Authors: Janet Dailey
'I'm Dirk Hamilton. Perhaps Sheila has mentioned me?' There was more than a hint of a question as the saturnine-faced artist offered his hand to Jennifer.
'No, I'm sorry she hasn't,' she answered, placing her own slim hand in his politely. A flicker of something that resembled pain crossed his face causing Jennifer to add, 'That is, she did say you were interested in some of the portraits she's done. Is that where you saw mine?'
'Yes. Your hair was in pigtails then, much longer than it is now. There was a beguiling expression of shared laughter in your face that was very captivating,' he answered. His eyes were still busy dissecting her features, perhaps weighing them against a remembered painting.
'Oh, yes, Sheila did that one several years ago,' Jennifer smiled widely. Now that he had turned towards her, it was her turn to study his face. His features weren't handsome, but strong and powerful, yet lacking the magnetism that was so apparent in every line of Logan's face. He looked—Jennifer hesitated—dependable. Yes, that was the word, dependable.
'I take it Sheila isn't working the desk any more.' Dirk cast a cynical glance towards Logan.
'She preferred that Jenny take over this post,' Logan replied, 'at least, for the time being.'
Neither Dirk nor Jennifer missed the casual emphasis on the last phrase, leaving no doubt that the artist was the cause of the change.
Dirk's glance returned to Jennifer. This time his inspection was more personal, including a sweep of the ringless fingers on her left hand.
'What's your opinion of artists, Jennifer,' Dirk asked.
'I'd better like them,' she answered with a flustered wave of her hand. She was irritated by the way Logan was watching her with such a disapproving glint in his eyes. She knew from the conversation between Logan and Sheila yesterday that both were upset with Dirk's sudden appearance at the Lodge. After all, she was old enough to make her own judgements about people and she rather liked this man. 'After all, my sister's an artist,' she finished before the lull became too long.
'Is she?' Dirk retorted sarcastically. 'I was under the impression that she was an innkeeper and a struggling widow with two dear children. I understood painting was a frivolous pastime to be indulged in when there was nothing left to do.'
'Dirk, why don't we go into the café and discuss your trip?' Logan suggested, intervening quickly before the stinging reply on Jennifer's lips could be heard. 'You can give me an idea of some of the places you want to go.'
Dirk removed a cigarette from his pocket and tapped it lightly on the counter before placing it between his lips.
'Yes, why don't we? Then you can begin to use your vast organizing abilities and persuasive charm to get me packed up and on my way, huh?'
Logan chuckled at the venom in Dirk's voice. It was a rich, warm, deep sound of a man amused by the harmless barbed words flung at him. 'Your bitterness is showing,' he said as he moved aside for Dirk to precede him into the coffee shop.
A rush of pity surged into Jennifer for the overmatched artist, despite his biting criticism of her sister.
In the week that followed Jennifer was surprised at the lengths her sister went to avoid the presence of Dirk Hamilton. She decided Sheila had a sixth sense about the man, disappearing minutes before his stocky frame entered a room. As for Dirk, the name Sheila was completely absent from his vocabulary. He always stopped and exchanged some brief conversation with Jennifer when he saw her—nothing ever personal, just passing-the-time-of-day type of talk.
What little information Jennifer had gleaned had come from Carol, the switchboard operator. She was about Jennifer's age with light brown hair and a figure that inclined towards the plump side. During different lulls in the noon and afternoon hours that Jennifer worked, it was natural that the two struck up conversation. One afternoon after Dirk Hamilton had dropped his key off at the desk with Jennifer, Carol had asked her if Sheila was glad that Mr. Hamilton had come back.
Jennifer had to reply that she really didn't know, and asked why Carol wondered if she was.
'I suppose because last summer she seemed to have such a good time with him. I mean, you'd see them having coffee or lunch together during the day, and he usually took her home at nights. For a while, some of us thought maybe there was a thing going between them,' Carol had answered rather hesitantly. 'Not that we gossiped about them or anything. It's just that your sister is such a nice person and so easy to work for. It's so sad to think about her being a widow with two children, you know, and it would be nice for her to find someone else again.'
