A somewhat AU What Happened Instead for The First Born. While New Orleans had brought Marie into Ben’s life, it was also a breeding ground for lies, whispered rumours, family disputes and long-held hatred. It has long been said that revenge is a dish that is best served cold.
Word Count: 63028
Disclaimer: All publicly recognisable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
A Dish Served Cold
The doctor stepped back from the bed and began to pack away his stethoscope and other items into his medical bag.
“I’m sorry. There is nothing further I can do for her. It’s really only a matter of time, but I have given her enough laudanum to make her comfortable.”
The young woman slid down into the chair by the bed and grasped at her grandmother’s thin hand and stroked at the fingers.
“Grandmama, can you hear me?”
Tears rolled down her cheeks as she considered the woman who had been her strength for so many years. The woman who had held her family together in the face of heinous betrayals and cruel gossip. Angelique had heard the stories many times over as her grandmother had taught her what it was to restore a family’s honour. The grand only lady of the manor had outlasted her own children and her husband. She had stoically and steadfastly ignored the social slights and had stood staunch in the face of whispers behind lace fans. She had been an undefeatable force until illness had struck her down and her lungs had failed her. Now the doctor said her heart was failing too.
Angelique laid her head across the old woman’s thigh and felt a gnarled hand begin to stroke at her hair. As the strokes slowed and finally stopped altogether, she was unable to look up and confirm her fears.
“I promise I will do as you asked. I will make you proud of me and I will avenge you. He will rue the day he dared challenge the de Marignys.”
Hetty slipped into the room and knelt beside the bed and kissed the limp, cool hand of her employer. The woman had given her a place in the world when she did not deserve it. She had seen many things over many years and had tucked them all away in her heart. The young woman who was bowed in grief would rise strong and proud. She would carry the family name with honour and she would fulfil her grandmother’s dying wish.
It was such a beautiful name and she wore it like some kind of badge of honour. Adam said that it suited her as she was simply angelic. Joe couldn’t argue that point when looking at her. His first glimpse of the refined young lady strolling along the boardwalk under a lacy parasol had stirred something in him and Hoss had told him to shut his mouth before he caught some flies. But then, Hoss had also agreed that she was pretty as a picture and Adam had reminded Joe that he was too young to be thinking what he was thinking. Joe had blushed red and swiped at Hoss as he laughed before stalking back towards the wagon where they were supposed to be loading stores. Of course Adam knew what he was thinking. The very same thing every other red-blooded fella was thinking as she strolled past, her skirts a-swishing across the wooden boards and her dark curls swinging from beneath her floral bonnet. Just because he was only sixteen didn’t mean anything!
But Joe eventually came to know that underneath those perfect curls and the perfect silk dresses, there was something not so angelic about her. He just wished his brother could see beyond the curls and the dresses and the sweet words she whispered in his ear. It was if she had woven some kind of spell over him and Joe couldn’t break through it.
It wasn’t just Adam, but everyone seemed taken with the charms of the beautiful southerner who had stolen his brother’s heart. His pa had said that of all of them, Joe should appreciate her French heritage and her gentle southern accent the most. He had tried. Lord knew, he had tried to like her. But something rankled and he couldn’t shift it, like a burr under the saddle. It itched and annoyed him and poked at him when he least expected it. Nobody else had ever seen the looks she shot his way from time to time and each time Joe caught her out, Miss Angelique would turn on the charm and bestow the sweetest smile on him, just in time for Adam or anybody else to notice. She had the uncanny knack of looking like sunshine and rainbows every time and he was never quick enough to have anyone catch her out. He was beginning to wonder if he really was imagining it after all as he couldn’t figure any reason for her to look the way she did or what she could have against him.
It wasn’t as if he didn’t want to like her. It looked likely she was going to become part of the family after all and he wasn’t going to have any say in that decision. After that first fateful glimpse outside the mercantile, Adam had been quick to offer the young lady assistance when she had slipped on the uneven boards of the boardwalk and she had eagerly grasped at his hand to save herself from further embarrassment. When an older woman had appeared from inside the mercantile to bat Adam’s hands away from her charge, Joe had smiled at his brother’s attempts to smooth things over. Fortunately for Adam, the young lady had assured her chaperone that the lovely young gentleman had done nothing wrong and had, in fact, saved her from a nasty fall.
That day had so easily slipped into more days and Miss Angelique Johnson and her chaperone, Miss Hetty Smith had become regular guests at the Cartwright dining table.
