Teresa O'Brien hummed softly to herself, and laid the table ready for supper. She polished the knife blades with a final flourish and stood back to admire her handiwork. It wasn't the beeswax glow of the wood, or the contrasting sparkle of the glasses which made her smile so contentedly, nor even the gleam of silver cutlery, the gentle fragrance of flowers picked from her own garden earlier. She gave the centrepiece one final tweak, and stood quietly, enjoying the moment.
Deeply satisfying as all these things were, they weren't the cause of the pleasure which nestled inside her heart. No. She counted the number of place-settings once more. One, two, three, four. There would be four people sitting down to supper. Herself and Murdoch, Scott and Johnny.
"Murdoch Lancer, and his sons," she tried the words out on her tongue, twirling round the table to flick at an imaginary speck of dust. "The Lancer family and ward, Miss Teresa O'Brien . . ."
Any which way she tried it, sounded pretty good to her. Like a gleam of brightening sunshine, in a house which had been full of sorrow. For that was truly what Lancer had been, in the dark pause between the death of her daddy, and the end of the terrifying range-war with Day Pardee. And even after that for awhile, in all the days and nights when Johnny had lain so ill. But he was better now. In fact, this was the first week he'd been fit enough to go back to work, and she and Maria had been left alone in the sprawling hacienda to pick-up the pieces of normality once again.
Her brow crinkled slightly when she thought about Johnny. He was nothing like his brother at all. Nothing like 'any' man she'd ever known before. She freely admitted she wasn't quite sure about him yet. He made her feel gauche and uncertain, wary and self-conscious in his presence. Even when he'd been injured and at his most vulnerable, there was still a certain quality which kept him apart from others. A sense of aloofness almost, intangible but ever-present. An infinite air of alone.
Scott was a different kettle of fish altogether. The Easterner was unfailingly gracious and polite, easy to talk to, and delightfully charming. She already felt like she'd known him for years, secure and comfortable in his company.
It was not yet so with Johnny, and she wondered if it ever would be. There was something which made her skin tingle with awareness whenever he walked into the room. He didn't join in with the conversation all that often, sitting quietly in the corner as they chattered all around him. Never volunteering much about himself, or his life before Lancer, as he listened to Scott and Murdoch talk and played with the beads at his wrist. But Teresa had a feeling he noticed everything. His watchful eyes always alight with life, alert for every shadow and movement - quick and bright as the hungry flames which flickered and danced in the hearth.
He reminded her of the feral cats who stalked the barn. Lean and angry, hungry and wild, fast as a streak of lightning. If she ever managed to get near enough to touch one of them, it felt like a ridiculous privilege, a minor blessing. Not at all the same as stroking old Pancho, Maria's fat, lap-cat. He spent his days sleeping by the kitchen range, masquerading as the hacienda's indoor mouser, even though he could barely waddle to his feeding bowl.
The door banged. Teresa jumped out of her reverie at the sound of masculine voices in the hallway. It was Scott and Murdoch home from the north pasture, their voices rich with laughter at some shared joke. She smiled at the ridiculous amount of pleasure it gave her.
Funny, but she'd expected Johnny home first. He'd been much closer to the hacienda, working alongside Frank and Cipriano all day. They'd been building wooden fencing for the new corral, and when he failed to appear for lunch, she hadn't know whether to be relieved or disappointed. She was still unaccountably shy when the two of them were alone. Shy and more than uncomfortable with the inevitable, drawn-out silences.
Wiping her hands on her apron, she walked through to the hallway to greet Scott and Murdoch, noticing with some approval, they'd removed their dirty boots. Both men looked tired but happy and relaxed. The way men 'should' look at the end of a hard days work, she thought with a sudden pang, remembering when it had been her daddy's laughter in the hallway, her daddy she welcomed home. 'Never again', the brief thought hurt her. He was gone, and it would never be again.
"Well, if it isn't Miss Teresa." Murdoch stopped and planted a kiss on her cheek, smiling fondly down at her as he hung his jacket on the peg. "And how was your day, darling?"
"Peaceful," she answered with a twinkle. "Now all of you are finally, out from under my feet."
