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I look on her whom life has bruised in heart and mind and soul.
Though other hands have broken her, now mine must make her whole.
Softly scented pine. The downy embrace of a feather mattress. A slow paling of sleep.
Then the dull throbbing of every bruise drew Carina from her stupor. Someone stoked the fire in her stove. Raising heavy-lashed eyelids, she expected to see Mae's soft, undulating form, but it was Quillan's muscular back that bent to the task.
Panic brought her fully awake. Too many times she'd seen Quillan's back, his stubborn gait carrying him away. His mane of light brown hair hung loosely over his shoulders, and she wanted to sink her fingers inand grab hold. Oh, she knew his back. It was his face she longed to learn. He must have sensed her watching; he turned.
Would he cut her with cruel words after the closeness they'd shared last night? Not the intimacy of husband and wife; her injuries precluded that. But they had woven their hearts, and she feared now that he would pull away as he had every time he got too close.
She searched his face, hoping the things he'd seen and learned had changed himWolf's cave, his mother's diary. Had he made peace with his past, his parentage, as it seemed last night? And was it enough to hold him? The fire gave his gray eyes the luminescence of a storm cloud sunlit from behind. His brow pulled together, but his voice was soft. "What's the matter? Are you in pain?"
She was stiff and sore from the thugs' beating, but she shook her head. "No, I ... I thought for a moment you'd be gone." Liketheir unborn child. A stabbing grief found a hollow place inside and lodged there. They'd hardly spoken of the baby last night. No more than to acknowledge the loss. Who would their child have been, had the beating not destroyed the baby inside her? She wanted to lash out, but Quillan's repentance, his anguish that he hadn't been there to protect her, was real.
He left the stove and crouched beside the bed, resting his forearm on the coverlet, the roping muscles visible beneath his cotton undershirt. "I told you I'm not leaving."
He must see her doubt. And why not? In six months of marriage they were still strangers with a powerful bond neither could ignore, but in which she had yet to trust. She was the one pulling away this time. His tenderness left her more vulnerable than his gruffness ever had. He was the most unpredictable, annoyingly irresistible man she'd ever known. And when she considered her papa, her five brothers, and all her male cousins connected by blood, marriage, or otherwise, that was quite a laurel for Quillan.
He spread his pirate's smile. "You should have chucked me, not the rocker."
Carina glanced swiftly at the empty corner of the room. So he had noticed. How could he not? Perhaps he had even seen her deliver the rocking chair to Èmie, though he'd said no word about it when he carried her back to bed like an invalid child for all the world to see.
"Oh, Quillan." She reached for his arm. "I wish I hadn't."
"Think of the pleasure the Simms will have of it."
So he did know. He was baiting her, mocking her rash, vengeful act.
He shrugged one shoulder. "Besides, I deserved it. A more eloquent thrashing I've never had."
"I was angry! And hurt!"
"I know." He ran his fingers over her sleeve, down her hand, and along each of her fingers.
Her stomach shrank tight, and she reached up to his beard-darkened cheek.
He drew back. "I haven't shaved yet. Just barely let the dog out and stoked the fire."
She smiled. "You should grow real whiskers, not this roguish stubble you're so fond of." She'd seen him both overly mustached and clean shaven, but mostly as he was now. Just enough whiskers to look dangerous and disreputable.
He rubbed his scratchy jaw. "Roguish." He looked down at her lips and she felt them warm, anticipating his kiss, but he didn't come any closer. Nor had he kissed her last night, though he'd held her in his arms. Must she show she was willing? She started to raise her chin, but the whining and scratching at the door took his attention. Quillan stood and admitted Second Samuel, who bounded in, shaking frosty fur powdered by the morning's snowfall. He crowded in to lick Carina's hand.
She looked from the dog to the amused face of her husband. "What?"
"You're thinking something." She waved her hand in small circles. "I see it in your face."
"What do you see?"
She stroked the velvety softness of Sam's ear as he continued to lap her arm with his tongue. "I probably don't want to know."
