Word Count 24,413
Author note: This is one of my first stories, posted to LancerWriters in 2004. I like to think my writing has improved since, and while I’ve done some editing of it over the years, I don’t have the time or the inclination for a complete rewrite. I hope you enjoy it as the entertaining read it was meant to be. Thanks to all those who helped me with it, I still remember the conversations, the debates, and the laughs, even though it was almost twenty years ago now. Where does the time go?
1st in The Amber Series
“Anyone would think we’re expectin’ royalty.”
From by the fireplace, Scott grinned at his brother. Johnny slouched on the sofa, his feet on the coffee table, while Consuela shimmied the broom across the polished floor beneath his legs. Little brother was exaggerating of course, but not much. For the past seven days, the hacienda had stood firm against the force of a whirlwind as Teresa cleaned the place from top to bottom a dozen times; at least it felt that way. She’d even put the finger she kept her guardian wrapped around, to good use that morning by requesting, oh-so-sweetly, that Murdoch rouse Johnny from his bed so she could clean in there. On the weekend too!
“It’s not like your cousin will be stepping foot in my room, Teresa,” Johnny had pointed out.
“No, but you’re always leaving your door open during the day, isn’t he, Murdoch? And all it takes is for her to be walking past. Tell him, Murdoch. Please.”
To Johnny’s frustration, Murdoch had agreed with Teresa.
“Remind me how long she’s staying again?” Johnny still looked glum.
Scott eased Murdoch’s armchair aside to make room for Consuela to sweep. “She has a name.”
“Amber O’Brien-Harrington,” Johnny muttered, planting his feet back on the floor. “You ever heard of a name like that?”
“I’m not sure it’s appropriate to discuss her name, or a departure date, before the lady in question has even arrived. Now, get your boots on, they’ll be here in a minute.”
It took another twenty minutes for the faint cloud of dust on the horizon to take the form of Murdoch’s spring buggy; the one that spent most of the year in the shed because it was too nice for everyday use. Even their arrival at Lancer hadn’t warranted its outing, but as it had become more apparent, no effort was spared when it came to their impending guest. Scott cast a sideways glance at Johnny, who had reluctantly come out of the hacienda and taken up a lean against one of the stone pillars. Maybe, Johnny was right to be wary of the inconveniences Teresa’s cousin could bring.
All burgeoning doubt dissipated when the buggy rolled in. While Johnny sauntered straight up front to the horses, and Murdoch assisted a beaming Teresa down from the buggy, Scott’s attention was on the woman in the dark green dress who pressed her gloved hand into his. Like her cousin, Mrs O’Brien Harrington was slim and petite, but where Teresa’s hair was dark, hers was pale and golden, the colour of Johnny’s palomino, worn in the latest style with only a few wisps framing high cheekbones. She had green eyes a shade lighter than her dress.
Before Mrs O’Brien-Harrington could offer any more thanks than a smile, Teresa hurried around the buggy to stand beside them. “Amber, I’d like you to meet Murdoch’s sons. This is Scott and over there, that’s Johnny Lancer.”
“Miz Harrington,” Johnny nodded a greeting, one hand still buried in horse mane as Murdoch came alongside him with a friendly jostle of his shoulder.
“It’s lovely to meet you both. Teresa’s told me so much about you in her letters.”
“All good things, I hope,” Scott said.
Amber smiled. “Of course, even the story of the famous plaid pants…”
“Amber!” Teresa nudged her cousin, but neither woman could stifle their grins.
Scott took it in good humour, noting Mrs O’Brien-Harrington had a smattering of cookie-coloured freckles that danced across her nose as she laughed, fading away into the natural blush of her cheeks.
“Boys, why don’t you take Mrs Harrington’s luggage inside?” Murdoch suggested, offering Amber his arm.
“I think I hear enough of Mrs Harrington back home. Here, I’d like to be Amber, if you’re agreeable, Mr Lancer.” She included Scott and Johnny with her smile. “If you’re all agreeable, that is?”
Once Murdoch escorted the women inside, Johnny moved to stand in front of the buggy, thumbs hooked beneath his belt. He blew out a heavy breath that Scott pretended not to notice.
“C’mon then, Scott. Out with it.”
“Out with what?” Scott feigned nonchalance as he picked up a valise from the back of the wagon and set it on the ground.
“Don’t ever use that face to play poker.” Johnny heaved the next case down. “Penny for ‘em, as Murdoch says.”
“I’m thinking Amber plans on staying a while.” Scott surveyed the number of valises still in the wagon.
Johnny smirked and yanked another case down. “C’mon, you know what I mean.”
Scott sighed, knowing that Johnny wasn’t going to let this go until he got the answer he wanted. Heaving another bag from the wagon, Scott looked at his brother. “She’s a very attractive woman. Is that what you want to hear, brother?”
Johnny’s smirk blossomed into a grin. “Can’t say I noticed.”
After dinner, they moved to the comfortable seats in the great room. Murdoch and Scott took the armchairs, Amber and Teresa on the couch. Johnny slouched on the arm of Scott’s chair. Amber and Teresa started the conversation, exchanging stories of their fathers, Paul and Michael O’Brien, and what they knew of their voyage to America from Ireland when they were no more than boys. That conversation led to Murdoch recounting his first meeting with Paul and the blossoming of a firm friendship. Amber asked about Harvard, and Scott was happy to share. As an hour turned into two, whether Amber was talking or listening, she had Scott rapt in equal measure. She had a warm tone to her voice and a soft, breathy laugh that sent those pretty freckles dancing.
“Tell me, Johnny, are you always this quiet? Why don’t you tell me a little about yourself?”
Johnny, who had long since abandoned his perch on the armchair in favour of the rug in front of the fireplace, looked up when Amber asked her question. Scott knew Johnny didn’t enjoy making polite conversation, the fact he’d sat with them for the best part of two hours, making an effort to at least look interested, was a testament to his respect for Teresa and their father.
It was said father who saw off any pending awkwardness with a clearing of the throat that turned into an accidental coughing fit which had both women slightly alarmed. “Mrs Harrington. Amber,” he gasped, massaging his throat. “You must forgive us for keeping you up so late when you must be exhausted after such a long trip.”
Amber flashed a grateful smile. “It has been a long day, so I will retire now if you don’t mind.” She rose to her feet, as did the three men.
No sooner had the women said goodnight and departed the great room, Johnny was on his feet and headed for the door.
“John,” Murdoch said in exasperation. “Don’t you think it’s a little late to be going out now?”
Johnny grinned, looking his happiest since Amber’s arrival. “It’s Saturday night, Murdoch.” He shot his father a cheeky grin before turning to Scott. “You coming?”
Scott hesitated, but when Murdoch threw his hands in the air in resignation, he figured he might as well.
Sat in her chemise in front of the dressing table mirror, Amber removed the last of her pins and began to brush her hair. With each stroke, she considered the two different young men she’d met today. Scott was a gentleman, both in conversation and manner, good-looking with his gold-streaked hair, and blue eyes that could look grey, depending on the light. He was intellectual, well-read, and intriguing.
Teresa had told her Johnny had Mexican blood, so she’d never anticipated such vivid blue eyes. They were stunning and hinted at so many unspoken thoughts. Johnny was attractive, despite his rough edges. There was a mystery about him and that was enticing all on its own.
Yes, Amber reflected as she laid down the brush and slipped beneath the fresh bed linen, she was going to enjoy her time here at Lancer.
Sunday saw the Lancers and Amber assembled at the breakfast table later than usual, but still with one notable exception.
Peering over the top of his newspaper, Murdoch frowned at the absence of his younger son. It had been well past three in the morning when he’d heard his sons come home, and it must’ve been a heavier night than usual as Scott’s usually immaculate hair did look dishevelled, and there was a cut on his cheek from where he caught himself shaving. Still, at least Scott had made it to the table.
As Maria and Teresa served breakfast, Murdoch’s frown hinted at annoyance. “Excuse me a moment, I’m going upstairs.”
“Johnny?” Murdoch rapped his knuckles on the door to his son’s room, entering when he received no reply.
Sprawled face down on the bed, Johnny wore only half of last night’s clothes, his shirt a crumpled heap on the polished floor. Taking a step forward, Murdoch shook his son by the shoulder. “John?”
Johnny opened one eye, one hand thrust beneath the pillow, where Murdoch knew Johnny kept his gun. Only when his weary eyes focused on his father did Johnny relax enough to remove his hand from the pillow and drag it down his face instead. “What time is it?”
“Past time you were downstairs,” Murdoch said, letting a hint of annoyance into his tone this time. “The whole family, including our guest, are waiting to eat their breakfast.”
Johnny swung his legs over the edge of the bed and groaned as his head registered the effort.
“I’ll tell the rest of the family you’ll eat later,” Murdoch said. “We’ll finish this discussion later too.”
He left the room, closing the door with a thump, grinning when he heard Johnny’s groan and a few muttered Spanish curse words. Murdoch immediately reopened the door. “I heard that,” he said with forced gruffness, biting down the urge to laugh at his son’s sheepish expression.
The one positive thing to come out of Amber’s visit so far, was that Murdoch seemed keen for the family to make her welcome. That meant spending time with her, which was fine by Scott. It was a bonus he could forego another day of digging fence posts or rounding up strays.
They attended church after breakfast, all except Johnny, who rarely went. Now on this fine afternoon, Scott was set to show Amber some of Lancer. Johnny, Murdoch informed Scott when he asked, would be far too busy to accompany them.
Scott had grinned at this, knowing full well it was their father’s canny way of punishing a grown son for the no-show at breakfast, although Johnny might view spending the day with Amber as more of a punishment.
The sun was high in the sky as Scott and Amber rode away from the hacienda, headed deep into the Lancer countryside. The further they rode, the hotter it got. How Amber could bear to ride in the jacket and long skirt she was wearing was beyond him, this had to be one of the hottest days of the year. After a couple of hours, they reached the stream, and out of consideration, Scott asked Amber if she would like to rest a while. She agreed and dismounted, staring around at the acres of plush greenery.
“It’s so beautiful,” she remarked, opening her fan and moving it rapidly in front of her face. “Teresa told me it was, but I never believed…” Her voice trailed off into silence as she gazed around, the only sounds coming from her rapid movement of the fan and the babbling stream.
“It is,” Scott agreed. “The first time I saw it, it took my breath away.”
“I can see why.” Amber sat on the grass without care her skirt might spoil, and she gazed at him, shielding the sun from her eyes with her hand. “Sit with me a while?” she suggested, patting the grass beside her.
Removing his hat, Scott did. They lapsed into silence, enjoying the serenity of the setting.
“I’m sorry if I’m taking you away from whatever it is you usually do on a Sunday.”
“I’d hardly consider that cause for an apology.” Scott stretched out his legs.
“If I wasn’t here, what would you be doing now?”
“About now? I’d probably be sitting on the veranda with a glass of Teresa’s cold lemonade and a good book.”
“And if you ventured further from home?”
“A ride, with Johnny, maybe. There’s a swimming hole not far from here. Clear water, trees for shade.”
“Sounds lovely.” Amber sighed. She brought her legs up towards her chest and hugged them, resting her cheek atop her knees as she gazed at Scott beneath her long lashes. “Perhaps you could show me how you cool off some time. Not Johnny. You.”
His reply was a smile and an agreeable tilt of his head.
For the third time that afternoon, Johnny cursed as one of the chickens got underfoot and made his ass meet the ground. The original chicken wire was old and rusty and had grown entwined with weeds growing around the base of the coop. He was sweating by the time he untangled it and set about thumping the new wooden post into the dry earth. This was not how he wanted to spend his Sunday, and the harder he hit the wood, the greater sense of satisfaction he found in pretending it was Murdoch’s head.
“That’s the price yer pay for sassin’ your pa,” Jelly informed him smugly as he trudged by with a glass of lemonade.
With the task at last complete, Johnny headed back inside the hacienda to wash up before dinner. It was late and Scott and Amber were only just riding back in. He watched as Scott offered his hand to Amber to assist her dismount, unable to resist the chance to make Scott suffer for his awful afternoon.
He waited until Amber had gone inside and then, sneaking up behind Scott, he jabbed him playfully in the ribs. “I see you ain’t forgotten your manners, Boston.”
Scott tried to look irritated, but a grin was there. “At least I had some in the first place, little brother.”
“You like her, huh?”
“Not in the way you’re insinuating, Johnny.”
“Sure, sure.” Johnny nodded, walking alongside his brother towards the house. “You like her, the same way as you like Teresa…”
“Of course not, Teresa’s just a girl, like a sister…”
Johnny’s grin grew as Scott realised the trap he was walking into. With a shake of his head, he gave his brother a half-hearted shove and they jostled each other through the door.
Dinner that evening was a pleasant affair, the great room filled with the aroma of good food and happy chatter. The conversation flowed with the wine, even Teresa was permitted a glass or two. Revelling in the happy family atmosphere, Murdoch sat back a happy man. When Scott excused himself from the room, Murdoch looked at Teresa and Amber.
“So, ladies, what are your plans for tomorrow?”
“I’d like to see some more of the ranch. Perhaps Johnny could show me?” Amber spoke before Teresa had a chance, and she beamed a smile, all plump pink lips and white teeth, first at Murdoch, then at Johnny.
Murdoch looked surprised, Teresa disappointed, and Johnny’s head shot up in alarm. Since Amber’s arrival, Johnny had been distantly polite and made no attempt to endear himself to her.
“I’m sure Johnny wouldn’t mind at all.” Murdoch took a sip from his glass, his pointed gaze fixed on his younger son.
So, Murdoch had no intention of rescuing him then. Johnny wanted to scowl but held it back. He could think of nothing duller than spending a day with Amber and her fussy skirts and unsuitable slippers.
That thought remained right through to the next morning as Johnny waited impatiently in the barn for Amber, after saddling Barranca and Teresa’s mare.
Finally, bored of waiting, Johnny figured he’d head out. If Murdoch asked, then he could say he’d waited but she hadn’t shown up. It’s not as if he’d be slacking off, he was prepared to do a full day’s work – anything was better than playing tour guide to Teresa’s fancy cousin. Set on this idea, he was about to mount up when Amber called out to him.
“Well, this is it,” Johnny muttered under his breath, “Barranca, check out the skirts.”
“You weren’t leaving without me, were you?”
Johnny turned and did a double take. The dresses Amber had worn since her arrival were gone, and instead, she wore a white blouse and riding pants; tight, figure-hugging pants. Johnny grinned as she bent over to brush some dirt from her boot.
Standing up, Amber caught him looking and she flashed him a saucy smile. “I’ve dressed appropriately?” She twisted the end of her simple ponytail around her finger. “Not too many layers and frills today?”
Johnny shrugged. “You look fine to me.”
Amber walked over to Teresa’s mare and Johnny smirked as she screwed up her perfect little nose. “This is what you expect me to ride? It’s no more than a pony!”
“Her name’s Blossom.”
Amber rolled her eyes. “Find me something more suited, please.” She ran her hand down Barranca’s neck. “Something like this fine animal, here.”
Twenty minutes later, an unsaddled Blossom watched from the corral as Barranca and a chestnut rode beneath the blue sky and the white Lancer arch.
With Murdoch’s request that he at least try to be charming, Johnny tried to think of a safe conversation to pass the time, but it was Amber who broke the silence first.
“That’s a fine palomino, Johnny. My late husband owned one just like him. He was the fastest horse for miles, certainly the fastest I’ve ever ridden.”
Johnny’s head lifted in interest; he had noticed she rode well. Made him kinda wish he’d paid more attention when she was talking the other night.
