Disclaimer: These characters (i.e. the Lancers) are not mine though I
certainly show them more love, respect and gratitude than Fox.
Scott is 31; Johnny is 26
Rated R for Rapture; I thought it was about time those boys had some lovin'!
Murdoch craned his neck to see beyond the heads of the jostling crowd, peering through the billowing steam which puthered in a pungent cloud from the hot engine. His eyes narrowed, searching. Ahead, he spotted a young woman who was carefully descending the steps, the conductor dutifully handing her down so that there was no danger of her tripping on her skirts or catching the heel of her high-button boots on the metal tread. Murdoch's face lit up in a huge smile as he recognised her instantly and he ploughed ahead through the milling throng, suddenly unable to wait another moment before he could embrace her again. His two sons followed in his wake, both politely touching their hats to the ladies they passed.
Murdoch stopped suddenly and Scott almost barged into the back of him. As it was, he could not avoid nudging a petite brunette who was waiting on the platform.
"Excuse me, ma'am." Scott touched the brim of his hat in apology to the neat young woman. Johnny peered around his brother's shoulder to see who he was speaking to. He couldn't see the girl's face too well; Scott's arm and the brim of her rather fetching bonnet put paid to that. But, boy, she was sure shaped nice! Trust Scott to find the only likely-looking female in the whole station. But he was about to be married; he'd have to give up noticing these attractive girls or Zee would give him what for! Johnny smirked to himself and was about to tip his hat to the lady when she suddenly squealed and rushed forward, bounding into Murdoch's arms and wrapping herself around him in a startling and most unladylike manner.
"Jemimah, darling!" Murdoch blinked away an unexpected moisture and clutched at the little whirlwind in his arms. It was so good to hold her again; to hear her voice, especially using that particular endearment. His heart swelled and he found there was such a lump in his throat that he could say no more.
The boys, who had been continuing along the platform, turned around, open-mouthed, realising the little stunner was the very person they had come to meet from the train. Scott swooped to joyfully lift her into his embrace and twirl her around the second his father had put her down but Johnny hung back, still studying her from a distance.
Jemimah? It sure didn't look like Jemimah. Where was the sassy little ragamuffin they knew and loved? This girl was elegant, poised, polished... from the satin rose-festooned bonnet and sleek coiled chignon; the firm high bosom and tiny waist to the heels on the fashionable grey kid boots. She wore the latest style - a rose coloured dress with one of those bustles and multitudes of swags and swoops at the back which made her waist seem all the more slender. If he didn't know better, he'd say she was wearing one of those boned corset contraptions underneath it all but she had always vowed she would never entertain the torturous devices.
Johnny's mouth was dry. A fleeting image of this new grown up Jemimah in her stays and not much of anything else intruded upon his thoughts, making him colour up as though they could all read his mind. He knew he was gaping at her like some kind of greenhorn but, somehow, he didn't know what to say to this vision. If she'd been barefoot and wearing the old overalls, he'd have been a lot more at ease. He felt inexplicably irritated with her but had no idea why. And the way she was smirking at him - he felt positively foolish!
"Johnny?" She was regarding him now with her dark head on one side, an amused smile curving her lips. "Don't I get a hug from my big brother?"
Brother? She'd never referred to him as that before. Johnny suddenly felt downright uneasy with the title and that annoyed him too.
"Have I changed that much?" She was smiling but he thought he could see hurt in her emerald eyes.
He mentally shook himself. Come on, Johnny boy, you've waited all these months for her to be home... what's the matter with you? He smiled softly and saw her light up. "You sure have changed." The smile became a grin and he stepped forwards to enfold her in a bear hug. "Welcome home, chica!"
People had started arriving. Maria, Cipriano and Jelly were showing them into the courtyard, offering them some refreshment until the family came out to set the whole thing off properly. The musicians were playing a soft lilting melody which drifted in through the French windows on the gentle evening breeze.
Murdoch lingered at the foot of the stairs, knocking back his whisky and peering into the great room to check the clock once more. He cleared his throat impatiently and eased his stiff collar away from his neck. It was a mite too warm to be wearing all this starched linen but he could hardly attend the welcome home dance in his work clothes. He sighed. Where was that girl?
"It looks like she intends to make a grand entrance, Murdoch," Scott smiled as he approached his father.
Murdoch grunted in reply, craning his neck to glimpse Jemimah's door at the top of the stairs. It was still firmly closed.
"Well, this is a sure sign that she has grown up at last," he grumbled. "I've never met a woman yet who could be dressed and ready on time for anything. If she's not down here in the next five minutes, I'm going to go up there myself and carry..."
Scott and Murdoch turned at the sound of a light footstep on the stair. In that split second, the Lancer patriarch's irritable frown disappeared and was replaced by an expression of sheer astonishment.
"Well, I'll be..."
"You were right, sir," Scott murmured, leaning close to the big man. "She certainly has grown up."
Jemimah was descending the stairs, a bright smile curving her mouth and her green eyes sparkling. Her dress - the latest fashion with a ruffled bustle and cut daringly low, revealing her slender bare shoulders, was of ivory silk with stunning dark green embroidered flowers scattered across it. She had managed to put up the heavy mass of her hair in a multitude of intricate coils and ringlets and, pinned at the back, was a small cluster of rosebuds, creamy white against the chocolate waves. She smoothed the dark green sash at her waist and grinned up at her father and brother as she reached the bottom stair. Murdoch gallantly offered his arm to lead her into the great room and everyone turned to stare at her.
"Jemimah, you look beautiful!" Scott gave a little bow as he gallantly handed her a glass of wine.
Teresa hurried over to get a closer look at her gown, fingering the beautiful fabric reverently. "Oh Jemimah, what a simply stunning dress!"
"Yes, you are a really elegant lady," Murdoch too sang her praises then turned to his younger son. "Don't you think so, Johnny?"
They all looked at Johnny who was still standing by the mantelpiece, staring.
He became aware of their scrutiny and dipped his head almost shyly, suddenly feeling the need to fiddle with the silver conchos on the leg of his pants. He wasn't sure what to say. "She sure don't look like that scrawny little kid anymore." Willing himself to move, he at last crossed the room to join the others, wondering why he was being so distant; he didn't want to be but, for some reason, just looking at her made him... impatient, restless and almost angry - whether with her or with himself, he wasn't entirely sure. "What happened to that little striped dress... and the pigtails?"
Jemimah laughed. "Long gone I'm afraid, Johnny. This is me now!" She twirled prettily before him.
The others grinned but Johnny eyed her cleavage and the bare shoulders and didn't smile. "Shame. I kinda liked that little dress..."
There was an awkward silence while Jemimah's smile faded and she ceased her playful twirling. Her eyes clouded over and she stared into her glass, her thick black lashes coming down like shutters to hide how disappointed she was. Sipping at her wine, she finally raised her little chin defiantly and looked him square in the eye. "Oh, well, I'm sorry you disapprove, Johnny..."
His voice was so soft, it was almost a whisper. "Didn't say I disapproved."
Very slowly, he raised his glass to her. They regarded each other over the rim of the crystal, sipping the excellent wine but hardly tasting it. Sensing a storm brewing, Scott intervened, taking Jemimah's arm and leading her outside into the courtyard to the dance. Mike and Teresa followed and Murdoch offered his arm to Zee, throwing Johnny a look of total exasperation before they too went outside. Alone in the great room, with the sound of laughter and music flowing in from outside, Johnny released a heavy sigh and knocked back his drink, sorely tempted to fetch Barranca and ride away from all this nonsense. But, even as he thought it, he knew he would not.
During the evening, Jemimah had surely danced with every man there, including Doc Jenkins, Cipriano and most of the ranch hands. Her smile had never wavered and, though her feet were probably aching and blistered in the dainty black slippers, she accepted each partner with perfect grace. Only one man had not yet asked to dance with her.
Johnny stood moodily watching, his expression becoming blacker with every new partner who spun her enthusiastically around the courtyard. As he leaned morosely in the shadows, Scott joined him.
"She's the belle of the ball, eh brother?" Scott sipped at his glass and smiled at Jemimah as she was twirled past in the arms of young Barney, their newest hand.
Johnny grunted non-committally and swigged on his beer again.
Scott sighed and his lips firmed into a thin exasperated line. "Alright, Johnny... what's bothering you?"
"Who says anything's botherin' me?"
"You've had a look on your face could curdle milk ever since she got home. After all this time looking forward to her coming back, you've hardly spoken three words to her. What's wrong?"
"I... nuthin'. " Johnny paused, as frustrated with himself as his brother was. How could he explain to Scott what was needling him when he hardly knew it himself? He eyed the laughing girl as she once again danced by and he seized on something to criticise. "Look at that dress, Scott!"
Johnny shifted, a sullen scowl darkening his face. "Well... yeah, it's pretty... but it's cut so low nearly every cowboy on the place has been just about fallin' in there with her!" He was further irked when Scott laughed at his remark. "Ain't funny! She thinks she's all growed up but she don't have a clue what's really goin' on in their heads. If she did, she wouldn't be lettin' 'em paw at her like that!"
"Oh, Johnny, I think Jemimah knows exactly what she's doing." Scott regarded his little brother pointedly. "Yes... she knows."
Johnny missed his meaning entirely. "Well, if she does, she shouldn't be leadin' 'em on like that. I thought she went away all year to learn some ladylike stuff?"
Scott studied Johnny, chewing on his lower lip in thought. "Why don't you go and tell her?" he suggested. "Or better yet, have a dance with her yourself? You must be the only man here who hasn't... even Jelly's been tripping the light fantastic!"
Jemimah whirled past again, this time in the arms of Alfie, laughing and allowing him to hold her close - too close for Johnny's liking. He downed his beer and stood up straight. Then, flicking a glance at Scott and wiping his mouth on the back of his hand, he crossed the floor. Murdoch joined Scott and they watched avidly.
"Johnny disapproves of the way our young Miss Day is dancing," Scott told his father.
"Indeed? This should be interesting. Is Johnny thinking of teaching some ballroom etiquette?" Murdoch savoured a mouthful of wine, a speculative smile on his face.
" I'm not sure. I think my little brother may find it's Jemimah giving the instruction this time."
On the dance floor, Johnny tapped Alfie on the shoulder and curtly informed him he was cutting in.
"You can have the next dance!" Alfie brushed him off and turned his attention back to the little darling in his arms.
"I don't think you heard me right... I said I'm cutting in." Johnny's hand gripped Alfie's shoulder but, before it could escalate into heated words or flying punches, Jemimah interceded.
"It's alright, Alfie," she soothed pleasantly. "My brother sometimes has the manners of a saloon swamper."
Johnny raised a dark eyebrow at the term 'brother' - he didn't like it and wondered why she had now used it twice when she had never called him that before in her life.
"I'll have another dance with you later," she was saying. Alfie nodded respectfully to her then threw Johnny a narrow-eyed frown as he moved away, allowing her to step into Johnny's arms. He looked down at her.
"Saloon swamper, huh?"
Her sweet lips were set in a furious line and those eyes flashed their green fire at him. "All those times you paddled me to teach me some manners, Johnny - I'd have thought you might have acquired some yourself along the way!"
He smiled, suddenly genuinely amused. "I sure did paddle you, didn't I?" They twirled past the spot where Murdoch and Scott stood, watching.
"More times than I care to remember." She moved ever so slightly closer to his white shirt front but her gaze was fixed elsewhere, huffily feigning indifference despite being pressed against him with his strong arms holding her suddenly trembling frame.
Johnny dipped his head to catch a peek of the green eyes beneath their sooty black lashes. He grinned when she deliberately averted her head. "I'm thinkin' maybe it's time for another trip over my knee, chica!" Aha! That did it! She was sure looking at him now! He sniggered at her expression of outrage and, when she tried to step back, tightened his arms about her. He wasn't ready to let her go so soon. "You keep hugging up to all these cowpokes like you are, why, any self-respecting brother (he threw the term back at her and was amused to see her green eyes flash) oughtta teach you that ain't the way for a lady to behave."
"I didn't think you'd noticed that I am a lady now."
"You can't fool me, kid. You'll always be the same skinny little girl with pigtails, hanging round after me an' Scott like a little shadow." He was laughing at her, teasing her.
But Jemimah wasn't laughing. She was tired of him denying that she had grown up; that things had changed. "I'm nobody's shadow, Johnny. Not then. Not now." Releasing him suddenly, she stomped off inside the house.
Stranded so abruptly in the middle of the dance floor without his partner, Johnny watched her go with a sinking heart. He felt lost at her angry departure and, wanting to have her near him again and knowing he had somehow managed to unintentionally push her away, he followed. He found her in the great room, helping herself to a substantial shot of Murdoch's finest single malt.
"Hey! What do you think you're doin'?" He whisked the tumbler from her fingers before she could take a drink. "What's the matter with you?"
"I think you ought to be asking yourself that question!"
"What? " he planted his hands on his hips and glared down at her. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Everyone here seems glad to see me back. Everyone else has had summat nice to say to me. Everyone, that is, except you! All you've said is that you think I need paddling 'cos I'm throwing myself at anything in trousers!" Though her words and face were angry, there were wounded tears shimmering in her eyes.
Johnny straightened, ashamed that his flippant comment had upset her; he didn't want to hurt her feelings. Dios! That was the last thing he wanted. "I never said that." His voice was softer.
"As good as! What's wrong with the way I'm dancing? What's wrong with my dress? Scott liked it. Murdoch liked it. Only you don't like it!" Jemimah was not going to let him get away with it so easily. He had been distant, moody and cold for the past two days and she wanted to know why; she had to know... she had waited too damn long already.
"I didn't say I don't like it!" he backtracked.
"I did not!"
"I did not! I like it! I like your dress, alright?" He was shouting. They both paused, somewhat out of breath. Her chest was heaving in the tight bodice, the soft swell of her breasts pressed against the ivory silk. Johnny paused and gave her a little uncertain smile.
"You do?" It was almost a whisper now as she took a step closer to him.
Johnny calmed himself. "Yeah, I do. It's real... elegant, grown up. You look like a real fine lady." He watched her. It was a beautiful dress; it was true. "You do," he murmured, almost to himself.
"So, it's not..." she was closer now; only a step away.
"What?" Johnny's throat felt constricted and, boy, it was warm in the room.
"Too low... at the front?" Jemimah casually waved a hand at her décolletage, artfully drawing his eye to her bosom. "What do you think?" She was a mere few inches away; so close now that he could see the enticing curves rise and fall with each tremulous breath she took.
"No. It's fine... it's... " He swallowed hard, utterly unable to tear his eyes away.
"It's... what?" she breathed, holding perfectly still. "What?" She gazed up at him with wide innocent eyes. Her sweet mouth curved in a tiny smile. He could see her small pearly teeth and, when the tip of her tongue peeped out to moisten her rosy lips, it was almost his undoing.
Johnny, suddenly overwhelmed by the urge to take her in his arms; to press those curves hard against him and kiss her, broke away, stumbling back as though intoxicated. "I should go; I promised I'd... er... help Jelly bring another barrel out!"
Jemimah stood still, watching him leave, but was far from discouraged. She had seen his eyes and knew how close he had come to kissing her. Slipping back out to the party, she grabbed Murdoch's hand and dimpled prettily. "Daddy! Come dance with me - show these cowboys how a real gentleman dances."
Once more hidden in the shadows, Johnny downed another tequila and struggled to slow his thumping heart.
"He's gone where?"
Jemimah couldn't believe him! What the hell was wrong with him? He used to tell her everything... well... almost everything. And now he'd gone off for the day to Redemption and was even thinking of calling in to see Pony and Florida in Witness Tree... and he'd never said a word!
