The Baby Tea
Angelica Cartwright gave the reins a snap, and the little bay mare picked up her pace. Since Adam had taught her to drive, she had developed a sense of freedom that she had never known before. Omnibuses and cabs were fine and got you where you wanted to go, but you weren’t the one in control. And out here they were a nonexistent species. So, shortly after the midmorning meal, she had left the boys in Maggie’s care and headed into Bantree. She needed to visit with some of the ladies in town, and get the ball rolling on her plans. And, this being June, she didn’t have time to waste.
This morning Adam Cartwright had decided to follow his little brother. For the past week, the young man would disappear for several hours every day, and no one had been able to say where he had gone. Joe had not been forthcoming with what he was being so furtive about, so today Adam determined that he would find out for himself. Once and for all.
It was another splendid late spring morning, the kind that could make a man euphoric and prone to having his mind in the clouds. The past month had seen the reconciliation between the oldest and youngest Cartwright brothers, and it had gone straight to Adam’s head. Or maybe it was his heart. No matter. As a result, he was happier right now than he had been in a good long while. And that he nearly had to die to bring it about was of no consequence to him. He had his little brother back and that was the only thing that counted.
Adam had just brought his big black horse around a rock when he heard, “Ah, found it!”
“Found what?” Adam asked, as he reined Dusty to a halt.
Joe Cartwright jerked up from the ground, and whirled to face him. His eyes sparkled and emerald lights danced in their depths.
“Found what?” Adam repeated, as he swung a long leg over his horse’s back and stepped down.
For some reason, Joe seemed almost embarrassed, and his clenched left hand darted behind his back.
“What’ve you got there, Joe?”
Joe’s mouth crooked and pinched on one side. “Something I was afraid I’d lost for good. I didn’t know if I would find it, but I couldn’t stop looking.” He stepped forward and hesitantly held out his hand and opened it.
Joe held in his fingers what looked to be an old coin. It was blackened, as if subjected to fire, and dusted with ash.
“Go on and take it,” Joe said, as he thrust it closer to Adam.
Adam did as asked. He turned it over and rubbed it with his thumb, and his dark hazel eyes scoured every inch of it. “It’s that old Roman coin I brought to you from San Francisco. Your lucky piece.”
“That’s right.” Joe snapped it back from him. “I was scared to death that I wouldn’t find it.” He went sheepish and dropped his head. “One night on the trail, I… I threw it into my campfire.”
Joe’s head jerked up. “You know? How? Nobody was around but Cochise, and I know he didn’t tell.”
Adam’s face went sallow. “I saw you. I’d gone after you to give you back your saddlebags. You’d ridden off in such a huff that you’d forgotten them.”
“You saw me?” Joe gulped, and shame hung over his face like a dark veil. “Adam, I…” He spun around and stomped away then stopped. He hung his head, and his shoulders slumped. “Somebody needs to beat me. A few times I thought Hoss was going to, and I wish he had. I behaved like an unfeeling jerk, and I needed for somebody to take a good, swift poke at me…, and maybe I still do.”
Adam walked over to him and placed a comforting hand on his little brother’s back. “That’s all behind us now, and I think that’s where it should be left. Don’t you?”
Joe just continued to stand there and stare at the dusty toes of his boots. He muttered something unintelligible.
“Joe, we’ve come too far since then to start beating ourselves up again. Mistakes were made on both our parts, and we hurt each other, but…”
Joe’s head yanked around, and his eyes were bottomless and black. “But you didn’t mean to cause me hurt…. I did. I wanted to cause you pain every chance I got…. And I’m ashamed to say that I did. How can you ever forgive me?” His head dropped again.
“It’s really quite simple, Joe. You’re my brother, and I’ve grown rather fond of you over the years.”
“I don’t know why?”
Adam stepped around in front of him and firmly grasped Joe by the shoulders. “We’ve had a wonderful month together; let’s not ruin it now by rehashing that sad event. It’s done and we need to just pick up the pieces and move on.” Adam gave him a jostle. “Joe…. Look at me.”
The eyes that met Adam were just as brooding as before.
“I’m willing to forgive,” Adam went on. “Why aren’t you?”
“I have forgiven you.”
“I’m not talking about me. You need to forgive yourself. Now I want your solemn word that you’ll let go of your guilt, I have. Life’s too short to go around dragging it with you like an anchor. It’ll only pull you down. And I for one don’t want to see it. So whadaya say?”
After several seconds, the telltale hint of a smile crept over Joe’s mouth.
“That’s better.” Adam gave him a friendly slap on the arm. “Now let’s go back to the house. It’ll soon be time for dinner, and I don’t mind saying that I’m hungry.”
“Then that makes two of us, brother.”
Joe held up his lucky piece between them, and his eyes glittered in the sun’s rays. With that ornery look that Adam had become so accustomed to, Joe kissed the coin then stuffed it into his shirt pocket. Adam gave him a broad grin and a swat on the back then they turned to their horses.
“You know, Joe, I’ve often wondered who’s got the faster mount.”
“Then why don’t we find out.”
With a whoop, Joe vaulted onto Cochise’s back and put his heels into the horse’s sides, and the wiry little paint spun and shot forward.
Adam had just barely settled his butt into the saddle. “Oh, this won’t do. Come on, Dusty. We have a reputation to maintain.”
The big black wheeled and took off in a flurry of legs and hooves. Adam knew that he would never hear the end of it if he let Joe beat him. Dusty was touted as the fastest horse in miles, and it simply wouldn’t do to have his little brother ride him into the ground.
“You know, if Dusty didn’t have legs like a jack rabbit, Cooch could’ve beaten him easy,” Joe said, and took a good swig of his coffee.
Adam’s eyes twinkled mischievously as he buttered his biscuit. “Making excused for your riding ability are we, little brother?”
“None needed. It’s just that Dusty may be the leggiest horse I’ve ever seen, even more than Sport was.”
Adam’s cheerful expression dulled at the mention of his old friend.
“And I think Dusty could even outrun him,” Joe continued, “which is saying a lot.”
Adam found his grin. “Sounds like excuses to me.”
Just then their brotherly banter was interrupted as Angelica brushed into the house, singing like a meadowlark. Adam and Joe exchanged glances of amusement.
“You’re bright as a silver dollar in the well water today,” Adam said, and started to rise. “I assume that everything went well in town.”
“Don’t bother getting up. Everything went perfectly,” she chirped, as she joined the men at the table. She snicked a bite from her husband’s plate with her fingers, and poked it into her mouth. Then she gave him a light peck on the lips as she chewed. “And everything is all arranged.”
Adam eyed her warily as she sat down across from his brother. “You know, you’ve been like a chicken in an ant hill for the past few days, and twice as secretive. I don’t suppose that now you could tell me what you’re up to.”
“Of course I can.” She spread her napkin in her lap and began to fill the third plate that had been set out. “Don’t be silly.” Joe filled her cup with coffee, and she thanked him. “I have been giving it a lot of thought, and I think a Baby Tea would be delightful.”
Joe’s eyebrows shot up his forehead, and his loaded fork stopped midway between mouth and plate. “A what?”
“A Baby Tea, anyway, that’s what I like to call it. I could bring out the tea service that belonged to Grandma Cadence, and my crocheted lace-edged table cloth and napkins. And Maggie could bake some of her lemon scones and petit fours. The ladies of this community don’t have the opportunity to get together as much as we would like, and I thought this just the occasion.”
“And who all have you invited to this ‘Baby Tea’?” Adam asked, as his puckish gaze darted to Joe.
“Well, of course, Fiona and Amelia since they are the guests of honor, and it would be pointless without them.”
“Of course,” Adam said, with wry amusement.
Angelica took a demure bite, and swallowed before she spoke again. “I have invited Carolyn and the girls, naturally, and Becky Haymes, Grace Warring, Mara Trudeau, Rachel Kingsolver, and Grisella Tompkins.”
“You didn’t ask Iva Liddell?” Adam asked, as if perfectly surprised. “Won’t she be furious at the oversight?”
