Republisher’s Note: Still in the present Danny and Michelle aren’t talking, so they don’t know that each one of the individually want to make their marriage real. There is a Manny wedding tonight, but sadly we don’t see much of it.
Marriage of Convenience By ‘J’ Chapter 9
Michelle showered and was brushing her hair in the bedroom the next morning when Rosa knocked on her door. “Come in,” Michelle called. Rosa entered carrying a cup of coffee.
“Thanks,” Michelle said, accepting it. “I didn’t know you were coming in this morning.”
“I thought I’d better stop by and see how things were going,” Rosa said nervously.
“Have you seen Danny?” Michelle asked, her eyes meeting Rosa’s over the rim of the cup. Rose nodded. “Where is he?”
“Waiting in the living room. He’s all dressed.”
“Already? How does he seem?”
“He seems tense. He looks gorgeous.” Michelle shook her head and smiled. “You look beautiful, ” she said to Michelle, who stared at herself in the mirror.
“Too bad this is such a farce,” Michelle said, applying her lipstick.
“You’ll get through it,” Rosa said firmly.
Danny rose as Michelle entered the living room. His eyes moved down, taking in her outfit, and up again to her face. “You look nice”, he said briefly. So did he. He was wearing a dark suit. His hair was wet with recent combing and his shoes were polished to a high gloss. “Be right back,” he said and went to the kitchen. When he returned he was carrying a florist box. “Here,” he said, handing it to Michelle. She took it, surprised. “I thought you should have that,” he said obviously uncomfortable. Inside was a small arrangement of irises and carnations.
“This is the same bouquet I had for my father’s wedding,” Michelle said in wonderment, lifting the spray out of the tissue paper and holding it to her nose.
He nodded. “You chose them before, so I knew you would like it.”
Michelle glanced at Rosa, who raised her brows. He had remembered a detail like that all these years?
He cleared his throat. “We better go,” he said.
The drive to the municipal building was brief, and Danny and Michelle signed the necessary papers in minutes. She had brought her blood test results with her, and the license was issued. Two clerks were the witnesses, and afterward their congratulations rang hollowly in Michelle’s ears. Her expression must have shown what she was thinking, because Danny said as they left, “Not exactly what you had in mind for your wedding, was it?” Michelle didn’t answer. “I’m sorry,” he said.
“It’s all right”, Michelle replied. “I understood what was going to happen when I came out here. It’s just that it all seemed so…”
“Cold?” he suggested.
“Yes, it did,” Michelle replied.
She left her flowers on the passenger seat and followed him into the restaurant. When they were seated and had ordered. Danny said, “There’s a problem you should be aware of in connection with the ranch. A couple of developers, Citrus Farms, and Sun City Homes, have been competing to buy it for a while.”
“Why do they want it?”
“The property around here has become very valuable in the last few years. The town is within commuting distance and the scenery is pretty. The schools are good. The developers have been moving in quick. They want to put subdivisions of tract houses on ranch land.”
“My father would have hated that,” Michelle said softly.
“He always refused to sell. The developers started in on me as soon as he died. When they find out about this wedding , they’re going to be after you, too. They’re offering a lot of money.”
“And you don’t want to sell?” Michelle asked.
“Do you?” Danny replied.
“I don’t know, I just got here, I really don’t know what’s going on,” Michelle said.
He lifted one shoulder. “This ranch is my life, but you may feel differently. You may want to take the money and go back to Springfield. In any case, once we inherit, they’ll have to deal with us together. One parcel is no good without the other.”
“So you want us to stick together, is that it?”
“Do you want to see a bunch of stucco bread boxes sitting on your Dad’s place?” he countered.
“Ross Marler didn’t say anything about this to me,” Michelle said as the waitress brought their coffee.
“He doesn’t know.”
“But you said you had spoken to him.”
“I didn’t tell him,” Danny replied, taking a sip of his drink.
“Why didn’t you tell me before the wedding?”
“I didn’t want you to change your mind,” he said evenly.
“In other words, you tricked me.”
“How did I trick you?” he replied equably. “The terms of the will would have been the same. I just didn’t inform you that there were buyers out there waiting in case you wanted to sell.”
“You should have gone to law school,” Michelle muttered, and the trace of a smile flickered across his lips.
