Summary: Adam promised Laura that he’d be back for their engagement party. But he’s delayed and during that time, he unexpectedly meets his first love – a young woman he knew in Boston. After an evening spent talking, they realize that they still love each other, yet they know that it can’t make a difference. Life and time have sent them in opposite directions and they part again, while wondering what might have happened if they had taken one step closer. This is a what happens during, and after the episode, Triangle.
Rated: K+ WC 10,000
One Step Closer Series:
Adam never says where he’s going in the Triangle episode. I decided it was probably Sacramento since he could do a 4-day turn around. This is the first in a series of stories I’m writing about the woman I think Adam would have married. I’ve always stayed away from this topic, but now am embracing it. This story is full and complete. Other episodes will follow, but this is a full story without a cliff hanger…
This is the first story I’ve posted in some time. Life has been “interesting” to say the least and i’ve delveloped a whole new vocabulary of medical terms and housing options related to an aging parent. So it’s really good to be back. Writing is my place to find peace when the world seems a little wonky. Thank you for choosing to read this story. I’d like to thank Sandspur for her efforts, corrections and encouragement!
For Love’s Sake Only
A Stagecoach Heading East
There was no way to get comfortable. Adam had tried to find a way to ease his cramping muscles in the tight quarters of the stage coach, but couldn’t.
Sleep was impossible; he’d tried that too. He’d even played peek-a-boo for a time with the child across from him. While he’d done his best to be entertaining, his patience had lasted less time than the child’s willingness to play. To disentangle himself from that, he’d struck up a conversation with the businessman who was wedged in under his right arm. That pastime failed after a few minutes as well. He resorted to pulling his hat over his face and feigning sleep as a way to block out the muddle of sounds around him. In his manufactured solitude, he spent his time thinking.
He should have been gone four days—plenty of time to get to Sacramento for a quick business meeting and back home for his engagement party on Saturday night. That’s what he’d assured Laura as he’d said goodbye. But as he headed west, a weather system began dumping so much rain on central California that his quick turnaround was delayed. The stage company deserved great credit; they’d repaired the washed-out road and moved the rock slide in record time and he was headed home—three days late.
He was thankful to be on his way, but since the stage hadn’t run for a few days, they packed all ticket holders for that period into one coach and sent it rolling, figuring the crowding would ease as the passengers reached their destinations. The seating arrangement that comfortably held six adults was packed with seven plus the toddler. The sad fact was that he couldn’t even complain. Ben Cartwright was a tall man who produced tall sons—with the exception of Little Joe—and Adam’s height and broad shoulders took up more space than any of the others with him. He was trying to keep his legs tucked against the seat rather than stretched out as he would have liked, and his arms were folded on his chest to allow the most room on either side. The result was that his knees were throbbing in protest at remaining flexed, and his back and shoulders were tightening into knots.
There was a reason for his discomfort beyond the obvious space issue. He’d been working 12 hours a day trying to get a house built as a surprise wedding gift for Laura and Peggy. There had been many nights lately when he was so tired and sore that he dozed off at Laura’s after supper and made his way home to the Ponderosa nearly-asleep in the saddle. Fortunately Sport knew the way and always got him to his destination. His father had warned him that he was burning the candle at both ends. Ben suggested that he might want to slow down a bit or at least tell Laura what he was doing so she wouldn’t resent his absence, or inability to stay awake when he did spend time with her. But Adam thought his fiancé would be thrilled with the surprise…at least he hoped she would…but then again…it seemed he often misread what Laura wanted from him.
He let his mind take a tour of the construction. The house was set in a wooded valley near the lake, and was taking shape nicely. It wasn’t as big as the Ponderosa house he designed, but it would be plenty big enough for now and could easily be added to if necessary. The framing was nearly done; all that remained was to place the trusses for the roof. With those set, the rest would fall together quickly. He did a mental inventory of what was needed to complete the interior and was pleasantly surprised that everything he had ordered should arrive soon. With the long hours of work behind him and the end in sight, he was at a point where he felt comfortable setting a date for the wedding. To seal the deal, he’d purchased a wedding ring that he planned to give Laura as soon as he got back.
Adam blushed beneath his hat as he thought back to three days earlier when he was picking out that ring. Melinda! He thought of her and sighed with the pleasant memories associated with that name—and the woman who claimed it. What chance of fate had put her outside the jewelry store in Sacramento? And what penance must he undertake for even thinking of her again? But he couldn’t un-think the memory, and let her image linger. Melinda, he thought again as an ache of past love shot through his heart, and a shiver of past passion affected another part of his anatomy.
They’d met in Boston when he’d gone there for school. He’d fallen from a tree in Abel’s yard trying to get a better look at her—and had fallen even harder as he’d gotten to know her. She was a governess for a family there during the years Adam attended college, and her aunt lived next door to his grandfather. Melinda would visit her aunt, while Adam stayed with Abel whenever there was a break in their classes. During those interludes they had come to know each other very well. They’d talked for hours as they’d shared their dreams and passions and had found much common ground and interest. The friendship had blossomed into romance and intimacy; a first deep love for each of them. Even though they thought that they would be together forever one day, their paths had diverged when he’d gone back to Nevada and she’d decided to go back to school. They’d promised to meet in four years—but ten years had passed without seeing each other. That had changed three days ago.