Angelica’s deep violet eyes threw purple sparks as they flicked to him. “It was no oversight, I assure you. I suffer that odious woman as little as I must, and I will not spoil our party to simply keep from offending her. A bigger and more malicious gossip never lived as that shrike. I detest her, and it would be hypocritical of me to ask her to come. And besides that, I think Maggie would slip poison into her tea after she remarked that we could do better than to hire lazy Irish. Of course, she didn’t say it directly to my face. She knew better, but it still got back to me.” She groaned. “The very nerve of that woman.” She huffed and pushed herself away from the table. Adam and Joe came to their feet as she did. “Now I think I’ll go eat in the kitchen with Maggie and the boys, and I’ll tell her all about my plans. There are a lot of preparations to make in five days, and I don’t want to waste any time.” She gathered her plate and cup and bustled off.
Adam and Joe sat back down and their eyes lingered on the kitchen door.
Adam dropped his dark head over his plate and feigned renewed interest in his food. “Trouble. I can just see it coming at me like a herd of stampeding cattle…. And I’m gonna get trampled.”
“Why do you say that? It’s just a ladies’ tea party. I don’t see what kind of trouble can possibly come from it.”
Adam looked at him, and his expression more resembled a bloodhound’s. “It’s a feeling, and you’ll understand better about feelings when you get married. This thing with Iva Liddell makes me nervous, and having that many women together in one place is inviting something. So mark my words, this isn’t gonna run as smoothly as Angelica thinks it will…. And I can’t explain any better than that. But we’ll find out soon enough.”
Buggies and carriages and a lone buckboard began to arrive shortly after nine o’clock that bright Saturday morning. Ladies of all shapes, sizes and ages, decked out in their best finery, were brought by husbands or servants or hired drivers, except for Becky Haymes, who drove herself. For many, this would be their first time in the big log house on the Angel ranch, and it sent feminine hearts all atwitter. Plus, this could be the gala event of the season that could get one’s name into the social pages of the Bantree newspapers, which sometimes found their way to San Francisco, and from there, who knew. So every lady wanted to be a guest of such an elegant and wealthy hostess as Angelica Cartwright. Including Iva Liddell.
Adam had volunteered to keep Addy, Benjy and Hi outside with him. It would keep inquisitive and energetic little boys from underfoot, and give him this wonderful time with his sons. Most of the men were out on the range at various jobs, so that left only him, Joe and Gibby, the ranch cook.
Gibby had just come out of the supply shack, a large sack of flour slung over his back. “What ‘n all do you reckon that many ladies talk about when they git together?”
Adam sat on a rough bench with the boys gathered around him. “Woman things.”
“Sure, but what’re ‘woman things’?”
“Oh, you know, the latest fashions in Paris and New York, who’s getting married, who’s gonna have a baby, how to decorate a house, and some other such fluff.”
“Well, they know who’s gonna have a baby. And all they gotta do is use their eyes and not their tongues.”
Adam tried to hide his amusement. “True enough, but you know how women like to talk when they get together so they’ll always find something. And they don’t get to do this sort of thing very often, so we can’t and shouldn’t begrudge them this.”
“I don’t.” Gibby snorted and shook his head. “But I still don’t get it.”
Adam grinned. “I don’t think there’s a man alive who does. But ours is not to reason why, ours but to do and die.”
“Ain’t that the for sure and certain truth.” Then Gibby shook his head, and headed back to the cook shack
Adam looked around him at his sons, who had begun to grow restless. “Oh boy, what you have in store for you.”
Joe came around the side of the barn, and his eyes glanced toward the house. “I wonder what they would do if a man went in on them?”
“There’s a gun cabinet full of shotguns and rifles at the foot of the stairs and plenty of ammunition. Why? You weren’t seriously contemplating going in there, were you?”
Joe sat down next to Adam and his nephews. “I may do some stupid things every now and then, but that isn’t apt to be one of them. I’m not looking to get blasted.”
Adam chortled. “That makes two of us, brother. Besides, I havta take care of these rascals, and don’t have time for getting myself shot.” He tugged back on Addy who had decided that he wanted down. “And I can’t afford for you to get it either. So just consider yourself drafted. Being closer to their age, and having never fully grown up yourself, you’ll be the perfect assistant.”
Joe looked almost pea green. “I don’t know anything about babies.”
“Then it’s time you learned, and prepared yourself for fatherhood. Here.” He scooted Benjy across to his uncle then he put Addy and Hi with their brother.
The boys were getting testier by the second. They fidgeted as if being nibbled on by ants, and Joe really had his hands full. “I can’t handle all three of them at once.”
“I don’t see why not. I do it all the time, and you are, after all, a Cartwright.”
Once again, Addy started to get down, and this time his brothers decided to join him. Joe turned pleading eyes on Adam as if the say, ‘Help!’
Adam laughed again and took his oldest son. But still Joe had trouble handling the other two, and it delighted Adam to no end.
Inside the big log house, the parlor had been made bright and festive by the gay laughter and crisp chatter of the ladies. Dainty lace-edged napkins were draped over laps, except for Angelica’s, who, as hostess, served the petit fours and scones with silver tongs. She poured the steaming brew into delicate bone china cups painted with forget-me-nots from the matching tea pot and offered cream, honey and sugar cubes.
Fiona Balasco and Amelia McCutcheon, both nine months along in their pregnancies, had been given a prominent place at the center of the group. This occasion had come about because of them, and they were obviously enjoying the attention.
Mara Trudeau, wife of Holland Trudeau, a former lumberjack, and manager of the Lumbermen’s Bank of Bantree, sat on the end of the wine-colored settee. Her plump fingers nearly overwhelmed the fragile handle of the cup as she lifted it from its saucer. “Iva Liddell is beside herself for not being invited.” She took a refined sip. “I am afraid she will never forgive you, Angelica, for this slight. Or, as she so indelicately put it, a slap in the face.”
Angelica finished filling a cup for herself then put two elegantly decorated little cakes onto a plate. “I am sorry for that, but I simply cannot stand the woman.” She took her seat in the tall-backed blue chair. “We are not friends, nor what you would call social acquaintances, since I tend to run in the opposite direction when I see her coming, and I think it would be cruel to lead her on and let her think that we are. As I told my husband, I felt it would be hypocritical. Now, let’s not let her spoil our merriment. This is a chance to break loose from the mundane and to celebrate new lives that will soon be arriving.” Her eyes glittered with pride as she looked to her baby sister.
“I could not agree more,” Carolyn Banning said, with a nod of her golden head. “Angelica is one hundred percent right. And I think it is time that Mrs. Liddell learned that the town of Bantree and this community do not revolve around her.”
“Absolutely,” Grace Warring, the town’s best seamstress, or so many of the ladies claimed, added her two cents. “This is Angelica’s party, and she was well within her rights to invite or not invite whoever she saw fit.” She shifted her well proportioned frame in one of the chairs that had been brought from the dining room.
Mrs. Trudeau squirmed a little, and fussed with her gray-stippled chestnut hair. “I meant no offence.”
“And none was taken,” Angelica said, and cut into her dessert with a small-tined fork. “But we won’t bring her up anymore. We’re here to have an enjoyable get-together with each other, for goodness knows when we will be able to do this again.”
“I am lucky to be here this time,” Becky Haymes said, and her clear blue eyes floated around her. “A ranch, small though ours is, a husband, and two growing boys demand a lot. So I fully intend to have a time that I can fondly look back on in the years to come. When I am old, withered and gray, I don’t want it to be with regret.”
“I could not have phrased it better myself,” said Rachel Kingsolver, wife of Bantree’s only undertaker. She took a sip of her honeyed tea then primly dabbed her napkin at her fine lips. “And, besides that, most of us have to live in town with Iva Liddell, so let’s not bring her with us.”
“I have a wonderful idea,” Mara chimed in. “Why don’t we just forget that I ever opened my mouth on the subject and simply have a good time?”
