Summary: Just before his wedding, Joe meets up with the woman he once loved—and thought he’d lost forever. This is a sequel to “Vivian” and refers to characters and events from that story. Rated: T WC 6500.
Another Auld Lang Syne
Now, I’m more of a summer fellow myself. Maybe it’s my New Orleans heritage, but cold weather and I just don’t get along all that well. Give me a hot day and a cool lake, a fishing pole and a great big tree to shade me, and I can pass myself a fine afternoon. Besides, summer’s better for other things, too. Courting, for example. There’s nothing quite like a drive on a warm summer evening, with just a little bit of a breeze fluttering the ribbons on a girl’s hat as the sun goes all pink and orange and the horse tosses his head just to remind everybody that he’s the one in charge. There are a few spots on the Ponderosa, like one of the bluffs overlooking the lake, where you pull up and watch the sunset, and-well, let’s just say girls tend to be a little friendlier there.
And if, on one of those warm summer evenings, the girl says “yes” to a certain very important question-well, there’s no finer evening than that.
I know. Because it was a warm summer evening, on a bluff overlooking the lake while the sun was setting, when Abby said “yes” to me.
Abby’s not the kind of woman I ever thought I’d end up with. I’ve sparked a lot of girls in my time, and a few women, too. My first love, Julia, was probably twice my age-she never would tell me for sure. That was when Pa first starting looking askance at the girls I’d take up with. Oh, he approved of a few, but not many. Mind you, there were some he never knew about. One, in particular. The one who turned my head and my heart upside down like nobody else ever has, not even Abby.
Don’t get me wrong-I love Abby with all my heart. It sounds dumb, but sometimes, just touching her hand can make me feel like a schoolboy, all nervous, with my heart beating faster. Her kisses are a combination of sweetness and fire. And when she looks at me with those big brown eyes, I know that I’m right where I’m supposed to be in this world.It’s a quieter kind of love than I’d have expected I’d want. There’s a peacefulness about her that I’ve never known anyplace else. She’s like the very center of the lake on one of those soft gray days when there’s not even a little bit of a breeze and everything blends together so that you can hardly tell where the water ends and the sky begins. Deep and still and full of all sorts of secrets that you can’t know anything about from standing on the shore.
But even though she’s quiet, she’s not dull or boring-far from it. That girl has a streak of wicked mischief in her like nobody I’ve ever known. If I’d known her when we were kids–the pranks we could have pulled together! Plus, she’s even smarter than Adam, but she has the good sense not to rub his nose in it. Not that she hides it or pretends not to be smart, but somehow, she manages not to ruffle his feathers, either. And when he first got back from sea, pretty much everything I did ruffled his feathers, so I think everybody was pretty relieved when I started bringing Abby around.
Hoss was most relieved of all. But then, he was the one who saw me through when I was with Vivian, and afterward.
That was her name: Vivian Moore. The one who turned my head and my heart upside down. It’s been five years, but I remember her like she just left town this morning. Her eyes were as green as the north pasture when all the snow has just melted and the grass is all lush and rich. Her hair was thick and coppery and soft as a cloud, and it made me sneeze sometimes when she was lying on top of me and her curls would fall in my face. Her voice was low and sweet, and when she whispered in my ear, most of me would turn to mush. She was so trim that when I’d help her down from her buggy, my hands would almost meet around her waist. There were other parts of her that weren’t so little–the parts a man likes to have a little more generous. Not that I ever explored-well, not too much, anyway. I was trying, as far as I could, to be honorable so that we could tell ourselves that we weren’t doing anything wrong.
You see, there was that one little thing about Vivian.
She was married.
I’d never thought I would get involved with a married woman. Vivian told me that she’d never thought she would stray, even a little bit, from her marriage vows. But we fell in love anyway, and while we never went all the way down the road, we traveled a fair bit of it. We tried to convince ourselves that not crossing that line meant we were still on the right side of something, but we never quite succeeded. Finally, she and her husband went back to St. Louis. I don’t know what they told everybody else, but she told me the truth: they left so that their marriage could have a fighting chance. I couldn’t fault them for it. She knew, and I knew, that if they stayed in Virginia City, something was going to get broken.