When they’d met in Sacramento, he considered whether he should poke at the ashes of old feelings. Yet, they were two adults who could share a meal and a few memories without any entanglements… That had been his well-reasoned conclusion then, but he was less certain it was such a good idea now as he thought of having to tell Laura about it. He wondered if she would suspect that this “old friend” from Boston was far more than a friend. He would know immediately how she felt. When Laura was upset, her speech became clipped and her head rose at least two inches on her neck…or so it seemed. She’d profess that nothing was wrong, then abruptly turn away, cross her arms over her chest and brood. Adam knew when that happened it was best to profess his sincerest apology and turn quickly to another topic.
Laura was a beautiful woman and Adam appreciated her. He couldn’t say that he loved her—although he loved things about her. There certainly wasn’t the passion with Laura that he had known with Melinda, but it was a solid relationship…at least he thought it was…and he hoped that love would grow as they got past the courting and became a family.
There was no comparing Melinda with Laura. They were both lovely and kind, but their personalities were as different as night and day. Admitting that didn’t stop the comparisons from bouncing around in his mind.
He never needed to wonder what Melinda thought; she always told him. They didn’t always agree but they could always voice their thoughts without fear of breaking the bond between them. Melinda was opinionated, strong-willed, and filled with fire and dreams. Laura was not; she was cool, easily swayed in her thinking and unsure of herself. They’d been through several episodes already where he’d thought he’d known what Laura wanted, only to find out later that he hadn’t a clue. His father assured him that this was the way women usually operated. He accepted that life with Laura was going to take some adjustment. Yet he hoped that in time she would feel comfortable enough with him to be honest and express her thoughts without fear. This one change would make their life together so much fuller…and simpler.
Melinda was well-read, intelligent and faced her challenges head on. He would say that Laura was intelligent too, but felt she might believe that old wives-tale that it was unladylike to show it. She kept an organized house, didn’t spend beyond her means, and picked things up easily when she relaxed enough to let herself be taught. The problem was that he couldn’t point out the areas where she might benefit from learning new things without her accusing him of thinking she was stupid.
His initial experience with this had come over her inability to tell Peggy that the child’s father had died. He helped her through that and thought she would see the benefit of acting instead of stewing over big decisions. But there had been many more arguments and stormy times between them as he’d tried to help her run the ranch and deal with the hired hands more effectively.
He had to admit that Laura had come a long way. She was handling Peggy and the ranch much better now, and he hoped that she would continue to be open to learning new things—maybe she would even come to appreciate classic literature and poetry in time.
The thing he found most frustrating was that as Laura became upset, she pulled away while claiming to have a headache, rather than staying to talk things out. There would be no more headaches once they were married. She would learn to speak her mind and listen to his thoughts until they could reach a conclusion. He knew he wouldn’t win every argument, and didn’t want to. But he wanted to know what he was up against instead of having to guess or back away and deal with it later. His experience in the dessert with the madman, Kane, had left him unable to tolerate mind games of any sort. He insisted on honestly now. While he was giving Laura some latitude as they got to know each other, he was going explain the need for her to be straightforward . In fact he was going to talk to her about this as soon as he got home…well maybe after giving her the ring and setting the date…but definitely right after that.
Adam understood that Laura’s first marriage had been a disaster. She had been honest about that. She knew that she hadn’t been prepared for wedlock to a worldly man and had hated her husband for treating her like a child and then betraying her. Yet she sometimes acted like a petulant child when things didn’t go her way. She was so different when she let her guard down and allowed him into her thoughts. Those were their best times together.
After they were married, he intended to gently lead her to the enjoyment of physical love. There was no question that there were times when Laura was cold and unapproachable. She would seem to be comfortable in his arms or with his touch and kiss, but then would pull away with the excuse that she had much to do. He’d always ascribed that to her previous bad experience. Yet he’d watched one night as she’d let his cousin hold her hand to tell a story of a stage robbery he’d been in. She’d looked at Will with such trust and openness that Adam had been spurred to jealousy. It had been irrational, but he’d felt it. Maybe it was that after bringing Laura forward through her fears and misgivings, and helping her to face her problems as a reasoned adult, he resented that her heart might be won over so easily—by someone else. And by Will of all people; he was a better man than Laura’s husband, while being of a similar ilk.
What made the trials with Laura worthwhile was that there was Peggy. The child was spirited and free, and she had given him her love and trust easily once she got to know him. He often lay awake wondering if he would feel the same about Laura if there was no Peggy. The child helped him understand the joy of parenthood and made him hope there’d soon be other children in the new house. Peggy and Laura would be his life and he would show them what a man of honor was like. He’d protect them and create a home where they’d be happy. That would be enough to start—even if love had to come along later.
This had all seemed perfectly logical to him—until he’d seen Melinda and recalled what passion felt like. A strange new disquiet was niggling at his mind as he began to consider that maybe it wasn’t enough. Was he trying to make a home where Laura and Peggy would be happy at the expense of his own happiness? Was it enough to hope that love would follow if everything worked out right?
Melinda had given him much to think about.
That brought him back to the need for apologies: first for missing the party, then for “other” things that would remain undetailed. Nothing had happened with Melinda. They had dinner together and talked in the salon until dawn. There was a kiss goodbye—a kiss and nothing more. Yet he knew that if Melinda had taken one step closer…he would be on a trip home to apologize for breaking an engagement. The stifling atmosphere of the coach closed in around him and he shut his eyes tighter, hoping to force his mind to rest.
There was no rest.
Apologies…he wondered why it seemed he was always apologizing to Laura. It would be easier if she told him what she really thought instead of saying it didn’t matter and then being angry because it did. Those false starts and missteps always ended up badly, necessitating his contrition to get things moving forward. And now there were apologies needed again and he’d do his best to get through them with a smile. This time he was bringing a ring and the promise of a date to start their time together. He hoped that might smooth the situation and ease Laura’s growing fretfulness about the wedding.
