#8 in the Delgado Legacy series
Word count: 4,050
Through the rounded Central California hills on a warm, glorious June day, Mrs. Marcy Dane directed her one-horse shay towards her last hope.
For the better part of three years, she had been trying to extricate her son Jeff from the near-fatal mess of his life. The death of his cohort and his two-plus years in the army prison had, with excruciating slowness, begun to show him the errors he’d made that put him behind bars for twenty years (if he behaved himself). Marcy thanked God that Murdoch Lancer had spoken to the military tribunal. His words had probably saved her son’s life. Of course, he had spoken more about the values of forgiveness and the hope for rehabilitation than about Jeff’s good qualities, but it had been enough to save him from the gallows. Murdoch’s refusal to press charges for the theft of the Lancer payroll money had even spared her the humiliation of facing a trial of her own for aiding her son in his attempt to flee the country with the stolen money.
From the day Jeff had gone into prison, Marcy had labored like Hercules to get her boy to start saying and doing things that would win support and sympathy. It’s true that he sometimes made a bad impression when he blamed others for the bad things that happened in his life. But that wasn’t entirely his fault. Her late husband had doted on their son, and he always tried to put a good face on setbacks and disappointments where Jeff was concerned. That had confused Jeff about the difference between letting bad luck roll off his back and not accepting responsibility. Their son had not learned from him that being resilient is different from being self-serving. Looking back, she could tell Tom had been unclear about a lot of those distinctions in life. Jeff had inherited that weakness from him, and all the difficulties in his life had started with Tom.
Marcy had reassessed Murdoch as well. She had been doing a lot of thinking since the terrible day Jeff and his companion had stolen the payroll and Murdoch caught up with them as they fled for the San Francisco harbor. What he had said then about Jeff and his excuses made sense at the time, but she had dwelled on that confrontation on many a sleepless night, and she saw things differently now. Of course, Murdoch believed his assessment, given his limited knowledge of Jeff. But because Murdoch had never come to visit them in Sacramento, he didn’t have the chance to know Jeff in better days or meet Tom and see his influence on their son. Jeff wasn’t bad. He was just weak. The weak can be protected from themselves. With the proper influences, weakness can be lessened, even conquered. Jeff had finally convinced her of that over the course of her many visits with him in the army prison.
Now was the time for her to give Murdoch an opportunity to redeem himself and see that he’d been wrong when he’d judged Jeff so harshly. The only reason Jeff had threatened him was out of emotional distress because his friend had just died. That made so much sense after the fact, when Jeff explained it to her. She would present that argument to Murdoch—not right away, but after she had healed their broken relationship. He would come to understand all of it as she had. He would see it clearly. She would find a way. She would give Murdoch a second chance as surely as she was giving one to Jeff.
Ever since that day last year when Jeff hadn’t blamed Murdoch for what happened, Marcy knew he was ready to face a parole hearing. Starting that very next day, she had spent nearly every waking hour seeking the assistance of powerful men all across northern California to get Jeff’s sentence reduced or—if it pleased the Almighty—paroled. She just knew that once her boy was free again, he would be grateful and he would buckle down. She had met with military leaders, state senators, and business leaders in Sacramento and San Francisco and pleaded Jeff’s case. She had socialized with men who had expressed an interest in helping her, and even a few who merely expressed an interest in her. She had done a few things in which she could take little pride, but it was all done for her boy, so she had been willing to take those chances.
Alas, it had been for naught. The men with the power to help weren’t interested in Jeff’s case, and the ones who were interested had no influence in the matter. So, here she found herself, once again on the road to the place that caused the beginning of the end.
When she saw the Lancer house for the first time in those three long years, she could tell that Murdoch had continued to do well for himself. It looked as if there were a few more buildings than there had been last time, and the house looked freshly-painted and well-maintained. Good. That could mean Murdoch would be in a generous mood. She would take advantage of every possible benefit.
Marcy had studied and restudied what she had done last time, and she could see all the mistakes she had made in her efforts to seduce—well, win over—Murdoch. She had mistaken his initial joy in seeing her again with lingering passion and underestimated how much work it would take to get him. She’d moved much too fast. She’d assumed that she and Murdoch could simply begin their relationship where it ended when she married Tom instead. She should have tried to win Murdoch all over again instead of counting on his forgiving nature. He had been so lonely when he had courted her before, having recently lost his no-good second wife when she ran off with that gambler. Marcy hadn’t allowed for the fact that he might recover himself somewhat in the intervening years. How silly of her, in her own desperation, to forget that people can change.
She also hadn’t cultivated good relationships with his sons. She’d won over the girl who lived with them, but girls are naturally sympathetic, especially with matters of the heart. Those boys, however, must have been her downfall. She’d walked in to hear that gunfighter one, Johnny, talking ill of her. How many other times had the professional troublemaker worked on Murdoch when she wasn’t around? The older son had seemed neutral, but, at this late stage of the game, that wasn’t good enough. This time, if she couldn’t turn them into allies, she would have to get them out of the way until she finished her work.
