Summary: A too-pretty girl, a Saturday night dance, and a little moonlight mischief. Not to worry—Adam’s got it covered. (Part of the Ties That Bind AU series)
Rating: T (2870 words)
Ties That Bind Series
GUARDING THE HENHOUSE
His forehead creased as he tried to remain focused on the book in front of him. Lately, it never failed—every time he had a few moments to himself, something—or someone—always interrupted him.
“Can I ask you something?”
“Mm hmm.” He didn’t look up. Sometimes it was best not to make eye contact.
“It can wait if you’re busy.”
“What makes you think I’m busy?” He turned the page, still not looking up.
“Well, I thought you might be trying to read.”
“Really—and what gave me away? Could it be the book in my hand?”
“Never mind, it can wait until you’re finished. It’s not important.” There was a pause. “How long do you think it will be?”
He huffed and marked the page with his finger before closing the book. “What is it you want, Jilly?”
“I’m not sure I should ask you now.”
“I’d say now is as good a time as any. You have my attention,” he assured her with more patience than he felt. “What do you want to know?”
“I want to know about the time you kissed Lotta Crabtree.”
“Whatever possessed you to ask about that?”
“Because everything happens when I’m not here—so I’m always the last one to find out.” She sounded irritated.
He raised an eyebrow in her direction. “Well, in all fairness, you could expect a lot of things to happen in four years.”
There had been a lot of changes since his sister left home, and for all their good intentions, visits had been sporadic and brief. Her guardians had lived up to their promise to give her a good education and expose her to the cultural advantages of metropolitan life, and in spite of a first year marred by homesickness and illness, Jilly had embraced San Francisco in a way that surprised them all. But the biggest surprise was the change in the girl. No one was quite prepared for the poised and lovely young woman who returned in her place.
She raised an eyebrow back at him. “I heard it was quite a kiss.”
“I guess I don’t have to ask from whom you heard it.”
Smiling, she didn’t elaborate. “Was it because she was beautiful and famous, or was there some other reason why you kissed her?”
True, she did have a degree of notoriety, and she was attractive, though whether or not she was truly beautiful underneath all that face paint he couldn’t really say.
“Why do you want to know?”
“I’m just wondering what it is that makes a man want to kiss a woman.”
“Are you angling for someone in particular?” He had a sneaking suspicion he knew who it was.
“Not angling, just curious. You’re a man, and I’d like to know how men think.”
He eyed her warily, wondering at her interest in the phenomenon of physical attraction between the sexes. In some ways she was wise for her age, but he wasn’t sure he could comfortably explain the minds of men to his fifteen- year-old sister, especially on such short notice. “Uh, well…”
His hesitation seemed to amuse her. “Maybe you’d rather explain where babies come from.”
He was temporarily distracted by a coughing fit behind him. Hoss set his coffee cup on the table and shook his head in apology. “Sorry, I guess it just went down the wrong way. Go ahead. Don’t mind me,” he said, his mouth curving upwards.
Adam turned back to Jilly. “You’re not asking that, are you?”
“Don’t worry. I know all about that.”
Her air of authority caught him off guard. “I see. Well, Hoss, it seems our sister has become quite enlightened since she left home, wouldn’t you say? If you know so much, city girl, then why are you coming to me?”
Jilly rolled her eyes. “It was Aunt Margaret who told me about the birds and the bees, and frankly, she made it sound so unappealing that I don’t know why anyone would…never mind…. I’m more interested in what happens in the beginning, before that first kiss. You know—the magic.”
“She wants to know about the magic.” Adam telegraphed an SOS to Hoss. Help me out here.
“And you’re just the one to explain it to her, Older Brother.”
Thanks for nothing.
Magic was for fairy tales. A woman might view it that way, but for men, the prelude to a kiss was mere physiology—a physical reaction based on attraction, pure and simple. As primitive and unromantic as it might sound, in all honesty it boiled down to plain old lust and desire. Some women seemed predisposed to evoke that kind of response in a man, and he was not immune. No, that would never do. He’d have to figure out a more delicate way to explain.
Adam scratched the odd tickle at the back of his neck and cleared his throat. “Well, let me see. Um, I guess it’s fair to say a pretty face or a nice figure gets a man’s attention to start with. Beyond that, it can be any number of more subtle things—the sound of her voice, the way she smiles with her eyes, her sense of humor, intelligence, kindness—all those things can make a woman appealing to a man.”
Pablum, but maybe it would satisfy her.
Even as he spoke, his mind stumbled over a potent memory of the illustrious Miss Crabtree—her disdainful pout and the way she trembled in spite of herself when he confronted her about Joe. She thought she was too good for him, and he knew right then that he wanted to kiss her good and hard, mostly for the pleasure of wiping that smirk from her cherry-red lips. And it turned out to be more of a pleasure than he anticipated, he recalled with a smile.