When the stage stopped for a fresh team, Adam climbed up to the driver’s seat instead of into the passenger cabin. He knew Mike from his many trips to Sacramento and asked, “Mind if I ride shotgun to Virginia City?”
Mike nodded as he spat a brown, slimy plug of tobacco to the ground from his perch. “Sure thing, Mr. Cartwright. Can’t blame you for wantin’ to ride out here. You must be feeling a might trapped inside.”
As he settled onto the bench and stretched his legs forward, Adam mumbled under his breath, “Truer words were never spoken!”
A West-Bound Train
Melinda Hayworth was heading from Sacramento to San Francisco—her last stop in California before returning to Boston. She was promoting her system of preparing young women to be governesses. The call of gold and silver, as well as the opportunities to own large ranches and farms, had brought many families to the great open West. But the towns that had sprouted up to support these endeavors seldom had good schools. Families who had come from the East wanted their children educated well, and a large need existed for teachers and governesses.
Sacramento was a week-long stop on a three year tour arranged by her publisher to train those who would use and sell her product. She was tired of traveling but still enjoyed the opportunity to talk with so many people. Her life seemed full; she was content…until three days ago when she happened to be molested by a couple of thugs and was saved by none other than Adam Cartwright.
“Adam,” she spoke silently. Why now. I thought I had forgotten you, and now…. All her years of pushing him to the back of her mind were gone as his image flooded her memory—and what an image. The years of ranch work had changed him from the gangly young man she had fallen in love with, to a broad-shouldered, muscular man who had punched out her attacker with one swing. She remembered how his golden skin stood out against his black shirt and hat, and how his gunbelt slipped low around his waist while the holster rested against on his thigh. Lucky holster, she thought as she fanned herself. How long would it take to forget him this time? Or more appropriately, how long would it take her tamp down the flame until it cooled enough that she could think of him without the way-down ache and longing?
After he’d rescued her, they’d spent the evening together, and found out why they’d lost touch. Each had assumed the other had lost interest as their lives advanced, but it wasn’t true. He was engaged now; that really changed nothing. She had stopped thinking about him as her fiancé some time ago…and yet knowing that he was engaged did change everything deep inside. Not knowing whether he was married had always let her think that perhaps he couldn’t forget her any more than she could forget him. The knot in her stomach kept growing throughout their time together until she thought she might explode with wanting him. She couldn’t speak her feelings, not now. Not since he was engaged…to someone else.
They’d been together for hours, and it was still too soon when he’d said goodbye.
She looked into his eyes as they parted and was struck by what she saw: he loved her too. She knew it, but it did not matter because he belonged to someone else. He had leaned to kiss her, lingering a moment as their foreheads touched—and her heart broke as he left.
She could not stop wondering what might have happened if instead of leaving, he had taken one step closer. The thought plagued her now. Would that one step have brought her into his arms, or would she have fallen at his feet, begging him not to leave her again. She wasn’t sure. Why is life so unfair? We both still love one another, yet we can’t be together.
The question didn’t matter; her broken heart didn’t matter. He was on his way to be married and she would continue waiting for a suitable substitute for Adam Cartwright to come along. Who am I kidding? There’s no substitute. I’m doomed to wander the world looking for a tall man with curly hair, dancing hazel eyes and a smile that brightens a room. And even then, he won’t be Adam.
She laughed wryly at her thoughts, and then allowed her tears to flow again.
Three Days Earlier
Melinda was early and stopped at the window of the jewelry store she had passed on her way to the auditorium each day since her arrival in Sacramento. She was giving lectures at a building a few doors away and always allowed a little window shopping time to consider which gem-adorned bracelet she’d buy if her budget actually allowed it. The store manager changed his display a little every day and she could always find something she would like to have.
She saw the jeweler glance toward her, giving a wave of recognition and greeting before he turned back to his customer. Melinda cupped her hand against the glass to reduce the sunlight’s glare, hoping to see what the tall man inside the store was purchasing. He was dressed in black from his hat to his boots, and she wondered what sort of man would wear such attire. Was he gunman, a preacher or just a man who was so assured of himself that his attire made a statement? Considering this for a moment, she dubbed him, “The Man in Black.”
Those thoughts dissolved when she realized he was examining a tray of gold wedding bands. “Someone is getting married,” she chirped happily to herself. “I don’t know who he is, but I know what he is: he’s a man in love,”
She sighed. There was no expectation that she would marry soon, but that didn’t stop her from appreciating another’s happiness. Continuing her spying, she watched as he picked up the widest band to examine it more closely. It was beautiful—a brushed gold with nice curving profile. Melinda raised her own hand, imagining what it might look like on her left ring finger. “Hmm,” she murmured, “I hope his bride is petite. That ring won’t look good on a larger woman’s hand.”
The Man in Black chose the ring she liked, and as the clerk placed it in a box, Melinda went back to examining the onyx and emerald jewelry that she’d been having her own love affair with all week. After a bit of ogling, she squinted at the clock inside the store to see how much time was left before she would need to move along. She caught sight of the customer again as he waited for his purchase. There was something familiar about him; something very familiar. There wasn’t time to comb her memory for the answer before she was approached by two disheveled-looking men who reeked of liquor and sweat.
“You’re one fine lookin’ woman, miss. I don’t s’pose you’d like to join us for a morning quaff at the drinkin’ establishment down the block?”
