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Loose Ends

 
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Jemima Barnes
Young Wyrm
Young Wyrm


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PostPosted: Mon Jan 23, 2017 5:06 pm    Post subject: Loose Ends Reply with quote

Two weeks after the blood had stained the snow, and Oakham Mount was all but unrecognizable from the place it had been only a month before. The McAlisters were back in charge, and these McAlisters had lived their lives thus far as servants themselves.

Unsurprisingly, changes had happened within days of the changeover. The house servants no longer slept in the attic; Bridget had insisted that the main house be a home, and therefore everyone chose for themselves a bedroom to share or keep separate, to be their own personal space. The barrack rooms where the hands were kept had been painted and furnished properly - a stop-gap to tide them over until the weather improved and decent accommodations could be built. Everyone was welcome to use the house in their off-hours, and everyone ate in the dining room, at the same table, eating the same food. Mrs. Prudey was in her element, expanding her kitchen and the stores with delight at being able to cook properly for so many at once.

Jem had moved out of the large suite of rooms that Rogier had installed her in, giving them over to Sam and Bridget while she took up in a smaller room with a bathroom attached. Rogier's rooms had been gutted, and plans were being talked over as to what they should make them into. All in all, Oakham Mount had woken up, and the people who worked there were finally learning to call it home, too.

Relations between Oakham Mount and Brambles Orchard had understandably improved, and travel between them had grown commonplace, which proved fruitful for both farm and ranch. The dead were buried and mostly forgotten, while those who'd survived got on with their lives. And somewhere, on the outskirts of Rhy'Din, a man was returning to claim a bounty on the head of a man who he didn't know was already dead, not knowing that his arrival came at a fortuitous time and that his past was unknowingly tied to that of Oakham Mount Ranch.

He was taller than most men, but not as tall as some, middle-aged, a little rough around the edges, but still handsome enough with eyes the color of a summer sky. He was a rough man, but a fair one. His past was his own, and he kept it close to his chest. He'd lived a good life, if a lonely one, and in all of his years, he had only one regret, and her name was Jem.

The road toward the ranches and farms was a long one from the city, but well traveled, as much by horses and carriages as by cars. There were foot travelers too; no shortage of people passing back and forth on their own business. One of these foot passengers was on her way to Oakham Mount herself, walking with decided purpose on strong legs along the side of the road, bundled up against the winter cold with a single pack on her back.

As the rider approached her at the only crossroads for miles, she was paused, consulting a rough map and muttering to herself. She looked up at him, raising a hand to catch his attention as she swiped blonde hair out of her brown eyes. "Excuse me ... excuse me, sir? Do you know this area? I'm lost."

The man eased his horse to a halt at the crossroads, tipping the brim of his hat back to get a better look at the girl. He hadn't been around these parts in some years, but he remembered it like he'd been there just yesterday. Some things were just etched in one's memory, and this place was one of them. "I know it a little. Where are you headed?" he asked, eyeing the girl from the back of his horse. There was something slightly familiar about her, but he couldn't quite place it.

"Trying to get to Oakham Mount," she said, blinking in the chilly breeze that was making her eyes water. "I've never been there before and I'm reading the map wrong, so ... wait a second." She peered up at him, stepping closer, and an inexplicably delighted smile lit up her face. "Oh my gods! Austin! Oh, please tell me you're going to the Mount!"

He blinked down at the girl, clearly confused how she knew him. "I'm sorry. Do I know you?" he asked, realizing almost in the same moment who she must be. "Dani?" he queried, remembering the slip of a girl she'd once been, and now she was all or at least mostly grown up. Had it really been that long already?

"Yeah, it's me, it's Dani!" The young woman on the side of the road who had just happened to flag him down was a ghost from his past, all grown up and apparently delighted just to see him again. "I'm going to see my mom. Are you coming too?"

"Your mom?" the man, whose name was apparently Austin, echoed curiously. Well, of course, she was. What else would she be doing this close to the city? "As it happens, I am," he replied, realizing their destinations were the same, but for different reasons. "Well, might as well hop on. No point in walking when you can ride," he told her, leaning down to offer her a hand.

"See, this is why I always liked you," she declared impishly, tucking her map away to take his hand and clamber up behind him. "Never afraid to just be normal around the weird kid." She laughed happily. "You gonna screw my mom until she says yes this time?"

"What makes you think you're ..." He broke off, narrowing his eyes at her, even as she climbed onto the back of his horse. "Even if I was to say yes, that is none of your business, young lady," he scolded her, though as he turned his head back around and kicked his horse into a trot, there was a faint smirk on his face.

"Oh, c'mon," Dani giggled cheerfully. "I am a very good ally to have on your side, you know. She can't use me as an excuse anymore, and besides, you're good for her." She did drop it, though ... sort of. "So if you're not going to the Mount to see Mom, why are you going there?"

And he wasn't one not to notice the hint that she'd dropped on him, purposely or not. "You done with school, then?" he asked, not missing a trick, but not answering her question right off the bat either.

"Almost," she told him, slightly adjusting her seat at his back to keep from sliding off the horse. "I'm so far ahead, they arranged for me to take my exams in March, so I'm pretty much on study leave until then. After that, who knows? I don't."

He could tell she was fidgeting behind him and trying to not only get comfortable, but trying not to fall out. "You'd best hang on," he told her, as the horse picked up the pace. "Well, what did you go to school for? What do you wanna do?" he asked, trying to make polite conversation, though he was a little taken aback at having just happened to run into her on his way to see her mother. Then again, he'd never really believed in coincidence.