“Sometimes though, it’s about power and who has more. Men like to imagine they do, but they usually don’t.” He was thinking aloud, speaking mostly to himself.
“Power? I’m not sure I understand.”
He gave her a long appraisal. It was hard to be objective about someone you loved, but one thing was clear about his not-so-little sister. Nature had gifted her with an unexpected beauty that could turn a man’s head, one that belied her years, and that worried him more than he cared to admit.
“You’re a bright girl; you’ll figure it out soon enough.” If you haven’t already. He returned to his book.
“Do you think so?”
He glanced up in time to see a satisfied smile spread across her face. It was the same one he’d seen on Joe’s face many times. Oh, Lord….
“I guess I’m for bed,” she said, rising. “Goodnight.”
His eyes followed her as she tripped up the stairs, humming. A snippet overheard at a party niggled a corner of his brain. That girl’s a heartache waiting to happen….
“There goes trouble if you ask me.”
Hoss was watching too. “I almost feel sorry for Mitch Devlin.”
Adam frowned. “Who said anything about Mitch Devlin? I was thinking about us. Summer is just heating up.”
“Jilly, get a move on, will ya? We’re gonna be late for the dance!”
“You don’t have to yell; I told you, I’m almost ready!”
“Yeah, you said that half an hour ago—you’d better knock on it!”
Teeth clenching the stem of his pipe, Ben knotted his brow at the fracas above, loud enough for the whole house to hear. He sent a stern look to his son at the top of the stairs. “That’s no way to talk to your sister, Joseph.”
“Relax, Little Joe. We got plenty of time,” Hoss assured him.
Joe trudged down to join the rest of the family. “How long does it take to put on a dress? She’s been up there two hours! Sheesh! What is her problem?”
Adam repositioned himself in his chair, stretching his legs out in front of him. “She’s a girl, but that doesn’t seem to be a problem for anyone except you, Joe.”
“It certainly is a problem for me when she ties up the bath house for an hour when she knows I was planning to get in there first!”
“Well, I can’t blame her for not wanting to take a bath after you.”
Joe glared at him. “That’s right, Adam, take her side like always.”
“No one’s taking sides,” said Ben. “But you should try to be a little more understanding, Joe. A young lady puts a lot of preparation into an evening like this. You should know that by now.”
Hoss cleared his throat, rising quickly to his feet. The others followed suit, their eyes on the stairs.
A sense of deja-vu warmed Ben as she approached, her head held high above a slender neck, her expression a mixture of indignation and amusement at her closest sibling before returning her father’s smile. Except for the dark curls, she was an approximation of the woman who captured his heart all those years ago in New Orleans. His throat ached with the memory, rendering him momentarily speechless.
“I’m ready,” she announced.
“Oh, no you’re not, Missy!”
Jilly narrowed her eyes at Joe. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Pa, you’re not gonna let her wear that dress, are you?”
“And what’s wrong with my dress?”
“There’s not enough of it, that’s what’s wrong with it!”
“Is that so? Well, if I remember correctly, except for the color it’s a lot like the one Cindy Thompson wore to the picnic last month, and you seemed to like it just fine on her.”
“Well, Cindy Thompson’s not my sister.”
“Aye, there’s the rub,” said Adam.
Hoss grinned. “There’s always at least one.”
“Pa, you’re not going to make me change, are you?”
His gaze shifted from Jilly’s pleading eyes to Joe’s scowl, then to his other sons. Hoss and Adam each proclaimed their neutrality with a shrug, no help at all. Without precedent, Ben took a deep breath and smiled at her. “I don’t think that will be necessary,” he said, adjusting her sleeves to cover her shoulders. “Have a good time. Don’t forget your wrap.” He kissed her on the cheek.
“I knew you’d understand, Pa. You’re the best father in the whole world!” She threw her arms around him, nearly knocking him off balance before turning to her tormentor with a triumphant smile. “Don’t just stand there, Joe—you don’t want to be late, do you?
He threw up his hands. “Okay, I give up. I cannot be responsible for you in that dress.”
“And that suits me perfectly.”
“Fine, you’re on your own then!” He followed her outside, turning in the doorway to address his father and brothers, his hands on his hips. “I can’t believe you three didn’t back me up…that hurts, you know?” He shook his head. “I’m really disappointed in you, Pa.”
Ben winced at the not so gentle closing of the door. “Did I do the right thing?”
“Don’t you worry none, Pa,” said Hoss. “Me and Adam have got it covered.”
Adam picked up Jilly’s wrap and tossed it over his shoulder. “One way or another.”
Adam took a deep breath, loosening his tie as the music faded behind him. The atmosphere inside was a little too close for his comfort, and the heat from the dance floor was the chaser to a scorching day which the night struggled to overcome. He had done his duty with all the eligible ladies of Virginia City at least twice, including Abigail Jones, so he felt this respite well-deserved. It was much more pleasant out here anyway, away from the crowd and the clamor.
