Episode 3


Three hundred head of beeves on the hoof created a huge cloud of dust as they were herded by a group of men on horseback. The Diamond D hands were all experienced and moved the herd easily across the land, each man doing his assigned job.


On the edge of the herd, two riders checked up to watch the scene. "You *have* done this kind of thing before, haven't you, Nick?" Kevin questioned as Nick took off his kerchief to wipe his brow.


"Sounds like you didn't believe me when I said that I had, friend. As you should know from your sister, being an attorney isn't always steady work. And sometimes it's hard to line up a poker game."


"I believed you - just didn't expect you to be so good at it."


"Being good at something and enjoying it are two entirely different things," Nick pointed out.


"Then why offer to help today?" Kevin asked.


"I thought it might be a good idea to get the future brother in law on my side," he said.


"And make me realize that you can be a help on the ranch," Kevin nodded. "Any movement on the marriage front?" he asked.


"Your sister is stubborn," Nick said.


"So is Lily."


"You know, my friend, it occurs to me that you and I are in the same wagon, heading toward the same cliff."


"So we are. And not a thing to be done about it."


Nick sat straighter in the saddle as a few cows broke away from the rest of the herd. "Better get to earning my pay, I guess."


"Pay?" Kevin questioned. "I thought you offered to help out of the goodness of your heart!" but he was laughing as he followed Nick's white stallion toward the cattle to steer them back toward the others.




When Nick entered the hotel after having supper at the ranch with Jess and her family, he was surprised to find a message from Lily waiting for him. "Need to see you as soon as you get back to town," her note read.


Brushing the trail dust off as best he could, Nick headed over to the saloon. As always, Leroy tried to waylay him into a game, but Nick put him off as he joined Lily at her table, where she had a bottle in front of her.


That was unusual in itself. Lily seldom drank more than one or two glasses of hard liquor while she was working - a glass of beer would last her almost all evening. But the bottle was nearing half empty, Nick noted, and she looked worried.


Sitting down, he waited for her to look at him. "Oh, Nick. What am I going to do?"


"Well, that depends on the problem," he told her. "Whatever it is, that -" he indicated the bottle and half filled glass, "-isn't the answer."


"I got a letter today - from Margaret."


"A letter from your sister isn't out of the ordinary," he observed, "so what was *in* the letter?"


"She's - she's dying." Margaret was Lily's older sister, a widow, whose husband had died during the war. It was after Lily's husband's death that she had returned to St. Louis and the two women had reconnected.


"I'm so sorry, Lily," he said. "I know how important she was to you." He suddenly realized what was going on. "What about -?"


"She's sending him *here*," she said. "What am I going to do?" she asked again.


"When is he supposed to arrive?" Nick asked.


"I'm not sure -"


"Where's the letter?" he asked. "May I see it?" Lily nodded and pulled it from a pocket in her dress, handing him the crumpled paper. Nick read it quickly. "According to the date she wrote this, it could be any day. You have to tell Kevin, Lily."


"How?" she wanted to know. "How can I explain - *this*?"


"I'll help - but you need to tell him about it yourself first. This has to come from you."


"He'll hate me."


"I doubt that."


"And what happens after that? I mean, this isn't anyplace to -"


"Look, why don't you go up to bed? I'll keep an eye on things here for the rest of the evening. You need to get some rest." He caught Cara's eye and waved her over. "Cara, Lily's not feeling well, can you help her up to her room and make sure she gets to bed?"


"Sure thing, Nick," the girl said as Nick helped Lily to her feet. Slipping an arm around the other woman, she led Lily toward the stairway and up the stairs.


Nick took the bottle back to Jake. "I'll leave this in your hands," he said. "How many had she had?"


"The one on the table would have been her fifth," the bartender told him. "Is she okay?"


"She will be. But she's liable to be a little under the weather tomorrow morning."


"Hey, Nick! How about that game now?" Leroy called out, and Nick grinned at Jake.


"Duty calls," he said before turning toward the table where Leroy and three other men were sitting.


"You must be ready to lose some money, Leroy," was his comment as he sat down and took out his wallet. "Let's play, gentlemen."


He glanced up as Cara came out of Lily's room and returned to the lower floor. He waved her over. "Is she settled?"


"Went right to sleep. I hope she's better tomorrow."


"I think she'll be okay," he told her. "Thank you."


"Anytime," the girl said with a smile that Nick returned before giving his full attention to the cards in his hands.




