Choices (by acspeej)

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Summary:  Adam falls in love with an intelligent but sassy woman. Will he be able to face her ultimate challenge? Rated K+  (21,070 word)

 

Story Notes: This is the first fanfic I ever wrote – years ago – and thought was lost. I found it and thought it would be fun to add to the Library.

Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.

 

Choices

CHAPTER ONE

Frankly, Adam was a little bored. The day was hot and the air inside the church was stifling. It’s not that he wasn’t happy about Jim’s getting married – he and Jim had been friends for as long as he could remember. And Kathleen, the bride-to-be, was an attractive, witty, and a very loving lady. Adam knew they were a perfect match and also was aware that Jim had finally found true happiness. But standing at Jim’s side as “best man” and waiting for the ceremony to start was beginning to make Adam as nervous as Jim was.

Sweat trickled down Jim’s neck and disappeared into the collar of his suit coat. Adam’s neck began to itch and chafe. To make matters a little more complicated, Kathleen’s best friend/maid-of-honor had not arrived the day before to go through the rehearsal. Would she be here today? Is that what was taking so long?

At last, the strains of the Prelude changed into “Ode to Joy,” the cue that Adam knew was to herald the arrival of the maid-of-honor. Good, she must be here, though she had not had a chance to practice – and anything could happen. He looked toward the doors of the church but nobody was coming down the aisle. He took a deep breath and hoped for the best. And then he saw her.

He forgot about the heat, the sweat, the nervousness. It wasn’t that she was a raving beauty, but she had a distinct “presence” that immediately captivated him. She was tall and slender and carried herself with poise and grace. Her blond hair looked like spun gold and, even from where he was standing, he could see the sparkle in her green eyes. Her smile lit up the room. He couldn’t take his eyes off her the whole time she slowly and confidently walked down the aisle.

He felt slightly dizzy and was confused by the feeling. It must be the heat. She took her place several steps to the left of Jim, smiled at him, and then gave him a wink. She never even looked at Adam, and he found that he was slightly disappointed.

On cue, at the beginning of the Wedding March, she turned sideways to watch Kathleen walk down the aisle holding tightly to the arm of her father. Most of the ceremony after that went by in a blur, but Adam couldn’t take his eyes off the lady, known to him only as “Maureen.”

It was now time for the exchange of two rings, something that Adam had never seen done in Virginia City. Most men didn’t wear wedding rings, but this was the exception to the rule. Adam, at the appropriate time, handed Kathleen’s ring to the preacher. The preacher turned to Maureen who, with her most innocent look, said, “I lost it.”

Kathleen’s face paled as she hissed, “I’ll kill ya!”

There was just the hint of a smile as Maureen handed the ring to the preacher.

“Just kidding,” she whispered impishly.

Adam wanted to laugh out loud at both ladies’ faces, but he ducked his head and coughed instead. Soon the ceremony was over, and Maureen was taking Adam’s arm to walk out of the church.

His mind was reeling and all he could think about were those green, sparkly eyes. Outside the church, she looked directly into his eyes and flashed him a happy smile.

“Hello, Adam. My name is Maureen.”

What did she say? Was she talking to me? The only thing Adam could think of to say was, “I’m glad you got here in time for the wedding.” What a stupid thing to say. What did I say that for?

Maureen continued to smile, let go of his arm, and ran to Kathleen, embracing her best friend in a huge hug. Their genuine love for each other was obvious. Jim got a kiss on both cheeks and blushed a deep red.

CHAPTER TWO

The reception was to be held at the Ponderosa, and people were hurriedly getting into buggies and carriages, and Adam could find no time to talk to Maureen. He had never been tongue-tied in talking with a lady before and he felt the urge to redeem himself. But the opportunity didn’t present itself until everyone had arrived at the Ponderosa.

The house was beautifully decorated, both inside and outside; Hop Sing had made a three-tiered cake, and Kathleen clapped her hands in delight when she saw it. There was music, of course, and champagne, plus canapés and cookies and punch. Much to Adam’s chagrin, Kathleen and Jim (and Kathleen’s father, “Big Jake”) were introducing Maureen to everybody. There were those green eyes and big smile as she shook hands with every new person. But she had not yet been introduced to the Cartwrights.

Adam thought this was a severe breach of etiquette but said nothing as he stood with his father and brothers, watching the whirlwind of happiness. At last, Kathleen, Jim, and Maureen walked up to them.

“We were saving the best and most important until last,” said a breathless Kathleen.

Before the new bride could say another word, Maureen spoke, looking directly at Ben: “You don’t have to tell me who is who. I’ve heard so much about the Cartwrights that I could identify them in the dark!” She took Ben’s hand in both of hers. “I’m Maureen, Mr. Cartwright. I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for all that you have done to make this reception so memorable.”

Ben returned her smile and said, in his deep voice, “Kathleen is a very special young lady and so she deserves something special.”

Maureen turned and looked at the Cartwright brothers. “You’re Hoss,” she said as she took one of his enormous hands into her own. “Stronger than six-up and gentler than a butterfly.”

His answer was a shy, “Yes’m.”

Adam thought to himself that Hoss appeared tongue-tied also.

Releasing Hoss’s hand and taking Joe’s, Maureen flashed another smile. “You’re Little Joe. “Though,” and she looked at him appraisingly,” I think they should drop the ‘Little’ and just stick to ‘Joe’.” She winked at him and then turned to Adam. “I’ve already met you, Adam. You’re the guitar-playing singer of the family. I play a little guitar myself, and I hope that maybe we can find time to play some duets.”

She was still holding his hand in both of hers, and he got lost in her eyes. “You’ve done your homework well, Maureen. Welcome to the Ponderosa.” There. I actually found my voice. But what I said sounded so trite.

Maureen was still holding Adam’s hand when Big Jake grabbed her arm, forcing her to let go of Adam and to follow him to the cake table. But, even as she was being pulled away, her eyes continued to lock onto Adam’s.

A shiver ran down his spine, a good shiver that left him confused again. Jim and Kathleen cut the cake and listened as Adam raised his glass of champagne and toasted the new couple. Ben gave a signal, and the music started. Jim and Kathleen danced the first waltz to great applause. Time now for the others to dance.

Adam approached Maureen and reached out his hand. “Time for the best man and the maid-of-honor to dance.”

Maureen flashed him another dazzling smile and took his hand as they walked toward the other dancers. He reached to put his hand around her waist and found her immediately in his arms and, as they executed a perfect waltz, he was amazed at how wonderfully she followed him, how natural she felt as they whirled. He felt like he was dancing on air, felt another shiver and reveled in it. No, she was no raving beauty, but she was damn close to it!

When the dance ended, he didn’t want to let her go but already Big Jake was there waiting to sweep her away. After Big Jake’s dance with her came a long line of single men, so Adam’s chance didn’t come again for quite a while.

Am I jealous? I just met this girl today! Get a grip, man. Control yourself. To be on the safe side (and so he didn’t have to watch her with the other men) he turned his back and filled his champagne glass. When he finally did turn around, he looked directly into Maureen’s eyes. She made a face and rolled her eyes helplessly as her partner jumped around the floor, dragging her with him. She obviously needed help. The next thing to happen was that Adam had tapped the guy on the arm, pulled Maureen into his own arms, and was again propelling her expertly around the floor. He smiled down at her.

Even though she was tall, she was still several inches shorter than he, so she had to look up at him when she said, “Well, I declare, Adam. You can smile. In fact, it’s a very handsome smile and something you should do more often.”

And then he found he couldn’t stop smiling. Nor did he want to stop.

“Thank you, my gallant knight, for rescuing me. I don’t think I could’ve danced with that man for one more second,” she whispered.

Adam’s answer, still with a smile, was, “You looked like a damsel in distress. Could I have resisted?”

Maureen threw back her head and laughed, and it was then that Adam knew he was smitten.

CHAPTER THREE

The party was finally over, the guests left, and only Jim and Kathleen, Big Jake and Maureen, and the Cartwrights were left to wave goodbye. While Kathleen and Maureen talked and giggled with each other, Big Jim and Ben went off to speak privately. They looked like two bad little boys plotting. Which was exactly what they were doing.

Adam, Hoss, and LJ were also casting knowing sidelong glances at each other. Ben and Big Jake approached, and Big Jake spoke first looking at the newlywed couple.

“You two are going to honeymoon in San Francisco. Right?”

There were nods from Jim and Kathleen.

“And you aren’t leaving until tomorrow when the stage comes in at noon?”

More nods ensued.

Ben coughed. “Well, the point is this. We think you two should go back to Jim’s, finish packing, and have some time…er…..alone. Without Big Jake and Maureen there.”

There was an embarrassed silence.

“So, I have invited Big Jake and Maureen to stay here at the Ponderosa with us tonight. We’ll be at the stage tomorrow to see you before you leave, and then Big Jake and Maureen can stay at your place until you come back.”

Another pause as Ben looked at Big Jake for affirmation. Maureen and Kathleen both clapped their hands in delight at this prospect. Jim just grinned. Kathleen thought a moment.

“But, if Maureen stays at our place with Big Jake, all alone…” Her voice trailed off. “Well, you know how people gossip.”

Maureen stamped her foot. “They can all go jump off a bridge, Kathleen! In my life, have you ever known me to care what people say?”

Adam looked at those green eyes and felt a grin beginning to creep across his face. She doesn’t mince words, does she? He liked that. Big Jake laughed out loud.

“It’ll be wonderful for my reputation! It’s been years since I’ve been gossiped about!”

Maureen batted at him playfully, and he jumped out of her reach, still laughing.

“Then it’s settled,” smiled Ben. “Now Jim, you take Kathleen home and we’ll see you tomorrow before the stage leaves.”

Hugs and kisses ensued, and the young couple drove away in their buggy

CHAPTER. FOUR

“Hop Sing!” shouted Ben. “We could use some coffee!”

And now the group moved into the house and toward the sofa and chairs.

Maureen, looking at Big Jake with barely controllable laughter, scolded. “You old goat! Your ‘reputation’ indeed! There ain’t no harm in ya!”

The response was, “Yeah, but it sure will give some of those old biddies a chance to start clucking!”

They were still laughing when Hop Sing served the coffee. Adam, who had kept his eyes on Maureen practically all day, noticed that she winced when she sat down. This was not the first wince he had noticed during the long day but he had not said anything before now.

“Maureen,” he began, “you have a pained expression. What’s the matter?”

All eyes now were on Maureen and she felt distinctly uncomfortable at being watched. She plopped onto the sofa and chewed the inside of her cheek gently as she thought of how to answer.

“Oh, I think I turned my ankle earlier. It’s just a little sore.”

“Well, let’s have a look at it,” demanded Adam.

Hesitating for a moment, Maureen pulled her skirt up to her knee – displaying an enormous black and purple bruise that extended from her toes to well above her right ankle. Ben and Big Jake almost bumped heads when they bent to examine the huge swelling and dark bruising.

“When did you do this?” asked Ben. Maureen made a wry face and half-laughed.

“Right before the ceremony. I tripped going up the stairs into the church.”

Joe’s eyes popped open. “You tripped going up the stairs? Not down the stairs but up them?”

“I’m a natural klutz. I never do things in a normal way. That’s one of the reasons the ceremony started late.” Maureen smiled ruefully. “The reason that I missed the rehearsal was because I missed the stagecoach: I got on the wrong one.” This admission elicited smiles, but only temporarily.

Big Jake admitted to seeing her trip and half-fall, but she had denied any pain and had just laughed it off when he asked if she had been hurt. He felt truly awful for being so distracted with Kathleen and with getting the ceremony started in a fairly timely fashion that he had failed to be more considerate of Maureen. Ben put a pillow on the table and instructed Maureen to rest her foot on its softness.

“It looks like it could be broken,” he remarked and reached to touch it.

In a flash, Maureen had grabbed his hand. An explosive “don’t” and Ben withdrew his hand quickly. Maureen’s eyes had turned a sea-foam green, and she had a trance-like expression on her face.

“Hoss knows what to do,” she stated quietly, never taking her eyes from Hoss’s face.

Now all eyes were on Hoss, who was still blushing at having to stare at Maureen’s bare leg. She stated again, “Hoss knows what to do.” Seeing the big man’s discomfort, she said quietly, “Hoss, pretend that my leg belongs to an injured horse. Forget that it’s a human leg. And do what you’re thinking.”

