Convergence (by JC)

image_pdfimage_print

Summary:  Three years ago Adam left the Ponderosa for parts unknown, and now Ben finally gets the news he has been praying for – his firstborn is coming home. However, an unexpected reunion in Stockton isn’t the only surprise fate has in store for the Cartwrights. (A Bonanza/Big Valley story written for the 2018 Crossover Challenge, better late than never, and also sequel to More Than a Memory which I encourage you to read first.)

Rating: T       35,257 words

 

convergence

noun | con*ver*gence | \(kǝn-‘vǝr-jǝn(t)s)\
: the process of coming together toward a common point

 

PROLOGUE:
 
Stockton, California
May 1868

 

“More coffee, gentlemen?”

“Not for me, thank you.” Ben Cartwright smiled. The pretty blonde waitress had included him in the question but clearly she was addressing Joe, who rewarded her with his patented grin.

“Me neither; I’m full up. That was a delicious breakfast, by the way. It’s Holly, isn’t it?”

She dimpled in response.  “At your service. We also serve lunch and dinner. I work the evening shift, too.”

“I’ll remember that.” Joe’s eyes lingered on her as she walked away, his admiring expression hinting at an appetite not sated by food.

Ben watched him over his cup, amused and contemplative.  Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, young man. One of these days you’ll find yourself an *old* man wondering where the years have gone.

“Ready, Pa?  We should probably be heading over to the bank.”

“Right.”

Ben paid the bill and joined him on the sidewalk outside the hotel restaurant, relishing the day’s warmth as they crossed the street. It had been a cold spring in Nevada, following on the heels of an unusually bitter winter, and his seventy-year-old bones were just beginning to thaw.  He had dreaded the trip to California but admittedly the change of scenery and climate both agreed with him.  Beyond that, it had been a productive and insightful outing with Joe. Ben had watched with pride as his youngest son negotiated a new timber contract with the railroad and also the purchase of a prize bull from the Barkley ranch. In the absence of his oldest brother, Joe had matured into a capable Ponderosa foreman with a shrewd head for business over the past three years. Adam would have been impressed.

A woman and a little girl exited the bank as they arrived.  The toe of Ben’s boot brushed something in the doorway—a doll.  He picked it up and called after them.

“Excuse me, young lady?”

The two turned around.

“Would this be yours?”  Ben stooped down until he was nearly nose to nose with the child, who appeared to be around four years old.  A pair of solemn hazel eyes fringed with dark lashes met his.

“Oh, Adaline, you must be more careful with Lucy,” said the woman.  “What do you say to the nice gentleman?”

“Thank you,” said the girl, hugging the doll.

“You’re very welcome,” he replied.

“Come along, sweetheart.  Aunt Fi is waiting,” said the woman. She smiled at Ben, “Thank you again.”

He tipped his hat. The little girl waved, the corners of her mouth turning up in a way that made his heart ache.  “Beautiful child,” he murmured.

“Beautiful lady,” said Joe, smiling.  “I’ll say one thing for Stockton. It may not as big as Virginia City, but there sure are some pretty women in this town.”  He glanced over at his father. “Something the matter, Pa?”

“I was just thinking about Adam, and how long it’s been.”

Joe put a hand on his father’s shoulder.  “He’s been on my mind too, but it won’t be much longer according to his telegram.”

There had been a few short letters, vague and general, not surprisingly.  Adam was Adam, and he did things his own way, in his own time.  He was not a man to be pushed, though sometimes instead of pushing back he would pull away, allowing you to think you’d won the battle until you realized you’d lost the war. That was why Ben hadn’t pressed him that day. There were no words to change the fact of his leaving. Though the farewells were casual, Ben’s heart dropped like a stone in the sea as he watched him ride away, not knowing when or if he would ever return.

It had been three years since he’d seen his oldest son’s face. What changes would he read there? Had the years been kind to him? Would his return be permanent?  Speculation and worry aside, only one thing really mattered.

At least for now, the prodigal was coming home.

 

Chapter One

“This is some place, isn’t it?” Joe murmured as they waited on the porch of the Barkley mansion. “I feel almost like I’m standing at the edge of the Pearly Gates.”

Ben answered with a soft grunt. The porch spanned the entire front of the house, with a roof supported by four massive white columns two stories high. The ground floor windows were over six feet tall and flanked with shutters. It was an impressive edifice, indeed, though a little ostentatious for his taste. Footsteps echoed from behind the door.  “I think maybe I hear Saint Peter coming.”

A butler attired in a white jacket and dark pants greeted them. “May I help you?”

“I’m Joe Cartwright and this is my father.  I believe we’re expected.”

“Yes sir, right this way.”

The butler led them through the entryway past a grand staircase into a large parlor.  “Please make yourselves comfortable.  Mr. Jarrod will be with right with you.”

They gave him their hats and seated themselves in the ornately carved red velvet chairs near the fireplace.  A moment later, Jarrod Barkley emerged through a door on the other side of the foyer.

“Gentlemen, welcome! Sorry to keep you waiting, but I seem to have misplaced something.  It’s not in the library; perhaps it’s out here, but if not, I don’t know where it could be. Would you mind helping me look for it?”  He winked, inclining his head toward the wavering window curtain.

Ben and Joe grinned.  “Certainly,” said Ben. “This thing you’re looking for, does it like to chase cats and dig up bones?”

The curtain giggled softly.

“I don’t think so,” said Jarrod.

“Does it give milk and say moo?” Joe asked.

Another giggle, a little louder this time.

“Definitely not.”

“How big is it?”

“Oh, I’d say around three and half feet; 35, maybe 40 pounds.”

It was Ben’s turn again. “Is it valuable?”

“Very much so; in fact, it’s one of a kind.”

A flash of green calico caught Ben’s eye, and he smiled.  “Does it like to wear pretty dresses and play with dolls?”

“Yes on both counts.”

“It sounds like we might be looking for a little girl, is that right?”

“Absolutely. Though I can’t imagine where she could have gotten to.  You know, it’s getting a little stuffy in here, don’t you agree?  I think I’ll open a window.”  Jarrod pulled back the curtain to reveal the source of the giggles. “Well, bless my soul!  I was beginning to think we’d lost you.”

She grinned. “I’m really good hider.”

“You certainly are.”  He scooped her up, eliciting a delighted squeal. “I want you to say hello to our guests. This is Mr. Cartwright and his son, Joe. Gentlemen, Miss Adaline Dolan.”

“Hey Pa, what do you know?  It’s the little girl from the bank.”

“So it is. I recognized Lucy right away,” he replied, referring to the doll in her arms. She returned his smile before being distracted by someone calling her name.

A woman entered the room. “There you are! I’m sorry, Jarrod. I hope she hasn’t been a bother.”

“Not at all; we were just playing hide and seek.” He set Adaline on her feet and patted her head.

“Uncle Jarrod said I’m a good hider.”

“Uncle Jarrod is very kind, and busy, it seems. I’m sure his guests didn’t come here to play games with a little girl.”  Her tone was gentle but firm.

“Oh, we didn’t mind at all, ma’am,” Joe assured her.

“As a matter of fact, we enjoyed it,” said Ben. “We don’t often get the opportunity.”

She smiled.  “You two were at the bank this morning. This is quite a coincidence, isn’t it?  Thank you again for rescuing Lucy.  I don’t know what we would do without her.”

“It was a privilege to help such lovely ladies,” said Ben.  He had to agree with Joe’s earlier assessment.  She was indeed a fetching young woman, though her blue eyes and chestnut hair were not reflected in her daughter’s dark features, no doubt inherited from her father.

“Well, this is a small world, isn’t it,” mused Jarrod. “As I’m sure you’ve guessed this is Adaline’s mother. Moira, this is Ben Cartwright and his son Joe, from Nevada.”

Her smile seemed to fade after the pleasantries.  “Nevada, you said?”

“Yes, they have a ranch there. In fact, they’re buying a bull from Nick.” He turned to Joe. “I’m sorry he’s not here; he was called away unexpectedly. He left the bill of sale for you since he’ll be gone this evening. You are staying for dinner?”

“I believe it was mentioned. If it’s not too much trouble, we’d love too.”

“Good. Mother is counting on it. She’ll be home shortly.”

Moira took Adaline’s hand.  “If you’ll excuse us, gentlemen, we’ll leave you to your business now.”

She left the room quickly without meeting their eyes, ushering her daughter up the stairs.

“Is she all right?” asked Ben.  “She looked a little pale.”

“I imagine she’s just tired. Adaline takes up a lot of her energy, not because she’s unruly, but because she’s four.” Jarrod smiled.  “I’m sure you’re wondering about them.  Moira’s older sister, Fiona, has been a friend of the family for many years. Moira came here after her husband died, just before Adaline was born. When Adaline was very young, both women became ill, and we took care of her here for several weeks.  Naturally, we all fell in love with her.  She’s sort of been ours ever since. Unfortunately, Fiona’s health never fully recovered, and if something were to happen to Moira, she wouldn’t be able to care for Adaline.  Since her father had no family, I’m to be her guardian in that event.  I pray it never happens, but I do nonetheless regard her with a father’s affection.”

“So they live here now?” asked Joe.

“Only for the time being; their house is undergoing some extensive repairs after a recent fire. Thank goodness no one was hurt. Fiona is here too, but right now she’s out with my mother paying a call on a neighbor. And in answer to your unspoken question, Moira and I are not romantically involved.  She’s more like a sister to me.”

Joe grinned. “So you’re saying there’s a chance?”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” Jarrod warned him good-naturedly.  “She has resisted the attentions of several eligible bachelors in this town, though there is one who refuses to give up. Fiona thinks she might actually be softening, but I’m not sure I agree. At any rate, you’ll be able to judge for yourself, since he’ll be here for dinner as well.”

“Sounds like an interesting evening ahead,” said Ben.

“Could be,” Jarrod shrugged.  “One never knows around here.”

*****

There were nine dining at the Barkley table that evening, with Victoria holding court at the head like a benevolent dictator. Ben was seated on her left, and she devoted much of her attention to him. He had only met her once, when he and Adam purchased breeding stock from her husband Tom, shortly before his death. She was a hospitable hostess even then, he recalled. As far as he could tell she hadn’t changed all that much in the intervening years, except that her brown hair had mellowed into a silvery white that seemed almost incongruent with the youthful face beneath it.

Fiona Worthington sat across from Ben.  She appeared to be several years older than Moira and frail in comparison, though they shared the same delicate features.  During the introductions, Victoria indicated that their husbands had been fast friends.  It was obvious the women shared a similar friendship.  Adaline sat between her aunt and her mother, across from Joe and Audra, Victoria’s daughter. Mark Van Alstyne, the other invited guest, had the chair next to Moira, with Jarrod occupying the seat at the far end.

Van Alstyne had served in the California regiment during the war, and he still had the bearing of a military man.  A strong chin and wide set eyes combined to form a handsome face, while his genteel manner and courteous attention to the ladies suggested a refined upbringing.  He was clearly enamored with Moira, but perhaps Jarrod had been right about Fiona’s “wishful thinking,” for she gave no indication that the feeling was returned.  She was polite and nothing more.  In fact, she seemed distracted throughout the meal, and not just by Adaline.  If Ben was any judge, Moira Dolan was a troubled young woman.

On the other hand, Adaline appeared to be in high spirits as she and Joe made funny faces at each other. Their antics made Ben smile. She caught him watching her and grinned. He winked at her, and she winked back.

Audra leaned over to address him.  “We’re so glad you and Joe could join us for dinner, Mr. Cartwright, especially since Nick and Heath aren’t here.  Mother doesn’t like empty places at the table.”

“Audra, don’t make it sound as though they’re merely seat warmers,” Victoria scolded. “I had no idea the boys wouldn’t be here until after the invitation was extended.”

“I didn’t mean it that way, really.  I’m sorry.”

“No need to apologize,” said Ben, smiling his reassurance. “I don’t like empty places at my table either.”

“You never really get used to it, do you?” Victoria regarded him with empathy.  “How long has Adam been away?”

“Three years.”

“Nick was gone for two years during the war. It was a choice, and I supported him because it was what he wanted.  But sending him off without letting him see how I really felt was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.” She sighed.  “If it hadn’t been the war, it likely would have been something else. He was always restless, even as a boy.  But when he came home, he seemed more settled, more at peace with his life.  And nothing had really changed except his perspective. Perhaps the same thing will happen with Adam.”

“I hope so.  Adam had his reasons for leaving, and when he makes up his mind to do something, he doesn’t do it halfway, so I don’t really know what to expect in the long term.  But according to his last telegram he intends to come home in the not too distant future.”

“It could be sooner rather than later,” said Jarrod.

“What do you mean?” asked Joe.

“Adam wired me from San Francisco last week to tell me he’s planning to stop here on his way to Nevada to discuss some investments we have in common. Of course, he has no idea you’re here.”

“When do you expect him?” asked Ben, trying not to sound too eager.

“He didn’t say exactly, but it could be any day.”

Before Ben had time to digest this surprising news, Moira dropped her glass, spilling the contents on the table.

“I…I’m terribly sorry,” she stammered.

“No need to fret; it’s only water,” Victoria assured her.

“Here, let me.” Audra used her napkin to soak up the spill. “It’s all right, really.”

The distress in Moira’s face showed otherwise as she stood up. “Please excuse me. I …” She turned and fled the room.

“Dear me,” said Fiona, rising to follow. “I’d better see to her.”

“Mama?”

Their attention was diverted to Adaline, who looked like she was going to cry.

“Darling, don’t worry, I’m sure everything is all right.” Victoria moved to the seat next to her and pulled her onto her lap. “Audra, there is a plate of cookies on the sideboard.  Would you bring them over here, please?”

A moment later, tears abated, Adaline found solace in sugar and spice. “Silas made those especially for you,” said Victoria.  “And tomorrow we’ll have cake and ice cream for your birthday.”

“Tomorrow’s your birthday?”  Ben asked.

“Not really,” she confessed between nibbles.

“Her birthday was actually last month, but she had the measles,” Victoria explained. “She was a very sick little girl.”

“We thought for a while she might leave us,” said Jarrod quietly.

“I don’t remember,” said Adaline, unperturbed.

“And then there was the fire,” Audra reminded them.

“Yes, but that’s all behind us now, and tomorrow we’re going to celebrate, aren’t we?”  Victoria gave her an affectionate squeeze.

Adaline bobbed her head in enthusiastic agreement. “God is good.  That’s what Mama says.”

“Your mama’s right,” said Ben, smiling.

Fiona returned to convey Moira’s regrets. She had retired for the evening with a headache. Mark Van Alstyne looked sorely disappointed.

“Come along, Adaline; it’s past your bedtime,” said Fiona. “I think I’ll turn in as well.  It was lovely meeting you, gentlemen,” she said to the Cartwrights, who had risen in unison when she entered the room.

After the exchange of goodnights and farewells, Adaline took the proffered hand and walked with her aunt toward the stairs, before running back to whisper something in Victoria’s ear. “I think that’s a wonderful idea, but wouldn’t you like to ask them yourself? No? All right, then.” She addressed Ben and Joe. “Adaline would like it very much if you would come to her party tomorrow.”

“We’d be delighted, wouldn’t we, Joe?”

He grinned. “Absolutely. I love cake and ice cream.”

Adaline didn’t say a word.  She just smiled and skipped out of the room.

“She’s quite a girl,” Ben laughed. “And you make a fine grandmother.”

“Maybe one of these days,” said Victoria.  “But in the meantime, I’m enjoying the practice.”

That night, back at the hotel with Joe snoring next to him, Ben struggled for sleep. Though his body was willing, his mind was too full, anticipating Adam’s arrival. His last conscious thoughts were of the son he had missed for so long, and afterwards he dreamed he had a houseful of grandchildren. One of them looked a lot like Adaline.

 

Chapter Two

Moira stood at her window watching the red dawn bloom on the horizon. It had become ritual for her, especially since Adaline was born.  God always seemed nearest in the light of a new day, and it was in those moments of solitude and quiet reflection where she most often found peace.

But peace would not be found today. It had been shattered by the utterance of a single name. She never imagined it could be so fragile, or that she could be so weak. Had she merely been lying to herself all these years?

The headache she had feigned the night before was real now, and she massaged her temples to no avail. Adaline would be up soon, excited for her party.  This day belonged to her and Moira would not spoil it. Tomorrow was another matter.  She would have to tell Fi everything.  Perhaps she had been foolish to think she could keep this secret forever, but it was only for Adaline.  Fi would certainly understand that, and why they had to go away now.

*****

“I’ve waiting all afternoon for a chance to tell you how lovely you look, Moira.”

Mark was at her elbow. She’d manage to avoid him during the busyness of the birthday festivities, but the party was winding down, leaving her no more excuses.  There was a time when she would have warmed to the compliment, but at that moment she was tired and anxious, and his attentions only served to annoy her. She swallowed a sigh and conjured a smile for him.

“Thank you. It’s very sweet of you to say, though I’m afraid I’m not at my best after such a long day.”

“I was worried about you last night.”

His earnestness made her regret her irritation. He didn’t deserve it. In fact, he had been nothing but kind and generous to her and Adaline, as Fi had reminded her more than once.

“I’m sorry for being so clumsy and spoiling the evening for everyone.”

“You didn’t spoil anything. I’m just sorry you weren’t feeling well. I never want to see you ill or upset.” He gave her arm a tender squeeze. “You know how I feel about you.”

She glanced around the room, trying to catch someone’s—anyone’s—eye. Jarrod offered her the distraction she needed. “We can’t possibly talk about this now.”

“I understand.”

Poor, handsome Mark—it wasn’t his fault she didn’t love him.  Fi seemed determined to push them together, in spite of her protests.  “You had your once in a lifetime with James, and that makes you luckier than most,” her sister had chided her gently. “You shouldn’t expect to find it twice. Mark loves you.  You’ll learn to love him, and you’ll have a good life, just like I did with Charles.”

Fi meant well. She had made that choice and it proved enough for her.  But Moira was not her sister. She knew what it was like to have more. She was not ready to settle for less.

Suddenly weary to the point of exhaustion, she left Mark with Jarrod and excused herself to look for Adaline.  She found her in the library, curled up in Ben Cartwright’s lap as he read to her, both of them oblivious to the rest of the world. An unexpected wave of emotion gripped her throat at the sight of them together, and she slipped away before they noticed her.

She made it to the breezeway before the tears came.  She had accepted the consequences of a decision deemed necessary, but she had been insulated from the ripple effects until now. Now there were flesh and blood faces and hearts that could be broken. She hadn’t counted on that. God, why did you bring them here?

The life she had so carefully constructed for her daughter was built on a lie, however noble it may have seemed. Now it was beginning to crumble.

“Moira.”

Fi had found her. She patted her cheeks dry before she turned around and forced a smile.  “I was just getting some air. I felt my headache coming on again.”

“Your headache wouldn’t have anything to do with the Cartwrights, would it?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean you can stop pretending. You haven’t been yourself since they arrived.  Last night you nearly fell apart when you heard Adam was coming here, and I’m pretty sure I know why.” She paused, as though she was mentally gathering strength for what she was about to say. “Adam Cartwright is Adaline’s father, isn’t he?”

Moira had never told anyone, and it was the first time she had heard the words spoken aloud. A rush of heat from deep inside forced her breath into shallow waves. For a moment she thought she might faint. Fi’s arms came around her and pulled her close.  “Oh my dear, my dear…”

Fi had guessed, but Adam wouldn’t have to.  He would know. For that matter, so would anyone with half an eye, if they ever saw them together. And that thought terrified her.

“Fi, what am I going to do?”

*****

At the edge of slumber, Ben sensed a nudge on his shoulder and a warm stirring against his chest. He woke to find Adaline asleep in his arms and Joe smiling down at him. “Looks like you two got pretty comfortable with each other.”

“I guess I was more tired than I realized.”  He yawned and closed the book they had been reading. “Didn’t mean to fall asleep on the job though. You know, it’s been a long time since I held a little one in my lap like this.”

“I’d say you were a natural.” Victoria had entered the room with Jarrod.

Nestling closer to him, Adaline seemed to agree.

“I must say, I don’t know much about little girls, though.”

“There’s not much difference between little girls and little boys at this age. They want and need the same things.” Victoria smiled.  “Fi asked me to check on Adaline.  I can see she has been in good hands. Jarrod can put her to bed in my room for now. Moira is resting. It seems she hasn’t been sleeping well, and I suppose the day caught up with her. She sends her apologies to everyone. Again.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Ben.

“You’re not the only one,” said Jarrod. “Mark was disappointed too, especially after dinner last night.”

“Well, perhaps Mark’s expectations are a little too high.” Victoria’s tone was suddenly cool.

“Possibly.”

“As much as I hate to say this, I think Fi is partly responsible. She is my dearest friend, and we agree on almost everything, but I do not share her opinion of Mark Van Alstyne, and I’ve told her so.”

“Mark’s not a bad fellow.”

Victoria raised an eyebrow toward her son.  “Now there’s a ringing endorsement. Oh, I’m not impugning the man’s character; I’m just speaking in reference to Moira. You can’t push two people together when they don’t belong, no matter how much you want to.  But perhaps I’ve spoken out of turn, and in front of our guests. Please pardon my bluntness.  After all, it’s really none of my business.”

Ben suppressed a smile.  Victoria Barkley had no qualms about giving her opinion, solicited or not, and was probably more prone to ask forgiveness than permission.  Jarrod’s good-natured reaction seemed to confirm it.

“Of course, Mother dear.”

Adaline stirred again.

“Jarrod, why don’t you take her before she wakes up. Put her on my chaise for now.”

He eased her from Ben’s lap.  “Come on, Princess.”

