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A Reason To Celebrate

 
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Jemima Barnes
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PostPosted: Sat Jan 28, 2017 1:52 pm    Post subject: A Reason To Celebrate Reply with quote

Inebriated on the best bottle of brandy he'd been been privileged to drink in as long as he could remember, Austin Barnes had slept like the dead. That wasn't really the problem, though; the problem was that when the sun finally decided to make itself known and peek through the curtains, it brought with it a pounding headache. Whatever had happened the night before was little more than a vague memory, but it wasn't so much the lack of memory that he found bewildering as the warm body that was sharing his bed.

The house was already up and working by the time he roused to wakefulness, but no one came to disturb him. That might well have had something to do with the fact that the warm body at his side, draped over him and pressed as close as a lover, belonged to Jemima Stanley, a woman with considerable authority here on the ranch, even if she no longer held a position of power. She was sleeping, nestled against him in the shared warmth beneath the covers, her arm wrapped about his waist.

A soft knock on the door was all the warning he had that someone was coming, and that someone turned out to be Dani, grinning from ear to ear, bearing a tray on which was held two cups, a pot of coffee, a jug of cream, a sugar bowl, and a bottle of aspirin. She bounced on her toes, trying not to wake her mother as she set the tray down, beaming over at the pair of them in the bed, and offered Austin two very excited thumbs up. Then she left, closing the door almost silently behind her.

The first thing he did was groan, his head feeling like it was splitting open, once he managed to pry his eyes open. The room swayed a little, even as Dani let herself in, but he was feeling too ill to scold her or chase her out. Anyway, the coffee and aspirin might help, if nothing else did. His brain was still foggy and muddled, and he felt confused as to why she was giving him thumbs up, until he glanced over at the warm body at his side and recognized her mother, curled up and looking warm and content.

"What the ..." he murmured, moving to sit up, but that only made his head pound all the more and he sank back down onto the pillows, trying for the life of him to remember what, if anything, had happened last night.

At his side, Jem stirred a little, making a soft, girlish sound in the back of her throat as she nestled even closer to him. Her fingers brushed against his bare skin, innocent but possessive even in her sleep. Whatever had happened last night had certainly changed something.

He thought the brandy must have addled his brain. He recalled bits and pieces of the previous night - a conversation with the ranch's owner, whom Austin could not help but like; a proposition of sorts; and then he'd come here, with the intention of sleeping off the brandy in peace. But there was Jem, lying beside him. How had she got there? She was no figment of his imagination. She was as real and as warm-bodied as he was. Surprised by her touch and her closeness, he startled, losing his balance and dropping with a thud onto the floor.

It wasn't so much the thud as the abrupt removal of the warm body against her that woke Jem with a start. She yelped, sitting bolt upright almost before her eyes were open, looking around in alarm. "What the ... " Her eyes swept the room, seeking and finally finding him on the floor. "What are you doing down there?"

By the time she found him, he had his head in his hands and was trying to will the room to stop its incessant spinning. "Trying not to get sick," he replied in a hoarse voice, though it might be better to just empty his stomach of its contents so that he could start fresh with a cup of strong, black coffee.

"Aw, hell," was her succinct response to that. A moment later, she was out of the bed, socked feet quiet on the floor as she moved past him for the bowl in the bathroom. She brought it over to him, resting it on his knees. "Heave it up, you'll feel better for it."

In front of her? The man had his pride, but his body thought otherwise. She had no sooner rested the bowl on his knees than he was heaving, his chest and jaw aching with the effort, but there was no fighting it. Ranch owner or no, he was going to thrash Sam when he saw him again, but then, he realized the man was probably doing the same as him right at this very moment.

To be fair, Sam was probably having a harder time of it. Austin had already had a taste of the outspoken woman of the house, after all. At least Jem just let him get on with it, and when he was done, there was a cool cloth to wipe his face with and a glass of water to rinse out his mouth. She didn't say a word about his drinking, or tell him it was all his own fault. She just dealt with it, quietly and efficiently, and was already pouring his coffee when he surfaced from his own personal misery.

Like most men after a good drunk, he secretly swore he'd never do it again, but damn, that had been the best brandy he'd tasted in a very long time. It was too bad he was tasting it again this morning, in a far less enjoyable manner. Once he was finished heaving the last of it up, he wiped his face and rinsed out his mouth, grateful she had nothing to say to berate him. Once that was finished, he was feeling well enough that he could get himself up on his feet long enough to at least take a seat on the side of the bed. "Thanks," he mumbled, feeling a little wounded pride.

"Just as well I was here," she said in a wry tone, handing him the cup of coffee, made to his liking. "Sip slowly." Taking charge of the bowl, she disappeared into the bathroom, where the noises told the story of emptying and cleaning going on before she reappeared.

He knew better than to say anything more, for the moment. No questions about what had happened the night before. He thought he'd have remembered it if something had happened between them. He thought he remembered a kiss - the soft, warm, familiar taste of her lips - or had it just been a dream? He focused all his attention for now on sipping the coffee from the mug she had placed in his shaking hands. He almost felt like a child again, useless and ignorant and foolish, needing her help for the most basic tasks.

When she was done, Jem joined him on the bed, all but tucking him back in so he wouldn't get cold on top of recovering from his stomach's upset. Two aspirin were placed in his hand. "That head must be pounding," was all she said, proof that she knew he had been drunker than he'd thought the night before. "I wonder who brought the coffee?"

"Dani," he replied, at least able to articulate that before he sipped at the coffee again and swallowed one aspirin after another, grateful once again for her help and that of her daughter's. Did they know that he loved them? That he had always loved them? That he couldn't have loved Dani more if she was his own daughter? Maybe it was time he told them, he thought, though the words wouldn't come to his lips.

"Oh gods ..." Jem groaned even as she laughed, resting her head back against the headboard of the bed. "Well, I'll have to head that off," she mused. "We don't really have anything to tell her yet."

"Yet?" he echoed, gaze questioning. Maybe he shouldn't ask, but he couldn't help himself. He had to know. "What happened last night?" he asked her. "Did we?" His voice trailed off as he gestured between them with the wave of a hand, making his meaning plainly understood.

She smiled at him. "No, honey, you passed out when I kissed you," she assured him. "But since you were so talkative and honest, I have a question to ask you this morning, and I want you to answer it honestly. No stubbornness, no pride getting in the way. Can you do that for me?"
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Jemima Barnes
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PostPosted: Sat Jan 28, 2017 1:53 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Talkative and honest. Good gods. He could only imagine what he had said in the throes of that damnable brandy, and he couldn't help but wonder if McAlister had gotten him drunk on purpose. But faced with such a sweet smile and her kindly care, he found he could not deny her the request of a simple answer, though he did not yet know the question. "I can try," he replied, as honestly as he could, knowing that wasn't the question she had in mind.

"All right." Gently, so as not to knock him about with her motion, she slithered off the bed, moving to one knee to take his hand between both her own. "Austin Barnes, I am the biggest idiot in the multiverse," she told him softly. "In making what I thought was the right decision, I hurt everyone that I love, and it's haunted me for ten years. I never thought you would want to even look at me again. Words can't describe how good it felt to see you bringing Dani home yesterday. I love you, Austin. Always have. Always will. Dani loves you. You're the only man she has ever loved like a father, and she still talks about you all the time. I don't want to be an idiot any more. So will you forgive me, and marry me before I have a chance to make any more stupid mistakes with our lives?"

Of all the questions she could have asked him, he was expecting that one the least; but it was more than a question or even a proposal - it was an apology and, perhaps of everything else she could have said, those were the words he'd wanted to hear most. Could he forgive her? Could he love her again? He had never stopped loving her; forgiveness was nothing in comparison to that.

