A Flame Rekindled (by KateP)

Summary:  Twelve years have passed and now Carrie is back in town.

Rated: K+ (31,535 words)

Pains of Love Series:

Pains of Love
A Flame Rekindled
Legacy of Love

A Flame Rekindled

“I’m so sorry Ma’am, I didn’t see you there.” Joe Cartwright reached out a hand toward the black clad woman he had just collided with. “You see I’d just seen my friend over there…” He pointed across the street to where Mitch Devlin was watching him in amusement. “I’m real sorry.”

“It’s all right.” With Joe’s help the woman got to her feet and began to brush the dust from her dress. “I wasn’t paying attention either.” She smiled up at Joe. “No harm done.”

“I’m glad you’re not hurt.” Joe found himself returning her smile. She was a stranger to him, a woman of around his brother Adam’s age, with pretty blue eyes and blonde hair. “You new in town, Ma’am?”

“I used to live here once, years ago.” She told him. “With my sister Mrs. Hawkins.”

“Mrs. Hawkins!” Joe exclaimed. “She was your sister?” He looked behind the woman to the door of Ruth Hawkins store and the ‘Closed’ sign it displayed. “I’m sorry for your loss, Ma’am.”

“Thank You.” The smile vanished from the woman’s face at this reminder of her reason for being in town. “I’ve just come to clear out Ruth’s things, sell the store. Did you know my sister Mr…er?”

“Cartwright.” Joe introduced himself. “Joe Cartwright.”

“Joe Cartwright!” The woman exclaimed, and to Joe’s surprise he saw her eyes widen in astonishment. “Little Joe Cartwright?”

“My family call me that.” Joe admitted, though the nickname was one he’d rather forget. It had seemed fine when he was younger but now he was eighteen and grown he’d have preferred that the ‘little’ was dropped. “Do I know you Ma’am?”

“You did.” She said with a laugh. “But you were only a small boy then, just six years old.” She looked him up and down for a moment, taking in the curly brown hair, the sparkling hazel eyes in the handsome face. “You grew up a lot.”

“I guess I must have.” Joe grinned. “But I still don’t recall…”

“My name was Collins then.” She told him. “Caroline Collins. I see that means nothing to you.”

“No Ma’am.” Joe confessed, as far as he knew he’d never met the woman before. “I’m afraid I don’t recollect you at all.”

“I’m Mrs. Hawes now.” Caroline said, a little disappointed that her name meant nothing to Joe. “I remarried. How are your family, Joe, your father, Adam and Hoss, are they all well?”

“Yes, Ma’am…I mean Mrs. Hawes, they’re all fine.”

“Well, be sure and remember me to them, it was nice to see you again.”

“I will.” Joe assured her, shaking the hand she held out to him. “And I’m sorry that I don’t remember you.”

“You ask your father or Adam about me.” Caroline told him and a hint of wickedness glinted in her blue eyes. “See what they say.” With a last brush at her dress she turned and went into Ruth Hawkins’ store leaving Joe standing on the sidewalk searching his memory for any recollection of Caroline Collins.

*****

“Caroline Collins!” Adam exclaimed softly when Joe told his family about the meeting at supper that night. “Well that’s a name from the past.”

“She said she used to live in Virginia City years ago.” Joe helped himself to meat from the plate that Hoss handed him. “I don’t remember her though.”

“I do.” Hoss said with a grin. “She lived out here at the ranch for a few weeks, looked after you and me.”

“She did?” Joe frowned in frustration. “Then how come I can’t remember her?”

“Well probably because you were so young.” Ben told him with a smile. “It was the year after your mother died, the summer before Adam left for college.”

“The summer Adam won the horse race in Virginia City.” Hoss added, heaping potato on to his plate. “That’s right ain’t it Adam? You rode that horse…” He scrunched up his face in concentration. “What was that critter’s name?”

“Hurricane.” Adam supplied absently. Though he hadn’t thought of it in ages he remembered that summer well, and Carrie Collins. He could still recall the young woman’s musical voice, her blonde hair gleaming in the summer sun and the laughter in her blue eyes. She had been his first love, the first woman he had declared his feelings for and he still remembered his hurt at her rejection of him. That hurt had been compounded when he found out that the person Carrie had rejected him for was his own father. He could still visualise six year old Joe, tears tumbling down his small face as he told his brother that he had overheard Carrie saying she loved Pa and asking him if that meant Pa didn’t love Marie any more. Glancing across at his father now Adam saw from his expression that he too remembered Carrie and no doubt recalled the bitter confrontation when Adam had accused him of moving Carrie in and carrying on with her. The accusation had been unjustified, Ben had no idea of Carrie’s feelings for him, and when he found out and confronted the young woman she had decided to leave the ranch. That was a dozen years ago and yet it was suddenly as fresh in Adam’s memory as if it had just happened.

“Hurricane, that was it.” Hoss was saying between mouthfuls of food. “He sure was fast. Don’t you remember standing on the sidewalk cheering Adam on, Joe?”

“I think I might.” Joe said uncertainly with vague recollections of being lifted up onto a tall, chestnut horse not unlike his brother’s present mount, Sport. “Wasn’t there a picnic afterwards?”

“Sure was.” Hoss confirmed. “You, me, Pa and Carrie. Yes, sir, I remember it well.”

“Carrie?” Joe asked. “We called her Carrie?”

Hoss nodded in agreement, his mouth full.

“Then I do remember.” Joe said triumphantly. “Well, a little bit anyway. She made cookies with us once didn’t she?”

“Yes, she did.” Ben answered the question, pushing his plate aside. “Now, did you pick up the mail while you were in town, Joseph?”
Joe looked up sharply at his father, surprised by the abrupt change of subject. “I put it on your desk.”

“Thank You.” Ben rose from the table and, putting his fork down, Adam followed him. Behind them Joe and Hoss exchanged a puzzled glance, then, understanding that something about Caroline Collins was disturbing their father, they completed the meal in silence.

*****

“What’s up?” Adam asked his father in a low voice as Ben sat down at his desk and picked up the mail, flicking through it absently. “Surely not Caroline Collins? I thought that was all over and done with years ago?”

“It was.” Ben reached for the letter opener. “It’s not that, well not really.”

“Then what?”

With a sigh, Ben put the mail down on the desk and glanced in the direction of the table where Hoss and Joe were still eating. “Just memories, I suppose.” He said softly. “I wasn’t handling things too well the summer Carrie was here, I was missing Marie and dreading you leaving for college.”

“Could have done without the complication of Carrie falling for you?”

“Yes.” Ben smiled wryly as he remembered the young woman declaring her love for him. “She was a nice girl and I was sorry to hurt her feelings but all I could think of was Marie, how I was going to face the future without her.”

“Then I accused you of being about to marry Carrie Collins.”

“She had her sights set on that.” Shifting around in his chair Ben looked up at Adam. “Remember how upset Joe was?”

Adam nodded. “He accepted your explanation easily enough.”

“That she’d made a mistake, that adult’s sometimes do that? Yes he did.” Ben smiled softly at the memory of his little boy’s assertion that he liked Carrie but he didn’t want her to be his Mama. “It’s a shame that he doesn’t pay attention to me like that now.”

“True.” Adam said with a grin. “Did you ever hear from Carrie after she left the Ponderosa?”

Ben shook his head. “Ruth told me that she’d found a job and was settled in the city, but that was it. You?”

“No, I just forgot about her, what with college and everything. By the time I got back she was just a distant memory. Funny how Joe talking about her tonight has brought everything back so clearly.”

“I suppose when Ruth died I should have realised one of her family would need to come and sort things out.” Ben mused. “Though I’d have thought it would have been one of her brothers.”

“Joe did say Carrie’s name was Hawes now, perhaps she’s brought her husband with her.”

“Perhaps.” Ben picked up the mail again and began to slit open the envelopes. “I don’t suppose we’re very likely to run into her, I doubt she’ll be staying long.”

“Probably not.” Adam agreed turning away, but as he headed out to the barn to do the evening chores he found himself wondering how the years had treated Carrie and if he’d still recognise her as the beautiful young woman he had loved so long ago.

*****

With a sigh Carrie flung back the sheets and got out of bed. She was tired from a long and sad day of sorting through Ruth’s possessions and cleaning out the store but try as she might sleep wouldn’t come. Pulling aside the drapes she looked out at the street. Despite the late hour light still spilled from the doorway of the Silver Dollar saloon and the faint sound of laughter could be heard from within. A couple of cowboys staggered past beneath her window, clearly the worse for drink. Dropping the drapes back into place she lit the lamp on the bedside table and, picking it up, ventured downstairs into the dark and empty store.

So many memories flooded through her mind. Ruth laughing as she arranged a display of hats sure to appeal to the women of Virginia City. Ruth’s husband, Charles, Carrie smiled as she thought of the tall man with the booming laugh, gone this past ten years. Gently she touched the counter that Ruth had stood behind for so long, it was hard to realise that she would never see her there again.

Lifting the curtain that separated the store from the stock room, Carrie looked through. The black shapes of piles of boxes met her gaze but in her minds eye she saw again her sister sitting at a table with her friends relating all the latest Virginia City gossip. A smile touched Carrie’s lips as she remembered the fateful day she had let slip her love for Ben Cartwright in this very room, not realising that Little Joe was in earshot. It all seemed so long ago, since then she had met and married Robert Hawes and for a while she had been happy enough with him. Then along had come Paul, Carrie felt a rush of love as she thought of her small son, the best thing to come from her marriage to Robert.

Putting the lamp down, she busied herself making coffee and tried to bring her thoughts to what lay in the days ahead. She had to find a buyer for Ruth’s store and sort out her sister’s effects and stock before she could return to San Francisco. But though she attempted to make plans for the morning her mind kept returning to the Ponderosa and the Cartwrights, wondering what they had thought when Joe told them she was back in town.

*****

Wearily pushing open the store door the following afternoon Carrie was looking forward to a strong cup of coffee and a sit down. The day hadn’t gone well and her disturbed night was catching up on her, she felt drained and listless. Promising herself that she would be in bed early tonight she lit the stove and put the coffee pot on to boil before going to change from her black mourning dress into something a little more comfortable.

Buttoning up her blouse Carrie paused a moment, listening. She had thought for an instant that she heard the bright jingle of the bell above the entry to the store but there was no further sound and she shrugged, dismissing it as a noise from the street. Pulling on an old blue skirt and fastening it, she left the bedroom and headed downstairs, giving a gasp of alarm when she came down into the store and saw the tall figure of a man standing by the counter.

“I didn’t mean to frighten you.” The man spoke up quickly and Carrie instantly recognised the voice, slightly deeper now than when he was eighteen but unmistakeable nevertheless.

“Adam.” She exclaimed in pleasure moving closer to get a better look at him. “It’s good to see you.”

“Joe said he’d run into you.” Adam’s gaze swept Carrie as she walked towards him. She was still beautiful, he thought, still slender and delicate looking. Oh, the years showed a little, her blonde hair held a few threads of grey and there were one or two tiny lines around her pretty mouth but she didn’t look thirty-five and her voice was just as sweet and musical as he remembered it.

“Yes.” Carrie said with a laugh. “He was so intent on what he was doing that he didn’t see me until he’d knocked me over.”

“Joe has rather a habit of sweeping beautiful women off their feet.” Adam gave a wry grin. “Though usually not quite so literally.”

“He’s grown into a very handsome young man.” Carrie commented, walking over to pull the blinds up on the store window and let a little more light into the room.

“He thinks so.” Adam said, then laughed. “No, that’s not really fair. He’s a not a bad kid.”

“He’s eighteen now isn’t he?” Carrie turned from the window. “It all seems so long ago.”

“Does it?” Adam asked softly. “I thought that, then last night when Joe talked about you…suddenly it all seemed like yesterday.”

“It’s a lot of years.” She said wistfully. “I was so young then, and you…” She studied him critically, head held slightly to one side as she took in the dark hair, the handsome face with the dark eyes that held amusement as he watched her. “You look almost the same.”

“A few more scars and perhaps a few lines.” Adam smiled. “A whole lot more experience.”

“We both have that.” She said, moving to pull aside the green velvet curtain that divided the store from the back room. “I’ve coffee on the stove, would you like a cup?”

“Please.” Adam followed her through, taking a seat at the table and watching while she busied herself getting the cups from the dresser. She moved just how he recalled, in a smooth unhurried way. “I hear you’re married again?”

“I was.” She poured coffee and brought it across to the table, setting his before him. “My husband, Robert, he left me. Left us really, I have a son Paul who’s seven.”

“Is he here with you?” Adam asked noting how her expression softened as she spoke of her son.

“He’s in San Francisco with his Aunt and Uncle.” She sipped her coffee, watching him over the rim of the cup. “What about you? Are you married?”

“No.” Adam shook his head. “The right woman never seemed to come along. The Ponderosa is still a bachelor establishment.”

“I heard you went to college.” She put her cup down and went to fetch the coffee pot to pour a refill. “You weren’t tempted to stay in the east?”

“Tempted, yes.” He shook his head as she offered to top up his cup. “But in the end the Ponderosa won out. My father needed me here, Joe was still very young…” He shrugged. “It’s home.”

“You don’t regret it?”

“From time to time.” He smiled dryly. “Usually when I’ve had a hard day chasing cattle through the mud and the rain. Mostly I’m happy enough.” He looked up at the clock on the shelf and stood up. “Talking of cattle, I’d better go. I’ve got to check up on part of the herd on my way home.”

“It was nice to see you again.” Carrie got up to see him out. “I didn’t know if I would.”

“I guess I was curious.” He admitted, as they walked through into the store. “Wondered how things had gone with you.”

“So was I.” She smiled. “I was hoping that I would see you again, all of you. I would so much like to see Hoss and your father. Hoss was a such a sweet boy.”

“Well he’s changed a bit.” Adam told her pulling open the door. “He’s all of six foot four and bigger than most men round here.” He laughed as he saw her eyes widen. “People still say he’s sweet though. He’s a nice guy.”

“I hope he calls in to see me before I go home.”

“When are you staying till?”

“I’m not sure.” Sadness chased across her face as she answered. “I have a lot to sort out here first, at least two weeks I think.”

“Then perhaps…” Adam hesitated a moment wondering if he should suggest meeting again.

“Perhaps?” She asked when he didn’t continue, a spark of excitement running over her as she waited.

“Perhaps you’d like to come for a buggy ride Saturday?” Adam asked. “If you’re free. We could take a picnic.”

“I’d like that very much.” She smiled widely, her eyes lighting with pleasure. “And if Hop Sing still works at the Ponderosa I’m sure the food will be excellent.”

“Works at the Ponderosa?” Adam said with mock severity. “Ma’am, he runs the Ponderosa.” Tipping his hat he smiled down at Carrie. “Till Saturday then.” He said. “Around noon.”

“Till Saturday.” Carrie agreed and watched him walk away before closing the door behind him and leaning back against it. Adam Cartwright had grown into a very handsome man, she thought, a very handsome man indeed.

*****

Harnessing the horse to the buggy on Saturday morning Adam was a little put out to see his youngest brother ride into the yard. He had hoped that he would be able to get away from the Ponderosa without having to tell his family where he was going but knew that Joe was unlikely to let him go without a barrage of questions.

“Hey, brother.” Joe called, dismounting smoothly and looping Cochise’s reins around the hitching rail before walking over to speak to Adam. “Going somewhere?”

“Looks like it, doesn’t it?” Adam said with a glance at the buggy. “What are you doing back here at this hour?”

“Pa sent me to get some more nails, it’s a bigger job than we thought.” Joe crossed his arms across his chest and leaned back against the corral fence. “Where are you going?”

“Is it any business of yours where I go on my day off?” Adam asked irritably. “You’d better get those nails and get back hadn’t you?”

“Oh, I’ve got a few minutes to spare.” Joe grinned, well aware that his presence was needling his brother. “Taking someone for a buggy ride?”

“If you must know, yes I am.” Adam told him.

“And a picnic I see.” Joe indicated the basket on the buggy
seat. “Anyone I know?”

“Carrie Hawes.” Adam said with a sigh, reckoning that he might as well tell Joe, his young brother would just pester him with questions if he didn’t.

“Carrie Hawes!” Joe’s eyes widened in surprise. “When did you arrange this? I didn’t even know you’d seen her.”

“I saw her a couple of days ago in Virginia City.” Adam told him, not volunteering the fact that he’d sought her out at the store. “Just thought it would be nice to go for a drive, talk over old times.”

“What about her husband?” Joe asked inquisitively. “She’s married isn’t she?”

“Her husband’s not around.” Adam stepped up into the buggy and picked up the reins. “She told me he deserted her.”

“Pa won’t like it.” Joe warned. “Even if her husband has left her, she’s still a married woman.”

“I’m only taking her for a picnic.” Adam said angrily. “Not planning to propose.”

Joe shrugged. “He still won’t like it.”

“Well that’s just tough.” Adam flicked the reins and headed away leaving Joe staring after him, a worried frown creasing his brow.

*****

The lake was smooth and blue in the sunlight, looking darker at the edges where the surrounding pine trees reflected on the surface. The spring sunshine was warm on Adam’s back as he leant over to offer Carrie another piece of peach pie.

“I couldn’t eat another bite.” She smiled, holding up her hand to decline. “Hop Sing’s food is just as wonderful as I remember.”

“He’ll be pleased you enjoyed it.” Adam put the remainder of the pie back in the basket and leant back, propping himself up on one arm and watching Carrie. “He was quite fond of you as I recall.”

“I liked him too.” She turned to look out at the lake and sighed happily before turning back to Adam. “It’s so beautiful here, such a change from San Francisco.”

“But you must be missing your son?”

“I am.” Her blue eyes filled with tears suddenly and she reached up to brush them aside with her fingers. “I miss him dreadfully.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you.” Adam looked away, letting her regain her composure for a moment.

“Don’t apologise.” She gave a trembling little laugh. “I’m just a bit emotional at the moment…what with Ruth and all.”

Adam nodded his understanding and they were silent for a while, just enjoying the peace of the springtime afternoon, the only sounds the sough of the breeze in the pines, the call of the birds high overhead and the gentle lapping of the water.

“How was Joe after I went away?” Carrie asked softly, eventually breaking the silence. “I often wondered about him, if he got over those bad dreams he had.”

“Not entirely.” Adam sat up and began to pack the picnic things away. “Oh, he grew out of them to some extent as he got older but even now, if he’s troubled about something, he’ll still get nightmares.”

“He never wanted to follow in your footsteps and go to college?”

“Joe?” Adam laughed. “No, he’s not really the academic sort. I don’t mean he’s not bright, he is, but Joe prefers to be out riding the range not inside reading books.”

“He was such a lovely little boy.” Carrie smiled at the memory. “But he was missing his mother so much then, your father used to worry over him so.”

“He still does. Joe’s a real live wire and he has a hair trigger temper, Pa worries that he’ll get into real trouble one day.”

“You worry about him too.” She observed, seeing the way his brows drew together and his eyes darkened as he spoke. “Just like you did back then.”

“He’s my brother.” Adam said simply, getting up and leaning over to pick up the basket. Tucking it under one arm he extended a hand to Carrie. “Time we were getting back.”

“I suppose so.” Taking his hand she allowed him to help her to her feet. “It seems a shame to leave here, it’s been lovely.”