Lily was already sitting at her table when Nick entered the saloon the next morning. "Good morning," he said, seeing her wince slightly at the volume of his greeting. "Paying for having too much last night, I take it," he noted, going behind the bar to grab another cup and saucer to take to the table. Lifting the coffee pot, he refilled her cup, then filled his before sitting down. "Seeing things any more clearly this morning?" he asked.


"Some," was her reply. "I went over to the church earlier and talked to Reverend Lee about it."


"You told him?"


She nodded. "He said the same thing you did: that I have to tell Kevin the whole story."


"I knew he would," Nick told her. "So, shall I go get a buggy to take you out to the ranch?"


"No," she said. "No, I'd rather talk to him here. It's private."


Nick nodded. "Then I made the right decision," he told her.


"What decision?"


"When I rode out to take a note out for Jess, I left one for Kevin, too, telling him that you wanted to talk to him this morning."






Nick was standing on the boardwalk when he saw Kevin - and Jess - ride into town. Mentally girding himself for Jess' questions, he waited for them to tie up their horses. "Jess. I didn't expect to see you."


"Lily's my friend, too," she reminded him. "If there's something wrong -"


Kevin interrupted his sister. "Where is she, Nick?"


Nick nodded toward the saloon. "In there, waiting for you."


"Thanks," he said, turning in that direction, only to stop when Nick spoke again.


"Kevin, hear her out, okay?"


Kevin gave him a long look before nodding and continuing on his way.


"Hear her out about what?" Jess asked. "Nick, what's going on?"


"It's not my place to tell you, Jess," he told her. "Why don't we go to the cafe for a cup of coffee?" he suggested, taking her arm and turning her in that direction.




Lily was standing at the bar when Kevin entered the saloon. "Lily -" he said, moving to pull her into an embrace. Lily closed her eyes, enjoying - for what she was certain would be the last time - his love and concern for her.


"Kevin," she finally said, realizing that she couldn't put things off any longer. "I have to tell you something - and I'm not sure how you're going to react -"


"What is it?" he asked as she moved away from him.


"You remember that I told you how I ran away from my sister during the war - our parents were both dead and she had recently married -"


"I remember. That's when you met Glenn Taylor and decided to marry him."


Lily nodded. "He was on his way to Memphis to buy a casino there. My sister disapproved of my seeing him. Margaret was overly protective of me - had been since our parents' deaths. She said that if I chose to marry Glenn, she wanted nothing more to do with me. I was young, and rebellious, so I married Glenn and we left St. Louis." She sighed. "It was the last days of the war, and it wasn't easy, but Glenn bought his casino. He was a good poker player - not as good as Nick but he knew how to play - and win - most of the time."


"You've told me all of this, honey. What -"


She held up a hand. "There's more. After a year, I was starting to realize that I wasn't happy. I missed my sister. I didn't like Glenn being gone every night. That's when he suggested that I spend more time at the casino. It was *ours*, after all, and he thought I should learn how to run the place with him. I was still enough in love with him that I probably would have gotten past all of that, but then one night, in a regular game with Nick and three other men, Glenn accused one of the players of cheating."


"And was shot by the man," Kevin finished. "What else could there be?' he asked as she paced away from him.


Lily took a deep breath, turning to look at him. "After it happened, Nick was a Godsend. He took care of everything - arranged for the sale of the casino to another customer, and took me back to St. Louis." Another, deeper breath. "Right after Glenn was killed, I realized that I was -" She closed her eyes, clasping her hands tightly in front of her. Opening her eyes again, she finished, "That I was going to have a baby."


"A - baby?"


She nodded, unable to read his expression. "Yes. Margaret's husband had died a few months before we arrived in St. Louis. She took me in, and we reconciled our differences. She took care of me until the baby was born -until my son was born," she clarified.


"You have - a son," Kevin said, shaking his head. "Where is he?"


The sound of the twice weekly stagecoach arriving reached into the quiet building. "Just a moment," she said, moving toward the doors, opening one to look outside to the stage depot across the road.




Jess followed Nick out of the cafe as he stood watching the stage come to a stop. "Are you expecting someone on the stage?" she asked.


"Possibly," was his answer.


Across the street, a young woman and boy got off the stage. The boy - who looked to be around 7 or 8 - had dark hair and looked tired, Jess thought. "Nick?" she asked as he moved to cross the street toward the stagecoach. Sighing, Jess followed him again, noticing Lily come out of the saloon as well.


"Excuse me," the girl asked the driver as he got the luggage down, "Can you tell me where I can find Mrs. Taylor? Mrs. Lily Taylor?"


"Here I am," Lily said, crossing the street. She barely glanced at the girl, but focused on the boy.


