Summary: In the conclusion to “The French Piano Player” series, the Cartwrights face their greatest challenge as they learn what a man’s heart can bear, and what it means to love–and to let go. The previous stories in this series are “The French Piano Player,” “Be Still, My Soul,” and “Doubt”.
Rated: T 37,400
The French Piano Player Series:
The Love of His Life
“Oh, shut up, both of you,” said Joe, untying his string tie. “Hey, Bert, can I have a beer?” The bartender slid the mug down the bar, and Joe slid a coin back to him. “So, what have you two been doing while I’ve been upholding the public morals of our fair city?””You? ‘Upholding the public morals’?” snorted Adam.”That’s right. I’m helping make sure people get married good and proper instead of bein’ like you two,” Joe said. “If everybody was like you, the girls here would do a booming business and the preacher wouldn’t have anything to do on Saturday afternoons.””Are you actually taking credit for all these marriages?” asked Adam. Hoss chuckled as he sipped his beer.”Not single-handedly,” said Joe. “But I do help out.”
“Do you provide the grooms with-uh, marital advice, too?” teased Adam.
“No, but y’know, Adam, that’s a good idea.” Joe leaned back in his chair. “There’s a lot I could tell these kids. Take the one today, for instance. Time to kiss the bride, and what does he do? A little peck on the cheek! Can you believe that? This is the woman you love. When you get a chance to kiss her, you kiss her like you mean it!”
“Is that what you did when you got married?” asked Hoss.
“A gentleman doesn’t kiss and tell,” Joe said primly. Then he grinned. “‘Course, it was lucky for us the hotel was just up the street from the church.” He took a long swallow of beer. “So, when are you two gettin’ married? I’d like to play for the wedding of somebody I actually know.”
“When are we getting married? To whom?” Adam snorted.
Joe shrugged. “To whomever you like,” he said. “It’s high time you made some lovely young thing a Mrs. Cartwright.”
“When I find a lovely young thing I want to marry, I’ll marry her,” said Adam. “What about you? You’re such an advocate of marriage. When are you going to get married again?”
“I’ve already been married,” said Joe with sudden seriousness.
“Hence the word ‘again,'” said Adam. Hoss kicked him under the table.
Joe shook his head. “It doesn’t happen like that twice,” he said.
“Maybe you should ask Pa about that,” Adam suggested gently. Joe’s mother had been their father’s third wife.
“I don’t have to,” said Joe. “I know. She was the love of my life. You only get one of those, and she was it.” He drained his mug and stood. “I’ll see you two back at the ranch. I gotta get out of this suit before I melt.” He collected his music and headed out the swinging doors.
Hoss punched Adam’s arm. Hard. “What?” demanded Adam.
“Dang fool thing you jest said,” said Hoss. “Askin’ him about getting’ married again.”
“What’s so foolish about it?” asked Adam reasonably. “Robin’s been dead for nearly three years. The idea of remarrying isn’t unheard of.” Especially in our family, he reflected.
“Who’s he supposed to marry? He ain’t even sparked nobody serious since before Robin.”
“I don’t know,” said Adam. “But that right there might be a reason to push him a little bit. Otherwise, he’s liable to end up-”
“-like us?” finished Hoss. Hoss was nearly twenty-nine, and Adam was thirty-five, and although each had come close on occasion, neither had ever been married.
Adam chuckled. “If that doesn’t scare the kid into marrying again, nothing will.”
* * *
Ben walked out the front door with two cups of coffee. Without a word, he handed one to his youngest son, who sat at the porch table, looking out into the dark yard.
Joe smiled. “Thanks, Pa,” he said, accepting the cup. He nodded, and his father sat down.
“Beautiful night, isn’t it?” commented Ben with studied casualness.
“Sure is,” said Joe. The sky was so clear that it seemed as if every star in the sky was on display. He inhaled deeply. The clean, warm scent of pine and vanilla was light tonight, barely drifting on the breeze, but always it was present on the Ponderosa. It was one of the aspects of his life here that Joe had missed most when he was living in San Francisco, amid the odors of unwashed sailors and spilled beer and waste, horse and human, running in the gutters.
Now, the two men sat in silence, sipping their coffee. Joe had been unusually quiet at dinner-not upset or depressed, just thoughtful. Ben was well aware that he still had a tendency to overprotect his youngest son. But while he’d learned to rein himself in pretty well, the father’s heart would not allow Ben to leave his son to hard thoughts without reminding him that a listening ear was available.
“Pa, what did you like best about being married?” asked Joe suddenly. Before his father could speak, he hastened to add, “If it’s-that, don’t tell me, okay?” There were just some things a man didn’t need to know about his parents.
“I wasn’t going to say-that,” chuckled Ben. Not that “that” hadn’t been wonderful, and not that it wasn’t sometimes sorely missed. Each of his wives had been very different, and their differences had definitely extended to the bedroom-or, in Marie’s case, the bedroom and pretty much any place else they could find themselves alone in a household with three boys, a Chinese cook, and ranch hands swarming all over the place. The spot where he had buried her was one of their favorite places on summer evenings. He smiled in the darkness, remembering.
“So, what was your favorite part?” Joe asked again, startling his father out of his reverie. He was glad that it was too dark to see if Pa was blushing. Sometimes, ignorance was indeed bliss.
“You know, I’ve never really thought about it,” mused Ben. “Each of my marriages was so different. When I was first married to Adam’s mother, it was as if we were two children taking a giant step into a dark forest. It was exciting and terrifying, all at once. Everything was brand new for both of us. I remember being glad that I had her to hold onto. Otherwise, I think I would have been scared out of my wits.”
“Of course,” said Ben. “Weren’t you scared?”
“Not about the marriage,” said Joe. “I never had a moment’s pause about that. Everything else was scary-we didn’t have any money, we didn’t know how we’d earn a living, we were afraid that you’d-” He broke off, not wanting to spoil the easy conversation.
“-that I’d find you and have your marriage annulled,” said Ben quietly. They’d discussed this before. It had been the reason that Joe and Robin had eloped and hidden. As much as Ben resisted the thought that he could have been such an ogre, Joe’s fear had been reasonable: almost the last thing he’d said before the boy left was that he would never consent to Joe’s marrying Robin. And now, years later, Ben reluctantly acknowledged that he might well have tried to annul the marriage, especially in the first weeks after his son’s disappearance. He knew that Joe had long since forgiven him, but Ben still found odd moments when he realized that he might not have forgiven himself.