"You're doing that adult thing of not answering my very reasonable question," she pointed out, hugging her arms about his waist. Despite not having seen him for a decade, she still trusted this man who had once been very close to being her father. "I was majoring in English, but I kinda wanna be a teacher. I'd have to do more school to get there, but if I get good grades in the exams, one more year won't kill me."

"Do that, then," he told her, trying to be supportive, though he wasn't her father by blood and hadn't seen her in years. At least, she was hoping to make a decent life for herself and a useful career. It was more than he could say for some other choices she could have made. And yes, he was avoiding her question and not even replying to her remark regarding avoiding her question.
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Jemima Barnes
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PostPosted: Mon Jan 23, 2017 5:07 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

"I wanna be able to look after Mom," Dani told him, slipping back into the habit of confiding in Austin Barnes as though he were truly her father, even after such a long separation. "Is that weird?"

He paused for a moment before replying to that, unsure if he should or had any right to state his opinion. Had Jem married him, like he'd asked, things would have been different, and her daughter wouldn't feel like she had to look after her mother, instead of the other way around. "I'm sure your mother does a pretty good job looking after herself," he remarked, just a little bitterly. While she'd declined his offer of marriage, he'd heard tell that she'd taken up with another man in his place.

The edge in his voice was enough to warn Dani off pressing the point. She might only be seventeen, but she knew why her mother did the things she did, and she understood why the answer had been no all those years ago. But it wasn't her place to argue that point. She fell silent instead, turning her head to look around at the snow-covered landscape around them as he rode on.

It was an awkward silence at best and he knew there were questions that hung in that silence between them. Though he wasn't sure he owed her mother any explanations, there had never been anything between him and her daughter but genuine trust and affection. "I loved her, you know," he admitted, though he might not be so willing to admit that aloud to anyone but her.

"I know," she said softly, resting her chin on the back of his shoulder. "She loves you. Always has." And perhaps it wasn't her place to say this, but the conversation had opened up. "You know she's not a prostitute, right? She never slept with any of them. They wanted someone pretty to make everyone think they had influence enough to have a mistress, and she used the money to pay off her debts and pay for my education. She never sold herself to anyone, Austin."

"She could've married me," he pointed out, not for the first or probably the last time. "I would have provided for you both," he said, as he had so many times before. Not that it mattered now. What was done was done. They were both older now, but were they any wiser?

"She cried over you," was all Dani could offer. "She cried a lot. And she didn't sleep for weeks after you left. She wasn't the only one who missed you." She squeezed him gently, spying the house and outbuildings at the top end of the road.

Was that supposed to make him feel better? It had been her choice that he'd left, not his. She'd been the one to spurn him, for whatever reason. Money, power. Maybe she didn't think he was good enough, or maybe it was the other way around. Whatever the reason, she'd refused him, and he'd left with a broken heart that had never quite healed. "Is that supposed to make me feel better?" he asked, with that hint of bitterness in his voice again, though he held nothing against her daughter.

"No. Just so you know you're not the only one who was hurting over it." Fair play to Dani, she was doing her best to head off angry words between Austin and her mother when they met again. She didn't think any of them would be able to take it if the rift became permanent again. "So why are you coming?"

He took that to heart, but said nothing about it. He wasn't stupid enough to think that Jem and Dani weren't hurting, too, but it had been Jem's choice and Jem's doing - not his. "Looking for a bounty," he replied, simply enough. No name or details mentioned. It was how he'd made his living for the last ten years or so since Jem had spurned him, and though he wasn't one to brag, he'd done pretty well for himself.

"Huh." That wasn't what she had been expecting, but then, it had been a long time since she had seen him.

As they reached the main track that lead to the house proper, they were greeted at the gate by a couple of armed men. "Sorry to stop you, sir," one of them said politely. "Might I ask what your business is at Oakham Mount?"

"Escorting the little lady home to see her mama," Austin replied without a moment's hesitation, though that wasn't the real nature of his business. He'd worry about that once he actually got there. He said nothing more, allowing Dani to fill in the details.

"Little lady?" The man tilted his head as Dani leaned around Austin with a smile.

"Hi, I'm Daniela Stanley," she introduced herself. "My mom's Jemima."

"Got it," the man said with a grin, stepping back. "Go on up."

Well, that was easy. Maybe a little too easy. A lot easier than it had been the last time he'd been here. "Much obliged," Austin replied with a polite tip of his hat before he nudged the horse onward past the gate.

Beyond the gate lay the main estate of the ranch, with its main house and outbuildings, its forge and stables. Men and women were bustling through the snow about their various tasks, glancing up to see who the newcomers were.

"Wow," Dani said behind Austin. "That is a pretty amazing house."

"Rich man's house," Austin remarked. Even with all the money he'd accumulated over the last decade or so, he'd never be able to afford a place like this, but that wasn't what he'd been hoping for anyway.

"What, you think just being rich makes a guy a bastard?" she asked curiously, wondering where he'd picked up an opinion like that. "Mom says the guy who owns this place is really nice. A proper gentleman."

"Didn't say that," Austin pointed out, not wanting to lecture her on not putting words in his mouth. It wasn't jealousy, exactly; just the knowledge that, even now, he didn't have enough money to build a house anywhere near as grand as that. "Just stating a fact." If that was the sort of life her mother had grown accustomed to, he didn't stand a chance; and yet, that wasn't entirely why he'd come here.

