Summary: Adam is introduced to someone he’d forgotten.
Word Count: 2000
“There’s someone you should meet, Mr. Cartwright.”
Adam felt his host’s daughter tug at his arm and draw him toward a young woman standing a few feet away.
“Jolee, I want you to meet Mr…”
The woman turned and stared at the tall, dark man in front of her. “Adam Cartwright,” she stated softly before the introduction could be made.
“Oh, you and Mr. Cartwright have met?”
Adam studied the face before him and raised his right eyebrow quizzically. The woman was not in the least familiar to him, and the name Jolee rang no bell.
“You have me at a disadvantage, ma’am.”
“I suppose I have. It was quite some time ago.” She turned toward her friend. “Actually, I knew his brother much better than I did Adam.” She turned and looked up into Adam’s eyes. “It might be the name. Hardly anyone in Virginia City ever called me Jolee. Everyone back then called me J. C.”
Startled Adam studied the face before him more carefully. “J.C. Ladneir, Joe’s little friend.”
“Yes, Little Joe’s friend or, according to his angry, older brother, Little Joe’s accomplice.” The corners of her mouth turned up slightly, and her lashes lowered.
“Most of the time, that would have been a more accurate description.”
“How are Little Joe and Hoss and your father too, of course?”
“Fine as of three months ago according to the last letter I received. I haven’t been home in the past two years.”
Jolee raised an eyebrow in silent inquiry.
“Miss Ladneir,” the interruption came from a gentleman who had walked over and was standing with an expectant look on his face,” I believe this is our dance.”
Glancing at her dance card as she turned toward the gentleman, Jolee answered, “So it is, Mr. Spaford.” Turning back toward Adam, she murmured politely, “So nice to see you again, Mr. Cartwright.”
“Perhaps you would consent to having lunch with me tomorrow, Miss Ladneir. My hotel’s dining room sets an excellent table, and we could continue our discussion.” Adam was curious about the girl and intended to satisfy that curiosity.
“Why that’s a splendid idea, Mr. Cartwright.”
“I’ll send a carriage for you at one then.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow. You will excuse me now, of course.” Jolee took Mr. Spaford’s arm and walked onto the dance floor.
Adam extended his hand and helped Jolee from the hired carriage. They exchanged polite greetings, and Adam led her to a quiet table in the rear of the hotel dining room. The waiter took their orders and departed.
Adam leaned back in his chair and appraised the young woman before him looking for a trace of the girl who had been his little brother’s cohort in several escapades. He could not find one.
Jolee returned his gaze. “I’m not the tomboy I use to be, Adam.”
“That’s quite obvious. You’re a lovely lady, Jolee.”
“Well, people grow up. Things change. Some things anyway.” She smiled coolly. “You’re not the young rancher anymore either.”
“No, not for a while now.”
“You left the Ponderosa.”
“The ranch will always be my home.”
“You just don’t live there anymore?”
“I’ve been doing some traveling. Seeing the world so to speak. I leave for Europe in two weeks.”
“You’ll enjoy Europe; I did. You’ll be doing the Grand Tour, I suppose.”
“More or less. I sail for Italy first.”
“A must for engineers and architects, but then you’re both aren’t you? Adam Cartwright, the college graduate. Your father was always so proud of that.”
Adam sensed an edge to the words but could not fathom why there might be one. “It may be quite late, but my regrets at your father’s passing. They said you went to live with your aunt.”
“She became my guardian, but actually I spent most of my time living at school. You know, the school you were kind enough to recommend to my father.” The cool edge to her voice was more pronounced.
“It was as good as its reputation, I hope.”
“Oh, it was the finest of girls’ schools. Just look at what it did for me.” The smile she gave him was as chilly as Lake Tahoe in spring.
The waiter chose that moment to appear with lunch. After he departed, Jolee looked down at her plate. “Do you ever wonder if the beef you’re eating could have come from the Ponderosa?” She looked up at Adam. “Or can you tell with one taste? Some Frenchmen can do that with wine, you know. One taste, and they can tell you the vineyard where the grapes were grown.”
“Do you wonder?”
She looked at him through lowered lashes. “When I was first at school, I wondered every time beef was served if the cow could have been from our ranch.”
Adam could taste the bitterness beneath her words. “You’ve been many places since then, J.C. Why haven’t you gone back to Virginia City?”
Jolee winced at his use of her long abandoned nickname. “There was nothing to go back to after my father died. I saw my father once after he left me at school. He came to visit once before he died.”
Adam studied Jolee without speaking. With whom was she so angry?
Jolee raised her head to stare straight into Adam’s eyes. “Why were you so angry with us, Adam? It was a prank. Nothing more than a prank.”
