Episode 2
Bank Robbers and Breakthroughs

Jess rode into town on Midnight, intending to do a little paperwork before her meeting with Mr. Douglas the next morning about his new will. Approaching the office, she saw a dark figure come out of the saloon and cross the street. As she dismounted and tied the horse's reins to the wooden post, she heard him speak.


"Good morning," Nick said.


For a moment, she thought about ignoring him, but finally said, "Good morning." She turned to go up the step, but stopped as he spoke again.


"I still love you."


She took a deep breath, almost hissing the reply. "Stop it."


"I can't. Tell you what: have supper with me this evening and we can discuss it."


"No, thank you."


"Why not? Don't tell me you're afraid -"


Jess turned around at that. "I am *not* afraid -!" she said, a little louder than she meant to. Nick's grin made her look away - anywhere except him. Suddenly she realized that Mrs. Carter was standing at the window of the Mercantile, and Milly Grant was at the window of the Cafe. Only Mrs. Lee continued down the opposite boardwalk toward the church without stopping. "I am *not* going to discuss this with you on the street," she said in a softer tone.


"Then we'll go into your office," Nick suggested, moving around her to open the door. "After you."


She entered the office ahead of him, glad that the blind was lowered on the plate glass window over the chairs. "Listen, Nick," she began, turning to look at him.


"To every word," he promised, closing the door.


"You have to stop this! Sending me notes every day telling me you love me. Accosting me every time I come into town and telling me that you love me -"


"But I do."


"People are going to start saying that you're crazy."


"I don't care what they say. I don't care who knows about it. In fact, I'd like to go out there and yell it at the top of my lungs -" he turned toward the door, his hand out.


"Don't you *dare*!" she said, rushing past him to stand with her back against the door. "Why are you doing this?" she asked. "You could have any woman in town - in the territory - in the country!"


He closed the distance between them until he was standing close enough to touch her, but he didn't. "Because I don't want any other woman - just you. I'm not a saint, Jess," he admitted, finally turning around and taking a few steps across the suddenly too-small office. Tossing his hat onto one of the chairs, he ran his hand through his black hair. "You're right - about the other women. But not one of them -" he looked at her again "-not *one* of them ever made me feel the way I feel about you. I love you. I want to spend the rest of my life proving it to you. Even if you told me tomorrow that you'd met someone else and wanted him instead of me, I'd still stay here to be your friend - and secretly still be in love with you."


For a moment, Jess felt herself about to give in, to fall into his arms. To tell him -.


"If you'll have supper with me this evening, at the Cafe, in public, I promise not to talk about how much I love you - or the fact that we'll end up as husband and wife one day."


"You promise?" she repeated, not sure that she believed him.


He lifted a hand as though taking an oath. "I promise," he repeated.


Jess paced across the room as well, keeping some space between them. "All right. I'll have supper with you at the Cafe."


She was rewarded with a smile. "Thank you. Shall I come out and get you or -?"


"No, I'll meet you there. What time?"


"Shall we say - six?" he suggested.


"I'll be there," she told him. "Now, I do have some work to do, so -"


Grabbing his hat, Nick nodded and left, still smiling.


Jess stood in the outer office for a moment, taking a few deep breaths. What in the world had she been thinking by agreeing to have supper with him? It would only encourage him to continue his quixotic pursuit of her. Of course, if he broke his promise, it would give her the perfect reason to insist that he stop everything - the notes and wildflower bouquets that had appeared every morning on her front porch since the night of the twins' party, his insistence in telling her that he loved her every time he saw her, and his claiming that he was going to marry her.


The thing was, she wasn't so sure that she *wanted* him to stop.




Greg March smiled at the man sitting across from him. "Now, Mr. Jacobs, you've seen our vault and security measures, is there anything else I can do for you?"


Jacobs smiled as he sat back. "No, I think what I've seen has convinced me that I can trust you to handle my needs while I'm in the area, Mr. March. I'll be ready to make a large deposit tomorrow, I think. My associates will be here sometime tonight to deliver the funds I'm going to need."


"If they're arriving tonight, wouldn't you prefer to put it into the vault then? I'll be more than glad to come back to the bank and take care of it for you," Greg offered.


Jacobs smiled. "Why, thank you, sir. If it's not too late when they arrive, I'd be grateful for that. How do I contact you?"


"I live in the white two story with the picket fence - I'll show you where it is, and we can have lunch." He rose, taking his hat from the rack near the door. Turning to the teller, he said, "Paul, I'll be back in an hour."


"Yes, sir, Mr. March," Paul replied.



"So," Jess asked Lily as they shared lunch at the Cafe, "how is it going, having a partner in the saloon?"


"You already know that I've had two nights off each week - and spent most of them with your brother," Lily responded. "And I'm free to have lunch with a friend, since Nick's keeping an eye on things."


"I know that Kevin's glad you don't have to rush back over there after supper," Jess nodded. Pushing the roast beef around on her plate, she said, "I suppose Nick mentioned that I agreed to have supper with him this evening?"


"No," Lily answered, causing Jess to look at her with surprise. "I told him just as I told you - I don't want to be in the middle of this. You're both my friends, and I'm not going to take sides. I did notice that he seemed happy after he came back from your office earlier, but I didn't ask any questions."


"I need someone to talk to," Jess sighed.


"Fine. Talk. I'll listen. Nick gave me permission to tell you whatever you want to know. He's an open book. But whatever you tell me, stays between us."


Jess toyed with the beef before finally asking, "Do you really believe that he's never acted like this with another woman?"


"I admit that it's been a few years since I spent any time around him, but yes, I believe it. He's always attracted women - not that I blame them - but what I saw back then was that he never encouraged any of them. I met a couple of girls on my way out west who had met him after I'd met him, and they told me the same thing:That Nick liked having a good time, but the minute anything more was even hinted at, he let them know that it wasn't in the cards." They both smiled at the reference.


"Do you think he would ever give *that* up?"


"Poker? It's just a hobby," Lily said. "One that he's very good at - but I think he would, if the right woman asked him to."


"He scares me," Jess admitted. Seeing her friend's frown, she continued, "Oh, I don't mean that I think he would ever hurt me, but - I can't really explain it. I want to trust him, but -"


"But you're not sure that you *can* trust him," Lily finished, nodding. "Well, for whatever it's worth, I trust him. But then, I'm not in love with him."


"I'm not -" Jess began, lowering her voice before she continued. "I am *not* in love with him."


"Jess, sweetie, you might be able to fool yourself, but you can't fool me." She smiled. "Don't worry. I won't tell him. You have my word."




"I won't be home for supper tonight, Mariana," Jess told the housekeeper soon after she entered the house, instantly regretting her timing as she heard her sisters on the stairs behind them.


"Why aren't you going to be here?" Elizabeth wanted to know as Mariana turned and went back into the parlor to finish dusting.


