seem to hurt the most
I wear the pain like a heavy coat.
I feel you everywhere I go.
I see your smile, I see your face,
I hear you laughing in the rain.
I still can't believe you're gone.
It ain't fair, you died too young,
Like the story that had just begun,
But death tore the pages all away.
God knows how I miss you,
All the hell that I've been through,
Just knowing no one could take your place.
And sometimes I wonder,
Who you'd be today?
Would you see the world? Would you chase your dreams?
Settle down with a family,
I wonder what would you name your babies?
Some days the sky's so blue,
I feel like I can talk to you,
And I know it might sound crazy....
--From the song, "Who You'd Be Today"
Performed by Kenny Chesney
Laura stared at the McGuffey reader lying on her desk, wishing she could somehow disappear into its pages, if she just stared long and hard enough. Her life had been reduced to this -- a one-room, makeshift schoolroom in a backwoods, one-horse cow town in the wilderness of California. Six months ago she wouldn't have thought it possible. Was it really only six months ago Cousin Sarah had told her she needed to "move on" with her life? Easy for her to say. She had her perfect home in Baltimore, with her perfect husband, David, and her even more perfect little boy. She was already expecting another baby. Laura didn't really resent Sarah for that; her own life just hadn't worked out at all as she had expected. Her cousin simply didn't understand why she had ignored the increasingly few eligible bachelors who came to call. At twenty-three she was already considered a bit old for a conventional marriage; she might attract an older widower with children to raise or a man seeking to improve his financial outlook and social prospects, but that was about it. But, Laura rationalized, Sarah hadn't known Scott. Hadn't grown up with him as her best friend. Hadn't loved him more than life itself for as long as she could remember. Now Scott Lancer was dead. Dead for over four years, shot and killed in an ill-fated attempt to escape from a Confederate prison camp. She hadn't even known he'd joined the Army. Her father seemed to take pleasure in destroying her world that day in London. Her knees had buckled, leaving her sobbing uncontrollably on the floor when he uttered those life-shattering words, "He's dead, Laura." She had been, by turns, disbelieving, angry, and desolate. Now, she just felt numb. She would never marry, never bear children, and never know the joy of holding the man she adored in her arms as he made love to her. She had almost come to terms with that. Almost. At least during the day when she could occupy her mind and hands with being obsessively busy. The nights were torturous, with dreams so real she awakened soaked in sweat, tears streaming down her face, afraid she had awakened others with her screams.
"Oh, Laura, enough of this," she said to herself. "It really is time to move on. Sarah's right, whether you want to admit it or not." It was time to be the teacher the children needed and deserved. Time to be the Miss MacNeill they thought she was – the educated lady who had grown up in Boston, lived in London, and summered in the French countryside. Not the sad and lost Laura MacNeill who would cry over a man long dead and refuse adamantly to ever return to Boston.
Laura had seen the advertisement in the newspaper by accident. David had left his New York paper lying in the parlor of the Baltimore house back in May. She had picked it up to discard it when the bold headline caught her eye: "Teachers Needed in California." There was an address in Sacramento for the California Educational Society, along with encouragement for young women "of good repute" to send their qualifications and requirements. She hadn't had any "requirements" unless you counted a desperate need to find something, anything, to do with her life. Sarah and David, though polite, seemed to be growing tired of their long-term houseguest. Laura knew she was qualified to teach. Father and countless tutors had seen to that. So, she had written to the Society indicating her willingness to accept a teaching position anywhere in California, and she had received an offer of employment in due course. It seemed the preacher in the tiny town of Morro Coyo had requested the Society provide a teacher for the town's children, maintaining if the village was to grow and thrive, it needed to educate its youngest citizens.
It was Tuesday afternoon, her first full day of teaching in her little schoolroom finished, and she was exhausted, physically and emotionally. Monday had been spent organizing the classroom, meeting the children and their mothers, and assessing each child's skills at reading and arithmetic. She had arrived on Sunday afternoon, taking the stage from Sacramento after an interminable trip across the country on the newly completed transcontinental railroad. She was supposed to have arrived days earlier, but constant track and locomotive repairs had delayed the train. The Reverend and Mrs. Granville met her at the stage, proudly escorting her to the new school improvised from an abandoned storefront. Unfortunately, Laura noted, it was directly across the street from the saloon. "It couldn't be helped," the Reverend had said with some embarrassment, adding, "It was the only building available."
They had built a small kitchen in the little room at the back and a bedroom for Laura on the second floor. It was a far cry from Beacon Hill in Boston or Knightsbridge in London, but it was a roof over her head. And it was as far from Boston as she could go and still remain in the United States. Come to think of it, that had been her second "requirement."
Her musings were interrupted by the creak of the schoolroom door. She looked up as Sammy (what was his last name?) – "Jenkins," she said to herself – the doctor's grandson – stuck his head in the doorway. Actually, Sammy's father was a doctor too, newly arrived in town to help his own aging physician father with an ever-increasing patient load. "Ummm, Miss MacNeill?" He rubbed his right foot against his left shin. "I forgot my lunch pail. Mama said I had ta come 'n' get it before I can go play."
Laura smiled at the little towhead. "Go ahead, Sammy. I put it on the shelf over there." She pointed to the shelf against the wall, reserved for storing the student's lunch pails. Sammy strolled over to the shelf and retrieved the forgotten pail.
"I'm sorry, Miss MacNeill. I'll see ya tomorrow, 'K?"
"Sure, Sammy." He was out the door with a quick grin and a wave. "I'll see you bright and early in the morning," she called out after him.
Shaking her head, Laura rose from her desk. She would wipe down the chalkboard and straighten up. Maybe dinner and a warm bath would raise her spirits. A good night's sleep couldn't hurt, either. Laura knew she needed to develop her lesson plans, but her mind was too tired to function. As she bent down and picked up the damp rag from the bucket she had placed under the chalkboard for ease in cleaning it, the door to the schoolroom creaked open again. She turned her head to glance back. "Sammy did you forget something else…?" But it wasn't Sammy. The last thing Laura remembered seeing before her eyes rolled up in her head was Scott Lancer standing in the doorway, his hat in his hand, and a look of total disbelief on his face.
When she came to, she was looking into his eyes as he wiped her cheeks with the chalkboard rag she dropped as she fainted. She had almost forgotten how vibrantly blue they were. It took a few moments for her to get her bearings and realize he wasn't a ghost. He was flesh and blood, and he was kneeling on the floor holding her tightly in his arms.
"You're alive?" Laura whispered the words so softly she wasn't sure she had spoken out-loud.
"Obviously." Scott grimaced and shifted her in his arms. "Do you think you can sit in the chair now? This floor isn't terribly comfortable."
She nodded. "I think so." Her mouth felt so dry she could barely get the words out. Scott picked her up and gently placed her in the desk chair. She was barely settled when he pulled his arms away and backed up.
"What are you doing here, Laura?" His eyes were the color of storm clouds, the color they had always turned when he was angry. "Actually...." He turned his back on her with a dismissive wave of his hand and walked over to the side of the room. "You don't need to answer that. It doesn't really matter."
Laura, still feeling dizzy and more than a little nauseated, focused her eyes on his back frantically trying to come to terms with the fact he was actually alive and standing in her schoolroom. She saw his hair was longer, his shoulders broader. The muscles in his arms rippled as he flexed his fingers against the wall. The Scott she remembered was there, but he was no longer the gangly adolescent college student she had fallen so deeply in love with. The highlights in his blond hair reflected the light, creating a halo around his head as the late afternoon sun filtered in the window. She noticed, before he turned his back on her, the furrow in his forehead had appeared, the crease that always signaled something had disturbed him. His much-beloved tip-tilted eyes were distant and clouded; she had seen that look in his eyes far too many times when his grandfather had said or done something to anger him. The full lips she had kissed so hungrily in the past were now pursed in a thin line.
The silence in the room dragged on before Scott spoke again, softly this time, his voice husky with emotion. "Do you have any idea what you did to me when you left, Laura? No goodbye. No message. Nothing."
The coldness in his voice made her shiver, and she was confused and hurt by his refusal to even look at her. As badly as she wanted to run to him, to touch him again to make sure he was real, she wouldn't beg. Her mind was too garbled at that moment to make much sense of anything anyway. "It's not as though I had any choice, Scott," she retorted. "And I did write to you – nearly every day for two years. You weren't the only one who had their heart ripped out."
"Honestly, Laura," he snapped as he retrieved his hat off her desk and stalked out the door, "right now I'm not sure I care." He slammed the door behind him so hard the walls vibrated.
The shivering turned to shaking that started in her hands and took control of her entire body. She hugged her arms to her chest, rocking back and forth in her chair, the sobs coming in great gulping waves that hurt and made it nearly impossible to breathe. "It's just not possible," she said over and over until the words were no more than a whisper. "It's just not possible. Father said you were dead."
She sat in the desk chair, her head braced against the chalkboard until, utterly exhausted, she dozed off. Awakened in the wee hours of the morning by sounds in the street outside, she got up stiffly from the chair and crawled up the stairs to her room, splashed stale water from the basin onto her face to wash the chalk residue off, and changed her clothes. Beyond numb, she didn't feel anything. The children would be coming to school soon, she thought with resignation. Somehow she'd have to make it through the day; just put one foot in front of the other. Keep breathing.
Sammy Jenkins was the first through the door when she opened the school that morning. "Hi, Miss MacNeill! Oh—you don't look too good this morning."
The circles under her eyes were a deep purple, and she'd had trouble pinning her hair up properly, her hands still shaking from fatigue and shock. The child was far too observant. Perhaps there would be yet another generation of doctors in the Jenkins family, she thought ruefully.
"I don't look too well, Sammy," Laura corrected him, trying to keep the tremor from her voice. "I think my long trip has caught up with me."
"Alright, everyone – please put your lunch pails away and take your seats. Sammy just mentioned that I don't appear too well today." Laura decided she might as well turn this into a lesson and make the best of it. "I am tired this morning. I spent all of last week on a train, crossing our magnificent country from Baltimore, where I used to live, to Sacramento. Do any of you know where Baltimore is located?" Several hands went up, waving eagerly. "Yes, Mary?" Twelve-year-old Mary Granville, the preacher's daughter, seemed to be the most well-read child in the class.
"It's in the state of Maryland, Miss MacNeill, near our country's capital city," Mary said proudly.
"That's right, Mary. Baltimore is in Maryland, one of our first colonies. The city was named for Cecelius Calvert, Lord Baltimore, the founder of the Maryland colony." Just keep talking, Laura, she thought, and you'll be all right. "It was also the final home of Edgar Allan Poe, a wonderful author whose stories Mary and Anna will be reading soon. Sc….I have always enjoyed his writing." Dear God, I almost said 'Scott and I'. Laura took a deep breath and continued. "Baltimore is about forty miles northeast of Washington, District of Columbia. Here, I can show you on a map." Laura unrolled the large map of the United States, the only map she had available in her classroom at the moment. "I started here in Baltimore, on the Patapsco River. That's near the Chesapeake Bay here," she pointed, "and the Atlantic Ocean. I traveled across Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Missouri to Omaha, Nebraska." She traced the route with her finger. "From there, the train crossed through Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada and over the Sierra Nevada Mountains to Sacramento."
What she didn't tell the children was how mind numbing and frustrating the trip had been. As a young woman traveling alone, she had been the subject of intense speculation on the part of her fellow passengers. The men stared at her with obvious interest, while the women's gazes held a mixture of pity and contempt. Then there was Nicholas Pruitt, who, unknown to her at the time, was a Pinkerton agent sent by Cousin Sarah's husband, David, to protect her during the trip. Her feelings toward him had both confused and disturbed her. She had talked with him or read by wavering lamplight in her tiny Pullman berth as the miles clacked by her window. She didn't miss Baltimore at all, however. The harbor with its tides and ships moving in and out and its odor of fish and saltwater reminded her far too much of Boston.
Somehow, she managed to survive the day, wanting nothing more than to drag her aching mind and body upstairs. If only she could sleep, perhaps she could escape the agony, if just for a little while. The familiar dull pain she had lived with, believing Scott was dead, was preferable to the searing heartbreak of seeing him alive and not being able to hold him. Worse still was the coldness he had displayed towards her; indifference contradicted by the simmering anger that flashed in his eyes. His parting shot, "I'm not sure I care" echoed in her overwrought mind. How could he not care? How could he not feel anything after what we had? Too tired to try to eat, Laura stumbled up the stairs to her little room and fell onto the bed, not bothering to wash or undress.
She dozed fitfully until the noise from the saloon awakened her. Wrapping the quilt from her bed across her shoulders, she settled into the rocking chair next to the window. She somehow had to think. She needed to decide what to do next since her plan to "move on" with her life had gone horribly wrong.
Where else is there left for me to go, though? Boston is completely out of the question. I could never face the memories of Scott there, even more so now I know he's alive. Our first waltz, our first kiss, our walks on the Common....Sarah and David really don't have any use for me in Baltimore. I guess I could move back to London, but there're too many bad memories there, too. I could never sit in that parlor without hearing Father tell me Scott was dead over and over again.
She contemplated writing or wiring Nicholas. He had left his business card, along with a letter urging her to contact him if she ever needed help. But, she conceded to herself, running to his arms wouldn't be fair to either of them. Regardless of her lack of options, she decided, she would give Reverend Granville and the Educational Society her notice. Somehow, she would survive the next few weeks, and then she would be gone. She could take the train back east, stopping in whatever town held her fancy, staying only as long as it suited her. She would actually miss the children, and she hated to feel as though she was abandoning them, but children were resilient. Once a new teacher was settled, she would be only a fleeting memory.
Washing up in the morning, Laura changed into a fresh skirt and blouse. She'd have to find a place to wash her clothes, she thought, or maybe find someone she could pay to do it. She was rapidly running out of clean clothes. It occurred to her there was so much she didn't know how to do for herself. She could make herself a cup of tea and brew a pot of coffee, but she'd never had to wash her clothes or cook a real meal. She could saddle a horse or hitch a team if she had to; horses had long been her passion. She could knit and sew fancy stitches quite well, but she'd never drawn her own bath or had to beat a rug. Father really hadn't done her any favors, insisting she excel at her Latin and French lessons while neglecting to teach her any useful skills. But then, it would never have occurred to her father that a woman of her breeding and status would need to learn such basic crafts; his expectation had been that she would enter into an advantageous marriage and have others take care of rudimentary chores for her. Well, she'd just have to learn the basics for herself. She had only herself to rely on now, the future stretching interminably before her. Thankfully, she had an adequate sum of money tucked away, left to her by her maternal grandmother when she died the year before. It would last for quite a while, if she was frugal. The trip to California hadn't inflicted even a small dent in it.
The children milled into school, chattering excitedly among themselves and proving difficult to settle down. Eventually she managed to achieve a semblance of order, and the students settled into their lessons. The older children spent the morning reviewing, and in some cases, learning, basic addition. The youngest students were still learning their numbers. But at least when she was teaching, Laura didn't have to think about anything else.
The hands on the watch pinned to her blouse seemed to move excruciatingly slowly, but the school day did finally come to an end, the children spilling exuberantly out of the schoolhouse door as they were dismissed. Laura sat down at her desk, her head in her hands. She knew she needed to eat something, but the thought of food made her feel nauseated. She managed to drag herself to her tiny kitchen to make a cup of tea and forced herself to nibble on an apple her youngest student, Lettie, had shyly presented to her that morning. I suppose I'll try to buy some staples tomorrow. Maybe Mrs. Granville has some recipes I could manage.
Taking her cup of tea, she once again wandered up the stairs to her room, settled into her rocker, and watched life beyond her window unfold. The saloon seemed to be the village's most popular attraction – at least with the men. The place never seemed to close down, cowboys coming and going, sometimes with their arms around garishly dressed women, all day and night. Laura wondered what the respectable women of the town thought of the saloon girls. The women of the Ladies’ Society had kindly sent her an invitation to join them. She gathered that the Society was an exclusive group in Morro Coyo; Mrs. Granville had taken great pains to impress upon her how important it would be for her to meet "all the right ladies" in town and become involved in the social and charitable functions they organized. The preacher's wife had been terribly impressed with her Eastern society roots. Now there didn't seem to be any point in getting involved. Exhausted from the jumbled emotions plaguing her weary mind, Laura fell asleep in her rocker, the empty teacup still in her hand.
"Finally," she sighed. "Friday." It had been a long and exhausting week. She would go to the store after school. Buy a few things. Get some sleep. Read. Go to church on Sunday. Keep busy and not allow herself time to think too much. She wasn't sure how much faith in God she had left after the past few years, but the Reverend and Mrs. Granville had made it clear they expected her to occupy a pew on Sunday. She dreaded the thought of going to church, worried Scott might be there with his cold eyes and tight-lipped condemnation. They had always attended Sunday services together in Boston. Part of her desperately wanted to see him again; the other part of her couldn't face the rejection in his eyes. As for the future, she'd think about it next week and the week after that when she had to. Until then, well, she'd just try to keep breathing.
School over, and the children out the door as fast as they could manage, she straightened up her desk and cleaned the chalkboard. After retrieving her reticule and her hat from her room, she headed out the door herself, a list of necessary items outlined in her mind.
Mr. Baldemarro greeted her with enthusiasm at his store. "Senorita! Welcome! What can I help you find?"
"Well, I need coffee and tea, some flour, sugar, and salt" she started. "Just a little of each, please. Oh, and maybe some beans?" How hard could they be to cook?
Mr. Baldemarro raised his eyebrows at the request for beans, but he collected her requests and insisted she take a freshly baked apple pie as well. "My wife would want you to have it," he said. "We are so happy to have you teaching our Elena."
Laura thought privately they wouldn't be "so happy" if they knew she wouldn't be there for much longer. "Thank you! The pie smells wonderful! I know I'll enjoy it." She smiled back at the shopkeeper. Maybe I can even stomach a piece so it doesn't all go to waste.
Carrying her purchases in a cloth flour sack provided by the storekeeper, Laura shifted them to her left arm and juggled the pie while she struggled to open the schoolhouse door. Finally, she managed to maneuver it open, grateful she had neglected to lock it. She looked up as she stumbled in – and caught her breath. The pie barely escaped decorating the front of her skirt.
Scott was sitting at her desk, pushing her inkwell back and forth between his hands. When he saw her come in, he stood up and held up his hands in mock surrender, reacting to the stunned expression on her face. "I didn't come here to upset you, Laura," he said quickly, no doubt reading the wariness that had replaced the shock in her eyes. "I thought maybe we could talk. Try to sort things out."
"Judging from your reaction the other day, Scott, I'm not sure what there is to 'sort out,'" she replied. Laura moved past him to put her groceries in the kitchen, trying to stifle the panic that had her heart racing and bile clogging the back of her throat.
"Laura, I behaved very badly the other day. I hope you'll forgive me. Seeing you standing there was as big a shock to me as seeing me obviously was to you."
"Somehow, I doubt that,” she retorted, spinning to face him, her hands clenched into fists. “You weren’t looking at a ghost."
He leaned against the doorframe, his thumbs hooked in his gun belt, his body filling the opening. His eyes were focused on her as if searching for something he had lost. The anger in his gaze was gone, replaced by a wistfulness, a longing that tugged at her soul.
"That may be so," he said evenly. "But this is the last place I'd have expected to find you."
The anger died more quickly than it had flared as she grudgingly admitted to herself Scott was right. She chewed on her upper lip, unable to come up with any rational argument. The silence stretched on painfully as she waited for him to say something, anything. But he just stood there, as quiet and patient as she had ever known him to be.
"Would you like a piece of pie? It's apple. I can make some coffee to go with it." Even as the words left her lips, Laura knew it was a bizarre shift in their conversation. But she felt like she needed to break the silence. She had to get him to move before she lost the composure it had taken her three days to restore. "Cherry pie used to be your favorite as I recall."
"Yes, cherry is still my favorite, but apple pie and coffee would be nice," Scott conceded with a lopsided grin.
His smile had the same unnerving effect on her she remembered from years past. Laura took out a plate and some silverware and, with her back turned from him to hide her shaking hands, sliced a large wedge of the pie. She handed him the plate, removing her hand quickly as he took it, afraid he would feel her trembling through the porcelain. "It'll take a minute for me to brew the coffee. You can sit there if you'd like." She gestured towards her desk as she turned towards the stove. "I'm sorry, but I don't have a proper table."
"The desk will be fine." He walked over, placed the plate on the desk and returned to lean against the kitchen door. "Aren't you going to have a piece, too? You've become a good deal thinner than I remembered."
Why do you have to do that to me when I've worked so hard at being angry with you? Fighting back tears, Laura snapped, "And why should my eating habits be of any concern to you?"
He took a deep breath before responding, momentarily biting his tongue as he had a habit of doing when he needed to think of what to say next. His voice calm and even, Scott replied, "I deserved that. I know I hurt you the other day. I'm sorry. But can we declare a truce long enough to talk about what happened and where you've been for the last six years?"
She shook her head as she pushed past him, through the door and into her classroom, her eyes overflowing. "Laura...." Scott whispered her name gently, and he tried to take her arm, but she pushed his hand away.
"Don't...please...just give me a minute." She dried her eyes on her sleeve. Father would certainly have chastised her for that. A lady always carried a handkerchief. Sitting down at Sammy's desk, she fought to calm herself. She was aware Scott had followed her into the room, but she didn't trust herself to acknowledge he was there.
Scott perched on the corner of her desk, his arms loosely folded across his chest. "What happened that night? The night of my graduation party? Why did you disappear?"
She hesitated before answering. "Why does it matter now? Is there really any point in reliving it all?"
"I think so. I think I have a right to know."
"I suppose so." She sniffed and rubbed at her nose with the palm of her hand. "I'm not even sure where to begin."
"I walked you home after the party that night. We danced until after midnight, and you still didn't want to leave. Do you remember?"
"I remember it as though it was yesterday," she admitted. "After we ... said goodnight," she continued, blushing at the memory of the kisses and words of love that had marked their separation, "I went into the house. Something seemed odd -- there were too many lamps lit for that late in the evening. I was halfway up the stairs when Father came out of the library. He had come home early from his business trip." The room blurred into shadows as she stared at nothing in particular, remembering that fateful night; her voice wavered as she recalled how quickly events had unfolded. "He already knew I'd been out with you, and he was livid. He told me he was aware you and I had been 'slipping out' to see each other, and he was going to put a stop to it once and for all. Katie had packed my trunks before he dismissed her. I begged him to tell me why he hated your grandfather so much; why he wouldn't let us be together anymore. He never would tell me. He said it was 'business' but none of my business."
"I may be able to explain that later," Scott said quietly. "Go on."
She found it was easier to talk if she didn't look into his eyes. She stared at her hands, folded on the desk in front of her. "Father told me to change out of my ball gown and into traveling clothes. Then he packed me off to one of his ships in the care of his valet."
"At two o'clock in the morning?" Scott's left eyebrow disappeared under his bangs.
"It was a terribly long night." Laura managed a small smile. "He wouldn't let me leave a note for you, and the few household staff who knew what had happened, wouldn't dare cross him by telling you, or anyone else, what he had done. They valued their livelihoods too much. The ship's crew was also sworn to silence. MacNeill Shipping was and still is a force to be reckoned with in Boston."
Scott took a moment to consider what she was telling him. Incredible as it all seemed, the Laura MacNeill he had known and fallen so hopelessly in love with years before had simply not been capable of lying to him. She had never been anything but completely honest. It was doubtful she could have changed that much, even in six years. He shifted his position on the desk. "So where did your father send you?"
"London. He apparently had been planning it for weeks, if not months, waiting for just the right time and the right excuse. He sent me to London to live with his sister, my Aunt Louise, and my Uncle Henry." She waited as he took this in. His face was unreadable as he waited for her to continue. How could she tell Scott how desolate that trip had been? How she had cried and begged the captain to let her go, and how she had barely eaten or slept during the entire voyage. She had been so seasick her throat had become raw and her chest sore from vomiting. "He had convinced Aunt Louise that I needed a woman's discipline, that I was 'out of control.' He wrote to her that you had been a 'terrible influence' on me and were trying to turn me against him," she continued bitterly. "He told her the war was too much for a 'girl of my delicate sensibilities,' and I needed to be removed from its 'brutal reality'." Laura looked up to gauge his reaction. He simply had to believe her. It was the truth.
"I didn't think your father had any contact at all with your aunt and uncle."
"I didn't either. I didn't think he'd ever forgiven his sister for marrying an Englishman." She forced a smile at the memory of her father's fierce pride in his Scots heritage. "He rarely spoke of her when we were growing up."
"Well, they clearly had repaired their relationship. I wish we had known." He rose and walked over to the window. He stood there, with his hands on his hips, looking out onto the street. After a moment, he turned back towards her, a small frown on his face. "Why didn't you leave when you got to London? What stopped you from running away? I would've done anything, gone anywhere, to get you back."
She searched his eyes, looking for any hint of understanding. She was encouraged by the trace of sympathy she thought she saw there. "Scott, I was seventeen years old. I had no money of my own, no means to travel by myself. I was underage – no better than a piece of property. You didn't have any significant means of your own then, either. And, as for running away, well, Aunt Louise and Uncle Henry must have sensed I might try to run. They rarely left me alone." She saw a flash of anger cross his face. The very people who should have loved and protected her had treated her essentially as a prisoner. "I never had enough money to cable you -- Aunt Louise saw to that -- but I did write to you. You never answered."
"I never received your letters."
"I didn't think you'd have ignored them. I did finally realize Aunt Louise would never post a letter to you. I managed to slip away and send a few, though."
"Then my grandfather must have confiscated them." Scott gritted his teeth, clearly struggling to control his anger. The feud between two bitter old men had escalated out of control, sucking in the two young lovers. "Once you were gone, he couldn't use our relationship as leverage against your father. I suppose that's why he told me to 'move on, Scotty.' The bitterness in his voice was unmistakable as he recalled his grandfather's words. "Why did you think I was dead, Laura?"
She gazed at him, seeing the same abject feeling of loss in his eyes she had felt herself for all those years. They were six years they would never get back; years that had inflicted deep scars. "My father came to London in May of '65. His original intention was to take me back home to Boston. He had heard through his government contacts that you had been killed trying to escape from a Confederate prison camp." She noticed Scott winced as she mentioned the inaccurate report of his death. Whether it pained him to think she had believed him dead for all those years or something else, she couldn't tell. "I didn't even know you had joined the Army. That was four years ago, and I can still see Father's face and hear his voice when he told me you were dead. I've had nightmares about it ever since. When I saw you standing in that doorway on Tuesday, I truly thought I had seen a ghost."
"But you didn't come back to Boston." Scott's voice was persistent, but gentle, with no hint of accusation. "If you had, you would've found I was still alive." His voice took on a harder edge. "Apparently, your father somehow neglected to inform you of that fact."
The revelation hit her with a force that took her breath away, the bile again rising in her throat. "Father knew you were alive? How could he do that to me? He knew how much I loved you -- how I held out hope during those first years he would somehow relent and let me to be with you. It's just unbelievable." Laura rubbed her face with her hands, still trying desperately not to cry. "So he knew? Even when he came to get me?"
