Marriage of Convenience By ‘J’ Chapter 6

Republisher’s Note: I really like this story, but I did have to do a little editing. We continue during the summer Michelle spent on the ranch.

Marriage of Convenience By ‘J’ Chapter 6

Danny gasped aloud and sat up, coming wide awake immediately. He was bathed in sweat, his hair plastered to his head. He had a bad dream. He slid out of his bed and padded to the bathroom, splashing cold water on his face and neck. He emerged seconds later, rubbing his torso with a towel. The atmosphere in the guesthouse was stifling. Ed had suggested a window air conditioner, but Danny was used to the heat and tolerated it very well. He returned to his bed and collapsed on his back, staring at the ceiling. It was doubtful he’d get back to sleep easily.

He found himself thinking about Michelle. He was touched that she’d understood his outburst, the way she had. She was intelligent and kind and courageous. She’d looked scared and rattled at the restaurant, but she had rebounded quickly, and they wound up having a pretty good time. That surprised him. He was planning a late evening with a girl from town when Carmen called, and he hadn’t wanted to go with Michele. He tried to talk Carmen out of it, but she had insisted. He’d canceled the date to substitute for his mother, intending to remind her of the favor when the time was right. Now he didn’t feel as though Carmen owed him anything. He’d also found himself volunteering to give Michelle riding lessons. He didn’t quite understand it.

Certainly Michelle’s freshness, her innocence, were attractive to a man like him, who’d already seen and experienced too much that he wanted to forget. And he remembered her gentleness the day of her father’s wedding to his mother. He didn’t know too many other women who would have helped him without feeling the need to follow it up with a lecture. He knew quite a few who wouldn’t have helped him at all. In that uncomfortable situation she had acted with a graciousness that was remarkably consistent with her behavior in the restaurant that evening. He smiled now as he thought of the expression on her face when she saw the Italian menu. Poor kid. She was still young enough to regard the lack of experience as a terrible flaw.

He stood abruptly, listening to the crickets and cicadas racketing in the bushes. Insects battled against the window screens and swirled around the yellow light outside. The air was heavy and breathless, seeming to press on him with a tangible weight. Nights like this reminded him of his time waiting for shipments at the dock, when the danger lurked in every shadow.

Maybe that’s why Michelle appealed to him so strongly. She reminded him of his former life, when his father was alive, before everything bad had happened to him. He was her equal then, in youth and optimism, and perhaps he thought he could reclaim that period in her company. He wandered back to the bed and dropped onto it, praying for sleep. He had to work in the morning, and Ed Bauer was a tough, albeit fair, taskmaster. He would give Michelle her first lesson after lunch.

Michelle was waiting for Danny at the riding stable when he arrived the next day. He stopped short when he saw her, taking in her outfit. “You can’t wear those shoes,” he said in greeting.

Michelle looked down at her feet, “Why not?”

“You need hard soled shoes for the stirrups. And change those pants, too, they’re too thin. Jeans would be better.”

Michelle trudged back to the house to change thinking that he was certainly taking all to this seriously.

When she returned he was sitting on the fence. “Ready?” he said.

“I hope so,” she replied.

They went into the stable, and Danny showed her a back stall where an obviously elderly horse was munching hay contentedly. “This is Lightning,” Danny said to her, stroking the animals nose.

“Obviously not a generic name,” Michelle commented dryly.

“I thought we’d better start off slow. I don’t think you’re ready for a derby winner just yet”.

“Come on, Danny, this looks like Rocinante. He’s one step away from the glue factory.”

“Fortunately, we’ll never know what he thinks of us,” Danny replied.

“Today we’re going to practice mounting.”

“You mean we’re not going to ride yet?” she asked disappointed.

“First you have to get up there, okay?” Danny said patiently. “I’ll show you how to saddle him later, but I thought for now you’d like to get the feel of it.”

“Thank you so much.”

“I’m going to give you a leg up this time, but you will have to learn how to do this alone eventually.”

“Okay,” Michelle said. “Now when I bend and make a cup of my hands, step into it with one foot, lift up and throw your far leg over the horse’s back.”

