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Edward knew he had missed many of the ways of the world, so careful he'd been to follow his father's teaching and comport himself in a manner that would make his mother pleased. He'd been mindful of his father's expectations, remembered his travels in America were supervised by none other than a priest who cared for his parents' worldly and spiritual goods at their behest. That same clergyman who, when asked, sent him the tall, well-made, red-haired wife whose laughter at Sarah Anne Grant's cryptic telegram still echoed across the dooryard.
She'd not taken offence – nor had he frightened her with his nervous consummation of their marriage. She wanted him close, as he wanted her, and this time they would know their way.
Tension, long-planted well into his back drew tight, then – wonderously – released. The weight of his actions, a constellation of guilty sentiment he bore toward his parents, his wife, and his own late arrival to manhood, was now gone. Quiet Dr. Cullen's lad with his books and his timid ways turned to vapor, too. Edward whooped out with glee as he ran across the drying dooryard, and flung himself airborne, shouting for the Judge. They still needed to walk the orchard and evaluate how his trees had fared, and a ride out to his farthest fencepost also called. After, he'd challenge Jasper to a race home to their bonny girls. Surely the unending and overwrought emotion of the day could be expelled in the saddle astride galloping horseflesh.
"Jasper Whitlock, hey? Saddle that plug o' yers, an' let's off fer the orchard and beyond." Edward called once more.
Whitlock emerged from the barn, grinning widely as he sunk a weathered hat atop his head. The sight of the Honorable Judge Jasper S. Whitlock in dirt-stained shirtsleeves, muddied boots, with lasso and pistols at his hip was so far removed from his usual presentation, Edward let out a deep chuckle in spite of his manners.
"Someone tell you a jest Cullen?"
"Aye, I'm lookin' at the amusing part. Didnae take long for yer finery to fall to the wayside."
Jasper hooked his bootheel over a low rail on the corral and laughed, rubbing at his fresh whiskers.
"I've not heard Mrs. Whitlock complain yet, but I have to tell you, Edward, feels good to act a bit more like the young buck I was before my father jerked me up by the collar and sent me off to read law in Oxford." Edward made a small noise of agreement and Jasper continued. "I think men like us can't be reined in too long, it's not natural to be so domesticated… like tryin' to live on nothin' but-". A heavy thump, followed by clumsy rustling behind the grassy berm across the open space between the Cullens' home and the corral distracted Jasper from his musings. Immediately the horses within the barn became agitated, pawing at their hay and snorting, which roused the cow to her own brand of anxious commentary. One of the spicebushes scattered along the far wall of the kitchen garden shook wildly, and the sound of snapping twigs scraped at the men's anxious silence. Edward and Jasper's eyes met, wary, and both men moved across the open space between home and barn, their hands hovering tense over their ever-present pistols.
They stopped short when the bush doubled over, purging a familiar figure in a wretched state.
Embry Tapetka was walking toward them – more staggering, really, it appeared as he came closer - and chanting as he did when he brought his wife to them. Once again his riderless horse ambled behind him, its head slung low to the ground where his reins dragged unheeded. The towering man listed, his gait unusually slow, wavering with each step as his shoulders slumped heavily. Within forty yards of the house, he stopped and dropped to his knees and began keening rhythmically, his head bent toward the earth beneath him.
With an obvious and mighty struggle, Embry raised his head from the dirt and threw his eyes heavenward. His throat filled with the startling mourning call again. As if it answered him, the wind changed direction, moving the nearby cottonwood's leaves and scattering sunlight across his body. In the bright afternoon light, a terrible number of seeping slashes on his arm were revealed, the hair on left side of his head cropped close to his bloodied skull.
"Christ above, what hae ye done, Embry?" Edward muttered, horrified. He winced at the sight of the deep lacerations covering Embry's arms and chest and turned to his house. "Mrs. Cullen, bring bandages an' water quick as ye can, Mr. Tapetka's injured."
