Summary: Joe is falling in love.
Rated: T (13,985 words)
“What did you say the feller’s name was Pa?” Hoss Cartwright asked, shifting uncomfortably in the heat. It was just past noon and the sun was at its zenith in a cloudless sky, not the best time to be standing on the hot, dusty streets of Virginia City awaiting the San Francisco stage, which was over an hour late arriving.
“His name is Sir Charles Rymont and he’s travelling with his son Edmund and his daughter Charlotte,” Ben told him, unable to restrain a smile as he saw how uncomfortable Hoss looked in his new suit. All four Cartwrights were dressed for the occasion in their best clothes, which was making the oppressive heat even more difficult to bear.
“I sure hope that this Charlotte Rymont is pretty,” Ben’s youngest son Joe put in, pulling at the collar of his shirt, which was feeling damp and sweaty around his neck. “That just might make all this waiting around worthwhile.”
“You’ll find out in a moment,” his eldest brother, Adam, told him, pushing himself away from the wall he’d been leaning against and coming over to stand on the edge of the sidewalk. “Here comes the coach now.”
In a cloud of dust the stagecoach rattled into the main street of Virginia City, coming to a shuddering halt directly in front of where the Cartwrights were standing.
“Ben,” A tall, lean, grey haired man was the first to alight, catching sight of Ben as he did so and grabbing his hand in an enthusiastic shake. “So good to see you again.”
“Welcome to Virginia City, Charles,” Ben returned the handshake with gusto. He turned slightly and motioned to his sons to come forward. “I’d like you to meet my boys,” he said with a smile. “Adam, Hoss, Joseph, this is my old friend, Sir Charles Rymont.”
Shaking hands with Adam, Sir Charles was joined on the sidewalk by a blonde haired man of around thirty years of age. “My son, Edmund,” Sir Charles introduced him, then turned around to assist the last member of his party from the stage. “My daughter, Charlotte,” he said proudly, drawing forward a petite young woman of no more than twenty.
Holding a handkerchief to her face to avoid breathing the dust, she was dressed in the height of European fashion, a silk dress trimmed with black lace which ballooned out beneath a tiny waist and Joe Cartwright’s first thought as he saw her was how uncomfortable her outfit must be in this heat. His second thought, as she lowered the handkerchief and shook hands with his father, was that the waiting had certainly been worthwhile. Charlotte Rymont had flaxen hair that cascaded in ringlets from beneath her modish bonnet, milky white skin, and her eyes, Joe had never seen eyes quite like it, they were almost the same colour as her dress, a stunning and unusual shade of violet.
“Miss Rymont,” he took her hand as she extended it to him, raising it to his lips. “Pleased to meet you,” he felt rather than saw his father’s frown at the gesture but Charlotte smiled, showing even white teeth and revealing a dimple on the left side of her mouth.
“The pleasure is mine, Mr Cartwright,” she said with a little dip of her head.
“Call me Joe.”
“Then you must call me Charlotte.”
“Errhmm,” Ben cleared his throat loudly and all eyes turned his way. “Now the introductions are over, allow me to escort you to the buggy.”
As the entourage made its way along the street to where the buggy was tied up next to Cochise, Sport and Chubb, Joe tried to manoeuvre himself so that he was walking alongside Charlotte. Even in the few moments since he’d met her Joe had decided that this was a girl he’d like to know better. He’d rarely seen someone so stunningly beautiful and her sweet smile as he kissed her hand had completely enamoured him.
Coming out of the house into the cool night air, Adam Cartwright made his way across to join his brother, Hoss, who was leaning on the fence of the small corral next to the barn talking softly to his horse. “Something wrong with Chubb?” he asked as Hoss turned around at his approach.
“Thought his right knee seemed a mite stiff when we were ridin’ back from town,” Hoss told him. “Seems all right now though. You finished talkin’ business with that Edmund feller?”
“He’s gone on to bed, said the journey had tired him out,” Adam turned and leaned back against the fence. “Pa’s still up, catching up on old times with Sir Charles.”
“And Little Joe?” asked Hoss with a grin. “He still starin’ starry eyed at that Miss Charlotte?”
“Like a lovesick calf,” Adam’s tone was amused. “He hardly ate anything at dinner, he was so engrossed with her.”
“I noticed that. Hop Sing cooked up a storm to welcome the Rymonts’ and Joe and Miss Charlotte ate hardly a morsel between them.”
“I guess you can’t keep a figure like hers if you eat a lot of food.”
“Guess not,” Hoss agreed. “I swear, Adam, her waist ain’t as big round as the top of my arm. She sure is pretty, too.”
“She’s a beauty all right,” Adam looked toward the house as a lamp was lit in an upstairs bedroom. “Looks like she must have gone to bed, little brother is turning in for the night.”
“Oh, he’ll have plenty of time to spark her tomorrow,” Hoss chuckled, merriment dancing in his blue eyes. “When Joe falls for a girl he sure falls hard don’t he?”
“I just hope he doesn’t get his heart broken with this one,” Adam said softly.
“Why?” Hoss questioned, surprised at his older brother’s reply. “You got some reason to think he might?”
Adam shook his head. “Not really. I suppose it’s just…well, Joe’s lived out here all his life. He’s not really very experienced in the ways of the world however much he likes to think he is. From things Charlotte was saying I got the impression she’s quite a sophisticated young lady, she may be only two years older than Joe but she comes from a very different world.”
Turning out the lamp, Joe settled himself back against his pillows with a contented sigh. The light of the moon through the window filled his room with its gossamer light as Joe closed his eyes and called up a picture of Charlotte in his mind. He had thought she looked beautiful at dinner, the pale blue silk of her gown accentuating the golden lights that gleamed in her hair. Joe had never seen anyone in a dress like that before, it was so wide that when she walked down the stairs to the great room it touched both sides of the staircase at the same time. Very low cut, it showed off to perfection a pretty bosom which he had found his eyes drawn to until he caught sight of his father watching him disapprovingly and forced himself to look away.
He had hardly noticed the food that Hop Sing brought to the table, his attention given over wholly to Charlotte’s conversation. In truth it was less a conversation, more a monologue, as Joe hardly managed to get in a word while Charlotte told him all about herself. He had listened enthralled as she told him of places she had visited and sights she had seen, her schooling in Switzerland, her homes in England and Scotland, her tour of Europe with her father, he’d never met a girl so worldly before and suddenly the young women of Virginia City began to seem very immature in comparison.
He let his thoughts turn to tomorrow and the buggy ride he had promised to take Charlotte on. He planned to drive up by the lake where the scenery was so glorious. He grinned to himself in the darkness as he thought of it, hoping that maybe the charms of the lake, it’s serene and magnificent beauty, would arouse a little romance in Charlotte and that he might just get away with snatching a kiss or two. He fell asleep at last imagining the softness of Charlotte’s lips on his and his arms around her.
Joe was alone in the great room when Charlotte came downstairs the next morning. His father had taken Edmund and Sir Charles off to inspect the logging camp and Hoss and Adam were already out working.
“I am sorry for being so tardy this morning,” Charlotte apologised as Joe stood up to greet her. “I was having rather a struggle getting into this dress,” she indicated the green velvet outfit she was wearing. “Father insisted that I leave Ethel behind on this trip and I do find dressing most awkward without her.”
“Ethel?” Joe questioned, puzzled.
“My ladies maid,” Charlotte explained. “She’s the daughter of one of the tenants from our estate in Somerset. Not a very bright girl but able enough.” Fastening her cloak at the neck she smiled brightly. “Shall we go?”
“Sure,” Joe rushed to open the door for her, standing back to allow her to walk through.
“Thank You,” she acknowledged, sweeping outside and across to the buggy that was standing ready and waiting in the yard.
Joe handed her up into the vehicle. “I thought we might take a drive out by the lake,” he told her as he climbed up beside her and took up the reins. “It’s real pretty out there.”
“That sounds delightful,” Charlotte said with a smile, adjusting her hat a little and brushing a stray lock of hair off her forehead. “But could we not drive into town instead? I’d like to take a look at the shops.”
“I guess so,” Joe swallowed his disappointment at the change of plan. “But you won’t find many stores in Virginia City, you know.”
“The little place where the stage stopped?” Charlotte asked. “Is that the only town around here?”
“Well there’s Carson City,” Joe told her. “But that’s smaller again.”
“Oh, well.” Charlotte sighed. “Virginia City it is then.”
