Authors: Verna Clay
Toby inhaled a whiff of Dovie's long blond hair that was pulled back with a clip. He wanted to remove the clip and bury his face in her tresses. Then he wanted to string kisses along her neck and collarbone before turning her face just enough for her lips to meet his.
By the way she kept trying to ease forward her thoughts were just the opposite of his. He said, "Dovie, why don't you lean back against me and relax; enjoy the countryside? I promise to be a perfect gentleman."
"I don't know what you're talking about," she retorted.
"Okay. Have it your way."
After several minutes, however, she started to relax until she was sitting comfortably in front of him, which was becoming very uncomfortable for him. He wanted to caress her something fierce. He told himself it was just because she was untouchable. People always wanted what they couldn't have. But he knew that wasn't exactly true. That might be part of his desire, but it sure wasn't all. He tried to pinpoint what it was about Dovie that had him so off kilter. She wasn't beautiful or even pretty, but her face was interesting with its sharp angles, straight nose, full lips, and rich brown eyes. Other men probably wouldn't notice her in a crowd, but if they ever got a chance to talk with her, they'd certainly take notice. She was witty, intelligent, compassionate, and had a depth of character that seemed bottomless. And that little mole at the corner of her mouth was driving him bananas. Even now, when she turned her head, he saw it. He ground his jaws and hoped she couldn't feel how much she was affecting his body.
Thankfully, the horseback ride to the meadow was only forty minutes in duration. Five ancient oaks marked the picnic area where tables were already covered with red-and-white checkered tablecloths and blankets were spread near the trunks of the trees. It was a favorite spot for the dude crowd and utilized often.
Toby saw his mother and sisters setting condiments on the tables and Beaner was just driving up with large baskets filled with sandwiches, chips and dips, macaroni and potato salads, baked beans, pies, and everything that made for the best of picnics. Toby appreciated the fact that he had been raised by wonderful, caring parents and lived on such a beautiful ranch. He glanced at the children now being helped off their horses and knew most, if not all, had never lived the enchanted life he had. That thought brought sadness into his heart.
He dismounted and reached to encircle Dovie's waist. She said, "I need my cane."
"Not to worry, sweetheart. I'll take you to it."
She studied his eyes. "Are you okay, Toby?"
He smiled. "Bettr'n a pup chasin' his own tail."
That made her smile and Toby knew that making Dovie smile was on his list of favorite things to do. She lifted his sadness. She leaned down from the saddle and placed her good hand and her prosthetic one on his shoulders. Gently, he helped her off Blue and shifted her body until he carried her in his arms. She was a perfect fit. He walked over to the jeep where Beaner was pulling her cane out from the backseat floorboard. The old ranch hand who had worked at
since before Toby and Preston were born, handed the cane to Dovie and went back to unloading food.
Toby didn't immediately set Dovie on her feet. Instead, he said, "Did you enjoy the ride?"
She was gazing at something beyond his shoulder. "I did. However, I won't admit to Roxy that I was terrified at first." Now she shifted her gaze to his and he couldn't breathe. He wanted to kiss her so badly it hurt.
She said softly, "Toby, you can put me down now."
"Oh, yeah. I guess I kind of like carrying you around." He set her on her feet and held her waist until she had her balance.
"Thank you," she said and smiled. She appeared to want to say something more, but Michelle ran up and started talking excitedly about how she was going to become a cowgirl and work on a ranch when she grew up.
Sarah sat on a blanket under the largest oak shading the picnic area. When Sage leaned his back against the trunk of the tree, she scooted in front of him and snuggled her back to his chest. She felt him kissing her neck and got the familiar tingles that always happened whenever he touched her. She said, "Toby's over-the-moon for Dovie. The boy's in love."
Sage said, "Yep," and pulled on her earlobe with his teeth.
She giggled like a school girl. "Sage, there are children running around." She felt him smile against her ear.
"Okay, I'll behave myself for now. But later, my love, we're going to spend some long hours together. As for Toby, I agree, the boy is smitten. Do you think she feels the same way about him? They haven't known each other long."
"Oh, I can assure you she has strong feelings for him."
"A woman's intuition?"
"No. Body language. The girl turns as red as a beet and practically swoons whenever he's around. Your idea of putting them on the same horse was fabulous."
"I thought you'd appreciate my brilliance."
Sarah jerked her elbow backward in a playful manner. "Now I know where the boys get their conceit, as well as their looks."
"Are you buttering me up for something?"
"Do you want me to?"
Sage made a growling sound and placed his hands around his wife's waist, pulling her tighter against him. "What do you think, darlin'?"
Sarah suddenly felt warm all over and turned her profile to her husband. "Sage, I've been married to you for twenty-five years and you still give me the vapors."
