Jake Michaels pulled his pickup to a stop behind the barn, once more thankful to be back home at the end of the day. It wasn't so much that he hated his town job, or the drive to and from Santa Fe everyday. But working construction was not how he'd envisioned making his living when he built here in Glorieta. Nor was having to ask his parents to come live here and help look after the place while he worked 10 hour days on other people's property. There was so much more he could do with the ranch if only he had the time and money, but he could never seem to get ahead. When work was good and the money came in regularly, he never had any time to call his own. Then, in the off season, when the weather cut down on how much work there was, there wasn't any money to do anything with. It was a vicious cycle that could drive a man to drink if he dwelt on it very long. Jake wasn't really the type to brood about what he couldn't change, it was just that sometimes he felt so damn frustrated.
He slid out of the truck, reaching over to grab the handful of mail he'd picked up from the post office in Glorieta. He hadn't spared it much more than a cursory glance. Bills mostly, he was sure, though there was that one package for his mother from Japan.
Jake shook his head in disgust. Why couldn't his sister just disappear and leave them alone. She'd made it plain enough she didn't want anything to do with the family when she'd run off with that loser. She hadn't given a thought to how she'd broken their mother's heart. Now she had the nerve to pretend nothing had happened and life was wonderful, sending letters and postcards from all the places that man had dragged her to.
And Ma... Jake snorted to himself. Ma was so happy to get them -- so ready with a forgiving heart. Even Dad was starting to relent and now listened to Jenny's news with a smile on his face. Jake didn't understand his parents. If Jenny had been his daughter...
That thought was left unfinished as he spotted his little girl running across the yard to meet him. Not so little anymore, he reminded himself as he greeted 11 year old Kay with a hug and a peck on the cheek.
"How was work, Dad?" she asked breathlessly, as she grabbed hold of his hand.
Jake reluctantly let go of his sour mood and gave his daughter a quick smile. "Same as ever," he told her. "That Chink the boss hired turned out to be a hard worker," he admitted grudgingly. "Guess I can get used to him."
"Grandma says it's not nice to call people Chinks." Kay regarded her father with curious blue eyes. "Why do you do that, Dad, if it's not nice?"
Jake scowled and wished his mother would stay out of his business. "Nice doesn't have nothin' to do with it," he growled. "Our boys had to fight those Commie bast..." Jake paused, remembering to watch his language in front of his daughter. "Chink's just a name." He reached out and tousled Kay's blond hair, putting on a smile for her benefit. "Don't worry your pretty head about it. You don't know any anyway."
That seemed to satisfy the child. She returned her father's smile and walked alongside him contentedly the rest of the way to the kitchen door. Jake stopped and sat down on the steps to remove his muddy boots. He handed the mail to his daughter.
"Go take this stuff to Grandma," he instructed. She'll want to see that package."
Kay nodded dutifully and disappeared inside the house. She wouldn't have to go far to find her grandmother, judging from the delicious aroma he caught a sniff of when she opened the door.
Well, I guess there's a silver lining, he comforted himself. Ma's cookin's the best around. If she and Pop weren't here, Cassie'd have to take lessons. All thoughts of his wayward sister left his mind as he sat down on the steps to take off his dirty work boots. Most troubles could be forgotten with the help of a good dinner.
Katherine Michaels allowed herself a small moment of anticipation as she held the package in her hands. She let her eyes travel over the brown paper, the foreign postage -- her daughter's neat handwriting. When Jenny first started writing, she'd sent postcards or brief letters about the people she'd met and the things she'd seen in her travels with her military husband. After the baby was born, however, her letters started getting longer... more thoughtful and full of love for the family she'd left behind when she'd run off with Matthew.
Kate smiled to herself. Motherhood changed a woman, that was for sure and her baby girl was no exception. Not that Jenny ever expressed regret for her decision. No... love for her husband and son were more than evident in her words. But there was also a ring of sadness in them. Sorrow for the hurt she'd caused by her impulsive act, and for the rift she felt she'd caused between them.
Of course, Katherine knew that damage wasn't all Jenny's fault. There were others in this family who shared a great degree of the blame. Steven's stubborn belief that Matthew Stetson was no good and out for only one thing... his refusal to listen to anyone else's opinion of the matter -- except for Jake's. He'd been more than willing to take everything his oldest son told him at face value and never question.
