Young Dinah's dream of ever leaving her small Southwest Florida town seems doomed when she finds herself pregnant by an unscrupulous, older man. Zach also has a dream. He wants to be his own man, go his own way. But when tragedy strikes Dinah's family, his soft heart won't allow him to walk away.
When Tyler, an ambitious land developer, offers to buy Dinah's riverfront property, her dream is revived. Although Zach abhors the selling of paradise for a quick buck and tries to change her mind, his main fear is losing Dinah. Tyler ups the ante by proposing, and Dinah is forced to choose between a man who can make her dream come true, or a man who's been there for every joy, every sorrow in her life. Sadly, she chooses the dream.
Years later, the stock market is soaring, Tyler's the wealthiest man in the county, and Dinah's had it up to her jeweled earlobes with the grand life. When the two men who love her decide to enter politics, she has another choice to make. Will she choose the candidate who wants to further develop the sun-kissed coast, or jeopardize her marriage by supporting the one who wants to preserve it for future generations?
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Seated on a bench in her lush garden, Dinah stared out over the river, once the bane of her existence. Like a fickle lover, the river had a thousand faces, a thousand moods. Sultry and seductive, it lured the innocent into its mysterious depths with its siren song and come-hither glances. It could also rage out of control, destroying lives and creating chaos. Today, it was deceptively serene, with sunbeams skipping beguilingly across its surface. And as she prepared to relinquish the dream that incredibly had been her life, she felt a kinship with it. For she, too, had been greedy, unwilling to stay within bounds. She, too, had wanted more and had taken it, with little regard for those she might hurt.
Thus, she found it rather fitting that her new home would soon be a sparsely furnished room in a boarding house, her garden, a potted plant on the window ledge. A proper penance for a life misspent.
Had she only known twenty years earlier the circuitous path her life would take, perhaps she'd have made wiser choices. Then again, perhaps not, for young girls are often unwise, particularly in matters of the heart.
* * *
The air was heavy and sweet, a harbinger of summer with the hum of curious insects, the twittering of amorous wildlife, and the earthy fragrance of a world so ripe it threatened to burst at any moment. In the midst of this primeval beauty, two girls sat on the edge of a rough-hewn dock. Perched on the precipice of womanhood, each was eager to partake of lifes bounties. Only one would taste its sweetness.
It was a golden time to be young. A time of wonder and discovery, a time of innocence not yet lost but recklessly unguarded. It was also a time of awareness, a time when favorite childhood games give way to the more complex rituals of adults.
Hatless in the hot Florida sun, fifteen-year-old Dinah Killeen, skirt hiked up to her thighs, dangled her shapely legs in the water. With springy blonde curls framing a sun-bronzed face, large milk chocolate eyes, and a splash of freckles straddling her nose, she was undoubtedly the comelier of the two, her healthy good looks in sharp contrast to her fragile cousin.
Virginia Finney, older by six months, had a milky complexion that tended to blister in the sub-tropical sun. Her hair, drooping beneath a wide-brimmed bonnet, was limp and orangey-red, her eyes a washed out blue trapped between colorless lashes. Despite the heat, she sat with legs drawn close, skirt tucked primly about her knees.
The Finney dock was the girls' favorite place to giggle, gossip, and groan about the scarcity of good-looking boys in the towns and hamlets bordering the river. Having exhausted that age-old topic, they began to speculate on the nearness of approaching thunderheads.
"I figger 'bout twenty minutes fore it gits to us," Ginny said.
Not surprisingly, Dinah disagreed. "Nope. We'll be runnin' for cover in ten."
Meandering through seventy-five miles of pristine woodland, the Caloosahatchee River snaked through many small towns on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. Caloosa, Florida was one of them. Enticed by the mild climate and reasonably priced land, hundreds of families made their homes along the river. Indeed, anywhere a homesteader put down roots, a community sprang up, many of the one-horse towns destined to flicker brightly then die, living on solely in the memories of their former inhabitants. Others would become boom towns, meccas for wealthy Northerners looking for a warm climate in which to spend their winters and their money.
