Sophie Hannard had never met Adam Cartwright, yet the instant she saw him, she knew him. He had his father’s stature and inscrutability, and the same assurance of a man confident in his own abilities and status. In fact, if he hadn’t been pointed out to her that morning in the bank in Virginia City, she would have picked him out herself with no hesitation.
As it was, the bank manager leaned close and gestured discreetly with his head. “You were asking after Ben Cartwright, ma’am. There’s Adam Cartwright, Ben’s oldest boy.”
Adam Cartwright’s indolent gaze sized her up unapologetically as the bank manager introduced them.
“Adam, this is Mrs. Sophie Hannard. Just arrived in town yesterday and knows your father.”
“Really?” Curiosity sparked in the deep brown depths of Adam Cartwright’s eyes. His mouth lifted in the hint of a smile as he held out a sun-weathered hand. “Where are you from, Mrs. Hannard?”
“And you know my father?”
“Yes. I knew Marie del Vyre too.”
“Marie?” He raised an eyebrow. “Joe’s mother?”
“We grew up together. In the convent. She wrote to me after she left New Orleans. Told me all about her new family. And about the baby. Joseph. Little Joe she called him.”
The smile dimpling the corners of his mouth deepened unmistakably then. “Yes, that’s right. We still call him that. Only he’s not so little now.”
“No. I imagine not. That was a long time ago.”
“You said your name was Sophie? I remember Marie talking about you. Many times.”
“You remember? You would have been only a child!”
“I was eleven when my father married Marie, fifteen when she died. I remember her very well.” Adam nodded his head at the bank till. “Mrs. Hannard, would you be so good as to wait for a few minutes while I settle the business I have here, and then maybe you would allow me to buy you coffee, and we can talk?”
“I would be delighted, Mr. Cartwright.”
“Please, call me Adam.”
Adam. Sophie rolled the name around in her head as she watched him talking to the cashier. The name suited him. Strong and precise. With approval, she ran her eyes over his broad back and shoulders. Adam Cartwright liked the world to think he was a well guarded man. Did he realize how like his father he really was?
“I’m here with my traveling companion,” she told him as they made their way back to the hotel. “Amelia Burnett.”
“What brings you both so far out west?” His interest was more than polite curiosity.
“An urge to travel. See new places. My late husband was a wealthy man, so I’m fortunate enough to be able to indulge my whims.”
He gave her a sideways glance. “But why out here? I can think of plenty of places to visit, but here...” He left the sentence hanging. They had reached the steps of the hotel.
She stopped to look at him more closely. “You’re not enamored of your home country?”
His eyes crinkled. “As you say, it’s my home. But if I had the choice, yes, I might be living somewhere else.” He took her arm and they climbed the steps to the door.
“Do you not have a choice?”
He gave her another measuring look from those dark, intelligent eyes. “My family is here.”
“You’re close to your family then?”
The guarded look came back down over his face, but he answered pleasantly enough. “It’s a tough country, Mrs. Hannard. We look out for each other.”
She stopped in the hotel lobby and put a hand on his arm. “Adam, would you mind very much if I fetched Amelia to join us. She’s upstairs in her room. I know she’d love to meet you too.”
He smiled with true gallantry. “I’ll order the coffee.”
Adam was already seated, and the waiter was setting coffee on the table as the two women arrived downstairs. He rose to his feet. Sophie saw his eyes rove over Amelia with the same curious appreciation he’d bestowed earlier upon her.
“Adam Cartwright, Miss Amelia Burnett.”
Amelia had a very forthright stare. Sophie had seen men buckle nervously beneath it, but not Adam Cartwright. He looked mildly amused.
“So Miss Burnett,” said Adam as they took their seats, “are you from New Orleans too?”
“Amongst other places.”
Sophie noticed that slight lift of his eyebrow again. The man’s face didn’t give much away.
“And what do you make of the west?”
Amelia gave a careful nod. “It’s interesting. Quite unlike anything we’re used to. There’s a savagery about it that draws us both.”
No mistaking the eyebrow this time. It went up half an inch. “It’s a wild place, all right. Whether or not that’s appealing is debatable.”
Amelia’s eyes traveled over Adam, taking in his well made clothes and his general air of assurance and respectability. Then they fixed themselves firmly on his face. “You seem to have done well enough by it.”
It was a challenge. Amelia always conversed in challenges. A lesser man would have backed off already, thought Sophie. But Adam Cartwright simply smiled again, as if he found the provocation entertaining.
“That’s true.” He acknowledged her observation with a nod. “I guess you could say it’s made me what I am.”
“And what is that, Mr. Cartwright?”
“Adam, please,” he said, with no hint of offense. “Well, Miss Burnett, when I first came out here with my father, I was only a small boy, and this was all little more than a wilderness. Everything we now have we built and worked for with our own hands. So I guess you could say that makes us a part of this land.”
“Did your father ever marry again?” Sophie asked, diverting Adam away from Amelia. “After Marie died?”
He shook his head.
“Hard for him to lose three wives,” she said.
He acknowledged that with a tightening of his dark jaw. “Tell me how you knew Marie.”
Sophie set down her coffee cup, her face softening. “We were like sisters. Both orphans. Both French. We were friends from the start. Those poor devoted sisters at the convent, we drove them to distraction! We were such strong-willed girls; always in trouble. Did Marie ever tell you about the tree we would climb to escape over the wall?”
Adam shook his head. “No, but I’d love to hear.”
So Sophie him about the tree, and about some of the other daredevil escapades that had landed two willful girls in endless trouble with the long-suffering nuns. He finally seemed to relax as she related the stories, even smiled several times. When she stopped speaking, he set down his coffee cup and raised his eyes with a look of unexpected intensity that was both disturbing and exciting.
“You should come out to the Ponderosa. Have dinner with us. I’m sure my father would be delighted to see you again.”
Sophie’s heart did a little jump. “I’d like that very much.”
“That’s settled then.” His gaze flicked between the two of them. “I’ll finish up my chores here in town, and then we’ll hire a buggy and I’ll drive you out to the Ponderosa.”
“It’s hard to believe one man could own so much,” Sophie said, as they sat by the river, beneath the shade of the trees. In spite of Marie’s descriptions, she had not been prepared for the sheer scale of the Ponderosa as they drove past mile upon endless mile of meadows and rocks, mountains and pine forest, rivers and lakes.
She had Adam to herself. Amelia was down at the water’s edge, tossing stones into the shallows. “But then, Ben Cartwright always was remarkable.”
Adam watched her with lazy interest, leaning back on one casual elbow. He looked as at ease with himself here on the riverbank as he’d looked in the bank in Virginia City. Sophie might almost have described him as arrogant, except that his self assurance was completely natural. Aloof, maybe, but not arrogant.
“Pa is a remarkable man,” he agreed.
“I imagine his sons take after him in that respect.”
He chuckled. She had not heard him laugh before. It was a deep rich sound that made her skin tingle. “I would hardly call myself remarkable.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure.”
He gave her a different look then, sharp and appraising, but once again, she got the distinct impression he approved.
“We should be heading back to the house,” he said, climbing easily to his feet. “We’ve some way to go, and time’s moving on.” He held out his hand. His long, brown fingers closed around hers, and when he had raised her to her feet, she noticed he didn’t hurry to release them.
The ranch house was a surprise, not at all as grand as she had imagined it would be. Ben was supposedly one of the richest men in the territory, yet to her eyes, the Ponderosa looked like an overgrown barn. Still, she was fascinated to see how Adam’s face softened as they drove closer and he pointed out the details to them; the barn, the corral, the bunkhouse, the vegetable garden.
There was nobody at the house when they drew up, other than a Chinese cook, who bowed and favored them with a charming smile. Adam showed them to a guest room so that they could tidy up and wash away the dust of the drive. After that, he poured drinks, and Sophie and Amelia told him about their travels in the east.
And then, Ben Cartwright strode in.
Sophie was sitting in a leather armchair, next to the enormous hearth. Adam had already lit the fire as the afternoon was turning swiftly into evening and the heat of the day was evaporating. The smell of dinner drifted pleasantly from the kitchen, and Sophie was beginning to get a sense of what Adam enjoyed about this barn of a house. The furniture was an odd mix of faded elegance and solid masculinity. She wondered how different it might have looked if Marie had still been alive.
Ben had frozen just inside the doorway. Two younger men stood at his shoulder, their expressions quizzical. For a long moment Sophie and Ben stared at each other and there was no escaping the frostiness in Ben’s face. It was as if he had come in from the snow and brought a freezing draught with him. He looked almost exactly as she remembered him. His hair was silver now, but his face was the same. Broad, sternly sculpted features dominated by unnervingly dark eyes.
“Hello, Ben. It’s been long time.”
“What are you doing here?”
Sophie gave a gracious smile. “I decided I wanted to travel. After my husband died.”
“You were married?”
“Yes, to a wonderful man named Charles Hannard. We were extremely happy together. But Charles died last year. So I thought I’d look up some old acquaintances. Mend a few broken bridges.” Sophie wondered if she detected a slight thaw in Ben’s demeanor at the revelation about her husband. “Twenty years is a long time, Ben. A lot of water has passed under those broken bridges.”
He continued to stare at her as if he was trying to read her thoughts, his expression unrelenting. He nodded, but his eyes remained stony. “Twenty years is a long time. Forgive me. You took me by surprise.”
The coolness was still there, but he was making an effort. Adam stepped forward to make the introductions, and finally she had the opportunity to examine the two Cartwright men she had not yet met.
Hoss and Little Joe. Two brothers more dissimilar in appearance it was hard to imagine. Hoss was huge, a carthorse of a man, with wide, pale blue eyes, a round face, and an engaging smile that, in spite of his vast bulk, gave him all the innocent charm of a six-year-old.
Charming as he was, Sophie’s eyes did not linger on the biggest Cartwright because they were drawn by her inexorable curiosity to the youngest. Marie’s son. Unexpectedly, her heart leaped as she met the hazel-green gaze of her long dead friend.
Adam’s voice said, “Sophie was friends with your mother, Joe.”
She had not rehearsed this. She had prepared herself to come face to face with Ben Cartwright, but she had not reckoned with the impact of meeting Marie’s son in the flesh. The boy would be about seventeen or eighteen now. Marie had been only a year or two older when she left with Ben. When Adam spoke those words, the boy’s eyes suddenly burned with a fierce light Sophie remembered all too well.
“You knew my mother?”
She nodded, for once at a loss for words. The boy’s expression, his youthfulness, the energy projecting from his slender frame, pierced her heart with the intensity of a lost love.
“You’re very like her, Little Joe,” she managed finally.
“Your father must tell you that.”
He nodded and smiled and the ached tugged again in her heart. “Yes, he does. But I’d love to hear what you remember about her.”
She had regained her control by then. She smiled back. “So much! Marie was my best friend all through my childhood years.”
“Hoss, Joseph, go and get cleaned up.” Ben’s voice was still edged with a ring of frost. “If you’ll excuse us, ladies, we’ll make ourselves a little more respectable. I’m sure Adam will look after you.”
“I’m sorry,” Sophie said to Adam when Ben had gone up the stairs. “I should have warned you that your father might not be so pleased to see me.”
Adam didn’t look perturbed; more intrigued. “As you say, twenty years is a long time.” He favored Sophie with his shadow of a smile. “My father is a forgiving man. He’s not one to hold a grudge.”
“Let’s hope not,” she said.
“How long were you and Charles married?”
Ben had been edgy throughout the entire meal. He’d barely eaten anything on his plate. Every time Sophie began to recount a tale about Marie, Ben would steer the conversation onto other topics. Nor was he at ease with Little Joe’s endless questions to Sophie about his mother, and the poor boy began to grow increasingly irate with his father’s abrupt interruptions whenever he opened his mouth to speak.
Ben looked disappointed to hear it had been so short a time.
“Although I knew him for many years before that,” Sophie added, with a pleasant smile.
Adam poured more wine into her glass. Sophie hadn’t neglected to notice how often Adam’s eyes wandered in her direction, and lingered there. Amelia had noticed too. There were traces of a smile at the corners of her mouth.
Ben cleared his throat uncomfortably. “Really?” He set down his knife and fork on his barely touched plate and nodded at Joe. “Joseph, tell Hop Sing we’re about ready for dessert.”
Little Joe looked down at his half eaten meal in some surprise. “I haven’t finished yet!”
“That’s because you’re talking too much, boy.”
Joe looked round at the other plates on the table. There was still food on all of them. He opened his mouth to make another protest, but his father cut him short again. “Just go and speak to Hop Sing, will you, Joe?”
Joe grumbled a resentful, “Yessir,” and went to do as he was bid.
As if there had been no interruption, Sophie went on, “We weren’t able to marry until his first wife died.”
An awkward silence descended on the table, as though someone had doused the conversation with a bucketful of cold water. Hoss suddenly became intensely preoccupied with his food, Ben cleared his throat and frowned hard at the tablecloth, and Adam buried most of his face in his napkin.
“‘Whoever thinks a faultless piece to see, Thinks what n'er was, nor is, nor e'er shall be’,” said Amelia into the strained silence, and Sophie all but snorted into her wine. Trust Amelia to stir up an already dangerous situation.
Adam lowered the napkin and lifted a quizzical eyebrow. “You’re familiar with Alexander Pope?”
Ben seemed relieved to find a reprieve, even in poetry. Hoss looked blank. Joe returned to the table with an irritable scowl on his face.
Amelia turned a guileless face towards Adam. “Sophie and I make a habit of studying poetry during our travels. We have been reading Pope, but I’m not sure we care for him that much.”
Adam looked amused. “Which poets do you care for?”
Amelia fixed him with her sharp gaze. “We’ve enjoyed reading Coleridge.” She set down her wine glass.
“‘In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.’”
Hoss paused with his fork halfway to his mouth. Amelia was nothing if not dramatic when she recited poetry. Adam laughed aloud and the scowl lifted from Little Joe’s face.
“You must recite some more,” said Adam, impressed.
Amelia nodded. “Call by next time you’re in town, Adam. I’ll read ‘Christabel’ to you.”
Adam glanced at Sophie and she saw the unmistakable promise in his eyes. “I may just do that.”
Sophie lifted her drink and paused as the delicate crystal glinted in the lamplight. “Are these the wine glasses Marie chose, Ben?”
He looked up, half startled. “Er... yes. As a matter of fact, they are.”
“She wrote about them, in one of her letters. Said they came in a crate, all the way from Boston. She was very proud of them.”
Ben stared at her, as if uncertain how to reply. Little Joe responded instead. “Did my mother write you many letters, Sophie?”
Sophie nodded. “She did. And I kept them all. She wrote me such a lovely one, when you were born, and put a little curl from your head inside. So sweet! You’ve kept the curls, I see.”
His cheeks flushed. “Would you... would you let me see one?” His eyes were burning with fierce longing.
“Of course. I never knew my mother either, Little Joe. I know how it feels.”
Ben shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “Where’s Hop Sing with that dessert? These ladies still have to get back to town tonight, and it’s getting late.”
Adam looked up. “I’ll see them safely back.”
“I’ll come with you,” volunteered Joe.
Ben glared at his youngest son. “You’re not going anywhere, Joseph. Adam and I will escort the ladies back to town.”
Joe opened his mouth to protest but was once again cut short by a stony glare from his father. Sophie pretended not to notice, but as she and Amelia took their leave a short while later, she held out her hand to him and he took it. Disappointment and dejection had dulled the brightness of his eyes.
“We’ll be staying a while,” she told him. “I’ll make sure you get to see one of your mother’s letters, at least.”
Hoss was at the pump in the yard when Adam led his horse, saddled, from the barn.
“Where you off to, older brother?”
“Couple of things I need to see to in town.”
“I thought you went in yesterday.”
“I did. Need to follow something through, that’s all.”
Hoss gave a knowing smile. “Yeah? What would that be then? Wouldn’t possibly have chestnut hair and big soft eyes, now, would it?”
Adam fixed him with a withering look. Hoss gave a chuckle. “Yeah, thought it might. You want me to tell Pa you’ll be late back?”
“I’ll be home in time for dinner.”
“I get the feeling Pa might not be too happy to hear you’re planning on visiting Mrs. Hannard. Seemed like he was none too happy to see her last night.”
Adam hesitated in the process of raising a foot to his stirrup and turned back to Hoss. “Yes. Intriguing, wasn’t it? And he made it clear he wasn’t prepared to talk about it either. Wonder what went on between them twenty years ago.”
Hoss pulled a face. “We’re talking about Pa, Adam! Anyways, it’s Little Joe I feel sorry for. He was so danged desperate to hear some stories about his mama, and Pa hardly let that woman get out a whole sentence all evening. And now he’s dragged poor Joe all the way over to old man Collins’ place to look over a lumber contract. Like Joe knows anything about lumber contracts! He just wanted to make sure he didn’t go hightailing it into town after that Sophie Hannard. Like you’re about to do, brother.”
Adam gave him a considering look. “Yeah, you’re right, Hoss. But maybe I can do something to help mend the fences between Pa and Sophie. Whatever happened, it can’t be irreconcilable, can it?”
He saw the look Hoss gave him then and his forehead dinted. Neither of them had yet voiced their suspicions, even to each other, but it wasn’t difficult to know what the other was thinking.
Sophie opened the door of the hotel room to him.
“Adam! I’m so glad you called by. Amelia and I have been having such interesting discussions, and now I can run our ideas past you. Come on in.”
“I’ve brought an offering.” He held up a book of poems.
“Shelley!” Amelia jumped forward and snatched the book from his hand in her eagerness. “Sophie, may I?”
Sophie laughed. “Of course you may.”
Amelia nodded at Adam, her dark eyes blazing. “Thank you,” she said, darting away to the door that connected her room to Sophie’s.
Sophie smiled at Adam. “That was thoughtful of you. Amelia devours poetry!”
‘Devours’ was the right word, thought Adam. Amelia’s fervency was unnerving. His face obviously betrayed his thoughts because Sophie said, “You must forgive Amelia. If you knew her story, you’d understand.”
“I’d be interested to hear.”
She cocked her head at him. “Would you? I’ll tell you sometime.”
“Why not now?”
