Letters from Owen, Part Four
Copyright 2017 T. L. Haddix
All Rights Reserved
June 12, 1969
“I think I finally got them all to sleep,” Owen said, coming downstairs for the third time in thirty minutes. “Little rug rats, they’re excited about the trip, and they won’t settle down. You’d almost think it was Christmas or something,” he told Sarah as he wrapped her in a hug.
Tomorrow, they’d be leaving for their annual month-long vacation in Savannah, where Sarah’s mother and sister lived. Jack and Gilly and their two kids were going as well, though they wouldn’t be able to stay as long.
She grinned. “Who was it this time, Ben or Emma?”
“Oh, no—it was your oldest child. The twins are sound asleep, thank God. Johnny was wondering if we’d be better off to fly down to Georgia. I hated to disappoint him. The boy has his head in the clouds these days. I think he wants to be a pilot this week.” He dropped a kiss on her mouth. “What else needs doing before we turn in for the evening?”
Her answer was interrupted by the ringing of the phone. Owen frowned and glanced at his watch—it was nearly nine thirty. “Jack and Gilly, do you suppose?” he asked as she moved to the table in the hall to answer it.
“Probably. Hello? Oh, hi Trent. No, he’s right here. Is everything okay?” Her eyes closed and she braced a hand against the wall under the stairs. “Oh, no. I… here’s Owen.” She shook her head as she handed him the phone, her eyes filling with tears. “There’s been an accident.”
Owen held his arm out for her as he accepted the receiver. “Trent?”
For as long as he lived, he’d never forget the stunned flatness of his cousin’s voice. “Noah and Greg were in a wreck tonight. Greg’s in the hospital, but Noah… he didn’t make it.”
“What? Oh, God. No…” The boys were Owen’s uncle Eli’s youngest sons, twins, just barely twenty-two. They were identical, full of mischief and sweet troublemaking, and the notion that one of them was gone was inconceivable.
“Mom and Dad are in a pretty bad way. Can you come? Not tonight since it’s so late, but maybe tomorrow?” Trent asked.
Sarah, who’d been standing next to him, listening tensely, nodded. “We’ll make it work,” she murmured.
“Of course we’ll be there,” Owen said, his voice gruff. “God, Trent, I’m so sorry. Where do you need us? At the farm or what?”
“I imagine that’s where everyone will congregate.” Trent sighed. “I know you all were leaving tomorrow for Georgia. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t give me a reason to whip you when we get to London. You know better than to apologize. What happened?”
“They were out with friends, and I guess they tried to avoid a pothole or something. It’s been raining pretty hard here all day. Noah lost control of the car, and they hit a tree. Greg has some broken ribs, a broken leg, cuts, that sort of thing. Their friends are okay. Noah didn’t have a chance. He was gone as soon as they hit.”
Promising to be there as soon as they could, Owen hung up. He stared down at Sarah, full of shocked grief. “I—I don’t know what to do.”
The urge to move hit him, and he stalked to the open door, looking out through the screen at the night beyond. It wasn’t enough. He felt like he couldn’t get any air into his lungs, and he went onto the porch, not stopping until he was in the yard a good twenty feet from the house. Bending double, he grasped his knees and let the pain come.
When Sarah came to him, he turned away, hurting too much to face her.
“Do you need to run?” she asked quietly.
He straightened. “Yes. But what about—”
“Hush. Don’t worry about anything here. I’ll call Jack and Gilly. Go let this out.”
Unable to even look at her, he nodded, then made for the barn. He’d already stripped out of most of his clothing by the time he entered the structure, and after taking half a minute to throw the items over a stall door, he fell to his knees. Within seconds, he was shifting into the wolf, his anguish speeding the process along. Barely giving himself time to recover from the transition, he ran.
~ * * * ~
Sarah’s heart was breaking, not just for Eli and Amy and their family, but for Owen as well. He was as close to their kids as though they were siblings, and for all intents and purposes, they were. As she watched him cross the field to the barn, she said a prayer that the family would have the strength to get through what was to come.
Owen would be gone for a while, she suspected—he’d run until he was exhausted. Over the nine years they’d been married, there’d only been a handful of times when he’d needed to grieve, when darker emotions had overtaken him. Those were the times he became the wolf, a stunningly beautiful gray and black creature that represented a side of himself he wasn’t comfortable exhibiting to anyone, not even her. He’d only let her see him in lupine form a couple of times, and it had made him so self-conscious, she’d not pressed him for more.
After going back in the house, she called her brother. “I don’t know what this will mean for the trip,” she said after explaining.
“We’ll figure something out. I hate to hear about Noah. Is there anything we can do?”
“Not that I know of right now. I don’t want to call Mama until we know what our plans are, plus it’s late.” She thought about the last time they’d seen Noah, back at Easter. “He still was just a baby, Jack, with the whole world ahead of him. Not much younger than us, not much older than Johnny. Parents aren’t supposed to bury their children.”
“I know. Will you pass our condolences on?” he asked quietly, his mind no doubt where hers was—on the loss their sister Kathy had suffered nine years ago.
“Of course. I’d best go check on the kids. Owen needed some time alone.”
Jack knew about Owen’s abilities, and he knew what that phrase meant. “I’ll keep an ear open for him down here.” As his and Gilly’s property bordered theirs, albeit at the foot of the mountain, he was accustomed to being the guardian for Owen on that side of the hollow.
“You know, we could take the kids with us and use your wagon, head out as planned in the morning. Then when you all were able, you could come on down and join us. It’s just a thought.”
Sarah considered the idea. “Rachel’s a little young still, but that might work for the other three. Let me talk it over with Owen when he gets back or first thing in the morning. What time will you be up?”
“Six or so, but call whenever. Let us know if we can help.”
“I will. Thanks again, Jack.” Once she hung up, she headed upstairs to check on the kids. All four of them were sound asleep, so she didn’t linger, not wanting to disturb them. As she pulled the girls’ door around, a sob caught in her throat, and she hurried back downstairs so they wouldn’t hear her crying.