“Yes, it has.” Adam found himself reluctant to relinquish her hand and Carrie didn’t pull away as they walked toward the waiting buggy.

“I thought of the Ponderosa often while I was in San Francisco.” She said softly as Adam stowed the basket away.

“And my father?” The question came from nowhere and Adam wished he could call it back as soon as he said it, hearing her soft gasp.

“For a while.” She admitted, looking down at the ground. “But then I met Robert and eventually I realised that what I’d felt for Ben was just infatuation, not love.”

“You loved Robert?”

She nodded, and once again her eyes were clouded with tears. “He didn’t love me though. He left me alone with a small baby, Paul was just six months old. If it wasn’t for my family I don’t know what I’d have done.”

“I’m sorry.” Adam said gently, taking her hand in his again. “You deserved better than that.”

“If I hadn’t met Robert I wouldn’t have Paul and he’s worth all the heartache.” A tremulous smile touched her lips. “He’s the most precious thing in the world to me.”

“It must have been hard for you both.” Adam squeezed her hand sympathetically.

“We got through.” She returned the pressure turning her face up to his, her eyes almost luminous, the sunlight turning her hair to gold. Adam caught his breath, long forgotten feelings suddenly surfacing. Slowly, hesitantly he raised his hands to her face, his thumbs brushing away the remnants of her tears.

“Adam…” The word was spoken in a breathy whisper, it’s very sound an invitation and he dropped his mouth to hers, their lips meeting in a long, sweet kiss.

*****

Unhitching the horse from the buggy and leading the animal into the barn Adam found himself whistling happily, something that caused both his brothers to look up from their chores and exchange glances.

“You seem mighty happy tonight.” Hoss observed, coming over to lean on the stall that Adam had just led his horse into. “Have a good time this afternoon?”

“Catch up on the good old days with Mrs. Hawes?” Joe put in, throwing down the pitchfork he had been using and joining Hoss. “You’ve sure been gone a long time.”

“Just had to tell everyone about it, didn’t you?” Adam accused his youngest brother as he settled the horse in the stall and fetched a bucketful of food.

“I never!” Joe protested indignantly, his eyes glimmering with annoyance at Adam’s charge.

“Don’t blame him.” Hoss jumped in quickly and Adam had to smile, his middle brother was always so fast to defend Joe. “I was up near the Virginia City road and saw you escortin’ Miss Carrie home. If you’d been a bit closer I’d have rode up and said howdy to her.”

“See?” Joe said with a self-righteous air. “It wasn’t me.”

“You haven’t told Pa have you?” Adam asked, giving the horse a final pat.

“No, I haven’t!” Joe’s tone held an edge of anger now. “I haven’t told anyone, but you’re in trouble if he does find out.”

“Find out what?” Ben’s deep mellifluous voice inquired from the doorway and Hoss and Joe quickly returned to their work leaving their older brother to face the music. With a scowl for them both Adam turned to face his father. “Evening, Pa.”

“What is it that you’ll be in trouble about?” Ben asked, coming into the building.

“Trust Joe.” Adam muttered, just loudly enough for his youngest brother to hear and drawing a dark glower from the young man. “I believe Joe thinks you wouldn’t approve of me taking Caroline Hawes on a picnic this afternoon.” He told his father.

“Caroline?” For a moment Ben was puzzled. “You mean Carrie Collins?”

“That’s right.” Adam was aware that Hoss and Joe had both stopped work again and were watching the two men, waiting to see their father’s reaction to this information.

“Just the two of you?” Ben asked. “Unchaperoned?”

Adam nodded. “It was just a drive and a picnic, that’s all.”

“But she’s a married woman.” Ben frowned at his son. “What of her reputation? What would her husband say?”

“Her husband left her years ago.” Adam told him. “Left her alone with a small baby. I realise she’s still legally a married woman but…”

“There’s no but about it.” Ben interrupted. “If there has been no divorce then she’s still married.”

“It was just two old friends out for an afternoon.” Adam protested angrily. “That’s all there was to it.”

“I take it that it won’t happen again?” Ben asked as Adam started to walk past him.

“If you mean will I be seeing her again then the answer is yes.” Adam answered, his voice low and even but very determined. “I shall be escorting Carrie to dinner at the International House on Tuesday evening and she’s agreed to do me the honour of attending the dance with me next Saturday night.”

For once Ben was speechless, just standing and watching as Adam walked off, before turning to his two younger sons with a gruff order to. “Get on with your work.”

*****

“Adam, that was just delicious.” Carrie put down her fork with a sigh of satisfaction. “But I really don’t think you should be wasting all this money on me.”

Reaching over to refill her glass with the last of the champagne, the pale golden liquid fizzing merrily, Adam smiled at her. “It’s not often I get the chance of a good meal with a beautiful woman, it’s money well spent I assure you.”

Picking up her glass, Carrie sipped the wine appreciatively, glancing around the restaurant as she did so. “Virginia City has come a long way in twelve years.” She observed. “I can’t imagine getting a meal like this when I was here last.”

“We’ve become a touch more civilised these days.” Adam agreed, sitting back and picking up his own glass. “Now, would you like anything more to eat?”

“After those wonderful oysters and the roast goose I couldn’t manage another morsel.”

“Then coffee, perhaps?”

“Thank you, but no.” Carrie drained her glass and put it down on the table. “I’d really rather go home now, if you don’t mind. I’ve had a rather exhausting day.”

“Of course.” Adam signalled for the waiter to bring the bill, reaching into his jacket pocket for his billfold. “You are still coming to the dance on Saturday?”

“I wouldn’t miss it for anything.” Carrie smiled, standing as another waiter approached with her cloak and helped her drape it around her shoulders.

Leaving the International House Adam gave an exasperated sigh as he caught sight of two familiar horses outside, their riders leaning against the hitching post. “You two waiting for something?” He asked sardonically, seeing them straighten up as he and Carrie approached.

“Us?” Joe flashed him one of his oh so innocent smiles. “We were just um…” Taking off his hat he ran a hand through his hair and looked over at Hoss. “Just…”

“Talking?” Hoss supplied uncertainly and Joe rolled his eyes in disbelief.

“Hoss?” Carrie stepped forward, holding out her hand in greeting. “I can hardly believe it’s you.”

“Pleased to meet you again, Ma’am.” Hoss took her small hand in his large one, shaking it gently. “You sure ain’t changed a bit, jest as pretty as a picture.”

“Why thank you.” Carrie blushed at the compliment, her gaze taking in the man she had last met as a twelve-year-old boy. He was so big, she thought. Though he had always been very tall for his age it surprised her quite how large he had grown. His eyes were the same though, cornflower blue and still holding the innocence she recalled despite the passage of the years. “You still remember me then?”

“I sure do.” Hoss grinned widely. “I ain’t ever forgot you, Ma’am.”

“I remember you now as well.” Joe put in, coming to stand on the sidewalk beside her. “Once Hoss reminded me about the horse race…”

“Hurricane.” Carrie interrupted with a laugh. “Yes, I remember that well. Adam rode superbly that day.”

With a small bow at the compliment Adam took Carrie’s arm in his. “If you two will excuse us, I’m about to walk Mrs. Hawes home.”

“Goodnight Hoss, Joe.” Carrie shook hands quickly with both of them before turning to go. “Hope I’ll see you again before I leave.”

“We’re heading over to the Silver Dollar.” Joe shouted after them as they headed towards Ruth Hawkins store. “You going to join us later, Adam?”

Adam hesitated and glanced at Carrie, a question dancing in his eyes. At her answering nod he turned back towards his brothers. “Not tonight.” He called back. “I’ll see you at home.”

“Oh boy.” Joe said quietly, as he and Hoss watched the pair open the door of the store and go inside. “I got a feeling Pa’s going to be really angry if he ever finds out about this.”

*****

As Adam closed the door behind them Carrie let forth with a peal of laughter. “You know what they’re thinking now?” She asked, taking her cape off as she led the way through to the back room.

“Of course.” Adam’s smile was almost a smirk as he imagined what his brothers were saying about him. “They’re going to be very disappointed when they get home and find I’m already there.”

“You will have a coffee with me before you go, won’t you?” She asked, opening the stove and prodding the embers into life before adding more wood. “I’m making a pot for myself.”

“I thought you were too tired for coffee.” Adam observed, coming around behind her as she straightened up and putting his arms around her waist.

“I just really wanted to get home.” She turned in his embrace and looked up into his eyes. “You know you don’t have to go back to the Ponderosa tonight if you don’t want to.”

“I don’t want to but I have to.” Adam told her softly and pulled her closer, stroking a hand over her hair. “Not that it’s not a very tempting offer but I don’t want to make you the subject of the Virginia City gossips.”

“The Cartwright heir and the married woman.” Carrie said with a sigh. “You’re right, of course, I can almost hear all the old biddies talking.”

“But that doesn’t mean we can’t do this…” Adam bent his mouth to hers and she responded eagerly, her hands caressing his strong shoulders as her tongue explored his mouth. When he eventually lifted his head she reached up and pulled him back down to her, her fingers in his hair. A noise from outside brought them back to reality and, a little shakily, Carrie pulled away and busied herself with the coffee pot. Adam watched her as she poured the drinks, glad that she didn’t repeat her offer for him to stay. Right now it would be very difficult to say no.

“Will your brothers be at the dance?” She handed him his coffee, determinedly changing the conversation to safer subjects.

“They’ll be there.” Adam told her, with a wry smile. He was pretty sure that nothing would keep his brothers from coming along to see what happened when he introduced Carrie to his father. Ben had made his disapproval of Adam’s asking her to the dance very obvious over the last few days.

“Will they be bringing girlfriends?” Carrie asked.

“Hoss is sweet on a young lady called Bessie Sue, I imagine he’ll be with her, and Joe…” Adam smiled and shook his head slightly at the thought of his youngest brother and girls. “Joe tends to have a different girl every week and imagines he’s in love at least once a month.”

“Anyone special at the moment?”

“No.” Adam shook his head. “At least not that he’s said and Joe isn’t one for keeping his romances a secret.”

“How about your father?” She asked quietly. “Has he got anyone special?”

“No.” Adam put his cup down abruptly, feeling a prickle of jealousy run through him at Carrie’s question. “Thanks for the coffee.” He reached out to pick up his hat from where he had left it on the table. “I’d better get going.”

“Adam.” Carrie caught at his arm as he turned to go. “It was just a simple question, I’m not interested in your father.”

“You were once.” The quiet words hung in the air between them for a moment until Carrie reached up and touched Adam’s face in a soft caress.

“That was a long time ago.” She whispered. “Another lifetime. As soon as I saw you in the store I knew I wanted you, Adam. You, not your father.”

“And I knew that I’d never stopped loving you.” Adam said, reaching for her. They clung to each other for a long time, their hands caressing, exploring, their mouths locked together. At last, summoning up all his willpower, Adam gently broke away. “I’ll see you Saturday.” He told her and, with a last touch of his fingers to her lips, walked swiftly from the store.

*****

The Saturday night dance was in full swing as Adam escorted Carrie to the hall, the sound of the music coming out to meet them as they walked the short distance from the store. Holding open the door Adam let Carrie precede him inside then moved swiftly to take her arm as they walked round the room, threading their way through the whirling mass of dancers. The women in their finest gowns of velvet and silk, the men, for the most part looking uncomfortable, in their best shirts and ties. Adam caught a quick glance of Joe as he spun past, a pretty dark haired girl held close in his arms. Spotting his father, standing by the table at the far end of the room, talking to Sheriff Coffee, Adam headed in that direction.

“Hey, Pa.” He greeted Ben, a hint of challenge in his tone as he put his arm around Carrie and drew her forward. “I’m sure you remember Caroline.”

“Ben.” Smiling, Carrie held out her hand. “I’m so glad to meet you again after all these years.”

“Mrs. Hawes.” Ben nodded politely, shaking hands. “I was very sorry to hear about your sister.”

“Thank you.” Carrie looked away for a moment, blue eyes suddenly moist. “It was very sudden but at least I’m assured that she didn’t suffer.”

“Will you be staying in Virginia City for long?” Ben asked, steering the subject away from Ruth Hawkins death. “Adam informs me that you have a son in San Francisco.”

“Paul.” Carrie told him, the smile returning to her lips. “He’s seven and a great joy to me. I do miss him dreadfully.” She sighed softly. “It looks as though I may have to stay here a little longer than I planned.”

“Problems?” Asked Adam solicitously, though a thrill of pleasure shot through him at the thought that Carrie wouldn’t be leaving as soon as he’d anticipated.

“Just legal stuff.” Carrie said, her hand seeking Adam’s and squeezing it gently. “Nothing that I can’t deal with.”

“If there is anything you need to expedite matters I’m sure my lawyer would be willing to assist.” Ben offered.

“That’s most kind.” Carrie looked up with a grateful smile and Ben found himself smiling back. “But I’m sure everything will be fine.”

“If you’ll excuse us.” Adam said to his father, hearing the fiddler begin a lively tune. “I think we’d better take to the floor.” Turning to Carrie he gave a half bow. “May I have the pleasure of this dance?” He enquired formally and, with a bubbly little laugh, Carrie accepted.

As the two swept onto the floor, Ben was surprised at the feelings that seeing Carrie again had aroused in him. When she had worked for him he had thought of her as no more than a nice, pretty young girl but the woman that had been introduced to him tonight was stunning. She was still slender and lithe with a sweet smile and a musical laugh but now she carried an air of maturity about her, a look of understanding and wisdom that hadn’t been there before. He found himself watching as Adam and Carrie danced and laughed together, aware that others were also studying the pair, they made a handsome couple, and Ben chided himself as he felt a tiny glimmer of jealousy.

“Everything okay, Pa?” Ben tore his gaze from Adam and Carrie at Hoss’ question, turning to see both his younger sons standing beside him, anxious looks on their faces.

“Just fine.” Ben assured them with a smile. “Just fine.”

“I’ll get you some punch.” Joe offered and at his father’s nod headed toward the punch bowl, Hoss close behind him.

“You think he’s mad at Adam?” Hoss asked, glancing back to where Ben was standing, once more scrutinising the dancers.

“Well he wasn’t happy at him bringing Carrie here, was he?” Joe filled a glass with punch. “He seems all right about it though, doesn’t he?”

Hoss nodded and Joe looked over at Ben. There was a faraway, almost dreamy expression on his father’s face and just for a moment Joe wondered, then shaking his head he dismissed the thought and carried the punch over, of course Pa wouldn’t be jealous of Adam and his lady friend.

*****

Walking home later in the soft warmth of the evening Carrie sighed with happiness as she snuggled against Adam’s side. “I thought this visit would be such a terrible ordeal.” She said softly as they reached the door of the store. “I never thought I would be so happy as I am tonight.”

Putting two fingers under her chin Adam lifted her face to his and bent to kiss her before replying. “I’m glad that you enjoyed the dance.”

“It’s not just the dance and you know it.” Carrie laughed. “It’s the company.”

“Thank you kindly.” Adam said with a smile. “Nice to be appreciated.” Following Carrie inside the store he waited as she hung up her cloak and moved to light the lamp, its warm glow lighting her face and setting a golden gleam in her hair. “Did I tell you how beautiful you look tonight?” He asked a little huskily, admiring her figure in the pale green dress, a thread of gold shimmering around her neck and accentuating her delicate throat.

“Once or twice.” She answered, moving to stand in front of him. “And you, Mr. Adam Cartwright look very handsome, I was the envy of all the ladies this evening.”

Gathering her into his arms, Adam looked down into her eyes. “I’d like to ask you something.” He said quietly.

“I thought you didn’t want to cause any gossip.” She said archly, raising her eyebrows a little.

“I didn’t mean that.” Adam laughed, and then grew suddenly serious. “I feel a bit like my youngest brother at the moment.”

“Joe?” Carrie looked at him quizzically. “Why?”

“Because Joe’s the impulsive one in the family.” Adam explained, with a wry smile. “The one that falls in love in minutes and wants to get married within days of knowing a girl.”

“Get…” Carrie stopped as the words sank in. “Are you asking…?”

“If you’ll be my wife.” Adam said, his voice low and soft. “Will you, Carrie, will you marry me?”

Breaking away from his grasp Carrie headed for the back room, sinking down in a chair and resting her head in her hands. “I can’t.” She whispered sadly. “I’m married already Adam, you know that.”

“You can get a divorce.” Adam came to kneel beside her taking her hands in his and looking up at her. “I’ve looked into it, desertion for more than two years is valid grounds for divorce.”

“Divorce!” Her tone was horrified. “Just think of the gossip that would cause. I’d be branded as some kind of scarlet woman.”

“There will be talk, I know.” Adam stroked her hand, then reached up and gently ran his fingers down her cheek feeling her turn towards the touch. “But it won’t be for long and then you’ll be Mrs. Cartwright and nobody will dare to say anything bad about my wife.”

“Oh, Adam.” Slipping from the chair she knelt in front of him, her hands in her lap. “Your father would never agree.”

“My father has nothing to do with it.” Adam told her firmly. “This is to do with you and me. I love you Carrie, I want you to be with me for the rest of my life. You and Paul.”

For a long time Carrie was silent and eventually Adam turned aside, sighing. About to get to his feet he was stopped by her hand on his arm. “Yes.” She whispered.

“Yes?” Adam asked, as joy suffused his face. “You’ll marry me?”

“I will.” Carrie smiled, tears of happiness trembling on her lashes. “If I can get a divorce from Robert then I’ll marry you.”

“Carrie.” Adam swept her into his arms and kissed her deeply, resolutely pushing aside any worries he had about his father’s reaction to the news.

*****

“You were late home last night.” Hoss remarked, looking up as Adam came into the barn the following morning to feed the horses as part of the morning chores.

“Yes.” Adam yawned as he scooped food into a bucket and carried it across to the stalls. “Carrie and I got to talking, in fact…” He paused a moment and Hoss stopped working and leant on the pitchfork to look at him quizzically. “In fact I asked her to marry me.”

Delight chased across Hoss’ broad face and he beamed widely at his older brother before a puzzled frown settled on his brow. “Dang it all, Adam.” He said in a baffled tone. “How can that be if Miss Carrie is already married?”

“She’s going to get a divorce.” Adam told him. “I’ve already seen a lawyer about it and she has grounds. We’ll need to look for her husband and get his consent if possible but if he can’t be found the divorce can still go ahead.”

“It’s all a bit sudden ain’t it?” Hoss put down the pitchfork and came to lean against Chub’s stall, watching as Adam poured feed out for the big horse. “Pa’s not gonna be happy either, you marryin’ a divorced lady.”

“I didn’t intend to ask her just yet.” Adam admitted, putting down the bucket and coming to stand beside his brother. “I thought I’d wait until she went back to San Francisco and then maybe take a holiday and go and do a little courting away from the Virginia City gossips, but when I took her home last night, she looked so beautiful and somehow I just knew it was the right time.”

“She said yes then?”

“Of course.” Adam grinned ruefully. “Now I just have to tell Pa.”

“Rather you than me.” Hoss laughed, giving his brother a sympathetic look. “Well, I’m pleased for you, Adam, Miss Carrie is a real nice lady. I just know you’re gonna be real happy together.”

“You’re going to marry her?” Joe’s astounded voice from the doorway was loud and both Adam and Hoss turned quickly, gesturing him to be quiet.