Those able to withstand the heat and insects earned their living from the land by farming, fishing, ranching, or timbering; the more educated among them practiced professions. Others, like Ginny's father, Woodrow Finney, were merchants. Then there were the dreamers, the malcontents, always searching for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow--Cliff Killeen and his daughter, Dinah.
It had been Dinah's dream from childhood to someday live in town. Once a rowdy cow town rivaling those of the old west with its hard-drinking, gun-toting cowboys, Fort Myers now boasted indoor plumbing and electricity, conveniences sorely lacking in Caloosa.
Dinah vividly recalled her first visit as a child. It had been a grand occasion, with cannons booming, bells clanging, and whistles screaming as town officials drove in the last railroad spike connecting southwest Florida to points north. Since then she'd talked and dreamt of nothing else. Her husband would be tall and handsome with tons of money and breeding. As the lady of the house, she'd sit on a veranda with her feet propped up, buy clothes ready-made--silk bloomers instead of muslin, linen skirts instead of gingham--and nap under a lazy paddle fan while servants kept the household humming.
All that changed with her mother's death. Forced to lock away the dream in her heart, Dinah savored it now only at her leisure.
"Well, I wish ya luck, girl," her Aunt Clara would say in a kind but patronizing tone whenever she got to daydreaming.
Ginny was less tolerant. And on this day, as Dinah spun her dream again, Ginny's patience snapped. "Oh, you know you ain't goin' nowhere," she said in a tone that normally earned her a whack.
Smiling, Dinah lifted her weighty curls off her neck, knowing Ginny might soon have to eat those words if her daddy's visit to town today proved successful.
The heavy cloud cover burst open, and fat raindrops began to dimple the smooth surface of the water. Dinah jumped to her feet. "Told ya."
Ginny, trapped in her gingham cocoon, grabbed at Dinah's skirt. Caught off balance, Dinah toppled headlong into the water. When she came up for air, glaring, she latched onto her cousin's slender ankle and yanked. Soon both girls were treading water.
Tears flooded Ginny's eyes. "It was a accident," she sputtered. "An' another thing, I told you not to call me Ginny no more. My name is Virginia!"
The girls' bickering ended on a clap of thunder. They'd just scrambled up the riverbank when a shout rang out. Turning, they saw a young boy haul himself to the dock from a small boat. "This way," they yelled over the beating rain. Then all three ran for shelter at Finney's Mercantile and General Store.
"Wow, this is some storm," the boy said, shouting over the clatter of rain on the tin-roofed porch. He removed his floppy straw hat and a shock of black hair fell across his eyes. He smoothed it back. "Hi. I'm Zach Bridger," he said, sticking out his hand.
Dinah studied the young stranger clad in patched bib overalls and a thin, flannel shirt frayed at the collar. Dangling from one shoulder was a lumpy pack of provisions; swinging from the other was a short-barreled rifle that looked more dangerous to its owner than its prey.
But it was not the boy's clothes or accoutrements that sparked Dinahs interest. Unlike the dumpling-faced boys she and Ginny knew, young Zach Bridger was no ordinary river rat, as evidenced by his lively, blue-gray eyes, shiny black hair, and strong, square jaw. "Dinah Killeen," she said, taking his hand. "And this here is Ginny--uh, Virginia Finney, my cousin."
Ginny flashed a puppy dog smile, and Dinah rolled her eyes.
Asked why they'd been splashing in the water fully clothed, Dinah elbowed her cousin. "It's all her fault."
"Didn't mean to, so shut up," Ginny said, elbowing back.
The screen door opened and a plump woman appeared with towels. "What are you two fussin' about now?" she asked, her voice a blend of annoyance and amusement.
Zach jumped to his feet. "Sorry, ma'am. I think I may have started it up again. Name's Zach Bridger. I was just passing by when the storm blew in."
"Well, I'm Clara Finney, Zach, but you kin call me Aunt Clara. Dry off now an' come inside for a piece o' pound cake with the girls. What brings you to Caloosa, son?"