They travelled in silence for a while, Charlotte looking around her as the buggy made its way toward the Virginia City road. “Your father said yesterday that all this land belonged to the Ponderosa,” she remarked as they turned toward the town. “I suppose that must make your family very rich?”
“The boundary of Ponderosa land is about a mile back,” Joe told her. “But we actually own about a thousand square miles in all and yes, I guess we are fairly wealthy.”
“Then why do you have such a small house?” Charlotte turned to look at him, a puzzled frown creasing her brow. “And only Hop Sing to look after you?”
“It’s one of the biggest houses around here,” Joe defended his home, stung a little by the comment. “And we don’t need anybody else to look after us.”
“It’s not even half the size of our London town house,” Charlotte told him with a laugh. “And we have sixteen staff there.”
“Sixteen staff!” Joe was astounded. “Don’t you do anything for yourself?”
Charlotte looked aggrieved for a moment then smiled widely, showing small, perfect teeth. “Not a lot,” she admitted ruefully. “We have a cook, three kitchen maids, a housekeeper, two ladies maids, a butler, two valets, a coachman…”
“Just to look after three of you?” Joe asked incredulously, breaking into her list.
“Four of us,” Charlotte told him and her voice suddenly went hard. “There is Mama as well.”
“How come she didn’t join you on this trip?”
“Mama never goes anywhere with us,” Charlotte said and Joe wondered at the coldness in her tone when she spoke of her mother. “What do you do for fun here?” she asked, changing the subject abruptly. “Is there much of a social circle, balls, parties, anything like that?”
“Well, not balls exactly, but there are dances in town quite often and my Pa was thinking of throwing a party at the ranch on Saturday for folk to meet your father.”
“I’ll look forward to it,” Charlotte said, and then turned around, her interest drawn away from the conversation as Virginia City came into sight.
Charlotte soon explored the few stores that Virginia City had to offer. The only one that held her attention was the millinery store where she spent a good hour trying on hats. By the time they left the store, Joe carrying the box containing the hat Charlotte had finally settled on, dove grey and trimmed with feathers, it was gone noon.
“Is there a restaurant in town?” Charlotte asked as Joe started toward the buggy. “I’m far too hungry to go all the way back to the ranch without something to eat.”
“Well, actually,” Joe confessed. “There’s a picnic lunch in the back of the buggy. I got Hop Sing to make it up for me this morning. Of course if you’d prefer a restaurant, there’s the International House over there.”
Casting a quick glance across the street to where Joe pointed, Charlotte dismissed the International House with a moue of distaste. “A picnic might be nice I suppose,” she said, turning back to Joe. “And it would be a shame to let Hop Sing’s food go to waste.”
With a beaming smile Joe handed her up into the buggy and a half hour later they were comfortably settled on a grassy bank beside the river, tall trees throwing shade over the tablecloth where Joe had laid out the chicken legs, bread, ham and various other foods that Hop Sing had packed for them.
“I think I must have been the most envied man in Virginia City this morning,” he told Charlotte holding out the plate of chicken to her. “Everyone was admiring you.”
“I caught a few envious glances myself,” Charlotte said, taking the food and nibbling at it daintily. “Seems there are a few young women in town that would like to have been in my position. After all, Joe, you are a very handsome young man.”
Feeling a little self-conscious Joe looked away, turning his attention to the meal. He picked up a hunk of bread and bit into it, chewing hungrily.
With a smile Charlotte put down her chicken and edged a little closer to him. “I’d say we make a pretty good looking couple,” she said, resting her hand lightly on the top of his leg. “Wouldn’t you agree, Joe?”
Joe swallowed the bread quickly, his pulse quickening at her touch. “I…er…I guess so,” he murmured thickly, turning to look down into her violet eyes. “That is you’re the most beautiful…”
“Kiss me,” she whispered softly, and laughed merrily at the look of amazement that crept across his face at her invitation. “Go on,” she urged.
Hardly able to believe this was happening so quickly Joe caught her face in his hands, his thumbs gently stroking the line of her cheekbones. For a long moment he just looked at her, drinking in her beauty before lowering his head and softly brushing her lips with his. He was caught by surprise once more as she responded, lifting her arms and entwining her hands in his hair pulling him closer and parting her lips beneath his. The kiss seemed to last for hours as her tongue explored his mouth and he felt his heart beginning to pound in his chest, his blood racing.
She pulled away at last and sat back, looking at him. “I’d say you’ve kissed a fair number of girls before,” she said, her hand returning to his leg. “You certainly do it well.”
“Charlotte…” Joe was at a loss for words, still caught up in the passion of the kiss. He reached out to touch her face, then bent towards her again.
“No more,” she put two fingers up to his mouth. “Not here anyway. How about you drive me out to that lake tomorrow? Perhaps we could continue this there.”
Joe shook his head. “I have to work tomorrow. Pa let me take today off to show you around but he’ll expect me back at work in the morning.”
“At work?” Charlotte said, pulling her hand back and staring at him with a shocked expression. “You work for your father?”
“Yes, of course,” Joe said, not understanding why she should find this so strange.
“But, your father is rich. You don’t need to work.”
“My Pa expects us all to pull our weight on the Ponderosa,” Joe explained. “We get paid a decent wage to work together and help to build up our ranch.”
“I see,” reaching forward she brushed her lips against his cheek then turned back to the food, picking up her chicken. “Then we’ll have to wait until your father gives you some time off, unless…” her voice trailed off and she looked up at him, her eyes gleaming.
“Unless what?” Joe asked softly.
“Unless you would like a moonlight ride tonight,” Charlotte said with a suggestive smile. “We could sneak out when everyone else is asleep. I imagine this lake of yours would be quite romantic in the moonlight. Would you like to do that, Joe?”
Joe knew that he shouldn’t, his father would frown on taking a girl out to the lake in the dead of night, even if she weren’t the daughter of his old friend. But he agreed eagerly, only too keen to carry on where they had just left off.
The lake lay calm in the moonlight, scarcely a ripple disturbing its dark surface. Above, in the black velvet of the night sky a full moon hung ripe and yellow, surrounded by a multitude of twinkling stars. From the depths of the pine forests that edged the water the deep cry of the great horned owl could be faintly heard and from a clump of ferns close to the water’s edge came the call of a bullfrog. The air was heady with the scent of pine and wildflowers and Joe bent and picked a columbine, its bright red colour sapped by the night to a dark brown.
“For you,” he bowed gallantly, handing the flower to Charlotte who stood beside Cochise, looking out at the lake. “Not that it can match your beauty.”
“Why, thank you,” with a smile Charlotte accepted the flower and curtseyed gracefully. Standing up again she reached for Joe’s hand. “It’s very pretty out here,” she said. “But it’s sort of eerie too, it’s so deserted, so isolated.”
“It’s a good place to come and think,” Joe told her. “Nice when you want to be alone, but I’ve never thought of it as eerie, it’s just a part of my home.”
“It scares me a bit,” Charlotte admitted with a little shiver and moved closer to Joe. “I’m used to having lots of people around.”
“Sometimes it’s good not to have people around,” Joe’s voice was husky as he took her in his arms. “And there’s no need to be scared with me here.”
Their lips met in a long, deep kiss and for a while the sounds of the night creatures were all that could be heard. Breaking apart at last, Charlotte took Joe’s hand and led him to the water’s edge where she sank down gracefully on the grass, pulling him down beside her.
“We can’t stay too long,” Joe told her, though his words were only a whisper as her lips nuzzled at his neck. “My family get up early and we’d better get back before they…” his voice trailed off as her mouth moved first to his ears, her teeth nibbling delicately at the lobes and then, leaving a trail of tiny kisses, moved on to his lips. “Charlotte,” he breathed as they lay back on the ground, her fingers playing with the buttons of his shirt. “Oh, Charlotte…”
With her fingers sliding beneath Joe’s shirt, gently brushing his nipples and hearing his quickened breathing, Charlotte was enjoying herself. She was something of an expert at leading men on like this, the thrill lying in seeing their arousal then their disappointment when it led nowhere. Vaguely she was aware that she had been lucky so far in that no man had tried to force things further. But the hint of that danger added an extra edge of excitement to what she was doing, and she had to admit that Joe, so different from the usual London dandies she was used to, seemed more dangerous than most. She wasn’t at all sure what his reaction would be when she called a halt to their lovemaking and a tiny frission of fear served to excite her even more.