"I can't believe he didn't ask me if I wanted to go with him! He knows I haven't seen Pony for ages. Why didn't he tell me? I could've gone along." Jemimah felt close to tears and that made her angrier than ever.
"Sorry, I don't know, sweetie," Teresa trilled.
She didn't seem all that sorry to Jemimah; if anything, she looked as though she were trying to keep a smug smirk off her face.
"Maybe he wanted some time alone. It is quite a ride to Redemption and you know how Johnny likes to get off by himself sometimes. I guess he never even thought about taking you along."
Jemimah watched her nonchalantly smooth the iron across Johnny's new violet shirt. She was smiling! She was enjoying this. Thinking back, it had been Teresa who wrote to say Johnny was deeply in love with that ridiculous McQueen snippet. Jemimah's eyes narrowed. If she had anything to do with causing her to miss out on a trip to Redemption with Johnny...
"Oh Teresa, what's that pig doing in your herb garden?"
The older girl squealed and raced to the door, ready to shoo the offending animal out of her precious plants and back to the pen where she belonged. She had run halfway across the garden before she realised that Margaret the sow was nowhere in sight. Breathless and already realising Jemimah had obviously pulled another of her stunts, she turned slowly and, flushed with embarrassment at being so easily duped, picked her way carefully back through the precious clumps of vegetation.
"There's no pig out there."
"Really? I could've sworn I saw her," Jemimah's mouth twitched and she batted innocent eyes at the indignant girl. "Maybe it was a squirrel."
"Hmph! Mistake. Yes, I'll just bet it was!"
"Come now, Teresa," Jemimah's grin was sly and taunting. "We all make mistakes, y'know."
"Why yes." Jemimah stifled an insolent snigger as she backed away. "For instance... look at your ironing!"
Teresa hesitated, then, glancing across to the board and the smoothing iron, she let out a howl of dismay. There were wisps of pungent smoke rising from the violet shirt. Grasping the cloth, she seized the iron and yanked it away from the garment. As she dropped it onto the trivet, she groaned and surveyed the damage. The once-dapper violet shirt, with its dark blue Spanish style embroidery on the placket, now sported a huge, brown, still-smoking, iron-shaped burn across the back. A ruination of a shirt. Johnny would be vexed... very.
Teresa fixed Jemimah with a fierce glint in her eye. "Jemimah Day, you little..."
"Nope. Can't blame this on me!"
Jemimah laughed. Miss Teresa looked like she might be about to lay an egg! The little imp was almost at the doorway to the back stairs when Teresa planted her hands on her hips and called out, "Murdoch!"
Jemimah could hear her father's footsteps approaching from the great room but, before he made it to the kitchen, she had flown and, laughing like the little devil she still was, had disappeared up the stairs, along the landing and down the main stairway to make her escape out of the front door while Teresa was in the middle of tattling to the bemused Lancer patriarch.
Jemimah made a beeline for the barn, saddling Amiga with gleeful haste. She hadn't yet taken the opportunity to ride out alone and, at that particular moment, she well knew that making herself scarce would be the wisest move. She was fairly certain that Murdoch wouldn't actually be angry with her but she had no desire to become embroiled in an argument with Teresa which her father would feel duty-bound to mediate. She quickly mounted up and, calling out to Jelly who just chanced to pass by at that moment, she explained that she was headed for Aggie's and might even inveigle a lunch invitation from her if at all possible. Then, urging Amiga into a ground-eating lope, she headed towards the Lancer arch, throwing her head back, the wind whipping through the length of her dark hair, and laughing at the sheer joy of being home, and free, once more.
Her visit with Aggie was most enjoyable and, as she had expected, she was indeed invited to lunch - a veritable feast (Aggie always put on an excellent spread for her visitors) of chicken salad, fresh warm herby rolls with good yellow butter and, afterwards, an exceptionally large helping of apple pie with raspberry syrup. Aggie pressed her to take a second helping and, though sorely tempted, Jemimah had to refuse. An idea was forming in her mind and she would need to look as trim as possible for it to have the right effect.
It was mid afternoon by the time she regretfully insisted that she should be going and Aggie, slipping the girl's arm through her own, walked with her to where one of her ranch hands was holding Amiga in readiness.
"So, my dear," Aggie's smile was maternal and her intelligent eyes had a knowing glint. "Have you been able to make a certain young gentleman of our mutual acquaintance see the light yet?"
Jemimah's head turned so swiftly that she almost cricked her neck. "Eh?" In her consternation, she forgot her manners for a moment. "That is... what do you mean, Miz Conway?"
Aggie was smiling broadly. "You know exactly what I mean, my dear... and do call me Aggie."
Jemimah felt herself blushing. "What has Murdoch told you?"
"Murdoch? Told me?" She laughed at the notion. "My dear girl, Murdoch hasn't said a word to me. But I have eyes. I'd have to be blind... and rather stupid... not to have noticed your partiality for Johnny." She rested her elegant hands gently on Jemimah's shoulders. "You've been in love with him for quite some time, I know."
"You're not the only one who seems to have worked it out; Murdoch knows an' Scott does too."
"Ah yes, so it would appear that the only one still in the dark is Johnny himself?"
Jemimah sighed and scuffed her boot through the dust.
"Perhaps you would be surprised to know that he's in love with you too?" Aggie smiled at Jemimah's expression of shock. "Yes, I thought so. Really Jemimah, I'm astounded at you. You're not trying to tell me that you had no idea how Johnny feels?"
"Well, I dunno... I mean... I sorta hoped that..."
"Good lord, child. It's as plain as the nose on your face. That boy has been just miserable without you all year."
"Huh! He seems to have gotten over that in a hurry. Hardly spends two minutes with me now I'm back an', when he does, it's to gripe at me an' find fault. Can't do nowt to please him nowadays!"
"Yes, I suspect he's fighting it; maybe feeling guilty over it, wondering if everyone will approve or even if he approves of it himself. What you have to do, my girl, is to convince him, once and for all, that he simply cannot do without you. Banish these doubts and make him see what he has right in front of him."
"I been tryin'!" Jemimah wailed, causing Aggie to chuckle at her anguish. "I've played the elegant lady in my new dress from Paris, tryin' to show him how much I've changed an' grown up..."
"Oh Jemimah, since when did society girls impress Johnny? Or Scott, come to that? No," she shook her head decisively. "You'll have to do better than that."
"I even danced with every available single man at the party the other night. But, when he finally asked to dance with me, all he said was... well, never mind. It wasn't very complimentary."
"Jemimah, Johnny is like any of the male species - he hasn't the faintest notion that what he really wants is to get married. Added to that, you've always been a little girl to him until now. It's up to you to give him the nudge he needs."
"Well, I did have an idea for something to welcome him home."
"Welcome him? Has he gone on a trip?"
"Nah, only to Redemption for the day. He should be back before supper."
Aggie beamed down at her. "Then, if you think your idea has merit, don't waste any time trying it out. I hate to see a good match floundering like this. It sets me on edge. 'Can't settle to my needlepoint!"
Jemimah sniggered, knowing perfectly well that Aggie Conway had absolutely no use for needlepoint or most other tedious pastimes usually considered the province of a refined and accomplished woman.
She grinned and impulsively flung her arms around the good lady who, though taken aback at first, smiled warmly and willingly embraced her in return.
"Thanks, Aggie," Jemimah said. "An' when Johnny an' me are wed, there'll only be you an' Murdoch left to sort out, won't there?"
She turned and leaped onto her pony at top speed, giving Mrs Conway no chance at all to protest her remark. Not that Aggie could have uttered a word. Now that the initial surprise had worn off, she found that she was laughing rather too heartily to speak.
Jemimah rode steadily back in the direction of Lancer but, at the point where she could spy the startling white of the hacienda through the trees ahead, she turned Amiga off to the left and skirted the dense tree line until she came to the waterhole. She took the pony around to the opposite side and let her drink before tethering her in the lush grass. Amiga instantly began to chomp off the juicy green tufts and, munching blissfully, paid no further heed to her mistress.
In the shadows, Jemimah kicked off her boots then proceeded to unbutton first her blouse and then her jeans, quickly discarding them in a heap. "Amiga, you keep an eye out for Johnny. He always stops here on the way home." Just as swiftly, followed her socks and drawers until, glancing furtively around, she tiptoed to the water's edge, naked as the day she was born.
"Alright, Aggie... here goes!" She waded into the water, hitching her breath as the cold rose gradually up her legs. She allowed it to reach her thighs and then, taking a deep breath, she dived into it, surfacing a few yards further ahead where the deeply shelving bottom forced her to tread water. She turned onto her back and paddled gently across the width of the pool, the sensation of the water like a cool silken robe against her skin. She well remembered the delicious feeling from the last time she had swum there naked and a wicked giggle escaped.
"Now Johnny, don't you let me down. Don't you dare go past without stopping."
He was quite a creature of habit in his way; used to pausing here to allow Barranca a brief rest and a good drink before covering the last couple of miles to Lancer. Jemimah was counting on him following his usual path. She swam gentle unhurried laps to and fro across the water hole and, just as she was beginning to feel chilled and was despairing of him ever arriving, her temper rising at being thwarted yet again, her ears pricked up at the sound of approaching hooves. Amiga had heard him too and maybe even recognised the tread of her friend Barranca for she whickered softly and tossed her head.
The girl swam rapidly to the side and clambered up onto a rock, there to afford herself a good view of whoever was drawing nearer. Time enough to secrete herself in the bushes should it not be him. But it was. Jemimah smirked and slipped once again into the water, swiftly pushing her way out to where the sunlight hit, creating thousands of diamond-like sparkles as it bounced off the dark surface. He could not fail to see her.
From the corner of her eye, she could see flashes of gold; glimpses of Barranca's rich coat as he was led through the trees to the water's edge. Jemimah turned quickly away so that he would not see her face. She must make him believe she was unaware of his presence.
Johnny turned at a swift movement in the water, a flash of something pale. At first, he expected to spy a trout playing in the shallows by the rocks. The sight which met him brought forth an audible gasp and he ducked down lest the girl see him. He tugged hard on Barranca's reins. They had to get out of there. If she saw him, he could have a shrieking panicked female on his hands, maybe screaming rape or murder - all kinds of hysterical gibberish. Not that she wouldn't deserve it if some fella did come along with dastardly intentions. Damn fool thing to do; swim here alone and naked like that. And she was darn appealing; he had noticed that much in the brief glimpse he had taken.
He managed to ease his horse reluctantly away from the water and they moved as swiftly and silently back into the foliage as he could contrive. There, though he knew damn well it was a far from gentlemanly thing to do, Johnny hesitated, finally crouching down and brushing aside the fronds of the willow which concealed him to get a better view of the woman. She was still paddling innocently away from him, her skin pale and shimmering against the darkness of the water. She had long hair which streamed behind her as she swam, elegant powerful strokes from slender arms. She had reached the far side and Johnny dared not move. He tilted his head, peering out between the shivering leaves, and willed her to stand up, his blue eyes fixed on the pale shoulders and dark head. She must have felt his silent plea for, as he watched, she found her footing and slowly rose from the pool.
It was as though the sun shone from her, not simply upon her; as if she were on fire from within. The light upon her wet smooth skin hurt his eyes but he could not, would not, look away. He realised he was holding his breath. An emotion he could not begin to name tightened his chest - something so tremendous and awesome that it felt for all the world that he had been stabbed. He crouched there and tried to still the wild beating of his heart.
The girl raised her arms, affording him a tantalising flash of a high firm breast. She lifted the heavy length of her dark hair and gently squeezed the water from it. The droplets ran down the supple contours of her back to the narrow waist. Johnny's eyes followed those silver gems, down to the gentle flaring swell of her hips - like the graceful neck of a wine bottle - to the tight curves of her buttocks, startlingly white in the sunlight. Revelling in the warm sun on her skin, the girl was taking her time and Johnny drank in the sight. He knew he should take Barranca and leave the woman but... he had long ago given up this particular struggle. He wanted nothing more than for her to turn around. And it was more than just a man's need to enjoy the sight of a beautiful woman; he wanted to see her face.
At that second, she turned her head. Slowly, almost teasingly, she looked back over the water, her green eyes sparkling and the long black lashes spiky and wet. There was a little smile curving her sweet lips - almost a self-satisfied smirk. Johnny released a sharp breath, the hand holding the leather reins tightening its grip. But, in truth, there was no real surprise and he wondered at it. It was somehow as though he had known it all along. She had turned away again and, moving on those long coltish legs, a taunting sway to the softly curved hips, was soon hidden in the shadows.
Johnny stood too and his own legs felt somewhat shaky. He wondered fleetingly if he should be troubled by how much he wanted her but could not summon any feeling of guilt or shame. He smiled grimly. He knew that little devil too well; there was more to this than met the eye. Of that, he had no doubt. His smile became a fully-fledged grin as he mounted Barranca at a hop and turned him towards home.
Dinner had been a rather strained affair. Everyone at the table had felt it. Scott had valiantly done his best to keep the conversation going but only Murdoch and Teresa had shown any willingness to join him. Both his brother and the young girl he had come to regard as a second sister had remained taciturn and stubbornly unappreciative of his efforts. However, as they all moved from the table to their usual places around the unlit hearth, Jemimah seemed to perk up.
She sat cross-legged, Indian-fashion, on the rug, looking more like the little girl she had been before her year away at college. There was a decidedly wicked gleam in her eye and Scott wondered for a moment whether he should take her to one side and find out what she was up to. Then again... he allowed himself a tiny smile of anticipation; whatever the little minx was suddenly planning, it might liven Johnny up and that could only be a good thing. Scott had wanted to shake some sense into him for over a week and he knew their father was about ready to erupt with exasperation at the way the two were dancing around each other in this ridiculous manner. No... Scott took the drink that Murdoch handed to him and kept his council. Jemimah had tried playing the elegant lady, tried making Johnny jealous... maybe one of her naughty tricks would be the trigger he needed to rouse him from this dark mood he seemed determined to wallow in.
Jemimah took the cup of coffee which Teresa passed across to her and slyly eyed Johnny who, still morosely swirling the brandy in his glass, seemed deep in thought - bleak thoughts if his serious face was anything to go by.
"So, I hear that Jenny McQueen is expecting the patter of tiny feet come Autumn. That right, Johnny?" Jemimah's own face was innocent enough but for the glint in her green eyes.
Johnny glanced quickly at her, chewing his lip. "I heard somethin' about Jenny and Ralph, yeah. In the Fall."
"Oh yes... Ralph Lynd. So she'll be Jenny Lynd now? I never actually met him but Pony wrote to say he's a nice fella." She sipped the hot brew and studied Johnny over the rim of her cup.
Johnny's dark eyes flicked her another glance which anyone else would have taken as an end to this particular conversation. Jemimah, however, ploughed ahead and the others watched.
"Yeh, a real nice fella. Talkative type. Reckon maybe that's why Jenny fell for him? After all, can't be much fun for a woman to get stuck with a man who's too moody to speak to his wife over the dinner table. That'd be kinda' tedious, don't you reckon?" Jemimah cocked her head in Scott's direction as Johnny seemed determined to stay silent on the subject of his former 'girlfriend'.
"Well, I'd have to say that, remembering the little time I spent in Mrs Lynd's company, she could provide more than enough conversation for two," Scott smiled softly. He directed a warning look at Jemimah who tossed her head and chose to ignore it.
"Oh, so you're sayin' it wasn't Ralph's scintillatin' conversation that Jenny fell for?" Jemimah smirked. "Then what could it have been?" She fluttered her eyelashes coquettishly at Johnny. Darn him! What was it goin' to take to get him to snap? He'd normally have been laughing and teasing her right back by now. "Pony did say he was a man of small intellect so I guess your brains would've been a match for him any day, Johnny." She drained her cup and plunked it down onto the hearth. "Hmm... so small brain but... a very big man in other areas I'm led to believe?" Jemimah ignored Teresa's gasp, her green gaze fixed on Johnny's dark blue eyes which smouldered at her now. "Or... maybe just one particular area? Big enough to put a smile on Jenny McQueen's face anyway!"
