to empty the entire kitchen and give it a thorough cleaning before she tried to put away any more groceries. "No time like the present," she thought, and got down to it.
In an effort to reach the top shelves, Abby kicked off her shoes, hiked up her skirt, climbed onto a chair, and then onto the countertop. Just as she had gained a precarious balance, standing on tiptoe to reach the back of the shelf, the back door crashed open, and bodies and voices, many and loud, filled the kitchen.
Ben, following his brothers, reached the kitchen in time to see Abby in mid-air with a glass clutched in one hand.
"Catch her!" Ben called to Caleb, who was standing closest.
Caleb appeared not to hear, and even took a step backward.
Abby landed on her back, knocking all of the air out of her. The glass shattered beside her.
"Hm, sorry," said Caleb, and he walked out of the kitchen.
Ben knelt beside Abby.
"Gabe, get the broom to clean up this glass. Abby, are you okay?"
She couldn't breathe and, for a moment, she couldn't control the panic that made her head swim.
"Hang on," Ben said. "You've just got the wind knocked out of you. You'll be okay in a second. You guys go away," he said, looking up at his gaping brothers.
Gabriel returned with the broom and started sweeping up the broken glass.
"Abby?" Ben said.
"Yeah...I'm okay... I couldn't breathe."
Ben helped her sit up.
"Ooh!" Abby felt the back of her head and realized that she must have hit it as well, considering the tender spot there and a general headache.
"You've got glass in your hair." Ben gingerly brushed at it. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah. Yeah, I'm fine. Thanks. Sorry about the glass."
By that time, Gabriel had swept up the shards and thrown them away. Now, he returned to kneel beside Abby.
"Are you okay?" he asked, his young face wrinkled in concern.
"Yes, Gabriel, I'm fine. Thanks for cleaning up the glass."
"Sure. Um, can I have a snack now?"
Abby laughed while Ben shot him an impatient look.
"If you'll give me five minutes to brush the glass out of my hair, I'll be glad to fix you a snack," Abby answered.
Ben helped her to her feet, and Abby went to her room. As she looked in the mirror at the tiny flecks of glass in her hair, she decided she ought to try brushing it outside so that she wouldn't end up walking on the bits later.
She went out the front door and onto the patchy grass below the porch steps. She flipped the long braid over her shoulder and slowly pulled it apart, bottom to top. As she did so, she thought about what had just happened. She was embarrassed, no doubt about that. Hardly the elegant, put-together image she had hoped to portray to her brothers-in-law.
Abby pulled the brush through her honey wheat-colored hair and remembered the look of concern on Ben's face as he had knelt over her. Ben had been calm, efficient, kind. "See? Charming," she murmured, as if trying to prove something to herself.
Behind Abby, Caleb came around the corner of the house. He stopped short when he saw her. His eyes darted to the front door where Ben stood, leaning against the doorframe watching his wife. His wife. Caleb spat.
Abby whirled around. Caleb had startled her, but what puzzled her was the look now passing between Ben and Caleb.
Abby had understandably missed what Caleb had done, or not done, in the kitchen. But Ben had not. He knew that Caleb's reflexes were quick, they had to be on the ranch, and he could have caught Abby if he had wanted to. Ben could not begin to guess why, but he knew that Caleb had deliberately let her fall.
Caleb spoke first, ignoring the glare from Ben.
"Harlan is looking for y', Ben. If you haven't forgotten, there's a ranch to run here."
With a great show of nonchalance, Ben pushed away from the doorframe and slowly made his way down the stairs.
"I haven't forgotten," he said, his voice mild, his Texas drawl pronounced.
As he came alongside his brother, though, he used all of his slight height advantage to look down into Caleb's eyes. He spoke so that only Caleb could hear.
"I don't know what you're trying to do, but leave her out of it."