“But the marriage itself wasn’t scary,” said Joe, subtly changing the focus. He knew that his father would always continue to hold himself responsible for everything that had happened, no matter how many times Joe pointed out that he, too, bore responsibility. After a point, there was no more room for discussion. It was, as Pa had said, part of being a father: a man always thinks he could have done better by his children.
“Marrying Robin was the best thing I ever did,” Joe continued. “I remember when we got married, the preacher saying that the two had become one. It just sounded like words at the time, but later, that was really how it felt. We were an ‘us’. Maybe because we had to depend on each other so much, because we didn’t have anybody else. Especially once I started playing for her-I think maybe that was the very best part. I always loved listening to her sing, but once I started learning how to make the piano work with her music-it was like nothing I’ve ever known. That’s why it was so hard to play after she died-half of me was gone. It was like somebody’d cut off one of my hands.”
Ben sipped his coffee. It had gone cold, but that was all right. He thought about what Joe had described, that sense of oneness. As deeply as he’d loved his wives, he couldn’t honestly say he’d had quite that experience with any of them. Part of him wanted to say that he hadn’t had that with Elizabeth or Inger because of the short time he’d had with each of them, but Joe’s marriage to Robin had been no longer-one year, to the day-and he hadn’t had it with Marie, either, even though they’d come closer than the others. Each of his wives had been, in her own way, very independent-but then, from what Joe said, so had Robin, so that couldn’t be the reason.
Perhaps it was his own nature that stood that slight bit apart. Ben Cartwright had always been content with his own company. But not Joseph-even as a baby, the boy had never liked to be left alone. Once he was old enough to get out of his bed at night, morning’s light could frequently find him in with one of his brothers. After Marie died, Joe had nightmares that woke the household, night after night; ultimately, they found that putting him to bed with Hoss or Adam would often keep the nightmares at bay, allowing everyone a full night’s sleep. Only in these past few years, as Joe had struggled to put his life back together, had the youngest Cartwright developed an appreciation for time spent alone. Even so, Ben suspected that, when Joe was playing the piano, a part of him saw his music as a way to be with Robin.
“Pa, can I ask you something else?”
“No, don’t say ‘of course’ until you hear the question,” cautioned Joe. At Ben’s nod, Joe asked, “Who was the love of your life, Pa?”
Oh, the hard questions tonight. Ben shook his head. “I can’t answer that,” he said.
“Can’t, or won’t?”
“Both,” said Ben. “Each of my wives was an incredible, unique person whom I loved dearly. Our marriages were so different that I can’t even compare them. But even if I could make that determination, I wouldn’t.” He smiled at his son. “I would never tell one of my sons that I did or did not love his mother the most.” He finished the cold coffee. “Is that what you thought I’d say?”
“Pretty much,” Joe admitted. He drained his own cup and stood. “I think I’m going to turn in. Reverend Abbott asked me to play tomorrow morning.”
“Is Mrs. Droppers away again?”
“She’s visiting her sister in Genoa.” Mrs. Droppers was the regular accompanist at their church. Once Joe had begun to fill in for her, Mrs. Droppers had started to take more time off to visit out-of-town relatives. Ben privately suspected that it was only a matter of time before she resigned completely and his son was asked to fill the position. He still couldn’t get over how proud he felt, listening to Joseph playing on Sunday mornings. No one, including Joe himself, had ever thought that the boy had any musical talent when he was growing up. It wasn’t until Robin’s accompanist had decided to leave San Francisco and had approached Joe about filling in that they had discovered Joe’s abilities as a piano player.
A thought occurred to Ben. “Did you see Doc today?”
Joe shook his head. “Didn’t have time before the wedding. It’s okay, I’ll see him next week.”
“Joseph.” The warning in his father’s voice would never change.
“Pa, I’m fine,” said Joe, but it wasn’t strictly true, though, and they both knew it. In the year after Robin’s death, when he was alone and grieving in San Francisco, Joe had drunk so heavily that he’d nearly killed himself. The healing process had been slow and painful, and his drinking had left him with a damaged heart. The doctor had reluctantly cleared him for ranch work back in the spring, a few months earlier, but on the condition that Joe avoid whiskey and check in with him every few weeks so that he could monitor his patient. When Joe had returned from San Francisco in early summer with the confession that he’d gotten rip-snorting drunk one night during that trip, Doc had tried to increase the checkups to every week, but the demands of the ranch simply didn’t allow for that type of schedule. Given the number of times in the past month that he’d found himself dizzy or short of breath, though, Joe had a suspicion that the doctor was going to come down hard on his workload at his next visit. If he could just put Doc off long enough finish breaking the new string of horses-well, he’d slow down after that.
“I’m glad you’re feeling fine, but you need to see Doc anyway,” said Ben in a tone that would brook no interference. “You’ll see him on Monday.” It wasn’t quite an order, but it was close.
Joe stifled a sigh. It wasn’t worth trying to argue. He couldn’t blame his father for being concerned, but it did get old after a while. It was going to take some effort to “forget” this instruction convincingly.
He picked up the coffee cups. “Are you coming in?” he asked.
Ben shook his head. “I think I’ll stay out here for a little while,” he said. “Good night, son.”
“Good night, Pa.”
The door closed behind Joe, the breeze in the treetops the only sound. Who was the love of your life, Pa? Why must there be just one, he wondered. It wasn’t as if he’d never pondered the question, but he’d always stopped himself when it seemed as if he might be able to choose. Nowhere, not even in the silent depths of his own heart, would he allow such a notion to take root. Funny how none of his sons had ever asked before. Almost as if there were some secret pact about it-or maybe just a desire not to hear the answer.
As he rose, joints creaking a bit, Ben found himself grateful that Joe hadn’t asked the harder question: once you’ve had-and lost-the love of your life, what do you do after that?
