Word Count: 7465
When she woke up this morning, the world had shifted.
How could it not? For yesterday, she had met Little Joe Cartwright.
It wasn’t the first time she’d laid eyes on him, but it was the first time she ever spoke to him. It was not, however, the first time she realized she loved him.
The first time Amy knew she loved him, she was eight years old.
Their families always made a point of never speaking to each other, but that spring they ended up attending the same church picnic. Her eyes followed Joe Cartwright everywhere that warm afternoon, watched the way he ran in and out of the pines as he played tag with the other boys, bounding through patches of shadow and sunlight like the very deer themselves. She watched the way he wasn’t afraid of anything at all, his courage even pressing the boundaries of good sense at times and making his older brothers shout warnings after him.
She watched how he laughed. How he smiled. Oh, that smile…
He held her spellbound. She was immediately aware that there was something different about him — a way he had that made people stop and stare and smile back at him — and whatever that something was, it had her thoroughly ensnared that first time she saw him. The very mountainsides were reflected in his eyes in a hundred shades of green; it was like looking into a pine forest. And that brilliant flashing grin…it seemed to light up everything around him, and women would break off conversation to watch him run by.
“Such a beautiful child,” they’d murmur, and Amy knew it to be true. Joe Cartwright was a thing of beauty.
Unfortunately, he was also bad. All the Cartwrights were. Pa said so. And her pa never lied. They were bad mainly because they wanted land that rightly belonged to the Bishops, land that was part of the Concho. She was never, under any circumstances, to have anything to do with the Cartwright boys.
So when Little Joe turned that astounding smile fully on her that day at the church picnic, she was horrified to find that her heart didn’t care one bit if he was bad or not, or what his last name was; it flooded with warmth and beat much too fast, and she knew in that instant she was lost. She wanted nothing so much as to go to his side and stay there, with her small hand tucked into his. Even if he was a Cartwright.
It was a good thing their families didn’t much travel in the same circles, or her traitorous heart would no doubt have conspired to make her a very disloyal daughter. It was also fortunate that she was schooled at home, while Joe and Hoss, so she heard, rode into Virginia City during the warmer months to receive tutelage from Miss Abigail Jones in her front sitting room, along with a fair-sized group of area youngsters.
Yes, it was a very good thing she didn’t see Joe again after that afternoon during the picnic. When he was out of sight, it was easier to remember that she was a Bishop, and that she must abide by Pa’s rules. It was easier to remember that the Cartwrights were a high and mighty lot who were so busy grabbing up land that they didn’t care who they ran over.
She told herself that, and she tried to put the boy with the pines in his eyes out of her mind.
By the time she was nine, the friction between the Cartwrights and the Bishops had worsened, moving from stiffly ignoring each other to physical confrontation, all over that small strip of land near the Truckee that the Cartwrights wanted but that really belonged to her Pa. The year she turned eleven, violence erupted over it. Men from the Concho died. So, she heard, did men from the Ponderosa.
The courts stepped in then. A judge ruled, as judges so often do, on the side of money. The judge said the land belonged to the Cartwrights. Her pa didn’t accept the decision, but he hated killing as much as anyone; to avoid more of it and to keep the peace, he stopped short of harvesting timber or anything else from the land in question. Still, he considered it his and would always do so. He also took care that his family not attend town functions if the Cartwrights were expected to be there. “Lying down with dogs will get you nothing but fleas,” he’d say.
Joe’s smile became a vague memory. He was just part of a family that she was never to speak to, and nothing more.
Life went on, and it was a quiet one, though not unhappy. Amy had her pa, and her beloved books. Her favorite place in the world was the bend in the creek, where the grass grew thick on the banks and the willows bent slender waists to peer into the water. She spent hours there — dreaming, reading, playing with the frogs that made their home in the rushes.
During her eleventh year, she one day found a frog missing a front leg as she played at the creek. It didn’t seem to slow him down much or even bother him, but she couldn’t help but feel sorry for him.
She promptly named him ‘Prince’, carried him home, and made him a bed in the kitchen from one of Pa’s old cigar boxes.
“He can’t stay here, you know,” Pa said. “He’ll be unhappy. He’ll pine for his home on the creek.”
“But it’s warm and dry and more comfortable here,” she pointed out. “And he’s a poor invalid.”