“There’s no feeling like it, is there?” she continued. “Riding free, the wind in your hair, dust in your eyes, knowing you have something magnificent between your thighs…”
When Johnny snorted with laughter, Amber turned to him, her expression all innocence. “You don’t agree?”
He pushed his hat further back on his head. “You’re somethin’, lady, you know that?” He hadn’t meant it as a compliment, but Amber seemed to take it as one, her smile demure as she thanked him.
She uncorked her canteen and took a long drink. “So, Johnny, how about we switch? I’ve had my eye on Barranca since I arrived.”
“’Fraid not.” Johnny shifted in the saddle. “Barranca, well, he’s a one-man horse.”
She jammed the cork back into the bottle. “But I’m a woman, Johnny, in case you haven’t noticed.”
“Oh, I’ve noticed…” He met her gaze. The heat made her skin glisten in the sun. He watched her lick a drop of water from her lower lip. “But my answer’s still no.”
He thought she’d pout, but she took it as a challenge. “What can I do to change your mind?” She played with the end of her ponytail again, twirling the thick lock of hair around her finger.
Johnny raised his eyebrows. “Yep, you sure are something,” he said, kicking Barranca on to a faster pace.
The ground had levelled now and the range rolled out before them; a perfect carpet of honey-green grass. Amber pulled the chestnut up alongside him and surveyed the view for herself.
“Come on, Johnny, I’ll race you to the copse of trees over there.”
“I don’t think so.”
“What, scared I’ll beat you?” Amber enquired sweetly over her shoulder, kicking the horse into a gallop.
Johnny chewed his bottom lip before racing after her.
Ten minutes later, they were standing in the shade of the trees, breathing hard from their exhilarating ride. Johnny had won, despite her head start, but Amber didn’t seem to mind as she took a drink and began combing her hair through with her fingers. Johnny made himself comfortable on the ground and, leaning against the wide trunk of a tree, he reached for his canteen. He’d brought the water to his lips when he noticed Amber was beginning to undo the buttons of her shirt.
He watched the first couple of buttons pop open. “It’s so hot,” Amber murmured. “You don’t mind, do you?”
Amused, Johnny shook his head. “Nooo, you go right ahead.”
She worked the lower ones undone with her fingers.
It had now been a week since Amber’s arrival and Murdoch was relieved both of his sons had made her welcome. Oh, Murdoch was no fool; he suspected Scott had begun to develop feelings for the young widow and even Johnny seemed to have warmed to her, so far as he could tell. Johnny had an uncanny ability to appear casually indifferent, but there was no sign he looked upon Amber as anything more than their house guest.
The door opened and the sound of female laughter filtered in, bringing a smile to Murdoch’s face. Teresa was giggling hard at something Amber said. Both women were in new outfits. Female company was what Teresa needed.
“Ladies,” Murdoch said, when they stopped laughing long enough to notice him.
“Oh, hello, Murdoch.” Teresa made an effort to compose herself. “Are Scott and Johnny home yet?”
“Scott’s still out, but I think I saw Johnny come back a few minutes ago. He’ll be in the barn with Barranca I expect.”
Teresa nodded. “I’ll go help Maria with dinner.”
“I’ll help too,” Amber insisted.
“Of course not, you’re our guest!”
Teresa hurried off to the kitchen leaving Murdoch and Amber alone. “I was doing the bookkeeping, do you mind…?” Murdoch indicated the open ledger on his desktop.
“Of course not, please carry on…”
Murdoch took his seat and picked up the first receipt from the pile to his right. Trying to concentrate, he was aware of Amber moving about the room, picking up various knickknacks, which she would weigh in her hands before returning to their original place. With a sigh, Murdoch placed his pencil down on the page and cleared his throat. “So, Amber, have you given any thought to how long you’ll stay?”
Amber smiled. “I thought until Teresa’s birthday at the end of the month?”
“You’re welcome to stay as long as you like,” Murdoch offered. “It’s good for Teresa to spend some time with her family.”
Amber’s smile blossomed. “Thank you, Murdoch, that is most kind, but I cannot stay too long. I have plans to stay with my friend Ruby. She moved to Boston after I married and I haven’t seen her since.”
“Boston’s a nice city. I’m sure you’ll enjoy your time there.”
“I’ve always wanted to go.”
“I’m sure Scott can tell you everything you need to know.”
“He’s told me so much already.”
Murdoch nodded. “Well, he lived his whole life there.” He picked up another receipt. “And after Boston?”
“Who knows,” Amber said. “Wherever the wind takes me, as they say.”
“Do you think you’ll ever settle down again? A young woman such as yourself could easily find another husband.”
Amber smiled wistfully. “I’ve thought about it, but finding and wanting are too different things.” She crossed the room to the window, staring out at the view Murdoch loved so much. “Perhaps one day…”
Murdoch’s gaze returned to the ledger as he considered how to respond. When he lifted his head again, Amber was gone.
Johnny had spent his afternoon rounding up strays in the north pasture. It was sweaty and exhausting work, and to top it off, one of the stupid animals had gotten itself entangled in a newly erected fence. Freeing the panicked beast had not proved easy and he had the scratches to prove it.
Now he was dusty and tired, his muscles ached, and all he wanted was to soak his throbbing body before dinner. In the bathhouse, he peeled off his tattered shirt and sighed at the scratches he could see on his arms and chest, and the bruises forming on his skin.
His well-honed instincts warned him when he was no longer alone, and sure enough, he heard a gentle footfall outside the door as the handle twisted from the other side.
Johnny let out the breath he’d been holding when Amber poked her head around the door. Of all the stupid things to do. He shoved his gun back in its holster but left his hand hovering over it as he glared. Her eyes widened at the sight, but not in the way he expected.
“Who on earth wears a gun when they’re about to get in the tub?”
“What?” He looked at her like she was loco.
Amber stepped fully inside and pressed the door shut behind her. She had the nerve to sound cross. “I’ve never known anything so ridiculous – you could have shot me!”
His hand left his gun and raked through his hair in exasperation. “Anyone ever teach you, or any member of your family, how to knock?”
“Well, I’m sorry,” she said, but her gaze held no such apology as it swept over him like he was the prize stud at auction. “Look at you, you’re hurt.” Her concerned gaze finally rose from his chest.
Johnny swiped his torn shirt from the floor and stuck one arm back through, scowling as he did so. “I’m not hurt,” he snapped. “I’m trying to take a bath.”
Amber looked over at the steaming tub. “Don’t let me stop you…” She waited a beat and when he failed to move, she flashed him a smile, “…I only came to let you know dinner is ready.”
“Well, you go on and tell Teresa to keep a plate for me.”
Still smiling, she turned to leave.
“I might have shot you. Don’t sneak up on me again.”
Her tongue darted out to lick her bottom lip as she nodded her head.
As soon as the door shut behind her, Johnny locked it and stripped his shirt off for the second time. Amber sure was confident but she seemed to expect him to fall to heel like some sort of puppy dog. Well, she’d find out he was no one’s dog, one way or another.
The birds woke Scott early the next morning, singing in the tree outside his window. Swinging his legs off the mattress, he reached for his robe. Once decent, he moved to the window, drawing the soft drapes. As he looked out over the corral, he saw Amber, already dressed, standing beside the fence and staring out across the land.
His curiosity more awake than the rest of him, Scott dressed and hurried downstairs, slipping out of the back door. The air was already warm, and the birds continued their chorus as he crossed the grass to join her.
Amber turned and gave him a dazzling smile to rival the morning sun. “Good morning, Scott. It’s going to be another lovely day.”
Scott nodded, casting his eyes over the bright cloudless sky. “You’re up early. Did you not sleep well?”
“Oh, I slept like a baby. I want to make the most of being here.” Amber angled her head to look up at him. “I was hoping we could spend some more time together today?”
Scott wanted to, but he hesitated in answering, his mind counting all the work to be done.
“I thought you could tell me more about Boston, and we could talk more about your time at Harvard,” Amber coaxed, linking her arm through his. “I’ve always been very interested in the principles of accounting.”
Scott looked sceptical. “You have?”
Amber nodded enthusiastically, her light golden hair bouncing on her shoulders.
Since his arrival here, not one person had shown any interest in anything Scott had learnt at school, and it would be good to share and reminisce. “In that case, I’ll square things with Murdoch. Then I’m all yours.”
“Well, Scott, there is a lot of work to do…” Murdoch began when Scott announced his intentions to spend the day with Amber.
“I know, sir, but you did ask that we welcome Amber, and that’s all I’m trying to do.”
Scott knew he had his father there, but to his surprise, it was Johnny who tipped the balance.
“Relax Murdoch, I can handle it.” Johnny shot Scott a look that told Scott he owed him one. A favour he acknowledged with a nod. From his brother’s knowing grin he could guess what Johnny was thinking, but Scott wasn’t ready to share his feelings towards Amber yet. Not when he was still uncertain of them himself.
It was late afternoon when Scott and Amber returned from Green River, a cool breeze coming in from the east making the journey home much more bearable. As they pulled up at the rear of the hacienda, they were still talking animatedly. There had not been a lull in conversation the whole trip. He enjoyed himself in her company; Amber displayed such a keen interest in so many things dear to his heart, it was getting harder and harder to deny—he did indeed have feelings for her.
After Jelly took the buggy and horses to the barn, Scott and Amber walked across to the house.
“I haven’t enjoyed myself so much in ages,” she said, linking her arm through his again. “I haven’t talked so much in ages either.” She laughed and Scott smiled. He felt the same way.
“Thank you so much for today,” she stopped, bringing Scott to a pause as well. “It was wonderful.” On her tiptoes, she planted a kiss on his lips.
“You know, I’m here for a while,” she whispered. “We could have some fun if you like?”
Her lips softly brushed from his mouth to his cheek. Warmth ran through Scott’s body at her contact, and he could smell her flowery fragrance as she got close. He was no stranger to forward women; back in Boston, he’d been the target of many female advances, most of them only interested in snaring Garrett’s grandson as a husband. Only a few, like Barbara, had sought fun of their own before marriage. California was proving somewhat different. But no matter how much he might want to take Amber up on her tempting offer, Scott could hear Johnny’s teasing. He could well imagine how much his brother would enjoy saying I told you so.
Running a hand through his hair, Scott pulled away. For a moment, Amber looked disappointed.
“You think on it,” she said sweetly. Before Scott could formulate a reply, she was gone.
Walking with an obvious spring in her step and humming a happy tune, Amber located her cousin around the side of the hacienda.
Teresa, who was fetching the linens from the washing line, looked up and noticed Amber looked pleased with herself. “Did you have a good day?” she asked, hiding how disappointed she was that her cousin preferred to spend time with her brothers lately.
“I’ve had a glorious day!”
Johnny rode in and Amber’s eyes lit up as she followed his progress to the barn.
“Amber, I thought it was Scott you’re interested in?”
Amber’s eyes widened. “Well, they are both attractive, are they not?”
“Yes, I mean, no, I…” Teresa blushed furiously as she stumbled over her words. She shook her head in annoyance and concentrated on her chore as Amber chuckled.
Sunday morning saw the family leave for church in the buggy. Johnny, who as usual declined an audience with God, chose instead to spend time with Barranca in the barn. It wasn’t that he had anything against religion; he’d made peace with God in his own way and that was all he needed for now.
When he entered the house, it was silent, bar the odd sound from Maria in the kitchen. As much as he loved his family, he relished these times when he could be alone. Going upstairs, he paused at a sound coming from behind his closed bedroom door. No one else should be here and so, reaching instinctively for his gun, Johnny touched the door handle and edged it open.
Poised and ready, Johnny threw the door open the rest of the way and froze, his grip on the gun going slack.
There on his bed, lying on her stomach atop the covers was Amber, without a single stitch on. Her upper body was propped up by her elbows, the sun shining through the window and making her bare skin sparkle. One of Teresa’s magazines lay open on his pillow, as if she’d been reading while she waited for him, and when she looked up and smiled, he tried to keep his gaze on the magazine.
He tried real hard.
Of course, Amber noticed, and her smile widened as she turned her body toward him, leaving the magazine discarded on his pillow.
He ducked out of the room and pressed his back against the wall in the hallway. “What the hell d’you think you’re doing?”
Through the wall, he heard the bed ropes creak as she climbed off his mattress. “Reading?” she offered. He could hear the soles of her bare feet on the floor. Johnny shook his head, he didn’t know whether to laugh, to get mad, or to go on in there and…
He went with mad and returned his gun to the holster. He could have shot her. Again.
Rounding the door jamb, he saw she had wrapped herself in his bedspread and he wasn’t sure why that made him hot beneath the collar, but damn it, it did. He swiped her clothes from the floor. “Get dressed.”
“Are you sure that’s what you want?”
He nodded curtly, not looking her way as she took the bundle of clothes from him. He could feel her hesitation.
“I won’t say anything,” he snapped.
“Thank you.” Grateful, Amber left the room.
Alone, Johnny sat heavily on the unmade bed and ran his hands through his hair. He had to hand it to her, she had some front. The duality of his words caused him to grin. He shook his head, leant back against the headboard, and tried to fathom what it was about Amber that got to him, besides those soft curves from waist to hip and the gentle swell of her…Jesus, she was doing a number on him. He liked women and they liked him, only he preferred to be the one in control, he liked to do the chasing. Amber, well, she was different. Dangerous. Johnny rolled that word on his tongue a couple of times, contemplating the woman who seemed intent on causing as much trouble for him as she could during her stay. He couldn’t deny he found her attractive, what man wouldn’t? As for danger; he always attracted that, one way or another.
Amber knew nothing about him, not who he was now, or who he had been in the past. If she did, then she’d act differently. As it was, she was lucky he hadn’t shot her by now. Maybe he should talk to Scott. Ask him to give Amber a hint that sneaking up on him could be bad for her health. Then, on second thoughts, that might raise questions about his past. Besides, while he had teased Scott in the beginning, he had a suspicion Scott was falling for her. Not that he’d said anything on the subject. Scott was being real tight-lipped. He would be extra careful. And maybe find out exactly what was going on in his brother’s head about Amber O’Brien-Harrington.
Later that morning when all were home from church, Murdoch strode into the kitchen to find Johnny sitting at the table while Maria hovered over him, urging him to eat all she’d prepared. Pouring a cup of coffee, Murdoch took the seat opposite his son.
“Have you spoken to Amber?”
Johnny frowned. “I didn’t know she’d stayed behind.”
“She was feeling unwell this morning.” Murdoch took a sip of the hot coffee and perused Johnny. “You know, I thought you were warming to her, but now I get the sense you still don’t like her much. Am I right?”
Johnny swallowed a large bite of biscuit and lifting his eyes, met Murdoch’s gaze. “I didn’t say I don’t like her,” he said carefully. “She’s a bit fancy for my tastes, is all.”
Murdoch seemed to accept his answer. “Just be polite. That’s all I ask.”
“Believe me, Murdoch, I ain’t been nothin’ but polite to Miz Harrington.”
Before his father could question him further, Scott came back into the kitchen followed by Teresa and Amber, who appeared to be looking much better.
“I’m pleased to see you’re looking brighter now, Amber,” Murdoch said.
“Oh yes, much. I fear it was just fatigue, I have been so busy since I arrived.”
“That’s true,” Teresa piped up. “You need to do something to relax.” She looked pensive before smiling brightly. “Perhaps we could all go on a family picnic!” Her eyes lit up and she looked to her brothers and guardian for their agreement.
Usually, Teresa’s picnics went down well with everyone, so Johnny felt bad he couldn’t conjure up any enthusiasm, and even Murdoch looked hesitant. Only Scott and Amber seemed keen on the idea, which placated Teresa somewhat. Turning to her guardian, she asked, “Murdoch?”
