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Innocent Eyes by Sam

Word Count 113,147Author note: This is a sequel to Easy Company, posted to LancerWriters in 2005. 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? 


Chapter One

Happy and content, Murdoch Lancer relaxed in his leather chair, a glass of his favourite scotch resting on a full belly. It was early October and the stifling heat of summer had waned, the cooler weather cultivating a cosiness of an evening that was hard to beat. With closed eyes, he listened to the crackling fire.

“Hey, Murdoch!”

When he opened his eyes, Johnny was looking at him with an amused expression.

“Sorry, John, did you say something?”

“Scott was sayin’ his grandfather used to drop off after dinner, too. Reckons it must be your age.”

Before Murdoch could respond to the cheeky comment, Jelly burst through the front door, hollering for Scott.

“I’m here, Jelly, are you all right?”

Realising he’d caused a commotion for no good reason; Jelly looked a tad embarrassed. “No need to be gettin’ up, Scott.”

“What is it then?”

“Got a note for ya, forgot earlier.” Noticing how crumpled the envelope was, Jelly slapped it against his thigh, held it in place with one hand, and attempted to smooth it with the other. He realised too late that his hands were unclean. When he finally handed over the crinkled envelope, it was dirty too.

Scott removed a single folded page.

“I’m afraid I’m at a loss,” Scott admitted, glancing over the brief missive a couple of times.

When Johnny leaned forward to catch a glimpse, Scott handed the letter to him. When Johnny frowned, Murdoch’s curiosity piqued too. Without a word, Johnny passed the letter on.


I know it has been a long time but I need to see you. I am staying at the hotel in Green River. Please meet me there at two o’clock tomorrow afternoon. I would not trouble you, were it not extremely important.Yours,


“I can’t recall ever meeting an A. Randall before. Did the man say anything else when he handed you the note?”

“T’was a lady,” Jelly corrected smugly.

A sly grin crept over Johnny’s face. “Ah, well, that explains it. Is there something you wanna tell us, brother?”

Scott rolled his eyes. “I assure you there is not. What did the lady look like, Jelly?”

“Well…” Jelly thought back to Green River, earlier in the day…

He’d just loaded the supplies in the wagon and he should head straight back, only his stomach was protesting something fierce. Maud must be in the hotel kitchen again if the smell was anything to go by. The scent of her tender beefsteak practically seized him by his nostrils and hauled him through the doors. Waiting for his meal, he occupied himself by people watching, as he was often wont to do.

He noticed the lady as soon as she entered the dining room, and to Jelly’s delight, she’d noticed him too. She smiled and made her way over.

Yuh still got it, Jellifer, he told himself.

“Excuse me, sir. I believe you work at the Lancer Ranch?” The lady was dressed real fine and was a looker too, with shiny copper hair dusted with grey, a thin nose, prominent cheekbones and the deepest brown eyes he’d surely ever seen. Talked nice too.

Jelly moved to tip his hat before realising it wasn’t there. Stumped on what to do with his hand, he patted down wisps of his hair.

“Jellifer B Hoskins of the Lancer Ranch at your service, ma’am.”

The lady smiled. “Good, then I have the right man. Does Mr Scott Lancer still reside at Lancer?”

At his confirmation, she’d handed him the crisp envelope.

“I would be grateful if you would deliver this directly.”

Jelly accepted the envelope, shoving it into his overalls.

“You won’t forget? Scott Lancer must get it today.”

“Course I won’t be forgettin’. You can trust Jellifer B. Hoskins.”

Jelly concluded his story, but no one in the room was any wiser about the identity of the mysterious A. Randall.

“If you can’t place the name, Scott, I suggest you don’t go alone,” Murdoch said.

“I think I can handle one woman.”

“That’s if it is a woman,” Teresa interjected. “You don’t know for sure.”

“I’ll go with you.”

Scott sighed. “I don’t think that’s necessary, Johnny.”

“Humour us,” Murdoch requested. “Let your brother go with you.”

“I’m not sure either of you should go,” Teresa said. “It’s all too mysterious. Why doesn’t this A. Randall identify herself properly in the letter? Use her first name for instance. Why all the secrecy?”

Jelly, his presence forgotten, scratched his head, staring at the Lancers as if they had lost their marbles. “Now hang on a darn minute. She looked nice ‘nuff ta me!”

“Hang on all of you,” Scott interrupted. “I haven’t even said I’m going yet.”

“Well, are you?” Four voices came in unison.

“Why not? I’m curious.”

“I’ll come with you then.”

“No, Johnny, you won’t.”

“You won’t even know I’m there.”

Earlier that day, in her room at the Green River Hotel, Amber Randall stood by the window and stared down to the street. Her posture was perfect and still, her green eyes alert like a cat with prey in sight. Tendrils of pale golden hair cascaded past her shoulders to rest against the pale pink fabric of her expensive gown.

She felt relieved when she spied Jelly walking down the street. It had been a game of chance as to which familiar face she’d spot first, but Jelly was first choice every time. The last choice would always be Johnny – the youngest Lancer would be suspicious and bound to ask more questions than most. He might even try to follow Victoria back up to their rooms and find Amber before she was ready to reveal herself.

The prospect of seeing Scott again was exciting. It was tempting to ride on out to Lancer, but Amber was afraid. She had no idea what had happened at Lancer over the past three years. What if Scott had met someone else? How foolish she may be, coming all this way without knowing the true lay of the land.

Scott and Johnny Lancer – oh how she’d enjoyed them both! The challenge of Johnny, the raw lust that had invaded her senses every time he touched her. The sweet yet skilful touch of Scott – how his masterful manner made her swoon!

She’d been so happy until the truth came out and ruined it.

After all this time, perhaps they would forgive her.

“Did you give Jelly the note?” Amber asked Victoria, the nanny who had been in her employ for just two months.

“Yes. Scott Lancer is still living at the ranch.”

“You didn’t mention anything else to that annoying little man?”

Victoria arched her thin brows. “No, Mrs Randall, I’ve done as you instructed. Will there be anything else or shall I wake Lily from her nap?”

Amber waved Victoria away. So far, she had proved a good nanny; Lily loved having her around. She seemed trustworthy and Amber needed someone like that, especially now she was on her own.

Turning back to the window, Amber watched the people go about their everyday business; children ran in the street, chasing each other with bright eyes and smiling faces, later scolded by weary mothers longing for Monday when they would be back in school. Men were loading an old wagon with sacks of grain, shaking hands to seal a deal. Her gaze fell on a middle-aged couple strolling arm in arm. The ‘husband’ said something to his ‘wife’ and she turned to face him, smiling and staring at him with adoration. She found herself transfixed by the enviable pair and monitored their progress until they passed the saloon.


Lily ran into the room and threw herself into Amber’s arms, laughing. Amber ruffled her daughter’s blonde curls, rewarded with a bright smile that lit up the child’s face, stretching up from her pink lips to her blue-grey eyes.

It did not matter if Scott had met someone else. After all, even if he had married, got engaged, or was simply involved; no other woman could give him what she could: his first-born child.

Johnny arrived in Green River deliberately earlier than Scott. He knew his brother didn’t want him around for this meeting, so he’d come into town on other business. It just so happened that business took him by the Green River Hotel, and the poor man behind the front desk looked awful lonely with no one to talk to…

Caleb Holt had run the hotel for ten years and considered Murdoch a friend. A friendly man, Caleb had a protruding belly, a round full face and large brown eyes. His thinning hair had faded to a shiny silver-grey. He greeted Johnny warmly. “Good afternoon, Mister Lancer. What brings you here?”

“It’s Johnny.” Leaning against the front desk, Johnny removed his hat just as one of the female guests descended the staircase. One glimpse of her face and Johnny knew she was the lady Jelly described, only this time she carried a small child on her hip.

“Good afternoon to ya, ma’am,” Caleb called cheerfully. “How’s the littlun today?”

“She’s fine, but we need some air.”

“Well, it’s a fine day for some fresh air, ma’am,” Caleb agreed. “Enjoy ya’selves.”

“Thank you.” Victoria nodded politely at them before heading out of the hotel. The little girl with golden curls twisted in her arms to poke her tongue out in Johnny’s direction.

Johnny grinned and turned back to Caleb. “Nice lady. What’s her name?”

“That’s…Mrs Clark,” Caleb said, glancing down at the open register.

“Clark?” Johnny repeated. “You’re sure?”

“Sure, I’m sure, it says so right ‘ere.” Caleb slid the register around so Johnny could read the entry. Listed directly above was A. Randall. He felt uneasy knowing Mrs Clark had just been the messenger.

“Mrs Clark, she staying here alone?”

Caleb raised his brows. “She’s a mite mature for ya, ain’t she, Johnny?” He wondered what Murdoch would say if his younger son brought home a woman of Mrs Clark’s mature years.

Johnny grinned. “It ain’t like that Caleb.” His grin widened when he saw the man’s relief.

“Oh, ‘cause for a minute there, I thought ya was gonna tell me otherwise. Y’know when I was a boy…”

While Caleb commenced a tale of life as a younger, better-looking and a whole lot slimmer man, unease bubbled in Johnny’s stomach. It was a feeling he had come to know well and an instinct he ought to trust. Interrupting Caleb’s memories, Johnny stabbed his finger on the register. “Is A. Randall a man or a woman?”

Caleb jolted back to the present and his eyes sparkled. “Ah, well, she would be a lady, an’ a real beauty at that. If ya took her home to your pa, I’m sure he’d be mighty proud.”

Johnny smirked, but Caleb’s statement made him more curious.

“She give a home address?” When Caleb looked reluctant to divulge it, Johnny held his hands out placatingly. “Just the city’ll do.”

Caleb sighed and looked at another stack of papers on his desk. “Boston.”

Ah, so she must be one of the many devastated women Scott had left back east. He’d always thought his brother was kidding about that.

“D’you know her first name?”

“I don’t believe she said.”

Johnny straightened up and stuck his hat on his head. “I might be back later,” he called over his shoulder, stepping out into the sunshine. He looked for Mrs Clark and the child, intent on finding out the identity of the mysterious A. Randall.

Johnny walked down the street, searching faces, touching the brim of his hat when he saw those he knew. He was beginning to think he’d lost them, when Mrs Clark stepped out of the local store, holding the little girl’s hand. Not sure how to approach, Johnny spotted the child drop something on the boardwalk. Crossing the street, he retrieved the ragdoll and flashed his most charming smile.

“Oh, thank you.” Victoria smiled. “Didn’t I see you back at the hotel?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Johnny said, scooting down to the child’s height and offering the ragdoll to her. “The name’s Lancer.”

“You’re Mr Lancer?” She sounded surprised.

Johnny decided to play along. “Sure am, I understand it was you who gave the note to Jelly?”

“Yes, that’s correct.”

“You see, the thing is…” Johnny said as he stood up. “Anna and me…”

Victoria looked like she wanted to roll her eyes. Johnny wanted to grin.

“You mean Amber.”

“Amber?” Surely, not!

Victoria frowned. “Yes. Mrs Amber Randall, my employer.”

Johnny’s mind whirled. It couldn’t be anyone other than Teresa’s cousin – who else had a name like that? “Why’s she calling herself Randall?”

Victoria’s frown deepened. “Randall was her late husband’s name.” She sounded confused by the question.

“She’s a widow. Again?”

Victoria clasped the child’s hand a little tighter and took a step back. “I’m not sure I should say anymore, Mr Lancer.”

He had to stop Scott from meeting Amber. Whatever that woman wanted, it would lead to trouble. Without another word, he turned and practically ran back to the hotel, hoping he was not too late.

“Mr Lancer?” He heard Victoria call out to him. “Scott?”

Johnny didn’t turn back.

Dead on two o’clock, Amber hurried to the window of her room and watched Scott arrive in Green River. He rode up to the hotel and dismounted, securing his horse before dusting down his clothes. Seeing Scott brought back so many memories. Not all were good, but she now had a chance to make amends.

It was a shame she was wearing black, it did not become her, but then she was supposed to be in mourning. It was such a shame considering it was more important than ever she look her best. After applying more rouge to her cheeks, a glance in the mirror told her she was ready. She looked very much the respectable widow.

Spotting one of Lily’s many dolls lying on the chair, Amber placed it strategically in the centre of the room, just as a knock on the door signalled it was time.

Scott approached the front desk in the hotel, removed his hat and tucked it under his left arm. Caleb’s greeting was warm.

“Yuh looking for your brother, Mr Lancer?”

“Johnny was here?”

Caleb nodded. “He was lookin’ for a woman.”

Scott frowned. “Was he now.”

“Seemed pretty interested in one of the guests.”

“Who would that be?”

“Mrs Randall.” Caleb lowered his voice conspiratorially. “As I was tellin’ ya brother, she’s a real looker.”

Scott arched an eyebrow. “She is?” His curiosity increased. “Only, I’m here to meet her.”

“She didn’t say nothin’ to me ‘bout havin’ a visitor. Not sure ya can just go on up there.”

Scott reached into the pocket of his jacket and produced the letter. He held it out for Caleb to see. “She invited me.”

Caleb looked at the signature and compared it to the one in the register. Satisfied they matched and Mrs Randall had indeed invited Scott Lancer here, he tipped his head in the direction of the stairs.

“Room number five. Yuh take the first flight of stairs and it’s on your right.”

Scott’s dream of some mysterious beauty took a nightmarish twist when he knocked on the door of room number five. He blinked, hoping her face would transform into the auburn-haired lady Jelly had described.

“Hello, Scott.”

“You’re A. Randall?” he spluttered.

Amber opened the door wider as she motioned him in.

“I remarried.” Tears welled in her eyes.

He stood, rooted.

“Scott, won’t you come inside?”

He shook his head and stepped back. “I don’t think we have anything to say to each other.” He put his hat back on. He turned to leave and felt her hand on his arm.

“Don’t go. I have something important to tell you.”

He hesitated. He should leave right now.

“Scott, please.”

There was something in her tone that caused his hesitation – a plea from the heart, perhaps. “You have five minutes,” he snapped, walking past into the sitting room of her hotel suite. He put his hat on the cream cloth that adorned a small table and ran a hand through his hair. He folded his arms as he waited for her to begin.

“Won’t you sit down?” Amber’s expression was hopeful, her lower lip trembling. She was paler than he remembered. Black was an unusual choice of dress colour unless you were in mourning.

“I’ll stand and please get to the point. You only have four minutes left.”

Amber sighed and, removing a white lace handkerchief from her sleeve, she twisted it into knots.

“Amber!” He spoke louder than intended, frustrated by her silence.

She studied her hands before meeting his gaze. “Scott, please sit down. You’re making me nervous.”

He gave an incredulous snort. He doubted Amber had ever been nervous, but he sat anyway, pulling the chair further away.

“Scott, you will never know how truly sorry I am for how things turned out before. I was such a fool; selfish and shallow. I understand why you don’t want to be here today, why you never wanted to see me again.”

He studied the tablecloth – there were catches in the fabric and intricate detail in the hand-stitched cotton flowers. He could hear familiar noises down in the street; the clip-clop of horse hooves, the rumble of a wagon’s wheels. How many minutes did she have left?

“I acted appallingly and gave no regard to the feelings you may have had for me. I was too stubborn to listen to my heart and the feelings I had for you.”

“Oh, and don’t forget your feelings for Johnny.” The heat of his gaze warmed her cheeks and a natural blush peeked through the rouge.

“Yes, I had feelings for Johnny, but they were different. I was different around him, yet always myself with you.”

“And let’s not forget the false accusation you made.” Amber was so twisted; she probably didn’t know when she was being herself or not.

Hovering tears spilt over Amber’s lower lashes, running down her face and dripping onto her lap. She continued to manipulate the handkerchief in her hands. “I’m so sorry.” Her voice cracked with emotion. “It was an awful thing to do, but I was so ashamed of my behaviour. I didn’t want to lose you…”

“You never had me in the first place.” Done listening, Scott rose and snatched up his hat. If Amber had returned to Green River because she was having trouble living with her conscience, then that was her problem. He had suffered enough sleepless nights over it, thinking about how she almost destroyed his and Johnny’s relationship. He wasn’t prepared to let her dredge that up. It was in the past. It had taken time for him and Johnny to rebuild their trust, but they’d done it and moved on.

Casting a disgusted look in her direction, he turned and strode to the door. His boot kicked something before he got there, sending it flying. When he bent to retrieve it, he realised it was a small rag doll, obviously well-used and loved by its owner. Turning back to Amber, he tossed it in her lap.

He was about to leave when Amber spoke. “This is Lily’s favourite doll,” she whispered as she brushed her fingers over the toy. “Don’t you want to know who Lily is?” She was clutching the limp doll like a trophy, the handkerchief now discarded at her feet.

“No, I don’t.” Scott opened the door and left, pausing in the hall to breathe, for he had almost suffocated on Amber’s apologies. Revived, he hurried down the stairs, almost colliding with Johnny, who was on his way up.

“Scott, have ya-“

“Yes, I’ve seen her. Now I’m leaving.”

They were about to leave the hotel when Victoria returned holding Lily’s hand.

Ignoring the child and Johnny’s sudden hesitation, Scott brushed past. He was at the door when Amber called to him from the staircase.

It was the child who responded to Amber’s voice. Holding her arms in a cuddle-me gesture, she cried out happily, “Mama!”

Scott and Johnny paused in surprise as Amber descended the stairs and scooped the child up. The surprise only deepened when Amber turned in Scott’s direction and offered the little girl to him.

Why on earth was Amber trying to hand him the child? He’d never had much to do with children and did not intend to start now, especially with any child of…

My God, Amber had a child.

Realising they had an audience, Amber drew Lily back to her bosom, sitting the child on the swell of her hip.

“Victoria, would you mind showing Mr Holt those dreadful chairs? They need fixing.”

Victoria nodded and while Caleb looked dismayed, he dutifully followed Mrs Clark upstairs.

Amber faced Scott again, grasping Lily’s small fingers in her own and caressing them. “This is Lily.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Scott muttered, talking to a child who probably couldn’t speak yet. He stumbled back, bumping into Johnny, who looked just as perplexed.

“Scott, Lily is our daughter.” Amber sounded like she was stating the obvious.

It took all his composure not to laugh at the absurd notion. Glancing at his brother, Johnny looked rather pale.

The foyer of the hotel was deathly quiet. Amber waited.

Scott got a sinking feeling in his gut. He concentrated on the one person who looked as shocked as he was. “Let’s go, Johnny,” he snapped.

“Scott, don’t you think we should talk?” Amber sounded astonished that Scott hadn’t immediately rushed to acknowledge his daughter. When he still didn’t say anything, she grabbed his arm. She was so close now he could smell her perfume, the same flowery fragrance she wore back then. The child – Lily – mimicked her mother by reaching out to grasp his jacket.

“I know this is a shock. Meet me here tomorrow evening at six. Mr Holt will cook us dinner and then we can talk. Please, Scott!” Amber’s tone was pleading. Her fingers remained on his jacket.

“Scoh,” Lily repeated with a giggle.

This was too much. Wrenching himself free of Amber, Scott walked out of the hotel and did not look back.

The afternoon sun was still high and everything appeared so normal and as it should be, but Scott’s mind was a battleground of conflicting emotions and thoughts. On one side, in the good camp, was the probability that Amber was lying – it wouldn’t be the first time was their battle cry. Then, in the other camp, was the knowledge he hadn’t been careful and there was every chance he was a father.

On the road back to Lancer, neither brother said a word.

After a while, the silent but jabbing questions became unbearable for Johnny. Amber had only been back five minutes and already he could feel the start of a crack in his and Scott’s relationship. Her presence threatened to tear a jagged path through their lives, like an earthquake across sun-baked terrain.

He studied Scott’s profile. Scott’s jaw was set, as if he worried that the uncertainties that plagued him would burst forth like a swarm of angry bees if he so much as parted his lips.

“Come on Scott, you’re not thinking of believing her are ya?” Johnny hoped his brother was not that gullible.

“No.” But the doubtful shake of his head betrayed a conflict. “Besides she’s married. The child must be her husband’s.”

Johnny wanted to remark on the likelihood of that, given Amber’s history, but instead, he said, “She’s not married. Her husband’s dead.”

“The black dress…”

“The chances of that little gal being your kid, Scott, it’s like…” Johnny pulled Barranca to a halt with a quick tug of the reins, before dropping them and waving his right hand around in the air as he searched for a comparison that would do justice to how absurd the notion was. “It’s like the old man giving up ranchin’ and opening a dress shop.”

To Johnny’s dismay, Scott didn’t so much as leak a smile. Instead, he pulled his horse to a stop and twisted in the saddle. He looked Johnny in the eye. “You’re right, the child could be yours.”

Scott’s argument was not without merit. As soon as Johnny realised Amber had a child, he’d known Scott wasn’t the only potential papa in the room. The accusation behind Scott’s words was a tangible thing. Johnny hung his head; the fear of Amber coming between them stirring in his heart.

“No Scott, that kid ain’t mine. She looks nothin’ like me.”

“Does she look like me?”

Johnny squirmed. “Well, she’s got the same colour hair and blue eyes, but hell, so do lots of folks.”

“Does she look like me?” Scott wished he’d taken more notice of the little girl.

Johnny hesitated, recalling the sweet face of the child in Amber’s arms. There was something familiar about her features. Was it a resemblance to Scott? He wasn’t sure. With a sigh, Johnny shrugged. “Maybe.”

Scott rode ahead. Unlike his brother, Johnny had never harboured real feelings for Amber, but their attraction sure had overwhelmed him at times. Like on the ride back from the saloon. To his dying day, Johnny would regret kissing that woman as a diversion tactic.

How would Murdoch and Teresa react to the news Amber was back? Murdoch would be furious and was unlikely to believe a word she said. Teresa might change her mind though, especially when she found out Amber had a child. After all, they were family. Blood ties were the hardest to sever.

Johnny caught up with his brother as they rode under the white arch of home. Scott was looking rueful. “Johnny, I’m sorry. I never meant to accuse you.”

The apology flushed away the fear that Amber was coming between them. Johnny’s gaze locked tight with his brother’s. “Well, you’re right. Reckon the kid could be mine, but that’s the point, ain’t it? She could belong to anyone. Who knows what happened before Amber even got to Lancer?”

It was Johnny’s question, amongst others, that lured Scott into Green River the next evening at six o’clock sharp.

The sun still shone, but the air was cool. A slight breeze blew white smudges of cloud across late autumn skies. The town was quiet, most people would be at home eating their evening meal, exactly where Scott should be right now.

Was he out of his mind?

The dining room of the Green River Hotel was the same shade of blue as Amber’s sitting room upstairs. There was half a dozen round tables, each covered with a cream linen tablecloth. Amber, dressed in her mourning clothes, sat at the table in the corner with her back to the wall. There were no other guests in the room.

Amber smiled and Scott steeled his resolve. He wanted this over as quickly as possible, but he would stay to get the truth.

“Thank you for coming.” Her eyes looked dull and tired.

“I came for the truth.”

“Yes, well, I owe you that.”

The waitress came to their table and rattled off the specials, but Scott had no appetite and barely heard what she said.

Amber must have sensed this. “I don’t think we’re hungry. Perhaps some lemonade?”

“I’ll have a scotch. Make it a double.” He needed a drink to see him through this.

They sat in self-conscious silence until their drinks arrived. Scott took a grateful gulp, letting the liquid travel a warm path down his throat where it swashed in his empty stomach. He resisted the urge to knock back the rest, not wanting Amber to know how uncomfortable he was.

Amber’s gaze locked on her lemonade as if it were the most interesting thing in the room.

“The truth Amber. That’s why I’m here.”

When she raised her gaze, her eyes were moist. She kept her voice low. “Lily is your daughter. I found out I was expecting after I left Lancer.”

“That’s convenient. How do I know Lily isn’t the result of some other indiscretion? Perhaps there were a couple more brothers you took a liking to, besides Johnny and I?”

Amber flushed pink. “No.”

“So, I’m to take your word for it? She could be Johnny’s, she should be your husband’s.”

“She’s not.” Amber held his gaze. “When I found out I was with child, I panicked. I didn’t know if she were yours or Johnny’s…” She cast her green gaze to her lap, her hands squeezing the glass so tight her knuckles paled. “But it had to be one of you…there was no one else.”

Scott took another gulp of scotch, emptying the glass.

“When Lily was born, I knew at once she wasn’t Johnny’s. She has your eyes. She looks so much like you.”

Scott looked for the waitress, his earlier rationale to keep a clear head disappearing. They remained alone. “So where does your husband fit into this?”

“Mortimer was getting on in years, but he was a good, kind man. I didn’t have much time, I knew I had to get married and quick, for the baby’s sake.”

“Why not tell me straight away? Didn’t you think I had a right to know, or Johnny, for that matter?”

“I needed to be married, Scott. How could I expect that from you after all that happened, and when I had no idea which one of you was the father?”

Scott had no answer, so he moved the conversation on. “Your husband wasn’t suspicious when Lily was born?” He stared at Amber, searching her face and eyes for any signs of the lies he’d expected.

“No, he thought she was born early.”

“And your husband is now…”

“Yes. That’s why I was able to come back, to give you a chance to get to know your daughter. You asked me to be honest, Scott. I have been.”

Scott felt numb. Never had he envisaged this happening. He had always hoped for children, but when the time was right; when he was married to a wife he loved. Not now, not like this.

“I need some time to think.” They got up from the table together and Amber followed him into the foyer. He did need to go. He should go right now. Why was he hesitating?

“Would you like to see Lily?”

Scott nodded. This was crazy but his heart needed the truth as much as his head. He followed Amber upstairs. With every step, he was leaving behind his carefree existence and walking into the unknown.

“She’ll be asleep, but you can look in. She kept us up last night. I’ll ask Victoria to give us a minute.”

Amber disappeared into the room and Scott closed his eyes. He had no idea if not sleeping at night was usual behaviour for young children.

Victoria came out of the bedroom and smiled, but Scott saw the questions in her eyes. If only he had the answers.

Amber beckoned him through to the bedroom with a finger to her lips. He followed her over to the cot. Lily was sleeping on her back, her head turned to the right and blonde curls splaying across the pillow. She looked peaceful and innocent, oblivious to the fact she had the starring role in this scene.

“She is beautiful, isn’t she?”

Scott stared at the sleeping girl.

He was vaguely aware that Amber left the room as he studied the sleeping child, marvelling at her features, so small and so perfect. If he were to touch her, would she break? Compelled to try, he reached out and brushed Lily’s rosy cheek with his finger. Her smooth skin felt so different to his.

At this touch, Lily stirred. Half-opening her eyes, she curled her fingers around Scott’s and smiled sleepily.

He couldn’t describe the feelings that were born inside of him, only that they set fire to every doubt he’d possessed. Scott smiled back at Lily and waggled his finger. “Hello Lily,” he whispered.

Chapter Two

Murdoch paused at the door to the great room when he saw Johnny standing by the French doors, lost in thought. He wondered if his intrusion would be welcome, so he settled for observation instead.

How alike his mother Johnny was, even after all these years. You have your mother’s temper, he’d said to his son on their first meeting, and to an extent that proved true. Now Murdoch could hardly remember the last time there had been voices raised in anger. Well, not since his sons had suffered a severe lapse of judgement with Teresa’s cousin, anyway. The memory of that episode made him grimace. He’d learned far more than he’d ever wished to know about his sons back then. But they had come through it a stronger, closer family, and for that, Murdoch was grateful.

“Do I look funny or somethin’?” Johnny asked, letting Murdoch know he’d been aware of his presence all along.

“No, but I do wonder why you’re staring out into the darkness. Is there something on your mind, son?”

Johnny turned to face him. “Since when did you get so good at reading me?”

“Oh, I’d say about the time you started letting me.” Murdoch grinned and ruffled his son’s hair.

When Johnny returned to looking pensive, Murdoch moved his hand to his son’s shoulder. “Is this something to do with your brother? Do you know where he went this evening?” Johnny’s shoulder slumped beneath his hand and Murdoch felt the first pitter-patter of worry. “John?”

“Aw, Murdoch. Don’t ask me to tell ya where Scott is.” Johnny shook off his father’s hand and turned back to the glass. The room was silent except for the ticking of the clock and the crackle of the fire.

“So, you know?”

“I can guess.”

Murdoch sighed. He didn’t have the right to know everything his sons did, but it irked him that Scott had left Johnny to tell them he would not be home for dinner.

It was late when Scott returned from town, having ridden home in a daze. As he took care of his horse, his brows furrowed as he wondered what and how he would tell his family. Murdoch would be furious. Scott cringed as he remembered how embarrassed he had been the last time his father discovered his indiscretions. After that whole incident, Scott swore that never again would his liaisons be a topic for discussion in the Lancer household. He and Johnny still teased each other, although they both tended to be a little more cautious around the subject of women.

Even after Amber had gone, reminders of the trouble she’d caused would crop up now and then. If Scott found himself enthralled by a pretty lady at a dance, he was constantly checking his brother’s reactions to see if he was interested in her too. Johnny had done the same. It had taken time to put things right after Amber.

Footsteps in the barn brought Scott back to the here and now. Johnny had paused in the doorway, leaning against the wooden frame.

“Did Murdoch ask where I was?”

Scott knew their father had barely swallowed their story that the note must have been a hoax because no one showed up to meet him at the hotel.

“He wanted to.”

Scott gave his horse one last pat, before leaving the stall and making his way over to where his brother stood. “If you told him, I understand. I should never have put you in the position where you had to lie for me.”

“I didn’t tell him.” Johnny stepped into the moonlight. “Talkin’ of lies, did Amber admit hers?”


Johnny snorted. “Ain’t that a surprise.”

“The thing is Johnny; I don’t think she is lying.”

Johnny’s mouth dropped open. “Are you plain loco? D’ya remember what she’s like?”

Scott frowned. “I could hardly forget, but she seemed honest.”

Johnny’s dark laugh held no trace of amusement. “And you’re taking her word for it?”

Scott felt irritated, even though he understood where Johnny was coming from. He took a deep breath. “Johnny, I saw Lily. She…she does look like me.”


“And when I touched her, I felt…” He still couldn’t put into words the emotions he’d experienced. When she’d held his finger with her own, it was as if she too acknowledged the connection between them.

“So, what you gonna do, go in there and tell the old man he’s a grandpa? ‘Cause if you are, I’m taking off to the north line shack right now. Figure I’ll be safe there and still hear his reaction.”

Scott managed a weak smile, although he was dreading Murdoch’s response. Somehow, he got the impression Murdoch would forget he was a grown man and make him feel like a child. Something only his father and Harlan could do.

“Is he still up?” With any luck, Murdoch would have retired for the evening so he could postpone the inevitable a little longer.

“Uh-huh. Teresa too. Seems no one wanted to go to bed tonight until they knew you were home.”

Scott ran his hand through his hair. “Well, let’s get this over with,” he said, with more conviction than he felt.

Scott was home. Murdoch had heard him ride in about half an hour ago, but he was yet to come inside. He assumed Johnny was out there too. His younger son had spent all evening fidgeting or pacing in front of the French doors, until Murdoch had told him to be still or find somewhere to be. When Johnny had left the room, Teresa had looked at Murdoch with questioning eyes. He’d shrugged, hoping the sense of unease he was feeling would remain unsubstantiated.

While waiting for his sons to come in, Murdoch studied Teresa. She was a beautiful grown woman now. How much longer before she turned the right head in town and left them to make a home and family of her own? She sat opposite Murdoch, one of Johnny’s shirts draped over her lap and her mending kit in its woven basket on the edge of the chair. With a small sigh, she cast her eyes down at the shirt on her lap as well as the other two on the floor.

His sons broke the silence. Scott made straight for the liquor, not seeming choosy about which decanter he selected.

“Is something wrong?” Murdoch glanced at Johnny, who had not quite followed his brother in, choosing instead to linger in the entrance.

Scott downed the drink before sitting on the couch. He ran his hands down the front of his thighs as if smoothing away some imaginary creases.

He looked tired. Murdoch’s sense of unease rumbled.

“I’m afraid I haven’t been entirely honest with you, sir. I did meet someone at the hotel yesterday.”

“I see.” Murdoch cast a glance at Johnny, who seemed to find the tip of his black boots an object of great interest. “Go on.” He resisted the urge to laugh at their behaviour, for he had a horrid feeling what he was about to hear was no laughing matter.

“So, who is A. Randall then?” Teresa asked.

“Teresa, let Scott finish.” Teresa closed her mouth but her eyes betrayed her impatience.

Scott looked grateful for the distraction. It took a firm, “Well?” from Murdoch to get him back on track.

“It turned out to be Amber,” Scott said quietly.

“Amber? You mean my cousin, Amber?” Teresa’s eyes were as wide as her mouth.

Scott nodded.

It took a moment for Murdoch to locate his voice. “Son, I think you need to explain.”

Scott described meeting Amber in the hotel; his shock and her apologies. He didn’t mention Lily; for some reason, the words wouldn’t form.

“And did you see her again today?” Teresa asked.


Murdoch smacked his palm on the side of the armchair. “Please tell me you’re not considering a relationship with that woman? After all she did to you, all she did to Johnny!”

Scott winced at the increased volume of Murdoch’s voice. “No, I’m not planning a romantic relationship with her, but I suspect I’ll be seeing her again. She had something to tell me.”

There was this irritating little voice in Murdoch’s head warning him he was not going to like this. He glanced at Teresa, who in her naivety, still looked confused.

“Teresa, could you go and make us some coffee please?” Coffee was the least appropriate drink right now, but it might be best if his ward was absent for this part of the conversation.

“No, Teresa, please stay,” Scott said quickly, knowing Teresa would have to know. Everyone would.

Teresa, who had started to rise, now paused, Johnny’s shirt clinging to the front of her skirt like an apron. She glanced at Murdoch, not sure whose request to follow.

“Amber came back because she has a child. My child, by all accounts.”

Teresa gasped; her sharp intake of breath contrasting with the stony silence from Murdoch. Even the evening fire seemed shocked; orange embers shot from the fireplace to settle as ash on the hearth. Murdoch was the first one to break the silence. “Johnny and Teresa, would you please leave us? Scott and I need to talk.” His voice sounded calm and controlled, which was a surprise because he sure didn’t feel that way.

Teresa walked out of the great room in shock. Johnny didn’t seem keen on leaving.

Murdoch glared at his younger son, before remembering he wasn’t angry with Johnny. He wasn’t angry with Scott either, just determined to talk some sense into the young man. Softening his gaze, Murdoch indicated Johnny should leave with a tilt of his head. To his relief, Johnny did, after casting one last worried look in Scott’s direction.

Now they were alone, Murdoch considered how best to tackle this. Scott spoke before Murdoch had a chance to gather all his thoughts.

“Sir, I know what you must be thinking.”

Murdoch raised a brow. “Oh, you do, do you?” There was an edge to his voice he wished wasn’t there. “What I’m thinking, Scott, is this is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.” Scott’s eyes flashed with defensiveness. Murdoch realised, with a sinking heart, that Scott had already moved through the denial stage and embraced acceptance. “Besides the fact Amber left Lancer three years ago, am I right in assuming she has since married someone else?”

Scott slumped against the back of the couch as if his shoulders carried a burden that refused to budge. “She was married…she passed Lily off as her husband’s. I don’t think she ever intended to tell me.”

“So, what changed?”

“Her husband died and Lily needs a father.”

Murdoch shook his head, wondering why his son, who was usually so logical and sensible, could not see what the woman was trying to do. “Think about what you just said, Scott,” Murdoch implored, rising and moving closer. He held his empty glass in one hand and placed the other on Scott’s shoulder. “You already know you can’t trust her, based on behaviour already demonstrated. How can you ever be sure the child is yours?”

Scott looked up, his eyes the colour of a turbulent sea, churning with confusion and determination. “I felt it, Murdoch. I feel it.”

Murdoch’s frustration sparked his temper and he took a few deep breaths to control it. He didn’t manage to hide his anger completely. “For heaven’s sake,” he snapped. “Are you telling me it’s likely the child is yours? Were you not careful?” Scott blushed and Murdoch looked to the ceiling, praying for patience. “What about your brother, I assume there is every chance the child could be his?”

“She looks nothing like Johnny, sir.”

Murdoch considered this. With Johnny’s heritage, it was likely the child would show some similarities, but that wasn’t certain. Unfortunately, there was no way to be certain. Just the thought of what Scott might be in for made Murdoch despair. “How could you have been so stupid?” Murdoch’s anger was as clear as the glass he slammed down on the table. “Have you any idea what you have let yourself in for? You’ve given that woman a way back into this family. She caused enough trouble last time!”

Scott cringed. Murdoch’s booming tones would carry through the hacienda to meet the ears of Johnny and Teresa, wherever they had gone.

“You haven’t admitted the child is yours, I hope? Please tell me you haven’t been stupid twice?”

His father’s patronising tone infuriated Scott and he got to his feet. “No, I haven’t admitted it, but I’m not going to deny it either. And I may have been careless, but I’m not the first one to have done that am I, sir?” Murdoch narrowed his eyes. Now his elder son was throwing his own past back up in his face. His sons had discussed this, for it wasn’t public knowledge. Feeling his temper rear up, Murdoch drew himself to his full height and looked Scott straight in the eye.

In the kitchen, Teresa and Johnny sat in awkward silence. At first, the voices from the great room were nothing but an incomprehensible murmur. They soon got louder, and each word along with the anger they contained, became clear. When they heard Scott’s accusation, Johnny’s head jerked up, remembering his father’s reaction last time. Teresa’s eyes widened, for this was news to her.

As they listened to the explosion of Murdoch’s response, Johnny stood, figuring it might be his turn to play peacemaker. Teresa stopped him with a gentle touch on his arm.

“No Johnny. Let them work it out.”

Johnny hesitated, but when the voices died down to a more reasonable level, he sat back down.

“Is it Scott’s child? Do you believe her?”

Johnny shrugged.

“But Scott does?”

“I guess so.”

“Her name is Amber Randall now…is she married?”

The last thing Johnny wanted to do was talk about Amber, but he understood Teresa had questions. With a reluctant sigh, Johnny filled his sister in on what he knew, which wasn’t a whole lot. Once finished, Teresa looked pensive.

“I need to see her.”

Back in the great room, Murdoch was trying to rein in his temper. With a loud sigh, the older man poured two stiff drinks and held one out to Scott, who gratefully accepted.

“So, what are your plans?”

Scott took a sip. That was the thousand-dollar question.

He had left Amber and Lily at the hotel, stumbling out into the fresh air of the night, feeling completely overwhelmed and, honestly, still in shock. He remembered mumbling something to Amber about returning to see more of Lily, but that wasn’t what his father was asking him. Murdoch was curious about his long-term plans. Scott hadn’t even begun to think that far ahead yet. “I just need some time. I need to see more of Lily.”

Chapter Three

Saturday morning brought grey skies and the threat of a shower. A breeze made the tall grasses quiver as if they too shared the nervous anticipation that seemed to fill the hacienda.

Even the delicious breakfast that Maria and Teresa prepared did little to settle Scott’s stomach.

He had been back to Green River three times, on each visit spending as much time with his daughter as he could. There was so much to take in. Contrary to his earlier assumption, Lily could talk his ear off and he marvelled at the quickness with which she picked up new words and the cute way she found everything so fascinating. He was sure she’d explored every inch of the hotel room by now, mischievous little fingers reaching out to touch all within her reach.

Each time Scott visited, Amber remained in the background. Lily would play with her dolls, thrusting one in Scott’s direction now and then, completely oblivious to the awkward expression on his face as he tried to figure out what she wanted him to do with it. She said his name properly now, it had become her favourite word. It gave Scott a warm feeling to know Lily enjoyed his company.

Pulling on a dark blue shirt, Scott walked across to his bedroom window and looked out over the grey skies and rolling fields.

Usually, he’d be out there, working hard as Johnny was doing right now. He felt a pang of guilt and gratitude; his brother had been covering all the work this past week. Try as he might, Scott found himself unable to concentrate on anything other than Lily. He thought about her almost every minute of the day.

Now Amber was coming to Lancer, and the thought of her in their home gave him mixed feelings. He remembered her arrival almost three years ago; how impressed he’d been by her appearance. Later, he’d discovered they shared common interests, she was a woman he could talk to, someone he’d thought would always be honest.

Of course, he’d been completely wrong.

The Amber that had returned, well, she seemed different somehow. She was certainly a lot less pushy than before. Perhaps motherhood had changed her. His feelings of distrust and anger were fading as he wondered if Amber had returned for no one’s sake but Lily’s.

Inviting her to Lancer had, surprisingly, been Murdoch’s idea. It seemed his father was curious about the little girl, but more than that, was thinking of the family reputation. As Murdoch had pointed out, making trips to the hotel to see a widow and her daughter would incite people to talk. Although Amber kept a low profile, it would not take long before the rumour mill started working, if it had not started already.

Murdoch refused to have the Lancer name tarnished by that woman any further. Scott knew this was the reason he had invited Amber and Lily to Lancer. Murdoch wanted to see the child to renew his belief she could not possibly be Scott’s daughter, ending this ‘ridiculousness’ for the last time.

Hearing a noise from outside, Scott looked down and saw the buggy rolling into the yard. This was it…they had arrived.

Murdoch heard their arrival and poured himself a scotch. He’d made it through an entire bottle in less than a week. He loathed the idea of Amber stepping one foot on Lancer but could see no other way of putting an end to this charade.

If Scott had been reluctant for Amber to visit, Johnny was horrified.

“Have you lost your mind?” he spluttered; coffee almost spraying from his mouth.

“No, I have not lost my mind. I need to see what we’re up against. I’m thinking of all our reputations here, Johnny. The last thing we need is a lot of mindless talk, only for it to turn out the child is no more a Lancer than Amber herself. Thanks to your visit to the saloon, not to mention the fight with Scott in the street; it seems everyone is aware that the pair of you were more than polite to Teresa’s cousin!”

Johnny blushed and wiped the coffee from his lips with the back of his hand.

Murdoch felt guilty then. “It’s one day, Johnny. We’ll make Amber see that this little plan of hers isn’t going to work.”

“What if Lily is Scott’s child?”

Murdoch had let out a sigh. “Then Scott will have to do whatever he thinks is right,” he said, hoping then, just as now, it would not come to that.

Amber sat in the buggy, the breeze whipping her hair, making her wish she’d placed a few more pins to secure it. She held onto Lily tightly, the little girl staring around with wide-eyed apprehension as they jolted and jarred along.

Jelly had been grumpy from the moment he’d collected them, very different from the amusing, albeit annoying, man Amber remembered. In a way, she was grateful for the hostile reception. It served to remind her there were more reactions like his to come.

Next to Amber, Victoria sat clasping a book in her lap she had long since given up trying to read. She would reach the end of a sentence, only for a rock or hole in the road to send her gaze veering off course and back to a paragraph she’d already enjoyed.

Jelly’s reaction also surprised Victoria. So far, he’d shown no signs of the polite man she’d met in Green River. She guessed there was an explanation for this. Amber told her Scott was Lily’s natural father, which explained why they were going to Lancer. Victoria did not approve of the situation, but no judgement passed her lips. There had only ever been one man in her life and since his premature death all those years ago; there had been no one else.

When they reached the edge of Lancer land, Victoria stared in awe, not sure she’d seen a view so beautiful, even on a grey, cloudy day. The smell of clean air mingled with the natural scent of foliage and grasses, reminding her senses that she’d lived in cities for far too long. It would be good for Lily to spend the day out in the fresh air. A couple of times, Victoria had subtly suggested Amber take her out, but Amber had always refused.

Victoria wondered what type of a man Scott Lancer was. He must have accepted Lily as his daughter – why else take the time to visit? She wondered exactly what kind of history he and Amber had. They must have loved each other once, but then Scott Lancer was a good-looking man, rich too, judging by all this land. Perhaps he was used to getting what he wanted and not facing up to the consequences or responsibilities of his actions.

As the journey progressed, Victoria pondered this theory some more. Something about it did not sit right. Scott didn’t seem like an arrogant young man. Victoria had worked for enough affluent families in her career to know arrogance when she saw and heard it.

Taking a sidelong glance at her employer, Victoria wondered what Amber had in mind. As they passed under the Lancer arch, Victoria gazed at the grand hacienda. She was full of anticipation for what lay in store.

“Well, this is Lancer,” Amber said happily as Jelly pulled to a stop. He reluctantly climbed down and walked around to assist the women down, caught off guard when Amber handed Lily to him. Jelly stared at the little girl, wincing as she grabbed a handful of his white beard and tugged on it.

“Ouch!” Jelly complained but amusement lit his eyes. As Amber and Victoria climbed down, Lily grabbed his hat this time and threw it on the ground, giggling her head off.

“Why, ya little varmint,” Jelly chuckled, clasping the child in one arm as he stooped to retrieve his hat.

Teresa opened the doors to the hacienda, and she and Amber eyed each other carefully, like two felines negotiating territory. Eventually, Lily’s giggles distracted Teresa as she searched for a glimpse of the child. Seeing her opportunity, Amber leaned forward and placed her hand on Teresa’s arm, kissing her on the cheek.

“Hello, cousin.”

Teresa looked somewhat annoyed that she’d dropped her guard, but managed a stiff smile. She listened with only one ear as Amber introduced Victoria, her attention on Lily, whom Jelly had brought around to their side of the buggy. When Teresa got a good look at Lily’s face, she gasped. Lily did look like Scott.

As Teresa spoke to Lily, Amber stood back and smiled. Everything was just as she remembered. It was good to be back, but it would be even better when she was back for good.

At the rear of the hacienda, Scott sat on the faded wooden bench and watched Amber and Lily together. The autumn breeze ruffled his hair. The sun had made a veiled appearance; fighting its way through the clouds so Lily could play outside. Scott watched, rapt, as Amber chased the boisterous child, scooping her up and kissing her, before setting her down so Lily could run after a laughing Teresa instead.

Watching his daughter, Scott wondered what his father was thinking. When Amber, Victoria and Lily had arrived, Murdoch had come out to, well, view them. He had ignored Amber completely, introduced himself politely to Victoria, and cast his eyes appraisingly over Lily. Scott had waited for Murdoch to say something, but Murdoch remained tight-lipped. He’d returned to the great room after only a few minutes.

It saddened Scott that his father seemed determined not to acknowledge Lily as his granddaughter. More than ever right now, Scott needed his father’s support. He was so confused and uncertain. While Johnny remained sceptical, he had at least recognized Scott’s feelings and agreed Amber could bring Lily to Lancer.

A flash of black material blocked Scott’s view as Amber made her way over. She sat next to him and he tensed, her proximity filling him with a sense of unease and familiarity all at the same time. He did not look her way.

“It looks like Lily’s enjoying herself,” Amber observed. “She’s taken a real shine to Teresa already.”

“I think Teresa is quite fond of her too.” Teresa had lifted Lily so she could help remove the pegs from the last garment on the washing line.

“I’m pleased we came,” Amber said, glancing at Scott from beneath her lashes. “It’s not good for Lily to be cooped up in that hotel all the while.”

“No.” How often he’d wished for all this open space to play in as a child.

“Scott,” Amber began, twisting a wisp of hair that had escaped its confinement during the blustery journey. “Do you think we can ever be friends?”

Scott met her timid and hopeful expression. When he shook his head doubtfully, her expression changed to dismay, pink lips pouting.

“Not even for Lily?” Amber reached out and placed her hand on his knee, half expecting him to flinch.

Scott stared at the ground, contemplating his answer. An ant marched across the stone tiles to reach the leg of the bench. It then paused before ascending, marching on with purpose. Until recently, he had been like that ant. He had known where was going in life and where he wanted to end up. Now, all that had changed. The events Scott had foreseen in his future were happening out of sequence. It was disconcerting.


He shrugged at the prompt. “I don’t know.” He got to his feet and walked over to join Teresa and Lily.

Amber watched him go, her gaze lingering on his backside. She leaned back on the bench to enjoy the view and the memories it brought back. She was getting somewhere with Scott, but it was a slow process. Still, someone had told her once that love was not to be rushed. If he gave her one more chance, she could show him what love was. And, perhaps, he could show her.

Out of the corner of her eye, Amber noticed the ant marching along the bench in her direction. Frowning, she reached out and squashed it.

Back in the house, Murdoch was at his desk. Earlier he had rummaged through the safe, searching for the ageing paperwork he’d hoped would be there. He had found it beneath the Pinkerton reports.

Now, a piece of paper lay in front of him, the notepaper headed ‘Martin and Granville’; the law firm he had approached some twenty years prior. Back then, he’d believed he could gain custody of Scott from Harlan. That had been a short-lived dream, the paperwork confined to his desk ever since. He wondered why he’d never thrown it away; he’d wanted to toss it in the fire, watch it burn and turn to ash. Just like the flames of hope had done in his heart.

Now Murdoch was glad he’d kept it. Martin and Granville had been good lawyers then, now their reputation exceeded them. They had been reluctant to take his case all those years ago; the thought of fighting Harlan Garrett in court had proved too big an obstacle. This time it would be different. Amber was no Harlan.

Well-practised at hiding his emotions, Murdoch had ignored the witch completely upon her arrival. He’d even maintained impassivity when his gaze swept over the little girl. He didn’t miss the happy smile and the infectious giggle she uttered when Scott picked her up and swung her around. Very much a proud father.

That was when Murdoch escaped back to the great room, ignoring the hurt look on his elder son’s face in his desperation to get away. He had leaned against the thick wood of the bookcase, trying to make sense of what he had seen and what it meant. He had poured a drink which he cradled, sitting at his desk as he had done so many times in the past; contemplating an uncertain future. Only this was not Scott or Johnny, this was Lily, the next generation; his granddaughter. Murdoch repeated the word a few times under his breath and shook his head in wonder. He had not expected to see anything familiar in Lily’s features. Amber would be lying. But Lily’s little face, her big blue-grey eyes and the golden honey blonde hair… he had seen a likeness to Scott and an undeniable similarity to Catherine. If fate had not deprived them, and Murdoch was to picture a daughter of their own, then Lily’s face would fit the frame.

Of course, the family resemblance might be pure coincidence. There was no way of proving or disproving that. Scott had accepted Lily as his daughter. Murdoch knew he had a simple choice – accept Lily as a Lancer, or not. To allow continual doubt would be unfair to the child. Besides, how could he turn his back on her because there was a chance her looks were a coincidence? Especially when Scott had already grown attached. Murdoch felt a sense of pride when Scott swung the little girl in his arms. His son would be a great father, so they needed to start thinking sensibly and plan. Murdoch had lost two children from his life and knew well the feeling of despair. The last thing he wanted was for Scott to go through that too. Taking a sip of his drink, Murdoch’s gaze fell on the paper in front of him. He vowed he would do everything in his power to ensure that, if Lily was indeed a Lancer, then Lancer was where she would stay.

Johnny took his time riding back to the house that afternoon, in the vain hope Amber and the child would be gone. He had toyed with the idea of staying out until dark, but knew deep down he had to support his brother, especially if Murdoch was still adamant Amber was lying about Lily. Johnny didn’t want Amber to think he couldn’t face her. There was no way Johnny wanted her to think she had any type of control over him.

As he climbed down from Barranca, Teresa came out of the house, walking over to him with a smile that showed she understood his reluctance to go inside.

“She still here?” It was probably too much to hope that one of the horses had thrown a shoe when Jelly was on his way into Green River with the buggy.

Teresa nodded. “Why didn’t you tell us how much Lily looks like Scott?”

Johnny sighed and concentrated on Barranca, running his hand down the horse’s golden neck. “Is that what Murdoch thinks too?”

Teresa shrugged. Her eyes betrayed her concern and worry over the effect this was having on her family. “I don’t know, Johnny. He hasn’t said anything. When Amber and Lily arrived, he took one look at them and went straight back to his desk. He said he had some paperwork to take care of.”

“And Scott?” Johnny led Barranca towards the barn.

“Scott seems fine.” Teresa followed him and her tone revealed how strange she found her oldest brother’s behaviour. “He seems happy, Johnny.”

Johnny closed his eyes. Madre del Dios. It had taken Amber one week to get her claws back in.

“Are you coming inside?”

“I gotta clean up first.”

“Do you want me to get a bath ready for you?”

Johnny flashed a grateful smile. “That’d be good Teresa.” A bath would give him a little more time to relax before he had to go into the house and put up with Amber’s presence.

As Johnny turned his attention to the horse, Teresa set off to fulfil her offer. She knew Johnny didn’t want to see Amber, and she couldn’t blame him. She had been full of mixed feelings herself – so different to the excitement her cousin’s first visit to Lancer had instilled in her. When Amber arrived this morning, Teresa had been all ready to confront her; to find out her true intentions and demand the reason why she was lying about the paternity of her child. Yet, the moment Teresa had seen Lily, her heart melted. Not only did the little girl look like Scott, but she was also part of her blood family, however distantly related. Her adoration of Lily had dampened the fire of her anger somewhat.

In the bathhouse, Johnny closed the door and removed his boots. His gun belt followed and as his fingers undid the buttons of his red shirt, he glanced at the hot steamy water that looked so inviting after a hard day’s work. Teresa had left him a fresh towel and some clean clothes.

Lowering into the water, Johnny let the heat soothe his weary muscles. Soon he relaxed. His eyes closed. When they opened again, his gaze fell on the new cake of soap on the edge of the tub.

Suddenly, all feelings of peace and tranquillity vanished as Johnny’s eyes darted to the closed, but unlocked door. Rising, he stepped out of the tub, used his discarded shirt to cover himself, hastened to the door and lowered the latch. Usually, he would not have bothered. Teresa knew he was taking a bath so wouldn’t barge in, and nobody else was likely to bother him. Today was different though. Amber was at Lancer, and Johnny wasn’t about to forget her habit of showing up places uninvited.

He returned to the water once satisfied nobody was getting in. He picked up the soap, trying to rid his mind of vivid images that would be most welcome if they didn’t feature Amber. Shifting in the water, Johnny submerged his head before coming to the surface and wiping his eyes. As he washed his hair, he thought about Lily and Scott. Try as he might, he could not rid himself of the sense of foreboding he’d felt since finding out Amber was back.

Murdoch had been unsociable for long enough. It was time he made his presence known, reaffirming to Amber that this was his house and she was here because he’d had the good grace to invite her. He stretched, his lower back missing the warmth that sitting in his chair for so long had provided. He replaced the paper containing the lawyer’s details back in the drawer, sliding it shut and twisting the key.

Victoria stumbled through the door, her face flushing when she realised she had the wrong room.

“Mr Lancer, I am so sorry. I was looking for Mrs Randall.”

“No need to apologise, Mrs, er…,” He realised he’d not listened when Amber introduced them earlier.

“Clark. But please do call me Victoria, Mr Lancer.”

“Well, in that case, it’s Murdoch,” he said, wondering how much Victoria knew about her employer. “I was on my way to see Lily; I would like to meet her properly.”

“Oh, I’m sorry Mr—Murdoch. Lily was tired so I took her upstairs for a nap on Teresa’s bed.”

“I see. Where is everyone else?”

“I’m not sure as I’ve only just come down. Teresa insisted on sitting with Lily while she sleeps. Your daughter is going to make a wonderful mother one day.”

Murdoch smiled proudly, despite Victoria’s misunderstanding. “Teresa is my ward, although I think of her as a daughter.”

Victoria returned the smile. She could tell this was a strong, close family. How much of a shock had Lily been for them? There had certainly been some tension in the air when they arrived.

“Would you join me for a drink?”

Victoria hesitated, glancing over her shoulder at the open doorway. “Murdoch I really shouldn’t, Lily is sleeping…”

“And Teresa is with her. She’d make a good mother, remember?” There was a teasing note to his voice.

As he held out his hand towards the couch, Victoria took his direction and sat, smoothing the folds of her grey dress. Murdoch poured himself a scotch. He hesitated over pouring a second glass. “I’m sorry, Victoria. Would you prefer coffee?”

Victoria’s brown eyes crinkled in amusement. “I like scotch, although I rarely partake in drinking liquor nowadays. It’s not conducive to caring for children.”

“Just a small one then.” Murdoch poured a single measure and handed it to Victoria before sitting down in his leather armchair.

“Thank you.”

“So how long have you been looking after Lily?” Murdoch kept his voice neutral to hide his curiosity over Amber and her intentions.

“A little over two months.”

“I see.” Murdoch swirled the tawny liquid in his glass. “And did you work for Mr Randall when he was alive?”

“I never met the man. Mrs Randall was already widowed when she employed me.”

Murdoch studied Victoria. She had an honest face and did not seem like the type to play games. Perhaps Victoria could become an asset in the impending custody claim. It didn’t escape his notice that aside from an honest face, it was an attractive one. Victoria’s auburn hair bore the odd strand of grey, but she wore it proudly, unlike many other women who hated their advancing years.

“I assume you’re aware Scott is Lily’s father?”

Victoria blushed. “Yes, Mrs Randall told me earlier in the week. It must have been quite a shock for him, for all of you?” She hoped she had not overstepped her bounds by asking that question.

“You could say that.”

Victoria couldn’t know anything about Amber’s plans if she had only just found out Scott was Lily’s father. “Do you have any children, Victoria?”

Her face lit up. “I have a son the same age as Scott. I don’t get to see as much of him as I would like.”

Murdoch remembered that feeling.


Victoria looked wistful. “No grandchildren yet. Maybe that’s why I do what I do. I love children and always have. William and I planned a large family, but sadly, it was not to be. He died while I was carrying our son.”

A look of empathy crossed Murdoch’s features. “So, you raised your son alone?”

“Why, yes, what else would you do?” She realised she’d said something wrong when Murdoch flinched. He walked over to the fire, picked up the iron poker from its bucket and stabbed at the cold pile of ash. Not sure what she’d said wrong, Victoria decided to change the subject. “Scott seems like a fine young man.” 

Murdoch tried to detect the sarcasm, considering his fine young son got Amber with child, but there was only sincerity in her tone.

“Yes, he is. Have you met Johnny? He’s my younger son.”

Victoria recalled the handsome young man from Green River, who had approached her and Lily. She had mistaken him for Scott at the time. “We haven’t been properly introduced yet.” She wondered how much Murdoch knew about the meeting at the hotel.

“He should be home by now.” Murdoch looked at the clock. He wondered if Johnny would make an appearance at all and if Scott would expect Amber to stay for the evening meal.

Victoria took another sip of the drink before rising and placing the glass on the table. “Thank you so much for the drink, Murdoch. I’d better check on Teresa and Lily.”

As Victoria went to leave the room, Murdoch gathered his thoughts together. He needed to get this sorted out now. Amber would not toy with his family a moment longer.

“Victoria, would you mind asking Scott to come in here and see me, please?” He strode back to his desk, his burly fingers fishing in his shirt pocket for the key to the drawer.

Johnny entered the hacienda via the kitchen. He’d assumed Amber would be in the great room, showing off Lily and winning them all over in the process. It was a shock to find her sitting at the kitchen table with Scott. More so, because it looked like they were enjoying an amicable conversation. It was only when Scott greeted him with relief in his eyes, that he realised his brother needed rescue.

Ignoring the hesitant smile Amber flashed his way, Johnny pulled out a chair and joined them at the table.

Maria bustled into the kitchen and the grumpy frown she’d worn all day lifted when she saw Johnny. She smiled warmly. “Juanito, usted hambriento?” She didn’t wait for him to answer before shoving a plate of food beneath his nose.

“How did things go out there?” Scott asked, glad of a reprieve from his stilted conversation with Amber.

“We got that herd moved as planned. There’s still the repairs on the line shacks to do, but they’ll keep for now.”

“Well, I’ll help with those.”

Johnny shrugged. “I can handle it.” He knew Scott was enjoying getting to know Lily.

“Excuse me, Mr Lancer?” Victoria entered the kitchen. “Your father would like to see you.”

She was talking to Scott because when her eyes fell on Johnny, she looked surprised. “Why hello, we meet again. You must be the other Mr Lancer: Johnny.”

Johnny put down his sandwich and wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. “That’s me, ma’am.” A grin tugged at the corners of his mouth as he remembered Caleb’s assumption he was on the lookout for an older woman.

Scott rose from the table. With Victoria and Maria in the room, he was not leaving Johnny to Amber’s clutches, so he went looking for Murdoch.

“Is Lily still sleeping?” Amber asked.

“She’s awake. I’m afraid there was a little accident.” She turned to Maria. “Teresa asked if you would go up with some fresh sheets. I’m going to bathe Lily.”

Maria’s gaze darted to Johnny and Amber, but she gave a reluctant, “Si,” and followed Victoria back upstairs.

Johnny shoved the last of the sandwich into his mouth and placed the empty plate beside the sink. He made for the door without sparing Amber so much as a glance.

“We need to talk, Johnny.”

He paused in the doorway, cursing the fact he’d moved too slow.

“This is silly. I’m sorry if my preference for Scott hurt your feelings back then…”

That made him turn around. Leaning in the doorway, he smirked. “Now, Amber, you know that ain’t true.”

Amber looked flustered. Did Johnny mean she hadn’t hurt his feelings or was he implying it was untrue to say she’d preferred Scott? Johnny appeared to be enjoying her discomfort, so she pulled herself together and matched his confident stare.

“I’ve already tried to apologise to you for what happened. You’re being petty.”

Johnny raised his eyebrows. “You apologised? Oh yeah, that was right before you slapped me and told my family I forced you into being such a little whore, right?”

Amber slammed her palms down on the kitchen table in frustration. God, he was infuriating. “Johnny,” she ground out. “Let’s be adults about this. I’m sorry for what I said, for what I tried to make your father believe of you. It was wrong and selfish. I should have accepted my share of the responsibility. But we must think of Lily now.”

Johnny’s blue eyes got chillier with each word. At the mention of Lily, his eyes narrowed. “Lily ain’t gonna get you what you want, Amber,” he said with a lot more confidence than he possessed on that score.

Amber looked surprised. “You think I’m using Lily? You think I’d use my daughter?”

“Yeah.” Johnny’s gaze didn’t waver.

“Well, you’re wrong.”

“I guess we’ll see.” Johnny gave a light shrug. “But if you do anything to hurt Scott, Lily, or any member of this family, then you’ll be sorry. And you’d better believe I mean that.” He spoke softly but his tone was deadly.

Amber felt a small shiver flutter down her spine. She managed to nod, not sure how to reply. She would show him though, she would show them all, but Johnny would prove the hardest of all. As he left the kitchen, she sat at the table, stewing over the fact he got to her so much.

He always did. It was hard to forget his body pressed against hers.

Still, it was Scott she wanted now, and one thing was for sure – this time nobody else would ruin things. Should she be lucky enough to get another chance.

Scott found Murdoch sitting at his desk, the view of the fields extending into the distance from the enormous window behind him.

“You wanted to see me, sir?”

“Yes, we need to talk.” Murdoch motioned for Scott to come over.

He crossed the room, not liking the determined look on his father’s face. He noticed Murdoch was smoothing a piece of paper, a piece of paper he then handed Scott. He read the letter and placed it back on the desk. “Sir, what is this about?”

“Martin and Granville are one of the best, Scott.”

“The best at what exactly?” Scott folded his arms across his chest and waited for an answer.

Murdoch was shrewd enough to know Scott wanted him to say the words. “Martin and Granville specialise in child custody matters. I consulted them when you were younger. They couldn’t help me then. They will be able to help you now.”

“I take it you acknowledge Lily as your granddaughter then.”

“I see the resemblance. Now time will be of the essence here. You know you can’t trust Amber not to—”

Scott held up his hand, silencing his father. “Wait a minute, Murdoch. I thought you found this whole situation ridiculous?”

Murdoch bit his tongue. Now was not the time to pull Scott up on his choice of tone.

“Suddenly you want me to start consulting lawyers and take Lily away from Amber?” Scott stared at his father in disbelief. “I think you’re forgetting yourself here, sir. This is my decision to make and mine alone. This is not your life and your mistakes we are reliving.”

Scott’s words hit like a well-timed right hook to the jaw. Murdoch managed to roll with the punch though. “I think, Scott,” he ground out, making a conscious effort to keep his voice down, “You are the one forgetting yourself. I’m your father and you will show me some respect, is that understood?” He kept Scott pinned with an unwavering glare, daring his son to say one more thing.

Scott nodded, his upbringing dictating he push this no further, but he’d be damned before he’d apologise for the remark. Turning away, Scott poured himself a drink, deciding at the last minute to offer his father one too.

Murdoch accepted the offered drink and both men moved to the seating area. Murdoch realised he’d approached this situation with completely the wrong attitude. He should have asked Scott what his plans were and suggested Scott apply for legal custody of the child as an option. Scott was, after all, a sensible, well-educated man. After giving it the appropriate amount of consideration, Scott would come around to his way of thinking and see this for what it was: the best solution for all concerned.

Scott’s mind whirled. He’d only just got his head around the fact he had a daughter; the cute little girl upstairs was his, part of him. The point Murdoch was missing was that Lily was part of Amber too. No matter what had happened in the past, Scott didn’t doubt Amber loved their daughter. He had seen it with his own eyes. The question was, how did they progress from here?

When he first told Murdoch about Lily, his father had enquired about his plans. Scott had none then, and to be honest, still didn’t. He was living day to day even though it made him uncomfortable. He liked to be in control of his destiny.

With a deep sigh, Scott looked at Murdoch. “If I were to consider custody as an option, what makes you so sure I’d stand a chance?”