He stepped out into the street, illuminated to near daylight by a full moon. A lover’s moon, he thought with a smile as he spotted a young couple on the corner engaged in a kiss. However, his smile faded as he drew closer and recognition set in.
He cleared his throat, announcing his presence. They both looked up, obviously startled. Even in the moonlight he could see the flush on his sister’s face; Mitch Devlin looked like the proverbial fox caught in the henhouse, thoroughly embarrassed, and with good reason, Adam noted as he fixed him with a stare. “Excuse me, but I think the party is inside.”
“Uh, we were just sayin’ goodnight,” Mitch mumbled.
“I think it’s time we were all getting home. Jilly, you go tell the others. I’ll be right behind you.”
She looked apprehensively at Mitch, then at Adam. “All right—goodnight, Mitch,” she said over her shoulder.
“Goodnight, Jilly.” He turned to go. “’Night, Adam.”
“Hold it.” Adam stopped him with a hand on his arm, his fingers clenched firmly around it.
“I like you, Mitch, always have. I think you’re a pretty decent fellow, which is why I’m not going to knock you through a wall—though I might have good cause, judging from the state of things.”
Shamefaced, Mitch fidgeted with his hat positioned in front of him. “I’m sorry, Adam.”
“Well, you certainly should be. You may have forgotten, but Jilly is only fifteen. I hate to think what might have happened if I hadn’t come along when I did.”
“Adam, I admit, I lost my head for a minute, but I swear, I would never disrespect her! Joe’s my best friend!”
“You’re lucky it was me who found you two and not him. You know what a temper he has. He would’ve been all over you like black on a kettle, best friend or not.” Adam paused, stroking his chin as he considered another scenario. “Of course, that’s nothin’ compared to Hoss…it takes a lot to get him riled, but I reckon this is the kind of thing that would do it.” His eyes narrowed. “Have you ever been on the losin’ end of three hundred pounds of ‘mad’ with arms like tree stumps and fists like boulders comin’ at ya?” Adam shuddered. “Trust me, Mitch. It’s not a pretty sight. Are you all right?”
By this time most of the color had drained from Mitch’s face, replaced by a ghostly pallor. “Can I go home now?”
“Of course you can, as long as we’re clear on this.”
“Per…perfectly clear, Adam.” He shoved his hands in his pockets and walked away quickly. “G’night.”
“You ready, Adam?”
“Isn’t that Mitch? Looks like he left his hat.” Hoss reached down and picked it up. “HEY MITCH! WAIT! YOU FORGOT…Reckon why he’s in such an all-fired hurry? And what’s so dadburned funny?”
Adam composed himself as Joe and Jilly approached. “I’ll tell you later.”
“Up you go, Cinderella,” said Adam, helping his sister into the buggy. “You didn’t happen to leave a slipper behind, did you?”
“Mitch left his hat,” said Hoss from the front seat.
“Hey, where is Mitch, anyway? I didn’t see him when we left,” said Joe.
“I’m pretty sure he went home,” said Adam. “Didn’t seem to be feeling too well. I think maybe he got a little overheated at the dance.”
He watched Jilly from the corner of his eye as she adjusted her wrap, pretending not to hear, and he stifled a smile at the comical image of Mitch in retreat. There was no real harm done, and he meant to keep it that way. Enos Milford was looking for someone to saddle break some horses over at his ranch—$12 a head plus room and board until the work was done, probably two or three weeks at least. Adam intended to pass that information along to Mitch, with the suggestion that he’d be the perfect man for the job.
He leaned over and murmured, “You can stop worrying. I won’t tell Pa.”
Her relief was evident in her smile. “Thanks, Adam.”
“But,” he held up his hand, “This is not free. You owe me. ”
She frowned. “You’re beginning to sound like Joe.”
“You insult me. That’s like comparing a master craftsman to his apprentice.”
“All right, what do you want?”
“Hmm, this is a big one. I’ll have to think about it.”
“Maybe I should just tell Pa myself.”
“That would be fun, wouldn’t it? Hey Hoss, can you pick up the pace? I think Jilly’s in a hurry to get home.”
Joe snickered. “Is Cinderella afraid she might turn into a pumpkin if we don’t get her home by midnight?”
Jilly rested her head in her hands, groaning. “Oh, why do I have brothers?”
With a complacent grin at the impish moon, Adam gave her shoulder a sympathetic pat.
“Just plain lucky, I guess.”
Next in this series:
Bonanza character acknowledgements: Lotta Crabtree appeared in “A Rose for Lotta” (Season 1) written by David Dortort. Mitch Devlin appeared in “Between Heaven and Earth” (Season 6), written by Ed Adamson. Enos Milford appeared in “The Hayburner” (Season 4), written by Alex Sharp.