I hate this.
Logan pulled the reins, causing the bay to trot toward the thin wisp of smoke rising in the distance. In this heat, it was doubtless a cookfire. Jane would have something baking, set for her husband’s return. He sighed. He’d give anything to turn around, go back, pretend none of this had ever happened. The quiet ache that had taken up residence in his gut had left him bitter. Morose. Thinking how that bread would burn, the stew boil out, and the welcome home feast would become so many ashes.
Logan took a deep breath and spurred the horse forward, but the beast felt his reluctance and plodded. The milling cattle in the pens around the house were little black spots in the distance, but the house, the house Boone had held with such pride, a stick and brick gift for his pretty new bride stuck out like a welcoming beacon. This was no daub and wattle shack stuck out on the edge of nowhere; it was a “real house” as Boone called it, with glass windows and a couple of extra rooms all set to absorb a family.
Plans that would never come to fruition now.
If you wanna make God laugh, tell him your plans. It was something very old he’d heard as a child. He’d not understood it then, but ever since life had a way of explaining it to him over and over again. Only he didn’t really feel overmuch like laughing just then.
The horse slowed, and Logan didn’t correct it. He wasn’t in any hurry to deliver the heavy load he would have to place on such slender shoulders. If the horse wanted to draw it out, keep it from happening, maybe the horse had better sense than he did right now.
She was there, framed by four bright white sheets slapping in a dry wind. She was on her knees in her precious garden, just shy of the clothesline, trying to coax just one more of her strange herbs to grow from the desert. It was a losing battle for anyone else, but Jane had a way of coaxing things out of the ground, out of people, that was nothing less than miraculous. Besides, she’d insisted her grandmother had taught her which herbs healed and which ones took away pain and which ones just tasted good on a basted chicken, so it was important to her to have plenty on hand. She would make a forest in the desert if she had to, and Logan knew from three years of knowing her, that she was too stubborn to fail.
The bay heaved under him, and her head flew up from whatever seed she was sweet-talking into life. Her head turned until her gaze locked on him, and he thought he saw a smile on her face, though he was still too far away to see her clearly. Then she stood.
The sunlight behind her outlined her form under the simple dress she wore, turning the thin cloth into a golden halo around her. Her soft hips, long legs and the way she held her back, straight, proud, sure … it was as though an angel had suddenly appeared before him, radiant, splendid, and bold.
Her body softly outlined was trim and tender and everything that a woman should be, as he had always secretly dreamed she would be. His mouth suddenly went dry, and the horse under him paused, coming to a shambling halt as if to allow his rider an extra moment to enjoy the sight.
She moved, and the light behind her changed. Suddenly she was a slim young girl looking for her husband’s return. He cursed himself for looking. He’d loved Jane a long time, ever since his brother had first brought her home to meet him. He’d fought the feelings then, had for years. Why would such an ungodly thing rear its ugly head now of all times? The burden of his news, the horrible debt he was about to discharge should have prevented such passions. Jane was too fine for base desire. Jane was the very definition of grace.
Though truth be told, hers was no fragile beauty, like some he’d seen from the city. Most would dry up and fly away out here, like so much tumbleweed on the prairie. Jane … Jane had a core of iron, a strength that had been tested and retested in the brutal conditions of the high desert. In all this time, she’d proven herself too stubborn or too resilient to be broken. It was the depth of her beauty, the source of it that made her so smart and strong.
It was also Logan’s weakness.
Logan kicked the horse impatiently, wanting to get this over with. As he grew nearer, he could see the moment that she recognized him, the glad anticipation falling like a heavy curtain into concern and confusion. He wasn’t her husband. He wasn’t the one she anticipated. He wasn’t the one she … wanted.
He wasn’t her husband. Boone.
The light went out of her eyes and was replaced with a kind of courtesy, the distant welcome one reserved for a favorite brother-in-law. He hated Boone at that moment, struck with jealousy that such a welcome was spent on a man who would never return home. Even in death, his brother had won the girl. He chastised himself for that thought, but it was an old road he’d never admitted to, retreating into formalities when he was around her. It was no wonder she gave him nothing more than a pleasant greeting now.
The horse pulled alongside her, and she looked up into his eyes, her politeness dissolving into confusion and then a growing horror as she saw the look on Logan’s face. Her lips formed a word, a soundless, soul-wrenching gasp. It was his brother’s name.