“Got it,” Michelle said.

He bent and Michelle obeyed his instructions. She was trying so hard that she overshot her mark, however, she slipped off the saddle on the other side and landed loudly on the ground.

Lightning continued to chew his hay, oblivious to her humiliation. Danny came around and crouched next to her in the dirt. “Lesson number one, ” he said. “Try to remain on the horse.”

“Very funny,” Michelle said, standing and dusting off the seat of her pants with her hands.

“Ready to try again?” he asked archly.

“You bet!” she said grimly. After a couple more attempts she was able to find and maintain her seat. Danny explained how to grip the horse’s flanks with her knees and control his head with the reins. They ended the session with Danny leading Lightning around the corral, Michelle seated on his back. She was bouncing too high and pulling back too much on the bit, but she was riding, and she felt triumphant. Lightning maintained an attitude of polite disinterest throughout.

“So? What do you think?” Danny asked as he let Lightning back to his stall and gave him a drink.

“I guess I did all right,” Michelle replied. “I’ve been picturing myself galloping through long grass like that actress in the perfume commercial, but I guess that will have to wait.”

“We can gallop, if you like”, he said. “I’ll take you out on Moonrise, she’s a good galloper.”

“We?”

“Sure. You just sit behind me and hang on tight. I’ll do all the work. Come on.”

Danny got Moonrise, who was obviously ready to roll, dancing in a circles as he led her out of the stall. Danny mounted easily and reached down for Michelle, hoisting her onto the horse behind him as if she were weightless.

“Put your arms around my waist,” he said.

Michelle obeyed. His midsection was lean and firm, and he smelled wonderful.

“Don’t let go”, he said, turning his head. Michelle had no intention of letting go. Danny trotted out of the corral area and onto the road, heading for the open field behind the stable.

“Ready?” he called.

“Ready ” she said into his ear. Danny bent his head and said something to the horse, then kicked her sides sharply.

Moonrise took off like an arrow released from a bow. Obviously delighted to be given her head, she ran full out, her flashing feet throwing up tufts of grass. Michelle was jolted forward with the initial thrust and clung to Danny in terror for a minute or so before she began to believe they would survive this excursion. It was another minute before she could relax enough to enjoy herself, but when she did, it was heavenly.

Danny was an expert horseman. He leaned forward in the saddle, controlling the horse just enough to keep her on track, and Michelle tightened her grip, watching trees and bushes fly by like scenery glimpsed from a speeding train. Danny’s hair blew back into her face, surprisingly fine and silky, curly against her skin, and after a while she let her head fall forward, pressing her cheek into the hollow between his shoulder blades. She felt at one with the man and the animal and wished, just for those fleeting moments, that she could stay where she was forever.

But, of course she couldn’t, and the ride ended too soon. Danny slowed the horse to a canter and headed back to the barn. When they got there, he vaulted to the ground and reached up to help Michelle dismount. He gripped her waist, his fingers slipping upward as she moved down. For an instant his hands brushed over her breast, but before she could react, he released her and stepped back, avoiding her gaze as her feet touched the dirt floor.

“That was wonderful!” Michelle said breathlessly.

“Glad you liked it. You can leave now.”

“Can’t I stay? ”

“Another time,” as if he wanted to be alone.

“When’s my next lesson?”

“I’ll let you know,” he said distantly.

Michelle, left, glancing over her shoulder once to see him. He didn’t look at her. She went back to the house.

Michelle thought a lot about the wild ride with Danny after that, she had an idea that it told her more about his character than any amount of talking ever could. He continued with lessons but never rode double with her again. It was as if he had revealed too much of himself that day and didn’t wish to again.

Michelle for her part, was fascinated with him. She had adjusted to his changeable nature pretty well, enjoying the good days and enduring the bad ones. And he seemed to take comfort in her nonjudgmental presence, spending more time with her than with anyone else, though he still preferred his own company most of all.

About three weeks after she began her lessons, at the end of July, Michelle had trouble sleeping one night and went down to the kitchen to get a glass of milk. She was turning away from the refrigerator when she heard Danny’s car drive past the house and turn down the lane toward his Guesthouse. She glanced at the clock on the wall. It was almost two in the morning.

