It was late on a Friday evening when Audra Barkley returned to her lodgings in San Diego, carrying a ragged manuscript which she dumped wearily on the desk. It was then she noticed the note lying on the rug by the door, and stooped to pick it up.
Meet me at The Waves, and bring an overnight bag.
Her spirits lifted. Jarrod was here? Why? And why hadn't he let her know he was coming? She had too much work to do to consider spending the night at the beach cottage, but a visit with her big brother might be just the tonic she needed.
As she rode up to the cottage, Jarrod was on the porch, obviously watching for her. She sprang down from the saddle and ran into his arms. "Jarrod! What are you doing here? And why didn't you tell me? Is Molly with you?"
Jarrod smiled and held her at arms length. "Slow down, slow down," he said. "I have a meeting with the banker down here tomorrow - I'm wearing my business manager hat. And I didn't tell you because I wanted to surprise you." He put an arm around her shoulder and led her inside. "I also thought I'd see about putting the cottage in order so I could bring Molly down here for a week or two. She's looking pale, and a visit to the seaside might do her some good."
"Oh, how wonderful it would be to have you both here," Audra said. "I do confess to feeling lonely sometimes." She sniffed the air. "You're not cooking?"
"Well, that's the other surprise I have for you," but before he could get the words out -
"Owen!" Audra squealed as she opened the kitchen door. She threw her arms around his neck and kissed him ardently. "Oh, what are you doing here? How did you get away? Oh, how I've missed you!" She kissed him again, then became aware that Jarrod was standing there grinning at her.
"So you like my surprise?" he teased.
"Oh. . .you!" she said. "Go. . .dust or something."
Jarrod grinned wider and exited, and Audra planted a third and much longer kiss on Owen's lips.
Owen combed his hair with his fingers. "Goodness. I don't think anyone's ever been so happy to see me in my life." He grinned down at her. "I've missed you, too," he said, caressing her cheek.
She leaned her head on his chest. "What are you doing here?"
"Things were slow enough that I felt I could get away for a few days when Jarrod asked me. You did tell me once I should take care of my own happiness, didn't you?"
"I'm so glad." She bit her lip. "I can't stay - I have rewrites to do tonight, and meet with Emerson about them in the morning. I should be done with him by noon, though. How long are you staying?"
"Until Monday morning. So we can have most of tomorrow and all day Sunday together." He smiled at her hopefully.
She snuggled against him. "That sounds wonderful. It's a low spring tide Sunday morning - I was thinking about coming out here for that anyway. We'd have to be up at dawn."
"I would like that," he said, "and I'm usually up at dawn anyway."
"What will you do tomorrow while Jarrod and I are busy? I'm sorry - I didn't know you were coming or I'd have tried to reschedule."
"I have friends here to call on - I did used to live here, remember? I at least should pay a call on Justin, my old partner."
"All right, then, we'll all meet back here tomorrow afternoon." She kissed him again. "What are you cooking?"
"Stew. Not as good as yours, but passable, I hope." He turned and stirred the pot. "Good - not burnt, for all the attention I wasn't paying to it."
Audra laughed with delight, although she realized his remark was not that funny - it was happiness that made her laugh, happiness at being with the man she loved.
Audra stayed for dinner, but left soon afterward, albeit reluctantly. Saturday morning found Owen tying up his horse in front of Justin's home and office. It was freshly painted, with new statuary in the front garden in the Neo-Classical style. Owen found it rather ostentatious, but shrugged - it was only to be expected, he guessed, but he found himself more glad than ever that he had not stayed. He climbed the steps and rang the bell, but there was nothing ostentatious about the welcome he received.
"Owen? Why you son-of-a-gun!" Justin Logan said, pulling him inside and slapping his shoulder. "What brings you here? I thought you'd shaken the dust of this burg off your shoes. Sit down. Have a drink."
Owen took the chair but not the drink. "Thank you, Justin. I wasn't expecting so warm a welcome."
"Well," Justin said meekly, "I didn't want you to leave - I said some things I'm not proud of. Forgive me? After all, we've been friends for years - you're the best friend I've ever had. I'd never have made it through med school without you, you know that. You're a far better doctor than I'll ever be - I didn't like to see you wasting yourself."
Owen frowned, but said, "Of course you're forgiven - but you know I think it's you who are wasting yourself."
"Let's not go all over that again," Justin said. "We've both made our decision. You still haven't told me what brings you back to San Diego. I'm sure it wasn't to see me."
"I came down with a friend of mine - to visit his sister." Owen could feel himself blush, all against his wishes.
"Sister?" Justin studied his face. "Owen, you don't mean you're here because of a woman? I thought you'd sworn off women."
Even though he had come with every intention of telling Justin about Audra, now that it came to it, he felt some reserve. "This one's different," he said.
"Does she know about. . . ?" Justin waved his hand. "I remember why you grew that beard."
"Yes, she does," Owen said. "I couldn't honorably court her otherwise. She doesn't mind."
"Court? It's that serious?" Justin shook his head in wonder. "You never cease to amaze me, Owen. I must say I'm happy for you - what's she like? And ironic you'd be courting a girl down here months after you've moved to Stockton."
"Well, she lives in Stockton - she works down here, at least for the time being."
"Ah, a working girl. What's she do? Secretary? Dance hall?" Justin winked.
Owen frowned. "Naturalist," he said proudly. "She's working with Professor Emerson at the college."
"Ah, one of your Natural History Society ladies, all spectacles and sensible shoes, I suppose. Funny you didn't know her when you lived down here, then. Might have kept you from moving away."
"Well, I knew of her, but I didn't actually meet her until I got to Stockton. You remember me telling you about the baby that was born on the train on my first trip there?"
"The rancher who delivered his own child? Of course, how could I forget that? You could sell that one to a magazine."
"He's her brother. He introduced us."
"It seems the universe was conspiring to get you together then. Congratulations, brother," Justin smiled.
"No congratulations, yet, Justin. We're just courting. Don't rush things, please."
"All right. Let me know when they are in order, won't you? What's her name?"
"Audra," Owen said, feeling as he always did whenever he said her name.
"Audra? Unusual name." A light dawned in Justin's face. "Stockton? Owen, you're not talking about Audra Barkley?" he said, stunned.
"Why yes, I am," Owen said. "Do you know her?"
"I've never met her, if that's what you're asking, but Owen, everyone knows the Barkleys."
"I didn't, not until I got to Stockton," Owen said defensively.
Justin slapped his head. "Sometimes you really are an infant, Owen. They're one of the wealthiest families in California. I never imagined that you, of all people, would be dangling after an heiress. What about all those ideals you were spouting when you left?"
"I'm not 'dangling after an heiress.' I love a woman - there's a difference, if you weren't aware of that," Owen said, growing angry. "And she happens to love me, too."
"Dolly Atwater tells me she loves me about five times a week, but I know better than to believe her,” Justin said, growing heated as well. "It's just a game these rich young women play, to see how many men they can have hanging on to them at once. It doesn't mean anything."
"Audra's not like that," Owen snapped.
"Humph," Justin said. "I hear she's very beautiful, too. Now, what would a woman like that want with the likes of you?"
"I don't know," Owen said, suddenly growing quiet. "I only know she does." He stood. "Good day, Justin." He took his hat and got on his horse and rode away, he did not know where for quite some time.
Owen rode aimlessly around town for far longer than he realized. It was mid-afternoon when he finally noticed the time and dashed back to the beach cottage. Audra was standing out looking for him, worry in her eyes. "Where have you been, Owen?"
Owen slid down and took her in his arms. "I'm sorry," he said. "I lost track of time."
She looked up into his face. "What's wrong?" she asked.
Owen only shook his head and released her. He stalked into the front room where Jarrod was sitting, signing papers. Audra followed him in, taking a sealed note out of her pocket. "This came for you at my lodgings," she said. "Poor messenger - he had to go to the college first before they sent him to me." She held the note out to him. "It's from Dr. Logan."
Owen took the note and threw it into the fireplace, which, as it was summer, was not lit. He blew out his breath at his own absurdity.
Audra knelt down and fished out the note. "What happened, Owen? Did you quarrel?" She shook the dust off of it.
"You could say that," Owen said.
"Maybe it's an apology, then," Audra said. "You ought to at least read it, don't you think?"
Owen was aware of Jarrod's eyes on him, although the older man said nothing. "All right," Owen sighed. "It can't make me any angrier than I am already."