“Boone?” The word was strangled as it came from her throat, as though speaking it would answer her question; as if calling on her husband would proclaim his death. In Logan’s clouded face, as he fought his irrational jealousy, she found all the confirmation she needed.
Silently she searched him, pleading, begging with him that it wasn’t so, that the joyful beginning she’d had with Boone hadn’t ended. At that moment, he would have traded his soul to tell her that Boone was fine, that he was coming down the trail, that the world was still a good place. But even if Logan did still have a soul, it wasn’t worth all that. Maybe Boone’s was, maybe his brother should have been here with the cows and the hands and his young wife and Logan should have ridden out across the dry brush and talked to the buyer. Maybe Logan should have been alone on that wandering trail through the mountains with the snakes and bobcats and packs of desperate, armed men.
It should have been him tied over that saddle, a couple of hundred pounds of dead meat trussed up like a sack of grain. Jane might have mourned, but her world would still be in a single piece.
She sank to her knees again, the precious garden forgotten, ignored, neglected. The dry wind lifted the linens as if to wave a final passing. Somewhere, a calf called out for its mother, and Logan slipped down from the saddle and touched her shoulder, light, warm, secure.
It was the touch that broke her reserve. She burst like a tight bubble, tears and denial hot on her breath, “NO, NO, NO, NO,” until it became a single long wail of pain and regret. She gripped him, her slender arms wrapping around him, her fists clawing at his shirt, her tear-stained face buried in the travel-worn and dusty cloth.
She screamed into his shoulder, one long agonizing scream and collapsed in his arms, a sniffling, trembling wreck, all pride and beauty lost in grief. It was like seeing a work of art destroyed in the fire, all melt and twisted remains. Something too precious to lose gone forever.
Jed came running up, at least as well as the old man could. His long grey beard played in the winds to the tempo of the laundry, the confusion in his eyes as he looked to Jane and back at Logan evident. He rushed to her side and bent to help her rise.
Jane had no reason. Logan saw it in her eyes, the desire to sink into the earth, to become so much dust as Boone soon would. If she could have laid down and pulled the earth over her like a blanket, Logan believed she would have done so at that moment. It wasn’t until Hector showed up and the youth was able to aid the other men in getting her to her feet that she rose. After a few steps, it was evident that Jane wasn’t walking, nor was she concerned about returning to the house.
Logan swooped his arm under her legs and pressed her to his chest. Jed ran ahead to help open doors, lost for another occupation, but desperate to keep his lady set and safe. Jane had that effect on people; even the hired hands wanted her to be taken care of.
Hector took Logan’s horse to the barn, and Logan carried her into the cool shade of the house, feeling her sobs wracking in his arms and cursing himself for feeling the way her slender body melded into his, the way her legs draped over his arm, the way her strong back fit so well into the other.
With Jed’s help, he lay her on the bed, the marriage bed she shared with his late brother, and together, they managed to remove her shoes. He would have left then, taken to the ranch hands’ house and had a drink with them, telling them the details, the horrible details that men tell each other over booze and tobacco, but she reached for him, her fingers entwining his.
“Please don’t leave me,” she begged from her bed. Logan was wrong, he’d thought that beauty was lost in grief, but it was still there. She was still the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. Even with her looking so lost and alone, he couldn’t help noticing.
He hooked a chair leg with his boot and pulled to the bed. He sat beside her, fingers entwined and bent over her as she cried until her energy was gone and her will was sapped.
She slept then, her hand still in his. When he would slip away to let her rest, she searched restlessly in her sleep for his hand. Logan breathed deep and took her hand back in his, aware that he would sit there through the day and into the night if he needed to. Staring at his brother’s wife.
The only woman either brother had ever loved.
She lay in a shallow slumber, and for a while, Logan was afraid she would catch a fever, but the day wore on and night was announced by a single cool breeze. Gradually, so long as her hand lay in his, she slept.
It was a beautiful day for a funeral.
It wasn’t fair. Skies shouldn’t be so blue, without so much as a cloud to cover them. Days like today needed the cover of clouds and pouring rain to weep for the lost, not balmy spring breezes, nor the scent of blooming things, trying to rise through the desert ground and grow.
