Their wedding had taken place in mid-October, when summer’s heat had dissipated enough so that guests wouldn’t mind sitting in a crowded church for the ceremony.
Of course, Heidi had squawked a protest over the apparent immediacy of the event.
“Too soon!” she complained to anyone who would listen. “How can anybody possibly get ready for their nuptials in only five months?”
Connor, who was learning to take his future sister-in-law’s dramatics in stride, had pooh-poohed her horrified reaction.
“We ain’t aimin’ to rival the coronation of Queen Victoria,” he teasingly reminded her. “Just a simple service at Chaseburg Wayside Chapel, was how I was told this would happen.”
“Oh, silly man. Who described this whole process as bein’ simple?”
At that point, he was pretty sure his bride had mentioned the fact. But, as time went on, and more and more details began to emerge, he was discovering this word to be a complete contradiction in terms.
He had actually had few opportunities to talk about, with Anisa, the runaway train they had clearly been forced to board. For one thing, every time they were together, there were other subjects to discuss. About how pretty she was. How smart she was. How he was the luckiest man in the world that she had consented to be his wife. How happy her parents seemed to be about the union, and how warmly they had welcomed him into the family and made him feel at home.
Mostly, how much he enjoyed their canoodling in the front porch swing, in semi-privacy yet under the nearby watchful eye of her father.
The other thing was their actual lack of time together.
No matter what rosy dream world the two inhabited as a couple, separately and apart the mundane routine of life went on, with demands which must be dealt with. Anisa had assured her superior, Miss Trevor, and their common employer, that she would remain at the library for a few more months, until her substitute could be hired and trained. As for Connor—well. His plans had just become more complicated. After all, there was that small matter of a thriving business and a comfortable residence calling his name, back in Hollytree.
For too many weeks he had relied upon the offices of his good friend, Dermot Englewood, to watch over both premises and let him know if any problems arose. Luckily—over the course of his occupation with taking down an old enemy and consorting with a new about-to-be bride—none had.
Still, he must come to a decision soon. Did he return to Hollytree on a semi-regular or a permanent basis, or did he make a new life somewhere around (or possibly on) the Arrowhead Ranch? Meanwhile, leaving Bruno behind to the tender mercies of Willy McDaniel, he had managed to take several journeys by rail back to what he considered his home town, to spend an equal amount of time with the attorney concerning all the ins and outs of running a business.
With less than 300 miles separating Hollytree from Chaseburg, it was an easy day’s travel in the comfortable seating of Paladin Northeast Locomotive’s passenger car. Once, in fact, he had dared invite his beloved to journey with him. She had excitedly accepted, and they had had a marvelous experience enjoying the sights and sounds of his former stomping grounds.
Naturally, her parents had expected to be invited along, as well; what demure young lady would ever dream of some sojourn alone and unchaperoned, even with her intended? Naturally, Connor had invited both Walter and Cecily. Why not make it a family affair? He had wanted them to see where he had spent the most satisfying several years of his whole life, and appreciated being able to show off what he had, under the auspice of Charlie Bishop, accomplished.
His only bone of contention, thus far during the betrothal period of his relationship with Anisa, was the fact that, had it been his doing, and his alone, the couple would have repeated their vows months ago, and hang the problem of heat!
At any rate, Heidi, half over the moon at her prospect of serving as maid of honor, had decided she would take on the task of arrangements. Gowns, flowers, cake, ceremony, reception, music, menu…Connor’s role, in what she had planned for the lengthy day, came about dead last as far as importance, in her scheme of things. Well aware that he might pitch a fit, like some pony bucking off its saddle, were he to find out all the details, she hadn’t even bothered to inform him of anything other than the date and time. Oh, and to describe the formal attire in which he must be dressed.
As if he didn’t know how to dress, he had snorted at her telling of this indignity. You’d’a thought this was Heidi’s affair, insteada her sister’s. And why couldn’t the girl g’wan and get married soon, herself, anyway, so he could pull the same sorta stunts on her day of days? She and the deputy were beginnin’ to make a regular twosome, after all; might as well finalize the contract.