The temptation to keep running until he couldn’t feel anything was strong, but Owen managed to resist. He wasn’t alone in his grief—Sarah would be hurting too. That, along with the need to touch their children, to make sure they were safe in their beds, drove him back to the house after only an hour or so, well before he was fully in control of his grief.
Covered in dirt and sweat, he didn’t bother putting his clothes back on other than his briefs. He simply grabbed the rest from the barn and carried them to the house. When Sarah stood from one of the rocking chairs on the porch, he wasn’t surprised.
“I’m a mess,” he warned her as he stopped at the foot of the steps. “The kids?”
“Sound asleep.” She assessed him quietly. “Do you still need distance?”
“No,” he whispered, tossing his clothes onto the porch and extending his hand to her. “I just don’t want you to get dirty.”
“Oh, shut up, would you?” Before she finished speaking, she had her arms around him, her face pressed against his chest over his heart.
For the longest time, they stood there holding each other, not speaking with words. The weather was unseasonably warm with barely a breeze blowing, something unusual given their location on top of the mountain.
When Owen’s stomach growled, Sarah pulled back and rubbed his chest. “You need food. Why don’t I fix you something while you get cleaned up?”
But hunger for food wasn’t foremost in Owen’s mind at the moment, nor was a shower. Instead of answering, he kissed her, letting his need communicate itself through their embrace. He desperately needed to feel something other than pain, and making love to Sarah was the one surefire thing that would give light to the darkness.
Like setting a match to a fuse, his desperation provoked her own. Reaching under her nightgown, he deftly shoved her underwear down, growling low when she obliged him by stepping out of them.
“Owen, the kids—the windows are open,” she gasped breathlessly as he bit her shoulder none too gently. In turn, she dug her fingernails into his upper arms and returned the nip.
The action sent a jolt through him like lightning. “Then we’ll have to be extra quiet, won’t we?” he asked against her lips as he lifted her and carried her onto the porch, using his weight to press her against the house as he slipped inside her. He caught her gasps and moans with his mouth, but he couldn’t stop long enough to get them to the bedroom. He wasn’t strong enough to wait.
Their coupling wasn’t smooth or particularly skillful on his part, but Owen did manage to make sure he wasn’t the only one who benefited from their lovemaking in the end. As they held each other after, each gasping for breath, his grief rose. Tucking his face into the curve of her neck, he cried, silently letting the tears fall as he was still cognizant of the need for quiet.
Sarah let him mourn, holding him the whole time without speaking. When he finally lifted his head, he couldn’t look at her. He was still holding her against the house, and he swore under his breath. “Did I hurt you?”
“No, I’m fine.” She wobbled a bit as she stood. “Somewhat weak-kneed, but I’m fine.”
Owen went back to where her panties were still laying on the ground, picking them up and grabbing his own clothes as he came back up the steps. “I should probably shower.”
“Mind company?” she asked as she followed him into the house and locked the door behind them.
When they were standing under the hot spray a few minutes later, he had her turn so that he could lather up her back. Red stripes that repeated the pattern of the lap siding he’d pressed her against while they were on the porch ran down her back. Cursing, he traced the lines.
“I thought you said I didn’t hurt you.”
Sarah glanced over her shoulder. “You didn’t. Why?”
“You have marks. I practically leapt on you like an animal. God, I’m an idiot.”
She turned and gazed at him with a perturbed, impatient look he knew well—it was usually reserved for after he’d said something outrageously negative and mule-headed regarding himself.
“I beg your pardon, Owen Campbell, but I believe I was right there on that porch with you every step of the way.” When he didn’t respond, she narrowed her eyes. “Do you honestly think I couldn’t have stopped you? Don’t you know me better than that by now?”
He gently ran a soapy cloth over her neck and shoulders. “I’m fully aware you could have. My concern is that you wouldn’t because you don’t want to hurt me or some such thing.”
Hissing out a growl, she reached down and grabbed him, her grip firm enough that he went perfectly still out of instinct. “You weren’t the only one who needed that—you simply beat me to the punch. I’m capable of saying no to you, husband, as I believe you’ll recall I have on a number of occasions.”
“Rarely,” he shot back when she released him.
Sarah blushed. “Is that a complaint? Don’t do your husbandly duty so well if it is.”
Realizing they were on the verge of a fight over having too much good sex, he stared at her, torn between laughter and anger. When her lips twitched, he looked away. If he started laughing right now, he didn’t know if he could stop.
“I’m sorry,” he said softly. “I’m not thinking clearly.”
“No kidding.” She took the washcloth from him and rinsed it, then added more soap and tugged on his arm. “Let me do your back.”
Giving in, he turned. “Did you call Jack?”
“Yes. He offered to take most of the kids on down to Georgia. We’d keep Rachel with us, as she’s so little still.” She was only eighteen months old. “I told him we’d let him know, probably in the morning. I don’t want to wake them tonight if we don’t have to.”
“I don’t want to let the kids go, but it’s probably the wisest choice,” he said quietly. “I suppose that would work. What if we didn’t end up catching them before they return?”
“Then they can bring our brood back with them. Everyone will understand.”
He nodded as he brought her hand up to kiss the back of her fingers over her wedding ring. “I know.”
Once they were dressed, Sarah studied him. “How about some scrambled eggs and toast?”
Framing her face, he kissed her. “I love you. Thank you for taking care of me.”
Her smile was solemn. “I love taking care of you. Thank you for letting me. Go check on the babies. I’ll get you some food.”
The three oldest kids were still slumbering, but Rachel was stirring. Ordinarily, Owen would sit with her, talking low and rubbing her back until she drifted to sleep, but tonight, he needed a baby to cuddle. Scooping her up, he took her down to the kitchen with him.
“Hey, Mama, look who I found,” he said softly as Sarah looked up from the sink where she was rinsing the skillet.
Her smile was soft. “I’m not the least bit surprised. Want me to hold her while you eat?”
