Jarrod walked into the dinning room. He wished his mother and three brothers each a good morning as he took his place at the head of the table; like he did every morning since his father's death over nine years ago. He noticed the empty chair of his blonde sister. How many times over the years had he reprimanded her for her tardiness in the morning, he wondered. As he stared at Audra's empty chair, he realized that today would be the last time.
Today was to be a joyous occasion, but Jarrod's heart was heavy. Today at two o'clock he had the task of giving his sister away in marriage. Tomorrow Audra and her new husband - a man she met while she was visiting a friend of hers in Boston - would leave Stockton to start their lives together back east. He knew that she would come home to visit and he would go visit her, but it would never be the same. She wasn't even gone yet and he already missed her.
"Good morning." Audra's cheerful voice rang out as she entered the room.
"Good morning." Each member of the family greeted her back.
"Couldn't you a least be up early on the day of your wedding?" Jarrod scolded as Audra took her seat across the table from Heath.
"You know I need my beauty sleep. Especially for today." She shot back as she smiled impishly at him. She picked up the cup of coffee Silas just poured for her and took a sip.
When Jarrod looked into his little sister's bright, blue eyes he saw the tears that threatened to overflow. He realized that she too would miss this morning game. For that is what it had become. When Audra was a little girl he would chide her for her tardiness because she would be late for school - for all the good it did. She refused to be on time. He suspected that she purposely came down late for breakfast just to get a rise out of him. After she had graduated from school he continued to admonish her just for the fun of it.
As he sat watching his soon to be married sister talking and joking with his younger brothers, Jarrod saw how grown up she looked. He wondered where all the years had gone. It seemed just like yesterday when he had first met this young lady.
When Jarrod arrived home from school Silas informed him that his mother had the baby that morning. He went upstairs to check on his mother. As he entered his parent's room he saw his mother lying on the bed. She looked very tired, but happy. His father sat in a chair beside the bed staring at his wife and the new child. Jarrod could see the pride and joy radiating from both his parents' faces.
"Jarrod, come met your baby sister." His father beckoned him over to the bed when he noticed his eldest son standing in the doorway.
Jarrod walked over and looked down at the tiny, bald baby cradled in his mother's arms. He remembered when Eugene was born, almost two years ago, that he hadn't been this fragile looking. "She is so small. Is she okay?"
"She is a few weeks premature, but the doctor assures us that she is healthy." His mother answered his concerned question.
But Audra had been far from a healthy baby. For the first month of her life, they were not sure that she would survive. Victoria had a hard time getting her baby girl to nurse properly and instead of gaining weight the child lost weight. The new member of the family also was very colicky. It seemed the only time the child did not cry was when someone was holding her.
When Jarrod came home from school he would take his sister and hold her in his arms while he read to her from his school textbooks. At first he did this because his mother pleaded with him to look after his difficult sister, so she could get some rest. As the weeks past he did it because he enjoyed the time he spent with his new sister. It became an evening ritual between the two siblings. When Audra was old enough to walk and talk she would met him at the door as soon as he arrived home from school. He would pick her up, carry her into the study, sit down with her on his knee and do his homework.
"I helps Jar do homework." The toddler would proudly announce whenever his father or mother entered the room to check up on them.
"Yes, you do sweetheart and I couldn't do it without you." Jarrod would whisper in her ear and gently kiss her on the check. Oh how he loved this little girl.
Their close bond was interrupted when he went off to fight in the Civil War. When he returned from the war he found a nine-year old stranger, who did not even remember him. Then he went off to university to study law. He only had the holidays to renew his relationship with his sister. It wasn't until after their father's death that the close bond they once shared began to blossom once more.
Jarrod would never forget the night he told Audra that their father was shot and killed. His sister's terror filled voice screaming in denial that their father was not dead ripped at his heart like a knife. He had wanted to shield her from the pain, but could not. Later he had found her curled up in the barn and carried her to her bed. As he sat beside his thirteen year old sister's bed watching her fitful sleep, he became more than a brother to her. That night the torch of responsibility was past to him as he stepped into his father's role becoming her protector, counselor and disciplinarian.
The first year after their father's death was a difficult one. Audra resented her eldest brother for trying to take their father's place. She would spend hours riding along the North Ridge. On more than one occasion Jarrod had to go find her and bring her home. This only led his blonde sister to resent him more. The harder he tried to reach her the further she pulled away from him and the rest of the family. In frustration he called upon his Uncle Jim's help. He never knew what Jim did or said to help his sister, but the girl finally was able to let go of her grief. After that she was able to accept Jarrod's love and guidance like she once did their father's.
"More coffee, Mister Jarrod?" Silas asked interrupting Jarrod's thoughts and bringing him back to the present.
"Yes, please." Jarrod said as he raised his cup so that the servant could fill it. He took a sip then picked up a muffin and took a bite.
"These muffins are excellent this morning, Silas." Jarrod complemented the servant.
"Why thank you, Jarrod." Audra replied.
"You made them?" Jarrod asked with a note of disbelief in his voice.
"Yes, I made them. You don't have to sound so surprised." Audra retorted.
"Boy howdy, it just isn't fair. We suffer through her bad cooking and when she finally can cook something eatable, we lose her." Heath teased as a lop-side grin formed on his face.
Audra burst into tears and bolted from the room. Heath was confused by his sister's reaction. They always teased her about her cooking and she had never got upset about it before. He started to stand up to go apologize to his sister, but Jarrod stopped him.