"I'm eating in town with - someone," she answered, picking up her case and turning toward the study. "Excuse me, I have some papers to look through -"


"She's running away, Amanda," Elizabeth said. "I doubt she's having supper with Lily - she had supper in town with Kevin last night, and that means she's probably working, so that leaves Nick -"


"Elizabeth," her twin said, "if Jess doesn't want us to know who she's having supper with is, that's her decision."


"Thank you, Amanda," Jess said.


"Besides, we can always get up early enough to catch Nick when he brings the note tomorrow morning and ask him if he knows who she was with -"


Jess turned to confront the young women. "You've *seen* Nick delivering those notes and bouquets?" she questioned.


"We haven't seen *him*," Amanda admitted. "Just his horse as he was leaving."


"Why haven't you mentioned it? It's been a month -"


"We thought you knew," Elizabeth told her. "Is there anyone *else* in Providence that would send you notes and bouquets of wildflowers?"


"No," Jess answered. "No, of course not. While I'm sure neither of you would be up early enough to talk to him, I'll confirm that I've agreed to meet him for supper at the cafe. Now, may I please go and attend to these papers? Mr. Douglas wanted everything ready for him to sign his new will tomorrow morning."


"Don't let us stop you," Amanda said.


"Thank you."


The twins watched her until the door closed behind her before they smiled and joined hands. "Yes!" Elizabeth said excitedly.


Amanda shushed her, glancing toward the study, but her eyes were glowing with excitement as well.




Nick checked his pocket-watch as Lily stood watching him. "If I didn't know better, I'd swear that you were nervous," she said quietly.


"I am," he admitted, putting the watch back into his vest pocket. "What if she changes her mind?"


"She wouldn't dare. She knows that you would probably ride out there and drag her back to town."


"I wouldn't -" he began, only to stop as Lily gave him a look. "Okay, so I might. *Might.* There's also the possibility that she would shoot me if I tried," he added with a crooked grin. He finished the glass of whiskey on the bar in front of him, straightened his vest, and turned toward the front doors.


"Enjoy yourself," Lily wished him, watching him leave the saloon.


Leroy called out from one of the tables. "Where's he going, Lily? I'm ready to start playing poker!"


She smiled. "Looks like you'll have to find someone else to play with tonight, Leroy. Nick's got another game going."


"Hey, that means you might win more than a couple of hands!" someone else called out to Leroy, who joined in the laughter.




Milly Grant came over to the table as soon as Nick sat down. "What can I get you tonight, Nick?"


"I'm expecting someone, so I think I'll wait a few minutes," he told her.


"Can I get you some coffee while you're waiting?" she offered.


"Thank you. That would be fine." He had deliberately taken a table that gave him a clear view of both the hotel entrance and the street door, so he would see Jess when she arrived. Milly brought his coffee, then moved to another table to get their order.


He wanted to pull his watch out again, but he fought the urge, stirring his coffee instead. He was sure it was after six. Of course it was. She was probably just running late. Or maybe she was deliberately making him wait, thinking that he would give up and go back to the saloon. Or maybe -


Jess entered the cafe, causing several other diners to say hello. She smiled at each one as she moved toward the back corner table where Nick was rising to his feet. "Hello," he said, pulling one of the other chairs out for her.


"Thank you," she said as he sat back down. "I'm sorry I'm late," she said.


"I was starting to worry," he confessed as Milly came back.


"Hi, Jess," she said.


"Milly. I'd like some coffee, please."


"Coming up," she said, turning back toward the counter. Bringing the coffee, she told them, "Tonight we have pot roast with vegetables, or steak with potatoes and carrots. We also have beef stew."


"I'll have the steak," Jess told her. "Medium well."


"Same for me."


"Two steaks," Milly repeated back before leaving the table to be met by a little boy in the doorway to the kitchen. He waved at Jess before grabbing Milly's apron and following her.


"He's cute," Nick noted. "That's her youngest, isn't it?"


"Yes," Jess confirmed, looking down at her cup. "He's six. His older sister is almost ten. I went to school with Milly. We're the same age."


"You went away to law school while she stayed in Providence," Nick nodded.


She nodded as a stranger came into the cafe and sat down. "I've never seen him before," she told Nick, glad for an excuse to change the subject.


"He came to town a couple of days ago," Nick told her. "Mr. Jacobs. Says he's looking to purchase some property to the east of town. A land speculator, most likely, hoping to take advantage of the railroad coming to Providence. That reminds me. I received a telegram today from the new survey crew. They'll be here tomorrow. They're going to ride along the survey line that Grainger and Fitzgerald made and start work where they stopped near Mesa City."


"So they won't lose any more time?" she asked.


"I doubt it. I'll probably ride out to meet them tomorrow - if you'd like to join me, I'd appreciate the company."


"What time? I have an appointment with a client in the morning -"


"I think it will be afternoon."


"If you come by the ranch and I'm there, I'll go," she agreed. "Thank you for trying to get them here so quickly."


"All I did was send a few telegrams," he told her. "I hope you believe that I'm as interested in the future of Providence as you are, Jess."


"Pa had such plans for the town," she told him. "He was so proud of it."


"He had a right to be. Tell me, has the town council ever considered building a courthouse?"


She smiled. "You're just thinking about not having to close down the saloon whenever there's a need for a trial of some kind," she told him.


"Partially," he admitted. "But think about it: something like that could be used for more than *just* holding court: town or church socials, town council meetings - which I've heard are *also* usually held at the saloon -; there could be a separate room for jury deliberations, see what I mean?"


"You might have a point, but no one's ever mentioned it before."


"There's an empty property not far from the church - it's a good location, I think."


"I think I know which property, and you're right. I'll bring it up to the council at the next meeting."


"Fair enough," he nodded. "Are the stories I've heard true? That they wanted to name the town after your father in the early days?"


"Yes. But he refused to let them do it. The citizens held a vote to decide on either Providence or Donager City. Providence won by ten votes," she told him.


"From everything I've heard about John Donager, he was an amazing man."


"He was. Don't get me wrong: he wasn't perfect, but his vision shaped this area. He held councils with the Indians before the Army was even out here - and fought for the treaties that he'd established with them when they *did* finally get out here. He fought fires, and drought and -."


"I wish I had been able to meet him," Nick told her. "Sounds like he enjoyed taking risks. Did he play poker?"


She smiled. "He did. Most of the hands hated it when he would sit in on their games."


Milly returned with their plates, refilled their coffees, and the next several minutes found them enjoying the meal.


After awhile, Jess asked, "How did you start playing poker?"


"Oh, well, I just happened into the servants' quarters one night when they were playing. I watched for a while, and finally asked if I could join the game. They weren't sure about letting their employer's son play, but I think some of them thought it would be a way to get some easy money." He smiled. "They didn't think that way for very long."


"Beginner's luck?" she suggested.


