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Raising The Stakes
By Sandra Marton
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.Copyright © 2002 Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIn the darkness of the hot summer night, Dawn lay curled like a baby in its mother's womb as she listened to the frantic slap, slap, slap of the silk moth's wings against the screen.
She couldn't see the moth, not from here in the back bedroom, but she knew it was outside the kitchen window, shredding its beautiful wings in a useless attempt to reach the light.
The silk moth had turned up at dusk, right after she'd fed Tommy and put him to bed for the night.
"Sleep tight, sweetheart," she'd whispered, and he'd given her his biggest, brightest three-year-old smile.
"An' don't let the bed bugs bite," her son had replied, as he always did.
Dawn had kissed him, loving his sweet, baby scent. Tommy had rolled onto his belly and she'd drawn a light blanket over his upraised rump. Her smile had faded as she'd shut the door to his room and looked around the cabin, trying to see it through Harman's eyes. Did she miss anything when she dusted earlier? Had she put all Tommy's toys away?
She'd paused beside the sofa, smoothed down the flowered chenille throw that covered the seat cushion where the spring had popped. Everything looked fine but what looked fine to her didn't necessarily look that way to her husband, especially on Friday nights when he cashed his paycheck at theFoodco and then stopped for drinks on the way home.
It didn't always happen that way. Once in a while, Harman just came straight home. Those times weren't perfect. He still liked things exactly as he liked them. "Everything in order," he called it, "the way a man's entitled, in his own home." But it was easier on nights when he didn't stop at the bar. Without liquor in him, he was still surly and he'd talk mean, too, but he wouldn't - he wouldn't -
Dawn blanked her mind to the rest.
The thing to do was keep busy, not notice that if Harman were heading directly for the cabin, he'd have been here an hour ago. She took a breath, glanced in the spotted oval mirror that hung over the table near the door. Did she look okay? Not too tired? Harman didn't like her to look tired. It was the baby's fault, he'd say, when she yawned too much or her eyes didn't sparkle the way he liked. The baby was sapping her energy. Once she'd made the mistake of saying no, no, it wasn't like that. The baby was the joy of her life.
"I am the joy of your life," Harman had said coldly. "You remember that, girl."
She would. Yes, she would. Because it wasn't how he'd looked at her that had scared her, or how he'd sounded. It was the way he'd looked at Tommy afterward, as if their son was a trespasser in a world that had been perfect until he'd been born. It had never been perfect, not ever, not from the day after the wedding when she'd thoughtlessly left her lipstick and comb on the bathroom sink ...
Dawn spun away from the mirror, went into the kitchen, took a broom from the closet and stepped out onto the sagging porch. It would need sweeping. The tall oaks that surrounded the cabin were what made the mountain so handsome, but Harman didn't much care for seeing leaves and acorns on the porch.
"Got to be swept twice a day," he said. So Dawn swept it, twice a day. Sometimes more than that, just to be sure. And that night, as she'd swept, she'd seen the silk moth.
It wasn't the first one she'd ever seen. Years ago, when she was a little girl, a moth just like it had come swooping in through the open trailer door. Her mother had screamed as if it was a creature straight out of hell, grabbed a rolled-up magazine and gone after it.
"Kill it," she'd yelled, "kill it!" Instead Dawn caught the moth and took it outside, feeling the delicate pink wings trembling with terror in her cupped hands. She'd set it free in the stand of scraggly trees between the trailer park and the highway.
"Go on," she'd whispered, "spread your pretty wings and fly far, far away."
Her mother slapped her when she went back into the trailer, not very hard because she was already high on what she called her pain pills, but just enough to remind her that she'd been disobedient.
"I tell you to do a thing," she'd said, "you do it. You got that, girl?"
Dawn got it. Rules were to be obeyed. Still, she'd risked breaking another one the next day. She was supposed to go straight home after school. She had chores to do and stopping off anywhere, especially at the library to poke her nose into books that gave her, Orianna said, fancy ideas, was forbidden. But Dawn wanted to know the name of the beautiful moth whose life she'd saved. She found a picture of it in the encyclopedia. It was a Glover's silk moth, a thing of rare beauty, and though she'd always hoped to see one again, she never had.