She looked at him sharply, then she nodded. “All right. If you wish. Take a seat.”
He drew out a chair from the table and she sat on the chaise where the sunlight glinted off her elegantly arranged chestnut coils and softened the edges of her pale curved neck.
“Amelia’s mother died before she was a year old. She and her sister grew up as orphans, close to the docks, looked after by women who had been her mother’s friends. They were all very poor. Life was hard for them. They had to make a living the only way they knew how.” She paused, weighing him up with her sharp brown gaze. “People have frowned on Amelia for the life she was forced to live.”
Adam glanced again at the door that separated Amelia’s room. “I despise poverty, not the unfortunate souls who find themselves in its clutches.”
Sophie looked relieved, even impressed. “I’m glad to hear you say so. You see, I was an orphan too. I know some of the sufferings.”
Her words were interrupted by a knock at the door.
“I took the liberty of ordering some tea,” Adam told her.
Sophie poured tea for them both, and then she took up the story again.
“I met Amelia just over a year ago. I was in Boston with my husband. Charles’s business took him to the docks, and our visit happened to coincide with an unpleasant incident.
“We were staying at a hotel near the dockside when a rumpus occurred one morning. Two bodies were pulled from the water. Young women. Sisters.”
Frowning, Adam took the cup and saucer she held out to him. “Amelia ?”
Sophie nodded and he saw anger had ignited in her eyes. “Mauled and beaten by a mob of drunken sailors, and thrown over the edge of the dock to die.” She gave a small, tight shrug. “Her sister was already dead. But there was a spark of life left in Amelia.”
Adam took a sip of his tea, watching Sophie’s face closely. She had in her, he realized, the same intensity Amelia exhibited, but in Sophie it was refined, controlled. Maybe it was another reason the two women got on so well together.
“Do you know what made me so angry, Adam?” Sophie’s voice had hardened and she glared hard into her tea cup as if the vision that had so fired her was to be found there. “It was that everybody there would have preferred that she had been dead. It would have been so much more convenient for them. The policeman who found her even said that it would be better to let her die. As if she was worth nothing. Fortunately, Charles saw things differently and called for a doctor. And you can see for yourself, given a chance, Amelia is a remarkably intelligent girl. In two years, she’s learned to read and write, in French and English, and there aren’t books enough to satisfy her appetite.”
Adam set down his tea cup. “She must be very grateful to you for all you’ve done for her.”
“It’s not a one-sided relationship, by any means. In return, I’ve had companionship, particularly since Charles died. And she’s helped me to discover my own self worth too.”
“Was that something you doubted before?”
“You’ve grown up in a family that loved you. It’s difficult for you to imagine what it must be to grow up alone. It is why Marie and I were so close. Neither of us had anyone else. And I’m not going to lie to you, Adam, there are people who frown on my past too. But I did what I had to do to survive, before I met my dear Charles. He helped me to lift my head high. Meeting Amelia has given me the chance to repay some of the great compassion and kindness Charles showed to me.”
“Your husband sounds like a true gentleman.”
She nodded, then shook her head. “I’m sorry, Adam. You didn’t call by to hear me sermonizing.”
He laughed. “I’d hardly call it that. In fact, I enjoy hearing your tales. They fascinate me.”
“You really are as charming as your father ever was.”
“I’m afraid my father wasn’t quite so charming last night. Whatever differences exist between you, he obviously still feels them keenly.”
Sophie gave him a sharp look. “Has he ever spoken of me?”
“No. I remember Marie talking about you, but never my father.”
“You must wonder what happened to leave such a bad taste between us.”
He nodded. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t.”
She looked at him then for a long moment without saying anything. As undeniably curious as he was to know what had transpired all those years ago, at that particular moment he wouldn’t have minded if she never answered, as long as she continued to sit the way she was sitting, gazing at him intently out of those molten brown eyes. The light from the window made her hair gleam like polished walnut. She had a smooth milky white neck that drew his eyes down to the amber pendant dangling tantalizingly in the deep shadow between her breasts. She must have felt how his eyes were transfixed and yet she didn’t flinch or look uncomfortable. In fact, he got the distinct impression that she was scrutinizing him just as attentively, and finding it just such a pleasurable experience.
“I have to respect your father’s privacy. I hope you understand that.”
He nodded. “Of course. It’s between the two of you. But I would like to see you reconciled before you have to leave Virginia City. You’ve come a long way to patch things up.”
“However things transpire between us, it won’t have been a wasted trip.” A smile lifted the corners of Sophie’s eyes. “Besides, Amelia and I have other plans now.”
“You mentioned that when I arrived. You said you might run your ideas past me. I’d be intrigued to hear them.”
He was staring at her so closely, it was as if he saw the little flame of excitement kindle behind her eyes. She rose from her seat and went to the window. She sounded almost nervous.
“Ever since Charles died, I’ve been wondering what I should do with myself. You see, Charles traveled a great deal, and I traveled with him, so it’s not as if there’s one place I feel drawn to. Even before Charles, there was nowhere I really wanted to call home. I was brought up in New Orleans, but the few people I cared for there have left or died. Traveling out here, there was an excitement. A new land with so many possibilities!
“Amelia and I sat up into the early hours last night and talked things over, and we both feel this is where we’d liked to settle. What we’d like to do, Adam...” She turned from the window and her eyes were wide and bright. “What we’d like to do is use my money to set up a business, here in Virginia City.”
He didn’t say anything straight away. She must have taken his silence for doubt because she hurried on. “Oh, I know you’ll probably think I’m mad. Two women, alone in a new city. No friends, no contacts. But, Amelia and I, we’re not intimidated by that.”
“No. I can see that.” Adam got up from his chair and went to join her at the window, ostensibly to share her view of the comings and goings on the street, but in reality because he had a sudden overbearing urge to be closer to her. “I wasn’t doubting your strength of character. I was simply trying to imagine, with all the choices you must have, why you would choose Virginia City. What kind of business are you thinking of?”
Her eyes crinkled again at that answer. He was standing so close to her now, he could see the russet silk of her bodice rising and falling as she breathed and feel the tingle of her jasmine scent his nostrils. “A bookshop,” she told him.
“Now you’re laughing at me!”
“No. No, not laughing at you. Personally I’d love to see a bookshop in Virginia City. I simply wonder whether you’d find custom enough to survive. Most of the population here are miners who generally struggle to write their own names!”
“But there are others. And there’s a school house. Not everyone’s illiterate. And this town is growing fast. Besides,” she hesitated, glanced away and then looked back at him, “it would be as much for Amelia as for anyone else.”
“You’d invest all your money in Amelia?”
“Would that be so wrong?” Sophie wasn’t smiling any more. The passion was back in her eyes. “Amelia’s like a daughter to me, Adam. A bookshop would give us the respectability we both want.”
He saw that she was deadly serious. He fixed her with a long hard look and she met his gaze with the same boldness he’d so admired when they’d first met.
“If you do decide to follow through with this plan, would you allow me to help? I’d very much like to.”
She smiled. “Thank you very much, Mr. Cartwright. You saved me the embarrassment of having to ask.”
He smiled too. “I don’t believe you’d have been embarrassed.”
“You think I’m very forward?”
“Only if that’s a compliment. I think you’re a woman who knows her own mind, who will achieve what she sets out to do.”
Her eyes danced. “You’re right. I’m old enough to know exactly what I want, and too old to waste time waiting for it.” The challenge she threw him with her look was unmistakable. It did something very strange to his insides. “What about you, Adam Cartwright? I’ll wager you usually get what you want too, don’t you?”
“I like to think so.”
He liked the way her eyes were teasing him, weighing him up. Her silken neck curved in a long, tempting sweep. He had an overwhelming urge to push down the silk of her sleeve to reveal the soft, rounded whiteness of her shoulder, and to kiss it. The thought of it made his heart beat faster.
“And what is it you want?”
She was playing with him. He got the distinct impression she already knew the answer to her own question. He let his eyes run lazily over her face, her hair, her neck, her shoulders before taking a step closer and doing what he had been longing to do ever since he had first laid eyes on her in the bank the day before. Taking her by the arms, he drew her towards him and pressed his mouth to hers.
Pa wasn’t happy. It didn’t take a genius to work that out, thought Hoss, as he spooned beans onto his plate and cast another cautious sideways glance at his father.
An empty chair shouldn’t draw attention to itself, so why was Adam’s vacant seat glaring at them so brazenly? Try as he might to ignore it, Adam’s absence hovered like a threatening shadow over the table. Hoss glanced across at Little Joe. His brother was jabbing viciously at his plate with his fork. Little Joe wasn’t happy either. Tedious hours standing at Pa’s shoulder listening to him wrangle the finer points of lumber contracts was not Joe’s idea of an enthralling day. Returning home to find Adam was where he had wanted to be all along, in Virginia City, with Sophie Hannard, had brought the storm clouds rolling across Joe’s brow. He hadn’t said anything, yet indignation was festering behind his brother’s darkened eyes.
To be fair, Hoss hadn’t actually mentioned Sophie. It was Pa who had brought her name into it. All Hoss had said was that Adam had ridden into Virginia City.
“Sophie!” said Pa in the same tone someone might exclaim, “Villains!” or “Infamy!” And when he had looked to Hoss for acknowledgement, Hoss had just pulled an apologetic face. After that, Pa made a point of Adam’s tardiness by not delaying dinner by even a few minutes to allow him the chance to show. Now they were making his continued absence an even bigger deal by refusing to acknowledge it, making forced conversation about anything but Sophie, or Adam’s lateness, and all the likely scenarios those two subjects together conjured up. A real shame, thought Hoss, because Hop Sing had made roast potatoes, and Hoss especially liked roast potatoes the way Hop Sing cooked them. But it was hard to enjoy anything on his plate with Pa glaring at Adam’s chair like it had committed murder, and Joe’s scowl fit to turn the gravy sour.
They all heard the hoof beats in the yard. Hoss lifted his head a fraction and saw Pa and Joe had done the same, but still nobody said anything. Hoss tried to concentrate on his dinner, helping himself to more beef and potatoes. Pa chewed carefully on a mouthful of food and avoided looking towards the door. On another occasion, Hoss might have exchanged a sympathetic look with his youngest brother, but Joe was still stabbing venomously at the meat on his plate with a look on his face that made Hoss sure he was wishing it was Adam – or maybe Pa - beneath his knife.
When the door finally opened and Adam strolled in, Hoss stopped with his fork halfway to his mouth. Adam was whistling! Like he hadn’t a care in the world. Didn’t he know he was about to be hung, drawn and quartered?
“Oh, hello, Pa. You’re back. Sorry I’m late. How did the contracts go?”
“We worked it out. Eventually.” Pa’s voice was very calm, very level. Hoss pushed a forkful of beef and potato into his mouth and chewed slowly, waiting for the storm to break.
“Anything left for me?” asked Adam, pulling out his chair and taking his seat. He glanced hopefully at the dishes in the center of the table. “Mmm! Roast potatoes!”
“You’ve been into town.”
“Yes, that’s right.” Adam was busy spooning food onto his plate.
“Did you see Sophie?”
Adam flicked a glance at his father. Hoss was watching him closely enough to see his fingers tighten around the serving spoon, but his voice gave nothing away.
“Yes, in fact, I did. I took her a book of poetry. Shelley.”
“Shelley?” Pa nodded as if that made perfect sense. Adam reached for the gravy. A little silence hung over the table while he poured the lukewarm sauce over his beef. Hoss had a vague hope that maybe Pa would leave it at that, but the tension in the air was getting thicker with every passing second, congealing like the cooling gravy.
“I thought I made it clear last night how I felt about Sophie Leclerq.”
“Hannard,” said Adam, spreading his napkin on his lap. “You made it very clear how you felt Pa.” He took up his knife and fork. “I don’t feel the same, though.”
Hoss felt his insides tighten. That easy tone of Adam’s, that slight tilt of his eyebrow, they spelled trouble.
“You know nothing about her, Adam.”
Adam glanced quickly at his father, then back at his plate. He didn’t answer. Pa was working hard to keep his face even, but Hoss caught the little flicker of annoyance he couldn’t hide.
“She’s trouble.” Pa’s voice was a low growl.
Hoss had to admire his brother. He wasn’t going to be drawn. He just kept on eating like Pa was talking about nothing more consequential than what a warm day it’d been.
“She was out to cause trouble twenty years ago, and she’s out to cause trouble now. I guarantee it. I want all three of you to promise me that you’ll steer clear of her until she’s gone from this town.”
Hoss looked from Adam to Joe and back again, but neither of his brothers lifted their eyes. Pa’s voice took on a chilly edge. “You boys hear me?”
Adam regarded his father calmly while he finished his mouthful of food. “That might be more complicated than you think, Pa. She’s not planning on leaving any time soon.”
Pa stiffened visibly. “What do you mean, not leaving soon?”
Adam shrugged. “Just that. She’s planning on settling down here.”
Joe’s head came up at that and the scowl on his face lightened momentarily.
“Settling down here?” echoed Pa, his face freezing over. “Why?”
Hoss wondered how Adam managed to keep his voice so nonchalant, seemingly oblivious to the deepening chill settling around the table.
“I’m hoping you’re about to tell me you didn’t encourage her.” Pa was making an obvious effort to sound reasonable.
Adam set down his knife and fork and met Pa’s stare with his own unflinching gaze. “Pa, Sophie Hannard was a good friend of Marie’s. In my book that makes her a friend of this family, and we’ve never turned our backs on friends before. Now, I don’t know what the disagreement was between the two of you, but it was a long time ago, and unless you want to enlighten us further, I’m not going to condemn her for some incident that took place twenty years ago, and of which I know nothing.”
Hoss, listening to Adam with a mixture of awe and dread, watched the blank shutter come down over Pa’s face, wiping away every trace of warmth with an impenetrable layer of cold granite. “My word isn’t good enough for you, Adam?”
Still Adam didn’t falter. How he could sound so calm, so dadburned pleasant even, Hoss could not imagine. Under that cold hard gaze, he’d have been squirming, but Adam sat straight and firm. “I think we deserve an explanation, Pa.”
Their eyes locked for a long moment, neither giving an inch of ground, then Pa’s stare flicked briefly to Joe. Hoss caught the merest hint of uncertainty in his father’s otherwise expressionless face.
“You’re going to have to trust me on this one, Adam. Sophie tried to destroy me twenty years ago. She was a selfish, conniving woman then, and I’ve no evidence she’s any different now. I want you all to promise me you will stay away from her.”
Something uncomfortable tugged at Hoss’s insides. Pa’s eyes were on him, boring right into him the way only Pa’s sharp stare could do. He heard his own voice responding, almost automatically. “Yessir.”
Pa looked at Adam. Adam shook his head. “I’m sorry, Pa. I won’t make promises I can’t keep.”
Hoss’s stomach dropped. Pa’s mouth tightened. He turned his stony glare on Joe.
“Joseph, you get no choice. Your brother might think he’s old enough to defy me, but you most certainly are not. You will not go near Sophie Hannard, do you hear? In fact, you will not go anywhere near Virginia City unless you have my express permission to do so. Understood?”
Hoss bit at his lip as he watched his youngest brother’s mouth fall open in surprise and dismay.
Pa held up his hand. “No protests, Joseph. That’s an order.”
Hoss tried to make Little Joe see he was sympathetic, but Joe’s face was fast coloring up as the anger flushed through him. “Pa, it’s not fair. I only want to talk to her about my mother.”
“If you have any questions about your mother, you ask me!”
“I just want to talk to her once!”
“You’ll do as you’re told, boy!”
Hoss sensed Joe’s helpless rage. When Pa got that face of stone, there was no arguing with him. Joe threw his napkin at his plate and rose from the table, pink with fury. “It doesn’t make sense, Pa, and it’s not fair!”
His chair scraped loudly as he shoved it roughly out of the way and headed for the stairs.
For a moment nobody said anything, then Joe’s bedroom door slammed with a violence that made the whole house vibrate. Hoss winced involuntarily.
Pa’s eyes swiveled between the two of them. “And if you care about your younger brother, you’ll make sure he does as I say too, and stays away from that woman.”
He rose from the table and headed for the door without another word. Hoss looked at Adam.
“What was that about?”
Adam picked up his knife and fork and resumed his interrupted dinner. “I don’t know for sure, but I could hazard a few guesses. What I don’t understand is why Pa won’t confide in us.”
Hoss gave a little shrug. “It’s not easy for him, Adam. I think he thinks he’s protecting us. Little Joe especially.”
“Pa’s always so defensive about Marie. If there’s something he hasn’t told us, maybe now would be a good time.”
Hoss looked at him doubtfully. “I think you and I know there’s something, Adam. Pa’s never said it right out because he doesn’t want Little Joe hurting, that’s all.”
“Seems to me Joe’ll be more hurt if he hears it from somewhere else.”
The argument at the dinner table lay like a heavy shadow over the house all that night and into the next morning.
Pa and Adam were already at the breakfast table, helping themselves to eggs in stony silence when Hoss sat down, his face gloomy.
“Joe says he ain’t feeling well, Pa.”
Pa raised an eyebrow in a warning signal. “Oh? And what’s wrong with him?”
“I dunno, Pa. He says his stomach don’t feel too good. He does look kinda pale.”
“Does he?” Pa’s mouth tightened. He laid his fork aside with a deliberate motion and rose from his chair. “Well, I guess I’d better go and see what’s wrong with him then.”
Hoss looked at Adam and puffed out his cheeks as Pa disappeared up the stairs. Adam pursed his mouth. They ate in silence, hearing the muffled tones of Pa’s deep voice overhead. When Pa reappeared, he was tight-lipped, his shoulders hunched with annoyance.
“I need to go to the mill today. There’s been trouble over there with some of the workers.” He raised his eyes to the ceiling. “Joe was supposed to come with me. You’ll have to come instead, Adam. Since Joe obviously feels he’s too ill to ride!”
Adam lifted his eyebrows, but didn’t protest. Pa fixed Hoss with a look that defied him to argue. “You’ll stay here, Hoss. Keep an eye on your brother.” There was no mistaking the coolness in Pa’s tone. “If he’s too ill to come with me, he’s too ill to do anything else, so he stays in bed. You make sure of that, you hear? He doesn’t leave this house.”
