(Kelly was written by Kelly Blanchard. Rachel was written by Lynda J. Cox.)
Rachel took one last look around the kitchen. Everything seemed to be in order. A bouquet of fresh picked prairie sunflowers stood in a half full mason jar. The counters were wiped down and freshly coated with lemon oil. The floors were swept and even the ash pan on the Hoosier had been emptied. Father was in the study and Ben had promised to keep him occupied while this woman showed up to talk to her. If Harrison could just keep Joshua from running into the house every five minutes, it should be a relatively simple task to talk to this person.
Was it too cool in here with the windows wide open to catch the ever-constant Wyoming breezes? Maybe she should close a window or two down. Should she start a pot of Arbuckles brewing? What if that woman wanted tea, instead? She should have asked. She should have sent someone into town to meet the woman at the train depot. Directions out here usually were composed of “Follow the road to the first fork. At the lightning split Ponderosa pine, go to the west until you come to the stream…” What if she got lost?
Kelly rode through the countryside enjoying the scenery. Being a country girl herself, she appreciated the peace it brought. Soon she came up to the house described, and she dismounted her horse then came up to the front door and knocked then glimpsed around and listened to the sounds inside the house while waiting.
Finally the door opened revealing a woman, and Kelly smiled at her and offered her hand to shake. “Hi, I’m Kelly Blanchard. I trust you are Rachel? I believe you’re expecting me.” She glimpsed around at the ranch again the smiled at Rachel once more. “Lovely place you have here.”
Rachel took the offered hand, surprised at the strength in the firm handshake. “You’re being polite.” She was too aware that even with Harrison’s help, there was still so much to do. The house needed a thick coat of whitewash a year ago. The garden fence had been repaired but everything in it had bolted and gone to seed. “I’m glad you could find the place. Come on in.”
Kelly smiled as she entered the house and took in the comfortable home, and she followed Rachel where she would lead her. “So, my impression is this is a fairly large ranch. Do you run it all on your own?” She raised her brows glancing back at Rachel because that’d be an impressive feat if that were the case.
Rachel gestured to the kitchen table and allowed a small laugh to escape her. “thirty three thousand acres that I tried to manage on my own. That didn’t work. Of course, I didn’t know at the time my father had already gambled half half of it away to Harrison Taylor.” She placed a plate of cookies on the table. “Coffee?”
“Thirty three thousand acres!!” Kelly’s eyes widened when she heard this. “Wow!” She shook her head amazed, and then she sat down at the table and took an offered cookie. At the offer for coffee, Kelly smiled, “if I may have water, I’d prefer that. Thank you.” Then she thought on what Rachel said of Harrison Taylor. “So, why did your father gamble off half the land?”
Rachel opened the ice box and poured a glass. “My father to this day hates losing. He was losing in a poker game and was certain his luck would turn around. He was busted and to cover his bets in that game to Harrison, he deeded half this ranch to him. And lost.” Rachel sat at the table. “Imagine my surprise when Harrison showed up with that deed, some ten years after the event.”
“And what was your reaction?” Kelly smile just imagining it already.
“Anger doesn’t even start to cover what I felt.” Rachel toyed with her coffee cup. “My father hadn’t seen fit to tell me in those years what he did. Harrison’s half brother was lower than what I’d scrape off the bottom of my boot and here I was partnered with him?” She sipped from the cup. “If I could have shoot both of them and hidden the bodies, I might have done it in those first few minutes.”
“Okay, tell me the history of Harrison and his brother. Other than the fact that your father did this without informing you of it, why would you hate them so much?” Kelly tilted her head as she furrowed her brows.
“Didn’t trust Harrison but never hated him.” she smiled. “Which I suppose is a good thing when you’re married to the man. As to Jason…how do I put this in polite terms?” Her gaze drifted to the opened back door. “My son is the result of Jason’s unwanted attentions.”
“I see.” Kelly nodded but then tried to figure out the details. “Okay, so…you weren’t married to Harrison when he came to claim the land, right?” She raised her brows. “Sorry, I don’t understand the timing of things.”
“No, I wasn’t married to anyone at the time, even though my father told anyone passing through that I had married Jason.” A shudder passed over her. “I would have been in jail for murder had he forced me to marry that snake.” the depths of the coffee cup drew her attention again. “And, the funny thing about Harrison claiming the land is he wasn’t here to do that. He was following the best lead he’d had on Jason’s whereabouts. He was going to take him back to Kentucky to face charges for murdering a woman and her two daughters.”
“So, Jason came here, and…that resulted in your son, and then Harrison came around looking for Jason? What happened to Jason then?” Kelly furrowed her brows as she observed Rachel.
Rachel still stared into the depths of her coffee cup. “Jason drifted out here about a year after the War ended. He actually worked for a while for my father. About the time Joshua was born, Jason disappeared. And, almost five years later, Harrison Taylor rode in.” Rachel lifted her head and met Kelly’s gaze across the table. “And before you ask, I had nothing to do with his disappearance, other than to thank the Almighty every night in my prayers.”
