Want and Need
“Why won’t you let me go with Papa?”
Dianna managed not to sigh, or close her eyes in exasperation, as she guided the tiny dessert spoon in her young son’s hand to his mouth. Once JJ successfully captured the pea on his tongue and released his pudgy-fingered grip on the spoon, she met her adopted daughter’s accusatory gaze across the dining table.
Gently, in hopes of dampening Amelia’s short fuse, she said, “We discussed this, Amelia.”
Amelia’s chin came up, a defiant mould becoming all too familiar of late. “If I don’t go tomorrow, I won’t be able to go until next Saturday, and all the babies will be born by then. I did everything Papa said to,” she added, her tone faintly desperate. “I finished my homework, and my chores. Tell her, Papa. Tell her you said I could go, if I did everything you said.”
Jake, with Dianna to his left and Amelia on his right, shifted, no doubt uncomfortable being boxed in the middle of a battle he believed unwarranted. In the chair on the other side of Amelia, Katie kept her head bowed, her long dark braids slung over the shoulders of her blue pinafore shifting in rhythm with the methodical scrape of her knife and fork as she sliced the roast beef on her plate.
Truly, they were as different as two sisters might be. One dark and quiet and mysterious as a moonlit lake, the other as bright and charged and quick as a shooting star. Yet equal in their desperate need for security, love, and… structure.
Dianna answered Jake’s questioning gaze with a twig of one eyebrow.
So far, he’d kept himself well removed of this, her and Amelia’s first test of their fledgling relationship as mother and daughter not yet a year in its maturity. Publicly. In private, he revealed himself aligned with Amelia’s position: that she was old enough, and capable enough after six months of riding lessons, to occasionally accompany him on horseback to inspect fences and the ranch’s ten-thousand strong herd of Simmental and Longhorn cattle. Dianna disagreed.
She could not fathom exposing a child to the dangers lurking on the thirty-thousand acres that comprised the combined J-D Quarter Horses, and Douglas Ranch cattle operations, especially during calving and foaling season.
Broken bones, lacerations, rope, and campfire burns never mind simple sun and wind burn, frostbite, and saddle chafe… The injuries the men employed year-round to manage the livestock experienced were frequent, if varied. And usually tended by the men themselves. Only the most serious involved the town doctor. Even then, he was a doctor. Not a God. As Jake knew too well. He’d lost his stepfather four years prior to an overprotective Longhorn that misinterpreted his attempts to free her calf from a barbed-wire fence and gored him.
Jake continued to hold her gaze. She widened her eyes slightly.
Clearing his throat, he turned to Amelia. “You are right, Mia. I did say you had to do your chores and homework, before I’d let you come with me. And I’m proud of you for catching up so swiftly.”
Amelia bobbed her head, mouth curling in satisfaction, until Jake finished with, “What you forgot, is that I said you could come with me if you had your homework and chores done, and your mother agreed.”
Dianna ground her molars to contain a tart “Thank you”, as Amelia pinned her with a stare. Honey-blonde hair in a single braid down her back and sharp features set with determination, amber-coloured eyes narrowed, she resembled a young lioness set to pounce.
And Dianna the hapless prey.
“You have to let me go, Mama. I did everything. My homework. The dusting. I even helped clean the windows.”
“Yes, I know darling, but—”
Dianna compressed her lips. “Not often. And I’m an adult. You’re only nine.”
“Papa went when he was my age.”
Dianna choked off an instinctive reply. Noted the flare of satisfaction—victory—in Amelia’s gold-flecked eyes.
For the briefest moment she almost regretted her decision, and Jake’s agreement with it, to raise their children with the expectation girls were as capable of achieving anything boys were. As deserving of the right to create of their life what they would, without deference to their sex. Almost.
This time Jake allowed his expression to convey his thoughts on the matter.
Like Amelia, he watched her, waiting for her to finish wrestling with her conscience and ultimately come down on the side of that which she truly believed: girls were as capable as boys.
Or they weren’t.
Katie, too, had looked up from her meal. Only JJ remained blessedly oblivious, babbling his baby talk as he smacked the peas on his tray with his palms. Bloody hell.
Dianna forced her throat muscles to convulse once more, swallow the sourness on her tongue.
She’d always hated the taste of crow.
“You haven’t anything appropriate to wear, Mia,” she murmured. “So, you have to wait until Saturday next, at least, to give me time to fashion something suitable.” And adjust to the idea.
“I think I can help with that,” Jake said. “There’s that trunk of my old clothes in the attic my mother sent over. I’m sure we’ll find something in there to fit.”
Eleanor Douglas had saved a few of the better outfits from Jake’s childhood as mementos for her benefit, but passed on the lot to Jake the previous year in anticipation an item or two might prove suitable for JJ. Not quite a year-and-a-half old, JJ was yet too small for most of the trunk’s contents. Amelia, however… There was at least one pair of denim trousers Dianna recalled seeing that just might fit.