Hoss looked miserable. “Yessir. I’ll do my best.”
Pa and Adam had been gone less than an hour when Joe appeared downstairs, dressed and booted. Hoss folded his arms and fixed him with a hard frown. “Thought you were ill.”
“I’m feeling better.”
Hoss narrowed his eyes and pursed his mouth. “And just where d’you think you’re going?”
Taking his hat from the hook, Joe picked up his gun belt and wrapped it around his waist. “Virginia City.”
“Oh no you ain’t!”
Joe’s brows came down. He fastened the belt and opened the door. “I’ll be back way before Pa and Adam get home. Don’t worry, Hoss.”
Hoss followed him out onto the porch. Joe headed for the barn.
Hoss yelled after his brother’s back. “That ain’t the point. I promised Pa I’d make sure you stayed here.”
Joe had the bridle over Cochise’s head when Hoss put out a hand to stop him. Joe pushed him away. “Short of pinning me down and tying me up, Hoss, you won’t stop me.”
“Joe, you heard what Pa said.”
“Yeah, I know. But it ain’t right, Hoss, and you know that. I just want one chance to talk to her. She said she had letters my mother had written to her and that I could see them. That’s all I wanna do.”
“Well it ain’t right to lie to Pa either!”
Joe hesitated for a fraction of a second. “He doesn’t give me any choices, Hoss. He just orders me around like a little kid. And it ain’t fair that I can’t even speak to Mrs. Hannard! She knew my ma! That’s all I wanna know, Hoss. About my ma. That can’t be wrong!”
“It’s wrong to lie, Joe.”
“Look, I’ll be back way before Pa is so he doesn’t even have to know. Unless you tell him, of course.”
“Yeah, but I promised.”
“Yeah, well I didn’t.
“Joe, if he finds out, he’ll be real mad, you know he will.”
Joe shrugged. “Yeah, but he’ll be mad at me, not you.”
Hoss shook his head. “Damnit, Joe! You’re putting me in a very difficult position!”
Joe tightened his jaw as he tightened the cinch. “I’m sorry, Hoss. I just gotta do this.”
Hoss reached out his hand and caught hold of Cochise’s bridle as Joe swung himself into the saddle. “Joe, I’m asking you one more time.”
His younger brother looked down at him from the back of his horse and Hoss knew from the stubborn set of his face that he was fighting a losing battle. “Dadburnit, Joe!” he cursed as his younger brother gave Cochise a nudge and the two of them headed out of the yard in their usual cloud of dust.
Joe smiled, nervously. “Mrs. Hannard,” he greeted her, sweeping his hat from his head.
“It’s not too early to call, is it?”
“Of course not. I was hoping you’d come by. We’ve a lot to talk about. I was worried your father might refuse to let you come.”
He looked uncomfortable when she said that, but he didn’t say anything. She indicated the breakfast dishes on the table. “Have you eaten? The bread rolls are fresh. Would you like some coffee?”
Joe helped himself to the bread as she poured a cup of coffee for him and another for herself. His enthusiastic appetite amused her. She had to remind herself that he ate like a hungry boy because he was one.
“These rolls are good!”
“Fresh from the baker. One thing this hotel does very well. But notwithstanding the excellent breakfasts, Amelia and I have decided we’ve had enough of hotel living. We’re going to look for a house in town. Maybe you can advise us where best to search.”
“You want to live here?” Joe raised his eyebrows. “Adam said you were thinking of staying for a while.”
She nodded. “Maybe permanently. Who knows?”
“You don’t want to go back to New Orleans?”
Sophie shook her head. “There’s nothing there for me any more.”
“I’d love to go to New Orleans.”
“You’re young. You have plenty of time. You’ll get there some day.”
“I envy you. All the traveling you’ve done!”
Sophie smiled. “I envy you growing up in such a wonderful place, and I envy you your family. The Ponderosa is beautiful.”
He acknowledged that with a nod of his head. “It is beautiful. I’m glad you liked it.”
“I even envy your mother her final resting place by that lake. What more perfect spot could there be?”
“She loved the lake. She used to take us for picnics there.”
“You remember that?”
For a moment Joe looked regretful. “I don’t know. I think so. But sometimes I think I only remember it because Pa and Adam and Hoss have told me about it so many times.”
“Tell me what you think you remember.”
“Playing on the rocks. Swimming in the lake. My mama didn’t know how to swim when she came here. Adam taught her. But he didn’t always come with us; only when Pa could spare him. Mostly it was just my mother, Hoss and me. Pa hardly ever came because he was always too busy. We’d spend whole days down on the lakeshore. She liked to fish too. Then we’d make a fire and cook the fish. She wasn’t anywhere near as strict as Pa so we got to do things he would never let us do. Once when Pa was away on business, we all camped by the lake in the moonlight and swam in the dark. And she told us ghost stories round the fire. She was real good at story-telling. We were so spooked, none of us could sleep! Even Adam who was pretty much grown up by then.”
He seemed to realize all at once how closely she had been studying him as he talked. He blushed faintly. “I’m sorry. I’m talking too much as usual.”
“No you’re not. I like to hear you speak of Marie. Those are good memories. She wrote to me about your picnics by the lake. You had a boat, didn’t you?”
He nodded. “My mother liked to row. I think she liked it better when she went out with us because she could take the oars. When Pa took her out, he always did the rowing.”
“Marie had a very independent spirit. And so much energy. You’re very like her in that way too.”
Little Joe grinned. “Wish you’d tell my brothers that. They don’t seem to think I have enough energy. At least, not for working. You really think I’m like her?”
“Your eyes, your smile. Even when you’re talking, I catch glimpses of her. It’s uncanny.”
He looked pleased at that. “You said you had letters; that I might be able to see one? Did you mean that?”
“I’ve already looked them out. Come and sit beside me on the couch and I’ll show them to you.”
He moved himself obediently to one end of the couch while she went to the big closet in the corner and brought out a small box covered in mossy green flock. Sitting down beside him, she set the box between them and removed the lid. Inside, Joe saw several neat bundles of folded letters, each tied with a colored ribbon. She unfastened a bow and selected a letter at random. He leaned forward eagerly, noting the small, tightly packed script, and realizing almost instantly that the letter was written in French. He couldn’t hide his disappointment.
“You don’t read French?”
He shook his head. “A few words, that’s all.”
“Never mind. I’ll read them to you.” Sophie glanced through the contents and smiled, half to herself. “This is an early one, when she first traveled out here with your father. Listen.
“‘My dearest Sophie, it is exactly four months to the day since I arrived here on the Ponderosa. Strange how time works. It does not seem that long to me, yet at the same time, I begin to feel that I have lived my whole life here. I think that must mean it is beginning to feel like home. Of course, I miss New Orleans and my friends, and especially you, but there is so much I enjoy about being here too. Mostly I love to ride out around the ranch.
‘Sophie, you have no idea how vast this place is! I can ride all day and see no other living soul, nor any sign of one. At first, the immensity of this place frightened me, but gradually I’m changing. Now I find the emptiness thrilling! Of course, I still wish for another woman to talk to when I am here on my own all day. Your absence is much on my heart, my dear friend, yet I am slowly learning to love my own company!
‘I am finally making progress with the two boys; a great relief for us all, although Ben, the born gentleman, never comments on my lack of maternal ability. Hoss, the younger one, is adorable and has the sweetest temper. If ever I am sad or homesick, he brings me flowers. Every evening he snuggles up to me on the couch. I read stories to him. He enjoys it and it makes me happy too.
‘But I know nothing of boys, Sophie. The older one is not so easy. I know you will laugh when you read this but I am quite intimidated by Adam Cartwright, although he is only eleven years old! Such a serious child! He has a way of looking at me that makes me feel I am the child and he the adult. He is a great help to his father around this ranch, but how am I to act with him? I think he is disinclined to see me as a mother, even if I knew how to be one! Last Sunday, Ben took us all fishing at the lake. It was such a glorious afternoon, and I made the biggest catch of the day. On the way home, Adam rode beside me, and told me how he wanted to go to college and be an engineer. At last he has confided in me, so maybe my prowess at fishing stands me in good stead!
‘And now, dearest Sophie, I cannot keep my secret any longer. You are the first person I have told, although by the time you receive this letter, I hope I may have plucked up courage enough to speak to Ben. I think you may guess my news. I am expecting a child! I can hardly credit this myself, which is why I am writing it first to you. My hope is that setting it down on paper will make it real to me. I have not seen a doctor yet, but I know in my heart it is true. All the signs are there. And truly, I am overjoyed. I know Ben will be too. And do not worry for me. I am strong and well, only sad, dear friend, that you are not closer to share my excitement and give me sound advice.’”
Sophie looked up from the page. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think. This wasn’t written for a man’s ears. I should find another.”
Little Joe shook his head. His face radiated the same eagerness that had dazzled her at the Ponderosa. It deepened the color on his cheeks and shone with a burning brilliance in the depths of his hazel eyes. It was the look that had burned on Marie’s face whenever she was excited. “Please read on. I want to hear.”
Sophie glanced down again at the letter, then back at Joe, still doubtful. “I’ll read you another. This was a poor choice.”
She shook her head and pursed her mouth. “It’s awkward, the things she says here. You may not know this, but all the months she carried you, she always imagined she would give birth to a girl.”
He looked taken aback at that. “No, I didn’t know that. She never said.”
“No, she didn’t. Not to anyone but me, I think. You have to understand, there was always a certain loneliness for her living out here, especially in those days. So few women to talk to. That’s why she dreamed of a girl. For companionship. She thought your father would adore a little girl too.”
Joe looked down at the incomprehensible words on the page in her hand. The light had dimmed in his eyes. “I must have been a disappointment to her then.”
He looked bemused when she laughed. She shook her head. “Oh no, nothing like that! Look.” She ruffled through the other loose letters, and picked out a bulkier one. Inside the folds of the notepaper was a delicate wisp of hair, soft and fair, tied with a faded blue ribbon. She picked it up between her thumb and forefinger and held it out to him.
He took it, almost reverently. “This was mine?”
“It certainly was. And you should hear what she says here. Now, where is it? Wait. Ah, yes, here!
“‘We have called him Joseph Francis. He is the most perfect baby you have ever seen. I know every mother says that about her newborn child, but truly he is an angel! He has the softest curls. I am going to clip one and send it to you so you can see for yourself how fair, how angelic they are. And the dearest fingers and toes imaginable. I know I said to you I dreamed of a girl, but now I have my precious little boy, I cannot imagine it any other way. Ben is completely in love with him, and so proud. And his big brothers adore him. Even dear, strait-laced Adam keeps finding excuses to come into the room so he can take another look in the cradle! Our happiness is complete.’”
Sophie paused again. “Look, you can read this for yourself. She wrote mostly in English here.”
Joe took the proffered letter from her hand and stared down at his mother’s script, looking again over the words Sophie had just read. He blinked hard several times.
“Why don’t you keep that letter since it’s mostly in English?”
His voice sounded tight in his throat. “Do you mean that?”
“Of course. I still have all her other letters here. I would like you to have that one. As a memento. And the lock of hair. It’s yours, after all.”
Even though he cleared his throat first, his response was still husky. “Thank you. It means such a lot to me.”
She reached out her hand and laid it lightly against his knee. “It’s all right to miss her, Joe. I miss her too, you know.”
“At least you remember her,” he said, the bitterness evident in his voice. “All I have are a few belongings and a small likeness.”
She drew her hand away and gathered up the letters. Setting the flock box aside on the table, she took from the closet a slim portfolio.
“Here,” she said, unfastening the clasp. “Look at these.” She pulled out a few sheets of paper and passed them to him. He took them curiously and she watched his eyes widen as he studied them.
“This is her?” he asked in an awed whisper. “Did you draw these?”
She nodded. Watching him was producing a funny little ache inside her. Hadn’t Amelia warned her this would happen? She had to stay detached. “See that there, on the smaller sheet? We were twelve when I drew that picture. It’s not a wonderful drawing by any means, but I kept it because it captures her so well. Doesn’t she look just as if she’s plotting some terrible mischief in her head? This one, this was in the garden of the convent. She was flopped out on the grass. I didn’t get to finish it because one of the sisters came rushing out, all in a bother, to remind us in no uncertain terms, that young ladies don’t lie about on the grass! And this picture here, this is my favorite. Doesn’t she look beautiful? That was shortly before your father came to New Orleans. She would have been more or less the same age you are now when I drew that. Now do you see now the similarities between the two of you?”
She saw that he couldn’t answer. He was even trembling very slightly. After a long silence, he finally managed to force out a stumbling sentence. “This… I’ve never seen her like this. It’s like… it’s like I know her!”
He laid a gentle finger against the crayoned lines of his mother’s face on the paper. Marie’s eyes gazed out with a mixture of amusement and impatience, her hair loose, carelessly coiled, and her lips pressed lightly together in a gentle smirk. She looked young and alive.
“We were eighteen,” Sophie told him. “She had the face of an angel, didn’t she?”
He raised his eyes to hers. They shone dark with grief. Something indefinable stabbed at her heart. He looked so young and lost.
“Wait there!” she said quickly.
There was a dresser against one wall. She opened one of the smaller drawers and took out a battered tin. Seating herself once more on the far end of the couch, she took the drawing from his hands, and arranged it, resting on her lap against the back of the portfolio. She opened the tin and took out a small crayon.
“What are you doing?”
“There’s still plenty of room on this sheet. I’m going to draw your portrait here, next to your mother’s.”
“You’re going to draw me?”
“Yes, why not?”
“No!” he protested, aghast. “You’ll ruin it!”
She laughed. “Thank you for your vote of confidence! No I won’t. I don’t flatter myself I’m good at much, but I have a skill for capturing a likeness. Now you just keep very still for a few minutes.” Her stub of crayon was already scratching lightly at the paper.
“Sit still and don’t frown.”
He fidgeted awkwardly. “No one’s ever drawn my portrait before. How am I supposed to look?”
“Precisely as you look now. Don’t do anything at all.”
He was uncomfortable. She had known he would be. She scrutinized his features while he sat obediently still, like a dutiful child instructed not to move. There was a look in his eyes that was almost pain. It made her want to laugh out loud.
“Don’t look so worried!”
His face relaxed slightly. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know I was. I’m just not used to being stared at so closely.”
She continued drawing, but he was still restless, fidgeting uneasily as her eyes dissected his mouth his jaw, his nose, his brows. He struggled most when she stared hard at his eyes, but she persisted, pretending not to notice his growing discomfort. Finally she set down the crayon and swiveled the paper so he could see the finished result.
“There. What do you think? Have I caught the similarities?”
He stared unspeaking, then shook his head, but at his own inability to respond rather than at her work. “It’s... it’s...” He lowered his face and bit his lip. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” His voice wavered dangerously. “It’s just...seeing the two of us together like that, I...”
She saw he couldn’t speak any more. He raised his hand to hide his face from her.
“Oh, Joe!” she said, softly. She moved to sit close beside him, reaching out her hand to stroke the thick curls on the back of his head. “It’s the same for me. Being close to you is like being close to her again.”
“I’m sorry,” he muttered. “You must think me such a fool!”
“Where I come from, it’s not considered foolish for men to show their feelings. You’ve more French blood in you than you know.” She drew his head down onto her breast and touched his hair with a kiss, like a mother soothing a sad child. Nuzzling her face deeper, she followed the first kiss with a second.
His breath was warm against her chest as he let out a sigh of grief. Putting her arm around him, she pulled him closer, the hand in his hair trailing down to stroke the line of his cheekbone. He lifted his face to hers, watching her with cautious eyes, wide with pain and uncertainty. She planted a third kiss softly on his forehead, then his cheek. Her lips brushed close to the corner of his mouth, and her other hand came up and stroked the nape of his neck.
The pain in his gaze melted away as their shared longing for a woman dead thirteen years merged into a different kind of desire. She took the drawings from his fingers and dropped them aside as she leaned in and kissed him again on his other cheek, his jaw, his ear, the side of his neck, his cheek again - except he moved his head so that her lips touched lightly on his mouth instead. He still looked uneasy, maybe even a little afraid. Her hand at the back of his neck eased him towards her and this time her mouth lingered until she felt his arms close around her, and his lips, tentative and anxious, part softly to meet hers.
His anxiety was understandable. He had not expected this. Ben had raised his boys to be gentlemen. Rules of conduct certainly did not allow a young man to seduce his mother’s best friend; especially on such short acquaintance! Sophie felt a warm rush of tender fondness for the boy. Even now, he was kissing her as if afraid his father might walk in and admonish him for his inappropriate behavior.
“Little Joe,” she murmured, drawing back and taking his face in both hands. In his eyes she saw the feverish excitement she’d stirred, tempered by his anxiety, as though he thought she’d stopped because he’d behaved out of turn. It made her want to smile, but she restrained herself. How different he was from his suave, sophisticated brother and his bold, determined father.
He looked hot and bothered, more than slightly feverish. Ruffling the curls of his hair, she drew him back to kiss him again, and suddenly it was as if he could hold back no longer. All the emptiness and grief that she had roused in him now locked them together in a kiss so deep and desperate, she widened her eyes in surprise.
He needed her. It was right she should be here for him. After all, she had been Marie’s closest friend. It was right that she should be the one to comfort him. Yet for all he was Marie’s son, he was still a man, and Sophie knew only one way to comfort a man. She tightened her grip and drew him closer.
Hoss stared down at the newborn foal and his face was crumpled with anger. Even the leggy infant, her big soulful eyes reflecting the lamplight, could not lift his black mood, and for some reason, that made him even crosser. Joe’s behavior had tainted everything.
The barn door creaked. Hoss didn’t bother turning his head. “Why you following me? Go away, Little Joe!”
“I said, go away. I don’t wanna talk to you. Not now, not ever!”
“Aw, come on!”
Hoss spun around, blue eyes uncharacteristically cold and hard. “You really don’t get the seriousness of this, do you?”
Joe closed the barn door behind him. Leaning against it, he watched his brother with a bemused expression on his face. “I don’t see that it’s that big a deal.”