He laughed and kissed her cheek. "Honey, I won't even tell you what you do to me. You'd faint for sure."
She faced the gathering again and asked, "Did you get things set up with Preston and Freckles?"
"I did. And I can't wait to see Toby's face when he finds out he'll be taking Preston's place on the Trail Blaze."
"Do you think he and Freckles were terribly disappointed about not attending?"
"Any disappointment was outweighed by their glee at putting Toby in the hot seat. Three days in close proximity to Dovie is going to have that boy going crazy. I'm looking forward to seeing Toby falling all over himself."
"Yep, just like today."
The week after the trail ride and picnic Dovie was asked by Sarah, at the urging of the counselors, to share some of the obstacles she'd faced in her life. She had no qualms about sharing her challenges, she was just nervous thinking Toby might be there. When she finally sat on the overstuffed chair beside the hearth and faced the children and their overseers, as well as other guests who wanted to hear her story, she glanced surreptitiously around. She saw Sage and Sarah, their daughter Hannah, as well as Preston and Freckles and some of the ranch hands, but she didn't see Toby and heaved a sigh of relief.
She began her story by telling everyone that her father and mother had separated before she was born. Their marriage had already been rocky, and when a sonogram showed the extent of her physical deformity, her father hadn't been able to handle it and left. She'd never met him. She admitted to her small audience that a parent leaving a child wasn't something she could understand, but she didn't dwell on the past. There was too much to do and see in life to allow another's choice to affect her.
Benny blurted, "Do you want to see your father?"
She shrugged. "I guess if it happened, it would be okay, but like I said, it doesn't keep me awake nights. His choices were his. My choices are mine. Your choices are yours."
Benny said, "My mom chose drugs and now she's in jail."
Dovie responded, "Like I said, Benny, you're free to make your own choices. Your mother made a wrong one and hopefully she'll learn from it."
Roxy interjected in a disgruntled voice, "Well, I wish I could make my own choices. Everyone keeps insisting I do things I don't want to. Like staying at this dumb dude ranch."
All eyes turned from Roxy to Dovie for her response. Dovie said, "Whether you admit it or not, Roxy, you've made a choice. You've chosen to ignore the love surrounding you. Everyone here is reaching out to you with open arms, wanting to help you adjust to the changes in your life. And rather than acknowledge their efforts, you choose to live in a world of your own creation that only makes you miserable."
The room was so silent the ticking of the clock on the mantle sounded loud. Roxy's eyes got big and then she shrugged and said, "Whatever."
Rather than pursue additional conflict with the teenager, Dovie returned to her own story and shared how kind and giving her mother had been and how she'd sacrificed so Dovie would always have the best medical care. She said, "Now I know that some of you don't have the same support I was given, but if you look around, you'll see that you really do have support and all you have to do is ask. You can ask your fellow dude or dudette," she grinned, "or you can ask your counselor, or me, or anyone working at the ranch. There isn't a person here who wouldn't help you to the best of his or her ability."
Dovie finished her presentation by opening herself up to questions. Some were about her disability, some were about her prostheses, and some were about her personal life.
Ten year old Luce asked, "Do you have a husband?"
Dovie was startled by the question, but didn't hedge her response. "No. I don't. The right man hasn't come along."
"Is it because you don't have a leg and arm?"
"It may be. But I wouldn't want to be married to a man who was bothered by my physical condition. I want someone who loves me as I am. And isn't that what we all want? To be accepted for who we are, not by how we look."
There was a murmur of agreement and a nodding of heads and a man walked from the shadows of the hallway into the room. He said, "I think we should give Dovie a hand for sharing with us." He started clapping and everyone joined in. Even Roxy half-heartedly clapped.
Dovie felt her face flame. Again, Toby had witnessed her speaking without her awareness of his presence.
He said with a grin, "I think I remember the cook mentioning something about homemade ice cream for everyone!"
The children responded with a variety of replies:
"I love ice cream!"
"I want strawberry."
"Can we have seconds?"
Toby laughed and said to Sage and Sarah, "They're all yours."
Sage pointed toward the dining area. "How about everyone find a place at one of the tables? And that includes grownups."
The response was immediate and funny as the children rushed forward followed by smiling adults. Dovie became aware of Toby walking toward her and the erratic pounding of her heart was unwelcome. She didn't want to have feelings other than friendship for him.
"That was a wonderful talk you gave the kids," he said.
"I've never met anyone with your intensity and drive. You're one amazing woman, Dovie Juniper."
Dovie willed the blush creeping from the roots of her hair to go away.
