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
Teresa slammed the dough down onto the counter, her teeth gritted together and a half-strangled ooh of exasperation making the other ladies turn questioning eyes on her.
"What's up with you?" Jemimah folded her arms almost pettishly, ready for a fight if need be. "Go on, spit it out! I can tell you're itching to have a go at me - you've practically got steam comin' out of your ears!" She rudely rolled her eyes. "Huh, what else is new?" she muttered but loudly enough to be heard.
Teresa emitted a sharp sigh and, turning, she brushed a floury hand across her brow to sweep a loose wisp of hair from her eyes. She looked hot, tired and thoroughly fed up.
"Alright, I'll tell you what's up with me," she was clearly doing her level best to stay calm. "You!"
"Me? What have I done?"
"Nothing! Nothing Jemimah... and that's just the point!"
Jemimah curled her lip and stuffed her hands sulkily into the pockets of her overalls. "Dunno what you're on about."
"What I'm on about is the way you behave. You're here almost every day and I have no problem with that. But you do nothing; even less than you did when you lived here. You swan about making a mess in every room..."
Jemimah scowled but had the grace to blush. Maybe she had been a little untidy, that might be true.
Teresa was warming to her task. "You eat us out of house and home. Oh yes, you do!" She jumped in as Jemimah opened her mouth to argue. "All the churros are gone that Maria baked this morning and at least quarter of the cake I'd just iced for dinner tonight!"
Maria gasped; she obviously had known nothing of this. Jemimah fidgeted and sidled out of her reach.
"Lord knows what you're feeding Johnny because I know for a fact you haven't cooked anything for over a week!"
"No, you've served up leftovers and warmed up stews that we made here. The poor man hasn't had fresh meat to get his teeth into for days!"
"Ay, debe tener buen cuidado de su marido, tú lo sabes! (You must take good care of your husband, you know this!)" Maria scolded, shaking her finger in rebuke.
Jemimah hesitated but the need to defend herself was greater than the need to protect her friend.
"It wasn't just me ate the churros and cake; Zee had a good go at 'em too, y'know!"
The brunette gasped and threw Jemimah a reproachful look. "You leave me out of this. Besides I only had one... or two..."
"And the rest!" Now she had dragged her into the murky waters, Jemimah had no qualms about how deeply Zee might sink.
"Never mind Zee; she lives here!"
"Oh, that's charming! So, what am I? A visitor? I got no rights here anymore, is that what you're sayin'?"
"Not at all but with those rights come responsibilities. You can't have it all your own way. Help out here instead of lazing about or disappearing to go out riding and who knows what. And, instead of hatching silly plots to steal your own husband's horses or sneaking off to go practice your fast draw... oh yes, don't think I don't know all about that!" Teresa recognised the guilty look. "And I know Johnny asked you never to touch that gun without him there so you're disobeying him into the bargain. It's time you grew up, Jemimah Day! When I was your age, I was running this hacienda for Murdoch...."
"It's Jemimah Lancer, thank you, Miss O' Brien!" the younger girl indignantly drew herself up to her full height of five foot two. "And as for running the hacienda at seventeen - you had a lot of help from Maria..."
"Yes, I did, thank goodness," Teresa acknowledged the little Mexican housekeeper with a grateful smile then she turned her glare back to Jemimah. "It's fortunate I didn't have to rely on you or this place would have crumbled around our ears!"
She suddenly bit her tongue. Perhaps she felt she had already said enough or had been on the verge of saying something she might regret. With an impatient shake of her head, she turned back to the abandoned dough and began to pummel it aggressively. Everyone there knew perfectly well that she was imagining it to be Jemimah.
The young girl lingered just long enough to display how childish she still could be by rudely putting her tongue out at Teresa's back.
"Chica traviesa! (Naughty girl!)" Maria hissed, looking about the nearby table top for her handy wooden spoon.
"I'm goin' out!" Jemimah raced for the door to the great room and had gone before Maria could locate her weapon of choice.
Zee carried the empty coffee pot to the sink. "Where do you reckon she's goin'?"
Teresa shook her head in despair. "Same place she's gone every day for the last three days - out to Johnny's practice place. If he catches her..."
"He won't be happy and she knows that very well. Johnny's pretty easy on her; always has been, but if he gets really riled... well, let's just say she'll catch it. He doesn't take kindly to being lied to and I can't say I blame him. She's behaving more like a child every day. It's time somebody told her what's what."
"I think somebody just did, Teresa girl."
Zee gave her a smile and swilled the hot water around the pot to rinse it.
Two hands suddenly clamped over Maria's eyes and she squawked in surprise, flapping her arms in a panic to be free. As she turned, the hands removed themselves and the gleeful grin she knew so well danced before her as she blinked owlishly.
"Eres un niño malo! (You're a wicked boy!)" she flicked the lethal spoon in the direction of his retreating rear, causing him to whoop and spin with a flourish, rather like a Spanish bullfighter.
She pursued him, her efforts to catch him and maintain her affronted scowl failing miserably. By the time she had trotted around the table after him (and was still no closer to gaining on his dancing figure), she was chortling and her dark eyes shone with merriment. She paused for breath, sinking down into a chair, while Johnny laughed and sneaked a morsel of chicken from the roasted bird on the table.
Maria shook her spoon in his direction. "You still are bad," she admonished. "It is no wonder your wife cannot behave herself when she has this example to follow."
Johnny immediately straightened, curiosity on his face and his blue eyes crinkling in concern.
"Jemimah?" He planted his hands on his hips and chewed at the inside of his lip, not sure he wanted to hear the full story. "What did she do now? She upset Murdoch?"
Maria shook her head. "No, no, it is nothing."
She rose from the chair and headed back to the stove to stir the sauce she had left simmering.
"Hey, come on. If Jemimah's been steppin' on your toes, Mamacita..."
"Not my toes."
Johnny dipped his head to peer at the little woman's face. "Who then? What's she done?"
It was clear that Maria had clammed up and would say no more. Johnny glanced over at Zee who was sprinkling a dusting of fine white sugar over a sumptuous-looking pie. His mouth watered but he kept his mind on the subject at hand.
"I don't know anythin' about it," she smiled serenely. "Don't ask me."
Johnny flashed her a look but refrained from accusing her of covering up for his wife. He shrugged, hands spread in supplication.
"Well, isn't anybody goin' to tell me? I can hardly talk to her or set her straight if I don't know what she's done." He shook his head. They were going to tell him nothing. "Where is she anyway?"
At that moment, Teresa stepped in from the kitchen garden, her apron holding a clutch of freshly pulled carrots. "Where's who? Jemimah? Well, you might guess she wouldn't be here if there's work to be done!"
Johnny wasn't happy at the inference but merely asked his question again. "So where is she?"
Teresa was silent for a moment, well aware that all three were looking at her now. She firmed her lips mutinously and lifted her chin. "You might try riding up to Jeremiah's Pass," she blurted, ignoring the accusing looks which were directed at her from Maria and Zee. "But be sure to keep your head down; she's still practising."
"Practising!" Johnny almost growled the word.
Jeremiah's Pass was the place he had used for years to practice his shooting. He had taken Jemimah there once after promising to teach her to handle a pistol. But - his mouth settled into a grim determined line, blue eyes glinting - she had been told never to use the gun without him there to watch her. She knew darn well that it was dangerous, especially for a novice. A bullet could ricochet or she could clumsily pull the trigger before she'd taken a proper grip on the gun or made her aim or... there were a hundred reasons he didn't want her up there with a gun... alone... without him.
He snatched up his hat from the table and smacked it against his thigh, flexing the fingers of his left hand in his agitation. He made to leave.
"You look kinda put-out there, Johnny," Zee observed. "Whatcha gonna do?"
Johnny looked at her and slapped his hat back on. "I think young Mrs Lancer will benefit from a little husbandly guidance! Time I had words with that little lady - high time!"
As he strode out, Zee turned to Teresa. "Now what do you suppose he means by that?"
Teresa bit her lip, uncertainty in her eyes as she hesitated. Then she shrugged with feigned indifference. "Exactly what she deserves. It's not my fault. Did Scott never tell you what Johnny means when he says he's going to 'have words' with Jemimah?"
Zee put down the sugar dredger and gazed at the door which had swung shut behind him, worry for her little friend etched on her face.
The sound of gunfire could easily be heard long before Johnny reached the sheltered spot where he came to practice. He couldn't make out the sound of smashing glass though which told him that his wife wasn't hitting many of her targets. As he drew nearer, another sound confirmed this - Jemimah's frustrated cussing.
Johnny rode Barranca up and around the back of her so that he was well out of the firing line where he could observe her unseen. Slipping silently down from his horse, he crabbed to the edge of the rocks, keeping low. From this vantage point ten feet above her, he could watch every move.
Johnny crouched there, his hat pulled low to shield his eyes from the sun's glare and his mouth firmed into a furious line. She had set up another row of bottles and jars and was sauntering back towards him. Hidden in the bushes, Johnny narrowed his eyes, watching her jaunty little walk and his whole body thrumming with anger. He knew perfectly well that her gun was empty; he had instinctively counted the shots and she had not made her reload.
Having reached her spot, she turned to look at the six bottles, glinting brightly in the winter sun. She slid the pistol into the holster that she wore slung low on her slender hips. The gun was heavy and Johnny could see at a glance that the weight of it was dragging the holster down too far on her right; she had not tightened the belt sufficiently. He clicked his tongue in exasperation. Now she was readying herself, following her little ritual. Johnny couldn't prevent the smirk at her little dance; the way she jiggled her bottom from side to side like an eager puppy while she steadied her breathing. As she stilled, however, his thoughts turned to what he'd like to do to that bottom.
The seconds ticked by. Then, with a speed that took Johnny by surprise, she drew the gun and, crouching slightly, brought it up to aim, smoothly cocking the hammer in one fluid movement. Johnny whistled out a slow breath, somewhat impressed by the speed and smoothness of her draw. Considering she had only handled a gun once before - or had she? How many times had she sneaked up here to practice alone? Something else to quiz her about! She made to fire but obviously the gun was empty and he saw her shoulders hunch, momentarily confused at the click of the hammer on the empty chamber.
Hearing the profanity, Johnny's eyes narrowed into mere blue slits and, while she was turned away to reach for more bullets, he stood up.
If Jemimah had seen Johnny draw, she would have still been open-mouthed as the last glass bottle splintered into a thousand tiny shimmering shards on the wind. As it was, at the sound of the first shot, she shrieked and threw herself to the ground in shock then, watching each bottle explode into the air, she lay there panting, seriously alarmed. When the noise had ended and all six bottles were no more, she was still. Her heart was pounding as if it were trying to escape from her breast. At last, she slowly turned her head.
Johnny was standing on the rocks ten feet above her, frowning grimly down at her. Under that nerve-wracking sapphire blue scrutiny, she stood hesitantly and dusted off her overalls. She was just about brave enough to attempt a shaky smile but it faltered and fizzled out as he holstered his Colt and, chewing the inside of his lower lip, folded his arms sternly, glaring down at her.
"Johnny... I... er... I..."
"You gonna leave your gun lying in the dirt?" His voice was soft but that did nothing to reassure her. His voice was always especially soft when he was mad; she was sure he did it on purpose to lull her into a false sense of security.
Jemimah hesitated then bent to retrieve the abandoned gun. When she straightened and squinted up again, he had gone. Seconds later, he was striding around the corner of the rocks and approaching her. Jemimah felt an irrational yet burning desire to run but she squashed it. What would be the point anyway? He'd catch her and then...
Johnny stood, looking down at her, and she flushed guiltily. He said nothing at all but she was under no illusion - she knew he was vexed that she had disobeyed him. He held out his hand and she surrendered the empty gun, placing it carefully into his open palm. He put it on the nearby rock where her little box of spare ammunition was stashed then he turned back to her, gratified that she looked worried. The silence stretched out until Jemimah could bear it no longer.
"How'd you know I was up here?" Her voice was scratchy, croaky as though she didn't trust herself to speak.
