Your daddy weren’t a bad man, but he weren’t good, neither. You always thought maybe he woulda been better if he’d had sons. He said God cursed him with five daughters on account of his loose morals growin up.
So he kept y’all under lock and key, all early curfews and modest clothes. His only salvation would be marryin you off, hopefully to a rich city man. But ain’t a man alive who wants used goods, he’d say. So even though you were the eldest—and twenty-four, at that—you’d never so much as courted a boy in school. You took to books and your flower garden, thinking maybe if you made something of yourself, daddy wouldn’t have to marry you off to some drunk, toothless bumpkin.
But that weren’t even on his mind these days. See, he’d gone into business with the Bondurants out yonder, and you knew it was all sorts of illegal. He started smellin of shine, probably helped ‘em sell it in y’all’s parts. You didn’t know the details, didn’t need to. But you knew about them Bondurant brothers, and you heard they were a mess of trouble. You saw ‘em one time when you went into town for some shopping. The youngest one was handsome enough, almost looked like a city slicker. But the other two were haggard, always scowling. ‘Specially that Forrest, clouded in cigar smoke, wearin’ a silly sweater like the ones your papaw used wear.
And then one day, daddy came home drunk off his tail and mad as hell, grabbing your arm to drag you outside. He’d gone into some debt with the Bondurants and made ‘em a deal: you, in exchange for a clean slate.
You threw up at his feet, immediately terrified and disgusted by the prospect. It’s bad enough girls get married to men they don’t even like just ‘cause it’s what’s best for the family. But to be exchanged to clear debt? Why, that weren’t no better than bein sold. It made you sick.
“You will be a good wife, you hear me? Ain’t no coming back here, we can’t afford you no more. Count yourself lucky, gettin on in age, this is the best you could hope for.”
You didn’t wanna marry a criminal, but you didn’t wanna stay here neither, not if you were gonna be disrespected so. Leavin your sisters behind weren’t ideal, but maybe daddy would ease up on ‘em once you were gone. Four daughters was better’n five, after all. And if you got out, maybe you could figure out a way to get them out, too.
So you agreed, packed your things, and let daddy drive you two counties over to what the brothers called The Station–part bar, part house, disguised as a general store so they could do their business covertly. The whole ride over, you tried rememberin Jack Bondurant’s face. He looked of an age with you, and by the sounds of it, he was the most eager and ambitious of the boys. You didn’t know him from Adam, but maybe he’d make an alright husband.
When you arrived, a total of five men sat in rocking chairs along the porch of the building front. All the brothers, you figured, and some of their associates. Not a woman in sight. It’d be strange, after a life with sisters, spendin your days around men. Would Jack be gentlemanly enough to protect you from their leers and jeers? You could only hope.
Daddy opened the door and helped you out, and you spotted him there, smack in the middle, starin you up and down. The man to his left leaned over and whispered something you couldn’t hear, but you sure saw them laughin afterward. It was nerve-wrackin, being paraded up to the assembly of men like an animal at auction. But keepin your eyes on Jack helped.
You finally reached the steps and daddy spoke as he presented you. “As agreed, for settlement of my debt, my eldest daughter’s hand in marriage.” Your heart beat all the way up to your ears and you thought you might faint in the bright sunlight. The silence seemed to stretch on forever, your eyes glued to the dusty ground, until you heard wood creaking. You lifted your head to greet your husband-to-be, but Jack was still seated: Forrest had stood.
But you couldn’t marry him, he was an old man! And a mean one, if rumors were true. Even as he shuffled toward you he wore a scowl ‘neath the brim of his old hat. He took the three steps off the porch slowly, careful not to accidentally make eye contact with you. Your heart pounded even faster’n afore and you thought you might be sick again. When he was close enough to touch, he leaned and whispered. You could smell the tobacco lingerin on him.
“You come here of your own free will?”
You honestly weren’t sure what the right answer was. It weren’t your idea to do all this, but it wasn’t like daddy had to shove you into the car. You nodded, afraid you might not have a voice after being quiet so long. He lifted his chin just enough to meet your eyes, nodded curtly as well, and squinted as he looked back at your daddy.
“Debt’s paid, now get the fuck out.”
You heard a door slam and tires spin before you could think to tell him goodbye.
