An Unexpected Valentine
Someone pounded on the back door of his twin sister’s home as Willem Kerk stepped into the kitchen.
“Janna, I need to hide! Janna, please!”
Willem’s heart picked up speed. He knew that pleading voice well. It was the reason he hadn’t returned to Spencerville after becoming a doctor. He hadn’t wished to open wounds this woman had made. The desperation in her frantic plea and pounding fists tugged at his heart and his feet drawing him crossed the room.
Willem opened the door.
The blustery January wind blew in snowflakes, chilling his hands and face. A thin woman dressed in a baggy cotton dress fell into his arms. The moment his hands gripped her cold, boney arms she glanced up into his face. He barely recognized the woman who’d stolen his heart and turned to another when he set out to make a life for them both. If not for her full head of red curls, he would have guessed her to be another woman.
Her wide frightened green eyes narrowed and she shoved out of his hands. Her arms lifted as if protecting her head from blows. “Where’s Janna?” she asked, turning her back to him and side-stepping deeper into the kitchen.
Willem had worked with battered women at the hospital in Chicago. His heart sputtered almost to a stop to think the man Molly had chosen over him was hurting her. He counted to ten, inhaled deep, and slowly released his breath to tamp down the flaring rage this realization sparked.
“She went to the mercantile to get the powders our father needs.”
Shivers not of fear or revulsion snaked up Molly Lawrence’s backbone and warmed an empty space in her chest. When she’d realized she’d fallen into the arms of a man, she’d thought it was Janna’s husband Ronald. But the face she peered into and the soft voice with an accent just like Janna’s visited her dreams. There hadn’t been a night since marrying David Lawrence that she didn’t think of the man who left her for a profession as a doctor. Had Janna told her brother about the beatings?
Before she made the decision to turn and let him see the damage David did this time, large hands gently grasped her arms. She started to struggle, knowing only hurt from a man’s hands the past five years.
“It’s all right, Molly. I won’t hurt you. It is I, Willem.” His hands remained but the grip loosened.
The calm, deep voice reassuring her, took her back to the carefree days when she and Willem were inseparable. She peered up into his face.
His bluish-gray eyes studied her. His expression never changing, but the color of his eyes grew brighter. She remembered how they would darken when his mood changed. But mostly right before he kissed her. His grip tightened and she sucked air, preparing to flee.
He released her arms but stood steadfastly in front of her.
“Who did this to you?” He motioned for her to sit at the kitchen table.
Molly’s legs shook from her run and the realization the one man she’d always wanted had just witnessed the mess she’d made of her life. She shuffled to the chair and plopped on the hard surface. The last few months her body had lost much of her padding and the wood smacked against her sitting bones. She grimaced at the slight pain and jarring.
Willem’s back was to her as she settled onto the chair and pulled her sleeves down to hide the bruises on her wrists and lower arms.
The only man she’d ever loved knelt beside her, holding a glass of water.
“Who did this?” His fingers skimmed over the older bruises on her face. The touch was soft, like a feather caressing her cheek. The complete opposite of her husband’s touch. How many nights had she lain in her bed, spilling tears down her cheeks, and wishing this man lay beside her?
He skimmed her face again, drawing her gaze back to his. “Who hurt you?”
“David. I didn’t have his dinner ready. I’d been helping old missus Crandall and lost track of time.” She hated to admit to the mess she’d made of her life, but she couldn’t lie to Willem. Had never been able to hide her feelings, which was why it had hurt so bad when he chose doctoring over her. She choked back a sob as the last horrid half hour played in her mind.
Her arms trembled remembering the vibration as the skillet she swung at David’s head connected. Fear shot her out of the chair. “I have to go. I need to borrow a coat from Janna.”
“No.” Willem gently settled her back down on the chair.
She didn’t hear the words coming out of Willem’s soft lips, only the calm, deep voice as terror clawed at her throat. She’d killed her husband!
“I can’t go to jail! I didn’t mean to…he was… I couldn’t take another beating.”
“Shhh…” He forced the glass of water into her hands. “Drink, then tell me what happened.”
She stared into his kind eyes. Eyes that as a young man had crinkled at the edges when he laughed at her silly comments. Her gaze dropped to his lips, now pressed together in a stern line. There was a time when those lips turned up at the corners and made her heart skip. The softness of them nuzzling her neck and kissing her cheek…
The swallow of water stuck in her throat and she coughed, spewing across Janna’s clean table cloth. What have I done?
A large, warm hand leisurely rubbed circles on her back. She leaned back into the warm, gentle touch.