Indeed, Hoss had been thinking about what he would do if he were working with an injured horse, but he didn’t understand how she could have known this. He took a deep breath and reached for her ankle, expecting her to shout at him as she had done with Ben. Not a word from her as he took her leg and ankle in his big hands and began to probe for broken bones. Maureen stiffened but said not a word.

“I don’t think it’s broke, Pa,” assessed Hoss. But I think she needs some very cold water, then liniment and some kind of bandage to support her ankle.”

Joe went to the well for cold water; Hoss went to the barn for the liniment; Adam, Ben, and Big Jake sat quietly. Adam, who had been leaning against the stones of the fireplace, approached her and broke the silence.

“You didn’t say anything about it during the ceremony, you didn’t say anything about it during the dancing, you didn’t say anything about it until now. Why wait so long?” His voice was almost accusatory.

She shrugged. “I didn’t want Kathleen to worry. This was her big day. Why spoil it?”

In came Hoss with the liniment; Joe came in with several cold towels. But Maureen would allow only Hoss to apply anything to her ankle. As if in a trance himself, Hoss gently wrapped the bruises with the towels, keeping a watch on Maureen’s face to see if he was hurting her. Her face remained impassive, but her fingers dug into the arm of the sofa. Adam, who had moved to sit closer to her, slipped his hand into hers. He felt the pressure of her hand in his – strong and tight – but still her face remained impassive and she never looked at him. After several cold compresses, Hoss applied the liniment as gently as he could. When his fingers touched her skin, Adam heard her sharp intake of breath and felt her fingers close around his hand with such strength that she actually was hurting his hand. Hoss was muttering, more to himself than to anyone else,

“Just a little. Don’t wanna burn the skin.” He rubbed gently until he was satisfied that he had done the best he could. Then he sat back. “We need some bandages now.”

Without hesitation, Maureen released Adam’s hand, lifted her skirt to show her petticoats, and began tearing uniform strips from the undergarment.

Big Jake went apoplectic. “Girl, there’s no need at showing any more leg to a roomful of men!”

A smile tugged at her lips. “For Heaven’s sake, Jake! If these men haven’t seen a woman’s legs by now, there’s no hope for any of them! Besides, legs are legs. We all have them, you know!”

Adam stifled a grin. This was one feisty gal!

Maureen handed Hoss the strips of her petticoat and he began the process of making a figure eight around her ankle and a little above where the bruise ended.

He sat back on his heels and viewed his handiwork. “That oughtta do it.”

Maureen and Hoss surveyed the finished results. “Good job, Hoss,” commented Maureen.

Hoss blushed. “Aw. Cold water, liniment, and a good bandage can work wonders.”

With this, everybody laughed out loud. Big Jake, still embarrassed about having to look at her bare leg, pulled the dress back down. “How did you manage to get through the day in those shoes?”

Maureen snorted. “I didn’t wear shoes. And nobody noticed. Who would be looking at my feet, for Heaven’s sake?”

“You spent the whole day barefoot?” roared Big Jake. “Where are your shoes?”

She pursed her mouth guiltily. “Under the stairs at the church.” She looked like a bad little child.

The tension completely broken, and with Big Jake rolling his eyes skyward, the room was filled with the sound of uncontrolled laughter. Maureen sneaked a peak at Adam, and he noticed that her eyes were now the deep green that they had originally been. He wanted to reach out and give her a hug but, instead, he got up and took up his place leaning against the fireplace. What a strange woman she is.

They all sat around and drank coffee, discussing the day’s events, reliving the joy that was Jim’s and Kathleen’s. But it was getting late, and soon Adam noticed that Maureen was stifling a yawn. She was the one who finally announced that she just had to get some sleep. She stood up and took a step on her bandaged foot and smiled once again at Hoss. “Good job. Thank you.”

Without limping, she walked over to Ben and kissed him lightly on the cheek and thanked him for letting her stay the night. She turned and did the same to Big Jake who gave her a big hug. Waving at the rest of the group, she politely said her “good nights.”

Big Jake was the first to realize that their luggage was at the newlyweds’ house. Without thinking, he wondered aloud what they were going to sleep in.

Maureen’s eyes danced and sparkled as she crossed the floor to the room that had been designated as hers. “I don’t know about you, but I’m sleeping in what God gave me.”

“Maureen!” roared Big Jake. “Is there no end to what you’ll say?”

She stuck her tongue out at him then ducked as he threw an unused bandage strip at her. “See you in the morning!” The door closed softly.

CHAPTER FIVE

Big Jake was shaking his head. “That girl could try the patience of a saint! She never censors anything that comes out of her mouth. She says what she means and means what she says. She does what she wants. I am constantly apologizing for her or trying to reprimand her. But she’s a love, she’s all heart. There is nothing fake about her.”

Joe asked the question that had crossed everybody’s mind at one time: “I’ve never heard Kathleen say much about her. Where does she come from? Why have we never heard much about her?”

Big Jake was thoughtful and quiet for some time. “I would like to tell you about Maureen, but I don’t know if she would approve. She’s a very private person and has sworn Kathleen to say very little about her past. Kathleen has always honored that request.” He took a sip of coffee. “But I think you will understand her better if you know of her background.” He propped his elbows on his knees and leaned forward. “Maureen has no idea who her parents are. She was found on the front porch of a Catholic church one day when she was a little over a year old. She was sent to a Catholic-run orphanage shortly thereafter and was raised by nuns there. They found they couldn’t handle her; even then she had a mind of her own, and the church discipline only made things worse. From there she was sent to one foster home after another. She was not the kind of child who could be tamed and consequently she endured being slapped around or generally mistreated emotionally. Her only friends, she has said many times, were the animals that were around: dogs, cats, pigs, horses, cows…” He paused and, seeing that he was comfortable saying more, he continued. “When she was about sixteen, she just up and left whatever institution she was in. She worked at almost any job she could in order to make a little money to keep herself fed and clothed. The one thing she wanted to be was a ‘lady’, to have ‘class’ and to be admired and respected. She read books to open her mind, she learned to play the guitar to open her life to music, she kept up with the latest fashions and made her own clothes to coincide with what was ‘new’.”

Ben interrupted. “When did she meet Kathleen?”

“Well, it was while my daughter was back East. Kathleen had a severe case of pneumonia, and Maureen was working as a nurse’s aide. Apparently, Maureen thought that Kathleen was not getting the treatment she needed, and I don’t think she was getting it either. I think the doctor would’ve let my daughter die believing that she was too far gone. I was sitting with Kathleen, holding her hand and listening to her straining for each breath, when Maureen fairly flew in the room, took one look, and sat Kathleen up in bed and began pounding on her back. I tried to stop her, but she practically knocked me against the wall. And soon my daughter began coughing up horrible things, and then her breathing suddenly became less labored. As a father, I didn’t know whether to hug Maureen or to slap her! Then, she explained to me, in the most gentle of voices, that the pounding on Kathleen’s back was not painful but did loosen all the phlegm in the lungs and caused it to be expelled – thus improving her breathing. From that day on, Maureen was around as much as I was, which was more than I can say for the doctors and the nurses. The two girls became friends immediately, and I owe my daughter’s life to Maureen. When Kathleen was released from the hospital, I made sure that Maureen accompanied her. She didn’t want to be paid but I saw to it that there was always enough money for them both to live on. When I knew all was well, I came back to my ranch to tend to things here. Jim, on a business trip, went to visit Kathleen several months later, and it seemed to be love at first sight. But, then, Maureen had said…” He halted here, wondering how far he could take this story. He decided to finish what he had started. “Maureen has a ‘gift’ – I can’t explain it except to say that sometimes she knows what people are thinking. Sometimes she can see what lies ahead. She told me that Kathleen would fall in love with, and marry, a man I knew and admired. A good man who would love my daughter with all his heart and who would always be good and kind to her. I thought she was full of hogwash then. But I’ve seen her do this so many times that I do believe she has something special about her. Look at how she turned to Hoss – and only Hoss – to help with her ankle. She knew what he was thinking. Isn’t that right, Hoss?”

“Hey, that is right!” proclaimed Hoss.

Big Jake, feeling validated, continued. “I swear I don’t know how she does it! But I do know when she does it. She gets this ‘funny’ look on her face, in her eyes – they actually change color – and she does whatever it is that she does. Sometimes it’s spooky. The only time you have to watch out for her is when her eyes turn almost gold – then she is angry, and you better watch out!”

Adam thought back to when her eyes changed color and she looked like she was almost in a trance. I saw that with my own eyes. “She’s a blessing, that girl,” said Big Jake. “She is the most kind-hearted female I know. But she will not show pain, or tears, or other emotions that most women show so readily. Then, again, she can be so ornery that she chases away any man who shows an interest in her. She can be shocking when she wants to be, and she can cut people to ribbons with her sharp tongue. Such a waste, though, because I believe that the right man could make her give up those things. She needs to feel secure.” He gave a big sigh. “On the other hand, she has an enormous sense of humor and loves a good practical joke. She has the ability to laugh at herself, like when she fell up the stairs and took the wrong stagecoach.” He leaned back, tired now.

There was silence in the room. It was Ben who suggested that they should all get some sleep, and he got no argument from anyone.

As they began to file upstairs, Joe couldn’t resist asking one question of Big Jake: “What’re you gonna sleep in?”

The answer: “In what God gave me, of course.” This was said with a very deep chuckle.

CHAPTER SIX

Adam donned his nightshirt and thought about all the day’s activities. But he couldn’t get his mind off Maureen. He knew he was attracted to her but was loathe to admit it. Her green eyes haunted him. If she had worked so hard at being “classy” and being a “lady,” she had certainly achieved her goal. She had overcome the hardships of her youth, and he admired her for that. He admired the fact that she spoke her mind. He admired her stoicism. He looked at his hand and remembered how hard she had gripped it when Hoss was tending to her foot. He remembered her witticisms. He remembered the curve of her leg when she raised her dress to pull off strips of her petticoat.

Realizing that he was obsessing about a woman he had met only today, he punched his pillow and dug his head into its soft folds. Sometime later he fell asleep, wondering if she really was sleeping in what “God had given her.”

Not only was Adam thinking about Maureen, but she was thinking about him: his beautiful eyes and long eyelashes, the hard muscles in his arm as he escorted her from the church, the feel of his hand in hers, his slow grin and his smile. The way he walked and the way he always seemed to be leaning against something. Her heart skipped a beat.

No, do not get involved with this man. I have learned to take care of myself and how to keep from letting my heart run away with me. There has been too much in my life that has caused me pain. I will not open up to it any more. Besides, Kathleen already warned me about how he is probably the greatest catch in Virginia City. He would only use me and then turn his back on me.

She brushed her hair slowly and saw her reflection smiling back at her in the mirror. She reminded herself again to be careful with her heart. Then she peeled off her clothes and climbed into bed. She dreamed that it was she and Adam who had gotten married and wondered if she was seeing into the future or if her mind was just indulging in wishful thinking.

CHAPTER SEVEN

Breakfast was being served and, because Maureen and Big Jake had no other clothes, they arrived at the table with their wedding duds on. The Cartwrights, of course, wore their normal working clothes and planned to do morning chores before going into town. Maureen looked every bit the lady that she had appeared to be yesterday. Big Jake had dispensed with the tie and had his sleeves rolled up.

The first question of the morning, as Maureen sat down with Hoss to her right and Big Jake to her left, was from Hoss: “How’s that ankle this morning?”

She flashed him a big smile. “Hoss, you are a miracle worker! It’s much better today.” She paused, then looked deliberately at Big Jake. “But I can’t put shoes on today. I don’t have any because they are still under the church stairs. Besides, I don’t want to strain anything by falling down, or up, again.” She winked at Joe who gave an audible giggle.

Adam, who could not keep his eyes off Maureen, saw a devilish sparkle in her eyes. He waited to see what was about to happen. It didn’t take long. Quick as a wink, she speared two sausages from Hoss’s plate and put them on her own plate. When Hoss looked down there was a puzzled look on his face. He was sure that he had helped himself to the sausages, but where did they go? Maureen looked at Adam and knew he had seen her make the swap. Would he give her away? She watched the corners of his mouth turn up and knew she was safe.