"I didn't. Teresa told me." He was watching her closely; could see the surprise in her eyes. "No honey, I would never have thought to find you up here... practising your draw... especially since I asked you not to use the gun without me here to teach you. I thought I told you long ago that guns ain't toys? They're dangerous."
There was a silent pause while he eyed her darkly and she subconsciously stepped back a little. She was hanging her head as she always did when she'd been caught out in some misdeed but then, ever the optimist, she lifted her chin and attempted a winsome little smile. His expression did not change but he was sure intrigued to see what she might try next. Would it be... ah yes - the 'puppy dog eyes'. Johnny raised a brow at her sass. The little brat! She was going through her entire repertoire; anything to get herself out of trouble. Tilting his head, he returned his best 'don't even think about it' look.
Jemimah seemed to falter for a moment then, as though she had made a decision, she moved to him and gently traced a fingertip along the vee of crisply curling chest hair at her eye level. Johnny schooled his mouth into a serious expression, biting back the smile which hovered there. The little varmint was trying her best to take his mind off her disobedience and onto something far more pleasant and enjoyable! He smiled inwardly instead, knowing exactly what she was up to and, while he sure was game for whatever she had in mind, first she was going to get the ear-blistering she deserved!
"I know I promised, sweetheart but... I wanted to surprise you," she simpered, fluttering those thick sooty eyelashes for all she was worth.
Jemimah tipped her head to look up at his handsome face and was encouraged to see the warm spark in his blue eyes; the way he always looked right before they made love. Reaching up to slip her arms around his neck and snuggling her breasts into his shirt front, she gave a shy little smile.
"Surprise!" she trilled softly.
With an answering smile of his own, Johnny put his arms around her waist and lowered his head to kiss her. Instantly, she melted into his warm body, her mouth opening to allow his tongue to taste and explore hers. He tightened his hold on her, strong hands working down her spine to draw her into him, moulding her to him. Very soon, he could feel her becoming limp and heavier in his arms and drew back reluctantly.
As she opened her eyes once more, Jemimah was breathless and grinning. It wasn't too hard to get around Johnny after all! Now that they were married, things were going to be a little different, that was obvious!
Johnny grinned back. His disobedient little wife was about to find out that, now they were married, things were going to be a little different!
She was still smiling widely but squeaked in dismay when he unravelled her arms from around his neck and firmly set her back on her feet. Turning swiftly and dipping low, he hefted her up over his shoulder like a sack of grain and began to march away from the makeshift shooting range. Yelping at him to slow down, she managed to grab the discarded gun as he carted her back to her horse whereupon he launched her into the saddle with absolutely no attempt to be gentle.
"Ow! That hurt!"
He was leading Diablo into the brush, heading back to where he had tied Barranca. Drily, he called back over his shoulder, "You're lucky I'm more easy-goin' than Murdoch..." He had reached the golden palomino and, with a tiny hop, was in the saddle, looking back at her and still hanging on to her reins. "Or you'd be getting something that really hurts right about now!"
Realising he intended to lead her all the way home to Randall House, Jemimah grabbed onto the saddle horn and pouted.
"Murdoch still treats me like I'm a little girl but I'm too old for that! I'm a married woman now - I'm your wife!"
He nodded emphatically. "You sure are. And I'm your husband - the same husband you lied to and tried to deceive! Didn't you vow to love, honour ... and obey me, chica?"
"Well, you vowed to love me an' protect me an' take care of me!"
"But I am taking care of you. Keeping you out of harm's way is takin' care of you, isn't it? And... I solemnly vow to take care of one particular bit of you if you don't learn to mind me. And right quick! Understand?"
He fired a thunderous glare in her direction and saw her stubborn face.
"YES! I understand!"
By the time they reached the track which led down to Randall House, Jemimah was itching to bound from her horse and be anywhere that Johnny wasn't! Acting more like the ol' man than her lovable, softly-spoken man, he had lectured every step of the way home, listing her many faults and berating her for the way she was letting her chores slide. She had, he informed her, come to the end of the line and she had better shape up, grow up and quit playing lady of the manor. This was a working ranch and not some fairytale castle with her in the role of princess, standing at the window to survey her kingdom. Jemimah barely said a word in response for two reasons - she was pouting so much she could hardly speak... and Johnny wasn't about to let her get a word in edgeways. She wasn't getting the chance to wheedle her way out of it this time.
When they at last pulled open the screen door to the kitchen, he suggested firmly that she get on upstairs and the look on his face led her to believe it was not a request.
"You're sending me to bed? What do you think I am - a five year old?" Jemimah was aghast.
"No. I'd never blister a five year old the way I'm thinkin' of doing to you if you don't get moving up those stairs right now."
"Now, I said."
She was dithering in the doorway, much to his annoyance. "What about supper?"
"I can warm up a pot of leftover stew as easily as you can. I guess there isn't any fresh bread or biscuits?"
One look at her guilty face and he nodded knowingly.
"No, I figured not. Y'know, maybe I need to get Maria over here with her spoon. I recall it was mighty effective in gettin' you to do your chores."
Pursing her lips into an indignant glower, and a hint of panic in her green eyes lest he lose patience and follow through with his threat, Jemimah turned on her heel and stomped off up the stairs.
Johnny heard the bedroom door slam and he let out a long sigh, flopping down into a chair at the table and sweeping his fingers through his untidy black hair.
Jemimah spied her quarry as she drove the buggy up the side of the church.
Teresa, decked out in a new bonnet, was at the bottom of the steps, talking to Aggie Conway and Zee. Murdoch and Scott were engrossed in conversation with the Reverend Carmichaels.
Securing the horses, Jemimah carefully scooped her skirts aside so that she could spring down from the buggy. She noticed that Murdoch had spotted her and was frowning disapprovingly that she had not waited to be helped down by one of the gentlemen. She supposed it was rather unseemly to be revealing so much of her legs (and, more than likely, an eyeful of her garters) to the congregation but she had more important things to worry about - the first of which was to get hold of Miss High-and-Mighty O' Brien and give her a piece of her mind, the nasty tattle-tale!
She gathered her thick shawl about her shoulders and, lowering her chin as if in readiness for a fight, she marched towards the unsuspecting girl.
"Oy you, I want a word with you!"
Aggie turned around at once, a bemused smile on her face which became a look of surprise when she beheld the bundle of fury strutting towards them.
"Why, Jemimah... good morning to you," she smiled as the girl approached. "You look like you may be on a mission?"
"S'cuse me Aggie, it's Teresa I'm after!" Jemimah was in no mood for pleasantries.
Taking one look at his daughter's face, Murdoch had already sensed trouble in the offing and was on his way over, Scott at his side.
"Daddy, I just need a word with Teresa before services. It won't take long." No, it sure wouldn't take long; she intended to let her know just what she thought of her and wasn't about to waste any words. It would be quick and to the point!
Murdoch's large hand landed on her arm. "Just a minute there. There'll be no arguing outside church..."
"Then I'll say what I have to say inside if you'd rather!" Jemimah's eyes flashed fiercely and, though she had no wish to go against Murdoch, she would have her say. Her temper was up and all caution had been thrown to the wind.
"Now you hold on, young lady..."
Teresa stepped forward calmly. "It's alright, Murdoch. Jemimah has something on her mind and it seems important. I'll listen."
Jemimah narrowed her eyes. She had expected Teresa to hide behind Scott and Murdoch. "Come over here then. No need for everyone to hear."
Teresa followed serenely. "Of course, she may find I have something to say in reply."
Jemimah was already strutting off around the side of the church but she heard Teresa's remark and her hands balled into tight angry fists.
They had reached the quiet patch of scrubby ground behind the church where the outhouse was situated. Jemimah made sure there was no-one inside before she launched her attack.
"I expect you thought that was funny, didn't you - telling tales an' settin' Johnny on me yesterday? Enjoyed makin' trouble between us, did you?"
"I think you made your own trouble when you went against his wishes and sneaked off with that gun. You knew darn well he wouldn't like it. If he gave you a licking..."
"He did not! I never said that!"
"Oh, I thought..."
"No, you hoped he would; that was what you wanted when you sent him up to find me. Well, I'll tell you this, Miss Priss - Johnny wouldn't ever whup me, not now!"
"You think so, do you?"
"I know so! We're man and wife now, it's different."
Teresa smiled pityingly. "If you think that'd stop him, think again. You've just about reached the end of the road with your 'call the tune' attitude, I'd say."
Jemimah's face flushed to hear her use almost the exact same words as Johnny.
"It's high time you started acting like a wife and not a little brat. Johnny asked you not to use the gun without him and, instead of railing against everything you're told like you've always done, maybe you ought to think on why he laid down that particular law. Mightn't it be to keep you safe, eh? Because he worries about you?"
Jemimah had faltered now. Her mouth was open as though she were about to speak again but the words she wanted to say had flitted away. Something about Teresa's calm, sensible argument had hit home.
"Because he, of all people, knows how dangerous a gun can be in the hands of someone who doesn't respect it." Teresa laid her hand on the younger girl's arm. "You say you're man and wife? I can't see any difference except you now have a piece of paper which says that you're married. Where's the strong woman that a rancher needs to work alongside him? Where's the partner who will share his troubles and be there to patch him up if he's hurt or lift his spirits when he struggles and hits upon hard times? Where is the soul mate that he can confide in and share his dreams with? Because I'll tell you right now, Jemimah - that's what Johnny needs in a wife; that's what he expects and deserves and if you can't be that kind of a wife for him..."
Jemimah swallowed. "What?"
Teresa looked away.
"What? You sayin' he'd... leave me?"
"I never said that. I know perfectly well that he adores you."
Jemimah felt the strangled feeling in her throat ease a little and she let out a shaky breath.
"But you need to take a good look at yourself. Johnny doesn't deserve some spoiled silly kid for a wife. He's too good a man for that and you know it."
Teresa waited for a response but Jemimah said nothing; she appeared to be thinking hard. Good! She needed to think before she ruined and lost everything she had. Teresa had said her piece and she hoped some of it had sunk in. She smoothed her grey gloves and headed back to the others, pausing at the corner. "I'll see you inside."
Jemimah couldn't follow her. She was still mulling over all that Teresa had said and, deep down, she knew that she was right - she should be ashamed of herself for acting like such an idle, self-centred brat. Teresa might be prissy at times and, boy, could she be bossy but Jemimah knew very well that she had Johnny's best interests at heart - and hers too in a roundabout way. Suddenly, she knew she couldn't go into the church and sit quietly through another interminable sermon with the rest of the family. She waited until she knew everyone would have gone in and then she ran to her buggy, turning it quickly and racing back home again. She hoped Johnny would be there.
Half an hour later, she pulled up in the yard of Randall House and, not waiting to unhitch the team, she leaped down from the buggy, skirts flying and her sunbonnet slipping to hang down her back, and hurtled into the kitchen. Johnny wasn't there as she had hoped and she clattered through to the sitting room, panting for breath.
She gaped around the room and a flash of blue over by the window caught her eye. He was there, smoking a cigarette in a pool of sunshine by the open window. She was so relieved to find him there that she didn't even notice the guilty way he flicked the cigarette butt out of the window. Even if she had, she was in no mood to nag him for smoking in the house.
"Honey, what's wrong?" He had turned to her, already out of his seat and worry etched on his face. "You're back early. Are you alright?"
Jemimah rushed to him, flinging her arms around him. "No, I'm not. I'm all wrong! Everything about me is wrong!"
"Hey, what is it?" His hands gently found her face and cupped it so that he could look into her eyes. The tenderness she saw in his expression made her feel worse and she sniffled, two fat tears rolling down her cheeks.
"I'm sorry, I'm really sorry," she sobbed, burying her head once again in his shirt front. "I'm such a horrible brat. I don't blame you for bein' angry with me. You should hate me; I'm so awful!"
He stroked his hand gently over her hair to soothe her and rested his chin lightly on the crown of her head. "Not angry with you; I never was. Well... not exactly. I was mostly... worried about you."
