Short story written several years ago. Historical Romance.
| It was him. Clarissa Ford knew it as soon as the bell jangled. His clean-shaven scent followed him into the store. But it was more than the man’s scent, more than the familiar scrape of his boots against the wood-plank floor. It was a sixth sense she had only for him.
Her hand clenched knuckle-white around the can of peaches she was holding. He’s a man, Clara. A man and a farmer. You don’t need either. She didn’t truly believe all men and all farmers were bad, but the marriage she’d experienced with just such a man was enough to put her off for eternity.
Tall for a woman, and statuesque in build and poise, Clarissa used these attributes to her advantage as she gathered her wits and her defenses. With exaggerated movements, she levered the can into place on the shelf, and turned to face the counter. “Good day, Mr. Dickerson. May I help you?” Her tone was tart, her chin angled with the sole purpose of putting him in his place.
“Name’s Daniel,” he invited softly. He gazed at her with intense blue eyes, and as always, a sadness, an aloneness, hovered around him.
And as always, her resolve faltered. But only for a moment. “Do you have a list, Mr. Dickerson?”
The results of her caustic tongue was evident in the deep flush suffusing his neck and face, but his tone remained polite. “Yes, Ma’am, just a short one.” He laid a piece of paper on the counter between them.
Clara snatched the list from the counter, and turned her back to Daniel Dickerson.
Shrewish, that’s how she was behaving, but she could not, would not, let down her guard. Albert had matched this man in grooming and soft-spoken politeness. That was, until he’d claimed her for his wife. Then slowly, brutality had taken over.
But no amount of resolve could keep Daniel from her mind’s eye. She could still see the unruly waves of ripe-wheat colored hair capping his head. Could still see the angled planes of his all too serious features. Could still trace his familiar scent and the sound of his steps as he left the counter and wandered from one display to another. He was over six feet of solid, work-worn muscle.
She tugged a bag of corn meal from the shelf with a snap, stepped smartly across the floor, and tossed it into the small crate she’d set on the counter. Why could she not overcome these feelings? Angry and discomfited beyond measure, it took every ounce of will power she possessed to remain in her mother’s general mercantile and perform the duties the job demanded of her.
After what seemed an eternity, she added the final item to the crate. “Will this be all?” Rather than looking at him, she began tallying each item into the ledger.
“You can add these in.” He tossed five lemon drops on the counter, then followed with a packet of forget-me-not seeds.
“You plan to brighten up your homestead?” The question slipped out before she could recall it.
Again, his face and neck flushed. Several moments ticked by. Clarissa waited, torn between curiosity and hope he would not answer.
Finally, just as she’d given up and turned once more to her figures, he spoke. “My Ma, she dearly loved forget-me-nots.”
Sadness and grief vibrated in each word. She could not stop her gaze from darting upward. Alone. How could a person stand before one and seem so alone? Quietly, the question slipped from her lips. “She passed away?”
He nodded. “Her and my brother. You probably think its silly, but Keith practically lived for lemon drops.”
Clarissa wrapped the seeds and drops together in brown paper, and wedged the package between the can goods so it would not fall through the slats.
“I’m sorry for your loss.”
“No need. It’s been long enough now.”
“The length of time doesn’t matter. Not if you’re still grieving.”
Daniel felt foolish.
The empathy warming her voice was sure different from the haughty irritation she usually directed his way. But she’d also had her share of loss. First the death of her husband, then her father.
There was something about this woman. Something beyond her aloofness, that drew him towards her more and more each time he came into the store. She tried so hard to be cold, but her dark hazel eyes radiated a warmth that put a lie to her actions every time.
Daniel watched as she tallied the rest of his order.
“There you go. Everything is ready.” Her color was high as she looked up at him once more.
Daniel searched for words, for something to say that would put them both at ease. Finding none, he reached into his denim pocket and withdrew some bills. He counted the amount she quoted him, and handed it to her. Their hands grazed one another, and the warmth he felt at that mere touch seemed to seep deep within him.
Her fingers trembled while she stashed the money in the cash box. For the life of him, though he considered it rude, Daniel could not take his eyes off her movements.
Resuming her stiff exterior, the widow turned once more to the task of transferring canned goods from a large crate to the shelves.