* * *
The sanctuary was empty when Joe let himself in on Monday afternoon. He couldn’t keep from grinning. Pa had insisted that Joe accompany him into town to see the doctor, only to find that the doctor was in Carson City and not due back until Thursday. A short reprieve, but hopefully, enough to get Pa’s attention onto other things. So now, he had an hour to kill while Pa met with the lawyer. He’d thought of heading over to the Bucket of Blood, but somehow, he’d ended up here instead.
It never ceased to amaze him that he, who had possibly been the least auspicious member of the Sunday school as a child, now had a key to the church and could come and go as he saw fit. He grinned at the thought of what his younger self might have done with such freedom. Undoubtedly, a few pranks guaranteed to get his seat warmed when he got home.
He dropped his saddlebag on the front pew and drew out the music for next week’s wedding. Most everyone wanted the same pieces, and he could practically play them in his sleep by now. This couple was different, though. They had chosen their own music, and it was unfamiliar to him. As he struggled through his sightreading of the first piece, he found that it reminded him of a tune that Robin had sung once.
She never performed it at the saloon. It wasn’t that type of song. He recalled that night, as Phil was cleaning up and the girls were chattering, when Robin had started humming it. It was a simple melody, with smooth, graceful lines and long-held notes. It reminded Joe of a hawk silhouetted against a bright morning sky. After listening for a few moments, he started to add some harmonies underneath the melody, rippling runs and arpeggios, the stream burbling over rocks as the hawk soared above. Robin sat down next to him on the bench, first humming and then singing the wordless melody as he enhanced the accompaniment. He recalled a sensation, almost like flying, as piano and voice blended, soaring and dipping, first one on top and then the other, almost frightening in its effortlessness. So much in harmony were they that it was as if one person were creating both parts. When they finally faded out to a gentle resolution, he could hardly breathe. His hands rested on the keys; she laid her hand on his. They sat side by side for a minute, not speaking. The room was silent. Then, unwilling to disturb their fragile creation, they rose and left the saloon, his arm around her waist. They walked back to their room, locked the door behind them, and made exquisite love, all without saying a word. Afterward, as they lay together, Robin hummed the melody again, and he held her close, tears in his eyes.
Joe had never heard the melody anyplace else. When he asked, Robin said that she had no idea whether she had heard it someplace or just made it up. Neither of them ever wrote it down. It was too delicate, too beautiful to be reduced to clumsy pencil on rough paper. They tried variations on it at different times, but the subtle perfection of that first time was never duplicated.
The closing of a door brought Joe back to the present, and he stopped playing, barely realizing that he’d been accompanying Robin in his imagination. “Who’s there?” he called.
A young woman walked hesitantly into the sanctuary. She had made an attempt to subdue her soft brown curls in a knot, but tendrils escaped, framing her face beneath a moss-green hat that matched her dress. She had large brown eyes, as dark as his father’s, but far less confident. She looked around nervously.
“Is there something I can do for you?” asked Joe, not moving from the piano.
“I-I’m looking for the reverend,” she said.
“He’s not here,” said Joe. “Have you tried the parsonage? It’s right next door.”
The young woman shook her head. “The door was unlocked, so I came in here first. I’ll try the parsonage. I’m sorry to have disturbed you.” She turned quickly and was gone before Joe could respond. After a moment, he shrugged and returned to his practicing. This time, he played what was written on the page, not allowing himself the luxury of remembering days gone forever.
Nearly an hour had passed when Joe stood to stretch. Pa should be done with his meeting by now. He caught a slight movement out of the corner of his eye and turned, expecting to find his father sitting there, listening. It wouldn’t have been the first time.
Instead, Joe saw the young woman in the green dress. “Didn’t you find the reverend?” he asked.
“Oh, I found him, thank you,” she said. “I just came back to listen. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Not at all.” Joe gathered his music and deposited it in his saddlebag. He put on his jacket and drew the key from his pocket. The young woman led the way out of the church, and Joe locked the door behind them. He put on his hat and touched the brim. “Good day, ma’am,” he said, walking off without noticing that she stood on the church steps, watching him.
* * *
The next afternoon, Adam and Joe strolled into the Bucket of Blood. It was just too hot to sit around by the buckboard while Wally got their order ready for loading.
“Two beers, he’s paying,” said Adam. Joe rolled his eyes and reached into his wallet, dropping a bill on the bar. He took a long drink and relaxed against the wood that had been polished by too many elbows.
“Here’s your change, Cartwright,” grunted Bert.
A bleary-eyed young man at a nearby table looked up. “Cartwright?” he repeated.
Joe looked coolly at him. “Yeah, that’s right,” he said.
The young man got to his feet unsteadily and made his way across the room. “You the piano player?”
“Who wants to know?”
In response, the young man swung at Joe, connecting with his jaw and spilling beer all over both of them. Joe tossed the mug on the bar, grabbed the younger man by his shirtfront and delivered a solid left hook that snapped his head back before it lolled forward. Joe punched him again, knocking him out. He dropped his attacker into a chair and turned back to the bartender. “Hey, Bert, I need another beer,” he said.
“Nice work,” said Adam. “Not too exciting, but efficient. Who is he?”
“No idea,” said Joe, rubbing his knuckles. “Maybe he doesn’t like the piano.” He poured some of the beer over the unconscious man’s head until he came to, sputtering. “You want to tell me what the problem is?” Joe asked.
The younger man shook his head violently, spraying beer drops on the Cartwrights. He glared at Joe. “She won’t marry me, and it’s all your fault!”
Adam raised an eyebrow, but Joe shrugged. Still, it was worth asking, if only to liven up an otherwise dull Tuesday. “Why won’t she marry you, friend?” Adam asked.
“‘Cause she’s in love with him!” The younger man wiped foam off his face and splattered some of it at Joe.
“Who is?” demanded Joe.
“My girl, that’s who!”
“I figured that much out. What’s her name?” asked Joe.
“You need a name? Just how many women are in love with you right now, Little Brother?” asked Adam.
“I guess at least one more than I thought,” said Joe. To the beer-soaked man, he said, “What did you say her name was?”
“Susanna McConnell,” said the younger man. “Was gonna be Susanna Wilson this weekend, but now she won’t marry me, an’ it’s all your fault!”
“How is it my fault? I’ve never even met the lady!”