“I’m sorry Teresa, but the journey to and from church played havoc with my back. I should stay here. But you all go and enjoy yourselves.”
“Leave me out, honey.”
“Oh, Johnny, why?”
Johnny shot a glance in Amber’s direction. “Fatigue?” he said with a shrug.
Amber flushed and the rest of his family looked sceptical. “Since when have you turned down the opportunity of no work and Teresa’s picnic food?”
An hour later, they were ready to set off and Scott had to stifle a laugh at Teresa’s obvious excitement. “How much food have you got there, Teresa?” he asked, pointing to the large hamper she was struggling to lift.
Making a face, Teresa stepped away from the hamper and planted her hands on her hips. “Are you going to lift this for me, Scott Lancer, or have you forgotten your manners?”
Scott bowed apologetically. “No, ma’am,” he teased.
“Oh, wait, I’ve forgotten something.” Teresa dashed back towards the house. A few seconds later Scott heard her cry out.
When he got to her aid, he found Amber trying to support a tearful Teresa.
“My ankle…it hurts,” Teresa whimpered. “I was running back inside as Amber came out. I tripped over something…” her gaze searched the ground, looking for the offending object but not finding it.
“Don’t look like you’ll be makin’ that picnic either,” Johnny said as he came outside and bent to check out Teresa’s ankle, which was already starting to swell.
Teresa sighed; her eyes downcast.
“It’s okay, Teresa. We’ll go another day.” Scott lifted the girl and placed her in Johnny’s arms.
Teresa shook her head. “No, Scott. You and Amber go, I know you’re looking forward to it.”
“Are you sure, Teresa?” Amber asked, although she had already taken a couple of steps towards the wagon.
Teresa nodded, resting her head against Johnny’s chest. “It’s fine,” she said graciously. “I’ve got Johnny to look after me.”
“Well then?” Amber looked at Scott.
“Let’s go,” Scott said with a smile.
Scott took Amber to the usual picnic location down by the swimming hole. They dismounted from the horses and left them to graze in the shadow of the trees, while Scott opened the hamper.
Sitting on a blanket spread over the grass, Amber looked around her. The reflections of nearby trees shimmered on the surface of the pool and when she got up close, the water was so clear she could see the different coloured pebbles on its bed. Sighing with happiness, her gaze turned to the man beside her, his dusty blue shirt bringing out the depth of colour in his eyes.
He turned his head towards her. “Are you hungry?”
“Not yet.” She tugged on the ribbons of her dress, aware Scott tracked the movement of her fingers. “What are you thinking, Scott?”
Scott’s eyes widened. “I was thinking what a lovely day it is.” The fib sounded obvious even to his ears.
“Yes, it is lovely.” She unthreaded another ribbon. “Hot.” She began unlacing her boots. “Scott, have you thought about what I said the other day?”
Scott, who had taken a bite of something from the picnic basket, almost choked on it.
“Because it’s a perfect day to have some fun, and we are alone here, right? Nobody’s likely to come along?”
“Good,” Amber said, removing the pins from her hair to let it settle in its natural frame around her face. “Because I feel like a swim!”
She stepped out of the dress and stood only in her undergarments. Facing the water, she didn’t turn around. Didn’t need to. She knew Scott was sitting there, mesmerised, caught between level-headedness and desire. To give him one last push, she let her drawers shimmy down her legs and stepped, naked, into the cool water.
By the time Scott reached the pool, Amber was submerged up to her shoulders; knowing the ripples of the water would offer a tantalising vision of her naked body.
“Are you going to stand there staring, Scott Lancer?”
Done with hesitation, Scott stripped off his shirt. Amber licked her bottom lip at the sight of Scott’s toned upper body, and when he shucked his pants, she smiled with glee.
They were in the water for about an hour before moving the blanket to a more secluded spot amongst the trees, letting the warm air dry their bodies. Their time in the water had left Scott tired, but Amber looked nothing but refreshed as she lazed on the blanket, showing no interest in getting dressed.
“So, Scott, how come you haven’t found yourself a wife?”
Scott pulled his pants up over damp hips and settled back with his hands behind his head. Through the canopy of branches above he stared at the blue sky. “I thought I had once. It didn’t work out.” He glanced her way. “What about you, have you considered marrying again?”
“Are you proposing?”
Scott felt the blood rush to his cheeks, realising she had misinterpreted his remark. “No… I…”
“Relax, Scott, I know what you meant,” Amber teased. “When James died, I felt I’d never remarry, but sometimes you meet a person and realise happiness is possible again…”
“I believe that.”
She shifted closer to him, her long hair tickling his chest. “Good,” she whispered.
Scott drew her closer still, pressing his lips to hers.
The rest of the week passed quickly and due to the volume of work, Amber and Teresa amused themselves. It also meant Scott had no opportunity for further alone time with Amber. He hadn’t said anything to Johnny about what took place on the picnic. He knew the importance of protecting Amber’s reputation, so even when Johnny broached the subject one afternoon while they worked; Scott kept the truth to himself.
It didn’t sit well, lying to Johnny, and he was still surprised he’d pulled it off, knowing how good his brother was at reading people.
“So, what did you get up to on that picnic then?” Johnny had asked, not even trying to hide his smirk.
“We talked, Johnny,” Scott said as indignantly as he could manage.
Johnny had shrugged. “It’s a fair question, brother. After all, this is Amber we’re talkin’ ’bout.”
“What do you mean by that?”
It seemed it was Johnny’s turn to hedge. “Oh, she seems mighty interested in you is all.”
“Amber’s not really my type.”
“No?” Johnny had looked rightfully suspicious then. Amber was an attractive woman, and few men would think otherwise.
“No… I don’t like blondes,” Scott had answered lamely.
“Since when? You’d better not let Lucy from Morro Coyo hear you say that.”
They’d returned to work with the weight of the lie heavy on Scott’s shoulders. It was only until Amber left, then he would tell Johnny the truth if he asked again. He was sure Johnny would understand.
Two o’clock, a quick wash and change of clothes saw Johnny ready for town. Apart from a few errands to run for Murdoch in Green River, the afternoon and evening were his own. It was rare for him to be heading into town alone though. Usually, the brothers rode in together and came home real late, or early, depending on how you looked at it.
Johnny couldn’t figure Scott. A few hours after denying feelings for Amber, he was turning down a late-night visit to town because ‘he didn’t feel like it’. Well, Scott was the one missing out. Johnny would have fun.
Whistling, he headed into the barn to saddle Barranca. Surprised to see the chestnut saddled, he heard muffled footsteps on the hay. Sure it would be Scott saying he had changed his mind, Amber’s arrival surprised him.
“You goin’ for a ride?” Johnny nodded toward the chestnut as he led Barranca from the stall.
“Yes, into town with you.”
“Whoa,” Johnny shook his head. “There is no way you’re coming into town with me.”
“I cleared it with Murdoch,” Amber breezed, leading the chestnut horse out into the sunshine. “I’ll ride into town with you and then ride back later with Doctor Jackson.”
“Yes, that’s the one. I’ll ride back to Lancer later this afternoon when the doctor comes to look at Teresa’s ankle.”
“Sorry, lady. Not happening.”
Amber raised an eyebrow. “Do you want me to get your father?”
Johnny smirked. “You can see if he’ll take you to town if ya like, but I doubt it.” He swung his leg over Barranca and settled in the saddle. Touching his hand to the brim of his hat, he grinned down at her.
“Be seein’ ya.”
A mile down the road and Johnny had shaken off all thoughts of Amber O’Brien-Harrington, when Barranca’s ears pricked and the horse tossed his head, hearing something Johnny’s ears had yet to pick up. He had his hand on his colt before recognising the sound of hooves on the dirt behind them. He didn’t need to turn around to know who it was.
A sheen of sweat adorned the chestnut’s coat as Amber drew up alongside Barranca. Both she and her horse were somewhat breathless.
“Go home, Amber.”
“No, I don’t believe I will,” she said haughtily. “If you don’t want me to go into town with you, then I’ll go in by myself.”
When they arrived in Green River, to Johnny’s relief, Amber seemed more than happy to part ways. Teresa had provided her with directions to Sam Jenkins’ practice and several dressmakers establishments, and she would be fine shopping alone. Chewing the stampede strings of his hat, Johnny watched her walk along the boardwalk, paper directions in hand, her long hair in its ponytail again, bouncing against her back. From the sway of her hips in those jeans, she knew full well she drew the gaze of almost every man on Main Street.
With a shake of his head, Johnny gave her one last look before heading in the opposite direction to complete Murdoch’s errands.
An hour later, he was a free man. A free man in need of a drink. There were several saloons in Green River and most of them had women, but he and Scott preferred this one. Crossing the street, Johnny noted Amber’s chestnut horse was no longer where she tied it, so he assumed she’d gone back to Lancer with Sam. What would the Doc make of Lancer’s latest guest?
“Well, now, there you are.”
“Val.” Johnny had a ready smile for the sheriff, who stood outside the batwing doors smoking a cigarette. Off-key piano music and drunken singing danced out of the saloon behind him. “You been drinkin’ on the job again?”
“Real funny. I’ve been waiting on ya.”
“Yeah? Here I am and I’m buying if you’re interested?”
Val spat onto his fingers and used the moisture to extinguish the cigarette before crushing it between the cracks of the boardwalk with his boot. “Oh, I’m interested,” he said as he pushed through the doors of the saloon, Johnny following him in. “I’m mighty interested in your explanation for this.” Val pointed to the piano and Johnny’s jaw dropped.
Amber was sitting at the old piano in the corner, her fingers flying across the keys, shoulders jiggling as she pounded out an upbeat tempo that sounded a mite off-key to sober ears. Good job none of the cowboys surrounding the piano was sober, judging by all the foot tapping, knee-slapping and beer sloshing that was going on around her. The only ones in the saloon who were not enjoying the impromptu show were the saloon’s regular girls. They stood around, arms folded, looking far from pleased.
The tune ended and Amber sat back on the stool, laughing at something one of the cowboys said, before her gaze met Johnny’s across the room.
“Johnny!” She sprang up from the stool and squeezed her way through the throng of cowboys to pause in front of him with a big smile. “Are you going to buy a girl a drink then?”
Johnny narrowed his eyes. “Buy you a drink? Lady, I should—”
“You should introduce me to your friend,” Amber interrupted, slapping her hand across Johnny’s chest. She smiled at Val. “Miz O’Brien-Harrington, Teresa’s cousin.” She offered her hand to Val, who took it, wiping his hand on his pants leg first.
“Val Crawford, Sheriff of this town.” Val fiddled with the silver staff pinned to his shirt front, attempting to give it a quick polish with his shirt cuff.
“The sheriff? Johnny never said he had such important friends.”
“Important? Well yeah, I guess I am at that…”
Johnny coughed and Val shot him an annoyed look. When Amber turned to reply to one of the cowboys behind, Val nudged Johnny in the ribs.
“Ain’t you the dark horse.”
“Nooo Val…” Johnny began, but Amber’s attention was back on them again.
“I do hope I haven’t got Johnny in trouble by being here, Sheriff Crawford. Johnny did try to talk me out of coming to town with him tonight, but I can be stubborn. It’s not one of my better qualities I’m afraid.”
“Well, it ain’t against the law ‘xactly,” Val said with a shrug.
“That’s what the bar fellow over there said.” Amber pointed across to where Charlie was wiping glasses. “Although he didn’t seem keen on me staying until I told him I was the guest of Johnny Lancer.” She flicked her ponytail. “So, are you going to buy me that drink, Johnny, or does a girl have to faint before you take notice?”
Johnny glared at her. “I’m sure they do a mean sarsaparilla in here.”
Amber frowned. “Are you going to belittle me all evening, or can we at least try to get along, hmm?”
Johnny sighed, aware that Val’s gaze pinned him. As smitten as the sheriff seemed with Amber, it was likely the grumpy lawman might get the urge to defend her honour if he insulted her. “Fine. What d’ya want?” He couldn’t shake the feeling that this whole evening would lead to trouble. Hell, it was trouble already.
“I’ll have the same as you.”
“Tequila?” Johnny smirked, knowing Amber would refuse the fiery drink.
“Oh yes,” Amber said brightly. “Bring the bottle.”
Val frowned. “You be careful, ma’am, and if you get any trouble whatsoever, I’ll be right there.”
Amber beamed. “Oh, that is so kind, Sheriff, but I’m sure Johnny will protect me.” With one last smile, she searched for a seat.
Val shook his head. “Your daddy know ‘bout this?”
“No, Val, and don’t go mentioning it either.” He didn’t want to think about how Murdoch would react if he knew, not to mention Teresa.
“This is a small town, Johnny. Take a lady in here an’ people’ll talk.”
“As long as that talk stays clear of Murdoch.”
On the staircase at the other end of the room, the saloon girls were staring, whispering, and pointing in Amber’s direction. It was Wendy, the oldest of the girls, who made her way to where Johnny leaned against the bar.
“Wendy.” Johnny met the woman’s green eyes and noted the curiosity they contained.
“What’s the matter, sugar?” Wendy drawled in her soft Texan tones. “We not good ‘nough for ya, so you’re bringin’ your own?”
A smile played on Johnny’s lips. It was tempting to tease her, but the need to hurry up and get gone stopped him. Shaking his head he said, “It ain’t like that Wendy. She’s family. Sort of.”
Wendy raised her thin eyebrows. “Family? Well, Carla will sure be pleased to hear it. She was hoping you’d spend some time with her later?”
Johnny’s smile was regretful as his gaze returned to the staircase. Carla was glaring at Amber, her eyes as black as her raven hair.
“Tell her some other time,” Johnny said, silently cursing Amber for ruining his plans. He received his bottle from Wendy. “Tell her I’m worth the wait.”
Wendy smiled as Johnny handed his money over. “Oh, she knows that sugar,” she purred. “We all do.”
Johnny grinned. Collecting the bottle and two glasses, he sauntered to the table in the corner, walking straight past Amber and the table she’d selected for him. Slouched in the corner chair, back to the wall, Johnny poured himself a shot as Amber stomped her way over. She still had the attention of every man in the room.
“What’s wrong with the table I chose?”
“I like this one better. Here.” Johnny poured her a drink and slid it across the table.
“A toast,” Amber said, raising her glass in Johnny’s direction. “To fun!”
Johnny raised his glass sceptically, thinking fun was the last thing he was going to have tonight. He downed his drink and replaced his glass on the table, surprised to see Amber’s glass empty.
“So, what shall we talk about?”
“I don’t feel like talkin’.”
Amber tilted her head. “Okay, no talking,” she said, nodding her agreement. “Let’s drink.”
An hour later and they were still there but Johnny found himself not hating it as much as he’d anticipated. All right, there were still the leering eyes of other men, mentally undressing Amber where she sat, but as much as Johnny hated to admit it, he couldn’t help but be a little impressed by her strong-will. She had matched him drink for drink so far and showed no signs of ailing. Johnny had a begrudging respect for anyone who could consume as much tequila as him and still have the room in focus.
They had even started to talk some, Amber taking the lead in almost every conversation. A couple of times she asked about his life before Lancer, but he’d kept his answers vague and non-committal, and she seemed to take the hint.
She had finished telling him about some of the places she’d visited since the death of her husband, when Wendy appeared at their table.
“Y’all want more drinks?”
Johnny was about to decline for they hadn’t finished the bottle they were on, but Amber nodded. “Same again,” she answered, beaming at Wendy.
Wendy’s smile looked forced. “Comin’ up, darlin’,” she snipped.
“We’d better head back. How you gonna explain not showing up at Lancer with the doc?”
