Love and War
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Deanie Lawrence stopped a few buildings down from the Loretto Chapel and took a deep breath. She chewed her lip in contemplation. This was not a good idea. Despite Father Ryan’s assurances, she doubted coming face to face with Peter after all this time would heal the anger in his soul. No. Her former fiancé despised her, and with good reason.
The church stood outlined against the crystal blue New Mexico sky. It had always brought her comfort, especially during her darkest hours. The majestic rise of the steeple and gothic design of the building itself brought a sense of calm to her raging nerves. Wiping her sweaty palms down the front of her skirt, she started forward. She would do this for Joey’s sake. No fear was too great that she wouldn’t face it for him. Her resolve strengthened, she hurried forward, now anxious to get the meeting over with.
The coolness of the church’s interior slid over her as she pulled on the heavy wooden door. Familiar smells of candle wax and incense lured her in. The well-known and miraculously constructed staircase to the left of the pulpit brought visitors from all over the world. It was a peaceful place, soothing for both sinners and saints alike.
When Father Ryan had approached her about this plan, he’d told her Peter was doing repairs to the church, apparently the only job he could obtain after returning home. He’d been discharged from the hospital in Paris a few months after the end of the Great War, missing one eye. After a long trek home, Peter discovered his family home and property had been lost for taxes, and his family scattered. The last she’d heard Mrs. Wilson had died of Influenza and Mr. Wilson now resided with Peter’s sister, Jane, and her family in Texas.
How he must hate her for what he considered her betrayal. Less than two months after he left with the First Infantry Regiment, New Mexico National Guard, for California, and then Europe, she’d married Russell Lawrence.
Good, kind, Russell. Old enough to be her father, but so protective of her. He’d made it clear from the start that he would always take care of her, and not allow anyone to disparage her. The strength of his name and reputation had kept her from being cast out of the community. Until the end of her days, she would always remember his kindness. The small bouquet of flowers she placed on his grave each week for the past few months was a pittance compared to what he’d done for her.
She slowly made her way up the aisle, her eyes darting back and forth in the cool dimness, seeking the man she still loved with all her heart. Her breath caught when she spotted him on his knees, examining a church pew. The sun peeking through an open window that bathed his profile brought a rush of emotions, almost choking her. His brown and golden hair was long, tucked carelessly behind his ears. The strong chin, straight nose and high cheekbones were as familiar to her as her own face. How she’d loved his face. For years. From the time they were children, until she kissed him goodbye as he went off to war.
No. She’d continued to love him even after he’d left, and served his country overseas. Now he’d returned a wounded warrior. Her warrior. She drank in the sight of him, sure that once she made her presence known he’d likely snarl at her and stalk off. He turned, perhaps aware of someone watching him, and she gasped.
A black patch covered one eye, but aside from that, the rest of him looked perfect. Strong muscular chest, solid arms, the lower part exposed from where he’d rolled up his sleeves. Without conscious effort, tears flooded her eyes. She gripped her hands together, attempting to stop the shaking. Her muscles ached from holding her body stiff, preventing her from rushing forward and throwing herself into his arms. “Peter?”
Slowly, he climbed to his feet, a flicker of something warm and loving skimmed over his face before his features froze into a mask, and any love she’d gotten a glimmer of, shut off, turning his expression to stone. Cold stone.
“Well, well. If it isn’t Jezebel.”
She covered her mouth with her hand to keep from crying out. Although she’d expected it, hearing his deep voice condemning her cut her heart into little slivers. Oh, how she must disgust him.
“I heard you returned a few weeks ago.” Her shaky voice barely rose above a whisper.
He placed the tools he held on the bench and crossed his arms. “And now you’re here to chastise me for not running to you right off? Why? Is your bed too cold now that your husband is dead?
If he’d walked up to her and slapped her, it wouldn’t have hurt as much as his words and obvious loathing. Her mouth dried up, and she fought the urge to turn and race from the building. From that condemning face.
Deanie swallowed bile, and cleared her throat. “I’m sorry about your eye.”
Peter shrugged. “Very few returned from the war the way they left.”
“Are you well otherwise?”
He placed his hands on his hips. “Why are you here, Deanie?” When she didn’t answer him, he continued, “If it’s to tell me how sorry you are, and spurt sympathy over my injury, you can leave now.” He bent and picked up a hammer. “I have work to do.”
She moved closer. “I thought since we both live in the same town, we could at least be friends.”
