Secrets (by MonicaSJ)

Summary:  Ben extends a business trip in San Francisco when he meets a mature, polished younger woman who comes from a well-known, well-to-do family.  Joe, Hoss and Adam believe they have each met this same young woman before under questionable circumstances and each kept those meetings to himself, but are all disturbed when their father introduces her as his fiancé. 

Feedback:  All, good or bad.  If bad, constructive.  Reader Alert:  Adult themes  Rated: T  WC 22,000

 

                                                  Secrets

 

Chapter One

Ben Cartwright arrived in San Francisco by himself.  None of his sons accompanied him on this trip…none of his sons were invited.   His stay in the city would serve as a vacation; a needed respite from that all-consuming mistress that had become his life’s blood and that of his sons, the vast holdings of the Ponderosa.
The day after he arrived, he dressed in a suit and made his way to his attorney’s office. After reading and signing a contract that his oldest son had negotiated, the largest timber contract the Ponderosa had ever acquired, Ben exchanged pleasantries with Mr. Jacobs, the attorney who handled the contract and left to do what he pleased.

The first stop he made was for lunch, choosing an expensive restaurant in the heart of the city. As he read the menu, a loud discussion at a table across from him turned into a row between the manager and a gentleman who had been addressing a woman seated at the table. The gentleman had been there for only a moment when the manager came out to send him away, and when the man didn’t budge, the manager had him removed bodily.

Seeing that the woman was alone, Ben stood and approached her table. “Excuse me, Miss, but I couldn’t help but overhear. Are you alright?”

“I’m fine, Mr….”

“Ben Cartwright,” he said, bowing.

“Lydia Templeton,” she responded, offering her hand.

Ben took her hand and nodded. “Are you related to George Templeton?”

“Why, yes. He’s my father. Do you know him?”

“You might say that.  I’m acquainted with him.”

“Then please, Mr. Cartwright, join me. I’m waiting for him now.”

Ben glanced downward, trying to hide a slight smile. “I’m not sure that would be a good idea. You see, we’ve been competing for the same timber contract.”

Lydia’s eyes widened. “Oh my, you’re that Cartwright,” she laughed. “Well then, I insist. My father has cursed you for the last week, but it’s time for him to get over it, especially since you won, and he didn’t.”

“I don’t know that this would make for a very enjoyable luncheon, and I would hate for you to have to hear what goes on in timber negotiations.”

“You’re too kind and too late, Mr. Cartwright. My father brings his work home. It’s been my function lately to calm him down. But, I’m sure he’d be delighted to see that he lost to such a courteous man.”

A man close to Ben’s age entered the restaurant with such panache that everyone in the restaurant turned to watch. Unable to see her father with Ben standing in front of her, Lydia knew by the looks of the diners seated near her that her father had arrived. “It looks as if you’re too late to object. He’s here.”

Ben turned around, and based on the furrowed brow of Mr. Templeton upon seeing him, he braced himself. “Cartwright, what are you doing to my daughter?” huffed Templeton.

“Oh relax, Father.  Mr. Cartwright came to my rescue. You should be thanking him. Be gracious in your loss.”

Mr. Templeton eyed his daughter disapprovingly, but seeing her sweet smile, he relented. “Of course you’re right, my darling. I don’t know what I’d do without you to brighten my day.” He cleared his throat, looking mildly annoyed. “Cartwright, won’t you join us?”

“I don’t want to interrupt, and I certainly don’t want to make you uncomfortable.”

“Nonsense. Lydia is right. What’s done is done. And I evidently owe you a debt of gratitude for offering your assistance to my daughter.” Mr. Templeton held his hand out, and Ben shook it, both men smiling, then being seated.

“What trouble did you have, my dear?”

“A man insisted that he knew me, but I had never seen him before. Then he proceeded to tell me how he knew me, and I knew I’d never seen him before.” She shook her head. “It’s quite distasteful to think there’s a woman of ill repute who favors me…or I her…in the city.” Lydia shivered noticeably.  “But enough unpleasantness.  Mr. Cartwright, how often do you come to San Francisco?”

“Not as often as I’d like. My son, Adam, has been handling most of our business here of late.”

“Yes, my dear. It was Adam who actually outbid me on this timber contract. You have a rather crafty young man in that one, Cartwright; a very astute businessman.”

“Thank you, Mr. Templeton. I’m quite proud of Adam, as well as my other two sons.”

“Three sons? And what are the others’ names?” asked Lydia.

“Joseph and Eric. We call Eric ‘Hoss.’”

“Such a quaint name,” replied Lydia, wrinkling her nose. “And where might these sons be?”

“Oh, they’re back at home.” Lydia raised her eyebrows. “Our ranch near Virginia City, the Ponderosa.”

 

“I’ve heard my father speak often of the Ponderosa.  As I understand it, it’s quite breathtaking.”

“We’re certainly proud of it,” replied Ben.

The trio decided on fried crab for lunch, each one offering their praises to the chef. Mr. Templeton made his apologies as he left for another business meeting. “But, please, continue with your conversation,” he said, nodding to both Lydia and Ben.  He leaned over to Lydia, giving her a peck on her cheek.  “I will see you this evening.”

“Do you have any plans while you’re here, Mr. Cartwright?”

“Please, call me Ben.  And no, I haven’t made any plans at all.”

“Then permit me to show you some of the finer pastimes the city has to offer.”

“Oh, I don’t want to trouble you.”

Lydia’s smile showed in every feature of her elegantly shaped face; her perfect white teeth, the curve of her full lips, her delicately shaped nose, her high cheekbones and her eyes…big, bright and stunningly light gray. Her smile was infectious, and the way she lowered her face and looked up gave her a slightly flirtatious air. “It would be my pleasure, Ben.  And please, call me Lydia.”

 

Chapter Two

Lydia went through a whole list of sights, most of which Ben had never seen in all his trips to San Francisco.  Normally, he was busy with the newest deal, taking little time to explore…until now, and as luck would have it, he had a beautiful, delightfully vivacious tour guide.  Their evening ended at a small café at the top of a hill, where they sipped coffee while they watched the sun set over the city and the distant ocean.  Just as the last orange fire disappeared over the horizon, they left in Lydia’s private carriage toward her home. Lydia asked her driver to wait to take Ben to his hotel after he saw her to her front door.

“Lydia, how can I ever thank you for such a wonderful day? You’re an excellent tour guide.”

“You don’t have to thank me, Ben. It was my pleasure.”

“Still, I’d like to make it up to you. I’ve been thinking about taking in the opera while I’m here.  Would you like to join me?”
“That would be lovely,” she said with the smile that in only a day had captivated him. “I have some business to attend to tomorrow, but I should be finished early, say around three? I’d like to show you something else tomorrow that I think you might appreciate.  And we can take my carriage again. That way, we won’t be kept waiting.”

“I’ll see you at three then,” said Ben, bowing. “Good evening.”

 

Sitting in his hotel room, he enjoyed a brandy before he retired.  He smiled.  He had, indeed, had a wonderful day with Lydia. She had been interesting, engaging, and charming.  Her laugh was contagious, and she certainly carried on a lively conversation about so many things.  She told him the history of the city. They discussed the qualities of different woods, politics and the advantages of statehood in Nevada, and ended the evening talking about horses.  Ben realized that he hadn’t been that charmed since…since Marie. He snorted and shook his head.  I’m old enough to be her father. With that last thought, he went to bed.

 

Chapter Three

Lydia left through the kitchen door at first light, stealing through a back alley to a storage building that concealed a tunnel. Walking through the dank darkness with a lantern, she emerged at the back of a two story house where she entered through the kitchen.

From the street view, the house was attractive and well-kept, painted in pale yellow and trimmed in white. The inside was lavishly decorated with blue velvet curtains and matching furniture adorned with elaborately carved wood. Tapestries and mirrors covered the walls. Provocative sculptures graced marble-topped tables and stands.

“El?” called Lydia as she removed her gloves. “El, where are you?”

A woman slowly descended the stairs, yawning, her robe open, revealing a silky gown barely covering her breasts. Her hair was tousled, and her face was unwashed with the last evening’s makeup shadowing her eyes.

“Is he gone?”

El quickly blinked, trying to clear the cobwebs of sleep from her eyes. “He left around two this morning, another happy Victoria Verone customer.

“I need to talk to you.  Get cleaned up.  I’ll prepare your breakfast.”  El turned and went back up the stairs while Lydia went to the kitchen. When El entered the kitchen, she wore a conservative skirt and blouse. Her hair was brushed and neatly pinned up, and her makeup had been washed away. The dark shadows under her eyes were gone.

The two women were the same age and same build, and had the same complexion and hair color. Though they weren’t related, they looked remarkably alike. The only distinct difference was the color of their eyes. El’s eyes were a light brown.

Lydia placed a plate of food in front of El and poured both of them a cup of coffee. “El, I don’t want to do this anymore.”

“What are you going to do? Live off your father?”

“No, I have other plans; plans that will take me away from this city and all its contemptible men. You can have the house, and you can have what’s in the account.  I’ll split the cash in the safe with you.”

“Sounds fair enough.  But, I’ll never find someone to help me.  I’d wager there’s not another woman in town who will do what you do to men.”

“You’re probably right.  But, El, did you really expect to keep doing this? You should consider quitting yourself.  We’ve made enough money for you to be comfortable with the house paid for.  You can go on being the respectable Ellie Tillman and no one will be the wiser.  You could find someone…get married…have a normal life.”

El put both hands on the table and looked deeply into Lydia’s eyes. “I know it’s never been about the money for you.  I know it’s been all about control…about controlling men.  What I want to know is if any of it made a difference.  Did you find what you needed to find?”

“Yes, I think I have.  But not here.”

 

Chapter Four

Ben arrived at the Templeton mansion at three in the afternoon as promised. After Lydia said her goodbyes to her father, the two were off in the carriage toward Lydia’s surprise for Ben. The carriage drove out of the city to the south where the land opened up into grass covered fields as far as one could see. When the carriage pulled into the fenced and manicured property of a large stable, Ben turned to Lydia. “What’s this?”

“I wanted to show you something…someone…who is very special to me.” The carriage came to a stop in front of a small white barn. Lydia asked Ben to wait by the paddock fence and entered the barn, soon appearing with a tall, powerfully built chestnut stallion. Smiling up at Ben, she asked proudly, “What do you think of him?”

Ben opened the gate, stepping into the paddock and looked over the horse. “He’s magnificent. Is he yours?”

“Yes, he is. And he’s a joy to ride. Would you like to try him out?”

Ben laughed. “Well, I’m not sure I’m really dressed for it.”

“Oh, don’t worry. Please, take a turn around the paddock. You won’t regret it.”

Unable to resist her engaging smile, he said, “Oh, alright.”

She nodded for a waiting wrangler to saddle the horse, and soon Ben was up and riding in the large paddock. He took the stallion from a walk, to a trot and finally to the smoothest canter he could remember.

Lydia watched as he expertly controlled the horse, sitting straight in the saddle, the picture of riding perfection. In her eyes, Ben was a formidable man, strong and sure with the stature that any woman would be proud to stand beside.  He was the type of man who would find joy in taking care of the woman he loved. He was definite husband material. His wealth certainly wasn’t a defining factor, Lydia being wealthy in her own right, but the fact that he was a self-made man offered assurances that she would be well taken care of and would live the life to which she was accustomed.

When Ben halted the horse and stepped down, handing the reins to the wrangler, he approached an effervescently smiling Lydia. “What do you think of Beau?” she asked.

“Based on the carriage of that horse, I would venture a guess to say his name is much nobler than Beau…perhaps Beauregard.”

“Right you are,” Lydia replied, laughing.

“Magnificent animal. I don’t often get to ride such grand steeds.”

“Why, in Heaven’s name, not? You certainly have the room.”

“The Ponderosa is a working ranch. All of our horses earn their keep, and I’m afraid Beau here would only be a distraction.”

“Ben, there’s nothing wrong with being distracted occasionally, is there?”

He took her hand, placing it on top of his arm, looking into her eyes. “The right kind of distraction?  Certainly not.” Both stood quietly enjoying each other’s eyes. “Well, we should be getting back to the city. I have tickets for La Traviata, and then dinner reservations afterwards, if you have the time.”

Giving him another vibrant smile, she replied, “For you, Ben Cartwright, I have all the time in the world.”

At dinner, conversation rested on the opera. “Poor Alfredo,” said Lydia.

“Poor Violetta,” countered Ben.

“Does love always win?”

“True love should.”

“Are you an Alfredo, Ben? In the end, it didn’t matter to Alfredo what Violetta was. It only mattered that she loved him and would go with him.”

“Then yes, I guess I would tend to be more like Alfredo.”

“So, you really do believe that the past shouldn’t matter when love is true?”

Ben nodded.

 

Chapter Five

Ben spent the morning writing a telegram to his sons. Normally, he’d write to each individual son, but this telegram was addressed to all three with notes to each one. He didn’t have that much to say, other than to inform them that he would be staying in San Francisco another week and to let him know by telegram if anything had come up that needed his immediate attention. He dropped the telegram at the front desk of his hotel with the appropriate fee, and then made his way to the Templeton mansion where he would be joined by Lydia to spend the day at the beach, ending with dinner at the Cliff House.