He looked up at her, his blue eyes focusing on her with a coldness that sent a chill through Lily, stopping her as she would have moved closer.


"Benji," Lily said, close to tears at the first sight of her son in five years.


"Benjamin," the girl said, "don't you remember that I told you that we were coming to see your Mother?" The boy looked at Lily, still no sign of welcome on his face. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Taylor. He's just tired from the trip. I'm sure after he gets some rest and food, he'll be more talkative."


Lily finally looked at the girl for the first time. "I know you."


The girl smiled and nodded. "Cassandra Davenport," she said. "I started working for Mrs. Grayson right after Benjamin was born and stayed on to help take care of him after -"


"After I left," Lily nodded. "Margaret's letter said that you were bringing him out here. Thank you. Nick, - I'm not sure you remember Mr. Everett -" Lily began, but Cassandra smiled.


"Oh, yes, ma'am. I remember him. How are you, Mr. Everett?"


"I'm good," he told her, ignoring the look that Jess was giving him.


"Nick, could you take Miss Davenport -"


"Cassie, please."


"Cassie and Benjamin over to the hotel and see that they're settled -"


"Nonsense," Jess said, stepping forward, putting her arm through Nick's. "There's no reason for them to stay at the hotel when we have plenty of room at the ranch."


"Jess, I don't want to impose -" Lily began, but Jess ignored the interruption.


"Nick, why don't you go get a surrey from the livery stable?" Without a word, Nick turned and headed down the street, while Jess said, "And we'll go up onto the boardwalk out of the sun to wait." As they stepped up, she said, "I'm Jessica Donager, Cassie."


"Ma'am," Cassie said, clearly impressed by Jess' take charge attitude. Looking at Benjamin, she said, "It's not nearly as hot in the shade, is it, Benjamin?"


He lifted his shoulders. "Still hot," he said, as his eyes moved back to Lily with what she felt was a vaguely accusatory stare.


"I'll be right back, Benji," she said, hoping that somewhere in his dim memories of her he might remember her nickname for him. "I promise."


After a glance at Jess, she turned back to cross the street, ignoring the attention that the scene had drawn from other townspeople. No doubt within an hour, word would be all over Providence that Lily's son had just arrived in town.


Kevin was on the boardwalk in front of the saloon, having watched the scene in silence. Once back inside, he spoke. "You should have told me, Lily."


"I wanted to. But - before your father died, I didn't dare. It was bad enough that I'd been married to a gambler, can you imagine what he'd have said if he'd known that I left my not quite two year old son with my sister to come out here?"


"Why did you leave him?" Kevin asked.


"Margaret expected me to be the perfect lady - something that I wasn't cut out for. She planned every moment, every day. I wanted more. For me *and* for Benji. I knew that if I bought this place, I couldn't raise him here, but I would have tried - until Margaret offered a compromise: leave Benji with her until I was in a position to take care of him properly. I love him, and leaving that little boy was one of the hardest things I've ever done in my life, Kevin. Then I met you, and losing you wasn't something I wanted to risk, either."


"But you did plan to send for him eventually," he said. It wasn't a question.


"Of course I did. But when he was older, and able to understand the reasons. Then I got a letter from Margaret yesterday telling me that she was - ill - dying-." She drew a deep breath to try and stop the tears from falling as she suddenly realized that her sister was really gone. It didn't work, and before she knew it, Kevin had closed the distance between them and was holding her as she cried.




Kevin was still holding her when Nick entered the saloon. "They're ready to go," he announced. "Jess thought it might be a good idea for you to go, too, Lily."


Sniffling, she pulled back from Kevin, nodding. "Thank you, Nick." She looked up at Kevin. "I -"


"We'll talk more later," he promised, taking a kerchief out of his pocket and wiping her face gently. "Go take care of your son right now."


She took the handkerchief and nodded again. As she passed Nick, who hadn't moved, she said, "Aren't you coming?"


"I told Jess that I'd be along later - with Kevin," he said. "They're waiting outside."


As soon as she left the building, Kevin ran a shaky hand through his hair. "I need a drink."


Nick moved to the bar, taking out two glasses and a bottle. "I'll join you. For one drink. And then I'm going to tell you something that I'm sure Lily didn't tell you."


"Seems like there are a lot of things that Lily didn't tell me," Kevin muttered, staring at the still full glass in his hands. "Did she really think that I'd be upset that she had a son?"


"I think she was more concerned about your reaction to the fact that she *left* her son in St. Louis to come out here and buy a saloon," Nick said.