Amber flushed from more than the tequila. “I may have misled you there. Doctor Jenkins isn’t even due at Lancer this evening as far as I know.”
Johnny gritted his teeth. “So where exactly do they think you are?”
Amber took another sip of tequila. “In bed with a headache?”
“Jesus.” Johnny shook his head. If Teresa checked and found Amber missing…
Their drinks appeared on a tray and as Johnny looked up and saw who was carrying them, he knew there was going to be trouble.
“Here ya go,” Carla said sweetly, thrusting the tray towards Amber, the glasses toppling and the liquid splashing down the front of Amber’s shirt.
“Oh, I’m real sorry,” Carla said without a trace of sincerity. “Perhaps you’d like Johnny to clean you up?”
Amber glared at Carla.
Carla glared back.
Johnny shot Carla an apologetic smile, but she ignored him and returned to the watching girls no doubt with a triumphant expression on her face.
Seeing his opportunity, Jed Wallis, a local man with a reputation for being a bully, reached around with a napkin and began pawing at the front of Amber’s shirt on the pretence of helping.
Jed was oblivious to Amber’s repulsion. Johnny seized his arm and yanked it away.
“What the hell?” Jed grumbled. “This ain’t your woman, Lancer. Heard ya tellin’ Wendy.”
Johnny tugged Amber to her feet. “Time to go.” But Jed wasn’t done.
“Y’know you ain’t Madrid no more, Johnny, just plain ol’ Lancer’s kid. You don’t scare me none.”
Johnny’s eyes darkened. Giving Amber a push towards the exit, he leaned closer to Jed. “I do scare you,” he said quietly. He kept Jed pinned with an unwavering gaze until he saw the older man swallow and step back, his hands well clear of his holster.
Recognising Jed’s surrender, Johnny grasped Amber by the arm, and this time hauled her toward the exit.
“Johnny!” she protested, but he said nothing, just kept a firm grip on her until they were outside and reunited with their horses. Only then did he let go of her arm and notice she’d snagged the bottle of tequila from the table.
“Mount up,” Johnny ordered, assisting her up on her horse. “We’re going home.”
It wasn’t until they were on the road back to Lancer that Amber spoke, “Why did that disgusting man call you Madrid?”
In the darkness, Johnny tensed. “It’s a nickname.” He kept his tone casual.
Amber guided her horse to a grassy patch amongst the trees.
What the hell? Annoyed, Johnny followed her, surprised to find she’d dismounted in the clearing and now blocked Barranca’s path.
“You used to be called Johnny Madrid?”
“You’re sure full of questions tonight, Amber.”
“Jed’s scared of you – why’s that?”
There was something in her look, a challenge or maybe it was an innocent question. Either way, Johnny didn’t wish to answer. He did the only thing he could think of that would kill the subject; he swung down from Barranca and kissed her, hard. She kissed him back. “Johnny.” She moved her lips to his ear, nibbling, while her hand stroked the dark hair at the nape of his neck. “We haven’t had that last drink yet.” She held the bottle aloft and he watched as she pressed her lips around the mouth of it and took a long swig.
He took the bottle from her, but when he went to drink from it, she grabbed his hand. “Wait.” Johnny raised his eyebrows at the order, but his gaze dipped lower when she began unbuttoning her shirt. It fell open, the moonlight shimmering on the silky material of her camisole, still damp from her saloon soaking. The soft swell of her breasts peeked out from beneath the flimsy fabric and she slipped her hands inside his shirt and splayed her fingers across his chest. She tilted the bottle in his hand and, releasing a trickle of tequila down his chest, immediately chased the liquid with her tongue. His blood came alive and shot south. Taking the bottle back, Amber took a swig and whispered, “Your turn,” before dripping tequila over her chest, letting it spill across the bare skin beneath the lacy edging of her camisole.
Shit. Knowing he’d lost control of the situation; Johnny swept the thin straps of her camisole down her shoulders. The taste of tequila and the salt of her skin sizzled on his tongue, and he was aware that his body raced ahead and he needed to slow it down. She moaned and he heard the bottle hit the ground with a dull thump. A little voice in his head warned him to stop, but that felt downright impossible, especially as Amber’s hands were already in his pants.
He stifled a groan and shed his gun belt while Amber unbuttoned her jeans, letting them slide down to her ankles before she kicked them away. Reaching out, she gripped his waistband and bumped him closer. They kissed, even when he lifted and bumped her back against the tree bark, her legs hooked tight around his middle.
As the early hours of the morning bathed the room in a bluish light, Scott’s eyes flickered open. Something had woken him but he wasn’t sure what it was. Pushing off the mattress, Scott strained to hear the noise again, but the house was silent.
Deciding to stay home last night hadn’t been an easy decision, and it was a dilemma he’d wrestled with for most of the previous day. On the one hand, if he went into town, it would put weight behind his declaration that he had no interest in Amber what so ever. But then, on the other hand, he suspected Amber was no innocent when it came to the extra activities available to men in saloons late at night. They were not officially courting yet, but still, it didn’t sit right.
It had taken a good while for sleep to come. His mind kept going over the day of the picnic. Amber made him want to smile, and he couldn’t remember the last time he had felt like this. She was an intriguing woman, not his usual type, but what was? Nice girls with nice personalities from nice families – all proper but not exciting. One thing Scott knew was that Amber excited him.
Rising, he pulled on his pants and walked barefoot across his bedroom. He was almost to his door when another door closed somewhere along the hall.
He stepped out, wincing as a board creaked in protest. Moving quietly, ears on full alert, Scott made his way to the staircase.
Suddenly a shadow appeared, and Scott whirled around.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to wake ya,” Johnny whispered, and Scott realised he’d just gotten in.
“What time is it?”
Scott shook his head and couldn’t help his grin. “Must have been some night?”
For a split second, Johnny looked uncomfortable, but a satisfied smirk soon took its place.
“You could say that. Now I’d better get my head down, ‘fore Murdoch takes it off.”
“Perhaps I should’ve come with you after all.”
“Y’know, Scott. You probably should.”
Leaving Scott in the hall, Johnny leaned against his closed bedroom door. That had been a close call; if Scott had walked out of his room a few moments earlier, he would have seen them.
Would Scott have given him a lecture on responsibility? He listened to Murdoch too much sometimes. Was that why he couldn’t tell Scott about what had happened tonight, or was it because he felt uneasy about his motivations? Sure, he’d kissed her to avoid a conversation, but when she responded, he found he didn’t want to stop.
Sitting on the bed, Johnny removed his shirt. He could still feel the cool night air on his flesh, the tingle that had shot through his body when Amber touched him. She knew exactly what she was doing, but then that was hardly surprising. She knew exactly what to do to make him want her.
He was unsure how he felt towards her now. She was beautiful and strong-minded, yet manipulative and conniving – not a good combination. He was equally as strong-willed. Confident he could play her game, Johnny laid down and eventually fell asleep.
In her bed, Amber stirred, Teresa’s concern penetrating the thick wooden door.
“Amber, you missed breakfast – are you okay? Is your head no better?”
Amber groaned, never mind the faked headache yesterday, this morning her head felt like it was ready to explode for real. Urgh! How she regretted her determination to match Johnny drink for drink.
“I don’t feel well,” she admitted, burying her face into the pillow to dull the hammer in her skull.
Teresa marched in, worried, crouching at her bedside. She pressed her cool palm to Amber’s forehead and brushed the hair from her face.
“There’s no fever, but you look like you’ve hardly slept.”
“I haven’t,” Amber moaned.
“I’ll make you some tea.”
“No… no tea,” Amber whispered, struggling to sit. “Give me a few minutes; I’m sure I’ll be fine.”
“No, Amber, you have to stay in bed.” Teresa looked alarmed as Amber attempted to rise on shaky legs.
“Teresa, I need a bath or something. Honestly, I’ll be fine.”
Teresa was about to argue further when she heard footsteps on the stairs.
“Teresa, is Amber alright?” Scott called out.
“I’m fine!” Amber shot Teresa a pleading look.
Teresa shook her head in exasperation. What was it with people who refused to rest when they were ill?
“I’ll sort a bath out for you,” Teresa promised, leaving the room.
After a long soak, Amber felt much better. The steam had cleared her head, and her reflection in the mirror looked human again. By the time she made her way to the kitchen, everyone, bar Johnny, had left for church. She sank into the chair with a mug of steaming coffee and let Maria fuss for a while, trying to tempt her to eat an array of foods.
“Senora, you must eat.”
“I’m sorry, Maria, I don’t feel like it.”
“Oh boy, you sure look a sight.” Johnny walked into the kitchen and leaned against the counter, snagging one of the biscuits cooling on the rack. He took a bite, chewing around his grin. “What happened, you drink too much tequila?”
Amber’s cheeks grew hot.
“¡Basta!” Maria swatted Johnny’s arm.
“Okay, okay.” He held his hands up. “I apologise.”
He managed to duck Maria’s second swat, this time aimed at his head, and with a final teasing look in Amber’s direction, he left the two women alone.
“I make you a sandwich, si?”
“No really, I couldn’t, but thank you.”
“You’ll end up an esqueleto!”
Amber remained in the kitchen for a few minutes, staring into the coffee, her mind on the night before. At least Johnny didn’t seem awkward around her. He had been such hard work before. Their kiss last night had taken her by surprise. Oh, she’d worked for it, yes, fantasised about it since she arrived, but he’d managed to catch her off guard all the same.
Excusing herself, she left the kitchen in search of him. She didn’t have to look far, finding him outside with Barranca. Strolling over, she ran her hand over the horse’s well-groomed coat. She waited for Johnny to say something, but he didn’t. He let Barranca munch oats from his outstretched palm. Considering he’d had the same amount of sleep as her, he didn’t look worse for wear this morning. She had a suspicion that, maybe, he hadn’t drunk as much as she thought.
“I enjoyed last night, Johnny.”
“Never had any complaints.”
Amber smiled in her flirtatious way. “I bet you haven’t,” she purred.
“I hope we have more opportunities.”
Johnny dusted his palm against his pants and adjusted the hat on his head. “If I feel like it, I’ll let you know.”
As he sauntered away, Amber stared after him open-mouthed.
After days of uncomfortable weather, the sky had finally unleashed a storm to combat its way through the heat. As Scott lay in bed, his body and bed sheets fighting with the humidity, a flash of lightning illuminated the room, casting everything in shades of black and white.
Outside, the rain tap-danced on the window.
Unable to sleep, he sighed. He should close the drapes but there was something hypnotic about watching the rain squiggle down the glass. Thunder rumbled. Scott shifted in bed and startled. A dark figure moved in his doorway. Another spark of lightning lit the room and Scott’s mouth fell open in surprise.
“Hello, Scott,” Amber whispered, barely audible above the elements.
“Amber.” Scott regained his composure, tugging the bed sheet over his waist. “What are you doing in here?”
“I couldn’t sleep so I thought we could not sleep together?”
“Shut the door,” he whispered, amazed and excited by her audacity.
On the next roll of thunder, Amber closed the door and moved to Scott’s bed, pausing beside the mattress. “If it bothers you, knowing your family…”
“It doesn’t,” he said, too quickly, covering with a smile. In truth, he found it a thrill, reminding him of all those times with girls such as Barbara; snatching illicit moments, the risk of getting caught…
“Come on, get in.” Scott shifted for her.
Amber slipped out of her nightgown and stood naked, enjoying Scott’s gaze as it travelled her body, even though he was no longer a stranger to it. His body was not a stranger to her either and Amber wasted no time reacquainting her lips with his lightly tanned skin, teasing him with her tongue.
The storm became more intense, providing the perfect cover for the two lovers as Scott took charge, lowering Amber to the pillows and taking the weight of his body on his forearms.
Later, when the thunder and lightning had travelled north and the rain reduced to a mere shower, Scott lay still, listening to Amber’s breathing. Her body turned toward his, her left thigh resting on his legs. Her hand remained on his bare chest. The air outside might have cleared, but the stickiness in the room remained, the bed sheets damp with perspiration. He could open the window but he didn’t want to disturb her. Instead, he studied her pretty face and the way the moonlight played across her skin. Her hair was messy and took up half the pillow, but Scott didn’t mind. He took her hand, his long fingers entwining with hers, relishing their softness and expertise.
He wanted to sleep, but the risk that had earlier added to the excitement, now seemed too real. Yet, Scott could not fight off the tiredness and gradually it possessed him, relaxing his body and mind until finally his eyes closed and he, too, drifted into sleep.
The next morning when Johnny woke up, he noticed the shift in temperature; the air felt fresher and crisper than it had for days.
Climbing out of bed, he dressed, aware the preparation of breakfast was well under way by the sounds and smells coming from the kitchen. Leaving his room, he paused at Scott’s door, then stuck his head in to greet his brother good morning.
Scott had risen from the bed, which looked like a wreck. Usually, Johnny could tease his brother that he even slept neat. The storm must have kept him awake.
In the kitchen, he slipped into his seat, careful to avoid eye contact with Amber, who was smiling at him across the table.
“Good morning, Johnny. Sleep well?” she asked.
“I always sleep well,” he said casually, although the truth was it had taken a while for him to succumb last night, too busy thinking about Amber’s suggestion they spend more time together. Maybe he ought to ask Scott’s advice on this one. After all, Scott was adamant he wasn’t interested in a relationship with Amber, so he would have no objections if Johnny was to state his interest. He’d have to give his brother an edited version of events because Scott tended to be too sensible sometimes. Johnny didn’t need a lecture. He wanted some fun; he wasn’t looking at Amber as a wife.
Scott came downstairs, thinking over the night before. If nothing else, it would be a struggle to deny his feelings any longer. He didn’t love Amber, not yet, but he liked her and not only for what she offered him physically. It was a difficult situation. Lancer was a big ranch, but when trying to conduct an affair you wished to remain private, it may as well be the size of a chicken coop.
There were other aspects to consider. Amber was Teresa’s cousin; how would she feel if she found out about them? Scott would never do anything to intentionally hurt the young girl, and then there was Murdoch. Scott couldn’t even begin to guess what his father would make of this. Only Johnny would understand. Perhaps he should confide in his brother.
Realising everyone was waiting for him, Scott slipped into his seat, smiling at his assembled family.
The big brown eyes of the stallion watched Johnny. Nervous and skittish, the horse stepped from side to side. Its head bobbed and the glossy raven tail flicked like a lash.
“Easy.” Johnny’s voice was soft and melodic. He kept eye contact with the animal, not moving closer until he was sure the horse was ready. This was what Johnny liked best, working with horses, achieving a natural high as he developed and nurtured their trust.
It took time, patience and perseverance, but as the clouds drifted west and the sun started to contemplate its descent from the afternoon skies, Johnny sat in the saddle while the stallion snorted and bucked at the unfamiliar weight on its back. He hit the dirt hard, but being a seasoned expert, he knew how to fall to escape injury. Eventually, the wildness surrendered from those large brown eyes. The horse settled and caught its breath.
Johnny dismounted, realising he’d had an audience the whole time.
Amber leant against the corral fence, arms propped on the white rail. There was an expression of wonderment on her face, which blossomed into a smile when Johnny looked her way.
After giving the horse an affectionate pat, he handed the reins to one of the hands. Jumping over the corral fence, he landed beside her.
“Oh, Johnny, that was amazing. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Thanks.” He started walking back to the hacienda.
He glanced over his shoulder and noticed she was hurrying to catch up with him.
“Aren’t you going to speak to me at all today?”