"Be nice, and she'll be nice back," was Dani's last word of advice as they arrived in front of the house, waiting until the horse slowed to a halt before swinging down.

The front door opened to reveal a blonde woman, rushing from the house to trip down the steps and gather Dani up in her arms.

"You're here! Oh, it's so good to see you!"

The tall man slid down from the saddle with the intention of helping Dani with her belongings, when he turned to hear a familiar voice and see a familiar face that made his heart thud in his chest, even after all these years. He said nothing in greeting, quietly and patiently waiting for her to notice him or maybe for a chance to slip quietly away unnoticed, but found he was unable to move from the spot, his gaze glued to the two females he cared for most in all the world. It made his heart ache, knowing they could never be his.

"You grew again, didn't you?" Jemima accused her daughter fondly, leaning back to kiss her cheek, drinking in the face she'd been denied for far too long. As Dani laughed, letting herself be hugged to within an inch of her life, Jem's eyes rose to the man who had brought her daughter safely here, and her heart thumped in her chest, hard enough to knock the breath from her for a long moment. "Austin?"
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Jemima Barnes
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PostPosted: Mon Jan 23, 2017 5:07 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

"Jem," the tall man replied in acknowledgement and greeting, confirming his identity, though he hadn't changed all that much in ten years that she wouldn't recognize him. He was a little bit older, a little bit wiser, and a little more weathered, but his face was basically the same. The same blue eyes looked at her, though there were more crinkles around the eyes than she might have remembered. There was the shadow of stubble on his face from a couple days' growth. He smelled like horse and leather and looked like he could use a hot bath, but otherwise, he wasn't much different than she remembered him. "Ran into Dani on the road and thought I'd give her a lift. Hope you don't mind."

Blue eyes that were more than a match for his own looked back at him from a face that truly had not changed so much over the years. A little older, a lot wiser, weathered by griefs held at arms length for too long, Jemima was still the handsome woman she had been when they had parted ways. Seeing him again brought back all the hurt of that parting, but with it, sheer joy at seeing him safe and whole and here. A soft smile touched her face as she looked at him.

"No, I don't mind," she assured him. "I'm glad. Come in, both of you. It's too cold to stand around out here for long. Come and meet the owner of this place."

He was about to tell her how he wasn't there for a social visit, how he wasn't there to see her, but that was in part a lie, and now that he was here, he found it impossible to deny her. His gaze darted to Dani, as if for permission. After all, he didn't want to intrude on their reunion. At the same time, he didn't much care to meet the owner of this place - the man who'd been kept her here for over ten years, like a bird in a gilded cage, whether by her own choice or not. "I could do with a cup of coffee, if you don't mind," he said, making some excuse or other to remain in her presence for a little while longer.

"Of course, you're very welcome," Jem assured him.

Beside her, Dani gave him a thumbs up and a wink, and just as quickly straightened her expression and dropped her hand as her mother looked at her.

"Oh, I know that look, too," Jem laughed, giving her daughter a gentle push. "Come on then, both of you. Welcome to Oakham Mount."

He didn't think his welcome was going to be very long lived, but just let someone try and push him around, and they'd live to regret it. He gave his horse a shove, leaving him to fend for himself a little while, knowing the horse wouldn't roam too far, before the man turned to follow the women inside the house.

He didn't need to worry about his horse. A friendly-looking fellow took the rein from him with a smile. "We'll see to him, sir," he promised with a nod. "Give him a rub and a feed. You want your bags brought in?"

At the porch, Dani turned and answered before Austin could. "Yes, he does," the teenager called with a grin. "He's staying the night!"

He practically growled at Dani's reply, but didn't bother to argue, knowing it would only fall on deaf ears. He exchange a look with her that said she was going to pay for it later, but it was mostly an idle threat. What could he do to her, after all? "Much obliged," he muttered in reply to the stablehand, as he left his horse and his bags in his care.

Jem muttered to her daughter, seemingly scolding her for that declaration, but Dani just laughed again, already shucking out of her winter things inside the door. "You could fit my whole Phys Ed room in here," she pointed out as she looked around at the grand foyer.

"What on God's green earth is fizz edd?" another woman's voice asked, and this time it was a redhead who came into view. All long skirts and Victorian smartness, she had her sleeves rolled up and cobwebs in her hair. "Oh, and this would be Daniela, then."

Jem chuckled. "Yes, this is my daughter," she nodded. "Dani, this is Bridget McAlister, the mistress of the house. Bridget ... this gentleman is Austin Barnes, a very old friend of mine. He brought Dani to the house."

"Ah, well, it's a pleasure then," Bridget nodded to the pair, wiping her hands clean before offering to shake with both.

"And you're sure it's okay for me to stay, Mrs. McAlister?" Dani asked her worriedly.

The redhead laughed. "Don't be daft, of course you can," she said firmly. "And you, Mr. Barnes ... it's a long journey back to the city with the night fallin' fast. Fancy a warm bed and a couple o'good meals, at the very least?"

Mistress of the house? Austin arched a brow. He'd thought that was Jem, but it seemed he was wrong. Something had changed since he'd poked his nose around here last, but he wasn't quite sure what it was yet. "I'd much appreciate that, ma'am," he told Bridget with a polite nod of his head. She didn't look old enough to be the mistress here, no more than a few years older than Dani from the look of her, but who was he to question?