Siobhan and Mrs. Whitlock rounded the corner of the ranch house at full break to join them, wide-eyed at the unexpected sight of Embry so abused and fallen in to his knees the deep grass.
"Mr. Tapetka! Who's done such a thing to you?" Mrs. Whitlock's voice sounded just over his wife's as they scurried to his side. Edward made to join them, but Jasper's hand clamped over his forearm.
"Ladies, I'd advise you step back with us. Mr. Tapetka hasn't been assaulted." He turned to them, his voice distant. "I've seen this way of mourning, Edward, he took a blade to his body and cut off the left side of his hair. If Embry wore the braids of his people he would have cut the left one off at the scull. Instead he must have just scrapped his father's blade across his scalp. Lord, I wonder how far he's walked – it's a small mercy he didn't bleed to death."
"Is it a mercy, Judge? He loved her so, lost them both…" Mrs. Whitlock's eyes filled with fresh tears and her husband gathered her to his chest. She looked over her shoulder and whispered "Was he… trying to do away with himself?"
"I can't speculate any more than that, cherub. As for you and your bride, Edward, your Father Dickie, I'd wager he'd not like that kind of talk, so we'll refrain…."
Siobhan's eyes focused, not on Edward or the Whitlocks, but the keening, gore-caked man before them.
"'Rent his clothes, and put on sackcloth with ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, and cried with a loud and a bitter cry…' "
"I beg your pardon, Mrs. Cullen?"
"'Tis from the Old Testament. Mr. Tapetka's grief is written there." She handed Edward the bowl of water and clean toweling, then pressed into his palm the very same pot of native ointment Embry's own wife had used on him. "Mr. Cullen, ye must stay with him, do ye nae think? Since he is sae alone? Mrs. Whitlock and I shall retire as I feel he might see it as a disgrace for us tae look upon him so."
He came to her side and offered her his arm, snugging her hand extra close in the crook of his elbow to make her smile.
"Aye, a stór, you're as kind as ye are wise. I'll take Mr. Tapetka in hand an' see him home. Tonight I'll not leave a friend who has looked after me sae many times alone in his sorrow."
The summer sun rose all too quickly of a morning. Siobhan observed the first red rays as they lit the dark head beside her and smiled ruefully. They dare not enjoy many more moments abed, much as she wished to.
Surely more would come today. Likely the final few of the Jimenez family were to arrive, along with Judge Whitlock and his cousin, from west of Austin. Already she was responsible for the keeping and feeding of four Jimenez brothers, two with wife and six child between them, the Romulus Lincolns from Clarksville as well as his twin brother Remus's family with four wee ones in tow, and the Simcoes - surely loudest drunkards she'd seen outside of Robert Grant's home on Hogmanay night.
"Och, Mary Alice, gi' yer foot out o' me backside. It's time to rise."
Poor girl. Siobhan grinned ruefully to herself as she shook her bedmate's small shoulder. She was quite unaccustomed to the daily labor of a household, for all her receipts and admonitions and copies of ladies' periodicals, but Mary Alice did try, bless her heart.
"Noooo… just a minute longer, Sio…" Mary Alice stretched and yawned deeply "… bhan. Gracious, I've never been so weary."
"Aye, tending tae twenty-odd lives, not including the animals, is a day's labor, t' be sure." Siobhan threw the sheets from her side of the bed and stood, enjoying the pleasant give and take of her muscles as she reached toward the beamed ceiling. "I'll just start the stove."
Moments later, Mary Alice shuffled into the still-dim living room, taking care to keep herself covered in the presence of three Jimenez children, all snuggled together upon Mr. Cullen's settee.
"Gracious, if that plague of locusts the Judge and Mr. Cullen hired, bless their hearts, doesn't need feeding again, Siobhan. And today we must start another batch of peach butter with all of those overripe peaches the men brought up yesterday." She smiled as Siobhan placed a steaming cup of coffee before her and inhaled the steam rising from the contents.