The waitress brought their food, but Michelle had no appetite. She cut her pancakes into little sections and rearranged them on her plate until Danny said,”You really should eat some of that.”
“Now you sound like Rosa.”
“Rosa’s right. You’ve gotten skinny.”
Michelle stared at him, annoyed. “Haven’t you heard that it’s chic to be thin?” she demanded, somewhat misleadingly. A desire to be stylish was not the reason for her slenderness. Since learning about the will, she hadn’t been able to eat much in anticipation of this reunion.
“Where? In Springfield?” he said the word as though it were a disease.
“You weren’t’ always so skinny,” he said, biting into a piece of toast.
“I was chubby ten years ago.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Really?” she said, holding his gaze, and he looked away.
“How did you get the time to come here?” he asked after she had returned her attention to the decorative placement of her food.
“I took a leave of absence.”
“On such a short notice?”
“They owed me several vacations.”
“You work for the D.A’s office?”
“Prosecuting murder cases.”
“They’re not all murder cases, but the one I just finished was…How did you know?”
“Marler told me.”
Ross Marler seems to have developed a sudden case of bigmoutitis, Michelle thought. He had babbled quite a few details to Danny, who in return had apparently told him nothing.
“Did you win?” Danny asked.
She looked at him. That sounded like a challenge.
“It’s complicated,” she said.
“Try me,” he said tightly. “I may surprise you by being able to comprehend more than you think.”
Michelle hesitated. She hadn’t meant to insult his intelligence. He was certainly prickly.
“Well, we wanted a conviction on murder one, premeditation. That carries the maximum penalty,” she explained. “Frankly, I thought the guy deserved it, he seemed to have planned it all and taken his time setting it up. But his lawyer was able to get the charge knocked down to third degree, with a sentence of fifteen to twenty, eligible for parole after five. The defense hit heavily on the defendant’s service record and his work history. The guy had an honorable discharge from the navy and had held the same job for ten years, but that didn’t convince me he couldn’t have killed his girlfriend.”
“He must have convinced the jury,” Danny said.
Michelle shook her head. “No. He was a poor witness.”
“Then what happened?”
“The evidence made his girlfriend , the victim, sound like a tramp, and the jurors didn’t like what they heard about her. They decided that a tart like that deserved to die, so they weren’t going to sentence her boyfriend to death for finally getting fed up with her.”
Danny stared at her, shocked.
“It’s the truth, “Michelle said shrugging. “I tried to control the jury during voir dire…
“The questioning of prospective jurors, the jury selection process. The people I liked kept coming up with reasons to be excused from duty, and I was discounting too many possibilities. The judge censured me for wasting time, so I wound up with an unbalanced jury. It was bad from the start.”
“Does that happen often?”
Danny shook his head.
“It isn’t always like that,” Michelle amended quickly, “There are good moments too.
“I wish we could do more, but we do what we can,” Michelle said.
“My mother always wanted to be a nurse,” Danny said softly. “But after my dad died, she gave it all up.
“I didn’t know that. By the way, you’ve done wonders with the place,” Michelle said grudgingly. “I can tell just by looking around that it’s very successful.”
“We’re doing all right,” he said shortly.
Michelle smiled, making a pancake dam to contain a burgeoning river of syrup. “Remember when you taught me to ride?”
He grinned, the first genuine smile she’d seen since she arrived. “How could I forget?” he said. “The first time you sat on the horse you fell off into the dirt.”
“Lightning. He was old and slow.”
“Lightning was slow when he was a year old. He lived to be twenty. Miguel was always talking about putting him down, but we both knew we’d never do it. He died in his sleep. After a huge meal, of course.” He drained his coffee cup. “Did you keep up with the riding?” he asked.
Michelle sighed. “I’m ashamed to tell you this, but I haven’t been on a horse since I was last in Europe.”
“I can’t believe it,” he said. “I never saw anybody who wanted to learn so much.”
“It did mean a lot to me, and I always appreciated your help, but when I got to school other things became more important. You know how it is.”
He nodded slowly. “Want to do something about it?”
“What do you mean?”
“We can go for a ride when we get back, I’ll take you around the place, and show you some of the changes.”
“Danny, I’d fall off the horse again, I know it.”
“No, you won’t. It’s just like riding a bike.”
“I don’t have any riding clothes.”
“I’ve got some.”
“To fit me?”
