The walk of ten blocks home at the end of a busy Friday afternoon was lengthy enough, yet pleasant enough that Julianne Davidson was left with plenty of time to think.
Not of the school children she had just released into the warmth and color of a burgeoning Virginia April spring. Not of the lesson schedule she must work on later this evening, in preparation for the upcoming week. Nor even whether she truly wanted to step out with Mr. Lancaster to attend Sunday services at church and the box social after.
For some reason, she could think only of chocolate bonbons.
Rich, smooth little globes bursting with flavor and nestled into fluted paper, inside a cunning box. Sometimes solid, sometimes filled with strawberry cream or a sweet red cherry or jam.
Indescribable lushness to melt upon the tongue, to swallow, to beg for more.
She had tasted such luxury only once or twice in her lifetime.
Why, then, this craving now?
Perhaps it was because inside her reticule rested a month’s salary, the sum total of forty dollars, paid today for the past March of 1890, and she was unlikely to see more than a trifle of it.
No deep, dark mystery there. She wanted what couldn’t be had because she was poor. And growing poorer. Every cent she was allowed to keep paid for only the most necessary of items. Never any sinful luxury, such as a new ostrich feather for her hat whether needed or not, or supple red dancing slippers just to enjoy, or—or chocolate bonbons.
Julianne, trudging along in her perfectly serviceable straw hat (except for the tear in its brim) and her perfectly serviceable, blue-striped cotton dress (except for the visible wear on its seat and hem) and her perfectly serviceable, black buttoned boots (except for a crater the size of Tiger Leaping Gorge abraded into each sole), sighed.
She seemed to be sighing a lot these days. Was it truly in her nature to feel so melancholy? Or might it possibly be due to the circumstances in which she found herself and the impossibility of attempting to extricate herself?
“H’lo, Miss Davidson!” “G’day, Miss Davidson!”
Two young urchins from her second-grade class went skimming by on their way to fun and frolic. Barefoot, she noticed, with their good school boots tied together by both laces and flung over small lanky shoulders. Probably under orders to do so by practical parents.
“Yes, Willie, you and Joe have yourselves a nice weekend. And be careful!” she called after their retreating forms.
Had she ever felt so happy-go-lucky as that pair? Ever? She couldn’t remember such a sense of giddiness, of light-heartedness, even as a child. And here she was, a fully mature, responsible adult at the ripe old age of twenty-three, and no better off.
What and how had she missed so much from life?
She had passed through the nicer section of Green Haven, where bluebells grew wild and flowering almond and bridal wreath were already beginning to display their colors proudly for all to see. Now, the closer she drew to home, the shabbier her neighborhood became. Uncared for and unkempt, any picket fence still standing needed to be whitewashed, and bushes needed to be trimmed. Not to mention the occasional shutter missing from this house or that, or the weeds overgrowing almost every tatty flagstone walk.
Any item needing to be restored, repaired, or replaced, left long enough, becomes so familiar as to be considered just another part of the landscape and overlooked.
Not just items. Human beings, as well. Julianne might be simply another leaning gate post or a porch railing set askew for all the notice she received. Perhaps her frustration today, accumulating for months and finally working itself free, was partly the result of her spinsterhood, with no prospects of a husband and family in sight.
Mostly it was the result of her own family.
“About time you got home,” complained her mother from the parlor, where she sat sipping lemonade and cooling herself by sweeping the remnants of an ivory-handled fan to and fro. “You think I got all day to sit around, waitin’ till you finally come rollin’ in with my money?”
Her money? Her money!!!
Julianne did a slow boil, but she managed to hold her temper in check. “I’m sorry, Mama. It was later than usual when I left the schoolhouse because one of the students—”
“Never mind.” Kate Davidson’s pudgy hand waved aside any explanation. “Just give it over.”
Being used to obeying her elders, she complied. Slowly and reluctantly, she removed the neatly folded bills from her reticule. Her mother, eagerly accepting, then counting, frowned.
“Where’s the rest of it?”
“I’m keeping some back.”
The frown deepened. “Julie, your papa and I have got bills to pay. And there ain’t but hardly any food in this house. You owe me every penny, so please don’t go holdin’ out.”
Once, as a child, Julianne had walked in fear of her mother’s scowl and her father’s disfavor. She was the eldest of eight; she must lead by example, follow orders, offer neither argument nor discourtesy, keep her voice lowered and her manner mild. In short, behave as the perfect southern lady. Butter shouldn’t melt in her mouth. And on and on with platitudes. She had heard them all.