Just as he was about to say something more, the door behind them opened, a cold gust blowing inside along with a tall man with a wide grin on his face that Austin didn't recognize.

"You see the horse out there? Lord, he's a beauty. I'd love to add him to my stables," the man said, startled to find himself facing two strangers - one a man nearly as tall as himself and the other a girl who looked remarkably like a younger version of Jem. "Oh, sorry. Am I interrupting something?" he asked.

"Say hello to the master of the house, who is walking snowy mud over my clean floors again," Bridget said, but the scolding was definitely offered with love. She moved over to kiss Sam hello, squealing a little at the chill clinging to him. "We've got guests, love."

Dani grinned, leaning against her mother. "So if she's Mrs. McAlister, then he must be Mr. McAlister, right?" she asked in amusement, pointing between the pair.

Jemima chuckled. "You're a genius," she teased her daughter. "Sam, meet Daniela, my daughter. And Austin Barnes, an old friend."

Bridget's kiss muffled any response Sam might have made, at least, momentarily. His arm wound about his wife's waist, his grin only widening in warm welcome to their guests. "Dani, you're as pretty as your mama. Welcome to Oakham Mount," he told her, before turning that same welcoming smile on the man. "Any friend of Jem's and all that," he told him, offering the man a hand.

Austin looked between them, a little confused, but took the hand in a firm grip of his own. "You're the owners?" he asked, looking from Sam to Bridget and back.

"That we are!" Sam replied, grinning further. "Long story, best told over supper. I'm starving! What's Mrs. Prudey cooked up for us tonight?" he asked, looking back at his wife and giving her backside a squeeze.

"Roast beef and potatoes," Bridget told her husband, swatting at him with her cloth. "Now change your shoes and wash up. Jem, you need help settlin' Dani and Mr. Barnes?"
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Jemima Barnes
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Young Wyrm


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PostPosted: Mon Jan 23, 2017 5:08 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Jemima chuckled to herself, enjoying how warm and comfortable Sam and Bridget had become, despite suddenly being landed gentry. "I am very comfortable to do that myself," she assured her friends. "Go and wash yourselves up, you look a fright."

Austin knew he needed more than just splashing his face and hands in a sink of soapy water, but a bath would have to wait until later. Though he'd been invited to stay the night, he wasn't sure he'd been staying much longer than that. He still had to sort out what had happened here and whether he'd been robbed of his bounty, not to mention what to do about Jem and Dani.

"I can assure you you won't go away hungry," Sam told the man, before collecting his wife and dragging her off so he could wash up and get ready for dinner in private. "See you at dinner!"

"Seriously?" Dani asked her mother. "They were, like, servants? How do you order anyone like that around?"

Jem snorted with laughter. "In Bridget's case, very politely," she told her daughter, picking up Dani's bag. "Austin, come this way. Someone will bring your bags up to your room very soon."

Austin wasn't the type to take very well to being given orders, but he was still a little too confused to argue. Besides, he was about to get a meal and maybe a bath and a bed for the night, so who was he to complain. It was Jem who was confusing him, as usual, even after all these years, and suddenly he felt like maybe all this was a big mistake. He didn't belong here, intruding on her space and her time with her daughter, but here he was, and there wasn't much he could do about it until morning. "Where are we going?"

"Upstairs," Jem told him, watching as Dani ran up the stairs ahead of them. "This isn't a segregated household anymore, with servants hidden away. Everyone who works in the house has a room, or rooms, in the house. No more hiding them in the attic, thank gods." She managed to offer him an almost shy smile. "There's a spare room across the hall from mine," she said uncertainly. "I was going to offer it to you."

She was taking his presence here a little too well, or so he thought. Maybe it was shock or maybe it was something more, but he felt as tongue-tied as a school boy, forced to talk to the girl of his dreams and not knowing what to say. "That's kind of you," he told her, feeling stupid for saying it, but what else was he supposed to say?

But Jem had spent the last decade learning how to appear composed, even when everything beneath the surface was in freefall. Unfortunately, that meant that Austin could not see just how pleased she was to see him, or how scared she was of saying the wrong thing.

"Mom!" Dani's voice echoed down the stairwell, making her jump.

"Coming!" Jem called back, offering her hand to Austin. "Aren't we?"

We. It was shocking how much that one word could make his heart ache. There was a time when they could have been a "we", when they could have even been a family, but that time seemed to have passed. Or had it? He looked at her hand tentatively for a moment, a thousand questions going through his head. That hand was an invitation of sorts. He wasn't quite sure what it was she was inviting him into, but he found he couldn't help but offer his hand in return.

Slender fingers wrapped about his own, and Jem's smile deepened. For just a moment, she was the woman he'd never thought to see again; the woman whose heart was in her eyes and belonged entirely to him, heart and soul. Then she raised her head and began to lead him upward, to a wide corridor from which rooms were accessible. Dani was bouncing impatiently on her toes as they reached her, desperate to get comfortable and explore before she got to meet everyone else at dinner.

His heart was in his throat as he met Jem's gaze, seeing the woman he'd once known and loved reflected in her eyes. Was he seeing hope there, too, or was it only wishful thinking? She wasn't the reason he'd come to Oakham Mount, but she just might be the reason he found to stay.