Pa smiled and stroked the frog with a finger. “He’s no longer the frog he once was, I admit. But he lost that leg a good while back. See how it’s completely healed over? He’s a survivor. He knows how to keep trudging along, even if there was likely a time when he didn’t much feel like it.” He looked up at her. “His world is a different one from ours. He wouldn’t be happy here anymore than you’d be happy living in that creek. Though you do spend a goodly amount of time in it.” He winked.
“But, Pa, I could help him…”
“Not all princes can be saved. The best you can do for your Royal Highness there is to treat him gently, because a prince who’s been injured is likely a bit skittish, and sometimes there’s more hurt on the inside than what shows on the outside. Now carry him back home and wish him well, child. Let him stay with his own kind; they know better than we do how to make him happy. If you’re lucky, you’ll see him from time to time.”
She sighed, but did as Pa suggested. Sure enough, there were afternoons when she lay sunning herself on the grassy bank when Prince would hop by in his funny, lurching way and give her what she swore was a froggy wink, and she knew she’d done right by letting him go. And when the day came when she no longer caught sight of him, she still knew it had been the right thing to do.
As she got older, she didn’t lose her love of whiling away the hours at the creek. She spent less and less time playing with frogs, however, and more time reading and dreaming. Her dreams often consisted of castles and balls and princes — human ones, now — and if those princes always had dancing green eyes and blinding smiles, she refused to give much importance to that coincidence.
And then, when she was sixteen, came disaster.
She was walking down Main Street in Virginia City when she ran almost headlong into the enemy, right there on the boardwalk in front of Ladell’s Millinery. Him. Little Joe Cartwright.
He flashed that grin and tipped his hat. And just like that, her poor pathetic heart melted, just as if years hadn’t gone by without her seeing his face. It thumped so hard she wasn’t sure if Joe even said anything or not. Oh, it was beyond irritating to find that her deceitful heart was so foolish that it still held onto those same feelings it had burst with when she was eight. It made her want to stamp her foot.
Not that Joe even gave her much notice. He smiled and touched the brim of his hat out of pure reflex, but the fact that a pretty girl walked on both sides of him prevented him from doing more than giving her much more than a cursory glance. Either he had no idea who she was, or he did know and didn’t care to acknowledge her. She wasn’t sure which, but somehow neither option set well.
She knew better than to do it; she knew she should simply continue on into the millinery the way she had intended and push him out of her mind. But she couldn’t help herself — she turned and stood still, right there on the boardwalk, and watched him go. From beneath the protection of her bonnet brim, she took note of things she knew she shouldn’t notice. The way his curls showed too long beneath his hat and licked at his sun-faded collar. The way sinewy muscle pushed at the backs of his shoulders even as he held out an elbow for each of his lady friends to hold onto.
The way his gunbelt rode narrow hips encased by trousers she knew were just this side of being indecent in their snug fit.
In order to control the stupid beating of her stupid heart, she forced herself to turn away. Dear Lord. He’d been beautiful as a young boy, but that same kind of beauty on a grown man was entirely unfair. Unlike her poor frog Prince with the missing leg, Joe Cartwright was absolutely perfect.
“Just one wart, Lord,” she grumbled as she shoved at the door to the millinery. “Would it have hurt to have given him just one wart?” Sighing, she tried to turn her attention to the new hats Mrs. Ladell had on display, but the vision of Joe strolling down the sidewalk with two women refused to give way.
Two women, she fumed. It seemed the Cartwright avarice knew no bounds.
She’d heard the stories about that youngest Cartwright, of course. How women moved to him like bees to honey. Her friends gossiped about it often enough. She’d heard other things, too. But she’d told herself all these years that Joseph Cartwright’s love life was of no importance to her. Why should it be? She hadn’t laid eyes on him since they were children, and what she knew of the Cartwrights was all bad.
She firmly reminded herself Joe Cartwright was the enemy, and it was complete nonsense to let herself become so rattled by him.
And she actually managed to put him out of her mind after that, or so she told herself. It wasn’t her fault his name was brought up at the Bishop supper table one night soon after; it was his. His tendency toward womanizing had brought him to the attention of Jessup, their foreman — and therefore to that of her pa.
“Talk around town is that Joe Cartwright’s courtin’ Lucy Cameron,” Jessup said between bites of roast beef.