Murdoch looked more than relieved. “You can provide Lily with a good, stable home environment for one.” Murdoch used his fingers to illustrate each point he intended to make. “Two; there is the question of Amber’s dubious reputation. Any judge would look unfavourably at that. Three; you are the child’s father. Any decent lawyer we hire will win the case.”

“But I’m not her father on paper. She told her husband Lily was his.”

Murdoch dismissed this with a casual wave of his hand. “It doesn’t matter, Scott. There is no legal requirement to register the birth of a child. Even if her husband did, all it would take is for Amber to admit she lied. She’s already done that, in front of witnesses too.”

Scott shook his head. “I don’t know. Where does that leave Amber?”

Murdoch slammed his hand down on the edge of his chair in frustration. “Where does that leave Amber? Good God, Scott. Do you think Amber is a good mother to the child? The woman is too selfish to care about anyone other than herself. A fact I would have expected you to remember!”

Scott opened his mouth but Murdoch was in full flow.

“You think Lily needs a mother like her? Sure, it might be okay now while the child is small, but what about as she gets older, as she matures into a young woman? Do you want your daughter to have the morals of her mother?”

“No, of course, I don’t.”

“Well, that’s settled then. I’ll send a telegram to Martin and Granville first thing Monday morning telling them we want to hire them.”

Scott was about to say that he didn’t think that was the right thing to do, when he heard a stifled gasp behind him.

He didn’t need to turn around. The grim expression on his father’s face told him exactly who was standing there.

Chapter Four

Amber trembled at the entrance to the great room. Her intentions to lay into both men for their treachery seemed an unattainable feat.

Panic mingled with fear and betrayal, but she suppressed her angry sobs. She could not afford for Scott or Murdoch to see her lose control. She turned and fled.

Scott watched her leave, her stricken look hitting him straight in the heart. Had she overheard everything?

“I’m going after her.” Scott was already on his feet.

“Good idea. You can smooth things over, make sure she doesn’t take the child and run before we start the wheels rolling on this.”

“Murdoch, the child’s name is Lily. And those are your plans. I don’t believe I’ve made a decision yet.”

He left an exasperated Murdoch to follow Amber outside.

Amber stumbled out of the hacienda, the air on her face not cooling the flame of anger or unknotting the band of fear. She half-ran, half-stumbled. Her hands clenched so tight her fingernails dug crescents into her palms.

No matter what had happened in the past, however much she’d unintentionally hurt Scott, his plan was cruel and unfeeling. Two characteristics she’d not known he possessed.

How dare they plot and conspire to take Lily away! Lily was the one person Amber had never feared to love. Lily was her daughter, hers, and she needed a mother. There was no way on this earth he was taking her away!


She heard Scott but didn’t turn back, ignoring him and the breeze chilling her skin. Her slippers skidded in the dirt as she made for the sanctuary of the barn.

If going for custody of Lily was what the Lancers intended, then it was a fight she may not win. As independent and self-sufficient as she liked to think she was, Amber was no fool. Scott was a man with money and a good family name. He would stand a good chance of gaining custody.

Hot, angry tears slipped down her cheeks, her mind spinning like a twister. She would run; take Lily and leave.

Or she could return to Boston.


Lily needed stability and Amber needed to be happy. But what would she do for money if they were to live on the run? The money James had left her was almost gone, and the money she had from Mortimer would not last forever.

Reaching the barn, she stopped and tried to catch her breath, although the sobs still racked her body. Her heart hammered in her chest and then she heard Scott much closer this time.


He reached her side before she could compose herself, and gently turned her around to face him. Angered further by the pity she saw in his gaze; she reached out and slapped him.

“How dare you.” All attempts at composure vanished as she let anger, fear and hurt bubble to the surface. “How dare you plot and conspire to take Lily away from me!”

“Amber, I wasn’t plotting…”

“You are a liar.” She pushed his chest with enough force to make him take a step back. “I heard you and your father. You were talking about lawyers. Is that all Lily is to you; a possession to fight over?”

Scott shook his head. “No of course not, Murdoch was just—”

“I heard you! He said I wasn’t what Lily needed, that I’m not a good mother!”

“Well, you can’t blame him for that assumption.”

Amber drew a sharp intake of breath that sounded like the hiss of a snake about to strike. “Who do you think has been there for Lily since she was born?”

“Victoria?” Scott snapped.

“Aargh!” Amber’s yell spooked the birds nesting in the rafters, causing a flurry of flapping wings and disapproving squawks. “It was me.” She pushed Scott again. “I’m there when she cries, I feed her, bathe her. I heard her first words and saw her first steps.” She punctuated each milestone of Lily’s short life with a blow to Scott’s chest until he grabbed her by the wrists and propelled her back against the barn wall.

Still infuriated, she struggled, but Scott held her arms by her sides until she ceased. They stood still, Amber breathing hard, their bodies inches apart.

“Do you want to hit me?” she asked him outright.

“No, of course not.” Scott released his hold on her.

She rubbed at her arms, trying to erase his invisible fingerprints. Her laugh was bitter. “Liar. I know you hate me for what I did.”

Scott backed away and ran his hands through his hair. Did he hate her? He thought he did, once, when the scent of betrayal and humiliation had polluted the air he breathed. Now things were different, she was different. “I don’t hate you, Amber.”

“Well, you could have fooled me. You don’t hate me but you’re going to have your revenge by taking away the most precious thing I have and why? Because your ego got a battering when you realised I’d slept with Johnny.”

Scott hoped that in the dim light, Amber wouldn’t see the blush that turned his cheek the same colour as the one she’d slapped. He didn’t know what he felt more indignant about; Amber’s suggestion he would use Lily to exact his revenge or her assumption about his ego.

“Amber, those things have nothing to do with it.” He wanted her to understand that custody of Lily was Murdoch’s idea, and he had not agreed to it yet.

“You’re lying again. At least have the guts to be honest, Scott.”

Scott’s temper began to fray. It was unlike him to get riled by a woman, but Amber kept on pushing. She was such a hypocrite.

It was always her doing the talking, uttering her worthless apologies and excuses. Maybe now was the time for him to speak up and gain control of the situation. No one had any faith he could handle this himself.

“Honesty? What on earth would you know about that?” He wanted to seize her shoulders and shake her. “You snuck around like some back street wh-” he caught himself when her eyes widened. “You went back and forth between Johnny and me. You knew exactly what you were doing.”

“Did I promise myself only to you?”

“No, you didn’t, and I didn’t ask you to, but then I wasn’t expecting you to sleep with my brother. If I had known you were that easy, do you think I’d have so much as touched you?”

Amber looked perplexed. “Well, you knew I wasn’t some innocent young virgin, and I don’t remember you complaining at the time.”

Scott rubbed at his chin, letting out a deep breath as he tried to keep his frustration at bay. “The point is Amber, you lied. You lied to me, you lied to Johnny, and then you lied to everyone else.”

“I know. But I wasn’t the only one keeping secrets, was I? Neither Johnny nor you seemed inclined to tell the other what was going on.”

“That was different.”

“Why? I deceived you but it was a mistake. A mistake you want to make me pay for with our daughter.” Her voice was on the rise again and Scott felt the beginnings of a headache rumbling in his skull.

“I don’t want to use Lily to make you pay, Amber.”

“Yes, you do. All because of your silly male pride. Well, I’ll tell you something, Scott Lancer. You will take Lily away from me over my dead body, do you understand?” Her voice was bordering on hysterical. He was getting nowhere. Amber seemed determined not to listen. He turned to walk away.

“We’ll talk about this when you calm down.”

Amber’s mouth opened in shock. He was leaving? How cold and callous could he be? In a blind rage, Amber snatched her slipper from her foot and lobbed it after him. “You bastard!” she screamed.

The slipper flew and struck the back of Scott’s calf as he got outside the barn. He stopped dead in his tracks and turned around. Amber had come outside the barn, her green eyes flashing. Marching over, he hoisted her up and dumped her into the horse trough.

Her head went straight under the water, turning her loud, indignant shriek into a spluttered gargle. When she resurfaced, she stared at him in shock. The weight of the water had pulled her hair free of its pins and it hung about her shoulders in soggy clumps.

Scott didn’t hide his satisfied grin. She looked like a bedraggled cat who got too curious about the fish pond. “Are you going to listen to what I have to say?”

With a look of sheer resolve, Amber attempted to pull herself out of the water. Unfortunately, her feet slipped in the slime lining the bottom of the trough and she ended up back where she started; sitting on her backside.

“Are you going to help me out then?” Oh, she hated having to ask Scott for anything right now.

He offered his hand, which she took, glaring at him as haughtily as she could. Once out, she stood on the ground and tried her best to look dignified, despite the puddle forming around her feet.

“We’d best get back inside,” Scott said, noticing she looked cold.

“No, you – want- me- to list-en, well- I’m- list-en-ing,” she said through chattering teeth. She started to wring the water out of her dress and hair.

“Here,” Scott went back inside the barn and handed her a blanket meant for the horses. She crinkled her nose in disdain at the smell, but accepted it anyway, drawing it around her shoulders like a shawl. To Scott’s surprise, she slid down to the hay-strewn ground, figuring her dress ruined and there was no use pretending otherwise. She leaned back against the wall of the barn and looked up at him wearily.

Now her anger was gone, and she looked defeated.

“I love Lily, Scott,” she whispered.

With a deep sigh, Scott sat next to her on the ground, resting his hands on his knees. They sat together for a minute, each lost in their thoughts. From the back of the barn, they could hear the rustling of a mouse.

“I came back because I realised it was the right thing to do. I know it should have been sooner, but I’m here now. Lily needs both a mother and a father. Us, Scott. Surely, you understand that?”

Scott said nothing, but he understood. How many times had he wished his mother had survived to raise him? How many times had he envied Johnny for having his mother in his life, even at the expense of a father?

“You can’t take her away because you want to hurt me.”

“I’m not going to take her away from you, Amber,” he said softly. “If you heard the entire conversation between my father and me, then you’d know it was his idea. I did not agree with it. I do not agree with it.”

Amber looked up at him then, a genuine light of hope in her eyes. “Do you give me your word, Scott Lancer?”

“You have my word.”

Chapter Five

Scott rode into Green River straight after breakfast. He had not seen Lily for three long days, too busy working with Johnny carrying out repairs to the line shacks.

Of course, Amber couldn’t get away from Lancer fast enough after the events of last Saturday. They’d returned from the barn to find they had an audience, who could all bear witness to her bath in the horse trough. Murdoch stood with folded arms, Teresa and Maria’s mouths were agape in surprise, Victoria looked astonished, and Johnny, well, the smirk that graced his face when Amber walked in, said it all.

Amber had gone straight upstairs with Teresa, leaving a little trail of water in her wake. Johnny’s comment that most old nags tend to drink from that trough, not bathe in it, had hardly helped.

Tensions between Scott and Murdoch had simmered beneath the surface since. Usually, Scott and his father got on well. They respected each other’s opinions even if they did not always agree. They did not agree now, but Murdoch seemed to be withholding respect this time around. When Scott decided not to apply for sole custody of Lily, he was sure his father would explode. Somehow, though, Murdoch had found his self-control.

“So, you’re giving up on your daughter, just like that?”

“I have no intention of giving up on Lily. Amber and I need to talk about it, we need to…”

“Since when has there been an Amber and you, or we, here, Scott?”

Scott may as well have had a crystal ball in front of him because he could see clearly where this conversation was headed. “Murdoch, we are Lily’s parents and what’s more we are both adults, and like adults, we will both talk about the future and decide what is best for Lily.”

“Well, it’s a pity we weren’t more responsible when it mattered. And you’re both adults? It sure didn’t look like adult behaviour to me outside of the barn.”

“In case it wasn’t written in the Pinkerton report, sir,” Scott had growled, “I am no longer a child. You missed that part of my life. A mistake I can assure you I will not be repeating with Lily.” He had walked out then and slammed the front door behind him. An action that only served to contradict the point he was trying to make.

Scott knew he had hurt Murdoch and he did feel guilty, but he had been unable to apologise yet. Instead, both men had conducted themselves in a strict business-type fashion.

His family was falling apart with the reappearance of Amber, but this time she didn’t have a hand in it.

Upstairs in the hotel, Amber stood in front of the mirror and brushed through her long hair. Lily copied the actions of her mother with her soft-bristled brush, sweeping it over her golden hair, not noticing she held it the wrong side up.

Victoria came into the room and smiled. “Oh, Lily. Look, you do it like this.” She bent down next to the little girl and showed her how to do it.

Amber let out a dramatic sigh as she stared at her appearance. It was frustrating how alive and full of beans her daughter was this morning, considering she had been up half of the night. Amber stared at the dark circles beneath her eyes. She was so tired, but then she insisted on being the one to get up during the night. She enjoyed sitting there in the darkness, rocking her daughter back to sleep, whispering soothing words of comfort.

“Do you think she’ll start sleeping better soon?” Amber asked Victoria.

Victoria smiled sympathetically. “I know she will. This is a phase and Lily will grow out of it.”

Amber sighed again. “I hope so because I need some sleep. The lack of it is playing havoc with my face.”

Victoria bit back a smile as she tried to imagine what Amber had been like while she was pregnant. She must have been mortified when her figure expanded. Victoria herself had never worried much about what she looked like. You had what you were born with, and you made the best of it.

“Well, why don’t you let me see to her during the night? I wouldn’t mind at all, Mrs Randall; it is after all part of the job.”

Amber shook her head. “Even if I agreed, I still wouldn’t sleep. I’d always have one ear open waiting for her cries.”

“Could you take something to help you sleep?”

“I can’t take anything like that. I’m allergic. Brings me out in bright red blotches and I can’t risk that happening. What would Scott think of me then?”

A knock on the door signalled the gentleman in question had arrived. “Are you sure you don’t need me today, Mrs Randall?”

Amber waved Victoria off. “No, honestly, we’ll be fine. You deserve some time to yourself.”

Victoria smiled. It would be nice to have some free time. Perhaps she would take a stroll or send a telegram to her son. Christmas would be here before they knew it. If they were staying in Green River, she could let him know the address of the hotel so he could write.

Faced with Amber for the first time since their fight, Scott wasn’t sure what to say. He removed his hat and placed it on the table. Lily spoke first, saying, “Scott!” with obvious delight.

As Scott bent down and picked her up, the little girl giggled and Scott laughed too. “Is she always this happy?”

Amber chuckled. “No, she has her moments, believe me. She’s on her best behaviour for you.”

“Well, I’m honoured.” Scott swung Lily around in circles, causing her to laugh harder than ever.

Amber raised her eyebrows. “Scott, I’d be careful. She has only just eaten her…”. Amber didn’t get a chance to finish her warning before Lily regurgitated her breakfast down the front of Scott’s shirt.

Scott looked from Lily to Amber in horror. “Oh, Scott,” Amber laughed. “Give her to me.”

She wiped Lily’s mouth and the young girl went back to playing with her toys without a care in the world.

“Hand it over and I’ll soak it for you.” Amber held out her hand for the soiled shirt. When Scott hesitated, she rolled her eyes. “Oh, for heaven’s sake, I’m not going to jump on you or anything. If we soak it now and let it dry, then it’ll be fine for when you go home, won’t it?”

He handed over his shirt. Amber couldn’t help but smile at the sight of him bare-chested. “I won’t be a moment.” She tore her gaze from his.

Scott felt ridiculous standing there in just his pants, boots and gun belt. Removing the gun belt helped and he put it in the bedroom, shutting the door to keep Lily out. He settled down in the chair to watch her play.

“It is quite warm in here so this shouldn’t take too long to dry. If needs be I can light the fire and then it will dry quicker.” Amber reappeared with the shirt. “Or I could go downstairs and ask Caleb if he can sort you out with a shirt in the meantime…” Her voice trailed off when she realised how inappropriate that might seem. Scott’s expression said pretty much the same thing.

They both decided to speak at the same time.

“You first,” Scott said politely.

“I was going to ask if…well…if you would like to tell Lily that you’re her father. I haven’t…I mean I wouldn’t encourage her to call you…” Amber’s voice faded as she looked to Scott for reassurance.

“Didn’t she call your husband that?” he asked, sharper than he intended.

“She had only just started talking when he died.”

“Then I would like that. A lot.”

Amber broke into a smile. “I’m glad.”

They fell into easy conversation. They talked about Lily and Scott took it all in, anxious to know everything about his daughter’s life so far. They moved on to other topics and he’d forgotten how easy it was to talk to Amber, how they shared common interests and ideas. Before they knew it, the morning had passed, and Scott had to get back to the ranch.

“How’s that shirt doing?”

Amber pressed her hands over the material, finding it a little damp. “I’ll get the fire going so you can be off.” She went to rise, only for Scott to place his hand on her arm.

“We still need to talk about how things will work with Lily.”

“Let me get the fire going first.”

As Amber placed a few more logs in the fireplace, Scott turned his attention to Lily. The girl was sitting on the floor, her eyelids drooping. He picked her up and placed her on his lap. She snuggled into the curve of his arm and leaned her little head against his bare chest. Her hand snaked up to her mouth and she sucked on her thumb. By the time Amber had the fire going, Lily was sound asleep in her father’s arms.

Amber was full of happiness. This was what she wanted more than anything in the world. The three of them together like a proper family. If only Scott could see this would work.

“I’ve been thinking, I need to make a fresh start. I can’t live in this hotel forever; it isn’t fair on Lily. She needs a proper home.” Amber watched Scott’s reaction, but couldn’t read him. “I will have to leave soon. We both must get on with the rest of our lives, but at the same time, both remain part of Lily’s.”

Amber paused. What she was about to say was not what she wanted. “I was thinking we could share custody of Lily while she is still so young. Perhaps she could spend half of the year with each of us or something? When she starts going to school, we will have to work something else out. Maybe she could spend the holidays at Lancer…I don’t know. What do you think?”

Scott gazed down at Lily, her soft golden curls tickling his chest as she shifted in her sleep. He had already missed so much of her life; did he want to miss any more? Did Amber?

Amber mistook his silence for doubt. Doubt she was being truthful, but she was prepared to consider this if there was no other way. Secretly, she hoped Scott would come around, but these last few nights she’d realised she couldn’t make Scott feel something. “Scott, I do mean what I say. You can consult your lawyers and get an agreement drawn up?” She held her breath waiting for his response.

“Where will you go?” Scott asked, crushing Amber’s hopes.

“I don’t know.”

“When are you thinking of leaving?”

“I don’t have to go yet if you don’t want me to.” Would he notice she was asking if he wanted her to stay?

Scott stared out of the window. He had noticed she said me and not us, but it wasn’t a question he was ready to answer.

“I would like Lily to stay around for longer if that’s possible,” he answered carefully, not missing Amber’s look of disappointment.

She forced a smile. “We’ll stay a little while longer then. We have lots to sort out and discuss.”

Scott cast his gaze to the fire. “Do you think it’s dry yet?”

“It’s still a little damp, Scott.”

He eased out of the chair, careful not to disturb Lily. “That doesn’t matter, it’ll dry in the sunshine anyway. Will you take her while I dress?”

He lowered Lily into Amber’s arms and stared down at his daughter, then back up into the eyes of her mother for a lingering moment.

“I’ll put her to bed,” Amber whispered.

He followed her into the bedroom and stuck his arms through the sleeves of his shirt.

Amber placed Lily in the cot and Scott planted a soft kiss on his daughter’s forehead.

“Right, I’ll get going then,” he whispered.

“When will you be back?”

Scott started on the bottom button of his shirt. He remembered Murdoch’s warning that too many trips to Green River would cause people to talk if they were not already. He wasn’t worried about his reputation, not when he was spending time with his daughter, but he did appreciate his father’s concerns about the damage it could do to the Lancer name. “I’m not sure, I’ll let you know.” His fingers moved up the line of buttons on his shirt.

“Okay then. Goodbye.” Amber stood on her tiptoes and planted a kiss on his cheek. She had her eyes closed, breathing in the smell of him, relishing the feeling of his skin on her lips.

Scott’s fingers fumbled on the buttons as he felt her lips and warm breath on his skin. When she pulled back, Amber smiled, her green eyes shining. “Let me do that for you,” she murmured, placing her fingers on the same button Scott fumbled with. He moved his hand away, unsure of his feelings, not knowing if he could trust her or himself.

Amber buttoned his shirt and stood so close he could smell the shampoo she used on her hair. Before he could think it through, he moved his hand up to touch it, rubbing a lock of the golden strands between his thumb and forefinger. She paused. When he didn’t let go of her hair, she grazed her lips over his. He tightened his hold on her, pulling her close, his lips pressing against her own.

All too soon, he pulled back, letting go of her as if he had come to his senses. “I must go, but I’d like to bring Lily to Lancer tomorrow and spend some time with her there. Alone. If we’re going to share custody, then I need to do that.”

“I’ll have her ready for you.” She couldn’t hide her disappointment.

“Good,” Scott said, all business-like. “I’ll be here at the same time as today.” Sticking his hat on his head, he opened the door and walked out.

The next morning Johnny slept late. No one minded; they all knew how hard he’d worked recently to ensure Scott could spend precious time with Lily. Of course, this wasn’t the only reason Johnny was leaving the hacienda at dawn, only to return after dark each night. For days, Murdoch and Scott had barely spoken to each other, their conversation civil at best.

Johnny hoped Scott’s announcement that he was bringing Lily to Lancer, without Amber, had helped clear the air. They all wanted Scott to have a relationship with Lily, but they couldn’t be happy or comfortable with the idea that Amber came as part of the package.

Johnny would be lying if he said no doubts remained about Lily’s paternity. He suspected Murdoch felt the same. They both respected Scott’s decision to accept his daughter though. He knew he would do the same had Amber claimed Lily was his. It was one of those situations where you could only do one thing – the right thing.

Up and dressed, Johnny went downstairs. At the foot of the stairs, he paused and listened, wondering if Scott had returned from Green River with Lily yet. When he heard her gleeful shriek, he had his answer. He walked into the great room, expecting to find Scott playing with his daughter. Instead, his mouth fell open at the sight of Murdoch on his hands and knees, crawling around while Lily danced in front of him, waiting until Murdoch almost reached her before squirming away with shrieks of pure delight.

Coughing loudly, Johnny caught Murdoch’s attention. His father stopped crawling and went rather red in the face, especially when Johnny released the chuckle tickling his throat.

“Havin’ fun there, old man?”

Murdoch shot his son a withered look, although there was a twinkle in his eyes. “Give me a hand, son,” he requested and Johnny obliged, grasping Murdoch by the arm and helping his old man to his feet. Murdoch massaged his lower back. “I’m forgetting I’m not as young as I used to be. It was a lot easier when you were small. You had me on all fours every day, only you used to insist on sitting on my back.”

“I did, huh?” Johnny still found it hard to believe he had known this man so long ago.

Murdoch nodded and gave a hearty chuckle. “I think, John, I was your first ever horse. You used to drive your mother to distraction; she was so worried you’d fall, but you never did.”

Johnny smiled and tried to imagine himself as a small boy sitting astride his father. It was strange to hear but he liked it.

“I wonder how good Scott is at playing horse?” Johnny couldn’t wait to see his refined older brother crawling around on his hands and knees. “Where is he, anyhow?”

Murdoch tilted his head upwards. “He’s getting changed.” He glanced down at Lily, who was undressing her doll. “You know, I have my reservations about leaving you two with this little one while I go to Morro Coyo.”

“We won’t be alone, will we? Teresa will be here.”

Murdoch shook his head. “No, Johnny, Teresa has gone to visit the Morrison’s, remember? Her friend Kate has returned from Chicago and they’re planning on spending the day together.”

“And Scott knows this?” A small trace of concern was evident in Johnny’s voice.

“He was the one who insisted she not cancel her plans.”

“But Maria will be here, right?”

Murdoch had to bite the inside of his mouth to keep from smiling at the expression on his younger son’s face. It seemed that while Scott seemed confident in his abilities to handle a small child, Johnny was not at all comfortable with the idea.

“I could always stay here?” Murdoch suggested, his smile escaping when he saw the look of relief wash over Johnny’s face.

“There is no need for that,” Scott assured from the doorway, walking into the room and picking Lily up. “We’ll be just fine. Johnny, you don’t have to stick around if you don’t want to. I’m sure I can cope.”

“Yes, son, I am sure you can.” Murdoch was determined to encourage Scott’s enthusiasm for fatherhood. “Right then, I’ll get my things together and be off. Goodbye, Lily.” As he reached the door, he paused and turned once more to face his sons. “Oh, and Maria will be here for most of the day, but she did say something about needing to go out for an hour or so later.”

Scott looked at Johnny and rolled his eyes. “I could understand his apprehension if Lily was one of those unhappy children who scream their way through Sunday services.”

Johnny nodded, persuaded by his brother’s confidence. Lily did seem a happy child, so how hard could it be?

The morning started so well. Scott and Johnny had taken Lily outside and showed her the horses and she seemed to enjoy that. She was particularly interested in Barranca, reaching out to pat his neck under Johnny and Scott’s close supervision. After the horses, they’d gone to the rear of the house where Lily had spent an hour running around and exploring everything and anything she came across. What caught her eye, as she wandered through the grass, was a big fat worm in the soil. She squatted down and studied it for a minute, watching the way it wiggled across the earth.

From their seat on the bench, Johnny and Scott watched her flit from one thing to the other with an abundance of energy. When she stopped still for more than ten seconds, both brothers watched her curiously.

“What’s she doing?”

“I’m not sure but I’ll go and see.” Scott was about to go over when Lily came wandering back.

Dirt clung to the bottom of her pink dress and there were dark brown smudges on her cheeks where she had wiped her soil-covered fingers.

“Scott, what has she got in her hand?”


They both stared at the brown worm wriggling on her palm.

She held out the worm for Scott and Johnny to see before bringing it towards her lips.

“No!” both brothers yelled in unison, causing Lily’s eyes to widen in alarm. She paused for only a second though before she grinned and kissed it.

“I’d better get her cleaned up,” Scott said, thinking this was a fatherly thing to do. Johnny sighed and stretched out his legs. Before Lily they would have spent their day off in the saloon, enjoying a nice cold beer. Having a kid sure changed things.

Now, in the kitchen, Lily screamed her head off refusing to let Scott wash her face. Her cheeks were bright red, tears weaving a path through the dirt. As she let out another ear-piercing wail, Johnny was real tempted to saddle Barranca and head off to the saloon for some peace and that nice cold beer. Even Scott was getting flustered.

“Why won’t she stop crying?” Scott fretted, looking at his brother as if Johnny was likely to know. When Johnny shrugged, Scott turned once more to his daughter and tried to pacify her.

“Is it just me, or did she wait for Maria to leave before doing this?” Johnny grumbled.

Scott stared at his daughter in exasperation. “Perhaps she needs help with…you know?” He looked to his brother for support.

“Whoa!” Johnny held his hands up and backed out of the room, “That’s your chore, Scott, you’re her father. Besides I thought Maria took care of that before she went?”

“No!” Lily yelled, stomping her foot as Scott tried again to wipe her face with a cloth.

Just then Maria came back. Her dark eyes flew to the distressed child before darting back and forth between the brothers.

“Maria!” Scott and Johnny had never been so pleased to see the cook in all the time they’d known her.

“Qué está sucediendo aquí?” (What is happening here?) Maria demanded, planting her hands on her hips and trying her hardest to glare at the two despairing young men. She looked at Lily’s dirty dress and dirt-smeared face and rolled her eyes heavenward. With a shake of her head, she scooped up Lily from Scott’s lap and held the child to her bosom. “You men,” she scolded, rolling her eyes to the ceiling. “Buena cosa llego, sí?” (Good thing I arrived, yes?)

“Si,” Johnny agreed readily, flashing Maria a grateful smile.

Maria took Lily to wash up and when they returned a few minutes later, she’d transformed back into an angelic child. Maria surveyed the two men she was so fond of. “Usted ambos tiene mucho aprender,” she said, shaking her dark head as she spoke, “Mucho aprender.”

Scott, who had been concentrating on Lily, didn’t catch what Maria said. Johnny grinned. “Maria says you have a lot to learn, brother.”

Maria frowned. “I said, you both have much to learn,” she corrected before fixing her gaze on Johnny. “Juanito, usted será un padre algún día.” (You will be a father someday)

Johnny’s blue eyes widened in alarm. “Not anytime soon,” he stated with such certainty that Maria had to turn her back to hide her grin.

Later that afternoon Scott, Johnny and Lily sat in the great room. Lily had finally tired herself out and was fast asleep on the couch, her blonde head resting in Scott’s lap. Johnny sat opposite them and fought the urge to mimic Lily and close his eyes. He couldn’t believe how tiring the day had been. Taking care of a toddler was harder than any type of ranch work. It wasn’t Lily’s endless energy, but her curiosity over absolutely everything. Johnny could not believe how close they had to watch her; it seemed nothing was safe from her inquisitive hands, not even the worms.

Scott watched his brother lose the battle with sleep. His own eyes felt heavy and he yawned. It was exhausting, having to be on full alert for the whole day. It didn’t help that he had not slept well last night, despite clearing the air with his father. He still wasn’t sure if he and Murdoch were reading from the same page about Lily, but at least Murdoch had accepted it would be Scott’s decision.

It wasn’t only Murdoch that kept him awake, but Amber and that kiss. Riding home from Green River yesterday, he’d berated himself for kissing her. Of all the stupid things to do. However, as the town got smaller behind him and the miles passed, he realised he’d wanted to kiss her. It had felt good and right. But he’d been here before. Scott stared into the unlit fireplace. His eyes flicked over to his brother, and he wondered what Johnny would say if he knew about the kiss. Scott hadn’t told him. Nobody would be able to give impartial advice. Not after all that had happened before.

Sighing, he glanced down at the sleeping child in his lap. When Lily got upset and cried out for her mama, it reinforced Scott’s doubts about how sharing custody would work. Listening to the stories of Lily’s life so far made him realise he never wanted to miss out. He wanted to be there for the many ‘firsts’ his daughter would experience, not hear about them second-hand. Problem was, Amber felt the same way.

Indecision gnawed at him. But what was the solution? He let his eyes shut, hoping sleep would clear the fog of confusion and allow him to make a decision one way or another.

When Murdoch returned from Morro Coyo late afternoon, he had to smother a laugh at the sight of his sons asleep in the great room. His granddaughter was sleeping too, her head in Scott’s lap and her thumb in her mouth.

Granddaughter, the word tasted strange, yet the child had won him over. He had also sorted things out with Scott. They had apologised to each other and he had agreed to support Scott in whatever he decided to do. He still hoped Scott would see sense. Maybe if today had gone well, Scott would realise the advantages of having sole custody of his daughter. On the off chance, Murdoch had sent a letter to Martin and Granville, outlining the circumstances of their situation and asking them to consider taking on the case. It wouldn’t hurt to know where they stood, should Scott change his mind.

Chapter Six

Amber hovered by the window of her hotel room, feeling like the walls were closing in on her. The drab décor dampened both her spirits and her hope. She hated this hotel. She was living like a prisoner. Lily deserved to have a proper home, not to live out of a suitcase. Scott asked her to stay so he could spend some more time with Lily, and she’d complied with his request. But how long did he expect them to live like this?

“Mrs Randall, are you ready?” Victoria was in the doorway, helping Lily into her coat.

Staring down at the street below, Amber realised Jelly had arrived to take them to Lancer again.

Usually, Caleb would be in the foyer of the hotel to give them a cheerful greeting, but every so often, in Caleb’s place, was a gawky adolescent named Terry. The boy, who by all accounts was Caleb’s nephew, tended to look like a puppy dog with its tongue hanging out whenever he saw her.

This morning, no sooner had they descended the stairs, Terry was on his feet and dashing over. He smoothed his greasy hair. “Can I help ya with anything, ma’am?” His eyes were full of adoration.

“No, thank you,” Amber replied.

“The name’s Terry, ma’am,” the young man reminded her, taking an awkward bow that made Amber want to laugh.

“Well, Terry, we’re managing just fine here, thank you.”

Terry returned to the desk, looking disappointed.

Amber rolled her eyes. It was obvious the young man had a crush. As if he stood a chance! Had he seen Scott Lancer? He was the calibre of man that interested her.

She stepped out of the hotel, into the cold, grasping Lily by the hand. If there was one thing she owed to the decline in temperature, it was the opportunity to shed her black dresses. None of them was thick material and she was so tired of the drab, dreary colour. She preferred to wear brighter, happier colours, and she had chosen to wear a green dress today because it matched the colour of her eyes. Scott liked her in green.

If it surprised Scott to see her out of mourning, he hadn’t commented on it, just as he hadn’t commented on the one thing Amber felt they should talk about. Two weeks had passed since their conversation about sharing custody. Two long weeks since they shared a kiss that gave her hope of a future together. But Scott had said nothing, even though they’d spent a considerable amount of time together since.

They needed to talk. Scott needed to make a decision.

Scott hammered the last nail into the wooden roof of the line shack before climbing down the ladder. He’d worked up a sweat, despite the crispness of the air. They were overdue for a break. Johnny had decided that too – he stood in the shadow of the trees, practising his draw, his movements still so fluid.

“You best be gettin’ back, huh?” Johnny called over when he realised Scott had come down from the roof. He knew Amber and Lily were due to arrive at Lancer soon.

Scott nodded. He couldn’t blame Johnny for not wanting to return for their arrival, but still, it was hard. The Amber who had returned to Lancer was far from the sultry temptress who had wanted little more than ‘fun’ the last time. She was a mother now, a widow twice over. If anything could make a person change, it was living through the birth of a child and the loss of two husbands. Scott wished his family could look to the future as he intended to. Everyone had accepted Lily, but tension remained around Amber.

He’d been denying it, but she was under his skin. Like a drug, she ran through his veins. She was never out of his head.

It was what Lily deserved; two parents who could enjoy each other’s company and not find it unbearable to be in the same room. He had done nothing but consider the future lately, a future so different from anything he had imagined.

“So, when’s Amber leaving?” Johnny holstered his gun and strolled to where Scott stood.

“I don’t know.”

“She is leaving though, right?” Johnny searched his brother’s eyes for a clue to his feelings. Johnny was no fool. He knew his brother and recognised the signs Scott was letting Amber get to him, letting her seep into his heart like poison.

When Scott hesitated, Johnny knew he was right. Scott seemed torn between loyalty to his family and his need to do what was right for his daughter. What he thought was right for him. This shone from Scott’s eyes, even if the words never left his lips.

“She wants to leave. She wants to make a fresh start with Lily and for us to have joint custody.”

“Seems like a good plan.”

A good plan did not mean it was the right one. “I best get back.” Scott handed the hammer to his brother. “I’ll see you later?”

Johnny clapped his brother on the shoulder. “See ya later, Scott.”

He hoped Scott was not about to do anything foolish.

When Scott entered the hacienda, he found his family drinking tea in the great room. Murdoch was sitting in his armchair, chatting to Victoria. Teresa and Amber sat beside each other on the sofa, sipping their tea. The tension between the two women was palpable and even Lily seemed aware of it, perched on the lap of her mother, ignoring Teresa’s attempts to lure her into play.

“Good afternoon.” Scott removed his gun belt and hat, hanging both up and out of Lily’s reach.

“Scott,” Amber said, her tone awash with relief at seeing a friendly face. They had arrived about half an hour ago and things had been awkward, to say the least. Murdoch had greeted her with no warmth and practically ignored her since. He had no problem engaging Victoria in conversation or casting doting glances at his little granddaughter.

Scott looked down at his clothes and realised he needed to change. He hesitated though, conscious of the uncomfortable atmosphere and how unhappy Amber looked.

“Your journey was okay?” Scott asked Amber as he made his way over to the family.

Amber placed her empty cup on the coffee table. “Yes it was fine.” She reached out to steady her daughter as Lily clambered from her lap.


“Hello, there, Lily,” Scott greeted his daughter with a wide smile.

Lily beamed. Now in the mood to play, she went straight to Teresa, who had been sitting there with Lily’s doll clasped in her lap.

“Oh, you want to play now do you?” Teresa teased, holding out the doll.

Murdoch smiled at the change that came over his granddaughter when Scott appeared. She only clung to Amber when tired or distressed.

“Would anyone like more tea?” Amber offered, anxious to escape the tense atmosphere. “Scott, would you help me?”

Scott ignored Murdoch’s frown. He followed Amber into the kitchen where Maria was working. He noticed the heated glare the older woman shot Amber.

“I’ll make the tea,” Maria said curtly, pointing to the doorway of the kitchen so Amber would leave. Amber’s green eyes filled with tears as she turned and fled out of the back door.

Maria pursed her lips and shook her head, muttering something under her breath. Scott felt awkward. He knew why the usually pleasant cook found Amber’s presence difficult to accept. With a deep sigh, he went after Amber.

He found her sitting on the bench, lost in thought. Without saying a word, he sat beside her. “Are you okay?” He noticed her flushed cheeks and wet green eyes.

Amber shrugged. She wrapped her arms around herself. “It was unbearable in there.” She had put up with the distrustful stares of Murdoch, scary Maria, and even Teresa, who still seemed wary. “I can’t take this anymore, Scott. We need to talk. Can we go for a walk?”

They walked in silence at first. Out of the corner of her eye, Amber studied his handsome profile and the way his hair shone in the sunlight. She knew they had to have this conversation, even though it might mean the end of her dream. “Scott?”

As she said his name, she stumbled on the grass. He reached out to steady her and she clung to him, raising her head to look him straight in the eyes. Seconds ticked by and neither of them spoke. Scott felt the warmth of her body seeping through his shirt. Attraction fizzled in the air. He lowered his head and she met him halfway, their lips hovering an inch apart. Her eyes peered into his from under thick dark lashes. The desire to kiss her again was overwhelming, so he did, their bodies moving closer in the process. Her hand caressed the side of his face, then traced a path down his chest, her touch teasing, the lower it got.

It was Amber who interrupted their kiss this time, pulling away and smoothing down her dress. “Scott, we can’t keep doing this. It isn’t fair. You need to make a decision.”

Scott tried to get himself under control. “Are you leaving?”

“Do you want me to?” She could hear her heart beating and as much as she did not want to hear his answer, she needed to.

Scott hesitated. He knew he had to give her an answer this time. “No, I don’t want you to leave.”

Her eyes widened in surprise. “Are you talking about Lily, or me?”

Scott placed his hands on her upper arms. “I don’t want either of you to leave.”

“But I can’t live in that hotel forever. Lily needs and deserves a proper home, or two proper homes.”

Scott nodded. He knew she was right. “If you and Lily could find somewhere more appropriate to stay, somewhere more permanent but close to Lancer?”

“No, Scott. That wouldn’t work and you know it. What do you think it would be like for Lily to live with me, around here? People will know soon enough she is your daughter, if they don’t already. I’m not going to make Lily feel unwanted. How do you think she will feel growing up, knowing you are her father, yet she doesn’t have the Lancer name? At least if we move away, she won’t have to live with that every day of her life. We can make arrangements and explain things away. I won’t have people staring at her in the street when she’s old enough to understand. She deserves so much more.”

Amber looked into his eyes. “We need to move away and make a fresh start. I still want you to be a part of her life. I’ll always want that.”

“And what about you, is that what you want? You just asked me if I wanted you to stay and now you’re talking about leaving.”

“I want you more than anything in the world, Scott Lancer.” She cupped his cheeks with both hands. “But it will never work, don’t you see? Your family hate me, with good reason. I’ve hurt you all.”

Scott took hold of her hands. “They’ll come around; they just need more time.” He spoke with more conviction than he felt.

“I can’t see Johnny ever forgiving me.” She knew that, out of them all, Johnny could prove the biggest threat to her and Scott’s happiness.

Scott considered this. Amber’s allegation had hurt Johnny the most, but she had changed since then. In time, his brother would see that. “This is my decision. Not my father’s, Teresa’s or Johnny’s.”

The hope Amber harboured that the three of them could be a family grew stronger with each word.

“So where do we go from here? I can’t live as your bit on the side, no matter how much I might like to.” She risked a flirty smile.

Scott grinned before his expression became serious. He knew if they wanted to make a go of a relationship, they needed to do things properly. Taking a deep breath, Scott said, “Amber, do you remember that day we spent by the stream?”

Amber nodded. How could she forget?

“We were talking and you misinterpreted a remark I made.” Scott ran a hand through his hair as he tried to think of the best way to phrase this. “You thought I was proposing to you.”

“I remember. I was teasing.” Amber dared not say anything else. Could this be happening at last?

“Well, what if I was to propose now? I mean, it would be the proper thing to do…for Lily.”

“It would.” It took everything she had not to squeal.

Scott shook his head. “You know, this is never the way I pictured this happening.”

Amber’s smile widened. “Me either,” she giggled as she wrapped her arms around his waist. “We’ll make it work Scott, for Lily and us.”

She sought his lips and he returned the embrace. Now all he had to do was tell his family that Amber was to be his wife.

Amber arrived back at the hotel later that afternoon, feeling much like the cat who got the cream. All day she had been unable to curb an enormous smile. Victoria had looked at her curiously several times, making her smile even more. Mrs Lancer. Mrs Amber Lancer. It sounded so much better than Randall. This marriage would be nothing like the one she’d endured with Mortimer.

She could see it now; cosy winter evenings cuddled up to Scott in bed, while Lily and their other children slept soundly.

She was so happy, she’d even treated Terry to her brightest smile as she entered the foyer of the hotel, thinking it was the least she could do to liven up his day.

Scott had asked her to keep their engagement a secret until he found the right moment to tell his family. Amber wanted to be there when he made the announcement, but Scott didn’t think that wise. He was probably right. They wouldn’t like it, but she trusted Scott to stand up for what they believed in. This was the right thing to do.

It would be a hard secret to keep. She felt giddy with excitement, a young girl in love, just like years ago with her first husband. James had broken her heart when he died, but Scott was going to make her happy for the rest of her life. She hoped the Lancers could accept that. She and Scott had so many plans to make; they needed to discuss a suitable date for the wedding.

Amber dreamed about their life together, living in the grand hacienda. Amber was confident Teresa would come around first, Murdoch would take time, but he had liked her once. Her eyes narrowed as she thought about Maria. Amber was not so confident in her abilities to make the older woman accept her at Lancer. Perhaps she could persuade her to retire? The thought of preparing meals for an entire family seemed rather daunting though. Still, she had cooked for her father on the odd occasion after her mother had passed away. It couldn’t be too hard.

Finally, her thoughts turned to Johnny. Oh, he infuriated her so much! He seemed determined she should pay for her mistakes for the rest of her life. He wasn’t going to be easy to convince and the fact he and Scott were close, was bothersome. As soon as Johnny found out they planned to marry, he would do his best to talk Scott out of it. Amber hoped he would fail.

In retrospect, she had not handled Johnny the right way that day in the kitchen, but she found him so difficult to deal with. He was hard to read. Maybe, she should talk to him again, get him to understand that all she wanted was to make things up to Scott and be the wife he deserved. Johnny would have to accept it and not stand in the way of their happiness. Nobody was going to ruin this.

He was getting married. It all felt rather surreal.

Once Amber and Lily had gone, Scott returned to where his brother was working. Out of everyone he had to tell, Johnny was the most important.

As Johnny came into view, Scott couldn’t help but smile as he watched his brother packing up the tools. From the way Johnny’s lips were moving, it was clear he was having a conversation with Barranca.

“Doesn’t it bother you that he never talks back?” Scott reined his horse to a halt.

Johnny tilted his head and squinted up at his brother. “Nope,” he said grinning. “What you doing here anyway? I’m all done.”

Scott licked his bottom lip and pushed his hat back on his head. “Do you feel like going into town later? It’s a Saturday night, little brother.”

Johnny shrugged. “Sure, Scott. You don’t need to twist my arm.”

Later that evening the two brothers arrived in Green River. The sky was dark velvet; a moon that should have been full, half covered by thick clouds. In the street, orange light spilt out of the windows and piano music filtered from the saloon, as some drunken cowboy played a lively tune.

Tethering their horses to the railing, Scott looked in the direction of the hotel, finding it surreal that he had a fiancée and daughter mere feet away. As they made their way into the smoky saloon, Scott turned to his brother. “What will it be?”

“Well, if you’re buying, Scott, I’ll have a beer and a shot of tequila.” He headed over to the only empty table in the place. As he waited for Scott to return with their drinks, he scanned the room. There was a card game going over on the far side and Johnny wondered if Scott might like to play later. His gaze came to rest on a pretty blonde perched on the lap of one of the customers. She was laughing, holding the beer glass to the man’s lips. She wore a silky lilac dress that hung off the shoulder, barely covering her breasts and ending above the knee. He caught her eye and she winked at him, even while she leaned down to whisper something in the cowboy’s ear.

Johnny grinned. Scott, who had just returned to the table with their drinks, noticed his brother’s expression and followed Johnny’s gaze. He raised a knowing eyebrow. “Haven’t seen her before.” He pulled out his chair. “She’s pretty.”

“She sure is.” Johnny took a drink and leaned back. “C’mon then, brother. Get it said.”

Scott settled his hands around the beer mug. Johnny knew him too well sometimes. He opened his mouth to speak, only for the pretty blonde to appear at their table and give him a reprieve.

“Hello, gentlemen.” Her voice was as silky as the tresses of golden hair piled on top of her head. She was young but there was the confidence in her brown eyes of a woman much older. “I’m Nancy.”

Johnny flashed his most charming smile. “I’m Johnny Lancer and this is my brother, Scott.”

“I’m pleased to meet you both. You need any company this evening, you let me know.”

“Oh, we will.” Johnny watched her walk away; his grin appreciative. “Not pretty enough to tempt ya, Scott?” He studied his brother over the rim of the glass.

Scott shook his head. He could no longer put off the inevitable, but now he had arrived at this point, he wasn’t sure how to begin.

Johnny decided to help him out a little. “Seems to me, Scott, if you’re turning down a pretty gal like that, there must be a reason.”

Scott turned the mug, watching the beer swirl like his stomach was doing right now. “It’s Amber,” he got out, finally.

Johnny didn’t look surprised.

“We’re getting married.”

Now, he did.

“What?” Johnny must have misheard. The rousing laughter and the drunken cowboy’s darn piano playing were messing with his ears.

“We’re getting married.”

Johnny’s face was void of all emotion. He wore the mask he used when he wanted to remain unreadable, but Scott knew his brother too well for it to work, especially when it came to Amber. A minute passed but it seemed like an hour. “Say something, Johnny.”

“What do you want me to say, Scott. Congratulations?”

Johnny’s sarcasm was loud and clear but Scott didn’t get angry. He held his brother’s questioning gaze. “I know you can’t forgive her.”

Johnny slammed his glass down and the contents splashed over the table. He downed the tequila shot in one. He clearly thought Scott was insane. “This ain’t about me. This is about you. Are you forgettin’ what she’s like?”

“No, I haven’t forgotten, but things are different now. Amber’s changed.”

“She’ll never change, Scott.” He walked out of the saloon.

Scott sighed and finished his beer. He knew Johnny wouldn’t take the news well, but he’d hoped he would support his decision. If telling Johnny was hard, then telling Murdoch would prove tougher still.

Johnny stopped outside the saloon and kicked the hitching post a couple of times. He’d known Scott had forgiven her. He’d suspected it was more than that, but marriage? How naïve to not see this coming. Johnny kicked the post again. With the manipulative skills Amber possessed, he should have known.

He was sitting on Barranca when Scott came out of the saloon.

The ride out of town was silent as they both sat in their saddles, lost in thought. It was Johnny who spoke first.

“Have you thought this through?”

“Yes. I know you don’t approve.” Scott turned to face his brother. To see if Johnny was going to deny it, but Johnny’s expression remained impassive. “Amber has changed, Johnny. We have Lily to consider…”

“Is Lily why you’re doing this? Because she ain’t no reason to marry Amber.”

Scott narrowed his eyes. “She is our daughter. and not the only reason. Amber and I care for each other.”

Johnny laughed but not with amusement. “Scott, the only thing Amber knows ‘bout feelings, is how to trample ‘em. You think you two can get married, but how can you trust her after all she’s done? You’d never know when she’d take an interest in someone else.”

Scott’s heart and mind had already had this debate and he’d decided to trust her. “That’s in the past,” he said with forced patience.

“Hell, is it! She sees somethin’ she wants, then she’ll take it.”

“What like you, you mean?” Scott snapped, glaring at his brother, realising Johnny had misinterpreted his words when he looked hurt. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that…I thought you were suggesting she could want you again. Johnny, I’m sorry.”

Johnny shrugged it off. Making an effort to remove the edge from his voice, he tried to explain. “You gotta realise what you’re letting yourself in for. If she wants somethin’, then she goes after it.” Johnny gazed at the top of Barranca’s head. The horse’s ears were twitching. “Scott, I’ve never told you this, but soon after she arrived at Lancer, I walked into my room and she was there, naked in my bed.” Johnny watched his brother’s reaction, but Scott pursed his lips and stared straight ahead. “Nothin’ had happened between us then, but that didn’t stop her. Do you see what I’m trying to tell ya?”

“We all did things we aren’t proud of, back then. But as I said, it’s in the past.”

Johnny felt his temper rise through sheer frustration. “Oh, c’mon. She’s probably had more men than a saloon girl on the eve of retirement. You think a woman like that can change?”

Scott pulled his horse to an abrupt stop. “Watch it, Johnny.”

Johnny shut his mouth. The last thing he wanted to do was to fight with his brother over Amber again.

They rode the next mile in silence.

“Where are you planning on living when you’re married?” Johnny struggled to not gag at that last word. “With us?”

“I don’t think that would work, but I don’t want to leave either. Lancer’s a big ranch, I’m sure we can work something out.”

It was a small relief. Johnny couldn’t imagine seeing Amber every day, never knowing if it was safe to enter his room or take a bath. Still, Lancer could never be big enough. “So, when are you gonna tell Murdoch?” He hoped their father had a strong heart, otherwise, this announcement might be the death of him.

Scott shifted in his saddle. “First thing in the morning.” He glanced at the night sky, hoping the sun would forget to rise and it would stay dark forever. “I am going to marry Amber, Johnny, with or without your support, but I’d rather have it, if you can give it.”

Johnny chewed on his bottom lip. Maybe, he was being unfair to his brother. After all, Scott was his own man and it sure seemed like he’d made up his mind. There was likely nothing Johnny could do or say to change it. Only pray that Amber tripped up before they made it down the aisle.

Johnny should support Scott. Hell, Scott had stood in his corner enough times. If his gut feeling was right, then Scott would need all the support he could get. He took a deep breath. “A man’s gotta do what he thinks is right, I guess.” He tilted his head and stared at his brother in the moonlight.

Chapter Seven

The saying, ‘time waits for no man’ was true for Scott when he woke up the next morning. The dawn light taunted him, filtering through the drapes at his window. He heard Teresa’s light footsteps pass by his bedroom door, and other members of the household getting up and going downstairs for breakfast.

He’d expected Johnny’s disapproval and they’d come close to falling out, but Johnny had agreed to support him. It was not going to be easy, but Scott still hoped, in time, Johnny would accept Amber.

He took his time dressing. The forthcoming encounter with Murdoch was not going to be pleasant, despite his conviction that he was doing the right thing. Nervousness was not a feeling Scott experienced often. He didn’t like it. Scott buttoned his shirt and studied his reflection in the mirror. This was ridiculous, he was a Harvard graduate, a former soldier; he’d endured endless hellish days in a prison camp. So why was the simple act of telling his father he was to be married, making him feel like a boy?

Downstairs, Murdoch sat at his desk and gazed at the open ledger in front of him. He had woken up well before dawn and had come downstairs before anyone else so much as stirred. He was trying to concentrate on the Lancer accounts, but the reason for his early rising and sleepless nights kept bothering him. Every so often he’d remove the telegram from Martin and Granville and reread the contents. As he’d suspected, in their opinion, Scott would gain sole custody of his child should he seek it.

Sighing, Murdoch shoved the pile of receipts into a drawer. He took a sip of his morning coffee and wondered when would be the best time to broach the subject again with Scott. Usually, he was comfortable talking to Scott about most things. In many ways, his firstborn had become his right-hand man, despite their awkward first meeting. Since Amber returned, Murdoch struggled to reach his eldest. All the things Murdoch considered reasonable, Scott did not, and he was at a loss for how to handle it.

An awkward cough disturbed Murdoch from his thoughts and he looked up to see the very man he had been thinking about.

“Good morning, son.”

Murdoch’s elbows rested on either arm of the chair and his hands were clasped together, fingers interlocked. He looked like he’d been expecting him.

“Have you got a moment, sir?”

“Yes, of course, is everything all right?” Murdoch moved across the room and settled in the armchair.

He didn’t follow his father’s lead and take a seat.

“Have you decided about Lily?”

“Yes, sir, I have.” He didn’t miss the hopeful tone in Murdoch’s voice. What he was about to say would shatter those hopes, he knew. “Amber and I are to marry.”

Murdoch was a statue.


“There’s no need for that.” Murdoch returned to the desk, sliding open the drawer and removing the telegram. He looked a little sheepish as if he had something he wanted to confess.

“I thought it prudent to find out how the law stood in terms of Lily, so I took the liberty of writing to Martin and Granville. It seems I was right; you would stand every chance of gaining sole custody of Lily.”

Scott took the telegram from his father’s outstretched hand. His father’s ‘liberty’ had made this much more difficult. “I will be raising Lily,” Scott said, and when Murdoch’s eyes brightened, he swallowed hard. “I’ll be raising her with Amber. She’s going to be my wife.”

Scott placed the telegram on the desk and waited for his words to sink in.

“Scott, you can’t mean this. The idea is absurd…” Murdoch returned the telegram to the drawer. “Now, where is your brother? We need to go over the plans for the week.” He shut the drawer with more force than necessary, causing the mug of coffee to jump on the desk.

Scott’s mouth fell open. How had Murdoch managed to dismiss his words so easily, as if he had announced something as casual as buying a new shirt?

“You’d think that boy would know what time we get up around here,” Murdoch muttered. Without looking Scott’s way, he rounded the desk and marched to the foot of the stairs.


The volume of his father’s voice reassured Scott in a completely uncomforting way, that his father was not as calm as he was trying to appear. It brought Teresa running from the kitchen to see what was wrong.

“What’s all the hollering for?” Johnny grumbled from the top of the stairs. He had been expecting shouting this morning; he just hadn’t figured he’d be the one in the firing line. As he descended, he saw Murdoch glaring at him and guessed Scott had shared his news. Reaching the bottom of the stairs, he looked at Teresa and gave a small shrug.

Murdoch indicated the young woman should leave them to it. Teresa’s eyes filled with concern, but she did as Murdoch suggested and left.

Murdoch stalked back into the great room.

Johnny shot Scott a questioning look, but his brother shook his head, his lips set in a grim line.

“Johnny, you finished those repairs yesterday, didn’t you?” Murdoch folded his arms across his chest and stared hard at his younger son.

Johnny glanced at Scott. Something wasn’t right here. If Scott had told Murdoch, then why wasn’t he shouting? Except for the bellow up the staircase, Johnny had heard no other raised voices.

“John,” Murdoch snapped, not missing the look Johnny was giving his brother. So, Johnny was privy to Scott’s plans already. “I asked you the question, not Scott.”

“Yeah, they’re finished.”

Scott strode up to the desk and placed his hand on the polished surface. Leaning over, he looked Murdoch in the eye. “Amber and I are getting married. This is not some foolish notion. I’ve never been so serious about anything in my life.”

For a moment, neither man spoke. From his relatively safe distance, Johnny watched his father’s expression. He was angry; but more than that, there was a steely determination in his eyes.

“No, you are not.” There was a hard edge to Murdoch’s voice meant to provoke obedience. “You can get that out of your head right now, I mean it, Scott.”

Scott stood up straight. Here, at last, was the expected reaction, only he didn’t know how he was going to get through it, how he could make his father see this was what he wanted. He found a patient tone. “I’m afraid I can’t do that. I’ve made my decision. I know what happened in the past, but things are different now.”

Murdoch’s brows furrowed in confusion. “Different? Just how are things different? You answer me that.”

“Lily has changed Amber; she has…grown up.”

“Grown up?” Murdoch scoffed. “Too right she’s grown up. How much older is she than you are? Four years?”

“I don’t see why that matters.”

Murdoch glared at him. “Well, no, in the grand scale of things I don’t suppose it does. After all, you’re planning on marrying a woman, who has barely buried her second husband; who shamelessly spent an evening getting intoxicated with your brother in the saloon.” Murdoch flicked his glare to Johnny who ducked his head. “Not to mention the fact that everyone knows you two were both more than friendly with her, thanks to your brawl in the middle of the street!”

Murdoch’s glare intensified, fixed on Scott again. “As a result of this stupidity, there is a child conceived in dubious circumstances. No, Scott…” Murdoch got to his feet, “…when you take it all into account, then her age doesn’t matter at all.

Then of course there is the most important thing you seem to have overlooked. The fact that this woman accused your brother of forcing her to be with him. I would have thought, out of everything, you would have remembered that.”

Scott glanced at Johnny, who looked like he would rather be anywhere else. “Of course, I haven’t overlooked that, but she regrets it, sir, I know she does.”

Murdoch folded his arms, his eyes tinged with disappointment. “Oh, Scott, use your head, son. You’ll never be able to trust her, never. Do you understand? Is that what you want for your life?”

Scott’s frustration grew at Murdoch’s refusal to listen or give him any credit for asking the same questions. “It’s not going to be like that. I do trust Amber and this is my decision. I am going to marry her, Murdoch.”

“Like hell, you will!” Murdoch’s temper erupted, shocking both young men with the same language he’d pulled them up for. “You will do no such thing, Scott. I forbid it, do you understand me?” Murdoch slammed his fist on the desk. This time the mug sloshed coffee across the wood.

Much to Scott’s chagrin, he jumped too, visibly flinching at the aggressive display.

Father and son glared at each other.

“I understand, sir,” Scott said stiffly. He walked out of the great room, wrenching the thick oak front door open, but deliberately not slamming it behind him on his way out.

Murdoch took a few moments to calm down, with some success.

Johnny was still in the room, his blue eyes portraying the pain he felt at seeing his father and brother argue.

“I suppose you think I handled that all wrong.” 

Johnny looked his father in the eye. He wasn’t sure this was a sensible time to be brave, but he had to answer with the truth. “Yeah, Murdoch, I do.”

Murdoch sighed, his son’s honesty acting like a blanket and smothering the dying flames of his temper. “How do you feel about this? Surely, you haven’t changed your mind about her too?”

“No, I ain’t changed my mind,” Johnny said softly. “But I’ll support Scott. He thinks he’s doing the right thing.”

Murdoch stood in front of the large window; knowing the view soothed him in times of trouble. “Well, you’re a better brother than I am a father,” he acknowledged.

For a moment, Johnny considered going over to Murdoch and placing a hand on his shoulder. He knew this was hard for Murdoch to understand, Johnny had trouble himself. But this was Scott’s decision. Out of them all, Scott would be feeling worse right now and needed him more. Johnny went to follow Scott, only for his father’s voice to make him pause in the doorway.

“I’m sorry for yelling at you, son.”

“Thanks.” Johnny sensed the word never reached Murdoch’s ears. His father seemed lost; his gaze fixed on the rolling fields of Lancer.

Outside, Scott cursed under his breath and slammed his open palm against the wall of the hacienda. He had expected that reaction, so why was he disappointed in Murdoch? Up until this point, Scott hadn’t comprehended that he may have to choose between a life with Amber and his daughter, or a relationship with his father.

He could not recall Murdoch having ever looked so angry or disappointed.

“Damn,” he muttered, wiping the dust from his palm on the leg of his pants. He ran his other hand through his hair in frustration. Why does everything in my life have to be one thing or the other? He had lost a mother but kept a father; lost a father and gained a grandfather; lost a grandfather to regain his father. Now, he was losing his father to gain a wife. Glancing down, Scott frowned at the dust marks on his thigh. When he looked back up, his brother and Teresa were outside too.

Teresa surged forward and grabbed his arm. She looked up at him, confusion clouding her eyes.

“Scott, is it true?”

Scott looked down at the young woman he considered to be his sister, wondering if he was about to lose her too. Nodding, Scott met her eyes. Rather than the disapproval he feared, he saw only concern. Teresa threw both arms around his waist and squeezed.

“Careful Teresa, you’re breaking my ribs.” Scott joked and she drew back, her cheeks colouring.

“I’m sorry, I wanted you to know I’m not mad at you…I don’t mean it’s my place to be mad, but…”.

“I know what you mean.”

She relaxed, looking at him with pleading eyes. “Please go back inside and talk to Murdoch. I know he shouted at you, but he didn’t mean it, I’m sure he didn’t. He’s upset.”

“I think he meant it, Teresa.”

Inside the hacienda, Murdoch’s mind replayed the conversation while he stared out of the window. He knew Johnny was right. He had handled things badly, but how was he supposed to react? When he forbade Scott from marrying Amber, he knew it wouldn’t make a difference.

With a sigh, Murdoch returned to his chair and stretched his long legs out beneath the desk. Of all the times for Scott to display a stubborn streak and prove he truly was his father’s son; this was the worst. Murdoch’s gaze flicked to the drawer that held the telegram.

Deep down he knew Scott was marrying Amber for more than just Lily, but he doubted Scott had strong enough feelings to make a marriage work.

What would Catherine say in this situation? He tried to picture a different world; a parallel universe where his wife was still alive. He smiled because he knew the answer to that question. Catherine would tell Scott to follow his heart, just as she had done with the Scottish man from Inverness.

The comparison made Murdoch lower his head into his hands, his rough palms rubbing at his cheeks. Was he doing the same thing to Scott that Harlan had done to them? Of course, it was slightly different. Murdoch retrieved a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped up the splash of coffee from the desk. The only things he’d lacked in Harlan’s eyes were wealth and social standing, not the basic traits of morality that seemed to be absent, or at best scarce, in Amber. If Catherine had survived, would Scott have been enough of a reason for Harlan to accept him? Murdoch dropped the handkerchief and rose to his feet. He would never know the answer, but he knew he didn’t want to lose his son or his granddaughter.

He left the great room, pausing behind the front door when he heard his children talking. He heard Teresa tell Scott she wasn’t mad with him; he heard Scott rebuff her plea to come back inside. Murdoch decided to make his presence known, stepping outside and almost bumping into Johnny.

The look Teresa gave him spoke volumes; he needed to do some bridge-building quickly. Johnny eyed him carefully, waiting to see if his temper unleashed again. Only Scott didn’t meet his eyes. His elder son turned his back, gazing out across the corral instead.

“Would you two please excuse us for a minute? I need to speak to your brother.”

Johnny tugged on Teresa’s arm. Together they went inside the house.

Scott did not turn around. He kept his eyes on the horses, watching their tails flick back and forth and their proud heads jerk now and then to ward off the annoying flies. He was aware Murdoch had come to stand next to him, but he had nothing to say to his father. What was there left?

Murdoch let his gaze follow the same path as his son’s and they stood together in awkward silence. The distance between them felt even greater than it had while Scott was still living in Boston.

“I don’t think we’re done talking. Scott?”

“You made your feelings pretty clear.”

“I did, but you didn’t.”

Scott whirled around to face his father; his expression was surprised. “Yes, I did. I told you this is the right thing to do, that I have—”.

“That you have feelings for Amber,” Murdoch finished for him. “I heard.”

What did Murdoch want from him? He had tried to explain how he felt and justify his reasons for doing this, but Murdoch didn’t want to listen. Scott clenched and unclenched his fists to relieve some of the tension. Murdoch looked away.

“You know, Scott, your mother was the most beautiful, witty, intelligent and charming woman I had ever met, and I wanted to be with her more than anything. I couldn’t believe my luck when she reciprocated those feelings. We wanted to be together, only your grandfather, well, he saw things differently. He tried to break us up, convince Catherine I was no good, that she would be throwing her life away.”

“And did grandfather forbid my mother from marrying you?”

Murdoch placed a sturdy hand on his son’s shoulder. “If he did, then she didn’t listen,” he said with a small smile. “I lost my temper back in the house, Scott, I realise that. But I meant what I said.”

Scott raised his eyebrows. “That you forbid me to marry? I’m sorry, but you’re way out of line. I’m quite old enough—”.

Murdoch held up his other hand, halting his son mid-sentence. “I know I can’t stop you,” he said calmly. “But I don’t have to like it and I do not have to approve. You marry that woman and you’ll regret it. Some things you can’t ignore and what she tried to do to your brother is one of them.”

Scott pursed his lips and let his breath escape through his nose. “I know what Amber did to Johnny was terrible, but she is sorry, and people do change. She came back with Lily. She didn’t have to.”

“No, Scott, I suppose she didn’t, but…”

“What about Johnny’s mother, sir?”

“Maria?” What did she have to do with this?

“What would you have done if she had returned with Johnny? Wouldn’t you have given her another chance all those years ago?”

Murdoch looked uncomfortable. After Maria left, he’d spent the first few years praying for her return, promising to forgive her anything if she would just come home. It was a promise never tested. For some reason, he couldn’t tell Scott that.

“Scott, you cannot compare the situations. I loved Johnny’s mother. A marriage needs love to survive, and sometimes even having that isn’t enough.” He placed his other hand on Scott’s free shoulder. “Do you love Amber, son? I haven’t heard you say so.”

Murdoch stared hard at Scott, searching for evidence. The uncertainty he saw, as brief as it was, assured him he was right.

“I care about her, Murdoch, and not just because of Lily. We can make this work, but I don’t…”

“You don’t what?”