"Yes, he knew, Laura." Scott said quietly. "But not when he first came to bring you home in '65. After the war ended, and I was well enough to go home, I went to your house to beg him to tell me where you were, but he refused. What he did tell me was you had married, and you were lost to me forever."
Laura still struggled to take it all in. How could Father have intentionally deceived us both? Did he truly intend to destroy our lives? "So many lies," she murmured, shaking her head in disbelief, the sense of sadness overwhelming.
Scott finally spoke again. "Why didn't you come home with your father in '65? I can't imagine him tolerating what he would have considered more rebellious behavior on your part."
"No, he was beyond tolerating anything but my complete obedience," Laura agreed as she dried her eyes on the sleeve of her blouse again. "What I did was convince him to let me continue to live with Aunt Louise. I persuaded him that he was right; I needed a woman's influence." She looked up, trying to gauge whether or not Scott believed her. She longed to touch him, to feel his arms around her, to prove once and for all he was real. So many times over the years she had dreamed of him, felt his touch, and then, cruelly, awakened alone. "Scott, I didn't see any reason to go home. In fact, the idea made me feel physically ill. I thought you were dead, so there was nothing left for me in Boston but memories. I couldn't face life there without you, so I stayed in London. I buried myself in the theater, in books, and with my horses. And I swore I would never go back to Boston. And I never have."
"So, when did you come back?" Scott stood up yet again and stretched his back. He began to pace back and forth in front of her desk, the furrow in his brow pronounced as he focused on her every word.
Sarah, and her husband, David, had a baby early last year. Aunt Louise
thought it would be a wonderful idea for me to accompany her on the voyage
to Baltimore to see her new grandson. But, honestly, I think she was just
tired of dealing with me." She paused as she remembered that voyage, the
seasickness a violent reminder of her previous trip years before. "Since I
believed you were dead, I suppose she and Father didn't see any problem with
me staying in Baltimore with Sarah and David. I could help with the baby.
I had made it very clear I would never willingly return to Boston. From
what you said, Father knew you were alive by that time, so he supported my
travels and sympathized with my decision to avoid coming home. In fact, I
remember wondering why he seemed suddenly so agreeable for me to stay away.
It never occurred to me he was trying to hide the fact you were alive from
me. He encouraged me to stay in Baltimore, and urged me to 'settle down.'
Sarah never indicated she knew you were alive, so I gather her mother and my
father never told her the truth either. I stayed in Baltimore until I saw
an advertisement for teachers in California. I thought it was a good idea
to come out here since it was as far away from Boston as I could reasonably
It was my way of fleeing from my memories of you." She
sat in silence, waiting for Scott to respond.
Scott continued to pace endlessly back and forth without speaking. Thinking of her father's reprehensible behavior toward them both, Laura was reminded Scott seemed to know why he had hated Harlan Garrett so deeply. "Scott, you said you might know why my father despised your grandfather enough to send me away from you. I know Father and Mr. Garrett had business dealings, but I didn't pay any attention to them. I guess I was so busy with my lessons and horses...." She smiled weakly. "And you...that I didn't give more than a fleeting thought to Father's empire."
Scott stopped pacing and sat back down on the corner of her desk, toying yet again with her inkwell. He hesitated before carefully starting to explain. "Despite how I might feel about your father, or my grandfather right now, it's not a very pretty story. I hate to burden you with it."
"As you said before, I think I have a right to know. It's what drove us apart."
He chose his words with caution. "The two of them had various partnerships through the years, Laura. Apparently, the War created yet another opportunity for them to make a great deal of money." Scott smiled, the irony written on his face. "Not that either of them needed more money. What they did was to buy defective carbines from the Army for about $3.00 apiece. The Army was grateful to rid themselves of the rifles; too many soldiers were losing fingers, hands, or their lives when the guns misfired. Grandfather and your father then sold the same defective rifles back to the Army for five times the original purchase price."
Laura took a moment to take this in. She stared at Scott, incredulous, but she saw nothing but truth in his eyes. Still, she shook her head in disbelief. "How could they do that? Those poor soldiers! Why did the Army allow it? How could Father and your grandfather be that cold?"
"The Army was desperate for arms and munitions in '62,” Scott said. “The war was already dragging out longer than expected, and the War Department under Simon Cameron was, as you know, infamous for its corruption. But, ultimately, Grandfather and your father were investigated by the Department for war profiteering. Grandfather had been able to cover his involvement by some creative accounting. He left your father to bear the brunt of the investigation. Your father's lawyers managed to have the contracts all declared valid, so he avoided any penalties. But, he retaliated against Grandfather by forbidding us to see each other; he really didn’t have any other way to get to his former business partner. As Harlan Garrett's grandson, I became the focus of his hatred."
"When did you find out about all this, Scott?" She was aware of a dull ache in her chest. "I never knew any of it."
He sighed again. "My intention in coming here today was not to cause you more pain. But you do need to hear the truth after all these years of lies. I heard rumors about their involvement when I joined the Army in '63. Nothing really specific – just hints of impropriety. I learned the details when I went to work for Grandfather when I was discharged two years ago."
Laura got up from Sammy's desk and wandered toward the window, her hands gripped in the folds of her skirt. "How was I so blind? Was I really so self-centered that I didn't realize what Father was doing? How many lives he might have destroyed? Where his money came from?"
"No, Laura," Scott said firmly. "You were never self-centered. You were always thoughtful and generous. Remember all the times you helped Katie and her family, and others who were less fortunate? We were both just...young. And the vast majority of your father's money...and Grandfather's...came from perfectly legitimate business transactions. It's just remarkably tragic that the one disreputable deal they made was the cause of so much pain for us and a number of others."
She didn't reply, needing time to process what he had told her. Feeling chilled and desolate, Laura stood hugging her arms to her chest, her back to Scott. After a lengthy pause, she continued quietly. "I guess that pretty much covers my story, then. What about you? How did you come to be out here?" She had so many questions. "I did remember your father had a ranch in California although I didn't know where it was. I have to admit the thought crossed my mind that I might try to find Murdoch Lancer; try to meet him to see if he was the uncaring monster your grandfather had always described." I also wanted to see if anything of you lived on in your father.
"It's a very long story." His voice heavy with fatigue, Scott rose from the desk and walked over to the chalkboard, tracing circles on it with his finger.
"I have time. Besides, you still haven't had your pie." She started back toward her kitchen. "I'll pour you a cup of coffee."
"It's getting late, Laura,” he said. “I have a long ride back to the ranch. Besides…” He laughed. “If I don't leave soon, we'll have the town gossips talking." Scott smiled and retrieved his hat from the desk. "I could be persuaded to tell you everything over dinner tomorrow night though."
"And that won't have the gossips chattering?" Laura couldn't resist smiling back.
"Probably. But at least we'll be dining in public. They can make of it what they will."
He turned and wandered to the door, putting his hat firmly on his head. "Tomorrow around six o'clock? I should be able to ride back in by then."
"All right then. Dinner tomorrow night," she said. "I'll wait here until you come."
He nodded and smiled before he walked out the door.
She closed the door behind him, pressing her hands and face against the wood, wanting to maintain contact with him as long as possible. This time she remembered to lock it.
It seemed as though sleep would never come. Laura tossed and turned, the noise from the saloon continuing to stifle any attempts on her part to doze off. Her conversation with Scott replayed repeatedly in her mind. She still couldn't quite believe he was alive and she, so improbably, had come to teach in the very town he now called home. Maybe I won't have to leave California after all. Maybe we can at least patch together a friendship. No, that won't work. After the relationship we had, friendship isn't an option. I'll never be able to look at him without imagining his arms around me, how his lips feel against mine. Better that I continue to make plans to leave. Father's finally gotten what he wanted. There's no hope Scott and I can be together again. I'll have dinner with him, and then I'll 'move on' with my life yet again. It's not like he's going to beg me to stay anyway. Laura finally dozed off in the wee hours of the morning; this time, for once, she was not awakened by the nightmares that had plagued her for the past four years.
She spent the day trying to focus on lesson plans for the children. Restless, and preoccupied, she got very little work done. Pushing her books aside, Laura gave up, made herself yet another cup of tea, and wandered upstairs to her room to decide what to wear to dinner with Scott. She knew the gown from Charles Worth in Paris was far too elaborate for Morro Coyo. It was beautiful, a sapphire blue watered silk, worn off the shoulders with a daringly low-cut neckline, but not something she'd likely ever wear again. She'd only brought it with her to California because it was the one favorite dress she couldn't bear to part with. She settled on a pale grey dress, very prim, with a lace collar and cuffs. Nothing too fancy, but a little more attractive than the dull skirts and blouses she had taken to wearing. She pinned her chestnut hair up again, smoothing the flyaway tendrils into place, and secured her matching grey hat to her braids.
She heard a soft tap at the schoolroom door. Deep breath, Laura, she told herself. Remember, you just have to keep breathing. She went to the door and let Scott in.
"Good evening, Laura."
His smile made her knees go weak again.
"You look lovely." He held his arm out for her to take. "Are you ready?"
"Let me get my shawl, Scott." She ran back upstairs to retrieve the forgotten shawl and hurried back down. Deep breath. "I think I'm ready now," she said nervously. She took his arm, he tucked her hand firmly against his side, and he led her out onto the boardwalk.
"I thought we'd eat at the hotel," Scott began. "The food isn't what you're used to in Boston or London – or Baltimore, for that matter. But it's mostly edible." He winked at her and grinned. "This is rather like old times, isn't it?"
"Yes, it is. Like old times. And I'm sure the food'll be fine." Laura smiled back nervously, thinking she had eaten so little lately, just about anything would be 'edible', particularly since she hadn't tried to cook it herself. She hadn't been away from the school much since she arrived, and she felt as though everyone was staring at her – particularly the women. It seemed everyone knew Scott, the men nodding to him, and the women appearing to assess her from head to toe. She was grateful when they arrived at the hotel down the street and were shown to a table at the back of the small dining room. "Why don't you order for me, Scott?" she asked. "I'm sure you know what might taste good." She was rarely so indecisive, but she truly didn't have any idea of what to ask the waiter to bring to her.
"Well, the menu is extremely limited. This is a cow town, so the fare mostly consists of a few selections of beef. Why don't we try a beef steak?"
"Beef steak sounds good....I think?" She laughed, trying to relax.
They sat in companionable silence for a few minutes as Scott traced a pattern on the tablecloth with his dinner knife.
"You promised to tell me why you came to California." Laura spoke quietly, not wanting to attract the attention of the other diners any more than they already had. "I would never have expected you to leave Boston. Actually, I never thought your grandfather would let you leave Beacon Hill, particularly to live in what he would consider to be a wilderness."
"He was not at all pleased, to put it mildly." Scott looked up at her, his eyes searching her face. "I did promise to explain it all to you, didn't I?"
"Yes, you did. And you promised to tell me over dinner, and here we are." Laura sat back in her chair, folding her napkin in her lap.
He sighed, and rubbed his face with his hands. Laura thought he suddenly looked very tired again. His voice was hesitant. "After I left you at your house that night – the night of my graduation party – I was too restless to sleep. I went back home and sat up most of the night thinking about you and the life I had planned for us. I was going to ask you to marry me, Laura, even as young as we were, and we were going to have a wonderful life together." He shook his head and laughed softly, almost to himself. It had been another life, another world. "I'd go to work at Grandfather's firm, and we'd buy a house in Beacon Hill. We'd fill it with a dozen children." Laura blushed, the rosy glow to her cheeks making her emerald eyes appear even more luminous. Momentarily distracted, he continued. "I'd convince your father that his hatred of Grandfather was senseless, that it was all in the past, and we needed to be with each other. Several days later, I went to your house to talk to your father, only to be informed you were gone. He said you had told him you needed to leave Boston, that I had frightened you with my persistence and 'inappropriate advances.' You were so terrified you left during the night. He wouldn't tell me where you had gone." Scott's reverie was interrupted by the waiter bringing their dinner. Neither one of them made any move to eat.
"You couldn't have believed him! We had just spent a happy, wonderful evening together, Scott. Please tell me you didn't believe him!" Laura fought back the tears that welled up, quickly touching her napkin to her cheek to blot the errant droplet running down her face. The last thing she needed right now was to cry. That would give the gossips far too much ammunition.
"No, I didn't believe him, Laura. But I still had no idea where you were. I hired a Pinkerton detective to try to track you down, but your father had been too thorough, and he was too powerful. Anyone who might have known where you had gone, wouldn't talk. Now that I know he sent you away on one of his own ships, it makes more sense. As you said, none of the crew or house staff would jeopardize their livelihood and invite his wrath by telling me anything. But, for me, you simply disappeared." Scott took a sip of his coffee, still not making any attempt to eat his dinner. "It never occurred to me that your father might send you to his sister. I thought they were utterly estranged from each other."
"As I said yesterday, I thought they were, too. I was shocked when Father told me where he was sending me." She hesitated before asking, "And your grandfather couldn't find out where I was?" Laura needed to know Scott had tried everything to find her.
"I went to Grandfather for help," he said. "He advised me to 'move on, Scotty.' I felt as though I had hit a brick wall."
"Was that when you joined the Army? After Drew died, you promised me you wouldn't enlist." She struggled to keep her voice and face as neutral as possible. In retrospect, having this conversation in such a public place had not been the best decision.
Scott nodded and sucked in a deep breath before he continued. "Yes. I was desperate to get out of Boston, and away from my memories of you. I was old enough to enlist and as a Harvard graduate I was offered a junior officer's rank as a second lieutenant."
"That must have incensed your grandfather! Didn't he try to buy out your commission? I can't believe Mr. Garrett would willingly let you enlist in the Army, particularly in the middle of that ghastly war."
Scott laughed softly, shaking his head at the memory. "Yes, he did try to intervene. Over my objections, he pulled a few strings in Washington to try to buy out my enlistment and send someone else in my place. I told him if he continued, I'd demand to be placed on the front lines, wherever the heaviest fighting was. He gave in after that, I guess thinking I'd be safer as an officer. In fact, I have little doubt that my eventual transfer to General Sheridan's staff was the result of Grandfather's influence."
"Father had told me you were killed trying to escape from Libby Prison in Richmond."
Scott's expression suddenly became guarded. "That's not something I care to talk about, Laura," he replied softly, but with an edge to his voice. "What I will tell you is I served my required time in the Army and returned to Boston to work in Grandfather's firm."
"But that still doesn't explain how you ended up in California." She had never been very good at retreating from a conversation, particularly when she had unanswered questions. Still, Laura felt as though she was pushing him; she sensed he was about to shut down and close her out.
"Are you sure you want to hear all this? You need to eat your dinner." Scott gestured at her plate, as he sat back in his chair, his eyes growing distant.
She could feel his discomfort, but it had been just as painful for her to relive the awful night when her father had spirited her away. "Scott, I told you what happened to me. Don't I deserve to know what happened to you?"
He sighed yet again, playing with his fork. Taking yet another sip of his coffee, he stalled for time. "Yes, I suppose you do. It's just that my life in Boston during that time isn't something I prefer to discuss either.” No, he couldn’t tell her how he had lost control, drinking far too much and staying out until the early hours of the morning. His life after the War had been unfocused and meaningless. He had wondered why he had survived the hell of battle and the horrors of Libby Prison, only to come home to his vivid memories of her and the devastating reminder from her father that she was gone forever. He couldn't tell her about the women he had courted, desperately trying to replace her. He wouldn't tell her of his disastrous engagement to Julie Dennison; a brief engagement that ended badly when Julie confronted him about his obvious love for Laura. After a short pause, he continued. “Last March, my father sent a Pinkerton agent to Boston to offer me a thousand dollars for one hour of my time if I'd come to California."
Laura waited for him to continue, but it was clear he needed prompting if she was going to get any more from him. "That's a great deal of money for an hour!" She laughed, and the tension between them evaporated.
"It's a great deal of money for anything." Scott chuckled, and he visibly relaxed. "He had built a very impressive ranch south of here, and, as it turns out, he was being threatened by a gunfighter named Day Pardee. Pardee had taken a number of ranches in the Valley by force, and he had his eye on the big prize, the Lancer spread. Murdoch had been badly wounded, and his segundo, his foreman, killed by Pardee. Murdoch asked for my help, and that of my brother, in fending off Pardee and his men."
"Your brother? I never knew you had a brother."
"I didn't know I had a brother either.” He smiled at the memory. “Until the day I arrived in Morro Coyo on the same stage. He's actually my half-brother, the son of Murdoch's second wife, Maria."
"What's his name? What's he like, Scott?" Laura spluttered, trying to take in this sudden revelation. She was intrigued. Growing up as an only child, she had often longed for a brother or sister, and she knew Scott had regretted his own lack of a sibling. He and Drew had been nearly as close as brothers, but it still wasn't the same.
"His name is Johnny, and he's….” Scott struggled to find the right words to describe his tempestuous younger brother. “Well, he's very different from me in some ways, and very similar in others. When we first arrived here, I didn't think I'd ever met a more inscrutable, unlikable man. He nicknamed me 'Boston.' He used it as an insult at first, as if he was trying to provoke me. But now I rather like it." Scott grinned as he added, "But Johnny's the only one who's allowed to call me that, so don't get any ideas.” His face became more sober as he continued, "Pardee ultimately raided the ranch, and Johnny was wounded. While he recovered, we had the chance to talk, to get to know each other. During the last few months, we've built up a fair amount of trust. I really can't imagine not having him around."
"So I gather this ‘Pardee’ was not successful." Laura urged him to continue, her curiosity seemingly fueling her appetite as she finally took a small bite of her steak, cold as it was.
"No, we were able, with a great deal of help from Johnny, to fend him off." Scott omitted the fact that he was the one who had killed Pardee. "Murdoch deeded each of us one-third of the ranch in return for our assistance. And that, Laura, is how I happen to be here. And where I intend to stay." Scott finished, cutting several small bites from his steak.
She waited for a moment, watching him carefully dissect his food, but noting he still made no effort to eat any of it. "Scott…" She wasn't sure how to ask him. He had started talking again, and she didn't want him to stop. "Why were you so angry when you first saw me in the schoolroom? How did you even know I was here? Of course, I haven't been out of the schoolroom a great deal, but I hadn't heard the Lancer name mentioned. It certainly would've captured my attention; it's a rather unusual name."
He took a moment to reply, taking a sip of his coffee before wiping his mouth with his napkin. He laid the napkin carefully back in his lap before responding, his eyes focused on her face. "Murdoch mentioned in passing the night before that he had heard the new schoolteacher had arrived in town. I knew a teacher was coming to start a school, but I was so busy at the ranch that I hadn't paid any attention to any of it. He thought I might know you since you were from Boston. I couldn't believe what he was saying when he told me your name. I didn't admit to him that I knew you or we had been in love." His father had been sitting on the sofa at the time, his back to Scott, so it had been easy for him to hide the shock on his face. "I came to the school on Tuesday because I needed to see for myself if the new teacher was really you. As for the anger, Laura, I spent the last six years encouraging myself to be angry with you, telling myself you'd abandoned me, and you could've found a way to come back to me if you'd wanted to. I convinced myself I was the only one who had been hurt. Anger can mask a great deal of pain."
Laura was finding it impossible to keep the tears from her eyes. The gossips were going to have a field day. "I would never have willingly left you, Scott."
"I know that now. I think deep down I knew it all along. After awhile, though, it was just easier to be angry than to live with the hurt." He watched her intently as she picked distractedly at the mashed potatoes on her plate. A gentle smile softened his features. "Laura, you really do need to eat your dinner. It's already cold."
"I'm not really hungry right now." She laid her silverware on the side of her plate and blotted her lips with her napkin. Her appetite, not the best lately, had, once again, completely deserted her. Looking at his plate, it seemed she was not the only one.
Scott took one last sip of his coffee. "Then perhaps I should walk you back to the school. It is getting late." He looked around the dining room, noting that only one other couple was still seated there.
She nodded silently. It would serve no further purpose for them to remain in such a public place with her feeling very exposed and vulnerable.
Once again tucking her hand tightly under his arm, she allowed him to escort her back to her little schoolhouse. The saloon across the street was packed as usual, drunken cowboys reeling out the batwing doors. Scott unlocked the door for her and waited as she lit the oil lamp on her desk. "Make sure you lock the door behind me, Laura," he cautioned her.
"Would you like a piece of pie and a cup of coffee?" she asked hopefully. "Then you can tell me more about the ranch and your family." She didn't want him to leave yet, not when they had so many years to catch up on.
"I can't stay, Laura, much as I'd like to. It’s late, and I have another long ride back to the ranch."
Laura tried, without real success, to hide her disappointment. She picked up a slate, forgotten by one of her students, from the desk next to her and hugged it to her chest.
"But I'll ride in and escort you to church in the morning, if you'd like," Scott said. "We can spend the day together. I have to leave for Sacramento on Monday to take care of some business for the ranch. I'll be gone most of the week."
The happiness she felt at knowing she'd see him the next day was tempered by the news he'd be gone on an extended trip. As emotionally draining as it had been to see him again, she longed to know he was close by, that she might at least catch a glimpse of him during the week if he was in town. "I have to work on lesson plans at some point tomorrow, but the Reverend and Mrs. Granville expect me to be at church in the morning. I'd appreciate your company." That certainly will give Mrs. Granville something to talk about all week, Laura thought.
"Then it's settled." Scott tipped his hat to her and backed out the door. He again warned her. "Laura, lock the door behind me now. And see that it stays locked. I'll see you in the morning." He exited quickly, his footsteps echoing down the boardwalk as he retreated in the direction of the livery stable.
Once again, sleep eluded her. She thought grimly her inability to sleep was becoming an all too familiar problem. Exhausted, Laura sat at her window, rocking back and forth, and thinking of all Scott had told her. Tears trickled down her face as she thought of what he had suffered because of her father's dishonesty and from the trauma of a brutal war that had stolen his innocence. His refusal to talk about the war spoke volumes. She knew it had been devastating for him; it was written all over his face. She remembered only too well her own feeling of horror as the casualty lists poured into Boston; one had held the name of their childhood friend, Drew Prescott. As she rocked, she convinced herself six years of pain was too much to overcome for either of them. Too tired to think rationally, she told herself neither she nor Scott could possibly muster the strength to start over. The wounds were too deep, and the gulf between them was too wide. As ill as it made her feel, the decision was made. Come Monday, he would go to Sacramento, and she would give her notice to the Reverend. No, she couldn't stay, no matter how compelling their short reunion had been. She would have to move on and let him move on. She wouldn't risk his heart, or her own, again. It was for the best she told herself repeatedly. She once again spent the night in her rocker, dozing uncomfortably with her head resting on her chest.
Sunday morning dawned with unusual peace in the street outside. Laura guessed the saloon was closed for one day each week in deference to the Sabbath, but it was odd to have everything be so quiet after a week of nearly constant chaos. She dressed quickly, donning a very conservative dark blue skirt and high-collared white blouse trimmed in lace. At least Mrs. Granville and her Ladies' Society can't find any fault with how I look. She hurried down the stairs in response to Scott's brisk tap on the door.
"Good morning!" Despite readily agreeing to it the night before, she had mixed feelings about him accompanying her to church. While she was grateful to have his company, she was concerned it would only stir up yet even more gossip in the tiny village. And, the more she saw him the less confident she felt about her plans to leave. At least when she did leave, she decided, the gossip would eventually die down.
"Good morning to you, Miss MacNeill," Scott greeted her with mock formality. "Are you really ready this time?" he teased. "Do you have your shawl?"
"Yes, I have my shawl – and my hat and gloves, thank you very much, Mr. Lancer!" She laughed, despite her inhibitions. She could almost imagine they were back in Boston and the intervening years had never happened. Her tendency to forget her shawl, her gloves, or her hat had been a standing joke between them. She had just never thought the accessories were all that necessary.
Once again, Scott tucked her hand under his elbow and led her down the sidewalk to the tiny church at the end of the street. Mrs. Granville met them at the door, her eyes wide with surprise. "Why, Miss MacNeill, how wonderful to see you this morning! And Mr. Lancer as well!"
Scott removed his hat, and took the hand the preacher's wife offered him. "Good morning, Mrs. Granville."
Laura nodded in greeting as well. This is really awkward. Fortunately, the organist chose that moment to start her music, the pump organ wheezing out a melody Laura thought she recognized as "Amazing Grace." She couldn't be too sure, though, given the organist's lack of musical ability and the organ's unfortunate disrepair. She thought, with a sudden sense of loss, of her own grand piano back in Boston and wondered if her father had kept it. She reminded herself to ask Scott if he still played his violin.
She and Scott took seats near the back of the church. She was grateful for his perceptiveness. Having to file past all those turned heads would have required more confidence than she felt at that moment. Scott smiled encouragingly to her. It was clear he had been thinking the same thing. Easier to escape from here when the service is over, too, Laura mused irreverently.
The church service wasn't quite as bad as she had expected. The Reverend's sermon on forgiveness was long and tedious, but Laura managed to use a portion of the time to review her lesson plans for the week in her mind. She was, nonetheless, keenly aware of Scott sitting next to her. To be so close to him, their arms touching, and yet try to force herself to feel removed from him was almost more than she could stand. The thoughts of him running through her mind, she knew, were decidedly inappropriate for church. Then, there was the small matter of telling him she was leaving. She dreaded doing that, but she wouldn't just disappear again. She owed him at least that much.
The church service ended, and Scott was quickly drawn away by several of the men. They would be discussing issues related to ranching, Laura decided, if their clothing was any clue. Mrs. Granville, seeing her momentarily alone, hurried to her side. "Miss MacNeill, I really must talk to you!" she declared breathlessly.
Here it comes, Laura laughed to herself.
Not giving Laura time to respond, she rushed on. "I understand you had dinner with Mr. Lancer last evening. My dear, you do realize he's the most eligible bachelor in the Valley? Why every young lady of marriageable age has set her cap for him! And now, he's escorted you to church this morning!"
My goodness, news travels fast here. The woman was practically drooling and was definitely fishing for information. What am I supposed to say? Admit to her that Scott and I have a long and intimate prior relationship? Laura simply smiled and gritted her teeth. Thankfully, Scott noticed her predicament and came to her rescue.
"Mrs. Granville, I believe Miss MacNeill is in need of something to eat and drink." He turned his considerable charm on the preacher's wife. "If you'll kindly excuse us, I'll escort her to lunch." He settled his hat on his head, and touched his finger to the brim. "Good day." Mrs. Granville, like every other female Laura had ever known, succumbed to his smile, and practically pushed them out the door.
"Thank you, Scott," Laura said. "She had me cornered there for a moment."
"I noticed." He grinned back. "And you do need lunch, so it wasn't a lie. You know it's not good to lie to the preacher's wife. Will the hotel be an acceptable choice again?" He offered her his arm.
"The hotel will be fine," she said, taking the proffered arm.
Lunch was a more relaxed affair than dinner the previous evening had been. The little hotel dining room was crowded, but the young couple was eventually shown to a table. They were interrupted several times by ranchers stopping by to shake Scott's hand and parents of Laura's students greeting her and telling Scott how much their children adored her.
"Well," Scott commented after yet another parent had sung her praises. "You seem to have made quite an impression on Morro Coyo already. How many students did you say you have? I think all of their parents are here for lunch today."
Laura smiled at his compliment, taking a sip of her tea before replying. "I have fifteen students, Scott. Their parents have been very kind."