"That's what they said - but I kept winning. So much that they finally told me that they couldn't risk my continuing to play on the chance that my father might find out and then they would lose their positions."


"But you kept playing."


"I did. By that time, I was more confident in my abilities, and really enjoyed a good game."


"Why?" she asked, wanting to know the attraction.


"Believe it or not, concentrating on the game helps me to relax. Clears my mind. And sometimes doing that helps me to come up with a solution to a problem. I'd - I'd be glad to teach you how to play sometime," he added.


Jess smiled. "And what makes you think that I don't already know how to play?" she asked.


Nick's eyes narrowed slightly as he studied her. "Let me guess: your father, right?"


"Right. Kevin refused to play with either of us," she told him.


"That sounds like a challenge," Nick said. "One that I think I'd look forward to."


She laughed softly. "Maybe someday," she agreed.


"Name the place and time and I'll be there," he responded, still smiling as Milly came over to remove their plates and pour more coffee.


"How about dessert?" she suggested. "Ma made a chocolate cake this afternoon -"


"Oh, I can't refuse one of your mother's cakes, Milly," Jess answered.


"Might as well make it two," Nick confirmed.




"I should be getting home," Jess said after finishing the cake and more coffee. "I do have that appointment in the morning -"


"Where did you leave your buggy?" he asked.


"At the livery stable," she told him.


"Let me take care of the bill and I'll walk you down there," he said.


"Okay." She watched as he rose and went to the counter, where he spoke to Milly and then gave her some money. As they left the cafe, she said, "Thank you for supper - and for the evening. And for not breaking your promise." The last words she added quickly, before she could stop herself from saying them.


"You're welcome. You know, I don't like the idea of your driving all the way out there by yourself this time of night."


"I can take care of myself," she told him.


"I'm aware of that fact. But things do happen - would you agree to my escorting you back to the ranch? Just so that I won't worry?"


"And how would you get back to town?" she asked.


"Spirit's at the stable, too. I can saddle him and tie him to the back of the buggy."


She didn't answer for several moments, and Nick was about to tell her that he was sorry for asking and understood her reluctance when she spoke again. "I suppose it would be okay."


Once in the livery stable, they found that Mr. Bradford had unhitched the horse from the buggy. "I'll harness Molly back up," Jess began, but Nick shook his head.


"And risk getting that lovely dress dirty? It won't take me much longer to -"


The sound of several riders outside caused them both to go still and look at the doors - only to hear one of them say, "You're early."


"We made good time," was the response.


"Let's put the horses into the livery," the first man suggested, and the door opened.


Jess was surprised when Nick pulled her into a dark corner behind some bales of hay as the men brought their horses inside and closed the door behind them. She looked up at him, only to have him place a finger to his lips, telling her to keep quiet.


"Did things go the way you planned, boss?" another man asked.


"Yes. The banker thinks that I'm a land speculator who's expecting some money to use to buy property along the railroad right of way. He showed me the safe, and offered to come to the bank when my associates get here with the money to secure it."


"Now, wasn't that nice of him?" Nick held up four fingers.


"I'd say it was downright accomdatin'." The men laughed as Jess held up five fingers.


"When are we gonna do this?"


"As soon as the town's dark for the night. The sheriff makes his last round at a little after midnight, when the saloon closes down on a weeknight."


"That's still an hour away," one of the men fretted.


"It wouldn't have been a problem if you'd waited to come into town like I expected you to," the 'boss' said.


"To tell you the truth, we got thirsty, boss."


"No water in your canteens?"


"Well, yeah, but -"


"You fools," the boss said in a low tone. "So what happens when the four of you show up at the saloon this late in the evening?"


"We figured to go in separately, have a drink, then leave the same way around closing time."


"It's better than our just staying here and risking the sheriff finding us."


"And after you leave the saloon? The sheriff doesn't make his final round until *after* the place closes." There was silence. "Okay. One drink. When you leave the saloon, go to the end of the road and then further to the stand of trees just outside town. It has a decent view of the street. You should be able to see when I leave the hotel. I'll strike a match and light my cigar before going to the banker's house to get him."


"Then we come in to the bank, leave our horses on the street and wait," one of them said.


"Good to know that you remembered *part* of the plan," the boss growled. "Leave here separately, too. Give me a few minutes to get back to the hotel before you go out."


The door closed, and one of the remaining men said, "I'll go first -"


"Why you?"


"I'm the one who came up with this idea, remember? Wait a few minutes before one of you follow."


The wait seemed like forever to Nick, Finally, the door closed behind the last man and his horse, and he felt Jess exhale. "I'm going to get your buggy ready so you can head back to the ranch -"


"No, you're not. We need to let Lucas know that those men are planning on robbing the bank -"


"I'll do that, once you're safely heading out of town."


"I thought we established that I can take care of myself?" she reminded him. "Besides, if one of them hears my buggy, they might start wondering where it was, and if I might not have been in here when they were."


"Jess, this could be dangerous," he pointed out. Even in the dim light, he could see the sparkle of excitement - and determination in her eyes. Sighing, he pulled his hold gun out of his inside jacket pocket and held it out to her. "I have my six gun, so take this-"


She shook her head and moved past him to the buggy. Reaching into the foot well, she pulled out an ivory handled six gun. "I have my own," she told him. "I keep it in case I run into a snake or a cougar on the road."


"You are full of surprises," he told her, returning the derringer to his pocket. "Are you just going to carry it around town?"


Jess removed her shawl and put it over her hand and arm, hiding the gun. "Better?" she asked.


Nick chuckled. "I think we should go out the back way and use the alley into the hotel and the saloon."


"Why the hotel?" Jess wanted to know.


"No one will think twice about your crossing from there to the jail, since you and Lucas are old friends."


"And the saloon?"


"To get a look at those four. I think their boss is Mr. Jacobs."


"Let's go," she said, looking out of the back door of the stable before leading him out and around the fence if the small corral. They paused long enough for Nick to quietly open the gate and then ducked into the dark alley.


At the back door of the hotel, they stopped and spoke again.


"Be careful," they said at the same time as Nick grasped her hand in his. He felt her fingers return his gentle squeeze before she slipped through the doorway.


Nick continued on to the back door that lead into the storeroom behind the saloon. He hoped no one would question his using that entrance as he entered the main room.


Lily was standing at the bar and turned to look at him when he entered. She looked surprised, but remained silent as several customers hello.


"Hey, Nick!" Leroy called out. "This game's about over - I'm on a winning streak. Care to try your luck?"


"Maybe later," Nick said, sitting down at Lily's table. There were four men that he'd never seen, and when Lily joined him, he smiled at her.


"So how was supper?"


"I think it went well," he told her, nodding as Jake brought him a glass of whiskey. Not touching it, he spoke quietly. "Don't make it obvious, but - is everyone in here tonight local?"