"Oh Johnny, you must be wonderin' why you ever picked me for a wife. I've been rubbish at lookin' after you an' I've disobeyed just about every single thing you asked me not to do... you set me a line an' I just have to jump right on over it an' mostly just because I knew I shouldn't!"
He chuckled and held her tight. "That so? I kinda guessed as much."
She looked up earnestly into his warm blue eyes. "But I won't no more. Honest! I'll never go against anythin' you ask of me ever again. I swear it! I'll be the perfect wife for you from now on. I know how to be; I just... just forgot myself somehow, that's all. I won't let you down no more. I'll obey every rule you ever set me. Promise!"
He was amused at her declaration but very touched. There was no doubting the sincerity in those clear green eyes. Johnny smiled and softly brushed back a strand of dark hair which had escaped from its ribbon. He kissed her, taking his time and loving the way she responded so wholeheartedly. When at last they parted, he chuckled down at her.
"Somehow, I doubt very much that you'll never disobey again, chica." He shook his head, grinning at the very idea. Then, a thought struck him and he chuckled. "I reckon I'll probably still be chasing after you with your mama's hairbrush when we're both old and grey."
Jemimah blushed and he laughed, a delicious sound, scooping her off her feet and into his arms. "But I can think of far better things to do to you right now." His soft warm lips met hers again in a tender kiss filled with promise. Before she knew what he was about, he had started across the room, heading purposefully for the stairs.
She gasped and wriggled in his hold. "Surely you can't be thinking to... on a Sunday morning?"
Johnny had already reached the foot of the stairs and he took them two at a time, laughing and refusing to release her. "I can't think of a better way to thank the Almighty for his blessings than to show him just how much I appreciate them."
He managed to kick the bedroom door shut behind them.
They spent the whole of that blissful day in bed where Jemimah diligently (and most enthusiastically) did her utmost to comply with everything Johnny asked of her. But then, the idea of disobeying couldn't have been further from her mind.
The next morning, Jemimah was up long before the sun had even thought about rising. She left Johnny slumbering peacefully in their big cherub bed and crept downstairs to make a start on the things she had been neglecting of late. So it was that, when he was finally roused by the watery morning light seeping through a chink in the curtains, he rolled over, stretched luxuriously and took a deep lungful of air which was flavoured with the heavenly aroma of baking biscuits and frying bacon. It was delicious enough to make him practically leap from the warm bed, his mouth watering and stomach rumbling hungrily. He was still more impressed to discover fresh warm water in the pitcher, a bar of soap and a soft clean towel on the stand in the corner. He performed his morning ablutions with a wide grin on his face.
His plate was waiting for him - bacon, eggs, fried mushrooms, biscuits still warm from the oven and delicious hot coffee. Added to all of this, his sweet little wife, a brightly patterned apron over her shirt and jeans and still barefoot, was beaming at him. Her green eyes shone and the kiss she bestowed on him as he took his seat at the table had him seriously considering deserting the culinary delights she had prepared and carrying her back up to bed instead.
"I hope you've got an appetite this morning," she smiled. "Cos I made everything you like an' there's honey an' the raspberry preserves you favour."
"Appetite? You bet... after all that hard work I put in yesterday!" He grinned wickedly at her sudden blush and began to dig into the breakfast.
"When should I meet you this afternoon?" she asked.
Johnny was still chewing on a mouthful of bacon and so his answer was to pull her onto his knee, his arm around her waist, and feed her a bite of honey-smeared biscuit. Jemimah laughed when most of the honey daubed onto the end of her nose. She was gaily swinging her feet like a little girl and his heart clenched suddenly at how precious she was to him.
"I'll be there around four," he laughed. "See you outside the jail?"
She nodded and swallowed the biscuit. "I've got the money in my purse so..."
"Take it straight to the bank, honey, won't you? I don't like to think of you walkin' around Green River with that kind of money on you."
"I will. Don't worry."
"You sure you feel happy about takin' it in?" It was obvious that Johnny was uneasy. "I can do it if you'd rather."
"Not today you can't. The bank'll be closed by the time you make it in." She smiled and kissed him. "It's alright. I can do it."
"If you're sure?" At her nod, he wiped up the last of the egg yolk with his remaining bite of bacon. "And don't let Val delay you any; you know how he likes to talk an' when he gets going..."
"I'll be fine! Stop worryin'!" She hopped off his knee. "You're like an old woman!"
She was laughing and out of reach before he could grab her.
"Old woman eh? Is that any way for an obedient wife to talk to her husband?" He was shaking a warning finger at her, his blue eyes narrowed but the twinkle was there.
Looking back over his shoulder, he smiled and lifted his hat to her. She was still standing on the front porch, grinning and waving enthusiastically. He nudged Barranca towards Lancer, a deep sigh of contentment escaping. There had been mention of spicy salsa, chilli, fresh bread and maybe even a cake of some sort for supper. All it had taken was a darn good talking to and some time alone to think about her actions and his sweet young bride was back. Johnny was a happy man.
Jemimah was rather pleased with herself too.
She had swept the entire ground floor of the house, taken the two rugs from the sitting room outside to give them a good beating and then she had cleaned the downstairs windows (with white vinegar and a sheet of newspaper as her granny had taught her.) After that, she had prepared the large cast iron pot of chilli, just the way Maria had shown her, with extra chillies to make it the strength that Johnny preferred. She knew she might struggle with the potent stew and would probably be downing plenty of milk with their meal to ease the burning. With a visit to town, making fresh bread would be out of the question but she could buy a small loaf to tide them over until tomorrow. The lemon syrup cake was cooling on the rack and she would ice it before dinner. She covered it with the net to keep the flies off it.
Then she ran upstairs to wash and change into her dress before heading into town. Before she left the house, she took three dollars of her own money out of her underwear drawer. She would buy that wool she needed for Scott's birthday sweater and could look for a new belt buckle for Johnny's gift.
As she drove the buggy into Green River, heading for the jail, she could make out a small group of men outside, talking to Val. Not that this was unusual in itself but something about the way the men were bunched together intrigued her. There was some excitement going on.
Craning her neck to see over their heads, Jemimah slipped from the buggy and moved unnoticed to the edge of the throng.
One man was at the centre of the group. From the little she could see, he had his shirt off and was showing the fellows something on his back. Jemimah had no chance of seeing over the top of the crowd so she dug her way in and tried to peer under their elbows.
The man in the centre was indeed naked from the waist up.
"Now, keep tight around me, fellas," he was urging them. "There's ladies about an' I don't want to be arrested for indecency!"
"If I was goin' to arrest you fer that, Curly, I'd have locked you up years ago," Val drawled as the others laughed. "You don't need to take your shirt off. In fact, I'll do it right now!"
There was much laughter and joshing so that Jemimah was pushed about a little but she planted her feet firmly on the dusty boards and shoved back.
"Well, come on then, Curly!"
"Yeah Curly, show us the lady!"
The group fell silent then and each man leaned forward so that Jemimah was pulled in with them. A tiny gap opened up in the press of bodies and at last she could see.
Curly, shirtless and with his back to his audience, had a large and very indecent tattoo across his shoulders. The dark indigo lines on his sore and swollen-looking flesh depicted a naked lady, very buxom and draped in a most revealing pose; so revealing, in fact, that Jemimah's mouth dropped open in scandalised shock. As if to add an element of romance or innocence to the design, however, the nude had a delicate little bluebird perched on her outstretched finger - a most incongruous image.
"There she is, boys. Feast your eyes on Mirabelle!"
There was a good deal of whooping and uncouth comments from the men, much to Curly's delight. Jemimah was still so horrified that she barely heard a word but the next remark made her ears perk up.
"Hildebrandt did this you say? I heard of him. Used to traipse about the camps in the war, both sides; he weren't particular. They say he perfected his art on soldiers an' now he even has his own salon in New York City."
"S'right! He's in demand, I hear. Can just about name his price."
"How much did she cost you, Curly?"
"Nigh on two week's wages? Are you cracked, man?"
Curly turned, grinning his head off and slipping an arm into his shirt with a sudden wince of pain. "Aw, she was worth it - my Mirabelle."
"Did it hurt much?"
The men stopped suddenly and turned to gape as one.
Jemimah straightened self-consciously. She hadn't meant to speak out but she had been caught up in the moment.
"Well now, do I hear the dulcet tones of young Miz Lancer?" Val moved into the middle of the throng so that he could see Jemimah as the men before her moved aside. His dark eyes were sparkling and he grinned as he scratched in a leisurely way at the belly of his stained undershirt. "I thought so. Afternoon Jemimah."
"Afternoon Val," she replied, standing her ground and refusing to be cowed by the hostile male eyes which surrounded her. Curly was hastening into his shirt with an affronted look on his face as though he considered the middle of the street his private chamber and she had intruded. "Did I hear you gentlemen correctly? Martin Hildebrandt is here in town and he's doing tattoos?"
Val regarded her with interest. "You heard right. He's here and I'm guessing you saw the fine example of his handiwork just now on Mr. Rooney's person?"
Jemimah knew she was blushing but then she wasn't the only one. Though they had been jostling to take a peek and had plenty of bawdy remarks to make, now that a female had appeared among them, the men were writhing in embarrassment and very keen to make themselves scarce. Already, a few had sneaked away and, as Val talked to Jemimah, still more were sidling off.
"Yes, I saw it. It's not.... er... not exactly the sort of picture I'd choose to have stuck permanent on my back but it were right well drawn, there's no denyin' that."
Curly had buttoned up his shirt and, red-faced, he now muttered something to Val about needing to pick up some chewing tobacco. He politely touched the brim of his hat to Jemimah, avoiding her eye, and hurried off down the street, head down lest he meet any other ladies on his way.
"So, not the kind of tattoo you'd pick eh?" Val sat back down in his chair outside the jail and gestured to the bench at his side. Jemimah joined him. "What do you know about Martin Hildebrandt?"
Jemimah shrugged. "Not much really; just heard his name. His place in New York is right popular, they say. A real goldmine."
"That right?" Val was watching her closely. "How'd you know all this?"
"Scott was sent a copy of the New York Times an' he let me have a read of it," she explained. "Tattoos are getting to be all the rage and not just with the men folk either; it said that high society ladies are having it done and that it's considered quite proper for a woman to get tattooed on her legs or her..."
She hesitated, a warmth flooding her face. Val's white teeth stood out in his swarthy, unshaven face. He was smiling broadly as if he knew full well what she had been about to say. Jemimah looked away, fiddling nervously with her little drawstring purse.
"Well anyway, posh ladies and the gentry are havin' 'em done in England and Europe. There's a duchess or earl's wife or somebody well-to-do who had a snake done on her wrist."
Val leaned forward and scratched under his hat at his unkempt curly hair, one eye crinkled shut. As he withdrew his hand, he inspected his fingernails and flicked something away. Jemimah grimaced.
"Miss Jemimah, you wouldn't be thinkin' of askin' that Mr. Hildebrandt to tattoo any snake onto you... would you?" He pinned her with a look which became all the more penetrating when she shuffled self-consciously on the bench. "The price would be way too high for you, I can tell ya'!"
She looked insulted. "What do you mean? I have money."
"That ain't the price to which I was referring," he grinned. "I reckon you can't afford to lose the layers of hide that man of yours would take off've you when he found out you'd been inked!"
She firmed her lips indignantly as he chortled. Another one who thought Johnny still treated her like a child! None of them seemed to appreciate that she was married now; she was no longer a kid to be sent to bed without supper. Her face flushed instantly when she recalled that this was exactly what had occurred on Saturday night. Embarrassed, she jumped to her feet, startling Val from his mirth.
"Right, well, I have to be goin' now. I have things to do. Good day, Sheriff."
Nose in the air, she set off down the street, green eyes glinting furiously at the sound of Val's laughter which followed her all the way. She always had the uneasy feeling that Val could read her every thought. It was downright discomfiting!
Jemimah felt very daring or, at least, she had felt very daring... up until a few minutes before. Now that she was in position, suddenly the adventure and thrill seemed to be wearing off and all she felt now was... terrified.