"I doubt they're simply being kind, Laura. I think you're probably a perfect teacher. You've always loved children."
She never looked more beautiful to him than when she blushed.
Returning to her schoolroom after lunch, Laura removed her hat and gloves, dropping them in a heap on her desk. She hadn't broached the subject of her leaving at lunch, and she still didn't know how to approach it. She toyed with the books on the desk, feeling the awkwardness between them start to build again. "I still have that pie left over, Scott, if you want a piece."
"Not right now, Laura. I'm full. Maybe later." He stretched and flexed his fingers.
He seemed to be waiting for something. Or building up to something. She couldn’t be sure. "I really do need to work on my lesson plans this afternoon." She hated to spend a beautiful day working on schoolwork, but she was impossibly behind. "The reading and history lessons are easy for me, but the science and arithmetic lessons are more difficult than I imagined they'd be, particularly since there's such a wide range in the children's ages." She knew she couldn't permanently avoid the topic of her leaving, but she dreaded bringing it up. Despite having rehearsed what she was going to say in her head over and over again during the sleepless night before, it was a different story entirely with him standing in front of her. Besides, she felt she was perhaps being too presumptive, assuming he'd even care whether or not she stayed.
"I could take a look at what you have, if you'd like." Scott gestured at the papers and books on her desk and moved to sit down in her desk chair. "Let's see…." He looked over the notes she had left on the desk, studying them carefully.
Laura stood behind him, looking over his shoulder, resisting the overwhelming urge to rest her chin on the top of his head and wrap her arms around his neck. She had done that when he was a student at Harvard, intentionally distracting him from his studies. He had found it so endearing and amusing. He'd pretend to be irritated, throw his pen down, get up, and kiss her soundly for her efforts.
Scott apparently had not forgotten their game either. Laura saw his shoulders go rigid. He stood up and turned around, pushing the desk chair out of the way with his knee. Before she could react, his arms were around her waist, pulling her close. His mouth was on hers, tentatively at first, and then with more intensity as her body leaned into his. It was as though the last six years had never happened; their bodies intertwined as the old familiar passion flared. He nuzzled her neck, his lips feathering over her cheek as they returned to kiss her again. She heard him whisper her name. His hands slid gently down her arms, pulling them up to wrap them around his neck, before he once again slipped his arms around her.
Feeling nearly drugged by his kiss, the realization of what she was doing slowly dawned on Laura. She detached her arms from around his neck, placed her hands firmly on his chest, and pushed him away. “No….Don't…Please don't...do that." She felt tears running down her face. Laura backed away, her hand on her mouth, her lips still warm from his kiss.
"Laura…please." He reached out for her. "I won't apologize. The truth should be obvious to you by now. I never stopped loving you. There hasn't been a single day in the last six years that I haven't thought about you and wanted you back."
Her voice was barely above a whisper, her hand still on her mouth, her lips tingling from the intensity of his kiss. "Scott, we're not eighteen anymore. I'm not that carefree young girl you loved any more than you're that chivalrous college student I fell in love with. We've both changed. We’ve both been hurt too much." She stood with her head down, and hugged her arms to her chest. She took a deep breath, looked up into his eyes, and confessed, “I have to leave, Scott. I can’t face being hurt again, and I won’t subject you to any more pain than I already have. It would've been better for both of us if I had never come here.” There, it's been said, it’s done.
She wished she could erase the devastated expression that crossed his face. "So you’re planning to disappear again.” He waved his arm at the door and then ran his hand through his hair. “Run away. You're willing to leave just like that. You've already decided there's nothing left between us. What gives you the right to make that decision for both of us? Don’t I have any say in this?”
Laura rubbed her face with her hands, wanting nothing more than to feel his arms around her again and to kiss his eyes, his forehead, his lips. "I won’t just ‘disappear again,’ Scott, but I don’t know anymore what there is between us. We were so young….Was what we had anything more than a childhood fantasy? Was it real, or have we spent six years mourning the loss of something we only imagined? Embellished into something more than it ever was?”
"You know as well as I do how real it was. The love we had wasn't something 'we only imagined.'" He took the few steps to her and took her face in his hands. "Look at me, Laura."
She somehow managed to meet his eyes, thinking distractedly again how intensely blue they were and how they seemed to bore into her soul.
"Look at me and tell me you don't love me."
“I can’t, Scott.” She whispered as he bent his head to hers again, his lips gentle on hers, his hands still holding her face. Laura couldn't control her surging emotions any longer, her eyes brimming as she kissed him back, her salty tears wetting both of their faces as they were allowed to flow unchecked.
"I can't believe you're here."
"I can't believe you're here," Scott echoed softly as he skimmed his fingers over her cheeks as though trying to convince himself she was real. "I was never one to believe in miracles, but I may need to revise that opinion now."
"I missed you so much." Laura's voice caught in her throat.
He folded her back in his arms, her head resting against his chest, and her arms wrapped around his neck. "I missed you desperately." He tucked an errant strand of her hair back behind her ear. "But you're here now. We're together again. No more talk of leaving, all right?" he insisted, kissing the top of her head. "We'll take all the time we need to get to know each other again. Do you promise you won't vanish this time?"
"No, Scott, I won't disappear. I promise I won't go anywhere."
She wondered how she could have considered it in the first place.
Scott reluctantly left that evening after kissing her goodbye multiple times and assuring himself she had locked the door tightly behind him. Laura padded up the stairs to her room, the light from the oil lamp dispersing the shadows and creating a soft warm glow on the walls. She hadn't felt such a sense of contentment in so many years it was almost unnerving in its unfamiliarity. She had grown accustomed to a deep sense of loss, the grief she had worn like a heavy coat for so long, that this newfound serenity was somewhat disconcerting. She sighed, sat down in her rocker next to the window, and prepared for another sleepless night, her mind awhirl with all that had happened in so short a time since she had arrived in Morro Coyo.
He had told her he would be gone until Thursday. Four days before she could see him again and hold him in her arms. It would seem like an eternity. She rocked, gazing out on the deserted street, and replayed in her mind their conversations over the past two days. She could see his smile, feel his arms holding her against him, and taste his lips as they kissed hers, never seeming to be satisfied. Things were happening faster than her tired mind could process. She finally washed her face, changed into a nightdress, and crawled into her little bed, exhaustion claiming her in the wee hours of the morning.
The children seemed more boisterous than usual on Monday morning. Perhaps she felt that way because she was so distracted herself, Laura thought. It was only their second week of school, and it would likely take several weeks for them to become accustomed to their routine. Sammy Jenkins, she noted, had acquired a black eye over the weekend, claiming he and Andy Perkins had only been "havin' fun." Sammy had apparently walked into Andy's fist. Anna and Mary couldn't stop talking about their new dresses, their high-pitched chatter adding to the noise cluttering Laura’s already muddled mind. After several minutes of patiently attempting to gain their attention, Laura picked up her heavy collection of Poe's writings and dropped it loudly onto her desk. "Excuse me," she called out. "I thought maybe we would have school today?"
The children as a group, sat up straight at their desks, their eyes finally focused on her. "That's better." She smiled at her students as she spoke in a softer tone. "We have a lot of work to do together."
The first three days went by faster than she expected, the demands of preparing her lessons, and actually teaching them, taking the vast majority of her time. She even managed to sleep a little.
On Wednesday afternoon, Mrs. Granville, the preacher's wife, strolled into the schoolroom just as the children were swarming out the door. "Good afternoon, Miss MacNeill." She greeted Laura with a broad smile.
"Good afternoon, Mrs. Granville," Laura replied politely. She wondered what had brought the Reverend's wife to her school. She hoped it wasn't going to be another attempt to wring information about Scott out of her.
The pastor's wife walked over to her desk and casually sorted through the books lying there. "Miss MacNeill," she started again. "I believe I told you about our Ladies' Society here in Morro Coyo."
Laura nodded in acknowledgement. She wished the woman would leave her precious books alone, but she didn't want to seem overly defensive by saying anything.
"Well, we normally have our meetings on Wednesday evenings. Usually, we meet at the church, but I thought it might be more comfortable for us to meet here now that we have this nice schoolroom. Would you be amenable to the ladies meeting here at seven o'clock? I assure you we won't keep you late. You could share some of your memories of Boston with us? Oh, and I believe you lived in London as well?"
Laura hoped the shock she felt didn't register on her face. She realized the schoolroom truly was a public forum, and the Ladies' Society and the Reverend Granville had arranged for her to teach in Morro Coyo, but she wasn't prepared to be the focus of their attention. The last subject she wished to talk about was Boston, or London, for that matter. But Mrs. Granville didn’t appear to be a woman she could refuse. She smiled weakly. "The ladies are certainly welcome to meet here this evening, Mrs. Granville but I'm sure that I would not be able to provide them with any new insights into Boston or London.” She walked over to the chalkboard and started to wipe away the day’s lessons, not wanting Mrs. Granville to see her obvious discomfort at the prospect of being the evening’s entertainment. “How many ladies shall I prepare to host? I will be happy to make tea and coffee."
Mrs. Granville fixed Laura with a penetrating gaze. She obviously hadn't missed the hesitation in Laura’s voice or her clear lack of enthusiasm, despite the young teacher’s attempt to be gracious. "We should have about fifteen women, Miss MacNeill. And as none of them have been to Boston, or even out of California, I am certain they will be fascinated to hear from you personally about your travels." She turned and wandered back to the door, tapping her fingers on each desk as she walked by. "Good day, Miss MacNeill. I'll see you this evening."
Laura collapsed into her desk chair, her legs suddenly feeling incapable of supporting her weight. If only Scott was there, he'd know what to say. He'd entertain the Ladies' Society all evening without really telling them anything. And she could tell from the expression on Mrs. Granville’s face and the tone of her voice that her ‘memories of Boston’ were really a euphemism for eliciting information about her connection to Scott. From the moment she had first been seen publicly with him, she knew the Ladies’ Society was bursting with curiosity about the nature and history of their relationship. No, it was clear; this was a carefully orchestrated attempt to extract information from her. And they would have her outnumbered. Well, she decided, there was nothing else to do but to take yet another deep breath and do the best she could, hope she could satiate their curiosity without giving away too much.
The ladies of the Morro Coyo Ladies’ Society filed into her schoolroom at precisely seven o'clock that evening. Laura had made several pots of tea and set the coffee to brew on the stove. She had changed into the grey dress she had worn to dinner with Scott, thinking it was elegant in an understated way, and the ladies might appreciate her dressing up a bit for their meeting.
Mrs. Granville opened the meeting with a prayer. Laura felt like she needed all the prayers she could muster if she was going to make it through the evening. She was introduced as the new schoolteacher for the benefit of those ladies who didn't have children in her school, and she nodded politely to each of the expectant faces, trying to make associations that would help her remember all their names. Mrs. Granville then proceeded to discuss the upcoming dance and the collection underway for the local widows and orphans. All well and good, Laura thought. Maybe the woman would just forget she had wanted her to talk. But her hope was short-lived.
"And now, I thought perhaps Miss MacNeill would be so kind as to tell us something of her life in Boston and her travels in Europe," Mrs. Granville proclaimed, the eyes of the ladies now fixed on Laura. They reminded her of a pack of wolves moving in for the kill.
"I….ummm…." Laura stammered. "I, ummm, did grow up in Boston. My father owns a shipping company." Not a very solid start, she worried. They probably expected a schoolmistress to speak a tad more clearly.
"And you lived in Beacon Hill, I believe?" Mrs. Granville wouldn't let her off the hook. Of course, they would know that’s where Scott had lived with his grandfather.
"Yes, I lived in Beacon Hill, not far from the Charles River and Boston Common." She wouldn't tell them how she and Scott had played together as children on the Common under the watchful eyes of their governesses, trysting there as young lovers when her father banned him from her house. "And then I lived with my aunt in London for several years during the War."
"What was it like living in those fair cities? I'm sure our ladies would be interested in your social affairs, Miss MacNeill." Mrs. Granville was definitely persistent.
"I'm sure my life was much like that of any other fortunate young lady in any city, Mrs. Granville," Laura said quietly. "I took lessons with my tutors and spent as much time with my horses as I possibly could." And with Scott, she smiled to herself. She couldn't wait for him to come home. Now would be a good time, she thought. She could imagine him striding through the door, sweeping her into his arms, and telling the Ladies' Society to leave her alone.
Mrs. Granville unsubtly cleared her throat, letting her know in no uncertain terms they were waiting for more.
Laura forced her mind away from Scott and back to the topic at hand. "I'm not sure what the ladies would like to hear, Mrs. Granville. I had an advantageous childhood. I was an only child who grew up in a lovely house in a magnificent city. My father was able to provide me with a classical education and the opportunity to travel extensively. I feel honored, however, to be allowed to teach your children here."
Sammy Jenkins' mother, Patricia, spoke up, perceptively reading the discomfort on Laura's face. "Mrs. Granville, ladies, I think Miss MacNeill is likely very tired from her trip to California and the strain of adapting to a new life here. Why don't we let her settle in before we pester her with questions about her past? I'm sure she'll be willing to share more with us as she gets to know us all better."
Laura couldn't remember when she had been more grateful to anyone for their intervention.
"Well, then, shall we have our coffee and tea, and then we can adjourn and let our teacher retire for the evening?"
Despite the polite tones of agreement from the assembled throng, the air of dissatisfaction felt at the lack of information she had given them didn’t escape Laura. It was clear they were not finished with her yet. Not by a long shot. Mrs. Granville stood up, and the other ladies followed suit. They sipped their coffee and tea, making polite conversation about the everyday comings and goings in Morro Coyo, before taking their leave. They had offered to help her clean up, but wishing to reestablish some modicum of privacy, Laura thanked them and assured them she could wash the dishes herself.
She listened for the stagecoach the next afternoon, thinking she heard it in the street as the children haltingly recited their spelling words, one student at a time. Laura dismissed the children a few minutes early, no longer able herself to focus on the lessons. Finally, she heard the stage roar into town, the driver's cries for the horses to "whoa" unmistakable. She wasn't sure what she should do. Should she wait for Scott to come to her or should she meet him at the stage? She knew if she met him at the stage, it would incite the local gossips further, but she was past caring. And their last parting convinced her Scott was past caring about propriety too. The decision made, she ran upstairs to find her shawl and hat, nearly pitching headlong back down the steps in her haste. She opened the door, still trying to pin her hat to her hair, and ran headlong into Scott's chest.
"Whoa there!" He laughed. He wrapped his arms around her waist and picked her up. "Where are you off to in such a hurry?"
"To find you!" She laughed back, as she threw her hat aside and wrapped her arms around his neck.
He gently set her back on her feet, ushered her back inside, pushed the door shut with his foot, and lowered his face to hers. "I missed you so much, Laura. I was so afraid that somehow you'd be gone when I came home….that you weren't real," he whispered as he kissed her. She leaned into him, her fingers caressing the hair that curled around his ears.
"I missed you, too, Scott," she breathed as he paused to kiss her forehead. "Did you have a good trip?"
"I did. Murdoch'll be happy with the contracts I arranged to sell beef to the Army. Actually, he'll be positively ecstatic."
"You had a long trip. Are you hungry?" Laura stroked the lapels of his jacket, content that he was home again. "I could try to fix us a small meal. I've at least learned how to make biscuits!" She was rather proud of her accomplishment.
"Biscuits sound wonderful! But I can't stay for dinner tonight, much as I'd like to. Murdoch'll be waiting to hear the details of my trip. But…." He kissed her again, before resting his cheek against hers. "I want you to come out to Lancer for the weekend. I can bring the buggy in tomorrow afternoon after school. I want you to meet my family."
She fought the momentary sense of panic that enveloped her. "Scott, I'm not sure I'm ready to meet them just yet. Don't you think it's too soon?" She gripped his jacket lapels so tightly her knuckles turned white.
He held her face softly in his hands, his eyes searching hers. "No, I don't think it's too soon at all. We need time together, away from this town and this schoolroom. Time to talk about us. Besides," he chuckled, "we have a great selection of horses. When was the last time you were able to ride?"
"You really do know me too well, don't you? It's been ages since I've been on a horse." She sighed, realizing how intensely she missed her horses. "The last time I rode was in Baltimore, just before I left on the train." She stroked his cheek with her hand. Time with Scott away from the very public scrutiny of the town’s folk and especially the Ladies’ Society certainly held its attractions. "All right, I'll come with you to Lancer tomorrow. I should be ready after about two-thirty – is that too late?"
"No, I'll be here by then." He pulled her closely against him again, his lips skimming over hers. She could feel her heart pounding in her throat, keeping time with his heartbeat she could feel as she laid her head against his chest. He kissed her neck and squeezed her shoulders gently with his hands. "I'll see you tomorrow afternoon, Laura. Make sure you lock the door behind me again." He backed out the door, leaving Laura with her hands on her face, her cheeks and lips still feeling the warmth of his touch.
It might have been better if she'd simply cancelled school for the day and claimed she was sick. She was feeling increasingly unnerved by the prospect of meeting Murdoch and Johnny Lancer. She had grown up listening to Harlan Garrett's tirades of what a terrible man Murdoch was. Scott had explained to her at lunch on Sunday how inaccurate Garrett's portrayal of his father had been, but Laura found it difficult to reconcile her memories of how Scott had hated his father, when they talked about him back in Boston, with the account he had given of their reunion. And now he had a brother as well. A brother who, by Scott's own brief description, was strong-willed and impetuous. But, she had promised Scott she would come. She wouldn't back away from any promises she had made to him.
The children must have sensed she was not herself. For once, they were subdued, speaking only when spoken to, and eating their lunches in near silence. As she dismissed them for the day, however, they whooped and hollered, running for the door.
Smiling, and organizing her books and papers on her desk, Laura thought about what she needed to pack for her weekend at the ranch. She realized she should have asked Scott what sort of clothing to bring. She still hadn't had time to have everything washed, so that did limit the selection. She trudged up the stairs to her room, and pulled out her carpetbag. Packing undergarments and a nightdress was a given. To those, she added a bottle-green riding habit and several skirts and blouses. Her riding hat, also dark green, and trimmed in ostrich feathers, was still in its hatbox. Her favorite riding boots, custom-made for her in London, were tucked into their own bag. That will have to do, she decided. Hopefully, life at Lancer wasn't too formal. Hopefully, she speculated, they would have a sidesaddle. Scott had mentioned Murdoch had a ward, Teresa, the daughter of his deceased foreman. Surely Teresa would own a sidesaddle.
Lost in her thoughts, and extremely apprehensive, Laura almost didn't hear Scott's tap on the schoolroom door. She hurried downstairs, juggling her carpetbag, boot bag, and hatbox. Throwing them on her desk, she ran to the door.
Scott stood outside, his hand on the doorpost, his hat pushed back on his head. He greeted her with a slow smile. "Is there any chance you're ready, Miss MacNeill?" He said with feigned impatience. "It truly is a long ride out to the ranch, especially in a buggy."
"Of course I'm ready, Mr. Lancer!" She put her hands on her hips in feigned exasperation. "Whatever would give you the idea that I wouldn't be!"
"Hmmm…let me think…" Scott chuckled, bending swiftly over to kiss her. He loved the way her eyes flashed, even in mock anger.
"Scott!" She pretended to be shocked. "What will people think, you kissing me in public?" She stuck her head out the door and looked up and down the street to see if anyone was watching.
"Let them think what they want." He kissed her again thoroughly for good measure. "Now, where are your things?" She mutely pointed to the desk, wanting nothing more than to take him in her arms again and forget about the trip to Lancer. Scott took her bags and hatbox off her desk, and showed her to the buggy parked outside next to the boardwalk. "Do you need to talk to the buggy horses first?" he teased as he stowed her meager belongings under the seat. "As I recall you knew the names of nearly every carriage horse in Boston." The dark bays stood stolidly, languidly swishing their tails to drive away the flies.
"Well….actually….maybe I do! Do they have names, or are they just 'the buggy horses'?" She couldn’t resist going to their heads, stroking each of them down their faces, feeling the velvety softness of their nostrils. She laid her cheek against each of them in turn, rubbing their necks, and relishing the feel of their warm breath on her face. It had been so long since she had had any real contact with her beloved animals.
"I never thought I'd be jealous of a horse," Scott said, a crooked grin on his face. "And of course they have names – "Zeke", short for "Ezekiel" on the left, and "Zach", short for "Zachariah" on the right. Murdoch seems to like biblical names for his work horses." Scott helped her up onto the buggy seat and waited while she arranged her skirts. He whipped up the team, arousing them from their slumber, and headed south out of town.
They rode along in silence, the rattle of the wheels and the jingling of the harness making conversation difficult. The terrain was magnificent, Laura thought; wild and untamed in a stimulating way. So very different from the subdued greens of Boston and Baltimore and the emerald fields and hedgerows of England. The road itself twisted and turned through the most intriguing rock formations, sometimes becoming little more than a beaten path. And then, they were looking down into the valley, the ranch spread out before them. Scott stopped the buggy, holding the reins in his left hand, and put his arm around her. They sat quietly, Laura awestruck by the scope and beauty of the place.
"That is Lancer -- all the way to those mountains in the distance," Scott finally said. "I hope you don't find it too...uncivilized."
"Not all all. It's...spectacular. I'm just amazed by its sheer size. You'd never see estates this large in Massachusetts or Maryland."
"That's true. It takes a bit of getting used to, but I've grown rather attached to the place."
"I can certainly see why."
Scott kissed her on the cheek, picked up the lines, and urged the horses forward down the mountain road.
Laura’s sense of unease, however, increased the closer they rolled toward the house. Trying desperately to stifle her growing anxiety as they passed under the Lancer arch, the hacienda gleaming in the late afternoon sun, she put her hand on Scott's arm. "Scott, please stop the horses for a moment."
Her face had blanched whiter than the lace on her blouse collar and her hands were shaking.
"What's wrong, Laura? You look terrified."
"I'm afraid, Scott,” she whispered. Her eyes had widened in fear, and they were even more green than usual.
“I don't remember you ever being afraid of anything."
"Well, I'm scared now," she insisted. "What if they don't like me, Scott? What if they think I'm too….too Boston?"
Scott looked down at his feet and bit his lip, clearly trying to suppress the laughter dancing in his eyes. He raised his eyes to hers and once again put his arm around her waist. "They won't think you're 'too Boston,' Laura. They'll love you if for no other reason than I love you." He put his hand behind her neck, softly stroking the tendrils of hair that had come loose from the hairpins. "You'll be fine," he concluded, before kissing her, feeling the tears that ran down her face against his lips. He tenderly wiped the tears away with his thumb and smiled encouragingly at her before he took up the reins again. She wiped the remainder of her tears away using the sleeve of her jacket, absentmindedly thinking she really needed to buy some handkerchiefs.
As they rolled up in front of the house, Murdoch, Teresa, and Johnny hurried out the front door. Scott jumped down from the buggy, reached up and helped Laura down from the seat, his hands lingering slightly longer than was necessary around her waist as he set her down. The gesture was not lost on Teresa who caught Johnny's eyes, the two exchanging knowing smiles.
Murdoch was the first to formally greet their guest. "This must be Miss MacNeill! Welcome to Lancer!" He took her offered hand, her tiny fingers disappearing into his huge grip, his face creased with a warm smile.
She tried to smile back, her anxiety causing her stomach to roil in protest. So this is Scott's father. He seems much kinder and more engaging than old Garrett would ever admit. She studied Murdoch's face carefully. Scott definitely looks more like his mother, but there is some resemblance in the shape of their faces. She smiled inwardly. But he certainly inherited his big hands from his father. “Please call me Laura,” she managed to stammer.
Scott, aware of how anxious she was, spoke up. "Laura, this is Teresa, Murdoch's ward -- and my adopted sister."
Laura and Teresa nodded to each other. Laura was reassured by the genuine kindness she saw reflected in Teresa’s face. She noticed Teresa was wearing her hair down, the curls flowing down her back. Life on the ranch definitely must be more relaxed.
"And, this…" Scott took Johnny by the arm and pulled him over. "Is my brother, Johnny."
Johnny took her hand, planted a gentle kiss on the back of it, and held on. "Are all the ladies in Boston so beautiful, Scott? It’s a wonder you ever left!”
Laura felt her face flush, feeling certain it had turned bright red. Johnny was every bit as audacious as Scott had described him to be. Teresa intervened quickly, much to Laura’s relief, and offered to show her to her room. Scott picked up her bags and followed them into the house. It was cool and refreshing inside out of the warm sun and dust. She followed Teresa down the wide hallway and up the stairs, turning left down a long hall. She noticed vaguely that the floors were covered with thick Turkish rugs, the walls decorated with lovely oil paintings. The hacienda was enormous, easily as large as her childhood home.
"There's fresh water in the pitcher," Teresa told her as Scott placed her carpetbag on the blanket chest at the foot of the bed in her guestroom. "We'll leave you alone to freshen up," Teresa said pointedly, motioning to Scott with her head.
Scott backed out of the room, adding quietly, "I'll be downstairs, all right? Take your time, Laura." She nodded in acknowledgement, as he closed the door softly behind them.
Laura stood with her eyes closed for a moment, trying to restore a sense of calm to her frazzled nerves, and telling herself everything would be fine. She really wasn't dreaming. She really was standing in Scott’s home, and he was just downstairs, waiting for her. Establishing a tenuous hold on her composure, she washed her face and hands and changed from her dusty black jacket and skirt into a rose-colored skirt and a high-necked blouse trimmed in lace and embroidered with tiny rosebuds. She pinned her hair back up, and smoothed the fabric of her skirt. She looked into the mirror over the dressing table and paused, taking in her appearance with some dismay. The dark circles under her eyes were still pronounced, but there wasn't much she could do about that. She pinched her cheeks with her fingers to add some color to them, and bit her lips so they didn't appear so pale.
She walked softly down the stairs and through the hall, peeking into the large room she had noted off to the right on her way through the front door. Scott was sitting on the corner of the huge desk, and he rose quickly when she entered the room, moving over to stand by her side. Johnny was lounging on the sofa, and he too jumped to his feet. Murdoch stood in front of the fireplace, sipping on a drink.
"Would you care for something to drink, my dear? A glass of water, or perhaps some wine?" Murdoch smiled reassuringly. Teresa's helping Maria with dinner. It should be ready soon."
Laura didn't have a chance to reply before Teresa and Maria appeared in the doorway near the dining table, their arms laden with platters. She saw that the table had already been set, the silver service gleaming in the candlelight.
"Well, here they are now." Murdoch chuckled and gestured for her to sit to his left as he took his seat at the head of the table. Scott pulled her chair out for her, waited for her to gather her skirts, and then took the seat to her left. Johnny and Teresa took seats across the table, Johnny assisting the young woman with her chair. Laura didn't miss Murdoch's raised eyebrows, the look of astonishment on Scott's face, and Teresa's obvious surprise at Johnny's attentiveness. Laura had the feeling it was not something Teresa was accustomed to.
The next few minutes were filled with the clatter of dishes and cutlery, as the bowls and platters were passed about. Laura wasn't sure how much she could eat, her stomach still tied in nervous knots. She could feel Scott's eyes on her and his attempts to reassure her with his glances, but she was afraid to look at him. She feared that, if she did, the emotions she had been fighting to contain would erupt, and she'd embarrass herself in front of his family. She had neglected to ask him what exactly he had told them about her. Scott reached under the table, took her hand in his, and gave it a gentle, encouraging squeeze.