So many mistakes. But she would not make them again. In the hope that his memory of the events would fade, she had forced herself not to write to Murdoch since Jeff’s trial. She had only written to him just a few days ago so the letter would arrive the day before she did. That way, he would not be shocked by her arrival, but he also wouldn’t have enough time to listen to anyone (his sons) who would fill his ears with unfortunate recollections and hateful opinions that might turn him against her. When she arrived, she would be sensible, friendly, and cautious. She would cultivate friendships with Scott and Johnny and that girl who lived with them. She would be interested in everyone, but by God this time she would not push.
She knew Murdoch. She knew what a soft soul he was, hidden under that craggy Irish exterior. (Or was it Welsh?) This time, she would succeed. She would win him, marry him, and get him to convince the provost marshal to organize a hearing to release her son to Murdoch’s custody. Then he would finally have the chance to make something of Jeff. Yes. She could feel it in her bones. This time it would work.
As she approached the house, she saw a few cowboys and vaqueros, who gave her nods of respect. A good sign! Murdoch must have told them to give her every courtesy. She could feel her heart rising.
When Marcy reached the house, no one came out to greet her. Well, how would they know what time she was arriving? Still, one would think he’d have a lookout posted who would signal the household about her arrival. When she became mistress of the house, she would have to address that oversight. She climbed out of the low buggy and hitched the horse to the rail in front of the veranda. She approached the door and knocked. As she waited, she tapped her fingers together with anticipation.
The door opened, and a handsome, rather petite Mexican woman greeted her with a pleasant smile but no recognition. Hmm, how had Murdoch not informed the housekeeper about her arrival?
Then the servant redeemed herself with a bright smile. “You must be Mrs. Dane! Please, come in after your long journey.” The woman stepped aside, and Marcy marched through the door that she hoped would soon be hers to open for guests.
The Mexican woman, who by Marcy’s standards was much too well-dressed for a housekeeper, escorted her to the great room. Oh, this magnificent room, how she looked forward to redecorating it!
“Mrs. Dane,” the woman said, talking like a peer instead of a servant (she would have to do something about that soon), “I regret that you have had unfortunate timing in your journey here. Murdoch and eScott left two days ago for a cattle auction in eStockton.”
This woman called Murdoch by his first name? And she was reading his mail? Marcy ruffled at that familiarity, and she had the sudden, dreadful thought that he might be sleeping with the housekeeper. Oh, could it be that the second time she’d left him, after Jeff’s trial, had damaged Murdoch’s feelings for her so thoroughly that he had resorted to such a base comfort? Was that a good sign or a bad one? The mamacita was away when Marcy had been here before. Had Murdoch sent her away? Had he needed to send her away? Was this even the same woman? This one didn’t act like she’d been a servant for very long. Whatever the details might be, it would have to stop.
“So, my letter did arrive,” she said, trying to be subtle. “I wasn’t sure I mailed it in time.”
The woman nodded. “Yes, it arrived here yesterday afternoon. Murdoch asked me to open his mail in his absence.”
Marcy ruffled again. More familiarity! She would have to talk with the man about his casual ways with his servants.
The woman gestured for her to sit, indicating what Marcy knew to be the most comfortable chair in the room. Well, that deference seemed a good sign. “Tell me, when do you expect your master to return?”
The woman frowned at her with no small amount of confusion, then smiled. “Oh, Mrs. Dane, I do apologize. I did not introduce myself. Murdoch is not my master. He is my husband.”
Marcy had been halfway down to the chair when she froze. What the hell? Oh, uh, what on earth? She stood up straight with all the dignity she could muster. She eyed the woman. When did this happen? How had this woman trapped him? And hadn’t Murdoch learned his lesson about Mexican women after his wife left him?
Marcy realized she must have revealed her thoughts when she saw the woman’s gaze turn colder and she eyed her with sharp discernment.
“I’m very pleased to meet you,” Marcy managed to say. “…How long have you been married?”
The woman apparently had been fooled by her civility, because her coolness eased and she smiled with contentment. “Next year, it will be twenty-five years.” She shook her head. “How the time has flown.”
Marcy stared at her. This…could not…be happening. Was she trapped in a strange dream? She managed to choke out one of the hardest words she had ever said: “Congratulations.”
As the woman…Mrs. Lancer…Murdoch’s wife…called to the real housekeeper to make some tea, Marcy tried to clear the cotton out of her head and do some arithmetic. Twenty-five years? Good Lord, this must be Johnny’s mother. She had returned! And, in spite of all the cruel things she had done, Murdoch had taken her back!