"Jemimah." Murdoch's soft disapproving voice was also ignored.
Johnny drained his glass and sat forward so suddenly that the girl flinched, half-expecting him to grab hold of her to either tickle her mercilessly or crack her one round the ear. "Is that the kinda' talk they taught you at that fancy ladies' college?" he scowled. "I know where Maria keeps a nice big bar of carbolic that'd clean up that dirty little mouth... just you think on that!"
He was rising to the bait! At least he was actually talking to her now. "You'd have to catch me first!" she taunted cheekily, a grin lifting the corners of her mouth.
"Was never a problem before, chica! I'll even give you a head start!" Those blue eyes were actually twinkling! He may be shaking a finger at her in warning but she was sure he was trying not to smile.
Jemimah jumped to her feet. "Don't need no head start! An old man like you wouldn't worry me none!" She childishly put out her tongue and laughed as she skipped off outside towards the barn.
Scott sensed his brother enter the kitchen before he even heard the soft thud of the closing door or the heavy sigh near his shoulder.
"You've come for some of this too, Johnny? Or is something else bothering you?" Scott offered the pot of steaming coffee to his brother who ignored it and tramped around the end of the table, his boots scuffing on the tiles and his hand trailing along the smooth scrubbed oak surface. "So? You may as well get it off your chest."
For a moment, it seemed as though Johnny would say nothing and merely walk away. That had been the pattern of late. But suddenly he snapped, "You know what it is. It's her!"
Scott quirked a quizzical brow. "Her? Can you be more specific?"
"Aw, come on, Scott. You know who I mean. The kid! Jemimah!" Johnny's lip curled in disgust at his brother's deliberate doltishness.
"I see. And what has she done to get you so... stirred up?"
Johnny gave him a hard look. Stirred-up? He was not happy with the way Scott phrased that but, now he thought on it, that was exactly how he felt - stirred-up. Especially since earlier that afternoon when he'd caught her at the water hole. Yes, he'd gotten damned stirred-up, alright! But now, what he meant was...
"She's doin' her best to... rile me. Pokin' and proddin' at me an'.... tryin' to get me all..."
"She's teasing you, Johnny! Since when did you allow a little friendly banter to worry you?"
"That was no friendly banter in there!" Johnny pointed at the door to the great room. "I thought the ol' man sent her away so she'd come back more demure an' refined than that! You're the oldest; maybe you oughtta have words with her!"
Scott chuckled as he poured his coffee and added a dash of cream. "Oh, I don't think that's necessary."
"Well, I do!"
"Johnny, she's never been treated as an adult here before. I expect she doesn't know exactly what she can or can't do; what's acceptable conversation and what is deemed a little too... shall we say 'risqué'? I guess she's just pushing the boundaries...so I'll give her some leeway." He smiled across the table at Johnny who looked far from convinced. "Besides, I think the time when I could take her across my knee may well be past, brother."
Johnny rapped the table top hard with his knuckles. "Well, it ain't past for me! An' if she keeps pushin' my boundaries, she's headin' for a fall... " He slapped his hand decisively against his thigh and headed for the door. "... an' she won't like where she lands!"
Outside in the soft dusky warmth of evening, Jemimah sat on the corral fence as she used to and heaved a deep sigh. What did she have to do to get him to wake up to the fact that he was in love with her? She had tried taunting him about being brother and sister as Ellie had advised. Ellie had assured her he would simply take her in his manly arms and swear that it was not her brother he wished to be, but her husband. That hadn't panned out at all as predicted. So, then she'd tried tempting him with her body at the water hole. She knew darn well he'd watched her but, even so, it appeared to have meant nothing to him at all. He hadn't even mentioned it; not even to scold her for being so shameless which would have at least been something. So, as a last ditch attempt, she'd reverted to a bit of sass and some teasing; familiar ground and something which, in days gone by, would have had him either laughing or mad as a hornet. At least he'd reacted a little bit to that. He'd threatened to chase after her as he used to but... to wash her mouth out? That wasn't the reason she wanted Johnny to chase after her at all. Dang! He was a stubborn prat! What did she have to do to get his attention - the right kind of attention? She flapped angrily at a bug which dared to flit into her line of sight. Jeez, it was enough to drive a body to drink!
Thinking on Murdoch's whiskey decanter, Jemimah firmed her lips and, carefully clutching her skirts, launched herself off the top rail. Landing lightly, she headed towards the porch. She would get intoxicated - blind, roaring drunk! Why not? She'd seen both Johnny and Scott a little worse for the drink after a Saturday night on the town. She'd witnessed Teresa drunkenly dancing around the great room (though, admittedly, that had been her fault as she had spiked the punch!) She'd even seen her father a little tipsy on the odd occasion. Now it was her turn.
Murdoch puffed steadily on his pipe, his hand cradling the crystal whiskey glass, and watched his daughter stomp her way back to the house. Half in the shadows, she did not see him at first and would have passed by had he not reached out a hand to gently touch her arm. She jolted in shock but, seeing him there, paused by his chair.
"I didn't see you, Daddy."
"No, you were far away. I've been watching you, perched there on the fence. Many's the time I've watched you sit there, sometimes for hours when you were a little girl... with Enrique and Alice... Sofia..."
Jemimah sighed. She really had no wish to stroll down memory lane and be reminded yet again of all the things she did when she was younger. It was the here and now that filled her mind and gave her sleepless nights. She moved to the hitching post and slumped there, swinging her feet and gazing sulkily at the California Poppies which were starting to bloom in Maria's pots.
Murdoch studied her, taking in the truculent pout. He took another sip of his drink, shaking his head at her. "Darling, you've certainly grown up over this last year and you surely dress the part of a lady now... " He gestured to the very pretty blue gown. "But, the way you're acting, I think maybe I ought to warm your britches for you!"
Jemimah was flabbergasted and, hopping down from the rail with a thud, she gaped at her father. "Why, whatever for? I ain't done nuthin'!" At his continued scrutiny, she blushed, shamefaced, and scuffed the toe of her shoe in the soft dusty earth.
Murdoch raised a scathing brow and regarded her steadily. "Hmmm, I thought so. Just you take care, Jemimah Rose... you may think you have the upper hand but it seems to me you have a tiger by the tail. Beware he doesn't turn around and show you his teeth." Unable to prevent his smile, he drained the glass and held it out to her. "Here, make yourself useful."
Jemimah grinned and went obediently in to fetch him another whiskey. Scott was strolling out at the same time and, having heard the latter part of the chat, asked, "What's wrong now?"
Murdoch chuckled. "Nothing that taking a hairbrush to Jemimah's behind wouldn't cure! And Johnny's too, come to that! Ah, if only..."
The great room clock had just sounded its sixth solemn chime. Johnny was finishing his breakfast as the rest of the family entered the kitchen. Their exclamations of surprise made him smile.
"I couldn't sleep," he shrugged.
"Oh dear, bad dreams?" Jemimah oozed concern but he thought he could detect a sly smirk playing about her mouth as she reached for a warm biscuit and began to spread it liberally with honey.
"No, not exactly." Johnny had no intention of enlightening her. He had dreamed fitfully about her all night and had the distinct impression she already knew this very well.
"Well, what kind of dreams were they then? Not the naughty kind I hope?" Jemimah wiggled her eyebrows provocatively then burst out laughing at his frown.
Johnny felt itchy somehow but had no idea how to scratch. Before he said something he might regret, he left the table, mumbling hurriedly about getting to work on the new horses.
Jemimah watched him go with a sinking heart. Were they destined to simply grow further and further apart? Nothing she did or said seemed to work; it was almost like he was a stranger now. She finished spreading the honey and bit thoughtfully into the biscuit.
Murdoch and Scott watched her closely, saying nothing but both growing increasingly impatient.
Suddenly, she dropped the biscuit and scraped her chair back. "I'm dyin' to see the new horses. Not had a chance yet. I'll see you later."
Scott and Murdoch exchanged a furtive glance but merely nodded at her.
When Johnny came out of the barn, she was once again in her usual spot on the top rail. In her jeans, little pink checked shirt and fawn hat, it was like having the old Jemimah back again and he couldn't help but smile as he strolled over.
"Hey kid, sure takes me back seeing you up there. You must'a spent hours sittin' on that rail, watching Scott an' me."
Jemimah chose to ignore the comment, refusing to be drawn into any more recollections of her childhood. "He's a beauty, Johnny. Does he have a name?"
Johnny turned to look at the black stallion she had pointed out. "Yeah, he's a handsome one alright. You got a good eye, kid. But he's still kinda' wild though; only green-broke. Ain't had a chance yet to teach him who's boss, let alone give him a name." He squinted up at her. "You wanna name him?"
She regarded him steadily. "If I do, can I have him? It's near my birthday - he could be my present!"
Johnny flashed her a smile, wanting to please her to make up for the disagreement they had at the dance and for all the awkwardness there had been between them since she had come home. He wished he could go back in time and handle himself, and her, differently. He couldn't do that but he could give her this. "Sure... if you want him. But you wait to ride him 'til I say. He ain't learned any gentleman-like manners for such a fine lady as you yet." He was teasing her but she rose to the challenge that he had unwittingly given.
"I name him an' he's mine? Promise?"
Jemimah looked over to the horse. "Then... Diablo. That's his rightful name... Diablo!"
Johnny was not looking at the stallion. He was watching her, sensing a new strength in her. She had grown up; she was exciting him and he was unsure how to handle this new Jemimah. But there was no doubt about it; she stirred him. Scott was right about that. "Diablo?" he grinned. "You goin' Spanish on me?"
"I speak Spanish, Johnny, you know that. And French... a little Italian... some Latin..."
"Latin, huh?" He suddenly felt irritable again, like she had reminded him of a new and insurmountable wall between them. All at once, she wasn't his little chica any more; she was this educated, poised, adult Jemimah - one who made him feel ... uneasy, unsure. "Well, that's fine but, unless you also speak fluent Mustang, you stay away from Diablo until I say, y'hear? And this time, chica, I don't want to find you needing rescuing 'cos you can't do like you're told!"
Jemimah coolly held his gaze but said nothing. She looked at the stallion tossing his ebony mane. He may be only green-broke but she had seen him when he was brought in and he handled well; he wasn't cantankerous with José and Mateo.
All morning, she watched Johnny and the others with the horses and could see very well that Diablo was not vicious, he took to the lead rope well and submitted to the halter with no display of fear or aggression. When José saddled him, he accepted it with no more than a slight shiver. What was Johnny on about? The horse was nothing like that mustang from three years ago, nor even as skittish as Torcall had been when Johnny worked with him for Trudy. She was pretty sure that he had been laying it on a bit thick to deter her from taking any foolish risks with the horse but this was a very different story from the episode with the mustang.
Fascinated, she watched Johnny working with the horse now. Though trying not to, she stared hard at the dark hair on Johnny's forearms, the skin smooth underneath, the way his muscles bunched and lengthened every time he reached forward to gently touch the powerful animal. They were strong arms - arms that could easily lift and carry her, arms that could hold her, could...
Startling her from her reverie, he was suddenly by her side, smiling his warm smile up at her. "I'll try ridin' him after lunch but, right now, show's over, honey. I gotta fill that gapin' hole in my belly!" He wiped his forearm across his brow, his black hair sticking up in damp untidy tufts, and set off across the yard.
Quick as a flash, Jemimah bounded into the corral and was up on the stallion. He skittered a little but had obviously been ridden before. She turned him easily, settling him. Johnny glanced back over his shoulder at the stallion's snorting and reacted instantly, running back to the corral. But Jemimah spurred Diablo at the fence and, with ease, he sailed over it. Johnny dived to Barranca and, in seconds, had mounted up and was chasing after her.
Jemimah checked rapidly behind her, laughing aloud, and urged the horse on to greater speed, streaking away along the tree line, leaving even Barranca and his angry rider far behind. Johnny had long since realised that she was not on a runaway horse but was in total control. Despite himself, he felt a rush of admiration and pride for her skill. He realised she must have ridden a lot while she was away in Boston and with a good teacher too. She was tearing away now; the distance between them increasing. Johnny urged Barranca on, his mouth a grim determined line. He was fuming and determined to give her a piece of his mind; she had disobeyed him yet again and it was an old habit he intended to break.
As he approached the water hole, he peered into the trees through the green-tinted light. He could see her sitting on the log there in the dappled sunlight, grinning saucily at him as he rode in. Diablo was tethered nearby, chomping contentedly at the long grass. She had discarded her hat and was casually unravelling the long braid of her dark hair, trying to appear calm and unruffled, though he could see she was still breathing hard. "What kept you?" she teased.
Johnny felt his temper flare. "Are you crazy, kid? I told you not to go near that horse 'til..."
"Well, he is mine. You gave him to me so, surely, I can ride my own horse if I want?"
"Kid, it's about time you listened..."
"Aw, he's not dangerous; he's an old pussycat, aren't you, baby?" She patted the black sheeny hide. "I can handle you, can't I?" She was crooning to the horse but her green gaze raked saucily over Johnny and he had the feeling she was referring to him!
Johnny's blue eyes were dark with warning. "Girl, you sure are puttin' me to a lot of trouble! I oughtta spank you so you don't sit down for a week!" he growled, dismounting and heading menacingly towards her. He took in the flicker of alarm, the tiny backwards step, and smiled inwardly. This felt entirely familiar.
"I'm not a little girl any more, Johnny."
He came closer, striding through the dense grass. "You sure are acting like one!"
"Am I?" Her involuntary stumbling steps had backed her up against the tree and her trembling fingertips now brushed over the roughness of the bark.
"Yeah!" He was close now; close enough to reach out and touch her if he wanted to.
"Then... I'm ever so sorry, Johnny." She hung her head and looked up at him through the thick black lashes - the old 'puppy dog' trick. "Maybe you'd better do it."
Johnny wanted to laugh out loud. She hadn't changed all that much after all. This was the Jemimah he remembered - acting remorseful but he saw the sassy glint in her eyes. She couldn't fool him. He paused to look down at her. Her long hair was loose; tumbling and wild. He reached out to absently smooth a tendril back over her shoulder.
"Maybe I will."
She was breathless, willing him to kiss her. He leaned in... closer... closer. Johnny watched as she closed her eyes and his lips twitched in amusement, knowing exactly what she was thinking, the little devil. While her eyes were still closed, he gripped her arm and spun her around, planting his palm on the seat of her jeans in a single hard whack.
Jemimah's eyes flew open and she gasped, not hurt really but shocked and so bitterly disappointed that she felt tears fill her eyes and threaten to spill over. Hardly able to think clearly, she instantly drew back her own hand and slapped his face, already starting to storm away. But her wrist was seized in one fluid movement. He was pinning her back against the tree and cupping her face in both his hands. She started to protest but had no time to speak before his lips were upon hers in the kiss she had imagined and dreamed about; ached for, prayed for - a fully-fledged kiss that told her everything she wanted so desperately to hear.
He wanted her. Johnny wanted her!
Her arms had somehow wound around his neck. She was pressed against him, clinging to him as though he were a lifeline and she would drown should he let her go. She could feel her heart thudding against her breast and was sure he could feel it too.
When, at last, he paused and drew away, both were breathless and stunned. He began to move but she slipped an arm around his waist and drew him back to her. Johnny made no objection. He wanted to be close to her again. Softly, with infinite tenderness, he took this precious young woman in his arms and once more pressed his lips to hers. When the kiss finally broke, they were wrapped around each other, faces only an inch apart.
