Summary: Why did Adam disappear from the Ponderosa, never to return again? Maybe it happened like this….
Rating: T Word count: 19, 450
“Everything all right, Adam?” Jonathan leaned back in his soft leather armchair and surveyed his friend, a quizzical smile twitching the corners of his mouth. “You seem…distracted tonight. Nothing amiss, I hope.”
“Hmm?” Adam raised his eyes from his brandy glass. Realizing he’d been frowning at the drink, he relaxed his face.
“No. No, nothing at all.” Turning the drink in his hand, he watched the honey-colored liquid swirl around the bottom of the glass. “At least…” the frown returned of its own accord. “I had a letter from home today.”
He’d been in Boston six weeks, staying at the home of his old friend, Jonathan Earnshaw. Jonathan owned a successful architectural engineering company and was, considered Adam, what he might have been himself, if he had pursued his own engineering dreams. That thought had played in the back of his mind many times over the past six weeks. The trouble was, most men were content with one dream. He had too many, and men with too many dreams were bound to end up dissatisfied.
“Ah,” said Jonathan, as if the arrival of a letter explained everything.
Adam looked up once more from his glass. “Would you and Ann think me very rude if I cut short my visit?”
“Exceedingly rude,” said Jonathan. Then grinning his affable grin, he added, “Of course we wouldn’t. If something urgent has arisen at home, of course you must go. But we’ll be sorry to lose you. You’re almost part of the family now. And the girls will be terribly disappointed. You promised you’d help them build the biggest kite Boston had ever seen, remember?”
“Oh yes.” Adam smiled too, momentarily dispelling the restlessness that had haunted him all through dinner. “I guess I’ll just have to let their father in on my secret giant kite construction methods and let him take all the glory when it’s the admiration of the city.”
“I don’t want to pry, but may I ask what it is that’s so urgent? Is it business?”
Adam shook his head. “No. Nothing like that. It’s a friend. Someone who’s been living abroad and I haven’t seen for a long time. Coming to stay at the Ponderosa for a month or so.” He hesitated and his forehead dinted again as he made the mental calculation. “Already there, in fact, since my father’s letter took three weeks to get here. And it’ll take me another three weeks to get home.” That thought brought his brows even closer together. “Which is why I need to leave tomorrow.”
Jonathan took a sip of his brandy and a playful smile twinkled behind his spectacles. “This friend, it wouldn’t be a woman now, would it?”
Adam flashed him a sharp look. “What makes you say that?”
“Because I know you, and you’ve got that look about you.”
“That one that says you’re not telling me the whole truth.”
In spite of himself, Adam couldn’t help but laugh. “You’re making that up.”
“I’m right though, aren’t I? It is a woman.”
“So what if it is?”
Jonathan shrugged. “Nothing. Nothing at all. I’d be delighted if it was. You’ve been single too long, Cartwright. It’s about time you found yourself a nice little woman and settled down.”
“Who said she was a ‘nice little woman’?”
Jonathan’s eyebrows danced. “Aha, a woman with a history! All the better. So much more interesting. Do tell me more.”
Adam allowed himself a smile, and shook his head. “No. Sorry, to disappoint you but no history. At least, not the way you mean. She’s just a girl who came to stay with us back in the summer of ’56. Her uncle’s an old friend of my father’s. She lives with him in San Francisco. At least, she did then, and she does again now. In between, she was married to a man called Richard Johnson and lived in Africa.”
“So she’s married?”
“No. Well, yes, she was. But now she’s not. She’s a widow. According to my father’s letter, Richard has died.” Adam rolled his eyes at the expression on his friend’s face. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
“Because something tells me this woman means more to you than you’re admitting. She must since you’re in such a hurry to run all the way back to Nevada to see her? And now you tell me she’s a widow….”
Adam grinned. “You’re always trying to marry me off, Earnshaw.”
“My dear fellow, somebody has to. A man needs a wife to civilize him.”
“I’m perfectly civilized, thank you.”
“What, living out west among the savages?” It was a well-worn joke between them. Adam acknowledged it with a tilt of his eyebrow.
“So,” said Jonathan, “tell me about her.”
Adam raised a hand as if to dismiss the invitation. “There’s nothing to tell. No, really there’s not. There’s nothing between us and never was. She came to stay in ’56—as I told you—and while she was traveling from San Francisco with her aunt and uncle to see us, she met this man, Richard Johnson, fell in love, and married him.”
“Just like that?”
“And he whisked her off to Africa?”
“He was a missionary. She wanted an adventure.”
“That face you’re pulling, I take it you didn’t think much of this Richard fellow?”
“Richard was…” Adam paused while he sought the right word, “zealous. To say the least. Earnest and sincere, but painfully zealous. However, he was also witty and articulate, and far better looking than any so-called missionary has a right to be.” He lifted one shoulder, grudgingly. “To all intents and purposes, he was a pretty decent fellow. Just a little too…fervent. You’re giving me that look again, Earnshaw. What is it now?”
“Do I detect a note of jealousy?”
“No. Of course not. There never was anything between Claudia and me.”
“Ah, Claudia. So the widow has a name. Tell me more about Claudia. ”
“And what exactly do you want to know?”
“Why she has you dropping everything to rush back to Nevada. Why her erstwhile husband so obviously riles you. And why the blood came up in your face the moment you spoke her name to me.”
“That was the brandy,” insisted Adam. Then, with a sigh of exasperation, he relented. “All right. If you must know, I did like Claudia. There was no sense in it. She was blatantly in love with another man. I was a fool then, and the fact I’m dropping everything to rush back to see her now proves I’m still a fool. When she and Richard went off to Africa, I thought that was it. I never expected to see her again. To be honest, it was a relief. Then, when Pa’s letter arrived and I saw that she was coming back to the Ponderosa, and that Richard was dead….”
He trailed off, slumping down in his chair, as if defeated by his own speech.
There was a long moment of silence. Jonathan wasn’t laughing any more. “Well,” he said, “I didn’t realize it was that serious.”
Twitching his face as if to unseat an annoying fly, Adam shrugged off the suggestion. “It wasn’t serious. I already told you, she wasn’t the slightest bit interested in me. I was just…infatuated.”
“I don’t know that I’ve ever seen you quite so agitated over a woman. I’d loved to have met her. She must have been quite something to put you into this lather.”
Downing the rest of his brandy in a single gulp, Adam held out his glass for a refill. “I’m not in a lather, as you put it. And yes, she was pretty. In fact, she was very pretty. But…” He hesitated, watching as Jonathan replenished his glass from the decanter, “…she was also only sixteen.”
Jonathan’s eyebrows twitched, but his face remained expressionless. “Girls marry at sixteen,” he said carefully.
“I know that.” Adam’s brows drew closer together. “She married Richard, didn’t she?”
“So you’re still in love with her and you’re going back to see if there’s any chance this time around?”
Adam’s face darkened. “I don’t know. I don’t know that I was in love with her. Not really. I mean, yes, she was pretty. And she had this smile…. And when she laughed….” He trailed off, disturbed by his own inability to complete a sentence. “I’m not sure why I’m going back,” he confessed at last. “She never showed any interest in me. In fact…in fact, I think she was scared of me.” The admission brought his brow even lower. “She seemed relaxed enough when Pa was around. And she and Hoss were always laughing together. But with me…if I came into the room, she’d clam up, as if she didn’t know what to say to me. As if I made her feel uncomfortable. She was even nice to Little Joe, and he was so love-struck by her, he pretty much tripped over his own tongue whenever she was in the room.” He shook his head in bafflement. “At least he had the excuse he was only fourteen at the time.”
“Oh yes, of course,” said Jonathan with a wry smile, “and you were…what? An old man of twenty-two, was it? Twenty-three?” He laughed at the expression of bemusement on Adam’s face. “Don’t be so harsh on yourself, Adam. Love makes fools of the best of us. I take it you never told her how you felt.”
A look of horror crossed Adam’s face. “Heavens, no! That would have been embarrassing! Anyway, she was already besotted with Richard, wasn’t she? And I knew she wasn’t right for me, I already explained that.”
“No you didn’t. You said she was only sixteen. That’s not the same thing.”
“She was still a child. She still liked…I don’t know, girlish things. I couldn’t talk to her, not the way I talk to you.”
This time, it was Jonathan’s turn to laugh.
“What’s so funny?” demanded Adam, looking pained.
“You. What you just said. If you’re waiting to find a woman who’ll want to spend her evening chatting about suspension bridges, or cantilevers, or even Aristotle, you’ll be waiting forever.”
Adam pulled a face at him. “You know what I mean.”
Leaning forward in his chair, Jonathan nodded. “Yes I do. You want a wife who enjoys the same things you do, shares the same interests, laughs at the same jokes.”
“Yes,” said Adam. “That’s exactly what I want. Is there something wrong with that?”
“No.” Jonathan shook his head. “Not at all. Perfectly logical. Except,” he paused and waved his glass close to Adam’s face as if to emphasize the truth of what he was about to say, “love has nothing to do with logic. Whatever causes that spark between a man and a woman, it’s not logic. I consider myself a sensible man, yet the first time I met Ann, I fell for her the instant she smiled at me. Knew nothing about her. It was all down to that smile. That’s not what sensible men do, is it? But, as it turns out, I’m very glad I did.”
Adam let out an exasperated sigh. “I thought you’d be the first one to try and talk some sense into me, Jonathan; tell me I’m wasting my time rushing back to Nevada on a whim. But it sounds as if you’re telling me I should go back.”
Jonathan shrugged. “I’m not telling you to do anything. But it’s not like you to look so unsure of yourself, Cartwright. That’s why this girl intrigues me. And, anyway, if you don’t go back now, you’ll wonder forever what might have been. Better to know than to wonder.”
“That’s it.” Adam nodded, as if Jonathan had hit the nail on the head. “I don’t want to wonder. This memory I have of her—this image in my head—I’ve built her up into something she never was, I’m sure of it. Besides which, I would have been leaving for home in a week or two anyway, so it’s not as if I’m not cutting my trip that short.”
Jonathan’s eyebrows danced sardonically. Adam drew his mouth in a tight line. “I’m so glad you’re enjoying this, Earnshaw.”
A flicker of mischief glinted in Jonathan’s eye. “Anyway, one thing’s for certain.”
Adam narrowed his eyes. “What?”
“She won’t be sixteen anymore.”
Seeing the dark, self-possessed stranger, sitting in the corner seat by the window, eyes fixed on the scenery as it slipped past the windows of the train, the passengers in the railway carriage, heading westwards, would have had no clue as to the torment raging inside the man’s head. They, like many who didn’t know him well, might well have been inclined to imagine that his impassive face reflected a cold and superior manner. They could not know of the years spent perfecting that mask of composure, until it was able to fool even those who knew him best. The truth was, he liked to play his cards close to his chest. Emotions were dangerous things. They had a habit of leaving a man exposed and vulnerable, and that was not a position Adam Cartwright enjoyed.
It was why he had never revealed to Claudia just how he had felt about her. No one wanted to look like a fool, Adam Cartwright least of all. Clearly, the girl had been too young for him, and there had been no sensible explanation for the instant attraction he had felt for her. Sure, she had been pretty, with her thick waves of dark hair tumbling over her shoulders, and her eyes as blue as Lake Tahoe itself, but he was no animal to succumb to mere physical attraction. There had been more to it than that, but what that something more had been, he could not define. That troubled him. It was just as Jonathan had said: love had nothing to do with logic. But dammit, why not? Why did it not adhere to the rules? Why was it so inexplicable?