****

Adam was preoccupied with a telegram he had picked up in town as he walked into the Ponderosa house, bumping into Joe, who was on the way out. “Older Brother, you’re old enough to know to watch where you’re going,” laughed Joe. “What’s got you so distracted?”

“Hm? What?”

“Adam, you should join us in the present. Would you care to share?” asked Joe, nodding at the telegram in Adam’s hand.

“Where’s Hoss?”

“I’m right here waitin’ on you to come home for supper.”

The three seated themselves at the dining room table. “Pa says he’s staying in San Francisco another week. That can only mean one thing.”

Hoss helped himself to mashed potatoes. “And what’s that?”

“He’s met a woman.”

Both Joe and Hoss stopped what they were doing and looked back at Adam. Joe shook his head. “You know, maybe he’s just enjoying a little time away. The only time he ever gets away from the Ponderosa is on business.”

“Joe, our father is a creature of habit. He was going to take a week, and unless something came up that held him there, he wouldn’t have extended it.”

“So, why does it have to be a woman?” asked Hoss.

“Because there’s nothing else to do in San Francisco except gamble and see the opera. Pa doesn’t take to gambling, and he doesn’t care that much for opera. That only leaves one distraction for him.”

“Even if it is a woman, there’s no point in getting upset right now,” said Joe. “I’m not saying it is a woman, but you haven’t even met her to know if you need to be disturbed.”

“The last time he did this, Joe, he came home married.”

Joe gave Adam an incensed look. “And what was wrong with that?”

Adam cut his eyes toward Joe, realizing he was treading on thin ice. “Nothing.” He turned his attention to his plate.

***

Ben spent the majority of the rest of his time in San Francisco with Lydia. He couldn’t remember a recent time when he had enjoyed someone’s company more, and Lydia, with her candid conversations and her intelligent insights enchanted him. “Lydia, if the opportunity presented itself to you to leave the city, would you?”

“Well, Ben, that would depend…on where I was going and who I was going with.”

“Could you be happy away from a city…say in a place where your nearest neighbor is twenty miles away? Where you’d be the only woman among a houseful of men?”

Lydia looked up at Ben, gazing into his eyes with a stoic look Ben hadn’t seen before. “I’m not very good at beating around the bush, Ben. Say what’s on your mind, please.”

“I had a conversation with your father yesterday.” She stiffened and cocked her head, looking at him nervously.

“What about exactly?”

 

“About you,” said Ben with eyebrows raised, a slight smile, and an affectionate gleam in his eyes. “He was concerned at first, and I can understand why. You’re young, and you’re his only daughter. But eventually he agreed that you’re mature enough to make decisions on your own…that you tend to know what you want.” She had fixed a serious gaze on him and hadn’t moved since he mentioned her father. “Lydia, I’m a man who knows my own mind and heart fairly quickly.” He took her hand in his and brought it to his lips. “And I know I want to offer you a life in my world…on my ranch…with me.” She held her gaze on him and hadn’t even blinked. “Will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?”

Her eyebrows instantly arched. “Ben,” she chuckled nervously, “Do you have any idea how this could turn your life upside down simply because of my age? What will your sons think?”

“My sons will be cautious…at first…until they get to know you. Hoss will be the first to warm up to you. Then Joe. Adam will be the holdout. He’ll question everything you’ve ever done. He’ll question your motives in marrying a man old enough to be your father. He’ll put you through an inquisition, though he’ll do it politely.”

Her stoic stare was broken by a slight smile. “Adam is seven years older than me. He has every right to his questions.”

“Eventually it will all come down to one thing for them. Whether you make me happy, and Lydia,” he said taking her arms, “I believe we can be happy together.”

She looked up at him without raising her head, enchanting him once again with her delightfully charming smile. “Ben,” she started in a mildly admonishing tone. “You haven’t even properly kissed me.”

Ben took her in his arms and kissed her quite thoroughly. “Is that a ‘yes’?” he asked while still holding her close.

“It is.”

 

Chapter Six

Once Lydia and her personal maid, Anna’s, trunks were loaded and on their way to the steamer, Lydia said her goodbyes to her father. “Lydia, are you sure this is what you want?”

“Father, you’re going to miss me, aren’t you?” she asked teasingly.

“Ben has left me with an open invitation, and I would never miss walking my only daughter down the aisle.  I am sorry that you decided to wait to get married on the Ponderosa, but Ben explained that he wanted his sons to attend this wedding. “He leaned in to whisper in her ear. “But won’t this be rather like marrying your father?”

An eyebrow went up. “Hardly,” she said indignantly. “Ben never acted as stuffy as you,” she said haughtily, then winked.
“You’ll let me know the date as soon as you set it?”

She leaned up to kiss him. “Of course we will,” she said smiling. Ben shook Mr. Templeton’s hand, took Lydia’s hand and turned to the carriage.

“Cartwright, only the best for my daughter.  Do you hear me?” Ben waved.

On the steamer, the two sat at a table, sipping coffee, enjoying their trip into the Sacramento River delta. “Ben?”

 

“Mm hm.”

 

“Is it too early to discuss our wedding?”

“Of course not,” he said, taking her hands in his. “I don’t think we need to wait more than a few weeks. That’ll give you time to have a dress made and make whatever arrangements you’d like.”

“Arrangements?”

 

“Flowers, the reception…getting your father to the Ponderosa.”

“I don’t need a large wedding, Ben. I won’t be inviting anyone but Father. But, I’m sure you have friends you’ll want to be there.”

“A few.”

 

“And where will we have the ceremony?”

“We’ll have it at the house…unless you’d prefer to have it in the church in Virginia City.”

“No, the house is fine. I also have no need to go on a honeymoon. I imagine it will take awhile to get acquainted with the Ponderosa.”

Sitting with their chairs side by side, looking out the window, Ben put his arm around her shoulder. She leaned into him, losing herself in thought. She had finally managed to get away to make her way through the tunnel to the house where Ellie had taken up permanent residence. Except for short meetings, the two women were never there at the same time, making it easier to ensure their secret identity would never be associated with them. This is one reason they never saw the same man twice. Each was adept at her work, but Lydia was much more…aggressive…with her liaisons than Ellie. Ellie would never be able to perpetuate the illusion of one woman if she had to work as Lydia’s version of Victoria. She didn’t have the anger that Lydia carried within her to do the things she did.

Still, she was worried, but not so much about being found out. She had already demonstrated in Ben’s presence that a woman who favored her solicited men in the city. If she was ever sought out, they would find Ellie, who knew how to be a convincing Victoria. Ben would never question her morality. Hoss and Joe would be easy. But Adam…Adam might be a problem. At the time of her liaison with Adam, she had had no intention of ever pursuing anything that might have to do with him…until she met his father. She’d have to be careful around Adam. “Ben, darling, I’m a bit tired. Would you mind terribly if I went to my quarters for a rest?”

 

“Of course not. I’ll walk with you.”

“That’s not necessary. Anna will be with me. I’ll be fine. You just stay here and enjoy the view.” He kissed her hand and watched as she left the dining room.

 

Chapter Seven

 

Ben had wired his sons when to expect him and his travelling companion, though he didn’t tell them who his companion was. He only told them to meet the Friday noon stage with a buggy and a buckboard.

When the stage arrived, Ben stepped off the coach and greeted all of them as they waited with outstretched hands. “Pa, welcome home,” said Adam with a restrained smile and a look that said he knew his father was up to something. Next was Joe, followed by Hoss, who were both grinning widely.

“Boys, I’d like you to meet someone,” Ben said as he turned and leaned into the coach. “Are you ready for this?”

“As ready as I’ll ever be,” said Lydia, smiling nervously.

Ben helped her and Anna down out of the buggy, and when they turned, the smiles that had been waiting for them were suddenly gone. With creased eyebrows, Ben introduced her. “Boys, I’d like you all to meet Lydia Templeton…” He gave each son a stern look, then continued, “…my fiancé.  And this is Anna who will be staying here with Lydia. The boys turned to each other with subdued looks.

Adam was the first to step forward and extend his hand. “Miss Templeton…you wouldn’t happen to be related to George Templeton, would you?”

“He’s my father,” she said, smiling confidently, giving him her hand. “And you must be Adam, Ben’s oldest. My father has great admiration of your business acumen.” Adam raised her hand to his lips, looking at her with a slight smile and narrowed eyes.

Joe stepped forward, forcing a smile. “Ma’am, I’m Joe,” he said, taking her hand and nodding.

Hoss removed his hat and stepped forward, unable to look her in the eye. “And you must be Eric,” said Lydia. “No, it’s ‘Hoss,’ isn’t it?”

“Yes Ma’am, that’s right.”

“Why don’t you boys get Lydia and Anna’s bags and trunks and load them onto the buckboard,” said Ben, severely eyeing his sons. He turned and smiled at Lydia, holding his arm out to her. “Shall we?”

Putting her hand on his arm, Lydia said, “Ben, I can’t wait to see the Ponderosa.”

“I’ll take you by the lake before we go to the house. It will take your breath away.” Once Ben had Lydia comfortably seated in the buggy, he excused himself and went back to his boys. “I don’t know what’s wrong with you three, but it had better be corrected by the time we arrive at the house. Now, I’m going to take Lydia and Anna by the lake. You three get back to the ranch and get their things in the two guest rooms at the end of the hall.”

“Yessir,” said Hoss, taking a breath and man-handling a trunk onto the back of the buckboard.

Joe nodded and said, “Sure, Pa.”

Adam stood with his arms crossed, giving his father a somber look. Ben studied him, then put his arm around Adam’s shoulder and walked him to the buckboard. “Adam, I want you to give her a chance before you pass judgment. I think you’ll find she can give you a run for your money on just about any subject.” Ben patted his back and turned to leave.

“More than you know,” said Adam under his breath.

 

Chapter Eight

 

The three Cartwright sons were speechless on the trip back home, venturing an occasional embarrassed look at each other. While Adam drove, Hoss kept his eyes down and Joe had ducked in the back behind one of the trunks, avoiding his brothers altogether.

When they arrived at the house, they each took bags up to the guest room, but had to help each other with the trunks. Still, they looked at each other, but didn’t speak.

Adam was the first to come back down stairs, and he paced with his arms crossed in front of him. Something’s going on with those two. They’re hiding something.

On the way back down the hall, Joe whispered to Hoss. “You get the feeling Adam knows something?”

“Well, he does know her pa. Maybe it’s got somethin’ to do with that.”

“Why are you so quiet?” asked Joe.

“I…ah…well…I don’t know, Joe. Don’t she look a little young to you?”

“Yeah, she does. She’s probably not much older than me.”

“And what about you? You weren’t exactly talkative at the stagecoach or on the wagon.”

“Nothin’,” said Joe defensively. “Be quiet. Adam might hear.”

When they came back downstairs, Adam was waiting for them with his hands on his hips, looking like he did when he knew he was going to have to cover for them because they had done something stupid. He looked back over his shoulder, making sure Hop Sing wasn’t in the room, and then lit into them. “What are you two hiding?”

“Hidin’? I ain’t hidin’ nothing, Adam,” said Hoss, kicking at nothing in the floor.

Adam glared at Joe. “Me either,” Joe said indignantly. “It’s just that…well, Adam, that girl’s gotta be younger than you. What’s Pa thinking?” Adam held his glare. “And while we’re at it, what’s wrong with you? You’ve been just as quiet as the rest of us.”

Adam looked away, taking a deep breath. “It just doesn’t feel right. Look,” he said, turning back to his brothers, “they’re gonna be here in a few minutes. Just act…normal…until I can figure this out.”

All three turned when they heard the buggy drive up to the front of the house. Adam walked toward the door, and then turned back around. “Well, come on.”

Ben helped Lydia and Anna out of the buggy, and as Lydia stepped down, she looked around her. “Ben, this is…I’m speechless.”

“Well, it’s not exactly what you’re used to.”

“No, it’s quite different, but…this is a man’s house,” she said, smiling at Ben. “It’s definitely you…very masculine…rugged.”

“Welcome to the Ponderosa, Miss Templeton,” said Adam. Joe and Hoss stood behind him with smiles plastered to their faces.

She looked at him as if she didn’t know him at all. “Thank you, Adam. As I understand it, you had quite a lot to do with building it. And please, all of you, call me Lydia.”

Ben took her arm and guided her into the house with Anna and the boys following after them. Lydia unpinned her hat, bringing it down in front of her, and walked to the sitting area, turning completely around. “It’s very open, yet it still feels…cozy. What a magnificent fireplace.” Turning back to Ben and giving him one of her delectable smiles, she said demurely, “Ben, I love it.”

“You can change whatever you like.” Three pairs of eyes got big and round. She turned as if she hadn’t noticed and walked to Ben, leaning into his chest, gazing up at him. “It’s perfect just the way it is.”

Ben enjoyed her smiling eyes for a moment. “I’m sure you’re tired. Would you like to rest before dinner?”

 

“Yes, I think I would.”

“I’ll show you ladies to your rooms then,” said Ben as he guided them to the stairs and up into the hall.

