Behind the Ranges, Book VII

A woman with a mission and a man who denies his heritage battle sabotage and prejudice for the right to live...and love.

The Imperial Engineer cover
eBook ISBN 978-1-60174-015-1
Trade Paperback ISBN 978-1496124456

"...a powerful read, a story that keeps the reader rooting for Tony and Lulu to make their lives together work in spite of the obstacles they both face. They are dangerously in love and living dangerous lives. 4 Stars!"~~Affaire de Coeur

While he was gone, Lulu washed up the dishes and tidied the kitchen. She found fresh sheets, but not a second pillow. Since the bedroom was almost as cold as outdoors, she decided to warm the sheets and not put them on the bed until they were ready to get into it. She curled up in the upholstered chair and went to work on the article she was contracted to write as part of a discussion on women's clothing reform that would appear sometime next year in The North American Review. She wondered again, as she had often since her clothing had begun to feel tight, if she should address the harm tight corsets could do to a pregnant woman. She knew some women laced themselves tightly throughout their pregnancies.

The words still refused to come, though, and she found herself staring into space, thinking about her inexplicable shrinking whenever Tony touched her. After all, she had to admit, she had practically seduced him, the one and only time they'd been intimate. So why, now, did any indication of desire on his part make a cold knot form in her belly?

The back door opened. "Brrr!" she heard Tony say as he entered. "I didn't think it could get any colder, but it has."

He moved around the kitchen, making small sounds that told her he was adding wood to the range, checking the reservoir—it had been frozen solid when they arrived—and getting a drink from the water bucket. When he came into the parlor, he was carrying a lamp, one she hadn't seen before. "Eagleton invited us to sleep up there tonight, since there's no heat in the bedroom. I told him no, but it's not too late..."

She wanted to ask what his employer's reaction to the news of their marriage was, but she was too great a coward. If he'd been too upset, though, would he have invited them over? "We'll be fine. It's so cozy in here I thought we might bring the bedding out and sleep in front of the fire." More than once her parents had made their bed before the fire in the big room of their cabin, while the children had clustered close to the chimney that kept the loft warm.

"Good idea. I'll haul the mattress—"

"I'll help," she began, working herself out of the deep chair.

"No you won't. You've no business wrestling with that big, awkward thing." He went into the bedroom. A sharp draft hit Lulu's ankles when he opened the door.

Within a few minutes they had everything arranged in the middle of the parlor. Wishing they had a bathroom like Aunt Hattie's, Lulu dashed into the bedroom to prepare for bed, a task she made shivering, short work of by tossing her outer clothing onto the dresser and slipping her flannel nightgown over her wool challis shift. When she got back to the parlor, she found the room lit only by the flames flickering behind the isinglass in the door of the stove. Tony was lying in the bed, arms tucked behind his head. Instead of a nightshirt, he'd kept his Union suit on.

Turning her back on him, she kicked off her slippers and shed her robe, tossing it across the foot of their makeshift bed. She crawled between the soft flannel sheets, staying as close to her side as possible. "Good night," she said, casting a quick almost-smile his way. "Sleep well."

"What are you scared of?"

Lulu curled into a tight ball, her back to him. "Nothing," she said, her voice sounding like someone else's.

"Liar!" His tone was light, almost teasing, but she heard a challenge there, too.

"I'm really tired, Tony. Can we talk in the morning?"

"In the morning there won't be time. And the longer we let this fester, the worse it will get. What's wrong, Lulu? Talk to me."

"What's wrong?" she exploded, turning to face him. "What's wrong? I'll tell you what's wrong. I had my life all planned, and marriage wasn't part of the plan. I never wanted children, never wanted to be somebody's wife in a backwards little town in Idaho." Kicking the clinging flannel sheets aside, she sat up, pulling her legs close to her chest. "I don't know why you couldn't have just left me alone," she muttered before hiding her face against her knees. "I was doing fine."

He didn't speak for some moments. A pocket of sap exploded in a burning log, and the house creaked under the weight of snow on the roof. Lulu huddled in miserable self-pity, knowing she'd spoken words that were impossible to take back, certain she'd hurt him beyond all mending.

"If we were still children, I'd kiss you and promise that tomorrow everything will be better," he said at last, "but we're not, and we both know it won't be."

She lifted her head and looked at him, but his face was in shadow, so she couldn't see his expression. Hadn't she said those exact words to him when he told her how his promising career had been destroyed?

"Oh, Tony, I'm sorry. I didn't mean—"

"Yes, you did, and I don't blame you. This isn't what I had in mind for my life, either." His sigh spoke of broken dreams and lost illusions. "Look, it's late. We're not going to solve anything tonight. Let's get some sleep, and worry about all this when we're rested." He held out his arm. "Come here."

"No, I—"

"Lulu, I just want to hold you. I promise it won't go any farther." He waited.

Slowly she uncurled herself, slid down between the sheets. There was still a good foot of space between them, but she could feel the warmth of him.

The bedclothes rustled as he reached out and took her hand. "We made some vows the other day," he said. "Let's see if we can't work for better, instead of settling for worse."

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