SUMMARY: Early in The Julia Bulette Story is a scene where Joe walks into the house to find Ben waiting to talk with him about Julia. This story, which borrows a bit of dialogue from the episode, explores what Joe might have been thinking.
Word count: 1,150 / Rating: PG
He barely noticed the first part of the ride home, because he was still reveling in their evening together.
She was an amazing woman, make no mistake. Beautiful and clever, bawdy and elegant, world-weary and yet delighting at the smallest things. No matter what came before—and he was no fool, he knew there was a before—she was a lady. If things had been different, if people hadn’t known the tawdry details of her past, no one would question the two of them together now.
His horse trotted blithely in the moonlight as if unaware that it wasn’t carrying the same innocent boy he’d been a couple weeks ago. He wasn’t the same, not even close. It wasn’t just . . . that. Not that that wasn’t everything he’d hoped for, and more. He’d been dreaming of that for years. But there was a world of difference between a fantasy in his solitary bed and the real thing with a girl—a woman—a real live, warm-blooded—
He stopped himself then, before the trip became uncomfortable. He was a man, and a man exercised self-control. That was what his pa always said. Of course, Pa meant the self-control to keep a man from doing that in the first place.
Poor old Pa. He didn’t understand about love.
The thing was, their being together—it was about so much more than just that. He knew a lot of folks in town thought he was a dumb kid she’d seduced to spite his father, but they didn’t understand. Being with her was unlike anything he’d ever known. They could talk to each other, really talk. He made her laugh, and she made him think. Her hand on his sent tingles through his entire being. When she gazed at him, he felt truly seen. They shared stories and kisses and dreams, and more stories, more kisses, more dreams, until it was only natural that everything would swirl into a delicious tornado of being together in every way a woman and a man could be.
When they were downstairs, when she was doing business, he worked not to feel jealous. She had to pay attention to other men; that was her job. Besides, he understood why they all wanted to be around her. She was so warm and accepting, making every man who came in feel as if he’d finally reached the far shore, where everyone was glad he’d arrived. Her musical laugh trilled above their deep, rough voices. The crowd joshed and shoved each other, the way he and his brothers had always done, but unless a fellow stepped wrong, insulting her or damaging her place, that fellow was welcome to stay.
Even at his tender age, no one spurned him. She wouldn’t have liked it. A few men objected to his presence at first, but the others stood up for him, and it wasn’t long before he was one of them.
The best part was that she treated him as something special. She didn’t throw it in the other men’s faces, but she didn’t hide it, either. The first time she held out her hand to him, her message clear, his heart pounded so hard he thought everybody must hear it. As he followed her up the stairs, he could feel every eye in the place watching him. When the door closed behind them, they’d all be wishing they were in his place. He knew, because that’s how he’d have felt if he’d been the one watching her choose someone else.
At first, he overheard snatches of conversation, men saying she only wanted him because he was a Cartwright. As the days passed, that kind of talk faded. There was something more going on, and they knew it. Every now and then, as she left a table where he was sitting with others, he’d turn back from watching her walk away and catch a stern glance from one of them, almost a warning that he’d better treat her right.
Fools, all of them. The last thing he would ever do was hurt her.
He slowed his horse to a walk. Not because the horse was tired, but because the house was near. It wasn’t late enough. His father might be up.
There was a time when he and Pa were so close. When he could tell Pa anything, and Pa would understand.
But that was when he was a boy. Now, he was a man, and things were different.
He knew Pa didn’t approve of her. It made no sense. She was from New Orleans, same as his mother. Both of them were French. How could Pa approve of his mother and not of her? If one exquisite Frenchwoman from New Orleans was good enough for a Cartwright, why wasn’t another?
“She’s seen much more of the world than you have, boy.”
“And that makes her bad?”
He’d have expected the man who married his mother to know better.
The light was burning in the front window when he rode in. It meant Pa was waiting up for him. Probably wanted to have it out with him, to tell him why she wasn’t good enough and how he needed to end it. Well, the devil with all of it, because he wasn’t ending anything. So she had a past. So what? His mother had had a past, and Pa forgave her. There was no reason things should be any different for them.
He took his time grooming his horse. He didn’t take too long, though. He didn’t want Pa to think he was hiding in the barn. He was a man, and a man didn’t hide.
He strode into the house, pretending not to see Pa at his desk in the alcove. When Pa called out to him, he thought for a brief instant that he might keep going, might pretend he didn’t hear. He didn’t, though. He was a respectful son.
Respectful he might be, but not even his father would be permitted to speak ill of the woman he loved. He tried to dodge what was coming, preempting Pa’s lecture with news from Doc Martin about the fever. But Pa refused to pretend with him. Almost before they knew it, their words grew harsh. They hovered on the brink of saying things they couldn’t take back. At the last instant, they both reined themselves in.
Then, Pa said that bit about a scar not going away just because you washed it.
He was the son of Marie Cartwright. He’d heard the stories, far more than his family realized. This much he knew: a person was more than the worst thing she’d ever done.
“Sometimes, to see a scar, you’ve got to be looking for it.”
And he left his father’s house and went back to her modest palace, where beauty and imperfection and passion wove a rich tapestry of love and acceptance.
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