Hoss grabbed two more sausages, still looking a bit bewildered as he turned toward Ben to answer a question. When he looked at his plate again, the two sausages had become four. He looked around the table and saw only looks of innocence. He shrugged and decided that he just had made a mistake.

Maureen stifled a giggle. Hoss was an easy target. Not soon afterward, Big Jake had turned to say something to Joe. Again, quicker than a flash, Maureen had dumped two spoonfuls of sugar into his coffee. When he took a sip, he almost spit the coffee out. He opined that he didn’t remember putting sugar in his coffee, and he looked pointedly at Maureen who was serenely sitting there drinking her own coffee.

“What?” she asked innocently.

Big Jake studied her face and decided that he must have added sugar and then forgotten. But he knew her penchant for practical jokes and moved his cup far away from her reach.

The group moved toward the great room and, as Adam passed by Maureen, he whispered, “Remind me not to sit next to you at a meal!”

Her retort was, “Why, Adam, what an unkind thing to say.” But her eyes danced with glee and he knew that she was aware that he had caught her on at least one occasion.

Morning chores done, Joe and Big Jake, Maureen and Ben piled into the buggy for the trip to town. Adam and Hoss chose to ride. Maureen was still barefoot and would remain so for the rest of the day.

When they reached Virginia City, Jim and Kathleen were waiting for the stagecoach to arrive. Kathleen fairly glowed, and Jim looked the happiest that Adam had ever remembered. The stage arrived, and the newlyweds shared handshakes and hugs as they boarded.

Kathleen whispered to Maureen, “Adam can’t take his eyes off you. You two would make an excellent match!” Another hug, and the stage rolled away in a cloud of dust.

Maureen had a bittersweet smile for, in a way, she was jealous of her friend, but in a bigger way she was happy for her. Maybe my time will come.

Big Jake’s question jogged her out of her reverie. “Gonna get your shoes, girl?”

Maureen crinkled her nose and nodded. “Be back in a minute.” And off she went to the church, looked under the stairs, and found where she had stashed her shoes. It was another hot day, and she really wanted to get to Jim’s ranch and change out of her dress into something cooler and more comfortable. Unfortunately, she could see no sign of Big Jake or of the Cartwrights. She began looking into different saloons as she walked up one side of the street and down the other. It was, of course, the last place she looked when she saw the very top of Hoss’s hat.

Shoes in hand, she strolled into the “Bucket O’ Blood” and headed to where the men were sitting at a table toward the back of the saloon. She didn’t get far before one man, who had obviously been imbibing a wee bit too much, grabbed her arm as she passed by him. Before she knew it, she was spun around and was facing the man, his fingers still clutching her arm. She recoiled at the reek of liquor. Sternly she said, “You’re hurting my arm. Please let go. Now!”

Big Jake and the Cartwrights saw what was happening, but it was Adam who was on his feet first. Big Jake reached out a hand and stopped him. “Let her handle it. If she needs help, we’ll know.”

Adam grudgingly sat down on the edge of his chair, waiting and watching. “Watch her eyes – you’ll see what I mean about their changing color,” Big Jake added. And it was true. Her eyes did start to change. Instead of their normal dark green, they were beginning to look much lighter.

The drunk threw his arm around Maureen and tried desperately to get her to have a drink with him. Her face tightened, her lips grew thin, and her eyes turned pure gold. She stared the drunk in the eye and said in a soft voice, “If you don’t let go of me, and I mean right now, I am going to turn your head around backward.” Their eyes locked for several seconds, and the drunk finally removed his arm from around her.

But he was not quite ready to be defeated by a woman, especially in front of his friends. As she turned away from him, he pinched her backside. Hard. Maureen spun around, and suddenly the drunk ran screaming from the saloon – a scream of pure pain.

“Told ya she could take care of herself,” grinned Big Jake. He stood up and pulled out a chair for her. Her eyes were a deep gold, then turned yellow-gold, and then changed back to their normal dark green. Her face was still grim, but otherwise she looked completely composed. Adam was amazed at being able to watch the changes – it was truly fascinating.

“I found my shoes,” she chortled. “Right where I left them. Then I couldn’t find any of you! I might have gotten into some kind of trouble wandering around here from saloon to saloon.” She pursed her mouth.

“I’ve never seen you get into any trouble that you couldn’t handle by yourself,” Big Jake said with a half smile.

She looked around, spied the bartender, and asked for a beer. The Cartwrights did a double-take, and so did the bartender. Maureen just shook her head when she saw their faces. “It’s hot outside. I’m thirsty. I like beer. And I’m going to drink one!”

Ben spoke. “If you want a beer, then you shall have one. But try to understand that most of these men in here are not used to a lady’s coming in to begin with. And barefoot at that!” He pointed to her shoes, still in her hand. It was the way he said it that made her laugh heartily. The tension had passed.

Taking a sip of her beer, she smiled. “Um, that tastes so good.”

Joe, being brave, dared to ask why the drunk had screamed so loud and then fled so quickly.

Maureen avoided a direct answer. “Well, he did a not very nice thing to me, so I returned the ‘favor’.” Questioning looks appeared on the men’s faces. Maureen just sat and drank some more beer.

“Okay, I’ll ask, and I know I’ll be sorry,” muttered Big Jake. “Just exactly what did he do that was ‘not very nice?’ And what did you do to him in return?”

Draining her glass of beer, Maureen (queen of the innocent look), replied, “He pinched my butt! So I pinched him back – I just chose to pinch him in his front.” There was a long pause. “I don’t think he’ll be sitting in a saddle for a while.” The huge impish grin appeared on her face. At first there was no response. Then there followed such a burst of laughter that the saloon almost vibrated. Hoss laughed til the tears ran down his face; Joe had a giggling fit; Ben roared; Adam leaned so far backward in his chair that he almost fell over. Big Jake covered his face with his hands and muttered something unintelligible under his breath. Maureen, of course, did not laugh, outwardly, anyway. She looked every bit “the lady.”

Big Jake rose and took Maureen gently by the hand. “Let’s go to Jim’s and see if we can keep you out of trouble there.” His face was as red as a beet. The Cartwrights rose as Maureen got to her feet, and she thanked them for their hospitality of the night before. She reassured Hoss that Jim undoubtedly had liniment for her ankle at his ranch and that she would keep wearing the bandages until her ankle was strong again. It did not go unnoticed, however, that she flashed a special smile at Adam. Their eyes locked just a few seconds too long.

With a “We’ll be seeing you again soon,” she turned and walked out of the saloon with Big Jake’s hand propelling her forward.

“There goes one very unusual lady,” commented Ben. “I guess she learned early to take care of herself.”

Adam was thinking. “Unusual” is not the word.

CHAPTER EIGHT

While Big Jake and Maureen were taking care of Jim’s ranch, the Cartwrights were equally busy tending to Ponderosa business. But Adam had not forgotten about Maureen, had not forgotten the sparkle in her eyes, the sheen of her blond hair, the sound of her laughter. He consistently chided himself for not being able to get her out of his mind and would deliberately work harder to keep himself otherwise occupied. I don’t even know this lady. But I’m so drawn to her. Yeah, I’ve been infatuated before, but it’s never felt quite like this. Just work harder and forget her. Yeah, sure.

How could he have known that Maureen was thinking of him also? She was busy pumping (subtly, she thought) Big Jake for information. Big Jake, being no dummy, knew what she was doing, and he was enjoying telling her just enough to force her to ask more questions. He had told her about Adam’s mother’s dying when Adam was very young, about Ben’s next two wives and their subsequent deaths, about how Adam had not yet married. He had talked about Adam’s education, his singing, his guitar playing, his poetry reading, his love of books, and his closeness to Ben.

Maureen had no trouble identifying with Adam’s loss of his mother because she never knew her own mother (or father); she herself loved music, books, and poetry. She had never allowed herself to get close enough to a man to be in love for fear that she would be rejected, just as she had been when she went from foster family to foster family. She didn’t trust anybody. But she also knew, from reading books, that it was something “special” to feel a tingle up her spine whenever she looked into Adam’s eyes or watched him walk or saw his smile or listened to him talk. I’ve tried to learn to be a lady, but I will never really be one. My past is not the kind of past that Adam Cartwright would be attracted to. I’m not college-educated. There are at least a dozen real ladies in town that Adam would be interested in. Why in the world would he pick me? Don’t even let yourself think about romance. It’s not in the cards for me.

CHAPTER NINE

Their week’s honeymoon over, Kathleen and Jim arrived on the late afternoon stage. Big Jake and Maureen, with the bandage off her green/yellow/blue ankle, were there to greet them. (Maureen had hoped that maybe the Cartwrights might come, but there was no sign of them). However, seeing Kathleen’s glowing face made Maureen forget about everything but seeing her best friend again. They squealed with delight, hugged each other, and began talking at the same time.

“How was the honeymoon?”

“How is the ranch?”

“What all did you see in San Francisco?”

“What happened to your ankle?”

Big Jake and Jim just rolled their eyes, shook their heads, and loaded up the buggy with the luggage. The girls were still talking over each other when they arrived at Jim’s ranch, and Big Jake and Jim hardly could hear their own voices over those of the two girls. While the two men were collecting the luggage, Kathleen and Maureen walked into the house and were most surprised to see a beaming Hop Sing setting the table for supper. But, for Maureen, the coup de grace was when she saw the Cartwrights standing in the small living room. Immediately, her eyes swept over the faces, and her eyes locked onto Adam’s. He smiled “that” smile, and she could feel goosebumps all over. Before anything could be said, Big Jake and Jim were in the door with the luggage. It was then that Ben said, “Welcome home, you two! It’s good to have you home again.”

Kathleen squealed with delight for the umpteenth time that afternoon and hugged everybody in sight.

Ben spoke again. “We thought it might be a nice surprise to have Hop Sing cook supper tonight. It’s late, and we knew you might be too tired to cook. I hope we haven’t overstepped our boundaries.” Ben got an extra hug from Kathleen.

“How very thoughtful of you. I hadn’t even thought about supper. I just wanted to get home, to our home (looking at Jim). I don’t know how to say ‘thank you’ enough!” There was much hand-shaking among the men, but Hop Sing soon put a stop to that. “Supper ready. Supper ready. Will dry out if don’t eat!” And he scurried off while the group sat down with Jim at the head of the table and Kathleen at the other end of the table. Maureen sat wedged between Jim and Big Jake with Adam directly across from her.

She could hardly breathe, and those goosebumps just would not go away. Adam, looking quite calm on the outside, was having an inner turmoil. How can I eat when all I can concentrate on are those green eyes? His mouth went dry. How could he possibly have known that both he and Maureen were thinking the same thing: Get control of yourself. Don’t give yourself away; don’t make yourself look like a fool.

Hop Sing came from the kitchen with platters almost overloaded with food. “Eat. Eat. Food only good when hot!” And he disappeared to bring back more food.

“Hey, Hop Sing!” joked Hoss. “How come you never fix food like this for us?”

Hop Sing made a face. “You not just back from honeymoon. You not even marry! When you marry, then Hop Sing make feast!” Hop Sing turned his back and headed for the kitchen, spouting Chinese as he went. Hearty laughter filled the room.

Conversation never ceased throughout the meal. It was a very happy occasion and was being thoroughly enjoyed. Then something quite interesting happened. Both Maureen and Adam speared a slice of roast beef at the same time and, quite unlike the gentleman that Adam was, he didn’t retreat. His eyes met Maureen’s and neither would blink or let go. For almost a full minute, time stood still. Jim resolved the problem finally by cutting the piece of beef in half. Adam winked at Maureen and was rewarded by a sudden sparkle from her eyes. Yep, she could handle herself all right! Joe giggled; Hoss almost choked; and Ben was astonished at his eldest son. He wasn’t used to seeing Adam actually “playing.”

While Maureen and Kathleen were exchanging glances that only a woman would understand, Jim sneaked his fork over to Maureen’s plate and tried to reach for the beef. Without taking her eyes from Kathleen’s, Maureen rapped him smartly across the knuckles, causing him to drop his fork.

“You always did have eyes in the back of your head,” was the only comment he made, but with a big smile.

“I had to fight for that piece of beef. There’s no way I’m gonna let you have it!” came the answer, also with a big grin. And a wink at Adam. It was at this moment that Maureen and Adam bonded.