Dismissed. Daniel clenched his jaw and tried not to take it personal. She was one fine woman, no doubt about that. Too fine for a dirt-farm boy like him. Elegant, that’s what she was, from her topknot of gold-struck hair, the graceful line of her jaw, and the stately way she carried herself. He had no business even thinking about her. Daniel squared his shoulders, picked up his crate, and walked out. Nope. He had no business even thinking about her. But that hadn’t stopped him yet.
As Clarissa worked in the alcove, her mother’s voice intermingled with that of the pastor’s wife where they visited in the main part of the store.
Clara hung the last of her newest creations on the dress rack, but she took no notice of the blue organdie print. Daniel Dickerson had laid out his loss, and since that day, the echoes of his grief had stirred feelings she’d buried deep for years. Hannah. She could not grieve her only child without reliving the horror leading up to her death. The paralyzing fear when she realized Albert had caught her talking to the lost stranger. The feel of his beefy arms around her neck. The groping, the ripping of her clothing. The cruel taking there on the hall floor.
Hannah had been born prematurely, with no chance of survival because of Albert’s brutality. But her child would never live in fear of the man as Clarissa had, and for that she’d been grateful. How horrible it was to feel relief at a child’s death. Relief, because Albert’s threats left no way out of the horror Clarissa had lived with night and day. Until the day he died.
In a haze of pain, Clarissa lifted a factory-made dress from its crate and put it on a hanger. Her movements became sharp as her thoughts turned angry. Anger directed inward. She’d tried to stand up to him, but she’d been too weak. If only she’d refused to move miles away from her parents. If only she’d had the courage to leave him before his control had become so complete. A control that lingered long after his death. Filled with shame, it had taken her father’s illness and her mother’s plea for help to bring her home. Secluded from the rest of the store, the alcove held their entire women’s clothing line on two dress racks and a large table which held underpinnings, nightwear, and footwear.
She hung the dresses with care, and her mind calmed. Her mother, Daisy, wished Myra Sanders a good day. No sooner did the bell stop jangling from the woman’s exit, than it began tinkling again.
“Mr. Dickerson. Such a surprise to see you during the week,” Daisy said.
Clarissa’s breath hitched.
“Yes, Ma’am. I had some equipment needing repair.”
“Well I hope it won’t hinder your progress with planting your fields?”
“Just a mite. Cliff should have me up and running again this afternoon.”
“Well, good. Now, how may I help you?”
“I was hoping to speak to your daughter.”
“Oh? Well, certainly. Clara? You have a visitor.”
All too well, Clarissa understood the eagerness in her Mother’s voice. Daisy longed for grandchildren, and she was not beyond maneuvering to get what she wanted.
But Clarissa could not hide in the alcove like a weak, simpering female. Albert had robbed far more than her innocence and her dreams. Minute by minute, she gained back what he had taken, and never again would she give any man the power to destroy her. No matter what her mother wanted. No matter how winsomely shy or attractive she might find any particular man.
She gathered her defenses like a shroud and strode out to face the uncertainties awaiting her.
Despite her advancing years, Daisy beamed from a face that could still be called pretty.
Inwardly, Clarissa felt like running. Outwardly, she remained stoic. “Mr. Dickerson? You wished to speak to me?”
“Yes, Ma’am, but I’d sure like it if we could drop the formality.”
“I don’t think--.”
He flushed deep, but interrupted. “Like I said before, name’s Daniel.”
“Yes, I remember, but is that what you wanted to speak to me about?”
“No.” His face flushed even more, but doggedly, he continued. “I packed a picnic to have while I’m waiting for my equipment. I sure would like to share it with a friend. It’s a beautiful day, Clarissa. We could sit out beneath that tree in the church yard.”
Shy. He is so shy. He’s asking to share a meal with a friend. How on earth can I deny him simple companionship for a meal?
“What a fine offer.” Daisy broke in. “Of course you must accept, Clara.”
Clarissa gritted her teeth. I do not want to accept, Mother. She knew all too well her mother would push her a mile if she gave her an inch. But what could she say? What reasonable excuse did she have to set this man back when it was so clearly difficult for him to put himself forward?
She was beaten. She knew she was, but the idea of spending time in Daniel’s company filled her with a fear almost as great as the fear she’d lived with for so many years. “All right.” She struggled to keep her voice even. “I will join you.”
Slowly, a warm, heart-tugging smile softened his features.
And just as slowly, he coaxed an answering smile from Clarissa.
“Shall we?” Daniel motioned for her to precede him.