She swallowed hard but it didn't help; her throat was still as dry as a bone. Blinking, she tried to concentrate on the framed picture of a man whose entire torso was awash with blue swirls and patterns, birds, flowers, a preening mermaid... She realised he must have been in much the same position as she was now. Well... not exactly the same. Jemimah flushed to imagine what kind of a picture she presented right at that moment.
She glanced across to the chair where her dress and petticoats were carefully folded. Cool air from a draught under the door (which, she was assured, was locked) reminded her forcibly that her drawers were untied and lowered so that a goodly portion of her rear end was on display.
"Now, relax," the woman was saying in soothing tones. "There's nothing to worry about. I told you... I've had four now and I'd hardly do that if it was painful, would I?"
Miss Hildebrandt had shown her two of her own tattoos; one of a lily on her upper arm and the second was an exotic-looking bird on her leg, just above her garters. The other two were apparently in areas far too intimate to reveal to a stranger. Seeing as Jemimah was now bent over the table with her backside out, she felt there could be little more intimate than this! She took in a deep shaky breath.
"You've done this before, haven't you?" she croaked nervously.
Miss Hildebrandt laughed musically. "Naturally. My father has been training me for years and I help him all the time, especially when ladies like yourself wish for the ink in a more... shall we say... personal location."
"Will it take long? It's just that I have to meet my husband at..."
"Please madam, one cannot rush this. It is an art form which requires great dexterity and skill."
"Oh. Yes, of course." Jemimah felt chastened by her offended voice. "I didn't mean to..."
"We will begin! Just here?" Jemimah flinched as she felt a finger prod at her.
She gulped and nodded. Out of the corner of her eye, she could make out an odd-looking tool which consisted of a small wooden handle at the end of which appeared to be a set of sharp needles, grouped closely together. She saw this being dipped into a bottle of pungent ink. Then she closed her eyes tight.
Mike smiled down at Teresa's disapproving face and then cast a quick shake of his head at Val who was guffawing loudly. Val took no notice. Instead, he slapped his thigh and rocked back in his chair in front of the jail.
"You're not serious? She wouldn't really do it, would she?" Teresa was aghast after hearing Val's tale. "Oh Mike, we have to find her; stop her!"
"Now darling," her fiancé soothed. "Don't you worry yourself. Jemimah won't do it; it was all talk. I can't see her getting a tattoo."
Teresa shook her head, worry in her brown eyes. "You don't know her like I do. If someone dares her, she's ornery enough..." She cast a withering look at the sheriff who showed not one iota of remorse.
"She won't! For one very good reason - Johnny would pitch a fit... and she knows it!" Mike could not help grinning at Val's face.
Teresa worried her lower lip. She was by no means reassured. "I sure hope not. She's done some crazy things in her time but that would really be the last straw!" She shook her head and scanned the street, up and down, in the hopes of catching sight of the girl. "I'm going to Mrs Baker's to fetch that thread. Are you coming?"
Like most men, Mike had an aversion to dressmaker's and so opted to linger outside the jail to jaw with Val while Teresa did her shopping.
She made her way along the boards, stopping now and then to browse in the window of a store or to exchange a few words with other good ladies of the town, also out to do their shopping. It took her quite a while to make it as far as the little dressmaker's and she was about to push open the door when a figure across the street caught her eye.
Jemimah. She was moving very slowly and in a most peculiar manner; sort of stooped over and with a pronounced limp. She didn't appear to be focused on where she was going and Teresa narrowed her eyes, squinting over in concern as the girl seemed to stagger, almost colliding with a stack of crates outside the livery.
Teresa was worried and, glancing left and right, she waited for a wagon to pass then stepped down into the road, lifting her skirts out of the dust and making a beeline for Jemimah who, by now, was limping past the saloon.
Before she was even halfway across the road, Teresa let out a yelp of dismay to see Jemimah suddenly crumble and fall headlong to the ground with a sickening thud.
Instantly, townsfolk swarmed around her, seemingly coming from nowhere and all abuzz with alarm at the young woman, passed out in the street. Teresa hurried over, seeing a man carefully lifting Jemimah, but, by the time she had reached the other side, the girl had been whisked away. Teresa looked frantically around, trying to discover where Jemimah had been taken. Could she be...? A quick glance over the batwing doors confirmed that Jemimah had indeed been carried into the saloon.
She was now propped up in a chair, two of the ladies caring for her and the burly barkeep hovering nearby, ready to lend what assistance he could to this damsel in distress. One woman had placed a damp rag on her forehead while the other was patting her hand, both crooning to her as though to a sick child.
"Y'alright now, honey? Just rest easy. You came over faint."
"Hey Eustace, get her some brandy! She's white as a sheet."
The barkeep hurried off and returned seconds later with a large snifter of brandy which they pressed upon her. Jemimah gulped at it and coughed, screwing up her face in distaste and trying to avert her head. The two women exchanged a smile.
"All of it - it'll fortify you," the blonde assured her.
The redhead leaned in close and said in a low voice, "You ain't... in the family way, are you honey?"
Jemimah gagged on a second mouthful of the potent liquid and shook her head. "No, I just... felt dizzy."
"Well, it ain't the heat!" The redhead shivered and gathered her threadbare shawl more closely about her. "You ailin', child?"
Jemimah was coming round now and almost laughed at being called 'child' by this saloon girl who had to be no more than nineteen or twenty herself. "No. I've just been... I had a..." Jemimah faltered.
"What? You can tell us, honey." The blonde had kindly brown eyes and a motherly manner (one of the qualities which made her so popular with the gentlemen who visited the establishment.)
"You been to see that Hildebrandt, ain't ya'?" Eustace was grinning knowingly and Jemimah blushed, colour flooding her pale face. "I thought I saw ya' goin' in where he's set up earlier."
The redhead sat back astounded. This little bit of a thing in her neat sun bonnet and demure calico dress... had gotten herself tattooed? What was the world coming to? "You been inked?" she gasped. "What you had done? Where?" The questions flew.
Over by the door, Teresa gaped. Jemimah was recovering now and trying to stammer her thanks, rising shakily from her seat and obviously keen to escape their prying. She would soon be heading this way. Teresa firmed her mouth crossly and turned to head back to the shop for her forgotten thread.
As she neared the edge of the boardwalk, she happened to glance down and saw something blue in the shadows between two barrels. She paused, studying the object then, moving quickly, she stooped to snatch it up and stuff it into her bag. Hastening across the street, she darted straight into the dressmaker's shop and waited patiently to be served.
While the elderly Mrs Baker dealt with another customer, Teresa hung back, pretending to browse the ribbons on a different counter. In truth, she was peering into her bag at the little blue drawstring purse. Her heart was thumping and she felt an unaccustomed and uncomfortable rush of guilt. Her hand closed around the purse, about to lift it out. Then through the window, she spied Jemimah exiting the saloon and limping back over the street towards the jail. Knowing now why she was limping so, Teresa glared at her and once more stuffed the blue purse down to the bottom of her bag. She knew what she would do; she would teach the little snippet a lesson. Her heedlessness would end once and for all!
As Jemimah stumbled across to the jail, she could see that Johnny was already there. He was tying Barranca to the back of the buggy and laughing at something Val had just said. She watched him tug his jacket closer around himself and knew he would be feeling the cold. Johnny much preferred the summer and would be cursing this chill in the air. Jemimah swiped the back of her hand across her brow. She wasn't feeling cold in the least; in fact, she was sweating and wishing she were not wearing her thick woollen coat. She staggered over, vaguely aware that she might be a tad feverish after her ordeal. She prayed it was nothing more.
"Here she is now!" Val was grinning from ear to ear and there was a definite gleam in his eyes.
Johnny turned, smiling, but immediately his expression changed to one of concern at the sight of her pale wan little face. "You alright, honey? You're lookin' kinda poorly." His arms went about her and Jemimah leaned into him, glad of his support as he led her to the bench outside the jail.
However, when she came to sit down, she found the pain was too much for her and she let out a muffled yelp and stood up again, gingerly cupping her hind quarters.
"What is it?" Johnny was alarmed.
Jemimah avoided his eye, saying that it was nothing but one glance at Val's knowing face told her that the sheriff had shrewdly gleaned the cause of her discomfort. He thumbed back his hat, fixing her with a dark look and gave a tiny despairing shake of his head.
"Y'know Johnny-boy, I was kinda worried you might get home tonight to find your beloved here with your name all across her back!"
Johnny shot Val a bewildered look. "My name? What are you talkin' about?"
"Martin Hildebrandt is in town - the tattoo artist. You heard of him?"
Johnny shook his head.
"Your wife seemed mighty took with the idea of havin' herself a tattoo."
"Well, she wouldn't do something like that. She knows that ain't the kind of thing for a lady to do and that I wouldn't like it." He looked to Jemimah for confirmation. "Isn't that right, honey?"
Jemimah swallowed and nodded her head though her fingers were practically shredding the material of her skirt in anguish.
Johnny leaned over her, still worried that she looked so pale and clammy. Behind him, Val shot her a disapproving frown which convinced her beyond a doubt that he had guessed the reason for her being in this state. Jemimah was only just beginning to realise what a hideous mistake she had made. She squashed down a sob of misery and reached back to tenderly rub where it hurt.
Johnny narrowed his blue eyes and spoke to Val. "D'you think you could get her some water?"
Val chewed at his moustache but obliged, making himself scarce. While he was gone, Johnny crouched down by her side, his voice soft.
"You take a spill from your horse?"
She shook her head, eyes fixed on the sprigged green calico of her skirt. "No. I haven't been riding today."
Johnny looked very sorry to hear this. "Then..." He had coloured up and seemed embarrassed. "Was it... was it me?" He was whispering now and red in the face. "I know I was kinda... well... what's the word that Scott used - ardent. Yeah, was I too ardent with you? 'Cos if I was then you have to..."
Jemimah shook her head, tears now brimming in her green eyes. She was feeling more guilty by the minute and she simply couldn't have Johnny blaming himself for her pain. "Oh no Johnny, it wasn't you! You're always gentle and... considerate. It's..."
"What?" He gently brushed her hair back from her pale cheek.
"I've got... I've had... "
"Querida, tell me. You're scaring me here."
The first tear fell and she whimpered, reaching back again to touch the sore spot.
Johnny leaned forward, glancing behind her as though to see through her layers of skirts. "Tell me what it is. You're hurting, I can see that plain!"
Jemimah shook her head and another tear slid down her cheek. Johnny moved in to kiss her and it was then that he smelled the brandy on her breath.
"You been drinking?" What the hell was going on here? Worry and confusion at her continued silence was making him impatient.
"I had a... a brandy in the saloon."
"What? Why?" He looked ready to throttle her.
"I fainted in the street an' they carried me in an' looked after me!"
"Fainted!" Johnny straightened and grimly put his hat back on. "Alright, that's it! We're goin' to see Sam. Maybe he can find out what's goin' on here!"
He took her hand and, gently but firmly, lifted her to her feet.
"Johnny, I don't think I can!" Jemimah knew she was clutching at straws now but she didn't want the doctor to examine her. Then Johnny would have to know. Perhaps, if she was very careful, she could keep the tattoo hidden from him until he'd calmed down... and until she had dreamed up a viable excuse - or at least something sufficiently soothing to keep him from killing her.
"Then I'll carry you."
"No! I can walk." It was hopeless and she knew it.
So, with Johnny holding her hand and intently watching her frightened face, Jemimah was walked along the street to her doom.
While Sam and Jemimah were behind the thick curtain, Johnny paced the office, throwing continual anxious looks in their direction and straining to hear what, if anything, was being said.
At long last, the curtains parted and Sam Jenkins came out, drying his hands and trying to suppress a blatant grin. Johnny turned to him expectantly, scuffing his hat against his thigh.
"Well doc, what's the verdict? She goin' to be alright?"
"Well, I'd have to say that depends."
"Depends? On what?"
Sam regarded Johnny over the top of his spectacles and could no longer hold back the smile. "On you, Johnny."
At that moment, a very sheepish Jemimah exited the examination room, head hanging down and smoothing her skirts self-consciously.
