Disclaimer: A few of these characters (i.e. the Lancers and a handful who
appeared in the tv show) are not mine though I feel like they are 'cos I
love them... and I know I'm not alone in this.
Scott is 33; Johnny is 28
A big big thank you to Barb for the storyline idea. You know who I'll be calling on the next time the muse takes a vacation!
Scott sidled past Maria, narrowly avoiding crowning his father's head with the dangerously over laden tray.
"What is all of that, son?" Murdoch asked, his nose wrinkled up in puzzlement.
Scott paused in the doorway and juggled two apples as they rolled off the edge. He managed, by some fluke, to catch them in the crook of his arm before they hit the floor.
"This, Murdoch," he sighed. "Is my wife's breakfast!"
Murdoch curled his lip as he took in the contents of the various dishes and plates. Cinnamon rolls, ham, a variety of fruit (fresh and dried), something which looked suspiciously like cold left-over chicken dumplings and a hefty wedge of Parkin - the sticky cake that Jemimah always made in the winter.
"Breakfast?" Murdoch repeated. "She's going to eat all that?"
Scott also took in the unpalatable mixture of food and nodded. "She did yesterday."
Johnny chuckled as he snatched the last piece of bacon from the plate in the centre of the table and, planting a hasty kiss on his wife's head, headed for the coffee pot.
"I can only imagine what all that will do to her," Murdoch said. "And you, Johnny... you eating on the run again?"
"No choice. Too much to do."
Murdoch shook his head. "You need a good breakfast inside you, son and time to let it settle."
Johnny took another bite of the bacon and grinned at Scott who was now backing out with the teetering tray.
"Zee's cravings eh?" Johnny frowned and looked at Jemimah. "I don't recall you having any."
Jemimah stirred her coffee, her expression glum. "I didn't. Why? Did you want me to eat coal or something?"
Johnny grimaced as he licked the grease from his fingers. "Coal? You're kidding?"
Murdoch joined in. "No, I've heard of expectant mothers eating coal and charcoal... in small doses obviously."
Johnny gagged and proceeded to gulp down his coffee. His hurry to be off was doing nothing to sweeten Jemimah's temper and she scowled into her own cup.
Murdoch had leaned back in his chair and obviously felt disposed to reminisce.
"I remember Catherine craving spiced rum cake with zucchini. And your mother..." He looked at his dark-haired son. "She had a yearning for cotija cheese sprinkled over bread and strawberry jelly."
"That explains a lot," Jemimah griped, casting her husband a sour look.
Johnny had drained his cup and now he laughed. "What's that supposed to mean? How does Mexican cheese and strawberry jelly explain anything?"
He came over to her side and leaned over to put his arms around her, planting kisses on the side of her neck with mock-ferocity until she finally gave in and giggled.
"You tryin' to say I smell like cheese?" he laughed. His fingers hovered around her waist.
"No... worse!" she squealed, loving the feel of his arms about her, his lips on her neck and ears. Johnny had the best, most boyish, infectious laugh.
"Worse? Oh boy, that's it! You're gonna get it now!"
He was laughing and tickling her now as she shrieked gleefully. Across the table, Murdoch chuckled at their antics, vastly contented to see his children so happy.
Then, too soon for Jemimah, Johnny straightened breathlessly and, running his fingers regretfully down her long pony-tail, announced that it was time for him to get going. Instantly, she came down to earth.
"We're putting Nix in with Domino this morning. You know I have to be there."
Nix was the white Arabian stallion that Johnny had bought for the stables and Jemimah knew he was being presented to the mare that day. Her bottom lip protruded peevishly.
"I thought mares weren't receptive to the stallion 'til the spring. Bit early, ain't it?"
Johnny grinned. "I don't think anyone told Domino that; she's in love!" he sniggered. "She's ready and today's the day!"
He leaned in for a kiss but she huffily turned her face away. Still smiling, he opted to land a playful smack to her rump instead and moved off, whistling. Jemimah watched his fine rear view all the way through the door to the great room then slumped back into her chair.
"Still don't see why he has to be there all the time," she groused. "I mean, it's not like the horses need him to show 'em how to go on!" Despite her sullen mood, she smirked at the notion.
Murdoch frowned. "Jemimah, don't pout."
"Yes, you were. You know Johnny has a job to do and it's one he's doing very well. The horse-breeding side of the business is going from strength to strength and it's basically down to that boy. He always wanted to try it. I should've let him get started years ago." He watched her as she poured them both a second cup of coffee. "Don't you go sulking or trying to make him feel guilty for the time he has to devote to it. We all have a job to do around here and..."
"Murdoch, I don't expect him to feel guilty. I'm proud as punch of the success he's making of it. He knows I am; I tell him all the time. It's just..."
She hesitated. "This is goin' to sound so selfish but... I want... more."
He was silent for a moment then, brows beetling together impatiently, he opened his mouth to admonish her but Jemimah jumped in quickly.
"I'm not explaining myself very well. What I'm trying to say is... we've had a tough time, me an' Johnny. First, with Rosa an' me being sick an' all that. But, since we got it all sorted out, things have been really good."
Murdoch was bewildered. "I'm sorry, darling. You've lost me. I can't quite see what you're driving at."
"He's happy an' that's good. I don't want that to change or go away. We're so... together now but... it's not as good as...
Murdoch spread his hands, needing more. For the life of him, he couldn't figure out what she was prattling on about.
"Scott and Zee... he's with her nearly all the time, making her breakfast in bed an' fetchin' cushions for her back. Sure, he has to go out to work but he rushes home and..."
"Jemimah Rose Lancer, do you mean to tell me you're jealous of the attention Scott is giving his wife? His pregnant wife?"
"Not jealous, no!" she protested. "Envious."
"What's the difference?"
"Jealous means you want something and begrudge the other person having it instead. Envious just means you want to have it too." She had begun to wish she had never attempted to explain. Murdoch was looking decidedly disapproving. "I just wish I was getting that same kind of attention from Johnny and that he was as happy as Scott is. I don't just want it for me; I want it for him too."
"I think, young lady, that you have been spoiled! Johnny has been dancing attendance on you for months and now things are back to normal - as they should be - you don't like it!"
Murdoch got up, crossing the kitchen to dump his cup on the counter by the sink. When he turned back to her, he shook a chiding finger.
"I think it's high time you counted your blessings, my girl!"
With that, he left her to her own thoughts.
"I do count them an' I know I have so much. I just want that same kind of special excitement for us too. Want us to be wrapped up in each other... not worryin' about Nix an' Domino. Is that so wrong?"
Jemimah huffed out a sigh and absently coiled a tendril of dark hair around her finger. Johnny's plate remained untouched. She eyed the chicken sandwich she had prepared for him and sighed again.
"Take it to him."
Maria smiled from across the kitchen where she was stirring a pan of sauce. Jemimah looked up questioningly. Her thoughts had been far away.
"The lunch," Maria gestured to the sandwich and slice of cake. "Take it to Juanito. Have a picnic. Why not?"
Jemimah instantly brightened. A picnic? Yes, why not indeed? It was a mite chilly maybe but, if she took a couple of blankets...
The idea of being wrapped in a blanket with Johnny brought a decided gleam to her eye and she eagerly set about filling a small wicker basket with goodies to tempt him away from the ranch for a while.
On the way over to the stables, she spied Enrique in a wagon. He was too far away for conversation but he smiled and waved. Jemimah spotted the bunch of flowers on the seat beside him and knew he was headed for Randall House to check on Pony and eat his lunch with her. She smirked and hoped he was in the mood for dill pickles dipped in sugar - that was Pony's latest craving.
The young couple had been living out there since Christmas, now that Johnny and Jemimah were settled permanently in their own suite of rooms in the east wing of the hacienda. It was good that the dear old house was a home once more and, if anyone had to live there, Jemimah was glad it was Pony and Enrique; they understood what it had meant to her. But sometimes, she still experienced a pang to think of someone else cooking on her little range, resting by the old stone fireplace or listening to the wind in the trees along the ridge at night. She and Johnny had been so happy there.
Not that they were unhappy now, of course not! It was just... was the thrill gone? Johnny was so busy with the stables and the ranch work. He did still find her attractive, didn't he?
Jemimah worried at her lip. Maybe he was a tiny bit bored of her? No... surely not? And yet... when they had lived at Randall House, they had made love all the time; every day... and sometimes at all hours of the day. She smiled at the memory and swung the little basket as she walked along. But when was the last time Johnny had brought her flowers? She couldn't remember and this realisation set her to biting her lip again.
Of course, with Pony being six months along, Enrique was bound to be attentive and spending as much time with her as he could. Why, even Florida and her beau, Mr. Benson would be coming over for a visit next month.
There it was again! Zee and Scott, Pony and Enrique... there was no denying how a baby on the way made the fellas buzz around and come over all moony and love-sick.
"Stop bitin' your lip!"
Jemimah's head shot up at the voice and she smiled to see Johnny perched on the top rail of the fence, grinning down at her.
"I keep tellin' you but you don't know you're doing it," he admonished as he hopped down. "I bet you sucked your thumb too!"
She lifted her face for his kiss. "One sure way to stop me!"
"What's this?" Johnny's hand sneaked around her to lift the gingham cover of the basket.
"I brought a picnic. Thought we could ride out to..."
"Oh, I'm sorry, honey. It's a great idea but I'm needed here..."
Her face fell. "Why? Hasn't Nix done the deed yet?"
He laughed and tweaked her nose.
"Nix looked after his new girlfriend very well."
"So, you can come for the picnic then. We can..."
"I can't." Johnny's blue eyes were filled with regret. He hated disappointing her. "I got Seth Johnson coming over soon. He's finally made the decision and will be bringing a mare to us this time instead of Vicente's. He's wanting to take another look at Nix and talk money."
Now, his eyes sparkled and Jemimah knew it was hopeless. There would be no picnic, no snuggling under the blanket... nothing. She understood well enough that Johnson switching his allegiance to the Lancer stables was a major coup for Johnny but she still intended to sulk for a bit.
"Enrique is driving over to have his lunch with Pony and Zee said that Scott was due back to spend an hour or so with her," she griped.
"Well, we can still eat our picnic together here," Johnny suggested. He searched her face and smiled softly, gently smoothing his fingertips down her cheek and dipping his head to peek beneath her long bangs. "Is all the baby talk gettin' to you, querida?"
"No, not really. Some little 'uns around here will be nice enough. I s'pose I feel a bit envious of all the attention they're gettin' though," she admitted.
Johnny's smile widened. He lifted the basket from her hand and, twining his own strong fingers through hers, led her over to the wooden bench by the stable door. There, as though unable to wait any longer, he dipped eagerly into the basket. Munching into his sandwich, he flashed her a meaningful look.
"Didn't I give you enough attention on Saturday night?"
Jemimah blushed a bright red, causing him to snigger.
"That was three days ago!" she pointed out stubbornly.