"She said he was almost two when she left," Kevin recalled. "How would you know about any of this? You weren't still in St. Louis -"


"No, I left not too long after Benjamin was born. I helped Lily set up a trust account for him with half of the money she'd gotten for the place that she and Glenn owned. I added some of my own money to it, since I was his godfather," he said with a sideways grin. "No, I was in the area about a year ago and stopped in to see how Lily and the boy were doing. Her sister informed me that Lily had 'abandoned' her son and gone out West, to some 'God forsaken place in the New Mexico Territory', according to her. Just before I came here, one of Lily's letters finally found me in Denver, telling me that Margaret had understood her decision to go West, and had offered to take care of Benjamin until she could send for him. I think Margaret never intended to let Benjamin come out here. I'm sure she hoped that he would be older before Lily sent for him, and that he would refuse to leave St. Louis."


"Do you really believe that?"


"You didn't know Margaret Grayson," Nick said. "I believe it."


"You're saying that Lily doesn't know any of this?"


"If she does, she doesn't want to admit it."




"Because she's trying to protect Margaret. After their parents died, Margaret took care of Lily. Margaret married and lost her husband - and their son - to a fever. I think she saw Benjamin as a replacement for that child, and was determined to make that happen."


"You're just guessing -"


"Maybe. But I think Miss Cassie Davenport will be a big help in proving it. She was there, in that house every day." He paused. "You gonna drink that whiskey or just stare it to death?"


Kevin sighed. "I don't think it will help." He stood up and turned toward the doors.


"Where you going?"


"To talk to Reverend Lee," Kevin explained.


"I'll be ready to leave town when you get back."


"You don't have to go with me -"


"I told Jess that I would. I think she's worried about you as much as she about Lily and Benjamin. And I'm not going to go against anything your sister said."


"I don't blame you. Be right back," he said, opening the door and leaving the saloon.


Nick found a piece of paper and wrote Jake a note, asking him to run things until he got back later that day. One of the doors upstairs opened, and he looked up to see Cara appear on the landing.


"What's going on?" she asked.


"I'll tell you later," he said. "Can you make sure Jake gets this note?"


"Sure - Nick?" He stopped halfway to the door. "Is that little boy really Lily's son?" she asked, having obviously seen Benjamin's arrival from the window of her room.


"He is. And if you consider Lily to be a friend, you won't spread any gossip about her or the boy until we have time to explain, okay?"


"Okay," she nodded. "Lily's been a good boss. Even before you came into the business," she told him. "At least now I know why she was so upset last night."


Nick nodded. "I'll be back later." He turned and left the saloon, seeing Kevin's horse tied to the rail. Wanting to make sure his friend didn't take it into his head to go home alone, Nick untied it and led it down the street to the livery stable, where he set about saddling Spirit for the ride out to the Diamond D.




Lily glanced back to the second seat of the covered surrey, where Benjamin was looking around - until he saw her watching him, then he leaned against Cassie's shoulder and closed his eyes.


Turning around again, she said quietly, "You don't have to do this, you know."


"Yes, I do," Jess said. "For one thing, you're my friend. My *best* friend." She glanced away from the team to send Lily a look that said there would be more about that later. "Second - there's no reason why that little boy should have to stay in the hotel - no matter how nice a place it is - when there's more than enough room at the house. Besides, he'll love living out here."


"What about -" she paused before continuing, "- the rest of the family?"


"Amanda and Elizabeth will fall in love with him on sight," Jess assured her. "But that's not what you meant, is it?"


"I don't expect that he'll forgive me for not telling him -"


"Well, I have, so I'm sure he will as well."


"But -"


"How much farther is it to your ranch, Miss Donager?" Cassie asked, breaking into their conversation.


Jess grinned. "Call me, Jess. I'm only Miss Donager in court. We've been *on* the ranch since right after we left town," she answered.


"Wow," Benjamin said, his first real words since they had set out. "You own all of this?"


"My family owns it," she confirmed. "But we should be at the ranch compound shortly. The turn off is just up ahead."


"I can't imagine owning this much land," Cassie said. "Everything is so different than it is in St. Louis. Things are so close together there."


"I know. I went to law school in St. Louis," Jess told the girl. "I couldn't wait to get back out here and be able to breathe." She turned the carriage into a road with a sign over it that read "Donager Ranch" with the brand of D inside of a Diamond on either side. A moment later, the house and outbuildings came into view, and Jess smiled again as she heard Cassie's gasp at the sight of the two story house with round columns supporting the roof over the porch..