The man’s breath smelled like rotting teeth and cheap booze, making Melinda’s stomach turn. Her instinct was to run but decided she might try being cordial while moving nearer the doorway to the jewelry store until she could sneak inside. “You’ll have to go along on your own, you two.” She tried to laugh but it came out sounding strangled. “My husband’s in this store and I’m waiting for him.”
The second of the pair spoke up. “Now why don’t I believe that? I’m thinking you don’t like us much and are trying to get rid of us.”
The hair was standing up on her neck as she spoke while sidestepping toward the door. “I assure you I’d be most pleased to share a beverage with you, but my husband…” she said pointing to the store.
“You’re just lying. You been standing there all the while we was walking up the street. No man would leave a purdy thing like you waitin’ outside.” He stepped in closer and tried to grab her arm. “Now how’s about you come with us like we asked. We been real nice so far, but we don’t like to be refused.”
Melinda gave a yelp of fear as she raised her umbrella. “Get back or I’ll smack you,” she yelled, hoping to get the attention of the two men inside. Both drunks now had their hands on her arms and were pulling her as she let out a scream.
Inside the store, the customer noticed the scuffle and hollered to the jeweler that he’d be back. He yanked the door open and pulled one of the men from Melinda’s arm, laying him out with an uppercut to the jaw. The other let go without further encouragement and staggered down the street.
Melinda was tugging against the men’s grasp, and went flying to the ground as their reverse pull was released. She sat stunned until she was assisted up by her protector.
“Are you hurt?” he asked as helped her rise. Once she was standing, he saw her face and gasped, “Melinda?”
She stared back with equal surprise. “Adam? What are you doing here?”
“Saving you, it would seem.” He chuckled as he retrieved her case and umbrella, handing them back to her. “To answer your question…I still live in Nevada… the next state east…and do business in Sacramento frequently. This is a long way from Boston though, so the better question might be, what are you doing here?”
The store owner exited and handed Adam a small package wrapped in flowered paper. “I don’t want you to forget your ring, Mr. Cartwright. I’ve sent for the police. At least they’ll get one of them put away. I’ve seen men like that prowling these streets lately and it’s a shame that good people have to deal with riffraff and boozers.” Turning toward Melinda, he added, “I’m sorry, Miss, if you stop by later I’ll give you a nice discount on any item you purchase.”
Melinda didn’t hear a word the man said after he handed Adam the ring box. She looked over the black hat and clothing Adam was wearing and realized she was watching him choose and purchase the wedding ring. Her heart sank to her feet. Was he getting married as she surmised, or was he perhaps buying an anniversary present for his wife? She felt betrayed and had no idea why. It was unreasonable for her to be upset, but for a moment she couldn’t breathe and slid down the wall of the store to keep from falling as blackness swirled before her eyes.
The darkness cleared as she sat. She was finally able to calm the two nervous faces peering down at her. “I’m sorry to have frightened you. Guess I just realized what almost happened. Don’t worry; I’m fine now.” Taking Adam’s offered hand she stood again, and thanked him as she rested briefly against his arm.
“I’ll walk with you to wherever you’re going.”
Her reply was terse. “I told you that I’m fine, Adam.” Her shock was replaced by anger as she thought back to the years of wondering why he had stopped writing to her. “You haven’t cared about me for some time, so why pretend that you do now?”
Adam recoiled. “I stopped caring? What about you?” His tone relaxed. “Listen, we can’t figure out what happened in the past while standing here on the street, but I assure you that I’m concerned about what just happened to you. I want to escort you to your destination.” He chuckled as he took her arm, “I see you haven’t lost any of your fire, Melinda.”
She laughed as well. “Is that what you call it? I think the term you used all those years ago was stubbornness.”
The jeweler bid them goodbye. “Remember what I said about a good discount on a piece of your choice, Miss. Stop in any time.”
“I’m just going down the street,” she said as she pointed to the ornate façade of the fourth building. “It’s a theater; I’m using the auditorium to train some young women in my teaching methods.”
They’d settled into “friendly” conversation even though their tense jaws and stiff posture indicated they were still not at ease with one another.
Adam asked, “What kind of method is that?”
“Do you remember how I used to grumble about the materials available for governesses? That system was based on the English method of private teaching. It was steeped in tradition, but didn’t take into account the rapidly changing times, or give any ideas on how to make learning come alive for the children. It was all rote and discipline.”
Adam nodded. “I do recall that you put a lot of effort into planning activities for your charges.”
“I kept track of all those ideas and after I graduated from college, I wrote a set of materials to help teachers and governesses. This style of teaching doesn’t appeal to everyone, but those who don’t have the school systems and resources that are available in the East seem to appreciate the ideas very much. Children out here are often taught by teachers who are little more than children themselves, with no more than a certificate from the local school they attended. These are smart women, but they aren’t prepared to take on the challenges of their positions.”
He stopped walking to look at her. “It sounds like there’s a great need for this, Melinda. You should be so proud.” They continued on until they reached the steps and he watched as she started up. Unwilling to part without knowing more about her life, he suggested, “How about if I come back later and walk you to where you’re staying—perhaps we could have dinner? My stage was cancelled, so I have time if you do.” He flinched, and added, “That is if you aren’t expected by someone else.”
Melinda smiled at his sudden guardedness. Had he assumed that she was single and then had a flash of insight that perhaps she had a husband waiting back at the hotel? She liked that he might be feeling a little of what she had felt earlier when he shoved a newly purchased wedding ring into his pocket. “I travel with a companion from my publishing company; an older woman who protects me like a mother hen. But we’ve been together for nearly three years, and she’s pretty sure I won’t get into any trouble. She’s off visiting friends today and I would enjoy having a dinner companion. I’ll see you here at five.”
