Episode 1

Welcome to Providence

Circa 1875, north central New Mexico Territory


A lone man rode his horse along the dusty main street of Providence, his dark eyes scanning the scene before him. He smiled and nodded a silent greeting to several people before turning the white stallion off the middle of the street and dismounting. Tying the reins to the hitching post, he paused to look around again.


He took note of the location of the Sheriff's office and the saloon, along with the bank and telegraph office. He was aware that he was attracting some attention from the various city residents who were going about their various daily routines, but he simply offered them a smile and touch to the flat brim of his black hat as he acknowledged them. He was used to his dark frock coat, vest and frilled white shirt drawing attention of people who didn't know him.


Finally, he turned toward the buildings and stepped up onto the boardwalk, heading to a small office with the words "J. Donager, Attorney at Law" painted on the window. Another, smaller sign sat inside the window, this one neatly handwritten: "Be back soon."


Sighing, he looked around the street, debating on whether or not to pay a call on the Sheriff, or to head down to the saloon for a drink to wash some of the trail dust out of his throat. He really wanted to talk to Lawyer Donager before talking to the sheriff, so he crossed the street, avoiding a buckboard and a couple of riders.


Three women were coming out of the mercantile when he stepped up onto the boards. He stopped, surprised, as he noticed that two of them looked almost exactly alike. Twins weren't something that a person saw every day. But it wasn't entirely the two young girls that drew his attention. While they were attractive, and young, it was the woman with them that he had noticed first.


Her blue eyes reflected those of the twins, but her hair was a glorious shade of red, while theirs was blonde. One of the girls dropped one of the several packages they were carrying.


"Excuse - me," she said as he picked up the package and handed it back to her keeping. "Thank you."


He heard the interest in her voice, even though his attention was still fixed on the woman. Removing his hat, he gave her his most charming smile. "Hello."


"Hello," she responded, then looked at the girls. "Take those packages to the carriage," she said firmly. When the girls would have argued, she gave them a look that they had clearly seen before. After flashing smiles at the stranger, they moved off the boards to a buggy tied up there. "If you'll excuse me, sir, I have to get back -"


Wanting to keep her talking, he spoke quickly. "I'm looking for the attorney, J. Donager, he's not in his office -"


"You must be the attorney that Judge Maxwell sent," she noted.


"Yes, ma'am," he confirmed. "Nicholas Everett." Another smile. "My friends call me Nick." He frowned slightly. "How did you know that I was coming? The Judge sent that telegram to Mr. Donager."


She smiled. "It's a small town, Mr. Everett," she pointed out. "Why don't you go back over to the office and wait? The door's open. I'm sure Jess will be there any minute."


"I'm in no hurry," Nick told her. "I'm sure that the cafe over there sells coffee -"


"They do," she said. "But I have things to do." She indicated the buggy, where the twins were waiting, surreptitiously watching them. "So if you will excuse me -" As she moved past him, Nick spoke again.


"Will I see you again, Miss -?"


She smiled. "I'm sure you will. As I said, it's a small town, Mr. Everett," she replied, continuing toward the buggy and getting inside before taking the reins. Clicking her tongue, she set the horse into motion as Nick took note of the Diamond D brand on the animal's flank.


One of the sisters smiled and waved as the buggy passed Nick, and he waved back.


He stood watching as the buggy turned a corner onto another street, and sighed, recalling every moment of the exchange between himself and the red head. Extraordinary was the only word that came to mind. He was looking forward to seeing her again.


Deciding to put off the visit to the saloon, Nick went back across the street to the office of Jess Donager. True to the woman's words, the door was unlocked, so Nick entered the office to wait.


There were several chairs against the wall beneath the window, a coatrack, and little else in what was obviously only a waiting room. The other door out of the room had a brass nameplate. "Jess Donager" was engraved in the metal, but that door was locked.


Nick wandered over to the window, taking in the view of the street. Providence seemed like a nice, quiet town. He knew the history, of course. John Donager and his wife and her younger brother had come West from New York, along with several other families. Donager and his wife had settled here in this valley. He had found a small deposit of gold on the land he claimed, with which he set out to establish a town to compliment what he intended to be the largest ranch in the area.


Donager's first wife died of a fever soon after the birth of her second child, and he had remarried a few years later, only to have that wife die after the birth of twins Donager himself had died almost five years ago.


The sound of a key being turned in a lock caused Nick to pull his hands from his pockets and turn as the door to the inner office opened.


The red head moved toward him, her hand extended and a smile on her face. "Mr. Everett. It's a pleasure to meet you. I'm Jessica Donager." As they shook hands, she continued, "My friends call me Jess."


Hearing her repeat his words, Nick couldn't help but laugh. "You're -"


"A lawyer," she finished for him, extending a hand toward the inner office. "Shall we discuss the case that brought you to town?"


Inside the office, Nick looked around at the sparse furnishings, a desk and chair, two chairs, a small bookcase with a few well used volumes of law. Sitting behind the desk, Jess indicated one of the others across the expanse of wood. "Please. Would you care for something to drink? I'm sure you're parched from your trip."


"Not at the moment. I'd rather discuss the case. Judge Maxwell said it involved the murder of a young woman?"


"Yes. I usually handle the prosecution for local cases, but the young man who's accused of the crime is one of our ranch hands. He started working for us five years ago." She paused, looking at him. "So I've agreed to defend him, and-"


"And that's why I'm here, to prosecute. I understand. What's his name?"


"Robert Lawrence. He and Margie Blake had been seeing each other for two years. They were planning on getting married and buying some land and cattle once they had enough money saved."


"Are they both locals?"


"Not really. Robert's uncle is the blacksmith, so he grew up here. Margie came to town around three years ago and went to work at the saloon -"


"The saloon?"


"Yes, Lily's Place," she confirmed.




Half an hour later, Nick took his leave of the lovely Jess Donager as they stood in the outer doorway of her office. "It's been a pleasure. Judge Maxwell should be in town on Sunday to start the trial on Monday morning."


"I know. Would you like me to introduce you to Sheriff Morgan?"


He glanced at the Sheriff's office. "Not at the moment. I expect that I'll meet him in the next couple of days. Right now, I think I'm going to visit the saloon, since it's part of the scene of the crime."


"Margie was stabbed in the alley behind the saloon," she reminded him.


"But she worked there. I need to talk to people who worked with her. And I think I'm ready for a drink now."


"Fair enough. Tell Lily I said hello."


"I will," Nick replied, turning to cross the street toward the only saloon in town.


He paused for a moment in the doorway to get the lay of the land, listening to the hum of conversation as it washed across the room. For being late morning, there were more customers than Nick had expected. The young women circulating around the tables turned upon his entrance and Nick sensed their collective interest, but it was one standing with her back to him at the bar that drew his attention.


Short, with jet black hair, she was talking to the bar keeper as Nick approached. "They should be delivering the whiskey and beer I ordered before long, Jake."


"Good to know, since I'm dry as a bone," Nick said softly.


She whirled around, smiling. "Nick!" she said, "What are you doing here?"


Nick placed his hands around her waist and lifted her up to give her a quick hug. "Aren't you glad to see me, Lily Mae?" he teased, putting back onto her feet.


"You know I am," Lily replied. "I'm always glad to see you." Glancing around the room, she seemed to realize that they had the attention of every pair of eyes in the room. Indicating a table near the end of bar, she said, "Why don't we sit down?"


As Nick pulled out a chair for her, Lily took note of George Lansing leaving the table where he'd been sitting and heading out of the door. Knowing where he was probably going, Lily sighed as she muttered, "Thank you," to Nick for his courtesy. "You weren't expected until Sunday with the judge," she continued.


"I figured I'd come ahead and get the lay of the land," he told her. "And meet my opposition."


Lily smiled. "And have you?"


"Ah, that I have. Remarkable woman. Seems very sure of herself."


"She is - most of the time," Lily confirmed. "Beer or whiskey?" she asked.




"Two beers over here, please, Jake," she called over her shoulder. "I wasn't sure you knew I was here."


"Your letters finally caught up with me in Denver," he told her. "You look happy, Lily."


"I think I am. Finally."


"I'm glad," Nick said as Jake brought two mugs of beer. Taking a long drink, he sighed. "Oh, that's good. We'll have time to catch up later. Right now, I need to ask about what brought me to town."


Lily drew a line on the tablecloth. "Margie Blake's murder. She was a sweet girl. It's still hard to believe that it happened."


"Tell me what happened."




Jess entered the jail, smiling at Sheriff Morgan as he poured himself a cup of coffee. "Nick Everett's here, Lucas," she said.


"I saw him ride in," Lucas said with a nod. He was a grizzled, rough hewn man, with graying hair and eyes that changed color with his mood. He wasn't a one of the original Providence families -he'd been hired by the town as sheriff, and had been voted in every year since. He was fair, and kept a tight rein on the town - not that it usually needed it. His grin told her that he'd seen the conversation in front of the Mercantile as well. "Wasn't sure it was him, though, until he went over to your office. Dresses more like a gambler than he does a lawyer."


Jess nodded, having thought the same thing. "I guess Judge Maxwell knows what he's doing - can I see Robert?"


Lucas put down his cup and picked up his keys to cells, leading her toward the locked door into the cell area. "You have a visitor," he announced to the lone prisoner who was sitting on a bunk before going back into the outer office.


Robert's curly brown hair was tousled as though he'd been running his fingers through it, and he looked tired, Jess thought. "The prosecutor is here," she told him. "And the judge will be here on Sunday afternoon."


"Then the trial will start on Monday," Robert said. Standing up, he moved to the barred window and looked out. "I'll be glad when it's all over," he said softly.


"We're going to prove your innocence," Jess stated firmly.


"Look, I appreciate what you're trying to do, but - there's nothing to prove that I didn't kill Margie. There's no evidence that I was hit over the head, there was blood on my hands and shirt - I argued with her about her spending so much time with that railroad surveyor - if you can't get me off, I'll be ok. I mean, I'm not sure I want to keep going without Margie." He finally turned back to look at Jess. "And if Pastor Lee is right - I'll see her again."


"Don't give up, Robert," Jess said. "Margie wouldn't expect you to. She'd want you to go on. To live your life." She sighed. "I'm going to have the barber come over and cut your hair and give you a shave." Robert shook his head and would have spoken, but Jess cut him off. "Humor me. Have I ever lost a case?"


"Not so far," he admitted. "But there's always a first time."


"Well, it's not going to be this time," she told him. "Now, I'm going to go. Do you want me to make arrangements for you to attend church Sunday morning?"


"Yes, please."


"Then I'll get you some clean clothes as well," Jess said. "Keep the faith, Robert."


"I'll try, Miss Jess," he replied. "I'll try."




"Ride him, boss!" several cowboys yelled as Kevin Donager tried to stay on the roan stallion jumping and whirling around the corral. George Lansing parked his wagon and got down to stand at the fence, joining in the good natured ribbing when Kevin found himself in the dirt, thrown by a sudden reverse he hadn't been expecting.


Kevin ran for the fence as the horse tried to evade the hands attempt to grab his reins. Jumping over the fence, he rubbed his arm. "That stupid roan is never going to get broke," he growled. "Get him ready, I'm going to try again!" he yelled at the men with the horse.


"You sure you want to risk a real injury, Kevin?" George asked him, drawing his friend's attention. "If I were you, I think I'd be more concerned about Lily."


Kevin's blue eyes focused on the heavier set rancher. "What are you talking about, George? What's wrong with Lily?"


"I was in town - stopped in for a beer before heading home," he explained, "and while I was there a stranger came in. Dressed like one of those riverboat gamblers - you know, the black frock coat, silk vest - gold watch chain."


"It's not the first time we've had gamblers in Providence, George," Kevin said, looking over at the horse that was now waiting for him.


"Maybe, but this is the first one I've seen one of them give Lily a big hug and lift her off the ground. And she looked *real* happy to see him."


That caused Kevin to pause. "What?"


"When I left, they were sittin' at her table, having a beer and talking real quiet-like," George continued.


Kevin removed his gloves, grabbed his hat from a fence post, and turned to his ranch foreman. "I'll try the roan again tomorrow, Hank. Get everyone back to work. I have something to take care of."


"Want some company, Kevin?" George asked with some eagerness.


"You need to get back to your wife before she finds out you stopped into the saloon," Kevin told him, grabbing the reins of his horse that one of the men had brought over. "Thanks, Pedro," he said before turning the head of the horse toward town.




"So she was killed here?" Nick questioned Lily as they stood in the alley behind the saloon.


"Yes," she confirmed, pointing to the window above them on the second floor. "That was Margie's room. Robert admitted that he tossed some pebbles up there to get her attention, and when she came to the window, he asked her to come down so they could talk."


"Why didn't he just go up to her room? Wouldn't it have been easier?"


"I don't allow the girls to have men in their rooms," Lily explained evenly.