“Spoken like a true diplomat,” said Grisella Tompkins, the only widow in the group, and owner of her late husband’s freight company, which she ran with an iron hand in a lace glove. She leaned forward to get another scone, and her ample bosom touched her knees.
“Then it’s all settled,” Angelica said, and took a petite bite. Then she took a sip of her tea. “Now, Grace, you were telling me in town the other day about the newest fashion trends in London.”
Black-haired Marjorie and Juliet Banning, Carolyn’s teenaged daughters and Amelia’s younger sisters, sat together near the dormant fireplace as they munched and sipped and listened intently. Their dark eyes would dart to whoever would speak, but their mouths were already too engaged to utter a sound. And this was more fun anyway.
The dapple gray’s hooves clopped over the uneven ground in a steady rhythm as the woman behind the reins drove him on. With a click of her teeth, she gave them a snap against his back, and he picked up his gait. His soft-colored mane and tail jiggled and danced with his movement, and the ripple of his muscles gave testament to his power. He gave his finely chiseled head a toss and snorted.
“It’s all right, Cesar. We’ll soon be there.” She gave the reins another flick. Her face darkened, and her muddy brown eyes grew more somber. “And when I do those self righteous ladies are going to catch a piece of my mind. And little Miss Prig Angelica Cartwright is going to know what I think of her.” Her mouth bunched into a hard knot, and her fingers gnarled on the reins until her knuckles whitened. “How dare her. If she thinks I don’t have better things to do with my time than to come to her stodgy tea social, then she is sadly mistaken. And I for one will delight in telling her so. Humph. Does she think that being married into the Cartwright wealth makes her extra special and more privileged than the rest of us? Well, I’m just the one to tell her that it doesn’t.” Her cheeks became more intensely reddened. “Ooooh, that just makes me so mad.”
The reins got another jerk, and the dutiful Cesar did his mistress’ bidding and increased his speed yet again.
“You just wait, you stuck-up little witch, you just wait.”
Three miniature sets of eyes glittered like diamonds as they rode on the back of the big, shaggy brown dog in slow, irregular circles around the yard. Their uncle led the animal by the scruff of his neck, and their father held them on. This was a thrill, and the boys – their small fists clenched around handfuls of wiry fur – were too enthralled to move. And Buddy seemed to be enjoying it nearly as much as they were.
Adam had resorted to all kinds of diversions to keep his boys entertained, and he hoped that he and Joe didn’t run out of ideas before the party ended.
Buddy abruptly braced his feet and growled as he set his gaze toward the barn.
“What is it, Buddy?” Adam looked first to his brother then they both followed the dog’s line of sight.
A buggy pulled by a powerfully built dapple entered around the side of the barn.
Adam must have turned every shade of green known to any self-respecting Irishman when he got a good look at the driver. “It’s started.”
Joe gave him a look that depicted his puzzlement. “What has?”
Adam sighed heavily as his grip tightened on his squirmy sons. “The stampede.”
Joe looked back to the buggy as it drew closer, and a wad the size of an eagle’s egg clogged his throat. No wonder his brother looked like death warmed over when he saw who had come to pay a call. He swallowed hard and wished he could be back on the Ponderosa.
“Good morning, Mrs. Liddell,” Adam said, as brightly as he could muster.
The boys had begun to grunt and jerk forward as if to will the dog to start moving again.
“Good morning, Mr. Cartwright,” Iva Liddell said, as she reined the horse to a stop. The sides of her mouth pinched, and her eyes narrowed on them. “Don’t gentlemen around here help ladies down?”
“Of course they do. Joe.” Adam gave his brother a sharp look and nodded him over to help her.
Now Joe definitely knew that he wished her were back on the Ponderosa. He released Buddy, and the dog stood stock still. Joe rushed over to the buggy and graciously helped her down. Iva barely murmured a thank you to him then flounced over to Adam.
“Mr. Cartwright, a grave injustice has been done me by your wife.”
“I’m afraid I don’t know exactly…”
“I think you do, and I certainly hope that you don’t condone it. I would think better than that of a Cartwright.”
“If you are referring to her tea social, then there’s nothing to condone. She simply invited her sister and some of her intimate friends to the house for refreshments, and to celebrate Fiona’s and Amelia’s babies. I’m sure she never intended to hurt your feelings.”
“I’m sure you didn’t care one way or the other.” She frowned. “But I didn’t come here to talk to you about that. I came to talk to your wife. I have never been so insulted in all my life.”
“You have your nerve, Iva Liddell.”
Adam looked around as Angelica left the porch and could just feel a rope tighten around his neck. He ran his index finger around his collar in an effort to loosen the noose. Oh, he was not in the mood for a cat fight.
“I’ll not have you come out here and pounce all over my husband for a decision that was mine, and mine alone.” Angelica came to position herself between this venomous woman, and her family. “That was not my intention, but I make no apologies. You and I are not friends, Iva Liddell, and I would have looked like the greatest fraud had I asked you to come. This was intended as no slight.”
Angelica moved closer to the woman, and Adam’s mouth went dry. He knew what that fiery Cadence temper was capable of when aroused.
“Let me ask you one question,” Angelica asked, and her eyes had gone perfectly purple. “In my position, would you have asked me? And before you answer that, just let me say that I know how you feel about me.”
Some of the steam seemed to vent from Iva, and some of the crimson left her cheeks. “I think I would have.”
“And we would have both been miserable,” Angelica snapped. “Pretenses benefit no one, and can harm many. And simply to placate you and smooth your ruffled feathers; I am not going to change my opinion or my mind. Now why don’t you just get back into your buggy, turn your horse around and return to town before this turns into scratching and hissing?”
Iva went white as parchment, and her lips set flat and even. “You are a mean, vindictive little harpy, Angelica Cartwright. And I wouldn’t stay at your party if you got down on bended knees and begged me.”
Adam opened his mouth to say something, but a sharp violet glance curbed him.
“I suggest that you take a closer look at the image that peers back at you from a mirror before you start calling others names and casting stones in their direction.”
With that everything dropped out of Iva Liddell’s face. Adam could see plainly that she had been pierced by that last barb. But then the truth could have that kind of effect.
“Angelica! Angelica!” black-haired Juliet nearly screamed as she ran out into the yard.
Angelica grasped the girl’s shoulders. “Juliet, what is it?”
“Mother thinks that Amelia is having her baby!”
Now the color drained from Angelica, and her eyes stood out like wet amethysts. She ran back into the house behind the teenager and found the women gathered into a cluster around the settee. She parted her way through to the round little figure that sat bunched over. Carolyn Banning sat next to her daughter and held her hand.
“Amelia.” Angelica’s gaze scoured the young woman’s face, and it brought forth memories of the pain that had accompanied the birth of her sons. “How severe is the pain, dear?”
“I feel like… like I am being cut… in two.”
Angelica exchanged a glance with a concerned mother. But her focus was quickly jerked away by the sound of a whimper behind her. She rose and turned as did the others. Fiona sat in one of the dining chairs – her face twisted and contorted in agony much like Amelia’s. Iva Liddell knelt before her. She gripped the girl’s hands, and gently stroked her light brown hair back from her face. Angelica rushed to her sister.
“Oh, Angelica, it’s time…. I can feel it.”
Angelica’s eyes met with Iva Liddell’s, and the grimness she saw there frightened her.
“We need a doctor,” Iva said, softly. “These girls area having their babies.”
Things had suddenly gotten even more complicated.
No one noticed that Adam and Joe had entered the house, the boys in their arms. Adam’s eyes sought out his wife, and she told him what he needed to know without a word. He turned to his brother. “Joe…,”
“I’m way ahead of you, brother.”
Grace Warring came forward and took Hiram from his uncle.
“Try to get Elias. He’s good at this sorta thing,” Adam said, as he readjusted his other two sons in his arms.
“I’ll do my best.” Then Joe darted back outside at a full run.
Adam joined the small clique of ladies, and two of them relieved him of his sons.
