Chapter One: Kith and Kin
"Where do you want to go on our honeymoon?" Audra Barkley snuggled up close to her fiancé, in his parlor after a cozy dinner together.
Dr. Owen Grigsby slid an arm around her. "I'm sorry. I've been so busy lately, I can't say I've really given it much thought."
Audra sat back. "We're getting married in a week, Owen. I don't understand why you keep putting this off."
"I'm sorry," Owen said again. "It's that - I've been picturing us settling down together, building our home. A honeymoon seems like a postponement."
Audra frowned. "That all sounds very well, Owen, until some sick person comes knocking on the door and you run off to help them." She stroked his cheek. "Don't get me wrong - it's one of the reasons I love you so much, but is it too much to ask to have you all to myself for awhile first?" She kissed him softly. "A honeymoon is traditionally a month. Can I have a month?"
Owen looked down at her. "No," he said, "it's not too much to ask." He sighed. "Why don't you pick? I don't much care where we go."
"I've been everywhere I've wanted to. Surely there's someplace you've always wanted to see?"
Owen shrugged. "I'm happy right here."
Audra wanted to slap him, then felt shame at the urge. She slumped her shoulders. "Let's not quarrel," she said.
"Are we quarreling?" Owen asked in surprise.
"It feels like quarreling to me," she said.
Owen's eyes grew soft as he looked at her. "This is really important to you, isn't it?" Audra nodded. He kissed her nose and smiled. "All right, I promise to think about it. Will it do if I give you an answer tomorrow?"
"All right," she said, slightly mollified. She started to snuggle up to him again when there was a knock on the surgery door. She sighed as Owen got up to answer it.
"I'm sorry, dearest," Owen said. "Duty calls." He kissed her as he left.
"Now you know why I want to go away for our honeymoon," she muttered, gathering her things and leaving for home.
She chastised herself all the way back to the ranch. She could not quite understand why she was so put out. So Owen was happy as he was - that was a state to be envied, wasn't it? At least the Scriptures said so. Yet she couldn't help thinking it was wrong somehow. She remembered when she had found his journals - what a talented ornithologist he was - and how he had put that pleasure aside when he cast off the life he had considered corrupted. Although she agreed that that life, as he described it, was corrupted, she thought he was wrong to cast all of it aside. She wondered why he found it all too easy to deny himself the good things life had to offer, and she wondered if she was right to think it wrong. It was with these muddled thoughts that she tended to her horse and entered the ranch house, where her family was gathered in the parlor.
"Back so soon?" her mother asked, kissing her cheek. "We thought you'd be out until midnight, at least."
"Owen had a patient," Audra said. She looked around at her family - Heath and Nick and their wives and children - and sighed. She noted Alice's swelling belly, and Samantha's, soon to be swollen again as well, and wondered if she would soon be joining that throng. "I'm tired - I'm going to bed."
"Something wrong, dear?" Victoria asked.
Audra shook her head. "Nothing a good night's sleep won't fix." I hope. She mounted the stairs to her room.
She was brushing her hair when her mother knocked on the door. "Is there something you want to talk about, Audra?"
"Yes, Mother," Audra said, "but I don't think I should."
"Ah," Victoria said, "I see."
Audra dropped her brush into her lap. "Do you?"
Victoria perched on the edge of the vanity. "I was married once - some things need to stay between a husband and wife."
"He's not my husband yet," Audra pointed out.
"In your heart, he is."
"The worst of it is, I'm not even sure I'm in the right," Audra sighed.
Victoria stooped and kissed her cheek. "Whatever it is, you and Owen can work it out. You have a great congruency of spirit - keep talking, and you'll be fine."
"Thank you, Mother," Audra smiled. "You've already made me feel better."
"Happy to," Victoria said. "Did you see your telegram? I put it on your pillow."
"No, I didn't notice," Audra said. She stood and picked up the telegram, ripping it open. "Oh, it's from Jack." She read hurriedly. "He wants to come to the wedding."
"How sweet," Victoria said dryly.
Audra ignored her tone and continued, "I suppose he'll want to bring That Woman with him."
"Since she's his wife, I daresay," Victoria said. "But I don't think you should call her that, at least not in his presence."
"I know," Audra said. "But it's hard, after what she did to Molly. And to Nick, before that."
"She served her time for what she did to Nick, as Jarrod would say," Victoria replied, "and Molly seems to have long since forgiven her."
"Why is it so much harder to forgive wrongs to those we love than wrongs done to ourselves?" Audra mused.
"I'm not insisting you forgive her," Victoria said, "although I suppose we all should, merely that you not call her names outside the family."
"All right, I can do that," Audra grinned. "I can even be gracious to her, I suppose. After all, I don't want any unpleasantness at my wedding. If she can behave herself, so can I."
"All right, dear." Victoria kissed her cheek. "You get a good night's rest."
"I'll probably be gone when you get up, Mother," Audra said. "Owen and I are meeting his cousin Judy at the station. She's coming in on the early train from Cheyenne."
"How nice that Owen will have some family at the wedding."
"Yes, I'm glad, too. Although I don't think they know each other very well - apparently Owen only discovered he had a cousin a couple of years ago, and that quite by chance. Still, I'm glad she's coming."
Victoria smiled as she left. "Good night, dear."
Audra got to the station as dawn was breaking to find the train pulling in and no Owen in sight. Only a few souls disembarked, and only one woman alone, so Audra approached her. "Mrs. Tomlinson? I’m Audra Barkley."
"Oh, Miss Barkley," the dark-haired woman said, "I'm so happy to meet you. But where is Owen?"
"I'm not sure," Audra said. "Probably with a patient - this is not at all unusual."
"Don't I know it," Mrs. Tomlinson rolled her eyes. "And please, call me Judy."
"And you must call me Audra. That's right, your husband is a doctor, too." Audra picked up Judy's suitcase and carried it to the buggy.
"You shouldn't," Judy said. "I can manage."
"That's all right," Audra said. "It's no bother." She helped Judy in and climbed up next to her. "I'm sorry your husband didn't come, too. Too busy?"
Judy bit her lip. "I wish that were the case," she said. "He wanted to come - he likes Owen quite a lot, but he's too ill to travel."
"I'm sorry to hear that," Audra said. "I hope he's better soon."
"So do I," Judy said, with sorrow in her voice.
Audra did not know what to say, so said nothing until they had arrived at Owen's house. She led Judy up the stairs and deposited the suitcase in Owen's bedroom. "Oh dear," Judy said, "I didn't realize the house was so small. Perhaps I should go to the hotel?"
"You can discuss that with Owen when he gets home," Audra said. "In the meantime, have you eaten?"
"I ate on the train," Judy said, "but I confess I'm still famished."
Audra smiled. "Come then, I'll make breakfast."
"I don't want to put you to any trouble," Judy said.
"I'd be doing it anyway," Audra said. "If Owen's been out all night, he'll have forgotten to eat."
Judy chuckled and followed Audra down the stairs. "He sounds like my Jonathon. One of those men who spends so much time thinking of others, he forgets to think of himself."
Audra smiled. "Exactly." She started pulling eggs and flour out of the pantry. "I was gone much of the past year, so I got my sisters-in-law to look after him while I was gone. He's still complaining about that."
Judy laughed. "I can imagine." She sighed. "It must be nice to have family close to hand. Owen's the only relative I have living, and I barely know him. It's why I wanted so much to come to the wedding, even if it did mean leaving my Jonathon behind."
"Owen hasn't said much about that, except that he met your husband at a medical conference, and discovered you were related."
Judy nodded. "Yes, it's funny that they took to each other right away. But then, maybe not, if they're so much alike. Both very idealistic."
