“I’ve always said Charlene makes the best pecan pie you can get anywhere,” Bill said, laying his fork on the side of his plate, pretending to glare at Trixie. “What? You don’t agree?”
Trixie forced a smile, knowing he was teasing. Even though it wasn’t quite as good as her mother’s pies, she would have loved it at any other time. “Of course I agree!” she managed to giggle while trying to ignore the pain in her back. Unconsciously, she leaned back into the arm Regan had casually stretched across the back of her chair.
“You leave that child alone, Bill Murrow!” Charlene mockingly glared at her husband. “We don’t all eat as much as some people do, you know. I declare, I don’t see how you ate as much as you did!”
“It was just so good!” he laughed unrepentantly, causing them all to laugh. Trixie knew that their constant teasing was one of the ways that they showed their love for each other.
“It was,” Regan nodded his agreement. “Thank you for having us over tonight.”
“Oh, you know you’re welcome anytime!” Charlene assured him. “Besides, there’s no need for Trixie to have to worry about cooking right now, not when I’m right here and more than happy to do it.”
“We do appreciate it,” Trixie told her, grateful for this couple that had become like a family to her. Since their arrival in Minnesota, the Murrows had done everything they could to make the young couple feel at home at Fairhaven.
“Don’t mention it!” she replied, looking out the kitchen window. “It’s certainly been snowing hard all day. Bill, do you really think it’s wise for you two to go to the auction tonight?”
“We don’t have a choice.” He stared out of the window appraisingly, reminding her, “Pete’s got his old generator up for sale tonight, and I’d hate to miss this chance to buy it. I’m not trusting ours to make it through this winter.”
“I know that, but I’ve got a feeling we’re in for some mighty bad weather tonight.”
Bill smiled reassuringly at her, saying, “We’ll be all right. Don’t you remember that time we did get caught in a blizzard?”
“I’ve tried to forget,” she told him, then explained to her guests, “it was when we were both too young and foolish to know better. We thought we could make it to my parent’s house, even though we knew a snowstorm was coming up. Dawn was just a baby then, you see, and we’d hoped to ride out the storm with them. We might have made it, at that,” she smiled, shaking her head, “if we hadn’t had a flat tire along the way. There we were with a crying baby, the wind was blowing sixty miles an hour, and Bill was having to fight against the snow just to change the tire!”
“We made it, though,” he interjected before she could continue. “But turn on the radio, and we’ll see what the weatherman’s saying.”
Smiling in triumph, she stood to snap on the radio, twisting the dial until most of the static was gone. The ending strains of a song were heard, followed by the announcer saying, “You’ve been listening to Could I Have This Dance by Anne Murray. And now for our weather this evening, a winter storm advisory has been issued for most of the region. Everyone is urged to remain inside if at all possible; whiteout conditions are expected.”
Bill shrugged his shoulders, sighing as the announcer continued to give his customary warnings. “Well, that’s that, I suppose,” he announced bleakly as music once again came over the radio. “If Lake Road is as bad as they’re saying, we can’t get into town anyway.”
“Not at all?” Trixie asked softly, her eyes round and wide.
“No,” he answered. “We’re usually cut off at least once or twice every winter, so we’re always prepared. We can be comfortable right here as long as we need to be.”
“But,” she spoke, then changed her mind. She settled back in her chair, not wanting anyone to realize how frightened she was as the prospect.
“We should probably get going home before the weather gets any worse,” Regan said, joining Bill at the window. “It wasn’t snowing anywhere near this hard when we left the stables tonight. I want to get Trixie home before it really does get bad.”
“Don’t you think you’d rather just stay here tonight?” Charlene spoke up immediately. “It’s a long walk through those woods in this mess.”
“Thank you,” Trixie said, “but we wouldn’t want to impose on you anymore.”
Charlene rolled her eyes. “You’re not imposing, child. If you were, I wouldn’t have asked you to stay! Besides, I’m not about to let you go out there in your condition!”