The boy hastily toweled off and hurried inside, his eyes growing large at the generous hunk of cake put before him. "I, uh, thought it was time to set out on my own," he said, licking his lips. "Make my own way, so to speak."
Dinah sniffed. "You don't look old enough to be on your own."
The boy squared his shoulders. "I'm going on eighteen and doing just fine, thank you."
"Course you are," Aunt Clara said. "And you," she said to Dinah, "mind yer manners."
"Well, I think eighteen is all growed up," Ginny said, batting her pale lashes.
Clara Finney smiled. "I s'pose some young fellers are growed up at eighteen," she graciously allowed. "But others don't seem growed up no matter how old they git."
Dinah clapped her hands over her ears; she knew who her aunt was talking about. As Kid Killeen, her daddy had won almost every match he ever fought. And if the promoter he courted in town today took him on, she and little Cliffie would soon be saying goodbye to Caloosa and her aunt's scornful words.
Clara Finney shook her head, exasperated by her niece's behavior. "How 'bout another piece o' cake, Zach? Girls?"
"No, thankee, Mama," Ginny answered sweetly.
Dinah pushed her half-eaten cake away, something else her aunt disapproved of. Food was too dear to waste, she'd scold later, especially cake with a pound of sweet butter in it.
"I swear, Dinah, if you don't behave, you're gonna feel the business end of a willer switch," Aunt Clara said.
Dinah crossed her arms and planted her feet. Aunt Clara glared back.
"Well," said Zach, breaking the stand-off. "The rain seems to have let up, so I'll be on my way now. Thanks again for the cake and the company, ma'am."
"Now, hold on, boy," Aunt Clara said, her motherly instincts coming to the fore.
Zach paused. "Ma'am?"
"What you been eatin' lately, son?"
The youth hoisted his rifle. "Mostly squirrel, sometimes venison. Oh, and fish, lots of fish. The land provides for me most of the time."
"An' where d'you sleep?"
"Why, wherever I happen to be when the sun goes down." That said, Zach Bridger slapped his floppy hat on his head, gave a nod, and trotted off.
"You kin close your mouth now, Ginny," Dinah said with a poke.
Aunt Clara threw up her hands. "Lord amighty, girl, what crawled up you an' died?"
"Ain't nothin' wrong with me. It's the two o' you. Why, glory be, you practically raise the flag ever' time someone sits down with you for a spell. An' Ginny here was practically droolin' over that feller not much older'n us an' already on his own."
"Lordy, chile, I don't know why you're so all-fired in a hurry to grow up. Ain't no different 'bout bein' growed up 'cept maybe more work."
"Not if I git away from here. That's why I ain't goin moony over some drifter who happens by like a bad penny."
"I ain't goin' moony over him," Ginny said in her defense. "But he is kinda cute. Did you notice how his eyes was the color o' the sky jest before it pours? An' his hair, why, his hair was as black as river bottom muck."
Dinah groaned. Even Aunt Clara was hard pressed to keep a straight face at her daughter's colorful stab at eloquence.
* * *
Clara Finney, her wiry gray hair once as bright and coppery as a new penny before time and worry robbed it of its brilliance, left her squabbling charges to start supper. Seeing those two through to womanhood promised to be an adventure if nothing else, she thought, reminded of her own growing up years.
She and Sarah, Dinah's mother, had been twins, as different in appearance and personality as the cousins were now. Where she was the sturdy one, pushing out babies with ease, Sarah was frail, her last childbirth ending in a gravesite for her and her little one.
So far, little Cliffie had been a joy to raise, with his quick laugh and agreeable ways. But Dinah! There was the challenge. Stubbornly resisting all attempts at domestication, the girl was bound and determined to become the mistress of a fine house in town. Such talk was tolerable, even amusing coming from a child. But Dinah was almost a woman now, a woman whose time would be better spent improving her homemaking skills.
* * *
The brief afternoon storm drifted out to the Gulf, and the sun returned to glorify the earth. Hissing and steaming, the thirsty soil drank greedily of the life-giving moisture, while the air, a heady combination of sun-baked earth and wildflowers, packed a one-two punch to anyone who dared take its lushness for granted.
