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By Nan Ryan
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1987 Nancy Henderson Ryan
All rights reserved.
"Go to Texas!"
"That's what I said!"
"Please, Papa," Angie pleaded, her emerald eyes filled with horror, "you can't be seriously suggesting that I marry a man I've never seen, one older than you, and live with him in Texas."
"Hush, girl," Jeremiah Webster said coldly. "I'm doing this for your own good. You should be grateful that a man as prosperous and as holy as Barrett McClain would agree to make you his wife."
The slender man rose from his rocker and shuffled to the stone fireplace. Angie, her hands twisting nervously in her lap, watched as he stirred the fire in the too-warm room, his thin lips stretched into a pleased smile.
"Why, it's out of his love for the Lord and his close friendship with me that Barrett agreed to this marriage," he continued. "I've raised you up properly and I expect you to be a warm and loving wife to my good friend." Turning slowly, he pulled the old woolen sweater closer around his thin chest and looked down at her. "It is the will of God, Angie. I'm a dying man, and I've prayed night after night for your safety when I leave this earth. Barrett's most gracious letter offering to make you his bride was heaven-sent, I assure you."
Grimacing, she looked up at him. Rarely did Angie dare to contradict or question Jeremiah Webster. Long ago the very will had been almost beaten out of her. Often she'd felt his heavy hand bring his leather belt down on her backside for disobeying. Finally, stubborn though Angie was, she had learned it was much easier to agree to anything he said. To disagree, she had painfully learned, meant swift, sure punishment.
Angie didn't hate her father. She realized that he loved her in his own strange way. If he'd made her pay for her mother's sins, it was understandable. Angie had seen a yellowing picture of her mother and the strong resemblance was unmistakable. She had taken her mother's coloring: her fair, pale complexion and her flaxen-blond hair were very much like those of the smiling woman in the photograph. Her mother's sparkling eyes, her father had assured her, were as emerald-green as her own, and he had added, distastefully, that those eyes had been used to flirt and cajole and send men's souls straight to the devil. Carefully Angie had kept her own wide, green eyes from flirting with the young men around her. She had no desire to send a man's soul to Satan, nor did she want her father accusing her of such vile deeds.
Angie had grown up under her father's close scrutiny and she had learned to accept her life with little complaint. She was curious at times about all the things she had missed, but she hid her curiosity effectively. At eighteen she was almost ashamed of her full, woman's body and had no idea that the young gentlemen she saw at church every Sunday in the little congregation gathered on upper Canal Street, found it difficult to keep their minds on the minister's fiery sermons when her modestly gowned young bosom swelled as she lifted her sweet voice in song and her long golden hair glittered in the sun-dappled room.
Angie had long ago stopped pleading for new dresses and settled for the hand-me-downs that came from the kind ladies of the congregation. She was expected to wear them, even if she was not built anything like the generous giver. Some Sundays she was clad in a shapeless, loose billowing dress she could barely keep from slipping off her narrow shoulders. Her father never seemed to notice that the clothes didn't fit her. If he did notice, he thought such things were trivial and made no difference. Angie hid her despair and took great tucks in the larger dresses. Ones that were too small were more of a problem; there was little she could do but wiggle into the revealing frocks, her face crimson, her heart heavy.
From childhood, when the mother she couldn't remember had left her, Angie's life had been one of loneliness and quiet acquiescence to her religious and misguided father. She accepted loneliness as her lot in life and dutifully fixed his meals, mended his clothes, cleaned their small house and listened while he read to her from the worn leather Bible, hour upon weary hour.
That other young women her age were attending gay parties and taking carriage rides through the cobblestoned streets of New Orleans, rarely occurred to Angie. She knew such behavior was out of the question for her, and besides, she could not imagine a young man being interested in calling on her. Her father's reputation as a Bible-spouting, stern disciplinarian was widespread, and although more than one young man's heart leaped at the very sight of the lovely Angie, not one dared to ask for the pleasure of her company.
When she had first begun to blossom into womanhood, a brash boy had made the mistake of snatching up one of her small hands after evening church service and leading her around the small building into the shadows. Whispering brazenly that he was going to kiss her, he was leaning toward her when suddenly he was lifted away from her with great force. He looked up at his assailant with terrified eyes. Angie's father shoved the boy roughly aside; the lad turned and ran as fast as he could around the corner of the building. Angie was not so lucky. Accusing her of behaving like a harlot, her father dragged her home and soundly punished her for her sins. Word of the incident quickly spread and Angie's social life ended.