Audra handed up the note, concern on her face. She stood quietly while Owen read it over silently.
My dear Owen,
Perhaps you were right in the first place, and the milieu in which I have ensconced myself has made me cynical. I am so sorry to have offended you - I should know you well enough to know that, certainly at this stage in your life, you know your own heart.
You're a better man than I am, Owen, we both know it - not just a better doctor. That you did not thrash me for my ill-considered words proves it, if nothing else does. I am certain that if Miss Barkley has so won your heart, then she must be a most admirable woman, and her love for you only demonstrates her good sense. I do most humbly apologize for saying differently. I know you to be the least grasping of men, and that I could have considered, even for a moment, that you would court any woman for her money, is beyond all reason. Perhaps I was jealous of your good fortune - and I can only wish you all good fortune and hope you will be able to forgive me.
Owen crumpled the note in his fist, then sat down on the sofa. He dug the heels of his hands into his eyes, and didn't realize he was crying until he felt the tears warm on his palms. Audra put her hands over his and lowered his fists, taking the balled up paper. "May I read it?" she asked.
Owen covered her hand. "I'd rather you didn't, dearest." He looked over at Jarrod. "You're not saying anything."
"Do I need to?" Jarrod said. "Seems my sister has matters well in hand."
"Is it an apology?" Audra asked.
Owen nodded. "He asks forgiveness, but I don't know if I can."
"You should go to him," she said.
Owen shook his head. "I've wasted enough time on him. I don't want to waste any more - we have little enough as it is."
Audra frowned. "He's been your friend how long?"
Owen thought. "Ten years. I didn't think - time certainly does get away from one."
"Isn't ten years worth one more hour?" Audra argued. "I'd hate for you to lose a friend over me, Owen. And it was over me, wasn't it?"
"How did you know?" Owen asked, wondering.
"What else could hurt you so much?" She stroked his cheek. "Please go - I won't be happy unless you at least make the effort."
He looked into her eyes. "All right," he agreed. "I'll give him one more hour, but only to please you." He kissed the hand he held and took back the note, uncrumpling it and slipping it into his pocket.
Justin answered the door almost before he had knocked. "I'm glad you came, Owen," he said. "It's more than I deserve."
Owen pulled out the note and handed it to him. "Do you mind telling me what's gotten into you?"
Justin looked down at the paper. "You crumpled it up. You were that angry, yet you came anyway."
"Audra wanted me to - she didn't want me to lose a friend."
Justin slumped onto the sofa. "Thank her for me, then, will you? I couldn't bear to lose a friend right now, either. Good God, you didn't tell her what I said, did you?"
"Do you think I'd hurt her like that? Tell her you think she's some minx who toys with men's hearts?"
Justin sighed with relief. "Well, thank God for that, anyway."
Owen sat down across from him. "So what's this all about, Justin? If anything, I thought you'd rejoice at my good fortune - particularly since you are more than well aware of my past dealings of the romantic nature."
Justin brandished the note. "I've been thinking about that - and I can only conclude that I was jealous."
Owen thought back over the previous conversation. "Dolly Atwater?" he said in surprise.
Justin nodded. "I want to marry her, Owen, but her family would never approve of me."
Owen wasn't sure what anyone could see in the simpering Miss Atwater, but refrained from saying so. "Have you asked her?"
Justin shook his head. "How could I? I'm not successful enough - even if she agreed, her father would never consent."
"How do you know?" Owen said. "It's quite possible he would be happy if his daughter married a good man, not a wealthy one."
"Money marries money, Owen," Justin said. "It's the way it's done."
"Perhaps not," Owen said thoughtfully.
"Well, enough about my problems," Justin said. "I'm glad you came. Do you forgive me?"
"I guess I do," Owen said. And pity you.
"Will you stay for dinner?" Justin asked hopefully.
"No, I can't," Owen said, rising. "I promised Audra and her brother that I'd be back in an hour. I only have one more day here."
Justin stood and shook Owen's hand. "Thank you for hearing me out, Owen. And I don't blame you for wanting to be with her instead of me," he said, smiling ruefully.
"I wish you good fortune," Owen said, putting on his hat.
"And you," Justin said, "although it doesn't appear you need it."
Audra hugged him when he returned to the cottage and led him into the kitchen. "I know it's early for dinner, but you didn't eat lunch, did you?"
"Why no, now that you mention it, I didn't - but I can wait. I'm not really hungry."
"Well, I'm starved," Jarrod said, sitting at the foot of the table.
Owen looked at him, then at Audra. "Neither of you ate either, did you? I'm sorry - you were waiting for me."
"It's all right," Audra said, "we don't blame you. Did you make everything right with Dr. Logan?"
Owen sighed and sat down at the table, while Audra dished up the rest of the stew. "As right as it can be, I think, with someone who sees the world completely differently than I do. But that was the problem before I left, too. I don't know if there's anything there to found a friendship on anymore, but at least we're not parting in anger."
"That can be difficult," Jarrod agreed. "I know I've found myself on the other side from some of my law school friends. Not just criminal cases, but over things that mattered, like child labor."
Audra put the pot back on the stove and sat down next to Owen. "Well, at least you made your peace. Aren't you glad you went back?"
"Glad you made me go back, you mean," Owen said, giving her a peck on the cheek. "Yes, and thank you. And Justin asked me to thank you, too."
"You're both welcome," Audra smiled.
After dinner and the washing up, they sat around companionably awhile, talking. Jarrod stretched theatrically. "My, I've had a tiring day. Think I'll turn in." He made his way to the bedroom he and Owen shared.
"He's tired?" Owen said. "From signing papers?"
Audra laughed and snuggled up to him. She reached up and kissed him enthusiastically.
"Audra," Owen warned. "He's right in the next room."
"And there's a reason he's in the next room, and not out here," she said.
Owen shook his head. "He's supposed to be chaperoning."
Audra wrapped her hands around his neck. "What's wrong, Owen? Don't you want us to be alone together? Jarrod understands - it's why he brought you down here after all."
"Of course I do," Owen said, relenting and kissing her back. He was just beginning to relax and enjoy it when he felt her hand slip inside his shirt, caressing the scars on his chest. He jerked back involuntarily. "Audra, don't."
"I don't care about the scars, Owen," she scolded. "You know I don't."
"It's most improper for a young lady," he said.
"'Improper?' We're alone for the first time in months and it's 'improper?'" There was a growing edge to her voice. She stood. "Well, I'll see you in the morning, then."
"Audra," Owen said, but she had already slammed the door closed. He put his head in his hands, not really sure just what he had done wrong. He sighed and went into the other bedroom.
Jarrod was sitting up in bed reading, and he looked up in surprise when Owen entered. He noted the look on Owen's face, and said nothing. Owen took his pajamas out of the dresser and began to undress, stripping off his shirt in frustration. Jarrod's gasp was almost inaudible. Almost. Owen glanced over at him. "Audra didn't tell you?"
"She knows then," Jarrod said.
"Yes," Owen said, blinking back tears, "she knows. She says it doesn't matter."
"And you don't believe her?" Jarrod said. "Audra doesn't lie - especially about something important like that."
Owen sighed and sat on the bed. "I know. And I do believe her. It's just - I don't think I should be talking to you about this - you're her brother."
"I brought you down here to make her happy - if you're not, then I'd like to know why. Audra doesn't slam doors for no reason, either." Jarrod eyed him sternly.
Owen felt like pounding his head into the wall. He pointed to his chest, his scars. "Well, look. I've spent my entire life believing - no, knowing - that no woman would want to get close to this. So I put it out of my mind - it was just never going to happen."
"You're saying you've never touched a woman?" Jarrod said, incredulously.
"Only clinically," Owen confessed. "Oh, I know the mechanics - I am a doctor, after all. But I don't know the art."
"I don't think Audra would be slamming doors just because you were awkward," Jarrod said.
"No, I - I think I insulted her." Owen winced. "And I have no idea how to make it right. I mean, we're not even engaged. I shouldn't be touching her at all, right?"
Jarrod's expression was unreadable, and then it dawned on Owen - he was trying not to laugh. "Don't, Jarrod," he pleaded, "it's not funny. I really have no idea what I'm doing here."
Jarrod sobered. "Well, it seems to me that the best guide to pleasing Audra is Audra. Unless you want to get to your wedding night having no idea how to proceed. If you even get there at all."