Nick raised an eyebrow in surprise. "Really?"


"Really. I'm only running a saloon, nothing else. That's all I want it to be. If the girls want to see one of customers outside of work, they're free to do so, just not in their rooms. Honestly, that's the way the place was set up when I bought it, and it works."


"Okay," Nick said. "This is an interesting town."


"You haven't seen anything yet. Sunday morning, the entire town closes down for church services. It's not a requirement for everyone to attend, but most of us do. Even me and the girls."


Nick shook his head. "Back to the murder."


"Robert claims that as soon as Margie closed the window and started for the back stairs, someone hit him on the head. When he woke up, Margie was dead, and there was blood on his hands and shirt. I heard him crying her name from the office beside the storeroom, came out and found them."


Nick put his arm around her shoulders."And before all of this, you said they argued?"


Lily sighed as she nodded. "Margie was paid to sit with customers, and encourage them to buy drinks. Robert knew that. And most of the time, he was okay with it - but during the week before she died, there were some railroad surveyors that came in almost every evening. One of them was related to Ronald Grainger-," she explained.


"The railroad man? I didn't know his son was in the west."


"Do you know him? I thought, maybe, since you -"


"Not really," Nick answered quickly. "My father had some dealings with Grainger, and I remember that he had a son a few years younger than me, but - what did he have to do with what happened?"


"He was spending money - lot of money. Kept buying little presents for Margie. I think he gave her a bracelet and a necklace - he was drinking a lot that night. At one point, Margie suggested that Ron Grainger might want to go back to his camp, but he pulled her into his lap just as Robert came into the saloon. Robert pulled her away and told him to leave her alone. Ron stood up and tried to hit Robert, and missed, but Robert swung back and knocked Ron into the chair. That's when Margie started yelling at Robert about embarrassing her, that she was working. He yelled back that they were going to be married, and she said maybe they might not get married if he was going to act that way - I stepped in and suggested that maybe Robert should go home. Ron Grainger's friend came over from another table and said he'd take his boss back out to their camp. I reassured Margie that I understood and that everything was ok, and she went up to her room." Lily's eyes glistened with unshed tears. "That was the last time I spoke to her. When I knocked on her door after we closed, she was asleep. I heard someone going down the back stairs next to the office a little later, but I didn't bother to check - I thought it was one of the other girls going out. I should have looked -."


Nick put an arm around her shoulders. "You're too soft for this business, Lily Mae," he murmured.


"That's what Jess keeps telling me."


"So she knows you well enough for that, hmm?"


"She's a friend. My best friend," she said with a smile at him. "One of them, anyway. Come on. Let's go back inside. I'll buy you another beer." Slipping her arm through his, she looked around. "I still don't like being out here after -"


"Understandable." He opened the door and stepped back to let her precede him into the storeroom, passing the back stairs on their way back into the saloon. "Any chance of getting up a game around here this evening?" he asked as they returned to the bar area.


"There's usually a few players. I don't think that any of them are on your level -" Nick heard her voice trail off as she looked past him to the man standing at the bar, a glass of beer in his hand. "Kevin," she said, moving from Nick's side to slip her arm through Kevin's. "George made good time getting out to the ranch."


Kevin's eyes narrowed. "What?"


"I saw him leave right after Nick came in earlier," she explained. "This is Nick Everett," she told him, watching his face.


"Nick, this is Kevin Donager."


Nick's hand went out, but he paused. "Jess' brother."


Kevin shook his hand, looking at Lily. "Your friend, Nick?"


"The one and only. Nick's here for Robert's trial," she explained. "Why don't we all sit down and have a drink?"


Nick shook his head. "Maybe later - why don't we have supper tonight?" he suggested, including Kevin in the invitation. "I need to check into the hotel and get settled, then go talk to the Sheriff."


Lily looked up at Kevin. "You can make it, can't you?"


"I wouldn't miss it," he said. "I guess you've already met my sister, Mr Everett?"


"I have. And make it Nick, please. Where's the best place to eat?'


"Providence Cafe," Kevin told him. "Right next door to the hotel."


"I'll see you both there at six, then."


Lily watched him go, then led Kevin over to her table. "I think you need another beer," she said as he sat down.




Jess was leaving her office when she noticed her brother's horse tied up in front of Lily's. Curious, she stepped down to cross the street. As far as she knew, Kevin had planned to spend most of the day breaking some horses that they were going to sell to the Army - and if he'd hurt himself doing that, his horse wouldn't be in front of the saloon.


She stepped onto the boards just as Nick Everett came out of the saloon. "Miss Jess," he said, touching the brim of his hat as he continued past her. Suddenly he stopped and turned back toward her. "Oh, would you like to join me for supper this evening at the cafe?"


"Thank you, but I don't think so. My family is expecting me at home."


"Perhaps another time, then," he continued smoothly. Another nod, and he moved off to gather his horse and lead him down the street.


Jess watched until he tied the animal up in front of the hotel, and then moved to the swinging doors into the saloon. Pushing through them, she quickly found her brother sitting with Lily. "I didn't expect to see you in town, Kevin."


"I didn't either. But George Lansing couldn't wait to tell me that some gambler type was here being friendly to Lily, and well -"


"And that's all he was doing," Lily assured him, placing a hand on his arm.


"A gambler type?" Jess questioned. "The only one I've seen in town that fit that description is Nick Everett."


"That's him," Kevin replied.


"I've known Nick for a long time," Lily explained.


Jess sat down in one of the chairs. "He's *your* Nick?"


"He was never *my* Nick," Lily replied. "He's - like a big brother. Like you and Kevin."


"Why didn't you say something when I told you he was coming to prosecute Robert's case?"


"It might not have been the Nick I know," Lily said, shrugging.


"Nick Everett isn't that common a name, darlin'," Kevin pointed out.


"It was also possible that he wouldn't remember me. It's been a few years since I've seen him."


"Now, who would be able to forget you?" was his reply.


Jess stood up. "I'd like to talk to you about him before the trial starts -"


"Jess, I'm not going to get in the middle of this - I'm a witness, remember?"


"Okay. Okay. Will I see you at home for supper, brother?" Jess asked Kevin.


He grinned. "Sorry. Nick asked Lily and me to join him at the Cafe."


Jess felt her teeth grind slightly before she answered. "How nice of him. Enjoy your evening. I'll see you later, then. Bye, Lily."


Kevin rose slightly as Jess swept out of the saloon, then started quietly laughing once she was gone. Turning to Lily, he saw something in her eyes. "You deliberately didn't tell her about him."


"Who, me?" Lily replied with a sweet voice. "Whatever do you mean, Kevin Donager?"


"I know that it takes a lot to get under my sister's skin - and somehow Nick Everett's done just that."




After stopping by the blacksmith shop to suggest that Mike Lawrence visit his nephew and try to lift his spirits, Jess rented a buggy from the livery stable, since she'd sent the wagon home with her sisters.


Jess recalled that Lily had told her how Nick had helped her after her husband's death in a poker game, taking care of the legalities and sale of the small saloon the two of them had owned. That had been not long after the end of the war, if Jess recalled correctly. It had been awhile since Lily had mentioned him.


She wanted to know more about the man - not because of a personal interest, Jess told herself, but because she needed to know about the lawyer she would be facing in court on Monday. He seemed entirely too sure of himself. Cocky and probably self-centered. And those clothes. The dark frock coat, ruffled shirt and flat-brimmed black hat - he looked like a gambler, not an attorney. She thought that Lily had said he'd been in the game that had ended in her husband's death, but she wasn't sure.


By the time she got back to the two story ranch house where her family lived, Jess was not in the mood to hear anything more about Nick Everett. She had fretted enough about Lily's friend on the trip home.


As she pulled the buggy into the yard, she had determined not to talk about him again. Hank approached her, helping her down. "Thank you. Can you make sure the buggy gets back to town tomorrow morning, Hank?"


'Sure thing, Miss Jess. Is Kevin on his way back? I wanted to talk him about something -"


"He won't be home for awhile. He's having supper in town with Lily and - a friend. Is it something I can help with?" she asked.


"We were doing a count in the west pasture - looks like we're missing a few head. Jenks said he saw some Apache sign out there the other day."


"There were some reports of a small group of renegades," Jess told him. "But they were reportedly up in the hills, not in the flats."


"I needed to see if the boss wanted me to post an extra guard out there tonight -"


"Well, *this* boss says yes," Jess told him, smiling as she said it. "Probably wouldn't hurt." Turning toward the house, she waved. "See you later."


She entered the house, putting her satchel on the table beside the door, as her sisters came from the parlor.


"Jess! We thought you'd never get home!"


"I said I would be here as soon as I got things done," Jess reminded Amanda, who was the older twin by a whole five minutes.


"But it took you forever!" Elizabeth pointed out rather breathlessly. "We want to hear about what happened when Mr. Everett found out who you were!"


"Was he surprised? Or angry?" Amanda suggested.


"He was too dreamy to be angry," Elizabeth insisted.


"He was, wasn't he?" Amanda confirmed.


Jess led them into the parlor, where she poured herself a small glass of wine before answering. "He was more surprised than anything else," she told them. "How long before supper is ready?"


"Not very long," Amanda said. "But Kevin's not home -"


"We overheard some of the men talking about how he went into town because some gambler was paying attention to Lily -"


Jess finished her drink. "The gambler was Mr. Everett," she informed them, pausing as Elizabeth spoke up.




"He's an old friend of Lily's" she continued. "He invited Kevin and Lily to have supper with him in town this evening."


Elizabeth's blue eyes were wide with surprise. "He didn't invite you?"


"As a matter of fact, he did. I politely refused."


"Why did you do that? He's ever so handsome - don't you agree?"


"I suppose he is," Jess replied slowly to Amanda's question. "But he's also my opponent in court next week. It's better that I don't spend too much time with him on a personal level."


"You had lunch with that lawyer last year," Elizabeth pointed out.


"Elizabeth -" Jess held her tongue and took a deep breath. Pointing out that the lawyer in question had been old enough to be their father - and very married wouldn't help anything. "I'm going up to my room to freshen up before supper. Can one of you please tell Mariana that there will only be the three of us?"


"Sure," Elizabeth replied as her older sister disappeared up the stairs.


"What do you suppose is going on?" Amanda wondered aloud.


"I'm not sure. But she's not happy about something. I'm going to go talk to Mariana."




"Coffee?" Betsy Collins asked after she removed the plates from the table.


"Yes, thank you," Nick nodded. "The food was excellent, Mrs. Collins."


"Thank you. We do try."


"Don't let her fool you, Nick," Kevin said, shaking his head and covering his cup with his hand. "Betsy's one of the best cooks in the area."


"Ma?" a young woman said, approaching as Betsy finished refilling Lily's cup.


Betsy smiled, "Excuse me."


"She and her husband own and run the hotel and this place?" Nick questioned once Betsy had moved away with her daughter.


"They and their five children," Lily confirmed. "Milly's the oldest," she continued, nodding toward the young woman. "Her husband helps Carl run the hotel, and they all pitch in where they're needed."


"Carl and Betsy came out here with my parents," Kevin explained, pushing his chair back. "Well, I really need to get back to the ranch. Thank you for supper, Nick."


"My pleasure."


Kevin turned to Lily. "I'll be in tomorrow afternoon. See you then." He squeezed her hand gently, then turned back to Nick. "Enjoy your game."


"I always do. Give your sisters my regards."


"I'll do that." His hand lingered on Lily's shoulder before he left the cafe.


Lily watched him go, a smile on her face. "Do you remember what I said earlier, about you being happy?"




"I see why now. You're in love with him, aren't you?"


"Yes," Lily answered softly, not really wanting to have this conversation in such a public place. "Why don't we start back down the street?" she suggested.


Once on the street, Nick asked, "It's obvious that Kevin feels the same way."


"I think he does. He says he does."


"So what's the problem?"


Lily took a deep breath. "It's complicated, Nick. My past, - some of which I haven't managed to tell him about -"


"He doesn't know -?"


"No," Lily answered quickly, cutting him off. "He knows about Glenn, but not the rest."


"I think he'd understand, Lily."


"Maybe. But there are still - problems-" she said as they reached the saloon. "Here we are. Let's find you a game."


Nick held her back with a hand on her arm. "We're not finished talking about this, Lily Mae. Not at all."


Lily covered his hand with hers, smiling. "I know."




Kevin rode into the corral yard as several riders were heading out. Seeing Hank standing, watching them go, Kevin dismounted. "What's going on?"


"Extra guard for the west pasture. Miss Jess ordered it. We were a few head short on the count this afternoon."


"How many is a *few*?" Kevin wanted to know.


"Twenty. Jenks said that he saw some Indian signs out there - and there was a report of a few renegades off of the reservation."