"You're serious," he said, as he met her gaze and studied her face, knowing her well enough to know she would never joke when it came to this. There was irony in the fact that it was her doing the asking this time around, but he loved her too much to repay her with the same answer she had once given him.

"I could have dragged you to the preacher while you were drunk last night, but I thought you should probably have some say in getting married," she shrugged. There was painful hope in her eyes, hope that would not survive a rejection. She'd already misunderstood him once since he had gotten here; this needed to be settled once and for all, and the sooner, the better. "Anywhere you want to go, anywhere you choose to work, I will go with you," she told him. "After May, Dani won't need me to support her financially any longer. It'll just be me on my paycheck, no matter where it comes from."

"I would have supported you both," he reminded her, but there was no blame in his words. He lifted a hand to touch her face again, just as he had the night before, though he hardly remembered it. "This is your home. You have friends here and a purpose. I wouldn't dream of taking it from you," he told her, but there was something in his eyes that told her he was wavering, the years of stubbornness and bitterness slowly fading away.

"And you would have hated it," she pointed out. "You were taking crappy jobs just to put food on the table, and it was killing you. I couldn't do that to you." She shifted, her legs cold and starting to ache from the uncomfortable position she was holding. "As to the rest of it? Aus, if you're not here, what's the point in me staying?" she asked him gently. "Sam can handle the business just fine, he's got plenty of friends who would go out of their way to make sure he didn't get tied up in knots. And yes, I have friends here, but going away wouldn't mean never seeing them again. I'm not going to make your mind up for you about the offer Sam made you last night. This right here? This is about us, and I will follow where you lead. You've never lead me wrong."

She was right about one thing - this was about them and nothing else. Dani was grown now and though she still needed them, she was old enough now to make her own choices and her own decisions. But what about them? What were they going to do with the rest of their lives? Why should they deny themselves a little slice of happiness any longer? There were no reasons for it, and maybe there never were. He drew her up from the floor and onto his lap, his arms going around her to keep her from falling. His head was still aching, but it was no longer pounding, and he found himself remembering a snippet of what had happened between them the night before, but it had taken the morning for him to hear the words from her lips. She was sorry and she loved him. That was all he'd ever really needed to hear. He didn't bother to answer her with words, choosing instead to answer with a kiss that tasted a little too much of coffee and stale brandy, but his lips were warm and soft and eager to share what he felt in his heart.

She staggered just a little as he drew her up, drawn into his lap with a bemused smile playing on her lips. "Is that a -" Yes was smothered as he kissed her, but it really didn't matter. She knew this man; she loved him. She knew what he wasn't saying just as well as he did. And suddenly a great weight was lifted from her heart, a heavy burden she had been carrying around for ten years. He forgave her. That was all that really mattered. Her arms wrapped about him as she answered his kiss with her own, as warm and tender and eager as he was, trying to be considerate of his headache despite everything.

He kissed her once, and then he kissed her again and again, wanting to do far more than merely that, but there was the matter of breakfast and bounties and daughters and proposals. Despite the ache in his head, he found himself smiling when he'd at last finished kissing her. "Ten years is long enough. Let's not wait another day," he told her, not really caring if there was time to plan a proper wedding or not. This was Rhy'Din, and he knew if they really wanted it, it was a simple matter of finding someone willing to speak the words and declare them married. "I'm not going to chance losing you again, Jem," he told her, sealing that promise with another kiss. They hadn't yet sorted out where they would live or what kind of life they would lead going forward, but he didn't think it mattered. This place was good enough for both of them to call home.

"So that's a yes, then?" she asked, wanting to hear him say it aloud even as he kissed her once again. Her fingers played through his hair as she smiled against his lips, the last vestige of uncertain unhappiness burning away under the very certain promise that he still wanted her.

"If you must hear me say it, then yes, it's a yes, though I should really tell you no, just to spite you," he said, touching a kiss to her nose. He found that despite everything, he couldn't bear to do it, and it made his heart soar to see her so happy.

She opened her mouth, but whatever she was about to say was completely derailed by the door bursting open.

Dani leaped into the room, whooping happily. "You're getting married! We're a family! This is so ... cool!" The teenager threw herself onto the bed, wrapping her arms around both of them. "Can I call you Daddy?" she asked Austin with a wicked grin.

"You've been listening at the door," Austin accused, with only a mildly annoyed look on his face. He groaned as she threw her arms around them both. "Ugh, no. At least, not until after breakfast. I'm starving, and my head feels like it's going to explode, so pardon me, if I'm not as bright and chipper as the two of you this morning," he said.

Cackling, Dani kissed his cheek loudly and with force. "I'll go tell Mrs. Prudey you're up," she promised, releasing Austin to squeeze her mother tight for a moment. "You gotta go to the kitchen to eat, though, 'cos she doesn't do trays. She said."

Jem snorted with laughter as her daughter skipped out of the room, leaving them tangled on the very disheveled bed. "Apparently five years of a private school education has taught her a few anti-social skills."

He snorted in disagreement. "I'd say she's social enough. She's also a spy and a con artist. She's been trying to get us back together since I met her on the road yesterday," he said, setting her on the bed so that he could get up and get dressed before breakfast was cold. He didn't seem too overly upset by the fact that Dani had been secretly hoping they'd get back together; in fact, if anything, he seemed amused.
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Jemima Barnes
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PostPosted: Sat Jan 28, 2017 1:54 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

"The girl has an agenda, I'll give her that much," Jem chuckled, rolling off the bed and onto her feet. "Listening at doors is not something I was hoping to instill into her, though." She stretched, rubbing a hand through her blonde hair. "I'll go get dressed," she told him with a faint smile. "I'm right on the other side of the hall, no need to knock."

"Jem," he said, before she could escape him. "You're sure about this?" he asked, giving her once last chance to back out before they made their news official. It was probably already too late anyway, if Dani had anything to say about it. He just didn't want her to ever have any regrets.

She turned to face him, one brow rising over her slightly sardonic smile. "I'm the one who asked you, remember?" she pointed out. "Ten years is a long time to live with guilt and regret, honey. But I will never regret making a life with you, however and wherever we decide to do it."

That was it, then. It was decided, as simple as that, even after ten years of loneliness and heartache and grief and regret. They were both young enough that they could still have a long, happy life together, and if the only child he ever had was the one daughter who wasn't truly his, he'd still be a lucky man. "No more regrets, Jem. The past is over. Let's look to the future."

"Our future," she promised faithfully, smiling as she came to him once more for a last kiss. "But I really should get dressed before Dani gets a chance to rush in on us in a compromising position again."

For once in his life, he didn't seem to be in any hurry, but she had a point, and he didn't want to argue. If they truly were going to be married, after all this time, they had the rest of their lives to enjoy each other's love and companionship. It was more than enough, more than he'd ever hoped for. "I should dress, too. I doubt Mrs. Prudey would feed me breakfast in my underwear," he teased, touching one more kiss to her lips before letting her go.

"She'd spank you with her long-handled spoons," Jem warned him in amusement. "Fair warning - she knocked out two of the thugs who opened fire with them when everything came to a head here." Her hand stroked tenderly against his cheek as she leaned in to answer that last kiss, reluctantly drawing away. "Right across the hall," she reminded him fondly, stepping away to disappear from sight and make herself presentable for the day.

"I should spank your daughter for eavesdropping," he muttered, hoping for another strong cup of coffee and some food in his stomach once they were dressed, once she had broken that kiss and started back toward her room. Hangover or not, he couldn't help but smile to know that not only did she still love him, but she was finally ready to get married. He wondered what Mrs. Prudey and the rest of her friends might say to that.