“It would appear that your reputation precedes you,” observed Adam.
“Shut up,” snapped Joe. To Susanna’s fiancé, he said, “How does she know who I am?”
“Everybody knows who you are,” said the fiancé. “Smooth-talkin’ piano player. Got more girls than you can shake a stick at, but are you satisfied? No! You gotta take mine!”
“Where are you keeping all these girls?” asked Adam.
“All what girls?” asked Joe.
“All the girls that you can’t shake a stick at,” Adam said.
“There aren’t any girls!” Joe was exasperated. To the younger man, he said, “Look, I’m sorry your girl doesn’t want to marry you, but it has nothing to do with me. I don’t even know her. So, why don’t you go patch things up with her instead of picking fights, and maybe she’ll marry you.” He drained what was left in his mug. “Let’s go,” he said to Adam, heading out without a backward glance to see if his brother was following.
* * *
Saturday found the Cartwrights decorating for Hoss’ birthday party. The wedding having indeed been called off, Joe spent the afternoon on a ladder, stringing lanterns around the yard while Adam and Hoss hauled furniture out of the living room to make space for dancing and Ben polished the silver. Hop Sing had been cooking for days, and the smell of everything from roast pork to birthday cake had filled the air.
The musicians arrived shortly before the first guest. This had been a somewhat delicate point: Joe didn’t like anyone else to touch his piano, and he didn’t see why he couldn’t play for his brother’s party. “‘Cause it’s my party,” said Hoss. “I don’t want you to work. I want you to dance and have a good time.”
“Fine,” said Joe at last. Time was when he’d have been looking forward to dancing, but these days, he suspected that he’d have a better time at the piano. Still, for some reason, it seemed awfully important to Hoss that he mingle instead. All right, then. For Hoss, he’d mingle. Happy birthday, Big Brother.
The ladder was barely put away when friends and neighbors began to arrive, all chattering effusively. Ben watched, somewhat bemused, as lovely young women eyed his sons. So different from back in his day, growing up in the east, where a girl would never have approached a man, even if they had been properly introduced. Out here, things were a bit more casual, and some of the formalities had been discarded in favor of practicality. It had taken some getting used to, but Ben had to admit that he rather preferred the western approach.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw old Abe McConnell approach with a young woman on his arm. Ben hastened to greet his guests, calling out, “Abe! Good to see you!”
The men shook hands, and Abe presented the young woman. “Ben, this is my niece, Susanna. Susanna, this is Mr. Cartwright.”
Susanna looked up at Ben shyly. Her large brown eyes were as deep and rich as his own. “Pleased to meet you, sir,” she said shyly.
“The pleasure is mine,” said Ben, taking her hand for a moment. He made small talk as he escorted them to the table where Hop Sing had laid out the food.
“Pa, Hop Sing wants to know what you did with the extra punch cups,” called out Joe as he approached. When Ben looked up with a disapproving frown, Joe noticed for the first time that his father had been talking to guests. “I’m sorry, didn’t mean to interrupt,” he said.
“Joseph, you remember Mr. McConnell,” said Ben. “And this is his niece, Susanna. Susanna, this is my youngest son, Joe.”
“Nice to see you again, Mr. McConnell,” said Joe. He nodded to Susanna and said, “Nice to meet you, ma’am.” The look in her eyes was disconcerting for a moment. Then, he felt his own eyes widen. This was Susanna McConnell, the girl who had supposedly called off her wedding because she was in love with him. She looked familiar from somewhere.
“Actually, we’ve met,” said Susanna. To Ben, she explained, “I had the pleasure of hearing your son play when I was in town the other day.”
Joe thought for a moment. Then, he recognized her as the woman who had come into the church. “Of course, I’m so sorry,” he said, flashing his most charming smile. “I was just practicing for-a church service,” he finished, somewhat lamely. It wouldn’t do to tell everyone that he’d been practicing for the wedding that she’d canceled. “Miss McConnell, may I offer you some punch?” Anything to escape the awkward moment.
“I’d be delighted,” she said, laying her hand on the arm he offered. The older men saw the glow in her eyes, and Ben cast a glance at his son that Joe missed.
Later, as couples swirled throughout the living room, Joe and Ben stood to one side, surveying the crowd. “Looks like Hoss found himself a girl,” Joe observed. Hoss had been dancing with the same young woman for most of the evening. Adam, on the other hand, had changed partners regularly, to his father’s amusement.
“What about you?” asked Ben. “Why aren’t you dancing?”
“No particular reason,” said Joe. He ladled up a cup of punch and handed it to his father before pouring one for himself.
“You feeling all right?” Ben cast a quick appraising look at his youngest son.
“I’m fine,” Joe assured him. “Really,” he added at his father’s skeptical silence. “Stop worrying.”
“A father never stops worrying,” said Ben, smiling as if he were joking. “But, as long as you’re so fine, I notice that Susanna McConnell’s not dancing, either,” he added too casually. “It might be nice if you’d ask her to dance.”
Joe drank his punch to forestall his answer. There was no arguing that Susanna was a very pretty girl. He was just a bit uncomfortable with the circumstances. He wanted to tell his father what the young man in the bar had said, but it seemed ungentlemanly. As he turned to refill his cup, Ben laid a hand on his arm.
“Go ask her,” he urged quietly.
Joe resisted the impulse to roll his eyes. Everyone seemed to be bound and determined that he would dance tonight. Fine. He’d dance. He cast a longing glance toward his piano before he headed across the room.
“Miss McConnell, may I have this dance?” He held out his hand and tried not to notice the way her face lit up.
“I’d be delighted,” she said. Joe escorted her onto the dance floor, and they moved into a waltz. She was an excellent dancer, one of the best he’d known, and Joe Cartwright had always been noted for his elegance on the dance floor. The couple moved around the floor so gracefully that others stopped dancing to watch. Oblivious to the eyes on them, Joe found himself becoming strangely short of breath as he looked into her eyes-not in the bad way that meant he had overstressed his heart again and was liable to become dizzy and pass out, but in a way he’d almost forgotten. The way he used to feel when he thought he was falling in love.