Amelia had a hand over her mouth, and her eyes so recently blunt with ire, sparkled with awe as she stared at Jake. “I can wear some of your old clothes?” she whispered.
He nodded. “If they fit. I expect the trousers will need suspenders.”
Amelia clasped both hands under her chin. “Can I have my own rifle?”
“What?” Dianna looked from Amelia to Jake. “No. She absolutely cannot.”
Amelia scrambled to her feet. “Why don’t you trust Papa?”
“Amelia,” Jake said, his tone weighted with caution.
“It’s not that I don’t trust your father,” Dianna said with enforced calm. “It’s that I don’t want you to get hurt—”
“Papa won’t let me get hurt.”
“Yes, I know—”
“No. You don’t.” Amelia glared. “Because if you did, you’d let me go.”
“Amelia. Marie. Douglas.” Jake set his fork on the table with enough force to draw not only Amelia’s startled glance, but JJ’s.
A pea pincered in sticky fingers, he stared at Jake, wariness dimpling his small brow. Dianna stroked his fine dark hair and murmured quiet reassurance as she used her other hand to spoon a couple more peas from her plate.
Jake’s next words were soft-spoken, conversational, if his gaze on Amelia unyielding: “You want any chance of going with me, at all, Mia, you best apologise to your mother and then sit and finish your supper.”
Amelia pinched her mouth closed, but fire still sparked in her gaze when she looked at Dianna. Katie, poor mite, shrank further as she diced her food to smaller, and smaller pieces, the grate of silver utensils on porcelain echoing the hollow throb in Dianna’s throat.
In the first months following her and Jake’s adoption of the girls the previous year, both had done as twelve-year-old Katie continued to do: their level best to remain obscure members of the household. Barely speaking. Always awaiting invitation to enter a room. Timid, fearful behaviour not unexpected, given the trauma they’d suffered at the hands of the man they had once called Father. Where Katie remained firmly at arm’s length, Amelia’s reserve had begun to soften during the past Christmas season, especially after she opened her gift from Jake.
Books, clothes, dolls, music boxes… every fanciful thing a girl might hope for scattered in open packages around them and Amelia and Katie were most awed by the moccasins Jake had made for them to help protect their feet from the cold floorboards, and wooden whistles he had carved, and required them to carry with them always when outside.
“For if you need help,” he explained, as he’d looped the leather laces on which the whistles were hung, over their necks in turn, Katie flinching when his fingers brushed her neck. “Voices tire and are never as loud, or as easily heard, as whistles.”
The utter astonishment, and genuine gratitude and joy on each girl’s face as they admired the rabbit-fur-lined hand-stitched slippers had crushed Dianna’s heart, making her wonder if they had ever received more than one gift—or even one—from their father. She suspected not. Especially, after their mother died. Charles Harney had cared less for what he could give his children, than what he might take from them.
Amelia’s muttered apology forced Dianna to discard her morose thoughts, retrain her attention on her daughter as Jake laid a hand on Amelia’s shoulder, his large fingers loose. Comfort and support, rather than coercion.
“Look at your mother,” he said. “And speak louder. Acknowledge exactly what you’re sorry for.”
Amelia, her head bowed, slim fingers working the end of her braid, heaved a deep breath and looked up. “I’m sorry Mama for speaking wrongly to you.” Rushed, and forced though her words were, they sounded sincere.
Willing a genuine, if faintly wobbly smile as she fought a curious urge to cry, Dianna said, “Thank you, Amelia. It takes a great deal of courage to apologise, and I admire, and thank you for it.”
Amelia blinked, and her sulk relaxed. Marginally. “Does that mean I can go with Papa?”
Dianna stifled a laugh at Amelia’s bald ploy, swallowed a sob seeing the desperate appeal in her amber gaze, despite the hard set of her jaw.
You remember what that was like, don’t you, hiding your true want behind a façade of bravado so he wouldn’t know how much it hurt when he said no?
Amelia had worked hard to fulfil her responsibilities… It’s not about responsibilities. It’s about her want to be with Jake. To spend time with him, because… She loved him. And he her.
The realisation clenched deep in some part of Dianna she hadn’t known existed, raw, hollow, foreign pain, because though she’d been a child in want of a parent’s approval, she’d never been a mother, heart-broken by a child’s rejection. Her throat tightened, forcing her to draw on her upbringing to maintain eye-contact with Amelia, while denying even a single tear permission to bloom.
This was silly, her feeling rejected by Amelia’s show of belligerent allegiance with Jake. It was exactly what she’d hoped both girls would eventually come to feel for her and Jake. Well, not the belligerence. The allegiance. The fact it was happening more swiftly between Jake and Amelia, where she seemed to be rapidly losing any ground she’d gained with the child in the last year, was not hard to understand.
Amelia loved everything to do with the out of doors—horses and riding, wiling hours tossing a lariat at long curved horns culled from a deceased cow and affixed to a wooden sawhorse. Things Jake did every day, though the horns he roped were generally still attached to their owner.