Joe was lost in a world of sensation, a fire burning deep within him. His hands trailed over Charlotte’s shoulders and down to her breasts, feeling the soft flesh through the gauzy material of her dress. His mouth was on hers, exploring the hard ridges of her teeth, the moist warmth of her tongue as it met his. He felt her fingers move down his body, beginning to slide beneath the waistband of his pants and, very reluctantly, he reached out and pulled her hand away.
“No,” his voice was shaking as he spoke, desire almost overcoming his resolve. “We mustn’t.”
“Why not?” her tone was querulous, not amused at Joe being the one to stop. “Don’t you like it?”
“Of course I do,” Joe caught her hands in his and brought them to his mouth, kissing her fingers. “I don’t want to stop but we must. I can’t risk your reputation, Charlotte.”
“Nobody would know.”
“They might,” Joe searched for words to explain what could happen if they went much further. He was sure that Charlotte was just carried away by the excitement of their kisses, a well brought-up lady like her would never put her good name in jeopardy. “If anything happened you…er…might, if we went too far… ”
“You mean I might fall pregnant,” Charlotte said and laughed at his shocked look. “I’m not that innocent, Joe, I do know what can happen.” She got to her feet and brushed at her dress, removing a few strands of dry grass. “But you are right, we had better get back.”
Settling himself behind her on Cochise, Joe turned towards home. “I think I’m falling in love with you, Charlotte,” he whispered to her as they rode, holding her tightly against him and enjoying the feel of her body against his.
A small, victorious smile played across Charlotte’s lips and a gleam of triumph flashed in her violet eyes at the words. “And I with you, Joe,” she whispered back, pleased at how sincere she sounded.
Supper was not long over on the Ponderosa the following evening and Charlotte had retired to her room for the night. She was just struggling to unfasten the buttons on the back of her dress when the bedroom door opened, startling her. “Edmund!” she exclaimed with relief, seeing her brother enter the room. “What are you doing in here?”
“I came to see exactly what you think you’re playing at, Charlie,” Edmund shut the door behind him and leaned back against it.
“Playing at?” Charlotte asked innocently. “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”
“Of course you do,” Edmund said with a disbelieving laugh. “I saw the way young Cartwright was looking at you at supper. I think Father was the only one who didn’t notice. You’ve been encouraging the boy haven’t you?”
“Perhaps a little,” Charlotte conceded and exclaimed in exasperation as she tried to grasp a button low down on her dress. “As you’re here,” she said to her brother. “Do at least give me a hand with undoing this.”
Obediently Edmund came to stand behind his sister and unfasten her buttons. “Don’t go too far with young Joe,” he warned. “Remember you’re engaged to Lord Percy.”
“How could I forget?” Charlotte asked acidly. “Oh, don’t fret, Edmund, Lord Percy will not find me damaged goods on our wedding night.”
“No?” Edmund undid the last button and stepped back as Charlotte pulled the gown from her shoulders. “You’re playing a dangerous game, Charlie. One day one of these young men won’t want to stop when you tell them.”
“I don’t think any of them want to stop, brother dear,” Charlotte laughed lightly, stepping out of the dress and reaching for her peignoir. “But so far they have all been gentleman and even Joe, rough Westerner though he is, seems to be well brought up, not the sort to force himself on a lady.”
“What’s the attraction with him?” Edmund asked curiously, seating himself on the edge of the bed and watching his sister as she picked up her hairbrush and began to run it through her flaxen hair.
“He’s very handsome,” Charlotte said. “I didn’t realise just how much until I saw the way the women of Virginia City look at him.”
“I’d have thought Adam was more your style. More man of the world.”
“No, I like Joe’s youth, his naivety. I have a plan for him, Edmund.”
“Plan?” there was a hint of alarm in Edmund’s voice. “If you jeopardise this marriage…”
“Of course I won’t,” Charlotte said angrily. “I know how much you need the money.”
“Then what plan can you possibly have for young Joe?”
“I want to take him back to London with us,” her voice was animated as she explained what she intended. “Set him up there as my protégé. Just think how the women will swoon over him, all that rugged western charm. He can be my escort when I am in town and I’ll be the envy of the ton,” she said, mentioning the elite group of rich and fashionable young people that she and Edmund were part of. “They will all want to meet a real American cowboy.”
“And Lord Percy?”
“What Lord Percy doesn’t know won’t hurt him,” Charlotte airily dismissed her fiancé. “Besides, Percy hardly ever gets up to town now and he doesn’t mix in the same circles as us.”
“He wants an heir, Charlie.”
“I know that!” Charlotte snapped. “And I intend to go to my bridal bed a virgin. But Percy is almost seventy years old, Edmund, as long as he gets a child who cares if it’s his or not.”
“He won’t know. I can be discreet, Edmund, just like our dear Mama is.”
“Not so very discreet, Charlie, we know that Mama has lovers.”
“Papa doesn’t,” Charlotte put down her hairbrush and came to sit beside her brother. “He thinks she’s the perfect wife and all the time she deceives him behind his back.”
“So you want to be like Mama?” Edmund sounded incredulous. “I thought you hated her.”
“It’s not the same,” Charlotte said earnestly. “Mama and Papa loved each other when they married, she could at least have tried to stay faithful to him. Me, I’m only marrying Percy to save our family fortune before Papa discovers you’ve gambled most of it away at baccarat. I deserve to have a handsome young lover that adores me and Joe is already half way to falling in love with me, Edmund.”
“Suppose he doesn’t want to come to England with you?”
“Of course he will,” Charlotte said. “Men always do what I want, Edmund, you know that.”
Edmund nodded, it did seem that his sister, with her stunning looks, held a fascination for others of his sex. “Joe’s not like the men you know,” he warned, getting up. “I don’t think it will be as easy as you think and anyway, what will you tell Papa if Joe does agree to accompany you?”
“I’ll think of something.” Charlotte told him with perfect confidence in herself, “Joe will do as I want. He’ll come back with me and after my marriage he and I can have a wonderful time at all the best places in town, and all with Percy’s money.”
Edmund opened the door. “Suppose he turns you down?” he asked.
“He won’t. I know he’s falling for me. I think I can make him believe that I love him as well and can’t bear to be parted from him.”
“But you don’t feel anything for him?”
“Not really,” Charlotte laughed. “And certainly not love. I just like the idea of showing him off to my friends and of course sharing my bed with him for a while.”
“Just a while?”
“If there is one thing Mama has taught me,” Charlotte said softly. “It’s that nothing lasts for ever. Joe will be mine for just as long as it pleases me, no longer.”
“Well, I think you’re underestimating that young man,” Edmund told her. “Just for once, Charlie, I don’t think you’re going to get what you want. I’ll wager you ten pounds that Joe Cartwright will turn you down.”
“He won’t,” Charlotte’s violet eyes flashed fire for an instant and an ugly expression crossed her pretty face. “Nobody turns me down.”
Shrugging, Edmund turned away and, whistling, went down the stairs into the great room. Behind him Adam opened his bedroom door more fully, he had been about to leave his room when he had heard Charlotte’s door open and she and Edmund talking. He’d only caught a few words of the conversation but it was enough to alarm him and he decided that it was time to have a serious conversation with his youngest brother.
Finishing work the following afternoon Joe led Cochise into the barn, his thoughts on Charlotte as he settled the horse in his stall. That morning Edmund had handed him a note from Charlotte arranging another trip to the lake and he was lost in daydreams of holding her close when Adam entered the barn behind him.
“Hey Joe,” Adam greeted his youngest brother, pleased to find the young man alone. “All finished?”
“For today,” Joe broke himself free of his dreams at the question. “I got that fence mended up in the north west pasture but I noticed a section further along that looks as though it won’t last long. I’ll go take a look at that tomorrow.”
Adam nodded, wondering how to broach the subject he really wanted to talk about. “You seem to be getting on well with Charlotte,” he started. “I noticed her talking to you a lot at supper last night.”
“Isn’t she the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen?” Joe asked enthusiastically, lifting the saddle off Cochise’s back and hanging it over the side of the stall. “She’s so different from the girls round here.”
“She’s certainly that,” Adam agreed dryly. “Look, Joe, just remember Charlotte comes from a very different background from you. I met a few people like her when I was back east. They tend to think they can have whatever they want, think they are better than others.”
“Charlotte’s not like that at all,” Joe told him hotly. “I know she’s used to servants and big houses and things but she really likes me, Adam, and I know she’ll come to like the Ponderosa as well.”