Trixie looked to Regan for help, thinking longingly about the nice warm bed that they would go home to. He looked from the window to her, then back to the window before saying, “Are you sure it’s not a problem?”
“Not at all!” Charlene said, jumping on the chance that they might stay the night. “You three go on into the living room, I’ll straighten up in here and be out in just a few minutes.”
“At least let me help you!” Trixie said, slowly rising to her feet. A sharp pain hit her, causing her to sink back down into the straight chair.
“Sweetie? Are you all right?” Regan asked, his alarm evident on his face.
“I’m fine!” she insisted. She again stood up, this time clutching the table for support as she rose.
“You men go on in there,” Charlene shooed them out of the kitchen. She called after them, “Bill, don’t forget your favorite movie’s on in just a few minutes.”
“What movie is that?” Trixie asked curiously, expecting to hear the name of a western, as Charlene gently pushed her back down into her chair.
The older woman grinned. “King Kong.”
“You mean the one with the giant gorilla?”
“Yep! You see, that was what was playing the first time he took me to the movie theater.”
Trixie smiled. “I can see why it’s his favorite then. I do wish you’d let me help you clean up.”
“It’s just going to take me a minute, but you’ve already been a big help to me today.”
“Now that I’m finally understanding it,” she laughed ruefully. For the past few months, Charlene had been training her to help with the business end of the farm. She’d learned that practical math was easier than when it was just numbers in a textbook.
“I told you you would, now didn’t I?” Charlene teased her, before turning serious. “How long have you been hurting, though?”
“Well, my back’s been hurting for a while, but it’s much worse today for some reason,” she slowly admitted. “It really got worse when I stood up a few minutes ago.”
Charlene looked Trixie over while she returned the butter to the refrigerator. “Was that the first time that’s happened?”
Trixie shook her head. “No, it happened while we were still eating, too, but…”
“But you pretended that you were all right,” Charlene smiled at her.
She blushed, admitting, “I didn’t want Regan to start worrying over nothing.” She paused for a moment, eventually asking, “Charlene, Bill was joking about not being able to get to town, wasn’t he?”
“Trixie, you heard the radio. Even if the Lake Road wasn’t closed, the wind would blow a car right off the road.”
“What will happen if the baby decides to come?” Trixie whispered, hoping against hope that the pains she felt weren’t the beginnings of labor.
“You’ll be fine, child. Even if Dr. Hal can’t get here, I’ve delivered more babies than he has!”
Trixie’s looked at her in surprise. “You have?”
“I was a nurse before I married Bill, Trixie. Then I still helped out at the hospital until my daughter came along,” she assured her. “It may have been awhile, but some things don’t change.”
Any response she might have made was forgotten as another wave of pain hit her. She bit her lip, unable to stifle a moan. Charlene patted her shoulder, saying, “Come on, child, let’s get you to bed. You’ll be more comfortable lying down.”
Trixie nodded, her eyes wide with fright even as she tried to smile bravely. She slowly managed to stand, gasping as she suddenly felt fluid running down her legs. “Charlene!” she moaned desperately.
“It’s all right,” Charlene murmured reassuringly, wrapping an arm around her shoulders. She gently guided her out of the kitchen, past the door that led into the living room. “We’ll get you cleaned up, then I’ll get Regan for you.”
The words barely penetrated the terror that had enveloped her, but she nodded, instinctively focusing on the sound of Charlene’s voice in an effort to block out the pains that were steadily growing in both frequency and intensity.
Normally modest, Trixie made no protest as Charlene helped her out of her soiled clothing, especially once she realized the warm water she was using to bathe her off momentarily took the edge off the pain. Lying down on the bed in the Murrow’s guestroom once she was clad in a soft robe also offered her a brief respite, and she assured Charlene that she would be all right alone while she went to get Regan.
