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The Third Wife
By Jasmine Cresswell
Harlequin Enterprises LimitedCopyright © 2002 Harlequin Enterprises Limited
All right reserved.
Southwestern Colorado June 1987
Brushing away sentimental tears, Betty Jean gave a final tweak to her daughter's wedding veil, fluffing air into it so that it fell in a puffy cloud around Anna's bouffant hairdo.
"You look real pretty," Betty Jean said, urging her daughter to turn around so that she could look at herself in the mirror hung on the back of the bedroom door. "Aunt Debbie did a fine job with your dress, didn't she? She's so talented with her sewing now she's got that lovely new machine Ray bought for her birthday."
Anna heard worry in her mom's voice, barely hidden beneath the note of forced cheerfulness. Betty Jean might not be too smart in terms of book-learning, but she had a streak of shrewdness that surfaced when you least expected it, and she sensed something seriously off-key in her daughter's meekness, even though she probably couldn't pin a name on her worry.
For a moment Anna considered giving up her pretense and just appealing flat out for her mom's help, but she quickly gave up on that idea. Relying on her mom would be dangerous. Real dangerous. If Betty Jean let her down - and she almost certainly would - then all the careful playacting Anna had done for the past six weeks would be wasted. Six weeks of pretending that she was looking forward tomarrying Caleb Welks, her stepfather's brother. Six weeks of pretending that she was ready to submit, humbly and dutifully, to God's will.
God's will as interpreted by Ray and Caleb Welks, that was. In this house, there was no need to waste time praying, or reading the Bible to try to find out what God might want for you to do. Here, all you had to do was ask Ray. Sometimes it seemed like Ray just about had a speed-dial phone line direct to God, he was so sure he knew exactly what the Lord wanted.
Anna never doubted that her mom loved her, but love wasn't enough to ensure that Betty Jean would be on her side, much less stand up for her. Ray had her mom so much under his thumb that she mostly didn't have a mind of her own anymore. The truth was, Betty Jean was so crazy mixed-up right now that she couldn't see what a crock of shit Ray Welks was passing off on her, pretending it was something real good and sweet-smelling.
Anna wished her mom could be stronger, but that was like wishing the moon would shine over the cow barn in the middle of the day. Betty Jean had gone to pieces when Anna's dad died way back in 1979, when Anna was only in the third grade. Ray had been the person who'd helped glue her mom back together again, Anna had to admit that much. But what Betty Jean didn't seem to realize was that Ray had stuck the pieces together according to his own messed-up pattern, so that instead of being nice and smooth and confident, her mom was all cracked and rackety. The fragile person Betty Jean had become couldn't function without Ray to tell her what she must do and how she must think. And, of course, Ray always told Betty Jean it was her God-given duty to think just like him.
Anna hated to see how her mom had lost all confidence in herself. In the old days, Betty Jean had been pretty good at stuff like cooking and keeping house and reading fun bedtime stories. Anna remembered how they'd baked cookies after school every Friday, and how her mom always kept a jug of flowers on the table, although they had no money after her dad died and the bank was threatening to take back their house. But nowadays, Betty Jean was so beaten down that even caring for five-year-old Billy and three-year-old Susan would be way beyond her if it weren't for all the help she got from Aunt Debbie and Aunt Patsy.
Which left Anna pretty much on her own when it came to taking care of herself. That was okay, though, because she had her plans for the future all worked out. She just had to submit to this dumb wedding ceremony, and then she'd be free. Well, almost free. A little bubble of nausea formed in the pit of Anna's stomach, but she ignored it. No need to think about what would happen after the wedding ceremony, when she would be expected to climb into bed with Caleb Welks. Thinking about having sex with Caleb wouldn't change the need to go through with it, so there was no point in getting roiled up about it. Right now, what she needed to do was concentrate on keeping everyone in Ray's house convinced that she was happy as a songbird with a belly full of juicy worms.
When Ray first delivered his announcement that God wanted her to be sealed in marriage with his brother, Caleb, shock had made Anna stupid. Otherwise she'd never have made the fatal error of screaming out she'd kill herself before she agreed to marry Caleb Welks. He was old, only a year short of forty, and he was going bald, and he had a look in his eyes that scared her. Not exactly a mean look, but something that scared her even more than plain old mean.
Her stepfather never tolerated any opposition, but at least he'd never given her the sort of hot, squirmy look she got from Caleb. Besides, Ray wasn't physically violent. Well, not unless you counted him dragging her up the stairs to lock her in her room when she screamed that she wasn't going to be married off before she finished high school. But Caleb Welks ... well, that was another story. Anna had heard rumors, whispers among the women when they thought Anna wasn't paying attention. After watching Caleb and his family closely in church every Sunday for the past six weeks, Anna believed the whispers. She was sure her soon-to-be husband used his leather belt for a lot more than holding up his fancy, bought-in-Denver pants.
Anna had kept up her defiance for three days after Ray's original pronouncement, even though she'd been locked in her room, with her clothes and shoes taken away, forbidden to go to school for the final week of the semester. At the end of the three days, she finally realized how brainless she was being. What did she think she would achieve with her protests? Even if she managed to stave off marriage to Caleb - which was about as likely as her pig Polly learning to fly around the farmyard - she would simply be betrothed to someone else. Now that she'd finished her junior year of high school, Ray was going to make sure she was married off before she could complete her senior year and graduate. Educated women with diplomas and dreams of attending college didn't fit well into the Alana Springs community.
Three days of despair concentrated her mind enough that Anna finally got smart. She realized that pretending submission to Ray's wishes was the only way she would ever be able to escape from his clutches. She sent one of her stepsisters to Ray with a message, begging for forgiveness. Then, when he unlocked the door, she fell down on her knees in front of him, sobbing. God had spoken to her, she informed Ray and her anxiously hovering mother. She realized now that it was part of the Divine Plan for her to marry Caleb, and she looked forward to having the ceremony as soon as possible.
Ray announced that the ceremony would take place on Anna's seventeenth birthday, only six weeks away. He sent her a sidelong glance as he made the suggestion, clearly expecting opposition. Anna, newly wise, smiled and told him the date was a perfect choice. It would make for a lovely double celebration to have her birthday and her wedding anniversary on the same day each year. Visibly gratified, Ray said he'd worried that she wasn't ready for marriage, but now he was hopeful she was going to make his brother a loving and obedient wife.
Excerpted from The Third Wife by Jasmine Cresswell Copyright © 2002 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.