Ridge and Adeline rode between the cliffs out to where three homes dotted the prairie beyond. “Town was getting overcrowded, so some of us built out here. I predict more will come.”
In the short drive, he told her about the twenty acres of land he’d staked out around their place. “It’s not much to look at right now, but next year I plan to plant fruit trees. I dug a well on our property and the water is sweet.” He glanced at her and found her green eyes dancing, a smile on her lips. Happiness filled him that she was satisfied with such pitiful offerings. If only she could speak instead of having to write out her words.
Adeline grabbed her paper and pencil lying on the seat and scribbled. “Can I have a cow and some chickens?”
He stopped the buggy and took her hand. “Adeline, you don’t have to ask for anything. Just let me know whatever you want, and I’ll get it. Your wants, needs, and even whims are as important as mine. We’re equals. Understand?”
She swallowed and gave a slight jerk of her head. The breeze lifted a tendril of gold and laid it across her eyes. Ridge brushed back the strand and found the texture like fine silk. Adeline flinched, pulled her hand away, and scooted as far from him as she could get on the bench seat. Dammit! She’d reacted like he was going to strike her.
For sure someone had. A muscle worked in his jaw.
“I’m sorry. I wasn’t trying…” He picked up the reins and they rode the rest of the way in silence.
Once at the two-story frame house, he set the brake and helped her down. He tried to look at the place they’d be calling home through her eyes and saw little to commend it. A ton of work still needed doing, but he was glad he’d added colorful flowerboxes under the front windows. Some of the ladies had filled the planters with pretty marigolds and daisies. Frilly curtains framed the wide windows and Ridge hadn’t liked them much, but he’d try if Adeline did.
As he got time and money, he’d whitewash the place and pray the wind and sand wouldn’t strip the paint off too soon. And plant some shade trees. They did have one—a lone elm at the right corner outside the kitchen. A weary soldier, it leaned until its branches nearly touched the ground.
Adeline handed him a piece of paper that read, “I like it.”
“Let’s go inside.” He prayed he’d remembered to straighten things up.
She paused for a long time in the parlor, sadness darkening in her eyes. There was no mess there, so she must have been thinking about something else. She’d said almost nothing about her former life in her letters, instead talking about books she’d once read and asking questions about him and the town.
Maybe one day when she was stronger, he’d get her to talk about family. He didn’t even know if she had any. But his curiosity would have to wait. They were on her schedule. Again, he wished she could speak. Written communication was fine if that’s all there was. But a person said so much more when actually speaking the words. Cadence, rhythm, tone all revealed the state of mind of the speaker. If being safe helped, he’d do all he could to reassure her.
After inspecting the kitchen, they went upstairs. She ran her fingers approvingly across the quilt on the bed. The golds, browns, and greens added a bright splash of color to the bland room, even he could see that. And he was glad he’d hung a picture—a sweeping landscape of the Hill Country that reminded him of a home he could never go back to.
“The women in town gave us the quilt as a marriage gift,” he explained. “They said it’s the wedding ring design, whatever the hell that is.” He turned, not sure what he saw on her face. Acceptance? Disinterest? What? Before he could figure it out, she returned to the hallway.
The spare bedroom they might one day use as a nursery received a nod. Ridge grew warm and unbuttoned the top of his collarless shirt. A baby was another subject they’d avoided in their letters. Maybe she didn’t want kids. He hadn’t let himself think about it much. Wanted men usually didn’t dream too far into the future—it was a hazard of the profession.
Maybe if he got rid of this dark cloud hanging over him…
He couldn’t tell if she liked the room or not. Joy did, however, leap to her face when he showed her the bathing room. “You only have to turn this knob for hot water.” He leaned over to demonstrate. “When you finish, lift this stopper and it drains right out into the yard.”
She turned for the stairs and he followed her down. At the bottom, she opened a small door to a little enclosed space under the stairwell. Her eyes lit up as though she’d found buried treasure.
Ridge ducked through the door. “This is just empty space. Not sure what to do with it.”
Adeline fiercely scribbled the word “Mine” on a piece of paper.
“Sure, whatever you want. I can put a bench in here, but I don’t think it’s large enough for a bed.” He frowned. Did she mean to sleep under the stairs? He wasn’t sure how much he’d like that.
She took the piece of paper from him and wrote “Safe,” then shoved it to his chest again.
Her forceful claim of the space rattled what little calm he’d managed to gather. The wounded bird had found her nest. God help him, he and this airless room would keep her safe until she gathered strength to fly.