Johnny turned to face her, walking backwards now. “Sure, Amber. We can talk all you want at dinner.” He laughed when she stomped her foot in frustration. She crossed the remaining distance between them and he stopped moving. She brushed her hand through her hair, trailing the wave with her fingers. She then carressed her neck, then lower, tracing a path down to the bare flesh above the low-cut neckline of her dress. Hell, he couldn’t help but follow those fingers. Amber leaned in closer.
“You know, you’re really good with them,” she whispered.
“With what?” Johnny asked in confusion, his gaze jolting back to her face.
“With the horses, Johnny. Whatever did you think I meant?”
Seconds ticked by. Tension crackled. Johnny turned away. He’d walked only a few paces when he stopped and looked back. “I’m going for a bath.” Her gaze met his and an understanding passed between them.
When Murdoch and Teresa arrived in town, he left his ward to her own devices while he walked to the bank. He had planned to make the trip alone but had felt sorry for Teresa when Amber declared her intention to spend the day watching Johnny break horses. It was inconsiderate of Amber; should he say something about it?
As he waited in the bank for his turn, he felt uncomfortable, but could not explain why. Townsfolk he had known for years were looking at him curiously, only to turn away when he caught their eye. Murdoch glanced at his attire to ensure everything was as it should be. His shirt was tucked in; his blue pants were clean. Okay, so each side of his waistcoat may not meet in the middle nowadays…
Stepping out of the bank, Murdoch spotted Sam Jenkins walking toward him and he smiled in greeting at his friend.
“Hello, Sam, how are you?”
Sam smiled back. “I’m good, Murdoch, good. How is everyone?”
“Fine. We still have the pleasure of Teresa’s cousin’s company.”
For a second Sam looked uncomfortable too, and as he opened his mouth to ask why, they heard Teresa’s soft voice, “Murdoch, you all done?”
“I’m done. Let’s go home.”
Once the water was ready, Amber joined Johnny in the bathhouse. Her stomach flip-flopped as Johnny stripped off his clothes. This feeling of lost control was not one she usually experienced; it both frightened and excited her.
“Shall I lock the door?”
“You’d better. There are people ‘round here who don’t like to knock.”
His clothes in a heap, his gun beside the tub, Amber watched Johnny step into the water, a warm tingle spreading through her at the sight of his naked body.
“You gonna stand there?” Johnny rested his head against the back of the tub.
“Oh no,” Amber purred, moving over to the tub and kneeling. She picked up the cake of soap, dipped her hands in the hot water and rubbed them, all the while keeping her gaze locked on Johnny. She spread the lather over his chest, creating swirling patterns with her fingernails. Leaning forward, their lips touched in a kiss that sent a shiver of excitement down her spine.
She washed him, parting the lather on his chest and running a finger over the various scars she found on his upper body. She was about to ask about them, but he seemed to sense what she was going to say. He shook his head and seized her wrist, the intensity of his gaze warning her not to.
She smiled timidly and he studied her before a cheeky grin broke out. Tugging harder on her wrist, he pulled her into the tub and she landed in the water with a splash. Amber shrieked as her dress immediately soaked up half the water. Her hands roamed across her bodice and she pulled out the ribbons, fixing Johnny with a saucy smile.
“Oh Johnny,” she giggled. “I lost the soap!”
Johnny lay back, content, as Amber began a thorough search for the missing item.
The next morning Scott and Johnny took the wagon to town to collect some much-needed supplies. If they surprised Murdoch when they insisted it was a two-man job, then he didn’t show it. They had been working apart for the last few days, so he understood they wanted to spend some time together. Murdoch marvelled at how well his sons got on, especially since they had only met as adults with such different experiences of life.
Scott wanted to speak to Johnny about Amber, and this would be the perfect opportunity. Johnny was thinking the same thing.
On the journey into town, they avoided the subject of Amber, each deciding it was a conversation best had over a beer.
As they reached the town, Johnny recalled Val’s warning about how people liked to talk. He had been lucky so far that none of that talk had reached Murdoch’s ears. It had not met Scott’s ears either, but then Scott had not been to town since that night.
Once Scott got past his disapproval, he would see the funny side, but he wouldn’t appreciate someone else telling him first. Now they were in town, Johnny figured the sooner they had this conversation, the better.
When Johnny suggested the saloon be their first port of call, Scott readily agreed. “Sometimes, brother, I do like how you think.”
As they made their way to the saloon, Johnny hesitated. Maybe this wasn’t a good idea. Should he tell Scott now, or risk going inside?
“What is it?” Scott asked, watching Johnny scuff his boot in the dirt, his expression indicating there was something he wanted off his chest. “It’s not like you to hesitate before a drink?”
“There’s something I need to tell you.” Johnny looked at his brother, not sure how best to phrase it.
Scott smiled with relief. So, they both had something to share. “Can’t we get the drinks in first?” he teased, removing his hat and leading the way into the saloon.
Johnny watched his brother enter the building. Taking a deep breath, he strode in after him, knowing he had to tell Scott he had been here with Amber, before someone else did.
Inside the saloon, Johnny scanned the room and its occupants. Wendy and Carla were not downstairs, and the only cause for concern was the presence of Jed Wallis, who sat with his friends over in the far corner. Wallis had his back to him but Johnny could tell the man was full as a tick by the way he waved his hand in the air, trying unsuccessfully to swat an annoying fly attracted to his repugnant smell.
Scott was setting the beers down when Johnny joined him. Sliding into his seat, Johnny took a refreshing sip before drumming his fingers on the table.
“Spit it out then.”
Johnny met Scott’s enquiring gaze. “Okay, it’s about Amber,” he began, pausing when Scott’s expression grew curious.
“Hey, Madrid, where’s that pretty gal a’yours?” Jed boomed as he staggered towards their table.
Johnny narrowed his eyes. Alcohol coloured Jed’s chubby cheeks. His uncombed, greasy hair stuck to the sides of his face. Johnny wished he’d shut the man’s mouth the other night.
Scott glared at Jed. “What are you talking about Wallis?”
“I’m talkin’ ’bout Madrid’s gal. The one he was in here with the other night, the pretty blonde with the big-“
Johnny lunged at Jed and gathered the stinking man up by the shirt front. “Get lost, Jed.” He gave the man a shove that sent Jed stumbling. If Scott heard about Amber from Jed first, he would be sore for sure.
“Care to tell me what he’s talking about?” Scott caught hold of Johnny’s shirt sleeve when Jed lurched their way again.
“This was a bad idea. Let’s get the supplies and I’ll explain on the way home…”
“He brought his own woman…” Jed paused to burp, before pointing a stubby finger in Johnny’s face. “Real cosy, drinkin’ and holdin’ hands…” Jed realised he had the other patrons’ attention now and decided to milk it for all it was worth.
Johnny could see little specks of realisation dawning in his brother’s expression.
“Surely, he doesn’t mean… You didn’t bring Amber in here?”
“Not exactly. Let’s get out of here. I’ll explain…”
“You were holding hands with her?”
“Yup. Made it real clear she was his woman too!” Jed chipped in.
Johnny saw the precise moment Scott’s temper got the better of him. But, like that time by the lake, he wasn’t quick enough to duck. He took the full force of Scott’s fist to the jaw and smashed through the table behind. It took a second to realise Scott had sent Jed to the floor too, on his way out of the saloon.
Someone offered him a hand up and Johnny took it gratefully, rubbing the sore spot on his jaw and moving his head from side to side to shake off the dizziness. He’d expected Scott’s disapproval, but not his fist. If there was one thing the punch to the jaw pretty much confirmed, it was that Scott liked Amber. Really liked her. Why the hell hadn’t he said so before?
Determined to find out, Johnny headed out of the saloon, stepping over a groaning Jed on the way.
Outside, the breeze calmed Scott’s red face and soothed the brief pain across his knuckles. It cooled his temper too, and with it came a dose of regret. He’d overreacted. Made a rash judgement whilst not in possession of the facts; something he usually prided himself for not doing. He contemplated going back inside to check Johnny was all right, but the sound of his brother’s spurs rendered it unnecessary.
“What the hell’s got into you, Scott, huh?”
“Look I’m sorry.” There was already a bruise blossoming on Johnny’s jaw. “I think I jumped to the wrong conclusion.”
“I know I shoulda told you earlier ‘bout me and Amber but—”
“Wait a minute, there’s a ‘me and Amber’ now?” Scott stared at his brother in shock. “God, Jed was right, wasn’t he? All this time you and Amber have been sneaking around behind my back.” With a shake of his head, Scott stepped off the boardwalk and headed for the supply wagon. They had played him for a fool this whole time. Amber had been spending time with Johnny…they’d been alone…laughing at him. Stupid, naïve Scott…
“Scott, wait. How’d you figure that?” Johnny jogged after his brother but Scott didn’t slow his stride. “I don’t see what it has to do with you…”
“It’s got everything to do with me.” Scott whirled around, causing Johnny to almost smack into him. “I’ve been spending time with Amber,” he whispered furiously.
“Look, I’m not talking about being in the same room with her.”
“Believe me, neither am I.”
Johnny’s look of surprise only riled Scott more. “I’m sorry if that surprises you, John. I guess even you weren’t enough this time.”
Johnny folded his arms across his chest. “My money’s on it being the other way ‘round.”
Scott took another swing and Johnny lunged forward, toppling them both. They landed smack in the dirt, oblivious to the gathering townsfolk as they rolled around on the dusty ground, fists and insults flying.
It took Val and two other men to prise the brothers apart. Both were breathing hard, their faces smeared with dirt. Blood dripped from Johnny’s nose and Scott hadn’t fared much better – the skin around his left eye was already turning an angry shade of red.
“What’s gotten into you two idiots?” Val rubbed his scruffy cheek, his other hand curled tight around Scott’s bicep. When neither man was forthcoming with an explanation, Val turned to the men holding Johnny. “Help me get ‘em in the cells.”
“You’re arresting us?”
“Let’s say I’m putting ya both in protective custody.”
Minutes later, Johnny and Scott were under lock and key in separate but adjacent cells. Deciding he’d leave them to it for an hour or so, to give them a chance to sort out their problem, Val headed back to the saloon to check out the damage. He didn’t realise it would be more than material damage until he saw the state of Jed. The drunk man was making an unsuccessful attempt to get to his feet, whilst holding a dirty cloth to his bleeding nose.
“I want Scott Lancer charged.” The hanky muffled Jed’s voice.
Val raised his eyebrows; he’d have bet money on it being Johnny who’d floored the irritating man. “Are you gonna tell me what went on?” He dragged the drunk man to his feet.
Jed started waving his hands about and Val grimaced as he used his grimy sleeve as a substitute for the discarded cloth.
“I was sayin’ ’bout that gal Madrid had in ‘ere the other day!”
Val didn’t need to hear more; he could guess now what the brothers were fighting about. As he turned to leave, he heard Jed protest, “Aren’t ya gonna charge Lancer?”
Val shook his head. “Wallis, you’re drunk, an’ drunk men fall. You’ll get over it.”
Stepping into the restored peace of the street, Val sent his deputy first to get Sam, thinking there was no permanent damage to either brother, but to be on the safe side the Doc had better check them out. His second instruction to the deputy was to fetch Murdoch if the brothers still weren’t talking in an hour or so. If they weren’t talking, Val wasn’t confident they’d finished fighting. Murdoch’s presence might help with that.
Murdoch arrived at the jail and tethered his horse and its companion. Foresight told him, depending on the seriousness of this falling out, his sons may not sit next to each other in the wagon on the way home.
He’d been doing the books when the deputy sheriff had arrived to tell him Scott and Johnny were in Val’s custody after brawling with each other in the street.
What on earth had gotten into the pair of them?
Before he could go inside, Val and Sam stepped out front.
“Val. Sam. They hurt?”
“Only their pride it would seem,” Sam said.
“They ain’t sayin’ a word ‘bout it,” Val mused. “Not to me, an’ not to each other.”
This flummoxed Murdoch. “I don’t understand, Val. They seemed fine this morning.”
Sam tsked and shook his head. “It seems to me, Murdoch, there’s only one reason brothers as close as those two, fall out.”
Murdoch looked puzzled until he comprehended Sam’s meaning. “You mean this is over a woman?”
“That would be my guess.”
“Teresa’s cousin, I reckon,” Val said.
Murdoch must have looked dumbfounded because Sam gave his friend a sympathetic smile. “They’re young men. Something like this was bound to happen eventually.”
Murdoch groaned. Yes, it was bound to happen, Murdoch had grown up with brothers and he knew how competitive they could be. But why, oh why, did the woman in question have to be Amber?
Shaking his head, Murdoch indicated to Val that he would like to see his sons. He let the sheriff take him through to the cells.
Johnny and Scott had been sitting in the same position for hours now, not speaking, each running through the events of the past few days.
Scott could not remember feeling so mad at Johnny before. He ignored his conscience that protested, intermittently, that his anger was somewhat misdirected.
In the adjacent cell, Johnny’s thoughts travelled the same lines, although he was feeling hard done by. What right did Scott have to attack him? It wasn’t as if he’d known about his brother and Amber. Hell, he’d even asked Scott if he was interested, and he’d said no. If Scott had told the truth, then things would’ve been different. Wouldn’t they?
As both were wondering how long Val intended to keep them locked up, the door opened and Val appeared. Both brothers smiled with relief, but their smiles vanished immediately when they saw who was with him.
“Scott. John.” Murdoch stared through the bars at their bruised and dishevelled appearance. To think Amber was the cause of this! He shook his head despairingly. “Let’s go home.”
Val moved to unlock the cell doors.
Strategically placed between his sons, Murdoch enquired about the extent of the damage in the saloon.
“A few glasses and a table,” Val said. “I’ll have a word. I’m sure you can settle next time you’re in town.”
“Scott’ll pay,” Johnny muttered. “He started it.”
“I think you’ll find it was your sneaking about that started this,” Scott snipped.
“I think we’ll save this conversation for when we get home. I gather the town has heard enough of our business for one day.” Murdoch’s tone brooked no argument.
Once outside, Murdoch instructed Scott to fetch the wagon. The uncomfortable look on his eldest son’s face surprised him.
“Well?” What else he was going to hear about now?
“Um…we haven’t got the supplies yet, sir.”
Murdoch rolled his eyes. “You mean to tell me you came into town and started fighting straight away?”
Scott flushed. “No, not exactly.”
“We had a beer first,” Johnny admitted, knowing Murdoch was going to light into them anyway.
Murdoch sighed. “Fine. I’ll send Jelly for them first thing in the morning. Now please, let’s go home.”
The ride back to Lancer had never taken so long. Johnny rode up ahead on Barranca, while Scott gripped the reins and drove the wagon, staring straight ahead.
Murdoch pondered the best way to move forward with this. His sons were not children, their relationships not his business, but what had been going on under his roof these past few weeks? He was still pondering as they arrived back at the hacienda.
Jelly greeted their arrival, his eyes widening in surprise when he saw the state of Scott and Johnny.
“What in the blazes ‘ave you two got ya’selves into now?” he asked, taking the wagon from Scott, looking for the supplies and finding the wagon empty.
“That’s what I intend to find out, Jelly.” Murdoch marched towards the house. “Inside now, boys. Jelly can see to Barranca.”
Murdoch headed straight to the liquor and poured himself a double measure of scotch. He didn’t offer either of his sons a drink and they didn’t ask. Instead, they lingered in the doorway. “Teresa and Amber are visiting the Andersons. Have a seat.” He pointed to the armchair and sofa.
Scott sat heavily, but Johnny hesitated.
“Did you not hear what I said, John?”
“I heard you, but I don’t see what there is to talk ‘bout.”
Murdoch thumped his glass down on the table. “The pair of you brawl in the street, in full view of the town, yet there’s nothing to say?”
“Johnny’s right, sir. There is nothing to talk about.”
