Julia stared intently into the small mirror leaning back against the wall on top of her dresser. Starting with her hair, she checked out every millimeter of her appearance with a critical eye. She had to look perfect, like lady and not the tomboy she’d been when she’d left for college four years ago. She had to prove to Jamie that she’d grown up, so he’d see her as someone to love, not just… well… love. She sighed.
Her coal black hair was carefully parted down the middle, pulled back in two soft wings. It was held in place by a small braid that ran across the top of her head like a headband then looped around her ears. The rest of its length, and it hung below her waist when not pulled back, was tied into a snood. Not very fashionable anymore, but the style worked well with her hair and was easy, simply braid the hair, curl the braid up and stuff it into the hairnet and done. Julia liked to look pretty, but she didn’t care to spend all day working at it like some girls she could mention. Noticing one lock of shorter hair trying to escape the braid, Julia grabbed a hairpin and quickly tacked it into place.
Satisfied with her hair, she stepped back and did her best to peruse her dress. She’d spent an unusual amount of time trying to decide what to wear today. She desperately needed to make a good impression on Jamie, but she didn’t want to look like she was trying too hard, either. Finally, she’d chosen to don her favorite work dress from her years at college. Already well-tailored, it had molded to her body through the last couple of years of early morning shifts in the school’s kitchens, performing her required work service before afternoon classes. She’d have rather been in the barns or the fields with the male students, but that wasn’t allowed. The dark blue dress buttoned down the front and had loose sleeves that reached to mid forearm. The bottom of the bodice flared out below the waist to emphasize it’s natural slenderness and the curve of her hips. It was plain, but showed that she was a woman grown now. Just what she needed.
Satisfied that she’d done all she could about her appearance, Julia grabbed her straw hat and headed toward the door. Then, paused and stepped back to peer into the mirror again. Reaching up, she quickly pinched each cheek once, hard. The resultant flow of blood gave them a pleasing rosy appearance. Smiling at her image, Julia nodded. Time to get started.
James Hunter McCloud, Jamie to his family and friends, grunted as he hefted a pitchfork full of alfalfa hay out of the wheelbarrow and over the stall wall into the feed trough for the eagerly waiting equines. While he generally enjoyed the physical labor required to keep the family’s horse ranch operating, today’s efforts had a little more force behind them as he tried to work through the thoughts racing about in his head.
She’d looked so pretty when she’d come riding into the farm with her parents last week, sitting on the seat of the buckboard between them like the princess she was. There’d been a time when he’d hoped for more between them. They’d been inseparable throughout childhood and he’d always planned to start courting her once they were old enough.
His brothers had teased him about her, since she was a year old than him, but he didn’t care about that. She was his best friend and he just couldn’t see spending the rest of his life with anyone else. Besides, she made him feel things no other woman ever had. But then, she’d finished school a year ahead of him and gone off to college in Iowa. Oh, he’d seen her after that, when she’d come home between terms. But there’d always been a distance between them.
Now, she was a fine college graduate, with a fancy degree in Languages and Literature. While he was exactly who he’d always been, a farm boy. Oh, he’d finished high school alright, mostly just trying to keep up with her. But when his parents had offered to send him to college, too, he’d turned them down. Why bother? He planned to take over the ranch someday and didn’t see how any college study would help him with that. He knew his numbers well enough to keep the books and could read about anything else he needed to learn.
No, she was too good for him now. And that hurt in ways he couldn’t describe. With another grunt he flung more hay into the next stall. This time he used so much force quite a bit of it landed at the startled horses’ hooves instead of in the trough. The animals eyed him uncertainly, then bent down to begin nibbling at the offering anyway.
Kid smothered a grin as he watched his son push through morning chores with unnecessary effort. He knew what the boy was going through. They all knew he was desperately in love with Julia. He just wondered when Jamie would admit it. It was sort of like watching himself at that age. As Jimmy’d once pointed out to him, that wasn’t the look of a brother looking at his sister when Jamie started at Julia.
Those two were meant to be together. Kid allowed himself a soft smile of remembrance as he thought about the day Jamie’d been born. He’d brought the tiny baby boy out to meet the rest of their extended family while Lou got some rest. Little Wiggle Girl, as she’d been known then, had been barely a year old. She’d toddled up on her short, still wobbly legs and stared down at the newborn for a long time, as if searching for something. Then, suddenly, as if she’d found what she’d been looking for, she’d smiled that infectious grin of hers and reached out with one chubby baby hand to pat Jamie’s cheek.
“Mine,” she’d said emphatically. And that had been that. They’d been together ever since. They’d played together, learned together, gotten into trouble together. It had taken everyone by surprise when she’d suddenly headed off to college and Jamie’d decided to stay home.
Kid shook his head in wonder, trying to figure out his own off-spring.
A pair of slender hands suddenly snaked around his waist and a small, soft body pressed up tightly against his back.
“Mornin’, handsome,” Lou whispered.
Kid reached around with one arm to pull her in front of him and hug her tight.
“Mornin’, darlin’,” he murmured, leaning down to press his lips to hers. “Rock Creek still standin’?”
She laughed, swatting at him with one hand. “Locked up tight,” she smiled. “Now, what were you contemplatin’ so seriously?”
Kid nodded toward where their eldest son was still flinging hay around like there was no tomorrow. “The follies of young love.”
Lou laughed. “Speaking of which, I had the most interesting visit from Julia yesterday.”
Lou nodded, pressing her head wearily against her husband’s strong shoulder. He might be heading into his fourth decade of life soon, but he was as solid and strong as ever. The hard work on the ranch had assured that.
“And just what did Miss Julia have to say?” Kid asked, using his fingers to tickle his wife’s waist.
Giggling, she tried to wiggle away from the torment. “Stop that!”
“Why should I?” he asked, breathlessly, loving the joy in her eyes. It never failed to amaze him that this incredible woman had picked him.
Pressing closer to him, she leaned up on tiptoe to whisper, “Because there’s much more enjoyable ways to make me move like that.”
Then, she was pressing her lips to his in a slow, deep kiss. He groaned in appreciation. Her lips had been like a lodestone for him since the moment he’d found out she was Louise and not Lou. He hadn’t been able to resist stealing a kiss at the first opportunity then and he never turned down the chance to enjoy one now.
Jamie looked back, first in irritation then in jealousy, at the teasing laughter and soft sounds of romantic entanglement coming from the other end of the barn. Turning around he watched as his Pa tucked one arm under his Ma’s legs and lifted her up, never breaking their kiss, and carried her out of the big horse barn toward the house.
He shook his head. They’d been like that since he could remember, always touching and hugging and kissing on each other, disappearing without any warning for minutes or hours at a time. He wanted a marriage like that. He’d wanted a marriage like that with Julia. But she was out of his reach now.
With a sigh, he turned back to his chores.
Julia paused in her trek across the yard from the Big House to the barn where she knew Jamie would be doing morning chores. She watched enviously as Uncle Kid carried Aunt Lou across the yard. She laughed at something he’d whispered while nuzzling her neck. He grinned down at her unrepentantly.
Taking the porch steps two at a time, even with his small wife in his arms, Kid was soon disappearing through the door and into the house. The door slammed shut behind them emphatically, inviting no interruptions.
Julia smiled wistfully. That’s what she wanted. What she hoped to have with Jamie. Soon.Chapter 2