Two years ago he wasn't so idealistic, Audra thought. Maybe it was this meeting that had opened Owen's eyes. "Tell me about your husband," Audra said. "And please, pass along any tips you may have for managing."
"Well, we live in a little farming community near the reservation. Mostly poor farmers and Shoshone. Very little money, and even less respect sometimes," Judy said, "but I wouldn't be able to tear him away, even if I tried, which I wouldn't, even if it meant an easier life for him."
Audra nodded. "I see. Yes." She looked thoughtful awhile, as she mixed the batter and poured it on the griddle.
"Why were you gone last year?" Judy enquired.
Audra flipped the pancakes. "I was on a lecture tour." Her eyes lit up without her being aware of it. "I'd spent six months in the Amazon with a scientific team."
"Oh, that sounds exciting," Judy said. "Too bad you're giving that up."
"Not entirely," Audra said. "I won't be going on any long expeditions, of course, but I'm working on a book of marine life right now."
The back door opened and Owen stepped in. "Ah, good, you're here. Sorry I'm late." He kissed Audra's lips and Judy's cheek.
"I was just making breakfast," Audra said.
"So I see," Owen smiled wearily.
"Have you been out all night?" Audra asked.
Owen nodded. "Ellis Johnson passed on this morning."
"I'm sorry," Audra said sadly. "I know how hard you've tried to save him."
Owen shook his head. "Rheumatic fever does such damage - if only we could prevent it."
"How old was he?" Judy asked.
"Thirty six, that's what's so tragic," Audra said. "He has a wife and three children. I'll tell Mother - I know she'll want to help."
"Well. I'd better eat and get some sleep before I go see my other patients," Owen said, sitting down at the table. Audra put a plate of pancakes and scrambled eggs in front of him and he dug in heartily. "Thank you, love." He looked over at Judy. "Is everything to your liking? Are you settled in comfortably?"
Judy shook her head as Audra served her breakfast. "I don't want to put you out - I think I should go stay at the hotel."
Owen's face fell. "Please stay. I may not be very good company, but I was so looking forward to having you here."
Judy looked into his earnest face and gave in. "All right, if that's what you want." She looked thoughtful. "It might make things easier, at that."
"I'm meeting Molly, my sister-in-law, at the dressmaker's this morning," Audra said to Judy. "Perhaps you'd like to come along?"
"How sweet," Judy said. "Yes, I believe I would."
Owen finished eating and stood to clear the table. "Would you mind leaving us alone for a mite, Judy? Audra and I need to make some plans."
"Of course," Judy said, standing as well. "I need to go freshen up anyway."
Audra heard her climbing the stairs. "Yes?" she said to Owen.
"I was thinking," Owen said shyly, "that I've always wanted to see the Grand Canyon."
Audra grinned. "See? Now that wasn't so hard, was it?"
Owen smiled and took her hand. "I'm sorry if I upset you yesterday - it was not my intent."
Audra hugged him. "I know. I'm sorry, too. I'm not sure why I got so upset, except. . .how can I please you if you never indulge in any pleasures?"
"You please me," Owen said, wrapping his arms around her. "You don't have to try."
"Well, that's the thing," Audra said. "I do have to try. And I wouldn't be here now if I had let you have the last word, if you'll remember. Why do you deny yourself so much - I've wondered that about you from the beginning."
Owen grew quiet for a long moment. "Maybe," he said at last, "it's because I'm scared. Everything I've ever loved has been taken from me - maybe I'm afraid to want too much."
"If I were afraid of losing something, I'd hold onto it tighter. Make Fate wrench it from my grasp instead of giving it up." She held him closer and felt his arms tighten about her, as well.
"There's one thing Fate would have to wrestle away from me," he said, resting his chin on her head. He sighed. "Maybe that's one reason I love you so much - you can teach me how to fight."
Audra wiped away a tear. "I can do that, all right," she said firmly. She leaned back in his arms, looking up into his face. "Did Judy tell you what's wrong with her husband?"
"No. She mentioned he was ill in her letter, but not in what way. I suppose I'll find out while she's here."
Audra bit her lip. "The way she spoke of it. . .I'm afraid it's something dire. Please let me know if there's any way we can help her."
Owen gave her a squeeze. "Of course. I do have one request, if I may?"
"Anything," she smiled.
"I would like to spend our first night here. I don't want to have our wedding night on a train." He raised an eyebrow.
Audra found herself blushing. "All right," she breathed. "If that's what you want." She could feel Owen's heart pounding as she held him. She turned up her face for his kiss, and was not disappointed.
"And I promise not to answer the door," he murmured.
Audra chuckled and kissed him again. "I have a request, too."
"Anything," he echoed.
She reached up and stroked his beard. "While we're on our honeymoon, I'd like you to shave."
He jerked back. "Audra! Do you know what you're asking?"
"You can grow it back before we return, but I'd like to see your face, just once."
He regarded her gravely, pain in his eyes, and she was moved to relent. She shook her head. "No, don't. It's too much to ask."
"I don't see how I could, dearest," he said.
"It's all right," she said. "I didn't mean to hurt you." She heard Judy coming down the stairs and pulled away. "Go sleep. Would you like to bring Judy out to the ranch for dinner? Everyone's dying to meet her."
"If she wishes," Owen said. He looked down on her. "Audra."
"It's all right, Owen," she said. "Get some rest. I'll see you tonight." She took his hand and led him out into the parlor. "I have a couple of errands to run before I go to the dressmaker's," she said to Judy. "Would you like to come, or should I come back for you?"
"I'll come, if I may," Judy said. "I've been cooped up on the train; I could use some fresh air."
Audra smiled. "Fine, then." She kissed Owen warmly and led Judy out the door and into the street. "Would you like to walk? It's a lovely day and it's not far."
"Yes, how pleasant," Judy said.
Audra and Judy strolled to the telegraph office where Audra sent a reply to Jack, then to the rail station to make arrangements for the wedding trip. "I've always wanted to see the Grand Canyon," Judy said.
Audra smiled. "My father took us when I was a little girl, but I haven't been back since. I'm glad Owen chose it." They walked toward the dressmaker's. "So," she asked, "I understand how you and Owen found each other, but I'm rather wondering how you lost each other."
Judy shrugged. "Some sort of falling out between our fathers, I think. I don't know what about, but my father was the sort who could hold a grudge for years because a clerk shorted him a penny."
Audra winced. "How unpleasant. And how sad - I think we lose so much by holding a grudge." She grew somber for a moment.
"What is it?" Judy asked.
"Nothing," Audra said. "Merely my conscience taking me to task."
"It can be hard to let go of a grudge," Judy agreed.
Molly was already at the dressmaker's when they arrived. Audra made introductions while Myrna, the dressmaker, brought out the dress from the back room. Audra stepped behind a screen to try it on, and Judy gasped when she stepped back out. "Why, I do believe it's the loveliest dress I've ever seen."
Molly grinned. "So you like it?"
"Molly designed it," Audra said. "She used to be a costumer for a Shakespeare company."
"I can believe it," Judy said, and the dress did have a Shakespearean quality about it. Ivory satin, with a long skirt and train flaring out from a fitted, tapered bodice; elbow length sleeves, with longer undersleeves, both trimmed with lace and a square neckline set off by a high, ruff-like collar. Traceries of beads and embroidery adorned the bodice and skirt, while the train was trimmed with ruched satin.
"It fits perfectly, Myrna," Audra said.
"I ought to know by now how to make your dresses, Miss Audra," Myrna said. "I should have the beading all finished by Monday - you can pick it up then."
"Plenty of time, since the wedding's on Wednesday," Audra said. "Thank you, Myrna. You've done amazing work."