And Jake... Kate sighed inwardly. She loved all her children fiercely, but her oldest had never made that love easy -- not as a child and most assuredly not as an adult. Jake was always so quick to judge and so certain he was right -- about everything and everyone. He'd been the one to fill his father's head with doubt and half-truths that Steven accepted blindly.
The woman shook her head to chase away those dark memories. Now was not the time to rehash all the old guilt and recrimination. She smiled again at the package in her hand. This was a rare thing. Japan was so far away and even regular mail was not always reliable. To get a package was something to be joyous about.
The box was taped abundantly -- Jenny's safeguard against the long trip and rough handling -- and Katherine was struggling with it when Steven walked into the kitchen.
"Kay said somethin' 'bout a package from Jenny..." He paused and chuckled at his wife's frantic efforts to break through strapping tape. He pulled out his small pocket knife. "Here, woman... let me do that," he told her, still smiling.
Katherine sat back and crossed her arms impatiently, tapping her foot while Steven methodically sliced through each side. "You're sure takin' your sweet time with it," she muttered under her breath, but Steven heard her and only laughed more.
"You're worse'n the little ones at Christmas," he informed her, but his smile was tender and she sighed happily as he finally finished and pushed the box back towards her.
"I know, but it's from Jenny," she informed him, as if that were explanation enough -- which it was. She lifted the lid and pulled out mounds of crinkled paper, used for padding. "What do you think she could've... Oh, Steven... look!"
She carefully lifted the wooden frame, taking a long moment to gaze lovingly at the picture it held, before turning it slightly for her husband to see.
Jenny and Matthew sat together, Matt's arm holding her close, with little Lee between them on Jenny's lap. All three beamed their happiness at the camera. Katherine couldn't take her eyes from the portrait, even when the picture became blurred from the tears welling up.
"Oh, Steven..." she breathed wistfully. "If only..." She stopped, not wanting to throw out accusations, knowing what was past, was past and could never be undone.
But he knew what she had left unsaid. He cleared his throat quietly as he sat down at the table beside her and reached a long arm around her shoulders to pull her close.
"I know, Kate, I know," he said softly. "We were wrong... I was wrong," he corrected quickly. He took the picture from her, his work-worn hands gentle in their touch as he traced their daughter's likeness. "I was so sure he..." He paused, his voice breaking with self-recrimination.
Katherine couldn't let him do this to himself. She placed a hand over his and gave it a squeeze.
"That's all over with," she said fervently. "It wasn't just you to blame." She went on before Steven could contradict her and take all the guilt on himself. "I went along with you... so did everybody else." Everybody else really meant Jake, but Katherine wasn't going to pick that point right now. "We all acted badly. But we can remedy that." She squeezed his hand again. "Jenny's reaching out to us. It's time we reached back."
Steven nodded silently, his voice still unreliable. Katherine knew it was time to intervene. She got up from the table and wiped her hands on her apron. "My goodness, I've forgotten all about dinner." She opened the oven door and pulled out the pan of baked chicken. "Don't tell Jake I nearly ruined everything," she laughed.
The chicken smelled heavenly -- not even close to being burned. Steven knew what she was doing and he loved her for it. Taking advantage of the distraction she'd provided, he pulled out his handkerchief and swiped at his nose, then got up as well, the picture in hand. He didn't want it laying around for Jake to see when he came in for the evening meal. It would only start something Steven didn't want to get into.
"Guess I'll go hang this up," he stated. "In our room?" he asked his wife.
"That'd be best," she answered lightly. "That way I can see it first thing in the morning and last thing at night."
Steven nodded and headed off upstairs, his brow furrowed slightly. He knew too well what Kate hadn't said... That Jenny's family photo wouldn't exactly be welcomed on any other wall in the house. It was Jake's home, after all and there was no reason to antagonize him. Besides, there'd been enough harsh words about Jenny and her husband. Steven didn't want to have it all dragged up again, which it would be, every time Jake saw the picture. No, it would be better to just have it in their bedroom, where they could look at it whenever they liked, without any bad feelings.
It took him a few minutes to find his hammer and a nail, but after that, he accomplished his task quickly. He stood back and gazed at the picture for a few moments, wondering if he had time before dinner to write Jenny a quick note. He had a lot to say to his youngest daughter and he'd waited far too long to say it.