As they reached the door, Daisy said brightly. “You youngsters take just as long as you like.”
Clarissa had no room for worrying over her mother’s misguided matchmaking. Her mind was far too consumed by the man.
She stepped out into the sunshine. Then side by side, they went to his wagon at the hitching rail in front of the store.
Daniel lifted a blanket and basket from the wagon bed. Sawyer was a small town, deriving most of its lively-hood from the outlying farms, but its few residents took pride in their surroundings and it showed in neat, white-washed storefronts and picket-fences bordering their tidy lawns.
They proceeded down the packed-earth path that passed a combined telegraph and postal office, a barber shop, rectory and then the church. On the east side of the church with its tall steeple and magnificent bell, they crossed a narrow yard to a large maple that spread its shade in the late spring sunshine. Within it’s branches, a red squirrel chattered at them angrily, and Daniel chuckled, breaking the silence that had stretched between them.
Without a word, but with a questing smile, he handed her the rectangular basket and spread the blanket on the ground. Then he retrieved the basket and pointed to the dark blue wool.
He seemed far lighter of spirit than at any other time she’d seen him. Answering the warmth in his eyes with a tense smile, Clarissa settled herself on the blanket. She expected him to hand her the meal to set out, but instead, he knelt and began taking out and unwrapping each item. Chicken parts that looked a perfect crispy brown, corn bread, sliced and smeared with butter, and a small crock of beans, seasoned with molasses.
“My word, Daniel. Those are not tinned beans. And the cornbread! Don’t tell me you baked the cornbread too.”
“I did Ma’am, but if you’d rather, I won’t tell you.” The smile tugging his lips did strange things to her insides.
Despite that, and despite the fact his name had slipped from her lips with nary a thought, she laughed.
And he laughed with her. A deep rumbling that sounded rusty to her ears. That fact, and the certainty he had not felt much joy in his life for a mighty long time, sobered her. “Well, it all looks delicious.”
His laughter dwindled, but a glint remained in his eyes. “The taste’ll tell.” He handed one of two cloth napkins to her and then set out two glasses and poured lemonade from a quart jar.
Beyond surprised at the thought and time he’d put into this picnic, Clarissa accepted her glass and took a sip of the sweetened sour concoction. “Mmmm. So far, so good.”
Next, he dished a serving of each offering onto a tin plate and placed it and a fork in front of her. Presentation did not lie. The chicken was every bit as outwardly crisp and inwardly tender as it looked, the cornbread was moist and tasty and the beans were seasoned to perfection.
“Daniel Dickerson! You are far better at this cooking business than I’ve ever been.”
He laughed. “Ma taught me a few things, but I’m a bit limited on variety.”
“Well, with talent like this, you’ll no doubt make some lucky woman a top-notch husband.” She’d meant to tease, but when the words tumbled from her mouth, Clarissa could have kicked herself. It wasn’t the slow spread of color on Daniel’s face that disturbed her, it was the hard ball of need that settled into the pit of her stomach.
But her remark did not dim his humor. “You’d rather stitch those beautiful gowns you make than hang over a hot stove?” He bit into his chicken leg, his eyes, a deeper blue than the sky above them, gazed at her with mischief.
“I guess as often as you tour the store’s products I should not be surprised that you knew.”
“Yep. That big ole sign above them rather gives it away.”
Clarissa could no more keep from responding than she could stamp out the warmth his nearness created within her. She was getting in too deep. She knew it, yet knowing did not stop her laughter from bubbling up and joining his.
Clarissa scrubbed a section of the large window on the west side of the store, then teetering slightly on the stool, she dropped her rag into the bucket and began the drying process with the rag she’d draped over her shoulder.
Memories of their picnic consumed her days and plagued her nights. Daniel had shared his past and his present. Moments had turned into an hour and an hour into two. Friends. He wanted a friend. As they talked she realized he’d never had one before. He’d given his childhood, his entire life to his mother and half-brother and his father’s farm. Then a fever had taken what was left of his family, and with a good deal of guilt he had no business feeling, he’d sold the farm in Ohio and moved to Michigan.
Friendship was all Clarissa had to give. Ruthlessly, she reminded herself of that time and again. That’s all he wants. That’s all I have. I will not resurrect the dreams Albert trampled into dust.
Yet each time she tried to think of Daniel as just a needy boy, she saw instead the man that had surfaced out of hard work and a mother that no matter her own hardships, had shaped him into a caring and gentle soul.
