Summary: A What-Happened-In-Between for the Julia Bulette Story. Some wounds never heal.
Rating: T (935 words)
Joe’s stinging rebuke echoed in Ben’s ears – “Her name is Miss Bulette.”
A feeling of gloom settled around Ben’s shoulders. Joe’s Creole temper often erupted like a New Orleans summer afternoon storm that blew over as quickly as it arose. Not this time. Ben knew it deep in his heart.
“This is Adam’s fault,” Ben muttered. “If Adam hadn’t let him go in the Palace, she wouldn’t be using my own son against me.”
Ben had visited Julia earlier in the day, to come to an understanding about Joe. Julia had seemed amenable to discouraging his son’s visits. At least she isn’t in love with the boy, he’d thought. The door’s slam proved beyond a doubt that Joe was in love with her.
How can I make him understand? he wondered.
He picked up the letter opener, the point of the blade pressed against his opposite forefinger. Tapping the blade against the desk did nothing to dispel his thoughts.
Ben looked up at the ceiling and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly as he studied a knot in the wood. Julia had come into his life when Joe was a little boy, the son of a father grieving for a newly-buried wife. Ben leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes, remembering breaking Julia’s heart as easily as a twig.
Julia pressed her cheek against Ben’s back, her arms wrapped around him and her fingers preventing him from buttoning his shirt. He leaned forward just enough for her hands to slip to his waist. After fastening the shirt, he turned to face her as he tucked in the garment.
He scanned her face, memorizing the pout of her full lips and the eyes so dark the pupils were practically masked by the irises. Julia’s eyes were much like Marie’s—at times they were as indecipherable as the depths of Lake Tahoe.
“What’s wrong, Ben? You seem far away. Trouble with your boys?”
He shook his head and stepped back, distancing himself from both Julia and the bed they’d shared. With his hands behind his back there was no chance he could touch her and lose his resolve. “I can’t . . . I won’t see you anymore.”
Julia’s eyebrows drew together and she sucked air in through parted lips as if she’d been punched in the gut. A slow shake of her head told him far more than a torrent of words ever could.
I guess I did sucker punch her, thought Ben.
“You must be joking,” she finally said. She reached forward as if to cup his face, change his mind with her touch.
This isn’t a time for gentleness, he thought. He knew his resolve would crumble if he let her try to persuade him otherwise.
He took her hands in his own and held them, palms together, as if in prayer. “Never again, Julia. From this day forward, never again.”
She roughly drew her hands from his clasp and drew back as if his very touch burned her. He held his hand to his cheek, stinging from the impact of her palm.
“Why?” she asked. Her voice quavered as she fought back tears. “Is there someone else?”
Ben shook his head. “Only the Ponderosa. She will always come first.”
Julia snorted. “Before your precious sons? They mean less to you than that chunk of dirt and rocks you call a ranch?”
He clenched and unclenched his fists, a flush of anger turning his neck and cheeks a dark red. “The Ponderosa is for my sons. It’s my legacy for them. Some day.” Ben took a deep breath and pulled back his shoulders to stand at full height before rushing through the words he’d practiced several times. “I have to think of my reputation now that Virginia City is growing and Ponderosa business is picking up. Newcomers are settling here with wives, respectable women. My sons will one day need wives. Someday this territory may even become a state and I may be called upon to run for office. I may never be afforded that opportunity from people who only think of me as a man who associates with . . . .”
“A whore,” Julia said with a snort.
She turned away and poured a glass of brandy. Ben flinched at the way in which she tossed it back, as if to wash bitter disappointment from her mouth.
Ben removed a bank draft from his jacket and proffered it. “You should be able to build a decent saloon with this.”
Julia faced him and closed her hand around the empty glass. “So, you’ve thought of me as nothing more than a bedwarmer.”
Her eyes narrowed and Ben ducked as the empty glass sailed over his head and into the wall, splintering with a crash.
“Julia . . . .” Ben said.
“I’d think you’d be eager to get out of here. Go.” She turned her back to him.
Ben set the bank draft on a table on his way out of her room. The latch clicking into place behind him sounded a finality that his words had not.
Ben shook his head to dispel the cobweb of memories. He tossed the letter opener on the desk, as if it were a dagger that could excise Julia’s presence in his life.
After their brief, heated exchange, Ben knew his son had left for Julia’s and the kind of comfort only she could provide. He leaned forward and rested his elbows on the sturdy desk, face in his hands, fingertips pressing against his brow. “Please don’t break my son as I broke you, Julia,” Ben whispered.
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