Jamie found himself unable to keep his eyes off Julia on the ride home. Oh, he tried. He spent a lot of time watching after his little sister, who was playing tag on horseback with the younger Cross children. But it seemed like with every blink he caught himself looking at Julia again. Her cheeks were flushed becomingly, a smile graced her soft lips, her hands flashed in the waning afternoon sunlight as she described something to her sisters in the buckboard animatedly. She was all he’d ever wanted. He knew some thought her too slender, too dark, too outspoken, too educated. But those were the things that drew him to her like flies to honey. They fascinated him. He’d known her his entire life. She was nearly two years older than him, after all. Yet, he felt like he’d not even begun to discover all the facets that made her so unique.
When she’d left for school, he’d thought she’d be back soon. She’d see a little bit of the world and then be ready to settle down. Yet, with every term, she’d gone back, more excited than ever by her studies. Slowly, he’d put his old dreams of a life with her aside. It had become obvious that she wanted, needed more than he could ever offer her. And yet… and yet…
He didn’t know how to put it into words. Not really. But something about this afternoon had not only satisfied his constant, all consuming hunger to be in her company, but had suggested that perhaps, just perhaps, she might still be content with a life right here, with him. As stupid and uneducated as he might be, she’d seemed… happy… to spend the afternoon with him.
“Guess we don’t have to wonder what you two were up to on that picnic of yours,” Jed interrupted Jamie’s reverie, pushing at him slightly to get his attention. “Not the way yer moonin’ over Julia agin.”
“Tol’ ya,” Harry said, grinning, as he leaned forward to talk across Katelyn’s whithers to Jed, completely ignoring Jamie. “He’s in looooovvvvvee.” He dragged the word out in a sing-songy rhythm and spoke plenty loudly enough to catch the attention of Buck and Dawn Star, who turned to look the direction of the three young men in question.
Jamie felt a red flush rising up his neck and wanted to sink into the ground in mortification.
“Shut up, already, would ya?” he growled, pushing the two others away. “This ain’t none of yer business.”
Tightening his knees, he urged Katelyn into a faster pace, leaving the other two, laughing, behind him.
But, despite his best intentions, Jamie found himself jerking his eyes away from her profile yet again, as he caught her own gaze sliding in his direction. He didn’t want to be caught staring. He heard Julia and her sisters laughing loudly about something as the caravan that was their family pulled into the ranch yard.
“He’s looking at you again,” Rose North Star Cross teased her big sister, giggling.
Julia fought off a blush, even as she grinned at her 17-year-old sister. Rose was actually only her half sister. She was their second mother’s youngest daughter. But it made no difference in this family. Julia truly missed her other mother. It hardly seemed like it had been nine whole years since she’d been killed in the Battle of the Little Big Horn.
“Tell us again,” 18-year-old Victoria Laughs A Lot Cross begged. “Just how did you get so mussed up on your picnic?”
“Did he kiss you? Oh, please tell me he kissed you!” Rose added enthusiastically. Julia threw her head back and laughed exuberantly at that. Both of her sisters knew her love for Jamie and her intentions to court him. They’d teased her mercilessly about it, but were also her biggest advocates, helping her plot her strategy.
“Well….” she began to tell the tale again, going over every detail of that precious afternoon, as much for herself as for them. She didn’t want to forget a single moment, she thought, looking out of the corner of her eye to catch a glimpse of Jamie, surrounded by his brothers and hers. She wondered what he was blushing so hard about, then stifled a snort as Rose pulled yet another twig out of her hair. With a family as close as theirs was, there was no such thing as privacy, especially when you weren’t really trying to hide things. Although, Julia thought with an internal grimace, judging by the disapproving looks her mother was throwing her way, maybe she should try to be a little more circumspect next time.
She turned her head slightly to get a better look at Jamie, as he pulled away from the other boys in a huff, and put a hand over her mouth to hide her grin. Yes, there most definitely would be a next time. And next time? Next time she’d make sure they weren’t interrupted.
"Put me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm. For love is as strong as death, jealousy is as severe as Sheol; Its flashes are flashes of fire, the very flame of the Lord. The Song of Solomon, Chapter 8, verse 6,” the preacher intoned solemnly from his pulpit. “Ladies and gentlemen, marriage is a sacred covenant that should not be tampered with. But the pleasures of marriage are a gift from God to us, His children.”