Kevin took a deep breath. "I'll send a telegraph to Fort Carson tomorrow morning and see if they know anything."


"Looks like that roan isn't going to get broke tomorrow," Hank observed.


"Yeah. If anything happens, let me know."


'Sure thing, boss. Night."


"G'night," Kevin replied, heading toward the house, where he was sure Jess would be waiting up for him. He wasn't disappointed. She was sitting in a chair by the fire, reading what appeared to be legal papers, and looked up with a smile when he entered the room.


"I didn't realize it was so late," she said, glancing at the grandfather clock across the room.


"Really? I thought that clock chimed on the half hour *and* the hour," he pointed out, moving to sit in the chair across from her. "Admit it, Jess, you waited up to make sure I got in safely - and to find out how the evening went."


"You're a grown man, Kevin Donager. You don't need me worrying about you -"


"But you do anyway," he interjected.


"And as for your evening, I seriously could *not* care less. I've been reading some notes about Robert's case -" she paused as Kevin snorted in barely contained amusement. "What are you lauging about?"


"You. You're dying of curiousity, but you refuse to admit it. Nick said he'd invited you to join us. You should have."


"I didn't want to socialize with someone that I have to go against in court," she told him, turning her attention back to the papers before asking, "What did you think of him?"


"Honestly? I like him."




"Can you tell me why you like Lily?" he asked.


"She's -"


When Jess hesitated, Kevin nodded. "See? He was a big help to Lily back east when her husband died - they were all friends. Nick was in the game where her husband was shot. In fact, he stopped the guy from shooting anyone else."


"So those clothes aren't just - window dressing? He really *is* a gambler?"


"According to Nick, he doesn't gamble. He plays poker - and wins most of the time, from what he and Lily told me. In fact, his legal practice is a sideline. He makes most of his money playing cards." Kevin stood up. "He told us that when Judge Maxwell got the telegram about this case, they were playing a game and the Judge asked if he'd like to come down here to prosecute. Well, I'm going to bed. I need to head to town in the morning to send a message to the Fort about possible renegades in the area."


"You saw Hank, then, " she noted, gathering up her notes and standing as well.


"I did. He was just sending the extra night watch out when I rode in."


"I heard them leaving," she nodded. "How many head are we missing? Did he tell you?"


"Twenty. Part of the herd we were supposed to send to the Fort for the reservation. So if it was renegades, they're in for a surprise."




"He's good," Jake told Lily as the hand ended with Nick winning his third game.


"Good doesn't even begin to cover it," she replied. "I've never seen anyone better."


"If he's cheating, I haven't seen any sign -"


"He doesn't. He explained once that he keeps track of the cards. I don't know how he does it. But it works for him."


"And he hasn't had one drink."


"He doesn't drink when he's playing. But the others do," she said as one of the players motion for Cara to come over, and she headed toward the bar.


"Leroy wants another beer, Jake," she told the bartender.


"How many does that make for him?" Lily asked.


"It's his fourth," Cara replied. "I have a feeling he's about tapped out."


Lily glanced at the clock. "It's almost closing time. I expect he'll be back tomorrow to try and win some of it back."


Cara smiled and carried the mug over to the table. Jake shook his head. "If he keeps winning like this, Miss Lily, there won't be anyone in town who'll get into a game with him."


"Just wait. He doesn't cheat to win, but he usually -" At that moment, Nick folded his hand, leaving the game - and the pot - to the other players. It increased another sixty dollars before Leroy took the hand. Lily smiled at Jake. "See what I mean?" In a loud voice, she called out, "Last call, boys. The house is buying."




Kevin was saddling his horse when Jenks and the other night guard rode into the yard. "Mornin', Boss," Jenks called as Hank came out of the bunkhouse.


"How'd things go last night?"


"Nice and peaceful," Jenks reported. "But it felt like we were bein' watched from the south."


"We'll keep up the extra night guard until I hear back from the Fort, Hank," Kevin said. As he got into the saddle, the roan snorted and pranced around the corral, as though calling Kevin's name. With a regretful sigh, Kevin called back, "Later, boy."


The ride into town was uneventful, and Kevin's first stop was the telegraph office. "Good morning, Lou."


"You're in town early today." Lou Smith was a bird-like little man who never seemed able to keep still for very long. He wore thick-lensed glasses that made his eyes look much larger than they were.


"I need to send a message to the Fort." Lou pushed a notepad and pencil toward him. "Thank you." He wrote out a brief question about renegades and missing cattle, addressing it to Major Blair. "How much?" he asked as Lou took it and looked it over.


"Ten cents." Kevin put some money on the counter, more than enough to cover the cost. "Will you be in town when the reply comes in or do I need to send someone to the ranch?"


"I'll be here for a little while. I need to talk to Lucas about the missing cattle."


"The fort usually gets back to me quick, but I'll send someone out if necessary."




Lucas was coming out of the cafe when Kevin saw him. "Good morning," the sheriff said.


"Morning. Has anyone mentioned missing some cattle?"


"Why? Are you missing some?"


"Twenty head. There's a possibility that some renegades got them, but -"


"I haven't had any reported. When did it happen?"


"Night before last as far as we know. Hank was making a count yesterday, getting ready to move some beeves to the reservation, and came up short."


"I'll keep my eyes open for any strangers in town - the only one I know of is that gambler friend of Lily's."


"That *gambler* is a lawyer too, Lucas," Kevin pointed out.


"I know. Watched him playing a little last night when I was making rounds. He's very good. Even knew when to fold a hand to keep the pigeons interested."


"Was there any trouble?"


"No, there wasn't," Lily stated, coming out of the saloon. "Everyone left happy."


"I'll be keeping my eye on him, all the same," Lucas told them both. Nodding his head in Lily's direction, he moved off toward his office as Milly came out of the cafe with a tray containing breakfast for Robert.


"Want a cup of coffee?" Lily asked Kevin.


"Why not?" He followed her into the saloon, closing the door behind them. "Were you telling the truth about the game last night?"


"Of course I was. You know Lucas. He's not a good poker player and that means he doesn't like anyone who is." She grabbed two cups from behind the bar and put them on a tray with the coffee pot that was sitting on the stove near her table. Putting the tray down, she poured the coffee as Kevin pulled her chair out for her. "Thank you."


He took a drink. "Thank you for the coffee."


"Is everything all right at the ranch? You're in town early."


Kevin told her about the missing cattle and the possibility of renegades. "Jenks said he saw Indian sign, but that doesn't mean they were responsible. Have you heard anything?"


"No. And Lucas was right, other than Nick, there hasn't been anyone new come in the last week or so."


"And before that?"


"A couple of drifters. Came in one night, not the next, so I figured they left town."


"You're probably right. I'm sure we'll find the cattle before long."




"Sheriff Morgan?" Nick questioned as he entered the Sheriff's office. When the older man looked up at him, Nick smiled and held out his hand. "Nick Everett. I'm -"


"I know who you are, young man," Lucas said. "I expected you yesterday. It's common practice for someone in your position to introduce himself to the local authorities." Rising, he refilled his coffee cup from a pot that had clearly seen better days. "Care for a cup?"


"I think I would. Thank you." He waited for the Sheriff to finish pouring the second cup before speaking again. "I'm sorry about not coming in. But I wanted to meet the attorney handling the defense and talk to some witnesses. I did stop by the office, but I guess you were out. I thought you'd understand."


"Just out of curiosity - did you come to prosecute this case or gamble?"


"I can do both. And playing poker isn't a gamble for me."


"I saw that last night. As long as you play an honest game -"


"Always, Sheriff. I don't need to cheat to win." He put the cup on the desk between them. "Now, about the case - do you know where I can find Ron Grainger?"


"The surveyor who was here that night? Well, he left before it happened -"


"I know. But I might need him as a witness to the defendant's state of mind. I hear they fought -"


"Wasn't much of a fight. Robert put him down with one punch. Jess and I rode out to their camp the next morning after Margie was murdered. Grainger had one hell of a hangover, barely remembered the previous night. But his assistant said they left the saloon after the fight and went straight back to camp, where he tucked Grainger into his bedroll."


"Still - Grainger had been spending time with the victim for awhile - Lawrence was jealous about that fact. That's a good motive for him to have killed her."


Lucas sat back, sighing. "You're right. But I still can't believe that he *did* kill Margie. He loved that girl."


"Do you remember where the survey crew was going from here?"


"West," Lucas answered abruptly. "Look, getting the railroad is a big thing for Providence."


"I can well understand that, Sheriff. And you're worried that forcing Grainger back here to testify might upset his father - and possibly cause him to re-think the decision."


"Something like that."


Nick smiled. "Mr. Grainger's not the only one on that railroad board that made the decision. He might kick a little, but I doubt that the rest of the board would go along with him."


"Sounds like you know about such things."


"A little," Nick said, rising to his feet. "Thanks for the coffee, Sheriff."




Lou met Kevin as he came out of Lily's. "I have a reply from Major Blair. Just came in."

"Thank you." Kevin opened the paper as Lily joined him.


"What does he say?" she asked.


"That the renegades were back on the reservation as of two days ago, and no sign of any new cattle. He wants to know if I'm still going to deliver the herd as promised."


"Are you?"


"We contracted for a hundred head. We'll send them a hundred." Lou was still hovering close by, waiting for a reply. "Send him a message that we'll make the number and delivery date as agreed, Lou," Kevin said, giving him another coin.


"Right away."


"Well, I need to get back to the ranch so we can pull another twenty head out of the main herd."


"Kevin, if it wasn't renegades, then who stole them?"


"Wish I knew. I'll go tell Lucas what Major Blair said, then head out. See you tomorrow morning?"


"Of course." She glanced around as he leaned in for a quick kiss. "Kevin!"


"Hey, nothing wrong with giving my favorite girl a kiss, is there?" he asked, laughing softly before he turned toward the Sheriff's office.


Nick was just coming out onto the boardwalk. "Good morning," Nick said. "You're in town-"


"Early," Kevin finished the comment, having heard it from so many already. "I had some things to take care of."


"I'm glad I ran into you. How well did you know Ron Grainger?"


"Not very well. He and his assistant stayed out at their camp - I did see him when he was here at Lily's. Why?"


"Just curious. What was your impression of him?"


"Honestly? Not good. He seemed like a spoiled rich boy playing at being a man."


"Ok," Nick said with a quick nod. "Thanks."


"Anytime. See you tomorrow morning?"


"Tomorrow morning?" Nick asked, and then remembered something Lily had said. "Sunday morning. Church, right?"


"Every Sunday," Kevin nodded. "Look, you don't have to go -"


"I'll be there."




After sending a telegram to the next town, inquiring as to the whereabouts of the railroad survey crew, Nick found himself back at Lily's.


She looked up from wiping glassware when he entered. "Busy?" he asked.


"Just getting ready to open for the day. If you keep spending so much time here, I'll put you to work."


"What do you need done?" he wanted to know, looking around for another towel so that he could help.


"I was only joking. You don't have to -"


"I've got nothing else to do. What time is church tomorrow morning?" he asked, and laughed as she almost dropped the glass in her hands.


"Uh - you're going to go?"


"I asked, didn't I?"


"The service starts at ten."


"Can you explain to me why the entire town shuts down to go to church? I'm not sure I've ever heard of such a thing."


"It has to do with when John Donager decided to settle here. The wagon train he and his wife were coming west in had run into problems. Broken axles, water barrels leaking, flooded crossings. About the time they got here, the wagon master fell off his horse when a rattlesnake spooked it and broke his neck. Then the assistant abandoned them. Twenty wagons, and there was no one to lead them further west. Kevin's father decided that he was going to settle here, and claimed two thousand acres south of where the town is now."


"I've heard most of this," Nick nodded. "The train was made up of tradesmen and a minister and a doctor - and Donager convinced them to stay here and start the town."


"It didn't hurt that he found gold on his property and offered the town half of what he made from that mine for the next ten years," Lily added. "On the first Sunday that they were here, the minister, Reverend Matthew Lee, suggested that they have a service to thank God for His Providence in seeing them safely here. After that, John made it a priority to build the church building, and everyone went to services."


"And as more people moved to the area, it just continued."


"Like I said, when I bought this place, it was with the understanding that it would be closed on Sundays. Even the Cafe is closed for business, but Betsy has a meal ready for anyone in town who doesn't have family to go to for Sunday dinner."


Nick shook his head. "Wow. Tomorrow is going to be interesting."




Once he was back at the ranch, Kevin told Hank about the telegram from Major Blair, and told him to cut twenty head out of another herd to put with those earmarked to go to the reservation. Jess came out of the house as he moved in that direction, and he told her about the change as well.


"That still leaves us with someone stealing cattle from our range, Kevin," she pointed out. "What's to stop them from stealing more?"


