And she had. Except for the one way she really wanted. The truth.
The heaviness in her heart grew as she made her way down the stairs. The entire house was full of remarkable places she and Seth had created memories—the parlor sofa, the bathtub, the kitchen—and it was about to end. She was leaving, going to Washington, where she’d have to fess up to who she was, and he was going to hate her.
Pinpricks of embarrassment stung her cheeks. Russ couldn’t know her thoughts, yet her deceit was so close to the surface, she felt as if it was written across her skin.
“Yes, Corporal Kemper?” she responded, stepping off the last stair.
“The major says it’s time to go.”
Millie took a deep breath. Needed to. She’d told Seth she’d stay here, wait for him, even dreamed he’d just go to Washington and return, having never learned of the deceit. He wouldn’t hear of it. Said he couldn’t be separated from her for that long. She’d cherished the statement, for she didn’t want to be parted from him, either, but a deep intuition said the trip would change everything.
Corporal Kemper crossed the room and held out one hand. “I’ll carry that.”
“Thank you.” She handed over the bag and pulled down the hem of her once-pale-green traveling suit jacket. The color was an odd mixture now, a not overly flattering gray-orange, but it had washed up better than she’d imagined. The white underblouse with a large ruffled collar was tinted orange, as well. At least the shades matched, and there really was no sense in ruining another gown. The trip was bound to be long.
Seth met her on the porch, which had her heart drumming and a smile bouncing onto her lips. He was so handsome, dressed in his full uniform, yellow scarf and all, and she loved him so much it hurt.
“You look as beautiful as ever,” he said, bending to brush a kiss to her cheek.
Compliments from him always made her blush. Taking his arm, she said, “I missed you when I awoke this morning.”
“I had things to see to, but I’d rather have been there with you.” He turned then, escorting her down the steps. “We want to make it as far as possible today. Hopefully, we can cut the trip to Tulsa down to four days.”
That wasn’t what Millie hoped for. She wanted it to take forever. Yet knowing he was attempting to shorten the trip on account of her made her love him all the more. “We’ll be together,” she said, “so whether it’s four, five or fifteen days, it doesn’t matter to me.”
His lips brushed her temple before he nodded toward the courtyard. “There are a few folks who’d like to say goodbye.”
So engrossed in Seth, she hadn’t noticed the line of people flanking a pathway that ended at two loaded wagons and several saddled horses. “Goodness.”
“I think you’re going to be missed while we’re gone,” he whispered in her ear.
Tears pricked her eyes, but humor sparkled in his. So did pride, so she tried to smile.
“I’ve left a dozen times over and never had this happen before.” He waved a hand for her to precede him along the pathway.
It was early, so she’d imagined half the fort would still be sleeping, but they weren’t. Besides army men, and the three other wives she’d come to know well, Briggs Ryan and all four of his maidens, as well as Mr. Jenkins and Wind wished her safe travels and a speedy return. Mr. Ryan, right after a bear hug that left her cheeks stinging, and may have broken a rib, handed her a small pouch.
“Tea leaves,” the big man said in his gusty voice. “Drop a few in boiling water and let steep for five minutes. No longer, though, or it’ll get bitter. No?”
“Yes, yes,” she answered. “Five minutes, thank you.”
Wind, with his tiny shoulders protected from the cold by a red-and-blue-plaid shirt, handed her a peppermint stick that was no longer white. “For Major’s wife.”
Taking the candy, which had obviously been hidden, saved for a special moment, Millie felt her heart tumble in her chest. If only she’d known, she’d have saved a coin to give in exchange, but her money—what she’d chosen to take with her—was in her wrist bag inside her traveling satchel, and Russ had already put that in one of the wagons.
“I believe you dropped this, dear.”
She turned to Seth, and seeing the coin in his palm, met his gaze with all the love bubbling in her chest. Squaring her shoulders, trying to act as poised as a major’s wife should be, she nodded. “Thank you, Major.” Taking the coin, she handed it to the boy. “Thank you for the sweet stick, Wind. May I give you this in exchange?”