Jamie squirmed in the hard pew, trying to get comfortable. Ever since yesterday, it felt like everything everyone said was aimed directly at him and his thoughts about Julia, which were hardly pure to begin with. Even in church, he couldn’t escape it. Why today of all days did the preacher decide to send the youngsters out to a special Sunday School program and give a sermon about the proper marital relationship?
"My beloved is mine, and I am his; He pastures his flock among the lilies.”
Jed, Willie and Harry all turned to look simultaneously at Jamie and leer. Jamie groaned and sank down in the pew. It wasn’t just him, then, he thought miserably, even as he shifted once more, trying to escape the growing discomfort. It wasn’t right to talk about these sorts of things in church, was it? It couldn’t be! Yet, it was in the Bible.
"Many waters cannot quench love, nor will rivers overflow it; If a man were to give all the riches of his house for love, it would be utterly despised."
He desperately wanted to look over at Julia, to see how she was taking all this, but was too afraid of what he might see. Would she be calmly listening to the services without any problems? Or would she be as discomfited by the sermon as he was? He wasn’t even sure which reaction he wanted her to have. So he just didn’t look.
“The Bible is clear, ladies and gentleman,” Preacher Jansen said, clearing his throat. It was obvious even he was fighting not to blush at his chosen topic. “The pleasures of the flesh are a sin outside the bounds of holy matrimony. But within it….. within it they are one of God’s most wondrous gifts, to be enjoyed, to be honored and to be shared.”
Lou put a hand to her mouth to stifle a giggle that was threatening to burst out as she watched her son writhe in mortification in the pew in front of her. Kid looked down at her questioningly and she jerked her chin in Jamie’s direction. Kid smiled ruefully and shook his head. But his smile softened as he continued to listen to the preacher while gazing down at his wife, more beautiful than ever. He reached out with one hand and captured her fingers in a gentle grasp, pulling her closer to his side in the process. He began to softly run his fingertips along the back of her hand, then trace the lines of her palm in adoration. Lou sighed and forgot all about her son’s discomfort as she began to try to control her own reactions to her husband’s attentions in the middle of church services.
Julia pushed through the crowd of chattering townsfolk standing around outside the front steps of the small church. For many of the farming families this was their only chance to see friends during the week. Several were already headed to an area behind the church to set up makeshift tables for a potluck meal.
Sometimes the Crosses and McClouds would stay, but that wasn’t the plan today. Every other week the two families would go back to the Ranch. They’d developed a routine for those weeks. On one the two families would spend the day together in a tradition that harkened back to when they’d first bought the place and everyone had lived in the Big House together. The other week, each family would go its own way for the day. That’s what this week was supposed to be. But she wanted to invite the McClouds to join the Crosses anyway, since it was her first Sunday dinner back from university. Of course, it was really the presence of just one McCloud she was particularly concerned about.
And there he was, surrounded by not only her brothers and his, as well as their friends from school, but also a bevy of the town’s young beauties. Julia slowed to a stop to watch as a particularly pretty little blonde clutched at Jamie’s arm and laughed up into his face at something he said.
“If you watch long enough, you’ll notice he’s doing his best to completely ignore her.”
“Hmm?” Julia asked, jerked out of her thoughts by Lou’s voice. “What are you talking about, Aunt Lou?”
“Miss Arabella Hodgins has been after Jamie for the last three years. She’ll hang on him at the least chance, but he’s never done more than give her a ‘Howdy’ and a smile,” Lou said, patting Julia gently on the arm. “She’s no competition. His eyes never light up when she’s around the way they do at the mere mention of your name.”
Julia blushed and ducked her chin to hide the sudden blast of pleasure that had her heart tripping over itself. “I hope you’re right.”
“I know I am,” Lou laughed lightly.
“Um,” Julia turned away from the tableau in front of her and looked over at her aunt. “I was looking for you or Uncle Kid anyway. I wanted to invite you to join us for Sunday dinner, to celebrate my return.”
Lou’s smile widened at the very formal tone of Julia’s invitation.
“I believe your mother mentioned something about that this morning,” Lou said. “Don’t worry, we’ll all be there.”
Jamie couldn’t help wondering what his mother and Julia were talking about that had Julia blushing such a bright red. The group around him burst into laughter at something Harry had said and he laughed along with them, even though he had no idea why they were laughing, just so no one would notice his distraction.
