Summary: A ‘What Happened Instead’ for the Julia Bulette Story, seen from Julia’s point of view. Mild sexual content.
Rated: MA WC 26,000
Jean Millain’s hand cracking across her face didn’t surprise her. The young man who jumped Millain in the next moment did. Julia Bulette watched, bemused, as a boy half Millain’s size tried to take him on. She held out her hand, and Tom, her long-time bartender, handed her the mallet with which she knocked Millain senseless.
The boy stood up, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “Sorry to mess up your place, ma’am,” he said, reaching for his hat.
He was more than usually attractive, and he clearly knew it, with flashing green eyes and a smile that had undoubtedly charmed half the girls in town. When he turned those eyes and that smile on her, she felt a flash of envy for those young girls.
He was probably half her age, if that, but there was something about him that kept her from dismissing him. He reminded her of someone, but she wasn’t certain whom.
And then, he introduced himself, and she knew.
Ben Cartwright’s son.
And she kept the smile nailed to her face.
* * * * * * * * * *
The next night, Julia walked into her Palace, careful not to reveal her sense of triumph. Little Joe Cartwright was her dinner date, and his father knew it. If all went well, she would bed the boy and send him home to the father who had not been willing to take what she would have given.
She never quite understood Ben Cartwright. Any other man in his situation would have been delighted to have had her. His wife was dead, so there was no question of infidelity. And yet, somehow, Ben still seemed to see the issue as one of morality. Intimacy was for married couples, according to his lexicon. Foolishness, to be sure, and fortunately, he seemed to be a minority of one on this issue. If he’d represented the common belief, she’d have been out of business long ago.
They’d first met in St. Louis, several years after his third wife had died. She couldn’t recall now who introduced them, but they’d had a very enjoyable dinner together. Afterward, he escorted her back to her rooms, saw her inside, and turned to go.
“Wouldn’t you like to stay for a drink?” Julia asked.
“I’d better not,” he said. “I have an early meeting tomorrow.”
“And if you didn’t?” There would be another reason, she was certain.
“If I didn’t, I’d stay for a drink, but only that,” he said gently. He knew what she was and what she was offering, and he made it clear that he wasn’t judging her, but she felt judged anyway. “But I’ve had a most delightful evening, and I do hope that we can remain friends.”
She smiled, careful not to let the bitterness show. “Friends as in ‘we can have dinner when you’re in town,’ or as in ‘I’ll try not to say too many awful things about you behind your back’?”
He smiled. “I hope the former, but if not—I promise not to say awful things about you, and I hope you won’t find too many awful things to say about me.”
And somehow, they’d ended up in between—they didn’t have dinner, but neither did they say awful things about each other. A mutual respect, admittedly somewhat grudging on her part, developed in place of a true warmth. When she first saw him in Virginia City, she realized that she’d known he was here. She hoped he didn’t think she’d come here for him, because it was entirely untrue, but men sometimes thought they’d been more significant in a woman’s life than was actually the case.
So, she’d made a point of reassuring him that she hadn’t come here to chase after the only man who’d ever rejected her. And as the town grew, and she never initiated any contact with him, she saw him relax until he seemed to believe her.
Seeing him was not as easy as she pretended, though. No woman wanted to be constantly reminded of her lone failure, after all. And so, when the fates delivered his son into her Palace, she took it as a sign. Here, at last, was her opportunity to succeed, where once she had failed.
* * * * * * * * * *
Their second attempt at dinner went better than the first. That first night, with Millain spoiling for a fight and Little Joe primed to deliver it, she’d stepped aside to let them do as they were going to do. She tried to tell herself that it was better for Little Joe to get beaten up physically by Millain than to suffer far worse pain from her. But somehow, when he came in the next day to apologize and he offered to make it up to her, she found that she didn’t want to turn down his invitation. Instead, she bathed and curled her hair and put on a dress that was modest enough, but only just, with buttons running down the front that would be easy enough for him to unfasten if she decided that the evening would end in that fashion.
When he arrived at her door that Friday night, she was oddly touched to see that he’d brought her flowers. Where he’d found them in this godforsaken town in the middle of dry, dusty summer was anybody’s guess, but he’d done it, and she didn’t have to lie when she told him that they were lovely. She put them in water, and then she took the arm that he offered as he escorted her down the street, in front of God and Virginia City, to the International House for dinner.
Julia was slightly surprised when Little Joe didn’t try to rush her through dinner. He smiled appreciably when she favored him with a glance from beneath her lashes or emphasized a point by tapping his hand, but he didn’t seem to be in any hurry to move on the post-dinner activities. He appeared to be quite content to let each part of the evening unfold at its own pace.
“Tell me about New Orleans,” he said as he refilled their champagne glasses. “I only know what my father’s told me, and it’s been a long time since he was there.”
“It’s been at least as long for me, I suspect,” she said. The boy didn’t appear at all put out by her subtle reminder of the difference in their ages. “How old are you, Little Joe?”
“Why do you ask?” He sipped his champagne, watching her carefully.
“I just wondered,” she said.
“Does it matter?” His gaze was direct, probing.
“I don’t know,” she said with rare candor. “Why don’t you tell me, and we’ll find out?”
“How old do you think I am?” His riposte was as swift as any made with an epée.
“Oh, no,” she laughed. “I wouldn’t dream of guessing.”
“Why not?” His grin was so delicious that it was all she could do not to lean over and kiss him.
“Because if I were to guess too young, you’d be mightily offended, and if I guess too old, your head will swell so much that you’ll never get your hat on,” she said lightly.
“What if you guess just right?” His voice became lower, more intimate.
“Then I win,” she said, matching his tone. He picked up her hand and brought it to his lips, and his touch sent a shiver through her.
“Guess,” he said. His eyes glowed softly, and for an instant, she resented all the girls he would someday fall in love with.
She cocked her head, allowing him to see her pleasure as she studied him. Firm, lean body, just muscular enough not to be wiry. Strong hands, not yet so calloused that they would be rough against her skin. Thick brown curls, barely tamed by whatever hair oil he’d used. Aristocratic, almost delicate bone structure, which was clearly a gift from his mother—Ben’s face was square and peasant-like in its strength. She brushed her fingers along his cheek, feeling the smooth softness of skin that had not yet been tanned to leather by too many years under the harsh western sun. Impish green eyes, fringed by thick black lashes that most women would have killed to have as their own. She ran a finger over his lips, and he pressed it to his mouth and kissed it.
“Nineteen,” she said finally, sitting back.
“Close,” he said.
“High or low?”
“High,” he said. “But only by a couple months.” A hint of trepidation darkened his features. “Is that all right?”
She reached out to touch his face again. “Yes,” she said. “It’s all right.”
She held his arm lightly as they walked along the dusty board sidewalk, back to the Palace. A warm breeze drifted through the street. The shouts and laughter and tinny piano music from half a dozen saloons floated out the batwing doors. She felt him stiffen when they passed the Bentons, and Mrs. Benton flicked a disapproving glance at her, but Julia tightened her grip on Joe’s arm, and so he merely touched the brim of his hat to them.
Inside the Palace, business was booming. If her regulars were surprised to see Julia on the arm of Ben Cartwright’s youngest, they made no mention. She smiled approvingly, although she knew that their lack of comment had less to do with discretion than with not caring very much. As long as the boy didn’t interfere with the way in which the Palace was run, her regulars wouldn’t have cared if he’d set up housekeeping right in the middle of the poker table.
“How’s business tonight, Tom?” she asked, pausing at the bar.