As Zach breathed in the intoxicating fragrance, he thought about the girls he befriended; one sweet and unassuming, the kind of girl a fellow settled down with when he was ready to settle down; the other, spirited and sassy, with a tongue that could carve out a man's liver if he was foolish enough to get within striking distance.
Mindful of alligators in the byways and creeks that fed the river, Zach put the girls out of mind and paddled on, slowing appreciably at the sound of splashing a few yards around the bend. The last thing he wanted was to find himself eyeball to eyeball with some toothy reptile. He ducked under a canopy of flowers, then released an embarrassed chuckle when the fearsome creature in his mind turned out to be nothing more ferocious than a great blue heron having difficulty getting airborne.
Farther along, he encountered another bend, another series of splashes. Expecting to come across waterfowl bathing or feeding in the shallows, he paddled on, unconcerned.
Then he heard it, not the cry of fowl or beast, but a man's frantic cry for help. He paddled faster. Rounding the bend, he spotted a small boy and two men foundering beside their capsized craft. When the boy slipped under, a large, muscular man dove after him.
Jumping in, Zach grabbed the second man and dragged him to a hollowed out section of the riverbank. The man's head lolled to one side and his right arm lay limp in his lap. When he finally managed to raise his head, his face drooped to one side like a ball of wax left too close to the fire. He opened his mouth to speak, and a guttural cry emerged.
Aware there was nothing more he could do for him, Zach swam back for the others. He found the boy first and brought him to shore. Several frantic dives later, he located the man and laid him beside the boy. The child was white, limp; the man had an ugly gash cleft into his fair hair, like a plow scar in a field of golden wheat. Both were as still as the tree roots surrounding them.
* * *
Shadows spilled across the landscape like ink from a tipped ink well by the time Zach paddled back to Caloosa. Though visibly shaken, Aunt Clara immediately took charge, sending the hysterical Ginny to the neighbors for help, and him up the path to fetch Dinah. The injured man, he learned, was Woodrow Finney; the dead, Cliff Killeen and his young son, Cliffie.
Dinah was on the front porch mending a sock when he ran up. When she saw him, wet and disheveled, gasping for breath, her face paled, her mending slid to the floor.
Mustering all the courage of his almost eighteen years, Zach knelt beside her and broke the news as gently as he could.
She began to tremble. "But Daddy is a strong swimmer an'--an' little Cliffie swims like a tadpole." Although she tried to hold herself together, one long tear escaped her brimming eyes.
"I'm so sorry," he said. "I truly am. But you still have family, Dinah, and they need you now, more than ever."
Her stoic expression crumbled. "No-o-o," she moaned. "Aunt Clara don't need me. I'm like a burr in her corset."
"Dinah, your aunt fusses at you because she loves you. And I'll bet she doesn't use that willow switch half as much as she threatens to."
He let her cry, and when her deep sobs subsided, he eased back on his heels, convinced he'd said the right thing. He didn't know Dinah.
She dashed at her eyes with her apron. "Got no reason to stay here now," she said blinking. "So I'm goin' with you."
He stared back. "What!"
"Please," she said in a small voice. "Just into town. I won't be no trouble. I promise."
He looked at her, wet lashes like pointy spikes aimed at his heart, and knew he was a goner.
Zach didn't see much of Dinah for the next two days. The few times he spotted her, her calm demeanor puzzled and confounded him. Was she in shock, or simply plotting her escape? And why was she so adamant about leaving? Because her aunt took a willow switch to her bottom every now and then? Like as not the girl deserved it. Besides, a switching was mild compared to a caning of which he had intimate knowledge.
With the bodies of Cliff Killeen and his young son entrusted to the earth, Zach began making preparations to leave. Although he'd planned to travel light, with nothing more than a backpack and rifle to encumber him, he now had a girl to consider, a young, pretty girl with fire in her heart and ice water in her veins. And, dammit, he didn't need or want the extra baggage.
On the morning of his departure, he was dismantling his makeshift tent of mosquito netting when Aunt Clara scurried by. He asked about Woody, and her frenetic pace ceased.