"So where am I sleeping?" Dani demanded as soon as they reached her, breaking the tentative spell between her mother and the man who might have a chance at being back in their lives again.

Jem blinked, startled, and laughed at her daughter's impatience. "Third door on the left," she told Dani fondly. "Let me get Austin settled, and I'll give you a tour."

"Cool!" Seizing her bag from Jem's hand, Dani bounced up to kiss Austin's cheek, and then Jem's, and scurried away down the hall in search of her own bedroom.

Up until now, Austin had remained quiet, almost as if he'd been rendered speechless. He arched a brow at the kiss Dani planted on his cheek. He'd never had a child of his own, but if there was anyone who filled that void in his heart, it had always been her, even after ten years of being apart. He wasn't sure what Jem was expecting of him, if anything. Was she hoping he'd just slide back into her life again, like he'd never been gone? "I didn't mean to intrude," he found himself saying.

Blue eyes rose to his with gentle reassurance. "You're not intruding," she promised him softly. "You're the most welcome sight I've seen in ten years, and I never thought I'd get to see you again. I'm glad you're here, Austin. For what it's worth, I missed you." She sighed, a hint of the unhappiness she had brought on all of them with her refusal all those years ago showing in the regret on her face. "C'mon, let's get you settled. This way." Without thinking, she took his hand again, drawing him down the corridor in Dani's wake."

The regret might be there to see on her face, but until he heard her say it, he wasn't making any assumptions. She'd refused him once, and he wasn't the kind of man to put himself in the position to be refused again, no matter what the reasons had been for it. "It's just one night, Jem," he reminded her as gently as he could, even as he let her take his hand.

It was a little like a slap in the face to hear him say that, to realize that the damage she had done a decade ago had not been forgiven. She stiffened, and the composed mask slid back into place on her face as she drew her hand back from his. "That's very clear, thank you," she said, and the warmth was gone, buried behind a dull tone that expressed nothing at all.

She lead the way to a door on the right side of the corridor, opening it but not stepping inside. "This is your room," she told him. "Your bags will be brought up here. There's a private bathroom. You've got a couple of hours before the dinner bell gets rung, so you have time to do whatever it is you want to do. I won't disturb you again."

He hadn't said it to push her away, at least, not consciously, and yet, he could see that was exactly what he'd done. Maybe it was for the best. She'd chosen her path, and he'd chosen hers. Maybe there really was no going back. A lot had happened in ten years, but he'd never gotten over her, and he didn't have any intentions of putting himself in a position where he might get hurt again.

"Much obliged," he told her simply, hiding behind his own mask, not wanting her to see the pain he'd been carrying around for the last ten years or the ache he was feeling at seeing her again. Whether she'd missed him or not, he wasn't sure they could just pick up where they'd left off after ten years apart.
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Jemima Barnes
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PostPosted: Mon Jan 23, 2017 5:08 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

But unless he gave even the smallest hint that he was more than bitter and angry with her still, he'd never have the chance to find out. She nodded to him, swallowing against the hard lump in her throat. "See you at dinner, then," she said simply, turning to walk a little further down the corridor to knock on the next but one door on the left.

Dani's voice called to her, and she stepped out of sight. But the door didn't close fast enough to prevent him from hearing her daughter's greeting. "Mom, what's wrong? Are you cry -"

Austin winced. He didn't have to hear the rest of that question to know what Dani had asked. Maybe this was a bad idea. He hadn't come here to cause her any pain, but clearly seeing him again had done just that. He wondered if he shouldn't just quietly leave, slip out the house into the night and out of her life for good, but some part of him needed to know for sure what was going on here before he could decide what he did next. He resisted the urge to knock on Dani's door and ask Jem's forgiveness. Forgiveness for what? For doing exactly what it was she'd wanted him to do? He closed the door quietly, refusing to give way to tears of his own. He'd shed enough of them over the years, and she seemed to be crying enough for both of them. Instead, he went to the bathroom, pausing a moment to look at his own reflection in the mirror, hating himself for making her cry.

But just as she'd promised, she didn't disturb him again. All was quiet from Dani's room for a long hour, until finally the sound of the teenager's voice filtered through his door once again, no doubt demanding her tour of the house now that the emotional storm had passed. Jem's laughter seemed half-hearted, but she was laughing. Evidently little Daniela had not lost that ineffable ability to make just about anyone's day seem brighter, just by being herself.

He heard the muffled voices outside his door, but he wasn't about to disturb or interrupt the reunion of mother and daughter, which he deemed far more important than anything he had to say. Besides, at that moment, he was neck deep in a bathtub of steaming hot water in hopes of scrubbing away a few weeks of dust and grime and sweat.

It didn't seem too much later that a bell started ringing downstairs, summoning everyone to the dining room to eat their evening meal and finish the day on a high note. There was no risk of getting lost for the guest in the house; the motion of people into the relevant room was evidence enough that this was where the food could be found. And what a spread - roasted beef, roasted potatoes, green beans and parsnips, and gravy enough to drown it all in for every one of the forty or so people who were sitting down to eat. There didn't seem to be any particular places for anyone, with the owners cramming in with everyone else as the dishes began to make the rounds, enough for every plate to be filled.

When he finally emerged from his room, Austin was clean, shaven, and dressed in a clean shirt and pants, albeit a bit worn. He'd done his best to brush his boots free of mud, and foregoing a hat, he'd even managed to comb his hair. It wasn't so much about impressing anyone, as it was about trying to look halfway presentable.