As time dragged by, Angie learned to put aside her girlish dreams of pretty clothes and lawn parties and kisses in the moonlight. To yearn for such frivolous things was sinful, she'd been told over and over. She knew her chances of enjoying such worldly pleasures were remote. She quietly accepted the fact that her life was to be little more than looking after her frail, protective father, and that the only outings she'd be allowed were the frequent church services they attended. Even there, she was segregated from the other young people. Explaining that he had heard the young ladies chattering and giggling, Angie's father told her she could no longer sit with them; she would take her place beside him at the very front of the church. Longing only for peace, she'd agreed, and nodding to the twittering group of girls in their new frocks, she had sadly marched to the front pew, to sit painfully still throughout the service.
It was puzzling to Jeremiah Webster that the daughter who had finally become the dutiful child he'd taught her to be, was now questioning his decision to marry her to the fine friend he'd known for so many years. It wasn't like her to dispute his word and he was disappointed that those wide, green eyes were on him, accusing him of not considering her feelings when all he wanted was her secure future. He was shocked when she rose and came to stand defiantly before him, her gaze unwavering.
"Papa, I've tried to be a respectful daughter, but you are asking too much this time. I will not marry some old man of your choosing, who is a total stranger to me. Surely you would not make me marry against my wishes!"
His narrow face growing red with anger, Jeremiah shouted, "You will do exactly as I tell you to do! My patience with you is wearing thin, young lady. I am a dying man, and I deserve some semblance of peace. I am responsible for you being on this earth, and it is my duty to see that you are taken care of. I can't go to my grave knowing that you will wind up like ... like your ... I won't let you turn into a fallen woman after all my patient years of caring for you. Do you hear me, Angie? You'll not be allowed to live like your mother!" His watery blue eyes were filled with wrath.
"Why are you always so certain I'll go bad?" Angie put her small hands to her hips and stepped closer to him. "I can't help what my mother was; it's not fair to blame it on me. Besides, I'm part of you, too, Papa. I'm not sinful; I have no intention of being a loose woman, but surely there is some other solution than marrying some old man I don't know. I'll hire out as domestic help in a good home here in the Garden District. Or I'll ... I'm smart, I could be a governess to someone's—"
"You'll do nothing of the kind. You will marry Barrett McClain and the sooner the better! We leave within the week, so start packing your things. You will be Mrs. Barrett McClain before I claim my rightful home above. Now, leave me, get out of my sight; you've made my strength drain away, I must rest." He stumbled to his chair and fell tiredly into it. Pale and listless, he let his head fall back against the worn fabric and Angie, as she had so many times before, scolded herself silently for upsetting her well-meaning, sickly father.
Contrite, Angie bit her lip and wished she'd kept silent. Longing, as she always had, for her father's approval, she edged shyly nearer to his chair. Dropping to her knees beside him, she said earnestly, "Papa, I'm sorry I've upset you. It is not what I meant to do. I'm selfish and ungrateful and I most humbly beg your forgiveness." Holding her breath, she lifted her hand to the thin, bony one on the chair's arm. Tentatively resting hers atop his, she gently squeezed and said hopefully, "You know what is best for me, Papa. I shall try to be a good and decent wife to your friend, Mr. McClain."
Lifeless eyes slitted open and he looked at her, sighing. "I try, Angie, I do try. It's of you I am thinking, girl."
"I know, Papa." She smiled up at him. "Thank you for arranging the marriage. I do hope I will be deserving of the kindness Mr. McClain has so generously offered."
Jeremiah Webster retrieved his hand from beneath hers. "It's late and I'm very tired." Lurching forward, he was no more than to the chair's edge before Angie was on her feet, cupping his elbow in her hand.
"Yes, Papa, you need rest. I'll help you to your room." Together they made slow, steady progress down the narrow center hall to the small bedroom at the back of the house. Straining to support his weight, Angie struggled with the brass doorknob, pushing open the warped door, while the hand under her father's elbow remained firmly in place. It remained there until he lowered himself to a sitting position on his bed by the window.
Jeremiah Webster yawned while Angie removed his shoes and stockings. Rising in front of him, she pivoted, crossed the room and, pausing at the door, asked, "Will you be all right, Papa? May I get you a glass of warm milk, or read to you, or ..."
With a dismissive wave of his hand he said, "I want only sleep." No "Good night." No "Thank you for asking." No "I love you, Angie." But then, there never had been.
"Night, Papa," Angie said and quietly closed his door. She moved back down the hall, turning right at the kitchen. Efficiently clearing away the supper dishes, Angie washed, dried and put them away in the cupboard. She swept the crumbs from the floor, moved the tall-backed chairs to their proper places on each side of the small eating table and put the broom away. Turning around in a circle, she checked to be certain that everything was in its place. Satisfied that it was, she went to her own small room next to her father's.