Hoss was the only one who knew for sure about us. He’d had his suspicions, and finally one awful day, he asked me point-blank what was going on between me and Mrs. Moore. And when I told him we were in love–well, I don’t want to see a look like that on my big brother’s face ever again. It was like I told him I’d committed cold-blooded murder. We had quite a time of it, with me insisting we were in love and him insisting it was wrong anyway. As it happened, the next day, Vivian’s husband and I were both shot when a bank in town was robbed. I’ll never forget how, after I came to, I asked Hoss if somebody had told Vivian I was all right. He just nodded and said, “I made sure she knew.” He did that for me, in spite of everything he thought about our being together.
After the Moores left town, Hoss looked out for me even more than usual. I don’t think Pa or Adam had ever figured out what was going on with Vivian and me. Once she was gone and I was struggling just to get through the day, they knew something was wrong, of course, but Hoss told them not to worry, that I was fine. One time, I overheard Pa trying to get Hoss to tell him what was wrong, but my big brother wouldn’t budge. He just said it was my business and that Pa didn’t have to worry, because he was keeping an eye on me.
He was, too. I did my best to hide how I felt as I tried to live in a world without her. But every now and again, as I dragged myself through another endless day, there’d be a hand on my shoulder, just for a second. He didn’t say anything; he was just there.
I tried not to talk about her, because I knew how he felt about our being together, but sometimes I had to. When I did, he listened, and he didn’t judge. One day, when the two of us were out riding fence and I felt like I couldn’t go on another minute, Hoss set me down under a tree and pulled a bottle of whiskey out of his saddlebag that he must have been keeping there for such a time, and we drank together while he let me talk and talk about Vivian. And, finally, when I was good and drunk, my big brother sat next to me and put his arm around my shoulders, and he held me while I cried it all out.
Four years later, I met Abby at Tom McDermott’s birthday party. It was a good thing that we met so much later. If I’d met her sooner, I probably wouldn’t even have seen her because she wasn’t Vivian. I don’t know if a man ever gets over a woman like Vivian, but I came as close as I could. Sure, I still think about her sometimes, especially in the spring when the north pasture is the same shade of green as her eyes, but I’m moving forward now. Abby and I are getting married in a couple weeks. When I think about spending the rest of my life with Abby, there’s a peace that settles over me, and I know that asking her to marry me is the smartest thing I’ve ever done.
* * * * * * * * * *
There wasn’t much of anybody in the restaurant. No surprise on a night like this. We wouldn’t have been there, either, except that we were staying upstairs from the saloon, and the saloon owner didn’t cook. On my own, I might have tried to make do with some jerky, but I knew better than to suggest to Hoss that we skip dinner. So, we plowed our way across the street to a little restaurant whose sign we couldn’t even read, it was so covered with snow.
It was a homey little place, with red-checked curtains and matching tablecloths. It wasn’t very big, but something about it felt familiar, like I’d been there before, even though I knew I hadn’t.
We settled in with coffee and tried to thaw out as we waited for our supper. “Y’know, Little Brother, you’re gonna have to get a haircut before the wedding,” Hoss observed.
“Abby likes me just the way I am,” I said. The thought of her fingers in my hair brought a smile to my face that made Hoss roll his eyes.
“I ain’t talkin’ about Abby,” said Hoss. “You think Pa’s gonna let you get away with lookin’ like that on your weddin’ day?”
“Why should he care? I ain’t marryin’ him!” I drained my cup. It was a pointless argument. I knew I’d give in when the time came. Pa’s been waiting so long for one of his sons to finally make it down the aisle-I wasn’t going to mess that up for him. Of course, I’ve been fighting haircuts since back when I was little and all the gray I have now was years away. Pa wouldn’t know what to think if I just up and got my hair cut without a fight-which might be a reason to do it, after all.
Thinking about a haircut, the wedding, and what would come afterward, I wasn’t paying a lot of attention to what was going on around us. A young blond girl refilled my coffee cup without my asking, which was nice. A minute later, she brought out a basket containing something wrapped in a napkin. It turned out to be biscuits, hot from the oven. Right after that came great big plates of beef stew that smelled so good that, if it had been a woman, I might have married it instead of Abby.