Still, you were plumb terrified by the prospect of Forrest Bondurant so much as touchin you. He was quiet, and so often, the quiets ones were the meanest. ‘Sides, why weren’t he married yet? Maybe he beat women, maybe he made ‘em do all sorts of perverted things in bed. You shivered at the thought, even though you hardly knew what was meant to happen in a marriage bed.
But he snapped you out of your thoughts before you could work yourself into a frenzy. “Come on inside, now, Howard’ll get your trunk.”
You turned halfway around to see that daddy had at least thought to leave your things ‘fore he took off. Not that you had all that much. Probably nothin proper for a wife. But you did as he said and walked into The Station, eager to start makin something, anything feel familiar.
It was a little grimy, a little dusty, but maybe that’d give you somethin to do. Later, you’d learned they kept all their alcohol in a hidden shelf ‘neath the bar, but on that first day, it looked like a plain soda fountain with a little kitchen in back and lotsa little round tables set out. Forrest kept walking ahead of you, and you noticed he had a funny way to his step, like that Ethan Frome you read about last summer. Maybe that’s why he was quiet and didn’t have a wife–he’d been hurt and weren’t a fit man anymore. Maybe that’s what made him so mean.
You followed him into a dark room that he illuminated with a switch. Daddy never had enough money to fix the lights at home, so you’d been using lanterns for years. Apparently you’d miss the hummin sound they made, ‘cause it calmed your nerves right away.
“This is your room,” Forrest said, barely louder’n a grumble as he removed his hat.
Your, he’d said, not ours. You were equal parts relieved and anxious about that. You hadn’t had a room to yourself in all your life, but if you weren’t sharin, did that mean he didn’t like you? It didn’t make no matter to your ego, but surely it was better for your husband to like you than dislike you. Either way, you sat on the foot of the bed, not knowin what else to do.
“Can I ask you a question?” you ventured, unsure you even wanted the answer.
He didn’t say yes, so much as grunt, but it was something.
“How come you agreed to all this?”
He licked his lips and frowned. “All what?”
“Marryin me. You don’t even know me.”
He nodded then, and shoved his hands in the pockets of his sweater. “It was the right thing to do.”
You really didn’t want to pester him with a mess of questions, but that weren’t an answer. “What do you mean?”
Seemed he couldn’t speak straightforward without pausing first, ‘cause this time, he cleared his throat. “It was your daddy’s idea. I figured, if a man was willin to trade his daughter, he weren’t no kinda father. And you’d be better off away from him.”
That was near the last thing you expected him to say, but it calmed your nerves, much the same as the hummin light above. It was funny though, ‘cause you’d been so worried ‘bout meetin him ‘cause you thought no kinda man would be worth havin if he bartered in women. Seemed he thought the same.
“Well, that’s mighty noble of you, Mr. Bondurant.”
“I ain’t interested in forcin you into nothin. You can earn your keep helpin out around here. But you were promised a husband, and around these parts, it ain’t exactly safe to be an unwed lady. I’ll leave it to you.”
It was a foreign feelin, makin your own decision like this, but it did improve your opinion of him. “You got someone you love, Mr. Bondurant?”
He stuttered, fidgeted around, and frowned. “Well–uh–wh–what do you mean?” You made a mental note that he didn’t like talkin about himself, you could see it in his posture.
“I don’t wanna marry a man who loves somebody else, is all.”
“Hm. Well no, I ain’t got nobody like that.”
You were glad, for some reason. Relieved of an odd jealousy you weren’t familiar with. “Would you like to marry me?”
That question made him even more uncomfortable, you thought. He averted his eyes and dropped his voice–which you were learnin to like the sound of. “Said I’s leavin it up to you.”
“Well I don’t wanna marry a man who don’t like me, neither.”
“Now listen,” he said, pointin his hat in your direction like it emphasized his what he was fixin to say. “I ain’t goin back on my word. I’ll marry you, and I won’t make a fuss.”
That wasn’t quite what you were hoping for. “But would you be happy?”
His voice got real quiet and he ducked his head. “That don’t matter.”
Your heart broke for the man then, just a little. He was still too old for you, nothin like the romantic men you’d read about in your books. But he was growin on you. “Matters to me.”
His eyelids drooped, so brief you hardly noticed it, and he nodded for what had to’ve been the hundredth time that afternoon. “We’ll head to the courthouse in the mornin.”
It weren’t a proper proposal. None of it was ideal. But it’d do. You smoothed the wrinkles in your dress and tried to smile. “That’ll be fine.”