Driving the carriage to the front steps, Jess jumped down, leaving Lily to get out on her own as Pedro came from the direction of the barn. Benjamin looked around at the house and other buildings, then at Pedro, who was standing close to the carriage. "Benjamin, this is Pedro Lopez. Is it okay if he helps you out of the carriage?" Jess asked.


After a moment, he nodded and let the man lift him to the ground. "Thank you," he said, moving close to Cassie as he looked around again.


"Pedro, this is Miss Cassie Davenport. Can you please bring those cases into the house and take them upstairs? Mariana will show you which rooms in a few minutes."


"Yes, Miss Jess," he said, smiling again at the boy before moving to unfasten the cases in the back of the carriage.


Mariana opened the door as they moved up onto the porch. "Hello, Miss Lily," she said, watching as Cassie and Benjamin entered the house.


"Mariana Lopez, this is Miss Cassie Davenport, and Master Benjamin Taylor. Cassie, Benjamin, Mariana is our cook, housekeeper and friend. If there's anything you need while you're here, all you have to do is ask."


The housekeeper continued to smile, but she looked at Jess, uncertain. "Taylor?"


"He's my son, Mariana," Lily explained, clearly worried about the woman's reaction to the news.


But Mariana smiled even wider. "He looks tired, poor child."


"He is," Cassie confirmed. "It's been a long trip, and we left early this morning -"


"Mariana, I think the rooms at the back of the house - the ones that overlook the barn? Next to the room Miss Lily uses when she stays the night," Jess explained. Occasionally, due to weather issues, usually, a supper invitation would require Lily to spend the night at the ranch, so she had a room that was kept ready for her use.


They turned, but stopped as they saw Amanda and Elizabeth standing on the stairs, a look of surprise on their faces. "Did you say -?"


"That he's your son?" Elizabeth finished.


Benjamin's eyes grew as wide as saucers as he stared at the the two young women, and Jess immediately realized the reason: he'd never seen identical twins before. She glanced at Cassie, and saw that she was already recovering from her own surprise.


The twins continued down the stairs, and Jess made the introductions. "You look alike," Benjamin said at last.


"We're twins," Amanda told him, kneeling so that she was at his level. "But I'm the oldest. It's a pleasure to meet you, Benjamin," she said, holding out her hand. He hesitated for a moment before taking it, only to use his left hand to smother a yawn..


"He's sleepy," Elizabeth observed, touching his cheek.


Jess held out her hand toward him. "Well, I have the solution for that. Benjamin?" There was no hesitation as he took her hand and allowed her to lead him to the stairs, with everyone else behind them. She stopped, turning to her sisters. "Amanda, Elizabeth, why don't you stay down here and let Pedro know where to bring the luggage when he gets into the house? You'll have a chance to talk to Benjamin once he's had some rest. He's going to be staying for awhile." She ended Lily's attempt to argue about that statement with, "Keep it up and I'll suggest that *you* stay downstairs as well." With that, she continued up the stairs with Lily and Mariana close behind.


"But he's *my* son," Lily pointed out as Jess stopped at a door that Mariana, moving ahead of them, had opened.


"Thank you, Mariana."


"And you will be in the next room that way," Mariana told Cassie, who nodded and followed Jess, Benjamin and Lily into his room.


"Turn down the bed, please, Lily," Jess said, before turning to Benjamin. "I'll take your jacket," she offered, waiting for him to shrug it off. "Thank you," she said, taking it and handing it to Cassie. "Now your shoes, please." He nodded, clearly getting more tired by the minute, so Jess knelt and deftly removed his shoes, placing them beside the bed. He lay down, and Jess lifted the covers over him. He snuggled into the cool sheets and was fully asleep in an instant.


Lily slowly reached out to smooth his dark hair, half afraid that he would suddenly wake up and look at her as he had before. "He's exhausted," she said when he didn't stir.


"I'll stay with him for a little while, Mrs. Taylor," Cassie offered, "in case he wakes up. It's a strange room, and it might be easier for him if there's a familiar face here."


Lily nodded. "Thank you. And it's Lily. I haven't been Mrs. Taylor for a long time."


"Give him some time," Cassie said. "He's - confused right now. Once he realizes that you're not going away again, he'll be himself."


"I hope you're right," Lily said sadly, wiping a tear from her cheek before she moved toward the door.


"I'll have Mariana bring some water so that you can freshen up once Pedro brings your cases upstairs," Jess told the young woman before pointing toward another door in the room. "That door leads into your room."


"Thank you."




