The Marriage Bed(2)

By: Stephanie Mittman

"But it could be, couldn't it? I mean we've done it and—"

"Not everyone gets with child on their wedding night, Olivia. Surely you must realize that, at least."

"But it could be," she said more strongly, her voice betraying the hope she felt. "Spencer, we could have just made a baby."

No. We couldn't have. "It's not a good idea to get your hopes up. Lots of couples don't have any children at all."

"But not us. That won't be us. After all, you've been a father. Peter and Margaret—"

He interrupted her. "Peter and Margaret are dead, remember? My children are dead and so is my wife."

"But I'm . . ."she started, then put the back of her hand to her mouth to stifle a sob. In the dim light of the quarter moon he couldn't make out her features, but he didn't need to see her to know that she was biting the back of her hand and crying silent tears. It was Olivia's way. The way she had cried when her mother died. The way she had cried soon after that when he'd told her he was marrying Kirsten.

He could have apologized. He could have simply rolled onto his side and pulled her against him. He considered both options and thought better of them. Best not to fill up her heart with false hopes or her head with silly dreams. "It's late, Olivia. You're tired. It was quite a day of celebrating. Go to sleep. We've got a lot of work to do come morning."

She turned onto her side, away from him, her chestnut braid whipping his cheek as she settled herself. It smelled faintly of lilacs, and he fingered the soft ends as he moved it away from his face.

It was silent for a minute or two, and then, quietly, tentatively, she asked, "Was it ... was I ... all right?"

Funny that she should be asking him, when he had failed her so miserably. The least he owed her was some reassurance. "Perfect," he said, patting her back gently through the layers of quilts their friends had given them as wedding gifts. And truly, she had been perfect. Softer than he had expected, her breasts fuller, her arms more willing.

And innocent. Completely innocent of what had happened and of the plan that even now was forming in his head. The plan that, ironically, would surely restore his manhood. Just knowing that he would never leave his seed within his new wife was settling the hackles that had risen on the back of his neck. He could withhold his essence just as he was withholding his affection.

And Olivia need never know.

Oh, but her innocence was a blessing. Another woman would have known that his groan had' been born of frustration and not satisfaction, as Olivia must have assumed. Another bride would have known that his trip beneath her nightdress had been cut short before his mission was complete.

Surely Kirsten would have known, for theirs had been a perfect union    . They had soared like the eagles together, even from the first.

But then their little blond eaglets had faltered, and all his dreams and hopes had been dashed against the rocks and lost. Diphtheria, they had called it, as if giving it a name could make sense of the senseless.

His little Margaret had been the first to go, her skin so flushed with fever that she was still warm long after her little chest had ceased to rise and fall. Beautiful, delicate Kirsten was next, he and Peter struggling to keep her alive even after her tongue was furred with slime and her throat had all but closed, long hours after the doctor had said there was no hope. Then, before she was gone, Peter, too, had succumbed to the fever. And all Spencer could do was stand by and watch as everything he loved was put into the frozen ground and covered with cold clumps of the pale frostbitten earth.

A tear escaped from the corner of his eye, trickling silently down his temple to the pillow beneath his head. He made no effort to wipe it, but swore silently that it would be the last he ever shed.

Beside him, Olivia released a shuddering breath. If there had only been another way, he'd have taken it. But Olivia's brother, Remy, had been right. The farm was too much for one person to handle, and he couldn't go on there alone.

And Olivia was so willing, so eager, Despite all his misgivings, he'd finally had to give in. He'd taken another wife.

But married though he might be, this time he was going to protect himself. He could make sure that he never lost another child because he would see to it that he never had another child. And he would never lose another woman he loved, because, quite simply, he would never love another woman. Not even sweet, innocent Olivia.