Almost as soon as Charlene left the room, the pain renewed itself, becoming much worse than before, worse than she had ever imagined possible. She was unable to keep from crying out, and barely noticed when Regan came running in with Charlene.
To Trixie, it felt like hours as she lay in agony, struggling to overcome the pain that had become her whole world. As if from a great distance, she heard Charlene speaking into the phone, and felt Regan holding tightly to her hand. He gently brushed the curls from her face, wiping her face with a cold washcloth. After a while, she felt a change in her torment, and tried to obey Charlene’s urgings to push. No matter how hard she pushed, nothing happened.
She soon heard another voice speaking to her and was vaguely aware that someone was examining her. The new voice spoke strange words, words like “hips” and “breech” that seemed so harsh compared to the soft, soothing words that Charlene had spoken. She felt Regan tighten his hold on her hand, and heard him cry out.
Voices argued softly. Wet tears fell on her face as Regan gently kissed her forehead. She felt his hands leave hers, and without understanding why, she broke through the haze clouding her consciousness, struggling to whisper, “I love you.”
Regan gazed down at his wife as she retreated back into semi-consciousness, knowing that everything was going horribly wrong. “I love you too, sweetie,” he whispered, certain that it would be for the last time.
“No! I can’t leave her!” he told the doctor. “I can’t leave her!”
“You have to, son,” Dr. Hal told him softly. “I’m sorry, but I need to concentrate on your wife. Besides,” he looked at him with compassion, “it will be easier for you later on if you’re not in here.”
As much as he hated to leave her, he knew that the doctor was right. There was no way he could sit back and watch as they put her through even more torment. It was agony for him to move away from her bedside, but he did so, feeling his heart break as he said, “If…, when…, I want to be with her when she…, at the last.”
The doctor nodded, unable to give him any assurance that she wasn’t in mortal danger. “I’ll make sure you’re here, son. You have my word.”
Banished from his wife’s bedside, he sank down on the telephone chair at the end of the hallway, burying his face in his hands. Jumping at every noise that came from the guestroom, he finally sought solace in the one place he could always find peace.
Having found Bill pacing nervously in the kitchen, and sworn him to an oath to come for him if there was absolutely any news, he retreated to the stables, where he soon realized that his own personal agony was upsetting Al-Adeen. The bitter cold of the tackroom never fazed him as he automatically grabbed at something, anything, that would keep his hands busy.
As he settled into a chair, visions of Trixie and his life with her flashed before his eyes. Slowly, other visions began to taunt him. The laughter and joy that had been in her eyes as a teenager was replaced by the misery they had shown when Jim had broken her heart, then the panic in them the day she had confessed that she was expecting. The memory of the peace on her face the first time she told him she loved him gave way to agony as she struggled to bring forth Jim’s child.
He felt his heart stop as the door opened, sighing in relief as Bill shook his head, “No news yet.”
He nodded, almost thankful when Bill shut the door and came inside.
“Care to talk about it?” the older man asked quietly.
“Not really,” Regan replied, visibly trying to school his face into a neutral expression as the older man came up beside him.
“She’s going to be all right, you know.”
“She’s…” Regan answered, finding himself unable to complete the thought. He felt as if he were in a nightmare from which he would never wake up.
Bill shook his head, taking the polishing cloth away from Regan, saying, “If you keep on, there won’t be any saddle left to polish.”
Regan looked down at the shining leather, his shoulders drooping. “I don’t know what I’ll do if I lose her,” he whispered, his green eyes reflecting his misery.
“Son,” Bill answered, “she’s stronger than she looks. Women can bear just about anything. They’re better at that than we are.”
“I never have been able to stand seeing her suffer,” he shook his head in misery. “I never dreamed it would end this way.”
Bill looked at him in sympathy. “It’s not going to end, Regan. Trixie’s got too much of a will to live to not make it! It won’t be long until you’re seeing her hold your child in her arms.”