“She’s agreed to be my wife, yes.” Adam told him. “It may take a while, what with the divorce and I have to meet Paul as well and get to know him. I don’t want to spring a stepfather on the boy.” Hoss shot him a quick glance at this last comment, wondering if Adam was remembering when Ben had sprung a stepmother on the two of them.

“You think Pa’ll allow it?” Joe asked, his voice softer now as he stepped inside the barn. The idea of his brother marrying Carrie seemed to stir some memory at the back of his mind but he couldn’t quite get a hold of it. “It’s awful quick.”

“No quicker than you usually decide on marriage.” Adam retorted and was rewarded by a rueful grin from Joe. “Though you’ve managed to avoid actually getting married as yet. Anyway it’s none of Pa’s business, I am thirty after all and it’s not as quick as all that, I did know Carrie before.”

“I know she worked here looking after me.” Joe said slowly, things beginning to connect in his mind. “But I didn’t think…did you, I mean…you were my age back then weren’t you?”

“Yes, I was and yes, I fell in love with Carrie all those years ago.” Adam told him. “But it didn’t work out.”

“Why?” Joe wanted to know, a vague image beginning to coalesce in his mind. Carrie had been going to marry someone but it wasn’t Adam. He strained to remember, it was all so long ago and he’d only been a small child but he could recall being upset that Carrie was going to marry… “Pa.” He blurted out suddenly. “She was going to marry Pa.”

A dark scowl appeared on Adam’s face at Joe’s words. “She was never going to marry Pa.” He said angrily. “That’s all in the past now anyway.” Picking up the empty bucket he deposited it back beside the food bin and stalked out of the barn leaving Joe staring after him.

“Then what happened back then?” Joe demanded of Hoss as soon as he judged Adam to be out of earshot. “Why do I remember that Carrie was going to marry Pa?”

“Just leave it.” Hoss advised with a shrug, turning back to his work. “Like Adam said it’s a long time ago. I don’t rightly know what went on but it’s between Pa and Adam, nothing to do with us. C’mon, let’s get these chores done.” He picked up a second pitchfork and held it out to Joe.

Beginning his morning work Joe let the matter drop but a sense of unease settled over him. Whatever had happened in the past he knew it had made him very unhappy and somehow he couldn’t help but worry about the way he had seen Ben look at Carrie last night. He’d dismissed it then but with this new knowledge he wasn’t so sure that his father wasn’t jealous of Adam and his intended wife.

*****

As was usual on a Sunday morning, once the chores were done Ben and his sons rode into Virginia City to attend the service at the church.

It was a quiet journey that morning, Adam hadn’t yet spoken about his proposal to his father and Hoss and Joe kept the knowledge to themselves, waiting until their brother introduced the subject. If Ben was surprised at their silence he didn’t show it, just making the occasional comment to one or the other of them about ranch chores as they rode.

The service was brief and as soon as it was finished Adam excused himself from his family and made his way over to join Carrie, who was standing alone by the church door. “Have you told him?” She asked quietly as he drew near, her eyes seeking Ben who had gone over to talk to the reverend.

“Not yet.” Adam told her, putting a hand on her arm and drawing her out into the sunlit street. “My brothers know, I was telling Hoss and I’m afraid Joe overheard.”

“Do they approve?”

“Hoss was pleased for us.” Adam leant against the church wall, watching as the congregation filed out, a few curious glances coming their way. “Carrie, would you come out to supper at the ranch tonight?”

“I’d be honoured.” Carrie accepted the invitation with a smile that held a hint of worry. “Are you going to tell your father then?”

“I intend to make a formal announcement.” Adam smiled wryly. “I’m hoping he’ll accept it. He was quite pleasant to you at the dance.”

“Oh, Adam.” She cast a quick glance around before reaching for his hand. “Are you sure you want to do this? I don’t want you and your father to be at odds over me.”

“Pa will come round.” Adam assured her. “When he sees how happy we are he’ll accept the marriage. He may not like the idea to start with but I know he just wants me to be happy and with you I will be.”

“I hope so.” Carrie’s reply was heartfelt. She looked up at Adam as a sudden thought occurred to her. “You said Hoss was pleased.” She said. “What about Joe?”

Adam sighed and ran a hand through his hair in unconscious agitation before answering. “He remembered you saying you were going to marry Pa.”

“Oh.” The single word was all Carrie said as memory carried her back to her announcement twelve years before.

“He doesn’t remember it all.” Adam told her softly. “He thinks that the two of you were going to get married, I guess I should set him straight.”

“I suppose so.” Carrie nodded, then moved away a little as she saw Ben, Hoss and Joe come out of the church. “What time should I be there tonight?”

“About six.” Adam told her, also noticing his family. “I’ll tell Hop Sing you’re coming, he’ll be pleased.”

“I’ll see you then.” Carrie gave a quick smile to the rest of the Cartwrights as they headed towards Adam then turned and walked away.

*****

Coming down the stairs that evening Ben’s eyes widened in surprise as he saw the table laid out for supper. Not only had an extra place been set but Hop Sing had used the very best china and glassware and a tall vase filled with wild flowers stood resplendent in the middle of the snowy white tablecloth. From the kitchen came the mouth-watering smell of roasting meat.

“Are we expecting company?” Ben asked of the diminutive housekeeper as he appeared from the kitchen carrying a pile of freshly laundered napkins in his hands.

“Mister Adam invite Missie Carrie to eat with us.” Hop Sing’s beaming smile as he imparted the news showed his approval of the guest. “He say to make table look plenty special.”

“Well you’ve certainly succeeded in that.” Ben said dryly, watching Hop Sing fold the napkins and lay one at each place. “Where did the flowers come from?”

“Mister Adam picked them.”

Raising an eyebrow at this Ben was stopped from replying by a whistle behind him as Hoss descended the stairs and caught sight of the table. “That sure looks purty.” He told the little Chinaman who smiled in appreciation and then scurried back into the kitchen.

“Did you know that your brother had invited Mrs. Hawes to supper?” Ben asked as his middle son snagged an apple from the fruit bowl and settled himself on the couch.

“No, sir. He never said anything to me about it.”

“I see.” A frown settled on Ben’s brow. “Where is Adam?”

Quickly swallowing a mouthful of fruit, Hoss looked up at his father. “He’s out at the corral with Joe, I think. Want me to go get him?”

“No.” Ben sat down in the leather chair and picked up his newspaper, trying to dispel the irritation he felt at Adam inviting Carrie out to the Ponderosa without consulting him first. Shaking out the pages he tried to concentrate on the front-page headline, which concerned some political trouble in San Francisco but gave up when he heard the rattling sound of a buggy arriving in the yard outside.

“Sounds like Miss Carrie now.” Hoss said, getting up and going to open the door. Putting the newspaper aside with a sigh, Ben followed him.

“Oh, it’s just the way I remember it.” Carrie exclaimed as she alighted from the buggy she had hired and saw Hoss and Ben coming out to greet her. “It’s lovely to be back.”

“Nice to have you here.” Hoss grinned. “Ain’t it, Pa?”

“It’s good to see you again, Mrs. Hawes.” Ben managed a welcoming smile as Hoss shook hands with Carrie and then drew her towards his father. “I’m afraid Adam isn’t back yet but I’m sure he’ll be here any moment.”

“I am a little early.” Carrie told him apologetically. “I just couldn’t wait to see the Ponderosa again.”

“Well come on in.” Hoss said heartily, offering her his arm and leading her towards the house. “I don’t know what it is Hop Sing is cooking up for supper but it smells purely wonderful so I’m guessin’ he’s got somethin’ special in your honour.”

*****

Down by the corral Joe listened as his older brother talked earnestly to him. The hands that had been helping the two Cartwrights break some horses had finished work a short time ago and Adam, finding himself alone with his brother, had taken the opportunity to explain to Joe exactly what had happened between himself, Carrie and his father years before.

“So Carrie fell in love with Pa but he didn’t fall in love with her?” Joe questioned now as Adam finished telling his story.

“That’s about it.” Adam confirmed. “She decided to leave the ranch, went back to San Francisco and met this Robert Hawes.”

“But you never forgot her?”

“I wouldn’t exactly say that.” Adam slid down from the fence he had been sitting on and turned to unhitch Sport. “Until she came back I’d sort of put her to the back of my mind, a fond memory, nothing more. Then I saw her again and well…”

“Fell in love with her just like before.”

“I guess I did.” Adam smiled up at his brother who still sat atop the fence, watching him. “Can you blame me, Joe?”

Without answering Joe jumped down from the fence, he wasn’t so sure about all of this, unable to ignore the look he’d seen on his father’s face at the dance. Swinging up into Cochise’s saddle he looked down at Adam, changing the subject. “Race you back to the ranch?”

Glancing up at the sky Adam suddenly realised how late it had become while they were talking. “Okay.” He acquiesced, mounting up. “Though I think we’ll be late for supper even so.”

Digging his heels into Cochise’s side Joe was off with Adam in hot pursuit, it wasn’t a long distance to the ranch house and the brothers made it in record time, reaching the yard in front of the house neck and neck.

“I’ll put the horses up.” Joe offered, reaching for Sport’s reins as his brother dismounted. “You’d better get on in and see Miss Carrie.” He nodded towards the buggy, which stood by the hitching rail. “Looks like she’s already here.”

Taking his hat off and swatting it against his clothes, hoping to dislodge some of the dust that clung to him, Adam raked his fingers through his hair before he made for the door. Inside he found his father pouring glasses of sherry for himself, Carrie and Hoss. “Ah, Adam.” Ben looked up as his eldest son entered. “You’re a little late son, any problem?”

“No, Joe and I managed to get a good start on the breaking.” Adam reported, standing next to Carrie and putting a proprietary arm around her waist. “Just lost track of the time.”

“Well, I think supper is almost ready.” Ben said, pouring an extra glass of sherry and handing it to Adam. “Where’s Joseph?”

“Just putting the horses up.” Adam took the glass and drained it quickly before turning to smile down at Carrie. “If you’ll excuse me for a moment I’ll just go and freshen up before the meal.”

“I’m sure Hoss and Ben can keep me entertained for a few more minutes.” Carrie told him. “We were just talking about a few old acquaintances from Virginia City.”

“Then I’ll leave you to it.” Sliding his arm from around her waist Adam put his glass down on the table in front of the fire before heading off upstairs.

*****

“Hop Sing, that was a wonderful meal.” Carrie complemented the little Chinaman as she finished the last of her dessert and pushed the plate aside. “You cook just as well as I remember.”

“Thank you, Missy Carrie.” Hop Sing beamed with pleasure as he collected up the empty dishes. “Is nice someone appreciate Hop Sing cooking.”

“It was very good, Hop Sing.” Ben told him with a rueful smile at the implied rebuke. “Now if we might have coffee to finish?”

“No coffee.” Hop Sing announced with a glance at Adam. “You wait, Hop Sing bring something better.”

“Something better?” Baffled, Ben twisted in his seat to watch Hop Sing disappear into the kitchen. “What’s going on?” He asked turning back to look at his sons.

Hoss and Joe, both guessing what was about to happen, avoided their father’s eyes and looked down at the table.

“Well, Pa.” Adam got to his feet just as Hop Sing reappeared carrying a tray with five cut crystal wine glasses on it and set them on the table before returning to the kitchen once more. “I have an announcement to make and I’m hoping that you, Hoss.” He glanced in the direction of his middle brother who looked up at his name and smiled slightly. “And Joe will celebrate with me.”

“What is this announcement?” Ben asked, his mouth going dry with apprehension as he saw Adam’s hand reach for Carrie’s and the way the woman looked up at Adam, her eyes tender and loving.

Hop Sing came back in from the kitchen, carrying a bottle of champagne wrapped in a damp cloth and placed it in front of Adam. “I have asked Carrie if she’ll do me the honour of becoming my wife.” Adam said, with a fond smile down at her. “And she has consented. Just as soon as a divorce from Robert Hawes can be arranged, she will become Mrs. Cartwright.”

“A divorce!” Ben’s voice was angry and Joe and Hoss exchanged an apprehensive look before turning to their brother.

“Congratulations, Adam.” Hoss jumped in, hoping to forestall any unpleasantness. “And to you Miss Carrie. You gonna open that champagne so I can toast ya properly?”

“Of course.” Adam picked up the bottle with a grateful look at his middle brother. “You joining us, Joe?”

Joe shot a quick glance at his father seeing with concern the fury on the older man’s face. “I…er…sure, congratulations, Adam.” The words weren’t exactly heartfelt and Adam frowned a little but opened the champagne with a flourish and poured out three glasses handing one each to Carrie, Hoss and Joe.

“Pa?” He queried, the bottle poised over the fourth glass. “Won’t you congratulate Carrie and I?”

For a long moment there was silence as Ben stared down at the table and then, slowly, he got up from his chair and looked over at his eldest son. “I’m sorry, Adam.” He said, his tone bleak. “But I can’t join in this celebration. As far as I can see Mrs. Hawes is still a married woman and you have no right to be courting her leave alone proposing marriage.” Putting his napkin on the table he walked away, all three of his sons watching sadly as he headed upstairs.

“I’m sorry about that, Carrie.” Adam said tightly, turning back to the table. “But I’m not going to let my father’s attitude spoil tonight.”

“Adam, I don’t want to come between you and your father.” Carrie twisted her napkin in distress. “I don’t want you to fall out over me.”

“My father will have to come to terms with things.” Adam said bending down and gently kissing her. “Don’t worry, it’ll be all right. Now.” He filled his own glass and raised it, looking at Hoss and Joe. “Let’s drink to our future happiness.”

“Adam and Carrie.” Joe and Hoss spoke together lifting their glasses and clinking them against their brother’s and then Carrie’s. The four drank, but the mood was sombre, not celebratory, all of them worried about the reaction of Ben Cartwright and what the future held.

*****

After the champagne was finished Adam drove Carrie home from the Ponderosa, it was a very quiet journey, both lost in their own thoughts, and as they alighted from the buggy outside the store Carrie was feeling very miserable indeed.

“Perhaps we should call this off, Adam.” She said hesitantly, though dreading the thought of him agreeing with her. “Your father is so against it.”

“I’m a grown man.” Adam said, as he looked down at her and smiled for the first time since he had made his announcement. “I want to marry you and it’s nothing to do with my father, my brothers…or even Hop Sing.”

“But…” Carrie’s words of protest were quickly stopped as Adam bent and kissed her thoroughly, his lips locking with hers, his arms tightening around her. “Adam!” She said breathlessly as he pulled away at last. “People might see!”

“There’s nobody around.” Adam indicated the empty street, there was plenty of noise and laughter coming from the direction of the saloon but there wasn’t a person in sight. “Not that I care much anyway.” He told her. “Now that my family know of our intentions I’ll get my lawyer started on tracing Robert and hopefully we’ll soon be able to get this divorce out of the way and set a date for the wedding, then we’ll tell the whole town.”

“You are sure?” She asked as he escorted her inside the store and helped her off with her cloak.

“Very sure.” He told her, hanging the cloak up and coming to take her in his arms again. “I love you very much, Carrie.”

“Then I have something to tell you.” She said softly. “I hope you’re going to approve.” At his quizzical look she told him of the decision she had arrived at the previous day. “If I’m to stay in Virginia City, I don’t want to sell the store. I’d like to keep it on and run it myself.”

“Do you have enough money to do that?” Adam asked softly.

“Yes I do.” She smiled up at him, glad he hadn’t made any protest at her plans. “Ruth left the place to me and I still have her stock plus a little set aside that I can use to buy more. I never really though about running the store until yesterday but now I’ve decided I can’t wait to get started, I have such plans, Adam.” Pulling away from him a little she opened her arms wide as though encompassing the whole of the room in which they stood. “Just imagine it.” Her voice held excitement. “Freshly painted, get rid of that dreary brown colour, a new counter.” She walked over to the existing one and leant against it. “Perhaps I might even branch out a little, not just hats, possibly ladies…um…underthings.” A blush tinged her cheeks at the last word.

Laughing a little at her enthusiasm, Adam came to stand beside her. “A wife that earns money for me.” He said teasingly. “Now that sounds like a good idea.”

“I’m glad you don’t mind.” She smiled, her hand reaching for his and squeezing it gently. “I know most men would object to their wife working.”

“I’m not ‘most men’.” Adam told her softly. “Though of course once the babies come you might need to take it easier.”

“Babies?” She looked up at him her eyes bright even in the dimness of the store. “You want babies?”

“Don’t you?”

“Oh, yes. Yes, I most certainly want babies.” She breathed happily and reached up to pull his head down to her for kiss.

“I have to go.” Adam said reluctantly as eventually their lips parted, his breathing a little ragged. “I have an early start and I don’t want to give my father any more cause for complaint at the moment.”

Carrie’s happiness vanished abruptly as she was reminded of the rift this was causing in the Cartwright family. “There is one other thing.” She told him quietly as they walked to the door hand in hand. “I want Paul here with me, I’m going to send for him to come and live with me.”

“I shall look forward to meeting him.” Adam said, pausing with his hand on the door. “I just hope we’ll get along, I really would like to be a good father to him.”

“I’m sure he’ll love you.” Carrie reassured him with a tender look. “After all, his mother does.”

*****

The atmosphere at the Ponderosa was strained over the next couple of weeks. Ben spoke to Adam but kept strictly to ranch matters and though things were fine between Adam and Hoss, Joe seemed uneasy in his oldest brother’s company. Adam started spending a lot of time away from home, once work was finished for the day he took to riding into Virginia City and spending the evenings with Carrie. He delighted in her enthusiasm as she worked hard to refurbish and restock her sister’s store. Working alongside her one evening, paintbrush in hand he was surprised when a sharp rap on the door revealed his brothers. Hoss looking determined and Joe standing behind him, holding his hat in his hands and nervously twisting it.

“Well this is a surprise.” Adam held the door wide and allowed them to enter. “What can we do for you two?”

“We came to lend a hand.” Hoss told him, throwing a smile at Carrie as she came over to greet them. “Didn’t we Joe?” When there was no immediate reply from his young brother, Hoss nudged him. “Didn’t we?” He repeated.

“If you’d like us to help we will.” Joe said softly and Adam was touched at the offer, he knew that Joe was having trouble accepting the estrangement between his father and oldest brother and that coming here tonight had been hard for him.

“Well, there’s plenty of painting still to do.” He pointed over to where the paint stood ready to be applied. “Think you can rustle up a pair of brushes for my brothers, Carrie.”

“I’m sure I can.” Carrie disappeared into the back room to fetch the brushes and Hoss took the opportunity for a quick word. “I think you oughta have it out with Pa.” He said quietly, taking off his vest and hat and laying them aside before reaching down to stir the paint. “He misses you somethin’ awful.”

“I go home every night.” Adam retorted softly, hoping Carrie didn’t overhear the conversation.

“But you’re not there for meals, or in the evening.” Joe put in. “And, well, we kinda miss you too.”

“You gotta try and clear the air.” Hoss said quickly, hearing Carrie on her way back. “Please?”

Bustling back into the room, Carrie handed out the brushes with a flourish and the brothers set to. Nothing more was said about Adam talking to Ben but when Joe and Hoss, both rather paint spattered, left for home Adam decided to go with them and try taking Hoss’ advice.

“You don’t mind me leaving early?” He asked Carrie softly as they stood on the doorstep, Hoss and Joe already mounted and waiting.