“Time ta go, boys,” Kid called as he walked past the group toward where the horses and buckboard were hitched.
Without looking twice at Arabella Hodgins, who Jamie found more annoying than anything, he slipped his arm free of her grasp, trying to hide his sigh of relief, and turned to follow his Pa.
“Come on,” he grumbled, grabbing a reluctant Jed’s arm and pulling him along forcefully. “There’ll be plenty of time ta chat up yer gal this evenin’.”
Jed laughed as he jerked himself free. “Just ‘cause yer eager ta get close ta yer lady love doesn’t mean ya gotta jerk me away from mine! Let a fella flirt a bit, why don’t ya!”
Jamie ignored his brother as a lifetime’s worth of experience had taught him was the only way to deal with annoying younger siblings who saw too much and weren’t afraid to tell the world what they’d seen.
“So, what’re we plottin’?” Harry panted as he jogged up to join the others.
“How ta help my brother win yer sister by continuein’ ta ignore her,” Jed joked.
Jamie tuned the duo out as they continued their comedic shenanigans. Little did they know he did have plans. After Sunday dinner he was thinking about going over to the Big House and seeing if she’d like to go for a ride with him. It had been a long time since they’d gong riding together.
“Boys, when you’ve done puttin’ the stock up, come help me get the dishes ready ta take over ta the Big House,” Lou called as she dismounted in the ranch yard by the larger of the two barns and handed her mount’s reins over to Kid.
“I thought this was our ‘at home’ week,” Jamie said, confused.
“It is,” Kid answered him. “But we’re having a special welcome home dinner for Julia.”
“Oh,” was Jamie’s brilliant response to that knowledge. Suddenly he felt a new urgency to get the tack off the horses and put away and get the horses rubbed down and set loose in the corrals.
Rushing through the work he normally did with such exceeding care, he failed to notice his father’s and brothers’ grins and shared, knowing looks. He was too caught up in his own plans and wondering what Julia was thinking about his unexpected addition to the dinner party.
Soon, he was wiping his hands clean on a piece of toweling cloth Lou kept hanging by the barn door.
“I’m done, Pa,” he called over his shoulder. “I’ll just go help Ma get ready.” And he was headed toward the house, moving at a rapid, half trot.
“Here,” Lou said when he came through the kitchen door, trying to pretend she hadn’t been watching him for the last several minutes. “Why don’t you take this on over.” She handed him a covered dish that smelled suspiciously like her chicken stew everyone loved. “I’ll bring the pies. Yer Pa and brothers can get the rest.”
Jamie nodded, taking the pot from her, and turned back around and headed out the door again. As he crossed the yard toward the Big House he argued with himself over how to ask Julia to go riding. How should he phrase it so she’d get the point that he liked her but wasn’t pushing for more, not yet? After their picnic at the church social on Friday he had hopes of something more, again, eventually. But he still wasn’t sure. She’d changed so much in the years she’d been gone.
The sound of a wagon pulling up jerked him out of his thoughts and he turned to see who would be visiting, uninvited, on a Sunday afternoon.
“Willy!” he cried, seeing his blond haired, blue eyed, flamboyant younger brother hauling back on the reins, pulling the prancing pair of matched palominos to a halt. “We weren’t expecting you until next week!”
“Finished the last of my finals a day early,” Willy grunted, shoving the brake into place and wrapping the reins around it. “That let me catch this week’s train ‘sted of next.” Standing up, he clambered down off the conveyance and hustled over to give his older brother a bear hug.
“Watch the food, Willy!” Jamie laughed, pulling back to protect the pot of stew. “It’s Ma’s chicken stew. You spill that and yer a dead man!”
“Heaven forbid,” Willy shuddered dramatically.
A cleared throat interrupted the family reunion. Jamie turned in the direction of the sound to see a tall, slender negro dressed finely in the latest fashions, from top had to frock coat and patent leather shoes. He was climbing down from the other side of the wagon. Setting both feet on the ground, he straightened his coat and stepped toward the pair of young men, holding out one hand.
“Abraham Lincoln Johnson!” a familiar female voice called from the porch of the Big House.
Jamie turned, again, this time to watch as Julia came flying down the porch steps and flung herself into the newcomer’s arms , grinning for all she was worth.
He smiled and hugged her tightly to his chest. “Well, it’s good to see you, too, darlin’.”