There was no question of them not knowing, especially after Dani had skipped downstairs to inform the cook that her mother and Mr. Barnes would be coming down very soon. Delighted with the turn of events, the teenager saw no need to keep the sleeping arrangements to herself at all. Thankfully, however, Jem did not know this as she was dressing herself for the day, dragging a brush through her hair before stepping out once again to knock on Austin's door.

It was taking him a little longer than usual to get dressed, not because he was taking care doing it, but because he was moving a lot slower than usual this morning. Somehow he managed to get his teeth brushed, almost but not quite masking the taste of stale brandy in his mouth. Hopefully, more coffee would take care of that.

"It's open!" he called, when he heard the knock on the door, assuming it was either Jem come to collect him or Dani being nosy again.

It was Jem, dressed for the day ahead. She wasn't a woman who was naturally given to working with her hands, and her clothing reflected that. But she was his woman, whether he was ready for it or not. "Need a hand?" she asked in amusement, happy to tease him about his hangover now.

"I can manage," he insisted, with just a hint of pride in his voice. It was bad enough she presumably had to undress him and tuck him into bed the previous night. He was having a little trouble with his boots, but once he sat himself on a chair so he didn't lose his balance and fall over, he seemed to manage all right.

Jem just about managed not to smirk at the prideful response, turning her attention to making the bed while he was busy battling with his boots. "Do you remember talking to Sam last night?" she asked curiously. If he didn't, that was going to be an interesting meeting today.

"Sam? I remember him refilling my glass," Austin replied, the rest of the previous evening a little foggy. He remembered something about a job offer, but the rest of it was still kind of murky, like a dream he couldn't quite grasp the gist of.

"Oh dear." Jem couldn't help laughing a little at that. "He must be in the same state you're in. I hope he told Bridget what he was planning to talk to you about, or neither one of you is going to be able to make sense of each other this morning."

"Didn't I say anything about it last night?" he asked, lifting his head and looking over at her once he'd finally finished lacing his boots. He must have said something to have found her in his bed with him this morning, even if nothing happened between them. At least, he hoped nothing had happened between them. He would have wanted to remember that.

"You said he'd offered you a job as foreman here," she told him, straightening from a last stroke of her hand over the now neat bedclothes. "You didn't say whether you would take it, only that you'd told him you'd think it over."

He furrowed his brows a moment as he tried to recall what else he and Sam had discussed that night before the brandy had clouded his memory. "I remember that vaguely. I think I wanted to discuss it with you first," he said, as he tried to recall what else had been said, though he supposed he'd find out sooner or later.

She blinked in surprise. "If ... if you told him that, then ... then it's probably likely you told him all about us," she said a little tentatively. She probably didn't come out of Austin's version of events in a particularly forgiving light. "You're very chatty when you're drunk."

"Am I?" he asked, brows arching upwards. He had no idea what he was like when he was drunk as he never remembered what he'd done once he became sober. He frowned a little, unsure what he might have told the ranch's owner, though if the man was half as drunk as he'd been, there was a good chance he wouldn't remember it either. "You haven't told them about me, then."

"Austin ... until you rode up yesterday, I never thought I'd see you again," she pointed out with a soft sigh. "It's bad enough that almost everyone here thinks I'm a prostitute - oh, they'll never say it aloud, but most of them believe it. Why would I tell them about the day I broke the heart of the only man I've ever truly loved? Why would I relive it in telling them? It's got nothing to do with being ashamed of my past, or anything like that. Keeping my own counsel was about protecting Dani. It's always been about protecting Dani, you know that."

His expression darkened at the thought of anyone saying any such thing about her. No one had a right to judge her, not even him, and especially not those who didn't really know her or know the truth. He got up from the chair and moved over to slide his arms around her to draw her close. "It doesn't matter what anyone else thinks. You and Dani know the truth, and that's all that matters." And he knew the truth now, too. Why had it taken them so long for them to get to this point? Ten years wasted, but maybe they'd needed those ten years to grow up and realize how much they really needed each other.
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Jemima Barnes
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PostPosted: Sat Jan 28, 2017 1:55 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Drawn close, she sighed tenderly, looping her arms about him in return as her temple touched his cheek. "Nothing matters, so long as we're together," she said quietly, absolutely certain of that one fact. A loud laugh from outside the room, coupled with a groan, suggested that the master of the house and his wife were on their way down to the kitchen for breakfast themselves. Jem smiled, raising her eyes to Austin. "Time to face the music," she told him, drawing him toward the door.

"What music?" Austin asked, aware it was merely a figure of speech, but wondering just who might judge them. The master of the house was the one who'd gotten him drunk and was probably nursing a hangover of his own. And as far as their personal lives were concerned, that was no one's business but theirs and maybe her daughter's.

She laughed a little, just a huff of sound as she lead him to the door. "I don't mean it'll be difficult," she promised. "Just that ... Well, you know what everyone here assumes about me. There may be a little silent judging going on, that's all."

He narrowed his eyes, knowing where her train of thought was going. "I don't care what anyone thinks," he blurted before realizing that, though he didn't care, she might. "You have friends here, right? Friends don't judge, Jem. If they do, then they're not really your friends," he pointed out. And if that was the case, then he'd collect the bounty and they'd leave and make a life for themselves elsewhere.

"Yes, I have friends," she promised him with a smile. "And they won't judge you, or me. But people talk, Austin, you know that. The ones who matter won't, and that's the main thing."

"You said it, I didn't," he pointed out, regarding whether they mattered or not. He touched a kiss to her brow, smiling despite the railroad that was choo-chooing through his brain. "We'll figure it out together," he told her, refusing to let her push him aside ever again.

"I was trying to warn you about not losing your temper with people who don't count," she said in amusement, reassured by the way he kissed her brow. "Come on, let's get you fed before your head starts aching again." Out into the corridor and down the stairs, hand in hand.

"Again?" he echoed with a chuckle that was quickly followed by a wince. "When did it stop?" he murmured, mostly to himself, as she led him out the door to join the others for breakfast. He hoped most of the hands were finished by now. He didn't think the confusion would help his head any.

It was late enough that the hands and the staff had all eaten and were about their morning's work, leaving the kitchen relatively quiet. Relatively, that is, because Bridget and Sam were already at the table, and the lady of the house was giving no quarter to her suffering husband.

"... as well it wasn't whisky, because if I ever find any whisky in this house, you and me'll be havin' words, let me tell you."

Mrs Prudey looked up from her stove as Jem lead Austin in, offering the couple a warm smile and a nod toward the table. "Breakfast'll be up in a couple of minutes," she said. "See if you can save the master before he plugs her mouth with somethin unsavory."

And Sam, hangover or no, was giving it back as well as he could take it. "What in tarnation did whiskey ever do to you?" he asked, eyes narrowed in annoyance. Love her though he did, they had their moments on occasion.

"Think it's too late," Austin replied quietly as he cast a glance over at the other couple.

"Whisky brings the devil out in a man," Bridget shot back at her husband. "I ever catch you drinkin' it, you'll not be in my bed that night."

Jem winced, sitting down at the table. She didn't dare interrupt, to be honest. Sam and Bridget could have some epic fights, but nothing ever seemed to scratch beyond the surface, no matter what they said to each other.

"And brandy don't?" Sam countered, not really seeing the difference, other than the taste and the expense. Brandy was smoother and went down easier, but whiskey was a man's drink.

"I don't know," Austin interjected. "I sure as hell have a devil of a headache this morning."

"Brandy don't make a man swipe at you with his fists just 'cos you didn't jump at his first word," Bridget said darkly. "Whisky does." She rose to her feet, abandoning her suffering husband to go and help Mrs. Prudey and calm herself down in the process.

Jem bit her lip, glancing between the two men. "Just how much did you drink last night?"