“And I suppose you really like her?” Adam asked, thinking of Charlotte’s assertion that Joe would be hers for as just long as it pleased her and Edmund’s wager that Joe would turn her down. He knew that the Rymont’s were only staying for a little over a month and though there was no harm in Joe and Charlotte being together for that time Adam didn’t like the idea of his brother being used in this way, it was obvious that the girl had no real interest in Joe and just wanted a little romantic dalliance to pass the time. Edmund’s wager puzzled him a little, why would he think that Joe might turn his sister down, it was obvious to everyone that he was besotted with the girl.
“Of course I really like her,” Joe answered, a hint of anger edging his tone. “What business of yours is it, anyway?”
“I don’t want to see you hurt,” Adam ploughed on, trying to disregard the thunderclouds that were gathering on his brother’s face. “This young woman isn’t like the girls you’re used to, she may not be quite as sincere as she appears.”
“Oh, don’t you worry about me, brother,” Joe’s tone was acid now. “I’m old enough to take care of myself. You sure it’s my welfare you’re concerned for, or could it be you’re just jealous because a girl as sophisticated as Charlotte is interested in me and not you?”
“I have no interest in Charlotte,” Adam said evenly, shaking his head in denial. “I just want you to be aware…”
“Just keep out of it,” Joe snapped, clenching his fists and taking a step towards his brother.
“Have it your own way,” Adam threw up his hands and moved away. “I tried to warn you.”
“Why don’t you just keep out of my life!” Joe yelled after him as Adam left the barn. His older brother paused at the words and appeared to be going to say something but in the end just shrugged and walked on.
The party that was held at the Ponderosa that Saturday night was a huge success and Joe was proud to be seen with Charlotte, only too aware of the envious glances he drew from his friends as they watched them dance together. A graceful dancer and light on her feet Charlotte was radiant in a dress of emerald silk gleaming richly in the lamplight. A few times during the evening Joe caught Adam studying him anxiously and scowled at his brother over Charlotte’s shoulder, still angry at what he saw as interference in his affairs.
In the weeks following the party Joe and Charlotte managed to spend almost every night together beside the lake. At first Joe enjoyed ever moment of their midnight trysts, she was the most beautiful girl he’d ever met and she knew just how to arouse him, to drive his senses crazy with desire, a desire that began to erode his sense of morality. It became more and more difficult to stop before things went too far between them but somehow they always managed never to go beyond kissing and fondling although Joe was unsure whether that was down to him or Charlotte.
It was towards the end of the second week of the Rymont’s visit that Joe found himself beginning to have doubts about his relationship with Charlotte. At first he tried to ignore them, concentrating instead on the heady excitement that came when he kissed her but eventually he had to admit that things between them weren’t right. For a start he was beginning to find her conversation more than a little boring, the tales of the British aristocracy and their lives of idleness not to his taste. Her life in Europe, so interesting and different when Joe had first heard her talk of it became extremely tiresome on the third or fourth telling and he began to suspect that the liberal sprinkling of references to Lord so and so and Viscount whatever were a little exaggerated. Whenever Joe tried to talk of himself, his hopes and dreams, or even the Ponderosa and his family Charlotte would neatly stop him with a kiss. She made no effort to find out anything about him and it was becoming apparent that the one and only person Charlotte Rymont was interested in was herself.
Then there was the resentment Joe was beginning to feel towards her. Every day she would emerge from her room near noon, bright eyed and well rested while he had dragged himself from bed at first light to attend to his chores. The lack of sleep was beginning to tell on him, he was finding it difficult to keep up with his work around the ranch and had drawn a few barbed comments from Adam who, Joe was pretty sure, had guessed about his nightly trips. At first Joe had considered the exhaustion a small price to pay for the thrill of being with Charlotte but now he wasn’t so sure. The problem was how to end it. Joe knew he should be honest with the girl and tell her that he wanted to stop seeing her but three obstacles stood in his way. For one he didn’t want to hurt her, Charlotte kept telling him how much she loved him and the thought of her disappointment when she knew the truth worried him. Then there was his pride; he recalled only too well Adam’s warning about Charlotte and his own angry repudiation of his brother’s words. It would be very galling to have to admit that Adam had been right all along.
But the third and final obstacle was the one that so far had stopped him from speaking up and that was guilt. He knew he should never have gone as far as he had with Charlotte, knew it was wrong to take her out to the lake alone in the first place. He hated to think what his father would say if he knew and dreaded to imagine how disappointed Ben would be in him.
So now he found himself in a quandary. He hoped that Charlotte would leave with her family as arranged and, with a little luck, soon forget all about him. But as the days went on and Charlotte continued to profess her love for him he began to fear that he might have to propose to her if for no other reason than to protect her reputation and salve his own conscience.
Yawning widely and casting a longing look at his bed, Joe combed his hair and prepared to go down to supper. Hopefully he could manage to retire to bed early, pleading tiredness, and get at least a couple of hours sleep before he and Charlotte slipped out of the house. It would be no lie, he was very tired. He wondered, not for the first time, how Charlotte’s father could be so unaware that anything was going on.
He was surprised that Sir Charles hadn’t realised that his daughter was falling in love, knowing that his own family were well aware of his feelings for Charlotte. Adam had made it clear that he knew and from a few good-natured ribbings he’d got from Hoss it was obvious his middle brother was also aware of the romance. Though Ben hadn’t said anything to him, Joe had seen the speculative look in his eyes when he’d mentioned Charlotte’s name and in the last few days had seen that look change to a worried frown.
Joe knew that his father had realised that he was unhappy over something and guessed that it was only a matter of time until he asked him outright what was going on. Of course it was possible that Sir Charles was too concerned with Edmund’s problems to notice Charlotte. In the last few days Edmund had been spending increasing amounts of time in Virginia City, and the rumour was that he was making heavy losses in card games there. Joe had heard his father discussing the matter with Sir Charles this morning, the Englishman despairing of what he could do to stop his son, but when Joe returned from working at the corral an hour or so ago Edmund was once more absent from the Ponderosa.
Tucking in his shirt, Joe took a last glance in the mirror and was just turning to leave the room when a soft tap on his bedroom door surprised him. Before he could move to answer, the door opened and, with a soft rustle of silk from her wide skirts, Charlotte came in.
“You shouldn’t be in here,” Joe admonished softly as she closed the door behind her and went to sit on his bed, tapping her hand on the covers to invite Joe to sit beside her. “What would your father think?”
“It’s because of Papa that I’m here,” Charlotte told him, extending her hand towards him. Joe took it and allowed himself to be drawn down next to her. “I want to tell him about us, Joe.”
“Well, that’s wonderful,” Joe smiled down at her, though dismay flooded through him at her words. “I thought you might say something soon, it’s not long until you have to leave.”
“I intend to speak to him at supper,” Charlotte returned his smile, her violet eyes sparkling. “But first I need to ask you something,” she ran her tongue over her lips, suddenly appearing a little nervous. “I want you to come back to England with me, Joe, will you?”
“England?” Joe was stunned, he had hoped that it wouldn’t come to marriage and certainly hadn’t thought about the fact that Charlotte might want her wedding in her native land. “I guess if that’s what you really want,” he said slowly. “Of course my Pa and my brothers will be disappointed but I suppose we could have some sort of marriage blessing when we get back.”
“Get back?” Charlotte looked at him quizzically. “Why should we come back?”
“I couldn’t leave for good,” Joe stood up, beginning to grow agitated. Even if he had to marry the girl he certainly didn’t want to leave the Ponderosa. “This is my home, Charlotte, and once we’re married you’ll come to love it, I know you will.”
“Married?” Charlotte laughed, the sound a little strained. “No, Joe, you don’t understand. I don’t want to get married to you. I’m already getting married in a few months time.”
“What?” Joe exclaimed, his mind whirling. The news that she didn’t want him to marry her was welcome, but he didn’t understand why. “I thought you said loved me, Charlotte, I thought you wanted to marry me?”
“I do love you,” Charlotte said placatingly, reaching for his hand again but this time Joe moved away from her touch. “I have to get married, Joe, to Lord Stanthwaite…Percy. It’s all been arranged by Edmund and Mama.”
“Arranged?” Joe asked, confused. “Do you love this Percy?”
“Of course not!” Charlotte’s tone held a hint of repulsion at the idea. “He’s almost seventy years old and ugly as sin but I have to marry him and provide him with an heir, that’s the deal Edmund has made.”
“That’s terrible, Charlotte!” Joe said angrily, suddenly feeling sorry for the girl. No wonder she had wanted a little fun and excitement faced with this prospect. “It’s inhuman and they can’t force you into it. Stay here with me, we’ll sort it out with your father and you can start a new life here, I know Pa will help you.”