There were women out there far more suited to him than Claudia Miller. Jane Mayhew, for example. He and Jane had been something of an item before he’d left for Boston. Jane was beautiful too. Elegantly beautiful. Tall and graceful with golden hair and the neck of a Caravaggio Madonna. Jane had been to school; she read novels and poetry and she could talk about them with intelligence and understanding. Even when she flirted with him, she was witty and astute. So why did the thought of Jane not cause his heart to beat at twice its normal rate, and his breath to catch in his throat? Why should it be Claudia—patently a less suitable match—who had this inexplicable power to turn him into a gibbering fool?
He would settle it once and for all. Seven years had passed. He was no longer as young and impressionable as he had been then. And she? Well, seven years would have changed her too. Seven years on, he would look at her and wonder where all the foolish fuss inside him had come from. He was traveling home, he told himself, to find closure for a ridiculous folly on his part that never should have been.
At St. Joseph, he left the train and took the Overland westwards. Plains, deserts and mountains receded into the haze as the stage lumbered its rattling way across the endless miles, but in spite of his determination to eschew the youthful madness that had brought him rushing home, each dusty, cramped, uncomfortable day only increased his agitation.
There had been no time to send a letter before he’d left Boston, so there was no one to meet him when the stage finally rolled into Virginia City. He headed straight to the livery to hire a horse. The knowledge that he was close to home filled him with an unaccountable nervousness he did his best to deny, yet still his heart beat faster with every mile, and every step closer to home swelled the apprehension that had been growing inside him ever since he’d set out from Boston.
Unwashed, unshaven, dust-caked and tired, he rode at last into the yard of the Ponderosa. As he slid from the saddle, with a sigh of relief, Hoss’s familiar figure emerged from the barn and his broad face split in a wide grin.
“Jumpin’ Jehosophat, Adam! What you doin’ back already? We wa’n’t expecting you for another week, at least.”
A movement behind him caught Adam’s attention; a small boy had slipped out of the barn and now pressed himself close to Hoss’s right leg. Adam put him at four or five years old. Hoss’s hand dropped easily to the fair head. “Hey, Zach, this here’s my older brother, Adam. You remember we told you all about Adam?”
The boy stared up at Adam with wide blue eyes and nodded his head. Afterwards, it seemed to Adam that his brain must have been as clogged with dust as his shirt and hat because he stared back without any comprehension. Hoss said, “You should’a let us know and we’d’a been there to meet you,” but before he could explain, a woman’s voice spoke his name from behind, and his heart jumped in his chest. He wheeled around.
She was as lovely as he remembered. Maybe even lovelier. Seven years had turned her from a girl into a woman. The changes were subtle but noticeable. Her curves beneath the flowered print dress were fuller, more pronounced. He liked that. And he liked the way she wore her hair, fastened up behind her head. It gave her an air of maturity and sophistication. Here and there, a few curls had broken loose. The way they touched her neck produced an instant ache inside him.
“How come you’re back so early?” asked Hoss.
He dragged his eyes away from Claudia. “I finished everything I wanted to do in Boston. And it goes without saying,” he raised an eyebrow, “I missed all the dust and the Eau de Manure that accompanies you wherever you go.”
“Oh duh..?” Hoss’s face scrunched in a baffled frown, then cleared as he grinned. “Oh yeah. That’s ’cos me ’n’ Zach was just cleaning out some of them stalls in there.” His meaty hand squeezed the shoulder of the small boy beside him. “This here’s Zach,” he said. “Claudia’s son.”
For a moment, Adam’s brain swam. Claudia’s son? In all the long days of traveling and wondering, he had not once considered the possibility that Claudia might have a child. Or children. Were there more? He was still reeling as he acknowledged the boy.
The boy continued to stare.
“Zach,” said his mother, sounding almost as anxious as Adam felt. “Say hello to Adam.”
Zach raised his eyes to Hoss. “Why’s he so dirty?” he asked.
Hoss grinned at Adam. Anyone could see the kid was in love with him, thought Adam. Kids always loved Hoss.
“He’s been riding a long way,” explained Hoss.
“Zach!” Claudia scolded, horrified at her son’s poor manners.
Adam smiled. “It’s all right. I must look a fright. Are Pa and Joe here?”
“In town,” said Hoss. “They’ll be back in time for dinner.”
“Mistah Adam!” Hop Sing bustled out of the kitchen doorway, wiping his hands on a towel. “You home early!” He ran appraising eyes over Adam’s travel-weary figure and wagged his finger. “Hop Sing bring lemonade. And coffee. You sit down, Mistah Adam. Drink coffee while Hop Sing fill bath tub.”
“I’ll see to your horse,” offered Hoss. “Hey, Hop Sing, you got any of them walnut cookies left? I know a little feller here who’d like one with his lemonade.”
“And a big feller too,” added Adam. Claudia laughed and Adam’s insides quivered.
“You wanna help me with Adam’s horse?” Hoss asked Zach, and the little boy nodded with an eagerness that told Adam he’d be happy to do anything if it meant he could be like Hoss. He looked a pleasant enough kid, face still baby-round, silky hair the color of flax. Richard had been blond, remembered Adam. He shrugged that off. So Zach was Richard’s kid, no getting around that. On the other hand, he was fast getting used to the notion of Claudia as a mother. Kind of liked the idea, in fact. She’d been so young when he’d first known her; so alarmingly young. Motherhood, like the subtle changes to her appearance, gave her a maturity he found unexpectedly attractive.
They sat in the shade of the porch, and after endless days of cramped discomfort and sweltering heat it should have been bliss to have a comfortable chair beneath him and a glass of cool lemonade to rinse the dust from his throat, but his nerves were all on fire and he could not relax at all. All he could think about was the woman now sitting less than an arm’s length away, and behaving naturally was suddenly the most difficult thing in the world to do. He asked after her aunt and uncle while she poured the lemonade into two glasses and made to put one down on the table in front of him. Without thinking, he intercepted and took it from her hand. Instantly, he regretted the action as their fingers brushed and she dropped her face away from him, the blood rising in her cheeks. Was she still intimidated by him, even seven years on? He drank the lemonade in four thirsty gulps and set the glass down on the table. She looked up, surprised and a little anxious.
“Would you like some more?”
He pushed the glass towards her and watched as she filled it for a second time. This time she let him retrieve it himself.
“Your father said we shouldn’t expect you for at least another week.” Her voice sounded forced, the way people speak when they’re making polite conversation.
“No, I….” For a wild moment he considered confessing how he’d come running the instant he’d heard she was at the Ponderosa, but his courage failed him. Instead, he said, “I’d concluded all my business in Boston.” That sounded starchy, even to him. He tried again, this time with a smile. “Funny how this place calls you back.”
Her face softened then, her eyes brightening as though someone had lit a lamp behind them. “Yes, it does,” she agreed, and this time the warmth in her face was reflected in her voice. “I’ve thought about this place so many times over the years. A little flush of pink rose to her cheeks. “I think the summer I spent here was the happiest of my life.”
Her wide-eyed earnestness stirred a strange desperation inside him. For a brief moment, their eyes met and he heard his own voice say, “Claudia….” But even as he spoke, she dropped her gaze to the table, as if he’d done something to embarrass her.
“How was your journey?” she said, and the stiffness was back in her voice.
The blood rose in his own cheeks. He wiped his arm across his face to cover his weakness. He had almost told her. Almost. He felt hot just thinking how close he had come.
“Long,” he said, “and hot. And there was a large woman with an ostrich feather hat who kept falling asleep on my shoulder.”
What had he been thinking? He couldn’t simply launch into a profession of love when he’d barely been back five minutes. And anyway, at that very moment, Hop Sing appeared from the kitchen, with a tray of coffee and a plate of cookies, Zach came running from the barn and Claudia’s attention was diverted. The moment—if ever there had been one—was lost. But it didn’t matter. He was home. There was plenty of time. He would bathe and shave, put on fresh clothes, and then, after dinner, when Zach was in bed, he would invite Claudia to walk with him in the soft darkness beneath the pines, and he would open his heart to her. For better or for worse. He would explain how he had always loved her, even in her absence, and how he loved her still, even more so now, seeing her again after seven years apart. Watching the tenderness in her face as she stroked back Zach’s hair and set a kiss on the top of his head, he had to look away and breathe hard to quell the ache inside him.
He soaked a long time in the tub, scrubbing away the ground in dust and sweat of weeks of traveling, and took extra care with his razor so that he would look his best. He donned a clean white shirt and a tie, and just as he was finishing dressing, he heard horses in the yard, and his father’s deep, resonating voice. So, Pa and Joe were back from town. He checked his appearance in the mirror, straightened his hair, and headed downstairs to greet them.
They were all there, Hoss, Pa, Joe, and Claudia. Only Zach—now in bed—was missing. Claudia, sitting on the sofa, had on a dress of turquoise satin, the color of the sea. Pa, an unopened bottle of French champagne in one hand, gripped him by the shoulder as he reached the foot of the stairs. Joe seized his hand and slapped him on the arm.
“Good to have you back, son,” said Pa.
“Good to be back,” Adam told him. “I hope these fellers have been behaving in my absence.”
He caught the look that passed between them then, as if there was something important they all knew and he didn’t.
Joe looked at Hoss, then at Claudia. “Have you told him?”
Hoss shook his head. “No. You said you wanted to be the one to tell him, when he got home.”
“Tell me what?” Adam was smiling, but a sudden disquiet ruffled the edges of his contentment. There was an undercurrent of excitement in the room that had nothing to do with his return. Joe’s eyes were dancing with it, and Hoss was grinning fit to bust. Claudia had lowered her gaze, a little smile playing around her mouth, so that she looked demure and enticing at the same time. Adam dragged his eyes back to his brothers. They were exchanging looks, each plainly bursting to be the first to share their wonderful secret.
“So, tell me.”
“Well…” said Joe, and stopped. He looked at Claudia, and as she rose from the sofa and came to stand beside him, Adam’s heart seemed to shrink in his chest. “Claudia and I…” said Joe. The room dipped a little as Joe pulled her closer. “Claudia and I are going to be married.”
This time, without question, the room lurched and spun. It was all Adam could do not to grab the back of the nearest chair to steady himself.
Hoss looked delighted. “Told you he’d be shocked,” he said.
“Married?” The word emerged from Adam’s throat in a squawk, but at least, somehow, he managed to keep the grin fastened on his face. It seemed to fool them all because they kept on laughing, as if they’d just shared a great joke. Except it wasn’t a joke. Adam could tell that by the way Joe’s arm encircled Claudia’s shoulders, grotesquely intimate.
Thankfully, Pa chose that moment to open the champagne bottle. The pop of the cork distracted everyone’s attention long enough for Adam to regain control of his face and voice, even if, inside, he was still reeling. Pa put a glass in his hand, and he stared at the mocking bubbles, barely seeing them.
“To Claudia and Joseph,” said Pa, raising his glass.
Adam forced his hand to acknowledge the toast.
“Wonderful news, hey Adam?” Pa’s face was beaming.
Hoss slapped his shoulder. “Ain’t often we see you at a loss for words, older brother.”
“No.” Adam floundered, his gaze drawn back against his will to Joe’s arm, still blatantly enfolding Claudia. “You…er… certainly took me by surprise.” He dragged his eyes upwards to his youngest brother’s face. “You didn’t waste any time, did you?”