That was the same of everyone at the table. They had all worked a long day; the most that was asked of them was to appear with clean hands and faces. Austin was pulled down into a chair next to Dani as he arrived, his plate already filled by her in his absence. Jem was on her other side; opposite them were sat the master and mistress of the house, and the formidable cook, Mrs. Prudey.

"See you made it all right, then," Bridget chuckled to Austin warmly. "Dig in, tastes better hot."

"Don't mind if I do. It's been a while since I enjoyed a hot meal, such as this. Thank you, ma'am," Austin said in reply to Bridget. He'd let Dani pull him down next to her, even as awkward as it felt to sit so close to Jem with only her daughter separating them.

"Mrs. Prudey is in her glory cooking for the whole household these days," Sam remarked, digging into the meal like the rest of them. He hadn't really noticed the strained awkwardness between Jem and Austin, but then he didn't know much about their history either. "Dani, welcome again to Oakham Mount. How's it feel to be almost finished with school?" he asked, making polite conversation.

"Kinda weird," Dani said, quite happy to indulge in conversation in between two people who were not exactly in a talkative mood. "Oh my gods, these potatoes are gorgeous!"

Mrs Prudey chuckled. "Just you stick around, sweetheart, we'll put some meat on your skinny bones yet," she predicted, making the teenager laugh around her mouthful.

"Oops, sorry," Dani apologised, covering her mouth. "But yeah, it's weird that I only have, like, three exams and then I'm done. What am I gonna do with myself, you know?"

"Depends on what you wanna do with yourself, I reckon," Sam replied with a brief glance at Jem. It wasn't really like her to be so quiet, especially now that she'd been reunited with her daughter. "Whatever you decide, you're welcome to stay as long as you like," he assured her, though it kind of went without saying. "You might as well know, your mama has agreed to a partnership of sorts." He wasn't sure if she'd shared that with her daughter or not yet, but it wasn't really news to most of those who were seated at the table.

"Wow, really?" Dani blinked, grinning as she looked at her mother. "But you can't ride worth a damn," she pointed out in amusement. "Seriously," she added for the entertainment of everyone in earshot. "She can only ride side saddle, and even then, she falls off more than she stays on."

Jem blushed, rolling her eyes. "Yes, thank you, darling," she said pointedly. "This is more of a business deal. I know how to run the Mount as a business, so that's what I'll do."

"That's something she has in common with my wife," Sam remarked with a smirk and a wink at Bridget, who was just as much a lady as Jem, though she wasn't afraid to get her hands dirty when she needed to. A lot had changed at the ranch since Sam and Bridget had taken over ownership, and there was a lighter, friendlier feeling in the air that was hard to miss. "Mr. Barnes," Sam said, addressing Austin. "Same goes for you. Any friend of Jem's is a friend of ours."

Austin glanced briefly up from his plate, where he'd been trying to keep his attention focused while the others talked. "Thank you for your hospitality, but I won't be staying long. I'm only here on business, and as soon as that's concluded, I'll likely be on my way."

"And what is your business, if I can ask?" Bridget asked Austin curiously. "We weren't expectin' anyone new to pop up from the city, but for little Miss Stanley there."

"Hey, you're not that much older than me," Dani objected laughingly.

"Thanks for reminding me!" Sam remarked, chuckling at Dani's interjection. He was obviously older than Bridget, but not so old that he thought he was robbing the cradle.

"Um ..." Austin murmured, clearing his throat, almost hoping the lady of the house's question would be forgotten amidst the laughter.

"I think I can guess Mr. Barnes' business here, or at least part of it," Jem offered, not even glancing at the man as she spoke.

Bridget's brow rose as she looked between them, catching Dani's eye roll and fighting not to smirk. It would appear that words either had or had not been spoken, and it was a source of irritation to the teenager.
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Jemima Barnes
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PostPosted: Mon Jan 23, 2017 5:09 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

"Can you now?" Austin asked, at last shifting his gaze toward the woman who'd broken his heart so badly he didn't think it would ever be mended. She had ruined him for other women, though he had certainly tried to get over her. There just was no getting over Jemima Stanley, no matter how hard he tried. All he could hope for was that she didn't break his heart again.

"I think you had business with the former owner, or perhaps his favorite lap dog," Jem said, just barely managing to meet his gaze for a split second. "And when I say business, of course, I mean putting them out of it."

"Yeah, because Austin is awesome at that," Dani nodded enthusiastically, nudging the man with a teasing elbow as she grinned.

Clearly, Jem and Dani knew a lot more about Austin Barnes than anyone else who was sitting at the table. Sam was looking a little confused, and most of the idle conversation among the hands had quieted, while all eyes had shifted to the newcomer in their midst, who didn't seem to know that the former owner and his lap dog were no longer a problem where the ranch was concerned.

Austin sighed and laid his palms flat on the table, almost as if to show he was no threat to anyone seated there. "I'm here to collect a bounty," he explained, not bothering to mention just who that bounty was for.

There was silence for a moment, before Bridget looked to Sam. "There was a bounty on 'em?" she asked curiously, looking more than a little confused. "I thought they were just bastards who deserved what they got, not out and out actual criminals."

"Bridget," Jem sighed, though she couldn't help smiling. "I've told you about swearing."

"Aye, and you can polish a penny all you like, but underneath it's still just copper," Bridget answered cheerfully.