 

Chapter Nine

 

When Ben returned, he found his sons standing in front of the fireplace, waiting. He poured himself a stiff drink, and then made his way to the leather chair further away from them, sitting and considering his sons. His first inclination was to dress them all down, but he had known all along this would be difficult for them…especially Adam, who seemed to define himself as the family protector.

“Hoss?”

 

“Yessir.”

“What’s the problem?”

“Aw, Pa….” Ben raised his eyebrow. “Ain’t she a little young?”

“Is that what this is about?  Adam?”

 

“That’s part of it. But, Pa, this happened sort of…fast. What do you know about her?”

“Well, I know she’s the daughter of George Templeton, I know she ran away from finishing school back East when her mother died, made her way on her own all the way to San Francisco, and proceeded to run the Templeton household at fourteen. I know she grew up in an elegant household. I know her father brought in tutors to educate her. I know their chef taught her how to cook. I know her father taught her about horses and just about everything about everything else she wanted to know…which is quite a bit. She’s bright, she’s funny, she’s gracious, she’s compassionate, and…I love her.”

“How old is she, Pa?” asked Joe.

“Not that it’s any of your business, young man, but she’s twenty-five. And she’s one of the most mature and polished women I’ve ever known.”

Adam sat down on the coffee table. “Pa, she looks familiar to me. Are you sure there’s no possibility that she could be keeping…a secret…from you?”

Ben tried to hide his amusement. “What kind of secret are you talking about, Adam?”

“I’m sure I’ve seen her before. And it wasn’t in a place that you’d find a lady.”

“Perhaps you have seen her before. Or maybe someone who looks like her.” Adam rolled his eyes. He didn’t dare tell his father about Victoria Verone because he’d also have to tell him how he knew Victoria Verone, and he wasn’t prepared to do that.  “Adam, while I was in San Francisco, Lydia was approached more than once by men who said they knew her in a…scandalous way. Even in front of her father. George said there’s a woman in San Francisco who favors her…that she’s constantly being mistaken for this woman. He also said that he hunted this woman down.” Ben took a sip of his whiskey. “He said the resemblance was remarkable…remove the face paint, change the hair and clothes…he might mistake her for his own daughter.”

Joe and Hoss looked at each other, surprised. A slow smile of relief crept over Hoss’s face, but disappeared quickly. “But, Pa…she’s young enough to be your daughter. Dadburnit, she’s younger ‘n me.”

Ben stood and placed a hand on Hoss’s shoulder. “Hoss, give her a chance. It’s not like you boys to judge someone like this. Do you honestly think I would take something like this lightly?”

“No, I reckon not, Pa.”

“Now, don’t you three have chores to finish up before dinner?” The boys slowly made their way to the front door. “Oh, and boys…dress for dinner.”

 

Chapter Ten

Hoss worked in the barn by himself, staying as far away from Adam and Joe as possible. He had to work out what his father had said. Maybe she wasn’t the woman I met over a year ago in San Francisco. Maybe it was this other woman who looked like her. Makes sense. Why would a woman in her position…part of a well-known family…ever do something like that? But still, she’s awfully young. No, Pa wouldn’t do something he hadn’t thought through. He knew he was going to give her a chance, even if it was uncomfortable.
“Hoss?”

 

“Yeah, what is it?”

“How much hay you gonna feed that horse?” asked Adam.

Hoss looked up at the huge mound of hay he’d piled in front of the horse. Aggravated, he swore, “Dadburnit,” and started moving hay into the next stall over.

Adam inhaled deeply, turning around to find Joe, who had been taking the used hay out to the back of the barn. When he didn’t find him in the barn, he stepped outside to look. Joe was leaning against the handle of the pitch fork, looking off into the distance.

He remembered that night in San Francisco vividly. Everything started…normally. But when she…and then she…and that look in her eyes. He shuddered.Never have I seen anything like that before. I don’t even want to think about it. But could it have been this other woman that looked like Lydia? There were some differences…the face paint, the hair. Lydia is much…softer looking. He shook his head. If Pa loves this woman, who am I to question it?

“Joe, the hay’s not gonna move by itself.” Adam caught Hoss out of the corner of his eye, walking around the side of the barn. “What going on with you two?”

“Aw, Adam, we just got a lot on our minds,” answered Hoss.

“Lydia,” said Adam. “Look, the only thing we can do is be polite…and give her a chance like Pa asked.” That was what he told his brothers. He had already decided he was going to do some investigating on his own.

 

Chapter Eleven

 

Ben and the boys waited in the sitting room, each wearing a shirt and tie. Ben and Adam wore jackets. When Lydia appeared at the top of the stairs, the boys all looked at their father to see if he really looked like a man in love. He was…beaming. Adam cut his eyes up toward Lydia and furrowed his brow. Was she…glowing? He looked back to his father, then back to Lydia. Her eyes were fixed on his father’s as if he were the only one in the room. And her smile was affectionately contented. Was this part of the game she was playing? Or had he been wrong about her?

Ben went to the foot of the stairs and waited for her, giving her his arm and escorting her to the dinner table where she sat on his left. Tonight, Adam sat to his father’s right, across from Lydia. Joe seated Anna next to Adam.

As they passed serving dishes around the table, Adam asked, “Lydia, do you have any favorite pastimes?”

“Horses. I love to…ride,” she said, gazing up at him without raising her head, catching his eyes. “I also seek out the unusual; rarities, if you will.”

“Lydia showed me some very rare jade carvings while I was in San Francisco. Some bronze work that was quite beautiful also,” said Ben, smiling.

She smiled back. “Books, too.”

 

“Adam, when we bring the rest of Lydia’s things from San Francisco, you two can organize her library. It’s quite extensive. We’ll have to make room for it.”

“Ben, will the horses be a problem?”

“Of course not,” he said, taking her hand, questioning with his eyes.

“Well, you said you only had working horses. Mine haven’t done an honest day’s work in their lives…unless you count carrying me all over the countryside as work.”

Ben laughed. “I also said the right kind of distraction is alright. We’ll arrange for all that after the wedding. Right now, you need to concentrate on that…without any distractions.” She gave him that captivating smile of hers. Joe looked across at Hoss and cut his eyes toward the ceiling, but jumped when Adam, noticing the looks between the two, kicked him in the shin.

“Joe, are you alright?” she asked.

“Yes, Ma’am. Fine,” he said, smiling sheepishly.

“Gentlemen, tell me about your days. I’m sure all of you are quite busy.”

“We work ten to twelve hours a day, Lydia,” said Adam. We’ve never known anything but hard work on the Ponderosa. It took a lot of sweat to build it, and it takes just as much work to hold on to it,” he finished, cutting his eyes back up at her.

She smiled impenitently. “Really? Do you have trouble with people trying to take it away?”

“Sometimes,” said Ben. “But, it’s nothing you should worry about. The Ponderosa is safe.”

“Pa, I don’t know. Lydia doesn’t know the area, and if she’s never been out of the city, this will be a bit primitive for her.”

“Well, maybe a good place to start is Virginia City. But it might take a few days before I can get you into town. I’ve got some business to attend to tomorrow.”

“I’d be happy to take her into town tomorrow,” volunteered Adam. “I have to check the mail for those contracts we’ve been expecting anyway.”

“That would be perfect. I can go ahead and get my wedding dress started.”

“When are you two planning to get married?” asked Adam.

“As soon as we can get everything prepared and the arrangements made,” replied Ben.

Adam sat up straight. “Why the rush?”

 

“It’s not really a rush, Adam. Lydia isn’t inviting anyone, and I’m only inviting a few people. We’ll have a small wedding right here in the house.”

I don’t have much time, thought Adam, nodding and smiling.

 

Chapter Twelve

 

“I thought Anna would be going with us,” said Adam as he helped Lydia into the buggy.

“Anna had some things to do. She’s quite timid and she feels…out of place…here. So, I left her to herself. Adam, I want to thank you for taking me to town this morning. I know you’re not very comfortable with me.”

Adam chuckled. “What makes you think that?”

“The looks…the remarks…your father.”

“My father?”

 

“Yes, he told me all of you have some…concerns. Adam, I have no illusions about being anything more to you or your brothers than your father’s wife. I also have no intention of changing anything that you’ve all grown up with. But your father makes me happy. And I make him happy. Is that so terrible?”

“No, not at all…if that’s all you want.”

“You know I don’t need your father’s money. And I have to admit that living this far from the city is a bit…different…for me. Even so, I find this Sierra of yours quite beautiful. What else is there to want besides his love?”

Adam smiled. “Tell me about this woman who looks like you?”

“I don’t really know anything about her. My father found her, but he never spoke to me about it…other than how much she looks like me.”

“Does the name Vicki ring any bells?”

She looked at him as if she was thinking. “No, I don’t believe so.”

“So, you’ve never heard of Victoria Verone.”

She leaned back, looking annoyed. “Would you please just say what’s on your mind?”

Bringing the horses to a halt, he tied the reins, pulled her into his arms and kissed her passionately. “Does that remind you?”

Still feeling his breath on her face, she gave him an expressionless look and replied, “Actually, it does. You kiss remarkably like your father. I’m sure he’d appreciate how I know that.”

“I think, Lydia, that you knew that before I kissed you.” Adam released her, his lips pinched into a tight line.  He untied the reins and continued toward Virginia City.

“Before you go making accusations you can’t substantiate, I would suggest you consider your father’s happiness.”

“Believe me, Lydia, that’s all I’m thinking about.”

“And how are you going repair the rift you create between you and your father once you find out you’re wrong?”

“I’m not wrong.  And have you considered the rift you’re already creating? I don’t know what kind of game you’re playing, but you are not going to make a fool of my father.”

“I have no intention of making a fool of your father. The only person who will be doing that is you…or maybe of yourself.”

When they arrived in Virginia City, Adam excused himself without helping her out of the buggy, leaving her to find what she needed on her own. Being a woman, she had a nose for these things and soon found her way to a dress shop that had several lovely gowns in the window. After taking Lydia’s measurements and preferences for her gown, the dress shop owner directed her to a shop that could supply flowers and another where she could browse whatever accessories she would need for her wedding day. Since she and Ben were in agreement that the wedding would be a small, private affair, she made no mention of who the groom was, but simply asked for the dress as soon as feasible, giving that tentative date to the merchant who would be supplying the flowers. She hadn’t worked out how the flowers would be delivered without the whole town finding out about the newest Mrs. Cartwright, but decided she would leave that detail to Ben.

Adam picked up the mail fairly quickly, and spent the rest of his time writing a telegram to Hiram Jacobs, the Cartwright’s attorney in San Francisco. Need all information on Lydia Templeton and Victoria Verone and any connection. Urgent. AC  He wrote a second telegram to another man in San Francisco who owed him a favor. Find Victoria Verone. Bring to Ponderosa. Urgent. Cartwright

Handing the two pieces of paper to the telegraph clerk, Adam said, “Send them now.” He threw $10 on the desk in addition to the cost of the telegrams. “And keep it to yourself.”

The young man looked up at Adam, whose mouth was drawn in and whose eyes were cold and calculating. With wide, frightened eyes, the clerk replied, “Y…yes sir, Mr. Cartwright.”

 

Chapter Thirteen

 

Lydia sat on the front porch turning a cold cup of coffee round and round. Ben hadn’t returned from wherever his business had taken him and all three sons were working elsewhere on the ranch.

Adam. What is it about me that makes him so sure I’m Victoria Verone…that he wasn’t with a woman who favors me? Somehow, I’ve got to make him doubt what he knows. If I convince Ben to let him look…let him find Ellie. Ellie will know what to do. She’ll know how to be convincing…the heavy makeup, the walk, the clothes, the voice…enough to give him that doubt. As long as he has that doubt, he’ll back down. And once he does that, all I have to do is convince him that I have his father’s best interests at heart. That shouldn’t be hard to do. Even if there is suspicion left, Ben’s an Alfredo. He wouldn’t pursue it. Adam’s alternative would be to tell his father how he knows…exactly what he participated in. He won’t do that. No one in his right mind would ever do that.

Lydia was so distracted with her thoughts she didn’t hear Ben ride up; she didn’t see him tie Buck to the hitching rail, and she didn’t hear him approach the porch. When he called her name, she jumped.

“Oh, Ben, you startled me.”

Ben sat next to her at the table and poured himself a cup of coffee. “Darling, is something bothering you?”

Smiling, she asked, “Ben, is this happening too fast?”

“Have you had a change of heart?”

“Absolutely not. I’m not talking about you and me.”

Ben grunted. “My sons.”

 

“Now, Ben, don’t be upset with your sons. We both knew this was going to be…awkward… with you bringing home to your grown sons a woman who is half your age and younger than two of them. Joe and Hoss…they’ll eventually come around, but Adam…” She breathed deeply. “You did warn me about Adam.”

“What about Adam?”

“Ben, I don’t want to be the cause of a fracture in your relationship with Adam.”

Ben put his arm around her shoulders, drawing her close, then turned her face to his as she rested her head on his shoulder. “Lydia, did something happen today on the way to Virginia City?”