He didn’t say goodbye, so much as he grunted it. You didn’t see him the rest of the day, but you thought you heard him come in late that night, after you was already in bed. You heard him approach your door and closed your eyes, just in case he’d come home drunk and lookin for somethin you weren’t prepared to give. He opened the door and you kept your breathin steady as possible, but he didn’t come inside. When he whispered goodnight, you thought you heard just a touch of affection in his voice.
But that was probably just your imagination.
It took you diggin all the way to the bottom of your trunk ‘fore you found it, but there it was: momma’s nicest dress that you stole outta her chest of stored away things. Daddy had kept most of her belongings hid after her passin, but you wanted somethin of hers to keep. You’d stowed the dress away for just this sort of occasion, so you reasoned it was alright to’ve done the stealing in the first place.
It weren’t terribly fancy, but it was delicate, pretty, in a simple sorta way, and wearin it made you feel special. You were an inch or two taller than momma’d been, so it didn’t reach down to where it oughta, but you didn’t figure anyone would notice. ‘Cept Forrest. You hoped he’d notice the effort.
‘Course, he didn’t do more’n grunt in your direction when he saw you were up and ready to go into town. But at least he held the door open for you. The drive weren’t supposed too take long, but the tense silence that fell between the two of you set time to crawlin. When you couldn’t take it anymore, you started with somethin easy.
“Your brothers didn’t wanna come along?”
He kept his eyes sternly on the road. “Why would they?”
“’Cause their brother’s gettin married.” He didn’t say anything, didn’t even grunt, so you pressed on as the car jostled you around. “I take it you ain’t the sentimental type?”
“Marriage ain’t about a weddin. This is just about makin it official.”
You happened to agree, and told him as much. “Shoot, I’d be content just makin a promise in the woods. What matters is the agreement between the husband and wife.”
He glanced over at you then, and seemed to finally notice that you’d gone to the trouble of dressin nice. “What do you think those promises should be?”
It was the first proper question he’d asked you, and if you said the wrong thing, he might call it all off. So you measured your words. “Faithfulness, first of all. Respect. Lookin out for each other, ‘specially in hard times.” There were lots of other things, personal rules you’d made up for yourself, ‘bout not bein violent and tryin not to yell. Daddy had done enough of that to last you a lifetime. But those things coulda been part of his nature and you didn’t wanna condemn them outright. Least not yet. So you went with a softer hope, somethin even a grump like him couldn’t disagree with. “Tryna make each other happy, when you can.”
He hummed to himself as he turned the wheel. “Mm. That’ll be alright, then.”
The wedding was a quick affair–it took more time to fill out the paperwork than it did to say the “I Do”s. When Forrest reached for your hand, you realized it was the first time he’d so much as touched you. But it weren’t a bad touch. His hand was rough, cut up in places, but he didn’t squeeze too hard, and it was nice that he was so warm. When the minister said the two of you oughta kiss, you waited for Forrest to take the lead, but he just stood there like a man outta sorts. Perhaps he was shy. You were shy too, but the room was startin to feel uncomfortable. So you gathered your courage and rose up to your toes to place a soft kiss at the corner of his mouth. Seemed the modest thing to do, what with you not really knowin each other and you never havin kissed a man, period. It was nice. His cheek, the prickly stubble, the soft seam of his lips felt nice beneath yours. You were almost afraid to pull away, lest he look disappointed. But you did anyway, and saw that somethin else shined in his eyes, like maybe he thought it was nice, too.
The court stenographer signed as witness, and easy as that, you rode back to The Station as husband and wife. Despite the rushed nature of things, and not even knowin the man, you felt happy. Happy to not be worryin about Daddy’s yellin or drinkin, most of all. And you liked the idea of livin somewhere with lots of people around. You even liked the idea of bein a wife to someone like Forrest. You just hoped he wasn’t expectin miracles.
“You’ll have to be patient with me,” you blurted out in the silence of the front seat. “My momma passed when I was only little, so I’ve not exactly had trainin to be a wife.”
“I’m sure you’ll be fine.”
“If I ever do somethin wrong, can you–”
When you paused, he turned to you with concern on his face.
“Can you tell me? ‘Stead of yellin or hittin?”
“Is that what your daddy did?”
You didn’t wanna talk about him in this otherwise content moment, and Forrest seemed able to tell.
“Look here, I ain’t ever gonna lay a hand on you like that. I don’t pretend I ain’t got a temper. But ain’t no kinda husband who takes it out on his wife. It’s a weak man, that does that.”