As good as the stew was, the serving was so big that I couldn’t finish it. Hoss finished his and mine, though, as well as the rest of the biscuits. Just when I thought we were going to roll on out of there, the girl brought two big pieces of apple pie with ice cream that we hadn’t ordered. “Compliments of the house,” she said, bobbing a little curtsy. Hoss looked at me, and I looked at him. We both shrugged. This was sure a nice little restaurant. Even Daisy’s, back in Virginia City, charges us for the pie, and Daisy’s been sweet on Pa for as long as anybody can remember. You’d think that, if we were going to get free pie anywhere, it would be at her place.
I tried to eat the pie, but I was so stuffed I felt like a sausage. What I did eat was mighty good, though. The cook here sure knew what he was doing. Hoss finished off the rest of my pie and yawned.
“We should probably get goin’,” he said. “Long ride tomorrow.”
“And longer in the snow,” I pointed out. “Flip you for the check,” I added, pulling out a dollar coin.
“Nah, you can have it,” said Hoss. “I’m plumb full, and I just wanna go to sleep.”
“You’re full? I didn’t even know that could be done!” The blond girl was approaching our table. “Supper was terrific, miss. Could we just have the check, please?”
“There’s no check,” she said.
Hoss and I looked at each other. “I beg your pardon?” I said. “How’re we supposed to pay for our supper?”
“It’s on the house,” she said. She looked a little bit nervous.
“Beg pardon, miss?” Hoss looked as confused as I felt.
“You’re Mr. Cartwright, aren’t you?” she said to me. Startled, I nodded. “Then, your suppers are on the house.”
“Joe, you know anybody in this town?” asked Hoss, looking around. We were the only customers left.
“I don’t even know the name of this town,” I said. “It was snowing too hard to see the sign when we rode in. What about you? You know anybody here?”
“No, but I ain’t the one who got us a free meal,” said Hoss. To the girl, he said, “Is the owner around? We’d like to say thanks.” Her eyes grew wider, but she turned and went back to the kitchen.
“Odd little place, ain’t it?” I muttered. I didn’t know why the notion of a free supper was suddenly making me real uneasy, but my hand was resting on my gun like it knew something I didn’t.
In the fraction of a second before she spoke, I saw Hoss’ eyes widen. Then, from behind me, the low, sweet voice that I’d never forgotten said, “You’re welcome.”
And there stood Vivian.
“Were you going to come out and say hello?” I turned and forced myself to look up into her face. With me sitting and her standing, looking straight meant I was eyeball to-whatever, with one of the most beautiful parts of her. I could feel myself responding to her closeness, and I shifted in my chair.
“I hadn’t planned on it,” she said. To Hoss, she said, “It’s nice to see you again, Hoss. I do hope you enjoyed your dinner.”
“It was mighty tasty, ma’am,” said Hoss. “We’re much obliged to you for such a fine meal.”
“But we are going to pay for it,” I said.
“Didn’t you hear Clarice? There’s no bill. It’s on the house.” There was a touch of iron in Vivian’s voice that I’d never heard before. “Don’t tell me that you won’t accept something as simple as a meal from an old friend.”
I couldn’t figure out why she seemed to want to fight with me, but before I said something I shouldn’t, Hoss jumped in. “Thank you, ma’am,” he said. “That’s real kind of you.” To me, he added, “We should get goin’. We gotta get up early tomorrow.”
I looked from Hoss to Vivian, and I knew I wasn’t going anywhere. “You go on ahead, Big Brother,” I said. “I’ll catch up with you.”
Hoss gave me a warning look, like the kind you give to somebody who’s about to do something really stupid, but he just said, “Nice to see you again, Mrs. Moore,” and got his coat and hat and headed out.
I could hear Clarice in the back. Vivian stood beside me. For a long minute, we just looked at each other. Finally, I said, “Aren’t you gonna sit down?”
“I haven’t decided,” she said. That was one of the things about Vivian: she always said just what she thought.
I decided to do the same. “Sure you have,” I said. I reached behind me and pulled over a chair from the next table. “Have a seat,” I said, like it was my restaurant instead of hers.