"Speaking of which," said Scott lightly, "where's Johnny? Hogging the bathtub, I'll bet?"
"No," said Teresa, trying not to worry. "He's not back yet. Maybe he's making up for lost time."
Murdoch met Scott's eyes uneasily, a single, unspoken question in them. The previous humour was gone in a trice, and he picked-up his hat again. He reached for the doorknob, but as his hand closed round it, Teresa heard a spur jingle on the flagstones. Johnny walked through from the kitchen with a piece of rag in his hand. He looked pale and tired, covered in dust, but otherwise, he seemed fine.
"Buenos tardes . . ." He stopped and looked at their faces, raising an eyebrow in enquiry. "Somethin' wrong?"
"Not a thing, brother." Scott made an admirable recovery. "Not a single thing. So - how was your first day?"
Johnny regarded them all laconically, a small smile lacing his lips. "Well, it went fine . . . any reason why it shouldn't?"
"No, of course not," said Scott hastily, face reddening slightly in his haste to appear casual. He recognised the danger signs flagging-up in his new-found brother. "Forget I said it."
Teresa took pity on him, more than a little annoyed with Johnny for placing Scott in an awkward position. She didn't mince her words. "We were all a bit concerned about you, Johnny. It's your first day back and Sam said you had to ease in gently," she turned to Scott with a dazzling smile, looking up into his kind eyes. "I think it's very nice of you to worry, Scott. Thoughtful and . . . and brotherly."
"Er, yes. Thank you, Teresa," said Murdoch hurriedly, as Johnny laughed out loud and Scott went even redder. He turned to his younger son, face softening. "But what she says is quite right, Johnny. It 'has' been a hot day. No one would have minded if you'd decided to finish early, especially if you're still feeling . . ."
"I'm feelin' fine," finished Johnny abruptly. He tossed his hat deftly at the row of pegs and watched with grim satisfaction as it landed plum, first time. "I'll be feelin' even finer if everyone stops treatin' me with kid gloves. I got shot and I was sick. But I'm better now . . ." He spun insolently on his heel for them, rolling his shoulders in both directions as sinuously as one of those barn cats. "There, you see? Mejor - better!"
Teresa bristled angrily at him as she recalled how afraid they'd felt when he was ill. He'd been dependant enough on them then. So weak and sick, her heart had melted. She'd quite forgotten the cynical stranger who'd seemed to mock her youth and enthusiasm when he'd first arrived at the ranch.
For awhile then, he'd reminded her of the boy he was. So young and vulnerable, heart-wrenchingly alone. She'd held his hand and he'd clung to it gratefully, face grey and lined with pain, as he'd tossed and suffered in the hours before dawn. Nothing at all like the arrogant man who stood before her now. Her hands twitched suddenly and she longed to wipe the smile off his haughty, sarcastic face.
"Well, pardon us for caring about you. For being so scared when we didn't know if you'd live or die, waiting and worrying night after night . . ." Her voice trembled as her eyes filled with tears of rage and hurt.
"It's alright, Teresa honey," said Murdoch. He glared at his younger son, his own body rigid with antagonism now.
"No, it's not, " said Johnny quietly. He looked up at her compellingly, with eyes so intense, her breath caught in her breast. "Lo siento, Teresa. I'm sorry. I 'do' appreciate everything you did then. It . . . it helped me to win the fight."
There was a short silence whilst she stared at him with mistrust. It took her only a moment to realise she'd been effectively disarmed. Better than if he'd shouted her down, or become Johnny Madrid and outgunned her.
Murdoch cleared his throat significantly and looked over at Scott. "Well, if you gentlemen don't mind, I think I'll claim right of seniority and take the first bath."
Scott was glad to change the subject. "Go ahead, Sir," he said with a grin. "Your need is obviously greater than mine."
Johnny held out the piece of rag he'd been holding, they saw it was an old, check shirt. "This was hangin' on a nail in the lumber shed. Doesn't belong to Frank or Cip."
Scott looked at it closely. "It's not mine either. My, er . . . western wardrobe is still somewhat limited."