"Thank Mrs. Jarrod," Myrna said. "I couldn't have done it without her pattern."
"I do," Audra said, stepping behind the screen. She carefully removed the dress and handed it to the dressmaker. "Thank you, Molly - I couldn't ask for a nicer wedding dress."
"My pleasure," Molly said, "and it is my pleasure. I'd almost forgotten what fun this could be."
"I'm afraid my gift will be quite pale by comparison," Judy said.
"Don't say that," Audra stepped out from behind the screen. "You don't know how Owen has longed for family - your gift is yourself. Don't belittle it."
"Amen," Molly said, fervently.
Judy looked from one to the other, a tear in her eye. "You're just being nice," she said.
"Nonsense," Molly said. "I know what it's like to have no one. Audra's right."
"I heard from Jack," Audra said to Molly. "He's coming to the wedding."
"How nice," Molly said. "And Barbara, too?"
"I suppose," Audra said. "You really don't mind?"
Molly smiled. "Au contraire. I take great delight in her reformation. And the idea that I had something to do with that."
Audra grimaced, but made no further comment on that subject. "Owen tells me that Ellis Johnson passed away this morning."
Molly's face fell. "I'm sorry to hear that - I'll have to go over and see if there's anything I can do to help."
"Yes, I need to go home and tell Mother." Audra turned to Judy. "Will you be all right? I feel like I'm abandoning you."
"I'll be fine," Judy said. "I'm sure I'll find plenty to do while Owen's visiting patients."
Audra thought back to the two days she had spent in Owen's house at the beginning of their friendship. "I'm sure you will," she smiled. "I've asked Owen to bring you to the ranch for dinner tonight, if you'd like."
"Why yes, I'd like that quite a lot," Judy said. "Thank you, you're most kind."
"Not at all," Audra said. "You'll be family soon - we all want to get a chance to know you." She turned to Molly. "I'll probably see you later at the Johnsons'." She gave her sister-in-law a hug, and walked Judy back to Owen's.
"Wonderful how a town rallies around when there's a need, isn't it?" Judy observed.
Audra nodded. "But I wish there were no need."
"There's always a need, somewhere," Judy said sadly.
Still not feeling intimate enough to intrude on whatever Judy's grief might be, Audra wished her a good day and rode for home.
It was a fine summer Saturday night as Audra and Owen strolled about the Barkley garden. She put her arm through his and leaned her head on his shoulder. "Has Judy told you what's wrong with Jonathan yet?" she asked.
Owen shook his head. "No. Whenever I ask, she says it's nothing to worry about and changes the subject. I think you're right, though. She looks immensely worried, for all that she's pleasant enough."
"Yes, she's certainly pleasant." Audra nodded at the house where the rest of the family and Judy were gathered in the parlor. "But why won't she confide in you? Everyone confides in you."
"I don't know," Owen said.
Audra looked up at his tone of voice. "But you have an idea."
Owen sighed. "I probably shouldn't say."
Audra wrinkled her brow. "You think it might be something shameful?"
"I didn't say that," Owen protested.
"No, but you do, don't you?"
"The hazards of being a doctor," Owen said. "All sorts of evil thoughts are apt to cross one's mind when a patient is not forthcoming. But, no, I've rarely seen a more devoted couple - I don't think it could be anything like that."
"She certainly seems devoted to him," Audra said. "Something he picked up before they met, then, possibly."
"Let's not speculate ahead of our data," Owen said. "Perhaps she merely doesn't want to spoil our wedding. Some people are superstitious about things like that." He patted her hand. "Justin will be here on Monday - he'll stay in the hotel until Tuesday night, then he and Judy will switch."
"I'm glad he's coming," Audra said.
"I don't know," Owen said, "I'd almost rather have Jarrod as Best Man. He's much more of a friend to me now. But it would have hurt Justin terribly, and I couldn't do that."
"That's my Owen," Audra said, "always putting other people's feelings ahead of your own. It is your wedding, after all."
Owen shrugged. "It's all right. All that matters is that we'll finally be wed."
"True," Audra said, "but I do want our wedding day to be as memorable as possible."
"It will be," Owen said, giving her a kiss. "It grows late, love. I'd best be going."
"All right," Audra pouted. She put her arms around his neck. "You know I live for the day when you won't have to say that anymore."
"Parting is such sweet sorrow," Owen said.
There was a clatter of hoofs on the drive. "Now who could that be at this time of night?" Audra wondered. A pale figure on a pale horse pulled up in front of the house and dismounted. "Jack?" Audra said in surprise.
"Ah, Audra, I was hoping you would still be up," Gentleman Jack said. He stuck out his hand to Owen. "You must be Dr. Grigsby. I've heard a lot about you."
"Have you?" Owen said, bemused.
"Owen, this Jack D - " Audra began.
"John Randolph," Jack interrupted.
"I'm pleased to meet you, Mr. 'Randolph'," Owen said.
"Why are you still using the alias, Jack?" Audra enquired. "Darren's behind bars - he can't hurt you anymore."
"Someone with money can always find a way to hurt you, if he wants to," Jack said.
Owen had been studying him for the last few moments. "My, you really do look like Jarrod."
"And with those two things in mind, I wonder if you wouldn't mind passing me off as a long-lost relative?" Jack said to Audra.
"I suppose, if you insist," Audra said. "I think the only other people who know differently are Dr. Merar and the sheriff. I think I can get them to go along."
"I really must be going, dear," Owen said, kissing her cheek. "Let me collect my cousin and we'll be off. Enjoy your guest. I'll see you in Church." He shook Jack's hand. "Pleased to meet you, and I look forward to seeing your wife again."
As Owen headed off, Audra slipped her arm through Jack's and strolled with him into the garden. "That brother of yours is nowhere around, is he?" Jack asked nervously.
"Nick? He's in the house. I can fetch him if you like," Audra dimpled.
"Oh no, that won't be necessary," Jack said. "I would like to see Samantha, but I suppose that's out of the question."
"Why did you come here, Jack?" Audra asked. "And so late?"
Jack shrugged. "We just got in town, I couldn't sleep. I didn't think you'd be in bed yet, so here I am."
"Without your wife," Audra said pointedly.
Jack shook his head. "She didn't think she'd be welcome. She's a little nervous about the wedding, too, but I told her it'd be all right. It is all right, isn't it?"
Audra sighed. "Yes, it's all right. A bit awkward, but all right."
"More so for her than for you, I want you to realize," Jack said. "She knows she has a lot to make up for - and probably will never be able to make up for most of it, but she's trying. Truly."
Audra was touched by Jack's earnestness. "You really love her, don't you?" she said in wonder.
"Well, don't tell her that," Jack said lightly. "She thinks I married her for her money."
"You're joking," Audra said.
"Not really. You have to understand Barbara - she's spent her whole life being told by men that they love her, when they all wanted something from her. Those are not words she has any trust in."
Audra was thoughtful a moment. "Yes, I see," she said. "All right, I promise to be kind to her."
Jack patted her hand. "I would expect nothing else from you."
Audra smiled. "Now, let's stop lurking out here in the garden and go into the house. I'm sure Samantha would like to see you."
"Not on your life," Jack said. "Your brother promised to kill me."
"He won't kill you," Audra grinned. "He might rough you up a little."
"Even so," Jack said.
"Come on," Audra said. "I'll protect you from the big bad brother. Better he see you here than at my wedding. I don't want any unpleasantness then."
"All right, fair lady," Jack sighed. "I would not show the white feather in your presence. Lead on."
Audra giggled and led Jack into the house. "Look who's here," she chimed.