From just plain foolishness. Ben, watching the loving looks between Kathleen and Jim, was remembering when he, too, had a woman who loved him, when she sat at the opposite end of the table from him and had that special glow on her face. Yes, he did take women out every now and then, and he had a special rapport with one woman in particular, but would he ever marry again? He felt a sudden wave of loneliness sweep over him. He felt, rather than heard, the silence at the table, and he jumped back into reality.

All eyes were on Maureen whose own eyes had gone sea-foam green again. And there was that trance-like look on her face. She smiled directly into Ben’s eyes and spoke. “Yes, you will. Great happiness. You’re on the right track.”

Ben’s jaw dropped. Had he spoken out loud? How could she have known what he was thinking? He couldn’t find his voice. So he tried something: I’m thinking of one lady in particular. Is that the one?

Without hesitation came the answer, “Absolutely.”

Trying again, Ben concentrated. “Will my boys be happy about this?”

Again an emphatic “Absolutely.”

The sea-foam eyes turned green again. Adam knew this for a fact because he was blatantly staring at Maureen while everybody else was staring at an astonished Ben.

Kathleen touched Ben’s hand gently. “She has a special “gift” of being able to know sometimes what you’re thinking.” Thinking back, Ben remembered the night Hoss had tended to Maureen’s ankle. Hoss had told Ben later that evening that it was just like she had read his mind. She read my mind. She really DID read my mind! He was flabbergasted. I hope she’s right. No comment from her this time. Kathleen spoke again. “She’s been able to do this for as long as I remember. Jim and I have seen her do it many times. Some people think she’s crazy.”

Maureen banged down her water glass loudly. “Good grief! Will you stop talking about me like I was in a different room? I’m sitting right here!”

Adam rubbed his jaw pensively. “I’ve read about that kind of “gift” in some newspaper articles. What is it like?”

Maureen pursed her lips. “Well, it’s like I hear somebody’s thoughts as though they were speaking directly to me. I can’t help but answer; I have no control over what I say.” She paused. “It doesn’t happen with everybody, and I don’t know why. It just happens when it happens. The bad part is that I can’t see anything for myself.”

Jim smiled broadly. “When I went back East on that business trip and met Kathleen for the first time, Maureen shocked me immediately by saying I had just met my wife. I wasn’t in the market for a wife at the time, and I sure didn’t want to live in the East. Maureen “read” my mind and said that Kathleen would love me enough to come back West with me. That she would be very happy here.” He smiled at his bride. “It remains to be seen if she really will be happy here, but we did get married.”

As one, the group moved into the living room and sat down with a glass of wine. Joe was the first to ask the question, “Can you read my mind now?”

Maureen looked at him and took a deep breath. She felt a need to “prove” herself but knew that she would be unable to “perform” on cue. She explained this as best she could: “When I feel it, I feel it. There’s no rhyme or reason to it.”

It was Adam’s mind that she really wanted to read, but she could “sense” nothing. She was disappointed. Hoss looked puzzled and asked why she could understand what he was thinking on the night he tended her foot. She smiled at Hoss. “Hoss, you are so very gentle and so open-minded, it felt like I was reading a book.” Then, “I don’t know what happened with Mr. Cartwright. It was like he was talking to me, in my mind.” She flashed Ben a look and smiled. “But I am right on the money with you. I promise.”

“Hey, Pa,” asked Joe. “What were you thinkin’?”

Ben smiled at his youngest son and answered, “None of your business!”

When Hoss laughed out loud, so did everybody else. The clock showed that the hour was getting late. It was Ben who once again suggested that Maureen and Big Jake come to stay at the Ponderosa for a few days. They could check on Jim and Kathleen each day before Big Jake returned to his own ranch. Nobody quite knew what Maureen’s plans would be yet because she hadn’t said anything. But she would have a place on the Ponderosa for as long as she wanted as far as he was concerned.

Knowing that Jim and Kathleen should have some privacy on their first night home, Big Jake thanked Ben for his hospitality, as did Maureen. The two hastily packed some clothes, gave hugs and kisses to Jim and Kathleen, then headed out the door.

Hop Sing was already in the buggy and, after much to-do over his wonderful cooking, Maureen felt strong hands around her waist lifting her up to the seat. She looked back and saw that it was Adam, smiling, and her heart skipped a beat and then began to sing. She didn’t try to figure out why – she just accepted how she felt. He said nothing, but there was a slight upward curve to his lips. He looked as happy as she felt. She watched as he climbed onto Sport’s saddle, the buggy lurched, and the group headed toward the Ponderosa.

CHAPTER TEN

Maureen was completely worn out on the way back to the Ponderosa. It had been a long day and she found that she could not keep her eyes open for one minute longer. By the time the group arrived at the Ponderosa, she had fallen fast asleep. Somewhere in her foggy mind, she felt her body being lifted from the buggy, and she was aware that she was being carried. Struggling to sweep the cobwebs from her mind, she realized that she was in Adam’s strong arms, and she snuggled closer against his body. She could smell the fresh scent of him and, as she turned her face to his, could feel the warmth of his breath on her face. Her fingers inadvertently found the hair on his chest, and she was again covered with goosebumps. She felt as though he were gliding into the house, into “her” room, and placing her gently on the bed. She didn’t want to let go of him; she didn’t want him to leave. She had grown to love that “goose bumpy” feeling. But she was so sleepy. Vaguely she felt him pull the comforter over her and she reached up to touch his cheek, feeling the stubble of his “five o’clock shadow.” She heard him murmur something but wasn’t sure what it was. His voice was gentler than she had ever heard it sound before. She closed her eyes and fell immediately back to sleep, a small smile lingering on her face.

Overwhelmed by his tender feelings, Adam looked at her tiny smile and let his hand trail across her soft cheek. She looked so beautiful, so relaxed, so peaceful, that he almost felt as though he had been swept off his feet. He didn’t want to leave her and, in a moment of what he normally would’ve referred to as “weakness,” he wondered what it would be like to wake up next to her each morning. Gently he touched an errant strand of hair that had fallen over her brow, reveled in its softness and color. Stifling the urge to touch his lips to hers, he turned and made himself leave the room, closing the door softly behind him.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

The morning light wakened Maureen, but it was the aroma of fresh coffee that made her fairly fly out of bed. She was still in the clothes she had worn yesterday and she had little memory of how she got to bed last night. She thought she remembered Adam’s carrying her in, but was that a dream or reality? No time to think about that as she hurriedly donned a pair of jeans and a blouse and dashed to the dining room. She practically collided with Joe as he was walking to his chair, and he playfully tugged at her long hair.

“Good morning, sleepy head, “ he grinned.

She stuck her tongue out at him and plopped down into the nearest chair. Ben and Big Jake were coming down the stairs, and Adam and Hoss were coming in the front door. She watched as Adam sat down, looked into his eyes and tried to read his mind. She couldn’t. I don’t know why he is so difficult to read. Is he deliberately blocking me or is he in such control that I just can’t get through to him? Though he smiled at her and greeted her, as everyone else did, he seemed distant somehow. How could she have known that he was deliberately being aloof, trying to fight the attraction he felt for her, trying to make his mind a stone wall that was impenetrable? She played no tricks at breakfast. She watched and listened to the conversations going on around her.

She felt the love between father and sons and was fascinated by their interactions together. They seemed always to get along so well. This was so unlike her years with families in her foster homes where often the only words spoken were harsh ones. She liked that Hoss and his appetite were the butt of his family’s jokes and that Hoss would just laugh. He knew he was loved. She adored Joe’s giggles and found them quite contagious. When Ben’s deep voice boomed, she could almost feel the table vibrating from the timbre of it.

Finally, she could stand being quiet no longer. “Okay. I was rude and fell asleep last night. Will somebody please tell me how I got to bed?”

Joe giggled. Hoss chewed thoughtfully but said nothing. There were too many innocent looks from around the table.

Maybe her dream was reality, so she took a stab. “Adam, did you carry me in the house?” She saw the instant sparkle in his eyes, and she knew she was right. She wasn’t reading his mind. All she had to do was look at his impish face. “Yep. Just threw you over my shoulder like a sack of potatoes. Except potatoes don’t have feet, especially bare feet!”

Hoss guffawed; Joe slapped his knee and chortled. Even Ben and Big Jake had a hard time hiding their grins. Helplessly, Maureen had to laugh. She was caught dead to rights and knew it. And she was still barefoot. She hated shoes and wore them only when necessary.

“Score one for you, dear heart,” she began, holding Adam’s gaze. “But just remember that payback is a bi..” She couldn’t finish the sentence because Big Jake had jumped up and clamped his hand over her mouth. Of course, there wasn’t a person in the room who didn’t know what she was about to say, but they laughed even harder when they looked at Big Jake’s florid face.

“Girl, you have to watch your mouth!” he shouted. “Please try to mind your manners!”

She gave him her most hurt but innocent look. “All I was gonna say was that payback would be a big surprise.”

Big Jake threw his hands into the air and looked heavenward as if begging for help. He was rescued by Ben who chose that moment to suggest that the two of them ride out to look at a herd of cattle that Big Jake was interested in buying.

Already plotting, Maureen waited for the two older men to leave the table. Hoss and Joe were the next to leave and, as soon as Hoss went by, Maureen deftly pushed a chair into Adam’s way. Before he could avoid it, he had already banged his hip on the side of the chair. Of course, it didn’t hurt him, but it did make him stumble. Hoss and Joe didn’t see it but Adam was sure that Maureen had been the cause of this. When he looked at her, she was finishing the last bit of coffee in her cup. He stared at her until she got up from the table.

“Trouble walking, Adam?” was all she said.

Adam had met his match. Would it be the start of many matches to come?

CHAPTER TWELVE

Maureen had told the group during breakfast that she wanted to ride over and see Kathleen. Having finished eating, she ran a brush through her rather unruly hair, tied it with a ribbon in the back, and then walked out to go saddle a horse. Much to her surprise, she saw that Adam had already saddled one for her. How thoughtful!

“You gonna ride barefoot?” came the question from Adam. “Well, I still can’t maneuver my foot into a boot yet. I’m gonna have to wait a few more days, I s’pose,” she answered. Untying the horse, she put her foot in the stirrup and grabbed the saddle horn to steady herself. Adam had chosen a beautiful horse, but he was big! When her weight was in the stirrup, the saddle slid toward her and she fell on her backside heavily. She wasn’t hurt physically, but she knew exactly what had happened.

Adam chuckled. “Don’t you know to always check the cinch before you ride?”

She glared at him and knew that it was “payback” time from him to her. She dusted off the back of her jeans, gave him a playful smile to let him know that she knew what had happened. “I hate saddles anyway.” She undid the cinch completely and manhandled the saddle to the barn while Adam watched to see what would happen. As she returned and approached the horse, she spoke just loud enough for Adam to hear but for him to wonder if she might be talking to herself.

“I hate shoes and saddles. I’d rather ride bareback any day.” Of course, the next problem would be how to mount the horse. He was too big for her to just swing up onto. She had to think quickly. Not trusting Adam to give her a leg up, she grabbed the reins and led the big animal over to the water trough. Balancing on the edge of the trough, she swung her leg over the horse’s back and then turned and gave Adam her biggest, smuggest smile. “There appears to be more than one way to skin a cat.” She dug her heels into the horse’s side and galloped away.

Adam stood and watched her leave, still chuckling, mostly at himself. He hadn’t thought of the possibility that she might do away with the saddle altogether. Re-checking Sport’s cinch, a few thoughts crossed his mind: How her hair shone in the sunlight, how her jeans fit her so snugly, how her shirt had molded to the fullness of her breasts, how bright her smile was – even though there was a smugness there. He shook his head, swung up into the saddle and headed off to town, trying hard to not think about Maureen.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Arriving at Jim’s ranch, Maureen found Jim and his men working with some new horses. He shouted a big “hello,” and Maureen went into the house to find Kathleen busily baking bread. The warmth from the oven had given her cheeks a rosy glow, and she looked completely happy.

“Okay, tell all!” demanded Maureen. “How is married life?”