"Give it to Maria," said Murdoch, holding it out to Teresa. "She can wash it and leave it at the bunkhouse. Probably belongs to one of the hands."
There was a peculiar roaring in
Teresa's ears as she accepted the shirt from him mutely. The world around her
receded to a tiny pinprick of light. Scott and Murdoch moved on through the
archway, and somewhere in the distance, she could hear the deep, bass rumble of
male voices as they continued with their discussion. She clutched hold of the
cloth as though her life depended on it, knuckles tense and white with stress.
"You all right?" It was Johnny, the question low and concerned.
She shook her head at him dumbly, the action contrary to her words. "Yes. Yes, I'm fine . . . I'll be fine."
Teresa groped for the door handle, drawing the shirt up tight to her breast, as somehow, she escaped the hacienda. Her faltering footsteps inevitably led her out towards the garden.
She headed straight for a marble bench underneath the cypress tree. It was secluded, surrounded by flower beds and hidden from prying eyes. Teresa sank down on it numbly and pressed the shirt to her face. The tears came then, great, shuddering sobs which shook her tiny frame. She sat in the protective shade of the tree and cried into the soft, cotton plaid.
The shirt smelled of sawdust and cool dark sheds, but she could still detect the lingering scent of pipe tobacco. It was much loved and evocative, merely making her cry harder. Teresa rubbed her cheek against the fabric, as though the very act of doing so, might conjure him up again. As though it would bring him back to her. It couldn't of course. He was gone forever. Bushwhacked and murdered by Day Pardee, dead for nearly half a year. It was hard to believe so much had changed since then, that the well ordered tenor of her life had turned upside down in such a short space of time.
Everything had happened so quickly, she'd barely had a chance to think, let alone grieve. The range war, nursing Murdoch - welcoming home his sons. And then there was Johnny's injury, shot in the back like her daddy, just like his own father had been . . .
"Here." The object of her thoughts sat down beside her, so quietly, she hadn't heard him approach. The feral cat flashed through her mind again, just like a streak of lightening across the barn. She studied the dark blue bandanna for a moment, before taking it grudgingly from his hand.
"I didn't hear you coming."
He nodded slowly. "I been told that before."
Teresa blew her nose defiantly, knowing she must look a fright. The snotty, little girl he probably thought she was. But she didn't care. In-fact right now, she didn't give a damn. She offered the bandanna back to him and he looked at her gravely, a small smile hovering on his lips.
"No, gracias. You keep it."
She realised what she'd done, flushing pink, and wiping her nose a final, slightly truculent time. "Thank you."
"De nada - you're welcome."
They sat in silence for at least another minute. Side by side like bookends, neither one of them saying a word. Teresa began to fidget, angry with him for intruding on her solitude. Her precious moment of privacy.
"Supper isn't ready yet." The words were ungracious and she knew it. Blunter than intended and almost rude.
He nodded, absentmindedly. "Guess not."
Another silence stretched between them and after a while, she stole a sideways look at him. He seemed totally unaware of her. An almost eerie stillness about him, as he sat and watched the sky, focusing on the tiny speck of a whirling bird of prey. Teresa exhaled sharply, hoping he'd take the hint and leave her alone, but he seemed quite content just sitting there, relaxed and totally at ease.
"Your father's, huh?" It was not really a question.
She tensed, spine rigid with pain before answering him. "Yes."
"Lucky I brought it in, then."
"Lucky . . ." She turned to him, face red with rage and indignation. "Lucky you hurt me? Lucky you made me cry? Which kind of luck are we talking about here?"
To her utter fury, he smiled and shook his head. "Boy, don't like me much, do you, Teresa?"
"This has nothing to do with what I think of you."
"Doesn't it?" Johnny's smile was gone now.
For a moment she caught a fleeting glimpse of regret, even sadness. He reached over and picked the shirt off her lap, rubbing the faded cotton between his fingers. She watched as he fiddled with the cheap, bone buttons. "I'm sorry if I hurt you, but it's better to clear the air . . ." He looked up at her again, blue eyes reflecting the light. "Cry for him, Teresa. If not for him, for yourself."