Johnny spoke up first, his question catching her off-guard. "Scott said you two were old friends and you grew up together, Laura. What was ole Boston like as a kid?" He looked at his brother and grinned, a mischievous twinkle in his eyes.
"That's not a question Laura needs to answer right now, Johnny," Scott replied quietly, but with sense of command that strongly hinted at his experience as a cavalry officer.
The dining room was suddenly painfully quiet. Laura noticed Murdoch was still holding his wine glass, his eyes intently focused on her and his face filled with expectation. She paused, staring at her plate, searching for the right words. She raised her eyes and looked into Johnny's deep blue gaze, feeling his need to connect with his newly discovered brother. “Scott was….Scott has always been much as he is now, Johnny. Quiet and reticent.”
“Reti…what?” Johnny stumbled over the word.
“Reticent, Johnny.” Scott offered, as he picked up his own wine glass and glanced appreciatively at Laura. “It means ‘close-mouthed, tight-lipped’….It means I'm not one to discuss my private affairs.” He finished, taking a sip from his glass.
"No kidding? That pretty much describes you, doesn't it, brother?"
The awkwardness was relieved as Murdoch laughed softly and placed his wine glass back on the table, picking up his fork. “Let’s not put Laura on the spot anymore tonight, Johnny. I’m sure she and Scott will share their past with us when they’re good and ready.”
Laura hadn't missed the look of anticipation on Murdoch's face. She wanted to offer him something. Missing his son's childhood had to have been agonizing for him, she realized. Her father hadn't been the only one to deceive her and Scott; old man Garrett had lied through his teeth about Murdoch. “There is one fond memory I have of Scott as a child.” She blotted at her mouth with her napkin and took a sip of water. “He was only about seven years old, I think, because we had just celebrated my sixth birthday. We were at a Fourth of July celebration on Boston Common. Do you remember, Scott?” She glanced at him for confirmation, continuing when he nodded slowly, a sheepish expression on his face. “I slipped away from my governess when the fireworks started. I wanted to see the cannons up close.” She sighed, thinking about how fearless she had been. “I was about to get a little too close to them when Scott pulled me away. If he hadn’t, I would have likely been killed or at least badly injured.” Scott had been obsessively protective of her, even when they were children.
Teresa looked horrified. "But..." she spluttered. “How could your governess have lost you like that? What did your mother say?”
"My mother died in childbirth when I was two," Laura explained. My father never remarried, so my governess was all I had."
Teresa appeared mortified. "I'm so sorry, Laura! Please forgive me for asking."
"You had no way of knowing, Teresa." Laura hated that the young woman had become so flustered. "But I did have several wonderful governesses who tried to treat me as though I was their child."
"And many more who were dismissed by your father," Scott replied dryly, glancing at her out of the corner of his eye, his attempt at humor unmistakable.
"It wasn't their fault, Scott," she protested, laughing. She looked at Murdoch, noting his eyebrows were raised enquiringly. "I wasn't the easiest child to discipline."
"That, Laura, is a huge understatement." Scott smiled, shaking his head. "Do you even remember how many governesses you had?"
Laura pretended to count on her fingers. "Ummm....no. Not exactly." She laughed again, her musical voice joined by Murdoch's deep-throated laughter. Soon the room echoed with the sound, relieving the uneasiness that had enveloped them all.
The remainder of dinner was spent in relaxed conversation, Laura describing her work with her students and the Lancers explaining to her the basics of ranch life. Teresa was the first to excuse herself, the men following suit. Laura realized, if the Lancer men were anything like the gentlemen she knew back East, they would want to retire to their brandy. “I’ll help you clear the table, Teresa,” she offered.
“You don’t need to do that, Laura,” Teresa replied. “Why don’t you stay with Scott?”
“I insist.” Laura glanced at Scott, knowing what Boston propriety expected of her but trying to figure out what his expectations were. She was beginning to see that life in the West was very different from what she was accustomed to.
“I do need to discuss some business with the boys,” Murdoch said as he moved to pour three glasses of brandy from the decanter on the side table. “I’ll let you have Scott back in a little while, Laura, I promise.” He smiled gently, handing Johnny and Scott their brandies. Scott squeezed Laura’s shoulder softly. She picked up several dishes from the table, and followed Teresa through the back hall to the kitchen.
“We’re so happy to have you visit, Laura! It's so good to have another lady in the house. I would never have wanted to grow up anywhere but Lancer, but it is a little isolated out here."
“Thank you, Teresa. You’ve all made me feel so welcome. I never imagined Scott had such a wonderful family. He’s very fortunate.” She still wished she knew what he had told them about their past. It was difficult to know what to say. Teresa seemed to be on the verge of asking her about Scott, but she was too well-mannered to pry. The two women worked in companionable silence, clearing the table and putting a pot of coffee on the stove to brew. Laura was grateful Teresa didn't take advantage of their time alone together to ply her with any more questions.
Teresa had gone back to the great room to retrieve more dishes when Scott slipped up behind Laura as she stood at the stove. He pulled her into his arms and buried his face in her neck. “I’ve been waiting to do that all evening. Do you know how hard it was to sit next to you at dinner, wanting to kiss you the entire time?”
“I have a good idea,” Laura whispered and turned to face him, wrapping her arms around his neck. She pulled away from him abruptly and pretended to smooth her skirts as she heard Teresa’s footsteps in the hall.
“Why don’t you two go for a walk?” Teresa suggested as she carefully stacked another load of dishes in the sink. “It’s a beautiful evening – the moon’s full.” She winked at them, a shy smile on her lips.
“That’s the best suggestion I’ve heard all evening.” Scott smiled as he put his hand on Laura’s back and guided her out the side door. They wandered arm in arm toward the barn, a soft warm breeze feathering their faces.
“So, are you going to find me a horse to ride tomorrow, Scott?” Laura saw a number of the animals milling in the paddock next to the barn. The need to feel a horse beneath her and the wind in her face was palpable.
“I think I can arrange that,” he assured her as he opened the side door to the barn and showed her in. “Teresa has a sidesaddle you can borrow. She never uses it anyway.” He paused to light the lantern hanging from a beam, its glow creating a golden circle of light on the barn floor. He took her hand again, drawing her into his arms. “And now, no more waiting…” Scott lowered his face to hers, his lips soft and warm and still tasting of brandy. She took his head in her hands, running her fingers through his hair, her body instinctively molding to his.
Finally easing from his embrace, Laura wandered over to a nearby stall, needing a distraction before she forgot who and where she was. Its occupant, a shining golden horse, turned to her, its eyes filled with curiosity. “Who’s this, Scott? He’s a very unusual color.” She stroked the horse’s face, its ears flickering back and forth. He lowered his head and began to rub his face up and down against her hand. She found it soothing, forging an immediate connection with the handsome animal. It was almost as though he knew she needed to be calmed.
“That’s Johnny’s horse, Barranca,” Scott said, as he joined her and leaned back against the stall door. “He’s called a ‘palomino.’ I don’t suppose you saw many of them back East or in England.”
“No, I can’t say I ever did. He’s beautiful! You don’t suppose Johnny would let me ride him tomorrow.” She was intrigued by the horse's unusual color, eager to see if Johnny’s horse was as tempestuous as his owner. Somehow she wasn’t convinced as she looked into its liquid brown eyes. There was a calm intelligence there she had rarely seen in any other horse.
Scott laughed softly. “You’ll have to ask Johnny about that, Laura. The last time anyone else rode Barranca was our first day at the ranch.”
“And who did he allow to ride him?” She continued to stroke Barranca's neck, anticipating the answer.
“Me. But Johnny didn’t exactly ‘allow’ me to ride Barranca. You might say I had a point to prove. Be that as it may, he’s not an easy horse.” Scott joined her in scratching Barranca’s ears. “He has a habit of bucking and running. He's not a horse for a lady.” He took Laura by the hand again. “We might want to go back to the house now. You need to get some rest. The day starts a lot earlier out here. We’ll be up at dawn for morning chores. Not that you need to rise that early.”
Laura took Scott’s arm as they strolled back toward the house. She stopped him as they stepped onto the front porch, resting her hands against his chest, her fingers playing with the buttons on his shirt. “Scott, what did you tell your family about me? They've been so kind, but they have to be wondering why the new schoolteacher has suddenly become their weekend houseguest.”
He wrapped his arms around her waist again and kissed her on the tip of her nose. “I told them you and I had grown up together in Boston and you were a close friend, Laura. Murdoch was confused I hadn’t told him as much the night he told me you were here, but he seemed to accept my explanation that I had been caught completely off-guard.”
“I should've asked you before when you first invited me to come out here. I know you and Johnny and Murdoch are still getting to know each other. You've only been out here for what? Six months? I'm very much out of my element right now, and I don’t want to say or do anything that might put you in an awkward position."
“I love you, Laura. There’s nothing you could do or say that would put me in 'an awkward position.'"
The light in his eyes took her breath away.
“I’m just not a man who talks a great deal about his past. You said it yourself…." He grinned playfully as he opened the front door for her. "I'm reticent."
Murdoch sat at his desk, engrossed in his ledgers, while Johnny dozed on the sofa, his head on his chest. Teresa sat in the chair next to the fireplace, her lap filled with her embroidery. She kicked Johnny with her foot as the couple entered the great room. Johnny struggled to focus his bleary eyes, and the others looked up expectantly.
"I think Laura should get some rest now, and I'm going to turn in as well," Scott said. "I'll be up for morning chores." He rested his hand on the small of Laura's back.
Laura was left temporarily speechless by the vision of a family unlike any she had ever experienced. With no siblings, and a father who was obsessed with his shipping empire, she had never spent an evening sharing the company of loved ones, content simply to be together. Her after-dinner hours as a child had been spent with her books and with whatever governess happened to be in her father's employ at the time. The social engagements to which Scott had escorted her were hardly family affairs – formal balls, the theater, dinner parties. "Thank you so much for a delightful dinner." She managed to choke out the words, tears welling in her eyes. She blinked them away, concerned that she not provoke any unwanted attention.
Murdoch stood up and stretched, closing his ledger and turning down his desk lamp. "You are certainly welcome, Laura. We all want you to enjoy being here." He rubbed the back of his neck with his hand. "And now, I think I'll go to bed as well." He glanced at his elder son. "Scott, I can have Walt and some of the boys pick up your chores in the morning. You have a guest to attend to."
"That won't be necessary, Murdoch," Scott protested. "Laura can sleep a little longer, and I can do my regular chores. I do want to show her the ranch tomorrow, but we won't need to ride out before later in the morning."
"Laura can use my sidesaddle if she'd like," Teresa volunteered. "I'm sure she's not used to riding astride."
"I'd appreciate that, Teresa." Laura smiled with relief. "I guess I'll need to learn to ride astride someday, but it's going to take time and practice."
With that, the four of them tiptoed out of the great room, leaving Johnny once again drowsing on the couch. Murdoch voiced his wishes for a good night’s sleep and slipped down the hall, surprisingly soft-footed for such a large man.
“I’ll see Laura to her room,” Teresa offered. To Scott she suggested, “Maybe you can wake Johnny up and get him upstairs to bed?”
“I’ll do that. Sleep well.” He nodded to Teresa and Laura, giving Laura’s hand a lingering squeeze before turning back to the great room to rouse his brother.
Laura followed Teresa up the stairs, wishing her a restful night before closing her door behind her. She sorted through her carpetbag, shaking out her nightdress, and then turned her attention to undressing. She tugged the pins from her hair, tossing her head, grateful at the feeling of freedom. She wished she could allow it to hang loosely all the time as Teresa seemed to do. Her pinned up hair seemed to her to characterize her emotions so well; society expected her to wear her hair primly and tightly contained, just as it demanded she keep her emotions tethered and thoroughly repressed while she was in public. In private, in the confines of her own room, though, she could allow herself to plumb the depths of all the passion pent up inside her. She removed her blouse, folded it carefully, and tucked it into the carpetbag. She had started unbuttoning her camisole when she heard the tread of footsteps in the hall. The footsteps halted just outside her door. She moved to the door, listening intently, knowing instinctively it was Scott, her heart thudding in her chest so loud to her own ears she felt he must surely feel it pulsing through the wood. With every inch of her being, she wanted to throw propriety to the wind, willing him to open the door and take her in his arms. She wanted him so badly. Needed him more than she had ever needed anything in her life. But, she thought bitterly, she was the "proper Boston lady" her father had so rigidly fashioned, the rules of correct behavior for a woman of her "breeding" deeply ingrained. She was exceedingly well-versed in strict societal conventions intended to contain any "common desires." She leaned her forehead against the doorpost, grateful for its coolness against her burning skin, holding her breath to see what he would do. She didn't have the strength to make a decision either way. If he opened the door, she would welcome him with open arms; if he walked away, she would allow propriety to prevail.
In the hallway outside her door, Scott paused briefly. He reached out and brushed his hand lightly against the door, as though that would provide enough of a connection to her to last him through the night. Then, slowly turning away, he moved silently down the hall and into his own room, shutting the door noiselessly behind him.
So he had decided for them both. Propriety had won out. For now. Her mind unsettled by how eager she had been to abandon a lifetime of conditioning, and wondering if Scott would think badly of her for what she had been all too prepared to do, Laura finished undressing and crawled into bed. She turned on her side, arranging the extra pillow under her arm. She could at least pretend it was Scott, she decided. Surely it wasn't immodest to think so in the privacy of her own imagination? Father couldn't steal her dreams from her the way he had stolen six years of her life. The window was open to the fragrant night air, the tranquility of the ranch a welcome respite from the emotional upheaval of the past week. Resigned to another sleepless night, she was surprised to find her eyelids growing heavy, her body limp with exhaustion as the tidal wave of emotions that had swept over her the past few days finally took its toll. For perhaps the first time in years she slept soundly, not awakening until dawn, to the cacophony of the rooster crowing and the cows bawling in the pasture. She lay in bed for a few minutes, enjoying the sounds of the ranch as it sprung to life, feeling more refreshed than she could ever remember feeling; feeling happier than she had felt in years. The dawn of a new day, and just maybe, a new life for her.
Anticipating a day spent on horseback, Laura washed up and dressed, donning her riding habit and pulling on her riding boots, the polished black leather stretching to her knees. She peeked out her door, finding the upstairs hall quiet and empty. She slipped down the stairs, through the back hallway, and wandered into the kitchen, hearing the clatter of dishes.
Teresa looked up from the stove, her face lighting up at the sight of their houseguest. "Good morning! I didn't expect to see you up so early!"
"Good morning, Teresa!" Laura replied warmly. Seeing Maria washing dishware at the sink, she nodded to her as well, receiving a genial smile from the housekeeper in return.
"Scott's out with Murdoch and Johnny right now," Teresa explained. "They should be back soon. They've already eaten this morning." She gestured to the table. "I haven't eaten, so you and I can share breakfast, if that's all right."
"Scott said that life started early out here," Laura said, taking a seat at the table. "I didn't realize how early he really meant, though!"
Teresa poured them both cups of coffee and sat down, helping Laura to steak and eggs before serving herself. "I'm sure it's a big change for you from Boston."
"Actually, Teresa, I haven't lived in Boston in a good many years. I moved here from Baltimore." Laura didn't think Scott would mind her sharing that bit of information. After all, he had said he considered Teresa to be his sister.
"Baltimore? But I thought…."
"I lived in London for awhile with my aunt and uncle. Then I moved to Baltimore to help my cousin, Sarah, with her new baby." Just as Laura realized she had started a conversation she might not want to get too entrenched in, the men strode in the door, stamping their boots and slapping their hats against their legs to knock the dust off.
"Well, look who's up!" Johnny laughed, as he grabbed a cup and poured himself some coffee. "Hey Scott…" He prodded his brother. "I thought you said she'd sleep until at least noon."
"Don't pay any attention to him, Laura." Scott swung at Johnny's stomach with the flat of his hand, nearly causing him to spill his coffee. "No one else does."
Murdoch shook his head in mock disapproval, obviously enjoying his sons’ banter. Once again, Laura was struck by how relaxed the Lancer family was, and how much they genuinely enjoyed each other's company. It only made her realize how lacking her own family life had been; how much she wanted to belong to such a family.
Scott finished his morning chores, washed the dust off, and changed shirts, meeting Laura downstairs in the great room. "So, Miss MacNeill, are you ready for your tour of the ranch? I had Cipriano pick a nice little mare out for you." Smiling, he held his arm out for her to take.
"Actually, Mr. Lancer," she said primly as she took his arm. "I thought I'd ask Johnny if I could ride Barranca first."
Scott stopped, turning Laura to face him. "You're not really serious about that, are you?" He studied her face closely. Her jaw was set in the all-too-familiar determined line. “Laura, I don’t want you on that horse,” he said firmly. “I told you last night he’s not an appropriate mount for a lady.”
“Scott Lancer,” she retorted, "are you trying to tell me you’re not going to let me ride Barranca?” She put her hands on her hips, challenging him, fire flashing in her eyes.
“I know better than to try to tell you anything, Laura.” He fired the words back at her. “But I think you should reconsider.”
“I have considered. And I’m going to ride that horse.” She turned and stalked toward the door. Not hearing him behind her, she spun on her heel. “Are you coming or not?”
Shaking his head, Scott followed her out the door, unable to resist having the last word. "Just because I've always had trouble saying 'no' to you doesn't mean my brother won't. Johnny's not likely to be taken in by those green eyes of yours."
"We'll see about that."
Johnny was cleaning Barranca's hooves when they walked into the barn. He looked up, a wide smile spreading lazily across his face. "So, Laura, Boston tells me you're quite the horse lady." He let go of the horse’s foot, tapping the hoof pick against the barn post to remove the dirt.
"I'm a fairly good rider, Johnny," Laura said modestly, stroking Barranca's face. The animal once again responded to her touch by resting his head against her shoulder. "In fact, I wondered if you'd be willing to let me ride Barranca." She saw the hesitancy on his face. "Not all day," she quickly qualified. "I just wanted to see what he feels like. I've never seen a…" She looked at Scott, searching for the word. "Golden horse, a 'palomino' before. We had grays and bays and chestnuts in Boston, and in England for that matter, but I don't remember any palominos."
Johnny looked to Scott for direction. "I don't know, Laura. He can be pretty feisty when he wants to be. I wouldn't want you to get hurt."
Scott glanced at his brother, speaking through gritted teeth. “I’ve already told her that, Johnny. She doesn’t want to listen to me. Maybe you can talk some sense into her.”
"I won't get hurt. I promise. I can put Teresa's sidesaddle on him." Laura plunged ahead, ignoring Scott’s comment and the look of disapproval on his face. "It's virtually impossible to fall off a sidesaddle."
Scott again looked at Johnny and then back at Laura, before commenting wryly, "I don't know about that, Laura. I seem to recall you falling off once." He paused for effect. "At a walk."
It elicited the desired effect.
"That's not fair, Scott. It was all your fault." She pretended to sulk, pushing her lower lip out. Seeing the quizzical look on Johnny's face, she reluctantly continued, contemplating how she might repay Scott for intentionally baiting her. "We were getting ready to move out for a foxhunt in Boston, Johnny. Master Davies…."
Johnny interrupted her. "Master?"
"The Master of Foxhounds…the man who runs the foxhunt," she explained. "Master Davies was a bit of a pompous….ummm….person." She had started to say "ass", but she caught herself just in time. Ladies didn't say "ass." They might think it, but they didn't say it. She saw Scott was trying, without much success, to stifle a grin as he listened to her tale. At least his laughter was better than the displeasure it replaced. "Scott was mimicking him behind his back. I started laughing so hard I pitched backwards off the horse."
"In a flurry of petticoats." Scott reached for her hand. "It was a fetching sight."
Laura blushed to the tip of her ears. "It was an embarrassing sight. I don't think the ladies of the hunt ever quite recovered from that one. I believe Father made a large donation in order to retain my membership. And then…" she ducked her head toward Scott. "He had to pick me up and put me back on my horse."
"That was the best part of my day," Scott replied shamelessly.
"But I know I can stay on Barranca," Laura insisted. "Please, Johnny, just for a minute?"
"I don't know how my brother could ever say 'no' to you. I guess you can get on Barranca for a minute or two. But just for a minute," he was quick to caution. "We gotta actually go do some work today – unlike my brother here." He slapped Scott on the shoulder. "Let me get that sidesaddle."
Scott shook his head in disbelief, watching as his brother disappeared into the tack room. Laura bit her tongue and tried very hard not to look as though she was gloating....
Laura helped Johnny position the sidesaddle on the palomino, Barranca playfully nipping at her hair as she worked. Leading him outside and into the paddock, Scott lifted her up onto the horse's back, helping her place the stirrup on her left foot. His hand lingered on her booted leg, sending shivers down her spine.
"Now take it easy, Laura,” Scott cautioned her. "You haven't ridden in awhile. Why don't you just stay here in the paddock with him?"
Laura nudged the horse forward, thrilled by the feeling of pure joy at being in a saddle again, wondering how she had survived these past few weeks without riding. "Can I do anything other than walk?" She begged the brothers as she circled the horse around them. "He couldn't be as bad as Spitfire. You remember Spitfire, don't you Scott?"
"Spitfire? You had a horse named Spitfire?" Johnny kicked at the dirt with one booted toe, squinting into the bright sunlight.
"Not a horse, a pony," Laura replied. "And he was really bad. He tried to buck me off every time I rode him. But he wasn't as bad as Crazy Eyes."
"I remember Spitfire." Scott looked up at her, remembering the fiery grey pony she had taken foxhunting as a child. "You were the only person who ever managed to stay on him. But I don't recall any horse named… what did you say? 'Crazy Eyes'? Who would name a horse ‘Crazy Eyes’?"
"Crazy Eyes was a horse I had in England. He was huge and, well, he lived up to his name.” She corrected Barranca with her reins as he started sidestepping, impatient to move on. “I had to give him away finally. He wouldn't jump – he just tried to run through all the fences. When he wasn't doing that, he was trying to buck me off or run me into trees." She enjoyed the sight of the two men standing there with their mouths gaping open.
Laura turned Barranca around and trotted off, smiling to herself, relishing the small sense of victory. She trotted around the large paddock, finally easing the horse into a rocking canter, her back straight, and her hands gentle and responsive.
Before either man could do or say anything to stop her, Laura kicked the palomino into a slow gallop and headed for the paddock fence. She sailed over it, landed gracefully, and gradually circled back through the field.
Johnny found his voice first, looking at his older brother. "What is it with you two, jumpin' everything? Is it a Boston thing?"
Scott scrubbed his face with his hand, momentarily at a loss for words. Laura had never been able to resist jumping any fence in her path. Perhaps riding Barranca was a rite of passage for both of them; a way for Scott to prove himself to Johnny that first day and for Laura to prove herself to both of them now.
"Hey, Mac," Johnny yelled to Laura. "Ya wanna bring my horse back?"
Scott turned quickly on his heel. "What did you just call her?"
"Mac. You know...short for MacNeill. You've got a nickname. Any woman who can ride like that needs one too. It suits her."
"But how did you know?"
"Know what?" Johnny shaded his eyes with his hand, following his horse's progress through the meadow.
"That Laura's nickname was always...." He hesitated, watching Laura gallop back towards the paddock fence at breakneck pace. She launched Barranca over it, the horse seeming to savor the chance to do something other than herd cattle. She rode back over to Scott, dropped the reins, and reached down for him to help her dismount.
"Who-ee, Mac, that was quite a show you put on,” Johnny laughed, taking up his horse's reins. "How'm I supposed to keep Barranca in line after you let him jump fences?"
"Johnny, I'm not sure 'Mac's' the best nickname for Laura,” Scott took her by the hand, looking her over as if to convince himself she was unhurt. She had never seen herself as fragile, but that didn't keep him from worrying over her. She was so tiny the top of her head barely reached his shoulder. "Or that she needs a nickname at all."
"Oh, Scott." She laid her hand on his chest. and looked up into his eyes. "Johnny's just teasing. I think it's fine." Laura was filled with a sense of happiness and belonging she hadn't felt in years. "It's all right," she stretched up and whispered in Scott's ear. "Drew would approve."
Scott switched the sidesaddle to the mare Cip had chosen for Laura, checking and rechecking the girth. Laura stood stroking the bay's face, playing with the bit, and avoiding the mare's teeth as she nipped playfully at her hands. Scott's own horse, Quincy, named for a former President and a town in Massachusetts, stood nearby tied to the paddock fence, stamping at flies and tossing his head.
Teresa hurried out from the kitchen, clutching several brown paper packets in her hands. "Oh, good! You haven't left yet! I made you some sandwiches. You know, in case you want a picnic."
"Thanks, Teresa!" Scott took the sandwiches and tucked them into his saddlebag. "We might be gone for awhile, so these'll be good." He grinned at Laura and tossed the mare's reins over her head. "Are you ready for this horse? She's not going to be nearly as…stimulating…as Barranca was."
"I think I'll be alright, Scott," she replied demurely. "If you'd be so kind as to help me up." She stood next to the horse, expectantly waiting for him to pick her up and put her on the mare, craving the feel of his hands around her waist. Maybe it's a good thing I ride sidesaddle, and I can't get on the horse by myself....
He carefully lifted her up and waited for her to settle herself in the saddle, once again holding her stirrup steady. Seeing she was ready, he gracefully mounted his own horse, motioning with his head for her to follow him out of the paddock.
She supposed it would be bad form for her to jump the paddock fence again….he probably couldn't follow her, riding in a western saddle. She smiled indulgently to herself. This was the most fun she had had in as long as she could remember. The comfort she felt in his company was a far cry from the raging emotions of the previous days.
They rode in silence, down through the south pasture, and took the path along the creek. Riding up into the hills, Laura was once again transfixed by the beauty of the land, awestruck by the majesty of the mountains. Nothing she had seen in the East or in England could compare to the splendor of Lancer, she was certain. Even the grandeur of the breathtakingly beautiful Loire Valley of France where she had spent several summers couldn't surpass the raw beauty of this place. It wasn't just the scenery, she realized, it was the feelings the ranch evoked within her. It was what it meant to Scott. She could see it in his eyes, in the confident set of his shoulders as he rode ahead of her. It was his home. More home to him than Boston had ever been. And she desperately longed for it to be her home too. She couldn't put it into words, the sense of belonging she felt in this place by his side. She felt as though she had truly, and finally, come home.
They stopped in a high meadow next to a stream to water the horses and give them a chance to rest. Scott pulled the sandwiches from his saddlebag and retrieved the canteens from around the saddle horn. Laura sat down on a nearby fallen log, arranging her skirts around her. She once again had forgotten a handkerchief, but she didn't hesitate to dry her face on her jacket sleeve this time. She didn't even care what her father would say.
"Are you hungry?" Scott joined her, sitting on the log, his long legs stretched out in front of him. He motioned to the sandwiches he had placed on the log next to him.
She shook her head. "Just thirsty," she said, taking the canteen he offered her. Father would not approve, she reflected. But then, he had lost the right to have any further influence on her life when she had discovered his cold and deliberate deception over Scott's supposed death. And she intended to inform him of that fact at the earliest opportunity. The water tasted wonderfully cool, soothing her parched throat with its icy pureness.
