Original Ending for "Cowboy Competition"
I'm a day late getting my post up this week. I'm in Georgia with my son, so my weekly routine is disrupted and I'm losing track of my days. To make up for being late, and because I wanted to do this anyway, here's what I origianlly wrote as the ending for my novella in The Cowboy's Bride Collection.
(Scene: Toby is lying in bed with a broken arm after his fall in the competition. Mr. Lindley and Nia have come to offer him the job of ranch manager. He has declined because of his curse.)
Toby hurt down to his toenails. All that fussing about whether his motives were pure or not. What a waste! He was as horndoodled as Peltzer, thinking about settling down. “There’s more.”
Nia crossed her arms and looked toward the empty fireplace.
“My pa gambled the Double L away in a poker game.” Before he lost his nerve, Toby spilled the entire, miserable story—the fight his parents had when his mother found out, her labor and death followed soon after by the baby’s death, and his pa’s horse thieving and treason by selling to Mexican soldiers on their way to The Alamo.
Nia stood and faced the bed, tears glistened on her cheeks. “You get off this ranch, you hear me? I want you gone.” She staggered to the door, gulping down sobs. With her hand on the doorknob, she whispered, “You have no idea what you’ve just cost me.” She yanked the door open and fled, slapping wood against wood as her final good-bye.
Toby dropped his chin and fought the vomit clawing up his throat. The jacket slipped off his left shoulder. He let it go. It didn’t matter anymore.
“Why’d you come here? To ruin me?”
“Ruin you?” Toby looked up. “But you aren’t the one who. . .”
Mr. Lindley’s stare said, “Are you an idiot?”
“You don’t a–approve of gambling.”
The stare intensified. “Well, of course I don’t. And why do you think that is, Mr. Lane?”
No! Oh. . .no!
“I see you are beginning to understand what you’ve cost me. Cost my girls. My younger daughter, Marigold, is engaged. Did you know that, Mr. Lane?”
She’d have to call it off. Even if the reason why remained a secret, speculation and scandal would follow her and Nia for the rest of their days.
All because honesty was the best policy.
“I thought. . .” Mr. Lindley swiped a palm across his cheek. “I thought I could protect them with silence. Maybe I was wrong.”
But the curse didn’t work that way. Did it? Toby plucked a crumb from the tray and put it back on the plate. How would he know? Based off the Double L’s prosperity, maybe the trick was silence.
Crushing guilt pressed air from his lungs.
By trying to break his own curse, he’d condemned another family. He’d condemned Nia.
Mr. Lindley sat like his legs suddenly lost their strength. “If you aren’t here out of revenge, why are you here?”
Toby swallowed hard. “I just wanted to come home.”
Nia steadied herself against the wall as she tottered toward her bedroom. Blinded by tears of grief, rage, and self-loathing, she jammed her thigh into the corner of a small table. A crystal vase crashed to the floor. She sank and gathered shards of glass into her palm.
Why did she always make such a mess of things? Every time she put her faith in a man, it came back to bite her.
And this time it cost the Double L.
Two L’s. For Lawrence Lane.
“Nia?” Marigold’s sweet voice, full of concern, floated overhead.
Looking up, Nia lifted the shards. “What am I going to do?”
Marigold lowered herself with slow grace. “Here. Give them to me.” She held out a smooth palm.
The glass would cut into it.
“No.” Nia closed her hand so Marigold wouldn’t get hurt.
“Mrs. Lambert, come quickly!” Marigold cupped her hands under Nia’s, catching blood before it dripped onto the carpet runner. “It’s okay, Nia. It’s okay.”
Nia had said the same thing to her horse a couple days ago. You said it when things weren’t okay, but you didn’t know what to do about it.
Everything hurt. Her hand, her thigh, her heart.
“I don’t know what to do, Mari. I’ve made such a mess.”
“Hush, now. We’ve been through worse than a little blood on the carpets.”
It wasn’t about the carpets, but Mari didn’t know that. How could she? Nia opened her mouth, but where should she start? With the dancing master? The deal to inherit the ranch? Did Mari even know their father was dying?
Nia closed her eyes, no longer able to stomach the sight of blood dripping from her flesh.
“What’s going on here?” Papa’s voice. Strong. Vibrant.
Nia shuddered. She wanted to rush into his arms and have him carry her away like he’d done when she was little. Like she’d wanted from men ever since . A need that led her to one bad choice after another. And now, she’d made the worst choice of all.
The son of a gambler, a horse thief, and a traitor in The Texas Revolution.
“Nia?” His voice. Full of the tenderness that made her a fool. No use pretending otherwise. It took the man three days—three—to barrel past her every resolve to be smart this time. To prove she was beyond rash choices. To hold strong against a pair of brilliant green eyes that stared into her soul and made it sing.
“Go away. Please, please, go away.”
“You heard the gal, let me through.” Mrs. Lambert came from behind the men.