Johnny looked from her to Sam and back again, extremely agitated. His little sweetheart was crimson red in the face and wouldn't look him in the eye. If he didn't know better, he would say she was looking ashamed of herself; just like she used to when...
"What have you done now?" Johnny demanded.
Jemimah either could not or would not respond. So Johnny looked to Sam who was now polishing his glasses and grinning.
"Johnny, your wife has been branded!"
Sam chuckled. "She has had a tattoo put on her rump."
Johnny's face was testament to how utterly astounded he was. He gaped, first at Sam and then, with a hint of anger, at Jemimah who gazed back miserably. "A tattoo? What the ...? Of what?"
Jemimah realised he expected an answer. "It's a rose, Johnny. It's for my mother and... and for us! The rose is the... the mark of love, isn't it? So I thought... it'd be nice to... maybe..." Her voice trailed off at his thunderous glare.
He scuffed back his black hair where it fell into his eyes, at a loss to know what to do or say. Then, firming his lips grimly, he moved towards her. "A mark of love? On your rear-end? How'd you like a different kind of mark back there - my handprint?!" He now turned to Sam. "Doc, you mind leaving us alone for a minute?"
Sam shook his head. "Sorry Johnny, we've been invited out to supper and I have to get home or Caroline will be fit to be tied. I'm closing up now."
Johnny looked back at Jemimah. "Yeah, we ought to get home too. I want to see this mark of love for myself." He grabbed her by the hand and marched to the door, towing her along behind him. At the door, he threw her a filthy look, growling, "Though you might not like it when I do!"
Sam stood at the door and watched Johnny hoist his wife into the buggy and, with a face like thunder, jump into the seat beside her, flicking the lines to set the horses off. Sam shook his head, wiping away a tear of mirth.
"Ah, that girl!"
Usually, the rare sight of Jemimah weeping would stir such sympathy in Johnny that she would be on his lap in no time, being comforted and kissed and loved out of whatever was bothering her. This time, he gripped the lines, staring rigidly ahead with his mouth clamped into a thin tight line, and tried to calm himself sufficiently so that he didn't give in to the urge to grab her hard by the shoulders and shake some sense into her.
He knew she was regretting her imprudence but only because he was angry with her, certainly not because she felt she was in the wrong. He shot her a look out of the corner of his eye and watched her wipe the back of her hand across her nose. He gripped the leather, itching instead to plant the flat of his hand hard against her foolish backside - repeatedly.
He found he was grinding his teeth. How could she? And there of all places - there where her skin was so smooth and rounded; that soft tight curve that he loved. Johnny couldn't bear the idea of it being marred by some ugly blue design; he felt almost cheated as though something very dear to him had been stolen away. He was dwelling morosely on this when she spoke up almost petulantly.
"Scott's newspaper said that lots of high society ladies are havin' tattoos done nowadays. Even some of the royal princesses have had it done." She sniffed wetly. "An' the paper said..." She paused to recall the exact quote. "In England, it is regarded as the proper thing to tattoo young ladies' legs..."
"Did it say they were havin' them done on their behinds too?" Jemimah hushed at the tone of his voice. "Those princesses dancin' around their castles with their... bottoms hangin' out, are they?"
"I didn't say that," she argued but softly lest she infuriate him further.
They slipped into a sullen silence again, each engrossed in their own thoughts. Then, anger resurfacing, he turned to her.
"And who did this to you? That guy Hildebrandt?" He didn't wait for her to reply. "You mean to tell me you've been lyin' there, ass up and drawers down, while some man pawed away at your..."
"No, no!" Jemimah laid a restraining hand on his arm. "It was his daughter - Miss Hildebrandt. She did it. She does a lot of ladies and there weren't nobody else there but us two. Honest, Johnny! I wouldn't have done it if it had been a man doin' the inking. She's real skilled at it an' she's got quite a few herself!"
If Jemimah hoped that this recommendation would appease her husband, she was bitterly disappointed. Discovering that this Hildebrandt woman, as well as disfiguring his own lovely wife, had chosen to draw plenty of ugly tattoos all over her own body was rather a condemnation to Johnny and his expression said as much. His nose was wrinkled in distaste and he curled his lip, disgusted at the idea of any woman tarnishing the beauty of her unblemished skin with those horrible dark blue lines.
"It hurt, y'know. Rather a lot." She peeked hopefully up at him through her thick eyelashes.
"I sure hope so!" he growled. "I'd hate to think it was easy for you to spoil yourself in this way, you crazy little..." Johnny bit off what he had been going to say and, instead, huffed out a sharp sigh, clamping his lips firmly together again.
They drove on in stony silence for much of the way back, each occasionally flicking a look at the other. Jemimah worrying what he might do when they got home, Johnny wondering how he would keep from losing his temper altogether when he saw the tattoo.
He shook his head. She was still so much a child in too many ways and this was typical of her - act first, think and worry later. He knew how their father would deal with her nonsense. But he was her husband and had no intention of taking on the role of parent as well. The problem was, Johnny didn't know what to do. He only knew they couldn't carry on this way. She needed to mind him and consider his feelings; this recklessness was going to land her in real trouble one day. He sighed again. She needed to grow up... all the way.
When Johnny had settled the horses in the barn, he looked back at the house and knew he couldn't put it off any longer. She was in there, waiting on him and probably nearly sick with worry over what he might say.
He stood, hands on his lean hips, and scuffed his boot at a small clump of straw. A ridiculous urge to laugh bubbled within him at the idea of inspecting her bare rump to see this rose. But, as quickly as the humour had risen, it fizzled out like a damp firework at the thought of that creamy smooth loveliness being so ruined. But then, maybe the tattoo wouldn't be too bad; maybe she had... Johnny kicked harder at the clump, sending it flying into the air where it broke apart and the strands sailed across the barn. He was kidding himself; he hated the idea of her being tattooed and he was hurt and angry that she would do this behind his back. He needed to tell her exactly that, no holds barred. Maybe this time, if she knew how he really felt, it might start to sink in that her actions affected more than just herself. It was a lesson he had learned years ago when he had first come to Lancer after being alone for so long. And it had been a painful lesson. But Jemimah had no excuse.
He shook his head and, a dark glint in his eye, he headed back across to the house.
She was standing by the stove in the kitchen, stirring something which smelled like chilli. Johnny suddenly remembered that tonight she had said she was cooking all of his favourites. He glanced across to the table. Sure enough, there was a cake there and it looked like one of her lemon syrup ones. He usually loved those but even the thought of cake could not raise a smile this time.
He moved to the table and pulled out a chair, the scraping sound jarring his nerves.
"You got the receipt book from the bank?"
She was silent. The only sound was the sharp thunk of the wooden spoon as she dropped it into the pan. Johnny turned.
Jemimah was standing stock still as though frozen and her face was panicked, her eyes wide as though she had been slapped. Johnny's stomach flipped over unpleasantly.
"What? What is it?" Though he feared he already knew.
Suddenly, she hurtled across the room and out into the hall. He could hear her rummaging through her coat and alarm bells began to ring in his head.
"Jemimah? Jemimah, c'mere!"
The rummaging sound stopped and there was a deathly silence, broken only by a tiny muffled sob. Then he heard footsteps returning to the kitchen, slowly, hesitantly - fearful footsteps that did not especially wish to come back to where he stood anxiously waiting. When she appeared in the shadows of the doorway, fingers twisting her apron in misery, he knew what she would say.
"Oh Johnny... I've lost it. It's gone."
It was a mere whisper but the sound of it in the silent room was shocking to him.
Johnny lowered his head, gazing without seeing at the scrubbed wooden floorboards. His heart felt like it was pulsing in his very skin and there was a nasty rushing sensation in his ears. He pushed against the chair, leaning on the back of it and somehow unable to lower himself onto the seat - it would have taken too much effort.
It was gone; the money was gone and, with it, the stallion they had planned on - not crucial, he tried to convince himself. They could always go back to Señor Vicente again. But he had wanted that white Andalusian the moment he had set eyes on him; he was perhaps the finest horse Johnny had ever seen and he knew beyond any doubt that he was the one for their stables. With him, they could produce some truly exceptional foals; he was sure of it.
Only... there was no chance of it now. He had entrusted that money - that vital money - to a heedless child. And she had lost it. He shook his head in disbelief. The tattoo nonsense faded into nothingness; mere mischief at the side of this latest blow.
"When are you going to grow up?" he yelled, making her jump back in alarm.
He wiped his sweating palms down the thighs of his pants and deliberately turned away from her, trying hard to bring his temper under control. He could hear her crying quietly. Without looking up, he asked, "Did you tell Val that you lost the money? Will he know to ask around?" Even before she replied, he knew it was a vain hope.
"No. I didn't know I lost it 'til now. I was... I was getting..."
"Tattooed." There was accusation in his voice; he couldn't help it.
Snatching up his hat, he stalked to the door.
"Where you goin'?"
Johnny paused in the doorway but didn't turn around. He seemed to be swallowing hard as though unable to speak to her.
Jemimah slumped against the door jamb, vision blurred with her tears. "You can't even stand to look at me now, can you?"
It seemed an age but, finally, he did turn his head to look over his shoulder at her. The light hit the side of his jaw and she thought how cold and hard he looked, almost bleak. She hardly knew him.
When he spoke, his voice was so quiet she could barely hear him, as if he were talking to himself.
"I wonder if I did a stupid thing in marrying you. I don't think you were really ready. Oh sure, you were ready for me to take you to bed but... you weren't ready for this. For this life. Because you sure ain't what I expected a wife to be."
Jemimah shrank back against the wall, cringing at his words. "But... where you goin'?" It was all she could think to ask. Anything more was too painful, unthinkable.
"I'm going over to see Scott and maybe, by the time I come home, I'll find my wife waiting for me and not some spoiled little girl!"
He paced out and she heard him ride off.
She crumpled to the floor and leaned there a long time, winded as if from a punch to her stomach. It was dark before she could summon the will to stand and drag herself up the stairs to bed.
Johnny rode Barranca hard all the way to Lancer, knowing that being away from her was the best thing to do. If he had stayed and listened to her excuses, he knew he would not have been able to control his temper and that was no use to either of them.
Scott leaned forwards, elbows on his knees and shook his head when Johnny offered him the bottle of tequila.
Johnny had opened it but, after one hearty swig, hadn't actually drunk any more of the fiery liquid. He wasn't much of a drinker, especially nowadays. He could handle his liquor; Scott had only seen him drunk twice but he rarely drank to excess. Now, he was pacing the barn floor, the bottle clutched in his hand, agitated and restless. Scott watched him.
"So she has a tattoo. Have you seen it?" he asked.
"No, not yet."
Scott raised an eyebrow. "Then, forgive me but there's little point imagining the worst. I know you wouldn't choose to have her painted all over with roses but..."
"It's not all over her. I told you."
Scott held up his hands in submission when his brother snapped at him. "Ah yes. Alright, so you wouldn't choose for her to have a rose on... the place where she chose to have it."
"It's on her butt, Scott. You can say it."
"The point is, as reckless as Jemimah undoubtedly can be, I wouldn't imagine her to have chosen anything unsightly or distasteful." Scott's voice was soft; deliberately soothing.
Johnny paced past his older brother again, occasionally kicking his boot at the straw strewn across the floor. Barranca, standing nearby, picked up on his master's mood and whinnied uneasily.
"It's unsightly to me. I liked her... I liked her just the way she was. Didn't need any mark of love. She was perfect without."
Scott sighed. He too was trying to figure out exactly why his little sister had ever thought a tattoo on her backside might be a good idea. "Yes. And now she's lost the money too."
Johnny flopped his rear end down onto the opposite hay bale and scowled. "Boy, I sure wanted to blister her like I used to when she was a little kid. Let her know just how mad she made me!"
"I suppose I can understand that. Jemimah has pushed the boundaries on many an occasion and caused each of us to snap," Scott smiled at the memories. "I recall the time she..."
"I thought she was past behavin' like some little brat," Johnny interrupted. "I'm her husband, not her papa, and I don't want some child-wife who's only interested in playin' house!"