"Heath, let me talk to her." Jarrod said as he stood.
"I did not mean to up set her." Heath said as he stared at his plate. He felt bad for making Audra cry.
"I know you didn't." Jarrod said as he placed a reassuring hand on his younger brother's shoulder. Then he left the room to go find his little sister.
Jarrod found Audra in the gazebo that stood in the middle of their mother's rose garden. She was sitting staring out at the garden as tears flowed down her cheeks. His blonde sister didn't even look at him as he walked up the steps.
"Heath is sorry that he upset you. He was only teasing." Jarrod said as he sat down beside her.
"I know Heath was only teasing. I am not upset about what he said about my cooking." Audra said as she continued to stare out at the garden.
"What's wrong, Honey?" Jarrod asked.
"I'll miss the way you all tease me. I'll miss Heath's Boy howdy and lop-sided grin. The way Nick enters a room shouting at the top of his lungs with his spurs jingling. I'll miss the times I have spent out in this garden with mother talking. I'll miss the way you call me pretty lady. I'll miss riding to all my favorite places on this ranch." Audra buried her face in her hands as she cried uncontrollably. Jarrod placed his arms around his little sister's shoulders to comfort her.
"Oh Jarrod! Am I doing the right thing by marrying Edward." Audra blurted out as she looked up at her eldest brother through tear filled eyes.
When Jarrod looked into his sister's dark blue eyes he saw her pain, fear and confusion burning in them. "If you don't love him then shouldn't marry him."
"I do love him." Audra stated.
"But do you love him enough to give up everything here and move with him to Boston?" Jarrod asked the question that had been tormenting her.
"I don't know." She whispered as she looked down at her feet. "When I marry him nothing will be the same again."
"Nothing in life stays the same Audra." Jarrod said
"Oh Jarrod! Why can't things stay the same? Why does everything have to change." Audra cried.
"Change isn't something to be afraid of, Audra." Jarrod tried to console her.
"Isn't it. When father died everything changed." Audra screamed.
"I know father's death was hard for you, but all change isn't bad. Remember how hard we all fought against accepting Heath and the change that he brought into our lives. After he came here nothing was the same again. Do you wish Heath never came to the ranch?" Jarrod asked.
"Of course I am glad Heath came here. He is my brother and I love him. I could not imagine our lives without him." Audra replied.
"Can you imagine the rest of your life without Edward?" Jarrod asked.
Audra rapped her arms around herself as she stood, walked over to the entrance of the gazebo. She leaned against the post as she stared at the fountain in the middle of the garden where Edward proposed to her. She had no doubt of her love for him when she had accepted. She had felt no doubt in her heart that she wanted to spend the rest of her life with this man; that was until this morning.
For the last two months Audra's time and thoughts were taken up with the planning of the wedding. She didn't even think twice about the fact that after the wedding she would be leaving the only home she had ever known - the home her father had built. This morning that realization sunk in when Heath teased her and it caused her to panic. In her fear she began to doubt if marring Edward was the right thing to do. Jarrod's question made her see how foolish she was being.
Audra knew she loved Edward. She had known that the first day she met him at the park in Boston. She had been sitting under the shade of a big tree reading "Romeo and Juliet" when the tall stranger approached her. The two of them spent the rest of the afternoon discussing Shakespeare. For the rest of her stay in Boston she would meet the young man at the park where they spent their time talking or reading. She told him of her life in Stockton and he told her of how he wanted to be great writer like Shakespeare.
When it was time for Audra to return home, Edward accompanied her. He had told her that he had always wanted to visit the west, but the truth was that he did not want to lose the woman he was falling in love with. Two weeks after arriving home Edward proposed to her in her mother's garden.
"Do you want to call the wedding off?" Jarrod asked as he placed a hand on her shoulder snapping Audra out of her deep thoughts.
"No I love Edward and I want to marry him." Audra replied as she continued to stare at the fountain.
"Do you think Father would have approved of Edward?" Audra asked as she turned to face her eldest brother.
"When I decided I wanted to be a lawyer I was afraid father would not approve, because I knew it was his dream that his sons would work along side him on this ranch. It took me over a month to get up the nerve to tell him. When I finally did father asked me if being a lawyer would make me happy. Audra does Edward make you happy?"
"Yes" She replied.
"Then father would approve. All he ever wanted for his children was our happiness. Father would be so proud of the woman his little girl grew up to be." Jarrod told her.
"Jarrod I am honored that you will give me to the man I love today, but I wish father was here to do it. I miss him so much." Audra burst into fresh tears as she threw her arms around her elder brother and buried her face in his chest.
"I know sweetheart, so do I." Jarrod said as he held his little sister in his arm. Finally he gently pushed her away as he reached into his suit pockets. He pulled out a handkerchief and wiped the tears from her eyes.
"You better stop crying honey or all that beauty sleep you invested in over the years will be wasted." He teased.
"How dare you!" Audra cried in mock hurt as she playfully punched Jarrod in the arm.
"I love you, Jarrod." She said as she kissed him gently on the cheek.
"I love you too pretty lady." Jarrod whispered in her ear. "Now we better get back to the house. I believe we have a wedding to get ready for."
That afternoon everyone in the church stood to watch as a very proud brother escorted his sister down the isle to a very nervous groom.
"Who gives this woman?" The minister asked.
"I do." Jarrod answered. As he placed Audra's hand into Edward's hand he realized that the torch had been past once more.
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