If it weren’t for the roof of the car, you mighta floated all the way up to heaven. That’s how light your heart felt at his words. Perhaps Forrest would be more’n just a tolerable husband.
You and Forrest moved into one of the larger guest rooms at The Station. He’d been sleepin on naught but a mattress when you showed up, but it didn’t seem to faze him. It was only at your insistence, that folks would think it queer for a new husband and wife to sleep separate, that he agreed to cohabitatin. But a week into marriage and he still didn’t do more’n kiss your cheek goodbye each mornin. Even that was lovely, though. You never thought a man could have such soft lips, but his were a warm delight on a cold morning. You started pinin for your own husband.
Durin the days, you tended to the kitchen, keepin locals fed and offerin a piece of pleasant conversation when they were friendly. You were happy to have brothers now, too, who’d stand up for your honor if Forrest was out and some scoundrel was bein fresh. In hindsight, you was glad that it hadn’t been Jack you were supposed to marry. He was a sweetheart, but he had a sweetheart, too, and you liked them together. Howard still frightened you a bit when he was deep in the bottle, but you worried more about him hurtin himself than anyone else.
Forrest usually came home long after you’d already turned in for the night. Sometimes he stayed out by the bar, sometimes he was gone on business. Sometimes he came home with bloodied knuckles. You didn’t ask why, it was best not to know. You only prayed that he weren’t in any real danger. Folks said the Bondurants couldn’t be killed, and you rested a lot of your hope on that. But truthfully, you couldn’t imagine a man or beast alive that could take your Forrest down.
Still, he never touched you. And in time, it started makin you uneasy–partly ‘cause you worried there was somethin wrong with you, but partly ‘cause you wanted him to touch you. You never would’ve dreamt it, but you found yourself wantin to be near the old grizzly. He was safety, and comfort, and the quietest kind of strength. You even started to like the smell of cigar smoke that clung to the sweaters he wore.
One night, when he went to bed the same time as you, you ventured a question into the dark. “Do you like me?”
He usually slept flat on his back, so all he did was turn his head in the direction of your voice. “I think you’re doin a fine job ‘round here.”
That gave you pause. It was a sweet compliment, genuine comin from him. But it weren’t nearly what you were looking for. “I’m glad, but do you like me? As a person?”
You could hardly see him in the dark, but the moon was just bright enough that you could make out the lines of his face, forehead wrinkled in consideration. “I saw you ‘bout a year ago. In town. Thought you were the prettiest woman I ever seen.”
That made your heart thud wildly, ‘cause he’d never so much as hinted at findin you attractive. But he had more to say. “Only reason I agreed to business with your daddy was ‘cause I thought it’d help you somehow. A little extra money. But when he offered you up, I–” He turned his head again to rest flat on his pillow. It made the moon glow an outline along his nose and lips and even the tips of them long eyelashes he had. “I don’t like your daddy. But I like you.”
“Are you ever gonna kiss me?”
He weren’t lookin at you, but you were burnin the image of him into your brain. So you saw his chest raise up with a deep breath. And your eyes were already waiting for his when he turned his whole body toward you. It took him a minute more to make up his mind, and even then, he moved slow. He brushed the tip of his nose against yours, just a little touch that thrilled you. Then his mouth was on yours, soft and warm, and you could’ve died happy. You had no great skill at seduction, but when you opened your mouth a touch to taste his lips, and his velvety tongue slid between your teeth, he breathed in heavy, like maybe you was doin somethin right. Both your breaths grew faster, til you were just breathin each other’s air. He was a force, pressin toward you, and you wondered how long it’d been since he’d done this.
You whispered his name and he stopped altogether. “Y’alright?”
“Will you touch me?”
“Anywhere. I like your hands.”
The rest of your life, you’d laugh inside yourself at anyone who called Forrest Bondurant a monster, ‘cause the first thing that man touched was your face. Soft as could be. Ran his thumb against your bottom lip and stroked the outside of your ear, makin you shiver.
“You ever done this before, darlin?”
You hated admittin that you didn’t know what you were doin, but you didn’t wanna lie to him. “No. Hell, you were my first kiss just now.” As if to emphasize the point, you licked the pad of his thumb, just barely. You were workin with nothin but instinct to guide you, but instinct said you wanted to touch him and taste him and hear him. “But I feel safe with you.”
