The Forever Man
“What I have in mind is a business arrangement,” he said quietly, stepping back to where his chair was sitting at an angle to the table. He straightened it with one quick movement and planted himself on the seat, his hands braced against his thighs. “I would be willing to pay off your mortgage—”
“What makes you think I have one?” she asked, interrupting him.
He looked at her, noting the swift color staining her cheeks. “I’m sorry. I’m afraid I quizzed your minister last evening at great length. When he spoke of your place here, telling me of the situation you’re in, I asked a lot of questions. Apparently, the townspeople are aware of your circumstances, the hardship caused by the death of your father and the need for help to run this place. There was no secret made of your father’s—”
Her cheeks were bright with outrage and embarrassment, and she cut him off with a wave of her hand. “You had no right to pry into my business. You don’t even know me.” She swung to face the minister, who had taken up residence in the corner of the kitchen, near the window. “And you! You had no right to tell my problems to anyone. And especially not a total stranger! How could you be so…so…”
Her voice cracked, almost wobbling with her distress as she faced the man of the cloth who had betrayed her.
“My dear Miss Johanna! I only thought to help. Mr. Montgomery comes with letters of recommendation from bankers and ministers in his hometown. He is on a legitimate quest, and my only thought was to give aid where I could.” The Reverend Hughes was distraught at her accusation, his dismay apparent on his youthful face.
“This is my fault, ma’am,” Tate Montgomery said bluntly. “I should not have revealed my knowledge of your circumstances so quickly. I only thought to present my thoughts for your consideration. I am here to propose marriage, ma’am.”
“Marriage! To you?” Johanna was aghast. The man was a stranger who in the course of fifteen minutes’ time had suggested taking over her mortgage, and marrying her to boot.
Tate nodded. “It would be a business proposition. I need someone to tend my boys and make a home for them. This would be much better in the long run than my hiring a housekeeper.”
She snorted inelegantly. “You mean I couldn’t quit the job when I’d had a bellyful, don’t you?”
He couldn’t help the grin that escaped at her phrasing. “I guess you could put it that way, if you like,” he said agreeably.
She shook her head. “This is ridiculous. I have no intention of marrying. Ever.”
“You don’t like men?” It was a simple question, he thought. And if the answer was not to his liking, he’d be on his way.
She was taken aback, her thoughts scattered. Like men? “What’s to like about them? They’re fond of making messes and being waited on and spending time in the saloon.”
“All of them?” His brow rose quizzically. “Perhaps you’ve been around the wrong breed of men, Miss Johanna.”
She backtracked a bit, silently acknowledging her haste in the judgment she’d spouted. “My father was not himself the past few years. Perhaps I had a bad example set for me in his recent behavior,” she said grudgingly.
“There are good men to be found,” Theodore Hughes ventured to say from the corner.
Johanna nodded in his direction. “I’ve met several in my time,” she admitted. And then she looked at Tate Montgomery with a guarded glance. “I’ll take the reverend’s word as to your sterling reputation, but I’m not interested in marriage.”
He nodded politely. “Perhaps if I enlarge on my idea, you might consider it. more carefully.” He cast a look at the man who had brought him to this place. “Would you leave us for a few minutes, sir? I think this discussion merits some privacy.”
Theodore Hughes nodded agreeably, stepping to the doorway and out on the porch.
Tate leaned over the table and faced Johanna from a foot away. If she was unwilling to hear him out, he’d head on out. But it was worth giving it a shot. And the memory of his first sight of this house and the capable woman who was struggling to hold things together here provided the impetus he needed to speak his mind.
“We could have a good arrangement, Miss Johanna. I am willing to assume any financial burden you have, in return for a half ownership of the farm. You would take my boys in hand and tend to the house and whatever chores you want to assume outdoors. I’ll make the place run. I’ll make it run better than it’s ever run before, and I’ll do it well. You won’t have cause to be ashamed of me. I don’t drink and I don’t chase women. I won’t be expecting you to sleep in my bed, and I won’t lay a hand on you in anger.”
Her blue eyes blinked, widened, and blinked again. “Well!” Spoken with emphasis, the word was vibrant with meaning. Her thoughts were jumbled, stunned as she was by his list of rules and regulations regarding the marriage he proposed.
“What would you expect of a wife, Mr. Montgomery?” she asked finally. If the man didn’t want a woman to take to his bed, he must be willing to settle for little more than a housekeeper, when all was said and done.
“I have sons, ma’am. I don’t need more children. I just need these two fed and clothed and schooled properly.”
“And nothing for yourself?”
A faint ridge of color rode his cheekbones, accenting the scar on the side of his face. “I’ll need to have my meals provided and my clothes washed and ironed. I’m already well schooled.”
She ducked her head. “You don’t need a woman?”
“Not an unwilling one.”
She lifted her gaze slowly, as if it pained her to face him but she recognized that she must. “I’m not willing. I don’t think I’d ever be willing. I never intended to. marry.”
He nodded slowly. “All right. I can deal with that.”