“Nah, I have her. Is all this mine, or are you going to eat too?” He picked up the plate she’d prepared and took it to the small, round table in the corner beside the kitchen windows.
“It’s all yours.” She came around the island and joined him, two glasses of water in hand. “She’s already falling back asleep.”
He glanced down at Rachel, who was snuggled against his shoulder. “I think she may be a bigger daddy’s girl than Emma.”
Sarah propped her head on her hand and watched him. “You wouldn’t have it any other way, either.”
“Not for all the money and riches in the world,” he said softly. “I love my family. God, Sarah, how in the world does a parent get through losing a child?”
“Does it make me selfish to say I hope and pray we never have to find out?” She rested her feet on his, a way of touching they’d started using in recent years when they had their hands full, which with four kids under ten years old, was often. After a couple of minutes, she asked, “What do you want to do in the morning as far as going to London?”
He didn’t answer right away, finishing a piece of toast first. “Our bags are mostly packed. It’d be easy enough to have Jack and Gilly come up and get the kids. We could trade vehicles—they’d need the room in ours for everyone. Then we can drive Gilly’s car to London, stay for a few days, and hopefully go from there down through Tennessee. There’s no point in coming back here first.”
“Okay. I’ll take care of packing a few more things that we’ll need and that’s what we’ll do. We should be able to be on the road by seven thirty like we’d planned.” She took his empty plate and their glasses to the sink and washed them.
Owen didn’t move from the table. Instead, he sat there, staring down at Rachel, brushing back the dark hair that was just like Sarah’s. He couldn’t help but marvel at how much of a resemblance their youngest daughter had to Sarah, and he smiled.
“She’s going to be your twin when she grows up,” he said as Sarah came back to the table to lean against him. “That’s terrifying.”
“That she’s going to grow up and be out in the world where we can’t protect her? I know it is.” She kissed the top of his head. “Let’s go to bed. Do you want to take her back upstairs?”
“No, but it’s best that I do.” He stood. “I’ll see you in a few minutes.”
By the time he came back down, she’d finished with the packing. “Everything that can be readied tonight, is. Do you think you can sleep?” she asked as he came to stand in front of her.
“Probably not, but we should try. The next few days are going to be awful.”
As they turned the lights off and got in bed, Owen tried to steer away from the grief and pain. His mind kept going in circles, however, not letting him see any peace. He’d just moved in to live with Eli and Amy permanently when Greg and Noah were born. As he was the same age as Trent—their oldest child—at fourteen, he’d helped a lot with the babies. Literally from the day they’d been born, he’d known them. He’d helped them learn to walk, had changed their diapers, babysat them—reluctantly—with Trent while Eli and Amy were out. All the things big brothers did for their younger siblings, Owen had done with Greg and Noah.
The more he thought about Noah being gone, the more it hurt. Finally, unable to stay in bed, he slipped out without waking Sarah. He didn’t feel like shifting again, but he needed to be alone so he could grieve. At the very least, he needed to be somewhere he could move, focus his mind away from the pain. He headed for his studio.
By the time he was starting to feel tired, he’d managed to clean, reorganize, and rearrange most of the downstairs. The clock on the wall by the kitchen ticked away, showing him that it was three a.m. Knowing he had to try to sleep, he turned the lights out, locked up, and went back to the house.
Sarah rolled over as he climbed back in bed. “Owen?”
“Shh, I’m fine.” He yawned as he snuggled up to her. “Go back to sleep.”
“Mm, okay. Love you.”
“I love you, too.” Letting out a long breath, he closed his eyes. As he felt sleep come to claim him, he gave thanks for the woman he held. He didn’t even want to consider what they were going to have to face, but knowing she’d be beside him gave him a large measure of comfort. There was no way he could get through what was to come without her.
By eight o’clock Sunday night, Owen was ready to come out of his skin. Between handling his own grief and helping his family through theirs, he was starting to feel the pressure of being confined. He’d socialized so much since Friday, all he wanted to do was go home and lock the world out. He couldn’t, not yet anyhow.
Noah’s funeral was scheduled for tomorrow at noon. Depending on how much Owen and Sarah were needed, they might try to leave after it was over. His uncle Eli had already cut them loose, but neither Owen nor Sarah wanted to go until they knew things would be as okay as possible.
While he couldn’t go home, he could certainly take a walk outside, get away from the stuffy, crowded funeral home. With Rachel in his arms, that’s exactly what he did.
“That breeze is refreshing,” he told her as they walked. The funeral home had a sloping lawn behind it, and a small, slow stream ran across the very back of the property. “You’ve been such a good girl these last few days. I’m proud of you, Rachel Mia.” He kissed her cheek, then set her on her feet.
She giggled up at him, a miniature of her mother, then set about exploring. Owen didn’t let her get too far in the falling twilight, keeping pace with her as she rambled. Though she wasn’t as much of a rough-and-tumble girl like Emma—who always seemed to have scrapes or bruises from playing too hard—Rachel liked to be outside. She didn’t mind bugs or dirt, but she also didn’t seem to attract mess the same way her sister did.
Thinking of Emma made him rub his chest. He missed his babies. Even though they were perfectly safe, enjoying their trip with Jack and Gilly from all accounts, Owen worried. More so now, with the loss of Noah, the pain of separation was especially poignant. John, who’d been close to Noah, had been devastated by the news of his death. He’d almost stayed with them in Kentucky, but Owen had encouraged him to go to Georgia instead. “I promise we’ll go down, spend some time with Eli and Amy once you’re home,” he’d told John Friday morning. “Eli and Amy will understand.” So John went with Jack and Gilly.
Watching Rachel play, Owen admitted to himself that when he saw the rest of the kids, he’d hug them all close and dote on them more than he would normally. So would Sarah. Neither of them cared if the kids ended up a bit more spoiled. They’d be safe and happy and alive, and that was all that mattered.
“What do you have there, little bit?” he asked, hurrying the short distance over to Rachel, who’d started plucking something up off the ground.