Curious, she put the milk container on the counter and went to the back door, peering through the sheer curtain on the upper half. She saw the brake lights go out on the car and seconds later the driver’s door opened. Danny put one foot on the ground, and in the next instant he tumbled out of the car and sprawled headlong into the dirt. Michelle watched, alarmed, and when he didn’t move again, she bolted through the door, holding her ankle length nightgown up her calves and scampering across the wet grass in her bedroom slippers. She thought about getting her dad, Dr. Ed, but figured she’d go see for herself first. She left the lawn and scrambled down the dusty lane, dropping to her knees next to the prone man.

There was a half moon, and by its light she could see a dark sticky fluid matting Danny’s hair and running down the side of his face. She touched his shoulder and he stirred, groaning and turning toward her. She saw his face and gasped aloud. He had a deep gash on his forehead and another one just at the hairline, along with a black eye and a swollen lip. He had either lost a fight or won a Pyrrhic victory, paying too high a price for the crown.

“Danny?” she called, shaking him. “Are you okay? Can you sit up?”

He blinked up at her. “Michelle?”

“That’s right, it’s me. I want to get you inside and take care of these cuts. Can you help me?”

“All right. I’m fine,” he mumbled, struggling to a sitting position and putting his head in his hands.

“Yeah, you look fine,” Michelle muttered, putting her arms around him and hauling upward. She landed on her bottom for her efforts. “Danny, you have to help me,” she paused. How could someone who looked so slim be so difficult to move? He nodded groggily, and on the next try he cooperated, lurching to his feet and leaning against her with his arm across her shoulders. “It’s not far to the house ,” she said breathlessly. “Can you make it?” He nodded again, and step by step they made clumsy progress to the guesthouse. Danny tripped on the stairs and for a moment Michelle thought she would drop him, but he recovered and they stumbled gracelessly across it like a felled ox. Michelle leaned against the wall to catch her breath. The night was warm, and she could feel a trickle of perspiration running down her sides from the exertion.

After a few moments she wiped her forehead with the back of her arm and went to the bathroom, where she filled a bowl with water. She got a clean washcloth and soap. When she got back to the bed, he was lying on his back with his eyes closed. She was standing uncertainly, wondering whether she should disturb him, when his lashes lifted and he looked at her.

“How are you doing?” she asked, pulling a chair next to the bed.

“I’ll live,” he murmured, closing his eyes again.

“Danny, how did this happen?” she asked, dipping the cloth into water.

“A fight,” he said.

“NO kidding,” she said dabbing the cut on his forehead. “What were you fighting about?”

He winced. “A woman,” he replied.

Of course, Michelle thought, what else? “How did it happen?”

“We were talking…in a bar… some guy …started…up with me.”

“Some guy?” Michelle said.

“Husband,” Danny replied. Michelle stopped her ministrations and stared down at him.

“You were picking up a married woman in a bar and her husband did this to you?”

“She….was picking me up,” he corrected.

“Oh excuse me,” Michelle said. “That made a world of difference to her husband, I’m sure.”

“I didn’t know…she was married”, Danny said.

“Thank heaven for small favors,” Michelle muttered under her breath. She resumed cleaning his cuts with rather more vigor than necessary, and finally he sat up, pushing her hand away.

“That’s enough,” he said. Obviously some of his customary starch was returning. “You should put iodine on those cuts. How did you get them?”

“A bottle.”

Michelle sucked in her breath. “Danny, they could get infected!”

“I never get infections.”

“You could have scars.”

He examined her, his gaze lopsided. “Michelle, do you think this is the first time this has happened to me?”

She stood, shoving the water onto the bed. “Is that suppose to make me feel better? Do you realize you could have been killed driving all the way out here from town in this condition?”

“I got here, didn’t I?”

Michelle answered this question by bursting into tears.

He stared up at her, his damaged face incredulous. “What is it? Why are you crying?”

“Because you’re hurt, and I care about you,” she sobbed. “I only wish you cared about yourself”.

