The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Lacy and Winj

 

 

Triangle

 

 

 


That wasn't very subtle, she thought. She could have raised an appreciative brow; nonchalantly wiped her sweaty palms; even closed her eyes as the fluttering in her heart worked to quiet. What she should never have done was exactly what she did do and she was beating herself up for it at this very moment. But, how could she have controlled the slightly audible gasp that had escaped her lips? It was so sudden and so completely unexpected. Especially since her initial reaction was frustration and anger. But she hadn't seen his face then. Not until he raised from his stooped position as he picked up the packages he'd knocked from her hands with his carelessness. But, he had stood and slowly raised his head and she'd seen them. Those eyes.

What woman wouldn't have reacted the same, she asked herself? Who could have controlled their reaction when faced with such intensity, such depth and such ..... mirth, she supposed was the word. Yes, he seemed to think the whole thing quite funny. She'd tried to look indignant, even offended but she wasn't sure she'd managed that. Since he never stopped smiling she had to assume she hadn't pulled it off. And what kind of fool actually turned completely around to watch him walk through the door she'd just exited? A quick tip of the hat and an apology all he thought necessary. Her cheeks flushed with anger now. But was that anger for him or herself?

So, there she stood staring through the door like some school girl. Like some awestruck child. She shook her head and took a deep breath as she turned back toward the street and adjusted her packages. Packages he'd so carefully and tidily replaced in her arms. A slip of a smile stole across her face before she made herself stop. Yet, she made no motion forward. What was she waiting for? She had things to do certainly. Just as she'd convinced herself to get going, she heard the soft tinkle of the bell and just knew it was him.

She heard the soft voice laughing as he walked outside. Her heart hammered. What is wrong with me?

"Ma'am, are you alright?"

She turned to find herself looking into those incredibly blue eyes again and could feel the flush flame her cheeks. She swallowed, lowering her head a bit to hide it then met his gaze.

"I didn't hurt you before, did I?"

Now, there was concern in his expression and she felt herself soften even more.

"No, no, I was just taking a moment," she managed and clamped her jaw at the weakness in her voice.

He smiled again and nodded. "Can I walk you home or wherever you're going?"

Yes! her head shouted yet it only nodded in answer. He smiled once more then took the packages from her as he waited for her to move first. She did after several seconds, grateful for the chance to turn her back to him and gather herself.

Ten minutes was all it took but before they arrived at her small home, he'd put her at ease. By the time they reached her door, they were laughing.

She unlocked the door and let it swing open then turned. "Well, thank you, Mister?"

"Lancer, ma'am. Johnny Lancer," he replied.

"Etta Smith." She smiled and took the packages back. "Well, good day," she said and hurried through the door, leaning back against it once shut. She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply before pushing off and setting down her load. She moved to the window and peeked out the curtain watching as he strolled away knowing she couldn't allow herself to succumb to fanciful ideas.

*****

"Looks like you have something on your mind, brother."

Johnny turned quickly to face the owner of the voice. Without a word he tossed down his drink, grimaced softly as the fiery liquid burned a path from his throat to his toes.

"Maybe I do, maybe I don't," Johnny drawled.

"Only a woman, or a horse could put that kind of expression on your face," Scott teased, his blue grey eyes twinkling with barely concealed laughter.   "So, which is it?"

"You think you're so smart, don't ya?" Johnny growled, the answering gleam warring with the fierce words. Unbidden a flush crept up the dark cheeks, anger asserting itself only to be dispelled by the twinkling in his brother's eyes.

"Well, are you going to answer me? Or just stand there looking like a love struck schoolboy?" Scott slapped his brother's shoulder, the interaction playful and encouraging.

"A woman, Scott. An incredibly beautiful woman," Johnny breathed.

Visions of the young woman leapt into his mind, fanning the flames of desire he had buried so long ago. The course of his life had precluded any intimate relationships. Women had served one purpose and one purpose only, to satisfy his base needs. He had never allowed any close contact, any emotion, to penetrate the necessary outer shell. But this woman had elicited a response he had never thought himself capable of.

Her blonde curls had framed her soft oval face, the creamy skin flushed a becoming shade of pink, her green eyes had flashed in annoyance. But was she annoyed with him for his lack of grace or herself for her interest? And she had been interested. Her appraising stare had studied him from head to toe. She'd had the breeding and grace to blush even more when she had become aware he was allowing her studious exploration. Allowing? No, he had welcomed it. Angered at his perception, she had drawn herself to her full height, her slender frame lacking only an inch to stare him directly in his eyes. With a jerk he forced his mind back to the present, focusing on the man standing before him.

"Tell me about her, then." Scott moved to the sofa, his gaze fixed intently on his brother, a smile curving the corners of his mouth.

"I ran into her going into the general store, knocked her packages everywhere," Johnny confessed, a small laugh escaping his lips as he remembered the episode in town.

"Interesting start to a courtship, wouldn't you say?"

*****

She stared out the window, still seeing him, still feeling the weight of his stare. The impossibly blue eyes, the black hair and soft voice had cast a spell, one she had yet to escape. He had unnerved her, left her feeling like an inexperienced schoolgirl and she had hated him for it. Or had she? Perhaps she had been angry with her inability to hide her attraction. There, she had admitted it. She was attracted. Her mind conjured up scenarios, one after the other, of another meeting with him.

She had heard stories of the Lancers in her brief time in the area. They were one of the most influential families around. She had heard tales of the two young men who had returned to the valley less than a year ago. They were said to be handsome, rich, powerful and single. Like most women her age she had imagined seeing them, meeting them and since that fateful encounter this afternoon, she knew the stories were true of at least one of the Lancer men.

Her breath came short as her heart pounded with the excitement of the encounter. Johnny Lancer, he had told her. Lancer. Or was it Madrid? Tales of his legendary prowess with the gun had not prepared her for the young man who had literally run her over. Dark and dangerous, charming and lethal, casual yet intense. He was an enigma of conflicting characteristics and he had intrigued her. Well, no matter which name he now used, she had not expected the charismatic man she had met this afternoon.

Dismayed, she noticed she still held the cup of tea, now cold and tasteless. She took a sip and grimaced. It wasn't like her to be so distracted, so flustered. I'll meet him again and when I do I'll be ready for him, she vowed silently. Next time he would notice her, really notice. With a sigh, she turned from the window, making her way to the kitchen for a fresh cup of tea.

Retaking her seat, she sipped the now hot brew, allowing it to relax her as it nearly always did. What was she thinking? Did she really want to engage in a tryst with Johnny Lancer? By all accounts he was a stubborn bachelor. Meaning, he intended to stay that way for a good long time. Still, she thought the right woman could change that attitude pretty quickly. She'd have to look into this further. She smiled and began devising a plan for their next 'chance' meeting.

*****

Johnny rode up the small hill and pushed the heifer back down to the herd. She ran off quickly once he cussed her good and proper. Shaking his head, he sighed and looked out over the terrain. Nice day, he thought and his mind went back to the woman he'd met yesterday. Etta. She was incredible.

Another sigh, heavier and with some melancholy, escaped his lips. She was something. He could tell she was well brought up. Seemed intelligent and proper. He wondered what chance he could have with her. Still, she was interested. Hell, he wasn't blind! He'd seen how she raked him over, how she'd blushed and stammered and stayed there waiting for him to come out of the store. Yep, she was definitely interested. He grinned a little and started to move back down the hill when something caught his eye on the road below.

Johnny leaned forward, resting his forearms on the saddle horn as he watched her tumble along in the surrey. He glanced over the other side, eyes searching for his brother. He saw Scott hard at it and fought an internal war. Should he? Yes, he should. Scott would understand. It would only be for a minute. He reined Barranca down the hill to the road.

She saw him coming and felt rather warm again. Good grief, woman! Get hold of yourself! she scolded then set her eyes straight ahead.

He intercepted her and she pulled to a stop.

"Afternoon," Johnny said and tipped his hat.

"Well, Mr. Lancer, what a surprise," she replied breathily.

He smiled then looked down briefly before meeting her eyes again. "Nice day for a ride."

"Oh, yes. I thought I'd do a little exploring. I haven't had much chance."

He stared at her, his mind going blank suddenly. "Well," he said, then swallowed, "have a good day."

Anger flushed her cheeks a bright pink before she could response to his dismissal. She took a deep breath before staring intently at him once more, seeing his discomfort for the first time. Joy leaped within her heart as she realized he was speechless. Yes, he was interested. Cautiously, she allowed a faint smile to tease her lips, as she raised her chin defiantly.

"I should think a gentleman would offer to accompany me," she challenged. "Or aren't you a gentleman?"

He stared in embarrassment before choking out, "I'm a gentleman. I didn't think you would.."

"Would what?"

"Well, ma'am, you came out here alone and I didn't think you would be scared being by yourself."

"Scared? You must think I am very foolish to travel without an escort but I am not scared!"

"No, ma'am, you aren't foolish at all," he drawled before relaxing deeper into his saddle. "In fact, this place is very safe. My brother and I are out here with a crew looking for strays. Matter of fact, I really should be getting back to help out."

"So you prefer cattle to women?" The gleam in her eye softened the sting of her words and Johnny shifted, laughing at her. No, not at her, but with her. His laugh was magical and she found herself laughing with him.

"No, ma'am, would you like an escort?" There he had said it. He had asked her but now he waited nervously while she weighed the invitation.

"Do you know this area well?" she queried innocently.

"Well, yes, ma'am. You're on Lancer. I think I can show you around without getting us lost."

She laughed again, a melodic, enchanting sound that caused a slow burn to spread through Johnny's belly and snake lower. //Yes, she was one incredible woman.//

With that thought in mind he slid lithely off Barranca and lead him to the back of the surrey. As he tied the palomino off, he took advantage of the momentary freedom from the penetrating emerald eyes to gather his emotions and thoughts. Breathing deeply he hitched his gunbelt before joining Etta on the seat and taking the reins from her small hands.

"So where to?"

Etta briefly considered his question, then demurely suggested, "you show me."

All too aware of the beautiful woman seated beside him, he clucked to the team and resumed following the road.

Scott looked down the hillside as his brother slid into the surrey and took off with a woman. He had to assume it was the same one Johnny had told him about last night. Sighing, he went back to work and wondered how his brother would explain this one to Murdoch.

*****

She stole glances at his profile as he drove. He didn't seem to be reciprocating and she wondered about that. Maybe he was just a careful driver. She knew with absolute certainty he was attracted to her. It was a surprise that she felt these emotions for this man. Usually, her taste ran to a different sort. Well, there's no harm in seeing what happens.

Johnny watched her watching him from his periphery and it pleased him a great deal. He never looked over, though, knowing he'd become too distracted. He'd also been considering where to take her then the idea jumped into his mind.

He turned toward the south on a well-traveled path and she said nothing as they began climbing ever upward.

He pulled to a stop and set the brake then jumped down and rounded the surrey quickly. Offering a hand, he helped her down.

"Where are we?" she asked.

"Come over here, I want to show you something," was his reply.

She didn't hesitate to follow, trusting him easily. When they stopped, she breathed in sharply.

"Oh, my! It's so beautiful!"

Johnny smiled fully and nodded. "Yeah, it sure is. From here and in every direction, as far as you can see, is Lancer."

She turned wide eyes on him, her lips slightly parted as she stared. "All of this? It's so... incredible and big."

He laughed softly and turned to face her, his eyes sparkling as the sun lit them even more than usual. She was reminded of a sapphire ring she'd once seen. Brilliantly dazzling and most seductive. She found she had to look away lest she be lost in those eyes forever.

She backed away from the cliff and walked around in a small circle, regaining her senses before turning back to him.

"You must be very proud."

"Well, I am, but my father deserves the credit. He built this ranch to what it is today."

She smiled at him and he saw a knowing in that look.

"I've heard all about the Lancer family and Johnny Madrid, if that's what you were wondering," she stated almost blandly.

"I see." His tone was tight, his words clipped. "What do you think about that?"

She shrugged and wandered about the area again. "I'm here, aren't I? That should tell you what I think."

He stared at her for several beats then walked up to her. "It doesn't bother you? My past, that is."

"No, it doesn't bother me. I'm sorry you didn't get to grow up in such a beautiful place but the fact you were a gunfighter doesn't matter."

He wasn't sure he believed that completely. He didn't doubt she did, but how could she know what it was really like? He decided not to press the issue. He was too enamored to ruin this.

"What about you? Where are you from?" he asked as he took her arm and guided her to a fallen log.

She sat down, smoothing her skirt and resting her hands in her lap. "St. Louis, originally. I've traveled quite a bit, though. Mostly with my father when he was alive. He was a buyer for a chain of stores in the east."

"When did he die?" he asked softly.

"Two years ago. Since then, I've continued to travel. We never made it west of the Rockies, so I decided I'd like to see the western part of the country. It's much different than I imagined."

Johnny looked down at the ground, a frown of thought on his face. "Seems kind of dangerous. I mean, a woman travelin alone."

She smiled. "I suppose it is rather risqué of me but I'm very independent. I don't like to be told what to do by anyone."

He laughed and stood back up, pacing away a few feet then turning to face her. "I'm the same way."

"It must have been quite an adjustment coming here. Family always expects to be informed where you're going and what you're doing," she remarked with a touch of irritation for the thought.

"Yeah, my father " he calls the tune as far as the ranch goes. But, no one tells me what I can do on my own time," Johnny smiled.

She returned the smile and stood with a soft sigh. "I suppose I should get back now."

"It'll be nearly dark before we make it to town."

"We?" she asked with a raised brow.

"You don't think I'm gonna just leave you on the side of the road, do you?" he asked, truly astonished at the thought.

Her light laugh rustled through the trees and his heart pumped a little faster. "No, of course not. You are a gentleman, after all."

"That's right, I am," he grinned.

*****

The trip to town passed quickly, much too quickly to his way of thinking. He sighed as the surrey came to a halt in front of Etta's comfortable home. Taking a deep breath, he reluctantly climbed down then turned to offer her a hand. She graciously accepted his hand and stepped lightly to the ground They stood there silently staring at each other, each unsure of their next move. Finally, Johnny offered her an arm and lead her through the gate to her front door.

"Well, I enjoyed the tour. Thank you." She gazed demurely at him through long lashes, before blinking innocently. Her heart pounded in anticipation as she fervently hoped he was not a perfect gentleman.

"It was my pleasure," he replied. Once more the silence overwhelmed them. Hesitantly, he leaned closer, barely able to breath. His heart thudded painfully as she tilted her head to meet his. Their lips met, the contact electrifying and he felt her shudder. He withdrew then, his breath coming in gasps, his passion matched by hers.

  "Can I see you again?" he asked, his voice sounding strained even to him.

"I would like that," she responded coyly. With a last look into his impossibly blue eyes, she retreated into her home. He stood staring at the closed door before turning back to the waiting team, his step decidedly lighter than ever. His soul soared as he pondered their next meeting.

*****

Johnny sat deep in the saddle, his mind elsewhere as he allowed the palomino to make his own way home. Dusk had settled over the great estancia like a cloak as the horse trotted under the arch. Shaking his head in amazement, he softly cursed his inattention to the trek home and his surroundings. //Getting carried away like that could get ya killed, Johnny boy.// he softly chastised himself. Yet, he would willingly drown in the glistening green eyes of Etta Smith.

A whisper of a fall breeze caressed his cheek as he pulled Barranca to a halt before the barn door. He touched his mouth imagining Etta's full lips as they brushed his.

"Ya shor got somethin' on yer mind, an it ain't no cattle neither." The gruff voice broke his concentration, jerking him painfully back to the present. "So whatcha bin up ta? Scott said ya took off'n left the herd."

"I met a girl, Jelly. A wonderful girl and she needed an escort," he finished lamely. The dark head bowed, as self control eluded his grasp.

"Well now, ain't that fine an dandy but ya better have a better story fer Murdoch. He's bin pacin like a caged bull." Laughter erupted from the whiskered handyman. He patted Johnny firmly on the back before shoving him in the direction of the hacienda.

*****

Gulping down an unexpected lump in his throat, Johnny stepped into the great room. His family turned to stare, their expressions unreadable.

"Murdoch, I can explain."

"Yes, I think you better. I'm told you took off with a woman and left your brother to handle your chores."   Murdoch glared at his son, his posture straight and tense.

"Scott, I'll make it up to you."

"Yes, you will, son," Murdoch ordered. "You have responsibilities that can't be ignored. This ranch doesn't run itself and you can't expect your brother to pick up when you slack off. Is that understood?"

Guilt bowed Johnny's head, as the realization that he had abandoned his brother, and the hands, flooded his mind.   "I'll work extra tomorrow, alright, Murdoch?" he asked humbly, his voice soft and apologetic. "I just lost track of time."

"Murdoch, he didn't mean any harm. He's just enjoying the attention.   If she's everything he says she is, I daresay she would have turned any man's head...even yours."

Murdoch opened his mouth to reply before closing it with a snap.

Long moments passed with the ticking of the grandfather clock the only sound. The rumble of Johnny's stomach interrupted the heavy silence, reminding the young Lancer he had missed lunch. He raised his downcast eyes to find the three members of his family staring calmly at him. With a mumbled "well, guess I'll go eat now," Johnny left the room, the tantalizing smell of dinner warming on the stove enticing him. Behind him, he could hear Teresa's peels of laughter, lightening the mood in the room he had just left.

With that Scott followed in his brother's footsteps. Murdoch stared at the doorway leading to the kitchen before stalking to his desk and collapsing in his chair.

*****

Later that night, Etta lay on the soft bed, her eyes staring at the full moon through the open window. A gentle breeze stirred the curtains, the lace billowing softly in it's passing. As the coolness of the night air enveloped her, her mind returned once more to visions of a dark young man, with eyes the color of a midnight sky. The afternoon had been the most wonderful day she had experienced in a long time. She sighed softly.   It had been months since she had enjoyed the company of a man, and never one as charming or handsome.