Kelly nodded then smiled, “I wasn’t going to ask that, so what was life like before Jason?”
“You’re the first one to not make any assumptions about that.” Rachel leaned back in her chair. “Before Jason, even though my father was a hard man, he was fair. Even though women aren’t supposed to ride for the brand, because I’m an only child and this ranch was supposed to go to me, he allowed it. He made a fortune when I was a child, selling cattle back East and to the Army. He sent me to boarding school, which I hated. I would hide clumps of sage brush in my trunks, so when I got too homesick, I could crumble it up and smell it.” She gestured around the kitchen. “This place, this hard land, is home. My father wanted me to be a lady. I tried. Jason destroyed that.”
There were several things Kelly wanted to touch about, but she wasn’t sure what she should focus on, so she settled on one of the more natural questions. “What happened to your mother?”
“She died of birthing fever a month after I was born.” Rachel never knew her mother, so speaking of the woman presented little heartache. “And, she is the measurement that my father has judged my whole life with. From my earliest memories, I was told ‘Your mother would never do that. She was a lady.’ Or, ‘I want you to be the lady she was.’ It’s rather hard to live up to an ideal that becomes perfected through guilt. My father blames himself for her death.” Rachel stood and paced the kitchen. “When he learned I was in a delicate condition—“ A snort broke from her, ”he was so angry. He called me every name in the book, including a few in Spanish that I could only guess at. I had dishonored her memory. I had tarnished her image.”
Kelly frowned. “I can imagine it is hard to live up to that memory, but since your son was born, has your father accepted him and the circumstances of everything?” Then she had to add, ” And did he even know Harrison was Jason’s brother when he made the bet?” And she also wondered if her father knew that Jason had been responsible at the time of the bet, but Kelly didn’t want to ask too many questions at one time. She still wasn’t sure of the timeline of everything.
“No—to both questions.” Rachel turned to her guest. “My father barely speaks to Joshua and when he does, it’s to criticize everything he does. He still claims that I led Jason on. At the time he made the bet with Harrison, Jason hadn’t drifted out here, yet. I never understood why he hired him in the first place, but knowing what my father was hiding from me about that bet, I can guess he hired him because of his last name.”
“Hmm…sounds like your father carries around a lot of guilt—with what happened with your mother, with the land, and then with you.” Kelly made the mental note that she should talk to the father too—just to see what she could pry out of him, but then she focused on Rachel. “So, then Harrison came along, and you two hated each other, but now you’re married, so things are working out for you two quite well now?” She fixed her gaze on Rachel once more.
Another smile crossed her face. “I never hated Harrison. I didn’t trust him. I admit I was a bit unsettled that he was tracking his own brother to take back East, but I never hated him. I’m not sure how well things are working out, but I think we can make a partnership go. And the marriage…that was his idea, to protect the ranch and keep it intact. We have a completely platonic marriage—my idea—and I don’t think I like my own terms, any longer.”
“You’re married to him out of convenience, but do you love him?” Kelly raised her brows as she sat back in her chair and folded an arm across her body while listening.
“I don’t know.” Rachel sat at the table again. “If I can imagine my life without him, not any more. Do I miss him when he goes into town for the day? Yes. Have I wondered if what would happen between us if we didn’t have a platonic marriage would be different than what was done to me by Jason—every time he’s in the same room with me.” Rachel sighed. “I don’t know if that’s love.”
Kelly took this all in with a nod and considered her words. “And how does Harrison treat Joshua?”
Rachel didn’t even try to stop her smile. “Ever since Harrison’s been here, he’s taken Joshua under his wing. He takes him everywhere with him. Joshua asked me the other day if Harrison was staying. And, Harrison calls him ‘son’ and I don’t think he realizes he calls Josh that.”
Kelly smiled when she heard this. “And that is important to you—very important.” Then her smile morphed into a smirk. “You love him—might not realize it, might not want to admit it, but it’s true.”
“I have never blamed Joshua for his father. I have loved my son from the first moment I felt him move. I carried him under my heart for nine months. What kind of a monster would I be if I didn’t love my son? And what kind of a monster would I be if I ever allowed anyone to hurt him? so, yes, it’s important to me that Harrison treat Joshua gently and kindly.”
Kelly frowned. “I mean you love Harrison. Of course you would love your own son.”
“I’m sorry.” Rachel’s posture softened. “I’ve heard from too many people that I should have just given Joshua away when he was born. My dander just goes up when I think I’m being questioned about how I feel about my son. As to loving Harrison, I’ll have to take your word for it.”
“Oh, no, you shouldn’t have given Joshua away.” Kelly shook her head. “You need him more than you may realize. For instance, without him, it would make accepting Harrison even harder because you would just see him as someone who wants your land. With Joshua though, you can see him as an actual human, and…well, that has a way to sneaking under your guard.” Kelly tilted her head to a side with slight smile. “Would it be such a bad thing if you did love Harrison?”