Deliberately she hardened her demeanor. “Mama, my wardrobe is falling apart. As the headmistress at Green Haven’s school, I must keep up appearances. I simply must purchase another dress to augment what I have.”
Kate responded in her usual way: first a pout, then a whine, then umbrage. “You got young’uns to help provide for, Missy. Kinda forgettin’ your responsibilities, ain’tcha?”
The unfairness of that charge took Julianne’s breath away, and she gasped. “Responsibilities!
I have more than repaid any responsibilities that you mistakenly claim I have. And I have no young’uns, Mama. My siblings are your children, remember?”
Furious, she stormed off to the one small room she shared with her sister, Helen, younger by only a year, and most like her in appearance and personality. For a few minutes, she paced the few steps from one wall to the other in an attempt to calm her racing heart and ease her rattled nerves.
She was deeply upset by any confrontation, especially when it came to dealing with either of her parents. “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!” she could just hear her mother quoting. Again, with absolute unfairness and injustice.
Kate Davidson seemed capable of little more than puttering around the house and producing children. Able Davidson seemed capable of little more than puttering at part-time jobs and drinking up most of whatever pay he received as well as making those children. Somehow, the couple had achieved a great deal of success at that scriptural decree: Be fruitful and multiply.
The responsibilities for this family, the dereliction of which her mother had accused her, had laid heavily on Julianne’s shoulders since she had been old enough to heat milk in a bottle for the newest baby. She was tired of hefting the burden. Having reluctantly devoted some ten years of her life to this cause, she was ready to put all of it aside and strike out on her own. Hopefully for greener pastures, far, far away from here.
“Did you give her every last penny?” Helen, still drying her freshly washed hands with a dish towel, came quietly into the room. “She says you owe it to her.”
“Oh, stuff and nonsense!” Julianne burst out, which was about the full extent of her vocabulary for cursing. “Do I owe her my life’s blood, too? Do I owe her the last breath in my body until the day she dies?”
“Hush,” warned her sister, with a quick glance at the closed door. “You know she has the hearing of a bat.”
“And is one, too.” Still grumbling, Julianne plumped down on the only chair. “Helen, I’m stifling in this house. I dislike my own parents, and I despise my existence. I must escape, and soon, or I declare I shall lose the last remnant of my sanity.”
Helen, seating herself on the foot of the bed opposite, looked deeply concerned. “Oh, Julie, you don’t mean that.”
“I do. I do, indeed. And, other than you, my dear, I’m not sure I’m overly fond of the remaining six members of this ragtag group. Who are undoubtedly, right at this minute, out inflicting murder and mayhem upon an unsuspecting populace.”
“Well—partially correct. The older boys are probably doing just that—somewhere in the neighborhood, at any rate. Baby Walter is sound asleep.”
“Hmmmph. One out of six is innocent. Thus far.” Clearly Julianne was upset, frustrated, and just plain mad. “Accept the fact, Helen. The rest of the clan to whom we are unfortunately related are out-and-out hooligans. I wouldn’t be surprised to see every one of them in jail at some time in the future.”
The two sisters were amazingly alike in appearance, although, with Julianne, every detail seemed slightly stronger and additionally intense. Her coloring presented further contrast, her hair a darker curlier brown, her eyes warm chestnut, her complexion prone to show the fluctuations of emotion. A bit taller, a bit fuller-figured, a bit more adventurous and take-charge, Julianne was clearly not only the elder but the stauncher, the leader in any undertaking.
Helen, by comparison, seemed like a somewhat softer, faintly faded version, with long wavy hair the hue of rosewood and hazel green eyes. While Julianne had finished her schooling at an early age, achieved a teaching certificate, and gone on to employment with the Green Haven School District, quieter, retiring Helen, who so rarely spoke up for herself on any issue but let her sister take charge, had become the mainstay of the Davidson household.
Laundry, cooking, cleaning, shopping—all the tasks for which their mother had proven to be so inept—had been turned over to her hands and her authority.
Both very pretty, each different from the other. But with far too much responsibility for the two of them and too many limitations. No enjoyment of life, no social activities, no real fun as young people crave. Neither saw a satisfying future for themselves in their current situation. Neither was quite sure how to go about making a change.
Suddenly, Julianne turned to the battered wooden desk at her back, retrieving a folded newspaper from the very bottom of its drawer to hand across to her sister.
Helen glanced down. “Yes?”
Leaning forward, Julianne pointed to one column, where an advertisement was circled in black pencil lead. “There. Read that. Tell me what you think.”