“Doin’ real good, Miss Bulette,” Tom said. He’d worked for her in her last three establishments, but he would never call her Julia. He knew his place, not that she’d ever made him feel like that. Studiously, he avoided looking at the Cartwright kid. She was entitled to do whatever she wanted. He just hoped that the kid wasn’t getting in over his head. There were a lot of people in this town who wouldn’t like to see the two of them together. Already, Tom had heard talk.
“I’m going upstairs, Tom,” she said, as if she were going alone, even though she was still holding the kid’s arm. “Good night.”
“Good night, Miss Bulette.” Tom understood. He took a rag and began to wipe down the already-clean bar, rather than have them think he was watching them head up the stairs together. At least one person should give them their privacy.
Julia unlocked the door to her rooms and led the way inside. Joe stood in the doorway until she’d lit the lamps. “Come in,” she invited. “Would you like a drink?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Suddenly, he’d changed from a charming dinner companion into a shy, awkward boy. She looked at him curiously. “Won’t you sit down?”
“Yes, ma’am, thank you,” he said. He perched on the nearest chair, and she smiled.
“Why don’t you take off your jacket and come sit by me,” she invited as she settled onto the loveseat. He sprang to his feet, dropped his suitcoat on the chair, and approached hesitantly. She smiled encouragingly, and he sat on the edge of the cushion. She handed him a brandy. “What shall we drink to?”
“I don’t know,” he said. He looked so nervous that she wanted to giggle.
Instead, she rested a hand on his arm. “To—new friends and warm summer nights,” she said, clinking her glass softly against his. He gulped down his brandy, and she took his glass, setting it on the table beside her. She set down her own glass and leaned toward him.
Nervous or not, the boy knew how to kiss a woman. Julia had known some astonishingly bad kissers in her time, as well as some very good ones. This boy, young though he was, was one of the better ones. She tasted the brandy as his lips met hers, tender and passionate. She felt his nervousness ease as the kiss intensified, and his hands cradled her head as if to be certain she wouldn’t pull away.
After several minutes, she tried to part his lips with her tongue. He seemed almost startled, but then he allowed her to enter and explore. She ran her hands down his back, crisp cotton protecting his skin from her fingernails. His hands slid to her waist, but they made no attempt to rise higher. Perplexed, she waited, but when no move was forthcoming, she gently placed her hand over his and slid it up her body until it cupped her breast. She laid her hand on his thigh, slowly moving it toward his crotch, and she felt him jump.
A suspicion started to grow in her mind. She hadn’t thought so, but just maybe—
“Joe?” she whispered against his lips.
He grunted, unwilling to stop kissing her. He started to fumble with the buttons on her dress, but he couldn’t manage them strictly by touch. With evident frustration, he broke away from the kiss and directed his attention toward the buttons, but they were still somehow troublesome. And then, in a rare moment of speaking without thinking, Julia asked the question.
“This is your first time, isn’t it?”
The boy jerked back as if she’d slapped him. Fierce shame flooded his handsome face, supplanted an instant later by fiercer pride.
It made sense, of course. Ben would have done his best to instill his strict moral code in his son. Such a handsome young man had undoubtedly done his share of charming the local girls, but it was suddenly clear to Julia that these involvements had likely been of the chaste variety shared by young gentlemen and the proper young ladies they’d been taught to respect—a hand held, a cheek touched, a closed-mouth kiss only when the couple was either engaged or very close to it. Passion, with all of its troublesome glories, was not for the likes of such upstanding young people until after they’d stood before a preacher.
Yet, somehow, instead of waiting for his wedding night as he’d been taught, Little Joe Cartwright had ended up here, ready to lose his virginity to one of the most notorious women he would ever meet.
She could see the question in his eyes—what gave away his secret? What had he done wrong? Nothing, she wanted to tell him. But all at once, she, who had never thought twice about taking a man’s money in exchange for a bit of her experience, was unwilling to take this boy’s innocence.
He rose abruptly. “I’m sorry to have disappointed you,” he said, taking his suitcoat from the chair. “I’ll let myself out. Good night, Miss Bulette.”
Let him go, she told herself, even as her feet carried her across the room. His hand was on the knob when she closed hers over it. “Don’t go,” she said.
“Good night, Miss Bulette.” Formal, respectful, almost cold, but his voice held a note of vulnerability that kept her from letting go.
“Please don’t go. Not like this.” She couldn’t have said why it was so important to her, but it was. She didn’t want the boy to think she’d been laughing at him.
“Then how? Tell me how to go, and I’ll do it.” His voice was harsh with self-mocking. His eyes were fixed on her hand. She peered up at him, and just before he turned away, she saw the tears of mortification glistening in his eyes. Let him go, her mind insisted.
“Joe, please,” she said. “Stay. Let me explain.” He kept his face turned away, and she reached up, her fingers stroking the edge of his ear and down onto his neck. “Please, Joe,” she repeated. When he nodded, she turned away and busied herself with the clinking of glasses as she took an inexorable amount of time to pour them each another brandy. By the time she turned, glasses in hand, he had composed himself so that he looked merely guarded.
He followed her back to the loveseat, hesitating a moment before sitting beside her. She handed him a glass. He held it, not drinking, not meeting her eyes.
“You misunderstood me,” Julia said. “I wasn’t criticizing you, truly I wasn’t. That wasn’t why I asked.”
“Then why did you—”
She laid a gentle hand on the cheek that flamed with embarrassment. “Listen to me, Joe,” she said. She wasn’t a praying woman, but suddenly she found herself wanting someone—God, the fates, whoever—to make this boy pay attention. “There’s only one first time,” she said. “It should be special.” She knew, of course, that this was idealistic at best. Most young men in western towns had their first experiences in saloons or brothels. Few had the discipline or the inclination to wait for true love. Too much time in the saddle, she’d always suspected. It made a man too aware of certain parts of himself.
But somehow, she wanted more for this boy. “Your first lover—she should be someone you—care about,” she finished lamely. She wanted to say “someone you love,” but she’d lived in this world far too long to be able to say that convincingly.
“I care about you,” he said quietly.
“You don’t know anything about me,” she said gently.
“I know everything I need to know,” he said. At the challenge of her raised eyebrow, he said, “I know that you’re beautiful, you’re charming, you’re intelligent. You’ve made a go of this place in spite of everything people say about a woman being able to run a saloon, and you’ve got more spunk than any three men I know. You’ve got a laugh that sounds like music and skin that feels like silk. And on top of everything else—” he took her hand “—you’re a lady.”
Julia Bulette was a realist above all else. Romance was a luxury that her people couldn’t afford. She’d never begrudged the nice girls their frilly, lacy notions about knights in shining armor, or well-dressed gentlemen who would bring them roses and champagne, or shy young men who would promise to love, honor and cherish them till death did them part. There were those who had romance, and those who did not. Julia was one who did not, and she’d never done more than shrug at the hand she’d been dealt.
Until she looked into Little Joe Cartwright’s intense green eyes, and she saw more than admiration for her beauty. More than desire. More than passion seeking a release.
She saw a flicker of something open and trusting and utterly without artifice, something possessed of foolish courage that would crack his heart wide open on the wrong woman and then spend everything in him to convince her that she was the right one, never giving up until even she believed it.
“I care about you,” he repeated.
The intensity of his gaze stole her breath for an instant. It was as if this breathtakingly naïve young man, who hadn’t an ounce of guile in him, somehow knew everything she was. It wasn’t that he didn’t see the checkered past. He could see the saloon owner, and the madam, and the woman that decent people crossed the street to avoid. Even so, he chose to look beyond, to something well-hidden, but just as real. He recognized it all, and yet he looked past the bad to see the good.