“Why are you set on running away? If your husband is beating you, you have grounds to divorce him.”
Willem’s calm demeanor helped to settle her rattled state.
Molly drew in a breath and peered into his eyes. “I may be a widow.”
His hand stalled, then resumed the circles. “How is that?”
“Janna has been badgering me to stand up to David. She said a man who beats a woman is a coward.” Molly shuddered as the vision of David roaring blasphemies and coming at her with his fists raised played in her mind. “When I told him I was going to leave him if he didn’t stop beating on me, he charged like a rank bull. I grabbed the closest thing…a skillet…and struck him alongside the head.” She turned to the man sitting on a chair beside her. When had he sat on the chair? Shaking her head she continued. “He went down to his knees then sunk to the floor, blood spilled over the floor by his head.” She grabbed his shirt. “I didn’t know what else to do, so I ran over here. Janna’s always been here for me.”
Willem cursed as the back door opened and shut. His sister returning couldn’t have been timed any better.
Janna crossed the room at a run. “Godverdomme, Molly, he’s been beating on you again.”
Willem stared at his sister. “I’ll speak with you later. Right now I want you to get a blanket to wrap around Molly. Give her a cup of tea and some broth. I have a patient to tend to.”
Both women stared at him when he returned to the kitchen with his doctor’s bag in his hand and dressed to weather the cold. If Molly knocked her husband out, he’d patch him up and give him the same talking to he did the husbands of the women he’d patched up in Chicago. Give the wife a divorce and move on or he’d press charges. While there were still many men who believed a wife deserved a beating, the women were starting to get more voice in politics and with their husbands. Spencerville wouldn’t tolerate a wife beater, which brought up the question—How had Molly kept it a secret from everyone but Janna? If the man was dead…he’d find a way to keep her out of jail.
It didn’t take him long to traverse Main Street and find the path to the Lawrence house. Janna had pointed it out when he’d first arrived to help with their ailing father. His strides shortened and his gait slowed. How would he respond to the man if he was merely injured? He’d never liked David even when they were schoolmates together. He’d seen the brutal side to him then. But he hadn’t been here to talk Molly out of marrying the man. According to Janna she’d tried to explain her brother would be back and to wait for him, but Molly didn’t believe her best friend anymore than she believed him. It still ate at his pride that she didn’t believe he would come back and marry her.
He knocked on the wide open door. “Mr. Lawrence? David?” Willem called out before stepping across the threshold. The house was eerily quiet. The scent of blood hung in the air. It had taken him nearly a year to get used to the scent when repairing a mangled body at the hospital. The factories and warehouses maimed many men…and boys.
“Mr. Lawrence?” He stepped into the kitchen. David didn’t lie in a heap on the floor, but the evidence of Molly’s fear congealed on the floor. A cast iron frying pan larger than he thought Molly could lift lay on the wood beside a fair-sized spot of glistening blood.
Where was David? Terror squeezed his chest. Looking for Molly!
His first instinct had been to clean up the mess so no one knew what had happened, but the knowledge the man could be searching for his wife and would be even angrier at her fighting back sent him back out the front door and running to his sister’s house.
Molly huddled over the steam from the tea and the broth Janna had placed in front of her. Pulling the scratchy wool blanket tighter around her body, she moaned. Her life had turned out so different from what she’d planned. And now, she could be going to jail for killing a man who had beat on her since two weeks after their wedding five years ago.
The back door banged opened and she froze. Was David still alive? Fear started her trembling at her toes and worked up her body until her head started shaking. She fought to keep her vision from blurring. What did death feel like? It had to be better than the past five years.
Willem hadn’t meant to bang the door open so hard. In his fear for Molly, he’d hit the door at a run, slamming it against the wall.
Janna jumped and scolded him, but his gaze was on the woman shaking like a wagon on a rutted road. He closed the door quietly and walked over to the chair.
“Molly, you didn’t kill David. He wasn’t there.” He placed a hand on her shoulder, and she jerked away her body vibrating.
“Molly, sweetheart, liefje, I won’t let him touch you.” Willem scooped her shaking form up in his arms and carried her into the parlor where he sat on the settee with her on his lap and rubbed her arms and back, trying to bring her back to the present.
“Janna, bring tea with lots of sugar,” he called into the kitchen.
When his sister entered the room, he flashed her with a stern look. “Lock all the doors and only let your husband in.”
Janna nodded and scurried from the room.
“Liefje, look at me.” He tipped Molly’s chin up so her beautiful green eyes stared into his. “I won’t let anyone hurt you.” Placing her small hand on his chest over his heart, he said, “This heart still beats for you, and I’ll do whatever it takes to get you away from that man.”