We could at least be friends.
Either somewhere along the line he’d missed how cruel she was, or she’d lost the intelligent mind he remembered. He and Deanie had been friends for years before they declared their love for one another. They’d become engaged, and then he’d been called to war. Memories of their few nights together had been what kept him going all the lonely months in foxholes, praying for the Good Lord to spare his life so he could return to her. But to learn after he’d returned that she’d married someone else merely weeks after he’d left had cut him like no amount of agony the battlefield could have delivered.
Despite the knife turning in his heart, he laughed. A brittle sound from deep inside, not meant to provide humor, but to remind him that even though he still loved this woman, he’d never let her know. Never give her the opportunity to rip his world apart once more.
“Ah. I don’t think we could be friends. I don’t generally allow my friends to deceive me.” He cringed, wishing the words back. The last thing he wanted was for Deanie to know how deeply she’d hurt him. How she could give him her love so freely, promise to wait forever for his return, then walk down this very aisle with Russell Lawrence before the dust from his retreating army boots had cleared the air? No. It was best to end the conversation before he acted on this overwhelming desire to ask why.
Peter closed his eyes, not wanting to see the tears running down her cheeks. To watch her hands twist the fabric of her skirt, hear the catch in her voice. His arms ached to hold her.
He gripped the hammer harder. “As I said. I have work to do. Father Ryan is expecting these repairs to be made.” He turned and headed toward the side door.
“You have a son. Joey.”
Although the words were soft, they bounced off the walls of the church, entering his ears like the beating of a drum.
If she’d intended to stop him in his tracks, success was hers. He lost his breath as if someone had sucked out all of the air from the room. Slowly numbness melted into anger, and then to a spark of joy. A son. He took a deep breath before pivoting to face her. “I left you with a child?”
Deanie nodded, and wiped her wet cheeks with shaky fingers. Peter reached into his pocket and withdrew a handkerchief. He moved closer and held it out to her. Her soft skin as it brushed his hand sent heat spiraling throughout his body. Closer now, with the sunlight streaming through the window, he got a good look at her.
She’d matured from the girl he’d left behind. Her face was fuller, her body more lush. Did childbirth do that to a woman? But the deep blue eyes were the same. He’d always felt she could see right to his very soul. He mentally shook himself. She’d just uttered words that rocked his world, and here he was admiring her. Perhaps the brain’s way of dealing with shock. Focus on something else, holding at bay all the emotions getting ready to slam into you full force, like a boulder bouncing on the mountain above you, about to crush you under its weight.
“Why should I believe any child of yours is mine?”
She took a step back, her face the color of new snow. She hugged her middle, tensing as if to take flight, but then stiffened her spine and raised her chin. “You are the only man I’ve ever been with.”
The laugh burst forth before he even realized it. A bitter, harsh sound; totally mirthless. “I’ve been back a few weeks, Deanie. People talk. I know you were married for more than two years.” He tugged his fingers through his unruly hair. “Are you trying to tell me Russell Lawrence never came to your bed?”
She shook her head. “That was our deal.” This was all wrong. Peter didn’t believe her, and since the town had accepted Joey as Russell’s son, he might never be convinced. And Joey would never know his father. The wonderful man who stood before her, radiating hurt. Hurt that she’d caused. “I feel a bit shaky. Is it all right if I sit for a minute?”
Peter nodded, but didn’t join her on the church pew. Instead, he walked in circles, his head down, his hands on his hips. “So what is this deal you had?”
Deanie wiped the sweat beading her upper lip and took a deep breath. “Not too long after you left I discovered I was with child.” God, her voice didn’t sound like her own. His pacing was making her more nervous than she already was. “Um. Could you stop?”
He came to an abrupt halt and studied her. “Sorry.” He cracked his knuckles and sat alongside her, leaving enough distance that she almost felt the need to shout.
“When my parents discovered my shame, they threw me out.” Her eyes filled with tears remembering the terror at being all alone with a child on the way.
“Why didn’t you write to me?”
“I did!” She took another deep breath to calm herself. Shouting wouldn’t get her anywhere. “I did.”
He studied her with narrowed eyes. “I never got a letter from you. Not the entire time I was gone.”
Deanie reached out and touched his arm, grateful that he didn’t pull back. “I wrote you every day for weeks. I prayed. I spent more time on my knees than I slept.”
“How did Lawrence become involved?”
