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Authors: Love Me Tonight

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BOOK: Nan Ryan
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Maybe there was nothing he could do about the obvious impasse between the two adults. That was their lookout. Something they would have to work out—or not.

But he
would
take the mute, moping Charlie Northway in hand.

And the sooner the better.

Chapter Eight

J
olly Grubbs showed up at the farm again the next day.

The quiet serenity of the lazy Sunday afternoon was shattered when Jolly, mounted astride his big gray gelding, came galloping down the tree-edged lane yipping and shouting and waving his straw hat like a wild, unruly youngster.

Helen was out beyond the yard at the south side of the house, cutting roses and dropping them into a basket on her arm. She heard the racket, looked up, saw Jolly coming, and shook her head, smiling.

It had oft been said of Jolly Grubbs that he possessed “an excessive propensity for fun and foolishness.” That statement had a great degree of truth. For a seventy-year-old man who had lived through more than his share of loss and tragedy, Jolly had managed to keep an amazingly cheerful disposition. His curiosity was unlimited, his optimism unshakable, his zest for living awe-inspiring.

Jolly thundered up to a clod-flinging stop a few yards from where Helen stood, climbed out of the saddle, and tossed the reins to the ground. Snorting and shaking his head, the gray gelding ambled off, his master paying him no mind.

Jolly hurried to Helen, flashing the sunniest of smiles, looking as if he harbored the juiciest of secrets.

“It’s after three o’clock. You’re a trifle late for dinner, Jolly,” Helen told him.

“Then, by jeeters, I’ll have to stay for supper,” he said, enfolding her in a quick, bone-crushing bear hug as if it had been days instead of hours since last he’d seen her.

“Indeed,” she said when he released her, checking to make sure her cut roses hadn’t spilled from the basket. “So … what’s on your mind? You’re up to something; I can tell by the mischief in your eyes.” She smiled at him.

Shoving his straw hat back on his head, he said, “I’ll get to that, but first tell me how it went in town yesterday.” His white eyebrows lifted questioningly.

“Why, it went okay,” Helen said, continuing to smile. “Just fine.” She saw no reason to burden this kindhearted man who worried about her far too much as it was. “Really.”

“You sure, child?” He looked skeptical. “I know they’ve all heard about the Yankee being out here. Did anybody mention him to you?”

“Not a soul,” she said with complete honesty, failing to further add that no one said a word to her. Period.

“Well, you have any trouble, you tell old Jolly. I won’t hold still for anybody giving my girl a hard time. Why, when I was a young man, I called out a fellow for—”

“I know,” Helen interrupted, having heard the story of the infamous Spanish Fort duel many times before. “There’s not going to be any trouble, so relax.” She tweaked his left ear. “And promise me you won’t be fighting any duels to defend my honor.”

“I promise. But anybody gets smart with you, just you tell me and I’ll—”

“What brings you over here this afternoon with that devilish gleam in your eyes?” she again interrupted, anxious to get him onto another subject.

Jolly grinned, looked about to make sure they were alone. “Where’s the captain?”

“I would imagine he’s down at the corral currying that big sorrel thoroughbred,” Helen said. “He spends every free moment there.”

“Where’s the boy?”

“If Charlie isn’t lying listlessly on the settee under the live oak, he’s sitting on the back stoop of the quarters.” She sighed wearily. “That poor little boy. I’m afraid it’s quite hopeless.”

His smile back in place and as bright as the May sunshine, Jolly scolded, “Why, Helen Burke Courtney, you know better than that. There’s not a single one of God’s own children that’s in a hopeless fix. Least of all a golden-haired little boy.”

“I don’t know,” she said thoughtfully. “I’ve tried to draw Charlie out, honest I have. I’m sure his father has as well, but …” she shrugged.

Jolly hooted at her pessimism. “Why, what the devil do you two know about handling five-year-old boys? Not a damned thing. Just you leave it to me. I’ll have that child laughing and talking a blue streak within a week.” He bobbed his head for emphasis. “In two he’ll be as rowdy as me.”

Helen smiled fondly at the white-haired man who was so dear. “Well, Mr. Wizard, if you can actually perform such an unlikely miracle, I’ll never doubt you again.”

Confidently, “You just be thinking about what you’re going to feed this wise old sorcerer for supper and I’ll get to work.”