"The extra night guard for one thing," he told her. "We're aware of the problem, and are watching for them. I doubt they'll go for that herd again." When Jess started to say something, he lifted a hand. "And I told Hank to increase the guard on the rest of the herd as well." He grinned. "You know, I thought *I* was the one who's supposed to run the ranch, and you're the one handling all of the paperwork and legal stuff?"


"Legal *stuff*?" Jess sputtered just as he'd expected her to. "Why, Kevin Donager, you -"


"Ok, ok. I give up," he said, laughing and lifting his hands in front of him as he noticed the small valise she was carrying and registered the fact that she was wearing her riding skirt. "Are you going somewhere?"


"Into town. I told Robert that I would bring him some clean clothes for church tomorrow."


"By the way, Nick Everett's going to be there."


"Really?" She pretended an intense interest in the horse that Charlie had led out for her to ride. "Why on earth would he bother? He's only going to be here a few days -"


"He might stick around - he asked me about that surveyor that Robert punched that night," he told her as he tied the valise to her saddle.


"Grainger? Why on earth would he ask about that?"


"Maybe you should ask him that question if you see him in town," he suggested, giving her a leg up to get into the saddle.


"I don't plan to be there very long. I should have sent these things with you this morning, but you left so early -"


"Forgive me. I should have checked in with you before I left to see if you had any errands for me to run, ma'am." Jess playfully pulled her foot out of the stirrup and pushed him gently away. "Be careful," he called after her as the horse responded to her hands on the reins.




Coming out of the Sheriff's office, Jess started toward her horse when she saw Nick come out of the cafe. She seriously considered pretending that she hadn't seen him, and then realized that doing that was childish and unnecessary. They were both adults, both attorneys.


She led the horse over to the steps. "Good afternoon, Mr. Everett," she said.


"Nice looking horse," he replied, eyeing the black stallion beside her.


"Thank you," she replied, rubbing the animal's forehead. "Midnight was the last present my Pa gave me before -" her voice trailed off, and she hoped he hadn't seen the tears in her eyes as she turned to the animal for another second. The last thing she wanted was for him to see her in a moment of weakness.


"Paying a visit to your client, I see."


"Just bringing him something to wear to church tomorrow," she explained, grateful that the moment had passed.


"He'll be at church? In restraints?"


"No. He's made no attempt to run away. But he will be in the custody of the Sheriff."


Nick shook his head, looking down the street. "This town - I don't think I've ever been in a place quite like it."


"My brother told me that you asked him about Ron Grainger - may I ask why?"


"I think he'd make an excellent witness for the prosecution as far as exploring the mental state of the defendant."


"The surveyors went West to continue their work. They're on a schedule -"


"I'm aware of that. I'm hoping my request for them to come back for the trial won't delay them too much, but I think it's something I need to consider or I wouldn't be doing my job. Also - I'm starting to wonder if I shouldn't request a change of venue -"


"What? Why would you want to move the trial out of Providence?"


"The defendant grew up here. Everyone knows him - everyone I've talked to likes him and 'can't believe he could have killed that poor girl'. I'm honestly surprised that he was even arrested for the crime. Do you really think the trial would be fair?"


"That depends on your point of view, doesn't it, Mr. Everett?" Leading the horse over to the steps, she deftly used them to climb into the saddle. "I'll have to fight any attempt to move the trial. Good day, sir."




Nick watched her ride down the dusty street, aware that what he'd wanted to do when she was petting that horse in an attempt to hide her sorrow over her father's death was to put his arms around her and hold her. He knew the particulars: soon after Jess' return from the east with her law degree, John Donager had been found dead out on the range after a late night ride. He'd been stabbed, evidently by someone he knew, because his gun had still been holstered, and the two thousand dollars that he'd had in his wallet for a cattle drive due to start the next day was still there.


The murder was still unsolved.


As he turned around, Lou came running up, waving a paper. "I got a reply to your telegram, Mr. Everett," he announced.


"Thank you. And I thought I told you to call me Nick?" he questioned as he opened the paper to read.


"Surveyors still in area. Stop. Will give them your message. Stop." It was signed by Sheriff Stillman of Mesa City.


"Any reply?" Lou asked.


"Not right now," Nick answered, handing him a coin. "Let me know if you get another message."


"Sure thing, Nick."


"You've made another friend," Lily commented as Lou scurried away. "I saw Jess ride away a minute ago. Everything okay?"


"She brought her client some clothes for church tomorrow."


"She looked upset."


"I told her that I'm trying to get Ron Grainger back as a witness for the prosecution - and that I might ask for a change of venue."


"I'm not sure Grainger can tell you much more than anyone else has."


"We'll see."


"What's a - change of -"


"Venue," he supplied as she stumbled over it. "A request to move the trial to another city where the jury might not be as biased for *or* against a defendant."


"You don't think that a jury here would convict him?"


"As I told Jess, no, I don't. Everyone knows him. Everyone likes him."


"And everyone in this town knows that murder is wrong. Even if it was Jess or even Kevin on trial, everyone here would listen to the evidence, and if it was proved that they were guilty, it wouldn't matter who they were."


"You really believe that?"


"Yes. And so does Judge Maxwell. No wonder Jess was upset. You impugned Providence. This town means as much to her as it did to her father."


"They were close?"


"Kevin was his only son, but Jess - Jess was his favorite. They were a lot alike. Only Jess is nicer."


"The old man didn't approve of you, did he?" Nick questioned, catching her off guard.


"Not as the owner of a saloon - and most definitely not as someone good enough for his son."


"But Kevin didn't agree with him."


"No. They argued about it before Mr. Donager died. A lot."


"Fathers," Nick commented.


"How is yours doing?"


"He passed away two years ago."


"I'm sorry, Nick. I mean, I know you weren't close, but -"


"He still managed to reach out - you know what he did just before it happened?"




"He changed his will. Instead of disinheriting his only son -"


"He left you everything after all?"


"Almost everything. I think he thought it would force me to come home, like he'd been wanting me to do since the war ended."


"But it didn't?"


Nick shook his head. "I went back - for a couple of months. I don't - fit there anymore. So I sold most of the real estate, made arrangements for the charities and various corporate boards, then came back out here."


"So the poker playing is really just for fun, not to support yourself?"


"More or less. Speaking of poker," he said, looking into the saloon. "What time do you think the pigeons will flock in this evening?"




Jess kicked Midnight into a gallop once she was away from town, hoping that the run would clear her mind. She was sad, she was angry - finally, she pulled the reins back, slowing the horse as she realized she had no reason to be angry. Judge Maxwell would never grant a change of venue for the trial.


The thought of Nick's reaction when that happened caused her to smile. That was something she could look forward to.


And as for his attempt to get Ron Grainger back as a witness, she didn't see that happening. Grainger was pretty clear that he was going to have to stay on schedule to get the survey finished so that the railroad could start working on laying rails. He'd given her a sworn statement, as had his assistant, Colin. She would place the statement into evidence - or maybe she would simply offer it to Nick Everett - if Grainger refused his request to return.


The thought of his reaction to that caused her smile to widen still more, and the rest of the ride home was much more pleasant.




Nick was waiting in front of the saloon with Lily the next morning, watching as the citizenry of Providence moved toward the church at the end of the street, some on foot, some in buggies or buckboards. Across the street, he watched as Sheriff Morgan appeared from his office with a young man at his side.


"So that's Robert Lawrence," Nick said to Lily, who was watching the other end of the street.


She glanced over. "Yes. He's a nice guy, really."


"Humph," Nick grunted, shaking his head.


Lily sighed, and then smiled as her gaze moved back to the street, where another buggy was heading toward them, along with several outriders.


"There they are," she said, stepping down onto the street as the buggy came to a stop. The outriders continued on toward the church, and Nick guessed they were some of the Diamond D's hands.


Nick stood on the step, returning the smiles of the two younger Donager daughters as Kevin jumped down from the buggy and came over to Lily. Removing his hat, Nick said, "So, Kevin, are you going to properly introduce me to these lovely young ladies?"


"We met the other day," one of the girls reminded him.


"But not *properly*," her twin replied primly, giving their brother a look that reminded Nick of Jess- for a moment.


"We're going to be late for church," Jess observed.


"We still have time," Kevin replied. "Nick, this is Amanda - and Elizabeth. I dare you to tell them apart."


"Nick bowed slightly. "Ladies. It's a pleasure to finally meet you." He studied the twins for a moment. "Can *anyone* tell you apart?"


"Jess says that she can," Amanda - the prim one - informed him.


"I can," Jess stated.


"I have no doubt that you can, Miss Donager," Nick told her. "Now," he put his hat back on. "Shall we go to church? I'd hate to be late for my first service."


"I'll walk Lily over," Kevin told him, nodding toward the buggy - "If you don't mind driving my sisters over?"


"I can drive -" Jess began, but Nick was already in the seat beside her, extending his hand toward the reins. Instead of handing them to him, Jess flicked them, setting the team into motion.


At the bottom of the stairs into the building, Nick got out of the buggy and held out his hand for Jess to take it, half expecting her to ignore his gallantry. But she coolly placed her lace gloved hand in his and exited the buggy, smoothing the green dress she was wearing as Nick assisted the twins down.


There was an elderly man with a full head of white hair standing at the doors of the church, and smiled when he saw the Donagers. "Miss Jess. Miss Amanda. Miss Elizabeth. And who do you have with you today?"


"Reverend Matthew Lee, this is Nick Everett," Jess said.


"Ah, yes," the minister said, nodding. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Everett. Welcome."


Lily and Kevin joined them a moment later, and Nick moved into the church, with the twins in front of him and Jess behind him. He noted that Sheriff Morgan was sitting with his prisoner near the back of the room. There was a pump organ in one corner of the church, and a piano in the other corner.
An older woman was seated at the organ, playing softly, and one of the twins, Nick was almost sure it was Amanda, moved away from her family toward the piano. She sat down, listened a moment, and then began to play the same tune that the organist was playing.


The Donager party filled a pew, with space for one more, Nick observed as he found himself seated between Elizabeth and Jess, with Lily and Kevin on the other side of Jess.


The music ended, and Rev. Lee moved to the pulpit. "Our text for today is..."




"Excellent sermon, Reverend," Nick told the man as he left the church.


"I hope we'll see you again, Mr. Everett."


"You might at that, sir," Nick replied. He continued down the steps, listening to the music still coming from the organ. Turning to Amanda, he asked, "Do you always play the piano for the service?"


"Not always," she told him. "Usually Reverend Lee's son, Andrew, plays -" she nodded toward a young man, his arm in a sling. "I offered to help out. Excuse me," she said, moving toward Andrew to talk to him.


"Do you play the piano as well, Elizabeth?" he asked her sister.


"No," she responded automatically, then looked up at him. "How did you know that I'm Elizabeth?" she asked.


Nick looked around, making sure that Jess was out of earshot. She was halfway to the jail, talking to her client as the Sheriff stood close by. "Shh. I'm not sure your sister would approve."


"Tell me."


Speaking softly into her ear, he said, "Your eyes are a shade lighter than hers."


Those eyes widened. "Really?"




"Elizabeth! Amanda!" Jess called out as she returned to the buggy. "We'd better be going."


Kevin, standing with Lily by the steps, called out, "Nick?"


Nick moved to join them, leaving Jess and her sisters to get into the buggy. Knowing that Lily would be joining them as always, Jess sat between the twins in the back seat. "You played very well today, Amanda."


"Thank you. I really like playing. Andrew said that he's not sure that I should stop even if he can still play after his arm heals."


"You should have invited him to dinner -"


"I did. But he had already agreed to go to the Bradford's with his parents. He did say he'd be at the party on Friday evening."


"I think everyone in the area will be there for the party," Jess noted.


"Well, it's not every day that we turn eighteen," Elizabeth point out. "I just hope we get our dresses finished."


"We?" Amanda questioned. "Yours is practically done, except for adding that lace to the bodice. Mine is the one that still needs work."


"You'll get it done," Jess assured them as Kevin and Lily joined them.


Kevin helped Lily into the front seat. "Are we all ready?" he asked.


"We've been ready," Jess said archly, trying not to notice as Nick walked down the street toward the livery stable. He waved as the buggy passed him.


"We'll be home before you know it," Kevin promised.




Entering the house, Jess removed her hat, as did her sisters and Lily.


Mariana came from the kitchen, already wearing an apron over her Sunday best. "Dinner will be ready soon," she informed them.


Jess had been aware of Mariana and Pedro leaving the church the moment the service was over to get back here to put the final touches on the meal. "Thank you, Mariana," she said.


"Oh, Mariana, there'll be one more for dinner," Kevin said, causing Jess to stop and turn toward him as Mariana left the room.


"Who did you invite?" she asked.




"You did what?!" Jess replied in disbelief.


"I invited Nick to Sunday dinner," Kevin said in an even tone.


"Why on earth would you do that?"


"He's Lily's friend -"


Lily lifted her hands defensively. "Don't put me into the middle of this, please."