He moved back a little. "I... I'm sorry... we..."
"No." Her voice was urgent; almost a plea. "Not this time. This time you're goin' to stay! You can't tell me you don't feel it too; I know you do. This doesn't feel right to you?" She slid her arms once more about his neck, rising up on her toes. "You're trying to tell me that you don't want me? I don't believe you. It was meant to be. I know it and, if you're honest, so do you..."
"Jemimah..." An anxious shadow passed fleetingly over his handsome face.
"Be honest, Johnny - you're not sorry at all. You want to kiss me. Don't you?"
Johnny gazed down into her vivid green eyes, reading the yearning there, and admitted to himself that he wanted her more than anything he had ever wanted in his life.
It was such a simple word but it was more than an admission; it was a decision. All the doubts and worries he might have had for so long flew away when he uttered that single word. He leaned in again, taking her in his arms and kissing her the way she had dreamed of since the first day she had met him, four long years ago.
It was as though they had been thrust at each other. They were suddenly in each other's arms, kissing frantically, desperately. She became aware of Johnny steering her back against the tree and, soft lips still pressed to hers, his tongue invading her mouth and exploring, applying a gentle pressure to her shoulders, pushing her down so that she slid to the soft grass and lay back. There was no way she could rise up again (not that the notion even entered her befuddled blissful thoughts) as he kept her where he wanted her to be, kissing her with all his heart and soul. Jemimah had never been kissed like that before and, in a detached way, wondered how on earth she could have survived for so long without it.
And all the time he kissed her, he stroked her, gently, soft as a feather - her face, her hair, her throat. Soon his touch was meandering over her shoulders and slowly down over her breasts. Her nipples peaked into two hard buds, crying out for his attention but, teasing her until she trembled like the green-broke horse he had worked with all morning, he avoided touching her there, knowing how desperately she wanted it, needed it. He lay half on, half off her and Jemimah thought she could feel his hardness pressing against her thigh. When, at last, his thumb rasped oh so lightly over the aching tip of her left breast, she swore that she saw the stars explode before her eyes even though it was still day.
She itched to touch him, to undo the buttons of his pink shirt and to stroke her fingers over the crisp curling hair on his firm chest; to trace the dark fraying line that led down over his taut stomach and down... still further. When she slipped her hand inside his shirt and began her tentative exploration, he groaned and murmured against her hair, "Jemimah, querida..."
Not knowing quite why, she felt herself begin to raise her hips to him. But Johnny placed the palm of his hand gently but firmly against her abdomen to still her and, softly, he chided, "No. Be good."
And, because he had bade her be still, this time she obeyed. Content to lie in his warm embrace at last and to let him finally see how much she loved him.
Much later, they lay in the grass together, the two horses tethered at a distance. His arm was around her and she had her dark head on his chest, her thick hair spilling across him in a ruffled mass. Half lying on top of him, she idly skimmed her fingertips across his chest, his shirt unbuttoned and untucked so that his torso was bare. His own fingers answered with smooth strokes to her long shining hair.
"Jemimah, you've turned my world upside down," he murmured. "You say it's me you want but... are you sure?"
She raised her head and regarded him quizzically.
Johnny felt the need to be sure. "Honey, I'm a lot older than you and... the kind of life I once led..."
She placed a finger on his lips and smiled down at him.
"Blimey, you're only twenty-six, Johnny. Stop talkin' like you're an old man! Just look at you! I ain't never seen an old man look like you do!" He grinned and she laughed. "An' I never met an old man that I wanted to kiss an' hold an'... do all the things that I want to do with you."
Johnny pulled a shocked face and hugged her to him, delighted by her frankness.
"And, as for the life you led, aside from all of that being ancient history, you ought to know I love every part of you; the Madrid side as much as the Lancer. You simply couldn't be you without it. I wouldn't want you to be any different; you're the most special, most wonderful person I ever knew, don't you know that? You're... you. I couldn't ever ask for anythin' more."
She kissed him lightly and grinned when he tried to prolong the kiss, an exasperated expression on his face when she teasingly pulled away. Then, her laughter stilled and she felt a lump in her throat. The wonderful, glorious thing that she had dreamed - it was here at last; at long last. That she could be granted such happiness... it was a wonder, a blessing. She felt humbled and beyond grateful.
"You ask me if I know for sure?" she whispered. "Then, you listen well and believe what I say - I've never been so sure of anything in my life. 'Doubt thou the stars are fire; Doubt that the sun doth move; Doubt truth to be a liar; But never doubt I love... you.' Murdoch wanted me to be sure that when I came back, it was for the right reasons..." She paused, eyes shining with sudden tears. "Johnny, you're my reason; you always were."
His finger gently brushed away her tears and he drew her down to him, kissing her tenderly. It was several more minutes before either spoke again. Jemimah moved against him.
"What about you?"
"Me? How do I feel about you? " Johnny paused and she felt his chest shudder in a chuckle. "Scott says you're wilful; Murdoch says disobedient; a handful. Me? - I say you're tricky... but you're also sassy an' spirited an'... smart as a whip. I like that - I know how to deal with that. It's weepin' an' swoonin' in a woman I can't abide. You don't often primp yourself up in all them frills an' fancies that look so good on a female but... it don't make no difference to me. I've never stood next to another girl, even wearin' overalls, and felt my whole skin come alive like I do with you." His strong arms closed about her and he drew her in possessively to his body. "Honey, I reckon you're the one; you're mine. My girl. Maybe I've known it all along, from the first; maybe it's been creepin' up on me day by day. But I know it now as sure as I know my own name. I guess... we belong, you an' me, y'know?"
"And are you sure you can handle me? I mean, I ain't that skinny little kid you keep talkin' about, not anymore."
Johnny nodded and decided to get a little of his own back. "Yeah, I noticed that when you were swimmin' over there yesterday."
She sat up, hiding a smirk and pretending to be shocked. "You mean, you saw me?"
He sat up too and shuffled back to rest against the tree, watching her. "Wasn't I supposed to?"
"Well, what do you mean?"
He smirked and glanced over to the water. The sun sparkled on it's cool surface and he remembered vividly the way she had risen from it, naked, beautiful... and tempting. "Aw, come on, honey. We are bein' honest here, right? You're tryin' to tell me you didn't put on that little performance over there just for the purpose of... let's say... lettin' me know exactly what I was missin'?"
Jemimah feigned shock at his words, tossing her head primly. "Really, John Lancer... you have a very low opinion of me, I must say!"
"Nope! No, I don't. In fact, after watchin' you swimmin' around out there... an' the way you let the sunlight hit that fine body... that smooth perfect skin an' that long, long hair... my... er... 'opinion' went up quite a'ways!" His mouth curved in a knowing grin and she blushed, realising exactly what he meant. "But you're lucky it was me that saw you. Anybody could've happened along. I don't want you skinny-dippin' out here again y'hear... or I might have to..."
"Is this how it's going to be? Not even properly engaged yet and you're telling me what to do, Mr Lancer?"
"Nah. I ain't tellin' you what to do, Miss Day; I'm just tellin you what I'll do if I catch you. Now, tell me the truth, miel - you wanted me to ride by and see you... didn't you? Come on, you can tell me. There shouldn't be no secrets between you an' me." He leaned forward to pull her into his arms again.
Warmed by his embrace and the smile in his blue eyes, Jemimah grinned back wickedly. "Alright. I admit it. Well, I had to do something, didn't I? And I knew you'd be coming by and I thought..."
He was nodding, a strange light in his eyes. "Mm-hmm! I knew it! If ever a woman was more devious, more sneaky an' tricky than you..."
He lifted her up so that he could tug her easily across his outstretched legs and, holding her there even though she was trying to suddenly get away from him, he firmly whacked the seat of her jeans three times, grinning at her squeals. Only three smacks but they meant business!
"You try anything like that again, little girl and I'll fish you outta that water and paddle your bare behind 'til it's red as an apple! You hear me? An' don't think I'll be lettin' you get away with anythin' just 'cos I'm in love with you. You are gonna learn to mind me once and for all!"
He had done as he felt the situation required and now plunked her upon his lap, facing him. He looked into her eyes, his lips curved in a sweet smile as he took in her wounded expression.
"Y'hear?" His voice was soft and he gave her pert nose a little teasing tweak, back to being gentle again.
Jemimah was panting, so surprised that she didn't know whether to laugh or cry. "I don't know. I was..."
"You were yellin' too loud," he sniggered. "You always do!"
"Say it again."
He chuckled and put his arms around her. "Which part?"
"The part where you said... you love me."
Johnny smiled and stroked back her tousled hair tenderly. Slipping his hand into the dark mass of tumbling waves, his strong fingers gentle on her skin, he pulled her in for a kiss, tipping her into his arms and staring down at her with an honest, open affection in his blue eyes.
"I love you."
That evening, before dinner, Johnny knocked nervously at his brother's door.
If he had not already noticed the way both Jemimah and Johnny hardly took their eyes off each other as they rode in or the way they had lingered an unnecessarily long time in the barn under the pretext of settling Barranca and returning the black stallion to the corral, Scott's suspicions would certainly have been aroused at that knock. Since when had his little brother ever knocked before barging into his room? Added to all of this, Johnny looked decidedly nervous; there was something almost furtive, guilty about his manner - fiddling incessantly with those silver conchos down his pants and swiping a hand repeatedly through his long black bangs. And here he was now... pacing the room, picking up first the small bottle of cologne to give it a suspicious sniff then the hairbrush, only to replace both and pace over to the window. Unsettled definitely.
"Is there something you want, Johnny?"
His only reply was a somewhat panicked glance and, Scott was sure of this, a hesitant gulp. If he didn't know better, he would say his brother felt anxious over some misdeed. He had all the signs usually displayed by Jemimah when she had been caught out in mischief and was fearing the reckoning. Hmm... Jemimah. Scott smiled as he donned a clean white shirt and began to button it.
"I think you have something you want to tell me? Am I right?"
Still no response.
"Johnny... is this anything to do with Jemimah perchance?" Scott took pity on the young man. He had never seen Johnny this disconcerted.
Johnny turned at last from the window and, still twiddling the silver buttons, lifted his chin as though about to face a firing squad. "I... I love her!"
Scott's blue-grey eyes twinkled with his own brand of mischief. "Of course you do, boy! As do we all. It's good to have her home again." He turned away to retrieve his clean boots from the closet, hiding a wicked smirk.
"No, I don't mean that," Johnny's voice was pleading with him to understand. "I mean that I... I really... I'm in love with her. You know... in that way."
"What way is that?"
Johnny was almost grinding his teeth by now, fairly dancing on the spot in his anguish. Scott chuckled and decided to take pity on the poor man. He patted him on the shoulder and even dared to rub a hand fondly across his dark head.
"Alright! I'm just teasing you, boy!"
Johnny's face was a picture; a blend of exasperation and relief. Scott could not help but laugh as he sat to put on the black boots.
"So... you love the little devil, eh?"
"Yeah." Johnny's smile was bashful.
"And what are you going to do about it?"
"Well, I thought... that is to say, I figured we'd... get hitched. I mean... there's no use waitin' no more. Waited long enough already, she said."
"Did she now? Well," Scott stood up and smiled as Johnny straightened, ready for the worst should it come. "I wish you joy, brother... both of you."
"Then..." The beginnings of a delighted smile spread across Johnny's worried face. "You think it's alright? You ain't shocked?"
"Johnny, not only do I think it's 'alright'; I think it's the best, most logical," his voice softened as he looked at the brother he cherished so dearly, "most marvellous outcome I could ever have hoped for."
"Yeah?" Johnny was beaming.
"Of course! Johnny, you two are not blood relatives so there is no impediment to the match."
"Im - pedi what?"
"You're not brother and sister. There's no actual genetic relationship at all. It's an excellent match. You suit each other so well; I've always thought so." He reached out to take Johnny's hand and shake it heartily. "Congratulations, Johnny. I couldn't be more pleased! Truly!"
"I thought... I... you're actually glad about this?"
"Johnny, you're an idiot, y'know that?" Scott yanked his younger brother into a manly bear hug, choosing to disguise the surge of emotion he felt with a playful act. When he stepped back, he grinned at Johnny's face. He had missed that boyish smile, the sparkle in the blue eyes... and it was back. Johnny was happy and Scott could not have been more glad. He fished for his other boot and hopped a little as he balanced to put it on. "There's always been a special spark between you two and I think this year apart has helped you to discover it for yourself. Face it, Johnny - if she'd stayed here, you'd have simply continued to treat her like a kid. This year has given you a chance to miss her and to see her anew, as she is now. And you can see that she's changed."
Johnny smirked and dipped his head shyly, studying the pattern of the rug in that familiar gesture of his. "She's changed some I guess... but she's still the same in a lotta ways. An' I'm kinda relieved about that, y'know? I wouldn't want her to change too much."
"And now you're going to ask Murdoch for her hand, right?"
The smile slid from Johnny's face and he blanched. Scott sniggered and clapped him on the arm, straightening and tucking in his shirt.
"Don't worry. The old man will be over the moon. I wouldn't be surprised if he brought out the special Scotch to celebrate; you'll see."
"Yeah? You sure you ain't already been at that Scotch?"
Scott laughed. "You really can be dense when it suits you! Don't you realise that Murdoch had been praying for exactly this piece of news for the last three years at least?" At Johnny's puzzled frown, Scott sighed. "Everything will have come full circle, don't you see that? Murdoch loved Rose, Jemimah's mother, but they were never together; she couldn't bring herself to leave her homeland and he couldn't give up his dream to travel to America. And now, the son that he cherishes... oh yes, he cherishes you, Johnny; you know he does... that son will be joined with Rose's daughter. I think you need to prepare yourself - I don't think any of us have ever seen Murdoch truly happy, not like he's going to be when you pluck up the courage to ask him what you need to ask him... and tonight!"
Johnny sighed but Scott recognised that the dread had lifted from him. His words had set Johnny's mind at ease which was exactly what he had hoped when he had first knocked at the door.
"Well, the ol' man might be happy but I don't know why I'm smilin'! I must be crazy, fallin' for a little varmint like her." Johnny shook his dark head as they moved to the door. But he radiated happiness, belying his words. "I'm never goin' to know peace again with all of her shenanigans!"
Out on the shadowy landing, Scott paused and watched his brother heading towards his own room to wash up and change for dinner. "One of your fiancée's favourite authors said, 'He who dares not grasp the thorn should never crave the rose.' Anne Bronte - those Yorkshire ladies can be very wise."
Johnny grinned. He understood the quotation well enough but it was Scott's use of the word 'fiancée' that sent that surge of excitement zinging through every pore of his being.
Johnny felt fresher now that he'd washed and changed into a clean shirt but his stomach was still flipping cartwheels and he puffed out a breath as he tapped on Jemimah's door. Her voice bade him enter and he opened the door, feeling suddenly ridiculously excited at the prospect of seeing her again. Whoa boy, you only left her a half hour ago. Calm down!
She was tying her hair back into her usual long ponytail and had changed into a dress. He found himself smiling inanely and reaching out to run the long sleek length of her dark hair through his fingers.
"What you grinnin' at?" she laughed.
"Oh, you!" he smiled. "Your hair back like this always reminds me of how you looked ready for school in the mornings."
She pulled a face and danced out of his reach to slip her stockinged feet into her shoes. "Yuk! Don't remind me!"
Thinking on those black stockings had Johnny's mind meandering to the garters which she undoubtedly wore to hold them up and, still higher, the firm creamy thighs above... he shook his head and grinned. "I always thought you looked kinda cute in those little aprons and that straw hat. I could pretty much forgive you anythin' when you looked so sweet an' innocent!"