"No, you're right, Johnny. A man needs a partner - someone to rely on."
Johnny regarded Scott as though he had just hit upon the answer to his problems. He nodded and raised the tequila bottle in salute though, Scott noticed, he did not take a drink. "S'right!"
"He wants someone who can show good sense and understand how he feels; someone reliable, dependable with a practical outlook on life..."
Johnny was still nodding in agreement.
"Just like you were at seventeen, eh Johnny?"
Their eyes locked and Johnny felt himself well and truly trapped. He looked away in disgust while Scott merely chuckled and shook his head.
"Come on brother, be honest here. While Jemimah was away at college, you were still playing pranks on Jelly and even Cip if I remember correctly? Yes? I seem to recall you got blind drunk on one occasion too. I had to hide you in the bath house until Murdoch retired to bed and then - think back here - I carried you... yes, carried you up the back stairs and put you to bed. Something you begged me to keep a secret from our father."
Johnny was studying his boots, head dipped and arms wrapped around himself. "Yeah... alright."
"And didn't you lose a whole month's wages in that poker game at the Dove and Garter that night?"
Johnny was chewing sullenly at his bottom lip. "Scott, enough. I'm no saint, you made it clear."
Scott's face took on an expression of extreme exasperation. His thick-headed brother was stubbornly missing the point. "Johnny, what I'm trying to say is that Jemimah is not yet eighteen. When all this took place you were... how old?"
"Twenty-six, same as I am now."
"Exactly!" He spread his hands eloquently, blue-grey eyes fixed on Johnny who was now beginning to squirm. "So, isn't it a tad unreasonable to expect her to be the epitome of mature good sense; something that you most assuredly were not at her age? She hasn't done half of the things you have."
"I sure hope not," Johnny mumbled.
Scott sat up, easing a crick in his neck. It had been a long day and he would much rather have been cuddled up to his own wife at that moment than sitting in a draughty barn, trying to convince his brother that the insurmountable problems he thought his marriage suffered from were indeed minor hiccups in the great scheme of things.
"Let me ask you this - was she sorry?"
Johnny cocked his head on one side, thinking back to Jemimah's tearful admission that she had lost the money. "Yeah, I guess she was."
"And did she lie about it; try to cover it up?"
"No," he shook his dark head. "She told me the truth right off. Well, about the money but she lied about the tattoo."
"She was just afraid of being in trouble and unsure of your reaction. But admitting to losing the money - that must have taken some courage. She knew how important it was and she knew you were already angry over the tattoo... but she still owned up, didn't she?"
"So perhaps, instead of berating her, you should be proud of her for admitting to her mistake. I would venture to suggest that she needs your help right now, not your censure. Knowing Jemimah, she'll be beating herself up enough as it is." Scott watched his brother's expression change gradually from troubled scowl to worried dismay and a hint of guilt. "She needs a partner too. She needs you. And you need to find a way to deal with her when she steps over the lines you have set for her."
Johnny looked even more worried. "You're not sayin' I should paddle her after all, are you? 'Cos I don't want to do that. She's my wife!"
Scott stood up, tucking his shirt into his pants. "That, Johnny, is up to you. I am not going to presume to tell you how to keep your own wife in line. But you might consider how she's feeling now. You rode away, saying you had made a mistake by marrying her."
Johnny capped the virtually untouched bottle and groaned at the memory.
"And now that you've had the chance to calm down, how do you feel? What do you want to do?"
Johnny rose to his feet and Scott could see the smile was coming back a little at a time.
"I want to go home to my wife. She's worth more to me than any amount of money; any horse. And I want to tell her that."
Scott clapped him on the shoulder with a wide approving smile. "Good idea."
By the time Johnny had ridden home and put Barranca safely into the barn for the night, it was late and the house was in darkness save for the lamp he could see burning in the bedroom window. He wondered if he would find Jemimah asleep but she was still awake, lying across the big cherub bed on her stomach and wearing only her camisole and drawers.
He stood by the window, the lamplight shining on his black hair, to remove his gun belt. Then, he crossed to the bed, blue eyes fixed on the young woman who watched him nervously. As he drew closer, she rolled to her knees and stood uncertainly by the bed, hands clasped before her like a little penitent. He could see she was worrying her lip and her green eyes were troubled.
Suddenly, Johnny felt bone-tired. He sat down on the bed and drew her to him, standing her between his knees. He let his head rest against her as his arms curved around her waist and they stayed like that, in the silence, for a long moment.
Jemimah didn't know what to think. Was he still angry? Was this the calm before the storm? Or had he forgiven her? She couldn't speak for fear of provoking him. She knew he had every right to be furious with her but she was hoping against hope that he was not. He had come home; that had to be a good sign.
Suddenly, Johnny took a deep decisive breath and raised his head, releasing her. His hands moved to the ribbon of her drawers which he gently tugged undone.
He was easing her carefully forwards and felt her begin to tense and try to scrabble back as he tried to place her so that she was lying partly over his left knee, her upper body resting on the soft quilt. She squeaked out in protest and he soothed her.
"No, no honey, it's alright. I'm not going to hurt you. Be still. I just want to see, that's all."
He could feel the way her body trembled but she quieted and didn't try to stop him when he eased the silky material of her drawers down over the curve of her behind.
Scott had been right, as usual - the tattoo was very small and neat, high on her rump - almost on her right hip. Johnny was still unhappy that she had done this and wished he could have her back the way she had been before but, he admitted to himself with a rush of relief, it was nowhere near as dreadful as he had been imagining.
"I only had to loosen my drawers for the lady to do it, not take them off altogether," she said quietly. Johnny had said nothing yet and she was not at all easy lying across his knee in this way. It was far too dangerous a position to be in with an irate husband.
Johnny noticed that the skin around the rose was pink and inflamed. He touched it with the tip of a gentle finger. "Does it hurt?"
"It did, a lot. But now it's just sore like a bruise."
He raised her up so she was standing before him. She was clutching her drawers to cover herself, almost shy and very unsure, obviously thinking he may be angry with her still.
Johnny took her hands and kissed her fingers, his lips so soft against her skin. His own hands slipped her camisole over her head and reached to tenderly caress her breasts. He saw her close her eyes, a deep sigh escaping as she relaxed against his leg and, while he watched her, his hands trailed down to slide her drawers over the soft curve of her hips so she was naked before him. Johnny was still for a moment, studying her and she waited, trembling inside. Then he stood too and bent his head to kiss her mouth, enfolding her in his arms.
He felt his breathing quicken, rasping in his chest and he picked her up with a swing of his strong shoulders and laid her on the bed.
She was so lovely; so dear to him. Johnny kept his eyes fixed on her as he quickly removed his boots and socks and tugged his shirt over his head without bothering to unfasten the buttons. His pants were discarded with equal haste, his eagerness to join her on that plump downy quilt bringing a smile to her lips at last.
"You still love me, Johnny?" she whispered.
"My little chica." He ran a fingertip over her mouth before he kissed it. "I will always love you."
Then he set about showing her exactly how much.
Their love-making was never the same - always there were little new wonders, new delights, new heights of passion - something that excited them both beyond imagining.
It did not matter how often he took her; he never wearied of her, his hunger for her never waned. Rather, once their passion was spent he had only to look across at her, run a fingertip down the softness of her skin or trail a hand over the dark silken length of her hair, his eyes roaming over the creamy swells and valleys of her youthful body, and he felt himself begin to harden, ready for her.
And so, it would begin again.
Much later, having made love to her twice and with a deep satisfaction, Johnny closed his eyes and nestled his dark head against her breast. Then, legs and arms entwined, they slept.
In the wee hours of the morning, in that hush which is neither night nor day before the sun begins to rise, Jemimah rolled over and drowsily opened her eyes. Beside her, Johnny was fast asleep, his long black lashes fanned out softly against his cheeks and the bluish shadow of his beard rough on his jaw. Feeling mischievous, she reached out.
Her finger traced a track with her nail lightly along his chin, scratching his beard, and then, as she giggled to herself, probed gently between his lips, making his eyelids flicker and he turned his head to smile sleepily at her, reaching to pull her to him, a single light slap to her derriere for her naughtiness before claiming her mouth in another lingering kiss, their breath mingling as his hands lightly caressed her breasts, raising little goose bumps around the hard pebbles of her nipples.
Jemimah felt his arousal, nudging hard against her hip, and she was amazed that he was again ready for her. That blue spark twinkled in his half-closed eyes and she drew away to tease him. Determinedly, he reached for her but, laughing in delight, she rolled swiftly away so that he ended up on his belly with empty arms. When she drew her sharp little fingernail down his spine, he gasped, feeling tiny sparks of fire fizzing along his nerve endings so that his muscles spasmed and he arched his back, his tight buttocks clenched.
Sniggering wickedly to herself, she drew all four fingernails down his back once more, harder this time, so that they left long red tracks on his tanned flesh. Studying the pattern on his skin as he lay there, she leaned closer, her lips parted and her little pink tongue sliding over her pearly teeth. She grinned at his sleepy expression as he turned his face to her, his dark hair flopping forwards over his brow, but she should have been warned by the blue sparkle in his eye.
All at once, he pounced, grabbing her and rolling at the same time, drawing her face down across his outstretched legs so that she was pinned. She squeaked and panted but did not struggle too hard, wriggling against him so that his erection pressed into her side and, groaning, he had to playfully swat her behind to still her.
He brushed aside her long curtain of silky hair. Sweeping his gaze down along the line of her back, he revelled in her narrow waist with the flared graceful line, like the neck of a wine bottle, above the tight round curve of her bottom, now with its tiny blue rose. His warm hand stroked in soothing circles that made her breathing deepen. Grinning, he leaned over her, his voice soft and low.
"Niña traviesa," he smiled. "You know what that means?"
She gasped, tiny thrills dancing up her spine from his warm smoothing hand and his breath which tickled the sensitive skin of her ear, and she nodded, unable to speak.
"Bad girl," she panted and felt the sharp pang of desire low and deep inside her.
Johnny chuckled. "Bad little girl," he corrected, eyes sparkling. "I think maybe I oughtta spank you after all... you sure are askin' for it!"
"Me? Why?" her voice was a sulky whine but, inside, she tingled.
"Tattooing y'self! Waking me up. Scratching me," was all the reason he gave before the warm circling hand disappeared then suddenly came back in a slap. Though she yelped, it did not truly hurt; maybe a light tingling heat but nothing like he had dished out when she had misbehaved as a child.
The warmth of his palm smoothed around her lightly-stinging rear. Johnny's lips curved in a slow smile when his girl jolted then ground her pelvis against his thigh. He stroked away the heat and the soft yelp changed to a whimper and then to a throaty purr.
Jemimah closed her eyes and waited for another playful smack. When it came and was followed immediately by his sensuous soothing hand, she thought she might lose all control.
Feeling his fingers roaming gently around, she lay perfectly still so as not to hinder his exploration.
Johnny caressed her, his fingertips seeking and finding the exact pulse of pleasure that he knew could send her into frenzies of passion. He stroked with just enough pressure to drive her wild. Her soft moan and impatient wriggling, as she pushed back against his touch, made him grin. He withdrew his fingers and paused, now doing some teasing of his own.
"Johnny, please." She looked back at him over her shoulder, green eyes heavy-lidded with desire.
Moving decisively, he flipped her onto her back, his gaze roaming over the length of her body into her vivid green eyes and his touch caressing with infinite tenderness. All at once, he felt her stiffen, arching up to meet him, and, at the same time, heard her wild cry. Swiftly, he knelt and pressed his body against the searing heat of her flesh, using his weight, as he lowered himself carefully, to plunge his length deep inside... then, withdrawing, he thrust once, twice, three times, until he too arched and cried out.
"Querida!" he breathed. "God, how I love you."
Johnny took a long look at Jemimah by his side as they rode along the track to Lancer.
She had tied her long dark hair back in a ponytail and was wearing jeans - ready to pitch in with the work, she had said. As usual, she was doing all she could to make amends. Always had she been that way. Even at her most wilful and troublesome, the family had always known when Jemimah was sorry; she put her back into every task in an effort to redeem herself.