“Papa must know nothing about the deal with Edmund,” Charlotte’s voice suddenly turned steely as she too stood up. “Edmund and Mama have had a little trouble at the gaming tables. I need to marry Percy so that he’ll pay Edmund enough to clear their debts without Papa finding out. He’ll know nothing until the week of the wedding.”
“There must be some other way,” Joe was horrified at the thought of this arrangement, the beautiful young woman with such an elderly man. “There must be.”
“There is,” Charlotte moved to put her arms around him, looking up into his eyes. “I marry Percy and become Lady Stanthwaite and I set you up in London as my protégé. I can get up to London often and see you. I just know the smart set will love you, Joe, you’re so handsome, so rugged.”
“You want me to be some kind of kept man?” Joe asked, putting his hands on Charlotte’s arms and pulling them away from him as her suggestion began to sink in. “If you loved me you’d know I couldn’t do that. But I can help you, Charlotte, I can help you stay here.”
“Stay here?” Charlotte stared at him, her temper beginning to rise as she realised that Joe wasn’t about to fall in with her plans. “In this God forsaken place? That’s not what I want from life. I want a title, I want lands and servants and a mansion house of my own. Just forget your precious morals for once, Joe, I can offer you a lifestyle you’ve never even dreamed of and I can offer you me.”
“Charlotte, you can’t mean all this,” Joe was aghast. “Didn’t you love me at all?”
“Love?” Charlotte sneered. “I don’t believe in it, Joe.”
“I think you’d better leave,” Joe said, his voice suddenly hard with dislike. Now he knew the truth about Charlotte, she had been using him all along.
“Very well,” Charlotte flounced toward the door. Pulling it open she turned and fixed Joe with a venomous look. “But you’ll be sorry you turned me down, Joe Cartwright, mark my words, you’ll be sorry.”
As the door closed behind Charlotte, Joe sank down on his bed his mind still reeling from what he had learned. He was relieved that he hadn’t had to offer to marry Charlotte but horrified at the true character she had just revealed to him.
No wonder he had been having such doubts, but he had thought he loved her at first and even considered marriage and a life together on the Ponderosa. Lying back with his hands behind his head, he smiled wryly to himself as he faced the brutal truth that the excitement of their nights together had been a big factor in his feelings and that the wish to take things further may have had some bearing on his wanting to make her his wife.
He hadn’t really loved her, he’d known that for a while and it was certain now. If he had he would be feeling devastated while all he was feeling was a slight regret that the evenings by the lake were over and distaste at the sort of woman she had turned out to be.
Getting up, he examined his reflection in the mirror. His hair was a little mussed from lying on the bed and he ran his hand through it, giving himself a crooked grin. He’d had a lucky escape, he mused, and at least tonight he could look forward to a decent amount of sleep. With a last, longing look at his bed he left the room and went down to supper.
Descending the stairs into the great room, Joe was surprised to find only his family present at the table. The chairs set ready for Sir Charles, Edmund and Charlotte stood empty. It wasn’t unusual for Edmund not to be present for meals, and occasionally Charlotte, but Sir Charles was always prompt to the table.
“Where is everyone?” Joe asked, sliding into his own place and pouring himself a glass of water.
“Miss Charlotte said she done wanted to talk to her Pa ‘bout somethin’,” Hoss told him with a longing look at the covered dishes that stood in the middle of the table. “Sure hope they hurry ‘cos I’m real hungry.”
Joe felt a prickle of apprehension at his brother’s words remembering Charlotte’s vow that he’d be sorry.
“It won’t hurt you to wait a little longer, Hoss,” his father admonished. “It’s only polite…”
“Here’s Sir Charles now,” Adam interrupted softly, catching sight of the man at the top of the stairs and smiling a welcome at him. The smile froze on his lips as Sir Charles came down. The man’s face was red with anger, his eyes fixed on Joe.
“Charles?” Ben asked in alarm, getting to his feet. “What’s the matter?”
“He is,” Charles pointed at Joe with a trembling finger. “This young pup of yours has been forcing himself on my daughter.”
“What?” Ben asked aghast, while Hoss and Adam exchanged horrified glances before turning to look at their younger brother.
“That’s not true!” Joe denied vehemently, jumping to his feet. “I would never do such a thing.”
“Do you deny that you have been taking my daughter out to the lake in the middle of the night almost every day since we arrived?” Sir Charles asked, rage causing his voice to quiver. “Do you?”
“No.” Joe said softly, and winced inwardly as he saw his father’s disappointed look. “We have been going to the lake, but I swear, except for a few kisses, nothing happened.”
“Charlotte tells me that your son forced himself upon her last night,” Charles addressed Ben. “He deflowered her, my little girl.”
“It’s not true,” Joe denied hotly. “I didn’t, Pa.”
“Do I have your word on that?” Ben asked, looking his youngest in the eyes.
“Honestly,” Joe met his father’s gaze, intensity in his one word answer.
“Then I believe you,” Ben said softly, and Joe closed his eyes momentarily, thankful for his father’s trust. “Charles, perhaps there’s been some sort of mistake, possibly Charlotte is confused…”
“Hardly a thing a girl could be confused over,” Charles said with a grim laugh. He moved to stand beside Joe and it was then that Adam noticed that he held in his hand a pair of black leather gloves. “Sir Charles…” he began in alarm, rising from his seat as he realised what the man intended.
“I didn’t do it,” Joe interrupted his brother, turning to look at Sir Charles. “I promise…”
Before he could finish, Charles drew back his hand and slapped Joe’s face with the gloves. “You cad,” he said bitterly. “I will avenge my daughter’s honour. You will meet me in a duel at dawn tomorrow, down by the lake that you are so fond of. Pistols are to be the weapon. I take it you do possess duelling pistols?”
“I have a pair,” Ben said, moving to stand beside Joe who was staring at Sir Charles in stunned silence. “But you can’t mean this, Charles. There has to be another way, we should talk about it.”
“Dawn!” Charles repeated. “Unless you wish to prove yourself a coward, sir,” turning away he addressed himself to Adam. “Perhaps you would be good enough to take Charlotte and myself into town, we’ll spend the night at the hotel.”
As Adam stood slowly to do his bidding, the rest of the Cartwrights stared in dismay at the man’s retreating back as he headed upstairs.
“I think you owe me an explanation, Joseph,” Ben said, coming slowly back inside after the Rymonts had left the ranch, his further effort to talk to Charles unsuccessful. “Just what has been going on?”
“I…” Joe dropped his gaze to the floor, a flush staining his cheeks. “I didn’t force myself on Charlotte, Pa, I didn’t.”
“I know that,” Ben moved away from the door, catching Joe’s arm and propelling him towards the couch. “But I want to know exactly what did happen.”
Darting a quick glance at his brother, standing by the table, Joe sat down on the couch. “I’ll tell you,” he said softly, looking up at his father. “But could it be in private, Pa, please?”
“I got a few chores to see to,” Hoss said, seeing his father raise an eyebrow before nodding in agreement to Joe’s request. “I’ll be in the barn for a while.”
“Well?” Ben asked quietly as his middle son left the house. “Would you like to tell me about it?”
Clasping his hands together Joe looked down, unable to meet his father’s eyes and see the disappointment there. “I’m sorry Pa,” he said, his voice not much more than a whisper. “I know I shouldn’t have taken Charlotte out to the lake.”
“No, you shouldn’t,” Ben sat down beside Joe, the suppressed anger in his voice making his son cringe. “But now I need to know how far it went, Joe, what happened between you and Charlotte.”
“We…I mean I…well…” Joe stammered, keeping his face averted from his father. “She…”
“Joseph,” Ben reached out and laid a hand on Joe’s cheek, gently turning the boy to face him. “I know this is uncomfortable for you but if I’m to understand why Charlotte has told her father this lie then I need to know everything.”
“We kissed a lot and…” Joe’s face was flaming and his greatest wish at that moment was that the ground might open and swallow him, telling his father the details of his nights with Charlotte was the most embarrassing thing he’d ever done. “We…we sort of…touched each other a bit,” He finally blurted out. “But it didn’t go much further than that, Pa, I swear.”
“These nights by the lake, whose idea were they?”
“Charlotte’s I guess,” Joe said, grateful that his father had asked for no further details. “But I didn’t object, even though I knew it was wrong.”