"Maybe I'm getting ahead of myself," she whispered. They had only met twice, the meeting today being less than accidental. But already her imagination could see the flame between herself and the young Lancer blossoming into something more. She was drawn to him, her body ached with longing and she knew he desired her but was there more than just passion between them? She hoped so.

*****

Johnny tapped his fingers on the side of the wagon impatiently as he waited for his brother to come out of the house. It had been two days since he'd seen her. Now that it was Saturday, they were going to town for supplies and Scott was taking his sweet time.

Finally, the older man emerged from the house settling his hat on his head. Johnny sprang into the seat and grabbed the reins as Scott strolled around the wagon to the other side.

"Sometime today, Scott," Johnny said tersely.

Scott slowed and looked up, grinning mischievously. "In a hurry, brother? What's so important?"

Johnny ground his teeth before relaxing. His brother was only teasing. No need to be a porcupine about it. He settled for trying a glare that didn't quite work as Scott laughed and climbed aboard.

A sly grin came on Johnny's face as he flipped the reins and they started with a jolt before Scott could properly seat himself. The older brother gave a more convincing glare of his own as Johnny kept right on grinning at him.

"She must be really something to have you so anxious, Johnny," Scott commented after several quiet moments.

"I'll tell ya, brother, she's about the most beautiful thing I ever did see."

Scott nodded but his expression was solemn. "Beauty doesn't always penetrate the skin." He watched as Johnny's shoulders went up then back down.

"Well, guess that's what I need to find out, then."

A soft smile came over Scott's face, more for the relief. At least, Johnny wasn't running headlong into a relationship with someone he didn't even know. All he could really ever tell Scott was that she was beautiful. While the older man didn't doubt his brother's eyesight, he knew Johnny wore his heart on his sleeve about most things.

Although, he had to admit, he'd never seen Johnny behave this way about a woman before. In fact, his brother seemed quite content to cavort with the local saloon girls. Scott had never known him to ask a girl out on a real date. He'd often wondered about it but had never asked, knowing Johnny would joke it away.

They arrived at the Feed and Seed and quickly placed their order. Johnny worked feverishly to load the supplies until Scott stopped him by grabbing hold of his arm.

"If you're planning on seeing the young lady, you might not want to work up such a sweat," he advised.

Johnny looked long at him then nodded and patted him on the back. "Thanks, brother. I'll be back soon."

Before Scott could utter a clarification, Johnny was gone. He stood on the loading dock with one hand outstretched and his mouth hanging open. Scott sighed and turned to the owner who was chuckling at him.

"Well, you pretty much told him to go on," Harvey Mills laughed.

Scott's shoulders slumped in defeat. "I suppose I did," he smiled.

*****

Johnny stopped in front of the general store and peered into the glass. He ran a hand over his hair and brushed dust from his shirt. He was a mess. Maybe he shouldn't try to see her now. He quickly admonished himself. He was a working man and if she couldn't appreciate that, he reckoned he ought to know it from the get go.

Still, he was sure she did appreciate that. At least, it sure hadn't bothered her the other day. A smile lifted his lips as he continued on his way.

He slowed near the gate to her house. She was on the porch watering her potted plants and he had to stop and watch, the grin was back and it wouldn't go away.

She paused with the pitcher in midair, her heart beginning to thump widely. Could it be? she wondered. If she turned around right now, would he be there? She closed her eyes and swallowed hard then lowered the pitcher and turned slowly, all the while praying her instincts held true.

His breath was coming just a little faster as she turned toward him, anticipation brightening his eyes. Then, she smiled.

"Well, Mr. Lancer, this is a surprise," she said almost too softly to hear.

He took off his hat and stepped through the gate. "A pleasant one, I hope."

Her smile widened. "Definitely, but to what do I owe this honor?"

Johnny had reached the bottom of the stairs and placed one foot on the first step. "Well, I was in town and I thought I'd stop by and say hello. Hope that's alright."

She stared at him for a few seconds before breathing. "Of course. Please, come up and have a seat. I made fresh lemonade this morning."

He looked unsure and her heart fell in disappointment.

"Actually, I really can't stay. I was just wondering," he paused and lowered his eyes before raising them to meet her gaze. She marveled at those thick, long lashes once more.

"Wondering?" she whispered.

He blinked and went on. "Wondering if you'd be interested in a picnic tomorrow."

The smile was on her face before she could stop it. In fact, now all she could hope for was to restrain it just a little from busting her whole face open.

"I would be delighted."

Johnny didn't try to restrain his smile, it lit his face like fireworks on a pitch black night. "About eleven, then?"

She nodded and he backed away down the short path to the gate. Backing right on through it, he slowly disappeared from view, never turning his back to her and still wearing that dazzling smile.

Etta moved to the porch swing when she could no longer see him and fell onto the seat. She waved a hand in front of her face as she took deep breaths.

*****

Johnny's mood remained bright the rest of the day and evening. Sunday morning, he waved his family off as they headed for church then ran back to the kitchen. No one would ever know how he'd managed to persuade Maria, but the cook had prepared his picnic lunch the night before. He grinned as he thought of her " more a mother to him than he'd ever known.

That last thought pulled him up, putting a frown on his face. But, he sucked in a breath and shook it off before remembering his plans and feeling enlivened again.

He grabbed the basket and headed to the barn. Another victim of his charm had put a high shine on the surrey for him and Johnny smiled appreciatively at the perfect job Jelly had done. He loaded his feast and hitched Zanzibar up then climbed aboard.

He'd thought this through carefully and picked the best spot, in his opinion, for a picnic. The day was near perfect. The sky was an incredible hue, the clouds thin and sparse. A slight breeze wafted around him and the air had never smelled cleaner. There was only the slightest chill detected from time to time but that would dissipate as the day wore on. Contented, he picked up the pace a little, anxious to see her again.

*****

Etta looked herself over once more in the full length mirror. She'd changed at least six times but thought this dress was just right. A sunny yellow, it was a simple dress but she thought it appropriate for a picnic. She had left her hair long, hoping he'd like it. Most men did like a woman's hair down, she'd noticed.

She brushed the golden locks once more, sure every strand was in place, then picked up the small red rose and held it by her ear. She made a face and shook her head then dropped it to the dresser. She grabbed her shawl and wrapped it around her then twirled before the mirror once. Yes, this was the right outfit.

Moving to the living room, she peered out the window. Anxiety caused her to sigh as she knew it was too early for his arrival. She idly wondered if he'd be on time. Remembering his face yesterday, she smiled, knowing he would be. Maybe even early.

Now, she was ready with nothing to do but wait. She wasn't terribly patient and had always, in the past, ensured her caller was left to wait for her to make a grand entrance. Not today. Today, she didn't feel like playing games.

The thought worried her some. This was so different than anything she'd experienced with a man before. She wondered if he would behave the same as others had. He was so different from what she was used to in so many ways. Her past gentleman friends had always been patient and willing to fairly salivate while she decided how much of herself she was willing to give. And, of course, if they were worth any effort.

Most were only good for a short while. Her attentions would wander to greener pastures soon enough. None ever seemed quite green enough, though. Maybe, maybe this one with his youthful exuberance for life so easy to see; maybe he would be able to keep her attention.

*****

She heard the surrey and ran to the window, her heart quickening when she saw him. Taking a deep breath, she forced herself to calm down. This really was getting ridiculous. She needed to stop this before she made a complete fool of herself; if she hadn't already.

Checking her hair once more in the mirror, she smiled at her reflection then turned and slowly made her way to answer the knock at the door. She stood there, counting for a full minute before reaching for the knob.

Johnny's eyes came up as he took her in and he smiled appreciatively. "Hello."

"Mr. Lancer, you're right on time," she replied with only a small smile of her own.

"I try, ma'am. Are you ready?"

She nodded and stepped out the door as she pulled her wrap over her slim shoulders.

He helped her into the surrey then hurried to the other side, sliding in and picking up the reins. "I picked out the perfect spot but it's a little drive. I hope that's alright."

"It's a nice day for a ride and I trust your judgment," she replied, trying not to smile too much.

He nodded, grinned and set off for Lancer.

*****

She walked slowly along the bank of the calm river, the breeze lifting her hair gently off her neck from time to time. He watched for a while before joining her.

"You were right. This is a beautiful place."

"Most of Lancer is beautiful but I'm glad you like it."

She stopped and looked at him quizzically. "Where are the not so beautiful spots?"

Johnny laughed softly. "Well, there's some rough country to the south."

"I'd like to see it sometime," she said seriously then looked up at the sky.

Johnny's eyes followed hers and he frowned a little. The clouds were thickening and he could smell the moisture in the air. "Gonna rain in an hour or so."

"I love the rain. It leaves everything so clean and fresh."

"Me too. It's like everything comes alive again after a good rain."

She looked at him and smiled then started walking again. He kept step with her and neither spoke for a while.

"What else do you like?" he asked suddenly.

She pondered her answer for a while. "I like to ride horses, go to plays and concerts. I love the theater," she replied, her eyes excited just mentioning it.

He gave no reaction but felt a stab in his chest. "There's not much of that kind of entertainment in these parts. Closest place would be Stockton."

She shrugged. "Well, the very reason I came here was for a change. Life here is much slower than I'm used to but I like it. I don't feel so "¦"¦ hurried all the time."

He stopped walking and she turned to look back at him. He had half a smile on his face.

"You sound like my brother. He was raised in Boston."

"He must like it here, too, since he stayed," she remarked.

"Yeah, he's getting pretty used to it now. I think it was harder on him than he'd ever admit at first, though," he said and his smile developed a little more.

"Sometimes, a person needs a whole new way of life. A whole new perspective."

He looked at the ground. "A whole different sort of people, too."

"That's the best part, Johnny. Meeting people who've lived such different lives than your own. I find it fascinating."

He looked up at her with a smile. "That's the first time you've called me by my first name."

"It is?" she laughed. "You see? Already, my manners are fading."

"I like it better," he said seriously.

She looked into his eyes, held them this time, and waited for what she hoped he was going to do.

He stepped closer and leaned in slowly, his lips brushing hers feather soft before sealing her mouth. She leaned into him, her hands resting on his chest as she felt his arms wrap around her waist.

He pulled her closer and she moved her hands behind his neck, pulling his head down. He pressed his body to hers as both felt the heat threatening to engulf them in flames of desire.

In the next instant, the flame was doused by a cool rain that seemed to come from nowhere. Johnny released her and glanced up with a scowl then grabbed her hand and ran to refuge under a spreading elm.

She leaned her back against the rough bark, already dripping wet and laughing. Both worked to slow their breathing, not so much from the run as what had been interrupted.

She stared at him for a few seconds before stepping in and wrapping her arms around his neck again. He needed no further invitation and kissed her passionately. Both blissfully ignoring the building storm around them.

Senses took hold and Johnny pulled back. "I should get you to shelter," he said huskily.

"By the time we get back, it won't much matter," she teased.

He smiled and looked around, thinking. "There's an old shack nearby. It's not much but, hopefully, the roof's in good shape. Come on," he said and took her hand once more.

He grabbed the picnic blanket from the back of the surrey and shook it out best he could then wrapped it around her. She pulled it over her head and huddled on the seat. Johnny made quick work of stowing the weight and jumping aboard. He took off as quickly as safety allowed.  

Soon enough they arrived at the cabin, shack was more like it. Johnny leapt lithely to the ground, running around to Etta's side of the surrey and offering her a hand. She fell willingly into his arms, her body pressing tightly against his. Breathing heavily, Johnny gently pulled away, turning to lead her to the cabin door. With a quick glance throughout the small interior he stepped aside to allow her to pass.

"I'll tend to the horse and be right back. " He studied her briefly, his expression unreadable, but she understood his body language. She understood it all too well. A small smile graced her lips as she welcomed his exploration.

"I'll get a fire going. We need to dry our clothing." Her eyes darkened, passion and promise glowing in the emerald depths. She held him pinned under her scrutiny then turned reluctantly away. The spell broken, Johnny turned and left the shack, a light-hearted lilt to his step.  

Etta began a systematic search of the small cabin. Once it had been used as a line shack of sorts and had been well-stocked. Now, it was abandoned and had begun to succumb to neglect and the elements. Whoever had deserted it though, had failed to empty it of all provisions. After rummaging briefly, Etta was rewarded with firewood, coffee and even some well used candles. She found herself humming softly as she went about the first order of business,   building a fire. That accomplished, she turned to the picnic basket Johnny had left inside the cabin door. After dusting the table, she laid out the feast. She surveyed her handiwork then nodded with satisfaction.

The sound of the rain was growing louder, the drops pounding relentlessly on the roof, the sound relaxing and romantic. With the soft light of the fire and candles, and the aroma of the meal, the cabin was both cozy and romantic. So far, so good. He had taken the bait, now all she had to do was pull him closer. Her heart pounded in anticipation. He was interested, she had sensed his desire, the intense passion flaming in his eyes, his touch, his voice.

How far his need would push him remained to be seen, but how far she would allow him to go was not in question. She burned for Johnny Lancer, wanted him and she was going to have him. No man had intrigued her as he had.   No man had affected her in quite this way. The heat and throbbing was a new experience, one she had longed for and willingly embraced. He would be back soon and she would be ready.

It took longer to tend to the needs of the gelding than he had expected, each moment a lifetime. He was having difficulty concentrating, his mind refusing to leave the sight of her standing before him, her wet clothing clinging to every curve, her lips parted slightly and issuing their invitation. He ached to return to the cabin, to accept the silent offer, to explore the thrill of their budding love.

Or was it lust? She was beautiful, sexier than any woman he had ever met, and she knew how to use her assets. Or was he reading too much into the whole situation? The more he questioned, the fewer answers he could capture. He only knew he was falling and it was a heady, thrilling and unknown emotion.

His fingers fumbling in a most uncharacteristic manner, he finally managed to finish the task. He ran, well walked very quickly to the door of the barn, turning to once more reassure himself that the horse was comfortable before closing the door behind him and hurrying to the cabin.

On the porch, he paused to run a hand through his thick black hair and catch his breath. The inviting glow of the fire could be seen through the windows and the warm scent of their meal wafted on the moisture laden air.   Drawing a deep breath he pushed open the door and stepped inside.

"Good. Are you ready to eat?" she asked coyly.

"Yes, definitely," he replied and closed the door.

*****

Johnny stared at the ceiling as she nuzzled his chest. A smile of pure contentment adorned his face as he looked down at the top of her head. Reaching out with his free hand, he smoothed the silken hair and kissed it. She sighed and craned her neck to see his face.

"You okay?" he asked.

Her smile brightened the room; hell the world to his mind. "I've never been better, Mr. Lancer," she practically purred.

Johnny laughed softly and moved so he could kiss her properly. That kiss almost led to a repeat of their lovemaking as she slid on top of him.

"Easy, Lady. Should we be doing this?"

"A little late for that question, don't you think?" she smiled and kissed his neck.

He grinned at her. "I meant again. It's getting late."

He heard her soft sigh and a slight moan of regret accompanied it. "I suppose. Do we have to, though? I could stay here forever."

"Might get a little hungry," he teased.

She slapped his chest lightly. "Stop being so practical."

Johnny laughed heartily at that. "Boy, no one has ever accused me of that before!" Still staring into her eyes, he tried to be serious. "We should go."

She sighed again and nodded, knowing he was right. At the same time, she really thought she could die right here and have not one regret. She had never felt like this. Never been made to feel like this. No man had ever done the things he'd done. As she got to her feet and started dressing, she realized this was the first time she'd really made love. Oh, there'd been men but they obviously didn't have a clue what they were doing. She only wished she could find a word to describe this overwhelming feeling that glowed within her now.

Johnny couldn't keep the grin from his face and he was sure he looked like an idiot but he didn't care. She was incredible. Perfect. The way her body fit his was ..... he stopped and shook his head. Can't be thinking about that. We'll never get out of here.

Then again, he didn't really want to go. Her reputation was the only thing that kept him moving along. Bringing her home at a late hour would raise quite a few eyebrows in Green River. That wouldn't be fair to her and she didn't deserve it for sure.

Finally, they were dressed and Etta turned toward the table then burst out laughing. "We never had our lunch."

Johnny walked over and wrapped his arms around her waist from behind. "Oh, I don't know about that," he said softly and nibbled her ear.

She moved quickly and turned to face him. "None of that, mister. It was your idea to get going so let's do that."

"Okay," he sighed. Grabbing the basket, he pulled open the door and waited for her to walk out. He took a moment to appreciate the view before following her. At least it had stopped raining, he noted.

*****

The trip to town was quiet. Etta kept her hand on Johnny's thigh until they could see buildings in the near distance then she nonchalantly moved her hand to her own lap.

Johnny only smiled at the gesture and nudged her a little with his shoulder.

"Stop that!" she whispered.

"Yes, ma'am."

She laughed at him then smoothed her skirts, dreading the approaching end to their day. As he pulled to a stop outside her home, her heart fell.

Johnny helped her down, letting his hands linger on her waist a few seconds too long before taking her elbow and guiding her to the door.

She stopped and lowered her head before turning and looking up at him. "I had a wonderful time," she said.

"So did I. When can I see you again?"

She smiled, thought about teasing him then negated the idea. "You're the man with the busy schedule," she replied.

His face dropped and he sighed. "Yeah, that reminds me. I have to go to Sacramento in two days."

Her face fell in disappointment as well. "How long will you be gone?"

He scuffed his boot on the porch before answering. "Probably about two weeks."