"Is," Austin clarified. Why everyone was talking in the past-tense made no sense to him, unless ... The missing pieces of the puzzle fell into place at last without explanation. That was why the McAlisters were running the ranch now. Rogier and Dobson had been pushed out of the way somehow, but how? He hadn't yet realized that they were both dead. "Dobson, mostly. There's a small fortune on his head for anyone brave enough to collect on it."

"You should go and collect it, then," Bridget told him cheerfully. "Been dead two weeks or more, and good riddance to him."

Jem winced, not entirely sure how Austin would take that. She didn't remember him as a man who would happily take the fruits of someone else's labor, however it had come about.

"Dead," Austin echoed, a look of mingled shock and confusion and maybe even a tinge of disappointment on his face. He'd been hoping to put that small fortune to good use, whether Jem continued to reject him or not.

Sam looked between the group, as if trying to size up the situation. From the look on his face, it seemed the bounty had been sizeable enough to have been important to the man's future plans, but he knew better than most that plans sometimes had a way of working themselves out in ways one could not predict. "I shot him," Sam said, without pride or remorse. It was no secret to those at the table, and not a single one of them could say that Dobson or Rogier had been missed. "He had it coming. Didn't know there was a bounty on his head. Reckon you're welcome to it," he told the man.

"Aye, we've no need of it," Bridget agreed. "And you can't come all this way for nothin'."

"But he didn't come for nothing, he -" Dani grunted as Jem's elbow caught her rather viciously in the side. The teenager grimaced, winced, and ducked her head, aware that she might have said something a little untoward there.

"Bounty was enough to settle down finally and buy myself a small place of my own," Austin said, glancing toward Jem, as if she might be part of that equation, if she wanted it. His glance said far more than his words, but it was enough for a few of those seated at the table to get the gist of it.

"Even more reason for you to collect on the bounty. Come by after dinner, and we'll talk about it," Sam said, and there was something else he wanted to mention, as well.

Jem glanced up, a little surprised. "You need me after dinner?" she asked Sam, wanting this clarified. After all, she had been hoping to spend some time with her daughter. Girly things to bond over after a long time parted.

"No," Sam assured Jem, though he thought that she and Mr. Barnes might have some things to discuss later on.

Austin paused a moment so that he didn't interrupt again before turning back to Sam. "I can't very well take credit for what someone else accomplished," he pointed out.

"Aye, and you can't win an argument with Sam, so I'd save your breath at least until you're in the study," Bridget suggested with a grin. "If you're a very lucky man, Mr. Barnes, I won't come in with you. If I do, you're doomed."

Austin furrowed his brows as he looked from one ranch owner to the other, but he knew better than to argue, especially at the dinner table. Whatever was going to be discussed between them would be discussed politely behind closed doors, not in front of all the hands and house staff, as well as Jem and her daughter. "Very well. After dinner, then," he conceded.

"So you'd better eat it," Mrs. Prudey pointed out, looking at everyone around her. "Honestly, I spend all this time in the kitchen, and you're all more interested in chatting than eating. I feel unappreciated." This set off a round of laughter from the men and women at the table, effectively putting an end to any further awkward conversation as the meal continued in a friendly manner.

Under the cover of the noise, Jem stole a look at Austin behind Dani's back, her eyes soft with loving memory. If only he would forgive her, perhaps ... But that was a cruel hope, she knew. He hadn't missed her, and he wasn't glad to see her. He just wanted to be gone.

If she'd been listening to anything he'd said, she'd know he was hurting as much as he was and that he'd had hopes of settling down someday to make a home of his own. But as much as she didn't seem to catch his drift, he hadn't caught hers either. He turned his attention back to the meal at hand, properly chastened by the cook, unaware that Jem had stolen a look at him behind her daughter's back.

It was a merry sort of gathering, and one that seemed destined to be repeated many, many times, over the many years ahead of them. It also took a long time to break up, for only the last evening chores were left to do, and the hands were reluctant to leave the family atmosphere and seek their beds in the barrack rooms, consoled only by the promise that the new building would be attached to this one when it was built. Eventually, however, the group began to break up, some to their chores, others to tidy up. Bridget was spirited away upstairs by Maud, both of them giggling like children, and Jem finally got some time alone with Dani.
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Jemima Barnes
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PostPosted: Mon Jan 23, 2017 5:10 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Sam ushered Austin into the drawing room, where the two men chatted privately and shared some of Rogier's best brandy. As much as Sam hated making use of Rogier's things, some of them were just too good to get rid of and the man's store of wines and liquors were one of them. It was well past time when most of the hands had already bedded down for the night when the doors to the drawing room opened again and Austin found his way back upstairs to his room, while Sam made his way to the suite of rooms he shared with his wife. The ranch owner had given the man a lot to think about, but he'd also given him a day or two to consider his words before he made any decisions.

Jem was on her rounds, having left Dani to relax and fall asleep on her own time. As self-appointed housekeeper, she took the responsibility for making sure all the lights were off and the important doors and windows locked personally, having established her rounds within days of Sam's takeover of the ranch. Thus, when Austin came back into the communal areas, it was to find most of them dark and warm, and the lights dimmed on the upper floor, to guide latecomers to bed.

He was half drunk on brandy, his mind swimming as he stumbled up the stairs. It had been a long time since he'd let any booze get to his head and even longer that he'd let a woman do the same. When he had, it had always been that same woman, unable to exorcise her from his mind no matter how hard he'd tried.