Joe stared at the peas on his plate and tried to drown out the noise from across the table. He could hear Miss Angelique’s silken tones and Hoss’ hearty laugh and he speared at a pea in frustration. He wanted to get up and walk outside where the air was fresh and not so stuffy as it had become inside.
Hop Sing nudged at his foot as he leaned over to place another tray of meat on the table and Joe glanced up to see the man frowning at him. It was such a small expression that only lasted a second, but it was enough. Somebody had noticed his mood and it was a sure bet that his pa had too. As Joe pushed a few more peas into his mouth, he risked a glance at the head of the table. His father was pouring Miss Hetty another glass of sherry, but that didn’t stop him looking Joe’s way. A slight shift of his eyebrows was all the warning his son needed. Pa had noticed too.
Joe looked up to where Miss Hetty was seated and he smiled at her as she took another sip of her sherry. It was a good thing Adam was driving the ladies home in the buggy as he wasn’t sure they would make it if it was up to the older woman.
It seemed an interminable amount of time before dessert was served and coffee was done before Adam stood and offered his arm to the lovely young woman seated across from him. A stroll in the moonlight may have seemed like a romantic idea to Joe under other circumstances, but he could barely hold his apple pie down as he watched the two young lovers leave out the front door.
As Ben offered an arm to Miss Hetty and steered her towards the sofa, Hoss caught Joe’s eye and frowned at him.
“Just what is goin’ on with you tonight?”
Joe’s eyes widened as he stared back. “What are you talking about?”
“You know exactly what I’m talkin’ about. Pull your horns in!”
Joe glared at his older brother before gathering some of the dishes off the table and taking them into the kitchen. Hop Sing was surprised to see him and waved him towards the door.
“You have guest! Not need be in the kitchen.”
“I’d rather be here,” Joe muttered under his breath as Hop Sing waved a dishcloth at him and pointed towards the dining room once more.
Joe sauntered out into the great room and watched as his father and brother entertained their single guest. Miss Hetty was a homely spinster who could have been around the same age as his father, but Joe couldn’t be sure. He was far better at picking the ages of younger women than older ones and he wouldn’t have dared vocalise a guess.
“Joseph, Miss Hetty was just telling us she knows the area in New Orleans where your mother lived.”
Joe’s ears pricked up at the comment and he smiled at the older woman. “Really?”
It wasn’t like he was particularly interested, but it was a subject that would at least keep the older woman talking and keep him in his father’s good books.
Hetty began to describe the trees that graced the riverside and the unbearable summer heat that would leave her feeling quite drained. Joe sat and tried to pay attention as she droned on and by the time the front door opened again, he was trying hard not to nod off.
“I think it might be time for you to be taking us back into town, Adam dear.” Hetty smiled sweetly at him and stood up to reach for Angelique’s hand. “We do need to be getting our beauty sleep, don’t we now?”
“Of course we do.”
Adam whispered something into Angelique’s ear as he placed her wrap around her shoulders and she laughed softly. “Well, you are supposed to say that!”
Joe watched as his older brother escorted the two women towards the waiting buggy. His father had moved to one side to help Hetty up the step and Joe looked back to see Angelique watching him. He frowned at the odd look on her face, but it passed so quickly that he was left shaking his head at his own folly. Surely he was imagining it.
It wasn’t long before the trio were on the road to Virginia City with Adam’s horse tied on behind the buggy. Angelique snuggled up against Adam’s side as Miss Hetty settled herself in the seat behind with a warm blanket wrapped across her knees. Adam had suggested the lovely young woman sitting beside him should sit in the more comfortable seat, but she had insisted she wanted to sit right where she was and he had readily agreed. The heady scent of her jasmine perfume drifted across and Adam inhaled deeply. If the older woman wasn’t sitting behind them, he would have pulled the horse to a halt, leaned over and kissed Angelique as passionately as he had only an hour earlier. The memory brought a smile to his face and he looked down to see Angelique’s hand resting against his thigh. Her touch sent chills up from his leg and it was all he could do not to react. It wouldn’t do to give Miss Hetty any call to separate them. The older woman had proven herself a stickler for the rules as she determined them and Adam had tried his best to comply. Of course, the teasing fingernails that slowly worked their way along his leg weren’t helping matters. Angelique had shown more than once that she was willing to flout the rules and tread a very fine line between propriety and following her heart. Adam had already decided he was set to make his proposal, but that made it even harder to rein himself in from where his thoughts drifted to.
Angelique knew exactly what she was doing and what effect she was drawing out. Adam coughed as her hand wandered a little too high and it slowly withdrew.