Etta's eyes widened and she found she couldn't breathe very well. It took her a few seconds to recover and she swallowed hard. "That may well be the worst torture I've ever heard of."

He smiled wanly at her then stroked her cheek. "I think you're right. But, it can't be helped. If I can get back sooner, I will."

She nodded and commanded herself not to behave badly. It wasn't as if they were engaged, for heaven's sake! She took a deep breath and let it out silently. "I'll look forward to your return then."

Johnny looked around the street then pulled her over behind some potted plants hanging from the porch ceiling. He took her in his arms and kissed her as if he'd never see her again. Finally, he had to stop or he'd find himself in all kinds of trouble.

She was breathing heavily when he pulled away, grabbing his arms to steady herself. "I think .... that should hold me for ... a little while."

Johnny laughed and hugged her quickly. "I really have to go now," he said regretfully.

She squeezed his biceps then released him and walked back to the door. "Have a safe trip."

He smiled and stepped back as she slipped inside. Johnny stood there a moment longer before turning and heading to the surrey.

*****

Scott watched his brother the next day, had been since he'd returned home the evening before. He knew Johnny was hooked and wondered if his brother would allow himself to get reeled in. It seemed to him Johnny was walking on air. It was an amusing sight, one he'd yet to experience with his younger brother. Cute, was the word that popped in his mind. Not a word he would ever vocalize to his brother. Not if he wanted to continue breathing. Scott chuckled to himself.

"What's so funny?" Johnny asked as he noted the grin on Scott's face.

"Nothing."


"What do you mean nothing?"

"Are you referring to the definition of the word or the way I used it or.."

"Ok, Scott, stop it."

"Who is she, Johnny? I know it's a woman."

"You know who she is. Why do you keep pushing this?"

"Pushing? Why are you being so secretive? What's wrong with telling your family you've found someone who makes you this happy?"

"I don't know, Boston. I guess I'm, well.."

Scott laid a hand on his brother's shoulder, staring intently into Johnny's darkened eyes. "You're what?" he asked gently.

"I guess I'm afraid something will go wrong, somehow. Like, she.."

"She'll what?" Scott coaxed.

"She'll find someone else. Like if I can keep it a secret then no one can get in the way. Does that make sense?"

The hand on Johnny's shoulder tightened. "Yes, brother, it does. But have you considered we want to meet the woman who can make you so happy? Maybe we would like to thank her."

"Yeah, I guess so. Just give me a little time, ok? After the trip to Sacramento. I can bring her for supper or something."

"Sure, after the trip." Scott tossed his arm casually around Johnny's shoulder as the two men headed for their horses standing patiently under the oak where the Lancers had ground tied them.

The brother's returned to the task at hand. While one dreamed of a night of lovemaking when he returned, the other prayed his brother's joy was not short lived.

*****

It was a subdued Johnny Lancer who entered the stage, his shoulders sagging as if under a heavy burden. A restraining hand halted Scott before his foot touched the top step.

"Watch out for your brother. You boys be careful."

"Murdoch, we've been to Sacramento before."

"Yes, but Johnny looks ill."

"Oh, he is..." Scott said solemnly but his mouth curled upward in a sly grin.  

Murdoch weighed his son's words before offering, "should he see Sam?"

At Scott's reassuring shake of the head, Murdoch released his son and stepped back to watch him enter the stage. A moment later a blond head appeared in the window.

"Don't worry, Murdoch. We'll be fine."

With a crack of the whip and the jangle of harnesses the team lunged forward, the stage lurching heavily behind them. Murdoch watched until the dust from the stage's passing had settled before turning for the telegraph office. He would send a wire to Mr. Calhoun in Sacramento letting him know the boys were on the way then, maybe indulge in a beer before heading back. Even at his most leisurely pace he would be home in time for supper.

Hitching up his gunbelt, he crossed the street to the Western Union office, pausing only briefly to wait for a group of rowdy cowhands to gallop by. Ah youth, he thought. So much enthusiasm and so little direction. At least he was giving his boys the guidance they needed.

He knew Scott and Johnny were impulsive at times but they had good heads on their shoulders. Maybe he had bequeathed them more than he thought. He knew he would never behave rashly. Surprised at the turn his thoughts had taken, he entered the small cramped building that housed Green River's telegraph office When the office had opened in the unused structure, Green River had boasted of its progress; a boast most of the neighboring residents failed to subscribe to.

"I'm telling you, Miss, you can't send this."

"But, why not? I was assured there was an office there to receive my dispatch."

"The lines there are down for repair and won't be up for another couple of weeks. Come back then."

"I can't. I have to get a message through now."

The sound of the woman's plaintive voice broke Murdoch's reverie. He stopped short in the doorway, uncomfortable to be witness to the discussion between the office manager and the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Well, with the exception of two"¦maybe.

"I'm sorry. Come back later," the man behind the counter growled.

"Excuse me, but is that any way to speak to a lady?" Murdoch pulled himself to his full height, squaring his shoulders before pinning the smaller man under a withering glare.

"Well, I was just explaining that the lines between here and Stillwater are down." The manager gulped, his Adam's apple bobbing up and down in his thin neck.

"Yes, but my brother will be worried if I don't let him know I'm alright. I always wire him the first of the month." Her full lips quivered and she turned pleading eyes on the two men in the office.

"Look, ma'am, my sons are going to be in Sacramento, not a few hours from there. I could have them relay the message for you."

"Oh, would you please? I would owe you so much. Though, I don't want to trouble you." The emerald eyes seemed to grow brighter, the halo of her golden hair transforming her into the most angelic being Murdoch had ever seen.

"No trouble at all, ma'am."

Murdoch watched patiently as the woman wrote her message and handed it to him. Her handwriting indicated she was intelligent and educated, and he turned appraising eyes on her once more. Brains and beauty. What a combination.

Shocked at the turn his thoughts had taken he accepted the message and turned his attention to the wiry man behind the counter. "Alfred, send this to the boys, would you?" His voice sounded foreign even to him and he cleared his throat. "And make sure the reply is delivered to the ranch immediately."

"Yes, Sir." Alfred seemed immeasurably relieved. He had never been comfortable with women, and especially not emotional ones.

Murdoch tipped his hat to the young woman, nodded at Alfred and strode to the door only to find himself detained by a dainty hand on his arm.

"Ma'am?"

"I just want to thank you again."

"No need, ma'am. It was nothing." Again he made to leave but the hand on his arm clung tighter.

"You are a gentleman, Sir. At least allow me to buy you a cup of coffee." Vivid green eyes blinked beguilingly at him. She lowered her head, her thick lashes shielding the emerald depths from his surprised stare.

"I was going to the cafe before heading home. Perhaps I could buy you that coffee."

The coy smile unnerved him and despite the cool of the day he felt an odd heat radiating from his stomach. Pushing away the sense that he was making a mistake, he offered her his arm, his heart thudding painfully as she placed her hand in the crook of his elbow.

"Oh, no! I must be getting home." As if aware for the first time that the sun had given way to the new moon, she looked at his weathered face, alarm erasing the easy smile she had worn all afternoon "I had no idea it was so late. Where did the afternoon go?"

They had been sitting for hours, talking, laughing, enjoying the pie and coffee, and truth be told, the company of the other. She had found him charming and polite, with a sense of, of what? History was the word that had filled her mind, though it was an odd word. Not that he was that old of course. She had found it easy to talk to him and easier still to listen. He had a grasp on the history of   this part of California that had intrigued her and made her hunger to know more.

Her response had both shocked and pleased her. She shared his thirst for knowledge and he had been eager to exchange varying viewpoints on all manner of subjects. He had not dismissed her for being a woman but had welcomed her ideas on politics, religion and even business. He was not a shallow man, full of self importance. He had been attentive, knowledgeable and, yes, entertaining. Now she sighed, knowing the pleasant interlude was ending.

Ever the gentleman, he rose quickly, grasping her chair and assisting her to rise. She felt a blush heating her cheeks as his hand brushed her waist and she lowered her head.

"May I escort you home?"

"I would like that very much," she whispered. Once more the arm was offered and once more she slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow.

He led her outside, pausing briefly to request directions to her home before setting leisurely along the way. The moon was kissing the darkness, a cool, sweet breeze seeming to swell behind them. Nature had laid out her most glorious twilight, enchanting and romantic and she forgot the man leading her home was old enough to be her father. She sighed , the weight of bliss pressing her shoulders. As they reached her door, she turned to face her escort.

"This is going to sound odd but I feel like I have known you so long and I don't even know your name. Do you think I am forward?" Once more a beguiling blush stained her cheeks.

"No, it's not strange at all. And it's Murdoch."

"I am pleased to meet you, Murdoch. I'm Marietta." Her embarrassed laugh blended with the magic of the night and Murdoch felt young; young and virile. But reality crashed in upon him, his aching back commanding attention.

"I find myself enchanted and I have to remind myself of my position."

"What position is that, Murdoch?"

"You are but a child. I shouldn't enjoy your company so much." Now he was the one to feel embarrassed. Heat flamed in his groin, his face burned. He turned to leave her, but for the second time this day a small hand stopped his forward progress.

"You are a very desirable man. Any woman would feel honored to be on your arm. I know I have."

He turned to her expecting ridicule but found only sincerity. The emerald eyes pulled him in and he found himself frozen in place.

"I know I shouldn't ask this. I'm probably overstepping the line but would you have dinner with me tomorrow night?" he asked suddenly.

"I would be honored. I thought you would never ask. But may I cook for you instead?"

"Oh, I shouldn't have put you on the spot like that." Chagrin forced him to step backward but her stare stopped him in mid stride.

"Murdoch, I only meant I would like to have the pleasure of your company without the distraction of others."

"Then the pleasure is all mine."

"Shall we say eight o'clock?"

Feeling more like a teenager, Murdoch bowed his head, brushing the dainty hand with his lips. His uncharacteristic behavior and feelings overwhelmed him and he swiftly bid her adieu, pausing only to ensure the door was securely closed behind her. With a lilt to his step he had not experienced in years, he strolled to the livery to collect his mount and headed home.

*****

Dawn broke suddenly, probing fingers of light piercing the darkness of his room and bidding him rise. He stretched leisurely and clasped his hands together under his head. Her face danced before him, alluring and enticing and the old stirring once more tickled his lower abdomen. It had been years since a woman had elicited this response in him. Old emotions believed long dead were reemerging, their strength and vibrancy as that of a young stallion. Even if she were simply indulging an old man, he was grateful he had met her. She reminded him he was alive, truly alive and that he could feel again.

The feeling a man had for a woman, a feeling he had long believed dead.   And the feeling was completely welcome. He had believed for so long his life was over, that running the huge spread that was Lancer was his only lot in life but Marietta had shown him there was more. He dared not imagine she could give him more than casual companionship but he was grateful nonetheless. She had shown him he was capable of living life to the fullest. Odd how they had only spent one afternoon together.

The thought reminded him of his youngest son. Was this what Johnny had been experiencing? Was this the emotion that made a man forget all else? He was surprised he had forgotten the feeling of love. If so, he now remembered. And he understood. Sighing deeply, he rose from his bed, feeling younger than he had in many years. Tonight he would see her again, tonight she would impart more of her captivating life and tonight he would thank her.

*****

She hadn't slept well, tossing and turning until well after midnight only to awaken with the dawning of the new day. She was normally a morning person, reveling in the quiet of the world around her, preferring to sip her tea and watch the rising of the sun but this morning she was uneasy, irritable. Her sweet brew was doing nothing to soothe her ruffled emotions. And there was no reason for her discomfort. Nothing she could attribute her distress to, except perhaps her meeting with the tall rancher.

He fascinated her. His size, his power, his apparent mastery of the world around him And she longed for that sense of strength and confidence. She had struggled throughout her life, being orphaned at an early age. With no one to call family but her brother, she had fought to feed them, to care for him. She had been an adult without the blessing of a childhood of her own. Now she had met two men, each handsome in their own way.

Yes, even Murdoch was handsome, weathered and experienced as only a man who has fought life and won could be, but handsome nevertheless.   She did not see his age, was not aware of the difference in their positions or background. She only knew he was a man who could give her the life she had always dreamed of.

But what of Johnny Lancer? He was in love with her, of that she was certain. But was he prepared to make a commitment? Was Murdoch? A bit early for that train of thought, she chastised herself. They had only had one meeting.   But Murdoch had been smitten with her. She had used all her feminine wiles to weave a spell and the man had willingly fallen into it. It had taken but one afternoon for her to determine the life he could make for her, no, for them.

Her heart already belonged to Johnny Lancer but Murdoch could provide for her. Johnny was heir to a fortune but Murdoch already possessed one. Sighing heavily she sipped tentatively on her tea. Perhaps she could have them both. Was that why she had given Murdoch her proper full name? Had the idea formed in her mind when she had met the imposing rancher in the telegraph office? She was shocked by her own devious nature. She had not realized until now how very materialistic she could be. But it was her turn for the comforts life had to offer. She deserved some pampering. So why did she feel so deceitful?

Deceitful? No, it was ambition and nothing more. After all, men like Murdoch had not made their fortunes by being so selfless, had they? They had taken what they wanted and now were enjoying the benefits of their hard work Well, she could enjoy such benefits also.  

Tonight, she would test the waters. She would see how far she could take the tall rancher and tonight she would finalize her plans.

*****

Before returning to her bedroom to finish her toiletries, she took one last look at the table. It was a beautiful sight, laden with her best china and crystal. They were the only mementos her mother had left her and tonight they would secure her future. Candles glowed romantically, fresh roses adorned the center of the highly polished oak table. The smell of a roast warming in the kitchen mingled with all these scents A warm fire crackled on the hearth and smiling in anticipation, she hurried to her room.

The gentle knock on the front door heralded his arrival. She paused before the door, glancing one last time in the mirror hanging on the wall. Pleased with her reflection, she swung the door wide, allowing him to study her. She was happy to note the appraising way his eyes traveled the length of her body, taking in the voluptuous curves, his eyes widening at the sight of her ample bosom barely concealed by the low cut pink chiffon. Her blonde hair was swept up loosely, a few tendrils hugging her cheeks, her ruby red lips were parted in greeting. He was moved, more than moved and she lowered her eyes in mock embarrassment.

"You're right on time, Murdoch. Won't you come in?"

He swallowed hard, twisting his hat in large hands before striding into the room. Once more his eyes missed nothing; the fire, candles, table and her.     

"Is something wrong?"

"No, no, nothing. Its just, you are so beautiful and everything looks wonderful. I was just taking it all in."

"May I take your jacket?"   She extended a hand to accept the garment then swept by him, her shoulder brushing his arm as she did so. Laying the jacket on the back of a dark burgundy easy chair, she turned to face him.

"Would you care for a drink?"

"Do you have Scotch?

"Of course. Won't you sit down?"

The meal passed with the conversation flowing comfortably, like two long lost friends catching up on time gone by. They had eaten their fill, enjoyed wine and dessert and laughed with an ease that was not questioned. At last he rose, sighing as he stood. She, too, was disappointed the night had come to an end. The more time she spent in his company the more she was drawn to him. So enigmatic. Older yet young at heart, hardened yet gentle.

She followed him to the door, eyes downcast as she sought words that would encourage him to stay longer, a few more minutes, just a few more minutes. In uncharacteristic desperation, she rushed past him, stopping with her back to the door.

"Murdoch, must you go?"

"It's late, Marietta. I wouldn't want to overstay my welcome."

"You're not overstaying your welcome. I...I...I don't want you to go."

He looked at her, his expression one of puzzlement. Comprehension blossomed. She saw its revelation adorn his face with a wondering smile.

"You are a lovely woman. What would you want with an old man like me?"

"You are not old. You're experienced. I've never met a man like you," she whispered as she moved closer. Timidly, she extended shaking hands, placing them on either side of his face, before standing on tiptoe and brushing her lips against his.

Despite his firm resolve, his body betrayed him and he felt an old spark come to a burn, a warmth spreading through his loins, until it exploded into a raging inferno.

She pulled his head down, touching his lips again, this time firmer, more passionate and this time he responded. With a groan he pulled her tighter, his arms encircling her small frame. He knew she could feel his desire but instead of pulling away she pressed herself closer. She threw her head back, welcoming his exploration and he trailed kisses down her throat, not pausing when he reached the full cleavage. She moaned in ecstasy.

"Not here, my room," she requested huskily.

He swept her into his arms, surprised his back did not pain him at her weight. His body felt young, exuberant, as if this was meant to be. Striding purposefully into the main bedroom he laid her on the bed, tugging his shirt off and then laying beside her. He took her then again and again and as dawn broke they lay in each other's arms, exhausted and secure in their intimacy.

"You're a wonderful lover. I never thought it could be like this." She sighed and pressed her breast against his roughened hands.

"So you weren't disappointed then?"

"Of course not. I only have one question.'

"Which is what, darling?"

"Are you up to one more?"

Laughing,   he rose above her.   Moaning she allowed him to take her to the pinnacles of pleasure.

*****

Scott watched with some empathy as Johnny stared out the window of their hotel room. The soft sighs his brother had been emitting was cause to bite his lip. As amusing as it was to watch Johnny pine over a girl, Scott knew his brother's fears and it sobered him.

"Why don't we have supper downstairs?" he suggested.

Johnny shrugged. "Sure. The auction should be interesting."

Scott stood and nodded. "I hope we can get that bull. Murdoch will be pretty pleased."

Johnny managed to smile as he faced his sibling. "Yeah, maybe he'll even spare us a smile."

Scott laughed and wrapped an arm around his brother, guiding him to the door.

Once seated in the restaurant, they ordered quickly then settled back.

"You haven't really told me much about Etta, you know. What's she like?"