"YOU!" Nick thundered. "You have a lot of nerve! I ought to tear you limb from limb!"
Jack cringed back, and Samantha put a restraining hand on Nick's arm. "Hold on there, Cowboy," she said, "That's no way to speak to a guest. Hello, Jack, good to see you."
"He's not a guest in this house!" Nick rumbled. "Not if I have anything to say about it, and I do, so he's not!" Nick crossed his arms and nodded emphatically.
"Then we'll speak outside," Samantha said calmly. She took Jack's arm. "It's a warm night. We'll talk on the verandah."
Nick paused. "Sam? How could you?"
"We'll discuss it later, Nick," Samantha said gently. "It's all right." She strolled out to the verandah with Jack. "Audra, would you mind getting Lizzie up? I'd like Jack to meet her."
"All right," Audra grinned.
"Your husband?" Jack said as Audra left.
"Oh, his bark is much worse than his bite," Samantha said. "So how have you been, Jack? I heard you got married."
"I'm fine, she's fine," Jack said. "I guess what I want to know is if you forgive me."
"Pish," Samantha said. "I've done worse to my friends. Back then," she added sadly.
"Yes, time moves on, doesn't it?" Jack said, "and things become. . .different. Can you make him understand that?"
"He does, he's just protective. And I wouldn't have him any other way, so watch yourself around him. He won't hurt you now, but if anything else happens. . ."
Jack held up his hands. "Believe me, I have no intention of arousing that man's ire. Besides, I'm an honest businessman now."
"I'm sure," Samantha said as Audra returned with a sleepy-headed Lizzie.
"Jaird?" Lizzie said on seeing Jack. She pulled back. "No Jaird."
"No, honey," Samantha said, "it's not Uncle Jarrod. This is Uncle Jack."
"Jack!" Lizzie shouted, proud of having a word she could say.
"My, she's big," Jack said. "I was imagining a baby."
"She's fifteen months now," Samantha said proudly, taking her daughter from Audra's arms. "Walking and talking and hard to keep up with. Just like I was at that age."
"Or Nick," Audra said. "He about drove Mother frantic, so they tell me."
"Will she come to me?" Jack asked shyly.
Samantha shrugged. "She might. Try and see."
Jack held out his arms and Lizzie examined him speculatively before holding out her own. Jack took her and an odd expression crossed his face. "I'm about to become a father, too," he admitted.
"Well, congratulations, Jack!" Samantha said, and Audra echoed. "Who'd have ever have thought it of the two of us, if they could have seen us ten years ago?"
"Who indeed?" Jack said. He stroked Lizzie's head before handing her back to her mother. "It is awfully late, and I don't mean to keep you up." He kissed Samantha's cheek. "I'm glad to see you happy, and you, fair lady," he kissed Audra's cheek in turn, "all best wishes. You've made a wise choice, if all I hear is true."
"I have," Audra agreed, "and thank you, Jack. I'll see you at the wedding, if not before." She bit her lip. "Feel free to call on us - with Barbara. It is far past time to let bygones be bygones."
"That's very gracious of you," Jack said. "Good night." He disappeared into the darkness.
Audra sat with Owen and Judy in church the next morning, Owen's cousin seeming now not just worried, but positively jittery. She wished the woman would confide in Owen, but realized there was no rushing trust. Perhaps Sunday dinner at the ranch would help set her more at ease.
They were making their way toward the door after the service when she felt Myrna clutch at her sleeve. "Miss Barkley," Myrna said, "I'm sorry, but I have to speak with you right away."
"Is there a problem with the dress, Myrna?" Audra asked. "Whatever it is, I'm sure we can fix it tomorrow."
Myrna chewed her lip. "I'm afraid not. I don't know how to tell you this, but your dress is ruined."
Audra stopped in her tracks. She could feel the congregation eddy around her and her mother come up behind her. "Ruined? Ruined how?"
"Someone broke into the shop last night, while I was out with my beau. I had your dress on the dummy, ready for hemming, and whoever it was - I'm sorry, I've never seen anyone do such a thing."
"Did you call the sheriff?" Victoria asked.
"Yes, but nothing was taken. Just the window smashed and your dress. I don't know if he'll figure out who did it. Or why."
"Let's go see," Audra said grimly.
"Perhaps we'd better bow out of dinner, dearest," Owen said, concern in his voice.
"No, you go ahead - we'll meet you there, but I need to deal with this now."
"Of course." He kissed her forehead and ushered Judy out of the church.
"Molly should come, too," Audra said. "If anyone can figure out how to make it right, she can. Besides, it's her dress as much as mine, in a way."
"Of course," Victoria said, motioning Molly over. Molly made her way toward them and Victoria explained briefly over Molly's gasps.
The gasps were even worse once they had arrived at Myrna's shop. Audra's dress was still on the dummy, but whoever had attacked it had done their work well. The dress hung in tatters and ribbons from the mesh framework, completely destroyed.
Molly shook her head. "I'm sorry, Audra, I can't do anything with this. It's hopeless."
Audra felt tears brim up, then a sharp rise of anger. "Where's my whip?" she demanded.
"Who are you planning to horsewhip?" Victoria enquired.
"That Woman! Barbary Red!" Audra said grimly. "Who else would do this?"
"Why would Barbara?" Molly asked. "She's never even met you."
"Why did she frame you?" Audra argued. "She'd never met you, either. It's just another way of getting at Jarrod."
Molly shook her head. "I can't believe that, Audra. All that is behind her, has been for some time."
"Why are you defending her?" Audra was shouting now.
"Because I don't believe she did it," Molly said firmly.
"Even if she did," Victoria said, "there's no proof - you can't just accuse someone without any evidence at all."
"I know she did," Audra said, crying now. "Who else would?"
"It might not have had anything to do with you," Victoria said. "It was the only dress on display - it might have been some poor woman, jilted, out of her wits. It might have been vandalism, pure and simple. Some people just love to destroy beautiful things."
"I know," Audra said, stifling a sob. "But we have to do something."
"We will," Victoria said, patting her shoulder. "But it won't involve horsewhipping. That won't get you wed. Unless you want to wed in your undergarments."
Audra stifled a laugh at that. "Don’t, Mother. Don't make fun."
"I'm not, dear," Victoria said. "I understand what a loss this is, but we need to be practical now." She turned to her daughter-in-law. "Molly, this concerns you almost as much as it does Audra. Will you come out to the ranch? We should counsel together."
Molly nodded. "Let me run home and tell Jarrod. I'll meet you at the ranch." She kissed Audra's cheek. "It will be all right, dear. We'll think of something."
Dinner was postponed while the Barkley women and Judy gathered in the study to take stock of the situation. "Can nothing be salvaged?" Alice asked when told the news.
Molly shook her head. "It might make a nice set of ribbons, or a reticule, but that's about it."
"I'm sorry, Molly," Samantha sympathized. "I know how hard you worked on it. And Audra, you must be devastated."
"I'm more angry right now," Audra admitted.
"Such a loss," Judy mourned. "It was so beautiful - destroying it would be like, like destroying the Mona Lisa."
"Not quite," Victoria said, "but right now we need to figure out what to do. The wedding is in three days - not nearly enough time to make another dress. So - Audra needs to wear something she already has, or go to San Francisco tomorrow and see what she can find there."
"Off the rack?" Audra said. "I was rather hoping for something with more sentiment than that."
"If it's sentiment you want," Samantha said, "you gave me your dress when I needed one in a hurry. I would be more than happy to give it back to you."
"That would be one solution," Victoria said, "and a good one - thank you, Samantha. I might also suggest the dress you were wearing when you declared yourself, Audra."