Julia had almost forgotten that there was good to be seen.
A better, stronger woman might have kissed such a young man good-bye, closing the door regretfully after him. But Julia Bulette was neither better nor stronger. For the first time in her life, she wanted to be different from who she was. She wanted to be special.
She wanted to be the woman Joe Cartwright saw.
And so, she took the glass out of his hand, and she set it on the table beside her, next to her own. “Are you sure this is what you want?” she asked softly.
“I’m sure,” he said, his eyes searching hers. She leaned forward, and they kissed again. When she reached for him, he caught her hand. Holding it with infinite gentleness, he drew back slightly. She looked at him with a tiny question in her eyes. He looked so serious.
“What is it?” she asked.
He lifted her hand to his lips, kissing it. “I know what I want,” he said. “But I need to know something first.”
“What?” A frisson of dread ran through her.
“Julia—is this what you want?”
No one had ever asked her that. Ever. For an insane moment, she felt as if she’d been plummeting to earth, only to be caught by him in the instant before she crashed. Tell him “no,” her mind screamed. Send him away now, before it’s too late.
But it was already too late.
And she whispered, “Yes.”
* * * * * * * * * *
Julia couldn’t tell if Joe had dozed off or not. His head rested against her shoulder, and he didn’t move as her fingers played lazily with his thick curls. She thought of asking if he were awake, but as she considered the past hour, she figured that he’d earned a nap.
Joe might have been inexperienced, but his instincts were remarkably sound. He wasn’t the first virgin she’d been with, but he was certainly one of the more interesting ones. Granted, she’d had to provide some gentle guidance, including the occasional reminder to slow down, but on the whole, she had to admit that the experience was quite enjoyable.
She didn’t know what his father or brothers might have told him about pleasing a woman, but she knew that he’d grown up on a ranch, so she’d expected that he would have a basic sense of what went where, so to speak. In her experience, though, a lot of farm boys seemed to think that this was all there was to lovemaking, resulting in a fairly tedious three minutes. More than once, she’d found her mind wandering during such an event, although she was usually quite disciplined in remaining focused.
Little Joe Cartwright was quite another matter, though. To begin with, his nickname might have been appropriate in other settings, but not in the bedroom. She’d allowed him to see her admiration after she slid his drawers down. She’d been prepared to appear impressed regardless—her way of making up for her earlier gaffe—but pretending turned out to be quite unnecessary. It occurred to her to wonder ever so briefly if he took after his father in this regard, but she pushed the idea firmly from her mind. Ben Cartwright would never have looked at her the way his son did. Ben had seen her as one who would entice him into sin; his son viewed her as someone to cherish. As the realization struck, she allowed herself to own the fact that she had not, after all, lost anything in not having had Ben—because now, in his son, she had so much more.
At first, Joe had appeared to consider himself responsible for all the undressing, and he seemed to be under the misconception that it should happen as quickly as possible. He’d unbuttoned her dress, nearly shoving it off her. When he’d reached to unfasten his belt, she’d stayed his hand with her own. “Please, allow me,” she said. He stopped, and she drew him into a deep kiss, pressing herself against him. When she felt him respond, she smiled and reached down to unfasten his belt. She dropped it on the floor, kissed him again, and then pulled his shirt from his pants.
When she kissed him this time, she allowed her hands to roam beneath the crisp cotton, feeling the smooth hardness of his chest and back. As if on cue, he began to allow his hands to explore her body as they kissed. He reached up under her chemise, but kept his hands to her back at first. After a bit, he moved them around to her waist, but he seemed to be uncertain as to whether she would allow him to take the next step. Ever so gently, she placed his hand over hers and guided it upward to cup her breast, and she heard him gasp. His fingers explored, and when she made a sound of pleasure at his handling of her nipple, he understood that she wanted more, and he obliged. Without being told, he drew her chemise over her head and began to kiss his way down her throat to her chest, and then to her breasts. She arched her neck as his lips and tongue found their way to her nipple, and he teased the erect rosebud with his tongue as she groaned with pleasure.
As he kissed her body, she reached for his. She couldn’t reach his shirt collar well, so she reached over and unfastened his pants. He straightened, and she smiled as she slid them down over his tight bottom. Then, she lightly brought her hands around to the front and brushed his manhood, which was already straining at his drawers. Her fingers teased him until he was moaning. Slowly, keeping one hand below, she unbuttoned his shirt with the other and slid it off his shoulders.
Then, they stood together, she in her pantelets and he in his drawers. He drew her into his arms, pressing her breasts against his bare chest as they kissed. She slid her hands into the back of his drawers, luxuriating in the feel of his skin. Then, she drew back slightly, enough for him to open his eyes, and she smiled. Ever so slowly, not breaking eye contact, she began to inch his drawers down his body. Smiling broadly, he untied the tie of her pantalets, allowing them to fall to the floor.
“I win,” he murmured, grinning. His hands, more confident now, stroked her body. She stood still, enjoying. The more she let him see her enjoyment, the more he seemed to want to do for her.
At last, she said, “Wait.” She pushed his drawers the rest of the way down, and he kicked them off. For a moment, they stood beside the bed, not touching. She thought of teasing that it was his last chance to change his mind, but suddenly, she had no words. Instead, she drew him down on the bed, kissing him again. She reached for his hand and guided it between her legs. His eyes widened, and his fingers began to explore. She let him know when he pleased her, and he pleased her more.
Finally, she reached for him. She kissed him tenderly as she guided him into her. His mouth opened in awe. Subtly, she moved, and he began to move with her. “That’s it, take it slow,” she whispered, and he did. “A little more,” she murmured a few minutes later, and he began to pick up the pace and the intensity. From there, he needed no more instruction, building until their pleasure exploded.
Afterward, they lay quietly, his arm across her body as his head rested against her shoulder and her fingers played with his hair. “You’re awfully quiet,” she said finally. “Are you all right?”
He nodded without lifting his head. “Can I ask you something?”
“What?” When he said nothing, she asked again, “What, Joe?”
“Was that—was that all right? For you, I mean?”
She couldn’t help it—she laughed with relief. His head came up sharply, and she hastened to reassure him. “Oh, my darling,” she said. “It was most definitely all right. Very, very all right.” He looked skeptical, as if she might be playing with him, and she leaned over and kissed him, long and deep. “Very, very all right,” she repeated.
“You’re sure?” Suddenly, he looked very young.
She ran her fingers over his lovely high cheekbones. She looked him squarely in the eye and nodded. “I’m quite sure,” she said. “Believe me. I’m not just saying it.”
He smiled shyly. “I’m glad,” he said. “It was—very all right for me, too.”
She smiled. “I’m glad,” she responded. He shifted his position so that now, it was he who held her close. “I’m very glad,” she murmured, nestling into his embrace.
* * * * * * * * * *
Julia was already out of bed when Joe awoke on Sunday morning. She always gave Mathilda Sundays off; this time, prompted by she knew not what, she’d given Mathilda Saturday off as well, and it was a good thing. Not that Mathilda probably thought that Julia spent every night alone, but since she didn’t live in, it was none of her business anyway. To have her there during the day, though, while Julia and Joe spent the entire day making love—that would have been awkward, to say the least.
Not since her first patron had Julia had a lover whose tastes ran outside the limited range from plebian to bourgeois. Jean-Paul had taught her well, but she’d had precious little opportunity, especially in recent years, to indulge in interesting variations on the well-established theme. Eventually, she’d simply stopped thinking about it. Sex had always been largely a business venture anyway; most men had little interest in anything beyond the prompt gratification of their own needs, and that was what paid the bills. Her private fantasies were precisely that.