“I don’t want to make a choice.” Scott pulled away from his father and gazed back towards the house. “Not between Amber and you.”

Murdoch’s heart heard the despair in his son’s voice. He tilted his head skyward and prayed for the strength to say the right thing. No matter what Scott did, no matter what his decisions, it had taken them so long to find their way back to each other that he could not, and would not, lose him now.

“You don’t have to choose. If this is what you want, then I can support you.”

Murdoch tugged on his son’s shoulder, turning Scott around to face him. “I will support your decision, Scott.”

Scott’s relief was evident. “That is all I ask.”

Chapter Eight

Over at the Green River hotel, a newly-engaged Amber could not stop smiling. It had been so difficult to keep this wonderful news to herself, although she had told Lily all about it as she put her daughter to bed the night before. The more time that passed, the harder Amber found keeping her secret. Her stomach twisted with knots of excitement, but she was also nervous. Scott was due over this morning and she would find out how his family had reacted to the news.

Victoria came into the room with a telegram. When she scanned the contents, her brown eyes widened with delight.

“Good news?” Amber enquired, chomping at the bit to share the good news of her own. She would feel justified in doing so if they both had something to disclose.

“Yes, it’s my son, Michael. I wrote to him a few weeks ago and he’s coming to visit. He’s going to arrive next Tuesday and wants me to see if there is a room for him at this hotel.” Victoria looked at Amber. “You don’t mind if I have a couple of days off to spend time with my son?”

Amber smiled. “Of course, I don’t mind. Scott and I can look after Lily. I have some rather good news of my own.”

Victoria wondered if the younger woman’s news was the reason she had not stopped smiling since they returned from Lancer. Victoria was no fool. Amber was a woman in love.

“Scott has asked me to marry him,” Amber burst out, unable to contain herself a moment longer.

Victoria smiled, genuinely happy for the couple, and Lily, to whom this would mean so much in the years to come.

“Well, I’m sure I am not the first to offer my congratulations, Mrs Randall, but I mean them sincerely.”

“Thank you,” Amber murmured, but her eyes lost their sparkle. She couldn’t help but wonder if Victoria’s congratulations were the only ones she and Scott were likely to receive. She wanted to know what kind of welcome she was in for when she returned to the ranch for good.

Scott walked into the foyer of the hotel shortly after midday. He gave a nod polite to Terry, who eyed him suspiciously from his position behind the desk.

Caleb came out of the back room, pushing aside the brown curtain separating his office from the foyer. “Now, Terry, are ya sure you’ll be alright holdin’ the fort ’til I get back?”

“Yes, Uncle,” Terry muttered, leaning back in the chair and sticking his long gangly legs up on the desktop.

Caleb swatted them, tutting under his breath. “What’s up with ya, boy? I thought ya liked helpin’ me out?”

Terry reluctantly removed his legs from the desk and let them fall to the floor with a loud thud. “I do,” he replied in a sulky tone.

Caleb rolled his eyes at the changing mood of youth. “Right, I’ll be back later.” He was all set to walk out of the hotel when Terry called out to him. “Uncle Cal?”

“What is it, boy?”

“That Scott Lancer. Do ya think he’s courtin’ Mrs Randall, ‘cause he sure does visit her a lot?”

Caleb frowned. “Terry, I’ve told ya before,” he said with forced patience. “What goes on is none of our business, an’ nothin’ leaves these four walls. Ya got that, boy?”

“Yeah, I got it Uncle Cal, but don’t you think somethin’s goin’ on? I mean she’s a mighty pretty lady.”

Caleb walked back over and boxed his nephew’s ear. “Scott Lancer is a respectable young man from a respectable family, an’ I’ve known his father lotta years. I don’t imagine anythin’ improper is goin’ on, an’ you ain’t gonna speculate ‘bout it no more Terence, d’you understand?”

“Yeah, I understand.” Terry rubbed his ear. As soon as Caleb left, Terry stuck his legs back up on the desk. He didn’t believe for a second that nothing was going on. He wondered what it was Scott Lancer had, that he didn’t. Okay, so Scott was a little taller; he was rich; some girls might say he was good-looking, although personally, Terry didn’t see it. “Life ain’t fair,” he muttered. “It ain’t fair at all.”

Outside the hotel, Caleb’s face broke out into a grin. After years of claiming girls annoyed him, it seemed young Terry had fallen in love. And like most first crushes; the object of his affection was completely unobtainable. Caleb shook his head in amusement. He had wondered too about Scott Lancer’s relationship with Mrs Randall. The town gossips were speculating something fierce and had probed Caleb for information on more than one occasion. Scott did spend an awful lot of time at the hotel, but he was always careful to leave early and as far as Caleb was aware, had never spent the night. No matter what was going on, Caleb remained resolute in his opinion that it was none of his business. If young Terence valued his hide, he would adopt the same outlook.

When Amber opened the door to Scott, she was wearing a cream blouse and dark skirt, her long blonde hair loose and tumbling. She looked beautiful, and when she smiled, it was all he could do not to kiss her properly in the hallway.

“Come in,” Amber pulled him inside the room. Victoria sat by the window. Trapped between Victoria’s knees, Lily was having her hair brushed and it wasn’t going well. When Lily saw Scott, her eyes lit up, and she wriggled from Victoria’s hold.

“Hello, Lily.” Scott scooped his daughter up, laughing as she grabbed his hat and tugged it off.

“Mr Lancer, I believe congratulations are in order.” Victoria smiled warmly at Scott.

Scott threw Amber a questioning look, which she returned with a sheepish smile and a small shrug. “Er…yes, I suppose they are,” Scott said with a smile of his own. “Thank you, Victoria.”

“I’ll take Lily into my room with me for a while,” she suggested. “I’m sure you two have lots to discuss.”

Once they were gone, Amber turned to Scott with a questioning look of her own. “How did it go?”

“Well, I told them.”


“And it went as I expected,” Scott hedged. He didn’t want Amber to know just how difficult it had been, or the details of his father’s reaction.

“Oh, Scott.” Amber reached for his hand.

“They have agreed to support us,” Scott reassured, his fingers squeezing hers.

Amber felt renewed hope. “Even Johnny?” No matter how hard she tried to forget about him, he still lingered in her mind. He did not trust her and that in turn made her not trust him. It would be the perfect revenge for him to destroy things between her and Scott.

“Yes, even Johnny.”

Amber smiled with relief. Perhaps she had gotten through to him in some way that day in the kitchen. Perhaps he’d needed time to adjust and now, finally, was ready to leave the past in the past. Amber threw her arms around Scott, burying her face in his neck. “I’m so glad,” she murmured. “I’ve been so worried all my mistakes would ruin this for us…I couldn’t bear to lose you now.”

Scott brushed her hair from his mouth. “This is our decision, Amber, and it’s the right one.”

Amber drew back and stared into his eyes. Something was troubling him; she knew him well enough to tell. “What is it? Are you having second thoughts?”

Scott shook his head, anxious to reassure her. He had not been through the trauma of telling his family, only to back out now. “No, of course not. It’s just…well…it’s something Murdoch said about love.”


Scott blushed. “My father asked me if I was in love with you.”

Amber would ask his answer, but his inability to meet her eyes told her louder than his voice ever could. He wasn’t sure if he loved her. It hit her like a sledgehammer, yet she had to show him she understood.

“Scott, I don’t take love lightly either,” she said softly. “I’m not under any illusions this is a great romance. Perhaps it could have been if I had not been so stupid before…but what we’re doing, it feels right in my heart, so I’m not ruling it out for the future.”

Scott looked startled that she had put it so logically. It was as if she could read his mind. “I’m not ruling it out either,” he said, breaking into a smile that made Amber want to throw her arms around him all over again.

“Good. So now we have that out the way,” Amber teased, content in her faith that Scott would come around. “I think we should discuss the wedding. I was thinking before Christmas?”

Scott nodded. “We’ll have to get a marriage licence,” he said, his male mind going to the practical aspects of a wedding.

“I can organise that. My concern is what to wear and of course, we’ll have to make arrangements; settle the bill here at the hotel…”

“Yes, we’ll have to decide where to live after the wedding.”

Amber arched one neat eyebrow. “Oh, I assumed we would be living in the hacienda?”

Scott tugged uncomfortably at the collar of his blue shirt. “Amber, I’m not sure we’ll be living in the hacienda, not before the wedding, or after.”

Her mouth dropped open in surprise. What was Scott talking about? Where else were they supposed to live? “Is that what your father said?”

“No, I didn’t discuss this with my father, but I did discuss it with Johnny, and we both thought it wasn’t a good idea.”

Amber gritted her teeth. She might have known it would be Johnny. He did not intend to move on from the past after all. As she suspected all along, he was trying to ruin things between her and Scott. She gazed around, the oppressive pale blue walls and the unpolished floors of this dingy hotel room taunting her. Consumed with a wave of anguish she was unable to hide, Amber flew to her feet.

“Scott, how much longer can you expect us to live like this?” Her voice wavered as she fought back tears and gestured around the room. “I’m going crazy here and it isn’t good for Lily!”

Scott took her gently by the arms. “It won’t be for too much longer, I promise. We’ll work something out. There is no reason why we can’t live at Lancer, why we can’t have our own home right there on the land. But not in the same house, it’s too difficult, it’s too early…”

He raised his hand to her face, tilting her chin up with his fingers.

Amber swallowed her hopes and dreams of being the mistress of Lancer and they buried themselves amongst simmering anger. She had been trying so hard to show everyone she had changed, but it seemed no one could believe it. No one other than Scott would give her a deserved second chance.

Mustering self-control, she plastered a look of understanding on her face. “Scott you’re right, but are your family going to hate me forever? Oh, that would be awful!”

“They don’t hate you, Amber. They just need a bit longer to accept things. We’ve got to take it one step at a time.”

Snaking her arms around his waist, Amber rested her head against his chest. “Lily and I…we’re outcasts,” she murmured.

“No, you’re not. Why don’t you and Lily come to Lancer tomorrow night for dinner?”

Amber’s eyes widened. “To celebrate our engagement?”

“Yes.” If Murdoch and Johnny were truthful in their declarations of support, then they would agree to it.

Amber smiled into Scott’s shirt. A little ray of sunshine had appeared on the horizon of her future. “We would love to.” It was the perfect chance to show them how happy she and Scott were together. To affirm she was a changed woman. It may also allow her to talk to Johnny again, only she would not make the same mistake as last time. This time she knew exactly what she was going to say. He had to realise she was genuine. If she could talk him around, then the others would follow.

The clang of silverware hitting the polished dining table told Johnny all he needed to know about Maria’s mood this evening. The usually good-natured Mexican cook had been unhappy ever since Scott had advised her there would be extra guests for the meal tonight.

At breakfast when Scott mentioned he had invited Amber to dinner, Johnny ensured he ate as much as he could there and then. The way he figured it, by the time evening rolled around, he may have lost his appetite.

Murdoch had surprised everyone with his suggestion they invite Victoria too. Johnny and Scott had exchanged intrigued glances in response. Johnny had to wonder if his father found Victoria quite attractive.

The thought of his father with a woman made Johnny want to shudder and laugh all at the same time. Maybe he should take Murdoch with him, the next time he went to town on a Saturday night. Johnny broke into a wicked grin as he pictured Murdoch sitting in the saloon with a girl like Nancy on his knee. Thinking of Nancy, he oughtta take a trip to town next weekend. Scott might almost be a married man, but he sure as hell wasn’t, and Nancy was a very beautiful girl.

Johnny picked up some cutlery and helped Maria lay the table. He noticed there appeared to be one place too many, even with the addition of Victoria. If Lily was joining them at the table, then he was sitting as far away as possible. Hell, if the girl got that dirty playing outside, he couldn’t imagine what she would be like with her food.

Maria saw Johnny studying the extra place. “Senor Jelly,” she offered as an explanation. “When I tell him Senora Victoria is coming, he tells me he will be joining you for dinner.”

Johnny chuckled. He wondered if dinner might prove interesting after all.

As the buggy rolled to a standstill in front of the house, Murdoch’s eyes strayed to the clock. He did a mental calculation of how long it would be until dinner, how long the meal would last, and ultimately, how long before Amber left. Although she had been back to Lancer a couple of times in recent weeks, this time it was different. This time she came as his future daughter-in-law and that was a concept Murdoch found difficult to swallow. He had meant what he said though; he would support Scott in this. Equally, Murdoch owed support to his younger son. Johnny may not show it, but Murdoch knew he felt uncomfortable in Amber’s presence. He wondered if this was because of the lies she told or the fact his brother was marrying a woman he knew intimately.

Johnny came down the stairs in time to hear the buggy arrive. He watched Scott stride out of the front door to greet Amber, with Murdoch and Jelly following behind. He didn’t wish to join the welcoming committee, but the sight of Jelly all spruced up in his Sunday clothes, bustling Murdoch to get out the front door first, amused him enough to want to see more. He followed them outside and leaned against the cold wall of the hacienda.

With Scott’s help, Amber stepped down from the buggy and gave Murdoch a timid smile. Scott took Lily from Victoria’s arms.

“Amber,” Murdoch greeted as politely as he could. “Maria assures me dinner will not be long.” He knew that wasn’t exactly what he should say when greeting his future daughter-in-law, but it was as far as he could stretch. His gaze settled on Lily and the Lancer patriarch smiled. “Scott, take Lily inside, son. It’s chilly out here.”

Scott escorted his fiancée and daughter into the house, catching his brother’s eye on the way. Johnny knew Scott appreciated his presence, even if he hadn’t said a word of greeting to Amber.

As Victoria was about to exit the buggy, Murdoch and Jelly stepped forward at the same time, resulting in Jelly’s polished shoe landing on Murdoch’s foot. Both men cast irritated glances at each other and by the time Jelly had removed his foot, Victoria had descended from the buggy without help. “Murdoch and Jelly, it’s so kind of you to invite me.”

“You’re welcome, ma’am.” Jelly tucked his thumbs behind his suspenders and puffed out his chest.

“Victoria, I’m so pleased you could come.” Murdoch offered his arm and escorted Victoria into the house, leaving Jelly to stand there with a frown. He was about to mutter his irritation when the sound of Johnny’s smothered laughter met his ears. Jelly turned around and glared at the dark-haired young man who was grinning from ear to ear. “I dunno what’s so funny, boy.” Jelly went to stroke his whiskers, only to realise there was not much left of them thanks to a rather hastily arranged trip to the barber that afternoon.

“Nothin’, Jelly,” Johnny said, trying his best to look innocent. “Nothin’ at all.” He didn’t hear the rest of Jelly’s mutterings over his laughter, as the old man made his way into the house. His amusement over Jelly’s antics sure put him in a better frame of mind for a meal with Amber. He avoided pre-dinner conversation by helping Maria and Teresa in the kitchen.

Thanks to Murdoch, Scott and Jelly, the conversation flowed smoothly at dinner.

Maria had offered to feed and look after Lily in the kitchen so Victoria could eat dinner with everyone else. Johnny smirked as Murdoch told Victoria all about Lancer, only for Jelly to butt in with conflicting views on how he should run the ranch. Murdoch was struggling to hide his irritation with the older man. Victoria, seated between the two, was trying her utmost to placate both by smiling and listening to the varying points of view.

Johnny had to admire Victoria’s patience. His old man needed to work on his wooing technique if all he could talk about was cattle.

Further down the table, Amber had switched off from a conversation she found boring. Everyone, including Scott, seemed to have a great interest in cattle. For the life of her, she could not think why. Her thoughts turned to the conversation she wanted to have with Johnny, and she went over the things she needed to say. All she needed was the opportunity. With a house full of people, it would be hard to get him alone.

Realising she’d been daydreaming, Amber tried to focus again on the conversation around the table. She caught Murdoch saying something about bringing Angus over from Scotland and she wondered whom he was talking about. Looking to Scott for help, she nudged him, and asked, “Is Angus a friend of your father’s?”

Unfortunately, she spoke at the same time as a natural pause in the conversation, meaning everyone heard her question.

Teresa smiled down into her dinner, Murdoch looked unimpressed, and Jelly rolled his eyes. Johnny tried his best not to laugh, but failed, his snort of laughter adding to her humiliation.

Amber blushed as she realised she must have said something stupid. Looking to Scott for support, she cringed when she saw he was also trying not to laugh. “Angus is a Scottish breed of cattle.”

“Oh,” Amber muttered, her cheeks glowing. She should have guessed they were still talking about stupid cows. She kept quiet for the rest of the meal and afterwards went to get Lily from Maria, her gracious thank you met with a curt nod.

Johnny left everyone to it, figuring he had been supportive enough for one evening. Murdoch noticed his younger son had disappeared as they settled in the great room, but he didn’t mind. He knew Johnny hadn’t gone far because his gun belt was still hanging on the stand.

As they sat down, the women drank coffee while the men had brandy, and soon the conversation inevitably turned to the wedding. Murdoch thought the wedding needed to be a quiet affair, but judging by the way Amber’s eyes lit up when she talked about it, she had something else in mind.

He gazed at his granddaughter, who was sitting on her mother’s lap, her eyelids growing heavy as each minute passed. He watched with amusement as she struggled to keep them open, not wanting to miss anything. Eventually, she lost her battle, and they slid shut.

Amber glanced down at her sleeping daughter. “I’ll put her to bed upstairs for a while, is that all right?”

Murdoch nodded and Scott stood. “I’ll take her to my room,” he offered.

Amber shook her head. “No, it’s all right Scott. I’ll take her. I remember the way to your room.”

Scott flushed, Murdoch frowned, and Amber blushed scarlet again.

“Mrs Randall, I’ll sit with her of course.” Victoria rose to her feet.

“No, please, finish your coffee. I’ll settle her down.”

As she walked up the stairs, Amber shook her head mournfully. Why was everything going so wrong this evening? At the top of the staircase, she stared at the row of doors, remembering exactly which one was Johnny’s and which one was Scott’s. She opened the door to Scott’s room and entered.

Johnny slipped back inside the house and when straight upstairs when he heard the conversation still going on in the great room. Hearing movement coming from Scott’s room, and thinking it was his brother, Johnny pushed the door open. “Hey, Scott,” he said before realising his brother was not in the room. Instead, he found himself looking straight at Amber. With a scowl, he turned to leave, but Amber stopped him, her voice pleading.

“Johnny, please wait. I want to talk to you.”

“I don’t have anything to say to you.”

Her hand went to his arm. He narrowed his eyes, appraising it like a venomous spider he intended to shake off and stomp on. When he raised his head, he met her eyes with a challenge.

Amber snatched back her hand. “Look, Johnny, I don’t want to play games. I don’t want to make excuses. I only want to talk for a minute. Are you too scared to do that?”

Johnny raised his eyebrows and a dark look settled over his handsome face. “I think it should be you who’s scared,” he said quietly. “After all, you and I are alone. Ain’t ya worried I might force you into something?”

Amber sighed. “People can change Johnny.” She clasped her hands and looked at him with hopeful eyes.

“Yeah, people can.”

“But not me, right?” Amber hissed. She swept her blonde hair from her face in frustration. He was doing it again, shutting her out when she needed to know what was going on inside his head.

“Well, you said it.”

Amber bit down hard on her bottom lip. She had to remain calm and not get infuriated by his attitude. “Maybe, you’re not prepared to let me change, Johnny. Have you considered that?”

Johnny rolled his eyes. “Amber, it ain’t got nothin’ to do with me. Scott thinks you’ve changed, why can’t you be content with that?”

“Yes. Why can’t I? It would be easy to take Scott and Lily away from here and to hell with the rest of you, but I’m not going to do that.” She stopped speaking as Lily stirred. Going over to her daughter, she stroked Lily’s hair away from her face before turning to Johnny. “I’m trying to put things right as best as I can.”

Downstairs, Scott finished his drink and excused himself, heading up to see if Amber had Lily settled down. He had reached the upper hallway when he heard Amber and Johnny’s voices coming from his bedroom. He didn’t know why but he felt a twinge of unease in his stomach. Pushing it aside, he crept down the hall. His bedroom door was open and Johnny leaned on the frame, his back to Scott.

“I’m trying to make things right as best as I can,” Amber was saying. Scott stopped still, alert and listening for Johnny’s response. He felt guilty about eavesdropping, but he couldn’t help himself. He wanted to hear what they had to say to each other.


“Because I feel so darn guilty, all right, about what I said you did. I feel guilty that I hurt Scott, Teresa and you. Perhaps I’m still being selfish, but nothing I can do will change the past. I’m asking for another chance, Johnny. A chance to start a new life with my family. Can’t you understand?”

Johnny hesitated; her words must have struck an unwelcome chord with him.

It sounded like Amber’s patience had run out. “Johnny?”

“Maybe,” Johnny answered, turning and leaving the room. As he stepped into the hall, he looked surprised to see Scott standing there.

“Everything okay?” Scott asked, embarrassed about eavesdropping.

Johnny nodded and went into his room, shutting the door behind him. Scott stood alone in the hall, considering the overheard conversation. Amber was sincere in her efforts to make amends with Johnny, and he wondered whether his brother believed it. He hoped he did.

Finally, the evening over, Murdoch stood outside with Jelly, watching the buggy depart as Scott drove them back to Green River.

“Darn shame ‘bout Victoria’s son comin’ Tuesday an’ all,” Jelly grumbled, more to himself than his boss. “I thought she might be takin’ me up on my offer to show her the ranch.”

Murdoch glanced down at the shorter man in annoyance. “It was my offer, Jelly,” he said testily. He liked Victoria. It had been a long time since he had met a lady he found so easy to talk to.

On an overcast and chilly Tuesday morning, wearing his thickest jacket, Johnny made his way down Green River’s main street. Walking along the boardwalk, he came across Terry Hawkins standing in the alley alongside the hotel. The boy had one hand resting on a broom handle, the other on his lips as he inhaled from a cigarette. Sneaking up on him, Johnny couldn’t resist saying, “Hey there, Caleb!” He took great delight when Terry almost choked in his haste to drop the cigarette and stomp on it. Johnny chuckled and slapped the young man on the back.

Terry glared. “You’re real funny, Johnny.” Just lately these Lancers were the bane of his young life.

“I’m sorry,” Johnny said. He was about to return to Barranca when the boy caught him off guard with a surprising question.

“Yer brother ain’t seein’ Mrs Randall no more then?” Terry didn’t try hard to keep the hopeful note from his voice.

Johnny stared at the young man. “What makes you say that?”

Shrugging, Terry went back to sweeping the dusty wooden boards.

Johnny narrowed his eyes. There was a reason why Terry had asked that question, but the boy didn’t seem prepared to part with it. “Well, you can’t blame Scott for trying, now, can ya? Mrs Randall sure is a good-lookin’ woman.”

Terry looked glum.

“Fine women like her, they don’t go for just anyone,” Johnny continued. “Takes a special kinda man to get a woman like that.”

Terry’s expression darkened. “Well, she’s found one. Although I don’t see what’s so special ‘bout ‘im.”

Johnny did not react to the sense of foreboding he felt. “Scott will be disappointed. What makes you so sure she’s found herself another man, anyways?”

Terry scuffed his boot. “He spent the night in her room and they ate breakfast together this mornin’,” he scoffed. “Reckon I can be sure enough!”

Johnny swallowed hard. “This man, he still around?”

Terry nodded forlornly.

“I gotta go, Terry.” Johnny walked away, leaving Terry to sweep away his dreams of Amber.

Johnny collected Barranca and climbed in the saddle in a daze. Scott will be disappointed. What an understatement. It would devastate Scott to learn that, only a few days after their engagement, she was already up to her old tricks.

Damn it. What the hell was he supposed to do? Usually, Johnny appreciated Barranca’s listening ears, but today he could use some advice.

You don’t have to tell him, a voice in his head, said. Maybe there was truth in the old saying that what you didn’t know, couldn’t hurt you. But keeping this from Scott would not do his brother any favours. Scott needed to find out she hadn’t changed before he got stuck with her as his wife.

Amber’s actions had proved Johnny right, but he didn’t feel the faintest bit smug. How could he when his brother was the injured party? Johnny cursed Amber, wishing he had been wrong.

He could handle it himself; Johnny almost turned around. He could get rid of the man and tell Amber to leave, make her give Scott some excuse why she couldn’t marry him. Although still hurt, Scott would not have the sense of betrayal bound to fester. There was one problem with that plan, though. One small girl to be plain. Scott could not lose Lily. At least if he knew the truth, no matter how painful it was, Scott would fight for his daughter tooth and nail.

Johnny knew he had to tell Scott the truth. There would be nothing gained from putting it off.

Chapter Nine

For the second time that day, Scott landed on his backside in the slimy mud of the stream bank. He grimaced, looking up at the sound of an approaching rider.

“If you’ve come to give me a hand, you’re conveniently late, brother,” Scott said, reaching down to wipe the mud from his hands onto the grass. When Johnny didn’t come back with a witty retort, Scott knew he was upset about something. “What is it?” he asked, trudging up the embankment to where his brother sat on his horse.

Johnny hesitated, not knowing how to start.

“Did something happen in town? Don’t tell me you managed to lose the money meant for the bank in a poker game?” When Johnny still didn’t crack a smile, Scott ran his hand down Barranca’s neck. “Johnny?”

“Scott, I need to tell you something and you’re not gonna like it.”

“Get it said, then.”

“It’s about Amber.” Johnny dismounted from Barranca. When he was facing his brother, he took a deep breath and blurted out, “She’s seein’ someone else.”

For a moment, all Scott heard was the babbling of water in the stream. He opened his mouth but no words would come, except, “What?”

Johnny knew his brother wasn’t asking him to repeat himself. “I’m sorry, Scott.”

“How do you know?”

“Terry Hawkins told me he’s seen her with another man. He says this man spent the night in her hotel room.”

“Terry?” The name meant nothing at this moment in time.

“Caleb’s nephew. He works in the hotel sometimes.”

Scott took a deep breath and tried to order his feelings. He couldn’t believe it. Not again. Not this time. Not with Lily to consider. He wanted to deny what Johnny was saying, but the ghosts of the past wouldn’t let him.

“When?” Scott asked his brother. “When did this happen?”

Johnny looked uncomfortable, “Last night. They had breakfast together this mornin’.”

Scott looked surprised. “She told me she couldn’t see me.” He stared out across the fields, no longer aware of his brother’s presence. “She told me she wanted to stay at the hotel and design her wedding gown.”

Johnny put his hand on Scott’s shoulder. Scott turned to face him; eyes hazy with confusion. “I can’t believe she would do this, not after all that’s happened, not with Lily to consider.”

Johnny looked incredulous. “C’mon, Scott, she hasn’t changed.”

“So, everyone keeps saying,” Scott snapped. “Johnny, you must have got this wrong.”

Johnny shook his head. “Wake up, Scott. This is what happened last time. One man ain’t enough for her. Don’t s’pose it ever will be.”

Scott shook off his brother’s hand and strode across the grass to his horse.

“Where you going?” Johnny called out as Scott mounted up and set off.

“I’m going back to get changed, and then I’m going to Green River.”

Johnny watched Scott ride away and kicked his boot through the grass. Had he done the right thing?

Scott arrived back at the hacienda with a stormy look on his face. He left his horse out front and went straight to his room. He leaned against the door and closed his eyes. His heart so wanted to disagree with his brother and refute his remarks, but his mind wouldn’t let him.

She had done this to him before. Only this wasn’t quite like last time. This time it was much worse because of Lily.

As tempting as it was to hole up here in his room, Scott knew he had to go see Amber and find out the truth. Right now, he didn’t know what feelings were real and which feelings to trust. Perhaps his family were right all along, and he had been stupid. Or Johnny had got it all wrong somehow, and Scott was falling at the first hurdle by doubting the woman he professed to trust.

Scott stripped off his muddy clothes and, for once, didn’t tidy up after himself. Instead, he left them in a crumpled pile on the floor. He could do with a bath but was too restless to sit in a tub. He washed up as best he could and changed into some clean clothes. What was he going to say to Amber, if Johnny was right? Where would he even begin?

Downstairs, he was surprised to find Johnny waiting for him.

“You, okay?”

“I will be as soon as I get this straightened out.”

“You want me to come with ya?”

Scott hesitated. If Johnny had made a mistake, then it would be beneficial for his brother to be there when he realised that. Maybe then, he would start to accept Amber had changed.

Amber sat at the table in her hotel room, one elbow resting on the wooden surface, with her palm pressed to her cheek. She stared at the dress sketches she had done so far, twirling a pencil absentmindedly in her fingers. Across the other side of the room, Lily was playing with her toys and chatting with her doll.

The setback over living arrangements made Amber determined to focus on something positive. Having little confidence in the dressmakers of these parts – she’d seen how Teresa dressed after all – she had decided to have a wedding dress made by a reputable dressmaker she’d used in the past. She wanted to design something for Lily too; she would look so cute in a little gown. It was important to Amber that she had a special dress for this special marriage. She would be the envy of all when she married the handsome Scott Lancer.

Of course, she wouldn’t be envied if none of his family turned up for their wedding. She hoped she had taken steps to get through to Johnny. She thought she had seen something soften in his eyes when he’d looked down at Lily sleeping on the bed.

Rising from the table, Amber went over to Lily and sat down on the floor. “Your Daddy and I are going to be very happy,” she whispered to her daughter and Lily smiled.

A knock on the door got Amber to her feet again and she smoothed down her dress and hair before answering it. Her face broke out into a welcoming smile when she opened the door to Victoria’s son.

Michael Clark was a handsome man. He had dark brown hair and the rich brown eyes of his mother. He was clean-shaven with chiselled features, tall with height inherited from his father. When he smiled, he had cute dimples that made him look younger than his twenty-eight years, and Amber thought he would be a good catch for a lucky woman.

“Michael, please come in,” Amber said warmly.

“I’ve got settled in my own room at last,” Michael said, “And mother and I are about to go out for a walk. I wanted to stop by and thank you again for last night.”

Amber smiled. “Oh, Michael, there is no need to thank me. It was no hardship at all, really.”

Michael smiled and cast his eyes over the dress sketches on the table. “These are good,” he remarked, picking up the top sheet and staring at Amber’s design. “Are you a dressmaker?”

Amber laughed. “Oh, no,” she said. “But I know what I want. I want the perfect dress for my wedding.”

“Mr Lancer is a lucky man,” Michael said kindly.

Amber blushed. “Thank you, but it’s me who is the lucky one.”

Michael smiled. “Well, I had best go and see if Mother is ready. Are you sure you and Lily won’t join us?”

“No, but thank you.”

She liked Michael, he seemed like a fine, decent man and he had made a good impression since arriving yesterday, a day early. There were no rooms available for this extra night so Amber had offered to give up her room so Michael had somewhere to sleep. Usually, she would never have dreamed of such a thing, but she was feeling happy and generous, and as she had said to Michael, it had not been any hardship. After all, it was not right for a young man to sleep in the same room as his mother. Victoria’s room contained two single beds as opposed to the large bed that occupied Amber’s room. It had seemed the most logical solution.

Smiling his farewell, Michael returned to the door. He had just stepped into the hall when he collided with another man.

Stunned, Scott watched the man leave Amber’s room. Filled with a surge of anger, he grabbed Michael by the front of his shirt and slammed him up against the wall.

Hearing the commotion, Amber reopened the door and her eyes widened in horror as she saw Michael pinned by a furious Scott. Closing the door so Lily didn’t witness what was going on, Amber rushed forward and tried to prise Scott’s hands from Michael’s shirt. “Scott, what on earth are you doing?”

Johnny, who had been waiting on the stairs, raced up when he heard the commotion. He almost collided with Victoria, who had just come out of her room, dressed in a winter coat and gloves.

“Mr Lancer. What in God’s name are you doing to my son?”

As Victoria’s words registered in his brain, Scott reluctantly let go of Michael’s shirt. “Your son?” he asked in confusion, glancing at Johnny, who looked surprised.

“Yes, my son,” Victoria snapped, pulling a bemused Michael to her side.

Scott looked at Amber. “What was he doing coming out of your room?”

Amber looked indignant. “He stopped by to thank me.”

“What did he have to thank you for?”

Her eyes narrowed. “Scott Lancer, what are you trying to say?”

Scott glared back at her; uncomfortable they were having this conversation with an audience. “We should go inside to talk.” He tried his best to sound calm and reasonable, but Amber shook her head.

“No, I don’t think I have anything further to say to you.”

“Fine,” Scott snapped. “I know enough.”

Amber placed her hands on her hips. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“It means the boy downstairs told Johnny that this man,” he pointed at Michael, “spent the night in your room. Are you going to deny it?”

Amber glared at Johnny. Trust him to feed Scott these lies. “No, I’m not denying that,” she said curtly.

The lack of denial stabbed Scott like the final nail into the coffin. His brother had been right all along; Amber had not changed at all. Unable to think, Scott knew he had to get out, he needed to clear his head and get back some train of reasonable thought. He turned to leave.

“Michael is Victoria’s son. He was due to arrive tomorrow, but he arrived a day early. There were no available rooms last night, so I gave up my room. I spent the night with Lily and Victoria. Michael was thanking me for my kindness. That’s all.”

“That is the truth of the matter, Mr Lancer,” Michael added.

Scott swallowed hard. “What about breakfast?”

“We all ate breakfast together, Mr Lancer,” Victoria affirmed. She sounded upset and offended at the aspersions cast on her son’s conduct.

Scott looked at Johnny, whose gaze didn’t manage to meet his. He had got this wrong, or more to the point, Terry had misunderstood the situation. Taking a deep breath, Scott faced Michael and Victoria. “I’m sorry. There seems to have been a misunderstanding.”

Michael extended his hand to Scott in a gesture that showed there were no hard feelings. “I’m Michael Clark by the way,” he said courteously.

Scott took the offered hand and shook it, completely mortified over his behaviour. He turned to face Amber but she was no longer there, the slam of her door telling him exactly how she felt.

Victoria winced at the slam. “Michael and I were about to go out for a walk. Perhaps I should take Lily along? It seems to me you and Amber need to talk.”

Scott looked at the woman sheepishly. “Thank you.”

As Victoria went to fetch Lily, Michael excused himself into Victoria’s room, leaving the two brothers alone in the hall.

“I’m sorry,” Johnny offered, annoyed with himself for placing too much faith in Terry’s information.

Scott shrugged, his annoyance at his brother fading. “How were you to know there was another explanation? I should have known better. I’m the one who claimed to trust her.”

“It was a natural reaction after all she’s done, Scott.”

“Yes, but that’s in the past. Johnny, go home. I’ll see you back there later. Don’t mention this to Murdoch, please.”

Scott took his time before facing Amber. Even after Victoria had left with Lily, he remained in the hall. He’d messed up in a big way and he had no idea how he was going to sort this. He wouldn’t blame Amber if she wanted nothing more to do with him. After all, marriage had been his idea, yet he was the one whose trust crumbled at the first test. Would it always be this way?

He realised now it had been short-sighted of him to think this could be straightforward. The past was not so easily forgotten by anyone, not least himself.

Finally, he went inside. Amber was in the bedroom. The sound of her crying reached his ears and when he inched the door open, she refused to acknowledge his presence. He sat beside her on the bed. Her eyes were wet with tears glistening on her lashes.

“Amber, I’m sorry.” As he’d tried to get her to understand years ago, sorry didn’t cover it. “Amber, please. I made a mistake. Terry told Johnny about the other man in your room, and I jumped to the wrong conclusion. I put two and two together and made five. I’m so sorry.”

“An apology doesn’t change the fact you don’t trust me.”

Scott searched for the words to explain. How could he tell her, his head was full of images. Images of her with other men, with Johnny. “I’m trying to trust you,” he said softly. “I want to.”

“But you can’t. You didn’t even give me a chance to explain out there. You took Johnny’s word without even asking mine. You just charged in. Is this how our life would be together? You assume the worst at every turn?” She sighed and placed her hand on his. “This isn’t going to work,” she said with regret.

God, this was hard. He wanted to gather her up. He wanted to turn back time. He wanted it to work between them, and not only for Lily.

“It can work. I do want you.”

Amber raised her brows. She rolled closer to him on the bed and whispered, “Prove it then. Make love to me.”

Her fingers worked the buttons of his shirt and then she was pushing the fabric down his shoulders. He let her do it.

Johnny was wrong. She had changed. She cared about him. Scott chanted these words in his head as Amber undressed before him. He wasn’t aware when the chanting ceased. His body responded to her nakedness, his pulse racing, breath coming a little quicker. She discarded the last of her clothes to the floor. She took him in her hands and kissed his lips. He shucked off his pants and lowered himself over her, one arm resting on the soft pillow above her head for support. Amber held his gaze and circled her arms around his neck, drawing him closer. They kissed and he reached for her this time, his fingers teasing down her stomach to settle between her thighs.

Amber closed her eyes, arching beneath him. Staring at her, he found himself wondering if this was what she looked like with other men. If this was what she looked like with Johnny. He tried to think of something else, but the image refused to fade. He felt the fire in his body start to cool, the pressure that had been building, disband. Amber’s left hand grasped at the bedclothes, her nails clawing at the cotton sheets, while her other hand circled him, ready to guide him in.

They realised something was wrong at the same time. Scott bolted from the bed, reaching for his clothes.

“Scott?” She wrapped herself in the bed sheet.

He couldn’t look her in the eye. The heat that had abandoned him at the crucial moment had found its way to his face. His cheeks burned. “I’ve got to go,” he muttered, grabbing his boots and hurrying from the bedroom.

Amber swung her legs over the side of the bed. She felt empty and unfulfilled. Was she not desirable anymore? She opened the sheet and peeked at her body, wondering if age and childbirth had taken their toll. Nothing like this had happened to her before and she didn’t know what to make of it. She felt embarrassed, unwanted and more than a little insulted.

Getting to her feet, she took the bed sheet with her.

Scott was sitting by the table, putting his boots on.

“You can’t just leave like this!”

Scott stood and grabbed his jacket. He noticed her dress sketches on the table and hung his head, wishing a gigantic hole would open and swallow him. What happened in the bedroom had never happened to him before. It was mortifying.

Amber stomped over and blocked his path. Holding the sheet to her body with one hand, she reached out and cupped his chin. “There’s no need to be embarrassed.”

Well, that made it ten times worse. The last thing he needed was her pity. Knocking her hand from his face, Scott went for the door, only for her to catch his arm with surprising strength. “What happened back there?”

“I thought that was obvious.”

“I mean why. Why did it happen?”

Scott said nothing. Why was she pushing this when he didn’t want to talk about it?

“Scott…please talk to me. Don’t you think you owe me that?”

Scott scowled. “Damn it Amber!” he snapped. “Why do you think it happened? Because of you, because when I was with you, all I could picture was you with other men, with my own brother!”

Amber let go of his arm and took a step back, adjusting the sheet around her body. “I see,” she replied in a tight voice. “Well, there isn’t a lot I can say to that is there?”

Scott already regretted his outburst. “I’m sorry,” he muttered.

Amber went quiet. She had tried to make this work but the mountain was too steep and slippery for her to climb. “I am too,” she said softly. “I’m sorry it’s over between us.”

Scott met her eyes. All he saw was her honesty and sadness. “Amber…” he started, but she shook her head.

“Don’t,” she said. “Your whole family hates me, especially your brother, but most of all, you can’t trust me. There is no way I can marry you now, we’d both be miserable. There is no point to us. We’ll need to see each other again to make arrangements for Lily, but that’s all. I want you to go.” She turned, but not before he saw her eyes brim with tears. He stood there, not knowing what to do or say. He didn’t think he’d ever felt as wretched. Without another word, he left the room.

As the door closed on Scott’s departure and the end of her dreams, it was too much for Amber to take. She collapsed on the floor and sobbed. She wasn’t sure how long she lay curled in her bedsheet, but eventually, she pulled herself together. She tore up the wedding dress sketches and let them scatter like snow around her feet. Everything had been going so well until today. She burned with the injustice of the falsely accused.

Damn that Johnny Lancer. This was all his fault. She had been foolish. She should have known things would not work with Johnny around. She should have made plans, and never underestimated Johnny’s desire for revenge. With a groan of fury, Amber picked up a glass from the table and hurled it at the door. It shattered into fragments.

“Damn him,” she muttered, burying her head in her hands.

Outside of Amber’s room, Scott hesitated at the sound of her sobbing. He considered going back inside and telling Amber this wasn’t what he wanted. In the end, he walked outside into the bustling street. Everything seemed so normal, only nothing about today felt normal for him. He stepped off the boardwalk and untied his horse from the railing. He imagined people staring at him as if they knew exactly what had gone on. Maybe they did. What had happened in the hallway of the hotel had not been exactly discreet. Right now, he didn’t care. Just as he and Amber were over, so too would the gossip be before long, when people found something new to talk about.

As he rode home beneath overcast skies, Scott barely felt the chill, his anger acting as the warmest winter coat. Frustration spread through his body, warming him like a flask of hot coffee. He kept picturing the hurt and confusion on Amber’s face. It had been images of Amber with other men, each faceless except for one. Scott had thought he would be able to handle it. He’d been wrong.

Scott gripped the reins. After all the hurt Amber had caused the first time, she had given up on them easily; bailed out at the first sign of trouble, the first bump in the road. Was Amber the only one allowed to make mistakes? Now Lily would grow up with two parents in two separate homes.

“Damn it,” Scott swore aloud. If only Johnny had got his facts straight first.

He wondered how his father and brother were going to react when they found out it was over. Scott pictured Murdoch trying not to look too happy or relieved, whilst waving the lawyer’s telegram under his nose. Johnny would say he was sorry, but he wouldn’t be.

Johnny stepped outside of the hacienda when he spotted Scott riding in. He guessed things had not gone well with Amber from Scott’s tense posture on the horse.

“Hey,” he said softly as his brother approached. “Did you sort things out?” He studied Scott’s face, looking for some reassurance Scott didn’t blame him. He felt bad for getting it wrong and had mentally kicked himself all the way home. Why had he not sought the corroboration of Terry’s story first?

“No, we didn’t. She said it’s over.”

“I’m sorry.”

Scott turned to face his brother. “Are you?” he challenged. “Don’t tell me you’re not relieved to hear it. This is what you were hoping for all along, isn’t it?”

Johnny stared down at his boots. Scott wasn’t exactly wrong. By the time he arrived home, he’d realised he hadn’t thought to verify Terry’s story because he didn’t trust Amber. Unlike Scott, he’d never kidded himself he could.

“I’m sorry I got it wrong,” Johnny said, bringing his eyes level with his brother’s. “But I’m not sorry it’s over between you. I reckon it’s for the best.”

Scott fixed his brother with a steady stare. “The best for whom?”

Chapter Ten

When Victoria returned to the hotel later that afternoon, she found Amber undressed on the floor. Placing one comforting arm around Lily and the other hand on Amber’s shaking shoulder, Victoria asked, “Mrs Randall, are you all right?”

Amber hastily wiped away her tears. “Oh, Victoria, it has all gone so wrong.”

Victoria helped Lily out of her coat while Amber dragged herself to the bedroom to change. When she finally reappeared, she’d washed the tears from her face, but looked pale and tired. Leaning across the table, Victoria squeezed Amber’s hand. “Mrs Randall, do you want to talk about it?” she asked, her gaze soft with compassion.

“Please call me Amber. I hate Mrs Randall.” A fresh tear slipped down her cheek. “Scott doesn’t trust me,” she said sorrowfully. “He thought Michael and I had…” Her cheeks reddened and Victoria pursed her lips, remembering well what Scott Lancer assumed.

“I told him to go and he did. Just like that. With not a thought for me or Lily.” Amber paced the room. “It’s over.”

Victoria shook her head. “I’m sorry, Amber. Perhaps it’s for the best?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well…” Victoria hoped she wasn’t about to speak out of turn. “Trust is one of the most important aspects of a relationship and if Mr Lancer has an issue with trusting people…”

“No, Victoria, you don’t understand. Scott has every right not to trust me, but I’d hoped he would be able to leave the past behind and start again, if not for us then for Lily.”

Did she leave Scott for her husband?

As if hearing Victoria’s silent question, Amber shifted in her chair. “When I was with Scott before, I did something stupid, and looking back, I can’t believe I did something so out of character.” She looked at Victoria from beneath her lashes and realised she had the older woman’s complete attention. “In a moment of weakness, I allowed Johnny Lancer to make love to me.”

Johnny Lancer?” Victoria opened her mouth in shock at the admission and her gaze flew to Lily, thankful the little girl could not comprehend her mother’s words. “Oh, my,” Victoria stammered, not sure what else she could say.

“I was so foolish,” Amber said, tears returning to her eyes. “Now Lily is going to miss out on so much because of my mistake.”

Despite disapproving of her actions, Victoria’s heart went out to Amber. From what she had seen so far, she only had eyes for Scott. Suddenly, everything made sense: the awkwardness when they had visited the ranch; Murdoch’s reserved reaction to his future daughter-in-law; the impromptu bath in the horse trough. The fact that Amber and Scott had persevered was a testament to their determination to be together though, surely? “Do you love Scott?”

“I love him so much. I would do anything to make things work between us.”

“And have you told him this? Have you told him you love him?”


“Well, you need to. Talk to him, talk everything through. From what I’ve seen of Scott Lancer, he is a good, kind, young man and while what I witnessed today disturbed me, I now know why he acted the way he did. Amber, you said you made a mistake with Johnny. Isn’t Scott allowed to make a mistake?”

Amber’s eyes widened, “Yes of course he is, but what if he won’t listen to me? What if it is too late?”

“If he cares for you, then he will listen.”

Once Victoria had returned to her room, Amber sat with Lily on her lap and stared out of the window. It had felt good to confess to Victoria, even if she had smudged the lines of truth a little.

What Victoria said made a lot of sense and perhaps there was hope for her and Scott after all. Looking down, she let her fingers trail slowly through Lily’s golden curls and planted a soft kiss on the top of her daughter’s head. She was going to fight for Scott. Do and say whatever it took to make him see she wanted him and they could make a marriage work.

It was going to take time, but he was worth waiting for. But he would need to get the images of the past from his mind. Johnny’s continued presence would make that difficult. How could they be happy when Johnny would be forever waiting in the wings to trip her up, to whisper words of poison into his brother’s ear? Pink lips set in a determined line, Amber vowed she would marry Scott and they would be a proper family. It would be so much better if Johnny wasn’t around at all.

Murdoch sat at the kitchen table and as he ate his breakfast, he contemplated his two sons. Since yesterday, neither had seemed their usual selves. The fact there was no talking or laughing at the table this morning only confirmed something was amiss. They were still speaking to each other it seemed, well, as much as they were speaking to anyone; so, they hadn’t fallen out. Still, there was something wrong, and a glance at Teresa told him she was thinking the same thing.

Spearing a piece of bacon with his fork, Murdoch looked at Scott. “Are you going to see Amber and Lily today, son?”

“No, I thought we’d be too busy.”

“I think we can spare you.”

Scott shifted in his seat. He knew he had to tell his family there would be no wedding, but he needed longer to come to terms with it first. Johnny attempted to provide a reprieve.

“I don’t know ‘bout that, Murdoch.” Johnny pushed the eggs around his plate. “We got a lot to do today; those fences need checking along the corrals, and if you want to get that herd moved then we need to do that soon and…”

Murdoch set his fork down and studied Johnny. Usually, Johnny would be the one to come up with every reason under the sun why the chores could wait. The sudden turn about face gave Murdoch an inkling of what might be wrong with his dark-haired son. “While they are all important jobs, we can handle them without Scott, can’t we?”

Johnny hesitated and stole a glance at Scott. “I guess so, but I was gonna speak to Tom Andrews ‘bout that bull we’re interested in.”

“There’s no need. I’ve already arranged for Tom to stop by on his way back from Stockton so we can discuss that then.”

Johnny nodded reluctantly, sending a silent I tried in his brother’s direction.

“That’s settled then.” Murdoch pushed his empty plate away.

“Thank you, sir.” Scott forced himself to look upbeat as he, too, pushed his half-eaten breakfast plate away and got to his feet. When Johnny made to follow, Murdoch motioned for him to sit.

“What was that about?”

Teresa paused with the plates in her hand and looked between father and son. Setting the plates back down on the table, she muttered aloud, “Where has Maria got to?” and left the room.

Johnny watched her leave and let out a resigned sigh. His attempt to rescue his brother had not gone unnoticed. Johnny hoped Murdoch was not about to try to extract information from the wrong son.

“What was what about?” he hedged, bringing his blue eyes level with his father and trying his best to look clueless.

Murdoch leaned back in his chair and folded his arms. Johnny was rarely clueless about anything. “You know what,” he said patiently. “Trying to keep your brother at the ranch today, instead of spending time with Amber. I know this is difficult and you have every reason to dislike her, but I thought we had decided we would support Scott in this?”

Johnny’s head shot up. “That ain’t it,” he protested.

A bemused look settled over Murdoch’s features. “It isn’t?”

“No, I thought we had a lot on today. I didn’t realise you’d already arranged with Tom Andrews to stop by. I thought we’d have to go to him to discuss a price for the bull.”

Murdoch rested his elbows on the tabletop. “Well, Tom is a good friend. I thought it would be nice if he stopped by so we could catch up. I’m sorry if I got it wrong about Amber, son. I thought you might still find it awkward. I wasn’t about to blame you.”

Johnny stacked his plate on top of Teresa’s pile. “I still don’t like her, but so long as I don’t have to see her every day, then I don’t have a problem with it.”

“Well, that is the right attitude to take. I’m proud of you, Johnny.”

Johnny flushed. Murdoch wouldn’t be so proud if he knew the truth.

“Is there anything else bothering you? You have been quiet.”

“No. Nothin’s wrong with me Murdoch, I’m a little tired is all. Can I go now?”

“Yes, you can go.” Murdoch waved him away, feeling reassured he had got it wrong.

As the early morning sunlight first made its appearance on the horizon, Amber was up, dressed, and feeling determined. After breakfast, she wasted no time in sidling up to the front desk and flashing a beaming smile in Caleb’s direction. She explained her predicament and asked if he could assist.

“Terry, I’m sure you wouldn’t mind hitchin’ up the buggy for Mrs Randall, now, would ya?” Caleb asked his nephew, not missing the bright smile that lit up the young man’s face.

“Nope,” Terry said eagerly. “Where ya plannin’ on goin’, Mrs Randall?”

Amber turned her smile on young Terry. “I need you to drive me out to Lancer. I will have Lily with me and can’t manage the reins and her at the same time.”

Terry’s face fell at the destination, but he disappeared out back to get the buggy ready.

Twenty minutes later they were on their way to Lancer. Amber was sitting beside Terry, with Lily cuddled on her lap. The air was cold, despite the sunlight, and Amber pulled her lilac shawl further around her shoulders. The chilly wind blew into her face and made her eyes water. Lily wore her winter coat and kept her face buried in Amber’s chest for warmth and comfort. Terry remained quiet; his eyes fixed on the road in front of them.

Amber snuck a look at him and pondered his chances of ever developing into a handsome young man. Slim to none, she decided, as Terry wiped his streaming nose with the back of his hand.

“So, tell me, Terry. Have you always lived in Green River?”

Terry tucked a strand of greasy blonde hair behind his ear. “All my life, ma’am. I don’t intend to forever though, I got plans. One day I want to own a big ranch and I’m gonna be rich like…” his voice trailed off as he realised his error.

“Like the Lancers?” Amber prompted and when Terry nodded, she continued, “So you’ve known the Lancers all your life too?”

“Only known Scott and Johnny since they came home, but Murdoch Lancer’s lived ‘round these parts since way before I was born.”

“Well, I have to confess I don’t know Johnny too well yet,” she said. “He seems likeable enough though, don’t you agree?”

Terry laughed. “He’s all right. Mind you, people ain’t gonna come right out an’ say they don’t like ‘im, least not to his face.”

Amber raised her head, her interest piqued. “Oh, why is that?”

Terry looked at her as if she was stupid. “Because he was Johnny Madrid, the fastest, deadliest gunfighter ever, that’s why!” There was a trace of envy in his tone.

Madrid. Amber rolled the name over on her tongue a few times until she remembered where she’d heard it before. On that night, the hideous creep in the saloon had called Johnny by that name. Johnny had said it was a nickname. A naughty little smile graced her lips as she remembered why their conversation had gotten derailed. She stared down the road, wondering exactly which spot had been the spot that night. Realising she’d gotten side-tracked; Amber fixed Terry with a charming smile. “So, tell me more about the infamous Johnny Madrid,” she coaxed.

By the time they rode under the Lancer arch, Amber had heard more stories about the legendary Johnny Madrid than she knew what to do with. It had been a very interesting discussion. No wonder Johnny didn’t talk about his past. It could be advantageous information, should she need to come up with a plan.

Johnny walked the corral fence, checking for any areas that needed strengthening or repairing. Barranca paced the fence alongside him, taking the opportunity to nuzzle Johnny’s shoulder whenever he bent down to check the foundations of the posts. Johnny looked up at his horse and smiled, reaching out with a treat.

A couple of hands rode up and dismounted from their horses before heading inside the barn. A buggy approached under the arch. As the buggy drew closer, Johnny recognised Amber.

No sooner had the buggy stopped, she was jumping down with Lily and striding over.

“Hello!” Lily called out when she saw Johnny. “I got a coat!”

Johnny managed a smile. “It sure is pretty. What you doing here, Amber?”

“Good morning to you, too, Johnny.”

He didn’t miss how she stared at his gun.

“I need to talk to Scott. Where is he?”

Johnny leaned against the fence and considered whether to tell her. He knew Scott hadn’t wanted to see Amber today. He was having a hard time accepting it was over, only maybe it wasn’t, seeing as how she was here.

Reluctantly, Johnny inclined his head in the direction Scott had headed. “He’s down by the stream. You’ll have to wait for him to come back.”

“No, I won’t. I’ll ride on out to see him.”

“And what do you plan on riding out there on, exactly?” He pointed to the buggy which Terry had turned around and was driving back towards the road. Johnny heard Barranca amble over and felt the hot breath of his horse behind his right ear. Amber’s eyes lit up. “No way in hell,” he snapped.

Lily peered at Barranca. “What’s hell?” she asked.

“Nice one, Johnny,” Amber snapped back. She spotted the hands’ horses waiting outside the barn. “One of those will do. Now tell me where I can find your brother.”

Johnny sighed and pointed in the direction Scott had taken that morning. “You keep goin’ that way until you pick up the stream, follow it along ’til you find him.” He hoped his directions were vague enough for her to give up on the idea altogether.

“Right then, here.” To his surprise, Amber thrust Lily at him. He would have taken a step back if he wasn’t already leaning against the fence.

“What am I supposed to do with her?”

Amber rolled her eyes. “Johnny, you’re her uncle, she’s a child. Keep her amused.” She ruffled her daughter’s hair. “I’ll be back as soon as I can with daddy, Lily.”

As Amber made for the horse, Johnny looked down at Lily and smiled. “Horse!” she proclaimed, pointing a finger at Barranca, her eyes lighting up with pleasure.

“Yeah, it’s a horse,” he muttered, turning around so Lily could have a better view of Barranca.

The sound of hooves made him cast one last glance at Amber, her lilac shawl knotted around her shoulders so it wouldn’t fall off. “Take good care of her, Johnny,” she called out. “You’ll be fine so long as you don’t shoot her!”

“Mama’s gone,” Lily said, turning her big eyes on Johnny, who still clutched the little girl a touch awkwardly in his arms.

“Yeah.” Johnny stared after Amber, her form getting smaller and smaller as she rode off in search of Scott. His gaze dropped to the ground where his tools lay abandoned; a reminder of the work he was supposed to be doing right now. He looked across to the hacienda, knowing his salvation lay within those walls, in the feminine forms of Teresa and Maria. Either would be more than happy to take Lily off his hands.

As he stared down at the child, he wondered why she made him feel uncomfortable. Usually, he was able to find an affinity with children. He envied their innocence and felt bad for the time when it would end, as it had done with him. Sometimes it seemed impossible he’d ever been so young.

This little girl was not any child though, she was Scott’s daughter, his niece, and if things had turned out differently, she could have been his. That wasn’t what made him uncomfortable. He didn’t want Amber to have the satisfaction of knowing she had something that could matter to him besides his brother.

“You want to go in the house and see Teresa?” Johnny asked the little girl. His heart sank when she shook her head.

“Nope, stay with you.” She pointed over his shoulder once more. “See horse, please.”

Johnny turned back to face Barranca who was standing by the fence, golden coat gleaming in the sunshine. As if sensing he had an admirer, Barranca leaned forward and gave a soft snort that caused Lily to squeal in delight.

Johnny smiled too, despite himself. He remembered Murdoch telling him what he had been like with horses at Lily’s age. Taking her small hand in his, Johnny reached out to Barranca and ran the little girl’s fingers down the front of Barranca’s head. Lily cooed as she felt the silky-smooth coat and when Johnny brought their hands back over the fence, she turned her smile on him. “What’s his name?”

“His name is Barranca. Can ya say that?”

Lily’s small nose wrinkled. “Ranca.”

Johnny chuckled. “Yeah, that’ll do.” He set the girl down and when she went to dart around him, he reached out and stopped her. “You can’t run off. Hold my hand.”

Lily slipped her hand in his and tugged him in the direction of the barn. “More horses,” she said, remembering her earlier trip.

They were almost to the barn when Johnny heard Murdoch calling out to them. “Johnny, what’s Lily doing here? Where are Scott and Amber?”

“Er…they’ve gone for a ride.” Johnny hoped his father wouldn’t ask too many questions.

“Oh, I see,” Murdoch said, distracted from further enquiries by his granddaughter. Bending down in front of her, he hugged the girl. “Hello, Lily.”

Lily hugged him back.

“You call him Grandpa, or old man if it’s easier.”

Murdoch swatted Johnny’s leg. “Grandpa will do.”

“Grampa,” Lily repeated, before giving Johnny’s hand a firm tug in the direction of the barn.

“Do you want me to show her the horses?”

To Murdoch’s surprise, Johnny shook his head. “No, we’re all right,” he said softly, glancing down at the impatient youngster and realising that in fact, they were.

Murdoch felt a warm feeling of contentment settle over him. “Okay, well you know where I am if you need me. Oh, and if you go in that barn with those horses, you may struggle to get out again.”

Johnny grinned. “She does like them.”

Murdoch’s eyes sparkled. “I was talking to Lily.” He clapped his son on the shoulder and turned back to the hacienda.

Amber felt like she’d been riding for hours before she spotted the stream in the distance. The sunlight reflected on its surface, with flashes of yellow and gold. She slowed her horse down to a trot and made her way closer, scanning the stream bank in either direction for any sign of Scott or his horse. Cursing Johnny’s vague directions, she took the horse a little closer to the water’s edge and turned right. It was cold and she wasn’t dressed for a long ride, but Amber was determined to find Scott and sort things out.

Eventually, as she was about to give up, she spotted him.

He was standing by the water, skimming stones across the surface, seemingly lost in thought. Dismounting from her borrowed horse, Amber followed Scott’s example and tethered the reins to a low-hanging branch. She wondered what he was thinking about right now; was it her, Lily, or both? Untying the knot of her shawl, Amber pulled the fabric tighter around her shoulders and approached.

He skimmed another stone and sensed a presence then. He was surprised to see Amber, and not successful in hiding it.

“I think we need to talk, Scott, don’t you?”

He followed her along the stream’s edge to a small cluster of rocks. Sitting beside her on the cold, hard surface, Scott wondered who and how this would begin. He got his answer a second later. “Oh, Scott, I didn’t mean it when I told you it was over. I love you!”

Holding up his hand in a silencing gesture, Scott stared at her in disbelief. “You love me? Where has all this come from?”

Amber pouted when she didn’t get the reaction she was hoping for. “What do you mean, where has this come from? I love you. It’s how I feel.”

Scott tried to take it in. “Amber, yesterday you told me it was over, and today you’re saying you love me?”

“Aren’t you glad?” Amber looked puzzled by his reaction. “I thought if I told you how I felt, then it would make things right between us, and maybe you’d still want to marry me and you’d be able to…”

Good God. Scott got up quickly so she wouldn’t see his flushed face. He picked up another small stone and held it in his fist. “You don’t get it, do you? This isn’t about how you feel. A declaration of love and an apology doesn’t change what the problem is. I can’t get over what happened before. I thought I could, but I can’t.”

“And that is my fault, is it?” Amber pulled her shawl further around her shoulders.

“It’s not all your fault but it happened because of the things you did.”

“I know I’ve been expecting too much, too soon,” she said quietly.

Scott sat next to her. “I’ve forgiven you, Amber, but it’s taking longer to forget than I thought.”

“What about Johnny, I know how important he is to you, do you think he’ll ever be able to forgive and forget?”

There was more to Johnny’s dislike of Amber than a dented ego. The allegation she’d made could have had severe consequences should things have turned out differently. He wondered if Amber had even thought about that. “Johnny’s one of the most forgiving men I know, but what you said… If we had believed you, you’d have ruined Johnny’s life, and if the law got involved, it could have been over altogether, do you realise that?”

Amber’s eyes widened; she hadn’t considered that before. Back then, those consequences would have been far more extreme than was necessary. “I would never have let that happen,” she said, her green eyes filling up with tears. “Oh, Scott, you and Johnny have to believe me.”

Scott felt her cling to him as she sobbed, her tears running as free as the water in the stream. “I’m so sorry. I don’t blame you or Johnny for anything.” It took all her control not to choke on those last three words considering Johnny’s most recent attempt to break them up.

Scott put his arms around her, resting his chin on the top of her head. Usually, when Amber wept, it made him wary, but something was different this time. There had been genuineness in her eyes and her words, and he wished Johnny had been present to hear it.

“Scott?” Amber looked up at him with uncertain eyes. “Where do we go from here?”

“I’m not the one who called it off,” he reminded her with a small smile.

“I still want to marry you more than anything,” she whispered. “But I’ll wait, no matter how long it takes.”

She slipped her hand into his.

Chapter Eleven

Scott and Amber rode up to the hacienda as Murdoch stepped through the open French doors. Teresa appeared at his side and together they watched the couple approach. It seemed strange to see the two of them together, but they were getting used to it now. As Scott dismounted from his horse and helped Amber do the same, neither Murdoch nor Teresa could miss the happy expression on their faces. It seemed whatever had been bothering Scott had lifted. Murdoch guessed he had been correct in his assumption Scott needed to spend time with his family.

“You’re happy, aren’t you?” Teresa observed. Scott glanced cautiously at his father, and when he saw only understanding in the older man’s eyes, he smiled. “You know, I think I am.” He placed an affectionate kiss on the top of Teresa’s head. “Now, where are Johnny and Lily?” He removed his hat and smoothed his hair, his gaze scanning the yard for them. During the ride back from the stream, Amber had told him she’d asked Johnny to look after Lily, and this pleased Scott. He wanted his brother to grow as attached to the little girl as everyone else was.

In response to Scott’s question, Murdoch chuckled and pointed to the rear of the hacienda. “I saw them heading around back a little while ago. Lily is keeping your brother on his toes. It seems their mutual love of horses has helped form a bond.”

“Oh, no,” Scott groaned. “He’s going to turn my daughter into a cowgirl.”

Better horses than gunfights, Amber thought. When she’d left Lily with Johnny and made that crack about him shooting her, it was her clever little way of making him wonder if she knew about his past. Now, she pondered the influence Johnny would have on her daughter as she grew. Just look at the appraising way, Terry, no more than a kid himself, talked about the great Johnny Madrid. A hero was the last way she wanted Lily to see her uncle. This new fear gave her even more reason to get Johnny out of their lives for good.

Amber went looking for Johnny and Lily finding them sitting on a bench together, a small wicker basket of eggs between them. Lily was taking the eggs out of the basket one by one and placing them in her lap, gathering up her coat to form a little well of fabric in which to hold them. Deciding she wanted to get down from the bench, Lily stretched her little legs out until the tip of her toes met the ground. With help from Johnny’s steadying hand, she made it into an upright position only to forget about the eggs and let go of her coat. They fell to the ground and split open with a crack and a splat. She stared at the gooey mess on the stone tiles, her small hands flying to her mouth in horror. “Oh, no!” she exclaimed, turning to Johnny with worried eyes.

Johnny laughed. “Well, you ain’t draggin’ me back in that chicken coop to get more.” He pulled the little girl up onto his lap. “It smells bad.” He pinched his nose to illustrate the point and Lily giggled, imitating his actions.

“Well, it seems like you two are having a lot of fun,” Amber said stepping forward and surveying them both. It was surprising to see how natural Johnny was with Lily. She marvelled at the gift her daughter had for bringing out the best in people.

“We were,” Johnny corrected, standing up and handing Lily back to Amber. The easy smile he had worn while sitting with the little girl was gone, and in its place was the cold, hard look of a gunfighter.

As Johnny walked off, Amber couldn’t stop herself from calling out, “Thank you for taking good care of Lily while I sorted things with Scott. We’ve decided we’re going to marry after all!”

Johnny stopped and flexed his fingers down by his sides. The challenge in her tone was clear, no matter how well Amber tried to disguise it. Although the hope that his brother would see sense seemed as broken as the eggs on the ground, he hid it well. Instead, he eyed her coolly but said nothing.

Amber saw Scott approaching so she subtly turned Lily to her chest so the little girl would not let on to Johnny that he was near. Her gaze meeting Johnny’s, she looked at him imploringly. “Can’t you at least try to be happy for us? I understand why you told Scott what you did, and I can’t blame you for it. I hope one day you will trust me not to hurt Scott again.”