Hoss stared at him in disbelief. He shook his head. “You don’t think it’s a big deal that I just lied to Pa, for you, again!”
Joe gave a small shrug but he didn’t say anything.
“That’s three times, Joe, in two weeks. I ain’t doing it again! I ain’t covering for you no more. And it ain’t fair for you to expect it of me neither!”
Joe’s face darkened into a sulky frown. “You’re my brother, Hoss. We always cover for each other.”
“Yeah, but we don’t lie to Pa. Not when it’s serious anyways.”
“Well, it’s not serious.” Joe raised his hands and gave a little shake of his head.
“Joe, you’re lucky I ain’t flattened you, boy! How can you tell me it ain’t serious when you know how angry and upset Pa gets just at the mention of her name?”
“Pa’s being unreasonable. You can see that, can’t you, Hoss?”
“No I don’t see it. I don’t know what’s gotten Pa so upset ’cause he won’t say. And that makes me think it must be something real bad. How’s he gonna feel when he finds out you’ve been seeing her behind his back, against his express wishes. And you told me, Little Joe, that you were gonna see her once. Once, mind! I lied for you once, and you took advantage of that. What did you think? Hoss is a big softy; he won’t tell on me?”
Joe nibbled at his bottom lip, his brow sullen. “I’m sorry, Hoss. I didn’t mean to put you in an awkward position.” He looked back at his glowering brother, and heaved an aggrieved sigh. “Well, what? What else do you want me to say? I’m sorry, all right?”
“I wanna hear you promise you won’t go and see that woman again. And you have to mean it, Little Joe!”
There was a strained silence. Joe looked away again. “I can’t do that.”
Neither of them said anything for a long moment. Hoss narrowed his eyes. “Joe, is there something going on between you and that Sophie?”
Joe said nothing, but his silence answered for him.
Hoss shook his head in disbelief. “She’s more than twice your age, Joe!”
Joe’s face flushed darkly. “So?”
“So, what d’you think you’re doing?”
“Aw, come on, Hoss! You’re not gonna tell me you don’t think she’s attractive!”
Hoss gaped at him in disbelief, unable for a moment to think of a suitable response. Truth was he did think Sophie Hannard was attractive. What man wouldn’t? Like a painting of the Madonna or those graceful statues of Greek goddesses Adam had once shown him in a book. Not only that, but she had eyes that pulled men in, deep and soft and promising. Of course he’d noticed. That aura of hers was what was causing all the trouble, jangling in the air between them, like she’d left a scent behind that roused some unfathomable instinct inside them and made them want to rip each other apart. Pa was as uptight as an angry cougar, and Adam was distant and tight-lipped. Adam had made no secret of the fact he’d seen Sophie plenty of times, and he knew all about the house she’d rented on the edge of the town, and the premises she was in the process of securing to start up her bookshop. It was obvious to Hoss there was more going on between Adam and Sophie than plain old business. And he was pretty certain Pa knew that too. Pa and Adam had barely spoken to each other for the last two weeks. In fact, Adam had barely spoken to any of them! Now here was Joe making a bad situation a whole lot worse.
“What about Adam?”
“What about him?”
“You know he’s been seeing her too, don’t you?”
“Yeah, of course I do. He’s helping her set up her bookshop.” The look of disdain on Joe’s face as he said it showed how he felt about that particular venture.
“You don’t reckon there’s more to it than that?”
Hoss saw the trail of emotions that passed across Joe’s face then. His little brother had never been good at concealing his feelings. Hurt, anger, suspicion, denial, and finally defiance flickered in Joe’s eyes.
“I don’t reckon anything! He’s not married to her, is he?”
“No, but they ain’t just reading poetry together neither.”
Joe threw him a scowl sour enough to curdle milk. “Well, it’s not as if I’m planning on marrying her, am I?”
“What exactly are you planning, Joe?”
Joe glared at him in mute frustration. “I...I don’t know yet!” He threw his hands out in a gesture of helplessness. “Listen, it wasn’t me started it, Hoss. I just went to see her to ask her about my ma. Then she said she’d draw my picture, and…”
“I don’t know. It just kinda happened. I didn’t plan it.”
“You’re out of your depth, little brother. She’s stringing you along.”
Joe shook his head in hot denial. “No she’s not! She’s not like that.”
“No? How come she’s so cozy with Adam then?”
“He’s been helping her out. With the house and the shop and everything. He’s good at all that kinda stuff.”
“Aw, Joe, stop kidding yourself!” Hoss had had enough of this conversation. He straightened up and headed for the door. Joe could be downright selfish when he wanted to be!
The barn door opened. Joe, leaning against it, almost lost his balance but righted himself in time.
Adam stood in the doorway. His gaze took in first Joe and then Hoss, but the surly expression on his face didn’t alter. For a second, Hoss wondered if he’d been outside listening, but then he saw the saddlebags in his brother’s hand and his brow dinted deeper.
“Where you going, Adam?”
Adam cast a glance back at the house. “Into town. I’m planning on staying there for a few days.”
“A few days?” Hoss looked anxious.
“Hopefully, my absence will improve the atmosphere here.”
“That ain’t the answer, Adam!” Hoss shook his head. “We can sort this out. We just need to sit down, all together, and talk this over.”
“We can’t talk,” Adam told him, biting each word as it came out of his mouth. “That’s obvious. We can only argue with each other right now. I’ve told Pa, as soon as he’s ready to talk, I’m ready to listen.”
“All this over a woman!” Hoss muttered.
Adam’s jaw was a hard line. “It’s not the woman, Hoss, it’s our complete inability to communicate like human beings. What are you staring at, Joe?”
Joe narrowed his eyes. “Where are you going to stay?”
“At the hotel, of course, where do you think? Oh, I see! You thought I might be planning to move in with Sophie Hannard! What kind of a woman do you think she is?”
Hoss looked down at his feet. “I don’t know, Adam. What kind of a woman is she?”
Anger was emanating out of Adam like heat from a wound, but he bit his lip and set about saddling his horse. Joe, still without speaking, turned on his heel and headed back to the house, trailing a heavy cloak of resentment in his wake. The silence in the barn pressed heavily, like the air before a thunderstorm. When Adam was saddled and mounted, Hoss looked up at him and twitched his mouth regretfully.
“Don’t stay away too long, Adam. It won’t be the same round here without you. We’ll find a way to sort this out, you’ll see.”
“I hope so, Hoss.” With a curt nod to his brother, Adam nudged his horse out of the barn into the darkness.
Hoss set down his coffee cup and looked at his father across the breakfast table. “I thought I’d take the buckboard into town.”
It was two weeks since Adam’s departure and an uneasy truce lay over the house. Pa had been into Virginia City the week before, but he had said nothing about Adam, and when Hoss enquired, Pa answered abruptly that he’d not seen him while he was there, in a voice that warned Hoss the subject was not one he wished to discuss further.
“Hop Sing needs to go in for some supplies, and there’s a few chores I need to see to. I’ll pick up the mail.”
Adam had been right about one thing. His departure meant there was one less direction for the wind to tug. No one mentioned Sophie Hannard, and when Pa spoke of Adam, it was in terms of what tasks could wait until Adam got back, as if his oldest son was off on some business trip and not just twenty miles down the road in Virginia City. And as if Adam had plans to return. Hoss heard from the ranch hands returning from town that Sophie’s shop was being refurbished, and Adam had taken charge of the work. The two of them were seen frequently together in the town. Adam’s relocation to the International House and his relationship with the wealthy stranger was the talk of Virginia City. As the days passed, Hoss began to wonder if Adam actually had any intention of coming home to the Ponderosa.
Joe raised his head from his plate. “I need to go in too. I need some shirts.”
Pa poured coffee into his cup. “Hoss will order them for you. Mr. Wallace knows your size.”
“I wanted to choose the colors. Hoss won’t know.”
Ben threw Joe a stern glance. “There’s work be done here, Joseph. One person going into town is enough. With Adam away, we’ve plenty to do.”
“Pa, you haven’t let me into town in weeks! You can’t keep me prisoner here forever!”
Hoss fixed Joe with an accusing look. Joe’s eyes glared back as though daring his brother to say anything about his unauthorized absences.
“Don’t be so dramatic, Joe. You’re hardly a prisoner.”
“Then why can’t I go with Hoss? We’ll only be gone half a day.”
“Because it’s not necessary, and because I say so.”
Joe rose up from his seat and headed for the door. Pa lifted his face and frowned. “Sit down and eat your breakfast.”
“I’ve lost my appetite!”
“Then, if you’ve had enough to eat, you can make a start on those logs in the yard.”
Hoss tensed himself for the inevitable slam of the door. Even after the windows had settled back into their frames, the air still seemed to vibrate.
“Order a couple of shirts for Joe while you’re in town.” Pa’s voice was deliberately level. “Find out if there’s anything else he needs you to get for him.”
“Yessir.” Hoss chewed and swallowed. Keeping his eyes on his plate, he said, “I thought I’d try and see Adam. Find out what his plans are.”
Pa gave a non-committal nod. “Yes. It would be useful to know.”
They lapsed back into strained silence. Hoss chewed another mouthful and glanced hesitantly at his father.
“Pa, about Joe.”
Pa’s eyes were stony. “What about him?”
Hoss almost faltered, but pushed on bravely. “Perhaps he could come with me...”
Pa’s expression silenced him.
“It won’t do Joseph any harm to do as he’s told, for once. If he stays out of town, he’ll stay out of trouble.”
Hoss twisted his face. “But Pa, he’s...”
“The matter’s closed, Hoss. I’ve said all I’m going to say on the subject.”
Hoss dropped his head and stared gloomily at his plate. Even his breakfast was losing its flavor in the frigid atmosphere of the house.
He was hitching up the buckboard later that morning when Joe marched past him towards the barn. Something about the determined set of his brother’s face and the saddlebags in his hand made Hoss follow him. He stopped by the door and crossed his broad arms. Joe was wearing his hat and jacket and had his gun at his hip.
“Where you going, little brother?”
Joe, saddling Cochise, looked around as if he was surprised to see Hoss standing there. “I’m coming into town with you and Hop Sing.”
“Pa changed his mind, did he?”
“Then you’d better get back to splitting them logs before he comes out and splits you!”
Joe eased the bridle over Cochise’s head. “I’m tired of being treated like a kid, Hoss. Adam gets to do what he wants, so why shouldn’t I?”
Hoss shook his head. “Somehow I can’t see Pa taking it from you the way he takes it from Adam.”
Joe gave a nonchalant shrug, but Hoss could see he was more troubled than he let on. “Maybe if I move out too, Pa’ll realize he can’t keep treating me like this.”
“You’re moving out? What you gonna do?”
Joe shrugged again. “I can work. I’ll get a job someplace.” He turned back to his horse. “Anything’s better than this.”
Hoss stood in silence, watching him. He could think of nothing appropriate to say. His family was falling apart around him and he had no idea how to stop it happening. He was so preoccupied he didn’t even hear the sound of hooves until the horse and rider were in the yard behind him.
Joe turned his head. Adam nodded in Joe’s direction, but his face was closed, wary.
Hoss gestured with his arm. “Yeah, over by the corral. I was planning on coming by to see you this morning.”
Adam dismounted. “I saved you the trouble then.”
The three brothers exchanged looks. Once there would have been jokes and greetings; this time there was only caution, an uneasy reserve, as if each was waiting for the other to strike.
“How are things here?”
Hoss nodded, forcing a bright smile. “Yeah, everything’s smooth as fine brandy.”
Joe’s scowl told a different story, but if he noticed, Adam chose to ignore it.
“You... er...” Hoss cleared his throat, his blue eyes anxious. “You back to stay, Adam?”
Adam’s gaze flicked away. “No. I’m... I’m back because I have some news.”
“Oh yeah?” Hoss kept his voice light. “What news?”
“Sophie’s bookshop’s opening next week.”
“She didn’t waste any time.” Hoss’s laugh sounded oddly unnatural, even to his own ears.
Adam shrugged. “It was all very straightforward really.”
Hoss nodded. Adam dusted the sleeves of his jacket. Joe brushed loose straw from Cochise’s neck but made no attempt to move him out of his stall. Hoss cleared his throat.
“So, when are you coming home again, Adam?”
Adam took off his hat and turned it in his hands, examining it intently. “I don’t think I will be.” He flicked at a speck of dirt on the hat band. “That’s part of the reason I’m back now. Need to pick up a few more things.”
Hoss glanced at Joe, but Joe was concentrating hard on Cochise, although Hoss wasn’t sure exactly what was occupying his attention. “You’re gonna stay in town then?”
“Looks that way. I’ve... um.... I’ve asked Sophie...” Adam paused and cleared his throat. “I’ve asked Sophie to marry me.”
Hoss’s stomach lurched. Joe’s head jerked up. They both stared in disbelief at Adam. For a long, tense moment, no one said anything. Hoss gathered his wits first.
“Sophie?” he repeated, as though Adam might have the wrong name.
Hoss sucked in a hard breath. “You’re gonna tell that to Pa?”
“He’s going to find out one way or another. Best if he hears it from me.” Adam met Hoss’s dismayed stare with a level gaze. “And I wanted you both to know too, of course. Before anyone else.”
Joe finally moved, stepping out of Cochise’s stall. The blood had left his face. “Marry her?” he muttered.
The hat ceased to move in Adam’s hand. He looked down at it briefly, as if he was surprised to find it still there, then he looked back at Joe.
“Yes. We’ve spent a lot of time together this last month or so. We both know how we feel. In all honesty, I think we both knew straight away that there was something... special between us.”
Muscles twitched in Joe’s jaw and his brow flickered. His eyes grew darker. Hoss could almost hear the crackle of his resentment flaring into hot indignation. “But...she doesn’t love you!”
Adam gave a harsh, humorless laugh. “Oh? And you’re qualified to know that, are you?”
Joe swallowed hard. “She loves me! She said so.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Joe! You’re just a kid! She’s just being nice to you because of Marie.” Adam straightened up from the door frame and turned away from his youngest brother, dismissing him. “You don’t seriously think a woman like Sophie is going to fall for a boy your age, do you? You’re like a besotted puppy fawning around her ankles! To be perfectly frank, it’s embarrassing to watch you! Take my advice and lay off pestering her, before you end up making a complete fool of yourself.”
Hoss saw the blood rush hot into Joe’s face. He braced himself, half expecting his fiery-tempered little brother to fly at Adam, but Joe held back, forcibly restraining his indignation.
“You’re wrong.” Joe lowered his face to stare hard at the packed earth of the barn floor. His voice was quiet and low. “She does care about me. I know she does.”
“She cared about your mother. There’s a difference.”
Joe shook his head. “You don’t know anything, Adam. She told me she loves me, and until I hear different - from her lips - I’m not going to listen to you!”
Adam placed his hat back on his head, as though the conversation was over. “Aw, grow up, Joe! Don’t make yourself a laughing stock. Take it from me, kid, she’s not interested in you. Not in that way, anyway. Now, I need to find Pa.”
He turned to walk away, Hoss staring after him with tight lips and a deep furrow denting his broad forehead. “Adam...” he started to say, but his words were cut short by an unexpected volley of expletives, and Joe’s body hurtled across the barn, driven by the full force of his exploding fury. Adam, taken by surprise, toppled sideways, his head slamming with a resounding thud into the barn wall. He didn’t even have time to shout out before Joe’s hands were at his throat.
Driven by instinct, Hoss lunged forward. Adam was flat on his back in the dust, Joe straddling him, hands clamped around his older brother’s neck. Adam’s eyes were wide with alarm. Hoss could hear him choking as he fought to prise Joe’s fingers away. There was blood too, staining the dirt beneath Adam’s head.
“Joe, let him go!” Hoss seized his younger brother’s arms to pull him away, but the resentment that had been simmering inside Joe for weeks now had boiled over into uncontrolled rage, robbing him of reason and filling him with a raw strength. Adam’s face was reddening as he clawed frantically at the hands crushing the air from his body.
“Let him go, Joe! You’re going to kill him!”
Hoss heard the naked fear in his own bellow of desperation. Joe sensed it too, through the thick red cloud enveloping him. All at once his fingers loosened. His face, already contorted with anger, now convulsed as if he’d been gripped by a sudden fierce pain. A heavy breath, like a sob, caught in his throat as he clambered unsteadily to his feet, stumbling back into the barn, as clumsily as a man drunk on too much liquor.
“What in tarnation is going on?”
Hoss dragged his eyes from Joe as Pa panted into the yard, his disapproving glare passing over Joe and Hoss and turning to horror as it came to rest on Adam, bleeding into the dirt, and coughing painfully in his throat as he struggled to sit up.
“I’m all right, Pa,” Adam muttered hoarsely, pushing himself up onto his elbows.
“You’re not all right.” Pa dropped to his knees beside him and hoisted him to a sitting position. “Keep still and let me see.”
As one, their heads came up as Joe flung himself out of the barn, dragging Cochise behind him. Pa took one look at Joe’s face and rose swiftly to his feet again. “Joseph, what’s going on?”
“You’d better ask him!” Joe flashed an accusing glare at his oldest brother as he sprang into his saddle, gathered up his reins and dug in his heels. But he wasn’t quite fast enough. Pa already had hold of Cochise’s rein with one hand and Joe’s leg with the other. Joe hauled the horse’s head around with a violent jerk. The fire of passion that had consumed him only moments before had frozen in his eyes, cold and impenetrable.
“Don’t touch me, Pa!” He spat the words like venom as he gave Cochise a sharp kick and tugged viciously on the rein. The animal gave a protesting whinny, and reared. Pa jumped clear just in time as horse and rider reeled and thundered away.
For a stunned moment, no one moved, then, as Hoss gazed after Joe’s retreating back, Pa sank down again beside Adam. Blood was seeping between the fingers of Adam’s hand as he held it pressed to the back of his head.
“Let’s get you inside,” said Pa, “then you can explain to me what this is all about.”
“Do you want to tell me what’s going on?”
Adam winced as Pa dabbed at the gash on the back of his head with a wet towel.
“It’s deep, Adam, but I think it’ll clean up fine.”
Adam extracted the towel from Pa’s hand so he could minister to his own injuries.