“No reason to.” Joe tightened his grip. He was all but oozing pride. “We knew pretty much straight away we were right for each other.”
Adam looked at Claudia. She chose that precise moment to look at him, and for an instant, their eyes locked. He was sure he saw a little cloud smudge the blue.
“Are you sure you know what you’re doing, Claudia?” It was a pretense at light-heartedness. He still had the meaningless grin fixed to his face. She blushed and smiled and leaned closer into Joe’s embrace.
“We were just waiting for you to get back,” said Joe. “Now we can go ahead with the wedding. Next week.”
Next week? The room did another unholy dip and swam around him. “That soon?” He hoped his voice didn’t betray his horror. “What’s the big rush?”
The smile wavered on Joe’s face. “No rush. It’s just…well, when you know… no point in waiting around, is there?”
“No, I…I guess not. I’m… a little stunned, that’s all.”
“Yeah.” Joe’s face relaxed. The grin came back. “We figured you’d be surprised.”
“Ain’t you jealous, big brother?” Hoss was enjoying himself. “Reckon that brother of ours has landed himself the prettiest little filly in the whole of the territory.”
Joe kissed the top of Claudia’s head, Pa raised another toast to the happy couple and Adam bit back a howl of anguish, forcing the smile back to his face.
“We saw the Mayhews in town today,” said Pa, setting his empty champagne glass down on the table. “I invited them to join us for dinner tomorrow.”
The Mayhews? Adam was still recovering from the shock of Claudia’s engagement to Joe. He’d almost forgotten about Jane Mayhew. His face must have registered his dismay because Pa looked momentarily concerned.
“What’s the matter, Adam? I thought you’d be keen to see Jane again.”
Jane? Of course. Pa would think that, wouldn’t he? The whole of Virginia City probably thought that; waiting eagerly for the first word of an official engagement, so they could gossip it around town. Yet, since Pa had sent word of Claudia’s coming, he had spared barely a thought for poor Jane.
“No,” he said, shaking his head to clear it. “I mean, yes. Of course it will be good to see her again.” He gave Pa what he hoped was a convincing smile. “It was a long journey, Pa. Between that, and the discovery my brother’s all but wed already, is it any wonder I can barely think straight?”
Somehow he managed to keep up the pretense all through dinner, so no one would suspect the anguish eating away inside him, but it was exhausting. While Joe was bubbling over with happiness, inside Adam, the initial shock had transformed itself into a knot of resentment that was swelling uncontrollably, fed by Joe’s undisguised joy. It was difficult to speak to Joe, or even look at him, without betraying the hurt he felt. And the patent delight around the table over the forthcoming wedding turned his food to sand between his teeth.
As soon as it was politely possible, he excused himself on the grounds that he was tired after his trip, and retreated to the sanctuary of his own bedroom. Without bothering even to light the lamp, he dropped down on the edge of his bed and sank his head into his hands, with a moan. How could it have gone so wrong? A rejection from Claudia had always been in the cards, of course. He’d known that; just never really allowed himself to acknowledge the prospect. But to lose her again to another man when he was so close! And for that man to be Joe! His own brother, of all people!
Voices drifted in through the open window. There was no mistaking whose they were: Joe’s, and then Claudia’s. In spite of himself, he lifted his head. Soft laughter twisted the blade lodged deep in his gut. He rose, cursing inwardly, crossing the room in two strides to close the sash and shut out the pain of their intimacy. Through the open window, he saw them clearly, close to the fence beside the barn, silhouetted in the moonlight, their bodies pressed so close they might have been one person.
He strangled a groan of pain. Damn you, Joe! Damn you! She was mine! She was mine!
He turned from the window and pressed his fingers to his forehead. He had to stop thinking about Claudia. He was a rational man, and his obsession with this woman was entirely irrational. There were other women, women better suited to him. He would waste no more time fretting over Claudia. Jane Mayhew would make a better match for him, by far, than Claudia Miller. There was no child involved, no past husband to haunt their future together. He would not succumb to despair over Claudia. She had never acknowledged any affection for him whereas Jane had made no secret of her admiration. Jane enjoyed his attentions and her family approved of him too. Jane would be a worthy partner. He would put all thoughts of Claudia out of his head and concentrate only on Jane.
Despite his resolution, he slept badly, haunted by images of Claudia in Joe’s arms and—worse —in Joe’s bed. When he stood in front of the shaving mirror the following morning, the face that looked back out at him was frayed, sallow-skinned, the eyes ringed with shadow. At breakfast, Pa took one look at him and told him he needed to rest and recover from his journey. The idea of being left at the house, discussing wedding plans with Claudia and Zach filled him with dismay, so he shrugged off Pa’s advice and instead accompanied Hoss to the top meadows, to check the herd there. Occupying his mind with work was the best way to maintain his sanity, but with the impending wedding on everyone’s mind, it wasn’t long before the inevitable conversation raised its head. In spite of himself, he could not keep from voicing the doubts that had plagued him throughout his troubled night.
“It’s all pretty sudden, isn’t it?” he said to Hoss. “Why the rush?”
Hoss lifted a shoulder. “You know Joe.”
That answer did nothing to reassure Adam. “Do you think they’re really right for each other?”
Oblivious to the desperation Adam was at such pains to conceal, Hoss chuckled. “Yeah. I reckon they are. You jus’ gotta get used to the idea, Adam. Y’only have to look at Joe to see how much he adores that gal. Zach too. The two of them’s as thick as thieves.”
“Yeah, well, Joe’s hardly more than a kid himself, that’s probably why.”
Hoss flicked him a puzzled look. “Joe’s twenty-one. That’s plenty old enough to be wed.”
Adam grunted, aware he sounded churlish but unable to help himself.
“Plenty of fellers younger’n Joe are married.”
“I know. But that doesn’t make it right for Joe.” Adam’s sigh betrayed his impatience. “I’m just not convinced he’s had time to think it through properly. You have to admit, Hoss, it’s all happened pretty fast.” A sickening possibility hit him like a bucket of cold water to the head. “Oh heck, you don’t suppose…?”
“What?” said Hoss as Adam tailed off, the idea too unsettling to contemplate. A faint color rose to the big man’s cheeks as his brother’s meaning sank in. “No, I sure don’t! And shame on you for even considerin’ such a thing, Adam!”
“Oh come on, Hoss, she’s been married before. She’s hardly the blushing virgin.”
“You shouldn’t talk that way ’bout Claudia. She may be a widow, but she’s respectable. And Joe’s taken real good care of her, for all his foolin’ around in the past. You ain’t got no call to be making that kind of insinuation.”
Adam backed down with a shrug. At least there was some relief in Hoss’s certainty that his fears were ungrounded, but little comfort beyond that.
“I’m just trying to understand why they’re in such a mad rush to get married.”
“They’re in love. Anyone can see that. An’ Little Joe always did like her, right from the first time she came to stay, even though he was jus’ a kid then. You ain’t been here, Adam. If you had, you’d see it jus’ done feels right.”
Adam couldn’t argue with that, so he fell silent and said no more about Joe and Claudia, and Hoss didn’t bring up the subject again. But still he could not put Claudia from his mind. No matter how hard he tried to distract himself, she would push straight back into his thoughts. He was going to see Jane that evening he reminded himself, and thinking that, found himself consciously waiting for the thrill of excitement he experienced whenever he thought about Claudia. But it didn’t come.
They got back to the ranch with an hour and a half to spare before the Mayhews arrived. By then, lack of sleep was catching up with Adam and a brief nap seemed to be in order. However, he fell instead into a sound and dreamless sleep, waking only when he heard the jingle of harness in the yard and voices raised in greeting. His heart sank. The thought of another evening of false joviality, of pretending to be delighted for Joe, of forcing himself to smile and be sociable, seemed too much effort to bear.
A hubbub of voices rose to meet him as he made his way along the hallway to the top of the stairs after a hasty scrub and change of clothes. Bracing himself, he looked down at the small crowd of people gathered in the great room. Mr. and Mrs. Mayhew were there, with glasses of sherry in their hands; and Jane, as elegant as ever in a gown of cream and pink silk, the coils of her chestnut hair woven through with clusters of pearls shaped like small, white flowers. She was much admired around town for her looks, and Adam knew he should have been flattered that of all the eligible bachelors in Virginia City, she had set her sights on him. So why, as he descended the stairs, was it was not Jane who drew his eyes and made his heart race, but Claudia, in a dress of deep red satin that sat low about her shoulders? She was so beautiful, it hurt him to look at her, yet he could not keep from doing so.
Under other circumstances, it would have been a perfect evening. The Mayhews were good company, the wine flowed, and there was plenty of laughter. Yet to Adam, it seemed interminable. Still, he laughed with everyone else, he told stories, he shared jokes; he paid attention to Jane and flattered her mother too. He did everything he was expected to do, and he knew he did it well. Never showing the hurt, that was what he did best. Even when—as he had known it must—the talk turned to Joe and Claudia and their marriage plans, he contrived to keep smiling, and no one remarked on his lack of input on that topic of conversation, or—as far as he could tell—suspected the strain it cost him.
Always, at the corner of his vision, there was Claudia, her cheeks softly flushed with the warmth and the wine, the elegant pleat of her swept-up hair broken here and there by the haunting wisp of a renegade curl against her supple neck. She never spoke much in company unless she was addressed directly, yet Adam would see her eyes follow a conversation around the table, as though she were wondering more about the speaker than the words they spoke. It seemed to him, that evening she was more reserved than usual. A few times, when he was relating a story or an amusing anecdote, he would sense her gaze intent upon him and his blood would tingle in his veins at the knowledge of her scrutiny. Then he would look at Joe, and jealousy would twist his insides into tight balls of misery at the undisguised mixture of pride and longing burning in his younger brother’s eyes as he watched his bride-to-be.
After dinner, Pa poured brandy and Joe and Claudia disappeared out of the house into the darkness beyond. Adam stared after them as if his eyes could follow them through the planks of the door.
“Adam,” Jane’s voice, close to his ear that brought him back to the reality of the present, “I think I’d like some fresh air too.”
It was difficult to focus his mind on Jane when his thoughts were absorbed by Joe and Claudia—where they had gone and what they might be doing—but still he had to resume the charade, force the smile back to his face, and offer her his arm.
There was no sign of Joe or Claudia, even though Adam strained his eyes through the moonlit darkness to catch any glimpse of them. Where had they gone? The barn? The lake? His imagination taunted him with scenarios that made his fists curl of their own accord and he itched to lay his hands on Joe.
“What’s the matter?” asked Jane, following his gaze. “You look…worried.”
“What?” He dragged his gaze back to her face. He shook his head to clear the images that were haunting him. “I’m sorry. It’s nothing. I’m fine. Just tired. It was a long trip.”
“I’m glad you’re back safely. I missed you, you know.”
They had reached the end of the porch. Roses trailed from the trellis. Jane put out her hand and lifted a flower to her face to breathe in the perfume that hung heavy in the air around them. “Beautiful!” she murmured.
Adam summoned the effort to be as gallant as she expected him to be. “Not as beautiful as you.”
She lifted her face to him and her lips parted in a smile. It might have been a cliché, he thought, but it was true. She was beautiful. And desirable too, the way she fixed him with those dark eyes of hers smoldering, and her upturned mouth just asking to be kissed. So, he bent his head and touched his lips to hers. Taking her by the shoulders, he pulled her closer and kissed her again, this time harder. Her softness aroused him. He thought of Joe and Claudia pressed together in the darkness and kissed Jane the way he longed to kiss Claudia.