Sam furrowed his brows in confusion as Bridget stormed off. "That's ridiculous," he muttered, thankful for the cup of coffee Mrs. Prudey had produced while they awaited their breakfast. He wasn't overly concerned about Bridget being angry at him. She'd get over it soon enough, once he was sober. "I lost count," he replied in answer to Jem's question. He thought they'd only emptied one bottle, or was it two? "It's a ridiculous argument," Sam muttered again. "What's the difference between brandy and whiskey? One'll get you as drunk as the other."

"Mmhmm." Jem chuckled, rising herself to pour out a couple of very strong cups of coffee for the men at the table. As she returned, she lowered her voice for Bridget's benefit. She didn't think the redhead would want to know that someone else could guess what she'd been talking about.

"I know what she means," she said quietly. "You've probably never seen it, but different kinds of alcohol affect the people who drink them in different ways. Brandy knocks them out, that I've seen. Gin makes women cry. Champagne makes men and women act like idiots. And whiskey ..." She sighed. "She's right, Sam. Whiskey brings out the devil in man. He could be the sweetest man you ever met when he's sober, but give him whiskey, and he'll beat his wife and kids for no reason. He'll go up to friends he's known and loved for years and treat them like dirt on his shoe. He'll wake up with bruises and no memory of it, but the memory stays with the wife he hurt, the children he scared. You know better than me if this makes sense from Bridget."

Sam still thought it was a ridiculous argument. If a man beat his wife or his children because he'd drunk too much whiskey, he thought it was more likely to be the man's fault, not the whiskey's, but he also knew enough about Bridget's past to understand her concerns. "Whiskey or no, I ain't gonna hurt her," he insisted, with a frown that was half annoyed and half sympathetic.

"What's it matter? It was brandy, and no one got hurt, except my aching head," Austin pointed out.

"You and me both," Sam replied.

"Oh, boys ..." Jemima sighed, rolling her eyes. "Forget your heads for a moment and try and see it from her point of view. In her experience, whiskey makes a man violent toward the people he loves. She grew up with her father being that way toward her mother and all his kids. Sam, this is the first time you've been drunk since you got married. Trust me, just never drink whiskey and you'll be golden."

"Point is, whiskey or no, I'd never hurt her," Sam pointed out stubbornly, though it seemed a small thing to promise never to touch the stuff, if it meant that much to her. He wasn't generally a drinker, anyway, but he and Austin had gotten a little carried away last night exploring Rogier's liquor collection. "Reckon I should apologize," he muttered further.
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PostPosted: Sat Jan 28, 2017 1:56 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

"Don't apologize, or you'll end up promising never to drink again," Jemima warned him in amusement. "Just tell her you get it. Same goes for you, by the way," she added, turning her eyes onto Austin. "You're a sweet drunk, but I don't want to test the theory with whiskey, you got me?"

Austin waved a dismissive hand at her question. "You don't have to worry about me. I'm not overly fond of hangovers," he assured her, case in point, the headache he was currently nursing.

Sam grunted in agreement, though he didn't like being compared to Bridget's father in any way. "You think about my proposal?" he asked Austin, changing the subject.

As Jem chuckled softly at Austin's reassurance, Bridget came back to the table, setting a plate down in front of Sam containing his breakfast. Her own, she set down beside his, taking a seat with a gentle touch of her hand to his in silent apology for being quite so strident with him.

Mrs. Prudey followed with plates for Austin and Jem. "Might as well know your girl already told me about the plans," she told the older couple. "Sent her off to the Brambles to fetch Mr. Hale - should be back in a coupla hours."

"Plans?" Austin echoed, looking from one to the other at the table. He had not had a chance to answer Sam's question before Mrs. Prudey and Bridget had rejoined them and he learned that they'd set some sort of plan in motion. He wasn't quite sure who Mr. Hale was either. He looked to Jem for an explanation, before realizing suddenly what was going on right under his nose. "She went to fetch a justice of the peace?" he asked, since Mr. Hale did not sound like the sort of name a preacher would go by.

"Mr. Hale's closer to an elder than a justice," Jem explained with an embarrassed smile. "His word is law in these parts, but he doesn't exercise that right very often. He's more often called on as a healer than anything, but he's got the authority."

"We're going to be married?" he asked, almost incredulously, despite what they'd discussed earlier that morning and the night before. He didn't seem upset by that fact at all, merely surprised at how quickly the plans they'd only discussed a short while ago were progressing. A smile touched his lips as he realized this was because of Dani, and he couldn't help but chuckle a little. "I guess we don't have to ask Dani what she thinks of the idea." Indeed, since they'd already seen her reaction to it after she'd been caught eavesdropping.

"You're gettin' married?" Bridget perked up from where she was eating - it had taken a lot of effort on Sam's part, but his wife no longer ate as though everything was going to be snatched away in seconds. "That's wonderful! Oh, Mrs. Prudey, you goin' to make a feast for tonight?"

Mrs. Prudey laughed. "Near as I can," she promised. "Already got the mixings for a cake, and you'll be amazed what Maudy can do with icing."

Jem blushed, glancing at Austin with a tiny smile. There was definitely no judgment from the people who mattered.

For a man who had waited ten years to wed the only woman he'd ever loved, all of this was a bit sudden, and yet, Austin didn't want to wait any longer than he had to. After all, he'd waited long enough, and he didn't want to give Jem a chance to change her mind. It might not be a fancy wedding with fancy clothes and flowers, but in the end, that didn't matter either. All that mattered was that Jem had finally agreed to spend the rest of her life with him. "I don't have a ring," he pointed out, or a lot of other things either, but that would all come in time.

"Got a coin?" Mrs Prudey asked. "Silver or gold. We've got a forge here, we can make one for you."

Jemima blinked, surprised by this sudden declaration of support. She didn't need a fancy wedding, or even a ring. She just wanted to be Austin's wife. They could work out the details from there.

Austin looked as surprised as Jemima, brows arched upwards as he lowered his cup of coffee to regard Mrs. Prudey. "I've got a coin," he replied. Several, in fact, though he wasn't expecting anyone to forge a ring from a coin in the matter of a few hours. "It won't be a fancy wedding," he told Jem, though she must have known that already. He didn't even own any clothes suitable for getting married in.

She met his gaze, one brow raised above a wry smile. "You still think I'm in it for fancy things?" she asked gently. "What did I say less than an hour ago, huh? Need me to repeat it, before witnesses?" It was a teasing challenge at best; they were both private people when it came to this.

Austin frowned her way, unconcerned with what the others might think. "You deserve to have a nice wedding," he argued, though he wasn't making excuses or trying to talk her out of it, but it was Sam, not Jem, who replied.

"Then we'll make it a nice wedding," he said. "Won't we?" he asked, looking to Bridget and Mrs. Prudey. It wouldn't be that hard. Mrs. Prudey could take care of the food, and there had to be a suit around here that Austin could fit himself into. The matter of a ring had already been taken care of, and they could send someone into town to fetch flowers.

"We had a nice weddin', and it was just us," Bridget agreed with her husband. "We can certainly make it a good one for you. Inside, though - s'too cold to make me stand outside."

Mrs. Prudey nodded obligingly. "Food's took care of, and Mr. Hale can keep himself occupied until we're ready for you," she said firmly. "First order of business ... you two find somethin' better to dress in and wash up properly. No one's goin' through a wedding unclean."

While all of this was being decided, Austin was working on getting something in his stomach before he felt sick again. He would have preferred not to be hungover for his own wedding, but maybe some food and coffee and a bath would help him feel halfway human again.

"I'll look through my clothes," Sam volunteered. Even if Austin ended up getting married in the same suit that Sam had, he didn't think the man would care much.