She closed her eyes and sighed. “I suspect that Adam…this is hard to say…”

“Darling, you can say anything to me.”

“I suspect that Adam has kept company with this…woman…in San Francisco who looks like me. He’s convinced it was me.”

Pulling his arm from around her and sitting up straight, he creased his brows and looked seriously at her. “What did he say to you?”

“Ben, it doesn’t matter what he said. What matters is your relationship with your son.”

“Who I choose to marry is none of his concern.”

“I’m sorry, my love, I don’t agree. Maybe we need to postpone our wedding until Adam has satisfied his…curiosity.”

“He’ll do nothing of the kind,” barked Ben, turning in his chair and crossing his legs.

Lydia rubbed his hand, moving up his arm until he looked back at her and grudgingly smiled. “What harm would it do for Adam to find out for himself? In fact, it might do a world of good once he finds I’m not the monster he thinks I am.”

 

Chapter Fourteen

 

Ben kissed Lydia goodbye before she mounted the horse Ben had saddled for her.  “I’m sending one of the hands with you.  Please don’t go far.”

Leaning into him and giving him the playful smile he had come to adore, she said sweetly, “Now Ben, I’ve been riding horses for years. I’ll be fine.”

“The Ponderosa is big place. You could easily get lost.” He wrapped his arms around her, holding her to him when she started to back away. “I just wish I had time to go with you. Unfortunately, I have to get some paperwork finished tonight.”

“You’re such a busy man. When will we ever have time for us?” she asked, pouting teasingly.

“The end of the summer is always busy. It’ll slow down in a few weeks. And then, we’ll have all winter. Now, you’d better go if you’re going to have any time to ride before dinner.” He bent and kissed her. “And remember; don’t go far. Anna, I’m counting on you to make sure she doesn’t.”

“Yes, Mr. Cartwright.” Ben watched as the two ladies rode out of the yard with a ranch hand following close behind.

When they had gone beyond the barn, his smile faded into a frown. He walked back into the house, went to the desk, sitting and leaning back in the chair, and waited, growing angrier by the minute.

It was another hour before his sons rode into the yard together. He listened for the ribbing and laughter he usually heard after the day’s work was done, but today, he only heard the hooves of the horses stamping the ground as the boys pulled their saddles off and laid them over the corral fence. Next was the squeak of the corral gate opening to let the horses in, followed by a clunk as it was closed and latched. Their footsteps sounded on the wood of the porch followed by the familiar click of the door latch. No one said a word, but rather the three quietly removed their hats and gun belts, Joe and Hoss retreating upstairs while Adam sat in one of the red leather chairs.

Ben took a deep breath, steeling himself for the argument he knew was about to take place. “Adam, come here, please.”

His father’s voice was deep, almost a growl, and by that, Adam knew that Lydia had told him about their conversation on the way to Virginia City. He breathed deeply, hoisted himself out of the chair, trying to hold at bay the rage he was feeling, but he could hear it in the loudness of his heels on the wooden floor as he walked across to the front of the desk. He stood facing his father with his hands crossed in front of him, his head cocked to one side and an indignant scowl on his face.

Ben studied his son for a moment, fighting the need to shout; to ask how he dared to interfere. He glowered at Adam, and then looked away, fighting his anger.  “What exactly did you say to her?”

“She told you about our conversation,” said Adam, in a deep, unemotional, matter-of-fact tone of voice.

Ben turned to glare at him, but kept his voice low and even. “She told me you had a conversation. She went on to say that she didn’t want to come between you and me and that I should let you…go find your answers.”

Adam looked up at his father with raised brows. “She did?”

“I don’t agree with her. You have no business trying to prove your ridiculous accusations,” he said in a barely controlled, deep rumble. “But in the interest of keeping you from tearing this family apart, Lydia and I are postponing the wedding until you…find whatever answers you’re looking for.”

After standing in the hallway at the top of the stairs and listening, Joe and Hoss emerged, making their way down the stairs. “Pa, me and Joe feel the same way as Adam,” said Hoss, unable to look his father in the eye.

“I’m going to ask you straight out, and I expect the truth,” said Ben, his voice slowly elevating. “Do all of three of you claim to know this woman?” he thundered.

Adam looked at Joe and Hoss with his nostrils flared and his brows creased.

“I met her about a year ago, Pa,” admitted Hoss.

“It…it was probably a little less than a year ago for me,” said Joe, looking at the floor.

“And what about you?” shouted Ben, looking at Adam, his voice shaking the rafters of the house.

Adam raised his head, looking at his father defiantly. “For Heaven’s sake, Pa, we’re grown men!”

“And you all believe it was Lydia? This is preposterous!” Ben turned away from them, unwilling to admit to himself that his sons had sought out that kind of distraction and that they all thought it was with Lydia. He exhaled. Of course they have. They are, after all, grown men…but Lydia. “Fine. Go. All of you. And when you find you were wrong, I expect all of you to apologize to Lydia. And I don’t ever want to hear it discussed again. Not even among the three of you. Is that clear?”

Adam looked at his father’s back, understanding how hard it must be for him to let them go. “Thanks, Pa.”

Ben jerked his head back toward Adam, brows furrowed, with his mouth curved in a deep, angry frown. “Don’t thank me. I’m not allowing this for you. This is for her.”

“We’ll be leaving for San Francisco then, first thing in the morning.” Adam turned and went upstairs to his room. Joe and Hoss stayed still for a minute, then slowly turned and followed Adam up the stairs.

 

Chapter Fifteen

 

When Lydia returned from her ride, Ben was waiting for her at the table on the front porch. It had been set for dinner for two, complete with candles. Ben rose and met her as she dismounted, smiling. “Did you enjoy your ride?”

“We found a lovely creek and sat for a while admiring the scenery.”

“There are plenty of places to admire on the Ponderosa. I don’t think you’ll ever run out.”

“It would be so much more enjoyable with you, Ben,” she said with a flirtatious smile.

He guided her to the porch, where he motioned to the table. “It’s such a pleasant evening, I thought we’d have dinner outside.”

“Oh, what a lovely thought. But I need to get cleaned up first. Would you excuse me?”

Ben held her arm. “Lydia, before you go inside…the boys…they’re not….”

Lydia let her arms fall to her sides, dropping her shoulders. “Anna, go on in without me.” When the front door closed behind Anna, Lydia turned back to Ben. “Did you and Adam have an argument?” When he raised his eyebrows, she bowed her head. “I shouldn’t have said anything.”

“Now, don’t you go blaming yourself. Adam had no business confronting you as he did. We did argue, but you were right. I need to let them find whatever answers they need to find.”

“Them? Joe and Hoss, too?”

 

“Yes, they’re all leaving for San Francisco tomorrow.”

Lydia inhaled deeply, held it and let it out slowly. “Well, I guess the sooner this is over, the better.” She leaned into him, looking up into his eyes. “Then we can get on with our lives.”

***

Adam wandered down into the sitting area after quietly stepping down on the top stair, looking for Lydia and his father. He didn’t want to deal with either one of them this evening and was hopeful he wouldn’t have to before he left the next morning.

On his way to the kitchen, he heard their low voices out on the porch; his father’s low chuckle and Lydia’s light laugh and giggle. Shaking his head, he walked quietly into the kitchen and found Hoss and Joe sitting at the kitchen table eating sandwiches.

“We wondered when you’d finally answer your stomach, Older Brother,” said Joe as he pulled out the chair next to him, pulling the platter of sandwiches Anna had made for them from the center of the table toward Adam’s chair.

“What’s…” Adam asked, pointing toward the front porch.

“Pa decided to have dinner on the front porch tonight,” said Joe, frowning.

“Hm,” answered Adam, nodding.

“Adam, suppose we do find Victoria Verone in San Francisco?” asked Hoss.

Adam rolled his eyes. “How do you think we’re going to find Victoria Verone in San Francisco when she’s sitting out there on our front porch?”

“But how can you be absolutely sure? Me and Joe seen her, and neither one of us is absolutely sure.”

“Hoss, I’m sure. I’m just as sure about her as I was about Bill Enders killing Toby Barker.”

“Only one problem then,” mused Joe. “If she’s here, what are we supposed to find in San Francisco?”

 

“The other woman. We find her, we confront her and get the truth out of her.”

Joe frowned. “What if we can’t find her?”

“If I’m right, we won’t have a problem finding her. All we need to do is go back to the house.”

“Well, there’s another problem. I don’t know where the house is…she took me there in a darkened coach and the same coach took me back where I started,” said Joe, sourly.

“We all got there and back the same way, Joe,” answered Adam as he took a bite of his sandwich. He kept talking with his mouth full. “But I know how to find the house. It’ll be easier than you think.”

Hoss creased his eyebrows. “If she’s here, what do you expect to find at the house?”

Adam snorted, looking down at his sandwich. “The other woman, Hoss. I’m betting they know each other. All we’ll have to do is talk to her…tell her what we know. Lydia’s story will fall apart.”

 

Chapter Sixteen

Lydia lay awake, looking toward the moonlit window of her room, going through everything she had done to cover her steps. She knew she could count on Ellie, having gone into great detail about her evenings with each of the Cartwright boys. If they asked her questions, Ellie would be able to answer them, and even if she couldn’t answer them all, Ellie would blame the number of men she had been with. How could they expect her to remember every little detail among so many details?
Even face to face, Ellie knew to deny she ever knew Lydia, and there was nothing on paper to connect them. It was never Lydia’s intent to make money off of her dalliances, so everything that needed a name associated with it got Ellie’s name. And because Ellie didn’t come from a well-known family, no one would ever have a reason to dig into her past. No, Lydia had set Ellie up very comfortably, giving Ellie no reason to ever betray her. Ellie owed her too much.

Ellie would admit to everything, giving the vital convincing details that only the woman who had been with them would know. Lydia closed her eyes, easily drifting off to sleep.

***

Everyone in the house was up early the next morning. It would appear that Adam’s wish of not seeing his father or Lydia would be dashed.

Ben stood next to the hitching rail as his three sons checked their saddles before they mounted up and left. “Boys, when you come back, this is over. Do I make myself clear?” Hoss and Joe nodded. “Adam?”

Adam turned to his father. “One way or another, Pa, this will be over.”

Before Adam mounted, Lydia came out of the house and stood by Ben’s side, looking up at Adam. Her eyes were soft, her brow creased in concern. “Adam, I do hope you find what you’re looking for so we can get past this.” Adam thought she could probably be as fine an actor as his friend, Edwin Booth, who was touted as the best Shakespearean actor of his time. But something about her bothered him…maybe it was her confidence. She didn’t appear to be concerned about being found out at all.

He tipped his hat politely and mounted. “I don’t think we’ll be gone more than a couple of weeks, Pa. If we need more time, I’ll send word.” He turned and the three men rode away, leaving Ben and Lydia standing in the yard.

“Lydia, perhaps you’d prefer to stay in town while they’re gone. I’m going to be busier with all three of them away. I don’t know when I’ll be able to get you back to town, and there are still arrangements to be made.”

While walking back into the house arm in arm, Lydia answered, “There’s no rush, Ben. I’m sure you’ll be making one or two trips into town. I can wait. I also didn’t want to start rumors in Virginia City.”

“Rumors?”

 

“Well, gossip really. I think the townspeople would take great interest in the possibility of another Mrs. Cartwright, and I thought we wanted a quiet, private wedding.”

“The wedding, yes. It doesn’t need to be a spectacle. But why would you think I’d want to hide my future wife? They’re going to find out sooner or later. It really doesn’t matter when, does it?”

She stopped and turned, wrapping her arms around him. He responded in kind, smiling down at her, answering her bright-eyed grin. “Not to me. I’m very proud to be the future Mrs. Ben Cartwright,” she said, tiptoeing, lifting her lips to his, inviting him into a kiss. Of course, he accepted the invitation.

 

Chapter Seventeen

When the Cartwright boys arrived in Sacramento, Adam sent telegrams to Mr. Jacobs and his other associate in San Francisco, telling them he would be there and would talk to them personally. Once they arrived in San Francisco, Adam went to Mr. Jacobs’ office while Hoss and Joe waited in their hotel room.
After shaking his hand, Adam sat in the chair at the front of Mr. Jacobs’ desk. “Hiram, I understand you’re busy, so I’ll keep this short. Were you able to find any connection between Lydia Templeton and Victoria Verone?”

“Short answer, no. None at all, other than they appear to look remarkably similar. I got that from George Templeton, who has seen the woman. Lydia Templeton appears to be a charitable young lady. She runs her father’s household, she’s the hostess at all his parties, and she represents the Templeton family at almost all the charitable functions around the city. Even her past is benign. She apparently was a willful child, and there was an incident when she was fifteen…from the amount of time she convalesced, I would imagine a serious incident. Her father hired a nurse to stay at the house. But nothing that could be construed as suspicious.”

 

“The incident when she was fifteen…you have no idea what happened?”

“No, I haven’t found anyone who might know, and I’m not asking George Templeton. Adam, why are you so interested in Lydia Templeton?”

 

“She no longer runs her father’s household. She’s getting ready to run my father’s household.”

“Oh?”

“My father brought her home as his fiancé the last time he was here in San Francisco.”