“You’ll stay for dinner?”  Victoria’s invitation was phrased as much a statement as a question.

“That’s very generous, but we’ve imposed enough already,” said Ben.

“Nonsense. It’s nowhere near an imposition.”

Joe opened his mouth to speak but Jarrod interjected. “We’d love to have you, of course, but the weather is turning, and if you’re planning to make it back to town tonight, you should probably leave soon.”

“That’s what I came in here to tell you,” said Joe.

“That said,” Jarrod continued, “you’re more than welcome to stay the night. We have plenty of room.”

“Absolutely,” agreed Victoria.

Ben stood up and stretched.  He wasn’t exactly looking forward to the ride back to town, but they had kept the hotel room for a few more days in hopes of meeting Adam. In light of Joe’s ambivalence, he demurred. Victoria didn’t argue.

“Will we see you again before you leave? Adaline would be disappointed not to say goodbye.”

He smiled. “So would I.  Of course, we’ll be back. And thank you again.”

On their way to the horses, Joe seemed to read his thoughts.  “That Adaline is a real cutie.  She just took right up with you, didn’t she?”

Ben chuckled. “Yes. It was a bit of a surprise—not that I minded. I could get used to that, if any of my sons had an inclination to marry and give me a grandchild.”

“Don’t give up hope yet, Pa.”

“I’m not getting any younger, you know.”

Joe’s grin faded as he changed the subject. “You know, I think Mrs. Barkley is right about that Van Alstyne fellow.  There’s something about him that seems a little off.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s just a feeling more than anything, I suppose, just little things, like the way he was watching Moira today when he didn’t know I was there.  Not smiling like you would expect; more of a hard expression, nothing like the way he presents himself when you’re talking to him.  And Jarrod was wrong when he said Van Alstyne was disappointed when he left.  He didn’t see me but I saw him, and he was pure mad, no two ways about it.”

“Well, to be fair, sometimes love can make a man act foolishly, and it seems that he’s in love with Moira.”

“She’s not in love with him. You could see that.”

“Be that as it may, Joe, it’s hardly our business. We’ve only just met them. Besides, we have plenty of other things to be concerned with.”

“I suppose you’re right.”

“I am right.”

“There’s something else, though.  Adaline won’t have anything to do with him. What does that tell you?”

Ben hoisted himself into the saddle and directed a stern look toward him. “It tells me it’s time for us to get back to town.”

“All right, all right.”  Joe followed suit, ambling his horse beside Ben’s as they passed through the wide iron gate.

On the road, Joe pulled up his mount and sniffed the air.  “Smell that?”

Ben paused next to him, his eyes on the shrouded slopes to the west. “Storm’s coming.”

 

 Chapter Three

The storm descended on the valley that evening with the fury of Judgment Day.  Lightning split the sky as window rattling thunder and moaning winds assaulted the Barkley house, shattering sleep for the inhabitants. Only two were untouched by the uproar outside. Fiona frequently took sleeping drops before retiring, and tonight was no exception.  She also added some to the tea she gave Moira, who took them unaware. The rest of the household was wide awake.

Victoria consoled a fretful Adaline, roused by the din and confused by her whereabouts. “It’s all right, darling.  The worst is over now. Listen, the thunder isn’t so close anymore.”

“Why am I in your room? Where’s Mama?”

“You fell asleep downstairs this afternoon while your Mama was resting, and we put you in here so we wouldn’t disturb her.”

She yawned. “Is Mr. Ben still here?”

“No dear, he and Joe went back to town a few hours ago.”  They would have had ample time to get back to the hotel before the storm hit, thank goodness.   To be out on the road on a night like this was an invitation to disaster.  Victoria uttered a quick prayer for Nick and Heath, wherever they might be. She’d had no word yet from either of them about when they planned to return. They might not send word at all. As a mother of sons, she had learned to be patient and to expect the unexpected. It didn’t stop her worrying, even when she didn’t let it show.

“I’m hungry,” said Adaline.

“I don’t doubt it, since you slept through supper.  Let’s go down to the kitchen and see what we can find.”

Downstairs, lamps burned and a fire glowed in the parlor where Jarrod, still in his day clothes, sat reading.  Audra emerged from the kitchen in her robe and slippers. “I couldn’t sleep either.  I just put a kettle on for tea.”

“That sounds lovely to me, but I think this young lady would like something a little more filling since she missed her supper.”

“So would I, actually. Why don’t you help me make some sandwiches?  We might even find some leftover birthday cake.”

Adaline’s face brightened as she took Audra’s hand.  Victoria smiled and mouthed her thanks to her daughter.

Jarrod looked up from his book as she approached. “Join the party.”

“Thank you, I believe I will.”  She arranged herself on the sofa and ran a hand through her hair, listening to the rain lash the dining room windows.  They had leaked badly during the last storm and had to be reset with new frames.  “Jarrod, did you…”

“I checked them.  They’re holding.”

He kept reading, but she caught the sidelong glance coupled with the boyish grin. She smiled and shook her head. Her oldest son had knack for knowing what she was thinking.

When she heard the pounding at the door, her heart leaped in her chest.  In this weather, at this hour, her first thoughts were of her other sons. It wouldn’t be the first time Nick had taken on a storm to get home.  Heath was by nature more cautious.

She was close behind Jarrod when he unbolted the latch and opened the door enough to peer outside, holding the lamp to illuminate the dripping figure on the porch.  She stepped back as he swung it open.

“You’d better get in here before you catch your death,” said Jarrod. “Didn’t anyone teach you not to ride in the rain at midnight?”

“It wasn’t my intention.  Sometimes you just get caught.”

The voice didn’t belong to either of her sons, but it was familiar, and at the throaty chuckle memory clicked even before he removed his poncho.

“Adam Cartwright.”

He looked apologetically at her and the puddle on the floor. “Hello, Mrs. Barkley. I’m sorry for the mess and the lateness of the hour.”

“Neither of which matters—the important thing is that you’re safe,” she assured him. “But Jarrod is right.  What on earth were you thinking? Never mind. We need to get you into some dry clothes.”  Men are such boys sometimes.

“I think I managed to keep my valise dry under the oilcloth, so I shouldn’t need to borrow, if you have a place for me to change.”

“We’ll put you in Heath’s room. The linens are fresh.   You can take your boots off down here and leave them by the fire. I’m sure you’re hungry, too.”

“Please, don’t go to any trouble on my account.”

“Audra’s already making sandwiches; we’ll just make a few more.  Now get upstairs and get changed.”

He grinned, and even behind the beard the dimples were still evident.  “Yes ma’am.”

She hurried to the kitchen where Adaline was finishing a glass of milk. In front of her was a plate of cake crumbs. Victoria eyed her suspiciously. “I hope you had a sandwich first.”

“We both did,” said Audra.  “I’ve made one for Jarrod. Would you like one?”

“No, but I’m sure our guest would. Maybe you should make it two.”

“Guest?  Who’s here?”

“Adam Cartwright.”

“Mr. Ben’s Adam?”

“Why, yes.” Victoria smiled and bit her lip as she studied the earnest upturned face. Adaline’s wide hazel eyes were pools of amber in the lamplight. A gift from her father, her mother once said. “I think it’s time you were back in bed, missy.”

She yawned in mild protest.  “I’m not sleepy.”

“Of course not. You never are,” she laughed. “Tell Audra goodnight.”

The child was asleep almost before her head hit the pillow, and Victoria was in the parlor with Jarrod and Audra when Adam came down in dry clothes and stocking feet. He was leaner than when she saw him last, and despite the beard and the gray at his temples, he seemed more like the impressive young man she met ten years ago when he accompanied his father to Stockton on a cattle buying trip. He had the same smile, the same laugh; the same soulful, hazel-amber eyes she remembered so clearly.

Well, Ben, your boy is home, your prayers answered. But you could be getting more than you bargained for.

Even Jarrod couldn’t know what she was thinking now.  It would certainly explain some things.  At best it would mean an awkward situation for everyone involved; at worst…tonight’s storm might pale in comparison.

 

Chapter Four

Adam’s eyes dragged open at first light, as he expected.  It didn’t seem to matter how tired he was; he rarely slept past sunrise unless he was ill. Though his body protested from the rain-soaked ride of the night before, his mind was already up and running. He rolled over on his back and stretched, engaging every muscle with a deep breath before exhaling.   Blinking away the last vestiges of sleep, he sat up and rolled the kinks from his bare shoulders, contemplating the day ahead.

Jarrod’s news that his father and Joe were in town was unexpected. Of course he would be happy to see them, but he had anticipated a more private reunion later on the Ponderosa and would have preferred it. He knew he had bruised his family with his abrupt departure but emotional detachment was his means of survival, especially in the beginning. Easing someone else’s pain at the expense of your own can be a dangerous thing.  He’d spent enough time trying to mend broken people, only to be cut by the jagged pieces. For once in his life, he intended to put Adam Cartwright first.

He hated clichés, but some were true to an extent. Time does heal wounds, if not completely, at least to a point where all that remains is an occasional limp or an ache in your bones on a rainy day—an acknowledgement of the fact, but nothing you couldn’t live with or to keep you from happiness.  And in the balance of all that he had gained and lost, for the first time in his life, he was truly content.

He had made other gains as well. His real estate holdings in San Francisco included a twenty percent interest in a hotel that was turning a tidy profit, and he’d just received a generous offer for a buyout. It was one of the things he intended to discuss with Jarrod.  But that would keep for another day. There were two other people he needed to see first. If he hurried he might be able to surprise them at breakfast. He threw off the bedcovers and dressed quickly.

His boots and hat were on the parlor hearth where he had left them to dry.   He didn’t see anyone downstairs, so he wrote a note to Jarrod and put it on his desk in the library.

A creak in the floor made him turn just in time to see a little girl in a nightgown duck behind the door.

“Hello, there.”

She poked her head out. “I know who you are.”

He leaned against the desk and crossed his arms. “Really?  Who am I?”

“You’re Mr. Ben’s Adam.”

His lips twitched in amusement. “Most people just call me Adam. You must be smarter than I am because I don’t know who you are.”

In front of the door now, she held up her doll.  “This is Lucy.”

He tipped his hat.  “How do you do, Miss Lucy? It’s lovely to meet you, but isn’t it a little early for you to be up?”

“Lucy’s not sleepy.”

“I see.  Aren’t you going to tell me your name?”

Her nosed crinkled when she smiled. “Guess.”

“Is it Hildegarde?”

She shook her head.

“Hortense?”

“No.”

“Could it be Rumpelstiltskin?”

“NO,” she giggled.

“Adaline!”  A voice called from somewhere in the house, and her eyes widened.

“I’m guessing that’s you,” said Adam.

“I have to go,” she whispered.

“Okay,” he whispered back.

He chuckled as she made a beeline toward the kitchen.  Cute kid, wonder who she belongs to.

*****

The perky blonde waitress at the hotel restaurant was definitely Joe’s type, Adam decided.  Yes, she knew the Cartwrights, and no, they hadn’t been down to breakfast yet.  He chose a table in the back and asked her to seat them there when they arrived and tell them Mr. Barkley would be joining them shortly. He also had the desk clerk deliver a similar message to their room. Then he waited out of sight.

They arrived ten minutes later. They didn’t see him, and he’d planned it that way.  He had wanted to see them first, to have a moment alone with his own emotions.

Pa’s silver hair was practically white, his face more lined, his shoulders stooped.  Adam had never thought of his father as old before, and it brought tears to his eyes.  Had he really aged so much in three years, or did it just seem that way because he hadn’t been there to see the changes as they occurred?

Joe appeared to have put on a few pounds of muscle, a far cry from the image of the skinny kid brother Adam carried in his mind for so many years. His hair was longer than even the days when Pa used to complain about his looking “like a riverboat gambler.” He still had the same confident swagger, though it seemed to fit him better now.

Adam waited until they were occupied with their menus before he approached them. Joe saw him first and nearly knocked his chair over getting up to launch himself at him.

“Adam, you dog! We thought we were meeting Jarrod, but you set this up, didn’t you? I almost didn’t recognize you with that bush on your face!”

“Yeah, well I knew you right away when I saw that green jacket. It’s not the same one, is it?” He grinned, looking him over.  “How are you, Joe?”

“Great. Just great,” Joe beamed, his eyes brimming.

“Adam.”

“Hello Pa,” was all he managed to get out before his father embraced him. “My boy,” he heard him whisper.  Adam couldn’t find his voice after that. Maybe it would have been better if he had just gone up to their room instead of meeting them in a public place.  Even the waitress was sniffling.

His father gathered himself first.  “You look well, son. Are you?”

“I am. And you?”

“I can’t complain.” A broad grin creased his face. “Certainly not today.”

They sat down together and ordered breakfast. “It’s a shame Hoss isn’t here,” said Adam. “I guess he got the short straw again?”

Ben shook his head. “No, I did. But I’m pretty sure the contest was rigged.”

“Hoss and I both thought the trip would be good for him, but I practically had to hog tie him to get him to come.” Joe wagged a finger at his father.  “See, you should listen to your sons more.”

“Maybe I should at that.”

They all grinned at one another, knowing such a thing was easier said than done.

“Jarrod told me you’re ranch foreman now, Joe. Good for you.”

“Well, I don’t suppose I would be, if you had stayed. Of course, if you want the job back, it’s yours.”

“Are you serious?”

“Of course I’m serious.”

Adam glanced at his father before answering.  “Well, that’s a more than generous offer, but I think the best man ought to keep the job.”

Joe looked surprised.  “Really?”

“You were born for it, no question. I knew you’d do it someday.”

Ben smiled.  “I told him you would be proud of him.”

“I am and always have been. Congratulations.”  He extended his hand, and Joe gripped it.

“Thanks, Adam.”

It was one of those moments between brothers when, even with so much left unspoken, nothing more needed to be said.

“I still can’t believe you’re actually here.”

His father was looking at him as though he might disappear at any moment. “I know you must have a lot of questions, Pa. I may not have all the answers, not sure you’d want to hear some of them, but you can ask.”

“We can start with whatever you’re willing to share.”

He was certain his father wouldn’t want to know how much drinking he’d done that miserable first year while rousting about California. He’d spare all of them that. Instead he focused on his time in Boston with an architectural firm and his burgeoning investments in San Francisco.

“It really isn’t all that dramatic or exciting, I’m afraid.”  He answered their silence with an apology.  “I’m sorry for not writing more often. It was just easier not to.” It sounded unnecessarily selfish when he said it aloud.

“It doesn’t matter, son. The important thing is that you’re here.”

Joe was more persistent.  “What made you decide to come home now? What changed?”

“I guess I did. I felt like I lost myself for a while but I know who I am now. I’m not the same man who left here three years ago, though I hope I’m a better one.  Besides that, I kinda missed your ugly mug.”

Over the rest of the meal there were more stories and laughter, and it seemed to Adam that his father grew younger by the end. Thanks, Pa, for letting me go the way you did so that I can be here now.

Joe nudged him. “Say Adam—you didn’t happen to bring a wife back with you, by any chance?”

“What would I want with a wife?”

“Is that a ‘no’?”

“It’s a definite NO.”

“Well, that’s too bad, because Pa has had a bad case of ‘grandchild fever’ this week, and I thought since you’re the oldest, I mean it seems like that would be your responsibility.”

“Well, I’m perfectly willing to leave that to you and Hoss. If there’s one thing I learned during the past three years, it’s how to live without a woman and even enjoy it.”

“I can’t believe I’m hearing this from the man who is irresistible to women.”

“You must be thinking of the old Adam Cartwright.  So what sparked the onset of this ailment, may I ask?”

Joe laughed.  “There is this cute little girl over at the Barkleys’…”

“Adaline,” Adam interrupted.

“You’ve met her,” Ben smiled.

“In a manner of speaking.  I caught her hiding behind the library door as I was leaving this morning. She said she knew who I was—she called me “Mr. Ben’s Adam”—but she wouldn’t tell me her name. I picked up on it from someone else.”

Ben laughed. “She must have heard us talking about you at dinner the other night.”

“We actually met Adaline and her mother at the bank that morning,” said Joe. “They were walking away and Pa found her doll on the sidewalk…”

“Lucy,” said Adam.

“Right. Anyway, he gave it back to her and I think he’s been her hero ever since.”

“She’s pretty fond of Joe, too,” said Ben.

“Yeah, but you should have seen her curled up in Pa’s lap, both of them sound asleep. It was quite a picture.”

“I’ll bet.”  Adam grinned.  “I have a feeling she might be a handful.  I’m sure she wasn’t supposed to be in the library this morning, unsupervised.  She hightailed it out of there when she heard her name called.  What’s her story, anyway?”

“Friend of the family.  She, her mother, and her aunt are staying with the Barkleys temporarily while their house is being repaired.”

“I see.”

“Did you happen to meet her mother?” asked Ben.

“No, I arrived late last night and left early this morning.”

“She’s a lovely woman.”

“I’m sure she is.”

“Adam’s not interested, Pa. You heard what he said earlier. He’s moved on to loftier pursuits.” Joe grinned.

“Just because I said I didn’t want a wife doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate a beautiful woman.  I’m not that lofty, not yet anyway.”

“That’s good to know, brother.”

“I’m not trying to play matchmaker,” Ben assured them.  “I just wondered if you’d met her, that’s all.”

“I’ll look forward to the privilege.”

“Hey, here comes Jarrod after all,” Joe laughed.

“Good morning, gentlemen. I thought I might find you here.”

“Join us for breakfast?”

“Thanks, Ben but I had mine back at the house with Adaline. She was up quite early this morning.”

“Yes, I know,” said Adam. “We had a tete-a-tete in the library before I left.”

“Oh, well that explains something.  She told me she had a secret but she wouldn’t tell.”

Ben laughed.  “That girl will keep you on your toes, won’t she? By the way, how’s Moira today?”

“She wasn’t up when I left but I assume she’s fine. She slept through last night’s storm, so she should have gotten plenty of rest.  Sorry to rush—I’m meeting a client and need to get to my office, but before I forget, Mother is expecting you three for dinner. You know what that means.”

“It means we’ll be there.” Joe raised his hand in a mock salute.

“The kid learns fast, doesn’t he? No wonder he made foreman.” Jarrod grinned over his shoulder. “Come early. If I know Adaline, she’ll be on pins and needles until you get there.”

“Who’s Moira?”  Adam asked.

“Adaline’s mother,” Ben replied. “Didn’t I mention her name?”

“No, you didn’t. It’s one you don’t hear every day.”

“That’s true; in fact, I’ve never met anyone else with that name.”

“I have.” Adam traced the rim of his cup.

Joe leaned forward on his elbows. “Well?”

“Well what?”

“Come on, I know that look; there must be a story.”

Adam’s lips formed a thin smile. “Not really, at least not one to amount to anything.”

“Who was she, then?”

He’d never talked about it with anyone.  It was a brief chapter in his life that he’d closed the book on and never expected to open again.  But the past was past, and maybe now was as good a time as any to finally lay it to rest, perhaps in the telling.  He could at least give them the short version.

“She was a woman who saved my life.”

“Is that all?” Joe rolled his eyes. “You’re right. No one would want to hear about that.”

“Go on, Adam,” his father prodded.

“I was over in California a few years ago, on my way home in mid-summer, when my horse went lame in a stretch of nowhere, nothing but scrub and brush. There I was, hauling my saddle with my back about to break, canteen empty, and I saw this house in the distance. I was afraid it might have been my imagination, but I kept walking toward it because I knew if I dropped, I’d never get up. When I got a little closer, I saw a woman on a ladder, with a paintbrush and bucket. Now, I figured if I was going to imagine something, it wouldn’t be that. I made it to the front porch, almost anyway.

“I’m not sure how she got me inside—she said I woke up but I must have been sleepwalking because I honestly don’t remember. What I do remember is waking up while she was digging a mesquite thorn out of my hand. Anyway, she patched me up, fed me, and got me back on my feet. I fixed the roof, chopped wood, made a few other repairs around the place, as much as she would let me. After a couple of weeks, there was really nothing more to do, and even though it wasn’t near what she had done for me, she was satisfied.”

“I take it there wasn’t a man around,” said Ben.

“No, she was a widow.  Her husband’s grave was still new. I worried about her staying out there alone but she was an independent type, said she couldn’t the leave the place they’d built together.  She loved him very much.”

“Okay, when you say widow, I’m picturing a taller, heftier version of Clementine Hawkins, without the accent.  How close am I?” Joe wanted to know.

Adam managed to keep a straight face. “That’s absolutely amazing. You must have been a fly on the wall.”

“And if you’ll buy that, Joe, I’ve got a horse I’d like to sell you,” Ben laughed.

“Aw, I was just kidding anyway.  I figure I’m way off.”

“A bit.”

“I knew it. I also have a feeling there is more to this story than we’ll ever know.”

“Perhaps that’s as it should be,” said Ben. “Did you ever see her again?”’

“No. I uh, stopped by the farm three years ago. The house had burned to the ground. A neighbor said she’d died in the fire.”

“I’m sorry, son.”

“So am I. I didn’t know what I was expecting to find, but it wasn’t that.” He stared into his cup. His father was right. Some things were better left untold.

When he looked up, Joe was watching him. “You loved her, didn’t you?”

He didn’t answer.

“A lot of people thought you left because of Laura, but I never did.”

“People will always think whatever they want, but to be honest, Laura Dayton—bless her heart and Will Cartwright—could never hold a candle to a woman like Moira Dolan.”  He scrubbed at his beard, frowning.  “I think I’ll go get a shave and a tub.”  It was a good excuse to change the subject. He had grown tired of this one.

“What did he just say? Adam, wait—what did you say?”

“I said I’m going to get a shave and a tub.”

“No, no—before that!”