He reached her in time to see her yank up a clump of grass and lose her balance, making her plop down on her butt with a startled laugh. With wide blue eyes, she looked up at him, grinning, and then promptly started eating the grass.
“Rachel, no. That’s not food.” He hunkered down to take the grass, snorting wryly. “Well, most of the time it isn’t. Sometimes it is, if you’re a deer.”
Rachel wasn’t about to let go of her prize. Her hand tightened around the grass and she screeched unhappily as he tried to make her let go. Slapping at him with her left hand, she glared up at him, her bottom lip quivering. “No! Mine, Papa. Mine!”
Trying to keep a straight face whilst in the middle of a tug-of-war with an eighteen-month-old over a clump of grass called for more restraint than Owen possessed. As he laughed, still gently pulling on the grass, Rachel only grew madder.
Within a minute, she was in a full-on meltdown, inconsolable as she shrieked with disappointment. When she saw he wasn’t going to give, she let go of the grass and hit him with both hands.
“Mine Mama!” she sobbed, fat tears rolling down her cheeks. Whenever he disciplined her—which admittedly wasn’t often as she was a good baby—she always ran to Sarah for comfort.
“Oh, now don’t even start that slapping,” he said softly as he stood with her in his arms. “You know better than hit people, young lady. Come on. Let’s see where your Mama is.”
“What on earth are you doing to that baby?” a woman’s voice asked, and then she laughed.
Turning, Owen did a double-take when he saw who was standing behind him, then cursed silently. He put his game face on, however, and greeted her. “I’m being the meanest daddy on the planet. Nora Caudill, how in blazes are you?”
The very last person he’d expected or wanted to see, Nora was a former neighbor of Eli and Amy’s. She’d sold her farm and moved out to Somerset not long after Owen and Sarah married.
A couple of years after his mother had died, when he was twenty-four, he’d worked for Nora, helping her out on her farm that summer. A widow who was a handful of years older than Owen, she’d been lonely and hurting as much as he was. For a few weeks, he’d also shared her bed. She was the only woman he’d ever been with besides Sarah.
She smiled at him sweetly, all petite blonde prettiness and light. “I’m doing well. I’m so sorry about Noah.”
Owen ducked his head as he joined her on the edge of the parking lot. “Thank you.” Rachel hid her face in his shoulder, still crying softly. “I need to find Sarah.”
“Do you mind if I walk with you?” Nora asked.
“Of course not,” he said. Liar. You just don’t want your chickens to come home to roost. Telling himself it was ridiculous to be afraid that Sarah would meet Nora, he fell into step beside her.
“I wondered if I’d see you,” she said softly. “I’ve kept up with you some through the years with Amy. Is this your baby?”
Owen rubbed Rachel’s back as she quieted to hiccups, half asleep now. “She is. This is Rachel. The other three are with Sarah’s brother and his wife in Georgia for vacation. Two boys and another girl,” he said before she could ask. “I hear you’re a mom now. Congratulations.”
She blushed. “Thank you. Henry’s a blessing. He’s at a friend’s house here in town. He’s a rambunctious little guy, five years old and ready to conquer the world. I didn’t think bringing him here tonight would be a good idea.”
Since Rachel had calmed down, Owen stopped. They were halfway back to the funeral home, just at the back of the last row of cars, and he struggled to find the right words to ask the question that had been plaguing him for years. “Who… where’d the name Henry come from? His father?”
Nora’s smile was tinged with sadness. “No. He’s named for a sweet man who meant a lot to me a long time ago, someone who helped me get through a very bad spell. Unfortunately, Henry’s father isn’t in the picture.”
“He’s named after me,” Owen said, staring at her. He hoped his dismay didn’t show.
When Amy had pulled Owen aside five years ago to tell him about Nora’s having given birth, she’d questioned him hard. “Why did she name that child after you? I know she did, even though she won’t tell me yay or nay. I’ve not known her for fifteen years now and not learned when she’s hiding something.”
He’d had to confess to his aunt then that he’d had a summer romance with Nora years before he and Sarah married. He’d also begged her not to mention the naming to Sarah, as he knew that was something that would upset his wife. He’d meant to tell her himself, but with how busy life had gotten, it had slipped his mind until a few minutes ago, when he’d turned around and seen Nora.
She was studying him. “That bothers you. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it as anything other than respect.”
“It makes me a bit uncomfortable,” he admitted.
She frowned. “Best I recall, you hate that name. I always liked it, but you hated it.”
He shifted Rachel. “I do hate it. Henry’s never who I was, who I wanted to be. It’s none of my business anyhow, what you named him. I’m glad you have him, truly.”
“So am I. Everything changed for the better once he arrived. I’ve never been happier.” But there was a lingering sadness in her eyes that belied her words. “Speaking of happy—you are. It’s written all over you. I never pegged you for a family man, but it seems to suit you.”
Smoothing his hand over Rachel’s back, he nodded. “They’re my world, Sarah and the kids. It’s that simple.”
“Hmmm, it shows. She’s a lucky woman.”
Owen smiled. “I’m the lucky one. She’s a saint.”
Nora twisted the bracelet she wore. “I think I’ll head on inside, see if I can find Amy. I parked and saw you back here, and I wanted to say hello. It was good to see you again, though not under these circumstances.”
“And you. I’m going to stay out here since she’s gone to sleep,” Owen said, his voice low. “Take care of yourself, Nora.”
She smiled and lifted her chin. “I will. You do the same.”
As he watched her walk away, he sighed and leaned against the car he’d stopped beside. The realization that he could have ended up with Nora instead of Sarah if Fate had twisted differently was jarring. While times were changing and society was in the midst of a sexual revolution, Owen still felt like sex and intimacy were sacred things to be shared between people who loved one another.