She sighed. "Oh, he's restin' real peaceful like. Least I think he's restin cuz his eyes is closed. Doctor says somethin' went wrong in his head. That's why he can't move one side o' his body. But it's Dinah who worries me now. Poor thing hasn't had a bite to eat in days. Go see if you kin git her to come to breakfast now, will ya, son? I gotta git these dirty sheets in the wash pot so they'll dry by noon."
Zach trotted up the path to Dinah's. He found her stumbling from the privy in her nightclothes, eyes pinched from sleep, hair a mass of unruly curls. He relayed Aunt Clara's message, then averted his eyes, uncomfortable with the way her nightgown molded to her figure.
She acknowledged him with a nod, then went inside to dress. Ten minutes later she emerged, hair brushed, face shiny. They were halfway down the lane before she spoke. "You still takin' me, aintcha?"
His pace increased.
"I ain't packin' much," she said, "Cuz I don't wanna sink that little boat o' yours."
His jaw grew rigid.
"Look, I'm only askin' to go as far as town. It's not like you're gonna be saddled with me forever. Its just that--if I don't go now, I might never git the chance again. An' if I have to stay here while the rest o' the world passes me by . . ." The thought hung from her lips like moss from a tree.
Zach dropped his shoulders in resignation. He'd made a promise, and now he must abide by it. "I said I'd take you and I will," he snapped.
They walked the rest of the way in silence.
"Mornin', Dinah," Aunt Clara said as they came in. "We was worried about you."
Braving a tired smile, Clara Finney added a fresh slab of ham to her frying pan, her taut face revealing the strain of caring for an invalid husband, keeping house, and managing the store.
And all Dinah could think about was leaving! It made Zach want to take a willow switch to her himself.
Aunt Clara set a large platter of ham and eggs on the table. "Now you jest eat a little bit, darlin'. How 'bout a nice hunk o' that ham the Peaveys brung. I fried it up nice an' crisp jest the way you like it."
Determined to keep his nose out of other people's business--at least until he finished his breakfast--Zach helped himself to two eggs and a slice of ham.
"Aunt Clara," Dinah started, "there's somethin' I gotta tell you."
Zach shot her a look.
She looked away. "First off, I want you to know I feel real bad about Uncle Woody. Truly, I do. But there's somethin' I gotta do for my own self now."
"Well, we all got things we gotta do," Aunt Clara said. "But we're family, an' family sticks together. That's why I want you to stay with us now. Sure kin use your help. Ginny tries but she's a mite puny an' tires easy. 'Sides, I don't like you stayin' up there all by your lonesome."
"No, Aunt Clara, you don't understan'. Fact is, I ain't even gonna . . . I gotta . . ."
Aunt Clara turned from her frying pan and focused her full attention on her niece. "What is it, darlin'?"
Zach buried his nose in his breakfast. He could almost feel Dinah's eyes burning a hole in the top of his head.
"Oh, Aunt Clara," she said on a sigh. "I jest want you to know I'll do whatever I kin to help out."
"Well, ain't that sweet. An', honey, it's okay if you don't wanna live here. Jest make sure you come over ever' day an' git a good meal in your belly."
His faith in humanity restored, Zach's rigid expression eased.
Aunt Clara finished frying the ham, then poured the drippings into the grease can she kept nearby. "Now you jest sit here a spell," she said to Dinah, "an' maybe the smell o' ham an' eggs'll fire up them stomach juices. I gotta see how Ginny's doin' with the sheets."
The hissing and crackling of the hot drippings subsided, and the room grew still, so still Zach could hear insects gnawing at the timbers in the crawlspace. "For what it's worth, Dinah, I think you made the right choice," he said. "But a promise is a promise, and when you're older if you still want to leave, I'll . . . "
Dinah grabbed the meat fork from the platter. "Don't want no promises from you, Zach Bridger. An' the sooner you git your tail outta here, the better I'll like it." Spearing a large chunk of ham, she flung it on her plate, took up a knife, and began hacking at it.
Zach stared at the weapons in her hands. Thinking this an excellent time to take his leave, he took one last bite, and then hurried out.