“What’s the matter with you, Joe?”

“Adam, I think you’d better sit back down,” said Ben, his brow furrowing.

The uneasy look on both their faces convinced him. “All right; what’s this about?”

“It’s about Moira Dolan,” said Joe.

“What about her?”

Joe seemed to be mulling his words for once, in silent appeal to his father for help.

“What’s going on?” Adam demanded.

“We’re not sure,” said Ben. “It could be a remarkable coincidence but somehow I doubt it.”

“Will you please stop talking in circles and just tell me whatever it is you’re trying to say!”

“Adam, Moira Dolan is Adaline’s mother.”

It took a moment for the words to sink in. Every pore in his body seemed to open as hope rose and then fell. Moira is dead, remember? “No…no, she can’t possibly be the same woman. The Moira I knew died in the fire.”

“Are you absolutely certain? Couldn’t the person who told you have been wrong?  Was there a grave? Surely she would have been buried next to her husband.”

“No, there wasn’t a grave. But I knew she had a sister somewhere, and I thought maybe…”

“A sister?” Joe repeated.

“Besides, Moira didn’t have any children. She told me she and her husband had wanted them but were never blessed.”

“Adaline was born after Moira’s husband died.”  Ben murmured.

Adam rubbed the back of his neck, staring at a spot on the tablecloth. Adrenaline spiked in his veins and he took a practiced breath to slow his pulse. “How old is Adaline?”

“Four. Victoria said her birthday was sometime last month.”

He closed his eyes and did the calculation in his head, though it wasn’t necessary. He gripped the edge of the table to steady himself and felt his father’s hand on his shoulder. Joe shoved a glass of water toward him which he drank without stopping.

“I did love her. I wanted her to come back with me, but she said her husband had been her whole life and she didn’t think she could ever love anyone else.”

“That’s how it feels when grief is fresh,” said Ben. “Believe me, I know.”

“I told her that, but she wouldn’t listen.”

“And you didn’t go back.”

There was an unspoken question in Joe’s innocuous comment. Adam replied, “I almost did, a couple of times.  But even though she put it kindly, she made it clear she didn’t want me. Maybe you don’t know how that feels.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Why didn’t she tell me? I’d have moved heaven and earth if I had known but she never even gave me the chance.”

“I know you would have, but maybe she was afraid to trust that since you were already gone,” said Ben. “Think about what she must have been going through. She was a young widow, alone, carrying another man’s child. I’m just stating fact, not judging, though there are plenty who certainly would, and the burden of guilt would have fallen on her and Adaline for the rest of their lives. I don’t think any of us can blame Moira for wanting to protect her daughter under such circumstances.”

“She’s my daughter, too.  And your granddaughter.”

“Don’t you think I realize that? But we have to be very careful about this. Because officially and as far as everyone else is concerned, she is Adaline Dolan, and to even suggest otherwise could be very damaging.”

His father was talking, but Adam was no longer listening.  The last three years of his life had been based on a lie. It was too much all at once.

He pushed up from the table.

“Where are you going?” asked Joe.

“Somewhere I can think.”

 

Chapter Five

The moment Moira opened her eyes she knew something was amiss. Sunlight dappled the walls and the furniture.  It had to be mid-morning at least. How could she have slept so late?

There was a soft knock at the door, and Victoria entered with a tray.

“I brought your breakfast—bacon, eggs and coffee.”

“Thank you, but you really shouldn’t have gone to so much trouble. I’m sorry for sleeping in. I meant to be up hours ago.”

“It’s no trouble, and no apology necessary.”  Victoria set the tray in front of her.  “How are you feeling?”

“To be honest, I’m feeling a little muddleheaded. I can’t seem to wake up.”

“That’s not your fault.  Fi said you were overwrought yesterday. She meant well, but I think she may have used a heavy hand with the sleeping drops she put in your tea.”

“What?”

“Drink your coffee. It will help.”

She obeyed without question. Victoria had a way of making her feel like a child sometimes.  “Where is Adaline?”

“Downstairs with Audra.  I kept her with me last night. We had quite an adventure during the storm.”

“Storm?”  She hadn’t heard a thing.

“Yes. You and Fi missed all the fun.”

“I’m sorry, Victoria. You should have woken me.”

“Nonsense. You needed your rest.  You haven’t been yourself lately. Do you mind if I sit for a while? I’d like to talk to you.” She seated herself without waiting for an answer.

“Certainly. What’s on your mind?” She asked the question more calmly than she felt.

“Maybe I should be asking you that, although I think I might already know.”

Moira averted her eyes from Victoria’s expectant gaze. “What did Fi tell you?”

“Nothing really, but she didn’t have to.”

“What do you mean?”

“Moira, Adam Cartwright arrived last night.”

The cup shook in her hand but she managed to set it down without damage. “Adam is here?”

“Well, not at the moment. He went into town this morning to meet his family.  But he will be back this afternoon.”  Victoria’s voice was kind.  “I thought you should know.”

Moira buried her face in her hands to hide the desperate tears scalding her cheeks. She felt the tray being lifted from her lap, and then Victoria’s arms around her.

“I think you’ve carried this burden by yourself long enough, don’t you?  There’s nothing to be afraid of, Moira, not here, not with us. And I’ve known the Cartwrights for a long time, by reputation and personally. They’re good people. You must have known that, about Adam at least.”

“How did you know?”

“I couldn’t make sense of why you seemed so ill at ease around Ben and Joe, and then of course there was the way you reacted at dinner when you heard Adam was coming. But I didn’t know why until I saw him last night. Oh, my. You never told him about Adaline, did you?”

“No.”

“I don’t know the circumstances; it’s not my business. But I can imagine why you might have thought it best not to, though I’m sure he wouldn’t have wanted you to go through this alone.”

“I haven’t been alone. I’ve had Fi.”

“Yes of course, but it’s not the same.”

“How is he?”

Victoria smiled.  “He’s fine, very well, it seems.”

“Does he know I’m here?”

“I didn’t tell him, but I’m sure he does by now…and…he’s seen Adaline. She was up this morning before he left.”

“Do you think…?”

“I think Adam is a very smart man and you should be prepared when he gets here.” She smoothed Moira’s hair. “Now, I want you to finish your breakfast and then have a long soak in the tub. Do your hair and put on a dress that brings out the blue in your eyes.  When a woman feels pretty, it gives her confidence. Remember, you’re stronger than you know.”  Having delivered her instructions, she departed and closed the door softly behind her.

Moira sank back against the pillow. Oh, Adam, why did you have to come? So many times she had hoped he would, and then prayed that he wouldn’t. She had long ago resigned herself to the fact that he would never be a part of their lives. It was too late now.

Victoria’s words reminded her of all the times she had been strong. Birthing Adaline, in the agony of original sin as well as her own, she longed to cry out his name, but she kept silence. And when she held their child for the first time, her heart ached not to be able to lay her in his arms. But she did not break, not then or since, even with the living reminder of Adam Cartwright in front of her every day.

But she was a woman, after all. And sometimes when she paused to watch the sunset, she could almost feel his arms around her, his hands pulling the pins from her hair, his lips trailing kisses down her neck; that moment in time when she lost herself to him and everything changed. And she would push that memory away because it was one she couldn’t afford.

No more sunsets. She would be strong. She had to be.

*****

Adam slid the razor over the remnants of stubble on the chin he hadn’t seen in months.  The man who stared back from the mirror seemed a stranger. All the things he thought he knew about himself had been called into question by an impossible truth.

Moira Dolan. For three years he had believed her dead, though her memory had remained very much alive. Even when he was with Laura, he subconsciously drew comparisons that were sometimes disenchanting. Still, he had longed for the kind of life their relationship offered and was willing to sacrifice to get it. He reasoned that perhaps he would fall in love with Laura in time, but even if he didn’t it wouldn’t matter. After all, he cared deeply for her, and he truly loved Peggy. But alone at night, it was Moira’s face in his dreams.

His heart was raining in pieces the day he left her. After a couple of miles he’d had a good mind to turn around and go back and tell her she had no business staying alone on that scrubby little farm at the edge of nowhere, and if she wouldn’t come voluntarily he would just throw her over his shoulder and carry her off.  He had laughed out loud at the idea, picturing her reaction.  She would have thought he’d gone stark raving mad.  There were so many times since that he’d wished he’d done it anyway.

They’d had one night together.  Just one.  He knew she was lonely. For that matter, so was he.  Sometimes he felt that he’d been born that way. He was more than grateful to her for saving his life and never expected to feel anything beyond that.  But there on the porch that evening, with the sun fading behind her, he saw her clearly for the first time. She was beautiful, too young to be a widow, needing so much more than she was willing to admit.  He would show her that she need never be lonely again.

One night that marked a beginning and an end.  But it wasn’t the end. If only he had known he had a child in this world. It would have changed so many things.

The knock at the door was no surprise. He’d stormed off during breakfast at the hotel, leaving his father and Joe to finish without him, and he’d wondered which one would show up first.

“Adam?”

He let his father in. “I’m all right. Sorry for my abrupt exit.”

“No apology necessary, son. I know you’ve had quite a shock. We just had no idea…”

“You’re not the only ones.”

“Of course.

He sat down on the bed while Adam paced in front of him.

“She should’ve told me, Pa.  Why couldn’t she have come to me as soon as she found out and told me the truth?”

“I don’t know. Maybe she was afraid. And weren’t you involved with Laura and Peggy around that time?”

“It wouldn’t have mattered.”

“Try to put yourself in her place for a moment. When truth is uncomfortable or painful, it carries a risk. It’s sometimes easier just to remain silent, not because we mean to lie, but because silence means security. And when we fail to correct false assumptions, truth gets buried in the process.  After a while it’s nearly impossible to uncover it without hurting someone; in this case, someone very innocent. And I know you don’t want that any more than she does.”

Adam leaned against the wall, arms folded, trying to tamp down his frustration. On his first day back he was getting a lecture from his father as though he was still sixteen years old; it didn’t help knowing he was right, as usual.

“What would you suggest I do?”

“Talk to her, and listen to her. You can’t change the past but there might be hope for the future, if that’s something you want.”

He clenched his jaw. “I just want what’s rightfully mine.”

Ben drew himself up in front of him. “I understand how you feel. Just think carefully about what’s at stake before you do anything. If you’re wise, you’ll leave anger out of it.”

Adam was glad when his father left.  Anger was easier than all the other things that had been driving him the past five years—wounded pride; regret; guilt; heartache; loneliness; at times, even despair.

She should have told him; no matter what.  Moira had no right to keep Adaline to herself, to deny her a father, not to mention a grandfather and uncles.

He had more than once reaped the consequences of being too altruistic.  He vowed never to make that mistake again.

*****

Jarrod was in his office working on the second draft of a client’s will when the front door opened and an improved version of Adam Cartwright stepped inside.

“Well, I must say, you do clean up well after all.”

Adam rubbed his beardless chin.  “It was beginning to itch.”

“I remember. I tried one for a couple of months, until I couldn’t stand it anymore. How was the reunion?”

“It was more than I could have hoped for. If Hoss had been there it would have been pretty near perfect.”

“I’m glad to hear it. Have a seat.”

“You’re sure this isn’t a bad time?”

“Not at all.” Jarrod waited for him to speak. “What’s on your mind, Adam?  Somehow I have a feeling you aren’t here to talk about investments.”

Adam shifted in his chair. “No, I’m not.”

“Well then?”

“I came to talk to you about Moira Dolan.”

“Moira? May I ask why?”

“Let’s just say I have a reason to be interested.”

Adam appeared ill at ease, his manner subdued. If it had been anyone else inquiring about Moira, Jarrod would have been wary.

“How can I help you?”

“How long have you known her?”

“A little over four years. She came here to live with her sister just before Adaline was born.”

“Did you know her husband?”

“No, he had already passed. That’s why she moved to Stockton, so she wouldn’t be alone when the baby came.”

“James Dolan died five years ago.”

“You knew him?”

“No. I met Moira a couple of months later. Did she happen to mention that?”

“No…no, she didn’t. I guess I’m not surprised to hear it, considering the way she’s been acting since she heard you were coming here.”

“What way?”

“Anxious, tense, touchy—pick one.” Jarrod stared out the window for a moment, his brow furrowed, before directing his gaze back to Adam. “I suppose maybe now I understand why.”

“Do you?”

“You said James Dolan died five years ago.”

“Five years ago this month.”

Then A plus B cannot equal C, can it?”

“No, it can’t possibly.”

“Well, well…my, oh my.”  Yes, without the beard, especially, the resemblance was unquestionable.

“Is that all you have to say?”

“I need a moment, if you don’t mind. This is a lot to chew at once.” He pinned Adam with a stern look as he formed his reply.  “We’ve been friends for a long time, and I can’t picture you as the kind of man who would take advantage of a grieving widow and then leave her compromised, so I have to believe you didn’t know about Adaline.”

“Of course I didn’t know,” Adam bristled. “And I object to your term ‘taking advantage.’  It wasn’t like that at all.”

“If I thought it was, we’d be having a different conversation. Moira is like a sister to me.”

Adam’s demeanor softened. “She was in love with a memory, and I couldn’t compete. Until this morning, I thought she was dead.” He paused, his eyes narrowing. “I guess that’s what she wanted me to think. She certainly didn’t intend for me to find out about Adaline. I’m not sure I can forgive her for that.”

“Adam, be reasonable. What did you expect her to do under the circumstances?”

“She should have come to me! She knew where I was. I would have married her.”

“Maybe she wasn’t sure about that. Think how frightened she must have been by the prospect of the future she was facing. Society does not look kindly on a child born out of wedlock, and the woman fares no better.  They’re typically outcasts, while a man can go on his way unscathed with none the wiser. Moira was the one bearing all of the risk, and she had to make a timely decision. You can’t fault her for that.”

Adam tugged on his earlobe, frowning.  “You sound like my father.”

“Your father is a wise man.”

“I know.” He sighed and cradled his head in his hands. “I still can’t believe my own child was standing in front of me this morning and I didn’t even know it. She’s already four years old, Jarrod.  I’ll never get those years back. But I don’t intend to give up any more.”

“Why did you come to me—for legal advice, moral support, what exactly?”

“Both. I want to be a father to Adaline, to give her the life and the name she is entitled to. I want to know what my rights are, exactly.”

“Adaline is listed in the county birth registry as the daughter of James Dolan, deceased. I’m afraid you have no legal standing, Adam. Your only ‘rights’ are what Moira is willing to allow.”

“I thought you were my friend.”

“I am your friend, as well as Moira’s. I’m also Adaline’s godfather—you didn’t know that, did  you?—and her best interest is my first priority.”

Adam seemed surprised, then angry. “You don’t think I have her best interest at heart?”

“I think it’s more a case of not being able to see the forest for the trees.  Let me fill you in on the big picture.  Moira has worked tirelessly to build a life for herself and Adaline here in Stockton. She is known and admired as a devoted mother, an excellent seamstress, and a respected member of the community who is generous with her time and talents. Every decision, every sacrifice, has been for Adaline’s sake. That child is her whole life. And Adaline is a happy, well-loved little girl. I understand your position, Adam, but if you do anything, even unintentionally, to upset either of them, you’ll find a lot of people against you, and I’ll be front and center.”

“Are you threatening me, Counselor?”

“It’s not a threat, it’s a promise. But I don’t expect I’ll ever have to act on it.”

The hard lines of Adam’s expression faded, and his posture seemed to deflate as he dropped his head and stared at the floor.

Jarrod came around the desk and propped on the edge. “I know you’ve had a shock, and I’m sorry if I seem to be dismissing your feelings because that’s not my intention at all. Can I offer you some advice, as your friend?”

“Please do.”

“It’s easy to be angry, but it won’t serve you in this case. I think deep down you know that Moira’s actions were a matter of expediency, not malicious intent. I assure you, there’s not a malicious bone in that woman’s body. She needs to know, unequivocally, that you are in no way a threat, that you are her ally, not her enemy. That’s your best hope, and only you can convince her of that. You must have loved her once; try to recall those tender feelings. Perhaps it won’t be that difficult when you see her.”

They were interrupted by another visitor entering the office.  Mark Van Alstyne hesitated when he saw Adam.  “I’m sorry, Jarrod. I can come back later.”

“No need,” said Adam, rising. “I was just leaving.” He shook Jarrod’s hand. “Thanks for helping me get my head on straight.”

The lawyer smiled.  “Anytime.  Good luck.”

“I’ll need it.”  He nodded to Mark on his way out.

“Who was that?”

“An old friend, Adam Cartwright.”

“Ben Cartwright’s prodigal son?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact.” Mark had obviously picked up on the conversation at dinner.

“He looks familiar, but I think I’d know if I’d met him before.”

“I’m sure you would. What can I do for you, Mark?”

“I just came by to inquire about Moira.  I hope she’s feeling better today.”

“As far as I know, she’s fine.”

“Frankly, she hasn’t been herself lately.”

“Well, she has been a bit preoccupied these past few days, but nothing to be concerned about.”

“If you say so. Would you do me a favor and remind her about our dinner engagement tomorrow night?  Tell her I’ll pick her up at 5:00.”

“Tomorrow night?”

“Yes, we postponed it from last week because Adaline was under the weather.”

“I will certainly relay the message. In fact, I was just about to pack up and head to the ranch.”

*****

“You’re home early,” Victoria greeted Jarrod from the landing.

“I passed Dr. Key on the road. What was he doing here?”

“He came by to check on Fi, at my request. She doesn’t complain, but she is not well by any means.  It’s her heart, I’m afraid. We knew, of course, but it’s becoming more of an issue now, and sadly there’s not much we can do.”

“I’m truly sorry to hear that.”

“Yes,” she sighed. “Did you deliver the invitations?”

“Delivered and acknowledged; three Cartwrights for dinner this evening.”

“Good. Jarrod, I think I should warn you, tonight might be a little awkward…”

“I’m way ahead of you, Mother. Adam came to see me about Moira. It seems they share quite a history.”

“And a great deal more.”

“Yes, I know.”

“Does he?”

“As of this morning—in fact, he’s the one who told me. Apparently he put it together after he talked with Ben and Joe. For some reason, though I’m not sure why, he thought Moira was dead.”

“Poor Adam, it must have been quite a shock. I can’t help but think about Heath finding about his father, the secret his mother kept from him for so long.”

Jarrod put a sympathetic arm around her. “It was a storm we all had to weather, but we came out stronger in the end, thanks in no small part to you.”

Victoria smiled, thinking of her youngest son, who grew more like Tom Barkley with each passing year. Though he’d been born of another woman during a time she’d rather forget, he occupied a unique place in her heart, and it still brought tears to her eyes remembering the first time he called her “Mother.”

“I can’t take credit. Only God’s grace could sort out a situation like that. It’s not a path I would have chosen, but I wouldn’t change our family now for anything.”

“Neither would I.”

“I don’t know what happened with Adam and Moira, but I do know that sometimes we do things to protect people and we end up hurting them. I pray they can at least come to an understanding, for Adaline’s sake.  I would hate to see her grow up without her father.”

“She won’t, if Adam has his way.  He was angry and bitter over the fact that Moira kept her from him all these years, though I hope I persuaded him to tread lightly in the matter. But as for what’s going to happen tonight, I’d say all bets are off.  There are just too many emotions in play.”

“Well, the course of true love never did run smooth.”

“So saith the Bard.” Jarrod poured himself a drink.  “And what makes you think it’s true love?”

“What makes you think it isn’t?”

“I have no opinion one way or the other.”

“Well, if it’s not, it ought to be.”

He raised an eyebrow at her over his glass. “Aren’t you the same Victoria Barkley who only yesterday said you can’t push two people together if they don’t belong, no matter how much you wish it?”

“Yes, but I don’t think it applies to this situation.”

“Mother dear, your heart is in the right place, as always, but I’d be careful if I were you. Moira is one thing, but you don’t push a man like Adam Cartwright.”

“I don’t believe that will be necessary.” Although a nudge couldn’t hurt, could it?

“Oh? ‘Some Cupid kills with arrows, some with traps’.”

“What a suspicious nature you have,” she laughed.

“It’s a hazard of my profession.”  He kissed her lightly on the cheek. “I’m going up to change for dinner.”

Her smile faded behind his back.  Not a trap, but a word fitly spoken might make a difference, if she was right.  Lord, what fools these mortals be.

 

Chapter Six

The Cartwrights waited on the front porch of the Barkley house once more, but this time there were three of them.

“Look at him. He’s as nervous as a fella gettin’ married,” Joe referred to Adam.  “Can’t say I blame him, though.”

“To tell you the truth, I’m a little nervous myself,” said Ben.  Adam felt his father’s hand on his shoulder as he fingered his collar and shifted the box under his arm.

Silas opened the door and ushered them to the parlor, where Jarrod, Victoria, and Audra greeted them.  Adaline peeked from behind Victoria’s chair and promptly hid herself again when Adam winked at her.  So that’s how it’s going to be.

“I spoke to a little girl in the library this morning, and I was hoping to see her this afternoon,” he said.

“You must mean Adaline,” said Jarrod.

“Yes, I believe that’s her name.”

“Well, she was here a moment ago,” said Victoria. “She can’t be far.”

“Anyway, I heard she had a birthday recently, and I had hoped to give her this gift, but I suppose I could return it.”

“That would be a shame,” said Audra, exchanging a grin with Joe.

Adaline hurried around the chair at once. “Here I am! I was just hiding,” she giggled.

Adam bent down and grinned.  “Hello again.”

“Hello. You took off your beard.”

“You noticed. What do you think?  Do you like me better with or without it?”

She pursed her lips and studied his face.  “Hmm. I think with…out.”

“Then I’m glad I shaved. This is for you.”  He handed her the box. “Let’s sit over here and you can open it.”