"I wished Mr Quinn had felt like that an' then I might not have had to stand in that corner so often," she laughed as she bent to button each shoe.
"He shoulda' paddled you more!" Johnny teased, still trying to keep his thoughts from fixating on what his little chica looked like under all that pretty flowered green cotton.
"Oh, you think so, do you? Charming!" she huffed indignantly. "I thought you were supposed to be my knight in shining armour, there to protect me from peril, not push me towards it!"
"Honey, it's the rest of us needs protectin' from you! You are the peril!" He laughed and skipped out of reach when she took a swipe at his firm behind.
"You ready to talk to Murdoch?" her question wiped the smirk off Johnny's face. He sobered instantly and nodded.
"Yeah, guess so. Come on... hold my hand."
Jemimah took hold of his hand with a little chuckle. "Don't tell me the great Johnny Madrid is scared of his papa?" she teased then tried to duck out of the way when Johnny reached down to give her nose a tiny tweak. They had reached the door and he paused.
"Kiss me for luck!"
Exuberantly, she threw her arms around his neck and, balancing on her tiptoes, planted her lips on his with a resounding smack. Johnny teetered at her enthusiasm, almost tripping over.
"There you are," she preened as she pulled away. "An' you'll get no more from me 'til the deed is done."
Opening the door and standing back to allow her to precede him, Johnny gave her a mock scowl. "You're a hard woman, Jemimah Day!"
They found Murdoch in the great room as expected. He was sitting in his favourite armchair by the empty fireside, puffing steadily on his pipe with a faraway expression on his face as he stared into the distance.
"Murdoch, you got a minute?"
The big Scot came to with a brisk shake of his head as though ridding himself of a pesky fly. "Of course." He looked from his son to the girl by his side, taking in the way their hands were entwined, and hoped this meant what he thought it meant.
"Can we talk in private... in the study?" Johnny seemed very uneasy and Murdoch smiled inwardly though he kept his expression calm. He rose from his chair and set his pipe aside.
"Of course," he repeated.
He headed for the door with Johnny following. When Jemimah also made to accompany them, Johnny turned. "No, honey. You wait here."
"Wait here." He fixed her with a look and she subsided, pouting, and obeyed. Johnny smiled and followed his father. Maybe he was going to have better luck getting Jemimah to mind him as her husband than he ever had as her 'brother'.
In the study, Murdoch had automatically moved to stand behind the desk there. He gestured to the chair but Johnny shook his head. "I'd rather stand."
"Indeed? This sounds serious, Johnny. Maybe I should stand too?" Murdoch smiled at the young man. "I'm not going to be called upon to deliver a licking, am I? Because I hate to admit it, son, but I don't think I'm up to it..."
Johnny grinned sheepishly. "Nah, Murdoch. Nothing like that. I think you're gonna be pleased. Leastways, I hope so. Scott said you might."
"Oh? Well... out with it then, Johnny. I'm intrigued."
Johnny hesitated and Murdoch chewed at his lip, aching to help him. "Son? It can't be that bad."
"Oh no, it's not bad, not bad at all." His fingers were busily rolling up his blue shirt sleeves. "In fact, it's good news, I think... or I hope..."
"Johnny, just tell me."
The young man took a steadying breath and finally looked his father in the eye.
"I'm going to marry Jemimah! That is, I ain't exactly asked her yet but I'm going to. I want to an' so does she... I think. I love her, Murdoch; I love her more than anythin' an' I missed her so much an', now she's back, we... I mean, I don't want to waste any more time. I reckon we belong together an', if I didn't know it before, I sure do now. I'm... I'm in love with her - so much in love that I can't hardly think straight. I guess you can probably tell, huh?"
Now that he had finished, Johnny drew a breath and waited.
Murdoch's voice was gruff. "So... Scott thought I'd be pleased, did he?" He moved towards Johnny, passing round the end of the desk. The young man's face clouded over, ready to be belligerent if needed. "Pleased?" Murdoch shook his head.
"Aw Murdoch, listen..."
"Pleased doesn't go far enough. Nor happy either. Johnny... son... I can't tell you how I've hoped..." Murdoch's voice suddenly choked, his eyes moist. He coughed and shook his head again, watching the smile spread across Johnny's handsome face. The face of the child he had adored, now grown but no less beloved. "My boy, today you've made me happier than I ever thought; happier than I'm sure I ever deserved to be. This is wonderful news. Son..."
He suddenly clasped Johnny to him in a hard hug, the strength of their emotion embarrassing both of them somewhat with its intensity. This rare display of affection taking them both by surprise.
"Pa..." Johnny whispered, almost under his breath.
Murdoch at last stepped back, releasing Johnny but clapping a meaty hand on his shoulder. "You're sure, aren't you?"
"Yes, I'm sure."
"Then, you have my blessing, of course you do. And now, we should celebrate and let that girl know the good news. I have a very old bottle of single malt, just the thing for an occasion like this."
"Now, when were you planning to propose, my boy? You shouldn't let the grass grow under your feet."
"Well, I didn't really want to steal Scott's thunder."
"No, of course, of course. The wedding's only three days away."
"An' anyway, I wanted to make it special; do somethin' really wonderful for her that she won't ever forget."
They had reached the door, Murdoch's arm slung around his son's shoulders. "What did you have in mind?"
Johnny smiled and shrugged. "That's just it - I'm not exactly sure. I got an idea but..."
"Tell me later. Right now, I want to see the look on that young lady's face when you tell her your news."
Johnny fumbled with the pin and hid a smirk when his brother batted his hands away so that he could tie the cravat himself.
"I thought it was the Best Man's job to help the Groom?" Scott griped.
"I am helpin' you!" Like a little boy, Johnny hopped up onto the edge of the bureau to watch Scott undo the mess he had made.
"You are? How do you work that out?" Scott patted the cravat which was now neatly in place, the pearl pin cushioned in the centre of the pale blue silk.
"Well, I'm helpin' you by keepin' you busy tyin' that cravat-thing again. That way, you don't have to think about the reverend waitin' in the church an' all those people gatherin' in their Sunday-go-to-meetin' clothes... an' the fact that, in about a half an hour, you'll be sayin' your 'I do's' in front of just about the whole of Green River, Spanish Wells, Morro Coyo, an' about six other townships all put together."
Scott had gone a sickly shade of green. "Half an hour?"
"Yep, about that." Johnny manfully took hold of his brother's arm and led him to the chair by the bed. "Here, Boston, sit down. You want some water?"
Scott mopped at his brow with the edge of the sheet. "Boston?" He smiled shakily. "You haven't called me that in a long time, Johnny."
Johnny's smile widened into a grin, his head tilted on one side and his dark hair falling into his eyes as he regarded his brother. "Ain't seen you rigged out like that for a long time neither. Gotten used to seeing you dressed for ranching more'n all spiffied an' duded up in your starched collar like that. I gotta say, you fit better round here now than you did back then."
"I still photograph well though." Scott's soft voice showed that he remembered that conversation as well as Johnny.
"Yeah? I guess you do too. But then... you do near enough everythin' well, brother." He blushed at his words. Dang! These weddings sure brought out the emotional side of the family!
Scott grinned back and copied his brother's nervous head-dip, fiddling self-consciously with the small velvet box in his fingers. "It's a family trait. Part of being a Lancer, I'd say."
The two men smiled at each other. They didn't have to say anything more; the way they each felt about the other went far beyond friendship, far beyond mere brotherly love... and they were thankful for it.
The door suddenly opened, shaking them from their thoughts. Teresa, in a new pink dress and carrying a lace-trimmed parasol, burst in breezily.
Scott stood and, rolling his eyes to the heavens, planted his hands on his lean hips. "One day, Teresa, you will learn to knock before you enter a man's bedroom. Maybe I should have a word with Mike; see if he can get the message across?"
"Oh, pooh!" Teresa waved away Scott's threat. "Mike doesn't care!" That wasn't quite true; Mike had expressed his surprise more than once on witnessing his intended's breezy, don't-care attitude regarding her two 'brothers'. He most assuredly did care and had added his voice to theirs whenever he had heard about her indiscreet manner. Having no desire to sit through another lecture, Teresa speedily changed the subject. "I came to tell you it's time you two were over at the church now. The guests are already arriving and you need to be there to greet them. Murdoch's doing it all on his own and he said you two were to 'get your sorry behinds over there, pronto'!"
Johnny laughed. "That sure sounds like the ol' man, alright!"
"Besides, you don't want to be late. We can't have the bride turning up before you, can we?"
"Alright, Teresa. You tell Murdoch we'll be over straight away." Scott was patting his pockets, making sure he had everything he needed.
When she had gone, he turned to Johnny. "Well, I guess this is it."
"Here," Scott opened the small velvet box and took out the simple gold band within, handing it to Johnny. "Don't lose it!"
He watched Johnny tuck the ring into a tiny pocket inside the breast of his smart bolero jacket. Johnny, typically, had eschewed the accepted morning suit and was decked out in traditional Spanish style. Scott rather envied his brother's debonair appearance but knew the traditional New England fashion was more suited to him. He could never have carried off the look that fitted Johnny so well; nor would he want to. He caught a glimpse of his reflection in the mirror as he turned to the door. No, he looked well enough the way he was. They grinned at each other like two little boys, conspiring in some act of mischief.
"Well Scott, I guess this is it," Johnny repeated.
"Yes," Scott breathed deeply.
"Scott... I ..."
The tall blond laid a gentle hand on his brother's arm, a smile curving his mouth. "I know."
They were silent a moment then, perhaps to shake off the excess of feelings which seemed to have descended on the house of late, chuckled and headed for the door.
"Come on... before Murdoch has the hotel manager send out a search party for us!"
Johnny threw an arm affectionately around Scott's shoulders and, together, they headed over to the church.
Scott knew there was a thousand things he would remember from that day...
Waiting with Johnny while the eager smiling wedding guests crammed into the church which was decked out with pale blue ribbons and the cool elegant beauty of white Arum lilies, a particular favourite of his. In contrast, Zee had insisted on mingling clusters of bright Zinnia flowers among the lilies. The exuberant shades of magenta, red and orange surprisingly went far better with the elegant white than Scott had imagined possible. He had wondered at her choice but, once in the church, understood immediately. The flowers did more than simply decorate; they symbolised the young couple perfectly - Zee's energetic and fiery nature joining with Scott's calm gentility. Together they made a sweet poetry.
And then, suddenly, there she was, gliding up the aisle towards him on the arm of Sam Jenkins who had been honoured to give her away, her own father being long gone. (Not dead, Zee had hastened to explain; just gone and heaven only knew where!)
Scott had felt tears prickling his eyes for the umpteenth time that day. This woman... what had he ever done to deserve such a blessing? And what a beauty! In the white gown with its nipped-in sash of palest blue watered silk and the full rustling skirts, more of the Zinnia flowers in her posy and clustered in the smooth knot at the back of her hair, the women sighed as she passed and more than one appreciative male envied Scott Lancer his choice. As she drew level with him, Zee demurely lifted the veil from her face then gave him a sassy wink. Scott's lips twitched and he turned quickly to the reverend.
Zee handed her bouquet to her bridesmaid - Jemimah, who was so intent on gazing adoringly at the Best Man (who, it has to be said, was outright ogling her too!) that she almost forgot her duties and had to be prodded sharply with Teresa's parasol.
Scott had discovered another reason for his bride's choice of floral adornment. When the good reverend had turned to the bride to speak her vows, the whole congregation had been stunned to learn that Scott Lancer was marrying Zinnia Magnolia Schenley Cooper.
"My Ma was right partial to them two flowers in particular an' my Pa was keen on their whisky!" she later whispered.
At the hotel reception, they had dined in style, the champagne had flowed and the speeches had brought forth many a tear and a goodly amount of laughter in equal portions. Jemimah had been prevailed upon to sing and, though Scott had gripped his glass nervously as the widow played the opening bars, he needn't have worried; she had chosen a lilting ballad from her homeland - As I Walked Through the Meadow. The lyrics spoke of ardent love and marriage and, relieved this was to be no bawdy folk song as she had wickedly hinted, Scott relaxed to enjoy it.
When the dancing started, one of the first to take to the floor was Jelly and what his dancing lacked in style and grace was certainly compensated by his enthusiasm. As he energetically two-stepped his way around the room with any lady brave enough to join him, a couple of rather dry old spinsters were heard to snippily remark that the new Mr and Mrs Lancer had a most irregular guest list - even including the hired help.
Zee had immediately asked Jelly to dance and Scott had bowed most courteously to Maria, the formidable little housekeeper and as much a member of the family as Jelly. Mr Lancer also managed to elbow the two ladies as he spun Maria eagerly across the floor.
"Your pardon, I didn't see you there."
Zee barged past, giggling and asking no pardon at all. "Out of the way! Comin' through!"
When Scott retired to the side, panting for breath, Johnny approached with a fresh glass of champagne for him.
"That's what I like about you, Scott... you treat everyone the same. It ain't how fancy the rig; it's how you drive it."
Scott raised his glass in a breathless toast. "My sentiments exactly, Johnny."
"Look at Murdoch. I ain't ever seen him smile so much."
Johnny nodded towards the dance floor where their father was just waltzing past with Jemimah in his arms. The tall man and the tiny girl - Scott and Johnny both chuckled.
"Don't try to kid me, Johnny. You're not looking at our father; you're watching that little whirlwind who's spinning him round the room like a dervish."
"Yeah." Johnny grinned. "She's just like that, ain't she? Little whirlwind."
Scott smiled too. "She's the reason the old man is smiling so much these days. Well, I should say it's the two of you. You've made him very happy, Johnny. I hope you know that."
"Yeah. I'd like to take all the credit but it ain't just me. I don't reckon there's anyone here who hasn't noticed how Murdoch's been struttin' around, proud as a peacock all day. It's you too, brother; you an' that feisty new wife of yours... an' all the grandchildren you're goin' to give him."
"We are going to give him, you mean! Don't forget your part in this. Murdoch will expect a few Johnnys and Jemimahs running around the place!"
Johnny grinned and seemed to study the toe of his boot. "Yeah. I wouldn't mind it myself, I guess. You?"
"I'll get right to work on it as soon as you all leave." Scott quickly sipped at his wine, surprised at his own audacity in the smutty remark.
"I wanted to ask you somethin', Scott... well, your advice I suppose." Johnny looked on edge.
Scott found it impossible to conceal his dismay. "I didn't imagine for one second you'd require any tuition in that department."
Johnny's nose wrinkled up as it usually did when he was puzzled. "Tuition? What you..." His blue eyes opened wide as the light dawned. "Oh! No, no, I didn't mean that..."
"Nah, I meant... I kinda wondered what I should do for a proposal. I ain't properly asked her yet an' I wanted to... y'know... sweep her off her feet; make it real special for her."
"What have you come up with so far?" Scott was intrigued. He couldn't help but wonder what his little brother's idea of romance might be.
Johnny blushed. "Well, I know ladies are supposed to enjoy this kinda shindig - wine, candlelight, music an' dancin'..." From the look of distaste on Johnny's face, it was clear that he was hoping Scott would disagree.
Scott, luckily, did so. "Somehow, I don't see our Jemimah being particularly susceptible to crystal chandeliers and champagne. She saw plenty of that in Boston, I believe, and it certainly didn't turn her head."
Johnny smiled, gratified that he and Scott were thinking along the same lines. "Nah, that's what I figured too. But, where does that leave me?"
Scott gave him a small nudge. "Romance is never lost on a woman but you should know her better than anyone. What do you think she would want?"
Johnny seemed deep in thought then his eyes lit up and he gave Scott a brotherly punch in the arm. "I got it!"
