(The Guardian – Part 6)
I don't, of course, own the characters or any rights beyond the pleasure of sharing this story with other Lancer fans.
Dressed for riding, Margaret Lancer descended the stairs from the family wing of the hacienda, humming softly to herself. April's warmth had finally prevailed over the chill rains of winter, bringing green to the countryside and the first spring blooms to her gardens. All over the estancia, doors and windows stood open to the fresh air. The distant lowing of cattle and trilling birdsong provided a background for the happy chatter of women as they washed clothes, tended vegetable gardens, and beat rugs, all the while keeping a watchful eye on gaggles of small children playing in the afternoon sunshine.
Anson was finally down for his nap. Beth was out in the garden serving lemonade to her dolls and telling them stories. Garrett and Josh were working with their father. In the kitchen, Maria had everything well in hand. Even her father-in-law (who was supposed to be keeping an eye on Beth) had succumbed to the sunny warmth, snoring in his favorite chair on the portico, hands resting on the book in his lap.
Thirty-two years old, daughter, wife, and sister of ranchers, mother of four; mistress of one of the largest ranches in the San Joaquin, Margaret Beauchamp Lancer was a beautiful woman with shining gold-highlighted brunet hair, dark green eyes, a softly rounded face, and full lips that habitually curved upward. Her domestic management was efficient, her gardening acumen unsurpassed, and she was a very good cook. Everyone on the estancia liked and respected her. She was often seen making the rounds of the estancia’s families visiting the sick and the old or carrying small gifts to a new mother, stopping to chat with women engaged in outdoor chores. She was well-versed in treating a variety of illnesses and patching up the inevitable results of hard-working cowboys and active children. She was also well-educated and well-read enough to carry on a most satisfactory discussion with her husband or father-in-law as well as holding her own at chess and a number of card games. Her husband liked to tell her – the proclamation usually delivered with a lopsided grin and a gleam in his eyes and accompanied by a hearty kiss – that she was the quintessential rancher’s wife. Often enough the gleam in those blue eyes spoke of matters far removed from housekeeping.
Moments to herself were rare in Margaret’s busy life and, on this glorious spring day, she was determined that no domestic crisis short of an earthquake was going to keep her from an afternoon outing. Only a short time ago, she had sent one of the maids out to ask that her horse be saddled. She’d hurriedly changed into riding clothes and was now all but skipping in her eagerness for a good gallop.
Pausing outside the French doors, her gaze swept the garden, drinking in the beauty with both pleasure and pride. Under her care, the garden had expanded; a variety of trees and bushes planted and neatly bordered flower beds built. Under the care of Scott’s energetic wife, a succession of flowers bloomed in myriad colors against a background of multi-hued green. It was, as she intended, a place of retreat from the bustle of daily life; of quiet reflection when desired; of solace and solitude when needed. It rang with childish laughter and shrilling birdsong; gathered low-voiced conversation into its increasingly shaded depths as the young trees grew.
A quick glance confirmed that her father-in-law was still asleep. Smiling fondly at the big man, she searched the garden for her daughter.
From a shady nook, hidden by thick foliage, a giggle floated on the afternoon stillness, followed by a small voice.
“Don’t be silly! She was a princess and her wicked stepmother put a spell on her to make her sleep and the handsome prince rescued her and they got married and lived happily ever after!”
Margaret smiled indulgently, starting toward the voice. Although she had plenty of playmates among the children of the estancia, Beth often preferred to play alone. She had a vivid imagination, acting out scenes from her favorite books or Grandpa’s stories and even inventing stories of her own. Her grandfather delighted in surprising her with beautifully illustrated children’s’ books and she was already reading a bit herself.
As Margaret moved quietly along the path, she heard “Yuck! If I was a princess with a spell on me, I think I’d rather sleep forever than marry Garrett or Josh. Besides,” the little voice continued, “they aren’t princes . . . they aren’t even handsome.”
Margaret’s smile widened at that sisterly dismissal of her older brothers.
A pause was followed by another giggle. ”Anson is just a little kid. Princesses don’t marry little kids.”
Margaret had been drifting closer, not wanting to intrude on the little girl’s play, but unable to resist watching and listening; storing up precious memories of Beth’s childhood. This, however, did not sound like a conversation a little girl would have with her dolls. Was there another child with her? She hadn’t heard another voice.
“That would be okay . . . except that Papa is already married to Mama. Papa is as handsome as a prince and he’s strong and brave and he could whup any old witch!” An instant later the voice took on an indignant tone. “Now you’re just being mean. My papa is too handsome . . . and strong and brave! He could beat that old witch or anybody . . . even you!”
Reaching a point where she could peer through the shrubbery without betraying her presence, Margaret was a bit taken aback by the scene before her.
Three dolls were propped against a wooden bench in the shade of a live oak. In front of them, on a small tablecloth – made by Margaret for just such occasions – was a plate of cookies, a small pitcher of lemonade, and four small glasses.
Beth, though, was on her feet, hands planted on her hips facing an empty spot near the base of the tree. Even from this angle, Margaret could see the little jaw set in determination, the defiant stance. Before her mother could process what she was seeing and hearing, the little girl burst into delighted laughter.
“He did? Really? Why?” Beth paused again as though listening to a reply, eyes still riveted on that empty space.
More giggles. “I guess I understand that. I feel like hitting Garrett and Josh lots of times. Older brothers can be so bossy!”
A tendril of uneasiness crept up Margaret’s spine. Unbidden, memories of other occasions flashed through her mind. Beth as a toddler, running through the house, squealing with delight, pausing to look behind her as though being pursued, then running again. Four-year-old Beth insisting that her mother didn’t need to stay with her during a particularly violent thunderstorm; she wasn’t afraid because her ‘friend’ would stay with her.