Lily frowned for a second before clearing her expression and surveying the customers. "No," she said. "I've never seen the one at the end of the bar, or the one in the far corner. Then there's the man sitting close to the game - and there's one near the stairs. Why?"


"Just curious."


"Nick -"


"Just trust me, Lily."




"Let me get this straight: there are four men over in the saloon and another one in the hotel who are planning on robbing the bank," Lucas said once Jess had told him what she and Nick had overheard in the stable.


"Yes, Lucas," she told him. "Nick's over at the saloon, keeping an eye on the four, and I'm sure that Mr. Jacobs is watching the street from his room at the hotel."


"If I arrest them now, they'll be able to say they were just kidding around - I'll have to catch them in the bank - You said that Greg March is going to let them in?"


"That's right. From what Nick and I overheard, Greg thinks Jacobs is expecting some money to be delivered tonight, and offered to come back to the bank and put it into the safe for him. Once you finish your rounds, Jacobs will go to Greg's house and let him know that the money is here."


"You need to go back to the ranch - what are you doing in town this late anyway?"


"I - had supper with Nick," she said quickly. "Don't say a word, Lucas Morgan," she warned, seeing his grin. "Not one word. And I am *not* going back to the ranch until this is finished." As a way of showing how serious she was, she finally pulled the shawl covering her hand aside to reveal the gun she was carrying. "I expected that you, at least, wouldn't think that I need to be protected."


"Sorry. Even after all these years, I still forget sometimes that you're a lady who can take care of herself. Okay. When I leave to start my rounds, I'll take you over to the hotel. Make some excuse about not wanting to drive back to the ranch tonight and take a room. After I finish the rounds, I'll come back here, and we'll wait for Jacobs to make his move."




Nick was waiting outside the doors of the saloon when Lucas approached. "Did you see Jess?" Nick asked quietly as he turned the key in the lock. Lily and the girls were all up in their rooms, and had promised to stay there no matter what happened.


"Yeah. She's over at the hotel, waiting. Room 8."


"You mind if I walk with you until you get to the hotel?" Nick asked, in a slightly louder voice.


"Not at all. Be glad of the company." Quietly again, he said, "I figure to wait until they get inside - I just hope Greg knows how to duck."


"Are you aware he's taken to carrying a derringer?" Nick asked.


"Since when?"


"Since I showed him mine."


"Figures. Now I hope he has it with him." They paused at the entrance to the hotel. "Night, Nick."


"Goodnight, Sheriff," Nick replied, entering the building. Going around the desk - since everyone else was in their beds - he grabbed his room key. His room was across from Room 8, and he paused for a moment before entering his own room to wait.


He lit a lamp before changing out of his coat, vest and white shirt, putting on a black shirt instead. He tucked his hold gun into the top of his boot, and made sure his six gun was loaded. Then, blowing out the light, he sat down to wait.




Jess saw Lucas as he came back down the opposite side of the street and entered his office. A few minutes later, the shades were drawn and the lantern was blown out, which meant he had gone to the cot where he usually slept in the office.


She listened as the door from the room next to hers was opened, then closed, then the sound of footsteps going down the hallway and the stairs. Placing her hand on the door of her room, gripped the gun in her hand tightly.


Opening the door, she wasn't surprised to see Nick's door open as well. They moved to the top of the stairs in silence, making sure that Jacobs hadn't stopped before going out of the hotel. "Lucas suggested that we go out of the back door and go to the alley between the cafe and the saloon to keep an eye on the bank," she told him quietly. "He'll go in from the back of the bank, forcing them out the front. He also said that he would try to stop in to Greg's during his rounds and give him a warning about what's going on."


"Let's go," he said.




In the alley, they both looked to where Jacobs was about to cross the street to go to Greg March's home. He stopped, and lit a match to light a cigar, keeping the match lit for as long as possible before dropping it into the street and continuing on his way.


It wasn't long before they heard riders approaching slowly, apparently trying not to draw too much attention to their arrival. Jess braced the gun in her hand on a barrel, closing her eyes as she prayed for the safety of all involved. Opening her eyes, she watched as Nick stood against the side of the saloon, watching the street, his own weapon at the ready.


Only three men came directly to the bank. One stopped at the stable, and appeared a minute later with another horse, probably for Jacobs. He tied his animal with the others, joining them on the boards in front of the bank. All of them were carrying saddlebags that looked like they were already full.


"How long are we gonna hafta wait?" one of the men asked, their voice carrying across the quiet street.


"Quiet, you idiot," someone else growled. "Shouldn't be long. It's a small town."


Jess couldn't resist a look in Nick's direction as she recalled having said those words to him at their first meeting. The crooked grin on his face told her that he was remembering it, too.


The grin faded as he saw Jacobs returning with Greg March. His attention was wholly fixed on the two men as they approached the bank. Greg hesitated a moment as he saw the men on the boardwalk. "I wasn't expecting so many men -"


"They're protecting the money," Jacobs assured him. "Each of them is carrying part of the money so if something happened, not all of it would be lost."


Greg unlocked the door and entered the building, lighting a lamp on his desk. "I suppose that makes sense," he said, glancing around at them. All four of the men had entered the bank with him and Jacobs.


From thethe corner of her eyes, Jess saw Nick move, and watched as he quickly crossed the street to stand beside one of the windows. He couldn't see inside because of the lowered shade, but that also meant that they couldn't see him.


Taking a deep breath, Jess copied his movement, going to the other side of the building as Greg said, "Now, if you'll take the money out of the saddlebags so that we can count it while I unlock the safe -. I'll have to have an accurate count to write you a receipt for the funds."


"Empty the bags," Jacobs told the men, and Jess thought she heard a faint smirk as he spoke.


She managed to find a small opening between the window ledge and the shade, and watched the them take rags out of their saddlebags. Greg finished at the safe, opening the door. Turning around again, he saw the rags and frowned. "What's this? Where's the money?"


"In the safe," Jacobs answered, pulling his gun out of its holster as the others did the same. "Now step aside, banker. Instead of a deposit, we're making a withdrawal."


Greg moved to the side of the safe, his arms up, while Jacobs pulled cash and coins out and put them onto the desk, where his men started stuffing it into the now empty saddlebags.


Suddenly from the back of the building, Lucas spoke. "Freeze!"


Greg's hand came down and a derringer appeared as the would-be robbers started for the door with their saddlebags. One of them fired at Lucas, missing, and Greg fired his gun at Jacobs, who winced and yelled at his men. "Let's get out of here!"


Jess saw Nick move away from the wall to untie the horses and quietly shoo them away before jumping back up seconds before the men piled out of the bank.


On the boardwalk, one of the men yelled, "The horses are gone!"


"Hands up, gentlemen," Nick said in a firm tone, pulling the hammer back on his gun as he spoke. "Now."


One of them hesitated, his hand moving, and Jess added, "I wouldn't if I were you."