Several minutes passed by while a little bedside clock ticked away, and one of the younger boys slammed the back door, running either inside or out.
“I see that it’s someone seeking a mail order bride. Is there a point to this?”
“Absolutely.” Julianne drew in such a deep breath that her stays creaked in protest. “I intend to send a reply, Helen. It is way past time for me to leave this horrible house behind and make a new life for myself, and this will be the way to do it. Too many times have I been called ‘one of the poor white trash Davidson clan,’ and I plan to leave it behind forever.”
“Julie.” Her sister’s goldy-green eyes widened and rounded. “Surely you can’t mean to follow such a—such an unladylike, improper course? Why, you have no idea what sort of man you’d be getting. What if you arrived at this place he resides, wherever it is, and he was utterly unspeakable? Fat, and ugly, and spitting tobacco juice?”
She shrugged. “Well, then I suppose I should nicely refuse his proposal and seek another outlet. And I’ve already written to the matrimonial bureau for particulars. My prospective spouse is named Jesse Andrews, he is twenty-eight years old, and he owns a cattle ranch in Maplewood, Montana. He is a widower, poor man, with a six-year-old daughter named Carolyn. No other details, I’m afraid, but I am planning to correspond with him directly.”
“A child! He has a child? You can’t possibly mean to take on that responsibility, Ju. Why, you’d surely be no better off than being here at home.”
“Oh, yes, I would. I’d be my own person, without having to support all these hangers-on till the end of my days. I deserve more than that, Nell. I deserve a decent future. And I believe I will find it with this man, at his ranch in Montana.”
Disappointment and agitation crossed the younger girl’s sensitive features, and her fingers twisted to curl up the newspaper’s edge. “Oh, Julie. Please don’t say that. If you leave, what—
w-w-what will I do without you?”
“Nell, dear! Why would I leave you behind?” Concerned, Julianne hastily moved to sit beside her sister, wrapping one arm around her waist in sympathy and support. “Look here; I’ve saved you one for yourself.”
The same classified section, the same agency, a similar notice. This one listed a Stanley Andrews, also from Maplewood. Musing over the information, Helen turned slightly. “Brothers, do you think?”
“I’d say it’s very possible. And wouldn’t that be the ideal solution? Both of us together, sisters marrying brothers, right there in the same neighborhood? Think of it—perfect! Would you like to compose a letter later this evening and find out?”
An unexpected fierceness took hold of Helen’s voice and gave it an unusual shake. “I want to leave here just as much as you do, Julianne. I’m a-wearied of all the chores I do, as if this is my own house to run, for little or no thanks. I’ll follow your suggestion, and you, wherever you go. God willing, things will turn out all right.”
Smiling tenderly, slightly teary-eyed, Julianne nodded. “Oh, honey. God willing, for sure.”
“Papa, kin you buy me a peppermint stick when we git to town?”
Jesse Cartwright Andrews turned to look up from checking the harness of his team of Belgians. “You just cravin’ somethin’ sweet, there, girl?”
“I can’t live another minute without it,” she solemnly affirmed.
“Don’t rightly know, sugar. Gotta see do I have a spare penny or two in my pocket.” Climbing up onto the buckboard’s seat and straightening the reins, he glanced down at his small daughter’s head. A cap of hair so fair and unruly, just like his own—the color of wheat at harvest time. “Think you’ve earned it by your chores this week, mayhap?”
“Oh, for sure, Papa.” Carolyn nodded. “I done brought in the eggs every day—even from that nasty ole speckled hen that always nips me. And I swept up the floors, just like Mrs. Boston told me.”
“Ahuh. And you got the list of things she needs, right?”
“Yep.” She grinned up at him, the grin exposing a space from her missing front tooth, and Jesse’s heart turned over in his breast with absolute, overwhelming love for this child. “She ’specially asked for raisins, Papa.”
“Fair enough. Reckon that’s do-able.”
During the ride into Maplewood, the six-year-old kept up a running line of chatter to which he listened with only half an ear and responded infrequently with the usual male grunt that passes for conversation. Mentally he was checking off or adding items to his own list: purchase a box of ten-penny nails and a new hacksaw at the hardware store; stop by the feed and grain for a gunny sack of alfalfa seed mix for the north pasture; pick up some unmentionables and stockings for his rambunctious daughter at The Fine Seam Women’s Dress Shop.
She would squawk at that, he knew. Not only was Miss Carolyn of determined, independent mind, but he had, admittedly, allowed her such freedom of expression. For one thing, as a peaceable man, he preferred not to cross the will of his darling little tyrant unless it were absolutely necessary. For another, in this motherless household, he had been left too helpless and uninformed as to just how a girl child ought to be raised.