“At the very least it was compromising Charlotte’s reputation,” Ben told him sternly. “And it could have led to much more. The two of you out there alone.”
“I know,” Joe looked away again, shamefaced. “I know it’s not much of an excuse but I did think I was in love with her, well at least at the beginning I did.”
“At the beginning?” Ben questioned, with a sharp glance at his son. “When did you decide you weren’t?”
“Over a week ago,” Joe confessed. “And I know, I should have told her.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“She said that she loved me, I couldn’t hurt her like that.”
“So just what did you intend to do?”
“I don’t know,” Joe raised a hand to his eyes and sighed deeply. “I hoped perhaps she’d just leave with her father and I could forget about it, if not…well I was prepared to marry her.”
“Marry her?” Ben’s voice rose in disbelief. “Even though you didn’t love her?”
“To save her reputation,” Joe explained quickly. “I mean we may not have…you know…but we did go further than most girls I …” he trailed to a halt and looked up at his father. “I’m sorry, Pa. Sorry to make you so ashamed of me.”
“Oh, Joseph,” putting his arm around Joe’s shoulder Ben pulled him close. “I’m not ashamed of you, son. A little disappointed, maybe, but I do understand. You’re young and a beautiful girl can easily turn a young man’s head and make him do foolish things. I was young myself once, you know. But what happened between you? Why has Charlotte made this accusation?”
“She wanted me to go to England with her,” Joe said softly. “At first I thought she wanted me to marry her there, but she didn’t. She wanted me to be some kind of…” Again Joe stopped, unsure just exactly what Charlotte had wanted him to be.
“Some kind of?” Ben questioned quietly when Joe remained silent.
“She wanted me to be her…I don’t know. Pa…she’s getting married, to an old man, a Lord, and she wanted me to live in London and sort of be available for her whenever she felt like it.” As the words tumbled out, Joe saw the look of amazement on his father’s face. “A sort of kept man, a bit like happens with some of the saloon girls,” he finished abruptly, embarrassed but glad that the truth was out.
“And her father knows nothing of this?” Ben asked, astonished at what he had heard.
“He doesn’t even know she’s getting married. It’s something Edmund’s arranged, to get him out of debt.”
“Then Charles should be told,” Ben got to his feet. “He should know what his daughter is doing.”
“No, Pa,” Joe grabbed his father’s arm. “Please don’t tell Sir Charles.”
“Why not? It would stop this foolish duel.”
“He most probably wouldn’t believe you,” Joe reasoned. “Even if he did, it would break his heart to find out what Charlotte is really like.”
“I guess it would,” Ben said softly with a quick glance at the door where his old friend had so recently exited. “He really loves the girl, thinks she’s so sweet and innocent.” He sighed deeply and turned back to Joe. “You can’t go ahead with this duel though, son.”
“I have to,” Joe told him, determination in his voice. “I’d be labelled a coward if I didn’t show up.”
“So you’d rather risk your life for something you didn’t even do?”
“It’s not much of a risk. I heard Edmund tell Adam that Sir Charles isn’t much good with a gun.”
“Someone is likely to get hurt. God forbid it should be you but I don’t want Charles hurt either.”
“Then I have to go to town,” Joe stood up and headed for the credenza to pick up his gunbelt. “If I can get to see Charlotte on her own, I can try to get her to tell the truth.”
“No!” It was an order and reluctantly Joe stopped and looked round. “If Charles found you with Charlotte after all this how would it look?” Ben put a hand on his son’s arm and looked down at him. “I’ll go and talk to her, you stay here.”
Reluctantly Joe put his gunbelt down, seeing the validity of his father’s words. “Okay,” he agreed slowly. “I’ll let you try.”
The ride into town with Charlotte and her father was a long and silent one. Adam made no attempt to talk to the Rymont’s, he could tell by the rigid set of Sir Charles’ face that there was little point, the man was in no mood to listen to reason. Adam had considered asking one of the hands to drive the pair to Virginia City but the memory of his overheard conversation between Charlotte and her brother had stopped him. There was a possibility that Edmund knew something of this situation and Adam determined to find the man and speak to him about it.
Leaving the Rymont’s at the door of the Hotel, Adam hitched the horse and buggy up outside the Silver Dollar saloon. He was pretty sure that he’d find Edmund either here or at the Bucket of Blood. Both saloons had become the man’s haunt recently as he squandered his money in games of poker. Sure enough, Adam caught sight of Edmund as soon as he pushed through the swinging doors. The Englishman was seated at a table with three Virginia City businessmen, the cards spread out before them.
“Edmund,” Adam greeted the man, pulling up a chair from a nearby table.
“Good evening, Adam,” Edmund barely glanced up, his gaze intent on his hand of cards. “Are you intending to play this evening?”
“Not me,” Adam shook his head. “I need a word with you.”
“I’m a little busy at the moment,” Edmund said impatiently, taking a few coins from the pile beside him and throwing them into the middle of the table. “I’m afraid that it will have to wait.”
“I don’t think so,” Adam’s tone was pleasant enough but there was an undercurrent in it that caused the Englishman to glance at him sharply. “It concerns your sister.”
“Charlotte?” Edmund queried, puzzled. “What about her?”
“Let’s just say it’s a matter of honour,” Adam told him softly and was unsurprised when the man gathered up his money and suggested moving to a table out of earshot of the other poker players. Agreeing, Adam called over to Jake the bartender to bring them a bottle of whisky and two glasses.
“Well?” Edmund asked impatiently as Adam poured the drinks and settled back. “What’s happened to Charlotte?”
“She’s made an accusation against my young brother,” Adam told him, gently swilling the whisky around in his glass before taking a sip. “An accusation I believe to be a lie but that your father considers to be true.”
Edmund took a gulp of the whisky, almost choking on it before banging the glass down on the table. “What has she said?”
“She said that Joe had forced himself on her. Now, I know my brother and I’m certain that’s not true.”
“And she told my father that?”
Adam nodded. “He was furious, as you can imagine. He’s challenged my brother to a duel tomorrow morning at dawn.”
“A duel!” Edmund’s face paled. “The stupid old fool, he’s likely to be the one that ends up dead.”
“My brother is an excellent shot,” Adam agreed, pouring himself another whisky. “But he’s also a kind-hearted kid and I don’t think he’ll have the heart to shoot to kill. Someone could easily end up hurt though and I don’t want it to be Joe, especially for something I’m sure he didn’t do.”
“Leave it me,” Edmund got to his feet. “I’ll speak to my sister, if the silly girl has jeopardised her marriage I’ll never forgive her.”
“Her marriage?” Adam questioned, looking up at Edmund in confusion. “What marriage?”
“Nothing that need concern you,” Edmund said hastily, aware that he had said too much. “Just leave it to me, Adam, I’ll sort it out.”
He dashed from the saloon leaving Adam staring after him, uncertain just what was going on with the Rymont family.
“What in damnation do you think you’re playing at, Charlotte?”
“Well, good evening, Edmund,” Charlotte’s tone was tinged with sarcasm as she opened the door to face her brother. “How are you?”
Coming into the room, slamming the door hard behind him Edmund advanced on his sister furiously. “Damn you, Charlotte, you’ve put everything in jeopardy.”
“Of course I haven’t,” she flashed back, violet eyes snapping with rage. “And keep your voice down, you might wake Papa.”
“He’s not here,” Edmund told her. “I caught sight of him in the bar downstairs when I was on my way up. How could you do this to him?”
“To him?” Charlotte sneered, sitting down in one of the two seats that the hotel suite offered. “I haven’t done anything to him.”
“This is because Joe Cartwright wouldn’t fall in with your plans isn’t it?” Edmund asked, leaning over his sister and staring down at her. “Isn’t it?”
“He rejected me,” Charlotte’s voice was petulant, her fingers playing with the string of pearls at her throat. “He can’t treat me like that.”
“So you say he raped you!” Edmund accused, laughing hollowly as he saw her flinch. “Yes, it’s not a pretty word is it?”
“It means everyone in this stupid little town will hate him like I do. The girls won’t think he’s so wonderful now.”
“And did you stop to think what Father’s reaction would be when you span him this yarn?”
“I didn’t mean for there to be a duel,” for a moment a shadow of guilt and worry passed across Charlotte’s face. “I thought perhaps a fight, nothing more.”
“Then you don’t know Father very well,” Edmund snapped, pacing across to the window and back before taking the seat beside his sister. “He loves you, Charlie. He’d do anything to defend you. Including risk his life.”