Mr. Jacobs raised an eyebrow and nodded. “Is there anything else I can do for you?”

“No, I’ve taken up enough of your time.”  Adam stood and made his way to the door, stopping to shake Mr. Jacobs’ hand again. “I appreciate the information, Hiram.”

When Adam had disappeared through the outer door, Mr. Jacobs called his clerk into his office. He sat at his desk and wrote out a short note. “Go to the telegraph office and send this to Ben Cartwright immediately.” When his clerk left his office, he leaned back in his chair. If Ben Cartwright wants to marry this woman, I think he’d want to know that his oldest son is asking questions. After all, I work for Ben…not Adam.

Adam made his way to a gentlemen’s club on Powell Street, walked to a table in a back alcove, sat and ordered whiskey. The bartender delivering the whiskey nodded. “I’ll tell him you’re here.”

In only a few minutes, a man in a black suit sat down at the table and poured himself a glass of whiskey. “What have you found out?” asked Adam, speaking in a low voice.

“Nothing about Miss Templeton. She’s squeaky clean. The only blot on her purity is something that happened when she was fifteen.”

“What was that?”

“The story goes that she was riding outside the city and got lost. She stumbled on a group of miners heading up into the gold country. Fifteen year old, pretty girl…alone…in the middle of nowhere. Use your imagination. When she was found, she didn’t have a stitch of clothing on and wasn’t talking. I understand it took some time for her to recover.”

“What about Victoria Verone?”

“Now, that woman is a legend among a crowd you don’t want to be associated with. Actually, you are associated with most of them. They just don’t want you to know they know Miss Verone. As I understand it, men don’t go back to Miss Verone. They leave running. Now, this Miss Verone supposedly looks almost exactly like your Lydia Templeton. But she’s not in business any longer. She quit. You won’t find her anywhere unless you know who she really is.”

“That’s what I’m paying you for.”

The man slid a piece of paper across the table. “You’ll find her there. Her name is Elizabeth Tillman. Timid little thing. Quiet as a mouse. Her neighbors love her. She keeps her house neat, and she dresses quite conservatively. I hear she’s just spent quite a bit of money renovating the place.”

“Watch the house. I want to know everywhere she goes…everyone she sees.” Adam stood and took his wallet out of his jacket pocket, leaving five hundred dollars on the table, and picking up the piece of paper. “There will be another five hundred when this is done.”

 

Chapter Eighteen

Adam walked through the door of the hotel room, closing it quietly behind him. “Hoss, Joe.” Both men came out of their respective bedrooms dressed in white shirts and ties. “Are you ready?”

“Yeah, but what are we ready for?” ask Joe.
Adam walked to his room and began to undress, changing into a suit as he spoke. “We are going to see Victoria Verone.”

“Adam, I thought you said we wouldn’t find Victoria Verone,” said Hoss.

Rolling his eyes, Adam said, “Hoss, just listen. There are two Victoria Verones. One is at the Ponderosa, and the other is still at the house where we were taken.”

Joe leaned against the door frame. “How are we supposed to find the house? I don’t know where it is.”

Hoss sat on the side of the bed. “Me neither.” Adam threw the piece of paper toward Hoss. “This is the house? How’d you get this?” Hoss handed the paper to Joe.

“Doesn’t matter how I got it. That’s where the other Victoria Verone is, and that’s where we’re going this afternoon,” said Adam as he tied his tie.

“What are we supposed to say when we get there?” asked Joe. “We can’t just bust in and accuse her of…of whatever we’re going to accuse her of.”

“You two just keep quiet. I’ll do the talking. I figure if she sees the three of us, she’ll be intimidated enough to tell us what we need to know.”

The three men left the hotel, taking a carriage to the address that Adam obtained from his informant. They stood on the sidewalk, looking up at the house. “I remember this house. I remember wondering how Miss Verone could possibly live in such an ordinary house,” said Joe.

Adam walked up the short walk to the front door with Joe and Hoss following. He knocked. In another minute, he knocked again. Soon, a young woman answered the door. The three men stood with their mouths open, gawking at the resemblance this woman bore to Lydia.

She looked at all three, cocked her head in puzzlement and asked, “Is there something I can do for you gentlemen?” The woman was dressed in a slender burgundy skirt with a high-necked blouse. Her hair was pillowed on her head, and her face was…fresh…no makeup, soft, full lips, and kind, wide eyes.

Adam cleared his throat. “We’re looking for Elizabeth Tillman.”

She smiled the same smile they had been seeing on the Ponderosa; the same smile that captivated their father. “I’m Ellie Tillman. What can I do for you?”

“Miss Tillman, would you mind if we come in?” asked Adam.  “We’d like to talk to you about…business.”

 

Chapter Nineteen 

Ellie Tillman’s eyes narrowed and a disturbingly seductive smile spread across her lips. “Please…come in, gentlemen,” she said as she opened the door wide and motioned them inside. Leading them into the parlor, she asked them all to take a seat. “I don’t get return business, gentlemen. And since it’s the middle of the day, I assume you’re here to…talk.”
“We’re here to discuss Victoria Verone.”

She turned her back to them and inspected the curtains. “Of course you are. Why else would you be here?”

Adam stood and walked up behind her. “I see you’ve redecorated. As I understand it, you’re no longer in business.”

She turned and found herself standing almost up against him. Unflinching, she cut her eyes up at his, and wearing the same provocative smile, she answered, “You are correct…Mr. Cartwright.” Though she had never seen them before, she recognized Lydia’s description of the three brothers. The dark, polished one was Adam, the little one was Joe and the big one was Hoss. She ran her fingers over the lapel of Adam’s jacket, holding his eyes with hers. “If you know that, I have to wonder why you’re here. You took a big risk coming here in broad daylight.”

When she walked across the room, all three watched her. The sauntering walk was the same, the animated way she moved her arms the same, and the voice she just used, a departure from the voice she used when she answered the door, a voice now low and sultry, was the same as they all remembered from their individual visits.

Adam tugged at his tie. “Miss Tillman, we’re here about Victoria Verone. The Victoria Verone who is staying at our ranch in near Virginia City.

She threw her head back in laughter. “Really, you are mad, aren’t you? I’ve never been to Virginia City.”

“The other Victoria Verone is your friend, Lydia Templeton.”

Laughing again, she struggled to catch her breath. She bent slightly, folding her arm across her stomach, breathing deeply as she chuckled. “Oh my, that was a good one. I’m afraid, Mr. Cartwright, the Miss Templeton that graces our streets wouldn’t be caught anywhere near me. She’d probably be fit to be tied that she lives in the same city, if she knew who I was, which I’m sure she does not. You see, we really don’t walk in the same circles.” Hoss and Joe rose from the sofa and stood next to Adam, facing her. “Oh, this is delicious. Are you all going to have your way with me to get me to do whatever it is you want? You certainly are in the right place,” she said as she continued to laugh.

“We’d like you to come back to Nevada with us.”

“And why would I want to do that?”

“I can pay handsomely for your time.”

She giggled. “You’re serious, aren’t you?” She approached him again, leaning in, pressing against Adam’s chest and looking up with that smile again…Victoria Verone’s smile. “How much?”

 

“Five thousand dollars.”

She laughed heartily again, making Hoss and Joe begin to fidget nervously. “You’d pay me five thousand dollars to travel with you to your ranch in Nevada…to do what?”

Adam’s lip curled into his own version of a seductive smile. He put his arm around her, holding her tightly against him. “Does it matter?” Hoss and Joe looked at each other, keeping their expressions serious.

She gave Adam a wide grin. “You don’t have to take me all the way to Nevada, Mr. Cartwright.” She whispered toward his ear. “I can earn your money right here. But then, based on your last visit, you won’t even have to pay me,” she said, taking in his scent and brushing her lips against his cheek. He loosened his hold, and she backed away, moving into Hoss, “My dear Hoss, I shocked you, didn’t I?” Hoss looked down, unable to meet her eyes. She moved to Joe, putting her arm over his shoulder, and dragging a finger gently down his cheek. “My lovely, young Joe,” she said, tracing his lips with her finger. “You would have been scrumptious.” Joe moved her hand away from his face and her arm off his shoulder.

She stepped back, facing all of them. “Would you gentlemen like to share all the intimate little details with your brothers?”

As Joe and Hoss looked away, obviously unwilling, Adam puckered his mouth and glared at her from under his brow. She had convinced Joe and Hoss. He looked at both of them and nodded toward the door. “Wait for me outside.”

Joe opened his mouth to speak, but Adam gave him a look that made him stop. Both men left to wait on the front stoop.

Standing with his hat in his hand, he faced Ellie again, wearing a confident, charming smile. “I’ll expect you to be ready to leave first thing in the morning. You’ll need to pack for two weeks. It’s a long trip to Virginia City and back.”

She took his arm and walked him to the door. “Really, Mr. Cartwright, I don’t believe I would like to go to Virginia City. I so dislike travel.”

“I can always take out an advertisement in the newspaper, letting San Francisco know just who Victoria Verone is, and where she lives. I’m afraid though, that you would lose your anonymity, and your attempt at retirement would be for naught.”

She crossed her arms, moving into a defensive posture, her face becoming stormy with anger. She stared at him for a moment, suddenly softening into an amused smile. “Very well, Mr. Cartwright. But, I’ll expect that five thousand dollars before I take my leave of you. And what would you have me do when we get there?”

With narrowed eyes, the corner of his mouth turned up. “Just be ready.”

 

Chapter Twenty

Back at the hotel room, the three men were lost in their own thoughts. Hoss sat on the sofa, tapping his fingers repeatedly on the sofa arm, looking off into nothing.
Joe paced with his arms crossed, his hands holding on to the opposite arms as if he were waiting for some tragic news.

Adam leaned against the door, watching the two. It was a mistake to bring them along. But then I didn’t count on Ellie being as proficient an actress as Lydia. I would have hoped she’d be unsettled at the sight of all three of us. But, as both women seem to do so well, she unsettled them.

“Hoss?”

Hoss looked thoughtfully at his hand for a moment, and then stood up facing Adam. “Maybe Lydia’s telling the truth, Adam. That Ellie looks just like her…dadburnit, she walks right and her voice is right. And she knows…well, she knows things ain’t anyone else gonna know.”

“And what about you, Joe?”

 

“Hoss is right. I can’t tell you Ellie wasn’t the woman I met. And she did seem to know things…that…well…you had to be there.”

Adam puckered his mouth, drawing his brow into a furious scowl. Lydia had told Ellie about the three of them…all the details. There was no point in telling either one of them how he knew. He’d already lost them. Adam took a deep breath, closing his eyes. “You two ride out tomorrow, and take Sport with you. I’ll take the steamer and stage with Ellie.”

“Adam, maybe you shouldn’t take her back,” said Hoss.

“Yeah, Adam,” agreed Joe. “Maybe it’s time to let this go.”

“You’re willing to leave Lydia to Pa? He could lose everything he’s worked for. She could take his self-respect.”

If the woman we met is Lydia and not Ellie. From where I stand, that’s a mighty big if,” said Joe, angrily facing his brother.

“Joe, by the time we get to the Ponderosa, I’m hoping Ellie will be ready to tell the truth,” said Adam quietly, hoping to calm Joe down.

Understanding Adam’s solemnity, Joe took Adam’s arm as Adam moved toward his room. “Do you realize what will happen if you’re wrong? Pa may never forgive you.”

“I know that, Joe,” replied Adam grimly.  “But I’m not wrong.”  He walked into his room and closed the door.

 

Chapter Twenty-One

Sometime in the middle of the night, there was a loud, insistent knock at the door. Adam slipped on his trousers, pulled his shirt over his shoulders and went to the door. “Who’s there?”

“Smith,” was the muffled response.
Opening the door a crack, Adam looked into the hall, then back over his shoulder. There was no reason for Hoss or Joe to know about Smith. He stepped into the hall, and when he came back in the room, he sat at the desk and wrote a note to his brothers, gathered his belongings and left.

Smith told him that Ellie Tillman had left her house, carrying a bag. He followed her to the Fairmont Hotel where she rented a room…Room 23. Adam paid the promised fee, five hundred dollars, after which Smith disappeared down the dark hall.

When Adam arrived at the Fairmont, the desk clerk was sound asleep, making it easy to take a key for Room 23 from the key board and ascend the stairs unnoticed. He quietly let himself in, turning up the lamp so that it dimly lit the room. Ellie was sound asleep. Adam sat in the chair across from the bed and waited. He had no idea how he was going to convince Ellie to tell him the truth, but he had the rest of the night to figure it out.

***

Joe walked through the suite in his nightshirt, scratching his backside. He leaned into Hoss’s room. “You up?”

“I am now,” replied Hoss groggily.

Continuing to Adam’s room, Joe opened the door and leaned in. “A…Adam?” he said, walking all the way in. “Hey, Hoss!” he yelled, rushing out of the room.

Hoss sleepily walked out of his room, wincing at the light of the lamp in the sitting room. “Yeah, what it is, Joe?”

“Adam’s gone.” Instantly waking up, Hoss furrowed his brow. “What do you mean he’s gone?”