"The white muslin?" Audra said. "That old thing? It makes me look like a girl."
"It might mean something to Owen, is what I'm thinking," Victoria said.
Judy had been sitting, steaming like a volcano about to erupt. "You really mean you would go through with it now?" she asked incredulously.
"Yes, why not?" Audra asked, startled. "It is just a dress, after all."
"It's an omen," Judy said. "It'll be bad luck if you get married now."
Audra regarded her, dumbfounded. "Do you have something against me, Judy?"
"No, of course not," Judy said. "I like you very much. Your whole family," she gulped, "have been very kind to me. But it doesn't do to ignore a portent like that."
"I don't believe that, Judy," Audra said gently. "And even if I did, I'd brave any amount of 'bad luck' to marry Owen." She turned back to her mother. "I think you're right, Mother. Thank you, Samantha, but while your dress might mean more to me, I think the muslin would mean more to Owen."
"All right, that's settled then," Victoria said briskly. "We'd better look it over and see if it needs any work done on it."
"Would you leave that to me and Samantha?" Alice asked. "We'd like to contribute something."
"Thank you," Audra said, touched. "That's sweet of you both." She stood and hugged her mother. "And thank you, Mother. You always know what to do."
Victoria smiled. "Because I've withstood so much adversity. Come now, dears, let's go have our dinner."
"I'm really worried about Judy," Audra confided to Owen after dinner. They had adjourned to the garden again for some privacy. "She actually thought we should call off the wedding because my dress got ruined. Said it was a portent. I'm not sure she's right in her wits."
Owen frowned. "A lot of people are superstitious, dearest. It's not a sign of insanity, as far as I'm aware. Do you want me to talk to her?"
"Do whatever you think best," Audra said. "She's your cousin." She leaned on his arm.
"I'm more worried about you right now," Owen said. "I never saw such stormy looks as when you came back from the dressmaker's."
Audra sighed. "I'm all right now. Mother can always make me see reason. But yes, I was very angry. I'm still hurt - I feel rather. . .violated. As though it were myself who was attacked, and I wasn't even there."
Owen stifled a yawn. "I'm sorry, dearest. I was up until four this morning."
"A patient?" Audra asked. Owen nodded. She shook her head. "Do you ever sleep, Owen? You'd better go lie down for a bit in the guest room."
"I hate to waste the time," Owen said, "when I'm here with you."
"That's very sweet," Audra said, "but I won't have you getting sick. Now go take a nap, please."
"All right," Owen said, "if you insist."
"Just don't let yourself get called away on our wedding day - if you don't show up on time, I swear, I'll, I'll, I'll horsewhip you," Audra said, smiling.
"Never fear," Owen said. "I wouldn't dare, even without the threat." He took her in his arms. "There's nothing in the world I want so much as to marry you. Surely you know that."
She nodded. "Yes, I do." She kissed him softly. "Now go get some sleep."
A Most Memorable Wedding Day
Audra was up early on her wedding day, in the garden gathering flowers. She was carrying her basket toward the house when Molly pulled up in a buggy. "Where's Jarrod?" Audra enquired. "He was supposed to come, too."
Molly sighed. "Georgie would pick this morning to throw a temper tantrum. He hates it when Jarrod and I both go out. Jarrod's trying to calm him down, but we thought I should come ahead."
"Well, I certainly can't do without my Matron of Honor," Audra said. "Jarrod will be at the wedding, though? I can't get married without my family there."
"One way or another," Molly said. She greeted Silas who came out to assist her. "Silas, could you help me with this?" She indicated a large flat package in the back of the buggy.
"What is that?" Audra asked.
"Your wedding present," Molly explained, "although I have some qualms about giving it to you."
"What qualms?" Audra asked. "I'm sure, whatever it is, it's lovely."
"Well, let's take it in and you can see." Silas carried the package into the study and Molly helped Audra rip the paper off.
Audra gasped. "Oh, Molly, how did you. . . ?"
"I knew Owen was too busy to sit for a portrait, so I did it from memory. I'm not that experienced with portraiture, but I thought it turned out rather well, until the dress mishap."
Audra stood studying the portrait - she had to admit it was good. Perhaps not as good as Marguerite - who had painted both Jarrod's and Heath's wedding portraits - would have done, but it did capture. . .something. There was just one problem. "It's beautiful, Molly, but. . . ."
"It's the wrong dress," Molly said. "I know. I didn't have time to change it. If you want, I can redo it while you're away."
Audra thought. "No," she said at last, "leave it. You're not wearing your wedding dress in your portrait. At least this way, something of it survives." She hugged her sister-in-law. "Thank you. I can't think of a lovelier present."
"I'm glad," Molly said. She picked up the basket of flowers. "Now, let's go get you ready for your wedding."
While Audra bathed, Molly put together the bouquet and garland for Audra's hair. "Where's Victoria?" she asked when Audra returned.
"She's working on the wedding breakfast - don't worry, she'll be up here shortly." Audra sat in the window and brushed out her hair, letting the warm sun dry it. "Thank goodness it's a nice day."
"Just like my wedding day," Molly said. "You woke me up and gave me breakfast, remember?"
Audra nodded. She clasped Molly's hand. "I'm so glad you joined our family, Molly. You've been like a sister to me - it's why I wanted you for my Matron of Honor. Jarrod isn't too upset about not giving me away, is he? I really felt Mother deserved that honor, even if it isn't traditional."
"If he is, he doesn't show it," Molly said. "I think he understands, and he did give Samantha away, and performed the ceremony. I think he's just happy to see you happy."
Audra sighed. "I'm glad - I didn't want to hurt anyone's feelings."
Molly brushed out Audra's hair. "It's altogether a small wedding for a Barkley."
"I know. But Alice didn't want to be a bridesmaid visibly with child, and Samantha is having a difficult time with nausea. She didn't want to take the chance of having to run out in the middle of the ceremony." She took the brush back from Molly and began braiding her hair. "And Owen only had Justin, anyway, so it would have been lopsided with me with three attendants and him with one or maybe two."
"Two? Who would the other one have been?"
"Jarrod, possibly. I'm sorry he didn't say something sooner - it would have been nice to have given Big Brother a place."
"He'll be gathered around the altar with the rest of us," Molly said. "Don’t worry. It'll be a wonderful wedding - wait and see."
Victoria entered and took Audra's dress from the wardrobe. "My, it looks like new," Molly said. "Alice and Samantha did a beautiful job. And white is fashionable for weddings right now."
"There's no shortage of the 'something old'," Audra said. "Samantha is lending me the veil Mother gave her for her wedding for the 'something borrowed', and Mother is giving me her sapphires for the 'something blue'."
"And the 'something new'?" Molly enquired.
"Shoes and undergarments," Audra said. "I just hope no one else asks that question." She smiled ruefully.
"No one's likely to," Victoria said. "People will admire the simplicity of your wedding, you'll see."
"I don't much care, at this point," Audra said. "All I want is to be wed. To Owen. Today."
"You will be," Victoria said. "Now stop fussing with your hair - it's beautiful - and come and get dressed."
Molly and Victoria got Audra into her undergarments and corset, then the dress, white muslin with embroidered flowers. Audra did find herself thinking of the last time she had worn it, and did not regret the choice, old-fashioned and girlish as it was. Then the mantilla, worn by both Victoria and Samantha at their weddings, secured by Molly's garland, and the gift of Victoria's sapphires last of all.
"I'm ready," Audra sighed. The clock chimed downstairs. She looked out the window and frowned. "Where's Owen? He should be here with the carriage by now."
"Give him a few minutes," Victoria chided. "And calm down, dear."
"I am a bit nervous," Audra admitted. "All right, Mother, a few more minutes."