Jennifer had agreed, then asked rather lightly the outcome.
'I guess there wasn't anything to come out of. One day he just checked out and that was it. Of course, Logan—I mean, Mr. Taylor,' the girl blushed fiercely over her error, 'was away most of the time that Mr. Hamilton stayed here.'
'What has that got to do with it?' Jennifer had questioned, seeking details of her sister's involvement with this man.
'Probably just coincidence,' Carol had shrugged lightly before leaning back in her chair to sigh. 'Mr. Taylor really is something, though. I couldn't blame your sister if she did lose her head over him. Practically everyone within a hundred miles has at one time or another, whether they'll admit it or not. He has charisma! I mean, just every girl who had anything at all going for her has drifted across his path to see if she can arouse anything in him for her.'
'And if she does?' Jennifer had had difficulty hiding the sarcasm in her words.
'Then there's a flurry of dates, with the lucky girl being the target for all those intimate smiles of his and that sensuous way he has of looking at you as if you were the only person in the room,' Carol had gazed dreamily at the switchboard while Jennifer had shivered, remembering her own reaction to his attentions. 'Lately,' Carol had continued, shaking off the illusion she had been wrapped in, 'since your sister has taken over the Lodge, the girls have got fewer and farther between. Not that anyone has conceded victory to her, you understand.'
'Of course,' Jennifer had replied, grateful that the switchboard had begun to buzz and the conversation had ended.
She tugged viciously at her hair, twisting the rubber band around half of it before glancing down at the brown, white, and black St. Bernard dog sprawled in the doorway. Lifting an eyelid, he gazed at her droopily through bloodshot eyes.
'I don't need you to tell me how juvenile I look with my hair in pigtails, Rags,' Jennifer said harshly, stepping gingerly over his legs lest he suddenly decide to rise and send her sprawling with his large hulk. 'I've got to wash out those sweaters and this hair just falls in my face.'
She hurried on past him into the kitchen where her sweaters were piled up beside the sink. Lethargically the dog rose, padded into the kitchen and flopped beside her feet.
'So you decided to keep me company.' She looked down into his mournful face, cocking her head to one side. Sighing deeply, Jennifer turned back to the sink and immersed the olive sweater in the sudsy water. 'What a way to spend my day off, in soapsuds up to my elbows and talking to a dog that's positively bored to tears! Thanks for the show of interest anyway, Rags.' The dog thumped his tail twice before closing his eyes again.
It was midweek, time to pause before the weekenders descended on the Lodge for a few days of skiing. She had planned to take care of all the time-consuming tasks that she had put off. But now that she was
actually faced with doing them they all seemed so mundane.
The jingling of bells outside drifted into the house with muted tinkles. It didn't seem possible that Christmas was just next week. Not that Cindy and Eric didn't remind her often enough, and certainly not because there wasn't any snow on the ground to mar the chances of a white Christmas, because it was there in abundance. Today the holiday spirit was lacking within herself. There was no denying that there was an emptiness inside that was longing to be filled. Those jingling bells painted nostalgic pictures in her mind of childhood sleigh rides in the snow behind her father's two plough horses, Blinken and Nod. This was her first Christmas spent away from her parents, that's what had brought on the emptiness, Jennifer decided.
Refusing to let herself be drawn into a melancholy mood, she immediately began singing 'Jingle Bells' with as much robust enthusiasm she could muster. A knocking at the front door reduced the sound to a hum as she hurriedly wiped her hands dry and followed Rags to the door.
She opened the door and her humming halted midway between 'in a one-horse open sleigh', because there, parked by the curb, was a dark bay horse with a nervously bobbing blaze face, hitched up to a shiny black swan sleigh. Her rounded eyes turned their startled expression to the man who was braced negligently on one side of the door by an outstretched arm. She stared into a pair of brown eyes that were studying her rather lazily. Large flakes of snow drifted down between them while Jennifer continued to stare in amazement at Logan Taylor. His light brown hair had been ruffled by the breeze, and she had an inexplicable longing to reach out and smooth it into place. But the way his eyes were regarding her from beneath the gold-tipped lashes rather frightened away that thought. The wind-blown hair might have looked boyish, but the strong, tanned features were strictly male.
