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The Forever Man
Carolyn Davidson

It was usually a lonely place, here where she’d buried the three humans most important to her, two of the graves tended carefully, the third marked only by a small rosebush. It was to that spot that she moved, shifting on the cool ground, mindful of grass stains marring her dress. She snapped two faded roses from the bush, the final flowers of summer, touched by an early-autumn frost during the past nights.

“Baby mine, your mama…” Her voice faltered as she spoke the words no other person had ever heard fall from her lips. And then the tears she shed only in this place fell once more, as she smoothed her palm over the grass that covered the grave where her baby lay.

Chapter Three (#ulink_66794dbd-0514-56c4-a1e7-73b29e5233d4)

By the time she’d soaked her eyes in cool water, changed her dress and scooped up her hair into a respectable knot on the back of her head, Johanna had run out of time. Sure enough, she’d managed to get grass stains on her work dress, and she’d scrubbed at them, then left the dress to soak in a bucket.

Supper would have to be quick. Those two little boys were guaranteed to be hungry before long, with only sugar cookies and milk in their bellies since noontime. The image of Tate Montgomery popped unbidden into her mind, and she found herself imagining his big hands holding a knife and fork, eating at her table. She closed her eyes, nurturing the vision, leaning against the pantry door.

So real was the mental picture, she could almost catch his scent, that musky outdoor aroma she’d drawn into her lungs earlier. She inhaled deeply, and opened her eyes.

“Ma’am? I didn’t mean to disturb you.” Tate Montgomery stood at her back door, one hand lifted to rest against the frame, the other plunged deep in his pocket. Less than four feet away from the pantry door, he stood watching her, that intent, dark gaze focused on her face.

“Ma’am?” He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, and his gaze drifted from her face to slide in a slow, lazy fashion over her person. Not in a threatening manner, but as if he needed to see that all the parts were in place, almost as if he were assessing her womanly form.

She felt the flush rise from her breasts, up the length of her long neck, to settle deeply beneath the flesh covering her cheeks. “Do I suit you, Mr. Montgomery?” she asked tartly. “Do I look sturdy enough to be a housekeeper and cook and child-tender?”

His eyes focused once more on her face, the face she’d spent fifteen minutes bathing in order to hide the signs of her bout of tears earlier. She raised her left hand, brushing at a tendril of pale hair that had escaped her severe hairdo, allowing the pad of her index finger to sweep beneath her eye. There was no telltale swelling to be felt there, no evidence of her brief but shattering lapse. The relief inherent in that discovery put a measure of starch into her backbone, and she turned from his presence.

Her largest bowl in hand, she opened the pantry door and stepped within. On three sides, the shelves surrounded her, with their burden of food close at hand. The large bags of flour, sugar, coffee and salt were at waist level, easily reached for daily use. Above, where she must stretch a bit for a good handhold, were the glass quart jars she’d filled with the harvest from her kitchen garden during the past weeks. And to her right she’d arranged more canning jars, these filled with the boiled-up stewing hens she’d culled from the chicken yard once the young pullets began laying, come summer.

She grasped the bag of flour, bringing it to the edge of the shelf, where she opened it, tipping a good measure into the bowl she held. A scoop of lard came next, the dollop landing in a cloud of flour. Chicken potpie would be quick, once she rolled out a crust and put some vegetables on to parboil. She turned to leave the pantry, the familiar sense of satisfaction she found within its confines uplifting her spirits. There was something about seeing the work of your hands surrounding you, knowing you’d not have to worry about setting a table through the long months of winter. It was a pleasurable thing to be a woman, she decided.

“Can I help with something?” He was there, almost blocking her exit, and she blinked rapidly as her heart missed a beat.

“I didn’t mean to insult you a few minutes ago,” he said quietly. “And to answer your question, yes, you do look more than capable of doing all I’ve asked. You’re a fine-looking woman, Miss Johanna.”