“We need to get these girls someplace where they can lie down, and we can make them more comfortable,” Iva said, with authority.
“Our bedroom is closest,” Angelica said, and her arm went around her sister’s shoulders. “And there will be no need to trifle with the stairs.”
“We only need for one or both of them to fall,” Mrs. Trudeau said, on the tail of a groan.
Adam scooped Fiona into his arms. She moaned keenly, and her head lolled back against his shoulder. “I’ll come back for Amelia as soon as I get her settled.”
He went toward the bedroom, and Iva followed behind him without a sound.
“I’ll get some blankets and towels,” Maggie O’Shea offered, in her hearty Irish brogue. Then she spun in a whirl of skirt and petticoats and trotted toward the kitchen.
“Oh, Mother, I have never had anything hurt so terribly as this in all my life.”
Carolyn pressed her daughter’s head to her bosom and comforted the girl with gentle hands and calm voice. “I know, sweetheart. But when it is all over you will have a fine son or daughter. Chris will be so proud of you both, and won’t your father be surprised when he gets back from St. Louis.”
“Chris. Daddy…. Oh, how I wish they were here.” A sharp cry cut her off, and her hands knotted on the fabric of her mother’s dress.
Carolyn’s concerned eyes met with Angelica’s. Both were well aware of the dangers that childbirth entailed.
“All right, missy,” Adam said, as he gathered Amelia into his arms. “Now it’s your turn to go for a little ride.”
Amelia hid her face against his broad chest, and it stifled another cry. She had loved Adam Cartwright since she was a very young child. First, as a big, strong and wise older brother, then through that childish teenaged crush, and always as someone she admired and looked up to more than any man excepting her father. She threw her head back over his arm as another spasm caught her in its grip, and her teeth clamped on her lower lip. She felt as if she was going to die, and she ardently hoped that wasn’t the case. What would happen to Chris if she wasn’t there to take care of him?
Chris McCutcheon had driven a buckboard out to the line shack at Butterfly Meadow. He had gone to replenish some of the supplies that he had availed himself of last time he had stayed there. If there was one thing the Boss was a real stickler for, it was keeping the little one-room houses well stocked. Sometimes the difference between life and death could hinge on it. He gulped as his mind reeled back to the time he and the Boss had found themselves in such a situation after getting caught in a blizzard while out hunting Thanksgiving turkeys almost two years ago.
“Stop daydreaming.” He gave his head a hard shake as if to dislodge the thoughts from his brain.
It didn’t take him long to finish and in less than twenty or so minutes he went back out to his buckboard. He had just climbed back onto the seat when an odd sensation caught him fair. He sat motionless, the reins gripped in his fingers, and waited for it to pass. But it didn’t pass, and only grew in intensity, and he didn’t even know why. Then the light of a notion dawned bright and clear in his mind. Amelia and the baby!
With a loud voice and a keen snap of the reins he turned the horse so that the buckboard nearly tipped over. It didn’t, however, even register. Something told him that his wife and child needed him, and that was paramount to everything else. He knew he would look the fool if he burst in and found her placidly sipping tea with the other ladies, but that was only a glancing thought. Something told him to go, so that, by durn, was what he fully intended to do.
Some of the turmoil in the big house had died down, if only a modicum. Amelia’s pains had subsided a bit, but poor little Fiona still writhed in the most intense agony. Marjorie and Juliet tended to the boys in the parlor and Mara, Rachel and Grisella helped Maggie out in the kitchen and wherever she needed it. Carolyn could not be drawn away from her daughter or Angelica from her sister’s side and Iva Liddell was proving to be indispensable.
Adam felt like a fifth leg on a horse, unwanted, unneeded and in the way. So, per his wife’s instructions, or maybe one could call them threats, he had retreated to the front porch more or less for self preservation. If he were a smoker, a nasty habit he had thankfully never acquired, he would puff away like a locomotive. But, as it stood, he simply had to settle for stalking back and forth like a nervous cougar.
Nearby, a bird sang cheerfully from one of the trees, and Adam found himself wishing for his gun. He thought very highly of both those young women, and it would be a lie to say he wasn’t concerned. He remembered how it had felt when his Angelica had been the one going through such suffering and uncertainty. His hands balled into tight fists at his sides at the thought of her enduring it again. He would love nothing better than a houseful of children, but he knew that with each birth the prospect of losing his Angel would always be there. He shuddered and shoved that hideous idea away from him.
A sudden commotion clattered and thumped into the yard, and he looked around to see a buckboard drawn by a heavily lathered horse pull to a halt in front of the barn.
“Boss!” Chris shouted, as he hit the ground running.
Adam blocked the main archway to waylay his foreman before he blustered into the house like a loco buffalo. “Whoa, Chris, what’s wrong?”
“Where’s Amelia?” His frantic teal eyes darted to the heavy pine front door. “I got this notion that somethin’s wrong. Is somethin’ wrong, or am I bein’ a jackass again?”
Adam grinned. “You’re not being a jackass, and it would be nice if all men worried over their wives like you do.”
Chris took off his hat and ruffled his thick caramel-colored hair and let out a breath. Some of the tension dissipated to leave his body in a slump. “I guess I’m just jumpy is all, what with the baby comin’ before long n’ all. I sure will be glad when it’s over.”
“Well, I don’t think you’ll havta wait too awfully much longer.”
Chris’ head rose with a jerk and his eyes were the size of wagon wheels. “Wha… What? You mean? She’s havin’…? Right now?”
“I’ve gotta see her!”
Chris rushed forward, and Adam got between him and the door and firmly grasped the young man’s arms.
“You can’t go in there. Whadaya think I’m doing out here? I got run out because I was under foot just like you’d be. Now stay out here with me, boy. There’s nothing either one of us can do except get in the way, and I think the ladies are perfectly capable. I guess they know a might more about birthing babies than either you or me do. And the doctor should be here before long.”
Chris swiped his hand over his sweaty forehead and cursed. “I need a shot o’ whiskey. I need several shots. Enough to numb me from the toes up.”
Adam gave a snort, and slapped an arm around the kid’s shoulders. “I know the feeling. Now why don’t we go to the bunkhouse and look around? I’m sure Juva has at least one bottle of that pop-skull he buys from Mason Edwards stashed somewhere. And if he doesn’t or it’s hid too well this time, I’m sure Gibby’ll have something strong enough to do the job.”
“Lead me to it.”
Adam chortled and steered Chris out into the yard and the sunlight. But as they went he gave a concerned glance back toward the door.
Steve Balasco had tended bar in The Wooden Nickel and a few saloons in Chicago long enough to know to keep one eye on his chore of the moment and the other on his patrons. Brawls and shootings could break out at any time, and he liked to avert such things whenever possible. A friend of his, who had worked the bar at The Silver Bell just up the street, had been killed when gunplay erupted over a poker game a couple years back. It had suited to make him even more alert, and the fact that he now had a wife and soon a child to support augmented it.
It had been a long, dull morning, but in a little bit he would be able to take his noon break while Gus filled in for him. He was hungry enough to eat thirty bears plus one rangy steer. And the food in the dining room at the Sinclair Hotel beckoned. Maybe it wasn’t on par with that at Tabler’s – the finest restaurant in town – but at least he could afford it.
He had just finished giving the long mahogany bar a good polish when Fin Demister blew in through the batwing doors like a startled pheasant. The light sparkled in Steve’s charcoal eyes as he watched the little man belly up to the bar.
“You look like you need a drink, Fin.” Steve took a tall clear bottle of amber liquid from a shelf alongside the expansive mirror.
Fin wheezed with his exertion and fought to catch his breath. “Nope…. Not this time.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
“I just saw… Joe Cartwright.” He took a faded bandana from a back britches pocket and mopped the perspiration from his round face. “He was headed… out of town… with Doc Robey.”
This caught Steve’s immediate attention, and his long, lean body when perfectly taut. Adam had been half killed less than a month ago, and this news gave him more than a mere start. And his wife was out at the Angel! “Did he say what the trouble was?”