"That's good. Glad I could be of assistance. And now, if you don't mind," he smiled wryly. "I think I will ask that beautiful brunette over there for a dance."
Johnny grinned as Scott made a beeline for his bride. He knocked back his drink and headed across the room to take his own brunette for a whirl.
The dancing went on into the wee hours when, finally persuading the last of the guests to leave them in peace (and permit the weary hotel staff to clear away so they could get to bed), Scott whisked the new Mrs Lancer into his arms. She made no protest, in fact, quite the opposite. Not the traditional blushing bride, Zee rather harried him all the way up the stairs to the suite he had booked. There, she admired everything enthusiastically... including her new husband, much to his delight.
That night, too, was something Scott would never forget.
Johnny took off his hat and wiped at his brow with a bandana which he then tucked into his belt as he nudged Barranca on towards the distant hills. He was hot and thirsty but would not stop for water until he reached the cabin. It was his own fault; too much of that fizzy champagne the night before. He wondered how Scott would be faring.
But then, (Johnny checked the height of the sun) he guessed Scott and Zee would be on the stage by now. He grinned, hoping his brother and new sister-in-law weren't feeling too delicate today. The stage was notoriously bumpy. At least their private coach on the train would be luxurious enough. And then two weeks in the best hotel in San Francisco. Typical Scott! Johnny smiled. It would be the best of everything all the way. Yes, Zee could expect to be wined and dined until she was dizzy! The finest restaurants, the theatres and great houses... she would certainly see plenty... but Johnny didn't envy his brother the trip. He had far more simple tastes. He would miss him though - just over three weeks all told. But, if a fella couldn't take a little time to himself on his honeymoon then when could he? Johnny's thoughts drifted back to the wedding.
At the reception, when he had danced with his sweet Jemimah in his arms, he knew beyond any doubt that she was meant to be his; there could be no question now. All the days she was away had led up to this moment and he would never be without her again. Johnny somehow felt whole now that she was with him and the feel of her in his arms - he sighed and remembered pulling her closer to him, knowing he would never let her go so far from him again.
Scott was right about her - she would care nothing for hotels and finery. He knew what he would do. This would be exactly the sort of proposal to melt his little chica's heart.
"Where are we goin'?" Jemimah was as excited as a child. She sat now on the seat of the wagon with her hands tucked neatly under her thighs and bouncing her booted feet up and down to the tune she alternately whistled and hummed.
Johnny laughed at her. She looked exactly as she always had - jeans, little sprigged calico shirt, her hair in two braids and a grin of delight spread across her elfin features. She squinted up at him now, tugging on the brim of her hat against the bright sun. "Wait an' see!"
Overcome with glee, she leaned over and planted an enthusiastic kiss on his smiling lips, lingering to allow her lithe little tongue to taste his mouth and her hand to trail naughtily up his leg. Then, when he would have paused to take her in his arms, she plunked herself back into the seat, giggling at the bereft look on his face.
"Girl, you are bad!"
Her reply was a wicked laugh and a saucy toss of her head.
As the sun dipped lower in the sky, streaking the clouds with hues of pink and peach, it became obvious where they were headed.
"We're goin' up to the Ridge?" she guessed. "What for?"
"Somethin' I want to ask you," was all he would say.
As they neared the cabin, Jemimah clasped her hands together and gasped, her mouth a perfect 'o' of rapture.
"Johnny! Oh, Johnny, it looks beautiful!" She sprang down the instant he stopped the horses, trotting to the cabin to see.
Johnny set to unloading the wagon but he watched her from the corner of his eye, thrilled that she was pleased with his surprise. She skipped from one thing to the next, exclaiming all the while and never standing still.
"Oh Johnny, the flowers! Did you plant them? You can't have done! And the swing on the porch! An' all the cushions an' lanterns an'..." She hurtled into the cabin and he chuckled to hear her still waxing lyrical over everything.
Of course, he had had help. Maria and Teresa had been more than willing to pitch in with sprucing up the place and helping to hang all the lanterns along the porch. In the absence of any proper furniture, Maria's quilts and cushions were strewn about the floor so that, when Johnny carried in her bedroll, Jemimah declared it would be like sleeping in an Arabian tent.
She threw herself eagerly into his arms and kissed him fervently.
Later, a veritable feast spread before them, they settled together on the porch swing. Johnny had lit the string of lanterns so that it resembled a fairy grotto from her old storybook. There was the soft fragrance of blossom in the air and the night was warm and still.
He opened his arms to her and she entered them - a homecoming; a sense of being exactly where they were meant to be; a perfect fit. It was as though he had been a man standing on the brink of starvation and she was now the meal which would save him. Johnny touched her now, breathed her in, the sweet scent of her invading his senses so that he became full. Full of the wonder of her.
"This is love, isn't it, Johnny?" she whispered.
"Yeah. It has to be. I'd give everythin' I have for you, honey. I'd... I'd even die for you and feel thankful to do it. I'd say that's gotta be love, don't it?"
He had long ago stopped searching for true happiness. His childhood and youth had robbed him of any idea that he might actually deserve it. But now, with a family, a home and this girl - this young girl who willingly offered him her whole life - he had miraculously found the absolute happiness and peace he craved.
"If I asked you to come away with me, would you?" Johnny's voice was soft as he traced a fingertip along her cheek and touched her lips with his own.
"Yes. Anywhere. You know that."
"You'd leave all the family... all your friends?"
"Don't need no friends. I got you an' you're all I need." Her green eyes held his and he recognised the absolute sincerity in her gaze; the certainty that whatever he asked of her would be right.
"So... will you marry me then?"
"Yes, Johnny. I will, right gladly. You know I will," she accepted with such happiness that she wondered how she would bear it. "But where are we goin'?"
He shook his head. He hadn't meant her to think they would be leaving. There was only one place he wanted to take her. "Heaven."
Had anyone else made such a statement, Jemimah might have guffawed heartily at their romantic nonsense. However, as Johnny proceeded to kiss her with such utter tenderness, his gentle fingers tracing down the curve of her spine, moulding her body to his, she could find no cause for laughter or disbelief.
"Seein' as we're almost married, maybe we should share the cabin for the night," she coyly suggested, avoiding his twinkling blue eyes.
Johnny grinned. "I don't think Trudy would approve of that. Seems I recall her handing out a swat to you last time you made that suggestion."
"Well, Trudy ain't here... " She leaned to him once more, offering her mouth for a kiss which he willingly bestowed.
"But I am..."
"You sure are." Jemimah slipped her arms around his neck and eased closer, pressing her breasts to his ribs enticingly.
Somehow, her shirt had become unfastened so that he glimpsed the rosy tip of a soft round breast as she arched against him. Johnny knew exactly what she was up to - little minx - and he smiled to himself. "And I intend to honour her, and you, by waiting until our wedding night."
"Nobody would know," she pouted, hardly able to believe that he was going to withstand all her best flirting.
Johnny's hand had been warmly cupping her rump and now he gave her a tiny warning pat there. "I'd know! Honey, let me do this for you. I just want everything to be perfect for you. Remember I told you a long time ago... to offer yourself to a man, that's the greatest gift you can give. I want to show you I'm worthy of it."
"But you are... I know you are..."
"Then waiting a few more weeks until we're man and wife... hey, it's not a long time to wait. You can be patient that long, can't you?" He chuckled at her sulky frown. "I always heard it was meant to be the fella who itched for the wedding night! Ain't you females supposed to tremble in the bed with the covers up to your chin and blushing like a June bug?"
"I ain't the blushing kind!"
"No, you sure ain't." Johnny dipped his head and kissed her deep and slow then tilted up her chin to study her face with his smiling blue eyes. "You're my kind though... and, when you're Mrs Lancer, I'll be proud to lead you down that path. I never thought of myself as what you could call a virtuous man but I guess you bring that outta me; I want to do what's right and... aw, I ain't one for flowery words like Scott... poems, speeches an' such... but I do remember this song I heard somewhere a long time ago. The words... um... I think they went something like...
For patience has no end
When it comes to loving you
And I would wait a lifetime
To hold my love so true.
Honey, I want to show you how special you are to me. I never felt like this before with any woman. Oh sure, I guess I've fancied myself in love a time or two; you'll have heard the stories but... it was never like this. Never this feeling like I'd give everythin'; give my life if'n I had to. I know it. I guess what I'm saying is... I want to be your husband when we take that step together."
Jemimah nodded, overwhelmed that he felt so strongly for her. After all, it was what she had dreamed of for a long time. She could hardly expect him to be any less than himself now that they were so close to being joined together. This was wonderful; a dream come true and... it would be enough until the day came when they didn't have to wait any more.
So Jemimah told herself as they parted that night to go to their separate bedrolls - hers in the cabin by the fireside, his in the stable.
But, as the days went by and the excitement of another Lancer wedding approached, Jemimah found herself trying to entice Johnny into doing more. For her, what was the point of waiting? Not only that but she had been so long away from him; now she was home again and she knew he was about to be hers, she didn't want to wait. Not anymore. She knew she sounded petulant and maybe a little spoiled... but she couldn't help it.
He would kiss and cuddle with her but stuck rigidly to the idea of waiting for their wedding night to do anything more. He wanted to make it special for her and no quick fumble would suffice. He intended to make her first time sweet and loving so she would always remember it with affection and not disappointment. Each evening, as they walked together or sat looking at the stars as lovers have done since the world began, he would embrace her, kiss her but he held back so that it never became a passion he could not control. It was by no means easy for him and he retired to his room on more than one occasion, only to stomp down the stairs minutes later and dunk his head in the water trough to cool off. The little varmint seemed to have no idea how hard it was to keep to his vow and the stronger he was, the more she pushed him.
"Alright, honey, that's about all a man can take in public!" he gasped, terminating a particularly passionate kiss and setting her away from him. "I told you, the waiting will make it all the sweeter and our wedding night will be the stuff that dreams are made of."
She huffily rolled her eyes at this and kicked at a stone, flouncing her skirts in pique. "I'm not a romanticising little girl, Johnny!" she insisted moodily. "I just want you to take me."
"Hey! What kinda talk is that?" Johnny felt somewhat shocked at her and attempted to explain, yet again, that he intended to do exactly that when they were married, that she was going to be his wife and wasn't just anyone; she was special.
While she was warmed by his declaration and loved him for the fact that he had put her on that pedestal, Jemimah just ached to have him make her into a woman at last. It was aggravating beyond belief to have him there - so near and yet so far! She was ready. She was grown. Surely he could see that she knew her own mind about this?
When everyone had gone to bed, she sneaked downstairs in her nightgown and turned to Murdoch's best single malt, helping herself to a few good belts and managing to get drunk for the first time ever. When she finally made it back to bed, hiccupping and stumbling most of the way, she collapsed in a heap on top of the covers. Through the haze of the whisky, it seemed possible to stop caring about Johnny; even to meet someone else. Alfie always seemed to have his eye on her and he was only about five years older. She smirked drunkenly and felt better already! Of course, the euphoria soon vanished the next morning when it was her turn to make the eggs for breakfast.
Johnny's arms were holding her, his lips against her cheek, soft Spanish words whispered against her hair. Jemimah quivered, a delicious little thrill prancing up her spine as his warm breath brushed her ear.
Johnny felt her hand begin to slide along his leg. It had been lying innocently on his knee but now her fingers were steadily creeping along his thigh... higher... higher. When he felt her touch, gently but determinedly, arrive at the point where he knew he would not be able to stick to his resolve, he eased back and grinned at her. Thwarted again, her exasperation was extreme.
"Those green eyes are on fire, chica. You're mad at me!" He sniggered when she shook her head. She was not very convincing. "Oh yeh, you sure are mad. Your eyes always looked brighter when you lost her temper when you were a kid."
Jemimah sulked, her arms folded huffily and not in the least enjoying being reminded of such things. But then her eyes glinted wickedly.
"You sure my eyes are green, Johnny?" She stood up and sauntered casually away from him, a provocative sway to her hips.
His head tilted on one side. What was the little devil up to now? "Sure I'm sure."
"Hmmm, Alfie in the bunkhouse said the other day that he thought they were a kind of hazel."
Johnny watched her lean against the tree and his blue eyes narrowed. "Alfie? You better stay away from Alfie, chica. An' are you tryin' to tell me you were in the bunkhouse? I sure hope not!" He clicked his tongue disapprovingly. "Honey, you know me; I don't take too kindly to bein' tested. You keep it up an' some kind of reckonin' will be edging closer!" He shook his finger at her playfully but his blue eyes watched her.
She shrugged. "Maybe you should edge a little closer, Johnny - get a good look?"
He knew perfectly well what she was up to but decided to play along. Little devil! As much as she needed kissing thoroughly, she needed her behind warming! He couldn't decide which would do her the most good!
Johnny stepped closer and pressed her back against the tree. Her eyes widened and she gasped at his firm touch on her bare arms then, green eyes glinting deviously, she trailed a fingertip down his blue shirtfront and flicked a button undone.. then another.. and another. She reached her hand inside his shirt and touched the crisp hair on his chest, roaming across until she found his nipple. Delighting in his sharp intake of breath, her fingers stroked him there and she marvelled at how the tiny button of flesh hardened at her touch, just as a woman's would.
Thinking she was in control, the sudden heat in his eyes took her by surprise and she flushed in confusion. Johnny smiled knowingly - his little darling was nowhere near as ready as she liked to believe and he was well aware that his proximity to her was affecting her in ways she couldn't comprehend ... yet. He was looking forward to teaching her all about it but, not yet, not now. Right now, his little varmint needed a lesson...
He cruelly added to her confusion by tracing a fingertip lightly over her parted lips then down along her jaw line, over her throat and along her collarbone, his blue eyes holding hers in his thrall.
"Y'know, honey..." he murmured as she gasped. "I'm gonna have to start makin' you pay for this kind of behaviour..."
Eyes twinkling, he smiled.
She gazed up at him through her thick black lashes. "Oh? And what is my penalty to be then, Mr Lancer?" Take me to bed, Johnny! Take me to bed, right here, right now! Her silent plea was easy to read in her eyes; in the way her body quivered at his touch.
Not looking away from her and fully aware of her fingers trailing over his chest... and that he was rock-hard, Johnny chewed his lip and pretended to consider her question. "I'll have to give it some thought. Maybe this..."
He leaned in closer and gently kissed her on the lips, still tingling from his touch. Her eyes closed as the kiss deepened but, all too soon, he pulled back, leaving her breathless.
"Or... maybe this!"
Jemimah opened her eyes wide in alarm when he twisted her around, pressing her up against the tree and holding his outstretched palm in readiness to land a smack on her vulnerable behind. She squeaked and desperately shielded her rump as he continued to look deep into her eyes.
"Nope, I'll tell Alfie - they're definitely green!" He winked and, grinning down at her, strode off.
Gradually, even the rest of the family became aware of the mounting tension between Johnny and Jemimah. No, they had not argued, Teresa had assured Murdoch; they still could be caught kissing and canoodling like the most ardent lovers. The big man had grunted. He knew something was amiss. Johnny pushed himself hard all day as though... if he didn't know better, Murdoch would have said that the boy was trying to work off an excess of nervous energy. And Jemimah? Maria reported that she had a healthy appetite and was throwing herself into the preparations for the upcoming nuptials with gusto. Still, things were... unsettled.
Murdoch took to setting little extra tasks for the girl - things that he considered might calm her nerves. Today, he had a couple of letters he required to be written; routine ranch business - simple replies to two of his longstanding customers. She made no complaint when he asked if she would be kind enough to help out and Murdoch left her with the feeling that he had done well to find such a banal, soothing task. This kind of thing could be just what was needed. Quite obviously, all the excitement of the wedding was getting to the child.
A half hour later, she was still busy and Murdoch, wishing to reward her diligence, urged Johnny to take her a cup of tea before he went to the bath house.