Heidi had, as usual, put her perky little nose into the air with disdain. “I admit that we’re keepin’ company now and then, Mr. Kane and I. But hardly on a regular basis. Nor have I any intention of marryin’ anyone right now. I’m but nineteen, lemme remind you, and I wanna get out and see the world b’fore I haveta become somebody’s wife.”
“Huh. Don’t figure on your sister bein’ all that upset about the notion.”
“Well, of course not. She’s head over heels, you big lunkhead, and she hardly knows what week we’re in. Good thing she has me to take care of all the particulars.”
“Good thing,” Connor had echoed gloomily.
Well, he supposed it was worth going through whatever shenanigans Heidi was setting up, if it meant having his girl forever in his arms after that.
As it turned out, the October weather for their wedding day rolled in as perfect and sublime. The church, located near Courthouse Square, filled to overflowing with relatives and friends of the family, along with floral arrangements of every type, color, and size.
Heidi had done a fine job discharging every intricate detail, Connor had to admit from his position near the altar with Jonny at his side, and the place was beautiful.
But not as beautiful as the woman walking down the aisle toward him with such elegance and grace, escorted by her proud father. A vision in shimmering satin, with a V-necked bodice to display her mother’s strand of pearls, long sleeves flounced wide with lace, and a bell-shaped skirt which swayed gently with every step.
Connor hoped that no one sitting in the pews, entranced, happened to glance his way to notice the tears in his eyes.
Then he realized that, unmanly or not, he didn’t really care.
Life had treated him so unkindly during his first sixteen years on this earth. Then, for the next half-dozen or so, he figured that was a toss-up. Only now, with the meeting and acquisition of this woman, his helpmate, his partner, his soul mate, did he feel his life was really beginning.
The celebration, set up in the Top Hat restaurant’s large dining room, went long into the night after the service was completed. Food, music, dancing, drinks—what more could any guest want? Toward the end, things got a mite rowdy, with Jonathan threatening the hoosegow for every last one of them.
Connor knew nothing about that at the time. At the urging of both parents, he and his bride had long since slipped away, to some unknown location (actually his best man’s house, who would be spending the night elsewhere) to avoid the inevitable shivaree. Early in the morning they would sneak to the train station, transported by a no doubt hungover deputy, for a honeymoon journey to visit New Orleans—for no particular reason other than the fact that neither had ever visited the city.
Upon their return, several weeks later, they were happy to stay at the ranch, in Anisa’s old room, “till you get yourselves settled,” as Walter put it, in a talk with his new son-in-law. Clearly, he was hoping the couple would remain there, to provide an extra hand on the reins of management and, eventually, inheritance. That was something only time would tell, of course, but in the meantime this seemed an ideal solution for everyone.
Nearly a year later, Mr. and Mrs. Strong were still residing in their second-floor suite. But this was only a temporary arrangement. Their own home, a nice two-story affair designed by an architect recently relocated to Chaseburg from St. Louis, was nearly completed on the plot of land deeded over to the couple upon their decision to stay.
“Mmmm, this is so nice,” murmured Anisa, from the shelter of her husband’s strong arm. “Heidi and I so often chose this place at the end of day, just as you and I have tonight, to discuss our troubles and talk over girly things.”
Easily turning his head, Connor took a kiss from her temple, then her cheek. “Not so many girly things now.”
“No. But I have so many happy memories of those times, and now these with you and me. Heaven,” she sighed, snuggling in a bit closer. “Utter heaven.”
With supper finished and clean-up efficiently effected, the family had scattered.
The senior Steins had elected to keep company in the parlor, with windows open to the evening breeze and coffee cups conveniently placed on side tables. Walter, stretched out on the sofa, was supposedly reading a book. Except that the covers lay flat and open across his middle, and he seemed to be struggling to keep his eyes at more than half-mast. Cecily had put aside her basket of mending for the more pleasurable fancy work that involved embroidering a dresser scarf.