Jane flinched with each clod of dirt that hit the coffin. The quiet scrape of the shovels left her feeling raw. Worn out. She fought rising nausea that had been troubling her all day, praying she wouldn’t be sick here in front of so many friends and acquaintances, knowing they were looking to her to be strong. Capable.
I can do this.
The problem was she couldn’t. Not alone. She’d always counted on Boone to be the one to solve the problems for her, to make the hard decisions. He’d left her to the tending of the house and gardens, telling her it wasn’t her place to worry about cattle and loans, the mortgage on that foolish, costly house she hadn’t wanted or needed. Glass windows! It had been far too much extravagance when they were just starting out, their herd so small.
She stifled a sigh, sniffling a little so they’d think she was crying though she’d lost all her tears days ago when Logan had come riding in with the news, coming to soften the blow before reality had descended in the form of the men who brought her husband’s body home and laid it out in that fancy parlor in the wee hours of the morning. They’d apologized for taking so long. The posse had been dispatched to find those responsible, and when they’d heard the gang was nearby, they’d gone in hot pursuit, leaving Boone under the guard of a single deputy.
Despite all that, they’d failed, returning in defeat to ride back through the night, apologizing for failing her in so many ways. They stood there now, a line of silent men with bowed heads just to her right, faces grim and resolute, Logan among them.
The preacher droned on. The dirt no longer rattled on the coffin lid but fell with quiet thuds. A shift in movement told her that the time had come for prayer, though she had none of those left either. She bowed her head with the rest all the same, closing her eyes, recalling her last words to Boone, the things she’d give anything to take back.
When had I become so shrewish? I shouldn’t have been so caustic, so cruel in my words. It doesn’t matter that I was right. He’d been bragging to anyone that would listen that the sale of the cattle would leave him flush enough to pay off our debts. I told him everyone knew he would be riding back alone, and he’d laughed at me. Called me a child … said no one would believe him, that the sale of a few cows wasn’t worth that much. They didn’t know, he said, about the other … about the man …
Nausea rose again. Around her came a murmured chorus of ‘amen’ signifying the praying part of this was over. A thin voice rose above the desert wind, joined by the rest. Two dozen parishioners singing ‘Amazing Grace’ as though they could drown out the faint music from the saloon over yonder, and the rattle of freight wagons. She hadn’t heard half of what was being said.
Around her people broke formation. The service had ended. Jane shook the hand of the preacher, accepting his quiet sympathy, trying to ignore the liquor on his breath. It was a known fact that the reverend bolstered his courage before funerals, a man of faith who wavered in his own.
Jane lingered at the grave a moment later, nodding and trying to answer to the platitudes of her neighbors, wondering what they would think if they knew she was a fraud, that the husband who’d doted on her had left her aching and frustrated more often than not. He’d treated her as though she hadn’t the sense she was born with, that she could be no help to him beyond the weeds she grew and even that had been fairly meaningless to him. He’d pat her on the head and praise her for her accomplishments without looking at her directly, disappointed that she hadn’t presented him with a son to carry on his name in the three years they’d been married.
I had less value to him than the mare he rode. At least she presented him with a healthy foal every year. What had I ever given him other than a home to return to and a warm meal at the end of the day?
Yet she’d loved him. Loved him desperately once, before the desert had blown even that away. When Logan had come to tell her the news, she’d realized at that moment just how much she’d lost. Not just the man she’d married, but the marriage they could have had if she’d only tried harder, done more to make him proud.
Given him a child.
She touched her stomach lightly as she turned away from the fresh-turned earth, burying that desire alongside the dead husband in the dirt. Too late now for that as well. All she had left to her was a ranch mortgaged to the hilt, a couple of dozen heifers with new calves, and the tender seedlings she’d planted only last week.
She heard her name, turned expecting one more man saying the right words of commiseration and grief, while his eyes told another story already. She’d seen that already several times in the last days, the awkward ranchers, the gangly cowboys, each mouthing the right words while asking silently the same questions. When would she be ready to move on? Would she consider their suit when she did?
She hated the West in those moments, the scarcity of women making her something of a scarce commodity of more value than those dratted cows.
