Characters: Vin Tanner, Ezra Standish, Buck Wilmington, Charlotte Black Sparrow, Cecily Black Desjardins
Notes: Thanks to strangevisitor7 for the beta.
Summary: Vin looks toward the future and discovers that dreams can be reality.
New Mexico Territory, Autumn, 1867
The afternoon sun hung in the western sky, its golden light warming the cool wind blowing down from the Organ Mountains to the north. It had been a fine autumn so far, and Vin had every expectation that the weather two days hence would be perfect for Chris and Charlotte’s wedding. Pushing his hat farther back on his head, he surveyed the arch that they were constructing in the back garden for the ceremony. It would be finished by the end of the day; or it would if there were less chattering and bickering and more work getting done.
“It’s crooked, Ezra! Surely even you can see that,” Cecily scolded from her perch on the low fence that edged the rose garden.
Vin stifled a chuckle at the peeved look on his friend’s face. Cecily had been supervising the work, with most of her suggestions and complaints directed at her brother.
Turning, Ezra waved the hammer in his hand at her in exasperation. “Since it appears I am unable to meet your exacting standards, Cecily, perhaps you’d care to take over?”
Tossing her head, she sniffed. “Really, Ezra, a lady does not engage in menial labour.”
Vin snickered, while Buck, at the top of the ladder, almost lost his balance as he started to laugh uproariously.
“Gee, pard, that sounds kinda familiar,” Buck pointed out, breathless from laughter.
“Do not even start, Buck,” Ezra warned.
The big man placed a palm against his chest protesting his innocence and Ezra rolled his eyes.
“I am sure there must be tasks in the house more suitable to your ladylike sensibilities,” Ezra said pointedly. “There is a wedding the day after tomorrow, you might recall?”
“I prefer being outdoors, breathing in the fresh air,” she said lightly. “And the view is so much more pleasing, after all.” The last was said with a brilliant smile, a smile Vin realized was directed at him.
Vin returned the smile, thinking his view weren’t so bad neither, while Ezra sighed long-sufferingly. Vin knew it was all for show; despite the nearly constant bickering and teasing, Cecily and his good friend loved each other dearly. They might not be related by blood, but they were kin in their heart and soul. It had been twelve years since they had last seen one another, but after three days together, you would have never known they’d spent so much time apart, instantly falling back into the rapport of a childhood raised lovingly together under Charlotte’s roof.
“Perhaps you might find the strength within yourself to help me serve refreshments, Cecily,” Charlotte said wryly, walking towards them carrying a tray with a pitcher and glasses.
Cecily, startled by her mother's sudden appearance, jumped to her feet, suddenly looking more like a chastened little girl than the poised woman she was. “Let me take that, Mama,” she said meekly, removing the tray from Charlotte’s hands. She shot a glare at Ezra as he chortled at her sudden change in attitude.
“Thank you, dear.” She raised her eyebrows meaningfully at Ezra who immediately stopped laughing at his sister, much to Vin’s amusement. “I thought you gentlemen might like something to drink and a bite to eat.”
“You are a jewel of a woman,” Buck told her as he climbed down the ladder. “If Chris don’t treat you right, you know where to find me!”
“A brief respite would be most welcome, dear cousin.” Ezra paused, and then added, “Especially for those of us who have actually been labouring these many hours.” Cecily ignored him.
Vin saw that the tray held a plate of sandwiches as Cecily set it down on a nearby table. As hungry as he suddenly realized he was, he couldn’t help but feel a twinge of disappointment at the lack of confectionary.
“Have no fear, Vin,” Charlotte said with a grin, “there are cookies baking in the oven.”
Now it was Vin’s turn to look startled as it appeared she had read his mind. Shaking his head ruefully, he took his friends resulting laughter good-naturedly. “Mighty thoughtful of you ma’am,” he said with a small smile. Cecily eyes danced as she handed Vin a mug of beer. “Thanks, Miss Cecily.”
Soon, they were all eating the food Charlotte had provided and drinking beer; even Cecily. Vin had never taken her for the kind of gal who would drink a beer, and found himself surprised all over again at Ezra’s sister. The young widow wasn’t like any woman he’d ever met before, and he’d been hard pressed to think of anything but her these last three days.
“Vin?” Charlotte’s voice said from next to him. He suddenly realized that this was the second time she’d said his name. Stop yer woolgathering, boy!
“Ma’am?” He groaned inwardly at the knowing smile in her eyes. It was as if she knew exactly what, no…who he’d been thinking about. Unable to stop himself, he glanced quickly over at Cecily, who was refilling Buck’s glass, his breath catching when he realized she’d been looking his way as well.
Flustered, he reminded himself to pay attention to what Charlotte was saying. If anything, she appeared to be even more amused than she had been before, which did nothing to calm his nerves. “I was hoping you could give me a hand in the house?”
He bobbed his head. “Be happy to, Mz Black.”
“Thank you for taking the time to escort Cecily out to Bitterroot Canyon this morning,” Charlotte said as she led Vin into her wood paneled study. “She’s very pleased with the painting she was able to begin.”
“Were my pleasure, ma’am.” And it had been. He’d practically leapt at the chance to take Charlotte’s daughter out to some of his favourite spots so she could paint. While Cecily had painted, Vin had been inspired to write a poem. A poem she had somehow convinced him to read to her. He still wasn’t sure how it had happened, but when he was with her he didn’t feel uneducated or backward. In her company, Vin felt a sense of possibility that was as heady as a fine spring day when the wildflowers bloomed, turning the harsh desert into a colour-drenched dream.