“What were you two fighting about this time?”
Hoss glanced at his father. Pa made it sound like Adam and Joe had had nothing worse than a childish spat over a game. Hadn’t he registered Adam’s bruised neck and that look of twisted hatred on Little Joe’s face? But Pa’s expression was impenetrable.
Hoss looked at Adam and Adam’s face was the same. There were times, Hoss thought, when the two of them were mirror images of each other, the way they set their faces to stony blankness. When Adam said nothing, it was Hoss who broke the silence.
“Are you gonna tell him, Adam, or shall I?”
Adam sighed. He gave a small shrug as though what he had to say was of little or no importance. “It’s Sophie Hannard, Pa. I’ve asked her to marry me.”
Hoss, watching Pa closely, waited for the calm exterior to crack. Pa’s dark eyes remained fixed on Adam for a long moment, but not the slightest movement in his face betrayed any emotion beneath. Then, without a word, he turned and left the house.
What should he tell his sons?
Twenty years was a long time. Sometimes the longer a secret stayed hidden, the harder it became to drag it out into the light. Even when that secret threatened to destroy the very things he’d always meant to protect.
Sophie Leclerq. What was she doing? Why was she here?
Ben straightened his shoulders and took a deep breath to steady his muddled thoughts. Had the damage gone too far? Could he stop it?
Striding across the yard to the barn, he paused by the dark patch on the ground where Adam had bled, the stain already fading into the dry dust. He must have hit his head against the frame when Joe flew into him. Ben had seen that happen as he made his way from the corral to the yard. Minutes before, his sharp eyes had recognized Adam’s familiar figure riding towards the house. By the time he got close, Joe was already splayed across his brother, with his hands around his throat. He’d broken into a run then. When he saw Adam, gagging on the ground, and Joe with that look on his face, his insides had turned numb with horror.
It was his fault. He should have told them. He should have told them long ago.
Inside the barn, hanging over the top of Cochise’s empty stall was a pair of bulging saddlebags. Ben frowned and lifted them down, his brow wrinkling. The end of a grey woolen sock dangled from one bag. The other side wasn’t even fastened. He lifted the flap and stared at the belongings stuffed hastily inside. A crumpled shirt, a shaving roll, an ammunition pouch, a piece of folded paper.
So Joe had been planning on leaving too. First Adam, now Joe. Ben reached into the bag and drew out the paper. As he unfolded it, an envelope dropped to the ground. He bent to retrieve it, his heart skipping a beat as he recognized the handwriting. Alone in the barn, he stared in shaken silence, the letter from his wife in one hand, and the drawing of her face in the other. The image, skillfully captured by an artist’s hand, met his gaze with a familiar expression of amusement and impatience that stabbed at his heart. And there, just beneath her portrait, Joe’s likeness, caught in a moment of uncertainty, his face both eager and worried. The similarities between mother and son sapped the breath from Ben’s body.
He had to sit down. His legs felt unaccountably weak and his hands were suddenly shaking. Sinking onto a crate, he dropped the saddlebags beside him.
“Marie,” he whispered. The wound in his heart that had never quite healed now ached anew with a rawness that caused his breath to catch painfully in his throat. The images blurred in front of him and he blinked hard. “Marie, I miss you so much.”
His eyes rested on the likeness of his youngest son, and the pain tugged deeper. There was only one place Joe could have gotten this drawing, and the letter.
The letter. Ben drew the sheet of notepaper out of the envelope and unfolded it with trembling fingers. Something soft and feather light dropped into his palm. He gazed in silence at a small curl from a baby’s head, then he took it gently between his finger and thumb and held it up to the light. It shone like gold silk. He dropped his eyes to the words on the page.
“Ben is completely in love with him, and so proud. And his big brothers adore him. Even dear, strait-laced Adam keeps finding excuses to come into the room so he can take another look in the cradle! Our happiness is complete!”
A groan slipped from Ben’s lips; a sound of muted anguish. “Oh, Marie,” he muttered again, repeating her name over and over as he shook his head at the floor. “Marie! Marie, I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry! Forgive me, please.”
Hoss lifted his head hopefully as he heard the sound of hooves outside in the yard, and hurried to the door. Adam was asleep on the couch, his face grey and pale. Hop Sing had brewed his special tea, but Adam’s head had still been aching, and despite his protestations that he was fine, Hoss had finally persuaded him he should rest up for a while before attempting the ride back to Virginia City.
“That’s a bad knock you took, Adam.” His gentle face crinkled in concern. “And you don’t look too steady there.”
Adam must have been feeling worse than he was prepared to admit because he didn’t argue after that, lying back with his injured head propped against the pillows Hoss arranged behind him, drinking Hop Sing’s tea, and finally drifting into a restless doze. Hoss had stayed close, alarmed by his older brother’s pallor, and desperately anxious about Pa and Joe. Then he’d heard Pa ride out. That had been over three hours ago.
“Adam, Pa’s back.”
Adam stirred and opened his eyes. He levered himself upright and swung his legs to the floor, rubbing his face with his hands as the door opened and Pa walked into the room. He acknowledged them both with a curt nod. Hoss saw how his eyes trailed over the rest of the room and up the stairs.
“Joe?” he asked. Hoss shook his head.
Pa looked terrible, like a man who hadn’t slept for several days. His eyes were swollen and his face mottled and drawn.
“Can I get you anything, Pa?”
Pa sank down in his chair by the fireplace and laid something on the table in front of him. Hoss stared at it in surprise. It was a drawing of two faces, unmistakable likenesses; Marie and Joe. Somehow it was a shock to see them together like that. There was an envelope too, addressed to Sophie Leclerq.
“A brandy please, Hoss.”
Pa had to be feeling bad, Hoss decided. Brandy at four o’clock in the afternoon!
“Looks like the two of you could do with one, as well.”
Adam made to get up from the sofa. “Not for me, thanks. I ought to get back to town.”
Pa held up a hand. “No, Adam, don’t go. Not yet. There’s something I need to say to you both.”
Hoss poured brandy. “We were worried about you, Pa.”
“I went for a ride. Over to the lake.”
Adam sipped his drink and said nothing. Hoss could see his eyes too were held by those drawings and that envelope. Pa put out his fingers and touched them lightly. “I found these in Joe’s saddlebag. I think it’s obvious where they came from. Did you know he’d been to see her?”
Hoss stared down at the rug, his face working unhappily. “Pa...”
“It’s all right, Hoss. I should have known he’d find a way.”
“I’m sorry, Pa. I tried to stop him.”
Pa gave a slow nod.
There was something wrong, Hoss thought to himself, something very wrong. Pa wasn’t his usual assured self. He looked stooped and scared and vulnerable.
“There’s something I have to tell you about Sophie,” he said, “and it’s very difficult for me to say it.”
They waited. Pa’s face tensed as if he were in pain but still he did not say whatever it was that needed saying. He stared at the arm of the chair and muscles twitched in his face, but no words came. The ticking of the clock by the door seemed unnaturally loud. Hoss flicked a worried glance at Adam and saw his older brother’s mouth tighten. And then, finally, it was Adam who broke the silence.
“You had an affair with her, didn’t you, Pa?”
Hoss felt a rush of horror, mixed with admiration for Adam’s forthright boldness. For an instant, Pa looked as if he’d been stabbed.
“She told you?”
Adam sighed and shook his head. “No, she didn’t. She didn’t need to. Come on, Pa, it’s obvious something’s been eating at you.”
There was another moment of heavy silence. Hoss’s insides squirmed. It was hard to look at Pa, and he wasn’t meeting their eyes.
“Do you want to talk about it?” asked Adam.
Pa hesitated. “I think... I think you ought to know the truth about Sophie Leclerq... and about me.” He picked up his brandy and drained the glass in one mouthful. Hoss made a move to fetch a refill, but Pa shook his head. “No, Hoss. Brandy won’t solve this. Sit down, boy.”
He leaned forward in his chair and picked up the letter, gazing at it in silence.
“I knew Marie was special the instant I laid eyes on her. There were people who said we weren’t right for each other, that she’d never be happy out here, but that wasn’t true. She was happy. You know that, don’t you?”
“Yeah, Pa.” Hoss nodded with vigor. Adam murmured a more restrained acknowledgement.
“I met Sophie very soon after I met Marie. They were such close friends, I couldn’t avoid it. They’d grown up together, like sisters, as close as you boys are together. Marie loved her dearly. So dearly she didn’t see the faults in her. Or if she did, she was too loyal to acknowledge them.
“The truth is, Sophie was a bad influence on Marie.” Pa paused and raised his eyes. “You know I don’t like to talk about Marie’s past. What her life was like before I met her was no fault of her own and certainly never changed how I felt about her. It wasn’t the life she wanted, and it wasn’t who she really was. But that wasn’t the same for Sophie. I even think things might have been different for Marie if they hadn’t been such good friends. While Marie wanted something more for herself, something respectable, Sophie did not. In fact, I’d go so far as to say she reveled in her lifestyle. ‘Courtesan’, she called herself. She even joked about it. Said it had class and distinction!
“She was jealous of Marie too. At least, she was jealous of her relationship with me. When Marie told her we were engaged to be married, she flew into a rage and accused her of betraying her. Poor Marie was distraught. They argued for days. Marie even begged me to bring Sophie out here with her. But I wanted to get Marie away from her. I could see the damage Sophie’s influence was having, and...” Pa hesitated, shaking his head and closing his eyes, “well, how could I tell her the other reason for leaving Sophie behind?”
He rose, turning his back on Hoss and Adam, and fixing his eyes on the grey hearth.
Hoss fidgeted uncomfortably in his chair. “Pa, you don’t have to tell us any more if you don’t want to.”
Pa didn’t move. He spoke down to the cold grate. “No, you need to know the whole story. It’s important. You were right, Adam. I did fall for her. In spite of everything! There was just… something about her. I was a fool. The worst kind of fool, because I knew what she was like!
“When Marie first introduced me to Sophie, I took them both out to dinner, and then I walked them home. Sophie lived further out, so I took Marie home first. When we got to Sophie’s lodgings, she asked me if I would come in with her, light the lamps. She told me she was afraid of the dark. We’d had a good evening; I’d drunk too much wine. And I knew. In my heart, I knew. But I let her persuade me, anyway.” Pa ran a hand over his face and groaned. “And after that first time…” Pa shook his head as if he would shake himself free of the memories. “I knew it was wrong. I knew it then and I know it now, but… well, it happened and I can’t change it.”
Hoss became aware that his breathing had quickened. A heavy lump was forming somewhere in the pit of his stomach. But Pa hadn’t finished.
“But when Marie and I became engaged to be married, Sophie was furious with me. She said if I took Marie away from her, she would tell her what had been going on; make sure our marriage was ruined. I tried to appeal to her better nature, make her see how selfish she was being about Marie’s happiness. But at the same time, I made it plain I would not bring her back here with us.”
Pa picked up the iron poker and stabbed at the dead logs in the fireplace. “So she carried out her threat. She told Marie.”
He stopped speaking again and the only sound for a long moment was the clunk of the poker against wood. Hoss shifted again in his seat. Adam stared hard into his brandy glass. Pa stirred. Dropping the poker back in its rest, he turned to face his two sons, crossing his arms over his broad chest.
“What I’d already done was unforgiveable. What I did next...” He shook his head and drew another long breath. “What I did next was even worse. Marie came to me in tears, and asked me if it was true. I… I told her Sophie was lying. I said she was jealous. I told her nothing had happened.”
A terrible silence descended. Hoss could not have spoken if he’d tried. If Pa had taken a knife and stabbed him in the belly, he could not have been more stunned. Even Adam, who normally found words when others failed, was struck dumb. It wasn’t Pa’s admission that he’d had an affair with another woman, as shocking as that had been; it was the knowledge that Pa - their unflinchingly principled and upright father - had lied to cover his actions. It was long minutes before any of them could find their voices.
“Did Marie... did she ever find out the truth?” asked Adam, and Hoss wondered at the strength it took to meet Pa's eyes as he spoke.
Pa’s head seemed to shrink into his shoulders. His voice was rough and hoarse. “There was so much for her to deal with. Coming here, meeting you boys, the house, the ranch. And then we found out Joe was on the way, and she seemed so... so happy.” His voice broke on the last word and he had to swallow hard before he could continue. “I did try to tell her, once. I knew I couldn’t carry on lying to her. She... she refused to hear me out. She said that I loved her in spite of everything she’d done and there was nothing I could do that would keep her from loving me.”
His deep voice caught. He swung around again to face the mantelpiece.
The silence felt endless. Once again it was Adam who recovered first.
“What about Sophie?”
Pa was struggling but he’d managed to regain some control over his voice.
“That was difficult. Especially for Marie. When we left New Orleans, Sophie was still refusing to talk to her. I guess I was hoping their acquaintance would just fizzle out. But they’d been so close for so long. Marie wrote several letters before Sophie relented and wrote back. I imagined they’d put their differences behind them.”
Pa lifted his head and blew out a long breath. “When Marie died, I wrote to Sophie, out of courtesy, to let her know.” His voice threatened to break again. “She wrote back. A terrible letter! She said that she blamed me for Marie’s death; that if Marie had stayed in New Orleans, she would have been alive and happy still. That I’d never deserved her and that her death was my punishment.”
Hoss swallowed hard. “They were terrible things to say, Pa. But they weren’t true. You must know that.
“At the time, they felt like they were, Hoss.”
Adam moistened his lips and shook his head. “People say things they don’t mean when they’re upset.”
“Oh, she meant it, Adam. She meant it! She told me I’d ruined her happiness by stealing away the only person she’d ever really cared for, and then letting her die. And she said she only hoped that one day she would be able to make me as lonely and miserable as I had made her.”
Hoss fixed troubled eyes on Pa. “And you think that’s why she’s here?”
Adam shifted impatiently in his seat. “Oh, that’s ridiculous! That was twenty years ago. She’s been happily married since then. And she has Amelia now. Amelia’s like a daughter to her. She’s changed, Pa. Hasn’t it occurred to you that maybe she feels as bad about what happened as you do?”
“I wish I could think that, Adam.”
“You haven’t given her a chance yet, Pa. Maybe you should just try talking to her.”
Pa was quiet for a long moment. Then he shook his head and his voice sounded bitter and weary. “I think she’s come here to do precisely what she threatened to do twenty years ago. Steal from me the things I love most. The way she believes I did to her.”
“No.” Adam got up from his seat, rubbing an agitated hand across the back of his neck. “I think you’re wrong.”
“What better revenge than taking my sons away from me?”
“She’s not taking me anywhere, Pa. All right, so I’ve moved into town for a while, but I’m thirty years old, for heaven’s sake! It was always on the cards that one day I’d want to get married, move out, do things my own way.” Adam stopped, as if he was aware that his protest sounded hollow.
Pa’s voice was very quiet. “So, what about Joe?”
Adam looked at Hoss for help. “He’ll get over it. He’s just infatuated. You know what he’s like when it comes to Marie.”
“Has she told him any of this?”
Adam frowned and shook his head in bafflement. “Why would she want to hurt him like that? He's Marie's son. I believe she's genuinely fond of him, even if he's got that confused in his mind with something else. After all, why wouldn’t she have said it to me, if discrediting you was her reason for being here?”
“She’s cleverer than that, Adam. Can’t you see that? She’s already managed to drive us apart.”
Adam’s mouth twitched with annoyance. “With all due respect, Pa, that wasn’t entirely her doing.”
“Then why was Joe trying to throttle you this morning?”
Adam glared, jaw clenched tight. “I don’t know, Pa. Who knows what goes on in that boy’s head? He’s just got the wrong end of the stick, that’s all.” He lifted a hand to his injured head and squeezed his eyes tight shut, muttering something under his breath.
Hoss put out his hand and gripped Adam’s elbow. “Take it easy, brother.”
Anxiety rumpled Pa’s face. “Adam? Are you all right, son? Hoss, maybe you should go for the doctor.”
Adam held up a hand. “No Pa. I’ll be fine. Don’t fuss. My head aches, that’s all. I might just lie down on my own bed for a while, if that’s all right with you. I need some time to think.”
Pa gave a relieved nod. “That sounds like a good idea. We could all do with some time to think.” Pa’s eyes followed Adam as he climbed the stairs with heavy steps.
“Is he all right, do you think?”
Hoss shook his head. “I don’t think it’s just that knock on the head that’s bothering him, Pa.”
Pa sank down into his chair.
Hoss sat down too. “Are you all right, Pa?”
Pa rubbed his face with his hands and breathed a weary sigh. “I should have told you all this a long time ago. A lie never goes away, no matter how much you try and pretend. I don’t expect forgiveness, Hoss. All the times I’ve preached to the three of you about the importance of honesty.”
“We’ve all done our share of lying. That don’t make what you taught us any less true. It just means we’re human. This may come as a surprise to you, Pa, but we actually stopped believing you were perfect some years back, you know!”
Pa gave a little laugh then, but it was a frightening sound because it turned to a moan of despair that made his shoulders quiver.
“You’re the wisest of us all, Hoss. And the only one who hasn’t fallen for Sophie’s witchery.”
Hoss gave a dry, humorless laugh. “That ain’t true, Pa. I wish it was. If she had spared me a second glance that night she came here to dinner… well, things might have been different. But, you know how it is; women don’t never look at me the way they look at Adam and Joe. No, I ain’t feelin’ sorry for myself, Pa. God made us the way we are for a reason, I reckon, and right now, I’m plumb glad he made me just the way I am. I don’t ever want to see Little Joe looking at me the way he looked at Adam today.” Hoss shook his head and blew out his cheeks. “Right then, Pa, I knew you were right. About Sophie. Someone who can turn a brother on a brother like that sure can’t be meaning any good! If she’s gonna marry Adam, why’s she making Little Joe believe she has feelings for him too?”
“She’s playing them off against each other. Like she did with me and Marie. But it's my fault. If I hadn’t tried to keep the past a secret, she’d have no hold over us. It’s time to end it, one way or the other. Tomorrow, I’m going into town to talk to Sophie. And I'll find Joe and tell him the truth about what happened in New Orleans.”