Pa looked sideways at him. The Cartwright name wasn’t considered appropriate mealtime conversation, and Jessup knew it. “Isn’t any of our concern what a Cartwright does,” Pa said brusquely.
Jessup wiped his mouth. “I only brought it up because with the Cameron land lying on our northwest border, I thought Cartwright might try to sneak across here when he goes sparkin’. Otherwise he’ll have to ride around an extra ten miles.” He eyed Pa. “I thought you might want to know, seein’ as you don’t cotton to no Cartwrights sashaying across the Concho.”
Pa nodded, seeming to consider. “All right. Keep an eye out for him, and if he’s dumb enough to try it, run him off.” He took a swig of milk. “I doubt we need to worry, though. From what I know of Joe Cartwright, he’ll most likely be courtin’ someone else before the week is out.”
Jessup snorted. “You’re right there, Mr. Bishop. Uses women and tosses ‘em to the side like yesterday’s pig slop. It’s a cryin’ shame somebody don’t do somethin’…”
“That’s not true! He isn’t like that! He isn’t like that at all!” Her voice rang with so much vehemence that both Jessup and Pa gaped at her. She could have slapped my hand over her mouth for having blurted that out. And really, what did she care about Joe Cartwright’s reputation?
She shouldn’t have cared. Joe was a womanizer. Didn’t his actions constantly keep the town gossips’ tongues wagging? Still, something inside her ached to hear him portrayed in that manner, and she stood her ground.
“He’s not like that,” she said again, her voice softer now.
“Amy, you don’t even know the boy. You have no idea what he’s like,” Pa said, and his eyes were troubled. “He’s a wild boy. Gets into saloon brawls, plays poker…” He shook his head. “He’s a Cartwright. You don’t know him,” he said again, “and that’s as it should be.”
“And you do, Pa? You know Joe Cartwright as something other than just the youngest member of a family you hate?”
Pa’s face reddened. “Watch your tongue, daughter. I know enough,” he said, his tone clipped and hard. “Now, hush. I’ll hear no more talk about Joe or any other Cartwright at my table. How any man does or does not treat women isn’t suitable conversation for your ears, anyway.” He shot Jessup a hard look, which Jessup was smart enough to take as warning.
“Pa, I don’t think…”
“That’s enough!” Pa’s voice didn’t often get raised to her, and he flinched as much as she did at the sound of it. He made a visible effort to soften his tone. “You don’t need to concern yourself with him. Even if he wasn’t a Cartwright, which he is…” Pa shook his head. “As I said, he’s wild. You mark my words, that boy is going to be Ben Cartwright’s comeuppance one day if he doesn’t shorten the reins on him. What goes around comes around, and something tells me Ben’s sins will come around on the heels of that youngster.”
Amy swallowed and nodded, and nothing more was said. And that might have been that, had Joe Cartwright not gone and made her pa’s “mark my words” a true prophecy.
Jessup didn’t need to make any comments this time for her to find out. The talk was everywhere, as fast and furious as wildfire.
It seemed that Little Joe had bucked hard against his pa’s stern hand. Hard enough to shake Ben Cartwright, hard enough to test the very stability of the Cartwright family.
“Took up with that whore,” was the loudly whispered comment from Mrs. Ledbetter to Mrs. Dewbrey in the general store as Amy stood looking at a bolt of blue gingham. “Can you believe it? It’s not like he just had a wild night on the town — he’s actually moved in with her. Left home and moved into Julia Bulette’s rooms. I hear Ben Cartwright is fit to be tied. Wants him back home, of course, but the young buck won’t have it. If you ask me, they should just tie him hand and foot and cart him back to the Ponderosa if that’s what it takes.”
Mrs. Dewbrey tsked. “Well, it’s not like Ben shouldn’t have seen it coming, after all. That youngest son isn’t like the two older boys. He’s always been wild as a March hare. His pa should have taken him in hand long ago.”
Mrs. Ledbetter nodded. “Amen to that, Georgina. Even if he had, though, it might not have made a difference. Blood will out, I always say. You know, Joseph’s mother was…”
She broke off when Mrs. Dewbrey nudged her and glanced meaningfully toward Amy.
“Oh, dear, Amy, you must forgive me for prattling on so,” Mrs. Ledbetter said. “This is certainly not suitable conversation for a young lady to be privy to. Can I help you with anything?” she asked, but it was obvious that she hoped the answer would be no; she no doubt wanted Amy to leave so that she and Mrs. Ledbetter could continue with their gossip.
