Best Kept Secrets by Barbara Dan
Best Kept Secrets
by Barbara Dan
No one in Happy Valley ever suspected Walker Simmons' deep, dark secret. Indeed, how could they? Easy going, well liked, and dependable, Walker Simmons is just your average, easy-going cowboy. He works hard, cracks jokes when the going gets tough, and even comes up with pretty fair Sunday sermons in his spare time at church.
Not that he's a holier-than-thou kind of guy. No calling down fire and brimstone on cowpokes hung over from Saturday night. None of that. Walker Simmons is a friend to everyone, be they saint or sinner, man, woman or child. Never married, though a few young ladies cast a hopeful eye in his direction . . .
But all that changes one bone-chilling day in March of 1889, when tragedy struck at the Gunderson's ranch down the road. Secretly in love with his best friend's wife Mitzi for years, Walker convinces the grieving young widow that with a ranch to run and a ten-year-old son to raise, she needs a man around the place to do the heavy lifting. And, oh, yes, by the way, perhaps they should tie the knot, so as not to shock the neighbors?
Deeply moved by such neighborly concern, Mitzi accepts his proposal. And so this happy bachelor moves in to fill her late husband's shoes. It doesn't take long before the sparks begin to fly!
BEST KEPT SECRETS
Two months later
Dolly's slightest stirrings in the night, or the fierce sucking sound on her tiny fist brought both parents bounding out of bed. Right from the beginning, Walker and Mitzi competed taking turns to see who would reach her tiny cradle first. Inevitably Walker emerged as the winner. He changed diapers, helped bathe his little darling, and wore holes in his socks, pacing the floor at night. And when little Dolly had colic and began to fuss, the competition between mother and father intensified.
"Just because I can't nurse her doesn't mean I can't help," he insisted. So he burped his squirmy little girl and sang her the same cowboy songs he used to serenade cattle on the move.
And surprisingly, it worked, though at times Mitzi felt he overdid all the yodeling.
Being a slave to such a small tyrant might seem a bit foolish, Mitzi thought, yawning politely behind her hand. But if it made Walker happy, who was she to argue? Still, he did look adorable, his dark hair wildly disheveled, as he paced the floor nightly with their howling baby. Smiling tolerantly, she caught up on her beauty sleep, dreaming of the day when she would return to being the center of his attention.
Even after his longest, hardest days at work, he remained mesmerized by the miracle of this new life in their midst. "I'm her father!" he would brag to neighbors when they came to admire the Simmons' chubby, thriving little dumpling. Of course, nobody dared deny that she was special. At least not if they wanted Powder Keg's championship blood flowing through their own livestock's veins in years to come. Rumor was, Walker Simmons could be real easy going, or he could be a tough hombre to strike a deal with, if a competing rancher didn't sing his little Dolly's praises to the sky.
But in the evenings, all thoughts of business flew out the window, while he played checkers with young Will and sort of watch Mitzi nursing little Dolly out of the corner of his eye.
And if the baby had even the teensiest hint of colic, Walker and Mitzi were right there, both cutting a rug and dancing with their darling. And more often than not, Will managed to cut in and pick up a few dance steps from his 'old folks.'
'Twas another peaceful night, like many in recent weeks. After an early supper, young Will had ridden his Palomino over to spend the night at the Gehrharts. ostensibly to study grammar with their noisy crew. And joy of joys! There wasn't a peep to be heard throughout the Simmons' house, for Miss Dolly was warmly swaddled in her cradle and down for the night.
All this was by prearrangement, though the man of the house hadn't a clue.
In fact, he was feeling kind of blue with no one to play with.
Since it was much too early to call it a night, and Mitzi was busy in the pantry, Walker picked up the weekly Gazette, for want of anything better to do. Poking at the logs a bit, he placed the fireplace screen in place, and wandered off to bed.
After neatly draping his clothes over a chair, so as not to make more work for his angel of a wife, he slipped into his long-johns and stretched out in bed. He glanced over at her pillow and decided to fluff it up. Then he moved it closer to his. He always slept better when Mitzi was curled up against him.
Besides, he rationalized, the weather was starting to get colder, and there was no sense in not sharing body warmth. Smiling at his clever scheme, he kicked the two warmest quilts down to the foot of the bed and waited. After all, one of them had to take the initiative!
The door clicked open, and he closed his eyes.
At long last, he thought, holding his breath.
If Walker was full of bright ideas that night, he wasn't alone.
He listened to the door close behind his beloved, and then heard the quick patter of bare feet, as she hurried across the room. Any second he expected the bed to gently bounce on her side, as she scurried into bed. He waited with mounting anticipation.
Finally he cracked one eyelid to see what was going on.
Mitzi was standing over him, on his side of the bed.
Her lips pursed in the most adorable pout, Mitzi wriggled her shoulders seductively.
Walker swallowed hard. The minx was wearing a transparent black negligee, and he had a pretty good idea what she was up to!
She folded her arms, drumming her fingers impatiently, and he decided to let her play out her game to the hilt.