Happy as she was outside, Amelia loathed being inside, bemoaned schoolwork, piano practise, embroidery and crochet, all things she was expected to do, or catch up on Saturdays, so they could spend Sundays together as a family.
No wonder she prefers Jake. And resents me. He represents freedom. I represent everything she despises, and she’s too young to understand the difference. Just as I was, when I was her age.
And how did that work out?
Not well. There was good reason she and Jake had chosen to remain in Texas, despite ample reason for them to move their family to England.
Despair, and acceptance, twined a rough knot in Dianna’s throat, chafing her voice, “Yes, Mia, you can go.”
Amelia, who had opened her mouth the moment Dianna opened hers, perhaps in anticipation of rebuttal, stared. Then she canted a look at Jake, before turning her wary gaze on Dianna. “You mean it?” There was as much doubt, as disbelief in her voice. “I can go? I can go with Papa, tomorrow?”
“Yes. Provided Papa’s in agreement?” Dianna looked to Jake.
He held her gaze for the space of a heartbeat, before nodding at Amelia. “Yes. You can come. But—”
“You must listen, Amelia,” Dianna said before he could set further conditions, before she had laid out hers. “You must listen to your father, and do everything and anything he tells you, without question. If he tells you to stay where you are, or to come home, you do so, immediately. Do you understand me?”
When Amelia looked to Jake, he nodded.
“Your mother’s right. Out there—” He indicated the lace-fronted window overlooking the porch and main yard, and beyond miles and miles of rangeland— “I’m the boss. And my word is final. Understand?”
“Yes, Papa,” Amelia said breathlessly. “I understand. You’re the boss. Out there,” she amended with a lowered-lash glance at Dianna.
Dianna willed her facial muscles to remain smooth. “And no gun, Mia. I mean it.”
Again, Amelia glanced at Jake. Again, he nodded.
“Not until you’re big enough to handle it safely,” he said. “Your mother and I will decide when that is.”
Amelia nodded. “Yes, Papa.”
“Now sit and finish your meal.” Jake retrieved his fork. “After supper, we’ll go out and make sure Dirk and McGuire know to have King and Sonny ready come morning.”
With a nod and a happy grin, Amelia slid into her seat, took up her fork, and dove into her supper with surprising alacrity.
Dianna released her breath and lowered her shoulders, as she reclined against the seat back, mildly assuaged to know Amelia would ride Sonny. Of all the horses available to her, the gentle sixteen-year-old gelding was by far the most sensible, and best trained. A perfect mount for a novice rider.
Noting Katie’s gaze on her, Dianna offered a reassuring smile, and when Katie looked at her plate, she doled a few more peas to JJ’s tray—he’d squished more than he’d eaten—and grasped her fork, careful to avoid Jake’s gaze lest she relay the disquiet and disappointment still thrumming within her. She looked down, eased out a silent sigh.
The wonderful beef roast and Yorkshire pudding Mrs. Brown had slaved over all afternoon, and she had anticipated so highly, was all but congealed on her plate. Still, she was starving.
Tucking the tines of her fork under a gravy-soaked wedge, she startled when JJ smashed his palms on the tray and loosed the frustrated screech that indicated his patience for family drama—and being confined three-feet off the floor—was done. Closing her eyes, she inhaled, savouring the rich, succulent, and buttery scents that were the closest she’d come to tasting her food, and popped open her eyes when Mrs. Brown’s voice interrupted her pity party.
“Shall I take the wee lord off your hands, Missus?” She stood in the entrance to the kitchen, a clean white apron over her black dress to replace the one made grubby during the day’s meal preparations. Her expression was neutrally expectant, her grey hair wound in a tightly controlled bun, picture-perfect example of someone fully prepared to accept—without complaint—whatever reply was offered.
Dianna flashed a grateful smile. “That would be—”
“I’ve got him.” Jake skewered the last morsel of meat from his plate with his fork, stuffed it in his mouth and setting knife and fork crosswise on his empty plate, shoved his chair back to stand.
“Oh, let me, Mr. Douglas.” Mrs. Brown started forward. “You stay an’ enjoy dessert. I’ll bring it right out, and then I’ll take the wee man up for his bath.”
“Thank you, but I’m done, Mrs. Brown. Dinner was delicious. As usual.”
“Oh, well…” Mrs. Brown clasped her hands in front of her, her plump features reddening. “You’re welcome, sir.”
JJ rocked in his seat chanting “Da, da, da,” as he grasped Jake’s shirtsleeve with green-slimed fingers in delighted anticipation of achieving freedom.
“Please, Mrs. Brown,” Jake said, as he lifted JJ. “Jake, or Mr. Douglas, is fine. No need to stand on ceremony, here.”
The grateful smile Dianna thought to give him died on her lips, as he turned away with JJ. Sucking the insides of her cheeks she swallowed a frustrated growl, an awful habit developed of late, acquired roughly the same time Amelia began to display overt signs of resistance to her every word, and Jake subtle signs of withdrawal.