Taking firm control right from the start would have been the ideal solution, but every time he looked at that stubborn little face and into those infinite blue eyes that mirrored his own, he was lost. Carolyn held his whole being tightly in her hand; clearly, she enjoyed playing dictator.
Thus, finally feeling too overwhelmed, he had hired a housekeeper to try bringing Carolyn back in line for the distaff side of life. He hoped that Mrs. Rachel Boston would be able to teach the girl all those details that a female would usually learn at her mama’s knee if that mama hadn’t died in childbirth. Most of all, he was hoping for a transformation to get his daughter out of britches and into a dress.
“Your hairdo is lookin’ good,” he ventured now. “How long you reckon them braids will be held together?”
“Prob’ly forever,” she answered glumly, “unless I go to work with scissors first. Mrs. Boston says she used bob wire to fasten everything in place, and it sure feels like it, Papa.”
“Don’t s’pose there’s any point buyin’ you some ribbons or bows, then.”
One of the buckboard’s wheels ran afoul a rut, and Carolyn jounced a bit. She gave him a look of disgust. “Them kinda folderol things? Nope. But you could get me a slingshot.”
Jesse snorted. “No, thanks. First thing I know, you’d be takin’ potshots at your paw just to get my attention. You’re gonna haveta start playin’ with dolls one of these days and start actin’ like a girl.”
“Dolls!” She was outraged. “Dolls! Papa, can’tcha even—”
“Oh, don’t get me started, ladybug. I got no plan for arguin’ on the way to town. Coulda had me a nice quiet ride, y’ know, if you’d but stayed home like I wanted. But, no. You wheedled and wheedled. So, now, hush up a bit and lemme concentrate. Got stuff goin’ on in my head that I gotta set straight.”
One of which was his stop at the post office for accumulated mail.
Nothing out of the ordinary there. With the idea of rural mail delivery being far into the future, it behooved residents to provide their own service. Packages and correspondence were brought by coach or train to each town’s designated drop-off branch, where items were sorted and stored for an individual’s collection. Every time Jesse hitched up for a trip to Maplewood, he would fetch whatever bundle of envelopes might be waiting for him.
Today was different. He was hoping to find responses to the ad he had placed with a matrimonial bureau and had hardly slept last night for thinking about possibilities.
Jesse wasn’t so much concerned about seeking a wife for himself. He had, after all, lived without the companionship of a woman for six years. Somehow, someway, he’d managed to muddle through all right. Mrs. Boston took right good care of him when it came to meals and clean duds and a house that was kept orderly.
When it came to sharing his life and his bed with a sightly gal, that was a different matter. He’d pretty much given up on that pipe dream.
What he wanted—what he needed—was a mother for this little scamp sitting beside him, singing something tuneless and monotonous, over and over. Mrs. Boston did her best, but what with all the chores involved in managing a household, she could sometimes barely keep up with the child.
Jesse completely understood. He had struggled, all on his own, with trying to care for a crying baby while at the same time trying to run his ranch. He looked back on that time, prior to his housekeeper’s advent, with a sense of disbelief and horror, wondering how he and his tiny daughter had survived. Nights of little sleep and worried pacing, days of unending wet diapers and curdled milk and colic. It was a wonder he’d kept his sanity.
“Papa, you drove right past Meacham’s Store!” Carolyn burst out. “Ain’t we goin’ there a’tall?”
“Yeah. Kinda wanted to make it our last stop. That okay by you?”
Casting a glance back over her shoulder, she was dubious. “I guess. I guess I can eat my peppermint on the way home.”
“Sure. And, just to make sure you get enough sweetness, Miss C., I’ll buy you two sticks.”
Precocious. The youngster was downright precocious, and such behavior was all his fault. He’d given in to Carolyn too many times, just to have peace in his house, and look how she’d taken advantage of a weak-willed father! Funny, he could, if necessary, take a strip off the hide of any adult male who crossed his wishes, but this little forty-pound princess-in-waiting had him kerflummoxed.
Dressed in her boy’s trousers rolled up to the knee, a pair of ugly brown boots and stockings rolled down to the ankles, and a flannel shirt that had seen better days under a threadbare coat, she was humming and swinging her short legs back and forth. “Hey, Matthew!” she called out to someone on the street as the wagon wheeled past.
“You know him, Papa. Matthew is the son of Mr. Hawkins, at the livery.”