And so, the youngest son of the upright Ben Cartwright had proven to be a marvelous surprise. Inexperienced he might be, but Joe’s delightful lack of inhibition and sense of play in bed more than made up for any deficiencies due to innocence. In fact, he was game for anything she initiated, as well as having some unexpected ideas of his own. By afternoon, they had moved from the bedroom to the loveseat, the armchair, and the parlor rug, and then to the floor of her small kitchen, where they’d drizzled brandy over each other and licked it off. He’d even suggested that, after the Palace was closed, they should creep downstairs and make love right there on the bar, a notion so outrageous that she was truly tempted.
“Good morning, darling,” said Julia as she entered the bedroom, bearing a tray. At the sight of the boy in her bed, hair tousled and eyes bleary with sleep, her heart made a queer little leap. Immediately, she recovered herself, all business as she set the tray on the table beside the window. “Did you sleep well?”
“Very well,” he said. It was true; he’d slept next to her, holding her, and so he’d slept well. “How about you?”
“Quite well, thank you. Would you like some breakfast?”
“Sure.” She watched as he gathered himself stiffly and climbed out of the bed without sitting. When he turned his back to her, bending over to pick up for the dark green robe she’d laid out for him, she frowned slightly at the sight of the bruising she’d left on the ivory buttocks. Without a word, she reached past him for a pillow, which she set on one of the chairs before setting herself on the other one.
Little Joe eased himself gingerly onto the pillow. He shifted, trying to find a more comfortable position, but there simply wasn’t one. She’d been too thorough in her ministrations.
He looked up to see her smiling. “A little sore this morning, my dear?”
“A little,” he admitted, blushing.
A lot, she thought. It crossed her mind that, if he couldn’t sit comfortably on a pillow, he was going to have quite a time in the saddle. “Perhaps we can do something about that after breakfast,” she said as she poured his coffee, adding cream and sugar without asking. Apparently, she’d been a bit too hard on him. After all, it was his first time with the paddle. She hadn’t actually expected that he’d go along with it, in spite of his delicious eagerness to experiment in other ways, and perhaps she’d been a bit overenthusiastic as a result. She’d have to make it up to him well if she wanted him to come back for more.
As soon as they were finished, Joe rose so hastily that he nearly knocked the table over. She couldn’t suppress a smile. “Why don’t you lie down for a bit,” she suggested. “I have an idea.” He looked perplexed, but she simply kissed him and left the room. Half an hour later, she returned to find him lying on his stomach, sound asleep. She knelt beside him on the bed. “Little Joe,” she whispered into his ear, with more breath than absolutely necessary.
He jerked awake. “Sorry, I dozed off,” he said groggily. He rolled onto his side and tried to draw her down beside him.
“No, I have something for you,” she said. She was resisting only by a mighty effort—and by her knowledge of what was ahead. “Now, you come with me.” Reluctantly, he allowed her to tug at his hand, pulling him from the bed. He knotted the sash of the robe and followed her into the dressing room area.
A large copper bathtub was filled with steaming water and herbs with grassy scents. She smiled at his expression, which said that as clearly as words that, while he appreciated the thought, sitting in the hard tub wasn’t likely to be all that pleasant an experience. In the next moment, he saw the towel, folded on the bottom of the tub to cushion him, and he relaxed. Julia did think of everything.
She unknotted the sash of his robe and slid it off his shoulders. She kissed his hard chest and ran her hands over his lean form. Almost involuntarily, she reached up and crossed her wrists behind his neck to pull him closer. He leaned in and kissed her deeply, his hands moving from her waist upwards.
Julia broke the kiss, stepping back. “In you go,” she said.
“Are you sure?” he asked, one eyebrow raised.
“Very,” she said. “You need to soak a bit,” she said primly, and he laughed at her effort to sound proper. He stepped into the tub, easing himself onto the towel and wincing a bit as his bruised buttocks made contact. He stretched out, grinning at her, surprisingly at ease with the notion of lying buck naked in front of her. Just a few short days ago, he hadn’t known more than her name and her reputation. But now. . . .
She knelt beside the tub, dipping a washcloth into the water. As he lay back in the water, she gently bathed him, beginning at his feet and working her way up his body. As she went, she massaged his tight muscles, smiling at his groans of pleasure. Occasionally, she drew his hand or foot from the water for a kiss or a nibble or the flick of her tongue. She left periodically, returning with a kettle of water to warm the bath and another handful of herbs to soothe his soreness. His private area was treated only to simple washing, although it was begging for more attention, and she pretended not to notice the question in his eyes when she moved up toward his firm abdomen.
“Now, turn over,” she instructed. He did so, albeit with some effort. Her deceptively delicate-looking hands worked his shoulders and back muscles with surprising strength, and he moaned with delight.
Then, her hands moved down to his bruised buttocks. He couldn’t suppress a quick intake of breath. “Oh, Julia,” he murmured. Her touch was as sensual as it was painful. Gently, she kneaded his bottom, working the soreness until it was a delicious ache. She knew that she’d remedied his discomfort enough when he rolled onto his back and reached for her. “Come here,” he murmured. She regarded the lithe young body before her for just a moment. Then, she shed her own dressing gown and stepped into the bathtub.
Afterward, when there was water all over the floor and they were both spent from passion and laughter, he pulled her to her feet, wrapping her in an embrace that spoke of much more than mere desire. Before she could think of what to do next to be sure that he remembered who was in charge, he was kissing her again, hard and deep, as he swept her up into his arms and carried her, dripping, to the bedroom.
The rational corner of her mind wanted to resist him. It wouldn’t do to be so involved with this boy. She had a business to run. People had expectations. The idea of having Little Joe Cartwright as something more than a mere plaything was simply impractical. His father would never stand for it. The boy wouldn’t want to share her in the way he would need to. Everything about this spoke of either a quick liaison or a complete disaster.
But as Little Joe laid her on the bed and began to touch her with hands that were becoming more skilled and confident each time, she knew that she wouldn’t stop. Not yet. She needed to, she ought to, she should, but she wouldn’t. What was going on here wasn’t merely about bodies. Somehow, a line had been crossed. And even though it scared her, and even though she knew that this was a disaster waiting to happen, she knew that she would keep him here as long as he would stay. And so, she surrendered herself to him, as he prepared to take her again, and again.
* * * * * * * * * *
Hours later, Julia woke to see Joe watching her. “What are you doing?” she asked lazily.
“Watching you sleep,” he smiled. He ran his fingers lightly along her jaw, drawing her toward him for a kiss.
“Now, why would you want to do a thing like that?” she asked, twisting his curl around her finger.
“Because you weren’t awake,” he said logically. “If you were awake, I’d watch you awake, but you weren’t, so I watched you sleep.”
She laughed, her fingers caressing his smooth skin. “Why would you want to watch me at all?”
“Because you’re the most beautiful, fascinating, exciting woman I’ve ever met,” he said. “I never want to stop watching you.”
His gaze was so honest and intent that she felt a shiver pass through her. Immediately, she reverted to her business-like demeanor. “It’s past one o’clock,” she said. “You must be starving. Stay here. I’ll fix us something to eat.”
“I’ll help,” he offered.
“Just stay here,” she said. “I’ll only be a minute.” She reached for her dressing gown and was out of the room before she’d even tied the sash.