Daniel was not Albert.
Albert had shown his true nature in many, small ways long before she’d married him. Wanting a husband, a family, she’d blinded herself to those signs. By marrying him, she’d given up her rights to think, to feel, to own herself. She could not do that again.
Shaking away her morose thoughts, she retrieved her cleaning rag, and climbed back on the stool. The bell over the door tinkled, but her mother was at the counter so she continued her chore.
A giggle, and the highly-pitched voice of Emily Green reached her ears. “You will be coming to our family’s dance next Saturday, won’t you?”
Clarissa could visualize the girl’s fluttering eyelashes, but she refrained from looking to see who Emily was flirting with this time. She was grateful for her restraint when Daniel’s deep-tones answered.
“I’m not sure, Ma’am, but thank you for asking.”
“Oh...do call me Emily.”
The girl is such a ninny.
“What might I help you two with today?” Daisy broke into the little tête à tête, and by the strident sound of her voice, she was not happy with the couple’s exchange.
Clarissa, irritated beyond measure that she had a care for whom Daniel might be talking to, resolutely put the girl’s beauty from her mind, and dried the window. By the time she stepped down from the stool, Daniel had excused himself to go in search of what he sought and Emily had given Daisy her list.
Clarissa was drying the window’s lower half when the all too familiar sound of Daniel’s boots against wood came up the aisle behind her.
And the closer he came, the faster her heart pattered in her chest. She needed those earlier days when self-protection was easily grasped. Those days before Daniel had decided to call her friend. How could she return to those days? How could she, and not hurt him?
Turning to face him head on, her breath caught. Oh, my. How handsome he looked with a lopsided smile quirking his lips and a warm glow igniting his beautiful eyes. Needing air and a good deal of space, she stepped back until her hips brushed against the cool glass of the window.
Daniel held out three shirts. “I’m in need of some expert advice. Which one do you think I should buy?”
Clarissa took slow, cautious breaths and several moments to look over the pro-offered shirts, though in truth it took no time at all to decide that the blue-paid draped over his arm far surpassed the brown-check and plain red that were gripped in each hand.
Finally satisfied she could speak without alerting him to the affect he had on her, she met his gaze. “The blue. That lighter shade brings out the color in your eyes.”
“The blue it is then.”
The way he was looking at her made her toes tingle. Please, please, don’t do this.
But he held her gaze, his eyes so intense, she thought they might both catch fire.
Finally, she could no longer handle the suspense. “Was there something else?”
He nodded. He pulled his gaze away from her. He brought it back and with an air of do it or die, he said. “I can’t dance.”
“You can’t?” Clarissa didn’t try to hide her confusion.
“I’d like to go to the Green’s end-of-planting dance, but only if I can participate. I don’t suppose you’d be willing to give me a few lessons?”
So you can dance with Emily?
As repugnant as she found that idea, and as fearful as she contemplated being held in his arms as she taught him to dance, she knew she would do it. She would do it for him. She would do it for herself. She would help him integrate more fully into the community. Then, no matter how painful, she would return to the solitary life she so badly needed.
Clarissa stood next to the refreshment table and sipped punch while her gaze followed Daniel, handsome beyond measure in his blue plaid and denim, whirl around the dance floor with Emily in his arms.
On the opposite end of the long barn a four-piece band perched on a make-shift platform and strummed a lilting melody. Near the platform, Daisy clustered with a gaggle of her Ladies Aide members. Several children darted around the edges of the floor.
This was the second song of the evening. The first had found Clarissa and Daniel on opposite sides of the floor, looking at each other rather uncomfortably. At its end, Emily had joined Daniel, and Clarissa watched him escort the blond beauty onto the floor.
They made a stunning couple, Clarissa admitted grudgingly.
Instead of joining her and her mother on their blanket in the orchard, Daniel had taken his meal with some of the other single men. Daisy had bristled, and Clarissa had felt used. Had he decided so soon he no longer needed her? She should be glad, she knew that, but she could not stop the sharp prick of pain piercing her heart.
They’d spent three evenings together in one another’s arms until Daniel finally felt confident he had learned the various dances. No matter how hard she’d tried, she could not keep from reacting to his closeness. Not with his powerful body so close to hers. Not with his manly, musky scent teasing her senses. Not with his deep baritone singing softly in her ear.
To add fuel to her tortured soul, he’d shown not a single sign he was affected by her nearness.