"And he's my friend -"


"You just met the man!"


"I make friends easily," Kevin replied with a shrug. "Besides, he's a stranger in town. Doesn't have anyone - except for Lily - and me."


"Then he can go to the Cafe," Jess pointed out. "That's why Betsy opens it on Sundays."


"I like him, Jess, and I saw no reason why he shouldn't come here for dinner."


"I like him, too," Elizabeth agreed. "It's our Christian duty to be hospitable."


"You would say that, Amanda," Jess observed, only to have Amanda respond.


"I didn't say a word, Jess. But Elizabeth is right."


Before Jess could say another word, there was a knock on the door. As Kevin moved past her toward the entry hall, she took a deep, calming breath.

Looking at Lily, she asked softly, "Did you -?"


"The first I knew about it was when he asked Nick," Lily answered in a quiet voice just before Kevin returned with Nick.


Another deep breath, and Jess turned to him with her best smile. "Welcome to the Diamond D, Mr. Everett."


"Thank you," he replied, and Jess saw the slightest smirk as he finished, "Miss Donager. Thank you and your family for the kind invitation."


Jess glanced at Kevin, knowing from his shrug that he had extended the invitation for the entire family, not just himself. "If you will all excuse me, I'm going to see if Mariana needs any help in the kitchen," she said,


The twins giggled and whispered to each other as the 'adults' in the room watched. "What's so amusing?" Kevin asked.


"Oh, nothing," Amanda said. "Sorry."


"Nothing?" Elizabeth questioned. "Just the idea of Jess wanting to help in the kitchen," she explained.


"That doesn't happen often," Kevin told Nick. "Don't get us wrong. She can cook, but -"


"Mariana doesn't like anyone in her kitchen," Lily finished. "It's been her domain for a long time, since Kevin and Jess were little."


Elizabeth seemed to finally pick up on what Lily was trying to do. "She barely let Amanda and I in there to teach *us* how to cook," she said quickly.


"Dinner is ready," Jess announced, returning to the room.


Kevin stood and took Lily's hand to pull her to her feet, and Jess quickly took his left arm. Nick looked at the twins, and said, "Well, ladies, shall we?" They rose and took his offered arms, with Elizabeth giggling softly as they followed the others.




After dinner, Kevin offered to show Nick around the barn and main ranch compound. As they left the house, Kevin told him, "Thank you for agreeing to come out here. I hate being cooped up in the house while they discuss dresses and hats and -"


"I understand. I really wanted to talk to you anyway."


"What about?" Kevin questioned as they moved toward the corral where the roan was still pacing. When the animal saw Kevin, he snorted and trotted away. "Not today, boy," Kevin said to him. To Nick, he explained, "I've been trying to break that monster for the last few days. He's -"




"Fighting is more like it. Tooth and nail. But I'll get it done." He turned from the horse to look at Nick. "What did you want to talk about?"


"Forgive me if it's none of my business, but - I've known Lily for awhile, and I guess I think of her like you would Jess or Amanda or Elizabeth -"


"Let me guess: what are my intentions?"


"No. I'm sure you wouldn't have her out here for Sunday dinner every week if you weren't planning on marrying her. Why haven't you done it yet?"


"Talk to her about that. I'd marry her today if she would say yes. I mean, I know she loves me. I love her. But - well, when she first came to Providence, my Pa was still alive, and - well, he didn't think that she was *right* for me. Said she would never give up being a 'saloon girl' as he put it."


"Lily was never -"


"I told him that. I don't think he believed it. Honestly, Pa put her through hell the first year she was in town. Kept trying to close the saloon down, told the hands not to go there when they were in town. It wasn't until I threatened to leave - to move into town and go to work that Pa backed down at all. Jess coming home from school in St. Louis helped. She could always handle him. And Jess liked Lily. Jess - well, most of the women that she went to school with here were already married with families when she came home. She and Lily became friends almost immediately."


"Lily told me that they're best friends," Nick nodded. "So she feels that maybe your father was right, that she's not good enough for John Donager's only son?"


"Something like that. I've tried to convince her otherwise, so has Jess, but she keeps saying no. Or not yet. I hoped that after Pa died, she would change her mind, but no." Kevin leaned his elbows against the corral fence. "I don't know if part of the problem is the saloon - being the owner, she feeling like she has to be there all the time. It's her responsibility. And I get that. I've suggested that she could hire someone to manage it for her and keep it even if we married, but -"


"She's stubborn. Something she learned after her first husband's death. The Lily that I knew back then tended to go along more than stand up for herself. I'm glad she learned that lesson."


"All I can do is just be there for her and hope that one day she decides she's ready."


"I'll see what I can do to help her make that decision," Nick told him.


"I don't want you to put your friendship with Lily at risk -"


"I won't. Like you and Jess, I know how far I can push before backing off. And there just *might* be a way that I can help with that responsibility."




"Let me think about it a little longer." He looked back at the house. "Did your father build all of this in the early days?"


"No. We had a smaller house - it's behind this one. Mariana and her husband Pedro live there now. Pa built this house and the bigger barns around the time he married his second wife."


"And had two more daughters," Nick noted. "I can't imagine growing up as the only son with three sisters."


"Did you have any siblings?"


"No, I was an only child. My parents had an - arranged marriage. After I was born, they basically lived separate lives."




"It's okay," Nick told him. "My mother and I were close."


"And you and your pa weren't," Kevin guessed.


"My father and I - no, we weren't close. He had my life planned out, expected me to follow that plan. And when I didn't, he cut me off."


"Sounds a little like Pa."


"Maybe a bit. Anyway, I had my law degree before the war, and I started using it when and where I could. Sometime while I was in Washington during the war, I started playing poker, and I discovered I was good at it."


"You were in the Army?" Kevin asked.


"Yes. I volunteered as soon as I could - yet another thing that my father and I disagreed about."


"He didn't want you to go?"


"No. You?"


"I would have, but Pa insisted that we weren't involved out here. Back then, this wasn't part of the United States. They claimed it, but so did Mexico - and the Apaches, and various other tribes. There were only a few boys from here that went back east to join up. Did you spend the entire war in Washington?"


"No. I actually began as a Lieutenant, due to my having gone to college, and ended as a Captain. I started in the field, but after two years, I was suddenly transferred to Washington. Took me a month before I finally tracked down the reason why."


"Let me guess: your father."


"*He* insisted that it was because my mother was upset and worried about me. But she sent me a letter saying that wasn't the truth."


"Your father must've had some real clout to pull that off during the war."


"He had enough. Knew the right people." He saw Kevin studying him. "Look, I'd rather it not get out, but - My father was Carlton Wentworth Nelson." The realization was immediate, and Nick nodded. "Head of the Board of Directors of the G&N Railroad. I legally dropped the Nelson after the war. Everett was my mother's maiden name."


"Wow. If I remember correctly, didn't he pass awhile back?"


Nick sighed. "And he changed his will before that happened. So now *I'm* on that board. Like I said, I'd rather this not be public information right now -"


"Don't worry. I won't say a word. Does Lily know?"


"She does. I don't want people treating me differently because of the railroad or the fact that I -"


"Don't need to play poker *or* practice law," Kevin finished. "My lips are sealed, friend," he promised.


"Thank you." Nick looked around. "I heard you were having a problem with rustlers - you didn't leave the herd unprotected while your hands went to church, did you?"


"Nope. I asked for ten volunteers to ride guard today. There are usually a couple of the men who don't go to church for various reasons anyway, so it wasn't a problem. You still want to see the barn?"


"After you," Nick nodded, extending a hand in that direction.




After the tour, Nick took his leave, explaining "Judge Maxwell should be in town by the time I get back. Thank you for dinner," he said, including all three of the Donager women in his glance, but lingering for a longer second on Jess.


"You're welcome here anytime," Kevin assured him.


"Thanks. Ladies," he nodded, moving toward the front door.


"Good evening, Nick," Elizabeth said quickly, probably because her oldest sister was still silent.


"Good evening, Elizabeth," he replied, winking at her with a grin as he took his hat from the table beside the door.


Once he was gone, Amanda turned to her. "How did he know that you're Elizabeth?" she wanted to know.


Lifting her shoulders, Elizabeth answered, "Probably just luck."


Jess stood up at last. "I'll be in the study," she announced.


"I'm going to take Lily back to town," Kevin replied, causing Jess to turn around.


"Okay. I'll see you tomorrow, Lily." She came over and gave the other woman a quick hug.


"You get some rest tonight," Lily told her. "Things will work out." She gave the twins hugs, and then left the house with Kevin.


Once in the buggy, Lily said, "Has Jess ever reacted to anyone the way she's reacting to Nick?"


"Not that I can remember," Nick confirmed. "I think part of it is that she can't predict what he'll do." He paused for a minute before continuing. "We had a long talk while we were out of the house."




"He told me about his father- I didn't ask about his mother - is she still alive?"


"No. She died not long after the war. It removed any reason why Nick might want to go back even for a visit."


"That's sad."


"Yes," she agreed. "I've always felt that what Nick's really been looking for all these years is a place where he feels like he belongs. A place he can really call home, if that makes any sense."


"I think it does." Taking the reins into one hand, he put his free arm around her shoulders, pulling her closer to him on the seat. "Now, let's take advantage of not having my sisters' or Nick or the town watching our every move."


"Why Kevin Donager, what are you suggesting?" she asked, smiling up at him. She knew he would never overstep the bounds of propriety.


He pulled the buggy to a stop, wrapping both arms around her. "Only this," he replied before his lips covered hers for a long kiss that left her more than a little breathless.




A telegram was waiting for Nick when he returned to the hotel. He had just finished reading it when a heavyset older man came down the stairs. "There you are, my boy," he said. "Someone told me that you were invited to Sunday dinner at the Diamond D."


"I was, Judge," Nick confirmed. "How long have you been here?"


"An hour or so," Otis Maxwell told him. "I think Mrs. Collins left some food out - there's probably some coffee as well - care to join me?"


"Some coffee, I think. I'm still full from dinner."


They moved toward the dining room door from the hotel. "Mariana's a fine cook. Looking forward to having at least one of her meals before I leave town."


Nick poured two cups of coffee while the Judge grabbed a plate with some ham and bread and joined him at a table in the corner, away from the few people who were still in the cafe. "So, what do you think of Jess Donager?"


"She seems to know her business," Nick confirmed. "She's also infuriating and has refused to speak to me outside of that business."


Maxwell chuckled. "That sounds like Jess. She's definitely her father's daughter."


"So I've heard," Nick nodded. He smiled as Betsy Collins looked into the dining room. "Evening, Mrs. Collins."


"Call me Patsy, Mr. Everett. You're not eating?"


"I had a feast earlier," he explained. "And it's Nick."


"More coffee?" she asked, picking up the metal pot from atop the wood stove.


"I'll take a refill," Maxwell said as Nick pushed his own cup in that direction.


"I heard you went out to the Diamond D," Patsy said as she poured.


"I did."


"Well, the ham and bread will be down here for another few hours in case you get hungry. And you know there's always a pot of coffee out here."


"I might take you up on both, Patsy," he told her. "Thank you."


"Same goes for you, Judge," she said, putting the pot back on the stove so it would stay hot before going toward the hotel doorway.


Nick sat back, studying the dark liquid in the china cup sitting before him. "You like it here, don't you?"


The question caught him only slightly off guard. Taking a deep breath, Nick answered, "Yes" He laughed. "And I've only been here three days. I can't explain why. It's just another town - but it's not, somehow. Even though they all know why I'm here, they've all been accepting and friendly - Well, except for one."


Maxwell lifted his cup. "Jess."


"Jess," Nick confirmed. "But I'm not going to give up. Hopefully, once this case is done, she'll be more likely see me as something more than a - a judicial opponent."


The judge's dark eyes narrowed slightly. "Good luck. I know how hard she worked to get her law license. She's not going to be willing to give that up easily."


"Why should she have to give anything up?" Nick asked. "Practicing law isn't like running a business or -"


"You're serious about her." It was a statement, not a question.


"More than I've ever been about any woman in my life, Judge."


"What does that mean about the case tomorrow?"


"Doesn't mean anything. I'm a professional. So is she."


"Tomorrow is going to be interesting," Maxwell commented.




Half of the adults in Providence were gathered in the closed saloon as Judge Maxwell called the court into session. "The case against Robert Lawrence for the murder of Margaret Blake is now called to order. Is the defense for Mr. Lawrence ready?"


"Yes, Your Honor," Jess said, rising and then sitting back down.


"Is the prosecution ready?"


Nick stood up. "The prosecution requests a two day continuation due to new evidence that just came into my possession," he stated.


The courtroom erupted into surprised whispering, and the judge rapped his gavel. "Quiet, please." Fixing his gaze on Nick, he asked, "To what evidence are you referring, Mr. Everett?"