The surprise of hearing a woman's voice must have changed his mind, and he lifted his hands.


But Jacobs, coming out just behind them, managed to get a shot off in Nick's direction before Greg's second bullet found its mark, striking Jacobs in the right hand, sending his gun flying. Jacobs grabbed his hand, clearly in pain.


"Thanks," Nick told Greg.


Greg nodded in his direction as he scooped up Jacobs' gun. "I'll get Doc Hawkins once they're in jail."


By this time, several people were out in the street, awakened by the shots and loud voices. "It's all over, folks," Lucas called out. "Go back to your beds." Jess grabbed the other four guns, and Lucas told them, "Okay, let go."


Jess and Nick followed, with Nick still holding his gun on the men. He glanced at Jess. "Hand me one of those guns," he said. "Unless juggling is one of your many talents."


She handed him one of the guns and watched as he took it and placed it into his empty holster. "Now give me another one -" In the dim light from a window, she saw a sheen of moisture on the upper arm of his black shirt.


"You're bleeding!" she declared.


He took the second gun, shaking his head. "It's just a scratch," he assured her, but he wasn't able to hide a wince of pain at the movement. "Jacobs' bullet barely grazed me."


"I don't believe you," she said as they entered the jail.


"Give me a second," Lucas said, moving to light a lamp before grabbing the keys to the cells before leading the men back with Greg's help.


"Greg, when you go get Doc, let him know there are two patients. Nick's got a bullet wound in his arm."


"I told you it's nothing," Nick insisted, but Jess pointed to a chair.


"Sit down," she told him in a firm tone.


"I'll go get the doc," Greg announced as Jess put her gun and the other two on the desk, then took the ones that she'd given to Nick with them.


Jess grabbed the blood soaked sleeve of Nick's shirt and pulled it further open, revealing the wound. Kneeling, she looked up at him. "This is more than a scratch," she told him, examining it. "Looks like the bullet went all the way through, though."


Lucas came back from the cell area, and stood watching the scene. "You need a bandage, Jess?" he asked.


She shook her head, and reached under the hem of her dress. A moment later, they heard fabric ripping.


"Jess, you don't need to -"


"It's still bleeding, Nick Everett. Until the doctor gets here and sees it, it needs to be wrapped."


Nick lifted his eyes to look at Lucas, who was grinning from ear to ear. Using his right hand, Nick reached out to touch Jess' chin, lifting it so that he could see her face. He wanted to say the words again, but he remembered his promise. "Thank you."


She nodded, blinking, as she finished wrapping the scrap of petticoat around his arm. "Sorry," she said in response to his wince. "But it needs to be tight -"


"I'm getting too old to be yanked out of my bed in the middle of the night," Mark Hawkins declared as he entered the office. "Greg tells me that I have a couple of customers over here -"




"I still need to drive you home," Nick, his left arm in a sling, told Jess as they left the Sheriff's office.


"No, you don't," she said. "You can't saddle Spirit with that arm, much less harness Molly up to the buggy. Besides which, Doc said that you needed to get some rest after losing so much blood. So you're going up to your room and to sleep."


"Your dress -"


"I'll get another one," she told him. "Don't argue with me, Nick. You're not going to win."


"Okay. But I should be better tomorrow - are we still on for that ride out to the survey crew?"


"*IF* you promise me to find someone else to saddle your horse and not try to do it yourself."


"I promise," he told her as they paused in the hotel lobby. "I'm sure that someone at the livery stable will be willing to saddle him."






"How did you know that we needed to hide when those men stopped outside of the livery stable? They could have just been a group of men traveling, not planning a robbery."


"I wish I could tell you why, Jess. I just had a feeling that something wasn't right - I really don't know."


She nodded, accepting his answer. "Will you let Carl know that I'll be in tomorrow to pay whatever I owe for the room this evening?"


"I'll take care of it," Nick told her, but Jess shook her head.


"No, just tell him I'll pay him tomorrow."


"Okay," was his response as he put his hand on his upper arm and winced.


"Are you going to be ok?" she asked. "I mean, can you manage?"


"I've had worse wounds," he told her. "I'll be fine. You be careful going back to the ranch."


"I will," she told him, moving her shawl to reveal the gun. "I still have this if I see a rattlesnake."


"Good night." He took a step toward the stairs, then stopped and turned. "Jess?"


She looked at him with an air of uncertainty. "Yes?"


"You did good this evening. Remind me never to question your ability to handle yourself in an emergency."


She smiled. "Good night," she told him before leaving the hotel and turning toward the stable.


Nick smiled, then took a deep breath and started up the stairs.


He'd only gotten to the third step when the outside door opened again, and he turned to find Jess there. "I've changed my mind," she told him, moving to the stairs herself. "It's a long drive back out to the ranch at this time of night, and since I have a room here - I might as well make use of it."


"That's the only reason?" he questioned, continuing up the stairs ahead of her.


At the top of the stairs, she came up beside him. "Truth?" she asked, speaking softly to keep from disturbing the other guests.


"I think we've agreed to that."


"I doubt I'd get much sleep even after I got home, worrying about you," she confessed, secretly glad that he didn't question her answer.


"What about your appointment with a client tomorrow morning?"


"I'll get up early and drive out to get the paperwork that I need, and then come back to town." She paused at the door of her room. "If you need any help -"


"I'll let you know," he finished. "But I think I can manage. Goodnight, Jess."


"Goodnight," she replied, waiting for him to go into his room before going into hers. Inside, she sank onto the bed, leaving the room dark as she allowed the events of the evening to replay through her mind, all the while listening for any sound of distress from across the hall.


She sat there, her eyes closing as she gave a prayer of thanks that no one had been seriously injured or killed - even the men who had attempted to rob the bank. She was most grateful that Nick's arm would heal - it was a clean wound, with no major damage. But the idea that he *had* been wounded forced her to admit - to herself, at least - that Lily had been right: She *was* in love with him.


Jess wasn't ready to admit that fact to Nick, however. Not yet.




She woke the next morning and tried to judge what time it was. She could hear the sound of horses and voices from the street below through the open window. A knock on the door caused her to pull the covers up over herself to hide the fact that she was just wearing her undergarments.


"Jess?" Nick called out.


"Yes?" she replied, sure that he wouldn't enter the room without her permission.


"I'm going down to breakfast. I thought you might want to join me."


"I'll meet you in the cafe," she told him, getting out of bed.


"Can I order for you?"


"Two eggs, biscuits, ham and some coffee."


"See you in a few minutes, then."


Jess poured some water out of the pitcher on the dresser into the bowl and used the square of flannel beside it to wash up before putting on the petticoat - with it's missing ruffle - and dress that she had carefully laid over the back of a chair before going to sleep. Seeing that her hair wasn't going to cooperate, she used her fingers to comb it back as best she could and fastened it there with another piece of the poor petticoat. She stopped as she saw a piece of paper on the floor just inside the door.