Johnny shook his head in disbelief. She was so good it was almost comical. Why had he ever felt guilty about getting it wrong in the first place? What did she expect when she threw these insincere apologies his way every time they met?

“Johnny?” Amber noticed Scott had stopped walking and that he, too, seemed to be waiting for Johnny’s response.

Johnny glared at her, finding it difficult to keep his cool. He had tried to support Scott in this, but it was too damn hard. Even for his brother’s sake, he couldn’t pretend anymore. “Amber, unlike Scott, I ain’t a fool. I will never trust you. Once a whore, always a whore.”

Amber’s eyes grew wide, and at first, Johnny thought he saw pure fury, just as he had that day in the barn when he’d last called her that. The fury was gone in a second though, replaced by a look of pure hurt and a quivering bottom lip. He followed her gaze as it moved over his right shoulder, staring at someone with a look pleading for rescue.

Johnny closed his eyes. He could guess who was there, and when he turned, he saw Scott’s shocked expression.

By the time Scott returned from taking Amber and Lily back to Green River, it was early evening, and the sun was sinking into the cushion of the hills.

All the way home, he’d mulled over his brother’s attitude towards Amber and wondered why Johnny had not tried harder to keep the peace. It looked like Amber was right when it came to forgiveness, although how Johnny had answered her question left a lot to be desired.

On the ride back to the hotel, Amber had been quieter than usual; upset, Scott knew, by what Johnny had said. No matter what she’d done in the past, Scott didn’t appreciate the way Johnny had spoken to his fiancée or referred to him as a fool. Johnny had withdrawn his support this afternoon, leaving Scott caught in the middle between his brother and soon-to-be wife.

Climbing down from the buggy, Scott watched Jelly approach. He smiled a greeting at the grizzly old man. “Hey Jelly, is Johnny back?”

Jelly gestured with his thumb in the direction of the barn. “He’s in there, takin’ as darn long with that animal as he always does.”

“Would you mind?” Scott indicated the buggy. “I was hoping to talk to Johnny before dinner.”

Jelly rolled his eyes. “Like I don’t ‘ave me own chores,” he huffed, but relented when he saw Scott’s contrite expression.

Scott approached the barn as his brother emerged. “I want to talk to you.” Scott caught Johnny by the material of his blue shirt as soon as he was within reach.

Johnny turned, and his gaze fell to Scott’s hand. “Is this the kinda conversation where you have to keep a hold on me?”

Scott let go. “I hope not.”

Johnny lowered his gaze to the ground and scuffed his boot in the dirt. “Let me guess. You ain’t happy ‘bout what I said to Amber.”

“There was no need to talk to her like that, Johnny. As you know, we managed to sort things out.”

Johnny focused on the little ravine in the dirt he was creating with the tip of his boot. “Yeah, she said. I’m real happy for ya.”

The sarcasm was not wasted on Scott; he schooled himself not to lose his temper. He wanted to talk about this like adults. Determined that Johnny would listen to what he had to say, Scott pushed ahead. “Johnny, you don’t understand. We talked about what happened before…about what she did to you.”

Johnny rolled his eyes. “Don’t tell me, she’s sorry. Scott, we’ve heard all that before.”

“Not like this. Amber knows it was all her fault. She admitted responsibility for everything, and she means it Johnny, I know she does.”

Johnny whistled under his breath. “Boy, Scott, she’s got you wrapped ’round her little finger.”

Scott narrowed his eyes. “What do you mean?”

Johnny took off his hat and swiped it against the leg of his dusty black pants. “Well, first she breaks it off, to make you feel guilty about not trustin’ her, then she comes over here and spouts off a few things she knows you want to hear and you fall for it all. Damn, Scott, I never knew you could be so gullible.” Shaking his head, Johnny turned away from his brother and started towards the hacienda.

Inside, Teresa walked over to the French doors and smiled when she saw the brothers. “Murdoch; Scott and Johnny are home!”

“Hmm.” Murdoch was standing by the fireplace, poking and prodding at the logs to get the fire going. “Go and tell Maria we’ll be ready for dinner shortly then, will you?”

Teresa nodded as Johnny started back towards the hacienda. Her happy smile wilted and died on her lips when she saw Scott grab hold of his brother and spin him around. Teresa’s hand flew to her mouth when Johnny shoved at Scott sending him sprawling into the dirt and she gasped. “Murdoch, they’re fighting!”

Murdoch looked at her in surprise. “They’re what?” he asked, sure Teresa must have got it wrong. They never physically fought, well not since… “Oh for heaven’s sake.” He shoved the poker back into its bucket on the hearth and joined Teresa at the French doors, just as Scott got up and dusted himself off.

“Oh, Murdoch you have to do something,” Teresa pleaded. “It’s not right. They shouldn’t fight…they’re brothers.”

Murdoch tried not to smile, remembering his youth and a few tales that would contradict Teresa’s logic. He watched his two sons and concluded that while they appeared to be arguing, they’d thrown no punches yet. Placing a hand on Teresa’s shoulder, he patted it reassuringly. “Whatever it is, I’m sure they’ll work it out.”

Deciding to take matters into her own hands, Teresa opened one side of the French doors and slipped out, dashing across the yard to where Scott and Johnny stood.

Murdoch let out a sigh. With one last longing look at his armchair, he headed after his ward.

When Scott wrenched him back around, Johnny felt his temper fraying.

“Johnny, why are you being such a complete ass? If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were jealous.”

Johnny shoved at Scott with all his strength, sending his older brother to greet the ground with his backside. “You’re the only ass around here, Scott.” He towered over his brother with a look that dared Scott to say another word.

Scott got up, glaring, dusting down as best as he could. “Well, what am I supposed to think? Amber’s made mistakes, but you won’t let it go.”

“Why should I?” Johnny growled. “Just because you’re kiddin’ yourself she’s changed. Besides, you ain’t so darn perfect, you didn’t trust her, did you? Not when it mattered.”

“Well, at least I’m trying. All you’re doing is antagonising her, trying to make her feel worse than she does. That’s real big of you, Johnny.”

Before Johnny could launch himself at Scott again, Teresa placed herself between them like a referee. “Stop it…please.”

“Teresa,” Murdoch called, striding out of the house at the sight of his ward’s small frame standing tall between two volatile young men.

At the sight and sound of their father, Scott sighed and concentrated on straightening up his shirt, while Johnny bent down and retrieved his hat.

“Teresa, go on inside please,” Murdoch ordered, taking her by the arm when she hesitated. “Now, young lady.” He gave her a gentle push in the direction of the hacienda. She went, but not before giving him a look that warned he’d better sort things out.

With Teresa out of earshot, Murdoch turned back to his sons and contemplated the pair of them. “Is there a problem?”

Neither man wanted to look him in the eye it seemed. Scott was the first one to answer, shaking his head as he muttered, “No, sir.” Murdoch bit back a smile as Scott subtly tried to wipe the last traces of dirt from his hands onto his pants.

“Johnny?” Murdoch switched his gaze to the younger man.

“No,” Johnny answered sullenly, risking a look at his father from beneath thick, dark lashes.

Murdoch bit down harder on his bottom lip to prevent the smile from escaping. “So, you’ll both be coming in to get changed for dinner now then?”

When they nodded in unison, Murdoch took his leave. Walking back to the hacienda, he pondered the possible cause of a falling out between his sons. He didn’t have to be a genius to know Amber was right in the thick of it. If Murdoch were to guess, he would say Scott was full of his marriage plans and therefore less tolerant of Johnny’s understandable dislike for her. Entering the hacienda, he closed the French doors and watched his sons talk for a few moments more. He hoped they would sort things out and come to understand each other’s points of view. Otherwise, life around the hacienda was going to become unbearable once again.

Murdoch’s presence had cooled Scott’s temper and renewed his intention to talk reasonably. “I don’t understand why you’re not even prepared to give Amber the benefit of the doubt. Since she came back, she hasn’t done anything to suggest she’s the same person she was. Doesn’t everyone deserve a second chance? I’d have thought you of all people would understand that.”

Johnny’s eyes darkened. He didn’t appreciate the comparison to Amber.

“When we came home, how many people judged you on your past? How many times in your life have people confronted you, not prepared to see anything other than a gunfighter?”

“I never denied being one.”

“No, and Amber isn’t denying anything either. Johnny, you’ve forgiven so many people in your life. Why not her?”

Johnny went quiet. He looked past Scott, out across the land, wondering why he couldn’t. Something was stopping him, a feeling he had deep down in his gut warning him to be wary. He could see hurt in the not-so-distant future, and his concern was for his brother, and now Lily too.

Scott tried to read his brother’s silence and failed. “Are you trying to make me choose?” he asked outright, causing Johnny’s gaze to dart back to his face; anger and surprise flashing in the blue depths of his eyes.

“No of course not!”

“Amber is going to be my wife and you must accept that. If you care about me at all then you’ll start making more of an effort. I won’t ask you again to forgive her if you truly can’t, but you will be civil to her and you won’t talk to her as you did earlier today. The decent thing to do would be to apologise for what you called her.”

“You must be joking!”

Scott’s tight expression told him he wasn’t.

“Why are you trying to make this difficult for me? You should apologise to her, Johnny.”

Johnny stared at his brother, feeling stabbed in the back.

“I can’t do that.”

Scott’s shoulders sagged, but he would stand his ground. He and Amber were going to be married. If Johnny couldn’t forgive her, then he at least needed to be civil. How else was Scott going to keep Amber, Lily, and his family?

“I want you to apologise. Do it for me?” Scott hoped Johnny would see why he needed to do this, but Johnny shook his head.

“I can’t.”

A wave of sadness washed over Scott as he realised this was never going to work out. He was going to lose something dear to him. He’d not expected it to be his brother.

Chapter Twelve

With a sigh that made his shoulders slump and his lower back mould deeper into the comfort of his leather armchair, Murdoch contemplated the glass of scotch resting on his knee. It had been two days. Two long days of silence, strained mealtimes, and awkwardness around the hacienda. So much for leaving them to work it out. Murdoch wondered when he was going to get something right. He had thought it was the right thing not to get involved in their argument on Wednesday. He thought they’d resolve the issue or agree to disagree. Well, it was now Friday, and neither Scott nor Johnny showed any sign of doing either. The crazy thing was that both were hurting, it was obvious to Murdoch, and he suspected they knew it too. Every so often, especially at dinner and breakfast time, Murdoch would catch one of his sons sneaking a look at the other.

While Murdoch would forever regret missing his sons’ childhoods, he suspected he might not have survived the turbulent teenage years. That said, at least he would have been able to do something then. Somehow, he didn’t think sending them to their rooms would work now, although it was tempting to try. At the least, their mutual incredulity would give them something to agree on.

If Scott and Johnny hadn’t sorted their differences by tomorrow morning, he would intervene. If only to preserve his sanity.

Upstairs, Scott heard his father’s heavy footsteps and a moment later, the closing of his bedroom door. With a frown, he put his book on the table beside the bed. Usually, he could lose himself in someone else’s words. Tonight, there were too many words flying around his skull. He hadn’t talked to Johnny since Wednesday. Well, that wasn’t entirely true. He had asked Johnny to pass the potatoes at dinner. Pass the potatoes. How had it come to this? Had he not tried hard enough to make Johnny understand?

Putting out the lamp, Scott settled into the mattress and lay his head down. Yesterday, Amber had asked if he and Johnny were speaking and he’d had to tell her, no.

“I’m sorry,” she’d said. “He’s important to you, isn’t he?”

How could Scott begin to explain how important Johnny was? He was the brother he’d always imagined. No, he was better than that. They were different, but that made their relationship better. When Scott had been growing up, many of his friends had older brothers whom they’d worshipped. Scott had always envied those brothers; wanting to be someone a younger brother could look up to. He hadn’t considered the admiration would work both ways, but it did. Scott had never met a man he respected more than Johnny. That was what made this so hard, knowing that right now, Johnny seemed to have lost some of that same respect for him.

“How bad is this falling out?” Amber had asked. “Do you think it’s irreparable?”

Now, Scott shifted in the bed as he realised this question was haunting him.

When breakfast the next morning failed to herald any improvement between his sons, Murdoch decided it was time to get involved. As Scott rode out before Murdoch had a chance to broach the subject with him, he decided to talk to Johnny first. Murdoch was not looking forward to either conversation.

Stepping out into the early morning air, he made his way to the rear of the hacienda. Standing beneath the trees, he watched his younger son practising his draw, marvelling at the fluidity of Johnny’s movements, and the way he seemed to block out everything around him, concentrating on some invisible enemy that only he could see. Murdoch stroked at his chin, rubbing away the chill. Then, with an overly loud cough, he alerted Johnny to his presence.

Johnny turned to face his father, tilting his head as he scrutinised the old man. He guessed Murdoch wanted to talk, and it was a surprise he’d resisted this long.

“Johnny, can you spare a minute, son? I’d like to talk to you.” Murdoch crossed the hard ground to where Johnny stood.

Johnny returned the colt to his holster, wondering if Murdoch had run out of patience. He knew life hadn’t been easy around the hacienda these past few days. Johnny didn’t know if he and Scott had made a conscious decision not to talk, or if it was a matter of not knowing what to say, or where to go. All Johnny knew was he missed his brother as if he’d gone away. But if the only way to make things right was to apologise to Amber, then this was something he didn’t think he could do. He wished Scott had not overheard him that day, but he had, and Johnny stood by what he’d said. Amber was playing the same games as before. At least as much as she could without Johnny’s wilful cooperation, yet Scott couldn’t see it. The old Scott would have figured out Amber had set him up the other day, but Scott lately was no doubt falling or already in love with her. He had become blind to her manipulations.

“I want to talk about whatever is causing you and your brother’s falling out,” Murdoch began, not waiting for Johnny’s consent before he began their talk. “I planned on staying out of it. I was hoping you two would work this out on your own, but it’s been three days, Johnny, and nothing has changed.”

Yep, he’s run outta patience. “So, you’re gonna try to sort it out for us, is that what you’re saying?”

“I know this has something to do with Amber.”

“Yuh, do, huh? Then you’ll know why we can’t just sort this out, Murdoch. Scott and me; we’re on different sides of the fence on this one. Scott believes that Amber has changed, and I don’t. How do we get past that?”

Murdoch saw the pain in Johnny’s eyes. “I thought despite your different views, you had agreed to support your brother? What’s changed?”

Johnny sighed. He walked a few paces away, before turning back. “I can’t do it. She hasn’t changed, Murdoch. I know it, but Scott, he can’t see that. She’ll hurt him again and I can’t stand by and watch it happen.”

“So, all this is because of something you fear Amber might do?”

Johnny frowned. “No, it’s not that. She ain’t changed; she’s trying to fool everyone into believing she has.”

“And what makes you think this? Has she done something?”

Johnny hesitated. Could he tell his father what had happened the other day? He decided he had to. If Murdoch knew the games Amber was playing, then he’d stop ambling down the path of acceptance as easily as he had been lately. With a deep breath, Johnny relayed to his father what had happened, explaining how Amber had set him up. She had said the words that would make her look great and tempt him to retaliate; all the while knowing Scott would hear. When he got to the part where he had done just that, he saw his father’s frown of disapproval. Johnny wrapped his arms around himself, his fingers moulding around his biceps through the material of his shirt.

“Well, no wonder Scott was upset. From his point of view, not only did you call him a fool, but you also insulted his future wife in the bargain. Are you sure Amber knew he was there? Maybe she was sincere.”

Johnny’s head jerked up and his blue eyes flashed. “I’m sure, Murdoch.”

Murdoch pushed his hat back, remembering how hard it was to read Amber correctly. She’d almost fooled him at one time.Anxious to reach Johnny, Murdoch put his hand on his son’s shoulder. “What did Scott say?” he asked, needing to know so he could tackle his elder son when the opportunity arose.

Johnny’s gaze lowered to the ground again. “Like you said, he was upset. He asked me why I couldn’t forgive her, why I couldn’t give her a second chance. Then he told me he was going to marry her and I shouldn’t have spoken to her like that.” Johnny chanced a look up at his father, expecting to see disapproval, but Murdoch’s expression remained impassive. “He asked me to apologise to her for what I said. I told him I couldn’t.”

Murdoch sighed. “It must have been hurtful for Scott to hear you speaking to Amber and about him in that way.”

Johnny shrugged his shoulder free of Murdoch’s grip. “You’ve changed your tune. Seems to me it ain’t so long ago you were calling Scott stupid.”

“You’re right,” Murdoch conceded. “I didn’t want to welcome Amber back into our lives and in the process, I hurt your brother. But I realised this is his decision and if I continually challenge it then I’ll lose him. Scott needs to do this, and if you’re right, then all we can do is be there to pick up the pieces.”

Moving closer, Murdoch placed his arm around Johnny. “I understand why you don’t like or trust Amber, and I’m sure Scott knows why, too. I don’t expect your feelings to change overnight. Perhaps they never will, only you can decide that. But sometimes we must push our feelings aside for the sake of those we love. You don’t have to like her, or even approve of what Scott is doing, but, occasionally, it is better to keep your feelings to yourself. I’ve learned that the hard way, just as you’re going to have to do. I expect Scott to see where you’re coming from, I expect you to see his point of view. The key to it, Johnny, is to not let Amber come between you. Scott is going to marry her, and like it or not that will make her part of this family. All you need to do is to tolerate her and be polite. That is all Scott can expect from you.”

Johnny looked up at his father. “So, you think I should apologise.”

“I’m not saying that. It’s your call. You need to find a way of not letting this come between you. How you do so is up to you.” Squeezing his son, Murdoch released him. He had said all he could. If he could now do the same with Scott, then, maybe, they would talk to each other. “Are you coming inside?”

Johnny hesitated. “I’ll go for a ride if that’s okay. I need to think.”

Murdoch smiled with renewed hope.

Johnny sat at a round table in the corner of the saloon, slouched down on his seat, one leg bent beneath the chair and the other stretched out. The room was noisy, filled with the chatter and laughter of the other patrons. There was an intense game of poker going on at a nearby table and its participants were all young men Johnny knew. On any other night, he would have joined them.

He watched the goings on with vague interest before his gaze dropped to the glass held in his hand. Heaving a sigh, he contemplated the task ahead. How many shots of tequila would it take to get him across the street to apologise to Amber?

Like a drunken cowboy who only knew one tune to sing, Murdoch’s words had repeated in his head all day.

Murdoch said he didn’t want to lose his son, and Johnny knew he didn’t want to lose his brother. Scott had talked about choices, and Johnny had a choice of his own to make. A choice between the relationship with his brother, or his dislike and distrust of Amber. He had never intended to hurt Scott. No matter his feelings, Scott was the most important person in all this. Johnny was going to do something he’d only done a couple of times in his life. He was going to swallow his pride and offer Amber an olive branch. If Amber cared for Scott as she said, then she would be prepared to do the same.

Taking another shot, Johnny ran his tongue over his lips and savoured the taste. A flash of red satin caught his attention and he saw Nancy making her way over. Leaning back in his chair he watched her approach, noting how her dress clung to her body in all the right places. When she slipped into the vacant chair without waiting for an invitation, a sparkle came into Johnny’s eyes. With a little bit of luck, this night would at least hold one enjoyable encounter with an attractive woman.

At the hotel, Amber sat on her bed and poured herself a drink from the half-full bottle of whiskey on the table. As she sipped the strong liquor, she contemplated all that had happened since her return to Lancer; the things that had gone right and the things that had gone wrong. The majority of which she could put down to being Johnny Lancer’s fault.

Polishing off her drink, Amber stood and removed her clothes, laying them at the foot of the bed before walking out into the main room where a tub full of hot soapy water stood waiting in front of the flickering fire. As much as she adored Lily, it was nice to have an evening to herself. Scott had been so excited to have his daughter stay the night; how could she say no? Slipping one foot into the water, Amber eased into the bubbles and closed her eyes. She had to find a way to get rid of Johnny for good.

Amber twirled an escaped lock of hair around her finger. She’d given Johnny every opportunity to accept her, but he refused to give an inch. For days now, she’d schemed, only now she had more knowledge to work with thanks to Terry. Learning about Johnny Madrid had been a surprise.

Settling back in the water, Amber pondered the effect on Scott if Johnny were gone for good. Amber knew he would be upset, but she was confident that between her and Lily, they could help him get over it. Surely, it would be a matter of time before he channelled his love for Johnny into the right kind of love for her. It was all she wanted; to have Scott reciprocate her feelings. Over time, the memories of Johnny would fade, and Scott would be able to look at her, make love to her, and see only his wife and the mother of his children. Not the ‘whore’ Johnny would have him believing she was.

If she managed to get rid of Johnny, then Scott could never find out. He wouldn’t understand why she had done it.

A knock at the door snatched Amber from her plotting, and she rolled her eyes, wondering who it could be at this late hour. Rising from the water, Amber wrapped herself in a towel. Standing with her body shielded by the door, she pulled it open and stuck her head through the gap, peering out into the gloomy hallway.

“What do you want, Johnny?” He was the last person she wanted at her door. Her gaze travelled down his body to his gun, and she wondered if he’d come to warn her off.

“We need to talk.”

Johnny noticed Amber’s flushed face and wondered if she’d been drinking. When she stepped back to allow him entry, he pushed past before he could change his mind. Only when Amber had already closed the door did he realise she only wore a towel. His gaze strayed to the bathtub and he closed his eyes, cursing his timing.

“I’ll come back,” he said quickly, moving to escape, but Amber blocked his path and fixed him with an amused stare.

“Why?” She glanced down at the towel. “Oh, this makes you uncomfortable?”

Johnny scowled. He moved towards the door. “I knew this was a bad idea. Get out my way.”

Amber sighed. “Relax, Johnny, I’ll go get dressed.”

As she walked into the bedroom, Johnny turned his back on her and went over to the window. He stared down into the street, drumming his fingers on the side of his thigh.

“So why have you come here?” Amber called out. “I thought you said enough last time I saw you!”

Johnny glanced around the room, spotting Lily’s toys in the corner. They reminded him why he was doing this. It helped that Amber wasn’t in the same room, so he didn’t have to see her gloating, smug face.

“That’s why I’m here,” he called out. “I shouldn’t have said what I did.”

In the bedroom, Amber froze at Johnny’s words, her fingers pausing on the buttons of her blouse. Was he trying to apologise? Was this his way of making peace with Scott? Damn him. Why did Johnny always do the opposite of what she expected? Amber knew Scott. She knew if Johnny was here to make amends, then it would be no time at all before they were friends again. Where would that leave her?

Johnny waited by the window. Why did it take Amber so long to throw some clothes on, when she could take them off in the blink of an eye? When she did appear, a bottle and two glasses of whiskey in her hand, she made her way over to the table by the window and set a glass down in front of him. “Drink?” she asked, sinking into the chair and sipping at her own.

Johnny picked up the glass and knocked back the whiskey, shuddering as it burned a path down his throat. Amber saw him shudder and grinned. “Sorry I haven’t any tequila,” she said coyly.

He ignored her, knowing exactly what she was referring to, although he sure could use some right now. The whiskey was still fresh in his mouth, and it didn’t have a nice taste.

“Johnny, please sit down, you’re making me nervous,” Amber requested, motioning at the vacant chair and pouring him another drink. She took another gulp of her own and waited for him to sit.

Johnny hesitated. All he had to do was apologise and get out of there. Knocking back the second drink, he reckoned he might need the whole bottle, but he didn’t want to ruin his plans with Nancy.

Sliding into the chair opposite, Johnny curled his fingers around the empty glass and looked Amber in the eye. “I’m sorry for what I said. You’re gonna be Scott’s wife, so there’ll be times when we’ll have to be ’round each other and I reckon we can be polite. I’ll keep my thoughts to myself if you quit with the games.”

Amber’s eyes widened. “I’m not playing any games.”

Johnny eyed her coolly.

“Oh, all right.” She pouted. “But I only did it because you wouldn’t give me a chance. I know you don’t like me, Johnny.”

Johnny could feel the effects of the alcohol in his system. He regretted missing dinner.

“Johnny, what would you have done if Lily had been yours? Would you have still treated me with the same contempt?”

He met her eyes, only not as steadily this time. “Lily wouldn’t change the way I feel about you.”

Amber sighed. “Why can’t you believe I do love Scott?”

“I can,” he said, not missing the look of surprise on her face. “But for how long? You haven’t exactly got a history of sticking with one man.”

In her lap, Amber squeezed her hands together. It was taking all her self-control to keep calm. She couldn’t afford to lose it now. Looking at him, she began to explain. “What happened before, with me and Scott, with me and you…I never thought it would turn out the way it did. I never thought I would fall in love with Scott, but I have. It’s different between him and me. With me and you, it was, well, you know what it was, Johnny.” She let her gaze drop contritely to her lap. “I should never have said what I did about you. I panicked and tried to get out of a tricky situation.”

Johnny listened to her talk. At least no one could accuse him of not giving her a chance. Once he’d heard her out, he could leave, and meet up with Nancy as he’d planned. Then, tomorrow, he could sort things out with Scott.

Scott pulled the covers up over his sleeping daughter. He placed her doll beside her in the bed. He watched her sleep for a few minutes, looking like she had no care in the world. Was it normal to want her to feel that way forever?

The evening had been long and exhausting, but Scott would not change a single second. His attempts to help Lily eat her dinner had been a successful albeit messy affair. Of course, she’d demanded to see “Ranca” and had gotten upset when he explained the horse had gone to town with Johnny but would be back in the morning.

“I think she wore herself out tonight,” Victoria remarked from the doorway.

“She wore me out,” he said with a chuckle. He brushed the golden curls from her forehead.

“It will only get worse,” Victoria teased. “Soon, it will be endless questions. Trust me, you will need to know why everything is the way it is because Lily will be asking.”

“Well, I guess I’d better prepare for that, then,” Scott whispered.

He went downstairs to join Murdoch in the great room. Murdoch was sitting in his armchair, long legs stretched out and the glass of scotch in his hand. The only light came from the fireplace.

Murdoch looked up. “Help yourself to a drink and come sit with me for a while. Did Lily go down okay?”

Scott poured himself a drink. “Yes. She must have been tired because she wore me out.”

Murdoch chuckled. “They’re full of energy at that age,” he said, remembering Johnny’s adventures as a toddler.

“Victoria said I should prepare because Lily will want to know the why and wherefores of anything and everything.”

Murdoch gave a hearty laugh. “I’m sure you can handle it, son.” He took a sip of scotch. “Make the most of it because there will come the day when Lily won’t ask you anything at all, and you’ll find yourself on the outside looking in.”

Scott twirled the glass in his hand, wondering if this was how Murdoch felt about him and Johnny. Before he could ask, Murdoch cleared his throat.

“I’d like to talk to you, Scott, if I may, about your brother.”

Scott took a sip of his drink, his blue-grey eyes watching his father over the rim of the glass. He had wondered when Murdoch would bring this up.

“You may, but I don’t see how it will help.”

“I know you and Johnny are in a difficult position, but not speaking to each other isn’t helping. I know what happened; I got that much out of Johnny this morning. The pair of you must resolve this like the men and brothers you are.”

Scott switched his gaze to the fire and stared into the flames. “I don’t know how to resolve it, Murdoch,” he said in exasperation. “I can’t stand by and let Johnny talk to Amber in the manner he did. Did he tell you what he said to her?”

Murdoch sighed. “Yes, he did, and I don’t blame you for being upset. Believe me, if Johnny had said that publicly then I’d have called him on it, but he didn’t. He said it to Amber during a conversation you were only partly privy to.”

“So, you think I was wrong, asking him to apologise?”

“No, you weren’t wrong to ask, but it’s wrong if you’re not speaking to Johnny because he said he couldn’t. Johnny thought she was being insincere.”

Scott frowned. “She sounded sincere to me.”

“I don’t know whether she did because I wasn’t there, but I’ll say that when Amber came to me and said what she did about Johnny, I almost believed her, Scott. I didn’t want to, but she was convincing. You knew this was never going to be easy. You knew how we all felt because felt the same way, remember? You’ve spent a considerable amount of time with Amber since she returned, enough time to make a firm judgement on whether she has changed. Johnny hasn’t, he doesn’t need to do that.”

Murdoch leaned forward in the chair. “Johnny needs time to make up his mind and you can’t expect him to see things the way you do. You can still have your life with Amber and Lily yet maintain the relationship you have with your brother. I know that is what you both want. The pair of you must talk this through.”

“I want things between Johnny and me to be the way they were.”

Murdoch smiled. “They’ll never be quite that way again. You’re getting married, you have Lily. Things are going to be different, but that doesn’t mean they have to be worse. You need to respect each other’s point of view and not let it interfere with your relationship.”

Scott nodded. For once, his father was right. There had to be a way he and Johnny could move past this. “If you’ll excuse me, I’m going up to bed. I’ll talk to Johnny tomorrow. We’ll sort it out.”

Murdoch stood up with his son and put a hand on Scott’s shoulder. “I know you’re capable of doing so.”

Scott smiled; pleased his father had so much faith in them. “Goodnight, sir.”

“Goodnight, son.”

Chapter Thirteen

Johnny woke, his sleep penetrated by a moan of pleasure. Groggy, it took a moment to realise the sound came from him. He was in an unfamiliar bed, and heavy drapes shrouded the room in semi-darkness. Naked, a draft chilled his skin. Rising on his elbows, he looked down his chest and stomach to the silhouette of a woman, just as another wave of pleasure swept from his groin. Holy shit.


Johnny dropped back against the pillow as the saloon girl picked up her pace. He lifted his hips closer to her mouth. Her tongue flicked against just the right spot and wanting to finish inside her, he slid her up his body until their lips touched and they kissed. When she straddled his body and welcomed him inside, he opened his eyes. The dawn light snaked through the drapes and shone directly on her.

The colour drained from his face. His smile vanished.

He wasn’t looking at Nancy.

“Good morning, Johnny,” Amber purred, flicking her hair over her bare shoulder.

Johnny shoved her, jumping out of the bed as she landed hard on the wooden floor. He found his clothes, but couldn’t dress quickly enough. Her gaze perused his body victoriously.

“What’s the matter?” she said coolly, picking herself up from the floor. “You seemed more than happy when we did it last night. It was all your idea.”


Amber stretched out her hand and examined her nails. “How was it?” she asked, her tone disinterested. “Hmm, what was it you said to me that time? Oh, yes…when you don’t pay for it, you don’t have a right to complain.

Johnny stared at her, his own words slapping his face. “No, I meant…how did this happen?”

Amber’s eyes widened in surprise. “The usual way, Johnny,” she said with a chuckle. She located her nightgown and slipped it over her head and smiled; a horrible, satisfied smile that penetrated right to Johnny’s core. “You should probably go now. I didn’t get much sleep last night and I’d like to rest more before I go to the ranch to spend some time with Lily and Scott.”

“Scott,” Johnny breathed, his legs refusing to support his weight as he sank onto the bed. He lowered his head into his hands. “Dios.”

Amber felt a fleeting moment of regret which she ignored. She had to do this. Sitting beside him, she placed her hand on his arm. “Johnny, we can forget this ever happened. I can if you can.”

Johnny shook her off and jumped to his feet. “You planned this,” he accused furiously. “So much for all your talk about loving Scott. You couldn’t care less ‘bout him.”

“Don’t you dare get all self-righteous with me, Johnny. You’re in no position to pass judgement. I care about Scott more than anything. I love him!”

Johnny laughed bitterly. “You call this loving him?”

“Do you?” Amber shot back. “Aren’t you supposed to love him too?”

Her words were an imaginary fist that slammed into his gut. How could he have done this to his brother? At least last time, Johnny’s involvement was unintentional. Now he had slept with his brother’s fiancée, the mother of his child. “Why?” he whispered. “If Scott means so much to you, how can you hurt him like this?”

Amber reclined on the bed, picked up a pillow and clutched it to her stomach. “Because I want you to leave,” she said as if it was the obvious explanation. “I want you to leave Lancer so Scott, Lily, and I can be happy. Besides, Scott never needs to know.”

Johnny opened his mouth in disbelief. “You did this so I would leave?” No longer just twisted, Amber was delusional. “You and Scott are together; you’re going to get married. You had what you wanted, so why am I important?”

“You’re always around,” Amber snapped. “Reminding Scott of things, telling him not to trust me. I can’t live my life with you breathing down my neck. With you gone we can concentrate on our future, and Scott will have no reason not to trust me.”

“You think I’ll stand by and let Scott marry you now? You’ve gone completely loco, Amber. What makes you think I won’t tell Scott about this, huh? You’ve destroyed everything, all by yourself.”

Amber wandered to the window, her bare feet making no sound on the wooden floor. As she drew the drapes, she turned back to face him. “You won’t tell,” she said with confidence, “because you don’t want to lose your brother, and you will, the moment Scott knows about this. Then, of course, there’s your father and Teresa; you will lose them, too, if you admit what we’ve done.” Amber paused, knowing she had his attention, even if it was unwilling. “No, I don’t think you’ll tell, Scott. The best thing you can do is leave. At least that way your family will still think something good of you.”

Johnny’s stomach twisted into a tight knot of anger. “What makes you think I’d consider myself ahead of my brother?” His fury grew when Amber gave a light, tinkling laugh.

“It isn’t about that, silly. You tell Scott and it will devastate him. A betrayal by me he could get over in time, I’m sure. But if you betray him, he’ll never get over that, and he’ll never, ever, forgive you.”

She reached for Johnny and ran her fingers down his bare chest. “Then of course there is Lily. If you tell Scott then, yes, I’ll lose him. But Scott will lose Lily for sure. I’ll run, take Lily away. You of all people know how easily mothers can disappear with their children if they want to.”

Her fingers stroked his cheek. “Even if Scott found us and went for custody, how much of a chance would he stand with a gunfighter in the household? A murderer in the family, filled with a need for revenge on the family that cast him out. Yes, I know all about your past, Johnny Madrid.”

Johnny slapped her hand from his face. His gaze swept the floor for his gun, surprised when he found it by the bed. Amber obviously knew he couldn’t shoot her.

A wicked smile twitched on her lips. “There is always the other option.”

Johnny stood, rooted, powerless to say or do anything to stop her talking. He felt like the helpless prey of an expert hunter. “This happened when you shoved me.” He watched, transfixed, as she rolled up the sleeve of her nightgown and showed him a fresh graze on her elbow, oozing blood. “I’ll no doubt come out in more bruises from where you threw me to the floor after you’d finished with me.” She waited for realisation to dawn on Johnny’s face. “I could tell Scott how you came here, determined to make me pay. Terry will have seen you come up to my room, but he wouldn’t have heard me scream, not when you were holding your knife to my throat. Perhaps Victoria will see the bruises. I could tell her I fell or…” Her eyes lit up with a flash of inspiration, “…Scott will see them and he’ll wonder why I’m quieter than normal, why I’m too traumatised to let him touch me.”

Tears brimmed in her eyes as she leaned in close and whispered, “You see, I couldn’t tell anyone at first, not after last time, for fear nobody would believe me. I was so frightened and alone…”. The distress in her voice sounded real.

He took a step away. “You’re sick.”

“No, I’m just not prepared to take all the blame this time. I want to be happy and with you gone, I will be. You have two days.”

“Two days?” His foggy mind searched for a hole in Amber’s plan, only to conclude what he already knew. This time, there wasn’t one.

“Two days to make your excuses and leave,” Amber clarified, knowing she had him where she wanted him. “Otherwise, Johnny, your life will be over, perhaps in more ways than one.”

It was like a gunfight, only the person calling him out was faster and Johnny knew it. There was no way he could win. Without a word, he snatched up the rest of his clothes and gun belt.

Amber watched him leave. Reaching for her glass of whiskey on the table, she raised a silent toast to the success of her plan. “That was almost too easy,” she whispered, a smug, satisfied grin on her face.

Johnny stumbled out of Amber’s hotel room, his breath coming in short gasps. It was still early and the hotel was in eerie silence. He fumbled with the buttons on his shirt, knowing he’d made the biggest mistake of his life. Even once dressed, he couldn’t move straight away, unable to take a single step toward the consequences of what he’d done. Her perfume clung to him. He felt sick.

With great effort, he pulled himself together and made his way down the staircase. A soft glow filtered beneath the door of Caleb’s office and laid a carpet of light to the front door. As Johnny reached the bottom step, he peered around the bannister. To his relief, he was able to slip away like the guilty party he was.

Leaving Green River behind, Johnny guided Barranca off the dirt road and into a clearing surrounded by trees. The sky was orange-blue as he slumped on the cold ground, resting against the mottled bark of a sturdy oak tree.

“Damn!” He lashed out with a foot and launched a stone into the air. His outburst sent some nocturnal creature scurrying for sanctuary. No matter which way he looked at it, Amber had him. He stood to lose everyone that mattered.

He was sick then. Heaved in the grass like a green kid who couldn’t handle his liquor. This spot now inhabitable, Johnny stumbled away.

How could he have let himself get that drunk? Had he propositioned her? He shivered and drew the back of his hand across his lips; he could taste the evil—”. He spat the insult into the grass. He was in no position to be slinging names at Amber. How could he get all self-righteous now?

It was already past dawn; he should be home. And, Dios, how valuable the single word home had become. Now he had to give it up. Let go and bury the memories. Amber had given him two days to leave, but Johnny knew he’d barely last two hours at the hacienda. How could he face them? How could he face Scott after what he had done?

He buried his face in Barranca’s silky mane. If he confessed, what would become of Lily? Johnny had no doubts Amber would run. He had no doubts about anything she’d said. No court would award custody to a relation of Johnny Madrid. He groaned. His head pounding. None of that would likely matter because if Scott didn’t kill him first, then Murdoch surely would.

Climbing into the saddle, Johnny headed back to the road.

He could do what Amber wanted and leave, come up with some excuse. It would hurt them, sure, but they’d get over it in time. Only then he’d be sentencing Scott to marry her.

Scott woke up to the sound of Lily shrieking with delight. It was a warm feeling to know his daughter was here and happy.

As Scott washed and dressed, he heard Victoria cajoling Lily to get ready. When Scott stepped out of his room. Lily was just coming out of hers. When she saw him, she beamed and ran along the hallway to see him. “Come on, Daddy!” she shrieked. “Ranca’s back!”

Victoria joined them in the hallway. “I think your brother just got home. Lily saw Barranca from the window.”

Scott nodded. “Well, we have to eat breakfast first,” he said, holding out his hand for her to take.

Lily screwed up her nose. “No.” She placed both hands behind her back.

Scott tried to hide his smile and look serious. “Lily, if you eat your breakfast first, then we’ll spend longer with Barranca.”


It looked like she might stomp her foot at any moment. He cast a pleading look toward Victoria who raised her eyebrows and kept her lips sealed. Scott sighed. He’d been a Lieutenant in the cavalry, and was used to giving orders, so why when it came to directing a toddler, was he finding it so difficult?

“Lily,” he tried again. “Barranca needs breakfast too. You wouldn’t want him to go hungry would you?”

Lily considered this before shrugging and removing one hand from behind her back.

“So, we’re going to have breakfast?” Scott grasped her small hand in his own.

“I want toast.”

“Toast it is then.”

The household noted Johnny was home, but he never appeared at the breakfast table. Maria gave Scott strict instructions to find Juanito and bring him into the kitchen so she could feed him properly.

As he and Lily made their way out to the barn, she tried to twist her hand from his so she could scamper ahead across the yard. It seemed Lily was destined to be stubborn and she wasn’t acquiring that trait solely from Amber. Lily seemed set to be a Lancer through and through.

When she reached the entrance to the barn, she peeped around the wooden frame and giggled.

Johnny pretended not to notice his little visitor. He’d been home for an hour but hadn’t found the courage to take one step towards the hacienda. He heard Scott join his daughter in the doorway, but he couldn’t turn around and see them together, knowing it would twist like a knife.

“Hello, Ranca!” Lily yelled and the horse jerked in alarm.

“Easy,” Johnny said softly, as much to Lily as the horse.

“She’s eager to see him this morning.” Scott took a step inside the barn, into a field of tension that hung in the air like an imminent downpour. He reached down for Lily when Johnny came out of the stall.

“Yeah, she sure likes him.” Johnny fastened the door, anxious to make his escape.

“Wait a minute, will you? We need to talk.”

“I can’t.”

Scott examined Johnny’s face, noting the dark circles beneath his cloudy blue eyes. “Rough night, was it?”

“Something like that.” Johnny swept his gaze over the hay-strewn ground, the faded wood of the stall door, anywhere but in Scott and Lily’s direction. Sure, for once, his eyes were going to betray his emotions and the truth.

Moving closer to the horse, Scott lifted Lily so she could stroke Barranca. Johnny didn’t want to look him in the eye. Was there really too much damage already done? He didn’t want to give up. They needed to sort this out, so he ploughed ahead.

“Things got out of hand the other day. We weren’t listening to each other and we should have been. I didn’t like what you said, but I get why you said it. We’re not going to see this the same way and I’ve been unreasonable. You have every right not to like Amber.”

Johnny remained still.

“This hasn’t been a rash decision on my part. I’ve thought it through. I’ve thought it to death. Amber and I care about each other enough to know we can make it work. But I don’t want her to come between us and she doesn’t have to. I shouldn’t have asked you to apologise and I’m sorry—”.

“Scott, don’t.” Johnny finally looked at him. “You don’t need to say this. I’m the one that’s sorry.” His gaze drifted to Lily and he knew he couldn’t risk their relationship, no matter what. “I’ve gotta go,” he said, surprised at how even his voice sounded considering his guilt threatened to consume him.

Scott wasn’t sure how to interpret the conversation that had occurred. “Maria wants to see you in the kitchen.”

Johnny pointed at Lily. “Take care of her.”

Scott assumed he was referring to Lily’s interactions with Barranca. “I’ll see you later?”

Johnny was already walking out of the door.

Amber had gone back to sleep after Johnny left. By the time she woke again, it was mid-morning, and the winter sunshine glared through the drapes. Rubbing her eyes, she stretched and congratulated herself on how well it had worked out.

She’d considered a lot of schemes, but in the end, fate had selected the best one. She’d never have guessed Johnny would show up at her hotel room to apologise. What luck! And what better way to ensure Johnny left than to convince him he’d betrayed his brother in the worst way possible?

It had been a simple plan and one Amber already had great practice in. As soon as Mortimer was convinced he had her with child, she couldn’t bear for him to touch her. He was a good man, but a selfish and boring lover, and she didn’t find him attractive. Knowing Mortimer’s physician wanted her for himself, she’d turned to him, distraught, and asked for his help. He had supplied her with many little brown bottles, the last of which sat beneath her bed, and she’d taken to slipping a little sedative in Mortimer’s customary evening drink. It had been her only salvation and made it possible to endure their marriage for as long as she had.

What surprised Amber the most was how easy it had been to get Johnny to take the doctored drinks. The relationship between them was hardly one that called for sociable drinking. It seemed he needed the whiskey for courage.

Gosh, it had been difficult to sit there and say she was sorry. She had been genuine about that once, until Johnny proved how vengeful and spiteful he was.

Finally, he had begun to look woozy. Amber had kept right on talking and when he made a move to leave, he could barely put one foot in front of the other. It had been easy to take him by the arm and guide him into the bedroom. By the time they’d reached the bed, he was ready to pass out completely. And then the hard work had begun!

First, she’d undressed him, and, oh, had she needed a few minutes to rest after that. Wiggling the pants off an unconscious man was a whole new experience. He was deadweight. She’d discarded his clothes in a trail from the doorway and then sat in a chair to wait out the night.

When the darkness in the room mellowed with the faintest glimpse of dawn, she had undressed and put the final stages of her plan into motion, pleased when Johnny’s body had responded to her efforts. He needed to know his body still wanted her, even if his mind did not.

Of course, he had believed it, as she knew he would. No matter how prim and proper Johnny acted now, she knew he had enjoyed their time together as much as she had. It made sense he would let lust get the better of him again.

He would think the worst of himself, but Amber knew she had a clear conscience. She could look Scott in the eye and continue to love him.

Amber got dressed with a smile on her face. There might be a small risk she could lose Scott. There would be with any plan. But she’d learnt a hard lesson from her previous attempt to get rid of Johnny, so had covered every angle this time. Johnny would not tell Scott because she had seen to it that he couldn’t. Now, she and Scott stood every chance of being happy together.

With Johnny gone, Scott would need her more than ever.

After saying what he knew would be the only goodbye he could give to Scott, Johnny entered the hacienda with a heavy heart. Maria had requested he see her, and he had to oblige. There was no way he could leave without seeing the woman who had been so good to him over the past few years. Standing in the kitchen doorway, Johnny watched Maria working, but could not alert her to his presence just yet.

Maria sensed him because she turned and eyed the dark-haired young man up and down, her face fraught with concern. “¿Dónde usted ha estado?” (Where have you been?) she exclaimed before her voice took on the familiar scolding tone. “Usted no ha comido!” (You have not eaten). Her dark eyes continued to peruse Johnny and she could swear he looked ten times thinner than the last time she had seen him. “¿Ahora no soy bastante buen cocinero para usted?” (Am I not a good enough cook for you now?) Maria asked, one hand planted on her hip and the other shaking the wooden spoon at him.

Johnny held up his hands. “Usted es cocinero excelente!” (You are an excellent cook)

Maria nodded. “Si. Now you eat.” She pointed the spoon at the kitchen chair before turning around to prepare him some breakfast.

As Maria worked, Johnny listened to her mutterings about how he was missing too many meals and he bit his tongue to refrain from pointing out he had only actually missed dinner last night and was just having breakfast a little later than usual today.

He had only cleared half the plate when Teresa pulled out a chair. “I was worried about you.”

Usually, he would have replied with some good-natured smart comment, but today it didn’t seem appropriate. Instead, he set his fork down and placed his hand on her arm, studying the young woman he regarded as his sister. “You know Teresa, wherever I am, I can take care of myself. You don’t need to worry ‘bout me.”

Teresa looked at him oddly. “I know. Maria and I can’t help it.”

Johnny smiled at her and pushed his half-eaten breakfast away, leaning over and planting a soft kiss on Teresa’s head. Walking around the table, he kissed Maria too, the older woman swatting him away with mock annoyance.

Murdoch was at his desk, rummaging around in the drawer while muttering under his breath. Johnny watched him, contemplating the giant of a man that had transformed from a figure of hate to a man Johnny loved and respected. Like with every member of his family, but especially so with his father and Scott, there was so much he wanted to say and not enough time or ways to show both these men how he felt.

Sensing a presence, Murdoch looked up and caught his son staring. “Good morning.” He made a point of checking his timepiece.


Murdoch studied his son, noticing how tired Johnny looked. “Have you eaten?”

“Yeah.” Johnny approached the desk and perched on the corner, his fingers running along the edge of the polished wood.

“Is everything alright? Have you seen Scott yet?”

Johnny’s gaze dropped to his fingers. “Yeah, I’ve seen ‘im.”

“And did you talk?”

“We talked.”

“Good.” Murdoch gathered his paperwork together in a bundle, tapping it on the desktop to align the edges. He could tell by Johnny’s expression that he didn’t want to elaborate, but Murdoch was sure he would when he was ready. “I need you to look at those horses today. They’ve been here a couple of days now and we need them broke and working.”

Johnny looked up at his father, his mind searching for a protest. “Murdoch, I can’t, I…”

“I could ask someone else to do it, but nobody else quite has your way with them.” There was a trace of pride in Murdoch’s tone. “If you’re not going to do it today then I at least want them moved. Considering Lily’s obsession with horses, it’s not a good idea to have them so close to the house.”

Johnny looked at his father in exasperation. He needed to leave. The longer he stayed the harder it would be and this was already the hardest thing Johnny had ever had to do.

Before he could come up with an excuse though, Murdoch said, “I thought that when Scott takes Lily back to Green River, I might ask Victoria to stay a little longer and show her the ranch…as I promised.” He looked awkward.

Johnny raised his eyebrows. Was his father asking him for his advice here or informing him of his plans? He had guessed Murdoch found Victoria attractive. It had been hard to miss that day outside the hacienda when Victoria had arrived and Jelly and Murdoch had put on that comical show, which continued at the dinner table that same evening. Johnny didn’t know how he felt about his father having romantic intentions toward Victoria, but she was a nice woman and seemed straight. With everything set to change at Lancer, it was only right Murdoch should find happiness for himself.

“Well, if ya promised…” Johnny allowed a small smile to grace his lips.

“Yes, I did.” Murdoch walked around the desk to stand beside Johnny. Placing a hand on his son’s arm, he tugged him to his feet. “So, are you going to take a look at those horses for us, then?”

Johnny sighed. He didn’t want to let his father down, at least not any more than his leaving would do. Murdoch was also right about Lily. Later, if Murdoch would be out with Victoria and Scott was going into Green River, then it would be a whole lot easier for him to leave unchallenged. By the time anyone realised he had gone, it would be too late.

When Johnny indicated his agreement, Murdoch smiled. “Good.” He placed an arm around his shorter son’s shoulders.

For Scott, the morning passed in a blur of activity. He spent what seemed like hours in the barn with Lily and Barranca, while she chatted and petted the horse. It had at least given Scott a chance to let his mind wander over the conversation he’d had with his brother. Not that it was much of a conversation. He had done all the talking and Johnny had hardly said a word, other than he was sorry. Still, Scott was hopeful they’d at least made a start. With a little more effort, he and Johnny could get back to where they were before all this.

Eventually Lily had tired of Barranca, wanting to go off and explore somewhere else instead. They had made their way back to the hacienda and spent the rest of the morning with Teresa, Victoria and Murdoch.

Shortly before noon, Murdoch and Victoria went out, leaving Scott with Teresa and his daughter. Upon hearing his father’s raised voice, he got up from the couch and went to investigate.

Outside, he found Murdoch and Jelly in a standoff. Jelly had his chest all puffed out in the way he did when he was trying to make a point. Murdoch was staring him down, the irritation plain to see in both his posture and expression.

“What’s going on?” Scott enquired, noticing Victoria stood between the two men, her cheeks rosier than they usually were.

Murdoch looked annoyed. “I was just reminding Jelly of all the chores that need to be done around here today.”

Jelly folded his arms and fixed Murdoch with a stare down of his own. “Well, if there are so many chores ta do, why ain’t everyone else workin’?”

Murdoch narrowed his eyes. “Jelly,” he said with forced patience. “Not that I have to explain this to you, but Scott is taking care of Lily, Johnny is breaking those horses, and every hand is out on the range working, which is where I need you to be today.”

Jelly scowled. “I was tryin’ ta be helpful,” he snipped. “Seems ta me I’d be much more useful showin’ Mrs Clark round the ranch. Ya must ‘ave a lotta things ta do, Murdoch, bein’ the boss an’ all.”

Amused, Scott watched as Murdoch took a deep breath and tried to keep a check on his temper. He seemed to manage it and his eyes took on a vague twinkle. “Yes, Jelly, I am the boss and I call the tune. Now please go and get the buggy ready for Victoria and me.”

“Humph,” Jelly huffed. He knew when he was licked. With a tip of his cap and a wide smile for Victoria, he turned on his heel and stalked off, grumbling over the unfairness of life.

Before Scott could comment, all three of them looked up at the sound of an approaching horse. Scott’s eyes widened in surprise when he recognised the lone rider as Amber. He hadn’t known she would be coming out to the ranch by herself, yet here she was, having obtained a horse from somewhere.

Scott reached up to assist her dismount, not missing the fact she did so with a wince. “Are you all right?”

Amber dropped her gaze. “I’m fine,” she said quietly. “I guess it was a longer ride than I’m used to.” The two of them stood in awkward silence until Murdoch cleared his throat.

“I’ll tell Lily you’re here,” he said, catching Victoria’s eye before they both went into the house.

“Amber, is something wrong?” Scott asked when Amber still didn’t speak or even flash him one of her bright smiles.

“I’m fine honestly.” But she sounded weak.

Before Scott could ask any more questions, Lily appeared in the doorway. “Mama!”

“Hello Lily,” Amber said warmly, holding out her arms for the little girl to come to her, sweeping her up into a fierce hug and placing a kiss on her soft hair. “Have you been good for daddy, darling?”

As Lily nodded enthusiastically, Scott grinned. “She’s been good.”

“I’m pleased. What have you two been doing this morning then?”

“Ranca,” Lily informed her mother, craning her neck to look over Amber’s shoulder to where she spied Johnny through the wooden gate.

For hours Johnny had worked through the horses Murdoch had acquired, taking his time and not rushing. This was partly because he enjoyed doing this and partly because he wanted to keep busy and take his mind off the fact this was the last time he would do this work on Lancer land. If ever again. He had left the black until last, sensing this one would need the most effort and patience. The horse’s deep brown eyes smouldered with distrust. A look Johnny could recognise and relate to.

Johnny stood in the centre of the enclosure, facing away from the hacienda, the black in front of him. His posture was unthreatening, and he spoke in the softest drawl, letting his voice have a hypnotic effect on the proud, defiant animal. While the world carried on turning, time suspended – it was the two of them on the planet – Johnny and the horse in a battle of wills. Johnny was already halfway to winning; he had managed to saddle the animal moments before.

As he stepped around to the side of the horse, his movements careful and slow, the sound of hooves kicking up dust caught his attention. Johnny saw Amber rein to a halt in front of the hacienda.

Running his hand gently down the black’s neck, Johnny took a step backwards and the spell broke. With a jerk of his magnificent head, the black made its way over to the far side of the enclosure, stamping its front hoof restlessly in the dirt.

Johnny narrowed his eyes at the sight of Amber. Murdoch and Victoria disappeared inside and then Lily came out, delighted to see her mother. Scott and Amber talked and then the little girl spotted him and waved, causing both Scott and Amber to turn his way.

Johnny swallowed hard when Amber placed her arm possessively around Scott’s waist. To an outsider, it would have looked like the perfect family scene.

As Lily squirmed out of her mother’s arms and they started to make her way over to him, Johnny steeled himself to face them. The knife of guilt twisted once more in his chest. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Scott should have left for Green River. Murdoch should have set off with Victoria. He should be able to just leave.

Scott jogged up behind her as Lily reached the corral gate. She peered inquisitively between the wooden slats. “Oooh,” she said, pointing at the black, her eyes wide with delight at yet another horse she could talk to and touch.

“Not this one, little girl,” Johnny said softly. “Move away from the gate Lily, he ain’t too friendly.”

Scott scooped his daughter up. “How’s it going?”

“Fine.” Johnny didn’t miss the glare Amber was giving him behind Scott’s back.

“Wait a minute?” Scott murmured when Johnny turned back to the horse. “Amber, why don’t you take Lily back to the house? I’ll be there shortly.”

Amber forced a smile and took Lily, shooting Johnny one last filthy look.

“Johnny, we are okay, aren’t we?” Scott asked tentatively, noticing his brother’s posture was still tense, even though Amber had departed.

Betrayal lay like a weight on Johnny’s chest. For a second, he thought about blurting it all out. Scott deserved to know the truth, no matter what the cost, but he couldn’t. He wouldn’t know where to begin, or how to explain it. Forcing himself to meet his brother’s eyes, Johnny said, “Yeah, we’re okay. I just need to finish this.”

“You’ve done well with them so far. This the last one?”


“Right then…I’ll leave you to it.” It was obvious Johnny wasn’t in the mood for talk.

Johnny watched his brother walk away and he cursed under his breath. He hated himself and hated Amber for being so nonchalant. To look at her you could honestly believe the last twenty-four hours had been a figment of his imagination or some horrific nightmare. How could he commit his brother to live with someone like that? How long would it take before Amber set her sights on someone else and hurt Scott regardless? As Johnny made his way back to the horse, he wondered just whom he was trying to protect.

His mind a cauldron of contradicting thoughts, Johnny reached out to the horse, trying to concentrate on the task at hand. He whispered a few soothing words and the horse stood still; muscles tense and ears pricked, waiting for Johnny to make a move. Johnny did make a move, sooner than he should. He eased up into the saddle, not taking the time to recreate the spell or the moment of trust he had spent so long cultivating. The horse snorted in protest, stamping its foot aggressively into the ground before kicking out and leading Johnny in the familiar dance. As Johnny tried to keep control of the powerful horse, he also struggled to keep his concentration. All he could think about was the mess he had created and the mess he would be leaving behind. With a sudden, ferocious show of strength, the black bucked, sending Johnny flying out of the saddle. In the split-second before he hit the ground, Johnny knew this was a bad fall. As he smacked down into the dirt, the last thing he saw was a curtain of inky blackness lowering in front of his eyes.

Chapter Fourteen

As the black curtain of unconsciousness lifted, all Johnny could see were dark red shooting stars. He could feel the hard ground beneath his throbbing body. He dared not open his eyes for fear the bright sun would spit out embers and send scorching pain through his very sore head. He lay motionless, still with his eyes shut. The cool afternoon breeze on his face. Had someone shot him? His brain soon registered it was not that type of pain. Panicked, he tried to remember. Then as his senses came back, he made out distorted voices. He remembered the black horse and foolishly getting distracted. As the voices became clear, he recognised them. One made him keep his eyes firmly closed.

Amber: “Is he dead?”

Scott: “No.”

Amber: “Oh… Thank goodness.”

Despite the pain, Johnny’s fists clenched.

Murdoch stared down at his pale son and noticed Johnny’s hands move. “I think he’s coming round,” he murmured to Scott, who was squatting down on the other side. Holding the back of his hand to his son’s cheek, Murdoch didn’t like the fact Johnny’s skin was cooler than it should have been. Looking back up to Scott’s concerned face; Murdoch said anxiously. “I think we need to send for Sam.”

At the mention of the doctor, Johnny forced his eyes open, regretting the move as the sun did exactly what he’d predicted and sent hot shards of pain through his skull. He groaned and blinked several times, but refused to close his eyes completely as he tried to focus on the black silhouette of his father.

“No…need…for…Sam,” he croaked, before coughing harshly to clear his throat, regretting that move too when his aching body screamed in protest.

“Johnny, how do you feel, can you move your legs?” Murdoch’s voice was thick with concern.

Johnny moved his feet. 

“Scott, help me get your brother into the house.” As his brother and father brought Johnny up on his feet, a wave of nausea came and blackness threatened to reclaim him. They took him straight into the great room and laid him on the couch. Instantly, a worried Teresa and Maria descended, fussing about, so much like mother hens, that in his dazed state, Johnny was sure he could hear them clucking.

Still groggy and disorientated, he tried to insist he was all right. Teresa inserted a plump pillow beneath his head, ignoring his mumbled words. As he lay there with his eyes closed, he heard Murdoch ask Scott if he had sent someone for Sam. Johnny started to panic. His chances of getting out of here any time soon were lessening by the second. Opening his eyes, Johnny focused on his father and brother. “I’m fine, I don’t need Sam,” he protested, but they ignored him. Summoning up all his strength, Johnny swatted Teresa’s caring hand away from his head. “Damn it, I said I’m fine. Will you all just leave me the hell alone? I fell off a horse, that’s all.”

Seven pairs of eyes looked shocked. Inwardly Johnny cringed at the audience, outwardly, he remained defiant, his blue eyes blazing angrily, even though his outburst had caused an eruption of red-hot sparks to pelt down behind his eyeballs.

Murdoch and Scott recognised the reason for Johnny’s agitation and set about clearing the room. Murdoch sent Maria and Teresa back to the kitchen, Victoria left of her own accord with Lily, and Scott steered Amber towards the door. As Scott touched her elbow, Amber winced and rubbed it ruefully. “Are you all right?” he asked, letting go.

“Yes, I got hurt earlier…” She said it loud enough for Johnny to hear.

Johnny received her message loud and clear.

“Scott, go and make sure Sam has been sent for, please,” Murdoch requested as if Johnny hadn’t spoken at all. “And when you’re done, can you come back and help me get Johnny up to bed?”

“Murdoch, I don’t need to see Sam,” Johnny pleaded once they were alone. As much as his soft bed sounded a whole lot better than the couch felt, Johnny knew as soon as they got him in bed and Sam examined him, the chances of getting away would be minimal.

Murdoch looked at his son and shook his head. As a family, they had been here too many times. It didn’t matter how unwell or hurt Johnny was, he would always insist he was fine until the cows came home. “Johnny, you’ve had a nasty fall and hit your head. I’m not taking any chances and neither are you. When Scott comes back in, we’ll help you up to bed where you will stay until Sam has looked at you. Do I make myself clear?”

Johnny closed his eyes, exhaustion winning out.



“Good. You’re not going anywhere.”

A few hours later and Johnny was in his bed. Tired, his whole body ached, his head pounded, and all he wanted to do was sleep. It seemed nobody in his family appreciated this because every time he drifted off, one of them would wake him up again.

The diagnosis received from Sam was quite a positive one, but Johnny didn’t see it that way. After an examination which had consisted of Sam checking out his pupils, testing his reactions and asking him ridiculous questions like what day of the week it was, Sam had announced he was a lucky young man and appeared to be suffering from a mild concussion. He would also have a colourful display of bruises to show for his trouble.

Johnny found some salvation in these words until Sam said he needed to stay in bed and rest for twenty-four hours, after which he could get up and slowly move around. There was to be no work and no riding until he came back in two days to check his condition. Sam explained to Murdoch that he should keep a careful eye on his son and watch out for any signs of dizziness, confusion or increased drowsiness. Likewise, if Johnny started vomiting, or if the severity of his headache increased, then they were to send for him straight away.

Now, judging by the change of light in his room it was early evening and Johnny was awake again. Shifting in the bed, he stared up at the ceiling and tried to order the day’s events. He remembered why he had lost his concentration with the horse. He had asked himself an important question about his reason for leaving – was it for Scott or himself? Johnny now reasoned it was a bit of both. What he had heard downstairs only served to confirm what he already knew – Amber would not hesitate to cry rape. She was already laying the groundwork at every opportunity. Who knew how many more hints she had dropped whilst not in his presence? But that was not a reason to keep this from Scott. Amber could say what she wanted. Johnny knew he would be long gone before she had a chance to accuse him. He was confident that once he was back in Mexico, he could disappear. One way or another. He hadn’t given much thought to what he would do to survive. Yes, he was still good with his gun, he had never stopped practising, but he doubted he would hold that same edge. It had been years and he didn’t need to go back to Mexico as Madrid. He’d already had two names in his life, so what was one more? He could make a living some other way. There were other things he was good at besides hiring out his gun.

He knew he needed to tell Scott what had happened, but two reasons prevented his confession. He didn’t want Scott to hate him and Scott would as soon as he found out the truth. It was cowardly and Johnny berated himself for it, but he was afraid. Afraid to see hatred and disappointment in the eyes of someone he loved and cared about.

The other reason was Lily. Johnny couldn’t risk Amber running off with Scott’s daughter – the double blow would destroy him. Just as Murdoch had done, Scott would search for Lily. But even if he found her, what were the chances of gaining custody of his daughter when, as Amber said, he had a killer for a brother? A vengeful killer who could hold a grudge against his family. No, Johnny couldn’t risk that. He couldn’t risk any of it and as soon as his head cleared, he would be away – if he could ever get out from under the watchful eye of his family.

Closing his eyes again, Johnny prayed that a little more sleep would speed up his recovery and chase away the thunderstorm in his skull. Just as his eyelids grew heavy, the door to his room opened and Johnny cursed in frustration. “Damn it, I don’t need checking on every five-” He abruptly stopped when Amber slipped into the room, taking one last cautionary glance over her shoulder.

“I’ve just come to see how you are?” She said with syrupy sweetness.

“Get out,” Johnny growled, thankful he had insisted upon remaining half-dressed.

“Oh, I don’t intend to stay long. As I assume you don’t?”

Johnny glared at her, a thousand insults hovering on his lips. He bit each one back with enormous self-control. “It ain’t my fault I fell off the damn horse. I’ll be outta here as soon as I can. Now get out before I do something I won’t regret.”

It was dark when Johnny next woke up. He lay there for a moment trying to gauge his condition. While he still had a grumbling headache, it was an improvement on the thunderstorm. He eased up into a seated position on the bed, flinching at the effort it required. Determined to leave, he grasped the edge of the mattress and eased his legs off the side, letting the soles of his feet rest on the cool wooden floor. He reached across and fumbled to light the lamp, wilfully ignoring his back muscles when they voiced their objections to the stretching movement. The concussion aside, Johnny knew he would be sore for a few days at least. The best thing for his aching body was a steaming hot bath, something Johnny had taken just before starting work on those horses, for he couldn’t stand the smell of Amber on his skin.

With the lamp lit, he returned to the more comfortable seated position. Of all the times something like this could happen, this had to be the worst. Johnny didn’t know if he believed in fate or not. Sometimes he did and sometimes he didn’t. In this case, he wondered if fate was trying to tell him something. As he got shakily to his feet, the opening of the bedroom door derailed his train of thought.

Johnny grimaced when confronted by the formidable sight of an annoyed and exasperated Murdoch.

“What in God’s name are you doing? Can you not stay in bed for a few hours?”

“I felt better.”

Murdoch leaned over his shoulder, cringing at the smattering of bruises on Johnny’s lower back and shoulder blades. “How’s your head?” And then in a much sterner tone, “Don’t even think about lying to me, John.”

Johnny would have rolled his eyes, only in truth, his head was a little too delicate. “It still hurts some,” he admitted.

“Well, I would think so. What are you doing up? Do you need to—”


“Well then?” Murdoch pointed back at the bed. Johnny returned to what he considered his jail cell cot and sank onto the soft mattress, looking at his father imploringly. “Murdoch, I need a bath.”

