Bedded Then Wed(3)

By: Heidi Betts

She couldn’t argue with his logic, so she said nothing as they made their way across the grass-sprigged dirt yard to the big gray barn.

One half of the large double doors was propped open. They walked inside, and Emma flipped a switch to her left to turn on the lights. The uncovered bulbs dangling high above their heads weren’t very bright but illuminated enough of the building so that they could see what they were doing.

Mitch had spent so much time at the Double D as a child that he knew where everything was. The horses nickered at the interruption to their rest, and Mitch patted more than one equine nose as they passed.

While she shook a bit of fresh hay into each horse’s feed trough and checked to make sure they had clean water, Mitch hauled a bale outside. She knew he would carry the hay out a ways into the field, then spread it on the ground for the cattle to find during the night.

They finished at nearly the same time. She was wiping her hands on the seat of her jeans when he strolled back in, the leftover baling twine clutched in one hand. He hung the strings on a nail sticking out of a nearby beam, then turned to face her, hands on hips.

“All done?” he wanted to know.

“Just about.” Moving farther into the wide open space of the barn, she wrapped her fingers around the sides of the ladder that led to the loft and said, “I want to check on a new litter of kittens before we leave.”

She scurried up the ladder in a matter of seconds, creeping quietly across the straw-strewn floor in search of the kittens. The light up here was even weaker than down below, but she could still make out the shapes of stray bales and—hopefully—tiny bundles of fur.

A second later, a board squeaked behind her and she turned her head to see Mitch standing at the top of the ladder. Her stomach did another one of those queer flip-flops at the sight of him, then settled down to a dull simmer.

“You didn’t have to come up,” she whispered.

“I wanted to,” he said just as softly, but didn’t elaborate.

Deciding Mitch pretty much did what he wanted, whenever he wanted, she went back to looking for the kittens. She found them tucked together in a tight ball, nestled into a pile of loose straw in the corner. They were adorable, and so small she thought she could probably hold the entire brood of them in the palms of both hands.

There were five in total—two tabbies, one calico, one white, and one black with white feet and a streak of white on its nose. She’d been playing with them on an almost daily basis since she’d discovered them. They were old enough that their eyes were open but young enough that they still wobbled when they tried to walk.

Not wanting to disturb their rest, she intended to simply back away and leave them be, but then the mama cat appeared, rubbing between Emma’s legs before moving to her babies and lying down to let them feed. They immediately woke up and started nuzzling around their mother’s belly, and Emma took the opportunity to stroke their soft little heads and backs.

Most barn cats were afraid of people because they didn’t get handled as much as house cats, but from the time she was old enough to toddle around in her father’s footsteps, Emma had loved the odd collection of felines running around the property. Her father used to tell her to be careful or she’d stroke them all bald, but so far that hadn’t happened. Instead, they had a barn full of friendly cats that often came running when they heard the doors open and would pester for attention while you were trying to work.

“Cute,” Mitch murmured just above her left ear, startling her.

She straightened, covering her heart with her hand. For a moment, she’d forgotten he was there but wondered now how she ever could have made such a grievous error. His tall frame and broad shoulders filled the space around them like a sponge in a glass of water. His presence alone seemed to suck all the oxygen out of the air and make her short of breath.

“Well,” she said nervously, backing a step or two away, “I just wanted to see how they were doing. We can leave now.”

Instead of heading for the ladder to climb back to the main floor of the barn, Mitch moseyed over to a couple of bales of straw stacked against the far wall and sat down.

“What’s your hurry?” he asked, leaning back on his elbows until he was nearly lying flat. “If we wait for the kittens to fill their bellies, you might get to pet them again.”

Stuffing her hands into the hip pockets of her jeans, she rocked back on her heels. She could play with the kittens anytime, which he probably knew perfectly well. But he seemed to want to hang around a while longer, and she didn’t get the chance to talk to him very often anymore, especially alone. Besides, as tired as she’d been only half an hour ago at the picnic area, she didn’t feel at all sleepy now.