"He's *adorable*!" Elizabeth was gushing as Jess followed Lily into the parlor.


"That dark hair and those blue eyes -" Amanda sighed. "He looks like you."


"His father was dark haired with blue eyes, too," Lily told them, clearly still nervous. "Benjamin has his chin."


"How old is he? Where has he been living -?"


Jess cut Elizabeth's questions short. "Girls, I think Lily still needs some time to -"


"It's okay, Jess," Lily said. "He's seven - almost eight. I left him with my sister in St. Louis until he was older and I was in a position to take care of him." She had taken Kevin's kerchief from her pocket and was holding it so tightly that Jess was afraid it was about to tear.


"Elizabeth, Amanda, is there something else you can do right now? I'd like to talk to Lily."


Amanda pulled her sister toward the door. "Let's go, Elizabeth. The adults want to talk without us."


"Amanda," Jess said, and both girls stopped to look at her. "Try to understand."


"I think we do, Jess," she replied. "But we're *not* little girls anymore."


"No, we're not," Elizabeth agreed.


"Oh, I know. But right now, things are in a bit an uproar. Once things are more - settled, we'll have a family meeting and discuss it, okay?"


Both girls smiled and left the room. Lily sighed. "I wish I could do that - I guess it's your legal training."


"Possibly. But I did it before I went away to school, too. Pa said I got it from him."


"Your father," Lily said, looking up at the portrait of John Donager over the fireplace. "I can just imagine what he would have to say about all of this."


"He might have surprised you," Jess said. "You have to remember that the twins' mother was as much a mother to me and Kevin as our own. She accepted us and loved us."


"What if she had had a child from a prior marriage?" Lily questioned. "Do you think he would have been just as accepting?"


"I think he would have. And I think his son will be, too, if given the chance."


The front door opened and closed, followed by the sound of boot heels on the wooden floor of the entryway.


"Jess?" Kevin's voice called out as he and Nick entered the room. Seeing Lily, he stopped, looking at her. "Where's Benjamin?" he asked.


"Upstairs," Lily told him. "He was exhausted. Cassie's with him -"


"Jess," Nick said, "Can I talk to you outside for a minute?"


"You don't have to go outside," Lily told them, but she was still watching Kevin's face. "Are you still angry with me?" she asked in a shaky voice.


"I was never angry with you," he told her. "Surprised, yes. But angry?" He put her hands on her shoulders, shaking his head. "I love you."


A soft voice spoke. "Excuse me - Mrs. -Miss Lily?"


All four turned to see Cassie standing in the doorway, holding a large envelope. "Cassie." She saw Cassie's glance in Kevin's direction. "Kevin, this is Cassie Davenport. Cassie, Kevin Donager."


Cassie nodded, looking from Kevin to Jess. "Then you're -"


"He's my brother," Jess confirmed. "Is everything ok?" she asked.


"Oh, yes. Benjamin is still asleep. Miss Amanda - or possibly Miss Elizabeth - was in the hallway when I came out and offered to sit with him until I go back upstairs." She held the envelope out to Lily. "These were in one of my cases. Mrs. Grayson sent them with me," she explained. "There's a bank draft for the money that was still in the trust that Mr. Everett set up for Benjamin, and a copy of her will - and a letter addressed to you from her."


Lily took the envelope. "Thank you."


"I thought you should have it sooner rather than later," Cassie explained. "I mean, such important papers - I didn't want to accidentally lose then." She looked around. "Well, I'm going back up and rest until Benjamin wakes up. It was nice to meet you, Mr. Donager," she said before leaving the room.

Lily held the envelope out in Nick or Jess direction. "One of you probably needs to look at this," she said.


Jess waved in Nick's direction. "You can do it -"


Nick opened the envelope and removed a sheaf of papers and smaller envelopes. "Here's the bank draft she mentioned - That's surprising."


"What?" Kevin asked.


"I'm not sure she touched any of the trust in the last five years." Jess took the draft and her eyes widened slightly at the amount it showed.


"Here's the will -" he looked the document over. "She left half of *her* estate to Benjamin. A quarter goes to you, Lily, and the other quarter goes to a list of charities in St. Louis."


Lily nodded as he opened one of the envelopes. "Margaret was known for her charity work," she told them. "It was important to her."


"Her attorney says that once the house and other real estate is sold, he'll forward the proceeds to whatever bank you tell him to send it to. Jess or I can handle that, if you'd like."


"Thank you."


Looking at another envelope, he held it out to her. "This one has your name on it. I'm sure it's from Margaret." Nick glanced at Kevin as she took it, and Kevin put an arm around her shoulders as Lily held the envelope close to her.