In the yard, the Finney women were finishing up the laundry. After wishing them well, Zach hoisted his knapsack to his shoulder, grimacing under the sudden weight of it.
"Oh, I stuck in a few o' my jewels," Aunt Clara said with a sheepish grin.
"Mama's fond o' puttin' up jams and jellies," Ginny explained. "We got 'em in every nook an' cranny, in every color o' the rainbow."
Clara Finney's pale blue eyes disappeared behind dimpled cheeks as she pressed Zach to her bosom. "Don't know what I woulda done without ya, son."
Ginny was more emotional, sobbing as she threw her arms around his neck.
Flustered by the unexpected display of emotion--he'd never been embraced by a girl before, not even by his sisters--he gently freed himself. For a fleeting instant, he thought about asking the women to convey his goodbyes to Dinah, then changed his mind; he knew what she would say.
* * *
"Good riddance," Dinah said.
"Dinah!" Ginny said, aghast. "Zach never done nothin' to you."
"Never done nothin' for me neither. Don't know why you're so sweet on him. Ain't nothin' but a no account drifter, here today, gone tomorrow."
"No, he ain't, Dinah. Why, Zach don't even talk like anyone we know."
Dinah pondered Ginny's observations. No, Zach Bridger didn't talk like every other trapper, hunter, logger, or fisherman. He talked like someone refined; someone who read even when not in the privy; someone who wouldn't be interested in a couple of ignorant country gals.
Not that she cared one way or the other. For all his good looks and educated ways, Zach Bridger was still a poor, cracker boy from a poor, cracker family. Simple wants, simple needs. Fine for Ginny, maybe. But the man in her dreams wore suits, not denim.
* * *
Not much taller than his wife, Woodrow Finney had been a ball of energy before fate and circumstances rearranged his world. At one time, he'd done all the dirty, ball-busting chores needed to keep his family clothed and fed. Now, he was merely a bystander to life, trapped inside a body that no longer obeyed commands. Now, all he could do was watch the days pass inevitably into nights, each essentially the same: sleeping, eating, and relieving himself in a Mason jar. And that ate at his pride like rust on a tin roof.
On good mornings, a measure of hope and determination brightened his eyes. As if by sheer will he could overcome his affliction and resume his active life. Other mornings, try as he might, the former lumberjack turned shopkeeper could barely wiggle a finger, his progress spotty at best.
Unable to communicate verbally, he learned to express himself with an arch of an eyebrow, a shake of his head, or a narrowing of his light blue eyes. His mind was sharp as ever, but his physical appearance had begun to deteriorate. Hair that once grew thick and lush now came in patchy and sparse, like sprigs of crabgrass in a fallow field. Fleshy jowls hung from a prominent jawbone, and muscles once toned by vigorous exercise were now flaccid and weak from lack of use. Despite such obvious signs of atrophy, his family was optimistic.
* * *
After wandering the countryside for three months, Zach decided a visit to Caloosa was in order. While fish and small game cooked over an open fire would always hold a special appeal for him, he had to admit a nice home-cooked meal with potatoes and gravy was looking mighty good about now.
Ginny and Aunt Clara were thrilled to see him; Dinah ignored him as best she could. They were just finishing supper when fat raindrops began to ping against the window. Dinah quickly gathered up the table scraps and rushed out. "Gotta go, Aunt Clara. Thanks for the eats."
Zach mopped up his plate with his remaining bread, shoved it in his mouth, then ran after her. "Dinah, wait up," he said, snatching a large packet from a side chair on his way out.
Dinah's pace quickened.
"Wait up, will you? I have something for you."
"You ain't got nothin' I want, Zach Bridger."
"Don't you want to see it first before you turn it down?"
Clutching his gift, Zach trailed after her. Upon reaching her front porch, she spun around to face him. Barred from passing, he wedged the brown, paper parcel between them.
Dinah regarded the clumsily wrapped package.
"Open it," he urged.
Giving in to her curiosity, Dinah tore into the wrappings. The paper fell away and a length of blue flowered cotton spilled into her arms.