A few minutes later, she returned with a tray, but Joe was nowhere to be seen. She turned just in time to see him coming in from the parlor with a quilt. When she started to put the tray on the table, he said, “Oh, no, you don’t.” He smoothed the covers and spread the quilt, and then he set the tray in the middle of the quilt. “Come back to bed. We’re going to have a picnic.”
“Of course. It’s what people do on Sundays.”
“All the time. After church, a man takes his best girl out for a drive, and they stop at some pretty place and have a picnic. You’re definitely my best girl, and I could take you for a drive, but then we’d have to put on clothes, and that wouldn’t be nearly as nice. So, I figured we could have our picnic right here and save ourselves a lot of bother.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever been on a picnic,” she said with a touch of wonder. How was it possible that she’d gone her entire life without ever having had this simple experience?
“Well then, it’s high time you were,” he said. He slid the dressing gown from her shoulders. “It’s very important to be dressed properly for a picnic,” he added, nuzzling her neck as he smoothed his hands over her body. They kissed, and then he said, “So, what have we got for our picnic?”
She laughed. He could go from boy to man in a flash, and just like that, he was a boy again. “Cold chicken, cheese, grapes, bread, and wine. Mathilda usually cooks on Saturdays and leaves me leftovers for Sunday, but she wasn’t in yesterday.”
“Good thing,” Joe said. “She’d probably never have come back again. May I?” He offered her his hand and, with as much formal dignity as if he were assisting her into a grand ballroom, he helped her onto the bed to sit next to the tray. Then, he took his place on the other side of the tray, stretching out as she poured the wine. He held up his wineglass. “What shall we drink to this time?”
She couldn’t help laughing with sheer delight. If anyone had told her two days earlier that she’d spend Sunday afternoon having a picnic in the nude on her bed with Little Joe Cartwright, she’d have said they were stark raving mad. And yet, here she was, and as she met his incredible smile, she knew that there was nowhere else she’d rather be.
“To being stark raving mad,” she said, and she laughed again at his expression as their glasses clinked.
* * * * * * * * * *
That evening, Joe came up behind her as she stood in front of the mirror. He wrapped his arms around her waist and nuzzled her neck. “You don’t need to go downstairs yet, do you?”
She laughed at the puppy dog eyes reflected in the mirror. Her hands rested on his. “You know, for someone who was raised to be such a good boy, you’re becoming quite a bad influence,” she said, closing her eyes as he nibbled at her neck. These two days with him were the first time in her life that she’d simply ignored her saloon to be with a man.
“Who, me?” He widened his eyes in mock innocence, even as he pressed himself against her backside. “Am I ‘influencing’ you, Miss Bulette?”
She reached behind her to stroke him. “I’d say that’s pretty influential,” she smiled. She turned from the mirror. “In fact, I’d have to say that I’m very influenced.”
“Then stay here, and I’ll influence you some more.” His hands stroked her as he brought her close, kissing her. “Or don’t you want to be—influenced?”
“I’m supposed to be working,” she said, allowing him to remove her earrings and toss them on the dressing table.
“You will be—later,” he said with a boldness that surprised even him, and which she found almost disconcertingly attractive.
“Your father would disapprove, you know,” Julia murmured as the boy’s soft lips found hers again. She allowed her fingers to meander through his thick curls, dipping ever so slightly to just brush the bare skin above the collar of his robe before moving back up.
“He’s just jealous.” Little Joe’s hands caressed her graceful neck, even as his kisses moved downward from her luscious mouth to that spot right under her jaw that always made her catch her breath. He continued a trail of gentle, insistent kisses and light nibbles until he reached the neckline of her dress. He looked up at her, devilish and shy all at once, and grinned.
“May I?” he asked, knowing the answer already. At her laugh, light and musical, he began to unbutton the bodice of her dress, marveling at his great good fortune that she was his.
Julia’s fingers played in his curls, gently pressing his head to her chest. Her breath caught again as his tongue glided in the now-exposed area between her breasts. Little Joe was a fast learner, she had to give him that much. He continued kissing her even as he finished unbuttoning her dress, easing it off her shoulders. She stood still as he lifted her chemise over her head and slid her pantalets over her hips to drop to the floor. He took her hand and drew her forward, clear of the pile of clothing. Then, he stepped back and gazed at her appreciatively.
“You are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen,” he said, and it was so obviously true that the notorious Julia Bulette actually felt herself blushing. There was something about this boy, his charm and his innocence and his sensuousness, that was slipping past all of her carefully-constructed defenses. She would need to be very, very careful to maintain control. Otherwise, she could do the unthinkable.
She could fall in love.
* * * * * * * * * *
Julia had just finished re-dressing for the evening when there was a knock at the door. She frowned, adjusting her earring as she crossed the room. A quick glance assured her that the bedroom door was firmly closed.
She opened the door to see a tall, dark man with a grim expression. “Miss Bulette?”
“Yes.” She gave nothing away as she appraised him.
“I’d like to speak with you for a minute, if I may.”
“And you are—”
“Adam Cartwright, Miss Bulette.”
Her expression didn’t change as she stepped aside to admit him. She supposed she should have been expecting something like this. She closed the door and turned to him. “What can I do for you, Mr. Cartwright?”
“Send my brother home, where he belongs.”
Julia regarded him for a moment. “You don’t waste time, do you?” she said wryly. “Would you like a brandy?”
“No, thank you.” His words were perfectly mannered, but there was an anger simmering beneath them.
Deliberately, Julia poured herself a brandy and sipped. “Now, Mr. Cartwright,” she said. “What makes you think that I could make your brother go home, even if I were willing to try?”
“Because he’ll do what you tell him to do,” said Adam. “If you tell him to leave, he’ll leave.”
“And if I tell him to stay. . . .” She took another sip, cocking her head. “You seem to think that I have enormous power over your brother.”
“Are you always this direct, Mr. Cartwright?”
“When I need to be.” His hazel eyes showed a flash of anger for just a moment. “Miss Bulette, my little brother is just a boy—but he’s a boy who thinks he’s in love.”
A lesser woman might have been stopped in her tracks by Adam Cartwright’s words. Even Julia felt her stomach flip before she reminded herself that Adam hadn’t seen his brother in days and couldn’t possibly know what the boy was thinking. Thus strengthened, she took issue with the weakest part of his assertion, deliberately leaving the implication that his conclusion was fact.
“‘Thinks’?” she asked archly. “Don’t you believe it possible that he actually could be in love?”
“No, I don’t,” said Adam.
“Because he’s a boy—or because it’s me?”
For the first time, Adam faltered slightly. Then, he squared his shoulders. “Both,” he said. “The kid’s hot-headed and passionate, and he’s loyal to a fault—and you’ve introduced him to something that’s turned the heads of men who are a lot more sensible than an eighteen-year-old kid.”
Neither of them saw the punch coming that knocked Adam Cartwright off his feet. Julia gasped, and Adam rubbed his jaw. Sprawled on her oriental rug, he looked up at his brother, who was clad in the dark green robe.
“Get out,” said Joe, eyes blazing. “And so help me God, Adam, if you ever speak to Miss Bulette that way again, I’ll kill you.”
Adam looked from Julia to Joe. Julia watched the significance of Joe’s attire register on the elder Cartwright’s face before she turned to Little Joe.
“Joe, it’s all right,” said Julia, taking his arm.
“No, it’s not all right,” said Joe, eyes fixed on his brother. “My brother owes you an apology, and then he’s going to leave.”