The song came to end, and the applause around them drew his attention. When he saw the circle of people who had been watching them dance, it took all of his gallantry to smile and take her hand to escort her back to her seat. He ignored the disappointment in her eyes as he thanked her for the dance and turned away. The guests began to mill about as the music began again, and for a moment, he lost sight of his father in the throng. Just as well. He slipped through the crowd to the musicians. At the end of the song, he said to the piano player, “Why don’t you take a break? I’ll spell you for a while.” The hired piano player stood, flexing his tired fingers, and Joe slid gratefully onto the bench. He’d danced, just as Hoss had wanted. Now, he’d celebrate his brother’s birthday the way he wanted to.
* * *
Joe and Robin ambled along the shore, hand in hand. The lake sparkled in the morning light, the whitecaps as diamonds against the sapphire waters. The towering pines reached toward heaven itself. The sun was bright and warm, but gentle on their shoulders. Birds chirped as the soft breeze ruffled Robin’s hair. They stopped walking, and Joe drew his wife to him in a long, passionate kiss that reached to the very depths of his being.
“I love you,” he breathed. “I’ll never love anyone but you. You’re the love of my life.”
“Oh, you think not?” They turned to see Susanna McConnell standing just a few feet away. She laughed. To Robin, she said, “Once you’re dead and gone, he’ll be right on to the next one. He won’t even remember your name after a while.”
“No! It’s not true! I could never love anyone else!” Joe held Robin as tightly as he could.
Susanna laughed again. “What about Judith?” she demanded. “You took up with her right away, didn’t you?”
“I didn’t love her!” Joe protested. “I didn’t!” It was true. He’d turned to Robin’s best friend for comfort after the shooting, but that was all.
“But I loved you,” said Judith, who was suddenly standing beside Susanna.
“And now, I love you, and you love me!” said Susanna triumphantly.
“But I don’t love either of you! I only love Robin!” He tried to hold onto his wife, but she was disappearing like morning mist on the lake. “Wait! Come back!” Susanna laughed and laughed as Judith looked at him sadly. Tears streamed down his face as Joe called after Robin, “Don’t leave me! Come back!”
He woke, trembling, his cheeks wet with tears. Robin was gone. Only the agony of losing her remained.
“I love you,” he whispered aloud, as he had so many times when she slept next to him. “I’ll always love you. No one else.” He closed his eyes, feeling the emptiness beside him in the bed, as he wept again for the loss of her.
* * *
Joe set the music on the rack of the piano and looked up. Naturally, Adam was nowhere in sight. Resisting the urge to mutter a word inappropriate in church, Joe saw the preacher nodding at him to begin. He held up a finger-wait a minute-and leaned over to where Mitch and Kathleen Devlin sat in the front pew, next to a young blond woman and a small tow-headed boy.
“Mitch!” he whispered. “Go find Adam. I need him to turn pages.” Mitch looked around the sanctuary as if Joe might have missed his brother before heading up the aisle. The preacher caught Joe’s eye and nodded firmly. Hoping against hope that Mitch would find Adam, Joe began to play.
As he was turning over in his mind the question of how to handle the page turn if Adam didn’t appear, he felt a presence behind him. “Where you been?” Joe hissed. Two measures later, he whispered, “Now!”
The hand that turned the page was not his brother’s, large and strong and work-calloused. Rather, it was soft and white and distinctly feminine, framed by a white lace cuff. He didn’t have time to think any more, though, because he was coming up on the second part of the prelude, and he needed to concentrate on the music. Focusing intently, he barely noticed that, after the first page, she did not need to be told when to turn the page, apparently sensing from the tempo and complexity of a given passage how many measures in advance to turn.
After the last page turn, he felt her retreat. He drew the piece to a close, holding the last notes out. Then, he turned to see Adam sitting with Pa and Hoss in their regular pew, eyebrows raised. Joe shrugged slightly in response. He opened the hymnal and began the introduction for the first hymn.
The postlude was a piece with which Joe was more familiar. As he reached to turn the page, however, the lace cuff revealed that his page turner had returned. He smiled to himself as he played. Again, after the last page turn, she retreated. This time, though, he turned in time to see her.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” Joe called. The young woman stopped and turned back. She was the young blonde who had been sitting next to Kathleen Devlin. “I just wanted to thank you for your help today,” he said. “My brother was supposed to turn pages, but he disappeared somewhere.”
“You’re quite welcome,” she said. Her voice was lower-pitched and softer than he would have expected. The little boy grabbed her hand and clung to it.
Joe rose from the bench, smiling. Her hair was pinned back, and fine, straight bits were escaping the knot. Her smooth skin was pale, with the faintest of blushes on her cheeks. Her eyes were startling; he looked more closely and saw that they were indeed violet. He didn’t realize that he was staring at them until she looked away.
“I’m so sorry, ma’am, I didn’t mean-please forgive me,” he said. It was on the tip of his tongue to tell her how remarkable her eyes were, but he felt the little boy glaring at him. Certainly, it would be an extraordinarily improper thing to say to a married woman-and in church, yet. So, he simply smiled and extended his hand. “I’m Joe Cartwright, ma’am,” he said.
“I’m Maggie Donaldson,” said the woman. “And this is my son, Jacob.”
“Hello, Jacob,” said Joe, extending his hand to the boy.
Jacob looked him up and down. His mother nudged him, and he took Joe’s hand. “Pleased to meet you, sir,” he said in a voice that sounded anything but pleased.
“Pleased to meet you, too,” said Joe. He turned to Maggie. “Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Donaldson,” he said.
“I’m-I’m pleased to meet you, Mr. Cartwright,” she said. “But-well-it’s not-”
“Hey, Joe! You ready?” Hoss was poking his head back into the sanctuary.
Joe waved to him. “I’m sorry, it looks as if my family’s ready to go,” he said. “Thanks again for your help today, ma’am. I surely appreciated it. Nice meeting you, Jacob,” he added. He turned back to gather his music; when he turned around again, the Donaldsons, mother and son, were gone.
Outside, he caught up with Hoss. “You all got out of there fast enough,” he commented, falling in step with his big brother.
“We got dinner guests coming,” said Hoss. “Pa wants to get going.”
“Dinner guests? Who?”
“The McConnells,” said Hoss. “Ol’ Abe and his niece.”