"May we approach, your honor?"


Maxwell waved Nick and Jess forward. "Ok, Mr. Everett, what's this about?"


"I need two days to ride over to Mesa City to talk to Mr. Ron Grainger, sir."


Jess sighed. "Your honor, the defense has a signed and duly witnessed statement from both Mr. Grainger and Mr. Colin Fitzgerald that we planned to introduce to the court -"


Maxwell looked at Nick. "I'm not sure that will be sufficient, your honor. There's a possibility that Robert Lawrence is not responsible for Margie Blake's death." Jess turned to look at him, obviously surprised. "I know Mr. Grainger's history, and would like to speak to him to confirm some things. I sent a telegram, requesting that they return for the trial, but have yet to receive a response from either gentleman."


"Will two days be enough for you to reach Mesa City and get back?"


"If I need longer, I'll send a telegram."


"Do you have any objection to this, Miss Donager?"


"Uh, no, your honor. The - defense has no objection to Mr. Everett's request."


"Very well." He waved them back from the bar. "This court is in recess for two days. Mr. Lawrence will remain in the custody of the sheriff."


Robert stood as court was dismissed, and then turned to Jess. "What's going on?"


"I'm not sure. I *think* it's good news, but - I'll come see you in a bit."


She moved over to where Nick was gathering some papers as her brother and Lily approached as well. "You want some company, Nick?" Kevin was asking.


"Can you spare the time from the ranch?" Nick questioned in response.


"I'll make time for this."


"I'm going over to change clothes then get my horse -"


"I'll get your horse," Kevin told him. "See you in a couple of days, Lily. Jess."


"Be careful," Lily told him.


"I will." The two men left the saloon, leaving Jess and Lily standing there as the rest of the townspeople drifted out into the boardwalk.


"Do you have any idea what's going on?" Jess asked her friend.


"I'm not really sure," Lily said. "He said something about knowing Ron Grainger, but -"


"How does he know Grainger? Grainger's from New York. His father is on the board of the railroad -"


"So is Nick," Lily told her, finally looking at Jess.




"Help me get this place ready to open up later, and I'll try to explain."


"I thought you said you couldn't tell me anything about Nick Everett because you're friends?" Jess reminded her.


"He gave me his permission to answer your questions. But don't worry. I won't tell him anything about you without your permission."




Jess sat down, stunned. "So his last name is really Nelson?"


"No. He legally changed it after his mother died. His father had disowned him, He never intended to go back to New York again. He was supporting himself with his legal practice and playing poker. His mother also left him a small amount of money that his father wasn't able to block." Lily sat down across from her. "Jess, he doesn't tell people about this because they treat him differently when they know."


"I can imagine they would. So - how well does he know Ron Grainger?"


"He said something about young Grainger being a little younger than him - and that he was surprised that Grainger was out here with the surveyors."


"That's all?"


"That's all." Lily stood up and moved over to the bar. "We'll know something in a couple of days."


"He should have told me that he knew Grainger," Jess declared. "Especially if there's something he knows that could clear Robert."


"And how could he do that without having told you everything that I've just told you?" Lily asked. "I mean, you haven't been exactly - friendly toward him. I think you may have said ten words to him directly yesterday when he was at the ranch for dinner."


"Well, I know you won't be happy, but I'll be glad when he's gone after this trial."


"Personally, I'm hoping that he stays around - for awhile, anyway."


"Humph," Jess said, picking up her satchel from the table. "I need to go see Robert - don't worry. I won't tell anyone else about Nick's deep, dark past."




Back at the ranch, Jess found Hank and several of the hands gathered around the corral when she pulled the buggy into the yard. "What's going on?" she asked the foreman.


"We're missing another five head out of the main herd, Miss Jess. How did things go today?"


"Ask me in two days. Kevin and Nick Everett went to Mesa City to track down something that might clear Robert."


"That's good news, anyway."


"Now, about those cattle - any sign or tracks?"


"I followed their tracks for several miles," Jenks told her. "They crossed Muddy Creek, and the tracks disappeared. I went down the creek for another few miles, but never saw where they came out."


"We were just getting ready to go back and look further down stream," Hank informed her.


"Need another pair of eyes?" she offered. It wouldn't be the first time she'd gone out to work on the range.


"I think we can handle it right now, ma'am," Hank told her.


"Keep me informed," she told him as Pedro came from the barn to unharness the horse from the buggy.


"We will. Let's go," Hank told the riders.




It was early the next morning before Nick and Kevin met with Sheriff Stillman in his office. "I delivered your message to Grainger right after I got it," he told Nick.


"And did they both say they would head back over to Providence?" Nick asked.


"Both?" the Sheriff questioned.


"There were two in the survey crew," Kevin answered. "Ron Grainger and his assistant, Colin Fitzgerald."


Stillman shook his head. "Grainger told us that his assistant quit after they left Providence, and he's been paying one of the local boys to help him out there."


Nick and Kevin looked at each other. "Colin was proud of what he'd been doing - he wanted to learn how to survey so he could move up," Kevin said. "There's no way he would just - quit."


"Sheriff, where is Grainger's survey camp?"


"I'll ride out there with you," Stillman told them. "I'll admit that I'm curious about what's going on." They were heading toward their horses when a young man crossed the street. "That's Jimmy Connolly. He's been helping Grainger - Jimmy!"


Jimmy moved toward them. "Yeah, Sheriff?"


"You're not working today?"


Jimmy shook his head. "No. Mr. Grainger said he had something to take care off, told me to take a couple of days off. I came in to get some supplies that he wanted me to pick up."


"Did he take anything with him?" Kevin asked. "Personal items?"


"No, sir. Just his horse. What's going on?"


"That's a good question," Nick said.


"These men are from Providence, Jimmy," the Sheriff explained. "They were looking for Grainger and his assistant."


"Has Grainger mentioned anything about Colin Fitzgerald?" Nick asked the young man.


"Only that Fitzgerald woke up on the trail between Providence and here and decided he didn't want to keep working for the railroad."


"What direction did Grainger take when he left camp?" Kevin wanted to know.




"Could you take us to your camp so we can try to follow him?"


Jimmy looked from Nick to Kevin. "Sure. I can pick up the supplies later, I guess."




Jess watched the hands ride out for the day, some to continue the search for the rustlers and the cattle they'd taken, the rest to work the herds. Going to the barn, she saddled Midnight. Getting into the saddle, she turned the animal west/northwest, to the area where the surveyors had been camped.


By the time she reached the last campsite, the sun was just passed its zenith, and she was starting to wish that she had packed something to eat. The remains of a campfire were still visible, even after a week and a half, and Jess slid out of the saddle to approach the darkened patch of ground.


Kneeling, she used a small stick to dig around in the ashes, wondering if she was wrong in what she had remembered seeing the day after Margie's murder. When she and Lucas had come out here to get Grainger and Fitzgerald's statements, there had been something in the fire - Jess wasn't sure, but looking back, it might have been a shirt. Or what was left of one.


It wasn't there now. Standing up, she squinted against the sun's glare, surveying the landscape. A stand of trees nearby offered some shade, and Jess led her horse in that direction, intending to rest up for a few minutes before heading back toward the ranch.


Taking her canteen, she opened it, but stopped when she noted the mound of earth and rocks beyond the trees. Curious, Jess put the canteen back over her saddle horn and left the horse in the shade while she walked over to the spot.


It *looked* like a grave. It was the right size to be a grave, certainly. Jess knelt and removed a couple of the rocks that covered the fresh earth, finding one that was sharp enough to use as a makeshift shovel. Slowly she began scooping dirt away, trying not to think about what she was doing. The idea of uncovering a body - *any* body was somehow repugnant.


A piece of linen fabric came out of the dirt, burned, but still intact enough to identify as a shirt - with blood stains on it. Jess sat back, studying the fabric as a shadow fell across her from behind. She went still, hoping it was one of the hands.


"I'll be takin' that, Miss Donager, if y'don't mind."


The Irish brogue surprised Jess, and she lifted her arm to hand the strip of cloth so that he could take it. Turning, she saw Colin Fitzgerald standing there, his gun pointed at her. "What's going on here?" she asked, still unwilling to believe she could have been wrong about the young Irishman who had helped Ron Grainger.


"Well, I could say that I'm here t'clean up after my former boss, now, but - since he's lyin' there under th'dirt, that wouldn't be th'truth, now, would it?" He made a motion with the gun. "On your feet, if y'please."


Jess rose to her feet, facing him. "So you killed Margie Blake?"


"Now, as t'that, no, that would be t'late Mr. Grainger. After we left the saloon that night, he was angry, said he wanted t'hang 'round, sent me on out here. When he got back, his shirt was covered with blood, and he stripped it off, tossin' it into th'fire. He told me that if I said anything other than he'd come back t'the camp with me and gone straight to his bed, he'd say that I'd killed th'poor little thing."


"And you went along with that?"


"I figured that he'd be beholden to me once I'd covered up for him. After you and the Sheriff left the next day, I told him that I'd keep lyin' for him - if he'd give me some of that money that he liked t'spread around t'others."


"Blackmail," Jess stated sourly.


"I figured he owed me. He was always talkin' about his old man having all that money. But he didn't see it that way and he tried t'kill me. Hands in front."


Jess held out her hands, still talking. "But you killed him instead," she guessed. "That's self defense,"


"Without a witness, it would've been my word against his," Colin told her as he used the strip of fabric to bind her wrists together.


"Not if you'd told them about his having killed Maggie and threatening you to keep quiet about it."


"Maybe when it first happened, but not now. Not after I've been pretending t'be Ron Grainer, gatherin' as much of his money as I could."


"You can't continue to be Ron Grainger," Jess told him.


"I don't intend t'be," he replied. "I told the good townspeople of Mesa City that Colin Fitzgerald up and quit on the way t'Mesa City. When I got word about th'telegram from Providence, I decided that it might be time for Ron Grainger t'disappear and for me to become m'self again. So I came t'move the body to an abandoned mine that we found while surveyin'. Probably one of the mines that your daddy dug out."


"And I'll end up there as well," she guessed.


"I always told him that you were a smart woman," Colin told her.


"And how are you going to get both Grainger's body and me into that cave with only two horses?"


Colin led her back to the trees where her horse was still grazing. He grabbed the rope on the back of her saddle, keeping the gun on her. "Don't move. I don't think y'can outrun a bullet."


Taking the stallion's reins, he started to lead the animal toward the grave. As they passed her, Jess yelled, "Up, Midnight!" ducking behind the tree as Midnight reared, startling Colin. Unsure of what was going on, he started to point the gun at the horse, who was still whinnying and waving his hooves in Colin's direction.


Colin lost his footing and fell, dropping the gun at Jess' feet. She picked it up using both hands. "Midnight! Stay!" she called out, and the horse pranced away. "Now, Colin, get up very slowly."


He stood up, touching his forehead where one of Midnight's hooves had grazed him. "Y'won't shoot," he said, taking a step toward her, only to stop when a bullet hit the dirt at his feet.


"Are you sure about that?" she asked.




"How far are we away from the place where they camped?" Nick asked Kevin. They'd ridden hard in this direction after Jimmy Connally had mentioned that Ron Grainger had an Irish brogue.


"Not far, in fact, it should be just over that -" he broke off as they heard a gunshot from over the hill in front of them. "-hill," he finished, spurring his horse on.


They topped the hill in time to see Jess taking aim for a second shot. "Well I'll be," Nick muttered, grinning at the sight.


"That's my sister," Kevin muttered as they rode down the hillside.


"What are you doing out here, Jess?" Kevin asked as they joined her and Colin in the grove. He pulled his gun from its holster.


"I came out to look around," she told him as Nick dismounted and came over to untie her hands. "Thanks. Keep that - it's evidence," she told him when he would have tossed the strip of burned, stained fabric away. Taking it from him, she explained. "I couldn't sleep last night, kept coming back to the day after the murder, when Lucas and I came out here to talk to Grainger and Colin and got their statements. It seemed like there had been something I'd missed. A memory of something in the fire that had seemed out of place made me decide that I needed to come out and look around." She nodded toward the grave. "I found the grave -and that strip of fabric was buried under the rocks."


"So Colin killed Margie?" Kevin asked.


"No!" Colin denied quickly. "That was all Ron Grainger's doin', not mine. I didn't know he'd killed the lass until the next day, when Miss Donager and the sheriff came out here, askin' what we'd done after leavin' town." He explained again the events of that day, ending with killing Grainger and burying him, before deciding to take his employer's place for the short term.


"He came back to move the body into the old mine shaft," Jess continued. "Then he planned on Grainger disappearing -"


"And he would become Colin Fitzgerald again," Nick guessed. "And what did he have planned for you?" he asked her.


"I think the plan was to kill me and leave my body in the shaft as well." She moved to her horse, wrapping her arm around his neck. "But Midnight had over ideas."