The woman—she couldn’t bring herself to call her Mrs. Lancer again—sat in another chair and gestured for her to take the seat of honor. Marcy did, trying to recalculate. Could she supplant this woman? Or would she have to settle for sympathy from an old friend to solve her problem?
The woman—wait, she recalled her name now, it was María—gave her a small, kind smile. “And how is your eson? I understand from Murdoch that he has had some difficulties recently.”
Marcy thought a very bad word. How much had Murdoch told this woman? “That’s actually why I’ve come to visit. I was hoping Murdoch—your husband,” she managed to force out, “could help me. Jeff is doing so much better, and I was hoping that he could help by speaking with the provost marshal about a parole.”
María thought for a moment. “It is my understanding that esome of your eson’s difficulties were very serious. Did not two men die? I am grieved to say that I cannot imagine the army would release your eson merely because a man with no connection to him asked.”
Marcy hated laying her cards on the table, but as her original plan had collapsed, she felt she had no choice. “I was hoping if Murdoch pledged to keep Jeff here as a condition of his parole, it might work.”
María’s face grew serious. “You wish for Murdoch to take in your eson and assume a father’s responsibility for him.”
Damn this woman for being so perceptive! “No,” she retorted sharply, “not like a father. But more like treating Jeff like a special, favorite ranch hand. Scott and Johnny could help him, much more than Murdoch.” That last had limped out badly, but she hoped this woman hadn’t noticed.
A slight chill passed over the woman’s face. “Johnny?”
“Yes.” Oh, Dear Lord, had something happened to that meddling gunfighter son of his? Of course, if it had, it might work to her advantage. Murdoch might want to fill that void with another “son.” Besides, that troublemaker was the biggest obstacle to her plans…other than his mother.
“Who is Johnny?”
Marcy stared at her. “Johnny. Murdoch’s second son.”
María regarded her with a distant gaze and a wrinkle in her brow. “I do not know who you mean.”
Marcy looked around the room. No, this was too vivid to be a dream, or, rather, a nightmare. She caught a glimpse of a movement out in the front hallway. That must be Johnny. This woman was having her on!
María turned to look at the sound, then smiled as a young woman appeared in the great room’s doorway. “Mija, please come meet an old friend of your father’s.”
Marcy stood with astonishment as a pretty young woman who bore an uncanny resemblance to Johnny gave her a sweet smile and entered the room. María stood as the girl joined her. “Mrs. Marcia Dane, I would like to introduce to you our daughter, Ángela Lancer.”
The girl gave her a polite “How do you do?” as Marcy stared at her. Since when did Murdoch have a daughter? For a brief moment, she even wondered…no, this wasn’t Johnny in a dress, they weren’t playing a prank on her.
María explained to her daughter, “Mrs. Dane is a widow.”
The girl’s face fell. “Oh, I’m sorry for your loss.”
Marcy shook off the condolence. “He died years ago.” She squinted at the girl. “Where’s your brother?”
“He’s at the cattle auction with—”
“No,” Marcy said with more emotion than she intended, “not Scott—”
María interrupted, “Mija, call María Martínez. Tell her to bring Mrs. Dane some cool lemon water. I’m afraid eshe is overheated from her journey.” In a confidential, yet deliberate, tone, she added, “She is confused. Mrs. Dane seems to think that Murdoch has a eson named Johnny.”
The girl looked at her mother with widened eyes, then looked at Marcy with an opaque expression.
“Yes,” Marcy stated, “your brother. He looks just like you.”
The girl didn’t react, her dark eyes solemn, as if she didn’t know what to say.
“Johnny,” Marcy said with more urgency. “Johnny, the gunfighter.”
The girl turned her large eyes to her mother, waiting for guidance.
María nodded slightly in the direction of the kitchen. The girl obeyed and left in search of the housekeeper. María gave Marcy a look of benevolent condescension. “Please, Mrs. Dane, sit down and rest. You have had a very long journey.”
Marcy’s head began to spin, and she had to sit down. This couldn’t be happening. She had talked with Johnny. She specifically remembered him complaining about her behind her back. There was no daughter. If there had been, Jeff would have tried to charm her, and she would have encouraged that connection. But if there were a daughter, and she happened to be away…or what about that girl who lived with the family…had she confused them…somehow…?
Marcy stood abruptly. “Mrs. Lancer, I feel I’m trespassing on your hospitality. I should leave.”
“Mrs. Dane, I must insist that you stay. You are not well.”
Marcy flinched as the woman moved to take ahold of her. She pulled her arm out of reach. “Stay away from me.”
The woman who called herself Mrs. Lancer took a step back. “Please, señora, we only wish to help you.”
Marcy shook her head. “You’re trying to confuse me. I know what I know. You’re lying to me.” She caught a glimpse of a man in the hallway. “There! There he is!”
To her horror, as the man approached, he turned into someone she had never seen before. Old, short, whiskered. He gave her a queer look. “Ma’am, is everything okay?”