Danny didn’t know what to say. He sat watching her cry in silence until he couldn’t stand it anymore. “All right, come on, stop that,” he said, standing unsteadily and putting his arm around her.

She sniffled loudly. “I’m okay, you can see that,” he said. “There’s nothing to cry about.”

“You will do it again,” she said , her voice muffled by his shoulder.

“Don’t worry about me,” he soothed her, pulling her closer, his hands moving over her back.

“I can’t help it.” She hiccuped. “I don’t understand how you can be so good and patient when you give me lessons, and then do things like this.”

That gave him a pause. “Good and patient?” he said, unable to relate those attributes to himself.

She nodded, rubbing her face against his shirt. “You never yell at me, and I know I make a lot of mistakes. You just help me do it over until I get it right, and you don’t make me feel stupid about it.”

Michelle couldn’t see his expression, but she felt his grip tighten. He was listening intently. “Why would I make you feel stupid?” he asked, stroking her hair.

She shook her head as if disagreeing with something he had said. “You don’t know. I’m not good at physical things. I was hopeless in Gym, I almost failed last semester and it would have kept me from graduating. I had to make up extra credits doing routines on the gymnastics equipment. I fell off the sawhorse and hurt my foot, and then I couldn’t do the balance beam, so I had to learn the parallel bars, and Miss Masters was so mean about it. She can do everything. She climbs the rope like a snake, and I couldn’t make it to the top. She said I had no strength in my arms.” She started to cry again, remembering it.

“You have strength where it counts,” he said quietly, putting his cheek against her hair. It smelled sweet and clean. He closed his eyes. Michelle sensed the change in him, felt the tension growing in his body. His lips moved in her hair and she sighed, pressing closer.

She was wearing only a thin summer nightgown and seemed almost naked in his arms. Danny felt a surge of longing so intense he was nearly dizzy with it. He wanted to comfort her and protect her and keep her with him. He wanted this clean, sweet girl to change his life and make it right, and for that moment he believed she could do it. Then he remembered who she was and how old she was, and he stiffened, pulling back. He gripped her upper arms and set her firmly away from him. Michelle looked up, examining his face, but it was unreadable.

“Go back to the house” he said not meeting her gaze. “I’m all right now.”

Michelle stood flat footed bewildered. What had happened?

“Go on” he urged, turning away. “I just have to sleep this off, I’ll be fine in the morning.”

Her expression registered her confusion. He lay back down on the bed, slightly deeply and closing his eyes. “Good night and thanks a lot,” he murmured, exhausted.

Michelle remained a moment longer, and then, aware that Danny certainly needed to rest, put the washcloth and water back in the bathroom and slipped quietly from the house.

Danny’s eyes opened as the door closed behind her. He sat up again, putting his feet on the floor and clasping his hands between his knees. He was shaking. Thank God, she had listened to him and left. He was no model of control under most circumstances, and where women were concerned his self restraint was especially slim. Well, now he would have to deal with it. He had been telling himself that it wasn’t happening, that she was a kid and his fondness for her was merely brotherly. After this evening, that pretense was ludicrous.

He was in a hell of a mess, which was certainly nothing new, but this particular mess was far worse than usual. He was falling for Michelle in a big way. It had crept up on him gradually during the long summer hours he had spent getting to know her. It had happened when he wasn’t looking or when he’d been pretending not to look, because he’d been subliminally aware of his feelings for some time. They had driven him to more and more nights in bars, not even admitting to himself that he was trying to forget about her with other women. He stared at the floor, his cuts throbbing, his fat lip stinging, and wondered despairingly what to do. He couldn’t betray her father’s trust. Ed Bauer had let him stay at the ranch when Danny needed a place. Ed let him spend so much time with Michelle because he obviously thought his daughter was too young to interest Danny in that way, but he was wrong. Ed was a parent, and he saw his child, a girl not out of her teens. Danny, in recent days and especially tonight, had seen a woman. First, he would clean up his act for Michelle’s sake. He hadn’t realized how much his carousing was upsetting her. Second, he would limit his time with her to insure that what had happened tonight would not happen again. He lay back down, feeling a little better. But not much……

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