“Of course not.” She smiled up at him tenderly. “You need some time with your family, I understand that.”

“Wish me luck talking to my father.” He said ruefully. “I can’t see him backing down over this.”

“He’s a stubborn man.” She acknowledged. “And so are you. I just want you to be friends again, Adam, I hate to see you like this, hardly speaking to each other.”

“I don’t like it much either.” Adam told her, bending down for a swift goodnight kiss. “But he has to accept that you’re going to be my wife and that’s all there is to it.”

*****

Ben was sitting by the fire, reading, when the three brothers entered the Ponderosa on their return from Virginia City.

“Hey, Pa.” Hoss greeted him, hanging up his hat and unbuckling his gunbelt. “We’re back.”

“So I see.” Ben observed dryly. “If you’re hungry I think Hop Sing has some supper left.”

“No, I ain’t hungry.” Hoss came to stand by the couch and yawned, stretching his arms as he did so. “I’m just plumb tired is all. Reckon I’ll head up to bed, how about you Joe?” He asked his younger brother who, having unbuckled his own gunbelt and tossed it on the credenza, had come to stand beside him.

“Me?” Joe looked up in surprise. “I could use a …ow!” He broke off abruptly as Hoss dug him sharply in the ribs with a meaningful glance at Adam who had taken a seat on the hearth. “I mean, I’m real tired as well.” He amended quickly. “Guess I’ll turn in, ‘night Pa.”

“Goodnight, boys.” Ben watched as his two youngest sons ascended the stairs before turning to look at Adam. “Seems your brothers want to give us some time alone.” He remarked softly.

“We need to talk, Pa.”

“I guess we do.” Ben got up and stood in front of the hearth, feeling the heat from the fire on his back. “You’re still going ahead with this plan of yours to marry Mrs. Hawes?”

“I’ve asked James Dewar to try and trace Robert Hawes and set a divorce in motion.” Adam told him, naming the Cartwright’s lawyer. “I love Carrie, Pa, and I intend to marry her.”

“I see.” Ben pursed his lips. “You realise what people will think of you, marrying a divorcee?”

“Did you consider what people would think when you married Marie?” Adam countered quietly.

“She was a widow!”

“A widow with a considerable reputation and a Creole at that.”

“It’s not my actions that are under consideration here, Adam.”

“Oh, Pa.” Adam pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed in exasperation. “Surely you’re not advocating ‘do as I say, not as I do.'”

“I just don’t want to see you get hurt, son.”

“Get hurt?” Adam’s voice rose a little. “The only way I’ll be hurt is if I lose Carrie. Don’t you understand Pa? I love her. She means more to me than anything.”

“Even your family?”

Adam was silent for a moment staring up at his father. “Are you asking me to choose?” He asked at last, quietly. “Because if you are then you stand to lose me, Pa. I mean that.”

Ben sighed and sat down on the couch. “You expect me to welcome Carrie as my daughter-in-law?” He said slowly, not looking at Adam.

“I know you find it hard to do that.” Adam said gently. “And I don’t expect you to accept her instantly, but get to know her again, Pa, you’ll come to like her I know you will.”

“If I’m to keep my family it seems I have no choice.” Ben got stiffly to his feet and looked over at his eldest, meeting his eyes. “I don’t think I’ll ever approve of this marriage, Adam, but I won’t stand in your way.” And turning away he headed upstairs to bed leaving his son alone in the great room.

*****

Arriving at the store the following evening, Adam had only just dismounted when Carrie came running out to greet him, face alight with excitement. “Paul’s on his way!” She cried, waving a letter in front of his face. “My brother is bringing him and they left a couple of days ago.”

“That’s wonderful, Carrie.” Adam caught her in his arms and hugged her. “I can’t wait to meet him.”

“There’s so much to do before he gets here.” Carrie pulled away from the embrace, catching hold of Adam’s hand and drawing him into the store. “I need to get his room fixed up, it’s full of boxes at the moment. Then I have to see about enrolling him in the Virginia City school, and I’d like to do a special meal to welcome him to his new home.”

“Slow down.” Adam laughed. “There’s plenty of time to do all that. I’ll give you a hand to shift the boxes now if you’d like, make a start.”

“Yes, please.” She headed toward the stairs then turned abruptly so that Adam almost ran into her. “I’m so happy.” She said, her blue eyes sparkling. “And I love you so much.”

“I’m very glad to hear that.” Adam said with a smile as he drew her to him and bent to kiss her. “As I’m going to marry you.”

“I nearly forgot.” Carrie pulled back a little and looked up at him anxiously. “Did you speak to your father?”

“Yes, I did.” Adam grimaced at the memory of the talk. “I think we cleared the air a little but he’s still not giving us his blessing over the marriage.”

“I’m so sorry.” Carrie looked crestfallen. “I hate to see you at odds with your family.”

“At least he’s speaking to me again.” Adam said with a wry grin. “Now, lets get on with these boxes shall we?”

Leading the way up the stairs Carrie opened the door to the tiny second bedroom. The room was stacked high with boxes, some containing stock, and some Ruth’s possessions.

“Where are you going to put them all?” Adam queried, easing his way into the room and looking around.

“I don’t know.” Carrie sighed. “I didn’t realise there were quite so many.” She sank down on the edge of the bed. “I think the boxes of stock should just about fit into the storeroom downstairs but Ruth’s things…”

“You show me the ones for downstairs.” Adam told her. “I’ll get those out of the way and then we’ll see what’s left.”

For the next hour Adam and Carrie traipsed up and down the stairs with the boxes until at last the only ones left in the little bedroom were those that held Ruth’s things.

“At least it looks a little clearer.” Carrie said gratefully. “I’ll try and sort the other things out myself, I’ll have to throw some of them away.”

“Do you know what stage your brother and Paul are arriving on?”

Adam asked, sitting down on the bed and pulling her down to sit beside him.

“No I don’t, the letter was sent over a week ago and Jack, that’s my brother, just said that as soon as he got my letter he’d arranged to bring Paul to me and they were getting the steamer to Sacramento later in the week.”

“Carrie, when they do get here I’d like to arrange that welcome dinner if you’ll let me, out at the Ponderosa.”

“At the Ponderosa?” She exclaimed in surprise. “What about your father?”

“He said he wouldn’t stand in my way.” Adam put his hands on her shoulders and looked down at her tenderly. “I want my family to meet Paul, Carrie, after all he’s going to be my stepson.”

“I suppose it would be all right.” She said slowly. “And I know he’d love the ranch.”

“Then that’s settled.” Adam pulled her close for a kiss. Reaching up she tangled her fingers in his hair pulling him closer and as the kiss grew more passionate she drew him gently down onto the bed.
“Carrie.” He breathed, breaking free of the kiss and looking down at her, desire darkening his eyes.

With fingers that trembled a little Carrie began to unbutton the front of her blouse, her eyes locking with Adam’s as she did so, her breathing rapid, her tongue flickering out to moisten her lips.
Adam gasped as the fabric fell open, aroused beyond measure by the sight of her pale creamy skin and the swell of her breasts. “Are you sure about this?” He asked breathlessly. “There’s your reputation…”

In answer Carrie reached up and put two fingers on his lips, quelling his words. “I’m sure.” She whispered huskily. “I love you Adam and I want you and I can wait no longer my love.”

With a long, shuddering sigh Adam bent to kiss her, arching his body above hers as her nimble fingers worked frantically on the buttons of his shirt.

*****

Loading supplies for the Ponderosa onto the wagon a few days later Adam was distracted from his task when he saw Carrie heading across the street to meet the stage, which was expected in at any moment. He knew she’d been disappointed the past two days when Paul hadn’t arrived and he hoped that she wasn’t about to have her hopes dashed again today.

“If you’re just going to stand there staring at Carrie while I do all the work you may as well go.” Joe’s voice from behind him brought Adam round to see his younger brother grinning at him.

“You don’t mind?” He asked, as Joe heaved a sack of flour onto the wagon and dusted his hands off on the seat of his pants.

“You know you want to see if the kid’s on that stage.” Joe said, heading back to the store. “Just go, will you?”

“Thanks, Joe.” Adam called to his brother’s retreating back before making his way quickly across to where Carrie was standing.

Seeing his approach, she smiled and came forward to greet him, just reaching his side as the rumble of the stagecoach became audible.

The first person to alight as the coach drew to a halt was a tall man with hair of almost the same colour as Carrie’s and a full beard to match. “Jack.” Carrie cried as the man looked around him, breaking into a smile as he saw his sister. Behind him a small boy jumped down from the vehicle and ran towards Carrie, flinging himself into her waiting arms with a joyous shout of “Ma!”

“Oh, Paul.” Carrie held the little boy tightly for a while, tears of joy in her eyes while Jack and Adam looked on. Eventually she held the child away a little and looked down at him. “Did you have a good journey?” She asked him softly.

As the boy launched into a long and complicated account of his travels Adam got his first clear look at him. Somehow he had imagined that Paul would look like his mother but though there was a hint of Carrie in the shape of the boy’s face and mouth he was really nothing like her. A slim though quite sturdy child, he had curly hair almost as dark as Adam’s own. His eyes, Adam saw, as the boy looked up at Carrie were a warm, dark, brown and reminded him a little of his own father’s eyes.

“Paul.” Carrie was saying as, with the boy’s hand clasped firmly in her own, she drew him towards Adam. “I’d like you and Uncle Jack to meet someone.” She smiled up at Adam before turning back to Paul. “This is a very special friend of mine.” She announced and Adam caught a look of surprise on Jack’s face as he came to stand beside his sister. “Paul, Jack, this is Adam Cartwright. Adam I’d like you to meet my brother, Jack Dawson, and my son, Paul Hawes.”

“Mr. Cartwright.” Jack shook hands and Adam could see the speculation in his eyes as he looked at him. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, sir.”

“Hello.” Paul said brightly, looking up at Adam with curiosity as his Uncle moved away. “Are you a cowboy, Mr. Cartwright?”

Adam laughed, and crouched down to the child’s level. “I suppose I am.” He said with a smile. “My family own a ranch near here.” He pointed off across the street to where Joe was standing beside the wagon, watching with interest. “That’s my brother over there.”

“Is he a cowboy too?” Paul asked, looking over at Joe. “And do you have lots of horses at your ranch?”

Adam nodded. “Yes, we do.” He told him. “How about, after your Ma has shown you your new home that you come out to supper at the ranch and I’ll show you the horses.”

“Yes, please.” The little boy’s face lit with excitement as he looked up at Carrie. “Can we Ma, please?”

“Of course we can.” Carrie told him and the child turned back to Adam with a wide smile.

“I’ll see you later then.” Adam told him, straightening up and looking at Carrie. “I’d better get going, tell Hop Sing to expect visitors.”

“‘Bye Mr. Cartwright.” Paul piped up as Adam started back across the street and with a smile Adam called back to him to ‘Call me Adam’.

As Carrie and Paul headed for the store, Paul chattering happily, Jack paused a moment, watching as Adam and Joe finished loading the wagon, his eyes narrowed thoughtfully.

*****

As soon as Adam had informed Hop Sing that Carrie, Paul and Jack were joining them for supper the little Chinaman set to work and by the time the guests arrived the whole ranch house was redolent with delicious smells.

“Welcome to the Ponderosa.” Adam greeted them at the door, taking Carrie’s cape and Jack’s hat as they held them out to him. “Jack, Paul, I’d like you to meet my family.”

As Ben, Hoss and Joe stepped forward to shake hands with Jack, Paul hung back a little staying close to his mother. Noticing the child’s shyness at the sight of them all Hoss went over and hunkered down beside him. “Guess you must be Paul.” He said with a welcoming smile. “My name’s Hoss and my big brother Adam done told me you’re real interested in taking a look at the horses round here.”

Paul nodded vigorously. “I like horses.” He said confidingly. “I’d really like one of my own but Uncle Jack and Aunt Sarah don’t have room at their house.”

“Well, that’s a shame.” Hoss said standing up and holding a hand out to the boy. “How about I show you some of ours? I think there’s time before supper.”

“I’d like that.” Taking Hoss’ hand Paul glanced up at his mother and seeing her nod of approval grinned widely. “Let’s go.”

“You comin’ Joe?” Hoss asked his younger brother as he paused to grab his hat before opening the door. “Show this young’ un that little colt of mine.”

“Sure.” Joe replied quickly, glad of the opportunity to escape the rather tense atmosphere in the room and head outside.

Running over to the small corral beside the barn Paul clambered up on the fence. “There’s no horses here.” He announced in disappointment as Hoss and Joe caught him up. “I thought you had lots.”

“Well some of our horses are in the barn.” Joe told him. “We’ll go see them first and then Hoss and I will take you down to the corral to see all the others.”

As Hoss pulled open the barn door Paul was practically bouncing with excitement and when Joe introduced him to Buck, Sport, Chub and finally, Cochise the little boy’s dark eyes gleamed with delight.

“He’s so pretty, Joe.” He said as, to Joe’s surprise, Hoss produced a carrot from his pocket and gave it to Paul. The little boy giggled as Cochise bent his head to take the food from him.

“I’d call him more handsome than pretty.” Joe gave his horse a fond pat as he spoke. “But he’s a fine animal all right.”

“You just take a look in that stall over there.” Hoss pointed across the barn and obediently Paul scampered off, stopping as he saw the mare and foal and giving a little cry of delight.

“He was only born a couple of weeks ago.” Joe came over to stand beside Paul and watch the mother and baby. “He wasn’t too well so we had to bring him and his Ma into the barn. He’s fine now.”

“Yep, be going back out with the other horses soon.” Hoss added with a grin. “What do you think of him, Paul?”

“He’s real nice.” The boy breathed softly, not taking his eyes from the foal. “What’s his name?”

“He don’t have a name yet.” Hoss said, drawing a surprised glance from his brother who knew the new arrival was called Prince. “You reckon you might be able to think of one for him? Sure help us out if you could.”

“I could name him?” Paul asked in surprise. “Really?”

Hoss nodded and watched happily as the little boy held out a hand to the foal who came across and looked at him inquisitively.

“Lemon Drop.” Paul said eventually with a triumphant look at Hoss. “I want to call him Lemon Drop.”

“Lemon Drop.” Hoss repeated slowly, fighting to keep his voice serious. Behind him Joe gave a small giggle that he hastily turned into a cough. “Well that sure is a nice name.”

“Lemon Drops are my favourites.” The little boy said as he reached out to stroke the foal. “And this is going to be my favourite horse.”

*****

Returning to the ranch house, Paul still chattering excitedly about the horses he had seen and especially Lemon Drop, Hoss and Adam found Hop Sing about to serve supper and Adam, Carrie, Jack and Ben talking rather stiltedly of the problems of running a ranch the size of the Ponderosa. It was with obvious relief that Adam turned to greet them as they entered.

“Did you have a good time?” He asked Paul, as the child scampered across the room to stand beside his mother.

“Yes, we saw lots of horses and there was a foal and Hoss let me name it and then we went to the corral and saw…”

“Slow down.” Carrie laughed, interrupting the flow of the boy’s words. “It certainly sounds as though you enjoyed yourself.” She turned to Hoss and Joe with a grateful smile. “Thank you for taking him.”

“Our pleasure.” Hoss told her with a wink at Paul. “He sure is a bright kid, Miss Carrie, you must be real proud of him.”

“Oh, I am.” With a fond hand on Paul’s shoulder, Carrie smiled at Hoss. Hop Sing’s call to supper forestalled any further conversation and the Cartwrights and their guests took their places at the table.
Throughout the meal Paul talked steadily, his childish observations on the ranch and the horses amusing the adults. Looking over at Ben as Paul was telling everyone about his naming of the foal Adam was pleased to see an indulgent smile on his father’s face. It seemed even Ben wasn’t immune to the child.

As the evening drew to a close Paul was showing signs of weariness, eyes drooping closed and thumb straying to his mouth, he leaned against his mother as Hop Sing cleared away dessert and served the coffee.

“Looks like it’s time you got that little fella home in bed.” Hoss observed, stirring his drink. “He’s had a busy day.”

“I’m not tired.” Paul protested sleepily as his mother gently stroked his hair. With an effort he roused himself enough to sit up straight and look at Ben. “Can I come and see Lemon Drop again Mr. Cartwright?” He asked.

“Of course you may.” Ben smiled at the little boy, there was something about the child that reminded him of a young Adam and it was probably that which prompted his next words. “In fact, if your mother agrees, why don’t you take Lemon Drop for your own?”

“Oh, Ben, that’s far too generous. I couldn’t possibly accept.” Carrie objected quickly, looking up. “That foal must be worth a great deal of money.”

“I think it’s a mighty fine idea.” Hoss put in, reaching over to ruffle Paul’s hair. “What do you say little buddy?”

“I’d like to have Lemon Drop.” Paul turned beseeching eyes on his mother. “Please, Mama?”

Carrie shot a quick look at Adam who nodded in agreement and with a smile she held up her hands in defeat. “I give in.” She said with a laugh. “Thank you, Ben, Paul would love to have the foal.”

“Thank you, Mr. Cartwright.” Paul turned shining eyes on Ben, who smiled at the little boy’s excitement. “I’ll take real good care of him.”

“I’ll help you.” Adam said, putting a hand on the child’s shoulder. “I’m sure Lemon Drop will grow up to be a real fine horse.”

“I know he will.” Paul’s proud assertion amused the adults though Hoss gave the child an understanding grin. He agreed with Paul, Lemon Drop, despite his outlandish name, would grow to be a good horse.

*****

With Paul safely tucked into bed, Carrie descended to the small kitchen behind the store where Jack had a pot of coffee brewing on the stove, imbuing the air with its rich aroma.

Seeing his sister enter the room, Jack lost no time in coming to the point. “So what’s going on with you and Adam Cartwright?”

“What do you mean?” Carrie feigned innocence at the question though she knew what he was implying.

“A special friend?” Jack poured coffee into two cups and handed one to his sister. “Seems to me it’s gone beyond that.”

“He wants to marry me.” Carrie took the coffee and sank down on a chair by the table. “Once I get a divorce from Robert.”

“A divorce!” Jack echoed, stunned. “You’ve accepted Adam’s proposal?”

“Yes, I have.” Carrie was defiant, seeing from Jack’s expression that he didn’t approve. “I love him, Jack, I want to be with him, and I know he’ll be a good father to Paul.”

“Does he know about Robert?”

“He knows that Robert deserted Paul and me.”

“But does he know the reason why?” Jack asked, sitting opposite his sister. “Have you told him that?”

Carrie looked down at the table, not meeting her brother’s eyes. “He knows that I loved Robert.”

“You realised that a little late though, Carrie, didn’t you?”

“That was no reason for Robert to leave, I told him I loved him, I told him we could make the marriage work, for Paul’s sake at least.”

“But he didn’t believe you did he?” Jack reached for the coffee pot to refill his cup, his tone softening a little as he saw the distress on his sister’s face. “Not after he found your journal, found the reason that you married him in the first place.”

“I know I hurt him.” Carrie’s lip trembled slightly as she spoke, a glimmer of tears in her eyes. “I wish he’d never found the journal, but I did try to explain that my feelings had changed, that I’d come to love him for himself. He obviously didn’t love me though or he’d have stayed.”

“It was wrong of him to desert Paul, I agree.” Jack said gently. “But a divorce? What happens if they find Robert and he isn’t in agreement?”