There was barely any sound from the rooms around them - the occasional rumble of voices from the married couples, the odd giggle from the rooms shared by girls. But the house was already asleep, for the most part, a hard-earned slumber that blanketed the night in a heavy sort of quiet. Ahead of Austin, a door opened, and Jem stepped out, smiling to herself as she drew it closed once again, satisfied that her daughter was sleeping peacefully. She turned toward her own room, and stopped, surprised to see Austin in the corridor.

"Do you need reminding where your room is?" she asked him softly. "The house takes a little getting used to."

"No, I'm getting there," he replied, not exactly denying her help, but not encouraging it either, allowing her to choose if she wanted to stay or go. "Might have had a little too much to drink. Your ... partner is a hard man to say no to," he pointed out, guiding himself along the hallway with the help of a hand.

"Oh good grief, how much did you two drink?" she asked, half-amused at the state of him. She took his arm to help him on his way. "I hope he didn't pressure you into anything you're uncomfortable with. He's a good man, but he does like to batter his point home with a stick sometimes."

"No, no battering," Austin assured her, grateful for her help, even if he was too proud to ask for it or thank her for it. "Just a bottle of the former master's best brandy and a business proposal," he told her, his half-drunken tongue letting slip more than he would have had he been sober.

"A business proposal?" This was news to Jem, but then again, she and Sam had yet to work out the finer details of being in partnership. She paused, giving Austin a gentle push to hold him upright against the wall as she opened his door. "In we go."

Once the door to his room was open, he stumbled inside, too inebriated to get undressed or even bother removing his boots. Instead, he collapsed on the bed, exhausted from the day's journey, his mind muddled from the brandy. "More like a job offer, I suppose," he clarified before he fell back on the bed, content to spend the rest of the night there without getting undressed. He smelled faintly of brandy and cigar smoke and something underneath that was all him, a masculine scent that marked him as himself.

"Oh, Austin ..." Jem sighed, seeing him flop down. She knew he would be in a foul temper the next morning if he fell asleep like that, and despite her best intentions to simply let him go his own way, she wouldn't do that to him. Setting the bedside lamp to dim, she sighed, crouching down to pull his boots off him. "What sort of job did he offer?" she asked, trying to keep him awake until she was done.

"Foreman," he replied, without hesitation. "He seems to think I'd make a good wrangler, knowing horses the way I do. Told him he should promote one of the hands, but he said none of them were experienced enough. He wants someone older, more responsible for the job." He laughed then at the thought of that. "You know how long it's been since I earned an honest living?" he asked her, putting up a hand to stop her before she could reply. "Don't answer that."

"It's a good offer," she said, when she was allowed to speak, setting his boots to one side and pulling his socks off him while she was down there. Rising, she knelt on the bed, working on removing his belt. "And I think you'd be good at it. A stable home, a good income, friends ... family, if you want it. There are worse things than being respectable, Austin."

Had he been sober, he might have stopped her or at the very least caught her hand, but it seemed he was either content with her tending him or too drunk to protest. "Family?" he echoed, somewhat dubiously. He hadn't had a family in as long as he could remember. He wasn't even sure what it felt like to be part of one anymore. "Would you be my family, Jem? You and Dani?" he asked, the brandy loosening his tongue again.

Her breath caught in her throat. It was just as well she knew him - she knew that he was a talkative, truthful drunk, and that truth just spilled out to shatter the very thin veil of restraint she had been clinging to since his failure to answer her in kind earlier that day. She sat heavily on the bed beside him, suddenly in tears. "Oh, Austin," she said again, her fingers winding through his. "If I thought, even for a moment, that you wanted us ... that you wanted me ... I'd propose to you on the spot."

He turned his head to regard her in the dim light, not so drunk that he didn't register her tears or her words, though he chose to ignore the part about proposing and focused on something else she'd said instead. "I've never stopped wanting you, Jemima," his drunken fool of an honest tongue told her. "Not then and not now."

"And you won't remember this conversation in the morning," she said regretfully. But despite that, she leaned down to kiss him, lips softly touching his in a tender promise. "No one but you, Aus. Ever."

Drunk or not, his fingers found her face and tangled in her hair. "I remember everything," he assured her, just as her lips found his. His kiss tasted mostly of brandy, but his lips were warm and soft and inviting, even if his body was too heavy and lazy and inebriated to do much more than kiss her. If it hadn't been for the brandy, he might have said more; then again, if it hadn't been for the brandy, she probably wouldn't be here at all. Kiss or no kiss, the brandy won the battle, and when their lips parted, his eyes were closed and he was softly snoring.

She knew the second he fell asleep - the hand that was tangled in her hair went limp, dragging her head to one side as it fell to his chest. Jemima snorted with laughter, pulling her head free. "Honey, I love you dearly, but if you remember any of this in the morning, it will be a miracle," she informed the sleeping man, easing back to finish what she had started. Off came his pants and his shirt, and after a certain amount of heaving him about, he was eventually placed with his head on the pillow and his body underneath the covers.

She kissed his forehead, smoothing his hair affectionately before leaving the room. But she wasn't gone for long ... just long enough to change into her own nightclothes and steal back across the corridor to slide into the bed beside him. He might not remember the details when he woke up, but she would be damned if she was going to let him forget she was there. It promised to be an interesting awakening.
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