Murdoch shook his head. “Not tonight, not with a concussion. Now, are you hungry? Do you want me to bring you something to eat?”

Johnny sighed and Murdoch moved to the door. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

When Murdoch returned with a plate of stew, Johnny frowned. “Where’s the real food?”

Murdoch smiled. “Teresa made this for you.” He drew the blanket up over Johnny’s legs and settled the tray on his lap.

Johnny sighed, picking up a spoon and taking a mouthful, pleased to find it was tasty. “You know I hit my head, I ain’t feverish. Don’t you think you’re treating this too seriously?”

“Johnny, it was a nasty fall. You lost consciousness. Don’t you think you’re treating this too lightly?”

A rueful smile appeared on Johnny’s face. For a few minutes, father and son sat in companionable silence, until Johnny finished his meal and Murdoch removed the tray.

Murdoch had been studying his son while he ate. He couldn’t help but notice that besides the normal frustrations; there was something else going on. “Johnny, is something troubling you? I mean, besides the fall?”

Johnny bit down on his lower lip, again feeling the urge to blurt it all out. He truly couldn’t remember a time when he had felt so confused and unable to identify the right thing to do. If he could only confide in his father, he was sure Murdoch would know what the right thing was. There was always the added advantage that given the state he was already in; Murdoch would be less likely to drag him from the bed and kill him. Gazing down at the blanket half covering him, Johnny picked at the woollen threads, agonising over the decision he had to make.

“I was wondering…” Johnny kept his blue gaze fixed on the blanket, “…why it was so easy for mama to disappear like she did, and why the detectives you hired couldn’t find us all them years?”

Murdoch tried to hide his surprise at Johnny’s question. He had no idea this would have been weighing on his son’s mind after all this time. His expression became sad as he retrieved those painful memories. “I knew your mother would return to Mexico, Johnny,” he began. “She had friends there, people who would protect her. Even those she would not consider friends would rather protect her than betray her to a gringo. If she’d have taken you anywhere else then I’d have found you a lot sooner, I’m sure of it.”

Johnny nodded. He couldn’t see Amber managing to disappear as effectively as his mama, or having many friends willing to protect her. “And what ‘bout Scott, why didn’t you get custody of him?”

Murdoch twisted his hands in his lap. “I wanted to. I consulted lawyers, but Harlan, well, he had money, a good reputation and friends in all the right places. I never would have won and I didn’t want to put Scott through the ordeal.”

“I guess it would be the same for Scott and Amber, huh?” he said cautiously. “If things hadn’t worked out like they have?”

Murdoch looked nonplussed. “What do you mean?”

“Well, if things had been different, and Scott had applied for custody of Lily, he wouldn’t stand much of a chance, I guess.”

“I believe he would have stood an excellent chance. I even put that option to him, obtained legal advice on the circumstances, only Scott didn’t want to take that option.”

“But wouldn’t I have affected his chances?” Johnny asked, bringing his blue eyes up to meet with his fathers for the first time since this conversation started.

“Why would you have?”

Johnny scowled. “My past. That wouldn’t look too good would it.”

“I don’t see how it would be relevant. Scott is Lily’s father. That alone would probably be enough. Any court would look primarily at the behaviours and characters of the parents, and with Amber’s previous track record, you wouldn’t even come into it.”

“Are you sure?” A little wisp of hope was rising inside him. Maybe Amber had not been right about everything after all.

“Yes,” Murdoch assured his son, thinking this was a strange conversation for them to be having. “Is there a reason for these questions, Johnny?” Murdoch didn’t miss how Johnny’s gaze darted back to the blanket.

“I thought we’d dealt with the past?”

“We have. Being confined to bed gives a man too much time to think, I guess.”

Murdoch smiled and placed his hand over Johnny’s. “Well, you’ve got more thinking time ahead of you, John.” He slapped his son’s knee. “Now get some rest.”

Breathless and sweaty, Scott felt Amber snuggle up beside him, resting her head against his bare chest and draping her arm across his stomach. She held him tight while they waited for the flush to recede from their cheeks and the tingling to fade from their bodies. As Amber listened to the beating rhythm of Scott’s heart, she had never felt so happy and contented in all her life. Everything was working out just as she’d pictured it.

When they had tumbled into bed together earlier, Scott had asked about the graze on her arm and the bruises on her thigh. The fact Johnny knew he had no choice but to leave, meant there wasn’t the need to keep up the pretence. She’d told Scott she’d fallen from the horse but had been too embarrassed to say. Then she’d skilfully diverted his attention.

Now she let out a contented sigh.

Scott’s gaze travelled her naked body and he smiled. He had fought hard against those unwelcome images that had flooded his brain and this time he had won. Scott was sure a lot of this had to do with achieving some sort of peace and taking a giant step towards putting the past behind them all.

When they first returned to the hotel, Amber had seemed much more like her chatty self. Victoria had taken Lily leaving Scott and Amber alone. She told him how Johnny had come to see her and apologised. Scott wondered why Johnny hadn’t said, but he realised his brother wouldn’t want to make a big deal out of it. Johnny’s gesture meant a lot. All he wanted was for his family to get along.

Scott ran his fingers through Amber’s tousled hair. She smiled and snuggled closer.

“I love you, Scott,” she whispered.

As Scott was considering how he wanted to respond, Amber propped herself up on her unhurt elbow.

“We need to set a date for our wedding.”

Scott grinned and tugged the white cotton bed sheet up to his waist. “Yes, we do. It won’t take long to organise, but we will need to meet with the judge-“

“The judge?”

“Yes. Of course, we’ll have to find out when he’s available. At least we won’t have to worry about guests; just family…unless there is anyone you wish to invite?”

Amber looked startled, for Scott was not exactly describing the kind of wedding she had in mind. “Uh…no, I don’t suppose there is.”

Scott watched her expression wilt, before she turned away from him in the bed.

“Amber, what’s wrong?”

She let out a loud sigh and refused to answer.

Leaning over, Scott placed his hand on her shoulder and turned her over. It confused him to see unshed tears in her eyes.

“Are you ashamed of me?” she snapped.

“No. What makes you say that?”

“Well, it just seems like you want to marry me quickly and quietly like we have something to be ashamed about. Lily for instance.”

“It’s not that! But I don’t think it’s appropriate to have a big wedding under the circumstances. I don’t see why it would matter what kind of wedding we have…”

“Obviously.” Amber yanked the sheet over her own body and turned her back on him again.

Running his hand through his hair, Scott tried reasoning. “Amber, we’re getting married so we can be a proper family – you, me and Lily. What does it matter if it’s quiet and quick? Surely the most important thing is that we can be together, have our own home and—”

“You do want that, don’t you?”


“Oh, Scott,” Amber said happily, circling her arms around his neck. “That is all I want, too. You, me and Lily together.”

It was the early hours of the morning by the time Scott got home. He’d not managed an entirely discreet exit from Amber’s room at such a telling time of night – he’d been about to slip out of the hotel when Terry had emerged from the back office. The boy frowned in Scott’s direction. Right now, Scott didn’t care if Terry gossiped. He and Amber had decided to marry as soon as the judge was available. All he needed to do now was to find somewhere for them to live. Ideally, he’d like to build a home on Lancer land, but that would take time and money. In the meantime, he, Amber and Lily would need somewhere to live as a family.

It was dark in the hacienda as Scott removed his gun belt and hat, hanging them on the wall-mounted rack. He made his way upstairs and as he passed by Johnny’s door; he listened but heard only silence. Scott gently pushed the door open and peered inside.

He could hear his brother breathing, but it wasn’t the steady, rhythmic breathing of sleep. “Johnny?” he whispered into the darkness.

“Yeah, I’m awake.”

“How are you feeling?”

“Sore…tired…but my head no longer feels like it’s gonna explode.”

“Good I’m glad. Goodnight, brother.”


When Scott closed the door, Johnny let out a heavy sigh. He was pretty sure Scott was gonna hate him when he found out the truth, but Scott needed to be in full possession of the facts. Then it would be up to him.

Chapter Fifteen

Over the next twenty-four hours, Johnny did nothing but obey the doctor’s orders – anything to speed up his recovery. He asked Teresa to bring him paper and something to write with, and he sat in bed, late afternoon, chewing on the end of a pencil as he tried to decide how to confess. How did he tell Scott how sorry he was and explain all the reasons why he had to leave? There would never be the right words, so he said what he and Amber had done and what she threatened to do if he stayed. He told them he was giving up his share of Lancer. He had no idea if this was legal or not, but it didn’t matter. He would be gone and it would be the two of them running the ranch from now on.

Task complete, Johnny folded the paper and slipped it under his pillow.

The next morning, he woke up early and eased himself to his feet. He gave his body a tentative stretch.  He might not be able to ride far today, but he could make it as far away from Lancer as possible.

He dressed, twisting his neck to look over his shoulder and examine his bruises in the mirror. They were still purple, not yet showing the yellow tinge of recovery. His body might need more time, but he couldn’t stay. Retrieving the letter from beneath his pillow, he reread what he had written. Even in the light of a new day, the apology was wholly inadequate. He hoped Scott saw the sincerity of his hand.

He left the letter on the bedside table beside the framed photograph of the four of them. Johnny slipped the photograph from its frame. He would take this one sentimental thing.

He was rolling up items of clothing and stuffing them into his saddlebags when the door opened.

“Good morning, you’re up early-.” Scott stopped at the sight of his brother dressed and looking suspiciously like he was going somewhere. “What’s going on?” He walked over to stand beside Johnny and glanced down, first at the bags, then at the empty frame.

“Johnny?” Scott’s blue-grey eyes were full of questions.

“I’m leavin’,” Johnny said quietly.


“I can’t stay here anymore.” He resumed stuffing the clothes into his saddlebags.

“You can’t just up and leave. You weren’t even planning on telling us, were you?”

“Scott, you don’t understand.”

Scott folded his arms; his expression was grim. “No, I don’t. Explain it to me.”

Johnny shook his head and moved towards the door, but Scott moved quicker, planting himself in front of the only means of escape.

“Oh, no, you don’t. If you think I’m letting you walk out that door without so much as an explanation, then you have another thing coming, little brother. You can’t just walk out on your family like this. What about Murdoch and Teresa? Don’t you think they deserve an explanation about why you’re walking out on them, walking out on me?”

Johnny swallowed.

“Don’t you care?” Scott challenged, hoping to push Johnny into spilling his reason for leaving. “Don’t you care about Murdoch, Teresa, me?”

“I do. It’s just… I can’t stay here, Scott. I’ve done something…something that means I can’t.”

Scott saw Johnny’s pain. He wondered what could be so awful he had to walk out on his family, without so much as a goodbye. “What have you done?”

Johnny closed his eyes, knowing the internal battle that had raged in his heart for the last few days was over. Yes, he could continue to lie. He knew Scott wouldn’t physically stop him from leaving. Yet, Johnny couldn’t do it. He had to face up to the consequences of his actions. Steeling himself, Johnny opened his mouth to speak but found the words would not come. Johnny clenched his hands into fists and forced them out.

“I did something with Amber.”

There. The words were out. Johnny watched his brother’s brow furrow in confusion.

“What do you mean? What did you do?”

“I went to bed with her. I didn’t know what I was doin’…”

Scott slumped against the door. His expression registered shock at Johnny’s admission, then anger as he digested its meaning. He grabbed Johnny by the front of his shirt. “Tell me,” he growled. “Tell me what the hell happened!”

Johnny swallowed. “I don’t remember… I went to see her to apologise for what I said. I was a little drunk already and I had a few more drinks, I guess, and the next thing I knew, we were in bed…”

Scott let go of Johnny’s shirt. “You were drunk? That’s your excuse?”

He drew back his fist and punched Johnny in the face, sending the younger man crashing to the floor. Then, without giving Johnny any time to recover, Scott hauled him up again and slammed him against the wall. “You son of a bitch.”

Johnny groaned as his tender back smacked the hard wall and all the air rushed from his lungs. “Scott, I’m sorry…” he gasped as he tried desperately to get his breath back.

The breathless apology incensed Scott further and he shoved him again, causing Johnny to cry out in pain.

The door burst open. “What the devil is going on here?!”

Murdoch, dressed in his robe and slippers, his hair uncombed and his face unshaven, glared at his two sons, his hands planted on his hips. “Scott, let go of your brother right now!” He was amazed Scott could even consider manhandling Johnny given his present state. When Scott did not relinquish his hold, Murdoch grabbed his arm and wrenched him away. He felt the rigid tension in Scott’s bicep and saw the look of complete fury on his elder son’s face.

Scott’s grip on Johnny was the only thing keeping him upright. As Murdoch forced Scott away, Johnny slid down to the floor, his body throbbing from the assault.

“Johnny, are you all right?” Murdoch crouched beside his son and tilted his head up to face him. He noted the swelling along his jawline where Scott’s fist had connected, and the haze of pain clouding his usually bright blue eyes.

Turning back to Scott, Murdoch narrowed his eyes. “Explain. Now.”

Scott turned away, barely keeping a hold of his anger. “Ask him,” he spat. “Ask him what he did!”


Johnny ignored his father and tried to plead with his brother. “Scott, please…I’m so sorry,” he whispered. “I was drunk. I don’t even remember what happened…”

Scott charged his brother again, forcing Murdoch to jump to his feet and keep the angry man at bay by placing his hands on Scott’s chest. “Stop it! I’m not going to stand here and let you two fight like this. One of you is going to tell me exactly what is going on. Now!”

Throwing off Murdoch’s hands, Scott sidestepped his father and looked his brother in the eye. “I was right, wasn’t I?” he asked coldly. “I was right when I said you were jealous. This whole time you’ve been acting as if you can’t stand her. Was that some kind of ploy the two of you cooked up together? I bet you couldn’t stop laughing at me could you!”

The pieces of the puzzle slotted into place for Murdoch. He turned to his younger son in shock. “Johnny, tell me you didn’t…?” One look at Johnny’s guilty expression told Murdoch there was to be no denial.

“I wasn’t laughin’ at you. I never meant for it to happen; I swear!”

Scott’s laugh was bitter. “That’s a load of bull and you know it. What happened, brother, did she force you at gunpoint? And let me guess why the great Johnny Madrid couldn’t defend himself…could it be because you didn’t have any pants on?”

“Scott—” Murdoch began but his elder son cut him off.

“Stay out of this, sir, it’s between him and me. Well?” he demanded of Johnny.

“No, she didn’t have a gun, but…”

“But you’ve never been one to turn down a good-looking whore, right? And why let a small thing like a brother get in the way of a good fuck!”

Murdoch was surprised by the uncharacteristic bad language coming out of his usually refined elder son’s mouth, but he didn’t rebuke him for it. How could he?

“Scott, you must believe me. I never meant for this to happen. I never wanted to hurt you, you’re my brother.”

Scott shook his head. “What makes you think I’m hurt? Seems to me, I’ve had a lucky escape. Now, perhaps, you will do the decent thing and marry her. You two deserve each other!”

With one final look of disgust, Scott turned away. When he reached the door, he turned back around and looked coldly at Johnny. “Oh, and you are wrong, Johnny. I’m not your brother…I don’t have one.”

Scott slammed the door. Teresa was hovering in her doorway, wide-eyed, her palm across her mouth. Ignoring her, he hurried down the stairs and headed straight for the liquor. Gulping down a drink. he realised his hands were trembling and so he quickly poured another.

Never had he felt such anger. Never had he felt so completely betrayed. After all Johnny had said, all his protests, he had merely been biding his time, waiting for the opportune moment to satisfy his backstabbing lust. God. Scott closed his eyes. Had Amber set her sights on them both from the moment she returned? The abundance of lies and deceit was suffocating. He needed to get out. He needed to think with a clear head before he went to confront her. He poured a third drink and snatched up the bottle.

Outside, the cold morning air struck his face and seeped through his beige shirt. Around him, everything was peaceful. An hour or so earlier, dawn had reached down and touched the rolling hills with a kiss of light. Whereas Scott would usually appreciate the natural beauty, today it irritated him. The tranquillity served only as a mocking reminder his life had turned upside down.

Taking a few steps away from the house, Scott let the minutes slip by. He gulped the warming brandy and wondered if Amber had been drunk too. It didn’t matter.  Intoxication was no excuse. He would never forgive either of them for this.

How could she do it? Everything Amber had said about being a family was a lie. Shivering, and not just from the cold, Scott considered that just a few short hours ago, he had been in her bed. A bed probably still warm from his brother. They had talked about their wedding and she had told him she loved him…

With a curse of frustration, Scott hurled the bottle at the stone wall of the hacienda. It shattered, fragments scattering over the patio. He had lost almost everything that mattered, but there was one person who Scott had no intention of losing: Lily.

He needed to speak to his father about gaining full custody of his daughter. That way, when he faced Amber again, he could tell her exactly how things would be.

Walking back to the house, Scott ignored the crunch of broken glass beneath his feet. Knowing his father as he did, Scott was sure Murdoch would not have thrown away the letter from the lawyers. After rummaging around in the desk drawer, he found what he was looking for and placed the letter in his pocket.

Surprisingly, his head felt clear. There was no point in waiting for the formalities – he would go and bring Lily home to Lancer where she belonged.

As the sound of Scott slamming the bedroom door faded into stunned silence, Murdoch tried to digest all he had seen and heard.

He’d never seen Scott so angry. Even the last time Amber had come between his sons, Scott had not been in such a rage. Murdoch’s heart ached for his elder son. He knew from bitter experience how painful a woman’s betrayal could be, and when that betrayal was with your brother…his own experiences didn’t stretch to that. He couldn’t even begin to comprehend the devastation.

He was tugged from his thoughts by Johnny stumbling to his feet.

“Are you all right?” he asked automatically, his gaze sweeping over Johnny’s bruised face and rumpled shirt.

“Yeah,” Johnny said, although the ache of his body contradicted those words. The time he had spent resting counted for nothing now. His body felt as it had when he’d first fallen from the horse. His jaw throbbed. He couldn’t bring himself to meet his father’s eyes as he headed for the door.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

“I need to speak to Scott and make him understand…”

“No, you need to stay clear of your brother right now. Scott needs some time to cool off.” Murdoch attempted to guide Johnny over to the bed.

Johnny resisted the tug on his arm. “I gotta talk to him, Murdoch.”

Murdoch folded his arms across his chest. “And say what?” he demanded, trying not to get angry, but finding it difficult. “What can you possibly say to make this better? You have done the unthinkable and quite frankly I’m not surprised your brother reacted the way he did.” Murdoch was aware that the volume of his voice was increasing, but he felt powerless to prevent it. “After everything you have said, you go and do something like this. Was Scott right? Was pretending to dislike her some kind of cover to hide your true feelings?”

Johnny’s head jerked up and he met his father’s stare. “No, it wasn’t!” He moved again for the door, but Murdoch grabbed him tighter this time.

“I’ve told you, no. Your brother isn’t interested in your explanations, but I am. Now, sit down and explain to me, if you haven’t lied this whole time about disliking Amber so much, how exactly you ended up in her bed?”

“I don’t know!” Johnny raked his hand through his dark hair. He had posed that question to himself countless times without success.

“What do you mean, you don’t know?” Murdoch took a deep breath to calm down. When he spoke again it was in a controlled tone; a tone he hoped his son would respond to. “Johnny, I want to understand why you’ve done this, but for me to do that, you need to start telling me the truth, son.”

Johnny’s shoulders slumped and he turned to the bed, sinking onto the mattress. When he looked up, his eyes held a swirl of confusion. “I am tellin’ you the truth,” he insisted. “I didn’t mean to do it, Murdoch. I was drunk and I don’t remember…”

“Stop lying!” Murdoch’s temper snapped like sun-dried twigs underfoot. He towered over Johnny. “You were obviously not that drunk, and you obviously have feelings for the harlot! What the hell is it about Amber that you and Scott find so damn irresistible?”

“I don’t find her irresistible.” The confusion in Johnny’s eyes turned to blazing denial. “I don’t have feelings for her either, least not the kind you’re talkin’ ‘bout!”

“But that didn’t stop you, did it?” When Johnny looked down at the floor, Murdoch grabbed him roughly by the chin and forced his head back up to look at him. “Answer me, damn it.”

Johnny swallowed hard, Murdoch’s fingers pressing on the forming bruise along his jawline. “No, it didn’t,” he answered, not knowing what else to say. How could he explain it to his father, when he couldn’t explain it to himself?

Murdoch knew his temper was getting the better of him. He didn’t want to do something he’d regret. Releasing Johnny, Murdoch took a step back. “And that makes it ten times worse,” he said quietly, rubbing his bristly cheek. “You and Amber knew what this would do to Scott, but you did it anyway. Being drunk is no excuse.” He looked away from Johnny then, his gaze straying over the rest of the bed. For the first time since he had entered the room, he noticed one of Johnny’s shirts poking out of the saddlebags.

“You’re leaving?”

Johnny didn’t think he could feel worse than he already did. He had been leaving, and now Scott knew, it seemed like the only thing he could do. You’re not my brother, I don’t have one. Johnny knew from the expression on Scott’s face that he meant those words. It was what Johnny feared all along, like the disappointment radiating from his father. There was no way Scott was ever going to forgive him for this.

“Yeah.” Johnny got to his feet and moved to the end of the bed where he finished stuffing the shirt in the bags. He picked them up and faced his father.

Murdoch opened his mouth to say something, but nothing came out. He didn’t want Johnny to go, but couldn’t help but feel that his son, the man who was fiercely loyal to his family, must have gone a long time ago. Somehow, they had missed his departure.

As Johnny approached the door, he hoped his father would move out of the way without causing a scene. He didn’t know whether to feel relieved or disappointed when Murdoch did just that. He nodded once at his father and opened the door.



“Let Teresa and I know where you are, son, how you’re doing…”

Johnny noted Scott was not included in the keep-in-touch request. “I will,” he said, but already knew it was a lie. There was only one way to deal with this and that was to leave Johnny Lancer behind. Leaning against the door frame, Johnny took a deep breath and swiped at the tears in his eyes.

A flash of white caught his attention. Teresa still stood in the doorway to her room, in her nightgown, with tears flowing down her face. When he met her eyes, she shook her head, and Johnny could feel her disappointment. Feeling the natural urge to protect himself, he hurried down the stairs.

“Johnny!” Teresa ran to the top of the staircase, but he kept on going.

A minute later, the front door closed on the familiar jingle of his spurs. Murdoch stepped out of Johnny’s room, a letter in his hand.

Teresa ran to her guardian, throwing her arms around his middle and burying her head against the soft fabric of his robed chest. “He’s gone, Murdoch,” she wept.

Murdoch reached up to stroke Teresa’s brunette hair. “Yes, honey, he’s gone,” he whispered. Gently pushing Teresa away, Murdoch smoothed the young woman’s tears with his thumb. “Go and get dressed, Teresa. I need to speak to Scott.”

Teresa sniffed. “You have to sort this out,” she pleaded. “You have to get Scott to say he didn’t mean what he said.”

Murdoch sighed; not sure he was capable of the insurmountable task. He knew he had to talk to his eldest, who was no doubt hurting a great deal. When Teresa returned to her room, Murdoch paused at the top of the stairs and glanced down at the letter he had found by Johnny’s bed. It was not in an envelope but folded in two with ‘Scott’ written by Johnny’s hand. For a moment, he deliberated whether he should read it, but decided he had to. He needed to know what it contained and if he should hand it over to his presently volatile son.

As he read Johnny’s words, Murdoch’s heart resumed its ache. Johnny was clearly sorry for what he had done. As he read further down the page, Murdoch’s eyes narrowed as Johnny revealed the lengths to which Amber had gone to ensure his silence. Now, Murdoch understood the conversation yesterday evening. All those questions, seemingly about Maria, had been about Amber and her intentions regarding Lily. When Murdoch got to the end of the page, the ache in his heart grew stronger as he realised Johnny never intended to come back. He had surrendered his claim to the ranch, just as he had surrendered his claim to a home. He might have made a terrible mistake in questioning whether Johnny planned this. If they were in it together then why would Amber blackmail Johnny? Still, Johnny couldn’t take back what he’d done and it was something likely to remain unforgiven and unforgotten. Perhaps for a lifetime.

Closing his eyes, Murdoch cursed Amber for coming back into their lives.

He found Scott in the foyer, buckling his gun belt, his handsome face set with determination. Murdoch knew Scott had his own mask he used to hide his emotions.

“Scott, where are you going?” He placed a hand on his son’s shoulder.

“Where do you think I’m going?” Scott reached for his hat. “I’m going to get Lily from Amber.”

Murdoch felt a little apprehensive about his son’s ability to deal calmly and rationally with Amber right now. As much as Murdoch had a renewed hatred of the woman, he didn’t think it was a good idea Scott went to see her just yet. He would either react as he had done with Johnny or, and Murdoch felt a little disloyal for thinking this, he would let Amber talk her way out of it; somehow placing all the blame at Johnny’s feet.

“Before you go, son, there is something you need to see; a letter from your brother addressed to you.”

“I told you; I don’t have a brother.” Scott took the letter from Murdoch’s outstretched hand, glanced over it, then screwed it into a ball and handed it back. It had been a knife to the chest when Johnny told him what he’d done. The contents of the letter rotated the blade and pushed it into the hilt. “This doesn’t change how I feel about Johnny.”

“No, but it should change the way you feel about Amber’s part in all this.” Murdoch removed his hand from Scott’s shoulder and adjusted the belt on his robe.

Scott wanted to say he had no trouble seeing Amber’s part, but in truth, he’d not comprehended what a scheming, lying bitch she was. “I got the letter from the lawyers from your desk. I want full custody of Lily, as soon as possible. That won’t…it won’t be a problem, will it?”

“No, son, I don’t think it will be a problem at all. Amber’s latest conduct will only strengthen your case.”

“I’m going to bring Lily back with me today. I’m not taking any chances. I’ve already lost a brother and a fiancée. I don’t intend to lose my daughter too.”

Murdoch sighed. “Scott, Johnny’s gone. He left.”

Scott hesitated and for a brief second, Murdoch saw the indecision on his face, before he set his lips in a grim line. “Good.”

Chapter Sixteen

By the time Johnny had been riding for close to an hour, his whole body was launching a painful campaign to rest. Rather than sitting in the saddle, Johnny felt like he was under the horse getting trampled, but at least the discomfort gave him something to focus on.

As a rule, Johnny tried not to make a friend of bitterness; experience told him it was a consuming disease, that ate away at a man from the inside out. But he couldn’t stop the unfairness of the situation chafing at him. He had left the only real home he’d ever known. Lost everything for a night he couldn’t even remember.

He didn’t blame his family for their reaction, but no matter how prepared he’d been, Scott’s words had stung. Everyone thought he had feelings for Amber, but he didn’t. There had been sparks once, but that was years ago. Johnny hadn’t felt them since her return. Had he felt them that night?

He couldn’t change what was done. He was going to need a clear head from now on if he went back to living as Madrid.

His fingers strayed to his gun and he pulled it from the holster, feeling the familiar weight in his hand. If he did this, if he went back to being Madrid, Johnny knew it would not be long before someone took him out. Johnny suspected he’d lost his edge. He’d most likely be dead before his twenty-fifth birthday, but that was damn ancient for a man in his line of work.

Needing some supplies, he decided to stop off in Green River. As much as he loathed to be within a mile of Amber, he figured he was unlikely to see her. If he knew Scott at all, then his brother would not be far behind. Scott would deal with Amber how he saw fit. Besides, Johnny could stop in and say goodbye to Val. It would be nice to see someone who might actually miss him.

He rode into the town. Was this the last time he’d ride anywhere without looking over his shoulder? He was always on guard, it was instinct, but these days and in this town, he had learned to relax and be Johnny Lancer, Murdoch’s son. Just another thing he had lost.

Stopping outside the jail, Johnny dismounted and let his body get used to standing again. He was about to see if Val was around when he saw Victoria and Lily on the opposite side of the street. Lily was tottering along, one hand clasping Victoria’s, the other swinging her doll back and forth, her golden curls bouncing as she walked.

Johnny watched his niece. She’d come to mean a lot to him. Once again, the pointlessness of Amber’s actions hit Johnny. The woman had come so close to having all she professed to want, yet she’d thrown it away, caused so much hurt and for what? So, he would leave.

Damn, he was angry. Angry at Amber and all she had cost him, and all she would cost Lily. He wanted to hurt Amber as she had hurt his entire family. Tethering Barranca to the rail, Johnny forced his anger behind a cool demeanour, crossed the street and entered the hotel.

Caleb greeted him pleasantly when he walked through the doors and Johnny returned the greeting as politely as he could. He took the stairs two at a time and rapped his knuckles on Amber’s door. He heard footsteps approach from the other side and seconds later the door opened.

She looked surprised to see him, even more so when he pushed his way into the room. Closing the door, Amber folded her arms and glared.

“You know this is the second time you’ve barged your way into my room like this. I’m assuming you’re here to say goodbye. Unless of course, you’ve come for a repeat performance?”

Johnny sauntered over to the table and picked an apple from the fruit basket. Perching his butt on the edge of the table, he casually threw the apple into the air and caught it a couple of times.

“I am here to say goodbye,” he drawled. “And to wish you well in your new life.”

Amber regarded him with suspicion. For someone supposed to be leaving, Johnny didn’t look that bothered. “Thank you,” she said sweetly, “but I don’t think Scott and I need your good wishes. I suppose it’s me who should extend my good wishes. After all, you’re going to need them more, right?”

Johnny nodded. “Oh, I do, I do.” He took a bite of the apple and took his time chewing and swallowing. “Y’know, it’s funny, how we’ve got more in common than we thought.”

Amber tucked her hair behind her ear, and gave a short, nervous laugh. “I don’t think so. I don’t see how I have anything in common with you.”

Johnny tilted his head, a smirk tugging at the corners of his mouth. “Sure, we do. Scott don’t want me as his brother, and he don’t want you as his wife. Guess we’re both on our own now, huh?”

Amber looked at him in confusion, a flutter of unease stirring in her stomach. Johnny should be gone, not sitting in her room like this. “What are you talking about?”

Johnny smiled. “I’ve done something you’re incapable of doing, Amber. I told the truth.”

The way he was smiling increased Amber’s unease. “What truth? Stop playing games.”

Johnny shook his head. “I don’t play games, only you do that, and you’ve just lost.” Dropping his gaze to the apple, Johnny took another bite, taking even longer to chew this piece. He was aware of her growing agitation; he could sense her unease and he had to admit he was enjoying it. She had gotten away with this for far too long.

“I told Scott the truth.” He fixed her with his piercing blue eyes. “I told him what happened between us. He knows you threatened to run away with Lily and what you threatened to accuse me of.” He didn’t care if Scott had read his letter yet or not; Amber needed to know her game was up.

Amber paled and she placed the palm of her hand against the wall for support. What had this stupid man gone and done?She’d made love with Scott last night, and told him cheerfully how her bruises were a result of a horse-riding accident. How could she accuse Johnny of attacking her now? Amber collapsed against the wall. How would Scott ever forgive her for this? Would he understand why she had done it? She was going to lose him, the one perfect and right thing in her life. It was all Johnny’s fault!

Fear knotted in her stomach. Control slipped through her fingers like little grains of sand.

“You fool, what have you done!” she yelled at Johnny, the final threads of her plan unravelling. “How could you do this!”

“I had to. Not doin’ so would be worse.”

Amber stared open-mouthed, her face red. She was trembling. “Worse? How could it be worse; you tell me that.” She clenched her fists and glared. “You’ve ruined everything, you bastard!”

Johnny put the half-eaten apple back on the table. He let her see the anger in his eyes this time. “It would be worse to leave Scott to marry you. You’re loco, Amber. I couldn’t leave you to mess up Scott’s life more than you already have.”

She let out a scream of frustration. “But I haven’t done anything! We haven’t done anything! God…what have you done?”
Johnny’s control faltered. “What? Are you sayin’ I never touched you?”

Amber ignored him, too caught up in her despair. Scott had to see the reasons why she had done this, he just had to!

Johnny crossed the room and seized her by the shoulders. “Amber,” he said fiercely, shaking her. He needed to know if she was saying he hadn’t slept with her; hadn’t betrayed his brother.

Amber winced as Johnny’s fingers dug into her arms and she tried to wriggle from his grip. “I lied!” she shrieked. “You were in no state to do anything. You passed out and then I did things to make you think we had…” She tried to wrench away. “Damn it, Johnny, you never even touched me, not until the morning when you were half asleep!”

Releasing her, Johnny took a step backwards as her words hit home. He hadn’t done anything. All this, it had been for nothing…

“Don’t you see? You’ve lost Scott for nothing, you stupid man! I set you up, Johnny, I needed you gone so I could be free of you.” The look of shock on Johnny’s face made her feel a little better and she laughed bitterly. “I never banked on your conscience turning you into a complete fool.”

Johnny gaped, unable to believe how deranged her way of thinking was. All he had been through – the guilt, the pain of having to see his family so disappointed in him – it had all been needless. Anger swirled through him; all the emotions of the last few days colliding within. He narrowed his eyes, glaring at her with a look of cold, hard steel. “You’re one twisted bitch.”

Amber tossed her hair. “Get out Johnny. You’re the one who has lost. Scott will never believe anything you say, you’ve lost him for good!”

“I doubt that, but you sure have.”

“No, I haven’t. I’ll tell him how I was drunk, how much you enjoyed it, how much you wanted me…”

Johnny’s temper frayed and he seized her arm. “I never wanted you, it was always the other way ’round. From the beginning, it was you who couldn’t stand to be without me. The games are over and you’re gonna tell the truth for once in your sorry life.”

He dragged Amber to the door as Victoria and Lily were returning from their walk.

“Take your hands off me!” Amber screamed.

“No.” Johnny struggled to hang on to her. “You’re gonna do what I want this time.”

Outside the room, Victoria hesitated, not knowing quite what to do. She recognised Amber and Johnny’s voices, and one look at Lily’s worried and tearful expression told her the little girl shouldn’t bear witness to this. Turning around, Victoria hurried back down the stairs.

As Johnny got Amber to the door, he had to take one hand off her to open it. She seized her chance, lashing out to strike him in the face. To her surprise, he reacted quicker than she could, grabbing her arm and twisting it as he shoved her away. Amber fell back against the wall, cradling her arm towards her chest.

“You…you hurt me,” she spluttered, her expression shocked as she examined her aching arm.

“That’s nothing compared to how you’ve hurt everyone you’ve ever touched. I’m goin’ to tell Scott the truth, Amber. The real truth this time.”

She laughed. “He won’t believe you. He’ll think you’re making it up. Face it, Johnny, you’ve lost your brother!”

“You’re wrong,” Johnny said with more conviction than he felt.

“I’m not wrong. Scott will believe me because he wants to, because he needs to, and because of Lily. At least I’m going to have the guts to own up to what we did. You’re going to tell him what – you’ve changed your mind? That you didn’t betray him in the worse possible way? I bet he hates you and he sure won’t trust you. Tell me, Johnny, are you that confident?”

“Are you?” Johnny countered. “Scott hates you too. As you said, Amber, I’ve already lost everything. Now it’s your turn.”

Amber stomped her foot. “Scott will forgive me. He knows I love him. Besides he must forgive me for Lily’s sake.”

“Lily’s sake,” Johnny snorted. “You don’t give a damn about the kid any more than you give a damn about Scott.”

“That’s not true! I love-”

“Yourself,” Johnny finished for her. “But Scott, he loves Lily and he’s not going to let you anywhere near her after this.”

A flicker of uncertainty passed through Amber’s eyes. “Get out Johnny,” she snapped with fresh hate. “Go to hell!”

Johnny opened the door. “Save me a spot. An old hag like you is bound to get there long before I do.” With a great sense of satisfaction, he closed the door on her scream.

Amber was furious. Her body shook as Johnny left with an arrogant look on his face that made Amber want to smack him.

He was wrong about Lily. Scott wanted the best for his daughter. What could be better than them being a family?

Yes, Johnny’s confession would have hurt Scott. He may even think they were over, but they were not by a long shot. While love was a concept Johnny was unfamiliar with, Amber knew it was the most precious feeling in the world, something to hold onto with all her might. She wouldn’t accept defeat and walk away from the best thing that had ever happened to her. Johnny didn’t understand the lengths you would go to keep the person you loved.

She needed a drink, but the only liquor she’d possessed had been that bottle of whiskey, which was long gone. Taking a few deep breaths, Amber tried to calm herself. She needed to think, she needed to plan.

When Victoria and Lily hurried from the hotel, Victoria wasn’t sure what to do. She felt like she should have made sure Amber was all right, but at the same time, it was not her business. Amber and Johnny Lancer had a complicated history by all accounts.

When Lily became restless, Victoria decided to head back to the hotel to see if Johnny had left. She was listening outside the door when it opened, and she jumped back in surprise.

“Oh, Victoria, I’m so pleased you and Lily are back. Something’s happened, something terrible!”

Victoria’s brown eyes filled with concern, but at least Amber looked well, except for the worry etched on her face. “What is it? Are you all right?”

Amber shrugged. “Yes…no…oh, Victoria, it’s not me I’m worried about, it’s Lily.”

“Lily, why? Whatever has happened?”

“Victoria, we don’t have much time, but I need you to do something for me. I need you to take Lily to the stage office right away. Get on the next stage to Cross Creek and I’ll meet with you there.”

“Cross Creek? I don’t understand.”

Amber looked impatient. “Victoria, Johnny threatened me and he wants to take Lily. I can’t risk her safety.”

Seeing Victoria’s confusion and sensing her reluctance, Amber lifted Lily with her uninjured arm and hugged her daughter. “Victoria, I haven’t told you the full story. Johnny and I were together before I started a relationship with Scott. Johnny’s always believed Lily is his, even though I’ve told him she isn’t. She can’t be. You only need to look at her to know!”

Victoria joined Amber in appraising Lily. Victoria had to agree the child didn’t look anything like Johnny. She wondered what made Johnny think otherwise.

“He’s been pressuring me to tell Scott she isn’t his, and because I’ve refused, he’s started to threaten me. To be honest I’m scared of him, Victoria. He’s not what you think. He goes by another name: Johnny Madrid. Victoria, he’s a killer, he used to murder people for money!”

She started gathering up a few of Lily’s toys and stuffing them into a carpet bag.

“Ask anyone. If something happens to me then he’ll take Lily, and Lord knows what will happen to her then.”

“You need to tell Scott this, Amber, I’m sure he will protect you both.”

“Yes, I’m going to, but I can’t risk going to Lancer now in case Johnny heads back there. If you go on ahead, then I’ll try to get a message to Scott. He and I will come for you once it is safe, but I need you to go now, Victoria. We need to get Lily to safety first.”

Victoria took hold of Lily and Amber pressed the carpet bag into her hand. “I’ve packed a few things for you both. There’s some money in there too.” Leaning down, Amber kissed Lily on the forehead. “Goodbye darling, Mama won’t be far behind you.” She placed her hand on Victoria’s arm. “Thank you,” she said sincerely. “Thank you so much.”

As Victoria carried Lily down the stairs, Terry was walking up. Amber watched him approach, an idea dawning.

“Is everything okay, ma’am?”

Amber forced a beaming smile, waiting until Victoria and Lily had gone before saying, “Oh yes, everything is fine, Terry. You’re just the man I want.”

Terry’s eyes widened and Amber could swear he blushed, although it was hard to tell through his blotchy skin. “Anythin’ I can do ta help, ma’am,” he said eagerly.

Amber fluttered her eyelashes. “I need a small favour; I need you to go to the livery and rent me a horse. I thought I’d go riding a little later today. Will you do that for me?” She gave him a flirtatious smile. “Thank you, Terry, you’re the sweetest.”

As Terry set off to do her bidding, Amber said a silent prayer that this was only a precautionary measure should things not go well with Scott. If Johnny was right and he didn’t want anything more to do with her, then Amber knew she had to run. By the time Scott figured out Lily and Victoria had already disappeared, it would be too late. Of course, the most sensible thing would be to leave now with Lily, but Amber couldn’t give Scott up without a fight. She figured he would come to see her, and when he did, she would make him see that she and Lily were deserving of another chance.

This meant she couldn’t tell him the truth. She could hardly admit to Scott what she had foolishly admitted to Johnny; that nothing happened. It didn’t matter if Johnny got to him first. If Amber was confident of anything, it was that Scott wouldn’t believe Johnny ever again.

The journey to Green River had never taken so long. While the world moved by at a horse’s pace and the gathering clouds dragged a grey blanket over the sky, Scott clung to his gnawing anger. It was the only thing preventing an avalanche of hurt from burying him.

It was funny in a way. While making a choice had been the very thing he’d tried to avoid, in the end, Johnny and Amber had made one for him. He didn’t know who he was angrier at, or who invoked the biggest sense of betrayal; Johnny, the man he called brother but had never truly known, or Amber; the woman who claimed to love him, when the only person she was capable of loving was herself. As Scott reached the outskirts of town, he decided it didn’t matter. They were both guilty of their sleazy affair. He would be better off without either. Lily was the most important person in all this, the only one completely innocent. Scott was determined she would stay that way.

Arriving at the hotel, Scott didn’t see Barranca waiting for Johnny across the street. Dismounting from his horse, he removed his hat and gloves and strode inside.

Chapter Seventeen

In her room, Amber finished buttoning up her white blouse before examining her reflection in the mirror. In keeping with her precautions, she had changed into more suitable clothing for riding; blue jeans and black boots. As her confidence returned, she realised all this was unnecessary. This was Scott she was considering, the man who cared about her, the father of her child. They had been through rough patches before and Scott had forgiven her. If she could focus the blame on Johnny, then Amber was sure they would get through this one too.


Scott’s angry tone, coupled with the thumping on the door made her jump. She checked her reflection again and fluffed up her hair. Walking to the door, she took a deep breath and swallowed her anxiety. She was going to say whatever he needed to hear. She was going to win him round.

“Scott!” She greeted him with her warmest smile. “I’m so pleased to see you. I was planning on riding out to Lancer.”

“I expect you were.” Scott walked in and checked the rooms for his daughter. “Where’s Lily?”

“Oh, Victoria’s taken her out for some fresh air. You know how stuffy it can get, cooped up in here all the time.”

Scott’s blue eyes held more grey steel than she was used to, causing her anxiety to make a fleeting return. Having already decided her best defence was to play innocent, Amber circled her arm around his waist only for Scott to remove it in one swift gesture.

“Do you think I’m stupid?”

“What do you mean?”

Scott narrowed his eyes. “Oh, that’s right,” he said, feigning sudden realisation. “I forgot. You do. You thought you could fall into bed with my brother and I’d never find out. Or maybe you thought I’d be all right with it as you’re keeping it in the family.”

Amber clasped her hands. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, I haven’t fallen into bed with anyone.”

Scott smirked. “I’m sure it would devastate Johnny to hear he wasn’t memorable, but then it seems he felt the same way. You must be losing your touch, Amber.”

Amber arched her eyebrows. “I’m not losing anything.”

“Yes, you are. You already have. You’ve lost me and now you’re going to lose Lily.”

Amber felt her confidence falter as little needles of fear pricked her skin. She ignored both, determined not to lose sight of her aim. “Scott, you need to calm down and think about what you’re saying.”

“Calm down? Why the hell should I calm down? I’ve just found out I came close to marrying someone who is little better than a common whore.”

The volume of his voice made Amber flinch, but she refused to lose faith that she could get through to him.

“I think I have the right to be angry or, maybe, you don’t think so? Perhaps the men you’re used to screwing over tend not to get so upset?”

His anger threatened to wash away her confidence, but there was no way she was giving in. “Scott, I never did anything.”

“So, you didn’t have sex with Johnny? I can’t believe you’re going to deny this. I know what happened when Johnny came here to apologise. I know you threatened to take Lily, to use Madrid against him. I know it all and it makes me sick. You make me sick.”

“I never did anything with Johnny, I never blackmailed him. It was the other way around. Please, you must listen to me!”

Scott snorted. “Oh, this should be good. I can’t wait to hear why Johnny would blackmail you.”

Amber’s eyes filled with tears. “Johnny wanted me gone, Scott. He didn’t care about Lily; he didn’t care that I loved you. He just wanted revenge against me. That’s why he kept trying to set me up, don’t you see? Look at the incident with Michael – anybody genuine would have asked more questions. There was nothing to hide; anyone could have told him Michael was Victoria’s son, or that there were no available rooms for him at the hotel that night. Johnny thought he had found a way of getting rid of me, only when that didn’t work, he got nasty. He threatened me, Scott, he threatened to tell you we slept together if I didn’t go and take Lily with me. He doesn’t believe she’s your daughter, he said she is worth nothing, just like me. I didn’t believe him at first, I thought he was bluffing, so I foolishly stood my ground. I refused to let him intimidate me, but it’s happening as he said. He told me you wouldn’t believe me, that you’d always believe him. It looks like he was right!”

He realised what his father meant when he said she could sound so sincere whilst telling the boldest of lies. He might believe anyone else, but not Amber, not about Johnny. His brother may well have been jealous of their relationship or wanted revenge, but he would never blackmail Amber and leave himself with nothing. By telling him what he had, Johnny had sacrificed everything.

Amber was quiet, but her gaze hadn’t left him. When Scott didn’t immediately say he believed her, she shook her head. “For heaven’s sake Scott!” she cried. “I admit I found Johnny attractive once. He was charming and I wanted some fun, but that was years ago. Not once have I looked at him in that way since I came back, not once! Scott, don’t let him do this to us, please. I beg you to see what he’s doing – he’s trying to come between us. Johnny is desperate to get rid of me, he wants revenge.” She flung herself at Scott, clutching at him, praying he would believe her.

“Get away from me.” He shoved her away.

Amber snatched her arm back into her body and hissed as a shot of pain travelled up her twisted arm. The tears pooling in her eyes ran a sorry path down her cheeks.

“One small thing you seem to be overlooking about blackmail, Amber,” Scott snapped. “The person doing the blackmailing expects to gain something from it. Johnny had nothing to gain. He’s lost everything: me; the ranch; possibly even his life, should he go back to being a gunfighter. He’d never risk those things, especially not for someone as worthless as you.”

“Can you honestly say you know your brother anymore? Who do you think hurt my arm? He was here, Johnny was here, pushing me around like he did the night he first threatened to tell you we slept together. He came to gloat over what a fool you’ve been, said getting thrown off Lancer was worth it if I got thrown out of your life too.”

To Amber’s horror, Scott laughed. She got a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. “What are you laughing at?” She wiped the tears from her eyes.

“Nobody threw Johnny off Lancer, Amber. He left of his own accord after confessing what the pair of you had done.”

“That’s what I meant.”

“You’re pathetic. At least Johnny had the guts to be honest about what you two did and he left with a little bit of dignity. You don’t have an honest bone in your body. As for dignity…” He snorted.

Amber became flustered. He wasn’t listening. He wasn’t believing. She was losing him.

“Okay, I’ll be honest. You must believe I only did this because I love you!”

“You don’t even know what love is. I don’t want to know what kind of warped justification the pair of you had for doing this, because I don’t care. I don’t love you, Amber, I never have, and I never will.”

Amber looked like he’d slapped her. “But you can Scott, we can make this work. I’ll tell you the truth.”

“You don’t know how.”

Amber’s shoulders slumped. He was slipping from her grasp and as much as it devastated her, she remained adamant about one thing. If she lost Scott, then Johnny sure as hell would too. No way was Johnny Lancer, Madrid, or whatever his damn name was, going to get away with destroying her relationship.

“I admit I had sex with Johnny that night when he came to see me. But I did it for us, can’t you see?” She looked at Scott with pleading eyes. “Johnny was never going to accept us together, I thought if I could make him leave, then we could be happy.”

“Happy?” He shook his head. “You’re so messed up; I don’t have the words.”

“Scott, please. I know you’re hurting and I’m so sorry.” She moved closer, hopelessly attracted to him still, despite the hardness in his eyes and the firm set of his jaw. She undid the buttons of her blouse one by one, all the while keeping her eyes on his. “This can still work,” she whispered. “I love you and I know you still want me.” She undid the final button and let the blouse slip off her shoulders. “Think about how I made you feel…”

As she reached up to kiss him, Scott shoved her away. She lost her balance and fell to the floor.

“Johnny was at least right about one thing,” he said in disgust. “Once a whore, always a whore.”

From her undignified position on the floor, Amber looked up at Scott through a haze of fresh tears, her arm throbbing. She searched for something in his eyes to reassure her there was still a chance, but his expression was cold and unfeeling. “I am not a whore,” she hissed, tugging her blouse back up over her shoulders and doing up the buttons.

Scott stared at her, his heart hammering. He could have hit her a moment ago and he didn’t want that. She had no comprehension of the hurt she had caused, what she had cost him. Well, he wouldn’t let her cost him Lily, he was certain about that. Reaching into his jacket, Scott got out his wallet and threw a couple of dollar bills at her. “You are now,” he said coldly.

Amber stared at the money, knowing with absolute certainty she had lost him. It was as Johnny said, and that meant Johnny won. Picking up the money, Amber’s eyes narrowed. How dare Scott treat her like this? Getting to her feet, she glared at him. “Well, what did you expect?” she seethed. “You weren’t offering much in the bedroom department at the time, were you? And Johnny, well he sure didn’t let any thoughts of you bother him. He was better than I remembered!”

Scott looked aghast. He didn’t know how he hadn’t seen this side of her before, but then he hadn’t seen what a backstabbing bastard his brother was either. Checking his emotions, he looked coolly at her. “I’m glad you thought it was worth it. Perhaps, one day, I’ll explain to Lily what her mother was really like.”

Amber glared at him. “Lily’s staying with me. You have no right to her, she’s, my daughter.”

“You’re not fit to be her mother. You’re unstable, not to mention a pathological liar. If you think I’m going to let you raise my daughter, then you’re mistaken. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to find Lily and take her home.”

As Scott moved towards the door, Amber got there first. “You gave me your word. You said you wouldn’t take Lily away from me.”

Scott looked her in the eye. “You’ve done this. You’ve only got yourself to blame.” Wrenching her out of the way, Scott strode from the room, determined to find his daughter.

Amber listened to his footsteps fade down the stairs and she put her head in her hands, allowing herself a moment to grieve. She would leave before Scott realised Lily was gone. Realising that time was of the essence; Amber rushed down the stairs. Hopefully, Terry hadn’t let her down and a horse was waiting for her at the livery, all ready to ride. Stepping into the midday air, Amber glanced up the street. There was no sign of Scott. Hurrying down from the boardwalk, she headed towards the livery stable. She only got as far as the jail before she heard Scott’s angry shout.

Glancing over her shoulder, Amber panicked. He was heading her way. Her eyes flitted to the livery, knowing with sinking finality he would catch her before she made it. Lady Luck was on her side as she spotted a familiar sight. With a grin, Amber snatched up Barranca’s reins and mounted before kicking the palomino into a gallop out of town.

Chapter Eighteen

He hadn’t slept with Amber – the sense of relief was overwhelming as the burden of guilt lifted from Johnny’s shoulders.

When he had stormed outside the hotel, the adrenaline lost its hold. He felt unsteady on his feet and disorientated as if he no longer knew what he was doing, where he was going, or what he was feeling. A short while ago he was leaving, now he didn’t need to do that. He had done nothing wrong. Only it was not as simple as going home.

His eyes went to Barranca, but Johnny knew he couldn’t get back in the saddle yet. His body was too sore and his mind, well, his mind was more troubled than before. He craved some time to think; some time to come to terms with this latest revelation that had thrown his life into chaos again.

He chose the saloon. Sitting at a table, he stared long and hard at the shot of tequila in his hand. This was the same spot he’d occupied on that fateful night before he went to apologise to Amber. Not knowing how or why it had happened had been driving him crazy, making him ask questions of himself and doubt his thoughts and feelings. He could remember going up to Amber’s room, so he hadn’t been that drunk then, but the rest of the evening was a blur. He had no idea why he would accept a drink from Amber, let alone enough drinks to make him pass out. But he must have done. At least he knew now that was the only mistake he had made.

Johnny leaned back and rotated the glass. The saloon wasn’t busy and there was no one he knew well enough to engage him in conversation. Nancy wasn’t about.

The feelings he thought he should be experiencing right now, danced beyond his reach. He should be happy, but he wasn’t. Johnny knew it would not be as straightforward as riding home and telling Scott nothing happened after all. He didn’t know if Scott would let him get close enough to even hear the truth. Maybe, he could go to Murdoch. While his father had been mad and disappointed, he’d wanted Johnny to explain. Now Johnny could.

“Hey, Johnny!” Val’s greeting tore Johnny from his reverie. He looked up and managed a weary smile for his friend.

Plonking himself in the empty seat opposite and eyeing the drink on the table, Val scratched at the stubble on his cheeks. “Bit early in the day, ain’t it?”

“Be my guest,” Johnny replied, pushing the untouched drink towards his friend.

Val shook his head. “Yuh gonna tell me why you’re in the saloon at this time a’day not drinkin’?”


The sheriff huffed. “This wouldn’t ‘ave anythin’ ta do with the blonde, would it?”

Johnny looked at him sharply. “What makes you ask that?”

Val shrugged. “Wouldn’t be much of a sheriff if I dint know what were goin’ on in my own town now, would I? ‘Sides I know you an’ her have history.”

“History is all we have, Val. No matter what you heard.” It felt so good to be able to say that aloud.

“Well, I figured as much, ‘cause how I hear it, Scott’s got more than that with her.”

Johnny’s shoulders slumped and he heaved a sigh. Before he could say anything else, the doors to the saloon swung open and Jim Brannan, one of the local men, stood in the doorway.

“Johnny, you best get out ‘ere. Some gal’s taken off on your horse!”

“What gal?” Johnny and Val got to their feet.

“A blonde one,” Jim said. “A real attractive blonde one,” he added with a wink. “An’ your brother took off after ‘er.”

“Scott’s here?”

“Not no more, he ain’t.”

Johnny hurried out of the saloon, pushing his way through the doors with Val behind him. As he stared up the street, he could see the dust settling. There was no sign of Barranca and no sign of Scott.

“Val, I need to borrow your horse.”

“Yuh want me to come with ya?”

“No, I just need a horse.”

“He’s all yours,” Val said, indicating the chestnut.

With a nod of gratitude, Johnny swung up into the saddle and turned the horse around. The dust rose again as Johnny set off in pursuit of the woman who had stolen his life, and now his horse.

Amber’s heartbeat was louder than Barranca’s hooves pounding the dirt as she tried to make her escape. It didn’t help she was going on a vague memory of where Cross Creek was, but she knew she was at least going in the right direction. As she left the town behind, Amber dared not look over her shoulder to see if Scott was following. She had a good head start. Scott would have to return to the hotel for his horse before he could follow.

The breeze whipped at her face, her eyes watered, and her hair streamed behind her as she urged Barranca to go as fast as he could. When she came to an unrecognisable fork in the trail, she didn’t have time to decide which was the right way, because Barranca chose his path. The road was narrower than she thought it should be. Thick, barren oak trees lined either side, their naked branches swaying in the breeze. As she rode, the trees became sparser and she saw an unfamiliar wooden bridge ahead. It didn’t look wide or sturdy and Amber was sure she would have remembered crossing such a bridge before.

As Barranca reached the wooden planks of the bridge, Amber realised this was the wrong way and she tried to turn Barranca around by yanking on the reins. Barranca reacted as any well-trained cow pony would; skidding to a stop and spinning around. Unfortunately, Amber was no cowgirl, and the bridge was not wide enough for such a foolish manoeuvre. Barranca tried to scramble forward to safer footing but his back hoof met the empty air off the side of the bridge. Amber yanked on the reins again, leaving the animal confused and not knowing what was expected of him. The threat of danger was stronger than the jerking commands of his rider, and Barranca reared, his hooves clawing at the air. With a shriek, Amber flew from the saddle but refused to relinquish her hold on the reins causing Barranca to stumble as he too lost his balance and crashed down on his side on the bridge decking.

Amber fell back against the wooden railing that lined the bridge and the sun-withered wood splintered beneath her weight. She fell, Barranca rolling out of her vision, replaced with the sight of the grey dismal skies above. Knowing she was above water, Amber braced herself for the chilly splash of impact. Instead, she landed with a bone-jarring thud onto the debris-laden stream bank; all the breath knocked from her body by an excruciating, ripping pain. A single, blood-curdling cry escaped her lips before darkness descended.

Upon leaving the hotel, Scott had gone in search of Victoria and Lily but had seen no sign of them. Thinking he’d started in the wrong direction; he turned and saw Amber hurrying down the street. His first thought was she was trying to get to Lily first and he shouted at her, drawing her attention. The panic on her face was obvious, even from a distance. Everything happened so quickly after that. Before Scott could get to her, Amber had seized Barranca. Scott barely had a chance to register that this meant Johnny was around, before Amber was riding out of town leaving a voluminous cloud of dust in her wake.

Scott had no idea where she was going, but she was running to something. Scott knew it could only be Lily. Racing back to the hotel, Scott jumped on his horse and took off after her, determined she was not going to get away.

He had followed her out of Green River, cursing her choice of a stolen horse. Barranca was fast, and Amber seemed to be riding him for all he was worth. In the distance, he saw the bridge up ahead and he saw the moment Amber realised her mistake.

Scott slowed his pace as he saw Barranca attempt to turn on the narrow platform. His breath caught in his throat as he watched the golden horse stumble and fall, Amber hitting the wooden railing before disappearing. She screamed and then there was nothing but eerie silence and the sound of the wind rustling in the trees. Dismounting, Scott approached the edge of the bridge. Extending his hand, he coaxed a distressed Barranca away from the dangerous drop. Once the horse was off the bridge, Scott moved closer to the edge, his feet treading on the sharp wooden splinters of the decimated railing. He peered over, expecting to see Amber spluttering in the cold, chilly waters. The sight that met his eyes was horrifying and his face drained of colour.

When Amber opened her eyes, she could see only the grey sky and she could hear water gurgling along with inane cheerfulness not far from her left ear. Her first instinct was to try to sit, but she couldn’t. Someone or something was holding her in place. Gritting her teeth, Amber forced her head up from the ground and smiled when she saw Scott. Her smile faltered when she saw the worry on his face. When she followed his stare to the source of his concern, Amber gasped and her eyes widened in alarm.

Rather than landing in the stream as expected, Amber had plummeted onto the outstretched limbs of a fallen tree. The thinner branches had snapped beneath her weight, but there was one bare, gnarled branch, thicker and more obstinate than the rest. This branch had not broken. This branch pierced Amber’s body, entering the left-hand side of her back, and protruding out from below her ribcage.

Amber stared at the branch in shock, watching the circle of blood expand. Panicked, she began to struggle and the pain returned. In her mind’s eye, the invasive branch flamed red like the hot poker it was.

“Amber, don’t try to move.” Scott held her shoulders to keep her still. “Moving will make it worse, please stay still.”

Scott’s commanding tone relaxed her and Amber did as he said, her head sinking back onto a cushion of damp, soggy leaves on the ground. “I’m bleeding…” she said, her voice coming out in a petrified whisper.

“You’re going to be fine,” Scott assured, although his grim expression suggested otherwise. His eyes flitted to the wound in concern. He didn’t like the location of the branch and he could see no easy way of pulling her free without risking more damage. “I’ll get help, get you to a doctor.” He stripped off his jacket and rolled it up, wrapping it around the bloody base of the branch and pressing down to stem the blood.

Johnny arrived a few minutes later and felt relieved when he saw the horses standing before the bridge. Dismounting, he called out softly to Barranca, alarmed to see there was something wrong with the animal. Barranca seemed agitated. When he raised his golden head to look at Johnny and attempted to amble towards him, Johnny realised his beloved horse was hurt. Before he could examine him, Johnny caught sight of the splintered wooden railing of the bridge.

“Scott!” Johnny rushed over to the edge of the bridge and stared down in horror, just as his brother had done moments before.

When Johnny called out, Scott tore his gaze from Amber. Johnny was following his path down the steep embankment to the water’s edge. In seconds, Johnny was by his side, taking in the scene in front of him.

“Dios,” Johnny breathed as he assessed the grisly situation.

“Go get Sam, we need Sam here,” Scott ordered, but Johnny stood rooted to the spot.

“Won’t do any good, Scott. She won’t make it.”

Scott stared hard at his younger brother before his gaze switched back to Amber. Her face was getting paler by the second, her breathing laboured as each rise and fall of her chest tugged mercilessly at the speared flesh.

“Then we’ll have to get her off this thing.” He pressed firmer on the area surrounding the impalement, even though he knew it was pointless. While he may be partially stemming the blood loss here, the blood was free to escape at the entry point. Unless he lifted her off the impaling branch, there was nothing he could do. “There’s so much blood,” he muttered, unaware he’d spoken aloud until he saw Amber’s eyes widen in fear.

“Scott-” Amber rasped, lifting her hand from the ground and making a feeble attempt to reach for him.

Scott took her hand and curled his fingers around hers.

“Lily,” Amber whispered. “Cross Creek… you have to bring her back.”

Scott swallowed, knowing now was not the time to ask what Lily was doing there. He could make an astute enough guess. “I will. You don’t need to worry about her.”

Amber nodded, her eyelids feeling so heavy. She felt light-headed; like she had drunk too much and needed to sleep it off. With great effort, she resisted the darkness and forced her eyes to remain open. As she stared at Scott’s face, images of the past flashed before her eyes, some pleasant and some not so pleasant, things she could never regret and things she regretted more than anything.

“Scott, it don’t look like we’ve got much time here, brother,” Johnny said as he walked around to the other side of Amber, watching her ashen face and the way she was struggling for every breath.

“We have to lift her,” Scott said, grimacing as he realised this was their only option. “We need to get her to Sam.”

At the sound of Johnny’s voice, Amber knew he was her biggest regret of all, the reason everything had gone so wrong. As Scott and Johnny moved in closer, she tightened her cold fingers around Scott’s warm hand and stared at him imploringly. “I have always loved you, Scott,” she whispered raggedly, fighting for enough breath to speak. “Maybe one day you can forgive me for sleeping with Johnny again.”

While Scott did not respond, Johnny stared at her in anger. He heard only the insincerity of her words. “Stop lying! If you love him, then tell him the truth,” he snapped, crouching down and seizing her by the shoulders.

“Johnny, what the hell are you doing?” Scott leant across Amber’s body and gave his brother a hard shove, sending Johnny reeling.

As Johnny landed on his backside, Amber rolled her head in his direction. She stared hard at the dark-haired man, a cold feeling of numbness sweeping through her body. For a second, a small smile of triumph appeared on her face. Then it was gone. She closed her eyes and sailed away into inky blackness.

“Amber!” Scott shouted, a thousand emotions torturing his heart with contradiction. Her fingers went limp in his hand and he brought his other hand to her neck, searching for a pulse. When he detected one, he turned to his brother with a cold glare. “If you’re not going to help me save her, then at least have the decency to go fetch someone who will!”

Chapter Nineteen

In Sam’s office, Scott sat on a hard chair, his elbows resting on his knees and his head bent low, studying the wooden floor beneath his boots. His shirt, which earlier had clung to his skin, wet with blood, was now stiff and unyielding like someone had gone overboard with the starch.

The drawn curtain that separated Sam’s examination room from out front, was like a steel door. This, coupled with the four walls that seemed to be closing in on him, suffocated Scott. He wanted to walk out and leave this nightmare behind.

Only a few short hours ago, anger at Amber had consumed him. If he’d asked himself then if he’d care if she died, he would have said he did not. Now, it was different. Now, it wasn’t a hypothetical question, it was a reality. Scott closed his eyes, accosted by flashbacks of him and Johnny removing Amber from the limb that impaled her. The sound of it still echoed in his ears, but thankfully, Amber had been unaware. She’d remained unconscious for the long, slow and tedious trip back to Green River.

Every so often Scott had checked for a pulse and found one each time, although it got harder to detect on each occasion. When they reached Green River, people stopped and stared, but Scott ignored them. His entire focus had been on getting Amber to Sam.

Ultimately, Scott knew it was a pointless exercise. He had seen horrific injuries during the war, and he knew no one could lose that much blood and survive. The evidence was all there – on his hands, over his clothes. The smell of it still invaded his nostrils.

If Amber died, what was he going to tell Lily? The thought of his daughter brought a lump to Scott’s throat. His daughter was at Cross Creek, presumably with Victoria, and Scott could guess why they were there. Amber had doubted Scott would believe her, doubted he could forgive her for Johnny, and she had been right. Was this his fault? If he hadn’t gone to see her, hadn’t threatened to take Lily, hadn’t chased after her, then this would never have happened.

Johnny sat across from Scott and studied the tips of his boots. Mud from the stream bank still clung to the soles. Blood stained his shirt and his hands. He remembered the look on Val’s face when he had ridden back to Green River, both to warn Sam of the imminent emergency, and to ask Val to go back for Barranca. Val had taken one look at him and Johnny guessed he was wondering what he’d done to the woman who had stolen his horse. The wait for Scott to arrive back in Green River with Amber seemed endless, but he guessed it felt a whole lot longer to his brother. No matter what Scott might be hoping, Johnny knew she wasn’t going to make it.

When Scott finally arrived, Johnny assisted him in removing Amber from the horse. Only Scott’s rush to get her inside suggested she was still hanging on. Together the two men had carried the bleeding woman into Sam’s office.

Even Sam looked appalled by the sight, but he had, as always, been a true professional, asking Scott questions about how the injury occurred. The doctor had offered no words of optimism or hope, just told Scott and Johnny to wait outside. Neither man seemed in any state to assist. Sam knew there was not much to assist with.