Naturally, it would be the livery. He might have known. The only thing Carolyn liked as much as—or more than—shadowing her parent in his outdoor work was every horse that had ever been born.
At the age of four, she had climbed onto a fence rail in order to sprawl across the broad back of Buster, a big bay gelding who, to his credit, didn’t even shy at this strange little fey creature clinging to his saddle. At the age of five, she had somehow gotten herself lodged onto the surrey seat—hitched up by Jesse for a trip to town—grabbed the reins, and set the placid mare, Dolly, off at a trot down the lane.
Rescue from these two momentous events, and others not so momentous, had come in the nick of time. He shuddered to think what her next exploit might be. She was like a young wolverine—fierce, strong, and swift as quicksilver.
Braking the buckboard, Jesse clambered down, for some reason feeling every one of his twenty-eight years on this crisp, cool April day. He reached up for his daughter, expecting—and, of course, receiving—her usual screech of protest.
“Leave me here, Papa. I’ll keep an eye on the team.”
“No, I ain’t leavin’ you here by yourself. And the team doesn’t need any eye-keepin’. C’mon, stand up and let’s get this over with.”
It took him all of five minutes to retrieve mail from his post office box and stuff everything into a leather pouch brought especially for that purpose. It felt like an hour, what with Carolyn scuffing her boots along with every step, tapping her fingers on the doorframe and the counter, generally making a nuisance of herself when he paused to greet several passersby.
She traipsed along beside him for the rest of his errands to the feed and grain and the hardware store, putting up the anticipated fuss over his purchases of her feminine togs at the ladies’ shop. However, she was aware enough of her surroundings to flutter her lashes at and offer a gap-toothed grin for the proprietor, who had happily just made a substantial sale.
“Oh, she’s a charmer, that one,” gushed Mrs. Bellwood.
“A charmer, huh?” Jesse glanced around, wondering if some other customer had just entered. However, he did not dispute that dubious claim. He merely gave the child a stern look that meant business: Behave yourself or else.
“Absolutely. You watch out for her in another ten years, Mr. Andrews. She’ll be breaking boys’ hearts right and left.”
“Most likely their arms and legs,” he muttered.
Fortunately, Mrs. Bellwood, who was slightly hard of hearing, didn’t catch that remark. Both Andrews gave her a smile, picked up their parcels, and departed.
The General Store presented a far more interesting proposition. While Jesse went straight to the counter and spoke to Bill Meacham about placing his order, Carolyn was left free to wander the aisles. She browsed through and experimented with anything connected to ranching, tried balancing atop a full-sized sawhorse, dug into a galvanized pail holding miscellaneous metal parts, and squeezed herself entirely inside a large portmanteau open for display.
Although Mr. Meacham, adept at keeping one eye on customers and one on merchandise, was distracted by putting together the items from Jesse’s list, he watched askance and displeased. “That young’un of yours is runnin’ a mite wild, ain’t she, Jess?”
“Huh?” The rancher turned, only to catch a glimpse of Carolyn at her latest trick: attempting to climb one of the ladders to reach a stuffed owl mounted on the wall above her head. “Oh, fire and brimstone!” Stomping away, he grabbed the child around her waist, slung her over one hip like a sack of grain, and returned to deal with his purchases.
After he had plopped her unceremoniously down upon a stack of horse blankets.
“You stay there till I’m ready to go,” he hissed, embarrassed. “Or I’ll for sure be tannin’ your hide when we get home.”
An empty threat, both knew. Jesse had never once raised a hand to his daughter. Hardly ever raised his voice, for that matter.
With a sigh and a pout of dejection intended to once again win him over, she slumped down in silence and began to unplait her braids.
“There, I think that’ll be it, Bill,” Jesse finally said after looking over his list.
Carolyn, hair now hanging loose and wavy around her shoulders, gave her father a sweet smile. “And the peppermint, Papa. Don’t forget my peppermint sticks.”
They left with a paper sack stuffed with not one, not two, but a whole fistful of the desired treat. Jesse had caved once more.
It took him several trips back and forth between wagon and store to load up his supplies. Finally, settled, he climbed aboard beside the devil-child he was forced to call his own, and they started home. It was a relief to be on their way again to the privacy of the Falcon Ridge, since taking her out in public anymore had gotten to be like leashing a jungle tiger for some long-denied promenade.
“You sure enough do grind my gizzard,” he muttered, once out of town. “How’s come you have to act so bad and make me look like some poor dumb hayseed that don’t know how to raise a kid?”