Johnny's eyes lit at the mention of her name then he grew solemn. "I know I'm actin like a fool, Scott. I just never really felt this way before. It's kind of new to me. But, she's wonderful, ya know? She's smart and classy."

"Where's she from?"

"St. Louis but her father traveled a lot and she went with him. Her mother died when she was young. She's got this way about her. It's hard to describe but I know you'd like her a lot."

Scott raised a brow and a mischievous look gleamed in his eyes.

Johnny hardened his stare and leaned forward. "Not THAT much, brother mine. Don't even think about it."

Scott raised both hands in surrender. "Okay, I get the message. Hands off."

Johnny relaxed and nodded then leaned back. "Got that right."

They grew quiet for a few minutes and Scott was pensive.

"You know, Johnny, sometimes things don't work out the way you want them to."

"Like what?"

"Well," Scott sighed out. "Like, this girl. I'm sure she's lovely and I can see you're quite taken with her. But, even the best of relationships fall apart. All I'm really saying is, I don't want to see you get hurt."

Johnny smiled a little. "I appreciate that, Scott, but I think it's too late. I'm ready to make it more permanent."

The older man's eyes widened with pure shock. "You haven't known her very long. Maybe you should slow down a little."

"Why? When you know it's right, there's no reason to slow down."

"Does she feel the same way?" Scott asked.

Johnny lowered his eyes then looked back at his brother. "I'm pretty confident she does."

"What do you really know of her, Johnny? How does she make a living? Does she have any other family?"

Johnny rubbed the table top as he stared at it. "No, I don't know those things but I know the important things. Like what's in her heart and her head."

"Do you trust her?" Scott asked, frowning.

Johnny smiled and looked up. "Yeah, I do."

*****

The auction closed the next afternoon and two happy young men walked toward the saloon with arms wrapped around each other. It was time to celebrate their purchase. They settled at a table and ordered, still grinning.

"This should give Murdoch something to smile about for a day or two," Scott laughed.

"Yeah. Ya know, Scott, sometimes, I worry about him."

Scott looked at his brother and saw he was serious. "Why?"

Johnny sighed. "Well, just seems he never takes the time to enjoy himself very much. He's always working or worryin or both. I've never seen him interested in a woman. Never heard him talk about one. Now, you'd think with all the females in the valley, he'd have his eye on at least one."

"Maybe he's gunshy," Scott surmised.

"Yeah, I reckon. Still, he ain't no monk. I mean, surely he's had some opportunities in twenty years."

The older brother chuckled at that. It was true, he supposed. Murdoch had had plenty of time to get over Johnny's mother. Even her betrayal should be merely a whisper in his mind by now.

"I imagine he's had dates. Just because he doesn't tell us about them, doesn't mean there haven't been any women. You know how he is," Scott said and actually rolled his eyes.

"Yeah, I know how he is. Got glue stuck to his mouth most of the time. Maybe we should try and do something about that. Find him someone," Johnny shrugged.

"I don't think that's a very good idea," Scott replied warily. "He would not appreciate it."

"He wouldn't have to know about it. If we could find someone, we could make sure they ran into each other, accidental like; over and over," Johnny grinned deviously.

Scott laughed outright at the idea but it was food for thought. "She'd have to be special."

"Someone we could stand bein around."

"Someone who could stand us."

"Someone who wouldn't get in between him and us."

Scott nodded, his mind running over the eligible women in the valley. He couldn't come up with a single name, though. Sighing, he took a long pull of his beer. "Well, maybe your Etta has an aunt or something."

Johnny laughed and nodded. "Wouldn't that be somethin?"

*****

Ten days they'd been gone. It wouldn't have been that long if Scott hadn't had to stop in Stillwell and deliver that telegram. Both men thought it an odd request but evidently is was fairly important to whoever this friend of Murdoch's was.

Johnny thought he would just about die if he didn't get home and see her soon so he stayed with the bull while Scott found this man. He had managed to cut the time down but not by much. They'd be home this afternoon but he sure couldn't see her right away. She'd shoot him if he showed up looking and smelling as he did. He smiled at that.

Scott saw the anxiety deepen in his brother with each hoofbeat and he wanted to just burst out laughing. He was also intrigued and a little anxious himself to meet the woman who could turn his brother into jelly. At the moment, he needed to focus his attention elsewhere, however. He tugged once again on the rope as the bull labored behind them. God, but it was a stubborn animal! Perfect for Lancer.

"Want me to take over?' Johnny asked.

"No, you'd forget and let him loose," Scott grinned.

Johnny scowled. "What does that mean?"

"Nothing, just that you're a little preoccupied."

Johnny's anger abated immediately and he gave his brother an apologetic smile. "Sorry."

"Oh, don't apologize. It's keeping me entertained," Scott finally laughed.

"Is this what it's like? I mean, am I over the top here?" Johnny asked solemnly.

Scott thought about that. He wanted to choose his words carefully. Johnny was a little .... fragile, he guessed was a good word. He didn't want to spoil this for his brother.

"Well, I think everyone reacts differently. I've been known to be a little irrational myself."

"You? I can't see that."

"It's true," Scott said.

"Well, I don't care, really. I mean, it's supposed to make you happy," Johnny shrugged.

"Look at that, brother. We're home," Scott smiled and nodded his head slightly to his right.  

Johnny did look and a smile exploded on his face. "Finally," he sighed out.

*****

Something was definitely going on with the old man. He had greeted Scott and Johnny at the door when they had arrived home, barely pausing to glance at the newest member of the Lancer herd before giving charge of the bull to one of the hands and ushering his sons into the house.

He had poured them a large snifter of brandy and congratulated them on a job well done. When Teresa had warned that supper was almost ready, Murdoch had urged the young men to go change for the evening meal.

The meal had been superb, Maria had out done herself, and the conversation had been lively and energetic. Murdoch had seemed happier than Johnny had ever known him to be and, although he participated in the topics being bandied about, he had somehow seemed distracted.

When Johnny had questioned his uncharacteristically good mood, Murdoch had shrugged and simply said he had missed his sons. This statement of affection had seemed too open a sentiment for the old man. Johnny had thrown Scott a glance but if his sibling had noticed the odd comment he gave no indication of it.

The next day, as Johnny prepared to ride into town, he expressed his observations.

"Is it just me or is Murdoch acting strange?" Johnny asked as he tightened the cinch around Barranca's girth.

"You think so?'

"Come on, Scott. I swear he didn't even see the bull when he came out to look at him. And he didn't read the bill of sale. Just threw it in the safe. When have you ever known him to do that? And he said he missed us," Johnny persisted.   Up until now Murdoch had never expressed his feelings for his sons, choosing instead to hide behind such statements as he alone called the tune.

"Look, brother, maybe he was just glad to see us."

Johnny groaned, and shook his head. Scott's nonchalance was equally disturbing to the younger man and he rounded on his brother.

"Scott, do you know something I don't know?" Johnny demanded, his irritation finally bubbling to the surface.

"Me? No," Scott replied innocently.

"What then? What the hell is wrong with you two!" Johnny's concern had become anger and he stared at his brother, a muscle twitching in his tightly clasped jaw.

"Johnny, I think Murdoch is acting just like you." Scott's tone was calm, soothing.

"What do you mean, like me?" As the thought penetrated his mind, Johnny shook his head incredulously. "You think Murdoch has met someone? Are you serious?"

"Stranger things have happened."

"Well, I'll be damned. Murdoch has a woman." Johnny's eyes widened in disbelief.

Shaking his head, Johnny lead Barranca out of the barn, and mounted. He sat quietly contemplating Scott's opinion before lightly putting spurs to Barranca. "Well Boston, I'm going to see my lady. Don't wait up," he laughed.

*****

The sudden knock on the door startled her. She wasn't expecting Murdoch until much later. Perhaps the reply to her telegram had arrived.   With a mixture of curiosity and dread she went to the door. Her brother was the only man in her life who could fill her with such mixed emotions. Like a leach, he sucked the very life blood out of her. Constantly demanding money and updates about her welfare, he was a weight about her shoulders. Yet, she had no idea how to free herself of his smothering grip. Perhaps one of the two men she had fallen for would save her. She would have to make a decision about Theodore and soon.

She swung the door wide to find Johnny Lancer standing on her doorstep, nervously twirling his hat in his hands. With a shriek of joy she lunged into his arms. Laughing he accepted her weight, picking her up and stepping into the room. He kicked the door shut behind them before embracing her, his lips lighting the flames of desire, burning her to her very core.

"Johnny, when did you get in? I wasn't expecting you until Saturday." Her voice was choked with emotion, deep and throaty.

"I hurried home, I had to see you, touch you." With that he lifted her from her feet, striding purposely into her bedroom.

"God, you are beautiful," he whispered as his fingers fumbled with the buttons on her simple dress.

*****

She awoke to the gentle breeze blowing in the window, cooling the heat of the afternoon. Cautiously so as not to disturb him, she lifted her head, studying the fading light outside the window to determine the time. God, Murdoch would be here in a couple of hours. With that thought came the realization that all her plans could be destroyed of the two men met each other. Acting quickly, she shook Johnny's shoulder.

"Johnny? Johnny, are you awake?"

"Huh?" he asked, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.

"Johnny, you have to go now."

"Now? Why? What's wrong?"

"Nothing. Nothing's wrong."

"Then why do I have to go?" He was awake now, his eyes searching her face, seeking reassurance.

"I, I have to go to the widow Markum's house. Help with the stitching for the church bizarre. I'm going to be late."

"Oh, well, if it's for charity. Ok." He laughed. "How about a little charity work here?"

"Very funny, cowboy. Now get up. Come on."

Reluctantly he allowed her to walk him to the door, pausing only as he turned and claimed her mouth once more, his hands possessively cupping her ample bosom. Quickly she thrust him away, laughing, promising to see him soon. He moaned with need but left her, walking slowly to his palomino waiting patiently outside.

She leaned against the door, breathing heavily. She had managed to persuade him to leave, promising him an afternoon ride tomorrow. It was a dangerous game she was playing, and she had almost experienced a disaster. She would be more careful, she promised herself before heading to her room to perform her toiletries. Murdoch would be here any minute.

The preparations for the tall rancher's visit had seemed to take forever. She had hurriedly made the bed, then went through the necessary ablutions. She had stood for long moments staring at her reflection in the mirror over the bureau, remembering Johnny's touch, his eyes, the way his hands slid over her body. An all too familiar ache began again, burning her, flushing her cheeks.

She wanted him, loved him, had never known another like him...but Murdoch was an incredible lover in his own right. He was so experienced, so worldly. He did things to her she had never known a man could do. And as much as she longed to feel Johnny within her, she knew Murdoch would kindle a fire uniquely his own. A shiver of anticipation coursed through her as she thought of the way his hands caressed her, explored her, the way he fondled her.

She jumped at the sound of the knock on the door and rushed to answer it. Throwing it open she found Murdoch standing before her, his eyes darkened with passion. Without a word he swept into the room, his mouth seeking hers as his hands slid within the bodice of her gown. Groaning, she collapsed against him, accepting his probing, longing for it, meeting it. As his hands searched her, she closed her eyes in surrender.

*****

Johnny smiled as he ate his morning meal. He kept glancing at Murdoch and saw the serene if tired expression. It was all he could do not to laugh out loud.

His eyes met his brother's and Scott was equally amused though he managed to throw a warning glare at his brother and tried a tactical diversion.

"Well, brother, when are we going to meet this charming young lady who has stolen your heart?"

Johnny's eyes narrowed as he shot his brother a death look.

"Yes, son, we're anxious to meet her," Murdoch piped in happily.

"Yeah? I'm real anxious to meet your lady friend, too," Johnny retorted and he could swear he heard Scott groan.

Murdoch looked surprised then embarrassed. "What lady friend?"

"Oh, come on, Murdoch. There's only one thing that can make a man that happy," Johnny grinned.

"You should know," Scott shot.

"That's right," Johnny pointed his fork at his sibling. Returning his attention to his father, he pressed on. "Well, when do we meet her?"

Murdoch cleared his throat and sipped his coffee as his eyes darted between the two. Scott felt sorry for the old man.

"You first, Johnny. You've been seeing Etta longer," Scott compromised.

"Okay, okay. How about Sunday?"

"That would be fine, son," Murdoch said, shooting him a warning.

Johnny grinned and stood up. "That means I'll have to ride into town and invite her."

Murdoch chuckled. "Well, try to get some work done first."

Both brothers raised brows at that and left the room together. At the front door, Scott was flummoxed.

"He really does have a woman. I mean, I was pretty sure but this seals it!"

"I know. I just hope he can hold onto her. If she can make him this tame at a distance, think what she can do for us up close!" Johnny laughed.

*****

Etta stared at her lap as Johnny awaited her answer.

"What is it, honey?"

She glanced up then lowered her eyes again. "I guess I'm a little nervous. I always knew I'd meet your family. I'm just not sure I'll measure up."

Johnny took both her hands in his. "Listen to me. My family is going to love you and for no other reason than because I do. Even with that, you'll charm the pants off them in two seconds flat!" he grinned.

She smiled wanly at him then took a deep breath. "Well, it had to happen," she laughed softly.

"Then, you'll come this Sunday?" he asked, his eyes pleading with her.

"I'd be honored, Johnny."

He smiled fully then leaned in and kissed her softly. She reached one hand behind his neck and pulled him in more firmly. He didn't make it out the door until midnight.

*****

She had taken special care with her appearance this morning and even had the groomsman polish the rig. The horse had been curried until he positively shone in the morning sun. Unable to avoid the inevitable any longer, she climbed aboard the surrey and clucked to the chestnut. Why was she behaving as if she was going to a wake? She should be ecstatically happy. She was meeting the family of the man she loved.

She instantly knew what was troubling her this beautiful morning. It had interrupted her slumber all night. Guilt. She felt guilty and though she had managed to hide her shame, she was afraid his family would see it.

She was in love with two men, deeply involved with two men, intimately involved and she was ashamed. She should have refused them, well at least one of them. But which one? How could she decide? How could she choose between the wild, young passionate Johnny Lancer and the worldly sophisticated Murdoch. Murdoch? She didn't even know his last name.

He had so overwhelmed her with his experience, his wealth and power, she had forgotten to ask his name. To give herself some credit though, it was extremely difficult to enquire into such mundane matters as one's name when that person had taken her to the pinnacles of pleasure, had her writhing in exquisite pain.

Worse yet she had found herself begging for more. She was in love with both men and her love left her unable to think clearly. She only knew she would do anything to have them. To make them want her.

Now she found herself on the road to Lancer, heading for her beloved and his family, and desperately hoping to make a good impression. She couldn't lose him now. She wouldn't. But where did Murdoch fit in? Johnny was an heir. Murdoch had it all.

One could some day offer her a kingdom, the other had it to give. Around and around she went and the more she questioned the more she hungered for answers. Of one thing she was certain...she wouldn't lose either one. Somehow she would find a way. A husband and a lover. If that was what it took, then so be it. Etta Smith was going to have all life had to offer one way or the other.

*****

Johnny tugged at his collar for what seemed the hundredth time. He paced the length of the living room, glancing at the clock every few seconds.

Finally, Scott stepped in front of him, stopping him cold. He said nothing but reached up and straightened the bedraggled tie then smiled and squeezed his brother's tight shoulders.

"What are you so worried about, son?" Murdoch asked with an amused tone.

"I'm sure we'll like her, Johnny," Scott added.

"Yeah, what if she don't like you? Ever think of that?" he asked, trying to sound irritated but missing.

Scott cocked a brow. "I hadn't considered that. How could she possibly not like US?"

Johnny laughed and grabbed his brother by the nape of the neck.

Murdoch stood, still smiling at them. "I'm going to check on Teresa," he announced and left the room.

"Hope she feels better soon."

"I'm sure it's nothing serious, just a headache. She's rarely out of sorts," Scott assuaged.

Johnny started to reply when he heard the surrey. His stomach turned over several times as he tried to breathe. He stood straighter and adjusted his jacket.

Scott laughed, he couldn't help himself. "Come on, brother. I can't wait to meet her."

*****

Etta took in a deep breath. She couldn't believe the size of the house. Johnny had never described it to her, speaking more often of the land than anything else. It only furthered her confusion and made her choice all the more difficult.

Then, he was there. Walking up to her looking like some dream. So handsome, and his suit was perfect. The black pants with the silver lining down the seams hugged his body. The short jacket met the waistband perfectly. The white shirt and black tie accentuated with a turquoise clasp completed the look. But what made her lightheaded was the smile he offered. So honest and genuine. She found she couldn't breathe very well. As he came right up to her, she noticed the tie clasp set off his eyes beautifully.

"Hey," he said softly.

"Hello," she whispered.

He frowned then. "Are you alright? You feel okay? You're a little pale."

"What? Oh, yes, I'm fine. You look very handsome," she replied, still in a soft voice.

He grinned then and offered his hand to help her down. She was perfection in motion. She wore a green gown that matched her eyes, the low-cut bodice made him swallow hard. Her blonde hair fell around her face in little wisps while the back was loosely pinned. Perfect, he thought. Simply perfect.

They stood there and stared at each other until they heard a sound. Etta managed to look past Johnny to see a very handsome man.

Johnny turned and suddenly remembered there were other people on the planet. "Oh, Etta, I'd like you to meet my brother, Scott Lancer. Scott, this is Etta Smith."

Scott stepped forward as she extended her hand then bowed deeply and kissed her gloved appendage. His eyes met hers with sincerity. "It's a true honor, Miss Smith."

Johnny's eyes narrowed at the gesture and his brother's tone. He stepped to her side and wrapped a possessive arm around her waist. "Let's go inside. Our father is waiting."

Shooting his brother an icy warning glare, Johnny led her to the door.