Pushing down the disquiet, Margaret circled around to the path and stepped into the clearing. “Sweetheart, who are you talking to?”
Clearly startled, Beth turned to face her mother, her eyes dropping. “Just my friend, Mama.”
Just why Beth’s imaginary friend made her a tad nervous, Margaret had never been able to put a finger on. She had discussed the matter with Scott and agreed with him that children often had imaginary friends, especially only children. And, in many regards, Beth was an only child. Garrett and Josh were somewhat older, male, and inseparable. Anson was two-and-a-half years younger. In fact, Scott confessed, he himself had an imaginary childhood friend. That admission was followed by a gentle laugh and a hug, as he assured her that his ‘friend’ was no longer in residence – nor was he needed since Scott now had his incomparable wife; companion, confidant, and lover. Doubtless, with time, Beth’s ‘friend’ would also wander off to wherever imaginary friends went when their corporeal companions grew up.
Maria’s response had been somewhat cryptic and less encouraging. “Ella ve, Señora.”
Confused, Margaret had asked, “Sees what?”
The Lancer chatelaine couldn’t keep the shock from her face or incredulity from her voice. “Spirits? Ghosts?”
The old housekeeper nodded. “Sí. Do not worry, Señora. She sees no evil ones.” The age-spotted hands, worn by decades of service to the Lancers grasped the soft ones of her mistress. “And he watches over her. It will be well. You will see.” With that dubious reassurance, Maria went on her way leaving a flummoxed Margaret behind her.
Later, when they were alone in the sitting room, she mentioned the conversation to Scott. He was silent for several considering moments, gazing down at his hands. When he looked up, his face was dispassionate but his voice held a disturbing note to Margaret’s sensitive ear. “You have to remember that Maria is old – the child of another era. And she comes from a culture more given to . . . the spiritual if you like. You know she means well. For that matter, think about the stories Murdoch tells the children; elves, fairies, ghosts, magical swords . . . his grandmother who had the ‘second sight’.”
Margaret relaxed although that vague tendril of concern lingered. She could always depend on Scott to make sense of things that disturbed her; to comfort and reassure her when life simply did not make sense. Doubtless, her husband was right – about Beth’s imaginary friend and Maria’s explanation of that friend. She put the subject aside along with that undertone in Scott’s voice and stood, holding out her hand in invitation. “Morning comes early, Mr. Lancer. Shall we go to bed?”
Scott set down his empty glass and rose, taking the proferred hand. “I am more than ready to go bed, Mrs. Lancer.” Blue-gray eyes sparkled above a devilish grin. “But sleeping isn’t exactly what I have in mind.” He pulled her against his chest, locked his arms around her, and kissed her . . . and kissed her. When they eventually came up for air, Margaret took his hand again and led him into the bedroom.
Now, standing here in the sunny garden, faced once again with the Beth’s ‘friend’, Margaret pulled her mind from the pleasant memory and sought for something neutral to say. In the past, when questioned about her ‘friend’, Beth was reticent – wary even - steadfastly refusing to say anything more than ‘I was playing with my friend.’ or ‘We were just talking;’ would not even tell anyone what the friend’s name was. No matter how gently or adroitly phrased, inquires – even from her father in whom the child usually confided - were turned aside or met with downcast eyes and silence.
Now Beth sat down and concentrated on pouring a glass of lemonade. “Would you like some lemonade, Mama?”
“No thank you, Love. You know hitting your brothers is not very nice . . . not to mention unladylike.”
Beth did not look up. “We were just talking, Mama. Sometimes I do feel like hitting Garrett and Josh when they’re mean to me or try to boss me around.”
Margaret knew her daughter would say no more. In the next moment, the young woman’s pragmatism asserted itself. Doubtless, Scott was right and Beth’s ‘friend’ was a harmless childhood fancy that would pass as the little girl matured.
With a small sigh, Margaret reminded herself that her horse was waiting and solitary freedom – albeit temporary - was calling. “Alright, Love.” Her chuckle brought her daughter’s head up at last, eyes searching Margaret’s. “I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but when I was growing up, I frequently felt like hitting my brothers.” A thoughtful pause. “A few times, I actually did hit them . . . and Mama made me very sorry! So remember what I said, young lady!”
Beth turned a wide-eyed smile on her mother. “You really hit them? Did you smack ‘em in the nose? Give them a black eye?”
With an effort, Margaret controlled her mirth. “As a matter of fact, I did do some damage. And I seem to recall that you’ve done more than talk on several occasions. Part of growing up to be a young lady is learning that there are better ways to deal with males than belting them.”
The little girl once again lowered her head, long lashes fanned across pink cheeks. She fairly radiated innocence unless one noticed – and her mother certainly did – the firm jawline and bitten lower lip. “They asked for it.”
Margaret found herself biting the inside of her own cheek in a heroic effort to maintain a straight face and stern voice.
”Maybe they did – I certainly thought mine did. However, now that I’m older, I realize I had an unfair advantage because our father had taught them that hitting girls was unacceptable so they never hit me back. And you know very well, my girl, that your brothers have been taught the same thing, so I don’t want you taking advantage. Do you hear me?”
“Yes, ma’am.” The soft, amenable voice would have been more reassuring if Margaret hadn’t suspected the presence of a mischievous gleam in the downcast blue eyes.
Her own eyes bright with a mixture of amusement and disbelief, the mistress of Lancer turned away only to pause again. “Keep an eye on your grandfather, please. He would probably appreciate some lemonade when he wakes up.”
“I will, Mama. And I’ll save him some cookies too!”
Shaking her head, Margaret headed toward the barn where her horse – and her lovely, restful, free afternoon beckoned.
The Guardian is also posted at Fanfiction.com
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