“Wait, here’s a note,” said Joe. “Got an early start. See you at home. Adam.” Joe frowned, looking down at the note in his hand. “I sure hope he knows what he’s doing.”

“He usually does.”

***

Ellie stirred and slowly sat up, noticing that the room was brighter than it should be. Yawning, she said aloud, “I must’ve forgotten to turn down the lamp.” She turned and jumped back against the headboard of the bed, seeing the shadowy figure of a man in the chair.  Squinting and blinking sleep from her eyes, she crossed her arms and huffed, “How did you get in?”

“With the key,” Adam answered, holding up the key ring. “I hope you have enough clothes in your bag. We have tickets for the steamer to Sacramento.”

 

Chapter Twenty-Two

Lydia sat in front of her dressing table, brushing her hair, looking at herself in the mirror. She stopped, holding the brush in her hands in her lap and staring at her reflection. Lowering her head, she looked up with one of her trademark smiles, and then closed her eyes, willing away the reflection of what she had been. If only one day in my life had been different, I would have met Adam under completely different circumstances. She took a deep breath and puffed out her chest. I can still have Ben. This will all be over in a few more days when Adam comes home empty-handed. Anna appeared behind her, taking the brush out of her hand. She finished brushing Lydia’s hair, sweeping it up on her head and pinning it in place.
“Are you all right this morning, Ma’am?”

Lydia smiled at Anna’s reflection in the mirror. “Yes, of course I am. I’m just lamenting having to do without you after the wedding. But, I promised I’d pay your way back to New York, and I keep my promises.”

Later in the afternoon, Ben sat at his desk poring over a contract while Lydia busied herself arranging roses she cut from the garden Marie had planted on the west side of the house. He looked up from his papers, easing back in his chair, watching her. She was smiling, happy in her work. It was nice to have a woman’s touch in the house again. It was nice to hear a lighter voice and gentler laughter. Adam and Hoss might have been too young to appreciate that side of Marie. And now they were too old to appreciate it coming from a woman who could be their younger sister. But he was sure they’d come to appreciate her. Lydia was quite mature and refined for her age. Once they got to know her, they probably wouldn’t even think of her as being younger. At least, he hoped. His smile turned into a frown, remembering where his sons were and why. Perhaps life could never be perfect, after all.

He was jarred from his thoughts by a knock at the door. Lydia smiled when he passed her, and when he answered the door, she listened, but could only hear a muffled conversation. Ben had stepped out onto the porch, but quickly came back inside carrying an envelope.

“Is everything alright?”

“Hm…oh, yes. It’s just a telegram. He opened the envelope, unfolding the paper and reading to himself, chuckling as he folded it back up. “Apparently, Adam asked my attorney in San Francisco to find out what information he could about you.”

“Really?” giggled Lydia. “I’m afraid he’ll be sorely disappointed,” she said, stepping into him as he wrapped his arm around her shoulder. “Ben, when Adam doesn’t find anything, will he let this go?”

Ben smiled down at her. “He agreed to. And he honors his agreements.”

“He’s your son. I wouldn’t expect anything less.”
Chapter Twenty-Three

Ellie moved her dress from the back of a chair to the bed, laying it out and smoothing the wrinkles. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ll get dressed.”

Adam sat back, crossing his legs. “Propriety didn’t seem to be a concern the last time we shared a room,” he said, raising his brows.

“Suit yourself.” She laid her robe on the bed, then let her gown drop in a puddle around her feet as she looked alluringly back over her shoulder at him. He was uncomfortable, having never seen this woman in all her naked glory…and she certainly was glorious…but he would never allow her to see his discomfort, especially if he was going to get her to talk. Once she donned her drawers and camisole, he made his move, springing from the chair, taking her by the waist and backing her into a wall.

Leaning into her, he spoke to her as he hovered his lips over hers, breathing into his words, his voice deeper, quieter. “Ellie, I know you’re not the woman I shared an evening with. Would you like to know how I know that?” Her breaths became deep and fast as he lifted her by her waist up the wall until her eyes were even with his. “The woman I was with had cold, steel-gray eyes that I watched turn soft and warm.” He raised an eyebrow and let her drop back to the floor. After pushing away from the wall, he sat back down in the chair.

She studied him, and then sat on the side of the bed. “It doesn’t matter Mr. Cartwright. I don’t know what you plan to accomplish by forcing me to Virginia City, but I will never betray Lydia.”

“You’re betraying her now.”

“Not really. You’ll never be able to prove anything, and if you force me to go to Virginia City, you’ll see the same performance you saw at the house. Lydia will be shocked and surprised and very hurt that you didn’t believe her. And your father…your father will be left with a choice. Considering you’re the one making accusations without any hard evidence, who do you think he’ll side with?”

Adam exhaled loudly and scratched his ear. “Just tell me why.”

Ellie stood and began to dress as she spoke. “Why I’m doing this or why Lydia did this?”

“Both.”

 

“I was a resident in one of the charity houses where Lydia volunteered. I was seventeen. Lydia was the same age, and when she got me cleaned up, we realized how much we favored each other. When Lydia told me how I could make money and make men pay for their…cruelty…I listened. I did it to get off the wharf…to have a warm bed and three hot meals a day…to live in a fine home. We studied each other, perfecting the walk, the mannerisms and the voice. Lydia worked out all the details so that our public and private lives would never cross paths. She did it as an outlet for her rage. And it worked out well until she met you. She all but stopped, except for your brothers. When she met your father, she told me she was done. She said the house was mine, the accounts were mine…all she wanted was half the cash we had in the safe. She left me with enough to be comfortable for the rest of my life without having to do anything.” Ellie finished dressing and sat on the bed. “Before she left with your father, she went over all the details about her evenings with each of you. We went over them again and again to make sure you wouldn’t find a crack in our stories.” She folded her hands and looked away. “Neither of us imagined you would remember her eyes.”

“And Lydia?”

 

“It’s not my place to tell you that.”

Adam crooked his jaw, looking toward the window. Ellie was right. Taking her to the Ponderosa to face Lydia was pointless. Both women would put on their rather convincing act and his father would believe them as would Hoss and Joe, already more than half convinced. Lydia had won. All he could do now was make sure she didn’t do anything to hurt his pa. He had no idea how he would do that. He stood, picked up his bag and put on his hat. “Goodbye Ellie,” he said as he walked out the door.

 

Chapter Twenty-Four

Adam was thankful he had sent Joe and Hoss home with the horses. It would give him time alone to figure out what he was going to do. Rather than heading to the steamer, he stopped in a saloon, one that he had never patronized, hoping no one would recognize him. He didn’t want to waste his time on pleasantries. It wasn’t likely anyone would know him; the bar was in a seedier side of town than he or any of his friends or business associates would ever frequent. He purchased a bottle of whiskey at the bar and sat in a dark corner…his whiskey, his glass, his predicament and himself.
If I tell Pa it would be my word against Lydia’s. He’d give her the benefit of the doubt, marry Lydia, and God knows what would happen. If I don’t tell Pa and let it go, he’ll marry Lydia and God knows what will happen. If I talk to Lydia…tell her that Ellie told me everything…give her a reason to believe that Ellie revealed herself…the information about the charity house where Lydia found her, the wharf, the ownership of the house and the accounts, and the cash in the safe. That should be enough to convince Lydia that I know.

Tell her about her eyes.

And she’ll marry Pa…and God only knows.

I want her to tell me how…why. I want to know why she had almost stopped after me, except for Hoss and Joe, and why she stopped completely when she met Pa. She was counting on Pa falling for her. But why Pa? What was it about Pa? What does she want from him?

Is it possible she really loves him?

If she doesn’t love him, there’s nothing I can do. But, if she does love him, she would want what’s best for him. She’d put him before herself. She wouldn’t want him to lose a son because of her.

If I tell her I can’t stay…that I can’t live there with her as my father’s wife, knowing what we did…knowing what she did with my brothers, would she choose Pa’s family over herself?

Adam leaned up to the table, laying his head in his hands. He felt lightheaded and looked up at the bottle of whiskey. It was half gone. Taking the bottle to the bar, he asked for a cork. “Do you have a room here I can rent for the night?” he asked the bartender.

“With or without company?”

Adam chuckled. “I’ve had enough company for awhile.”

“Rooms here come with a girl. There’s a place across the street you can get a cold, lonely bed.”

Adam thought as he walked across the street. I have to tell her I can’t stay. It’s the only way. And that might not even work. He rented a room, set his bottle on the night table and his bag on the floor. Removing his gun belt, he laid it on the other side of the bed where he could reach his gun if necessary, then pulled off his boots, his trousers and shirt, lay back on the bed and fell quickly to sleep. The whiskey had done its work.

 

Chapter Twenty-Five

Joe and Hoss arrived home after dark and bedded down their horses, delaying as long as possible their entry into the house…into Pa’s sitting room…with Lydia.
They stood in the barn door and looked at each other, both frowning. “Come on, Little Brother. We might as well git this over with,” said Hoss.

Ben looked up from his book when he heard boots on the wooden porch, and waited patiently for the click of the door latch. He watched Joe and Hoss enter, quietly laying their gun belts and hats on the cabinet.

“Hey, Pa,” greeted Hoss.

“Boys. Where’s Adam?”

“He’s taking the stagecoach,” said Joe.

“Oh. Why didn’t he come back with you two?”

Joe took a deep breath before he answered. “He’s bringing someone back with him.”

When the boys entered the house, Lydia laid her embroidery in her lap. Sitting in the blue chair, she looked across at Ben as if she were puzzled.

“Who’s he bringing back?” asked Ben.

“A woman named Ellie Tillman,” answered Hoss. “She’s the woman who looks like Lydia. She does, Pa. Me and Joe seen her. She’s the spittin’ image.”

Lydia raised her eyebrows, still looking at Ben. “It will be interesting to finally meet my twin.”

“It’s late, Pa, and we pretty much rode straight through,” said Joe, making his way to the stairs, pointing. “I think I’ll just turn in.”

“Hoss, you might as well turn in, too,” suggested Ben. “I’m sure you’re both tired.”

“Yessir, I am sorta tired. Night, Pa. Miss Lydia,” he said, nodding and heading up the stairs behind Joe.

Lydia glanced back toward the stairs. “Those two look like they lost their best friend. I wonder if Adam is really alright.”

“Lydia, that’s the look of two young men who’ve made fools of themselves,” said Ben, looking up the stairs. “Adam may have stayed behind on purpose.”

“Adam doesn’t strike me as the kind of man who would be afraid to admit he’s wrong.”

“He’s not, but when he’s got his mind made up about something, it’s hard for him to let go. It’s just his way. He’s always needed more time with his thoughts.”

 

Chapter Twenty-Six

Adam was awake before light, after sleeping more than eight hours straight. He dressed and headed toward the steamer. Rather than hiring a carriage, he walked to clear his mind, so he could go over his conclusions from last night one more time. He purchased a ticket for the steamer, then waited inside a café until boarding time, having a biscuit with honey and coffee for breakfast.

On the steamer, he took a seat near a window and thought as he watched the murky waters of the Sacramento River flow by. Every possibility he could come up with ended up with Pa marrying Lydia. The only one that might not lead to marriage, leaving the Ponderosa, wasn’t a sure thing. Pa could still end up marrying her, but it was the only real choice he had. He just had to hope that Lydia loved his pa and would do the noble thing.

When he arrived in Sacramento, he transferred to the stagecoach, leaving for home with only a short wait. He was relieved to find that he was the only passenger at the moment. Pushing his hat over his eyes, he leaned back into a corner next to the window and tried to nap, but it was no use. His mind was still trying to find an alternative.

Then a thought dawned on him. What if Lydia really loved his father and would make him happy. He hadn’t thought about his father’s happiness…only about protecting him from what he knew Lydia to be, a beautiful, voluptuous, manipulative woman with an appetite for controlling and humiliating men.

What if she had changed? Thinking back to his night with her, he recalled that she had tried to set the stage for her game, but he caught on early enough to turn it around on her. When she realized that he wanted a shared experience with her rather than something one-sided…something he was sure she was used to, she let her guard down. He saw her change from rigid and stony to tender and warm. She was genuinely surprised when he was still with her the next morning, and he was sure she was sad to see him leave. Ellie said Lydia all but stopped after her night with him. Had he somehow changed her view of men?

But why would she lure Hoss and Joe in? Why would she specifically go after them? She was looking for something. Then before she could possibly know that his father would propose marriage, she quit completely, as if she had finally found that…something.

He knew he would definitely have to talk to Lydia, but before he tried to use her love for his father to send her away, he needed more answers. Could Lydia really just want his father’s love and acceptance? Could she have found something with his father that she had lost…maybe when she was just a fifteen-year-old girl?

Could he live in the same house with his father and as his wife, a woman he’d shared a night with? He knew the answer to that. If he respected her, he could let go of her past. By the time the stagecoach arrived in Virginia City, he knew he was going to give her a chance.

 

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Adam hadn’t realized it, but he had missed his father, Lydia and Anna in town when he arrived on the stage. He’d made a beeline to the livery to rent a horse, anxious to get back to the house and get his conversation with his father over so he could concentrate on Lydia.