Owen blanched. "I can't lose her," he said. He stood up and threw the pajama top on, not bothering to button it. He started to open the door, then turned back to Jarrod. "And this is all right with you?"
"I trust my sister," Jarrod said. "If you do, then you should do well enough."
Owen knocked on Audra's door and she opened it, wearing a nightgown and holding a hairbrush. Her face still held hurt and a touch of anger. "Audra, I'm sorry," Owen said. "I can't - I don't -" Words failed him and he took her face between his hands and kissed her, putting all his love into it, all his fear and doubt, all his hopes and hopelessness. It was a long kiss, and when it was over he wrapped his arms around her. She rested her head on his shoulder, her hand lying softly on his bare chest. He could feel her warmth through the thin summer nightgown, and was more than aware of their relative undress, but did not pull away, letting her decide when to end the embrace. "I’m sorry," he said again.
"All right," she said at last, looking into his eyes and stroking his cheek. "It's been a trying day for you. Let's talk in the morning." She reached up and kissed him softly, then let him go and closed the door.
Owen awakened at the sky's pre-dawn glow. He dressed quietly so as not to disturb Jarrod, and went out into the sitting room. Audra was there, attired in trousers andholding a journal and magnifying glass. She handed Owen a pair of field-glasses. "What's this?" he asked, then, "Oh, yes, the tide. I had forgotten." He looked down at her. "I thought we were going to talk?"
"Tide first, talk later," Audra whispered. They walked out onto the beach. It seemed to have widened by miles - Owen had never seen the tide so low. "Go watch birds," Audra said, setting herself down on some rocks by a tidepool. "I hear oystercatchers." She opened the journal and began sketching.
Owen wandered further out, wondering if she were still angrywith him - her manner had been rather abrupt. Still, it was calming being out before anyone else. He so rarely had the opportunity to do this anymore, to enjoy sounds rather than noise. He paused to listen to the waves, the wind - he heard oystercatchers, too, and went off in search of them.
An hour or so later the tide began to turn and he made his way back to Audra's tidepool. He sat next to her and watched her sketch, looking over her shoulder. "That's good," he said. "I don't think I've ever really noticed barnacles - they were always just something to cut yourself on."
"They're interesting creatures," Audra said. "They glue their heads to the rocks and catch food with their feet - that's the little feathery thingsflicking in and out. I think when I'm done working with Emerson, I'd like to write a book about all the creatures you can find in tidepools. There must be hundreds."
"So you'd like to stay down here?" Owen asked, his heart nearly stopping.
Audra shook her head and closed the journal. "Of course not, but San Francisco is not far from Stockton, not by train." She slipped her arm through his and rested her head on his shoulder. "Did you find the oystercatchers?"
"Yes, on the rocks over there," Owen pointed. "And guillemots, and grebes and pelicans." He put his hand over hers, relieved. "I was afraid you were still angry with me."
"I wasn't angry," she said. "You were so tied up in knots, I thought you needed an opportunity to relax first. Feeling better?" She smiled up at him.
"Yes, I am, thank you." He looked at her, wondering how it was that she seemed to understand him so well. A wave wet his shoes and they moved further up the beach, sitting on the sand, arm in arm.
"Do you want to tell me what you and Justin quarreled about?" Audra asked. "I can't help but feel that everything that happened yesterday was related to that somehow."
Owen sighed. "He said. . .just what everyone elseis going to think who finds out I'm courting you."
"Money?"Audra asked. Owen nodded. He felt her hand tighten on his arm. "Well, we know, and anyone who knows us will know, that it's not true. I'm not really worried about what anyone else thinks," she said firmly.
"How do you know, Audra?" he asked. "I told you when I first met you that I liked money - liked it so much it corrupted me. How can you be so sure of me now?"
"Don't be silly," she chided. "You realized you were on the wrong track and corrected yourself. That's not corruption, that's honor."
"I just don't - I'm not sure what you're getting out of this. I don't seem to be bringing much to the table here."
She looked up into his eyes. "Do you know yourself so little? You're one of the warmest, most compassionate men I've ever met - strong, dedicated, caring. Not bringing anything to the table, indeed," she harrumphed.
"Even Justin wondered what a woman like you would want with someone like me."
"Then he certainly doesn't know you, no matter how long he's been your friend." Her eyes grew dark. "But, Owen, I'm far from perfect. I've hurt people I cared for. I broke Darren's heart - I just couldn't be what he wanted me to be."
"Then it's his own fault," Owen said. "Any man of sense would want you to be precisely what you are."
Audra dimpled. "There you have it. That's why I must have you, or no one."
His heart warmed. "It's the same for me," he said. But then there was that other matter. "About what happened last night. . . ."
"I was too forward," she said. "I'm sorry."
That he couldn't bear. "No, dear, I was too backward." What an embarrassment to have to confess, but if they had any future together, she'd have to know sometime. "You realize you're the only woman I've ever been close to? I never thoughtI would be - I'd never even kissed anyone before you." He waited breathlessly for her reaction.
She rested her head on his shoulder again. "I know."
"You did?" he said, startled.
She smiled. "The first time you kissed me, it was obvious."
He winced. "It's a wonder you wanted me to kiss you again, then."
She laughed. "It was the best kiss I'd ever had, because it was true. No art, just feeling. Last nightwas even better."
He put his arm around her. "Glad you liked it," he smiled, kissing her again.
"I am sorry," she said. "I should have been more patient. You were so reluctant, so shy, I thought I'd give you a little push. Your reaction took me off guard - and I admit it stung. I have my father's temper - I shouldn't gave gotten so angry."
"Nothing to apologize for, dearest," he said. "Jarrod said. . . ."
"You didn't tell him?" Audra said, aghast.
"Not what happened, don't worry," Owen assured her, "just how I felt. And not so much told, as he got it out of me."
Audra nodded. "He is good at that. So what did he say?"
"That my best guide to pleasing you was you. So let me know what you want, and I'll do my best."
She stroked his beard and smiled. "All right, I will." She sobered. "I've been thinking about the money, if you're ready to talk about that."
"I suppose we have to, sometime," he said, reluctantly. "May as well be now."
"I own very little outright," Audra explained. "Most of what I have is in the family holdings, which Jarrod administers."
"And how much is that?" he asked with some trepidation.
She shrugged. "I really don't know. It's never been a concern. But if I marry, I won't own anything."
Owen knitted his brow. "I don't understand. Did your father cut you out of the will - or forbid you to marry?"
"No," she said, "but a married woman can't own property, Owen. Her husband owns it."
Owen felt as though a boulder had just dropped on him. "Audra," he said,"that's just wrong."
"It's the law," she said, "and I knew you'd be uncomfortable with that. So I think I have a solution."
"Uncomfortable? I'd feel like I was robbing you."
"Don't," she said,putting her hand to his lips. "Listen. I can have my share put in trust - we could draw on the income, but the principal would be held for my 'heirs and assigns,' as Jarrod would say. That means our - our children or whomever I make beneficiary."
Owen thought about that. "Well, that's better - I've been thinking about it, too. I wouldn't want to cut you off from your inheritance, and I certainly don't want to take it from you - that's appalling. I'm still not comfortable with the idea of living off your income, though."
"Well, think about it, Owen. If we do get married, if we have children, we'd need a bigger house, and we'd want to educate them. And then there's your practice, which I certainly want to support - it's as important to me as it is to you."
"Thank you," he kissed her fingers. "I know it is. Well, it seems sensible, even if I'm not entirely comfortable with it. I'll give it some thought." He stood and offered her his hand, but before she could stand a wave smashed into her, nearly knocking her over and soaking her from head to toe.
"Aagh," she sputtered, scrambling to her feet. "At least the water's warm."
"Let's get you into some dry clothing," Owen said, helping her back to the cottage.
A shirtless Jarrod had a rug over the line and was beating it soundly. "What are you doing, Big Brother?" Audra asked.
Jarrod paused and wiped a brow. "If I don't do it, Molly will, and that would rather defeat the purpose of bringing her down here."
"On Sunday?" Owen said.
Jarrod shrugged. "I considered whether the Lord would rather I obey a rule or care for my wife. I trust He'll understand." He looked Audra over. "Been swimming, Sister?"
"No," she said. "I'd better go change." She kissed Owen warmly and trudged into the cottage.
Owen's eyes followed her, then he turned to Jarrod, who was grinning broadly. "Everything all right now?" Jarrod asked.
