Chapter 49

Wouldn't it be nice if a good night's sleep really did make things better? Oh, I shore 'nuff agree it doesn't hurt when it comes to your attitude and outlook but as far as really changing things that have already happened or that might happen … well, nothing is going to do that. You just have to accept it and deal with it, though I know that is a lot easier said than done.

As far as it goes AJ and Hannah actually slept more than a night; more like two nights and a day. "For goodness sake Riss," Hannah mumbled around one of my fresh made cat head biscuits smothered with fresh butter and sorghum molasses. "You should have kicked me out of bed like when we were kids."

I smiled and told her, "Hush before you make me laugh and upset the baby." I was feeding Pita and she was in hog mode. When she gets hungry she can be downright foul if she gets interrupted and laughing as much as I wanted to at the memories that Hannah had brought up would definitely have dislodged her.

Out of nowhere Hannah asked, "Do you like your life?"

"Do I …?" She'd caught me completely off guard. "Well of course I do. Why would you ask that?"

After hesitating a bit she said, "I don't know. I mean I do, but I'm not sure you want to talk about it."

I'd known we were eventually going to have to get around to talking about Sol. I figured if that was what she was trying to say it might as well go ahead and get said. "Tell you what, you talk and if I don't want to talk back I'll let you know. Just don't get your knickers in a knot if I decide I'm not ready to talk about something. It won't be anything against you OK?"

She snorted a bit of a giggle. "Good grief Riss, I'd forgotten how 'corn fed' you can sound when you want to. You don't need to anymore you know. It seems like Dino would tear anyone up that even looked at you the wrong way. You don't need to camouflage yourself like that."

"Who said I was camouflaging anything?" I asked a little outraged for no reason.

"Dad did. He said that it was your way of … of … of staying connected I guess you could call it to your family that died. The ones that took you in. Like it is some kind of loyalty thing but hiding your real self at the same time."

Thinking about it a bit I said, "I suppose so. In a way. But it's gone from something I did to something I am now." Smiling a bit I admitted, "I know I can slather it on heavy on occasion but even that is part of who I am now. Not talking with three dollar words when a nickel one will work just suits me better with the life I've led and the one that I look to be living from here on out."

With a thoughtful look she said, "But what happens when things change … when they go back to normal. You're the wife of this big vineyard owner and you'll be expected to be a certain way to help him grow his business and interact with a certain level of people. The Pappas Vineyard is a pretty big deal from what I understand and that comes with a certain social obligation."

"OK, I've given that some thought too," I told her letting some of my more troubling thoughts bubble to the surface like sulfur at the old hot spring. "Here's where I stand Hannah; I'm not sure what normal is going to look like if and when this infernal war ever lets up. And I'm also not sure how much, if any, that I'll have to put on airs to help Dino with his part of the business. I won't embarrass him but I have to be myself. But I do trust that Dino and I can work it out when the time comes; he's like that you know … willing to hear my side. He accepts me for who and what I am now and if I need to learn to watch my p's and q's around a certain kind of clientele I will … just not at the cost of my soul."

She tilted her head like she was trying to see something in me that she hadn't before. "You'd do it for Dino but not necessarily because you liked it."

"I'm not sure if I would like it or not. I haven't had to go there. Maybe I would, maybe I wouldn't. Until I experience it I won't know for sure. I won't commit myself either way right yet. I didn't enjoy Thanks … well … that's …"

She gave a small, knowing smile. "AJ already told me about it. Mom would have fainted. And I swear I may too if I ever have to meet Mrs. Nichols. How you had the … er … the courage to do what you did I don't know."

Giving her my own knowing smile I told her, "Courage wasn't the word you were going to use and you know it." I laughed and then said, "As for Adona, you'll have to meet her all right. Nine will get you ten though she already knows as much about you as is possible for her to have found out."

"Lovely," Hannah groused.

I shook my head. "She's not so bad, not really. She'll probably think you're just peachy. You've been raised right, dress right, speak right, and you're pretty and AJ … er …"

"AJ what?" she asked like she wanted to know but didn't want to know at the same time.

"You know good and well what and don't tell me that you have no interest in that quarter when we both know you do."

At that she looked troubled which surprised me. "Yeah," she said quietly. "I think I do but … but he … he isn't exactly like … oh I don't know. And he's older and … I don't think … Riss, if I admit that I like him then I might have to admit that I care for him and if I do and he only likes me and doesn't care for me … I don't want to get hurt … not like that. I don't know if I want that risk, not with him, not when it could matter … could matter a lot."