He laughed, his eyebrows lifted at her implied rebuke. "Alright, I guess I have been a little preoccupied lately." He gave her a little nudge as she sat beside him and bit into his sandwich when he held it to her lips like a peace-offering. "But it's just with all the changes an' plans we got going on around here. Things'll settle down soon and then, chica..." He slung his arm around her shoulders. "I'm gonna give you so much attention you might not get out of bed for a week!"
A delicious thrill thrummed through her body at his words but she still meant to have her pout.
"Fine," she shrugged huffily. "I reckon I've got no choice. I'll just have to wait."
Johnny rolled his eyes to heaven.
"At least I know my place," she went on. "An' it's at the back of the queue. Behind a bunch of horses... an' Mr. Johnson!"
Johnny's delighted laugh made her wriggle out from under his arm. In high dudgeon, she stalked over to the fence, arms folded and bottom lip stuck out, where she turned to regard him frostily. Johnny swallowed the last bite of sandwich and grinned.
"I've got a better idea of where your place could be," he said softly, patting his lap as he watched her.
"If'n you want me to sit on your knee, you'll have to be nicer to me than that."
"Was thinkin' more of putting you over it," he grinned. "What did Murdoch used to say? Quit sulking or I'll give you something to sulk for!"
"That's not the kind of attention I had in mind."
"Aw, c'mere!" he waved her to him and, when she hung back, he chuckled and reached out for her. "C'mon!"
Depositing her on his lap, his strong arms curved around her and his lips were soft against her cheek.
"I think I get how you're feeling, honey," he whispered in her ear. "Zee an' Pony are being spoiled right now. But maybe you don't remember how spoiled you were when you were expecting." He hugged her closer and rocked her, breathing in the familiar scent of the lily soap on her hair. "An' you will be again, the next time. I promise."
On her stroll back to the house, Jemimah pondered his words. Now that she thought back, she did remember being spoiled silly while she was pregnant; by everyone but mostly by Johnny who, in his excitement, had cosseted her shamefully. She remembered too how blissful a time that was and not only for her. She couldn't recall seeing him that happy before or since. Yes, a pregnant wife certainly put everything in perspective for a man. If she were expecting too, Johnny would soon forget about horses and lavish some attention on her for a change. She sighed.
Some time later, as she pressed Johnny's shirts, she had an idea of how she could perhaps get some of that attention she craved from her hard-working husband... and put a smile on his face into the bargain!
Johnny trudged back to the apartment shortly after four. The sun was slipping below the tips of the distant trees and streaking the winter sky with the first ribbons of pink and gold. It would be sunset in about half an hour and Johnny was bushed. It had been a long but productive day and he was thinking of maybe snatching a quick nap in a hot soapy tub before dinner.
Arriving at their suite of rooms, he found the door ajar. There was nothing unusual in that, he supposed, but Jemimah was nowhere to be seen. If she were not busy in the main house, she tended to be knitting or reading in their parlour. He called out her name but there was no response.
Wrinkling his nose in puzzlement, he dutifully stooped to ease off his dirty boots in their tiny hallway, knowing how she nagged him about walking mud onto the rugs. All women seemed to have a thing about mud being tracked into the house and Jemimah was no exception.
Now in his white socks, he padded through the parlour, yawning and unbuttoning his faded red shirt as he went. He was tugging the shirt out of his pants and peeling it off as he approached the open door to the bedroom.
There, he came to a halt and gaped at the sight which met his eyes. So this was where she had been hiding... though hiding could not have been further from how he would describe his little wife at that moment. Johnny gave a long low whistle as his eyes roamed over her.
Jemimah was reclining on the soft plump quilt of their bed in much the same pose employed by Trudy in her infamous portrait. She wore very little but a smug expression. In fact, aside from his blue flowered shirt which, he noted, was completely unfastened and thrown open in an artfully provocative manner, she wore only a pair of black stockings, held up by twin blue ribbon garters just above her shapely knees. Her long dark hair was deliberately loose (she well knew his weakness for that thick glossy mane) and it tumbled across the white pillows, crying out for his touch.
Johnny's breath hitched in his throat. He let the soiled shirt slip from his fingers to the floor as he crossed to the bed, drinking in the sight of her. He could not fail to notice the wicked calculating glint in those green eyes. Little minx! He wondered how long she had been planning this.
"You left the door wide open, chica," he scolded, his voice soft. "Anyone could've walked in."
She gave him a lazy grin and seductively licked her rosy lips with the tip of her tongue, arching in an indulgent stretch rather like a self-satisfied feline. The blue shirt slipped open a little more to reveal both her breasts and Johnny experienced a sudden sharp spike of sensation low in his body, aware of his heart thudding in his chest.
"Really? Did I?" she purred. "Oh. Well, in that case, I s'pose I'm rather glad it was my husband after all. That is, if he's sure he can spare me the time now? Or maybe there's some more horses need looking after?"
She was trailing her fingertips lightly down her ribs and his blue eyes followed their path. They paused just below the succulent hollow of her navel where they idly meandered to and fro over the smooth milky skin of her belly.
Johnny shook his head and wagged a finger at her.
"It's you who needs looking after. Niņa traviesa! Remember what that means?" He planted his hands on his narrow hips and gave her a dark look.
Jemimah smiled slyly up at him, enjoying the very fine sight of his bare torso, the lean muscles and that thatch of dark springy hair across his chest and in the line which ran down over his flat stomach. She found she was trembling and holding her breath.
"Hmm, can't remember," she lied. "Why don't you tell me?"
Then she gasped as he trailed a hand lightly up the length of one slim bestockinged leg, circling the bow on her garter, as he sat on the bed beside her. His sapphire eyes were dancing. If she wanted to play pretend, he would oblige and join in the game too.
"Naughty. Little. Girl." His soft voice was almost a whisper and he watched his fingertips trail higher, over her stocking top and the creamy skin above it, brushing the soft dark curls at the apex of her thighs so lightly that she could hardly breathe, and up, up until his hand met hers and their fingers meshed together. His other hand, she realised, was sliding under the blue shirt and easing it from her so that she found herself naked and watched him drop it to the rug.
"I just ironed that!"
She rolled to reach for the shirt, somewhat rashly presenting him with the delightful curve of her bare behind, and squealed when she felt her lower body lifted. He slid quickly under her so that she was effectively pinned across his lap. Trying madly to twist, she craned back over her shoulder and could make out his grin and that dark Madrid look in his eyes.
"So, niņa traviesa," he chuckled. "First things first!"
Scott paused at the open door to his brother's apartment, his hand raised to knock and peering around to scan the living room.
"Johnny, are you..."
From the door to the corridor, there came the sound of a slap, rapidly followed by a girlish squeal and laughter. Scott blinked in surprise and paused, fairly certain of what he was hearing. A second slap and more laughter, Jemimah's and Johnny's, convinced him and he turned smartly on his heel, making sure he shut the door on his way out. Then, a decided smirk on his face, he headed back to his own rooms.
Jemimah lay back, out of breath and still giggling. She closed her eyes and revelled in the sweet sensation of his lips, planting tiny butterfly kisses over her breasts, her ribs, her belly... His warm breath was soft on the sensitive skin of her thighs, his lips and tongue gently teasing.
She breathed in a deep shuddering sigh and blissfully gave herself up to the exquisite pleasure.
As proud of the success of her little scheme as she was when she awoke in the heavenly warmth of Johnny's arms, Jemimah's self-congratulation took a severe knock when he announced that he would be gone all day.
"Sorry. 'Fraid so, honey," Johnny pulled a regretful face and slipped into the blue shirt he had worn for supper. "I'm going to Redemption. Cip told me about a mare that might be for sale."
Jemimah sighed. "More horses?"
"Yes, more horses!" he laughed, mimicking her grumpy tone and reaching down to playfully tweak her nose. "Well... maybe. If she's as fine as Cip says she is."
She rolled onto her side, muttering under her breath.
"Hey, what's wrong? Don't tell me you want some more attention?"
"Wouldn't matter if I did, would it?" she groused. "Not likely to get it!"
He had finished buttoning the shirt and now eyed her impatiently, firming his lips together. "You have got to be the most...." He sought for the exact word to describe her.
"Vexatious? Demanding? Irksome?"
Johnny grinned. "Yeah, all of those." He sat beside her and rolled her over to take her in his arms. Before she could think of protesting, his lips came down on hers in a hungry kiss, his fingers winding themselves deliciously in the thick glossy mass of her hair. She thought no more of resisting and, instead, pressed her body to his and gave herself up to the sensation of their breath mingling together; his tongue tasting her mouth. When, at last, he drew back, his blue eyes roamed over her face. "And beautiful... and sweet... and lovin'... and very naked... and... I gotta go!"
He planted another hasty kiss on her astonished mouth and slapped her rear end as he rose and made for the door, laughing and niftily dodging the pillow she flung at him.
When he had gone, Jemimah lay back and mulled over the night before. It had been very successful indeed; they had both enjoyed their time together before dinner. Perhaps, after his trip, Johnny might be ready for a repeat performance?
She smirked to herself and, still nude, padded across to the closet. Smiling wickedly, she fingered the shirts hanging neatly inside. Which one should she wear? Her hand lingered on the white one and she pulled it out to inspect it. Snowy white with brown embroidery on the breast. Yes. Her green eyes sparkled with mischief.
"So, she was everything Cip said she was?"
Scott was genuinely pleased to hear that Johnny's trip had been successful. He slung his arm around his brother's shoulders and grinned as they walked towards the house.
Johnny's expression said it all. "She's a beauty, no mistake. I gotta have her, Scott." He shook his head, imagining the mare in their stables. "I can just see the foals we could get from her and Nix. They'd be really something!"
They headed through the courtyard, past Jelly's room, and turned off down the narrow covered walkway which led to the east wing. Scott began to regale Johnny with a funny story about young Arnie and Isidro. It was so comical that, by the time they arrived at Johnny's apartment, both brothers were in fits of laughter and Johnny was even wiping away tears.
"You should've been there," Scott chuckled. "You had to see it!"
"I know. Wish I had."
Johnny hesitated at the entrance way and his broad smile gradually subsided. The door was again wide open.
"What is it?" Scott asked in puzzlement.
"Er... I'm not sure. Just let me..." Johnny cautiously poked his head around the open door and, seeing that the parlour beyond the hallway was deserted, his suspicions grew. Without taking the time to remove his boots, he quietly went inside. Was she up to her tricks again? Seeing that the door to the corridor was also ajar and glimpsing the faint glow of lamplight beyond, Johnny shook his head. Yes, it seemed that his wife may be planning another surprise!
"Johnny, what is it?"
Scott had only whispered but, even so, Johnny started in surprise, having momentarily forgotten that he was not alone.
Keeping his voice low, he gestured to the door. "Scott, I think you'd better..."
He had been on the verge of asking his brother to leave; he could think of some excuse later. Jemimah may be in the bedroom but it was certain she would not appreciate a house guest if she was planning what he thought she was planning. And, if she was planning that again, Johnny would have to take the time to teach her how to close a door!