Shaking her head, she picked it up and unfolded it.


"Nothing's changed. Except that I'm even more in love with you today. Nick" At least this one was signed, unlike the others.




She had just sat down at the table with Nick and was about to mention the note when he said, "Uh oh, I think trouble is headed your way," as he put down his cup, looking toward the doors.


Jess turned in her chair in time to see her brother enter the cafe. "Jess, what happened?!" he demanded to know.


"Good morning, Kevin," she said as he continued.


"I stayed up as long as I could last night, then fell asleep in a chair!"


"Kevin, I -"


He wasn't in any mood to listen, apparently. "Mariana woke me this morning when she came in to open the house and start breakfast - all the way into town, I expected to find you lying beside the road -. I imagined all kinds of things!"


"Are you ready to listen, now?" she asked, pointing to another chair at the table.


He sat down, glaring at her, then at Nick, then back at her. "Humph! This had better be good."


"You won't believe it, Kevin," Nick said, waving to Betsy to bring another cup of coffee for the late arrival.




Kevin sat back in his chair, shaking his head. "Wow. You're right. I wouldn't have believed it. I was wondering why you had your arm in a sling, Nick. I thought maybe Jess had lost her temper last night and done something to you," he said with a grin.


"He was a perfect gentleman yesterday evening," Jess assured her brother. Today, the sling was black, to match his jacket, instead of the white square that the doctor had given him.


"I need to go see the doctor this morning," Nick said, and to Jess, he added, "Didn't you say something about going out to get those papers for your appointment with a client?"


"Oh my," Jess said. "I need to get going. I have to get home and change and grab those papers -" She paused as she stood up. "Make sure you ask him if it's alright for you to ride out to meet that survey crew this afternoon."


"Yes, ma'am," he told her. He watched her leave the cafe. "Kevin, I'm going to marry that woman."


"Does she know that?"


"She doesn't believe me. Yet. But she will."




As he and Kevin moved down the street, Nick toward Dr. Hawkin's office and Kevin toward Lily's, they heard the buggy leaving the stable. "Nick!"


Lou's voice calling out caused them both to turn toward the telegraph office, so they went inside. "What's going on, Lou?"


"I was about to take this to you. It's from that survey crew," he said. "They said they'll be arriving in town around lunchtime and if it would be better to meet you here instead of on the route the other side of town."


"I think Doc would approve," Kevin said. "And Jess, too."


Nick grinned. "Why don't you go see Lily?" he suggested. "And let me worry about Doc and Jess."


"Good luck," Kevin said, leaving the office and moving away.


"Thanks, Lou," Nick said, placing a coin on the counter, but this time Lou shook his head and pushed it back.


"Not today. I figure what you did last night -"


"I wasn't the only one who did anything -"


"But you got wounded. And I didn't have to go hunt you down to give this to you. Keep your money this time."


"Thanks, Lou."




"Jess is right - you didn't need to be riding that far," Dr. Hawkins confirmed. "It's looking better, but you'd be risking it starting to bleed again. Just take it easy for the next week or so." He smiled. "It won't keep you from playing poker."


"That's good news," Nick said, laughing.

"You were very blessed to not be more seriously injured," Doc said as he bandaged Nick's arm again. "If the bullet had been just a few inches to the right, you probably wouldn't be standing up right now."


"I have Greg March to thank for that. Shooting Jacobs in the hand made his aim go to the left."


"I had no idea that Greg was that good a shot."


"I don't think anyone else did, either."


"There you go. Here's your sling. Keep using that for the next couple of days, but don't coddle that arm. If it's not hurting, use it for simple things. Nothing heavy. The bandage needs changed at least once a day. If you can't do it, or if it starts hurting, or bleeding, come see me."


"Yes, sir, Doc."




As he was walking toward the saloon, Nick caught sight of Greg March heading toward the bank from the cafe. "Greg!" he called, causing the other man to stop and wait for him.


"Hello, Nick. How's the arm today?"


Nick looked down at the sling. "It'll be fine. I've had worse. Say, I just wanted to say thank you again for what you did."


"You would have done the same for me. I just wish I'd been a little faster and kept him from getting the shot off at all."


"You did fine. I'm up walking around. You realize that you're the town's hero today, don't you? I'm not sure anyone knew just how good you are with a gun."


"As soon as I got this job I found a spot where I could practice and kept at it. And using this -" he pulled out the derringer from his coat pocket before putting it back "- isn't any different. It's just lighter, and -"


"And you have to make each shot count since there are only two. You did that last night. Jacobs had two wounds - both from that little pea-shooter."


"And he'll stand trial for what he and his gang tried to do," Greg said.


"I doubt it will get to trial," Nick told him. "Too many witnesses against them. Most likely they'll throw themselves on the mercy of the court like Colin Fitzgerald did." He held out his hand. "I just wanted to say thanks, and if there's every anything you need, let me know."


"You're welcome. And I'll keep that in mind."




Nick entered the saloon quietly, hoping not to draw his partner's attention. But Jake saw him and Lily, who was standing at the bar doing some figuring on paper, must have seen his expression, because she turned to look at him, her hands on her hips.


"There you are. You had quite an evening last night, from what Kevin and others have told me." She picked up a bottle and poured two fingers of whiskey. "Here you go."


"It's too early -"


"Drink it. Then you can drink coffee." She glanced at Jake, who took a second cup from under the bar and gave it to her. "Thank you." Taking the cup and saucer over to the table, she pulled a second chair out for him, then poured some coffee into the cup, refilling hers as well. "Now, sit down and tell me your version."


"Where do you want me to start?" he asked, tossing the whiskey back before he sat down.


"Supper, of course. You didn't say much when you came in last night. I understand why, now, but I need more details."


"I told you: it went well. So much so that she agreed to let me drive her back to the ranch."


"And that's when things went sideways, I guess?"


"Something like that." He told her about hearing Jacobs and his men discussing the planned robbery while he and Jess hid behind some hay bales. "I offered her my derringer, and she pulled a revolver from the buggy."


"She's very proud of that weapon. And she's good with it."


"I've seen how good a shot she is," he told her. "That's when we left the stable using the back way. She went through the hotel, and I came here to keep an eye on those four men."


Lily nodded. "And you got shot."


Rubbing his arm, he nodded. "I did. Jacobs made a last ditch effort to escape. Greg March probably saved my life when he shot at Jacobs for the second time. Hit him both times, by the way."


"The whole town is buzzing about that," Lily told him. "No one, and I mean *no one* knew he was that good a shot."


"They know now," Nick said.


"It might stop anyone else from trying what they tried to do," Lily pointed out. "So Jess decided to stay in town instead of going home that late?"


"That was part of the reason. She wanted to make sure I'd be ok."


"Oh ho," Lily said, smiling. "So she was concerned about you. That's a good sign."