Hell, he knew it was crazy; they’d only known one another a few days after all, but he was already past halfway to loving her. And maybe, just maybe, she had feelings for him as well. Vin was almost afraid to allow himself to hope. He didn’t think anything could have brought more joy to his heart than the incipient clearing of his name and being out from under the bounty on his head. But he realized he’d been wrong that moment he’d found himself inexplicably kissing the back of her hand when Ezra had first introduced them.
“The falls there are lovely,” she commented as they walked across the room. “Chris took me out several times when we were courting.” Glancing at him sidelong, she added, “It’s a very romantic spot.”
Before he could reply she motioned him to take a seat. “I hope you’ll forgive me the small deception, Vin, but I needed a pretext to speak with you privately. The children are possessed of an insatiable curiosity, I’m afraid.” It was clear she wasn’t talking about her young‘uns. Smiling, she sat down on the settee next to him. “Adulthood has done nothing to quench that trait, I’m afraid.”
She wanted to talk to him in private? Vin’s gut clenched, thinking back to how this conversation had started, and a cold certainty settled over him. Charlotte was going to tell him that he wasn’t a proper suitor for her oldest daughter. She was obviously aware he had feelings for Cecily; hell, he’d been acting like a lovesick calf. How could she not? And even if Charlotte hadn’t noticed, Ezra would have told her. He’d noted Vin’s interest in his sister that first meeting in front of the hotel. Charlotte might consider Vin a friend, but what mother would want a man like him for her beloved child? And who could blame her? Just because he soon wouldn’t be a marked man didn’t mean he had anything to offer a woman, especially not a woman like Cecily Desjardins. He’d been a damn fool to even contemplate the idea! How long would it have been before Ezra had taken him aside to warn him off? Just because you rode with a man and called him friend didn’t mean you were good enough for a man’s sister, he thought bitterly as a shadow fell over his heart.
“S’all right, ma’am,” Vin began stiffly, forestalling Charlotte’s words, “I understand. Man like me ain’t got no right settin’ his sights on something so fine.” He gripped his hat tightly in his hands. “You got no cause ta worry.” Standing, he looked down at his boots, not wanting to see the pity in Charlotte’s eyes. “Promised Miss Cecily I’d take her back to the falls in the mornin’. P’raps you could make my apologies to her.”
“Sit down, Mr. Tanner,” Charlotte’s normally gentle voice commanded in a tone that required obedience.
Startled, Vin did as she ordered, falling back onto the settee. “Ma’am—“
“Not one more word, Vin, not one more word,” she warned, her ice blue eyes snapping. “I do not want to ever hear you speak that way again, do you hear?”
He shook his head dumbly, having no idea what had made her so angry.
Reaching over, she took his hand, and her expression softened. “Vin, any mother with two licks of sense would be thrilled to have you court her daughter.”
Bewildered by her words, he just sat there, his mind racing, trying to take in what she had just said. “But, I thought….” He looked down at his hat, realizing he’d twisted at it so much it was practically unrecognizable.
“You thought I’d taken you aside to warn you away from Cecily,” she finished for him.
Nodding, he didn’t look up. Charlotte’s fingers, grasping his chin firmly, forced him to meet her gaze. “Vin Tanner, you are a fine man, and your mother would be so very proud of you. You are loyal, steadfast, compassionate, and true. My dear young friend, you are as a knight of old, and don’t you ever forget that.” She patted his cheek before withdrawing her hand. “Why, Vin? Why would you think so little of yourself?”
His heart warmed at the genuine concern in her question. “Spent a lot of years not trustin’, not being trusted;” he began haltingly. “Can be hard not falling back on old ways of thinking. Feeling like you’re not good enough for decent folk. Last two years I been learning that ain’t always so, that I can belong somewhere.”
“But?” she asked quietly.
Taking a deep breath, his blue eyes met hers. “But I s’pose there’s still a place deep down inside me that thinks it can all be took away. That I’ll be on my own again, not remembered’ner missed.” Vin was startled when he suddenly found himself in her embrace, her arms holding him tight.
“Oh, child,” she said sadly, “please know that is not true, nor will it ever be.”
He felt a wave of emotion crest over him at her words and her touch. It had been a real long time since he’d been hugged like this; hell, probably not since his ma had died, he realized. He also realized he liked the feeling of comfort and affection, reinforcing Charlotte’s words that he did belong and was needed.
“I’ll try’n remember that,” he told her as she released him, his throat thick with emotion.
“You do that,” she said briskly, patting his knee, attempting to lighten the mood. “I’m not sure I shouldn’t be offended by your lack of faith in me.”
Vin felt equal measures of relief and trepidation. Then he laughed, feeling as if the day had dawned all over again. “Real sorry about that, ma’am,” he said contritely.
“And so you should be! After everything we’ve been through together, all that you have done for me and for Ezra; the friendship you share with Chris. Don’t you know, Vin, that I already think of you as family? That morning you blackmailed me into letting you travel with me to Bisbee, your fate was sealed.” Her eyes twinkled, at odds with her stern tone.
A grin tugged at his lips as she squeezed his hand. “Sorry, Mz Black,” he repeated his apology.
She shook her head, sighing. “Do you think you might call me Charlotte? It’s time, don’t you think? After all, in two days, it will be Mrs. Larabee, and it would be silly after all this for you to not use my given name.”
Now his grin was fully formed. “Think I can manage that…Charlotte.”