*****

The cooler climate of the living room was nectar to her. She felt quite flushed. She supposed she shouldn't be surprised that Scott was so handsome. She'd heard enough of both of them to have expected it. Still, meeting him was quite different. It was obvious he was well-bred with all the right manners and education. But, one look at Johnny and those thoughts flitted out of her mind instantly.

"Would you care for a small sherry before supper, Miss Smith?" Scott asked.

"That would be lovely and please, call me Etta."

He bowed a little and poured her drink then two more for he and his brother.

"I wonder where he got off to? Teresa isn't feeling well so he went to check on her," Johnny mused.

"Oh, I hope it isn't serious," she half-asked.

"No, nothing earth shattering. She has a headache. It's rare Teresa feels unwell. I'm sure he'll be right back, though," Scott said, hoping to settle his brother. He wasn't sure that would happen anytime soon.

So, they settled down. Johnny and Etta on the sofa, Scott across from them in a wing-backed chair. He smiled at how close they sat. As if each were afraid to let any light pass between them.

Before Scott had the opportunity to start any conversation, he heard Murdoch's footfalls. He stood and smiled toward the dining room. Johnny stood, too, and Etta followed. She was standing behind Johnny and couldn't see the area.

"Well, we finally get to meet the lovely young woman who's turned my son upside down," Murdoch smiled as he walked in.

Johnny grinned and stepped aside as Murdoch's eyes fell on the young woman whose hand was at her throat, the color drained from her face.

*****

Her heart hammered loudly in her ears. She became aware of a loud roaring, like a river plunging over a cliff, and it was sweeping her along with it. She was falling, drowning in the fury of the water beneath the falls and with a soft gasp she succumbed to the darkness.

She wilted, falling into Johnny's arms as he turned toward her, the grin sliding off his face as he reached out for her. In one smooth motion he had caught her, lifting her up, her head lolling oddly to the side. He gently eased her down on the sofa, concern replacing the joy of only moments ago.

"Scott..."

"I have it, brother. She'll be fine. She's probably hot," he reassured the younger man as he thrust the glass of water in his hands.

Turning to his father for the first time, Scott noticed the pallor on the older man's face, the way he seemed to be holding his breath. Fear leapt into his throat, to be quickly pushed away. Obviously the sight of the stricken woman had shocked his father.

"Murdoch? We could use a cool cloth." Scott waited for the words to penetrate Murdoch's confusion. The idea something was seriously amiss tickled his mind but he shoved it aside. There would be time enough for that later.

"Murdoch! A cloth, please." Scott's voice was harsher than he had intended but it had the desired effect.

Murdoch shook himself out of his trance and strode purposefully toward the kitchen to return mere minutes later bearing the requested hand cloth.

With shaking hand, Johnny laid it gently on Etta's brow, his eyes studying her intently, searching for any sign she was regaining consciousness. With a weak gasp, her eyes fluttered open, her lips parted as she took in great gulps of air.

"Easy, honey, go slow." Johnny put the glass to her lips, "here take a sip."

Etta did as she was bid, sipping delicately at the cool liquid. Slowly, her eyes gained focus and she held her hand to her breast, embarrassment staining her cheeks.

Even in such a state, Johnny could not help but admire her beauty. Unknown to him, Murdoch stood behind him, his own thoughts mirroring his son's. //God, she is beautiful. I can't lose her.// The shocking revelation unnerved him and he groaned outwardly.

"Murdoch, are you alright?" Scott's eyes searched his father.

"Yes, I'm fine. It was just so sudden, her fainting like that." Murdoch's voice caught in his throat, it sounded strange even to him.

"Shall I tell Maria to hold dinner for a few minutes more?" Scott asked Johnny gently, his attention once more on his brother.

He watched mesmerized as Johnny's fingers caressed the flushed cheeks, each gesture intimate and loving. Scott had never seen such tenderness in his rowdy brother. It amazed him that his tough as nails, devil-may-care brother could be so loving. Yet he knew it was this loving nature that gave Madrid his strength. Johnny's soul ran still but deep. Scott felt like an intruder, as if he were witnessing a very private moment.

"I am so embarrassed. Would you help me up please?" Etta asked softly but firmly. "I never faint like that. I don't know what came over me." She swept an errant lock of hair out of her eyes.

"It must have been the heat, sweetheart. I should have come for you." Johnny's voice was full of apology. Etta ran a tender finger along his jaw.

"No, it's alright. These things happen sometimes. I'm not used to the warmer climate yet." She drew herself to her full height, struggling to look Johnny in the eye.

The strained atmosphere was eased by the sound of the heavy front door slamming open. Frank, out of breath and obviously exasperated, intruded into the great room. Normally, he would have had the good grace to realize his intrusion was disturbing a tense family moment but the expression on the face of the oldest Lancer made him understand his interruption was actually welcome. His mind on the urgency of the moment, Frank dismissed the odd behavior of his employer and plunged ahead.

"Murdoch, that damn fool piebald kicked in the east corral fence and made off with some of the best brood mares."

Johnny was moving before the words had left the foreman's mouth, pausing to return to Etta to make his apologies. He swept her into his arms and brushed her cheek.

"Hold supper for me, Murdoch. I'll be right back." With a last look at the beautiful blonde he ran from the room.

"Scott?"

"I know, Murdoch, I know. We'll be back. And don't you dare start supper without us."

The door slammed and Etta found herself alone, facing Murdoch, her hands plucking nervously at her skirt.

"Murdoch, I didn't know..." she started but a raised hand halted her explanation in mid-sentence.

"How could you?" he asked, hurt in his voice.

"I didn't know he was your son!" she replied, desperate to make him understand.

Murdoch's eyes widened as he gawked at her. "That isn't as much the point as you were already seeing another man when we "¦.." he left it there, unable to say the words now. His mind pictured her naked body. Only it was Johnny lying with her. He almost vomited as he turned away from her.

"I couldn't help myself! I love you both!" she proclaimed, tears welling and spilling down her cheeks.

He turned back, awed by the confession. "Love?" he whispered.

She moved fluidly toward him, resting her hands on his massive chest as she neared. "Yes, Murdoch, love."

His heart thundered, his breath quickened. He gazed into her green eyes and lost himself almost completely. Almost.

With a blink he pulled back from her. "Marietta, he's my son. How can I? How can we?"

"We can, Murdoch. Johnny never needs to know the truth. We can keep it our secret."

Shaking his head slowly in disbelief, he took two steps back. "No, I can't."

Her expression changed then. Her eyes smoldered, her voice turned sultry and provocative. "Think how we are together, my love. How well we fit into each other. How my skin feels against yours."

"He's my son. I can't betray him like this." His tortured gaze gave her hope and she pressed her advantage. Her hands gently massaged his chest, and she smiled as she felt the involuntary response beneath them. Encouraged she became bolder, her hands dropping lower until they had reached his hips. She pushed closer, her breasts and hips moving into position as she molded her curves into his body.

With a shudder he wrapped his arms around and pulled her close. His lips sought hers and she answered his demand, her tongue probing his mouth. She pulled back then and raised her eyes to his. With a brazen smile she fondled his manhood through the pants he wore.

"Murdoch, how can you forget what it's like between us? We are made for each other. Remember?"

An attack of conscience had him moving backward, seeking escape but she pursued him, her hand reaching for him once more. She stood on tiptoe and nuzzled his neck. With a groan he pulled her close, his hands seeking her ample curves. He struggled to lift her heavy skirt but she pulled back. A smile of victory curved her mouth into a satisfied grin.

"You do remember. I love you, Murdoch. I do." Sincerity laced her tone and he knew he was lost. He needed her, wanted her. But how would he ever be able to look his son in the eye again?

"We can make this work. You'll see. No one need know. And when the time is right we can tell them ourselves. Please Murdoch, tell me you love me." She held her breath awaiting the response she desperately longed to hear.

"It's so wrong but, God help me, I haven't felt like this in twenty years. I can't lose you, Marietta. I just can't."

As she stepped once more into his arms, she purred, "and you won't dearest, Murdoch. You won't," she promised.

His tongue parted her lips, pushing deeper and she accepted the invasion, welcomed it. As his hands groped lower, the sound of footsteps was heard in the hall. Quickly, they sprang apart, turning to watch as Johnny entered the room.

"Am I interrupting something?" Quickly he took in the pair, an additional button was open on Murdoch's shirt, Etta's hair was mussed, the bodice of her gown in odd disarray, an impassioned blush coloring her cheeks.

"What have you two been up to? Or do I even need to ask?" he demanded, his eyes becoming hard as stone as he came closer.

"Son, it isn't what it looks like," Murdoch protested loudly.

"I know what it looks like, you son of a bitch. You been entertaining my girl while I was out? Is that why you sent me on that trip to Sacramento? So you could do Etta!" The anger pulsed around the young man, his eyes dark and dangerous, his breath coming in uncharacteristic gasps.

"How dare you!?" Murdoch roared. "How dare you insult her!? She's a lady!"

"Yeah! But you ain't no gentlemen," Johnny sneered. "You bedding many younger women?" Johnny pressed, his eyes narrowed in rage.

"Johnny, stop! It isn't Murdoch's fault."

His eyes rakes her over then went back to Murdoch. "The hell it isn't," he seethed and moved to stand before his father. "Bastard," he spat.

Johnny pulled his fist back and slammed it into Murdoch's jaw. The older man staggered back then tumbled to the floor. Slowly, he raised his head while rubbing his jaw then got to his feet. His eyes were dark with anger, blood rushed into his cheeks as he pulled himself up fully.

He took in Johnny's stance, ready for a fight and his senses left him. Murdoch took a swing, but the younger man dodged it and came back with an uppercut that barely clipped Murdoch's chin. The fight was on.

Etta stood horrified, her hands covering her mouth as she stared at them. Yet, an odd sense of power battled inside her at the sight of these two men fighting over her.

Johnny flew across the desk and rolled to a stop just shy of the wall. He was on his feet with lightning speed and hurled himself back across it, taking Murdoch down with him. Glass shattered and wood cracked as they battled on, both bloody and enraged.

Scott ran through the door when he heard the commotion then pulled up short, shocked at the sight before him. It took him a few seconds to register what was happening. He shouted at them to stop but they either didn't hear or ignored him. Scott's eyes went to Etta, watching the near fascination play out on her face and his stomach dropped at the conclusion he drew.

Suddenly, a thunderous crack resounded in the room. The combatants stilled, clutching at each other as they twisted toward the sound.

Scott stood with his revolver in hand, smoke still eking from the barrel as he glared at them in disgust.

"Stop this immediately!" he ordered. "What in the hell is wrong with the two of you?" he demanded further as he stalked over and grabbed Johnny's arm, hauling him off their father.

Johnny jerked free of the grasp and staggered a few paces away as Murdoch sat up, wiping his bloody nose.

"What is going on here?" Scott continued.

Neither man spoke, neither would look at anything but the floor, so Scott turned to Etta. "What happened?" he asked her, his voice firm with anger.

She shook her head, eyes wide and unable to speak.

Scott's patience had reached any limits that remained and he sighed in frustration. "Perhaps, you had better leave, Miss Smith." It was more than a suggestion and she slowly backed toward the door.

"No," Johnny said through harsh breaths then turned toward them both, licking his split lip. "No, let her stay here. I don't think she got what she wanted yet. I'm sure he's more than willing to give it to her - again."

His eyes were cold and lifeless and she couldn't believe this was the same man she fell in love with. He walked past her, leaving a gush of hot wind in his wake. She could smell the sweat and blood and her stomach turned. Then, she heard the door slam.

By now, Murdoch had made it to his feet and he saw her start to walk away, eyes welling with more tears.

"Marietta, don't go," he said before he even realized he'd spoken.

Scott's mouth dropped as he stared at the man, then his anger took over completely. He turned back to her. "Get out," he spat with more venom than anyone would think him capable of.

She turned and ran from the house, jumping into her surrey and slapping the reins.

"Why did you do that?" Murdoch demanded.

"Are you insane? Tell me you haven't been bedding Johnny's girl?"

"I didn't know she was the same woman! I only found out when I saw her here tonight!" he defended.

Scott nodded his head. "And how did Johnny find out?"

Murdoch's eyes went down, his cheeks heated and he turned away.

"Dear God," Scott whispered. "Right here in the living room, Murdoch? Right here where your son could walk in on you at any second? You have lost your mind; and your son," he stated and left the house, determined to find his brother.

*****

Johnny was no where to be found. It was like he and the flashy golden horse had disappeared into thin air, as if nature herself had taken him in and cradled her in loving arms. For the third night an exhausted Scott pulled his mount to a halt at the hitching post near the door of the hacienda. Miguel materialized waiting to take charge of Scott's horse but still he sat, shoulders hunched, reluctant to dismount. The sound of the front door opening raised his head and he watched as Teresa ran to stand beside him.

"Scott?" she asked hopefully before dropping her head, hiding the tears that spilled down her cheeks. Scott stepped down, handing the reins to Miguel before encircling the young girl. She clung to him, hot tears soaking his dusty shirt. Disregarding the stain on his chest, Scott tipped her head back.

"I'll find him, honey. Don't worry," he reassured her, though his own confidence was seriously lacking. "Let's go in. I need to clean up before dinner."

"What are we going to do, Scott? They must hate each other." Despair colored her words as the hopelessness she felt was released.

"I'm not sure. But we'll think of something. Maybe I should pay Miss Smith a visit."

Scott washed up and changed his shirt then headed to town, what little appetite he'd had now gone. He was still in a state of shock from the events unfolding. That his father and brother had fallen for the same woman was inconceivable to him. Murdoch was old enough to be her father! And he knew it very well. What had he been thinking? Nothing, obviously, Scott thought with scorn.

Still, the man had said he didn't know she was the same woman. Did she know she was bedding father and son? Surely she had to. He was about to find out as he reined to a stop in front of her home. That he would get his answers, he had no doubt. She would not rebuke him, feigning shock and crying again.

With his anger near boiling once more, Scott knocked loudly on the door.

Etta opened the door, her face paling when she saw him. She expected Johnny or Murdoch, not this one. His face told her he was not a man to be toyed with. He didn't ask for an invitation but simply walked in.

As she trailed behind him into the living room, she tried to clear her mind. It wasn't working.

"I'd like to know, Miss Smith, just what your game is. Surely, you had to realize this would never work."

She pulled herself up and took a deep breath. "I didn't know..."

"Oh, please! How could you not know?" Scott interrupted.

"I never knew Murdoch's last name. Somehow, it never came up. I swear it, Scott. I didn't know!" she replied, her voice rising.

He shook his head at her. "It almost doesn't matter. The fact is you were sleeping with two men at the same time. Playing with them both. What did you think would happen?"

She turned away from him, pacing over to the window. "I knew I'd have to choose but I couldn't. Don't you understand? They're so different. Each with his own strengths. Both so ..... intoxicating." Her voice trembled with pent up lust.

"You sicken me. I've managed to figure out you were seeing Johnny first. The way he talked about you, I thought we were about to meet an angel. If you cared so much for him. If he was so intoxicating, you wouldn't have given our father or any other man a second look. The fact is, you were looking for your best bet. Your best payoff. The young man with the future of a ranch or the older one who already wielded power and wealth. So tell me, which were you going to choose? Or were you planning on trying to keep them both."

She whirled around and glared at him for a second before blushing furiously and lowering her eyes. Scott knew immediately.

"You were going to keep them both," he said incredulously. Shaking his head in awe, he continued in the same tone. "You are a piece of work."

"It wasn't like that!" she denounced.

"I don't believe you and I know Johnny won't either. In case you were wondering, you may well have destroyed our family. I'm going to do everything in my power to see that doesn't happen. But," he stopped and looked coldly at her, "don't even think about coming near either of them again. You won't like the consequences."

"You don't know what my life has been like, Scott. I've been on my own from a young age. I had to take care of my brother. We grew up in an orphanage. I had to do what was necessary to survive. I've never known love. Not until I met Johnny and Murdoch."

"Funny, Johnny told me your father died two years ago," he sneered. "Stay away from my family. This is the only warning you'll get!"

She gawked at him, her body trembling as he walked out, slamming the door loudly. She stumbled to a chair and fell into it, sobbing into her hands.

*****

Johnny sat on the small porch of the line shack and stared into space. He still couldn't believe this had happened. Every time he thought about it he became physically ill. He hadn't been able to eat anything, hadn't slept much. He just sat there and stared into the woods encircling the shack.

The past two nights he'd fervently wished for a bottle of anything. But, he couldn't show his face. He had never felt so ashamed in his life. Never felt so used. He was used to people using his skill then turning away. But, this was entirely different. No one had ever used his heart like this.

This was the exact reason he'd never allowed himself to become attached to a woman before. Always made a conscious effort to stay away from any situation that even looked like it might develop into more. There had been women who eyed him, he wasn't blind. There were those who'd done more than that to gain his attention. But, he wasn't having it and this was the reason. He knew it could never lead to anything good.

But, to have shared a woman with his own father caused real pain to flood his body and soul. How was he going to face Murdoch again? He had wanted to kill him that day and he was well on his way to it. If Scott hadn't stopped them ...... Scott.

What must he think of all this? Johnny was sure his brother was as ashamed of his behavior as he was. And Murdoch, strutting around like a rooster in the hen house. Groping her right there in their living room!

Johnny stood up and fairly ran to the side of the house, emptying his stomach once more though there wasn't much there to begin with. Coffee was his only staple these past days and the burning in his throat didn't help his overall state of mind and health. Once finished, he went to the pump and stuck his head under it as the cool water poured over his hair. He cupped a hand and drank slowly, after washing his mouth out.

As he wiped his face with his hands, he heard the horse. Turning quickly, right hand to his side, he waited. When he saw Scott, he turned and walked back to the porch, sitting down and lowering his head. Too ashamed to face his brother.