“Adam!” She pulled her face away with a gasp. “Perhaps we should walk a little.”
“You are beautiful,” he muttered, still holding her against him, running his fingers over the perfect whiteness of her cheek. He lowered his mouth to hers again, forcing her lips apart.
He sensed her resistance. She made a muted protest, struggling to twist her head and pull her mouth free. He released his hold, spinning away from her.
She rubbed her bruised lips, her indignation almost palpable. “Adam Cartwright, what do you think you’re doing?”
He shut his eyes, breath coming jagged and hard. “I’m sorry. I…I don’t know what came over me.”
“I don’t object to you kissing me. A girl likes to be kissed, but….”
“I said I’m sorry. What else do you want me to say?”
Silence hung between them, as heavy as the cloying scent of the roses. She put out a hand to touch his arm and he pulled away.
“What’s the matter, Adam?”
“Nothing. There’s nothing the matter.” He gave an irritable shrug. “It’s just… maybe this is wrong.”
“Wrong? What do you mean, wrong?”
“You and I. Maybe…” Adam faltered, looked up at the moonlit sky, around the yard, down at the ground, and still could not find the right words. “This isn’t going to work, Jane. You and I. It’s not going to work.”
She didn’t say anything. He took a deep breath and turned to face her again. Even through the darkness he could tell she was close to tears.
“Is it…is it because I wouldn’t let you kiss me…like that?”
“No.” He screwed his eyes shut and shook his head. “It’s not that. I said I was sorry about that.”
“I don’t know. I just know it’s not right.”
They stood facing each other in awkward silence. Finally, she said, “Is there someone else?”
His heart jumped in his chest. But before he could answer, she went on, “Did you meet someone? While you were away? In Boston?”
At least he could answer that truthfully. “No. No, I didn’t.” He drew another long breath. “It’s just…I don’t think my future’s here. I…I’m going back to Boston. To live. Forever.”
He’d shocked her into silence. In truth, he’d shocked himself too. The words were out of his mouth even before the idea was properly formulated in his brain. Until that moment, he hadn’t consciously considered a permanent move to Boston, but as soon as he’d said it he realized it was the logical answer.
“As soon as Joe’s married,” he went on, as if the idea was something he’d been planning for weeks. “I have a friend in Boston who runs an architectural company there. He’s offered me a partnership, if I want it.”
That, at least, was true. Jonathan had said he’d be delighted to take him on, should he ever consider settling in Boston. At the time, Adam had thanked him and laughed, and joked that he was a cowboy at heart, but now…? Now, he would write to Jonathan, tell him his plans had changed, ask him if he had been serious about that partnership….
“You’re planning on doing that…alone?”
He forced his attention back to Jane. He knew what she was asking but there was no purpose in prolonging hope where there was none. Whatever the elusive ingredient that elevated interest to the heady heights of love, it was missing between them.
“Yes,” he said, “I’m going alone.”
She nodded, lowering her eyes so she wouldn’t have to look at him. “We should go back inside,” she said. He admired her dignity. He knew how much he’d hurt her.
Soon after that the Mayhews departed, Jane sparing him only a few tight words of farewell. Joe and Claudia had not reappeared and their prolonged absence, and what had transpired with Jane, left Adam agitated and discontented. As the Mayhews’ carriage pulled out of the yard, he caught an exchange of looks between Hoss and Pa, then Pa rested his hand on Adam’s shoulder.
“Am I right in thinking all is not well between you and Jane?”
“Yes,” said Adam. “I told her it was over. It wouldn’t have worked out.”
Pa was waiting for more. When Adam ventured noting further, he said, “Oh? I thought the two of you had so much in common.”
He was about to shrug off Pa’s hand and head back into the house when Joe and Claudia appeared from the direction of the corral.
“Was that the Mayhews leaving?” asked Joe. He looked pleased with himself, which irritated Adam further. “They went early.”
Adam scowled. “We thought you must be lost.”
“Lost?” Joe gave him a puzzled look. “No, we went for a walk.”
“It’s such a beautiful night,” added Claudia, raising her face to speak. In the light from the porch lantern, her cheeks were flushed and rosy, her lips full and red. Strands of hair were awry on her head. Adam fought back an overwhelming urge to swear out loud and swing his fist at something. Joe’s face perhaps.
“Sure is,” agreed Hoss, with his usual affable good nature.
It was all Adam could do not to snort in disdain. “I’m going to bed,” he said, turning his back on them and heading for the house.
At the door, he stopped and looked back.
“I’ve been thinking. I’m going back to Boston. Only this time, permanently.”
He didn’t wait for a response, but the stunned silence that greeted his announcement followed him up the stairs like a shockwave. Reaching his room, he closed the door and leaned against it with a deep sigh. The decision was made, and there was some relief in a renewed purpose. He tugged off his tie and unbuttoned his shirt. Tomorrow he would write to Jonathan. Or maybe send him a telegram. Or both. Jonathan would be pleased. The two of them had been close friends all through college. They understood each other, and Adam could put his talents to good use in Jonathan’s business.
There was a knock at the door. Pa’s voice called his name. Adam’s heart sank. He opened the door.
“What is it, Pa? I’m tired. Can we talk things over in the morning?”
Pa fixed him with a hard look. “When did you decide you were going back to Boston? You’ve never mentioned it before.”
“It’s an idea I’ve had for a while,” he lied. Crossing the room, he draped his shirt over the back of the armchair. Pa followed him into the room and pushed the door shut behind him.
Still with his back turned, Adam said, “You remember Jonathan Earnshaw? He offered me a partnership, when I was in Boston. It’s too good an opportunity to miss.”
“So you thought the best way to tell us was to drop the news on us, like that, and walk away?”
Adam sank down in the chair and ran his hands through his hair. “I’m sorry, Pa. I couldn’t think how to tell you.”
He sensed Pa’s searching gaze struggling to find some clue as to what was going on in his oldest son’s head. “Is everything all right?”
“Everything’s fine.” Adam raised his head with a sigh. “I’m tired, Pa. I’d like to go to bed. Let’s talk this over tomorrow, shall we?”
“If there’s anything you want to talk about,” said Pa.
Adam could tell Pa was reluctant to leave.
“I know.” He flicked his father a half-hearted smile. “Thanks. But I’m fine.”
At the door, Pa paused again. “You will think about this properly, won’t you, son? Don’t make any rash decisions.”
He hovered, hoping for some response. Adam repeated the weary smile. “Don’t worry, Pa. I know what I’m doing.”
He kept the smile on his face as his father closed the door behind him and was gone, then he dropped his head back down into his hands and the anguish he’d been hiding all day finally broke from his lips in a groan of misery and despair.
He had another bad night, finally falling asleep just before dawn so that he woke late, more exhausted than when he’d gone to bed.
Pa, Hoss and Joe were already downstairs by the time he arrived at the table. There was no sign of Claudia. A subdued silence greeted him as he took his seat.
Pouring himself some coffee, he kept his tone brisk and matter-of-fact. “I’m sorry if I spoiled the party, last night. I’ve been meaning to tell you my plans but…you know, with Joe’s news of the wedding and everything….” He tailed off with a vague shrug. It was all a lie anyway.
Joe threw him an accusing glare. “You only got back the day before yesterday and now you’re planning to leave again?”
“I’ll stay for the wedding,” Adam assured him, although he knew that wasn’t what Joe had meant.
Three pairs of eyes bored into him.
“Pa says you’ve been offered a partnership,” said Hoss.
“That’s right. With Jonathan Earnshaw. It’s a good business. It’s an honor to be asked.”
There was a heavy silence, then Joe said, “If that’s what you want…”
It’s not what I want, thought Adam. What I want is the woman you’re marrying. Out loud he said, “It’s too good an opportunity to pass up. And Boston’s not so far away any more. Not with the railroad coming closer every year.”
Joe’s chair scraped as he stood up. “I’ll go and get started on those fences,” he said in a flat voice.
Hoss rose too. “Yeah, I’ll come with you.”
“You boys haven’t finished eating,” said Pa.
“I’ve had enough,” said Joe, with no attempt to hide the hurt Adam knew was his doing.
He drank his coffee and kept his eyes on the table while Joe and Hoss fastened on their gun belts and picked up their hats. Pa pushed his plate aside and sat unspeaking until the door closed behind them, then leaning his arms on the table he fixed his oldest son with the penetrating stare beneath which the sternest of men had been known to flinch.
“I wish you’d reconsider, Adam.”
Adam wasn’t hungry but he reached for the bowl of eggs in the middle of the table, determined to maintain at least an outward show of normality.
“I’m sorry, Pa. I’ve thrown a pall over all the excitement and that wasn’t my intention. Maybe I shouldn’t wait until after the wedding. Maybe I should just leave, as soon as possible.”
Pa’s brow came down. “Your brothers are already upset enough that you’re leaving. At least have the decency to stay for the wedding.”
He didn’t go out and work that day, escaping instead to the sanctuary of his room to compose a letter to Jonathan. Then he rode into town to mail it, before he could change his mind. Oh his return from town, he found Claudia playing horseshoes with Zach in the yard. The game had made her rosy-cheeked and bright-eyed, so that in spite of his resolution, he was forced take a turn at throwing horseshoes at the post, just so he could linger and be near her.
There was something different about her. Whether it was motherhood, or the security of her engagement to Joe, he couldn’t tell, but she was more comfortable around him now than she had ever been seven years before. No longer did she appear to be intimidated by his presence. She even laughed and applauded unselfconsciously when all three of his horseshoes found their mark.
“You’ve been practicing!” she protested, still laughing.
She wasn’t his, could not now be his, but in that moment he was alone with her. Her closeness, the familiarity in her voice, the teasing way her eyes met his, made him—if only for a moment—childishly and ecstatically happy. For the first time, they were equals.
He smiled. “Evidence of a misspent youth.”
Their eyes met. A small shadow of pain crossed her face and wiped the laughter from her eyes as if a dark cloud had passed overhead.
“I wish you wouldn’t leave, Adam,” she said.
He was desperate enough to hope she might have realized her mistake and was now about to declare how much she loved him. Instead she said, “Your family’s devastated by your decision, you know.”
He swallowed his disappointment. The moment of wonder was past. “They’ll get used to the idea.”
Zach held out the hoops to his mother.
“Play on your own for a while,” she told him. To Adam, she said, “Do you realize how much they were looking forward to having you home again?”
She led the way to the porch and they sat down together at the table where they could watch the small boy as he tossed the hoops with surprising accuracy for one so young.
“He’s good at that,” said Adam, everything in him desperate to recapture that moment of intimacy. They were still alone together; her attention was still all for him. “How old is he?”
“He was five last month.”
“You must be proud of him.”
“Yes,” she said, with the air of one whose mind is on something else. He traced her profile with his eyes as her gaze lingered on the child.
“I was sorry to hear about Richard.”
She dropped her eyes. “Yes,” she said. “He was a good man.”
Where was the passion she had once shown for Richard? She spoke the words as if she was referring to a neighbor, not the man she’d loved.
She raised her eyes to him then, puzzled. “What do you mean?”
“How did Richard die?”
“Oh, I see. Of course. A fever. We were all sick. Zach too, and me. But Richard….” She trailed off and her eyes went back to the boy. He thought she had been about to say more. After a few moments, she ran her tongue along her bottom lip. The unconscious gesture made something tighten deep in his belly.
“Were things all right between you and Richard?”
Her head swiveled. She fixed him with a searching stare. “Why do you ask that?”