“He’s sure to be.” There was a hint of anger in Carrie’s voice now. “He didn’t want me, why would he object to me marrying someone else?”

“When he finds out that his name’s Cartwright?”

“I didn’t think of that.” Carrie whispered softly, dismayed at what Jack had said. “But it’s Adam Cartwright.” She added hopefully, looking at her brother. “Not…”

“Not Ben.” Jack supplied. “That surprised me a little, Carrie. When you wrote that you’d met the Cartwrights again I did wonder if I’d find you with Ben.”

“All that was over years ago.” Carrie got to her feet, taking her coffee cup over to the sink. “I realise now that it was just infatuation. Ben seemed so worldly, so kind and gentle and I was young and still hurting from Dan’s death.” She spoke the name of her first husband softly, remembering for a moment the handsome young man that she had enjoyed such a short time with.

“You still loved Ben when you left here.” Jack pointed out. “Enough to marry Robert for the reason that you did.”

“I know!” Carrie said loudly. “You don’t need to keep telling me how much I hurt him. But it’s past history now. I love Adam, he loves me and we’re getting married. It’ll work out, Jack, I know it will.”

As Carrie turned away Jack sipped his coffee thoughtfully, not so sure that his sister was right.

*****

With his job awaiting him in San Francisco, Jack’s visit was of necessity a short one. To Carrie’s great delight he did, however, consent to staying an extra day to see the opening of the store. Hoss and Joe had agreed to be present for the opening ceremony, though given the rather intimate nature of some of the stock, neither of them wanted to stay for too long after that.

“You got it real nice, Miss Carrie.” Hoss told her, looking around at the newly painted walls as he, Joe and Adam arrived a few minutes before the store’s opening. “It sure looks good.” His gaze alighted on an array of women’s bloomers and he looked away quickly, a blush staining his cheeks. “Real good.”

“Just what the girls around here need.” Joe said with a grin, noticing his middle brother’s discomfiture. He boldly fingered the laces of a corset, displayed on a model of a female figure. “The mercantile doesn’t carry much in this line and Miss Ruth, she only sold hats and gloves.”

“I think it’s going to be a great success.” Adam took Carrie’s hand and squeezed it gently, mindful not to be too demonstrative in front of Paul who had yet to be told about his mother’s intended marriage. “What do you think, buddy?” He asked the little boy who was perched up on a stool behind the counter watching them. “Do you like the store?”

“It’s nice.” The child said with a wide smile, showing a small gap where one of his baby teeth had fallen out. “When do we get to eat all the food, Adam?”

Laughing, Adam reached out and ruffled the child’s hair, turning to survey the trays of small cakes and cookies that Carrie had laid out for her first customers along with jugs of lemonade. “Hoss is here.” He reminded Paul with nod in the direction of his brother. “I don’t know if there’s going to be enough for the two of you.”

“Don’t you pay him no mind.” Hoss winked at the boy. “I’ll be sure and leave you a few.”

“You’ll be sure and leave most of them.” Carrie said with mock sternness. “Those are for the customers, you and Paul may have one each and no more.”

“Awww, Ma!” Paul protested, pouting a little, his mother shook her head in silent warning and he fell silent, knowing that she wouldn’t change her mind.

“There might be a few left over.” Joe whispered confidingly as Carrie went to take her place by the door, ready to open on the stroke of nine. “Lot of the young ladies I know don’t eat enough to keep a bird alive.”

“Almost time!” Carrie called and Jack came through from the back room to join them as the clock on the wall reached the hour and Carrie ceremoniously turned the sign on the door from ‘Closed’ to ‘Open’.

The first half hour saw a steady stream of customers, though more came to see what Carrie had done with the place than to buy anything.

After a cake and a glass of lemonade each Joe and Hoss departed, Hoss eager to get away from the embarrassing displays of underthings, Joe reluctant to leave a store full of pretty young women.

“I’d better be going as well.” Adam told Carrie as his brothers left the store. “I’m supposed to be supervising those two today.”

“Will I see you later?” Carrie asked him softly, aware that a few of the women in the store were watching them speculatively.

Adam shook his head regretfully. “Probably not. I’m not expecting to finish work until pretty late.”

“Perhaps tomorrow…” Carrie began but was interrupted by a young woman wanting to make a purchase.

“Tomorrow.” Adam said quietly, stepping away from the counter and turning to say goodbye to Paul and Jack.

“I’m leaving in the morning for San Francisco.” Jack informed him, as Paul scampered off to watch his mother serving her customer. “So I’ll say goodbye.”

“It’s been a pleasure to meet you.” Adam told him, shaking hands in farewell. “I hope to see you again soon, perhaps with your wife.”

“Perhaps.” Jack stepped closer so that the ladies in the store couldn’t overhear him. “Take care of her Adam.” He said softly. “Take care of both of them.”

“You can count on it.” Adam assured him with a smile. “They’ll be safe with me.”

*****

Once Jack had returned to San Francisco, Carrie determinedly put her worries over Robert aside and found the next few weeks some of the happiest of her life. Paul was enrolled in the Virginia City school and settled in well, soon making friends. She and the child became frequent visitors to the Ponderosa, Paul taking every opportunity to persuade his mother to take him to see Lemon Drop. With the foal growing rapidly, Adam offered to teach Paul to ride so that when Lemon Drop was old enough the child would be know how to handle him. Delighted at the offer Paul spent many evenings with Adam as he carefully instructed him in horsemanship, using one of the most steady and reliable of the Ponderosa’s horses.

“He’s coming on well, don’t you think?” Carrie asked Hoss as they stood, leaning on the corral fence, one breezy September afternoon, watching as Adam led Paul’s horse toward them, the little boy sitting straight in the saddle, beaming with happiness.

“He sure is.” Hoss agreed with a fond glance at the child. Paul had quickly taken a little piece of the big man’s heart, he already looked on the boy as a nephew and Paul loved to be with Hoss, taking a special delight in the way the man showed him how to care for animals, treating him more like an equal than a small boy. “He’s gettin’ on well with Adam, too.”

“I’m so glad you said that.” Carrie turned to look at Hoss with a relieved smile. “I think so as well, but Adam wasn’t so sure, he thought Paul seemed closer to you and Joe.”

“He likes us well enough.” Hoss told her. “And we are gonna be his Uncles after all. But he likes Adam too. You told him yet?”

“About getting married? No.” Carrie turned back to the corral. “Adam wants to wait until he’s sure Paul will be happy to accept him as a father.”

“I ‘spose I can understand that.” Hoss took off his hat, running his fingers through his thin, sandy coloured hair. “See, Adam took it kinda bad when Pa just upped and married Marie. He brought her back from New Orleans without even tellin’ us and Adam; well…he didn’t take to her at all for a long time. Oh, he grew to like her in the end but I guess he’s tryin’ to spare Paul all the hurt feelin’s he had.”

“I do realise that.” Carrie waved at Paul as Adam helped him down from the horse and the two started toward the corral gate. “It’s just that I wish it was all settled.”

“You ain’t heard nuthin’ about Mr. Hawes?” Hoss asked watching his brother as he and Paul led the horse over to the barn where Adam would supervise as the little boy rubbed the animal down.

“We had word from your father’s lawyer…Mr. Dewar?” Hoss nodded, confirming the man’s name. “He said Robert had been in California a while back, he sent a letter to his last known address but hasn’t heard back.”

“But you can still get married if he don’t hear from him?”

“I can be still be granted a divorce on grounds of desertion if they can’t find Robert.” She explained then turned to welcome Ben and Joe as they rode up.

“Carrie, Hoss.” Ben greeted them, dismounting and hitching Buck’s reins around the fence. “I take it Paul’s here for another lesson?”

“I hope you don’t mind.” Carrie said anxiously, sensing an undercurrent in the older man’s tone. “We do seem to be here a lot recently and keeping Adam from his work.”

“I’m pleased to have Paul at the Ponderosa.” Ben reassured her, it was true, he was growing fond of the little boy. Paul was a mischievous child, always full of questions and Ben enjoyed having him around. Though was still finding it difficult to accept that Adam would be marrying a divorcee, he was doing his best to accept the situation. “But I heard something in town I think you and Adam should know.”

“We saw Mr. Dewar.” Joe put in, jumping down from Cochise. “He’s had a letter.”

“News about Robert?” Carrie’s mouth went dry as she asked the question, her stomach sinking as she saw the serious expression on Joe’s face.

“It was a letter from Robert.” Ben informed her gently, seeing how worried she looked. “It seems he wants to see his son before he agrees to a divorce. He’s already left for Virginia City and should be arriving any day.”

With a small moan, Carrie pressed her fingers to her lips, her mind in a whirl. What was going to happen when Adam met Robert?

*****

Alighting from the buggy outside the store that evening Carrie turned to Adam. “Thank you for bringing us home.” She said gratefully. “Would you like to come in for a cup of coffee?”

“I’ll come in.” Adam jumped down and looped the horse’s reins around the hitching post. He leaned close to Carrie as they headed for the store, mindful that Paul shouldn’t hear his words. “We need to talk about Robert.”

Biting her bottom lip Carrie nodded wordlessly as she opened the door and led the way inside. She had known as soon as she heard the news that Robert was on his way, that she would have to tell Adam why she was so nervous about his arrival. “Paul.” She instructed the child as Adam closed the store door behind them. “You go on upstairs and get ready for bed, I’ll bring you up a cup of warm milk in a moment and listen to your prayers.”

“Do I have to?” Paul protested loudly, giving his mother an appealing look. “It’s not that late and I’m not tired, honest.”

“It’s a school day tomorrow.” Adam put in, as Carrie shook her head at the boy. “And besides, you were almost asleep in the buggy on the journey home.”

“Oh, all right.” Paul gave in, though his heavy sigh showed the adults he wasn’t very happy about being sent off to bed. “But could you bring up my milk, please, Adam?”

“I’d like that.” Adam told him with a pleased smile reaching out to fondly ruffle the boy’s hair.

“See.” Carrie told him with a knowing look as Paul ran off upstairs. “I told you he likes you.”

“We seem to be getting all right.” Adam admitted as he followed Carrie through to the back room where she set about preparing the milk. “I just hope everything doesn’t change now with Robert on his way.”

“I hoped he’d just agree to the divorce.” Carrie said with a sigh, pouring milk into a pan and setting it on the stove to heat. “Or even better, that they never found him at all. What if he refuses the divorce, Adam, or what if he wants to take Paul away from me?”

“Hush.” Adam took her in his arms, dropping a swift kiss on the top of her head. “It will be okay, you’ll see. Robert has no chance of taking Paul away from you.”

“It’s not just that.” Carrie said softly, pulling away from Adam’s embrace and stirring the milk. “There’s something you should know about Robert, something I should have told you before.”

“What?” Adam asked, a tenseness creeping into his voice as he noted the scared expression in her eyes.

“Take the milk up to Paul first.” She told him, fetching a cup from the dresser. “When he’s settled then we’ll talk.”

Busying herself making coffee while Adam took Paul his drink and listened to the child’s prayers Carrie steeled herself for the revelation she was about to make.

“I think he was asleep as soon as his head touched the pillow.” Adam reported, bringing back the empty cup a few minutes later. “He was one tired little boy.”

“All that fresh air and exercise.” Carrie said absently, handing Adam a cup of coffee. “He does love being up at the ranch.”

“You wanted to tell me something.” Adam changed the subject abruptly as he sat down at the table. “Something about Paul’s father?”

“Yes.” Carrie sat down opposite him and put her hands in front of her on the table, fingers twisted together nervously. “Please don’t think badly of me, Adam.”

“Just tell me.” Apprehension washed over him at her words, wondering what it was that was making her so upset.

“When I left the Ponderosa I was devastated.” She began, her eyes searching his face to see what his reaction would be. Adam just nodded and sat quietly waiting for her to continue. “I’d been rejected by the man I loved.” She continued softly. “I thought I’d never meet anyone as kind, as generous again and I was hurting.” She dropped her gaze away from Adam’s as he didn’t react. “I went back to San Francisco.”

“You got a job there?” Adam’s question was quiet but there was a slight edge to his voice that made her uneasy.

“I took a position in a store and I moved in to live with my brother, Jack, and his wife, Sarah.” She gave a half smile at she mentioned her family. “They were very kind to me.”

“Then you met Robert?” Adam asked, his voice even, giving no hint of his feelings.

“It was a couple of years later.” Carrie told him. “I still thought myself in love with Ben. I used to long for letters from Ruth just for any small mention of what he was doing, what all of you were doing.” She dropped her hands into her lap, fingers picking agitatedly at the folds of the blue dress she wore. “Then one day a man walked into the store. For a moment my heart almost stopped, I though Ben had come for me, come to tell me he was ready to love me…” She trailed off for a moment at the sudden twist of Adam’s lips. “Robert is very like your father.” She whispered at last. “In fact he could almost be his twin.”

“That’s why you married him?” Adam accused harshly, staring at her in shock.

“Yes…” Her voice was so low that he barely caught the word. “I thought if I couldn’t have the real Ben I could at least pretend.” Misery clogged her words. “It was wrong I know.”

“You pretended!” Anger crept into Adam’s voice. “Even when…?”

“Even when we were intimate.” She agreed desolately. “I just used to dream that it was Ben that was with me. Robert was a nice man, a kind man and I’m ashamed of what I did to him.”

“But you were married almost three years!”

“And in that time I changed.” Getting up Carrie paced the floor, tears beginning to creep down her face. “I grew up. I realised that I had a good man in Robert and I began to love him. Not the kind of love I have for you, not in love, but I did love him, I realised that when I got pregnant.”

“So what happened?” Adam asked hollowly. “Did he find out?”

“He came across an old journal of mine.” Carrie sobbed. “He read all about Ben. Read that I hoped any child we had together might resemble Ben so that I could pretend it was his.”

“And he left.” Adam shook his head as though to clear his thoughts. He was finding this hard to take in.

“Paul was just six months old.” Carrie stopped pacing and came to stand before him, her eyes pleading. “But it’s all in the past now, Adam. I love you and only you, please believe me.”

“I need time to think about this.” Adam got to his feet unsteadily. “I can’t talk about it now, Carrie, I need to be alone, to think…”

“Please…” She begged as he turned to go. “Please don’t leave me, Adam, I love you.”

“And I love you.” He said softly, not turning around. “But I need some time, Carrie.”

Sobbing brokenly she watched as he left the room then sank down on the chair, her head in her hands, shoulders heaving as she cried bitterly.

*****

It was sometime in the early hours of the morning when Joe, awoken by a noise from the great room, got quietly out of bed and, barefoot, padded softly downstairs to investigate. He was surprised to discover his oldest brother sprawled on the couch, a glass in his hand and an almost empty bottle of whisky on the table in front of him.

“Adam?” His whispered enquiry drew his brother’s attention to him and Adam looked round with a grin, waving his glass.

“Hey, Joe. Why don’t you come and join me in a little drink?”

The words were slightly slurred and Joe bit his lip worriedly, it wasn’t like Adam to be drinking alone and he’d rarely seen him in this condition. “Isn’t it a bit late for that?” He asked, leaning on the back of the blue armchair. “Shouldn’t you be in bed by now? There’s a lot of work to do tomorrow.”

“In bed?” Adam mumbled, pushing himself upright with an effort and squinting at the clock. He laughed softly to himself as he saw the time. “It is late isn’t it?” He said, picking up the bottle and refilling his glass. “Sorry if I woke you up, didn’t mean to wake anyone. You go on back to bed.”

“Are you all right?” Joe’s voice was anxious. This behaviour wasn’t at all like the Adam he knew. “Has something happened?”

“Something happened?” Adam gave an almost hysterical laugh as he repeated the words. Pressing a finger to his lips he looked over at Joe. “Mustn’t wake Pa.” He said in a sibilant whisper. “Wouldn’t do to wake Pa.”

Thoroughly alarmed now, Joe moved over to stand in front of his brother. “What is it?” He asked, moving the whisky bottle aside and sitting down on the table. “Tell me, Adam, what’s wrong with you?”

“Tell you?” Adam looked over at him, suddenly sobering a little as he saw the fear in his little brother’s eyes. “It’s nothing, Joe.” He assured him softly. “I’m fine. You just go on back to bed, kid, I’ll be okay in the morning.”

“I’m not a kid!” Joe retorted angrily. “And don’t tell me there’s nothing wrong, Adam, I can see that there is.”

“Nothing you can help with.” Adam took a swallow of the whisky and slumped against the back of the couch. “Leave me be, Joe, you wouldn’t understand.”

“I bet if I was Hoss you wouldn’t say that!” Joe hissed, upset at being dismissed so easily. “You oughta give me a chance sometime, Adam, I might understand more than you think.”

Half befuddled with alcohol Adam looked his little brother up and down. He’d never confided in Joe, that was true, considering him too young to share confidences with. Perhaps he’d been wrong in that, he mused blearily, seeing the concern on his brother’s face. It might help to tell someone about it, even Joe. “It’s Carrie.” He said at last.

Joe had guessed as much, though he couldn’t help feeling relief that there wasn’t anything actually wrong with Adam himself. “You had some kind of disagreement?” He asked softly.

“I wish it were just a disagreement.” Adam swirled the whisky around, staring down at the amber liquid. “It’s a little more serious than that.”

Joe sat quietly waiting as his brother put his glass down on the table, he didn’t want to press Adam to tell him the problem though he hoped that he would.

“She was still in love with Pa when she left the Ponderosa.” Adam said eventually, breaking the heavy silence that had fallen over the brothers. Joe nodded, he knew that much. “This Robert Hawes she married.” Adam continued bleakly. “She married him because he looked like Pa, so that she could pretend that she was actually married to Ben Cartwright. How do you like that Joe?” His voice was ragged as he posed the question. “Funny isn’t it?”

“He looks like Pa?” Joe asked in surprise.

“Like enough to be his twin, she said.”

“Is that why he left her?”

Adam nodded. “He found out about it.”

“She told you all this?”

“Only because Robert was on his way.” Adam reached for the whisky again, then changed his mind and pushed the glass aside. “Guess I wouldn’t have known otherwise.”

“So, what are you going to do now?”

“I don’t know.” Adam confessed, running a hand through his already dishevelled hair. “She says she loves me, but can I believe that? What if it’s been Pa she really wanted all these years?”

“For what it’s worth.” Joe said slowly, his eyes locking with his brother’s as he spoke. “I think she loves you, Adam. I really think she does.”

“Do you?” Adam’s tone was soft as he studied the young man before him and the earnestness of Joe’s expression. “I hope you’re right.”

“You gonna tell Pa about this?” Joe asked, as his brother got, rather unsteadily, to his feet.

“He’ll find out soon enough.” Adam said with a wry smile, picking up the whisky glass and bottle. “Thanks for listening, Joe, you’d better get off to bed now.”

“You’ll be all right?” Joe’s gaze strayed, rather pointedly, to the whisky in Adam’s hands. “Sure you wouldn’t like me to stay?”

“I’ll be fine.” Adam smiled gently at the worry written so plainly on his brother’s expressive face. “I’m not going to drink any more whisky, I promise. I’ll just go wash the glass then I’m going to bed.”

Joe nodded, watching as Adam, weaving slightly, headed for the kitchen. Turning to go back to bed his heart was heavy for his brother’s plight but deep inside he was aware of a slight glow of warmth because, just for once, he had been Adam’s confidante.