He smiled at the sight of her nervously biting her lip and, knowing she would be dreading Murdoch's views on the whole saga, he reached out and took her hand.
"It'll be alright, honey."
She squinted over to him, her eyes somewhat timid for once under the brim of her hat and her long bangs. "Will it? You know Murdoch's goin' to rant at me. I'm not sayin' I don't deserve it but... well, you won't be there for me to hide behind."
Johnny laughed. "You hide behind me? That'll be the day!"
She smiled ruefully. "Yes but I ain't been in his bad books for a while. Not used to it anymore."
He squeezed her hand and gave her a wink which seemed to fortify her. She straightened her back and lifted her chin, something of the usual naughty gleam in her eye.
"Ah well, if he tries to whomp me this time, he'll have conniptions at my tattoo!" She chortled wickedly, grinning with delight when Johnny shook a chiding finger at her.
"You just keep that rose hidden away, chica; that's for my eyes only, y'hear? And don't worry about Murdoch - he'll make a lot of noise but he won't lay a finger on you, you know that."
It felt good to joke about it and, thinking back, Johnny tried hard to work out why he had been so upset with her. Sure, she had to quit doing this kind of thing behind his back and she really ought to be at least making an attempt to act like a lady. But he felt that she understood that now. Then again, he was under no illusion; there would be a next time. No, life with Jemimah would never be dull, that was a certainty.
Jemimah watched from the veranda, waving at Johnny as he rode out with Scott and Walt.
"See you at supper time!"
She continued to smile cheerily despite the way the hair was standing up on the back of her neck. The daunting proximity of her father, standing so threateningly behind her, made the skin of her backside quiver in dread.
"Shall I make some coffee?" Teresa turned to go back inside.
"No, I'll do it an' then I've got to hang up my dress and iron Johnny's clean shirt for tonight!" Jemimah made to barge past them both but Murdoch's huge hand descended on her shoulder and she froze in place.
"Just a moment, young lady," he said ominously. "I'd like a word with you."
Jemimah gulped, the heavy warmth of his hand felt far from reassuring. Glancing up, she saw that he was frowning grimly down at her, unsmiling - she was in for it.
"No, it's alright. I can do it," Teresa was saying to no-one in particular, a forced gaiety in her voice. She made her way quickly across the great room and, by the time Murdoch had steered Jemimah to the sofa and bade her sit down, the kitchen door was swinging shut behind her.
Jemimah clasped her hands in her lap and watched her father as he took up position in front of her. He made a very efficient wall, blocking all the warmth from the fire so that she felt suddenly chilled - or was that due to the anxiety his forbidding expression induced?
She tried a little humour to lighten the mood. "At least you're not dragging me to the study this time, Daddy. That's got to be an encouraging sign."
"I have to say I find little to smile about in this whole sorry situation, my girl." Murdoch's voice was low and gravelly. Her hopeful smile withered and died on the spot. "If you were expecting me to haul you in there for the spanking you so richly deserve then, sadly, I have to tell you that those days are long gone. I say sadly because, believe me, nothing would give me greater satisfaction."
Jemimah studied her fingernails and released a shaky breath. She had to admit she felt anything but sad about this fact but she knew Murdoch would be less than appreciative should she let on.
"Well, that's a good thing for your back at least, Daddy."
He took a step closer and Jemimah cursed her big mouth. "I do not appreciate your levity. This flippant attitude hardly shows any remorse for your foolishness."
She was picking nervously at her nails now. "I'm sorry. I'm just edgy, that's all. I don't mean to make out that I'm not rightly ashamed of myself... 'cos I am, truly! You know I am. I wouldn't blame you none if'n you did haul me in there... but I'm not half glad that you've decided against it!"
Murdoch's big hand smacked the flat stone of the mantel and she jumped in fright.
"Young lady, you have a husband now and it's up to the two of you to work things out between you. I will always be your father but I cannot continually keep stepping in to sort out the aftermath of your shenanigans."
Her eyes were wide and she watched as he paced the length of the hearth and back again. When he finally turned to her, a dark look directed her way, she shrank back into the soft upholstery of the sofa.
"Now, in the matter of this tattoo..." The very word seemed to taste foul in his mouth if his expression of disgust was anything to go by. "It is just the sort of wild nonsense I would have expected you to get up to... when you were a child! By God, Jemimah... it's about time you learned to behave like a responsible woman! I know there's one in there somewhere and it's high time you let her out!"
His voice had risen to a steady bellow and, though she tried valiantly not to cry, Jemimah could feel tears welling in her eyes. Knowing that everything he said was true was a bitter pill to swallow.
The kitchen door swung open to admit Teresa, carrying a large tray laden with coffee pot, cream jug and cups. She set it down on the sideboard, obviously aware that Murdoch was mid-rant. Jemimah even suspected she had been listening from the kitchen - it was what they all did when one of them was unfortunate enough to incur the old man's wrath.
"You should take a leaf out of Teresa's book," he continued, gesturing to the older girl as she poured his coffee. "There's a young woman who understands the proprieties and can behave accordingly!"
Teresa dithered, wanting to leave but not sure whether Murdoch expected her to stay. She was rather red in the face but both Murdoch and Jemimah were too het up to take much notice. Jemimah faced her miserably, the first tear leaking from her watery eyes.
"I know it. Teresa told me I was acting like an idiot an' she was right," she sniffled. "It's all my fault about the money for the stallion an', if there was any way I could pay it back, I'd do it like a shot. Honest I would!"
Murdoch had stopped shouting and his voice became a low growl. He inclined his head to the kitchen, releasing Teresa from her anguished loitering. "Young lady," he addressed his daughter as he fished a handkerchief from his vest pocket and passed it to her. "If I had any say in the matter, you'd be wearing my handprint across your backside instead of some silly tattoo."
She hung her head and wiped her nose. "That's what Johnny said."
"Hmph." Murdoch straightened and he sipped at the coffee Teresa had poured for him. "I hope my son has the good sense to carry it through."
"I wish I had some brass of my own; I'd pay it all back. I hate it that Johnny's plans are all ruined 'cos of my stupidity. He's worked so hard."
Murdoch's blue eyes softened and he reached down to pat her hand. "There now, don't cry anymore. What's done is done and your tears won't bring that money back. Maybe one day, you will be in a position to help Johnny financially. You would do all you could then, I'm sure."
Jemimah set about blowing her nose and, by the time she had mopped the last of her tears away, Murdoch had wandered out to the yard and was with Cipriano. She stared after him.
"Me help financially? Yeah... an' pigs might fly!"
Jemimah was just putting away the smoothing iron on its little trivet. Johnny's freshly laundered blue shirt was pressed and she hung it immediately next to her own clean dress for later that evening.
"Can I help with anything, Maria?" she approached the housekeeper who was seasoning the pan of soup on the stove.
"No niña, you have done enough. " Maria patted her cheek fondly and addressed Teresa. "She has worked hard today, has she not?"
"She certainly has." Teresa flashed the younger girl a reassuring smile. "We couldn't possibly have finished all this ourselves, Jemimah. Thank you for helping out today."
Jemimah crossed to the table where Teresa was carefully spreading chocolate frosting over a huge three layer cake. Awkwardly, she stuffed her hands into the back pockets of her jeans, chewing at her lip.
"Erm... I wanted to say I was sorry for being a nuisance these last few weeks," she mumbled, eyes cast down. "Dunno what got into me but you were right; I needed to shape up and stop bein' so selfish. I'm not a kid anymore an' I have responsibilities. I got a wonderful life an' I aim to show that I'm worthy of it."
Teresa had stilled, the knife laid gently back into the bowl of frosting. She was again rather red and Jemimah was puzzled to see her brown eyes glistening with emotion.
"You are worthy," Teresa whispered. "Just show Johnny how much you love him and that's enough."
"Here, you want to finish this cake for me? There's something I have to see to before the boys get back for dinner."
Wiping her hands on her apron, Teresa gave her a hesitant smile before speedily leaving the kitchen. Jemimah stared after her. Teresa sure was in a funny mood today. She wasn't snipping at her but then, she wasn't at ease either. She shook her head and picked up the knife to finish icing the cake.
"Cheer up, it might never happen!" Zee swept in from the kitchen garden, a grin spread across her handsome face. "Phew! Sure is breezy out there today. I must look a sight!"
She tossed her jacket over the back of a chair and set about re-pinning her long dark locks.
"Can't cheer up - it already did happen."
Zee took in Jemimah's subdued expression and tilted her head in sympathy. "Scott told me some of it. Is Johnny alright with you now? How about Murdoch - did he scold?"
"Did he ever! But I reckon I asked for it. Johnny an' me's fine now; though, of course, the money for the stallion is gone. Gone for good."
Zee clucked her tongue and put her arm around her little friend. "Say, how about we fetch that box of candy Mike gave to Teresa? Couple of pieces each?"
Jemimah shook her head. "Nah, not for me. I'm in enough trouble as it is. If I'm caught snitching spice from Teresa's room..."
Zee was already on her way to the door, a wicked grin on her face. "How can you get caught when I'm the one who's goin' to get it? If she finds out, I'll come clean."
Jemimah was still protesting but Zee waved her arguments aside and made her way to the stairs. She was halfway along the landing when she realised that the door to Teresa's room was ajar and it sounded very much as though someone in there was rummaging through a drawer or cupboard in search of something.
Zee paused in the shadows, hesitantly peeping through the gap near the hinges. From what little she could make out, Teresa herself was scuffling through the clean sheets and delving underneath the spare comforter in the blanket box at the end of her bed. She was definitely looking for something which had evidently been buried right at the bottom. Her dark head was almost in the box before she spied what she was after and, with a loud satisfied sigh, surfaced from the muddle. She deposited the thing on the end of the bed while she set the blanket box to rights.
Zee's mouth dropped open, her dark eyes wide. At first, she could not credit what she was seeing. She peered through the crack, incredulous and more than a little confused. Surely not?
By now, Teresa had tidied the box and closed the lid. She got up off the floor and moved to sit on the end of the bed, seizing the thing she had retrieved.
It was a little dainty blue drawstring purse.
Eyes narrowed, Zee watched as Teresa opened the purse and delved inside. What she drew out made Zee gasp and hastily cover her mouth lest she alert the other girl to her presence. For Teresa was now clutching a wad of bank notes in her hand. She quickly stuffed the bills back into the purse, tugging the strings up tight and hiding it in her apron pocket.
Zee moved rapidly across the landing and into the nearest room - Scott's old bedroom. She just managed to ease the door shut before Teresa came out. Leaning against the smooth wood, she pressed her ear close so that she could hear her retreating footsteps. When she knew that Teresa was on the stairs, she opened the door and silently followed, lurking back so that she would not be seen.
Teresa was looking this way and that and, satisfied that no-one was around to observe her, she reached onto the stand in the hall, withdrawing Jemimah's grey woollen coat and secreting the blue purse right at the bottom of one of the deep pockets. Then, still surreptitiously scanning the hall and great room, Teresa turned on her heel to head back down the corridor to the kitchen again.
Zee leaned her back against the smooth plaster of the wall and let out the breath that she had been holding. Well, at least Teresa hadn't kept the money! Not that she was the type to rob anyone, least of all her family. Then again, this was a pretty dirty trick to play and Zee would never have imagined Teresa capable of it. Jemimah had been in mighty hot water with her husband and father; Zee had been worried about both Jemimah and Johnny, despite Scott's reassurances that it would all blow over given time. That Teresa had actually been behind it all along infuriated Zee. She wanted avenge her little friend... but what could she do? It had to be something really sneaky to match Teresa's own subterfuge.
Zee moved to the top stair and looked down at the grey coat, hanging innocently on the stand. A crafty smile curved her full lips.
The warm feeling that Jemimah had experienced when Johnny had complimented her on the new rose-pink dress was rapidly dissipating with each pointed quip from the family. From the look on his face, Johnny was far from happy to be so forcibly reminded of the recent embellishment to her person. Only Murdoch and Teresa had not mentioned roses; even Scott had made a remark about roses being at the bottom of the list of Johnny's favourite blooms.