The fading April sunset shone through the open window beside her narrow bed. The red sphere had already slipped out of sight below the horizon, but its glorious reflection painted the puffy clouds her favorite hues of pink and purple. She hugged her arms around her rib cage and inhaled deeply, her green eyes drinking in the changing kaleidoscope bathing her world with loveliness. The beauty caused a deep sweet ache in her chest.
Angie stood transfixed, not wanting to miss one second of nature's exhibit. When night sounds filled the quiet air and no hint of color was left in the west, she reluctantly turned from the window and slowly undressed for bed, not one bit sleepy. She would have liked to slip out onto the front porch and sit and enjoy the cooling spring air for a time, but her father had cautioned her often about such foolish pastimes, reminding her that it wouldn't look proper for a young lady to be seated out-of-doors alone for all passersby to see as though she were advertising something. Failing to see the harm in sitting on one's own porch to spin girlish dreams, Angie nonetheless avoided the inviting gallery, except when her father felt well enough to sit there with her.
There had also been the repeated reminders that the use of lamp oil for anything other than reading the Good Book was a waste and would not be tolerated. With the porch off-limits and nothing to read save the Bible, Angie was left with little choice but to retire. Hanging her clean, well-worn dress on a hook on the door, she modestly pulled the curtains together over her window and finished undressing. A threadbare petticoat and muslin pantalets were her only undergarments. Naturally slender, Angie needed no corset, but she would have liked to have a nice lacy camisole or chemise. Yet how could she tell her father that she was becoming a woman and she needed ladies' undergarments?
She couldn't. And the good ladies of the church who supplied her with every stitch of clothing she owned, certainly didn't pass on their underwear to her. It was the same with nightclothes. Angie had none. She crawled into her narrow bed each night as naked as the day she was born. She knew it must be terribly sinful to sleep that way, but she had little choice. She simply had no nighties.
Her dress hanging on the door, her petticoat and pantalets draped over a straight-backed chair, Angie turned back the covers of her bed and knelt beside it. Bringing her hands together directly underneath her chin, she closed her eyes and said her prayers, hoping the good Lord would hear her even though she was shamefully nude.
"Dear Lord," she softly entreated, "help me to be a better person so that I'll not continue to disappoint Papa. Give me the strength to face what lies ahead, and God ... if you possibly can ... will you free me from an approaching marriage to a stranger? I shall never ask for anything else." Angie paused, then hurried on. "Forgive my sins; bless Papa, in Jesus' name, amen."
Rising, Angie opened the curtains before sliding into her bed. A cool, spring breeze wafted the worn lace and tempted Angie to leave her top sheet at the foot of the bed; but she did not. Hastily she snatched it up to her chin, protecting herself from any gentle night breezes that might sinfully tease her young body.
Many nights, slumber would no more than overcome her when Angie would begin to dream, and in those dreams a man she'd never met was there with her. He sat beside her, his dark handsome face just above hers, his eyes warm and loving. And he was stroking her, his fingers sliding intimately, slowly, tenderly up and down over her, from the slender left arm thrown up over her head, to the smooth, warm underarm, across her left breast, over her ribs, tickling, teasing, while her body strained to be closer to that fiery hand. The dark man was smiling at her while those sure, lean fingers caressed her slender waist, circled her navel and moved lower and lower....
With a start, Angie would awaken, guilt gnawing at her for having a mind so evil that her dreams would be of such forbidden and base fantasies.
On this early April evening, Angie lay awake and thought of the life ahead of her. A great weariness seemed to crush down on her chest. Weariness and fear.
The thought of marrying any man filled the young, naive girl with terror. In her eighteen years, Angie had never been courted, never held hands in the porch swing, never been kissed in the back of a buggy and never shared girlish gossip about what takes place on a wedding night.
Angie bit the tender inside of her cheek. Within months she was to become the bride of a man ten years older than her father. That would make Barrett McClain fifty-eight years old! Did people that old still ... would he expect her to share his bed? Surely not! Her papa would never hand her over to a man like that. No. Barrett McClain, she was certain, was a devout, God-fearing man, just like her papa. Mr. McClain was going to marry her only so that she might have a home after her papa's passing. Barrett McClain was a kind, good man; he had no intention of exercising his rights as her legal husband. She was foolish to harbor such unfounded fears.
Excerpted from Desert Storm by Nan Ryan. Copyright © 1987 Nancy Henderson Ryan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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