“I don’t know. It’s only that, when you married him, I was…worried for you.”
He didn’t elaborate and she didn’t appear to be offended.
“Nobody else has asked me that,” she said.
“I don’t mean to pry or anything.”
She regarded him with a puzzled frown. “I was very young,” she said, after a moment.
He acknowledged that with a nod.
“I thought he was passionate about me but he was really just passionate about God.” Something flamed in her eyes and just for a second, he saw the young, impressionable girl of sixteen again, and he was as much in love with her as he had been then. “That’s not a bad thing, you know.”
Was she trying to convince him, or herself, he wondered?
She didn’t appear to notice his reservation.“I mean, he did love me. In his own way. It’s just, he loved God more. That’s how it should be, isn’t it? We should love God more than anything else, shouldn’t we?” She looked to Adam for confirmation, but he said nothing. She sighed and gave a little shrug of defeat. “I just didn’t have Richard’s faith. I think I must have been a disappointment to him, and as time went on, he became more and more obsessed with his work, and less and less interested in me. I tried. I really did try to be as dedicated to the work as he was, but he was a better person than I could ever hope to be.”
She hesitated for a moment, then raised her blue eyes, wide and eager, her chin thrust forward in her effort to convince him. Adam fought the urge to pull her to his chest and kiss the little frown from her forehead.
“You have to understand,” she went on, “I wasn’t unhappy. You mustn’t think that. He didn’t mistreat me or anything. He was always kind. And anyway,” her eyes drifted back to her son, “I had Zach.”
“Richard was a fool not to realize what he had.” Try as he might, he could not keep the slight tremble from his voice.
She looked at him with some surprise. He wondered if the passion he had been unable to disguise had given him away. The deep dark waves of her hair shone with a fiery undercurrent in the afternoon sunshine and made him want to bury his face in them.
“I was so sure he was the right man.” She caught at her bottom lip with her teeth and a small tremor of anxiety crossed her face. “Adam, am I doing the right thing, marrying Joe?”
The question caught him off guard and for a moment, he was spinning, struggling to breathe for the pounding of his heart in his chest. This was it, surely. This was his moment, his chance to bare his aching soul. And yet…and yet, Little Joe was his brother. He loved Claudia, but he loved Joe too. He would have defended his brother with his life. And when the moment arrived, he could not betray him.
“I…can’t answer that,” he told her, forcing the words with difficulty past his pounding heart. “Only you can decide.”
She looked flustered, dropping her eyes and flicking her fingers in her lap. “Oh. I…I thought you seemed…disapproving, somehow.”
“No…I…” It was difficult to speak articulately when his racing heart refused to co-operate. “I…just wasn’t expecting it; that was all. Now I’ve seen you together, the two of you seem…very…” he floundered, unable to bring himself to say the word “happy “…well-suited,” he finished lamely.
“Joe does love me, you know.”
“Yes.” The afternoon had grown suddenly hot. Adam cleared his throat hoping his thoughts would clear as easily. “I can see that. Joe will make you very happy.” Even to his own ears, that sounded weak. He coaxed a smile to his face. “And at least you can rest assured Joe will never put work above a woman!”
It was all too much. He could not keep up the pretense.
“Please excuse me,” he told her, rising from his seat. “I have things I must attend to.”
His chance had passed. He’d done the right thing, so why did he feel so angry with himself?
Adam’s news transformed excitement to gloom, and for that he was sorry, even while a shameful part of him reveled in a perverse sense of vindication. He tried to keep out of the way as much as possible, partly because he wanted to steer clear of all the wedding plans, partly because he wanted to avoid the sadness in the faces of his family and their attempts to make him change his mind about leaving, but mostly because it was torture to be in Claudia’s presence, especially when Joe was there too. His family had managed well enough while he’d been away, and they were sure as heck going to have to manage without him in the future, so there was little point in his being involved any more in the work of the Ponderosa. It was as if he no longer belonged, hovering in an awkward limbo. This was his past, and the future had yet to embrace him. For the first time in his life, he was purposeless, and isolation sat heavy on his heart.
He comforted himself with the knowledge that the waiting time was short. At least the wedding was only days away, not weeks. His nights were still restless and tormented but he persuaded himself that too would ease once he was no longer in daily contact with Claudia. With thousands of miles between them, and a new career and a new life ahead of him, the pain would diminish. He would put her behind him and move on. He lost count of the times he cursed fate for bringing her back into his life, only to snatch her away again. What had he done to deserve this anguish, not once but twice?
Much of his time was spent in town, sorting out affairs with his lawyer and the bank. He arranged to sign over several of his local business interests to his youngest brother, by way of a wedding gift. They were all lucrative concerns but, as the days went by, he was more certain than ever that he wanted to be rid of all that would tie him to his old life. If he was going to start afresh he wanted no baggage to weigh him down, so it wasn’t generosity that prompted the gift which—he was careful to specify—Joe should not know about until after the wedding. None of this was Little Joe’s fault, he told himself; it was his own. If he had only spoken out in those early days, before Claudia and Richard tied the knot. But those bridges were now well and truly reduced to piles of dead gray ash and there was little point in mourning them.
With three days until the wedding, he had been in town all morning going over papers in Hiram Wood’s office. They went to lunch together and when Hiram headed back to the office, Adam hung around for a while, drinking beer in the saloon, putting off the hour he would have to return to the Ponderosa. As he emerged from the saloon into the mid-afternoon sunlight, he saw Pa standing just across the street, outside the bank. He might have pretended he hadn’t noticed him but Pa had already spotted Adam. He waved and started across the street.
“Did you manage to sort things out with Hiram?”
“Yes, no problem.”
“Good.” Pa squinted up the street. “I’m glad I saw you. If you’re not busy, would you do me a favor?”
“Sure,” said Adam, imagining Pa wanted him to load some supplies, or pick up the mail.
“I’ve just met Zeke Willis. He’s got the papers drawn up for that lumber contract and he wants to go over them with me.”
“You need me to come with you?” Adam didn’t mean to sound reluctant but he knew he did.
Pa shook his head. “No, no, no. The contract will be fine. It’s Claudia. I brought her into town with me so she could pick up her dress for the wedding. But going through that contract might take a while. If you could drive her back in the buggy, I’ll ride your horse home when I’m finished here.”
Adam’s mouth was suddenly dry in spite of the beer he’d just drunk.
“Right,” he said, trying to ignore the now familiar tightening in his chest as his heart rate sped away.
“I told her to wait in the tea room. Pick her up from there? The buggy’s over at the livery.”
Adam started to stammer some half-baked excuse but Pa’s mind was on the lumber contract. He patted Adam’s shoulder.
“Thanks, son,” he said, oblivious to the sweat that had broken out on Adam’s palms.
Claudia was in the tea room as Pa had said she would be. She smiled and rose to greet him when she saw him come in through the door. He couldn’t help but notice how snugly her smart green jacket fitted around the swell of her breasts, accentuating the curve of her supple waist.
“Adam! What a lovely surprise! I was just waiting for your father. Here, sit down. Have some tea.”
He declined the offer and explained the revised arrangements, a little hurt to see how her face fell at the news she would be riding home with him. But she recovered her poise quickly enough while he paid for her tea and followed him out to the buggy without protest.
They stopped at the dressmakers to pick up several boxes, a large one and half a dozen smaller. “Are you sure there’s enough here?” he joked, in an effort to lighten the atmosphere between them. It seemed, just lately, his presence dampened everyone’s mood.
Her face flushed. “Oh, Adam, Mrs. McKay has made such a wonderful job of my dress. I do hope Little Joe likes it.”
“Of course he’ll like it. What’s not to like?”
“You haven’t seen it yet.”
“I don’t need to see it. How could you look anything but beautiful, whatever you wore?”
She blushed deeper still and turned her head away. An awkward silence descended. Adam, unable to think of anything appropriate to say, fixed his eyes on the horse’s back and concentrated on driving. Being so close to her was almost unbearable. Occasionally, as the buggy bounced over ruts in the road, their arms would touch. His nerves danced every time her sleeve brushed his.
The lack of conversation must have gotten to her after a couple of miles because she made a brave attempt to initiate another exchange.
“Hoss and Little Joe have taken Zach fishing.”
She turned towards him as she spoke and he was almost certain he felt her breast brush his elbow, with the lightest of touches.
“He was so excited. He’s never been fishing before. Joe told him they’d build a campfire and cook the fish for dinner.”
Adam, still consumed with the idea of her breast against his arm, said nothing, and they lapsed back into an uneasy silence. It was another couple of miles before she spoke again, turning her head to him, her voice anxious.
When she didn’t say anything else he was forced to acknowledge her with a brief glance. Only then did she continue.
“Please don’t go to Boston?”
There was no mistaking the plea in her voice. His insides screwed themselves into a hot ball of longing. He focused his gaze on the road ahead and said nothing. He wasn’t sure he could trust himself to speak.
Still he said nothing. Her appeal grew desperate. “Is there anything that will make you change your mind?”
Dammit! He was like a pot about to boil over! He drove for another hundred yards before reining in the horse and bringing the buggy to a halt. For a few moments he sat very still, staring at the boards beneath his feet and battling the turmoil inside him.
“I have to leave,” he told her. “I have to leave because….” He was breathing with such difficulty the words came out in a breathless rush. “I have to leave because…because I am in love with you. That’s why.”
Blood hammered in his ears. Claudia remained motionless on the seat beside him. He shut his eyes. He couldn’t bring himself to look at her. In fact, it was all he could do not to climb down from the buggy and run. If she had walked into the house and found him naked he could not have felt more exposed and humiliated.
“Oh,” she said finally, her voice oddly small. “I…you never said.”
“No. Well, I wouldn’t, would I?” The words snapped out of his mouth. Angry. Accusing. He hadn’t meant to be accusing. “You were in love with Richard, weren’t you? And then with Joe.”
He snatched up the reins again and urged the horse on as though he could leave his embarrassment behind him on the road. The buggy rolled forward. She huddled beside him in a silence that howled about his ears. Still he could not look at her. Of all the stupid things to do! Why had he confessed then? Why had he made himself look a complete fool? What had he hoped to achieve? All he’d done was make an impossible situation even more awkward.
He’d never before wished so hard for a journey to be over. Yet the miles seemed endless as the buggy rolled on with the two of them side by side, each as desperate as the other to be somewhere else—anywhere else. When, at last, they pulled into the yard at the Ponderosa, he couldn’t jump down from the seat quickly enough. It was only then he saw she had been crying. He held out his hand to help her down and she said, “thank you” in a tight little voice that pierced his armor of self-pity. Keeping her gaze averted, she attempted to gather up the boxes from the rear seat but he moved her aside, and said, with more kindness than he’d shown all afternoon, “Here, let me.”
The house was quiet. Claudia ascended the stairs like a child who’d been punished, shoulders drooping, head hung low. Well, he thought, he would soon be out of her life. She would not have to bear the unhappiness for much longer. Unlike him.
He set the boxes down on the table in her room and took off his hat. She stood in the middle of the rug, her cheeks streaked with tears. She looked so profoundly miserable, he buckled under his guilt.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I shouldn’t have said anything. Forget it. Pretend it never happened. I’m an idiot, that’s all, not worth all this grief.”
“No,” she said, in a flat whisper. “You’re not an idiot. I…I just wish I’d known.”
“I didn’t mean to upset you. Please forgive me. I’ll be gone soon, and you and Joe will be happily married. Forget I ever opened my foolish mouth.” He turned and made for the door.