"Much better," Owen said. "I'm still puzzled by your attitude, though."
Jarrod shrugged. "I was living at the ranch when Molly and I were courting, and she was living and working at the orphanage. We had difficulties finding time to be alone together, and I know it's much worse for you and Audra. After today, it may be weeks, even months, before you see each other again. Let's just say that I can very well put myself in your place."
Owen regarded him a long moment, not knowing what to say. "Let me have that beater," he said finally. "I could stand a little physical labor."
"Be my guest."
Owen hesitated a moment before stripping off his shirt and hanging it on the line. He gave the rug a good satisfying whack, and was raising quite a cloud of dust when Audra returned.
She grinned and said, "I want a turn."
"All right, in a minute," Owen said. He considered whether to put his shirt back on, but decided against it. He was becoming less self-conscious as he found people who could accept him the way he was. Who could love him the way he was.
They spent the rest of the day getting the cottage ready, and when Jarrod left them alone after dinner, Owen let Audra do as she pleased. And he found it was just as he pleased, as well.
Audra handed her card to the housekeeper who opened the door. "Audra Barkley to see Dr. Logan, please," she said. She was ushered into a well-appointed receiving room, and did not have long to wait.
"Why, Miss Barkley," Justin bustled in, "how pleasant to meet you at last. I do hope this is not a professional call?"
"No, a social one," she replied, "and, please, call me Audra. I understand we have a mutual friend."
End of First Stanza
Audra Barkley arrived in Stockton full of anticipation and descended from the railcar into the waiting arms of. . .no one. She looked around the platform - Owen was supposed to meet her, but he was nowhere in evidence. She walked out to the street and looked up and down, but still no Owen. She went back into the station and arranged to have her bags sent to the ranch, then stood, thinking. Perhaps if she walked to the surgery, she might meet him on the way?
There was no one at the surgery, and no sign of anyone - no message on the door. She supposed he would know that if he did not meet her, she would go to the ranch, so she sighed and resigned herself to meeting him there, eventually. It's what I get for falling in love with a doctor. May as well pay a call on Jarrod and Molly while I’m in town.
Jarrod was in court, but Molly was home. Audra hugged and kissed her before stooping down and kissing her niece and nephew. Vicky hugged her warmly, but Georgie squirmed out of her grasp. "Let's go talk in the nursery," Molly said. "He's even worse than Vicky was for getting into things - at least there I can let him run loose."
"All right," Audra agreed, following Molly up the stairs.
Molly set Georgie down and he promptly began pulling all the toys out of the toy box. Vicky knelt down next to the dollhouse, where she proceeded to engage in conversations with each doll in turn. "I'm glad you're here, Audra," Molly said, "but I didn't think we were going to see you for weeks yet."
"Emerson's gone to Denver to submit our papers to the journals, and make arrangements for the lecture tour. Since he was going to be wiring us with whatever corrections we needed to make, it didn't make much difference where I was, so I thought I might as well come home for a few days."
Molly smiled. "And you haven't seen Owen for weeks."
Audra smiled in answer. "Or anyone else. But, yes, I do want to see him. He was supposed to meet me at the train - you wouldn't know where he is, I suppose?"
Molly shook her head. "I've heard nothing - but you know how it is with doctors. You'd better get used to it."
"I know," Audra said, "and I know it's selfish of me when he's out helping someone, but it has been over a month, and the time was short enough then."
"I'm sure he'll turn up soon enough with a good explanation," Molly consoled her.
"Yes, I'm sure of that," Audra said.
"So tell me about the lecture tour," Molly said. "How exciting - do you know where you're going yet?"
"A few places," Audra said. "San Francisco, New Orleans, New York. Emerson wants to take it to Europe, too."
"Oh, my. How long would you be gone, then?"
"No idea," Audra shrugged. "Too long."
Something rattled against the windowpane and they heard Jarrod shout, "Molly!" There was urgency in his voice and both women stuck their heads out of the window overlooking the street.
"What is it, Jarrod?" Molly asked, turning pale.
"Oh, Audra, you're here, too," Jarrod said. "Good. That saves me looking for you. Three sailors were arrested for drunkenness on Saturday - today they're showing symptoms of typhus."
Molly and Audra both gasped, but Jarrod continued. "Fred's been exposed, but Steve hasn't. They're quarantining everyone sick and exposed at Dr. Grigsby's infirmary."
"Not Owen," Audra said weakly.
"Why move them?" Molly asked.
Jarrod looked at Audra with sympathy, but kept to the business at hand. "Owen says typhus is spread through a lack of hygiene, and we just don't have the necessary facilities at the jail. They're burning the clothing and bedding, and providing hot baths beforehand, but they'll be better cared for at the infirmary. Dr. Merar has gone to the ship to see if there are any cases there, and Steve and I and a few more deputies will be trying to round up everyone who's had contact with anyone from the ship. Molly, I want you to take the children out to the ranch - pick up Lucas and Emma at school. Oh, and Lena, too. There's not much chance any of you have been exposed yet, and we're going to try to contain the outbreak, but I want you out of harm's way. Tell everyone at the ranch to stay there - especially Nick and Heath."
Audra expected Molly to protest, but she only said, "All right, Jarrod. I presume you'll be staying at Owen's?"
Jarrod nodded. "There's not much chance I'll be avoiding exposure. Try not to worry, Feather. We're taking every precaution we can."
Molly nodded, but Audra saw a tear trickle down her face. "Can I at least kiss you good-bye?"
Jarrod shook his head. "I probably haven't been exposed yet, but there's no guarantee of that - I had contact with Fred this morning before court. But it's not good-bye, just au revoir, dearest. I promise."
"I'll hold you to your promise," Molly warned. "Come back, dearest."
"I will," Jarrod said, blowing her a kiss and then trotting down the street.
Molly pulled her head back in. "Watch the children, please, Audra, while I go pack."
"How can you just let him go like that, Molly?" Audra asked, horrified.
"What choice do I have?" Molly said. "How could I have stopped him?"
"You could have tried - he'd have listened to you." Audra said heatedly, not sure why she was so angry.
Molly shook her head. "No, he wouldn't. I knew what kind of man he was before I married him. He would never run away from danger if it meant someone else would suffer for it. You know that," she snapped.
"I'm sorry, Molly," Audra said. "You're right. Go on, I'll watch Vicky and Georgie."
Molly nodded and went to pack. Audra sat on Vicky's bed, and felt hot tears wash down her face. She choked back a sob, and Vicky looked up from her play and came over and hugged her. Georgie toddled over and offered her a wooden horse. Audra smiled through the tears, took the horse and began playing with Georgie.
When Molly came back in, she had dried her tears and regained her composure. "I'm going, too," she announced. "I'll help you get the children to the ranch, but then I'm coming back."
"Audra, you can't," Molly said.
"If Jarrod can, why can't I?" Audra said. "They'll need nurses - I can help just as well. Better."
Molly pulled her out into the hallway so as not to argue in front of the children. "You heard him," Molly said vehemently. "He's already been exposed, maybe. You haven't. Owen would not thank you for putting yourself in danger."
Tears came unbidden again. "I can't stand here and do nothing," Audra said. "I love him. Don't I belong wherever he is? Shouldn't I face whatever danger he faces?"
Molly sighed. "Yes. No. How do I know?" Her face showed her distress. "Jarrod promised me he wouldn't go into danger without me again, and yet, here we are, just like before. But, Audra, how would it help anyone if either of us become ill, too? It would just be more work for Owen and Dr. Tom. You have to think what Owen would want you to do, don't you?"
Audra bit her lip, torn. You've had some taste of what it would be like to be a doctor's wife, he had said. Don't sacrifice everything for me. He had been talking about her work at the time, but she knew what he meant. She was being romantic and foolish and she knew he would not approve. She made one last struggle before letting go. "What if he, if they, become ill, too?"
"Then we'll do whatever we have to," Molly said, "but for now, we do the wise thing, even if it seems cowardly. We take care of ourselves, and those who depend on us." She opened the nursery door and scooped up Georgie, arranging her features to be as happy as possible. "We're going to stay at the ranch, children," she said brightly. "Won't that be fun?"
"Without Daddy?" Vicky said, pouting.
How much did she understand? Audra wondered.
"He'll come join us as soon as he can, Buttercup," Molly said. "But he has to stay in town for awhile. Now pick out a doll to take with you, and a toy for Georgie, and we'll be off."
