Cherished:The Mountain Man's Babies(2)

By: Frankie Love

He got stronger each day with the back breaking work they asked him to do, his muscles stretching the seams of his ironed church clothes. His chiseled jaw and tanned skin became more dominating with each task they gave him.

As he grew strong, I grew fragile. Though I'd never admit that to him. I wanted him to believe I was as beautiful as I'd ever been. But I wasn't. So, I rarely left the house; I spent my days cooking and cleaning and helping homeschool my younger siblings, since our mother died years ago, and I needed to be here for them. My hair got long and my bones grew weary. I didn't want him to see me then... see what had become of me.

I was ashamed. I didn't deserve his heart anymore. He deserved a woman who was brave enough to leave when he had asked.

I was older now. Old enough to be married.

And my father promised me to a man.

A man older than my father. A man who already had three wives.

A man who would pay my father ten thousand dollars to take me off his hands.

The family needed the money. I looked at the faces of my four younger siblings, hungry and longing for more than they had.

I had let him down, but I wouldn't fail my family too.

I agreed.

Tomorrow I would be bound to a husband who paid for me, my sole job to give him children.

The man I loved could let the dream of me go.

I wasn't enough for him anymore.

And deep down I wondered if I ever had been.

No, that isn't true. I didn't wonder.

I knew.

He deserved the world, and by marrying a stranger, I could give him a future bigger than the one he had here.

Chapter Two

The sun beats down on my back, feeling like this godforsaken garage will never get done. I look over at Jonah wiping the sweat off his brow.

"I'm exhausted," he says. "Ready for lunch?"

I nod, and the two of us climb down the ladder.

"I'm ready to call it a day," I tell him. "It's hot as sin out here." It's barely noon and already it's ninety-five degrees. Idaho summers are no joke.

"What's going on over there?" Jonah asks, pointing to a group of women gathered around the entrance to the church.

I frown, not having heard about an event at the church today. Not that I care for the bullshit religion practiced at the compound—but still, I usually know what is happening and where seeing as I do most of the grunt work to set up different events.

I head to the communal kitchen in the back of the church and see my cousin Honor there, a baby on her hip, her free hand mixing coleslaw.

"Hungry, James?" she asks. Her eyes are lowered, and I wish she'd meet mine, but she’s become withdrawn over the last few years, ever since she was forced to marry Luke, the head pastor of this congregation—which is a fancy way of saying brainwashed followers.

Though I sure as hell would never use a word like that.

"What's going on out front?" I ask, grabbing a ham sandwich from a platter on the counter. Jonah follows suit, and Honor pours us glasses of ice cold water.

"There's a wedding tomorrow. The sister-wives are getting the place ready."

I frown. "Whose wedding?"

Honor twists her lips, her voice small, nearly a whisper. "It's Cherish."

The white bread is caught in my throat, and I cough, trying to dislodge her words. How did I not know this was happening? The only reason I’ve stayed here for so long is to make sure Cherish is safe. All I can think at this moment is that I’ve failed her again.

Jonah whistles low beside me.

"I'm sorry, James," Honor says.

"I've gotta go find her."

"They won't let you get near her," Jonah says. "Not today."

But my heart is already racing. I've asked her, too many times to count, to come with me. To leave this life behind. But she’s always refused.

Now there is no more time. Now she’s getting fucking married.

I can't let this happen.

I refuse.

"I have to go try. I have to convince her—"

Honor nods. "You should go to her, James. Maybe she'll feel differently now that the reality is setting in." Honor looks up at me, tears in her pale blue eyes. "I know I would have left if given an out the night before my wedding."

I run a hand through my hair, jaw clenched, wondering how I can get through her father's front door without him pulling out his shotgun. That bastard hates me something fierce.