But he got no further.
"Thought I heard you! What's takin' so long?"
A female voice from the far door made Scott and Johnny turn suddenly. They froze, mouths open in astonishment and dismay respectively. Jemimah, it must be said, did much the same and, in those few stunned seconds, wished that the ground would open up and swallow her whole.
"Good lord... !" Scott exclaimed.
Jemimah stood in the doorway, naked as the day she was born but for a man's white shirt which was flapping open and, hence, concealing nothing at all.
Scott recovered first and, ever the gentleman, turned away to spare her blushes (though he was fairly certain the image of his little sister in all her glory would be forever burned into his mind).
Jemimah, in utter mortified shock, gave a loud squeak and seized the shirt to wrap it belatedly around herself. Once done, only her legs showed from the knee down. Her face, burning scarlet with embarrassment, she covered with a shaking hand.
"Johnny," Scott's voice was low and urgent. "I think I should... I need to go check... I'll see you later!"
Johnny nodded, sensing Scott already leaving, but he kept his eyes on Jemimah. Eyes that, as she peeped out from between her fingers, she could see were giving her that look.
"Now, Johnny..." she began, her tone wheedling.
"C'mere." His voice was soft and he held up a single finger.
He took a menacing step towards her. Jemimah answered it with a tiny backwards step of her own.
"I was only tryin' to surprise you!"
"Come over here." He was beckoning her and then held up two fingers.
She winced to see he was shaking his head and still crossing the room purposefully. She took a few more hasty retreating steps then, seeing a third finger held aloft, turned with a whoop to run.
Johnny, biting back the urge to laugh and determined to give the wicked little varmint a good scare, gave chase.
Although Scott was halfway across the courtyard, he heard the high-pitched shriek which emanated from the apartment. Laughing aloud, he strode towards the opposite side of the hacienda. His own wife would be waiting and he couldn't wait to tell her this story.
Johnny and Jemimah clattered noisily into the dining room just as the grandfather clock was sounding the last of its six chimes. They stopped giggling and she patted his hands away as he had been in the process of fondling her backside. Schooling their faces into suitably serious expressions and hastily adopting a more decorous demeanour (Johnny eyed his father warily), they approached the table where the rest of the family waited.
Johnny was darkly handsome in his white shirt and Jemimah, her cheeks rosy and green eyes sparkling, was looking flushed and pretty in her blue dress and new crocheted collar. Johnny held her chair for her and they exchanged cheeky smirks as they took their places.
The others watched them with amusement.
"Oh, you finished crocheting the lace collar," Teresa observed. "You must teach me; I'm still struggling with Granny squares!"
Zee sniggered. "Kinda overdressed though, ain't ya'? I heard you were startin' a new fashion trend for ladies' apparel."
Scott contrived to nudge his wife's foot with the toe of his boot while Jemimah blushed and cast a hasty glance at Murdoch who was already carving the roast. Thankfully, he didn't seem to have heard Zee's pointed remark. Jemimah narrowed her eyes at Zee then gave Scott a reproachful glance. Scott, for his part, was choosing to busy himself pouring water for everyone whereas Johnny was studying his empty plate and sniggering.
"I don't know what the joke is..." Murdoch did not look up from his carving. "Or what Jemimah has done now but it seems highly entertaining. Is anyone going to let me in on it?"
At last, he raised his blue eyes and regarded each of them beadily.
"No? I see... then let's enjoy our dinner in peace, shall we?"
"But Johnny, you enjoyed it. You can't say you didn't. There's no way any of that was faked," Jemimah protested with a knowing smile. She slipped her shoes neatly under the bureau.
"Yes, I enjoyed it. Boy, what man in his right mind wouldn't enjoy seein' his wife..."
He had come up behind her and, as she scooped her pony tail over one shoulder, began to unfasten the row of buttons down the back of her dress. His hands gently slipped it off her shoulders and eased it over her hips so that it fell to the floor in a blue puddle. Jemimah wriggled out of the petticoats so that they joined the dress on the rug.
She sighed blissfully. Johnny had put his arms around her and was nuzzling her neck, one hand warmly cupping her breast through the thin snowy white camisole. She felt her stomach swoop and that strange warm sensation low down inside her as his lips traced a path over her shoulder and his thumb rasped gently over her nipple, now peaked into a hard bud.
"Then why... ?"
He answered through his kisses, concentrating on the soft skin behind her ear. "Because, young lady..."
"I'll shut the door next time."
She sensed his hand unfastening her camisole and she turned to finish unbuttoning his shirt. He was giving her his look.
"No! And if I find you waitin' for me tomorrow..."
"You'll do what?" she grinned naughtily.
He had opened the camisole now and was feasting his eyes on the soft curves beneath. Still, he managed to flash her a warning look.
"I might..." Johnny slipped his shirt off and began to unbuckle his fancy belt, still watching her remove the camisole and enjoying the way her body stretched and swayed. All that remained was her drawers and stockings. "Might do something you won't like," he muttered without much conviction.
"I liked what you did earlier." Jemimah gave him a sassy smile as he reached for the bow at her waist and pulled it loose.
"Now, you listen to me, chica." His voice, though gentle, was adamant. "No man likes to be... well... darn it, you can't control me like some kinda puppet, y'hear? A man likes to feel that he's the one who's..."
He was faltering now. Jemimah had begun to slide her drawers down slowly over her hips. His blue gaze followed the silky fabric as it slipped to her ankles.
Johnny swallowed and his eyes trailed back up her slim legs. The hand which had been unbuttoning his pants stilled as he took in her body.
"The one who's... what?" she asked innocently, removing the ribbon which held her hair and shaking it free.
Johnny was lost. With a tiny groan, he dipped his shoulders and swept her up into his arms. Jemimah grinned and traced a fingertip over the dark springy hair on his chest; along his firm biceps as he carried her across to their bed.
"Are we all gathered?" Scott glanced around to make sure everyone was present.
Zee, now showing a definite roundness to her middle and excessively proud of it, sat at one end of the sofa. Murdoch and Teresa in the armchairs, Johnny and Jemimah at the other end of the sofa; yes, everyone was there. He could begin. He crouched at his wife's side, leaning on the sofa arm and smiling at her.
"What you up to?" she crinkled up her eyes suspiciously.
Taking her hand in both of his, Scott cleared his throat.
"I think Murdoch may approve - this is something that's been running around my head all day, every time I thought of you.
As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in love am I;
And I will love thee still, my dear,
Till a' the seas gang dry."
"Rabbie Burns!" Murdoch exclaimed, smiling with pleasure. "I didn't know you knew that one, Scott."
"Gang dry? What does that mean... gang dry?" Johnny looked decidedly unimpressed.
Jemimah elbowed him in the ribs. "Would've thought that was obvious," she scolded his tactless blunder. "It means 'go dry' or 'run dry'. Dry up."
"Hey, I only asked!"
"I didn't mean you dry up; I meant the seas would dry up!" She was giggling now and he joined in her laughter
Teresa had been truly touched by Scott's poem and now she cast the two jokers a dirty look. "Hush you two!"
Zee, for whom all this romance was intended, was actually looking somewhat embarrassed and, much like Johnny, not at all sure what Scott was on about. She darted a look at her husband and then realised he was holding something in his hand. No, he was offering her the something... and it was a small blue velvet-covered box.
"Is this for me?"
Scott nodded. "I know you haven't been feeling too well for the last few weeks but you haven't complained and, much as you always do, you've taken it all in your stride."
Zee smiled. "Thank the lord for cold mashed potato sandwiches, that's all I can say. Saved my life when I couldn't stomach nothing else."
Scott blanched. "Er... quite. I just wanted to say that, not only do I admire the way you battled on and followed Sam's advice to the letter..." He looked over at his brother. "Unlike some people I could mention!"
"What you lookin' at me for?" Johnny pretended to have no idea.
"Because you never follow Sam's orders!" Murdoch pointed out.
"Well, you can talk!" Johnny threw his father's rebuke back at him. "You tossed that girdle thing the doc gave you into the fire!"
Murdoch cleared his throat. "I no longer needed the harness, as you well know, and I had worn it for..."
"Hey!" Zee shouted over their arguing, effectively silencing both men. "Will you two pipe down? Scott was bein' all romantical an' I'll never get my present at this rate!"
"Well said, my dear," Scott laughed.
"Well, go on then."
Scott took a deep cleansing breath and looked earnestly into her eyes. "Zinnia Magnolia..."
"Just Zee, thank you. You don't have to get carried away; this ain't a proposal."
"Zee... not only do I admire... oh, the heck with it! I only wanted to show you how much I love you!"
With that, he opened the box and she gaped at the treasure within.
"What is it?" Jemimah was almost as excited as Zee.
"It's a ring." Zee removed it from its velvet nest and held it up for them to see. "Oh Scott, it's beautiful. Look how it catches the light from the fire. Are they diamonds?"
Pleased at her reaction, Scott rose to sit on the arm of the sofa and slip the ring gently onto her finger with her engagement and wedding bands. "Er... no. They're opals. Fire opals to be precise. I looked into it and, as your birthday is in October, opals are your birthstone."
Zee was holding up her hand and twisting it this way and that so that the stones glowed with the warm light which gave them their name. "Is that a fact? Gee, my very own stone!"
Jemimah had been wistfully gazing at the ring and now she turned to Johnny.
"Ooh, that's so romantic. What's my birthstone, Johnny?"
He shrugged, looking a little uneasy. "I don't know. I didn't know there was a special stone for birthdays. Scott's the one knows all this kinda stuff."
"I believe yours is the ruby," Scott said. "But I also read that it can be turquoise."
"Rubies," Jemimah breathed. "Oh, I like that."
Johnny laughed. "Don't you go expecting any ruby rings, chica."
"Of course not. I ain't expecting a baby."
"When you are, maybe I'll think about it." He hugged her then stood up. "Right now, I'm too hungry to think about anythin'. We gonna eat or just stand around here all night?"
They gradually rose and moved across to the table. The last to move was Zee. She gently took her husband's hand and, eyes distinctly moist, leaned into him. Tenderly, he tipped up her chin and brushed his lips softly on hers, his hand resting lightly on the rounded bump that was their child.
All the next day, Jemimah mulled over what Johnny had said - 'When you are, maybe I'll think about it.' Her mind skipping from one thing to the next; pondering Zee and Pony's devoted and sweet-talking spouses, an idea began to take shape. Of course, she could not be accused of being wholly mercenary; it was not merely the ring that she craved; that would indeed be lovely but, in all honesty, it was an extravagance she could easily live without.
But... supposing she were pregnant? Wouldn't Johnny be pleased! He would be rushing back to the homestead at lunch time to spend every minute he could with her. And those horses, beautiful creatures though they were, would go to the back of the line for a change! They might even get to go on that picnic she'd suggested.