To anyone else, he’d been doting on his son, not ignoring her. She knew better. Knew him.
Knew how often he usually sought her eyes out with his at every opportunity to convey his affection with a wink, or amusingly lecherous leer, especially when words weren’t possible, or appropriate, owing to distance, or others being in a room with them.
Tonight, his decision to not look at her when she’d angled towards him, to keep JJ’s small dark head between them, had been deliberate. Just as he’d deliberately held her gaze earlier, when Amelia pleaded to ride out with him.
He’d been testing her resolve.
And then, to raise the spectre of the earl, of the lifestyle she’d once lived, where Mrs. Brown’s offer to attend to JJ, her use of Sir, would never have been questioned let alone discouraged, no matter how gently… Breathing deeply to loosen the tentacled grip a rare spur of anger directed at her husband had on her innards, she willed a conspiratorial slant to her smile as she captured each of her daughter’s gazes in turn, before coming around to Mrs. Brown.
“I believe you mentioned something about… dessert?”
He was seated, still clothed, on his side of the bed, his back to her and elbows braced on his knees, when she entered their chamber after tucking in the girls for the night. And the room, which so often in the months since their reconciliation had glowed with lantern light and the visceral warmth of mutual passion, was brittle with silence, lit by a slash of hallway light let in through the open bedchamber door.
Closing it softly, she stood in the darkness, stared at his slumped shape sheathed in a shimmer of moonlight through the terrace doors.
Shifting her hands behind her back, she leaned with palms flat against the door. She might have remained there indefinitely, cool air swirling around her ankles and up the inside of her nightdress, toes curled inside her moccasins, if he’d not sighed and lifted his head.
“She’s right, you know.”
“Who? About what?”
“Amelia. You don’t trust me.”
She pushed off the door. “That is not true.”
The bed frame creaked in imagined relief when he stood to round the foot of the bed, a tall, wide, male shadow that was she not intimately familiar with its owner, might have terrified her.
“Isn’t it?” he murmured.
“No. It’s you who doesn’t trust me.” Her throat ached with the strain of withholding sudden—ridiculous—tears. “You’re supposed to support me, instead you undermine and insult me—”
“Yes. The clothes in the attic. The comment to Mrs. Brown.”
“I wasn’t trying to undermine you. I was offering a solution. And—” He dragged a hand over his mouth. “I’ll speak to Mrs. Brown. Ensure she understands I meant no offence and was only trying to reinforce our decision to raise the children like I was raised. Little formality, and more hands-on involvement from us. Something she still seems to struggle with—”
“Of course, she still struggles with it,” she said. “Two years ago—and for almost fifty years before that—inattention to proper protocol or the needs of the family would have got her fired. It did get her fired. She and Dirk both. They defied the earl to help me.”
“I know.” He nodded. “I know what they did to help you, how different your lives in England were. And I know they’re trying. You’re trying. We’re all trying.” He inhaled. “We agreed this wouldn’t be easy, that it would take time to help the girls adjust, help us all adjust. No one, least of all me, thought this would be a picnic. Especially considering this time last year I was convinced I’d never see you again. Had no intention of ever seeing you again.”
“I apologised for that,” she said, unable to keep the hurt from her voice.
“I know,” he whispered and grasped her cold hands in his warm ones. “I know you apologised. We both apologised. I’m as responsible as you for what happened. Your uncertainty about my feelings, my motivation in marrying you… We both failed then Dianna. You could have asked me, instead of running. I could have told you, instead of assuming you knew. But I corrected my mistake, in New York. I made clear how much I loved you. Do love you. I also made clear my willingness to help you raise JJ, and Katie and Amelia. Be a good father to them, but…”
“But what?” she rasped, her throat rough with guilt, and shame. Guilt, because she’d lied to him about why she’d left. Shame, because she could never tell him the truth. She’d promised his mother she wouldn’t. “What, Jake? What am I doing so wrong, that even Amelia hates me?”
“What? No, Querida.” His fingers tightened on hers. “She doesn’t hate you. She’s a child—”
“I know.” She slipped her hands from his, yanked the collar of her bathrobe closed at her neck. “I know she doesn’t hate me. She hates the power I have to make decisions that affect her. I understand that. Understand her anger. She’s never been on the range. She has no idea what’s out there. What I don’t understand, is why you backed her, not me?”
Shaking his head, he sighed. “I’m not playing favourites, Dianna. I’m trying to be what I promised you I would be—a good father.”
“And that means being a poor husband?”
For a half-second he didn’t move. Then he spun, and stalked to the far wall, braced an arm on the frame of the terrace doors to stare out, his breath audible, angry. Digging her fingers into the fabric of her robe’s collar she hugged her elbows tightly to her chest.
She’d blamed the low-level discord slowly invading their interactions in recent weeks on many things: accumulated fatigue after three months of broken sleep inherent to calving and foaling season; pent-up frustration after a long, dark and cold winter that had tested the limits of the children’s patience for being confined indoors, and her and Jake’s creativity in keeping them amused. Natural discomfiture as they all acclimated to new dinner, and bedtime routines. But this… Whatever this was yawning like a bottomless chasm in the midst of their bedchamber was all of that.