After a moment, Adam stood, still rubbing his jaw. “Joe’s right,” he said. “I do owe you an apology, Miss Bulette. I shouldn’t have said what I did. I apologize.” He turned to his brother. “And you’re coming home.”
“I’ll leave when Miss Bulette wants me to go,” said Joe.
“You’re coming now. Get dressed, and let’s go.” Adam Cartwright didn’t yet have the commanding presence of his father, but Julia could see that the day was coming. The notion that this could have been Ben, standing in her parlor and ordering the boy around, stiffened her spine.
“I’m not going with you, Adam,” said Joe with more dignity than she would ever have credited to an eighteen-year-old boy wearing nothing but a dressing gown.
“You don’t have a choice, Joe.” Adam took a step toward his brother, and Julia stepped forward quickly.
“I’m not going to have fighting here,” she said. “If you two want to brawl, I suggest that you take it out on the street.”
“We’re not going to fight, darling,” said Joe. “Adam was just leaving.”
A slight frown creased Adam’s face at Joe’s use of the endearment. The concern, she knew, came not from the word itself, but from the fact that Joe had clearly used it without thinking. More than anything, that offhand comment seemed to hammer home for Adam Cartwright just how much had changed since Little Joe arrived at her door two days earlier.
“Joe, are you sure?” she asked in a low voice.
He smiled. “I’m sure,” he said, kissing her forehead. His eyes, so tender looking at her, were marble-hard an instant later as he glared at his brother. “Get out,” he said.
Adam looked again from his brother to Julia. He was far better than Little Joe at hiding his thoughts, but even Julia could see that he was weighing his options. One of the options, she knew, was going to be to remove Joe bodily—Adam was not only older, but bigger and likely stronger. Since Joe was clearly not amenable to discussion, Adam would probably have to use brawn. And the fact was that if he wanted to knock the boy senseless, sling him over his shoulder and carry him out of there, there wasn’t likely to be much either she or Joe could do.
So, Julia used what she had. She took Joe’s arm, and then turned a fierce glare on his brother. “We’ve said all there is to say, Mr. Cartwright,” she said coldly, even as her fingers stroked Joe’s sleeve. We’re together, Joe and I, her gesture said. You can’t divide us. Even if you haul him out of here like a sack of grain, he’ll come back to me. She watched him trying to not to look at her hand on his brother’s arm, and she felt a small thrill of victory as his frown revealed that he understood. Only then did she release Joe’s arm and step forward to open the door. “Good-bye.”
“Pa wants you to come home,” said Adam. Joe barely flinched, but she knew that that arrow had hit its mark.
“Tell Pa I’ll be home when I’m good and ready,” said Joe. There was a slight wobble in his defiance. She knew that Adam heard it, too, because he simply nodded, bid her a good evening, and left.
She closed the door after him and turned to Joe, who was still watching the place where his brother had been. Her reflex was to take him in her arms and draw him back into the bedroom, to make him forget Adam had ever been here, but there was something in his face that stopped her.
Unbidden, the thought came to her: this is what it would be like for him, to be with me. As long as it was just the two of them, here in her rooms, they could have a fine and lovely time, but the outside world would never stand for Ben Cartwright’s son with the likes of Julia Bulette. Adam Cartwright was merely the first of many who would try to come between them.
Eventually, someone would succeed.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Julia turned from the bar to see a large man with somber blue eyes. He held a large cream-colored hat in his hand. Little Joe’s other brother, to be sure. Hoss, he’d said. She hadn’t expected him quite so soon after Adam’s departure. She’d rather thought he’d wait until morning.
“Yes, Mr. Cartwright?” She allowed herself an instant of triumph at his expression. She led him to a corner table and took a seat, gesturing for him to do the same. “You’re here to ask me to send your brother home,” she said without preamble.
“Yes’m.” Hoss Cartwright set his hat on the table. “We’d be much obliged if you would.”
“I’m not holding him against his will, you know,” she said. She raised a finger, and a bottle of brandy and two glasses were set on the table. She poured, setting the other glass in front of Hoss, but he made no move toward it.
“I know that, ma’am,” he said. “But—well—I reckon he’ll stay as long as you’ll have him.” He blushed, and she felt an odd sort of pity.
In the next moment, she steeled herself. “You do know that your other brother has already been here, asking the same thing,” she said, sipping.
“Yes’m, he told me,” Hoss said. “He said you wouldn’t send the boy home.”
Julia sat back. “You both do that, don’t you?” she mused. “Calling him a boy.”
“He’s eighteen, ma’am. He is a boy.”
“Perhaps,” she said. “But he’s not a child.”
“Your brother and I are fond of each other,” she said. “We enjoy each other’s company. Why is this such a crime in the eyes of the Cartwrights?”
“It ain’t—it ain’t a crime—it’s just—” She knew what he was fumbling to say, and a flare of anger flashed in her.
“It’s just that I’m not the proper sort of companion for a respectable young man, is that it, Mr. Cartwright? You’d like me to step aside gracefully so that I don’t sully your brother’s reputation any further. A few days with me could be passed off as a youthful indiscretion, but the longer we remain together, the more it begins to look more like a failure of his character—or his upbringing.” She stood, her anger under tight control. “As I told your brother, and as I will no doubt tell your father when he appears at my door with the same demand, whether Little Joe stays or goes is entirely up to him. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a saloon to run.”
Hoss rose. “I’m sorry, ma’am,” he said, and he sounded as if he meant it. “We’re just worried about him. I didn’t mean to offend.” His eyes were dark with misery, and for a moment, she nearly felt compassion toward him.
“I accept your apology,” she said. “Good evening, Mr. Cartwright.” She turned on her heel, head held high, as she began to consider what activities, public and private, the evening might hold.
* * * * * * * * * *
The next morning, when she awoke, she was alone in her bed. She rolled over to see Joe standing at the foot of the bed, pants in hand.
“I wouldn’t bother if I were you,” she said lazily. His head shot around, and she smiled. “Come here,” she invited.
“I need to get back to the ranch,” he said. “I haven’t been home in three days. I have work to do.” But he laid down his pants and sat on the edge of the bed next to her. “You are so beautiful,” he murmured, his fingers gentle on her cheek.
“Nobody’s beautiful at this time of the day,” said Julia lightly. Never would she let him see how much his words meant to her. Not that she had any questions about her appearance. She knew from her own mirror, as well as the comments of countless men, how attractive she was. But she knew by now that, when Joe Cartwright said those words, he meant something else entirely. He wasn’t just talking about her hair and her lips and her figure. He was talking about what he saw in her eyes in those intimate moments when nothing was hidden.
And in those moments, she could almost believe him.
But the rest of the time, with her armor in place, she deflected such comments. She let him know, with a kiss or a touch, that she appreciated the sentiment, but she never said anything to suggest that she gave credence to his words. It was her way. Because in the light of day, with everyone properly dressed and going about their business, there was simply no room for fantasies.
He smiled. He understood just a little bit better than he had three days ago. “You’re beautiful at any time of day,” he said. He craned his neck as if angling for a glimpse of what was hidden beneath the coverlet, and she laughed. She had never laughed so much in her life as she had in these few days with Little Joe Cartwright.
“Go to work, then,” she said. “I’ll just lie here, all alone in this great big bed, and think about you.”
“I’ll think about you lying there thinking about me,” he promised. His fingers were gentle as they stroked her neck. “May I come back tonight?”
“Aren’t you tired of me?” She was only half-joking.
“I could never be tired of you,” he said. “It would be like getting tired of breathing.”