She was sucking pensively on the candy, swinging her legs back and forth like a circus performer. “Do you?”
Ouch. He almost winced with the force of that invisible innocent blow. She couldn’t be aware of just how deeply the stab wound cut—almost to his vital organs.
Hadn’t he done the absolute best he could for her during these crucial childhood years, at much sacrifice to his own health and sanity? It was hardly his fault that Maura had died of childbed fever only two days after bringing tiny Carolyn into the world. Since that time, he had tried to be mother and father both. Poor little mite, missing her mama. No wonder she misbehaved so often.
The fact that he hadn’t loved his wife one speck because Maura was flat-out in love with his brother only complicated the issue.
So, there he was, glumly handling the reins of Samson and Delilah as they rode along, staring off into the distance. Jesse felt overwhelmed by a mixture of guilt, regret, and gloom for his current existence and a situation he didn’t see improving in the future.
How could anything improve when the circumstances remained the same?
He might have remained in this hopeless fugue state were it not for that cache of letters riding safely behind him, tucked into one of Meacham’s wooden boxes of canned goods. He had at least taken one step forward. Lord have mercy, let that single act alone be positive!
“Did you get the raisins?” was Mrs. Boston’s greeting as Carolyn, racing ahead, bounced into the kitchen through the back door.
“Heaps and heaps of raisins! And a bag of them horehound drops you like.” Generously the girl handed over her offering—the sack crumpled and slightly sweaty—grabbed three molasses cookies off a plate, then raced off to some other project.
“My land.” The housekeeper placed one hand over her heart, half-humorously. “That child just plumb wears me out.”
“Me, too,” agreed Jesse, without any hint of amusement. “Here y’ go, Rachel. I do believe we got everything on your list. Which means about half the store.”
“Well, we were running low on some things, and my garden’s not giving us any produce for a couple more months. Thank you. For that, I will bake you a couple of apple pies right now.”
Grinning happily, Jesse paused. The one thing that could brighten a dour mood was a slice of Rachel Boston’s apple pie, hot and crusty straight from the oven, dripping with cream and sprinkled with sugar.
“That sounds mighty appealin’. I’ll get the rest of this stuff unloaded and then put away the team, so I can—”
The well-padded housekeeper tilted her head, gray hair piled up in a no-nonsense bun, toward the sitting room. “Your brother’s here.”
Well, there went the brightening right back down into dour. Jesse sighed. “Ahuh. Give him coffee, didja?”
“Two cups. You go on in, and I’ll bring you some, too. Along with a piece of that pumpkin bread, left over from supper last night.”
Stanley Rittenhouse Andrews, his elder by two years, possessed good looks and charm galore, a tall, muscular frame, curly blond hair bleached by the sun over time, and eyes of a striking blue. In fact, were the two brothers to stand side by side before a mirror, their images would project an uncanny resemblance. Not as much as twins, certainly, but enough for any onlooker to see the familial similarity.
Even the properties each occupied—Jesse’s, Falcon Ridge, and Stan, the Catamount Ranch—were similar, having been part of one whole acreage broken roughly in half and divided between the two sons upon their father’s death.
Only in personality did the men greatly differ.
Jesse’s was the more open, the more extroverted, the more generous and giving, while Stan tended to be more aloof and reserved. When the dark moods hit him, for whatever reason, he could lash forth with tongue and teeth like a venom-spitting cobra. At those times, everyone carefully walked on eggshells or avoided his presence entirely until he was safely back to the norm again.
Often, many people wear a mask for public interaction, to hide their true nature, to show only their best to those who are mere acquaintances. No depth, simply shallow surface emotion, making everything seem all right even when it isn’t.
Such a one was Stan. He cared little for anyone outside his own gates; he felt only a smattering of sympathy or empathy for a sufferer or victim of life’s challenging vicissitudes.
But what was eating at his craw? Even Jesse, supposedly one of his nearest and dearest, had no idea. Instead of letting down his guard enough to share, Stan kept all his thoughts well-hidden.
“H’lo, Ritt.” Jesse shambled in with his usual easy grace to find Stanley sprawled in the well-used rocker with his feet up. “How’s things?”
“Fair to middlin’, I’d say. You?”
“Well, Carrie now figures she’s old enough and tough enough to bust that mustang I bought last week from Ben Dalton.”
Stan let out an appreciative burst of laughter. “What, that black monster that tore up a feller’s arm? She would. Ain’t that gal got no sense a’tall?”
“Not much.” Jesse sank into his favorite chair just as Mrs. Boston appeared with a cup of coffee and the promised plate of pumpkin bread. “Ah, thanks, Rachel. So, Ritt, you just out for a junket?”