Adam waved as Melinda disappeared through the entrance, but instead of leaving, he waited until she was inside for a bit, then entered the same doors and found the auditorium where she was giving her presentation. He took a seat in the shadows of the last row and slid deep into the chair, hoping she wouldn’t see him from the lectern at the front. The forward part of the room was crowded with young, eager-looking women, and he got comfortable as Melinda called the group to order and began to speak.
As it neared noon, he slipped out of the room, impressed with what he had learned so far. Melinda led the group with the deftness of a conductor leading an orchestra. She laid out her plan in easily understood language and then built it with a crescendo of ideas and suggestions. The women in the hall responded with laughter and nods of comprehension as she helped them see how wonderful teaching could be with useful tools to fall back on. The afternoon session was to include a few good ideas on how teachers could work with unruly pupils. Adam chuckled as Melinda said that, wondering if anyone could have handled Little Joe’s strong personality…even with a “few good ideas.”
He was back in his seat for the afternoon and found out that he was right in encouraging Laura to tell Peggy the truth about her father’s death…according to Melinda’s way of thinking anyway. She told the group, “Children are far more resilient than we give them credit for, and it’s harder for them to suspect the truth that’s kept from them, than it is for them to face it.” It was the philosophy his family lived by: face the truth, take a step at a time and get through it. He’d faced the varied tragic events of his childhood and had become stronger for them. This was the sanest way to deal with problems in life. He thought of Laura and hoped that she would embrace the benefits of living this way as well.
Adam lost track of what Melinda was saying for a time as his mind wandered back to Nevada. A thought nagged at him; was he facing the truth about Laura? Had he been overtaken by his need to have his own family? Had he been pressured and manipulated to take this route, or had he actually come to believe that Laura and Peggy were his future? Sometimes it seemed clear that he had truly chosen this direction, while the next minute it was all muddy. He set those thoughts aside, sighed deeply, and determined to continue forward until something happened to convince him that his decision was flawed. He chuckled inwardly hoping that if he did receive a sign, it would be obvious enough to knock him on his rear end and make him take notice.
They chatted about the weather and other non-personal topics as they walked toward Melinda’s hotel that afternoon. Adam had waited for her outside where they’d parted, even though he’d never gone away. He wanted to talk about her lectures, but since she didn’t know he had been there all day, he would try to bring it up in some other way.
Stopping at the jewelry store where they met, Adam asked, “Would you like to step inside and purchase your discounted item?”
Melinda smirked, “I doubt I could afford much of anything in there, even if it was marked down.” She leaned her forehead against the glass and smiled at the gold bracelet with the starbursts of emeralds and small diamonds. Pointing to it, she said yearningly, “That’s the one I want but I can’t get it right now.” Her eyes twinkled as she looked at Adam. “I think it’s always wise to hold out for the best.”
“A wise philosophy, indeed.” He suspected Melinda was referring to much more than a jewelry purchase and quickly changed the subject. “When we reach your hotel, I’ll make a dinner reservation for 6:30 and meet you then. I’m sure you can use a few minutes to freshen up.”
“Do you think I need ‘freshening up?’” she asked. As she heard him stammering to reply, she patted his arm and said, “I’m teasing you, Adam. I will appreciate the time to makes some notes on the day and change into a more stylish dress. I’m done looking like a schoolmarm for today.”
A Table for Two
He was waiting at the table when she entered the room. She’s definitely not a schoolmarm, he thought as she walked toward him in a form-fitting, purple satin dress. Her hair was pulled back on the top, but fell in soft curls to frame her face. Adam thought of Laura—making an instant comparison between the two women that surprised him. He wondered why Laura’s hair always seemed so stiff. It was a lovely color, but seemed a solid mass that even the wind could not disturb. Was it just the texture that was different, or did she do something to shellac it in place. He had no idea what women did to their hair, but assumed that it was one of those things he’d find out. His cheeks turned a deep red as he realized how these thoughts betrayed his fiancé, and resolved to atone for it later. For now he rose to greet his guest.
“How did you like my lectures today?” Melinda asked as she got settled. Assuming his blush was due to her question, she continued, “You probably thought I wouldn’t see you there in the back, but my eyesight is quite keen.” She laid her hand on his; her thumb caressing his fingers. It was instinctual—something she had always done when they were together. “I’m surprised that you spent the day listening to me chatter on.”
“I was truly impressed.” He answered sincerely. His eyes moved down to their hands and brought hers to his for a kiss. The comparisons flowed unbidden. Melinda had always needed a physical connection with him. She had held his hand as they’d read together, and had touched his cheek as she spoke to him. He realized how much he missed this…and wondered why Laura would break away from his handhold, and would turn away from his touch or embrace. The situation is different, he admonished himself. Laura has a child and is probably unwilling to be seen being openly affectionate in front of Peggy. At least that’s what he told himself as he concentrated again on what Melinda was saying.
They spoke more about her project and then Melinda asked, “You’re engaged?” To his questioning look she added, “I saw you picking out a wedding band at the jewelers today, and since you haven’t mentioned a wife, I suspect you haven’t tied the knot yet…?”
“I forgot how observant you are. We are engaged but haven’t set the date.”
“Is this someone from Virginia City; someone you’ve known all your life?”
“Yes and no.” He smiled as her eyebrows rose in question. “Laura owns a ranch near the Ponderosa and has been in the area for some time. I only came to know her lately. She’s a widow and was having some problems running her spread after her husband died. I stepped in with some advice and assistance, and we got to know each other better.” Her hand was still in his, and even though he knew he should release it, he didn’t. “How about you? Are you thinking of marriage?”