But it was Logan who spoke. Logan who looked at her with eyes filled with sorrow and tragedy reminding her that here was someone who truly grieved, who’d lost a brother which was dearer she supposed than even a husband could be, so much grief lay in those depths. He stood, hat in hand, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, awkward in the stiff church clothes she’d never seen him in before today. “If there’s anything I can do …”
“You’ve already done so much …”
There seemed little to say beyond that though each lingered all the same. She recalled the rough feel of his hand, calloused and strong, in hers that morning when she woke. The way he’d taken charge of things. It had been him who’d sent for Emily, somehow knowing who would help most. She’d arrived as they brought Boone in. In all the chaos, Logan had disappeared. She’d not seen him until now.
“All the same … I think we should talk.”
Jane blinked, staring up at the bared head, the way Logan’s dark hair moved in the wind. It was too long; he had no wife to cut it. She almost reached up a hand to brush the strands out of his eyes and stopped herself, surprised by the intimacy of the gesture. Instead, she touched her own hair, needing something to do with her outstretched fingers. She tucked a strand of her honey blonde hair back under the bonnet it had escaped from, trying to force a smile with trembling lips as she realized that he might want it now, the inheritance that had been given to Boone, but by right should be kept in the Reeves family. Though with the mortgage all that might be moot now.
“Not that. The ranch is yours if you’re worried about it.”
The way he said it startled her. He didn’t know then, about the debts. How much his brother owed.
“You want to talk about … what happened …” she said with sudden realization. They hadn’t told her much. The sheriff had asked why her husband had been traveling so far alone. She’d been loath to admit the truth, how he’d taken the money from the sale of the cattle and was headed to Flagstaff, to meet a man there over some investment that would make them rich beyond their wildest dreams. She’d been evasive, embarrassed that he’d been taken in. That he’d been taken …
She bit back a sob, surprised that she still had tears after all. “I’m sorry.”
“I’m the one who should be apologizing. I’m being thoughtless, bringing this up like this to you now …” Logan murmured, his blue eyes seeming to have grown darker, dark as a stormy sky as he regarded her now.
“Call on me day after tomorrow. It would help to … to know,” she said and turned away as someone called her name.
She felt his eyes on her as she turned to greet Emily, who swept her up in such a fierce embrace, that it became near impossible to breathe.
“Oh please … don’t. I fear I might be ill …” she said, recoiling from the touch as nausea rose once again. For a moment, she thought she might have to escape to the privy behind the church lest she embarrass herself.
“Take a deep breath,” Emily advised, one arm coming around her waist, guiding her away from the rest who were beginning the slow migration to horses and wagons, waiting to take them back to the house and the potluck that would be assembled within minutes of arrival. It seemed the entire town had turned out, but then funerals were a chance to socialize, something the residents of Three Rivers didn’t get much of, especially during the months where calving dominated their lives.
“I don’t know what’s come over me …”
“I expect that anyone going through what you have so far today would be somewhat sick to their stomach. All I can say is that it will all be over soon enough. A few more smiles, a handful of those who still haven’t expressed their sympathy, and you will have done your duty and can send them all home.”
A genuine smile tugged at Jane’s lips, the first in forever. “I expect that would be considered scandalous, as good as it sounds. Let them have their meal, and send off Boone with full stomachs and enough gossip to feed the rumor mills for a year. They came all this way …”
“It wasn’t so far,” Emily protested though they both knew it to be a lie. The ranches were vast in this part of Arizona territory. A good many had come a fair piece just to get there.
And to talk about what led to Boone’s demise.
“They need to talk about … it,” Jane said softly, and Emily nodded. The bandits had grown bold. Boone’s death was not the first, and many feared it would not be the last either.
Jane lifted her head and saw Hector and Jed waiting for her at the wagon, their faces somber. Hector’s eyes were red like he’d been crying. Jed’s face wore that perpetual frown that it had for months now. She suspected that he knew how precarious the ranch was financially and worried about his own future now that the boss was gone. Who else would hire a man of his age?
“Ride with me?” she asked Emily impulsively, thankful when the younger girl nodded, her bright eyes filling with sympathetic tears as she paused to hug her again before climbing aboard the tall wagon.
“It will be all right,” she said, from halfway up, her head tilted toward hers, dark bonnet having fallen off her dark hair and hanging by the strings down her slender back. She had no idea the picture she made there or the way that Hector’s interest shifted from the funeral to the girl who moved gracefully the rest of the way up and settled onto the seat, leaving room enough for Jane to join her there.