Colonel Charles Stetson had sat on his bed and stared at the telephone for nearly an hour before he'd finally picked up the receiver and dialed the long distance operator. This was going to be difficult and he wasn't looking forward to it.
Even as he gave the operator the number for the ranch in Glorieta, Charles' mind was still trying to find the right words. Certainly he'd lost men under him before and had broken the news to their families, but this was different. This hadn't been a casualty of war -- no soldier giving his life for a higher cause. Jenny had been a civilian -- an innocent. Her death wasn't noble or sacrificial. It came because of a car accident -- a simple, senseless whim of fate that put her and Matt in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Charles heart twisted at the thought of his brother -- the image of both Matt and Jenny lying cold on those tables at the morgue. He'd been called in to officially identify the bodies; an act that normally would have fallen on the base commander, but by sheer chance, the Colonel had been in the country on assignment. Charles could tell just by the sound of the commander's voice how glad he'd been to relinquish this task to someone else.
Coward, his mind accused angrily, though deep down he didn't blame the man. No one relished this kind of job; he couldn't fault the commander for passing it on to a family member when given the opportunity.
The ringing on the other end startled him out of his musings and he felt a sharp stab of panic, which he quickly squelched, falling into the familiar mind set of military decorum. He'd had years of practice and it had always served him well. It was the only way he'd been able to deal with the nightmare of Matthew's death and the daunting prospect of caring for 4 year old Lee.
"Hello," a tinny voice spoke through the wires. The connection wasn't the best, making this even harder.
"Yes," Charles answered. "I need to speak with Steven Michaels," he requested starchly.
"All right, hang on." Even over this distance, the voice sounded gruff and Charles wondered briefly if that was the infamous Jake, Matt had told him about. Are you the bastard who made things so hard for my brother? It was a momentary indulgence; one that Charles quickly repressed. He couldn't allow himself to wallow in emotionalism. There was too much to be done.
Katherine was so tired, she couldn't even think anymore. She sat in the small hotel room, staring blankly out the window that overlooked the Potomac, her mind going over the last few hectic days.
The sheer effort it took to coordinate everyone's schedules was daunting. Colonel Stetson had made all the arrangements for the funeral, so they had been spared that, but the work required to make sure all the Michaels family members got here, was not something she would want to do again.
Robbie and Margo had splurged extravagantly and taken an airplane out from San Diego, though Katherine nursed an un-Christian thought that her daughter-in-law had insisted on that mode of travel not so much to help Robbie, but to spare herself the ordeal of a long train ride with the rest of the family. They'd left their boys at home, another idea from Margo, Katherine was sure. Beth's husband, Addison was staying home with their two oldest and had graciously volunteered to watch Steven and Murphy too. Beth only had to tend to 18 month old Jennifer.
Of her other children, her youngest, Jonathan was with them, of course. Katie had come, leaving Clayton home with 4 year old Andy. Thelma joined them in Indiana, bringing little Sam with her. Just barely a year old, he was too young yet to stay at home with his father and older brother.
That left Jake, Cassie and their two children. Katherine hadn't been completely certain if Jake would make the trip, but he'd surprised her and brought his entire family on the train with them. Of course, J.J. and Kay were old enough to realize the purpose of this journey, and to respect the mood of the family. They were no problem at all, and had actually gone out of their way to try and be helpful. Kay especially was good with the babies. Jake, on the other hand, kept to himself, staring out the window most of the time, scowling and unapproachable.
It was the longest ride Katherine could ever remember and it left her exhausted by the time they reached Washington. She had little to spare for the emotional events they still had to endure.
The military had shipped Matt and Jenny home. Katherine had been looking forward to at least being able to say goodbye to her daughter, but the funeral director had delicately told her that because of the time it had taken to travel, it would be best not to open the coffins.
As keen as that disappoint was, it was nothing compared to the fact that Lee was not there. The one bright hope that had kept Katherine going the entire time, had been the prospect of seeing her grandson, holding him in her arms, seeing the bit of Jenny that would always live on in her son. But when Colonel Stetson had met them at the train station, the tall, intimidating man in his crisp Army uniform, had dashed all her dreams by informing her he'd left Lee in Japan with a nanny. The boy was too confused by events as it was, and it was better he stay somewhere familiar until everything was taken care of. The Colonel planned to pick him up on his way to his next station, The Philippines.