She couldn’t suppress a smile at that. “Aren’t you the romantic one,” she said. She drew him to her and kissed him softly. “You don’t have to come back tonight,” she said seriously. “It’s a long ride. Besides, I have to work, too.”
He sat up, troubled. “Don’t you want me to come back?”
She held back a sigh. She sometimes forgot just how young he was. “It’s up to you,” she said. “I’ll be here either way.”
“Then I’ll be back tonight,” he promised, pulling her close.
“Joe, if you want to stay with your family, I understand,” said Julia. She rested her hand on his thigh, controlling only with effort the urge to move it the short distance that would make him stay now.
He laid his hand on hers, holding it firmly in place as he kissed her more intensely than he’d have done only a few days earlier. “I’ll be back tonight,” he promised. He dressed, tipped his hat and left. As the door closed, she reached for the pillow he’d slept on and held it tightly, burying her nose in it to catch a whiff of his scent.
* * * * * * * * * *
He came back that night, and the next, and the next. Julia watched with fond amusement as Little Joe drank and gambled and scrapped and generally had himself a grand old time. The regulars looked on him as a mere curiosity, when they paid attention at all, but the boy reveled in this new world known as Julia’s Palace, downstairs as well as upstairs.
There was only one small hitch. As the owner and hostess, Julia needed to be friendly with the men who came in. They came not just for the drinks and the gambling, but also for the beautiful women who flirted and laughed with them. She’d explained this to Joe in no uncertain terms on the first night he came back. She couldn’t afford for him to alienate her customers. It was just business, she assured him. She didn’t tell him that, in the past, business had sometimes included going upstairs. There was no point in mentioning that.
Especially since she was beginning to think that she no longer wanted business to go upstairs.
It was clear to her that he was doing his best to respect the demands of her role. On several occasions, though, she saw him watching with an intent frown as she entertained some of her more boisterous customers. She caught his eye and shook her head slightly when she saw him scowl at a gambler’s hand on her waist or a miner’s gaze at her bodice. She could take care of herself, she told him silently. Even so, his fierce glare warned that they had better not step out of line.
Julia knew that it would only be a matter of time before someone would overstep the boundaries. And when that happened, Little Joe Cartwright would take it upon himself to avenge her honor.
* * * * * * * * * *
A knock at the door, a deep voice answering Mathilda’s, and the person she’d been expecting appeared in the bedroom doorway. She took one last moment to hold the damp cloth, scented with healing herbs, against Joe’s bruised face, before she looked up.
“Hello, Ben,” she said.
“Hello, Julia.” But his attention was already focused on his son. She told herself that the horror in his eyes was due to the florid bruises on the boy’s face, rather than the fact that it was her bed in which he lay, with his bare shoulders suggesting the absence of any other clothing—or that it was she who sat beside him.
“He’s fine, he’s just sleeping,” she said, not rising. “The doctor gave him something for the pain. It makes him groggy.”
Just then, Little Joe stirred, the slight movement commanding their attention. Ben stepped forward, reaching past her to stroke his son’s hair. “Joe? Can you hear me, son?”
“Pa?” the boy managed. Through bleary, half-opened eyes, he looked from his father to Julia. Clearly confused, he murmured, “What are you doing here?”
“Sssssh,” said Julia. “Go back to sleep, everything’s fine.”
“I’m right here, son,” said Ben. “You just rest now. I’m not going anyplace.” The boy’s eyes were already closing, and this last line was delivered directly to Julia, who held the father’s gaze steadily. As his son succumbed to healing sleep, Ben jerked his head to indicate that she should leave the room with him.
Julia Bulette knew which men to fear. Ben Cartwright was not one of them. He would never strike her. Even so, as he glared at her, Julia felt her heart begin to pound. Deliberately, she turned back to Joe, fingers skimming his cheek. When she had summoned sufficient control, she rose and followed Ben out of the room, drawing the door closed behind them.
“It’s not as bad as it looks,” she said, leading him into the parlor. “Mostly cuts and bruises. The doctor thinks he may have cracked a couple of ribs.” She handed him a brandy. “What is it you men always say? You should see the other fellow.”
“But it wasn’t just one other fellow, it was four,” said Ben. She wasn’t surprised that he’d gathered his information before coming. “I’m taking him home, Julia.”
“Shouldn’t that be up to him?” She sipped her brandy. “And please, don’t tell me he’s just a boy and doesn’t know his own mind. Your other two sons have already tried that.”
“He’s hurt,” said Ben. “He needs to be in his own home, his own room—”
“—his own bed,” she finished quietly. “Not mine.”
“Yes,” said Ben levelly. Their eyes met for a long moment. Then, Julia turned and walked to the window, looking down at the street. Finally, she turned back to him.
“It’s his decision, Ben,” she said.
“He’s just a boy,” his father said.
She shook her head. “That is a mistake you Cartwrights seem to make a lot,” she said. “That young man is not a child, Ben. He may not entirely grown up, but he’s not the little boy you all seem to remember, either.” She set her glass on the table, her mind made up. “When he wakes up, I will ask him what he wants to do. If he wants to go back to the Ponderosa with you, I will not stand in his way. If he wants to stay here, you may spend as much time with him as you like while he recuperates.” She drew a deep breath. “But if you try to take him out of here against his will, Ben—it will get very, very ugly, and I assure you, you will lose—one way or another.”
She could see the anger rising in him. His nostrils flared, and his breathing came hard. She held steady, watching him. He threw back his brandy in one gulp, and it was his turn to look out the window. She waited, watching his tense back. At last, he turned.
“Why are you doing this?” he whispered.
“Trying to destroy my family. Why, Julia? I’ve never done anything to you. Never.”
She opened her mouth to speak, but found she had no answer. “I’m not trying to destroy your family,” she said after a minute. “Why is it so difficult for you all to believe that?”
“Then what is it you want? Tell me, and I’ll give it to you, whatever it is. Just don’t take my son.” His dark eyes were pleading now.
“Miss Bulette?” They turned to see Mathilda standing in the doorway. “Little Joe’s asking for you, ma’am,” she said. Ben and Julia hurried to the bedroom.
Julia sat on one side of the bed, Ben on the other. Joe looked from one to the other. “What’s going on?” His words were slurred, his eyes only half-open.
“How are you feeling?” she asked, her touch deliberately intimate against his face.
“I’m fine,” he said. “Pa, what are you doing here?”
“I came to see you,” Ben said lightly. The eyes that had held such cold anger toward her were warm with love as they beheld his son. “I hear you had a little trouble last night.”
“Nothin’ serious,” Joe said. “Just a couple of miners who didn’t know how to talk to a lady.”
Ben stiffened almost imperceptibly. Keeping his voice light, he said, “Looks like you’re going to be mighty sore for a while. Doc seems to think you cracked a couple ribs.”
Joe shrugged, wincing at the movement. “Ain’t like I’ve never done that before.”
“I know,” said Ben. He stroked his son’s hair. “I think you should come home and rest up, Joe.”
Joe peered first at his father, then at Julia. “Did you send for Pa?” he asked.
“No,” she reassured him. “He came because he heard you’d been hurt.” The boy looked unconvinced, and she took his hand in both of hers, stroking it.
“Julia didn’t ask me to come,” Ben confirmed, almost unwillingly. Julia shot him a grateful look, but his attention was focused on his son. “She sent us a note to tell us what happened, but that was all.”
Joe relaxed visibly. The three sat quietly for a few minutes. Just as Joe was starting to doze off again, he murmured, “Pa, can I talk to Julia alone?”
“The best thing for you right now, young man, is rest,” said Ben with affectionate sternness. “You can talk to Miss Bulette later.”