Vicky did as she was bidden, but she clung to Molly all the way to the ranch. Audra did not blame her, not one bit.
"Why, Molly," Victoria said, taking in everything at once, "are you all staying here at the ranch?"
Molly nodded, as Audra helped the children down from the carriage. "Jarrod wants us to, for awhile. I know we're going to make you rather crowded."
"Not at all," Victoria said. "We're always glad to have you here, you know that. Now, let's see, you can have your and Jarrod's old room."
"Emma can sleep with me," Lena said. "And Vicky, too, I guess."
"And Georgie can go into the nursery with Lizzie," Victoria said. "That just leaves Lucas."
"I can sleep in the bunkhouse," Lucas said. "I don't mind."
"No!" Molly said, more sharply than she intended. "Under the circumstances, that would not be a good idea."
"Are you going to tell me what the circumstances are, Mother?" Lucas enquired calmly.
"Yes, of course," Molly said. "After we get everyone situated, we'll have a family council."
"Why don't I sleep with Molly?" Audra offered. "Then Lucas can have my room."
Molly looked at her gratefully. "Yes, that will do nicely. Thank you, Audra. Emma, would you and Lena take Vicky upstairs and play for awhile?"
"Silas," Victoria said to the butler, who was unloading luggage, "leave that for a bit, if you would. Kindly go tell Samantha and Alice to join us in the study." She turned to Molly. "I take it that Jarrod is staying in town then?"
Molly bit her lip. "Yes, but I'd rather tell everyone at once. Silas, you should be in on this, too."
"Of course," Victoria said. She kissed Audra's cheek. "Wonderful to have you home, dear. You have a stack of telegrams waiting for you."
"Already?" Audra said. "I've barely arrived."
Victoria took Molly's arm and led her into the study. Audra followed carrying Georgie, who wriggled out of her arms as soon as she was through the door.
When all the women, as well as Lucas and Silas, had gathered in the parlor, Molly related her tale.
"Typhus?" Victoria said thoughtfully. "I don't believe we've ever had an outbreak of typhus in Stockton before. You're sure he didn't say typhoid?"
Molly shook her head. "No, he said 'typhus,' I'm sure."
Audra nodded. "Does it matter?" she asked.
"It might," Victoria said. "I don't really know much about typhus."
"Jarrod said that Owen said it was spread through poor hygiene," Molly said. "But our more immediate problem is how are we going to keep Nick and Heath from running off to help. You know they're going to want to."
Victoria looked at Samantha and Alice and smiled. "Oh, I think between us, we can manage that - don't worry."
Victoria was very nearly wrong - as soon as Nick and Heath were told that evening, Nick strode for the door. It took Samantha physically restraining him to stop him. "Wait just a minute, Cowboy," she said, "you'd better listen first."
"I've heard all I need to," Nick retorted. "Jarrod's in trouble, that's all I need to know."
"We need you here more," Victoria said. "You and Heath both."
"How d'ya figure that?" Nick said.
"How many of the men were in town Saturday night?" Victoria asked.
"I’d say purt near all of them," Heath said, light dawning in his eyes.
"So?" Nick said.
"And if any of them were exposed and brought it back with them?" Samantha said.
Nick paused, torn.
"In any case, we need to institute hygiene procedures in the bunkhouse," Victoria said. "Who do you think the men will listen to? Me? Samantha? Alice?"
"I see your point," Heath said.
"Well, yeah, so do I," Nick said. "But we can't just leave Jarrod all alone."
"He's not alone," Victoria said. "There's Owen, and Fred, and Steve and Dr. Merar, at least. Let him fight his fight and we'll fight ours."
"Getting forty cowhands to bathe and wash their clothes will be quite a fight all right," Heath said, almost jovially.
"Every day," Victoria said firmly.
"Aw, Mother," Nick said, then sighed. "But I guess you're right. I should go into town and at least check on Jarrod."
"If you do, you won't be able to come back," Samantha said. "Then where will we be?"
"So we're just going to sit here?" Nick said.
"Hardly," Victoria said dryly. "It's going to be hard work keeping everyone healthy, and even harder work if we don't. There will be no sitting. Now go break the news."
"You can do that without me, Nick," Heath said, putting his hat on and heading for the door.
Alice took his arm. "Where are you going?"
"Someone had better get word to the other spreads, don't you think?"
Alice frowned, but nodded. "All right, just be careful. Don't get too close to anyone."
"'Cept you." Heath smiled and kissed her before leaving.
"Why do I always get left with the hard jobs?" Nick complained.
"Because you're the bravest and the strongest," Samantha assured him. "Now go do that hard job, Cowboy. Then take a bath yourself."
Nick grinned and went to the bunkhouse. A few minutes later there was a groan that could be heard in the house, and Audra found herself smiling as well.
"I'm glad you're sleeping here, Audra," Molly said that night as they were getting ready for bed. "I hope I don't start sleepwalking again."
"I remember the last time," Audra said sympathetically, "and I pitied you then, but I didn't really understand it until now."
"Well, let's try to console each other, instead of feeding each other's fears - that would be so easy to do." Molly brushed out her hair and began braiding it.
Audra nodded. "We have to have faith, don't we? It's hard, not knowing."
"And I'm not good at faith," Molly said, "I never have been. I have faith in Jarrod, but that's about all I can manage most days. I know he never shirks from danger, but he's not foolhardy, either. I just have to believe that he'll be prudent, or as prudent as he can be."
"And I know how prudent Owen is," Audra said. "I never realized before this just how brave he must be, too. He puts his life on the line every single day."
"Can you bear it, Audra?" Molly got in bed and pulled the covers up over herself. "Because I'm not sure I could. At least Jarrod doesn't do this all the time. Most of our life is pretty settled."
Audra got into bed next to her. "Well, that's the question, isn't it? I'll have to, if I'm to be his wife." She pulled the covers up and turned down the lamp. "Goodnight, dear Molly. Try not to worry." As Audra settled herself down, she realized that, even a week ago, there would have been no 'if' in that sentence.
Audra wakened in the middle of the night with her face full of Vicky's hair - she must have climbed into bed with them while Audra was sleeping. Audra smoothed the little girl's curly hair and gazed down on her sympathetically. Poor child - just old enough to understand that something was wrong, but not old enough to understand what. Molly had her arm around her daughter, and was sleeping peacefully. Audra was aware that Molly had been tossing in her sleep, but Vicky's presence seemed to calm her. Audra sighed. Only one way to make it through this, and that's to get through it. Each day on it's own.
Next day found her at the desk in the study, going through Emerson's telegrams. There were a fair number of corrections to make, enough to keep her busy for a couple of days at least, barring further corrections, which she had a feeling were probably forthcoming. She was grateful for something to keep her occupied, if not tranquil. She was staring out the window when her mother poked her head in the door.
"Don't let me disturb you," Victoria said. "I just wanted to see if you needed anything."
"Stronger nerves," Audra said.
"Ah," Victoria said, coming in, "I wondered whether that was a creative stare or a worried one."
"I don't know how I can bear it, Mother," Audra said. "It's a like a knife in my belly, that I can't remove or ignore. How does Molly bear it? Not knowing what's happening in town is the worst of it."
"I can help with that part," Victoria said. She handed Audra a newspaper. "This came by post this morning."
Audra took it eagerly. It was the prior day's Evening Mail and the headline proclaimed, "TYPHUS STRIKES STOCKTON" in rather alarming fashion. The article itself was much less alarming, and more factual, Audra hoped. She offered the paper back to her mother. "Molly should see this first," she said.
"She already has," Victoria said. "Go on, dear. Read it."
Audra resumed reading eagerly. So far, the outbreak seemed to be confined to the sailors from the ship, of whom six were stricken so far, although all were quarantined. Audra wondered how the reporter had gathered the information - shouting through the window, perhaps. Audra felt the urge to go shout through the window herself, although she realized this would serve no purpose save the relief of her feelings. A heavily outlined box on the front page reiterated Owen's hygiene hypothesis, with instructions to the reader on how to avoid contamination. It was all good advice, and Audra hoped it would help. Better to prevent infection than to cure it.
No direct news of Owen or Jarrod, but at least there was no bad news in that regard. "Is this true?" she asked Victoria, "that there's never been a typhus epidemic in North America?"