“I’ll get the coffee,” she said. She left me alone, and I heard voices in the back. After a few minutes, a door closed. Then, she came back with a tray that held a coffee pot, creamer and sugar bowl, and two cups. I stood to take the tray from her, and she raised an eyebrow as she handed it over. She remained standing. “Clarice left,” she said.
“Who else works here?” I asked, as if it were a casual question.
“Tonight, just me,” Vivian said. “Ordinarily, I have a boy who comes in to clean, but he’s sick. So, Clarice cleaned up, and we’re closed.”
I looked at her, uncertain. Just the two of us, alone in a snug little building in the middle of a snowstorm. Once, it would have been everything I could have dreamed of. I could tell that she was waiting for something. Instead, I poured the coffee. “Do you still take cream and sugar?” I asked.
“When did you become such a gentleman?” she smiled with gentle amusement.
“I always was,” I said. It wasn’t quite true. Being with Abby had taught me a few things. I’d learned how nice it was to do things for her, instead of just having somebody wait on me. I’m sure Pa and Hop Sing probably tried to teach me that for years, but it took Abby to make me want to be on the other side of the giving.
Vivian just looked at me like she couldn’t quite make up her mind about something. I placed a cup on the table and held her chair. She paused for a moment before she sat down. As I took my seat, she handed me the other cup. “And you still take yours black?”
“I do,” I said. “Thanks.” We sat in silence for a few minutes, drinking our coffee. Finally, just to have something to say, I asked, “Do you own this place?” She nodded. “How long have you been here?”
“Just over a year,” she said.
“Why did you leave St. Louis?” I asked. That had been their destination when they left Virginia City.
“It was time,” she said simply. “How have you been?”
“I’ve been good,” I said. She smiled at the notion, and I grinned. “I didn’t mean-you know what I mean!”
“Of course,” she said, letting me off the hook. “How’s your family?”
“They’re all well,” I said. I had to ask. There was no way not to. “How’s your-how’s Jeremiah?”
Her eyes clouded for a moment. “He passed away,” she said.
“When?” I managed. Oh, you’re smooth, Cartwright. How about a little sympathy? “I mean-I’m so sorry for your loss.” She didn’t roll her eyes, but she looked like she was thinking about it. “When did he die?” I asked again.
“About a year and a half ago,” she said. “I tried to stay in St. Louis after he died, but there didn’t seem to be any point.”
“So you came here to-where are we?”
“Diego Springs,” she said.
I looked at her, and she looked at me. It was getting harder to breathe. I reached for my coffee cup, but I knocked it over. Luckily, there wasn’t much left, but blotting it up gave me something to do for a minute.
At last, I asked the question: “Why didn’t you let me know?” A year and a half ago. I hadn’t met Abby yet. The whole world was different.
“I’m not sure,” she said. “At first, I was grieving. Yes, I was,” she insisted, as if I’d denied it. “Jeremiah was my husband, and he was a good man. Things went better for us in St. Louis. We’d settled into a new life. We were content. And then, he took sick so suddenly–one day, he was fine, and the next, he was dying. The doctor never knew what happened, but suddenly, there I was, all alone.”
“I’d have come,” I said softly.
She laid her hand on mine. “I know,” she said, just as softly. “I nearly wired you.”
“Why didn’t you–?”
“It was complicated,” she said. “Nobody there knew about you. If you’d come, I’d have had to explain you.” She closed her eyes for a moment. “You and I-we were in the past. I just–I didn’t want people to think the less of Jeremiah when he wasn’t there to defend himself.”
“Why would they have thought less of him?”
She shook her head ruefully. “Because anyone seeing that look in your eyes would have known the truth about us,” she said. “I didn’t want to make a fool of him-not after everything he’d endured.” She fell silent for a minute. Then, she said, “And I didn’t want to be that person, either.”
“The person who was waiting for her husband to die so that she could be with her lover.”
I shook my head, holding her hand in both of mine. “You were never that person,” I said softly. “You couldn’t have been.” I reached out to stroke her cheek, and she nuzzled my palm, kissing it. I caught my breath. My heart pounded so loud I couldn’t believe she couldn’t hear it. For a moment, neither of us moved.