She handed the canteen back to Scott, watching as he plugged it. "So." He cleared his throat. "What do you think of Lancer so far?"
"I love it, Scott." She leaned over, took his head in her hands, laced her fingers in his hair, and kissed him firmly on the lips. "I think it's the most beautiful place in the world."
Scott dropped the canteen on the ground and gathered her in his arms. He picked her up, carried her to a thick carpet of grass, and laid her gently down, his body covering hers, his hands cushioning her head.
She kissed him hungrily, enthralled by the warmth and closeness of his body -- all the feelings she had been forced to suppress behind the closed door the night before overwhelming her until she felt him suddenly pull away.
"Laura." He held her face in his hands and stroked her cheeks with his thumbs. "We can't do this." The torment in his eyes was matched by her own despair. "We can't do this. I won't do this." He rolled away from her, stood up, and pulled her to her feet. "I need you, Laura -- desperately -- but I won't compromise you. This is not how we should be together." He stared into the distance, suddenly seeming incapable of looking her in the eyes.
"Scott, look at me." She touched his face with her hand, forcing him to meet her eyes, pleading with him. "I have loved you more than life itself for longer than I can even remember. I've lived without you for six long, miserable years. It won't hurt to wait just a little longer." She traced his lips with her finger. "But we won't wait too much longer…."
"Marry me, Laura," he whispered. "Marry me and stay here with me forever."
She wanted nothing more than to wrap him in her arms and tell him yes. He had said the words she could only have dreamed of hearing these past tortuous years.
"I can't, Scott." She had given him the same response only days before when he had defied her to tell him she didn't love him. Of course she could never have told him that. She had never stopped loving him. But as much as she wanted to throw her arms around him now and accept the proposal she had waited her whole life to hear, there still were barriers to overcome. "Not yet." She rested her hands, balled up in fists, on his chest, the tears streaming down her face. "Not yet."
“Why?” Scott reached out and pulled her closer to him. He rested his forehead against hers, his lips brushing her cheeks and eyes, kissing away her tears.
She could see the hurt and confusion in his eyes. She knew with every gesture, every kiss, she had made it clear she loved and wanted him as passionately as he loved and wanted her. The words came slowly, her voice raspy from crying. "Because we need to resolve our old lives before we can hope to begin a new one together. No matter how I feel about my father right now, how I tell myself he has no control over me anymore, I am his only child. I need to try to make peace with him, try to make him see that my life is only complete when I'm with you. I don't want us to live with his shadow hanging over us, with all the lies and deception poisoning the very air we breathe. I have to write to him, Scott." She pressed her forehead into his chest as she admitted, "I never did tell him I was coming to California. I knew he would disapprove, and I just didn't have the strength to argue with him then. I'm sure my cousin has informed him by now, but he should hear it officially from me. I owe him at least that much. And you need to talk to Johnny and Murdoch as well. You've forged a strong bond with your father and brother in such a short time, and I would never do anything to come between you."
He took a deep breath, and she felt his body relax against hers. “All right, Laura.” He cradled her face in his big hands as he bent to kiss her. “We’ll do it your way.”
They rode back towards the hacienda in silence, each lost in their own thoughts.
Within Laura, a battle was raging between her heart and her head; she was torn between her overwhelming desire to beg Scott to stop, to pull him into her arms, and tell him she would marry him tomorrow, and her earlier insistence they needed to bring a sense of closure to their past. She thought about the letter she would need to write to her father, a missive that would probably only inflame him further and was likely to be a colossal waste of time. She had already decided she would marry the love of her life, with or without her father’s blessing, but she felt duty-bound to seek it, regardless. Watching the man she adored riding ahead of her, she anticipated the strength and patience it would take for her to adapt to her new life as the wife of a cattle rancher. Laura suspected the Lancers would be much more patient with her than she would ever be with herself. She felt certain Murdoch would welcome a new daughter-in-law, and Teresa could very well become the sister she'd never had. Johnny, however, she was concerned might pose a challenge. He and Scott had spent just shy of seven months together, and they had forged a tentative bond as brothers. Their lives would change drastically when she and Scott married, and she didn’t want him to gain a wife at the cost of a brother.
As the narrow path widened, she nudged her horse alongside his. "You’re awfully quiet, Scott.”
“I could say the same thing about you,” he commented softly, a gentle smile lighting up his face. “We have a lot to think about, don’t we?”
“Yes, we do. But do you know what the best part is?” Her heart felt as though it would burst with the love she felt for this man. She needed him as much as she needed air to breathe.
“We’re here and we’re together, and there’s nothing that will ever be better than that.”
Her eyes abruptly took on a devilish glint. “Race you home!” she challenged him. She kicked her horse into a gallop, charging down the path at breakneck speed.
It was almost dinnertime when they rode into the barnyard, Laura nearly falling off her horse in fits of laughter.
"You know I let you win that race, Laura," Scott smugly claimed. "But only because I'm too much of a gentleman to take advantage of a lady."
Laura countered with a sniff, "That is complete nonsense, and you know it, Scott Lancer. I'm simply a better rider -- and I had the faster horse. Maybe you'd care for a rematch?"
"That sounds like a great idea. But the next time, I won't be such a gentleman. Deal?"
"Deal." Laura took the hand Scott offered, laughing again as he winked at her.
Scott unsaddled their mounts and helped Walt groom and bed them down while Laura bolted through the back hall, up the stairs to her room, washed, and changed into a fresh skirt and blouse. It seemed to take her forever to pin her unruly hair back up, the strands windblown and tangled. With a great deal more decorum, she drifted down the stairs and into the great room.
It had taken Scott less time to freshen up and change, even with caring for the horses, and he was already waiting for her, sharing a glass of whiskey with his father and brother. The men fell silent as she entered, politely acknowledging her presence, and Scott held his hand out for her to take, gently pulling her close to his side. Laura was unsure how to react, not expecting such an obvious display of affection from him in front of his family. He squeezed her hand in reassurance, raising his glass to the others. "To the beautiful lady who proved today she could ride Barranca sidesaddle…and beat me fair and square in a horse race."
Murdoch beamed at the couple, lifting his own glass in a celebratory toast.
Laura looked into Scott's eyes, seeing the love and pride reflected in them, wishing she could hold onto the moment forever.
“So, what’d you think of Lancer?” Johnny asked her, as he raised his glass to her, an impish grin on his face, his sapphire eyes glowing.
"Lancer is…." She remembered with a pensive smile Scott had asked her essentially the same thing that afternoon, and she offered the same heartfelt answer, "Simply the most beautiful place on earth."
It was an indication of the powerful effect a restful night's sleep, fresh air, and the love of a family had on Laura. She was finally relaxed sufficiently to eat her dinner, for the first time in weeks taking in more than just a few bites.
"Yeah, Murdoch, you shoulda seen Laura ride Barranca this morning," Johnny laughed, winking at Laura as he shoveled another bite of peas into his mouth. "I thought Scott was gonna split a seam."
Scott looked at his brother, feigned protest on his face. "I'm still amazed you agreed to let her ride him, Johnny. You're so protective of that horse. Not to mention the fact I didn't want Laura to get hurt."
"I would have liked to have watched you, Laura." Murdoch smiled indulgently, wiping his mouth with his napkin. "But Scott's right, Johnny. I'm surprised you'd let anyone else ride Barranca."
Laura kept her eyes focused on her plate, terribly worried she might have created an issue between the brothers.
"Aww, Murdoch," Johnny grinned, casting a knowing look at his brother. "Laura can be very … charming." He paused to take a sip of wine. "So, Laura, what about this horse you had in England…that Crazy Eyes you told me about? Was he really that bad?"
"I didn't own him for very long, Johnny," Laura said. "He was so large he didn't feel it necessary to try to jump anything. He would simply barge through everything in his path. I grew tired of dealing with the repairs to the farmer's fences." She smiled ruefully. "I also grew tired of worrying he'd flip over a stone wall with me. More than once, I was sure I was going to die." She took a sip of her wine, observing out of the corner of her eye the look of horror on Scott's face.
Teresa's innate curiosity took over. "You said you lived in London, Laura. What was it like? I've never been away from California. London sounds so exotic!"
Laura glanced at Scott, trying to get a sense of how much information she should offer. Her life with her aunt and uncle had been severely restricted as they monitored practically every move she made. She'd never talked with anyone about her life in those days, feeling it was simply too personal, and in a sense, too painful, to discuss. Scott inclined his head slightly toward her, subtly implying he trusted her judgment.
"My father sent me to London to live during the last several years of the War, Teresa. He felt I should be protected from its harsh reality." Laura knew she was glossing over the truth quite a lot, but she hadn't actually lied to Teresa. "It is a lovely city." Laura took another sip from her glass, trying to buy time, think about what to say. "My aunt and uncle have a home just off Hyde Park in Knightsbridge. I was fortunate to be able to attend the theater regularly and to belong to one of the foxhunts." She wouldn't mention the eligible bachelors her aunt had pushed at her, demanding she accompany them to parties and balls. None of those men could even hope to erase her memories of Scott. Her aunt had been both frustrated at her resistance and infuriated at her determination not to consider any other man. If she couldn't have Scott, she wouldn't have anyone.
"Well…." Teresa rushed ahead excitedly. "Did you ever meet the Queen?"
Laura wanted to satisfy the young woman's curiosity without reliving memories that were achingly difficult, particularly while sitting at the dinner table with Scott's family. "I never actually met Queen Victoria, Teresa. Her husband, Prince Albert, passed away in '61, and she lived in a self-imposed seclusion after that. I only saw her once, as she passed by in her carriage." Laura blotted her mouth with her napkin, resting her hands in her lap. She felt Scott take her hand, rubbing the top of it with his thumb. Someday I need to tell you about London, but now is not the time. I'd just start crying again. Life seemed so hopeless then without you.
He cleared his throat. "Teresa, I'm sure Laura has a great deal more she can tell us about London, but, since we've finished eating, I have some things I'd like to discuss with Johnny and Murdoch." He stood up, laying his napkin next to his plate, and moved to assist Laura from the table. She searched his eyes, seeing quiet certainty in them.
"I'll help you with the dishes, Teresa." Laura began to collect the plates from the table. She hoped the others didn't notice her hands shaking.
Laura set the dishes next to the sink in the kitchen and leaned against it to try to calm herself. The men had moved out to the front porch, taking their after-dinner brandies with them. She could barely think straight, imagining what Scott was discussing with his father and brother. Their reaction would have a huge impact on her future with him. She knew how attached he had become to his family, and she wouldn't force him to choose between them and her.
Teresa interrupted her reverie, her chatter not connecting in Laura's mind at first. "…loves you so much, Laura."
Forcing herself to focus, Laura questioned, "I'm sorry, Teresa! What was it you said? I'm afraid my mind drifted away for a moment."
Teresa moved next to Laura at the sink, taking both her hands in hers. "I can see how Scott looks at you, Laura, and how you look back at him. He loves you so very much! And you love him, don't you?"
"I…." Laura hesitated, her thoughts still torn between what was happening outside and Teresa's probing question. She looked into Teresa's eyes, searching, not seeing anything but true affection – and a great deal of excitement.
"I love him more than anything in this world, Teresa," she admitted, realizing, since it was obvious to Teresa, it must be evident to everyone else as well. "I've loved him since we were children."
Teresa pulled her into a hug. "I knew it! Has he asked you to marry him yet? You could get married here! Maybe I can help you plan the wedding?" Her words all ran together in her enthusiasm.
Laura laughed, taking Teresa by the hands again. "Slow down a little. Please! Scott and I have things we need to work out before we could get married. And yes, if and when that happens, I'd be pleased to have your help!"
They were interrupted by Scott's voice from the doorway. "And what are you two beautiful ladies laughing about, may I ask?" Laura turned to him, seeing the light and elation in his eyes. Her heart felt like it skipped several beats.
"Oh, nothing important," Teresa replied sardonically and turned her back, stacking the dishes in the sink and working the pump handle. It shrieked in protest, the noise echoing through the cavernous room.
"Then, since you're not discussing anything of importance…." His lips formed a wry smile. "May I have a moment to talk to Laura?" He held his hand out for her to take. They once again slipped out the side door, and wandered into the courtyard, their arms wrapped around each other's waists.
Taking her in his arms, he moaned in contentment, brushing his lips over her hair and eyes, teasing her with their touch, until she took his face in her hands and forced his lips to hers.
He drew away, stroking her face with his hand. She kissed the palm of his hand, missing the touch of his lips. "Laura." He breathed her name, took her hands in his, and kissed her forehead. "I talked with Johnny and Murdoch just now." She tensed up, her hands gripping his tightly, as she waited for him to continue. "They're very observant." He smiled. "Apparently you and I are not very good at hiding how we feel about each other."
"What did you tell them? What did they say?" Laura held her breath.
"I told them we had been in love, and we had been separated for a number of years. I didn't go into the specifics. I don't think that's important for them to know, at least not right now. Someday we can tell them about our past and all that happened." Scott kissed her lightly on the lips. "But I told them I did not intend to live without you ever again. Murdoch said he would be delighted to have you as his daughter-in-law."
"And Johnny? I wouldn't want to do anything that might come between you and your brother, Scott. He means too much to you." Laura wrapped her arms around his waist and laid her head on his chest as she anticipated his response.
"Johnny said he'd be glad to have another sister." Holding her away again so he could look into her eyes, he played with the stray strands of her hair, and jokingly added, "Especially one that can ride as well as you do…." Laura relaxed as she laughed and her body shook in relief. "So, my love, you need to write that letter to your father. Since you're determined to make me wait for you…" He teased her lips with his. "…I don't want to wait any longer than necessary."
They wandered arm in arm into the house, finding the great room already deserted due to the lateness of the hour. Casting propriety aside, Scott escorted her upstairs to her room, pausing at the doorway. "There's paper and a pen and ink in the secretary, Laura, when you’re ready to draft that letter." He gestured toward the elegant desk positioned against the wall. “Get some rest tonight, though. I know it’s not going to be an easy letter for you to write. It might be more easily written in the light of day when your mind’s refreshed.”
"You’re right, Scott. It won’t be easy," she sighed. "I'm dreading it terribly." She stretched up and kissed him, tenderly smoothing the bangs from his forehead. "But it’s necessary. I may start writing it tonight, before I lose my resolve. Do you want to read it when I'm finished?"
"No, Laura. You need to say what you want, without any input from me. I'm not exactly the right person to give you advice about what you should tell your father." He kissed her again, lightly touching her face with his hand. "I'll see you in the morning."
She stepped into her room, closing the door softly behind her, wishing more than anything that she didn't have to write that letter. Wishing fervently she didn't have such a strong sense of duty.
Staring out the window into the darkness, Laura sat at the table in her room, pen in hand and the blank page of letter paper in front of her. Even after what Scott had said this evening, she had nearly talked herself out of writing to her father, convinced it would serve no purpose except to delay her second chance at happiness. But she had promised Scott she would write the letter, despite her misgivings. She turned up the oil lamp, erasing the shadows that dappled her paper, took a deep breath, and began to write….
12 September 1869
I trust this missive finds you well and in good spirits. Conscience dictates I must apologize to you for my dearth of correspondence with you during recent months. I would expect Sarah has, by now, informed you I am no longer residing with her in Baltimore. Feeling a dire need to begin my life anew after the events of the last several years, I chose to relocate to California to accept a post as a teacher. But then, I feel certain Sarah has explained that to you as well.
What Sarah does not know, and you, Father, callously neglected to tell me, is that Scott Lancer is very much alive and has joined his father and brother here. How you could intentionally deceive me, knowing the love we shared with each other, I cannot begin to comprehend. Your blatant disregard for my feelings was unspeakably cruel. However, despite your best efforts to keep us apart, Scott and I have been, fortuitously, reunited, and we will never again be separated.
While your unfortunate behavior toward me has, in my mind, seriously undermined our relationship, you are my father, and, as such, are due at least a small measure of gratitude, if not respect. So, Father, I would offer you a choice, recognizing this is substantially more than was ever offered to me. You may give Scott and me your blessing as we prepare to spend the rest of our lives together, assured that you will be welcomed into our home, and our children will know nothing of your betrayal. Or, you may choose to persist in your disdain, effectively severing all ties with us. Either way, Father, the choice is yours to make.
I need not remind you that, as I have passed the age of majority, I no longer require your approval to wed. And, rest assured, I shall marry Scott, with or without your blessing. I trust your reply will reach me without undue delay.
She read her letter over and over, recognizing how terse and formal it really was. In her mind, her father had forfeited any right to her affection the night he sent her away. Their estrangement had only been reinforced by his lies and deceit. She folded the letter, tucked it into an envelope, and inscribed the address in Boston in bold strokes. She would post it on Monday, hoping a reply would be promptly forthcoming. She had postponed her life for long enough.
"Good morning, beautiful!" Scott greeted her with a kiss as she descended the stairs on Sunday morning.
She threw her arms around his neck, inhaling his scent, not caring if any of his family walked in on them. She could bask in his arms forever.
He held her away from him, gazing at her as though he wanted to memorize everything about her. "Do you want to drive in to church this morning?" he finally asked.
"Not really, Scott,” she replied, recognizing he wasn't any more enthusiastic about it than she was. "I'd rather stay here as long as I possibly can. I know we'll need to leave by mid-afternoon anyway." She smiled sheepishly. "Besides, Mrs. Granville and her Ladies' Society have me in their sights. I'd rather avoid their attention for a little while longer." The two strolled arm in arm into the great room, deserted in the early morning hours.
"What do you mean, they have you 'in their sights’?" Scott turned and looked at her, his eyes intent, an edge to his voice.
"Oh, I guess I didn't tell you about our little meeting," Laura began, as she lowered herself gracefully into the armchair. "The Morro Coyo Ladies' Society held their weekly meeting in my schoolroom on Wednesday. I was billed as the evening's entertainment."
"And what, exactly, was it they wanted from you?" His voice brusque, Scott's temper seemed to be rising exponentially.
"Calm down, my love." Laura could see the furrow forming in his forehead. "They don't mean any harm. They're just burning with curiosity about the nature of our relationship. Apparently, after we had dinner last Saturday night, we became the biggest topic of conversation among the ladies in town. You had to expect that would happen."
He leaned against the sofa, a smile playing around his lips, his body gradually relaxing. "I suppose you're right. So little ever happens in Morro Coyo. You'll let me know if I need to speak with anyone?"
"I don't think that'll be necessary." She rose from her chair, went to him, and wrapped her arms around his waist. She whispered in his ear as he lowered his face to hers, "But, just maybe, we need to give them something more to talk about…."
Laura dreaded leaving Lancer that afternoon. She dragged her feet packing her few belongings, wishing for all the world she could avoid leaving with Scott and returning to her little schoolroom. She hugged Teresa goodbye, accepted kisses on the cheek from both Murdoch and Johnny, and hesitantly allowed Scott to assist her into the buggy. They stopped on the hill above the ranch at her insistence so she could take in the view one more time.
"Laura, it's all right," he tried to console her. "You'll be back here next weekend, and every weekend from now on. Lancer will be your home."
She nodded as she leaned into his embrace, the determination in his voice bolstering her own confidence. "I know, Scott. There's just so much on my mind right now. My responsibility to the children, the issues with my father…and you."
"I'm not going anywhere." He gave her shoulders a reassuring squeeze. "And we'll deal with whatever we need to deal with together -- including your father. All right?"
"All right," she agreed with a determined nod and a sharp intake of breath.
All too quickly it seemed to Laura they pulled up in front of her schoolroom. She unlocked the door and pulled off her gloves and hat, pitching them onto her desk. "Can I fix you some coffee or tea?" She wanted to delay him leaving for as long as she could.
"No thank you," he replied softly, wrapping his arms around her. "I'm going to have to drive back soon. I'd rather not be caught out on the road in the dark with the buggy."
She was desperate for him not to leave. She was so dejected at the thought of having to wait again to see him, so reluctant to wait a second more to give herself completely to him once and for all, that she momentarily forgot herself. "Scott?" She caressed the lapels of his jacket and looked up into his eyes. "You could stay here…." She held her breath, waiting for his reply, feeling his arms tighten around her.
He kissed her neck, his breath warm against her face.
"Laura, you know I can't, no matter how much I may want to. I told you I wouldn't compromise your reputation, and I won't. You have to live and teach in this town for now. And that Ladies' Society can be very unforgiving."
She sighed. "I know you're right. I just hate the thought of being separated from you again. It'll feel like years, even though I know I'll see you again in a few days. It will be only a few days, won't it?" She clung to his jacket, her hands braced against his chest.
"I'll try to make it back to town this week. But, if I don't, I'll be here with the buggy next Friday. And now...." He kissed her forehead. "I'd better leave before I change my mind and accept your very tempting offer...."
Well, she's right on time, Laura thought, as Mrs. Granville marched into the schoolroom on Monday afternoon. She was stacking her books on her desk and organizing her notes when the preacher's wife entered and closed the door firmly behind her.
Turning and approaching the desk like a ship in full sail, her words were clipped and strident. "Miss MacNeill," Mrs. Granville said, "I believe we need to have a little talk." The woman's lips were pursed in what could only be described as a displeased grimace. "I understand you spent the weekend out at the Lancer ranch with Scott Lancer. I thought my husband and I made it perfectly clear when you were selected to teach at this school that only a lady of impeccable reputation and morals would be acceptable." The woman's chest rose and fell rapidly, her agitation increasing with every breath. "What do you have to say for yourself, young lady?"
Laura placed her hands palm down on the surface of the desk, not only for support, but to stifle the sudden vivid urge she had to strangle the preacher's wife. When she had suggested to Scott that perhaps they needed to give the Ladies' Society something more to talk about, she hadn't exactly had murder in mind.
"Good afternoon, Mrs. Granville," Laura inclined her head in greeting. "Would you care for a cup of tea?"
"I beg your pardon?" The Reverend's wife looked suddenly confused. "Tea?"
"Yes, Mrs. Granville, tea. I was just about to prepare a cup for myself. If you would like to take a seat, I'll put the kettle on." She saw the look of protest returning to the woman's face. "And then…," Laura paused, raising her index finger in admonishment. "I'll try to answer your questions." She knew she was stalling for time, but her tactic had caught Mrs. Granville sufficiently off guard to make her back down. Laura slowly walked back to her little kitchen, stirred up the fire in the stove, and put the kettle on to boil. She had anticipated the Ladies' Society would be buzzing with gossip; she just hadn't expected to be confronted quite so soon. Returning to her schoolroom, she eased herself into her desk chair and met Mrs. Granville's gaze, the wolfish glint in her eyes unmistakable.
"So, Miss MacNeill," Mrs. Granville began anew. "How do you explain your behavior? Can you explain it?"
"Mrs. Granville." Laura folded her hands in front of her on the desk and, suppressing the laughter that threatened to erupt, gritted her teeth and continued. "I did not 'spend the weekend' with Scott Lancer. I wish I could say that I had…. Yes, it is true that I was a guest at the Lancer hacienda over the weekend. Murdoch Lancer is a most generous man and a delightful host. I can assure you I have done nothing to bring into question the high moral standard expected of me. Most assuredly, I would never do anything that would violate the trust you have placed in me or that would cast aspersions on you, your husband, or the Ladies' Society."
"Well, we were just talking…." Mrs. Granville caught herself in time.
Laura was certain she had almost said "about you and Mr. Lancer."
"It seems unusual that you and Mr. Lancer have recently spent a fair amount of time in each other's company. I know you are both from Boston…?"
Here comes the fishing expedition again, Laura joked to herself.
“Mrs. Granville, let me be honest with you.” Laura smiled, fingering her inkwell. But not too honest. She’d have an apoplectic fit if I told her everything. "Scott Lancer and I are old friends who have not been in contact for a number of years." And we plan to have a great deal of 'contact' as soon as possible. "We have had the opportunity here in Morro Coyo to renew our acquaintance." To put it delicately. "Neither Scott, nor I, have any intention of compromising the standards set for me by the Educational Society, the parents of my students, or yourself. You may rest assured that the welfare of my students is my foremost concern."
The preacher's wife looked as though she was a balloon that had just deflated. She rose from her chair, smoothed her skirts and assumed a dignified air, despite having had the wind taken out of her sails. "You do understand, Miss MacNeill, that I felt it necessary to clarify your behavior. Scott Lancer is a very eligible young man and you…well…you are…." The woman began to stammer, seeming suddenly uncomfortable with the penetrating look in the young schoolteacher's eyes.
Laura stood up, took Mrs. Granville by the elbow, and escorted her to the door. "I understand you completely, Mrs. Granville," she replied smoothly. "Good day!" She closed the door behind the woman, covered her mouth to stifle her giggles, and drifted back to her kitchen to take the kettle off the stove. She never did fix that cup of tea.
The weeks went by as Indian summer turned to a cool and wet fall, Laura falling comfortably into the pattern of teaching during the week and spending the weekends at the ranch. She anticipated a response from her father, discouraged as day after day went by with nothing in the post. Despite trying to attribute the lack of a reply to the inconsistent mail delivery from Sacramento, she couldn't help but suspect her father was intentionally delaying, using his prolonged silence as yet another means to manipulate her.
And then, one chilly and grey Friday in early November, when Laura had all but given up hope of hearing from her father, the letter was waiting for her at the mail office. Scott arrived at the school to find her sitting at her desk, the page dangling from her fingers, her face drawn and pale. She handed the correspondence to him wordlessly, her eyes nearly devoid of emotion. He recognized that look. It was the same mask she had worn time and again to cover the hurt she had felt at her father's lack of attention.
23 October 1869
My dearest daughter,
Received your letter of 12 September. I am gratified you are safe and well. While it is true that Sarah had informed me of your unfortunate decision to leave Baltimore, I am not surprised at your impulsive choice. Without my firm guidance, you are far too much like your late mother – given to flights of fancy and pipe dreams.
Do not expect me, dear Laura, to offer my blessing for you to wed Scott Lancer. Yes, I admit I deliberately chose not to inform you I knew he was still alive. I will not apologize for that decision. I had hoped you would find a more appropriate suitor in England and marry a man more worthy of you than Harlan Garrett's grandson. Regrettably, that is clearly not to be.
You, as your past behavior indicates, will do as you please, with or without my approval. Do not, however, expect me to attend your impending nuptials. I fear such a union is bound for failure, and it would pain me too much to watch my only daughter make the biggest mistake of her life.
Should you reconsider, and accept the wise counsel of the father who has only ever had your best interests at heart, I will be happy to welcome you back to Boston. Until then, I am
Your loving father,
Scott quietly refolded the letter and laid it on the desk. He took Laura by the hand, pulled her to her feet, and wrapped her in his arms. He held her closely, concerned at how pale and quiet she was, resenting her father even more, if that was possible, for the agony he continued to cause her.
She spoke first, her voice heavy with bitterness. "Well, Scott, I guess I have my answer. Why did I ever expect him to behave any differently?" Her body convulsed as she fought back tears, her breath coming in ragged gasps.
"Shhhh…Laura…Shhhh." Scott rocked her back and forth, his hands stroking her back. “It’s okay. It’s all right. I’m here.”