Murdoch raised his eyebrows; well, they were on the same page about something at least. Pity he didn’t agree. “Why don’t you both sit before Teresa and Amber get back, and we’re forced to have this conversation in front of them, hmm?”
That did it; Johnny and Scott were sitting before Murdoch could even register the fact. Murdoch joined them. “Right. Start talking.”
Johnny scowled and Scott pressed his lips together, but neither of them spoke.
His elder son lifted his chin and looked Murdoch in the eye. “We disagreed and exchanged blows. That’s all there is to say.”
“But that isn’t all, is it? Not if these blows were over Amber, who remains a guest in our home.” He stared at them both. No further information was forthcoming. “Stop me if I get any of this wrong,” he began. “You’ve fallen for the same woman.”
“No!” Johnny’s denial was a bit too quick in coming, and Scott’s shake of his head was far from convincing.
“Then, why the fight?” When neither son answered, he looked towards Scott again. “Scott?”
“The fight was about Amber…” his elder son admitted, “…and Johnny’s determination to prove how irresistible he is.”
Johnny jumped to his feet and Murdoch had to get between them, grabbing a fistful of Johnny’s shirt and pushing him back to his seat. “That is enough.” Emotions were still high. Maybe now wasn’t the time to discuss this. Still, they had to get at least some of this straightened out before Teresa and Amber returned.
“How far have things gone exactly?” The flush on their faces, The averted gazes. Murdoch placed his head in his hands and massaged his temples. Good God, he needed another drink. He cleared his throat. “So, Johnny and Amber have had…relations…and Scott, you’re upset because you also wanted that?” Murdoch studied his elder son’s face and what he saw there was worse than he imagined.
Another drink? He needed the whole bottle! Glass in hand, he headed for the liquor again.
There was no sound in the great room apart from the ticking of the grandfather clock as Murdoch gulped down his third measure of scotch. Its warmth and his anger bloomed in his belly. “You mean to tell me all this has been going on under our roof?” He slammed the glass down this time. “Did you not consider Teresa, or Amber for that matter?”
They had the decency to look sheepish at the mention of Teresa, but throwing Amber into the same sentence made them look up sharply.
“I don’t think Amber needs much consideration!”
Murdoch didn’t want to admit Scott might be right on that score. He knew there was more to this story, but he didn’t need or expect the sordid details. His main concern was Teresa, who would be devastated if she ever found out about this. Putting his concern into words, Murdoch addressed both of his sons again.
“I don’t want Teresa knowing anything of this, as I’m sure you don’t. So, I propose we let this matter drop. But if you two don’t sort this mess out and act civilised, then you’ll be hearing a whole lot more from me on the subject – is that clear?”
“I think Teresa should know exactly what cousin Amber is like,” Johnny muttered, but Murdoch shook his head.
“Teresa loves her cousin and I do not want anything to change that. Besides, neither of you can be held in a favourable light. Do you want Teresa to know how little you value a woman’s reputation? Even a reputation that’s questionable?” he added before either Scott or Johnny could point that out. When both young men looked shamefaced, Murdoch repeated what he had said earlier, “Is that clear?”
“Yes,” Scott nodded stiffly.
“It’s clear, Murdoch.”
Arms linked, Amber and Teresa walked into the kitchen. Johnny quickly moved for the stairs, only for his father to grip the back of his neck and draw him back to his side. It was then Amber noticed the bruises.
“Ladies, how was your day?” Murdoch strode forward, enveloping Teresa in a hug.
“It was wonderful. We—Johnny, what happened?” Teresa pulled away from Murdoch, her eyes wide with concern.
“It’s nothin’, Teresa. Don’t fuss.”
“Oh, don’t give me that, Johnny Lancer,” she scolded. “Your face didn’t get like that from nothing. Did this happen this morning in town?”
Murdoch coughed. “Boys will be boys, Teresa. Now, why don’t you two fill me in on your day, hmm?”
He didn’t fool her. “I take it Scott was fighting too. Please tell me the others look as bad?”
“Of course,” Scott said, walking into the kitchen. “Have you ever known us to lose a fight?” Amber noted Scott didn’t look her way.
Teresa brightened at Scott’s reassurance and with a bit of cajoling from Murdoch, headed upstairs to change. Amber lingered in the kitchen, but nobody looked her in the eye. Unease crept over her, beginning in her stomach and heading through her chest and into her mouth. It had crossed her mind their dalliances may come out, but she’d hoped her experiences with the brothers would seem all the richer for being secret. Judging by the fact that even Murdoch refused to look her way, the secret might be out.
Taken unwell, Amber fled the room. She needed to be alone to consider her next move. Inside the guest room, she threw herself down on the bed. She needed a way out of this mess.
The saving grace was no one wanted to tell Teresa what had gone on. Thank heavens for that! It would mortify Teresa and the last thing she wanted to do was hurt the young girl.
“Damn it,” Amber muttered, getting up and staring at her reflection in the mirror. She was going to have a hard time getting out of this one. But she did like them both, perhaps more so than she cared to admit.
If she had to implement her plan then the outcome could be dire for one of the Lancer brothers. Which one, she had yet to decide. Hopefully, she would not need to execute her scheme.
Shortly before dinner, a composed Amber made her way downstairs. Considering how close to dinner it was, neither Scott nor Johnny was around, and Amber could hear Teresa talking to Maria in the kitchen. Only Murdoch was in the great room, staring into the unlit fireplace.
She took a deep breath as she prepared to take on the Lancer patriarch. “Murdoch?”
He turned at the sound of her voice, but while his expression contained none of its usual warmth, he did at least look calm.
“I wanted you to know, I deeply regret all that has happened.”
“Yes, I’m sure you do.” It didn’t sound like he believed her.
“I never meant for things to go so far, and I’ll leave immediately if that is your wish, only it is Teresa’s birthday in two days and I—”
He sighed. She had him there it seemed. Amber willed her eyes to brim with tears. She waited until Murdoch looked at her before letting them fall.
“Oh, Murdoch” she sniffed, “I tried so hard, I said no…I really did…”
He was immediately flustered at the sight of a woman’s tears. Most men were.
“My dear,” he began. “What do you mean, what did you say no to?”
Swiping her tears with the back of her hand, Amber accepted Murdoch’s handkerchief. “I can’t say,” she murmured. “I’ve said too much already.”
“Amber.” He sounded cross. She’d prefer curious.
“Is there something you need to tell me? Something I need to know about Johnny or Scott – because if there is then you need to…” His voice trailed off when he heard Teresa call his sons for dinner.
Amber dabbed away the last of her tears. “No, really, it’s nothing,” she whispered, fleeing the room before Murdoch could question her further.
It was a hard dinner to sit through; worse perhaps than their first one as a family, when Johnny had smouldered with distrust and hatred, and Scott was so coldly polite. Try as he might, Murdoch couldn’t stop worrying. He had assumed there was more to this matter, but he’d figured it consisted of details no father needed to hear. Now though, he feared the missing details. Amber had been upset and not just with expected embarrassment. He had seen a genuine look of something else in her eyes. What was it; hurt, betrayal, fear even? Oh, dear Lord. He was not looking forward to what more Amber had to say, but he knew he needed to hear it.
Looking around the table, he wasn’t the only one finding things difficult. Scott sat in silence, picking at his food. With Amber seated opposite, he couldn’t even look up without catching her eye. Worse, Johnny outright ignored Amber and ate as if there might be a food shortage in the valley.
Finally, the meal was over. If Teresa noticed the terse atmosphere, then she was putting it down to the fight that had taken place in town.
As they rose from their seats, Amber seemed anxious to excuse herself. “I’ll give you a hand with the dishes, cousin.”
“You don’t need to do that, you’re a guest.”
“I don’t mind at all. Honestly.”
As Amber left, Teresa flashed Murdoch a wicked grin. “I’ve just remembered that Maria and I have something we need to do. Scott, would you mind giving Amber a hand with the dishes, please?”
“Can it not wait Teresa?” Murdoch said quickly, but Teresa shook her head, giving him a pointed look.
“No, I’m afraid it can’t. Scott?”
In the kitchen, Scott concentrated on the dishes, the awkward silence almost deafening. It did not take long before Amber appeared at his side and placed her hand on his arm.
The tingle that used to race over his skin at her touch, no longer existed. Instead, he almost shuddered. She must have noticed because she snatched her hand back, going instead for the drying up cloth.
“Scott, I’m sorry,” she murmured. “This whole situation, it got out of hand.”
Scott looked at her then; his eyes clouded with disgust, making them look almost grey. “Out of hand? What did you expect, sleeping with both of us?”
She blushed but recovered quickly. “I never lied to you, Scott. I offered you some fun, that’s all.”
Scott laughed bitterly. “No, you never lied. You just didn’t tell me you were comparing me with my brother.”
“I never compared you, not like that.” Amber knew how fragile men’s egos could be. “I liked you both.”
Scott snorted and scrubbed at a particularly stubborn stain on a plate.
“Scott,” Amber pleaded. “Won’t you look at me?”
He paused scrubbing. The disgust had left his eyes, although Amber sensed it wasn’t far from the surface.
“I’ve made a huge mistake and as soon as Teresa’s birthday is over, I’ll leave, and you’ll never have to see me again.” She paused to check he was listening. “But the things we did, the conversations we had; that was me, Scott Lancer. You saw the real me and I don’t regret it for a minute.”
Abandoning the rest of the dishes, Amber left Scott to think over her words.
With one brother down and one still to go, Amber headed outside in search of Johnny. She wasn’t sure she’d gotten through to Scott, but she hoped so. She needed both brothers to be able to act normal around her, otherwise, Teresa would know something was up.
Johnny was in the barn and Amber hesitated at the entrance. Oh, he knew she was there, she could tell by the way he froze for a second before resuming his grooming of Barranca. The conversation with Scott had given her hope that perhaps she could get through to both Lancer men tonight. That hope withered and died when Johnny finally turned to face her.
As anticipated, his gaze was frosty, arctic almost, and Amber could swear the temperature dropped. A shiver claimed her spine, yet she forced herself forward and began the now familiar routine. “I want to say I’m sorry…”
“You’re wasting your breath.”
She took another step closer. “Oh, but Johnny, I-”
“D’ya think I’m stupid?” Johnny moved out of Barranca’s stall. “D’ya think I can’t see what you’ve been doing, what you are?”
“And what’s that?”
Amber’s cheeks warmed. How dare he be so rude! “Well, now, aren’t you the hypocrite, Johnny Lancer. I don’t remember you complaining at the time?”
Johnny shrugged. “When you don’t pay, you don’t get a right to complain, I guess.” He caught her wrist as she made to slap him, but as soon as he released it, she went for him again, this time finding her target with a satisfying splat.
He glared at her. “Feel better?”
“You deserved that.”
“Are you finished?”
“Do you think so little of me?”
“Amber, believe me, I don’t think of you at all.”
Outside the barn, Amber grappled for a hold of her temper. How dare he speak to her like that! He had been a willing participant. At least Scott had the good grace to be polite, even after all that had occurred.
As she took a slow walk back to the hacienda, Johnny’s cruel words played in her mind. Why did he get to her so much? One thing was for sure, he wouldn’t get away with treating her so appallingly. Amber knew now the direction her forthcoming conversation with Murdoch would take, and how much to say.
After what seemed like the longest night, morning arrived to bathe Lancer in a warm golden hue. Up and dressed before anyone else had even stirred, Murdoch was at his desk when Maria arrived, the housekeeper surprised to see him so early.
Last night when Amber had returned from the barn, she’d gone straight to her room, denying Murdoch the opportunity to talk to her. He’d considered asking his sons what they thought Amber meant by her remarks, but decided against it.
It saddened him that Johnny and Scott had not resumed speaking, although it was early days. Still, this was the longest they’d ever gone without talking and it worried Murdoch. There was only one more day to get through until Teresa’s birthday, after which Amber would leave, and his ward would be none the wiser. However, the next twenty-four hours might stretch everyone to their limits.
Severed from his thoughts, Murdoch looked up at the sound of Amber’s footsteps. It seemed she had not slept well either judging by the dark circles beneath her eyes. When Murdoch suggested a walk, she agreed.
“Amber, I need to know what you meant last night.”
Amber’s eyes immediately welled with tears. “I don’t want to get Johnny into trouble…”
Amber sniffed. “Scott was always a complete gentleman.”
Murdoch tensed. Was Amber implying Johnny had not behaved as such?
“Please get it said,” he said tersely.
Amber began to cry properly then; fat tears rolled down her cheeks to drip from her jaw. “Johnny wouldn’t take no for an answer,” she began in a childlike voice that sounded so unlike her. “I tried to resist, I tried to tell him I was seeing Scott, but he was so persistent.”
Murdoch handed her his clean handkerchief. It was difficult to resist grabbing her by the shoulders and shaking the truth out of her. “Amber, are you saying Johnny forced you?” He tried to sound neutral when he wanted to choke on the words. If Amber said Johnny had forced her in some way then he could not, and would not, believe it. Johnny may have done a lot of things in his young life, but Murdoch knew his son well enough to know this could not possibly be one of them.
Amber’s eyes widened in horror and she pressed her hand to her bosom theatrically. “No, Murdoch, I didn’t mean he literally forced me.” Words dripped as rapidly from her lips as the snot from her nose. “I admit we…” She blushed and buried her face in the cloth. “But I shouldn’t have, I didn’t really want to…it’s just Johnny can be so convincing. I couldn’t tell if he was charming or threatening me. He did say he’d tell Scott that we had regardless. Eventually, it seemed like the only way I could make him happy!”
Murdoch swallowed hard. “When did this all start exactly?”
“When he took me to the saloon.”
“He took you to a saloon?”
Amber bobbed her head. “I didn’t want to go, but I let him talk me into it. Oh, it was awful, Murdoch, the…working…girls hated me and one of them threw drinks all over me because she was supposed to be Johnny’s girl, and then this man started pawing me…”
Murdoch was speechless at this point, stunned with no idea what to say to her. His mind stewed with things he intended to say to Johnny.
“Murdoch, you won’t say anything about this, will you?” Amber blew her nose. “Because I don’t want Teresa to know, she’d be so upset, and if Scott were to find out, well I’m worried what might happen. He and Johnny have already had one fight…”
“I won’t say anything to Teresa or Scott.”
Johnny came out of his room that morning at the same time as Scott. They glowered at each other before heading down the stairs. Even after a night’s sleep, neither of them was in a forgiving mood, but they would act civilised as Murdoch requested.
“Mornin’.” Johnny took his seat at the table and noticed immediately the stern look his father threw in his direction. Johnny racked his brains for what he could have done, outside this whole sorry mess, to warrant one of those looks, but he couldn’t think of anything. The atmosphere was less tense than the night before, probably because Scott made an effort to talk, including Amber in the conversation, Johnny couldn’t help noticing. It sure seemed like everyone was talking to everyone, except him.
Yesterday in the barn, when he caught Amber’s wrist to stop the first slap, he’d let go when a spark raced through him at her touch. He had a feeling she knew it too. No matter what certain parts of him might want, he had no intention of going there again. Amber could fool herself that she was irresistible, but Johnny knew his powers of resistance were stronger than hers.
When breakfast was over, Teresa and Amber departed, leaving the three men alone in the kitchen. As they discussed the work that needed to be done, Johnny sensed Murdoch did have something on his mind. Usually, he’d already decided exactly whom he wanted doing what, but today he seemed distant as if his mind was somewhere else. Scott and Johnny managed to agree on their work, choosing the chores that would provide as much space between them as possible, and it was only when they stood to leave that Murdoch became decisive.