"Aye, and I'll get some of the hands to make a bower for the ceremony," Bridget suggested. "Once your girl gets back, she can look through your dresses and find you somethin' precious to wed in, Jem. And herself - reckon she'll be standin' up with you."

Jemima laughed. "Oh, goodness, I hadn't even considered that," she admitted. "Yes, you're probably right. Who'll stand up with Austin?"

"I will," Sam volunteered without hesitation. After all, the two men had bonded over a bottle of brandy the night before, and he was probably the closest thing Austin had to a friend at Oakmount.

"I need a bath," the soon-to-be bridegroom declared, even though he'd had one the day before.
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PostPosted: Sat Jan 28, 2017 1:56 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

"You've got a bathroom, use it," Mrs. Prudey told him. "Finish your breakfast and get that coin to the smith first, though." She patted him gently on the shoulder, bustling off to inspect her larder and gather her girls together to sort out a short notice wedding breakfast.

"Yes, ma'am," Austin told Mrs. Prudey before turning to Jem, with a faint smile on his face, perhaps the first of the day. "Silver or gold?" he asked, rubbing a thumb against the back of her hand, once he'd reached for it.

She was tempted to ask for gold, a traditionalist at heart, but she knew his gold coins could be put to better use than to decorate her finger. "It's your coin," she told him softly. "Silver does just as well as gold. It all depends on what you want to part with."

"Silver tarnishes," he pointed out, deciding for himself. Besides, he'd presumably be collecting the bounty on Dobson in the near future, so money shouldn't be a problem. "If I'd known you were going to say yes, I would have bought you a ring," he told her, an almost amused-looking smile on his face.

"You didn't know I was going to ask," she pointed out, answering his smile with her own as she leaned close to kiss the corner of his mouth. "There seems to be a lot to do before we get our wish, though."

"Isn't there just?" Bridget interrupted, grinning as she squeezed Sam's hand.

Sam took the hint and moved to his feet, gulping the last of his coffee down before setting the cup on the table. "We got a lot to do before Mr. Hayes arrives," he said, dropping a hint to the other couple that this was where they parted ways until later.

Austin furrowed his brows up at him, looking slightly annoyed. "I don't need any help taking a bath," he pointed out, but Sam only laughed.

"No, but you need help finding a suit."

"And havin' a proper shave," Bridget said, rising to her feet. "You missed a bit." She winked at Austin, taking Jem's hand out of his. "Go on, shoo now. We're goin' our way, you're goin' yours. I'll give her back when it's time to make her an honest woman, not before."

"Why do I get the feeling I'm being wrangled into something?" Austin asked with a chuckle. Or maybe he'd wrangled himself.

"After everything you told me last night, I reckon that's a good thing," Sam said, patting Austin amicably on the back. He touched a kiss to Bridget's cheek with a warm smile and a wink as the couple stepped in to help get the lovebirds ready for their wedding. "Later, darlin'."

"No drinkin'," the redhead grinned at her husband, waggling her finger at both men amicably herself. "C'mon, Jem, you can explain these modern unmentionables your daughter was flashin' at me this mornin'."

Laughing helplessly, Jem was pulled out of the room, looking back over her shoulder until she was out of sight.

"You mean no whiskey," Sam corrected with a grin as his wife tugged the other woman out of the room.

"A little whiskey might take care of the pounding in my head," Austin murmured as he pushed away from the table and got to his feet.

"You want her to kill you before you're even married?" Sam asked, with a chuckle. "C'mon. One shot of brandy won't hurt nothing, and then we gotta find the smith."

It was certainly a busy few hours at Oakham Mount. By the time Dani came riding back in with Mr. Hale, word had spread, and a feeling of festival was filling the snow-covered ranch. The men and women were busily making the unused ballroom into a fit place for a wedding - a bower had been created from evergreen branches, and more evergreens were hung over the walls. Chairs were set up as though in a chapel; delicious smells were coming from the kitchens as Mrs. Prudey created a feast with her girls for the wedding in progress. Dani was spirited away upstairs to join her mother and Bridget; Mr. Hale was sat down in the kitchen to help taste-test the various foods being created. As midday came and went, the hands and the staff dispersed to make themselves presentable for a wedding, and to everyone's surprise, the Lassiters arrived, children and all, to bear witness to the marriage about to take place. It was shaping up to be a memorable day, for all the right reasons.

Even without a proper suit of his own, Austin had cleaned up reasonably well in such a short amount of time. He was wearing a borrowed suit that was not quite a perfect fit, but was the best Sam could do with such short notice. He was clean-shaven, his hair neatly trimmed and combed, the gold ring the smith had made from his coin tucked into a pocket of the borrowed suit, his hands shaking just a little. He'd waited ten years for this day and now that it was about to take place, he was as nervous as a cat in a roomful of rocking chairs.

Jem was a little better turned out, but far less ornate than Bridget would have liked. There had been an almighty yelling match over whether or not Jem should wear a ballgown as a wedding dress, a fight Jem had only won because Dani had taken her side when she finally joined them. The dress was cream, the bouquet was evergreen, and that was all she needed. Holding Dani's hand, she made her way into the ballroom, hesitating a moment at the sight of so many people there.

"They're staring," she whispered to her daughter, who laughed quietly.

"Because you're so pretty," was Dani's response. "Shut up and walk."

Austin hardly noticed anyone except Jem and Dani as they made their way into the room. He'd never seen a lovelier sight than that, both mother and daughter. If he'd taken the time to look around the room, all he'd have seen were smiles from those who had come to witness.

Once Jem laid eyes on Austin, she forgot to be nervous, or to be embarrassed by the smiles laid on them. She was only vaguely aware of Dani's enormous grin as she was escorted to the side of the man she loved by the daughter who should have been his, if only they had met sooner. "Very handsome, Mr. Barnes," she complimented him softly as her hand curled into his.

"Very pretty, Miss Stanley," he murmured back, giving her hand a soft squeeze, more to calm his own case of nerves than to calm hers. It wouldn't be long now before he and Jem were married, and Dani would be calling him Dad. The thought of that both pleased him and made him nervous, as a dozen thoughts went through his mind. Would he be a good husband? Would he be a good father? There was no doubt in his mind that he was doing the right thing. He'd waited long enough for this moment, and no one was going to take this away from him now.

Mr. Hale cleared his throat, smiling at the pair. "You do realize this is a very short ceremony, I expect?" he warned them. He wasn't called on to do this sort of thing very often, and would have preferred less of a fuss himself. But it wasn't his day, it was theirs. "I'm under orders to make sure you make your own vows up on the spot, too."

Dani snickered into the bouquet in her hand, proving where that order had come from.
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PostPosted: Sat Jan 28, 2017 1:57 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

"Make up our own vows?" Austin echoed, turning a narrow-eyed gaze on the snickerer. If she was a little younger, he might have threatened to spank her. "Are you telling me we got all dressed up for what amounts to a three-minute ceremony?" he asked, his voice not quite as low as it probably should be. Then again, the ceremony was supposed to be followed up by a wedding feast.

"Yeah, so I can take pictures," Dani informed him cheerfully, much to the amusement of the men and women watching them.

Jemima laughed softly, squeezing his hand. "At least we won't be standing up here for too long."

Austin grunted his reply. At least, that much was true. He wasn't overly fond of being the center of attention, but thankfully, only a small group was gathered to witness their vows. "The longer we talk, the longer we stand here," he pointed out. And wasn't ten years long enough, after all?

"My knees thank you," Mr. Hale said in amusement, and cleared his throat once again, bringing the ceremony to a start. "Friends, we gather to witness the joining in marriage of two souls. I could lecture about marriage, but at your age, you really should know all this already. Suffice it to say, you have chosen to take this step after long years in the wilderness, and I, for my sins, am the one who is going to guide you through it. So, first things first ... Are you, Austin Barnes, free, lawfully, to marry Jemima Stanley?"