It had been too much. Katherine couldn't deal with so much at once and she'd stood there in silence, ignoring the looks she got from her other children. They seemed to be waiting for her to do something, but she couldn't figure out what. Robbie had been the only one to say anything. She heard him ask the Colonel in a low voice if he thought all that traveling would be good for a small boy. Colonel Stetson had replied in a sharp, no-nonsense tone, that he had it all arranged. And that was that. No more was said about who was going to take care of Lee.
The funeral itself was only a blur for Katherine. The minister had been a stranger, not only to their family, but to Matt and Jenny as well. He hadn't known any of them, and so his sermon had been just as impersonal. It all seemed unreal.
And now they would be getting on the train again in a another hour or so. They would leave D.C. and Matt and Jenny behind. There would be no country cemetery, no comforting green graveside to come and visit and talk and just feel her daughter's presence. Jenny would be as far away in death as she'd been in life. Katherine would be left with nothing.
"It's nearly time to go, Ma." Jake's gruff voice intruded in her thoughts, bringing her back to the present. She glanced up at her son and was surprised to see pain in his eyes. "I'm gonna take your bag downstairs."
Katherine nodded absently, too numb to be more than mildly curious about Jake's reaction. It was too little, much too late, as far as she was concerned. He didn't say anything else, just picked up the old suitcase she and Steven shared and walked out the door. Steven entered just after his son left and walked over slowly, sitting down on the bed, like a man in a trance.
"You ready to go, Kate?" His voice sounded old.
Katherine blinked, not sure she recognized the man before her. They'd both walked around in a haze this past week. And suddenly, she knew she couldn't go -- yet. She stood and walked purposefully to door.
"I've got one more thing to do," she told her husband and left him to stare after her, his questions unanswered.
She walked resolutely down the hall, her determination carrying her to the last room on the floor, where she knew Colonel Stetson was staying. It was only when she reached the door and raised her hand to knock that her courage failed her.
She stood for a time, wavering, not sure now what she was going to say. But she managed to steel herself at last and brought her hand to the door, knocking lightly.
After only a moment, the door opened and Katherine found herself facing all six foot 4 inches of military decorum that was Charles Stetson.
"What may I do for you, Mrs. Michaels?" he asked politely, his face not showing any emotion, and Katherine recalled this same, blank expression at the funeral. No tears, no grief, and she feared for what kind of comfort an orphaned little boy would find in this face.
It was that thought that let her say at last what was on her mind.
"I just want to be sure Lee will be all right," she blurted without preamble. "You're a single man with a lot of claims on your time. Are you sure this is the right thing?"
The colonel's jaw line moved. It was the only outward sign of any emotional distress that Katherine could see. But his eyes had grown even more resolved.
"Matthew named me as Lee's guardian if anything should ever happen to them. I see no reason to shirk that duty."
"Duty?" Katherine echoed in disapproval. "A child is more than a duty."
The man at least had the grace to look chagrined. "A poor choice of words," he offered as an apology. Then he seemed to recognize her need and he relented just a bit and gave her a trace of a smile. "Don't worry, ma'am. The boy will be well cared for."
It was a dismissal. Katherine knew the subject was closed and she took a step back as he nodded once and closed the door. She stood in the hallway for a long time, considering what to do. Deep down she felt this was wrong, but there didn't seem to be anything else she could do. If things had been different between the family and Jenny... if God had only let her daughter have a little more time... if Steven had reached out just a little sooner... But that wasn't the way it was. They'd named Matt's brother Lee's guardian and he meant to honor that request. The choice was made and it was out of her hands.
She walked toward the elevator, her thoughts still clouded. She couldn't shake the feeling that she should do something else, but she couldn't think of what. She knew that she hadn't just only failed her daughter, but she was failing her grandson as well. She stopped at the bank of sliding doors, where Steven was waiting for her. He raised his eyebrows in an unspoken question.
She shook her head slightly, not trusting her voice. Trying to be comforting, he took her arm and led her into the waiting car. She leaned against him, defeated. It was time to go home.