Now, Johnny sat a few feet away from his brother, watching Scott move his hands up to his face, rubbing at it wearily. It wasn’t hard to figure how Scott was feeling. As much as Johnny despised Amber, it had been hard, even for him, to see her looking so…dead. When Scott had laid her down on Sam’s operating table, Johnny had stared at her deathly white face. He found it hard and he hadn’t cared for her, but Scott had, maybe still did.

“Scott?” Johnny said softly, noticing how Scott’s shoulders tensed the moment he opened his mouth. When Scott removed his hands from his face and stared at him, his expression was unreadable.

“Why are you here?” Scott’s question was direct, asked without a trace of emotion.

Johnny lent forward, folding his arms across his knees. “I thought you might need someone here. I can go if you want me to?”

Scott leaned against the chair back, folding his arms across his chest. He removed his gaze from Johnny and stared vacantly at the far wall. “Do what you want. You usually do.”

Johnny chewed on his bottom lip. He noticed the pain in his brother’s voice, even if he was trying to hide it. “Scott-” he began, only for his brother to cut him off.

“You know it’s funny,” Scott said, although neither his tone nor expression held a trace of humour as he jerked his head around to glare at Johnny. “How back there you were fully prepared to give her up for dead, yet now you’re here playing the dutiful lover.” His eyes flashed with bitterness and anger that increased with each word he spoke. “I guess that’s symbolic of the love-hate relationship you two have.”

Johnny shook his head. “It ain’t like that,” he said. “Amber admitted she lied. I never did anything. She wanted me to leave so she tricked me into believing I’d been with her, but I never had, I just passed out and she made me think…”

“Oh, come on,” Scott snapped. “She’s dying! I know it and you damn well know it. At least have the decency to let her go before you try to worm your way out of what you’ve done.”

Johnny’s eyes betrayed his confusion. “Scott, that’s not what I’m doing.”

Scott pointed a finger at him. “Yes, it is. You’ve realised what your little liaison has cost you and now you’re trying to get out of it. You disgust me, you both disgust me. The only reason I’m here is that she’s dying. Because I need to have some idea of what to tell my daughter. I don’t need you here. I don’t even know you. I don’t want to know you…just stay the hell away from me.”

Scott glared at his brother, all his anger, anxiety and frustration venting themselves in those last words. They were hard words, tasting bitter in his mouth, but what did Johnny expect? He watched Johnny’s expression change, his eyes gloss over with an unreadable finish, but he didn’t look away, despite the intensity of Scott’s glare.

It was Scott who looked away first, scowling in disgust. He was aware Johnny got up; he felt the cold draft as the door opened and closed behind him. Before Scott had a chance to think, Sam pulled the curtain back.

For the umpteenth time that hour, Victoria glanced at the clock as she sat in the waiting room of the Green River stage depot. The stage to Cross Creek was delayed for some reason, giving her more time to think. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t believe Johnny would want to harm Lily, especially if he believed she was his child. He had seemed happy at home with his family, so why would he wish to take her away? Johnny Lancer didn’t seem like the kind of man to hurt a woman either, at least not physically, although that charming smile of his could hurt them in other ways. She liked to think she was a good judge of character, but perhaps she wasn’t. Perhaps Johnny Lancer, with his good looks and roguish charms, was some sort of smokescreen.

But then, Murdoch always spoke proudly of his sons.

Shifting on the bench that had numbed her behind for the past couple of hours, Victoria placed a restraining arm out for Lily.

“Come on, get down from there please,” Victoria said wearily, plucking Lily from the bench and setting the little girl down. Lily scrunched up her face, which was already red and tear-stained from venting her frustrations and boredom. She sat down, folded her arms across her chest and started to tantrum.

As Lily’s whining grew louder, Victoria hoisted her up onto her lap and rocked her. She’d heard Johnny threaten Amber, hadn’t she? He had told her she was going to do what he wanted. He’d had his hands on her.

With a troubled sigh, Victoria looked down at Lily and the uneasy feeling started to grow. It shouldn’t have taken Amber this long to get a message to Scott. If she had been successful, then why wasn’t she here?

When Lily let out her loudest wail yet, Victoria couldn’t sit and wait a minute longer. Picking up the carpet bag in one hand and Lily in the other, Victoria made a decision.

There was a sheriff in this town and Amber had concerns for Lily’s safety and her own. Whatever had happened, whether Johnny was involved or not, Victoria couldn’t sit around here waiting. At least if she went to the sheriff, then Lily would be safe.

When Johnny walked out of Sam’s office, he leaned against the closed door and shut his eyes. Scott’s words had hurt him, deeper than the first time, and he suspected there was no chance of repairing their relationship. Amber had won. As much as it shouldn’t be a contest, he had to face facts. Scott believed Amber, not him. With what could well have been her dying words, she had ensured there was no way back for him and Scott.

Even on her deathbed, Amber held all the cards. She was the only one who could back him up over what had happened that night. The only one that could disprove Scott’s theory that he was only changing his story now so he could go back home. Johnny’s truth now seemed nothing but morbidly convenient.

Kicking at the ground, Johnny tried to swallow his frustration. Scott wasn’t to blame for reacting the way he did under the circumstances. Maybe when this was over, one way or another, Scott would listen. He would have to because there was no way Johnny was going anywhere now he knew he’d done nothing wrong. He needed to talk to Murdoch, but first Murdoch needed to know what was happening here and now. He needed to be here for Scott.

As he headed down the street toward Val’s, he ignored the stares and whispers of the townsfolk who gawped at the sight of him covered in blood. He wanted to find out where Barranca was and to see how the horse was doing. He had hated leaving his horse behind without even having a chance to check him over, but there had been no choice. Barranca, whilst injured, wasn’t dying. Amber was. He had to stop himself from cursing her for hurting his beloved horse. He only hoped the injury was treatable.

When he entered the jail, he found Val pouring a strong coffee. He looked up when Johnny entered.

“How’s Scott doin’?”

“Not good.” Val didn’t know the ins and outs of all that had happened, and Johnny didn’t intend to tell him. It was private business between him and Scott. “Val, I hate to ask, but could you go, or send someone for Murdoch? Scott needs someone with him right now and I’m, well, I’m not the man.”

Val raised an eyebrow. He rubbed at his chin as he scrutinised his friend. “You okay?”

Johnny sighed and ran his hands through his dark hair. “I’m fine,” he lied. “How’s Barranca?”

Val shrugged. “He’ll be alright I’m thinkin’, but then I ain’t no expert with horses. He was limpin’ bad, I put ‘im in the livery. Reckoned you’d want a look yourself?”

Johnny nodded wearily. “Yeah, I’m gonna check on him now. Thanks, Val.”

Val took a sip of his coffee. “No problem, Johnny. I’ll ride out to the ranch and tell Murdoch what’s goin’ on. Yah might think ‘bout headin’ back there yourself. Yuh look done in.”

“Can’t go nowhere if I ain’t got a horse,” he said softly.

Victoria walked down the street, feeling more self-conscious with every step. Rather than going about their everyday business, the local people were milling about, watching and talking. The most disconcerting thing was the looks directed at Lily; like they knew something the pair of them did not.

“It’s a terrible thing.”

“Poor child, and so young too.”

“It looked like a gunshot wound. No one could survive an injury like that.”

Victoria heard these snippets of conversation and she picked up her pace, anxiety roaring in her ears until she could hear nothing else. She reached Val’s office, burst in through the door, breathless, and flushed.

Val, who had just finished his coffee, took one look at Victoria and offered her a seat.

“Is it true?” Victoria asked him, ignoring his offer to sit. “Has there been some kind of accident?”

Val looked down at the little girl and understood the need to be tactful. He gave a regretful nod of his head. “Yes, ma’am. It don’t look good.”

Victoria paled and decided the chair was a good idea. Lily squirmed and she set the restless child down.

“Someone said she was shot,” Victoria said quietly, hoping she had misunderstood. “Who shot her?” To her surprise, Val’s brow furrowed in confusion.

“There’s been no shootin’, ma’am. She took a tumble from Johnny’s horse and fell off a bridge. Scott saw the whole thing an’ he’s with her now. But like I said, it don’t look good. Not at all.”

“Johnny’s horse?” Victoria repeated. “Why was she on Johnny’s horse?”

Val shrugged. “That’s a good question, ma’am. Seems she…er…borrowed it without askin’.”

“I don’t understand, Sheriff.”

Val leaned against his desk and rubbed his hand up and down his bristled cheek. “Don’t reckon none of us do,” he said. “Scott might know more, but well, now ain’t the time.”

Victoria clasped her hands and bowed her head. “No, of course. He must be devastated.” Victoria’s voice cracked as she looked down at Lily. She was so young, and still needed her mother so very much. It would be an utterly pointless and desperate tragedy.

“Does Murdoch know?” Victoria brushed the slipping tears from her eyes.

“I’m gonna fetch ‘im directly. You go back to the hotel when yer ready, ma’am, take care of the littlun. I’ll tell Scott where you are.”

When Sam drew the curtain back, Scott stood and braced himself. When Sam shook his head, he sank back down into the chair.

“I’m so sorry, Scott.” Sam placed a hand on the young man’s shoulder. “There was nothing I could do. She had already lost too much blood.”

“It’s my fault. We shouldn’t have moved her.”

The doctor sighed. “I don’t think it made any difference. Even if you’d come back for me, there would have been nothing I could do. The location of the wound, well, it caused too much internal damage. Her liver…”

Scott didn’t wish to hear the gory details. What did it matter anyway, she was dead. “Well, that’s that, then.” His voice sounded far more controlled than he thought it should under the circumstances.

“Do you want to see her?”

He hesitated before shaking his head. What would be the point? The question he wanted the answer to was why, and Amber would never have answered it, even when she was alive.


With a start, Scott realised the doctor was still speaking and he’d not heard a word of it. “Lily…she’s at Cross Creek,” he said dazedly. “I need to bring her back.”

Sam’s brows rose in concern. He didn’t know why Scott’s daughter was there, but he didn’t think it was a good idea for Scott to make that journey now. Looking at him; his eyes dull with fatigue, his face grimy and his clothes filthy, he looked a sorry sight. Considering all that had occurred, it was not surprising.

Val arrived before Sam could voice his concerns.

Removing his hat, Val touched it to his chest and mumbled. “I’m sorry, Scott.”

Scott shrugged. “If you’ll excuse me…”

“Wait a minute, I’ve come ta tell ya, Mrs Clark has Lily – they’re waitin’ for ya over at the hotel.”

“This hotel?”

“I saw ‘em,”


“Johnny asked me to fetch Murdoch.”

“There’s no need,” Scott said tightly, ignoring the mention of his brother’s name. “I’m going home now. My shirt’s ruined. I need to clean up.”

Val and Sam exchanged worried looks. Death and grief touched people in different ways. There were those it destroyed, who went to pieces and became unable to do anything for themselves. Some turned to their faith to see them through, and some hid it all inside. Scott seemed to be falling into the latter category.

“Scott, why don’t you let Val fetch Murdoch? You can clean up here, then go and see your daughter. I’m sure she’s going to need you. And your father needs to make sure Johnny gets home too…that young man shouldn’t even be out of bed yet.”

Scott gave the doctor an impertinent look. “Johnny spends enough time in bed, believe me,” he snapped. “Val, will you go and tell Victoria what has happened? Tell her I’ll see them later.”

Val realised this was the first time he had actual confirmation the rumours were true – Lily was Scott’s daughter. He wondered if Sam already knew or had made a calculated guess. Scott’s first remark hinted at something else Val suspected. For some reason, Scott believed Johnny and Amber had rekindled an old flame.

While Val digested this information, Sam let out a reluctant sigh. He couldn’t help but be leery of letting Scott leave. The boy was in shock and in no state to make the journey home alone.


“Thank you, Sam, for all you’ve done.” He walked to the door. “I know there are arrangements to make and I intend to make them once I’ve had a bath and a change of clothes.”

“I’m sorry I couldn’t do more.”

“As you said, there was nothing anyone could have done.”

Johnny had gone straight from Val’s to the livery. His body was screaming at him to rest, but he was anxious to lay eyes on his horse and assess how injured Barranca was. The horse had barely time to settle in the stall when Johnny approached, calling out a soft, “Hey,” which wasn’t acknowledged by the golden head hung low.

Letting himself into the stall, Johnny ran his hand down Barranca’s neck, rewarded with a cursory glance from the big brown eyes. He remembered which leg Barranca favoured on the bridge and so he reached down for it, all the while talking softly to reassure the horse. Barranca stood still and let him examine his foot and as he scraped away the mud and dirt with a hoof pick, he saw what was bothering Barranca. Embedded in the hoof was a large, angry-looking splinter he guessed had come from the broken railing on the bridge.

Carefully, he removed the dirt from around the invasive object, his eyes assessing in which direction the splinter pointed as he tried to determine how far in it was. For the next half hour, Johnny cared for his horse, washing out the hoof so he could get a better look at it. He figured the splinter had gone in from toe to heel, but what he couldn’t be sure of was what damage it had done internally. He knew he would need to remove the splinter; he’d done it before. But even if the splinter had punctured the hoof, Barranca would still be at risk from infection and he knew too, what that could mean.

He worked meticulously to remove the splinter, all the while talking in soft, reassuring tones. He watched with grim satisfaction as blood seeped from the puncture, flushing out any impurities that could give rise to infection. Barranca wouldn’t be going anywhere for a while. He needed to pack and wrap the wound and he needed to see Jelly. The old wrangler was sure to have one of his remedies that would ensure Barranca stood a fighting chance against the onslaught of infection.

“He lookin’ all right?”

Johnny straightened up, grimacing as his back groaned a protest. He moved out from behind Barranca to see Val leaning against the entrance to the livery stable, his hat down by his side.

“Yeah…for now. How come you’re here, Val, I thought you were going to get Murdoch?”

“I was but Scott said he didn’t need ‘im. She’s dead, Johnny.”

Johnny gave a long, slow sigh. “How is he?”

Val shrugged. “Actin’ normal.”

They both knew that wasn’t right.

“He don’t want Murdoch here. Said he’s goin’ home anyway. He asked me ta tell Miz Clark what’s happened. Sam’s worried ‘bout ‘im makin’ the journey home by ‘imself.”

Johnny couldn’t blame his brother for being in no hurry to tell his daughter her mother was dead. How did you manage that with a kid of Lily’s age anyway?

“Has he left already?”

“Yeah, just now.”

“Thanks, Val.”

There was nothing worse than waiting. This was the conclusion Murdoch drew after spending a restless morning in anticipation of Scott’s return. Teresa, bless her, hovered by his side and Murdoch knew it was for both his sake and her own. She was distraught that the actions of her cousin had destroyed the family again. Murdoch could find no words to comfort her, other than standard reassurances that none of this was her fault.

After Scott had left, Murdoch had returned to Johnny’s room, sat on the mattress and stared around the vacant room. Over the past few years, the room had come to life as Johnny gained enough confidence to settle. Little by little, the room had become personalised, and not just by the customary unmade bed each morning, or the clothes discarded on the floor. It had brought joy to Murdoch’s heart to know Johnny felt he belonged, after years of belonging nowhere.

Clean clothes still hung in the wardrobe and yesterday’s clothes lay on the floor.

“Why’d you do it, Johnny?” Murdoch muttered.

He hadn’t wanted Johnny to leave but saw no other way. Just as he had been adamant Johnny should not feel uncomfortable over Amber’s return, he had to show the same consideration to his elder son. How could Scott live with his brother after what had happened, after what Johnny had done?

Where would Johnny go? What would he do? Murdoch only hoped Johnny realised his worth and didn’t return to his old life.

With a deep sigh, Murdoch stepped outside the kitchen, his boots crunching on the broken glass littering the ground. He stared at the fragments and started to scrape them into a pile with the tip of his boot. The glass was like his family; this morning it had been whole and now it lay broken, the pieces scattered everywhere.

He looked to the white Lancer arch. Scott would be coming home with his daughter in tow, if successful in his quest. Murdoch had doubts about that though. He couldn’t see Amber handing Lily over. Scott might have to wait for a custody hearing after all.

The long ride home had passed in a daze. Scott had not missed his jacket or noticed the chill seeping through his stained beige shirt. He didn’t notice the lone dark-haired rider, who deliberately kept his distance, but watched his back as only a brother could.

Scott felt numb from head to toe. He wanted this to be a dream, but when he wished the dream began, he wasn’t sure. Would it be before Amber returned, or before Johnny betrayed him?

He didn’t want to think about Johnny. He never wanted to think about Johnny again.

Johnny wasn’t the only one to haunt Scott’s thoughts. Amber kept trying, too. Every time she came close, he felt perilously near to tears, and he wouldn’t or couldn’t do that. Not for her.

As he got further from Green River and closer to home, Scott did allow himself to think about Lily. How was he going to tell his little girl that her mother was dead?

It had been different for him of course. While he had spent his childhood years imagining life with his mother alive, it had ultimately been nothing but a childish fantasy. He never had her words, her touch, or anything real he could miss. Only a portrait that hung on the wall.

But Lily had experienced all those things with Amber.

You’re a coward, Scott Lancer, a little voice from within whispered. That is why you’re riding home now rather than doing what you know you must do.

Scott shook those thoughts away. He wasn’t a coward, he just…well…he needed to change clothes. He could hardly face his daughter still covered in her mother’s blood. He could have cleaned up at Sam’s, but nothing at Sam’s would fit him. Besides, there was so much to organise, arrangements to make.

His internal argument came to an abrupt end as Scott spied the solitary figure of his father. He was home.

Chapter Twenty


Murdoch stared in horror at the sight of his bloodstained son. For one brief, terrible moment, he wondered if Scott had been angry enough to…

No. No matter how angry or violent his confrontation with Johnny was earlier, Scott wouldn’t go any further in that respect. But something had happened.

Something dreadful.

Just the sight of his father caused Scott to almost lose control. A lump formed in his throat, but he was not going to break down. He was not going to get swept up in a pointless current of emotion that would serve no purpose at all.

“Amber’s dead.”

Murdoch looked stunned. His gaze travelled over Scott, taking in the blood on his hands, on his shirt, and down each leg of his pants. “How?” he managed to ask.

“She was riding away from me on Barranca. She got to the bridge outside Green River and tried to turn. Reckless really…” Scott’s voice trailed off for a second. “She got thrown and fell over the side of the bridge. She’s dead.”

Murdoch’s stunned expression did not alter. “She was on Barranca? Johnny’s Barranca?”

Scott scowled. “It seems Johnny wasn’t feeling guilty enough to stray too far.”

Murdoch ignored the remark, relieved his younger son was not too far away. Not that it mattered. Scott needed him now; he would think about Johnny later.

“The blood?” Murdoch questioned, wondering why there was so much blood if she died in a fall.

Scott closed his eyes, trying to block out the images.

Now was not the time for detail. Murdoch took his son’s arm and led him toward the house.

“There was a tree branch,” Scott murmured as they walked toward the hacienda. “Johnny and I, we got her to Sam but it was too late. There was nothing he could do.”

Murdoch stopped walking and turned to face Scott. “And you? Are you all right? I mean, well you know…”

Scott swallowed and Murdoch could see the pain written over his son’s face. He soon regained control and his expression closed. “I’m fine. I have seen people die before.”

Murdoch wanted to say it was different when it was someone you cared for. His son cared about Amber and no matter how angry he had been with her; those feelings wouldn’t have just vanished.

“And Lily? Where is Lily?”

“She’s at the hotel with Victoria. She’s okay I’m told.”

“You haven’t seen her then?”

“I couldn’t see her looking like this, could I!”

Murdoch heard the defensive tone and placed his hand on Scott’s shoulder. “Go clean up, son. Then we’ll decide what to do about telling Lily.”

Scott nodded. He wondered with hope, whether Murdoch could be the one to tell her.

From a distance, Johnny watched Murdoch and Scott go inside the hacienda. He needed to talk to his father desperately, but now was not the time. Scott and Barranca’s needs were greater. What he needed to do was to find Jelly and get help for the horse. He had lost so much already; he wasn’t going to lose Barranca too. As Johnny approached the barn, a wave of dizziness swept over him. He blinked a few times as he waited for it to pass. Fuzzily, he tried to remember when he’d last eaten, but found himself unable to recall. The lack of food coupled with all his body had endured these last few days, was taking its toll.

He reached the barn and dismounted from his rented horse. He went to call out for Jelly, only for the words to dissolve on his tongue before they even met the air. He slumped to the ground. 

Scott stared down at his hands through the steaming hot water and noted with satisfaction, they at last looked clean. It was hard to believe that when he’d got up this morning, none of this had happened. Well, some of it had, he just hadn’t known about it. He scowled.

What time was it now – late afternoon? In the space of not even a full day, he had managed to find out his brother had been sneaking about with his fiancée, and then watched said fiancée bleed to death. Then Johnny had tried to change his story. Oh, and he still had to face telling his daughter she would never see her mother again.

He felt so tired. He could fall asleep right here, but there was too much to do. At least he didn’t have the hassle of contacting Amber’s relatives, because as far as he knew, she had none. Apart from Teresa.

Thankfully, Murdoch had taken charge of telling Teresa. Still, her sobs had followed Scott up the stairs and echoed in his ears even now.

Dunking his head under the water, Scott emerged and lathered up his hair, massaging his head and the ache rumbling beneath his skull. He rinsed the lather away and stepped out of the tub, his feet cushioned by the soft rug on the floor. He wrapped the towel around his waist and caught sight of the soiled clothes he’d neatly folded over the back of the chair.

Why did he do that? It wasn’t as if he’d be wearing them again.

Once dressed in fresh, pressed clothes, Scott glanced anxiously at the closed door, the only thing that separated him from the future. Pausing in front of the mirror, he studied his reflection, almost surprised to see he looked normal. He combed his wet hair through with his fingers and did up the remaining buttons of a blue shirt.

He took a deep breath and went downstairs.

He found his father and Teresa sitting together in the great room, Teresa’s head resting against Murdoch’s chest. They looked up when he entered and Teresa ran to him, throwing her arms around his middle and hugging him.

With great care and patience, Scott removed himself from the embrace and poured himself a drink.

Murdoch guided Teresa into the kitchen and the care of Maria, who had heard the news and was ready with words of comfort.

In the barn, Johnny’s eyelids fluttered open, and he listened to the sounds around him, not quite sure what had happened. How long had he been out? He had no way of knowing, but it wasn’t yet dark, so it couldn’t have been long. He tried to focus and remember what he was doing. Like a picture puzzle, the pieces slotted into place. He remembered following Scott home; riding fast until he had him in sight.


Johnny knew it was important he return to his horse. He’d lost everything else and while knowing the truth gave him hope, there was nothing he could do with that now. But Barranca, he could do something about him, and he was going to.

Only when he tried to move, his whole body protested and flatly refused to cooperate. He felt as though he’d gone ten rounds with a heavyweight champion, and it was tempting to go back to sleep.

Gritting his teeth, Johnny levered himself to a sitting position.

“What in the blazes are ya doin’?”

Startled, Johnny looked up to see Jelly hovering at the entrance to the barn, his hands planted on his hips. The fact he hadn’t even heard the old-timer approach should worry him, but instead a smile of pure relief lit up his face. He held his hand out to Jelly. “Help me up, would ya?”

Jelly grasped Johnny’s hand in his own and helped the younger man up. When Johnny swayed, Jelly guided him over to the hay bale.

“Well, ain’t ya a darn fool!” Jelly blustered. “We all know yuh shouldn’t be outta bed, but, oh no, Johnny Lancer knows more than the doc does.”

Johnny closed his eyes to Jelly’s scolding. He still felt light-headed but at least Jelly was here. “Not now Jelly. I need ya ta do something for me.”

“Uh-uh. I ain’t doin’ a dang thing for ya ‘cept gettin’ yuh pa!”

“Jelly!” Johnny called weakly, but the old man ignored him and marched toward the hacienda, muttering the whole way about the foolishness of younguns.

Left in the barn, Johnny tried to get to his feet again, but gave up with the third bout of dizziness. Well, he had wanted to see Murdoch. Now it looked like he was going to get his chance.

When Murdoch returned from the kitchen, he accepted a scotch from Scott. They moved to the seating area.

“Do you feel better after your bath?”


“Probably best to burn those clothes.”

“Yes, I have other beige shirts…”



“Talk to me, son.”

Scott took a mouthful of his drink and glanced at his father over the rim of the glass. “I thought we were talking.”

Murdoch settled further back into his armchair. “Talk to me about the real issue then.”

“And what would that be exactly? That my brother stabbed me in the back, or I almost married a whore, or my daughter’s mother is dead. Which of those, sir, would you call the real issue?”

Murdoch sighed. “How you feel is the real issue. I know this isn’t easy, I know you’re hurting…”

Scott stiffened, tension searing across his shoulder blades. “I don’t want to talk about that,” he said through clenched teeth.

“Okay,” Murdoch said reluctantly. “Then can we talk about Lily? When are you going to tell her?”

Scott looked panicky. “I…” he began, before a thought occurred to him. “Won’t Victoria tell her? I mean if Val goes to tell Victoria that Amber is dead, then she’ll tell her, won’t she?”

Murdoch cradled his glass and studied his son. “She might, but I wouldn’t have thought so. It’s your place to tell Lily.” When Scott didn’t answer, Murdoch refilled Scott’s glass. “Why don’t you ride out to Green River and bring them back here? They can’t stay at the hotel now, not with Amber’s passing. Lily needs to be here where she belongs. Don’t you agree?”

“I guess so.”

“Scott, telling Lily is going to be hard but it needs doing, and it won’t be as bad as you think. She’s so young, she won’t understand. Believe it or not, that may make it easier.”

“Easier for whom?” Scott said wearily.

Before Murdoch had a chance to respond, a grey-whiskered whirlwind spun into the great room.

“Boss, yuh’d better git out ‘ere! I found Johnny on his backside in the barn. Did ya even know the darn fool was outta bed?”

“Johnny’s here?”

“C’mon,” Jelly insisted. “That spill musta knocked the brains clean outta his head.”

Murdoch left the comfort of his armchair and followed Jelly. Scott chewed on his lower lip for a few seconds before knocking back the rest of his drink.

In the barn, Johnny was trying to get to his feet again as Murdoch entered. Murdoch crouched in front of his son.

“Are you all right?” he asked anxiously, noting Johnny’s bloodstained shirt.

“Yeah,” Johnny replied, ignoring the sceptical expression on his father’s face. “I went a bit dizzy for a moment, that’s all.”

“That’s all,” Jelly snorted. “That why yuh was lyin’ on the ground is it? Murdoch, yuh need ta talk some sense into this boy.”

Johnny sighed. “I’m a little tired but I need—”

“A little tired,” Jelly huffed. “Boy if yuh weren’t worn out already, then I’d sure be wearin’ yuh out some, I’d be—”

“Jelly,” Murdoch intervened. “Can you ride into town and get Sam out here please?”

Jelly nodded. “I sure will, an’ make sure he knows yuh ain’t listened to his orders none.” As Jelly turned to leave, Johnny called him back.

“Jelly wait; I need you to do something before you go. I need you to help Barranca.”

“Barranca?” Jelly echoed, as his wrinkled eyes fell on the rented horse. “Where is the animal anyways?”

“That’s what I’m trying to tell you, Jelly. When Amber got thrown, he got hurt, a splinter in his hoof. I’ve cleaned it out best I can, but he needs something. I don’t want it to get infected. Please…”

Compassion spread all over the old man’s face as he heard the distress in Johnny’s voice. “Course I can mix up somethin’ fa that. Don’t ya worry none. I’ll send Sam back an’ I’ll stay on an tend to that horse like he were me own.”

Johnny smiled weakly. “Thanks, Jelly.”

Jelly’s eyes widened as realisation kicked in. “Amber fell? What were she doin’ on the horse in the first place?”

“There was an accident, Jelly,” Murdoch said. “Amber’s dead.”

Jelly snatched the hat from his head and his eyes swivelled toward Scott, who was standing in the doorway, listening to the conversation with an unfathomable expression on his face.

Seeing the sympathy and pity on Jelly’s features irritated Scott. He’d had enough of that already. “Just go get Sam, Jelly. The sooner little brother gets the all-clear, the sooner he can be on his way to find a few more lives to wreck.”

“Scott,” Murdoch began, but Johnny shook his head.

“Leave it, Murdoch,” he said softly.

Scott turned back towards the house with a final scowl in their direction.

“What’s he talkin’ ‘bout?” Jelly asked.

“Jelly!” Murdoch and Johnny said in unison.

Throwing up his arms, Jelly gave a dramatic roll of his eyes. “I’m on my way!”

“Right,” Murdoch said, standing up and offering Johnny his hand. “Let’s get you on your feet and inside, son.”

“Murdoch, I need to talk to ya.”

“You can talk to me inside,” Murdoch said firmly. “Let’s go.”

At Murdoch’s insistence, Johnny found himself in his bedroom, somewhere, only this morning, he’d thought he’d never see again.

“Get out of those clothes and into bed. No arguing, no lies about how you’re feeling, just do as you’re told, understand?”

“Murdoch, we need to talk—” Johnny began but his father cut him off.

“That’s not a good idea right now. You need to rest. Maybe after Sam has looked at you.”

“No, damn it. Now.”

Murdoch folded his arms across his chest, but his son didn’t back down and held his stare. Not wanting an argument, Murdoch conceded and took a step back towards the door, pointing across to the bed.

“Get into bed, Johnny. I’ll be back up in a minute and then we’ll talk.”

Johnny held his stare but began to unbutton his shirt.

Leaving Johnny’s room, Murdoch hesitated. The circumstances were tragic, but he had both sons under the same roof again. Only this morning that had seemed impossible. 

He found Scott in the great room, another drink in hand, staring out of the French doors.

“I suppose he’s trying to tell you a different story now too.”

Murdoch raised his eyebrows. “Is there a different story, then?”

“No. But that won’t stop him from trying again.”

“Again? What has he said?”

Scott looked puzzled before he gave a despondent shrug. “I don’t know, I wasn’t listening to the details. I only know that as soon as he realised Amber was going to die, he conveniently changed his story.”

“Changed his story, how?”

Scott walked back over to the table and set down the glass. “He insists now he and Amber didn’t do anything, despite his confession. Perhaps he hit his head harder than we thought?”

Murdoch frowned. Was this what Johnny wanted to talk to him about?

“Scott, Johnny isn’t well enough to be anywhere else but here, right now, you understand that don’t you?”

Scott scowled. “I understand you think that,” he said sharply.

“I’m going to go and talk to him. Will you be all right?”

Scott grinned. “Me? Don’t worry about me, sir. Not when Johnny is so…hurt.”

Murdoch didn’t miss the sarcasm but he let it go. This was difficult for Scott. It would be, even without the added complication of Amber’s death. Scott was hurting and Murdoch felt for him desperately. He hesitated, torn between the son upstairs and the son in front of him now.

Scott saw his father’s hesitation and shook his head. “Go and see how Johnny is,” he muttered. “Just don’t expect to get any truth from him. I’m going to go back into town.”

Murdoch relaxed a little, hopeful Scott had considered their earlier conversation and was going to see his daughter.

Chapter Twenty-One

Murdoch knocked on Johnny’s door but entered without waiting. Johnny’s shirt had joined the clothes already on the floor, and his younger son was sitting on the bed but not in it. Murdoch huffed. “Did you not listen to what I said?”

Johnny looked up. “I heard you, but I don’t need to be in bed, I passed out is all. There ain’t no need for Sam.”

Murdoch rolled his eyes. “Give me strength,” he muttered before glowering at Johnny. “Do you not think there’s enough going on right now without you being difficult? Scott’s trying to act like he’s fine, Teresa’s mourning, and you being stubborn is not helping!”

Johnny looked down at his lap. All he wanted to do was crawl beneath the blankets, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t sleep here with everyone thinking him guilty. He needed to set the record straight.

Dragging the chair over, Murdoch sat beside the bed. “So, we need to talk. You’re the one with the answers, son, so you start.”

Now that the moment was upon him, Johnny was fearful Murdoch wouldn’t believe him either. For the same reasons as Scott couldn’t, it all seemed so convenient. His dark head bowed, and Johnny stared at his pants, noticing how dirty they were. He should have removed them before sitting on the bed.

“Scott says you told him you and Amber didn’t do anything?”

That got a response. Johnny’s head jerked up and his eyes blazed for a second. “I’m sure he didn’t put it like that, right?”

Murdoch shook his head. “No. I don’t think he really listened to whatever it was you told him. But I’m listening, Johnny.”

Johnny’s eyes lost their anger and his hand strayed to the blanket where he picked at the frayed edging.

“Johnny, get it said.” Murdoch leaned forward in the chair. If Johnny had an explanation, anything that would make this situation less bleak than it appeared, then he needed to spit it out. He hoped to God, Johnny did have some answers.

“I didn’t do anything,” Johnny stated, locking gazes with Murdoch. “Amber; she made it all up.”

Murdoch drew in a sharp breath and brought his hands together in his lap. “Start from the beginning.”

Taking a deep breath of his own, Johnny relayed the events of the day: his reason for stopping in Green River; his anger over all he had lost; the confrontation with Amber; her revelations and plan to get rid of him.

When Johnny finished, he watched his father’s face. Murdoch seemed deep in thought and Johnny started to get nervous, a feeling he hated. His fingers worked harder at the edge of the blanket. Eventually, Murdoch spoke, “Why were you even there Johnny? What were you doing in her hotel room, at night?”

Johnny frowned. “I went to apologise like Scott wanted me to,” he muttered. “I oughtta known better.”

“Murdoch, when you asked me this mornin’, I didn’t lie to you, I swear. I felt nothin’ for her since she came back. Do you think I could, after what she tried to do last time?”

Murdoch shrugged. “Sometimes it’s not straightforward with women.”

Johnny sighed. “Fine then. Even if I had, do you think I’d act on it or intentionally hurt Scott?”

This time Murdoch shook his head. “That’s why I was so shocked when you told Scott what you did.”

“I admit I’d had a few drinks by the time I went to see her, so as I could stand being in the same room, but I wasn’t drunk, Murdoch. I remember that fine.”

“But you still don’t know what happened for sure after that,” Murdoch pointed out. “You still can’t remember.”

Johnny scowled in frustration. “No.”

“So, what happened the next morning to make you believe you slept with her, why take her word for it?”

Johnny flushed and immediately ducked his head. “I was…confused,” he muttered.

“What do you mean?”

Johnny squirmed. “Look, it was dark. I had just woken up so I didn’t know it was her. I thought it was someone else, someone else who I’d planned to be with.” The flush burned hotter on his cheeks.

Murdoch realised he’d ventured into territory neither of them was comfortable discussing with the other. Still, Murdoch needed to get this straight. Clearing his throat, he said, “So besides the fact you intended to wake up with a woman in bed, what else made you think you’d done something? Why didn’t it occur to you, you’d passed out after drinking too much?”

Johnny wished a welcome black hole would open in the floor beneath his feet so he could slide down into it. That wasn’t going to happen. “Because I didn’t have my clothes on and neither did she. Damn it, Murdoch, what the hell was I supposed to think? As soon as I realised it was her, I threw her off me. I was confused and she was so full of it, going on ‘bout how I’d betrayed Scott. I couldn’t remember, so I couldn’t disagree, and then she started in with her threats…”

Murdoch eased up from the chair. He crossed the room to the window where he stared out at the late afternoon sky.

Johnny’s words hung in the air, but his son wasn’t going to ask. He wasn’t going to ask if his father believed him.

Finally, after what seemed like an age, but was mere seconds, Murdoch turned back and looked at his son. “Johnny, I believe you. I believe Amber told you it never happened, that you didn’t plan or remember doing it, and if it hadn’t been for the alcohol, you would never have done it.”

Johnny looked up, a hint of anger in his eyes. “But you don’t believe it never happened. You think she lied ‘bout that too.”

Murdoch shrugged as he began to pace the room. “How the hell are we supposed to know? She told so many lies, who can ever know the real truth of it?”

Johnny was quiet, but when he spoke, his voice was confident. “I can,” he said with conviction. “She had lost control. I know, I saw it. I ain’t saying I have all the answers. I don’t. How come I was drunk enough to pass out? Why can’t I remember a damn thing ‘bout it? I don’t know. But she was telling the truth when she told me she lied, Murdoch.”

“But why?”

“Her whole reason for doing this was to get rid of me. She had this crazy notion I needed to go so she and Scott could be happy.”

Murdoch stopped pacing and stared at his son, trying to work out if Johnny believed this because he needed or wanted to. There was only cold, hard certainty staring back at him.

“She tried to blackmail me with all the things I put in the letter to Scott.” Johnny paused. “Did you read it?”

“Yes, I read it and I believe it. That’s what all the questions were about, isn’t it? About your mother, Scott, and your past?”

Johnny swallowed. “I needed to know if what she was saying was right. If not telling could be better than telling. What you said, well, it helped me realise that it wasn’t, not for Scott.”

Murdoch returned to the chair.

“Amber set me up, Murdoch. It was obvious she never thought for a minute, I’d tell Scott. She was screaming at me, telling me I’d ruined everything. She was furious and told me how she never considered I’d be stupid enough to confess. She didn’t have a conscience, so she couldn’t begin to understand how they work. All this, it was just ‘bout gettin’ rid of me, like she tried to do the first time. If this was all still part of some plan, Murdoch, what could she gain by tellin’ me I never touched her? She was putting me in the clear.”

Murdoch considered this. Johnny had a strong point. What did Amber have to gain from suddenly changing her story? Amber had proved on more than one occasion in the past that she was an excellent manipulator and liar. If she had somehow set Johnny up, got him drunk, and made him think something had happened when it hadn’t, why would she go back on it?

“If I still had doubts Murdoch, I wouldn’t be here now. I left ’cause I thought I’d done wrong, I thought I’d betrayed Scott and I couldn’t live with myself any more than I could expect Scott to live with me. No one made me confess what happened; I did it on my own because it was the only decent thing to do. Now I know I ain’t done nothin’ wrong, I’m not leavin’.”

His voice held an air of challenge and Murdoch could almost hear the silent ‘old man’ tagged on the end.

“You don’t have to leave, Johnny. You never did. When you said you were going to, I admit I didn’t try to make you stay. At that moment, I was just so disappointed. I couldn’t see how it could work. I’m sorry I didn’t listen or believe what you were saying about not remembering, but I needed answers. When you couldn’t provide them, I got angry. I needed an explanation of why my son, who I know to be a good and honourable man, would do that to his brother. But Johnny, no matter my anger or my disappointment, I would never have stopped loving you.”

“And now?”

“I believe you, Johnny. And I’m inclined to agree with you about Amber. I can’t see what she had to gain by retracting her story like that either, unless she intended to tell Scott nothing happened.”

Johnny laughed bitterly. “She didn’t tell ‘im that,” he muttered.

“How do you know?”

“Because as a parting shot, she used her last words to ask Scott to forgive her for sleeping with me.”

Murdoch closed his eyes. What kind of woman had they let into their lives? He was a firm believer you should never think ill of the dead, but right now, well, he was struggling to maintain that view.

“Do you think Scott’ll believe this too?” Johnny asked, a small trace of his earlier nervousness returning.

“Right now? Probably not. He’s hurting a great deal. He hasn’t even managed to tell Lily about her mother. He’s going to need some time. Let him deal with Lily, first, son. Then I’ll talk to him.”

Johnny nodded. “In the meantime, are you gonna stop him from killing me?” he asked, only half-joking.

Murdoch pursed his lips. “I’ll try,” he said grimly.

The evening sky had darkened into a vivid blue hue and the sun had set on one of the longest days of Scott’s life. It wasn’t even over yet. Amber would come back to Lancer for burial. It seemed like the right thing to do. Not for him or her, but for Lily. No matter what Amber had done in her life, Lily was going to grow up mourning the mother she had loved and lost. She should be able to visit her mother’s graveside whenever she wanted, privately, and without disturbance. He didn’t know what his father or Johnny would have to say about it, but Scott didn’t care. He owned a third so she could lie in that if they wanted to be particular about it. Now there was one thing left; the hardest thing.

Scott stood in the street and gazed up at the hotel. It had been hours since Amber had died. Victoria would know because Val would have told her, but Lily didn’t. Had she already asked for her mama?

As he entered the hotel, Caleb looked up from behind the front desk. When he saw Scott, his round face grew solemn, sympathy shining from his usually sparkling eyes.

“I’m real sorry, Mr Lancer.”

Scott nodded; he had no reply to give. Everyone was sorry, except for the one person who should be. The one person who was trying to use Amber’s death to his advantage, probably even now.

“No one has been in her room. I thought…well, I assumed you would make arrangements for her things?”

Scott gave another vacant nod and went up the stairs.

At the hacienda, Sam plodded into the kitchen and, after placing his medical bag on the table, sat down on the empty chair opposite Murdoch. When Jelly had turned up at his door telling him Johnny had collapsed, Sam had grabbed his bag and headed straight out to the ranch. It seemed this time, Johnny’s body knew better than his mind, and Sam was quite pleased it had found a little courage to shout louder than Johnny’s wilful stubbornness.

“How is he, Sam?” Murdoch asked.

“In simple terms, he’s exhausted, Murdoch. And the bruising to his back and shoulder blades hasn’t healed as well as I expected. He also seems to have acquired a bruise on the jaw. Not something usually consistent with a fall from a horse.” Sam picked up the cup of coffee that Maria had poured for him.

Murdoch sighed. “No. I’m afraid he and Scott had an altercation.”

Sam blew over the surface of the hot drink. “I’m sure I don’t need to ask why. Scott didn’t appear to have any bruises when I saw him earlier.”

“It’s complicated, Sam. Too complicated. I’m not sure what the solution is.”

“Well, I can tell you one thing, Murdoch,” Sam said, chancing a sip of hot coffee. “You need to keep Johnny in bed for as long as possible. Not any easy feat I know,” he said, holding up his hand when he saw Murdoch about to protest, “but a necessary one, my friend. His body needs some rest, some time to recover and if he gets back in the saddle again too soon, the same thing will happen only he might not be lucky enough to collapse on the ranch this time.”

“I know, Sam, but Barranca’s injured. I don’t know if I can keep Johnny away for too long.”

“At least twenty-four hours of complete rest, Murdoch. That is what I told Johnny. Ideally, it should be longer, but you need to ensure that if he must be with the horse then he does not ride into town alone. Not under any circumstances.”

When Murdoch indicated his understanding, Sam leaned back in his chair. “How’s Scott holding up?”

“He’s holding up well. Too well. He’s determined not to show how much this is hurting him; Amber’s death and… other matters. He doesn’t want to tell Lily about her mother. I’m so worried about him, Sam. He wants to deal with this all on his own and he won’t let me in. I always thought Johnny was the one with all the practice at shutting people out, but Scott can be worse. At least before when things happened, they always had each other. Scott talks to Johnny like he can’t or won’t talk to me.”

“But that isn’t possible right now?”

“No, it’s not.”

“He needs you this time, Murdoch,” Sam said, placing the cup on the wooden table. “He may even need a little push, a little cajoling, but it’s all going to come out sooner or later and sooner would be better.”

“I know.”

“Oh, and I strongly recommend you ensure there are no further altercations. For both their sakes.”

Murdoch showed Sam to the door and pondered the wise words of his friend. Scott and Johnny were currently further apart than Boston and Mexico. Almost at the point where their relationship was irreparable. Murdoch knew he needed to do something, but he had to help Scott deal with his feelings about Amber first. His son was an intelligent man, he knew what Amber was capable of, and that seemed the only hope Murdoch had right now.

It was too late to ride back to Lancer. Not wishing to disturb Lily from her sleep, Scott stayed the night in the hotel. There was no rush to get back to Lancer anyway, not while he was there.

The sound of Lily’s rhythmic breathing was comforting and Scott was thankful Victoria had insisted he take her room. He wasn’t sure he could step foot inside Amber’s, it held too many bad memories.

When he arrived, he had been enormously relieved to find that Lily was already asleep. Then he felt enormously guilty for thinking that way.

He knew he needed to tell her about Amber. Victoria had told him she’d asked for her a few times that evening, especially at bedtime. Scott knew they couldn’t hide it much longer.

The truth was, it wasn’t so much Lily’s reaction he was afraid of, but his own. What kind of father would he be, to tell his daughter that her mother was dead, to deal with her grief today, tomorrow, in the future, when he couldn’t even deal with his own? He didn’t even know how he felt about Amber’s death. He refused to think about her too much for fear of where it might lead. Not to mention his guilt. One day, not now, but later for sure, Lily would ask questions and what would Scott say? The truth of the matter was, if he hadn’t pursued Amber, then she would never have been on the horse in the first place; would never have taken a wrong turn and plunged to her death.

Lying on his stomach, still dressed except for his boots, Scott squeezed his eyes shut and tried to block out the haunting images and the feelings threatening to resurface. He hated that he had cared for Amber and wished more than anything that he hadn’t. Propping up on his elbows, Scott flipped the pillow over and lay back down. He didn’t want those feelings to take control, so he concentrated on what came easier; bitterness and anger.

Back at the ranch, Scott had stood at the foot of the stairs after Murdoch had gone up to see Johnny. For a few minutes he had listened, but there had been no raised voices, no angry rebuttals of Johnny’s lies. The silence gave him a feeling he’d been unable to place until later, when he was away from the hacienda and on his way into town. He felt dismayed and hurt that Murdoch could even consider hearing Johnny out, let alone listen without a single word of rebuke or no raising of his voice.

Scott felt betrayed all over again, this time by his father. Okay, so Johnny was physically hurt. Was it not enough that he was at the ranch and could stay until he recovered? Why did he have to twist the knife by retracting his story? Why did Murdoch have to entertain the idea of believing him?

Johnny was lying, Scott knew. Never had two people been more suited than Johnny and Amber.

What Victoria had told him earlier only served to reaffirm his disgust at the lengths Amber had gone to. He had listened in stunned silence as Victoria explained why she had gone to Cross Creek and the reasons Amber had given.

That’s ridiculous had been his reaction and he hadn’t even had to think it through. No matter how little he thought of Johnny now, the idea Johnny believed Lily was his was ridiculous. It had taken Johnny long enough to believe either one of them could be Lily’s father. It had taken him long enough to even warm to the little girl.

As for Johnny threatening to hurt or kill Amber, well, that went beyond the ridiculous. When Victoria had told him what she had heard of their conversation, Scott’s expression had darkened as he pictured the scene. He could imagine his brother’s anger when Amber turned the tables on him with her blackmail ploy. Perhaps she had even managed to fool Johnny? That must have been a blow to Johnny’s ego, to find out even he wasn’t man enough to keep Amber from her scheming. No wonder he was so intent on getting out of this now, any way he could. But as for Johnny threatening to hurt or kill her, well, Scott wasn’t about to swallow that. No matter what a low-life Johnny had proved himself to be, hurting women and children was not his style.

“Victoria, Johnny is a lot of things but he would never harm Lily. Or Amber.” It was one of the few things he could be confident about.

With a deep sigh, Scott turned onto his side and stared at the shaft of moonlight through the drapes at the window. Why had Amber done all this? Had she changed her mind about Johnny? Had she regretted sleeping with him, is that why she resorted to blackmail to get rid of him?As for the lies she fed Victoria, well the reasoning for that was clear. Amber had to know he would never forgive her for this, just as he never would forgive Johnny. She had been doing what women like her and Johnny’s mother appeared to do – running off with their child.

Chapter Twenty-Two

When he awoke the next morning, it was to a strange sensation sweeping over his head. It felt like mere seconds since sleep had relieved him of his dark thoughts, and his body was telling him it was not time to wake up yet. The same feeling swept over his head again and Scott swatted sleepily at whatever it was that was pestering him.

A burst of giggles made Scott open his eyes and he squinted against the bright early morning sunshine filling the room. Lily’s face came into focus as she attempted to attack his hair with her hairbrush again.

“Up, Daddy,” she scolded, dropping the hairbrush on the pillow next to Scott’s head and folding her arms across her chest.

Scott managed a smile, sitting up and swinging his long legs over the side of the mattress. Victoria appeared through the door, a cup of coffee in her hand for Scott.

“What time is it?”

“Just after eight. Lily wakes up early and when you slept through her talking, I thought you needed the rest.”

Scott rubbed at his eyes. Victoria turned her attention to Lily. “What are you up to?” she asked curiously.

“She was trying to brush my hair,” Scott explained, picking up the hairbrush and attempting to hand it back to Lily who refused to take it.

“It’s your hair that needs to be brushed, Lily,” Victoria pointed out, as she set the coffee down on the table.

Lily shook her head. “No,” she said firmly.

“Do you want me to do it?” Scott asked. Lily shook her head again.

“Mama do it,” she said, looking to the doorway of the room.

Scott’s heart sank. The light-hearted moment had passed.

Victoria and Scott exchanged glances. “I’ll be next door while you brush her hair,” she said. They both knew that wasn’t what she meant. When Victoria left the room, Scott looked at Lily who eyed him sullenly, her little arms still folded tight.

“Come sit up here with me,” Scott coaxed, reaching out and pulling Lily onto the bed beside him.

“I want Mama,” Lily said, her lower lip trembling as tears or a tantrum loomed.

Scott closed his eyes. How was he going to do this? How could he make her understand?

Lifting his head, Scott shifted around on the bed so he was facing Lily. “I need to tell you something about your mama,” he said, horrified to find he had her full attention. Swallowing hard, he took a deep breath. “She can’t brush your hair anymore because…she’s gone.”

Lily tilted her head. “Gone?”

Scott swallowed again. “She died, Lily. She can’t come back.”

“Mama’s gone?”

“It’s very sad and it’s all right to be upset about it,” Scott whispered. “But I’m going to look after you now, Lily. I promise.”

If it were possible, Lily seemed to consider what he was saying before she wriggled closer to him on the bed and pointed to the hairbrush.

Scott picked it up and started to run it through the curls. For a minute, Lily let him but her fingers fidgeted in her lap restlessly until she squirmed away and slid off the bed. “No!” she told him, her face growing red. “I want Mama to do it!”


“Nooo!” Scott watched helplessly as the tears of frustration spilt down his daughter’s cheeks. He thought his heart was going to break. As she threw herself down onto the floor in front of him and started to cry louder, Scott didn’t know what to do. She didn’t understand why Amber wasn’t there to brush her hair. She didn’t understand any of it. Reaching down, he picked her up and she struggled against him, wailing about how she wanted her mama to brush her hair, not him.

Scott persisted, holding her tight until her wails got quieter and she settled in his arms. “Mama died Lily, she’s not coming back,” he murmured into her hair. “I’m so sorry.”

As Lily’s body stopped trembling and her breathing slowed, interrupted by regular hiccups, Scott closed his eyes. He was going to have to face this many more times and he knew it was only going to get harder as she got older and started to comprehend what he was saying.

Amber was dead. She had died and left him to pick up all the pieces, leaving only unanswered questions and a legacy of hate. Lily had lost her mother; he had lost his brother and the future he thought he and Amber had. Before he realised what was happening, Scott felt the first salty tears escape from his eyes.

Scott was quiet on the ride home to Lancer. He kept his eyes fixed on the road ahead.

Victoria sat beside him, holding Lily in her arms. The little girl was quiet too, sensing the sombre mood.

Every so often, Victoria would sneak a concerned look at Scott from the corner of her eye and her heart would go out to him. He looked so tired; his hair still mussed from sleep. To Victoria, he looked young and alone.

This morning, she had left Scott and Lily for as long as possible. They needed time together. She had felt so sorry for Scott, understanding the pain of explaining to a child why a parent had died. She had been through a similar experience with her son when he was young, but Michael had never known his father. Victoria had plenty of time to prepare for the inevitable day when she would have to sit him down and explain. Scott had no such time and when Lily had asked for her mama, they had both known there could be no further delay.

Scott and Michael were of a similar age, and this was the reason she felt a rush of maternal concern every time she looked at him. When she had re-entered her room that morning to see Scott sitting on the bed with Lily, she had wanted to hug him. She hadn’t of course.

Victoria’s thoughts switched to Murdoch. She hoped Scott at least let his father in – he needed his family’s support right now. From what Scott had told her and the tone of his voice, Victoria guessed his brother was not someone he could turn to at present.

Before they had left Green River, Victoria had packed up all Amber’s belongings. She had offered and Scott had agreed. He hadn’t stepped so much as one foot inside Amber’s room, and Victoria couldn’t blame him.

Although she knew it had been the right thing to do in letting Scott have her room last night, Victoria had not slept all that well in Amber’s bed herself. The room had been chilly as if Amber’s presence lingered. Her clothes still hung in the wardrobe; her possessions still occupied the room. It was hard to believe she never planned on returning to the hotel; obviously, she’d been desperate to make it to Cross Creek as quickly as possible.

As Victoria had packed, she had reflected on the woman whom she had spent so much time with over the past few months, yet had known so little about. Amber had told her two different versions of her relationship with both brothers. Victoria now asked herself whichone had been the truth?

Last night when she had explained to Scott why she had been trying to get to Cross Creek, he had been adamant the reasons Amber had given were lies. Yet there was something in the way he spoke about his brother that gave Victoria the sense there was more to this. She suspected Johnny and Amber had continued their affair and somehow Scott had found out about it. Victoria had not asked Scott if this was the case. She couldn’t, but still, she wondered…

Someone would have the task of sorting through Amber’s things following their delivery to Lancer later. There would be things Scott might like to keep for Lily, a few items of jewellery Lily should have when she got older. Still, all that could wait until Scott was ready. There was still the funeral to get through. Lily was bound to ask for her mama several more times, and Scott would have to deal with that.

As the grand hacienda came into view, Victoria noticed that, rather than relax at the prospect of being home, Scott seemed tenser.

Inside, Murdoch paced the floor of the great room. He had spent a fretful night worrying about his sons.

He suspected Scott had chosen to spend the night in town with his daughter. At least this was what Murdoch hoped Scott had done; his elder son’s state of mind worried him. Scott was hurting and Murdoch feared that right now, Scott was like a coiled spring.

Thankfully, Johnny had so far remained in bed, but Murdoch knew he had stubbornly fought sleep until late evening when Jelly had returned from seeing to Barranca. Father and son had listened to Jelly’s report on the beloved horse. Both were relieved to hear that so far, he was doing fine, although the chances of infection would not decrease until the wound had longer to heal. Finally, the positive news combined with the lateness of the hour, saw Johnny fall into a much-needed sleep that Murdoch hoped would go a long way towards his recovery.

He did not expect Johnny to remain such a compliant patient once he woke up today. He knew his younger son too well. However, Murdoch was determined Johnny was going to follow Sam’s orders this time. There was enough going on without Johnny taking another turn for the worst because he refused to listen.

Sinking into his chair, Murdoch pondered how he was going to go about helping his sons find their way back to each other. Although he knew it was doubtful Scott would be in a place where he was ready to listen to what Johnny had to say, Murdoch knew it was important Scott know the truth for his own sake as much as everyone’s.

The first thing he needed to do was to get Scott to talk to him, something that had so far proved difficult to do. As soon as Murdoch suggested they talk, Scott became defensive and angry, but as Sam had said, it had to come out eventually.

When Scott pulled up outside the hacienda, Murdoch came out to greet them. As soon as he saw his father, his mood darkened, the bitterness that had escaped with his tears that morning, reforming and making him angry once again.

“Son, I was worried about you.”

Scott gave him a hard look. “There’s no need, I’m fine.” He walked past his father into the house.

“He’s not fine,” Murdoch said, more to himself than Victoria. She placed her hand on his arm.

“He will be, in time,” she said quietly.

Murdoch looked into Victoria’s eyes and he managed a smile, before directing it down to Lily. “Hello, young lady,” Murdoch said fondly, wondering if Scott had broken the news and how well she understood. Lily turned her head away, her thumb snaking its way toward her mouth. Her head nestled closer to Victoria’s neck.

Murdoch’s expression became sad as he considered the heartache that lay ahead for them. “I’m going to talk to Scott. Please come inside Victoria. Teresa’s in the kitchen. I know she’s anxious to see Lily.”

He found Scott on his way upstairs and Murdoch called out to him, causing Scott to pause midway on the staircase.

“Scott, can we talk, son?” Murdoch willed his son to turn around and face him, but Scott’s position remained static on the stairs.

“I’ve got to get changed, sir.” Scott climbed another step, only for Murdoch to say his name louder this time. Blowing out a breath of impatience, Scott looked down on his father, his expression not hiding his annoyance or unwillingness to talk.

“Is he still here? Is Johnny still upstairs?”

“Yes. Come down and talk to me, please.”

“Why, so I can hear all Johnny’s lies coming out of your mouth instead?”

“No. I want to talk about you, Scott.”

“I’m going to get changed. If you want someone to talk to, then try Johnny again. You may get another version of the truth this time.”

Scott reached his room and started to open the door, only to let go of the handle and look across to Johnny’s door. Why was he still here? Why was he so intent on hurting him even more than he had already?

He didn’t pause to knock or request permission to enter, he just threw Johnny’s door open so it banged against the wall.

The sound woke Johnny abruptly, and he sat up, brushing the dark hair from his eyes as he stared at the irate figure of his brother.

“Oh, I’m sorry to wake you,” Scott said sarcastically. “It must be so nice not to have a guilty conscience all of a sudden, so you can sleep.”

Johnny tried to shake the lingering sleepiness. He could feel Scott’s anger radiating in waves that pulsated across the room. With a weary sigh, Johnny swung his legs over the side of the mattress. “If you’ve come to yell at me, can I at least get dressed first?”

Scott glared but crossed the room and picked up Johnny’s pants, flinging them at his brother. Johnny caught them and while he dressed, Scott walked over to the window and stared outside.

“Why are you doing this?” Scott asked tightly, not removing his gaze from the view beyond the pane of glass.

Johnny hesitated. Murdoch had warned him it was too soon for Scott to believe him. But Scott was here, he was asking him why, and he needed to know for both their sakes.

“Are you not going to answer me?” Scott demanded, turning around to confront his brother with blazing eyes of hostility. “Seems you had a lot to say to our father, or did you just figure he was a soft touch?”

At any other time, Johnny would have smirked at the notion Murdoch Lancer was a soft touch.

“Are you gonna listen?” Johnny asked in measured tones. “Or have you already made up your mind you’re not gonna believe me, no matter what I say?”

“I listened to what you had to say, yesterday,” Scott snapped, folding his arms. “I listened to you tell me you went behind my back. How you couldn’t stand to see me happy so you thought you’d destroy it. Just how much of a fool do you think I am, Johnny? Do you think I’m going to let you worm your way out of this because Amber’s dead?”

Johnny stared hard at Scott, searching for some resemblance to the brother he knew; the man who was usually the master of rational thought. All he could see in Scott’s eyes was anger and pain.

“Is that what you think of me?”

“I’d rather not have to think of you at all, but it’s probably too much to hope for that, now you’re back up on your feet, you’ll just leave.”

Scott’s harsh words wounded Johnny and he felt his temper stir with the desire to protect himself. He closed his eyes and mentally counted to three. His brother was only reacting like this through the hurt. “I’m not going anywhere, Scott. I’ve done nothin’ wrong.”

“So you’ve said,” Scott snapped. “But I made the mistake of trusting you once, Johnny, I won’t do it again.”

“You never trusted me, Scott,” Johnny accused, the rein on his temper slipping from his grasp. “I never meant as much to you as your precious Amber.”

“Well, you both mean the same to me now – absolutely nothing. Why the hell did you bother confessing, Johnny?”

“Right now, I’m askin’ the same question. I shoulda kept my mouth shut and let you marry the bitch.”

“That’s enough!”

Murdoch’s tall form loomed in the doorway and he rushed forward to block Scott as he made a start toward his brother. Murdoch had been listening from downstairs, hoping to God they would manage to sort this out. “There is a young child downstairs who does not need to be hearing this.”

Mentioning Lily had the desired effect and Scott immediately stopped trying to wrench himself free.

“Now is not the time to be having this conversation.” Murdoch shot Johnny a pointed look, dismayed his younger son had not heeded his warning that Scott wasn’t ready for this yet.

Johnny caught the look. “Don’t look at me like that,” he snapped. “I ain’t the one who barged in here uninvited.”

“Well, it won’t be happening again.” Scott moved towards the door. “We have nothing more to say to one another.”

Johnny narrowed his eyes. “No, we don’t. You’ll believe what you want like you always do. Even if it don’t make no sense.”

Before Scott could reply, Murdoch placed both hands on his son’s shoulders and propelled him from the room. “Go downstairs,” he ordered and when Scott went, Murdoch turned to Johnny.

“I’m going to talk to your brother. You stay here and don’t move.”

Johnny, who had stormed over to the wardrobe, intent on dressing and then getting out of there, slammed the wardrobe door shut in frustration. “Fine. But you be sure to tell him to stay the hell away from me, ‘cause I’m gettin’ pretty damn tired of takin’ the blame for things I didn’t do.”

Murdoch found Scott outside the kitchen sitting on the bench with his feet planted a foot apart on the stone tiles, elbows resting on his thighs. His hands dangled between his knees and he stared straight, as if looking at something far away. Overhead, dark, thick clouds loomed in the sky, threatening to mimic the storm that had taken place only moments ago in Johnny’s room.

Standing behind him, Murdoch wondered how he could reach his son.

Scott was aware of his father’s presence but gave no acknowledgement. He let the gusty breeze attack his face, cooling the anger that just minutes ago threatened to boil his blood. As the anger subsided, he felt his grip on his emotions start to waver. He wouldn’t break down in front of his father.

“If you’ve come to lecture me, then I assure you, I do not need to hear it right now.”

“That isn’t why I’ve come out here.”

Scott looked up at Murdoch, a dark look marring his handsome features. Getting to his feet, he moved a few paces away, recreating the distance between them. Folding his arms, he turned his back on Murdoch.

“If you’ve come to plead Johnny’s case, then you’re wasting your time.”

“No, that’s not what I’ve come out here for either.”

Scott snorted. He hadn’t forgotten how willing Murdoch had been to listen to Johnny. It narked, how desperately Murdoch wanted to believe Johnny couldn’t have done this. Scott did understand that Murdoch wouldn’t want to lose a son, but he had lost his brother the moment Johnny confessed. Even if he wished it wasn’t true, or that it could be a bad dream, he wasn’t going to let his emotions, or Johnny, take him for a fool again.

With a deep breath of cold, fresh air, Murdoch contemplated the best way to play this. It was so hard, knowing Scott didn’t need to hate his brother so much and knowing how invaluable Johnny’s support could be right now. In Scott’s eyes, Johnny and Amber were the two people responsible for all this pain. The mere mention of Johnny’s name made Scott angry and sent a defensive wall springing up around him that Murdoch didn’t think he could scale. If he had any hope of getting Scott to talk to him, then he needed to avoid the subject of Johnny, if only temporarily.

“I want to talk to you because I’m concerned about you, son. I want to be here for you if you’ll let me be.”

Murdoch waited for another snort, or for Scott to walk even further away, but he didn’t.

“I’ve made arrangements to bury Amber here tomorrow,” Scott said, a challenge in his tone.

“I think that’s the right thing to do, son.”

Scott turned around, unable to hide the surprise from his face.

“You didn’t think I would agree,” Murdoch commented, stepping around the arm of the bench and taking a seat, ignoring the creaking protest of the weathered wooden slats.

“No, I didn’t.”

“Scott, no matter what has happened, Amber was Lily’s mother and nobody is going to prevent you from doing what’s right where your daughter is concerned. Did you talk to her about her mother?”

Scott’s expression became sadder as he walked over and sat beside his father. “I told her, but as you said, she didn’t understand.”

“It will come with time, Scott, and it will get easier.”

“Easier?” Scott echoed doubtfully. “How is it going to get easier? What am I supposed to say when she’s old enough to ask questions about Amber’s death, or what kind of person she was? I won’t be able to hide all that from her, Murdoch, even if I wanted to. She’ll hear stories somewhere down the line and she’ll come to me for answers.”

“You’ll get through it, son,” Murdoch said softly. “And you won’t have to do it alone. This is your home, and Lily’s. You have your family here who love you.”

“But what will I say?” Scott said, his voice muffled as he lowered his head into his hands. “What will I say to Lily when she asks why Amber died? If I hadn’t gone after her, if I hadn’t told her I was taking Lily away then she wouldn’t have run. I should have kept my temper. I should have done it properly; formally, as you said in the beginning.”

“Oh, Scott. Amber’s death wasn’t your fault. Nobody blames you, except you. She was going to run no matter how you handled it. Her death was a horrible accident, but there is no reason for you to feel guilty about it. Do you understand?”

Scott gave a heavy sigh, his fingers raking through his hair. “Maybe we should leave here. Start afresh, somewhere else.”

The desolate tone of Scott’s voice sent little waves of panic rippling through Murdoch. “Scott, you don’t mean that.”

“Don’t I?” Scott’s hands balled into fists which he thumped on his thighs. “We can’t stay here, not after all that’s happened. After all they did.”

Murdoch’s heart ached. What Amber did was what he wanted to say, but he bit down on his bottom lip to prevent the words from escaping. He was making some progress, not willing to risk chasing Scott away by pleading Johnny’s case. Not yet, anyway.

“But surely leaving would defeat the purpose of burying Amber here? You’re doing that for Lily, so she will have a place to mourn her mother. How can she do that if you two go away?”