The wilderness? Austin thought to himself, wondering what the hell the man was talking about before blinking out of his thoughts as the man addressed him by name. "Yes, of course, I am," Austin replied, thinking what a silly question that was. Why would he be marrying Jemima if he was married to someone else already?

"Legal words must be spoken, lad, don't get prickly with me," the old man chuckled, turning that same question onto Jemima. "Are you, Jemima Stanley, free, lawfully, to marry Austin Barnes?"

Jemima bit her lip to keep from laughing at the incredibly informal tone their celebrant had assumed. "Yes, I am," she nodded, looking up at Austin with a fond smile.

Mr. Hale nodded to himself, plunging on with his very short ceremony. "Here's where you either repeat after me, or make it up yourself," he informed them. "I, Austin Barnes, take you, Jemima Stanley, to be my wedded wife. Or whatever comes to mind, really."

Austin was narrowing his eyes again, partly in confusion. Why would he make up his own words when he could just as easily repeat the vows the man was reciting? Maybe it was the hangover that had made him prickly, but as soon as he looked back at Jem to find her smiling up at him, his expression softened. He could find no fault with her, even if he was more than a little impatient to make her his wife. "I, Austin Barnes, take you, Jemima Stanley, to be my wedded wife, or whatever ..." He broke off, chuckling at his own faux pas and realizing this was his chance to tell her just how much she meant to him, though he thought she should know that already. He'd waited ten years for this moment; if only he could think of what to say.

"I'm not good with words, and you already know how I feel. I guess this is where I'm supposed to promise that I'll be a good husband and love you all the days of my life, but they're just words. I want you to know that even after all these years, you're the only woman I've ever loved or will ever love. I can't promise to always be the perfect husband. Hell, I know I'm a long way from perfect, but I do know this ... There's no one in this world who's more perfect for me than you. I've always loved you and I will always love you. And I can't think of any better vows than that."

"All right, blondie, you're up." A ripple of laughter passed through the gathered congregation at Mr. Hale's words, his lack of formality not taking anything away from the solemnity of the occasion.

Turning to look up at Austin properly, Jemima wound both her hands through his. "I, Jemima Stanley, take you, Austin Barnes, to be my wedded husband," she said, her voice quiet but certain. "Ten years ago, I did you a very great wrong, and I hurt not only you, but myself and my daughter. I love you; always have, always will. Thank you, for forgiving me, and for letting me wipe out that mistake with the wedding I did you out of a long time ago. For better or for worse, you're stuck with me now. And I know you will be a wonderful husband, and a wonderful father. And nothing else is coming to mind."

Despite everything, including Mr. Hale's lack of formality, Austin found his heart warming, his smile softening at her words. He even chuckled a little when she admitted to having run out of words, just as he had. "Let's hope it's for the better," he replied in a quiet voice, as he gave her hands a squeeze.

"Close enough," Mr. Hale shrugged, smiling at them. "You, girlie ... where's the ring?"

Dani blinked, startled to be addressed when she'd been basking in the very obvious showing of affection between her mother and Austin. "I don't have a ring," she admitted, glancing toward Sam in confusion. "Did we have time for rings?"

Sam only smiled and nodded his head at Austin, who let go of Jem's hand to search his suit for the ring he and Sam had asked the smith to make just that afternoon. "I have a ring," he said, as his hand emerged from a pocket with a small band of gold.

"That's so unfair, we don't have one for you!" Dani objected, but Jemima shushed her softly, sharing a smile with her daughter before looking back to Austin.

"He doesn't need to wear a ring to be a husband," she said firmly. "Not that I need one to be a wife, but what woman says no to a bit of shiny on her finger?"

"I'll buy you a proper ring as soon as I can," Austin promised her quietly as he took her hand again, in readiness to put that ring on her finger. He looked to Mr. Hale, as if for permission. "Now?" he asked, unsure if there was something that needed to be said first.

"I'd rather keep this one," Jem said quietly, her own eyes lifting to Mr. Hale, who chuckled and nodded to them.

"In your own time, with your own words," he shrugged nonchalantly. "The official bit is over and done with."

Austin arched a brow. He thought he'd already done his own bit with his own words, and now he was being asked for more. Where was that damned brandy when he needed it? Everything he wanted to say to her he'd say to her in private, later that night when they were alone in their marriage bed. All too aware of the eyes that were watching and the people who were expectantly waiting to hear what they might have to say to each other, most of them friends of hers, he frowned, unsure what to say. He knew he should just speak from the heart, but he'd never been a man of many words, and the words he really wanted to tell her weren't mean for others to hear. "Jemima Stanley, I love you with all my heart and live for you with every breath I take. Will you make me the happiest man in all of creation by doing me the honor of becoming my wife?"
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PostPosted: Sat Jan 28, 2017 1:58 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

"And with this ring ..." Mr. Hale prompted, grinning at the grumpy way Austin was objecting to his style of celebrating a marriage.

"Shhh, she didn't say yes yet," Dani told the old man.

A loud bark of laughter from the group behind them drew eyes toward Mrs. Prudey, who was hiding in her apron as she cackled at the younger Stanley's manner of expressing her excitement.

Jem chuckled in her quiet way, shaking her head as she met Austin's eyes once again. "Of course I will," she promised him. "If you can guarantee the happiest man in creation part, I'll even make you breakfast in bed every day."

Austin glared momentarily at the man who had told him to use his own words. He opened his mouth to speak, but was once again interrupted by Dani's interjection and then by Mrs. Prudey's laughter. He might have scolded them into silence if Jem had chuckled and made a promise of her own. "I can't promise to be happy every second of every day," he told her, honestly enough, "but I do promise to always love you and do my best to make you happy. I'll take the breakfast in bed, though, if you're offering," he added with a grin as he slid the ring on her finger, allowing Mr. Hale to jump in with his part, if he so wished.

"My favorite part," the old man beamed, raising his hands in a beatific gesture. "I now pronounce you husband and wife, and impish mischief of a daughter. So kiss the bride, and let's eat."

It wasn't a perfect ceremony and maybe it wasn't even romantic, but it fit them perfectly. Austin actually smiled as they were pronounced man and wife, and he was given prompted to kiss the bride - not that he needed prompting. Where his skill with words might have failed him, his kiss did not. He wasted no time taking her in his arms and showing her without the use of words just how much he loved her, with all of those present to witness.

Jemima barely heard Dani's whoop of victory as Austin took her in his arms, sealing the promises they had made with a kiss that was far more private than any they had shared before witnesses before this moment in time. The teenager's excitement was enough to encourage the rest of the gathering to erupt into applause and laughter, many of them already moving to prepare the dining room and check on the food, leaving the newly wedded couple to their own devices for a few minutes.

"Was it worth the ten year wait?" he asked his wife with a smirk. Of course, that ten year wait had been her doing, not his, but maybe some things really were worth waiting for, and she certainly couldn't accuse him of not having any patience. He'd been patient for ten years, but he didn't have to wait any longer. Without any warning, he scooped her up in his arms and started toward the stairs, despite the feast and the guests who were waiting for them.

"You were always worth waiting for," Jem assured him laughingly, letting out a yelp as he lifted her up into his arms.

"Here now, where do you think you're going?" Mrs. Prudey demanded in amusement as they passed. Her answer came from Dani.

"They're gonna make me a baby brother before they drink too much to do more than sleep it off," she predicted with a wide grin. "Right, Daddy?"

"Hush, you, before I take you over my knee," Austin scolded Dani playfully as he continued on his way toward the stairs. "I've waited long enough. I'm making it official," he explained simply as he moved past them to start up the stairs. "Keep dinner warm. We won't be long!" he called back as the pair disappeared up the stairs.