You know, having a sunny kitchen leads to some interesting shadows. Dino wouldn't have stopped in the door but would have barreled straight in making a ton of noise. And Alec would have backed off and given us privacy. That long, lanky shadow though stood too still not to be noticed. "Hannah, I'm gonna ask you straight out, do you like AJ?"

"Yes," she admitted quietly. "But … but please don't say anything to him until … until I figure out how … how …"

"How what?"

"How am I supposed to explain about him … you know … not being … you know … the … the first?"

"Oh," I said, stymied. "Well, that … er … I mean …" I stopped, not wanting to dig a hole, especially not with a certain pair of ears listening in.

"I know you are going to say that for the right man it won't matter. But for the right man it will matter to me. I don't even remember … well … the worst part of it. I've even thought that I'm not remembering on purpose and that's ok to me, at least for now. I just don't want to get into it and really … really let myself get involved and then turn around and find out that … that it just …"

Pita was finished, burped and asleep so I laid her in the cradle and then went to sit beside a very pensive Hannah. "I don't know what the answer is Hannah except you need to be honest. I couldn't exactly hide the truth from Dino but he could have assumed that I was … well loose as a goose and with more than Sol and more than once. I was just real straight up front and in my case Dino chose to believe me. If you really are … are considering letting your feelings get involved with … with anyone or with someone in particular … naming no names of course … you owe it to yourself to be honest so you know where you stand up front."

"Oh that's easy enough to say," she sighed. "And I even believe you but it isn't exactly something you bring up out of the blue. Like, 'Oh, hey I know we are thinking about getting involved but I just want to tell you up front that you won't be the first guy I've been with and that the only guy that I have been with wasn't out of choice so take it or leave it.' Yeah, that will go over real well as a conversation starter."

"Uh, well … ok so that's a little different than my situation was but … well, to put it bluntly you are going to have to find a way to get around it."

"Well duh," she snarked. "I know that, I just don't know how."

"Then let it alone for now and just take your time," I told her.

She turned to look at me and asked, "Is that what you did?"

"Dino and I …," I stopped and had to laugh despite myself. "We were a mess. Or, I was the mess and Dino was just … just being a guy about the whole thing. I don't know exactly what you would call it but it has turned out to be good. Mostly I learned to trust him and he let me prove that I could be trusted too. I needed that … for someone to trust me, and to believe that someone trusted me. Mostly it was my own bad choices and how I felt about them that kept getting in the way. I didn't like knowing I could be a nincompoop and I still don't but … but Dino hasn't ever rubbed it in."

"He hasn't?"

"Nope. Is that what you were wondering about? Back at the beginning?"

"A little," she admitted with a nod. "I mean I know you seem happy … and more … more something than you were before. Confident? I don't know if that's it or not because you were always pretty confident. I just wondered if … if you … I mean this isn't exactly like you imagined how things would turn out, is it?"

Trying to be honest without saying anything that would hurt her … she didn't deserve that … I told her, "I'm not sure exactly what I expected Hannah. I think back and I'm pretty sure that I wasn't thinking too clearly or too far ahead. I felt … safe … with things going the way they did. I thought Sol would come back from finishing his assignment and life would just keep rolling along. But they didn't. I could say it started when your dad died but it had probably been coming on before then and I just didn't see it."

"Is this the part where you tell me you don't want to talk about it?"

I looked at her and sighed. "Part of me doesn't but … but mostly I think because I don't want to … to stir things up. I like my life here Hannah. No, I love my life." More quietly I added, "I love Dino and the life we have together. The way it has turned out was better than any daydream I've ever had because it's … it's richer, more real. Dino is …"

"Better than Sol?" she asked softly.

Just as softly I told her, "Yes, yes he is. I'm sorry Hannah. I don't want to hurt you … or your momma … which may be part of the reason why … why for a while I wasn't sure that I wanted to … to communicate with you all. I don't want to mess up what I have with Dino and I thought it required a … a break. Dino isn't happy about me having any kind of contact with Sol but he doesn't have any trouble with you. I'm not sure how he would feel about your momma but don't ask me or him to have anything to do with your uncle."

She snorted, "Don't worry about that. I've finally escaped and I'm not going back even if nothing ever comes between … well, you know."

The shadow was gone as quietly as it had come so I didn't pick my words quite as carefully. "Hannah, AJ has experienced his own bit of pain in his life and he'll need to figure out how to tell you about it because it is part of who he is. And the family dynamics around here can get … er … interesting. Take it slow is all I can say."

She nodded and then returned to the original topic. "So you're happy. And you don't regret, not even a little bit, about not being with Sol?"

"No. Sol wasn't … isn't … who I thought he was. I thought he was like a version of Harry or your father, only he wasn't … isn't … whatever."