For the first time, she saw a softening of his features, an easing of his closely held emotions, as he offered his apology. She nodded in acceptance of his words and carried the bowl to the table. Her fingers left it reluctantly. He’d said she was a fine-looking woman. She knew her teeth were straight and even. She brushed them every day with tooth powder. Her hair was a good color, golden from the summer sun, and thick, and her eyes were far apart, blue, like her mother’s. If all that added up to fine-looking, then she could accept the small compliment as her due.

“Do you need the fire built up in the stove?” He’d stayed near the door, and she saw his glance out into the yard when a childish shriek sounded from near the barn. “Is the dog good with children?” he asked, his gaze leveled beyond her field of vision.

She turned quickly. “Sheba won’t put up with any foolishness, but she doesn’t bite. She’s a herd dog, Mr. Montgomery, not a pet.”

His smile was unexpected, and she savored its warmth for a moment. “Apparently she doesn’t know that, ma’am. She’s chasing a stick for Timmy.”

Her lips tightened. They’d better get things squared away right off. “Animals are only as useful as you make them. I can’t afford to feed a dog that doesn’t serve a purpose. Sheba’s no good to me if she attaches to the boys and forgets her duties.”

His smile faded, and his eyes became guarded, the momentary pleasure she’d seen there replaced by a forbidding darkness. “I’ll see to it.” Abruptly the man who’d been at ease in her kitchen was transformed into the chilly stranger she’d first met earlier in the day.

“I’ll tend the stove, Mr. Montgomery. If it’s not too much trouble, you can open the back door of the barn. The cows will be wanting to come in to be milked before long.” When she turned once more he was gone, and she watched surreptitiously from one side of the kitchen door as he made his way across her yard.

A pang of regret touched her, and not for the first time she rued her quick tongue. The boys weren’t hurting anything, playing with Sheba. The dog was old enough to know her job, and even a dumb animal deserved a little attention once in a while. Almost, she called out to rescind her harsh words, hesitating but a few seconds. No, she might as well start out as she meant to continue.

And then she drew in a deep breath as she recognized that her decision had already been made. She would marry Tate Montgomery. She would take on his children as her own. She would be Mrs. Montgomery, a wife in name, at least. If he asked no more from her than that, she would never have to own up to the shame she carried as a great weight on her conscience. The shame of a fallen woman. A Jezebel, Pa had said.

“I’d see the letters you brought with you, Mr. Montgomery,” she said, scooping a generous helping of chicken and vegetables onto his plate. She ladled a spoonful of steaming gravy over it all, then carefully placed the next piece of crusty topping over it and handed him his plate. She’d taken the first spoonful for herself, then served him, so that his crust would be unbroken and appetizing. It was a small gesture, one she’d seen her mother repeat often.

A man was the head of the house, given the best piece of meat, the freshest bread. His coffee was poured first, his shirts ironed when the sadirons were cooled just enough not to scorch. Pa had expected it, the honor accorded him as a man.

Tate Montgomery, on the other hand, looked a bit amazed at the attention he’d been given by his hostess. She’d placed the fresh round of butter in front of his place, piled newly sliced bread on a plate and edged it with a jar of strawberry jam and a comb of honey. His cup was brimming with hot coffee as he sat and nodded his thanks with a raised eyebrow and a half smile signifying his surprise.

Timothy and Pete sat at the sides of the table, the three forming a setting she could not help but appreciate. They looked like a family, the four of them around the table, the kerosene lamp above, its glow circling them with a suggestion of warmth. The boys stretched their plates toward her, and she helped them to the food before taking up her napkin to spread across her lap.

Timothy watched her carefully, then removed his own napkin to follow her example. She caught his eye as he glanced at her again, and smiled her approval. His small, perfect teeth flashed for a moment between his lips as he allowed a crooked grin to touch his mouth. Then he ducked his head and tended to the business at hand.

“I’ll bring you the letters after supper,” Tate Montgomery offered as he swallowed his first bite of potpie. “You cook a fine meal, Miss Johanna,” he said, as if compliments came easily to his lips. It was the second one he’d given her, and both in the space of a day. He was a gentleman, she decided. The fine woolen trousers had given way to farmer’s overalls, and the coat he’d worn earlier had been replaced by a heavy flannel shirt, but he ate with clean hands and good table manners.