She bit down on her lip to stop it from trembling, hooked by his words in spite of herself. "I . . . I haven't had much time to cry. So much has happened since he got shot . . ."
He placed the shirt carefully back in her lap. "That's what I figured. And you took it all on the chin, didn't you? That stubborn little chin." His knuckles skimmed it lightly in a mock punch, hand lingering as he lifted it gently and looked into her face properly. "Dios, you're just a baby."
Her eyes welled with tears all over again. She was unused to this sort of tenderness from him, and her already, unstable emotions wavered treacherously on the verge of letting her down. Teresa pulled back hurriedly but not before a tear splashed onto his skin.
"I haven't been a baby for along time. Not since the day they brought my father and Murdoch home stretched out in a buckboard, one dead, the other barely alive. Who do you suppose ran the Estancia, Johnny? Who arranged my daddy's funeral and nursed Murdoch day and night?" She stopped, hardly able to continue, and looked at him, straight as a die. "Who do you think dealt with the Pinkerton's once your father made the decision to bring you and Scott home? He couldn't, he was still too sick."
His eyes dropped, but not before she'd seen the quick flash of hurt in them. 'Well, that makes two of us,' she thought, too full of anguish to stop now she'd started.
"And all the while, Day Pardee was raiding the valley, burning the fields and threatening the vaqueros. It . . . it was a nightmare!"
She jumped as Johnny reached for her hand. He imprisoned it easily in his long, brown fingers, examining it carefully as he spoke once more.. "Pobre Chica. You're a brave girl, Teresa."
She gulped hard. "No, just practical. Everyone says so, I suppose it's true. I've always had to be - just me and two old bachelors here. Maria's wonderful, and I don't know what I'd have done without her, but . . ."
"But you're the one who shouldered all the burdens. I understand. Guess Scott and I turned your world upside down when we arrived, huh?"
Teresa sighed, acknowledging the truth of it, yet unsure of the right words to say. "I was glad when you came. I . . . we didn't know what to expect, whether or not you'd decide to stay. I hoped you would so badly."
Johnny's mouth curled slightly. "And the Old Man?"
"Oh, he did too," she said hastily, but her pink cheeks and downcast expression betrayed her. "I know he did."
"Yes, right." Johnny was suddenly still, and she sensed the tension which filled him. "I'm pretty handy to have around with someone like Pardee aimin' to grab your land."
She turned on him then, rigid and defensive with wrath. "Why do you have to be so cynical, Johnny? Just when I start to think there's more to you than bitterness and anger. Just when I see a tiny glimpse of someone I want to know . . ."
Johnny pulled his hand away from her and rested his elbows on his knees. He gazed down moodily at the pathway, re-mastering his emotions, as he forced a shaky breath.
"Maybe I am cynical, Teresa. It's somethin' I've learned as I've gone along, a way of stayin' alive. Don't expect anythin' much of folks and then they can't let you down . . ."
She saw something in his face then. Something which made her feel very afraid, as he focused on the horizon past her head. A fleeting glimpse of faraway places. A restlessness, and worst of all, a lack of hope.
"You're thinking of leaving." It wasn't so much a question, as a bald statement of fact. Blurted-out clumsily, before she could stifle it, her voice sounding odd to her ears.
Johnny didn't answer for a long time. Drawing patterns in the gravel with the toe of his boot, as he fiddled with the beads at his wrist.
Then; "I'm thinkin' of stayin' too."
Her fragile heart gave a leap of hope as she realised just how much she wanted that. How much she wanted him to stay. Teresa stared down in silence at the shirt in her hands, and the plaid pattern blurred before her eyes. She both recognised, and yielded to, the ache she heard in his voice. The loneliness she sensed behind his carefully built walls, as she reached tentatively across to grasp his restless fingers.
They clung onto each other tightly. Teresa remembered the feel of him from all those long nights she'd nursed him. The impression of vulnerability was as strong now, as it had been during that time. She was suddenly aware he needed her, that he needed all of them. He needed their belief in him, their faith and abiding love.