She looked at me and then her face cleared up. "Ok. Harry … Harry explained it to me but I wanted to hear it from you. But I need to tell you something Riss … not to hurt you but because I think you deserve to know." I wasn't sure I wanted to hear what she said. "Sol is sorry. He may not be sorry enough after what he did, the way he acted, but he is sorry. And … and he isn't happy. He regrets picking the road he did. I know you'll say he made his bed so he has to sleep in it or something like that but … but he is paying a pretty high price for that gold ring he was reaching for. Shantelle … well … well, never mind. Let's just say she's done to him what he did to you a few times. Even Uncle Bill … er … at least that's what the housekeeper said."

"OK … ew … yuck … you're over the line and I'm done talking about it."

She grimaced. "Yeah, kinda the way I feel about it. Pretty nauseating. Just thought you should know he is getting paid back."

I shook my head, "I'm not interested in that Hannah. I don't want that to … to corrupt my life here. I just want to let it go and move on. I've got enough real problems in the here and now without creating any more for myself."

After a confused pause, "So you really don't want revenge?"

"Gross, not that way for sure. Besides, one of these days I'll have to answer to Pita for how she came to be and the less I have to be ashamed about the better. Dino, Kerry, and Pita-pie are my life now and I am very happy for it to be that way."

I guess she came to believe me because it was the only conversation we ever had on the subject. And I wasn't just telling her tales to get her off my back. There really was enough in my everyday life to keep me busy, why dig more trouble for myself.

There was the garden, cooking for everyone … teaching Hannah to cook which has been an adventure in and of itself … and dealing with the daily reality of the war. My wares are in even greater demand than before because nothing is coming from the normal manufacturing routes. It is a good thing that I had Mr. Chamberlin taking in lard and tallow as payment for goods in the store or there would have been a quick end to the soap making venture. I like building credits to get things that we need but no way am I going to deplete our own supply of cooking lard to do it.

There are a lot of shortages all over and as a result there is a lot of hunger in this country. You would have thought that the war would have taught people that you need to have a garden if it had taught them nothing else. Problem is that people keep telling themselves that the war will be over soon or next week the grocer's shelves will be full again. Things only get worse when you try and rely on the way things used to be to be that way again. Plan for the worst while you hope for the best and you'll never be sorry. The food riots have started up again but this time I don't think the government is going to respond as they have in the past by passing out free stuff to quiet down the angry folks. I have a frosty feeling that this time the rioters may be in for some unpleasant consequences.

Here is no different. People are thinner and the pickings are slimmer. I've been taking advantage of the foraging this spring time but it takes a huge amount of time and effort for the reward we get. I've felt blessed by all that we have had but the truth is I'm just plumb sick to death of nothing but dried, salted, or canned foods. I was just about sick for wanting something fresh. Thank goodness the early stuff has finally popped through. Miner's lettuce is abundant and because things have been so damp I'm not worried at all about over picking it. The yard isn't anything but dandelion greens it seems I can't get enough of the greens wilted by hot bacon grease and a little crumbled meat and goat cheese on top for dressing it up. Ajax said he passed by a patch of fiddlehead ferns on one of his circuits of the farm and Hannah and I went straight out and picked a mess of them.

I'll give Hannah one thing, when she sets her mind to something she gives it one hundred percent. When she set her mind to being a brat she was a brat hundred percent and then some. Well now she has set her mind to learning the trade of running a household and I felt rather inclined to ask her why she hadn't shown the same industry when we were growing up.

"Didn't need to Riss, you would do it if I put up just a little fuss just so you wouldn't have to listen to me complain … and you know it so don't bother denying it."

I rolled my eyes and but had to admit that it was true. Maybe I was a little full of myself at that point but I couldn't stand to listen to her whine and complain at me. I preferred being alone to her snipping.

Hannah's honesty is … well, it's refreshing. I know where I stand with her and always have. Before she was angry but she was honest. Now she is honest and is pushing me for more every day. It drives me a little batty on occasion because I feel like I've lost the little bit of alone time I had but the help she gives me is worth it. Someday she'll move on but until then I can at least help her in Harry's memory if nothing else. And with her around there is another person to remember him with.

And speaking of Harry, two of his favorite foods are ready for picking … fennel and morels. And tomorrow Hannah and I are going to go in search of the wild ramp. That ought to be interesting. Dino flat out said though he didn't want us going out by ourselves because there has been word sent out that there are strangers moving through now that the city people have breached the barriers at the bridges.

I wish folks would just leave us alone to live our own lives but I don't guess that is going to happen.