“Do you think Little Joe was bored at supper tonight?”
The question caught him by surprise and Adam pulled himself upright in the seat before looking at her. It wasn’t where his thoughts had been only seconds before.
“Bored? Why do you ask that?”
“Well, he seemed very uninterested with our conversation and I wondered if we had bored the poor child.”
“Don’t let Joe hear you referring to him as a child. He’s a man already, don’t you know?”
Adam smiled as he considered what his youngest brother would have to say about it as it had barely been a month since the boy had been allowed to leave school. Adam had tried to convince him to stay on and finish his education as they all knew the boy was brighter than he let on, but Joe was adamant he was leaving and getting to work full-time on the ranch. He had actually whooped for joy as he fled the classroom for the last time.
“Oh, I know that, silly!” Angelique batted at his arm as she smiled up at him. “I just wondered if he wasn’t able to keep up with the conversation. It’s not as if he is as well read as you and me, my darling.”
Adam nodded thoughtfully as he had seen Joe’s eyes glaze over at the mention of Wordsworth and Shakespeare’s sonnets.
“True. He didn’t seem to think much of us quoting poetry at him.”
Angelique laughed as she recalled the look on Joe’s face. “It’s a shame that the boy hasn’t received a full education. Unlike you. Why doesn’t your father insist he go on to college as you did?”
“Pa has suggested it and so have I, but Joe just isn’t interested.”
“Sometimes we need to be nudged towards what we need instead of just following what we want to do. It would be good for the boy to be stretched in his education. Unless, of course, your father doesn’t have the means. Is that why Hoss never attended college either?”
Adam turned to look at her and Angelique quickly raised a hand to her mouth.
“I’m so sorry. That was a very indelicate question and far too forward of me. Do forgive me.”
Adam felt torn between defending the implication his father was short on funds while knowing Hoss would never have dreamed of setting foot in a college. At the same time, he had no wish to imply anything negative about his middle brother’s intelligence. Hoss may not have a knack for book learning, but he was one of the most intuitive men Adam knew.
“It isn’t a question of money, but Hoss would not be happy leaving the Ponderosa.”
“And Joe?” Angelique tried again. “Do you not think it would be a good thing for him?”
“I believe it would be, but it’s going to take more than my opinion for anything to happen. Joe can be completely obstinate when he makes up his mind on something and he digs his heels in.”
“Hmmm. Well, perhaps your father could persuade him otherwise. He strikes me as a wonderful negotiator.”
“Why this sudden interest in Joe going to college?”
Angelique pulled herself away and drew a lacey handkerchief from inside her wrap. She began to dab at her eyes with it.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.” Adam reached for her free hand and patted it gently.
“You didn’t. It’s just … I just wish my little brother had been given the chance to follow his dream to learn.”
Adam had already learned that Francois had passed away just short of his thirteenth birthday and he reached to grasp Angelique’s hand more firmly.
“I know. It’s a cruel thing to have a life cut short.”
“I cannot place my dreams for Francois onto Little Joe. That is not fair.”
Adam felt her squeeze his hand as they drove on in silence. The idea that Joe should expand his horizons was not new and the thought that one life had been cut short and robbed of opportunity stirred something inside him. Joe should not be robbed of life’s chances either.
It would be another two days before Adam had the chance to raise the idea once more with his father. The days had been full with necessary chores and plans for the upcoming drive to Sacramento and it was well after supper when Adam took his opportunity. Joe had headed for bed already and Hoss was still in town so Adam found himself sitting across from his father and trying to concentrate on the book he was reading. It was a book of sonnets that Angelique had gifted him and every time he tried to focus on the lines, he was drawn back to their conversation days earlier.
Ben looked up and over the top of his newspaper. The serious look on his son’s face caused him to fold the pages and place them across his knee.
“Pa, I know we’ve talked about this before, but I’ve been thinking on it again. I know that Joe objected to the idea, but I keep wondering if he is being sold short by not furthering his education.”
“Oh?” Ben raised an eyebrow as it was well known what Joe thought about the matter. “How so?”
“He’s a smart kid, Pa. He’s got a brain in his head that he barely uses sometimes.”
Ben frowned at the comment and Adam hurried on.
“I don’t mean that as an insult! I mean that he isn’t challenged to use it. He reads more than he lets on and he absorbs a lot more than he shows us. But all he knows is this ranch.”
“And is that so bad?”
Ben leaned forward in his chair and placed the paper on the table before him.
