The Art of Love: Origins of Sinner's Grove (37 page)

BOOK: The Art of Love: Origins of Sinner's Grove
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“C
an’t this train move any faster?” Gus drummed his fingers on his pant leg and stared out the window the next morning while Will read a newspaper next to him. He looked at his watch.

“It’s about a minute later than the last time you checked it,” Will said, his eyes never leaving the paper.

“Nobody asked you,” Gus said. “In fact, why are you even here? I could have done this myself.”

Will put the paper down. “Right. I can see the headline now: ‘Deranged Tycoon Strangles Innocent Ranch Girl, Threatens Entire Family.’ Yes, that will play very well in the press.”

Gus snorted and continued to stare at the rapidly receding landscape. “I don’t get it.” He looked sharply at Will. “The lady—if you can call her that— told a bold-faced lie right to my face. Dammit, I want to know why.”

“And you’ll find out…
before
you go hauling over to her brother’s house with a horsewhip. There may be a logical reason for all of it.” Will shrugged. “Who knows—maybe she was only doing Mattie and the fellow Nathan’s bidding.”

“What: ‘If a man comes by saying he’s my husband, do whatever you have to, just get rid of him’?”

“Stranger things have happened,” Will said.

“Doesn’t sound like Mattie. Maybe this prick of a brother’s behind it. Maybe this Nathan guy is forcing Mattie and Annabelle—”

Will cocked his head. “Don’t go down that road, my friend. The reports Mr. Hansen got indicate they’re happily married, running cattle, and working the land. And, Gus?”

“What?”

Will rolled his shoulders and the look he gave Gus was sheepish. “There’s one more thing you ought to know.”

“Shit. What?”

“Mattie’s got two kids now and another on the way.”

Gus took the news like a body blow. He truly wanted to hit something.

“You’ve got to be kidding.”

“Wish I were. But that works to our favor. They’re going to want to cooperate, quickly and quietly.”

Gus shook his head, trying to process this latest development. Was he jealous? He tried the notion on. No, it wasn’t that. But it made him madder than hell knowing the charade those two were living kept him from Lia. He wanted to see Lia big with his child, and these people had prevented that. And if this unholy mess didn’t get straightened out before she left for Hong Kong,
somebody
was going to pay.

Much like Gus had done several years before, he and Will finally arrived in Temecula and rented horses to take them out to the homestead. Gus remembered the directions and within a half hour they arrived at the Double J Ranch. They tied their mounts at the same hitching post he’d used back in ’97. Gus strode up to the front door of the hacienda and banged on it with his fist.

“Hey now,” Will admonished him. “Remember those headlines. Just take it slow and we’ll get it dealt with.”

“Yeah, yeah.” No one answered the knock so Gus banged again. After several minutes (and a suggestion from Will that no, it would not be a good idea to break the door down), someone finally did answer it. The door opened to reveal an older man, frail and stooped over, obviously not in good health. “Yes?” he said.

“We’re here to see Bethany Jones. Where is she?” Gus asked in a barely restrained voice.

The man looked like he was about to crumble. “I’m sorry. But she’s not seein’ anybody right now. Can I help you with something?”

“Yeah, you can tell her she’d better see me, and within the next two minutes.” Gus started to enter the house and Will put his arm out gently to restrain him.

“Mr. Jones, I take it?” At the man’s nod, Will continued in a calm, measured voice. “I assume Bethany is your daughter?”

“That’s right,” he said slowly. “What’s this about, anyway?”

“I’m sorry to say there’s either been a terrible misunderstanding, or your daughter, along with your son, is in danger of having broken state law. We would really like to speak with her or else we’re afraid we’re going to have to come back with the authorities.”

The old man’s eyes grew wide and he shook his head in disbelief. Then he looked up at the sky. “You gotta stop pissin’ on me, Lord. I can’t take much more.” Then he looked at Gus and Will and said, “Come on in, but you ain’t got much time.” His voice broke as he added, “My little girl is headin’ for the Pearly Gates.”

“What?!” Gus shot a look of surprise at Will. This was definitely not part of the plan.

Will put his hand on the old man’s arm in a gesture of support. “We’ll only be a few minutes, sir, we promise.”

Mr. Jones nodded and pulled a handkerchief out of his back pocket to blow his nose. He stood aside as they entered the dimly lit ranch house.

“Who is it, Pa?” came a strained voice from the dining room.

“She couldn’t go up the stairs this past year, so we moved the bed down here,” Mr. Jones explained. He motioned them to follow him as he entered the makeshift bedroom. “Bethany girl, two men are here to see you. They need you to help them get something straightened out. They promised they won’t stay long.”

“I’ll be out here,” Will said quietly. “Let me know if you need me.” Gus entered the room. It smelled of camphor and sickness and impending death. The girl in the bed looked like a shadow of the pretty young woman he’d talked with six years before. He could tell by the look of shock on her face that she not only remembered him, but knew why he had come.

“You remember me.” It was a statement.

The girl nodded, then began to cough violently into a cloth that she kept clutched in her hand.

Her father rushed over to her, leaning over the bed and supporting her back while her body convulsed. “You can see she’s not well. Why can’t you just leave her be?” he cried.