They stood there for a long time, until she was able to breathe normally again. Scott rubbed her cheek with his thumb, and kissed her trembling lips. "Why don't we go home, Laura?"
She shook her head, mutely agreeing, and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. "Let me put a few things together. I'll be right down." She climbed up the stairs to her room, leaning on the banister for support, packed her carpetbag, grabbed her hatbox and boot bag, and trudged back down to the schoolroom.
The ride out to the ranch slowly lifted her spirits. She couldn't help but be cheered by the beauty of the land and the love of the man sitting next to her. He pulled the horses up at her favorite spot on the hill overlooking the valley. To her surprise, he climbed down from the buggy and reached up to help her down. They stood looking out over the ranch, their arms tucked around each other, surveying the awesome wonder that was Lancer, as far as the naked eye could see.
"Oh, Scott," she sighed. "It really is the most wonderful place in the world." No matter how many times in the years to come she would stand in this spot and look out over the spectacular panorama ahead of her, she knew it would evoke the feeling of sheer magic she was filled with now.
"It's more beautiful because you've become a part of it." Scott dropped to his knee in front of her, taking her hands tightly in his. "Laura Elizabeth MacNeill," he started, watching as the blood drained from her face. "I have loved you for more years than I care to count. I once made a promise to you that I would protect and care for you forever, and I intend to keep that promise. I will never let you go again. Would you do me the great honor, give me the great pleasure, of becoming my wife?"
It was time. What was past needed to remain in the past. It was the future that mattered now. With yet more tears streaming down her face, she held his face in her hands, looked into his beloved blue eyes, and said simply, "Yes."
Rising to his feet, Scott reached into his jacket pocket, and pulled out a tiny jewel box. Opening it, his hands shaking, he took out a lovely sapphire and diamond ring. "Then, perhaps, you would consent to wear this." Seeing she was uncharacteristically speechless, he took her left hand and placed the ring on the third finger.
Laura stared at the magnificent jewel on her hand, the sunlight glinting on the gold band. It was something she had dreamed about for years. The ring was beautiful and perfect in every way, but to her, it wasn't the intricately carved stones, flawlessly set in the golden band that mattered. It could have been a rusty washer or a cigar wrap for all she cared. It was what it meant. It was Scott's ring on her finger, the culmination of six years of agony and the painful certainty she would never wear anyone's ring if she couldn't wear his. Suddenly, it was as if those six years dissolved away as Laura threw herself into his arms, almost knocking him down.
"Aren’t you going to say anything?" He laughed as he picked her up and spun her around. "Does that mean you'll accept my ring?"
"Yes," she sobbed, "oh yes. And I will never, ever let you go either."
"Ugh…." Laura wiped her damp eyes on her woolen cloak. She still hadn't bought any handkerchiefs. "I need to stop crying," she commented ruefully. "You must think all I do these days is cry!" She held her left hand up, as they drove down the hill to the hacienda, admiring the jewels that twinkled even in the fading light. She was so afraid she was dreaming, that she'd wake up and her life would be the grim, excruciating existence it had been for those six painful years.
Scott smiled indulgently at her as he steadied the bays with the reins. "No, I don't think all you do is cry, Laura. It's been a difficult time for you, for both of us, but that's all behind us now."
She tucked her hand under his elbow, snuggling closer to him for warmth as the cool wind cast a chill over her. "It's a beautiful ring, Scott. The sapphires remind me of your eyes."
"It reminded me of the necklace you used to wear…the one that had been your mother's. Do you still have it?" Scott referred to a stunning diamond and sapphire necklace she had often worn to the formal balls they had attended together.
"I do. I haven't had many opportunities to wear it over the last few years." She leaned into him again, shivering with cold. She hesitated to ask him. “Would it be too forward of me to ask where you found my ring, Scott? It’s not a ring you’d likely see in Morro Coyo.”
“No, I didn’t find it in Morro Coyo,” he admitted with a sheepish smile. “I bought it when I went to Sacramento on business in September.”
“But when you went to Sacramento, we had just found each other again. How could you have known?”
“Did you honestly think, Laura, that once I had found you again, I would ever let you go?” He rested his head against hers. “No, I knew I was still in love with you that first day when I walked into the schoolroom and you so charmingly fainted on me.”
She leaned into him, loving the feel of his lips on her face. "If you find it so charming, maybe I should faint more often!"
"No…." Scott grinned wickedly. "I prefer you awake." He winked at her. "For rather obvious reasons."
The wind gusted, causing her to shiver violently again, its blast cutting mercilessly through the wool of her cloak.
"You're freezing." Scott urged the horses into a faster trot. "We need to get you inside before you catch a cold."
The fire in the great room crackled and hissed, the blue and orange flames dancing in the cavernous hearth. Teresa had already set the table for dinner; the aroma of beef stew wafting from the kitchen, mixing with the tempting smell of freshly baked bread. Laura and Scott, eager to share their news, were disappointed to see the great room deserted.
“I wonder where everyone is?” Scott guided Laura over to the fire, and helped her remove her heavy cloak.
His question was met with the sound of the front door slamming and a great deal of clatter as Johnny and Murdoch entered, stamping their feet and blowing on their hands. Johnny threw his hat onto the hall tree, and ambled into the great room; Murdoch followed him, stretching his arms and back as he walked.
"Laura, Scott! Good to see you home!" Murdoch beamed at the couple as he helped himself to a glass of whiskey from the decanter on the side table.
“’bout time you got back, Boston.” Johnny joined Scott and Laura in front of the fire, punching his brother on the shoulder. He leaned over and kissed Laura on the cheek. “And glad you're home too, Mac!”
Laura laid her hand on his chest and returned his kiss, relishing the love and acceptance she had found in her new family. The stones in her ring shimmered in the firelight. Johnny grabbed her hand. “Is that what I think it is?” He looked back and forth between his brother and Laura, his eyes twinkling with delight.
Scott cleared his throat and drew Laura into his embrace, her back against his chest, her hands gripping his arms. “Murdoch, Johnny. We…um…do have some good news. Is Teresa still in the kitchen?” He looked at Johnny. “Perhaps you could ask her to join us?”
Johnny dashed from the great room and back to the kitchen. He returned quickly, pulling Teresa along by the hand.
"We…" Scott started, his arms tightening around Laura. He looked at the expectant faces of his beloved family and tried again. "I have asked this beautiful lady to marry me, and she, graciously, has accepted."
Laura would later recall, with wonder, the near chaos that followed Scott's announcement. Johnny grabbed her, pulling her out of Scott's arms and into a hug. Teresa bounced up and down in excitement, also hugging her until she could barely breathe. Murdoch, she noted out of the corner of her eye, shook Scott's hand and slapped him on the back, his eyes dancing with pride. And then, Murdoch took her in his arms and kissed her on the cheek. "Laura, I can't tell you how thrilled this makes me! I will be so happy to have another daughter!"
Dinner that evening became a celebration as they began to make plans for the wedding.
Teresa was beside herself, her high spirits barely contained. "We'll have to go to Green River, you know, Laura. They have the only dress shop between here and Stockton. And when do you plan to get married….you are going to get married here, right? Oh, we have so much to do!"
Laura looked to Scott for guidance, wondering how she could rein Teresa in without hurting her feelings. Scott wouldn't meet her eyes, intently focusing instead on his glass of wine. He stared at it as though he was seeing it for the first time, the humor in his eyes unmistakable. Laura sensed that, if he tried to talk, he'd end up laughing instead. Murdoch, she noted, looked amazingly patient and long-suffering as he toyed with a piece of steak. Johnny was peering at her, a devilish smile on his face, no doubt anticipating how she'd deal with her future sister.
"Teresa," she glanced back at Scott, and took a deep breath. If he wasn't going to help her out, she'd carry on as best she could. "We haven't had time yet to discuss the finer details of the wedding. But…." She kicked Scott with her foot under the table, not so subtly cautioning him to control his mirth. "I'd love to have it here, if that's all right with everyone. And I'd love to have you help me plan it as well. Please be patient with me, though, Teresa…" She took a sip of her wine. "I've never done this before." She almost felt guilty that Scott nearly choked on his piece of steak.
"Then it's settled!" Teresa exclaimed. "We'll decorate the great room, and we can have dinner and dancing in the dining room. We almost never get to use it, and it'll be perfect!" Teresa referred to the huge formal dining room, located off the great room, its enormous bay windows festooned with drapes and swags. "So when can we go to Green River to have your dress made? It might take a while, you know. The seamstress might need to order in the silk from San Francisco; but then, you might prefer satin? And, of course, you'll need lace as well for the trim and the veil…and your shoes will need to be ordered too."
"I'll be glad to go anytime, Teresa," Laura interrupted, taking Scott's hand in hers under the tablecloth. "Whenever Scott can escort us there would be fine. Over a weekend would be best so I don't have to find a substitute teacher for too many days." She hesitated, not quite sure how to frame her words, not wanting to completely discourage her young friend. "But…" She spoke softly, gripping Scott's hand even more tightly. "I don't really need an elaborate dress." She looked into his love-filled eyes, mirroring her own. "I would marry Scott anytime, anywhere and even without a proper wedding gown."
"That is so sweet, Laura," Teresa gushed, "but you must have a beautiful wedding dress! I mean, this is all just like a fairy tale, and everyone will want to be here, and it has to be perfect!"
While she appreciated the teenager's enthusiasm, Laura realized, in her excitement, Teresa wasn't really listening to what she had just said. Perhaps it was time to dampen her exuberance just a little before things spiraled totally out of control. She smiled gently at her young friend, her voice soft and low. "Teresa, I'm sure we'll be able to find a dress in Green River that will be perfect for me. In the meantime, Scott and I need to discuss a date and what we want for our wedding. Once we've done that, you and I can discuss the specific details. Agreed?"
"I'm sorry, Laura." Teresa clasped her hands in front of her on the table. "I'm just so excited for you both! I guess I got a little carried away."
Laura again smiled reassuringly at Teresa. "It's all right. It is like a fairy tale, isn't it? I never could have imagined when I came to teach here that Scott and I would find each other again." She stopped short of admitting her own reserved Boston upbringing made her uncomfortable being the focus of so much attention. In an effort to control her own raging emotions, she stood up and began stacking the dinner dishes and silverware, offering to help Teresa clear the table.
But Teresa shooed the young lovers away, insisting she would clear the dishes herself, again perceptively recognizing they needed time alone together. Despite the cold, Laura donned her cloak, and they wandered out onto the porch, the night air bringing color to their cheeks as the breeze stung their faces.
"Scott, we do need to talk about a date for our wedding." She leaned into his embrace, her head tucked under his chin. "I do hope you don't mind having it here – I can't think of a more appropriate place…the place we both love the most."
"I agree…we should get married here." He kissed the top of her head. "And the sooner, the better."
"Well…" She did a few mental calculations. "Your birthday is on a Sunday this year…so Saturday would be the 18th of December. How would you feel about December 4th? That would give us plenty of time to celebrate our wedding and still plan for yours and Johnny's birthdays and Christmas. It'll be hectic, but, I think Teresa and I can organize it all." She grinned. "Teresa could actually probably plan it all herself. She's amazing! It might not give the dressmaker much time, though." Laura laughed. "Not that a dress is all that important to me at this point. But, I suppose I'll need to look like the Eastern society girl all those ladies in Morro Coyo think I am -- especially since, as Mrs. Granville informed me, I'm marrying the Valley's most eligible bachelor." She poked him in the chest with her finger. "Some of those ladies aren't going to be too pleased...."
"They'll get over it, I'm sure," Scott said dryly. "And it means my brother'll have less competition. He'll be thrilled."
"Is that so? Are you implying that you and Johnny competed with each other for the ladies' favors?"
"No...no....Nothing at all like that." Scott grinned rakishly. "There was no competition."
"And exactly what do you mean by that, Mr. Lancer?"
"My heart always belonged to you," he answered gallantly, if a bit hurriedly. "So December 4th it is." Scott put his finger under her chin and lifted her face to his. "A month will have never seemed so long."
She started shivering, desire for him flaming inside her. Scott apparently mistakenly thought she was cold, and he pulled her closer to him. He guided her back inside the house, insisting she was going to become ill if they stayed out any longer. They moved to sit by Murdoch on the sofa, Scott pulling her tightly to his side.
"So, Teresa." Scott smiled at his adopted sister. "We have a date for you. Laura has chosen December 4th for our wedding." He raised his hand in admonition as Teresa sat forward in her chair, protest in her eyes. "I know that's not much time. We can go to Green River next weekend. You and Laura can see the dressmaker about a dress, and I can have the tailor alter my tie and tails. I've…uh…gained a little weight living here."
Laura had to bite her tongue. She had nearly said, "I noticed," as a vision of their tryst in the upper meadow during her first visit to Lancer flitted through her mind. She could feel the color rising in her cheeks as Scott caught her eye and grinned knowingly.
Murdoch glanced up from his ledger, a smile softening his craggy features. "December will certainly be an eventful month here." He snapped his book closed and glanced at his younger son. "If you go into Green River next weekend, Scott, you should probably take Johnny with you."
Johnny, stretched out on the other sofa, opened his groggy eyes at the mention of his name.
"I'll have a list of supplies for you to bring back," Murdoch said. "Your brother can also keep you company while the ladies shop."
"Yeah, Scott," Johnny agreed with his father. "I wouldn't want you to get into trouble. Those ladies' dress shops can be dangerous places. I'll be glad to go along and watch your back. Besides, I haven't seen Val in awhile."
Murdoch chuckled, shaking his head at the devious glint in his younger son's eyes.
"Do you think you could take Friday and Monday away from the school, Laura?" Scott smiled at his brother's quip. "You'd need to spend Thursday night here so we could leave early Friday morning. If we're going to bring back supplies, we'll need to take the wagon. That'll slow us down considerably. We won’t be back until late Sunday, so I won’t be able to get you back to Morro Coyo before Monday afternoon."
"I'm sure I can find a substitute for Friday and Monday," Laura replied, adding, "Mrs. Granville will be more than eager, I'm sure, to take my place for a few days." It'll give her a chance to share her vast knowledge with my children, Laura thought to herself. Hopefully, she won't do too much damage.
Friday morning dawned cold and clear. They had decided Johnny and Teresa would ride their horses to Green River, with Scott driving the heavy wagon, Laura by his side. Teresa's horse, Lacy, was one of the sweetest little mares Laura had ever seen. She noted her two favorite workhorses, Zeke and Zach, were in the traces. Kissing each of them on the nose, she allowed Scott to help her up onto the high wagon seat. Scott picked up the lines, slapping them against the bays' backs, as they waved goodbye to Murdoch and struck out on the daylong trip into town. With any luck, they would pull into Green River by dinnertime, and they planned to stay in a hotel until Sunday morning before embarking on the return trip to the ranch.
After stopping briefly for lunch and allowing the horses to rest, Laura took up the lines, insisting Scott allow her to drive, despite his protests she wasn't used to driving a heavy wagon. She enjoyed the rhythmic rocking of the wagon as they rode along, noticing, despite his initial objection to her driving, Scott was dozing on the seat next to her, his hat pulled low over his face. Laura found herself drifting away as well, memories of their Boston childhoods flitting through her mind. She remembered the years they had fox hunted together, first as children on their ponies; then, when they were older, Scott had been dashingly handsome in his "pink" formal hunting coat and top hat, his whip coiled in his hand as he served as a whipper-in, assisting the huntsman in controlling the foxhounds. Suddenly distracted from her daydreaming, Laura sensed something was wrong with Zach; she could feel his hesitation through the reins. "Scott!" She nudged him with her elbow as she pulled the horses up. "Something's not right with Zach. I think you need to check him."
Scott startled awake and pushed his hat back on his head. "What's wrong, Laura?"
"I'm not sure. Zach just doesn't feel right. I'm worried about him -- he looks like he's limping."
Scott climbed slowly down from the wagon and ran his hand over the bay's flank. He examined the big horse's feet, first the right front and then the left. "Well, there's the answer." He picked at the gelding's left front hoof with his gloved hand. "He pitched a shoe. Hard to tell if he bruised his sole as well. He's ripped up his hoof pretty badly."
Johnny shifted his weight in his saddle, the leather squeaking in protest as he glanced up at the sun, squinting in the bright light. "So, whaddya want to do, Scott? Zeke can't pull that wagon into town by himself, and Zach'll be ruined if we push him on this hard ground to keep him goin'."
"You're right. I suppose we could substitute either Barranca or Lacy to pull for Zach," Scott replied, searching for some alternative.
"Barranca ain't gonna pull that wagon, Boston," Johnny protested. "Last time I tried to hitch him to the buckboard, he kicked the tongue apart. And Lacy's too small to help Zeke out much. She'll end up lame too."
"You're probably right about that, too. And there's no way we can shoe him out here, either," Scott said with a sigh. "Without a forge or tools, I can't make him a new shoe. Any other suggestions, Johnny?"
"I dunno. I don't think Lacy'll make it ten miles with two people on her." Johnny pushed his hat back on his head. "I guess I could ride Zeke bareback and let you 'n' Laura ride Barranca, but that still means we'd have to leave the wagon here and come back for it. It might be easier if I take Zach into town, get him shod, and meet you back out here in the morning."
Scott leaned against Zach, his hands playing with the harness as he considered Johnny's proposal. "I'm sorry, ladies. Johnny's idea seems to be the best choice we have."
"I'm sure I could ride Barranca astride with you, Scott," Laura said gamely. "If it would help...."
"I'm sure you could manage, Laura," he replied. "But you've never ridden astride. I don't think you'd be in any condition, to put it delicately, to look at wedding dresses after ten miles of that. I really think it'd be better for us to make camp out here for the night. I know you've never spent the night out in the open, but I'll keep you as warm and comfortable as I can." He started to unhitch the horses. "Johnny, just make sure you're back out here in the morning." He grinned at his brother, teasing, "You might want to avoid the saloon and any all-night poker games." He smiled reassuringly at the girls. "We'll get you to that dress shop, I promise."
Laura tried to temper her uncertainty with a half-hearted smile. She was concerned at her complete lack of experience in the wild, nervous at the prospect of being vulnerable and exposed to the elements. She rushed to Teresa’s side, busying herself, trying to mask her discomfort by helping the young woman unpack the wagon.
Johnny and Barranca rode away, Zach limping along behind, leaving his brother and the ladies with the wagon, reluctantly unpacking the extra blankets and few supplies they had to make themselves comfortable for the night. Laura and Teresa had packed a few staples in addition to the sandwiches they had enjoyed for lunch – the ingredients for a pan of biscuits, some coffee, and a small amount of jerky. Enough to barely sustain them for a night, but certainly not a warm, filling dinner.
"Scott?" Teresa questioned as she started mixing the biscuit dough, "Maybe you could go find us some supper? We should've thought to pack more. I guess we were just too excited about the trip."
"I really don't want to leave the two of you alone, Teresa." Scott pulled Laura into his arms, his need to protect her all-consuming, overwhelming any sense of propriety he might have in front of his sister.
"Oh, we'll be fine." Teresa flipped a drop of biscuit dough at him. "You worry too much, right Laura?"
"It's all right, Scott," Laura quickly assured him, her words sounding more confident than she felt. As the sun set lower in the sky, she was acutely aware of how desolate their surroundings really were. She could feel the cold air beginning to penetrate the wool of her cloak, despite the warmth of Scott's arms around her. She patted him on the chest with her hands. "If Teresa wants you to find us some supper, then you should do just that."
Scott handed Teresa his revolver, his eyes still full of uncertainty. "I'll see if I can find anything close by, but…" he cautioned her, "If anyone or anything bothers you, shoot it first and ask questions later." Seeing the look of horror on Laura's face as she contemplated the gun Teresa held casually in her hand, he hugged her again and kissed her tenderly. "Don't worry, Laura," he chuckled knowingly. "Teresa's a pretty good shot. I wouldn't want to be the one in her sights."
He stroked her cheek with his hand and then strode off into the underbrush, his carbine slung over his shoulder. Laura, never in her wildest dreams imagining she'd be scrounging for firewood in the wilderness of California, set about helping Teresa gather what they needed for a fire. Teresa arranged the kindling and lit a match to it, the flames igniting, the fire's warmth helping to drive away the deepening chill. It wasn’t long before the women heard the sharp report of a rifle in the distance, signaling that Scott would soon be back.
The girls were huddled together next to the fire when Scott returned, calling out to let Teresa know it was him. He held a rabbit in one hand, and his carbine in the other. He rested the rifle against the wagon wheel, pulled his knife from his belt and, out of deference for his bride-to-be, retreated behind some rocks to gut and skin their "supper."
Laura was amazed at how proficient Teresa and Scott were at cooking their dinner with the limited resources at hand; especially Scott, considering his privileged upbringing in Harlan Garrett's opulent Beacon Hill mansion. Wrapped in her cloak, she marveled at how he had adapted to the rustic lifestyle of the west -- shoeing horses, camping, hunting for food.
Scott interrupted her thoughts with some encouragement. "Dinner's ready, Laura. Here, just try a little bite. It's actually quite good."
Rabbit wasn't something she had chosen to eat before, even though it was served often both in Boston and London. Then, again, having it elegantly arranged on a plate in a select restaurant in an upper-class enclave was truly different than seeing it roasted on an open fire in front of her. Yet something else I'll have to get used to....
Teresa seemed perfectly comfortable as she moved about, brewing a second pot of coffee and cleaning up their utensils. Scott and Laura sat next to the fire, his arm around her waist and her head on his shoulder. Laura laughed softly and tried to stifle the noise by pressing her mouth against Scott's arm.
"What's so funny?" He lifted her chin with his finger, unable to stifle a grin himself.
"I'm sorry, Scott," she said. "I was just thinking about our friends in Boston and how shocked they'd be to see us out here like this. Harlan Garrett's grandson and Robert MacNeill's daughter camping out together on the side of a mountain. They'd be appalled!"
"It would raise a few eyebrows, I'm sure. Most of those people would find it completely improper." He sniffed as he said the last word, mimicking a stuffy Boston accent. He kissed her, his lips trailing across her cheek. Laura suddenly felt awkward and, for the first time in memory, somewhat apprehensive in Scott's arms. Despite Teresa's presence, she was all too aware of her intense desire for this man, and the fact they would be spending the night in close proximity, sleeping almost next to each other by the fire.
Scott seemed to sense her discomfort. "You need to try to get some sleep, Laura. Tomorrow'll be a very busy day."
He insisted on wrapping himself in only one blanket, leaving the remainder for the women. Laura tucked herself under her wool cloak and several blankets, painfully aware of how close he was to her. She couldn't help but think how much warmer it would be wrapped up in his arms. Had Teresa not been there, she wasn't sure she would have been able to resist joining him under his blanket. She shivered, the cold from the rocky ground permeating her covers, listening to the howl of the coyotes and the hooting of an owl in the distance. Suddenly, there was a whoosh of wings overhead, and she heard something shriek nearby. She sat bolt upright, her heart pounding in terror.
"Shhh." She heard Scott's reassuring whisper. His arms were around her, strong and comforting. "Shhh, Laura, it's all right. It's just an owl hunting. Nothing, no one will hurt you while I'm here. Now or ever. I promise. Now try to go to sleep."
She nodded mutely and lay back down. She dozed off, finally, her head wrapped in the hood of her cloak, her body curled up in an attempt to stay warm. Sleeping fitfully, she awakened, listening to the sound of Scott breathing. She realized he was still awake, alert and watching over her. At some point, she had instinctively moved towards him, positioning her head firmly against his shoulder and her face against his neck. She fell back asleep, comforted by his nearness, deciding she didn't care at all if it was proper.
She awakened to Scott's gentle kiss on her face. "Johnny's back, Laura," he whispered. "Zach's hitched up, and we can get going again."
Laura sat up, rubbing her eyes and stretching. She looked around, initially not really recognizing where she was. Then she realized Teresa was already bustling about repacking the wagon, and Johnny was checking the harness, Barranca nipping at his hat. "Why didn't you wake me up sooner, Scott?" she protested. "I could've helped Teresa. She didn't need to do all the work herself."
Teresa spoke up in Scott's defense. "I told him to let you sleep, Laura. I didn't think you'd get much rest out here, and I didn't want you to be too tired to look at dress patterns today."
"Thank you, Teresa…and you're right…I didn't sleep too well, but I'll be fine." Laura blushed, not sure how to request a moment of privacy. "I think I'll just go over there behind that rock and...tidy up...a little...."
They decided to continue on, without foraging for breakfast, anticipating a warm meal in town, the promise of hot coffee, in particular, spurring them on in the chill of the November morning.
The rest of the trip was uneventful, the four of them laughing and joking as though they had all known each other for years. Laura had not felt such a strong sense of acceptance, of belonging before, and, for the first time in as long as she could remember, she looked forward to what the future might hold. Her life for so long had been spent in dread, reacting to circumstances rather than actively participating, holding back rather than moving forward. She felt like she had been freed from prison.
Pulling into Green River in the late morning, they left the horses and wagon at the livery, ensuring they were well taken care of before addressing their own need for a hot meal, and, in Laura's case, the strong desire to change out of the clothes she had slept in.
"Let's check into the hotel and leave our bags." Scott put his arm around Laura. "Perhaps you'd like to wash up and change, and then we can get something to eat," he suggested. "And then…" He smiled at the ladies. "You two can spend all afternoon at the dressmakers if you'd like."
Johnny grabbed Scott's arm as he started to follow the women into the dress shop. "Whoa, brother! You can't go in there!"
Scott started to protest before he realized Teresa and Laura were staring at him with more than a little impatience. Teresa chastised him as Laura suppressed a giggle. "Scott Lancer, I told you you'd have to leave us alone for awhile. Now – go!" She waved her arm at him, dismissing him the way she scattered the chickens from her garden at home.
He wisely retreated, following a grinning Johnny down the boardwalk, looking back over his shoulder in bemusement as he went.
Laura and Teresa slipped into Mrs. Fowler's dress shop, the patroness greeting them warmly. Teresa, never one to be shy, spoke up. "We need you to make a wedding dress, Mrs. Fowler. And it must be very special." She pulled Laura over by the hand and presented her to the seamstress. "She's getting married." She added dramatically, "To Scott Lancer."
"Congratulations, Miss…?" The seamstress extended her hand.
Laura took her hand, responding "MacNeill. But, please, call me Laura."
"And when is your wedding...Laura?" Mrs. Fowler clasped her hands in front of her.
"Ummm." Laura suddenly realized just how close December 4th was – just four short weeks away. "December 4th," she replied, wincing when she saw the fleeting look of panic cross the woman's face. "But it doesn't need to be a fancy dress, really, something very simple will do nicely," she quickly added.
"Well, I don't know…." The seamstress hesitated, her eyes shifting between Teresa and Laura. "We can look at patterns and fabric, but I'm not sure I can have a dress made by that time." Her eyes brightened suddenly. "I do have a dress, though….I don't know if you'll consider it...but," she looked at Laura appraisingly, "I'm sure I can alter it to fit."
"What dress is that, Mrs. Fowler? We want only the best." Teresa demanded.
"I have a dress packed away that I made last summer for a young lady here in Green River. She chose to…" Mrs. Fowler weighed her words very carefully, "…celebrate her marriage elsewhere. She never wore the dress, and I haven't known what to do with it. May I show it to you?"