Now the music ended, and Daniel escorted Emily to her father’s side.
Clarissa watched, mesmerized, as he crossed the floor towards her. Panic sliced through her, and she dragged her gaze away from his approach.
“Clarissa? Would you dance with me?”
Clarissa swallowed and took the cowards way out. “I don’t care to dance just now, Daniel.”
“That is not a question you should ask a lady.”
“Oh, Daniel. What am I going to do with you?”
“I suppose you can ignore me. But I’d rather you’d dance.”
Oh, how she longed to feel his arms around her.
The band moved into a waltz. A tortured sigh escaped her lips. Signaling defeat, Clarissa placed her cup on the table, and moved into his arms.
“I just wish you would trust me.”
She didn’t answer. She couldn’t. Terror choked her throat and numbed her mind. She was losing her will to fight.
Daniel is not Albert. How many times had she acknowledged that?
Their steps matched one another perfectly, and after two passes around the floor, Clarissa gave herself up to the pleasure of his shielding arms and for the moment, put aside her fear.
What she felt in Daniel’s arms seemed so right. When they were together, she was alive. When they were apart, something inside her was missing. Daniel. Sweet, kind, generous Daniel. Should she hope he felt more than friendship? Could she tear away all the layers of pain she’d experienced during her marriage, and dare to trust again?
All too soon the music ended. Would he escort her to the sidelines and go back to Emily? Tilting her chin, she met his gaze, and forced the expected from her throat. “Thank you for the dance.”
“Can we talk?”
She shrugged. “I suppose.”
They’d completed the dance near the wide barn doors. With a fire in his eyes she couldn’t begin to understand, he turned her with him toward the open doorway, and urged her forward with his palm against her back. A full moon guided them away from the barn and next to a corral. Behind her, horses nickered while inside the building the band struck up another tune.
“Daniel? You wanted to talk?”
“In a minute. First, I need to know something.” Then before she had time to draw breath or coherent thought, he cupped her shoulders with his palms, and settled his lips over hers.
He tasted of lemon and smelled of horse leather and musky, manly aftershave. Soft lips probed tentatively, then deeper, filling her with a need so raw, so magical, she knew not what to do with it. With no thought for sanity, she snaked her arms around his neck, then buried her fingers in the soft curls of his hair.
All to soon, he ended the kiss. “We can’t be just friends, can we?” His words roiled with emotion. “I tried, really I did. I didn’t dare hope you’d want a plain, ole dirt farmer like me. But when you’re in my arms, Clara, it feels too right not to be more.”
“Oh, Daniel. Don’t. I...I don’t think I can do this.”
“Because you don’t care for me or because of Albert? I won’t hurt you. If you give me the chance I’ll treasure you for the rest of my life.”
“You don’t understand. I do care for you, far more than I want to, but--”
“I am not Albert. I will never force you to do anything against your will.”
Clarissa’s hands flittered to her throat. “What do you mean?”
“Just that. He hurt you. I don’t know how, but I can guess.”
“I’ve never said a word against him.”
“You didn’t need to. You tense up every time I mention him. You get that haunted look in your eyes. After Ma remarried, I learned more than I wanted to know about that look. I want to marry you, Clarissa, I won’t deny it. But I can wait until you’re ready. I just need to know I have a chance.”
“I know you’re nothing like Albert. I’ve thought about it over and over, but I’m so afraid of losing myself again.” She didn’t try to fight the tears, just let them run freely down her cheeks.
“I sure don’t want you losin’ yourself.” He chuckled slightly, but the sound held more uncertainty than humor. “I love who you are. Can you trust that?”
“Oh, Daniel. I’m more afraid of trusting myself than you. You have a chance. We have a chance. But I need more time.”
He stepped toward her and with utmost tenderness, brushed the tears away from her face. “I’m not sayin’ it won’t be hard waiting.”
His hands on her face nearly unraveled her control. She craved his touch, and after months of fighting her feelings for him, she’d lost the battle. She loved him. She could no longer pretend otherwise.
The needs curling deep within her were surely mirrored on her face. Needs that matched the desire darkening his eyes. With breath-stopping slowness, he inched toward her until he claimed her mouth once more.
The ugliness of her first marriage could not be alleviated overnight, but if she allowed Daniel’s love to heal her battered heart, she believed she could resurrect those broken dreams and claim the life she’d always wanted.