“Yup.” Fin’s breathing had settled down a might. “He told me to tell you… that it’s time…, daddy.”
Steve bleached. The bottle he held smashed to the floor and exploded as he backed into the other bottles that lined the wall and their rattle filled the unusually quiet barroom. “What did you just call me?”
“That’s what I thought.”
Steve suddenly shot out from behind the bar as if fired from a gun. The batwing doors complained on their hinges as he burst outside. And he didn’t even bother to remove his apron.
“Now I think I will have that drink.”
Fin sauntered around behind the bar, and the broken glass crunched beneath his feet. He took down a bottle of the Nickel’s best, got a shot glass and poured himself a jolt, which he took down in one slug.
“Ahhh, that’s better.”
He poured another.
The search for Juva’s bottle had been completely successful. So Adam had left Chris in the bunkhouse to get himself just plain stupefied. He didn’t condone his hands getting swizzled through the day when it would interfere with their work, but, under the circumstances, this time he made an exception. So if Chris wanted to drink himself into blind oblivion, he wouldn’t say anything. He had been invited to join in, but he figured that one of them should at least stay sober. And he figured he had enough on his hands as it was.
He had parked his long self in the porch swing so that he could be close by if needed and not make a pest of himself. His legs pushed slowly and the chains squeaked. A light breeze blew through to gently riffle his heavy black hair and held the afternoon heat at bay.
On the outside, Adam Cartwright looked calm as a mountain stream, but inside he roiled like a storm tossed sea. But, while everybody else was losing their heads, someone had to keep theirs, so it might as well be him. His mind brought forth images of the two delicate little faces contorted into such pain. He had known Amelia since practically a baby herself, and Fiona had become like a little sister. And the loss of either or both was a thought he didn’t want to entertain.
He wasn’t sure how long he had been sitting there when the small party comprised of two riders, and the doctor’s buggy came noisily into the yard. Adam pulled himself to his feet and went to stand in one of the arches. “Steve, I didn’t think you’d stay away, job or no job.”
“Well I can be fired for all I care,” the dark-haired man said, as he stepped down.
Dr. Elias Robey stomped onto the porch. “Anything yet?”
“Not so far as I know. It’s been quiet as a church yard.”
With calm urgency, the doctor went into the house. But when Steve started to follow, Adam stopped him.
The slight flush of Steve’s face only suited to make his eyes look darker. “Let me by, Adam. I need to be with Fiona.”
“There’s nothing you can do in there except get in the way. So I think it’s best if you stay out here with us.”
“Out of my way, Adam. I don’t want to flatten a friend, but I will if I have to. Now step to one side.”
“Sorry, Steve, I won’t do that. And if you wantta take a swing or two on me, you go right ahead. But whether you hit me or not, I’m not letting you go in there. Elias doesn’t need a frantic husband only complicating things and Fiona doesn’t need you flopping around like a fish out of water.” He gripped Steve’s shoulders and smiled. “And neither does your child.”
Adam’s reasoning let some of the wind out of Steve’s sails, and he covered his face with one hand.
“Now why don’t you sit down on the swing, and try not to worry,” Adam continued, and gave him a friendly pat.
Steve’s beseeching eyes rose. “Did you? Not worry, I mean.”
Adam snorted. “I almost became another patient for Elias to minister to. I guess I’m not the one to be giving out that kind of advice. But I can tell you that going off halfcocked doesn’t help anybody or anything. She’s in good hands, of that you can rest assured.” A chortle seemed to relieve some of the tension. “And with that many ladies around, the doctor’ll have plenty of able assistance.”
Joe came up behind Steve and clapped a hand on his back. “What you need is a good stiff drink.”
As if to put a period to that sentence, Adam’s attention strayed past Joe and Steve into the sunlight beyond the porch’s shadows. “Chris, you aren’t drunk.” His awe was apparent.
“I didn’t need to.” Chris passed under the main arch to join them. “A couple o’ good slugs was enough to fortify me, but I did do a lot o’ thinkin’. How’s Amelia?”
“The doctor just went in,” Joe took his hat off and riffled his sweaty hair, “and we haven’t heard anything yet.”
“Then, if it’s all right, I’ll just wait here with you.”
Adam nodded. “It’s more ‘n all right, Chris. You know what they say.”
“No, Boss, what do they say?”
“Misery loves company.”
Amelia and Fiona were side-by-side on the big bed, and, for the time being, their distress had been allayed, if only a little. Carolyn sat next to her daughter, and lightly patted a soft cloth over her face. Angelica played her fingers through her sister’s hair, something that Fiona had enjoyed since a very small girl.
Dr. Robey finished washing his hands and dried them then turned with stern expression. He looked first to Angelica then Carolyn and gave a slight jerk of his head to the other side of the room. Then he discreetly motioned Iva over.
As Carolyn started to rise, her daughter gripped her hand. “Mother.”
Carolyn gave her a gentle pat and tender smile. “It’s all right, dear. I need to ask the doctor something. I won’t be far away. Now you just lay back and rest. That’s right, sweetheart.”
She eased to where Angelica and the doctor stood by the door. With a cursory check of the girls, Iva Liddell, joined them.
“Elias, what is it?” Carolyn asked, in a low voice.
His eyes flicked back toward the bed. “Amelia is doing all right; her labor seems to be coming along as it should…. It’s Fiona that concerns me.”
Angelica swallowed a breath. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
“It appears that the baby is turned wrong.”
“A breach,” Iva said, flatly. “My James was a breach. It is a very difficult birth.”
“I remember. The little cuss seemed not to want to enter this world. That’s why I am going to need your help, Iva. You know about it.”
“Anything I can do, I certainly will.” Her gaze traced briefly back to the bed. “Dear little mother.”
Angelica turned her deep violet gaze on the woman that didn’t go unnoticed and caught the hint of a warm smile that touched her. “Thank you, Iva.”
“It isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for another. Even you.”
Angelica couldn’t miss the note of coolness in the words. She had caused hurt, and it was being turned back on her. She wanted to say she was sorry, but that could come later. Right now her main concern lay with her sister and her as yet unborn child.
Adam and Joe had finally managed to get the two expectant fathers somewhat settled into the large parlor. But then settled could be an irrelevant term, as was proving to be the case this time. Steve paced back-and-forth like a wild animal stalking its cage, while Chris appeared bent on exploring every nook, cranny and item in the room. It was as if he had just discovered that he had hands and didn’t know what to do with them.
“Brandy?” Adam asked, in his brightest tone.
There were no takers. It was as if he had said nothing at all.
“Well I do,” he said to himself. Then he spun on his heel and trod to where the wide liquor cabinet he had had imported all the way from Mexico sat by the study door. He took out a cut glass decanter and filled a delicate snifter to a third full, eyed it warily, then poured near to the rim. “Maybe several.” He clutched the neck of the vessel as if it were the throat of an enemy and took a good swig. In such a large jolt, it thought to burn something away, but for the moment, he didn’t care. It was the least of his worries.
Joe looked up from the dormant fireplace as his brother joined him. “You gonna get stiff?”
“I don’t know, I just might.”
Suddenly, Steve planted his feet, and his stormy eyes set on the bedroom door. “What’s taking so long? I need to be in there.”
“I said the same thing when Angelica was having our sons, but I was prudently kept out. Now why don’t you just sit down and…?”
Steve resumed his pacing. Adam took another belt.
If the hands on the clock had been made of lead they couldn’t have moved any slower. It had been over an hour since the doctor had arrived and time had become like cold molasses poured from a bottle. Rachel Kingsolver had left a plate of sandwiches and a pot of coffee on the dining table, but both had so far gone untouched, if not unnoticed by all concerned.
Steve had practically worn quite a few deep ruts into the hardwood floor, since he was never content to pace in the same place for very long at a time. The fireplace, the windows, the doors, especially the one to the bedroom, the foot of the stairs, and the big grandfather clock all got his attention at one time or another and usually more than once. He seemed to have trouble expending the pent of nervous energy that propelled his legs to-and-fro. His thick, dark hair also caught the attention of his restless fingers as they plucked and smoothed and riffled. Anything that would keep him moving was the order of the day.