It took five or ten or maybe twenty minutes before the shards were removed from Nia’s hand and she was sitting in front of Toby’s fireplace again. He sat opposite her, a dark gray jacket doing a miserable job of concealing his bare chest.
A crowd hovered over them. Papa in his white shirt, the sleeves rolled up. Mari in sky-blue and white lace. Humphrey Tranton by her side in brown tweed. Not a lot of people, but Nia scooted closer to the fireplace before she suffocated.
Papa put his hand on the back of Toby’s chair. “Humphrey, would you please ask Mrs. Lambert to bring in three more chairs?”
Before he could obey the request, the housekeeper, cook, and Marigold’s lady’s maid paraded into the room, each carrying a dining room chair. Mrs. Lambert set hers beside Mari. “Thought you could use these.”
Papa bowed. “Madam, you are a wonder.”
“I’ll remind you of that come payday.” She swept out of the room, her helpers following in her wake.
Everyone sat. No one spoke. Nia wiped a tear from her cheek with the back of her bandaged hand.
“I, uh. . .I need to tell you girls a story.” Papa gripped his hands until his knuckles whitened. “I’m not proud of it, but. . .well. . .”
He started by saying he’d hoped Toby wasn’t the same Lane as the one whose family experienced such tragedy. When Marigold questioned him, Papa repeated the story he and Nia heard from Toby. But then the narrative changed. Became something foreign. Nia watched her father’s lips move, heard the words float around her ears, but only snippets penetrated her brain.
In love with the rancher’s daughter. Kicked off the property for trying to steal a kiss. Going nowhere fast. A poker game. Stakes getting higher and higher. Wild betting. Winning the Double L on the last hand. Rushing back to Colorado to claim the rancher’s daughter. Promises, lots of promises, to be worthy of her hand.
The buzzing inside Nia’s head cleared in time to hear Papa say, “I. . .I never told your mother what happened to Mr. Lane’s family. I dug into the work like I promised and prayed it made up for. . .cheating.”
Toby squeezed his left hand into a fist. “Based on my pa’s character, I’d say you weren’t the only one with cards up your sleeve.”
A hand settled on his shoulder. “I wasn’t, but that doesn’t excuse it.”
Marigold Lindley stood, her beautiful face ashen. “I’m sorry, Humphrey. I didn’t know.” She twisted the ring off her finger and held it out. “I’ll have a notice sent to the papers canceling our engagement.”
It was the only thing someone under a generational curse could do. Toby wished it wasn’t so. Wished it more than anything. But no amount of wishing changed that people like him were condemned to roam the earth alone. To wed and bring children into the world—children who would suffer and watch their children suffer—was the height of selfishness.
Nia’s tears flowed. He wanted to pull her into his arms, whisper words of comfort, take her pain into his soul so she didn’t carry it alone.
Humphrey stood and curled Mari’s fingers around the ring. “No, my love. I won’t let you break our engagement over something so trivial.”
Toby’s jaw loosened.
Mari looked ready to faint.
“What are you saying, Tranton?” Mr. Lindley came into Toby’s field of vision.
With his left hand, Humphrey caressed Mari’s cheek. “I’m saying I don’t care two hoots or a holler about who did what twenty-some-odd years ago. None of that affects my future—our future—because I don’t believe the sins of the father are passed from one generation to the next.”
“But. . .but. . .it’s in the Bible.” Mari gripped Humphrey’s hand so hard the big man winced.
“Yes, and then again, no.” Humphrey touched his forehead to Mari’s.
Toby shifted in the chair. His heart throbbed. He gripped his broken arm.
Humphrey turned until he’d tucked Mari under his arm. He looked straight at Mr. Lindley, almost daring him to snatch his daughter from where she belonged. “The verse says, ‘For I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.’ Do you—any of you—hate God?”
The question raced around the room like a wild mustang in a holding pen.
Toby took small breaths. He didn’t hate God. Hadn’t talked to Him much, but that was because a man under a curse wasn’t likely to change the Almighty’s mind by begging.
But now…a whole world of new possibilities opened up.
What if getting fired, shot at, and run from one side of Texas to the other wasn’t about being cursed, but about the natural mistrust of one human being toward another? Or giving up too soon figuring he was already beat? What if he could live free from shame not of his own making?
“Wait just a minute, Humphrey Tranton.” Mr. Lindley shook his head like he was clearing it after a hard fall. “How come you know that particular Bible verse so well?”
Humphrey’s cheeks turned bright pink. “You don’t think you’re the only ones with rascals in your family tree, now do you? My grandfather would put Judas Iscariot to shame.”
No one moved. Or breathed. Then Marigold—the prettiest girl he’d ever seen, though she beat her sister by a mere whisker—snorted.
Toby heard it come from her, watched her eyes widen in horror, but still checked if Blaze had climbed through the bedroom window.
Laughter filled the room, brightened it, chased away the chill.
Until Toby looked at Nia. She wasn’t smiling.
Marigold threw her arms around Humphrey’s thick neck and kissed him while she wiggled the ring back onto her left hand.