Amy didn’t care. She didn’t want to hear any more. She had no reason to be bothered by what Joe Cartwright did, but somehow she was. She shook her head and mumbled her thanks to Mrs. Ledbetter and fled.
It didn’t help that the stories didn’t die down with time. It was the topic of conversation everywhere, even among the hands on the Concho. At one point, she was unwillingly subjected to one of those conversations as she scattered feed to the chickens at the side of the barn. Three of the hands rode up without seeing her and dismounted at the barn door, around the corner from where she stood. As they unsaddled their mounts, they had a high time joking and laughing about Joe Cartwright attending “a special finishing school” with the teacher being none other, of course, than Julia Bulette.
Mortified, Amy pressed herself against the barn wall, her face hot; she squeezed her eyes shut. She even clapped her hands over her ears, but she could still hear the men hooting loudly and speculating about the things Joe was learning at his new “school,” and wondering if they might be able to attend when the “teacher” was done with him.
Her own education was greatly advanced that day due to her unwilling eavesdropping, and she wished to God she’d never heard any of it. Certainly the hands would not have said such things had they known she was there, but the damage had been done, though she’d never tell anyone what she’d heard.
The shock of the words and images were almost overwhelming — but they were nothing compared to the heaviness she had in her heart every time she pictured Joe lying with Julia Bulette.
Julia Bulette. Owner of The Palace, a saloon and gambling hall and place of ill repute so legendary that ladies averted their eyes when they rode or walked by.
Julia Bulette. A prostitute.
Despite telling herself it didn’t matter, despondency grew heavy upon Amy. It wasn’t right that he was with someone like Miss Bulette. She would…dirty him. Stain him so that he’d never be the same again. Amy felt anger toward Julia grow within her. Julia was an older, dissolute woman using a beautiful boy — she stopped herself. Joe Cartwright was young, but he was no boy. He was a man who knew what he wanted.
She dragged about the house so wearily that her pa asked if she was feeling well. She told him that she was merely tired and tried to turn her mind to other things, but her head was full of thoughts of the boy with the fast legs and blinding smile turning into a debauched and dissolute ghost of himself, turning to more and more gambling and drink and…and…loose women.
Then came the shocking news of Miss Bulette’s murder. Gossip was full of not only the details of what had happened, but also how young Joe Cartwright was completely devastated, as apparently he had loved Julia enough to ask her to be his wife shortly before she was killed.
“He actually asked her to marry him!” the gossips exclaimed in fascinated horror. “Can you believe it? The entire saloon was witness to it. The young fool… Can you imagine how Ben must feel? To drag that kind of dirt onto the Cartwright name… Oh, but Joseph is his father’s son. Don’t forget what Ben did all those years ago… It was inevitable, really. Young Cartwright…he’s bad blood, that one… Blood will out, I always say… Blood will out…”
All Amy could think about was the fact that Joe had loved — loved — Julia Bulette. He’d wanted to marry her. For some reason, that hurt all the more, and suddenly, when she thought of Joe’s face — and the image of it was clear in her mind despite her best efforts — it seemed as far away and untouchable as the very moon. And in that instant, it seemed useless to lie to herself any longer. She realized now that she had wanted, somehow, insanely and against all odds, to make Joe Cartwright her own.
Only it didn’t matter. She’d been saved from her own ridiculous folly. For Joe Cartwright wanted Julia Bulette. A worldly woman. A woman who knew how to make a man like Joe — a man whose blood ran hot — very happy.
A woman as different from Amy as night was from day.
She stayed away from town to avoid hearing more talk, but it went on anyway. From her friends, from the neighbors, from the ranch hands — none of whom had any reason to think the gossip would affect her in any way, save perhaps to gloat at how the mighty had fallen.
“…they say Little Joe won’t leave the house…whole family’s up in arms…worried sick… Ben’s beside himself…Doc Martin says…well, what did they think? …should have stopped it before it got that far…bad blood…blood will out…doctor…worried over his state of mind…medicine…melancholy…woman turned him upside down…blood will out…”
Blood will out. The phrase kept popping up. It had to do with Joe’s mother, she knew, a woman who had died around the same time as her own. Amy knew nothing about her, but she still seemed to inspire plenty of gossip, just as her son did now. She didn’t dare ask anyone more details about the woman, though.
