Sighing deeply, Jamie turned back to his work. With Pa off romancing Ma, he’d just have twice as much work to do. Might as well get to it.
The sound of someone clearing her throat had him swirling around toward the barn door, hay flying off the pitchfork in his hands in an arc around him as he did so. And there she was, as if he’d conjured her up out of his imagination, prettier than he remembered and farther out of his reach than ever. The last thought had his shoulders slumping in defeat.
Deliberately turning his back on her and everything she represented and he’d lost, he tossed the hay into the next stall.
“Whatsa matter?” he asked brusquely, refusing to look her way again. It was the only way he could concentrate enough to talk to her. Otherwise, he just got lost in her pretty, doe brown eyes that always got him to thinking about his favorite caramel candies and wondering if her mouth would taste as sweet. Not that he’d ever have the chance to find out, he thought as his mouth twisted bitterly. “Can’t hitch up the buckboard on yer own no more, now that yer a proper lady and all.”
He put an almost insulting drawl on the words ‘proper lady’ just so she’d get the point. What’d she have to go and change for, anyway? Wasn’t what they’d had here good enough for her?
Julia watched the smooth muscles of his shoulders and upper back flexing and relaxing as he tossed another pitchfork full of hay into a stall. She swallowed desperately, trying to wet her suddenly parched throat, even as an odd flush enveloped the rest of her body. Fanning herself, she stepped closer to him and put on her best smile.
“I wanted to talk to my best friend,” she said softly, in the dulcet, lady like tones her home economics instructors had drilled into her before she’d managed to wangle a transfer out of those dull, useless classes to a more…. invigorating course of study.
“I can guarantee ya ain’t gonna find her in here,” Jamie nearly growled. “No lady hangs out in a barn where she might get her skirts dirty.” He looked pointedly at her feet.
Looking down she realized the pointed toes of her best pair of black dress shoes were less than an inch away from a giant pile of …. horse droppings. Even she even breathed too deeply she’d be dragging the skirts of her dress in the muck.
“Oh,” she murmured, taking a quick step backward. “Thank--”
She stopped in mid-phrase at the ominously sucking sound of her foot sinking into another pile behind her. Her shoulders slumped. Jamie snickered.
Stepping sideways toward a bale of hay, she sat down and grabbed a handful of straw to begin cleaning off the back of her skirt and her shoe.
“This ain’t funny,” she huffed, losing her refined tones in her exasperation. “Do you know how much these cost my Pa?”
Jamie just shook his head. “Then ya shoulda known better’n ta wear ‘em inta the barn. Or at least to’ve looked where ya was goin’.”
Her cleaning done, at least as good as it was going to get here and now, Julia tossed the now dirtied handful of straw into the wheelbarrow used to muck out the stables. She couldn’t exactly tell him she hadn’t seen the horse manure because she’d been too distracted watching his back and trying to find her suddenly non-existent ability to breath.
Pasting a bright smile on her face, she turned to look straight at him. “Well, I… I wanted ta look…. presentable.”
“Whatever for?” he asked derisively, turning away to go back to work. “The horses don’t care how ya look.”
“Well, I was hopin’…” she started, then stopped. Starting again, she said, “See, there’s this….. I was thinkin’ maybe we could…. I missed spendin’ time with ya…”
“Oh, would you just spit it out already,” Jamie huffed, as he grabbed another bale of hay and ripped off the cords holding it together with a knife he’d pulled from his boot. Slipping the knife back into his boot sheath, he began splitting the hay bale into large flakes.
Trying again, she said, “There’s a box social this Saturday. It’s part of the town Founders’ Day celebrations. I… well…. I thought…”
As her words petered out, he stiffened in sudden realization. She wanted to go with him. Like they’d used to do back in high school. Straightening to his full 6 foot 2 inch height, he turned to look at her. Keeping his face stiff, so as not to show the pain ripping through his chest, he said the hardest words he’d ever spoken. But the most necessary ones.
“Lady, if yer lookin’ fer an escort, yer barkin’ up the wrong tree. I ain’t what you want.”
Without another word, he stalked out of the barn, letting the door slam shut behind him. She watched him go, her mouth hanging open.
“But… but…. you’re exactly what I want,” she whispered in the gloomy depths of the barn. A mare in the stall nearest Julia stuck her head over the door and whuffled at her, whether in commiseration or demand of food, it was impossible to tell.
Buck nodded to Jamie as he passed the training corral. He had turned into a good young man, one who’d make any father proud, Buck thought. He worked hard and took his responsibilities seriously. Oh, he liked to play as much as the next young man, but he didn’t let it get in the way of doing what needed doing. For example, today Buck would’ve fully expected him to run off with Julia first chance those two had and head for their favorite hidey hole. But no, he was here, taking up his Pa’s slack, Buck thought with a wry grin, and working hard training one of the newest mustangs they’d brought in last month.
Stepping into the barn, Buck grabbed a bridle from its hook near the door and headed toward the first stall that didn’t have a mark indicating the horse had been exercised today. One thing about owning a horse ranch, you had to spend a lot of time in the saddle just making sure all the stock got enough exercise and stayed properly docile, even after being trained.
Buck snorted. He’d never have predicted it then, but he probably spent more time in the saddle now than when he and the others had worked for the Express.