Melinda shook her head no. “It’s not for lack of proposals.” She grinned at him and continued,
“But I told you that I will wait for the best.”
Her eyes dropped to her lap as she withdrew her hand. “I didn’t want to bring this up, but I have to, Adam. It’s bothered me all these years and I won’t be myself with you until I know the answer.”
His right eyebrow arched upward dramatically. He’d suspected this topic would come up, just not so soon. But Melinda was direct; she said what was on her mind and didn’t play games. “What do you want to know?”
“What happened?” She laughed at herself. “Perhaps I should to be more specific. I thought you loved me, Adam. I know that I loved you. After your graduation, you said you needed to go home to repay your father by working on the ranch. That made sense since I was going back to school and would be gone for a while too. But we promised that after that we were going to take on the world together. And then…in no time, I didn’t hear from you anymore. It seemed clear that you left me behind, both in person and in your heart. Was I wrong about the way you felt? Were you lying when you said you loved me and that nothing would keep us apart?”
Her words cut him. “What do you mean, I stopped writing? I sent letters every week to Indiana where you were going to school.”
“Why would you send them there? I wasn’t in Indiana. I wrote you that my employer pulled some strings and got me into Mary Sharp College in Winchester, Tennessee. It was a woman’s college gaining a good reputation as offering a well-rounded curriculum.”
“I never got that letter—and apparently a lot of other ones as well. I wrote several times to your aunt’s home in Boston too, figuring there might have been something wrong with the other address. After several months without hearing from you…I assumed you had found ‘other’ interests.”
“Oh, dear,” she choked out, “My aunt wouldn’t have recognized my name and undoubtedly discarded them or put them somewhere and forgot. You remember she was having problems already when you were with your grandfather. Her mental condition worsened rapidly after I left for school.”
They were stunned, staring at each other in the horrible realization that a poor postal system and an elderly woman had led to their demise as a couple.
Melinda spoke first. “I’m sorry, Adam. I should have known you wouldn’t have just stopped writing even if your feelings had changed. You would have told me.” She searched her heart to find an answer that couldn’t be found, and finally breathed, “I should have confirmed your address with your grandfather, but I only got back to Boston once in those years I was in school, and then was too embarrassed to say anything. I thought it would put him in an uncomfortable position if he knew that you didn’t care for me any longer.”
“I’m sorry too. My father kept me plenty busy once I got home, and when I thought you moved on in your life without me, I put myself into the ranch and tried not to think too much about it. It’s funny…Grandfather asked about you in his letters. I told him that we had lost touch. I thought of asking him to speak to you when you visited your aunt, but I felt the same way that you did about putting him in the middle of an uncomfortable situation.”
Their meals arrived and they pushed food around on their plates in silence while sipping their wine. Neither could regain their appetite as they began to understand what they had lost—and that it was too late to reclaim it.
There was little to do except move ahead…one step at a time. To that end, Adam asked about her experience in Tennessee. Melinda answered all his questions and then made her own series of inquiries about his family, life on the ranch and what he was doing with his engineering degree. The conversation got easier and they were soon laughing and enjoying their reunion in the best way they could.
After they moved to the salon for an after-dinner sherry, Melinda said, “Tell me about Laura.”
He remained quietly thoughtful. The evening had brought the remembrance of what life with Melinda had been like. He still loved her—and probably always would. You never forgot the “firsts” in life, and he and Melinda had shared many firsts. He considered her question, but right then he honestly didn’t want to talk about Laura. He felt Melinda’s hand on his cheek as she said again, “Tell me about her.”
“She’s a lovely woman with a seven-year-old daughter…” Talking to Melinda had always been easy…and he began to talk. He described how he had come to care for Laura while showing her how to run the ranch. His eyes sparkled as he told her about Peggy and what a joy it was to think of having a child. He shared details about the house he was building. The conversation flowed on to a few other things he probably shouldn’t have shared.
All the while he spoke, he held Melinda’s hand; grasping it like a lifeline.
“Do you love her, Adam?”
“Huh? Didn’t I say that?”
“As a matter of fact, you didn’t. You said that she is lovely; that you admire what she’s accomplished; that she’s a good mother and even a good housekeeper, but you didn’t say you love her. It sounded like you were describing someone you were thinking of hiring to run your household.”
“That’s how it sounded?” She nodded. “Maybe I’m just not comfortable saying I love her to you.”
Her lips pursed in thought. “Maybe… But you didn’t say you loved her in your expressions either. Women can hear the love in a man’s voice even when they don’t say the words. A man in love is breathless when he talks about the woman he loves. You should be upset that you missed your engagement party, but you aren’t…not really. It sounds more like you were relieved. You should be anxious with excitement at showing the house to Laura, but you talk more about the frame and trusses than about what it will mean to both of you.”
His tone was mildly terse, “So, maybe I don’t like parties and I look at the house from an engineer’s point of view rather than as a husband. I’m in my 30’s now, Melinda. Love isn’t as important when you get to be my age. You start to want a home and family. Love can come once you’re together.”
Melinda’s mouth formed an oval of surprise. “Love has everything to do with it, Adam! You may have told me a lot more than you intended when you said that Laura felt betrayed by her first husband. Is this marriage more about making things right for her and Peggy, than it is about love? If you don’t love her—don’t feel passion now while your love should be in the full blossom of getting to know one another, you’ll betray both of you by marrying.”
He grimaced. “You don’t pull your punches, do you?”