She climbed onto the settee next to him and pulled the ribbon from the box, then removed the lid. “Oh, she’s so pretty,” she murmured as she picked up the doll to show everyone.  “Look!”

Audra smiled. “She looks like you, with that dark hair.”

“Well, I don’t think she’s anywhere near as pretty as you are, but I thought she might be a fine friend for Lucy,” said Adam.  “What are you going to call her?”

Adaline scrunched her face in thought.  “I think I’ll call her…Hildegarde.” She cut her eyes toward Adam and grinned.

“Hildegarde?” Joe looked bewildered.

Adam laughed. “I think it’s a fine name. Nice and sturdy.”

“Or maybe I’ll call her Molly.”

“Even better,” agreed Adam. He wondered if her nose always crinkled like that when she smiled.  There was so much about her he didn’t know; so much he longed to know.  “Happy birthday, Adaline.”

“Thank you.”

She surprised him with a hug, and he knew better than to look at his father but was caught by Victoria’s tearful gaze before he glanced away.

“Mama, look!”

Adam stood up as Moira entered the room, and the ache in his chest seemed to suck the air from his lungs.

Excited and proud, Adaline showed the gift to her mother, who admired it with enthusiasm and a gentle reminder.  “Did you say a proper thank you?”

“Yes, she did,” said Adam. “Hello, Moira.”  He was surprised to be able to speak at all, further mystified by the calmness in his voice. In truth, he felt about as far from calm as east is from west.

“Hello, Adam.”

Victoria rose from her seat. “Adaline, I’m going to the garden to cut some flowers for the dinner table.  Why don’t you come and help me?  Jarrod, maybe you and Audra could show Ben and Joe the new colt.”

“I want to see the colt, too,” said Adaline.

“But you saw him this morning,” said Moira.

“Please, Mama?”

“I don’t mind if you don’t,” said Jarrod.

“All right, but leave your doll in the house.  You know what happened to Lucy.”

“What happened to Lucy?” Joe wanted to know.

“She was a bad girl and got in the mud,” explained Adaline. “Now she can’t play outside.”

“Ohh.”

“Well, come along,” said Jarrod.

Adaline placed her doll back in the box and eased next to Ben, slipping her hand into his. He smiled down at her and swung her up into his arms. “Will you read to me again later?” she asked him.

“I think Adam might like to do that,” said Ben, with a wistful glance at his son.

“Is he a good reader?”

“He’s very good.”

She smiled and waved at Adam and Moira over Ben’s shoulder.

“Jarrod was right,” Adam murmured when they were alone in the room. “She is a happy, well-loved little girl.”

“Yes.” Her voice broke on the word before she composed herself.  “You’re looking well.”

“So are you.”

In the silence that followed, he allowed himself to really look at her. Five years and the birth of a child had softened some of her angles, but she was still a beautiful woman.  Her chestnut hair was pulled back into a loose knot at the nape of her neck, and her dress reflected the sophisticated fashions of the day. It was a shade of deep lavender which complemented her eyes and contrasted her creamy skin, further evidence that she was no longer a farm girl.  That was how he remembered her—eyes as blue as an October sky amid a bronzed face with a smattering of freckles across her nose, and her hair shot through with strands of gold as it fell past her shoulders—the day he kissed her goodbye.

“Clearly we have a lot to talk about, and I think we should adjourn to the library for whatever comes next.”  The coolness of his tone was a habit developed through the years, used mostly with adversaries. Never give yourself away. But Moira was not his adversary, he reminded himself.

“Of course.”  She led the way with her back straight and her chin high and said nothing else until he closed the door behind them.  “Adam…”

“Please.” He held up his hand. “I’d like to go first if you don’t mind. Sit down.”

He remained standing, forcing her to look up at him. Her eyes were still as blue as he remembered. Not that it mattered.  “I’ve run through a gamut of emotions since this morning, and my head is still reeling. For the past three years I thought you were dead. Then I came here and found out you were alive. Not only that, you gave birth to our child and didn’t think it was important enough to tell me.”  In spite of Jarrod’s admonition, the anger he had tamped down earlier niggled at him once more. He took a breath.  Careful. “A couple of people have suggested why you made that decision, but I’d like to hear it from you.”

She was frowning. “Why did you think I was dead?”

“I stopped by your farm; the house was in ruins. A neighbor said the fire was caused by lightning and that the woman who lived there had died.  A case of mistaken identity, or just a mistake, I don’t know which.”

“I sold the farm when I came to Stockton. What made you go there?”

“Obviously, I was looking for you. Why else would I go?”

“But why then?  Was it because things didn’t work out with Laura Dayton?”

She caught him off guard. “How did you know about that?”

“News from Virginia City makes its way here from time to time, and the Cartwrights aren’t exactly private citizens, are they?”

“It is one of the drawbacks,” he admitted, sagging against the desk.

“Maybe now you understand why I did what I did.”

“Not really.  I still don’t understand why you didn’t come to me as soon as you found out you were pregnant. We could have been married, no questions asked.”

“By the time I was certain, it was too late. Besides, you were preoccupied.”

“If you had come back with me like I wanted you to, that would never have been an issue. I loved you, not Laura.”

“You never said those words to me, Adam.”

“You stopped me cold before I could ever get them out; set me straight and on my way. Or don’t you remember?”

“I remember.” She pulled a handkerchief from her sleeve and twisted it in her hands, staring into her lap. “I hurt you that day, and I never meant to.  It made me ashamed knowing I had used you just because I was lonely.”

“Did you think you had the market on loneliness or that I was such a fool? I knew what was happening; maybe I was using you, too. I never claimed to be a saint. Either one of us could have stopped it but we didn’t. I didn’t imagine the outcome based on your history with James, or honestly I would have been more careful. It seems I’m the one who hurt you, and I’m sorry for that. But I wouldn’t have left you alone if I had known, no matter what you said.”

“I wasn’t alone, and you don’t need to apologize.  I admit that I wrestled with the morality of what we’d done, though I knew God had forgiven me; I assumed this was my penance. But I was wrong about that. Of all the good gifts He has ever granted me, Adaline is the very best, and she came just when I needed her the most.”

Though perhaps unintentionally, her words stung.  “She’s my child too, Moira—my flesh and blood, just as much as yours.  Maybe I needed her.  And maybe she needs her father.”

She got up and crossed to the window without looking at him, and pretended to watch something outside. “Why didn’t you come back?”

“What?”

When she turned, he saw the frown lines in her forehead. “If you really loved me, as you just said, why didn’t you come back?”

“Excuse me, but you made it pretty clear that you didn’t want or need me there, that you didn’t think you could ever love anyone but James.  Those were your words. What did you expect me to do, beg? I’ve never begged a woman in my life.”

“I’m sure you’ve never had to. For what it’s worth, there were days I prayed you would come back, on your own—for me, not for an obligation.  But you were already courting someone else. Tell me something, Adam.  Why would you want to marry a woman you didn’t love?” Her expression was angry, almost defiant.

“Maybe because she was willing to give me what you wouldn’t.”

“Well, I’m sorry it didn’t work out for you.”

“I’m not. It was never meant to be.”

“Some things aren’t.”

“For what it’s worth, I’ve wished a thousand times I had gone back for you, Moira—and I didn’t even know about Adaline.  I wouldn’t know about her now if I hadn’t just happened here, and that is something I can’t ride around—that, and the fact that you asked Jarrod to be her godfather without telling him about me.  If something had happened to you, no one would’ve ever known I’m Adaline’s real father, isn’t that right?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“I shouldn’t have to tell you why. From what I knew at the time, I assumed you would marry and raise a family of your own.  Adaline was my only consideration.  I didn’t want her to grow up as Adam Cartwright’s illegitimate child, and there was only one alternative. Honestly, I never expected to see you again, and I figured what you didn’t know couldn’t hurt you. Right or wrong, done is done.”

“Well, what from at you’ve said, I guess you never wanted to see me again.”

“Adam, don’t make this about us.  It was never about us.”

“You’d like to think that, wouldn’t you?”

“What do you mean?”

“You tried to keep your dead husband between us that night, but if you think you succeeded, you’ve only been fooling yourself for the past five years. But it doesn’t matter anymore. We’re both different people now. I let you have your way then, but I’m not the same man, and I’m not going to just roll over and give up on the things I want.”

“And you want Adaline.”

“She is half mine.”

“She’s not Cartwright property.”

“No, but she’s got Cartwright blood in her veins; and that name is her birthright. It should have been hers from the beginning.”

For the first time, she looked frightened.  “What do you intend to do?”

“I don’t know yet. I haven’t had enough time to think about it.”

It was true.  He’d only become a father that morning, and raw emotion had precluded logical thought.  Moira had turned away from him, and he knew she was crying. He rubbed the back of his head in frustration, remembering Jarrod’s advice.

“There’s got to be a way we can work this out, somehow.” He placed his hands lightly on her shoulders. “I’m not your enemy, and I hope you believe that I would never knowingly hurt you or Adaline.”

“I know you wouldn’t mean to,” she murmured.  “Adam, I don’t know what you see when you look at her, but more and more, I see you. And that’s what everyone else will see.  You can’t protect her from that.”

Before he even had time to consider his response, someone rapped at the door.  “Come in,” he said.

Silas appeared agitated.  “I’m sorry, Miss Moira, but your sister’s had a spell. Mrs. Barkley asked me to send you up to her room.”

“I’m coming.”

Adam followed her to the stairs.  “Can I help?”

“Get Jarrod,” she said over her shoulder.

 

Chapter Seven

Fiona Worthington’s collapse put a pall on the rest of the evening. At Victoria’s insistence the Cartwrights stayed for dinner as planned, but the mood and conversation were both muted. Their hostess’s presence was intermittent, and Moira didn’t come down at all. Jarrod and Audra had charge of Adaline, but she clung to Ben whenever she had the chance.

Shrugging an apology to Adam (who smiled to signal he didn’t mind), Ben settled once more into the library chair with a book in his hand and his granddaughter in his lap.  Granddaughter.  He still found it incredible, except that she was a near image of her father at that age and as such, impossible to deny. That first day when Ben saw her at the bank, his heart must have known. It seemed to have swelled two sizes since then.

“Where’s happy ever after?” she asked when he had finished reading.

“What do you mean, dear?”

“In the story, you said the prince and princess lived in happy ever after.”

“I said they ‘lived happily’ ever after. It’s not a place you can go. It just means they were happy. ‘Ever after’ means all the days after that—always and forever.”

“Oh.” She seemed satisfied with his answer. “Will you read me another?”

“I’m not sure we have time,” he said reluctantly. “It’s getting rather late.”

“Just a little one, please?”

The corners of his mouth tugged upwards.  “A very little one, since you asked so nicely.”

Joe was braced against the doorway, watching them; Adam peered over his shoulder.

“What did I tell you?” Joe whispered.  “Isn’t that a picture?”

Adam smiled. “It sure is.”

They stepped away into the foyer.  “I can’t wait for Hoss to see her. He’s gonna fall all over himself when he finds out he has a niece. I can hardly believe it myself,” said Joe.

“That makes two of us.”

Joe looked sympathetic. “I can’t imagine what it was like for you, finding out the way you did. How are you doin’, really?”

“Well, it was kind of a one-two punch, and I’m still a little winded, but I’m up.”

“How did things go with Moira?”

He shrugged. “About like you would expect. I don’t think she’s too thrilled about me being here, and we didn’t have long to talk. But I think we’ll be able to come to some kind of agreement eventually.  In the meantime, I guess I’m gonna have to work a little harder on being patient. You know, it’s…a delicate situation.”

“Yeah, getting the cart before the horse tends to complicate things.” Joe shook his head. “I have to admit, Adam—I didn’t think you’d be one to do it, Mr. ‘measure five times, cut once’.”

Adam chuckled at the exaggeration. “I never did that. Three, maybe.”

“I distinctly remember four,” laughed Joe. “Seriously, I know this is tough, and I feel for ya, older brother. I know there’s probably nothing I can do, but if there ever is, you’d tell me, right?”

“I’d tell ya.” Adam slung an arm over Joe’s shoulder.  “Thanks, little brother.”

“You comin’ back to town tonight?”

“I did get a room, but I think I’ll stay here instead, in case I’m needed for something.”

“All right, we’ll be back here tomorrow. Jarrod said their foreman broke his arm yesterday, and with Nick and Heath away they were already a little shorthanded so I told him I could help out. Figured it was the least I could do for all the free meals we’ve had here.”

“I can help.”

“Good, because I volunteered you, too. You still know how to dig a post hole, right?”

“What?”

“Just kidding. Boy, you should have seen your face just now,” Joe cackled. “Well, I guess I better drag Grandpa outta here and get him to bed.”

*****

After his father and brother departed, Adam happily succumbed to Adaline’s request for “just one more story.” She was yawning at his elbow as he neared the end of The Princess and the Pea.

Now they knew that she was a real princess because she had felt the pea right through the twenty mattresses and the twenty eider-down beds. Nobody but a real princess could be as sensitive as that. So the prince took her for his wife, for now he knew that he had a real princess; and the pea was put in the museum, where it may still be seen, if no one has stolen it. There, that is a true story.

“That’s not a true story,” she said.

“It says so right here. You don’t think so?”

She shook her head. “That would never work. Peas are too squishy.”

“You’ve got a point there.”

“I hate peas, except I’m not supposed to say hate.”

“Honestly, I’m not too crazy about them myself.”

“Mama made me eat four on Sunday.”

She made a gagging face, but he managed not to laugh. “Why four?”

“Because I’m four. On my next birthday I’ll have to eat five.” She held up her fingers to illustrate.

“I guess that makes sense.”

“How old are you?”

“Thirty-eight.”

Her gasp was followed by a look of sympathy. “I could never eat that many.”

He sighed and did his best to appear mournful.  “Well, grownups have to do hard things, sometimes.”

“I’m sure glad I’m not a grownup.”

“I’m glad too.” He pulled her onto his lap. “In fact, I hope you stay just the way you are for a long, long time.”

“What’s in here?” She patted his pocket.

“A watch.”  He pulled it out to show her.

Her finger traced the engraving on the cover. “It has a ship on it, like the one in the bottle in Uncle Jarrod’s office.”

“It belonged to my grandfather. He was a sea captain.”

“Your grandpa?”

“Yes.”

“Where is he now?”

“He died a long time ago, before you were even born.”

“I don’t have a grandpa either. Or a papa.”  Her tone was matter of fact, but the words bruised his heart. “Mr. Ben is your papa.”  She seemed proud of herself for remembering.

“That’s right.”

“What about your mama?”

“She died when I was a boy.”

“Oh.” Her expression grew somber. “Do you miss her a lot?”

“I did for a long time, but I had my pa and my brothers growing up, and that helped. Now when I think of her, I mostly remember the happy times.”

“I don’t have any brothers. I would be so sad if my mama died.”

“I would never want to see you sad that way,” he said, lifting her chin with a finger. “But even if sad things do happen, Adaline, there will always be someone who loves you to take care of you. You can be sure of that.”

“Sorry to interrupt, said Jarrod, “but the Queen has issued a decree that all the princesses in the land are to be in bed by 9:00…approximately.”  The clock on the mantel said 9:05.

“I’m not a princess,” Adaline protested.

“No?  You could’ve fooled me. What do you say, Adam?”

He appraised her with a smirk. “I say…goodnight, Princess.” He kissed her forehead.  “I hope you don’t find any peas in your bed.”

“Yuck!” she giggled.

Adam felt a stab of envy as he watched them ascend the stairs together laughing, and then he berated himself for it.  It wasn’t Jarrod’s fault that he was the only father figure Adaline had ever known, and in her mind, Adam was just a nice man who gave her a doll and read her a story.  He was on the outside looking in. But he didn’t intend to remain there permanently.

The house felt suddenly close, and he removed himself to the front porch for fresh air and perspective.  The road to town stretched out before him like a bright ribbon in the moonlight.  Perhaps he should take it, at least for tonight. It was only a half-hearted thought, not enough to tip the scale.

He looked to the stars, thinking once more of Inger, the only mother he’d known. He’d always imagined her being up there among them, which somehow made her absence easier for a young boy to bear. He used to whisper secrets to her in the dark that no one else could hear.

Mama, I have a daughter. Maybe you already know that; if you do, you know she’s really something.

The stars dimmed as Adam wept.

 

Chapter Eight

Victoria was drawing the parlor drapes when she observed Adam through the window. The sight of him seated on the front steps with his head bowed tugged at her maternal heart. His stoic nature reminded her again of Heath, whose still waters ran deeper than most people would ever imagine. She waited a few moments before joining him, being sure to make enough noise to announce her presence.

“I hope I’m not disturbing you.  It just seemed too lovely a night to let it go by.”

He stood up. “Not at all. Yes, it is lovely.  The stars are magnificent.”

“They certainly are. I heard you got on well with Adaline this evening.”

“Yes, though she may be more taken with my father than with me.”

Victoria smiled. “Well, he is a charmer.  And I believe the feeling is mutual.”

“And he feels he’s long overdue for a grandchild.”

“What about you?  How do you feel about suddenly being a father?”

He shoved his hands in his pockets and looked down for a moment before answering. “Overwhelmed. Overcome. Adaline is everything I could ever want, but she’s four years old and doesn’t even know me.”

There was pain in his earnest expression, which without the beard looked almost boyish.

“Adam, how old were you when your father married his second wife?”

“Five.”

“And how long did it take for you to love her?”

He smiled. “I think maybe I fell in love with her before Pa did.”

“I don’t think you have to worry about Adaline.”

“I know what you’re saying, but there’s a difference.  My father married Inger. I don’t see that happening in this case.”

“Oh?” She left the question bare intentionally, waiting for clarification.  It was a method she employed with her own children whenever they were less than forthcoming, and it nearly always worked.

“I mean, it’s been five years, and if she didn’t want to marry me then, I don’t think anything has happened since to make her change her mind about us, Adaline notwithstanding.”

“Did you ask her five years ago?”

“Well, not exactly,” he admitted. “I was headed that way, but she cut me off.  Her message came through loud and clear—thanks but no thanks.”

“Did you love her?”

He frowned.  “It doesn’t matter.  She didn’t love me. She told me today, it was never about us anyway. End of story.”

“I wonder.”

“What?”

“You didn’t answer my question,” she reminded him. “And you don’t have to but if the answer is yes, then what I’m going to tell you might be of interest.”

“I’m listening.”

“Moira never talked much about her husband, and what little I know of him I learned from Fi. Apparently he was good to her and they’d had a happy marriage.  After Adaline was born, she rarely mentioned him by name, and in reference to the baby she would invariably say ‘her father.’ I remember very distinctly her telling me once that Adaline’s father was a good man, how it grieved her that he would never know his daughter, and that she intended to raise her to be someone he would’ve been proud of. And the way she has poured herself into that child made me believe she must have loved him very much.

“When Adaline was about eighteen months old, there was an influenza outbreak in Stockton, and Moira became ill. At one point her fever got so high that the doctor gave us little hope.  I was sitting with her, trying to comfort her in her delirium. She was basically incoherent so nothing she said made much sense.  But she kept repeating something, and it seemed to me she was asking about Adaline, so I assured her the baby was fine.  Then she said ‘Adam’ very clearly, and she kept saying it over and over until she slipped away.  She was in a coma until the next evening.  She didn’t remember anything and I didn’t mention it because I knew her husband’s name was James. I had no idea who Adam was. Now we both know.”

The pained expression had returned, but he said nothing.

“Well, I’ll leave you with that. Whatever you decide to do with the information is up to you.”

“What did you think of her, when you heard that?”

“That she was a devoted mother and a lovely young woman who had suffered a great deal for love, and never meant for anyone to know.” She paused. “Matters of the heart are seldom black and white, and when we don’t know the whole story we often assume wrongly. The reason I told you this is because I didn’t want you to make that mistake with Moira.”

He dropped his head and shielded his eyes with his hand, giving an almost imperceptible nod.

Even with her own sons, moments like this required restraint on her part. Sometimes it was better just to leave them.  She touched his arm lightly. “Be sure and latch the door when you come in.”

Victoria turned to go, but he caught her hand and kissed it.

“Thank you, dear lady.”

She smiled up into his handsome face. “You Cartwrights are all charmers.”

One down, one to go.  Moira, I hope you can see how lucky you are.

*****

Moira smoothed the hair away from her sister’s pale forehead and adjusted the bedcovers around her once more.  If Fi was awake she would be telling her to ‘stop fussing’ but for now she was asleep and apparently comfortable.  So was Adaline, finally.

Her daughter had gotten her second wind by the time she came upstairs, eager to tell her mother all about Mr. Ben reading fairy tales, and how Adam didn’t like peas either, and his watch with a ship on it that belonged to his grandpa, and how his mama died when he was a little boy.

“Mama, are you crying?” she’d asked.

“No, sweetheart, my eyes are just tired. It’s very late and I need you to sleep so I can go back and sit with Aunt Fi.”

Of course she’d been crying. And the tears came again as she attempted to resume her reading. She closed the Bible in her lap and put her head in her hands.  Adam, I never meant to hurt you. I didn’t know what else to do.

Though she had prepared herself, her heart was beating out of her chest when she heard his voice in the parlor, the voice that had existed only in her dreams for the past five years. And there he was, standing in front of her—tall and lean, looking as though he hadn’t aged a day. She willed herself not to faint though her insides were churning like butter.

They were left alone to say the things that needed to be said. He was angry and hurt but civil as she would have expected.  Still, there was something cold in him that she hadn’t seen before.  We’re both different people now, he’d said. She couldn’t disagree. She had no idea where he’d been or with whom all these years, apart from Laura Dayton. It was certainly true that he would never have to beg favors from a woman.