And so much more.
Which you only make worse with unkind, unjust words.
“I’m sorry, Jake.” Her moccasins scuffed softly on the oak floorboards as she stepped off the rug, and touched his back that was rigid as hot steel beneath the soft fabric of his shirt. “That wasn’t fair.”
“You’re damn right, it wasn’t.” He turned. “I’m doing my best to find a balance, here, Dianna. Trying to support you, and the children. Something we seem to have very different ideas about. You think because we eat meals together every night as a family, and I back your every decision with regard to the children, and help you read to them and tuck them in at night, that all is well. What you don’t see, pequeña—” He broke off, turned back to the window, moonlight drawing the taut ridge of his jaw. “What you don’t seem to understand, is that they need to trust me, too. To feel safe in coming to me with questions, or requests. To feel safe being alone with me. But… Everything must pass through you first, Querida. Everything—”
“Because we made an agreement that we would make decisions together.” The indignation in her voice rang faintly hollow.
“We did,” he said, his tone more confused than angry. “And every single decision we’ve agreed upon since was at your initiation. Those ideas you don’t agree with never find traction.”
“Because I think Amelia is too young to handle a gun? Too small to be out there—” She thrust a hand at the darkness beyond the terrace doors— “with monstrous bulls and, and… rattle snakes?”
He faced her. “She’s no younger than you were when you learned to shoot. And she’s older than I was when I started riding the range. If she’s ever going to learn how to manage out there—”
“I only learned to shoot at her age—younger than her age—because my father—stepfather—forced it upon me,” she said. “And you… you grew up here.”
“She’s growing up here, Dianna.” His words were gentle. “They’re all growing up here. And this isn’t the fancy, protected English estate you grew up on—”
“You think I don’t know that? It’s why I don’t want them out there.”
“But they’re going to be out there. They live here, Dianna.” He shoved a hand through his hair. “We decided together to make this their home, instead of the one in England you inherited. A ranch. A working ranch. And Amelia wants to learn. Everything she can. That includes guns. And monstrous bulls. Rattle snakes and every other danger—and joy—that might be found out there. And if I had my way… If I had my way, she’d learn it all. She’d learn everything she needs to know to protect herself, how to manage in the wild, and keep her wits when in danger. How to appreciate the rain and sun and tolerate the wind. Survive the cold. Katie, too. And JJ, when he’s old enough. And this one.” He pressed his palm lightly to her abdomen.
She flinched, and backing away, shook her head. “No. You—I—I’m not even sure, yet. There is no way you can know.”
He made a sound in his throat that might have been a stifled laugh. “You forget I know you, Querida. Know your body, know your heart. And I know you’re not usually this… tetchy.”
“Tetchy?” She glowered. “Are you implying—”
“That you’re emotional? Quick to anger? Less patient, and more obstinate than usual?” He nodded. “Yes. And the last time you were like this was when I met you. I put it down then to you being high-born. High-strung. On the run. But I’ve learned better. I know who you are when you’re not scared. You’re gentle, loving—patient—and that changes only slightly the week before your monthly. But this… tetchiness?” He closed the distance she’d put between them, brushed the knuckles of one hand along her cheek. “It’s lasted closer to a month, and is far more… intense, than usual. So that, along with my calculation that you’re at least two weeks overdue… Yes. I believe you’re with child.”
She blinked, surprised he kept track of her menses.
But of course, he did. It was one of the things she’d been drawn to in him even when she’d wanted nothing to do with him those first days after he’d made her his unwilling ward, before she agreed to become his wife: his thoughtfulness and ability—willingness—to look past her tetchiness to see her. Hear her. When all her life she’d only ever been seen or heard in relation to how well she fulfilled other’s expectations, in particular, the earl’s.
She bowed her head to his chest, shook it. “I can’t be,” she whispered.
“I beg to differ,” he said, voice tinged with wry humour as he slid his arms around her, tugging her close to his solid frame.
“You know what I mean.” She looked up. “We’ve only just… started. Started living as a family. Ten months. That’s all we’ve had with the girls, and JJ, all of us together under one roof, and now…” We’re at odds. Already unhappy.
“We’ll be fine, Querida.” He cupped her face in his callused palms. “We’ll get through this. One day, one row hoed, one argument—one child, at a time.” Thumbing a tear from her cheek, he bowed his forehead to hers. “We’re going to have disagreements, pequeña. Isn’t a married couple alive, that doesn’t. But we’ll get through it, Dianna Douglas. Because that’s who we are. We don’t quit. You don’t quit.”
“I know. I know.” She inhaled. “This one is… yours. This one will be yours.”
“They’re all mine, Querida,” he murmured. “The fact I sired this one, won’t change how I feel about any of them.”
Her tears fell more copious as he gathered her closer, smoothed her hair.
