The Long Hot Summer (Chapter Twelve)

Sheldon and Jeremy raised snifters filled with an ounce of premium bourbon and toasted Ryan and Kelly. Sean, standing between his grandfather and uncle, lifted his glass of apple juice.

"To Daddy and my new Mama," he said, giggling.

Kelly felt her eyes fill. Blinking, she smiled through her tears. "Thank you, Sean." She touched her glass to Sean's, Ryan's, Jeremy's and finally Sheldon's. She took a sip, holding the liquor in her mouth for several seconds before letting it slide down the back of her throat. It detonated on impact.

"Whoa!" she gasped.

Sheldon nodded his approval. "See why this old girl only comes to the dance every few years?"

Jeremy also gasped, holding his throat. "Boo-ahhh!" he whispered.

"Ditto," Ryan added after swallowing. He placed his glass on a sideboard. "That's enough of that."

Reaching for the bottle, Jeremy studied the label. "I've never heard of this brand. Pop, are you certain this stuff isn't moonshine?"

Sheldon shook his head. "I never thought my boys would grow up to be such sissies." He drained his glass, reached for Sean, and swung him up in his arms. Cradling his grandson's head to his shoulder, he whispered loudly, "It's time for the men of the house to turn in for the night." He blew a kiss at Kelly as he strode out of the room.

Jeremy walked over to Kelly and hugged her. "Congratulations again. I'm with Pop and Sean. I'm going to bed." He patted Ryan's shoulder. "All the best, brother."

Waiting until they were alone, Ryan curved his arms around Kelly's waist. "I want you to come back to my place with me. I'd like to show you something."

"What?"

He flashed a mysterious smile. "You'll see."

Kelly found herself in the middle of the living room of a house that was soon to become her home. The two-story, three-bedroom structure was the equivalent of one city block away from the ones occupied by Sheldon and Jeremy. Ryan had informed her that his father had first taken up residence in the house after he'd returned from a tour of duty in Vietnam.

The furnishings were formal and elegant. Every chair, table and lamp was meticulously positioned as if for a magazine layout. It was perfect, a little too perfect. A slight frown appeared between her eyes. There was something wrong with the room. Suddenly it hit her! It didn't look lived in. Staring at a sofa and matching love seat, Kelly mentally catalogued what she would rearrange. Firstly she would take down the drapes and replace them with a lighter weight fabric to let in the natural light.

Walking over the fireplace, she studied the framed photographs lining the mantel. Smiling, she recognized a younger Sheldon in a United States Army uniform with his young smiling bride. Peering closely at the picture, she noted Julia Blackstone's natural beauty. Ryan had inherited her smile.

There were photographs of Ryan and Jeremy as children, and more of Sean at different ages. Nowhere was there a photograph of Sean's mother. It was if she'd been completely erased from his life. She heard footfalls, and turned around. Ryan had returned, holding a small wooden box.

He cupped her elbow, leading her over to sit on the sofa. He placed the box on her lap. "Open it."

She sprang a latch, the lid opening. Staring back at her on a bed of black velvet was a solitaire ring with a large square-cut blue-white diamond; along with the ring was a pair of drop South Sea pearl earrings dangling from a diamond cluster, and a bangle of diamond baguettes.

"They are beautiful, Ryan."

"They belonged to my great-grandmother. My mother gave them to me a month before she died. She wanted me to give them to my wife."

She gave him an incredulous look. "Why didn't you give them to Sean's mother?"

His expression was impassive. "I'd offered them to her, but she said she didn't want someone else's hand-me-downs. The pieces in that box were purchased from Cartier between 1917 and 1919."

She picked up the bangle. "It's heavy."

"That's because all of the pieces are set in platinum."

"What about Jeremy?"

"Don't worry, princess. Jeremy was given his share."

Reaching around her, Ryan picked up the box with the jewelry. He took the ring and slipped it on the third finger of Kelly's left hand. It was a perfect fit.

She extended her hand. The light from a floor lamp caught the diamond, prisms of light catching and radiating from the flawless gem.

Ryan curved an arm around Kelly's shoulders when she rested her head on his shoulder. "We're going to have to choose a date."

"What about the last weekend in August."

"How about the first weekend?" he countered.

Easing back, she stared at him. "That's only three weeks away."