As for Heidi, she was long gone.
Jonathan had appeared in Pickway’s rentable red-trimmed surrey, and the two were indulging in an evening drive. Her parents had approved, and her reputation was safe.
Because last week, with his promotion to Sheriff now that Tom Mathers was officially retiring, he had appeared with a box of chocolates for Mrs. Stein, a dusty bottle of aged cognac for Mr. Stein, and an exquisite opal engagement ring (“Close to bein’ the color of your eyes, darlin’,” her suitor had enthused.) for Miss Heidi Stein.
Now, since she was officially betrothed, Heidi was already planning to turn the tables on her sister with an even more elaborate wedding ceremony and celebration. No date having yet been set, she felt she had plenty of time to make her arrangements. Unless, as was entirely possible, the rash and foolhardy girl decided to throw caution to winds and elope, just for the excitement of the thing.
At any rate, Walter was taking a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction in the fact that one daughter was now wed and well-established and the other was nearly so.
“Oh, Connor, dear, what a wonderful life we have,” said Anisa, thinking over all of these blessings and the events of the past one and a half years.
He was almost too content to move. And, surprisingly, slightly weary. One of Walter’s prized cigars rested inside his breast pocket, but the atmosphere was mellow enough, romantic enough, to forego such potent delights for another time less propitious.
Bruno had been moved permanently to the ranch and was treated to a kingly existence, although he still put up a fuss when struck by an obstinate mood. Still, he seemed to revel in the rides he and his master took over the property, in company with the owner of all these acres.
Connor was settling in deeper and deeper, learning so much of the ins and outs of ranch work, raising cattle and livestock, attempting to predict and deal with market prices and weather—all those important facts he had missed in his earlier years.
So far, he was still keeping his hand in with Bishop’s Bounty Hunters.
He and Dermot Englewood had established a partnership for the profession, and things were working out quite well. A day’s travel took him north or Dermot south, whenever necessary, and often Anisa was encouraged to join him—and delighted to do so. After much discussion, they had sold the Hollytree house; but, so far, the partnership between two honest and hardworking men was flourishing.
And Connor no longer set out alone on his quests for wanted men, for Dermot had, with Connor’s approval, hired two more employees anxious to prove their mettle.
The name of Bishop’s was beginning to acquire quite a solid reputation in the middle south, from Missouri to Kansas, from Oklahoma to Arkansas to the Hill Country of Texas. A lot of lawbreakers must have jumped bail recently, Connor reflected, or eluded capture by the authorities altogether, because business was brisk.
“You’re very quiet tonight,” Anisa teased, as a stray shaft of moonlight eased beneath the porch roof and slanted across his face.
“Yeah, maybe. Just like you—thinkin’. Got so much to be thankful for, darlin’. Especially me. And everything started with you.” Lifting the hand he had been caressing, he bent his head to add a kiss to the palm.
“With both of us,” she gently corrected. “All because of a book.”
They had sometimes marveled over that fact, and Anisa had sometimes wondered what might have happened had Connor never arrived in Chaseburg, had he never stopped by the library, had she been absent on an errand or a day off. The thought of that terrible possibility still sent chill bumps racing along her skin in a what-if scenario.
“Have you heard any more of those nightmare creatures, the Blacks?”
“I was mighty relieved to see the last of the trials for all four of ’em.” His expression darkened briefly at the memory of what so many had suffered due to their crimes.
The family had languished in county jail for a good many months while a number of investigations were set into motion. Although they were awaiting trial, the presiding judge refused even to consider any amount of bail. Which ended up being the right decision.
Meanwhile, it was discovered that the attack upon the Wesley homestead, which had haunted Connor all these years, had not wreaked the devastation previously thought. Noah Wesley had been shot by bullets from Darian’s weapon, it was true. Shot and wounded, but not killed, to Connor’s immense relief. He had survived to report the crime and its perpetrators and gone on to care for his wife and children, after all.
“Another thing that thievin’ skunk lied about,” Connor said bitterly.
“In this case, it was for the best,” was Anisa’s reassurance.