"Faith, but I'm glad the first batch has been eaten already. I dinnae think I would have the heart tae serve it t' my poor Mr. Cullen again. Perhaps by Michaelmas he'll be fit to taste a peach."
"Pooh, you'll be thankful for it well before then."
Siobhan was pleased the teases she made were taken in good part by Mary Alice. Her little friend was almost back to her full brilliance and sparkle. Two weeks of unrelenting industry as their part during the harvest, with both husbands either living out with the men to keep order or riding afield to gather more hands, had put the girls in constant proximity. Siobhan was used to such close quarters, but for Mary Alice it did present a challenge. A few minor skirmishes, largely over the use of the enormous oven, had led to the inevitable brittle moments, but by now they were a team that pulled well in a shared harness.
As a special fete after the harvest, Edward promised a fandango. Jasper's cousin Sibley Whitlock had lived up to his offer of a dressed steer for barbeque. The long-horned animal was grazing contentedly, unaware of its fate and eyeing Lady Moo-ray across the wide expanse the Judge had recommended be kept between the two animals. Tomorrow Sibley Whitlock would take the gargantuan beast to his eventuality, a deep pit would smoke him over coals of peachwood and mesquite, and here at the ranch there would be drink and dancing and merrymaking.
Then, finally, they would all be gone. The constant chaperonage of dozens of adults made Siobhan feel oddly bereft when not in her Edward's company. She longed to see the last basket of peaches loaded and sent to the Fredericksburg train station and have her husband to herself.
Lately Siobhan and Mary Alice had been at work on the pretty special dress both happily envisioned when they unfolded the bolt of fabric Mr. Cullen had bought in Johnson City. The everyday dress had been constructed within a few days, its simplicity of design no challenge for the two ladies' industry.
The special dress was a much more detailed project, worked on with absolute secrecy at every free moment. Siobhan had no desire for such clandestine dressmaking but decided an indulged Mary Alice was a happy Mary Alice and granted her this surprise for Mr. Cullen.
Most everyone at the Cullen farm came to understand when one indulged Mary Alice in her little fancies all had a happier life for doing so.
Unfortunately, a bad burn on Mary Alice's left hand during the slow cooking of that last batch of peach butter prevented her participation in the final hemming of the dress. Siobhan's solution sent her friend into gales of giggles and did much to make Mary Alice feel better about her temporary retirement from the great beast of an oven.
During each day's dinner during the past two weeks, Siobhan and Edward, by common design, had met by her garden for a few quiet moments. What began as a chance to review in peace the progress of the harvest had happily turned to more a pleasant occupation. Their kisses and nuzzles were long and comforting, no longer tentative and exploratory
Walking with him back to the house the day of Mary Alice's injury, the end of the harvest and the fandango upon them, Siobhan posed a somewhat devious question to her husband.
"Will ye come to me this afternoon? I ha' a need tae see ye for a wee bit. It won't keep ye from the men overmuch. A half hour or so, I reckon, an' nae more."
"A half hour in yer company, a stór, 'twill be an honor." Edward paused to brush his lips over her cheek as they crossed the dooryard just after dinner was served. "Surely though, I'd like tae spend longer."
"Weel then, ye should have considered plantin' fewer trees, husband." In truth, it seemed endless days since they had much time alone. She sighed happily against his scratching fingers and smiled at him. "Edward, truly, I've missed yer tea an' yer stories an' our quiet home of the evening. For now, will ye come to me before I set out supper, as I've asked?"
"I pledge it, and will come t' ye without fail, my lovely Lady Brindy." He made a gallant gesture, kissed the back of her hand, and set off for the orchard once more, her giggles following him up the well-worn path.
Edward appeared, as requested, late that afternoon. After giving notice to his wife and Mrs. Whitlock that he had returned and would be available presently, he went to the rain barrel in the kitchen garden and washed the day's grime from his body. When he returned to the kitchen door, Siobhan was waiting for him with a clean towel, a garment looped over her arm.