He never questioned it. Never questioned his decision to wed a pregnant runaway, take on her unborn child, and two more besides, as his own. Never doubted his—or her—ability to overcome whatever they faced. So much, in two short years.
Births. Deaths. Lies. Truths. So many lies, and startling truths… No wonder she was tired. Cranky.
Their first, together.
Nosing into the warm cotton of his shirt, she slipped her arms around his waist, grateful he was the only man JJ would ever know as his father. Thank Heaven.
It was enough Katie and Amelia would forever live with the scars of their past. She’d not have her son’s psyche branded with knowledge of how he’d come to be, and by whom.
“Dianna?” The timbre of Jake’s deep voice deepened as he angled to look at her without letting her go. “What is it? Why are you crying? Is it the baby?”
He brushed at the tears on her cheeks. “Are you still angry with me, about Amelia?”
She shook her head. She wasn’t overjoyed at the prospect of Amelia jaunting off to ride alongside him and the vaqueros, but she had no cause to be angry now she’d given her consent. To recant would be wholly unfair. She would never gain Amelia’s trust, and she’d risk losing Jake’s, if she started changing her mind at will.
“I was thinking of… Charlotte.” Which was not a lie. Charlotte was at the heart of their relationship with the girls.
“Oh, Querida, no,” he whispered. “Don’t. Don’t go there—”
“How can I not? Especially knowing Amelia’s going with you tomorrow?” She looked up at him. “She begged me to take care of them, Jake. To protect them. Get them away from him—”
“Querida, stop,” he said firmly. “You musn’t work yourself up this way. It’s not good for you, or the babe. Or the girls. They need you to remember Charlotte the way they remember her, as their sweet, protective older sister. That’s how she deserves to be remembered.”
“I know. But… she was my friend, Jake, as much as she was their sister. And I… miss her.”
“I know you do, Querida,” he murmured. “I know you do.”
Bowing to the gentle, insistent pull of his strong arms, she leaned against his chest, comforted by the solid thump of his heartbeat beneath her ear. “I’m trying to do what she asked, Jake,” she whispered. “Protect them. Protect them all. They’re just children—”
“Who will one day be adults, Querida.” His fingers traced gentle swirls on her nape. “And the better equipped they are to manage, whether a rifle, or account ledger when they get there, the better. For them. Isn’t that why you want to raise the girls to not use their sex to define their goals, because you want them to believe in themselves? To stand up for themselves?”
“You know I do.”
“I do. I also know, no one, not even you, mi pequeña, can control everything. None of us can. Amelia will grow up—she’s growing up. They’re all going to grow up. Whether they get where they’re going with what they need to survive depends on the choices we make now: trust them to learn—or fill them so full of doubt and insecurity they can’t make a move in any direction to save their lives. Is that what you want, for them to grow into adults afraid to think for themselves, like your father tried to do to you?”
“My father?” She thrust away. “How dare you bring him into this? And he’s my stepfather, not my father—”
“Stepfather. Father. Whatever he is to you now, Dianna—” He held out his hands, a tall, broad silhouette of helplessness. “He’s here. Whether you want him here or not, he’s here in every restriction you set upon the children, just as my father is here, in my want to teach them everything I know.”
Her heart squeezed at his easy reference to John Douglas as his father. But that was how he thought of the man who’d raised and loved him like a son. While the man who’d raised her…
Twenty years she’d called him Papa. But in the eighteen months since learning he was her stepfather, she no longer knew what to call him. How she felt about him. What she wanted from him. She only knew she wanted to do better than he had, leave no question in any of her children’s minds to her love for them. Only… Jake was suggesting she was more like Edward Marshall, than she knew.
Wanted to believe.
“No,” she said. “I want them to be safe. My stepfather wanted—”
“The same thing, Querida,” he said quietly. “I hate to admit it, knowing what I do, but I have to, knowing what else I know. Because whether you see it, I do. I see you doing it. And I know why you’re doing it. I also know there is no guarantee of safety. Anywhere. Didn’t you believe yourself safe with the man that sired JJ? And again, when you stepped on that ship in Southampton—”
“How dare you—”
“I’m not accusing you of wrongdoing, Dianna.” He grasped her hand, held on when she attempted to yank free. “If anything, your fool fa—stepfather is to blame. His rules were so damn stringent, your days so rigidly pre-determined, every move tracked by whatever servant was ordered to watch you that you never learned to develop your instincts, instincts that might have helped you avoid… what happened. Sense that weasel’s true intentions. And the ship?
“Its loss, and that of all the people that went with it, is on Captain Smith. The only thing you had control over was whether you got to safety. You’re just plain lucky that officer didn’t wait your permission, before throwing you in a lifeboat. And I don’t want that for our girls, Dianna. For any of our children. I don’t want them to rely on another person to protect them. Save them. I want them to be able to think, and act, for themselves, without always having to look to someone else for guidance.”
She opened her mouth to retort, but found words failed her. As they often did when he was right.
