He was sitting on the sofa, before the open fire in the Great Room, a glass in his hand, as he had done so many times before. But tonight was different. So much to think about. She walked into the room, as she had done so many times before. But tonight was different. She could sense it, too. She stood in front of him, ready to ask him if he was coming to bed, but he reached up and pulled her down next to him. She snuggled in, having never tired of his touch, his smell, his presence.
“I bet they’re worth more than a penny,” she ventured.
He favoured her with that smile – the one that to this day turned her legs to jelly and her insides to liquid.
“To you, maybe,” he drawled.
“Then share them.”
“I was just thinking about how strange life is. Of all of us, who’d have thought that I’d be the one sitting here now? I can’t believe even my little sister Teresa didn’t live this long. You know, Scott once gave me until 30 before I’d be in my grave and I thought that was generous. I’d figured on 25 tops. But here I am, and the rest of them all gone.”
“It’s a pity none of them could have seen you tonight, surrounded by your children, your grandchildren, your nieces. Me. Each of them would be so happy for you, dear heart. You’ve had 40 years you’d never counted on. Are you happy?”
“You of all people shouldn’t need to ask me that. I’ve been blessed. Many times over. But I’ve done nothing to deserve it. How does that happen?”
“You, my love, are what is called a survivor. Nothing could ever bring you down. No matter what life threw at you, you always threw it straight back.”
“I’ve been sitting here tonight thinking about some of those things life threw at me.”
“Do you want to talk?” she enquired gently, softly, almost fearful of his answer.
“I want to remember and be grateful. Mostly grateful for you, my love. Where would I be without you? You were my redemption.”
“Well, I did promise you I’d never leave you alone. I promised it long before our wedding vows. And I meant it.”
“Ah, but you did leave me.”
“Briefly and for your own good, dear heart. But I came back.”
“You mean I went and brought you back.”
“Whatever you say. Lucky it was then and not now. I think even you would struggle to kick down a door nowadays.”
“Don’t ever give me a reason to try it again, please.”
She knew how much that time had hurt him and didn’t want him focussing on that tonight. Birthdays were meant to be a time of celebration. She disengaged herself and got up to refill his glass for him. This time as she joined him on the sofa she laid her head in his lap before asking him, “Do you think much of the Broughton’s anymore?”
“No more than all the other men I killed.” If it wasn’t the smile turning her insides liquid then it was that quiet drawl he still had. Was she lucky to still feel such desire for her husband? Or was this God torturing her? “How about you?”
She chuckled gently. “No more than all the other men I killed.”
He joined her laughter. “I’m glad they haven’t haunted you, my love. What they did to you, to us, well… it could have eaten us up inside.”
“But it didn’t. Just like every other hard time we’ve had, we got over it.” She was aware of how much hurt his life had held and she had done all she could to make up for it. “And whether we like it or not that time is a part of the story of our Becky. Not that I think I could ever tell her about it. You know, of all our children she looks the most like you. Did you ever wonder about that?”
“Nope. It’s just one of the many things I’m grateful for.” His mind was drifting along another track now. She could tell from the look in those mesmerising blue eyes. “She’s so different to our Sarah, isn’t she?”
“Now Sarah is the one of our children that you poured most of your essence into. That’s what makes her so special,” she murmured.
“Sure. She was the child we had to have to bring you back. After your accident I didn’t know how to do that at first. But I had to get you feeling again. And moving again. And just being again. Getting you back on Barranca was a start. That day you finally rode off out of sight I had to force myself not to follow you. But I knew that if I didn’t let you do it then… She found it impossible to go on. He tenderly stroked her hair, her face, her throat until she regained her composure. “Well, anyway, that was the start. But I knew we needed more. Showing you I still desired you was no problem, even if you had trouble believing me. The hardest part was convincing you to have another child. To be a father again. In the end we got back the husband, father, rancher… the man… we thought we’d lost. And in the process you poured so much of yourself into it that you made Sarah into a miniature version of yourself. Or at least, the self you might have been because, unlike you, Sarah always had security.”
“Such a wise and clever wife I married. I can’t imagine life without you. I can barely remember life before you and I can’t contemplate life without you.” He leaned forward and kissed her. Part of him wanted to go upstairs right now but part of him had started down this path of reminiscences and he was loath to stop now. He sat back and sighed.
“What now, dear heart?” she begged.
“I look at Jim and Jack and I feel so proud. I’m glad Scott was there for them. He was such a perfect uncle to them. They learnt so much from him.”
“They are lucky. The two of you were in some ways opposite ends of the spectrum and having you both kind of rounded them out nicely. And from the pair of you together they learnt that all men must have integrity and honesty and respect. Yes, they are lucky.”
They sat there musing, her head still in his lap, him slowly sipping his tequila.
“By the way, since we’re bringing up old times, I don’t think I’ve ever told you that Scott asked me to marry him.” She laughed out loud at the dumbstruck look on his face. “See, I still have surprises for you, cowboy. Scott could have been their father instead of you.”
His penetrating gaze pierced her to the core. “Don’t stop there. You can’t possibly stop there.”
“It was while I was in Mattingly, before you came for me. It shouldn’t surprise you that marrying me was an option for Scott.”
His focus softened. “No, it’s no surprise. In fact, it’s so like Scott that I’m surprised I didn’t consider it before.” Even softer now, he said, “I miss him so much.”
“We all do, but nothing like the way you do. After all, he was really the one to start bringing you back from Madrid.”
“He was,” he agreed. “But do tell me, did you consider accepting his offer?”
“I told him he would be happier with an older woman, one with a history and stories to draw out. Guess I was right on that score, too.”
“Have I told you what a wise and clever wife I married?”
“Just don’t you forget it.”
“I won’t. I don’t. Promise.”
More gazing into the dying embers. “Have I been a good enough father? As a kid I didn’t really have much an example to go by. When I first came here I thought Jelly was more like a father to me than Murdoch was. I miss Jelly. He just accepted me without judgement. I’ve tried to do that for our children. You know, I think it was only after Jelly died that Murdoch felt he could take over that role. Up until then he’d been kind of distant, judgemental. Maybe even scared in a way.”
“He lived long enough to see you happy and settled and that comforted him. It was his guilt that made him drive you so hard. I was pleased when the day came that I could see you both at peace with each other. It kind of crept up on us when we weren’t looking. It may have been a long time coming, but it was worth the wait.”
“I’ve told you what a wise and clever wife I have. Have I also told you how deeply I desire my wise and clever wife?” Oh no, there was that look, that voice. Every time it found its mark.
“Not recently, cowboy. What are you going to do about it?” Her voice thickened.
“I’m going to carry you upstairs now and have my way with you.” This brought a smile to her face.
“You’re going to carry me upstairs?”
“Do you doubt I could do it?’
“Johnny, there is one thing in this life I have learnt and that is never to doubt you. Even with one arm and one leg I know you could carry me upstairs. But you know what?” She got off the sofa and waited until he gained his balance next to her. “You’re going to have to catch me first.” And with that she took off towards the stairs with him in hot pursuit, both of them laughing, eyes shining.