Victoria shrugged. "I hope so, dear, but I know no more than you do. Perhaps it's cause for hope - that these sailors picked up the infection on their travels, but that it won't spread any further."
"Well, if people are careful, perhaps it won't. It says here that the mayor is having signs put up to warn people and inform them about hygiene and what to do if they become ill."
"It seems everything that can be done is being done," Victoria agreed. She patted Audra's hand. "Perhaps you can get rid of that knife in your belly now."
Audra shook her head. "This is just one disease outbreak. I'm realizing that Owen is going to be doing this all the time, and for the rest of his life." She looked up into her mother's eyes. "I don't know how I can bear it."
"I see," Victoria said solemnly, sitting down on the sofa. "Perhaps you shouldn't."
"What are you saying, Mother? That I shouldn't marry Owen?"
"No, that seems to be what you're saying. A brave man needs a strong wife - perhaps it's good this is happening now. Better to find out now before you get married."
Audra slumped down on the sofa next to her mother. "I don't know, Mother. Can you help me?"
"You really only have one question to answer - can you live without him?" Victoria looked sternly into her daughter's eyes. "Because I tell you now, he will break your heart. Your father broke mine, and I'm not talking about Heath. He broke it every time he stood up for what he believed in."
"Why did you stay with him then?" Audra asked. She had never heard her mother talk this way before.
"Because without him, I had no heart," Victoria said.
"I. . .see," Audra said. This was a glimpse into her parents' lives she had never expected. She threw her arms around Victoria. "I want to be strong enough. Tell me how."
"If you love him enough, you'll be strong for him. If you don't, then there's nothing I can tell you, dear," Victoria said gently. "He's a good man, just what I would pick for you if I had the choosing, but I don't. Only you do. So examine your heart - only it has the answer."
Audra wiped her eyes. "All right, Mother, I will."
Victoria stood. "Well, I see you have a lot of work to do. I'll leave you to it."
"Is there something else I should be doing?" Audra asked. "Something more important?"
"Your work is important," Victoria said. "Don't think it isn't. After all, the more we know about this world of ours, the more wisely we can treat it. True?"
Audra nodded. "Yes. Thank you for reminding me."
"It's God's work, too, in its own way," Victoria said. "If I do need you, I'll call you, never fear."
"Thank you, Mother," Audra said, and sat behind the desk again, but it was a long period of contemplation before she was able to settle down to work.
And so the days progressed, hour by hour. Audra could remember summers as a girl when she had not gone into town for weeks except to go to church, so it was easy to act as though everything were normal. And yet, there seemed to be an invisible cord that always pulled her thoughts and longings back to town, to Jarrod, to Owen. The typhus outbreak had slipped off the front pages as no one else fell ill, although Victoria insisted that they not relax their vigilance until Owen or Dr. Merar said it was all right to do so.
The family would gather, as it always had, after dinner in the parlor. Even though things seemed as they always had, there was always an undercurrent of worry. Vicky slept with Audra and Molly most nights, although she seemed perfectly happy during the day, playing with her brothers and sister. Vicky's need seemed to give Molly purpose, and the nightmares and sleepwalking which she had so feared did not reoccur.
So Audra kept to her work, her only means of finding her own sense of purpose, until the final telegram arrived from Emerson at the end of the week. Audra consulted her mother. "Emerson is returning from Denver - he wants me in San Diego day after tomorrow."
"I see," Victoria said, observing her daughter closely, "but you don't want to leave."
Audra fumed. "How can I, Mother? I'd feel like I was abandoning Owen, and Jarrod."
"And what could you do for them if you stayed?"
Audra slumped on the sofa and put her head in her hands. "Nothing. That's what's so frustrating."
Victoria sat next to her and put her arm around her. "If anything happens, we'll send for you, you know that, don't you? Just because you're not here doesn't mean we forget you."
Audra stood and paced. "The lecture tour begins in three weeks - it's going to be a lot of work preparing for it. All the team members have to coordinate - I can't do it from here. I'm not even sure I should go."
"And why wouldn't you go? Isn't this what you've spent the last year working for?"
"And if Owen or Jarrod fall ill? I'd have to cancel and leave Emerson in the lurch."
"Which would constitute an emergency and I'm sure he'd understand. He probably wouldn't understand why you would cancel out now, and frankly, neither would I."
"Wouldn't you?" Audra stopped her pacing and gazed down at her mother.
"Out of fear of what might happen? No, dear. It wouldn't make sense."
Audra sighed heavily. "No, I guess it wouldn't. Much as I want it to."
Victoria stood and hugged her. "I know it's difficult, when those you love are in peril and you can do nothing for them. Best to do the task you've been given."
Audra nodded. "I'd better finish up the work on these papers then, before I leave." She sat down at the desk again, weary and frustrated, but put her mind to the task at hand.
Audra boarded the train in Stockton. She had sent Owen a short note to tell him she was leaving, but little else. After all, what else could she say? I love you, but I don't know if it's enough? No, best to wait and see what her heart decided. And her heart ached with longing, with fear, with love and a hundred other things she could put no name to. She stared unseeing out the window as the train pulled out of the station, her thoughts opaque, even to herself.
She was startled a few moments later to look up and find Owen standing in the aisle next to her, hair wet as though he had just bathed. "Owen? What are you doing here? Aren't you still in quarantine?"
"I couldn't let you go without saying good-bye - I almost missed you as it was." He smiled warmly at her.
"You can't be going to San Diego with me."
He shook his head and sat down across the aisle. "No, I can't. Just to the next station - I can spare that much."
She reached out a hand to him, but he pulled away. "No, dear," he said, "best not. I might still be carrying contagion."
"Oh, Owen." She felt a tear trickle down her cheek. "I was afraid I might not see you again."
"Ah, dearest," he said, "you can never lose me. I never thought I could love anyone the way I do you - how could I let anything part us?"
She looked up as the conductor strode down the aisle announcing the station, and when she looked back, Owen was gone. Her face was red and sore from where it had pressed against the window in her sleep. Of course, so much of what she had dreamt was impossible - Owen would never endanger others, even for her sake. Yet the dream was true, all the same.
She got out to change trains, and was surprised to find Emerson waiting on the platform. "What a coincidence," she said.
"Not really," Emerson said, offering her his arm, "not if we're both going the same place at the same time." He assisted her into the car and sat down facing her. "You look pale, Barkley. Are you quite well?"
Audra shook her head. "I'm well, but - " she choked, "I'm worried about my brother, and my, my beau."
"And why is that?" Emerson asked.
"There's typhus in Stockton - my brother was exposed and is helping to care for the ones stricken, and Owen is a doctor."
"Ah, I see," Emerson said. "I seem to remember reading about that in the paper. But no one you care for is ill?"
"Not yet," Audra said, her voice filled with tension.
"Well, we shall hope for the best then," Emerson said. "So is 'Owen' the reason you wouldn't marry me?"
"No," Audra said. "I had decided to refuse you before I knew him. I just can't marry without love, Emerson."
"I've come to agree with you," Emerson said, and Audra was surprised to note that he was blushing.
"Emerson?" she said incredulously, "you haven't gone and fallen in love, too?"
Emerson smiled. "Yes," he said shyly. "Perhaps we can while away the time praising our respective loves?"
"I can't think of a better pastime," she said, and settled herself in her seat for the long journey back.
End of Second Stanza
It was the start of the lecture tour in San Francisco, and Audra made her way to the podium with pounding heart. Although she had been practicing for weeks, she was unused to speaking in public, save the occasional Bible class. Professor Emerson gave her an encouraging nod as she began her part of the presentation, and she found the butterflies in her stomach settling down to a mere flutter. She was nearly halfway through when the door opened at the back of the hall and a tall figure slipped quietly into the room. Her heart began pounding again as she looked into a pair of warm eyes, and she had to look away or lose her composure altogether.
She finished and sat down, and the rest of her team's presentations ran past her in a blur. Only one thing in the room was clear, only one thing solid. Then it was time for questions from the audience and, as they had all expected, the first question was directed at her.
"Miss Barkley," a prim lady in the second row asked, "isn't it rather scandalous behavior for a young lady, such as yourself, to spend months alone in the jungle with a group of men?"
Audra was prepared, although her answer departed somewhat from the one Emerson had given her. "I can assure you, ma'am, that nothing scandalous occurred. Professor Emerson," she nodded in his direction, "is a consummate professional and he would allow no such behavior from any member of his team. We were colleagues working together, nothing more - or less."