But ten minutes passed, then twenty, and still no Owen. "Where can he be?" Audra asked. "I told him I'd horsewhip him if he were late."
"How romantic," Victoria said.
"Oh, Mother, you know I didn't mean it. But what do we do? We should be at the church."
"All right," Victoria said. "We'll all go in the surrey. If we meet him on the way, you can transfer to the carriage. Don't worry, dear, I'm sure he won't leave you at the altar."
"No fear of that," Audra said, "but something is wrong. Joking aside, I know he'd be here - he doesn't break promises. Not Owen."
"Then he'll be there," Victoria said. "Let's be there ourselves."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Owen locked the surgery door and posted a large 'Do Not Disturb' sign on it, with directions to Dr. Merar's office, if anyone didn't already know where it was. He pocketed the key and walked into the parlor. "Last patient gone," he said to Justin. "Oh, you're already dressed."
Dr. Justin Logan straightened his tie. "All the better to serve you, O bridegroom."
Owen chuckled. "Well, first I need to bathe. If you don't mind, why don't you go to the livery and see that the carriage is ready? I don't want to be late."
Justin bowed with a flourish. "As you wish."
Owen chuckled again as Justin left. He had rarely seen Justin in such high spirits - probably not since their college days. It made him glad he had chosen his old friend as Best Man. He went upstairs and prepared his bath, taking robe and towel with him. As he sat soaking in the tub, he tried to calm his pounding heart, but then thought - why not let it pound? He did not get married every day, after all. He had never thought to marry at all, and gave himself over to how thoroughly his life had been changed by this most compelling woman.
He was lost in these thoughts when he heard a footfall outside the bathroom door. "Justin?" he said. "Back so soon?"
It was with alarm that he heard the key turn in the lock, and a hurried tread rush into the bedroom. He jumped out of the bath and rattled the door, which was, as he feared, firmly locked. "Justin!" he called. "If this is a joke, Justin, it's not funny. Now let me out." He heard footsteps on the stair and the front door open and close, and then that silence that let him know he was in an empty house. He put on his robe and knelt to look through the keyhole, but there was a clear view through it - the key was not in the lock. He gathered himself and threw himself against the door, but as it was solid oak, all that got him was a sore shoulder. The window was a mere slit - too small to admit a child, much less a full grown man. He tried not to panic - if it were Justin who had locked him in, he would surely let him out soon. And if it wasn't - and his heart told him it wasn't - Justin would be back soon and would let him out then.
He paced around the bathroom for what seemed like hours, when he heard a shout from out in the garden. "Owen!"
He looked out the window and shouted back, "Justin!"
"What's the matter, Owen?" Justin shouted. "Why did you lock me out?"
"I didn't," Owen said, "and someone's locked me in the bathroom. Are all the doors locked?"
"Tight as a drum," Justin said. "Shall I try the windows?"
"No, none of them have opened since I bought the house," Owen said. He thought a moment. "Jarrod should have a spare key, if he hasn't left for the ranch yet. If he has, you'll have to break a window."
"Point me the way," Justin said. Owen gave him directions to Jarrod's house. Since he was locked in the bathroom anyway, he finished his ablutions and then resumed his pacing. The clock chimed downstairs and he felt a moment of panic - he was supposed to be at the ranch by now. Not that he was afraid of Audra's whip, but he hated to disappoint or worry her, today of all days. What was taking Justin so long?
"What took you so long?" he asked when Justin finally knocked at the bathroom door.
"You know how it is with keys one never uses - one forgets where one put it. We had quite a search for it. Now, how to get you out of here - there's no key in the lock."
"Try the bedroom door - all the inside keys are on the same lock," Owen said. It only took one further moment and Owen was free at last. He dashed into the bedroom and tore open the wardrobe door. Justin found him standing there, cursing.
"What's wrong?" Justin asked.
"Someone's taken my morning clothes," Owen said.
"Someone apparently doesn't want you to get married," Justin said, untying his tie.
"I had figured that out," Owen said, "and what are you doing?"
"Giving you my clothes," Justin said.
"Don't be silly - I'm a good four inches taller than you. They'd never fit. I'll just have to wear something else." He took out a suit. "It's my best suit - it'll have to do." He thought about that night in the garden, when they had declared their love, and smiled. "It has sentimental value at least."
Justin continued to undress. "Can't have the Best Man better dressed than the groom," he explained. "I'll wear a suit, too."
"Well, hurry, then" Owen said. "We're already late."
"So who else has a key?" Justin said. "Because whoever did this must have had one."
"No one," Owen said. "Well, only Jarrod and Audra. And if Audra didn't want to marry me, she'd say so. And if Jarrod had done it, he'd have failed to find the key. Which I wouldn't believe anyway."
"What about that cousin of yours?" Justin asked.
Owen shook his head. "Never gave her one - it wasn't needed. And why would she? She barely knows me and she just met Audra."
Justin shrugged. "Someone did. Any former lady friends hanging about?"
"You know there's not," Owen said.
"An old flame of the bride's, then."
Owen grew thoughtful. "Maybe. But there's nothing to be done about it now." He finished dressing and bent down to tie his shoes. "Ready? Because Audra threatened to horsewhip me if I were late."
"Did she?" Justin grinned. "Well, I certainly wouldn't want to miss that."
They drove by the church to find a crowd gathered outside. Owen stopped the carriage and dismounted. Audra was standing with her family, and he swooped down on her with a hearty kiss. "Jarrod told us what happened," she said. She looked him over. "Your wedding clothes, too?"
He nodded. He noted what she was wearing and smiled. "Perhaps that was not such a bad thing, after all. It has a certain felicity." He looked around at the crowd. "Why is everyone outside?"
Audra could not help but laugh, although she tried to stifle it. "There's a skunk in the church."
Owen snickered, then covered it up. "This is approaching farce," he said.
"It's another omen," Judy said, coming up behind them.
Audra frowned suspiciously at her. "Judy, did you have anything to do with this?"
Judy's eyes widened. "Me? Why would I?"
"I don't know," Audra said. Owen touched her elbow. "I only know that someone seems to be out to stop this wedding."
"Well, they ain't gonna," Nick said. "My sister wants to get married in Church, she'll get married in Church." He strode toward the church door.
"What are you going to do, Nick?" Audra asked.
"I'm gonna get that creature out of there," Nick said.
Rev. Stacy put out a restraining hand. "Better not, Nick," he said. "If that skunk goes off in there, the church will be unusable for weeks."
"I've tangled with skunks before, Reverend," Nick said. "I know what I'm doing." He turned and strode into the church.
"I hope those aren't famous last words," Jarrod said.
Nick propped the church doors open and everyone else waited outside, tremulously. Not much happened for several minutes, then the skunk appeared, waddling down the church steps as fast as it could go. It balked when it saw the crowd outside, raised its tail and stamped its feet. The crowd moved back just as Nick came out of the church and said, "See? I told you I knew - "
The skunk took aim at the author of its woes and a stream of foul-smelling liquid hit Nick square in the chest. The crowd melted away as though it had never been there, and the Barkleys stood transfixed.
Nick bent over, retching, eyes streaming tears. Samantha rushed to his side unthoughtedly, and as the reek hit her, bent over, retching, too.
Nick looked down at Samantha's breakfast, now adorning his trousers and shoes. "Ah, Sam," he said. "That's just adding insult to injury."
Samantha backed away. "I'm sorry, Cowboy," she said. "It's my condition." She looked down at her ruined dress. "If it's any consolation to you, I got more on me than I did on you."
Nick looked over at Jack and Barbara, who were the only guests who had not run away from the skunk's stench. "What are you grinning at?" Nick growled at Jack.
