Sunset Embrace(10)

By: Sandra Brown

Leona Watkins folded her arms over her chest in a gesture of contempt. She was relinquishing all responsibility for the consequences should Mr. Grayson choose to do as the busybody Ma Langston suggested. She had always thought the Langston woman was unbearably common, and now Ma was proving it.

"The only opinion that counts is Mr. Colemans," Hal Grayson said. "Ross, what do you say to this? Do you want this girl to nurse your son on the outside chance that it might save his life?"

Lydia had turned her back on the lot of them. She didn't care what they thought of her. As soon as she was well enough, she would go somewhere where no one knew her, where she could start fresh, without a past. Unconsciously she had gravitated to the side of the wagon where the infant lay in an empty apple crate lined with flannel. She was staring down at the tiny, struggling life when she heard the shuffling motions of his father standing up.

Lydia's back was to Ross Coleman when he lifted his head, stood, and looked toward the girl who had caused such a ruckus in his wagon and interrupted his grieving over Victorias death. He noticed first her hair, a. veritable bramble bush of undisciplined curls with dried leaves and God knew what else entwined in its masses. What kind of woman goes around with her hair unbound in the first place? Only one kind Ross Colemen knew of.

From the back she looked terribly thin in the nightgown. The ankles poking out of its hem were narrow. Her feet were small. And dirty. God. He didn't need this disruption after the grievous days he had suffered.

"I don't want that girl touching my baby," he muttered in disgust. "Just all of you please leave me and my son alone. If he must die, let him die in peace."

"Thank heaven someone around here has held on to reason."

"Shut up," Ma told Leona Watkins as she shoved her aside on her way to reach Ross. "You seem to be a reasonable man, Mr. Coleman. Why won't you let Lydia feed your boy and at least try to save his life? He'll starve otherwise."

"We've tried everything," Ross said impatiently He plowed through his thick dark hair with frustrated fingers. "He wouldn't take cow's milk from a bottle. He wouldn't take the sugar water we spooned into him last night."

"He needs mother's milk. And that girl's nipples are oozing it."

"Oh, my Lord," Leona Watkins said.

Ross cast another glance at the girl. She stood between him and the pale lantern light, making the outline of her body visible through the thin nightgown. Her breasts did look heavy. The voluptuousness of them repelled him. Why was she traipsing around wearing only a nightgown? Even if she were sick after childbirth, no decent woman would let other people, particularly men, see her like that. His lip curled in revulsion, and he wondered what cathouse the girl had been dredged up from. Victoria would have been horrified at the sight of her.

"I won't have a slut nursing Victoria's baby," he said tightly.

"You don't know her circumstances any more than I do."

"She's trash!" he shouted. The anger he had harbored against the world since Victorias unfair death finally erupted. The girl happened to be a convenient scapegoat. "You don't know where she came from, who she is. Only one kind of woman has a baby without a husband around to take care of her."

"Maybe once, yes, but not since the war. And not since the whole countryside is crawlin' with renegades and no-goods and Yankee carpetbaggers who think everythin' and everyone in the South now belongs to them. We don't know what she's suffered. Remember, she lost her own baby two days ago."

Lydia was mindless of the argument. Her attention had been captured by the infant boy. His skin had an unhealthy pallor. Lydia had never seen a newborn other than her own. This one was even smaller, and his meager size alarmed her. Could anything that small live?

His fingers, balled as they were into tight fists, were almost translucent. His eyes were closed as he breathed in light, shallow pants. His stomach rose and fell jumpily. His crying was jagged, as though he had to pause often to rest and collect his shrinking supply of air. But the weak crying was incessant. And it was like a Lorelei's song to Lydia. Inexorably it drew her to the child.

She felt a tugging deep inside her womb, not unlike the labor contractions but without the pain. Her heart seemed to expand, crowding her already swollen breasts. They tingled, not with the flow of rich milk, but with a need to succor, a compulsion to render maternal comfort.