"Still, I'm surprised your family would allow you to do such a thing," the lady continued.
"My family trusts me," Audra replied, which silenced the prim lady quite nicely.
Further questions were more businesslike, and Audra fielded those posed to her adequately, but with divided attention. "Well done, Barkley," Emerson whispered to her when it was all over.
She took his hand and tugged him through the crowd. "Come, there's someone here I want you to meet." As she approached the only real person in the room, she looked up into his eyes and wondered how on earth she had ever considered living without this man. "Professor Radcliffe Emerson, allow me to introduce Dr. Owen Grigsby." She dropped Emerson's hand and took Owen's arm possessively.
"I'm pleased to meet you, Doctor," Emerson said, pumping Owen's hand. "I've heard so much about you."
"You have?" Owen asked. He looked down at Audra with a puzzled expression.
"Why, yes, Barkley's told me all about you." Emerson looked at Audra, then back at Owen. "Would you care to join us for a late supper?"
Audra shook her head. "Not tonight, Emerson. You understand."
Emerson nodded. "Ah, yes. Fond farewells and all that. I look forward to furthering our acquaintance when we return, Doctor."
"He does?" Owen asked as Emerson walked away. "He's not jealous of me?"
Audra dimpled. "Ah, no, the good professor has acquired a lady friend."
"Has he now?" Owen asked, smiling. "You're not the only female naturalist of his acquaintance?"
Audra smothered a laugh. "It's not a naturalist. It's a dance hall girl."
Owen started. "I wouldn't have thought he was the sort to frequent dance halls."
"He's not. She tripped in the street and sprained her ankle. Emerson rescued her and escorted her home. They were both smitten before he'd gotten her bandaged up."
"You've met her?"
"Yes. She's sweet. Her name is Sally and she has a little boy who's just as cute as a button. Which is why she's a dance hall girl, I suppose. Not many women have had the opportunities I've had."
"No, they haven't," Owen said, patting her arm, "but not many people would be as open-minded as all that, dear."
"Well, taking care of Myra and her girls really opened my eyes to how difficult it is for poor women, especially ones with no husbands. I'm not going to cast stones, that's for certain." She looked up at Owen and smiled. "And she seems to be just what Emerson needed - I've never seen him smile so much. It's as though they complete each other. I daresay she won't be a dance hall girl much longer."
Another member of Emerson's team was pushing through the crowd toward them. He grabbed Owen's hand and shook it. "I thought that was you!" he said. "Grigsby, right? Pigeon guillemots?"
"Jim Hinkle, our ornithologist," Audra supplied.
"Why yes," Owen said, "although I'm surprised anyone remembers that."
"It was one of the best papers we ever had presented," Jim said enthusiastically.
Owen was taken aback. "That didn't seem to be the consensus at the time."
"Well, the prose was a trifle sentimental, but it was factual and well observed. Good piece of work. Where are you now?"
"Owen is a medical doctor, in Stockton," Audra said.
"Oh, I see. He's with you, Barkley." He turned back to Owen. "Well, if you ever decide to change specialties, be sure to look me up." Jim turned to answer a question and Audra saw her chance. She tugged at Owen’s arm and led him out into the cool fog of a San Francisco night.
"I'm so glad you came, Owen," she said.
"I had to see you before you left for months," Owen explained.
"I'm going to stop off in Stockton tomorrow - I have permission to take a later train to Denver. But that would only be a few hours, so it's good you're here now. Where are you staying?"
Owen came to a stop and turned facing her. "Well, that depends on you. Jarrod has given me permission to stay in his lodgings if that's what you want."
Audra gasped and looked up at him. "He didn't! Because he knows I'm staying there. Did he?"
Owen nodded. "He warned me not to abuse his hospitality, which I wouldn't, in any case. But he does realize this is our last opportunity to be alone together for months." He caressed her shoulder.
She bit her lip and pondered. Yes, she had spent six months in the jungle with five men, but she had not wanted to be with any of them. She had already spent two days alone in Owen's house, but this was different, and they both knew it. She was amazed and touched at the amount of trust Jarrod was placing in her, in Owen. She had never spent the night alone with a man, not like this - because she had never wanted to, she realized. And she was going away for a long time. How could she turn him away, especially after what she had gone through during the typhus outbreak? It was unthinkable. "Yes," she said, reaching up and kissing him. She put her arms around his neck and felt his arms go around her as they settled into a long, satisfying kiss, shrouded by the fog.
She broke off finally and took him by the arm. "It's a bit of a walk, or we could take a cab," she said.
"Whichever you'd rather," Owen said.
"Cab," she said after a moment's thought. They walked back to the cab stand at the lecture hall, and kissed all the way to Jarrod’s lodgings. The cabman smiled at them as they got out, and Audra fumbled the key before opening the door and letting them in.
"It's a chilly night," she said, turning on the gas lamps. "I'll go make us some tea."
"I'll start the fire," Owen said, kneeling down by the fireplace. It lit readily and he sat staring into it until she returned with the tea, sitting down across from him.
"Thank you," he said as she poured.
"You're welcome," she said, and they sat there in silence for a long moment. "Mother wrote me that all the sailors died from the typhus. How difficult that must have been for you."
Owen nodded. "Yes, it was, but it was no surprise. I'm just glad we were able to contain the outbreak, and that none of my helpers became ill."
"Because of your knowledge and expertise, I'm sure." There was another awkward silence, almost unbearable until Owen broke it.
"Audra," he said at last, "you don't have to do this. If you're uncomfortable, I can go elsewhere."
She shook her head. "No, please, don't go. I've just never done anything like this before."
"Nor have I," he said, "as you well know. But I'm not planning on doing anything we haven't already done - just more of it."
"I know. Why does it seem more dangerous without a brother in the next room?" She smiled ruefully.
"Because it is." He crossed over to her and caressed her cheek. "But I made Jarrod a promise and I don't intend to break it."
"I know," she said. "I do trust you. But Owen, I have to confess something to you."
He smiled down at her. "Now what could you possibly have to confess? I know you haven't been reading my journals again."
"No," she smiled, "but during the typhus outbreak - oh, Owen, I don't know how to say this. I was so worried about you."
He knelt down next to her. "I'm sorry about that, but it's the nature of my work."
She nodded. "I know, that was the problem. I didn't know if I could take it - loving a man whose life is in constant danger. It was unbearable."
"I. . .see," Owen said, turning away.
"No." Audra grasped his shoulder and turned him back. "I wavered, yes, but when I saw you tonight, I knew that I couldn't live without you. That I was a fool to even consider it. I don't think I could love anyone else - no, I know I couldn't. How silly it would have been to reject you out of fear of losing you, no?"
He sat on the sofa and she sat next to him, snuggling close. He put his arm around her and cupped her chin in his hand. "Good," he said, "because I wouldn't have let you. I would have fought for you, because I couldn't bear to live without you, either." He kissed her then, the first kiss of many on that long, but all too short, foggy night.
Dawn found Audra in dressing gown and in the kitchen, preparing breakfast. Owen emerged from the spare bedroom wearing one of Jarrod's dressing gowns. He put his arms around her and kissed the back of her neck. She leaned back into his embrace before returning to her task. "There's not much for breakfast," she said. "I only bought enough for myself."
"It's all right," he said. "I'm not really hungry." He fingered the lapel of Jarrod's dressing gown. "I should have thought to stop by the station and pick up my valise. I guess I was too distracted." He smiled.
"Jarrod won't mind," Audra said. She dished up scrambled eggs and bacon onto two plates and put them on the table. They sat next to each other, and Audra reached over to hold Owen's hand. "Thank you for last night. I can't imagine anything more wonderful."
He kissed her hand. "Well, I hope there is better in store. I still feel like I'm fumbling around in the dark." He blushed. "As it were."
She laughed. "I'm sure there will be. You're a fast learner." She blushed in her turn.
They dug into breakfast, which quickly disappeared. Before she could clear the table, Owen took Audra's hand again. "I don't even know where you're going, or just how long you'll be gone," he said.
"Let's see: Denver first, then Cheyenne, then over to Chicago. Then we work our way down the Mississippi to New Orleans. Then along the Gulf Coast to Atlanta, then back up the East Coast to New York. About three months, then I should be home by Christmas. I'll write you out a full itinerary before I go."
"Your mother said something about a European tour."
Audra shook her head. "Yes, Emerson's booked a few dates, but I already told him I'm not going."