She cried then - she couldn't help it. The tears streamed down her face as she poured out her aching grief for the last year. She wept for the loss of her father and her innocence. Mourning the passing of one way of life, as the stirrings of a new one began.
Johnny pulled her close so she could bury her face in his shoulder. The velvety suede of his jacket was soft against her cheek. She was amazed it should be him comforting her, that of all of them, he'd been the only one to notice her pain. This stranger she hadn't been sure of, an enigma to them all. Teresa didn't know how long they sat there, she had long since lost all track of time. The sun had turned golden, ripe and mellow as a peach. The pools of shadow deepening into violet. Night was falling swift and certain across the mountains, the air spun soft and hazy with age.
Teresa pulled away with a sigh, she was oddly reluctant to move. Johnny smiled down into her eyes, tracing the pattern of a wayward tear with the tip of his index finger.
"Feelin' better?" He smoothed back the hair from her temple.
She smiled shakily at him. "Some . . ." Her face fell. "Johnny, about those things I said, what you said about me not liking you . . ."
"No hay de que - don't mention it. I deserved it."
"But it's not true," she continued, her voice a little troubled. "At least, not the way you said it."
"You don't have to explain anythin'."
The evening shadows played across his face, and looking up at him, she knew she didn't. She also knew she would never be afraid of him again. They both heard the supper iron clang, watching each other with a new awareness. Johnny got to his feet, his grin widening a little, as he gave her a theatrical bow.
"Will you join me for supper, Miss O'Brien?"
She giggled and played him in kind. "Why, thank you awfully, Sir. I'd be most honoured."
Teresa placed her hand on his forearm, aware of the muscles beneath her fingers. There was a new kind of gentleness in Johnny's eyes, as he leant forward, and helped her to her feet.
"I almost forgot, thought you might need cheerin' up . . ."
Johnny took something out of his jacket, balancing it on his palm with a gallant flourish. It was a perfect, velvety peach. The largest, roundest one she'd ever seen. He must have picked it on his way out into the garden.
Her chest tightened for a second as she took it from him. "It's perfect."
"Yeah, well," he cleared his throat with embarrassment. "You'd better save it now. Don't go ruinin' your supper or nuthin' . . ."
"It's perfect." Teresa repeated, taking him by surprise as she reached up and gave him a soft kiss on the cheek. A smile danced across her face, dimple peeking wickedly next to her mouth. "Just peachy, in fact."
Johnny gave her a look and groaned softly, shaking his head as they turned back towards the hacienda. She left her hand resting softly on his arm, a sudden lightness in her step.
There was a sense of something new in the air. A new hope, a new beginning. Teresa suddenly realised, she'd left the shirt behind on the bench. It was only an old piece of fabric, a faded, discarded garment. The man who'd once worn it, didn't need it any longer. He was gone now, except in her memories and her heart.
The bloody range war was over. They'd all recovered from their physical wounds. Teresa hoped they were strong enough to weather the emotional ones too. She recalled the words of the man at her side:
"I'm thinkin' of stayin' too."
And therein lay the crux of the matter. It was in getting this man to stay. She lifted her head determinedly, the peach skin soft in her hand. She knew instinctively, the next few months would not be easy. She would need all the practical skills of a juggler to balance the three, very different men pitched together under this roof. But there was the fragile beginning of a family here. Four, needy people in search of a future. Teresa thrust her chin up determinedly, shooting a sideways glance at the man beside her. She vowed to do everything within her power to ensure they got it. All of them,
She smiled softly, remembering something her daddy had once said to her, when she was a little girl. He'd read her a bedtime story, his slow drawl lingering over the words. Teresa recalled she'd been disappointed and disillusioned with the fairytale. The princess had married the goatherd instead of the prince. Paul O'Brien had looked into his tiny daughter's eyes, bending low to kiss her gently on the brow.
"Just remember, there's no rhyme or reason to it. Never a hope which goes exactly to plan. Love will come to you in unexpected places, Teresa."
Unexpected places . . . the words echoed back to her, down through the years, and she knew in her heart, he was right.
Lisa Paris - 2003.