“Hi! Get up there!” Ned called to the horses. Once they were on the road, he turned to Jessie. “Your ma’s walkin’ back there with Robert and Miz Hannah. You can call me Ned now.” He watched a pink glow light her cheeks.
“I haven’t seen you for so long,” Jessie said, ducking her head to one side.
“Yup.” Ned moved his foot onto the brake lever. “I’m sorry I let some years get between us.”
Jessie didn’t reply.
“Do you remember that time I brought you a peck of mulberries, and we climbed the tree behind Miller’s barn and ate the whole thing?”
Jessie smiled but said nothing.
“Our hands got all purple, and my belly ached something fierce, but the company was fine.”
Jessie laughed. “As I recall, you threw up all over my skirt, and I had to hide it from Ma and wash it myself.”
Ned grinned. “I don’t remember that.”
“Nah, it couldn’t have. I was always a model citizen around you.”
Jessie gave Ned’s arm a gentle shove as her laughter filled the road. “The purple stain never did come all the way out of my skirt. I had to cover it with an apron until I outgrew it.”
“It does my heart good to hear you laugh, Jessie. I don’t reckon you’ve had much to laugh about the last few years.”
She shook her head. “Ma always tells us life ain’t meant to be fair.”
“But a fine-lookin’ girl like you should have little things that give you pleasure, like fancy trinkets and good memories.” He looked over at Jessie. She was blushing again. “Memories are precious gifts. I have a store of them I could share.”
Jessie said nothing. After a while, Ned began to whistle a tune, and she turned to him, her face a picture of delight.
“That’s the firefly song. You made it up.”
“I made it up for you.” Ned avoided looking at Jessie. He hadn’t told her that, before now, and couldn’t predict how she would react.
“You did?” A low chuckle escaped Jessie’s throat. “I never knew.” She tried out the tune, then laid her hand on his arm. “You never told me. What other secrets are you keeping from me?”
“Oh, lots and lots.” Ned grinned, relieved. “Like the time I shut the Owen boys in the Bates’s cellar for teasing you. Remember, I took you and Ellen Bates and Marie Owen into town on the buckboard to get candy at the store? That’s so you wouldn’t hear them rascals fussin’ to be let out.”
Jessie snatched her hand from Ned’s arm. He looked at her. She had turned her face away again.
“Did I say something wrong?”
“Nah, no,” she said, stumbling on the word.
“Are you in pain?” he asked. “This road ain’t too smooth.”
“Um, I’m a little tired,” she said.
“I don’t wonder,” he said. “That shotgun sent you flyin’. Fear is mighty fatiguin’, as well.”
Jessie said nothing in return, and Ned lapsed into silence.
Jessie hadn’t thought about James Owen for more than a week, but Ned’s remembrance of secrets he’d kept had reopened the wound that never quite seemed to heal. Precious mercy! Will I never stop thinking about him! A cold chill ran through her body, and she shivered, fighting tears that she wouldn’t be able to explain away.
Ned Heizer. Big-brother substitute Ned. Protector and friend while her own big brother, Max, played beau to the girls. Ned was acting like he wanted to court her.
That can’t be. Ned is my friend. How can he possibly want more than that?
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