Naturally, when nature took its usual course and it became obvious that she wasn't pregnant, she would have to say that she had been mistaken and that she could have sworn; she was so sure; it felt just like it. He would never suspect it had been an actual untruth... would he? And it wouldn't exactly be a lie because they both wanted another baby, didn't they? It would be more like practice for the real thing... wouldn't it? And it would only last a few weeks; she wouldn't be able to keep the yarn going any longer - even if she wanted to.
The more she thought on it, the more plausible, nay - obvious, the idea became. Even so, she spent the next three days tumbling the notion around in her brain before finally deciding to do it. And she knew the perfect moment as well. She could rival Scott in romance any day of the week!
It would be St. Valentine's Day in two more days. She would tell Johnny then at a special dinner. Oh, wouldn't he be surprised!
Johnny sat down at the little table which Jemimah had dressed so nicely and watched her indulgently as she flitted here and there, topping up his glass, adjusting the cutlery and making sure the flowers in the centrepiece were just so.
He smiled warmly. She was so excited to be doing this for him. In truth, he could just as easily have spent an extra half hour soaking in the tub and then joined Murdoch for dinner as usual in the dining room. But Jemimah was determined to have what she termed 'an intimate soiree' of their own in their apartment. Johnny wasn't much for this new fangled St. Valentine's thing; it was something he hadn't really come across before having spent much of his life along the border. Though he now knew what it was all about and that he was expected to immerse himself in romance, he would be glad when it was all over and things got back to normal.
Not that he would dream of letting on to Jemimah! Look at her now!
Johnny's smile softened and his blue eyes twinkled up at her as she crossed from the sideboard with a large covered dish. She looked fit to bust and he guessed she was particularly proud of whatever she had prepared. She was a good little cook and, knowing well his preference for hot, spicy fare, he hoped she had made all his favourites.
As for his contribution to the romantic festivities... Johnny glanced over to the bureau and smirked to himself as he unravelled his napkin.
He was stifling a yawn when she carefully placed the dish on the little table. This had been one heck of a busy week and he was tired. He had half expected to find her draped across the bed in another of his shirts when he came home and was both relieved and disappointed to find this special dinner instead. Still, it would at least give him a night off, he sniggered to himself.
"I hope you like what I prepared for you." Jemimah startled him from his thoughts.
"I'm sure I will. I'm so hungry, I could eat... this napkin! Might still do it if you don't get that lid off an' serve up!"
"First..." Jemimah raised her glass and Johnny realised that he was meant to do the same.
They gently clinked their glasses together and she took a dainty sip. Johnny regarded her over the rim of the crystal. She sparkled somehow, like she had some secret bubbling away inside her. He couldn't put his finger on it exactly but it was surely infectious. His smile widened and he took a big gulp of the wine.
"Come on, woman. You have a starving man here!"
In response, Johnny jokingly rolled his eyes to heaven and chomped noisily at his napkin as he had threatened. Her peal of laughter set him to chuckling too then he dropped the napkin into his lap and watched her reach for the cover to the dish. As she lifted it, Johnny stared at the contents, eyes suddenly narrowed in confusion.
A tiny pair of white knitted bootees sat in the middle of the dish, their ribbons tied neatly into two perfect bows.
Johnny looked from the bootees to Jemimah, who was biting her lip anxiously, then back again. He was pointing at them now too, his lips open but, as yet, forming no words.
Jemimah saw the exact moment that understanding dawned on him. His blue eyes widened in disbelief and he gaped at her, his lips already curving into a smile of utter joy.
"You are? Really, you are?"
She nodded. "I think so, yes. I'm almost certain in fact."
He was out of his seat and instantly by her side. His fatigue forgotten, he lifted her up, twirling her around in the centre of the room so that her skirts flew and she even lost a shoe which sailed through the air to land on the hearth rug.
"Oops! That was close," she giggled when he set her carefully down.
Johnny swooped to retrieve the shoe, kneeling to slip it back onto her foot. Then, still on one knee, he wrapped his arms around her and kissed her belly reverently.
"Honey, I can't tell you how happy you've made me," he said softly. "This is wonderful news; the best!" He laid his head gently against her stomach then, worried, leapt up, holding her hands and leading her to the table to sit her down and crouch beside her. "But how are you feeling? Are you alright? Not feelin' sick, are you? You want me to get you something?"
"No, no, I'm fine, really." Although she was experiencing a few uncomfortable pangs which felt suspiciously like guilt.
"You sure?" he went on in concern. "Well, how far along do you think you are?"
She blinked. "Oh... er... I'm not exactly sure."
He frowned. "Well, how many weeks is it since...?"
"Erm... gosh... I dunno." Why, oh why had she not anticipated these questions? If she dithered too much longer, he would start to suspect! "Hard to be sure."
Johnny crinkled up his blue eyes and Jemimah began to feel cornered. Her husband was pretty good at remembering these things - annoyingly so - and, if he counted back and worked it out...
"Oh Johnny, I'm so thirsty!" She fanned herself, pretending to be overheated. "I've got to have a drink."
"Huh? Oh sure! Here, I'll get it for you!"
Though she could easily have reached, Johnny stood to pass her glass. She was about to take it from him when he swiped it away in sudden realisation.
"Whoa! You can't have this, honey! Wine? Remember the doc saying it wasn't good for the baby? I'll fetch you a glass of milk from the kitchen."
He moved off, almost at a run, and disappeared through the door but, before she could even pout at the loss of her wine, he had returned to plant an exuberant kiss on her startled mouth.
"This is just the best news, querida. The best! Love you!"
Johnny was gone only minutes and, when he returned, he was followed by the entire family. If their beaming smiles were anything to go by, they were elated by the news.
Murdoch swooped down on Jemimah and, instantly, she was enveloped in a warm hug while both Scott and Zee hovered at her side, awaiting their turn to congratulate her. Teresa was grinning nearby.
"Now you've simply got to show me how to crochet properly," she said. "With two babies on the way, my services as Aunt Teresa are really going to be put to the test!"
Johnny slung an arm around her shoulders, kissing her cheek happily.
"Crochet? Well, that's alright, I guess but how are you at changin' diapers?"
Scott, now grabbing his chance to warmly embrace Jemimah, smiled at his brother over the top of her head. "Now Johnny, you can't pass that duty on to everyone else!"
"I can sure try!"
"You're going to be a daddy, Johnny," Zee laughed, oblivious to the way Jemimah suddenly dipped her head. "You gotta pitch in too!"
At Johnny's grimace, Murdoch laughed.
"There's nothing to it, son. I'll teach you."
"You mean, you used to... ?" Scott was incredulous.
"Naturally!" Murdoch straightened with some pride. "Johnny's mother was under the weather for some time after the birth. Seeing to his daily ablutions was down to me and I changed his behind many times." He grinned at his younger son who was rapidly turning very pink. "And let me tell you, this wee limmer liked to wait until I'd removed his diaper, then he'd..."
"Murdoch!" Johnny pleaded for mercy, aghast at being so publicly discussed and on such an embarrassing topic.
"I hear little boys like to do that," Teresa laughed along with everyone else.
"Hey! Can we change the subject... an' let me get to my wife!"
Johnny pretended to struggle through the throng to take her in his arms and kiss her.
"C'mere Mrs. Lancer." He led Jemimah by the hand, over to the bureau where he opened the top drawer and delved inside. "I... er... I know Scott said your birthstone is a ruby..."
Jemimah's eyes lit up and Johnny hastily shook his head.
"But he said it could be a turquoise too and... well..." He shuffled edgily, wishing he had waited until they were alone. Speechifying and all this public romance was not his thing at all. "I thought, with it bein' Valentine's an' all that... I hope you like it."
He presented her with a small package wrapped in white tissue paper.
An expectant hush fell on the room as Jemimah's trembling fingers carefully unravelled the package to reveal an exquisite silver belt buckle in the shape of a butterfly. Its body was formed by a blob of vibrant speckled turquoise in the centre.
Johnny shrugged, nervously watching for her reaction.
"Never was much good at picking out gifts but I thought it was kinda pretty," he said softly.
"Oh, it is! I love it!" she suddenly cried, tears shimmering on her lashes. "Thank you, Johnny. It's perfect!"
As Jemimah threw herself into Johnny's arms and kissed him enthusiastically, Zee grinned and said, "Saves you havin' to steal a buckle anyways!"
Remembering how, not long after she first came to live at Lancer, Jemimah had attempted to steal a belt buckle for a dare, the others all laughed. One by one, they turned to leave the young couple alone, still calling out their congratulations as they moved to the door.
"Oh, Murdoch wait!"
Murdoch turned to Jemimah.
"Would it be alright if we... that is, I didn't actually make us any supper. Just these!"
She lifted the white bootees out of the dish on the table.
"Oh, so sweet!" Teresa cooed.
"Yeah, but we can't eat 'em!" Jemimah raised hopeful eyes to her father. "Is there enough... ?"
"There's plenty!" he beamed. "Come on you two, how does beef stew sound?"
"Like heaven," Johnny exclaimed. "I'm starved!"
Everyone trooped through to the dining room, chattering variously about the baby or Johnny being perpetually hungry. At the dinner table, the family was in a state of barely suppressed excitement. Conversation flitted from the food to that day's work on the ranch but one subject dominated all - Lancer's two imminent new arrivals.
"So, you had any cravings yet?" Zee asked her sister-in-law.
Jemimah hoped she wasn't blushing and, not for the first time, experienced a twinge of guilt. Her lies were coming far too easily, even for her, and she couldn't help feeling a tiny bit ashamed of the fact. Nonetheless, she answered glibly.
"Well, I was rather fancying pork chops and marmalade the other day!"
"Really?" Scott grimaced. "But you hate marmalade."
"Exactly! That's what started me off wondering if I might be... y'know. Then, yesterday, all I could think of was trout an' black pudding."
"Black pudding?" Teresa echoed, her face pale.
"You call it blood pudding," Murdoch explained. "Very rich in iron, I believe so that's a good craving to have, my dear."
Jemimah glanced at him quickly and, again, felt her stomach twist with nerves. It was one thing to tell all these fibs to wangle some extra time with Johnny; he would be put out enough if he learned the truth. But Murdoch? Jemimah swallowed and returned his warm smile with a shaky effort of her own. She knew darn well that he would be furious with her if he knew.
Much later, his wife curled up at his side and doing that thing with her fingertip on his chest that always made him smile, Johnny breathed in the scent of her hair and brushed his lips tenderly on her brow.
"I love my buckle, Johnny," she murmured, gently grazing her fingers across the hair on his chest and allowing her hand to meander across to absently circle his nipple.
"You do?" He grinned, relieved that he had chosen well.
"It's lovely an' I'm goin' to wear it every day from now on."
"Good idea." He pulled her in to his side and stroked his thumb down the silky skin of her hip. "You won't fit in those jeans too much longer!"