"What's this?" he asked as he nodded at the fabric and rubbed his wet hair into the towel.
"I've need of your assistance a' weel, if ye'll remove yer boots and come into the bedroom." She laughed at him and raised her hand to his head. "Oh Edward, ye can't have Mrs. Whitlock see ye so - ye've the pate of a hedgehog caught in a downpour, look at yer hair."
He smiled down at her, chest swelled with pride at his sweet girl prodding and mussing over his unruly hair. The opportunity and rush of love for her caused him to swing her from the doorway, beyond Mrs. Whitlock's view, and press her into the limestone blocks that made up their home.
"What manner of assistance might I give ye, Brindy?" His voice rumbled low in his chest, bringing up a pleasing pink flush in her cheeks. Edward jerked a glance toward the open threshold, then bent his head to hers and stole a quick kiss. In contrast to the slow and soothing midday kisses in the privacy of his wife's garden, those purloined just beyond the sight of others were hot and hard.
All the weeks of nothing but them and the quiet ranch tempted his memory. His land hummed with the industry of the twenty or so good souls gathered up to bring in his harvest, yet he wanted no more than those quiet days again and Siobhan in the bed he bought for her but didn't know.
"Come with me," she said, drawing his hands from her waist and shooing him back to the kitchen. "I've a bit of work that wants finishing and none but you to give me aid. Boots, if ye please, Mr. Cullen."
He snatched his dusty work boots off, obedient and still attendant to her face. Once they were set aside by the kitchen door, Siobhan lead him across the main room, into their bedroom, and shut the door behind them.
"Down t' yer smalls, please."
"Quickly, 'fore the men come lookin' fer their supper, Edward."
His stomach turned, anticipating, though truly, he did feel a pang of regret at the prim, pressed manner of his suddenly officious wife. When his dusty trousers and damp workshirt had been set aside, Edward cleared his throat softly and glanced at his wife's turned back.
"Er… I've divested m'self of my clothing."
Siobhan edged toward him, her eyes still averted.
"Would ye hold out yer arms, please?"
Edward complied and found himself amid a woosh of fabric and the light touches of Siobhan's hands smoothing over his shoulders and chest. When the unexpected flurry of activity stilled, he looked about him and discovered he'd been re-dressed.
In Siobhan's dress.
She moved around him quickly, tugging at a garment fashioned from the peach and blue bolt he'd brought from the Johnson City mercantile while he gawped like a fish tossed to the deckboards of a boat.
"There we are." Siobhan examined her work and turned a pleased smile up to him, pausing to tug at the waistline. "Yer a some bit broader through th' waist but will do."
"B… wh… what…" Edward sputtered. "Is this a dress?"
"O' course, what did ye take it for, Edward? An altar boy's vestments?" Her grin spread as her eyes twinkled up at him. "Come out into the kitchen sae we can make quick work o' this hem."
"D-d'ye mean to march me aboot m'own home in a dress?"
She took his arm and did just that, nudging him toward a stool set in the center of the main room. Mrs. Whitlock, stationed in the corner of the room upon the red settee, hummed to herself as she folded a stack of linens, her eyes averted with a genteel slant to her head.
She did, however, appear to suppress a more lighthearted expression, Edward noted, by the lift of her eyebrows.
"Tis for naught but a moment, I've got to put the hem in so I may be fitted out proper fer ye tomorrow eve, and Mary Al- er… Mrs. Whitlock has scorched her wee hand somethin' terrible wi' stirrin' the last bits of peach butter, bless. Poor wren's nae accustomed tae laborin' aboot th' house, despite fer all she has a receipt for everythin' ye might want to cook or clean. Now, then…"
He let a broad laugh out over a gust of air and pushed at an unruly shock of hair as he watched Siobhan sink to her knees beside her sewing box and waft the voluminous blue sprigged skirt over her head, leaving naught to look upon but her lovely round backside, wagging beyond the fabric's end. Such a sight was impossible to ignore. Edward stooped over, grinning to himself with thoughts of gathering up the soft flesh there and squeezing Siobhan against him as he sheathed himself deeper between her round thighs. The stirring came upon him again, heedless of Mrs. Whitlock and her laundry across the room, and he grew hard in spite of his quick recollection of Liam McBurney's scowling face, an ancient nun who visited Father Martin on occasion, and even his father's sonorous tone as he read Milton aloud by the evening fire.