He saw a brief flicker in her eyes.
“Drink this.” Willem held the tea up to her lips. She sipped, her eyes steady on his. By the time the cup was empty, her body had stopped shaking. He continued to rub her arms and back. She was so bony. Even her adolescent body hadn’t been this thin. It would be hard to not take a cast iron skillet to David’s head himself when he saw him.
Molly squirmed and he realized he’d stopped rubbing and was squeezing her arm.
“Sorry. I’ll keep my thoughts only on getting you well and keeping you safe.” He kissed her forehead.
Tears trickled down her cheeks.
“Do you hurt somewhere I can’t see?” His hands felt her ribs, slid down her abdomen, and started to descend her legs.
She stayed his hands with hers. “No.” She sniffled. “I’m not hurt anywhere else. Why are you being so kind? You walked away from me.”
His neck cracked as he brought his gaze up to meet hers. “I never walked away from you. I told you I’d be back in four years and we’d marry. You’re the one who didn’t wait for me.”
Her eyes snapped with indignation. “When my parents died and I had nowhere to go, I sent you a letter, asking if you still wanted to marry me, could we do it then, so I wouldn’t be at the mercy of the only other man who was asking for my hand, David.”
An invisible hatchet split his heart in two. She’d reached out to him and he’d let her down.
“I never received a letter from you. Only the one from Janna saying you’d married David Lawrence.” He gathered her into his arms and held her close. “Liefje, I’m so sorry. I would have married you and figured out how to support you and get through my schooling.” His heart ached for all she’d endured.
She snuggled against his chest, and he thought he heard a sigh. He wasn’t going to let her get away again. He’d fight whoever he needed to get her out of her marriage and into his arms every night.
The next two weeks, Molly remained in the Kerk household. Willem had told the marshal what had happened between David and Molly. The man said he’d had his suspicions, but Molly hadn’t come out in public much, and when she did, she appeared happy.
Willem didn’t care what the town thought. He escorted Molly to dine at the hotel restaurant. Janna had loaned her a dress for the occasion. It fit Molly better now that she was eating well and not in fear all the time. She was blossoming into the young woman he’d dreamed about every night since he went away to medical school.
“You didn’t have to bring me out like this,” Molly whispered, scanning the room.
“You have nothing to worry about. Everyone in town knows what David did to you.” He wanted to reach across the table and smooth the worry lines from her brow, but she was still a married woman. He’d take care of that whenever that coward of a husband turned up.
“But I am still married to him. We shouldn’t be acting as if you’re courting me in public.” She whispered and sat back as the waiter set their meals in front of them.
“Everyone also knows my intentions and that you are living with my sister, her husband, and my father. You are worrying too much.” He smiled and nodded to her plate. “Eat.”
She grudgingly started eating. Halfway through their meal the marshal strolled into the restaurant followed by Janna and Ronald.
“Mr. Kerk, Mrs. Lawerence, I need to speak with you.” The marshal held his hat in his hands. A dour expression darkened his face.
Willem glanced at Janna. She nodded slightly but her worried gaze rested on Molly.
“Of course.” Willem stood and held Molly’s chair as she rose. The color drained from her face, and Janna hurried to Molly’s other side. Willem and his sister escorted Molly out to an alcove in the lobby.
Willem turned to the marshal. “What did you wish to speak to us about?” He held Molly’s hand, squeezing it to show his support.
“I just got word that Mr. David Lawrence is to be hung on February 14th for the murder of a prostitute over in The Dalles.” The marshal kept his eyes on Molly. “From what I gather he showed up in town, got roaring drunk, found a red haired woman, and killed her. Wasn’t no need to go to trial since there were witnesses to the attack.” He ducked his head. “The witnesses say he was shoutin’ that it would be the last time she smacked him with a fryin’ pan.”
Molly teetered and Willem put an arm around her waist, easing her down onto the chair behind her.
“He killed that woman thinking she was me, didn’t he?”
Her whispered question froze Willem’s heart.
“Yes, ma’am I reckon he did. He was looking for a woman with hair the color of yours.”
Molly started shaking.
“Thank you for carrying out your duty, marshal.” Willem picked Molly up and headed for the door. Janna held it open, and he headed for his sister’s house.
Molly would be a widow on February 14th. It was a tragic end to Molly and David’s marriage, but an unexpected Valentine’s gift for him and Molly. They only had to wait a respectable time after that and they could marry.
In the meantime, he planned to prove to her she would be cherished for the rest of her life.