Their conversation paused while they kissed, Johnny shifting to roll her on top of him. Her cunning fingers roamed down his body, producing a sharp flare of sensation which made him catch his breath and, in reply, he smoothed his hands possessively down over the curve of her derriere. He felt her shiver delightfully and rest her head on his shoulder.
"Y'know, it's funny... we were only just talkin' about me spoiling you if you were going to have a baby. And now... It's almost as if..."
He stroked a hand down the length of her hair while Jemimah bit her lip and stilled. Had he guessed? Becoming aware that she had ceased caressing him, Johnny tilted his head to peer at her and noticed what she was now doing. Tapping her lip with his forefinger, he gave her a frown.
"How am I goin' to break you of that habit, chica?" he chuckled. Then, more seriously, he went on, "I can't get over it. It's almost as if you knew somehow."
She squirmed. "Maybe I did. Maternal instincts."
"Yeah, you'll excuse me if I don't take that too much to heart! What is the baby going to be? Boy or girl?"
She flushed. "Don't know an' I wouldn't say even if I did. You'd only laugh at me."
He was laughing. "Aw, I wouldn't."
"Yes, you would."
"No. I'm going to take care of you. I'm going to spoil you and fetch an' carry for you and treat you like a queen. But right now..."
Jemimah became aware of a hardness pressing urgently against her hip, just before he gently rolled so that she was underneath him, his hand slipping down between them.
"Yes?" she squeaked.
"I figured I'd show you just how much I love you."
Jemimah caught her breath as Johnny, most diligently, did just that.
Everything looked to be rosy in Jemimah's world.
At breakfast, (after being hugged and kissed to within an inch of her life by Maria who was overcome with joy at the news) she was instructed to take a seat at the kitchen table. She would be waited on and, no, she would not lift a finger. Teresa had already gone out to hunt the eggs.
Protesting only half-heartedly, Jemimah allowed herself to be ushered to her chair and stirred only to reach for the coffee pot.
However, Johnny pushed it away. "Uh-uh, no coffee, honey. Here, I'll get you some milk."
"Ugh, not again! All I've had is milk ever since I told you about the baby."
"Remember what the doc said last time? Plenty of milk. You need it to build up your strength; get some meat on your bones, he said! This time, I'm going to look after you better."
"Strength is fine but I don't intend to get fat!"
Murdoch gave her a sympathetic smile. "If you can't face milk, we have some apple juice, I think?" He looked to Maria for confirmation.
She nodded her head and trotted obligingly to fetch a jug of it.
Jemimah, knowing she was outnumbered and feeling mildly itchy without her morning coffee, contrived to fake a smile when a glass of the juice was plunked down in front of her. She eyed it with distaste, privately thinking that it looked more like something that might come out of a horse than anything resembling apples. Still, at least she could tuck in to a plate of bacon and eggs without having to first chase up the eggs and then cook it herself. She always hated the way the fat spat from the hot pan.
"Here niņa, eat it all up!"
Jemimah gasped to find the biggest bowl of sticky porridge she had ever seen before her. Curling her lip in disgust, she began to protest this time but Maria's beady eye glinted down at her with determination.
"You need your strength. Eat!"
Johnny sniggered. He kissed her then, still smiling broadly, leaned over to lift a huge spoonful to her mouth which remained resolutely closed.
"Murdoch," he looked at the big man who watched with amusement. "I gotta go. Make sure she eats every bit, will you?"
Jemimah scowled. "I don't want..."
Opening her mouth had been a mistake. Johnny took the opportunity to shovel the heap of porridge straight in and, grinning proudly, stood to leave.
"Every bit, Murdoch!" Though he addressed his father, his words and dark blue gaze were directed at Jemimah. "An' you have my permission to paddle her bottom if she gives you any trouble!" he joked.
Screwing up her eyes as she gulped down the horrid gloop, Jemimah then glared malevolently at her sniggering husband
"Well... thank you, son but I'm sure that won't be necessary. Jemimah knows what's good for her."
She gave Murdoch a baleful glance, scooped up another spoon of the detested oatmeal and, with a shudder, swallowed it down.
Johnny beamed. "I'll be back for lunch, honey. You take care."
And he was true to his word. Her little ploy was working.
True, she may have been forced to eat porridge, something she loathed, but a leisurely roll on their big cherub bed (in the middle of the day!) with her very handsome and deliciously naked husband was a welcome turn up for the books!
By the Thursday of the second week, Jemimah wanted to weep as she slumped in her chair at the breakfast table. Weakly and with watery eyes, she gazed at her bowl of porridge and pushed it away with a trembling hand. Even the four heaped spoons of sugar failed to render the lumpy gloop any more palatable and she felt decidedly queasy at the prospect of wading through yet another helping.
What she would give for...
Jemimah closed her eyes and imagined a slice of plain toast, floating in a lake of skinned, mashed-up hot tomatoes. Oh yes, that would hit the spot!
"You want what?" Zee crinkled up her nose, making Jemimah jump and realise she had spoken aloud. "Tomatoes on toast? Blugh! That sounds disgusting!"
"Can't be any worse than fried chicken and whipped cream!"
Zee blushed hotly. "I couldn't help that; it was a craving!"
"You didn't eat much of it an' then you was sick as a parrot!"
"Well, I only craved it 'til I got it an' then I didn't want it no more."
"What do you think this is? Toast an' tomatoes is my craving!"
Zee smiled and eyed Maria slyly. "You'd best eat up all of that oatmeal, sweetie or Maria will make you set there 'til supper time."
Jemimah glanced at Maria who was blissfully ignorant of the bickering pair and busy mixing the batter for a dinner time treat.
"Jemimah, are you actually losing weight?" Teresa had come in from her egg hunt and was now frowning at the girl as she perused her.
"Those pants look baggier on you than before," Teresa insisted.
At this, Maria turned, running her eagle eye over the child. It was true! Maria was alarmed to see that, far from blossoming and swelling with motherhood, Jemimah looked skinnier than ever. Jemimah's skin prickled to note that even Murdoch was studying her over the top of his newspaper.
"Oh no, not really!" Jemimah hastily argued. She cinched in her belt and refastened the butterfly buckle. "I'd just got my belt on the wrong notch, that's all."
Suspicious, Maria returned to beating the batter and Jemimah breathed a sigh of relief. The last thing she needed was for Maria or Johnny to realise how little she was actually eating. But it wasn't her fault... exactly.
She thought back to the last dinner with a theatrical shudder. What on earth had possessed her to mention pork chops and marmalade... or trout and black pudding? She must have been fed them at every meal since then! If Maria knew how well the pigs were eating these days, she would soon reach for that blasted wooden spoon of hers!
"Reckon I'll ride out to see Johnny in a while. Fresh air will do me good."
"Good idea," Teresa agreed. "I'll prepare a lunch for the two of you, if you like?"
Jemimah beamed. Sandwiches an' maybe some cake or churros! "Thanks!"
"Not until you finish your breakfast." Murdoch's voice came sternly from behind his paper.
"Eat it up. Remember what Johnny said."
"Reckon I'd rather take the paddling, Murdoch," she said in a tiny voice.
The newspaper lowered until she could see his stern expression... though those blue eyes were twinkling.
"Oh? Well... that could be arranged."
Sighing morosely, Jemimah spooned up the lukewarm porridge and, holding her nose, gulped it down.
Her smile was back in place by the time she spied the three distant blobs that had to be Johnny, Scott and Walt. If her eyes were not deceiving her, it looked like they had managed to catch at least two of the mustangs which Johnny had been after for a while. She couldn't wait to see them up close!
Jemimah hummed a jaunty tune to herself as she rode Diablo down into the valley. It surely was a bright, beautiful day and she had been right - the fresh air was reviving her. By the time she had eaten the last scraping of porridge, her stomach had been rolling in protest; so much so that she had been convinced she was about to deposit the whole lot onto her boots. But now, she felt exhilarated.
It was good to be alive and her plan was working well after all, despite the hideous concoctions she was constantly expected to consume. There hadn't been a day since her announcement that she hadn't seen Johnny at lunch time and he was always finished and home by four every afternoon. Home and, more often than not, reminding her how desirable a wife she was to him... in the bedroom, in the tub, in their parlour... even once in the kitchen when the house had been deserted.
She grinned toothily. It was like being newly-weds back at Randall House all over again. Yes, she had fibbed to him but this was worth it. And, besides, a couple more weeks and she would be forced to say it had all been a mistake anyway.
Jemimah wrinkled her nose in sudden puzzlement. Hold on - it was two weeks, wasn't it? She tried to think back.
"Hey! What did I tell you yesterday?"
Johnny's voice broke into her thoughts and she looked up. He had ridden out to meet her. She smiled and was about to lean in for a kiss but the stern expression on his face made her hesitate.
"Was I wastin' my breath, chica?" He had firmed his sweet lips into a thin disapproving line; his usually twinkling blue eyes stormy.
Jemimah's stomach suddenly flipped nervously. She hiccupped and grimaced at the taste of sweet milky porridge which hit the back of her throat.
"Look at you!" His voice was no less disapproving but it was softer. "You're white as a sheet."
"I'm alright. Just a bit tired." Yeah - tired of eating that muck!
"No, you're pregnant and you need to realise it. Now, I want you to listen to me..."
"Oh Johnny, please don't lecture me."
"I'll do just that, and more, if you don't mind me for once!"
They had reached the others who were striving to hide their smirks at Johnny soundly scolding his wife. Blushing, Jemimah sought some distraction and spotted the horses.
"Oh, the mustangs! Let me look!" She made to dismount.
"You stay right where you are!"
"Make your mind up!" Her green eyes flashed at him. "Either you want me to ride or you don't!"
Johnny gritted his teeth and seethed. "I thought I already told you that I don't want you riding now. If you need to go somewhere, you can drive the buggy or a buckboard."
Her face was mutinous. "You sure you wouldn't prefer it if I stayed home an' never set a toe out of the yard again?"
"Actually, I would prefer it! I want you an' the baby safe so... I'm sorry but I'm laying the law down this time."
She folded her arms huffily. "I don't intend to spend the next seven months actin' like an invalid."
Johnny rolled his eyes to heaven. "Why can't you do like I tell you? Use your head and quit behavin' like such a brat! Can't you see, I'm only tryin' to keep you from harm?"
"I'm not a brat!" She was almost shouting at him now. "An' I won't be treated like some little kid!"
"Then maybe you should stop actin' like one!"
Throwing her a dark look, he swung his leg and slipped nimbly down from Barranca's back. He then stomped over to the coffee pot which hung over the campfire and, probably in an effort to simmer down, busied himself pouring and downing a cup of it. Mouth suddenly dry, she watched him as Walt sidled up to her, thumbing back his hat in amusement.
"Word of warning," he whispered. "You should maybe watch your step, Miss Jemimah." He glanced over his shoulder at the rigid set of Johnny's shoulders. "Johnny is kinda short on patience today an', if you weren't expectin' a young 'un, I'd bet he'd likely be dustin' your britches for you by now!" He winked and Jemimah could see his lips twitching.