“Scott, you go on. Johnny and I have some things to discuss.”
Johnny sighed. He knew for sure now a lecture was coming, he didn’t know yet what it would be for.
“Let’s take a trip to the barn,” Murdoch ordered, heading for the door and beckoning Johnny to follow.
Johnny hesitated. “The barn, Murdoch? What’s wrong with the great room, or your study…” Or even the kitchen where Maria could serve as a witness….
“Don’t make me ask again, son.”
“Juanito, usted es un hombre crecido!” (You are a grown man) Maria said to Johnny with a roll of her eyes. “Now go.” She shooed him from her kitchen.
The last of the hands were riding out and the early morning air still held its crispness as Murdoch made his way to the barn, aware his reluctant son trailed behind him. Inside the barn it was cooler still, the shadows harbouring the overnight chill. He paced the hay-strewn ground, waiting for Johnny, knowing how difficult this conversation was going to be. He had done nothing else but think of what he was going to say. All last night and through breakfast, Amber’s words had replayed in his head. He was angry and disappointed that Johnny hadn’t thought before he acted, but he was going to listen to Johnny’s side of the story.
When Johnny finally appeared in the doorway, he looked defensive. Ignoring Murdoch’s suggestion they take a seat on an upturned hay bale, he chose to stand by the entrance so he had an escape if he didn’t like what he was about to hear.
Murdoch sighed and sat, looking up at his son; not a pose he was familiar with.
“Johnny, please sit,” Murdoch coaxed, wanting his son on the same level as him while they had this conversation.
Making it a request relaxed Johnny. He didn’t choose to sit beside Murdoch though, he sat where he was with his back against the closed side of the barn door.
With head bowed, Johnny’s hair flopped over his brow and acted as a shield, protecting both his eyes and his thoughts. Murdoch cleared his throat and began.
“Um…Johnny, I had a rather alarming conversation with Amber this morning.”
Johnny didn’t move and Murdoch had the urge to go over there and brush his son’s hair back to see his reaction. “She said some disturbing things.”
Infuriatingly, Johnny still didn’t say anything. He picked up a stray piece of hay from the ground and entwined it in his fingers, staring as if it was the most fascinating thing he’d ever seen.
Murdoch took a deep breath, knowing this was Johnny’s way. If he didn’t wish to have a conversation then he would focus his attention elsewhere, either that or leave. This was the better reaction of the two and so Murdoch resolved to continue, but not without a sharp, “Are you listening?”
The strand of hay snapped and Johnny let it slip from his fingers. “I’m listening.”
Murdoch met his son’s blue eyes and softened his tone. “Amber said you put her under pressure to, erm, you know. She said you wouldn’t take no for an answer?”
Johnny didn’t react.
“Amber didn’t mean that you, well, that you forced her physically, but there are other ways of coercing—”
“Getting her to do what you want.”
“You’re asking if I begged her?” Johnny asked in surprise.
“No, not begged.”
Johnny’s gaze narrowed. “You think I threatened her? Is that what you’re trying to say, old man?”
Flustered, Murdoch raked a hand through grey hair. “Amber said you blackmailed her. She said you threatened to tell Scott the two of you had already been intimate.” Murdoch selected one of the few words he could use without cringing too much.
“I s’pose you believe that.” Johnny’s voice was soft, deadly almost. “Is that how little you think of me?”
If Murdoch were honest, it had crossed his mind there might be a grain of truth in Amber’s story. However overnight he’d had time to digest the revelation and none of it sounded like the Johnny he knew. Well, almost none of it.
“Do you think if I believed the allegation, I would be sitting here with you? No son, I’d have you in front of the sheriff so damn quick, your head would spin.”
“Is that all she said? I’m disappointed.”
“No, it’s not all. Amber also claims you took her to the saloon at Green River.”
“I didn’t want to, Murdoch,” Johnny protested. “She made me, she was going anyway.”
Murdoch frowned. “She made you?”
Johnny got to his feet. His face flushed. “Damn it, Murdoch, the woman wouldn’t leave me alone.”
“So, you took Teresa’s female cousin, a member of our family by extension, into a saloon.” Murdoch was determined to get the full truth now. “And what happened then?”
“We had a few drinks.”
His son seemed to find the ground rather interesting. Murdoch pressed on. “Of what?”
“Does it matter, Murdoch?”
Johnny sighed. “Tequila. We shared a bottle.”
“So, you got her drunk?”
“Hell no, she knew how to handle herself.”
Murdoch rubbed his palms against his knees. There was a sliver of a headache, right behind his eyes. “Then what happened, John?”
Johnny snuck a longing glance at the open barn door. “Carla threw a drink over her, Jed Wallis started pawing her, so we left.”
“And was this right before you two…you know.”
“Aw, Jesus, Murdoch.” Johnny kicked the hay bale, the ground fascinating again, as his face grew hotter still.
“Answer the question,” Murdoch said softly, folding his arms.
“Yeah,” Johnny muttered.
“And where exactly does Scott fit into this picture?”
“You’d better ask him.”
Head down, Murdoch massaged his temples. His headache was getting worse. Amber was not an innocent or misled party in this, but both his sons had acted irresponsibly and without any regard for the consequences. He would have to think carefully about how to deal with Amber. For now, he had one son here and Murdoch intended to let him know exactly what he thought of this whole sordid episode.
“Are you trying to send me to an early grave? Did you stop even once to think any of this through? Well?” His voice was louder this time; precisely why they were having this conversation well away from the house.
Johnny seemed surprised that Murdoch’s question wasn’t rhetorical. “I guess not,” he said quietly.
“No, you didn’t, and neither did your brother, who I will be speaking to later. For heaven’s sake, Johnny, we’re talking about Teresa’s cousin. Do you have no self-control when it comes to women?”
“Wonder where I get it from?”
Murdoch’s eyes narrowed. “What exactly do you mean by that remark, young man?”
“Well, the fact I’m standin’ here is an example of your self-control.”
Murdoch felt his face flush in embarrassment, then anger. He rose from the hay bale and clocked the exact moment Johnny realised he may have overstepped the mark. “How dare you,” Murdoch ground out. “How dare you try to turn this to me.”
Johnny took a step backwards. “Murdoch I-”
“You had better watch your mouth, boy.” “This whole mess is testing my patience, yet you seem determined to push me?” He pointed a finger at his son. “I want you and Scott to sort this out, Johnny, and I don’t want to ever again hear you talk to me like you just did. Do I make myself clear?”
For a moment, a streak of defiance crossed Johnny’s face, before he lowered his eyes. “Yes, sir.”
Murdoch nodded and turned to leave, pausing before he stepped outside. “And just so you know, John. I, for one, am very glad you’re standing there.”
When Murdoch walked through the back door of the hacienda, he couldn’t help but notice Maria’s eyes searching anxiously over his shoulder.
“Don’t worry Maria. No bodily harm has come to him.”
Maria clicked her tongue as if she’d never doubted it for a second.
In all, the conversation had gone well, considering it was not the easiest conversation to have with a grown son. Especially a son who had done his growing up far away. It wasn’t a conversation he’d dream of having either, had this not been going on under their own roof. He expected Johnny would push back. Now there were the other three problems he had to deal with: Scott, Amber and Teresa.
Poor Teresa. It was her birthday tomorrow and she was so looking forward to it, he didn’t have the heart to spoil it for her. For that reason, he would hold off dealing with Amber until afterwards. Then he would take great pleasure in sending her on her way. With only Scott to deal with now, there was no time like the present.
He knew where Scott would be working and the ride out there gave him time to think about what he was going to say. He already knew this wasn’t going to be easy. Usually, Murdoch communicated well with Scott. They tended to be on the same page about most things, but they were not on the same page with this.
He found Scott, not working as he expected, but sitting down by the stream, staring at nothing.
When he heard Murdoch’s approach, Scott snapped out of his daydream and raised a hand in greeting.
“Scott, we need to talk.” There was no point beating about the bush.
“Murdoch, I’ve done as you’ve asked. I’m civilised around Johnny and Amber, so I don’t see why we need to have another conversation about it.”
“I’ve spoken to them.”
“So now it’s my turn?” Scott snipped, getting to his feet.
“Yes, son, it is. I’ve found out a bit more about this whole business and it seems you’re putting too much of the blame onto your brother.”
“Blaming him too much? I’d love to know how you’re going to justify that remark. Johnny used Amber; he took advantage of her. He’s made this whole thing about him.”
Murdoch didn’t miss Scott’s resentment and it troubled him. “Scott, Johnny has done nothing of the sort. He did not know you and Amber had been together, I’m afraid she engineered it that way.”
“That’s what he told you?” Scott shook his head. “You believe that do you?”
“Yes, and if you think about it and stop letting damaged pride cloud your judgement, you’ll believe it too.”
“Believe that Johnny is the innocent party here?”
“I’m not sure there is an innocent party. As I said to your brother, you’ve both acted irresponsibly, and frankly, I’m disappointed in you both.” For a second Scott looked hurt. He was unused to having people disappointed in him.
“Regardless of what sort of woman Amber is, you should have known better. You should have had the sense to stay away, especially given the fact she is Teresa’s cousin and a guest in our home.”
“Is that all?” Scott said in a clipped tone.
Murdoch narrowed his eyes. “I want you to sort this out with your brother, Scott. I’ve told Johnny the same thing. I expect you to have the maturity to deal with this calmly and rationally. I don’t want to treat either of you like children in this, but so help me I will if you don’t start acting your age.”
Murdoch turned back to his horse. As he rode away, he cursed beneath his breath. That was the first time since his sons had come home, that a conversation had gone better with Johnny, than Scott.
When Murdoch left, Scott threw his hat to the ground in frustration. Kicking the hat for good measure did little to ease it. He hated that Murdoch was mostly right. His conscience had been telling him this wasn’t all Johnny’s fault, but it was much easier to be angry at his brother than at Amber, or himself.
Last night in the kitchen, Amber had seemed sincere, but hadn’t she always? She claimed not to have lied to him about her feelings, yet she may have damaged his and Johnny’s relationship for good.
Bending to retrieve his hat, Scott dusted away his footprint and stuck it back on his head. Murdoch wouldn’t be happy until he and Johnny sorted things out. But with Amber still hanging around, Scott couldn’t see how that was going to happen.
At dinner that night, Murdoch made an effort to carry the conversation, but it was difficult with Amber at the table. Although a lot less talkative than usual, she was still too relaxed for a woman who had caused so much trouble for the family. Murdoch didn’t know exactly what he was going to say to her when the time came, but he could think of a few choice words.
Scott and Johnny were still not talking, despite his request they sort things out. He remembered he’d threatened to treat them like children if he had to, but they all knew it was a hollow threat. What could he do, short of banging their heads together? They’d done that to each other already and still resolved nothing.
At least tomorrow was Teresa’s birthday and after that…well…it should all be over.
For Murdoch, a restless night was turning into a restless morning that he wanted over before it had even begun. Last night he’d considered asking Amber to leave, turfing her out before everyone else was even awake. In the end, he hadn’t done so, despite many misgivings. He couldn’t shake the feeling he was doing Johnny a disservice by not giving that harlot her marching orders. He hoped Johnny understood why it was so important for them to get through this one day.
With Amber gone, his sons would get through this. Once they saw beyond their stubborn pride, he hoped they would learn a valuable lesson. No matter how angry they were now, he did not doubt that their love and respect for each other would prevail eventually.
Scott’s arrival in the room jolted him from his thoughts. Relieved at first it wasn’t Amber, Murdoch frowned when Scott’s tight expression suggested he was in no better mood.
“Son.” Murdoch sat behind his desk, letting the early morning sunlight work the kinks out from the back of his neck.
“Murdoch.” Scott glanced to the doorway as Johnny came downstairs.
If Johnny was still angry with Scott, then he hid it better, for he greeted his brother as if it were any normal day. Only the absence of banter reminded Murdoch that this day would be far from normal.
As Teresa and Amber had yet to materialise, Murdoch reminded his sons what he expected. He received two glares in return.
Teresa woke up and smiled. Rising from her bed, she scrutinised her face in the looking glass for evidence that today she was a year older. Turning her head, Teresa combed her fingers through her thick brown hair pulling strands of it away from her face and experimenting with different styles. Amber had promised she would do her hair in time for her birthday dinner and Teresa was looking forward to it. Amber always looked so sophisticated; it made Teresa envious. How she yearned for the excitement that filled her cousin’s eyes!
As Teresa dressed in a simple white blouse and long beige skirt, she remembered Amber’s other promise to her, that she had purchased her a birthday dress. Teresa was so excited; Amber’s clothes were always of such good quality and in all the latest styles. Teresa did have nice clothes, Murdoch was generous in that respect, but as Amber pointed out, none of the local dressmakers seemed to know what was fashionable in proper society.
Teresa hopped down the stairs. She wanted today to be perfect. Although no one had said anything, something was wrong, but she couldn’t put her finger on it. She and Murdoch tried conversing with everyone at dinner, but nobody seemed to be responding with much enthusiasm and she’d go as far to say Scott and Johnny ignored each other. A few side glances at Amber suggested Teresa was not alone in noticing the atmosphere. Amber seemed quieter than usual. Teresa hoped her cousin wasn’t getting one of her headaches again.
They had made it through the first part of the day. How, Scott didn’t know.
They sat in the great room while Teresa opened her gifts, one big happy family on the outside. Scott tried to look as enthusiastic and interested as possible.
A glance in his father and brother’s direction told him he wasn’t alone in feeling the strain. As Teresa opened Murdoch’s gift, she smiled in delight at the beautiful shawl.
“That’ll go lovely with my present,” Amber said coyly, knowing her cousin was eagerly anticipating the dress she had promised her.
“Will it?” Teresa stood and wrapped the shawl around her shoulders. “When will I get your gift, Amber?”
Amber smiled. “Right now, if you like.”
“Oh yes.” Teresa’s eyes lit up. “Let’s go upstairs.”
As the women rushed to leave the room, Murdoch called out, “Don’t forget about dinner!”
Teresa paused and her gaze darted to the window where the summer sunshine was so enticing. “If I’d thought of it, we could have had a picnic. It’s a perfect day for it.”
At the mention of another picnic, Scott blushed. It didn’t help that Johnny put his hand to his mouth to stifle what sounded like a cough, but was undoubtedly a laugh.
“Oh, yes, a picnic,” Amber sounded astoundingly innocent, “and maybe a swim?”
Scott glared at her. She could not be more brazen with words. Even Murdoch looked stunned, and Johnny, well, he raised his eyebrows knowingly at his older brother.
“Maria’s already started dinner.”
As Teresa and Amber hurried upstairs, Johnny turned to Scott. “A swim eh, brother?” he said, his voice taking on that familiar and oh-so-missed teasing tone.
“That’s enough, Johnny,” Murdoch warned, although his smile gave away his pleasure that at least one of his sons was acting normal again.
Scott tried to hide the smile that threatened to break down the black mood that had possessed him for the last few days. He knew he needed to talk to Johnny, but he wanted them to be alone, preferably with Amber long gone. If there was one thing that Scott had learned from this whole experience, it was that being angry made him feel more alone than he ever had before.
“What on earth’s takin’ ’em so long?” Johnny grumbled as he sat at the dinner table. Scott shrugged and Murdoch shook his head. He had forgotten how long women could spend primping themselves when the mood took them.
The sound of giggling announced the wait was over. Amber appeared in the dining room, followed by Teresa.
“So, what do you think?” Teresa gushed, twirling for effect.
All three men at the table stared in shock at the sight. Amber had done Teresa’s hair beautifully, but it was not her hair causing the astonishment. The silk dress that Amber had bought was a rich burgundy with a plunging neckline, trimmed with lace.