And the talk continued. A raging, ill-fated love affair between the youngest son of the most powerful and wealthy family in the Nevada Territory and the most infamous prostitute in Virginia City was a story too juicy to let go.
Amy finally took to her bed, telling her worried pa that she thought she was trying to come down with something after all. He pampered her as he usually did, even riding into Virginia City for no other reason than to borrow books from Miss Jones for her to read. She lay propped up on pillows with the books open on her lap; she stared at the pages but didn’t see the words. She was too busy wondering how she’d been foolish enough to waste all the years of her childhood pining over a boy she didn’t even know, and who had been lost to her from the very beginning. If only she’d listened to her pa… The Cartwrights were forbidden ground. Joe was forbidden. Oh, how she wished she had listened.
And while across the Truckee, around the northern shores of the lake and several miles to the southeast, as Joseph Cartwright stood listlessly at a window staring out from his bedroom window and trying to scrape together the shards of his broken heart, Amy Bishop lay in bed and tried desperately to make her own bruised heart see reason.
Eventually, she thought perhaps she’d even succeeded, at least somewhat. Months went by, and talk of Julia Bulette dwindled away. People still talked about Joe, of course; the Cartwrights would always be talked about. Because of that, she learned that Joe, though he was still sticking close to home, was more himself these days. He was again making forays into town to drink beer and play poker, though, if Amy’s friends’ opinions were to be believed, he was rather more subdued than he’d been before ‘the incident’.
That’s what young ladies referred to the affair as — ‘the incident,’ as if it was nothing more than an unfortunate and dismaying accident Joe had fallen into. As the reigning prince of Virginia City, the hopelessly charming and doted-upon son of the powerful Ben Cartwright, he was once more considered an extremely eligible bachelor.
Not for her, though. On the day before, her world changed forever; that was the thought in Amy’s head as she lay sunning on the banks of the creek, her skin still damp from the water. Not for her. Never for her. She’d loved a sunny boy with sparkling eyes, but the man who had wanted to give up everything to be with a well-known prostitute was a dark degenerate whom she knew nothing at all about.
Funny how thinking about it didn’t even make her quite as sad anymore. It brought with it a numbness, but no real emotion. You have no place in my life, Joe Cartwright. She repeated the words over and over. The boy she’d love was gone. If indeed he’d ever really existed at all.
It was the last thought that drifted through her sleepy mind before the abrupt hammer of distant hooves snapped her to attention. She shot to her feet even as she grabbed for her clothing, scrambling into her chemise. Riders, this side of Jackson’s Meadow? What on earth…
Panic shot through her as she realized how fast the horses were moving. She was about to be caught out here in the altogether, and how awful would that be? She stepped into her bloomers, yanking desperately as the thin fabric twisted and clung to her damp legs. Heavens, nobody ever rode up here; the soil was too poor to support decent pasture, so even the cattle rarely roamed close.
Two riders, and they were almost upon her. One leg still caught up in the uncooperative bloomers, she hopped on one foot into the thick cover of stand of elderberry bushes standing guard at the edge of the creek, snatching up her dress as she went. Crouching slightly, she held her breath as one rider shot past and crashed through the creek and across the meadow beyond, the hoofbeats of his horse dwindling away to nothing even as the second rider approached.
Her heart stopped, and she thought there was a good possibility she might faint. For on the back of that black-and-white paint pony rode Little Joe Cartwright.
And just like that, she fell to pieces. Her knees threatened to buckle; she staggered, and when she did, she stepped on a dry branch. The loud snap from the breaking wood immediately gave away her position. She shut her eyes in prayer.
Please don’t let him see me.
But of course it was too late for prayer. She opened her eyes to see Joe pull the horse up. He scanned her hiding place for two brief seconds before yanking his gun from his holster. The click of the hammer echoed across the water at her.
“All right, come on outta there,” he called quickly.
Oh, God, she didn’t want to see him…
“Now look, I’m gonna count to three.” His voice came clipped and fast. “You don’t come out, I’m gonna start shootin’. One.” He was nervous. He had no idea who was hiding in the bushes, and she knew he meant what he said.
Her heart sank as she realized she had no choice.