She stood and looked down at me. “I live upstairs,” she said simply. Almost against my will, I stood. She was as beautiful as I’d ever seen her. The lamplight glinted off her copper curls. Her rich green eyes were luminous, fringed with unexpectedly dark lashes. Her cheek was as soft and pure as the snow outside. Her lips were rose-pink and trembling. The bodice of her dress molded her figure in a way that was at once modest and sensuous. Almost on its own, my hand reached for her curves. I was about to step toward her to sweep her up into my arms and carry her up the stairs–
–and I remembered Abby.
My hand dropped. I stayed where I was. A tiny question appeared in her eyes.
“Joe?” Her voice was absolutely controlled. “What is it?”
I didn’t know how to say it. Then, the flame of desire in her eyes darkened with understanding.
“You’re married now, aren’t you?” she asked.
I shook my head. “Not quite,” I said. “The wedding is in two weeks.”
Vivian drew a deep breath. “How long have you known her?”
“About a year,” I said. I watched the realization steal over her, and I nodded. Wordlessly, we both sat down. Tears welled up in her eyes.
“I should have contacted you,” she said finally. “This is all my fault. I should have written.”
“Sssssh,” I said, taking her hand again. “You couldn’t have known.”
“But I wondered,” she admitted. “I’ve wondered for years. Why didn’t you get married a long time ago?”
I shrugged. I didn’t want to answer her, but we’d always been honest with each other. “You broke my heart when you left,” I said. “It took me a long time to get over that.”
She laid her other hand on top of mine. “I broke my own heart, too,” she whispered. “And I never got over it. Not really.”
“Was it worth it?” Suddenly, I hoped so. We’d both paid such a desperately high price for her marriage.
“What choice did I have?” she asked.
“You could have stayed in Virginia City,” I said. The anger of five years ago suddenly flared. “You could have been honest with him and told him that you wanted to be with me. He could have left, and you could have stayed, and we could have had a life together.”
“What kind of a life could we have had?” She pulled her hands from mine. “You and your own little Hester Prynne? Do you honestly think that it would have been all right, just because you were a Cartwright? We couldn’t even have gotten married in a church. The gossips would have had themselves a fine old time about Ben Cartwright’s youngest son and his woman, the adulteress. Your entire family would have been dragged through the mud.”
“Don’t give me that excuse!” I snapped. “My family would have been just fine, and so would I. You were the one who decided to leave. I wasn’t even consulted-you just came over and announced it like what I thought didn’t even matter.”
“It didn’t,” said Vivian, her voice as brittle and sharp as broken glass. “It was my marriage, my vows, and my husband, and I had to do what I thought was right.” She was quiet for a while. Then, she said, “Besides, you didn’t even try to talk me out of it.”
“You’re blaming me?” I stood up so fast my chair fell over, banging against the wooden floor. I started to pace around the tables. “Are you telling me it’s my fault you left Virginia City? It’s my fault you went to St. Louis with your husband?” I turned, glaring from across the room. “I begged you to leave him. Dozens of times, I asked you to leave him and marry me. You were the one who wanted to stay with him. That was your decision, not mine. You never asked me what I thought-you just announced it. And now, I’m to blame because I didn’t try hard enough to get you to stay?” Words failed me. I picked up the nearest coffee cup and flung it across the room, where it shattered against the wall. I hurled another cup after it, and another. She didn’t move.
Finally, she spoke. “You almost got killed protecting him,” she said dully.
“That wasn’t a reason to go with him,” I said. I remembered thinking afterward that, if only I’d stayed quiet, the bank robbers would have killed her husband, and she and I could have been together. But I’d acted without thinking: when he launched himself at the robbers, I shouted that I had a gun, and so I drew their fire. A week later, as I lay at home, recovering from the bullet wounds I’d taken to save her husband, Vivian came out to the Ponderosa to tell me that she and Jeremiah were moving to St. Louis.
“I went because it was the right thing to do,” she said. “I’d done enough wrong things. I wanted to do something right.”
“But I was still supposed to talk you out of it?”
Even from across the room, I could see the shadow cross her face. “I knew what the right thing was, but I think-I think that, if you’d asked me one more time to stay-I might have stayed,” she said.