The earl had sketched impermeable borders in which she and her sisters were to be raised, literally, and figuratively.
No venturing out of doors, even on their own land, without a chaperone. Daily regimen of piano and French language practise in addition to academic studies. Long, silent, straight-backed hours wiled through several courses at the dining table consuming polite, minuscule bites of food and teenier sips of water, or wine on the rare occasion he permitted it, whilst he discussed the latest political travesty or triumph, and she and her sisters and mother listened intently on the off chance he might solicit one or more of their opinions.
Oh, how he loved to test his family’s attentiveness. Obsequiousness.
It begins with the vote, and next you know, they’re demanding to wear the trousers in the home. That will never happen here. Do you understand me, Daughters? Understand, that your place is where you’re best-suited, as support and succour to he who will one day keep a roof over your and your children’s heads?
A good head and shoulders taller than her and eight-stone heavier, her husband never, ever, made her feel small the way the earl had. Never took advantage of his greater physical strength, the way the “weasel” had. Though he wasn’t a weasel. He was far, far worse.
He was a traitor.
Swallowing, she hammered the lid on the box in her mind where she’d caged the memory of his betrayal the day she’d married Jake, and made the conscious decision to move forward with her life. A life, as Jake noted, she’d not now enjoy if not for the selfless actions of the young ship’s officer who’d tossed her, bodily, into a lifeboat not an hour before the Titanic dove to the bottom of the sea when she’d have delayed too long waiting for her travelling companions.
She let the air in her lungs escape. “You’re partly right,” she said. “I have been too protective. And it’s harming my relationship with Amelia. And you.” She drew her hand free of his to touch his jaw, splayed her other hand on his chest. “But you’re wrong about my motivation.”
“My stepfather sought to control me. Shape me in his image of an ideal daughter who would one day become an ideal wife. I seek only to protect Amelia. All our children. And I listen. I listened to her, to what she wants—needs. My stepfather never listened to me. He or Mama. They ignored us girls. All the time. Our wants held as much water as a bottomless bucket. And eventually, that’s what drove me to rash acts that I would regret, had they not ultimately led me here, to you. That still does not excuse their disregard of my feelings. My right to decide whom I would marry.”
“No. It doesn’t.” He grasped the hand she held to his jaw, and turning it, kissed her palm. “And before Katie and Amelia and JJ, I could not have understood why they did what they did.”
She frowned. “What does that mean?”
“It means…” He raised his other hand to enfold both her hands, hold them snug against his breastbone. “Now I’m a father, I better appreciate why yours acted as he did—shh,” he hushed. “Let me finish. He and your mother wanted to protect you from the wolves that would have come crawling out of the swamp when news of your inheritance broke—ah, ah.”
She bit the inside of her lower lip.
“They chose the duke for his wealth and power to insulate you, and protect you—”
“Not me,” she blurted. “Themselves. They wanted to insulate their reputations. Specifically, Mama’s.”
“Yes.” He nodded. “They had a large stake in the race. And a powerful son-in-law would have gone a long way to putting a little shine back in any tarnish their images suffered when it came out who your father really was. But you had a larger stake. A much larger stake. And married to the right man, even if you despised him and hated them, but retained your fortune, you were better off than married to the wrong man for the right reasons.”
She dragged her hands free of his, crossed her arms. “You think I should have married him? Married the duke?”
“I think,” he said, “from my perspective as a father of a son and two daughters in line to inherit fortunes of their own, I better appreciate your parents’ reasoning, if not their method. Think to when JJ and the girls are of age to marry… Would you prefer they marry someone in love with them, or eager to get their hands on their future wealth?”
“The duke didn’t love me,” she said through gritted teeth.
“No. But he wasn’t in it for the money, either. You told me, he’s rich as Croesus. Had already signed an agreement divesting him of any interest in your inheritance.”
“Of course, he did. He has money. It’s an heir he needs. That was his interest in me.” She shrugged her shoulders to loosen them, ease the tension knotting her jaw to near immovability. “Three wives, all dead, and still no children. Without at least one, the Blackburn title goes into abeyance, and all falls to wrack and ruin. The same as any fallow peerage, ducal or no, without sons to seed it.”
“You’re not a son.”
“Because my father, for whatever reason, argued successfully that the Holderness patent allowed for an assignee without regard to gender or birth order or the title-holder’s marital status provided the heir was of the existing title-holder’s body. And he had my uncle’s cooperation. As heir presumptive, my uncle could have challenged my father’s petition and won easily. My father’s interpretation went far outside the norms of most patents, and the fact my uncle supported his brother’s petition to the Lord Chancellor is as odd as the Holderness patent’s wording that even allowed my father to rewrite his will to suit his end. It’s almost like he knew he would meet his end before he would make it to the altar.” She tugged her arms against her bosom to ward off a chill not entirely caused by the temperature in the room, as she looked out the terrace doors. “Though I imagine he was anticipating a son,” she added watching a curve of moonlight glide over the stable’s roof. “Most men do.”