Michelle tried to think of another objection and couldn’t. “You’d better call the paramedics and tell them to be on the alert,” she said as he called for the check.
“You’ll be fine”
“Only if you resurrect Lightning.”
“I’ve got another one just as slow.”
“Impossible. What’s its name?”
Michelle laughed. “Are you kidding me?”
“I am not.”
They went back to the car, and on the drive home Danny outlined the changes he’d made in the ranch operation, how he’d streamlined the purchasing and hired new vets to supervise the breeding of the horses. It was clearly a subject he loved, and Michelle just let him talk, wondering how any developer in the world thought he was going to get this man to sell to him.
When they got back to the house, Danny took her to the storage closet next to the garage and said, “There’s a box of riding clothes on the floor. See if you can find something to fit you.” He went to change.
Curious, Michelle took the container he had indicated to her room and sifted through it, amazed to discover an assortment of pants and shirts in various sizes, even a couple of leather belts. Where on earth had he got this stuff?
She selected a loose shirt and a pair of pants that were a little too big and cinched them with one of the belts. Danny was waiting for her in the living room when she emerged. “Whose clothes are these?” Michelle asked.
He shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“Danny, is the stuff in that box your bimbo bin?”
He stared at her. “My what?”
“Castoffs from your old girlfriends, things they left around that you just didn’t bother to return.”
He shook his head. “Michelle, I told you that Miguel runs a riding school now. Sometimes the students leave things behind and don’t come back for them. We save everything in there in case they come looking for what they left. That’s all.”
Michelle could feel herself flushing. “Oh,” she said in a small voice. Why on earth had she made such a big deal about it?
“There are boys clothes in there, too,” he said gently.
Michelle looked down at the shirt she was wearing. It had seemed odd when she was dressing, the buttons were on the wrong side.
“Ready”? he said looking at her. Michelle followed him to the stable, where he led her to a horse that looked almost as phlegmatic as lightning. He was methodically swatting flies with his tail and surveyed her with exquisite boredom.
“I take it this is Thunderbolt,” she said.
“Well, yes it is,” Danny said.
“Maybe I can handle something a little more lively,” she ventured bravely.
“You could?” Danny said looking down at her.
“I’d like to try.”
“Fine with me,” he readied another horse, named Melody, and helped Michelle into the saddle. His hands lingered at her waist no longer than necessary, and she felt perversely disappointed.
He followed Michelle out on his own horse and took her on a tour of the ranch, ending at the old stable where Miguel gave lessons. Michelle had done pretty well riding up until then, but Miguel had neglected to tell Danny that he’d been teaching Melody how to jump. When the horse saw a stanchions, she charged forward through the open gate and ran for the jump. Michelle hung on, but she had never jumped an obstacle in her life. When the horse went over, she went down, landing in a undignified heap on the ground.
Danny pulled up and leaped off his horse while it was still moving. He ran to Michelle’s side and took her face in his hands. “Are you all right?” he demanded, his expression anxious. She nodded. The wind was knocked out of her and she couldn’t talk, but otherwise she felt okay.
“Just stay here” he said. “I have to get the horses.”
She nodded again, and he took off. She watched as he tied the horses to the tress.
He returned and knelt next to Michelle in the grass.
“How are you doing? Can you try to walk?”
“All right,” she said breathlessly. He helped her to her feet, but when she tried to put weight on her left foot she cried out in pain. “Guess not,” she gasped. He scooped her up in one smooth movement and carried her to a huge tree that that bordered the ranch property. He held her for a few seconds, but it was enough for all the sense memories of the last time she was in his arms to come rushing back. The sensation was the same, but intensified.
Even his smell was familiar. She closed her eyes. Oh, Danny she thought.
He knelt and set her own the ground. “Better?” he said. “That sun was too hot?”
“This is fine.” She looked around her. “I used to picnic under this tree.”
“Let me see your ankle,” Danny said. He removed her shoe and sock and manipulated the joint. “Does that hurt?” he asked anxiously.
“A little. Not bad.”
“I don’t think that it’s broken,” he pronounced. “Just sprained. It may bruise, we better put some ice on it when we get back.”
“So,” he said, sitting next to her with his back against the tree, “I guess Melody wasn’t such a great idea, Huh?” His expression was teasing.
Michelle smiled ruefully. “I didn’t know she was trying out for the Olympic equestrian team.”