“Don’t shoot!” She pulled in a bracing breath and fought her way out of the bushes, her dress still clutched in front of her. “Please,” she said. “I didn’t do anything wrong.” The words burst out nervously with a small laugh as her mind scampered about in search of escape. Maybe now that he saw she wasn’t the one he’d been chasing after, that she was nobody to fear, he’d simply ride on.
Please, please, please…
But no. His lips turned up in a ghost of a smile, and instead of riding on, he got down from his horse and sauntered slowly toward her. She saw curiosity flit across his handsome features, and an interest that warred with…arrogance as he put his gun back in its holster.
Well, of course he would show arrogance. He was Joe Cartwright. And that arrogance did something to her. It replaced her desperation with anger. It began to burn slowly within her even as he stopped moving and stood, staring at her from across the creek, his hands on his hips and his chin up.
“Well, you were trespassin’.” Gentle challenge was in his accusation and that, in addition to the widening of his grin, was enough to make her temper flare completely into life. How dare he. How dare he stomp on her heart without ever knowing who she was. How dare he ruin himself with the likes of Julia Bulette. How dare he come here, on Bishop land, and show his face.
How dare he look like that, with a face an angel would envy.
Righteous fury and hard resolve strengthened her spine. She threw her own chin up. “Tresspassin’? You must be a Cartwright.” She spat it out like it was an insult, and like it had only just occurred to her who he must be. He certainly didn’t need to know that his face was burned into her brain, that she’d recognize him anywhere. She wouldn’t give him that power over her.
But the insult was lost on Joe. He nodded and his grin widened. “Yes, ma’am.” There wasn’t a hint of shame in his voice, and that fed her anger, too.
“Thought so. One of those high and mighty Cartwrights who thinks he owns all the land in Nevada.” Words she’d heard all her life from her pa. Words she knew to be true because she’d been raised on them. She wouldn’t have flung them with such force, but they were the only weapons she had at hand.
Instead of taking offense, he tugged at the brim of his hat in apology, and his face turned serious. “Oh, we don’t own all the land, ma’am. Just a good piece of it,” he said, as if in simple explanation to a newcomer. And then that grin, that infuriating grin, was back. “Includin’ that piece you’re standin’ on right now,” he said, pointing at her feet, and it was obvious that he was intentionally goading her.
It infuriated her that he thought he could get a rise out of her for his own entertainment. “This land belongs to my pa.” She dared him to argue, wished he would argue so that she could more easily dislike him.
Surprise lit his eyes. “You mean Luther Bishop?”
“That’s right.” Take that, Joe Cartwright.
To her surprise, his grin broke into a full-fledged smile. “Hey, you must be Amy!”
She was stunned. He knew her name?
Any softening she might have had toward him was cut short as he outwardly studied her. “Hey, you’ve grown up some.” There was something new in his voice as he looked at her, something that caused her nerve endings to shout warnings at her. When his eyes roved boldly up and down her body, she knew what those warnings were for. Here was the face of the man who had spent time in the company of women who bestowed their favors with abandon. Appreciation was in his stare now. The sort of appreciation a man had for a woman.
Only this man had appetites that were quelled by the likes of Julia Bulette. And here she stood, she belatedly remembered, practically naked in front of him, covered with only bloomers and a chemise with her dress still clutched to her chest. His eyes looked older, suddenly. Harder.
Cartwrights always thought they could take what they wanted. No doubt Joe Cartwright was thinking right now….
Well, she was no Julia Bulette. “Now, if you don’t mind gettin’ out of here,” she snapped, “I’d like to put my dress on.”
Instantly, the appreciative look was gone from his face, replaced by a studied sincerity that made her fairly sure she was being mocked. “If that’s worrying you, Ma’am, I won’t look,” he said, the hard glitter in his eyes gone, replaced by twinkling mischievousness. He turned his back, tipping his black hat forward to ride low over his eyes as if to give her increased security against him peeking at her.
She started to shake out her dress, watching him the entire time to make sure he didn’t try to watch her get dressed. Only he didn’t try. Not even a little. Just stood there with his back turned as he had promised.
She was absurdly insulted. She might not be as loose as the women Joe Cartwright preferred to share company with, but by golly, there was nothing wrong with her, was there? She was pretty enough, wasn’t she? Pa said she was beautiful, and she’d had her share of young men asking to call on her; she’d even kissed one of them once. Only…only the things Joe had done with Julia went far beyond kissing. The truth was, she would have no idea how to entice him, how to bring back that hard glitter she’d seen in his eyes a moment ago, a glitter she’d instinctively known was desire.