He wasn’t proud of his relationship with Nora. They’d caught each other in a moment of weakness and pain. If not for that, he’d never have touched her. Back then, he’d not expected ever to have the kind of relationship he had with Sarah. He’d not thought himself worthy of such. So when Nora had approached him, when he’d let himself be seduced, he’d never expected anything to come of it. She hadn’t either, or so she’d said.
Owen was the kind of man who, if he were to get a woman pregnant, he’d marry her. He had never been more aware of how large a bullet he’d dodged until this moment, standing in a darkening parking lot with his precious daughter sound asleep on his shoulder. But for the grace of God, he could be married to Nora. John, Emma, Ben, and Rachel wouldn’t exist. He’d never have fallen in love with Sarah. The life they’d built—the life that meant everything to him—wouldn’t exist.
Even though he’d been with Nora years before he’d formally met Sarah, he felt ashamed. That something he’d done when he was young and stupid and hurting could have had such a huge impact on his life shook him.
It wasn’t that Nora wasn’t a nice person. She was—Owen really liked her and he had a lot of respect for her. Affection, even. But she wasn’t Sarah. She wasn’t his world.
“I hope to God you kids are smarter than me,” he told Rachel, laying his head on hers and closing his eyes. “If your mother and I can raise you so that you understand how precious this life is—what we have—I’ll be satisfied that we’ve done a good job.”
Though he hated to take her inside and risk waking her, he also didn’t want to run the risk of Sarah meeting Nora. He didn’t know if he could stop it from happening, but if nothing else, he needed to try. He sighed as he acknowledged that he and Sarah were going to have to have a talk about Nora’s son’s name. “I should have told her years ago, little bit. Let’s hope that decision doesn’t come back to haunt me now.”
Sarah hadn’t seen Owen and Rachel for a little while. As she stood sipping water in the funeral home’s small lounge, she leaned against the counter, weary to her bones. If she knew her husband, he’d escaped for some time alone—at least she hoped he had. Though she’d been looking forward to the visit with her family in Georgia, she was seriously considering asking Owen to take them home to Firefly Hollow tomorrow.
They could go down to Savannah later in the summer maybe, or even at Thanksgiving. For right now, Owen’s well-being was more important than what they’d had planned. Though he was handling the stress of Noah’s loss well enough, Sarah fully expected him to fall apart once all the responsibilities surrounding the funeral were done. The safest place for him to do that would be the mountain they called home. Simply put, he needed to be able to run right now. He couldn’t do that at the beach.
She was straightening up the counter, getting ready to go looking for Owen and Rachel, when a smartly dressed blonde stepped inside the room. With a shy smile, she nodded at Sarah.
“Excuse me,” Sarah said, returning the nod politely as she headed for the door.
“You’re Owen’s Sarah, aren’t you?”
Stopping, Sarah tilted her head. “I am. I’m sorry—do I know you? I’ve met so many people the last few days, I barely know my own name.”
The blonde tightened her fingers around the clutch purse she held. “We’ve never met, no. I’m Nora Caudill. I used to own the farm just down the road from Eli and Amy.”
Sarah shook the hand Nora had offered automatically, before her words had a chance to register. When they did, she simply stared at the woman, lost for words. “Oh,” she finally managed. “How do you do?”
That Nora. That neighbor. For an instant, Sarah thought she was going to be sick. Telling herself to suck it up like the adult she was, she figuratively straightened her spine, even as the pain slapped her.
Every move Nora made was ladylike, feminine and delicate in a way that made Sarah feel like a bumbling hulk. Even her handshake was soft and girlish, not firm and steady like Sarah’s. As she stood watching the woman her husband had been with before her, it struck Sarah that Nora Caudill was the polar opposite of her in nearly every way. She didn’t know what to think about that.
“Your little girl looks just like you,” Nora was saying. “I ran into Owen in the parking lot a few minutes ago. He’s… not the same man I knew all those years ago.”
“Excuse me?” Sarah didn’t know how to respond. She was tired, emotionally and physically, and she’d simply not been prepared for this meeting. A hundred years wouldn’t have prepared her for this meeting.
Nora blushed—delicately, of course—and waved her hand. “I’m sorry—I’m not handling this well. I didn’t seek you out to cause trouble, truly. It’s just that seeing Owen the way he is now, I wanted to meet you. I hardly recognized him, he’s changed so much in temperament. I’m afraid my curiosity got the best of me.”
Clasping her hands together at her waist, Sarah struggled to keep her countenance neutral. As much as she wanted to pretend otherwise, the jealousy bug had bitten her hard. “How do you mean?”
Nora laid her purse on the table and laced her fingers together, then shrugged and gestured wide. “He was so angry when I knew him, very untouchable.”
Sarah snorted. “Not from what I’ve heard.”
“Oh, I don’t mean sex,” the other woman said, her voice low. She waved her hand. “Emotionally, he was isolated. Even as… intimate as we were, he never let me in. He didn’t have that kind of sentiment in him, not then, even though he was kind. He never would have been able to let anyone in, I thought. But tonight, the man I saw—he’s happy. He’s at peace in a way he never was when I knew him.” She sighed. “So I wanted to meet you, to make sure you understand how significant a difference you’ve made. Owen always deserved more than he felt like he did. I could read that on him plain as day back then. I’m happy that he has that, that he has you. He lights up when he talks about you, you know. That’s all I wanted to say.”
Sarah exhaled slowly through her nose, pressing her lips together. “You love him, don’t you?” she said when she could speak.
Nora’s smile was sad. “In a way, yes. I knew then he wasn’t meant for me. I’m glad he was meant for someone.”
Clearing her throat, Sarah glanced toward the door to make sure no one was near. “You could have made a play for him back then.”
“No. Oh, I won’t lie and say I didn’t consider it. When he came down after Eli and Amy’s house burned, he’d changed—I could see that. The thought did enter my mind that I should try. But then he mentioned you, and I knew I never stood a chance.” It was Nora’s turn to clear her throat.