A shrug. Then a reach for the dessert. “Been holdin’ my nose to the grindstone too long, little brother, catchin’ up on stuff at home. Me and Jed. Decided to get away for a bit, see what’s goin’ on here.”
“Well, if you’d care to take your niece in hand …”
That suggestion would never hold water, not for either. Truth was, Jesse simply didn’t trust his brother to keep a careful eye on the little spitfire who could stir up six kinds of trouble inside of ten minutes. Stan would never deliberately neglect the child, but he might be distracted by other happenings, or he might figure that she could handle whatever she came up against, be it a water buffalo or a mine collapse.
No. He would never ever ask Stanley to provide any sort of childcare for Miss Carolyn.
“Took a gander at the mail you got piled over there on the table.”
Jesse picked up the cup for a sip of coffee to hide his stab of irritation. His mail was his own personal business, not some public display through which anyone could rifle. Nor did he recall even dumping the envelopes out of the pouch he’d used. That meant his brother had removed his personal correspondence.
Of all things, he disliked a snoop.
“Saw somethin’ in there from some marriage place, back in New York.” Baring his teeth in what was evidently supposed to be a grin, Stan finished the last crumb of bread before lacing his fingers together over a full but still admirably flat middle. “You lookin’ for a wife, little boy?”
Jesse refused to grit his teeth in frustration. Refused to show any sign that such goading could set his nerves on edge. It had always been this way. He had grown almighty wearied of it.
“Is it any of your concern if I am?” he mildly inquired.
“Just wonderin’, is all. No need to get your back up. Ain’t there any women hereabouts to hitch up with that you’re goin’ so far afield?”
“Sure, lotsa single gals. If you want one that’s in her fifties, like Loretta Peterson or Susan Fowler. Or one of them silly, half-witted Dunbar twins that ain’t got a whole brain between ’em. Or the mayor’s daughter, so uppity and efficient I reckon she must take one of them new-fangled typewriters to bed with her. Then there’s a few ain’t got no desire to get married. Not quite what I’m lookin’ for.”
“Well, me, neither. Maybe I oughta consider takin’ a wife, too.”
Jesse thought but didn’t say aloud: You had your chance, near seven years ago, and you tossed it away.
“Whaddya think? Didja see any likely prospects at this place where you inquired?”
“That ain’t how it works. At least, not in this case. I filled out my information and sent it away, which got me a notice put in newspapers roundabouts. Then anyone interested could contact the agency. From there, I can write back to her, and she can write back to me, and so on.”
Thoughtfully, Stanley scratched his chin through several days’ worth of golden stubble. “Huh. And didja pick one?”
His mouth twisted into a wry grimace, Jesse shook his head. “No, Ritt. Haven’t had time. Seems like I’ve had to entertain a guest.”
“Guest!” His brother hooted. “I ain’t no guest. This land usedta belong to me, remember, b’fore you came along to upset the apple cart.”
Ah, there it was again. The sly jog of memory to what always lay behind Stanley’s easily irritated temperament. Jesse might have known. It was like a living, breathing wound of the soul between them.
“Sorry. But I reckon I didn’t have much choice in the matter of bein’ born.”
“So you say. Still figure you had some kinda sway with Ma.” He chuckled as if to prove that such comments were being made all in the name of simple, harmless fun. “So, how about you give me that address so I can send my information along, too?”
Sitting straighter, cup in hand, Jesse studied his sibling for a moment. “What’s wrong with you takin’ leadership, Ritt, and doin’ this on your own?”
“I figure you’ve already paved the way, Cart. Might just as well take advantage of all your hard work, don’tcha think?”
The younger man sighed and brushed back one rebellious overlong curl from his temple. During childhood and young adulthood, he had absorbed the blame on too many occasions for Stanley’s misdeeds, thus often incurring the wrath or the annoyance of disappointed parents. By contrast, he had far too rarely gotten to claim any credit for good turns.
Of course, come to think of it, with Stanley, there hadn’t been all that many good turns to brag about.
Retrieving the envelope in question from a stack on the table, he handed it over, unopened. “There. That’s the address. Copy it down, ’cause you sure ain’t takin’ this with you. And you’d better mail it off right soon. Then scram outa here and be on your way. Some of us got work to do.”
His work consumed him through the rest of the afternoon. Fortunately, his foreman, Adam Perkins, had already driven the buckboard away and unhitched the team, so it was a matter of conferring together on various matters and the application thereof.