“The McConnells? Who invited them?” If this was his father’s idea of matchmaking. . . .
Hoss shrugged. “I figgered Pa did,” he said.
“But we just saw them at your party a couple weeks ago!” Joe was decidedly uncomfortable with the notion of the McConnells coming around. Pa wasn’t the matchmaking type, but if he were, Joe figured that Susanna McConnell was just the type Pa would want to see him set up with. She seemed like a nice, respectable young woman, even setting aside her apparent impulsive streak. It occurred to Joe that his father might be far less interested in grooming her for the position of Mrs. Joseph Cartwright if he knew about her recent almost-wedding.
“Mebbe Pa’s got some business to talk about with Abe,” said Hoss, clearly not caring very much.
“What kind of business, do you think?”
Hoss shrugged. The topic had clearly lost its appeal. “Ranch business, I reckon.”
Carefully, Joe avoided looking at his brother. “Just as long as they ain’t thinkin’ about a merger,” he said, almost too casually.
“What’re you talkin’ about?”
“You know-like when two people get married, and all their family’s holdings get combined? A merger.”
“Joe, what in tarnation are you talkin’ about?”
“Let’s face it, Hoss-old Abe ain’t getting any younger, and he’s gotta think about his old age and how he’s gonna take care of himself. Now, he’s past the age where he’s gonna do much with more with his place, so what does he do? Brings in this pretty little gal nobody’s ever heard of and gets her married off to somebody who’ll do right by her-and him.”
Hoss stopped in his tracks. “Did you hit your head or somethin’? It’s just dinner!”
Joe lowered his voice. “Did Adam tell you about this girl?”
“Tell me what?” Unconsciously, Hoss matched Joe’s tone.
Joe looked around as if concerned about being overheard. “C’mere,” he said, tugging Hoss into an alley. “You remember that wedding I was supposed to play for the day of your party? Well, it was her wedding!”
“But you said the wedding was cancelled!”
“It was,” affirmed Joe. “But the thing is, Hoss-there was a reason it was cancelled.” He paused dramatically.
“Well? Go on!”
Joe looked around again, as if he were about to confide the deepest, darkest secrets of the universe. “There was another fellow,” he said.
Obligingly, Hoss’ eyes grew round. The next moment, he frowned. “If there’s another fellow, then ol’ Abe can’t be lookin’ to marry her off to one of us.”
Joe rolled his eyes. “Hoss-I’m the other fellow!”
“You? You broke up that little gal’s weddin’?” Hoss was appalled.
“No, not like-she called off her wedding because she thinks she’s in love with me, but I don’t even know her! She’s cuckoo, Hoss!”
Hoss scowled. “How can she think she’s in love with you if she don’t even know you?”
Joe smacked his brother’s shoulder. “That’s exactly what I thought! All she did was hear me play the piano, and now she thinks she’s in love!” There. That should do it. Now Hoss would tell Pa, and Pa would back off this matchmaking notion and leave Joe in peace.
“The piano? If that ain’t the dumbest dang thing I ever heard of!” Hoss doubled over in laughter.
“Well-wait a minute-I mean-it ain’t that funny,” said Joe. He was unexpectedly put out at how ludicrous Hoss found this notion.
“Sure it is! Heck, you ain’t even all that good!” Hoss slapped his knee as if he’d just heard the best joke ever.
“I-you-I-I am so that good! I’m the best danged piano player in this town, and don’t you forget it! It makes perfect sense that a pretty little gal might fall in love with me just for hearing me play-and then she sees me, and she gets to know me, and-well, it makes perfect sense! Of course, she’s in love with me!”
“Of course,” laughed Hoss, tipping his hat. “It’s jest too bad you don’t like her.”
“Who says I don’t like her? I don’t even know her!”
“Well, you seem pretty set on not likin’ her,” said Hoss. “I dunno why. Jest ’cause she had enough sense not to marry a man she didn’t love-seems like a pretty silly reason not to like somebody, if you ask me.”
“I don’t not like her!” insisted Joe. “She’s a nice girl, she’s pretty, a real good dancer-and clearly, she has excellent taste-in men and music,” he added pointedly. “Just don’t you be getting any ideas about her,” he said. “Now, come on. We gotta get home before the McConnells get there.” He marched out of the alley, ignoring his big brother, who snickered as he followed.
At the livery stable, they found Adam waiting. “Pa’s riding with the McConnells,” he said. As Joe saddled his horse, Adam said to Hoss in a low voice, “Everything go all right?”
“We’ll be lucky if he waits ’til after dessert to propose,” chuckled Hoss.
“Just don’t forget to have him play something,” Adam reminded his co-conspirator.
“Somethin’ tells me that ain’t gonna be a problem,” grinned Hoss, stepping back as Joe led Cochise out of the stall. In a louder voice, he said to Joe, “You ready?”
“Just waitin’ for you two,” Joe said. He shot one last glare at Hoss before he went outside and mounted.
“Like a lamb to the slaughter,” said Adam. “Let’s go.”
* * *
Joe reined in the team, smiling proudly. “What do you think?”
Susanna laughed with delight. “Oh, Joe, it’s just breathtaking! I’ve never seen anything so magnificent!”
“This is one of my favorite spots,” he said, sliding a bit closer. The view was one of the most striking on the Ponderosa. From the bluff, a person could see for miles. The mountains on the other side, craggy and capped with snow, looked to be almost on eye level. The pines stood, straight and strong and unbelievably tall, the dusty green boughs a stark contrast to the startling blue sky. Far beneath, the lake stretched as far as they could see in either direction.
Casually, Joe rested his arm along the back of the seat, behind Susanna’s shoulders. He couldn’t figure out now why he’d been so hesitant about sparking her. He’d been plenty mad when he figured out that his brothers had set him up that day, but then she looked at him with those big brown eyes, and he forgave everybody everything. She was just perfect, in every way, and if his initial impressions had been a little off-well, that was all behind them now.
“I’ve never seen anything so beautiful,” she marveled.
“I have,” he murmured. Smoothly, he began to draw her closer.
“What are you doing?” She pulled back, glaring.