"He still might... but I'll be sure to watch that he doesn't overdo it," Scott added, sniggering.
Johnny had clearly overheard and was now feeling pretty foolish and that he may have overreacted. He turned and sheepishly approached her, stroking a hand on her knee and offering her an apologetic smile.
"I'm sorry, honey," he began. "Pay no mind to these two jokers. Those nags have run us all over the valley today. We only managed to rope two; the others got away and I guess I'm just beat is all." He squinted up at her, closing one eye against the bright sunlight. "Got a kiss for me?"
She bestowed a brief peck on his cheek. He recognised the rebuke but chose to ignore it, instead reaching behind her for the lunch that Teresa had packed.
"I got sandwiches an' cake," she said stiffly.
Johnny beamed. "You're an angel! Now, get down off that horse, will you? Please?"
The picnic-style lunch had gone well after all though Johnny was again anxious at seeing her mount up for the ride home. On his return (again before four o' clock!), his relief at finding her safe and napping on their bed, put him in a better humour and, as they joined the family around the cheerful fireside before dinner, his hand had reached for hers.
Jemimah glowed. Two more weeks of this. She wished it could be longer but was determined to enjoy the extra attention while it lasted. Everything was perfect. She beamed up at Johnny as he held out her chair for her at the dinner table and fussed around pouring her glass of water and ensuring her roll was sliced and buttered.
Dinner, juicy steaks and lashings of thick onion gravy with fluffy mashed potatoes, put everyone in a good mood... which lasted for Jemimah until dessert. While everyone else was given a slab of piping hot pie in a lake of creamy yellow custard, she was offered a small plate on which reposed a huge wedge of spiced rum cake. That alone would not have been a problem but it was teamed with a side dish of stewed zucchini.
"Ah yes," Murdoch beamed with interest. "Maria said you were keen to try Catherine's particular favourite so she set about preparing it especially for you. Dig in!" he urged. "I'm sure she'll be wanting to know your verdict."
"Yes, I'd be interested too," Scott studied the cake and zucchini like a scientist in the middle of an experiment. "Murdoch says Mother ate this almost every day though, for the life of me, I can't imagine how. It sounds revolting!"
Jemimah miserably broke off a fragment of the cake, casting a longing glance at Teresa's pie and custard on her right.
"Don't forget the mushy stuff!" Zee grinned.
"It's zucchini, dear." Scott patted her hand.
Gritting her teeth, Jemimah scooped up a spoon of the pale green mush and dutifully chased down the chewed-up cake with a mouthful of the gunk. It looked unappetising enough; like something you might deposit in a hanky if you had a bad cold but it tasted worse when mixed with the rich cake.
"Well?" Scott was leaning forwards in his excitement. "What do you think?"
Murdoch too was watching keenly with an expectant smile. "Now Scott, give Jemimah a chance. Tastes may have changed in the last thirty-odd years."
They bloody well had! Jemimah wanted to retch. Scott's mother must have been a mite touched in the head if she scarfed this down at every meal! That or in dire need of a laxative!
Nodding weakly and contriving to plaster a wan smile over her face which was rapidly turning as green as the zucchini mush, Jemimah muttered, "Yes... nice. I don't think I can eat much more though. I'm pretty full."
"Oh." Scott's face fell in disappointment. "Do you not like it after all?"
"Oh, I do! Yes... I... er... suppose I could eat a bit more."
To Jemimah's credit, she forced down most of the cake and half the dish of 'zucchini snot' but then, tummy rumbling in protest, had to admit defeat. This was a far cry from the kind of attention she craved. She would have to invent some more palatable cravings like ham sandwiches and pickles or fried chicken and coleslaw.
While the others sat around the fire after dinner, Jemimah excused herself and hastened to the outhouse.
The next morning, Jemimah was already in a foul temper to discover that Johnny had crept out, leaving her to sleep late. Hence, she had missed both his morning kiss and her usual delight in watching his fine figure as he dressed for the day. Johnny's physique, bathed in soft lamplight, was always something in which she found immense pleasure and pride. So, to have missed it... she was not happy.
She was further irked to discover yet another bowl of porridge awaiting her in the kitchen.
Zee, knowing well how she detested the stuff, merely chuckled wickedly and ploughed into her own plate of ham, eggs and sausage. Maria and Teresa were absent, having gone out to hang some laundry, it being a fine breezy day.
"That is it!" Jemimah cried and stomped through to the great room, heading for the hall stand for her hat and jacket.
"Good morning, daughter." Murdoch was sitting at his desk with an array of papers and ledgers. "Where are you off to?"
"Don't know!" She stuffed her arms angrily into her sleeves. "I gotta get out of here!"
Murdoch had risen from his black leather chair and was crossing the room to her. "Maria might appreciate it if you filled the wood box and I'm sure Teresa won't mind you taking back a few of your other chores, eh?" His suggestion was posed softly with a smile but there was an edge to his words.
"The porch could use a broom and, if you're feeling energetic, the chickens need feeding."
"Aw, Murdoch!" She slumped in defeat, knowing already that she would comply. "I was goin' to take Diablo out to the south line shack. I ain't been for a ride in days."
"Oh no, you're not."
Her mouth firmed stubbornly and she swiped her long bangs out of her eyes, plunking her hat on her head.
"Johnny doesn't want you riding, as you know very well," he chided.
"No buts!" Murdoch plucked the hat away and hung it on a peg out of her reach. "Your husband has asked you not to ride and I think you would be well advised to heed his request."
"Request? Look, I'm no damn baby and..."
"Jemimah, sit down here and listen for once."
Murdoch indicated the nearest blue armchair and, sulking, she traipsed over to it and plopped her backside into the cushioned seat with a huffy sigh.
"Darling, we were all devastated when little Rosa left us."
Jemimah sobered instantly and became still.
"And we were worried about you too. You were so..."
"I know. I remember it all too." Her voice was small.
Murdoch sat on the edge of the desk, his eyes softening as he watched her.
"But maybe you don't remember Johnny and how he coped. He might have carried on, caring for you, working on the day to day running of the stables... but Jemimah, just because he found the strength to carry on, doesn't mean he wasn't affected by her loss. Affected deeply. I've never seen him like that - alone, empty, heart sore... and afraid."
Her head shot up. "Afraid? Johnny?"
Murdoch's face was grim at the memory. "Oh yes. Johnny was afraid. He's no stranger to hard times, as you know but, I think, for the first time ever, this was a mountain he feared he couldn't climb."
Jemimah was silent, her green eyes shimmering.
"And now, this new baby has him facing, if not a mountain, then a steep hill with hard terrain. He's afraid."
"No," she denied, shaking her head. "He's just being..."
"Jemimah, he's worrying. He doesn't want either of you to go through that again," Murdoch assured her. "So, if he's overly cautious this time and lays down a few more laws, so to speak, you can forgive him; humour him? Can't you? It's all he can think to do to get over that hill this time. When you're a little further along and things are fine... well... we'll work on him and try to get him to relax his rules a wee bit, shall we?"
She nodded. "I suppose I hadn't thought of that."
Murdoch stood and held out a hand to lift her to her feet.
"So, if you feel up to it, how about those few chores and then... shall you and I wander over to take a look at those new mustangs together?"
She smiled and nodded, reaching on tiptoe to plant a gentle kiss on his weathered cheek.
An hour later, Murdoch closed the last ledger and stretched his aching back. It would be lunch time in another hour but, first, he intended to keep his 'date' with his daughter.
She was not in the kitchen though Teresa assured him that Jemimah had been a huge help, taking back all her old chores and even kneading the dough for Zee who was feeling under the weather and had gone back for a lie down.
Gratified that she had taken his little talk to heart, Murdoch went in search of Jemimah and finally discovered her, fast asleep and still wearing the apron over her usual jeans, lying on the red plush sofa in their sitting room.
He reached for the brightly patterned Indian blanket and draped it over her, tucking it in around her legs and creeping out as quietly as he could.
"That's both of our little mothers in dreamland," he told Maria with a smile. "We'll let them sleep until lunch, eh?"
"Si." Maria wiped a floury hand across her brow and grinned back. "The niņa has a new ansia (craving) - ham sandwiches and pickles. So this is for lunch."
Murdoch licked his lips - a craving he could appreciate for once - and headed over to the stables.
Jemimah passed a tedious week around the hacienda, barely setting foot outside despite the sudden turn in the weather and the unseasonably warm sunny days. She had returned to all her usual chores and, in an effort to alleviate the boredom which pressed on her, had even undertaken to do most of Zee's tasks as well.
At five and a half months, Zee was finding that she tired quickly. Her bump was becoming ever more prominent and this spate of hot weather was not helping. Though grateful to Jemimah for her help, Zee could see how the younger girl chafed to be free of the restrictions her condition, and her husband, enforced on her.
By the time Friday evening rolled around, Jemimah, having felt irritable and prickly all day, was so miserable, she was ready to come clean and admit it all, even knowing the hot water she would land in.
But the proud loving look on Johnny's face as he watched her don a fresh dress for dinner made her think again. He slid his arms around her from behind and nuzzled softly into her neck and, as she turned for his kiss, his hand moved lower to tenderly caress her belly.
He had said nothing but his touch could not have been more eloquent and Jemimah knew she could not bring herself to own up to her lie. She would have to take it all the way as originally planned; she couldn't hurt him so callously. She was honest enough to admit to herself that she was also afraid that he might erupt if he found out! Oh, how she wished she had never started it!
At dinner, she quailed to see the mounded plate of chops and marmalade sauce which Teresa had thoughtfully prepared for her. Acid rose to the back of her throat at the very idea of eating another lot but, she sighed heavily, it was exactly what she deserved.
When they retired to bed that night, Johnny turned to her, his hands gentle and his kisses as sweet as ever but, dismayed to feel tears brimming, she turned away.
"You alright, querida? What is it?"
He spooned up to her, the hard muscles of his body curving around her so that she was enveloped in his warmth. His legs twined carefully with hers and he cupped her breast hopefully.
"I... I can't, Johnny," she stammered, her throat feeling thick with suppressed tears. "I just feel so tired. Do you mind if I go straight to sleep?"
"Mind? Honey, of course I don't mind." He raised himself up on his elbow so that he could search her face in the semi-darkness.
The moonlight spilled through the gap in the curtains and he could see well enough to realise that she was on the verge of tears. Alarmed, he rose from the bed to light a candle then sat beside her, smoothing her long hair and reaching for her hand.
"You been doin' too much? I know you've been takin' on Zee's chores as well as your own and I didn't like it. I'll speak to Scott and..."
"No, it's alright," she interrupted, further upset by the concern in his dear face. "It's nothing. Pregnant women get tired now an' then, that's all. I'll feel right as rain after a good night's sleep."
His eyes clouded with worry, Johnny shook his head.
"No, I'm going to take you into town to see Sam. We'll go right after breakfast tomorrow."