“Slow, then. I ain’t gonna hurt you if I can help it.”
He leaned down and buried his face against your neck. You couldn’t decide what felt nicer, his nose puffin out cool air against your skin or his mouth, heatin it back up. Something started to warm in your belly, like when you kissed him at the courthouse. ‘Cept now it felt like fire and it nearly throbbed. You knew, abstractly, what was meant to happen, and you’d touched yourself before, tryna figure out what all the fuss was. But this was a different feelin altogether, buildin from the inside.
He had the loveliest, strongest hands you’d ever seen, and when one of ‘em cupped your breast real careful like, you couldn’t help leanin your head back like it might open you up to more of him. He worked at you like this, switchin between kissin your neck and kissin your mouth, fingers runnin up and down your arm and your waist til you thought maybe you’d died and gone on to heaven. But then he moved his hand lower, to the hem of your nightgown, and pushed it up your thighs. He kept his touch light there, but still it shot somethin through you like lightnin. When his hand hovered over your panties, he stopped everything.
You all but begged him to keep goin and he obliged, tuggin at the underwear til they slipped off altogether. You knew what he was gonna do, but it startled a moan out of you all the same when two of his fingers slid right up against your cunt. You’d never made a sound like that before, and you weren’t sure you were meant to be so slick, but he started his kisses back with more vigor’n before, so he must’ve liked it. And God, you liked it too. It was like you couldn’t get close enough. You had half a mind to sit the both of you up so you could wrap your arms around him, but he pressed a finger inside you and you forgot your own goddamn name.
Sensin you liked it, he added a second finger after a minute and kept a slow, steady rhythm, in and out, in and curled. At some point, his mouth had moved down to your chest and you thought idly ‘bout how nice it was to have his mouth right over your heart like that. Maybe it’d be a grand romance, after all.
Later on, you’d learn that he was tryin to prepare you to keep it from hurtin, and truth be told, you were probably ready then. But to be on the safe side, he slipped a third finger in and you arched right into him.
“Does it always feel this good?”
You didn’t actually expect an answer, you didn’t even know why you’d asked him that, but it’s all you could think about. The pleasure of it was such a surprise. He moved his hands away altogether and you thought maybe you’d angered him. But then he crawled on top of you, bracin himself by his forearms, and it wasn’t until then you realized just how big and strong he was. You spread your knees as far apart as you could and he surprised you again with a kiss to your lips.
“You tell me if it hurts.”
You nodded and closed your eyes, eager to just get it over with, whatever it was that everyone said was gonna hurt. You felt him loom over you just a bit more, then you felt the head of his cock against you. He sunk himself in slow, and it stung just a little, but nowhere near enough to stop him. ‘Cause it felt good, too, havin him inside of you like that, the whole of him swallowed up by you.
“Alright?” You didn’t know his voice could sound like that, thin and broken, and you worried if he was alright.
“Better’n alright.” Your answer was halfway to a laugh, you were so relieved. And when he pulled out and pushed back in so you felt every inch of him without fear of pain, your whole body seized up. It was like being shattered and floatin, all at once. He kept movin in and out, sometimes slow, sometimes sharp, and he started makin noises. Like his grunts, but airier and full of feelin. In between his strangled sounds, he’d say your name real soft like, and that made the achin build back up in you again. You liked the way he moved, strong and steady over you. You held onto his arms just for the excuse of feelin him, and they were hard as stone. His face, normally so serious and unreadable, twisted up with emotions and it was lovely, even if his eyes were closed.
So you touched it. Lifted just your fingertips to his cheekbone, and his eyes flashed open, full of fire. Then suddenly he was losin his pace and his lips parted and every bit of him tensed up. And you felt it–his release splashin inside you, warm, in a strange, comforting way.
You figured he’d collapse on top of you, lookin exhausted as he did. But instead, he kissed your lips one more time and rolled back to his side of the bed. You watched him for a minute, his eyes closed and his breathin heavy. And you couldn’t help it. You sidled up to him and rested your head on his chest, cardin your nails through the coarse hair there. He’d probably pat you on the back and ask for his space, but you just wanted a minute more. You didn’t expect him to wrap his arm around your back and fall asleep like that.
Come gunfire and bar brawls, trouble with the law and fights between the brothers, you only ever felt safe, all the rest of your days. He never laid a hand on you, ‘cept in a lovin way, and you loved him back somethin fierce.