She knew it was silly but tonight she wondered if, by some miracle, the moth on the porch might be the one she'd saved years ago. She paused in her sweeping, watching the moth with delight until, suddenly, she heard the sound of a truck laboring up the mountain.
Her heart leaped into her throat. Was it Harman? So early? That would be good. It would mean he hadn't stopped for more than a drink or two - but it would be bad, too. She wasn't done sweeping and just look, she'd somehow gotten a stain on her skirt.
It wasn't Harman. The sound of the engine died away. Dawn dragged a breath into her lungs and swept the porch until the unpainted boards were spotless. Not that it mattered. If he came home drunk, she could have swept a hundred times over and he'd still find a speck of dirt, a bit of leaf, something, anything, and when he did ...
She switched the thought off, just clicked it to silence as if it were a station on a radio because she'd learned there wasn't any sense, really, in thinking ahead. Whatever happened would happen. Nothing she could do would change it. She could only sweep harder and faster and not do anything stupid, like hurrying back inside the cabin and waking Tommy so he could see the silk moth. Her son loved all the creatures that shared this godforsaken mountain with them, but why take him from his bed to see something that would surely be dead by morning? And it would be dead, drawn by the light Harman insisted must be on so he could be sure she wasn't in the arms of one of the nonexistent men he was convinced came around whenever he wasn't there.
Once, exhausted at the end of a day spent cooking and cleaning in hopes of pleasing him, she'd forgotten the light. Harman had come in late and dragged her out of bed, to the front room and the unlit lamp.
"Did you think you could hide in here without my knowin' what you were up to?" he'd said, and when she'd tried to explain that she hadn't done anything, that his preoccupation with her leaving on the light didn't make any sense, he'd called her a liar and a whore. He'd beaten her and then he'd unzipped his jeans, torn off her nightgown and pushed himself inside her.
She never forgot to turn on the light after that. It was like a beacon, shining there in the blackness of the mountain night, luring the gossamer-winged creatures of the forest to their deaths. The silk moth would meet the same fate. It would beat its delicate wings to pieces in a fruitless attempt to reach a warm, shiny world that was only an illusion. Bad enough she knew that awful truth. Why would she want Tommy to know it, too? Her son had lots of time to learn about the world.
So she'd finished sweeping a floor that didn't need sweeping and now she lay in the dark, listening to the pathetic slap of the moth's wings, to the quick thud of her own heart as it grew later and later. At last, she heard the whine of her husband's pickup truck as it made its way toward the clearing.
Dawn shuddered, held her breath. If she could only feign sleep ...
The truck door slammed. Booted feet stomped up the wooden steps and across the porch. The door opened.
Maybe it would be okay. Harman had been good to her, once. When he'd asked her to marry him, when he'd offered to take her away from her mother and the trailer park and the endless stream of men who slept in her mother's bed, he'd seemed the answer to her prayers.
"Shit!" Dawn dug her face into the muslin pillow tick. Stay asleep, Tommy, she thought frantically, don't, oh don't wake up. Not that Harman would ever hurt their son, she was sure of that, but still ...
Another noise. More cursing. The sound of Harman falling, then getting to his feet.
"Goddammit," he roared. "What the hell is this?" Oh, God! Had he tripped over something? What? What could she have left on the floor? She'd put the broom away. The dustpan. The chairs were lined up under the table just so, all of them neatly arranged. Tommy's toys, such as they were, were carefully placed on the shelf in his room ...
The red car. The brand-new red plastic car she'd bought at the supermarket, even though it cost two dollars, because of the way her baby had looked at it, his blue eyes going all round with wonder. He'd played with it all afternoon, rolling it back and forth, back and forth while she folded laundry until, finally, he'd fallen sound asleep right there at her feet, the car clutched in his chubby fist. She'd smiled, scooped him up, carried him to his crib - and kicked the red car, by mistake. It had rolled toward the corner and she'd forgotten it, forgotten to look for it.
Excerpted from Raising The Stakes by Sandra Marton Copyright © 2002 by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.