The skirt swirling about his ankles rustled, and Siobhan's face appeared, her cheeks round and pink once again with her coy smile.
"Mind ye stand straight and still sae the dress hangs properly, husband." Her tone was entirely modest. The fingertips brushing over his calf were anything but. Edward glanced again at Mrs. Whitlock and let out a low grumble.
"Ye trot aboot here and there in m' trews an' have me standin' in m' own sitting room attired in yer dress, wife. What's next? Down to the spring in yer petticoat an' combinations?"
"If ye don't stand straight I'll pin yer business, an' ye'll squall like a lass in braids." She widened her eyes, giving her best look of mock discipline, and disappeared once more under the balloon of fabric. "Ye do fash about near as bad as Liam. Dear Hugh would bear servin' as Eileen's dress form wi' n'er a peep."
"Liam?" Edward nearly tumbled from the stool, a new round of laughter came so hard upon him. "Are ye sayin', Brindy, that yer big Chuck of a brother would stand for such abuse as this?"
"Oh, aye. If he wanted his supper. In truth, Edward, this color suits ye down tae the ground."
"Yer a wee wicked thing, aren't ye?" Edward said under his breath, mindful to keep his head straight and eyes fixed upon the far wall. She answered him with a quick jab to his left hindquarter. "Aye… wicked as th' day is long."
Soon the hem was fixed in place, and Siobhan alighted from under the skirt. She stood back, smoothing away a red tendril that had escaped her tidy bun, and turned a critical eye on the fruit of her labor.
"Mary Alice, if ye please," she called out sweetly. Edward lifted his eyes Heavenward as Mrs. Whitlock appeared beside her, hands folded demurely over her skirts as she evaluated Siobhan's pinning.
"The front wants to dip, dearest," she said, her face placid as she gazed about Edward's ankles. "To accommodate…"
Outside the dooryard began to come to life with activity, the sounds of Spanish and native tongues mingling with Sibley Whitlock's and the Clarksville freedmen's generous laughter. Atop the stool Edward shuffled his feet.
"Aye, doesn't it?" His own wife's response was equally sedate as she replaced her spare pins into her dressmaker's ham. "I've given it a bit of length there to… make up for the… erm… rise, of course. And then the fullness in the bodice need to be allowed for."
"Ah, of course." Mrs. Whitlock agreed, and her eyes shot to her companion's generous decolletage, back to Edward, now visibly piqued with the two ladies. She smiled mildly at him and drew Siobhan away a step or two. "Yes, then, I think it will do nicely. Do you think you might add the lovely lace collar you showed me? It won't offer any protection from the sun but would be quite fetching for special occasions when you're sure to carry a parasol."
"I think I might baste it in but nae affix it permanent to the neckline. I cherish each bit o' Mam's lace so, I wouldn't want to lose it forever in one garment."
"Yes, I think that's best. You might re-use the piece for years, even pass it on t-"
Edward cleared his throat.
"Aye, husband. Ha' ye want?"
"Are ye finished wi' me?"
"Oh!" Siobhan turned a countenance the very image of the Countess of Moray's benevolent smile-for-lessers to him and nodded toward the bedroom. "Of course, husband. If ye'll decamp yer pedestal an' follow me t' yer chamber, I'll divest ye o' yer bonny dress."
Edward made sure to lift the hem high as he stepped from the stool, mindful of the pins grazing his ankles. Wearing a dress or no, however, his discomfiture did not prevent him from kissing his wife soundly again the minute the door was closed, then taking up his neutral position once more beside the bed.