The lace drew Johnny and Scott’s attention and they both looked away uncomfortably due to how low-cut the dress was. On any other woman, they’d appreciate the sight, but on Teresa, their ‘sister’, it was horrifying.
Murdoch looked aghast, and Johnny was willing to swear that his face turned the same shade of grey as his hair.
“Well?” Teresa looked puzzled and slightly annoyed. This was not the reaction she expected.
“Don’t you like it?” Amber’s eyes flashed devilishly as she revelled in their reactions.
Johnny and Scott both lowered their heads, wanting to say no, but not wanting to hurt Teresa’s feelings. Murdoch could not help himself.
“Teresa, that dress is not you at all. I do not think it’s appropriate for a family dinner.”
Teresa opened her mouth in surprise before realising she couldn’t speak. She could feel the tears forming in her eyes. Completely humiliated, she turned and fled the room, leaving an awkward silence in her wake.
The silence remained until they heard Teresa’s bedroom door slam shut. Murdoch sighed. Scott and Johnny were staring with a look of disbelief.
“Well, if you two have something to say, then spit it out,” Murdoch snapped. He already knew his words to Teresa had lacked tact.
“I thought she looked wonderful.” Amber took her seat and eyed all three men at the table.
“Well, you would.” Johnny ignored the warning look his father shot him.
Murdoch wanted to handle this himself. Turning to Amber, he eyed her coldly. “My dear. Teresa is a beautiful young woman who does not need to dress like a harlot. Unlike you, her beauty is not skin deep.”
While Amber blushed, Johnny and Scott’s faces broke into their first genuine smiles in ages.
“Excuse me.” Amber haughtily left the room. They heard her leave the house and were only sad that, as she was not yet packed, she would be returning.
Upstairs, Teresa threw herself down on her bed and sobbed. How could Murdoch say that to her? How could he embarrass her like that in front of everyone? When were they going to start seeing her as the woman she was, rather than the young girl they wanted her to remain?
Getting up, she stared at her reflection in the mirror, her look of sophistication now ruined by her red-rimmed eyes and runny nose. After composing herself, Teresa took a deep breath, determined to enjoy her birthday meal dressed as she was. If Murdoch, Scott and Johnny didn’t like it, then they would have to get used to it!
Downstairs, it took at least a full minute for Scott and Johnny to stop grinning. Eventually, they sobered at the knowledge Amber was not yet out of their hair.
Murdoch watched them. For the first time since their fight, his sons seemed easy in each other’s company. “Tomorrow morning, I will be asking Amber to leave. I take it you two have no objections?”
“My only objection is why wait til mornin’,” Johnny muttered, glancing at his brother to see if he felt the same way.
To his relief, Scott agreed, and Johnny could swear he saw the burden of tension lift away from his brother. “I’m with Johnny. Why wait?”
Scott was with Johnny – how Murdoch had longed to hear those words! “We’ve got this far, one more night won’t hurt, provided everyone sticks to their own beds from now on.”
Both Scott and Johnny looked indignant. “I think it’s Amber who needs reminding of that, sir,” Scott said. “She’s determined.”
“Well, I’m determined that she has done enough damage to this family.”
Unbeknownst to the men, Teresa had come down the stairs in time to see Amber storm from the house. Thinking that Murdoch had insulted her with his tactless comments, she’d marched to the dining room, only to pause when she heard their voices.
Now, she turned away from the door, her mind trying to comprehend what she’d overheard. Her ears burned and her heart thumped wildly. Suddenly everything made sense: Murdoch’s tactless comments about her dress; Johnny and Scott’s strange behaviour; the fight, which she realised now had been with each other; Amber’s insistence that she spend time getting to know them…
What a fool she was! No wonder her family failed to take her seriously as a grown woman. How naïve was she? Her eyelids pricking with hot, angry tears, Teresa gathered up the silken skirts of her dress and hurried back up the stairs.
Amber let herself back into the house as Murdoch, Scott and Johnny were leaving the great room. Outside, she had fought for her composure, steeling herself for what was bound to be an uncomfortable evening ahead. When she came face to face with the three of them, Murdoch glared at her, while Scott and Johnny looked away in disgust.
“Do you have anything else to say?” Murdoch demanded. “Any more lies to tell or accusations to make?”
Johnny looked at her then, his eyes daring Amber to say something, daring her to accuse him to his face. Amber ignored him and looked Murdoch in the eye. Before she had a chance to respond, all eyes and ears were drawn to the staircase, as several valises tumbled down the stairs, one after the other. Clothes scattered as one burst open on the bottom step.
Teresa, her face red from exertion, followed the luggage down the stairs. One look at her cousin and Amber knew the game was up. Still, Teresa ought to hear her side of the story.
“How could you?” Teresa demanded. “You came here as a guest to our home, supposedly to see me, yet all the while you’ve…you’ve been seeing them…all of them by the sounds of things.” Teresa gestured in her brothers’ direction, oblivious to their embarrassment.
“This whole time you have been carrying on with them!” Teresa’s voice became louder and slightly hysterical. “When did all this start?”
Scott dropped his gaze, wishing the floor would open and swallow him whole. The only comforting thing was Johnny felt the same way.
“What about when you watched Johnny breaking the horses?” Teresa asked Amber. “Was that a lie? A cover so that you two could get up to…up to…”
Murdoch’s heart went out to his ward. He moved to place a comforting hand on her arm, only Teresa deftly moved out of his reach. “Teresa,” he said quietly, seeing the glint of tears that the young woman was struggling to hold back.
“You stay out of this, Murdoch. All you have lied to me.”
“We didn’t want to,” Johnny said honestly, hoping that Teresa would listen and believe him.
Teresa looked at Johnny, not doubting the sincerity of his words, but too disappointed to apportion blame fairly. They had all lied to her; another example of the fact they all viewed her as a child. Well, she would sort this out. Nobody was going to hide anything from her anymore.
“What did Murdoch mean, Amber? What accusations?”
Amber, shocked by Teresa’s vehemence, didn’t know what to say.
Johnny exchanged glances with Scott, and at that moment, knew they were going to be okay.
“Well?” Teresa demanded.
Amber lowered her eyes and clasped her hands in front of her, entwining and twisting her fingers as she stalled.
“Amber suggested that Johnny threatened her,” Murdoch said.
At this revelation, Scott looked up sharply. “What?” He glanced at his brother and felt a pang of guilt. What must his brother have been going through? He should’ve been there to support him; there was no way Johnny would do that.
“You did what?” Teresa glared at Amber until the older woman raised her gaze. Then Teresa drew back her hand and slapped Amber across the face.
The mouths of all three men fell open; they had never seen Teresa so angry. The force of the blow forced Amber’s head to the side, and her hand flew to her scalding cheek. Her eyes filled with tears of pain and pity.
“I want you to leave, Amber. Get off Lancer, right this minute.” Teresa said quietly, her anger fading fast as the full impact of her cousin’s betrayal slapped her right back.
“Don’t you worry, I’m going,” Amber choked out, collecting her dignity along with the pieces of luggage she could carry.
As Amber reached the door, Teresa’s voice halted her. “Why did you do this?” she asked, her voice quivering.
Amber did not turn around. She could feel four sets of eyes boring into her back, the heat of each glare scorching her skin. Nothing she said now would make a difference.
“I asked you a question.” Teresa stormed after her cousin, wrenching her around by the arm.
Amber sighed and looked Teresa in the eye. “Because I wanted to.” She fixed her gaze on Scott and Johnny. “Because I liked you, both of you.” She got no reaction from either brother. “I wouldn’t expect you to understand at your age, Teresa. Perhaps one day you will?”
Teresa shook her head. “I understand that I’m nothing like you and that I never want to be either. I may be young, but you’re not. Soon your looks will fade and who will want you then? You’ll end up alone with nobody to love. But me? I have my family.” With a triumphant look, Teresa stood in front of the three men, her arms folded across her chest with all the protectiveness of a lioness.
Knowing there was nothing more to say, Amber patted her blonde hair back into place and gathered up her skirts. She walked out of the door and out of Lancer. Murdoch picked up another case and followed her.
“She made fools out of the pair of you, didn’t she?” Teresa turned to her brothers. “Prize fools and the pair of you let her because you couldn’t get past your egos to see the truth.”
“Now, wait a moment-“
“No, Scott. Did you wait at all? Did either of you wait to hear what the other had to say before you started hitting each other? I can’t believe I was upstairs a while ago wondering why you don’t see me as an adult. Now, I think it’s you two who need to grow up and fix the problem between the pair of you. After all, you both have a lot more in common than you thought now, don’t you?”
Scott lowered his gaze. Teresa was right; he’d been a complete fool. How could he have been so weak to lay the blame for this at Johnny’s feet? Why had he not listened to that inner voice whose protestations had grown in both volume and intensity these past few days?
Johnny looked sheepish too, no longer feeling any of the anger he had maintained with his brother for starting their fight. He appreciated that Amber had fooled them both and he recognised that they’d fallen for it. She had almost succeeded in damaging their relationship, which was more precious than either could admit.
Teresa studied their faces, thinking how close they both looked to her age when they were guilty. Although there was a whole lot more she could say on this episode, she refrained. It wasn’t her place. She’d already discovered more about her brothers in the last hour than she would ever have wanted to know. Feeling exhausted, Teresa turned to leave, the beginnings of a headache rumbling in her skull.
“Happy Birthday Teresa,” she mumbled to herself as she walked up the stairs.
“Boy, Teresa sure was mad.”
Scott glanced at his brother. “She certainly told us off.”
“I feel bad that we ruined her birthday.”
“We’ll make it up to her.”
Suddenly, it all felt awkward again, their union of a moment ago evaporating. Each man wondered what to say and how much to say to seal the void that had opened between them.
“Drink?” Scott was anxious to fill the silence. He poured a large drink, not even caring what it was. He needed to apologise to his brother.
Johnny sat in front of the fire, the light from the flames dancing across his tanned face. He took the offered glass from Scott’s outstretched hand. They drank in silence for a few minutes, the fire providing the only noise in the room as it ate its way through dry wood.
Finally, Scott spoke, “Well she’s gone at last.” He watched Johnny’s reaction, but his brother seemed mesmerised by the fire.
Scott knew he needed to apologise, he wanted to, but didn’t know where to start. Could an apology make up for the way he had behaved?
Johnny held his hand up and fixed his eyes on Scott. “You don’t need to say it. Teresa’s right, we’ve both been fools.”
Scott shook his head. “I never really believed that you went behind my back with Amber. I guess I was so angry with her and myself, that I needed someone to blame. I should never have lied to you when you asked me if I was interested. Were you two already-?”
“No.” Tilting his head, Johnny scrutinised his brother. “You know, I never knew you could lie so convincingly, Boston.” There was a trace of admiration in his voice. “Makes me wonder what else you’ve lied about?”
Scott matched Johnny’s smile with one of his own. “Nothing, brother, and nothing ever again.”
Johnny nodded in agreement.
“And I’m sorry I hit you, Johnny.”
“That’s okay Scott. I’m sorry I hit you harder.”
Johnny grinned. Scott tried to look indignant but failed, laughing instead.
When Murdoch re-entered the hacienda, he heard a sound far more beautiful than anything the eye could see – the sound of his sons laughing together. He had always thought that the day both Scott and Johnny came home, would remain the sweetest amongst his memories, but this was a strong contender. Deciding that his presence now would be an intrusion, Murdoch headed up the stairs to see Teresa.
The door to his ward’s bedroom was shut, but Murdoch knew she wasn’t asleep. He knocked and heard Teresa get up from the bed and move towards the door.
Through a crack in the door, Teresa met the concerned eyes of her guardian.
“Teresa, may I talk with you?” Murdoch asked gently, her pale face and watery eyes tugging on his heartstrings.
“Murdoch, I’m tired,” she responded, hoping that Murdoch would accept that and leave her alone for now.
“Just for a moment?” Murdoch persisted, although his voice remained soft and paternal.
“Fine.” Teresa let the door swing open and returned to her bed, where she sat atop the soft blankets and clasped her hands in her lap. She stared dejectedly at the crumpled pile of burgundy fabric on the floor.
Murdoch sat on the mattress, searching his mind for the right words to say.
“Why is she like that Murdoch?”
Murdoch sighed, that was a question that he had asked himself many times, only not about Amber.
Teresa sensed that Murdoch was struggling, so she made an effort to smile at her guardian. “I’m sorry that I invited her here,” she said feeling genuine remorse for the trouble that invitation led to.
Now, it was Murdoch’s turn to smile. “Oh, Teresa, none of this is your fault. I’m sorry that you’ve gotten hurt.”
Teresa shrugged. “I’ll get over it,” she said, some of her earlier determination returning. “But will Scott and Johnny?”
Murdoch’s smile broadened. “I think they already have.”
A little over two years later…
Amber sipped her tea from a delicate porcelain cup, vaguely aware that her guest was still droning on.
“Mrs Randall? Mrs Randall?”
Her name finally penetrated Amber’s consciousness. The annoying woman was talking to her again.
“Sorry, Mrs Harvey. What were you saying?”
The elder woman shook her head. This was an unusual woman that Mortimer Randall had taken for a wife. Still, given his old age, he was lucky to have acquired himself a bride at all. Perhaps that was the reason they had rushed into marriage two years ago.
“I was remarking on the portrait.” Mrs Harvey pointed to the large family portrait that adorned the wall above the fireplace.
“We sat for it a month ago.”
Mortimer had insisted that they sit for a portrait as a family, even though Amber hadn’t wanted to. Looking at it now though, she had to admit the artist had done a good job at capturing her beauty. He had done well with Mortimer too, although there was no beauty in his face. His hair was a dull, limp grey, and his hazel eyes were void of excitement or any of the things that Amber found so attractive. Still, he was a good man and rich, one of the reasons she had married him.
Her eyes lingered on the portrait. The artist had also done a fine job with the likeness of the toddler in her arms. Amber smiled as her daughter stared back at her from the canvas with the blue eyes of her father. The father she would never get to meet.
Written in 2004. Revised in 2023.
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8 thoughts on “Easy Company by Sam”
This was a great story but it’s was hard to see what Amber did. Fortunately all was back to normal at the end, except the last question : who is the father !
Personally, I can’t blame Amber for seeing what she wanted and going for it either. How is a girl to choose? The sequel answers your question. Thanks so much for commenting, Caterina.
I’m so glad you reposted this one, Sam. This was always a favourite of mine. Wonderful writing of our favourite characters. Scott, Johnny and Murdoch are perfectly recognizable as the characters we saw on the screen. I was always annoyed the only episode that had two people arguing over a woman was Murdoch and Jelly of all people! Perhaps if there’d been a season three we might have seen Johnny and Scott at loggerheads over a woman. Not that your story was like that; it was far more subtle, and you put Johnny especially in a very difficult situation. Amber is a piece of work! But a very believable one, lol! Thanks so much, Suzanne.
Hi Suzanne, it’s always music to my ears to hear that I’ve written recognisable characters! I think it’s likely they would have come across a girl they both liked at some point, just not necessarily one that was as much trouble as Amber proved to be! I did put Johnny through it, didn’t I? I can’t say that’s changed much in my writing, lol. Thanks for the lovely review. Sam
Great. Love reading it. Great that teresa got rid her.
Thanks Rita. I think they all gave a big ol’ sigh of relief when she left!
Can’t say that I really liked Amber. She really played the brothers against each other. Teresa let all of them have it at the end. Good for her. Now, who really is the father?
Hi Lesley, I think that’s a fair comment about Amber. The sequel will reveal the father. Thanks so much for commenting!