"Walker, when are you going to show me how much you love me?" she whispered seductively.
Walker wanted to grab her right then, but decided Mitzi, eager to test out her seductive powers, needed this to be her moment of glory. "Well, that is an interesting question," he said teasingly. "I might have to think about it awhile."
"Ooh!" Mitzi stomped her slender foot. "When we got married, you promised to love and cherish me," she reminded him. "So are you a man of action, or not?"
Ah. He could see where this was headed. "How can you doubt my love? Have I not been working my fingers to the bone—"
"I have been sending out signals for weeks!" She began to pace around their bedroom—a sure sign her passions were reaching the boiling point. "I've always suspected that deep inside you, Walker, is a volcano of burning passions. Yet lately you seem almost afraid to show your true nature!"
And here he'd tried so hard not to be too demanding! "What seems to be troubling you, dear heart?" he asked, trying to look empathetic.
She rushed him, nearly causing their mattress ropes to break.
Playing with the hair on his chest, she gazed down at him earnestly. "You've hardly touched me since Dolly's birth!
"I wanted to give you sufficient time to recuperate," he explained. "After all, you had a difficult pregnancy."
"No, no, no!" Mitzi sprang to her feet and began to march up and down, exhibiting her charms with such vigor that they jiggled. "You are being entirely too considerate!" And then she went into a dying swan act, landing on top of him. "What is wrong with you, Walker? Am I not woman enough for you?"
Painfully aroused after all her shenanigans, Walker wasn't sure how to respond without being accused of indulging in 'ungentlemanly and excessive behavior.' He was not a selfish man, but neither did he want to wind up in the dog house for taking selfish advantage.
"In case you haven't noticed, sweetheart, Dolly has only recently begun to sleep through the night," he reminded her gently.
"I realize that," she purred, giving him a smoldering look. "Walker, has it occurred to you that it's time to start celebrating this marriage of ours on a more regular basis?" She tossed her long blonde tresses like a wild mare in heat.
Walker's tawny eyes lit up. "Is this your way of saying you're lusting after your husband?" he asked, beginning to stalk her. "I'd hate to think you regard me as nothing but a frivolous toy!"
She cocked her head, considering whether or not he deserved the truth. Still, he had waited eleven long years before winning her hand in marriage. "Well, perhaps the time has come to let the other cat out of the bag, Walker! The truth is that I have lusted after you for years. Almost from the moment we first met, if you must know."
Walker drew back with a frown. "But you were a married woman!"
Mitzi threw herself down on the bed beside him. "Yes, though I think even Olaf would agree that we've suffered long enough for our secret sins."
Walker let out a deep sigh: "I have sinned in my heart for years!"
"And I know how it feels to deny oneself!" she pouted.
Walker groaned. "The more I think of Olaf, the guiltier I feel."
Mitzi pulled him down on top of her. "Well, if you're still plagued by all that guilt, Walker, perhaps you should make love to his widow–a truly outrageous thing to do, I agree, but necessary in order to get over it!"
Shocked by such blunt talk, Walker gazed deeply into her twinkling blue eyes, and instantly the truth hit home. God help him, how could he be so blind? When had his fear of losing her turned him into a stern, overly protective husband? Did not her high spirits attest to the robust survivor she had become? Yet, even after her remarkable recovery, he had stubbornly continued to deny his precious wife the love and respect she deserved!
"Oh, Mitzi, love," he said, gathering her close. "Forgive me?"
"Sshh! Less talk and more action," she whispered.
"One more big push, Mitzi. Deep breath now. We're almost there," said Hildy, coaching Mitzi through another powerful contraction.
Will, as Billy now insisted on being called, being a mature man of the world, peeked around his parents' bedroom door. "How long is this going to take, Ma?" he nagged, shielding his eyes. "Walker and Mr. O'Reilly are down at the barn, birthing one calf after another. I think they're getting tired of asking what you got this time."
Incorrigible men! As if she and Walker were in competition! Gritting her teeth, Mitzi bore down hard, and out spilled a squalling black-haired infant, right into Hildy's capable hands. As her second daughter let out a howl of protest, she laughed out loud. "Looks like I've outsmarted Mr. O'Reilly again," she bragged, receiving the baby into her welcoming arms.
Smiling, Hildy pulled the quilt up over Mitzi and her squalling daughter. "She's the spitting image of Walker."
"At least she doesn't have his long toes," Mitzi said smugly. "Such a precious angel—"
An impatient tap on the open window drew her attention to her husband, sweaty and sleeveless, as he leaned over the windowsill for a quick peek at his noisy offspring.
"A boy?" he grinned.
"No, darling. She's a beautiful brunette."
"A girl,' he gloated. "I was almost positive she might be."
"Not a 'Philip,' I'm afraid," she sympathized.
"Oh, that's all right, ma'am," O'Reilly butted in. "Bridget gave birth to twin boys two weeks ago, and frankly we're starting to run out of boys' names. I hope you don't have your heart set on naming your sweet bairn after me?"