Connor, called upon to testify, had made a painful trip back to the Missouri Breaks and done his duty as a sworn witness, spending far too much time in Three Forks. With Anisa at his side. He doubted he would have had the strength or courage to continue if not for her loving support.
“The more the authorities dug into their past, the wider the area they went into, the more dirt they found,” he commented now, spreading her fingers open against his to examine the contrast in sizes, as if he had never seen them before. “That bunch of no-goods cast a wide net.”
“It’s interesting,” said Anisa, ever the librarian reporting facts from some book of knowledge, “how all the pieces eventually fell into place. Like putting a jigsaw puzzle together, bit by bit.”
“Well, I hope we’re finally all past that nastiness. Don’t care if I never hear the name Black again in my lifetime.”
He squirmed down a little farther and gave the swing a tentative push with one foot. For a few minutes they rocked slowly back and forth in silence, listening to the chirp of crickets, the call of whippoorwills, the lowing of cattle, the hoot of a hunting owl, the distant lonely cry of a coyote far off in the bush. Night sounds. Accustomed sounds. Reassuring sounds.
From inside came a sudden thump, the noise carried out through the open windows.
Anisa started, then giggled. “Papa has dropped his book again. I declare, that man will never finish it. He’s been working on ‘The Mysterious Island’ for months now, and he always falls asleep before he’s gotten through two pages.”
“I can follow that.” Connor’s chuckle ended up in a yawn. “Have we got a lot goin’ on t’morrow, do you know?”
“More field work for you boys, I do believe. At supper tonight, Papa mentioned moving one of the smaller herds to fresh pasture.”
“Shucks, I missed that. Talkin’ to your ma about the blackberry cobbler she was givin’ us. Man, that woman can cook.”
“She certainly can, and she’s taught me everything I know,” Anisa primly responded. “You’ll be able to see the full extent of my talent once I have my own kitchen.”
“Yeah, that’ll be a blessin’. I appreciate your folks takin’ us in under their own roof till our place is finished, but—huh.” He pulled her closer for a bold caress best done in the twilight, as now. “I sure will be happy havin’ the privacy of our own room. I like havin’ you in my bed, Mrs. Strong, and nobody around to listen in.”
She accepted, she enjoyed, she responded. Two could play the game of fondling what might be off-limits for most of the day.
“Connor,” she said finally, breathlessly.
“Ahuh.” He was more intent on achieving his aims, but she laid several fingers across his importunate lips.
“Yeah, darlin’. You got somethin’ to ask me more important than this?”
“Not ask. Tell.” She pushed gently at his chest, then less gently. “Sit up and pay attention.”
Sighing, he obeyed. “Yeah, darlin’,” he repeated, with small patience.
“Connor.” In the semi-darkness, populated by a whole colony of fireflies, she smiled tenderly at him. “Connor, sweetheart, I’m so relieved we planned our new house the size it is.”
“Why is that? You got people comin’ to visit that I dunno about?”
“Just one, that I’m aware of. And you’ll know soon enough.” Her smile broadened and brightened. “Next March, it would seem.”
He blinked. “March? Why so long?”
“Well, because that’s the normal time it takes for—oh, Connor, you great idiot.” She emitted flutters of laughter. “I am with child. Our baby is due in the spring.”
“Child. Baby. Spring.” Connor looked completely kerflummoxed, as if he had been poleaxed right between the eyes. Then reason and joy took over, and he grabbed her swift, hard, and fierce.
“Oh, Annie, darlin’! Are you serious? Are you sure?”
“Yes, to both. I’ve already seen Dr. Lyndell, and he’s assured me that all is well. I think he must have doctored horses in a previous life, because he thinks I’m in fine fettle.”
More laughter, and a few tears.
Before sharing the news with her parents, they spent a while cuddling and canoodling and whispering of all the more dreams for their future.
A future which would now continue with the third generation.
Sparked by one classic, heavy, leather-bound volume of Les Misérables, which would forever hold an honored place in the library of their new home.