“Pa, you and I both know there is a big world out there. It holds some incredible wonders. Joe could do a lot more than just break horses for the rest of his life.”
It was well known that Joe had proclaimed he was going to be the best bronc buster in the West and he had the raw talent to show he could. Still, it was a hard way to live and Ben still wanted to close his eyes every time his sleight son climbed up on top of an unbroken beast and went into battle with it.
“Son, you and I wanted to see that big world and we have both seen some of it. Joe doesn’t. At least, not yet. He’s still just a boy and has his whole life ahead of him to choose.”
Adam recalled Angelique’s tears as she relayed the death of her little brother and how his life had been stolen from him. Joe may not have as much time as they all assumed he did as life could change in an instant. Opportunities needed to be taken when they were presented.
“That’s just it, Pa. Now is the time where he can choose to study. Later on, he’ll have responsibilities and won’t be able to. If he is going to go to college, it should be now, while he is still in a schooling frame of mind and has nothing to hold him back.”
Ben rubbed a hand across his lower jaw as he tried to understand where Adam’s explanation was coming from. He knew he was missing something.
“Son, I thought we had settled this already. What has stirred this up again for you?”
“Angelique reminded me the other day that her younger brother never had a chance to fulfil his dreams. It was all cut short. She said that Joe shouldn’t be denied a chance at bettering himself, just because he can’t see the value in it yet.”
Joe stood at the top of the stairs, seething with anger. He’d simply come out for a glass of water and stumbled into the conversation. He’d tried for weeks to convince himself that he was imagining things with Angelique, but now he knew he hadn’t. She was trying to get him to leave the Ponderosa and Adam was supporting her!
He began to stomp down the stairs and pointed a finger at his older brother.
“She don’t know anything about what I want and I’m not her brother! I already told you all, I don’t want to go anywhere and I sure as ever don’t want to go to no college! Why is she trying to get rid of me? And why are you helping her?”
Adam recoiled at the level of venom in Joe’s voice and the blaze of anger in his brother’s eyes. He stood up and held up a hand to settle him.
“Joe, nobody is trying to get rid of you! That’s ridiculous.”
“She doesn’t like me and now she wants you to help get rid of me!”
Adam shook his head in confusion. Angelique had only ever talked well of his family.
Ben was on his feet and moving towards his youngest son, but Joe sidestepped his hand.
“I don’t want to go anywhere, Pa!”
“Nobody said you had to, Joseph. It was just an idea. Adam’s right; you are definitely bright enough to take on a college education and I’d be more than happy to send you, but …”
Joe glared at his father before fixing his stare on his brother. “What part of not wanting to go aren’t you both hearing?”
Ben reached for his son and placed a firm hand on his shoulder. “Joe, there is no call to be rude! I was going to say, that if you don’t want to go, it’s a moot point.”
“What?” Joe stared at his father as his thoughts swirled in his head. Surely his father wouldn’t agree.
“Son, it’s up to you and you have made it clear you don’t want to go.”
He could feel his son trembling under his hand and he knew the anger was barely being contained.
“Now, young man, why were you coming downstairs anyway?” He held back the comment he wanted to make about eavesdropping as it would only add fuel to the fire.
Joe shook his head as if to shake off some of the anger. He held out the glass in his hand. “I came to get water.”
“Then I suggest you get some and head back to bed. Tomorrow comes early and you have a big job ahead of you with Hoss, remember?”
Joe nodded and made his way towards the kitchen, carefully skirting around his brother. Adam sighed as he sank back into the chair and stayed silent until Joe had climbed the stairs and gone back to his room.
“Well that went well.”
Ben waited to see if there was any more.
“What do you suppose he meant about Angelique not liking him?”
“I have no idea. She has always been interested in him and nothing but polite towards both of your brothers.”
Adam rubbed the back of his hand across his eyes as he considered what had transpired.
“Pa, I think you know how I feel about her.”
Ben nodded and smiled. It was impossible not to know.
“Is this going to be a problem for Angelique if Joe feels this way?”
“Your brother is young and impetuous. He burns hot and quickly fizzles out. He’ll come around, especially when he sees how important this is to you. But I do suggest there is no more talk of college.”
Adam nodded at his father’s words, but something in him still felt unsettled despite the assurances. What could have given Joe the idea that Angelique wanted him gone from the ranch?
Other Stories by this Author
- The Squirrel’s Stash #2 (by Questfan)
- The Squirrel’s Stash #3 (by Questfan)
- The Cup of Bitterness (by Questfan)