"Audra," Owen said chidingly.
"Owen," she said firmly, "I'll have accomplished everything I want to by then. The main reason Emerson wanted me on the tour in the first place was to convince Americans that women can work alongside men - the Europeans are more open-minded. I'm the junior member of the team - if I weren't a woman I probably wouldn't be going along at all. I hardly have the credentials the rest of them do."
"All right," Owen said. "I can't say I'm sorry. But I don't want you passing up an opportunity."
"It's my decision," she said, "and that is my decision."
"All right," he said again. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small parcel wrapped in gauze. "I know we agreed not to make any promises. . . ."
"As I recall, that was your decision," Audra said.
"Well, I've changed my mind," Owen said. He unwrapped the gauze to reveal a silver ring with a small sapphire stone. "This was my mother's - it's one of the few things I have of hers. Now, I'm not trying to bind you - this is merely a symbol of my own promise."
"It's beautiful," Audra said, blinking back tears, "but I can't take it." She looked up at his gasp. "Not without making a promise, too. So just what is it we’re promising?"
"I'm promising to propose, when you get back." He looked into her eyes. "Because I most sincerely want you to be my wife."
"Do it now," she said, heart pounding.
Owen got down on his knees before her. "I love you, Audra. Will you marry me?"
Audra got down on her knees, too. "You never have to beg me for anything, Owen," she chided. She wrapped her arms around him. "Of course I'll marry you. I want nothing more."
He tried to slip the ring on her finger, but it would not go. Audra laughed. "Your mother must have had very small hands. Put it on the little finger - we can take it to the jeweler later."
"I had thought of getting you something, well, more." He stood and helped her to her feet. "But - "
"But you made the right choice," Audra assured him. "It's perfect." She kissed him warmly.
He took her hand and fingered the ring. "I bought this for her, for her birthday. I saved for weeks - it cost a whole dollar, which was a lot of money to me then."
"It was a lot of money to me then, too," Audra said. "Father made us earn our pin money."
"Did he now?" Owen asked, amused.
"He wanted us to know the value of it," Audra said.
"That explains a lot, about your family," Owen said. "Why you're not just idle rich."
"Thank you for giving me something with meaning, and not just a piece of metal," she said.
"I did sterilize it first," he said.
"I needed to make sure I wasn't giving you anything else. Like smallpox."
"Ah," Audra said, "you think of everything, don't you? There's not a careless bone in your body."
"I couldn't bear it if anything happened to you," he said, gazing into her eyes. "Especially through any fault of mine."
She laid her head on his shoulder. "I'm sure it won't." She smiled. The clock chimed. "Oh dear, we'd better get a move on if we don't want to miss our train."
They almost missed the train anyway - because of the sparse breakfast, Audra stopped at the corner bakery for buns, and purchased enough for them and Emerson's team. The train was whistling as they ran into the station, and Owen helped her aboard just as it began to pull out. They found the car where Emerson and his team were ensconced. "Over here, Barkley," Emerson called. "We saved you seats."
The men greatly appreciated the buns, and although Audra did not tell them her news, the joy she and Owen felt was contagious. The atmosphere in the car became quite convivial, even jovial. Although she spent most of the trip conferring with Emerson, and Owen having his ear bent by Jim, there was a strongly felt connection binding their thoughts together. "See you day after tomorrow, Barkley," Emerson said as they got off the train in Stockton. "Don't be late!"
They were met by Victoria and Jarrod, who each kissed Audra in turn. "Where are Nick and Heath?" Audra asked.
"At my house," Jarrod said. "We thought we'd have a little party for you before you go."
"How sweet," Audra said, taking Owen's arm, "but we need to make a visit to the jeweler first." She beamed up at her fiancé.
"Whatever for?" Victoria said, but it was obvious she guessed.
"We're engaged," Audra said, "but Owen's mother's ring is too small for me. I want it to fit before I go."
"Oh Audra!" Victoria said, hugging and kissing her again. "So you're still going?"
"Of course she is," Owen said. "No question."
"But not to Europe," Audra said. "I'll be home for Christmas."
"Congratulations, Owen," Jarrod said, shaking his hand. He kissed Audra again, too. "And best wishes, Little Sister. Every happiness."
"Mother, would you and Owen go on ahead a little? I want to have a word with Big Brother here." Audra took Jarrod's arm and they followed Owen and Victoria out of the station. "Now, Big Brother, I want to know - just what were you thinking?"
Jarrod patted her hand. "Have I scandalized you?"
"A little - but truly, I want to know what you're thinking. You, and Nick and Heath, usually try to keep the men away from me - not throw them at me." She grinned up at him.
"But he's not like the others, is he?" Jarrod asked.
"You like him, don't you?"
"Yes," he answered, "but more than that - I respect him, even admire him. You should have seen him deal with the typhus, Audra. . . ."
"I wanted to," she said mournfully.
". . .He knew he was going to lose them, yet he treated them all with humanity, with respect. They died far from home, but not alone."
Audra wiped a tear away. "I wish I could have been there. You men have no idea what you put us women through."
Jarrod looked down at her somberly. "I do. Nearly losing Molly last year opened my eyes. Believe me, I wouldn't put her through that if it were avoidable."
"She can't ask you to be less than who you are - she said that to me. And I can't ask Owen either." She bit her lip thoughtfully.
"You remember that Molly and I spent an entire weekend in San Francisco unescorted before we were married," Jarrod said.
Audra shook her head. "No, I don't remember that. Did you really?"
"Hm, I believe you were in San Diego at the time. Yes, we did, and it's something we still talk about. It was a special time for us - I had the chance to give you the same gift." He tapped the ring on her finger. "And I see you liked it." He grinned down at her.
She squeezed his arm. "Yes, very much. But don't tell Nick, or Heath either, but especially Nick. He'd be all confused wondering which of the three of us to kill first."
Jarrod laughed. "Believe me, I have no intention."
"I notice you haven't asked whether Owen obeyed your injunction."
He looked down on her. "I don't have to. There's no shame in his eyes, or yours." He tilted her chin up. "Be happy, Sister."
"I am, Jarrod It's not how I ever imagined falling in love would be, but it's good, all the same."
The arrived at the jeweler's to find Owen and Victoria in earnest conversation. They looked up as Audra and Jarrod came in, and the jeweler bustled over. "Ah, Miss Barkley," he said smiling, "I understand you have a task for me?"
Audra carefully slipped the ring off her finger and handed it to him. "I need it to fit my ring finger."
The jeweler looked at the ring critically, then shrugged. "Well, it's a good stone, anyway. Hold out your hand." Audra did so and he measured her finger before disappearing into the back of the shop.
"I'm afraid he doesn't think much of our ring, dearest," Owen said.
"Well, I do," Audra said firmly.
"It's charming," Victoria said in a tone that dared anyone to disagree with her. Owen laughed, and they had only a few minutes to wait before the jeweler returned.
Owen took the ring and slipped it on Audra's finger, easily this time. There was such a look of tenderness on his face that the jeweler exclaimed, "Ah, I see. An engagement ring. May I be the first to congratulate you?"
"Thank you," Owen said. "I'm a very lucky fellow."
"That you are," Jarrod agreed. He took Victoria's arm. "Shall we go?"
The family gathered at Jarrod's house was joyful at the news, but no one seemed at all surprised. Nick and Heath kissed Audra and slapped Owen on the back, offering him cigars which he pocketed but did not smoke. The sisters-in-law all much admired the ring and its provenance, and Molly had prepared all Audra's favorites for dinner. All too soon it was time for Audra to leave, and she was nearly smothered in hugs and kisses.
Owen escorted her back to the station, and they stood lingering on the platform. Audra wrapped her arms around him and laid her head on his shoulder. "Kiss me," she said.
"What, here?" Owen asked.
"Yes, please. It's our last one for months. I'll need to remember it."
"Very well," he agreed, and complied. The crowd on the platform receded, leaving them two alone, or so it seemed to them.
"Now that it comes to it, I don't want to go," she said, holding him tightly. "How can I let go of you now?"
"You're not," Owen said. "I'll still be here, waiting for you. You're embarking on an adventure - please enjoy it, if only for my sake. Write me long letters and tell me everything."
The train whistled a warning, and she nodded and let him go. "I love you," she said.
"And I love you, dearest." He took her hand and helped her aboard, then stood waving until the train was out of sight.