For a moment, Jane was startled and only just kept from smiling, amused at the obvious worship she saw in Hector’s eyes as he turned at Jed’s nudge to lend her a hand up to her seat. Jane reached up to pull herself into the wagon and stopped.
The nausea which had been threatening all day didn’t like the sudden movement. Her stomach heaved and she fled, not making it to the privy but losing it for all the world to see, throwing up directly into the bushes planted over the grave of one Maudie Miller, made worse by the fact that when she lifted her head there was her dead husband’s brother Logan, standing right there in front of her, his eyes sympathetic and filled with something else she couldn’t define at all.
“I can’t believe I did that.” Jane leaned back, one arm over her head to block out the setting rays of the sun. A cool breeze tugged at her sleeve, promising a chill night, something to be welcomed after the heat of the day.
“Let it go,” Emily advised. Jane heard her moving about on the porch, the quiet clink of silverware against a china plate. The soft thud of the glass set near to her other hand.
“Emily, I can’t eat a thing!” Jane protested as the sounds met with the smell of fried chicken.
“In your condition, I should think you ought to at least try. You’ve barely touched a mouthful all day,” Emily advised, sitting down opposite her friend on the hewn chair opposite.
Jane sat back and stared at her friend, not seeing her, nor even the porch so carefully framed and full of living things in flowerboxes and bright Mexican pottery. “Condition?” she repeated the word stupidly.
“You’re with child, aren’t you?” Emily asked softly, her eyes gentle.
Jane touched her stomach, fine now really, though she’d been ill most of the morning. And the morning before that one as well.
She didn’t know what to say. Until this moment, she’d never even considered it. She tried to think back to that fateful morning when Boone left. How much of her irritation that day and the argument that followed had risen because she hadn’t been feeling herself? She asked herself now, just how long it had been since she had been normal and swallowed hard as the truth hit her.
“What will I do?”
“You’re not pleased?” Emily asked, surprised, for she knew full well Jane’s heartbreak at being unable to conceive.
“I am … but I’m saddened, for Boone would have loved …” She swallowed hard, unable to finish the thought out loud. Boone would have loved a child, would have been overjoyed at the news. If she hadn’t been so caught up in worries over money, over this investment, she might have noticed, might have told him.
His death might not have happened.
“It’s not your fault,” Emily said as though reading her mind. “As for what you’re going to do, it’s quite simple actually. You’re going to eat your dinner because you need to be strong to take care of that little one if such is the case. And after that, you’re going to dig your heels in and survive because that’s what women do.”
Jane laughed. “So speaks the girl who is near half a dozen years younger than I, and never married.”
Emily drew herself up. “But I know more than you think. I was born and bred in the Territory. You were not, coming out here to marry. You never saw Arizona Territory before your wedding day.”
“Oh, Emily, I don’t mean to offend, and I’m sorry if I have!” Jane got up to clasp her friend’s hands, pulling her to her feet so that she could hug the girl until the angry frown left her face. “In truth, I never even heard the word ‘Arizona’ before I answered that letter. Had my father not known Mr. Reeves or his two sons personally, I admit I would never have agreed to such an unorthodox arrangement. I am not so different from so many mail order brides, I suppose.”
“There is no shame in it,” Emily reminded her as she drew back, but she was smiling as she spoke. “My mother answered such an advertisement and tells us daily that she is ever so thankful that she did. She loves Arizona with all her heart.”
“She loves your father more, and it dazzles her. I sometimes wonder why I came to such a barren place,” Jane said, glancing over the dusty ground that led to barns and corrals.
“There is life aplenty; you only need to look,” Emily said immediately for this was an old argument. Emily had been her first friend, the daughter of their nearest neighbor. She loved the desert plains that were her home and could not understand why anyone else could feel differently about it.
“There is life in those hills too,” she said with a glance toward the distant mountains where it was thought the bandits hid out. She had heard plenty about that too at the funeral today, though many had tried to shield her from their words.