"No, Johnny." She sat up and was surprised at the way he instantly drew up the quilt and sheets to cover her nakedness. "What you doing? I'm not sick; I'm just a bit tired."
He eyed her dubiously, still determined to stick to his guns and take her so the doc could check her over.
"Look, I promise, if I'm still feeling ropey, I'll get Murdoch to drive me in on Monday. Is that good enough?"
He chewed at the inside of his lip. "We'ell, alright but, in the meantime, no more chores for Zee, y'hear? And you get some rest in the day."
The law was laid down so gently and with such true concern that Jemimah could not possibly feel anything but loved. Lying back, she drew him down for a kiss and lifted the quilt for him to slip underneath.
Johnny moved to take her in his arms then, blue eyes suddenly widening in surprise, said, "I thought you were feelin' tired, chica?"
Jemimah sniggered and allowed her hand to wander further, enjoying his sharp gasp and the way his breathing hitched.
"Seems I've woken up a bit... an' it looks like I'm not the only one."
"Aww, for cryin' out loud!"
Jemimah glared at the bowl of milky porridge, curling her lip. It was more than disgust; more than contempt. It was utter hatred. That lumpy concoction had become her nemesis and she had taken enough. The kitchen was deserted and the porridge, defenceless and alone, would suffer her wrath!
Lifting the bowl with deceptive calm and an almost manic smile of glee, Jemimah held it on high then, with every ounce of venom she had buried thus far, hurled it to the tiles.
The pretty blue and white pottery shattered with a soul-satisfying smash, the creamy gloop flung every direction so that it dripped in heavy globules from the legs of the chairs, the hem of the gingham tablecloth; it dribbled slowly down the smooth plaster walls, forming heavy thick puddles on the floor.
Breathing heavily, Jemimah shuddered at the sight of a particularly lumpy blob as it slid ponderously to add to the gathered mess.
"Thank the lord I'm not pregnant!" she gasped, feeling decidedly queasy. "I can't stomach this torture another day. Nothing's worth this hell!"
With that, she stormed out, clutching her middle and gulping, her eyes watering.
She had not yet left the house when Maria, arms laden with a heap of dirty linen, reached the bottom of the back stairs. She firmed her lips, a dark glint in her brown eyes.
Johnny shrugged his buckskin jacket more closely about him as he rode Barranca down the main street of Green River. It was colder and the sun was hiding itself sluggishly behind a heavy iron-grey sky.
He lifted a chilled hand in greeting to Val Crawford, the town's sheriff, who, as usual and despite the inclement weather, was sitting out in front of the jail, seemingly taking his ease but actually looking beyond the daily hustle and bustle to check for anything untoward.
He grinned at the young man, his teeth surprisingly white in his swarthy bearded face.
"Hey Johnny, you rode out all this way for a mug of my famous frying pan coffee, did ya'?"
Johnny laughed. "Keep it warm for me, Val," he nodded. "Just callin' in to see the doc then I'll be back."
"Me?" Johnny's dark brows lifted and he cocked his head cheekily. "Nah, you ever see a finer example of good health, Val? Just need the doc to check Jemimah is all. I'll be a minute!"
Val leaned back in his chair, chewing thoughtfully at the thin brown cheroot between his teeth. He narrowed his dark eyes shrewdly. The kid wasn't fooling him; he was worried about that little gal, that much was plain. Val felt suddenly uneasy and hoped that Sam could set the boy's mind at ease.
"Jemimah? Is she unwell? What are her symptoms?"
Sam Jenkins frowned up at Johnny.
"Nah, she ain't exactly unwell, doc."
"It must be something to bring you all the way out here this early, Johnny." Sam shook his head. "Come now, tell me what's bothering you."
Johnny shuffled a little and fingered the hat in his hands.
"I guess she's just feelin' a little off-colour, doc. You reckon that's normal?"
Sam sighed, trying to be patient though, in truth, he was still mystified. Why did all his customers think his medical knowledge extended to the clairvoyant?
"It happens, certainly," Sam agreed. "She may need a tonic. Would you like me to call at Lancer to see her?"
"Would you? Thanks. I'm sure glad you suggested it." Johnny breathed a sigh of relief. The doc didn't think he was fussing after all. He agreed that a pregnant wife was something to worry about. "I don't want her to think I'm actin' the mother hen but... well... I guess I can't help it after what happened before."
Sam patted Johnny's sleeve. "That's understandable, my boy. She went through a bad time and, as her husband, I think we can all appreciate you being mindful of her health."
"Thanks, doc." Johnny shook Sam's hand as he donned his hat at the door. "See you later today then?"
"Yes. I have to call in on one of Mrs. Conway's brood later. Carmelita's youngest boy has somehow lost a chunk of his ear."
Johnny smirked. "Sancho been fightin' again, huh? I bet the missing chunk ain't all that's ailing him if I know Carmelita!"
Sam retained a straight face though his eyes crinkled with amusement. "No, but I don't intend to doctor his sore behind! He's earned that. I'll be out later, Johnny."
Sam waved Johnny off at the door, thinking what a fine young man and caring husband he was turning out to be. There were few men out there who would spare the patience he did for a wife recovering from such a bout of depression. Jemimah Lancer was a fortunate girl to have chosen such a life partner.
Jemimah touched the brim of her hat in response to old Widow Henderson's cheery greeting and then smothered a sudden belch with her gloved hand.
She was feeling positively green and again cursed the succession of stomach-churning dishes she had been forced to devour to keep up her charade. The mere memory of pork chops in marmalade sauce assaulted her and she had all on not to chuck up last night's dinner all over main street.
Presumably, it was just her insides rebelling against the peculiar mixtures and she hoped it was nothing serious. Sam Jenkins would set her mind at ease, she knew.
"Queasy, you say?" Sam frowned. "When did this come on?"
Jemimah shrugged. "I dunno. I've not been feeling too spry for a week or so now I reckon."
She hiccupped again.
Sam's eyes narrowed. "Had any breakfast today?"
Jemimah thought back to the puddles of congealed oatmeal she had left behind that morning and she swallowed hard, shaking her head.
"Nah, doc. Couldn't face it."
Sam turned to the basin and poured fresh water to wash his hands, his back to her.
"That's not like you, young lady. You usually have an appetite like a horse!"
"So, what can you give me, doc?"
"Give you?" Sam turned, his brows lifted in surprise. "Well, I'll give you a thorough examination for a start. Just lay your duds on the chair there and hop up onto the table."
Jemimah hadn't expected all this. "Eh? But... is that completely necessary? I mean, can't you just give me a pill or something?"
Sam pushed his spectacles firmly onto the bridge of his bony nose and brushed at his moustache, giving her the kind of hard stare that he knew subdued most of his difficult patients.
"Not until I have a clearer idea of the malady, no."
"Oh. Well, I don't really have the time for... an' I'm actually feelin' much better now, what with all that fresh air..."
Sam resolutely folded his arms across his grey waistcoat. "Jemimah, either you have the examination here and now or I'll follow you home and get Maria to help me!"
She never liked the way the doc gave her that flinty look; he must've learned it the same place as Murdoch. Grimacing and with a sigh of defeat, she unbuttoned her shirt then hopped up onto the table.
"That's a good start, my dear," Sam said with a wry smile. "Now, how about removing it?"
Scowling, Jemimah complied and the shirt was draped over the chair.
Sam's lips twitched with amusement. "And the pants."
A little while later, Sam washed his hands , leaving Jemimah to dress behind the curtain.
"Well, my dear, I have a good idea why you're feeling this way and I think we'll be able to set your husband's mind at rest."
Jemimah's head poked out from behind the thick curtain. "Johnny?"
"That's right. He was in here earlier. He's worried about you..."
This time, she burst through the curtain, still clad only in her underwear. "Johnny was here? When?"
Sam blinked at her reaction. "About ten minutes before you came in."
"He's here... in town?" she squeaked. "I didn't see him!"
Cursing herself and realising she had been too preoccupied with how sick she was feeling to notice Barranca or Johnny, she hastily dragged her jeans up her legs and, still struggling into her shirt, gabbled her apologies to Sam before rushing out. If Johnny saw her, there'd be hell to pay and the last thing she needed was another lecture from him or her father.
Down the street, Val Crawford scratched at his belly through the gap in his tatty stained undershirt. The rip revealed a good three inches of his hairy abdomen, and some of the good ladies of that berg were apt to look at him askance, but he had no intention of sewing the garment - it was ideal for a good scratch.
He crossed the jail to fetch a refill for himself and Johnny and was just reaching for the simmering pan when a pounding of hooves made him look up. A dark blur caught his eye and he squinted beadily through the door.
"Thought you said that little wife of yourn was feelin' a mite poorly?"
Johnny was leaning back in his chair, his feet up on the edge of Val's cluttered desk.
"Yeah, she's not herself."
"She sure looks like herself!"
Val pointed down the street. "She still ridin' that big black gelding?"
Johnny had straightened. "Diablo? Yeh, why?"
Val shrugged nonchalantly and took a sip directly from the pan, wincing as he scalded his tongue.
"Unless these old eyes are playin' me false, I just seen her race past here like the devil hisself was on her tail."
"What?" All four legs of Johnny's chair hit the floor with a bump and he rushed over to the door.
"Cain't see nuthin' of her now but a dust cloud. She was sure movin'!" Val chuckled, tenderly touching the tip of his tongue and wincing again.
"You're sure it was Jemimah?"
Val threw Johnny an offended look and the young man realised the stupidity of his question. He snatched up his hat.
"I'd say you need to make sure that little girl slows down some; takes care of herself, hmm?"
Johnny gave his friend a soft smack to the middle with his hat then called back over his shoulder, "I intend to do just that - even if I have to hogtie her for the next nine months!"
Jemimah was sweating when she closed the kitchen door quietly behind her and began to tiptoe across the tiled floor towards the corridor. Even though the weather had turned, her gallop home had exhausted her. She noticed the splattered oatmeal had been cleaned up and, though sorry she had caused someone to be stuck with the unpleasant job, was relieved she would not have to look at it. As weary as she felt, the very idea turned her stomach.
Now, if she could just make it to the apartment without being seen... But it was not to be.
"So, niņa... you have returned!"
Jemimah spun around mid-tiptoe. "Maria!"
The Lancer housekeeper was only a tiny woman; barely three inches taller than Jemimah herself but she had a formidable reputation. As feared as she was beloved by all who knew her, she was a woman you did not cross - if you knew what was good for you. Now, she stood, arms folded, dark eyes glinting dangerously and a pugnacious set to her disapproving mouth. Jemimah could not help but quake in her boots. Only Murdoch himself could have made her tremble more.
"I'm sorry about the mess, Maria," she gulped. "I would have cleaned up but I just had to get out for some air. I needed..."
"What you need, niņa is to feel my spoon across your behind!"
"Eh? Look, I said I'm sorry about the porridge and I'll..."