Kathleen pulled up a chair. “I couldn’t be happier. Jim treats me like a queen, like I’m the most important person in his life. He’s affectionate and thoughtful.” She paused. “Don’t get me wrong. Living here instead of back East is so different. It’s harder here. But I like it. I really do!” She put her hand out and held Maureen’s. “Your turn will come soon. And then you’ll know what I mean about how love changes your perspective on everything.”

Maureen looked pensive. “I don’t know how to love. I don’t know how to trust a man, how to let one into my life. I doubt anybody would be interested in loving me, let alone marrying me.”

Of course, Kathleen knew all of Maureen’s past. “You can’t bring that baggage with you. It will only make things worse. Give people a chance to get to know you. You have to learn to trust, starting now. Stay with us a while; get to know the people here. When you are ready to move on, you can always go. But, please, stay with us a while.”

When Maureen started to protest, Kathleen clucked at her like a mother hen. “You will not be a problem for Jim or for me. We have plenty of room. You can come and go as you please.” She flashed a sly look. “Besides, I think you need some time to get to know a “certain Cartwright.”

Maureen blushed all the way to her hairline. “Adam could never be interested in me. We are too different. I know that I am attracted to him, but I don’t think the feeling is mutual. We tease and play jokes on each other, but that’s as far as it goes.” She gave a rueful smile.

The response was, “Adam seems aloof. But I think he is looking for the “right” woman. One would never know it because he doesn’t let it show. Don’t let his apparent disinterest throw you for a loop.”

The discussion ended when Jim came in the door and kissed his wife on the cheek. “I’m one hungry man! Is lunch ready?”

Kathleen checked the bread in the oven and pronounced that, indeed, lunch was ready. She tried to talk Maureen into staying, but Maureen didn’t want to intrude and made up an excuse to leave. Jim walked her to her horse, gave her a leg up, and away she went in the direction of the Ponderosa. It was a beautiful day so Maureen took her time as she meandered over the hill toward the road back to the Cartwright’s house. She was surprised to see Adam approaching, so she waited for him. They exchanged greetings and rode in a comfortable silence for a little way.

Both horses were feeling frisky, so Maureen challenged Adam to a race home. Adam pulled his hat a little lower on his head and announced that he would give Maureen a head start to make it a “fair” race. She just shook her head in the negative. “I can beat you and that old nag any day. One, two, three, go!” And she was off like a shot. Adam kicked Sport into a gallop and the race was on. She rides like the wind! And bareback at that! Neck and neck they galloped, one gaining ground, then the other. They reached the Ponderosa at the same time, and Maureen quickly slid off the back of her horse. “I win!”

Adam, still in the saddle, shook his head. “Nope. I got here first. Just a nose ahead of you.”

“Yeah, but I’m on the ground and you aren’t! Therefore I win!” She stuck out her chin defiantly.

“Nope. That reasoning won’t work. Let’s call it a tie.”

She thought about this for a minute. “Okay. Just this once. Next time there won’t be any question as to who the winner is!”

Adam let Sport’s cinch out. “Where’d you learn to ride like that?”

“Oh, here and there. I’ve learned lots of things along the way. You might be surprised.”

“Nothing you can do would surprise me,” Adam gently answered. They went into the house, side by side, to see what Hop Sing had prepared for lunch. Walking with Adam had made Maureen feel like she was walking on air, a feeling she had never had before. Adam opened the door and put his hand in the small of her back, guiding her through the open door. She felt a shiver at the touch of his hand and wondered what was happening to her. Whatever it was, she liked it!

She put off mentioning that she would soon be going to stay with Kathleen – she knew she couldn’t stay at the Ponderosa indefinitely, but she just wasn’t ready to leave the Cartwright family. How she enjoyed watching the Cartwrights interacting with each other, how she loved sharing in their laughter, how she felt a sense of being one of the family. She knew it couldn’t last forever, but she could dream. Most of all, she didn’t want to leave Adam. If she moved to Kathleen’s, Adam would forget her and she would have to face the fact that she would be able to see him only in town or just by happenstance. And how many times could she just “run into him” by serendipity? She sighed.

After lunch, she left the men to whatever work they were doing and went out to where her horse was tied up next to Adam’s. She remembered her race with Adam and how exhilarated she felt. She knew he had really won the race, but she wasn’t about to give in. She went into the barn, got a currycomb and brush, returned to her horse (appropriately named “Sky High”) and began to brush him, talking to him the whole time. She had no idea that Adam, who had remained behind, was watching her as she bent and stretched and walked. She had taken the ribbon from her hair and put it beside the water trough; the wind ruffled through the wavy mass of blond cascades. When she was standing profile to him, she stretched, catlike, and her blouse pulled tight through the bodice as she arched her back.

Adam felt a heat rising in him, and he realized that he wanted her. Wanted to run his fingers through her hair, wanted to touch the curves of her body, wanted to kiss her full lips. He walked toward her as she was in mid-stretch and made an enormous effort not to touch her. She turned and smiled at him. Saw a light in his eyes that she had not seen before. Felt the hair on the back of her neck stand up, not from fear, but from what? She tried hard to read his mind and failed. She wished he was as easy to read as Hoss; then she would know what he was thinking. But, try as she might, she just couldn’t get past that “wall” in his mind.

He watched her for a moment, and then spoke. “You really love horses, don’t you?”

“I love all animals. Wild and tame. I seem to understand them – have a rapport with them – that I don’t have with people. Animals don’t judge. The tame ones give unconditional love; the wild ones act on instinct, and they surely can’t be faulted for that.”

Adam unsaddled Sport, took the saddle into the barn, and returned. “Hoss feels the same way about animals. He has an uncanny knack for being able to work with them.”

“All animals instinctively know who they can trust,” was all she said. “Hoss has a gentleness, an openness, about him that leads to trust. I learned a long time ago that I had a better rapport with animals and children than I did with adults. When I was growing up, I had no friends, really, so animals became my friends. I learned how to act around them, what to do for them, how to treat them, so that they would respect and trust me. Guess it’s carried over to my adult life.” Now why did I say all that? How dumb I must sound. And how pitiful.

“You should be respected and trusted,” was all Adam had to say. With that, he picked up the currycomb and brush and began to groom his horse. His mind was spinning. He never saw Maureen walk back into the house, elated by his last statement. Only when he turned to speak to her did he realize that she was gone. Left behind, unnoticed, was the ribbon she had taken from her hair. Adam picked it up and slipped it into his pocket. She stayed in her room until supper and, when she came down the stairs, she looked very subdued. Something quite unusual for her.

She had spent the afternoon berating herself for sounding so pathetic. Why did I have to open my big mouth anyway? I’m such an idiot! He will surely run in the opposite direction now. If I ever had even half a chance with him, it’s gone now.

Her demeanor at supper did not go unnoticed, especially by Adam. But he had no idea how to make her comfortable again. When she looked at him, he winked at her. She looked at her plate quickly. He nudged her foot gently under the table. She never looked up but just moved her foot. For the first time, he tried desperately to send her a “mind message,” but she was obviously not receiving it. What else could he do?

Supper was over and the group moved into the living room. Adam had a thought, disappeared upstairs, and returned with not one but two guitars. Very casually, he handed one to Maureen, then he sat down on the hearth and began tuning the guitar he was holding. He saw a spark of interest in Maureen’s eyes as she held the guitar in her lap.

“You asked me once if we could sing and play guitars together,” he said casually. “Are you in the mood to give it a try?”

She pursed her lips. “It’s been a while since I’ve played. I hate to embarrass myself.”

“Nonsense,” boomed Ben. “I’m in the mood for some music!”

Adam patted a place on the hearth beside him and, to his great pleasure, she sat down next to him, running her hands over the guitar. It was nicer than anything she had ever owned. She smiled in spite of herself. She tuned her guitar to Adam’s, then played a few chords to see what she did remember. When she drew a blank, she asked Adam to show her what she had forgotten – he demonstrated and found that she was a quick study. They decided what songs they knew and began to play some fun songs, rollicking songs which included “audience participation.”

Adam launched into a song that Maureen didn’t know but quickly picked up the chord progression to. Then Maureen would sing and Adam would pick up the progression. Then they sang slower songs together, their voices blending and complementing each other. They each had the same thought at the same time: We’re good together. Because she hadn’t played the guitar in such a long time, Maureen’s fingertips began to redden and to be quite painful, and she begged to stop.

The hour was late anyway, and it was time for everyone to retire for the evening. Adam and Maureen remained. When the house grew quiet, they were still sitting on the hearth. Maureen was relaxed at last, and Adam stretched his long legs out in the comfortable silence.

“We should do this more. You play very well and you have a beautiful voice,” he commented. “Besides, music is very relaxing. Hoss almost went to sleep in the middle of that last song.”

Maureen laughed and favored Adam with sparkling eyes. “I thought he was in danger of sliding right out of his chair!” They both laughed then. Without thinking, Adam put his arm around her shoulders and gave her a tight squeeze. She felt like a lightning bolt had struck her and felt herself leaning into his hug. There was another comfortable silence where each was afraid to move, afraid to break the spell. She let her head fall lightly on his shoulder and met no resistance. Both their minds were whirling. Adam inhaled the scent of her hair, the light scent of her perfume. Felt the pressure of her head on his shoulder.

Putting his fingers beneath her chin, he turned her face upward toward his, and he kissed her lightly. He felt the softness of her lips under his. It was a quick kiss, but the feeling behind it spoke volumes.

Maureen’s eyes popped open. Shyly, she asked, “Why did you do that?”

“Because I have wanted to for quite a while,” came the simple answer.

“Even after I acted so pathetic today?” she queried.

“Especially after what you told me today. I don’t think you sounded pathetic. You were just telling the truth about a difficult part of your life.” With his fingers still under her chin, he kissed the tip of her nose. And then he was quite surprised to find her lips against his in a longer kiss this time: sweet, chaste, but very meaningful.

Afraid that he might get too carried away, he pulled away first. He could feel the heat rising in him again and wondered if she could feel it too. She looked into his eyes for a very long time, trying to read what he was thinking. She failed. But she was deliriously happy at the glow in his hazel eyes. She could still feel the warmth of his mouth, could still feel the pounding of her heart. Suddenly, the floor creaked – and she jumped up.

Adam gave her a questioning look. “I thought we had been caught!” was all she could say.

Adam grinned. “So what?”

“Saints preserve us, Adam!” she said as she flounced toward her bedroom door. When she turned, he was chuckling.

“Sleep well, Maureen.”

“I hope you don’t sleep a wink at all!” she retorted, but the sparkle in her eyes told Adam that she wasn’t really angry. She disappeared into her room, her mind reeling and heart soaring. Adam wanted to kiss me. He doesn’t think I’m pitiful. And he certainly isn’t worried about getting caught in the middle of….of what? Too tired to think any more, she undressed quickly and slid under the covers. Her last thoughts were of Adam. She smiled in her sleep.

Adam, in his own bed, tried to sort out what all had happened during the day. His mind turned to Maureen in the tight blouse and form-fitting jeans. He thought about their singing and how naturally they followed each other. He thought about the way her hair smelled, remembered the warmth of her lips, the tenderness in her face. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out her hair ribbon and ran it through his fingers. He felt the heat coursing through his body. No, he would not sleep well tonight.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

The noticeable change in Adam escaped no one. He was more open, laughed a lot, teased unmercifully with Hoss and Joe. The looks exchanged between him and Maureen were quite obvious. Ben and Big Jake often looked at each other with knowing glances, but they said nothing to each other about it. They didn’t have to. As the days passed, more practical jokes were played, but nobody knew whether to blame Adam or Maureen.

There was the incident of the horned toad in Ben’s holster; the harmless snake in Joe’s hat; the stealing of food from Big Jake’s plate; the sugar in Hoss’s wine glass. Innocent looks on Adam’s face and on Maureen’s face. But, of course, Maureen had found cockleburs in her bed one night and didn’t know who to blame because so many tricks had been played all the way around. It could’ve been payback from anybody. Maureen hoped that it was Adam’s doing. Adam had found his nightshirts tied in knots and festooned from every corner of the room. He hoped that Maureen was the culprit.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

Today was Sunday, and Maureen had decided that she would attend church services with the Cartwrights. She hadn’t gone the week before and gave no excuse. She also knew that Kathleen and Jim would be there, and wouldn’t Kathleen be surprised to see Maureen’s bright and shining face!