“No I don’t. And you never did before either. What have you abandoned in yourself to become a rancher in the West? Where’s the passionate man who whispered Elizabeth Barrett Browning to me the night we…well you know when you said it.”
“‘If thou must love me, let it be for naught except for love’s sake only.’”
“See…you do remember. Do you whisper poetry to Laura, or just talk about ranch hands and breeding stock?”
“That’s not fair! What I say to Laura is not your business.” He’d leaned toward her in anger, but slumped back into his chair as it passed. “I’m sorry. It’s not easy for me to speak of feelings. I believe I will love Laura a great deal someday.”
“Perhaps,” Her tone softened, “But, ‘As love without esteem is capricious and volatile, esteem without love is languid and cold.’”
“Jonathan Swift. Your memory is far too good, young lady. You’re using my own favorite quotes against me.”
“I have nothing to gain in this Adam. I don’t expect that you will suddenly throw away the life you have now and come running to me…or start loving me again. But I was always honest with you and wont’ stop now.”
He wanted to say, how can I start loving you again when I never stopped, but said instead, “Thank you for your honestly.”
They turned toward reminiscences of Boston after that—not their romance, but people they knew and what was happening there now. The wait staff came by and politely told then that the salon was closing but that they were welcome to remain. Golden morning light was streaming between the heavy drapes when they finally fell silent. Adam rose. “I’m here until tomorrow. Dinner tonight?”
“A short one. I’m leaving tomorrow too.”
“I’ll meet you outside the auditorium at five.” He suggested
“I’ll be there.”
Adam brought along a basket of food from his hotel when he met Melinda. They walked to a park where they had a picnic on the grass. The conversation stayed light as he told her about his engineering work on the Sacramento harbor some years earlier. Their discussion turned to what they were reading and the plays and operas they had been able to see. As the light faded, they walked to Melinda’s hotel.
Standing at arm’s length, he leaned to kiss her gently on the lips, and then whispered, “I will miss you,” as they continued to hold hands over the distance between them.
“And I will think of you often, and hope for your happy marriage.” She winked. “I won’t expect an invitation, but you could write to let me know when it is so that I might keep you and Laura in my prayers. Send it to my aunt’s address in Boston. I’ll be going there when I’m done in San Francisco. She left me the house when she died and I live there when I’m not traveling.” She fought to control her voice so as not to betray her sadness. “I’ll keep an eye on Abel for you.”
“I’d appreciate it. He always thought highly of you and will like the attention.”
Her hands dropped to her side, but her eyes remained focused on him. “You taught me so many things, Adam. I learned how to love because of you. You gave me a voice to say what I wanted—to argue and press my points without fear—and released my passion—for learning…and in other ways as well. But there’s one thing you didn’t teach me.”
“What’s that?” His head tilted.
“How to forget you.” She reached to gently touch the face of the man she knew she would love forever, then turned and walked into her hotel. She looked back once inside and saw him place his hand on his cheek where hers had been. Then he walked out of her life again.
A Year Later
Ben walked into the house and saw Adam sprawled in the blue chair, reading. “Oh good. I’m glad to see you taking it easy. I’ve been worried that you might aggravate your back again with all the hard labor you’ve been doing.”
Adam looked up with the patience honed from being Ben Cartwright’s son. The man always worried, and always told you what he thought. “I’m fine, Pa.” He noticed the yellow paper of a telegram peeking out from the pocket of his father’s jacket and pointed. “What’s that?”
“It’s from Mrs. McIntyre, Abel’s housekeeper. She says he’s had a stroke but is doing well for now.”
Adam’s heart skipped as his mouth dried to cotton. “And what about after now?”
Ben moved to his son’s side. “It was a bad one, Adam. He’s partially paralyzed and isn’t able to speak many words. There’s no indication of how long he might live.”
Taking the telegram, Adam read it for himself and leaned his head into his hands as he thought about his grandfather.
Adam had always intended to get back to Boston for a visit, but it seemed there was always more to do, and he hadn’t made the trip. This last year had been especially hard for him. He’d fallen while setting trusses on the house and spent several weeks recovering from a spinal injury. During that time he’d found out that Laura really loved Will, and he’d sent them away together with his best wishes.
There was no blame. He was a different man when he got back from Sacramento too. After meeting Melinda, he found himself making constant comparisons between her and Laura—with Laura coming up short in the balance. But he’d persevered and tried to set a date for the wedding, still assuming all would work out once they were together. Overall he considered it a blessing that in the time that he was vacillating about his feelings toward her, Laura had been falling in love with Will. At least one of them seemed to have a happy ending.
Since then he’d poured himself into work again, and tried not to think of anything else. He’d just finished a stint as a substitute teacher in Virginia City and had tried some of Melinda’s teaching methods to encourage student participation. Instead of “teaching” history, he sent his students out to find out how their families had helped to create Virginia City. The project was popular with the children, but the probing he did to lay the groundwork of that history exposed some terrible truths about the founding fathers. Two deaths and an arrest had followed.
Adam was restless. There was no disguising it any longer and the telegram helped him make up his mind. He looked up and spoke the words he needed to say. “Pa…I’ve been thinking.”
Ben nodded as he sat across from him on the large wooden table where he’d held many of these ‘I’ve been thinking’ conversations with his sons. “You need to go to Boston?”
“I’d like to say goodbye to Grandfather…and work in engineering again. I’m sure I’ll find a firm that will take me on.”
“I’ve noticed that you seem unsettled and figured this news about Abel would spur you to action.” They talked for a while longer about Abel, each man recalling their favorite memories of the man.” As Adam rose to head to his room, Ben asked, “Is your friend, Melinda, still living next door to Abel?”