"I'll read it later," she said.


"Do you have time for some coffee, Nick?" Jess asked.


"I don't have to be back in town until later," he said. "I left a note for Jake to open for the day and keep an eye on things until I get back. It won't be the first time he's done it."


"So that's a 'yes', then," Jess said. "Let me go tell Mariana. I'll be right back."




Jess walked Nick out of the house as he was leaving for town. "Are you sure you can't stay until after supper?" she asked.


"I think it might be wise for me to be in town in case there are questions about what happened today," he told her. "Jake and the girls need to hear the truth before we get too busy and they have a chance to spread any rumors."


"I'd like to think that there wouldn't be any rumors," Jess sighed. "But even in Providence there are a few people who might not be able to resist the temptation."


He looked toward the house. "I'll be out tomorrow morning - but until Benjamin is fully settled in here, I'm going to be working every night."


"I thought you might. I'd still like to hear the full story - All I've gotten is bits and pieces."


"How about a picnic tomorrow and I'll tell you what I know?" he suggested.


"I think that can be arranged," she replied, placing her hands on his chest as he lifted her chin.


"You always amaze me, you know that?"


"How this time?"


"The way you handled all of this today. That 'take charge' attitude just gives me one more reason to love you."


"Most men would find that off-putting," she pointed out.


He shook his head. "Not me. I like a woman who knows what she wants and goes after it."


"Just *like*?" she questioned, her eyes moving to his lips as they moved nearer.


"Love," he corrected as his lips covered hers. After the kiss ended, with a second, shorter one to follow, Nick untied his horse. "I'll see you tomorrow morning."


She smiled and waved, watching as the white horse disappeared down the road before she turned back to the house.




When Jess and Nick left the house, Lily sat with her coffee, aware that Kevin was watching her. Finally, she sat forward and put her cup on the table. "Please say something."


"What do you want me to say?" he asked.


"I don't know." She stood and walked over to a window and looked outside. "I'm just so - everything's all twisted up. It's like a dream - I can't believe that Benjamin is finally here - I keep thinking I'll wake up and -"


"He'll still be in St. Louis with your sister," Kevin finished, moving to stand behind her, his hands on her shoulders. "Are you glad he's here?"


"Of course I am. I just hope - It's been over five years since he's seen me, Kevin. He acts like he - like he hates me. Not that I blame him. He was so little when I left." She turned to look at him. "What if - What if he never accepts me? Forgives me?"


"He will. It might take a little while - but one day he'll understand."


She gave him a small smile. "So in other words - I need to be patient?"


"Something like that," he said, "Until that day, just tell him you love him as often as you can, spend as much time with him as you can. He'll come around."


"I don't deserve you," she said to him, smiling up at him.


"I've heard that before," he told her. "But you're wrong. And is it too soon for me to point out that your last excuse to say 'no' to me is now gone?"


"Kevin, I -"


He sighed. "I love you, Lily," he said, pulling her into his arms as the front door opened. They both sighed. "That's a problem with sharing a house with so many others," he said into her ear. "Always interruptions."




Kevin convinced Lily to go upstairs and get some rest before supper. "You're exhausted and don't realize it," he told her, "considering everything that's happened-."


"I suppose that I could lay down for awhile," she agreed. "But I don't usually sleep during the day -"


"You're going to this afternoon," he insisted, leading her toward the stairs.


"What if Benjamin wakes up and thinks that I've gone away again?"


"We'll tell him you're resting."


"I'm not an invalid, Kevin." Lily insisted as they approached her room.


The door to Benjamin's room opened, and Cassie appeared. "Are you okay, Miss Lily?" she wanted to know, obviously concerned.


"She just needs to rest for a few minutes," Kevin explained.


"That's understandable," Cassie nodded. "Benjamin's still sleeping. I took a short nap. Would you like some help?" she asked Lily.


"Thank you, Cassie, but I think I can manage."


"I think that would be a good idea, Cassie," Kevin said firmly. "Just to make sure she actually gets into bed and rests instead of pacing around fretting."


Lily glared at him for a moment, before asking, "What about Benji? If he wakes up alone -"


"If it's all right, I can go in there and sit with him until Cassie comes back," he told her.


"Of course, sir," Cassie assured him.


Kevin gave Lily a quick kiss before she went into her room. "Get some rest."




Nick wasn't surprised to find more business than usual in the saloon when he entered. Several of the girls gathered around him, asking questions, but he waved them back to work and went to join Jake behind the bar. "I suppose you've heard what's happened?" he asked the bartender.