*****

Riding into town with his father the following morning Joe was so unnaturally quiet that Ben grew a little concerned.

“You all right, son?” He asked as they dismounted and tied their horses up outside the bank. “You seem a little distracted.”

“I’m fine, Pa.” Joe flashed a reassuring smile at his father. “Just didn’t sleep too well last night is all. Think I ate too much supper or something.”

“I see.” Ben didn’t recall Joe eating more than his usual helping of food the previous evening but decided not to pursue the subject. “I shouldn’t be too long with the bank manager. You sort out paying our account at the mercantile and pick up the mail and I’ll meet you in the Silver Dollar.”

“Shall I get you a beer in?” Joe asked giving Cochise a pat and following his father along the sidewalk, avoiding the pile of luggage outside the stagecoach office awaiting the Sacramento stage, which was due in shortly.

“You do that.” Ben told him with a smile. “Say in an hours time.”

“Right.” Joe watched his father enter the bank before heading over to the mercantile. With time to spare he spent a pleasant twenty minutes talking over the question of who he should invite to the next dance with his friend, Pete, who worked behind the counter, before collecting the mail and going to order a couple of beers in the saloon.

Entering The Silver Dollar a few minutes after Joe, Ben sat down gratefully and took a long swallow of the beer his son had bought him.

Putting the glass down he accepted the mail held out to him and riffled through it, finding nothing of any urgency. “Settle up at the mercantile?” He asked Joe, who was lost in thought, staring down into his beer.

“Yes, sir, I did.” Joe looked up with a quick smile. “Everything okay at the bank?”

Ben nodded, taking another swallow of his drink and settling back in the chair. He watched Joe as the young man fiddled with his glass, then pushed it aside and began to gently tap his fingers on the table. “Something bothering you?” He asked him softly.

Joe hesitated, what Adam had told him had been in confidence and he didn’t want to break his brother’s trust by telling his father about it. Adam had been up and gone before anyone awoke that morning, leaving a note to say he would be at the timber camp for a few days, so Joe knew that Ben knew nothing about the problem with Carrie. “No, there’s nothing wrong with me.” He declared eventually. “I was just thinking I ought to get out and give Hoss a hand with those cattle.”

Ben raised his eyebrows in disbelief. Now he knew something was up with the boy, it wasn’t like Joe to be volunteering for work. “If that’s how you feel…” Standing up, he drained his glass and put it down on the table. “Let’s go.”

Joe grimaced as he followed his father from the saloon, he wasn’t really in any hurry to get to work but it had been the only thing that had suggested itself when his father questioned him.

“You ride on out to see Hoss and I’ll head back to the ranch.” Ben told him as he unhitched his horse and prepared to mount as behind him the stage from Sacramento pulled into town and began to disgorge its travel weary passengers.

“I should be back around supper time.” Joe said, reaching for Cochise’s reins. “Hope Hop Sing’s got something…”

“Good Lord!” Ben’s exclamation caused Joe to glance up sharply, just in time to see a man walk down the street and pause outside Carrie’s store. He was a tall man, slightly balding, a little heavier and a few years younger than Ben, but the likeness was unmistakeable. Joe had no doubt at all that he was looking at Robert Hawes.

*****

At the tinkle of the bell above the door Carrie glanced up. She felt the blood drain from her face as she saw who stood there and had to fight to keep her emotion from showing as she finished with the customer she was serving. “Thank you and please call again.” She said with determined brightness as she followed the woman to the door, locking it behind her and turning the sign to ‘Closed’.

“Nice place you’ve got here.” Robert observed, putting down the carpetbag he was carrying and looking around the store. “Making much money?”

“I’ve not long opened.” Carrie informed him, her voice sounding a little strained and hollow. “But I’m doing a reasonable trade.”

“The lawyer’s letter said you were living here.” Robert told her, his eyes searching her face. “You haven’t changed much, Carrie, still as beautiful as ever.”

“You’d better come through.” Carrie nodded towards the back of the store. “We’ve got a lot to discuss.”

“Not that much.” Robert picked up his bag and followed her. “I’ve just come to see my son.”

“Your son!” Carrie almost hissed the words, turning round to stare up at her husband. “You haven’t taken much interest in him for the past seven years have you?”

“I kept meaning to get in touch.” Robert said softly, a hint of shame in his words. “I guess my pride just wouldn’t let me. Then I got the letter and heard you were set to marry Cartwright, kind of brought it all back to me, Carrie, all that hurt.”

“So you decided to come and hurt me?”

“No!” Robert looked shocked at the suggestion. “I just thought it was time I got acquainted with my son, I’m not here to stand in the way of you and this Cartwright feller.”

Breathing a sigh of relief, Carrie pulled aside the curtain and led the way through to the back of the store. “Coffee?” She asked him brusquely.

“Please.” Robert put his bag down on the table and took a seat. “The stagecoach journey was pretty hot and dusty, I could do with a drink.”

“Where are you living now?” She said stiltedly as she busied herself making a pot of coffee.

“I’ve got a little spread not far from Sacramento.” Robert told her. “Been running it for the past three years. Went back east for a while after we…parted…but I got kinda homesick for the west in the end.”

“So you haven’t even been that far away from Paul and I!” Carrie exclaimed whirling round to face him. “You could easily have got in touch.”

“You made it pretty clear why you married me.” Robert’s tone was bitter as looked up at his wife. “I didn’t think you’d want to hear from me again. I did want to, at least for the kid’s sake, but I was so hurt, Carrie. I loved you, really loved you, and all you ever wanted was another man.”

“I was wrong, I told you I was wrong.”

“Thought that was just something you said to try and stop me leaving.”

“No.” Turning away from him, Carrie poured coffee into two cups. “I meant what I said, I had come to love you. I just didn’t realise that until it was too late.”

“You’ve got what you wanted now, though, haven’t you? You’re marrying the man that you really wanted.”

“I’m not marrying Ben Cartwright, if that’s what you mean.” Putting the coffee in front of Robert she sat down opposite. “It’s his son, Adam, that I’m in love with.”

“His son?” Robert gave a sharp laugh. “If you can’t have the father you’ll make do with the son?”

“It’s not like that.” Carrie denied angrily. “I love Adam and he loves me.”

“Whatever.” Robert waved a hand as though to dismiss the subject. “That’s not what I’m here for anyway. When can I see Paul? I take it he does know about me?”

“He knows his father is called Robert.” She told him, her voice softening as she spoke of their son. “I’ve told him that you were a good, kind man who loved him very much, but that we just didn’t get on together and that we thought it would be better for you to leave and for him to stay with me.”

“Where is he anyway?” Robert asked, taking a sip of his coffee. “School?”

Carrie nodded. “He’ll be home around three.” She told him. “I’d like to talk to him first before you meet him. I told him last night that his father might be coming to visit but I need to prepare him for your appearance.”

“My appearance?” Robert looked puzzled. “Am I that hideous?”

“No, of course not.” Carrie nibbled at her bottom lip, hesitant now. “It’s just that Paul has been spending a lot of time at the Cartwrights and you…well you look…look like…”

“The legendary Ben Cartwright.” Robert laughed, though there was no merriment in the sound. “Of course, I should have realised that.” He shook his head thoughtfully. “I think I’d like to meet Mr. Cartwright while I’m here.” He said softly. “It could be quite an experience, meeting my double.”

*****

As Robert disappeared inside the store Ben turned to Joe, amazement plainly written on his face. “Did you see that man?” He asked. “Was it my imagination or did he look just like me?”

“I saw him.” Joe turned to concentrate on tightening Cochise’s girth, not wanting to meet his father’s eyes. “He did look a bit like you.”

“A bit!” Ben studied his son suspiciously, the young man’s reaction suggested he knew something about this stranger. “Joseph!” He said sharply.

Sighing, Joe turned to face his father. There was going to be no escape now, Ben would have to know the truth. Silently he begged his brother’s forgiveness. “Yes, Pa?”

“Who was that? And don’t bother telling me that you don’t know, I can see you do.”

“It was Robert Hawes.” Joe told him miserably. “Carrie’s husband.”

“But he’s the image of me…” Ben stood quietly for a moment, his mind turning over what he’d just found out. “Caroline surely didn’t marry him because of that, did she?” He asked at last, worried that this assumption might be right. “Not just because of that?”

Joe nodded. “She kind of pretended that he was you.”

“No!” Ben shook his head sadly. “I can’t believe it.” He caught hold of Joe’s arm. “How do you know this?” He asked urgently. “Adam?”

“She told him yesterday.” Joe said softly. “They had some sort of argument over it I think, he was real upset…”

“And he came to you with this?” There was scepticism in the question and Joe bridled a little.

“I heard him downstairs in the night, went down to see him and he told me all about it.”

“Poor Adam.” Releasing Joe’s arm, Ben turned to stare at the store’s façade. “I wish he’d come to me with this. He must be feeling very confused.”

“Come to you?” Joe asked and cringed as the words came out with a scornful edge to them. “I mean…” He faltered as Ben turned angry eyes on him. “After what you said about Carrie and all…how you disapproved…”

“He thought I’d say he deserved this.” The anger faded from Ben’s eyes to be replaced by guilt. “He didn’t feel he could turn to me any more. I’ve driven him away.”

“No you haven’t, Pa.” Joe sought to reassure his father, hating to see the hurt on the older man’s face. “He’s just a bit upset at the moment.”

“Was he going to tell me about Mr. Hawes?”

“He said you’d find out soon enough anyway.” Joe admitted softly. “But I’m sure he…”

“I’m going out to the timber camp.” Ben interrupted him, mounting Buck. “I need to see Adam.”

“No!” Joe said in alarm, looking up at his father astride the horse. “You’ll only make it worse if you do that, Pa. Wait till he comes home, please?”

Looking down at his youngest son’s pleading hazel eyes Ben considered. Joe was right, he realised, if he rode out after Adam it was likely that he would just be accused of interfering. Give the boy time to think. He told himself. Let him sort things out for himself. “All right.” He said quietly and saw relief chase across Joe’s face. “I’ll wait.”

*****

Sitting at the table in the back room of Carrie’s store that afternoon Robert waited nervously to meet his son for the first time in seven years. He could just make out the soft sound of his wife’s voice as she told the child that his father was waiting to see him and he nervously drummed his fingers on the tabletop, wondering what Paul’s reaction would be.

At last he saw the velvet curtain that divided the room from the store pulled back and a dark haired child peeped around it, looking curiously at the man who sat watching him.

“Hello, Paul.” He said softly as the little boy moved the curtain out aside and came slowly into the room. He was a good-looking child, Robert observed, with bright inquisitive eyes as dark as his own. “Nice to meet you.”

“Hello.” The little boy said shyly, stopping a few feet away and looking Robert over with interest. Putting his head to one side he smiled faintly and observed. “You do look like Mr. Cartwright! Ma said you did.”

“So I’m told.” Robert said with an answering smile though he had trouble keeping the bitterness from his voice. “I haven’t met Mr. Cartwright yet so I’ll take your word for it.”

“He’s real nice.” Paul enthused, coming a little closer. “He’s got a big ranch, well, him, Adam, Hoss and Joe got a big ranch. They’ve got lots of cattle and horses there. Mr. Cartwright even let me have a horse for my own.”

“He gave you a horse?” Robert asked, a little surprised. “That’s some present.”

“His name’s Lemon Drop.” Paul confided, with a gap-toothed grin. “I named him myself. ‘Course he’s only little now but Adam’s been teaching me to ride so I’ll be ready when Lemon Drop gets bigger.”

“You like Adam?” Robert said softly, unable to resist asking the question. “And his family?”

“Oh sure.” The little boy came to perch on the edge of the chair opposite. “How come you came to see me?”

Surprised at the child’s abrupt change of subject Robert took a moment to reply. “I just wanted to see how you’d grown up.” He told him eventually, a catch in his voice as he looked at his son. “See how you turned out. Last time I saw you…well…you were just a tiny baby.”

“Very tiny?” The child asked with interest, unable to imagine himself as an infant.

“Very tiny.” Robert confirmed, placing his hands around two feet apart. “No bigger than this.”

“That is small.” Paul exclaimed, his brown eyes, so like his father’s, wide in astonishment. “Did I cry a lot?”

“No more than most babies.” Robert laughed. “But you had the most wonderful smile of any baby I ever saw, and when I held you in my arms I was the proudest man on God’s Earth.”

“Really?” The little boy asked with a small sad smile. “Then why didn’t you stay with me? Why did you go away?”

“I wish I had stayed.” Robert told him truthfully, beginning now to what he had missed these past years. “But your Mama and I, we just didn’t get along very well. I went away to work and we decided that it would be best if you stayed with Mama. You have been happy living with her haven’t you?”

“Of course I have.” The child declared loyally. “She’s the best Ma in the world.”

“I thought she would be.” Robert told him, with a twinkle in his eyes at the boy’s obvious love for his mother.

Sliding down off the chair, Paul came to stand directly in front of Robert, fixing him with his dark gaze. “Could I call you Pa?” He asked hesitantly.

“I’d like that.” Robert said quietly, feeling a prickle of joyful tears sting his eyes at the question. “I’d like that very much.”

Paul thrust forward a small hand for his father to shake, a huge grin on his face. “Pa it is then.” He declared happily as Robert extended his own hand to proudly clasp his son’s.

*****

Adam yawned widely as he dismounted from Sport and led the horse towards the barn. It had been busy up at the timber camp and the time alone he had needed to think things through had been in short supply. However, through long sleepless nights he had arrived at a decision and tomorrow morning he intended riding into town to see Carrie. A sudden noise from behind him broke into Adam’s thoughts and he turned to see his youngest brother coming around the side of the ranch house. There was a furtive air about Joe’s movements as he walked towards a waiting Adam, glancing back over his shoulder a couple of times as though expecting someone to be following him.

“Hey, Adam.” He greeted his older brother quietly as he drew close. “You’re late getting back.”

“It was busy at the camp.” Adam told him shortly. “You been waiting for me or something?”

“Pa’s the one waiting for you.” Joe said and at his tone of voice Adam threw him a sharp glance. “He knows about Carrie and Robert.”

“You told him.” There was no accusation in Adam’s words yet his young brother still winced guiltily as he said them. “Well, he had to find out eventually.”

“Robert arrived the day after you left.” Joe told him. “Pa saw him go into Carrie’s place. I had to tell him who he was, Adam. I’m sorry.”

“It’s all right.” Adam waved the apology aside. “Is he very like Pa?”

Joe nodded. “A bit fatter, I guess.” He said. “But apart from that…”

Adam sighed, unsure now what to do. A part of him wanted to ride straight into Virginia City and see for himself what Robert was like, just the very thought of him with Carrie sending a frission of jealousy through him. Common sense told him that it would be wiser to wait, it was pretty late and by the time he got into town Carrie would have retired for the night, if she hadn’t already. Besides, Robert had already been there a few days, one more night would make no difference.

“Pa was upset.” The quiet words brought Adam’s attention back to his brother. Joe looked down at the ground scuffing one foot in the dust. “He’s hurt that you didn’t go to him when you found out about Robert.”

“Is he surprised?” Adam said angrily, though his voice softened as Joe looked up and he saw the distress in the youth’s hazel eyes. “I didn’t think he’d be very sympathetic.”

“He wants to talk to you.” Joe said quietly, with another glance back at the house. “Try to set things straight. I thought I’d better warn you first.”

“Better get it over with then.” Adam said with a wry smile, handing Sport’s reins over to his brother. “Will you see to my horse for me?”

“Sure.” Joe took the animal and made for the barn as his brother headed off across the yard.

Letting himself into the house Adam hung up his hat and unbuckled his gunbelt before turning to greet his father who sat in the leather chair by the hearth, watching him. “Evening, Pa.” He said, crossing the room to take a seat on the couch. “All alone?”

“Your brothers decided on an early night.” Ben told him and Adam smothered a smile as he realised that Joe had obviously sneaked out to speak to him and no doubt would have to sneak back in again in a moment.

“Everything all right up at the timber camp?” Ben asked, standing up and going to pour himself a glass of brandy. Bottle poised above a second glass he sent an enquiring glance at his son.

Adam nodded in acknowledgement. “Just a small glass.” He said. “And yes, everything’s fine at the camp. We should have no problem filling the contract in time.”

“Good.” Ben handed over the glass of brandy and sat down again, sipping his own drink. “I’ve got something else I’d like to discuss with you.”

“Really?” Adam raised a quizzical eyebrow. “What’s that, Pa?”

“Joseph told me about Robert Hawes.” Ben said quietly then looked up quickly. “I don’t want you to blame the boy for telling me, Adam, I saw Mr. Hawes in town yesterday and I gave Joseph no choice but to tell me what was going on.”

“I’m not blaming Joe.” Adam took a sip of brandy, feeling the warmth of the liquor slide smoothly down his throat. “I knew you’d find out. I couldn’t hide it once Hawes got here could I?”

“I wish you’d told me about it yourself.” Ben said, his voice betraying the hurt that Adam hadn’t confided in him. “It must have come as a terrible shock.”

“It did.” Adam swirled the brandy around in the glass, not meeting his father’s eyes. “But I think Carrie and I can get beyond it. She admits that it was wrong to marry Robert just because of his resemblance to you and I believe her when she says that what she feels for me is something completely different.”

“You’re still going to go ahead with the marriage?”

“If she’ll have me.” Adam drained his glass and stood up. “Sorry to disappoint you, Pa, but my feelings for Carrie haven’t changed. She loves me and that’s all that matters.”

“Are you sure?” Ben asked anxiously. “What if she’s just marrying you to…”

“Get close to you?” Adam interrupted bitterly. “No, she’s not.”

“That’s not quite what I meant.” Ben said, rising to his feet and facing his son. “Please, Adam, believe me, I just want the best for you, son, the very best. I don’t want to see you hurt.”

“I have the best in Carrie.” Adam told him softly. “So try and be happy for me, Pa. Try and accept this marriage.”

With a resigned sigh Ben put a fond hand on Adam’s shoulder. “I’ll try.” He said softly.

“Thanks.” Adam gave him a tight smile. “Now I’d better get to bed, I have to see Carrie in the morning.”

A deep sense of foreboding settled over Ben as he watched his eldest son walk upstairs, he somehow sensed that the road ahead was going to be a hard one for Adam and Carrie.

*****

Riding into Virginia City early the next morning Adam was disconcerted, as he dismounted outside the store, to see Paul emerge holding tightly to the hand of a man that Adam could see at once was Robert Hawes.

“Hello, Adam.” The little boy called, breaking into a delighted grin as he caught sight of his friend. “Have you come to see Ma?”

“Yes, I have.” Adam told him, a little uncomfortable as he felt Robert’s interested gaze on him. “You off to school?”

The child nodded vigorously. “My Pa’s taking me.” He announced, dragging Robert forward. “This here’s my Pa, Adam.”

“Pleased to meet you Mr. Cartwright.” Robert’s voice was cool though he politely extended his hand to Adam. “My wife is in the store if you want to see her.”

“Mr. Hawes.” Adam shook hands firmly, not missing Robert’s possessive use of the word ‘wife’. “Have a good day at school, Paul.” He told the boy, dropping Robert’s hand and reaching for the door. “I’ll see you again soon.”

“Tomorrow.” Paul said, looking up at him. “It’s Saturday so I’ll be out to see Lemon Drop.” Hesitating a moment he frowned before asking anxiously. “It is all right if I bring Pa with me isn’t it?”