“What?” I could hardly get the word out. My knees were suddenly weak, and I stepped back, bracing myself against the wall.
“I almost lost you that day in the bank,” she said. “I was trying so hard to do the right thing–penance, maybe–but I was still hoping-” Her words faded. I stared at her. Everything I’d wanted had been just a few words away, and I never knew it.
“Oh, Viv,” I breathed. “I didn’t know-I thought–I didn’t want to get in your way if that was what you wanted–” The lump in my throat choked off anything more.
“I wanted you,” she said. “I’ve always wanted you. Every day, from the first day I saw you. Always you.” She crossed the room to where I stood, and she rested her hand against my cheek. “Always you,” she whispered, and it was my turn to kiss her palm. I pulled the pins from her hair, letting her curls tumble over her shoulders. I kissed her hair, almost dizzy with the light, sweet scent of her. Her arms went around me, and mine around her, and without a thought of anything, anyone, we kissed, long and deep and unbearably real.
Finally, both of us trembling, we stepped back slightly. My eyes searched hers. I reached for her cheek, and she guided my hand to her throat. My fingers caressed the soft warmth above her neckline. Slowly, holding her gaze, I began to unbutton her collar. She swallowed hard and placed her hand over mine. Unsure, I stopped. Then, still holding my hand against her, she began to slide it downward from her neck.
And I stopped her.
“I’m so sorry, Viv,” I whispered. “I just can’t.”
For a moment, she said nothing. Then, she whispered, “It’s because of her, isn’t it?”
I nodded. “I’m so, so sorry.” My voice broke. For a long time, we stood together, not moving. I felt like the worst kind of cad. Part of me wished that she would slap my face and run up the stairs. I deserved it. I deserved anything she wanted to say or do to me. “Vivian, I’m so sorry,” I said again. “I’m just–”
“Hush.” She held a finger to my lips. I started to speak, and she repeated, “Hush.” When she was satisfied that I would remain silent, she moved her finger. “It’s not your fault,” she said. “Any more than it was my fault five years ago. You and I–maybe we were just never meant to be.”
I shook my head. “I should have left with Hoss,” I said. “It wasn’t fair for me to start anything here-I’m so sorry.”
“We’re neither of us perfect, Joe,” she said. “You should know that better than anybody.” She smiled a tiny, sad smile.
I pushed a curl back from her face. “Why didn’t you get in touch with me after he died?”
“Because I was afraid of this,” she whispered. “Of exactly this.” She reached for me, and we stood in the quiet, her hands on my shoulders, mine on her waist. “I was afraid you’d tell me I was too late.” She looked up at me, her eyes glistening. “Am I too late, Joe?”
Never had she been more beautiful than at that moment. Never had I wanted her more. I ached with wanting her. I wanted to sweep her up in my arms, carry her upstairs, and make passionate love with her all night, the way we’d both dreamed for so long. I wanted to confess that I’d never stopped loving her, and to her hear her tell me the same. To feel the softness of her skin, the silky curls tumbling across my chest, her warm breath in my ear. To wake up with her curled up tight against me. To pretend that nothing else existed outside that room.
But she had asked me a question: Am I too late? She was entitled to an answer.
We all were.
And slowly, I nodded.
* * * * * * * * * *
I poured another shot. The saloon was empty and dark. I sat at the table, bottle and glass in front of me, and tried not to feel.
A long time ago, after Julia died, Pa told me that I’d probably always love her, but that someday, I’d love again. What he hadn’t said was how much it hurt to make that choice. I knew I was right. I loved Abby. I wanted to marry her, to spend my life with her. I knew that in my heart. But that didn’t make it easier to walk away from Vivian. It didn’t make the hurting any less. It didn’t make me not love her.
I drank the whiskey and refilled the glass. For so long, I’d dreamed of the time when she would be free. Dreams that had carried me through many a night when we were together, and many more when she left. I’d even toyed with the idea moving to St. Louis, just so that I’d be in the same town, but I knew better. We’d both made our choices, she to go and I to stay. Just as she’d respected mine, I’d respected hers.