Kathleen was well aware of Maureen’s aversion to “organized religion,” a painful leftover memory probably stemming from early days in a Catholic-run institution and the demands by her foster families that “attending church would put the fear of God in her and make her behave.”

Maureen had always said that she practiced her own way of talking to God by walking in the woods, looking at the flora and fauna, and then doing her own kind of praying. Maureen was nervous about going to church today. She wanted to look like a lady, wanted to act like a lady, wanted the Cartwrights to be proud that she was with them. But it had been so long since she had been to church (other than being in Kathleen’s wedding) that she was afraid of doing the wrong thing and embarrassing both herself and the rest of the group.

Looking in the mirror, she admitted that she was “presentable” and went downstairs, trying to give the impression that she was calm and poised. But her heart was pounding. Hop Sing scurried in to hand over a gigantic basket because there was to be a picnic after the church services.

He beamed, “Missy look velly beautiful today.”

She curtsied. “Thank you, Hop Sing. What a thoughtful thing to say.”

The men of the house had grown used to seeing her in jeans, so the sight of her in a dress was almost a shock. They were quick to compliment her and, sneaking a peak at Adam’s eyes, she knew he was impressed. Breathing a big sigh of relief she walked out the door and was helped into the buggy by Big Jake. Ben loaded the picnic basket then sat in the buggy beside her.

Sensing that she was nervous, he whispered, “Are you all right?” She nodded her head then pretended to look behind her at Big Jake. Actually, she was looking to see where Adam was: on Sport’s back. God, he looks so handsome.

“Wait a minute,” demanded Big Jake. He leaned forward over the front seat of the buggy and lifted the hem of Maureen’s dress slightly. He chortled, “She’s wearing shoes!”

Off they rode, laughing heartily. At the church, Big Jake helped Maureen out of the buggy and noticed that she was shaking slightly. He made no comment but he understood her trepidation. Thankfully, she had met most of the people at the wedding, so very few introductions had to be made. Time to go into church and she felt a gentle hand on her arm. How surprised she was to see that the hand belonged to Adam.

“The last time we were here together, I was escorting you out. Now it’s time to escort you in.”

And there was that slow grin that tugged at her heart. Feeling the hardness of the muscles in his arm, she looked at him shyly. “Just don’t let me trip going up the stairs again.”

“I’ve got you. Don’t worry.” His eyes were soft and warm. The church service was, much to Maureen’s delight, a beautiful one. She and the Cartwrights filled up the entire pew. Behind her, tugging lightly at her hair was Kathleen with Jim on one side of her and Big Jake on the other. She felt like she was among family, and her heart soared. For the first time, she felt really included. The prayer responses came back to her quickly, but it was the singing of the hymns that made her heart swell. Ben’s deep bass voice, combined with Adam’s baritone harmony, almost distracted her from actually singing herself, but she was so happy that soon her own clear voice joined with the others. This feels wonderful. Sunday services are definitely on the agenda from now on.

After the service, she felt Adam’s hand in the small of her back (again) as he steered her out the door of the church. She felt his hands on her waist as he helped her into the buggy and off they all headed to the picnic grounds. Spreading their blanket out and putting the huge basket of food on top of it, the group split up to go visit the other people. Adam stayed with Maureen, a fact that positively delighted her.

“Ouch!” she yelped as she accidentally trod on a pinecone. She felt, rather than saw, Adam looking at her.

“What’s the matter?”

“Stepped on a pinecone,” she muttered.

“Don’t tell me. You took your shoes off again,” he chuckled. And he looked pointedly toward the hem of her dress, hoping to spy her bare feet.

“Don’t like shoes!” she muttered. Then, looking up into his face, seeing the upturned corners of his mouth, she begged, “Please don’t tell on me. If I wore shoes out here on this uneven ground, I would surely make a fool of myself by falling flat on my face!”

He chuckled. “Just be careful where you walk, okay?”

She nodded. “I’ll be careful. I promise.” Whereupon she stubbed her toe on a rock and caused Adam to have a laughing fit. “I’ll end up carrying you before the day is over if you keep that up!”

They mixed and mingled with so many people that Maureen couldn’t keep up with all the names. As they were headed back to dig into Hop Sing’s food, Maureen heard the screeching and screaming of tiny voices. Grabbing Adam’s arm, she headed straight for the sound. There they found Ginny Creech who was in a desperate struggle with her three-year old son and her four-week old twins. Ginny looked like she had reached the end of her rope.

“Need a hand?” Maureen inquired. Ginny, clutching one baby and still trying to hold on to her son at the same time, wailed, “Henry has gone off somewhere and I can’t find him and I can’t hold on to these three all at once. I can’t make this one stop running (grabbing at her son’s shirt), and this one (pointing at one of the babies) has colic and won’t stop crying, and this one (pointing at the other baby) is crying because she’s hungry!” When she caught her breath, she spied the errant “Henry” and told the boy to go to his father; the boy toddled off happily as fast as he could go, glad to get away from the screaming babies.

“Here, let me give you a hand until your husband comes back,” Maureen offered.

Adam looked distinctly uncomfortable but didn’t know exactly what to do, so he just stood in place.

“Let’s take this little hungry one first,” Maureen began as she knelt beside Ginny. Tucking the crying infant under one arm, she began spreading out the baby’s blanket, then put the baby in it, wrapping it tightly in a very controlled, organized way. The baby’s cry lessened somewhat. But, when Maureen held the baby to her and began to rock it gently, saying “shhhh, shhhh, shhhh” over and over again, the crying stopped. Ginny had a questioning look on her face.

“Now, give me that bottle over there,” prompted Maureen. As soon as the bottle’s nipple had been poked into her mouth, the baby began to happily nurse. That left only one screaming, colicky baby to take care of. Maureen turned to Adam. “Here. Hold this one.” And she shoved the baby toward Adam who took a step backward. It had been a very long time since he had held such a tiny baby. “Heaven help us, Adam! She’s not a hot skillet – she’s just a baby!” And she forced the baby, bottle and all, into Adam’s arms. “Now, hold her head so it doesn’t wobble all over the place. And hold the bottle up like this.” She demonstrated. “And, for God’s sake, don’t drop her!”

For several minutes, Adam looked (and felt) horribly awkward. As he finally began to relax, he peered down into the little pink face, felt the tiny fingers of one hand curl around his finger, and he was overcome with a feeling he had never known. He rocked the baby gently as Maureen turned her attention to the other child. This one, Maureen scooped up into her arms, pulled up the little dress, and began rubbing the baby’s tummy in a gentle clockwise motion, starting at the belly button and then making the circles wider. She continued this procedure for several minutes and the screaming lessened. Suddenly, the baby gave a huge belch – startling both Adam and Ginny – and the crying began to cease. Maureen’s hands kept up the circular motion for several minutes. More belches. And another distinct sound that made Ginny turn red and made Maureen giggle. The baby had stopped crying completely.

Ginny was astounded. “What did you do to my babies?”

Wrapping this baby in the same fashion as she had wrapped the other one, Maureen spoke. “Too much air in the tummy causes pain. When you rub your hands over her belly, in a clockwise circular motion, small areas spreading into larger areas, you cause the air to move. One way or the other.”

Both Ginny and Maureen giggled this time. Adam pretended to not pay attention. Babies with gas and burps were not a subject he wished to be privy to. “And,” Maureen continued, “babies wrapped tightly in a blanket have a sense of security. When you wrap the baby this way, hold it to you, and say “shhhh, shhhh, shhhh, over and over again, the baby thinks it’s back in your tummy and is hearing your heart beat. Little ones will almost always quiet down when you do this.” She handed the baby back to a grateful Ginny. Peace at last.

Maureen turned to Adam who was still watching the tiny life he held in his arms. He was overwhelmed still. Maureen had to speak to him three times before she could get his attention. At the moment that he gingerly handed the baby to Maureen, his arms brushed across her breasts accidentally. They both felt like lightning had struck them and, for a moment, neither moved, but Adam’s mind had opened. I wonder if I will ever be holding a child of my own like this? Without thinking, Maureen answered, “You will be holding your son like this one fine day.”

Startled, they looked at each other. She had read his mind without even thinking about it! Henry and the three-year old boy returned, and Ginny thanked them both over and over again. Adam and Maureen walked off without speaking a word, but they both felt that something had happened to them. Something wonderful.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Already the rest of the Cartwright clan had begun digging into the picnic basket, but there was now one addition: a very attractive older female who obviously had eyes only for Ben (who looked completely relaxed and very happy). The woman was introduced to Maureen as “Linda Carlyle.” Maureen took an instant liking to Linda, a fact that didn’t escape notice. Adam, Hoss, and Joe all cared deeply for Linda and secretly hoped there might be even deeper feeling between their Pa and this woman.

As Maureen bent down close to Ben, helping unload the basket of food, her eyes changed to sea-foam green momentarily. “That’s the one, but the timing will not be up to you,” was all she said. And Ben knew instantly what she meant. He said nothing but responded to her with a raised eyebrow and a sparkle in his brown eyes. Back to dark green went Maureen’s eyes, and she said nothing more.

Adam’s holding of the crying baby had not escaped notice, and he became the center of much teasing.

“It looks like you’re becoming quite the babysitter,” ribbed Joe.

“Looks more to me like he wasn’t gonna turn loose of that young ‘un,” grinned Hoss.

“I’m just thrilled that he didn’t drop it!” teased Maureen.

Adam took the teasing in stride. He still could feel the tiny fingers wrapped around his own fingers, could still see the little pink face gazing up at him in such a trusting way. He still felt overwhelmed, and there was a feeling of protectiveness on his part. Little babies had never affected him this way before, but then he hadn’t felt such a bond with a woman (Maureen) and a baby at the same time. It was time for him to admit that Maureen had captured his heart. But had he captured hers as well? He thought so, but he needed to be sure. How to go about “being sure” was something he had to figure out.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Linda and Maureen had their own conversations, and Maureen learned that Linda had grown up in a foster home also. They spoke openly about their young years, what they remembered and what they cared not to remember. Linda mentioned that she had entertained the thought of going to San Francisco, buying a big house and opening up a foster home where children would be loved and treated with kindness and much affection. Maureen paid close attention to how Linda and Ben interacted with each other – she noticed how relaxed they were and how they would touch each other affectionately, whether it be a touch on the shoulder or a hand on an arm or how their hands would touch just a wee bit too long. The genuine caring in their eyes spoke volumes. Maureen, recognizing the fact that Linda was what would be called a “real lady” decided to try out (consciously) some of Linda’s seemingly unconscious mannerisms directed at Ben.

Adam was stretched out on his side as Maureen sat down. Deliberately, she sat close to him and let herself lean, ever so slightly, against his outstretched legs. She dared not look him in the eye to see if he reacted, but did she feel his legs move a little harder against her? Several minutes passed and his legs stayed comfortably against her. Okay. That seems to be working. Now what do I do? She did nothing for a long time thinking that this could be accidental.

Joe was relating to Linda the escapades that had been happening around the Ponderosa since Maureen and Big Jake’s arrival. Linda thought these episodes of prank-playing were hilarious. She laughed especially hard at Adam’s nightclothes being tied up in knots and festooned around the room.

“Who was the culprit?” she asked innocently, though she already knew the answer by looking into Maureen’s eyes. Maureen, finishing chewing on a piece of cake, displayed her best poker face. But, with four pairs of Cartwright eyes staring at her, she just had to laugh. “I don’t know what you’re all looking at me for. Jake has been a practical joker for as long as I can remember.” Then she reached out and put her hand on Adam’s shoulder (just as Linda had done with Ben earlier). “Surely you don’t think that I would have done that!”

Adam didn’t move away from her touch. “I can’t prove you did it, but I know you did. Just remember what you said about ‘payback’.” He smiled from ear to ear. He wasn’t stupid. He knew that Maureen was openly flirting with him and he was thoroughly enjoying it. It was time to put things back into the picnic basket now and, as Maureen took Adam’s plate, she let her hand linger on Adam’s just a trifle too long. It works on Ben, but will it work on Adam? For several joyous seconds, Adam’s hand did not move. Maureen’s hand moved first, but she looked into Adam’s hazel eyes and saw the warmth there. It worked! I think he likes it! But he meant what he said about “payback.”