“Of course.” Adam could hardly say no, though he wasn’t too happy about Robert coming to the Ponderosa.

“Oh, good.” The child smiled widely. “See you tomorrow.”

“Look forward to it.” Adam said, his eyes on Robert as Paul pulled him away in the direction of the schoolhouse.

Looking up as Adam entered the store, Carrie gave him a small, nervous smile before stepping out from behind the counter where she had been busy folding underskirts. “Adam.” Her voice was calm though she was twisting her hands together, betraying her anxiety. “I was hoping you’d come. It’s been almost a week.”

“I needed time.” Adam told her. “Needed to think things over.”

“And have you decided what you want to do?” She asked, holding her breath as she waited for his answer.

“I just know that I love you.” He said softly, moving forward. With a small sob of relief she flung herself into his waiting arms, relieved as she felt them tighten around her. “And I still want to marry you.”

“Oh, Adam.” She breathed, looking up into his eyes and seeing the tenderness shining in their depths. “I thought I’d lost you.”

“I was hurt.” Adam admitted quietly. “But I love you, Carrie. We’ll get past this.”

“I love you so much.” Carrie whispered, as he bent to kiss her. For a while they clung together until, with a trembling laugh, she pushed him gently away. “The store’s open.” She reminded him softly. “Anyone could walk in, and Robert will be back soon.”

“Back?” Adam asked in surprise. “You mean he’s staying here?”

“I made him up a bed on the storeroom floor.” Carrie told him, returning to the pile of underskirts she’d been folding. “He is Paul’s father after all, I could hardly make him go to a hotel.”

“I see.” Adam said evenly, struggling to subdue the jealousy that surged through him at the thought of Robert, Paul and Carrie under the same roof. “I saw the two of them together, they seem to be getting along well.”

“Oh they are.” Carrie smiled. “Paul was so pleased to meet his father and Robert is being very good with him.”

“Paul asked me if he could bring his father out to the ranch tomorrow.” Adam told her. “I think he wants to show off Lemon Drop.”

“Do you mind?” She asked anxiously. “If you’d rather not…”

“I told him it was fine.” Adam reassured her. “I don’t want to interfere with Paul getting to know Robert.”

“Thank You.” Carrie said gratefully just as the bell above the door tinkled and Robert pushed his way in.

“Paul’s safely at school.” He told Carrie with a stiff nod to Adam that barely acknowledged his presence. “I told him I’d be waiting for him again this afternoon.”

“He’ll like that.” Carrie smiled, pausing in her work. “What are your plans for the rest of the day?”

“I thought I’d clear up the breakfast things while you see to the store.” Robert said, pulling aside the curtain to go through to the back room. “Then I’ll make some coffee, just generally make myself useful.”

“Thank You.” Carrie told him appreciatively and he smiled and disappeared behind the curtain.

“I’d better be going.” Adam said, trying not to feel a little excluded. “I’ll see you at the ranch tomorrow.” He moved to take her in his arms but was forestalled by the bright tinkle of the doorbell as two middle-aged women entered the store.

“Tomorrow.” Carrie whispered, touching her fingers to her lips and blowing him a swift kiss before going to assist her customers.

*****

Robert’s suggestion the next morning that they have a picnic meal by the lake on their way to the Ponderosa was met with enthusiasm from Paul. “Could we Ma?” He pleaded, seeing that Carrie didn’t appear too thrilled at the prospect. “It would be fun.”

“I don’t really have time to prepare a picnic.” She said uncertainly, feeling guilty as Paul looked downcast. “I have a few things to sort out in the store, and I was just going to heat up what was left of last night’s soup for a snack before we go to the ranch.”

“Leave it to me.” Robert offered, with a wink at the child. “We’ll go and buy some bread and cheese and there might even be time to bake a few cookies.”

“You can bake?” She asked him in surprise as Paul clapped his hands in excitement.

“I’ve had to learn a few things, living on my own.” He told her with a smile. “Now you go and see to the store and this young man and I will get everything prepared.”

True to his word, Robert had the picnic basket packed and ready by the time Carrie had locked up the store and, loading it into the back of the wagon, the Hawes set off.

Despite the coolness of the September day, it was pleasant beside the lake and the picnic proved a great success, Carrie laughingly agreeing with Paul’s assertion that his father’s cookies were ‘the best ever.’

Leaning back against the sturdy trunk of a pine, Carrie watched as Paul waded happily in the shallow waters at the lake’s edge, turning every now and then to wave to his parents.

“You’ve done a wonderful job with him, Carrie.” Robert said, packing the remains of their meal into the basket. “I always knew you’d make a good mother.”

“I did my best.” Carrie told him shortly. “It wasn’t always easy.”

“No, it can’t have been.” Robert said with a sigh, turning to watch Paul for a moment. “I’m so sorry, Carrie. It was my stupid pride that kept me away, I couldn’t bear to think of you wanting another man all those years, never really loving me…”

“I’m sorry too.” She said softly, shivering a little in the chill breeze that soughed through the pines. “Sorry for hurting you so.”

“I’ve thought of you often.” Noticing the shiver Robert reached into the basket for the blanket on which they had spread the food and gently draped it around Carrie’s shoulders. “So many times I thought about getting in touch but I was afraid. Afraid that you’d turn me away, not let me see Paul.”

“I would never have done that.” Carrie pulled the blanket close around her, snuggling into its warmth.

“Then you don’t hate me?” He asked quietly, dark eyes searching her face.

“I did for a while.” She confessed. “Life was hard and though I understood why you left I blamed you for abandoning us. But, no, I don’t hate you now.”

“I’m glad.” He said with a smile, standing and picking up the picnic basket. “It’s going to be much better for Paul if we get along.”

“You intend on keeping in touch then?” Carrie asked, accepting his outstretched hand to assist her to her feet. “Even after I marry Adam?”

“I’ve missed enough of my son’s life.” He told her, stowing the basket away in the buggy. “I hope some day I can make that up to him. Now,” He turned to smile at her, with a mock bow. “Your carriage awaits, my lady.” Helping her up into the buggy, he called out to Paul, lifting the child up to sit beside his mother as they continued on to the Ponderosa.

*****

“Please forgive my curiosity, Mr. Hawes.” Ben said, unable to tear his gaze away from Robert as Joe ushered the little family into the ranch house. “But the resemblance really is remarkable.”

“Mr. Hawes is far too formal for someone who looks as like me as a brother.” Shaking hands with Ben, Robert took a seat on the couch. “Call me Robert, please.”

“It really is incredible.” Ben sat down in the leather chair, his gaze still drawn to the other man’s face. “I imagine if we investigated our heritage enough we might find we have an ancestor in common.”

“Perhaps we should do that one day.” Robert gave a tight smile. “But this afternoon my son wants to introduce me to this horse of his.”

“Lemon Drop is a fine little animal.” Ben told him, with a fond glance at Paul who was standing impatiently beside the couch. “I think he’ll grow to be a good, sturdy horse.”

“He’s down at the corral.” Joe said from where he stood at the foot of the stairs. “I’ll take you if you like.”

“No need.” Robert got to his feet. “I’m sure Carrie and Paul know the way.”

“I can show you, Pa.” Paul caught hold of his father’s hand. “It’s not far.”

“Then let’s go.” Robert reached down and lifted the child, swinging him onto his shoulders. “Come on, Carrie.”

Watching as Robert opened the door and ducked through it, Paul giggling wildly, Carrie spoke softly to Ben. “Where’s Adam?”

“He’s already down at the corral.” Ben told her. “Getting the horse ready for Paul’s riding lesson. He said he’d see you there.”

“Come on, Ma!” Paul’s shout from outside interrupted the conversation and with a quick farewell smile Carrie followed her husband and son.

“Looks like Paul’s taken to Mr. Hawes pretty well.” Joe remarked as he and his father were left alone in the room. “They almost looked like a real family.”

“I thought so too.” Ben said thoughtfully, worry furrowing his brow. “If Robert and the boy are growing close it’s going to be harder for him to agree to the divorce, to give up the child.”

“You think he might change his mind?” Joe asked anxiously. “Adam will be devastated if that happens.”

“Let’s not cross bridges before we come to them.” Ben advised, getting to his feet. “I may be wrong, I certainly hope so…”

“I thought you’d be pleased.” Joe said softly. “You didn’t want Adam to marry a divorcee.”

“No, I didn’t.” Ben agreed. “But I’ve seen the depth of Adam’s feelings and whatever I think of his choice of wife I don’t want to see your brother hurt.”

“Do you like Carrie?” Joe asked, his eyes on his father’s face. “I mean, she loved you once and married this Robert because of that. How do you feel about her now, Pa?” Ben didn’t reply at once, just looking at him, and Joe flushed a little under his gaze, knowing that the question was a bit impertinent for him to be asking.

“I do like her.” Ben said at last, with a wry smile. “Not that it’s any of your business, but I think she’s a very pretty, very sweet woman and if she wasn’t already married I’d have had no qualms over Adam’s courtship of her.”

“You never had feelings for her yourself?” Joe blurted out the words, his anxieties suddenly spilling forth. “Only at the dance…”

“Only at the dance, what?” Ben asked with a frown as Joe fell silent.

“You sort of…you looked at her…” Joe faltered, unsure what to say. “I kind of got the feeling that you were…you were…sort of jealous of Adam.”

“I see.” Ben gave a wry smile, and nodded slowly. “I was, a little.” He confessed. “Adam had a beautiful young woman who was obviously growing fond of him and it made me a little envious. Sometimes, even an old man like me yearns for a little female companionship, Joseph.”

“You’re not that old and there’s lots of women in town that like you, Pa.” Joe said with a relieved grin. “There’s Miss. Drayton and the Widow Hawkins and…”

“Joseph.” Ben gave him a warning look. “Let’s drop the subject, shall we? I’m going down to the corral to join the others, how about you?”

“You go ahead.” Joe told him with a cheeky smile. “I’ll just stay here and make you a list of Virginia City matrons who would like to be Mrs. Ben Cartwright.”

Aiming a mock blow at his youngest, Ben shook his head in amusement as Joe ducked aside, then went to get his hat and gun belt.

*****

Looking up from tightening the girth on Snowflake, the gentle mare that Paul was learning to ride, Adam saw the buggy heading towards the corral. His heart sank as he watched it pull up and saw Robert jump down and turn to assist Carrie to the ground. He had known that Robert would be with Carrie and Paul today but hadn’t realised how hard it would be to watch them together, behaving like a family. His immediate reaction was to confront Robert, tell him to leave Carrie alone, that he was nothing to do with her now. But he couldn’t do that, he couldn’t cause a scene in front of Paul and, fixing a smile to his face, he turned to greet the child who had run ahead of his parents and was clambering up on the corral fence.

“Hey, Adam.” He called, excitement in his voice. “Where’s Lemon Drop? I want to show him to my Pa.”

“He’s in the pen over there.” Adam pointed off to his right. “I’ve got Snowflake ready for you afterwards.”

“Thanks.” The boy grinned and jumped down, running back to Robert and grabbing his hand to pull him over to where Lemon Drop was waiting.

“He’s been so looking forward to showing off his horse.” Carrie said, coming over to lean on the corral fence. “He’s very proud of him.”

Leaving Snowflake, Adam came to stand on the other side of the fence and took her hands in his. “I wish I could kiss you.” He said softly, looking down into her face. “You look so beautiful.”

“It’s too awkward.” Carrie pulled her hands slowly away, a hint of alarm in her voice as she glanced over to where Robert was leaning over the pen, making a fuss of Lemon Drop. “I don’t want Paul to know just yet.”

“I thought you were the one eager to tell him.” Adam gripped the fence angrily as Carrie stepped back from him. “Why the change?”

She looked up, a shadow of annoyance crossing her face. “He has enough to deal with, meeting his father like this. Wait until Robert leaves, we’ll tell him then.”

“Are you sure that the problem is Paul?” Adam asked coolly. “Seems to me that you seem to be getting along pretty well with Robert yourself.”

“And what would you have me do?” Her voice, though too low for her husband and son to hear nevertheless resonated with anger. “Tell him to go away? Deny Paul this chance to meet his father?”

“He didn’t have to stay with you.”

“Perhaps that was a mistake.” Carrie conceded, dropping her gaze to the ground. “He won’t be here much longer.” She continued quietly. “It will be all right.”

“Will it?” Adam reached out and gently touched her chin, lifting her face to his. “Is he really going to walk away from Paul again, from you?”

“He said he intends keeping in touch.” She told him, moving back a little so that Adam was forced to drop his hand. “No more than that.”

“And how do you feel about that?”

“I want Paul to know his father.” She said earnestly, her gaze darting over to her son. “And I don’t dislike Robert, Adam. He’s a good man, a kind man. He says he’s really sorry for what he did and he wants to make it up to us.”

“Where does that leave you and I, Carrie?”

“It doesn’t change anything.” She said softly. “Once things with Robert are sorted out then we can get married. Moving a little closer she smiled up at him tenderly. “I still want to be your wife, Adam.”

*****

Sunday morning saw the four Cartwrights riding into town together to attend church. Walking into the small building with his father and brothers Adam’s gaze was drawn to one of the back pews where Carrie sat with Robert, Paul ensconced between them. Catching Adam’s eye, Carrie gave a small smile, which he returned though once again jealousy flared through him. Despite Carrie’s reassurances of the previous afternoon he hadn’t had much of a chance to speak to her after Paul’s riding lesson, the little boy monopolising his parents attention and the sight of the three of them riding back to town together in the buggy had unsettled him again.

Once the long church service was over Adam excused himself from his family and made his way over to speak to the Hawes.

“Hey, Adam.” Paul called out as he saw him approach. “Guess what, we’re going to have lunch with Reverend Stevens today.”

“That should be nice.” Adam said with a sidelong glance at Carrie. “I hear Mrs. Stevens is a real good cook.”

“And Billy Stevens is my best friend at school.” The boy informed him, grabbing his father’s hand as he spoke. “There’s Jimmy.” He said, looking up at Robert. “Come and say hello to him. See you, Adam.”

“See you.” Adam replied, with a smile for the boy as he led Robert over to meet his friend Jimmy and his family.

“I’m sorry, Adam.” Carrie whispered softly as she followed her husband and son from the pew. “Paul’s been introducing Robert to all his friends these last few days and when Billy’s mother invited us to eat with them I could hardly say no.”

“People will start to think you’re a couple.” Adam said tightly, holding his anger in check with an effort. “Sunday lunch with the Reverend, Carrie!”

“I couldn’t disappoint Paul.” She breathed miserably. “I couldn’t do that to him.”

“And what do you think you’re doing to me?” Adam rejoined bitterly before turning away and brushing roughly past Robert on his way out of the church.

Despite the fact that he knew his father expected him to accompany the family home, Adam headed for the saloon, sitting down and ordering a whisky instead of his usual beer. Telling the barkeeper to leave the bottle on the table in front of him, Adam quickly tossed back a couple of glasses before pouring a third and sipping it moodily, his thoughts on Carrie and Robert.

“Mr. Cartwright.” Glancing up from the whisky glass Adam wasn’t really surprised to see Robert Hawes looking down at him. “Might I have a word?”

“If you want.” Adam replied ungraciously, pushing a chair over to Robert with his foot. “Want a drink?”

“I think I’d better not.” Robert sat down and pulled the chair close to the table. “Not with Reverend Stevens and his wife expecting me for lunch.”

“Please yourself.” Adam drained his glass and poured a refill. “What can I do for you?”

Robert looked a little uncomfortable, fiddling with the string tie that he wore as he answered. “It’s about me and Carrie.” He said softly.

“You and Carrie.” Adam ran his finger around the edge of his whisky glass, his gaze fixed on the man who looked so like Ben. “I wasn’t aware that there was a ‘you and Carrie’, Mr. Hawes. You left her, remember?”

“I was a fool.” Robert said quietly, laying his hands flat on the table and meeting Adam’s eyes. “I loved her so much that when I found out why she’d married me I let my heart rule my head and left. I regretted it almost at once but my stupid pride wouldn’t let me go home and ask her forgiveness and every day I was away made it that much harder. But…” He sighed heavily, “Somehow I never thought she’d find anyone else. I imagined that one day I’d return and make it right…that’s until I got that letter from your lawyer.”

“And then?” Adam asked hesitantly, not really sure that he wanted to know the answer.

“It shook me.” Robert said. “Made me realise what an idiot I’d been and when I saw the name of the man she was marrying I thought…”

“That she’d come back here and found my father again?”

Robert nodded. “And I knew I had to come here. I had to see my son, see how he’d grown. Try to have some kind of relationship with him before it was all too late and he became a Cartwright just as Carrie had always dreamed.”

“So you intended to stop the marriage?”

“No, I didn’t.” Robert said quietly. “I thought she’d got what she wanted…that she’d be happy, but then…” He stopped and swallowed hard. “Guess I could use a little of that whisky after all.”

They sat in silence for a moment as Adam signalled to the bartender to bring another glass. “Well?” He asked, pouring Robert a drink and pushing it over to him.

Robert took a sip, then set the glass down. “Cards on the table time.” He said, his voice a little strained. “As soon as I saw Carrie again I knew I still loved her. I still wanted her and when I met Paul…well… Mr. Cartwright, I’m not so sure that I’m going to agree to that divorce. I want Carrie and Paul back where they belong, back with me.”

“But she loves me.” Adam stated evenly, pouring himself another shot of whisky. “You left her because you thought she was still in love with my father and now you want her back when you know she’s in love with me?”

“Yep.” Robert gave a wry smile. “It sounds strange I know, but I guess I’ve just come to accept that I love Carrie so much that I’ll put up with anything as long as she’s with me. These last few years have been hell, Mr. Cartwright, entirely my own fault, but now I’m hoping to have a family again.”

“What makes you think Carrie will even consider this?”

“I don’t know that she will.” A look of apprehension lurked in Robert’s dark eyes as he answered the question. “I’m just hoping that she’ll at least think about it.”

“And why are you telling me?” Adam leaned forward, his words angry. “Are you expecting me just to stand aside, let you take Carrie from me?”

“I don’t expect that.” Robert said, standing up. “I can see that you love her. But remember this Mr. Cartwright, Carrie is my wife. If I don’t agree to the divorce she remains my wife, you won’t be able to marry her.”

“We don’t need to marry, we could still…”

“And what would that make her in the eyes of the town?” Robert interrupted softly. “Hard for Carrie to live like that, people thinking you’re living in sin, ignoring you…” Picking up his glass he tossed back the remainder of his drink. “I’m just telling you what I intend, Mr. Cartwright, I’m going to fight for my wife and son.” Putting the empty glass firmly down on the table, he turned and walked away.

*****

“Sorry for taking so long.” Robert apologised as Reverend Stevens showed him through to where Carrie was talking to the Reverend’s wife, Betsy. “A good thing I went to check though, I had forgotten to lock the store door.”

“I’m sure it would have been safe enough.” Carrie told him as he came to sit beside her on the uncomfortable horsehair couch, while the Reverend took a seat next to his wife. “The people of Virginia City are fairly honest.”

“Really?” Robert asked in surprise. “I’d heard it was an unlawful place.”

“It can be.” Betsy Stevens told him, pouring coffee into a delicate china cup and handing it over to him. “But Sheriff Coffee makes sure that trouble is kept to a minimum and most of the townsfolk are honest, hardworking, people.”