He'd not suffer another round with Mrs. Cullen's skirt, no matter the fine view from above, unless he was the one removing it from her.
The day of the fandango was no different than most in the Hill Country in summer: it was unrelentingly hot, the air thick with dust, and the respite of a breeze few and far between. Since dawn, Siobhan and Mary Alice had been cooking, aided by the clever hands of Claridee and Odessa Lincoln and the Jimenez sisters. Beyond the house, the most delicious scent rose from Sibley Whitlock's firepit, and when the guests at Cullen farm were not occupied with cooking, they were readying their families' possessions for their journeys home.
It would seem all were as ready to be clear of another's home as Siobhan was ready to be shed of her guests, no matter how helpful they had been.
Snorting softly, Siobhan admonished herself for such unkind thoughts and made the sign of the cross for each family's safe progress to their homes. In truth, she was at her beam-ends over the thought of her husband returning to the ranch house for good now the harvest was complete.
When the afternoon sun began to stretch long across the well-used kitchen garden, Siobhan looked across the living room at her new dress and sighed at it. She couldn't bear the thought of slipping new garments over her sweaty, dusty frame.
"If I don't get washed fra head t' toe, I'll snatch myself bald, Mary Alice. Come along, then, let's have a swim in th' cool spring, hey?" She nudged her friend and whispered excitedly. "The men are nae due back fer hours."
"Oh, gracious, I just couldn't… why someone might come along! Oh how scandalous of you, Siobhan, really!" Mary Alice giggled, waving her away.
"Join me or stay back, I'm fer bathin'." Unpinning her hair as she spoke, she dragged a brush through it briskly and secured it high on her head instead of coiled at the nape of her neck. "And I'll nae bring ye water for washin' so consider the pretty dress you brought along in your Johnson City purchases."
"Oh really, Siobhan," she shook her head and her laugh rang louder, despite her pursed lips.
Siobhan knew was shockingly bold to suggest such a venture, and in truth, she was not surprised Mary Alice demurred in favor of a more traditional afternoon nap with a cool cloth on her forehead. However, she ached for a long swim.
When she reached the natural grotto, she took off her new everyday dress, folding it with her petticoat and putting it on a dry rock. In turn, she painstakingly tucked shoes, stockings, and hairpins in a safe spot. With her hair floating around her elbows, she stepped into the water, still in her chemise and drawers, her relieved sigh echoing off the clear spring-fed pool and the surrounding rock overhangs.
As she paddled from edge to edge, in blissful freedom from the heat, Siobhan heard a twig snap, then another. She ducked to chin depth in the shadow of the overhanging greenery, hoping any passerby would fail to notice her pile of clothes. The intruder was humming a tune she recognized, and thus she moved forward, leaning around a low-hanging bush so she might see more without revealing herself.
Her husband stood silent on the bank opposite. He looked to be grinning as he peered at her folded dress. Moving with care to the middle of the pond, Siobhan made a small splash as she slipped on the rocky bottom. With that the stealthy game she was playing was over.
He said nothing to her.
In his silence Siobhan stood up, her chemise clinging.
His eyebrows rose. He remained still.
She smiled shyly, without words acknowledging the folly of bathing alone in the afternoon sun.
He unhooked his suspenders.
She laughed in delight.
He stepped forward, his hands at his shirt buttons.
In the direction of the house, Mary Alice trilled, "Siobhan, dear, I'm on my way. You are so right, dearest, the heat in that house is not to be borne one moment longer."
He hung his head, tucking his head into his chest with a rueful grin.
She waved him away, wide-eyed and frantic.
He threw back his head, silently laughing and blew her a kiss.
She clapped her hands over her flaming cheeks and sank below the surface.
When she rose up from the water, the opposite bank was empty, and Mary Alice was merrily undressing to join her.
"Oh Siobhan, why ever did you go under the water? It will take hours to dry all that hair before it will be fit to arrange for the evening."