“I was staying in the back of the old Benson dry goods store. Sadie at the café let me wash dishes for meals.” Slowly all the fear and desperation of that time returned, releasing a torrent of tears to course down her face.
Peter moved closer. “Go on.”
“I was so scared.” She shook her head. “I even considered. . .”
She licked a tear from her upper lip. “One morning I came here, to the church, and asked Father Ryan for guidance. I was close to. . .” She shuddered. “But I never would have. I could take my own life, but not that of my baby.”
Peter reared back at her confession, all the blood leaving his face. His anger melted with the vision of a desperate young woman, with no home, no husband, and no way to support herself, and a child on the way. He inched even closer, and covered her tightly fisted hands with his.
“Father Ryan told me to pray and return the following day. I spent hours on my knees, praying for a miracle. The next morning as I entered the chapel, Russell was sitting right here in this pew. Father Ryan left us alone, and that’s when I found peace for the first time since you’d left.”
As she told her story, her body seemed to ease. He found himself rubbing her knuckles with his thumb, pleased to feel her ice cold hands warming. “And?”
“Russell explained that Father Ryan had spoken to him of my trouble. He didn’t judge me. He said if I would allow it, he’d be honored to have me as his wife, and claim my baby as his own child.”
His eyebrows drew together in confusion. “Why would he do that?”
Deanie shrugged. “He is—was—a wonderful man. He’d buried his wife years before, but was tired of being alone. He wanted someone to share the remaining years of his life, and was thrilled at the idea of having a child to leave his hardware business to.”
He fought a wave of guilt that almost brought him to his knees. How could he have ever thought Deanie would betray him? His hurt and anger had consumed him, causing him to push away the one woman he’d always loved, and would always love.
“Russell explained that he wouldn’t expect me to be his wife in truth, since he was so much older than me, and all he wanted was companionship.” She turned to him, fresh tears standing in her eyes. “I loved him. So much.” She shook her head. “Not like I love. . .”
Peter cupped her chin, and turned her face toward him. “Not like you love...”
Deanie glanced away from him. “Anyway, I just wanted to explain, hoping to ease some of your pain.”
He leaned his head back, staring at the ceiling. “I was hiding in foxholes or on the move from the time I left until the war ended.” He turned his head to look at her. “That’s probably why I never received any of your letters.”
“I understand.” She nodded and stood, brushing off her long black skirt.
“Mama!” The small voice echoed throughout the church, sending chills down Peter’s spine.
He continued to stare straight ahead, listening to the sound of small feet toddling up the aisle. Until now it had all seemed unreal. Once he turned, he’d face the small boy who would change his life forever.
Peter glanced to the side when Deanie grunted as a small body hurled itself into her arms. “Mama. Cookie!”
Unable to stop himself, he twisted his neck and stared at the image of himself in the worn photograph he’d carried in his pocket for years. He and his twin sister, Jane, him grinning, and her looking very much the little lady. His breath left him as if a powerful fist had punched him in the stomach.
“Joey?” His voice rasped, and he licked his dry lips. “Isn’t that your name?”
The little boy ducked his head against his mother’s chest, and slid two fingers into his mouth. “Yeth.” Light brown curls, golden at the tips in the sunlight from the window, covered the child’s head. Two chocolate brown eyes he’d seen in his own mirror for years stared back at him with curiosity.
His gaze left Joey’s, and he regarded Deanie. Tears tracked down her cheeks as she hugged the small body to her and rocked him.
Within seconds Peter stood and wrapped his arms around his family, the baby scent of Joey and flowery scent of Deanie enveloping him. He hugged them close, never wanting to let go, not even embarrassed to have his tears fall on Deanie’s hair.
A soft cough brought their attention to the old priest who stood behind them, his blue eyes twinkling with mirth. “And sure it’s time for me to make a suggestion, lass?”
Deanie nodded, her head resting against Peter’s chest.
“Would you be after me going for a couple of witnesses so we can get on with the wedding I’m sure you’re both wanting?”
She lifted her head, and looked at Peter, love glowing on her face.
“Deanie Lawrence, I’ve loved you forever, and don’t want to spend another minute without you. Would you grant me the privilege of becoming my wife?”
She rested her hand on his cheek. “I’ve never stopped loving you, either. And I would be honored to be your wife.”
“Me wife, too?” Joey looked back and forth between his parents, a frown on his small forehead.
Deanie and Peter both laughed and hugged their little boy as Father Ryan hurried from the church, mumbling a thankful prayer.
~ The End ~
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