Alone in the darkness, I felt the scalding tears well up. Vivian lay in her solitary bed, just across a snowy street. I wanted her so much that I could hardly pick up the glass. I didn’t dare stand. I knew that, if I did, I would go to her.
I pushed the bottle and glass aside and laid my head on my arms. In the silence of the saloon, I wept. I wanted to crack my head against the wall and howl. I wanted to stand in the middle of the street and scream at the night sky, demanding that universe explain what Vivian and I had ever done to be treated like this.
I wanted to know why it had to hurt so much.
The hand on my shoulder made me jump. I rubbed my cuff across my face, trying to wipe away any sign of tears. Hoss pulled up a chair next to me. Neither of us spoke. I sensed the question in his eyes, and I shook my head. For a while, we just sat there, with him rubbing my shoulder and me trying hard not to cry. Eventually, I reached for the bottle again, and he didn’t stop me, even though I knew he could see in the dim light from the street how far down the level was.
He sat beside me for a long time, neither of us saying anything. My refills slowed, and finally stopped. The dark was starting to lighten when I tried to stand up. I braced myself against the table, and Hoss took my arm.
“Come on, now,” he said. “Let’s get you upstairs. You can’t ride on no sleep.” He steered me toward the stairs. I wanted to point out that he hadn’t had any sleep, either, but I couldn’t make the words come out. He got me up the stairs, one at a time, and into our room. I felt him pulling off my boots, laying me down, covering me. I heard him set the washbowl next to me. I listened as he got himself into bed and blew out the lamp.
“Go to sleep now, Joe.”
“I love her.”
“Does it ever stop hurting?”
Long silence. “I don’t know,” he said at last.
* * * * * * * * * *
Abby never asked me what happened that night. When we got home, I held her so close, like I’d almost lost her. When she looked up at me, I could see the question in her eyes. She knew that something had happened, or almost happened. But she didn’t ask, and I didn’t tell her. It seemed disloyal to Vivian somehow. I just held Abby close, and when she kissed me, I knew that she understood anyway.
Two weeks later, with Hoss beside me, and Pa and Adam right behind, I stood in our living room and watched my beautiful bride come down the stairs. Her gown, ivory satin, curved over her lovely breasts and narrow waist, allowing all to admire, but the fullness of the skirt reserved the rest of her beauty for me alone. Later that night, I mockingly grumbled about the dozens of buttons that I had to unfasten, from the neck of her dress down to the bustle. She just tossed her head, giving me a saucy glance over her shoulder, and leaned back against me. I wrapped my arms around her and held her against me, nuzzling her neck.
“Aren’t you going to finish?” she whispered.
“All in good time, Mrs. Cartwright,” I murmured. Slowly, I slid the dress from her shoulders, and it fell in a shimmering puddle at her feet. Then, I turned her to face me, and in that moment before I kissed her, I looked at her, really looked, and I knew in the depths of my soul that I’d been right. About everything.
I don’t know if I’ll ever tell Abby about Vivian. I know that I could, and she’d understand-maybe not at first, but eventually. But one of the things that I love about Abby is that she doesn’t crowd me that way. She doesn’t demand to know everything. She asks, but then she trusts me to tell her what should be told. There’s a relief that comes with that, and a responsibility, and I know that they come together.
Pa was right. The ones you love, you never really stop loving. And that’s as it should be, I guess. It would be easier and cleaner if we could forget about the old loves and just have the new, but that’s not the way life works. My life, anyway. Most of my heart belongs to the people I love now-Abby, Pa, Adam, Hoss, Hop Sing. Cochise, even though he’s not a person. The Ponderosa, same. The little one who is barely anything at all yet, hardly rounding his mother’s belly under my hand. My world, my loves, my life.
And yet, there will always be a corner of my heart that belongs to Vivian. Our love was real, and I won’t hear anyone say otherwise. Whether the rest was spectacularly bad timing, or punishment for our wrongdoing, or just God’s way of saving me for Abby, I’ll never know. All I know is that I loved Vivian, and she loved me, and in the end, that just wasn’t enough.
But as I ride up to our house, and I see Abby in the doorway, wiping her hands on her apron and smiling that incredible smile, I know that this is where I belong.
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