As Maureen began to move backward with the empty plates, Adam quickly shoved the cake plate behind her. Naturally, she stepped right into the leftover cake. She froze and hoped against hope that nobody had realized what she had done. Linda’s fits of contagious giggles assured her that she had been caught and, of course, Linda’s giggles were joined by the men’s hearty laughter.

“Adam Cartwright!” she exclaimed as she turned around. But Adam had jumped up and was now leaning against a tree, several feet from where he had been. His eyes widened innocently.

“What?”

“You put that cake plate there on purpose!” Maureen spluttered, still standing in the plate.

“Me?” came the answer. He shook his dark head.

Linda was at Maureen’s side. “Come on down to the creek and let’s wash your shoes off.”

Maureen heard a snicker coming from Adam’s direction. “She’s not wearing any shoes.”

Sure enough, as Linda took a peek under the hem of Maureen’s dress, there was Maureen’s bare right foot, bits of cake oozing up between her toes. Linda stopped giggling and went into gales of laughter, dropping the hem of Maureen’s skirt. “You have got to wash that foot, Maureen. The ants will be crawling all over you if you don’t!”

Prankster-turned-gentleman, Adam ambled over, scooped Maureen up in his strong arms and began heading toward the creek. Maureen’s mouth was moving, but she was keeping her voice low so that only Adam could hear her.

“What’s she saying?” asked Hoss as Big Jake wandered over to see what had caused the explosion of laughter.

Big Jake shook his head and rolled his eyes. “I don’t think any of us want to know.”

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

Adam carefully picked his way down the gentle slope to the creek, sat Maureen down on a large fallen tree trunk and continued to listen to her berate him. All he could do was laugh every time she opened her mouth, which only prompted her to more oaths and curses. But he watched her eyes and saw that they were still green, not gold, so he figured she wasn’t really mad at him.

Bending down, he said, “Give me your foot and I’ll wash that cake off.”

She did as she was told and, as she felt his hand on her leg and her foot, she became quiet. Just the touch of his hand on her bare skin thrilled her. He spent an inordinate amount of time with the washing process, never looking up at her. Carefully inspecting between each toe, he finally had to admit that there was no reason to keep washing. He stood up and looked at her, feeling the silence that surrounded them. She had the oddest look on her face, a look that he didn’t understand. He sat down beside her and waited to see if she would talk. She didn’t.

He was the one to break the silence. “You still mad?”

Finally she answered. “Adam, I was never angry with you. I just pretended to be. But I was very embarrassed and didn’t know what to do. I want so hard to be a “lady,” like Linda. But I don’t know how. I never had anybody to teach me how to do “ladylike” things. I play jokes on people because I don’t know how to be serious. I’m afraid of being serious, afraid of getting too close to anybody. A big part of my life has been one rejection after another.” Once she started talking, she couldn’t stop. “I love your family. I love the closeness you share. I don’t know when I’ve ever felt so at home, when I have felt like I was so much a part of something wonderful. But I can’t live at the Ponderosa forever. Jake will be leaving soon, and so must I. Kathleen has asked me to come stay with her and Jim, but I can’t do that forever either. They have their own lives, and I need to find a life of my own.”

Adam took both of her hands in his, looked at the creaminess of her skin next to his own tanned skin, saw how small her hands looked in his. He felt that “protective tenderness” he had felt earlier when he was holding the baby. “And what kind of life are you looking for?” he asked softly.

“I want a husband, children, a big family, a home of my own.”

“Then get serious about going after what you want.”

“I’m afraid to get serious, Adam. I might lose what I go after. Maybe I don’t know how to get serious.”

“I’ve tried to show you before. Let me show you again.” He kissed her gently. Then he kissed her again, longer this time. He kissed her eyes, the tip of her nose, and then returned to her lips. He felt her response and wrapped his arms around her, felt her arms around his neck. When they broke the kiss, he looked deep into her eyes. “That’s serious.”

She looked back at him, afraid that he might be playing yet another prank. There was no laughter on his lips or in his eyes. She put her fingers first to her mouth then to his. Her heart was so full that she couldn’t speak, and the pounding of her heart drowned out any other sound.

As for Adam, his own heart was overflowing. This was the woman he wanted. He wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. He could play the denial game no longer. All he was waiting for was to know that she felt the same way.

“Adam, I have never loved a man before. I don’t understand what I’m feeling. I know, when I’m with you, I am so very happy. I think….” She stopped herself short and stood up abruptly. “We better get back to the picnic.”

Adam sighed. She opened up so much. Maybe she needs more time. At least she feels something for me. He took her arm and led her back up the slope. However, on the way, they caught Ben and Linda in a warm embrace. Maureen put her finger to her lips. Adam nodded. They silently slipped away unnoticed but with happy smiles on their faces. Adam looked down at Maureen and saw a bit of wistfulness.

When he spoke, his tone was tender. “I hope that Pa has found the woman for him. One day, Hoss and Joe and I will have wives of our own (looking at Maureen pointedly) and I want him to have someone he loves to share his life with. Linda is a wonderful woman, and we secretly keep crossing our fingers that Pa will marry her.”

“Your father is a wonderful man, Adam. He deserves the best. He will marry again. Believe me!” And she had a “feeling” that the future Mrs. Ben Cartwright would be Linda. She kept her mouth shut.

CHAPTER NINETEEN

Big Jake left the Ponderosa for his own ranch one morning soon after the picnic. Maureen knew she had to make a decision about what she herself was going to do. She and Linda shared many private talks, and Linda had wisely suggested that Maureen “stay close” for a while. Linda had noticed the change in Adam, had seen his face light up whenever Maureen walked into the room, had noticed how attentive he was to Maureen, had noticed how they “accidentally” touched each other frequently and with great tenderness.

This was the morning that Maureen was packing her things to move to Kathleen and Jim’s house, and there was a serious conversation going on between the two women. Linda was spending more and more time with Ben, and Maureen could honestly say that she saw the same things happening with Ben that were happening with her and Adam.

Linda blushed. “Being in love is wonderful, isn’t it?”

Maureen paused. “I’ve never been in love, so I can’t answer that question.”

Linda jumped out of her chair and took Maureen’s hands. “Maureen, you love Adam. You know you do! Your problem is that you don’t want to risk giving your heart away so you just stay in a state of denial. I can tell by the way Adam acts around you, how he acts with you, that he loves you. But you won’t give him a chance. My advice, though you haven’t asked for it, is to take the risk. Let him know how you feel.”

“I have,” came the answer.

“But he hasn’t done anything about it. Maybe my background is a negative thing.”

“Are you insane?” Linda exploded. “Adam Cartwright could care less about where you come from, what your level of education is. Has it ever occurred to you that he might be in a state of denial also? Don’t you think he shares the same feelings as you do? Open your eyes, girl! Give him an opening to show him that you are taking the same risk as he is! He’s been a bachelor for a long time. It’s a big step for him just as it is for you.”

“Will my living at Kathleen’s ruin everything?”

Linda smiled and hugged her. “I believe you could live just about anywhere. You won’t be able to chase Adam away with a stick.”

“You really believe that?”

“I most certainly do.” Then Linda added with a sly smile, “Sometimes absence makes the heart grow fonder.”

CHAPTER TWENTY

Leaving the Ponderosa was one of the hardest things that Maureen ever had to do. But it had to be done. Adam loaded her suitcases into the buckboard, and Maureen turned to Ben, Hoss, Joe, and Linda. “I don’t know how to thank you for all your kindness. I’ve been blessed with being part of a wonderful family.”

“You act like you’re going halfway around the world, for Heaven’s sake!” boomed Ben. “We’ll be seeing you and Kathleen and Jim often. We’re more than neighbors, we’re friends!”

Adam hoisted Maureen into the buckboard but spoke not a word. At the halfway point between Kathleen’s and the Ponderosa, Maureen looked at him. “Cat got your tongue?”

“I don’t know why you have to go to Kathleen’s,” he grumbled.

“You sound like an old bear.”

“You sound like you’re happy to leave.”

“Adam, I can’t stay at the Ponderosa forever. You know that as well as I do.” She paused. “You will come to see me, won’t you?”

Adam snorted. “You have to ask?” He looked at her, watched the sunlight dance in her blond hair. He spoke more softly this time. “You have to ask?”

CHAPTER TWENTY ONE

As it turned out, Maureen had less quantity time with Adam. They each had their own work to do: Adam had to do his share with the running of the Ponderosa, and Maureen threw herself into helping Kathleen and Jim. But the “quality” time between Maureen and Adam had doubled.

Maureen cherished each minute that she and Adam could share. They rode horses and had picnics and went to dances and ate supper in town. They would sit on the porch swing and sing and play guitars. They touched, they hugged, they kissed – they were openly affectionate. Soon the town stopped gossiping about what seemed to be going on between them and began wondering when they would be attending a wedding.

CHAPTER TWENTY TWO

During supper one night, on the rare occasion that the Cartwrights were all present at the table, Hoss looked from his father to Adam and then back to his father. “One of you is gonna have to do somethin’ soon! This gossip is drivin’ me crazy!”

“What gossip is that, son?” Ben innocently asked, trying to hide a smile.

“Marriage,” answered Joe, plopping another helping of mashed potatoes on his plate. “You’ve been squiring Linda around for almost two years. And Adam gets that moony-eyed look whenever he’s with Maureen. One of you needs to make a permanent commitment.”

“Oh, we do, do we?” Ben boomed again, casting a look in Adam’s direction to see his reaction.

Adam’s eyebrows had shot up to his hairline. Was he blushing? “Why don’t you and Hoss mind your own business,” suggested Adam, rolling his eyes.

“Adam, if you don’t ask Maureen to marry you pretty quick, I might just have to ask her myself,” Hoss chuckled. With a wink at Hoss, Joe giggled.

“Pa, if you don’t marry Linda, she may get tired of waiting and run off somewhere without you.”

Father and eldest son looked at each other, both of them knowing that Hoss and Joe were teasing, but they also knew it really was time to act. Ben shuffled his food around on his plate, and then spoke. “How would you feel about my marrying Linda?” The simultaneous whoops of delight from his three sons were all the answer Ben needed. “I’ll see what I can do.” He looked at Adam. “And you do the same.” The fact of the matter was that Ben had already proposed to Linda, but Linda was not giving an answer yet. She had received a letter from the orphanage in San Francisco – a letter that would change the course of her life. And the course of the life of yet another woman.

CHAPTER TWENTY THREE

Kathleen and Maureen sat at the table after breakfast one morning and had a serious conversation. “Tell me how you feel about Adam,” Kathleen queried.

Avoiding the question, Maureen answered. “Well, he certainly is handsome. He’s a hard worker and very, very smart. I can’t think of anything he can’t do and do well.”

Kathleen rolled her eyes and groaned. “That’s not what I’m asking and you know it! Tell me what’s in your heart!”

Maureen stirred her half-empty cup of coffee and fidgeted. “I know what you want to hear. But it’s so hard to put into words.”

Kathleen leaned back in her chair and announced that she had all the time in the world to listen.

Maureen was trapped and knew it. She had already had this kind of talk with Linda a while back and was loathe to speak about it again. She knew that she was settling for a status quo with Adam, that she was afraid of letting things get beyond her control. But she knew Kathleen, like Linda, was concerned for her happiness. So she opened up her heart and began to speak. “Adam means more to me than I can tell you. Just the nearness of him makes me feel such intense joy. But there is this ‘distance’ between us that doesn’t seem to be able to resolve itself. I love his smile, his laughter, his facial expressions, and his ability to be both serious and funny. I even love the smell of him.”

Kathleen, now with elbows propped on the table, spoke. “Do you realize how many times you have used the word ‘love’?”

Eyes widening, Maureen was forced to admit to that fact. “But he never says the words to me.”

“Are you giving the man an honest chance to speak from his heart? Or are you running away just in the nick of time like you always have done? You have got to stop running!”

“That’s the same thing that Linda told me. She said that I was afraid of rejection and that I might be letting happiness pass me by.”

“She’s right, and you know it. I’m right and you know that too.” Then she added, “Adam needs some positive feedback before he takes the risk himself. Give him that feedback and just watch to see what happens. I don’t think you will be disappointed. Kisses and hugs are fine. At least they’re fine for folks who are just dating. You and Adam have long since passed that stage. It’s time to move forward.”