Maria moved in menacingly and Jemimah's green eyes widened to see the little woman retrieve said spoon from the deep pocket of her vibrant yellow apron.
Maria clicked her tongue in reproof. "It is not the porridge you should apologise for, child!" She waved the spoon threateningly. "Has your good father not instructed you before, many times, not to tell lies?"
Jemimah was taking tiny retreating steps so that they moved gradually around the table as in some peculiar dance or game of musical chairs.
"Si! Do not play the innocent with me. I know all and you - you are not with child!"
Jemimah grimaced. She could feel the sweat coating her upper lip and forehead. "What? Why would you... ?"
"The truth!" Maria waved the spoon again and Jemimah recalled vividly the lasting sting it produced when Maria wielded it. "You are not, are you?"
"We'ell, not exactly, no."
Maria, though somewhat portly, could shift when she put her mind to it as she did just then. Chasing Jemimah around the table, spoon held aloft in her fist, she ground out a stream of Spanish from between clenched teeth.
"Voy a zurrar sus nalgas hasta que sea tan brillante como un espejo!!" (I'm going to tan your behind until it's as shiny as a mirror!!)
Jemimah squealed in fright and hurtled around the table, determined to keep it between her and the little Mexican lady who, from the peculiar sounds, was now gnashing her teeth.
"Maria wait," she tried to placate the woman. "Just hear me out. Let me explain!"
Jemimah shrieked and speeded up, narrowly avoiding the bowl of the spoon when it swished close to her rear end.
"After!" Maria growled. "You can explain after I light a fire to your behind!"
It was at this point that Johnny came in the back door, closely followed by Scott who had been looking forward to a relaxing lunch with Zee. They both halted in astonishment at the sight of the two women racing around the table. Maria, tiring at last, spied Johnny and side-stepped to seize his hand and thrust the spoon into it.
"Nalguee tu esposa!" (Spank your wife!) she panted, pointing to Jemimah who had paused, gasping for breath and swiping at the beads of perspiration on her face, at the far side of the table.
"What? I can't do that! What the heck is goin' on here?" Bewildered, he looked to Jemimah. She was certainly looking guilty. She was very red in the face and, he could tell, it was not simply due to her chase with Maria. "What have you done anyway?" Johnny was flummoxed. He had intended to press upon his little wife the importance of minding his rules and understanding his concerns for her safety at this delicate time. However, he had not thought he would be called upon to whomp her behind. What on earth had possessed Maria? Jemimah must have really annoyed her.
Maria glared beadily at the girl. "Will you tell Juanito the truth... or will I?"
"Truth? What truth? Honey, what's going on?"
Jemimah flushed and, swallowing as though unable to talk and praying this would buy her the time to come up with a plausible excuse, she held up her hands to soothe him.
"Now Johnny, don't be mad. I do have something to tell you; Maria is right but... you just stay calm eh? In fact, maybe you should sit down."
Johnny shook his head. "I don't want to sit down. Just tell me. Are you alright? It's not the baby, is it?"
Maria snorted in disgust and Jemimah winced.
"No, it's not the baby. Everything's fine..."
"Niņa!" Maria had taken enough of her stalling.
"I mean, it's not fine."
"What?" Johnny gaped.
"Well, it is! That is, I'm fine but not the baby."
"There's something wrong with the baby?" Jemimah could have wept at the anguished look in his blue eyes.
"No... yes... not exactly..." She was gabbling now, she knew.
"Jemimah!" Maria yelled.
Johnny could see Jemimah was upset and just needed her to spit it out. "Honey, you're not making any sense."
"No, look... I'm perfectly alright but..." She paused, knowing the game was up. It was time to face the music. It would be terrible but she couldn't put it off any longer, she knew. Covering her face with her hands, she released a shuddering sigh. "I made it up. I said... oh Johnny, I'm sorry. There is no baby."
There was silence. No-one moved. No-one spoke. Her words, horrible words, hung in the air.
Johnny swallowed, his throat suddenly tight and dry. "You lost it?" he whispered.
Jemimah sadly shook her head, too ashamed to even look at him. When she answered, her voice was dull, quiet. "I wish it were that but, no... it was never there in the first place."
Scott stepped forward. "What? What are you saying?"
"I... I've been really stupid an' mean... an' selfish. I know it. Oh Johnny, I wanted you to pay me some attention like Scott was doin' to Zee and Enrique for Pony. And I wanted you to be as happy an' excited as Scott is. That's all. And I thought we could be if I was pregnant too so I said I was but... it weren't true an'... oh Johnny, I feel just awful about it now. It didn't seem so wrong at the time but now I can see that it was. An' I really feel ashamed of myself. Honest I do!" Jemimah's voice wobbled and the tears shimmered in her eyes.
"Now you've been caught, you mean?" Scott's voice, in comparison, was hard.
A fat tear dripped from her spiky wet lashes and rolled down her cheek. "I know! It was horrible of me. I can't hardly believe I did it. Oh Johnny, say somethin'."
But it was Scott who spoke. "You should be thrashed!"
Someone coughed and they turned to see Murdoch and Sam standing in the doorway to the great room, having clearly heard it all.
"That sounds like a good idea but it'll have to wait until October by my reckoning," Sam said as he removed his glasses and polished them on his handkerchief.
Johnny, dazed and feeling as though he had been punched, gaped uncomprehendingly at Sam. "October?"
Sam nodded, a slight smile playing about his mouth. "Well, in roughly seven or eight months I would say, give or take a week or two. It's hard to be too precise in these matters. And then, if you still feel strongly enough, Johnny..." He grinned at him then glared sternly at Jemimah who shrank back. "You have my blessing to go ahead and paddle her - as hard as you like!"
Johnny wrinkled up his nose, unable to take it all in. Murdoch was grinning behind Sam. Johnny glanced at his wife who looked utterly confused.
"Doc, you mean she's..."
"Expecting a baby, Johnny, yes."
The young man dared to hope and cast Sam a beseeching look."For... for real?"
Jemimah had frozen; rooted to the spot but now she suddenly flopped down into a chair as though her trembling legs would no longer support her. Johnny moved over to the table slowly and looked down on her, his expression thoughtful and hard to read. Maria was wiping her eyes on her apron. It was fair to say that everyone was stunned.
Just then, Zee sauntered in and reached for an apple from the bowl. Becoming aware of the strained atmosphere, she looked from face to face in puzzlement.
"Why y'all standin' about like statues?"
Scott shook his blond head, starting to smile. "It seems Jemimah is pregnant."
Zee regarded him with a curled lip. "You goin' cuckoo? We already knew that! Now, what's for dinner?"
Jemimah raised her head from her hands and wiped her eyes. "As long as it's not pork chops an' marmalade, I don't care!" she muttered weakly.
"What? No more cravings?"
She looked sharply at her husband. His voice was harsh, angry and she blushed, hanging her head in shame. "No Johnny. Not anymore."
"Well, I got a craving. Come with me!"
Before Jemimah knew what he was about, he had gripped her hand in his and pulled her none too gently to her feet. Her chair clattered back against the wall and the others watched as he marched her out of the kitchen and down the corridor which led to the east wing.
Noticing that his son still grasped Maria's spoon, Murdoch hastily ushered Sam back into the great room, urging him to stay to supper.
Greatly entertained by the whole event and loath to miss the finale, Sam accepted.
"Caroline is away at her sister's and Maria's cooking certainly beats my own. How could I refuse?" he chortled.
In their parlour, Jemimah warily hastened across the rug and deliberately put the sofa in between her and Johnny. He was looking rather put-out and, she realised, was still holding on to that blessed spoon of Maria's.
"Johnny, are you really cross with me?" she asked timidly. "You got every right to be, I know. You should be furious."
"Uh-huh, I should." Though his voice was soft, those blue eyes were fixed on her and she felt a shiver run up her spine.
"An' I s'pose I couldn't blame you none if you did feel the need to..."
"To?" He narrowed his eyes questioningly.
As Jemimah eyed the spoon and gulped, he smacked the bowl of it into his palm and took a step nearer.
"To get a little of your own back..." she whimpered.
He smiled as though the idea had not occurred to him. "Get my own back? Mmm, that sounds good. What do you suggest?" He was still getting closer.
"Me? Well..." She grimaced at the spoon and wished he would just set the nasty thing down. "I reckon you have a right to be cross..."
"You already said that."
Johnny folded his arms (Jemimah couldn't help but notice the way the muscles pulled the sleeves of his blue shirt taut and, for once, could take no pleasure in it; he looked very... robust) and, as though pondering the problem, tapped the spoon absently against his chin. "Honey? You tell me... what should I do with you? Hmm?"
"I... I suppose you should... you could..." It was as though she was hypnotised; she couldn't move, she couldn't think.
At last, she sighed and slumped in defeat. "Oh, what's the use? Scott was right. I know I'd deserve it if you walloped me proper so, if you want to, go ahead. Just... not with that... eh?"
Johnny smiled down at her bent head."Remember I said I had a craving too?"
She nodded dejectedly and waited for him to grab hold of her. It had been nearly four years and, now that they were man and wife, she had figured it would never happen again. "Alright, where d'you want me?"
He gathered her up into his arms and, a smile on his lips that made his eyes crinkle up as he gazed into her bewildered little face, carried her promptly into the bedroom where he laid her gently on the bed and hopped up to kneel beside her, his fingers already on the butterfly belt buckle and the buttons of her jeans.
"What... ?" She was too surprised to help or hinder him.
He was rapidly (and most efficiently) undressing her, tugging down her jeans as he kissed her; fingers fiddling with the tie of her drawers and then swiftly removing them too. She gasped and then flinched as he rolled her onto something hard. Johnny reached beneath her and withdrew the spoon.
"Oh sorry, honey." He tossed it into the air with a grin and caught it expertly in one hand. Abandoning her for a moment, he crossed to the dresser and, with some degree of ceremony, placed it atop the mirror there. Standing back, he studied it and nodded approvingly. "I won't be needing that..."
Jemimah's face lit up.
If he noticed how her smile slipped at his words, Johnny did not remark on it though he did have to turn away to snigger as he removed his boots and socks.
Turning back, his eyes twinkled at her and he hurriedly whipped his shirt off over his head, wriggling his lean hips as he shucked his pants.
Her mind still awhirl, she watched him. In no time at all it seemed, Johnny was naked too. She could hardly believe it - they really were going to have a baby. All this 'extra attention' had done the trick and she had ended up with more than she had bargained for... though she was not complaining; no, not at all.
Johnny was standing by the foot of the bed, looking down on her, his smile soft and such love in those deep blue eyes. He was... beautiful to her; from his very handsome dark head to the hard muscles of his torso, that dark hair on his chest and down over his stomach... Her eyes trailed lower. Johnny was, she flushed and smiled up at him, very... eager for her.
He joined her on the soft quilt, taking her in his arms. A gleam in his eye and his lips curving into a wicked smile, he kissed her deeply.
"Now chica... about that craving of mine..."
Anne Haslam February 2015