“Fair enough,” said Helen. She took his arm and walked with him to the back gate, where he left her, winked, and headed for the barn.

Helen stood for a moment, wondering what he had up his sleeve. Hoping he wouldn’t be too disappointed when he learned, as he soon would, that Charlie Northway would prove immune even to the persuasive charms of a lovable, outlandish man-child like Jolly Grubbs.

Jolly whistled happily as he strode down to the barn. He caught sight of Charlie sitting alone on the stoop and called out a warm hello. Charlie looked at him but didn’t answer.

“Your pappy here, Charlie?” Jolly inquired.

Charlie refused to speak.

Undaunted, Jolly called, “Captain Northway, you around? It’s Jolly Grubbs.”

Kurt immediately appeared, greeting the older gentleman with the respect he deserved. Purposely speaking loudly enough so that Charlie could hear, Jolly told Kurt he needed to borrow Helen’s saw.

“Sure thing,” said Kurt. “I sharpened it just yesterday. I’ll get it out of the toolshed.”

Jolly followed Kurt, asking, “Any idea where I might find a smooth, thick piece of wood I can saw down till it’s about yea long and yea wide?” He used his hands to measure.

“There are some odds-and-ends lumber stacked against the smokehouse,” said Kurt. “I’m sure we can find something suitable there.”

“Mighty fine,” said Jolly. “Mighty fine. Now just one last little thing. I need a good long length of rope, new enough and strong enough to hold up a person’s weight. A big person, mind you. Got anything like that in the toolshed or the barn?”

“I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.”

Kurt didn’t question him as to what he intended to do with the saw, the lumber, and the rope. Jolly knew it wasn’t because Kurt had no interest, but instead because he had already caught on to Jolly’s scheme.

Within the hour a sturdy rope swing hung suspended from a low, sweeping branch of the big live oak tree in the backyard. And a portly, white-haired man was alone in the shady yard, seated in the new swing, swinging gaily back and forth, laughing as though he’d never had so much fun in his life.

From the cover of the plank corral, Kurt Northway crouched on his heels and watched Jolly swing, hoping the ploy would work. Inside the house, Helen stood at the kitchen window, looking anxiously out, the fingers of both hands crossed behind her back.

Finally, after several long minutes, the blond-haired little boy could stand it no longer. Curious, Charlie wandered up to the yard. He paused tentatively at the back gate. The dozing Dom, lying just inside, awakened and eagerly came to greet Charlie, wanting to be his friend. While Charlie half frowned, half grinned, the sleek blue-furred feline wrapped himself around Charlie’s bare legs and made purring sounds in his throat.

Dom followed as Charlie shyly ambled forward toward the white-haired man in the swing. Jolly caught sight of the boy in his side vision and slowed the motion of the swing to a near standstill. Jolly didn’t act surprised to see Charlie. Nor did he leap up and ask the little boy if he wanted to try out the new swing.

“Give me a push, will you, Charlie?” he called, and the child immediately came to stand directly behind him.

Charlie never saw the look of triumph that flashed in Jolly’s blue eyes when Jolly felt a pair of small hands push insistently on his broad back.

“Wheeee!” squealed Jolly, shoving off with his feet, pretending it was Charlie’s pushing that was sending the swing into motion. “Higher!” he called excitedly. “Make me go higher! I want to go higher!”

Charlie Northway said nothing, but he pushed and he grunted and he ran up and back, up and back, his short legs churning, pushing the laughing man seated in the swing.

After a time Jolly called, “Whoaaa! That’s enough, Charlie,” and brought the swing to a stop.

He got up out of the swing, drew a handkerchief from his pocket, and mopped his red face. From behind that handkerchief he watched slyly as Charlie sidled around and climbed up into the swing. Without a word, Jolly shoved the handkerchief into his pocket, stepped behind the boy in the swing, and gave him a gentle push.

Jolly purposely kept a tight rein on the movement of the swing, knowing that if Charlie was the typical boy, he’d soon long to swing faster, higher. Well, he was going to have to ask for it or he wouldn’t get it.

Each played a waiting game.

The blond boy on the swing clutched the ropes tightly and pumped his short arms and leaned his upper body forward and back, straining to make the swing go faster, higher.