“I-I’m sorry,” he stammered. “I thought-I didn’t mean-I’m sorry.” After three weeks of seeing her nearly every day, the urge to kiss was, frankly, almost overwhelming, and it had never occurred to him that she might feel differently.
“What kind of a girl do you think I am, Joe Cartwright?” Susanna demanded.
“I’m sorry,” he said again. “I didn’t mean to offend you. You’re just so beautiful, I-well, I’m sorry, Susanna. I shouldn’t have presumed.” He moved his arm from behind her and sat straight, and for a few minutes there was no sound except the breeze rustling the dried autumn leaves.
“Well, I guess I should be getting you home,” Joe said finally. When Susanna remained silent, he slapped the reins and clucked to the team. He found himself curiously disappointed-not because she’d refused to kiss him, but in something he couldn’t quite articulate.
He reined in the team in front of her house. “Well, here we are,” he said too loudly. When she didn’t speak or move, he said, more quietly, “Susanna, I’m sorry about before. I really didn’t mean to offend you.”
She turned to him. “I understand,” she said. “I just-I just didn’t want you thinking I was one of those type of girls. You know-the kind you’d find in saloons.” She leaned over quickly, kissed him on the cheek, and hopped out of the buggy. “Will I see you tomorrow?”
“Of course,” he managed, tipping his hat. As he drove off, her words echoed in his head. One of those type of girls. You know-the kind you’d find in saloons. Like Ruthie and Eileen, from the Singing Dove, who’d been such good friends to Joe and Robin when they’d worked there. Like Judith, Robin’s best friend, who’d been his lover after Robin’s death, and without whom he likely wouldn’t have survived his year-long binge.
Like Robin, the love of his life.
A bitter taste rose up in Joe’s throat. Susanna McConnell should be so lucky as to be as good as the girls he’d found in saloons.
* * *
Joe forked the last of the hay into Cochise’s stall. “There, you greedy nag, eat up!” He glanced around before he wiped his forehead on his sleeve. Even simple barn chores seemed to take a lot more effort lately. Still, Doc had put him on such light duty after his last checkup that he was lucky to be in the barn at all.
“Excuse me-Mr. Cartwright?”
Joe turned to see Maggie Donaldson and her little boy standing in the doorway. “Mrs. Donaldson,” he smiled. “And Jacob. What can I do for you?”
“Well, Mr. Cartwright-I wondered if I might speak with you for a moment,” she said hesitantly.
“Of course,” said Joe. “I’m finished here. Why don’t we go into the house?” He hung up the pitchfork and led the way into the house. “Hey, Hop Sing, you around?” he called.
“Hop Sing always around,” said the little man, running out of the kitchen. “What Li’l Joe want now?”
“Some of your nice, cool lemonade and some sugar cookies for our guests,” said Joe, not in the least bit perturbed by Hop Sing’s sharp tone.
“All time, all time Li’l Joe want this, want that, Hop Sing nevah get minute to self!” Hop Sing turned and ran back into the kitchen.
“Really, we don’t need-” Maggie tried to call after him.
Joe laughed. “It’s no use,” he said. “Besides, do you have any idea how much trouble I would have been in if he’d come out and found you here and I hadn’tasked him to bring you something? Believe me, he’s much happier this way.” He guided her to the settee. “Won’t you sit down?”
“Come here, Jacob,” Maggie said. Reluctantly, the little boy turned from the grandfather clock and joined her on the settee.
Once Hop Sing had brought the refreshments and Jacob was well-occupied with his cookie, Joe said, “So, Mrs. Donaldson, what can I do for you?”
“Well, for a start, I suppose you can stop calling me Mrs. Donaldson,” said Maggie. At Joe’s raised eyebrows, she said softly, “I’ve never been married.” She followed his gaze to Jacob and nodded.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize,” said Joe. He could feel her waiting for his judgment. “Well, then, Miss Donaldson, what can I do for you?” Her relief was palpable, and he smiled.
“Please, call me Maggie,” she said. “And I need a piano player. Mrs. Barton wants to start a children’s choir at church, and they need someone to play for them.”
“Why isn’t she here asking me?” asked Joe.
“I was the one who suggested you,” Maggie admitted. “After hearing you play that Sunday, I thought you might be willing. So, since I made the suggestion, she thought that I should be the one to approach you.”
Joe laughed. “Am I that hard to approach?”
“No, but-you know how it is,” said Maggie. “Children’s choirs aren’t exactly at the top of anybody’s list of important things to do. I think she just didn’t want to make the trip all the way out here for nothing.”
“And you did?” Joe raised an eyebrow.
“I was hoping it wouldn’t be for nothing,” said Maggie. “Besides, I thought that maybe, when you said ‘no,’ you’d feel guilty enough to make up for it by showing Jacob some of the animals you have around here.” She smiled slyly, and Joe couldn’t help laughing.
“When will the kids practice?” he asked.
“After Sunday school,” she said. “Only for about half an hour or so. Not long.”
Sunday school, Joe recalled, met during the same time as the church service. This would mean staying late after church. The last thing he needed was something else to do, especially when he was supposed to be taking it easy, but those violet eyes. . . .
“Well, I do hate to disappoint you, but I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to say ‘no,'” said Joe. “But maybe I can show Jacob some of the animals anyway. What do you think, Jacob?”
“Wait-are you saying you’ll do it?” Maggie was clearly confused.
“I might not be able to be there every week,” Joe cautioned. “Sometimes, I’m away on cattle drives and such.” Not if Doc has anything to say about it, of course. “But if I’m here, I’m happy to help.” Her eyes and her smile both glowed, and his own smile widened in return.
Then, without warning, the room began to spin, and he was suddenly short of breath. Slow it down, slow it down, he counseled himself, fighting panic. Carefully, he backed up and lowered himself into Pa’s chair. Just slow it down, he thought.
“Mr. Cartwright? Are you all right?” Maggie asked.
He held up his hand. “Please, call me Joe,” he managed. His heart pounding, and he was lightheaded. “I’m all right,” he lied after a minute, when his breathing had eased somewhat. She handed him a glass of lemonade, and he smiled. “Thanks,” he said, sipping.
“Jacob, please take this tray out to the kitchen for us,” said Maggie. Jacob looked suspicious, but he did as he was asked. As soon as he was out of the room, she moved over to sit on the hearth, next to his chair. “Do you need for me get someone for you?” she asked quietly.