“The thing is, I loved my husband with all my heart. It nearly killed me when he died. I knew I’d never have that kind of love with Owen, and I wasn’t willing to settle for less—especially once it became clear that he was utterly enamored of you. I’ll admit, I was jealous. I think most any woman who knew Owen would be. But it wasn’t meant for us. Seeing him tonight, I understand exactly how wrong we would have been for each other.”
“I suppose I can appreciate that,” Sarah said slowly. “This isn’t very comfortable for me.”
“I know. For me either,” Nora admitted.
As they stared at each other, the absurdity of the situation struck Sarah, and she chuckled. “Of all the times I’ve thought about meeting you, this isn’t how I’d imagined our conversation would go.”
Nora grimaced. “Me either. I was half afraid to approach you. The last thing I wanted was to upset you, especially now. But my dratted curiosity… well, it always has gotten me into trouble.” She smiled. “In another life, I think we could have been fast friends, Sarah Campbell.”
Sarah nodded. “But not this one.”
“No, not this one.” Nora extended her hand again, and this time, Sarah took it and held it. They didn’t say anything else, just studied each other for a long, long minute, and then Nora left.
“Well. Now you know,” Sarah murmured as she wrapped her arms around herself, waiting to give the other woman a good lead before leaving the room. As cathartic as the meeting had been, she had no desire ever to lay eyes on Nora Caudill again.
Sarah was secure in her marriage, confident without being cocky that she held Owen’s love and affection. Even so, she didn’t like the reminder that there had been someone before her, that someone else had done things with Owen that Sarah considered sacred. She didn’t care one whit for what the new, modern woman was “supposed” to think about sex—the only thing that mattered to her was how she felt and how Owen felt.
She ran into him in the hall outside the lounge, her heart skipping a beat at the sight of him carrying a sleeping Rachel. He looked tired, his cheeks shadowed with a beard even though he’d shaved that afternoon before they came to the funeral home. His hair was mussed, probably from where he’d run his hands through it, and his shirt wasn’t as crisp as it had been earlier. But he was so handsome and so dear to her, it almost hurt to look at him.
Nora’s words about losing her husband came back to Sarah, and she said an extra prayer of thanks as she slid her arm around Owen’s waist.
“Looks like we need to get this little one to a bed,” she said softly, touching Rachel’s curled-up hand and then his shirt underneath. “Are those grass stains?”
To her surprise, Owen’s lips turned up and amusement lit his eyes. “They are. Your daughter threw a holy fit because I wouldn’t let her eat grass.” His spoke in a voice low enough that it wouldn’t carry. “She may look like you, but I’m starting to wonder if she doesn’t take after me in certain ways too.”
Sarah’s eyes widened. “You mean… Oh, my. That would be something else, wouldn’t it?” She tightened her arm around him. “Our little fawn.”
“Time will tell.” He sighed. “I spoke to Jolene—she said for us to get out of here and get some rest. She’s going to try to get Eli and Amy to go home, and she figures she’ll have better luck with that if less people are here. It’s still a madhouse up front in the chapel where they are. She and Trent are working to clear it out.”
“All right. I’m ready to go when you are. Want me to take Rachel?”
“Nah, I have her.”
Trent met them at the front door. “You’re heading out? Good. Dad’s about to throw everybody out. Mom’s on the verge of collapse.”
Sarah glanced at Owen, concerned. “Do you need our help?”
Trent shook his head and gave her a quick hug. “I think we can handle it. Get this little one back to the motel and rest. I’ll call later tonight and let you know if there’s anything that comes up.”
Since the family houses were full of people from out of town who weren’t necessarily able to afford a room, Sarah and Owen had decided to stay in town, fifteen minutes away from Eli and Amy’s place.
The motel was just a little ways up the road from the funeral home, and they were inside their room in under five minutes. As Sarah got Rachel ready for bed, Owen went to the closed door and braced his hands against it.
“Do you want me to go to the restaurant next door, get us some supper?” he asked without turning.
“If you don’t mind, I’d appreciate that.” She finished with Rachel, covering her with a light blanket, then crossed to where he stood. When she ran her hands up his back, he sighed and turned, pulling her into him as he leaned against the door. “How can I help? Please tell me.”
“This helps,” he said, holding her close. “This is everything.”
Sarah rested against him, absorbing his feel and his scent. “Yes, it is. I met Nora.” She hadn’t meant to break it to him quite like that and especially now, but the words slipped out.
Owen tensed, his hands freezing on her back. “You did?”
If they hadn’t been so tired, if the situation had been different, she would have laughed at the distress in his voice. Instead, she raised her head and met his wary gaze. “I did. She seems nice.”
He swallowed. “She is. Sarah…”
She shook her head and traced the stubble on his cheeks. “I’m not upset. I just wanted you to know.”
His confusion at her non-anger tugged at her heart. With a soft laugh, she kissed him. “We will talk about her, but not right now. Why don’t you get us some food, and I’ll watch our little grass-eater?”
Owen kissed her fiercely. “Okay. Any requests?”
“Something hot and hearty.”
After he left, she got undressed. It felt good to get out of the full slip, the hose, and into a soft, loose cotton nightgown, to wash her face and arms and wipe away the sweat of the evening. The room had air-conditioning, and while it was loud, it felt so good and cool after the heat of the funeral home, it was worth the noise. Sarah stretched out on the bed, happy to be off her feet.
Thinking about what Nora had told her, she couldn’t help but wonder what Owen’s relationship with the woman had been like. Angry and untouchable, holding himself apart… Sarah was familiar with that side of him. It had taken several years for that insecurity to fade mostly, and she still saw elements of it from time to time. The night they’d learned of Noah’s death, after Owen had taken her so roughly on the porch, for example.
There was some truth to the fear he’d expressed—that she wouldn’t stop him if he needed her. She’d been pondering that ever since he’d made that accusation. As soon as they reached a point where they could spend some time alone with each other, she intended to sit him down and have a frank conversation. First, however, she had to figure out the words that would make him understand.