He grinned. "But it'll drive you mad until you do."
"Oh!" She pushed the dog away and flounced into the pillow.
He laughed. "Go ahead. Finish it."
"O-maccio. Isn't that what you meant?" He moved Sam aside and towered over her. "Omaccio, cad, ill-bred man. It goes with the whiskers."
"Are you enjoying this?"
He leaned down, one hand gripping the maple headboard. "What did you expect?"
Carina looked from his face to the mottled brown-and-white mug of the dog, still hopeful for attention. She threw up her hands. "I don't know what to expect. How could I know?"
Quillan tucked one arm behind her and raised her gently as he shoved extra pillows behind her back. Then he sat on the edge of the bed. "I'll tell you. First, Sam and I are going to see you're comfortably set. Then I'm going to learn what needs to be done for your restaurant."
She opened her mouth, but he covered it firmly with his hand. "After that, I'll meet with Alex Makepeace."
Did she imagine the flicker in his eyes? Meet with Alex for what? Don't be silly. It was natural he would meet with his mining engineer. Did he see her discomfort? He must, because he turned away and contained himself. His hand came away from her mouth.
"And what am I to do?" she said.
Quillan stood, crossed the small room to the far wall, selected a book from the shelf, then returned, laying Emily Brontë in her lap. "Maybe Heathcliff will put you in mind there are worse rogues in the world."
She wasn't surprised he'd read the story. But as for rogues ... "Well, I don't have to live with them." She waved her hand. "You think you can take over my business? Handle it without me?"
"Not a chance. But Mae and Èmie and all those little girls you've taken on ... I'll just see they do what needs doing."
"Un gross'uomo." A big man.
Again he laughed. "I'm sure you have a wagonload of things you'd like to call me. You can thrash me with them all the way to Sonoma if you like. But just now you're following doctor's orders and staying abed until you're out of danger."
"Oofa! If I need a papa, I'll tell you."
His lips hardly smiled as he appraised her, but his eyes were filled with wicked mirth. He was enjoying himself. If she had something to throw, she would have thrown it. But she wouldn't damage Wuthering Heights on his bony skull.
"Now sit up like a good girl, and Mae will bring you some breakfast."
"Bene!" She jutted her chin at him. "Have your fun."
He left the room for Mae's with a chuckle that made her reconsider whether she could replace Wuthering Heights after all.
Quillan strode into Mae's kitchen feeling jaunty. Mae sat at the table holding a steaming cup of coffee, which was turning her florid cheeks redder than usual. She looked up with a blend of surprise and amusement. "Won the war already?"
"Not completely." Quillan sprawled onto the bench across from her. "But I will."
"Famous last words." Mae's chest rumbled.
"How long before breakfast?"
She tipped her face down without changing her gaze. "I'm only just opening my eyes."
Quillan glanced out the window, the sky still dark with winter dawn. It was early yet. He might have stayed abed longer, but having Carina beside him made it impossible. And he was by nature an early riser. Lying inert chafed him unless he was working his mind over a book as diligently as he worked his muscles hauling freight.
He considered his selection for Carina. Heathcliff was one of the better rogues he'd encountered. Quite similar in many ways to himself: socially unfit, disgraced, yet determined to win the woman he lovedAlexander Makepeace notwithstanding.
A potent surge of jealousy struck Quillan, a feeling unknown to him before. He wasn't sure what to do with it.
"I'll fetch you some more wood." He stood, hoping to prod Mae into action, but she watched his exit with vague interest. Her woodbox beside the stove was full, and there was a stack of split wood along the back wall outside. But thoughts of Alex Makepeace had put Quillan in the mood to do violence, and he did it on a half dozen thick logs that awaited splitting.
He'd seen Carina's discomfort when he mentioned Alex Makepeace. Quillan brought the ax down with splintering force and cleaved the log deeply. She had feelings for the man, but he'd be switched if he'd share Carina with Alex Makepeace or anyone else short of God. He lifted the ax with the log still clinging and slammed it onto the chopping stump. The halves flew as the edge of the blade bit the stump with a thud.