The change of topic had been abrupt, but Adam knew immediately the time of which she was speaking- J. C. and Joe’s last escapade. Appearing at the street dance as the spectral lovers from local legend, the two thirteen-year-olds had galloped up on Snowdrift, reared the stallion in front of the crowd, and then galloped off into the darkness. It had taken only seconds for Adam to recognize the small stature of the riders beneath their costumes and only seconds more to identify the stallion as one he had broken only days before. As the sheriff had tried to calm the chaos, Adam had stormed off to find his youngest brother. He had found Joe and J.C. They had been so busy laughing over the results of their prank that they had not noticed his approach. He had grabbed Joe before the boy realized he was there. Joe had had no chance to soften his older brother’s anger with excuses, pleas, or sad looks. It was the only time Adam had physically punished Joe in the presence of a non-family member. He had not even realized Jolee was watching until he had set Joe back on his feet and realized how hard Joe was struggling not to cry. Guilt flickered in Adam. That had been wrong; he had apologized to Joe for not making the tanning private. After lecturing both miscreants, he had delivered Joe into Hoss’ care and then taken Jolee home.
“Was it that we managed to scare the unflappable Adam Cartwright?”
“Scare me? Oh, yes, you scared me. The two of you could have broken your necks. To use a barely broken stallion because you needed an all-white horse was unconscionable.”
“Joe and I were both excellent riders.”
“You galloped a green-broke stallion through the dark. You were a child then, but now you must realize what a foolish thing that was to do.”
“Back then you called it stupid. Irresponsible and stupid and every other adjective that is synonymous with a lack of intelligence.”
“I lost my temper. I could have handle things better. I was younger then too.”
“You told my father I was out of control. That I was a danger to myself and to others. He listened to you. You were Adam Cartwright the ever so intelligent college graduate. That’s when he decided to send me away to school.”
The accusation was there in her eyes. It had been only a few days after that incident when Amos Ladneir had come to him and asked Adam if he might have friends in the East who could recommend a school for his daughter. He had written a few letters, and then recommended a school. Amos had enrolled his daughter there a few months later. She blames me!
“Your father asked me to recommend a school not if I thought you should go.” Adam did not like the apologetic tone of his statement.
“And you were only to happy to assure him that he could trust his daughter to the school you recommended.”
“Were you mistreated, J.C.?”
“No.” The monosyllabic response was delivered in a flat, dull tone.
“J.C., I …”
“Please don’t call me that. J.C. disappeared sometime ago. Did Joe stop getting into trouble after I left?”
“He found a new accomplice then?”
“All your effort gone for naught. Poor Adam.”
“So you think I tried to get your father to send you away because I thought you led Joe into trouble?”
“Didn’t you; didn’t I?”
“I didn’t blame you for Joe’s misbehavior. Joe was always held accountable for his own actions.”
“In the end we’re all held accountable for our actions.” Jolee lowered and then raised her eyes to fix them once again on Adam. “Did you leave the Ponderosa on good terms or bad?”
The abrupt change of topic left Adam momentarily at a loss for words. The rude frankness of her question was more in keeping with the late J. C. than the refined Jolee. “It was time for me to go after a dream of my own. I burned no bridges when I left.”
“So you intend to return someday?”
“Someday can slip away, you know. My father intended for me to come home, but then suddenly there wasn’t any home to come back to. Oh, well, ‘The best laid plans of mice and men…’ you know how that one goes.”
“There are some things we have no control over. I’m sorry you lost your father, but…”
“Oh, I know his death had nothing to do with you, Adam, but the fact that I lost the chance to spend the last year of his life with him, well, you had a hand in that.”
Perhaps I did. Perhaps the girl needed someone to blame.
Jolee looked down at the uneaten food on her plate and set her napkin neatly over it. “I should go, Mr. Cartwright.” She rose quickly and walked swiftly toward the door.
Adam used his longer strides to close the gap between them. “I’ll see you out.”
Adam handed Jolee into the carriage. Before she seated herself, she turned and looked down into his eyes. A memory washed over him.
He had dismounted, turned, and placed his hands on the girl’s waist to swing her from the saddle. Her white, flowing clothes and long, pale hair had swirled in the wind. She had powered her face a pure white for her role as specter, and her eyes had stood out in sharp contrast. Those eyes had been dark, warm, and liquid with tears as she looked down at him. “Please don’t be so angry. It was only a prank. It was my fault. It was my idea. Please don’t be so angry.”
Adam stared up into her eyes once again. They were cold, hard, and brittle as ice.
She hates me. He stepped back abruptly at the thought.
“Don’t wait too long to go home, Adam, or you might not get the chance.” The corners of Jolee’s mouth curled up slightly at the last thought. Then she turned, took her seat, and the carriage drove off.
Adam contemplated the fact the girl hated him. In fact, she had hated him for a long time. He had not given her a thought in over fifteen years, and all the while she had been his enemy. A shiver ran down his spine, and he wondered how many unknown enemies lurked in the shadows of his past.