Arriving at the house, he pulled the handles of his bag off the saddle horn, making his way to the front door and pushing it open. “Hello! Anyone home?”

Hoss and Joe came barreling down the stairs, but stumbled to a stop at the bottom when they realized Adam was alone. “I thought you were bringing Ellie back,” said Joe.

“I had a long talk with Ellie. There was no point in bringing her back.”

“I knew it,” said Hoss, slapping Joe on the back so hard Joe stumbled forward. Before he could fall, Hoss grabbed him by the collar. “Sorry, Joe.”

Grimacing at the stinging he was still feeling on his back, Joe answered, “’s alright.”

“Where are Pa and Lydia?”

“They went to town. Didn’t you see ‘em?” asked Hoss.

“No, I didn’t.” Adam scratched his ear. “Look, I’d appreciate it if…well, I’d like to talk to Pa alone.”

“That won’t be a problem. We’ve got chores to do,” said Joe as he and Hoss took their guns and hats and made their way out the door. Turning back, Hoss said, “Good luck.”

Adam took his bag upstairs, unpacked his clothes, then took a book back downstairs and read until he heard the buggy enter the yard. When Lydia opened the door, she didn’t notice Adam standing in front of the fireplace, having turned back around to guide Ben through the door with his load of boxes and bags. Anna brought up the rear with more bags.

After Lydia guided Ben to the coffee table, Adam stepped forward to take some of the boxes. “Adam, you’re back!” said Lydia. “I thought you were taking the stage.”

“I did.”

“How did we miss you?”

Adam peeked into one of the bags. “I didn’t do any shopping on the way home.”

“Anna, would you help me get some of these things upstairs? The vases and candles can stay down here.” Anna started looking through bags, selecting those that had clothes and accessories in them. She and Lydia talked excitedly while they went up the stairs. As their voices faded down the hall, Ben and Adam stood quietly, looking at everything in the room but each other.

Finally, Adam spoke. “Pa, before I tell you anything about San Francisco, I’d like to talk to Lydia.”

“Why?”

“I want to ask her a few questions.”

“Adam, I don’t see how…”

“Ben, if it clears all this up, what harm could it do?” Lydia had come quietly back down the hall and stood at the top of the stairs without either man noticing her.

As she made her way down the stairs, Ben answered. “Lydia, I allowed him to go to San Francisco. I see no point in dragging this unpleasantness out any further.” By the time he had finished, she was by his side, looking up into his eyes.

“Ben,” she said softly. “It’s not over until it’s over for all of us. That has to include Adam.”
She reached up and touched his cheek. “It’s alright. I don’t mind.” Ben looked irritably at Adam, but nodded.

Adam took Lydia’s elbow and guided her out the door, helping her into the buggy and driving away. They rode awhile before either said anything. “You covered yourself well, Lydia.” She turned and studied him. “There’s a spot at the lake I go sometimes.  When I miss my mother.”
“I thought you never knew your mother.”

“My birth mother? No, she died when I was born. When she died, my father followed his dream to come west. My second mother died when I was six. Hoss was just a baby, and she left me holding him in a corner out of danger while she fought Indians with Pa. She was killed by an arrow. That happened while we were still traveling west. Joe’s mother died when I was seventeen…in a riding accident.”

“I’m sorry, Adam. I knew that you all had different mothers. I never thought how Hoss and Joe’s mother’s deaths might have affected you.”

Adam pulled the reins, stopping the horses. “Let’s go for a walk,” he said, taking her hand and helping her down. When they came upon Marie’s grave, she stopped, looking down at her hands. “Pa still misses her.”

“I think your father misses them all. This is just the one he can still visit.”

 

“And you don’t mind?”

 

“No.  You’re father shared a part of his life with them.  He remembers them fondly.  Why would I want to take that away from him?”  They walked past the grave to some rocks at the shore and sat down.  “Did you find what you were looking for?” asked Lydia.

“I found Victoria Verone, if that’s what you mean.”

She snorted and closed her eyes. “Ellie. You found Ellie.”

“That doesn’t surprise you?”

“Not in the least.”

“Don’t get me wrong, Ellie did her best to convince us. As a matter of fact, she did convince Hoss and Joe.”

She sat, looking out at the lake. “Two down…one to go.”

“Lydia, the moment I saw Ellie, I knew. She does look remarkably like you, and the walk…and that voice…the same walk and voice I remember. But not the same…” he reached over and turned her face to his “…eyes. I might not have noticed if I hadn’t spent some time looking into those eyes.”

She smiled. “Still, Ellie wouldn’t have said anything.” Adam twisted his mouth and raised his eyebrows, causing Lydia to jump to her feet and face him. “What did you do to her?”

“I made a point. The same point I just made to you. Of course, I can’t prove anything. But somehow, I don’t think I need to.”

Lydia’s expression suddenly saddened, and she turned and looked up at the sky. “You had some questions.”

“Why?”

“Excuse me?”

“Why did you do it? Why did you entice men into your home as Victoria Verone, and then send them running away?”

Closing her eyes and gritting her teeth, she took a deep breath and slowly exhaled. She clasped her hands behind her back, looking down and cutting her eyes up at him. He had seen her look at his father this way, but that look was rather pleasant. This look…there was nothing pleasant about this look. It consisted of disgust and hate, and when she looked away again, he swore he saw…shame?

 

“When I was fifteen, I went riding…like I always did…through the countryside. My horse was spooked by a rattlesnake and bolted. By the time I got him under control again, I had no idea where I was. He had run through a wooded area that I was unfamiliar with. I picked a direction and rode for awhile, hoping to find a house or a farm where there might be someone who could tell me how to get back to the city. It was beginning to get dark, and I came upon a campfire. I asked for help, but by the time I realized it was a bad idea, one of them had already gotten close enough to grab my leg.” She turned away from him, her voice becoming unsteady. “There were nine of them. I fought. I left scratches on one’s face, so they tied my hands above my head. They all took turns while the others watched, and then they left me tied while they drank and slept. The next morning at first light, they…” By this time, Adam was standing behind her, holding her shoulders as she withered. “When they were done with me, they left me tied to a tree so that whoever found me would know exactly what had been done to me.”

Stepping out of his hands, she continued. “I created Victoria Verone when I was seventeen…about the time I first stepped out of the house again. I met Ellie…my age…being passed from bed to bed to survive. I had the money to make it work, and she was a willing partner. For the next eight years, I took my revenge.” As she spoke, her voice got steadily louder and angrier. “I controlled them. I humiliated them. All of them.”

Her body had tensed as if she was ready for a fight, but suddenly, she slumped. “And then, I found you dressed in your fine suit and your silk waistcoat, young, handsome, rich. Just like all the others; just like the men my father entertained. You all had money to pay a woman to submit to what you wanted until you were sated. You all treated women as something less than human…a toy.” She turned to face him again. “But you…you weren’t rough or vulgar. You didn’t reek of alcohol and cigars. And when it came time to tie you, you slipped away…you changed the game. You wanted…companionship. And you stayed.” She sat down on a rock next to him, looking older…tired, as if she had just lost everything that mattered to her. At twenty-five, she felt like she had already lived a lifetime.  She was emotionally spent.

“Hoss and Joe?”

She took another deep breath and continued. “I saw you again with my father and another man. I think he was your attorney. I asked my father who you were, and he told me about you and your family. I wondered if you were just a quirk, or if there were actually other men in the world like you. So I listened and waited, and eventually your brothers came to San Francisco. Poor Hoss.  He had no idea what he’d gotten himself into. I’d never seen such a big man with such innocence. The kiss in the coach shocked him so much that when he got to the house, I couldn’t get him past the parlor.”  She giggled. “And Joe. I swear, if there ever was a young Casanova…. Joe was polite and courteous. He was just looking for fun, and when I got him up to the bedroom and…well…you know…he hesitated. Joe has a line he won’t cross.  He was in such a hurry to get away…” She chuckled. “…that he almost broke his neck on the stairs. My coachman picked him up by the scruff of his neck at the end of the sidewalk and threw him into the coach.”

Adam chuckled with her. “Yep, that’s Joe.”

“And then your father came to town. I had no idea how I was going to arrange to meet him, but as it turned out, we had lunch in the same restaurant the day he signed that timber contract.  So I met him as Lydia Templeton instead of Victoria Verone.  And that day, Victoria Verone ceased to exist.” She turned to him, looking into his eyes. “Adam, I don’t know whether you can understand this or believe it, but the reason I sought out Hoss and Joe was because I wanted to know if you were really an oddity among men or if perchance, you were one in a family of honorable men.  And once I knew that about you and your brothers, I had to meet the man who raised you…surely, he was an honorable man as well.”

Stepping into him, she raised her hands to his chest and looked up into his eyes.  “I knew I could never have you.  I knew you’d figure it out.”  Adam gazed into the steel-gray eyes he remembered, now distraught at her plight.  “I knew you would never consider…me…knowing what you know about me.”  She turned back to the rock they had been sitting on.  “Your father was kind and attentive and charming and all those things you were…just older. And I knew he could love me and that I could make him happy.”

 

Chapter Twenty-Eight

It was Adam’s turn to walk to the edge of the water and look out while Lydia silently waited on the rock. After a few quiet minutes, he turned to her and smiled. “I believe you.”

Lydia closed her eyes, and let out a deep breath. “What will you tell your father?”

Breathing deeply before he spoke, he said, “I’ll tell him that I spoke to the other woman, and that she is Victoria Verone.” He closed his eyes and shook his head, snorting. “And I won’t be lying.”

Lydia sadly looked at him. “But, you will be.” Adam creased his brows, questioning. “I think your father would say that lies of omission are just as wrong as outright lies.”

“You already know him pretty well. But Lydia, he doesn’t have to know.”

“Adam, I don’t want to start a life with your father keeping secrets from him. There have been too many secrets. I have to tell him. I have to be honest with him about my past and what I’ve done…about you.” She looked down at her hands.

“Are you sure you want to do this? You don’t have to.”

“Yes, Adam. I do.  I do love your father, but as difficult as it would be for you, knowing me the way you do, it would be even harder for me, having to face you every day, feeling the way I do about you.”

When Adam and Lydia walked back into the house, Ben was standing with one foot on the hearth, staring into the fire. He turned, watching and waiting as they walked into the sitting area. “Adam, would you excuse us?” asked Lydia. Adam took her hand, bringing it to his lips and smiled sympathetically before he went to the stairs.

“Adam?” He turned back at the sound of his father’s voice. “Did you find what you were looking for?” asked Ben quietly.

“Yeah, Pa. I did,” he answered, nodding and turning to ascend the stairs.

Ben faced Lydia, taking her hands in his. “Ben, I have some things to tell you, but first, I need to tell you that the sons you have raised have all turned out to be remarkable and honorable young men…just like their father.”

 

Ben affectionately gazed at her with warm, loving eyes. “But there are some things you don’t know about me that you should.” Ben pulled her into him, wrapped his arms around her and kissed her so lovingly, so tenderly that when he finished, Lydia had tears in her eyes. “Lydia, I already know everything I need to know.”

“No, Ben…”

He gently put his fingers to her lips. “I know what happened to you when you were fifteen. I know how long it took you to walk out of the house again.  Your father told me that because of it you had some liaisons with a few men…men whom he thought you would allow to take care of you…but, you couldn’t. You had lost all trust in men. I understand that. He told me he was surprised when you said yes, and hoped that this would work. And since we’ve been back, Lydia, I’m convinced it will work. I don’t need to hear about your past. I don’t need to know anything except what we have in the present, and what we will have in the future.”

“Ben, I’m so sorry,” she said as tears escaped her eyes.  ”I’ve found something here I never thought possible.   But the change I would bring to your door could be devastating, and I could never do that to you or your sons.”

“Ssh. Not another word. The past is the past. Neither of us belongs there.”

“No, you don’t belong there.  And if I stay, you’ll be put right in the middle of mine.”  She touched his face.  “I do love you, Ben, but I can’t marry you.”  She turned toward the stairs.  “Anna and I will be packed within the hour.  If you could have someone take us to town, we’ll be on the next stage out.”  She didn’t wait for an answer.  She hurried up the stairs.

Ben felt as if he couldn’t breathe.  He leaned over to steady himself on the arm of the chair and slowly dropped into the seat.

 

Chapter Twenty-Nine

When Lydia and Anna came down the stairs they were dressed in their traveling clothes.  Lydia wore a hat with a veil covering her face.  Adam had already hitched the buckboard and the buggy and had begun moving their bags and trunks outside.

 

Lydia looked at Ben still sitting in the chair, staring at the fireplace.  “Goodbye, Ben.”

 

Turning, he looked up at her with a stunted smile, then rose and walked her out the door.  He helped her up onto the front seat of the buggy, and then helped Anna up into the back.  All he could manage was a smile.  Lydia sniffed and smiled back through her tears, bringing her handkerchief up to her face.  When Adam climbed into the buggy next to her, she quietly said, “Maybe Hoss or Joe should drive us.”

 

Adam smiled reassuringly.  “Neither of them is here,” he said, squeezing her hand.  “It’s alright.”