“Well, then.” Mr. Lindley clapped his hands like he was calling schoolchildren to order.
Marigold and Humphrey pulled apart, both of them starry-eyed and beaming.
Mr. Lindley clapped Humphrey on the shoulder. “You’re a good man, Tranton. Couldn’t be happier to entrust my precious Marigold into your care.” He turned to Toby, a knowing gleam in his eye. “As for you, I believe my daughter was about to offer you a job.”
“Wait!” Nia lurched to her feet. Everyone else was full of cheer, but she wouldn’t be taken in again. Not by anyone. “Papa, would you join me in the hall for a moment?”
His smile faded. “Certainly, my dear. If you will excuse us.”
Lady. Be a lady!
“Yes, please excuse us.” Nia waited for her father to open the door, then walked into the hall with forced decorum.
“Well?” He clicked the door closed.
Nia rubbed her bandage. “I need time to rethink offering Mr. Lane the job.”
“Hmmm. Because of what his father did?” He leaned against the wall.
The hallway floor shifted under her feet. How she answered affected more than Toby Lane.
Free to express emotion balanced by logic.
Nia walked to her mother’s portrait and touched the gilded frame. “I confess I was both shocked and saddened to hear Mr. Lane’s tale but, as Mr. Tranton so eloquently put it, I don’t give two hoots or a holler about who did what twenty years ago.”
A smile curved his lips. “Not an expression I thought to hear from a banking man.”
“But quite appropriate.” Nia watched for the moment her father accepted the pardon. It came with a deep inhale and slight relaxation in his posture. “But I need more time to determine Mr. Lane’s motivation in coming here.”
“I questioned him and am satisfied.”
“With all due respect, Papa, you aren’t the one who’ll be working with him.” The words tore her throat the way the glass shards had torn her hand.
“Very good, Petunia.” He pushed away from the wall and applauded her. “Your sentiment is both correct and graciously expressed. You’ll make a fine first lady of the Double L.”
The praise propelled her into his arms. “Oh, Papa.”
For several minutes, they held on to each other, offering comfort in silence.
“I propose a compromise.”
Nia drew back. “I’m listening.”
He patted her shoulder and let go. “You’re concerned about both Mr. Lane’s motives and his scheme to train wild mustangs, right?”
“Yes.” Nia stepped back to better see her father’s face.
“And I have always considered it wise to try new things without letting go of the old, so what do you say we offer Mr. Lane a two-year contract restricted to training[JF8] while we continue business as usual. After two years, you can let him go if his wild mustang scheme is unprofitable, or sooner than that, should his motives prove detrimental to you or the Double L.”
Nia tugged at the bandage. “If we restrict his duties to training, who will be straw boss?”
He pointed toward a window. “We have a competition going on for that express purpose, if you remember.”
Humor bubbled in her chest. “Why, yes. Yes, we do.”
“Then we’re agreed?” He held out his arm.
She placed her undamaged hand on it. “We’re agreed.”
They returned to the bedroom where Marigold and Humphrey chatted easily with Toby. Marigold rose from the chair Nia had vacated. “Come, darling.” She stretched a hand to Humphrey. “We have a few wedding details to discuss.” She glided across the room, bell skirt motionless.
Nia bent her knees, preparing to imitate the graceful walk, then thought better of it. A lady rancher was still a rancher. If her skirts swayed when she walked, so be it. The first lady of the Double L need not be intimidated by anyone—not even her sister.
As Marigold passed, she leaned close to Nia’s ear and whispered, “Give this one a chance.”
Nia walked to the chair and sat. Her father took a seat to her left. She faced Toby and waited for the door to click signaling privacy. “Mr. Lane, my father and I have come to a compromise.” She detailed the two-year contract, emphasizing her right to terminate him should his actions reveal a faulty character or his training present too deep a financial drain. “Do you understand these conditions?”
The phrase bumped her heartbeat higher. "Then will you accept the job?"
Toby lifted one eyebrow.
Chastened, she added, "Please."
(Me again) I'll post my original Epilogue later, but I'm curious what you think of this ending. There are parts of it I still really like. I think HumphreyTranton's response to the "generational curse" is a much better one than what ended up in the final version. The reason we pulled it was partly because the stigma of being the child of a cheater has lessened to the point that it's not a universally accepted norm. Back then, people were afraid "bad blood" literally ran in the veins. In other words, if someone in a family line was a cheater or murderer, any offspring from that person was automatically a cheater or murderer because their blood carried those sins like an inherited disease. I believe there's still some of that going on today, which is why I wanted to address it, but not to the point that everyone would understand why someone would call off an engagement just because she found out her father was a cheater.
The other objection was that, by changing the offer of employment to something more limited than what Mr. Lindley and Nia originally intended, it cheapened the offer of grace. That was unacceptable to me. So...I bumped up Toby's desire to train mustangs instead of be a cattle rancher so the job offer would be a dream come true.
Again, I'd be curious to hear what you think.