“Risk his life?” there was a trace of fear in Charlotte’s voice now but she answered her brother defiantly. “Don’t be silly, Papa is a good shot, he’ll defeat Joe.”
“Defeat Joe?” Edmund sighed heavily. “Oh Charlie, you little fool. Father is a passable shot at best, and then only out on the moors after grouse. He’s never shot a person, he’s never had to.”
“He can do it, Edmund. After all Joe’s only young.”
“He’s grown up with guns,” Edmund told her earnestly, trying to make the young woman see how serious the situation was. “He’s an excellent shot and he’s had to shoot to kill from time to time. It’s Father that’s in danger, Charlotte, unless you tell the truth.”
“I couldn’t do that,” Charlotte looked across at him, her voice suddenly small and frightened. “I couldn’t let Papa know I lied. What would he think of me?”
“You’d rather he risked his life?” Edmund asked. “And what of Percy? He’ll not want to marry you if he hears about it.”
“He’s hardly likely to,” the anger and defiance was back. “It’s not something that will be reported in the society pages of The Times.”
“No?” Edmund queried quietly. “Are you sure about that? The daughter of an aristocrat and a cowboy. It will be in the local rag I’ve no doubt and quite probably a San Francisco newspaper, the London press could well pick it up, then bang goes the marriage.”
“And your money,” Charlotte said bitterly. “That’s all you care about isn’t it? Not me, not Papa, just your money.”
“Oh, don’t give me the uncaring brother speech,” Edmund stood up, anger suffusing his face. “You might not like the idea of Percy but you certainly don’t object to his money and his title.”
“I won’t take it back about Joe,” Charlotte stood as well, her pretty face screwed up in rage. “I know Papa can beat him, and I hope he shoots him dead.”
“You’re impossible…” Edmund began when a sharp rap at the door stopped him. Crossing the room he pulled the door open angrily, not really surprised to find that the visitor was Joe’s father. “You try talking to her,” he told him, pulling the man inside. “I can’t make her see sense, I wish you better luck of it.” And, with Ben and Charlotte facing each other across the room, Edmund left.
“Come to plead for your son?” Charlotte asked coldly as the sound of Edmund’s footsteps faded into the distance.
“I’ve come to ask you to tell the truth,” Ben told her, taking off his hat and advancing into the room.
“But I am telling the truth,” Charlotte looked at Ben defiantly. “Your precious young son took me out to that lake and forced himself on me. I begged and pleaded with him to stop but he wouldn’t.”
“I don’t believe that, Charlotte,” Ben faced the girl and before his steady gaze she dropped her eyes from his. “Joseph has told me exactly what happened.”
“Oh?” she queried, looking up sharply. “And how can you be sure he’s not lying?”
“I’m not fool enough to think that Joe has never lied to me,” Ben came to stand beside Charlotte, his tone soft as he spoke of his son. “I’m sure there are times he has. But in something like this Joe doesn’t lie. He told me all about it, Charlotte, the marriage to this Lord, all of it.”
“You’re a fool if you believe what he says,” Charlotte’s tone was vitriolic, her expression full of hatred. “He’s a man isn’t he? You’re all the same where women are concerned.”
“I’m sorry if your experience of men has been that way,” Ben told her gently. “But you know that Joe isn’t like that. Yet with your lie you have put him, and your father, in danger.”
“My father is behaving like a gentleman. Defending my honour.”
“Yes, he is,” Ben agreed. “In his place I would do the same. But he’s doing it for the wrong reason isn’t he, Charlotte? He’s doing it because he loves you, because he believes in you and you…you’re prepared to let him die because you refuse to tell the truth.”
“Shut up!” Raising her hand, Charlotte advanced toward Ben furiously. “Just shut up and get out!”
Ben caught her hand in his, easily warding off the slap she aimed his way. “I’m going,” he told her. “But just think about it, if you have any feelings for your father you won’t let him go through with this duel.” Dropping her hand, Ben turned and left the room.
“You’re not gonna go through with it are you?” Hoss asked his brother, coming in to find Joe sitting cross-legged on the table in front of the fire, cleaning his gun.
“I have to,” Joe paused in his task for a moment and looked up. “If I don’t they’ll say I’m a coward, and worse, that I did what Charlotte said.”
“You know you didn’t,” Hoss came across to sit on the arm of the couch. “Ain’t that enough?” he sighed when Joe shook his head. “Sure don’t wanna see anyone hurt.”
“Think I do?” Joe put the gun down on the table and stood up. “Sir Charles is just doing what he thinks is right, I don’t want to hurt him.”
“Perhaps Pa’ll be able to get Miss Charlotte to see sense,” Hoss said hopefully. “If anyone can it’ll be Pa.”
“I guess so,” Joe ran a hand through his hair and looked worriedly at the clock by the door. “Hope he’s back soon.”
“He will be,” Hoss assured him. “Now, I’m gonna get Hop Sing to rustle us up some hot coffee, might cheer you up a bit.”
The two brothers were sat on the hearth sipping their drinks when Ben and Adam arrived back. Hearing the sound of the buggy Joe hastily put his cup down and headed out to the yard, Hoss close on his heels.
“Well?” he called as he saw his father and brother. “What happened?”
Ben and Adam exchanged glances, they had met each other on the road home and discussed what had happened with Edmund and Charlotte.
“I’m afraid that Charlotte is sticking to her story,” Ben said, putting an arm round Joe’s shoulders. “Edmund tried to convince her to tell the truth and so did I but she was having none of it.”
Joe laughed harshly, the sound holding no humour. “Then I guess I fight a duel in the morning.”
“You’re set on going through with it?” Ben asked sombrely.
Joe nodded. “I have to, Pa.”
“And I guess there’s no use trying to talk you out of it?”
Joe just shook his head and Ben sighed deeply. “Let’s go in,” he said, drawing Joe toward the house, Hoss and Adam close behind.
The dawn was a glorious one, the fiery orb of the sun rising slowly into the pale blue sky. The air was clear and cool, not a breeze stirred the leaves and the lake lay smooth and still in the early morning light.
Reining in his horse, Ben glanced alongside him at his three sons and offered up a fervent and heartfelt plea to his Maker that all three of them would be riding safely home with him later. He looked down at the case he had brought with him, the case containing a finely crafted pair of pistols that he could only hope would not be responsible for the death of his son or of his old friend this morning.
The four Cartwrights dismounted, and walked to where Sir Charles waited for them by the lakeside. By his side were Edmund and Charlotte, the latter dressed in a bright red outfit with matching hat that reminded Ben, rather uncomfortably, of the colour of blood.
“I have asked that Dr. Paul Martin be present here this morning,” Sir Charles told them as they approached. “As soon as he arrives we should be ready to begin,” he turned to Joe with a contemptuous look. “You have a second, sir?”
“A what?” Joe asked in confusion, not understanding what the older man meant.
“A second is someone to help you,” Ben said quietly coming to stand beside Joe. “He makes sure that everything is done fairly, checks the weapons, that sort of thing.”
“Oh, right,” Joe looked round at his brothers. “Would you do it then please, Adam?”
Slightly surprised at Joe’s choice, Adam nodded in agreement. Taking the leather case containing the duelling pistols from his father, he was directed to stand with Edmund who was acting as second for Sir Charles.
“Ah, here’s Doctor Martin now,” Ben looked up as the sound of a horse approaching.
As everyone moved forward to greet the doctor Joe found himself standing beside Charlotte at the edge of the water. She looked tired, he thought, as though she hadn’t slept well. “You could stop all this,” he whispered to her, watching as Paul Martin dismounted and shook hands with Sir Charles. “If you just told the truth we could call it all off.”
Icy violet eyes swept over him, the hatred in them sending a chill down his spine. “I told you you’d be sorry,” she hissed. “I told you.”
“You may be the one that ends up sorry,” Joe said quickly, seeing Sir Charles turn in his direction. “Sorry that you did this to your father.”
It took very little time to arrange everything to Sir Charles’ satisfaction. Standing together Adam and Edmund carefully examined the weapons to be used and declared them sound.
“Would everyone except the duellists and their seconds please clear the area,” Doctor Martin called as Joe and Sir Charles took their places back to back beside the lake.
Obediently Hoss, Ben and Charlotte moved away, walking over to stand at the edge of the pine forest. Ben listened anxiously as Paul Martin explained the rules of the duel to Joe and Sir Charles, Adam and Edmund standing beside him. Glancing at Charlotte he saw that the girl was not looking as composed as she had been, her face was pale beneath the stylish red hat and she was chewing her bottom lip nervously as she watched the tableau before her.