Chris had just discovered the sandwiches and coffee, and while he didn’t really want either, it was something to keep him occupied. He poured himself a healthy cupful, took a swig, and his face instantly registered revulsion. Cold. He sat it down with a hard thump and some of it sloshed onto Angelica’s fine, Irish linen tablecloth. Next, he attacked the plate of sandwiches with something less than gusto. He took a bite and it set in his mouth like mortar, with all the taste of a sheet of plain paper. Not newsprint, since the ink would have added some flavor. He wanted to spit it out, but he chewed it up, which took some effort since it seemed to grow the longer his jaws worked, and finally swallowed what felt like a stone. He smacked, and his nose wrinkled with distaste, then he dropped the remains of the sandwich on top of the others. That turned out to be a thorough waste of time so he went back into the parlor and resumed his explorations.
Joe had toyed briefly with the idea of going out to the range and helping the hands with whatever chore they might be involved in. Anything that would keep him busy and from thinking too much would be a welcome diversion. But he had decided, instead, to stay and help his brother with those two basket cases. So far they had kept to themselves, but he wanted to be on hand, just in case. Anyway, that’s what he told himself.
Adam had taken up residence in his tall-backed blue chair, and sat there like an aged lion surveying his domain, his hands tented in his lap. The brandy decanter – not quite as full as it had been – and snifter sat on the table before the settee. Three good, stiff belts had been enough, and right now the man of the house, while not drunk, per se, was not feeling things so acutely.
The opening of the bedroom door echoed through the room like the crash of a felled Ponderosa. Chris’, Steve’s and Joe’s heads jerked around in that direction, while Adam moved with a bit more deliberation to peer around the side of the chair. The former three flocked to Angelica, while Adam found leaving the chair a tad more difficult than usual.
“Amelia. The baby?” Chris asked with unrepentant eagerness.
“Everything is going along as it should.”
But then her eyes set on Steve and every ounce of color blanched from his face to leave him pale and ashen.
“What? What’s wrong?” His charcoal eyes flicked to the door. “Fiona.”
Angelica took firm hold of his arm, and her expression remained grim and serious. “The baby is turned wrong, and unless Dr. Robey can do something… your child will be born feet first.”
“I didn’t think it made any difference, just so it was born.”
“It isn’t normal, though not unusual, and it makes for a very painful and difficult birth.”
“Does this mean…?” Steve gulped, and his fingers ran back through his hair. “Does this mean she could… die?”
Angelica’s grip squeezed on his arm, and her sympathetic eyes probed deep into him. “We debated not to tell you, but then we agreed that you should be prepared.” Her attention darted to her husband then she slipped back into the bedroom and closed the door behind her.
Steve felt like a hollow, dead log without arms or legs. His heart seemed to have turned to stone to beat hard in his chest. No longer aware of his surroundings or those that stood on either side of him, he didn’t feel the comfort of friends’ hands on his back. He could only see his precious Fiona in his mind’s eye and wish he could be with her.
Iva Liddell stood off in a corner of the bedroom to herself. She was tired and concerned for these young women, especially the ungracious hostess’ sister. She needed to get back to her boarding house, and her borders and her own children, but she found that she could not simply walk away. Her eyes closed in an attempt to block it all out, but it was a vain effort that failed dismally.
“Iva, are you all right,” came with a light touch, and she looked into the face of Angelica Cartwright.
“I’m just a trifle worn out, but I am all right.” Then her voice took on a sharp edge. “Do you really care?”
“That is not really fair. Of course, I do or I wouldn’t ask.” Angelica smiled soothingly. “Maybe you would like a cup of hot spiced tea.”
“No, I don’t need anything, and certainly not from you.”
Amelia squealed in keen pain, and Iva’s hands clenched. Angelica could see that something was definitely bothering this woman and it didn’t take a hard look to see it. “Would you like to talk about it?”
Iva’s eyes turned on Angelica like daggers. “There is nothing to talk about.”
“I think there is, and I am ready to listen.” She ran her hand up-and-down Iva’s arm. “And sometimes it helps to talk to another woman.”
“I do wish you wouldn’t pretend that you care.”
“It isn’t a pretense. I can see that something is disturbing you terribly, and I only want to help.”
“And be my friend?” Iva practically spat.
Angelica hesitated. She hadn’t thought about this aspect of her offer to listen, and she didn’t want to lie. “Maybe we have simply gotten off on the wrong foot. As my husband sometimes says, we can back up and try again. Of course, if you don’t want to talk about it, I certainly am not going to force you to.” Angelica could see the tears rim the bottoms of her eyes. “Whenever you are ready.”
Iva’s voice lowered to just above a whisper. “When I had my first child…, I was alone. My husband Jim had gone hunting. He hadn’t wanted to leave me, but we were very poor, and hunting was about the only way to get food into the house…. He hadn’t been gone very long when the pains started, and I knew without being told that the time had come.” Her head drooped. “I was nineteen and so frightened.”
“What did you do?”
“I barely made it back to the bed where all I could do was wait and pray.”
Angelica stood, enthralled by this woman’s poignant and all too common story. She almost wished she hadn’t been so insistent that she be told.
“It was very late when the baby finally decided to come.”
“What did you do then?”
“What could I do…? I delivered my child myself.” Iva brushed her hands over her face as if to restore her ebbing composure. “I had heard other women say that you needed to pinch or smack them to make them cry to take their first breaths…. I must have pinched the poor little fella blue before he let out a weak squall.” Her eyes batted furiously. “I don’t think I can finish.”
“You have come this far, and I think it will help to get the rest out.”
Angelica wasn’t so sure that she would after a minute had elapsed, but then the stumbling story continued.
“We laid there close to each other, and his little body felt so cold…. It never did warm up as it should…. And then I noticed that he only had three withered little fingers on his right hand. I cried until I couldn’t any more.”
Now it was Angelica who fought against the tears.
“Dawn had just broken when Jim finally came home with two fat quail…. But his jubilation over his catch didn’t last when he saw us …. He wanted to go for the midwife, since there wasn’t a doctor for miles, but a mother knew that it would do no good. But, still, he insisted, and I gave in to him, but… before… he could leave… our baby died…. Our son died.” Iva was finally forced to pluck a handkerchief from the hidden pocket of her skirt. She daubed at her eyes then held her head erect. “We buried him behind the house under a shady elm. And until we moved away three years later, I would always put wild flowers on his tiny grave…. In all these years, you are the first person I have told this to…. And I wonder why.”
Angelica thought that her heart would burst, and her anger with herself inflamed her. She reached out and took the woman’s hands and held them in her gentle grasp. “Iva, I am so sorry. I know what a terrible, painful thing it is to lose a child.”
“And how would you know? You have three fine, healthy sons.”
“Yes, I do, and I thank God daily for that. But my parents lost a daughter to diphtheria before I was born, and the grief never left them. And when I was fourteen, I watched them suffer through the loss of a son when my brother drowned…. I know.”
Haughtily, Iva through her head back and pulled her hands away. Her tears glittered like crystals of ice. “I don’t need platitudes or sympathy from somebody who doesn’t even like me.”
“I misjudged you, and that is my burden to bear and no one else’s. But we are both women, and that is a bond that nothing can break. And it is not empty sympathy. Bringing a new life into the world is a wondrous miracle, but so often turns into a living nightmare for so many women…. I can’t imagine what it was like for you, since my Adam hovered over me like a bumblebee.” A warm, compassionate smile turned her fine mouth, and she once again took the woman’s hands. “But you’re not alone now.”
Iva’s head took on a perplexed tilt, and her eyes narrowed. “You mean that?”
“I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t.” Angelica hoped she wasn’t about to make a mistake. “And maybe we can give friendship a try.”