The tears he’d given up on trying to hold back flowed again as Bill’s kindly meant words sunk in. The fears and feelings he’d been bottling up inside because he didn’t want Trixie to know about them washed over him in full force as the words burned themselves into his mind.
“Once she’s holding your child in her arms. Your child. My child,” he thought, picturing Trixie lying in pain in that big, cold bed. “If only it was my child!”
His thoughts were interrupted as Bill handed him a small glass, and sat down in the other chair. “Trust me, this will help,” he said, “but be careful, it’s strong when you’re not used to it.”
Regan sipped the bracing fluid, wincing at the unfamiliar taste of the whisky. He’d long ago decided that alcohol wasn’t the way to deal with his problems, but told himself that it was only one shot. “Thanks,” he answered briefly, trying to ward off the image of Jim that had appeared along with the words “your child.”
Bill nodded shortly. “Trust me, it was all that got me through the nights my own children were born.”
Regan tried to smile but failed. Bill’s wife hadn’t had complications in childbed.
“I’m not trying to pry,” Bill said hesitantly, “but you said you never have been able to see her suffer. You don’t have to tell me about it, but it might help to get it off your chest.”
The words began to spill out before Regan quite realized he was speaking. The secrets he’d kept to himself for so long refused to be kept silent any longer. “No, I never have. Even before I knew I loved her, it about killed me to see her hurting.” He laughed mirthlessly. “And trust me, it hasn’t been easy. She was thrown from one of my horses the day I met her!”
“As angry as she’d made me, because I’d plainly told her to stay away from that horse, I had to admit that I admired her spunk. I mean, she’d never even ridden a horse before that day, and here she was taking Jupiter out for a ride! Not to mention how I found her standing at the point of a gun later that same summer.”
Bill’s eyes widened, but he remained silent. Regan continued, “She was only thirteen. I never even thought about her as anything but a child back then. But then, do you know when I realized I was in love with her?”
“When?” Bill asked quietly, shaking his head.
“It was that summer when we came out here. Remember that day she almost drowned in the river? Well, my life flashed before my eyes when I realized how close I’d come to losing her. Do you have any idea how hard that was? She was only fourteen, for crying out loud! I mean, I’d suspected it before then, back when they found me in Saratoga. I was able to deny it then, but after we came out here, I couldn’t deceive myself any longer.” He stared into his empty glass, unable to stop talking.
“I knew that there was no way that I could ever act on those feelings. And I didn’t want to act on them. I wouldn’t have hurt her for anything in the world, and I knew that it would have hurt her if she’d suspected. After a while, I decided that I’d leave Sleepyside. It wouldn’t have been hard to get work somewhere else, but the very day I was going to hand in my notice, she got in trouble.”
“She was kidnapped, held hostage by an escaped convict. Kowalski had already kidnapped her once. I’ll never know if it was coincidence that she was in that store when he held it up after his escape, or if he’d been stalking her. But somehow, I was in the right place at the right time, and managed to get the gun away from him.”
“Anyway, I knew that if I left, I’d never be at peace, because I’d never know that she was all right. I couldn’t let her know that I loved her, but I couldtry to keep her safe.”
Bill nodded, refilling their glasses.
“As she did grow up, I pretended to be happy for her as she started to date. She’d had a crush on Matt Wheeler’s adopted son since the day she’d met him. As hard as it was, I told myself that at least he would be able to give her what she deserved.” His fist curled around his glass. “How could I have been so wrong?”
He didn’t wait for an answer, but continued, “They went out to a few parties together, but didn’t really start dating until she was almost sixteen. By then, it almost killed me to see her with him, but I couldn’t let her know my own feelings. Anyway, she seemed happy, until he started changing. He’d gone away to some swank, preppy college, where he’d become the ‘big man on campus.’ It went to his head, but Trixie didn’t realize it.”