“Miguel must have been using her in his classes. I’ll have to talk to him. Apparently she’s too undisciplined for that.”
“Now you tell me,” Michelle said.
“I thought she was all right for you,” he said, turning his head to look at Michelle. “She always seemed pretty docile.”
“I guess she just likes to jump.”
“Horses can be like women that way,” he said softly. “They seem restrained, but when they see what they want, they go for it.” He was very near, close enough for her to see the gold flecks in his eyes.
“I tried once,” Michelle said. “It doesn’t always work.”
He dropped his eyes and stood. “We should go back to the house. Dr. Jensen can take a look at that ankle.”
“Dr. Jensen is a vet.”
“So, a doctor is a doctor, he can tell if the bone is broken, your father was a people doctor, and that didn’t stop him from taking care of the animals when he couldn’t get in touch with a vet.”
“You said it wasn’t broken,” she said.
“I said I thought it wasn’t. I’m not a doctor. I’ll get my horse, we can ride back double. I’m not taking any more chances with Melody, I’ll send somebody out for her later.”
I guess I brought that conversation to an abrupt end, Michelle thought morosely as she watched him walk away. Obviously any reference, no matter how oblique, to that last night ten years earlier was going to be met with silence. He returned with the horse and mounted, pulling her up behind him. Michelle remembered the last time she had traveled this way, but this trip was a lot more sedate. He kept the horse at an even canter all the way back and carried her into the house. “Just stay there, don’t try to walk,” he said as he deposited her on the living room sofa.
“Yes, sir,” Michelle replied and saluted.
“I will see if Jensen is still in the stables. He was supposed to give the horses their shots today,” he said and left.
Michelle’s ankle was beginning to throb, and she was contemplating disobeying ordered and hobbling to the bathroom for aspirin, when she heard voices. Danny entered the back door followed by Dr. Jensen. “She’s in here,” Danny said, leading the way. Dr. Jensen, a handsome man in his fifties, surveyed the patient with a critical eye.
“George,” Danny said. “This is my wife, Michelle.”
Michelle almost fainted. She glared at Danny while Jensen bent over her foot, saying. “Congratulations, Mrs. Santos. What a terrible thing to happen on your wedding day.”
Danny, who was pretending not to notice Michelle’s reaction, said, “It isn’t broken, is it?”
“No, no. But its a pretty bad sprain, and once the shock wears off it will be painful,” the doctor said. “Are you feeling it yet?”
“A little,” Michelle said. “Do you have any painkillers here?”
“This is an opiate, ” the doctor said. “People take them all the time. You won’t be able to sleep without them.” Michelle swallowed two of the pills. “Make sure she takes two every four hours,” Jensen said. “And put some ice on that foot.”
“I will,” Danny assured him. “It’s a sorry night to spend your wedding night,” the doctor said sympathetically.
“There will be other nights,” Danny said, and Michelle wanted to hit him.
After the doctor left, Michelle hissed, “Why did you tell him that we were married?”
“We are married.”
“You know what I mean. I thought we agreed that we were going to handle this discreetly.”
“What was I supposed to do?” Danny asked. “He knows that you are staying here with me.”
“Danny, I remember my father talking about that man. Dad said that he’s a nice guy, but he spreads information around. Everybody for miles around will know we’re married now.”
“Maybe that’s better. How could you live in this house without an explanation? What would people think?”
“What would people think?” Michelle repeated, staring at him.
“Danny Santos, you’re talking to me, the person who put you back together after more drunks and fights that I care to remember. You were the scandal of the community for years. You expect me to believe that you suddenly care what people think?”
“Maybe I’m changing my image,” he said mildly, propping her leg on a pillow. Michelle eyed him narrowly as he fussed over her.
There was a reason for what he had done, and she was certain it had nothing to do with his concern about their reputations.
“I will get the ice,” he said and rose to go to the kitchen. She listened to him emptying the ice trays and opening cabinets, and by the time he returned she was feeling spacey. “Here you go,’ he said, putting her foot into the dishpan and packing it with ice bags. “This should work. Now just lie back and try to take a nap.” Michelle found that advice easy to follow, and when Danny came back later on to give her more pills, she wasn’t sure if she was awake or dreaming. She swallowed dutifully and closed her eyes again. He hesitated, then kissed her lightly on the mouth, certain that she wouldn’t remember it.