 

At the stage office, Lydia purchased tickets while Adam and the ranch hand that had driven the buckboard moved their trunks to the sidewalk in front of the office.  “They’ll keep your trunks here until tomorrow’s stage,” said Adam.  “I’ll see you to the International House.”

 

When they arrived, Adam checked them in and carried their bags to their suite.  After Anna had retreated to her room, Lydia turned to Adam who was standing in the door.  “Adam, I never meant to hurt your father.”

 

“He’ll be alright.  But you could have stayed.”

 

“No.  Not that way.”  She looked into his eyes, and when he saw the warmth and softness he had seen on the night they had shared, he knew she was right.  All three of them living in the house would have eventually become too difficult for her; perhaps for him as well.

 

One year later…

 

Adam Cartwright stood in front of the mirror in the bedroom of his suite at a hotel in San Francisco, tying his tie.  He was there to negotiate a cattle contract, and while he was there, he would be attending a formal dinner and dance where the San Francisco Businessman of the Year would be announced.

 

When he walked to the door of the banquet room in the hotel where the dinner and dance was being held, he was introduced to the room, and a server immediately handed him a glass of champagne.

 

Tables placed around the perimeter of the room were each decorated with a vase of fresh flowers in the center and eight place settings of fine china, crystal and silver atop a white linen tablecloth.  The center of the room was left open for dancing.  Wandering around the room, nodding and sharing pleasantries with those he knew, his eyes never stopped searching, looking for that one person responsible for the dinner, decorations and music.

 

As the music began, he spotted her, a delicate vision in a pale pink gown with rose-colored trim adorned with red rosettes.  She floated from one cluster of guests to another, greeting them and laughing, wearing a captivatingly brilliant smile.

 

She froze at the sound of a familiar deep, mellifluous voice behind her.  “Excuse me.  May I have this dance?”

 

Slowly turning, she lowered her face and cast her eyes up at him with a delightfully charming smile.  “Mr. Cartwright, how are you this evening?”

 

Adam set his champagne flute on a passing tray and held his arm out to her.  “The evening just became decidedly better,” he said as he returned her smile and led her to the dance floor.

The End

 

Alternate Ending

Chapter Twenty-Eight

It was Adam’s turn to walk to the edge of the water and look out while Lydia silently waited on the rock. After a few quiet minutes, he turned to her and smiled. “I believe you.”

Lydia closed her eyes and let out a deep breath. “What will you tell your father?”

Breathing deeply before he spoke, he said, “I’ll tell him that I spoke to the other woman, and that she is Victoria Verone.” He closed his eyes and shook his head, snorting. “And I won’t be lying.”

Lydia sadly looked at him. “But, you will be.” Adam creased his brows, questioning. “I think your father would say that lies of omission are just as wrong as outright lies.”

“You already know him pretty well. But Lydia, he doesn’t have to know.”

“Adam, I don’t want to start a life with your father keeping secrets from him. There have been too many secrets. I have to tell him. I have to be honest with him about my past. If he sends me away…” she looked down at her hands “…it’s no one’s fault but my own.”

“Are you sure you want to do this? You don’t have to.”

“Yes, Adam. I do.”

***

When Adam and Lydia walked back into the house, Ben was standing with one foot on the hearth, staring into the fire. He turned, watching and waiting as they walked into the sitting area. “Adam, would you excuse us?” asked Lydia. Adam took her hand, bringing it to his lips and smiled sympathetically before he went to the stairs.
“Adam?” He turned back at the sound of his father’s voice. “Did you find what you were looking for?” ask Ben quietly.

“Yeah, Pa. I did,” he answered, nodding, then turning to ascend the stairs.

Ben faced Lydia, taking her hands in his. “Ben, I have some things to tell you, but first, I need to tell you that the sons you have raised have all turned out to be remarkable and honorable young men…just like their father.”

 

Ben affectionately gazed at her with warm, loving eyes. “But, there are some things you don’t know about me that you should.” Ben pulled her into him, wrapped his arms around her and kissed her so lovingly, so tenderly that when he finished, Lydia had tears in her eyes.  “Lydia, I already know everything I need to know.”

“No, Ben…”

He gently put his fingers to her lips. “Your father and I had a long conversation before we left San Francisco. I know what happened to you when you were fifteen. I know how long it took you to just walk out of the house again.  And your father told me that because of it you had some liaisons with a few men…men whom he thought you would allow to take care of you…but, you couldn’t. You had lost all trust in men. I understand that. He told me he was surprised when you said yes, and hoped that this would work. And since we’ve been back, Lydia, I’m convinced it will work. I don’t need to hear about your past. I don’t need to know anything except what we have in the present, and what we will have in the future.”

“But, Ben….”

“Ssh. Not another word. The past is the past. Neither of us belongs there.”

Adam stood at the top of the stairs just around the corner. He smiled, turned, and went to his room.

 

Alternate Ending – Chapter Twenty-Nine by MonicaSJ

Chapter Twenty-Nine

For the next week, there was a flurry of activity at the Ponderosa; from ordering flowers, personally inviting Ben’s closest friends, and speaking with the minister. Ben and Lydia decided that the traditional reception would be replaced with a dinner, and afterwards there would be entertainment and dancing.

Lydia had talked Ben into staying home after the wedding rather than going elsewhere for a honeymoon. She recruited Adam to help keep Ben away from business that week, hoping they could spend the time seeing the thousand square miles of the Ponderosa, including the lake.

Adam and Ben had just walked in the front door after inspecting a new dam over the creek that provided water to the north pastures. As Ben removed his gun and hat, he looked over at Lydia who was sitting in the leather chair next to the fireplace with her head bowed and her hands resting in her lap.

“Lydia?” he inquired as he approached her. She looked up and gave him a forced smile.

“What’s wrong, darling?” asked Ben as he sat down on the coffee table in front of her, taking her hands. Adam wandered over to the desk, listening.

Frowning apologetically, she answered, “I just have to get used to being the newcomer to a man’s household that’s already established.”

“That doesn’t answer my question.  Out with it.”

“Hop Sing.”

“What about Hop Sing?”
“Well…he doesn’t seem to like me much. I’ve never had an opportunity to really speak with him, but…he frowns at me.” She raised her chin, looking Ben in the eye, then cut her eyes away, twisting her mouth. “I’m afraid to go into the kitchen. I’m afraid he’ll fuss at me in Cantonese and run me out. But I’d like to talk to him about our wedding dinner and refreshments afterwards.”

Neither had been paying any attention to Adam, but he had turned and leaned back on the desk with his arms crossed. Both Ben and Lydia looked over at him when they heard a low laugh. Ben smiled, chuckled and turned back to Lydia.

“What’s so funny?” she asked, pouting.

“I never thought that the formidable Lydia Templeton, the woman who ran the Templeton household with a firm hand, who planned the meals, hosted the parties, arranged for guests would ever be afraid of my cook.”

“I don’t know why you’d think that. I had a chef and kitchen help and Anna and decorators and caterers. I’ve never really been on my own doing any of those things. Besides, I’ve heard him. What if he’s saying something awful?”

As Ben and Lydia spoke, Adam excused himself to the kitchen. “Hop Sing, can I talk to you for a minute.”

“What you want? Hop Sing get ready pluck chickens.”

“About Miss Lydia….” Hop Sing continued to gather all he needed to clean and pluck the dinner birds. “Do you have a problem with her?”

“She girl.  She too young to know how run kitchen.”

Adam grinned. “Now Hop Sing. You don’t even know her. She’s not just a mere girl. In fact, she ran a household much bigger and busier than this, and she’s been doing that since she was a mere girl. I don’t think she wants to take over. But she’d like to have some input…and maybe help you cook once in a while.” Hop Sing glanced back at Adam scowling, unconvinced. “She’s been trained by one of the finest chefs in San Francisco. I’m sure she’d love to share recipes.”

Wiping his hands on his apron, Hop Sing turned to face Adam. “What you want Hop Sing do?”

“Give her a chance. She won’t bite, I promise.”

“You like lady now? You not like lady before.”

Putting his hand on Hop Sing’s back and turning him toward the kitchen doorway, Adam answered. “Yes, I like Miss Lydia now. I like her a lot.”

“What I call her before she marry Mr. Cartlight?”

“Miss Lydia will be fine.”

Hop Sing and Adam walked into the sitting area together, Hop Sing looking angrily at Adam, but when he stopped in front of Ben and Lydia and turned, he had an instant smile. “Missy Lydia. You come to kitchen. We talk,” he said, nodding.

Adam held his hand out to Lydia, and when she gave him hers, he pulled her up with Ben rising from the coffee table at the same time, surprised. “Your kitchen awaits.”

 

Alternate Ending- Chapter Thirty by MonicaSJ

Chapter Thirty

The settee, sofa table, chairs, and coffee table had been removed from the sitting area. Garlands of flowers were hung over the fire place, and arrangements of white and pink Damask roses, peonies in pastel colors and forget-me-nots symbolizing true love graced the tables around the room. The dining room table had been extended and set opulently with Lydia’s mother’s Bavarian china, as well as crystal and silver which her father had brought with him from San Francisco as a wedding gift.

The Cartwrights were dressed in their finest suits, Adam and Ben wearing silk waistcoats. Lydia wore a gown of ivory satin overlaid in a sheer silk fabric, the base of skirt scalloped and gathered with pink flowers, green leaves and center pearls, and the bodice trimmed in lace and pearls. She wore no veil, but rather wore small white flowers spread throughout her hair.

The wedding march was replaced with a gathering of family and close acquaintances. A string quartet played chamber music while the assemblage waited for the last few guests to arrive. Once everyone had gathered, the guests stood in front of the fireplace behind the bride and groom, Anna, Lydia’s father, Ben’s sons and the minister, who was facing the crowd. The prayers were said, the promises made, and finally a kiss sealed the union of Lydia Templeton to Ben Cartwright.

After congratulations and kisses for the bride, the party enjoyed an elegant dinner served with fifty-year-old Bordeaux from Ben’s wine cellar. The evening continued with dancing and discussions about the upcoming winter, the health of the herds, and the ever-rising price of lumber.

As the evening grew late and guests made their way to their buggies, Ben and Lydia stood arm in arm on their front porch offering their thanks and wishing everyone a safe journey home.

Adam, Joe and Hoss had moved the pieces of furniture back to their places in the sitting area and stood in front of the fire place with Lydia’s father and Anna, holding glasses of wine, waiting for their father and Lydia to come back into the house. Adam stood smiling, making the last toast of the evening, raising his glass “To true love, long life, laughter and happiness.”

“Here, here,” said Joe and Hoss as they touched their glasses to the others and drank. Anna, the boys and Mr. Templeton said their goodnights and retired to their rooms, leaving Ben and Lydia sitting on the coffee table in front of the fire.

“You planned a lovely evening, my darling, but was it enough?” asked Ben, holding Lydia against him as both gazed into the fire.

“It was perfect, Ben…just perfect. I don’t need the finery of my father’s mansion, the fancy dinners or the parties as long as I can spend my days…” she looked coyly up into his eyes “…and my nights with you.”

 

Alternate Ending – Chapter Thirty-One by MonicaSJ

Chapter Thirty-One

One year later…

Lydia came out of the kitchen after helping Hop Sing prepare lunch for the hard-working men who would be riding into the yard at any moment, hot, sweaty and hungry. She gathered her knitting, slowly walking to the front porch with one hand on her back. She hadn’t remembered ever having a sore back and right now, she was miserable. She sat down in the rocking chair that Ben had moved next to the table on the upper porch so she could put her knitting box within reach beside her.

She had only managed one purl before the men rode noisily into the yard. Putting her knitting down on her lap, she sat back in the rocker and watched as the men discussed their morning, joking and bantering back and forth while tying their horses. They turned and made their way to the porch. Ben bent down and kissed Lydia while Hoss and Joe sat on the deck boards.

“How are you?” asked Ben, smiling down at his wife.

“I’m fine. I just came out after helping Hop Sing prepare your lunch. I hope you’re hungry. He fried an awfully big batch of chicken. I made the biscuits, and we both peeled potatoes for potato salad.”

With Ben on one side and Adam on the other, they took her arms and hands and lifted her carefully up and out of the rocking chair. Everyone turned and walked toward the door, and as they were going, Adam’s last comment faded away as they all entered the house and closed the door. “Lydia, if you don’t have that baby soon, you’re gonna pop.”

The End

 

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.

 

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Author: MonicaSJ

I'm an Primary Software Engineer who writes technical manuals and was talked into writing fan fiction. I love all things outdoors, including my horses. I also love that I live in the mythical Cartwright stomping grounds and roam all the way from Virginia City to San Francisco looking for old roads, ghost towns and stagecoach stops. My favorite pastime is taking a 'no technology' weekend on horseback with a pack horse into the area around Lake Tahoe and the Desolation Wilderness. I do, however, take a GPS with me, so I don't get lost.

2 thoughts on “Secrets (by MonicaSJ)

    1. Thank you, neano. This was my first attempt at writing a story about Ben, even though Adam plays a major part. Some folks asked for another ending, so I obliged with both. Glad you enjoyed it.

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