“No, I’m fine, really,” said Joe. “It happens sometimes. I just get a little dizzy. It’ll pass, and then we can go and see the animals.”
“We’ll see the animals another time,” said Maggie firmly. She looked skeptically at him. “I don’t mean to be presumptuous, but you don’t look at all well. Are you certain there’s nothing I can do? Isn’t there someone I can get for you?”
“Really, I’m fine,” said Joe. “I just need to stay here for a bit. It’ll pass.” His breathing was still rough, but the dizziness was settling down. He clutched the arms of the chair to steady himself.
“All right, then,” she said.
It took a minute before he realized that she was rubbing his hand. He didn’t know if she was even aware that she was doing it. Fully aware of his actions, he laid his other hand on top of hers.
“I’m fine,” he reassured her. She blushed and ducked her head, but she didn’t move her hand from between his, and he was curiously pleased by this. Odd that he wasn’t embarrassed at having her see him this way. It occurred to him that he’d have moved heaven and earth to avoid having Susanna witness one of these episodes. Well, his feelings for Susanna were very different, he reasoned. A man wants to be strong in front of the woman he-loves? Suddenly, he wasn’t certain how he felt about her. It was too much to think about now, anyway. He rested his head against the back of the chair, eyes closed, and he and Maggie sat for a while in unexpectedly comfortable silence.
Jacob exploded back into the room. “Are we gonna see the animals?” he demanded. Joe opened his eyes and grinned at the boy.
“Not today, Jacob,” Maggie said, releasing Joe’s hand as she rose. “We need to get home, but maybe soon, we can come back and see them.”
“We can go out now,” protested Joe. He stood, but almost immediately he swayed and sat down again.
“All right, that’s it,” said Maggie. “Jacob, please go and get Hop Sing.” The little boy ran from the room, and she turned to Joe. “What do you usually do next?”
“Just stay here and wait it out,” said Joe. “But it’s nothing, really. Another few minutes, maybe, and then we can take Jacob out-”
“What Li’l Joe do now?” Hop Sing came running into the room. When he saw Joe in Ben’s chair, he began chattering in Chinese. Fascinated, Jacob stared as the little man shook his finger in Joe’s face, clearly reprimanding him for something. Finally, Hop Sing said, “Li’l Joe stay put. Mistah Cahtlight back soon. Li’l Joe stay. Hmmmph.” He turned and marched back to the kitchen.
“What did I tell you?” shrugged Joe, obviously unimpressed by the cook’s tirade.
“Do you know what he said?” Jacob asked.
“Most of it,” said Joe.
“What did he say?” challenged Jacob.
“He said that I was supposed to sit here,” said Joe.
“I heard that,” said Jacob in disgust. “I meant the other stuff.”
“Jacob!” Maggie shot him a fierce look.
“I beg your pardon,” mumbled Jacob, looking down at his boots.
Joe suppressed a smile. “It’s all right,” he said.
Jacob returned to the more pressing topic. “What else did he say? That other stuff he said?”
“Oh, you mean when he was talking Chinese,” said Joe as if the question were just now making sense. “Well-he said-” He looked at Maggie and then beckoned Jacob to come closer. To Maggie, he said, “This is just between us men.” When Jacob came next to the chair, Joe cupped his hand and whispered into his ear, and Jacob’s eyes grew wide.
“Really? He said that?”
“Cross my heart,” said Joe. “You just go and ask him yourself if you don’t believe me.” Jacob looked as if he were about to run back into the kitchen, but at his mother’s frown, he remained beside the chair. Joe winked at him. “You can ask him next time,” he said. He rose, and this time, he was steady on his feet. “See? It passes,” he said.
“Then you can walk us out to our wagon,” said Maggie. “But we really do need to be going.” She extended her hand. “Thank you so much for agreeing to play for the children.”
Joe took her hand in both of his. “It’ll be my pleasure,” he said. To Jacob, he added, “Don’t forget, now. You’re coming back to visit with the animals.”
“Yes, sir,” said Jacob.
Slowly, the threesome walked out to the wagon, Maggie’s hand on Joe’s arm. As if nothing had happened, Joe lifted Jacob into the wagon, and then he assisted Maggie. He stood still, waving as they drove out of the yard. Then, when they were safely out of sight, he called, “Hop Sing!”
The little man appeared as if by magic-or as if he’d been watching from the kitchen. “What you do? Hop Sing tell Li’l Joe stay put!” he scolded, scurrying to where Joe remained rooted in place.
“Just-give me a hand, will you?” He reached for Hop Sing, finally secure that he could take a step without falling. Leaning heavily on his friend, Joe made his way into the house. Hop Sing looked questioningly at the stairs, but Joe shook his head: impossible. With a skill honed by too much recent practice, Hop Sing helped him to lie down on the settee and arranged pillows so that Joe’s head and shoulders were elevated. “That’s good, thanks,” Joe said as he tried to regain his breath. “When’s Pa due back?”
“Not ’til suppah,” said Hop Sing. He spread a blanket over Joe, adding, “Adam, Hoss not ’til suppah. Li’l Joe sleep good.” He assessed the young man, frowning. He had always kept Joe’s confidences from the time the youngest Cartwright was a little boy, but this was something else again. He wasn’t at all happy about keeping this from Mister Ben.
“Wake me up before they get home, will you?” Joe’s eyelids were already getting heavy.
“Li’l Joe need tell fathah, doctah, what happen,” said Hop Sing sternly.
“I just saw Doc,” said Joe. “He knows everything. Just wake me up before Pa gets back. Otherwise, he’ll worry. You don’t want to worry him, do you?”
Hop Sing glared at the obvious manipulation. “Hop Sing wake Li’l Joe befo’ family home,” he said finally. With a grumpy snort, he turned on his heel and went back to the kitchen, pigtail flying behind him.
“Thanks,” managed Joe. This was happening too often lately. Sooner or later, Pa was going to figure out what was going on, and there was going to be hell to pay. But not today, Joe thought, closing his eyes. His last thought, before he drifted off to sleep, was of Miss Maggie Donaldson’s incredible violet eyes.