She stared at the dress in her hands. What if she was to just drop it on the ground? Call Joe’s name, smile at him, tell him to come across the creek and join her? It took a woman to hold Joe Cartwright, and she could be like that. But the thought was a fleeting one. She was not a loose woman. She was nothing like the kind of women who drew Joe Cartwright. Nothing like Miss Bulette.
Desperation flooded through her. It was in that moment that she saw the frog sitting in the grass at her feet, and an idea came to her. And she did something she knew she would be slightly ashamed of for the rest of her days.
She nudged the frog with her foot to make it jump, and then she screamed. Shrill, gasping screams that made Joe whirl around to find out what had attacked her. In seconds, he was bounding across rocks in the water to reach her, grabbing her and pulling her to him. His concern for her was evident in his expression. She took in the seriousness of his expression even as she became aware of the heat of his hands through the thin fabric of her chemise.
Embarrassment over the charade she’d resorted to made her look away from him. “It was just a little ol’ frog,” she said, and tried to laugh. Only she couldn’t, because, after all, she was standing here in her undergarments with a man.
Oh, dear Lord, what was she thinking? This had been a mistake. And then she looked into his face, and what she saw in his eyes caught at her soul. Awareness, and vulnerability. He looked impossibly young, closer to the little boy Joe she’d first seen all those years ago than to the man who had fought his family and an entire community to be with the infamous Julia. For the first time, she felt older and more experienced than he was.
And there was something else in his eyes, too. Pain. Pain? And…fear? Fear of what? Fear that he was about to do something he shouldn’t? Somehow, she didn’t think so. She had the uneasy feeling it was fear that he would be hurt. Perhaps it was both.
Pa had been right. She didn’t know Little Joe Cartwright. She could see things going on behind his eyes — dark things that she couldn’t put a name to. And yet, she was sinking into those eyes as surely as she breathed air.
He let her go, and she felt the loss of his heat. “You better put your dress on.” His voice was huskily soft, and he let his gaze travel down her length for only the briefest of moments before he turned his back once more.
A crazy part of her wanted to pull him back to her, to lie down on the grass with him and spend the rest of the day, the rest of her life, learning how to please him. But of course she couldn’t do that. It wasn’t in her to do that. She wouldn’t even know how to begin. Instead, she pulled her dress back on.
“All right,” she said quietly. “You can turn around.”
He did, and the darkness she’d caught sight of was gone. He was smiling again, as if nothing had happened.
He immediately noticed her struggling to reach the buttons at her back. “Here, let me help you,” he said, and she gave him her back. She shouldn’t have trusted a Cartwright to help her across the street, and here she was letting one button up her dress. She wanted to shake her head at the thought of it. His scent drifted over her shoulder, and she turned her head slightly to pull in more of it.
“I’m, uh…I’m sorry if I scared you before,” he said softly. She could feel his fingers expertly maneuvering the buttons. She pushed away the images that tried to invade her thoughts of how he must have learned to do that. “I really didn’t mean to,” he continued. Didn’t mean to. Oh, didn’t mean to frighten her, that’s what he meant. His voice sounded so, so young. How could a man sound that young and be such an expert with ladies’ clothing? He was such a contradiction.
If only he did frighten her. She’d be in a much better position to protect herself, heaven knew. These were dangerous, dangerous waters she was treading. She needed to leave. Right now. She needed to get away from him.
“There you are,” he said, finishing, and she turned to face him. He looked so boyishly innocent that she couldn’t help but smile. Long seconds went by, seconds when she should’ve been putting distance between them.
Only she couldn’t. She couldn’t stop looking at him, couldn’t stop drinking him in. No wonder women threw themselves at him. The pull he had was…was… She shook herself.
“I’d better be goin’,” she stammered.
“Yeah, me too. I…I have a lotta calves I’m supposed to bring in before dark.” His voice was slightly unsteady, and she realized with shock that she was affecting him that way. A delightful surge of power moved through her. “Pa’s gonna wonder what happened to me,” he added, and again he sounded hopelessly, impossibly young.