A vision of the apples awaiting her in the orchard, crates overflowing and needing to be carried, burst into her mind. She thought of the cows, impatient to be milked, morning and night. The hay field, awaiting the mowing machine, and the assessing looks she received from the men in town, recognizing her as a woman alone.
Images of Tate Montgomery, tall and robust, working the orchard, planting and sowing and dealing with the storekeeper and the mill owner cascaded through her mind in rapid profusion. Her gaze rested on his hands—heavily veined, broad and capable, fingernails clean, fingers long and straight. She would need to check out his letters of recommendation, but instinctively she knew him to be a man of honor. Why it should be so, she couldn’t have said. But something about him, his innate dignity, his gentlemanly ways, his prideful look, his way with the small boys he’d handled with gentle touches, spoke of a man to be trusted.
“I’ll give you my answer tomorrow.”
It was more than he had bargained for. He’d been warned by the preacher that she was a hardheaded woman, that she’d turned down offers aplenty for her place, that she was considered to be a spinster by the townsfolk. He’d thought to find a dried-up specimen of womanhood. He’d been prepared to look her over and leave if the years of hard living she’d endured here had made her unappealing for his purposes.
Neither of those two things had come about. Instead, he’d found a slender, stalwart female who’d been bowed low by life’s burdens and yet managed to rise above the problems she’d faced after her father’s death. He’d found a woman of strength and courage, willing to work herself to a frazzle to keep her farm running. A woman who deserved better than what she’d been handed by fate.
“Tomorrow,” he said firmly. “And in the meantime, can I make a bed for my boys and myself in your barn? It will save me taking the wagon back to town overnight.”
She considered him for a moment, taking in the dark eyes that hid his emotions, allowing only a faint approval to shine forth as he met her gaze. His chestnut-colored hair was swept back from a broad forehead bronzed by the sun. Apparently the man didn’t wear his hat all the time. His jaw was square and firm, his nose a bit crooked and prominent, but no larger than it should be, for such a big man. He could be considered handsome. Or at least appealing, she decided. If a woman was in the market for a husband, she supposed, he’d be a likely specimen.
“All right,” she agreed. “The barn is available for the night. I’ll tell you tomorrow what I decide.”
His breath released on a silent sigh. “Thank you for your consideration,” he said simply. “I’ll tend to my boys now.”
He rose from his chair, and she followed suit, standing across from the table from him, aware once again of his size, at least three inches over six foot, she’d venture to say. “I don’t mind sharing my supper with you and your sons,” she offered. He hesitated in the doorway, then turned to face her.
“That’s kind of you, Miss Johanna. I’d be much obliged for the favor.” He clapped his hat on his head and nodded abruptly. “I’ll be in the barn.”
Johanna followed him out on the porch, her hands reaching for the china cups the two boys had used. They gave them into her keeping with bashful looks and awkward murmurings of thanks at their father’s urging, and she smiled at their childish gestures.
They romped across the yard at his side, and she leaned on the post at the corner of the porch to watch. They were like two young puppies, she thought, frisky and energetic. He spoke quietly to them as they walked and then, upon reaching the barn door, bent one knee to the ground to place an arm around each of them. His words set their heads nodding, and their faces looked earnest as he spoke. Apparently instructions for their behavior, Johanna decided as they walked with dignity through the barn doors into the shadowed interior.
If she married him…The thought spun crazily in her mind. If she married him, they would be hers, those two small boys with dark hair and straight, sturdy bodies. It would be a weighty argument in favor of his suit. The joy of caring for children had been denied her. Indeed, the thought of having a child of her own had been denied her for ten years. It would never be. But now, now she could tend these two young boys, perhaps earn their love.
A bitter wash of regret filled her to overflowing, and she stepped down from the porch. Better that she not expose herself to close scrutiny. Not now, not while old memories were bursting the seams of that hidden place where she’d long ago relegated them for eternity.
“I’ll be leaving, Miss Johanna.” The soft words of the minister broke into her thoughts, and she looked up quickly to see him astride his horse, reins in hand. “I’ll be anxious to hear your decision, ma’am,” he said. With a courtly gesture, he tipped his hat in her direction and turned his horse to leave.
Johanna watched him go, her thoughts in turmoil. Would tomorrow be time enough for her to decide her whole future? She lifted her gaze to the small rise beyond the house, where a low fence enclosed the family cemetery. Lifting her skirt a few inches, holding its hem above the grass, she made her way there, climbing the hill with ease, unlatching the wooden gate and leaving it open behind her as she knelt by the grave of her mother.
She reached out to pull a milkweed that had sprung up in the past few days. Her fingers sticky from the stem, she rubbed them distractedly against her apron as she spoke. “Mama, a man wants to marry me.” The words were soft, murmured under her breath. She’d spent a lot of time in these one-way conversations with the mother she’d helped bury over ten years ago. Sometimes she wondered if she didn’t hear a faint voice within her that repeated some of her mother’s favorite small sayings.
“He won’t ever have to know, Mama. I won’t tell him, and he says he doesn’t want a real wife, just a cook and someone to keep his children clean and well fed. I can do that, can’t I?” She rubbed her eyes, unwilling that the tears should fall, those tears she held in abeyance until the times she knelt here.