Carina had said nothing, but he wasn't blind. And it was Alex's name she had murmured that night in the delirium of pain and laudanum. Quillan figured it was just as well Carina wanted to go home, to leave Crystal. A clean break was what they needed. And as soon as he could wrap up their business, they'd go.
Quillan retrieved one of the split halves and balanced it on the stump. He raised the ax and sundered it with one stroke. Twenty-eight years of imprisoned emotions rendered him helpless against these new feelings. No, not helpless. He would govern it. He just needed to reduce every one of the logs to kindling.
Be careful, something inside him murmured. Maybe his conscience, maybe something more. Careful of what? Chopping wood? But the thought was gone, leaving only a nagging echo. Quillan brought the ax down again and again. Exhausted at last, he finished stacking the wood and carried an armload back into the kitchen. He dumped the wood into the overflowing box and turned.
Still seated at the table, Mae fixed him with a knowing stare. "Sit down, and I'll rustle you up some smoked venison and hotcakes."
He nodded. "I'll just bring Carina some coffee."
"You fetch me some fresh water. I'll bring Carina some coffee."
He met Mae's frank expression and decided not to argue. If Mae wanted to see for herself that he had things in hand, let her. He did. At least he planned to. As Mae left, he glanced toward the ceiling with the uncomfortable feeling that everything he thought, everything he did was known. Surrendering to God in Wolf's cave, as difficult as that had been, seemed less consuming than this day-to-day accountability.
Carina looked up from Emily Brontë's prose when Mae entered with a cup releasing rich coffee aroma into the room. "Good morning, Mae. You've seen my husband?"
"I've seen him."
"He thinks he will run my business."
Mae smiled. "Well, honey, you and I know that's impossible."
"Oh, he won't cook and serve and wash the dishes. He'll just crack his freighter's whip, and you and Èmie and the girls ..." Carina waved a hand. "He has it all planned."
Mae handed over the cup. "It did run rather well last night. The men were sure pleased to have the doors opened again. Though to a one they asked after you and sent their condolences." Mae straightened. "But Quillan did keep things in order."
Carina huffed. "I thought Italian men were difficult."
"All men. Except maybe my Mr. Dixon." Mae's eyes turned dewy. "He had the sweetest nature ever a man possessed. There was no contention in him."
"Quillan makes up for it."
Mae laughed. "Seems you're chewing both sides of that bone. Either you want him home or you don't."
Carina took a quick sip and set the cup down stormily. "Home, fine! But insolent and difficult? Beh!"
"Watch that china. I've an order for more, but until it comes, I'm running short."
Carina loosened her hand on the cup. "He makes me so mad I could"
"Now, Carina. He's doing his best by you."
Carina rolled her eyes. What should she expect? Mae had been defending Quillan from their first conversation. He carried the sun and moon on his back in Mae's eyes. Never mind that he'd married Carina, then run off at every opportunity, leaving her to face ...
Tears welled up in her eyes for the child she'd lost. How she had dreamed of that child bringing her husband home. But hadn't the loss done as much? He was home. Though now Carina was not so certain how to handle that.
Signore, I should be happy, but I'm all torn up inside. I don't know what to think of this man you've given me. She thought for a moment of Flavio, whom she had known since childhood and loved. He would not have been a stranger. Would it have been better so?
Never! Flavio was infedele, unfaithful. Flavio and Divina, her sister. But why did she think of that now? Because she'd dreamed last night of going home? Quillan had said he would take her. But that in itself set a new problem in her mind. She had yet to tell Mamma and Papa of her marriage.
She'd married outside the family, outside her people, without Papa's consent, Mamma's blessing, without all her zios and zias cousins and brothers and sister. She had stood before Father Antoine Charboneau in Mae's parlor and pledged herself to Quillan. And then there was Quillan himself. What would Mamma think? And Papa?
Tender Vine (Diamond of the Rockies, Book 3) by Kristen Heitzmann
Copyright © 2002, Kristen Heitzmann
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.