He was right about something else. She hadn’t managed to keep James between them that night, no matter how much she’d pretended.  Her feelings for Adam had shaken her soul, upending everything she believed about herself.  She’d lied to him that day, because the lie was more comfortable than the truth. She never imagined how it would one day come back to haunt her. That seemingly innocent lie took on a life of its own and of necessity became two, the second having the power to maim.

Yes, she had loved Adam, and she knew she always would. She could have kept him in dreams if he hadn’t come here. But those dreams were in pieces now, because he was here, and he wanted Adaline, not her.

She shifted in her chair to ease the ache in her back and pulled the quilt around her.  The room was cold.

*****

Adam remained on the porch where Victoria had left him, numbed by her words. It wasn’t exactly true that he had loved Moira, because the truth was, he had never stopped loving her. It was only pride that kept him from turning around the day he left, and she’d been a ghost in his life ever since. She was the sunset; others after her had paled in comparison. He’d even convinced himself he could be happy without a woman.  But that was when he thought she was dead.

Seeing her today, keeping a veneer of composure required every nerve in his body. Afterwards he had to take a walk just to breathe.

Now Fate (or Divine Providence as his father would no doubt say) had given him a chance to set things right, and not only for Adaline’s sake. He intended to use his persuasive powers to the best of his ability for as long as it took to make that happen.   The stakes were too high for pride or anything else to get in the way.

At the very least, he had an influential ally.

She appeared to be waiting for him when he came in.  “Would you think it too meddlesome of me to ask to you to take this up to Moira?  She hardly ate any of her supper but said she would like some tea.”

“Of course not.”  He had barely gotten the words out before Victoria placed the tray in his hands.

“Thank you. Fi’s room is on the right at the end of the hall.”

He headed toward the stairs and stopped at the bottom. “You know, you remind me of my father sometimes.”

“Really?”

“Yes. I once called him a conniving old pirate,” he said with a grin, “but I don’t think of you as old.”

She threw her head back and laughed.

*****

Adam paused outside Fiona’s room. The door was ajar, and he could see Moira in the chair; she appeared to be sleeping.  He knocked softly but she didn’t stir.

He eased inside and deposited the tray on the bedside table, trying not to disturb either of the women.  Turning to leave, he was surprised to hear his name.

“You are Adam Cartwright, no doubt,” said Fiona, propped among the pillows.

“Yes ma’m. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you.”

“You didn’t. I was looking forward to meeting you but I didn’t expect it to be under these circumstances.”

“Circumstances aren’t always under our control, are they? I’m very sorry you’re ill, Mrs. Worthington. Can I do anything for you? Would you like a cup of tea?”

“No tea, thank you; but you can get that chair from the corner and sit down and talk to me. Quietly, so we don’t wake Moira. And please don’t call me Mrs. Worthington.  My friends just say Fi.”

“All right.”

“I could have picked you out of a crowd, you know.”

He smiled and dipped his head.

“I’m the only other person who knew from the beginning that James wasn’t Adaline’s father, but Moira would never say your name. I knew she was protecting you as well as her child.”

“I wish she had come to me. I would have protected them.”

“But she didn’t, so you couldn’t.  The question is—what are you going to do now?”

He glanced at Moira, still sleeping. “I intend to marry her, as soon as I can convince her.  I may need your help.”

“Is it merely because of Adaline, or do you love my sister, Adam?”

“No to the first question; and yes, to the second—with all my heart.”

She looked him over and sighed deeply. “James loved her that way too. I told Moira he was her once in a lifetime, and she shouldn’t expect to have it twice.  But I guess I was wrong. You have my blessing, and I’ll do whatever I can to help you.”

He covered her hand with his. “Thank you.  Please get well.”

She coughed; he poured some water from the carafe on the table and helped her sit up to drink it.

Moira raised her head. “Adam, what are you doing here?”

“What does it look like? He’s getting me a drink of water,” said Fi.

“Victoria sent up some tea for you, but you were asleep.”

“Adam and I were just having a chat in the meantime.”

“Oh.” Moira blinked, looking confused. “I guess I don’t have to introduce you.”

“The tea is probably cold by now. I could take it to the kitchen and reheat it for you,” he offered.

“No, it’s not necessary; thank you.” She was staring at him as though he was some kind of apparition.

“Well then, I will bid you both a good night.”

“You can leave too, Moira,” said Fi.  “I don’t need anyone sitting up with me. I’m feeling much better.”

“Fi, I don’t think…”

“Stop fussing! Now go to bed.”

“I guess you are feeling better. I’m too tired to argue with you anyway.”  She stood up and grimaced, putting a hand to her back.

“Anything wrong?” asked Adam.

“I’m fine; that chair is not meant for sleeping. Goodnight, Fiona,” she said, emphasizing her proper name in mock irritation, tempered with a smile.

“Good night, dear. Goodnight, Adam.”

“Goodnight, Fi,” he grinned, closing the door behind them.

“How did you and my sister become such good friends all of a sudden?”

He shrugged. “Maybe it’s because I’m so charming.”

“Well, you certainly charmed Adaline.”

“I think it was more the other way around. I’m sorry we didn’t get to finish our talk this afternoon, but maybe we could just start fresh tomorrow.” He offered her a hopeful smile. “What do you think?”

“I think that’s a good idea.”

They were standing outside the room she shared with their daughter.  “I’ve missed you,” he said softly.

She had one hand on the doorknob, and there were tears in her eyes. “I have to go now. Goodnight.”

“Goodnight.”

He lingered at her door for a moment. Don’t get ahead of yourself.  Tomorrow’s another day.

 

Chapter Nine

Up with the sun as usual, Adam nearly stumbled into Adaline in the hallway outside his room.

“Good morning. Do you always get up this early?”

“Just sometimes.”

“Where’s your mother?”

“In Aunt Fi’s room.”

He noticed her toes sticking out from under her nightgown. “Aren’t your feet cold?”

She shrugged. “Not really. Where are you going?”

“To the barn.”

“Can I go with you?”

“No, you may not,” said Moira behind him. “What did I tell you just a few moments ago?”

“Stay in bed,” she murmured, her eyes cast downward.

“Then where should you be right now?”

Adaline turned and trudged toward her room with the solemnity of a funeral mourner, heaving an exaggerated sigh as she reached the door, though she never looked back.

Adam’s efforts not to laugh were in vain. “I’m sorry,” he said to Moira. “I know I shouldn’t.”

“Just please don’t do it in front of her; you’ll only encourage it. She’s usually very good, but she’s had a lot of people spoiling her lately and I think she’s a little too full of herself. It will be easier on everyone once we move back home, which may be as early as next week.”

“I heard about your sister’s house. I’m glad no one was hurt.”

“We were very blessed.”

She was wearing her robe and gown, and her hair was down, the way he remembered it. “You still look pretty in the morning.”

“Adam…” She seemed embarrassed.

“There’s no one here but us,” he reminded her.

“The door is open. Adaline might hear you.”

“I’ll bet she thinks you look pretty in the morning, too.”

Two adorable frown lines appeared between her brows. “I thought you said you were going to the barn.”

“Are you trying to get rid of me? All right, I’ll go. I’ll see you at breakfast, and afterwards, you and I are going to have that talk.”

“Fine,” she said.

Emboldened by something in her eyes, he took her face in his hands and kissed her squarely on the mouth, leaving her with a look of absolute surprise. Satisfied, he turned toward the stairs.

“Better get back in bed, Princess,” he called to Adaline.

He chuckled at the sound of little feet running.

*****

“I have a secret,” Adaline whispered loudly to Jarrod at breakfast.

“Oh? Do tell.”

“I can’t, or it won’t be a secret anymore.” She twirled her fork and looked straight at Adam, who grinned and went on eating his eggs.

“Eat your pancake, Adaline,” said Moira, frowning, avoiding Adam’s eyes. “No more talking until you’re finished, and then we’ll need to wash the syrup out of your hair.”

Adaline slumped in her chair with a sigh and took an unenthusiastic bite. “I’m done,” she said.

“I don’t think so,” said her mother. “Drink your milk.”

“Moira, you’ve hardly touched your food,” Victoria observed.  “Aren’t you feeling well?”

“I’m fine, just not very hungry, after all.”

There were voices in the foyer. “It’s Joe and Mr. Cartwright,” said Audra, smiling.

Adaline perked up. “Mr. Ben’s here!”

“You still have to finish your milk and get your hair washed,” Moira reminded her.

“Well, you two nearly missed breakfast,” said Jarrod, rising to shake Ben’s hand.

“Joe never misses breakfast.  We ate at the hotel.”

“Coffee?”

“Yes, thank you,” said Ben.

“We can take it in the parlor,” said Victoria. “I think everyone is finished here.”

“Joe, what brings you out here so early today?” Audra addressed him with her brightest smile.

“Cows.”

“What?”

“Joe has generously offered to help move one of our herds up to the north pasture. We’re another man short since Luke broke his arm,” Jarrod explained.

“Oh.” Her face fell.

“Adam’s helping, too,” said Joe.

“That’s nice,” she said, suddenly disinterested. “Oh well, Moira and I plan to go into town anyway.”

“Audra, I’m not sure about that. I may need to stay close to Fi,” said Moira.

“She seems to be feeling much better this morning,” said Victoria.  “And I’ll be right here. Why don’t you go? You can leave Adaline. I’m sure Ben wouldn’t mind spending some time with her.”

“I’d love to,” he assured her with a smile.

“Well, perhaps…” said Moira.

Adaline nodded an enthusiastic yes.

“All right, then. I’ll get the water heated for your bath. Excuse me, everyone.”

“I’ll help you,” said Adam, following her out.

“I can manage, thank you.”

He caught her arm. “Moira, wait.”

“What?”

“You know what. I want to talk to you.”

“Now?”

“Yes, now. We may not see each other again until tonight, and I’d like to get some things settled this morning.  It won’t take long.”

“All right.”

They stopped in the breezeway on the way to the kitchen.

“First of all, let’s forget about yesterday. We’re starting over today, agreed?”

“Agreed,” she said.

“More importantly, we’re going to be totally honest with each other.”

“Of course.”

“All right, then. I want to get one thing straight between us, once and for all—and that is, I love you, and you love me. I wasted five years of my life because I didn’t say those words when I should have, and I’m not wasting any more.”

She just stared at him, wide-eyed, her pretty pink mouth agape.

“Come here.” He pulled her into his arms and delivered a deep, slow kiss until she nearly went limp.

She pushed away from him, though still in his embrace. “Stop, I can’t think. I can’t even breathe.”

“Just breathe; don’t think. What is there to think about, anyway?  Are you gonna to stand there and tell me you don’t love me? Well, are you?”

She dropped her head. “No.”

He lifted her chin. “Then say it, Moira.”

“I love you,” she whispered.

Tears streamed her cheeks and he brushed them away with his thumbs. “Why are you crying? You’re not upset, are you?”

“It’s just not as simple as you think.”

“But not as hard as you’re making it out to be, I assure you. I have so much to make up to you. The first thing we’re going to do is get married.”

“Married?”

“Of course. Aside from the fact that we love each other, we have a beautiful child who needs both of us. It’s time for us to be a family.”  He nuzzled her cheek and murmured into her ear. “Next year, I want a son.”

She put a hand on his chest. “You’re making me dizzy. I have to sit down.”

He led her to the bench and sat down next to her. “You do look a little pale.  Are you all right?”

“I just need a moment.”

“Am I moving too fast?”

“A bit.  And you shouldn’t kiss me like that.  Someone might see us.”

“So what?  Everyone in this house knows I’m Adaline’s father; and it follows that they also know we’ve done more than just kiss.”

“Adam, please—you don’t have to remind me. And Adaline doesn’t know.”

“I’m sorry. I guess I do need to slow down.” He rested his elbows on his knees and stared at the floor. “You have no idea what it was like for me, thinking you were dead.  That first year…,” his voice trailed off, remembering.  “That first year I nearly drank myself blind.” He heard her suck in a breath. “I know; it’s hard to imagine. It’s hard for me to say it out loud, but it’s true.”

“What made you stop?”

“I’d gotten to the point where it was either die or get better.” He’d spare her the details of waking up in the dank storeroom of a Barbary Coast brothel with his head cracked open and his pockets emptied. “I decided I didn’t want to die after all. So I pulled myself together and went back East; worked as an architect, made a little  money, invested that and made more money—turns out I’m pretty good at both, in case you’re interested.  I learned to live with the losses in my life and accept the things I couldn’t control.” He paused with his palms pressed together underneath his chin.  “I’d been at war with myself for a long time, and I felt I’d finally made peace with Adam Cartwright.”

“Why did you come back?”

“I wanted to see my father again, while I still had the chance. I didn’t expect him to be in Stockton, though. Sure didn’t expect to find you, much less a daughter.” He offered her a small smile. “That’s when the walls of my neatly ordered world came crashing down.”

“I think I know how that feels.”

“I guess I didn’t handle it very well, but being angry was easier than admitting my fears.”

“Of what?”

“Getting a second chance was more than I ever hoped for, but it also meant I could lose you all over again, and this time I had twice as much to lose. I’ve always considered myself a strong man, but I’ve become acutely aware of my limitations over the past few years. If I had to walk away from here now, empty-handed, I just don’t know if I could start again.”

She slipped her hand into his as if to prove it wasn’t empty; he kissed it gratefully.

“I should have been holding your hand the day Adaline was born, and you should have had a ring on your finger,” he told her. “I realize how much pain that has caused you, and I’m responsible for that. To say ‘I’m sorry’ seems almost meaningless.”

“I’ve never blamed you for anything, Adam. It grieves me knowing what you’ve been through. There are things we would both change if we could, but we can’t rewrite the past.”

“We can still write our future.”

“And how would you write it?”

“Well, it would go something like this.” He pulled her to her feet and into his arms. “Number one, we’d get married, the sooner the better. Number two, I’d adopt Adaline so that legally she’d have her rightful name. Number three, we’d give her half a dozen brothers and sisters to keep her company. That’s just for starters. What would you say to that?”

A gentle smile crossed her lips. “I’d say the man dreams big.”

“Is that all?”

She held his gaze for a long time without blinking, and then she put her arms around his neck. “Adam Cartwright, I’ll love you until I die.”

This time when he kissed her, he felt her move with him. His hands slid down the curve of her back, crushing her to him as her sigh rippled through him like a shiver.

“I think we should stop,” she whispered.

Reluctantly, they broke apart.

“I guess Joe’s waiting for me, but I’m never gonna get out of here if you keep looking at me like that.”

She turned her head and smoothed her hair, hiding a smile. “I really should tend to Adaline’s bath.”

He finally forced his feet to move. “I’ll see you tonight, then. Don’t be surprised if I bring the preacher back with me,” he teased, leaving her with another quick kiss.

He strode into the parlor, whistling.

“It’s about time,” said Joe.

“Well, come on; let’s go if we’re goin’,” said Adam.

Joe threw up his hands. “Now he’s in a hurry.”

Adaline was on Adam’s heels. He turned and bent down to tweak her nose. “So long, Princess.  Be a good girl today.”

“You kissed Mama!” Her announcement was delivered with a self-satisfied smile, and loud enough for everyone to hear.

“I surely did.” He grinned at the others who were watching. “I guess it’s not a secret anymore.”

“I don’t have to ask how you’re feelin’ today,” said Joe after they exited the house. “What in the world happened with you and Moira last night? Or would it be ungentlemanly of you to answer?”

“Let’s just say I became privy to some information that put things in a whole new light.”

“Yeah?”

“She loves me, Joe.  I had to drag it out of her but she finally admitted it. We’re getting married.”

“No foolin’?  That’s great news—congratulations!  When’s the wedding?”

“We haven’t set a date yet, but soon. I don’t intend to wait long.”

“Well, I guess it proves one thing,”

“What’s that?”

“Once irresistible to women, always irresistible to women.”

Adam rolled his eyes. “You know, that joke was old three years ago.”

Joe offered him a lopsided grin. “I guess it is time to put it out to pasture, especially since you’re about to be off the market anyway. Seriously, Adam—I couldn’t be happier for you. It’s amazing how things have worked out, after all this time.”

“Yeah, it’s almost too good to be true, isn’t it?”

The words seemed to hang in the air like a shadow, and the in split second that followed something wormed in the pit of his stomach, just long enough for the sensation to register before passing namelessly.

“Somethin’ wrong?”

“No, but I’ve never actually been this close to having everything I ever wanted. I guess maybe I’ll be a little nervous until it’s all nailed down.”

“You’re not superstitious, are you?”

“You know me better than that. I’m just not taking anything for granted, that’s all.  Say, why don’t you show me that bull I’ve been hearing so much about?”

 

Chapter Ten

Moira waved to Adaline and Ben as she and Audra pulled out of the yard.  “I hope she’s not too much trouble for him today.”

“Oh, you worry too much,” said Audra.  “I’m sure Mr. Cartwright can handle her.  He raised three boys by himself.”

“That’s true, but he was younger then. She wears me out sometimes, especially lately.”  Moira was glad Audra had offered to drive the buggy.  She shifted to find a comfortable position in the seat.

“They’ll be fine; besides, Mother is there.  Isn’t it a beautiful day?  It makes me feel good just to be alive on a day like this.” Audra’s sigh matched the look of contentment on her face.

“Well, you’re certainly in good mood. Any particular reason?”

“I don’t know, maybe. You’re the one who should be in a good mood, from the look of things this morning.”

“What do you mean?”

“Adaline told everyone about Adam kissing you, which he happily confirmed. In fact, he was practically walking on air when he left here with Joe.”

“Really?”  She tried to sound nonchalant, but she felt herself blushing.

Audra laughed.  “You don’t always have to be so prim and proper, Moira. I saw the way he looked at you at breakfast, and the way you refused to look at him.  I knew something was happening between you two even before Adaline spilled the beans, and I think it’s so romantic that Fate brought you back together like this. I’m so happy for you, really, for all three of you.”

“Thank you, Audra. You don’t know how much that means to me.”

“It’s pretty obvious you and Adam are meant for each other, but there was a time when I thought you might marry Jarrod. I guess it was mainly wishful thinking on my part, because I wanted you to be my sister.”

Moira smiled.  “To me, Jarrod is the brother I never had, and that’s enough to make us sisters no matter what.”

“That’s how I feel, and I’m glad to know you feel that way too.”  She looked thoughtful.  “So if you marry Adam, then Joe and I would practically be related.”

“Would that be a good thing, do you think?”

“I haven’t yet decided, but I’ll let you know.”

*****

Moira was leaving the Mercantile when she bumped into Mark on the sidewalk.  He managed to catch the package that toppled from her arms before it reached the ground. “Oops, pardon me. Here, let me help you.”

“It was my fault; I guess I was daydreaming.” She accepted the parcel from him with a smile. “Thank you.”

“My pleasure. What are you doing in town? I wasn’t expecting to see you until this evening.”

“Audra talked me into coming with her. I’m actually on my way to meet her and Jarrod for lunch. Did you say this evening?”

“Have you forgotten about our dinner engagement? The one we postponed from last week when Adaline was sick. Jarrod was supposed to remind you yesterday.”

She drew in a breath and let it out with a sigh. “Oh, Mark—I’m so sorry. I did forget, and I suppose Jarrod did too. Fi took a bad turn yesterday afternoon and, well, it was a rather distressing day all around.”

“I’m sorry to hear about your sister.  How is she?”

“Better today, but the doctor hasn’t given us any hope for a long term recovery. Her heart is failing.”

“That’s the problem with hearts—they are susceptible to damage,” he said softly. “I suppose this isn’t a good night for dinner after all.”

“No, I’m afraid it isn’t. By the time I get home it will be rather late, and after leaving Adaline all day, I just couldn’t go out again. I hope you understand.”

“Of course.”

“Why don’t you join us for lunch?”

“Thank you, but I have some business to take care of. Besides, that wouldn’t be quite the same, would it?”

She bit her lip. “No, I suppose not.  I am truly sorry, Mark.”

“There’s no need to apologize, Moira.  Naturally, I’m disappointed as I was looking forward to our evening together, but I do understand the importance of family. We’ll do it another time, at your convenience.”

His wistful smile and graciousness pricked her conscience even more. Mark was a good friend, and she wanted to be honest with him, but not here on the street.  “What about lunch tomorrow?”  A casual noonday meal seemed a more appropriate setting for what she needed to say, and she was relieved when he accepted.

“I’ll pick you up at 11:00,” he promised. “Please convey my best wishes to Fiona.”

She watched him walk away, knowing there was no way she could keep from hurting him. The heat was giving her a headache, her corset was too tight, and suddenly she felt very cross.

*****

By three o’clock the Barkley herd was grazing in the north pasture and the Cartwright brothers were in town seeking respite at the saloon.  “Two beers,” Joe told the barkeep. Adam eased into the chair with a delicacy he hoped his brother wouldn’t notice. After being out of the saddle for so long, the last few days were catching up to him.  He hitched his shoulders and grimaced at the kink in his back; then clasped his hands in front of him leaving his beer untouched.

Joe took a long swallow, eyeing him over his mug.  “You want somethin’ stronger?”

“No; what I’d really like is a hot bath and a rub down with some of Hop Sing’s liniment.”

“Out of practice, I guess.”

“That and old age.” The twelve years he had on Joe were no longer an advantage, and they both knew it. He picked up his mug, sipping the contents without enthusiasm. He’d all but given up drinking, and even beer had lost its appeal.

“You know, I can’t remember the last time you and I trailed cattle together.”

“Eastgate.” Adam reminded him.

Joe winced. “I guess you would remember that. Sorry.”