Scott could only shrug as Murdoch used his argument against him. Nothing made sense anymore. He was going around in one big circle and he despised the feeling. He wanted to rationalise his thoughts, but he’d lost that trait and was struggling to find it again.

They sat in silence. Murdoch studied his clasped hands and Scott stared at the ground between his feet.

“I’ve never felt like this before,” Scott admitted, turning and looking at his father. “I’ve never felt so angry and so…” His voice wavered and broke off.

“What, Scott?”

“So helpless,” Scott confessed. “I’ve always been able to make sense of situations; I’ve always prided myself on being a thinker. A smart man never lets his heart rule his head, my grandfather used to tell me. And I’m trying to use my head Murdoch, but I can’t, not while I’m so angry.” He turned away and bowed his head, frustration and despair rolling into a lump in his throat.

Murdoch placed his arm around the tense shoulders of his son, tentatively at first, but more firmly when Scott did not resist. He could imagine Harlan saying things like that to his grandson as he matured into adulthood. But no matter how hard Harlan had tried to turn Scott into the man he wanted him to be, Murdoch knew, ultimately, in that respect at least, he had failed. Scott did let his heart rule his head on occasion; he was a good man and he looked for the good in people, even if sometimes there was none.

“Scott, it’s natural you’re feeling angry. You feel let down and betrayed by Amber because you cared about her, and by Johnny, because you love him…” he felt Scott try to pull away at the mention of Johnny, so Murdoch ploughed on quickly, “…but you’re looking at this the wrong way, son. There’s nothing wrong with letting your heart rule your head. Perhaps you should stop fighting it and listen a little more closely to what it’s telling you because hate is an ugly word and an even uglier emotion. It will eat you up if you let it.”

Murdoch’s words split Scott in two. Half of him wanted to snap out some angry retort with regards to Johnny, but the other half; his head or his heart, he couldn’t tell which, smothered his anger like a quilted blanket. He felt more confused than ever.

As the first droplets of rain started to fall from the swollen clouds, Murdoch got to his feet. “Are you coming inside?”

“In a minute.”

Murdoch walked back toward the house, unsure if he’d gotten through to his son, although Scott had opened up, even if was just a little. Murdoch hoped he had been there for him, as he wanted to be.

Perhaps, once the funeral was over, Scott would be receptive enough to listen more. If he could only do that, then Murdoch was confident Scott would realise he didn’t need to hate his brother at all.

When he walked through the door, he almost bumped into Teresa. She grabbed his arm.

“Murdoch, it’s Johnny. He left a few moments ago. I tried to stop him but he wouldn’t listen to me and I didn’t want to interrupt you and Scott…”

Teresa’s eyes filled with worried tears and her face showed the strain. “Oh, Murdoch, what’s happening to us?”

Although Murdoch was desperate to know if he was too late to stop Johnny from leaving, he couldn’t ignore Teresa’s heartfelt question. He had not told Teresa all Johnny had told him. Teresa would think Scott had a right to know and Murdoch feared she would demand he listen. The last thing Murdoch wanted was for Teresa to be on the receiving end of Scott’s anger. But she was sensitive, especially when it came to her family, and Murdoch knew seeing Johnny and Scott argue like this was tearing her apart.

“Teresa,” Murdoch pulled her close, “it’ll be all right. They’ll sort this out.” His words were reassuring and spoken with more confidence than he would have been able to muster earlier. God, he felt guilty for not being there for her before now. He was one man pulled in three different directions and as much as he loathed it, he had to prioritise.

“You and I are going to talk. I promise,” he told her gently.

“But right now, you need to go after Johnny,” she finished for him, managing a smile of understanding. “He only just left Murdoch, and I did try to stop him.”

“I’m sure you did. And I promise you, Teresa, I am here for you too.”

“Go,” Teresa said, pointing in the direction Johnny had taken. “And Murdoch?”


“I promise not to get mad at you if you have to knock their heads together to make them realise they love each other.”

Murdoch smiled. “I’ll remember that.”

The clouds had burst completely now, unleashing a heavy rain that pelted his hair and shirt as he walked towards the barn. It occurred to him that if Johnny had already ridden out, then he was going to have to go back and get a thick jacket and hat before he could go after him. He hoped Scott had found more sense than his brother and got himself inside.

“Of all the stubborn and foolish things to do,” Murdoch muttered as he cursed the wilfulness of both his sons. He could guess what Johnny intended, but Sam had told Johnny that he needed time to recover. So, what did Johnny go and do? Not only was he planning on riding into town alone, but in the pouring rain no less.

He should tan his damn hide.

As his shirt got wetter, Murdoch hastened his pace until he reached the barn. Johnny had just finished saddling one of the horses and was about to lead him out.

Murdoch hid the relief at catching him in time behind a mask of disapproval. As much as he wasn’t feeling up to another battle right now, he wasn’t about to let Johnny go riding off and risk coming down with something worse.

“Going somewhere?” he enquired, purposefully filling as much of the entrance as he physically could. Realising the rain was still pelting his back, he took a step forward so he was undercover and he folded his arms across his chest.

Johnny stood up straight and looked his father in the eye. Whereas Murdoch wasn’t feeling up to a battle, Johnny seemed good and riled enough to let him have one if necessary. “I’m going to see Barranca. He seems like the only one who ain’t blaming me for all that’s happened.”

“No, you’re not. You’re not riding into town, Johnny. Sam said—”

“Sam said I should be in bed, I know, I heard. I musta missed the part where he said I should stay in my room to be accused of far more stuff than I ever said I did in the first place.”

Murdoch sighed. “Scott shouldn’t have done that, but he’s too upset to think straight right now. I told you he wouldn’t believe it yet.”

“Damn it, Murdoch.” Johnny walked away from the horse and kicked at the hay on the ground in frustration. “I understand he’s upset, but he’s not even prepared to hear me out. You think it was easy for me to stand there and have him say those things to me?”

“No, I don’t think that for a minute, And when Scott thinks about this, he’ll regret the things he said, I’m sure of it.”

Johnny scowled. “In the meantime, what? I’m supposed to take all he throws at me, all his hate, and not tell him the truth because you don’t want him upset?”

Murdoch unfolded his arms and pulled the wet shirt away from his back. “Scott doesn’t hate you, but you should remember what you confessed to. Did you expect him to hate you for that?”

“Yeah, course I did,” Johnny said, “But—”

“Scott’s still in that place. What you told him, shocked him. He never thought you could do that and, well, I imagine it made Scott question all he thought of you.”

“Which clearly weren’t a lot.”

“Johnny. This isn’t just about me defending how Scott is acting,” Murdoch said patiently. “It’s about understanding why he’s acting the way he is. Scott has a lot going on right now, he had to tell Lily her mother is dead and there is still the funeral to come. But Scott loves you, Johnny, he needs a little time.”

Johnny looked at the ground and Murdoch could see the concern for his brother vying for dominance over his anger at the words Scott spat at him.

The rain showered down on the roof of the barn, its pitter-patter preventing the silence.

How had one woman managed to cause so much trouble?

“Johnny, please go back to the house. Jelly’s with Barranca, you know he’s in safe hands and he’ll come back soon and give you an update. Tomorrow, you can ride into town with him, but not now, not in this rain. Please be sensible, son.”

Raising his head, Johnny looked outside. “I’ll give it until tomorrow,” he said, with a resigned sigh. “But I ain’t taking any more of this after that…I can’t.”

Murdoch nodded, knowing Johnny was not just referring to the doctor’s orders.

Chapter Twenty-Three

Scott awoke, disorientated, before recognising the familiar surroundings of his bedroom. For a second, he wondered what had woken him, and then Lily moved again. With his head still on the pillow, he looked down at his daughter; snuggled up to him in the space between his left arm and body. Her head rested on his shoulder and she remained sound asleep. They were both partially covered by a blanket, which Scott couldn’t remember putting there.

Closing his eyes again, Scott’s mind went back to the funeral. It felt like he had buried two different people in the same grave. The service had been short and Scott hadn’t heard any of it. His mind had played out the events of the last few days and weeks, searching for some clue that he must be missing to make sense of all that had occurred. To find some speck of understanding about why Amber and Johnny had done this.

Once the funeral was over, Murdoch, Teresa and Victoria walked back to the buggy, and at his request, left Scott alone at the graveside. He had stood there for a long time, seeing himself and Amber together; talking, laughing and enjoying each other’s company. He could remember her kisses, the warmth of her body and the happy, contented feeling after they’d made love. Knowing now that it all had been a lie, should have wiped those feelings out. But it didn’t. In his head, he’d held a future that he wanted; for her, Lily and himself. God, he’d even wanted to love her. What a fool.

“Why?” The wind swept away the only word he uttered. He wondered if Amber heard it, whereever she was now. Was she sorry, or was she revelling in the heartache she had caused?

He had not cried. He would not shed another tear for her, for Johnny, for anything he had lost.

Later, when he’d returned home, Lily had asked for her mama, and so they had the conversation again. He felt so helpless in the face of Lily’s tearful frustration over the absence of her mother. Without intending to, he must have fallen asleep beside Lily on his bed.

Now, Scott eased away from his daughter, repositioning her head gently on the pillow. He watched her tear-stained face, wondering how many more times they were going to have to go through this. How long would it take before things got easier as his father assured him they would? Reaching out, he smoothed a stray curl away from her eyes and she twisted the thumb in her mouth, but didn’t wake up.

For her sake, he couldn’t go on like this. Lily didn’t need or deserve a father that was this angry and bitter. Her life needed happiness and love, not shades of the past. Yesterday, his father had told him to start listening to what his heart was telling him, but Scott was afraid. After all, his heart had been wrong so far, hadn’t it? His heart was the reason he had trusted Johnny around Amber, and Amber around Johnny. His heart was the one thing causing him all this pain and hurt right now. Murdoch had been right when he said that Scott loved Johnny. He did, or at least he had.

With a long, drawn-out sigh, he got to his feet. If he listened to what Johnny had to say, would he believe it because his heart wanted him to, even if it wasn’t the truth?

It kept coming back to the same fear – he didn’t want to be a fool again.

Downstairs, Murdoch sat in the great room with Teresa. Scott falling asleep with Lily had allowed Murdoch to spend the promised time with his ward. He had finally told her an edited version of what Johnny had told him. Just as he expected, her reaction had been one of shock and disbelief, but only at the depths to which her cousin had sunk. Murdoch admired her resounding determination that Johnny wasn’t anything but truthful.

“You must tell Scott, Murdoch. He needs to know.”

“I agree, Teresa, but Johnny’s confession hurt Scott and made him very angry. There’s no point forcing the truth on him because he’ll reject it out of hand.”

“But he doesn’t have to be so angry, not at Johnny. He’d feel so much better if he knew Johnny didn’t betray him.”

Murdoch agreed and had already resolved to tell Scott the truth. He just hoped Scott was ready to listen at last.

When Scott entered the great room, if he was surprised Teresa and Victoria immediately got to their feet, then he didn’t comment on it. He settled on the sofa and stared glumly into the cold fireplace.

“I fell asleep upstairs.”

“I know. I checked in on the pair of you earlier.”

“That explains the blanket.”

Murdoch studied Scott, noting with relief that he seemed less tense. Perhaps it was because the funeral was over, or because he’d had some much-needed sleep, or maybe, Murdoch considered sadly, it was simply because Johnny wasn’t around.

“Is Lily still asleep?”

“Yes. You know, it was the same as last night. Every time before bed, she always asks for Amber.”

“Scott, it will—”

“Get easier, I know.”  

“It will, son. Now that the funeral is over, you will have to try to get her into a routine. I don’t suppose the atmosphere around here is helping much…”

Scott looked at him sharply. “And that’s my fault, is it?” he snapped, the tension reclaiming him as if it had never been away.

Murdoch poured himself and Scott a drink. Scott took it reluctantly.

“It’s not your fault.” Murdoch sat and sipped at his drink. “But you can’t deny the truth of it.”

“You want to tell me what Johnny told you,” Scott said bluntly. 

“I’d like you to listen to me, yes.”

“Even if it is all lies?”

“Surely you have to hear it before you can make that judgement?”

Scott hesitated, recalling his earlier thoughts. He would listen, but not just with his heart. There was too much at stake if he let his heart take over now.

“I’m listening.”

Murdoch took a deep breath, hoping that Scott was going to listen, both to the words and his inner voice, which must be insisting that Johnny wasn’t the cold and callous individual that Amber’s lies made him out to be.

“When Johnny confessed to sleeping with Amber, he believed that he had,” Murdoch began carefully, noticing how Scott’s fingers curled tighter around the glass he was holding on his lap. “He went to see her that night to apologise to her, as you’d asked him to do. He admits he had been drinking, but he says he wasn’t drunk.”

“So now he wasn’t even drunk?” Scott cut in. “That just makes it worse!”

Murdoch held up his hand to stall the interruption. “Johnny says he wasn’t drunk when he got there, but he can’t remember anything after that. He can’t remember anything until the next morning when he woke up in her bed, and Amber told him that they had slept together.”

Scott looked irritated. “I’ve heard all this already,” he snapped. “It doesn’t change anything.”

“No, but when your brother told Amber that you knew the truth, she flew into a rage and admitted she lied, that she set him up so he would have no choice but to leave. Amber hadn’t banked on Johnny confessing. She hadn’t banked on Johnny wanting to protect you that much, even at the cost of losing you.”

Scott was motionless. So now Amber lied to Johnny about sleeping with him. That was convenient. It could be true, but…

Murdoch could almost hear Scott’s thoughts, he just hoped they were coming to the right conclusion. “You know full well what Amber could do, Scott. You know that she lied on plenty of occasions.”

Scott looked back up at his father indignantly. “Of course, I know. But why admit to Johnny that she lied? Doesn’t this all seem just a bit convenient, or are you so desperate to believe Johnny, you’re willing to overlook the things that don’t make sense?” 

Murdoch took another sip of his drink and sank into his chair.  Maybe he’d waited too long to have this conversation, maybe he hadn’t waited long enough. Whichever one it was, he had started now and had to see it through. He kept his voice calm and controlled. Anything else would likely incense Scott further.

“Johnny said that when he told Amber that he had confessed to you, she lost control. She screamed and told him he had ruined everything because nothing happened between them. What did she have to gain by saying that, if it was not the truth?”

Scott sat there with his hands still clasped around the glass, his lips one grim, determined line. Only his eyes betrayed the storm of confusion that was raging through his mind.

“You know Scott, I’m surprised that, despite how little you claim to think of your brother now, you are prepared to give him so much credit and admit that he is a wiser man.”

Scott stared open-mouthed. “I’m not giving Johnny credit for anything, except maybe for the excellent job he’s done of fooling you.”

Murdoch felt his patience wearing thinner with each word, but he was determined not to lose his temper. “I don’t agree. You seem to find it impossible to believe that Amber could fool Johnny. He had to have planned it all out beforehand with the sole purpose of hurting you. Amber, well she managed to make a fool out of you, didn’t she? However, she couldn’t possibly make a fool out of Johnny. That, in my opinion, equates to admitting that he is the wiser one.”

“You’re wrong. I do believe Amber made a fool out of Johnny. She was probably after him from the moment she arrived, and Johnny just couldn’t resist. He wanted her before, why wouldn’t he want her again? Johnny may well have regrets now, but don’t ask me to believe they are in any way because of me.”

“If Johnny doesn’t care about you at all then why did he leave? When he believed he was guilty, he was willing to sacrifice everything he loves so that you’d know the truth. He didn’t have to admit to anything.”

“This is pointless.” Scott slammed the glass down, the untouched contents splashing over the table. “You wanted me to listen and I have, but I’ve other things to think about, other things on my mind. Like Lily. Now, if you’ll excuse me…”

“No, I won’t.”


“I won’t excuse you, Scott. Not this time. You haven’t listened at all, but you are damn well going to start.”

When Scott hesitated, torn between walking out or staying as ordered, Murdoch seized the moment. “I know how much Johnny’s confession hurt you, but I’m beginning to wonder just why that is?”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“Originally, I thought it was because you were so hurt that Johnny could do this to you. Now, I’m thinking you expected it from him all along.”

“That is not true!” Scott turned to leave only for Murdoch to grab his arm.

“Isn’t it? You just referred to the fact that he was interested in her before. And just as you did back then, you insist on believing that he planned it, that sleeping with Amber behind your back was his goal from the beginning. If you think so little of Johnny, Scott, then then I can only assume that Amber is the only person who has really hurt you here, because apparently Amber is the only one you ever cared about.”

Scott stared at his father in shock. He was hurt over the part Amber had played in this, yes. She had thrown away everything they had, without so much as a care in the world. But he hadn’t been that surprised, had he? Not considering her history. Johnny was different. Murdoch was wrong.

“I didn’t think Johnny could do this to me again.” 

“There is no again, Scott. Johnny never did it to you before, except in your mind. He couldn’t because you never told him that you were interested in Amber. You were sure then, and proved wrong, so why not this time?”

“Because I’m not wrong this time!” Scott said hotly. 

“Scott,” Murdoch let go of his son’s arm. He tried to claw some calmness and patience back from the edge over which his elder son seemed determined to push him. “You know your brother. At least I thought you did. How many times has Johnny been willing to do anything for you, for your relationship?  Did you learn nothing from the first time Amber was here? You were convinced he’d betrayed you then, when in fact, he was only guilty of the same poor judgement as you.”

“Remember how easy it was to blame him then? Only once you started listening to facts rather than your hurt feelings, did you realise the truth. Amber played you both for fools. You almost lost your brother over that woman’s manipulations back then. How are you going to feel if somewhere down the line you find out Johnny was innocent this time, too? That he was once again the victim of Amber’s treachery, and your stubborn pride has cost you, your brother?”

Scott hesitated. This time was different, wasn’t it? This time there were too many lies; too many variations of the same story. Finding his voice, Scott said quietly, “I don’t know.” He paused and stared beyond Murdoch, out of the large window.

“You don’t know?” Murdoch said sharply.

Scott looked at his father, confusion written all over his face. “I’d feel terrible, but so many things don’t make sense, Murdoch. Johnny knew Amber could lie. He was so adamant that I shouldn’t trust her, yet you’re asking me to believe that he trusted her over this? He believed her when she said they slept together?”

Murdoch sighed and sat down in his armchair. “Johnny said he was confused. He thought he’d betrayed you in the worst possible way. Amber was convincing.”

Scott shook his head doubtfully. “There must be more to it than that. When Johnny told me what he’d done, he didn’t say he thought he might have slept with her, he said he had. What made him think that?”

“I didn’t touch her.”

Johnny’s voice came from the doorway. He leaned against the wall; his gaze was unwavering. Neither man had heard him come in.

“Yet somehow you ended up in bed with her. Somehow, she managed to convince you that you’d slept together. How?”

Johnny helped himself to a drink, knocking it back before answering. He had been present for the last part of the conversation, and was trying real hard not to feel angry or resentful that Scott needed so much persuasion and so many answers before he could believe him.

“I’d made plans with Nancy, so I was expecting to be with her. When I woke up, that’s where I thought I was.”

“You’re trying to tell me that you woke up in the morning, rolled over, and got the shock of your life seeing Amber instead of Nancy?” Scott said dryly.

“Something like that.”

“Something?” Scott stepped closer to his brother. “Exactly how long did it take for you to realise?”

Johnny looked uncomfortable. “I didn’t start anything with her, Scott.”

“That isn’t what I asked you.” 

Johnny took a deep breath. “Look, I was still half asleep and it was dark. I thought it was Nancy.”

“At what point did you realise it wasn’t?”

“After I kissed her, I—”.

“You kissed her?” All Murdoch’s hard work flew out the window as Scott seized Johnny’s admission with both hands. “A minute ago, you didn’t touch her, suddenly you were kissing her?”

Johnny willed himself to keep calm. “Scott, I just told you, it was dark and—”.

“It usually is at night.” Scott turned to their father. “Is this what he told you? Did he tell you he kissed her?”

Murdoch shook his head. “No, but—”.

“Your story changes each time, doesn’t it? Anyone with the slightest bit of sense knows who they’re waking up with, brother.”

Johnny’s eyes flashed blue fire as his temper and patience deserted him. “You got no right talking ‘bout how much sense I have,” he snapped. “Amber sure pulled a number on you. She took all them brains you had and stuffed ‘em down your pants. She made a complete fool out of you the first time, this time, and even now she’s dead, you’re still actin’ like one.”

Scott jabbed his finger at his brother’s chest. “I don’t think so. I’m seeing you for what you are. A back-stabbing, two-faced liar!”

Murdoch knew what was going to happen before Scott did, but there was no way he was ever going to be quick enough to stop Johnny. A loud smack followed by a painful thud saw Scott land on the floor.

Johnny glowered at his brother, rubbing the knuckles of his right hand with his left. “You know something,” he growled. “Amber wanted me gone because she saw me as a threat to her relationship with you, because she knew I never trusted her, knew I’d always look out for you. Seems she gave me enough credit to know I’d never be able to face you, knowing I’d betrayed you like that. She just didn’t bank on the fact I’d be stupid enough to own up.”

Johnny kept eye contact with Scott, the heat of his glare pinning his brother to the floor. “All that Amber did, well, it was a pretty good plan, but she overlooked one small point.”

“Oh, and what was that?” Scott asked bitterly.

“That she didn’t need to do any of it. See, Amber was under the mistaken impression that I meant something to you. I guess wherever she is now; she’s kickin’ herself over that one because you’ve never believed a damn thing this back-stabbing, two-faced liar ever said, while she was in the picture. Not back then and not now. Hell, I’d be willing to put money on it, that if she hadn’t gotten herself killed, she’d be right here, well on her way to convincing you that even if she had slept with me, it was only to prove how much she loves you.”

Scott opened his mouth to say something, but then closed it without a word. 

Silence descended. Murdoch glanced between his sons, not sure what he could do or say.

With one last disappointed shake of his head, Johnny turned and walked out. The front door slammed shut behind him. Murdoch looked imploringly at Scott, who was gingerly getting to his feet, the back of his hand pressed against his split lip.

“That’s it?” he demanded incredulously. “You have nothing to say, Scott?”

“No. I have nothing to say.”

It took willpower not to grab hold of his son and shake him. Instead, Murdoch turned away. “I think you’d better go to bed.”

“I’m not a child.”

“No, Scott, you’re not. But tonight, you’ve acted like one.”

Murdoch left the room before his temper got the better of him. He was so disappointed in his elder son. Even now that he was in possession of the facts, Scott was refusing to examine them. Just how had Amber managed to make his elder son so irrational, so distrustful of those who had never given him reason to doubt them in the past? Murdoch wasn’t angry over how Scott had reacted to Johnny’s confession, or even his refusal and reluctance to listen in the preceding hours and days, and he knew it still hadn’t been long. He knew they had only buried her today.

But Scott didn’t want to believe Johnny.

How were they ever going to live under the same roof now?

Opening the door, Murdoch stepped out into the cold evening air just in time to see Johnny riding off. With a heavy heart, he leaned against the closed door. He had no clue how to fix this, and for the first time, he wondered if it was truly unfixable. Amber had ripped his family apart as casually as you’d tear up a sheet of paper. 

When he walked back into the great room, he was relieved to see that Scott had gone. Murdoch walked over to the table and poured another drink. He didn’t turn around when he heard footsteps in the foyer, nor did he look when he heard the front door open as Scott went out.

Chapter Twenty-Four

Murdoch sat at his desk with his head in his hands. It had been a long day, a long evening, and there was an agonizingly long night ahead, so much so he was considering not going to bed at all.

A movement caught his eye and he raised his head to see Victoria hovering hesitantly, a cup of coffee in her hand.

“May I come in? I made you some coffee.”

Murdoch gave her a weary smile and beckoned her in, rising to greet her as he moved out from the desk. “Thank you,” he said as she handed him the cup. “I think I could do with something a little stronger though.”

Victoria smiled and Murdoch noticed for the first time that she tilted her head just slightly when she did that.

“I’m not disturbing you, am I? Only I realised you were still up, and, well…so am I.”

Murdoch shook his head. “You’re not disturbing me, Victoria. I hadn’t planned on going to bed tonight. I don’t think I could sleep until Scott or Johnny return.”

Victoria nodded in understanding. She couldn’t help but hear snatches of the argument tonight. At one point, it had been all she could do to talk Teresa out of storming downstairs and giving both brothers a piece of her mind. As soon as Scott had left though, Teresa had gone straight to see her guardian. Victoria had remained upstairs with Lily, intent on giving the family the privacy they needed.

“Well, seeing as we’re both awake, won’t you sit down?”

He stoked up the fire and they sat together; Murdoch in his armchair, Victoria on the couch. They made small talk for a few minutes before that petered out into an uncomfortable silence.

Murdoch felt disheartened. He was in no mood for company, no matter how much he would like to converse with the interesting woman who sat near him. All he could think about was what was left of his family. 

Victoria studied Murdoch, saddened to see that the strong, self-assured man was struggling. He looked world-weary and there were dark circles under his eyes, born from the kind of worry only a parent could experience. Should she say something? Ask Murdoch if he needed to talk? She wasn’t entirely sure of her ground with this man and she didn’t want to interfere. Before she could reach a decision, Murdoch made it for her. 

“My family wasn’t always so dysfunctional, you know,” he said with a smile that vanished as quickly as it had come. “Well, actually it was, only these last few years have been so much better; all that I hoped they would be.”

Victoria rose and made her way to the table that held the liquor. Pouring a generous measure of scotch for Murdoch and a smaller one for herself, she returned to where Murdoch sat and offered the glass to him in exchange for the cup. “I think you were right,” she said, “coffee isn’t going to cut it.”

She smiled at him warmly, her brown eyes twinkling and Murdoch couldn’t help but smile back and accept the scotch from her outstretched hand.

“It must be hard,” Victoria began quietly. “Being in the middle of all this.”

Murdoch raised an eyebrow and perused her over the rim of his glass. “You don’t know the half of it.”

“No,” Victoria admitted. “I don’t.”

Murdoch took another sip and tried to ignore the urge to pace the room as he so often did when he felt agitated or confused. Could he talk to Victoria? He so needed someone else’s objective viewpoint because he certainly wasn’t getting far with this on his own.

“I’m here to listen if you would like me to.”

“Am I that transparent?”

“No. Just human.”

Murdoch let out a sigh filled with days’ worth of worry and tension. Staring into the fire, he began to talk. At first, he felt uneasy discussing his family affairs with Victoria, but as he talked, the resistance faded. Little by little, the heavy burden winched from his heart.  

Victoria listened and not once did she interrupt, not even when the things he revealed surprised her. And, Lord, was she surprised.

He told her as much as he could about recent events, mindful not to give away details that would cause unnecessary embarrassment to his sons. Victoria listened in stunned silence.

“So now they’ve both gone off, Lord knows where, and it’s just a big mess,” Murdoch concluded, gulping down the last of the scotch in his glass.

“Oh, Murdoch,” Victoria said, her voice matching his for sadness. “I admit I found some of the things Amber said to be quite questionable, but I had no idea. No wonder Johnny was angry when I heard them arguing on the day she died.”

“You heard them? What did you hear exactly?”

Victoria brought the glass down to her lap. “I had been out with Lily and when I returned to the hotel and got to Amber’s door, I heard raised voices inside; Johnny and Amber. He must have grabbed her or something because she was shouting at him to take his hands from her and he told her no, he said she was going to do what he wanted this time.”

Murdoch sighed. He’d hoped Victoria might have heard more. Anything that could back-up Johnny’s story, for as far as Scott was concerned, and as sad as it made Murdoch, it looked like they needed some sort of proof.

“If I hadn’t overheard what I did, I might have asked more questions when Amber asked me to take Lily to Cross Creek, but at that time, I believed her when she said Lily was in danger.”

“Lily was in danger?”

Victoria sighed. “She said Johnny had threatened her, she said he’d been a killer, who murdered people for money.”

Murdoch got to his feet and slammed his glass down on the table. “I don’t know why I’m even surprised,” he said angrily. “I swear Victoria; I’m beginning to think that every single word that came from that woman’s mouth was a lie!”

Victoria watched Murdoch wrestle to gain control of his anger. She could see the emotions playing across his face and she recognised a father’s protectiveness for his sons. She admired that.

“Johnny is not and never was a murderer. He was a gunfighter, yes, but that part of his life is behind him now. He has never been the kind of man Amber would have you believe.”

“I know that. To be honest Murdoch, it didn’t sit well with me, but I did as asked. When I told Scott what Amber had told me, well, he was the first one to explain how absurd that notion was.”

“Scott explained that?”

“Oh, yes. He said Johnny would never do anything to harm them. He was firm about it.”

Murdoch leaned back in the chair. Well, at least that was something. It gave him a little sliver of hope that Scott hadn’t entirely forgotten who Johnny was and what he was about.

Closing his eyes, Murdoch listened to the crackling of the fire as he replayed the evening’s events. It had been a lot for Scott to take in, he had always known it would be, but he’d not expected Scott to be so adamant in his refusal to believe it, even when presented with a reasoned argument.

“You think you were too hard on him.”

Victoria was watching him intently, her brown eyes filled with nothing but understanding. Could this woman read his mind?

“I just don’t know,” Murdoch said with a shrug. “I may have expected too much too soon.” He paused and shifted position in his chair. “I have two different sons in many respects,” he said reflectively. “Johnny will nearly always listen to what his heart tells him to do. That makes him impulsive and sometimes he doesn’t pause to think when he should. And while Scott will follow his heart too, he is logical, methodical and able to reason things out. Lord knows he’s prevented Johnny and me from killing each other on more than one occasion.” Murdoch smiled. “But when it comes to Amber, several times, neither of my sons has been capable of thinking at all.”

“Oh, I’m sure they were thinking, Murdoch.” Victoria smiled and then turned serious again. “But this is a lot for Scott to take in. Do you think that when he has a chance to consider all that you and Johnny said to him tonight, he’ll start to see things more clearly?”

“I hope so. I just wish that Johnny could have remembered something about that night, remember how he got quite so drunk…”

“Would that make a difference, if he could remember?”

“No, probably not, but it would give us a few more answers and it might give Johnny’s assertion that Amber set him up, a little more credibility in Scott’s eyes.”

“I think you’ve done all you can, Murdoch. You’ve been there for them both, but at the end of the day, that is all you can do. They need to work this out for themselves and I know that’s not easy. A parent always wants to help, and we hate to see our children hurting, especially when we know it doesn’t have to be that way. But our children aren’t children anymore. They’re going to do what they want to do.”

“I bet you haven’t had to deal with anything quite like this with your son though.”

Victoria chuckled. “No, not quite, although he’s had his moments, believe me.”

They lapsed into a comfortable silence. “You have a strong family, Murdoch,” she said quietly.

“Strong-headed more like,” Murdoch grumbled.

Victoria smiled. “Yes, but if there were no loyalties to test, no love to question, if no trust existed, then all this heartache, well, it would not be happening.”

Murdoch looked at her. “Has anyone ever told you, you’re a wise woman?”

Victoria blushed. “Not for a long while,” she said with a laugh. “But I don’t think I’m especially wise. I can, perhaps, see all this from an objective viewpoint, and what I see tells me one thing and one thing only.”

“And that would be?”

“This is not a family to give up on.”

When Scott had walked out of the hacienda, he had been in turmoil; confusion and anger in his heart and mind.

As he rode to Green River, darkness swept its cloak over the evening sky, leaving only the thin crescent of the moon to light the way. He had no idea how long he’d be in town; all he knew was that he couldn’t go home. He wasn’t even sure he considered it home anymore. If it weren’t for Lily, he might not return at all.

Why was he in Green River of all places? Almost everywhere he looked there were reminders of Amber and Johnny – good times and bad. There was the hotel where he had spent so much time with Amber, the dirt street that only the other day, had gobbled the droplets of her spilling blood. A few years ago, the same street had hosted Scott’s only full-on fight with his brother. He touched the scab that had formed down the centre of his lip. Almost every fight he’d ever had with Johnny was over Amber.

Tonight, his father said he’d acted like a child. Scott felt like everyone expected too much from him. They seemed to think he would easily accept the change to Johnny’s story.

You know full well what Amber could do, Scott. You know that she lied on plenty of occasions.

Yes, he knew that Amber could do this, but he didn’t know if she had.

Perhaps if Johnny admitted he’d made a mistake sleeping with her that night, a drunken error of judgement, then maybe, one day, Scott could forgive him. But Johnny wasn’t admitting that, he wasn’t asking for forgiveness. He was claiming that nothing had happened at all, except that he kissed her. Even if that’s all that happened, it was still a betrayal.

I’d made plans with Nancy, that gal from the saloon, so I was expectin’ to be with her. When I woke up, that’s where I thought I was.

If that were true, then why didn’t Johnny say that in the first place?

Scott needed a drink. A distraction from this whole sorry mess. He entered the saloon through one of the swinging doors and removed his hat, raking his fingers through his hair. He did not miss the enquiring looks that came his way, the looks of sympathy, curiosity and downright nosiness.

Once he was sat, drink in hand, he couldn’t help but replay snatches of the conversation from earlier.

I assume that Amber is the only person who has hurt you here, because apparently, Amber is the only one you ever cared about.

How could Murdoch suggest that Scott never cared about Johnny? How many times had he and Johnny sat in this saloon; laughing and joking together and having a good time? Of course, he was going to miss those times – he missed them already.

You seem to find it impossible to believe that Amber could fool Johnny. He had to have planned it all out beforehand with the sole purpose of hurting you.

Scott didn’t even know now if he meant the things he had said to his brother or the accusations he had made. Convincing himself that Johnny must have planned this, must have wanted Amber right from the start, was the only explanation he could come up with to explain Johnny’s actions.

She made a complete fool out of you the first time, this time, an’ even now that she’s dead; you’re still actin’ like one!

Johnny had been blunt. But had he been right? He had been a fool the first time she came to Lancer. Both Johnny and their father seemed certain he was being one now too – the very thing that Scott was trying to avoid.

Hell, I’d be willing to put money on it, that if she hadn’t gotten herself killed, she’d be right here, well on her way to convincing you that even if she had slept with me, it was only to prove how much she loves you.

When Johnny had said that, Scott’s initial reaction had been to scoff. Then he remembered what Amber had said; how she’d only done all this because she loved him, and so he had closed his mouth, suddenly unsure.

How had she managed to get to him so badly? He’d heard that women could get under your skin but this was ridiculous. She had completely fooled him, without any shred of doubt and he had let her do it. Why? Pride; need; his desire to do the right thing for Lily?

Amber had lied to him each time she had intruded into his life. Scott cringed as he considered that she had lain there in his arms, hours after she had been with his brother…again.

How could she have done that and been so nonchalant? Her rationale for switching between him and Johnny the last time was the absence of commitment to either of them. She had wanted ‘fun’ and she got it. But this time she had committed to him. Or so he thought. Did that make a difference? Maybe, she could be nonchalant because she hadn’t done anything with Johnny this time.

Scott twirled the empty glass, poured another drink and downed it.

“Drinkin’ to forget or for medicinal purposes?” Nancy pointed to his split lip and smiled, flicking her blonde hair over her shoulder. She’d heard the rumours; who hadn’t? She didn’t know if Scott had still been in a relationship with the woman that died, but she sure was looking at a man who needed some cheering up. She could do that. She was good at it.

As he reached for the glass, she leaned forward across the table, her low-cut dress providing quite a tantalising sight. “You don’t look like you’re havin’ any fun. I could help with that?”

Scott shook his head and removed his hand from beneath hers. “I don’t think so, Nancy.”

“You remembered my name?” Nancy crossed her legs, her dress riding that little bit higher up her thigh.

Scott let out a short laugh. “I could hardly forget it.”

Nancy noticed the darkness settle over his handsome features, but she remained undeterred. “No brother here with you tonight then?” She knew she’d said the wrong thing when Scott’s expression changed to nothing short of thunderous.

She scooted her chair a little closer. “No matter. I only asked because when I met you both the first time, I got the impression that perhaps you were spoken for.”

Scott stared down at his glass. That was the night he’d told Johnny that he was going to marry Amber.

“Or maybe I’m not your type?” Nancy looked at him with wide brown eyes and twirled a lock of her golden blonde hair around her finger.

Scott looked up. “Do you always ask so many questions?”

Nancy grinned. “Only until I get the answer I want, Scott.”

“So, you remembered my name, too.”

Nancy’s grin turned suggestive as she inched her chair even closer so he could smell her perfume. “Look around you. Believe me, when I see a man who looks as good as you do, I remember his name.”

She placed her hand on Scott’s, her fingertips moving in slow, teasing circles.

Scott laughed. “Trust me, Nancy, I’m a lost cause tonight.” He took another drink.

“Well, now, that’s a darn shame, because I happen to know that spendin’ a night with me is going to take your mind off things a whole lot more than the contents of that bottle.”

They eyed each other for a few moments. Scott recalled remarking to Johnny that Nancy was pretty. He’d recognised the gleam in Johnny’s eye as his brother agreed. She hadn’t tempted him that night because his mind had been on Amber. The thought of Amber being the last woman he had been with, irked him now. He could imagine her smugness if she could see the hold she still had.

“Hey, Nance!” Someone called out from a table at the far side of the room. “Come on over here, gal. Ol’ Wes has somethin’ big ta show ya!”

As the men at the table broke out into raucous laughter, Nancy turned back to Scott and rolled her eyes. “Still think you’re a lost cause?” She got up, smoothing down the flimsy fabric of her dress.

Scott hesitated, hearing Amber’s hateful words in his head: You weren’t exactly offering much in the bedroom department at that time were you? And Johnny, well, he certainly didn’t let any thoughts of you bother him. He was better than I remembered!

Mind made up, Scott smiled. “Actually, I don’t.”

Nancy grinned as Scott took her hand. There were few pleasurable aspects of this job, but for one night only, she had a feeling that was going to change.

In the bed Scott stirred, eyelashes fluttering as the veil of sleep began to lift. Slowly, his sleepy eyes grew accustomed to the dim light of the room and the bare form of a woman in bed beside him. She was lying on her stomach, head turned towards him, face half covered by her long blonde hair, splayed wildly in every direction. This had to be a nightmare. Amber was dead. How could he be in bed with her? Squeezing his eyes shut, Scott tried to wake himself properly. Then, he reached out to brush the hair away from her face. Only then did he let out the breath he’d been holding. He wasn’t having a nightmare. It wasn’t Amber at all, but Nancy.

Sighing with relief, Scott rolled onto his back and stared up at the ceiling. For a moment there, he could have sworn it was Amber. Nancy’s figure was similar and their hair was almost identical.

Look, I was still half asleep and it was dark. I thought it was Nancy.

Johnny’s voice played in his mind and gave him an uneasy, nagging feeling, deep in his gut. Getting to his feet, he quietly dressed before crossing to the window where he peered behind the drapes. The sky had changed from navy blue to light grey while he slept. He hadn’t intended to stay this long.

Pushing the nagging feeling aside, Scott turned to the sleeping woman on the bed. What had he been thinking? Nancy was a lovely girl, and yes, they’d had a good time, but it didn’t make Scott feel better as he thought it would. It didn’t give him a sense of triumph over Johnny or Amber. Instead, he felt numb.

“What time is it?” Nancy murmured.

“It’s morning. I must get home.”

To your daughter?” Nancy asked, dragging herself up to sit.

“Yes.” It seemed everyone knew by now.

“You’d best be off then.”

When he got to the door, she called out. “Told you it would be better than a bottle, didn’t I? Plus, you get to start the day without a hangover. There’s nothing better than having a clear head, first thing in the morning.”

Scott forced a smile. A clear head – how long had it been since he’d had one of those?

Chapter Twenty-Five

Stepping outside, Scott breathed in the early morning chill. He should go home. He needed to be with Lily as he should have been in the first place.  Lily deserved to grow up with love and happiness, not anger and resentment. Likewise, she didn’t deserve a father who didn’t come home at nights, either.

But he just couldn’t think at home.

People were already up and about, but Scott needed somewhere where he could be alone. Seeing that the cantina was opening, Scott headed there, hoping to find some food for breakfast. He had a lot to think about.

Sitting alone at the table as far back in the cantina as he could possibly get, Scott trailed his fork around the plate, doing a great job of moving the eggs, but a bad job of eating.

That uneasy feeling that had possessed him in Nancy’s room robbed him of all appetite and Scott closed his eyes. He had woken up and for the first few moments, he had not realised who he was with. He’d told Johnny that could never happen.

The uneasy feeling grew, only it was turning into something else that wrenched his gut, pushing up toward his chest where it grabbed hold of his heart and shook it.

Pushing the untouched breakfast away, Scott put his elbows on the table and his head in his hands. Johnny had changed his story, yes, but then so had Amber – twice in an even shorter amount of time. First, she had told him that nothing had happened, that Johnny had tried to blackmail her. Johnny would never risk losing everything he loved by doing that. Then she had changed her story – admitted to sleeping with Johnny because she wanted him to leave. Not because she wanted him, but because she wanted him gone. She had also told Victoria that Johnny was threatening her. Another lie. Why had he believed Amber’s second story but not Johnny’s?

Remember how easy it was to blame him then?

How many times has Johnny been willing to do anything for you, for your relationship?  Did you learn nothing from the first time Amber was here?

How are you going to feel if he was once again the victim of Amber’s treachery and your stubborn pride has cost you your brother?

More of Murdoch’s points chiselled into Scott’s mind. He swallowed hard. He could remember how easily he had blamed his brother before, and just how long he had let that go on for, ignoring that little voice inside of him that had grown in persistence and volume as the days went by.

That inner voice – my heart. Well, it hadn’t been wrong back then.

He also remembered just how awful he’d felt when he’d realised what his brother must have been going through, what Amber had accused him of doing that first time. He’d had no idea that Amber was capable of that back then, until that day in the hacienda when Murdoch had told Teresa in front of them all. However, he’d known what she was capable of this time. Was Johnny going through the same thing now as he had back then?

He’s lost everything; me, the ranch, possibly even his life should he go back to being a gunfighter. He’d never risk those things, and especially not for someone as worthless as you!

Scott recalled how much he had believed those words when he’d spoken them. Johnny had always maintained Amber meant nothing to him. Unlike Scott, Johnny had only ever seen it as the ‘fun’ Amber insisted it was. Not once had Johnny claimed she meant anything to him, not back then, and certainly not since her return.

A sickly feeling crept over him and Scott opened his eyes with a start. He needed to speak to his brother, if he still had one.

Scott got to his feet, looked towards the door, and froze.

It was not exactly a comfortable bed, but then he’d slept on worse. He rubbed wearily at his eyes, sat up, and noticed he had more of his ‘bed’ on him than the other way around. Brushing the hay from his clothes, Johnny tried to get up, only for his muscles to remind him that they were still supposed to be recovering and did not appreciate a night on the damp ground.

Oh, he could just hear Sam, Murdoch and Jelly now, if any of them knew that he’d spent the night sleeping here. They’d be furious, and Johnny was relieved they had no way of finding out.

A tug on his head made him look up. Barranca, having stuck his head through the wooden fencing, abandoned Johnny’s hair in favour of his face, which he nuzzled at gently.

Johnny screwed up his nose and playfully swatted the horse away, getting to his feet and ducking through the gap in the fencing until he was inside the stall with Barranca. Between him and Jelly, they had been keeping a close eye on the horse; watching for any signs of lameness or discomfort, which could signal an infection brewing. So far, Barranca had shown none of these signs. Just to be safe, Johnny intended to keep soaking the hoof daily, packing and wrapping it again.

“We’ll have you home in no time,” Johnny promised the horse in a whisper before he stopped to consider the reality of those words. Did he even want Lancer to be home anymore? Wasn’t a home somewhere where you should feel respected and loved, not somewhere you were accused of things you hadn’t done. Just who the hell did Scott think he was?

As Johnny stood beside his horse, his mind flashed back to the part of the conversation he had overheard between his father and brother.

How are you going to feel if somewhere down the line you find out that Johnny was innocent this time, too? That he was once again the victim of Amber’s treachery and your own stubborn pride has cost you your brother?

Johnny had waited expectantly to hear Scott’s answer. When it had come, he had felt his heart sink in his chest. I don’t know. All right, so he had amended it a minute later to something else, but only when Murdoch had pulled him up on it.

Scott was so adamant that he wasn’t acting like a fool, but he seemed to expect Johnny to be his. Well, Johnny was not going to play that part for anyone. Especially not for a man who only wanted a brother when it suited him.

Maybe he’d overrated this whole brother thing anyway. Perhaps it had always meant more to Johnny than it had ever meant to Scott, ever meant to anyone who had a brother. Which ultimately made Johnny wonder if confessing had been worthwhile at all? Maybe, he should’ve stood back and watched Scott struggle along in a marriage with a bitch who was permanently on heat?

Johnny let out a weary, frustrated sigh and drew his arms up across his chest, rubbing absentmindedly at his biceps through his shirt. He knew he couldn’t have done that. Maybe he was a fool after all.

The loud rumbling of his stomach reminded him that he hadn’t eaten in almost twenty-four hours. If he collapsed again, then Scott was going to be the least of his problems. His father and Sam would no doubt tie him to his bed and force-feed him as they had threatened to do in the past.

Assuring Barranca that when he returned, he would see to him properly, Johnny walked out of the livery and turned down the street, headed for the cantina. When he pushed open the door and stepped inside, his eyes went straight to the last person he wanted to see.

Scott froze when Johnny jumped from his thoughts into the doorway. The look in Johnny’s blue eyes left Scott paralysed. Those eyes Scott had got quite adept at reading over the past few years, were now blank and unyielding.

Without a word, Johnny walked straight back out, not wanting to see or speak to Scott at all. He cursed himself for not being more observant this morning, for not noticing Scott’s horse.

When Scott called out to him, Johnny rolled his eyes, sensing another Lancer, middle-of-the-street brawl coming up. He walked back to the livery, hoping that Scott would just give it up, but a minute later, he heard footsteps. Johnny stood by Barranca and waited for Scott to appear.

“Johnny!” Scott needed to talk to his brother; he needed to tell him that he knew now he’d made a mistake. 

When he saw Johnny with Barranca, Scott realised he hadn’t even noticed the golden horse in the livery last night.

“What d’ya want, Scott?”

Johnny’s voice was frosty and Scott jerked his gaze from the horse to his brother.

“I was hoping we could talk.”

“I ain’t interested in talkin’ to you.”

“This is important. I’ve been thinking and-”

Johnny snorted. “Well, what d’ya know,” he said sarcastically. “Scott Lancer’s been thinking.” With a shake of his head, Johnny turned his attention back to Barranca.

“I have, and I need to talk to you.”

Johnny whirled back around. “Scott, I know that listenin’ ain’t your strong point, so you can read my lips if it helps. I don’t want to talk to you. I have nothin’ to say to you and you have nothin’ to say that I’m interested in hearing. Just get the hell outta here.”

Scott felt the palms of his hands getting sweaty as the sick feeling in his gut returned. With a deep breath of courage, he looked his brother in the eye. “No.”

Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “Scott, you’re pushin’.”

“I know, but I need to push because you must hear me out. Please?”

Johnny let out a deep, noisy sigh. He wanted to tell his brother that he didn’t care if this was important to him. When it had been important for Scott to listen to him, Scott wouldn’t give him the time of day. So why should he give Scott any more consideration? He wanted to tell Scott to go away, that it was too late for talking, too late for anything. But he couldn’t. For the first time since that fateful morning, Scott didn’t look angry, and Johnny couldn’t deny that this meant something to him. Scott looked tired and there was earnestness to his voice that was impossible to ignore, as much as Johnny wanted to do just that. 

“I need to see to Barranca. If you want to talk, then you wait till I’ve finished. That means you stand there and keep your mouth shut. Think you can manage that?”

When Johnny turned back to Barranca, Scott sank onto the damp ground, watching his brother care for the horse. If he was honest, he hadn’t spared a single thought for Barranca, or for how worried Johnny must have been. He remembered what Johnny had said to Jelly that day in the barn, about how Barranca had a splinter in the hoof. Scott recalled the pleading note in his brother’s voice when he asked Jelly to be there for the animal. Closing his eyes, Scott replayed the moment of Amber’s carelessness on the bridge, which had resulted in Barranca losing his balance.

“Is he going to be all right?”

Johnny rolled his eyes when Scott spoke. So much for keeping his mouth shut. Johnny peered around Barranca and glared at his brother. “Yeah, I hope so. Just another thing I have to thank Amber for. Unless of course you think that I had something to do with this, too. Planned it all out, that I had some way of knowing that Amber would be lookin’ for a horse to steal.”

Scott shook his head. “No, I don’t think that,” he said with a sigh.

They lapsed into a strained silence and Scott wondered how to begin their conversation and how it would go. Even now, Scott didn’t have all the answers. The difference was that he realised Johnny didn’t have all of them either. They had to accept that they never would.

While Scott stayed quiet, Johnny tried to focus on the job at hand, only his mind kept straying over all that had happened, all that was said. He had little confidence that Scott had come around to comprehending exactly what Amber had done. Scott had fought too hard, resisted believing so much, that Johnny had given up hope.

Johnny gave the horse one last pat. If good fortune held, in a few days Barranca would be able to come home. That prospect caused him to glance in his brother’s direction as he pondered his earlier question. Did he want Lancer to be home anymore?

“I’m done.” Johnny walked out from behind Barranca and reached for his hat.

Scott brushed down his clothes. “Maybe here isn’t the most appropriate place for this conversation,” he said tentatively. “Are you heading home now?”

Johnny shrugged. “I guess so.” 

They rode out of Green River, side by side, but never less so. Unspoken words floated in the air between them, waiting for Scott to grab them. But he wasn’t sure which ones to seize first. As they got a little further out of town, and a little closer to home, Scott nudged his horse off the road and into a grassy clearing.

Johnny watched him leave the road and he knew Scott was going to go ahead and insist on talking. With a roll of his eyes, Johnny followed his brother. Although he too got out of the saddle, he didn’t approach Scott. Instead, he leaned against the horse, ready to leave if they were about to have the same one-sided conversation that Scott only seemed capable of lately.  

Selecting the trunk of a large, fallen tree to sit on, Scott looked over at his brother. “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, trying to make sense of all of this.”


“I’ve thought about what you and Murdoch said to me yesterday, the things Amber said, and some other things too, and I’ve realised that you were right, Johnny. I know I’ve been a fool where Amber was concerned – I knew that from the moment you told me what had happened, although it isn’t an easy thing for me to admit.”

Scott paused and studied his brother, but Johnny’s face was expressionless; his eyes fixed on the horse. Scott knew he was listening.

“I’m sorry, Johnny. I’m sorry I refused to listen or believe you when you told me that Amber lied, I just didn’t want to be a fool again. I didn’t want to risk it-“

“You didn’t want to risk being a fool?” Johnny exploded, stepping away from the startled horse and glowering at his brother. “But you care you were risking losing me? I was right yesterday, wasn’t I? I do mean that little to you.”

Scott shook his head. “No,” he protested. “I just didn’t know what else to do. I wanted to believe you, just as I’d wanted to believe Amber when she returned. I made a decision to give her another chance, to trust her, and you and Murdoch, you made me justify my decision repeatedly. I did what my heart was telling me to do then, Johnny, and look where it got me. It left me with no confidence in my own instincts, can’t you understand that?”

Johnny folded his arms and stared at Scott. “Fact is Scott, I’m not like Amber. I never gave you reason to believe I was. Not once. Only it didn’t matter to you what kind of a person I am, or what kind of person Amber was. You went out your way to make excuses for her, but you weren’t even prepared to listen to what I had to say.”

Scott got up. “I never made excuses for her,” he denied vehemently. “I was just as angry with her as I was with you.”

“Yet you gave her a chance to tell you her version of the truth, didn’t you?” Johnny accused. “What did she say? Did she say it was me who was after her the whole time?”

Scott sighed and returned to his uncomfortable seat. “She implied that, yes.”

“And you believed that, even though she’d told the same lie before.”

Scott stared down at his boots. “No, I didn’t believe her, exactly. She said that nothing had happened, which I didn’t believe for a minute-“

“You refused to believe that?” Johnny asked incredulously. “Why Scott? Were you so convinced that I wanted to ruin your life?”

 “It wasn’t like that,” Scott said awkwardly, looking back up. “You confessed!”

He sighed. “First, she said that you blackmailed her, that you wanted to get your revenge by forcing her to leave, so you threatened to tell me that you’d slept together. I didn’t believe that. I know you couldn’t blackmail her.”

“Couldn’t because I ain’t that stupid, or wouldn’t ‘cause I’m your brother?”

Scott looked at the ground. “I didn’t think you’d be that stupid,” he admitted sadly. “I knew what you’d lost by telling me what you did.”

Johnny shook his head and tried to keep a tight lid on his anger. “So, then she changed her story?”

“Yes. She then admitted to sleeping with you. She told me that she’d done it so that we could be happy, because she loved me.”

Johnny snorted. “And you chose to believe that version. You know something, Scott? Fool doesn’t nearly cover it.”

Scott jerked his head back up and glared indignantly at Johnny. “You’re the one who believed that you’d had sex with her. Don’t make out she never fooled you, Johnny!”

Johnny scowled. “Yeah, she fooled me, but only because when a woman wakes you up doing what she was doing, you got no reason to believe there wasn’t more to it, especially when you can’t remember anything after a few drinks the night before. I wasn’t thinkin’ straight after that because all I could think about was how I’d betrayed you!” He jabbed his finger in Scott’s direction.

“Oh, and I was supposed to be thinking straight?” Scott asked angrily, standing up and advancing towards his brother. “Do you think any of this has been easy for me? Do you think that I wanted any of this to happen, that I wanted to be so angry at you?”

“Yeah, I do,” Johnny asserted, his blue eyes flashing with temper. “I think you wanted to stay angry at me. That’s why you refused to listen. All those things you accused me of – being two-faced and a stabbing you in the back, it just seemed that everything you’d always felt about me came tumbling out.”

“That’s not true!” Scott’s voice rose. “I never thought for a second that you would sleep with her behind my back, but you told me that you did. You said that you’d betrayed me, you made me reassess everything that I thought I knew about my brother.”

“Oh, come on. It wasn’t that big a leap for you was it – to think that ‘bout me? This is exactly what you accused me of doing the first time she was here. Going with her just to spite you, even though I never knew ‘bout you and her, because you lied to me.  You told me you weren’t interested in her!”

“I apologised for that. I admitted I was wrong then, just like I’m admitting I’ve been wrong this time. Didn’t you expect me to be angry when you confessed, and then when you retracted that confession as she lay dying in Sam’s office?”

Johnny sighed and sat on the trunk of the tree, removed his hat and rotated it slowly in his hands. “Yeah, I expected you to be angry, Scott. I expected you to hate me even. I hated myself when Amber told me what we’d done.  I understood then why you didn’t want me as your brother, I didn’t think I deserved to be. I even told myself that it was just a natural reaction on your part – thinking that I’d planned it, that I’d wanted Amber all along. And I know that I shoulda waited before trying to tell you that Amber had confessed to lying. That was my fault. But you’re the one who kept hounding me for answers you were determined not to believe.”

He raised his head and looked Scott in the eye. “You didn’t want to believe me, Scott. You’d made your mind up that I was guilty, not just of sleeping with her, but of being so selfish that I’d use her death to my advantage. If I’d wanted to make up a lie to get out of what I’d done, I’d never have told you in the first place. You’d be plannin’ your wedding to her now, being none the wiser ‘bout exactly what kind of twisted bitch you were taking as your wife.”

Scott looked away. “I know, I realise that now.” He switched his gaze back to Johnny. “But for what it’s worth, I’m thankful you did tell me.”

Johnny smiled wryly. “Yeah, I’m thankful too,” he said honestly. “Though a part of me wishes I hadn’t.”

Scott sat next to his brother. “Because you think I deserve all I would have got,” he said bluntly. 

“No,” Johnny said softly. “Because then I’d still have my brother.”

Scott swallowed hard. “Johnny, I-“

“You hurt me, Scott.”

Scott searched for the right words to formulate an apology, but couldn’t find any that were good enough, any that would change all that had happened. After a few moments of silence, Scott answered solemnly, “I know.”

Johnny walked a few paces away. “I’ve been trying to work out what this brother business means,” he said slowly.  “Whether it means that you let a brother get away with stuff that you’d never let anyone else get away with.” Johnny turned and looked directly at Scott. “D’ya reckon it does?”

 Scott looked uncomfortable. He couldn’t quite think how to answer the question.

Johnny shook his head and shrugged. “If it does, then I ain’t sure that sits right with me.”

“Johnny, I’ve never been sorrier for anything in my life,” Scott said desperately, as he walked over to where his brother stood. “I can’t ever take back the things I said, but I will always regret saying them. I was acting out of my own hurt, because after you confessed, I felt the same way you do now. I know that’s not an excuse, it doesn’t justify the way I’ve treated you, the accusations I’ve made, but it’s the only explanation that I have. I’ll understand if you can’t forgive me, but you are my brother, the only one I’ve got, and despite my behaviour to the contrary, you are important to me. I lost sight of that not once, but twice, but I swear to you it won’t happen again.”

Scott tried to read his brother’s eyes only to find that he couldn’t. He wondered sadly if Johnny would ever let him read them again.

Johnny returned Scott’s gaze. If anyone else had hurt him like this, then Johnny knew with certainty that he would walk away, but Scott wasn’t just anyone, and he was hurting too. 

After a few agonizingly slow minutes, Johnny’s voice broke the silence. “Amber sure did her best to destroy us, Scott.” 


“She almost got away with it too.”

Scott raised his eyebrows. “Almost?” he asked tentatively.

Johnny hesitated. It was a big ‘almost’. It was going to take time for them to get past this. As he stared at Scott, Johnny sensed that his brother knew this too. Tilting his head, Johnny’s lips formed a faint smile. “That’s what I said,” he replied quietly.

Chapter Twenty-Six

Murdoch rose later than his usual habit dictated and was cross with himself for doing so. Still, he did feel better for getting some sleep. He had his conversation with Victoria to thank for that.

After getting out of bed, Murdoch began his morning routine. He was standing in front of the mirror shaving, when he heard the faint squeak of the door’s hinges. Pausing, the razor hovering in mid-air, Murdoch turned and met the curious, wide eyes of his little granddaughter.

“Good morning,” Murdoch said warmly, placing the razor down by the basin of water and reaching for a towel.

When Lily didn’t move or say anything, one hand gripping the wooden edge of the door. Murdoch crouched to her level. Smiling, he said, “Are you going to just stand by the door or are you going to come in?”

Lily appeared to consider this before she took a few cautious steps forward, her eyes taking in this unexplored territory. Murdoch didn’t move, waiting patiently for the child to assess her surroundings. When she came closer, his smile grew.

Lily returned the smile, her blue-grey eyes growing owlishly large as she took in the sight of Murdoch’s partially lathered face. Walking up to him, she reached out and squished the tip of her finger against his cheek. When she drew back her finger, she examined the white froth critically and her little nose wrinkled in confusion.

Murdoch chuckled and wiped at his face with a towel before offering it to Lily. “I was shaving,” he explained. “Men have to do that otherwise they get all hairy.”

Lily giggled and copied Murdoch by wiping the lather from her fingertips on the towel. Victoria appeared in the doorway, her face flushing when she realised Lily had disturbed Murdoch.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she said hurriedly. “Lily, come on, let Grandpa finish getting ready.”

Murdoch chuckled again and scooped the little girl up into his arms. “It’s all right Victoria,” he said fondly. “It’s nice to know that Lily wants to spend some time with her old Grandpa. You go on down for breakfast, I’ll bring Lily along.”

Once Victoria was gone, Murdoch set Lily on the floor. He felt guilty over his initial denial that the child could ever be a Lancer. He had known she was as soon as he’d laid eyes on her. While she may not look like a Lancer as such, she certainly looked like a Garrett.

“I want Daddy.”

Lily’s voice tore Murdoch from the road of reminiscence he was about to embark on, catapulting him straight back on to the road he seemed forced to travel – the road to who knew where. 

“You’ll see daddy, soon,” Murdoch reassured, wondering if either of his sons had returned home.

Lily’s expression turned worried and Murdoch could guess what she was thinking. She was wondering if Scott was gone, just like Amber.

“Come on, let’s go and eat,” Murdoch said brightly, taking her hand. “Then when you see daddy, you can tell him that you ate all your breakfast like a good girl.”

That had been hours ago now and still neither of his sons had come home. Every annoying tick of the clock in the great room did nothing to improve Murdoch’s darkening disposition or ease his increasingly troubled mind. Last night it had helped to talk with someone who was not directly involved, and he had meant it when he told Victoria he found her to be wise. A small smile graced Murdoch’s lips when he thought of her. Being wise was not her only attribute; she had a lovely smile and the way her eyes twinkled…

Murdoch snapped himself out of that way of thinking with a loud huff. Their talk had helped him until this morning’s discovery that neither of his sons had come home overnight.

As he paced the great room, his mind alternated between increasing worry and downright annoyance. Where had they gone? Had they killed each other?

Victoria had said that he needed to take a step back now, that neither of them were children and they had to do what they wanted to do. Murdoch knew she was right in theory, but putting it into practice was going to be the hard part. The annoyance and worry in his heart and mind reminded him of that.

He crossed to his desk and sat down in the chair, determined not to waste the day. He was going to do as the wise woman recommended. He was going to let them get on with it. Murdoch shifted position. Well, he’d give them just a little longer, then he was going to heed the words of another wise, albeit younger woman, and simply knock their heads together.

He had just immersed himself in paperwork when the door opened and Murdoch looked up to see a rather sheepish looking Scott standing hesitantly in the foyer.

Just as Murdoch was deciding what to say to his elder son, somebody else appeared through the doorway and Murdoch let the papers he was holding flutter silently to the floor.

He tried not to get his hopes up when he saw his sons standing together. It had only been a few seconds; there was still time for the fists and insults to fly.

“You both came home then,” he remarked, reaching down to retrieve the fallen papers and placing them back on the desk.

He scanned them both for signs of injury, but apart from the day-old scab on Scott’s bottom lip, they seemed free of any new battle scars. They both looked tired; neither could have got much sleep; dark circles underlined each pair of blue eyes.

Satisfied there had been no physical confrontation between his sons, Murdoch folded his arms and continued to survey them both. “Can I take it there has been some talking?”

Scott cast a quick, cautious glance at Johnny before he replied, seemingly for them both, “We made a start.”

“I’m glad to hear it. I’m sure if you both go into the kitchen, Maria will be more than happy to fix you something to eat. Then the pair of you look like you could do with some rest.” He looked specifically at Johnny and shook his head.

“Where’s Lily?” Scott asked, feeling guilty for staying away.

“Upstairs with Victoria. She’s been fine, Scott, although she was asking for you.”

They both disappeared then; Scott upstairs and Johnny into the kitchen. Sinking down into the moulded comfort of his chair, Murdoch leant back and scratched his now smooth chin. He wanted to know exactly what they’d talked about. He would talk to them later and see what they had to say.

Later found Scott wandering into the great room, the fire sending shadows dancing across the still form of his father. 

It had been an excessively long and wearing day and although Scott felt very tired, he knew he couldn’t avoid speaking with his father forever. He had spent all afternoon with Lily, trying desperately to make up for his overnight absence. He had sworn to himself that never again would he put himself in the position where he felt guilty for not being there for his daughter. Lily needed him, just like she needed them all, and Scott knew he owed it to her to be there every step of the way.

Although the hour was not excessively late, it was dark out and Scott had not missed the fact that his entire family, including Victoria, had tactfully retired early.

“I thought you’d gone to bed.”

Murdoch was in his armchair with his eyes closed, his customary evening glass of scotch clasped in his hands.

Scott paused, suddenly uncomfortable in his father’s presence. Only twenty-four hours before, this room bore witness to that rather heated discussion, and Scott shuddered to think of the angry accusations that he had flung at his brother.

“I will be shortly.”

Scott’s voice was quiet and Murdoch noticed that he was standing awkwardly, unsure if he wanted to be in the room at all.

“Are you going to stand there and say nothing, or are you going to get a drink and sit down?”

Without a word, Scott poured a brandy and walked over to join his father, sitting on the couch and eyeing him nervously; another feeling that he had rarely experienced where Murdoch was concerned before Amber’s arrival in their lives.

Murdoch took a sip of scotch. Judging by the expression on Scott’s face, he was expecting some sort of outburst, but Murdoch did not intend to let one out. However, he did want to talk. He wanted to know more about what had gone on earlier in the day and he hoped that Scott would feel inclined to tell him. He wanted to talk to Johnny too, but he had gone to bed soon after they had come home and when Murdoch had looked in on him earlier, he had been fast asleep.

Resting his glass on his lap, Murdoch looked at Scott. “So, we’ve got through one day here without you and Johnny arguing. I’m assuming, therefore, that it was a promising start, the two of you made?”

“I think so. At least I hope so.”

“Are you going to tell me about it?”

Scott sighed. “I did a lot of thinking last night after I left here, and again this morning. And well, to cut a long story short, I finally started to see things for how they are. I talked to Johnny. We had rather a…frank discussion.” Scott kept his eyes firmly on the glass in his hands.

“Go on,” Murdoch prompted.

“I apologised to him, for the things I said, the accusations I made…” Scott’s voice faded and he swallowed, casting another nervous glance at his father. “I tried to explain how I was feeling, what possessed me to say the things I said. I should have realised straight away that Amber would do something like this. I should have seen how much of a problem Johnny was for her and the lengths she would go to get rid of him from our…from my life.”