“You sure that’s a good idea, Pa?” Hoss pulled a face as he imagined his younger brother’s reaction to Pa’s confession. “You know what Joe’s like. His feelings are running pretty high right now. Maybe it’d be better to wait until all this has blown over.”
“If I don’t tell him, she will. I know she will. If I stand any chance of forgiveness from Joe, he needs to hear it from me, not her.”
“Look,” said Sophie. “What do you think?”
Amelia was curled in her usual position, on the cushioned window seat. The house they had rented was large and comfortable, with big windows overlooking the edge of town. Amelia lifted her head from the book she was reading as Sophie appeared at the bottom of the stairs, a deep cream silk gown in her arms. She held it up, rustling, so Amelia could see how it looked against her.
“I thought it would do for the wedding.”
Amelia nodded, her face unmoved. “It’s very nice,” she said, without feeling.
“Oh, Amelia!” Sophie gave a frown that was half irritated, half amused. “You could at least pretend to be interested.”
“Oh, I am interested.” Amelia put down the book on the cushion beside her and looked more intently at the dress. “Yes, it’s very pretty. It has lovely layering. I think it will do very nicely. Adam will adore you in that.”
Sophie grinned. “That’s the idea. Oh, come on, Amelia, cheer up! How about we go out and choose you a new dress for the wedding too? That draper in town has some fabulous new silks, and there’s time to get something made up for you.”
Amelia pulled a face. “I’d rather wear an old frock and just get the wedding out of the way sooner. Why do we have to wait a whole month?”
“It’s Adam.” Sophie wrinkled her nose and sighed. “He seems to think it’s more respectable.”
“Can’t you persuade him to move it forward? The sooner we can get out of this god-forsaken hole, the better.”
Sophie sat down on the window seat beside her friend, the cream silk spread across her lap. “You really hate it that much? Even now we have the bookshop?”
Amelia looked at her and sighed. “I am trying, Sophie. Really. It’s just so… rough and dirty! All those drunken miners and those loud-mouthed cowpokes! I dread even walking down the street. You said we could go to Boston. Adam could come with us once you’re married. He’s talked about Boston often enough.”
Sophie stroked the fine lace on the sleeve of the cream dress while she considered. “All right,” she conceded. “Once we’re married. But not straight away. We have to be here long enough to parade our wedded bliss beneath Ben’s nose.”
“A few months?”
“A few months!” Amelia heaved a heavy sigh and turned her face to stare out of the window. “And when are you going to deal with Little Joe?”
“Little Joe? What do you mean?”
“You know full well what I mean! You haven’t told him about his pa yet, have you? When are you going to tell him?”
Sophie rolled a pearl button between her fingers. She could feel Amelia’s eyes boring into her, waiting for the answer.
“You’re not going to, are you?” There was no mistaking the accusation in Amelia’s tone.
“I will.” Sophie’s voice sounded unconvincing even to her own ears.
“I warned you this would happen, Sophie, if you let yourself get involved. I thought you wanted to destroy Ben Cartwright.”
“I do! I do. And I will tell him. It’s just…”
Sophie shook her head despairingly. “It’s just… Marie was my best friend.”
“Sophie! Little Joe isn’t Marie. He’s just her son. The child that should have been yours, remember? Ben Cartwright should have been yours, not hers! You said so yourself. You shouldn’t love Little Joe, you should despise him!”
Sophie was silent for a long moment while she continued to fiddle with the dress on her lap. Finally she nodded her head. “You’re right.” At last her voice held purpose. Rising to her feet, she leant over and kissed her friend’s forehead. “What would I do without you, Amelia?”
Joe had thought the whiskey would make him feel better. Now, as he pushed his way out of the saloon doors and leant his back against the wall to take some deep breaths, he realized he wasn’t feeling better at all. He was feeling a whole lot worse.
The street dipped around him. The International House swayed like it was bending in the breeze. That was where Adam was staying. Joe shook his head. He wouldn’t be booking a room there then! Untying Cochise from the hitching post, he threw his jacket across the saddle. Vaguely he registered that the sun was slipping behind the mountain. It was getting late.
The thought of Adam stirred him to move again. What if his older brother was even now standing at one of those windows, looking down and gloating?
Gloating. That was what Adam did! Joe pulled a face at the hotel windows. Grabbing hold of his saddle, he made a concentrated effort to get his foot into the stirrup and haul himself over the horse’s back. Adam had come back to the Ponderosa just to gloat; just to make Joe feel small and stupid. Thinking about it brought a hot lump of anger and humiliation to Joe’s throat.
Now he had made it into the saddle, he needed to decide where to go. Not back home, that was for sure! It was annoying that he had left his gear behind. That had been Adam’s fault as well. Now he would just have to manage without it.
Nor would he go and see Sophie. She had betrayed him, made a fool of him, and he would not give her the satisfaction of doing that again. He had reminded himself of that fact each time he poured another whiskey into his glass. Yet with every mouthful, he had seen her more clearly; her knowing eyes, teasing smile, milky smooth skin. His belly quivered to remember the taste of her mouth, the touch of her hands, the soft undulations of her warm flesh beneath his fingers. Even now, as he reminded himself yet again how she had hurt him, he was turning his horse’s head in the direction of her house.
Amelia opened the door to him. Strange, sharp-eyed, sharp-tongued Amelia. Joe didn’t care much for Amelia and he was pretty certain Amelia didn’t think much of him. She looked at him with something akin to disdain as he stood on the porch step, swaying very slightly.
“I’d like to speak to Sophie,” he told her, with as much dignity as he could muster.
“You’re drunk!” She made no attempt to disguise her disgust, and her black eyes narrowed.
“I’ve been drinking; I’m not drunk.”
“What do you want?”
“I want to come in. I want to speak to Sophie.”
Amelia didn’t move. Her hard, unforgiving eyes could outstare an owl.
“May I come in?”
Still she didn’t move. “We were talking about you just now.” A secretive smile played about the corners of her mouth. Somehow it had the effect of making Joe’s insides shrivel.
“Oh yes?”’ he said, as if he didn’t care.
“Do you want to know why Sophie and your father fell out with each other?”
Joe frowned. “What are you talking about?”
“Ask her. Ask her what happened twenty years ago.”
“Amelia!” Sophie’s voice broke sharply into Joe’s train of thought. To Joe’s fogged brain it looked like she was descending the stairs through a rippling haze. “Let Little Joe in. Don’t keep him standing on the step.”
“He’s drunk,” said Amelia, coldly. “You know I don’t approve of drunkenness.”
“Then perhaps you should go into the kitchen and make some coffee.”
Amelia gave Joe one last, hard glowering stare and turned her back on him. “Tell him!” she muttered as she brushed past Sophie.
“Tell me what?”
The look of annoyance that passed fleetingly across Sophie’s face was quickly replaced by a smile. She had on her russet gown, the one that seemed to have been designed to draw attention to the generous mounds of her breasts and the tempting hollow between them. “Come on in, Little Joe.”
“If it’s about you and Adam…” Joe began, unable to keep the bitterness out of his voice. He followed her into the room, only then remembering to remove his hat.
“Oh, that,” said Sophie. “He told you then?”
“Yeah, he told me.” Joe hovered in the middle of the room, suddenly wishing he had stuck to his resolve not to come. Already he felt foolish and he’d barely begun the conversation. “It’s true then? You’re going to marry him?”
He waited for her to say more, but she just stood quietly, facing him, her mouth fixed in that pleasant smile, as though they were discussing nothing more consequential than the price of flour.
“Thanks for telling me.”
“He only asked me yesterday.”
Joe stared at his hat for a few moments, catching the familiar scent of jasmine that lingered on her skin. “And if I’d have asked you?”
“Oh, Little Joe!”
Never had he hated his nickname so much! He swallowed hard and flushed hotly. Adam had been right. She felt sorry for him. “Forget it!” he muttered. “Forget I even said that.” He pushed his hat onto his head and turned for the door. A thought struck him and he turned back. She was standing very still, regarding him almost sadly, her lips curved slightly in that meaningless smile. Even so, she was achingly beautiful.
“What did Amelia mean? What did happen between you and my pa?”
She didn’t answer straight away, but the smile faded from her face and her eyes grew cautious. “Just go home, Little Joe. This was all a big mistake.”
“What do you mean? Just tell me.”
She shook her head. “It’s not important.”
“It was important enough to bring you all the way out here. Tell me.”
She made a purposeful move towards the door. He grabbed her arm as she passed him and held her firmly. “Sophie?”
“Go home!” she repeated, and tugged her arm in an attempt to free herself from his grasp.
“I want to know!”
She pulled harder. He reached out and caught her other arm.
“Let me go, Joe!”
“Not until you answer me. You owe me something, damnit!”
“I owe you!’ She gave a harsh, bitter laugh. ‘Why do I owe you?”
“You said you loved me!” He wished he hadn’t drunk so much. It was hard to keep the tears out of his voice and he was damned if he was going to let her know how much she had hurt him!
“Joe, you’ve had too much to drink. Just go home.”
“Sophie, please!” His head was reeling. He wasn’t certain any more what he was asking her, or even why he was holding her so tightly.
“Let me go! You’re hurting me!”
He knew he was. He had her wrists clamped hard between his fingers. Harder than was right, but whiskey and anger were a heady mixture.
“Joe, stop it and go home. Before we both do or say something we’ll regret.”
“I thought we’d already done that!” He forced her back against the wall so she wouldn’t struggle so hard. He was close up against her now, breathing hard, their faces mere inches apart.
“Why did you say it if you didn’t mean it?”
“You don’t understand. I made a mistake. A big mistake. Go home before it gets any worse. Please Joe, let go of me!”
She twisted hard to try and free herself. He leant his weight against her to prevent her escape, tears of drunken desperation prickling at his eyes. Her face was pink and flustered and there were fiery sparks in her eyes. Pressed up against her, he wanted her more than ever.
“Let me go, Joe! Let me go!”
Out of nowhere, a dizzying pressure slammed into his left shoulder. He gasped aloud and let go of Sophie as the sensation hit him again, lower in his back. He took an unsteady step sideways, the room lurching wildly around him. Amelia’s face swam into view, her dark eyes flashing with hatred as the blade of the knife in her hand plunged towards him for the third time and sank itself deep into the flesh of his upper arm.
The room spun faster. For some inexplicable reason, it was hard to catch his breath. All he could focus on was the handle of the kitchen knife protruding incongruously from his arm. He could feel the blade embedded deep into the muscle. Sharp and pulsing pain in his back snatched at his breath. He dropped to his knees. He couldn’t help it; his legs had turned to water. Even his knees could no longer hold him. Sinking down, he let the wall take his weight.
“Joe! Little Joe, are you all right? Amelia! Oh God, Amelia, what have you done?”
“He was drunk.” Amelia’s voice was low and expressionless. “He was trying to hurt you. I had to stop him.”
“You didn’t need to stab him! I could have dealt with him.”
Horror ran like a freezing chill through Sophie’s body. Joe’s eyes were still open, staring with dazed disbelief at the knife embedded in his arm. Blood smeared the wall behind him where his body had slumped.
“We need to do something!” Sophie’s heart was pounding so hard, it was difficult even to get the words out. “Amelia, get the doctor. We need to stop this bleeding. We need towels!” Sophie made for the kitchen, but Amelia was still standing where she’d left her, her face fixed and blank, looking down at Joe with impassive eyes. “Amelia, go and get the doctor!”
Amelia lifted her face. “We can’t. If we get the doctor, he’ll know how this happened. I’ll go to prison.” She looked back down at Joe and pursed her mouth. “If he dies, they might even hang me.”
“What are we going to do then?”
“Get something to clean up the blood,” said Amelia, coldly practical. “We’ll never explain all this mess to Mrs. Riley when she comes tomorrow otherwise.”
Sophie ran to the kitchen and scrambled frantically in the drawers, pulling out all the towels she could find. Breathless, she fell on her knees by Joe’s side.
“What do we do about that?” she whispered, nodding with dread at the protruding knife handle. Joe’s eyes flicked to her face, pained and desperate.
“We pull it out.” Amelia braced one hand against Joe’s arm. Grasping the knife with the other hand, she gave a determined tug. Joe drew a wavering gasp as the blade slid free of his flesh and a bright gush of blood broke from the wound.
“Damn! Damn!” Sophie felt tears of panic blurring her vision as she tried to staunch the flow with a towel. “Joe, we have to lie you down. I need to look at your back. Amelia, help me.”
Together they maneuvered Joe onto his side. The back of his shirt clung to his skin, soaked through with crimson wetness. Amelia brought the dressmaking scissors from the workbox and they cut away the fabric.
“We need something more.” Sophie nodded at the stairs. “Get a couple of sheets, Amelia. We have to stop this blood.”
Sophie leaned down to look at Joe’s face again. His eyes were still open and staring, but his focus was glazed, and when she spoke to him, he barely responded with a flicker of recognition.
“What are we going to do?” The brandy Amelia had brought for her had helped, but Sophie’s voice was still shaky.
Joe lay on the floor in a makeshift nest of bloodstained linen. Somewhere along the way, he had finally lost consciousness, but at least they seemed to have staunched the worst of the bleeding.
“We have to get rid of him.”
Sophie looked with disbelief at her friend. “Get rid of him? How?”
Amelia set her jaw. “We have to get him out of here. Dump him somewhere. Get this place cleaned up.”
“How are we going to do that?”
Amelia’s dark eyes travelled around the room as she thought, and came to rest again on Joe.
“Help me get his clothes off.”
“His clothes? Why? What...?”
“Just help me, Sophie. Where’s his jacket?”
“I don’t know. He wasn’t wearing it.”
“I’ll check his horse. See if it’s there.” Amelia made for the door.
“Amelia, what are you doing?”
Amelia paused by the door. “Listen. People saw him ride here, didn’t they? His horse has been outside our house for the last hour or more. If they don’t see him ride away again, they’re going to know something happened to him here.”
“Ride away again?” Sophie’s stunned mind struggled to grasp her companion’s meaning. “How can he ride away again?”
“He won’t. I’ll put on his clothes and take his horse well out of town and turn him loose. That way, everyone will assume something happened to him on his way back from Virginia City.”
Sophie hadn’t moved when Amelia came back inside, Joe’s jacket over her arm.
“Don’t just stand there, Sophie.”
“I can’t do this.”
“Listen, you wanted to get your own back on Ben Cartwright, didn’t you? Well, what better way than this” Amelia dropped to the floor and tugged at Joe’s boot.
“I didn’t mean for anyone to get killed!”
“He’s not dead yet, is he? Sophie, help me!”
Sophie’s hands were shaking so violently, she was not sure how much help she would be, but somehow they got Joe’s clothes off his unconscious body and Sophie helped Amelia out of her own dress and into Joe’s pants and jacket. Amelia wrinkled her nose in distaste at the blood that had soaked into the waist of the pants.
“But nobody will notice once I’m in the saddle,” she assured Sophie. “It’s dark out there now anyway.”
She picked up Joe’s gun belt and strapped it clumsily around her middle. Sophie fastened the jacket for her and pulled the collar high around her neck. Then she twisted Amelia’s hair into a knot on top of her head and jammed Joe’s hat down over it.
“What do you think?”
Sophie felt sick. “As long as no one stops you.”
“I’ll ride fast.”
Amelia crouched down and tore a long strip from one of the sheets she’d brought from the bedroom.
“Tie his feet,” she ordered, thrusting the fabric at Sophie.
“His feet? Why?”
“In case he wakes up, stupid! You’ll be here on your own with him.” Amelia ripped off another length of cotton, struggling to get Joe’s arms behind his back so she could bind his wrists. Blood seeped afresh. Sophie looked pale enough to faint.
“What am I supposed to do while you’re gone?”
Amelia rose to her feet and adjusted her hat. “Clean up for a start!”
The two women stood face to face for a long moment, then Sophie reached out embraced the younger girl with a fervency born of fear and desperation.
“You will be careful, Amelia?”
“You know I will. I’ll be as quick as I can.”
How could Amelia be so calm?
Sophie knelt on the floor, a pail of water at her side, scrubbing hard at the stains on the wooden floorboards by the wall. Joe lay close, his eyes still shut. Every now and then, he shifted and moaned. Each time he moved, Sophie’s belly contracted in a spasm of fear, although she couldn’t have said exactly what it was that frightened her; whether she was scared he might wake up, or scared he might not.
The stains would not shift. No matter how hard she scrubbed with a brush or mopped with a cloth, they remained stubbornly visible. Her lips quivered, her body trembled, her face crumpled in an overwhelming rush of revulsion and self pity. She sank back on her heels and gave into the sobs that had been threatening to force their way out ever since she first saw the knife in Amelia’s hand.
Amelia! What had the girl been thinking?
Drunk, of course, that’s what she’d been thinking. Joe’s breath had been full of whiskey, his words slurring at the edges, his step fractionally off balance. She had answered the door to him and seen all the signs. Amelia despised drunken men. They brought back one overriding memory.
So when she had seen Joe, inebriated and angry, forcing her companion against the wall and hurting her, she had reacted. Not out of fear. Amelia no longer felt fear; only anger and hatred. That was why she was so calm. No fear, no panic.
Sophie shuffled her back against the couch. Trembling, she drew her knees up to her chest and hugged them close as she wept.
Amelia tossed Joe’s jacket onto a chair and unbuckled the gun belt.
Sophie was hunched up like a terrified child, her face pale and puffy, her eyes red. For a fleeting moment, Amelia almost lost her patience. After all, she was the one who’d just spent two hours covering their backs, getting rid of the horse and sneaking back through the dark into town.
But she was the strong one, she reminded herself. If Sophie was going to see this through, she was going to need Amelia’s strength.
Once more attired in her own gown, Amelia lifted a jug of flowers that stood on top of a large box in the corner, set them aside, and pulled off the lace cloth that had been under the flowers.
“We’ll put him in here.”
It was Charles’ luggage trunk, the one that had accompanied him on his travels and now followed Sophie on hers. Empty now, it was doing duty as a side table until its services should once more be required.