The white-haired man deliberately ignored the messages sent by the child’s yearning body. He almost weakened when Charlie tipped his small blond head all the way back and looked straight up at him with big pleading brown eyes. But he was older and wiser than the stubborn little boy. He shook his white head and stuck to his guns. Frustrated, Charlie rocked his body back and forth, sighed, made faces.

And finally gave in.

“Will you make me go higher?” he said, again tipping back his head to look up at Jolly. “Please.”

An understanding and comradeship between the two was born in the instant. The white-haired man’s face broke into a wide, relieved smile. The little boy smiled back.

“Charlie, my boy,” Jolly said, cupping Charlie’s small chin for a moment in his veined, sun-weathered hand, “I’ll make you soar.”

Charlie Northway quickly took to the wise, permissive white-haired man who reminded him of his own deceased grandfather. On that warm Sunday afternoon, the two became fast friends.

From Jolly, Charlie was soon learning how to whittle and fish and swim and skip stones across the water’s surface and a hundred other things a little boy needs to know.

Kurt Northway was grateful to the old gentleman. Kurt knew nothing about being a father. Jolly Grubbs did. He had raised three sons of his own.

Three loud, lovable, affectionate boys who grew up to be intelligent, dependable, well-adjusted men.

Fine men who earned their father’s respect.

Honorable men who made him proud.

Brave men who lost their lives in the war.

Chapter Nine

N
iles Loveless drew the diamond-and-gold-cased watch from his vest pocket and glanced at it. Three o’clock. He pushed the tall-backed leather chair away from the huge mahogany desk and rose to his feet.

Niles Loveless crossed the spacious office and lowered the shades over the many windows fronting onto Main Street. He locked the glass-paned front door on which
LOVELESS ENTERPRISES
was etched in fancy gold lettering.

Niles Loveless smiled then and reached for the finely tailored gray linen waistcoat hanging on the coat tree. He pulled on the waistcoat, tugged the matching double-breasted vest back down into place, and touched the gray silk cravat at his throat.

Niles Loveless took a wide brimmed planters hat from the coat tree, placed it on his blond head at a slight angle, and ran his thumb and forefinger around the front brim. He passed a well-tended, manicured hand over his smoothly shaven cheeks, licked the tip of his forefinger, and smoothed it along the closely clipped wings of his thick brown mustache.

Niles Loveless silently crossed the plushly carpeted office. He paused directly before the back door, took a small blue velvet box from inside his jacket pocket, and snapped it open. He withdrew the sparkling diamond-and-emerald necklace from inside, dropped the valuable bauble down into the right front pocket of his snugly fitted gray trousers, and tossed the velvet box aside.

He stepped out the back door into the narrow alley and his smile broadened. His fine brougham and matching blacks had been brought around just as requested.

Niles Loveless climbed into his fine carriage and drove around to Main Street. He headed north out of Spanish Fort, tipping his straw hat and smiling to friends and business acquaintances on the street. He had traveled less than a quarter of a mile when he spotted a couple of bobbing silk parasols ahead at the side of the road.

He drew rein on the blacks and stopped the brougham. He bounded down out of the carriage to greet the twittering, fluttery little Livingston sisters. The sisters were making their slow, sure way home.

Niles Loveless insisted he drive them the rest of the way and the sisters were thrilled. Both squeaked and trembled and giggled helplessly when the big blond man gallantly lifted each of them up into the claret-hued leather interior of the brougham.

Niles graciously inquired after their health and listened with interest as they listed their many complaints, interrupting each other often. When each ache and every pain had been discussed at length, he casually asked if they knew any “juicy gossip.” And he winked at them when he said it.

After going into peals of high, rippling laughter, the sisters sobered and, their eyes flashing, said in unison, “Now, you know we don’t like to tattle on old friends, but … have you heard about the young Widow Courtney?”

He nodded, frowning sadly. “Sam the smithy told me that Mrs. Courtney hired a Yankee captain. Said the Northerner is living right there on the old Burke place with her!”

The sisters blushed and nodded their heads. “Isn’t it scandalous?” said Caroline, the older of the two. “Why, proper folks will never associate with her again! I know sister and I certainly won’t!”

“Can’t say that I blame you,” agreed Niles. “We’re all awfully disappointed in the young widow.” He shook his head. “She’ll learn that such questionable behavior will not be tolerated by upright, God-fearing folks like us.”

BOOK: Nan Ryan
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