Murmurings of the gossip of the previous year came back to her. …they say Little Joe won’t leave the house…whole family’s up in arms…worried sick… Ben’s beside himself…doctor…worried over his state of mind…medicine…melancholy…
Pa’s gonna wonder what happened to me… They watched him still, she realized suddenly. He’d been badly injured by “the incident,” and his family was still protective, still worrying about him after…after…
An unbidden image of the long-ago frog with the missing leg came to her. …sometimes there’s more hurt on the inside…a survivor…knows how to keep trudging along, even if there was likely a time when he didn’t much feel like it…his world is a different one from ours…not all princes can be saved. The best you can do for your Royal Highness there is to treat him gently, because a prince who’s been injured is likely a bit skittish, and sometimes there’s more hurt on the inside than what shows on the outside…wish him well, child. Let him stay with his own kind; they know better than we do how to make him happy. If you’re lucky, you’ll see him from time to time.”
No, Pa, she thought. I’m sorry, but I can’t do what you say this time. Not this time.
“You come here very often?” Joe said suddenly, his face open and boyish and sincerely hopeful, the direct opposite of what she’d imagined Julia Bulette’s lover must look like. His hopefulness reached out and grabbed her up, making her heart swell with joy. Of course she would see him again. She couldn’t imagine not doing so. She’d die if she couldn’t. She smiled and nodded. “Most every day.”
“’bout this time?” he asked, and he reminded her of a puppy begging to be scratched behind the ears.
A Cartwright and a Bishop. Oh, she was a traitorous daughter. But she realized now that she’d been fighting a losing battle all along.
Joe nodded, and touched the brim of his hat. “I’ll see you then.” And she knew he meant it as he turned away. He did plan to see her again, despite the shyness in his demeanor.
She watched him move toward his horse. The infamous Joe Cartwright she’d heard all the gossip about wouldn’t have been afraid to talk to her for a longer time. The Joe Cartwright the gossips spoke of would have seduced and ravished her right there beside the water, would have ruined her and turned her into a woman like Julia Bulette. She wondered which Joe was the real one. And then she realized she didn’t even care, for she loved everything in him, the dark and the light.
Suddenly desperate to hear his voice just once more before he rode away, she tried to think of something to say.
“Are you the one they call Little Joe?” she called, and could have bitten her lip over the silliness of the question. After they’d had more time to talk, she’d tell him the truth, about how she’d known who he was all along. How she’d always been in love with him, the boy from the family that she was forbidden to associate with. How her heart had nursed a crush on him since she was eight years old. She’d tell him everything. And Joe…maybe he’d tell her some of those dark secrets he was holding inside. She didn’t have to know, but if it would help heal him, then she wanted to know.
His shyness seemed to have evaporated as he answered her. “Yeah, I’m the one.” Yeah, I’m the one. With all the good and bad that comes with it, I’m the one. Confident. Sure of himself. He offered no apology for being “the one they call Little Joe,” and she knew he never would.
And once more he was the Joe Cartwright most people saw, the one she had expected to see in the first place. Arrogance again showed through the way he held himself, and she wanted to laugh. Her prince had managed to heal up fairly well indeed. She wondered if he had any idea how much of himself he’d opened up to her view in these few short minutes. She would bargain that there weren’t many people outside his family who would ever be allowed to see the scars he’d received from his association with Julia.
He presented himself as whole and strong and untouchable because that’s what Cartwrights did. She wondered if he did it on his own, or if his pa had told him he had to put on a strong front. Someday she’d ask him.
He looked at her again, promise in the set of his jaw, and then he touched spurs to his horse and was soon out of sight. She shook her head, still reeling from what she had set in motion. What she now ran toward with arms opened wide.
She went home. She slept. And when she woke up this morning and her entire world had shifted, she knew it was all because of an injured prince.
A Bishop and a Cartwright. She sighed, and shook her head. Even without Joe’s past…even without that, the odds against them were overwhelming. She still had no idea how it could possibly ever work, and she was frightened. She wasn’t sure which scared her more — trying to cross the lines that divided their families, or trying to follow in the footsteps of a woman who had known how to keep Little Joe captivated.
Still, she knew she would try, and she knew she’d need to lean on Joe’s self- assurance to remind her that yes, they’d make it work, despite everyone who would surely try to keep them apart.
Oh, yes, she was a traitorous daughter. But her heart…no, her heart wasn’t treacherous at all, despite what she’d always believed. It was devoted, intensely loyal, and had always been.
After all, it had known to whom it belonged since Amy was eight years old.