“No need to be. That was at least a couple of lifetimes ago.”  Another ghost he’d laid to rest.

“So what’s next,” asked Joe, changing the subject, “aside from marrying your lady love? I hope you’re planning to move back to the Ponderosa.  It would mean the world to Pa, and we could use you.”

“There’s nowhere else I’d rather be right now.  How is Pa, really?”

“He doesn’t like to admit, but he has slowed down over the past couple of years. The winter was hard on him; Paul says it’s his rheumatism.  I think he’s having trouble with his eyes too, at least with close work.  I found some mistakes in the books he wouldn’t have made a couple of years ago. When I pointed it out the first time it frustrated him so much I didn’t mention it again.  I’d really like to ease him away from that but Hoss and I both worry that it’ll make him feel like he’s not needed.  I think he’d be willing to turn them over to you, though, especially in exchange for more time with his granddaughter.”

“Well, he’s worked hard his whole life, and I wouldn’t expect him to just do nothing even though he’s earned the right. He won’t be happy unless he’s productive. I’m sure there are things he can do to keep busy enough and still have time for grandchildren.”

“Grandchildren?” Joe smiled.

“I certainly don’t want Adaline to grow up alone.  She needs at least a couple of snot-nosed brothers to boss around, like I had.” Adam dipped his fingers in his beer and flung the foam toward Joe.

“You better watch out, old man. Remember, I’m younger and faster.”

“I don’t need reminding, thanks. Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for a tub.”

“Yeah, me too.” Joe downed his beer and pushed up from the table behind Adam, and that’s when he noticed the man at the bar.

“Afternoon, Joe.”

“Mark,” Joe said curtly.  “This is my brother Adam.”

“Mark Van Alstyne,” he introduced himself as he shook Adam’s hand.

“How do you do?  Didn’t I see you at Jarrod’s office yesterday?”

“I believe we passed each other, yes. Jarrod said you’re an old friend.”

“That’s right.”

“I had the privilege of meeting Joe and your father over dinner with the Barkleys earlier this week.  I hear you’ve been away for quite a while. How long are you planning to stay in Stockton?”

“However long it takes to finish my business here.”

“Well, I would offer to buy you gentlemen a drink but it seems I’m too late.”

“Yeah, we’re on our way out,” said Joe.

“In that case, I won’t keep you.  Good day.”

Adam followed Joe onto the sidewalk. “So, what’s your problem with him?”

“I don’t have a problem with him, but you might.”

“Why? I don’t even know him.”

“He’s in love with Moira.”

“Is that a fact?”

Joe nodded. “Apparently they’ve been seeing each other socially.  According to Jarrod, he’s been pretty persistent, but she wasn’t interested in anything beyond friendship. That seemed pretty obvious to me at dinner. Of course that was the night she heard you were planning to come to Stockton, and she spilled her drink all over the table and left in tears.  He was pretty disappointed when she didn’t come back downstairs. The next day was Adaline’s birthday party; Moira was too busy for him, and he left mad. I don’t think anybody saw him but me, but he was mad, all right. If you ask me, there’s somethin’ phony about him.”

“Do you think he knows about Moira and me?”

“I have no idea.”

“I wonder. I thought he looked at me kind of funny when you introduced us.”

“It’s not that I think he’s gonna cause trouble or anything; I just thought you should know.”

“Yeah, thanks for the information.”

*****

“Mama, you’re home!”

Moira set her packages on the table in the foyer and bent down to exchange a hug and a kiss with her exuberant daughter. “Were you a good girl?”

“As good as gold,” Ben assured her.

“We had a picnic on the porch, and we saw the colt again, and the baby chicks; and Mama, there are four kittens in the barn!”

She smiled. “It sounds like you had a lovely day.”

“Uh huh. What did you bring?”

Moira straightened up and removed her bonnet. “Fabric to make you some new dresses since you’re growing out of your old ones, and some ribbons for your hair.”

“Anything else?”

“I think that’s enough, don’t you?”

“Why don’t you ask me what I brought?” Adaline turned her hopeful gaze to Audra, who pulled a small sack from her purse. “What’s our favorite?”

She giggled. “Lemon drops.”

Audra smiled. “There’s plenty here to share with everyone. Come on, little sister, you can help me put my things away and then we’ll have some.”

Moira called after her. “You’re as bad as your brothers, you know; you’re all making her rotten.”  She turned to Ben.  “Thank you for watching her today.”

“No, my dear, thank you.” His tender tone matched his smile.

There was a quiet strength in that expressively handsome face which she found comforting, and when he kissed her on the cheek she felt the prick of tears. What was it about this endearing man that always seemed to make her want to cry a little?

Victoria descended the stairs, passing Audra and Adaline on the way up.  “I’ve just checked on Fi,” she told Moira. “She’s had a good day.  We had lunch al fresco, on the veranda, and I’m pleased to say she ate very well. She asked me to send you up when you have a moment. ”

“I’ll go now.”

Fi’s eyes were closed but she opened them when Moira eased onto the bed. “I must have dozed off for a second. Victoria was just here.”

“I’m glad you felt well enough to go down for lunch.   Adaline called it a picnic.”

“It felt like a picnic after being cooped up here. Victoria had everything set so beautifully, and Ben helped me up and down the stairs and attended to my every need. He’s such a fine gentleman.  Did you know he’s had three wives?”

“Yes, Adam mentioned it.”

“Adaline adores him, and it’s easy to see how he feels about her. He’ll be a wonderful grandfather…and father-in-law.” She lifted a questioning brow. “You are going to marry Adam, aren’t you?”

Moira smiled. “Is that what you think I should do?”

“It doesn’t matter what I think.” Fi shook her head with a slight frown. “I should never have tried to push you and Mark together. It was wrong of me, and I’m sorry.”

“It’s all right. You meant well. You’ve always wanted the best for me, and I’ve never doubted it. What would I do without you?”  The last words caught in her throat and she felt the start of tears again.

Fi clasped Moira’s hands. “More than you think. You are an amazing woman. I know because I’ve watched you. I wouldn’t have had the strength to do what you’ve done.”

“It was only because you were there to help me.”

“You helped me more than I helped you. I was lost after Charles died. You were working a farm, and you might have even stayed if not for Adaline.  I needed you here. You raised your child without a husband and took care of me and hardly batted an eyelash.”

The tears were flowing freely now and Moira made no attempt to stop them. “Fi, what about all those years you took care of me after Mama died?  Do you think I could ever forget that? You’re more than my sister, you’re my best friend. I love you so much and I don’t want to lose you.”

“Oh, my sweet Morrie,” Fi whispered, bundling her into her arms. The pet name from her childhood made Moira cry even more.

She sat up a moment later and accepted her sister’s handkerchief. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to do that.”

Fi smiled.  “You’re a strong woman with a tender heart; you cry, and then you go on. It’s people like you who keep the world turning. And now you’ll have Adam by your side. I can’t tell you what a comfort that is to me. Will he be here tonight?”

“Yes.”

“What about that handsome brother of his?”

“I’m sure Joe will be here, too.”

“You know, if I was twenty years younger I might set my cap for that one.”

Moira chuckled.  “You might have to fight Audra for him.”

“Oh, is that how it is?”

“I don’t know how it is for him, but apparently she thinks it’s her decision.”  Moira squeezed her sister’s hand. “Do you think you’ll come down for dinner, or would that be too much?”

“I’d love to come down, but I think I might need a nap first.”

“All right, you rest. I’ll come back later.”

Moira paused at the door to say something else, but Fi’s eyes were closed again. She wiped a stray tear from her cheek. Sometimes it seemed that for every earthly joy there was nearly always a sorrow not far behind.

 

Chapter Eleven

A lively dinner gave way to a quiet evening.  Jarrod escorted Fi back to her room and excused himself to work on a legal brief, leaving Joe and Audra engrossed in a game of gin rummy while Moira and Adaline listened to Adam read “Old Mother Hubbard.”

Ben watched his oldest son with a lump in his throat.  It was a sight he’d wondered if he would ever see, and it still seemed too good to be true.

“They make a lovely family, don’t they?”  Victoria observed.

He smiled. “Yes, they certainly do.”

“I suppose we’ll be losing them to the Ponderosa soon.”

“Well, nothing is official yet, but I expect so.” Adam had privately indicated their intentions to marry, and though hopeful, Ben had not pressed him about where they would live.

“And that’s as it should be. It’s going to be rather lonely around here for a while though. It’s funny how quickly you can get used to something, or someone,” she said wistfully.

“If I’m not mistaken, Victoria, it’s the same distance from Stockton to Virginia City as it is from there to here—and if I can make the trip, I’m sure you could too.”

“Is that an invitation, Ben?”

“Of course it is. You’re welcome anytime for as long as you like.”

She regarded him thoughtfully. “I’ve always wanted to see your ranch.”

“And I’d love to show it to you. You just say when and we’ll make it a holiday. You know, Adaline needs a grandmother too, and I’d be willing to share. What would you think of that?”

She smiled. “I think it’s an offer I can’t refuse. And who knows, we might even have something more in common one of these days.” She directed his attention to Joe and Audra, laughing together.

Ben shrugged and grinned. “Who knows?”

*****

That night, Adam carried Adaline upstairs to bed. Her eyes were already closed when her mother tucked the covers around her and kissed her.

“I still can’t get over her,” said Adam, lingering over his daughter’s face in slumber. “I’m trying to picture what she must have been like as a baby.”

“She came into the world wailing at the top of her lungs, hungry,” Moira laughed.  “The doctor said she was the finest, healthiest baby he’d ever seen. He was so proud you’d have thought he’d done more than just deliver her. But she was definitely yours, no question.”

“I had the easy part. You did all the work.” He put his arm around her. “I wish I had been there. For both of you.”

“I wanted you there,” she said quietly. “I wanted to be able to put her in your arms so you could see what a perfect child you had. But Adam, we shouldn’t dwell on the things we’ve missed.  We should just be grateful for what God has restored to us. Some might call it Fate, you coming here now, but I see His hand in this; and He is so good.”

He smiled at her. Moira had a faith like his father’s; Adam envied them. “Would you care to take a walk with me?”

“I’d love to.”

A full moon lit the garden path where they paused to admire the stars.  “I’ve been waiting for this all day,” he said.

“For what?”

He caught her by the waist and kissed her. “That’s what,” he murmured. His lips moved to the soft flesh of her neck, a spot just below her ear. “You are entirely too kissable, did you know that?”

“Am I?”

“Mm hm.” He stopped her mouth with another kiss, allowing his hands to roam. She drew in a quick breath and stiffened. “Sorry, I guess I got a little carried away.”

“It’s not you; it’s this new corset. It pinches.” She frowned and put a hand to her side.

“I know how to fix that.”

“Thank you, but no.”

“I don’t know why you think you need a corset anyway.”

“That’s because you’re a man. Besides, I’ve had a baby and things aren’t exactly what they used to be. You should prepare yourself to be disappointed.”

“The only way you could ever disappoint me would be to leave me.”

“I guess that’s settled then.  Look at my face, and tell me what you see.”

Her smile was soft, her eyes shining in the moon glow. He caressed her cheek with his fingers. “I see my wife, the mother of my children; …the rest of my life.”

“That’s what I want you to see.”

He wrapped his arms around her and rested his chin on the top of her head. “Then there’s no reason for us to wait to get married, is there?  Please say no.”

“There are things I think we should talk about first.”

“Like what?”

She slid out of his embrace. “Like where we’re going to live, for one thing.”

“We can stay in Stockton for a while if necessary, for your sister’s sake, but eventually I want to go back to the Ponderosa and build a house for us. I’ve got a lot of ideas I think you’ll like.”

“So you’re planning to be a rancher?”

“I’ll have a role in the operations, yes.  It is a family business, after all.  I may also do some architectural design on my own.  We’ll have a comfortable life, even apart from my investments.”

“I’m not worried about that, Adam.”

“I know what you’re worried about.”

“I wouldn’t say I’m worried; I’d just like to know what to expect. You said yourself the Cartwrights have no privacy in Virginia City. I’m wondering what people will think when you come home with a ready-made family.”

“They’ll think I’m a lucky man to have married a beautiful woman with an adorable child, and they’ll be happy for us. Most them, anyway.”

“The rest…?”

“Don’t matter.”

“The way you simplify things…”

“It’s not that complicated, Moira.”

“You have to admit, it would be easier if Adaline didn’t look so much like you.”

“Well, we can’t change that, can we?  People are going to think whatever they want to think. And there will always be some who can’t hold their tongues. I know this from my own experience, and we won’t be able to control any of that. But none of it matters to me as long as we’re together.  If you decide you’re not happy in Virginia City, we can go somewhere else, anywhere in the world. I’m not tied to the land the way my father and brothers are. I’m tied to you, and to Adaline, and whoever else comes along. That’s how I feel.  What about you?”

She smiled. “My home is wherever you are, and if you’re happy, I know I will be.”

He pulled her back into his arms, locking his hands behind her. “Well now, is there anything else standing in the way of our marital bliss? You just let me know and I’ll take do my best to take care of it. Your wish is my command.”

“Are you sure you want to give me that kind of power? It might go to my head.”

“You already have it, and don’t pretend you don’t know,” he grinned.  “I’ve got an idea. Why don’t I take you and Adaline on a picnic tomorrow, and afterwards, we can get serious about planning this wedding.”

“Adam, I can’t, not tomorrow. I have something I need to take care of.”

“Must be pretty important.”

“It is.”

“Does it have anything to do with Mark Van Alstyne?”

She looked surprised. “How…”

“Joe told me about him. He introduced us when we were in town this afternoon.”

“He’s just a friend.”

“A friend who happens to be in love with you.”

“Did Joe tell you that?”

“Yes. Look, I understand you had a life here before I showed up. You could have told me. ”

“What else did Joe say?”

“Enough to let me know he doesn’t care for him.”

“Well, no offense to your brother but I don’t think he has known Mark long enough to make a qualified judgment about him.”

“You obviously know him much better.”

“As I said, he is a friend, a good friend.  I wasn’t trying to keep anything from you, Adam; it’s just an awkward situation, and I really didn’t want to discuss it with anyone out of respect for that friendship. I have to hurt someone I care about, and that’s a terrible feeling, especially knowing I’m partly to blame.”

“Did you ever give him any reason to think you returned his feelings for you?”

“I’ve asked myself that over and over, and I can honestly say no.  But I should have paid closer attention to the way things were going. I was selfishly negligent in that regard.”

“Don’t be too hard on yourself.  It’s not your fault he fell in love with you, and I can’t say I blame him. I know you’ll let him down gently, and I’m sure one day he will remember you fondly for it.”

She sighed. “I hope so.”

“When are you seeing him?”

“He’s picking me up for lunch.”

“Why don’t you meet me at the hotel afterwards and I’ll take you home. Then we can talk about the wedding. How does that sound?”

“Fine.”

“Good.”

“What is it, Adam—why are you smiling like that?”

“Oh, I was just remembering the first time I saw you, up on that ladder trying to paint your house.”

“I’m afraid I wasn’t much to look at that day.”

“You looked like an angel to me.  Still do.”

A corner of her mouth turned up. “I’m no angel, just a woman.”

“Lucky for me. Have I mentioned I love you?”

“Not since this morning.”

Another kiss ended with their bodies molded together in the sweet ache of longing. “Adam, we…”

He put two fingers to her lips.  “We can’t keep doing this, I know.  It’s gonna drive me crazy until we’re married.  Can you be ready in three days?”

“Three days? You must already be out of your mind. I’d need at least a month.”

“A month!  You can’t be serious.”

“Even a simple wedding takes time to get all the arrangements in place. I need to make my dress, and also one for Adaline, plus I have to finish some alterations for paying customers before that. I can’t just snap my fingers and have it all done.”

“Two weeks,” he countered. “I’ll take you to San Francisco and buy you a dress, one for Adaline too, and whatever else you need.” He leaned in and whispered in her ear. “Two weeks and we won’t have to say goodnight like this anymore.”  He squeezed the back of her thigh and kissed her again, harder this time, conveying his physical desire in the boldest of terms.

She pushed away from him, breathless, with a hand on her middle. “Two weeks, but you don’t play fair.”

He’d rattled her, just as he’d meant to. “You know what they say—all’s fair in love and war.” He planted a chaste kiss on her brow and smiled. “Sweet dreams, my lovely.” I know what I’ll be dreaming about.

Adam kept a leisurely pace on the ride back to town, as he was in no hurry to go back to an empty hotel room. It was Moira’s idea and he had to admit it was for the best. Practical, sensible, beautiful, sensual Moira—in two weeks she would be his wife. Was it only yesterday he said he didn’t need a one? A man could be such a fool sometimes. The promise of nights to come brought a smile to his lips as he recalled the one they’d spent making Adaline.

His senses wrapped in memory, he didn’t hear the snap of brush or the shuffle of hooves from the shadows. Only the crack of a rifle shot that jolted him from the saddle.

*****

Ben put down his book and went to the window for another look at the street.  It was empty, and the whole town seemed to be sleeping, which is what one would expect at this hour, unless one happened to be waiting for a wayward son to appear.

Joe lay on the bed with his arm over his eyes. “Pa, will you quit worrying?  Adam’s a big boy.  He probably just changed his mind about stayin’, that’s all. I wouldn’t blame him.”

Ben’s face was set in a frown. “Maybe, or maybe he’s had trouble.  How would we know?  He said he wouldn’t be far behind us. I took him at his word.”

“Well, the only way to know for sure is to track him down, and we’re just liable to wind up lookin’ foolish and makin’ him mad. You know how he feels about people crowding him.”

“Yes, I know.  But I’ve got a bad feeling about this, and I’d rather risk Adam’s anger than his welfare.”

“Maybe you’re right.” Joe sat up and yawned.  “Neither one of us is gonna get any sleep tonight anyway, with you pacing like that. I’ll go get the horses.”

“I don’t think that will be necessary now.”

Joe joined him at the window.  “Looks like you were right, Pa.”

Adam plodded into view, slouched in the saddle, his left arm close to his chest. They met him outside the hotel and eased him to the ground.  “I’m all right,” he assured them. “It’s not as bad as it looks.”

“We’ll let the doctor decide that,” Ben said sternly.

“Easy with the shoulder,” Adam groaned.

“You think it’s broken?” asked Joe.

“No, just dislocated, I think. Head hurts.”

“Looks like that gash might need to be stitched,” said Ben. “Take his hat, Joe. What in the world happened?”

“Somebody took a shot at me. Missed me but spooked the horse and he threw me. I was out cold for a while.”

“Well, somebody didn’t miss you by much.  Look at this.”  Joe poked his fingers through two holes in the crown of Adam’s hat. “Any lower and we wouldn’t be havin’ this conversation.”

The doctor, wearing his nightclothes, ushered them into a back room and examined Adam’s wounds.  The shoulder was not broken, the joint maneuvered back into place with a swift and excruciating effort and the arm immobilized with a sling.   “You can expect a lot of bruising and swelling on that left side,” he told him.  He cleaned the gash on his forehead and closed it with three small stitches. “You have a concussion, Mr. Cartwright, so no strenuous activity for the next few days, and that includes riding. Are you married?”

“No.”

“Good—none of that either, in case you’re wondering. I would advise you to stay in bed at least through tomorrow night. Longer would be better but that’s probably expecting too much from a man like you. I’ll give you something for your headache. It will help you sleep and that’s what your body needs to heal.”

“Thank you, doctor.  We’ll make sure he stays put,” said Ben, ignoring Adam’s irritated frown.

“I don’t need you to tuck me in, Pa.”

“You heard what the doctor said. We’ve been through this before and you know what to do. Where do you think you’re going?”

“I’m going to talk to the sheriff. Somebody tried to kill me, remember?”

“Adam’s right, Pa, he needs to give a statement.”

*****

The sheriff listened and took notes. “You say you weren’t robbed, Mr. Cartwright?”

“That’s right. Nothing was taken.”

“Do you know of anyone in town who might have a grudge against you?”

“No, I don’t think I’ve been here long enough to make any enemies.”

“You’re a friend of the Barkleys, I understand.”

“Yes.”

“Well, they’re fine folks in my book, but they’ve also had their share of bad blood with a few people around here over the years, especially Nick.  Maybe it was a case of mistaken identity.”

“Either way, sheriff, somebody tried to commit a murder.” said Joe.

The sheriff frowned, examining the holes in Adam’s hat. “Sure looks that way. And you didn’t see anyone?”

“I told you, I was out cold as soon as I hit the ground.”

“Not much I can do with that. I’ll talk to Jarrod in the morning and see if they’ve had any trouble out there lately. In the meantime, I’d keep an eye out if I were you, in case you were the target.”

“Thanks for the tip,” Adam muttered as they were leaving.

“Let’s get back to the hotel,” said Ben.  “We could all use some sleep. Joe, in the morning you can ride out to the Barkleys and tell them what happened.”

“No,” said Adam. “I don’t want Moira to hear it from anyone but me. I don’t want to upset her.”

“You’re not supposed to ride, remember?” said Joe.

“I know, but she’s coming into town tomorrow and said she’d meet me at the hotel in the afternoon.  You talk to Jarrod in his office, and let me handle her. I want her to see that I’m okay.”

“Sure, Adam. Maybe you’ll be willing to stay in bed if you have a pretty nursemaid to convince you.”

 

Chapter Twelve

Moira’s mind had resisted every effort to put it to bed after Adam left, only allowing for snatches of sleep that left her achy and fatigued the next morning. The man had probably slept like a log. She recalled with faint amusement the look on his face when she said needed a month to prepare for their wedding.  Two weeks was really enough, but she’d let him think he won that argument. She wondered how many she would actually win in the course of their marriage.  He had proven to be quite a force, and it had taken every ounce of her resolve not to succumb to it.  But she didn’t want to think about that now.