From the first time they’d been intimate, his need had spoken to something in her. As much as his touches set her ablaze, whether a slow burn or a flash of something hotter than the sun, his need for her was every bit as arousing as what he did to her physically. Through nine years of marriage, they’d neither one been shy about exploring the other, and their lovemaking had varied from sweet and gentle to the kind of raw, love-driven lust that had occurred on the porch.
What Sarah found herself dwelling on now was the latter. Nora’s words haunted her, but not for the reason one might suspect. No, Sarah was concerned that in an effort not to hurt her, Owen had been holding part of himself back. That he only let that angry side out when he couldn’t manage to keep up his emotional walls.
She sighed heavily and scrubbed her face with her hands. “As soon as we can, husband, you and I are going to have a long conversation. I know you love me. I just need to know that it’s enough.”
Though Owen had protested, Sarah had insisted they head back to Firefly Hollow after the funeral.
“We need to go home,” she’d said that morning as she straightened his tie in the motel room. “Georgia can wait.”
“If this is about me… Rachel, stop it.” He leveled a warning look on the baby, who was using her bed as a trampoline. With a happy giggle, she flopped down on her back, grinning at him. “Anyhow, as I was saying—if us going home is about me, I’m fine with heading south.”
“Yes and no.” Sarah smoothed down the tie and pinned it to his shirt. “I need and want to go home too.”
He studied her. She did look tired—hardly a surprise given how stressful and hectic the last few days had been. “I’ll take you home on one condition, madam. Tomorrow or Wednesday, once we’ve had a chance to catch our breath, we’ll re-evaluate. Is that a fair compromise?”
“More than,” she answered with a wink.
They weren’t able to leave London until after four o’clock that afternoon. As they took the back way in, going across a remote mountaintop road in Leslie County that led into Mason’s Creek—which came out only a few miles from home along the river—conversation lulled. Rachel was asleep on the seat between them, her head on Sarah’s lap.
“Are you angry?” Owen asked quietly.
Sarah frowned. “No. Why in the world would you think that?”
He shot her a look as he slowed to let three chickens cross the dusty road in front of them. “Nora.”
“Oh. No, I’m not angry about that or anything else. That doesn’t mean I ever want to lay eyes on her again,” she said dryly.
Owen had thought she surely would be, unless… “Did she tell you about her son?”
Shifting, she stretched her arm and traced the cuff of his short-sleeved shirt. “No. I didn’t know she had kids.”
“Kid, singular. He’s five.” Tightening his hands on the steering wheel, he blew out a harsh breath and hoped he didn’t wreck his marriage with the confession. “She named him Henry.”
Even though he wasn’t looking directly at her, what with having his eyes on the road, he could tell Sarah had gone perfectly still. He glanced at her. “I’m not pleased by that, and there isn’t a damned thing I can do about it.”
“How long have you known?” she asked quietly. She pulled her hand back, resting it on Rachel’s arm.
They were at the top of the mountain near a wide spot, and since there was no traffic coming either way or any houses nearby, Owen pulled over and parked. They’d have privacy to talk for several minutes, in all likelihood, as the road wasn’t heavily traveled. Facing her was difficult, but he did. “Amy told me when he was born. I meant to tell you then, but a thousand and one things happened, and it slipped my mind. It simply wasn’t important.”
Sarah’s voice was soft—too soft—when she spoke. “Your former lover had a child and named him after you, and it wasn’t important for me to know that? I beg to differ.”
He rubbed the bridge of his nose, cursing himself for what had to be the hundredth time since last night. “I swear to you, I didn’t try to hide this. It really, truly didn’t matter to me, and then as soon as I saw her last night, I remembered and I knew I’d made a mistake. I’m sorry.”
“I need a minute.” Easing out from under Rachel, Sarah got out of the car and walked to the edge of the grass beside the road. Her spine was rigid, and Owen could see the tension coming off of her even at that distance.
Sitting there, giving her the space she needed, was about as painful as anything he’d endured. When she walked on down the road slowly, he cursed and got out. Rachel was sound asleep, the car was safely to the side of the road, and they’d be right there.
“Who the hell does that?” she asked as he approached. She propped her hands on her hips and glared at a clump of weeds with such irritation, Owen was surprised it didn’t burst into flames. “Why didn’t she name him after his father? Damn it, Owen.”
As she meandered farther along, he spread his hands, nearly falling to his knees with relief that she didn’t think the boy was his. “I guess from what she said, he’s not in the picture. At least she didn’t name him Owen.” When she turned the glare onto him, he winced. “Or maybe that’s not any consolation. Sorry.”
After a minute, she walked back to him. Grasping his shirt, she tightened her fingers into fists and tugged. “You know, if I didn’t trust you implicitly… oooh, that’s so infuriating! I’m glad I didn’t know last night. I might well have punched her. And what’s with her, anyhow? I didn’t know you liked blondes.”
Owen blinked at her, lost for words. “I don’t.”
Her eyebrows clashed together as she scoffed. “Apparently you did well enough at one point in time.”
As much as he’d love to blame his flaming hot cheeks on the strength of the sun, he knew better—he was mortified. “She didn’t remind me of you, and at that point, that’s what I needed. Even though I’d only seen you once after you turned eighteen, you haunted me. She’s nothing like you. So… yeah. It’s the best explanation I have.”
Sarah’s sigh was rough, and she leaned into him briefly. “I’m not… I thought I’d accepted that part of your past a long time ago. Apparently I’m a jealous wife. We have an audience. We’ll finish this later.”
Owen wanted to protest, but since their audience was only eighteen months old and was trying to climb out of the car, he had to let it go.
It didn’t take them long to make it home after that. As bad as he felt about not heading to Georgia, Owen had to admit he was glad to see the farmhouse. They’d stopped at the grocery store near the mouth of the holler to get a few pantry staples, as they’d used those up in preparation of being away for an extended period.
Since Rachel had napped most of the drive home, she was ready to run wild. Once Sarah had gotten her something to eat, they went out onto the porch and gave Rachel her freedom in the yard.