*****

Murdoch stared out the window of his room. He had remained here, not venturing out except to pilfer an occasional bite to eat, hiding out like an intruder in his own home. Had it really only been a few days? It seemed like a lifetime. So long ago, yet so very recent.   Since the horrible encounter with Marietta and the subsequent fight with Johnny he had been unwilling, no, more like unable, to risk facing any member of the family.

Johnny was nowhere to be found. None of the hands had seen him and Scott had returned home the last few nights exhausted and angrier with each failure. But he refused to give up and so with each dawn he set out again determined to find his brother. And if he found Johnny? What then? Would Johnny return to Lancer? How could he? But still Scott continued his relentless effort to find his brother while Teresa tiptoed around as if she feared disturbing a grave. And that is how the house had felt since that day. Like a graveyard.

The whole hacienda seemed to be in mourning. Oh, not a physical death to be sure but a death nonetheless. Something had died, something precious and Murdoch's heart ached as he acknowledged what that something was. Trust. The trust and security of the Lancer family had been destroyed but was the damage beyond repair?

The questions caused Murdoch pain, as if someone had stripped his soul bare and laid lash after lash upon the bare back of his heart. How could he have ever believed he could have a woman like Marietta? So beautiful, young and vibrant. An old man like himself? Surely not, he scoffed. But the smell of her, the look in her eyes, her hands on his... he dropped his head in shame. Johnny had sensed the intimacy. The younger man had known instinctively what had been happening between his father and Marietta.

And Murdoch knew he had broken his son's heart, wounded him more than any gunhawk's bullet. And that wound was raw now and oozing.   The love and trust he had found when he had been brought back to Lancer was a thing of the past. And Murdoch feared for his son. Feared he would retreat behind the barrier that was Johnny Madrid, this time beyond redemption, beyond even Scott's ability to save.

"Oh, God," Murdoch groaned aloud. What was he to do? Yet, the worse realization of all, the worst fact was...if she came to him, professed her love, Murdoch would be unable to deny his feelings for her. He knew he would betray his son yet again. Just for one moment with her, one night in her arms. One kiss, one...he couldn't go on. This train of thought was like a runaway locomotive on a collision course. And he knew his son would be the one hurt. Yet how could he be so damned sure? Perhaps she would choose Johnny.

Somewhere deep within Murdoch Lancer rose an emotion he was loath to face. He knew as much as he loved his son, he would not deny his need for the woman. He had to have her.

He stared out the window into the falling darkness, appalled by his disregard for the feelings of his son, yet totally at a loss as to how to deal with them.

*****

Scott dismounted and walked up, sitting in the chair on the opposite side of the entrance. "I've been looking for you all over the place."

"Been right here," Johnny mumbled.

"I don't know what to say, Johnny."

He glanced over then bowed his head again. "Can't much blame you. Must think I'm a real piece of work."

Scott looked hard at him. "I don't blame you! How could anyone blame you? SHE is the one to blame. Even if she didn't know you were father and son, as she professes, she still cheated on you."

Johnny looked over at him then. "What'ya mean she didn't know?"

"She swears she never knew Murdoch's last name," Scott explained, still with the same anger he'd carried with him for days.

Johnny bolted from the chair as he stepped out into the yard. "So, she's bedding men without even knowin their names. Well, I guess I stuck with what I know, after all."

Scott stood and stepped to the edge of the porch. "What does that mean?"

"She's just another whore!" Johnny spat.

Scott lowered his eyes briefly. "I'm sorry, brother. I'm so sorry she did this to you. But, what I'm most concerned with is you and Murdoch. How are we going to fix this?"

Johnny turned away and shook his head.

"He said he didn't know it was the same woman until Sunday."

"Didn't keep him from bein all over her, did it?" Johnny sneered.

Scott swallowed hard. "You .... you saw them?"

Closing his eyes, the younger man shook his head. "Not really, but they were both breathing heavy and all flushed. It was pretty plain. I lost my mind, Scott. All I wanted to do was kill him." Johnny's voice was tight and almost a groan by the end.

"I don't blame you. He was completely out of line. I haven't talked to him about it yet," Scott admitted.

"How come?" Johnny asked, turning back and more than surprised.

"I've been looking for you. And, I went to see her."

Johnny's shoulders drew nearly to his ears. "And?" he asked harshly.

"And, she kept swearing she didn't know you were related. She said you were both ..... intoxicating is the word she used."

Johnny snorted loudly at that. "I wish I'd been intoxicated. At least then, I'd have an excuse for bein a fool."

"You didn't know, Johnny. None of this is your fault. I hope you don't mind but I told her to stay away from both of you."

"No, I don't mind. I think I'd wring her neck if I saw her." He looked sidelong at his brother, seeing something else in his face. "What?"

"She tried to give me a sob story of how she and her brother grew up in an orphanage," Scott relayed quietly.

Johnny threw his hands in the air and began to pace. "She never mentioned a brother to me. Said her old man died just two years ago."

"Yes, I told her I knew that story already. Then, I left."  

*****

Morning crept into the hacienda tentatively, stealthily, as a fox approaches a hen house. Cautiously she peered into the windows of each room, seeking whom she might rouse only to find Murdoch Lancer wide awake, and pacing the floor of the great room, the thudding of his boots reverberating throughout the room. He stalked back and forth, his angry energy tiring him, the effort of controlling his emotions wearing his already shattered nerves. With a jump he turned to find Scott standing on the threshold to the room, his face a mask.

"What?" Murdoch barked, his voice offensive even to him.

"Nothing. Just curious." Scott tilted his head, his expression one of wonder and disapproval. He watched as Murdoch stalked to the liquor cabinet.

"Curious? About what?" Though noon was still hours away, Murdoch poured a stiff shot, looking perplexed as his heart began a slow painful thumping and his pulse quickened.

"Do you know where Johnny is? Do you even care?" Scott strode fully into the room.

"Of course I care. I want him to come home." Until he had said the words, Murdoch had been unaware of just how much loneliness had enveloped him since his son had fled the house. He paused, the glass halfway to his lips, all but forgotten.

"Do you know where he is?"

"Yes. I found him at the northern lineshack yesterday. But I find it strange that you haven't even looked for him or asked about him. You have hidden away in your room like a petulant child." Scott's voice dripped with sarcasm.

Murdoch sought to calm himself. With a great effort, the older man reined himself in. He took a step in Scott's direction, then pulled to a halt at his son's stony stare. "Can't you understand I love her?"

"Love? I think you have the word confused with lust. Must make you feel very virile to bed a young beautiful woman."

"How dare you judge me. You will show me respect...whether you think I deserve it or not!"   Murdoch raised his hand, his finger pointing in the younger man's direction as he emphasized each word.

"Where was your respect? Where was your concern for the feelings of a member of your family? You knew Johnny was in love with her." Scott's voice bristled with ill concealed rage.  

"I had no idea she was the same woman. I have told you this repeatedly."

"That is a poor excuse, Murdoch, and you know it." Scott was disgusted with the attitude of his sire.

"Don't look at me that way. I am your father!" But his son's accusation was like a needle picking his conscience, twisting his heart. As much as he was loathe to admit it, he felt the weight of Scott's words and knew them to be true. But once more the image of Marietta; beautiful, vibrant Marietta lying naked beside him intruded into his moment of reason.

"If you can't understand the consequences of your own actions, then someone should point them out to you."

"Someone meaning you?" Murdoch snarled.

"Well, I am the only one still talking to you. At least, for now." Scott shrugged his shoulder.

"What do you mean, for now?" A suspicious frown deepened Murdoch's brow as his eyes squinted narrowly at his son.

"I mean, if you don't wake up and accept responsibility for your part in this situation, there may not be anyone left here to talk to."

"Is that a threat?" Murdoch bristled.

"No, a fact. You have allowed your impulses to control your actions. You can't possibly love her, she is young enough to be your daughter. Besides, you only met her a couple of weeks ago. You are just in love with the idea that a woman like Etta could desire you."

"Get out! You have no idea what you're talking about. I won't be spoken to in this manner!" Murdoch's face had turned a dangerous shade of red, the veins in his neck bulging alarmingly.

With a final glare of contempt, Scott turned sharply on his heel and stalked from the room. A few seconds later the slamming of the front door heralded his escape.

*****

Etta pressed her back to the wall of the veranda, her breath coming in gasps. She had never seen this side of Murdoch but his anger and indignation birthed hope within her heart. He still cared and he was still within her grasp. Unable to feel any shame over her intrusion, she waited patiently until Scott led his horse out of the barn and mounted.

Once sure Scott would not return and interrupt them, she walked tentatively to the oak door, her attitude that of a prisoner facing the gallows. She felt much as that prisoner would. Her entire future, her happiness, depended on the next few moments. She knew she had to persuade Murdoch, hold his interest. As long as she could remember, men had been drawn to her, her beauty and grace a magnet they could not resist. As she had lured them ever closer, she had learned more of her appeal to the opposite sex with each encounter. And her charms had never failed her.

Now she stood before the door, poised to knock but still, fear taunted her sensibilities. She stood at the precipice, walking a thin line between security and poverty. She had lost Johnny, of that she was certain. She had seen it in his eyes on that dreadful afternoon. But Murdoch was still within her grasp. She could love him, she did love him. But she was no fool. He would be pondering the argument with Scott. She thanked her good fortune she had been able to overhear it.

Drawing a deep breath, she lifted her hand to knock on the door, but it opened before her knuckles could make contact with the smooth wood. Murdoch stood before her, his expression of amazement confirming her belief he still cared. He may not have expected to see her, but that was all the better. Keeping him off guard could only fortify her position.

"May I speak with you?" she asked, her tone a mixture of sorrow and joy. And her manner, her humility, touched him as she knew it would.

"It's not a good idea for you to be here," he replied gruffly.

"I just need a few minutes, Murdoch, please." Her voice broke as she pleaded with him, her eyes like the sky after a storm, misted over with calculated tears. And as she had known, her pain moved him. The huge man stepped reluctantly aside, waving her into the house.

Once she entered the foyer she proceeded to the great room, the place of her greatest failure. She had lost Johnny here, and maybe Murdoch as well. But not without a fight. Resolutely, she turned to face him, a single tear spilling down her cheek.

"You must hate me," she whispered softly, shame coating her words as effectively as a balm to a wound.

"No, Marietta, I don't. I just don't understand what you thought you were doing." She did not miss the use of her given name and hope soared within her.

"I don't know myself," she confessed. "I met a handsome cowboy, we enjoyed each other's company and I thought I was in love with him."

"Is that what you call it? Enjoying a man's company? Whores in the brothel 'enjoy' men's company!"

She recoiled, taking a step backward, her hand covering her mouth in horror.

Appalled at his harsh words, Murdoch stepped forward. "I didn't mean that. I don't know where my manners are."

"No, stay back. I came to explain. I came to tell you how very sorry I am and you insult me so." Her tears were flowing without restraint now, her voice coming in harsh gasps. "I never meant to hurt anyone. How was I to know I would meet you? That I would fall in love with you and that you would care for me? Have you never known love?" she sobbed.

Murdoch had struggled with his emotions, his argument with his older son causing him to weigh the value of his sons and this woman. He had resolved to deny her, to deny himself but her grief now was too close, too overwhelming and he felt the familiar stirring.

If she did not love his son, why could she not love him? Selfishness rose in his heart, shocking, raw, but he had lost so much. He had put others before himself for twenty years and here, now before him, stood the most exquisite creature he had ever met professing her love. With a groan he turned his back on her, seeking to control his warring emotions.

A touch, feather light, and unsteady stroked his back, then another held his waist. He whirled to face her.

"Murdoch, please. There is nothing for Johnny and me. What is so wrong about how we feel that we should let an opportunity for happiness elude us?" Her tear stained face was raised, studying his features as if for the last time.

"If you don't care for me, if you really want me to leave just say so and I will be out of your life as quickly as I came into it."

Her lips were parted, inviting and with a groan of desire, he took her in his arms, his mouth reaching for hers, his tongue thrusting into the moist cavity to be welcomed by her own. She threw her arms about his neck pulling him closer, her body molding itself to his. Heat rose between them, burning their faces, traveling further down until they were consumed by the fire. His hand cupped her breast and she pressed against him.

"Darling, we don't want a repeat of Sunday. Take me home, take me to bed and we can figure out how to tell your family." Her voice was husky, raw with passion.

With a tremendous effort he drew back, his torso pulsing with obvious desire.

"Yes, I think it's best. Stay here. I'll saddle a horse."

"Murdoch, I love you."

His heart soared but in spite of the heat of the day and the fire in his loins, a strange chill enveloped him and he shuddered. He stared at her as if for the first time before dropping one more kiss on her eager lips. With one last look, he turned and strode from the room.

She watched as he left through a French door, desperately trying to regain some semblance of control. So far, so good. Once they were in her home, she would cement their relationship. She had formed the plan as his hips had prodded her. She knew just what she needed to do.

*****

The journey to town passed slowly, each minute an agonizing pause in time and space. Murdoch felt as if time had stood still, teasing the two lovers with the promise of things to come before quickly dashing away, taking the prize with her. Each hoofbeat of the horses, each heartbeat ground out the torment. He ached, he wanted, he needed her and she was beside him. So close. So close yet so far as the openness of the countryside forbade any contact, any release of the energy building to fever pitch.   So he sat quietly beside her, his outward calm a direct contradiction to his inner writhing.

At long last the journey was accomplished and he pulled the team to a halt before her door. He disembarked and offered her a hand down. She smoothed her gown then, without a word disappeared inside the house. With an inner groan of anticipation he lead the team to the stable, unhitched his horse from behind the rig and settled him in a stall. Eagerly, like a young buck, he fairly bounded to the home, pausing only briefly to catch his breath and attempt to slow his racing heart before entering the house.

She stood in the middle of the room, inviting and more than willing. He took her in his arms, carrying her weight effortlessly. With loving care he deposited her on the bed, then quickly stripped off his shirt. She watched, her eyes darkened with desire and moved to unbutton her bodice.

The moon warred with the sun, clinging to the darkness but the dawn came on relentlessly, unyielding. Murdoch opened his eyes to the single shaft of light piercing the gloom of her room. He felt the weight of her head on his shoulder and carefully studied her features. In sleep she was even more angelic yet somehow haunting. He smiled as he remembered their lovemaking, his need had been matched   by her own and she had pushed him to the limits, demanding more and more of him until they had fallen into an exhausted slumber.

Now, in the distance he heard the crowing of the rooster and felt a moment's panic. He realized his absence would be noted but could not find it in himself to consider the implications as he laid in her bed holding her. She was everything, and he was at peace, content, but for the niggling in the back of his mind; a strange sensation that he was making a mistake. He shook himself, struggling to put the odd thought out of his mind. Her gentle sigh told him he had disturbed her sleep and he found himself gazing into the limpid green eyes.

"Good morning," she purred as she snuggled her head into his chest again.

Murdoch looked to the ceiling as he answered. "Morning."

Etta sighed then stretched her body, making sure her skin touched his at every available spot. She raised up on her elbow and smiled, her eyes smoky again. Without a word, she slithered atop him, propping herself up on his chest as she reached for his lips with her own.

"I need to go now," he interrupted, part of him loathing to stop her, part of him loathing himself.

Her face fell into a pout. "But, you haven't had breakfast. Let me make it for you, darling. It will be our first of many more to come." She slid off him regrettably and sat up in the bed, pulling the sheet up to her neck.

Murdoch watched her, wondering about her sudden shyness but he shook that thought away. "I really should go. No one knows where I am." He added only in his mind that he doubted anyone missed him. That would be his fault as well. A stab of pain shot through his heart.

"We should talk first," she said, hoping to prolong his stay. She snuggled against his side then and craned her neck to look at his face. "There are so many plans to make."

"Plans?" Murdoch asked.

"Of course! I know there are a lot of hurdles to get over. Scott will be angry at first but I know he'll get past it. He's so very thoughtful and logical. And, Johnny will get over it, too. I know he will. And if he doesn't, well, that's out of our control."

"What are you talking about, Marietta? Get over what?"

"Why, us, darling. What else? They'll get used to me being there before you know it. Why, I'll bet Teresa can even help ease the transition. Yes, she'll be our ally."

Murdoch sat up quickly, nearly knocking her out of the bed. He swung his legs over the side and sat there for a few seconds before reaching down and grabbing his pants from the floor where they lay in a crumpled heap. He grimaced at the sight for some reason then donned the trousers. He had his shirt on and was working the buttons before she spoke again.

"What's wrong, Murdoch?"

He said nothing and went about his dressing. What's wrong? What was right? None of this was right. Scott's words screamed in his mind. Johnny's face appeared before his eyes and he couldn't rid himself of the image, the total look of pain and betrayal in those blue eyes. What the hell was he doing?

Not until he was fully clothed did he speak. He stood and turned to face her. "You have some ideas that are wrong, Marietta. I don't know why you think you'll be moving into Lancer."

She stared wide-eyed at him, her mouth opening and closing like a fish. "We love each other," she finally whispered.  

Murdoch's face was grim with pain as he regarded her. "I'm not interested in marriage," he said flatly.

She sat further up, letting the sheet fall away, exposing her bosom while arching her back a little. "No man is ever interested in marriage, darling. Still, they do get married." She smiled seductively at him and his resolve weakened a little.

He had to look away so he stared at the wall over her left shoulder. "I suppose that may be true of some men. But, I've done it twice and I don't intend on making it three. I'm sorry but, I can't see you anymore. I should never have come here. I may well have destroyed my relationship with both my sons over you. I don't want to seem harsh, but it just isn't worth losing my boys again."

Her eyes welled with tears as her lower lip quivered. Then, they lit with fire. "So, that's it? You use me and throw me away?"