She heaved a long, deep breath. “I suppose I should tell you the rest of my terms for this platonic marriage or business partnership—however you want to look at it. It’s for a year only, hence my insistence on a platonic relationship. At the end of a year, we decide if we keep the ranch intact or split it and go our separate ways. Or as separate as we can be living on our own halves. So, if I actually love him and he decides to go, where does that leave me and my son?”
“Rachel, does he treat you well? Does he treat Joshua well?”
“I suppose if he was his own son, he couldn’t treat him better. And, he treats me the like the lady my father wanted me to be.”
Kelly nodded but pressed on, “And has Harrison ever hinted at leaving or what life would be like away from here without you and without Joshua?”
“No.” Rachel picked up her cup. “He’s never once said anything about leaving, about coming up with a name for his half of the ranch, or registering a brand—everything I’ve told him he would have to do at the beginning of this partnership.
“Then that’s a pretty good indication that he’s not going to leave.” Kelly smiled warmly as she nodded but then she tipped her head to Rachel. “Of course, caution, in your situation, is prudent, but…” She paused to consider Rachel once more, and then she leaned forward, resting her forearms on the table as she locked eyes with Rachel. “You need to be honest with yourself with how you feel about him—regardless whether or not he leaves. Yes, it’s scary because you don’t know, but once you acknowledge how you feel about him, you then need to be honest with him. And yes that’s scary too, but you don’t want to be rejected, but by everything you’ve told me and how you’ve described him, I don’t think you need to worry about it.” She gave her an encouraging smile. “Wouldn’t it be nice to not have that uncertainty hanging over your head?”
“I suppose.” Rachel drew her hands down the front of her skirt. “I sound so decisive, don’t I?”
Kelly shrugged. “It’s not easy. You’ve been hurt, and you don’t want to repeat that, so it make sense that you’re guarded, and I speak form personal experience with that. I was hurt—not as badly as you, but still—and it took over a decade before I allowed myself to even entertain the thought of love, so…” she nodded. “It’s not easy. You’re trying to run a ranch, and you are trying to protect and provide for your son. You want to be as independent as possible in order to prevent hurt, but…in a way that can be hurting you more especially if someone like Harrison comes along and really cares for both of you. Does that make sense?” Kelly furrowed her brows as she observed Rachel’s face.
“I…I didn’t look at it that way. I don’t want to give up my independence. I’ve fought too hard and for too long to gain it. And, for too long, I haven’t had anyone to rely on. that makes it even harder to be vulnerable–to anyone.” Rachel leaned onto the table. “And, if this talk has brought up hurtful memories for you, I’m sorry. Let me say this. I will think very long on what you’ve said and one way or another, I will tell Harrison how I feel.”
Kelly smiled. “Oh, they may be painful memories, but they put me on the path I needed to be put on, so I could eventually create the life I now lead and find the man I’m now with, so I accept it, and it’s not so painful.” But she nodded, accepting Rachel’s words. “All I ask if you to think on it and be honest with yourself…and then be honest with Harrison.” She paused before adding. “Joshua deserves that much at least.” Then Kelly looked down at her pocket watch and frowned before looking up at Rachel. “My time here has just about come to an end. I really appreciate this conversation, and I do hope you think about what I said. From what I can tell–and I’m good at reading people—Harrison seems like a genuinely caring person…just unfortunately related to a bad person.” Kelly rose to her feet, still smiling at Rachel. “I hope you the best–regardless which way you go.”
Rachel stood and walked Kelly to the door. “Safe travels, to wherever you must go. And, thank you. Sometimes I can be too stubborn for my own good.”
“There’s nothing wrong with that–especially with all your responsibilities.” Kelly nodded as she came to the door. “May you take care, Rachel.” She bowed her head to her then left.
Rachel watched the woman ride away. It had been a strange conversation. She had never confided such intimate details to anyone, not even Fr. O’Cleary in the confessional. But, somehow, talking to Miss Kelly had felt right. And, the woman was correct about one thing. No matter which way this all ended, she had to tell Harrison how she felt about him, about their relationship, and actually making their marriage complete. She owed it to Joshua, to Harrison, but most of all, she owed it to herself. Now, just to manage a way to swallow her pride and defeat her own fears…yeah, and she might as well move the Medicine Bow range aside with wishing.
Lynda J. Cox’s novel, ‘West of Forgotten’ is not yet published, but her other books are! Also you can follow her on social media for more updates!
Smolder on a Slow Burn: https://www.amazon.com/Smolder-Slow-Burn-Lynda-Cox-ebook/dp/B013RJVDQU
The Devil’s Own Desperado: https://www.amazon.com/Devils-Own-Desperado-Lynda-Cox-ebook/dp/B0153Q7NIM
Seize the Flame: https://www.amazon.com/Seize-Flame-Lynda-J-Cox-ebook/dp/B0165X2M6K