"If you take less than an hour, I'll make Mr. Hale annul it because you've obviously forgotten what to do," Dani called after him, shushed by Bridget as she was pulled away from her parents and into the little gathering around the bower.

Jemima hid her face against Austin's shoulder, holding on as she laughed in embarrassment. "What happened to our private business?" she asked in a giggling tone.

"What happened to your daughter?" he countered, looking amused, rather than appalled. She certainly was a bold one, but he liked that about her. One hour - sixty minutes. He could think of plenty of things to do with those sixty minutes and then some.

"Five years in an all-girls boarding school happened to her," Jem reminded him, rolling her eyes. "I have no doubt it's all hearsay. She's never been close enough to a boy to do more than stare and imagine."

"I'm sure she has a good imagination," he murmured as he carried her down the hall to their suite of rooms before coming to a halt. "Can you get the door, love? My hands are full." Or arms rather - full of her, that is. It was taking all his patience not to knock the door down in his haste.

"She reads enough bodice-rippers," Jem commented, unwinding one arm from around his shoulders to turn the door knob and push open the door. "An unhealthily romantic view of what love is, I think - wild and romantic, with lots of rough sex, going by the books she reads."

"Doesn't sound unhealthy to me," he remarked with a grin as he carried her inside and kicked the door closed. Whatever happened up there in the next hour or so was no one's business but their own, but they weren't exactly going about it quietly from the sound of the thumps and thuds and creaks coming from that room. It seemed the newlyweds hadn't wasted any time in consummating the marriage.

One hour was nowhere near enough time to make up for the ten years lost between them, but they were clearly determined to make the most of it. There was only a little embarrassment - a decade had done its work on both of them physically, after all - but what was that compared with the knowledge that they were finally married? What was new was a wonder to discover; what was not changed was a pleasure to rediscover. There was certainly plenty to fill their small span of time, and yet, once that first frenzy was over, they knew they had a lifetime to catch up with the time they had lost.

Jem lingered in Austin's arms, trading kisses back and forth, unable to wipe the silly grin from her face. "I think we broke the dresser," she murmured laughingly, teasing her fingertips through his hair.

"At least, we didn't break the bed," he teased in return, happy to linger in bed a while longer, trading kisses with her in his arms. He knew there were well-wishers downstairs waiting for them, but he had waited ten years for this; they could wait a little longer. There were a lot of things they still needed to discuss and decide on, but all of that could wait for now. "You're just as beautiful as I remembered," he told her quietly, touching a trail of kisses against a bare shoulder.

"You're not doing so badly yourself, you know," she murmured, the tip of her nose brushing against the line of his jaw as his lips touched her shoulder. "I didn't rush you into this, did I? I know it's all happened very suddenly."

"Rush me?" he echoed, chuckling. "Ten years is not rushing me, Jem," he replied with a smirk, though he understood what she meant. "No, you didn't rush me. Sam was the one who convinced me, I think. I've always worried that I wasn't good enough for you, that I couldn't give you the kind of life you deserved. Maybe I should have fought for you harder, but what's done is done. We're together now, and there's no turning back."
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PostPosted: Sat Jan 28, 2017 1:58 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

She bit her lip, avoiding his eyes when he mentioned their somewhat rocky parting all those years before. Would she ever not bear the blame for it, she wondered, knowing he was still angry about that parting of the ways, even if he hadn't admitted to it. "It was never about you being good enough for me," she said, shaking her head. "Never. But we couldn't make each other understand then, and I doubt we can now. Can't we just close that chapter?"

He couldn't help but smirk a little, since she was the one who'd asked if she'd been rushing him, but he seemed to sense some lingering feelings of guilt in her. "Chapter closed," he assured her, kissing the tip of her nose. He wouldn't mention it again, so long as she didn't. "Now, what's this about Dani wanting a sibling?" he asked with a teasing grin.

"Oh gods ..." Jem groaned, letting her head fall to the pillow as she rolled her eyes. "If she wants a baby so much, she can get pregnant," she said firmly, flickering a smile toward him. "Unless you want a child of your own, honey. Not getting pregnant for anyone but you."

He laughed. "I think you're supposed to be encouraging her not to get pregnant so young, not the other way around," he remarked with that smirk still in place. He couldn't remember having laughed and smiled so much in years. "I'm perfectly happy with things as they are. I don't need a child of my own to make me happy. All I need is you," he told her, pressing a kiss to her lips.

"I was only a little older than she is now when I got pregnant," Jem mused thoughtfully. "I'd rather not have her go through what I did." She smiled as he kissed her, teasing her fingers through his hair. "I love you," she promised him in a tender tone. "All I need is you."

He might have mentioned how he wished he'd known her then and that if he had, he'd have taken care of her, but that would be mentioning the past again, and that was something she didn't seem to want to discuss, even though she'd been the one to bring it up again. He returned her kiss, turning quiet a moment. There was something he needed to tell her, though she probably knew it already. "Dani is the daughter I never had. I couldn't love her more if she was my own. You know that, right?"

"I know," she smiled, nuzzling close. "She's always loved you like a father. She's probably more excited about us getting married than we are." She sighed softly, curling warmly into his arms. "I can't believe how grown up she is. And how certain she is that this is the way things should be. I envy her that certainty. I never felt it until I said "I do"."

"Oh, I'm pretty excited. Can't you tell?" he teased, though he might be referring to a different kind of excitement than the kind that Dani was feeling. "Sometimes you just have to make a leap of faith, love," he told her gently, content to lie there in her arms forever, except for the people who were waiting on them downstairs. "Shall we brave the crowd for a while? The sooner we do, the sooner we can send them home and go back to bed."

She laughed, prodding at him for his tease. "Sure you can handle having a Daddy's little girl for the next few hours?" she warned in amusement. "She's gonna be practically in your lap for a while. Unless she's found a boy she likes the look of, in which case ... you might have to play Dad sooner than you were expecting."

"She's a little old to be sitting on my lap, don't you think?" he asked, considering Dani was practically an adult. "We had some time to talk on the way here, but she never mentioned any boys," he told her. Had that really been just the previous day? So much had happened in the last day or so, it was making his head spin. Or maybe that was just the brandy.

"All girls' school for five years," Jem reminded him, reluctantly beginning the process of untangling herself from her newly wedded husband. "And even I know there are several handsome young men at the Mount who might turn her head easily enough, little romantic that she is. Knowing her, she'll be drawn to the rough and ready sort, just like her Mom is."

"Is that what I am?" he asked, reluctantly allowing her to untangle herself from him before someone came knocking at their door to fetch them or to inquire if the furniture was still intact. He wasn't sure what he thought about the idea of Dani seeing anyone, though he hadn't yet realized most fathers felt that way about their daughters. "I'm her stepdad now. Do I get approve or disapprove her boyfriends?"

"Well, you can express an opinion, but if she really wants someone, what we think isn't going to change her mind," Jem shrugged, leaning out of the bed to snag her underwear. She flashed him a smile as she wriggled to get into the skimpy underthings. "You're not her stepdad. You're her dad. She respects you, and she trusts you. But unfortunately there are some things you're just going to have to stand back and let happen, and all you can do is make sure she knows you're right there when she needs you to be. Welcome to the wonderful world of being a parent."

"I don't know a damned thing about parenting," he admitted with a worried frown. Thankfully, Dani was mostly grown, but that didn't mean she wouldn't still need them. He paused a moment to admire the view, his thoughts turning elsewhere and his body along with them. "Tempted to keep you here in bed with me for a whole week," he warned her, resisting the urge to pull her back down to the bed with him.