“You see, by that point, she’d started helping out in the stables a lot, mostly to keep her mind off of her troubles with Jim, I think. For reasons I’ll never understand, she started telling me things.” He shook his head. “I was there for her every time he made her cry, which became quite often. Then when all that happened last winter, I came to her rescue once again. If I had it to do over, I’d only do one thing differently.”
“What’s that?” Bill asked, his interest plain on his face.
“I’d give him more than just a black eye!” Regan exclaimed, squeezing the glass in his hand as the alcohol began to take effect. He stared in shock at the shattered glass he now held.
Bill quietly handed him the trash can before going over to the sink. He returned with a wet washcloth, lightly tossing it to Regan.
“Just what did he do to her?” he asked, encouraging him to continue talking.
“Where do I start?” Regan asked sarcastically. “With the way he used her, or the way he physically abused her?”
Bill shook his head, but remained silent.
“I didn’t find out about her bruises until after we were married. Do you have any idea how hard it was not to make him answer for that? Then that day in the stables when he began accusing her of, well, I hit him before I realized it.”
“Good.” Bill nodded in satisfaction.
“I’ve always been there for her, always been able to help her out of trouble. But she’s in there, suffering, dying, and I’m helpless to help her!” Regan ended with a wrenching sob. “I CAN’T lose her now!”
Between the alcohol and his own grief and fear, he only dimly realized that he was speaking aloud the thoughts that were tormenting his mind and soul. “I can’t lose her! To him, she was only another notch on his bedpost, but she’s my whole world! If he’s killed her…,” he trailed off, his broad shoulders shaking under the weight of the secrets that had proven too difficult to bear alone.
“If he’s killed her,” he repeated, his glazed eyes filled with tears. “I can’t live without her!” His agony was too strong for him to respond or even hear the words that Bill spoke in futile reassurance. He was aware of nothing, except for his own emotions, until the stable door swung open and the wind blew Charlene inside.
“She’s…, she’s asking for you,” she told Regan softly, even as Bill brushed snow off of her coat-less arms.
Regan flew out the door, unwilling to wait for his employers. He forced himself to slow down when he reached the house, realizing that he couldn’t take the risk of upsetting his wife.
Dr. Hal met him outside her room, pulling the door to behind him once Charlene finally reentered the room. Solemnly, he spoke. “Sit down, son.”
“She’s asking for me!” he protested. “I’ve got to get in there!”
Placing his hand on Regan’s shoulder, the elderly doctor shook his head. “She did call out for you, Mr. Regan, but she lost consciousness as soon as Mrs. Murrow left the room.”
“I told you to let me stay with her! I wanted to be there when she…, when she…,” he sank down into the telephone chair. “What about the baby? Did it survive?”
“Mr. Regan!” Dr. Hal said firmly. “Will you listen to me? Your wife is in a very serious condition, but she is not dead! There is a helicopter on the way from Buffalo, which will take both her and your child to the hospital there.” He softened his voice, smiling faintly, “The worst is over, son. Barring further complications, it looks like she’s going to make it.”
Relief mixed with disbelief as Regan’s face lit up. Before the doctor could say another word, Regan was across the room, determined to see Trixie. Pushing open the bedroom door, he simply stood for a moment, gazing down at his wife’s wan features. He bent to brush her forehead with a kiss, then took gently covered her hand with his as he sat on the chair someone had placed beside the bed.
“Regan,” Charlene whispered, walking towards him with a squirming blanket-wrapped bundle. “Meet your son.”
Before he realized it, he was stretching forth his arms to accept the faintly mewling infant. Tears flowed freely down his cheeks as he lightly brushed the baby’s soft cheek.
“With that red hair of his, he looks just like you,” Charlene said, tenderly patting his shoulder.
“Now Charlene, Dr. Hal said the chopper should be here before long,” Bill said softly as he walked into the room and smiled down at the baby. He briefly looked Regan in the eye, a world of expression in his brown eyes. Turning back to Charlene, he said, “Let’s give Regan a few minutes alone with his wife and his son.”