“You both understand?” Paul was asking. “On the count of ten you will take twenty paces then turn and fire.”
“Understood,” Joe’s reply was only just loud enough for Ben to hear, Sir Charles just nodded tersely. Withdrawing with the two seconds to a safe distance the doctor began the count and Ben found himself holding his breath, waiting with dread for what was about to happen. Feeling a hand on his shoulder he glanced up at Hoss, seeing his own fears reflected on his middle son’s face.
“Nine…Ten,” Paul counted and Ben closed his eyes as Joe began to walk forward, unable to bring himself to watch. A strangled gasp brought his eyes open again with a start to see Charlotte gather up her skirts and begin to run forward.
“Don’t…” Hoss cried hoarsely, grabbing at the girl but she easily evaded his grasp and dashed away. The next few moments were total confusion as gunfire erupted just as Charlotte neared her father and Joe. Both intent on the duel neither man saw the girl until it was too late, and she fell, crumpling to the ground, the red of her blood just slightly darker than the gown that she wore.
“How is she Paul?” Ben asked in a loud whisper as the physician came out of the guest room, closing the door softly behind him.
“She’ll be all right,” the doctor said with a reassuring glance at Adam, Hoss and Joe who were standing close behind their father waiting for the news. “The bullet went right through with very little damage. She should be up and around again within a couple of weeks.”
“That’s a relief,” Joe ran a hand through his hair and sighed. “When I saw her lying there I thought…”
“It was Sir Charles’ bullet that hit her, Joe,” Adam laid a reassuring hand on his brother’s arm. “It’s not your fault. It shows he was a pretty poor shot, he was nowhere near his mark.”
“And I was aiming wide, I didn’t want to hurt the man,” Joe shook his head, moving over to the couch. “I still feel responsible though. If only I’d had the sense not to take her out to the lake in the first place none of this would have happened.”
“That’s true,” Ben agreed, deep brown eyes sympathetic as he looked at his youngest. “But it has happened. The one most to blame in the whole sorry affair is Charlotte.”
“Guess she found she did care about her Pa after all,” Hoss observed, taking a seat beside his younger brother. “Think she might ‘fess up that it was all a lie now, Pa?” he looked up at his father questioningly.
“Has she said anything yet?” Ben queried, turning to Paul Martin.
“Not a thing,” Paul told them, putting his hat on and getting ready to take his leave. “Her father is less than pleased that we brought her back to the Ponderosa by the way, even though I explained that it was by far the best thing to do, being so near.”
“I suppose I’d better go in and see him,” Ben glanced toward the bedroom door as he spoke, obviously reluctant to face the Rymont family. “Thank you for attending to her, Paul.”
“That’s all right,” the doctor shook hands briefly with Ben before heading for the door. “You can tell Sir Charles he’ll receive my bill in due course.”
The door had just closed behind the physician when Edmund came out of the guest room looking pale and tense. “Joe,” he addressed the youngest Cartwright. “I’d like a word with you if I may.” He glanced round at the other three members of the family. “In fact I suppose you may as well all hear this.”
Coming to stand before the hearth he stood with his hands behind his back and cleared his throat nervously before beginning. “This morning I could have lost my father or my sister,” he started, then swallowed hard as emotion threatened to overtake him. “I’m very fond of my father and, despite her many faults, I love my sister. I cannot excuse the lie that Charlotte told but I can make things right. I intend to tell my father the truth. That I have arranged a marriage for Charlotte basically to cover my own and my mother’s gambling debts. That Charlotte, though she is not unwilling to accept the marriage is not in love with her fiancé and that, for some misguided reason, she wanted to use Joe as some kind of prize to show off to her London friends.”
“This is going to hurt your father a great deal,” Ben said quietly, his face grave as he thought of the pain his old friend would feel at Edmund’s revelations. “Are you sure you want to tell him?”
“I think it’s best, Mr. Cartwright,” Edmund gave a wry smile. “My father has been living a lie for some years now, thinking he had a perfect family while in reality my mother is a hopeless flirt and a gambler, much as I am, and Charlotte has been allowed to run wild and taken up with a bad crowd.” He looked down at the floor for a moment and shook his head sadly. “I’m afraid that I introduced her to most of them,” he admitted softly before looking up at Joe, his face determined. “I’ll make sure your name is cleared, Joe, trust me.” He looked across at Ben. “If I might just ask that we be given a little privacy for an hour or so…”
“Of course,” Ben nodded and turned to his sons. “Don’t we have some chores to do, boys?”
It was an uncomfortable leave taking. Ben stood by the door of the Ponderosa, his sons at his side as Sir Charles assisted his daughter into the waiting buggy that would take them to Virginia City in time to catch the stage on the first leg of their journey back home to England.
Pale from her ten days convalescence Charlotte looked stunning nevertheless, a travelling outfit of dark blue and black showing off her flaxen hair to perfection. She scarcely glanced at the Cartwrights, turning haughtily aside as Ben attempted to say his goodbyes.
“I’m sorry for all the trouble,” Edmund said quietly, pausing in front of Joe. “But at least things have been set straight now.”
“Will Charlotte still marry this Lord Percy?” Adam asked from where he stood beside Joe. “Now your father knows the truth.”
“My father tried to talk her out of it,” Edmund told him, glancing across to where Sir Charles was taking his place next to Charlotte in the buggy. “He told her he’d find some other way to raise the money to pay the gambling debts, mortgage the estates if need be but I’m afraid my sister sees only the title associated with Lord Percy. Providing no hint of this reaches the London press then I think that she will go ahead with the marriage.”
“I just wish your father had been able to forgive me,” Joe said softly, with a sideways glance at his own father. “It seems a shame that after he and Pa have been friends so many years they part like this.”
“Father has had his pride rather severely dented, I fear,” Edmund’s expression was sorrowful as he remembered his father’s disbelief at his wife and son’s gambling, his horror at his daughter’s peccadillos. “In time he’ll come to realise that none of this was your fault.”
As Edmund joined his father and sister in the buggy and the Rymonts left the Ponderosa Ben and Hoss turned to go inside. About to join them Adam was halted by his youngest brother’s hand on his arm. “Could I have a word with you, Adam?”
“Sure,” Adam acquiesced with a puzzled look at Joe who motioned him over to the corral, out of earshot of the house. “Well?” he demanded after they had stood in silence for a few minutes, Joe scuffing at the dirt with a booted foot. “What is it?”
“I’ve got an apology to make,” Joe didn’t look up but Adam could see that this was making him uncomfortable.
“I don’t often get one of those from you.” Adam said with what Joe would have said was a smirk if he’d looked up to see it. There was a touch of disbelief in his tone, it was a rare moment when his younger brother said sorry to him. “What brings this on?”
“You tried to warn me about Charlotte,” Still Joe didn’t look up. “I told you to stay out of my life, I was wrong,” the words were quiet, tinged with misery. “I’ve hurt Pa and I’ve destroyed his friendship with Sir Charles over this.”
“Joe, it wasn’t your fault,” Putting his hands on his brother’s shoulders Adam ducked down to look him in the face. “She knew exactly what she wanted, there was no way you could have stopped it.”
“I shouldn’t have gone with her.”
“I don’t know of many men that wouldn’t,” Adam said and saw a wry smile touch Joe’s lips. “She was beautiful and worldly and you were flattered that she seemed to like you. You should have tried to tell her that you didn’t love her but she’d probably have done exactly the same thing when you did. She just wanted to hurt you for turning her down.”
“She did try to stop the duel,” to his surprise Joe found himself defending Charlotte.
“Her one saving grace,” Adam said with a small laugh. “In the end she decided she really did love her father.”
“I still kinda feel sorry for her. Married to a man she doesn’t love,” Joe shivered slightly. “If things had turned out the way I imagined then I’d be marrying a girl I didn’t love and it’s not a nice thought.”
“But you’d have married her for honourable reasons at least, she’s marrying for greed,” Adam said softly. “Forget her Joe. She’s not worth your pity.”
“I guess so,” Joe said with a sigh and turned toward the house.
“You know what?” Adam asked falling in beside him. “I was in town yesterday and Jane…it is Jane isn’t it that works in the bank?” Joe acknowledged that it was. “Well she was asking if you’d got a partner for the dance on Saturday night, seems she’s free.”
“I wasn’t intending…” Joe started then suddenly flashed a dazzling grin. “Jane, you say? Well, perhaps a night out…” and the two went inside.