“The meal is served.” Reverend Stevens announced, standing up as he caught sight of his housekeeper beckoning from the doorway. “Shall we go in?”

It was a pleasant afternoon at the Stevens and Carrie found herself enjoying Robert’s company. She had almost forgotten what a pleasant man he was, keeping everyone entertained with his conversation and gentle humour.

“The Reverend seems a very nice man.” Robert remarked as they strolled home together later, Paul running ahead.

“You certainly got on well with him.” Carrie said, her eyes on her son. “The pair of you were talking together for ages.”

“He was asking about my family.” Robert smiled as he recalled the questions the man had asked him. “He couldn’t believe that I wasn’t related to the Cartwrights in some way.”

“A few people have mentioned the resemblance to me.” Carrie told him. “Though I don’t think you look so much like Ben now as you did when we first met.”

“Did Betsy ask you about it?”

“No.” Carrie looked at him, slowing her pace a little. “But she did ask if you were going to be staying here in Virginia City with Paul and me.”

“And what did you tell her?” Robert asked softly.

“I just said that you had to get back to the ranch but that you’d be visiting us from time to time.”

“Didn’t she ask why we don’t live together?”

“No, of course not.” Carrie laughed a little uncomfortably at the question. “She wouldn’t be so discourteous as to pry into our private lives.”

“They both seemed to accept us as a family though, didn’t they?”

“I guess they did.” Carrie said, growing quiet as they caught up with Paul and entered the store together. Robert watched her as she set about getting Paul a drink before bedtime, his mind made up. He would speak to her tomorrow.

*****

After breakfast the following morning, when Paul had left for school, Robert cleared the table carrying the plates and cups over to Carrie at the sink. “I’ve got something I’d like to ask you.” He told her softly as she took the things from him and put them in the hot water.

“What’s that?” She asked, swilling the plates around and adding a little soft soap from the jar on the side.

“Could you leave the dishes for a moment?” Robert sounded so serious that Carrie glanced at him in surprise, obediently reaching for a cloth to dry her hands.

“What is it?” She asked anxiously. “Is something wrong?”

“On the contrary.” Robert told her. “It’s just…Carrie…I’ve enjoyed being here with you and Paul. We’ve got on really well these past few days haven’t we?”

“Yes.” She admitted, her hands twisting the towel that she held. “I guess we have.”

“Like a family.” Robert said, his dark eyes locking with her blue ones. “Carrie, I’ve decided that I don’t want this divorce. I want us to try again, to give Paul a real family.”

“Oh!” Carrie’s exclamation was no more than a breath, her restless hands suddenly stilled.

“So what do you say?” Robert asked anxiously. “I know that you don’t love me the way you do Adam but I love you, very much, and I know Paul is growing fond of me.”

“Yes, he is.” Carrie reached for a chair and sat down abruptly. “I don’t know what to say, Robert, I never expected…”

“You know I still love you?”

“I’ve seen the way you look at me.” She said softly, a small smile hovering on her lips. “I guessed you might still have some feelings for me.”

“You’re the only woman I ever loved.” Robert told her vehemently. “I’ve never stopped loving you.”

“That’s what Adam said.” Carrie whispered sadly. “That he’d never stopped loving me. You do know that I don’t feel for you the way I do for him, don’t you? I do love you in a way but I’m not in love with you.”

“I can live with that.” Robert said, coming to stand behind her and rest his hands on her shoulders. “If I can just get the chance to be with you and to be a real father to my son.”

“I don’t know.” Carrie twisted round to look up at his face. “I just don’t know what to say, what to think…”

“Think it over.” He said softly, squeezing her shoulders gently. “Take all the time you like, but think of what’s best for Paul, how he’ll feel about it. I have a ranch just waiting for you and I can offer him all that the Cartwrights can. He’s my son, Carrie, my heir.” Leaving her sitting at the table lost in thought, he slowly left the room.

For a long time Carrie sat unmoving, her mind in turmoil. Could she deny Paul this chance to have a real father? She loved Adam, didn’t she, so why was she even considering Robert’s suggestion? Her mind drifted back over the years to a frightened small boy calling for his father and the look on his face when Ben had arrived to calm his fears. The gentle way he’d reassured the youngster and the love so obvious between them. A father’s love was something Paul had never had, though she tried to love him enough to make up for that, the way Ben had tried to be mother and father to his boys. She was proud of Paul, of the way she’d raised him on her own and if she and Adam married she knew that he’d do his best to be a father to Paul. But the problem was that Robert was here and only too willing to be a real father to his son. Then there was the scandal, if Robert refused a divorce she and Adam could never marry and she wasn’t sure that she could live with that. Respectability was important to her, there was no denying that. To have her life a subject of whispers and gossip would be very hard, even more so if it should affect Paul. Robert was still her husband, he was Paul’s father, could she possibly contemplate a life with him again? The thoughts whirled round and round in her head as she sat there, unable to decide what to do.

*****

For the next two days Adam saw nothing of the Hawes. He was kept busy at the ranch and didn’t have much time to seek Carrie out but when he did get into Virginia City he found the store closed and his knock at the door brought no reply. He couldn’t be sure that Carrie was deliberately avoiding him but the suspicion was there and he returned home in a very bleak frame of mind. He knew his father and brothers were aware that something was very wrong and it was partly to escape their sympathetic glances that he was tidying up the barn when Carrie arrived at the ranch.

“Over here!” He called, as he saw her get out of the buggy and start toward the front door. “That is if you’ve come to see me.”

He watched as she walked toward him, moving gracefully in her dove-grey outfit. She looked pale though, traces of worry and tension showing in her face and dark shadows beneath her blue eyes that attested to sleepless nights.

“I had to come and see you.” She said softly as she drew close. “There’s something that I have to tell you.”

“I did try to see you.” Adam told her, stepping out of the barn to meet her. “But the store was shut and nobody seemed to be at home.”

“I’ve been out a fair bit.” She said, waving her hand dismissively. “I’ve had a lot to think about, to decide.”

“I see.” Adam’s heart sank as he realised that his fears were almost certainly about to become reality. “You’d better come inside.”

“Are your family here?” She asked anxiously, with a glance back at the house. “Because I think it might be better if we keep this private.”

Adam nodded, gesturing towards the barn. “If you don’t mind the horses overhearing.” He said evenly. “The barn is free.”

Watching as Carrie preceded him into the building, Adam braced himself for what lay ahead before following her into the dim interior, heavy with the scent of horses and leather, quiet except for the occasional snort or stamp of hooves from the occupants of the stalls.

“It’s about Robert and I.” She began, turning so that the late afternoon sunlight through the open door fell across her face. “He’s refused the divorce.”

“I thought he might.” Adam said heavily. “He wants you back.”

“I know.” She looked down at the floor for a moment, then, taking a deep breath looked up at him almost defiantly. “I’ve decided to try again with Robert. I’m going to Sacramento with him. I’m sorry…” The defiance faded as she saw the misery shining in his dark eyes. “I didn’t want to hurt you, but what with Paul…and the divorce…”

“Are you going with him as some sort of penance? To try and make it up to him for what you did?”

“No.” Carrie took his hand, begging him to understand. “Paul deserves to know his father, to get a chance to grow to love him the way you love your father.”

“But Paul won’t stay a child who needs his father for ever. What happens then? When he’s grown and has a life of his own. You’ll be stuck in a loveless marriage.”

“Not loveless.” She denied quickly. “Robert loves me very much, Adam, and even though I don’t love him the way I do you, I do have some feelings for him.”

“So you’re determined to go with him?”

“I’ve made arrangements to sell the store, Robert is going to help me open a similar establishment in Sacramento. We just have to get a few more things sorted but we should be leaving by the end of next week.”

“So soon!” Adam was stunned, just a few more days and Carrie and Paul would disappear from his life for good.

“I’m so sorry, Adam.” Tears welled in her blue eyes as she looked up at him. “But Paul must come first, you do realise that? He’s the most important one in all of this.”

“I could have been a good father to him.” Adam said softly, turning away from her, emotion catching at his voice.

“But not his real father.” Carrie said quietly. “You wouldn’t want to deny him the sort of relationship you and your brothers have with your father would you?”

“No.” Adam sighed deeply, he knew that Carrie was right, he wouldn’t want to keep Paul from knowing his father and it was obvious that the child was already growing fond of Robert. “I’d never have kept him from Robert but that doesn’t mean you have to live with the man.”

“It’s not just Paul.” She brushed at her eyes with her fingertips, wiping the tears away. “I can’t live with you without a divorce, Adam, I just couldn’t do that.”

“You seemed willing enough to enter into a romance before I asked you to marry me.”

“A romance, yes.” She smiled crookedly through her tears. “But I can’t bring Paul up like that, how could I explain it to him? A little romance seemed fine when I thought I was returning to San Francisco, that I’d never see the people of Virginia City again but I couldn’t live among them if they all knew…”

“We could go away together.”

“And take Paul away from his father? I couldn’t do that, not now, not just when he’s getting to know him. Please understand, Adam, this is the only way.” Reaching up she gently pressed her fingers to his lips as he started to speak. “Don’t say anymore.” She said with a sob. “This is hard for me as well. Goodbye, my love.” And turning abruptly she almost ran from the barn.

*****

Adam never knew how long he stood there motionless, leaning on Sport’s stall, after Carrie left. It was the feel of a brawny hand on his shoulder that brought him back to reality and he turned slowly to look into the guileless depths of his younger brothers blue eyes, shadowed now with sympathy. “She’s gone Hoss.” He said quietly, controlling his voice with an effort. “Gone back to Robert.”

“Thought so.” Hoss gripped his brother’s shoulder in a gesture of support. “I’m sorry.”

“I understand why.” Adam cleared his throat and moved toward the door, surprised to see that dusk was falling. “With Robert not granting a divorce I couldn’t really expect her to…the disgrace, you see…she’d be vilified…and what with Paul.”

“I’m sure gonna miss that little tyke.” Hoss said wistfully. “Been good havin’ a young ‘un round here again.”

“Hoss?” Adam’s face was etched with pain as he looked up at the big man and Hoss felt a sharp stab of pity sear through him at the sight. “Would you mind if I let Paul take Lemon Drop with him? The kid’s so fond of the animal.”

“‘Course he can have him.” Hoss said quickly. “You think I’d let the boy go without him? Pa said the horse was his, didn’t he?”

“I guess we can get one of the hands to deliver him to Robert’s ranch when they get there.” Adam said absently, his mind unwilling to dwell on a future with Carrie and Paul in California.

“You goin’ to be all right?” Hoss asked him anxiously, worry creasing his broad brow. “You look a mite dazed, think you oughta come inside?”

“No, I just want to be on my own for a while.” Adam said softly and managed a ghost of a smile as he saw the uncertainty in Hoss’ eyes. “I’ll be okay.” He assured him. “I need some time to think, to get used to her being gone…” He stopped as his throat tightened and he had to fight back a sob. “I’ve lost people before.” He continued slowly, straightening his shoulders and getting his voice back under control. “I’ll be fine. I think I’ll just go out for a ride by the lake, it’s going to be a clear night…”

Hoss nodded in understanding but his heart was heavy as he watched his older brother saddle Sport and lead him out into the yard. “I’ll see you later.” He called as Adam mounted up.

“Later.” Adam acknowledged, raising a hand as he touched his heels to the horse’s side and rode away.

*****

Dawn’s glorious colours were already streaking the sky as Adam quietly opened the ranch house door the following morning and slipped inside. It didn’t surprise him in the least to find his father sleeping in the chair beside the fire, a book open on his lap. Obviously Ben had decided to wait up for his eldest son’s return. He stirred now as Adam closed the door behind him and came over to perch on the hearth.

“Waiting up for me, Pa?” Adam asked with amusement. At this hour Ben’s stock excuse that he was just caught up in his reading would ring even less true than it normally did.

“What time is it?” Ben asked, blinking sleepily as he glanced over at the clock.

“It’s already morning and the sun’s just coming up.” Adam informed him, reaching out to take the book from his father’s lap and close it. “Looks like a nice day ahead.”

“Are you all right?” Ben sat up straighter, surprised by Adam’s apparent cheerfulness. “Hoss was worried and Joe, well the boy was all for coming after you.”

“I’m glad he didn’t.” Adam grimaced ruefully though he was warmed by his brother’s concern. “I wasn’t in the mood for company last night, I really needed to be alone.”

“So Hoss said.” Ben regarded him worriedly. “Did it help?”

“Not a lot.” Adam admitted. “I feel…I don’t know, Pa…kind of empty.”

His father nodded understandingly, knowing well the pain of losing someone you love. “Did she say why she chose to go with Robert?”

“She said it was mainly for Paul’s sake though I feel that doing the right thing, the respectable thing, had a lot to do with her decision.”

“Did you try and persuade her to stay here?”

“Not really.” Adam’s lips twisted in a grim smile. “What could I offer? A life where she’d always be a scarlet woman, an outcast? I don’t think our love was strong enough to face that.”

“If she loved you enough…” Ben began but Adam held up a hand to silence him.

“Perhaps she didn’t.” He said softly. “Perhaps, when it came down to it, it was all some kind of pipe dream. First love rekindled years later.”

“I’m sorry.” Ben said simply. “I know I’ve not helped, opposing the courtship as I did.”

“That had nothing to do with it.” Adam turned round to look into the fire, almost out now, just a few embers glowing in the hearth. “It just wasn’t meant to be. It’s going to take me a little time but I’ll get over it.”

Getting slowly to his feet Ben lay a consoling hand on his son’s back. “Take as long as you need.” He said softly. “But just remember that your brothers and I are here if you need us.”

*****

Carrie took a last look around the store as Robert carried their luggage downstairs. “I know it was only mine for a little while.” She said softly, running a hand along the wooden counter. “But I shall miss this place.”

Putting the bags down by the door Robert came to stand beside her, reaching for her hand and squeezing it sympathetically. “You wait till you open in Sacramento.” He told her with a smile. “You’ll love it there.”

Paul’s noisy footsteps on the stairs brought their attention to the little boy who came bounding down breathlessly. “Is it time to go yet?” He asked, jumping down the last two steps and into the store.

“It is.” Robert released Carrie’s hand and went to pick up the bags again, handing one to Paul to carry. “The stage should be here soon.”

“Look, Ma.” Paul called back to his mother excitedly as Robert pulled the door open and he got a quick view of the street outside. “There’s Hoss and Joe!”

“I thought you said goodbye to them when they called to arrange about Lemon Drop.” Carrie said with a glance at Robert.

“I did, though I wish Adam had come with them.” Paul told her with a disconsolate look. “I wanted to say goodbye to everyone.”

Coming to the door, Carrie looked across to where the two younger Cartwright brothers were waiting by the coach stop. “You’d better go and see them.” She said, and, needing no more telling, the little boy took off along the sidewalk.

“Don’t look so worried.” Robert looked down at her frowning face. “I don’t mind the Cartwrights coming to see you off. They’re good people and they’ve been very kind to Paul.”

Relieved, Carrie smiled at her husband and together they walked along to where Hoss had swept Paul up in his massive arms and was giving the boy last minute instructions on the care of Lemon Drop once he arrived at the Hawes ranch. “You’d best write and let me know how he’s getting’ on.” He was saying as Carrie and Robert approached.

“I’ll make sure he does.” Carrie told him softly as Hoss set the child back on his feet. “And thank you again for giving him the horse, it means a great deal to him.”

“‘Taint nothin’ Ma’am.” Hoss said, his broad face serious as he turned to her. “I kinda wish it had all turned out different, but good luck to you anyway.”

“Thank you.” Tears sprang to her eyes at the generosity of this big man who she remembered so well as a kind and gentle boy. “Thank you, Hoss.”

As Hoss turned aside to speak to Paul again, Carrie looked over at Joe. “Goodbye, Joe.” She said quietly, extending her hand to him.

“Mrs. Hawes.” Joe spoke coldly, this woman had hurt his brother and in the young man’s eyes that was something he found very difficult to forgive, his family meant more to him than anything.

A glance at Robert showed him deep in conversation with Hoss and Carrie leant closer to Joe. “Tell Adam I’m sorry.” She said softly. “I didn’t want to hurt him.”

The hazel eyes softened just a little as they regarded her. “He loves you very much.”

“I know.” She whispered sadly. “If things were different…just tell him…”

“Here’s the stage!” Paul shouted, jumping up and down with excitement as the coach thundered into view and interrupted. Looking up, Joe’s eyes widened as he saw a familiar figure in black cross the street towards them.

“Adam!” Paul caught sight of him before his parents and ran to greet him. “I hoped you’d come.”

“I couldn’t let you leave without saying goodbye.” Adam told him, ruffling the boy’s hair fondly. “I brought you a book to help pass the journey and a little candy.” He handed a small parcel over to the child.

“Thanks, Adam.” Paul cried in delight and turned to show his father what he’d been given. Over his head Adam’s eyes sought Carrie’s.

“Goodbye, Mrs. Hawes.” He said formally as she walked slowly towards him, Robert watching them warily. “I wish you every happiness in the future.”

“Oh, Adam.” She said sorrowfully, a tear running slowly down her cheek. “I’m sorry…”

“We should get aboard.” Robert interrupted quietly, taking his wife’s arm. “We don’t want to hold everyone up.”

“Yes.” Through a mist of tears Carrie watched as Adam stepped back, his brothers moving to stand either side of him as she allowed herself to be helped up into the stage by Robert, Paul jumping up to join her.

As the stagecoach pulled away, Adam watched until it disappeared from view. He knew that despite the pain she had brought him he’d always feel a fondness for Caroline, a first love he’d never forgotten.

“We better get back to the ranch.” Hoss’ comment jolted Adam back to the present and he turned to smile at his brothers, glad of their support.

“How about a beer in the saloon first?” He suggested and saw the anxiety fade from both their faces at his words.

“Sounds good.” Joe said with a grin.

“Fine by me, brother.” Hoss clapped Adam heartily on the shoulder. “You buying?”

The three headed off together across the street and if Joe and Hoss’ laughter was a little too bright, their banter a little too forced, Adam ignored it, glad to know that his brothers cared enough to try and take his mind off Carrie and for their sake he joined in their merriment. Time enough in the long stretches of the lonely nights ahead to muse on what might have been, to try and douse the flame of desire that still burned within him whenever he thought of her. For now he would live for the moment.

THE END

Next Story in the Pains of Love Series:

Legacy of Love

 

Tags:  Adam Cartwright, Family

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Author: KateP

On the 24th December 2018 the Bonanza Universe lost one of our dear friends and writers.  Kathleen Pitts (KateP) was a prolific writer of Bonanza fan fiction, a familiar name throughout most of the Bonanza forums where her stories are posted, read, and enjoyed by so many for so long.

Born in Bristol, England, UK Kate was married with two children and grandchildren.   She was a founding member of Bonanzabrits and eventually became the Moderator for that forum where she kindly led many to write and enjoy everything Bonanza for many years.   She was kind, patient, and always encouraging to fans old and new.

Sadly three years ago she retired from Brits and from writing when she was diagnosed with cancer.  We are more than grateful that so many still have the advantage and pleasure of reading her stories here on Brand, as well as other sites for Bonanza fanfiction.   KateP will live on through her stories, and from the many friends she made over the years.

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