The restless night showed in her face when she looked in the mirror. She was dreading the day ahead, and even a light breakfast didn’t sit well on her nervous stomach. She wished she had thought to tell Mark she would meet him in town, but it was too late now. He said he would pick her up at eleven which meant he would be there at five minutes before the hour. Punctuality was a priority for him and he was never late, always preferring to be early and err on the side of caution, as he once explained.  Though he afforded her grace in that area, Moira had learned it was best not to keep him waiting.

Mark arrived as expected, and she went out to meet him.  He smiled as he took her elbow and escorted her to the buggy. “You look lovely today, Moira.”

She thanked him, though she didn’t feel the compliment was warranted.  Mark, on the other hand, looked as handsome as she’d ever seen him. She supposed she was no different from any other woman in that it was the first thing she’d noticed about him when they met. He was tall and sinewy, with a finely sculptured face, high cheekbones beneath a pair of wide-set green eyes that seemed tinged with sadness even when he smiled. The sadness was warranted, she’d learned, as his wife had died shortly after their only child was stillborn. Perhaps that was why he always seemed a little uncomfortable around Adaline.  Though he tried his best, the two never really hit it off.

“Springtime in the valley,” he mused. “It’s beautiful this time of year. Did you notice the stars last night?”

“Yes.” She blushed, pushing away the memory of Adam’s wanton kisses.

The buggy lurched over a bump in the road, her stomach with it. The annoying pinch in her side still plagued intermittently, though not from the corset, she’d discovered during the long night. She took out her handkerchief and pressed it to her forehead to wipe the sweat from her brow.

“Are you feeling all right?”

“I’m fine; it’s just warmer than I expected. Mark, why are we turning?”

“I hope you don’t mind a quick detour. There’s something I’d like to show you, but only if you’re up to it.”

His smile pierced her heart a little. “Of course,” she replied.  She owed him that much, at least.

A few minutes later they pulled into the well-kept yard of a modest farmhouse. “Who lives here?” she asked.

“I do.”

“You?”

“Yes. The bank foreclosed on the property last year, and I bought it a couple of months ago with the idea of fixing it up to sell. I still have a lot of work to do but figured I could live in it in the meantime. I kept my room at the boarding house until this week.” He sprang from the buggy with the grace of a cat and came around to her side. “Come on, I’ll show you around.”

He put his hands on her waist to lift her down, and the pain in her side caused her to cry out and fall against him.  “Moira, what’s wrong?”

She took a breath to steady herself. “Just a stitch in my side, but it’s gone now. I’m fine.”

“I don’t think so. You’re as pale as a ghost. Let’s get you out of the sun.” He swung her into his arms as if she were a feather before she could protest. Inside the house, he sat her in a chair with instructions not to get up while he went into the kitchen. A moment later he returned with a damp cloth which he placed on the back of her neck.  “Put your head down and close your eyes if you still feel faint. I’m going to bring you some tea.”

He was back right away with a cup. “It’s a Chinese herbal tea, said to restore balance to the body. I drink it every day. It’s better laced with whiskey, but that wouldn’t do for you, so I used honey instead. I hope it’s all right.”

The tenderness in his face was almost more than she could bear, so she concentrated instead on the tea.  “Thank you. It’s good.” She took a deep breath and leaned back in the chair. So far the day hadn’t gone as she’d planned.

“Feeling better?”

“Yes, I am. I feel a little foolish though.”

He patted her hand reassuringly. “Why don’t you finish your tea, and rest a bit longer. I’m going to put some things away in the kitchen.”

She sipped the sweet brew and looked around the room. It was sparsely furnished but neat and clean, a reflection of Mark’s fastidious nature. The man’s boots were always shined and a hair never out of place. The pictures on the mantle were the only décor.  She got up to take a closer look.

There was a handsome full length portrait of Mark in his army uniform. He’d been very proud of his service, and it showed in his bearing and resolute countenance. A smaller tintype next to it depicted an older woman, most likely his mother.  At the other end of the mantel a gilded frame lay on its face, and Moira picked it up. It was a wedding portrait.  The groom’s chiseled features displayed the vigor of youth beneath a mass of careless curls, with an ease of expression commensurate with the happy occasion. It was a version of Mark she had never known. The woman on his arm was named Helen, she recalled.

She shuddered for no apparent reason. Somebody just walked over my grave. That’s what Fi would have said. Moira set the picture upright on the mantel; her eyes went back to the woman, and then her hand went to her mouth.

“It’s uncanny, isn’t it? I suppose I should have mentioned it.”  Mark’s voice made her jump, and she turned.  “The first time I saw you, I could hardly believe how much you looked like Helen. Even the way you wear your hair.” He reached out to touch it.

Her heart was pounding as she backed away from him, dizzy, and not just from fear. “Mark, I think we need to leave now. Please take me back to town.”

“Moira, dear—you’re in no condition to go anywhere.”

His face wavered in front of her along with the room, and she felt her body go limp. Someone caught her just as the world went dark.

 

Chapter Thirteen

Adam woke to the low murmur of voices as shadows became slivers of light.  He peeled open his eyes to a blinding headache. His hand went to his forehead and he fingered the bandage there, groaning at the recollection of the night before.

His father leaned over him with a look of worry that was somehow comforting in its familiarity. “How do you feel, son?”

He grimaced as he shifted his weight away from his bad shoulder and attempted to sit up. “Like I’ve been run over by a mule team and hit with a sledgehammer.”

“Easy now.”  Ben propped a pillow behind him for support.  “You were out for quite a while, but the doctor said that would be the best thing for you. Here, drink this.”  He handed him a cup of water.  “Would you like something to eat?”

“I don’t know, maybe.”  He was more thirsty than hungry. “What time is it, anyway?”

“Nearly three o’clock,” said Joe. “You were sleeping like a baby, and we just didn’t have the heart to wake you.”

“Has Moira been here?”

“I haven’t seen her.”

Adam wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and frowned.  “I sure thought she’d be here before now. Did you talk to Jarrod?

“Yeah, but he couldn’t tell me anything. Maybe that’s her,” said Joe, referring to the knock at the door.

“I don’t want her to see me like this.” Adam slipped from the covers and eased his feet to the floor. “Hand me my shirt, will you?”

“Here, let me help you,” said Ben. “Though it’s not something she hasn’t seen before, is it?

Adam endured his father’s amused look in silence as he fumbled with the buttons on his shirt.

Joe opened the door just enough to peer into the hallway. “Relax, it’s only a couple of Barkleys. Come on in. Rip Van Winkle is just waking up.”

“It’s about time,” said Nick.

Adam acknowledged him with a smirk. “Well, look what the cat dragged in. When did you get back?”

“Around noon. Boy, you look like you’ve been rode hard and put up wet.” Nick’s affable expression grew somber. “Glad you’re still around to talk about it. You didn’t see anyone?”

“Nope. The sheriff suggested that whoever it was might have mistaken me for you.”

Jarrod spoke up. “I know it’s possible, but Nick and I have been talking and don’t think that’s the case, Adam.”

“Well, I don’t know anyone here who would want to kill me. Do you?”

“Can’t say I do. Meanwhile I’m looking into something that may just be a coincidence but I don’t want to name any names.”

Joe cut in. “I’ll give you a name—Mark Van Alstyne.  I don’t think it’s any secret that he’s in love with Moira.”

Jarrod and Nick exchanged glances. “That’s hardly evidence for bringing charges against someone,” said Jarrod, “but the man has had his share of trouble, of which I was not aware until Nick told me today.”

“What kind of trouble?” Ben asked.

“I ran into an army buddy in Sacramento,” Nick explained.  “We swapped stories over a few drinks and I found out he served with Mark after I mustered out.  He seemed surprised that I knew him and asked how he was getting along. Apparently Mark had some sort of breakdown after his wife died.  She never liked the army and didn’t want him to reenlist, and he felt guilty about being away so much.  Anyway, he got word she was ill and went home.  My buddy Jenks said the next he heard she’d died in a fire and Mark had been medically discharged. I told him that was news to me, since Mark told us his wife had died in childbirth.  Jenks said there were conflicting stories about that but according to some people who knew Helen Van Alstyne, she’d had a miscarriage shortly before she died.  The biggest problem with that sad fact is that Mark hadn’t been home in over a year.”

“That’s some homecoming.  What about the fire?”

“I was curious about that so I looked up the newspaper account.  It was ruled accidental, supposing she must have knocked over a lamp in the bedroom. Apparently Mark tried to save her but couldn’t. He was nearly done in by the smoke. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much left of Helen.”

Ben frowned. “I can understand the man wanting to keep certain things private, but why wouldn’t he just say she died in a fire instead of lying about it?”

“Jenks said when he visited Mark in the hospital he didn’t remember the fire.  Maybe he didn’t want to remember any of it. Jenks said he was like a different person, nothing like the cocksure lieutenant he knew in the army. The way his hands were shaking it was hard to remember he was once the best sharpshooter in Company B.”

“Sharpshooter.”  Joe spat the word.  “Thank you, Nick.  I rest my case. Care to rebut, Counselor?”

“There is such a thing as circumstantial evidence, you know,” Jarrod reminded him. “But I intend to speak to Mark as soon as I can find him.”

Adam had been listening quietly until now. “What do you mean as soon as you can find him?  Isn’t he in town?”

“I haven’t seen him. I checked the boarding house and Mrs. Lowry said he hasn’t been there in a couple of days although he’s paid through next week. He may be out on a surveying job.”

“No.” Adam’s heart was racing and his mouth had gone dry. “He’s got Moira.”

Jarrod looked alarmed. “What do you mean?”

“He was supposed to bring her to town today for lunch.  She wanted a chance to talk to him and tell him about us, said she would meet me here afterwards.  But she hasn’t shown up; wherever she is, she’s not there of her own free will, I’m sure of it.”

“All right, that tears it!” Joe snapped. “I’ve felt all long there was something wrong about that guy.  I’m going to the sheriff.”

“I’m with you.” Nick followed him out the door, scowling.

Adam pulled his boots on with considerable effort using mostly his right hand.  His head felt as though someone was pounding an anvil in his brain.

“Where do you think you’re going?” asked Ben

“I don’t know but I’m not sitting here.”  He squinted one eye toward Jarrod.  “So where are we going?”

“To the bank.  Mark had an office there for a while. Maybe we can find someone who can give us an idea where he might have gone.  We should probably send someone back to the ranch to check on things. If nothing else we might be able to track them from there.”

“Pa, you go. I’d like for you to be with Adaline.  If we don’t get a lead here we’ll meet you there.”

“Adam…”

“Please just do what I asked, and don’t try to stop me.”

“Believe me, I know better. I just want you to be careful.”

The anxious look on his father’s face softened him. “I will, I promise. I’ve got plenty of reasons to do just that. Take care of my little girl until I bring her mother back.”

 

Chapter Fourteen

Mercifully, the pain had subsided; at least the worst was over. She’d never imagined bringing new life into the world could hurt so much. She supposed she’d been naïve about the whole thing, not knowing what to expect. “You have a beautiful, healthy baby girl, Mrs. Dolan,” the doctor was saying. “Your husband would be very proud.”  

Not my husband.  Oh Adam, what have we done? She looks like you…

Adam…no…mustn’t say his name. Not ever.

His hand on her cheek brushed the dream away, but her relief fled with recognition. Mark was dressed in his army uniform, just like the picture on the mantle.

“How are you feeling?” His voice was cordial, his expression inscrutable.

Moira tried to sit up but fell back against the pillow, weak as a kitten.  “What did you do to me?” The question was merely a whisper.

“I just gave you something to help you relax, that’s all. It’ll wear off in time, no harm done.”

“Why?”

“I wanted you to listen to me for once, Helen. If you had listened that night we wouldn’t be in this situation.”

Moira’s heart filled her throat but she tried to remain calm. “I’m not Helen, Mark. Look at me. I’m Moira, don’t you remember?  Helen is dead.”

He stared at her as though he hadn’t heard a word. “We were so good together in the beginning.  You knew I loved you. You also knew I loved the army. Why couldn’t you have been like the other wives? Why couldn’t you have loved me enough to wait for me? If only you’d been patient; I would have given you everything I had when my time was up. But I guess even that wouldn’t have been enough. My mother warned me that I’d never be able to keep you satisfied.”

“Mark, please…”

“Didn’t you understand that I had a duty to perform? I had needs and desires too, and more opportunities than you might think, but I was faithful to you because you were my wife! How many men have had you besides Adam Cartwright?”

“You’re all mixed up. I’m not your wife. It’s me, Moira!”

“Don’t play games with me, Helen. I saw the two of you together last night…the way he kissed you, with his hands all over you.  I could have killed him easily, but I left him with a warning instead.”

“What are you talking about?” She was beginning to feel cold and sick from terror.

“Never mind. The point is you belong to me and no one else.”  He sat down on the bed and she tried to move away from him but he pinned her arms.  “You shamed me, Helen, hurt me more than you’ll ever know, and God help me, I still loved you even after I found out. We could have started over if you had only listened to reason. But you went right back to him. Your little dizzy spell today is certainly not on my account, is it? Well, maybe you’ll lose this one too.”

“You’re insane.”

“If I am you’ve driven me there. You are my wife. It’s past time you learned that I’m the only man who has a right to you. I can exercise that right at will, and there is nothing to stop me.”

He pulled her to him and bruised her mouth with an angry kiss, freeing her arms enough for her to claw his face.  He drew away from her in surprise before fastening his hands on her neck, his eyes slits of rage, lips curled in a snarl.

Moira struggled for breath, finding none. Life was such a fragile thing….

 

Chapter Fifteen

A further check of the boarding house yielded nothing but a vacated room, however, the bank visit turned up a valuable nugget.  The Cartwright and Barkley brothers, along with Sheriff Ed Thompson, headed north toward the old Whitley place, recently deeded to one Marcus Aurelius Van Alstyne.

The party of five split up on approach. Jarrod and the sheriff continued to the main entrance while the other three veered away to come in from the back.  “Stay out of sight unless you’re needed,” the sheriff instructed them. “You’ll know.”

The pounding in Adam’s head had subsided to a dull ache, persistent but bearable. His shoulder hurt more than he cared to admit, throbbing in tandem with his horse’s hoof beats.

“You’re lookin’ a little green around the gills, brother,” said Joe, eyeing him warily.

“I’m fine; don’t worry about me.”

Nick pulled up beside him and handed him his canteen. “Here, you need this.”

“What are you two, my nursemaids all of a sudden?”

Joe rolled his eyes and sighed. “Will you just drink the damn water, Adam?”

Adam’s brows shot up but he obeyed while Nick looked on, grinning. “The kid’s all right, isn’t he?”

“Yeah, I guess he is.”  Adam replaced the cap and tossed the canteen back to him, along with a wry smile directed at Joe. His younger brother returned it with a shake of his head.

“By the way, congratulations on becoming a father,” said Nick.  “Jarrod filled me in. It’s a pretty amazing coincidence, you and Moira winding up here together.”

“Thanks. I keep pinching myself to make sure I’m not dreaming.”

“She’s a peach, and so is Adaline.  We’re all crazy about her, especially Jarrod. He loves that little girl like she was his own. He’d have married Moira in a heartbeat, but obviously that wasn’t meant to be.”

“Well, I’m grateful to him for everything he’s done for both of them. But take it from me, wanting to be a father is no reason to marry without love.”

“I’m sure Jarrod would agree with you.”

Adam pondered the implication. “You mean…?”

“Let’s just leave it there,” said Nick. “It’s water under the bridge anyway.  You know what else is amazing?”

“What?”

“That we both survived that night at Barbary Red’s when we tried to drink each other under the table.”

“When was that?” asked Joe.

“Never mind,” said Adam. “Something’s burning; I smell smoke.”

“So do I,” said Nick.  “This way.”

*****

An acrid smell lured Moira back to consciousness; she gulped air and coughed, her bruised throat aching with the effort. The room was hazy and Mark was gone.  He’d tried to kill her. She put a hand to her neck, shuddering at the memory and then shaking it away. She needed every nerve at her command. The house was burning and she had to get out.

Moira rolled from the bed and stumbled to the door. Smoked poured from underneath it, and the knob was too hot to touch. The only other way out was the window, but it was nailed shut. She looked frantically around the room for something to break it; the chamber pot in the corner was heavy enough if she could muster the force. She slipped it into a pillow case and swung it as hard as she could through the glass, shattering it. With the quilt from the bed to protect her from the jagged remnants, she climbed through the opening and dropped to the ground.

She was at the back of the house and had no idea where Mark was; her first priority was to get away from the fire and out of sight. Winded by her previous efforts, she abandoned the heavy quilt and stumbled toward a stand of trees. Moira nearly cried when she saw the spring house, for she hadn’t noticed it before, nestled far back in the shadows. As soon as she reached it, she opened the door and fell inside.

Resting her cheek against the cool stone floor, she breathed in the earthy scent and focused on pulling air into her lungs. The pain in her side was a dull ache pulsing with her heartbeat.  She didn’t fear death but she wasn’t ready to die.  She wanted desperately to live, for Adaline and for Adam, her two loves.  She closed her eyes and prayed that someone besides Mark would find her.

 

Chapter Sixteen

The house was a roaring inferno as it came into view, with flames licking the roof and leaping from every opening. Adam struggled to no avail against the combined strength of Joe and Nick, who held him firmly in place.

“There’s nothing you can do, Adam.  If she’s in there, she’s already gone.” His brother’s face was filled with anguish.

Joe was right, of course.  Adam felt as though his heart was being ripped from his chest as he watched the burning structure heave and collapse onto itself like a house of cards. His knees buckled and he would have fallen if not for the two men at his sides.  The nightmare of his last three years was now a reality.

He was only vaguely aware of Jarrod and Sheriff Thompson when they joined them.  “It went up too quick to be an accident,” the sheriff was saying.

“It’s a murder if Moira was inside.” Nick’s brows were drawn together in an angry line. “Any sign of Mark?”

Jarrod shook his head, “No, but we found his horse, so I’m guessing he’s still here somewhere.”

“Unless he was in the house.”

“He’s here,” said Adam, shaking the fog from his brain.  “He knew I’d be coming. I figure he wants me.  Well, I want him.”

“We’ll get him if he’s around here,” Sheriff Thompson assured him.

“I said I want him.”

“I want him too,” said Jarrod. “But Adam, we’ve got to do this according to the law. Besides, we don’t know for a fact that Moira was in the house. He could have her somewhere else. Or maybe she got away. She could still be alive.”

“I know you’d really like to believe that. God help me, so would I, but…”

Jarrod’s jaw was set. “I have to believe it, until it’s proven otherwise.”

Adam felt Joe’s hand on his shoulder.  All he could do was nod.

“All right, let’s spread out. Stay under cover as much as you can.” The sheriff swiveled his head toward Joe. “Maybe you oughta stick close to your brother.”

“Honestly, I don’t need a keeper,” Adam growled.

“Understood,” said Joe. “But you wouldn’t mind if I tag along with you, for old time’s sake, would you?”

“Suit yourself. Just don’t get in my way.”

He turned toward his horse but Joe planted himself in front of him. “Adam, I know how you feel, believe me, I do. Van Alstyne will get what’s coming to him, one way or the other, but don’t be a fool. Just remember who’s waiting for you to come home when this is over.  Adaline needs her father now more than ever.  Don’t you think that’s what Moira would say?”

Adaline didn’t even know he was her father. They hadn’t had time to become a family.  Adam blinked away the fierce tears assaulting his eyes.  Joe was right again. If Moira was here she’d be telling him the same thing.  He massaged his forehead and expelled a shaky breath. “You’re not gonna give up, are you?”

“You wouldn’t if it was me.”

Adam smiled a little.  “I swear, you sounded just like Pa.”

Joe’s lips twitched in a faint grin. “Well, I guess some of him was bound to rub off on me sooner or later.”

A rifle shot echoed beyond them, followed by an exchange of gunfire.

Adam’s smile faded to a grim line. “I guess he got tired of waiting.”

*****

Joe and Adam found Nick crouched behind a wagon near the barn.  “He got Ed from the loft,” he told them, nodding toward the sheriff’s body lying at the edge of the yard. “It’s an all-out war now. He’s not gonna let us take him alive.”

“Guess he figures he’s got nothin’ left to lose,” said Joe.

“Is he still up there?” asked Adam.

“I’m not sure.”

“Call out to him, see if he answers.  Just get him talking if you can, distract him while Joe and I try to get around behind him.”

“All right.”  Nick cupped a hand near his mouth. “Mark!  It’s Nick Barkley!  You need come in before somebody else gets hurt or killed.”

“Go home, Nick.  I don’t have anything against you.”

Adam motioned to Joe, and the two of them backed away and out of sight while Nick continued.

“What did you have against Ed?”

“I was just gonna wing him but he moved the wrong way.”

“What about Adam Cartwright?”

Mark didn’t answer right away. “Is he with you?”

“No, you laid him up good last night. What’s your beef with Adam?”

“He’s been messing around with my wife.”

“Your wife?”

“That’s right. I caught them together last night.”

“Your wife is dead.”

“She is now. But killing him would have been too easy. I want him to suffer first. I want him to know what it’s like to lose someone.”

“Mark, you’ve got it wrong. You’re not thinking straight. There’s been enough killing.  Put your gun down and come in with me.  You hear?”

“Not happening.  Besides, I can’t trust you, Nick. I know Cartwright’s here. And this won’t be over until he and I are both dead.”

*****

Moira jumped when she heard the first shot, and the exchange that followed obviously meant someone else had come.  Could it be Adam? As much as she wanted him, she knew he wouldn’t be safe here as long as Mark was around. The shots came from somewhere near the house, she reasoned, far enough away for her to step out and take a look without risking her own safety.