Jesse’s half of the family ranch was a bonny place, encompassing a thousand acres of good green pasture, the house and outbuildings, timberland, one of many waterways coursing through that his father had named Kettle Creek, and a range of mountains considered the high country. Very shortly, it would be time to move the stock from drier, used-up grass here below to the hills of the Mission Range, lush and green and shaded by pine.
He loved this ranch.
Mostly for its ability to succor and shelter all within its boundaries, for the sense that this would always be home, to hold his heart and being. Not Paradise, by any means—life could be a struggle; death could always lurk somewhere in the background. But close enough.
He rarely considered the scenery and what it must mean to be nurtured in such peace and harmony, far from the noise and jangle of civilization.
But sometimes, the pure beauty of Falcon Ridge came out of nowhere, grabbed him by the throat, and shook him almost to tears by what he was beholding. The melded colors of the blazing sun as it rose and set, the brown flash of a white-tailed deer in the distance dashing to safety, the dip and sway of clustered sunflowers or delicate harebells, the glint of a golden eagle soaring slowly across a blue sky … all of these, taken singly or together, all part and parcel of his Montana.
After supper, after his darling little princess had been bathed and brushed and tucked mutinously into bed, Jesse took his collection of mail to open and peruse at the big pigeonhole desk in his study. Separating wheat from chaff, he set the invoices aside to pay at a later date, piled up a couple of magazines that would make fine reading material, and then got to the meat of his mission. Four replies to his classified advertisement through The Perfect Match Connubial Service.
“Prunella Winston,” he muttered, skimming over the first offering. “Who on God’s green earth names a girl Prunella?” After a moment, he re-folded the paper, scented with some heavy perfume that offended his nostrils, and put it in the discard stack.
So too went the hopeful missives of AnnieRose Hutton (fifty if she was a day; he might just as well pay court to his housekeeper) and Violet Casper (she’d consulted her psychic medium about this potential marriage, and her medium had consulted his charts, and the stars had all aligned. Huh?).
Feeling discouraged by now, he pulled her letter from its envelope. No fragrance, no flowery prose, no occult connections—just a plain sheet of stationery, embellished with the silhouette of a rosebud and firm handwriting unblemished by blots of ink.
Jesse mused over that and the information contained. A brief description of her appearance and her current occupation, details of her life in a small town, and some colorful and humorous examples of dealing with a family of boisterous children.
That sold him.
If she had experience with child-rearing in the east, then she ought to be willing to tackle the uphill job of child-raising in the west.
Besides, Carolyn was old enough to require schooling. The little bit he and Mrs. Boston had tried to pound into her head as to arithmetic and reading was just a drop in the bucket as far as education. This Miss Davidson claimed to be a teacher. Well, then, let her teach. And what a challenge she would face!
With a decisive nod, he unscrewed the lid of his inkpot, pulled out pen and paper, and began to write to the woman for whose union he was beginning to feel a trickle of hope.
It was to be the first of several epistles sent during the next few weeks.
“Their Tender Love’s Awakening” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Julianne Davidson and her younger sister, Helen, join a matrimonial bureau in a state of desperation, hoping to escape from their abusive family. When they end up traveling west together to marry two brothers, Julianne feels like fate might finally be smiling upon them. She has long accepted that she will marry out of necessity, not love, but seeing her handsome husband-to-be, Jesse, fills her with hope for her future. Her enthusiasm comes to a sudden halt though, when her fiance’s brother unexpectedly leaves Helen in the lurch. On top of that, she can sense that Jesse is holding part of himself back from her… Can Julianne take care of her sister and form a meaningful and tender connection with Jesse?
For many years, Jesse Andrews’ main worry in life has been his brother and the consequences of his immature and reckless actions. After losing his wife at childbirth though, taking care of his little daughter changes his priorities forever. Despite being deeply afraid of trusting another woman with his heart, he realizes that he needs to marry again for his daughter’s sake. Much to his surprise, Julianne’s arrival brings a welcome change to their lives, even though he has to deal once again with his brother’s mistakes by taking her sister in too. As if that was not enough, a series of strange disasters strike his ranch, demanding his constant attention. Will he have a second chance at love or could the happy ending he longs for end with heartbreak again?
Julianne and Jesse’s journey will be no bed of roses. Dangerous accidents and mysterious incidents will put at risk not only Jesse’s ranch, but also their still fragile relationship. Will the approaching threat bring them closer together and make them see what is written in the stars, or will their fairytale end before it even begins?
“Their Tender Love’s Awakening” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.