"Nae t' worry, Mary Alice. In this heat will surely dry before ye've thought t' check the clock." Siobhan sighed and pushed herself from the shore once more.
Once clean-shaven and dressed in his fine new shirt and trousers, Edward left the small bedroom and found an empty, silent house. He stood for some minutes, hands thrust deep in his pockets, surveying the single room that had been his everyday environs for the better of three years. From the sizeable enameled stove to the cheerful curtains lolling in the late afternoon breeze, the new-stitched cushions resting in the seats of the old wooden chairs he'd inherited with the purchase of the ranch, all was the same. Yet, everything about him had traveled a journey long as his own from Newcastle Street, Kilkeel, in the County of Down to the Texas Hill Country. Each surface had been claimed by Siobhan, made comfortable and home-like where once there was only utility or remnants of the sad, intellectual place he'd known in Ireland. The long, narrow limestone room was familiar to him and in the same breath made new with her touches.
She gave him a home, something more than the four walls and promise of his peaches. All had bloomed since his strong, bright brindy-haired girl had come to him.
He felt no need to tuck into the quiet around him and allow the world to pass as he took his boyish adventures from the pages of a book or dutifully tended to his withering parents. Edward looked about his home and saw himself as a living part of it, real and rooted as the thriving shamrock Siobhan had carried all the way from Ireland.
The brilliant green plant had fared well, even in the sultry Texas summer. Beneath the tall, sturdy stems that Siobhan took from the churchyard in Kilkeel, tiny buds were pushing up through the peaty, black soil. Edward dipped his finger into the moist earth, suddenly profoundly aware of his parents. When she found it, this shamrock was growing in the space between the spot of Ireland Carlisle and Esme Cullen would always occupy. His wife brought it to him, and brought them too, Edward fancied, as he ran a shallow furrow under his index finger. He hoped, as his finger rose and skimmed the tiny new shoots of emerald green, they might know of him that evening and see him as the man he'd become.
"Oh, there y'are."
Edward turned to the familiar voice, glad to feel his pulse quicken in his ears and a grin spread across his face.
Her fine red hair had dried into heavy ringlets in the afternoon breeze, and though she'd tried to tidy them, several danced about her face, turning her eyes even more brilliantly blue. Or, perhaps, it was her fine new dress with its perfect hem that made her eyes turn to rarest sapphire as she walked to him through the swaths of vermillion sunset stretched cross the limestone floor.
"Hallo, m' Brindy girl." He inhaled deep from her neck as he folded her against him. They stood together, swaying slightly to their own unheard music, their arms solidly around the other. Answering a call of body rather than voice, their lips found each other, and joined for some time before the small pot of shamrock trembling in the Texas breeze.
"What a handsome husband I 'ave." She smiled up at him, brushing her fingers over the open collar of his shirt and tickling the hairs at his throat. "New shirt and trousers in th' bargain? Ye look a grand rancher, Edward."
"An' you are my fine lady." He reached past her and snapped a single shamrock from the profusion that grew happily under Siobhan's care. When he'd tucked the bright leaves behind her ear, he smiled down at her and cupped her cheek in his hand. "There she is," he whispered. "A bonny Texas cailín. My wife. Mo stór."
"Edward, I'd never…" She took a breath and blinked her wet lashes, then turned a smile up to him once more. "I so hoped I'd find such a life. A good home of my own to share with a good man whose company I craved much as his kisses. But n'vr in all m' days did I dare hope- "
"Siobhan? Oh, hello there, Mr. Cullen." Mary Alice scurried to their side, unwinding her bigger friend from her husband's embrace. "The cakes are coming out, and everyone is calling for a word from you, Mr. Cullen. Charlie Simcoe has opened his bottles, and there seems to be a musical contingent among us! Oh, dearest, it would seem we have a real party coming together, right in the orchard! It's like Oxford, when the Judge and I danced under the dogwoods, when we were so young and he had finally come to court me."