“I think she still owns the house. She travels frequently, but the last time I heard from Grandfather, he mentioned that she’d been there to visit him.”
“I suspect that it will be nice seeing her again as well.” Ben smiled as Adam’s cheeks took on a pinkish glow.
“Yes, it will.”
Ben became thoughtful. “Do you ever wonder if the reason you haven’t found someone you really wanted to marry out here is because the person you loved was across the country? You came close to marrying Laura. I think you’d convinced yourself that it was what you wanted, but I don’t think you ever loved her enough to go through with it. I suspected it wouldn’t happen…even before Will entered the picture.”
“I’m still not sure what I felt for Laura. I think I wanted to protect her and show her a better life. In fact, I think that was often my motivation with the women I came to care for. I did love them in a way, but perhaps I thought that if I could make things better or right for them, I’d find what I needed as well.”
“You’ve said a lot there, son. I think that’s happened with each of us in this family at some point. It’s sometimes hard to distinguish between love and philanthropy. We’ve been richly blessed—especially so since you returned from school. When you have little to offer, you love for love’s sake. But once there’s so much to offer, we can get confused and think that we can make things right for others who don’t have the same resources. What we’ve all found is that this is seldom what’s right for them…or us. We can’t fix everyone who’s broken…but that hasn’t kept us from trying.”
“When I came back from Sacramento, I knew I was different. It just took time and falling from a ladder again to figure out how.” He smiled sadly at his father. “It became obvious that it wasn’t enough to have a nursemaid, or a wonderful housekeeper, or any of the other attributes I ascribed to Laura. I know now that I want what you had when you married my mother. I think you’re right. You had nothing but dreams to offer her and she believed that if she was with you, anything was possible. You were going to take on the world together. I want to feel that same union of heart and purpose.”
“Then it worked out right, son.”
“I think so.”
“I’ll ask you to think things over again before making a final decision, but I’ll support you no matter what that is.”
A World Away
Adam had been back in Boston for nearly three weeks and hadn’t seen any activity at the house next door. Melinda didn’t have a housekeeper and Mrs. McIntyre could only tell him that “The young lady is away on one of them trips again.”
In the meantime, he’d gotten settled with Abel and had taken a job at an engineering firm nearby. His intention was to stay until his grandfather no longer needed him, and then he would look at his options again.
The older man seemed overjoyed at having his grandson back and recovered a bit of his spunk and speech. The two men spent hours catching up—with Abel adding comments as he could. These were blessed days of reconnection for both of them.
In the quiet hours, Adam found himself watching the house beyond the iron fence to the north. He hadn’t written of his coming, but had sent an earlier letter telling Melinda that the wedding hadn’t taken place. He came to Boston with the expectation that he would see his grandfather through his final days and nothing more. He knew Melinda loved him; he loved her. That didn’t mean that they would be together. Eighteen months had passed since they had seen each other. His life had changed in that time and he knew that hers might have experienced similar upheavals.
The two men were sitting in Abel’s side yard when Adam saw a carriage pull up next door. The driver jumped down and trotted around the transport to assist Melinda as she exited. Adam could hear her laughing at something the man said and he frowned deeply as he saw her take his arm and head with him to her front door.
He was angry at himself for feeling such a deep ache of disappointment. What had he expected…that she would be waiting for him—pining for him? And yet this seemed their fate. When he was engaged, she was not, and now it seemed the tables might have turned. Adam envied the man in the house with Melinda and wanted to throttle him and send him packing. He knew his jealousy was ridiculous, but he let it run its course and finally settled back to enjoy the sunshine with Abel.
The older man pointed to Melinda’s house, asking, “Is she home?”
“Don’t sit here…go!”
Abel’s command came out as little more than a squeak, making Adam smile. “She’s with someone now. I’ll see her later.” He’d had enough of the great outdoors—and looking at the empty carriage. “Shall we head inside?”
Before he could move, Adam heard Melinda’s voice again and saw that they were out of the house and heading toward the street. Her conversation floated to him on a breeze, “I’ll come to the office next Monday, Zeke, but at least now you have the manuscript. Thank you again for picking me up from the train.” Adam tried not to be nosy, but craned his neck to see how they parted company. She shook his hand! He felt relief. This still didn’t mean that she wasn’t engaged or keeping the company of a suitor, but for the moment he took what he could get.
Melinda lifted her face to feel the warm sunshine while she waited for her associate to drive away. As she turned back toward her house she saw that Abel was sitting in his yard, and she raised her hand in greeting. Her hand dropped to her side in shock as she recognized the man sitting next to her neighbor. For a moment she could only stand there, fighting back her tears. She wondered if Adam was there for a visit…or her. The paralysis left as she decided that there was only on way to find out, and she began walking toward them.
Adam met her midway.
They stood as they had at their last meeting—holding hands across a breach of time. But this time they each took a step closer.
The kiss was long, communicating all that they needed to say. When it ended they turned to see Abel smiling. His wheezy voice called, “Finally!”
“He’s right you know,” Adam teased. “It’s taken a long time and a lot of miles.”
Melinda caressed his cheek. “I’ve told you before, Adam. The best is always worth waiting for.”
Next Story in the One Step Closer Series:
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters and settings are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No money is being made from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.
Other Stories by this Author
- One Step Closer #4 – In Search of Safety (by MissJudy)
- One Step Closer #3 – Two Hearts Broken (by MissJudy)
- One Step Closer #5 – From Two to Three a Family (by MissJudy)