“And tomorrow morning, first thing, I’ll hire a buckboard and we’ll take him out of town and dump him somewhere a long way from here.” Amelia took hold of the brass handle on the side of the trunk and dragged it out from the wall and across the floor to where Joe lay. “Come on, help me, Sophie. Put that sheet in the bottom to soak up any more blood.”
Sophie moved slowly, like a woman in a daze. She picked up the sheet Amelia had indicated, and then stood motionless, clutching the fabric. Impatiently, Amelia snatched it from her and dumped it in the bottom of the trunk.
“Now help me get him in.”
Sophie turned her head to look at Joe. “Do we have to?” she whispered.
“If you have a better idea...”
Sophie looked back at her friend with helplessness in her eyes. She gave a slow nod. “All right.”
She took hold of Joe’s legs beneath his knees while Amelia struggled to get a hold under his bound arms. As they lifted him, Joe’s eyes opened and he gave a shaky moan. Sophie faltered. “Amelia, I really don’t think...”
“Just do it!”
With an effort, Amelia hoisted Joe’s torso over the lip of the trunk and dropped him in clumsily. He let out a loud cry of pain as his injured back caught on the side of the box. Blood oozed afresh. Amelia tightened her lips with annoyance. Snatching up the bloodied sheets and towels from the floor, she packed them around and over his doubled up body. He twisted his face to look at her, his skin grey in the lamplight.
“Why are you doing this?” His voice was little more than a dry whisper.
Amelia gave him a cold smile. “Don’t you know, Joseph Cartwright? Shall I tell you?”
“Amelia, don’t!” Sophie’s voice wavered. She sank down on the edge of a chair, shoulders drooped in defeat.
“Twenty years ago, your father walked out on Sophie and stole her oldest and dearest friend away.”
Joe stared at her, his pupils wide and dark. Sweat shimmered on his colorless skin.
Amelia perched on the edge of the trunk and leaned down to look hard into his eyes. “You see, Little Joe, while your father was engaged to be married to your mother, he was spending his nights in Sophie’s bed.”
Joe’s brows drew down. He gave a weak shake of his head. Amelia chuckled.
“Oh, it’s true, all right. Ben Cartwright, Nevada’s paragon of virtue! And now it’s his turn to know how much it hurts to lose the people he loves the most!” She stood up and reached for the lid of the trunk before she added, as an afterthought, “Oh, and if you’re wondering about me, it’s nothing personal. I just hate men. All men! You included.”
She closed the lid, and snapped the clasps. The she sat down on the top of the trunk and regarded Sophie solemnly.
“We need to clear up.”
“I...I couldn’t get the bloodstains out of the floor.”
“We’ll move the dresser that way. That’ll cover it.”
“What about Mrs. Riley?”
Amelia blew out her lips with a scornful sound. “She won’t notice if we move the dresser there. You said yourself she never cleans anything properly.” She stood up and gathered Joe’s clothes from the couch where she’d abandoned them. “We need to get rid of these.”
Sophie held out her arms to take them. “The stove. I’ll burn them.”
Amelia looked pleased, not simply at the suggestion, but because Sophie finally seemed to be rallying her wits again. She thrust the bundle of clothing into her friend’s hands, but the gun she slipped from the holster and slid beneath a cushion. There was something she hadn’t yet discussed with her traumatized friend. It would have to wait until tomorrow now. But Amelia knew, if Little Joe hadn’t had the good sense to die by the morning, there would be only way to ensure his silence.
A noise in the yard woke Hoss from a troubled sleep. He lay still for a few seconds wondering what had disturbed him, then he heard it again. A rustling sound and a light jingle.
A faint pre-dawn glow had already begun to ease the darkness from the sky, enough that Hoss could pick out the dappled white and shadowy black patches of the animal below.
Joe! A wave of relief washed over Hoss. He pulled on his slippers and made for the door.
There was no sound from the room below. Hoss went quietly down the stairs but there was no movement in the shadowy gloom of the great room. “Joe?” he whispered hopefully, but no familiar voice came back to him through the stillness.
Hoss opened the door to the yard. Outside the darkness was less complete.
“Cochise?” The horse turned its head in his direction and snickered softly. Hoss saw how the reins trailed loosely in the dirt. “Where’s Joe, boy?” Frowning, he took two steps out onto the porch and peered hard into the darkness behind the horse.
There was no sign of Little Joe.
Adam set down his empty coffee cup on the table, barely registering that he’d drunk the contents. Across the table, Pa’s face was drawn from lack of sleep. Adam knew his own face looked as bad, if not worse. The sun was barely up; none of them had wasted time shaving. Now they were grabbing a quick cup of coffee and a cold meat sandwich before they headed out to look for the missing rider.
“We’ll probably meet him half a mile from the ranch,” Adam said, with forced optimism.
“Yeah.” Hoss nodded. “Grumpy and sore ’cause Cochise threw him off and he’s had to walk back from Virginia City.”
They were awkward with each other. Oddly, Cochise’s lone return was almost a relief, distracting attention from the events of the previous day. Adam picked up the last piece of his sandwich, pushing it into his mouth as he collected his hat and gun.
“You should stay here, Adam,” said Pa. “That cut on your head still looks pretty nasty.”
“Thanks, Pa, but I’ll be fine. I’ll feel better when we find Joe.”
“What’s the plan, Pa?” asked Hoss.
“I think we head into Virginia City first. That seems the most likely place.” Pa didn’t need to say why he thought that. Nobody had mentioned Sophie’s name yet that morning, but it hung in the air between them like a solid lump of something cold and unpleasant. “If we don’t find him there, we’ll split up and head back separately; cover as much ground as we can. He can’t be far away if Cochise found his way back.”
They rode in silence. It seemed like so much had been said the day before, there was nothing left to say. But the silence didn’t hang easily between them. It was the kind of silence, thought Adam, that sapped the sun of its brightness and dulled the colors of the morning like a dank veil. It even seemed to get inside his head and make it ache harder than it ached already.
There was still no sign of Joe as they rode into town and met the bustle of the morning there. At Adam’s suggestion, they split up to ask after him in the various saloons. Hoss garnered the first clue in the Bucket of Blood.
“Yep,” he told Pa and Adam, “he was there all right. Drinking whiskey most of the afternoon by all accounts. Left about six o’clock yesterday evening. Didn’t say where he was going though.”
Pa’s face was grim. “I could make an educated guess. Adam, you’d better lead the way since you know where she lives.”
Adam’s mouth tightened. In silence, he led the way through the town to where the buildings thinned out, and the houses grew larger.
Pa and Hoss didn’t have long to wonder which house was Sophie’s. A buckboard, hitched and ready to go, waited outside a pleasant, white-painted building with a fenced garden to the front, and two women were struggling out of the door, hefting a big box between them. As the three riders drew up by the gate and dismounted, the women set down their burden, a large, painted wooden trunk with brass fixings.
“Well, the entire Cartwright family!” Amelia’s eyes darted from face to face as she and Sophie approached the gate. “You’re in town early.”
Sophie looked tired, thought Adam. Very tired. Her face was pale and her eyes bloodshot. He wondered if she’d been crying. She gave him a wan smile and dropped her gaze. He glanced at the trunk behind her in some disquiet. Was she leaving? Had she planned to slip away without telling him?
Pa looked as if someone had put too much starch in his shirt. His shoulders were rigid and his face fixed in a deliberately blank expression. “We’re looking for Little Joe. He didn’t come home last night. We wondered if he might have come here.”
“Yes. As a matter of fact, he did. Yesterday evening, about six o’clock.” Amelia gave an apologetic smile. “I’m afraid we sent him away again. You see, he’d been drinking, hadn’t he, Sophie? In fact, he was quite drunk.”
Sophie gave a nod. “I imagined he’d go home.” Her voice was flat and disinterested.
“His horse arrived back without him.”
“You think something’s happened to him?”
Why was Amelia doing all the talking? Adam looked again at Sophie, trying to catch her eye, but she stared fixedly at the path, her shoulders drooped. Maybe she was ill. Or maybe she was having second thoughts about marrying him. That would explain the trunk! She had changed her mind and decided to slip away.
In spite of Pa’s revelations, seeing her again, even pale and subdued, he realized how much he still wanted her. Even her ill-concealed distress could not detract from her loveliness and, if anything, her unexpected vulnerability made her even more desirable. The realization was accompanied by a little stab of annoyance at Joe. If his younger brother hadn’t done this latest disappearing trick, Adam could have stayed with Sophie, comforted her, found out what was troubling her, put his arms around her, kissed away the sadness in her face. But he had to go and hunt for Joe. And if Amelia was right and Joe had been very drunk yesterday, then it was more than likely he was simply lying in a gully somewhere, sleeping off a hangover. If that was how they found him, thought Adam, his jaw hardening, Joe was going to feel the full brunt of his oldest brother’s displeasure.
“Can we give you a hand, ma’am?” Hoss nodded politely at the trunk on the porch. “Looks like you’re packed to go somewhere.”
Amelia smiled. “Oh no, nothing like that. It’s just we were having a conversation the other day with the pastor’s wife and she was telling us there’s a convent near here where the sisters distribute food and clothing to the widows and orphans.”
Hoss nodded. “I heard that too, ma’am.”
“So, Sophie and I thought this was a good excuse to sort through our closets and do something useful with the clothes we don’t wear any more.”
“Looks like you found plenty, ma’am.”
Sophie raised a half-hearted smile. “We have far too many clothes.”
“We’ll give you a hand.” Hoss put his hand to the gate.
Sophie interjected swiftly. “On no, please don’t bother yourselves. Amelia and I can manage. We’re stronger than we look. And I know you’re worried about Little Joe. We wouldn’t want to hold you up.”
“No bother,” Hoss insisted. “Sounds like Little Joe may just have had more to drink than was good for him.”
Amelia reached out and drew Sophie away from the gate. “Well, thank you, Mr. Cartwright, you are a real gentleman. We’d be grateful.”
Something was wrong with Sophie; Adam was certain now. Even when he brushed past her, following Hoss to the porch, she refused to meet his eyes. The more he thought about it, the more he convinced himself she must have changed her mind about the wedding. He kept looking at her as he took hold of the brass handle at his end of the trunk and Hoss grabbed the other, but still she did not acknowledge him.
“You sure have turned out plenty!” Hoss raised his eyebrows as he hefted the weight. “Those widows are gonna be mighty pleased!”
Amelia smiled brightly. “I do hope so. But that trunk’s heavy even when it’s empty. Mr. Hannard had it made especially sturdy. We’re grateful you happened along when you did to help us out.”
The two men swung the trunk up onto the buckboard. Pa was fidgety. Adam knew he was worried about Little Joe. No doubt he was also itching to get out of Sophie’s company. He was already climbing back into his saddle as Hoss and Adam stood back from the wagon.
“Thank you for your help,” he said, touching his hat, stiffly polite.
“I hope you find Little Joe.” Sophie lifted her face to Adam’s as he hoisted himself back into his saddle, for the first time meeting his eyes properly. “You’ll let me know, won’t you?”
He nodded, turning his horse to follow Pa and Hoss back into town.
“Sounds like he had a skin full, Pa,” said Hoss as they rode.
Tight-lipped, Pa looked as though he couldn’t decide whether to be worried or angry. It occurred to Adam that Pa wasn’t currently in a position to lecture anyone else on moral conduct. The confirmation that Joe had been very much the worse for drink had considerably lessened Adam’s own anxieties, providing a whole selection of likely scenarios to explain his mysterious absence.
Roy Coffee was outside his office, sweeping the porch.
“Little Joe?” The sheriff leaned on his broom and looked thoughtful as Ben related the story of Joe’s absence and what little they knew of his whereabouts before that. “He rode past me, last night. Round seven, half past. I was doing my evening rounds. Had his head down, riding at a fair crack. I called out to him, but he didn’t hear me. Looked to me like he was heading for home. Need a hand looking for him, Ben?”
Pa pursed his mouth and shook his head. “Thanks, Roy, but I’m sure we’ll find him. I just hope he isn’t lying somewhere with a broken head.”
“Sore head, more like,” put in Hoss.
“Pa.” Adam leaned forward in his saddle. “You and Hoss go on. I’ll catch you up. There’s something I need to do.”
The way Pa looked at him then almost made him wish he hadn’t spoken. Pa knew where he was going without even asking. Adam hesitated as he weighed his divided loyalties, then, ignoring a nagging feeling of guilt, he swung his horse away.
There was no one at home at the pastor’s house. He paused outside, wondering whether Sophie and Amelia had yet to get there. He rode over to the church. The pastor was inside, finishing his morning devotions. He greeted Adam with a smile and told him his wife had walked the children to school and no, he hadn’t seen two ladies driving a buckboard. Adam mounted up and once again turned his horse in the direction of Sophie’s house.
He half expected to meet the wagon driving in the opposite direction, but he didn’t. He got all the way back to the house and the street outside was empty. He could see where the horse had stood, and the tracks of the wheels, but strangely, they were heading in the wrong direction, out of town.
His stomach tightened again in anxiety. Had Sophie been lying? Were they really her own belongings in that trunk? Was that why she hadn’t wanted to meet his eyes? She was slipping away without even a good bye? Another worrying possibility struck him then. What if Joe, angry, jealous, and whiskey-fueled, had turned up on her doorstep in one of his fits of blind passion, and made threats, or said something stupid? Joe was certainly capable of saying the most ridiculous things in the heat of the moment.
Whatever had happened between Pa and Sophie, whatever had happened between Sophie and Joe, Adam knew he could not give her up that easily. He needed to find her, hear her reassure him that all his worries were empty ones, that she still loved him, still wanted to be his bride. It was imperative he talk to her, straighten out any misunderstandings, make it clear that the past was the past. After all, he knew the worst about her now, didn’t he? And he still loved her.
Pa and Hoss were bound to find Joe. Once he’d caught up with Sophie and explained everything to her, he’d ride back and help with the search, if his pesky little brother hadn’t already turned up, sheepish and contrite.
A mile and a half out of town, he still hadn’t spotted the buckboard ahead of him and he was puzzled. It was beginning to feel as though the two women and their wagon had vanished into thin air. To his left, the land rose in a steepening ridge. From the rocks up there, he would be able to get a clear view for several miles.
He had to clamber the last hundred yards on foot. The land spread out below him like a colorful map, with the road like a pale ribbon winding through the rocks and scrub. He followed it with his eyes, but it was empty as far as he could see.
He frowned. If Sophie hadn’t headed out this way, where was she? There weren’t many options open to a wheeled vehicle on this route.
He let his eyes roam in a wide arc, and then stopped, surprised. Heading across the scrubland immediately below him was a horse-drawn cart, with two women in the front seat, unmistakably Sophie and Amelia, the large trunk on the back swaying precariously as the wheels bumped over the stony, uneven ground.
Adam’s brows drew down in a puzzled frown. Where on earth did they think they were going? Why had they left the road? They’d be lucky not to lose a wheel driving over that rough ground.
Almost as though the driver had heard his thoughts, the buckboard came to a halt and the two women climbed down. Although he was too far away to hear their voices, it looked to Adam as if they were arguing, leaning in close to each other and gesturing with their arms.
They appeared to reach a resolution. Amelia climbed up onto the back of the wagon and pushed the trunk towards the tail board. Jumping down beside her friend, together they inched the big crate off. Remembering how heavy it had been to lift, Adam was impressed that they managed to balance it so steadily between them.
What were they doing though? Why would they cart an enormous trunk full of clothes into the desert and dump it there? It made no sense. He frowned deeper. It only made sense if there was something else in that trunk, something they needed to get rid of secretly.
He almost laughed at his own foolish notion, but the amusement died instantly. A niggling doubt crept like a cold trickle through his middle. The thud of his heartbeat became suddenly more insistent. It couldn’t be. The idea was absurd. There was no way! And why was he trying to reassure himself about something so ludicrous? After all, Roy Coffee himself had seen Joe riding past yesterday evening. Pa and Hoss had probably found him by now. Joe was in all likelihood receiving a tongue-lashing from Pa at this very moment.
Amelia had the lid open. From a distance, Adam couldn’t see clearly what was in the trunk, but it looked like bundled fabric. His brief rush of relief was followed by a second of stomach wrenching horror as the two women turned the crate onto its side and what was unmistakably a body, partially shrouded in a swathe of mottled fabric, tumbled out into the dirt.
Adam slithered, breathlessly, down the rocky slope to his waiting horse, hurling himself into the saddle and driving his heels hard into the animal’s ribs. Rounding the ridge at a gallop, he could see the buckboard and the women less than four hundred yards ahead of him. He could see something else too; something that made his stomach leap into his throat. Amelia was standing over the swathed mound at her feet, her arm stretched down as though she were pointing at it, except that in her hand was a gun.
“No!” Adam’s bellow echoed back from the rocks behind. “Sophie! Amelia! Stop!”
The women’s heads snapped up as he drove his horse forward in desperation. They were close. He could see the alarm on Sophie’s pale face and the dark scowl on Amelia’s. Then something slapped with jarring force into his left shoulder, his horse veered sharply, the saddle was gone from under him and he hit the ground with a bone-crunching thud.
Pain burst in his shoulder, but the vision of Joe, bundled in the dust, drove him back to his feet, as a bullet hissed through the air inches from his head. Damnit! The girl was still shooting at him. He pulled his own revolver and focused his dazed eyes ahead. Amelia’s arm was raised, her gun aimed directly at him.
He steadied his hand and pulled the trigger.
Amelia folded, sitting back heavily in the dust. Through the acrid gun smoke, Adam heard Sophie’s wild howl of dismay. He stumbled forward, still winded from his fall, his shoulder on fire.
Sophie was on her knees in the dirt beside Amelia. Adam, trying to take in everything all at once, saw the dark stain spreading across the grey silk of Amelia’s dress, and her black eyes staring at him, shocked and accusing. The gun still hung limply from the fingers of her right hand. Almost on instinct, he bent to remove it, his attention already swiveling to his brother’s body, curled and limp in a tangle of blood-soaked linen.
“Joe?” Adam crouched down beside him, noting with an overwhelming surge of relief Joe’s unintelligible mutterings. Disentangling his brother’s arms from a twisted sheet with shaking hands, he tugged at the knot that held his wrists bound.