He reached for the handle to the stall, ready to open the door, when a small, snuffling sound from the loft overhead reached his ears. Pausing, he listened for a moment. So far as he knew, all of the little ones were at school. So why did it sound like someone was up in the hayloft weeping? Changing course, he headed for the ladder and clambered up it, almost, as easily as he’d done in his youth. Peeking through the trapdoor into the hayloft, he saw Julia curled up in a pile of hay, crying bitterly, trying to muffle her sobs with her sleeve. A sleeve he could tell, even in this dim light, was soaked through with her tears.
Climbing the rest of the way up into the loft, he moved to her side and pulled his daughter into his arms.
“What’s wrong?” he asked solemnly, rocking her gently back and forth like he’d used to do when she was a baby.
“He…. he…. he doesn’t want me,” Julia wailed, burying her face in her father’s chest.
Buck nodded in comprehension. He’d known she’d carried a tendre for Lou and Kid’s eldest for a long time. But he’d always thought Jamie felt much the same for her. He wondered what had happened.
“Tell me about it,” he encouraged.
Haltingly at first, then with growing speed, she told him all about her earlier encounter with Jamie.
“He hates me,” she muttered, winding down. “Obviously he thinks I’m still not good enough for him. Even after going off and getting a college education, learning how to be a proper lady and everything,” she huffed, throwing her hands up in the air, “It still wasn’t enough. I’ll never be good enough for him.”
Buck started at this pronouncement. He’d thought she’d attended college because it was what she wanted. Not to please some man. Shaking his head, he advised, “Then forget about him.”
“But I looooooovvvveeee him,” she wailed, breaking into tears once more.
Buck sighed, pulling out a handkerchief from his pocket and handing it to her. He watched with fascination as she carefully inspected it for cleanliness then proceeded to noisily and messily blow her nose and dry it on the square piece of cloth.
“Honey,” Buck said, pulling her tight into his embrace, “you can’t make somebody feel somethin’. At the same time, ya can’t make them unfeel somethin’ either. Not by changin’ who you are. Be yourself. If Jamie won’t take ya to the box social, go on yer own and have a fine old time. I guarantee there’ll be plenty of young men linin’ up ta buy yer box of vittles once they clap eyes on you after all these years.”
Feeling her start to shake her head in denial, he smiled a bit. “’Sides, I have a feeling Jamie doesn’t feel quite the way you think he does. Give him some time. You’ve done a powerful lot of changin’ these last few years. He may just need a bit ta get used ta who ya are now. If he’s the one the Great Spirit meant for you, well, then things’ll work out.”
“Do you really think so?” she asked, pulling back to gaze up at him hopefully through the sheen of tears still shining brightly over her eyes.
“I really think so,” Buck smiled, reaching out to tweak her nose, just like he used to when she was a little girl.
“Pa,” she groaned, easily eluding his playful move.
Buck just grinned at her. Standing up, he reached down and helped her to her feet as well. Brushing the hay off her dress, he added, “Why don’t ya go back to the house, change out of these fancy duds and help yer mother in the kitchen. I’d guess you’ve got some plannin’ ta do fer a social this weekend.”
“What the hell is wrong with my girl you think she’s not good enough for you?”
The words barely registered on Jamie’s brain when a fist collided with his nose, sending him flying backward into the horse trough. Sputtering as he surfaced, he raised his eyes to meet the enraged gaze of his Uncle Buck.
Jamie reached up to wipe the water out of his eyes so he could see more clearly. Yep, his Uncle Buck was still pissed as all get out. And he had no idea why.
“What the hell’d ya hit me fer?” he demanded, starting to lever himself out of the trough with one hand, the other hovering protectively over his nose, already swelling up and leaking blood.
Buck pushed him back down into the water with one booted foot against his belly.
“Fer making my baby girl cry, that’s what!”
Jamie shook his head, hoping it would shake some piece of information loose so this conversation would start making sense. Nope. Didn’t work.
“I ain’t got no idea what yer talkin’ ‘bout,” Jamie said, sinking back into the water. Accepting he wasn’t going to be going anywhere until Buck had had his say.
Buck leaned down until he was almost nose to nose with Jamie and hissed, “I just found my little girl up in the loft cryin ‘ her eyes out ‘cause o’ you. I can’t believe you really think yer too good fer her. But even if ya did, ya didn’t haveta say it. You coulda let her down easy. I thought I knew you better than that son.”
“Who the hell are you talkin’ ‘bout?” Jamie bellowed. “Let who down easy?”
“Julia, you dolt. How many wimmen you been insultin’ today you can’t remember her?”
Jamie lost all his bluster at that. “Didn’t mean ta make her cry,” he muttered, letting his head fall back so it rested against the edge of the trough. His entire body shrieking out defeat. “But I sure as hell never said I was too good fer her.”
“Well, that’s sure what she heard.”
“If anythin’, it’s the other way around,” Jamie continued, ignoring Buck’s words, if he’d even heard them. “She’s too good fer me. We’d’a made a right fine pair, if she’d stuck around. But she had to go and get herself a higher education. Learn ta be a proper lady. I’m a horse rancher. What’s a proper lady ever gonna want with the likes of me? I barely managed ta graduate high school. How’m I supposed to go up to a woman with a college degree and ask her ta step out with me? Naw. She done chose ta leave me behind. Now she’s just gonna have ta live with her decisions.”
Not waiting to see what Buck had to say about that, Jamie pushed himself upright and shoved past the older man. He trudged toward the house with his shoulders slumped in defeat, water sloshing out of his boots with every step.
Buck just watched him go, slapping his hat against one lean thigh repeatedly.
“Well,” he finally muttered, shaking his head in disbelief. “I’ll be damned. And I thought Lou and Kid got things all mixed up on their way ta the alter.”