Walker's face fell, and suddenly Mitzi knew it was up to her to fulfill her husband's promise and make all parties happy. "My congratulations to your wife, sir! You must be so proud with twin sons to grace your happy family!" She sighed. "Though I know Walker had hoped to name this one after you, Mr. O'Reilly."
"Aw, gosh and begorrah!" he blushed. "As if I'd hold my good friend here to a promise given under duress."
"Even so, I'm still wondering if it would be all right with you, and Bridget, too, of course, if we named our precious little girl 'Philippa' after you."
O'Reilly's face lit up with pleasure. "Why, 'twould be a great honor, ma'am!"
Even more thrilling was to see her beloved Walker's face all lit up and beaming with pride. "Philippa! Y'know, I like that name!" he exclaimed. "It means 'lover of horses.' Don't know if I ever mentioned that before?"
She nodded. "I may have heard the name a time or two."
"Oh, sweetheart, thank you! I can hardly wait till our girls are old enough to ride in Cheyenne's annual rodeo parade!"
Later that evening, after finishing up with chores and listening to Will's prayers, Walker tiptoed into the master bedroom and gazed fondly down at his two infant daughters.
"Look at our little darlings, Mitzi," he whispered, awestruck. "Sleeping so peacefully."
"And a good thing, too, since you look as tired as I feel," she smiled sleepily. "It's a miracle I got them both down at the same time."
"This has been a truly miraculous day, Mitzi," he said, curling up beside her in bed. "First, O'Reilly and Moses and I delivered thirty-nine calves, all sired by Powder Keg, and then you gave me another precious gift: our very own Philippa."
"My labors today hardly compare with yours, darling," Mitzi yawned.
"But don't you see, darlin'? Without you and the children, I'd still be punching cows over at the S-G-S. Instead, we have one of the busiest operations in the valley." He picked up a rumpled piece of paper that had dropped out of his pocket and handed it over. "Here, my beautiful girl. In honor of you and our wonderful children!"
Humoring him, she smoothed out the crinkles and tried to look interested. "'W-S-F'?"
"Remember when we were trying to come up with something catchy to describe what our ranch is all about? Well it finally came to me today! These letters stand for what our ranch is all about!"
"Okay," she said, turning up the lantern so she might figure out their meaning. "'W-S-F.' I'm a little slow-witted at the end of such a busy day, so let me make a wild guess: 'W' is for 'Walker,' right?"
He nodded enthusiastically. "Right so far!"
"'S' either stands for 'Simmons,' or– I've got it!" She sat up, as it suddenly became quite clear to her: "Why, that's brilliant, Walker!"
He smiled. "It's about who we are, sweetheart."
"Now don't be modest," she chided, giving him a sly little kiss. "'W-S-F' stands for 'Walker's Stud Farm.'"
She saw his face fall and knew she'd guessed wrong.
"Well, that's not a bad guess," he said, taking back his piece of paper and rolling it into a giant spitwad. "Considering what we've both been doing all day, I'd say one out of three guesses isn't bad. In fact, you almost guessed two out of three."
Her eyes twinkled. "So 'W-S' stands for 'Walker Simmons'?"
"Yes, and 'F' stands for 'Family!'" He grabbed her hands and kissed them. "Don't you see? We're the 'Walker Simmons Family'! That's what's so special about us."
"Maybe I've been taking something for granted," she said, still looking for more pieces to the puzzle.
"Today while I was delivering calves, it suddenly dawned on me how much I missed in life after my parents and siblings died. I think that's why I was drawn to Olaf and you, all those years ago. I've always been looking to be part of a real family again. And now because of you and our beautiful children, my life has taken on new meaning." Tears of joy shone in his eyes. "'W-S-F' stands for 'Walker Simmons' Family.' Don't you see, Mitzi? I'm not alone anymore! And neither are you! We're a real family!"
"Oh, Walker! Thank you for loving me, and being such a blessing in my life!" She melted in his arms, overwhelmed by his unconditional love, his courage, and his amazing insight. And in that precious moment, Mitzi saw how events completely out of her control had brought this amazing man into her life, and made him such an indispensable part of her future!
Running her fingers through his untamed hair, she covered his face with kisses. "Come here, you big, handsome cowboy!" she purred. "I cannot imagine what my life would be without you—"
"Sshh!" He raised his head, listening intently.
Sure enough, their newborn was squirming and making cranky noises in her cradle.
"What happens if she wakes up?" Mitzi whispered.
"They'll both wake up," he predicted, staring at the ceiling. "Better not make a peep."
"Does that mean I can't kiss you?" she asked, snuggling up against him.
"It's risky," he breathed in her ear. "It all depends on whether you're willing to walk the floor half the night with two cranky babies."
If ever she heard a tantalizing dare, this was it. "Walker, darling," she whispered. "I'll risk it if you will. Now, pucker up and kiss me."
And so he kissed her, and he kissed her, and he kissed her…
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