As he watched the play of emotions on Mrs. Whitlock's face, Edward realized she had been withdrawn for some time, in truth, since the terror-filled night and morning after the tornado ravaged the Hill Country. She looked bright once more, wholly herself with her lilting voice and fluttering hands. Though the details were mysteries to him, he saw she had come through her own trial these past weeks and, as he was given to such fraternal sentiment toward her, was glad to see the delicate lady glowing with her usual sprit.
"I thank ye, Mrs. Whitlock. It all sounds verra grand, doesn't it, wife?" He offered Siobhan his arm and rested his hand over hers when it nestled into its familiar station. Mrs. Whitlock meandered away to search for her husband while the Cullens paused under the porch eaves and took in the look of their home.
Beyond the makeshift tables straining with all manner of food and drink, a fire burned lowly in the pit where the steer from the Whitlock ranch had roasted. Several of the Jimenez brothers stood to the side, strumming guitars and fiddles, nodding curiously at Ezekiel Lincoln, who shook a shell and pebble wrapped gourd in time with their tune. Adding to the festive air, the hum of adult conversation was shot here and there with shrieks and giggles from the wee ones of several families.
"D'ye believe it? This solemn old place full to burstin' with sae many?" Edward marveled, looking around his home. His wife turned into his arm and laid her head on his shoulder with a quiet laugh.
"Weel, 'tis no great surprise to me, as I've been well-acquainted wi' the needs o' their mouths and backsides fer most of the week." His laughter joined hers, and he settled his arm around her. "Though I ken yer meaning. It's though this place was growin' steady, year by year, just like the orchard, and waiting for th' right time to bear fruit."
"Waiting for you to bring it to life." He caught a cinnamon curl in his fingers and watched as it twined around his skin and bone. Though Mrs. Whitlock's arrival was unfortunately timed, as was her emphatic gesturing urging them to join the others, the heat still thrummed between him and his wife. It drove him to clear his throat, find his voice and to tell her what he could, with so few seconds left before all noticed their presence. "Siobhan, you've said ye hoped for things – a decent bit o' Earth, and a husband who cares fer yer thoughts as weel as yer body."
"Aye. And I have him." There was no artifice in her words; they were as much fact as the sun's rise in the East, the set of the fiery globe in the West.
"You've given me a home as weel, mo cailín ruaán. I had the sticks and mortar and the orchard. But you, lass," he brought her hand to his lips and caressed the ivory skin there as his eyes searched for hers. "You've made this place a home… and me the man of it."
Edward felt her breath catch, still in her lovely bosom, and then set it to rising again.
"Edward, I do-"
"Enough, you two. Edward, you've got pay to hand out and thanks to give." Jasper Whitlock's broad smile hovered before them, and after a quick estimation of both Edward and his wife, the Judge let out a low chuckle. "You can finish that conversation later. I suspect it might be for the better to let that sentiment hang in the air until all and sundry have retired for the evening. Mrs. Cullen, might I have the pleasure of escorting you to your supper?"
Once more, Edward thrust his hands deep into his trouser pockets and followed them, but this time the gesture was to save his pride rather than aid in contemplation. If there was anything other than the sweet shifting of his wife's round hips under her new frock, his interests lay in the most expedient means of gagging both Whitlocks and setting them together under the cottonwood tree by the spring.
Well away from him and his Brindy.
A/N – I'd surely make my dear Nana cover her eyes in horror if I failed to mind my manners and send a huge thank you to the divine Miss Q, aka Quantum Fizz X, for her kind recommendation of AHW in her latest The Arrangement. The lady is class all the way around and a unique talent I feel lucky to know. xo, baby! :)
Vi has been so gracious again, tolerating my wayward attentions. I'm doing NaNoWriMo this month and she's not only agreed to read for me but hasn't threatened to kneecap me for leaving her hanging on AHW until December. Unless the spirit calls, we'll have the final chapter and the epilogue coming up early that month. Peaches for Christmas!
Thanks and see you soon!