From her kitchen window, Sally watched Flatfoot pound the post-hole digger into the ground and scoop rich brown soil into it, adding the dirt to the growing mound beside him. He'd removed his denim shirt and sweat glistened on his bronzed back. Although he was a foot shorter than she, and two feet shorter than Howard, he was one fine man to look upon.
As if he felt her gaze upon him, he turned around and lifted a bandana to his forehead, wiping perspiration on it and settling his eyes on the kitchen window. She quickly stepped to the side so he couldn't see her watching him.
In the three weeks since their marriage, he had fulfilled his word by making long neglected repairs to her house and property, and he hadn't once acted inappropriately toward her.
They had decided to keep their marriage secret and answer any questions about his staying at her place by saying it was easier for making repairs to her property. During the day, he worked at Dirk Branigan's ranch until around four and then returned to her home. At six, she was headed out the door for Boot Bustin' Barn. Occasionally, Flatfoot came into the tavern for a beer and a game of pool, but he always left by ten. When she got home around one, he was in bed. Of course they'd received many speculative glances, especially after it was discovered Howard was married, but no one voiced the questions reflected in their eyes.
On her days off, Sundays and Mondays, she often cooked a big meal that provided leftovers throughout the week. She'd even gotten into the habit of packing a lunch for Flatfoot to take to work. On the weekends, he'd spend most of the day repairing her farmhouse or driving the dirt trail surrounding her property to map the worst sections of dilapidated old fence lines for future replacement.
Peering around the window again, she saw that he had gone back to digging and once again had his back to her. She pulled on her lower lip as visions from their night together replayed like a movie in her mind. During the past three weeks she'd had flashbacks and wished she hadn't. Flatfoot was one fine lover. She closed her eyes and again felt his lips tenderly kissing hers as he moved gently above her.
Because Howie had only come to Paxtonville twice a year, she'd only had sex when he showed up. It had been good, but it hadn't been anything like Flatfoot's lovemaking—slow, sensuous, and mind blowing—if she remembered correctly. She almost laughed aloud at the idea of her imagination being so inventive. No, she wasn't making anything up.
When a voice behind her said, "You okay? You've been standing at that window for over an hour," she squeaked and jerked around.
Flatfoot cocked his head and studied her face. Her heart thudded when he asked, "Is there something I can do for you?"
Her jaw dropped, "Ah. Ah. No. No. Why would you ask?"
He shrugged. "Well, there's something you can do for me."
Her eyes widened.
His eyes never left hers. "How about you pour me a cup of coffee while I wash some of this dirt off?"
"Oh. Okay. Not a problem. You got it." Her eyes drifted over his naked torso and then jerked back to his face.
Before he turned around, he gave her a lopsided grin, and winked.
Sally rushed to make a fresh pot of coffee.
Oh my god, he knows what I've been thinking.
Flatfoot stepped under a cool shower. Not only did he need to wash the dirt off, he needed to douse his libido. He'd seen Sally watching him from the window and when she hadn't moved away when he removed his shirt, he'd wondered what she was thinking…or remembering. Was their wedding night replaying itself over and over in her mind, like it did constantly in his? Although she proclaimed she didn't remember anything significant from that night, he was beginning to wonder. He remembered enough to put himself under a cold shower often.
He stepped out of the shower, changed into fresh clothing, and padded to the kitchen barefoot. He'd worked hard all day and intended to kick back for a couple of hours with a beer and watch a video he'd rented. It was an old kick-butt western starring Clint Eastwood that he hadn't seen in years.
He returned to a kitchen fragrant with the aroma of freshly brewed coffee. Some people couldn't drink the brew past a certain hour because it kept them awake at night, but he'd never been affected like that. He'd never had problems falling asleep; well, unless he allowed his mind to dwell on his wedding night. The more he was around Sally the more he wanted to stay married to her, but she would have to come to the same conclusion herself.
She was sitting at the table sipping coffee, but when she saw him, she jumped up to pour him a cup. He accepted and grinned. "Whatever you're cookin' sure smells good."
"It's lasagna from a family recipe."
"One of my favorite foods. Hey, since its Sunday, why don't we kick back when dinner's ready and watch a video. I rented
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.
"I haven't seen that movie in years. Sure, it sounds like fun."
Flatfoot watched Sally circle the lip of her cup with her finger. He knew she wanted to say something, so he sipped his coffee and waited.
She finally said, "I just want to thank you for all the repairs around here. And any money you spend on supplies, just tell me how much and I'll repay you."
He reached and covered her hand playing with her coffee cup. "I don't want repayment."
She lifted her lashes and met his gaze. "I don't feel right about–"
He squeezed her hand. "No, Sally. Don't even go there."
She must have heard the conviction in his voice because she finally nodded. "Okay. Thank you."
A few seconds later she withdrew her hand and said, "I better check on dinner."