Teresa was still quite leery, particularly of a dress that had clearly been commissioned for someone else. Laura ignored her, addressing the seamstress. "I'd be happy to look at it. I'm sure it's lovely." She pulled Teresa aside as the shop owner stepped away to retrieve the wedding gown. "Teresa, if it can be made to fit, it'll be fine."
"But, Laura….you're….Scott's…." Teresa couldn't quite grasp the bride-to-be’s apparent nonchalance about her wedding dress.
Laura took the young woman by the hands, smiling at her frustration. "Teresa, I am marrying the man I have loved literally longer than I can remember. I never ever expected to be standing here, ready to choose a gown for my wedding to him. Do you truly think I care what I wear or, for that matter, that he cares? I'd marry him in my riding habit if that's all I had to wear. Now…let's look at this dress."
The dress Mrs. Fowler carefully pulled from its box was, Laura thought, the most beautiful gown she'd ever seen. White satin, with a high collar and a row of pearl buttons down the lacy bodice, the hem was scalloped, with matching lace peeking out from underneath the gathers created by the scallops. The skirt was full and old-fashioned, reminding her of the ball gowns she had worn years before.
She realized she was standing with her hand to her mouth, Mrs. Fowler patiently waiting for her to say something. Teresa, for once, was equally speechless.
"Would you like to try it on, Laura?"
Laura nodded mutely, and followed Mrs. Fowler into the back to change. As Laura emerged from the fitting room, tears were welling up in her eyes. She hadn’t expected a dress to make her feel so emotional; to be a confirmation her life with Scott was meant to be despite so many years and miles spent apart. The dress fit nearly perfectly, requiring only minor adjustments. Teresa, too, was ecstatic, after her initial hesitation. "You look gorgeous, Laura! I can't wait for Scott to see how beautiful you look!"
Between them, the three ladies picked out a length of exquisite lace for a veil, holding the fabric against the dress for effect. It was perfect. They pored over the pattern book, choosing a simple gown for Teresa to wear as a bridesmaid, the fabric selected a deep green velvet that would complement her dark coloring. After paying for the gowns, and arranging to have them sent by stage to Morro Coyo, the girls triumphantly exited the dress shop, looking up and down the street for the men. So caught up in their excitement, they barely noticed the grimy cowboy weaving his way down the boardwalk.
But he had spotted them. The euphoria of finding the perfect wedding dress so easily was abruptly shattered by what happened next. One of the stark realities of life in the west struck with a brutality none of the Lancers would have wanted Laura to experience.
Teresa had turned her back to Laura, searching the street for Johnny and Scott, when she was shoved roughly from behind. She spun off the boardwalk and into a hitching rail, managing to catch herself before she fell. Laura found herself pressed up against the wall of the building, rough hands groping her, the sour, whiskey-laden lips of the unshaven drunk kissing her throat and mouth. She fought back, desperately trying to push him off, crying out frantically for help.
She heard an unmistakable click, as the hammer of a revolver was pulled back. In a daze, she felt the man tense up, the fear in his eyes growing as the barrel of a Colt was pressed against his head. Her knees almost gave out in relief as she heard Johnny snarl, "You might wanna let go of her, mister."
Laura would never forget the look in Johnny's eyes – the cold, perfectly calm stare of a man who was prepared to kill without compunction.
The drunk backed away, his hands in the air. Out of seemingly nowhere, a fist connected with his face. He had never seen Scott coming. Laura hadn't either. The first blow knocked him backwards into the street. Scott followed him, pounding him with his right hand and then his left. When he fell, Scott picked him up and slugged him again…and again…and again….
"Scott, please," Laura begged him as blood from the drunk's pulverized face sprayed the air, his nose clearly broken, his eyes swelling shut. "Please…that's enough. I'm all right."
Scott wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and turned back to her, anger distorting his handsome features, his chest heaving as he struggled to catch his breath. He nodded to his brother as he picked up his hat out of the dust. "Thanks, Johnny."
Johnny nodded silently, holstered his gun, and went to check on Teresa who was standing by the hitching rail, still trying to catch her own breath.
Scott took Laura in his arms, soothing her hair with his hands, as she gave into her tears. "Are you all right? Did he hurt you?"
She shook her head, clutching his jacket as though her life depended on it, still smelling the rancid odor that clung to her and feeling completely violated. A crowd had gathered, drawn by her screams and the sound of Scott pounding the man in the street. Laura wished she could slip away unnoticed, the unwanted attention making the situation even worse. She fought to focus her thoughts, panic suddenly surging through her. “Teresa!” She managed to choke out the words. “Scott, where’s Teresa?”
Her knees went weak with relief when she heard her friend’s reassuring voice. “I’m okay, Laura. I’m right here – he didn’t hurt me.”
“Johnny,” Scott called to his brother who was standing guard over Laura’s attacker. The sheriff, having dispersed the crowd, was deep in conversation with him. “I’m going to take the ladies back to the hotel now.”
“’Kay, Scott.” Johnny nodded in acknowledgement. “I’ll help Val here. I’ll catch up with you later.”
Laura heard bits and pieces of their conversation as Scott pulled her away. Their words reminded her yet again of a brutal fact of life in the west, the reality that life could be so fleeting, a quick death met at the end of a revolver.
The sheriff, whom Johnny had called Val, questioned, “….would ya have shot ‘im, Johnny?”
Johnny’s sure reply, “…didn’t want to…would’ve if I’d had to…couldn’t let him hurt her….”
Scott escorted the young women back to the hotel and made certain they were safe in their room before slipping into the room he shared with his brother to wash the drunk’s blood off his hands and change shirts. He then positioned himself outside the door to Laura and Teresa’s room, refusing to leave the girls alone while they freshened up.
Laura slowly washed and changed clothes, deciding she wouldn't allow the unfortunate episode to ruin her day. She wanted to be with Scott, feel his arms around her, and assure him she was all right. She knew he’d blame himself for her attack, torturing himself with guilt that he hadn’t been right there to protect her and with thoughts of what might have happened had he and Johnny not come along when they did.
Teresa, realizing that Laura needed time alone with Scott, offered, “Laura, I’m a little tired…none of us slept well last night. If you don’t mind, I think I’ll lie down for a little while and wait for Johnny to come back. Why don’t you and Scott go have a cup of coffee?”
“I'll see what he wants to do, Teresa." Laura hugged her, grateful for her sensitivity and content she finally had the sister she had always longed for. "Are you sure you'll be all right here by yourself?"
"I'll be fine." Teresa took Laura's hands in hers and squeezed them firmly. "Now…I know I heard Scott outside the door. Go."
Laura tentatively opened the door and peeked out. Scott was leaning against the wall, and he quickly stood up and pulled her into his arms.
"Laura…are you all right? I am so sorry…I should have been there…it would never have happened if I had been there." Scott's words were hurried, his face marked by a mixture of anger and guilt.
"I'm fine, Scott. Really. A little shaken, but I'm okay." She held his face in her hands. "Let's go have a cup of coffee downstairs, and we can talk about it somewhere a little more private than this hallway." She took his arm, coaxing him along down the stairs and into the hotel dining room.
They sat in silence as they sipped their coffee, Laura concerned at the intense anger that still darkened his features, worried he felt compelled to continue his fight with the drunken cowboy because of his overwhelming desire to protect her. "Scott, you need to let this go. That man really didn't hurt me. It was very disturbing and extremely unpleasant, but nothing will be gained by you seeking revenge. That might be my father’s way or even your grandfather’s way, but it’s never been yours. Don’t let this unfortunate incident change that. Let's have our coffee and enjoy the rest of the day together. Please?"
Scott sighed, a wry smile lighting his eyes. "I suppose you're right, Laura. The sight of him…touching you, though, was more than I could stand." He looked deeply into her eyes as he promised, "I will never let anything like that happen to you again."
She reached for his hand, needing to feel his touch, even in so public a place. Then, her natural good humor took over. "I guess I'm not in Boston anymore, am I, Scott?" She made a choking noise as she tried to stifle her laughter, not wanting him to think she was making light of his need to stand guard over her. "Imagine such a thing happening on Beacon Hill! It would've made for some interesting parlor talk for quite awhile."
"No, you're not in Boston anymore." He laughed as he shook his head. "Those old biddies in Boston would've pretended to be horrified when they were actually grateful for the diversion." His expression changed suddenly. He took a quick gulp of his coffee, pulled his watch from his jacket pocket, snapped it shut, and stood up. He helped Laura from her chair, and took her by the elbow, hurrying her out of the hotel, and ignoring the baffled look on her face.
"Scott, slow down," she protested. "I can't keep up with you. Where are we going in such a hurry anyway?"
"To the jewelers," he replied. "I just hope he's still open." He strode down the boardwalk, dragging her by the hand as she struggled to keep up.
"Jewelers? What do we need at the jewelers?" Laura was confused, thinking he had already given her the most beautiful engagement ring in the world. What else could there be?
Scott opened the door to the jewelry store, and showed her in, taking her hands in his before replying, "A wedding ring. I doubt we'll make it back to Green River together before our wedding, and I'll need a ring."
Laura put her hand over her mouth, her eyes twinkling with laughter. "Now why didn't I think of that? Teresa and I were so consumed with my dress that I didn't give a thought to a wedding ring. My engagement ring fits perfectly, so we can just pick something simple to match it." She turned towards the display case, the proprietor standing patiently behind it.
"I wasn't talking about a ring for you, Laura." Scott held onto her hand, pulling her back to him. "I was talking about a wedding ring for me."
"But, Scott, most men don't wear…." she began, looking intently into his eyes.
"I am not 'most men,'" he said simply.
She almost burst into tears, overwhelmed by the love in his eyes.
The shopkeeper seemed to be rearranging the trays of rings, still calmly waiting for them. Perhaps he was used to young ladies crying in his store.
"Laura, if it's all right with you, I have my mother's wedding ring to give you. I've already talked to Murdoch, and he said he knew she'd be very happy to have you wear it."
She felt as though she could barely breathe. "I would be honored to wear your mother's wedding ring." She reached up and touched his face as the jeweler cleared his throat.
They chose a simple gold band for Scott, Laura thrilled by the sight of it on his hand as he tried it on, wishing fervently she didn't have to wait another month for their wedding night.
The return trip to the ranch on Sunday was, thankfully, as uneventful as the trip out had been challenging. Scott and Laura took turns driving the wagon back, spending the long journey discussing details of their upcoming wedding. They laughed together, remembering the shock on Mrs. Granville’s face when they had announced their wedding plans to her and requested the Reverend Granville preside over the ceremony. Laura had given the Reverend and the Educational Society her notice as well, agreeing she would teach until November 24, the day before Thanksgiving, at which time she would move permanently to Lancer. If absolutely necessary to the continued functioning of the school, she had offered to return after the Christmas holidays to substitute on occasion. The young couple agreed the wedding should be as small an affair as possible, given Murdoch's standing in the ranching community, with only close friends and neighbors, and, of course, Laura's students, in attendance. Scott had already asked Johnny to be his best man, commenting on how amazed he was he actually had a brother to serve in that capacity.
The four young people dragged themselves into the hacienda, grateful for the blazing fire in weather that had once again turned windy and wet. Maria had dinner on the table, and Murdoch was eager to hear the details of his children's trip. By agreement, they didn't tell him of Laura's escapade with the drunken cowboy. She had chosen not to press charges, feeling his introduction to Johnny’s Colt and his pounding by Scott had been sufficient punishment already. She doubted the man would ever be able to look into a mirror again without regretting the episode that had permanently scarred his face. Laura did remind herself to ask Scott about Johnny's prowess with his revolver. She could still see the flat look in his eyes, the emotionless stare of a killer, when he confronted the drunk. It was such a contrast to the easygoing young man she had become so fond of already. It was as if he became a different person with a gun in his hand.
They all shared a good laugh at dinner as Laura animatedly described her first camping experience in the wild, mimicking the animal sounds quite well, and joking about how the ladies she knew in Boston would have staunchly refused to sleep on the ground, or to eat any creature they had watched being roasted over an open fire.
Dinner ended, Laura took Scott's hand, seeking his encouragement. She looked, with some trepidation, at her future father-in-law. "Murdoch, I…umm…" She suddenly felt shy and tongue-tied. "I wondered if I might speak to you for a moment…." She glanced around the table at her new family. "In private."
Scott, already aware of what she needed to discuss with his father, stood up and nodded to his brother, "Johnny, why don't we go check on the horses? It sounds as though the wind's picking up. They'll likely need more hay."
"I'll go help Maria in the kitchen." Teresa hurriedly collected a few dishes and retreated to the kitchen as the brothers gathered their jackets and hats from the hall tree on their way out the front door.
Murdoch and Laura took seats on the sofa in front of the fire. Laura sat on the edge, her back rigidly straight and her hands clenched in her lap.
She stared into the flickering flames, trying to establish a sense of composure before she continued. “We…I…,” she stammered. Laura looked into his eyes, seeing the same patient understanding that often marked Scott’s face, realizing for the first time how very like his father he actually was. “Murdoch, I don’t know if Scott told you I had written to my father about our plans to be married.”
Crossing his legs and leaning back against the cushions, Murdoch sighed. “He told me you had written to him, and he responded that he would not be attending your wedding. I can’t imagine why a man would be willing to miss his own daughter’s wedding, but….” Murdoch’s voice trailed off. After a brief pause, he continued, "I would never willingly be absent from either of my son's, or Teresa's, wedding."
“It’s a very long, painful story,” Laura said. “And perhaps someday Scott and I can share more of the details with you. That's up to Scott. Let's just say that my father intensely dislikes Harlan Garrett and would never willingly allow me to marry his grandson." She smiled shyly. "But what I really wanted to ask you…” Big breath, Laura. “…was if you would be willing to escort me…to give me away at our wedding.” She rushed ahead, feeling her courage slowly draining away. “Scott thought you would be willing to, but I wasn’t sure since you’re his father, and I’m not really your daughter, and….”
Murdoch held up his hand, a huge smile creasing his face. “Laura, dear…slow down.” He sat forward and took her tiny hands in his. “I would be honored to give you away at your wedding to my son. You don’t know how long I waited just for my sons to come home, much less to see one of them marry, and I couldn’t approve more of Scott’s choice. Your father’s loss is very much my gain.” He drew her into his arms, his hug welcoming her to her new family more surely than words ever could.
Laura stood in her classroom, watching her students file in the door on her last day as their regular teacher. She had packed her trunks earlier in the week, and Scott and Johnny would pick them up that afternoon, taking her to her new home at Lancer. She hadn't expected to feel so torn, wanting beyond all doubt to begin her new life with Scott, yet realizing she would sorely miss seeing her pupils on a daily basis. They had come so far since her first difficult, emotion-laden days in Morro Coyo. A new teacher had already been engaged. Miss Eulalia Porter, a spinster living with her aging mother in Green River, had agreed to accept the position. Laura felt certain Mrs. Granville found her to be a much more appropriate schoolmarm than she herself had been, albeit a much less interesting subject for the local gossips. Miss Porter would be moving into her classroom, and into her former living quarters, during the Thanksgiving holiday.
The children, eager for their long weekend break from school, and understandably anxious about the impending change in teachers, were restless and full of energy, taking longer than usual to settle at their desks. Anna Perkins and Mary Granville, in particular, were whispering back and forth, their giggles distracting the other students who were trying to comport themselves appropriately. Finally, Laura had enough.
"Miss Granville and Miss Perkins." She spoke quietly, but firmly. "Is there anything you would like to share with the class? You seem to be having a most interesting conversation."
The two young ladies sat up straight at their desks, trying without success to erase the smirks from their faces. "No, Miss MacNeill," Anna managed to choke out.
Mary, Laura noted, had tears in her eyes as she continued to bite her tongue to keep from laughing.
"And you, Mary? Do you have anything you wish to say?" Laura had the attention of the entire class as they all stared at their schoolmate.
Mary put her hand to her mouth and confessed, the tears now dripping down her face, "My mother says that Scott Lancer is just about perfect…." She convulsed with giggles, as her friend, Anna, looked on in horror.
Laura fought valiantly to suppress her own laughter, wanting nothing more than to say, "Your mother is absolutely right!" She cleared her throat and rearranged the books on her desk, declaring in her most schoolteacherly voice, "Thank you for sharing that, Mary. Now, can we proceed with our lessons?"
Thanksgiving Day was the calm before the whirlwind that would be December at the Lancer ranch. Despite the holiday, the inescapable chores inherent to life on a large ranch demanded attention. The men spent the day mending fences and shoeing horses, while Teresa and Laura baked and cooked, their faces and aprons streaked with flour as they prepared a special dinner for their family. Laura deferred to Teresa’s expertise in the kitchen, knowing how woefully inept she was at making anything beyond tea, coffee, or biscuits. She made a firm resolution, however, that she would learn how to cook well and become the perfect rancher’s wife. So she watched Teresa’s every move like a hawk-- measurements of flour, when to turn and baste the meat, how to crimp the edges of the piecrusts--there was a lot to learn, but Laura was a quick study and a very willing student.
Murdoch lifted his glass of wine in a toast to his loved ones, seated at the dinner table laden with the delicacies the ladies had prepared, and decorated with a cornucopia Teresa had stuffed with gourds and dried fruits. “To our first Thanksgiving together as a family. May it be the first of many to come.” The holiday, instituted six years before by President Lincoln, had held little meaning for Murdoch. Without his sons, it was merely another day of work; indeed, he had tended to work harder on Thanksgiving Day in an attempt to keep his mind occupied, his thoughts away from where they were, what they were doing, wondering if Johnny was even still alive. This, however, was a day to be truly thankful, grateful they were reunited, the sounds of young voices filling the hacienda with laughter, the future of the ranch sitting around the table.
Laura, along with the others, raised her glass in return, deeply thankful for the unexpected and incredible turn her life had taken. She had celebrated Thanksgiving only once, the year before in Baltimore with Sarah and David, the day painfully tedious as the couple had expounded at great length on their many blessings. Laura, to their dismay, had had difficulty defining exactly what she was thankful for, other than the fact she was still breathing and had a roof, albeit someone else’s, over her head. Now, she was preparing for her wedding to the man sitting beside her, the man who owned her heart and filled her dreams.
He took her hand in his, as he acknowledged his father’s toast. Scott had spent his holidays, until two years before, in the Army, the food served indistinguishable from any other meal. The last Thanksgiving, celebrated in his grandfather’s house, had been a lavishly formal and staid affair, without any sense of joy or true gratitude. He had left as soon after the meal as he reasonably could, spending the remainder of the evening with his friends at his gentlemen’s club, drinking and wondering if Laura was happy with the man her father had said she married. It was his behavior that day that had ultimately led to the dissolution of his engagement to Julie. Now, Laura was his miracle, the woman who made his life complete, and the center of his existence.
Johnny had never even heard of Thanksgiving, before Teresa had explained the meaning and tradition behind the relatively new holiday. Surrounded by his loving family, amazed and gratified by their unconditional acceptance, he wasn’t sure a special day needed to be set aside to be thankful. He was thankful every day, to be alive and living on a land that calmed his soul.
Sipping her wine, Teresa was thankful that the past year, which had begun with the agony of losing her father, had ended with the gain, not only of two brothers, but a new sister as well. The stark contrasts were clear in her mind as she searched the faces of her family, seeing the pain they had all endured slowly turned into the joy of celebration and true thanksgiving.
The men retired to their after-dinner brandies, the girls quickly clearing the table, and returning to join them by the fire. Laura leaned into Scott’s embrace on the sofa, the warmth of the fire and the comfort of his body seeping through her like a sedative. She found herself drifting off, relaxed and at peace in her new home. She felt Scott’s lips drift through her hair. He whispered in her ear, “Laura, honey, I think you need to get some sleep. We’re going to have a very busy week.”
She opened her drowsy eyes, and tilted her head back against his shoulder so she could see his face. Sighing contentedly, she agreed, “I think you’re right, Scott. I can barely keep my eyes open.” She apologized to the others, “I’m so sorry. I’m afraid I’m not very good company this evening. I think I’d better retire for the night. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!”
“I think I’ll turn in myself,” Scott admitted as he assisted Laura to her feet. He nodded to Murdoch, absorbed in his book, and Teresa, the inevitable embroidery draped in her lap. Jelly had joined the family after dinner, and he and Johnny were engaged in a fierce game of chess by the fire.
They stopped in the doorway to Laura’s room, and Scott took her in his arms, his lips tracing patterns on her cheeks. “Another week…,” he whispered, resting his forehead against hers. “One more week.”
“Nine days to be exact,” she teased, her fingers caressing his face and hair. “Nine days until I get to visit San Francisco!”
“That’s not exactly what I was thinking,” he said.
"I know. I wasn't really thinking that, either."
“But…now that you mention it…” He kissed her lightly on the lips. “It’ll be easier if we take the train there from Cross Creek. I suppose we can take the buggy into Morro Coyo after the wedding and stay at the hotel. It just means we’ll have to backtrack west to catch the train.”
“Scott…” She felt very reckless, holding him in her arms so near to her bed. “I don’t want to spend our first night together in a cold hotel…I want to spend it here, in your…our bed. Where I want to spend every night with you for the rest of my life.”
His arms tightened around her, the intensity of his kiss the only response she needed. Summoning every ounce of self-restraint he could muster, Scott left her at her door, backing away as he slowly headed to the room and the bed they would soon share.
December 4, 1869. My wedding day. She awakened in her now-familiar bedroom, warmed by the quilts and by the tremendous joy she knew this day would hold. Stretching, she pulled the covers more tightly around her, remembering with a smile how completely chaotic the last week had been. She had spent hours in the kitchen with Maria and Teresa, preparing mountains of food to be served at dinner. The ladies had decorated the great room and the huge formal dining room with freshly cut evergreens, hundreds of candles, bows of red, green, and white silk, and dozens of poinsettias, while the men, under their direction, moved furniture and unpacked the crates of wine ordered from Sacramento.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a soft tap at the door. She heard Teresa’s low voice call, “Laura…are you awake?”
“Come in, Teresa,” she called back, turning onto her side in the bed. “I’m awake.”
The young woman rushed into the room, practically shaking in excitement. “We have so much to do! The men are already out at morning chores. You need to have breakfast – I’ll bring it to you here – and then you need to bathe – we’ll have to sneak you down to the bathhouse – and I’ll fix your hair, and….”
“Teresa!” Laura protested. Do I have to stay in this room all day? I’d like to come downstairs for breakfast. I want to see Scott…I…”
“No!” Teresa nearly shrieked at her. “No! You can’t see Scott until the wedding. I’ve already warned him to stay away.” She shook her finger at Laura. “You will not leave this room without me!”
For once, Laura chose to do as she was told, finding it easier to allow Teresa to direct things than to argue with her. After eating her breakfast, or at least as much of it as she could stomach, in her room, she crept down the stairs to the bathhouse for her bath, Teresa clearing the way beforehand. She leisurely soaked in the hot, soapy water, its warmth relaxing her and enveloping her in its fragrance. Returning to her room, she sat in her chair, trying to steady her nerves, staring at her beautiful wedding gown hanging on the door of the wardrobe. The ceremony was planned for four o’clock; their guests would likely begin arriving in the early afternoon. With nothing else to do, Laura stretched out on the bed, and pulled her quilts over her head, dozing off in their cottony embrace.
She awakened to Teresa’s touch on her shoulder, gently prodding her, “Laura, wake up! It’s time for you to start dressing, and I need to do your hair.” Teresa was already dressed in the elegant green gown, her hair braided stylishly, her cheeks aglow with excitement.
“What time is it?” Laura rubbed her face, amazed that she’d actually drifted off to sleep on her wedding day. But then, this was the home she loved and where she was most content, secure in Scott’s love.
“It’s already three o’clock. Scott’s changing, and nearly everyone’s here already. Why don’t you go ahead and put on your dress, and then I can pin up your hair.” Teresa suggested. “I brought the holly with me for your veil.”
Laura slipped her wedding gown off the hooks, allowing Teresa to assist her in pulling it over her head and arranging the skirt, her starched petticoats filling it out. She noted, with dismay, her hands were shaking as she buttoned the tiny pearl buttons down the front of the bodice. As the flush began to rise on her face, she was very glad Teresa was unable to read the thoughts chasing through her mind; thoughts of finally becoming Scott’s wife, the realization of a dream she had thought until recently could never become a reality. And the promise of her first night lying in his arms…. Sitting down once again in her chair, she allowed her imagination to take over as Teresa braided her hair, tucking in snippets of holly, the lace veil pinned into the hair just above her neckline. Teresa’s excited chatter reverted to a low buzz in her ears as she envisioned the day, the night, the life that lay before her….
As Teresa added the finishing touches to her hair, Laura heard strains of music drifting upstairs from the great room as the violinist pulled his bow across the strings; his selection, the breathtaking Canon in D by Johann Pachelbel, one of Scott’s, and her, favorites.
“I need to go downstairs and get our bouquets, Laura,” Teresa announced. “I’ll be right back.” She squeezed the bride’s hands, frowning when she noticed how they had started to tremble, before hurriedly heading out the door.
Laura nodded, attempting to control her hands, and her breathing, which suddenly seemed to have become more of a challenge than she had anticipated.
A few moments later, Teresa rushed back into Laura’s room, her hands filled with the two bouquets. "Are you about ready, then, Laura? Scott's already downstairs with Johnny and the preacher. Murdoch's on his way up."
Laura turned from the mirror where she was checking her hair and veil for the last time, and smoothed the skirt of her wedding gown. "Yes, Teresa, I think I'm ready." She reached out to take her bouquet, hoping that it wasn’t too obvious to her friend that both her voice and her hands were now shaking violently.
"Are you nervous? I would be.”
"No, I'm not nervous," Laura quickly replied, the tremor in her voice betraying her emotions. "Not nervous, just a little afraid."
"Afraid? I didn't think you were afraid of anything!" Laura seemed to take pretty much everything in stride these days. She was so much like Scott – calm, thoughtful, and resilient.
"Afraid I'm going to wake up and this will all have been a dream….a wonderful, exciting dream…but a dream nonetheless." Laura buried her face in her flowers, inhaling the heady scent of the roses, the baby’s breath tickling her nose.
Teresa moved to give her a hug. "Oh, Laura, it's really not a dream. It does seem like a fairy tale, like we've said before, but it's not a dream. It’s really happening, and I’m so happy for you both!"
"From the sound of that music, I think it's about time." Murdoch strode in, filling the room with his presence. Folding Laura in his arms, he kissed her on the cheek. "And I am honored to be the one to give the bride away. I can't tell you how happy you've made Scott, Laura. You’ve made us all very happy.”
Taking his hands in hers, Laura vowed, “I will always do everything I can to make Scott happy, Murdoch. I will love him, as I love him now, for the rest of my life.”
Johnny stuck his head in the door, his handsome face filled with concern. "Hey, are you comin' or not? Scott's startin' to get worried."
"Tell him I'll be right there!" Laura laughed, taking the arm Murdoch offered to her.
Teresa rolled her eyes and shook her head at her brothers' impatience, and followed the bride as they descended the stairs.