“It was just a misunderstanding!” There were tears in Sophie’s desperate plea. “He was drunk, Adam, that’s why she reacted that way. He wouldn’t let me go!”
Ignoring her, Adam freed Joe’s arms and set to work on his ankles. There was dried blood smeared over Joe’s upper torso and gaping wounds in his back and shoulder. Oblivious to the spreading stain on his own sleeve, Adam limped to his horse which had come to a standstill fifteen feet away, and took down his water canteen.
Joe drank thirstily, and opened his eyes. “Adam!” He tried to smile but it turned into a grimace of pain instead.
“Just lie still. I’m going to get you out of here.”
Adam finally looked down at his own shoulder. A large chunk of fabric was gone from the top of his shirt sleeve, and a sizeable piece of flesh had gone with it when the bullet flashed past him, but there was no lead embedded there. He turned his attention to the two women.
Sophie was weeping, her mouth twisted, her cheeks streaked and grimy. Amelia was still conscious, but breathing with ragged gasps. Adam’s bullet had hit her almost dead center of her body. Her face was a shade lighter than her grey dress.
“Let’s get her on board.” He bent down and gathered her up in his arms. “Find a clean piece of cloth and press it onto that wound. We’ll get them both back to the doctor’s office.”
“You’re bleeding, Adam.” Sophie’s voice was little more than a whisper.
He didn’t even look at her. “It’s just a crease. Get up on the wagon, Sophie.”
Doc Martin was just coming out of his office, bag in hand, as Adam drove the buckboard, clattering and rattling, around the corner into the street.
The doctor’s face hardened as he cast his eye over the two wounded passengers. He became suddenly brisk. “Mrs. Drew’s abscess will have to wait. Give me a hand, Adam.”
They took Joe inside first, still wrapped in his white shroud. When they came back out for Amelia, they saw the look on Sophie’s face and knew they were too late.
Joe jerked awake, aware of his own cry of terror dying on his lips, his heart hammering fit to burst through his ribs. Sweat drenched his sheets. Around him the familiar shapes of his own room reassembled themselves in the dim light from the lamp Pa had left beside his bed the last time he’d roused the entire household with his unconscious bellows of protest. He rubbed his face with a shaking hand. Every time he dozed off, it seemed he was trapped again, crushed in that airless box, stifling in sweltering darkness, unable to straighten his legs or move his arms, every muscle burning and cramping, tormented by thirst and the pulsing pain of his wounds.
The pain was still there, in his arms and his back, even when he was awake, but at least there was light and air. His left arm was frustratingly immobilized, strapped to his chest. If the torn muscles were going to heal, the doctor had told him plainly, he mustn’t use it at all.
He frowned at his father’s voice. It should have comforted him, but instead it prodded uncomfortably at the heavy lump that had been steadily growing in his middle for the last few days. He turned his head, shifting awkwardly in his bed. There was no way to lie that didn’t hurt. Pa was in the doorway, in nightshirt and slippers, his stern brow drawn down and creased with concern.
“Are you all right, son?”
“Uh huh.” Joe gave a single nod and turned his face away into his pillow. Now he was fully awake, he remembered the other troubling nightmare, the one that wouldn’t go away.
“Another bad dream?”
Joe cringed at the sympathy in Pa’s voice. It was the third time that night he had woken his family without meaning to. He gave a lopsided shrug as if to say it was nothing important.
“Can I get you anything?”
Joe shook his head, focusing his eyes on the soft mounds of the pillow close to his face. He heard Pa breathe a heavy sigh.
Yesterday had been easier to handle. He had spent most of the day slipping in and out of sleep, groggy and confused. No one had expected any sense out of him. Even so, whenever he’d looked at Pa, he’d remembered Amelia’s words and the pain in his heart was harder to bear than the pain of the knife wounds. But now his head was clear. And later on today there would be confessions and explanations and recriminations. He lay unmoving, his gaze carefully averted from Pa’s face, willing his father to return to his own room.
“Joe, is something troubling you, son?”
Joe slunk down lower in his bed as if he could make himself disappear into its depths.
Why did Pa persist?
“I’m fine, Pa. Just need to sleep some more. Sorry I woke you again.” He had to force his voice to sound natural, but even then it felt harsh and strained.
Pa didn’t take the hint. Instead he came right into the room and crossed to the bed. Sat down on the edge of it. Joe pressed his face harder into his pillow and closed his eyes as though that would shut out Pa too.
“Just look at me for a moment, son?”
Joe’s heart began to thud again. He swallowed hard. “I’d rather not.”
“Why?” When Joe didn’t answer, Pa tried again. “Joseph, talk to me. Tell me what’s on your mind.”
In the silence that followed, Joe took a deep breath and let it out again slowly. His voice emerged tight and strangled.
“You lied to me, Pa. You told me you loved my mother.”
“That wasn’t a lie. I did love her. I loved her very much.”
Joe kept his face averted. How could he meet his father’s eyes? “Then why did you cheat on her?”
It was Pa’s turn to hesitate. “Sophie told you then?”
Joe shook his head. “No. Amelia did. Sophie wanted to keep your sordid little secret.”
“I really don’t want to talk about it, Pa.”
Pa touched his bound arm with a tentative hand. Joe rolled away, abruptly. The sudden movement sent bolts of pain through his back and arm. He screwed his face and tried not to wince. Pa drew his hand away. Joe heard the sigh again.
“I’m sorry, Joe. I was going to tell you, son, I promise. I know you feel let down. There’s nothing I can do or say to change what’s happened. I’m sorry.”
Joe remained rigid and silent, as though Pa’s presence right behind him had frozen him into solid stone. Pa was silent too, but Joe sensed him shift, heard him breathe another of those inevitable sighs. It was several agonizing minutes before Pa seemed finally to get the message and Joe felt his weight lift from the bed.
“Maybe we can talk later. When you’re feeling better?”
Feeling better? Joe’s brow twitched downwards. How was he ever going to feel better about knowing that his father had cheated on his mother? What did Pa expect? A shrug and a laugh? Oh, that’s all right, Pa! It was a long time ago! Of course it’s not important that you betrayed my mother and made me believe my whole life that you were someone honorable, someone I should look up to…
Pa lingered a moment longer beside the bed. The tension mounting in Joe’s body was almost unbearable but he didn’t dare flex a muscle until his father had gone and shut the door behind him. Any slight movement on Joe’s part, Pa would take it as a sign of hope and that would only prolong the agony.
Finally he heard the door click softly shut, and he let out the breath he’d been holding in a long sigh of profound relief. Then he thought about the day ahead and felt sick. Facing Pa and Adam and Hoss! Everything was such a mess! He could no longer look his own father in the eye, and on top of that, he had tried to strangle his brother only two days ago. All over a woman! The memory turned his whole body cold. Even gentle, accommodating Hoss had lost his temper. Then there was the horror and humiliation of everything that had happened with Sophie and Amelia; his foolish, drunken behavior; the nightmare of being knifed and tied up in that wretched trunk!
Joe shuddered at the memory and swallowed hard. He was red-faced and hot just thinking about it. And the final embarrassment of being found, all but naked, helpless at the hands of two women - by Adam, of all people - and driven through town on the back of a buckboard, in nothing more than a pair of drawers and a bed sheet!
That hadn’t been the final degradation though. He realized that now. That would come today, when he would be forced to go through it all again, reliving every burning, shameful moment.
He could hear the murmur of deep voices rumbling beyond his bedroom wall. Obviously his cries had woken Adam too, maybe even Hoss. Did they know about Pa and Sophie, he wondered, frowning? He tried to focus on the sounds from the next room, but he couldn’t make out anything that was being said. He was almost certain any conversation taking place at that moment had to do with the events of the last couple of days. The thought turned his stomach sour.
Eventually the low rumble ceased. Joe lay still in the silence, weary but unwilling to let himself drift back into sleep in case more nightmares crept up on him. Gradually he became aware that the rectangle of his window was lightening. Dawn was creeping closer. In an hour or so it would be daylight and Pa and his brothers would be up and about, and the dreaded inquisition would begin.
Wincing, he sat up, still staring at the window. There was something he could do. He didn’t need to stick around for the post mortem. He’d been planning to leave anyway.
Standing up, his head swam. He steadied himself against the bedpost. Dressing with only one useful arm was harder than he’d imagined. He got into his pants easily enough, but cursed at every button, and beads of sweat broke out and ran down his face and back as he fought with his socks and boots. His belt defeated him entirely. Since he couldn’t put his left arm into a sleeve, he abandoned his shirt and draped his jacket clumsily over his left shoulder. Once he’d got that far, he had to sit for a minute or two to recover strength enough for the next stage.
Someone had brought in his saddlebags from the stable. The drawing of his mother and her letter were gone though. He scowled, annoyed at their disappearance. But the thought of a confrontation with Pa over their whereabouts decided the matter. He stuffed his shirt and belt into the bag with his other belongings and slipped quietly out of his bedroom door.
All he’d done was dress and make his way downstairs and he felt as exhausted as if he’d done a full day’s work and more! He put on his hat and picked up his gun belt. Outside the first fingers of dawn were feeling their way into the lightening sky as he hurried across the yard to the barn.
Where was Joe going?
Adam stared out of his window at the cold, grey light of the approaching morning and at the back of his youngest brother as he made his way across the yard to the barn, saddlebags over his sound shoulder.
Sleep had eluded Adam. His injured arm throbbed, and three times Joe’s heart-stopping cries had torn through the night time stillness as his brother wrestled with his own terrors. Pa hadn’t slept either. Adam could tell that from his red-rimmed, bloodshot eyes and the sunken shadows of his face when he had come into his oldest son’s room, after Joe’s panicked shouts had disturbed them all for the third time. Pa was in torment too, close to crumbling as he related to Adam how Joe had refused even look at him.
And now, Joe was running away. Why else would he be creeping out at first light, bags packed? Adam shook his head in despair and reached for his clothes.
His brother was battling to get a bridle over Cochise’s head with only one hand, muttering in frustration as Cochise, obviously deciding this was some sort of new game, stamped and shifted and tossed his head to make the task doubly difficult. Joe was far too absorbed to notice Adam entering the barn behind him
“Need a hand?”
Joe started at the voice and his head jerked around. He’d abandoned his jacket in the straw and perspiration bedewed his face and body. In the dim light filtering in through the open door, his skin looked grey, his eyes smudged and bruised.
“Hmmm!” said Adam, eyeing the heavy saddle hung over the stall. He folded his arms and leaned against a beam. “I’m fascinated to see how.”
Joe tightened his jaw and turned back to his horse. “Why do you always have to gloat?”
“Actually, I didn’t follow you down here to gloat. I was just curious as to where you were going.”
“Anywhere in particular?”
“No. Just away.” The words ended in a grunt as Joe finally got the bridle over the horse’s ears and leant back against the stall, exhausted.
“Can’t it wait for a day or two? At least until you’re feeling better?”
“No.” Joe wiped sweat from his face with his good arm. “I need to get away now.”
“Why? What’s so urgent?”
Joe didn’t answer. Cochise drew his head back irritably as Joe tried with one hand to tighten the buckles. “Aw, come on Cooch, give me a break!” he exclaimed, wearily. The horse flung his head up and snorted. Joe took a deep breath and closed his eyes.
Adam watched as he resumed his struggle with the uncooperative animal, becoming more exasperated by the second. “You know, if you leave now, she’ll have won.”
“What are you talking about?”
“It’s what she was trying to do. Tear us apart.”
Joe shook his head. “I can’t stay here.”
“Why? Because of Pa and Sophie?”
Again Joe didn’t answer. He swore under his breath at Cochise and slumped back again, against the stall.
“You know, then?” he said, sagging.
“Pa told us, after you stormed off to town the other day. He was worried Sophie would tell you.”
“Yeah, well, Amelia told me.”
“Yeah. So Pa said. Sophie had been planning to though. She told me yesterday. She wanted to pay Pa back for taking Marie away from her.”
Joe turned his head sideways to frown at Adam. “She wouldn’t tell me, even when I asked.”
“No. Turned out she wasn’t as black-hearted as she thought. But Amelia was! They planned all this together. So when Sophie had second thoughts, Amelia stepped in.”
Joe groaned and slumped against Cochise. “Oh God! Amelia!”
“You look terrible, Joe! Why don't you sit down before you fall down?” Adam drew him out of the stall and pushed him down onto a crate.
Joe sank his head into his hand, trembling visibly. “I’ve been such an idiot!”
Adam sat down beside him and gave a bitter laugh. “You don’t have the monopoly on that one, little brother! Love makes fools of us all, as a wise man once said.”
Joe was shivering in violent bursts. Adam retrieved his jacket from the straw and laid it across his bare shoulders. After a prolonged silence, Joe lifted his face.
“What’s going to happen to Sophie?”
“I don’t know. She won’t stay here though.” Adam felt his stomach ball into a hard knot as he thought about her. “We talked... yesterday. She...er … she asked if I could still love her.”
Joe stared at him, grey-faced. “What did you say?”
Adam pushed at some loose straw with the toe of his boot. “I said no.” His mouth twisted; he shook his head. “It wasn’t entirely true though. Even now I know what was really going on, there’s still something about her.” The last few words came out sounding oddly jerky. “What about you?”
“What about me?”
“Do you still love her?” The words felt tight in Adam’s throat.
Joe’s shoulders tensed and his face creased. “I don’t even want to think about her.” His voice cracked as he spoke. “You... you were right about one thing though, Adam. She never loved me.”
“Listen, Joe.” Adam put a hand on his brother’s leg. “Those things I said to you the other day, they... they weren’t true. At least, she never said them the way I implied.”
Joe stared hard at the ground. Adam could see he didn’t trust himself to speak.
“Joe, about Pa and Sophie.”
“Running away’s not going to help, you know.”
Joe swallowed hard. He shook his head. “I can’t stay here!”
“You could at least talk to him.”
Joe ran his hand across his eyes. “I can’t talk to him! I just can’t! I can’t even look at him! He betrayed my mother, Adam. And he lied to us.”
Adam’s brows rose a fraction. “Oh. And you’ve never done anything like that?”
Joe flashed him an accusing glare, then hunched his shoulders and stared back at the ground. “That’s different.”
“Why? Because it’s you and not him?”
“No! Because... well, because he’s always lectured us on being decent and honest. And now we find out he’s been living a lie all these years!”
“Oh come on, Joe! He’s only human. He did what he thought was best.”
“What? By lying to us?”
“He just didn’t tell us. Let’s be honest, it’s not the kind of thing you bring up in conversation with your kids, is it? When you have a wife and children, will you tell them about Sophie?”
Joe scowled and ran his hands through his hair. “It’s not the same!”
Adam regarded him, frowning, and gave a little shake of his head. “You know what, Joe? You set Pa and Marie on such high pedestals, and when they can’t reach your impossible expectations, you throw the blame straight back at them.”
Joe looked taken aback. “I... I don’t!”
“You could try a bit of forgiveness.”
Joe stared at his brother in stunned silence.
“Let he who is without sin...” said Adam.
Joe opened his mouth to make an angry retort, then shut it again, hurt burning in his eyes. Adam raised his hands and let them drop again in exasperation.
“If you had talked to Pa, Joe, you might have found out that he did try and tell Marie.”
Joe wrinkled his brow. “What do you mean?”
“He told us, yesterday. After they moved out here, he realized he couldn’t live with the lie. So he tried to tell her. She wouldn’t let him. She said, he insisted her past wasn’t important, so his wasn’t either. She didn’t want to know.”
“Her past?” Joe’s face was still pale, but his eyes flickered dangerously. “What do you mean, her past? What are you implying, Adam?”
“I’m not implying anything. All right, so nobody’s ever spelled it out for you, Joe, but you’re not a kid. You can work things out for yourself.”
“There’s nothing to work out. I don’t know what you’re talking about! She didn’t have ‘a past’, as you put it.”
“There you go again. Nothing less than perfection will do!”
Joe rose to his feet and spun around to confront his brother, his eyes flaring. “No! Don’t talk about her that way!”
“What are you going to do? Throttle me again?”
Joe’s face twitched. The anger in his eyes melted instantly into pain and he swung back to Cochise’s stall, his head turned away.
“Seems to me, in her heart, Marie knew the truth, and in her heart she forgave him. She loved him enough to see past his mistakes.”
Joe leant his head against Cochise’s flank and said nothing.
“You have the same choice, Joe. You can forgive him, or you can ride away with a grudge in your heart that’ll turn you as bitter as Sophie, in the end. Pa’s the same man he always was. He’s a good man and he’s an honest man. But he’s just a man all the same. He’ll never be perfect, no matter how much you want him to be.”
Joe reached out and ran a shaking hand down Cochise’s neck. Adam waited a long moment, but Joe made no response. Finally Adam rose to his feet and gave a shrug. “Why don’t you think about it?”
He was tired. Very tired. And he had tried. He had promised Pa and he had done his best. But Joe was not like him. Joe would follow his heart not his reason, and his heart was so easily wounded. Joe jumped at life with his guard down, and then looked hurt every time it landed a punch. He never seemed to learn to build his bruises into a wall of hard-earned experience that would protect him whenever life flung its random slings and arrows.
Adam gave his brother one last long appraising look, but Joe didn’t turn or give any indication that he’d heard. Adam sighed and crossed slowly to the door. He was almost there before Joe’s words halted him.
“Help me get this bridle off?”
Adam turned in the doorway. He looked down at the floor, the corners of his mouth twitching faintly. “I thought you could manage.”
Joe shrugged his right shoulder and managed a short, strained laugh. “Darn near dislocated my good arm getting it on in the first place!”
As Adam drew the bridle back over the pony’s head, Joe said with forced casualness, “So, you coming back home to stay then?”
Adam’s eyebrow lifted a fraction. He heaved an exaggerated sigh. “I might just have to, little brother. Seems you can’t manage without me!”
As they reached the barn door, the sun was nosing its way over the mountains, infusing the grey light of dawn with a faint golden flush. Adam raised his eyes to Pa’s bedroom window. The house was still in darkness, and very quiet, but he didn’t need to see his father’s face to know that he was there, watching and waiting.
He put his hand on Joe’s good shoulder and together they stepped out into the pale light of morning.