Smoke River Family(8)

By: Lynna Banning

 She unpinned the soaked garment, prodded the ceramic chamber pot out from under the bassinet with her foot and dropped in the diaper. It landed with a splat and Winifred heaved a sigh of relief. Then she pinned the dry garment onto the now-squirming infant, praying she would not prick the soft skin. Then she stuck the rubber nipple into Rosemarie’s open mouth.

 Instant silence. Thank the Lord! The blue-green eyes popped open and gazed into Winifred’s face as the level of milk in the bottle steadily diminished. The baby sucked greedily while she hovered over her, mesmerized by the whole process. Perhaps it wasn’t that difficult to care for an infant.

 Long before the bottle was empty, Rosemarie fell asleep. Winifred cuddled her against one shoulder and settled into the rocking chair by the window. Not difficult at all, she mused. In fact, she felt exactly like she did after a successful concert—tired and proud and happy.

 * * *

 Zane stepped quietly into his bedroom and stopped short. Winifred sat in the rocker, asleep, with a slumbering Rosemarie nestled against her shoulder. Very gently he lifted his daughter into his arms, felt her diaper—dry—and laid her in the bassinet beside his bed. Then he stood staring down at Celeste’s sister.

 How different this woman was from his wife. Celeste had been petite, golden-blonde and frail-looking. Winifred had dark hair. And whereas Celeste had been slim to the point of boyishness, Winifred’s breasts under the white shirtwaist were lushly curved.

 She slept quietly, her breath pulling softly in and out without a hint of the asthma that had plagued Celeste in the summer months. His wife had been pretty, extremely pretty; but Winifred’s bone structure approached real beauty. He could not help wondering how far the differences between the two sisters went. Was Winifred—? He caught himself. He wouldn’t allow his mind to go there. He recognized that he was desperately unhappy. Lonely. Hungry, even. Not for physical release but for emotional comfort. And, yes, he supposed, some plain old body hunger was involved. It amazed him that his spirit could feel so broken and his physical self could still feel normal. Or almost normal.

 Since Celeste’s death he hadn’t felt a twinge of interest in food or riding or swimming or reading or any of the things that had sustained him through the long, dry months of her pregnancy. He supposed he would come back to life eventually; for the time being, it was a blessing to feel nothing.

 He reached out and touched Winifred’s wrist and she jerked upright with a little cry. “Oh, it’s you.”

 Zane surprised himself with a chuckle. “Who were you expecting?”

 She surged out of the rocker. “The baby! Where is—?”

 “Sleeping,” Zane replied.

 She took a single step forward and her knees gave way. Zane snagged one arm around her shoulder to steady her. “Easy, there. Foot go to sleep?”

 “What? Oh, no, I...” She swerved toward the bassinet. “I feel somewhat unsteady, and my head is pounding like it does when I have a migraine.”

 Zane tightened his grip and steered her through the doorway and down the short hallway to the guest bedroom. Her skin was hot. Even through the shirtwaist he could feel she was over-warm. He shot a glance to her flushed face.

 “Winifred, undress and get into bed. I’ll bring up something to cool you down.”

 When he returned, she was stretched out under the top sheet, her eyes shut. “What’s wrong with me? Am I ill?”

 “You’re sun-sick. Got a bad sunburn on your face and arms. Here, drink this.” He leaned over, slipped his arm behind her to raise her shoulders and held a glass to her lips.

 “What is it?”

 “Water, mostly. You’re dehydrated. What did you do today to get this sunburned?”

 She sipped obligingly, then grasped the glass with both hands and gulped down four huge swallows. “I went to visit Cissy’s grave. I must have sat there for longer than I thought.”

 Zane said nothing. Her next statement drove the breath from his lungs.

 “I saw your roses. It was a lovely gesture.”

 “What roses?”

 “The yellow ones you left on her grave.”

 “But I did not—”

 Even in the semidarkness he could see her eyes widen. She finished the water. “Then who did?”

 He set the glass aside and slid her shoulders down onto the pillow. “I have something for your sunburn.” Carefully he unrolled the three napkins he’d soaked in water and witch hazel; one he laid directly over her face and with the other two he wrapped her forearms. “I’m afraid you’re going to hurt some tomorrow. Your skin is pretty badly burned.”

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