“Not all.” Jake moved behind her, slid an arm around her waist as he cupped her abdomen through the soft layers of her nightwear with his other hand. “Son or daughter, it doesn’t matter to me, Querida. I’m going to teach this one to rope and ride with the best of them.”
She tipped her head against his breastbone, rested her folded arms on his, her gaze on the stable’s weathervane, a horse-shaped silhouette turning slow pirouettes in a halo of moonlight like a ballerina in the glow of a single stage lamp.
“Not all men are like you, Jake Douglas,” she murmured. “Few are. And none among the peerage. Perceived purity of a bloodline depends on a peer being scrupulous in his choice of bride. And I say perceived, because a peer must sacrifice an heir he knows is his, for one he’s certain isn’t, if the latter is the one born on the right side of the blanket. The very thing the duke wanted from me, needs most in this world if he’s to preserve his ancestors’ ducal grip on earthly power, is the very thing that, had he learned of my… condition, would have compelled him to terminate the contract. Had I not severed it first by marrying you. Pride, dear husband,” she added primly as she turned in his arms to look up at him, “is worth more than blood, where I come from.”
The moon’s hazy illumination allowed her to see his tender smile. “You’re from here, now, Querida,” he rasped and lifted his hands to trace his thumbs a slow arc along the ridges of her cheekbones. “And foolish old pride’s loss, is my gain.”
She closed her eyes, let the veneer of righteous anger stiffening her spine slip away enough to permit her to fit her arms around his waist. “As you are ours,” she whispered, and lifted on tiptoe to plant a light kiss on his mouth. “Just promise me you won’t take Amelia into Diablo.“
She traced an index finger along his collarbone to the divot that marked where he’d broken it in a desperate struggle for survival after he was swept away in a flash flood.
“Ah,” he said and clasped his hand over hers. “I learned my lesson, Querida. I won’t be taking any more greenhorns into El Diablo, even the beautiful, courageous ones that save my life.”
A silvery frisson of desire rocked her as he lowered his mouth to hers inspiring a tingling cascade of goose-bumps, and damp heat between her legs.
“I only saved your life to save mine,” she whispered against his lips, “I had no idea how to find my way out of that canyon. You were my only hope.”
“And I thank God every day for your selfishness woman,” he murmured as he walked her backward to the bed, pressed her to the mattress and stretched out beside her to nuzzle her neck.
“Take Charlie.” She reached for the buttons of his shirt, shivered with pleasure as he floated a hand over her waist and hip, on route to her nightdress’s hem. “She’ll be good company for Amelia, if for any reason, you need her to wait somewhere.”
Roughly a year-and-half old, Charlie was yet an exuberant dog. But like Amelia, she listened well to Jake who had been her primary trainer since rescuing her filthy and bedraggled rib-thin canine-person from a slum in New York City. More importantly, she took her role as the girls’ protector as seriously as the girls took their devotion of her.
They had named her Charlie in honour of their sister, and insisted she sleep in their room at night. The three were as bonded as animal and humans could be.
Nothing caused poor Charlie more anxiety, than to have her girls in separate areas of the house, or yard. She ran herself ragged trotting between their opposing locations to check on them. But out on the range, with two of her three favourite people in the world to keep an eye on, not to mention miles of grassland to trot and sniff, she would be far less anxious than if she were forced to remain behind.
Jake aided her attempt to shuck his shirt, and settling beside her, rucked her nightdress to stroke her thigh as he lowered his mouth to her nipple, teasing it through the warm flannel, stoking the liquid throb pulsing in her veins.
She raked her fingers through the dense curls on his chest when he lifted his mouth to rasp, “I’ll take Charlie. And we’ll stay out of Diablo.”
“Promise,” she whispered.
“Mmhm,” he moaned, suckling her again, his fingers inching ever higher.
She clamped her thighs. “Promise.”
He stilled, then raised on his elbow to look at her, his other hand trapped fingertips short of its goal, his breath ragged.
She caught her lower lip in her teeth, trembling with need, and want to retire with a rousing session of lovemaking their disagreement—the entire painful evening and all that it had dredged up. But she had a responsibility. A responsibility to put aside selfish desire and stand firm on… something. Something in the interest of ensuring her children’s safety. And this… This was it. This was her motherly stand.
With a low chuckle, he bowed his forehead to hers, his brow warm, breath smelling faintly of Colgate cream, which suggested he’d brushed his teeth, if not shed his clothes, prior to her joining him in their chamber.
“Yes, Querida,” he murmured. “I promise. I promise to do everything within my power to keep Amelia safe. To keep all of you, safe. Always.”
Praise for My Own:
My Own is the culmination of Dianna and Jake’s journey to greater love and understanding, but the series doesn’t end there.
Book III, My One True Love, features Margaret Stewart, Dianna’s former benefactress and current friend from Books I and II, who, twice widowed, has no intention of ever marrying again. Only fate has other plans for her in the form of Joe Banner…