Jack wiped the grin off his face. "Nothing, nothing at all." He looked down at Barbara, who was turning an odd color herself. "Just thinking I'd better take my wife upwind." He led Barbara up the street a distance, but did not leave.
"Come on, Nick, Sam," Jarrod said. "Better go to my house and clean up." He led his brother and sister-in-law away. "Don't get married without us!" he shouted back over his shoulder.
"Use lots of vinegar," Victoria advised.
The stench lessened as Nick was led away, but still remained strong. Audra had an odd expression on her face, torn between dismay and laughter. She looked up at Owen. "What do we do now?" she asked.
"Reverend?" Owen looked at Rev. Stacy.
Rev. Stacy had covered his nose and mouth with a handkerchief. He looked reproachfully at Nick's receding back, then said, "I have a funeral to conduct in an hour. If you're still wanting to get married, it will have to be now."
"Not without Nick and Jarrod," Audra insisted. "Not without my family."
"Then we'll have to postpone," Rev. Stacy said. "It's what I would advise."
"We'll get married at the ranch, then," Audra said. "All - almost all - of the guests have left anyway. Jarrod can perform the ceremony, when he's done with Nick."
"If that's what you want," Rev. Stacy said. "I must say this has been the oddest wedding in my memory."
"And you don't know the half of it," Owen confided.
"I'll go tell Jarrod," Molly said.
"Bring the children," Audra said. "No sense leaving them out now."
Molly nodded, hiking up her skirt and taking off after her husband.
The Barkleys and what few guests remained - Jack, Barbara and Judy - piled into the surrey and the carriage. "Are you all right, Alice?" Audra asked her remaining sister-in-law.
Alice patted her belly. "I'm past the nausea stage, thank goodness. Yes, I'm fine - don't worry about me." Heath took her hand and smiled at her warmly.
Silas was surprised by the small size of the party that arrived back at the ranch. Since they would have to wait for Jarrod, Nick and Samantha, they decided to partake of the wedding breakfast before the wedding.
"There's far to much food here," Audra said. "Mother, we'll have to send what's left to those in need."
Victoria agreed, and everyone ate in relative silence until the missing family members arrived. Nick and Samantha were wearing robes borrowed from Jarrod and Molly, so went upstairs to change. Audra told them not to bother dressing up, for which Nick was profoundly grateful. Samantha returned in a nice dress, but Nick wore his habitual black vest, looking far more comfortable. A faint fragrance of skunk and vinegar hung about him, but he was no longer offensive. He growled low in his throat when he saw Jack there, but Samantha's presence restrained him. Jarrod, Nick, Samantha and the children joined the feast before everyone assembled in the garden and Jarrod began the words of the wedding ceremony.
"Dearly beloved," he began, reading the words, yet giving them such warmth and feeling that Audra was almost glad for all the mishaps if they led to being married by her brother.
"Therefore," Jarrod continued, "if any man can show any just cause, why they may not lawfully be joined together, let him now speak, or else hereafter for ever hold his peace."
Judy cleared her throat. Why am I not surprised? Audra thought as the woman began to speak. "I have a reason," Judy said. "If you get married, my Jonathan will die."
Revelation and Revealing
Audra turned, hands on her hips, crushing her bouquet. "Is this some more of your superstitious nonsense, Judy? And so help me, if you've had anything to do with all these mishaps. . . ."
"Please listen," Judy said, tears streaming down her face. "I'm not superstitious, and I'm not insane. I'm not supposed to tell you, but it looks as though I have no choice. My Jonathon has a tumor on his spine."
Audra gasped, as did the rest of the gathering, and dropped her flowers. "Oh, Judy, I’m so sorry. But what does that have to do with all this?"
"There's a doctor, a surgeon, at Johns Hopkins who may be able to remove it, but that takes money - even if he'd do it as a professional courtesy, my husband will still need to go to a sanitarium to convalesce, and then there's travel, and I'd have to go with him, and how would I live?" She was pleading now.
"We still don't understand, Judy," Owen said. "How does preventing our marriage help Jonathon?"
"Just let me finish, please," Judy said. She wiped her eyes. "This is hard enough as it is. The tumor will kill him in a year, but he'll be crippled in a month if nothing is done. I was in despair until I got a letter. . . .'
"Ah," Jack said. "Light dawns."
"Go on, Judy," Owen said.
"The letter - I don't know who it was from - said there was thirty thousand dollars waiting in escrow at the bank, and all I had to do to get it released to me was see that your wedding never happened." Judy sniffled. "I checked - the money was there, all right. And I wasn't to tell you, but you see that I had to? Just postpone," she pleaded, "long enough to get the money released. Pretend to break it off - you could do that, couldn't you?"
Audra shook her head. "If you'd told us from the beginning. . . ."
"Come begging for money, right off the bat?" Judy scoffed. "I know how wealthy people treat poor relations. And you didn't even know me - I couldn't take the chance, not with Jonathon's life. I'm most sorry about the dress - I meant what I said about it being like destroying the Mona Lisa, but I would destroy the Mona Lisa if it meant saving Jonathon's life. I did it all, I confess. I stole Owen's key and had a copy made. . . ."
"The skunk?" Nick asked, scowling.
Judy nodded. "I got lucky there - I went to the church early to see if there was anything I could do, and it was nosing around outside. I've had experience with skunks, too, and was able to shoo it inside."
"Did you really think a series of pranks would stop this wedding?" Jarrod asked.
Judy shook her head. "No, but I had to try, didn't I? What else could I do?" She was looking defiant now, and Audra found herself liking her all the better for it.
"We are getting married, Judy," Audra said, "and right now. The question is whether you'll trust us to help you, and we do want to help you."
"After all I've done to you?" Judy asked incredulously.
"Yes, of course," Audra said, picking up her dropped flowers. She looked up at Owen. "Don't we?"
He smiled warmly down at her. "Yes, love, and thank you. Now let's be wed."
The rest of the ceremony proceeded without let or hindrance, and soon the two were wrapped in a warm embrace, enjoying a satisfying kiss. Audra threw her tattered bouquet in the air in an outburst of joy, scattering petals over her and her bridegroom, and Nick led off a rousing cheer.
As there were only three guests, the reception line was short and over quickly. Audra considered whether to apologize to Barbara for her suspicions, but realized the apology itself would be a kind of insult, and so kept it to herself, merely accepting Barbara's well-wishes and offering her own.
"You still here?" Nick growled at Jack.
"I wouldn't have missed it," Jack affirmed. "It's by far the best entertainment I've had in years. So, what are you going to do about Darren Smith? I'm all ears."
Barbara cringed at the mere mention of Darren's name, and Audra felt a growing sympathy for the woman. "We have no proof it was Darren," Jarrod pointed out.
"You know it was," Barbara said vehemently, and Audra would have agreed had she not been so searingly reminded of having recently said the same words herself.
"Who’s Darren?" Judy asked.
"An old beau of Audra's," Jarrod explained. "He's in prison now for attempted murder."
Judy blanched. "Who did he try to kill?" She looked at her cousin. "Not. . .not Owen?"
Jarrod nodded. "I didn't know," Judy said weakly. "I might have been more wary if I'd known that."
"And he blackmailed," Jarrod glanced at Barbara, "someone we know to try to break them up before that. So it fits."
"Let's discuss that later," Audra said. "First we need to take care of Judy. "
"Let me handle that," Victoria said, taking Judy by the arm, and leading her toward the house.
Owen's eyes followed Victoria and Judy as they left. "She's my cousin, I should - ," He looked down at Audra and sighed, "- stay by my bride on our wedding day."