As Teresa slowly walked ahead of them to join Scott and Johnny in front of the massive window, framed with matching flower arrangements and candelabras, Murdoch and Laura paused in the hallway just outside the doorway to the great room. They listened as the violinist began the wedding march from Wagner’s opera, Lohengrin, feeling the anticipation that swept through the assembled guests. Laura noted, with some distress, the tips of her flowers were beginning to shake in response to the tremor in her hands.
Murdoch took her face in his huge hands, a warm smile lighting his face, his eyes tender. “Laura, take a deep breath. We don’t have to go in until you’re completely ready.”
“I was ready years ago, Murdoch,” she replied softly. “I’m just still having trouble believing this is all real. But I am ready.” She took the deep breath he suggested, tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow, and nodded to him.
The great room was so packed with guests, she couldn’t see over their heads, couldn’t see Scott at all initially. And then, as they walked forward, he was there, so handsome in his tie and tails he nearly took her breath away. In contrast to her trembling knees and hands, he appeared perfectly calm, a smile playing about his lips. When he saw her on Murdoch’s arm, stunningly beautiful in her wedding gown, the lace of her veil sweeping the floor, he tilted his head slightly and nodded to her, his eyes shining with love. Not waiting for her to reach him, he stepped forward, took her hand, and led her to where Johnny, Teresa, and the Reverend Granville were waiting.
Laura looked into his eyes, so full of certainty, all the years of pain finally laid to rest. As he faced her, and took both of her hands in his, the Reverend began….
“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today, in the face of God and this company, to join together this man and this woman in holy matrimony. Marriage is an honorable and solemn estate, and, therefore, is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently and soberly. Into this estate, these two persons present come now to be joined. If anyone can show just cause why they may not be lawfully wed, let them speak now or forever hold their peace.”
Johnny coughed and cleared his throat, an impish grin on his face.
Scott, without letting go of Laura’s hand, elbowed him in the stomach, as a titter spread through the crowd.
Laura peeked around Scott, unable to suppress her own smile as she caught a glimpse of Johnny’s face, and he winked at her.
Reverend Granville paused, glaring at all three of them before, once again finding his place in his book, he continued, “Scott Garrett Lancer, do you take Laura Elizabeth MacNeill to be your lawfully wedded wife, to live in the holy estate of matrimony? Will you love, honor, comfort, and cherish her from this day forward, forsaking all others, keep yourself only unto her for as long as you both shall live?”
Scott’s confident reply, “I do.”
Turning to Laura, the preacher repeated the vows, with her soft, but resolute, response, “I do.”
The preacher looked at Scott and directed him, “Please repeat after me.”
Still feeling as though she was living in a dream, Laura heard his voice, strong and clear, alternating with that of the Reverend’s, “I, Scott Garrett Lancer, take thee, Laura Elizabeth MacNeill, to be my wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love, honor, cherish, and protect, ‘til death do us part, and thereto I plight thee my troth.”
Yes, Scott would add ‘and protect’, she thought with a smile.
And then, it was her turn to make her vows, her voice having finally lost its tremor, her eyes fixed on his. “…take thee Scott Garrett Lancer to be my wedded husband…to love, honor, cherish, and obey, ’til death do us part….” Laura didn't miss the suppressed humor in his eyes when she promised to "obey" him.
Reverend Granville turned first to Johnny and then to Teresa, receiving from them the gold rings that would bind Scott and Laura together for eternity. As Scott placed his mother’s ring on her finger, and she slipped his ring onto his hand, Laura realized the rings perfectly symbolized their lives and their renewed relationship. They had finally and irrevocably come full circle.
The Reverend Granville spoke the words they both had longed to hear, “In so much as Scott and Laura…” He nodded at each of them in turn as he said their names…”have consented to live forever together in wedlock, and have witnessed the same before God and this company, having given and pledged their troth, each to the other, and having declared the same by the giving and receiving of rings, by the power vested in me by God and the State of California, I now declare that they are husband and wife. What God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” He glanced at Scott. “You may now kiss your bride.”
Scott acknowledged the preacher with a nod, and slipping his arms around Laura, bent his head to hers as applause broke out among their guests. Not unexpectedly, she felt the tears overflow from her eyes as she kissed him back, her body shaking with the joy she could no longer contain.
Laura wasn’t sure how long they stood there, wrapped in each other arms, Scott’s mouth on hers. She heard Johnny’s voice, laughing as he punched his brother on the shoulder.
“Hey, Boston, you gonna let me kiss the bride?”
Her husband looked at his brother, and glanced back at her, his eyes dancing with barely-suppressed humor. “I don’t know, Johnny. Maybe you should ask her?"
“Oh, Johnny!” Laura held out her arms to her new brother-in-law, her face still wet with her tears.
As he took her in his arms and kissed her lightly on the cheek, Johnny whispered in her ear, “I just hope somebody looks at me someday the way you look at my brother….Be happy, Mac….”
And then, she was mobbed by her schoolchildren, their excited voices deafening. She kissed and hugged each of them in turn, before Scott took her hand and gently pulled her away.
“Laura, the photographer would like to take our picture now. He’s set up his equipment in the front hall since it’s too cold to go outside.”
With an apologetic look back at her students, Laura followed her husband to the hallway, hearing Murdoch and Teresa gathering their guests behind her, shepherding them into the dining room for dinner. Posing for their wedding portrait for what seemed an eternity, Laura found it extremely difficult to stand still, despite wanting to preserve the moment forever. When she thought she absolutely couldn’t be still for another second, the photographer announced he was done. He packed up his equipment, leaving the newlyweds temporarily alone. Scott took her in his arms, his mouth on hers, his passion leaving her breathless and more than a little weak in the knees. “Mrs. Lancer…” he murmured, “…I love the sound of that.” He kissed her neck, his lips lingering under the curve of her jaw. “And as much as I’d like to forego dinner right now in favor of better things, I think our guests are waiting….”
They made the rounds of the tables set up around the walls in the huge dining room, the center of the floor left free for dancing after dinner. The two wedding cakes, a white cake for the bride, elaborately frosted and decorated with sprigs of holly, and the groom’s cake, a fruit and nut confection, stood on a table to the side. Finally taking a seat at a table with Murdoch, Teresa, and Jelly, Laura didn’t think she’d be able to manage even a bite of food, despite how tempting it all appeared. The butterflies in her stomach were fluttering madly as she watched her handsome husband, deep in conversation with his brother across, the room Laughing and slapping Johnny on the shoulder, Scott strode across the room and took the seat next to Laura, wrapping his arm around her waist.
“What was that all about?” She whispered to him. “Isn’t Johnny going to join us for dinner?”
“Shhh….just give him a minute.” Scott’s eyes were twinkling. “Let’s see if he’ll do it.”
“Do what?” Laura had no idea what the brothers were up to.
Johnny ducked his head, hooked his thumbs into his belt, and shuffled his feet, looking extremely uncomfortable. He finally cleared his throat. “Could I…uhhh…could I have everyone’s attention…please?”
All eyes focused on him, the room quieted, the only sound a baby snuffling in his mother’s arms.
Johnny picked up a glass of champagne from the table next to him. “When my brother…” he looked at Scott and grinned…”asked me to be his best man for his wedding today to his beautiful bride, Laura…” Johnny smiled at his new sister-in-law…”he somehow didn’t think to tell me I’d have to give the toast.” Several men in the crowd chuckled knowingly. “I just told him I’d rather face the guns of a hundred landgrabbers than stand here and talk.”
“Why are you making him do this?” Laura whispered to Scott in bewilderment, knowing how much Johnny, like her, hated to be the focus of attention.
Scott just rubbed her back with his hand and said nothing.
“But…I do have a few things to say.” Johnny looked at his father and brother. “Less than a year ago, I didn’t even know I had a brother. And then I found out I had a brother from…Boston.” He grinned at Scott again, shaking his head, clearly remembering their first encounter on the stage to Morro Coyo. “Over the last few months, Scott has become more than my brother. He’s also my best friend.”
Laura saw Scott clench his jaw and his arm tightened around her.
Johnny continued, his calm voice belying the feelings reflected in his face. “And now, I have a new sister, this pretty lady who’s come into our lives…from…Boston.” He smiled sheepishly and lifted his glass to the couple. “Scott, Laura…I don’t know two people who love each other more than you do or who deserve to be together more than you do.” And he repeated the words he had whispered to Laura. “Be happy….”
They joined everyone in a sip of champagne before, setting his glass on the table, Scott rose to his feet, went to his brother, and wrapped his arms around him. They stood there in silence before, arms still around each other's shoulders, they returned together to the dinner table. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room.
Laura stood up and gave her brother-in-law a big hug, her eyes overflowing with tears.
“Hey, Mac,” he smiled softly at her. “You cryin’ again?”
She, nodded wordlessly, and glanced at Scott. Without missing a beat, he handed her his handkerchief, his other hand still on her back.
Finally, sitting down to eat dinner, Laura found she was able to manage a few bites. Jelly, she noticed, more than made up for her inability to eat by wolfing down seconds and thirds.
As they finished eating, the musicians began to warm up, the violinist…fiddlers they call them out here, Laura reminded herself…plucking at his strings and tuning his instrument. Scott stood up and offered Laura his hand, leading her to middle of the dance floor as the guests gazed at the couple in anticipation.
“Stay right here, Laura,” he directed her, pointing to the floor.
“Right here?” She laughed, also pointing at her feet.
“Right there, Mrs. Lancer!” Scott’s blue eyes were dancing with laughter. “I’ll be right back. Don’t go anywhere.”
"I won't. I promise."
He joined the fiddler, his back to her, his voice so soft she couldn’t hear what he was saying. The violinist nodded, taking up his bow. Scott returned to her, and took her in his arms, his left hand holding her right hand high, her left hand finding its well-remembered place on his right shoulder. The musicians began a plaintive waltz, the tune haunting and achingly familiar. Laura looked into his eyes as they began to dance, their bodies so attuned to each other that they moved as one.
“Do you remember?” Scott whispered as they slowly spun around the floor.
“It's the last song we ever danced to, Scott, before…before I lost you,” she replied, her gaze never leaving his, the memory reflected in the tears in her eyes. “It was our waltz.”
“Appropriate we begin our new life with our waltz, don’t you think?” He kissed her forehead as they continued to twirl.
Laura tightened her grip on his shoulder and whispered, “Scott…can this really be happening? Are you real?”
He pulled her closer to him, practically carrying her on his hip around the dance floor. “Oh, I’m very real, Laura,” he whispered back. He kissed her gently on the lips. “And I plan to prove that to you thoroughly very shortly.”
The waltz ended, Johnny joined them, asking jokingly, “How do you do that so good? You look real pretty, Boston."
Laura laughed, and took his hand, replying, “Well, Johnny, it helps to have the proper partner…” She looked up at Scott and grinned, “…and years and years and years of lessons! And now,” she added, “I’d like to dance with my brother-in-law….”
She shared a slow dance with Johnny and then pulled Murdoch into a rollicking jig, despite his protests that he was “too old to keep up” with her.
Scott, she noted with pride, danced with nearly every woman present, including tiny little Lettie Jenkins, Sammy’s little sister and her former student, who he carried in his arms around the floor. Laura's eyes misted over as she envisioned him dancing someday with their own daughter. As he led the very proper Mrs. Granville in a sedate waltz, she wondered irreverently if the preacher knew how "perfect" his wife thought Scott was….
They cut the bride’s wedding cake, Scott delicately feeding Laura a tiny piece; she, however, mischievously pinched off a large chunk, stuffing it into his mouth, leaving icing smeared on his lips. Much to their guests’ delight, she kissed him, removing the icing with her own lips, thinking with immense satisfaction how completely improper her father would have found that….
Their guests gradually drifted away, most to drive carefully home in the dark. The few who lived too far away to travel, were shown to guest rooms on the first floor of the massive hacienda.
Scott took Laura’s hand, and they quietly slipped away through the back hall and up the stairs to the room that had been his, to the bed they would now share. Stopping just outside the door, he slipped his arms around her, drawing her body closely to him. Her heart was pounding so hard she could barely breathe as he bent his head to hers, his lips teasing hers, her arms wrapped around his neck. She tried to back up without breaking his kiss, trying to coax him into their room. He held onto her firmly, picked her up, and carried her across the threshold, pushing the door closed behind them with his foot. He set her gently on her feet as she untied his cravat and pulled it off, throwing it aside. He somehow shrugged out of his jacket, without removing his lips from hers. Unbuttoning his shirt she slipped her hands under the fabric, enraptured by the feel of his bare skin. Scott slowly undid the tiny pearl buttons on Laura’s bodice, sliding her wedding dress down over her shoulders, his fingers caressing her skin as the fabric slipped away, the gown, and her undergarments, joining his black jacket, pants, and shirt on the floor. He pulled the pins and holly sprigs from her hair, running his hands through the strands, freeing it, and her, from all constraint. Again picking her up, he laid her on their bed, her arms pulling him down. And she finally, and completely, gave herself to the man she had loved and needed for more years than she could possibly remember.
The train trip from Cross Creek to San Francisco the next day would forever remain a blur to Laura. She slept much of the way, her head resting on Scott's shoulder, his arm around her. They arrived in the city as the gaslights came to life, hissing and sputtering, the Christmas decorations and the water in the harbor reflecting the light and making it seem even more like a magical fairyland.
They spent the week wandering through the shops and restaurants at leisure, exploring the city during the day and luxuriating in each other's arms through the night. Carefully selecting holiday gifts for their family -- a leather-bound volume of The Odyssey for Murdoch, perfume and gold earrings for Teresa, a new shirt and suspenders for Jelly –- they were at a loss as to what to buy for Johnny. And then, Laura saw the perfect present displayed in the window of a leather-goods store. It was a deep buff-colored jacket, the leather buttery soft, the particular shade the same hue as Barranca's dapples.
Ecstatic over their purchase and sure Johnny would be delighted with his new coat, the couple lingered over a late lunch, sipping their coffee in a small, intimate restaurant near the bay.
"Scott…." Laura was hesitant to bring up what had become a distant, regrettable memory, one she and her husband had chosen not to dwell on. Somehow, buying the jacket for Johnny had rekindled the vision in her mind of her rescue by him from the drunken cowboy in Green River. She toyed with her teaspoon as she looked into Scott's eyes, remembering the flat look in his brother's that day, Johnny's eyes completely devoid of emotion as he pressed the barrel of his pistol into the terrified drunk's forehead. She thought of how he seemed to be a completely self-contained, dispassionate man with a gun in his hand. "I'm not sure if I should ask you…"
"Ask me what, Laura?" Scott took her hand, rubbing his thumb over her knuckles in the way that never failed to tie her stomach in knots.
She sighed, wishing suddenly they were in bed together, not sitting in a public dining establishment. Why is it we always seem to have these intense discussions in front of lots of people? "I was just wondering about Johnny…that day in Green River…" Scott's thumb stopped in mid-rub as she rushed ahead, ignoring the wary look in his eyes. "…Johnny…well…he just seemed so different to me that day. He's usually so playful…he seems so happy….He actually reminds me a lot of Drew. I just…well…the look in his eyes sort of scared me…" she finished, feeling a little foolish, as though she was exaggerating what she had seen or had perhaps imagined it.
Scott seemed to weigh his words carefully, pausing before responding to her. "Johnny's past is not something he readily talks about, Laura. I'm surprised no one in Morro Coyo has told you what they know about him. Perhaps cautioned you about your new brother-in-law."
Laura shrugged, "No… all I've heard was he grew up in some rather unsavory towns along the border with Mexico. Everyone, including Teresa, seems reluctant to tell me anything about him." She hurried to add, "I love him, Scott…he's your brother…it really doesn't matter. I was just wondering…."
He squeezed her hand, his eyes no longer guarded. "You should know more about him, Laura. I really should have told you sooner, before you heard it from someone else…or experienced his talents first-hand as you did. It was remiss of me not to tell you, and for that, I apologize." He took a sip of his coffee, his thumb again tracing circles on the back of her hand. "Johnny was a gunfighter…a mercenary, if you will. He called himself 'Johnny Madrid', rather than 'Lancer'. When the Pinkerton agent Murdoch hired to find him tracked him down, he was about to die at the hands of a firing squad in Mexico."
"You mean he…" she searched for the right words, finally deciding, in her characteristic way, to meet it head-on. "He killed people for money."
"Yes," Scott replied quietly, staring at his plate rather than meeting her eyes, "that sums it up rather bluntly, but accurately."
They sat in silence as Laura sought to digest this news about the man she had come to consider her own brother. She took a deep breath, coming to terms with it in her own ultimately practical manner. "Then I'm sure he did what he had to do to survive."
"That he did, Laura." Scott was reminded yet again of another reason he loved this woman so deeply. Her ability to forgive, to see good in virtually everyone was unmatched by anyone else he had ever known, despite the pain she had endured at the hands of others. "Johnny was born at Lancer and lived there until he was two. His mother took him away when she left. Until this past spring, Murdoch didn't know if he was dead or alive."
She smiled, taking her husband's hand firmly in hers. "Then this will be a very special Christmas for all of us, won't it?"
Laura wore her mother's sapphire and diamond necklace, along with her blue silk gown from Worth's that she never imagined she'd wear again, to an orchestra concert that night. She sat in their box above the stage on the edge of her seat, the sound of the music echoing in her soul and bringing tears to her eyes. It all still seemed like a fairytale or like a distant memory from their past – the ladies’ glittering jewels twinkling in the gaslights, the rich fabric of her own formal gown shimmering, Scott dashing in his tie and tails. She played with her wedding ring, turning the gold band around and around, needing to feel it beneath her fingers to assure herself she wasn’t imagining it on her hand.
Scott wasn't sure he heard a single note, the sight of his beautiful bride filling his senses as she sat there, her eyes misting over. The jeweled pins holding her hair up sparkled in the lights, the sapphire-blue gown setting off her creamy skin to perfection. It delighted him to see her so happy, to feel they were both, finally, made whole with each other.
As the violinists began the Canon in D, the same magnificent arrangement that had begun their wedding ceremony, Laura looked into her beloved husband’s eyes, needing confirmation he was truly there, that she wasn’t somehow imagining it all, suddenly apprehensive she would wake up and find it all had been nothing more than a lovely, poignant dream. Seeing her toying with the ring he had given her, and sensing her thoughts as he had always been able to do, Scott took her hand and squeezed it; leaning over, he kissed her softly on the cheek, a gentle smile on his face, as he whispered, “Relax, Laura…I’m really here…I’ll always be here…”
After the final notes sounded, they returned contentedly arm in arm to their hotel room, passing another young couple in the hallway. The men exchanged polite nods, the other woman appraising Scott from head to toe in a manner Laura could only describe as "improper." She resisted the very unladylike urge to launch herself at the hussy, instead managing to offer her a curt nod in response.
As Scott closed the door to their room behind them, pulled off his own cape and assisted her in removing hers, his hands lingering on her bare shoulders, Laura couldn't contain herself any further. She turned to him, her hands over her mouth, her body nearly doubling over with laughter. "Oh, Scott! Did you see the way that woman looked at you?"
He took her in his arms, his blue eyes shining and full of feigned innocence. "No, I don't know that I did. Tell me…how did she look at me, Laura?"
Laura began to unknot his tie, toying with it and pulling it loose, as he tugged the jeweled pins from her hair. She whispered, "Like she wanted to do this…" She unbuttoned his shirt. "And this…." She buried her face in his bare chest, her lips tracing over his smooth skin. “And this….”
She lay on her stomach in bed propped up on her elbows, watching her husband sleep peacefully, still not quite able, after nearly a week of marriage and his patient assurances, to believe he wasn’t a figment of her imagination. She knew with certainty, no matter how many years they would spend as husband and wife, she would never lose her sense of wonder, the realization their life together was nothing short of miraculous. Laura couldn’t resist gently touching his lips with her finger, prompting Scott, still in the depths of sleep, to swat reflexively at her hand. She stifled a giggle, brushing his cheek lightly with her fingertips, again causing him to bat at her. She tried a new tactic, using the ends of her hair, she flicked the strands across the tip of his nose, prompting him to rub his face with his hand, his nose twitching in protest. Enjoying the game, she again tickled his nose with her hair, expecting him to push her away once more. She gasped with surprise when, all of a sudden, his eyes flew open, he grabbed her around the waist and deftly flipped her onto her back, pinning her down with his body.
“Mrs. Lancer…” he gave her a devilish smile and kissed her softly…”would you care to tell me why you insist on waking me up from such a pleasant slumber?”
“Well, Mr. Lancer,” she breathed indulgently, “if I’m awake, you might as well be….” She stretched and wrapped her arms around him as he smoothed her hair from her face, his lips lingering on her cheek. “Scott….”
“Hmmm?” He teased her mouth with his lips.
She let go of his waist and pushed him with her hands, rolling him back over, again resting on her stomach, bracing herself against his chest. “I want to go home…”
“Okay….” He replied agreeably, took her face in his hands and tried to kiss her.
Laura put her hand over his mouth, her eyes flashing. “You’re not listening to me!” She turned onto her side, tucking her head under his chin.
He sighed, pulling her closer against him. “All right, Laura, I’m listening…you want to go home. Don’t you like San Francisco?”
“I adore San Francisco…I love being here with you, Scott…but I want to go home…I want to help Teresa with the Christmas decorations. I want you and Johnny to celebrate your birthdays together. I want to be home.” She was frustrated, trying to find the right words to explain to her husband her deep desire to be back on the land she had grown to love so passionately, with the family she'd never had. She snuggled against him as he kissed the top of her head, his fingers playing in her hair. “You need to be there with your brother for your first birthdays at Lancer. I know Teresa’s planning a big party, and I need to be there to help her. It would mean so much to your father for all of us to be together. The ranch is our home now, and we have to be there for all the celebrations. Besides…” she poked him in the ribs with her finger and teased, …”I miss the cows!”
Scott snorted with laughter as he carefully urged her onto her back. “You miss the cows? Laura, you’ve done nothing but complain about how bad they smell since the first weekend you came out to Lancer."
“I know,” she admitted, wrinkling her nose at the thought of the rank odor that emanated from the south pasture when the wind changed directions. She loved to wake up in the morning, listening to the lowing of the cattle, but she had always hated the smell. She insisted they should have cows that were pretty and healthy and without odor, contentedly mooing outside her window. Thrilled by her husband’s touch, Laura whispered, “But can we go home…tomorrow?”
The boys’ birthday party the next Saturday night was a huge success, the hacienda filled with music and laughter, just as it had been for the wedding two weeks before. Murdoch stood in front of the immense fireplace, contemplating how very different his life had become in a few short months – his sons working by his side, and now, a new daughter who clearly made his elder son deliriously happy and brought laughter and joy to all of them. He had been astounded, as had Teresa and Johnny, when the couple arrived home from San Francisco a full week earlier than planned. Laura, Scott had explained to him tongue-in-cheek, had “missed the cows and wanted to come home.”
Christmas followed the birthday party by one extremely short, busy week. Laura, Teresa, and the brothers had ridden out the Sunday before, on Scott’s birthday, to pick out an enormous tree, dragging it into the house, and festooning it with candles and glittering decorations. During the week, there had seemed to Murdoch to be a great deal of tiptoeing around, conversations that ceased when he entered the room, and an air of expectation that filled the house.
Christmas morning itself promised to be a time of quiet celebration. The fire crackled and hissed in the enormous fireplace in the great room, casting a warm glow over the family gathered there. The smell of freshly cut evergreens permeated the air. Laura relaxed, leaning back against Scott's chest on the big sofa, his arms around her. Murdoch rested in his armchair next to the fire with his feet propped on the ottoman; Teresa leaned back on the other couch, while Johnny lounged on the floor in front of the fire.
The Lancers were all grateful for a day just to be together without any demands on their time. The last few weeks really had been chaotic -- the wedding, the newlyweds' whirlwind honeymoon trip to San Francisco, the boys’ birthday party, preparations for Christmas. The list had seemed endless.
"Well,” Murdoch commented, lighting his pipe. "I think that's all of the presents. Thank you all for your thoughtfulness." He fingered the rich leather of the volume Laura and Scott had bought in San Francisco, thinking he might spend the afternoon reading in front of the fire.
“Yes, thank you all for everything.” Laura smiled as she looked around the room at her new family. “I think this is the best Christmas I’ve ever had.” She shifted on the sofa, snuggling deeper into Scott’s embrace. “I love my new saddle, Murdoch, and I can’t wait to learn to ride astride!” Her fingers played with the silver necklace Scott had ordered for her from the silversmith in Morro Coyo, the Lancer “L” inset with a tiny diamond. He had told her how delighted he was that the “L” now matched both of her initials.
Johnny fingered the buttery leather jacket lying next to him on the floor. Scott and Laura had certainly outdone themselves with his present. He was feeling a little overwhelmed in general by the generosity of his family, not having ever celebrated Christmas in any meaningful way before. "Ummm, Murdoch, there's one more present." With that, Johnny casually got up and retrieved a large hatbox from behind the Christmas tree. "This's for Laura -- I, uhh, wanted to wait till we were all done for her to open it. It's from me."
Scott chuckled knowingly, having been party to his brother's gift selection for his new sister-in-law. Laura sat up as Johnny deposited the hatbox, gaily decorated with a gigantic red bow, in her lap. More than a little suspicious, she tentatively pulled off the bow and opened the box. Inside, wrapped in layers of tissue, was a lovely black wide-brimmed hat, its crown surrounded by a strip of braided leather with a small eagle feather tucked into it.
"Oh, Johnny, it's beautiful! Now I have another hat to wear out riding! I can use it when I ride in my new saddle."
"Uhhh, actually, Scott and me thought you might wear it every time you ride. That thing with the ostrich feathers you wear...."
"Is very charming,” Teresa interjected, trying to intercede, not wanting Laura’s feelings to be hurt.
"'Charming' isn't exactly what I'd call it," commented Scott, earning a glare from his bride for his efforts.
"What's wrong with my riding hat?" questioned Laura, trying to decide who she should take to task first, her husband or his brother. They both had silly grins on their faces.
"Well," Scott laughed, "it just ain't the style out here, is it Johnny?"
With that, the brothers burst out laughing.
Laura consoled herself by elbowing her husband in the stomach, hearing him grunt in protest, before she once again lay back in his arms, her new riding hat resting securely in her lap.
The old grandfather clock struck midnight, January 1, 1870, as Murdoch popped the cork on a fine bottle of champagne. As hard as it had been to stay awake, knowing dawn would find them all up and at morning chores, the family had felt compelled to toast the New Year and the new decade together, realizing it would be a time of new beginnings for them all. Scott drew his bride into his arms as the others looked on in approval. Laura then hugged and kissed each of them in turn, certain 1870 would be, by far, the best year of their lives.
Later, as they held each other close in bed, Laura whispered in her husband’s ear. “Happy New Year, my love!” She nuzzled his neck with her lips, and then laid her head on his chest.
Scott responded by gently rolling her over, wrapping her in his arms. “Happy New Year, Laura…and just in case you were still wondering…” His lips caressed hers insistently…”let me show you just how real I am….”
You will always be the miracle
That makes my life complete.
And as long as there’s a breath in me,
I’ll make yours just as sweet.
As we look into the future,
It’s as far as we can see.
So let’s make each tomorrow,
Be the best that it can be.
From the song, “I Cross My Heart”
Performed by George Strait