But their new found understanding was quickly displaced when Fiona let out a bloodcurdling scream that would have made any Paiute proud. Angelica rushed to her sister with Iva right behind her.
Dr. Robey looked around at them, and gave a halfhearted stab at a grin. “This one has decided that it’s time to come. Angelica, I want you to sit down with her and help her. Iva.”
But he needed say nothing else to Iva Liddell as the woman moved into quick and decisive action. A baby was coming, and there wasn’t time to waste.
Adam had joined Steve in his pacing while Chris still continued to make like Magellan. Events had finally caught up with Joe and he walked from one end to the fireplace to the other and back. The atmosphere in the room had become so thick that it could easily be cut with a knife. The day had moved on toward evening, and still the men had received no word.
The bedroom door opened and masculine heads pivoted in its direction.
Angelica thought she was about to get trampled, and her hold tightened around the towel-wrapped bundle in her arms. The four earnest faces before her tickled at her sense of humor. Then she found herself bombarded by the inevitable barrage of questions in a jumble of voices which she had difficulty in sorting out. Adam was the only one who seemed to have any kind of composure, and Joe stood like a sphinx. “One at a time. One at a time.”
“How’s Amelia?” Chris asked, with rapt eagerness.
“Amelia still has not given birth, but she is all right. But we don’t think
it will be much longer.”
“And Fiona?” Steve blurted.
“Fiona has had it very rough, but the doctor thinks that she will be just fine with a little time. Now why don’t you say hello to your daughter?”
“A daughter?” Steve’s eyes widened, and for the first time he seemed to notice what Angelica held. “I have a daughter?” A frown creased his brow. “Are you sure?”
Angelica stifled a grin. “I am quite sure. Would you like to hold her?”
Steve put his hand flat against his chest and looked absolutely aghast at the concept. “Who? Me?”
Not laughing was becoming more difficult by the second for Angelica. “Well, she is your daughter, and I think it would be perfectly natural for her father to hold her.”
“There’s nothing to it,” Adam crowed. He took the baby from his wife and cradled her against his broad chest. “Hold out your arms.” His heavy eyebrows fell into a scowl. “Not like that. She’s not a crate of whiskey, you know. Do it like I am. That’s better.”
Adam gently deposited the warm parcel into her father’s waiting arms, and Steve went completely rigid.
“She won’t break,” Angelica said, as she stepped next to Adam.
“I know, but I’ve never held one before.”
Adam’s lone eyebrow rose. “Then it’s time you learned.”
Adam pulled the towel away from the baby’s face, and Steve looked down into the most exquisite little visage. It was all pink and round and her tiny hands were drawn into petite fists. Soft, light brown tresses of angel-fine hair lay against her tiny head, and a wisp stood up here and there. A deep, satisfied breath swelled Steve’s lungs. He had never seen anything so wonderful in his entire life. And she was his, his and Fiona’s. He looked at those around him and beamed like a summer sun. “She’s beautiful.” He looked back at the baby. “She looks like her mother. What color are her eyes?”
“They are blue now, and won’t change to their permanent color for a while yet.”
“Well, either way, they’ll be gray. I hope they’re pale like Fiona’s.”
The bedroom door opened, and Iva stuck hear head out. Angelica read instantly in her expression what the woman wanted and nodded.
“Steve, why don’t you hold onto her for a little while?” Angelica said, as she started toward the bedroom. “I’ll be back presently to get her.”
Steve had gone white as a sheet. “Angelica, don’t…”
“Get acquainted with your daughter. And if you need help just ask Adam or one of the ladies.” Then Angelica joined Iva, and the door closed to leave them alone again.
Steve looked absolutely mortified, and swallowed hard. “Now what do I do?”
Adam snorted. “You get to know your daughter.”
“Oh,” Steve said, dumbly.
Adam and Joe and Chris moved in closer on either side of him.
“She’s a pretty little thing.” Joe said, on a light giggle.
Adam reached out and touched a small hand. “She sure is.”
“I hope mine isn’t all red like that,” Chris said, and didn’t notice the dirty looks he caught.
Mara Trudeau had just stepped into the dining room with a pot of fresh coffee. It always amazed her how a tiny baby could transform a grown man into a babbling idiot. She had seen it happen to her own dear husband five times, and it never failed to tickle her, but rather than laugh, tears filled her eyes. She hated to disturb them, so she simply stood and quietly watched and enjoyed.
“Atta, girl! Almost! One more good push should do it!”
“I can’t! I can’t!”
Carolyn gripped her daughter’s hand tighter. “Yes, you can. Just do as the doctor says, and you’ll have a fine baby and it will all be over.”
Amelia screamed and pushed.
A broad grin spread the doctor’s mouth. “Here we go.”
Iva Liddell held the girl’s feet down. “You’re doing just fine, sweetheart. You’re doing just fine.”
Angelica’s eyes flicked to the woman and a warm light filled them. Then Amelia’s shriek rose to the ceiling and Angelica put the towels on the bed table and rushed to her side.
Adam had had enough with pacing to last him a lifetime so he had stretched his entire length out on the settee. Joe had collapsed in one of the dining room chairs, his legs stretched out before him with the heels of his boots resting on the floor. Steve had settled himself into the tall-backed blue chair with his little girl, and no one had any idea where Chris had disappeared to.
Adam watched as his friend made over his gift from Heaven, and it produced a warm glow that surrounded his heart. This man, this bartender, that most parents in town didn’t want their daughters anywhere near, examined each little finger and each little toe. He touched tiny pink cheeks as if they were fragile porcelain, and he talked to her in soft, honeyed tones. And Adam couldn’t miss the love that radiated from those charcoal eyes, and it made him smile.
With a heavy breath of pure contentment, he let his eyelids fall and allowed the warmth of the evening to encompass him. But they weren’t closed long when he felt a light touch that was followed by a small voice. “Dahdee.” Adam looked into the face of his first-born son.
“Would you like to get up here with Daddy?” Round, hazel eyes glued themselves right to his face. “All right, little man, come ahead on.” He squeezed himself back to make more room then helped the boy to scramble up next to him. His arm went around the child as the little guy rested his black-capped head on his father’s chest over his heart. “That’s better.”
He closed his eyes and hugged the child closer, and hoped they could take a nap together.
He peered up at his wife. “Is it over?”
Angelica nodded. “Where is Chris?”
“I haven’t seen him in a while.” Something in her face spoke to him, and it said something that he didn’t like. “What’s wrong?” His eyes flitted toward the bedroom. “Amelia. She’s not…?”
Angelica rubbed at her back. “She is all right, just so terribly tired. We all are. This has been a very long day.” She bent down. “I’ll take Addy, and you go find Chris.” She took her son, and he obviously didn’t want to be bothered.
Adam reluctantly pried himself up from the warm comfort. As he turned to go, he knew he just had to ask one more time. “Is there something you aren’t telling me?” Then a terrible notion went off inside his head. “The baby?”
This caught Joe’s attention, and he sat up straighter.
“The baby is alive. Now please go find Chris.”
The knot that formed in the pit of Adam’s stomach felt like a boulder. He knew there was a problem, and he didn’t like to think about what it could be. He took a deep breath and started for the front door.
“Do you need me to come, too?”
“I can handle it, Joe, but thanks.”
Joe settled back into his chair, though the worry never left his face, and Adam went on.
A cool evening breeze ran through the length of the porch as Adam stepped outside. The two big lamps – suspended from their heavy chains – had been lighted by one of the hands as always. They held the night back, but there were still dark recesses that could hide a man. He looked about him but saw no one. “Chris?”
“I’m over here.”
As Adam turned to his right a figure emerged from a shadowy corner. The young man’s face was long and drawn, and the light put an edge to his handsome features. “Did it git too close in there for you, too?”
Adam gulped. “Angelica sent me to find you.”
As he approached, Chris’ stride quickened. An aqua gleam filled his teal eyes, and a breath rushed into him. “The baby’s come.” His gaze roved over the Boss’ face and any trace of happiness immediately dissolved. “Amelia. Oh, Lord, not my Amelia.”