“You’re not who I thought you were.”
Mrs. Lancer gave him a look of dread, then gestured towards Marcy. “Señora Dane, Señor Hoskins has worked at the ranch for many years. You must remember him.” Then she said to the man in a low, harsh voice, “Jelly, don’t let her escape.”
The man’s eyes widened. He put his hands out in a placating gesture and took a step towards her. “Ma’am, don’t you worry, everything’s going to be all right.”
“You stay away from me.” She sorted through her scrambled thoughts. Yes, the windows behind her really were doors. She took a step back, then spun and dashed to the nearest French door, grabbing the handle. The latch refused to open for a moment. She glanced back in terror as the woman and whiskered man approached her with caution. The latch finally yielded, and she dashed outside, stumbling on the threshold but not falling.
She hurried to her shay and yanked the lead off the hitching rail, then scrambled into the buggy. She pulled the reins hard to the left, then whipped the horse into a canter and fled.
Marcy was about a quarter mile from the house when she saw a cowboy off to her right on a palomino. He looked at her with concern, but she only glanced at him. He could have been Johnny, but maybe he wasn’t. It didn’t matter. She was never going back to that house again. If Murdoch really had married that crazy woman, he deserved her.
María awoke from her siesta to the sound of the bedroom door opening. She gave the approaching figure a sleepy smile and stretched.
Murdoch sat on the edge of the bed and regarded her with some curiosity.
“How was the auction?” she asked.
“Just fine,” he said, sweeping aside the topic. “Would you please tell me what happened?”
“What happened when?” she replied, unable to keep the smile from her face.
He regarded her for a long moment, then gently brushed the sides of her mouth and lips with his finger.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m getting rid of the feathers of that canary you ate.”
She wanted to pretend she didn’t know that saying, but she couldn’t help smiling again as she sat up on the bed. “Some canaries deserve what they get.”
“We have a son who swears he saw an old friend of mine leaving the house at a gallop—”
“He exaggerates. It was no more than a canter.”
“—And we have a daughter who is refusing to answer questions, and who only said, several times, ‘ask your wife.’”
She frowned with a hint of drama. “She did not say ‘my mother’?”
“Apparently she thinks it’s dangerous to be associated with you.”
“I am most hurt by this display,” she said with a pout that usually worked to derail oncoming trains.
This time, the pout didn’t work. “What did you do to Marcy Dane?”
María thought for a long moment, then said in a serious tone, “Did you read her letter?”
“Yes. She said it had been too long since she’d written to me, and she was stopping by on her way south and hoped to speak with me about her son.”
“I know how you are, mi corazón. When you are with old friends, often you do not esee their faults. And the ones with the most faults know this.”
“What are you talking about?”
She felt a sudden awkwardness at telling him the truth. He would not believe her, of course, because of his kindhearted blindness. “After you told me about what happened with her eson, I asked eScott about it. His estory was somewhat different from yours.”
Murdoch frowned. Apparently, he did not appreciate Scott’s honesty.
“Johnny also had estrong opinions about her.”
His frown deepened.
She continued, “Your friend, whom you found appealing only in a time of tremendous emotional distress, for which I accept my eshare of the blame—”
“Would you stop saying that?”
“It is the truth. But I honor your request. Your friend came here to try again to eseduce you eso you would have to accept responsibility for her son.”
Murdoch sat back and shook his head. “That’s nonsense.”
María said nothing, watching him as he tried to disbelieve her.
“Really,” he said with less certainty, “I think you’re exaggerating.”
“If you had eseen the look on her face and the daggers in her eyes when I told her that I was your wife and not the housekeeper, you would not argue with me.”
“I’m not arguing.”
She laid a gentle hand on his cheek. “Is it impossible for you to imagine a woman would turn to you to help with a grand problem? After all, she did this once before. Why eshould she not try another time?”
“Because she didn’t succeed. Why would she try again?”
She smiled gently. “I failed before with you. Twice. And yet, here I am.”
For a moment, he pondered her words, and then he smiled and kissed her. “I suppose I am fairly irresistible.”
Even with a small smile on her lips, she squinted. “There is nothing fair about it.”
He kissed her again. “But what exactly did you do to her?”
She thought, then said, “Ask your daughter.” He leaned back with an exaggerated sigh of frustration, but she said, “She is the newspaper writer. She can give you an unbiased report. My version would be about how intelligent and heroic I was in defending you.”
He leaned forward again, close enough to be within kissing distance. “I like the idea of having an intelligent and heroic wife. I might like your version better.”
She regarded him with a sparkle in her eyes. “If that is true…. Once upon a time, there was a fickle woman with a weak and dishonorable son. She did not appreciate a handsome and kindhearted king among men, who had a beautiful, and intelligent, and heroic wife, who knew exactly how to make her leave and never come back….”
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