The urgency in her voice stopped him dead.
“The thing is, Adam…” She drew in a deep breath. “The thing is…I love you too.”
He ceased to breathe for several long moments. Fastened to the spot while his heart attempted to pound its way out of his chest, he finally gathered enough wit to turn and face her.
She didn’t repeat it, but raised pleading eyes to his face. “Why didn’t you say anything to me before?”
“Because you were in love with Richard, that’s why. And then…Joe.”
She squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head in a gesture of despair. “If you had just said!”
“How could I? You weren’t interested in me.”
“Oh, Adam!” Her voice broke. “I thought you knew. The last time I was here. I thought that’s why you were so…distant with me. And you were so much older, so much more…sophisticated. And…aloof. I could never think what to say without making a fool of myself. I thought you’d laugh at me. I…I couldn’t have borne that.”
He had to push the words out through a throat so tight, he could barely speak. “Laugh at you? I would never laugh at you.”
Fresh tears welled in her eyes and she didn’t attempt to stop them as they spilled over. He could bear her anguish no longer. Two strides into the middle of the room and she was in his arms, her face salty-wet to his lips. He had waited so long to hold her, and she folded so easily into his embrace, every nerve in his body was on fire with the wonder of it. Seven years of silent longing locked their starved mouths in greedy desperation.
It was wrong. He knew that even while it was happening and yet, at the same time, it had to happen. Nothing else mattered, only that he was holding her at last and she was soft and acquiescent in his arms.
A sound at the door made them start; a sound such as the sharp intake of breath a man might make when a knife is thrust into his belly. Their heads swiveled as one, and there in the doorway stood Joe, face drained of color, shock turning almost instantly to pain.
They jumped apart, as though it wasn’t already too late to pretend they were never together. Adam heard himself gabbling stupidly, something about not expecting anyone back yet—as if that excused anything—but Joe was gone. Claudia stood frozen on the rug. The blood had drained from her face leaving only a flush of pink at the top of her cheeks and her lips full and red where he had kissed her. Even in that terrible moment, she was beautiful.
Downstairs, Hoss shouted Joe’s name. Adam sprang to the window in time to see Joe reach his tethered horse, jerk the reins from the rail and grab the saddle to mount. Hoss appeared from the house, Zach in his arms. Adam heard him shout, “Hey Joe, where you going?”
He couldn’t hear if Joe replied. His youngest brother swung into the saddle and yanked his horse around so sharply, it whinnied and reared in protest. Hoss called, “Wait!” but Joe was already heading out of the yard.
From behind him, fear in her voice, Claudia whispered, “Adam, what are we going to do?”
Dammit, dammit! Of all the things to happen!
Somehow he managed to sound calm, against all reason. “We have to tell them the truth,” he said. And he was strangely calm, despite the enormity of the mess he had just created. Still enveloped in the euphoria of that kiss, it didn’t seem that he had done something terrible; rather that he had finally begun to put right what had been wrong for so many years.
He wheeled around to face her, the first shadow of doubt infiltrating the cloud of wonderment that had been cushioning him from the harsh and complicated reality that now faced them.
“That we love each other, of course.” He searched her face for much-needed assurance. “You did say you loved me.”
She was trembling, fighting back tears, but she nodded. “Yes. I do.”
“Then we have to tell them.”
“We can’t. I can’t. What about Joe?”
At the mention of Joe’s name, the last remnants of the cloud evaporated in a blast of cold realization. “Do you still want to marry Joe?” Little fingers of panic prodded his insides.
Her face contorted. “I…I don’t know.”
He took her by the shoulders. “I meant it when I said I loved you. You know that, don’t you?”
He lifted a hand to her cheek, stroked his thumb over the soft skin still marked by her tears, and she nodded her face against his palm.
From the doorway, Hoss’s voice said, “Adam?”
He stepped away from her and swung his head around all in one movement. Hoss was there, Zach in his arms. Close to, Adam could see a large purple lump on Zach’s right temple. Claudia saw it too.
“Zach!” She hurried across the room to snatch the boy from Hoss’s arms. “What happened?”
Hoss relinquished the child, his eyes flicking between Claudia and Adam, a frown creasing his face. “He’s all right.”
Claudia stood the boy on the floor and pushed him back, examining him at arms’ length. In spite of the momentary distraction, Adam could sense Hoss’s gaze boring into him. His brother was no fool. Adam knew he had seen that small gesture of intimacy.
Claudia stroked Zach’s silky blond hair back from the glaring bruise. “What happened to you?”
“I fell,” said Zach, “but I’m all right now. Joe and Hoss said I was very brave.”
“He sure was.” Hoss nodded, his eyes still moving from Adam to Claudia and back again. “Took a tumble from his pony. There’s a few scrapes and bruises, but he’s gonna be just fine.”
Claudia pulled Zach to her and kissed the top of his head. It was clear to Adam she was deliberately avoiding meeting Hoss’s eyes.
“Take Zach downstairs,” he said, as much to spare her as for the boy’s wellbeing. “See if you can find Hop Sing. He’ll have some liniment for that bruise.”
She nodded, keeping her face half-buried in her son’s hair. “Yes,” she said, clearly grateful for the excuse to absent herself from Hoss’s scrutiny. “Come on, Zach. Let’s go find Hop Sing.”
Hoss stood aside to let her pass, all the time fixing his brother with a suspicious stare.
“Dadburnit, Adam! The two of you, you weren’t jus’…?”
Adam spread his hands in a gesture of self-defense. “We thought you and Joe were fishing. We didn’t hear you come back.”
“What’s that gotta do with anything?”
Adam shook his head.
Hoss’s eyes bored into him. “What the doggone heck were you thinking?”
Adam took a deep breath. All calmness had fled him now and his heart was thumping. “I love her, Hoss.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’ve always loved her, from the first time I met her. I just never admitted it. To anyone. Until now.”
“You?” Hoss gaped at him. “How can you be in love with her? She’s marrying Joe in a coupla days. Have you forgotten that?”
“No, of course not.” Adam raised his hands again. “I…I didn’t mean this to happen, Hoss. It…just did.”
“Dagnabbit, Adam! You of all people! Joe’s your brother, goddammit!”
The accusation in Hoss’s eyes forced him to look away.
“I’d better go and find Joe,” he muttered, snatching up his hat from the table.
“Oh no you don’t!” Hoss squared his feet in the doorway as if he would prevent Adam going after Joe, by force. “You’re the last person Joe’s gonna want to see right now.”
“I need to find him. I don’t know what he’ll do.”
“I’ll find him.” There was an unflinching hardness in Hoss’s tone Adam had never heard before. “You can stay here right here and work out what we’re all gonna do now. And then you can explain it to Pa when he gets home.”
Despite his guilt, something inside Adam bristled at the reprimand.
“I already told you, I didn’t intend this to happen.”
Hoss shook his head as though he couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “I should flatten you for what you done, Adam. But right now, I’m more worried ’bout Little Joe.”
Adam nodded. “Me too.”
“Yeah?” The look on Hoss’s face right then didn’t belong to his gentle, easy-going brother. “It’s kinda late for that, don’t you reckon?”
He stood at the window as Hoss rode away, reality congealing in a swelling lump of regret. What in the world had he been thinking? He turned blindly from the window and sank down on the bed, head in his hands. What the hell had he done?
Claudia’s reappearance roused him from his misery. She didn’t look in his direction or acknowledge his presence at all, but crossed straight to the closet, pulled out a carpetbag, dropped it on the armchair, and began to bundle clothes—her own and Zach’s—into it.
Adam frowned, swallowing back a moment of panic. “What are you doing?”
“I can’t stay here,” she said, flinging garments at the bag, still without looking at him. “I have to go.”
“Anywhere. Into town. I’ll take a room at the hotel. I can’t stay here, you must see that. I can’t face your father. He’s been so kind to me, and now…” Her voice rose and threatened to break. She paused in her hasty packing and hunched her shoulders. “I have to go, that’s all.”
She opened a drawer in the dresser and pulled out a pile of folded linen, but in her haste, she missed the bag. A nightshirt and Zach’s underwear scattered on the floor. Adam rose from the bed as she snatched at the fallen items, not bothering to refold them, stuffing them carelessly into the bag.
Her back was to him. He took her by the shoulders.
“Slow down. We’ll work things out.”
She kept her head lowered, as if she could not face him. “How?” she asked, voice unsteady. “It’s too late. We can’t undo what’s been done. And what about Joe? How on earth must he be feeling right now? And your father and Hoss? What are they going to think of me?”
He tried to turn her to face him, but she pulled away, grabbing the remaining garments from the drawer in one careless swoop and shoving them, higgledy-piggledy, into the bag, shirtsleeves and drawstrings dangling. “You don’t understand, Adam. I have to get away from here. I have to go.”
“All right,” he conceded. “I’ll drive you into town. As soon as you’re ready to leave.”
She seemed to calm down a fraction when he said that. He left her to finish her packing while he went to hitch a fresh horse to the buggy. Outwardly, he was in control; inwardly he was in turmoil, guilt and misery rising, like sickness, in his stomach. Yet, at the same time, the torment of secrecy was over, and he could not shake off a misplaced sense of relief and a shameful elation, not only because he had finally laid his heart bare to her, but also because, beyond hope, he had discovered his feelings were reciprocated. But for Joe, he would have been the happiest man alive that day.
He went back inside to help Claudia downstairs with her luggage. Anxious and flustered, she still wouldn’t look him in the eye. Hop Sing appeared from the kitchen with little Zach, eyeing them and the baggage with surprise and some suspicion.
“You go back into Virginia City already?” he queried. “Where you go, Miss Claudia? Hop Sing fix fried chicken for boy.” He laid his hand on Zach’s shoulder. The child was watching with worried eyes as Adam strapped the bags to the back of the buggy.
“Where are you going, Mama?”
Claudia took his hand and towed him across the yard to the buggy. “We’re going to stay in town for a few days. Just you and me.”
Zach dragged his feet, frowning up at her. “I don’t want to go unless Joe and Hoss come too.”
“No.” She gave him a push up onto the seat. “It’s just going to be us. Now be a good boy and don’t ask questions.”
But Zach wasn’t giving in that easily. He started to protest that Joe had promised to take him on another fishing trip on account of the fact the first one had been cut unexpectedly short, but his mother cut him off sharply and told him to be quiet. It was the first time Adam had heard her speak abruptly to the child.
It was a painful ride into town. Silent and pale, Claudia spoke barely a word, and then only to scold the boy at her side. Zach was peevish, lapsing into tears when his mother reprimanded him, and with the child jammed between them on the seat, Adam could not hope to broach the matter causing them both so much anguish.
He took a room for the two of them at the hotel, and another for himself. He would not consider leaving them alone in town. Besides, he didn’t relish the prospect of returning home to face the wrath and indignation of his family. Not yet. Not until they’d all had time to cool down and think. He helped carry Claudia’s bags to the room she and Zach would share. Zach was hungry and unhappy, Claudia white-faced and weary.
“I’ll have some food sent up,” he told her, depositing her luggage on the sofa.
Zach, in a sulk, had stomped to the window and was watching the carriages pass by on the road below. Adam took Claudia by the arm and drew her to the far side of the room so the boy would not hear.
“We have to talk.”
She shook her head, casting an anxious glance over her shoulder at Zach, kneeling on the seat in the window. “I don’t know, Adam. I can’t think straight right now. And I have Zach to think about.”