He sighed heavily and ran a hand through his hair. "It wasn't my intention but, you should have been honest with me. You should have been honest with both of us. I can't become anymore involved with a woman who can so easily bed two men at the same time and have no remorse about it. I allowed myself to live in this fantasy for far too long. You made me feel young and vibrant again but the truth of the matter is, I don't love you. Not enough to lose my family." He turned and walked out of the bedroom before she could say anymore.

Etta stared after him, stunned beyond words. How long she sat there, she was unsure but eventually, anger took hold. She threw the bedclothes aside and stood, pacing the room, naked. How dare he say those things to her? Where would he ever find a woman to love him again? A young and sensual woman who could have her pick of men. He must be insane not to see what he was throwing away.

She walked past the dresser once more then paused. Turning, she picked up a small vase off the top and flung it against the wall opposite. The shattering glass gave her no satisfaction. Tears ran hot down her cheeks as she tried to bring herself under control again.

This wasn't over. She may have lost Murdoch but she still had a chance with Johnny. She smiled to herself as she remembered Scott yesterday. She should thank him for letting her know where to find Johnny. A small laugh escaped as she thought of Scott's face, red with anger and indignation. Maybe, she thought, he's just jealous.

Yes, she nodded her head a little, yes, that was it. Scott was a jealous. Well, she supposed if things didn't work out with Johnny ... she let that thought trail away. No, she didn't even know Scott Lancer other than the fact he could be very rude.

She thought of Johnny and the last time she'd seen him. He'd been so deeply hurt, so angry with her. Could she get him back? She'd have to move fast before he had the chance to talk to Murdoch. If she could win his heart back, she could make sure he never saw Murdoch Lancer again. Smiling, she congratulated herself on that idea. Murdoch would really understand what he'd lost. And all because he was too blind to see what he could have had.

With new resolve, she started her morning wash while she thought of just what to wear when she went to the north line shack.

*****

Johnny rocked slowly back and forth as he watched an ant searching for - whatever it was searching for. He decided he would be completely insane in another day or two. Scott hadn't come back out to see him but he didn't want company anyway. He wasn't sure what he wanted. All he knew for certain was, he couldn't face Murdoch yet. Not until all this anger had ebbed a little more. That chore was turning out to be much harder than even he would have thought.

He still wasn't eating much, every bite threatening a reappearance before it was completely down his gullet. His stomach felt like one huge burned out hole. He was pretty much surviving on coffee and had yet to brave seeing other people. As much as he'd never cared what others thought of him in the past, he did now. For now, he had a reason to care. A name that was supposed to be revered. He snorted.

Wonder what the good folks of the valley would think if they knew about all this? He prayed that would never happen, though. For himself and, yes, even for the old man. It surprised him he could even care about that. Why he did, he could not fathom. No, that wasn't true. He knew why.

In these days, he'd thought of little else. He could understand the attraction, of course. And Murdoch must have thought he was in heaven to have a young, pretty thing like that all over him. Johnny remembered how the old man was acting when they returned from Sacramento. He was walking on air. Sure, who could blame Murdoch? It was that day that hurt Johnny so badly. That Sunday, after Murdoch realized who Etta was, that twisted the knife in his gut.

All that talk about being responsible, the endless lectures he'd endured these past months on living up to his obligations and that pleasure was secondary to business. Apparently, the rancher had no intentions of practicing what he preached. Still and all, she was no innocent here. He sure hadn't forced her. She knew exactly what she was doing and with whom she was doing it. It hadn't seemed to matter to her. Johnny was now convinced this little liaison had started when he and Scott were gone. His thoughts were interrupted by a noise and his gut clinched as he recognized the sound. There was only one person it could be.

He stood up slowly and walked to the porch railing, putting his hands on the rail and leaning his body in. His head went down between his shoulders when he saw her.

*****

Etta pulled on the reins, her heart thundering in her chest. She set the brake and stepped down, smoothing the skirt of her powder blue silk gown. She'd gone all out for this meeting. A pearl strand laid around her neck, small pearl earrings adorning her lobes and a light jasmine perfume dabbed in all the right spots. She took a deep breath before turning to him then plastered a smile on her face.

"Hello, Johnny."

"Get out," he growled as his head came up.

She took a step back, her mouth falling open in shock. Her eyes moistened as she tried to regain her composure. "Please," she said in a trembling voice. "Please, let me explain."

He looked at her cold and hard then stepped off the porch stopping a few feet away. "I don't need to know the details. I know too much already."

"No, you don't. You don't know how hard this was for me. I didn't want to be attracted to him. He was just so kind to me and so easy to talk to. It all happened so fast!"

Johnny smirked at her. "I'll bet it did. That's how you work - fast."

"I had no idea he was your father," she continued, ignoring the jab.

Johnny sighed and fought to keep from exploding. "It doesn't matter that he was my father. You slept with another man the minute that stage dust settled. Or did you wait that long?" he sneered.

She clenched her jaw, panic welling up, threatening to erupt all over her. She stepped forward, arms out, eyes begging. "It's you I love. I was wrong, so wrong but we can move past that now. I told Murdoch you were the man for me."

Johnny took hold of her wrist as she came near. "It won't work, Etta. Get out of here. Go play your song for Murdoch. Maybe he'll buy it."

He was overcome by a fear that his father may indeed buy her act. But he couldn't control what the old man did, certainly. A thought niggled his mind. Would Murdoch choose her over him? His anger finally began to overflow and he pushed her away.

"Leave now!"  

She was sobbing now, sucking in great lungfuls of air as the tears ran like a waterfall. She could see it had no effect on him and she sank to the ground, one hand out, beseeching him. "Johnny, please, I love you so!"

He turned and walked back in the shack, slamming the door behind him as she laid in the dirt.

*****

Murdoch rode up to the hacienda dispirited. Once more, his heart felt like it had shattered into a million pieces. He'd heard a phrase once - third time's charm. He snorted at the thought now. He certainly wasn't charmed. It seemed the women in his life left him in one fashion or another. Only, this time, he was the one who had left.

Still, it wasn't as if she'd given him a choice. He still couldn't believe she was talking about marriage at this early stage. And he knew her words had been his motivation to finally open his eyes and see things clearly. Even if Johnny wasn't a factor in this mess, he couldn't see himself ever marrying again. Ever putting himself at that risk again. And, even though he was hurting right now, he knew he would survive this ... tryst.

He sat his mount even though the horse had stopped moving a few minutes ago. That word - tryst - stunned him. Why had he thought it? But he knew why. It was simply the truth. She was a dalliance, fast and easy but definitely complicated. And now he couldn't face what he had done. How he had probably destroyed his family simply because he couldn't restrain himself. No, not couldn't - wouldn't. For he knew, had he really tried, he would have been able to shun her advances. He also knew she had been the one to precipitate their affair.

Anger surged inside him. Knowing she was already involved with Johnny, she still pursued him. What did she think she would gain from seeing two men at once? Was she hedging her bets? Most of the women in the valley assumed Johnny would be a bachelor for many years to come. He'd heard the talk, knew the stories and was even aware of a small wager some of the local girls had started. When would Johnny Lancer marry? Not who, but when. He'd thought it amusing at the time. Now, he wondered if his son would ever allow himself to open up to a woman. After Marietta, he had to think it would take a very long time, if ever.

Just as it had with him. She was the first woman he'd been serious about since Maria left. Serious. What a joke! But, aside from his pain and anger, he knew he could have been serious about her. If she'd only been honest. But, that was not the case and he knew he had to stop this. Had to push thought of her away and focus on his son. He knew where Johnny was but he also knew his son did not want to see him.

The only option he had was to ask for Scott's help. He wasn't too sure the young man would give it. Scott was as angry with him as Johnny. He'd tried to be hard-nosed. Tried to defend himself. But, after last night and this morning, he had no defense. He was weak and he was ashamed.  

"Are you going to sit on that horse all day?" Scott asked from the veranda.

Murdoch grimaced and dismounted then walked inside the house, hoping his son would follow. He certainly didn't want to discuss this outside where others might hear. It was bad enough as things stood now.

*****

Scott walked into the great room and watched his father pour a whiskey. He seemed to be drinking more lately but Scott said nothing about it.

"I saw Marietta last night. I told her we were through."

Scott's eyes hardened as he watched the faint flush creep up his father's neck. "Before or after you had one more roll in the hay?"

Murdoch's head jerked as he looked up at his son, his own eyes turning to steel. "That is none of your business, Scott. The point is, I know I've been a fool. I know how much I've hurt Johnny. I just don't know how to make things right with him. I was hoping you might help me with that."

Scott wasn't terribly impressed. Murdoch hadn't admitted it but he could tell his last statement was an accurate assessment of where his father had spent the night. Sighing tiredly, he ran a hand though his hair before sitting on the arm of a chair.

"I don't know how I can help. I'll talk to him; see if he wants to come here and talk with you. He's just so hurt by all this. And I really think he's more upset with you than her. That may not be entirely fair but, as they say, blood is thicker than water."

"I'd appreciate that, son. Anything you could do to make him listen would "

"That right there is a problem, Sir. I can't "make" Johnny listen and neither can you. If you come at him like you usually do, he'll walk out of here so fast, you're head won't stop spinning for a month!" Scott stood up. "I hope you understand that you DO owe him an apology, at the very least."

Murdoch's glower didn't last long as he realized Scott was right. He nodded his head. "Yes, I do know that. I didn't .... I won't come at him, as you say. I just don't know if I can explain myself adequately."

Scott softened at the misery in his father's eyes. He could see how much the man was suffering. And, even though he was still angry with the whole fiasco, he couldn't help but feel sorry for Murdoch. "Just talk to him from your heart, Murdoch. I know how very hard that is for you; for all of us. But, that's what it's going to take if you ever hope to gain Johnny's trust again. I also would like to point at that, even if he forgives you, it will take a very long time for him to trust you.   That's something you can't force."

Murdoch nodded his understanding even as his heart wrenched with anguish. "Whatever you can do to help, I'd be grateful, son."  

*****

Darkness was falling and still he stood motionless at the window. The grime and dust coating the glass made visibility nearly impossible but he wasn't looking anyway. He simply stared unseeing, his mind and emotions in a place far away. He had seen her for what she was, for the first time and the shock of it had tossed him to and fro. He had not been prepared for the anger which had so quickly boiled through his normally flawless control, and it had been with great difficulty he had maintained his tenuous grasp.

She had elicited a heretofore unknown rage, a new and difficult concept for the man who had once been Johnny Madrid. In the midst of the revelation of her true nature he had failed to blame Murdoch for his indiscretion, at least until he had heard her drive away. Long after the hoof beats had faded into nothingness the faint stirring of hurt had resurfaced, his father's image clutched in his mind. He could envision them together and the picture in his mind's eye served as a catalyst to a new and deeper feeling of betrayal. No matter what she was, his father should have been more responsible for the affair. He should have considered the consequences of his actions. And it was this thoughtlessness which had further enraged Johnny.

Long after night had fallen Johnny heard the unmistakable sound of a single rider approaching. He knew without moving for the door that it was his brother. Scott. Always the peacemaker, always the advocate. Always constant and steady. With a sigh of relief that it wasn't his father he waited for the sound of boots mounting the porch and pausing at the door.

"Johnny?" Scott called, while simultaneously knocking on the less than stable door. "Johnny? I know you're in there."

The briefest of hesitations and Scott pushed the door open. He found himself staring into the cold, dead eyes of Johnny Madrid.

"I want to be alone for a while, Boston." The voice was flat, impersonal.

With no regard for his brother's words, Scott entered the cabin. He removed his gloves and hung them over his holster while looking around the room with unconvincing interest. Finally, he cleared his throat and walked to the small dining table.

"Mind if I have a cup?" Scott gestured toward the coffee pot on the table while reaching for the mug sitting beside it. Johnny stared at him before shrugging his shoulder and returning to the window. Studiously, he regarded the darkness outside.

"Johnny, are you alright?" Again the noncommittal shrug, a barely perceptible movement of the shoulders.

"Have you been eating? Sleeping?"

"Leave me alone, Scott," Johnny whispered.  

In an instant Scott had crossed the distance between them and grasped the younger man's shoulders. He turned him around, mildly surprised   at the lack of resistance.

"No, brother. I'm worried about you. It's not like you to give up. You're a fighter. If I know nothing at all about you, I do know that much." Scott's voice was firm yet a fine thread of gentleness coated the determined tone.

"What is there to fight for, Boston?"

"Look, you loved her. At least you thought you did, " Scott amended. "And her betrayal must hurt like hell, not to mention the fact she broke your trust and with our father. But you can't forget about everything else."

"What everything?" Johnny's voice had stiffened. He pulled away from his sibling and stared harshly into the slate blue eyes. "You mean the ranch? Our 'father'? Ha. Like he thought about my feelings."

"Johnny, he didn't know. You know he was as surprised as you were." The distinct echo of truth pushed through the anger, yet Johnny wasn't ready to let go.

"Was he?" he snarled.

"Murdoch broke things off with Marietta. Etta, I should say."

"So?" Johnny interrupted.

"So, don't you get it? He chose you over her. He wants to work things out."

"Did the old man say that or are you just trying to get me to come home?"

"I'm saying there is a lot at stake here. Home, family. Don't throw it all away without at least talking to Murdoch."

"So you think I should come home, like nothin' happened? Just like that?"

"No, that's not what I'm saying. I am saying it's time to put this family back together and in order to do that you have to come home."

The two men, one fair, one dark, stared at each other, weighing each word.

*****

Scott spent the night though he didn't think Johnny was too thrilled about it. But, he didn't push anymore. In fact, he barely spoke again. He knew Johnny just needed time to think things through then, he'd come to terms or, at least start to. Scott was under no illusions. This was going to be tough.

With a yawn and a stretch, he pulled himself out of the cot and washed up then started breakfast, moving as quietly as possible. Johnny was asleep but he didn't think the younger man had been that way for long. He looked bad, truth be told, and Scott was worried. Smirking a little to himself, he wondered when he wasn't worried about one or both of them.

The smell of coffee and bacon stirred Johnny awake. He almost smiled before remembering the hell he was living in. He cracked open his eyes and surveyed the room, watching Scott attempt to cook. He nearly groaned but instead slid out of bed and pulled his pants on. Quickly, he headed outside, shucking on his shirt as he went. Five minutes later, he reappeared looking no better than when he'd left.

Scott silently placed a plate and cup in front of him then joined his brother at the table. Johnny kept his head down as he took a bite of bacon and grimaced then slurped his coffee.

"That bad?" Scott asked, amused.

"It's fine," came the clipped response.

"Looks like a beautiful day out."

Johnny made some sort of noise resembling a grunt and Scott sighed lightly. His brother was usually a cheerful sort in the mornings. He supposed he couldn't expect too much, though. So, they sat there, not speaking as Scott ate and Johnny inhaled two more cups of coffee.

Once the older man was sure nothing more would be eaten, he sat back and crossed his arms. "You can't live on that stuff, you know."

"Don't, Scott. Not this morning," Johnny grumbled then pushed his chair back and walked to the small dresser.

He proceeded with his shave as Scott cleared the table, making quick work of the few dishes. They finished about the same time and Scott went outside to saddle the horses. His gut was in a knot, one he'd been battling all morning. He debated with himself whether he should stay with them or just let them at each other. He knew, in the end, it wasn't going to be his choice.

Johnny walked out, hat on head, gun snug around his hips and mounted up without a word or glance for his brother. Scott rolled his eyes and followed.

*****

Murdoch stared into space from his spot behind his desk. He tapped a pencil against the wooden surface without awareness. Scott had stayed out all night which meant he was with Johnny. The rancher knew in his heart his younger son would be here this morning to talk. Or, shoot him. He wasn't sure which. And he wasn't sure he could blame the boy, either.

With a sigh of irritation, he berated himself. He's not a boy. That had been the problem all along. He had to stop thinking of Johnny as a boy. He was a man, fully grown and probably with more experience in several areas than his own father. The idea of that grated on his already frazzled nerves. He looked at his hand, perplexed at the now broken pencil. He didn't even remember picking it up. Tossing the pieces on the desk, he stood and stretched his back. He should be working but he couldn't. He'd managed to give out the orders this morning and that was about it. Now, all he could do was wait and he wasn't especially good at that.

He wandered toward the French doors, then past them to the foyer. His hand was on the door knob but he hesitated. If Johnny rode in, he didn't want to be outside. He didn't want anything started in front of the hands. He wondered if they knew what was going on then prayed they didn't. That no one knew how he'd behaved so shamefully.

It was different for Johnny. Scott, as well. They were young men and expected to carouse and carry on. But, he was hardly a young man anymore. Two marriages and two sons should have tempered his lifestyle. And they had for more years than he cared to remember. That it had been so easy for him to get swept away was what annoyed him more than anything. The pain he'd caused his son was nearly killing him.

They'd been right. He hadn't known about her and Johnny until that Sunday but then he had and still, he pursued her. Rather, allowed her to pursue him. And the other night was simply reprehensible on his part. He'd had plenty of time to think on the way to town but he hadn't. All he'd been able to think of was getting there and being alone with her.

How could he possibly explain this to Johnny? He tried to work it out in his mind but nothing he came up with sounded reasonable. To top it all off, this was a delicate subject. One he would rather not discuss with either of his sons.

His head came up as he heard the horse hooves in the yard. He frowned as he noticed he'd walked back into the living room. Fear crashed down on him as he realized the hour of judgment was at hand. Murdoch turned toward the door and braced himself as best he could.

*****

Johnny lingered next to Barranca, deciding if he could really go in there. Scott waited a minute then put a hand on his back and applied gentle pressure. Johnny turned his head to the side to acknowledge the gesture then sucked in a breath and walked to the door.