“No, no Pa. It’s all right,” Bethany said once the coughing had subsided. Her voice was weak, as if she’d been yelling and screaming her entire life and her vocal chords had just about given up. “I’m glad he’s come. I need to tell him something.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, Pa. You can wait outside. I’ll call you if I need you.”

The old man left and Gus, despite the pity he felt for the girl, got right down to brass tacks. “Why did you lie to me?”

“It wasn’t all a lie,” she began. “Mattie really didn’t get a letter from you and she was pretty much convinced you were dead. She and Nathan—my brother—had become friends. And after a while, it…they…they became more than friends. There was a baby. A little boy. You coming back into her life would have changed all that.”

“You’re damn right it would have.” Gus kept his voice low, but he couldn’t mask the anger he felt. “So rather than break up the happy little family, you lied through your teeth to take me off the scent. There never was a man in San Francisco, was there?”

Bethany Jones shook her head.

“So…it was nothing to you that I spent the last six years hunting for my wife and my daughter, wondering if they were dead or alive, wondering if they had enough to eat or a roof over their head…”

The girl was crying softly now. “I did you wrong, Mr. Wolff. I surely did. I can’t tell you how sorry I am for what I put you through. If it’s any consolation at all, your wife and daughter have had a good life here. Nathan loves Mattie something fierce, and as for Annabelle…” She saw the glare Gus gave her and stopped.

“So tell me one thing: did they agree to just shut up about it once you told them I’d come? Did Mattie sink that low?”

“No!” Bethany cried, trying to sit up in her bed. “No, you’ve got to believe me. I never mentioned your visit to them. Never. As far as they know, you died in the Yukon. I swear, I’ve been keeping that secret stuck inside me for all this time. Every time somebody came from up your way, I worried. Every time the words “gold rush” made the paper I worried. It’s eaten away at me same as this lung disease. So I’m glad it’s finally out. I’m glad you’re here so I can tell you I’m sorry. So dreadfully sorry.”

Damn. Much as Gus wanted to rail at the woman, he couldn’t. She was dyin’, for God’s sake! Now he had to set things straight. “So where is Mattie now? You know I’ve got to deal with her and Nathan. They’ve broken the law and they’ve got to pay.”

“Please, Mr. Wolff. Please.” She reached her thin arm out toward him. “I know I have no right to ask this, but will you let me tell them before you see them? They’re just as innocent as you are in this. My deception is going to cause them grief just as it did you. I’d like to at least tell them I’m sorry.”

Gus ran his hands through his hair in frustration. He wanted to be done with this—he had a train to catch! But the girl seemed pretty down about it, and hell, how did that look to kick someone as down as she was? “When were you planning on doing that?”

She continued to plead with him using her dark-rimmed, hollowed out eyes. “They’re coming back in a few hours, after the children’s nap. I promise I’ll tell them then. If you come back tomorrow morning, say, ten o’clock, they’ll be here to see you. I give you my word.”

Gus looked at her and set his jaw.

“Oh,” she said, heaving a sigh. “That wouldn’t mean much to you, would it? But I’ve got nothing to gain, so whatever’s it worth, I hope you take it.”

He took a moment before deciding. “Tomorrow morning, then. And I swear, if they aren’t here, I’ll hunt them down, Miss Jones. I will.”

The girl nodded and triggered another coughing fit. Gus left the room, nodded to Will and said to the father, “You oughta go in now. I think she needs you.”

Gus and Will headed back to town. Gus was silent, but Will, as usual, put in his two cents. “I’m really proud of you,” he said. “You could have sliced her to pieces, but you maintained your dignity, despite the fact that she deceived you.”

Gus glanced over. “So, does that mean I’ve got enough class to hobnob with the cream of the cream in your world?”

Will smiled. “I wouldn’t go that far. But seriously. You could have made that poor girl’s last days a hell of a lot nastier than they already are.”

“Despite your fears, I’m not a complete bastard,” he said. “Sounds like she carried a lot of guilt inside her all this time. I don’t blame her for wanting to get all the poison out before she goes.”

“What time did she say we should come back?” Will asked.

“Ten in the morning. In the meantime, you know what I wanna do?”

“No. Tell me.”

“First I wanna get a drink. Then a thick, juicy steak, and then…then the prettiest little doll I can find.”

Will looked at him sharply. “Ah, Gus? Don’t you think that’s inappropriate, given how you feel about Lia?”

“What do you mean? What does that have to do with Lia? Hell, if she were here she’d help me pick one out.”

“What?!”

“Yeah, women know about these things. I want one with beautiful clothes, and eyes that open and shut, and little blonde ringlets that Annabelly can comb…what?”

Will burst out laughing. “I’m glad I know you, August Wolff. I surely am. Come on, I’ll race you back to town.” And with no more warning, the son of a bitch dug in his heels and took off.

CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE

T
wo days before her departure, it took all of Lia’s energy to keep the despair at bay while she tied up loose ends. Storage boxes were littered throughout her bungalow and she had already covered the furniture. She had finished her last commission and her painting supplies were packed. Sandy had come over to lend support.

BOOK: The Art of Love: Origins of Sinner's Grove
10.95Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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