Audra smiled up at him, then frowned. "How would Darren have known about Judy - that she's your cousin, that she needed money desperately?"
Molly looked over at Barbara. "Someone once told me that you could find out anything if you asked the right questions of the right people." Barbara nodded grimly.
"And Darren certainly has the resources to bring it off, it he wanted to," Jarrod said. He kissed Audra's cheek. "Let me handle Darren. Enjoy the rest of your wedding day, Honey."
"What are you going to do?" Audra asked.
Jarrod shook his head. "Will you trust me, Little Sister?"
Audra eyed him a moment, then nodded. "All right, Big Brother," she said.
"Well, let's celebrate!" Heath said, and small as the party was, so they did. Champagne flowed and much joy was expressed. Lizzie, who had been wriggling in Samantha's arms the entire time, was finally set free to toddle about the garden. Not being a strong walker yet, she frequently snatched at people and objects to steady herself, until nearly-three-year-old Georgie, looking on in disgust, seized her hand and led her about.
"Isn't that sweet," Audra said.
Samantha shook her head. "Given his proclivity for getting into trouble, I'm not sure he's the one I want shepherding my daughter around."
"He's no worse than I was at his age," Nick opined. "Shows spirit - I like it." He wrapped his arms around his wife.
Jarrod and Molly's daughters, Emma and Vicky, ran off to play with Heath and Alice's daughter Lena, Lucas overseeing the younger children.
"Lucas is quite the young man now," Owen observed.
Molly sighed. "I know. He'll be leaving us in a year to go to college, and it seems we barely got him. I almost feel like I would sending Georgie off to college."
"Does he know what field he wants to go into?" Audra asked.
"He says law, like his father," Molly confided. "But I've always thought he had a more artistic streak. But he'll have time to figure that out. A little time, anyway."
"We aren't losing him, Feather," Jarrod said. "He's just growing up - no need to be so mournful about it."
Molly laughed, and Audra took Owen by the hand and led him deeper into the garden. They came to what once had been Molly's cottage, and with no more communication than a glance and a grin, entered it together. Owen took Audra in his arms and kissed her thoroughly.
"Is it selfish of me to be glad you chose to stay with me instead of helping your cousin?" Audra asked when they came up for air.
Owen stroked her hair. "No, dearest. I know what obligation I took on by marrying you - no one is more important, or will be, than you and our children. I don't intend to neglect any of you."
Audra felt a little frisson at the mention of their future children. "Even when others need you more?" she said. "I have no illusions about that, you know."
"Finding a balance will be a difficult task," Owen agreed. "But I do want to be a good husband, and a good father. It's something we'll have to work on, every day. You must help me, dearest."
Audra smiled. "I will." She kissed him earnestly.
"Hmmmmm," Owen said. "When can we leave?"
Audra giggled. "What, with no guests and so no reception? We could leave now, I suppose."
"Then let's," Owen encouraged. And so they did.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
As they climbed into the Barkleys' private rail car the next morning, Owen said, "I don't think I'll ever get used to traveling this way."
"I wanted the car more for privacy than comfort," Audra said, "but we can dispense with it if you wish."
"No," Owen shook his head, "don't be silly. It would be senseless to deprive you of something because I'm not used to it. There wouldn't be much left if I did."
Audra stroked his beard. "There'd be plenty," she smiled. "You're far more than enough to keep me happy, all by yourself." She opened her carpetbag and took out a wrapped box. "I brought your wedding present."
Owen took the package and unwrapped it to reveal a pair of binocular field glasses. "They were my father's," Audra explained. "I hope you'll use them - not just on this trip, but after we get back, too."
Owen kissed her cheek. "That really bothers you, doesn't it? That I don't birdwatch anymore?"
Audra nodded. "Yes, it does. You should have your pleasures, Owen - ones that are yours alone. Don't tell me you don't love it, because I know you do."
"All right," Owen said. "Perhaps you're right - there might be such a thing as too much self-denial." He opened his bag and took out a similarly wrapped package. "And I brought your present, too."
Audra laughed and unwrapped it, and her heart stopped. "A shaving kit?" she said.
"I thought - I thought if I were going to get you a gift, that giving you what you asked for was the best way to please you," Owen said shyly.
Audra caressed his cheek. "You don't have to, Owen," she said. "Not if it hurts you."
Owen took her hand and kissed her fingers. "No. The only reason for not doing it would be because I'm afraid, and I can't be afraid of you. You've seen the rest of me, and embraced me. . . ."
"Joyfully," Audra interrupted, blushing.
"Yes, with joy," Owen agreed, kissing her hand. "So, it's time to remove the mask, dearest." He opened the kit and began to lay out the shaving instruments - razor, brush and mug.
Audra stoked up the stove and put water on to heat. When it was warm, she poured it into a basin and Owen began to work up a lather. He brushed the suds into his beard, then took the razor and began to shave in careful strokes.
Audra dried his face off with a towel when he was done, then held the pale, scarred skin between her hands. She wondered, if she had seen him this way to begin with, whether she would have had the wisdom to pursue him, but now, as he looked up at her with both fear and hope in his eyes, all she could think or say was, "It's the face of the man I love."
He took her in his arms then, and all they knew, or cared to know, was each other.
Jarrod submitted stoically to the cursory pat-down before being admitted to the San Quentin visiting room. Darren Smith stood as he came in, offering his hand. "Jarrod! How good of you to come see me. Does this mean you finally believe in my innocence?"
Jarrod shook his head, spurning Darren's outstretched hand. He leaned forward, putting his fists on the table between them. "I've come to tell you that Audra's married now, and for you to leave her and her husband alone."
Darren's eyes grew wide. "I don't know what you're talking about, Jarrod. Not much I can do behind these bars - my appeal's coming up; I was hoping you'd help me with it."
Jarrod leaned forward, putting his face close to Darren's. "We both know that's not true, Darren. You have money and resources on the outside - you can offer a poor, desperate woman the money she needs to save the man she loves, you can blackmail a woman with a checkered past to do your bidding, you can hire someone to harm my sister's husband. But I'm telling you now, Darren," Jarrod's voice became a vehement whisper, "that I have resources, too. Inside and outside of prison, and I warn you, that anything, and I mean anything, that happens to Audra's husband will happen to you. So you'd better pray that he has a long and happy life, and that no accidents befall him, because I mean what I say."
Darren grew pale. "Jarrod. This isn't at all like you."
"We all have a dark side," Jarrod said. "This is mine. At least this time I'm putting it to good use. Be grateful I'm not strangling you with my bare hands - I've done it before. Stay away from Audra - stay away from her husband and her children. Or I swear by all that's holy, you'll pay in the same measure you deal out." He straightened then. "Am I understood?"
Darren went from pale to purple and back again. Wriggling like a fish caught in a net, he glared at Jarrod with naked hatred, but finally slumped forward. "Understood," he said at last.
Jarrod turned to leave. "He only married her for her money, you know," Darren called after him.
Jarrod turned back. He coughed a sardonic laugh. "Not even close, Darren. Besides, Audra has no money now. It's all in an irrevocable trust - no one can touch it but her children, and they can't until they're twenty five years old."
Darren looked stunned. "Why would she do that?" His eyes brightened. "She doesn't trust him, then."
Jarrod shook his head. "It was his wish." He regarded Darren with curiosity.
Darren was even more stunned. "Why would he wish that? Why would any man wish that?"
"When you understand that, you might understand why my sister loves him," Jarrod said. He knocked on the door for the guard, and as he left, he turned back to see Darren, slumped forward with his head in hands. Jarrod smiled in satisfaction and whistled to himself as he made his way to the rail station and headed for home.