"It's a peace offering," he said. "I know you're still mad at me, and I thought this might ease me back into your good graces."
She shoved the fabric at him. "You can't buy your way into my good graces."
"No, no, that's not my intent. I just thought it would make a pretty dress. What do you think? There's six yards there. I hope it's enough."
Dinah fingered the smooth fabric, clearly confused by the innocent gesture of friendship. "It's enough," she grudgingly admitted.
He looked at her, brows raised expectantly.
"Thanks," she added.
The rain, light but steady, began to accumulate in the depression at the base of the steps, and Zach soon found himself standing in a puddle. "Uh, I hear you make really fine biscuits," he said, shifting from foot to foot.
Dinah eyed his soggy feet. "That so?"
"I've always liked biscuits and jelly for dessert," he said, looking properly pathetic.
With a sigh, Dinah rolled her eyes and stepped aside. "Come on in, then."
Zach hopped up on the porch. "Oh, by the way," he said, kicking off his wet shoes. "Did I mention that I've decided to hang up my paddle and knapsack for a while?"
She dumped her food scraps in a small bowl. "I don't give a rat's behind what you plan on doin'. Here, kitty, kitty, pss-pss. Come on, Posy, suppertime."
"I'm going to get a real job," he said, telling her anyway.
"I thought you liked livin' in the wild."
He seated himself at a chipped, porcelain table. "I do. I have everything I need--food, shelter, clothes. Everything but cold, hard cash. I can't purchase a piece of land or a wagon or even a horse to pull it without some jingle in my pocket. There's just so much bartering a man can do."
"I can't figger you out, Bridger. You act like a ordinary river rat, but you talk too good to be that simple. What's up with you anyway?"
Zach twined his fingers together. "It's a long story," he said, cracking his knuckles.
Dinah shrugged. "Well, it don't make no nevermind to me." She fixed a pot of coffee, then set a plate of biscuits and a jar of Aunt Clara's jelly on the table. "So how you plannin' to git this cash?"
He grinned. "As a cowboy."
"You, a cowboy? Shoot, you ain't no cowboy any more'n I am. Leastways I know how to milk a cow. Been doin' it since I was a wee one."
"I'll be working with cattle, Dinah, not cows. There's a difference, you know."
Her face reddened. "Course I know. I ain't dumb."
He gave a little chuckle. "Hey, can we start over? Maybe talk about something that doesn't get your dander up."
"Not if you keep sayin' I'm stupid. Y'know, my daddy used to say silence is golden. That means it's a heap safer to keep your mouth shut than to open it an' git a fist in it. I'd take a page outta his book if you wanna keep those pearly whites o' yours."
Zach sat up straight as a schoolboy. "Yes, ma'am. I stand corrected, shamed, and utterly penitent for my offense."
"An' that's another thing," she said, wagging her finger. "You're always talkin' over my head. Why don't you jest say what you mean an' be done with it?"
"Sorry," he said, suppressing a grin.
Dinah continued glowering. She sipped at her coffee, spread a glob of jelly on her biscuit, then took a huge chomp of it. "So," she said, as curiosity got the better of her. "You gonna tell me how you got so smart?"
Zach's eyes wandered to a spot on the wall. Reluctant to probe the still fresh wound, he said simply, "A friend."
His eyes refocused and he looked at her straight on. "A doctor friend where I used to live. His name was Drew Cunningham. I met him when my sister came down with the measles."
He lost himself in the wallpaper again. "I have three older sisters, no brothers."
"What happened to your sister, the one with the measles?"
"What? Oh, she had a pretty rough time of it, but she recovered. Look, do you want to hear this or not?"
He waited for her to fill her mouth before continuing. "My friend had lots of books, not just on medicine either. He'd let me come over and read anytime I wanted. We had the kind of relationship a boy usually has with an older brother or a father."
"You didn't have no daddy?"
"Yes," he said in a measured tone. "I did. And a mama too. I had a regular family with cousins and all. Now will you stop interrupting and let me get on with it?"
Dinah popped the last of her biscuit in her mouth.