Emily drew her back to her chair, pushing her firmly on the shoulders until she sat. “They will not come here,” she said crisply, putting the plate into Jane’s hands. “You must put that aside. What happened is a terrible tragedy, but truly only a thing that happened by chance. It could have been any man on the road to Flagstaff that they accosted. That Boone died is horrifying, but an accident. I can’t think anyone intended for things to go so far. In all of the thefts thus far, the victims lived …”
Jane bit her lip, staring down at the chicken through a sheen of tears. “I expect he fought them somehow. Boone was like that, to act impulsively. But then he could not have known …” Her gaze fell to her waist, still trim, though if her suspicions were right, it would not be the case for long. She sighed once and drew herself up. “But you’re right; I need to eat. I don’t know how you thought to save me some chicken. Mrs. Peale brought it, didn’t she—”
A shout drew their attention, a figure arriving on horseback, another horse behind. Both women rose, the plate forgotten, falling and shattering on the floor of the porch, one of the ranch dogs taking the opportunity to grab it, before running out to greet the rider, comically trying in vain to back without letting go of its prize.
“Who … Emily, isn’t that Pete from out at your place?”
The rider skidded to a halt in front of the porch. “Miss Ralston, you’re wanted at home. Your mama took a fall and is needing you to tend to the little ones. The doc’s on the way out to set her arm.”
Emily paled. “It’s broken? Poor Mama …” she started for the second horse, then hesitated, looking back at Jane uncertainly.
“Go,” Jane responded, knowing the struggle in her friend’s eyes. Emily had been staying with Jane since the news had come, even though her work at home had to be piling up. Emily did the sewing for the household, but also managed the women who wove cloth from the sheep they raised, which they sold as far away as California. “I shall be absolutely fine here. I have Hector and Jed, same as always. I’ll pack your things and have one of them come over later. Tell your mama that I’m thinking of her and praying she will heal quickly.”
Emily nodded and turned her horse with the skill of one long accustomed to the saddle, riding astride in the way of any man despite her skirts. With a wave and a shout, the girl was gone.
Jane watched her go and turned, her foot hitting a piece of crockery, the remains of the plate. A glance showed her the dog, half-hidden under the parked wagon, chewing on his prize.
“Rascal, you numbskull, that was the last piece!” she shouted and went to fetch the broom, pausing at the doorway to the empty house and trying to imagine the sound of a child’s laughter, of tiny footsteps in the hall. Her hand went to her stomach again, and for the first time, she smiled, feeling at peace.
Oddly enough, the fantasy didn’t stop there. She thought of a heavier step. The bulk of a man filling the doorway behind her. Someone to partner with her in whatever came next.
She gasped at the whisper of the name within her mind, then called herself every kind of fool for thinking it. He had been there for her. Had shown her kindness today. That was it. Nothing more.
“I must be hungrier than I realized, to be thinking such things,” she muttered half under her breath and went to search for the broom. She’d only just buried her husband today. Even if they hadn’t really gotten along all that well, and they certainly hadn’t enjoyed the passion she saw between some couples, they’d at least been friends.
The last thing she should be doing was thinking about anyone, least of all her brother-in-law, in any kind of romantic way. She swept up the china savagely, throwing the pieces into the trash pail with more force than necessary, trying to ignore the fact that it wasn’t the first time she’d thought about Logan Reeves in such a way.
“A Blooming Garden Full of Love” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Jane Reeves has just found out that her husband was shot dead by some dangerous bandits. Her life has definitely not been a fairytale so far, but she had found a man to respect her and share the same values. As the ranch is mortgaged to the hilt, and being rather desperate, she accepts Logan’s, her husband’s brother’s proposal without second thoughts. Soon enough though, her decision to get married to a familiar stranger will give her sleepless nights. Can she finally live happily ever after and create the family she craves for?
Logan Reeves has always looked up to his older brother and slightly envied him for both his professional and personal achievements. Now, he feels like he has betrayed him in the worst way possible. Not only did he think about it, but now he is married to his brother’s wife. He has been in love with her from the very first moment he set his eyes on her, but will he be able to deal with all the challenging responsibilities he has committed himself to?
Even though they have both agreed that this is a marriage of convenience, life will once again catch them off guard. An unexpected event will help them understand and confess their true feelings to each other. They won’t survive apart, but can they really survive together? Could love bloom under the pressure of mourning and revenge?
“A Blooming Garden Full of Love” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.