“I have it on good authority that she’s all right.” He reached out and gripped the young man’s shoulder. “But there may be something wrong with the baby. Angelica didn’t say, but I can read her like a book. So you need to prepare yourself. And if there is, you need to be strong for Amelia.”
“That goes without sayin’.”
Adam nodded then slapped an arm around his shoulders. “Now let’s go see your family.”
Their boots clomped over the hardwood planks as they started back inside, and Adam hoped he was wrong.
When Adam and Chris entered the bedroom, Steve sat on the side of the bed next to Fiona, their daughter between them. Carolyn sat beside her daughter but she kept her blue eyes directed on her girl. Angelica stood with Dr. Robey, and their faces weren’t as solemn as Chris had expected them to be.
Angelica came forward and took hold of Chris’ hands. “Come see your wife and daughter.”
As if numb and incapable of doing for himself, he allowed Angelica to lead him to the bedside. Carolyn got up and helped to ease him down next to his wife.
“Amy.” He touched her face and a wan little smile curled his mouth. “Boss told me you’re all right…, and I wantta believe him.”
“Then do…. I am all right…, just tired.”
Chris swallowed. “He said it’s a girl.”
Amelia’s face saddened, and even more of the color fell away. “Are you disappointed that I didn’t give you a son?”
“Disappointed? Why sure not?” A smile spread his mouth. “A boy you can’t dress in frills and lace…. Can I see her?”
“Of course you can.”
Amelia tenderly pulled back the towel, and Chris’ mouth fell agape in utter awe.
“By Jupiter. She’s so tiny. Why she ain’t no bigger ‘n a mushmelon.”
Adam’s eyes darted to the doctor. Now he knew what the problem was.
“Would you like to pick her up?”
Chris’ eyes shot to his wife’s face. “Oh, I don’t know about that.”
Carolyn scooped up her granddaughter with gentle ease and placed her into her young father’s arms, with instructions on the proper way to hold a baby.
Chris looked down onto the diminutive miracle he held, and he felt his heart swell in his chest. She was red and wrinkled, and her eyes were scrunched together. Were they supposed to look this way? Steve’s hadn’t. It didn’t matter. His Amy had given her to him and he would love her for always. He ran a single finger delicately along the contours of a petite cheek and suddenly felt so small. “Can we name her Sarah…? After my mother.”
“Of course we can, sweetheart. I think it is a perfectly lovely name for our daughter.”
Chris just looked at his baby, and knew that his whole life had been building toward this wondrous moment. He was a father now, and he couldn’t imagine any greater joy in life. He only hoped that he was up to it. Of course, if he needed help he could always go to the Boss.
Since it had been so late when Sarah McCutcheon had come into the world, all the ladies and Dr. Robey had stayed the night. Rooms had been made ready upstairs, and things had settled into a quiet time. But right after a hearty and bracing breakfast the next morning, Adam had had one of his men drive the women, except for Becky Haymes, back into Bantree and the doctor had followed along behind. Iva Liddell, however, who had lingered just to make sure that she was no longer needed.
“I want to thank you again, Iva,” Angelica said, as she walked out to the waiting buggy with the woman. “You have been such a help and such a blessing.”
“I’m glad you think so. I couldn’t stand the thought of those girls going through that, and my not being able to help in my own small way, since I was, after all, right here. And if I didn’t need to get back to the boarding house and and my own family I would stay longer.” The sides of her mouth curved. “But I think everyone here can handle things.”
Angelica’s cheeks colored, but she kept her demeanor civil. “I think we can manage.”
Adam helped Mrs. Liddell into her buggy. “Are you sure you don’t want me or one of my hands to drive you back into town?”
“Goodness me, no. I did bring myself out here, and I think I am perfectly capable of taking myself back.”
“As you wish,” Adam said, and stepped back next to Angelica.
Iva took up the reins then turned her attention back to Angelica. “Maybe some time you would like to come have tea at my house? On the first Saturday of every month the Ladies’ Auxiliary meets in my home – since I am the chairlady – to talk over important matters in and about town. Maybe you would like to come?”
A cackle party made up of some of the worst gossips in town, Adam thought.
“Well, I have so much here to keep me occupied, so I can only say that I will think about it.”
“That is good enough, and I hope you do come. Now I really must get back.”
Iva skillfully turned the horse around and – with a snap of the reins – headed out toward the barn at a good canter.
“I never thought I would hear myself say this, but, I think, with some effort, I could like Iva Liddell.”
Adam’s head swung around as if on a pivot, and his eyes were round as onyx marbles. “You’re kidding.”
Angelica kept her gaze to where the buggy had gone from sight past the barn. “Of course, I am not. I never gave myself the chance to really know her, and, I am ashamed to say, I was too quick to judge. I listened more to what others had to say about her than deciding for myself. Sometimes circumstance conspires against us and turns us into something what maybe we don’t even want to be.” For the first time she noticed how he stared at her. “Don’t give me that kind of a look. I know she is a gossip and a bit of a malicious one at times, but I never thought about why. Now I realize that she maybe only wanted, needed, to be at the center of things and to have people think well of her. I admit that she has gone about it all wrong, but who of us hasn’t done the same, if only in different ways.”
Adam leaned forward and kissed her on the forehead. “And that, my dear, is just one of the reasons why I married you. You are one of the bravest women I have ever known.”
By the mischievous light in his eyes, and the tilt of his rakish head, she could always tell when he was teasing her. “Maybe you should come with me? I am sure that they wouldn’t mind a man just this once.”
Adam blanched and it thrilled the impish part of her soul.
“You also have a mean streak.”
“I only thought…”
“I know what you thought, and I will kindly and in self defense beg off from that privilege.”
Their arms went around one another’s waists, and they started back across the porch.
“As you wish, but I think you are missing a great opportunity.”
“An opportunity I will gladly forego. I would rather face a war party of Shoshones than a gaggle of tongue wagging women any time. Gossip is not my forte.”
The fire in the big stone hearth had died down from the blaze it had been before breakfast, and would be presently put out. Its crackle had also died down to become the occasional snap.
Adam pushed the front door closed behind him, but he and Angelica simply stood just inside. They exchanged smiles then turned their eyes back into the parlor.
Steve sat in the tall-backed blue chair and Chris on the wine-colored settee and each held a daughter in his lap. They had, overnight, become more accustomed and proficient with their new roles as fathers. Steve bounced and jiggled his baby on his knees while Chris rubbed his hand over his little girl’s stomach. Neither Adam nor Angelica wanted to break the spell of this idyllic scene.
Adam put a finger to his lips then grasped her hand and led her into the study. He closed the door then took her in his arms and pulled her close.
“You know, I think I would like to have a little girl. And it would be good for the boys to be big brothers.”
“Oh, really. And what do you suggest I do about it?”
A wicked light cut through his eyes. “Well, now, I have some ideas.”
“I am quite sure you do.”
One arm tightened about her as he raised her chin, and his ardent gaze probed her face. “Elizabeth. What do you think about Elizabeth?”
“And what if it is another boy?”
“Well, nobody says we havta stop at four.”
“Adam Cartwright, if you think for one second that I am going to keep having babies just to give you…”
His lips smothered hers and the words as well. But she didn’t struggle and fell easily into his strong embrace. Her arms encircled his broad chest, and her fingers locked behind him to secure him in her hold. They stood like that for a long moment then their mouths disconnected, and he looked down into those perfect, deep pools of violet.
“There can be no other love for me, and I can only hope and pray that when the time comes, I go first.”
She put a hand against the side of his face. “We will go together, because I could never bear to live without you. But we won’t talk of that now.”
“What will we talk about?”
She reached up and pulled his head down – her elegant fingers laced in his heavy black hair – and again they kissed. A knock sounded at the door followed by Joe’s voice, but they didn’t hear. They were so completely lost in each other that nothing could penetrate the world of this room, and they wanted it that way. They were together, and for the moment, nothing else mattered. And that was one of the beauties of their love.