"That's better. Now where was I? Okay, Daddy was a preacher." His eyes glazed over. "But he had some strange ideas about how people should live. Daddy had strange ideas about a lot of things; which wouldn't have been so bad except that he liked the fire and brimstone part of his job a lot more than the love and forgiveness part. Why, he'd have his congregation down on their knees begging the Lord's forgiveness while he ranted and raved over them. 'Fornicators, beware,' he'd shout. And his eyes would bulge and his face would turn red. 'You're doomed to hell unless ye repent of your sinful ways.' Sometimes I think he enjoyed scaring the devil out of those poor souls. Or else he got some perverse pleasure talking about the evils of the flesh. Like that was the only way he could . . . "
"The only way he could what?"
"Uh, nothing. Anyway, Daddy started wondering why the good doctor wasn't married and why I spent so much time with him. He began to question me at suppertime. What did I do over there? How come the doctor never took a wife? Those sort of questions. I said we talked; Daddy asked what about. I said we talked about the books I'd read."
"An' that's how come you know so much?"
Deep inside himself, Zach continued, unmindful of the interruption. "One day Daddy got it into his head that something unnatural was going on. He started preaching sermons on the evils of--of men--together. Everyone knew what he meant and who he meant.
"Anyway, to make a long, sordid story short, my daddy, the preacher, ruined the reputation and career of a fine man. My friend's practice was destroyed, and he left town. I did get a letter from him once; don't know how many I didn't get though. I left soon after that. I just couldn't stay there anymore, knowing how my daddy dirtied an innocent friendship. So now those ignorant crackers have to travel fifty miles to see a doctor. All because Daddy had to play judge and jury from the pulpit."
Zach grew still as his story ended, the remembering and telling of it affecting him more than he expected.
"So those folks bit off their nose to spite their face," Dinah said, summing up rather neatly.
Zach merely nodded, not trusting himself to say more.
The following excerpt is from the middle section of the book.
Dinah spent her last week in Caloosa straightening the house, washing linens in the new wringer washer Zach had given her on her birthday, and making sure the pantry was stocked with canned goods.
Torn between her feelings for Zach and her growing feelings for Tyler, she agonized over her decision. She didn't want to hurt Zach, but she knew she would. And it could've been avoided. Had he not been so good and decent, he would've gone off to school, earned his degree, and become the professional man he was meant to be. Instead, he took on responsibilities that weren't his.
Now he was using the children to isolate her in Caloosa, knowing how much she'd always wanted to live in a real town. If he hadn't been so stubborn, she could've sold her property, they all could've moved into town, and that would've been the end of her involvement with Tyler.
By Thursday evening the house was spotless and Dinah was edgy, wanting to pack but fearful of discovery. She didn't plan on taking much—the children's favorite toys and a few personal possessions; Tyler had promised to replace everything else.
That night, too keyed up to sleep, she looked back on her years with Zach, sorry for every gibe, every snippy remark she'd ever thrown at him. It had never been her intention to leave him, only Caloosa. But he gave her no choice. And she wouldn't let sentiment or guilt hold her back any longer.
She glanced at his shadowy profile next to her, not surprised to find his eyes open. In recent weeks, his wakefulness often extended into the wee hours of the morning. She knew this because she, too, had spent many hours awake.
Suddenly, quite unexpectedly, she felt a great wealth of feeling for the man beside her whose only offense was loving her. Feigning sleep, she rolled towards him. Her breast brushed his arm, and he moved away. Her bare leg touched his, and he stiffened. She flung her arm across his chest, and seconds later, he covered it with his. Not wanting to, she knew, but compelled to.
"Are you sleeping?" he whispered.
She hesitated before answering. "No."
He pulled away. "Then don't." His tone was a warning as well as a plea.
Needing to settle a vague disquietude within her, she reached out again. Again he turned her away. She urged his cheek to the pillow and touched her lips to his. He inhaled sharply but did not return the kiss. She kissed him again, harder, her body tingling with a strange excitement. And though he tried to resist, tried to push out of her embrace, in the end he surrendered, abandoning pride with a long, low moan.