"I think so. We were going to ride out to meet the new surveyors this afternoon -"


"You can't ride that far -"


"Yes, Mother," he told her. "It's not an issue anyway. They'll be in town at lunchtime. I just have to catch Jess when she come back into town and let know about the change in plans. By the way, where is Kevin? I thought he came over here earlier."


"He did, but he had some things to take care of at the ranch this morning, so he left after telling me what he knew about last night. He said he'd be back later and we'd have supper together. But you're wounded -"


"And that doesn't prevent my being here - or playing poker. Go have supper with Kevin."




Jess shook Ryan Douglas' hand as the gentleman left her office. "If you need any other help, I'm available," she told him.


"Thank you for what you've already done. This trip I'm going on shouldn't be dangerous, but you never know. Thanks again."


Jess stood on the boardwalk, waving at the older man as he got onto his horse and rode down the street. She was about to turn back into the office when she heard Nick call her name. "Jess!"


He crossed the street, stepping up onto the boards. "I got a telegram from the crew -"


"Did you ask Doc about riding out to meet them?" she wanted to know, turning back into the office, knowing he would follow her.


"I did. He didn't recommend doing it -"


"I thought that might be the case. I'd suggest taking our buggy, but the twins will need it to get home later -"


Nick looked around. "Amanda and Elizabeth are in town with you?"


Jess nodded. "Amanda is having lunch with Mrs. Lee," she told him. "They're making plans for something at the church in a few weeks - it's some big, deep secret. And Elizabeth is accompanying Doc on his afternoon rounds."




"She helped him last summer, too. She has a feel for being a nurse. Doc said that she's been a lot of help with some of his patients." Jess looked thoughtful. "So what are we doing to do about meeting the surveyors?"


"The telegram said that they would be here in Providence around noon, so I thought we could meet them out at the survey line outside of town, and then we could all have lunch at the cafe."


"Oh," she said. "Okay. That's a good idea - and much easier then you going out to meet them."


"You look a little disappointed," Nick pointed out.


"Well, I had thought we could have a - picnic - I asked Mariana to get something ready for when I got home -"


Nick smiled, and touched her chin, lifting it. "We'll do that another day," he told her.


"By the way, I found your note this morning," she told him.


"The promise was for last night only," he told her. "It was void as of sunrise."


Jess smiled at him. "I know. I just wanted to say that -you don't have to keep sending them. I believe you."


He looked into her eyes, studying them before shaking his head. "No, I think I do. I need to make sure you don't forget how I feel about you."


"I don't think that's going to happen."


"Just making sure," he said. "I want so much to kiss you right now -" he said, fully expecting her to withdraw and put some space between them.


Instead, she leaned closer to him.


The kiss was gentle, and brief, but it left them both shaken. Another, slightly longer kiss, and they stood there. "That was nice," Nick said at last. When Jess didn't speak, he said, "Jess?"


"Yes," she told him. "We need to - to head down the street to the survey line," she told him.


But Nick could tell she had been just as much affected by those two kisses as he had. Taking out his watch, he looked at the time. "You're right. It's almost noon." Opening the door, he said, "After you."




The survey line was just outside of down, alongside the small stand of trees where Jacobs' men had watched from the previous night. Sometime during the walk down the street, Jess had slipped her arm through his. Nick hadn't missed a step, although he *had* glanced down at her with a smile.


"We're going to build the station there," she told him. "At the end of the street. They've already ordered the lumber for it."


"You do know that it will be at least a year before the spur gets close to Providence," he said.


"We know. But we wanted to be ready to start work on the station so that it's ready when the first train pulls in."


"I suppose that makes sense," he nodded, smiling at her.


Jess' blue eyes narrowed with suspicion. "Are you laughing at us?" she wanted to know. "I know we're rubes out here -"


Nick laughed and captured her hand in his. "No, Jess, I'm not laughing at anyone. I love your enthusiasm for this town. It's nice that you care so much about it. And I'm starting to share that feeling. I've said it before: I've never been anyplace like it. The people, the town," he looked around. "The land. I can see why your father settled here - and convinced the others in that wagon train to join him."


"I'd love to show you around the ranch itself - once your arm is better," she added.


"I think I'm going to look forward to that," he said. "Maybe we can have that picnic that we couldn't have today."


She nodded, watching their hands as he rubbed his thumb over the back of her hand. "I think that - could be arranged," she said. Taking a deep breath, she looked up at him. "Nick, I -" Her gaze moved beyond his shoulder. "I think the surveyors are here," she told him.


Nick turned to see a covered wagon nearing them, driving along the survey line. Wondering what she had been about to say got pushed to the back of his mind as he waved and greeted the two men as the wagon came to a stop.


"Hello," he said. "Are you the surveyors sent out by G&M?"


"Yes, sir," the older one said, getting down from the wagon. "I'm Mark Evans," he turned to the younger man. "And this is John Coley."


"Evans. Coley. I'm Nick Everett, and this is Jessica Donager."


"Miss Donager," Evans said, tipping his hat, which showed signs of being worn for quite a while. He looked at Nick again. "You're the Mr. Everett that we're supposed to report to before heading on down the survey line?"


"I am. How's it look so far?"


"On the money," Coley said. "The last crew seems like they knew what they were doing."


"Maybe when it came the survey," Jess observed.


"Beg your pardon, ma'am?" Evans asked, clearly confused.


"Nothing," Nick told him. "Can you take a break for lunch in town?" he asked. "Company's paying."


The two men exchanged a look before Evans answered. "Lead on, Mr. Everett."


"Make it Nick. Drive the wagon down this street, and you can't miss the cafe next to the hotel. We'll be right behind you. Just go in and tell Milly that you're my guests."


"You sure you wouldn't like to ride with us? We can make room -"


"We'll enjoy the walk, Mr. Coley," Jess assured him, stepping back as the two horse team pulling the wagon was set into motion. She watched the wagon move away toward town, and said, "They seem okay. What did you think?"


"I want to talk to them a few minutes over lunch before I pass judgement." He grabbed her hand when she would have started to follow the wagon.


"Jess -"


She looked up at him, and then at their hands. "Yes?"


"You were about to say something before you were interrupted -"


"It can wait," she told him, lifting her free hand to touch his cheek.


That slight touch caused Nick to hold his breath momentarily. "If you say so." He turned toward town at last, waiting for her to put her arm through his once more. When she did, he smiled and started up the street.




After lunch, during which it had seemed that everyone in town stopped by to meet the new survey crew, Jess and Nick waved the two men off once again at the end of town. "So?" she asked as the wagon moved away. "What did you think?"


"I think they'll do the job as quickly and professionally as possible, with none of the - problems encountered by their predecessors."


"They seemed to really like each other," Jess noted. "I didn't get a sense of any hidden anger."