“And she almost succeeded,” Murdoch pointed out.

“That’s what Johnny said. He said she almost destroyed us.” Scott looked across to the fire. “And that’s true,” he said softly. “But she died and I let it continue. I’m the one who almost destroyed us and I don’t know what I can do to make that right.”

“That’s simple,” Murdoch said brusquely. “Don’t do it again.”

When Scott looked up, Murdoch continued. “The one thing that amazed me the most about the pair of you is the bond you formed. I’d always hoped that you would get along, but I never quite expected you to become so close. I always wanted that, longed for it, but I never honestly expected it to happen. You both come from such different backgrounds, your life experiences have been almost the opposite of each other, but you did it. And you almost threw that away, Scott.”

“I know.”

“I hope that you do,” Murdoch said firmly. “Because this is the last chance you’re going to get. You won’t deserve another.”

“I’m not sure I deserve this one,” Scott whispered. 

Murdoch exhaled slowly. “Oh, Scott, yes you do. While I struggle to fathom your reasons for all the things you said to your brother, I do understand why you were so angry and why you focused your anger on Johnny. It is much easier to be angry at someone who is here, someone who you can visibly hurt, rather than someone who is not.”  

The two men sat in silence for a few moments, each thinking of their own experiences and their own regrets.

“I still don’t know how I feel about Amber,” Scott confessed quietly. “I want to hate her, I should hate her for all she did, but there’s a small part of me that just can’t. And I hate that, Murdoch. I hate that most of all.”

Murdoch sighed. He could see the confusion and frustration written clearly on his son’s face and it was an expression that had stared back at Murdoch from the mirror enough times in the past. Bringing the glass to his lips, Murdoch drank the last of his scotch and snuggled into his chair. “You know, when Johnny’s mother left, I wanted to hate her. I wanted to hate her for walking out on me, for taking Johnny away from his home and denying me the chance to be in his life. For a while I kidded myself that hate was the only feeling I had for her, but it wasn’t true and deep down inside I knew it. You have every reason to hate Amber, son. She hurt you badly, she lied to you and she has helped to do serious damage to the relationship you have with your brother. But you cared about her. Those feelings don’t just vanish, no matter how much you wish they would. If you try to deny those feelings ever existed, then the only person you’ll end up punishing is yourself.”

Scott followed his father’s example and leaned into the couch, extending his long legs. As he stared into the flickering flames, he voiced aloud the questions that plagued him. “Why did she do it, Murdoch? Amber said that she loved me. I was going to marry her. Why wasn’t that enough?”

Murdoch shook his head. “I honestly don’t know. We’ll never know, but I do think that even if she hadn’t died, she would have never have answered those questions for you. I doubt if she even knew the answers herself. You just need to accept that things turned out the way they did, acknowledge that you had feelings for the woman, and try to move on.”

Scott shot his father a smile. “That easy?”

Murdoch smiled back. “No, not easy. Necessary.”

Scott drew his legs back in, placed his glass down on the floor and put his hands up to his face, rubbing at his cheeks. “This whole episode has been a nightmare, except for Lily.”

Murdoch couldn’t agree more. “But it’s a nightmare that is over now,” he said positively. “Now you work on putting your relationship with Johnny back on track. That is going to take time, but if it’s worth it, then you’ll have to be patient.”

“It’s worth it.”

Murdoch smiled when he heard his son reaffirm that. “Good. Now there’s one more thing before we can start to move forward.”

Scott raised his eyebrows curiously.

“Amber’s things. They need sorting out. I’m sure that Victoria and Teresa will do that for you if you like.”

Scott nodded. After that, perhaps, they could do as Murdoch suggested and start to rebuild their future.

When Johnny woke up, it was morning. Judging by the light coming through his window and the sounds audible from downstairs and outside his room, it was breakfast time and everyone was out of bed. He yawned and rubbed the lingering sleep from his eyes. During brief periods of wakefulness in the night, he had thought about Scott and the conversation they’d had on the way home. It had been necessary if they were to stand any chance of getting past this. Johnny had listened to Scott’s explanation and thought he could understand at least some of it. Still, Amber had almost destroyed them and it was going to take time to get past that, and to look at Scott in the same way as he always had before.

Johnny got dressed. Not since the early days when they had been mere strangers linked by blood, had Johnny ever had to think about how he should act around Scott. When they’d fallen out over Amber the first time, well, that had been simple, they just hadn’t spoken at all. And by the time they had sorted things out, they’d both been more than ready to.

Opening the door to his room, Johnny stepped out into the hallway. He couldn’t rehearse this; there were no lines to learn. They had to start rebuilding what they had lost and the only way to do that was to be honest and give it a chance.

When Johnny walked into the kitchen, his family were already there. They all looked up as he entered. “Mornin’,” Johnny said as he slipped into his seat, only to feel the warmth of Maria’s beaming smile as she laid a plentiful plate down in front of him.

A collective, “Good morning,” came as the response and Johnny met Scott’s eyes across the table. He managed a nod at his brother before starting on his breakfast.

Murdoch sat at the head of the table and his gaze travelled around the faces of his family and Victoria as they chatted amicably. He would be lying if he said that the air was completely devoid of tension, but in comparison to the atmosphere they had all experienced recently, this was truly a breath of fresh air. In fact, if it wasn’t for the knowledge that there was still a long way to go before things returned to normal, or whatever new kind of normal would derive from Amber’s legacy, Murdoch’s heart would have swelled with pride and joy at the relaxed family scene.

Scott was eating his breakfast with Lily perched on his lap. The little girl, not impressed by her porridge, put the spoon down on the table and began eating Scott’s breakfast instead.

Looking to Teresa, Murdoch noticed that she looked happy for the first time in ages, although every so often she would sneak a look at her brothers.

Then there was Victoria. Sitting at the end of the table beside Johnny, Murdoch realised how naturally she fit into this picture. Glancing back at Lily, Murdoch wondered how long Victoria would be around. He figured that decision would be Scott’s to make, but he was sure that his son would not be in a hurry to remove the woman who had formed a special bond with his daughter, especially not so soon after she had lost her mother.

Murdoch’s eyes came to rest on Johnny and he studied his younger son carefully, noting that the dark circles had faded, and the faintest sparkle of energy had returned to those blue eyes. As much as that pleased Murdoch, it worried him too, knowing he faced an uphill battle to prevent Johnny from declaring himself one hundred percent fit and well before throwing himself back into some strenuous chore.

“How are you feeling this morning, son? Better after some rest?”

Johnny looked up. “Yeah, I’m feeling better.” 

“Are you sure? Maybe it might be a good idea to see Sam just to-” 

“Murdoch, I’m fine. I was just tired,” Johnny assured, with more than a little impatience.

Murdoch speared the fork into his eggs and just when Johnny thought the subject dropped, Murdoch’s fork came to a stop mid-way between plate and mouth. “I guess that’s what happens when you don’t get a good night’s sleep in a proper bed, especially given the fact that you’re supposed to be recovering. How is Barranca by the way?” A grin tugged at Murdoch’s lips.

Johnny summoned his most innocent smile to combat Murdoch’s astuteness. “Barranca’s okay. If he carries on the way he is, then he’ll be able to make the trip home in a few days.”

Murdoch chewed his food and then smiled. “That’s real good to hear, son,” he said warmly, interrupted by the youngest, but not the quietest voice at the table.

“I wanna see Ranca!”

All eyes turned to Lily and Johnny smiled at her. “Yeah? You’ve missed him, huh?”

Lily nodded.

“Well, he told me he’s missed you too,” Johnny said seriously. “And when he’s all better and I bring him home, you’re the first person he’ll wanna see.”

That brought a sunny smile to Lily’s face and Scott saw his opportunity and seized it. “Of course, that means you’ll have to be good and eat your breakfast properly, using the spoon,” he said, picking up the discarded utensil and handing it to her.

Lily took the spoon eagerly and plunged it into the bowl only to remove it with equally as much vigour, sending a parcel of porridge sailing over her shoulder to splatter Scott in the chest.

The family had to try desperately hard not to send little food parcels of their own across the table as they choked on a mixture of food and laughter. Only Scott didn’t laugh, staring down in dismay at his shirt, while Lily, thoroughly encouraged by everyone’s reaction, put her hand to her mouth as she turned to look at Scott with wide, innocent eyes, her fingers doing little to stifle her giggles.

“Is it even worth getting changed?” Scott muttered forlornly.

The rest of the morning passed by quickly. Scott spent time with Lily and Johnny went into town to see to Barranca. Although there was a considerable amount of work, it would wait. Murdoch recognised the well-being of his family as more important. They would get back into a routine again soon enough, only things would always be slightly different now with the welcome, but demanding addition of Lily to their family. This thought brought Murdoch to contemplate Victoria’s future with them once again and he made up his mind to speak to Scott about that later. Of course, it would depend if Victoria wanted to stay and Murdoch found himself hoping that she would.

The afternoon found Victoria and Teresa staring down at the collection of Amber’s belongings. No matter how depressing, this was simply a task that needed doing. Rolling up their sleeves, they got down to their knees on the polished wooden floor, exchanging looks that told each other they viewed this in much the same way.  As they sorted through the clothes, they found it hard not to think about the woman who had worn them, the woman who had been alive just a few short days ago.

“What are you going to do with all these dresses? Some of them look expensive.”

Teresa sighed. “I’ll give them away. The women’s church committee is always collecting things for those less fortunate.”

They fell into silence and Teresa fought the overwhelming urge to cry, mainly because she didn’t know what she would be crying about. It seemed as if Amber was in the room, as if each woman’s memories were summoning her presence.

“This is awful,” Teresa confessed, breaking the silence with her whispered words.

Victoria nodded grimly.

“I remember when I did this for my father, I could barely see for the tears. Everything smelt of him, it brought back so many memories…”

Victoria folded Amber’s dress in her lap. “I had to do the same when my husband passed away. I couldn’t see for the tears either.”

“When did you lose your husband?”

Victoria’s eyes clouded with sadness and immediately Teresa flushed. “Oh, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be so nosy. It’s really none of my business, I-”

“No, Teresa, it’s all right,” Victoria assured her. “I lost him a long time ago, over twenty-five years now.”

“Do you still miss him?”

Victoria looked wistful. “Yes, sometimes. I miss his company, his laughter. It’s the little things, the ordinary things. But I’ve learned to live with it over the years and it gets easier as time goes on.” 

“And you’ve never considered marrying again?”

Victoria laughed lightly. “No. I never found a man who made me feel the way William did and I think it’s a little too late for all that now.”

Teresa shook her head. “I don’t think so,” she said brightly. “I don’t think it’s ever too late to stop being alone and to fall in love.” 

Victoria smiled at Teresa’s attitude. “You may be right,” she said fondly.

“Take Murdoch for example,” Teresa said boldly. “He never found anyone after Johnny’s mother either, but I know he’d like too. It’s just a case of waiting to meet the right person, isn’t it?”

“Yes, I suppose it is,” Victoria said coyly before her expression turned serious. “Come on, let’s get on with this.”

Before the darker mood settled over the two women again, Teresa allowed herself a small smile. The hacienda had certainly been short of happiness lately and it wouldn’t hurt to lure a little to their home, should both parties be willing. She had a suspicion that they might be, with a little gentle prodding of course.

Victoria removed a polished wooden box from the valise and opened it up. Inside was a wedge of dollar bills, neatly folded. Victoria pulled the bills out and handed them to Teresa. “I don’t know what you wish to do with this.”

Teresa looked at the money and gave a small shrug. “I suppose Scott will have to deal with that side of Amber’s affairs,” she said. “Amber must have a bank account somewhere too.”

“I expect so,” Victoria said quietly. Going back to the wooden box, Victoria pulled out a necklace and held that up for Teresa to see. “What about these?” she asked. “They are beautiful; something for Lily to have when she’s older?”

“I think that is a wonderful idea,” Teresa agreed and then her face fell. “It’s just so sad, Victoria. So sad that all Lily is going to have of her mother is a string of pearls.”

Victoria leaned over and placed a comforting hand on Teresa’s arm. “There’ll be other things too,” she said reassuringly. “Lily can have your memories, the good ones,” she added quickly when Teresa opened her mouth to speak. “There must be some good ones?”

Teresa considered this. “Yes, I suppose there are. It’s just hard to remember those after all that she did…I don’t think I’ll ever understand my cousin. I sometimes blame myself. She was my cousin. I invited her here originally and she caused enough trouble then. But this time, all the trouble she caused between Scott and Johnny. How could she do that? How could she make Johnny think he’d betrayed Scott in that way?”

“I don’t know, Teresa, but as I said to Murdoch, you have a strong family here and time is a great healer. You’ll get past this.”

“Yes,” Teresa said with renewed optimism. “We will.”

They returned to their task and finished sorting through the clothes until only those miscellaneous items remained. Flipping open the lid of the vanity case, Victoria looked at the bottles contained within. “Do you want any of these, Teresa?” she asked as she removed the various bottles one by one. 

“What’s in there?”

“There’s some shampoo, some kind of face cream and a bottle of…sleeping aid,” Victoria said slowly as she held the brown bottle up in front of her and read the label.

“No, I don’t think I’d want any of those. It would feel too peculiar,” Teresa said with a shiver. “I think the best thing to do is just to throw those away.”

“Hmmm,” Victoria said absently as she held the brown bottle in her hands, a memory of a conversation stirring within her mind.

Do you think she’ll start sleeping better soon?

I hope so because I need some sleep.  The lack of it is really playing havoc with my appearance.

Perhaps you could take something to help you sleep?

Victoria remembered these words because they had formed one of many similar conversations they’d had on Lily’s inability to sleep through the night.

I can’t take anything like that. I’m allergic. It brings me out in bright red blotches and I can’t risk that happening. What would Scott think of me then?


“Hmmm,” Victoria said again, before shaking her head and looking apologetically at Teresa. “Sorry, I was miles away. What did you say?”

Teresa smiled. “It doesn’t matter. If you hand those to me, I’ll put them with the other things we will be throwing out.”

“Yes,” Victoria said vaguely. “This just made me think of something, that’s all.”

“What, this?” Teresa said, removing the bottle from Victoria’s hands and reading the label for herself.

“Yes,” Victoria said hesitantly. “Amber told me that she couldn’t take anything to help her sleep. She said she was allergic, it brought her out in blotches…”

Teresa shrugged. “Maybe it was for Lily?”

Victoria shook her head. “No, I don’t think so. Amber was a little naïve when it came to Lily’s sleeping habits. I think she enjoyed feeling needed by her every time she woke up.”

“But there’s only a small amount left in this bottle,” Teresa observed. “What would she have used it for then?” 

“That is what I’m wondering,” Victoria said in a puzzled tone.

After spending the afternoon checking the fence lines in the southern pasture, Scott returned to the hacienda, hot, dirty and tired. All he wanted was a nice bath and a change of clothes.

It had been his idea to go back to work. He needed to get back to some vein of normality, although as he stood in the barn, seeing to his horse, he wished he’d decided to take today and go back to normal tomorrow instead.

Johnny arrived back from town a few minutes later and the two brothers found themselves alone together. They made polite conversation. Scott enquired about Barranca and Johnny in turn, asked how Scott had got on that afternoon. While the teasing and good-natured bantering was conspicuously absent, the conversation flowed smoothly, overall.

As soon as they stepped foot into the hacienda, an agitated Teresa pounced upon them. She positioned herself in between them, placing a hand on each man’s arm as she propelled them as best she could into the great room. “I need to talk to both of you.”

“Teresa, can’t it wait?” Scott said wearily.

“No, it can’t.”

As Scott and Johnny reluctantly allowed her to lead them into the room, they were surprised to see Victoria sitting on the couch, looking slightly uncomfortable. Murdoch sat in his armchair with an impatient frown on his face that made Johnny wonder if perhaps he had arrived home later than agreed. However, when Murdoch said, “Teresa, what is going on?” in a voice that matched his frown, Johnny realised that Teresa must have insisted on his father’s presence too.

“Will you please sit down?” Teresa asked her brothers. “Please? This is important.”

Scott and Johnny exchanged glances. This was Teresa in full irritating younger sister mode and neither man was in the mood for it. When they made no move to comply with her request, Teresa rolled her eyes in frustration before looking straight at them both. “We sorted through Amber’s belongings today.”

Scott looked uneasy, he had agreed that Murdoch would ask Victoria and Teresa to do this, but he wasn’t sure why they needed to hold a family conference about it.

Johnny didn’t know why he needed to hear this either and he shot Teresa a dark look. “Teresa, I ain’t interested in anything to do with Amber. Not when she was alive and not now she’s dead.” He turned to walk out.

“Johnny, wait!” she said shrilly. “We found something, Victoria and I. We found this.” She picked up the brown bottle from the table and handed it straight to Scott who took it curiously.

Johnny hesitated and watched as Scott read the label.

“What is it?” Murdoch asked with more than a trace of irritation.

“It’s a sleeping drug,” Scott said slowly.

Teresa nodded fervently. “Tell them, Victoria. Tell them what you told me.”

Victoria swallowed nervously as four pairs of eyes turned in her direction and she clasped her hands in her lap anxiously. “Well…” she began, pausing to politely clear her throat. “Amber had this in her room and…and I found it surprising because she told me she couldn’t take anything like this. She told me she was allergic and as far as I know she never considered using it with Lily either, yet it’s almost empty.”

“So, the question is, what did she use it for then?” Teresa looked directly at Johnny.

Now, Johnny felt uncomfortable under the gaze of his whole family. His expression darkened. “What’s everyone looking at me for?” he said defensively.

Scott turned the bottle in his hands, as he considered all that Johnny had said; how he wasn’t drunk when he arrived at Amber’s room, how he had no idea as to the reason why he would drink so much in her company. Scott swallowed hard as he realised what this could mean. “I think we’re looking at you because you could be the reason she had this,” he said quietly.

Johnny looked at him through narrow blue eyes as he digested Scott’s words. After a pause, he asked faintly. “You think she drugged me?”

Scott stared back at his brother. “I don’t know, but if you had enough of this stuff, it would knock you out. And if mixed with alcohol, then that would more than likely speed up the effect.”

“It would certainly explain a few things, son.”

Johnny didn’t know what to say. He didn’t know any more than the rest of them if this was the explanation, the reason why that night was a blank in his memory. But if that was what she had done, if she had put something in his drink, then it tapped into locked away fears. He felt like he couldn’t breathe as he pictured Amber watching him lose consciousness, watching him lose control…

Without a word to his family, Johnny turned and fled the room.

Chapter Twenty-Seven

When Johnny had left the hacienda, Murdoch had gone after him and Scott stood rooted to the spot, rotating the glass bottle in his hands. Just when he thought there could be no more revelations and he was coming to terms with how warped Amber had been, they now discovered this. The sheer callousness of the act left Scott cold. Now they all knew the truth, and at least one answer came from beyond the grave.

Murdoch came back inside, but when Scott looked up, he just shook his head. “He’s taken off,” he said resignedly. “He didn’t want to talk; I think he needs some time to get his head around this. I think we all do.”

As Murdoch made straight for the scotch, Scott looked at the bottle in his hands. Making a swift decision, he gave the bottle to Teresa. “Which way did he go?”

The wind whistled in his ears and the thundering rhythm of hooves pounding the ground drowned out the thoughts that would have otherwise tormented Johnny’s mind. Reluctantly, he slowed down the pace before coming to a standstill.

Swinging down gracefully from the horse, Johnny dropped onto the cushion of grass and leaned against one of the large trees. Below him the ground sloped away, leading down into the fenced off pasture where a herd of cattle grazed, the sounds they made carrying upwards on the cold breeze.

Pulling his jacket tighter across his body, covering the blue shirt he wore, Johnny sat with his forearms lying heavily on his bent knees and he rested his head back against the bark. He closed his eyes and listened to the thump, thump of his throbbing head as the realisation of exactly what Amber had done pummelled his brain. In a way, he wasn’t surprised. He knew he should feel vindicated, but it was hard. It was slightly satisfying to know however, that at least Amber had acknowledged that she would not be able to tempt him – this brought a satisfied smirk to his face. The smirk soon shrivelled into a frown. How had she managed to do that to him, how could he not have known? Why couldn’t he taste it in whatever drink she had given him? Maybe he had, maybe he’d known something was wrong as the darkness descended upon him and the room blurred out of focus.

Johnny shuddered. Cursed himself for being so stupid and letting his guard down. If there was one thing Johnny hated, it was not being in control. Experience had taught him never to leave himself vulnerable and it was a lesson learnt the hard way.

As dark memories stirred in the recesses of his mind, Johnny squeezed his eyes shut. Only the sound of an approaching horse and rider saved him. His eyes snapped open; instantly alert, and when he recognised the fair head of his brother, Johnny didn’t know whether to be annoyed at the intrusion or relieved and grateful that someone had come along just in time. Turning his head back to the view, Johnny kept his gaze fixed on the wide-open landscape. 

Scott dismounted and made his way cautiously over to where Johnny sat. When he reached his side, he didn’t say a word, just lowered himself onto the grass next to Johnny. They sat like that for a few minutes, with nothing but the intermittent noises from the cattle and the breeze swishing through the long grass to disturb the silence.

Sneaking a glance at Johnny from the corner of his eye, Scott wondered what was going through his brother’s mind and what the right thing to say would be. In the end, he settled for the most obvious and most important question. “Are you all right?”

Johnny laughed and rolled his head against the bark so that he was looking in Scott’s direction. “Yeah, I’m just great, Scott.” 

Scott sighed. Perhaps Murdoch was right and this was not a good idea.

Johnny looked at the skies overhead, studying the shapes of the clouds as they moved across the greyness. He kept staring at them, unblinking, until water came to his eyes and the cloud patterns merged into one fuzzy blanket. The silence was back, only this time with more despondency than before, and Johnny resisted the urge to let out a quiet sigh of his own.

“Johnny, I know that couldn’t have been easy to hear.”

“You think?”

“Yes, but if nothing else it provided some answers, it clarified things…”

“For you?”

“For you, Johnny.”

Johnny let out that sigh then. “Yeah, well, maybe I didn’t want any answers, Scott. Maybe I had all the answers I needed already.”

“But that isn’t what’s really bothering you, is it?” Scott said bravely, knowing he risked Johnny either getting angry or walking away. To his surprise, Johnny drew his knees a little further into his body and rested his head down on his arms. Although he didn’t say anything, nor did he move another muscle, Scott knew that Johnny was struggling to control his emotions. Reaching out tentatively, Scott placed a hand on his brother’s shoulder. When Johnny raised his head, it confirmed Scott’s suspicions.

“I’m not going to pretend like I know what you’re feeling…”

“You don’t have a clue!”

Scott withdrew his hand from Johnny’s shoulder and brought his own knees up, unconsciously mirroring his brother’s posture. “You’re right.”

Johnny stared at his brother before he gave a desolate shake of his head. “No, Scott, you’re right,” he said wearily. “I did want answers; I wanted to know how it all happened. I just…” Johnny’s voice trailed away on the early evening breeze. He wasn’t prepared to talk about those things with Scott. He wasn’t prepared to talk about them with anyone.

“You just what?”

Johnny took a deep breath. “I just hate knowing that she did that to me. I shoulda known, I shoulda noticed…”

“Why? How could you have known Amber would go to those lengths?”

Johnny laughed darkly. “I didn’t trust her, not one inch. All my instincts were tellin’ me that, but I didn’t listen to ‘em. I went to see her, to apologise-”

“Because I asked you too,” Scott pointed out. “You couldn’t have known what Amber had in mind. Nobody thought she would go that far.”

Johnny plucked a long blade of grass from the earth, leaning back and running his fingers along its length. He knew that Scott was right; he couldn’t have known she would do that. Amber would hate that they’d discovered her plan now, but she would love to know that it had caused him more pain than she could have ever imagined. Johnny did n’t intend to provide her with any further satisfaction.

“I guess that explains why I passed out so damn quick and don’t remember nothin,” Johnny shot a shy glance at his brother. “Guess it even accounts for my lack of sense the next mornin’.”

To Johnny’s surprise, Scott’s cheeks flushed and he shook his head. “It may be slightly accountable but…”


“I know now that it is possible to wake up in the morning and not realise who you’re sleeping with.”

Johnny’s raised a dark brow enquiringly. “You do, huh?”

“I do…because it happened to me the other night.”


“I spent the night with Nancy from the saloon,” Scott blurted out.

Johnny said nothing, just stared at him intently.

“That was just another one of my big mistakes,” Scott confessed. “I thought it’d make me feel better.”

“Did it?”

“No. I did it for the wrong reasons.”

“To get back at me?”

“Partly. But mostly to get back at Amber.”

“So that’s what made you realise? When you woke up with Nancy and thought it was-”

“Amber,” Scott finished for him. “That helped I suppose, but I’d already started to see the truth by that time. I’d already started to think about what I knew about you, what I knew about her. I just regret the fact it took me so long to get there.”

“Me, too,” Johnny said softly.

Scott looked at him earnestly, “Johnny, I am so sorry about everything. The things I said, when I told you I didn’t have a brother…”

Johnny held up his hand, “Scott, you don’t need to apologise for sayin’ that to me, not at that time. I’da reacted in the same way. Hell, I’d probably have shot you,” he said with a grin.

Scott smiled back, half-heartedly. “I bet you’ve felt like shooting me a few times since.”

Johnny turned serious. “No, but I coulda done you some serious damage a time or two.”

“Maybe you should have.”

“You needed to open your eyes to what a twisted piece a work Amber was. She wasn’t right in the head.”

“No, maybe she wasn’t,” Scott said sadly. “I’m just sorry I let her come between us, Johnny. I take responsibility for that, for my actions, for all of it.”

Johnny looked at his brother. He couldn’t expect Scott to apologise repeatedly.

Casting aside the blade of grass, Johnny got to his feet and brushed himself down. “I got one last thing to say on this. The next time you go fallin’ in love with someone, keep me the hell outta it. And if it all goes wrong, you’d better seriously think where you go laying the blame.”

Scott opened his mouth to utter a protest about the falling in love part, but his brother just rolled his eyes. “I’m not kidding, Scott.”

“I know you’re not. It won’t happen again.”

Johnny tilted his head and smirked. “Well, there’ll sure be some ladies left heartbroken by that decision,” he said lightly, offering his hand out to Scott. 

Scott grasped Johnny’s hand, smiling wryly. “That isn’t what I meant and you know it.”

“Yeah, I know.” Johnny pulled his brother to his feet. A look of understanding passed between them before Johnny let go of Scott’s hand. “Now, I’m going back, I ain’t missin’ dinner again. You coming?”

Scott smiled, “Let’s go home,” he said in agreement.

After dinner that evening, Scott, Johnny and Murdoch sat together in the great room, the first comfortable evening they had spent together in ages. Victoria and Teresa had taken Lily up to bed, leaving the three men alone. The departure of Lily, who had been in high spirits all through dinner, made the room seem overly quiet. It was not an awkward quiet though, more the sort of silence only conjured between those who felt relaxed in each other’s company.

As Murdoch handed both his sons a drink, he considered that, while he did not know what had been said between the two, this time he was content to know it had resulted in another step in the right direction. For that he offered up a silent prayer of thanks.

Accepting the drink, Scott looked across at the clock. He would go upstairs in a minute and tuck Lily into bed as he had promised. If she asked for her mama this time, then he could handle it. Now that he and Johnny had started to work towards rebuilding their relationship, he felt stronger.

He was about to get up when there was a knock on the door. Maria, who was about to leave for home, went to answer it.

“Who is it, Maria?” Scott asked when she returned with wide eyes. 

She looked at Scott and shook her head over and over, wringing her hands anxiously as she spouted off a stream of Spanish, far too quickly for Scott to get the gist, “Estoy a punto de irse pero hay un hombre en la puerta,” she said, the words flying with rapid urgency from her tongue, “Hay un hombre en la puerta que dice que él es el padre de la pequeña muchacha!”

Scott looked blankly at Maria before turning to his brother for a translation and he was surprised to see that Johnny was frowning.

“Calma abajo, Maria,” Johnny said, not sure he had understood her correctly either, “¿Qué el hombre dice?”

Maria threw her hands up in the air in frustration, “Es lo que dije, Juanito!” she said anxiously, “El hombre dice que él es el padre del bebé!”

Johnny paled and he turned to look at his father first, only to find Murdoch was as shocked as he was. Looking back at Scott, Johnny swallowed slowly. “Maria said there’s a man at the door. A man who says he is Lily’s father.”

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Shock possessed each man in the room as Johnny’s words ricocheted around their heads. Although he had looked to his brother for a translation, Scott was sure that rather than providing one, Johnny had merely repeated Maria’s words in yet another foreign language, because he was having trouble understanding them. 

Murdoch was the first to recover, getting to his feet and crossing the room in determined strides. The sudden movement broke the spell and Scott immediately reached out and caught his father’s arm as he went to walk past. “Wait a minute. Lily is my daughter. I’ll go.”

Murdoch shot a worried look at Johnny as Scott left the room.

Scott stopped en route to the door, leaning against the wall for a few seconds as he tried to disperse the churning feeling in his stomach. Was this yet another worm of truth crawling out of the woodwork? His head told him yes. Everything that Amber had said or done so far had proved to be false. His memories of her entangled in a sticky, wicked web of lies, so well-constructed that they had almost trapped him forever. He closed his eyes, picturing Lily’s face. She was his. She had to be.

When Scott reached the door, he was outwardly calm, although his emotions churned like a turbulent sea. He pulled the door, it opened silently, and in the spilling light, Scott stared in disbelief at the man who stood on the porch. He was not what Scott was expecting at all.

They made eye contact, each man sizing up the other, one finding the answers to his questions and the other creating new ones with every second that passed.

“Scott Lancer, I presume.” It was a statement not a question and it threw Scott that this man knew exactly who he was, whereas he had absolutely no clue who he was looking at, other than a man who claimed to be Lily’s father.

Lily’s father. The notion was laughable, surely. With narrowed eyes, Scott took in the expensive tailored clothes, the polished shoes, the mahogany-coloured cane that was slightly dusty around the tip. However, it was none of these that made his claim laughable, it was his face. Scott had been expecting a young man, someone Amber would have wanted her own brand of ‘fun’ with, but this man was in his early sixties, with a thatch of neatly trimmed grey hair visible beneath his hat and whispery grey eyebrows drawing a line above hazel eyes. His skin was wrinkled and pale, made more so in the artificial light. He studied Scott in much the same way.

“And you are?”

“My name is Mortimer Randall,” the man said. “Amber was my wife.”

Scott’s mask of calm slipped and he failed to hide his surprise. “You’re her husband? I thought…she told me you were dead.”

“Oh, I can well imagine what she told you, young man,” Mortimer said tightly, “but as you can see, I am most certainly not dead, nor do I intend to be for quite some time to come.”

“Scott, is everything all right?” Murdoch appeared in the doorway behind his son, balking at the sight of the visitor. 

“No, sir. This is…this is Amber’s husband.”

A soft whistle sailed through the air and Scott turned to see Johnny standing just behind their father.

“I see.” Murdoch scrutinised the older man. “I’m sure you won’t mind me asking if you have any identification in which to prove this, Mr…”

Mortimer eyed him shrewdly for a moment, sensing a man like himself in many respects. He had found out beforehand as much as he could about the Lancer patriarch and his first-born son, and, for the most part, what information he had gleaned had impressed him. “Randall,” Mortimer clarified, “Mortimer Randall.” He produced his wallet, unfolded some papers, and handed them over.

Murdoch took them, scanned them carefully, before offering them to Scott.

Scott read the papers dazedly before looking up to meet the searching eyes of his father. At Scott’s slight nod, Murdoch turned his attention back to Mortimer. “I suppose you had better come in, Mr Randall.”

“Thank you,” Mortimer replied, taking the papers when Scott offered them back.

Stepping into the house, the tip of Mortimer’s cane tapped loudly on the stone tiled floor. As Murdoch motioned him further inside, Mortimer found himself under the intense scrutiny of a dark-haired young man.

Although his stance was casual as he leant against the wall, arms folded loosely across his chest, Johnny’s stare was anything but. Blue eyes pierced Mortimer, creating an invisible barrier across the room, which Mortimer felt unable to traverse.

“We’ll go on through to the great room,” Murdoch said, closing the door after Scott and circling a hand just tight enough around Johnny’s arm to pull him away from the wall. It broke his son’s gaze, as Murdoch intended. When Johnny looked at him, Murdoch gave a small shake of his head before escorting Mortimer through.

Scott followed, trying to wrap his mind around all this new information. Amber’s husband was alive. Amber had lied about that too. All that talk of marriage…even if they had got that far it would have been a lie, a sham. Just like everything else had been. Even Lily?


Johnny’s quiet voice lifted Scott from his dark thoughts.

“We’ll just hear ‘im out then you can throw ‘im out, okay?”

Scott nodded and that churning feeling in his stomach returned vigorously.

Walking into the great room, Scott found that Maria had departed. Murdoch sat in his armchair, his expression rigid while Mortimer sat with his hands folded delicately in his lap, and his cane propped by the side of the chair. Not feeling like sitting, Scott stood by the couch and crossed his arms over his chest, aware that Johnny lingered in the doorway, watching Mortimer closely.

“What do you want, Mr. Randall?”

Mortimer looked up at Scott with unblinking eyes. “I want to see Lily of course.” His tone was matter of fact, stiff and business like. He sat there looking composed, reminding Scott of his grandfather.

“Well, you can’t,” Scott said firmly, feeling that same bubble of protectiveness he had experienced the very first time he’d laid eyes on his daughter. “Lily’s asleep and I’m not disturbing her.”

Mortimer pursed his lips, recognising the determination on the young man’s face. There was something else there too, Mortimer considered, and the thought made him sad.

“I’m sure you can appreciate, Mr Randall, that all this has come as a bit of a shock,” Murdoch said smoothly.

As much as he wanted to get rid of Randall and refute his claims, he sensed something in this man, just as Mortimer had done with him. He did not appear phased, sitting in the room with them, and there was a cool confidence about him that assured Murdoch that Mortimer knew exactly what he was doing and exactly what he wanted. Even though he was yet to specify what that was.

“We were led to believe by Amber that not only were you dead, but that you were not and could not be Lily’s father.”

Mortimer moved his fingers to the carved handle of his cane, which he stroked as if it were an animal. “I can quite believe it,” he said calmly. “My wife, who I understand is now deceased, well, to put it nicely, she was quite imaginative,” Mortimer’s expression darkened slightly. “Amber seemed to have difficulty telling the truth, as I am sure you are aware.” He looked back and forth between Scott and Murdoch. “She ran off with my little girl, who I love very much, and I have searched continuously for the past six months. Unfortunately, the absurd secrecy of my wife hindered my search. Had I known of this cousin, this Teresa O’Brien, then most likely I would have found them sooner. While I am too late for Amber, which is probably for the best, I have at last found Lily.”

“Only Lily is not your little girl, she’s mine,” Scott said evenly, his gaze fixed firmly on Mortimer. “Lily is my daughter.”

Mortimer raised one whispery brow. “My boy,” he said, a trace of condescendence in his tone, “I’m sure that is what you would like to believe, but the fact of the matter is that I am Lily’s father. Legally and otherwise.”

Scott bristled at the way Mortimer addressed him, and he glared at the older man. “Legally, maybe. But not otherwise.”

Mortimer shook his head. “Mr. Lancer, I have made my position clear. I have travelled a long way, waited a long time for this moment, and now I would like to see Lily.”

Scott glanced at his father, who was still watching Mortimer intently, his brow furrowed as if deep in thought. Turning back to their visitor, Scott said, “Don’t you think that will be confusing for her? I doubt she even remembers you.”

Mortimer looked sad. “No, I don’t suppose she does,” he admitted with the first trace of emotion the Lancers had heard all evening. “But there is only one way to remedy that. I love Lily, Mr Lancer, and I would like to think that you have become fond of her in your own way, although you will appreciate that, naturally, I cannot be certain that she has been cared for during her stay with you, until I lay eyes on her.”

Scott opened his mouth in outrage and Johnny made a move toward Mortimer, halted by Murdoch’s strong voice, “Mr Randall, I can assure you that Lily is very much loved and cared for here.”

“So, you say Mr. Lancer, but I would like to see that.”

Murdoch nodded and switched his stare to Scott. “Son?”

Scott swallowed. He wanted to tell this man that Amber was dead so he had no business being here, but he couldn’t. He had been Amber’s husband and Scott supposed that legally he was Lily’s father. “Fine,” he snapped. “But if she’s asleep then I’m not waking her, and neither are you.”

Mortimer smiled. “If Lily is sleeping than I shall not disturb her.”

With one last glance at his father, Scott turned and led the way from the room and up the staircase, reaching the top before Mortimer was barely halfway. As Scott stood waiting impatiently for Mortimer to complete the climb, Victoria and Teresa came out of Lily’s room, both gazing curiously at the strange visitor as he reached the final step.

“Scott, what’s going on?” Teresa asked.

“I’ll explain later,” Scott said irritably, wanting to let this man see Lily so that he could then get out of their house as quickly as possible.

As Victoria and Teresa started down the stairs, Mortimer appraised them both. He figured the younger one to be his wife’s elusive cousin, despite the fact she bore no resemblance. Looking back to Scott, Mortimer asked pointedly, “Shall we?”

When Scott and Mortimer left the room, Johnny whirled on his father. “What are ya lettin’ him see her for? You know that Scott doesn’t want him anywhere near Lily!”

Murdoch sighed and rose to his feet. “Yes, I know that, but the man was married to Amber, and he was Lily’s father from the moment she was born. Naturally he has concerns for her welfare. I understand his need to satisfy himself that she’s all right.”

Johnny snorted. “And are ya gonna understand when he tries to take her away from Scott, from us? ‘Cause that’s what he’s gonna try to do.”

Murdoch shook his head. “We don’t know what his intentions are yet, but if that is his plan, then of course I will do all that I can to support Scott.”

Johnny scowled. “Randall ain’t Lily’s father.”

Murdoch sighed. He didn’t want to believe that either, but in terms of proof, Mortimer was most likely holding all the cards.

Quietly, Scott pushed open the door to Lily’s room, hoping and praying she was asleep. To his relief, she was. The only sound in the room was her steady breathing. Letting Mortimer past, Scott kept his eyes glued firmly on the man.

Lily was lying on her side with her thumb in her mouth, eyes closed and her golden curls resting on the pillow. Mortimer studied her in peaceful slumber, his heart bursting with joy at seeing her again. Just as he had assumed, she had grown so much, yet still looked like his little angel. Leaning forward, Mortimer tenderly brushed the hair from her face. In the doorway, Scott seethed.

“I think that’s enough,” he snapped. “It’s late.”

Mortimer reluctantly moved away from the bed and as Scott motioned him out, he turned, pausing in the hallway. “I will return tomorrow morning,” he said in a tone that brooked no argument. “I will see her again then, when she is awake, and we can get properly reacquainted.”

Scott said nothing, just stood in the doorway to Lily’s room, watching the man grasp the polished banister of the staircase and start his slow descent.

Murdoch was waiting for Mortimer when he reached the bottom of the stairs. “Satisfied?”

“As much as I can be,” Mortimer said simply.

“I’ll see you to the door.”

When they reached the door, Murdoch opened it, the cold night air launching itself through the gap as he waited for Mortimer to leave. To Murdoch’s annoyance, Mortimer reached into his pocket and removed his gloves, putting them on slowly.

“I assume the young lady was my wife’s cousin,” Mortimer said, “And the other lady, your wife, Mr Lancer?”

Murdoch shook his head. “No, Victoria’s not-” he stopped as he realised he had no need to tell this man anything. “Goodnight, Mr. Randall,” Murdoch said civilly.

“As I informed your son, I will be back tomorrow morning.” Mortimer stepped out into the cold night air.

Murdoch was about to shut the door firmly behind him when he thought twice about it. “You don’t seem upset by your wife’s death, Mr. Randall?”

Mortimer turned back around to face him and gave him a sad smile. “Mr Lancer. I did all my grieving for a woman whom I realised never really existed in the weeks after she left.” With that, he nodded his goodbye, and crossed the ground toward his waiting ride.

As he walked away from the hacienda, Mortimer heard the click of the door as it closed behind him. Just before he climbed aboard the buggy, he turned and cast his eyes over the grand hacienda. Petersen had not exaggerated in his report when he had said that the Lancers were an affluent family. And Scott Lancer, well he was everything that Mortimer feared: handsome; well-educated; young. However, what made this so hard was what he had seen in Scott’s eyes. Although he could not be certain before seeing her, Mortimer had astutely guessed Lily well loved and cared for by Scott and his family. Glancing up at the windows of the upper floor, Mortimer thought about Lily lying asleep in her bed and his hazel eyes sparkled with moisture. Tomorrow they would be reunited. He smiled at the thought.

Scott spent the night sitting on a chair beside his daughter’s bed and as he watched her sleep, he tried to fight off the fear that he was going to lose her. As the hours passed and morning crept stealthily closer, Scott lost the battle and the fear possessed him, clinging to his skin like a cold sweat.

Both his father and brother had been supportive, each in their own individual way. Johnny had been typically defensive of his family, seeing the situation only in black and white. Funnily enough, Scott had taken the most reassurance from that approach. Murdoch, on the other hand, had not been as vocal, but he had been pragmatic. While Murdoch made it clear he wished Lily’s place to be here with them, he did broach the legalities of the issue, something Scott was aware and fearful of.

Now, as the dawn arrived outside the window and the shadows in the room shrivelled and died, Scott shifted in the chair, his muscles aching from the unnatural posture he had maintained for too long.

Never in a million years had it occurred to Scott that Amber’s husband would be alive. She had been wearing black for God’s sake and she had blatantly told him that Mortimer was dead. She had been prepared to marry him. Scott closed his eyes at a vision of Mortimer arriving just as they were pronounced man and wife.

Had every single word that left her lips been a lie? Staring intently at Lily, whose features became steadily clearer, the lighter the room became, Scott found himself looking at her much the same way as he had done when Amber first told him she was his daughter. Did he see what he wanted to see? No, he saw what was there. He had to hold on to that. 

Mortimer arrived back at the hacienda early in the morning and he pulled his dark coat tighter around his body to ward off the chill. He felt both happy and sad as he stood on the front porch and waited for someone to answer the door. He had lain awake all night considering what to do, and the young man, who had obviously meant much more to his wife than he himself ever had. He had always assumed that Lily’s golden hair and blue eyes came from Amber, but seeing Scott last night made it obvious why Scott believed himself to be her father. This was going to be so hard, but Mortimer was determined.

When the young woman admitted him into the house, she eyed him with a mixture of suspicion and contempt, although she was polite enough. When Mortimer commented that she looked nothing like her cousin, Teresa’s only response was, “No, we were nothing alike.”

She showed him into the same room he had been in the night before, only now in the daylight, Mortimer could take it all in. It was such a large room yet it maintained a cosy feel, probably because of the amount of furniture and possessions it contained. Mortimer did not have time to study any further before his eyes fell on Lily, who was sitting on the wooden floor, circled by a selection of toys. Scott sat beside her, the two of them oblivious to his presence as Lily giggled happily.

Mortimer could sense Teresa standing beside him and when he looked at her, she shook her head in disapproval, before announcing his arrival.

Scott narrowed his eyes when he saw that Mortimer had been watching them, and as he got to his feet, Lily looked up, disappointed at the abrupt end to their game.

“Daddy!” she said insistently, tugging on Scott’s leg.

“One minute.” He wanted to tell this man to go; that it was obvious Lily did not want or need him. He wanted to make the man look in a mirror, surely then he would know that there was no shared blood between them.

Mortimer stood transfixed, marvelling at the sound of Lily’s voice. She was speaking now, whereas before she was barely grasping a few words. Only the word she used struck his heart like a well-aimed arrow. Daddy.

How long he had waited for her to say that word with all the confidence and affection that her tone now possessed, only it wasn’t for him. Lily had not even acknowledged his presence. Stepping toward her, Mortimer felt a rush of pent-up emotion. Tears sprang to his eyes before he could stop them. “Hello, Lily,” he said quietly, his voice croaking from his throat, much to his dismay.

Lily looked up at him with her wide blue eyes, and, if she had any memories of him at all, then they were not springing to mind, for her gaze flew immediately to Scott.

Although he had expected it, it hurt that it was Scott she looked to for reassurance, over and above this stranger. Clearing his throat, Mortimer looked at Scott. “May I sit down?”

When Scott nodded, both men took a seat. Mortimer leaned in towards Lily again, his eyes shining as he noticed the doll she was playing with. He remembered the day he had rushed out to buy it for her – he had not been expecting a daughter. For some reason, Mortimer had it in his head that he would have a son, and Lily’s arrival had been a shock in many ways. “You still have Molly, then?” Mortimer said, his voice sounding more normal this time, filled with warmth.

Lily snatched up ‘Molly’ and hugged her tightly to her chest before scrambling to her feet and going to Scott, squeezing in between his knees and eyeing Mortimer warily.

“You’re not going to say hello to me?” Mortimer asked gently, his heart sinking a little lower as he watched Lily look to Scott once again.

Gathering her up in his arms, Scott sat Lily on his lap. He was seeing a different side to Mortimer this morning, one that had started to emerge in Lily’s room last night and one that only made Scott more afraid. As much as he wanted to see this man as the enemy – a man poised to remove the only good outcome of his relationship with Amber – he couldn’t help but feel some empathy for him. The man had clearly been a victim of Amber’s lies as much as the rest of them. Looking down at Lily, Scott found himself saying, “You can say hello.”

Lily turned back to Mortimer. “Hello,” she said in a small voice.

Mortimer smiled sadly before he dragged his eyes up to Scott. “Mr Lancer, I think there are some things we need to discuss.”

Scott pulled Lily a little closer to his body without realising it as uneasiness swirled in his stomach. How could this man not want Lily back? He had been her father for longer than Scott had, and Scott didn’t want to let her go, even after such a short time. Reluctantly he agreed. “I’m going to leave Lily with Victoria for a while,” he said, lifting her up and taking her out of the room before Mortimer could comment.

When Scott returned, defensiveness ran through his body. He sat and stared at Mortimer, preparing himself to say…what? He still didn’t know.

“Did you love my wife?”

Mortimer’s question brought Scott’s guard crashing down, as it was the last thing he expected. “What kind of a question is that?”

Mortimer leaned forward in the chair, his hazel eyes staring at Scott intently. “I would say it’s a fair one, young man, considering Amber left me to go running back to you.”

Scott flushed and shifted uncomfortably. He supposed that Mortimer had a point, but Scott had no experience at dealing with a jilted husband, and he didn’t know how he was supposed to answer.


“It’s complicated.” Scott knew that answer was unlikely to satisfy, but he didn’t want to explain everything to a man he didn’t know.

Mortimer pursed his lips and sat back once more in his chair. “Are you going to be just as evasive if I ask if you love Lily?”

“God, no.” Scott’s answer came without a moment’s hesitation. “Of course, I love her. She’s my daughter.”

Mortimer looked down at the scattered toys on the floor. Raising his head, he looked at Scott. “I had never been married before,” he began with a sigh. “I spent my life building up my business, I worked hard and made a lot of money. Marriage never entered my mind; women were an unhelpful distraction and I was focused.” Mortimer folded his hands in his lap. “Then I met Amber and I have to admit that she enchanted me. She was, compared to me, young, beautiful, intelligent and strong-minded and suddenly I realised that I had missed so much. I felt flattered when she showed an interest in me. I’ve never been a foolish man,” Mortimer said gravely, “But I was for her.”

Scott said nothing, just dipped his head and stared down at his hands. Although he could relate to that, he did not intend to share this with Mortimer.

“I married her quickly, too quickly, and a few months later Lily was born, earlier than expected…or so I was told.”

Scott looked up sharply then, but Mortimer continued, “When Amber took Lily, as well as the contents of my safe,” he added gruffly, “She left me a letter explaining that I shouldn’t bother trying to find her because she did not love me. That was no surprise, I suppose, because I realised afterward that she had never actually told me that she did.” Mortimer paused and swallowed as he recalled the pain he had experienced when he had read Amber’s words. “But the most distressing part of all was that she said Lily was not my daughter.”

Mortimer looked at Scott and saw the realisation wash over the younger man. “Of course, I refused to believe that at first, until I obtained a confession from my former physician, who had also become the recipient of Amber’s attentions at some stage during her pregnancy. His own licentiousness compelled him to go along with her plan to make out Lily was born early. I have since discovered that this is most unlikely, given Lily’s size and weight at birth – not something I had considered before.”

Scott listened as Mortimer did what Scott had always struggled to do, unravel one of Amber’s lies. “So, you knew this, yet you didn’t say anything last night?” he accused. “You made me think you’d come to take Lily away when all the time you knew you weren’t her father?”

Mortimer looked unrepentant. “I love Lily, Mr Lancer. She will always have a special place in my heart, but I had to be sure. If you did not love her, if she wasn’t well cared for, then I would take her home with me. I could give Lily a good life. I have time for her, she would never want for anything. This is not a decision I have taken lightly, I have thought it through long and hard, but at the end of the day, I have had to face the facts, no matter how hurtful a process it has been. I cannot categorically state that you are her father, but based on my enquiries, I am reasonably satisfied that she is at least a Lancer, one way or another. I am not a young man by any means and I am not Lily’s father. She deserves both of those things.”

“Are you saying that you are not going to try to take Lily back with you?”

“I have decided that, yes.”

“But how do I know you aren’t going to change your mind?”

“I’m prepared to make it all legal, Mr Lancer,” Mortimer assured him quietly. “Only, I have one condition.”

Scott’s eyebrows rose cautiously. “What condition would that be?”

“I would like to know how Lily is doing from time to time and perhaps, when she is a little older, should she agree, then I would like to see her again. I love that little girl and she changed my life in the short time we spent together. I cannot just pretend that never happened.”

Scott sighed; he had discovered for himself that there was no use in pretending. Looking at Mortimer, Scott nodded. “I don’t have an issue with that, once the legalities have all been dealt with.”

Mortimer smiled. “Good. I would also like to spend some time with her before I leave?”

“I’ll bring her back in.” Both men got to their feet.

“Oh, and if my darling wife didn’t manage to spend all the money she stole from me, perhaps you could save it for Lily. Put it toward her education or something.”

Later that day Mortimer left, faced with a long and emotional journey home alone, and Scott found himself standing at a place he hadn’t been sure he would ever visit again.

The smell of recently turned over earth filled Scott’s nostrils. The flowers Teresa and Victoria had placed on the grave had already withered, their petals curling inwards. Squatting down, Scott removed his hat and let the breeze ruffle his hair. He removed the dying flowers and placed them by his side. He wasn’t sure why he was here, only that he’d felt compelled to come. His world was only just starting to right itself yet again after the revelation of Mortimer being alive, and the discovery of the bottle. Scott hoped that this visit would ensure that it stayed that way.

Amber had been a beautiful face that hid a tainted soul, and Scott didn’t know if he could forgive all the hurt she had caused him and those he loved. Nevertheless, there was nothing gained from holding on to the hate, and so he found himself left with an overwhelming sense of sorrow.  Sorrow for the way things had turned out, sorrow for what might have been; the good and the bad.

As Scott stared at the grave, he reflected on his willingness to give Amber everything. Perhaps he had given her the most important thing of all, either that or somewhere along the line she had stolen his heart; be it the first time she had been here, or the last.

Closing his eyes, Amber appeared in his head; alive and vibrant, flashing him the smile that always promised so much. She had given him nothing, yet everything, all at the same time. She had given him Lily. No matter what had happened; the lies she had told, the shadows of deception she had cast over his world, she had returned and in doing so had allowed Scott to know his daughter. For Scott was as sure as he needed to be, that Lily was his.  How could he hate someone that was as much a part of Lily as he was?

Scott stared at the cross. “I don’t know if it’s what you really wanted or not, and I’m not sure if I care what you think, but I’m going to take good care of Lily. I’m going to love her, hopefully enough for both of us.” No one heard his words, yet he felt better for saying them. The image of Amber became grainy, fading away, replaced by his family. That was where real love existed. It was going to take time to get over it, maybe things would never be quite the same again, but they were going to try.

Turning away, Scott made his way to his waiting horse, just as a rider appeared below the crest of the hill where the grave was located. Kicking at his horse, Scott rode down to meet his brother, leaving Amber behind.

He only wanting to go home; to his family, his daughter and the future that beckoned them all.


Murdoch stood in front of the mirror and rearranged his tie for what seemed like the tenth time that morning.

The sun was streaming through the window, promising a warm, bright day. Not that it mattered what the weather did, for nothing could cast a cloud over the events the next few hours would bring. Frowning at the tie, despite the fact it was practically perfect, Murdoch moistened his fingers on his lips and smoothed back his silvery hair. As satisfied as he ever would be, he stood tall and decided that he needed to go downstairs to the kitchen for something to eat. His stomach was fluttering and he told himself it could only be from hunger pangs. 

Walking out into the hallway, Murdoch listened to the sounds of his household up and about. He could hear Lily complaining about the flowers in her hair, and he could hear his sons, one of them no doubt wrestling with his tie, too. Murdoch smiled. It wasn’t hard to guess which one that would be.

Further down the hallway, he could hear Teresa and Victoria giggling from behind the closed door and the sound brought a smile to his face that remained in place as he journeyed down the staircase, unable to help but feel that this was the start of something good, or the escalation of it, more to the point. He had never dreamed of this happening, yet it was.

The great room looked transformed; the furniture cleared and the floors freshly swept. The large window behind Murdoch’s desk was the sole focal point, at least for now. Those hunger pangs started up again and Murdoch headed into the kitchen.

The morning flew past and finally, it was almost time. Teresa left Victoria and made her way into the great room, the pleasant atmosphere sending her spirits soaring. Her eyes wandered over the guests, of which there were few, just the way Murdoch and Victoria wanted it. Those who had received an invite had done so because of the special relationship they shared with the family, in one way or another.

Teresa smiled at Sam standing with Val, and she noted that the usually scruffy sheriff had done quite an accomplished job of smartening himself up for the occasion. Jelly was also looking uncharacteristically smart, and Teresa gave him an extra special smile as she remembered the grizzly old man’s smothered heartbreak following Victoria’s acceptance of Murdoch’s proposal. There had never been a choice between the two as far as Victoria was concerned, but the pride of men and all that, left Jelly with his feathers ruffled for a few days. Teresa had to stifle a giggle as she recalled trying to offer Jelly some words of comfort. “There’s nothing wrong with you, Jelly,” she had assured him. “Victoria just…well…perhaps she is only attracted to tall men?”

Jelly had snorted then and drawn himself up to his full height, slyly measuring himself against Teresa before realising this might be a fair point. “I dunno what yer talkin’ ‘bout,” he had protested hotly, “A man don’t want a woman at this time a life anyways. All that naggin’. Nope, when a man gets to my age, all we want is ta be left alone.” He had looked pointedly at Teresa then, and she had taken the hint and departed. Now, Jelly was beaming happily, looking proud and privileged to bear witness to this happy family occasion, his heartbreak long since forgotten.

As Teresa walked down the centre of the room towards her place beside Scott, her eyes sought out those of the dark-haired young man standing across from her. When their eyes met, Teresa felt a warm glow spread throughout her body. Nodding at Michael to let him know his mother was ready to come downstairs; he acknowledged her message with a warm smile that showed off those dimples, which Teresa had decided were simply irresistible. It was funny how things turned out. Just over a year ago, she was not giving any thought to finding love. She felt her place was here with Murdoch, Scott and Johnny, and while she still felt that, well, she wanted a little something for herself now too.

Although Michael had only been staying with them for the last two weeks, Teresa had found Victoria’s son to be the most charming, handsome man she had ever laid eyes on, brothers aside of course, but then they didn’t count. Not in that way.

Scott did not miss the coy glances exchanged between Teresa and Michael and judging by the smirk on Johnny’s face, he hadn’t either. Michael was a pleasant man and he had been most gracious in allowing Scott to put the unfortunate incident in the hotel firmly behind them both. Teresa was no longer the over-zealous sixteen-year-old girl, who had first welcomed them home. Well, she was still over-zealous on occasion, Scott considered with a smile, only now she was a woman with a future to fulfil like the rest of them.

Lily let go of his hand, drawing Scott’s attention to her and he shook his head as she tugged out the last of the flowers that Maria had painstakingly placed in her hair that morning. The intention had been to make Lily look all girly and pretty for the occasion, but Scott had already realised that his daughter did not appreciate such gestures. At four years old, Lily had decided that pretty dresses were not conducive to all the running around and exploring that she crammed into each day. Not to mention all the supervised riding she undertook on her first pony, taking full advantage of the patience of various family members. Lily’s real ambition was yet unfulfilled; to ride Barranca. So far Scott had resisted granting her that wish; he had a feeling that she wouldn’t hesitate to ride him just like she saw her Uncle Johnny do.

Dumping the flowers unceremoniously on the floor, Lily returned her small hand to Scott’s, grinning at him cheekily. “Pick them up,” Scott mouthed at her, trying to keep a straight face. Lily pouted but bent down to retrieve the flowers. When she stood back up, she turned to Johnny and rolled her eyes, causing her uncle to bring his hand to his mouth to hide his grin.

Scott shook his head, guessing exactly what Lily had just done. He watched her stick the flowers haphazardly back on her head before she slipped her other hand into Johnny’s open palm and his brother smiled, turning his head to look at Scott. Scott grinned back, gratified that the moments when he could almost read his brother’s thoughts had returned. It had taken a long time, both for Johnny to allow it, and for Scott to feel that he once more deserved the privilege. But they had worked hard for it, each in their own way, until gradually they rebuilt what had been broken.

At first, they had got by on humour, their conversations based upon light-hearted jibes and quips about whatever was going on at that time, but as the months had turned into a year and beyond, that had changed. The humour and the good-natured bantering were still there, but came naturally again now, no longer a necessary crutch for the road to recovery.

They never discussed Amber, not so much because of the thorniness of the subject, but because there was nothing left to say. On the anniversary of her death, Scott made a decision and took Lily up to her grave. It had been hard, just as hard as that first time he had explained that Amber would not be coming back, but to Scott’s relief, he had not had to do it alone. Johnny had come too. Scott had known how hard it was for Johnny to accompany him, but he had done it, and that single gesture meant more to Scott than anything.

“You think he looks nervous?” Johnny whispered over Lily’s head, tilting his head in the direction of their father. When Scott looked, he saw Murdoch standing by his desk. Every couple of seconds he would glance at the judge, then the arched entrance to the room, shifting his weight from foot to foot and rubbing his palms together anxiously.

“Murdoch, nervous?” Scott whispered back and both brothers grinned, thoroughly enjoying the sight.

“Why would Grandpa be nervous?” Lily piped up loudly, looking back and forth between her father and uncle.

Scott and Johnny cringed as Murdoch turned to look at them, aiming for a glare, but not managing to summon any of the annoyance needed to achieve one. Instead, he gave a cross shake of his head, making a conscious effort to keep his hands still while his stomach continued to flutter, despite the breakfast.

Johnny watched his father about to marry for the third time and he wished him well. He had to hand it to Victoria; she sure had brought changes to the hacienda. No longer did Murdoch call the tune. In fact, after consulting him and Scott on the matter, he had handed over most of the responsibilities to them. It seemed Murdoch wanted to focus more of his time on Victoria and his family. Johnny was happy with that; he and Scott were more than capable of running things, and Murdoch was always there should either of them need his advice. Johnny chuckled as he considered that if Murdoch thought they weren’t doing good enough jobs, then his focus would switch back quick enough. 

Working closer together had helped rebuild his relationship with Scott too. They had to listen to each other more than ever now and they did. Slowly, Johnny had felt himself starting to trust his brother again. There was a difference in their relationship though; a sense of equilibrium that perhaps had not been there before, or had always been there yet Johnny had been unable to see it.

Scott had made mistakes and at first, Johnny had felt utterly let down that the image he had of his older brother had shattered. Now he realised that it hadn’t. Over the past year, Scott had worked hard to make things right between them once again. He hadn’t pushed, he hadn’t expected things to return to exactly the way they were before, he had simply been there and been his brother. There would be more tests to come, they were inevitable, but whenever Johnny considered this, he would just reason that if they could survive Amber, they stood a pretty good chance for the future.

That night, Murdoch Lancer was a very happy man. As he stood outside the front of the home that, finally, stood quiet after a jubilant day of celebration, he considered all the love and lives that the hacienda had held over the years, some that had stayed, some that had gone, those that had returned and those it had recently welcomed.

As he waited for Victoria to join him, Murdoch’s mind travelled back in time, to one evening in late September over a year ago, when he had sat in the great room considering the future. He had thought about his grown children, wondered if they would bless him with grandchildren and raise them here. Lily was the answer to that question and her singular presence in the house had taken a step toward fulfilling the dream that Murdoch had started many years ago with Catherine; to build a house and fill it with the kind of laughter and gaiety that only children could provide.

Like every dream Murdoch had ever had, it had not come easy. Amber had almost caused his family to crumble around him, but thankfully, they hadn’t. Scott and Johnny were still brothers, but more than that, they were friends again. Best friends? Only they could answer that.

Light footsteps on the patio broke Murdoch from his reverie and he turned to Victoria. His wife. Victoria was carrying two glasses of scotch and she handed Murdoch one, moving closer to him so that he could wrap his arm around her. As they looked up at the night sky together, Murdoch realised that this was one dream that he had not had to fight for.

At this moment, Murdoch Lancer felt truly blessed.


Written 2005, revised 2023.


Thank you for reading! The authors listed on this site spend many hours writing stories for your enjoyment, and their only reward is the feedback you leave. So please take a moment to leave a comment.  Even the simplest ‘I liked this!” can make all the difference to an author and encourage them to keep writing and posting their stories here.  You can comment in the ‘reply’ box below or email Sam directly.


27 thoughts on “Innocent Eyes by Sam

  1. Well Sam you had me hooked from the get-go. As I saved the story to the archive, I read bits and pieces. I had to go back and read it all. Well… Well done. The twists and turns were perfect.


  2. What an outstanding series! I started reading Easy Company this morning and could not stop until finishing Innocent Eyes. Your characters were so believable, Amber being the one you love to hate. The struggles between Scott and Johnny kept me glued to the page. I loved both pieces.


    1. I enjoyed both of these stories very much. I don’t normally enjoy stories where the boys become father’s but I loved these
      You made the characters come to life in a very believable way


      1. Thank you Jjm, I know what you mean about the boys as fathers, but I’m glad that despite this, you enjoyed these two stories. Thanks so much for letting me know.


    2. Hi Sherry! Thank you for your kind words. I’m glad these stories entertained you, they were great fun to write.


  3. Wow! It’s been a while since I was so hooked on a Lancer story that I stayed up all night reading. Very well done. I think I will hate the name Amber now forever.

    Also loved how you ended it. Victoria was the voice of reason throughout the 2nd half of the story and it makes sense that she would become part of the Lancer family.


    1. It’s great that they hooked you – every writer wants to hear that! And I thought as I was keeping the most important men single at the end, the least I could do was marry off Murdoch. I think the voice of a mature woman will do wonders for the family. Thanks so much for commenting.


  4. Incredible story, thank you for writing.
    You don’t have time to catch your breath as events are pressing.

    Strong feelings, intrigue and passion, betrayal and iron loyalty, love and hate. In a crescendo of tension and without the certainty of a happy ending, they won’t let you stop reading.


    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Helen! It was rather a twisty ride, but it turned out well in the end.


  5. I found this series very had to put down, it certainly held my interest. Wanting to know what was going to happen next and then not sure if I wanted to know the ending. I loved the ending. Thanks for such a good read!!!!!


    1. It did feel like a mountain to climb to get them to a happy place again by the end of the story, but I’m so glad you loved how it ended. Thanks so much for commenting, Crystle.


  6. What a story ! It was hard to stop reading, so much tension, it was just like watching a thriller. Fortunately everything ends well. Thank you so much for this great story.


  7. It took the best part of three days for me to read both stories. I even dreamed about possible endings!!
    Gosh all that time from when you first wrote these is astonishing and very impressive, a reflection on Lancer’s enduring hold on the fans who keep it alive.


    1. Hey Sam!

      Well you took us on a roller coaster of emotions here, as Amber terrorized the family with her greed and unbalanced plots. I’m happy that Murdoch handled his sons the way he did- not taking sides, and reasoning. There are villains and there are villains, but Amber was in a class all her own!

      Thank you for sharing this story!


    2. Hello! Thank you for reading and commenting. The sequel was rather long, wasn’t it – I’m glad it held your attention – I hope they were all good dreams and no nightmares, lol. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of the Lancer fandom because of the amazing characters and the readers and writers who keep it alive. It sure doesn’t feel like twenty years have gone by since I wrote my first Lancer story! Thanks for commenting.


  8. I am amazed at how much time it must of taken you to write these stories. They kept me intrigued from the beginning to the very end. Great writing!


    1. Hello Anne, thank you for taking the time to comment. They did take a while to write, but I posted them chapter by chapter to LancerWriters at the time, and it was the reader’s feedback that kept me motivated to finish!


    2. Love reading was a great family story. I love that it had a happy ending. Thank you for take the time to write it.


  9. Thoroughly enjoyed this series. Glad that Johnny and Scott didn’t let Amber ruin their relationship in the end.


    1. Oh, I’m glad you enjoyed the sequel too. Couldn’t let Amber ruin the relationship between brothers – there had to be a happy ending for them. Thanks for commenting, Lesley.


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