The door creaked when she pulled it open, and she froze when she heard footsteps approaching. With the door ajar she backed into a dark corner and held her breath. A shadow appeared at the entrance.

“Jarrod!” she cried, falling into his arms, trembling.

“Moira? Oh thank God, you’re alive! Sweetheart, are you all right?  Did he hurt you?”

Her words tumbled out in a stream. “He’s out of his mind. He thought I was Helen. He tried to kill me. I woke up and the house was on fire. I broke a window and got away.”

“Good girl. Are you sure you’re all right?”

“I think so. I heard shooting. Is Adam here?”

“Yes.”

“Mark wants to kill him, too.”

“Well, the odds are against that since there are five of us, with Nick, Joe, and Sheriff Thompson.”

“Is Adam all right? Mark said something about warning him last night.”

“He got a little banged up when his horse threw him, but he’ll be all right, especially now.”  Jarrod smiled. “It was hard not to think the worst, but honestly, I…I just couldn’t imagine a world without you in it.” He dropped his eyes and loosened his hold on her. “I think you’ll be all right here, so stay put for now—don’t come out. I’ll be back to get you when I know it’s safe.”

“Jarrod?”

“Yes?”

“Please be careful. I wouldn’t want anything to happen to you either.”

He smiled.  “Of course.”

Moira sank against the wall, wrapping her arms around herself in an attempt to stop shaking.  Please God, keep them safe.

 

Chapter Seventeen

Van Alstyne’s vantage point gave him a clear view of the main road and what was left of the house, and no one could get into the barn without alerting him. But he couldn’t be in two places at once, Adam reasoned, and if one of them could divert his attention maybe the other could make it in and take him. The question of ‘who’ was settled in Adam’s mind, but Joe was ready to debate it.

“I’m the one he wants,” Adam reminded him.  “He’ll come down if he thinks it’s the only way he can get me.”

“But Adam, you’re not a hundred percent, and you know it.”

“There’s nothing wrong with my gun hand.  Besides you’re a lot faster on your feet than I am. “

“Yes, but…how long has it been?”

It had been more than three years, he had to admit. But it didn’t matter. “Don’t worry about that.  Just keep him busy and don’t let him get you. I’m counting on you to come out of this in one piece.”

“I’ll be fine,” said Joe. “I’ll have Nick to back me up. You watch yourself, and remember what we talked about.”

“I will.”  Adam put a hand on his brother’s shoulder, locking eyes with him solemnly. “Wait for my signal, and then take off running.”

Joe answered with a nod. Adam slipped around the back of the barn to the opposite side. He took aim the high window and fired a single shot.

The shattering glass pulled Van Alstyne away from the loft opening long enough for Joe to make it to the well where he could draw fire from cover. So far, so good. Since the back door was bolted from the inside, the only way in was through the front.  Adam eased around the corner, stealing low and close to the wall as bullets sailed back and forth above him. Joe was holding up his end, allowing him to slip in the entrance unnoticed.

Adam made a quick survey of the interior. The loft spanned the width and roughly a third of the length, extending to a narrow landing down the left side.  He could hear Van Alstyne above him but he wouldn’t be able to engage him without a line of sight. Climbing the ladder to the loft was too risky. He’d have to get him onto the landing somehow, or better yet, get him to come down.

The horseshoe on the wall was just within Adam’s reach. He lifted it from the nail, careful not to make a sound, and then tossed it against the back of the barn. Footsteps scraped overhead as Van Alstyne moved to investigate the noise. Adam remained in the shadows as the man came into view. He wore the uniform of an army officer and carried a revolver in his hand. Clearly he was a soldier on a mission, however twisted.

It would have been easy to take him then. But Adam wanted Van Alstyne to see his face before he sent him to Hell.  He stepped into the dim light. “Over here.”

Van Alstyne whirled, and the two men fired almost simultaneously. Adam watched his opponent tumble from the landing and hit the ground with a sickening thud. The barn seemed to tilt, and he had to steady himself against the wall to stay upright.  When his head cleared, Joe was at his side, and there was a fresh pain in his bad shoulder as his brother probed it gently.  “In and out—you got lucky.”

“Is he dead?”

“Not yet, but on his way,” said Nick.

Van Alstyne, gut shot, was barely breathing. Adam leaned over and addressed him with loathing.  “Why did you kill Moira? What did she ever do to you except try to be your friend?”

“Moira?” He looked confused for a second as if he couldn’t remember. “You mean Helen.” He coughed and licked his lips.  “I warned her.  I told her…no one else would ever have her.” A corner of his mouth turned up in a weak attempt at a smile. “You may have won the battle, Cartwright…but I won the war.”  The words took his last breath, and the light faded from hollow eyes as Adam looked on, defeated and bitter.

“No, he didn’t,” said Nick, but Adam didn’t hear what he was saying.  He was thinking of Adaline, waiting for her mother. How was he going to tell her she would never be coming home?

“Adam…” Joe was like a gnat at his ear, nudging him. “Adam.”

“What?” he snapped.

Nick motioned them to the entrance and pointed. “Look.”

Adam blinked once, then again, to assure himself he wasn’t dreaming.  Because his mind told him that what his eyes were seeing was impossible. And yet, there was Jarrod, and Moira was with him.

She met him as he ran to her, and they embraced, falling to their knees together as he kissed her face over and over until he was dizzy but still unwilling to let her go.

“You are real, aren’t you?” he whispered, afraid if he looked away for even a moment she might be gone.

“Very much so.”  Tears spilled from the most beautiful blue eyes he’d ever seen. He flinched when she touched his shoulder, and his blood was on her hand when she pulled it away. “Oh, Adam, you’re hurt.”

“It’s just a scratch. I’ve been hurt worse shaving,” he laughed, pulling her closer.  The laugh became a sob, and he couldn’t stop it. “Moira, I thought…”

“I know. It’s all right, I’m here.”  She consoled him as a mother would a child, with sweet assurances and tender touches.  “It’s over now.”

The adrenaline that had propped him up all afternoon was gone, his last reserves fading with the remains of the day as smoky twilight swallowed the sun. Someone put him in a wagon, and he didn’t even remember the ride back to town. When he opened his eyes, Moira’s hand was on his cheek and she was smiling at him.

He reached up and touched a strand of hair that had fallen around her face. “I was afraid I had dreamed you, but here you are; my angel once again.”

She looked skeptical.  “If you think I’m an angel, you must be dreaming.”

“If I am, I don’t want anyone to wake me.”

“You’ll wake up soon enough once the doctor starts pokin’ that shoulder,” said Nick.  “Come on, let’s get you inside.”

 

Chapter Eighteen

“Well, Mr. Cartwright, I can see you didn’t take my advice about staying in bed.”

“I had important business to attend to. It couldn’t wait.” Adam gritted his teeth as Dr. Key poured whiskey into the wound.

“Pretty serious business, from the looks of things, with two people headed to the undertaker.  You’re a lucky man. Still, that shoulder’s going to be sore for some time.”

“I can live with that.”

“You can if you keep it clean and take it easy for a few days. I’m sure you know the routine. And remember, you still have a concussion.”

“We’ll remind him if he forgets,” said Joe. “Won’t we, Nick?”

“Well, I don’t know about you but I’ve got better things to do than play nursemaid to a lovesick cowboy. I figure Moira can handle that from now on.”

“And I’d much prefer it that way,” Adam declared, “no offense.”

Nick grinned. “None taken.”

“Where is she, anyway?”

“She said she needed to step out for a minute,” said the doctor.  “I think she got a little squeamish when I started working on you.”

Adam frowned. “Would one of you please find her and make sure she’s all right?”

“Jarrod’s checking on her,” said Nick.

*****

Jarrod found Moira in the next room, bent double in the chair, her shoulders heaving. It wasn’t a surprise, considering the weight of everything that had happened. She had certainly earned the right to tears.

He knelt next to her. “It’s all right, honey. You go ahead and cry if you need to, but don’t worry; Adam’s fine.”

She nodded but didn’t look at him. He noticed her white- knuckle grip on the arm of the chair. “Moira, what’s the matter?”

“I think I’m going to be sick.”

He grabbed a basin and placed it in her lap, then wet a cloth to wipe her face, devoid of color. Even her lips were pale.

She drew a sharp breath and clutched her stomach, stifling a cry.

“Hold on; I’m getting Dr. Key.”

The doctor had just come from Adam’s room. “Let’s have a look at you now, Moira.”  He removed the basin and placed his stethoscope on her chest.  “How long have you had this pain?”

“Mostly today. Up to now it was just a twinge here and there.”

“When did that start?”  He placed a hand on her forehead and frowned.

“Three or four days ago, I’m not sure.”

“Any nausea?”

“Maybe a little; more of a nervous stomach; but nothing like this.”

“Loss of appetite?

“Yes,” said Jarrod.  “She has hardly eaten anything the past few days.”

“I’m going to need you to lie down so I can conduct a more thorough examination. Jarrod, help me get her to the bed.”

*****

“Poor Moira doesn’t know what she’s in for.  She’ll toughen up quick when she marries into this family,” quipped Joe.

“That can’t come soon enough for me.” There was a muffled cry from the next room.  Adam stood up. “What’s going on in there?”

“I’ll find out,” Joe promised. “Keep him here,” he said to Nick.

Another cry, clearly a woman’s, ragged with pain.  Adam started for the door but Nick held him. “You heard the man. You’re stayin’ right here. Sit down. He’ll be back.”

Joe met Jarrod in the hallway. “What’s wrong with Moira?’

“It’s her appendix.  The doctor says he needs to operate.”

“Now?”

“He says it can’t wait. Tell Nick to ride out to the ranch and let the others know what’s happened.”

*****

“Appendix? Why on earth didn’t she say something?” Adam demanded.

“She said she didn’t want to make a fuss,” said Jarrod, looking perturbed.

Dr. Key emerged from the surgery room. “I’ve given her a shot of morphine, so she’s settling down now. Jarrod, she’s asking for you.”

Adam frowned and chewed his lip, remembering what Nick had said. More specifically, what he’d implied.  Just leave it there, he’d said.

Joe tried to reassure him. “Come on, I’m sure it’s not personal. I mean, they are good friends, but that’s all.”

Jarrod returned a few moments later. “It’s your turn, Adam.”

“What was that about, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“Attorney-client privilege; and I do mind.  You’d better get in there before she goes to sleep.”

Moira greeted him with a drowsy smile.  The purpling bruises on her neck left no doubt where Mark Van Alstyne’s hands had been. The man had almost succeeded in keeping them apart forever.

“Hello beautiful,” he murmured, kissing her cheek. “Can’t take my eyes off of you for a minute, can I? Not that I’d ever want to. Why didn’t you tell someone you were sick?”

“I’m sorry to be such a bother.”

“No need to be sorry; it’s not your fault, just a little bump in the road. As soon as you’re back on your feet, we’re gonna have that wedding even if I have to plan it myself.  Then all you’d have to do is show up. What do you think?”

“Adaline…”

“She’s fine. You can see her tomorrow.”

“…she doesn’t like oatmeal, but she’ll eat it with honey. No strawberries…they make her itch….” Her eyes were closing.

“Sweetheart, you don’t need to worry about Adaline.”

“Not worried. You’ll be a wonderful father.  Adam, I love you….”

“I love you, too, and I’ll be right here when you wake up. I promise.”

 

Chapter Nineteen

The surgery couldn’t have gone better according to the doctor. In fact, Dr. Key seemed pretty proud of the fact that he had removed Moira’s appendix intact, and there were no visible signs of infection. He expected her to awaken within the hour.

Instead, one hour became two, and then three, dragging on throughout the night and the next day, and then the next. The doctor, perplexed and troubled, could offer no explanation, only sympathy and platitudes. Adam heard phrases like ‘hope and pray’ and ‘she’s in God’s hands’ while all he could do was sit by and watch the woman he loved fade like morning dew.

God’s hands could be equally kind and cruel.  Moira said it was the hand of God that brought them back together. Why bother if He only intended to take her away?

His father was attentive and empathetic but had no answer beyond what Adam expected. It wasn’t enough.

“Be honest, Pa. After all you’ve been through, do you still believe in a loving God and that everything happens for a reason?”

“I believe some things happen that only God can make sense of, and that He can use even the worst situation for good, in time.  He sometimes puts us on a path we would never choose to bring us to a place where we can see His goodness and grace. We may not understand His methods and we may even chafe against them, but He asks us to trust him and believe in something beyond today.”

“Well, I’m afraid I just don’t have your faith.”

“Mine won’t do you any good.  What happened to yours?”

 “I don’t know what I believe anymore.”

“Adam, it’s easy for a man to lose his way, and much harder to find his way back, especially when he’s not inclined.  I know you’re angry and grieving, but I also know that Moira would want you to try, for your sake and for Adaline’s. From what I know of her, she was certainly a woman of faith.”

“You’re right, I am angry, and I wish you wouldn’t talk about her like she’s already gone.”

“I’m sorry, son.”

The way he looked when he said it was hard to bear. Adam turned his face away. “I’m just not ready for that yet, Pa.”

“Of course.   Where there is life, there is always hope.”

Hope. For something that seemed so fragile, it was hard to kill and more often than not, harder to find. Sometimes a man had to dig for it with his bare hands, or claw his way up to it until his fingers were nothing but blood and bone. And then sometimes it seemed to appear out of nowhere, staring back at him from the face of a four-year-old who, even amid the darkest hours, could find joy in something as simple as a ladybug on a daisy petal.

Another day was dying in the West, and from the window Adam watched the waning sun dissolve into spectacular bands of gold and crimson on the horizon.  Red sky at night, sailor’s delight; a fair weather sign.  He flexed his shoulder. It was healing.

He turned to light the lamp on the bedside table where Adaline’s daisies drooped in a jar. Mama can see the flowers when she wakes up. She was so confident when she’d said it, so tender in the way she’d kissed him. He had somehow managed to smile and hold his tears until Pa took her away.

A soft knock at the door announced the presence of a visitor, who didn’t wait to be invited in. Jarrod, unshaven and disheveled, looked as though he’d slept in his clothes. “I hope I’m not intruding.”

Adam shook his head. “Not at all.”

“Any change?”

“None that I can see. You look like hell. Why don’t you pull up a chair?”

Jarrod didn’t respond; instead he paused at Moira’s bedside with his head bowed during the awkward silence that stretched between them.

“Would you like a moment alone?”  Adam offered finally.

He jerked his head around, almost as if he was startled to find someone else in the room. “No, I uh, just came by to give you this.”  He handed Adam an envelope.

“What is it?”

“It’s a codicil to Moira’s will, naming you Adaline’s guardian in the event of her death.  She asked me to draw it up, though she wasn’t able to sign it, so technically it’s not valid.  But I have the signatures of two witnesses, including the doctor, confirming they heard her state her wishes verbally and that she was of sound mind. No one will ever contest it.”

Adam withdrew the paper and read it. Remembering those moments he had begrudged Jarrod just before the surgery, he found it hard to meet his friend’s eyes.  “Thank you.”

“She wanted to make sure the two of you would always be together, just in case. You are Adaline’s father, and it’s only right.”  Jarrod turned his attention back to Moira, who appeared lost to the world as he bent to kiss her brow. “You said she was in love with a memory, and that much was true,” he murmured, straightening. “But the memory was you.” He left the room and closed the door softly without looking at Adam.

Moira’s hand was cold, and Adam rubbed it gently between his palms before removing the ring from his pocket and placing it on her finger.  “It was the best I could find on short notice,” he told her, “but I figured you wouldn’t mind. I don’t need a preacher to tell me what I already know in my heart—that you are my wife in every way that matters. And I will always honor and cherish you.”

I promise I’ll be a good father, may God help me.

He kissed her and sat down in the nearest chair to resume his vigil.  Outside, the dusky shadows deepened to the blue-dark of evening as the first stars appeared. Adam slept, and night fell.

Softly, as if on angel wings.

 

EPILOGUE

June 1869

It was a day of blue skies, bouquets, and mixed emotions.  Spring had bowed to a gentle summer—golden days bedecked with poppies and yarrow, tarweed and baby blue-eyes, and the scent of wild rose and lilac.

Ben clutched Adaline’s hand, escorting Victoria up the hill with his free arm.  They paused near the top where they could see the valley.  Above them, their families had gathered—Jarrod; Audra; Nick; Heath; Joe; and Hoss, newly arrived from Virginia City—mostly silent as they too were watching.

“For everything, there is a season,” murmured Victoria, dabbing her eyes with her handkerchief.

“Yes,” agreed Ben. A time to be born and a time to die.  Adaline tugged at him, and he picked her up, their eyes on Adam below. He faced away from them, toward the cemetery.

A moment later, Moira joined him. He held her hand as they climbed the hill together. Adaline squirmed from Ben’s arms and bounded toward them as they approached.

“Fi would be so happy,” said Victoria, embracing Moira.

“Yes, I know,” said Moira tearfully. “I only wish she could have been at the wedding.”

“I’ve no doubt she was there.” Victoria assured her.

Moira was still in her bridal gown. The wedding party had gone directly from the church to the cemetery where her sister had been buried the day before so that she could place her bouquet on the grave.

Ben smiled at his dewy-eyed daughter-in-law. She’d worn her hair down at Adam’s request, and she’d never looked lovelier. That was as it should be. A woman is most beautiful when she’s in love.

Side by side they watched a giggling Adaline dodging Adam’s playful attempts to tickle her with a stalk of lupine.

“God is good, isn’t He?” said Ben, drawing his arm around Moira.

She leaned against him. “Amen and amen.”

Adaline scurried behind Ben to escape her father. Adam took Moira’s hand.  “My turn now.” He pulled her into his arms and kissed her, not once, but twice. He whispered something to her and she hid her face in his chest, laughing softly.

“Again?” said Adaline.

“I think you’d better get used to it,” said Ben.

“That’s right,” said Adam, “because I intend to kiss your mother every day for the rest our lives.”

She pursed her lips into a smirk, raising an eyebrow at Ben. “Are you going to be my grandpa?”

He scooped her into his arms once more. “Adaline, my love, I am your grandpa—now and always.”

A smile spread across her face.  “You mean ever after?”

Ben nuzzled her nose with his. “I mean ever, ever after!”

Adaline Spencer Dolan became Adaline Spencer Cartwright the day her father married her mother.  The judge declared it so.  John Adam Cartwright arrived nine months and two days later. He had dark hair and a deep-dimpled grin, and his eyes were as blue as an October sky.

Adam made good on his pledge to give Adaline half a dozen siblings, and she helped raise her six brothers along with several Cartwright cousins, the sons and daughters of her uncles Hoss and Joe. Today, there are people all across this country and on five continents who can trace their DNA back to Grandpa Ben, some of whom reside within the thousand square miles of the erstwhile Ponderosa ranch. 

And their story continues….

 

THE END

 

Author’s note: The Princess and the Pea was written by Hans Christian Anderson in 1835. Shakespeare’s quotes were from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Much Ado About Nothing. All works cited are public domain.

Other Stories by this Author

Author: JC2

27 thoughts on “Convergence (by JC)

  1. Wonderful story! As always you do an excellent job with the plot, the characterizations and the dialogue.

  2. This story has it all – adventure, conflict, romance, twists, and a great mix of Big Valley and Bonanza. If you read More Than Just a Memory first, then the action doesn’t stop until the very end. I really like the conflict Moira had with her situation. The woman did what she thought was best but soon found there was something better. Adeline had me from the beginning – she’s precious. The Barkleys were spot on and they are a great fit with the C’s. I liked that the storyline went all the way to the end, and hopefully beyond? Please?

    1. Thank you, AC! When I wrote the epilogue for More than a Memory, I decided on a whim to set it in Stockton and knew that if I ever wrote the sequel it would have to include the Barkleys. I’d never written them before but felt I knew the characters well enough, so I’m glad you thought I pulled it off. And who knows, perhaps there will be more. Some of those OCs have grown on me. 🙂

  3. You are such a good writer… and I enjoyed every minute of this. I had to read the epilogue twice; an excellent twist to the story you gave us there. I’ve only seen a couple of episodes of The Big Valley, but I don’t think that mattered. I understood their characters and the family dynamics from your writing. Really well done.

    1. Thank you, Sierra. The epilogue was one of my favorite parts to write. I’m glad you enjoyed the story. Your review is much appreciated! 🙂

  4. That has got to be one of the best stories about Adam I have read, it was both heartwarming and scary and adventurous and everything you could find in a bonanza episode. Thanks for this brilliant one for now which I hope leads to more 👍

    1. Thanks for the great review, Weaver! It took a while for this one to come together, and I’m glad you like the finished product. 🙂

  5. Terrific crossover, true to the characters in each series, and with a few salted plot veins to warrant a sequel. Hint. Hint.

    1. This is one of my longer stories, so I’m glad to know it held your interest to the end! Thanks so much for reading and leaving a great review, Sue. 🙂

  6. Fantastic story with great characterizations of Adam and Jarrod and ‘Grandpa’ Ben and Victoria and well there’s too many to name. I love your OCs too. That teaser of a twist near the end nearly shook me up but loved the ending! Well done!

    1. I confess I had doubts about parts of this story, but not the ending. I’m glad it worked for you, Betty. Thanks for the fab review! 🙂

  7. There were days I wasn’t sure I would reach the end, but here we are! I’m glad you enjoyed it, Questfan. Thanks for the great review and the gift of your time in reading. 🙂

  8. So happy to see this here and that we get an ending to an unfinished saga. You wove these two worlds together seamlessly which is no mean feat, but you are a wonderful writer. Adaline is a fabulous OC. Well done!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.