'Well?' Jennifer breathed unevenly, trying for a frosty indifference and settling for a melting warmth.
'Aren't your ears on straight, or is it your pigtails that are crooked?' At the teasing tilting of his head and the impish grin, Jennifer's hand rushed up to her hair.
'It's the pigtails, I imagine,' she answered, feeling the blush of embarrassment rush into her cheeks. She glanced towards the sleigh. 'Is that yours?'
'I borrowed it from a friend,' Logan replied. His eyes twinkled with amusement at her momentary discomfiture. 'I thought it would be fun to go for a ride out to the elk refuge.'
'Oh, but the children aren't home from school yet. They won't be home for several hours. Vacation doesn't start until the weekend.'
'Well then, why…' Jennifer began, only to be silenced by his laughter. She straightened indignantly. 'I don't see what's so funny?'
'I know I'm good and kind and loving,' Logan mocked, 'and a perfect example for the children. But this afternoon I decided to play the role you prefer to see me in—the wolf to Little Red Riding Hood.' He tugged a red-gold pigtail mischievously. 'Or would you prefer to be my Rudolph and guide my sleigh for me?'
She hesitated, her gaze on the horse and sleigh and her mind picturing a ride through the snow. But with Logan? Wasn't that asking for trouble?
'Well, Jenny Glenn? Dolly's getting impatient. Will you come with me?' His low voice added its own persuasive magic.
'Yes,' she answered quickly and breathlessly before she could change her mind.
'Hurry up, then. Get your coat. I'll wait for you by the sled.' The brown stetson that was firmly placed on the gold-brown hair before Logan retreated from the door.
With a quickness that surprised her, Jennifer grabbed her blue maxi coat out of the closet, stuffed a pair of mittens in the pocket, pulled on her snow-boots, and snared a pair of ear-muffs as she bustled Rags out the door ahead of her. Logan was waiting beside the sleigh to give her a hand on to the seat. She was pulling her mittens on as he crawled up beside her from the opposite side. He reached down and unfolded a heavy horsehair blanket. The seat wasn't very wide, and Jennifer stiffened as his arm brushed her. With a barely concealed smile, he handed her a corner of the blanket, his gaze encompassing the apprehensive expression on her face.
'Here, tuck this in around your side,' he instructed. 'It'll keep the draught off your legs.'
She did as she was told while he took the opposite end and tucked it around himself before taking the reins and clicking to the horse. The first few blocks, Jennifer was uneasily aware of the man beside her, the touch of his arms and legs against hers, but gradually she relaxed to the cheerful ringing of the bells on the horse's harness. The large petal flakes of snow seemed to float in the air around them mixing aimlessly with the puffy clouds from their own breath. Then they were out of town, the sleigh's runners skimming effortlessly over the snow-packed road.
THE magic silence of the falling snow filled Jennifer with a mystical sense of going back in time. The foothills of the mountains closed in around them, their tops hidden by the low cloud cover. She didn't even have to close her eyes to capture the feeling of long ago days.
'Can't you just picture what it was like years ago?' Jennifer whispered very low, almost fearing to break the spell. 'Before cars and civilization moved in?'
'Mother Earth,' Logan agreed quietly. 'With all the untouched beauty of a virginal girl. Would you have enjoyed being a pioneer?'
'Only if I were a boy!' She grimaced playfully at him.
'So you prefer being a liberated woman.' His eyes danced teasingly over her face.
'You don't object, surely?' With a merry glint in her own eyes. 'Or are you a male chauvinist?'
'Those are fighting words in Wyoming, girl.' Logan eyed her in mock dismay. 'Has your education been so neglected that you didn't know Wyoming is the "Equality State"? This was the first state in the Union to grant political, civil, and economic equality to women back when we were still a territory. You'll find that Wyoming men know the value of a good woman, not just as a housewife and mother of our children, but as a person to stand by our side.'