“I want you to come away with me. To Boston.”
Her troubled eyes searched his face as if to see if he was serious.
“I mean it,” he told her. “I said I loved you and it’s true. We can be married, make a new life together in the East.”
A faint brightness flickered in her eyes. Hope maybe? Adam wanted to believe it was.
From behind them, Zach called, “Mama?”
He released her arm. “Can I come by later so we can talk then? Please, Claudia.”
She hesitated, and he feared she would refuse, but in the end she nodded. “Yes, all right. Later. But…I’m not making any promises.”
He couldn’t settle so he took a walk around the town. He had plenty of thinking to do and he didn’t want to bump into people he knew, so he called in at a saloon on the other side of town, where he’d never drunk before, and ordered steak pie and a beer. The pie was good, but his appetite was not. He picked it around till it was cold, too preoccupied to eat. Over and again, he would relive the sweetness of Claudia’s body in his arms, the pressure of her warm lips, the scent of her hair against his cheek. Misery and longing would surge inside him, so that it was all he could do to prevent it erupting in a howl of despair. Then Joe’s face, ghostly pale, would return to haunt him and his throat would knot and tighten so that he felt as if he could barely breathe.
Around nine, with the cloud of wretchedness no lighter about him, he headed back towards the hotel. The thought of his interview with Claudia made him sick with apprehension. What would she do? Had she meant it when she said she loved him? What if it had all been a terrible mistake? What if she chose Joe? Would he take her back? Would he be prepared to forgive her after what had happened? Joe was hot-headed and easy to hurt, but if he loved her enough….
He stopped himself there. Claudia must not go back to Joe. Could not, surely? Not after what had happened. Adam’s mind would not contemplate that outcome. Joe was his brother. He loved him, but he would not—could not—lose Claudia to him. Not again. However much it hurt, Joe had to realize he and Claudia had never been meant to be together. Adam knew that in his heart. Nor had Richard been the man destined for her. Claudia had always belonged to him. The crime of which he was most guilty was not the pain inflicted on his brother that day, but the crime he had committed seven years before, when he had held his tongue and not opened his heart to the woman he loved. Whatever the cost—to Joe or to any man—he had to make her see that the two of them were meant to be together.
He was so absorbed in his thoughts, he didn’t notice his brothers until it was too late. Just as he drew level with the entrance to The Bucket of Blood, they emerged from the saloon, light spilling out behind them. Adam pulled up short. He could see instantly that Joe was drunk. Very drunk. In fact it looked as if the hand Hoss had beneath his arm was all that was holding him upright. Hoss saw him first and a flash of alarm crossed his face. With a swift glance at Joe to make sure he hadn’t noticed, he looked back at Adam and jerked his head in an unmistakable signal to make himself scarce before Joe saw him too.
He might have done except, at that same moment, Joe lifted his head and fixed his bleary gaze upon his oldest brother. For the space of a breath, he stared uncomprehending, then his vision focused and, yanking his arm free of Hoss’s, he lurched two steps forwards.
“You!” He hurled the word at Adam, like an accusation. “You!”
He was swaying dangerously on his feet.
“You got a nerve,” he drawled, his voice thick and slow, “showing your face here. You traitor! You…you…lowdown….”
He slurred to a halt and swore at his own inability to express his contempt. Hoss crossed to his side and took his arm again.
“Let’s go home, Joe. We can talk about this tomorrow.”
Joe shook him off, almost losing his balance as he did so. Adam already knew what was coming; he could see it in Joe’s eyes. His brother lurched forward again, and swung his fist at Adam’s face.
Joe was so drunk, the punch missed entirely, but the momentum carried him forward and he sprawled flat on his face. He made a vain attempt to rise, but his uncoordinated limbs failed him. He collapsed back in the dirt with a sob of anguish that sent a shaft of guilt straight through Adam’s heart.
He leaned down to help his brother to his feet, but Hoss shoved him roughly aside.
“Leave him alone. I’ll take care of him.” The anger in Hoss’s face turned to pity as he bent over Joe. Adam took a step backward, feeling more like an unwelcome stranger than a brother.
“I’ll come by tomorrow. We’ll talk then,” he said, trying hard not to sound as useless as he felt.
Hoss gave him a cold look as he hauled an unsteady Joe to his feet. “Yeah,” he said, his voice uncharacteristically bitter. “You do that, Adam.”
Claudia was still awake when he got back to the hotel. Zach was asleep in the bed, his fair head very small against the plumpness of the pillows.
“It’s all right,” said Claudia seeing Adam’s cautious glance at the sleeping child, as she let him into the room. “He won’t wake, not once he’s asleep.” She crossed to the bed and looked down at her son with such wistfulness in her face, Adam wanted to wrap his arms around her again and comfort her, but there was an air about her, a distance, as though she had set an invisible fence between them.
“He was so tired, poor little fellow. He must have had such a headache from that bump and I’ve been so bad-tempered with him, ever since….” She broke off the sentence with a heavy sigh. “None of this is his fault, poor kid.”
“You’re a good mother,” Adam assured her.
She tightened her mouth. “Am I? Right now, I feel like the worst mother in the world. He was so happy at the Ponderosa. He adored Joe and Hoss. And Hop Sing. He loved the ranch and the animals, and riding a pony and going fishing. Now I’ve spoiled all that for him.”
She turned away to hide the tears he could hear in her voice. She still had on the green jacket she had been wearing earlier in the day, the one that fitted so neatly around the curves of her torso. In spite of everything, he couldn’t keep from noticing the dip of her waist and the swell of her hips. A sense of desperation engulfed him.
“I didn’t want him to grow up without a father,” she said, oblivious to his scrutiny.
“He doesn’t have to.” The desire to touch her was a physical ache. He had never known another woman whose very presence made his head light with desire. “Have you thought about what I said to you?”
“I haven’t thought about anything else.”
“And…?” he hesitated, reluctant to ask the question for fear the answer would not be the one he so desperately wanted to hear, “what have you decided?”
She didn’t respond immediately. Her hesitation made him feel slightly sick.
“It’s not that simple,” she said finally. “Joe loves me. He really loves me.”
He had to work hard to keep his voice calm. “But do you love him? More than you love me?”
She was struggling as much as he was. Even from across the room, he could see how her body trembled as she spoke.
“I do love him. Of course I love him. I wouldn’t have agreed to marry him if I didn’t. He’s good to me. He’s funny. And he’s kind. And he makes me feel…special. You see…” she turned her face to look at him and her eyes implored him to understand, “I can tell you all the reasons I love Joe, but with you, it’s different. With you, there was just a feeling, the very first time I saw you. I can’t explain it.”
“Yet you still went ahead and married Richard.”
“Yes, because Richard made it clear he loved me too. The same way Joe made it clear. Whereas you…” she threw out her hands in a gesture of frustration, “you never gave me a single reason to think you had any feelings for me at all. I told myself what I felt for you was just a crush and I would get over it. But I never did. Not really. And when things started to go wrong with Richard, I thought back so many times to that summer on the Ponderosa, and how happy I’d been, and I wished so much that I could have stayed there. That was why I wanted to come back. To see if I could recapture that happiness. And you were always there too, in my mind. Like a dream that just might come true, someday.
“And then, when I came back, you weren’t there, but Joe was. Then your family took me to the church picnic and I met Jane Mayhew and they all told me how you and she were such a fine couple; even that there could well be a formal announcement once you returned. And Jane seemed such a perfect match for you—elegant, pretty, clever. And she seemed so confident that you and she….” Claudia sighed and shook her head, despairing. “I never thought I stood a chance with you, and once I’d met Jane, I knew for sure. But Joe was there. And it was easy to fall in love with him. He’s thoughtful and romantic, and he treats me as if I’m the most important person in the world. And now I’ve betrayed him.”
Her eyes glistened and her face contorted as she struggled to keep from crying. He crossed the room and reached for her hands and she made no move to back away from him.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered, because that betrayal was heavy on his heart too.
In spite of her valiant efforts, she could not hold back the tears. He drew her to him and she made no resistance, pressing her face into his shoulder as she wept.
He trembled to hold her, stroking her hair with gentle fingers. He wanted her so badly it was all he could do to keep from tipping back her head and pressing his mouth to hers. Instead, he heard himself voice the unthinkable.
“If you want to go back to Joe,” he had to swallow hard to steady his voice, “I won’t try to stop you. But…I can’t go back. Not now. Not after what’s happened. Joe might forgive you but he’ll never be able to forgive me.”
She lifted her tear-streaked face to him. He had never seen her eyes so dark with pain.
“I have to leave,” he told her, “and I want you to come with me. More than anything. I don’t want to lose you again. But it has to be your decision.”
She pulled away from him and it seemed to him that letting her go was the hardest thing he had ever done. Turning her head, she stared down at her sleeping son while his heart thudded so hard, it was difficult to breathe.
Finally she turned to him once more, searching his face with her eyes as though she sought something there.
“Yes,” she whispered. “I’ll come with you.”
It was as if his heart ceased to beat for several seconds as the reality of her affirmation coursed through him in a whirl of giddy relief.
“It’s you I want, Adam. It’s always been you.”
“I’ll look after you,” he promised. “You and Zach. You’ll never want for anything, I’ll make sure of that.
As he took her in his arms, joy and pain mingled, bittersweet. He had his heart’s desire but the price had been high. The price was his brother.
The next morning, early, he drove back to the Ponderosa. Claudia crumbled at the mere mention of Joe’s name, and Adam had no desire for the two of them to meet again because the selfish part of him could not bear the notion that Claudia might have second thoughts about her decision to go with him to Boston. And there was Zach to consider too. Claudia had yet to break the news to the boy that he would not be going back to live on the Ponderosa, and she wanted to spare him more confusion and pain. Better a clean break, she said, although she hadn’t sounded entirely convinced and every morsel of doubt fueled Adam’s fears. So, he returned alone, and although he spent the entire journey rehearsing speeches in his mind and steeling himself for the cold reception he knew he would receive, his heart was still in his throat when he pulled into the yard and climbed down from the buggy.
Pa and Hoss were at breakfast. At least, they were at the table together. There was little evidence that either of them had eaten anything. The worry on his father’s face hardened into something tougher as Adam came through the door.
“We wondered when you would show your face again,” he said.
Adam cast a quick look at the stairwell, but there was no sign of Little Joe. He took a breath to steady his thudding heart.
“I’m not expecting anyone to forgive me.”
Neither of them said anything, but the disapproval in their faces spoke for them.
“I just want you to know I never meant to hurt Joe.”
Pa’s eyes flicked at the stairs the way Adam’s had done, but there was still no sign of Joe. Hoss looked down at the tablecloth.
“What are you intending to do?” asked Pa, his voice stiff, as though he were about to reprimand a dishonest ranch hand.
Adam met his father’s iron-hard gaze, even though his resolve threatened to shrivel beneath it. “Claudia is coming to Boston with me. We’ll be leaving on the first available stage.”
Hoss didn’t move a muscle. Pa’s gaze remained fixed on his oldest son, unflinching.
“I’ve come to collect my things,” said Adam.
Still neither of the two men at the table spoke. Their silence was more damning than any angry tirade. Adam reached inside his jacket and drew out a sealed letter.
“Claudia sent this. For Joe. Would you give it to him?”
At that Hoss’s eyes flew up to his brother’s face. “Give it to him yourself,” he said, in a voice full of disgust.