So it was that, sweaty and hot, with his shirt unbuttoned to an almost indecent degree, he now stood in front of her, smiling and proffering the china cup.
Her eyes focused on a button halfway down his red shirt-front. She flushed as she fantasised about undoing it and sliding her hand inside. In that split-second, she remembered the feel of his skin - taut, firm, silky beneath his chest hair. She felt a hot flare of sensation low in her body. Johnny sat on the edge of the desk to glance at her neat penmanship and now she found herself studying the way the front of his calzoneras bunched and pouched. What would he do if she slipped her hand in and inched down...? Again, her skin prickled. Forcing her eyes upwards to his face, she swallowed, dry-mouthed. He was smiling at her as he always did but somehow it wasn't the same. There was an intensity in his eyes. Less brotherly-teasing, more the tension and breathless smouldering of a lover.
From his chair on the porch, Murdoch watched his son march quickly to the bath house. His face was grim, his lips firmed into a thin line. Murdoch moved inside and was dismayed to see Jemimah stomping towards the kitchen and giving the door a surly kick as she went through.
What in heaven's name was the matter with these two? They seemed as much in love as ever but they sure weren't happy about it.
It was late in September, two nights before their wedding, when Johnny drove Jemimah in the little buckboard he had first used to fetch her from the stage all those years before. He headed out to the water hole. It had become their special place and an afternoon picnic would be just the thing to calm both of them. He knew, with all the plans and preparations for the big day, they were both strung out. But it was more than that. Maybe he had been foolish to insist that they wait for the wedding night. It had sure cost him far more than she guessed and, more than once, he had cursed his own stupidity at trying to do the decent thing when she was so evidently hell-bent on persuading him to relieve her of her virginity.
And now, even this pleasant afternoon seemed spoiled. Maybe they were just too on edge and itchy to relax and be alone with each other. She had hardly said a word and seemed stiff and prickly with him, no matter what he said or did.
Johnny made a move towards the water, releasing a sharp sigh. He moodily tossed a stone out across the surface where the sun sparkled its myriad diamond lights and Jemimah bowed her head in exasperation. Though she remained still and silent, she willed him with every part of her being; trying to reach him; to make him understand. He paused and looked over his shoulder at her.
"Please, Johnny," she begged silently. "Come to me."
With an impatient sigh, he turned, hands on hips. He looked anything but pleased as he started to wade through the tall grasses towards her.
A soft smile playing about her lips and a victorious gleam in her green eyes, Jemimah turned away from him, once again watching the gently rippling fronds of the willow tree.
She did not have to turn to know that he stood behind her; she could hear his breathing and smell his unmistakable scent - an earthy man-smell mixed with leather, horses, the freshness of the air and something sharp and citrusy. She slowly breathed him in, her eyes closed, her very skin hot and sensitive.
Her eyes opened when she felt his fingertips move aside the long dark curtain of her hair, his warm skin brushing oh so lightly on the nape of her neck.
"You've always had such beautiful hair."
His words and the soft sensation of his breath on her neck caused the fine hairs there to rise and her cheeks to flush, the warmth spreading suddenly down her chest, turning her nipples into hard little buds. The ache was confusing - not pain but something more - a want, a need. She yearned for him to touch her there and the deliciously wicked thought caused her knees to turn to jelly and a strange rush of warmth twisted deep and low in her body.
"So soft like silk," he murmured, now so close behind her that the thrill of his nearness danced down her spine. She felt her skirts rustle against the backs of her legs as he moved closer to her. Another spasm of pleasure knifed her lower belly and she drew in a sharp breath. In her mind, she could see his face, his beautiful blue eyes, as he looked at her but it was not enough and now was the time. She wanted, no, she needed his touch and, this time, he would not be strong or decent; this time he would not pull away.
Turning slowly, she looked up into his eyes. They were so close that she could see each individual black eyelash. She waited, willing him to touch her, begging him with everything but words to make her his. But it was as though he had frozen. His hands were lowered to his sides and his eyes - Jemimah thought she detected anger there.
She could hardly restrain herself. She knew that, if he did not hold her, she would throw herself on him like some wanton harlot from the saloon. But still he did nothing. He seemed to be holding himself rigidly away from her, almost not breathing. Jemimah's mood changed and suddenly she was more angry with him than she had ever been with anyone in her life.
She wanted to slap him, to feel her hand striking his handsome face. She needed to hurl herself bodily at him, scratching and even biting, tearing his white shirt so that she could rake her nails across his chest. Right at her eye level, the deep vee of skin, covered with the dark crisply-curling hair there, taunted her.
She was furious now; completely in a temper. He had fuelled the fire, caused her to have these feelings; feelings she could neither control or understand. Always had she loved him ... but this? This was different; this was more. And, having caused these waves of stirring passion, an emotion such as she had never encountered before, to flow through her, he was determined to hold her at a distance? To lead her on then leave her wanting? Jemimah glared at him. She wanted to hurt him; to make him suffer as he made her suffer. Why did he not feel the same burning need that she did? How could he be so cold? Her anger soared and yet, simultaneously, she wanted nothing more than to kiss his soft gentle lips and have him scoop her into his arms as though he would never let her go.
"I know why you don't take me, Johnny Lancer," she spat, the emerald fire of temper glinting in her eyes as she looked up at him. "You've spent so long screwing those... those... tarts in the saloon that you don't know what it is to have a real woman, a decent woman!"
Instantly, shock and hurt warred in his eyes. She was glad she had hurt him, glad! ... but, at the same time, all she wanted to do was fall on her knees and beg his forgiveness.
His eyes were lit now with a cold blue fury. Despite herself, Jemimah took a faltering step back.
"A decent woman?" he growled. "I wish I could say that you are a woman, chica, but you're still just a spoiled little brat who would do well to learn some manners and grow up!"
He turned to go but had only taken one step when she threw herself on him.
"You bastard!" she shrieked and, fingers curled into claws, she raked at his face as he turned, knowing before she did so that he would be too quick for her; knowing that he would catch hold of her and she would have forced him to touch her.
Once he had her wrists gripped, she pushed against him with all her strength, sending him stumbling backwards, shock again on his face. The little varmint... Dios! She was a lot stronger than he remembered and feistier too. It used to be easy to quell any temper tantrums but, in this mood, the little firebrand wouldn't be so easy to deal with.
Jemimah seethed. Twisting in his grasp, she hooked his right ankle with her foot and leaned back hard in the opposite direction this time. Suddenly, they fell together, backwards into the long waving grass. Thinking quickly, Johnny freed her wrists so that he could use his hands to cushion their fall and so that, as his body landed on top of hers, he did not harm her.
Still she did not cease her attack, scratching and smacking at him. When he managed to pin one wrist, she turned her head and sank her sharp little teeth into his hand, in the soft skin between finger and thumb. She hung on, hoping she had broken the skin. As close as this, she saw the anger flare in his eyes and, rather than feeling any fear, she gloried in it.
He yelled and raised his upper body so that he could free his hand from her bite. Then he caught her flying fists and pinned both her wrists together above her head with one strong right hand.
Thus immobilised, Jemimah only had her legs left with which to fight him. She bucked under him like a green-broke pony, wriggling hard in her efforts to jam a knee into that tender area between his thighs. Her skirts were shoved up almost to her waist by her wild kicking, her drawers rucked high on her legs so that the creamy silken flesh above the tops of her stockings and the ribboned garters was exposed.
Her knee at last found its target. It connected with his groin, luckily not with any force behind it but enough for him to jerk away instinctively. He was hard there, very hard, and aching with need. He groaned and it was a raw animal sound. He didn't know if he truly had the strength to pull away from her as he had done so far, each time costing him more than she could possibly realise, but he began to lift himself away from her body, eyes now full of desire.
At his moan, the wildness of her fighting suddenly stilled. She raised her slim thigh and hooked it around him to draw his body back down to her and her little pink tongue darted out to wet lips which glistened and parted in a sigh.
As human as the next man and unable to hold back any longer, Johnny's hand released her wrists to trace down her body, In an instant, the buttons of her blouse were undone, the flimsy material cast aside, and his mouth laid claim to the hard rose-coloured tip of her breast even as the fingers of his left hand found and teased its twin.
As though attached by some invisible cord, Jemimah gasped at the fierce fire his gentle yet insistent touch caused to flame between her thighs. As if he could read her very thoughts, his hand trailed lower, over her ribs and down, until his fingers stroked her there - where her desire burned and pulsed for him, a wild and feverish thing. His touch traced heady little circles of delight through the glossy slippery silk of her drawers and it was Jemimah's turn to moan - a low throaty sound as waves of pleasure rippled through her.
Panting hoarsely, she felt him shift above her and she opened her eyes just in time to see his face lower to hers, kissing her, his tongue parting her lips so that it could slip inside her mouth, probing and searching, their breath mingling. Lost in bliss, she felt him lifting her hips to slide the filmy garment from her, his strong hands then cupping her naked buttocks, fingers kneading the supple flesh. Her thighs parted to allow him to ease himself between them.
All her anger had evaporated; she was soft, limbless, floating on a heavenly cloud, lost in her overpowering love for him.
"Oh, Johnny," she sighed. "Johnny, please."
Immediately, he reeled back as though she had slapped him again, the sound of her voice bringing him back to reality. He wanted her, yes, of course he did... but he could not do this to her, not like this... this dishonourable way. He wasn't an animal, even as Madrid he had known better self-control. And he had not been Madrid for many years now. He was Johnny Lancer. Fleeting guilty images of his father and brother came unbidden into his brain and, as though in a fever, he shook his head to clear his thoughts, pulling away from her.
"No, not like this, sweetheart," he gasped. "It shouldn't be like this; not for you. You deserve so much more. I want to make it so special for you. When we're married..."
He tried then to roll away from her but her reaction was instinctive; to be deprived of him now, at this moment, was more than she could bear. In an instant, her mood changed from one of a woman intoxicated with heady sweet love to that of a snarling angry mountain lion. She reached back and swung her arm so that, this time, her open palm slapped his cheek with a resounding crack.
"Go to your tarts in the saloon then!"
She attempted to hit him again but, now he was ready for her. Her fight had returned full-strength so that he had to pin her down with the length of his body.
"There's somethin' wrong with you!" she screamed. "What kind of man would... you really are all the things they say you are -" She searched for some insult; something that would hit the mark, something that would really hurt him. "Gutless, yellow, low-down, cowardly... lower than a snake... MADRID!"
This time, when his anger flared, it far surpassed hers. How dare she speak to him like that?
"Damn it, Jemimah! I oughtta...." He clutched at her, pressing her down into the grass, vainly trying to push back the knees that jerked up to hit him.
"You ought to what?" she yelled.
"Don't you ever dare..." he yelled back.
She was almost crying now, shaking as she suppressed the sobs and bucking against the weight of his body upon her, his hold on her. "At least I do dare, you spineless shit! You don't love me enough to dare...you don't love me..."
Her violent cry was cut off suddenly as she gasped aloud, feeling his hard length press into her and drive deep. Her next cry was very different - that of wonder, desire and... triumph. Joined together at last, she felt him invade that most intimate of secret places, stretching and filling her over and over. Her whole body tried to wrap itself around him, drawing him deeper into her, wanting to keep him there and, all the time, she purred throatily, whispering to him.
"Oh Johnny, my Johnny, oh yes."
Nothing before had ever matched the wild abandoned passion of that union; not for either of them. After the first quick rush of shame, the immediate fear that he might have hurt her, Johnny began to allow himself to relax; to rejoice in the moment; to understand that there was nothing, never had been anything else, as wonderful as the feeling - the utter mad feeling - that flowed from his body to hers. She was right - this was love. This was something as new and undiscovered to him as it was to her. Johnny had been with women before, of course, but he had not known what it was to join with the one woman who meant everything. In that, he was as much a virgin as Jemimah.
Their feverish movements slowed and he laughed out loud in surprise when she rolled so that she was now above him. She was smiling as though she had won a game and he smiled back.
Afterwards, they lay together in the long grass, entwined in each other's arms. Breathless. Uncertain. He sighed.
"Looks like you got your own way again, didn't you?"
She smirked smugly like the cat that got the cream and snuggled her nakedness up against him. "You shouldn't think of it that way; we both enjoyed it, didn't we?"
Johnny sat up uneasily and, alarmed, she joined him.
"Johnny, you're not... you're not sorry, are you?"
He looked back at her over his shoulder, taking in the worried little face, the fearful eyes. He smoothed her hair and, smiling almost sadly, shook his tousled head. "No, I ain't sorry. I love you. How could I be sorry that we now belong to each other?"
"Then, what is it?" Her voice was small, afraid.
He avoided her eyes and shrugged. "It's... it's nothing."
"Didn't I... didn't I do it right?" Jemimah's voice was a mere croak, her throat thick with tears.
"Right? Lord, you were... I never expected you to... to be so..." He clammed up, unsure how to express it and not wanting to hurt her with a clumsy word.
She watched him. He was... puzzled; almost hurt. Her face registered her shock as she realised what he meant; she had been so... so enthusiastic that he was wondering how she had known what to do.
"It was Trudy!"
"Trudy taught me. She told me what I should do!"
"Trudy told you to...?"
"Yes! I asked her to tell me. I wanted to make sure I could be a good wife in every way. Did she not tell me right? I wasn't too... Johnny, I just wanted to please you! Don't say I done it wrong!"
He tugged her to him, astounded by her revelation but immensely relieved. He had expected a little nervousness at least but she had been with him every step of the way; occasionally ahead of him and when she had moved to... he sure hadn't expected that! It had unnerved him.
"I just wanted to please you," she repeated quietly, her voice dull with disappointment and humiliation.
"Honey, you did please me. But I'd kinda hoped... I mean... it ain't all about me. A man wants..." He looked earnestly down at her. "I want this to be a dance we do together. It's not about you pleasin' me. An' don't get me wrong, you sure did! But I want to please you too. This is somethin' you an' me can only learn together... in time. It's not somethin' you can learn like in school."
She was close to tears. "So, I didn't do it right after all. Trudy said the only real way was to find out together."
Johnny chuckled softly and stroked a finger down her shoulder. "She was a wise lady. Together - it's the only way. It's gonna take practice. We gotta take it slow." His blue eyes followed the path his finger had traced down her shoulder, her throat, her beautiful body, so healthy and vigorous. "We got the rest of our lives to work on it. Here, let me show you what I mean."
He kissed her and eased her back into the soft grass...
The second time was far slower; less urgent and frantic and, for Jemimah, an utter revelation. Slow, languid - something as soul-deep as the love they had for each other; as sweet and fulfilling as they had each yearned for their whole lives. Johnny made love to her, coaxing her along with him and finally giving her body its first experience of true ecstasy. A sensation so exquisite that she felt she may never come down to earth again.
He leaned over her, smiling softly, well aware that he had just given her her first climax.
"Oh Johnny, I think I flew up all the way to heaven. I swear... I reached the stars!"
Johnny smiled down at her exhausted dreamy expression. "I reckon we could touch all of those stars one by one... together."
Their wedding day dawned on a mild Saturday at the end of September when the air was still mellow and soft and the trees were almost ready to turn.
That morning was a whirl of excitement for Jemimah. A seemingly endless procession of ladies trooped in and out of her room -
Maria, insisting that she have rose petals in her bath water and threatening to heave Jemimah out by the ear if she did not get a move on; Teresa yet again wafting the satin corset under her nose in an effort to persuade her that no decent lady would ever attend her own wedding without one underneath her gown (Jemimah had promised she would wear it and then had thrown it out of the window as soon as Teresa went away again. It now reposed in a tree in the yard, flapping gently in the breeze.) Pony, naturally her bridesmaid, lay sniggering on the bed now, still dressed in her overalls and chomping away at a jam tart while Jemimah, in her underwear, was perched by her dressing table, trying to fix her garters so that her new silk stockings didn't roll down.