Julia tried not to bristle at Ben’s response. He was right that Joe needed to rest, but it irked her to have the boy dismissed so. Ignoring Ben, she said, “What is it, darling?” The endearment was out of her mouth before she realized it, and she mentally kicked herself, knowing that Ben would consider it a deliberate manipulation rather than an honest expression of affection.
Joe looked at his father. After a moment more, Ben rose. “Just for a minute, and then I want to you to get some sleep.”
“Yes, sir,” Joe said. Ben’s jaw was clenched as he caught Julia’s eye, but he left the room and didn’t slam the door.
“Your father’s right, you know,” she said, kissing his hand. “You need to rest.”
“Julia—I think I should go back to the Ponderosa,” he said.
For the tiniest second, everything froze. Carefully, she maintained the same tone as she said, “Is that what you want to do?”
“No,” he said. “But Pa needs me to be there.”
“Your father is fine,” Julia said. “I’ve already told him that if you want to stay here, he’s welcome to be here, too.”
“Too hard for him.” The boy was getting drowsier. “Needs me home.”
She pressed his hand against her chest. With the faintest grin, he started to slide it downward to her breast, and she burst out laughing. “You’re incorrigible,” she said. She leaned over to kiss him, and he reached up to hold her close.
“I love you,” he murmured against her lips.
It was as if he’d doused her with ice water. Only by the greatest effort did she not jerk away. “You need to sleep now,” she said. She laid a gentle hand on his lovely, bruised face. “We’ll talk about the rest later.” She rose and adjusted the coverlet over him.
His words reached her as her hand was on the doorknob. “I mean it,” he whispered. She looked back to see his eyes closing. Then, deliberately, she opened the door.
Ben was in the parlor, looking out the window. As she came into the room, he turned to her, the question plain on his face.
“He wants to go back to the Ponderosa,” she said. “He’s asleep now. As soon as he’s awake, you can go.”
“Thank you,” said Ben. His eyes asked, but he gave no voice to his thoughts.
“Don’t thank me. He made his own decision,” said Julia, betraying no emotion. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go and check on things downstairs.” She was out the door and sweeping down the stairs before Ben could speak.
* * * * * * * * * *
She sensed his presence in the moment before he spoke. “Hello, Julia,” Little Joe said, his voice quiet under the din.
Julia turned, deliberately cheerful and professional. “Well, you look much better than the last time I saw you,” she said, immediately breaking her first resolution, which was to make no mention of their past.
He smiled. “I’m feeling much better,” he said. His eyes were questioning, but her defenses were solid.
“It’s good to see you again,” she said brightly. She started to turn away, but his hand on her arm stopped her.
“You never answered my letters,” he said. During his recuperation, he’d sent notes into town nearly every day.
“I’m not much of a letter writer,” she said.
“I invited you out to the Ponderosa,” he said.
“I know,” she admitted. “It didn’t seem like a good idea.” She smiled as if she felt like it. “It’s good to see you again,” she repeated. “Now, if you’ll excuse me—”
“No.” His hand tightened on her arm, just a bit. “Not until you tell me why.”
“Why you don’t want to see me.”
“What makes you think I don’t want to see you?”
“The past two weeks,” said Little Joe. The pain in his eyes was undeniable. He was going to have to learn to bluff a lot better if he was ever to play poker without losing his shirt. In his face, she could see it all: his growing hurt and confusion as each new day passed with no message from her, the attempts by his brothers to distract him and jolly him along, the efforts by his father to explain how she came from a different world and maybe this was all for the best, after all.
She’d stayed downstairs, laughing and chatting with customers until she looked up to see Ben helping Joe down the stairs. The boy was too pale under his bruises and clearly unsteady on his feet. Without thinking, she hurried to help Ben get him to a chair, and then she knelt beside Joe. “Are you sure you want to do this today?” she asked. “You can wait until tomorrow if you want.”
Joe smiled groggily. “Just tired,” he said, clumsily resting his hand against her face. “Had more painkiller. Don’t feel anything.”
She looked up at Ben again. He was a fool to be putting the boy through this now. How desperate he must be to get Little Joe out of her clutches. She laid her hand on Joe’s. “Darling, it’s all right if you want to stay here tonight. You can go home tomorrow, when you’re feeling better.”
Joe peered at her as if he weren’t quite focusing. “You come with me,” he said. “We’ll all go home.”
“Joe, Miss Bulette needs to stay here,” said Ben, as if his son were a small child. “And you need to get home and into bed.”
“I was in bed,” said Joe, confused. He looked at Julia, his brow furrowed. “Wasn’t I in bed?”
“Pa, the buckboard’s all ready,” Hoss announced as he and Adam strode in. They looked from Joe to Ben to Julia. “Afternoon, Miss Bulette. Okay, Shortshanks, let’s get you out of here.” He helped Joe to his feet. When Joe swayed and almost fell, Adam took his other side. The brothers exchanged a quick glance, and Adam shook his head: if they carried Joe out, he’d never forgive them.
As the brothers made their way out, Ben and Julia exchanged a long look. “Thank you for taking care of him,” he said finally.
“I’m sure you’re welcome,” she said coldly. They both knew that he felt he had won. When she said nothing more, Ben put on his hat and headed out the door to where his older sons were helping Joe into the back of the buckboard.
Now, Joe stood before her, and she admitted to herself that she’d never actually expected to see him again. Young men moved on from their first loves faster than beer got warm on a summer’s day. Besides, leaving was the best thing for him. If he’d stayed, or if he came back, she would end up destroying him, not because she wanted to, but because it was who she was.
“Are you upset because I went back to the Ponderosa?” He looked perplexed, and just a tiny bit hopeful.
“Of course not.”
“Then have dinner with me tonight.”
She laughed bitterly. “You mean, ‘go back to bed with you,’ don’t you?”
His cheeks reddened slightly. He looked hurt. “No,” he said. “Not if you don’t want to. I’d be happy to have dinner with you, or go for a buggy ride, or just sit here and talk to you. I just want to be with you.” His voice dropped to just above a whisper, and she had to lean closer to hear him. “I meant what I said that day. I said it again and again in my letters. I love you, Julia.”
She busied herself with the clasp of her bracelet. She’d told herself that his first proclamation was simply the result of lust and painkillers. Then, when he kept writing it, she tossed the words aside as mere puppy love that would fade when the memory of her bed did. Romantic words were well and good, but all he really wanted was to go back upstairs. That was all they ever wanted. She glanced downward, below his gunbelt, to confirm this.
But there was no indication that she was right.
She was so taken aback that she looked up. The intense green eyes were hot with the love he knew and the heartbreak that was imminent. He was braced against her next words. His jaw was set. He was prepared. All she had to do was to say the word, and he would walk out, forever.
When she said nothing at all, he nodded. “All right, then,” he said. “Sorry to have bothered you.” He put his hat on, straightened his shoulders, and started to walk away.
He stopped. He turned back, wary. His eyes were hard, laced with pain and disillusionment.
“Eight o’clock. Don’t be late.”
For a moment, his expression didn’t change. Then, something in his face softened, and the smallest hint of his lopsided grin showed at the corner of his mouth. “Eight o’clock,” he nodded.
She watched him walk out, and she watched the doors long after he’d walked through them. Then, she turned to Tom. “I need a brandy,” she said. Tom poured her a generous glass. Then, instead of setting it on the bar, as bartenders always did, he pressed it into her hand. For the briefest of seconds, their eyes met, and then his expression returned to its usual inscrutability.
* * * * * * * * * *