“Right.” Adam turned his back on them and headed upstairs, aware of their eyes following him every step of the way. Outside Joe’s room, he hesitated. There was no sound from beyond the door. For a few moments he debated whether or not to knock. In the end he slid the letter back inside his jacket and headed on down the hallway to his own room.
He packed some essentials into a bag. Then sitting down on his bed for the last time, he cast his eyes around the room, taking in a lifetime of memories. He would miss some things more than others. His gaze lingered, regretfully, on his bookshelf. There was a chance, he told himself, that he could send for the rest of his belongings once they were settled. One day. When time had healed the gaping wounds of the wreckage he had created.
Pa appeared in the open doorway. He looked at the bag and then back at Adam.
“Were you planning to tell me any of this yourself? You run off with the woman your brother is about to marry, and the first I know about it is when Hoss drags him back here, incoherent and…” his eyes flicked in the direction of Joe’s room, “in that state.”
Adam shook his head. “I’m sorry, Pa. I didn’t mean for any of it to happen.”
Pa crossed his arms in front of his chest.
“What possessed you?”
Adam hadn’t expected to get away without a cross-examination but it was still impossible to find the right words. Whatever he said, Pa would never understand him.
“I’m in love with her.”
“What about your brother? What about Joseph?”
“I don’t know, Pa!” Adam rose from the bed and crossed to the window to look out, mainly so he wouldn’t have to look at his father. “It never crossed my mind that she and Joe would be engaged. If I’d known that…” he hesitated, pulled up short by his own words. If he’d known that, what would he have done? Would he still have come rushing back, or would he have had the strength of mind to stay away?
“It’s my fault,” he finished instead. “All of it. If I had just said something seven years ago, when she first came here….”
“So why didn’t you?”
“I don’t know!” Adam spun around to face his father, anger erupting in spite of his determination to keep his cool. “I don’t know why I didn’t!”
Pa’s dark eyes seemed to pierce right through him. He winced beneath their sharpness.
“Because you knew it wasn’t right?”
“No! That’s not it. I mean, no, that’s true, it wasn’t right. Not then. She was too young. At least, I thought she was. That’s why I didn’t say anything then. And there was Richard.”
“And now there’s Joe.”
“Yes, I know.” Adam pressed his hand to his face. “I know I’ve hurt Joe. I never meant that to happen. I never meant any of this to happen.” He took a deep breath and forced himself to speak calmly. “I tried, Pa, I really tried! I was going to go away, put her behind me, try and forget.”
“Under the circumstances, that might have been best.”
He hadn’t expected sympathy. Even so, the harshness in his father’s words tore at something inside him. He turned his head away so his father wouldn’t see how close he was to crumbling.
“I don’t expect anyone to understand, but you have to believe me: I am truly sorry about Joe. I didn’t set out to hurt him. I never thought I’d have to choose between my brother and a woman.”
“I never expected this. Not of you, of all people.”
His heart cried out but his voice could not. It was jammed in his throat behind a swelling lump of wretchedness, the way it had always done since he was a child. In Adam’s soul there was a wound that opened afresh every time he failed to meet his father’s high expectations. He had kept it hidden, guarded it in shame and defiance, but the hurt was as sharp as it had been when he was a child, and his father fixed him with a look of sadness and disappointment that cut deeper than any leather strap.
“Maybe,” said Pa into the stiff silence that hung between them, “maybe it’s not too late. If you were to go away, maybe the two of them could still sort this out between them.”
The ground lurched beneath Adam’s feet, bringing his head back round with a jerk. For a moment he feared he might be physically sick. He gulped, struggling to speak, the words emerging breathless and strangled.
“He…he wouldn’t want her back now, would he? Not after this?”
Pa’s face was stern, angry. “He loves her. That goes a long way to forgiveness.”
“No.” Adam crossed to his bed and picked up his bag, battling to steady the panic that had broken out like a cold sweat over his whole body. “No, Pa, that’s not going to happen.”
Pushing past his father and stepping into the hallway, he faltered. There, slumped shirtless against the frame of his bedroom door was Joe, hair disheveled, eyes puffy and bloodshot. His feet were bare, his face the color of tallow. Even from six feet away Adam could smell the stale whiskey.
“Going somewhere?” said Joe, his voice as rough as his appearance.
“Boston,” Adam said.
“And Claudia?” Joe’s cheek twitched when he said her name.
“She’s coming with me.”
Joe’s stare faltered. He looked away.
“You two deserve each other.” Pain turned his voice husky.
“Joe…” Adam began, but Joe cut him off with a shake of his head.
“Just go, Adam.”
He made to turn away, back into his room. Adam reached into his jacket.
“Claudia asked me to give you this.”
Joe looked back, saw the letter and paled—if paling were possible in a face as sickly white as his was at that moment. Adam watched his jaw flex as he swallowed.
“Have you read it?”
“No.” Adam shook his head. Joe looked as if he didn’t believe him. Adam proffered the letter. “I had nothing to do with this, I promise.”
Joe still looked doubtful, but he reached out and took the folded paper from Adam’s hand. Staring down at it, then back at Adam, tears brimmed in his hollow eyes. In one grotesque instant, Adam was back at Marie’s graveside, and the curly-headed child at his side looked up from the coffin they’d just lowered into the dark hole in the earth, with all the hurt of the world in his four-year-old eyes. There had been no comfort for him that day and there was none on this either. For a second, he looked as if he was about to say something, but whatever it was caught in his throat. He made a small choking noise and stumbled back from the door, slamming it shut behind him. From the other side of the door came the sounds of retching.
From behind him, Pa said, “I think you should go now.”
Adam didn’t look back as he headed for the stairs.
Downstairs, the great room was empty. He made his way to the front door. There was no sign of Hoss in the yard. He crossed to the barn. Hoss was inside, seeing to the horses. He glanced round as Adam entered but didn’t acknowledge him. Adam hovered uncertainly. In all his thirty-five years, he had never struggled as he did then to think of anything to say to his brother.
“I’ll leave Sport at the livery in town. Maybe someone can pick him up from there.”
Hoss grunted something that might or might not have been an affirmation.
He saddled his horse in silence. Hoss didn’t speak or look at him once, even as he led Sport out of his stall. He paused in front of the barn door and looked round once more at his brother.
“I’ll be seeing you then.”
He waited, but still Hoss did not respond. His brother’s silence was another wound to Adam’s heart.
As he came out of the barn, Pa appeared from the house. Arms across his body, he contemplated the dirt at his feet for a long moment, before finally raising his eyes to meet those of his oldest boy.
“You’re my son, Adam, whatever you’ve done. You’ll write and let me know you’re safe, won’t you?”
Adam nodded. For an awkward moment, they stood facing each other as if wondering what they should do next. In the end it was Adam who took the initiative, setting his foot in the stirrup and swinging up into the saddle.
“Take care of yourself, Pa,” he said. Then for the last time, he turned his horse and rode away from the Ponderosa.
Stepping into the spacious hallway, he hangs his hat on the stand in the corner. Five years have passed since he and Claudia were married, a week after arriving in Boston. No ceremony, no one to share the celebration other than Jonathan Earnshaw, his wife, and Zach.
Jonathan had been as good as his word in offering him a partnership. The arrangement had been profitable for both of them and the business had gone from strength to strength. Adam had been able to afford a very comfortable house, close to where he worked, with a large garden for Zach. It was a poor substitute for the wide open spaces of the Ponderosa, but Zach with all the resilience of his tender years, had soon ceased pining for Hoss and Joe and settled into life in the city.
There’s no new mail on the hall table today; no envelope addressed with his father’s bold hand to make his heart pick up a pace or two. When he’d first arrived in Boston, he’d done as he had said he would and written home, and Pa had written back, acknowledging the marriage with awkward formality. Adam presumed he had passed on the news to Joe and Hoss, but he had never heard anything of their reactions. It had been difficult to begin with, the letter-writing, but as the months passed, the tension had eased. Hoss had even written too, a few times. Both he and Pa occasionally mentioned Joe in their letters, but they never said much, as if Joe had never been anything more to Adam than a casual acquaintance. Sometimes it felt as if he’d lost a brother, but he never enquired more about Joe, as if he was no longer entitled to that privilege. Joe hadn’t married though, he knew that much. That was what he’d hoped for most when they’d first moved out here, a letter from Pa telling him that Joe was happily settled with a girl who was crazy about him. Each year Joe remained single was an extra weight added to the burden of guilt he would carry inside him forever.
It’s late afternoon, early summer. In the drawing room the doors stand open to the garden. Shafts of sunlight slant across the polished surface of the grand piano, gilding the room with a hazy golden warmth. It’s a pretty room, comfortably furnished, thanks to Claudia. He’d left that side of things to her. It had seemed important to her, and he had wanted her to be happy. The room makes him think of her now.
They are content, for the most part, he and Claudia. True happiness is an elusive beast, and their union had been born from troubled waters. The ghost of that unhappy birth haunts them still in occasional moments of doubt. He has dark moods; days too when the longing for the smell of the pines, the solitude of the mountains, the clarity of a vast blue lake make him restless and dissatisfied. Other worries trouble him as well. Did Claudia still think about Joe? Did she ever find herself hankering after his brightness, his boundless energy, his sense of fun? Did she ever secretly regret the choice she’d made that night in the hotel in Virginia City? There were moments too when he looked at her and wondered what would happen as they grew older and she lost that youthful charm and beauty that so attracted him to her. Would the fire of passion that had drawn them together eventually burn out altogether, or would they discover something less fragile to keep the embers smoldering and the passion alive?
Children’s voices carry in from the garden. He steps out through the French windows, onto the verandah. Two boys are playing a game on the lawn below, sword-fighting with wooden sticks. Zach, tall for his age, is nine years old now, a hard worker at school, a serious and sensible boy. He has a brother, Samuel Benjamin Cartwright. Sam turned four a few months back. The click-clack of wood on wood stirs a pain in Adam’s heart. There was a time when three boys in another place played a game just like this.
There is no forgiveness. There never will be.
Despite the hour, the sun is still warm in the sky. Zach flops down on the grass and waves his brother away. “Play again later,” he says.
The smaller boy stamps his foot and whines a protest, but Zach ignores him. Sam turns, sees Adam standing there, and runs towards him, with a shriek of delight. The pain tugs harder at Adam’s heart as the child bounces up the steps and wraps his legs in a childish bear hug. He drops his hand to the head of fair, angelic curls. The child turns his face up to grin at him, and his bright hazel eyes shine with laughter. Sam’s eyes hide nothing; they lead straight to his soul.
Adam knows those curls; he knows those eyes. Every month that passes, this child grows more like his father. He also knows, with an unpleasant sinking sensation in his middle, that he and Claudia will soon have to acknowledge the truth that must surely be as apparent to her as it is to him.
This child is Joe’s son, not his.
There could be no forgiveness. There was no putting the past behind him because the past would always be with him, no matter how far he ran. This angel-haired child with the soulful eyes would be the daily reminder of his guilt, his penance for the brother he had betrayed and lost, the surety of grief to come.
The boy grins up at him. “Want to play swords?” he asks.
Adam looks down and smiles. The child can’t see the pain in his heart. No one can. He’s had too much practice hiding it.
Retribution has a face. It is small, unsuspecting, and faintly freckled.
He takes his nemesis by the hand. Side by side, they walk down the steps onto the lawn to play swords.
Other Stories by this Author
- Julia (by Inca / aka Tye)
- Somebody else’s dog (by Inca / aka Tye)
- Last Christmas (by Inca / aka Tye)