"I've never seen a horse so well-trained," Colin told them. "I killed a murderer who was tryin' t'kill me," he said. "It was self defense!"


"We'll let a jury decide that," Kevin said. "*If* you can find a lawyer willing to take your case. I somehow don't think there will be any in the area."


Jess swung up onto Midnight's back. "I'll go get someone to come out here with a wagon," she told them. "And then I'll ride into town to let Judge Maxwell know what's going on."


Kevin told Colin, "I think we're going to be here for a little longer. Nick?" Nick was standing, watching as Jess disappeared over a hill, clearly not listening. "Nick?" a little louder this time.


"Oh, what?"


"Give me that rope, please. I'll feel better if he's tied up."


Nick grabbed the rope from Kevin's saddle and deftly tied the Irishman up. "Does she do things like this often?" Nick asked Kevin.


"When the opportunity presents itself. Pa taught us both to ride and shoot - handguns *and* rifles. She's branded cattle, roped calves - even climbed on a wild horse when she was fourteen. She got bucked off," he confirmed. "Broke her left arm."




"You have to remember that Jess was raised in a basically all male environment until she was nine years old. The only day to day exposure she had to another female was Mariana - and she had no idea how to handle a little girl who refused to wear a dress and insisted on spending all of her time - when she wasn't in school - out on the range with our Pa and me."


"So what changed her?"


"I'm not sure she *has* changed," Kevin said. "But when Pa married Olivia, she took charge. Jess loved her, even though she forced Jess not to spend all of her time on horseback. She managed to teach Jess some of the rudiments of being lady-like. Most of it stuck, I think because when the twins were born, and Olivia knew she wasn't going to be around, she made Jess promise to make sure the girls were raised to be ladies."


"She's done a good job of that, from what I've seen and heard."


"Yeah. I think that's why doing things like this are so important to her. Keeps things interesting." He looked around. "Why don't we get a fire going and make some coffee?"


"Hey, my horse is over at th'mineshaft," Colin told them, breaking his silence at last.


"He'll be fine until the wagon gets here," Kevin answered.




Kevin frowned when Jess returned with the buckboard. "I thought you were going to have someone else bring the wagon out?"


"I was, but I thought you should know that Hank and the boys were out looking for the rustlers. We lost another five head night before last. They were headed out to Muddy Creek today."


He looked at Nick. "Can you and Jess handle what has to be done here?"


"If necessary, I can enlist Colin to help, but I think we'll manage," Nick answered. "Won't we, Jess?"


"Of course," she assured him, jumping down from the wagon. "I figure we can uncover Grainger's body, then take it and Colin into Providence." She reached into the wagon, pulling out two shovels and a tarp. Tossing one of the shovels toward Nick, she started toward the grave. "Let's get started."




By the time Kevin got back to the ranch, Hank was riding back in.


"Boss!" Hank called. "We found the missing head - that arroyo to the east of Muddy Creek."


"What about the rustlers?" Kevin asked.


"They're there. I came back to get some more men," Hank told him.


"How many do you have out there?"


"Six. There are about ten rustlers."


"Sounds like good odds to me," Kevin said. "We can pick up some of the others on the way back put there."




As they rode toward town, Jess sat next to a decidedly dispirited Colin Fitzgerald. "What do ya' think will happen t'me?" he asked. Colin's horse was tied to be back of the wagon, and Nick was riding along side.


"Oh, I don't know. What do you expect to happen?"


Colin shook his head. "He'll throw the book at me, I imagine. Once th'jury hears the case-"


"About that, I think I'd request that the judge hear the case, not a jury," Jess told him as Nick spoke.


"Jess, are you sure this is a good idea?"


She studiously ignored him as she drove the team.


"D'ya think that will help?" Colin asked.


"Well, a jury in Providence will be likely to find you guilty and suggest you be put in prison for the rest of your life - if not something worse." Colin swallowed heavily. "I mean, they all like Robert. And while some of them *might* -and I stress *might* - understand how you suffered working for Ron Grainger, I'm not convinced that will be enough to cause them to forgive everything you've done."


"You're sayin' that if I'd come in after killin' Grainger instead of runnin' away, it would have gone easier, aren't you?"


"Yes," she replied.


"So y'think that the judge will take it easier on me than a jury might?"


"Maybe. If Mr. Everett and I talk to him and we all come an agreement."


"So - you're offerin' t'represent me?"


"She can't. She's a witness in the case," Nick pointed out. "Jess, you need to think this through."


"But I have, Mr. Everett," she replied. "I can represent him if he throws himself on the mercy of the court. That will mean that I won't *have* to testify, wouldn't it?"


"I give up," Nick sighed, shaking his head. "Yes, I'll agree to talk to the judge with you."


"That wasn't so difficult, was it?" she asked, smiling.


"You have no idea," he muttered. "But at least I finally got you to smile at me."




Judge Maxwell looked at the man standing before him. "How do you plead to the charges against you, Mr. Fitzgerald?"


Colin swallowed heavily before answering. "Guilty, your honor. I lied in that statement about the night of th'murder. I killed Ron Grainger in self defense after attempting to blackmail him. I pretended t'be Grainger during the days after that act, stealing money that belonged to him. And -" he swallowed again, glancing at Jess - who had insisted on being allowed to change into a dress that she kept at the office before court. "And I planned t'kill Jess Donager tryin' t'cover all of that up."


"I hearby sentence you to to ten years at the territorial prison," Maxwell announced, rapping his gavel on the bar. "Court is dismissed."


Robert, who had been freed upon the sheriff's arrest of Colin Fitzgerald, came through the crowd as they were leaving. "Mr. Everett, thank you for what you did -"


"I didn't do anything," Nick said, but he shook the man's hand anyway as he saw Jess leaving the makeshift courtroom.


"You went to try to find more information and that lead to Jess finding Colin." He looked toward that man as Lucas led him away toward the jail to await transportation to prison. "It's still hard for me to believe he was involved. Colin seemed like a good person. I felt sorry for him, having to work for Grainger."


"I think we all did," Lily said as she joined them. "I think some of us even understand his attempt to blackmail Ron Grainger. Grainger treated him like a slave."


"Grainger probably thought of him like that," Nick agreed. "I still need to write a letter to his father - RG isn't going to take his son's death well. He knew what Ron was like, but -"


"Ron was still his son," Lily nodded as Robert moved away. Looking up at Nick, she said, "So, does this mean that you'll be leaving soon?"


"About that - we need to talk."


"Talk? About what?"


"Why don't I help you rearrange chairs and tables first?" he suggested.




Half an hour after Kevin, Hank, and the four men that they had picked up en route got to Muddy Creek, six of the rustlers were dead, two were wounded, and the other two were tied up. "We have any dead?" Kevin asked Hank.


"As far as I know, Lanny and Sarge got wounded. They'll be ok, I think."


"Good work, men!" Kevin called out to his hands. We need some of the men to lead these beeves back to the herds," he said to Hank. "And some to help me take these owl-hoots into town. Along with our wounded."


Hank nodded, looking around. "Jenks! Conway! Go with the boss! The rest of you, we're herding these cattle back to where they belong! Let's go!"


Kevin and the two men tied the dead rustlers onto their horses, and the hands of the wounded and surviving rustlers to their saddles before heading back toward the ranch. "We'll get a wagon at the ranch to get into town," he told Jenks. "Easier than leading five horses all that way." Looking at the two men who were relatively unscathed, he asked, "Who were you stealing the cattle for?"


"For us," one of them answered in a surly tone. "We were gonna sell 'em to the Army once we changed the brand."


"Where do think we were going to sell the majority of them?" Kevin asked. "They've been earmarked for the Fort and reservation."


"But that money would have gone to you Donagers," the other man growled. "Not all of us were born with a silver spoon."


"My father bled, sweat and worked hard to earn everything he owned," Kevin pointed out. "None of it was given to him. Because you wanted to take a shortcut, six of your friends are dead, and two more are hurt. The two of will be lucky not to end up at the end of a rope. Was it worth it?"


Neither man said a word on the way back to the ranch compound.




Lily put the last chair at a table. "Ok, it's done. What did you want to talk about?"


Nick looked around the saloon as if studying it. "How much do you think this place is worth?"


"I don't know. What's this about, Nick?"


"The outside needs some paint - and that bar needs some work - the floorboards around the bar are a little rough -"


"Nick! What are you going on about?"


"I was just thinking - have you ever thought about taking on a partner?"


"A partner?"


"You'd have some ready cash to spend on the place, and you'd have more time to do other things -"


"What *other things*?" she asked, folding her arms and fixing him with her dark eyes. "You're up to something."


"It's just that, well, I need an investment, and I figure what better investment for a gambler than a saloon?"


"I'm not buying any of this, my friend."


He put a hand to his chest in mock dismay. "I can't believe that you don't trust me."


"What other things would I have more time for?" she asked, going back to his statement.


"Time for yourself. You're tied to this place every evening except for Sunday. You could spend time with friends or -"


"Friends," Lily mused. "As in Kevin? As in get married?"


"That's one thing you could do," he agreed. "Just a suggestion. And - it would give me a reason for staying in Providence."


"Aha. That's the real reason for this, isn't it? You don't want to leave because of Jess."


"That's - part of it," he confided. "Okay," he admitted when she stared at him again, "that's a big part of it. I have *never* met anyone like Jess Donager. I want to get to know her better. It might just take me the rest of my life."


Lily grinned and poured herself a drink. Lifting the glass, she said, "Someone finally managed to get your attention. To Jess," she said.


"Hold on a minute and I'll join you in that drink," Nick said, reaching across to pour another drink. "To Jess."


"Just one request: you're both my friends. Please don't put me in the middle of this."


"And here I was hoping I could ask you about -"


"No. Jess is a private person. If I told you all of her secrets -"


Nick laughed, shaking his head. "I was joking. If I need to know anything, I'll go to the source. I'll simply ask the lady herself." He finished the drink. "Now - let's get back to our discussion about my buying into this place -"




Jess was about to put the wagon back into the barn when Kevin and the others rode back in. Frowning, she met them, looking around. "What on earth happened?" she asked. "Where are Hank and the others?"


"Rounding up the cattle that these yahoos rustled," Kevin answered, getting out of the saddle. "Jenks, get a fresh team for the wagon and move those bodies off their horses, please."


"Yessir, boss," Jenks nodded, waving at Conway to help him.


Taking one look at the wounds, Jess sent Pedro to get Elizabeth, who had spent some time during the summer helping Doc Hawkins in his practice.


While helping Elizabeth tend to the wounds, Jess told Kevin about what had happened in court.


"There," Elizabeth announced, taping the last wound. "They all need to see Doc," she told them.


"We'll use the wagon to transport the dead and wounded," he told her as one of the wounded hands shook his head.


"I'd rather ride my horse in, boss," Lanny said.


"Same here," Sarge stated. "I've had worse wounds."


"Okay," Kevin nodded. "You two might as well start out. Let Doc know we're on the way."


Elizabeth frowned. "They really should have gone in the wagon, Kevin. They've lost a lot of blood -"


"Do *you* want to tell Sarge that, little sister? If so, I'll call him back -"


"Never mind," she said, aware that Sarge - a war veteran - would have simply ignored her as being a 'fool child'.


"Thank you, Elizabeth," Kevin told her.


"I guess I'll go back to the house now," she said, moving in that direction.


"The rest of the men should be back before long," Kevin told Jess as Jenks finished hitching up a new team after getting everything into the wagon.


"We'll be fine. Robert's in the bunkhouse, Pedro will be in the barn. Now that you've caught the rustlers - what is there to possibly worry about? I'll have Mariana keep your supper warm," she called after them as he rode beside the wagon.




The next morning, Jess came into town with her sisters - who both insisted that they had to buy more lace and ribbon for their dresses for the party on Friday night. Parking the buggy beside her office, she told the twins, "I won't be long. An hour at most. I need to see Judge Maxwell before he leaves -"


"Leaves? He won't be here for the party?" Elizabeth fretted.


"I'm sure he has other cases pending, Elizabeth, and can't take the time to go to an eighteenth birthday party."


"But we've known him forever!" Amanda reminded her. "Did you even mention it to him?"


"We need to invite him ourselves, Amanda," Elizabeth decided. "It's only the day after tomorrow. I'm sure he'd be able to extend his visit until Saturday -"


Jess sighed. "Alright. I'll ask him if he can attend," she assured her sisters. "Now go take care of your shopping and meet me back here."


"Thank you, Jess!" Elizabeth said, hugging her sister. "You're the best!"


Jess watched them step across the street toward the mercantile, before starting toward the hotel without really looking where she was going - only to run into what felt like an immoveable object. Strong hands grasped her arms to steady her.


"Whoa there!" Nick said. "Are you okay?"