"Yes, you do," she assured him, rising to her feet to find her dress. "Put that away, we have to make an appearance downstairs or Mrs. Prudey will come looking for us." Laughing, she threw his pants at him. "Maybe they won't expect to see much of us for a while."

"They better not," he replied as he caught his pants. "We have to ..." He trailed off, cutting himself off from remarking how they had to make up for lost time. "Maybe we should go away for a little while. Go on a honeymoon," he suggested, though where they'd go or how they'd pay for it, he wasn't quite sure.

"Maybe we should," she agreed, shrugging into her dress. "Dani goes back to school in a few days; maybe when she's gone again, we can find somewhere out of the way for a little while, just for us. I don't think Sam or Bridget would mind so much."

"Just for a few days," he reiterated, doubting anyone at the ranch would miss them much, except maybe for Dani, but she'd be back in school again soon. "Did she say anything to you about school?" he asked, as he rolled off the bed to start getting himself dressed, purposely avoiding her gaze for some reason.

Jem shook her head, looking over at him curiously. "Not much, no," she admitted. "She's never really liked it there, but it'll be over soon. Just a few more weeks, and she'll be free from having to wear that silly uniform and play along with those silly little girls any longer." She straightened, one hand holding her brush. "Why, did she say something to you?"

"Yeah, but I think she should tell you herself," he said, worried he'd distracted her from her daughter with his arrival at the ranch. He wasn't sure if telling Jem what Dani had shared with him was a betrayal of trust or if not telling her was a betrayal of another kind.

She eyed him for a long moment, settling that into the back of her mind. "I get the feeling I need to talk to her about school now," she said with a soft smile, not asking him to break Dani's confidence. "So I will."
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Jemima Barnes
Young Wyrm
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Joined: 17 Jan 2017
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Can Be Found: Oakham Mount
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PostPosted: Sat Jan 28, 2017 1:59 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

"I think that would be a good idea," he admitted, not quite giving away what Dani had told him, but letting Jem know that a mother-daughter talk was needed and before Dani went back to school ... or didn't. "We're a family now. I haven't been part of a family in a very long time," he said, as if he was just realizing this himself.

"You've been a part of our family since we first met," she told him, moving to button his shirt for him. "Even when we were apart, you've always been the father of her heart. I've always been yours. You'll be surprised how easily it comes, just by acknowledging that you became a husband and a father with one vow."

It was probably better she helped him get dressed. He'd never been very good with suits and ties. There was that frown again, worried he might not live up to either of their expectations. "I hope so," he told her, unsure of himself, but not unsure of her or of his desire to spend the rest of his life with her. But in the end, maybe it was nothing more than a fear of the unknown.

However unsure he was of himself, Jem had absolute faith in him. She remembered a man who was nervous around her six year old daughter, but who had allowed himself to be cajoled into playing princesses and having make believe tea parties, and had slowly but surely won the love and trust of a little girl who, until him, had deeply despised any man who might want to share her mother with her. Now Dani was grown, that bond could only grow deeper. "Trust me," she promised him, leaving the tie where it lay. They didn't need to be perfectly turned out to eat dinner with friends.

"I do," he assured her, sliding his arms around her waist, a look of sober sincerity on his face. "There's no one I trust more than you," he told her, though that might not have always been the case. He didn't want to think about that time now though; he didn't want to think about the pain of her refusal all those years ago. It was part of the past, but it also served to remind him just how precious she was to him and how grateful he was for this second chance. The kiss he gave her in that moment told her that better than words ever could.

She leaned into him, the kiss deepening slowly until ... a hammering on the door made her jump, laughing as Dani's voice rang out.

"Five minutes, and I'm coming in!" the teenager declared through the door. "Take your thing out of her thing and cover it up, or I'm taking pictures!"

Austin laughed at the interruption, or rather, at the way Dani had phrased her threat. Thankfully, they were decent, but of course, she didn't know that. With his arms still around Jem, he called back loud enough for her to hear him. "You really are asking for a spanking!"

"I'll take a spanking if it means I can finally get to eat!" Dani responded, reminding both of them that she hadn't actually had breakfast that morning herself. One cup of coffee was not enough to keep even a hyperactive teenager going this far past lunchtime.

Jem bit her lip, grinning up at Austin. "Maybe we should let her escort us downstairs."

"I like that idea," he told her. "Should we tell her we're dressed?" he whispered conspiratorially, with a teasing smirk. Of course, it was unlikely she'd come in if she thought they were still in bed.

Jem laughed. "Put your boots on, the poor waif is starving," she told him, gently pulling away to open the door. She raised a brow at her daughter, who was surprised to see her dressed. "You and me need a word about appropriate conversation again, Dinky," she informed the teenager, who giggled into her hand.

"It got you up, didn't it?"

Austin took a seat on the bed, which was rumpled and still warm from their tryst, so he could tug his boots on without losing his balance. "Dinky?" he echoed with a chuckle. "I don't need any help getting up," he teased back, letting her think what she might of that.

"She was short until she hit fourteen," Jem shrugged, stepping back to let Dani into the room. To be fair, Dani definitely wasn't short now. She'd produced long legs from somewhere - if she kept growing, she was going to be taller than her mother very soon.

"I don't want to think about you being up anywhere, Daddykins," the teen grinned, wrapping an arm around her mother's waist. "Seriously, though, I am totally famished."

"Why didn't you eat something?" he asked the most logical question that entered his head. "They aren't all waiting for us, are they?" he asked, though he had promised they wouldn't be more than an hour. How long had it been? It couldn't have been much longer than that, could it?

"Because I was waiting to have breakfast with you guys, and then I got excited and rode off, and I didn't want to ask the Lassiters to feed me, and then Mrs. Prudey banned me from the kitchen," Dani informed him, laying out with stunning logic her failure to eat since the night before. "And yes, they're all waiting for you guys. It's your wedding day!"

"I suppose we should feed you then," he said as he got to his feet, a warm smile on his face for both his girls. He'd sometimes laid awake at night wondering what it might be like to share his life with them, but he didn't have to wonder any longer. All the pain and heartache was over, and all those dreams were about to come true. "Shall we?" he asked, offering them both an arm.

"Oh, I think we shall," Jem smiled, drawing them both out into the corridor before taking Austin's arm.

Dani, on the other hand, was attached to his elbow before he'd finished offered, hugging his arm with that enormous grin on her face once again. "Feels like we're gonna do a musical number down the stairs."

"We could, but I'm not a very good dancer," Austin admitted with a slightly embarrassed smile that proved he was telling the truth. "I'd probably knock you both down!" he added, as he led them both out of the room and back down the hall so they could rejoin the well-wishers and get the party started.

"We'd be a happy bundle of broken limbs, though," Jem pointed out with surprising cheer, buoyed up by the knowledge that this was her wedding day, she had married the man of her dreams, and her daughter was pleased with the result. It was a hattrick of perfect decisions for the first time in her life.

"I'm not sure there's anything happy about broken limbs, Jem," Austin pointed out with a chuckle as he escorted both of his girls back down the stairs to rejoin the well-wishers. "Here goes nothing," he muttered, taking a deep breath before plunging into the crowd.

But it didn't turn out to be nothing. Despite the newness of his arrival, Austin was embraced as one of theirs at Oakham Mount, with good wishes offered his way from everyone, be they high or low, guest or inhabitant. With a veritable feast on the tables in the dining room, the atmosphere of the house had evolved into one of celebration. If any unpleasant thoughts were in the air, they were kept out of sight, well hidden by the laughter and dancing that went on into the darkness as dusk fell. In a way, Austin Barnes could be credited with bringing some of the life back to Oakham Mount, by giving them a real reason to celebrate beyond the relief of release from Sid Rogier's oppressive regime. After all, who doesn't enjoy a good wedding?
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