"Likely because they're both certified surveyors," Nick agreed. "I requested that they not send another master and apprentice out." As they walked back into town, they saw Doc's buggy outside of his office. "It looks like Elizabeth is back in town."


"And I'm sure that Amanda will be ready to leave soon as well," she confirmed.


"And I need to get over to the saloon and relieve Lily so that she can get ready for supper with Kevin tonight."


"When is your next night off?" Jess asked.


"Sunday," he told her. When he and Lily had agreed to his buying into the saloon, they had agreed that both of them would work on Friday and Saturdays, since those were the busiest days. And that they would alternate the other days of the week.


"Oh. You'll be at the ranch for Sunday dinner, of course. And you can consider this an official invitation from me, personally, this time."


"Do you mean that you weren't involved in the previous invitations?" he asked, grinning. "I really thought you were just too shy to ask, so you put your brother and sisters up to doing it."


"Oh, yes, I'm terribly shy," was her response. "Seriously, I hope you'll be there."


"I will be," he assured her. "Didn't I hear one of the twins say something about this being the week that Reverend Lee and his wife and son will be there?"


"Yes, they will be. But I'm sure they won't mind your being there as well."


"There's Amanda now," he observed as the young woman met her twin on the board walk in front of the doctor's office.


"I'd better get the buggy from the livery stable," Jess said.


"Would you like me send them in that direction?" he asked.


"Thank you. Don't overdo with that arm, okay?"


"I'll only lift light cards," he promised, smiling.


"See that you do, sir. And do try to keep out of trouble."


They clasped hands before Jess turned toward the livery and Nick continued down the street toward her sisters.


"Hi, Nick!" Elizabeth called out, moving to join him. "Where's Jess?"


"She went to get the buggy," he told them.


Touching his sling, she said, "Doc told me what happened. Are you sure you're okay?"


"I'll be fine," he assured her, accepting her concerned hug. Amanda, as always, with more reserved, but he could see the relief in her eyes. "Did you enjoy your lunch with Mrs. Lee?"


"Of course. And don't try to charm me into telling you what we discussed. You'll find out along with everyone else."


"I would never try to *charm* you into anything, Miss Amanda," he assured her, bending closer. "But if you'd care to give me a little hint, I promise not to breathe a word to another living soul." His teasing brought a smile to her face. "That's better. Now, I have things to do, so you'd both best get down there before Jess leaves without you."


"Will we see you on Sunday?" Elizabeth wanted to know.


"You will indeed. I have been *personally* invited by none other than Jess herself." He gave a bow and turned to continue to the saloon, hearing the girls whispering excitedly as he moved away.




During Sunday's service, Reverend Lee announced that his son Andrew had surrendered to the call to become a preacher himself, and that he would be preaching his first sermon in two weeks, followed by a church social to be held in the empty lot not far from the church.


Over dinner at the ranch, the conversation focused on that topic. Rebecca Lee was clearly proud of her son's decision, but Andrew sighed and reminded her, "Mother, it wasn't *my* decision. It's God's."


"Of course, dear," she agreed. "Amanda and I have been working on special music for the occasion," she told them.




After dinner, while the others were talking, Jess and Nick slipped out of the house, back to the spot beside the corral, where they had had their first talk a month before.


"Amanda's almost as excited about this as Mrs. Lee is," Nick said.


"But she does a better job of hiding it," Jess agreed.


"You're aware, then, that she's - fond of young Andrew?"


"She says that she's in love with him. They've known each other all of their lives."


"You don't approve?"


"I'm not sure. I like Andrew. But - "


"You think that they're both too young."


"Maybe. When I was Amanda's age, I thought that I was in love with a young man that Pa had picked out for me. Tom's father owned a smaller ranch that Pa had his eyes on. Tom was Kevin's age. We'd known each other for all of our lives. His father raised him on his own - Mrs. Scott died of the same fever that took my mother. We were friends - and were just starting to realize that maybe what we felt wasn't really love when - the war started. Mr. Scott insisted that Tom should go and fight, that maybe it would help him to grow up. Tom was a gentle soul - he didn't really want to run a cattle ranch, but he couldn't make his father understand that." She sighed. "Mr. Scott wanted us to get married before he left Providence, but I told Pa that I didn't want to marry Tom - that we didn't love each other enough to get married. Pa finally convinced Mr. Scott that we should wait until Tom came home after the war. I think he thought that I'd change my mind about marriage by then. But Tom - never came home," she said slowly.


Nick pulled her close to him, holding her tightly. "And here I thought you'd never married because all the men around here were blind," he said softly.

"I had no idea -"


"No one talks about it," she told him. "I think most of them thought I was still in mourning for what might have been. But Pa had finally listened to me when I said that I wasn't in love with Tom. He was like another brother - nothing more. That's when he decided that I would go to college and become a lawyer."


"I knew that your father had asked Judge Maxwell about getting you into law school -"


"I was interested in the law - but all of that aside, what I'm trying to say is that I think that's when Pa gave up on my ever marrying anyone. My future was set, as far as he was concerned."


"I don't believe that."


"I can't cook, -"


"I don't want to marry you for your cooking," he told her.


"And as for sewing, I can manage buttons, and if I have to I can repair a small seam I can, but anything more is beyond me."


"Same for your sewing," he said.


"I'm not a very neat person. If it wasn't for Mariana, the house -"


"You don't *need* to cook, or sew, or clean -"


"Oh, but I can ride, and shoot, and rope and herd cattle -"


"And ride a wild horse," Nick added.


She looked up at him. "You heard about that?"


"Kevin mentioned it. Said you broke a bone."


She nodded, rubbing her left arm. "This one. I would have tried again, but by that time Pa had remarried, and Olivia would have locked me in my room for a month if I had."


"Jess - I love you because of you. Because of all those things, and the thousand more things that I don't know about. I don't care what's happened in the past. The future is the only thing that matters."


"Nick -" She pulled away to look up at him again. "I want you to know that I *do* care - maybe I'm even in love with you -"




She stopped his attempted embrace. "But I'm not - ready to get married. I hope that someday I will be, but right now -" she shook her head. "I don't think it's fair to you - expecting you to wait -"


"Jess, darling, I can wait as long as it takes. Even if it never happens, just being a small part of your life will be worth it. And I'm going to make you another promise: I'm not saying that I won't talk about marriage, but I won't ask you to marry me. When you're ready, all you have to do is say so, and I'll have you before a minister before you can catch your breath. Until then, just don't shut me out, okay?"


Her eyes searched his for what seemed like forever before she nodded. "Okay," she agreed.


"Oh, and don't expect me to stop telling you that I love you and that I will until I draw my last breath."


"I never expected that, Nick," she said. "You can kiss me if you'd like," she told him.


"Oh, I'd like," he replied, pulling her close to give her a proper kiss.


And for once, Jess didn't care who might be watching.


The End

Jess, Nick and the rest will return in the next installment of "The Donager Saga".