Eventually, he scowled and was heard to mutter something to Scott about Jemimah learning to pay more heed or running the risk of earning a few marks of a different kind.
Face burning, Jemimah herself kept her eyes lowered to her dish, spooning up her soup but far too mortified to taste a single thing.
Taking pity on his daughter and well aware of how hard she had worked all day in her efforts to make amends, Murdoch threw her a tiny reassuring smile and then cast the rest of the table a flinty warning look.
"I'd say that is quite enough talk of roses for one evening," he decreed. "I hadn't realised I had such a hoard of horticulturalists in my family."
Mike, seated beside Teresa, stifled a snort of laughter with his napkin and Zee threw a lump of bread, plucked from her roll, at him.
Teresa had been watching Jemimah from across the table and her brown eyes were filled with sympathy and maybe something else... regret? Zee observed her quietly and had to admit that she hadn't joined in the teasing at all. If anything, she looked as uncomfortable with the whole topic of conversation as Johnny and Jemimah.
She spoke up now, her voice soft. "Johnny, you shouldn't be too hard on her. She maybe was a little careless and... well, perhaps it was irresponsible to misplace that money. But, y'know, it could be that things are maybe not as bad as they seem. Jemimah..." Teresa turned to the girl who had been gradually trying to sink down in her seat. "Is it at all possible that you left the money in your coat pocket and are mistaken about losing it?"
Jemimah gave a tiny humourless laugh and shook her head sadly. "No, I'm not that stupid. The purse is gone and the money with it."
"Are you sure? I mean, you were in no fit state to be sure of anything; you probably didn't even look properly..."
"Teresa." Murdoch quietly tried to hush his ward. This line of questioning was only making Jemimah more uncomfortable and his younger son was now gritting his teeth.
"But Murdoch, it could be! Jemimah was almost feverish and she fell as she passed the saloon. She barely even knew what was happening. She could have pushed the purse deep down in her pocket and all this time we've been worrying for nothing."
"Teresa..." Now Johnny attempted to put an end to her pointless optimism.
"No Johnny, she could have!"
Jemimah plunked her spoon down with a clatter and, growing increasingly annoyed and embarrassed, she rose from her chair. "Alright! I'll look again but I already told you - I've looked in my coat and it's not there!"
She marched out to the hall, her skirts swishing, and returned seconds later, clutching the grey coat.
"Here, look!" Jemimah began to rifle through the pockets; first, the right - her hand came out empty - and then the left. Teresa leaned forward eagerly to see Jemimah holding something but her face fell when it was revealed to be a screwed up bandana.
"See? I told you; I'm not that daft that I can't look through my own pockets!"
Teresa's eyes were puzzled. "But... look again!"
"Teresa!" Jemimah was fairly hopping on the spot in irritation. It was bad enough that she had lost the money and that the whole family knew but this rigmarole was serving no purpose other than to embarrass her even further in front of everyone. She rammed her hands into both pockets and turned them inside-out with a wild glare. "There's nothing bloody well in there! See?"
Teresa was gaping as though flabbergasted. "But the left... it has to be..."
Scott's blue-grey eyes were narrowed. "Has to be? Why would you say that, Teresa?"
The family had all stilled, every eye on the white face of the utterly flummoxed Miss O' Brien.
"Yes, I'd like to know the answer to that too," Murdoch's voice was grim. "Teresa?"
She shot him a panicked look.
Jemimah lowered the coat, studying the older girl with disbelieving eyes.
There was a hectic blush rapidly staining her previously blanched countenance and suddenly she seemed incapable of looking up from her empty soup bowl.
"Teresa?" Murdoch pressed her, brows drawn together and a flinty glint in his eye.
She swallowed hard. "Alright. It was me."
"What was you?" Johnny asked softly.
"I... I saw Jemimah fall in the street. I ran across to help but, by the time I got there, they'd carried her into the saloon. That's when I heard her say she'd been to that Mr. Hildebrandt for a tattoo."
"Go on," Murdoch wanted the whole story.
"I was angry with her. She's been so... so reckless recently; neglecting her chores and... and you, Johnny..."
"Never mind me," Johnny's voice, though quiet, had a hard edge to it. "What did you do?"
"I found her purse in the street and... I hid it."
Teresa heard the gasp which came from her fiancé and, desperate for his understanding, she gabbled on.
"It was an awful thing to do, I know, and I've been regretting it almost from the very moment I took it. I can't think what came over me." She smoothed a non-existent wisp of hair back behind her ear which was almost as red as her face. "I know I was mad at her for... for so many reasons and I just wanted her to get a good scare; to take a long hard look at everything she stood to lose if she carried on in that same headlong way." Teresa's voice petered out.
Mike shifted in his chair, now breathing hard. "But... the trouble you caused - between man and wife..." He gestured impatiently to Johnny and Jemimah.
She nodded dismally. "I know, I know. And I swear I've been just miserable about it. I would never have caused any kind of bad feeling between you two, I promise you."
Johnny reached for Jemimah's hand though his blue gaze never left Teresa.
"In fact," she stumbled on. "It was exactly what I wanted to prevent. I thought, if Jemimah woke up to herself, that she would see what she was risking." Teresa dared to look up now, moist eyes sweeping the faces of her family around the table. What she encountered did not reassure her and she quickly stared back at the tablecloth. "Oh, I know I did a horrible thing and I suppose now you all are pretty angry with me. I don't blame you but all I can say is that I never meant for it to go this far. I tried to put the money back... in the coat..." She looked over at the grey garment which was now lying next to Jemimah.
"So, where is it now?" Scott frowned.
"I don't know!" she wailed, wringing her hands in anguish. "It was in the left pocket, I swear!"
"It ain't there now!" Jemimah snapped.
Teresa shook her head helplessly, her voice very small. "Then I really don't know."
There was silence while they all digested this shocking revelation.
"And all this was meant to teach Jemimah a lesson?" Murdoch growled.
Teresa gave a forlorn nod.
"A lesson?" Mike's voice was hard. "That's a sound idea." He rose, taking Teresa by the hand, and addressed Murdoch at the head of the table. "Sir, I have something I need to discuss with Teresa, if you would permit me?"
Murdoch regarded the young man for a long moment then inclined his head. Mike walked a dismayed Teresa across the great room and out of the front door into the quiet evening twilight.
Again, there was silence which was finally broken by Zee.
"I heard Teresa sayin' the other day that she feels like Mike is one of the family now an' she already knows she's goin' to love bein' his wife." Zee tried hard to suppress a wicked smirk. "Seems to me she might be regrettin' that hasty statement right about now!"
Zee grinned at Jemimah who was still far too bemused by all that she had just heard to return even a weak smile.
"I don't know what you're grinning at," Johnny said to his sister-in-law. "That money's still missing!"
Zee twiddled with one of the flowers in the table decoration before her, a secretive twinkle in those eyes. "Oh, I have a feelin' it'll turn up."
Scott watched his wife and smiled. Without a doubt, she had somehow played a part in this and he would enjoy quizzing her later, the little minx.
Jemimah reached out to Johnny and took his hand, threading her fingers through his and revelling in the sensation of that strong warmth. He glanced over at her and squeezed her hand, a smile lighting his face.
"It's gettin' chilly, ain't it?" She snuggled into her coat, instantly thinking back to the moment she rifled through the pockets at Teresa's insistence. It was still hard to believe this had all been part of some perverse lesson to make her toe the line.
Johnny breathed out slowly, his breath hanging like a tiny cloud in the night air. He released her hand to draw his suede jacket more closely about him and, as he did so, felt something bulky in his inside pocket. Flashing Jemimah an incredulous look of surprise, he fished into his coat and withdrew... the blue purse.
They both laughed as he tossed it into the air and caught it firmly.
"Zee said it'd turn up," she chuckled.
"Yeah, she did. I'm wonderin' how she knew, hmm?"
Jemimah shrugged. "You want me to take it into the bank tomorrow?" she twinkled, a hint of devilment in her smile.
There was a telling pause then, smiling, Johnny shook his head. She had only been joking but his hesitation spoke volumes and her smile faded.
"Hey!" She looked up at his soft call. "So much has happened tonight, I guess I'm already forgetting what that tattoo of yours was. A heart?"
She smiled and felt herself blush. "You know full well it isn't, Johnny Lancer."
He wrinkled up his nose as he pretended to think back. "A bird?"
Jemimah sniggered. "A rose... as you know very well."
"A rose? You sure? I guess I need another look at it; remind myself."
Jemimah laughed at the suggestive way he wiggled his eyebrows. "It's a good thing you're my husband or that certainly wouldn't be proper."
"Yeah? Well, I get the feeling that Mike was planning on studying Teresa's rear end earlier and they're not married yet."
They shared a smile and linked hands once more.
"I always knew I liked Mike," she chortled.
"You little devil," he laughed. "Alright honey, you gonna tell me how the purse got into my pocket?"
Jemimah shrugged again. "Maybe I have a guardian angel?"
Johnny mulled this over for a minute then said, "Somehow, I don't think even Scott would ever call Zee an angel."
At home, Jemimah followed him to the barn to milk Jessamie while he settled and fed the horses. As he dealt with Barranca, she leaned on the wall by the door and he glanced back at her over his shoulder.
"What is it?"
She had been far away, deep in thought. "I feel... kinda bad. About Teresa."
Johnny smiled. She never ceased to amaze him. He had expected her to be full of righteous indignation at the way Teresa had gone about trying to change her attitude but, apparently, she was feeling sorry for the girl. Usually, they snapped at each other like cat and dog. Now, when she ought to be angry, Jemimah was forgiving and concerned? He was surprised... but gratified. "Wasn't your idea to play the trick this time, honey. She's reaping what she's sown."
She made a poor effort to squash a grin at the memory of the oh-so-perfect Teresa O' Brien being walked out of the dining room by her indignant fiancé. "Yeh, I know but, in a way, that's my fault too."
"How do you figure that?"
"Well, if I hadn't been so annoying..." Johnny grinned at her and she nodded convincingly. "Oh, I was, Johnny; I know I was. Deliberate. I can't help it. There's somethin' about me an' Teresa that just won't mix. She's a good girl; she's nice, I know that deep down inside but... chalk an' cheese, we are. And the more she huffed an' puffed an' nagged on at me to pitch in, the more I dug my heels in. I know it. So, y'see, it is my fault she's in trouble with Mike right now. She'd never have played a mean trick like that if I hadn't pushed her to it. It's not really her way." She thought about it, one dark eyebrow raised as though impressed. "And it was a good one too; like somethin' I'd have done."
"Yeah. I s'pose so. Apart from Murdoch scoldin' my ears off, I came out of it all pretty unscathed whereas Teresa... well... not so much I think."
Johnny straightened, crossed over to her and took the pail of fresh milk from her to set it aside. He took hold of her hand and sighed, looking down at her with resignation.
"Well, alright. I'm kinda tired, honey but... if you insist..."
"Insist? Insist what? What are you on about?"
He tilted his head on one side to study her. "Well, I wasn't goin' to but... if you feel that bad an' you think you're to blame... I guess I could whomp the guilt away. If that's what you want?"
Jemimah tried to jerk her hand free, green eyes wide. "Nooo! I don't want. I very very don't want!"
Johnny feigned a look of concern. "Really? I mean... I sure don't want to but I can do it... if it'll help."
She was virtually dancing now in her efforts to free herself. "No! Are you crazy? I don't feel guilty anymore! I'm over it!"
"That was easy. I'm glad you feel better." He sniggered at her panicked expression and bent his head to plant a sweet lingering kiss on her surprised lips. Then, smiling softly down at her, he stroked her cheek with a tender hand, shaking his head in wonder. "Sassy woman... that's what you are, Jemimah Rose Lancer." Another soft kiss. "Wouldn't have you any other way."
Retrieving the milk pail, they walked arm in arm to the house.
A million stars twinkled above, shining so brightly it seemed that each one was vying with its neighbour to be the star that Johnny and Jemimah picked that night.
Anne Haslam September 2014