"Where's Johnny?" Pony asked, her legs in the air and twiddling her bare toes.
"He said he'd got sumthin' to do; sumthin' about where we're goin' tonight!"
Both girls eyed each other and cracked up into excited giggles.
"Ooh, you reckon it's sumthin' to do with... y'know..." Pony clapped her hand over her mouth to stifle her laughter, her blue eyes wide and teasing.
Jemimah shrugged. "Maybe. But, I ain't worried."
"Yes, you are!"
"You are! Every bride's afeared of her weddin' night." She narrowed her eyes. "You are too!"
Jemimah shook her head with a superior twinkle. "Not me. We've already done it!"
Pony's mouth dropped open. Quick as a flash, she was off the bed and crouched at Jemimah's side, sweeping back her long silvery blonde hair and gaping at her friend. "You never!"
"We have I tell you. Last night an' the day before. First time was by the water hole."
"We did! Honest!"
Pony blinked as she processed this knowledge. Then, a slow grin spread across her face. "What's it like?"
Jemimah smiled. "You'll see."
"Aw, you cain't do that! Don't lay that on me an' then clam up. That ain't fair!" She joined in Jemimah's laughter but still pressed her. "Was it wonderful? Did it hurt? What did he do? Does Mr Murdoch know?" she gasped.
"No, he don't an' I ain't about to tell him neither!" Jemimah stood to step into the first petticoat and Pony moved to tie the laces behind her. "Pony, it was wonderful. It was. I don't half love him."
Pony smiled as she watched her friend slip the second petticoat over her head and smooth it down over her hips. "Yeah, that's how I feel about Enrique. I can't wait 'til we gets hitched at Christmas."
"Thank the lord, that's at least one weddin' I won't miss! I missed José an' Adelina... an' then Mateo an' Ramona... an' I missed Sofia's betrothal to that second cousin of hers. Huh, I still ain't convinced she even wants to marry him. She ain't clapped eyes on him since she were a baby. I bet she runs off before they get the ceremony planned. An' now I'm home, I'm gonna miss Ellie's weddin' next Easter."
Pony tugged sharply at the laces of the third petticoat, a twinge of jealousy spiking her temper. She had heard far too much about this Ellie creature and she didn't seem like a fitting friend for Jemimah - far too pampered and primped like one of those little fluffy dogs that rich, fat, old ladies carry about with them 'cos they're too darned spoiled and lazy to walk!
"Well, you're gonna be there for mine an' that's all that concerns me! Cip said Enrique had to be eighteen like his brothers before him an' so Christmas it is. I can't wait!"
"For the weddin'... or the weddin' night?" Jemimah grinned slyly and wiggled her dark eyebrows.
The two were descending into giggles again when Maria bustled in with Jemimah's gown and veil, Zee following behind her.
"Alice! You go now to get ready," Maria ordered, swiping at the little blonde's denim rump as she skipped obediently to the door. "Still dressed like a callejera (ragamuffin) and only a few hours before everyone will be arriving! Rápidamente, antes de que golpee su fondo! (Quickly, before I smack your behind!)"
When Pony had laughingly departed, Maria reverently held the ivory silk gown for Jemimah and slipped it over her head, the weighty swathes of rich material requiring Zee's assistance. Then the good lady carefully tied the laces which ran down the back, brushing occasionally at an emotional tear and scooping the fabric so that it lay evenly over the starched petticoats.
Zee joined her and, together, they unravelled the rags she had worn all night then looped and curled the long dark waves of Jemimah's hair, coaxing them into stunning fat ringlets which cascaded from a simple cluster of Baby's Breath and green ribbon at the back of her head. When the veil was pinned in place, both women stepped back, sighing with admiration and surreptitiously reaching for handkerchiefs to dab at moist eyes.
Jemimah herself had to swallow hard. She gazed at her reflection in the cheval mirror as Maria kneeled to fasten the cream kid boots with a buttoner. She hardly recognised herself. Yes, the gown was beautiful; simple but stunning in its purity. Jemimah blushed and was thankful that no-one knew how she had lost the right to wear white! Mind, it wasn't white; it was cream so she wasn't going to think on that anymore! She embraced Maria warmly, reaching out a grateful hand to Zee.
A sudden tap at the door had the little housekeeper trotting across to investigate then, with a smile for the girl, she ushered Zee out and Murdoch stepped in.
He lingered by the door. He had been intending to tease his daughter; perhaps joke that he was expecting to find her in the tatty old overalls, even on her wedding day. But the sight before him took his breath away and all attempts at teasing were whisked from his mind.
Murdoch was not a man given to effusive displays of sentiment; such things embarrassed him. But he now made no attempt to hide the tears which filled his eyes nor the slight tremble to his lower lip.
"Darling." His voice was a hoarse croak. "You're... simply beautiful. Oh... my dear." His voice cracked then and all he could do was open his arms.
She stepped willingly into them, nestling against the soft smooth material of his fancy waistcoat. "Daddy."
His strong arms closed about her and, his chin lightly resting on the crown of her head, he unashamedly allowed a few tears to trickle down his weathered cheeks.
"Oh, this'll never do. I'm gettin' your waistcoat all wet!" she sniffed and stepped back. Their eyes met and they laughed self-consciously, the emotion of the moment making them feel uncertain with each other.
Murdoch mopped his face with a large white handkerchief then chuckled when she begged it from him to dab at her own eyes.
"Now, perhaps we should sit down, eh? I have something for you." He lowered his bulk into the bedside chair while Jemimah carefully spread her skirts across the bed, rustling as she sat down.
"You don't have to give me owt!" she was saying but her eyes were already shining eagerly and she fairly bounced on the bed when he produced an old leather pouch from his vest pocket.
Murdoch grinned. She was like a child on Christmas morning! He loosened the pouch and tipped its contents into the palm of his big hand. Then, carefully, he held it up for her to see.
"Oh, but it's like the earrings you gave me. See!" Jemimah swept the veil aside so that he could see the tiny gold and garnet rings in her ears.
"Yes, but I didn't actually buy these for you." He gently held the necklace up so that the sunlight from the window caught the cluster of garnets and made them gleam like a heart aflame. "They were meant for your mother."
Jemimah went very still.
"I had planned to give them to her when she joined me at the docks that day."
"The day you sailed for America?"
"Yes. I never had the chance though. It wasn't Rose who came; it was Andrew, your father."
Jemimah swallowed and reached out her hand to him.
"Rose had sent him with a message for me. She said she couldn't bring herself to leave. Said it was my dream, not hers." Murdoch's eyes were far away; he was no longer in the room but standing lost and alone on that windy quay so long ago. He smiled but it was bleak and Jemimah felt for him and the pain he must have gone through. "I suppose she was right. I could have stayed but... I had that lust to travel, to see this land and grasp all the opportunities it had to offer." He seemed to focus again, coming back to reality. "Anyway, she said that as much as she loved me, and I should never doubt it, her heart would always be in her homeland. She sent Andrew with a parting gift..."
"The glass thistle... the Christmas tree thistle!"
"Yes, that's right. And now her daughter, Andrew's child, will truly be my daughter too. It's only right that you should get to wear the necklace. I could never have given it to anyone else."
Slowly, Jemimah stood and gently eased her hair and veil aside so he could fasten the clasp. The garnet cluster settled like a softly glowing heart against her smooth skin. Murdoch bent to kiss her cheek.
"Today, you'll be a Lancer at last, my dear, just as I always wanted you to be."
The wedding ceremony took place in the open air under the shade of the majestic oak trees just beyond the Lancer arch. Numbered among the guests were close family friends like Aggie Conway, Sam and Caroline Jenkins, Miss Florida and Val Crawford (who, for once, seemed to have been taken in hand as his clothes were clean and they actually fitted him!) All the hands and the house staff were present, the exotic colours of the Mexican ladies' outfits resembling vivid desert blooms in the golden sunshine. The whole atmosphere was relaxed and intimate; each guest made to feel like one of the family.
When Jemimah processed up the aisle (actually a makeshift path of matting) on her father's proud arm, the admiring oohs and aahs were tempered with chuckles at her eager little waves to everyone she recognised, her eyes darting around the gathered congregation.
Waiting at the front, with his brother standing tall and smiling beside him, Johnny only had eyes for one. What a vision of loveliness she was! And she was to be his... his forever! Johnny shook his head as though in a daze. He smoothed his bolero jacket and patted the collar of his crisp white shirt nervously, hoping he lived up to her expectations.
If Jemimah's face was anything to go by, he more than lived up to them! She took in the typically Spanish jacket, black with its flamboyant embroidery down the lapels; the matching calzoneras with shining silver conchos. And the white shirt which set off the dark shining hair and those eyes; those stunning blue eyes which simply made her melt. Murdoch almost had to yank her back, such was her eagerness to get to him.
When she at last stood by his side and passed back her bouquet of simple pink roses to Pony, Johnny broke with convention by lifting her veil to gently kiss his bride.
"Johnny," Scott hissed. "You're supposed to wait until after the ceremony!"
A ripple of delighted laughter spread through the crowd. Even the widow Hargis smiled.
Their love was so obvious to all there that it infected everyone. For years after, it would be talked of as not only the most unusual but the most romantic wedding in the St. Joaquin.
When the priest finally announced them man and wife and turned to inform Johnny that he could now kiss his bride, the young man grinned.
"Ya es hora!" he muttered and took her in his arms. (It's about time!)
The crowd applauded wildly. Val promptly stuck his fingers in his mouth and whistled loud and long. Zee and Pony immediately began flinging fistfuls of rice and flower petals at the happy couple, Murdoch, Scott and just about anyone else within aim.
The wedding breakfast was a veritable feast, laid out on long tables outside the hacienda. The guests were loaded into wagons piled high with fresh straw though some enjoyed the walk back to the house. Jemimah, Johnny and a few of the hands had rigged up simple fairground rides like boat swings and pony rides for the children. There was a hog roasting on a spit at one side of the barn, presided over by Jelly who took his duty very seriously. Glass dishes of ice-cream were handed out by the dozen along with tall glasses of pink lemonade, cool crisp white wine or fruity potent punch that, Scott decreed, had a kick like old Reuben the donkey!
It was tremendous fun, the happy couple (constantly arm in arm or holding hands)moving freely among their guests and chatting easily in Spanish one minute then in English. When dusk started to fall and the hectic whirl of the day had slowed, Johnny took his new wife in his arms and danced the first dance of the evening. Walt and Arnie again performed the honours on guitar and fiddle.
Jemimah had rested her head against Johnny's shoulder but, hearing the soft music, she perked up, looking into his smiling eyes.
He nodded, his warm blue gaze drinking her in. "Down by the Glenside. That right? We danced to this on my birthday. You had a broken arm an' I had to carry you."
"I didn't think you remembered."
"What? You in my arms? How could I forget?" he murmured softly.
"Twas down by the glenside, I met an old woman
A pluckin' young nettles, she ne'er saw me comin'.
I listened a while to the song she was hummin'.
Glory O, glory o, to the bold Fenian men," she sang the first verse to him as they danced and was further shocked to see his eyes glisten with tears.
"Johnny, don't be sad! I couldn't bear it if you were sad today."
His arms tightened around her. "Little goose! Not sad. I'm happier than I've ever been in my whole life. I'm a man with a purpose, honey. I'm whole and it's taken a long time to get here."
He kissed her.
Under the velvety night sky, the light of a hundred gaily coloured lanterns spilling down from the trees and a pale blue satin corset waving in the branches above him, Murdoch handed Scott one of his best cigars and breathed in a contented lungful of the sweet night air.
"I have to say, sir, your wedding present to Johnny was inspired. He's been mooning over that stallion and mare ever since they arrived. I was half afraid he might forget to turn up to actually get married!" Scott raised his whisky glass in salute to the man by his side. "But it's more than that; asking him to really get started on that horse-breeding plan... I've never seen him with such purpose. He's already come up with a dozen ideas. He's really got the bit between his teeth now."
Murdoch nodded and sipped his drink. "The time is right. The beef market is thriving thanks to the demand from the reservations, the army and the gold fields. That side of the business is doing well and I know you're going to do a fine job of heading that up, son. Time is perfect for Johnny to spread his wings and put his money where his mouth is - he's always said he'd love to do it; now here's his chance."
Murdoch smiled softly as he remembered how his younger son had embraced him, saying he felt like his dreams had all come true at once. Murdoch couldn't be happier for him and much later that night, as he joined the throng to watch the newlyweds leave for their wedding night, he knew that both his sons had managed to make his own dreams come true as well.
Johnny drove the new buggy with its pair of dove grey horses - his wedding present to her - to their new home.
"Where we goin' now?"
"Home," he twinkled at her and moved his arm so that she could snuggle in by his side.
"Home? But ain't we goin' to stay at Lancer no more? I thought we'd be fixin' up a set of rooms like Scott an' Zee have done."
"Nope. We'll be close by but I wanted you to myself for a while," he ducked down to steal a kiss. "You don't mind, do you?"
"Mind? 'Course not but where we goin'? We're goin' the wrong way for the cabin at Mannock Ridge." She was puzzled. They were heading for the road to the Conway ranch and the only possible place out here was... "The Randall house!"
He turned the buggy smartly down the gravel path and around the side of the house, lifting her down and holding the freshly painted door open for her.
"I'll see to the horses while you look around."
Jemimah wandered in, gaping around her. It was so familiar and yet looked so different too. Someone, Johnny she guessed, had worked hard turning the old wreck of a house into a warm and comfortable home. So this was where he had kept disappearing to. She was amazed and so very glad he hadn't taken them to the cabin. Though it was the place he had proposed so beautifully, it would always remind her of Trudy and she desperately wanted their first home to be all about them; no-one else.
Suddenly he was there behind her, slipping his arms around her and pulling her gently back against the warmth of his body. His lips hovered by her neck, touching her skin with tiny butterfly kisses.
"I've been worried you might link this place with the time those robbers held you here. It is alright, isn't it?" Johnny's soft voice was laced with concern but she shook her head and turned to him, gently touching his dear face.
"I've always dreamed of living here with you. It's perfect."
And he showed her how perfect - Trudy's portrait hung in the parlour over the fireplace; a new range had been fitted in the kitchen, now scrupulously clean; the tapestried armchairs were there too with plump crocheted cushions from Teresa and rugs all over the repaired and polished floors made by all the ladies on the ranch. A big oak table (a gift from Aggie) stood in the kitchen; Trudy's fine china was all set out on the dresser. Jemimah admired it all and was so happy she could barely speak. Johnny checked and found that Maria had stocked the larder and left fresh rolls and bacon for breakfast in the morning.
"But Johnny, you've done all this for me an' the new buggy an' them beautiful horses. I ain't got anything for you. I hadn't realised I was supposed to."
With a mischievous grin, he suddenly scooped her up into his arms and carried her to the bottom of the stairs, nudging the door to the kitchen shut with his boot.
"I can think of something you can give me, Mrs Lancer."
"You feel like touching another star with me? I got one all picked out for us!"
Jemimah grinned and told him to put her down; she could walk upstairs perfectly well by herself. But Johnny merely smiled.
"I don't feel like lettin' go of you yet."
He manfully strode upstairs with her in his arms and laid her on the big cherub bed, now decked out with new fresh white linen (Maria had nearly had conniptions when he had suggested the fuchsia pink silk and the tassels).
A million stars twinkled down on the Randall place, no longer a deserted shell of a house but filled with love and laughter and dreams - everything a home was meant to be.
Anne Haslam June 2014