Jess stared up into those dark eyes, trying to catch her breath. She shouldn't be out of breath after bumping into someone - but she was. "Yes," she finally said, stepping back. "I'm - fine. I'm sorry. I was distracted by my sisters -" It dawned on her that he must have been coming out of the bank when they had collided, because Greg March, the town's banker, was standing to the side, trying to hide his smile at Jess' embarrassment. "Hello, Greg."


"Jess." To Nick, he said, "We'll talk more later?"


"Count on it," Nick said as the two men shook hands.


"I guess you'll be leaving Providence now that the case is finished," Jess stated.


"I'll be staying around for awhile," he told her.




"It's been awhile since I've seen Lily. We're still catching up on old times-"


"Is the railroad going to send out a new survey crew?" she asked. "Every day they're not setting that route, the more of a delay in getting it started. Providence *needs* that spur line."


"I sent a telegram to New York, asking that they send out a new crew immediately, with a promise to send a letter explaining the reason for the request as soon as possible. The letter to the board and a more personal letter to Ron Grainger's father will go out on today's stage run," he explained after glancing around to make sure there wasn't anyone close enough to overhear the comments. "Trust me, Jess," he said, lowering his voice still more, "I am aware of the importance of that spur line to the future of Providence."


Jess suddenly realized that he had backed her against the wall of the building behind her, and that he was standing close - too close for her comfort. "If you'll excuse me, I need to see Judge Maxwell before he has a chance to leave," she said, ducking under his arm to move steadily away from him, certain that she could feel him watching her as she entered the Sheriff's office.


"Jess?" Lucas asked when she turned to stare outside to watch as Nick crossed the street toward the saloon. "Jess?" he said again, a bit louder this time.


She turned at last and saw Judge Maxwell sitting next to the desk, a checkerboard between him and Lucas. "Uncle Otis," she said. "I was hoping to catch you before you left - I didn't expect to find you here."


"It's been a long time since you called me 'Uncle Otis'," he observed. While he wasn't her uncle, the long friendship between her father and Maxwell had created a quasi-family relationship. "What's going on?"


"The twins' birthday party on Friday evening," she said. "I told them that you probably can't stay in town for it -"


"Of course I can. I have a session of court tomorrow and Friday morning -" he nodded toward the cells. "The rustlers are standing before me. Nick suggested that they throw themselves on the mercy of the court, since they were caught red-handed as it were."


"So he's representing them?"


"He gave them legal advice, much like you did to Colin Fitzgerald," Maxwell pointed out. "We both thought that you would prefer to stand as prosecutor in their cases, since it was Donager cattle they stole. Were we wrong?"


"No - but it would have been good for me to know I have to be in court tomorrow and Friday. I have so much to get ready for the party - but I'll be here."


"As for the party, I would have stayed anyway. It's not every day that a man's goddaughters turn eighteen," he pointed out. "I was wondering if I was going to be invited at all, to tell the truth."


"Thank you. I'm sorry that I didn't include you in the invitations, but, with everything that's been going on -"


"I understand."


"Will you have supper with us tonight, since you'll be in town?"


"I wouldn't miss one of Mariana's meals for anything," he assured her.




After having watched the scene between Jess and Nick Everett, Elizabeth turned to the woman behind the counter. "Mrs. Carter, may I have a piece of paper and a pen?" as Amanda joined her.


"Of course," Nedra Carter said, pushing the requested items across the counter.


As she began to write, she said, "Amanda, why don't you finish our shopping while I finish this?"


"Make sure you sign both of our names," Amanda told her, and Elizabeth nodded. To Nedra, she said, "I need more of that lace and some ribbon, please."


They moved away, with Nedra asking, "How much of each?"


Elizabeth finished, signed both names, and then waved the page to try to dry the ink before folding it and writing "Nicholas Everett, Esq." on the outside. Still waving it, she waited for Amanda to pay for the ribbon and lace before holding the paper out. "Mrs. Carter, may we ask a favor?"


"What favor?" Nedra questioned. With a teenage daughter of her own, she knew better than to agree to that question without more information.


"Will you take this over to the hotel and leave it for Mr. Everett?"


"We'd take it, but Jess will be waiting at the buggy, and -"


Nedra smiled. "Consider it done," she agreed, taking the letter. "You know, your birthday party has almost made me sell out of fabric and laces and ribbons. I think every female in town is making a new dress to wear."


"Where is Iris this morning?" Elizabeth asked, looking for the youngest Carter child.


"She's in the back, sorting stock."


"Tell her we said hello."


"Jess is heading toward the buggy," Amanda said. "Come on. Thank you, Mrs. Carter," she said, half dragging her sister out of the store.


Outside, Elizabeth looked around. "I don't see Jess."


"She'll be here. I didn't want you to get into a discussion of dresses with Iris," Amanda explained. "You know that's what would have happened if she had come out of the back room."


"There's Jess," Elizabeth observed as their sister came out of the Sheriff's office. Back at the buggy, she asked, "Did you see Uncle Otis?"


"Yes, I did," Jess confirmed. "He said that nothing could keep him away from your party."


"Hooray!" Elizabeth said as she saw Mrs. Carter coming out of the Mercantile and head toward the hotel. "Mrs. Carter told us that because of the party, she's had a run on fabric and thread and needles," she said. *Everyone* is going to be there!"




Nick entered the hotel and stopped at the desk to retrieve his key. "Oh, this is for you, Nick," Carl Collins informed him, holding out what looked like an envelope.


"For me?" Nick questioned, glancing at his name on the paper. It wasn't actually an envelope, he realized, but a piece of paper that had been folded into itself.


"Mrs. Carter from the Mercantile brought it over a little while ago."


Nick nodded, opening the paper and reading. The words caused him to smile.


"You are hereby invited to a party to celebrate the eighteenth birthday of Miss Amanda and Miss Elizabeth Donager this Friday evening at six p.m. at the Donager Ranch.
Please come.

Signed, Amanda and Elizabeth Donager"


"Good news?"


"I think so. Thank you, Carl."




It had been awhile since the house was filled with light and people, Jess thought as still more guests entered the house to be greeted by the twins. In one corner of the parlour, a group of local musicians stood, playing a lively tune, while Mariana basked in the compliments of the guests for the food set out in the dining room.


Looking at Kevin, Jess noted. "Is there anyone left in town, I wonder?"


"Not many. I've heard a few saying they'll spend a little time here, then go back to town so others will be able to come out."


Jess waved at Patsy and Carl with their brood before asking, "Where is Lily? I would have thought that she would be here earlier than this."


"I'm sure she'll be here soon," he responded. Yet another knock on the front door, and he turned to Jess. "That might be her," he said as he moved away.


"Jess, you've done it again, dear," Mrs. Lee said.


"I have?" Jess questioned, smiling at the preacher's wife.


"The party, of course."


"Actually, the twins did most of the planning. Especially Amanda. She has a knack for things like this."


"I've noticed," the older woman nodded.


"Nick!" Elizabeth's voice drew Jess to the latest arrival. He had obviously brought Lily out from town, since that lady was now standing with Kevin.


Nick took the girl's hand. "You look lovely, Elizabeth," he said. "And so do you, Amanda."


"Thank you. I'm so glad you came," Elizabeth told him, taking his arm. "I wasn't sure that you got our note."


"What note was that, Elizabeth?" Jess asked, drawing their attention.


"An invitation to the party," Amanda answered.


"It *is* our party, after all," Elizabeth stated.


"Thank you for the invitation," Nick said. "Makes me feel like I belong."


"I was really worried that you might leave Providence before the party," Elizabeth told him.


"Well, I'll let you in on a secret: I've decided to make my home in Providence."


"Really?!" Amanda questioned, obviously delighted by the prospect, as were several other guests around them.


Jess drew a surprised breath at his announcement, but remained silent as the conversation continued as Judge Maxwell asked, "Are you going to open a law office, Nick?"


"Not at the moment. Providence already has a more than capable attorney," he said, looking at Jess. "But if something comes up, I'll be available." He grinned in Lily's direction. "I supposed we *could* hang a sign up saying that my office is inside the saloon, couldn't we, partner?"


"Partner?" Jess finally asked, breaking her silence.


Nick nodded. "I bought a half interest in Lily's Place," he announced. "We signed all of the papers this afternoon."


The reaction among those gathered was overwhelmingly positive, and Nick quickly lifted his hands. "I didn't intend to take attention away from the birthday girls -" he put an arm around each twin. "So let's get back to celebrating that, shall we?"


"We don't mind, do we, Amanda?" Elizabeth said.


"No," Amanda agreed. "That you're going to be staying in Providence is a wonderful birthday present!"


Jess pulled Lily aside and into the hall outside of the parlor. "Why didn't you tell me that you were going to do this?" she wanted to know.


"Jess, I haven't really seen you to do more than say hello in the last few days, remember? But even if I had, Nick's my friend. He asked me to let him make the announcement - and I would no more tell his secrets than I would yours without permission." She smiled. "Besides, is it so terrible that he's staying on in town?"


"Lily," Elizabeth said, pulling her away. "You simply *have* to see the birthday cake that Mariana made for us!"


"We're not cutting it yet," Jess called after them.


Feeling alone in a crowd of people that she'd known all of her life, Jess moved around the parlor, watching as Nick spoke to the other guests. Kevin brought her a glass of punch. "You look a little put out, sister."


"Not at all. It's a nice party, don't you think?"


"I'll admit that I'll be glad when things are quiet again," he said. "What did you think of Nick's surprise?"


"I haven't really thought about it," she lied.


"I'm hoping that it means Lily will have more time to spend away from the saloon and that she'll see the advantage of marrying me."


"It's possible, I suppose. I think everyone who's going to be here early is here, don't you?" she asked, changing the subject. "Why don't we let the girls cut their cake?"


"I'll corral Amanda and leave Elizabeth to you."




After the cake was cut and served, Jess grabbed her shawl and left the house, looking for a little peace and quiet. She ended up near the corral and stood looking out over the darkening country-side.


The crunch of gravel alerted her to someone else joining her, and she didn't have to turn around to know who it was.


"Beautiful view," Nick said, joining her at the fence. "I envy you, having seen it every day."


"I missed it during the time I was back east studying law," she admitted. "After I got home, I promised never to take it for granted again."


They stood there in silence for several moments before Nick turned around. "Jess, I'd like to explain why I decided to stay on in Providence and buy into Lilly's Place."


"It's a free country," she pointed out. "I'm sure you were looking for something to spend some of the money you inherited from your father."


He shook his head. "I've had that money for two years now. I haven't touched a penny of it. Part of the reason for my buying into the saloon was to give Lily some independence. With what I paid her, she's probably one of the richest people in Providence. I'm hoping she'll finally agree to marry your brother."


"Kevin said the same thing earlier," she confirmed.


"The other reason is that ever since the war, I've never spent more than a few months anywhere. I was looking for a place where I felt I belonged. I've never been anywhere like Providence, and I realized that everything I've been looking for is here. But there's more than that," he continued as Jess finally turned to look at him. "The reason I want - make that *have* - to stay- is you."




"I love you, Jessica Donager," he said.


"You're crazy," she told him.


"Yes. About you."


"You're certifiable."


"Likely, but the fact is that from the moment we met, I knew that you were someone that I wanted to get to know better; to spend the rest of my life finding out about. I've never known anyone like you. You're smart, you're beautiful, you love your family and your town, and -"


"You're insane," she said.


"And you know what else? We are going to get married some day -"


"Excuse me?" Jess said, stepping back.


"Oh, not right now - I know we've just met -"


"Exactly. It's only been a week since you came to Providence. We've barely spoken to each other outside of court -"


"And that is why we need to get to know each other. My living in Providence will make that possible, I hope. As for my being in love with you -"


"Stop saying that."


"You'd better get used to it. Because I intend to say it as much as I can." He slowly raised a hand to touch her chin, lifting it. "I love you. And one day, you'll love me." His thumb traced her lower lip before his hand dropped away only to grasp one of hers. "Now, I think I'm going to go back in and tell your sisters and Kevin goodnight. I'll see you soon." He lifted her hand to his lips and placed a kiss there- in the palm, not on the back - never taking his eyes off of her face.


Jess stood there after he walked away, slowly lifting her fingers to her lip, feeling them trembling slightly. She hoped that he hadn't felt that trembling while he'd been touching her. He was certifiably insane if he really believed that he was in love with her.


It had only been a week. And no one could fall in love that quickly. The man was insufferably arrogant if he really thought that she would fall for his polished charm like - like a shallow school girl - *or a lonely spinster* her traitorous mind thought.


He'd get bored soon - his type usually did, she reasoned. He would move on to find another challenge when he realized that she wasn't going to fall in love with him.


Jess tried to ignore that little voice as it told her "Too late."


The End

Jess, Nick and the rest will return in the next installment of "The Donager Saga".