He stepped into the great room, Scott right behind him, and came face to face with his father. Johnny's eyes were cold and lifeless. His face cut of pure granite.

Murdoch could only stare at him, ridiculously happy to see that face again. No matter the hate coming from that face. He tried to smile and knew he'd failed. It wasn't appropriate anyway. He cleared his throat but made no attempt to speak.

Scott took it all in and knew he'd have to get them started. Then, it was up to them if he stayed or not.

"Well, I guess someone should start," Scott said gingerly.

"Yes," Murdoch croaked out then cleared his throat again. "Yes, I should. Johnny, I know this is hardly enough but I truly am sorry."

Johnny turned sharply on his heel and stalked across the room, putting distance between himself and both of them.

"I don't know what to say, son. I can try to explain myself but I'm afraid that will only hurt you more."

"You can't hurt me anymore," Johnny said flatly.

Scott took one step then stopped. He had to let them do this. He ambled toward the dining table, stopping when he had a clear path to Johnny. It was a crazy notion but he knew his brother was highly agitated. No one outside the family would know it, but he knew. Johnny's stance was his usual. Causal and bored. He was anything but and Scott felt a need to be able to get to him within a heartbeat.

Murdoch knew nothing to say to that. He didn't think it was true and part of him hoped it wasn't. That would mean Johnny was done with him and he couldn't bear that thought.

"Son, I don't know how to explain myself. I know how wrong I was. Once I knew who she was to you, I should have ....."

"What? Should have what? Bed her right here on the floor?" Johnny shouted.

And there it was, Scott thought and was grateful for it. At least Johnny was talking, if loudly. He knew nothing would happen if Johnny shut down, refused to listen or speak. He didn't care how loud they got, as long as they worked it through.

"Of course not! I should have told you the truth. I should never have let myself ..... I lost control. I wasn't thinking of you or anything else. She was ..... very persuasive," Murdoch's voice dropped at the end. He didn't want to mention her but how could they not?

"Yeah, she sure is. But, let's just call it what it is, old man. She's a whore. She took us both in and we were both more than willing. My problem is what you did here in this room and two nights ago. That's what I can't forgive!" Johnny glared at him, heat radiated from his body almost ot the point that Murdoch could actually feel a rise in the room temperature.

The rancher dropped his head and ran a hand through his hair. "I don't know if I can make you understand, Johnny. There hasn't been anyone, not really, since your mother. No one I had any feelings for. I mistook what I felt for Marietta as love. It was a foolish mistake that I'm too old to have made. Yet, I made it and I've never felt so ashamed of myself. I didn't realize until she started talking about marriage ....."

"Marriage?" Johnny asked in a whisper.

Murdoch grimaced and nodded. "The other night, or morning. She started making all these plans and I finally understood what she was after. She didn't care which of us, as long as she got her hands on Lancer."

"And when you turned her down, she paid me a call," Johnny stated.

"How did she know where you were?" Scott asked, stunned by this revelation.

Johnny looked at his brother, having forgotten he was even in the room. He shook his head. "I don't know."

Murdoch's eyes lit with understanding. "She was here right after you left that day, Scott. You didn't see her ride in?"

"I would have tossed her off the ranch if I had," Scott replied snidely.

Johnny laughed softly and they both looked incredulously at him. "She was playin this from the start. She swore she didn't know we were related."

"She may not have. I don't think I ever told her my last name. She was just as stunned to see me here that day as I was to see her."

"You both recovered well," Johnny shot.

Murdoch dropped his eyes.

"When she found out isn't really the point. She started seeing Murdoch as soon as we left for Sacramento from what I gather," Scott inserted.

"No, it doesn't matter. She still kept it up after the fact. I don't care! It ain't what she did that ....." Johnny stopped, unwilling to admit the pain his father had caused him.

Murdoch took two steps then stopped when Johnny's head came up with a jerk, the warning easy to read in his eyes.

"It matters, brother, because she hurt you. Her lies started the moment you met her. They haven't stopped yet."

Johnny looked at his brother. "What do you mean?"

Scott sighed. "Well, she told you her father died two years ago. She told Murdoch she'd been raised in an orphanage with her brother. She never told you she had any family." The young man stopped and looked at his father. "That telegram you asked us to deliver to Stillwater."

"It was for her to her brother. The lines were down to Stillwater and she seemed desperate to get the message through. That's when I met her, at the telegraph office."

Johnny just shook his head. He didn't give a rat's ass when they met or how or how much family she had or any of that. "Like I said, it don't matter now. I got no feelings for her. But, I'll tell you something, old man. I would never have done this to you. No matter how I felt or how hard she came at me."

Scott didn't believe his brother had no feelings for her. He was angry, naturally, but Johnny had been in love. Scott knew that had to hurt badly no matter how much Johnny denied it.  

"What can I do, son? How can I make this right?" Murdoch asked and the sincerity was easy to hear and see.

Johnny turned his back, his anger wavering and that only ticked him off more. He knew his father was sorry - now. But, he hadn't been sorry enough to stay out of her skirts.

"You didn't give me a second's thought, Murdoch. You were so busy sowin your oats, you didn't think about what you'd done to me at all. Makes me wonder how you really feel about me. Makes me wonder if you give a damn about me at all." He turned back, locking eyes with his father. "Makes me wonder how many more of my women you're gonna chase after."

"Don't be ridiculous, Johnny! This was .... a unique circumstance. I don't make a habit of chasing after younger women! We connected. We talked for hours and it felt like we'd known each other all our lives. She seemed to understand me. How could I turn away from that? How could any man? Do you know how rare that is?" Murdoch had lost his patience, his own anger rising to the bait his son had laid out.

"I know exactly how rare it is, Murdoch! But, it don't seem so rare for you. What's this make, three women? Or are there more you haven't mentioned?" Johnny snapped as he closed in on his father.

"I've spent my whole life avoiding what you'd call ladies for this very reason. You have no idea what you took from me!"

"Johnny, do you really think you could have had a true relationship with her? Even if I hadn't been in the picture, can you really see yourself with that tramp?!"

Scott made his move, his beeline. Johnny had moved but he still had a fairly clear path. He simply had to leap over an ottoman and he was there. He took hold of his brother's arm and pulled back, not too roughly.

"Why not? That's what I'm used to!" Johnny yelled and jerked free of his brother. "I ain't gonna hit him!" he shouted at Scott and walked away again.

It was quiet for a while. The air seemed too still and heavy in the room. Scott watched the two of them and felt a bit lost. They'd seem to make some headway then come right back around again. It was the betrayal Johnny struggled with and Scott understood all too well. But, he was clueless where to go next.

*****

Murdoch thought he might be physically sick soon. The idea his son thought all he was good enough for were whores and dancehall girls was staggering. He sat on the arm of a chair and lowered his head. He felt lost.

"She was beautiful and young and interested in an old man like me. I thought it was too good to be true. I never imagined I'd ever have another relationship with a woman. I'd given up any hope of finding someone. I didn't really want to, or thought I didn't. She was seductive and willing and asked nothing of me - at first. It was like winning the grand prize and I couldn't walk away. Not without knowing if there was even the slightest chance.

"I did think about you, Johnny. I knew I was wrong, so wrong. But, I couldn't seem to stop myself. That's no excuse but all I could think was, I wasn't lonely anymore. I felt better than I have in years. I was happier than I'd been in years. I behaved like a schoolboy with his first real crush. A boy whose body ruled his mind. I definitely was not thinking with my head. After the way you talked to her that day, I made myself believe we could work it out and you'd understand. It was foolish and thoughtless.

"I don't know what else to say, son. You are more important to me than any woman even though, it took me too long to realize what I was doing to you. I wish I'd never met her. I would never choose her, or any woman, over my sons."

Johnny listened to every heartwrenching word. He tried to see things from his father's perspective. It was hard, he had no frame of reference. He'd never been in love, never known a good woman's love. He did know, even though he wasn't a father himself, he would always choose his kids over anyone - even a wife. That's how it was supposed to be. It had taken him a long time to learn that. Mostly because he'd had no one to show him that kind of love as a child.

Bitterly, he thought he didn't have anyone now either. Part of him believed the old man called it quits because she started talking marriage and that scared him off. The bigger part of him truly wanted to believe his father had come to his senses, no matter how long it had taken, and did the right thing.    

He knew they were waiting for him to respond. He knew how they hoped he'd respond. But, he'd never said or done anything because it was expected of him or because it was what someone wanted to hear. He couldn't soothe his father's guilt just to make the old man feel better for being a jackass. Didn't seem anyone was trying to make him feel any better.

He sighed and ran his hand up and down his left thigh, as if wiping it clean of something. "I don't know what to say to you. I don't think anything you say is gonna help right now. I've listened to you and heard you. Now, you need to back off and give me some time to think things out." Johnny turned and looked at both of them, daring them with his eyes to rebuke his statement.

"Alright, son. Will you stay here, though?"

Johnny frowned and looked at Scott who was also asking silently. "Maybe. I need to be alone right now. I'm going upstairs."

*****

Johnny lay on the bed, his hands cradling his head as he stared at the ceiling and tried not to think. He was so tired of thinking. So tired of feeling. So tired, period.

He couldn't remember the last time he'd slept all night. He knew he looked like hell but didn't care. All he really wanted to do was erase the past couple of months and start over. But, he couldn't deny the pain of betrayal. His own father's betrayal.

He had to admit to himself, he could understand Murdoch's words. The man had been treated badly in love; by death or circumstance. Once again, he'd lost out. Only, this time, they'd both been played the fool.

He still had a hard time wrapping his mind around the facts. He had been involved with the same woman as his father! Once, Scott had made a joke about the two of them possibly being attracted to the same woman. Johnny remembered telling his brother that would never happen because their taste in women were quite different. Never would he have believed this.

It was much more likely he and Scott would pursue the same girl. Johnny had even teased Scott that he might do just that if only to annoy his sibling. It had been funny. This wasn't. This was sick. And he was sick about it.

Sighing heavily, he knew his father was just as upset by all this as he. And he could understand Murdoch feeling some desperation and, yes, some silly giddiness at having such an attractive young thing chasing after him. Johnny was of no doubt that's exactly what had happened.

She'd crossed paths with Murdoch. It was easy to see he was a man of influence and she'd prowled and purred her way into his life. And he supposed she would have decided which man would best serve her greed eventually. The fact that she'd truly believed Murdoch would marry her told Johnny she was crazy.

But, all these thoughts weren't helping him decide what to do. Really, though, what could he do? He either accepted his father's mistakes and tried to move forward or he didn't. And if he didn't, he couldn't live under the same roof. Wasn't sure he could live in the same state with the man.

Seemed to Johnny, Murdoch made a lot of mistakes when it came to women and his own children. Still, he also bore the consequences of those mistakes and had never tried to excuse himself or blame anyone else. He'd accepted responsibility and he'd paid for it over the years.

Suddenly, Johnny felt true sympathy for his father. He tried to look at the situation without himself involved. If this had just been a case of she and Murdoch, he knew he'd see what the old man was doing and probably try to talk some sense into him.

He wished someone had seen it before everything went so horribly wrong. But, there was only one person to really blame for all this and he knew that, which didn't make things any easier.

For all his going around and around in his mind, the question still screamed in his ears. Could he forgive Murdoch? His father had asked for that forgiveness. Hell, he'd nearly begged for it. Johnny always thought of himself as a forgiving person when it was deserved. He supposed no one deserved it more than family.

He leapt off the bed and began pacing the room, shoving his hands into his pockets. He may be forgiving but he hated giving in. It was a flaw, he knew, but he couldn't help that either.

He caught sight of himself in the dresser mirror and stopped dead in his tracks. Johnny moved closer, leaning in toward the glass as he pulled a hand down his cheek. God! What a mess! All this over a woman. What the hell is wrong with you? He wondered.

This was the very reason he stuck with the saloon girls. All this emotion and heartbreak was for the birds as far as he was concerned. He'd tried it and he'd failed. He knew he'd learned his lesson truly and well this time.

Well, he wouldn't be the only life-long bachelor to ever walk the earth and it definitely had it's perks. No one to answer to, no one to worry about. Dropping his head, he added; no one to talk to, no one to share his life with.

He sighed and shook his head at his reflection. You're the biggest mess there ever was, Lancer. And that's a fact!

He turned away and walked to the window, looking out over the land. He loved this place and, when he wasn't pissed at him, he loved the old man, too. No, you love him even when you are pissed and you know it, he chastised himelf. He reckoned that was his answer. He just wasn't sure how long to make his father stew.

A wicked grin threatened but it never quite emerged. It wasn't fair to make Murdoch suffer any longer. It definitely wasn't fair to Scott who was the only innocent in this fiasco. Still, he couldn't just smile and say it's okay.

Walking back to the dresser, he splashed water on his face and toweled off, figuring this was as good as he was gonna get for now. He walked out the door and down the stairs with firm resolve.

*****

Murdoch and Scott both stood up when he entered the room, seeming to suck the air right out of it with his presence.

Johnny took them both in then focused on his father. He didn't get too close, wasn't sure he fully trusted himself even now. He inhaled deeply and let it out slowly before speaking.

"I understand everything you said to me and I've been thinking it all over. And, well, I guess I can see things from your side. This ain't gonna happen overnight and all I can do is try. I don't want to be mad at you, Murdoch. I don't want this tension between us but, it's not so easy.

"I also don't want to talk about it anymore. We've both said our piece and it's time to just let go of all the explaining and apologizing. I need some time and I'm not ready to say everything is alright, yet. But, I think I'll get there at some point. Can't say when that'll be but I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't push me."

Murdoch thought he might collapse from the relief. He worked very hard to remain placcid and nodded his head.

"I can't tell you how much it means that you're willing to try, son. I promise I won't push you but I do want to say something and I hope you don't feel it's out of line."

Johnny eyed him closely for a long beat. "Okay."

"I'm worried about your health. Son, you don't look good. Could you try to take better care of yourself? I know "¦" he paused and put up a hand to ward off a retort. "I realize the why, I just "¦ I'm really worried."

"I have to say, so am I, brother. You really look awful," Scott added, hoping his concern would alleviate any protestations.

Johnny grimaced and lowered his eyes for a second. "I know. I feel like hell, too. I promise I'll do better. Right now, I'd like to try and sleep a while."

"That's a good idea but do you think you could eat a little something first? Maria made chicken soup," Scott bargained.

Johnny grinned genuinely at that. "They say it heals the soul."

*****

Gloomily, she smoothed her skirt then tested the angle of her bonnet. Satisfied her appearance belied her inner despair, she straightened her back, drawing herself to her full height. She would not allow the other passengers to know her inner turmoil. After all, she still had her pride. Pride? She scoffed inwardly. What pride? She had played her hand and failed miserably. Not only had she lost the security she thought she had found but she had also lost love.

Yes, she had loved him. She inhaled sharply as the realization she didn't know with whom she had fallen in love crashed into her consciousness. She had believed herself in love with Johnny Lancer. Madly, deeply, truly in love but then she had met Murdoch. And now she knew she had loved and lost not one, but both men. Yet, somehow she was unsure for whom she ached the most.

For me, she thought. She now allowed herself to admit the truth.   She had always known that truth, at least on some level. She had planned her future carefully with only one goal. To secure a life of luxury and comfort. Yes, she had plotted and schemed...and loved. But how was that so wrong?

She had been more than willing to meet the needs of one of the handsome men she had bedded. More than eager to please one of them. She would gladly have devoted herself to pleasuring them. Yet, they had both turned on her. Both had withdrawn their offer of love and security. Well, she always landed on her feet and she would now. With that thought in mind, she returned to studying the nearby passengers.

The stage was late but it gave her the time she needed to collect herself and put on her most beguiling smile. But there was no one. No one worthy of her charms. Her spirit fell once more. Again, she was faced with the prospect of moving on, starting over and there was no one boarding who could ease her loneliness. Or was there?

A man, a handsome, well dressed man had approached the ticketing office. She eased closer to hear him requesting passage to Stockton. Stockton. A cattleman perhaps. She patted her bonnet once more, deftly dropping her handkerchief as she fingered a stray blonde lock from her cheek. The soft fabric gently twisted in the breeze, coming to light softly at the feet of the newcomer.   He bent to pick up the delicate item and turned to face her.

"I believe you dropped this, Miss..."

"Miss Smith, Etta Smith." She accepted the cloth with the faintest of smiles, her eyes glancing up at him through thick lashes. She coughed daintily. "Thank you. It was very kind of you to fetch it for me."

"My pleasure, ma'am." He appraised her quickly, a smile of appreciation   creasing his face in a most appealing manner. "Are you traveling to Stockton, Miss Smith?"

"Please, call me Etta." she suggested demurely. "Yes, I am."

"A woman such as yourself should not be traveling the wilds of California alone."

"Is it dangerous?" she asked with wide-eyed innocence. She had extended the bait and he had taken it. Satisfied, she pressed her advantage.

"Definitely, ma'am...uh, Etta. Perhaps you would do me the honor of allowing me to escort you? My name is Frederick Marsden."

He was the epitome of manly perfection all wrapped up in a rich package. His well-tailored clothing spoke of money and his sophisticated manner of breeding.   His smile came easy, revealing even white teeth in a face that glowed with a light tan. Sandy blonde hair lifted and danced in the afternoon breeze unconfined by the hat he held in his gloved hands. His light brown eyes flashed with flecks of gold as he met her gaze.

"Pleased to meet you, Sir. The honor would be mine."

The sound of galloping horses approaching signaled the arrival of the noon day stage.

"Shall we?" He offered her his elbow and, with the smug smile of a lioness claiming its prey, she accepted.

 

 

~end~
2006

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