"I know. We can go up to Saratoga Springs, New York before the summer racing season ends. I know it's not much of a honeymoon, but I'd like to take you away, even if it's only for a weekend. We can take a real honeymoon during the Christmas break."

"How long is the racing season?"

"Six weeks."

Kelly wondered if she could pull everything together in three weeks. She had to send out invitations, get a dress and select a ring for Ryan.

"Okay," she agreed, kissing his cheek. "I'm going back to D.C. at the end of the week to get my sister to help me with invitations. And while I'm there I'll do some shopping."

Ryan pulled her across his lap. "If you need help with anything, just let me know."

She nuzzled his neck, breathing a kiss under his ear. "You need to take me back to my place."

"Why?" he crooned.

"Because I have to go to sleep, Ryan. I'm going need all of my energy for my students tomorrow."

"Sleep here tonight."

"No. Not until we're married."

Pulling back he stared at her. "Don't tell me I'm marrying an old-fashioned girl?"

"I'm more conservative than old-fashioned. That comes from working with young children. After all, they learn from example."

Kelly had no way of knowing that when she answered an ad for a teaching position on a horse farm she would find a love that promised forever.

Kelly slept restlessly throughout the night, and when she left her bed at six she felt as if she had been up all night. She brewed a small carafe of coffee, drank several cups, then dialed the area code for D.C.

Pamela answered the phone with a cheery, "Good morning."

"Pamela, this is Kelly."

There came a pause. "What's with the Pamela?"

"I have good news to tell you."

"When are you due?"

"I'm not pregnant!" she practically shouted. Well, she didn't think she was pregnant. When she and Ryan had made love the night before he hadn't used a condom. Squinting she calculated when she'd last had her period. Sighing, she realized she was safe.

"I'm getting married in three weeks here at the farm, and I'm going to need your help with addressing invitations and shopping for a dress."

Pamela screamed at the top of her lungs, eliciting a frantic barking from Miss Porter. "I can't believe it," she said over and over. A loud sniffle came through the earpiece. "Dang, Kel. I can't believe I'm crying and souping snot at the same time. Wait until I blow my nose."

"Pamela?" Kelly said into the receiver when a full minute elapsed without her sister coming back to the phone.

"I'm back. I had to tell Leo the good news."

"I'm coming in this weekend."

"Is there anything you want me to do on this end in the meantime?

"Yes. I need you to use your artistic talents and design an invitation for me. I have to get Ryan's full name and the directions to Blackstone Farms. And you and I have to do some serious shopping in Chevy Chase."

"Where are you going?"

"Ryan and I are going up to Saratoga Springs next month for a weekend."

"Now, Miss Clotheshorse, you're singing my song."

Kelly laughed. She and Pamela had gotten their love of shopping from their mother. For Camille it was hats, Pamela handbags and Kelly's weakness was shoes.

"I'm going to call Mama and give her the news as soon as I hang up with you."

"Kel?"

"Yes, Pam."

"I'm so happy for you."

"Thanks, big sis."

She rang off and dialed her mother's number. The call lasted less than five minutes, and when she hung up it was Kelly's turn to shed tears of joy.

A portable stage had been set up under a tent large enough to accommodate the sixty invited guests and more than thirty of Blackstone Farms' extended family. It had rained steadily for two days, then the night before Ryan Blackstone was scheduled to exchange vows with Kelly Andrews, but after the rain had stopped, a strong wind swept the clouds across the sky to reveal an orange-yellow near-full moon.

Kelly stood beside Ryan, eyes closed, repeating her vows. She was afraid that if she looked at him she wouldn't be able to hold back her tears. Her hands were trembling as she slipped a platinum and yellow gold band on Ryan's finger.

She heard the judge telling Ryan he could kiss his bride, and her world stood still as she felt the pressure of his firm lips on hers, sealing their troth. It was over. She was now Mrs. Ryan Jackson Blackstone.

Ryan pulled Kelly closer, her soft curves melding with the hardness of his body. He'd run the race and won the ultimate prize.

"Didn't I warn you, Mrs. Blackstone?"

"About what?" she whispered against his warm mouth.

"That I play for keeps."

Her smile was as dazzling as the sun warming the earth. "So, do I, Mr. Blackstone."

Turning they faced all of the people who had come to witness another generation of Blackstones solidifying their place in Virginia's horse country's history.