“But when will I know the ‘right’ time?”

“Believe me, you will know.”

CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR

Linda arrived late one afternoon and asked Maureen to take a walk with her. Linda looked mysterious and a little confused. The two women stood in the shade of the pine trees, and Linda began to speak. “Maureen, I have something that I want to discuss with you. It’s very important, but I don’t know where to begin.”

“Just start at the beginning – that’s the easiest place.” Linda pulled a letter from her skirt pocket and handed it to Maureen. With a quizzical glance, Maureen took the letter and read it.

“Dear Miss Carlyle.

How happy we are here at the Children’s Orphanage that you have maintained contact with us. You have mentioned, numerous times, that you would be interested in running a foster home here in San Francisco. Due to the kindness of several contributors, we now have the money to purchase a very large home, the perfect place to raise foster children. We are offering you the position of being the head of this endeavor. Having been a foster child yourself, you are aware of the need for raising children with love, respect, dignity, and kindness.

Perhaps this awareness stems from your having been in a foster home yourself – your background makes you the perfect candidate to change a place of misery into one of happiness.

Please let me hear from you at your earliest convenience.”

Maureen clapped her hands joyfully! “What a wonderful opportunity, Linda! This is what you have been dreaming of – you have wanted to make a difference in children’s lives!”

Linda smiled, but there was sadness in that smile. “What do I tell Ben?”

Maureen sat down in the pine needles. “Oh. I am assuming that you have to make a choice.”

Linda nodded. “I love Ben, but I feel that I have a calling to do something more with my life than to be a wife. I want to make a difference in less-than-fortunate children’s lives. And this is my opportunity. And it won’t be forever. I’ll make it clear that the job will last long enough to get things going and then I will tender my resignation.”

“Does your heart tell you to stay here with Ben or to go to California?”

Linda sighed deeply then gave a one-word answer: “California. Temporarily.”

“You’ve thought this whole thing through, and you’re sure that’s what you want to do?”

“Absolutely. It will break my heart in one way, but it will fulfill me in another way.”

“Then,” Maureen said softly, “you’ll have to tell Ben. I think he loves you, but he’s a very understanding man. He won’t hold you back if you choose to leave.”

Linda gave another loud sigh, then she looked Maureen in the eye and didn’t blink. “Maureen, I would like to know if you would come with me. I will need help running such a place, and I know that you understand what it means to need a good home. I realize that I am dropping a big weight on you. I know that Adam loves you, and I am sure that you love him. But I want – I need – your help as co-administrator. You say that Ben will understand the choice that I am making. Can you choose between this (holding the letter) and Adam?”

Maureen felt like the air had been knocked out of her. What shall I say? What shall I do? I do love Adam. Can I make such a choice between my love for him and my love for “lost” children? Even if it’s only temporary? Will Adam and Ben wait for us to come back?

“How much time do I have to make up my mind?” Maureen asked.

“I have a week to tender my decision,” came Linda’s answer.

“A week,” repeated Maureen.

“I’ll give you my answer before then.”

Wordlessly, Maureen rose and walked with Linda back to Kathleen’s house.

CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE

On a very hot, humid morning, too hot to have their usual race, Maureen and Adam rode back up to the picnic area and the creek that flowed close by. Maureen remembered how Adam had washed her foot and how he had kissed her. She felt a warm glow. Helping her down from her horse, Adam saw the glow on her face and in her eyes. As her feet touched the ground, he didn’t release her right away but stood close to her and tried to say what was in his heart. The words just wouldn’t come out. He wouldn’t admit it, but he was scared to speak because he was afraid of chasing her away. He knew she cared about him, but did she love him?

Maureen sat down on the old tree trunk and wiggled her toes in the cool water. Adam sat down next to her and laughed when she reminded him about the “cake prank” that he had pulled on her. He reminded her of pushing the crying baby into his arms.

“You should have seen the look on your face,” she laughed delightedly.

“Well, it wasn’t my fault,” he answered grudgingly. “I don’t remember much about babies.”

“You managed quite well, Adam. You’re gonna make a wonderful father.” Without waiting to see what his answer might be, Maureen (who still wasn’t wearing shoes) rolled her jeans up to her knees and began to wade. “Come on in! This feels really good!”

He didn’t move – he was too busy enjoying watching Maureen’s bare calves.

“Aw, Adam. Don’t be a party pooper. Relax a little and have some fun.”

He had to smile if only because her happiness and her smile were so contagious. He took off his boots and socks and walked out to where Maureen was standing. He had to admit that the cool water and the soft sand really did feel good. He grinned.

“See, you old fuddy-duddy. I told you it felt good!” she laughed, her eyes sparkling.

“Humph,” was the answer she got, but the corners of his mouth crept up into an unmistakable smile. Taking her hand, they walked up the creek in a companionable silence. Fish swam around their feet, birds were singing, and a slight breeze began to blow. I love her. Why can’t I just say it? Seeing a pile of sharp rocks ahead, Adam gave a slight tug on her hand to steer her away. But she lost her balance and fell flat into the water, getting completely drenched in the process. Adam knew she wasn’t hurt and couldn’t stop the laughter that erupted from him.

Maureen stood, water cascading from her hair and her clothes. “You did that on purpose!” she pouted.

“No I didn’t. I was trying to keep you from cutting your feet on those rocks behind you.”

“Oh, really?” was the answer. She knew he was right but wouldn’t concede defeat. She approached him, dripping wet, and gave him a huge unexpected shove and he fell backwards into the water. Now they both were sopping wet.

Like children, they chased each other through the coolness, pushing each other down again and again, throwing handfuls of water at each other. Maureen was the first to admit defeat. “Okay, you win. You’re bigger and stronger, and I’m no match for you. I’m getting out and am going to dry off in the sun. Just don’t forget payback!”

Adam’s “payback” was not exactly what she had been referring to. Her wet blouse, now thoroughly plastered to her body, left nothing to the imagination. Her shapely bare legs and the wet jeans only added fuel to the fire that was building in him. He grabbed her arm and spun her around to face him. The green of her eyes was almost startling, and the thought crossed his mind that she probably scared men when she looked at them that way. Without warning, he kissed her – a kiss that was deep and passionate and that lasted so long Maureen could hardly breathe. What surprised her was her own response – she felt as if she couldn’t get enough of him, of his lips, his arms around her, the tightness of his embrace.

Through their wet clothes, she could feel the hardness of his chest and the fire in his body. Everywhere he touched, her skin felt burned. And she felt a hunger of her own, a fire within her own body. Her mind reeled, her breathing quickened, and she felt like she was losing control. She knew that they both wanted each other physically, but she knew she couldn’t give in.

Breathlessly, she pulled away from his embrace. The fire in his eyes was so intense that it almost frightened her. Wordlessly, she turned and walked back to the fallen tree trunk and stood, confused by her own feelings for this wonderful man. She stood in the sun next to the tree trunk and fidgeted nervously. She ran her fingers through her wet hair, hoping that she could stall for time and get her feelings back under control. Adam watched her and then approached her.

When he was even with her, he stopped just inside her comfort zone. He was close enough to catch the subtle hint of her perfume, was close enough to see the pulse beat beneath the delicate skin in the hollow at the base of her throat. “I should say that I’m sorry. But that would be a lie,” he began. He pushed a strand of wet hair away from her forehead. “I can’t apologize for being a man or for reacting like a man.”

Maureen ducked her head. Cradling her face in his big hands, he lifted her face to look at him. She felt her legs get weak and her knees began to shake. Adam watched as her eyes turned sea-foam green. “Don’t say it Adam. I know what you’re about to say, and I don’t want to hear it.”

But he said it anyway. “I love you,” he said simply. “I have for a long time. I just didn’t know how to say it. I didn’t want to push you too hard or too fast. Will you marry me? Share my life with me? Share my bed with me? Have our children? I’ve waited all my life for someone just like you, and I can’t let go of you.”

A single tear slid down Maureen’s face, and her eyes changed back to their normal green. “You don’t know how long I have waited for you to say that to me. I thought the time would never come. Now the time has come.” She looked into his face and ran her hand across his cheek. “Sit down with me. I have something to tell you.” He could see sadness in her eyes, but he sat down and hoped that her answer would be “yes.” But in his heart, heavy as stone, he knew the answer would be “no.”

Another tear slid down Maureen’s cheek. “I love you, Adam. You are offering me what I have always dreamed of – what I always thought I truly wanted.” Adam’s heart pounded as Maureen explained about Linda, the letter, the position of co-administrator, helping to be in charge of a houseful of children. “Adam, I truly believe this is what I am meant to do. I know what it’s like to be bounced like a ball from one home to another. Children are given away to foster parents willy-nilly. It doesn’t matter if the foster parents are good or bad. There are just so many children who need homes – nobody checks out if it will be a good home, a loving home. I can help make a difference. I want to help make a difference. Please tell me that you understand why I can’t stay with you, why I can’t marry you. Not right now. And I can’t ask you to wait for me, even though the job will be a temporary one. You’re a grown man and have a wonderful home. You will always have your family to stand by you. I want to see little children have the same chance.”

They clung to each other then, Maureen’s tears wetting Adam’s cheek. He tried to speak, couldn’t, and then tried again. Through the lump in his throat, Adam spoke. “Maureen, I love you enough to want for you the things that you want most. I don’t want to let you go. If I thought I could tie you up and keep you here, I would. But I don’t want to hold you against your will. If ever you change your mind, hurry home to me. I won’t promise you that I’ll wait forever, but I can’t imagine that another woman could ever take your place.”

Maureen pulled out of his embrace slowly. “Thank you, my love, for understanding how important this is to me. Now, do me one last favor. Let me walk away from you and ride back to Kathleen’s alone. I won’t – I can’t – look back at you.” He held her hand tightly, nodded, and then felt her hand slip from his. He heard her ride away. And then he wept.

CHAPTER TWENTY SIX

Both Linda and Maureen had asked Ben and Adam not to come to say goodbye, and their requests were honored. The stage left Virginia City on time and in a huge cloud of dust. Maureen and Linda looked at each other with some sadness of what they were leaving behind but with some excitement about what they were headed toward. Neither woman saw the two horses in the shadows of the towering Ponderosa Pines. They never saw the two pairs of Cartwright eyes watching them as they sped away.

But Maureen, eyes changing to sea-foam green, could hear Adam whispering, “Goodbye, my love.” And she could “see”, in Adam’s strong hands, a ribbon that she had lost a long time ago. Smiling at a tearful Linda, Maureen reached over and held her hand. “Don’t be sad. This story isn’t over. Not by a long shot.” And then Maureen’s eyes turned deep green again.

In the shadows of the pines, two horsemen were joined by two other horsemen. The four Cartwrights stood together, watching as the stage disappeared. A ribbon was slipped back into a pocket.

“Home, son?” asked Ben, his face a mask of sadness. He remembered what Maureen had told him about Linda – “She’s the one” – and began to doubt that it was true.

“Home, Pa,” came Adam’s soft answer through the lump in his throat.

He, like Ben, remembered what Maureen had said about holding his own child in his arms. But would it be his and Maureen’s child? As one, four horses turned and headed slowly back home – to their Ponderosa.

EPILOGUE As predicted by Maureen, the story won’t end here……..

THE END

 

6 thoughts on “Choices (by acspeej)”

  1. I just found this. I know it was posted a long time ago but I do hope you continued the story. This was a great story about a first romance. It started with one couple and ended with two, both not knowing what their futures held. Maureen is a perfect match for Adam. He’s the one that can help her become that real “lady” she’s desperate to be. I do hope there’s an answer as to whether they have a future together, as well as Ben and Linda.

  2. This story was kind of hard to read because of the format, but otherwise very good. It would be nice to have another story to this.

  3. This story was brilliant and what a perfect match for Adam you couldn’t have picked better and I loved her wit, humour, sense or fun and the practical jokes that she played on everyone and even more the fact that Maureen is so sassy and feisty, please you have to continue this story it has left me wanting more, and especially the two of them getting married and having some feisty demanding little daughters of their own and maybe a son too so please please please don’t leave it at this I will keep looking out for more so please think about it as it is a great story and needs to be given a sequel and continued into their twilight years too.

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