Sarah sank down onto the porch steps with a groan. “It’s good to be home.”
Owen sat beside her. “It is.”
She laced her fingers with his, playing with his wedding band. “What you had with her… I don’t think it about that much—or I try not to is probably more accurate to say. Truly, until last night, I’d not given her another thought for ages. And I don’t like dwelling on that time. I don’t care if that isn’t mature of me. That said, I know it doesn’t have anything to do with us, okay?”
Owen met her eyes. “Good, because it doesn’t. What that was, what we have, there’s no comparison.”
She placed her fingers over his lips. “I do have concerns though, and I don’t want you to brush me off or try to spare my feelings when I ask you some questions which I need answered. Understand me, husband?”
He slid his hand into her hair and rested his forehead against hers. “That’s asking a lot of me, Sarah Jane.”
“I’ll do my best.” He was afraid of what she was going to ask, though he couldn’t think of any question that would take away from what they had. Sure as shooting, if the question existed, that’d be the one she’d pick.
“Last night, something she said made me think. She told me she hardly recognized you, you’ve changed so much. When she knew you, you were angry, isolated. And… geez oh Pete, I don’t even know how to ask this.” She turned her face to watch Rachel roll across the slope of the yard a little ways out. “We’re going to have to hose her off tonight, you know.”
“Sarah… let’s get this over with, please?”
She groaned and covered her cheeks. “The other night, when we were out here and we did what we did, there was so much anger and pain in you. I could feel it. Before you ask, no, you didn’t hurt me, didn’t come close to hurting me. I needed that sort of release as much as you did,” she said, her voice so low he had to lean in to hear her.
“But after talking to Nora, I had to wonder if the side of you I saw Thursday, if that’s how you were with her. Further, I worry that that fierceness is always there and you’re holding back out of a… a fear that you’ll hurt me. And I don’t want to think that’s the case, because I think it would break my heart to learn you’ve not been able to show me that side of yourself. That you’ve had to deny yourself that kind of release of emotion to protect me.”
Owen was stunned. Of all the grievances he’d imagined might come out of Sarah’s having met Nora, he’d never expected this.
“I… don’t know what to say.” Scowling, he rubbed his hands over his face, then shoved them through his hair. Unable to sit, he paced away a few steps before he turned to look back at her. “Aren’t you the same woman who almost got into an argument with me because we have too much good sex?”
Sarah narrowed her eyes at him. “You’re avoiding the question.”
“I’m trying to figure out how in the hell to answer the question,” he countered, keeping his voice low so that Rachel wouldn’t hear. He shook his head. “I don’t compare what happened back then with what we do. I never have. What’s between us is so far beyond the superficial connection I had with Nora, I can’t begin to explain the difference.”
Rachel ran up to him and he caught her, lifting her high above his head and whirling her around until she squealed. As he brought her down, he blew a raspberry on her belly, then he set her on her feet and watched as she dashed off to roll down the hill again.
“When I was with Nora, I was different,” he admitted softly as he crouched in front of Sarah. “Yeah, it was similar to what we did Thursday. It was raw, and it wasn’t pretty. She and I were using each other, and while I liked Nora, that’s all it was. I still feel guilty about that, how I used her.”
“Are you saying she wasn’t using you in return?” Sarah asked, brushing back an errant lock of his hair.
He shook his head. “Not at all.”
She leaned forward. “Then don’t feel guilty for taking comfort where you could find it, you stubborn man.”
Owen caught her hands, closing his eyes as he kissed her palms. “That’s easier said than done. Regardless, to answer your question from earlier… generally speaking, I don’t make love to you the way I had sex with her. Sometimes, yeah, like Thursday. And maybe I do hold that part of myself back some because I don’t want you to see me like that, because there’s still a part of me that’s ashamed of that. But I don’t feel like I’m missing something, like I’m not complete.”
Sarah kissed him. “Don’t you know that I love you no matter what?”
“I do know that. My holding that back, it’s not about you. It’s about me accepting myself. Maybe I still have some work to do.” He wet his lips, ducking his head as he tried to figure out how to make her understand. “All I had to give her was that side of me—the anger, the fear. I never felt safe enough to expose my heart. With you, it’s the opposite. I can’t stop sharing my heart with you, even when I’m hurting. I need you so much in so many ways, and that need is wrapped up in love. It’s who I am with you, who I’m safe to be. I don’t feel like I’m finding the right words, making sense.”
But Sarah was smiling at him, even as her eyes were wet with tears. “You’re making perfect sense. Just promise me you won’t try to hide if you need me. That’s all I ask.”
Owen grunted when Rachel ran into him, giggling, then she wrapped her little arms around his neck and climbed onto his back. Exchanging a laughing kiss with Sarah, he nodded. “I promise. I love you.”
“I love you too. Munchkin, you’re as dirty as you can be.” Sarah stood. “Why don’t I run you a bath and let you play in there?”
Owen swung Rachel around and carried her into the house. “Once you get her in the tub, I might go out for a run.”
“Good. I kind of expected you’d need to stretch your legs.”
After he set Rachel on her feet upstairs, he caught Sarah. “I’ll see you in a little while. Will you be okay here?”
“Of course. You be safe out there.”
But he didn’t immediately leave. Instead, he stood in the bathroom doorway, watching as the woman who’d helped him create a family laughed and played with their baby girl. When they’d left Laurel County earlier, he’d expected to want to shift into the wolf tonight. He still might—running as the wolf did allow him to release a certain element of stress that the deer simply didn’t. If he did become the wolf, however, he might let Sarah see him tonight. She was fascinated by the wolf he could become, always had been.
Not for the first time, he saw himself through her eyes, and it was no less an epiphany this evening than it had been in the past. She’d never seen him as a monster, even though that was how he’d thought of himself—and still did, he realized, at least a little. Maybe it was time he stopped being ashamed of that part of himself. He knew he couldn’t let go of that emotion overnight, but it was certainly something he’d be thinking about in days to come.