“Can I have jam on my bread, Pa?” Pete had made away with over half his dinner already. She’d been right. The boys had been more than hungry. She’d have to be sure to offer them apples in the afternoon from now on. Or maybe…Her mind swirled with thoughts of tending to three male creatures, the work implicit in their well-being, the extra washing to do, the meals to cook.

And where would they sleep? Once she married their father, the boys would move into the house, perhaps share her old bedroom with its big double bed and hand-hewn dresser.

Where would she sleep then? In the attic? In her mother’s sewing room? Surely not in the big bedroom at the top of the stairs, where her parents had conducted a marriage for almost twenty years. That would be Tate Montgomery’s room. He deserved it, as the head of the family.

“I said, I wouldn’t mind another helping of that chicken pie, if you don’t mind, Miss Johanna.” His voice was quiet, sounding amused at her expense, as if he knew he’d caught her daydreaming. If such a thing could be, with night coming on. She’d done her share during daylight hours, that was for sure. But usually by this time of the day she was too tired to think of much else than setting the kitchen to rights and heading for her bed.

She spooned up another portion on his plate, and he murmured his thanks. His hands were deft as he spread jam on another slice of bread and handed it to Pete, then did the same for Timothy. He was used to looking out for them, she thought idly. It showed in his manner, in the way he watched them, unobtrusively but with vigilance, noting their behavior, nodding his head with approval or shaking it slightly as Timothy stuffed his mouth in his eagerness to eat the jam-laden bread.

“I’m glad your boys are good eaters,” she said. “Will they like oatmeal for breakfast? Or would sausage and eggs be better?” Folding her napkin beside her plate, she lifted her glass to drink from its foaming depths. The milk was cool, fresh from this morning’s milking. “Would you like more milk, Pete?” she asked, setting her glass on the table.

A glance at his father gained him permission, and Pete nodded his answer. He swallowed quickly and supported his unspoken request with a “Yes, ma’am.”

Johanna rose from the table and lifted the pitcher from the cupboard, filling both boys’ glasses, Timothy’s not quite to the brim, in deference to his youth and his smaller hands.

“I’d take a small tumbler of that milk, if you don’t mind,” their father said as she straightened from her task.

“Would you rather not have coffee? I assumed…My father always liked coffee with his supper.” She reached for another heavy glass from the shelf behind her and poured it full, placing it next to his plate as she spoke.

“I enjoy both sometimes. Coffee always, especially at breakfast. As for early morning, we take whatever’s available. Oatmeal and the rest will do fine.” he assured her. His gaze followed her as she moved across the kitchen. “Sit down, Miss Johanna. We need to speak for a few minutes.”

She complied, bringing with her a bowl of cookies she’d taken from the crock where she kept them for freshness’ sake. The boy’s eyes brightened as they tilted their chins to better see within the dish, and Timothy was hasty in his movements as he finished up the last of his supper. He licked a stray crumb of crust from his upper lip and edged his hand across the table to where the bowl sat.

“Ask first, son.” Though quietly spoken, it was a rebuke nonetheless, and the child nodded.

“Please, ma’am, may I?” he whispered, his dark gaze fixed on her face.

“You may have one of each, if your father says so,” she offered, sensing his indecision.

His smile flashing, the child accepted her offer.

“Ma’am?” the older boy asked, his question implicit

She tipped the bowl in the other direction, and the boy reached in.

Tate shoved his chair back from the table and stood. “I believe I’ll make a trip to the barn, Miss Johanna. You boys can eat your cookies and then get on outside. Stay away from the back of the barn, like I told you.”

They nodded simultaneously, their mouths full, Timmy’s feet swinging beneath the table. Johanna felt the brush of his small boots against her skirt as he kept time to an unheard beat. It was a foolishly comforting touch, and she sat unmoving until he’d eaten every last crumb of his cookies and drunk the last drop of milk.

“Go along now, boys,” she told them, gathering the plates and flatware. Intuitively she left the cup in front of Tate Montgomery’s place. He’d not had any dessert yet. He might want more coffee to go with it.
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