"It's all over town," Jake answered. "So Lily has a little boy that she left in St. Louis when she came here?"


"She has a son who was staying with her sister in St. Louis until she felt the time was right to send for him to join her," Nick clarified. "Her sister just died and sent the boy here to his Mother."


Jake nodded. "Sorry. I figured Lily wouldn't have abandoned a kid. During church socials, she helps take care of them."


"Just make sure if you hear something that doesn't sound right, ask me about it before spreading it around."




"I'll explain things to the girls tonight after we close."


"I suppose she'll be staying out at the DiamondD for awhile?"


"Until Benjamin is settled and she feels comfortable enough to leave him, at least."


"Gonna make it tough on you, having to work every day. And tomorrow's Friday."


"We'll manage," Nick told him. "It just means I might have to forego playing so much poker and pay more attention to business."


"I don't think Leroy will complain about that," Jake said.


"Yeah," Nick agreed, "but I might."




Kevin was standing at the window, looking out over the yard, when he heard a noise behind him.


"Where -?" Kevin turned around to see Benjamin sitting up in bed, staring at him. "Who are you?"


"Kevin Donager," he replied.


"Donager. You're -"


"I"m Jess' brother."


"And the twins," the boy said, and Kevin grinned, not surprised that his sisters had left an indelible impression. "How do you tell them apart?"


"Lots of times - I can't," Kevin admitted.


Frowning, Benjamin looked around the room. "Where is Cassie?"


"She's busy taking care of something. She'll be right back," he assured the boy, who sat up on the edge of the bed, still watching him. Kevin saw the blue gaze move to inspect him, down to the boots he was wearing.


"Are you a cowboy?"


"I guess you could say that," he nodded. "Do you know how to ride a horse?"


"No. My aunt always said she was going to find someone to teach me, but she never did." He took a deep breath. "She never let me do anything."


"Well, if you'd like, I'll teach you how to ride."


"You will?" The sound of a dog barking came through the open window, and Benjamin jumped out of the bed and ran over to the window, looking outside. "You have a dog?"


"We do. Her name is Daisy." A yellow mongrel ran from the barn toward the house and back, wagging her tail as she greeted some of the hands returning from work. "See? There she is."


The door opened, and Cassie entered the room. "You're awake!" she said, joining them.


"They have a dog, Cassie!" he told her pointing at the dog. Looking at Kevin, he asked, "Can I meet her?"


"May I -" Cassie corrected him.


"May I meet her?" he asked. "Please?"


"Of course."


Benjamin rushed back over to the bed and grabbed his shoes, but Cassie stopped him. "Wait a minute. You need to wash up and change clothes before going anywhere, young man."


"But -" he said, obviously disappointed.


Kevin laughed. "Don't worry, buddy. Daisy will be there whenever you're ready. She's not going anywhere. So why don't you do as Cassie says, and I'll wait for you downstairs."


"Okay," he agreed, unbuttoning the shirt he was wearing. "I'll see you in a minute."




Watching Benjamin look around the entryway as he and Cassie came downstairs, Kevin met them at the bottom to say, "Your Mother's upstairs, resting," he explained.


"I didn't ask," Benjamin said, and Kevin almost flinched at the coolness in the boy's voice. "You said I could meet the dog."


"Right this way," Kevin said, leading them out of the house and around to the barn area. "Daisy!" he called out. "You call her," he suggested.


"Daisy!" Benjamin called, grinning from ear to ear as the dog appeared from beside the barn and ran toward them. Kevin dropped down, catching the dog and petting her. She finally turned her attention to Benjamin, who laughed and ran his hands along the yellow fur. "She likes me!" he declared.


Seeing her tail wagging, Kevin nodded and laughed. "I think you're right." He stood up, glancing toward the house. There was movement in the window of Lily's room, and he saw her standing there, watching her son pet the dog. Kevin looked around and found a stick. "Watch this," he told the boy, showing the stick to Daisy before tossing it away. "Go get it, Daisy. Get the stick." Daisy turned and ran to retrieve the stick before turning and coming back. "Say 'Good girl, Daisy' and take the stick from her," he said to Benjamin.


"Good girl, Daisy," he repeated, taking the stick.


"Now toss it again." Kevin watched as the boy threw the stick. Daisy chased it and brought it back. "She'll keep doing it as long as you keep throwing it," he explained, moving away slightly to where Cassie was standing.


"He wanted a dog, but Mrs. Grayson didn't like them," she explained. "I think you've made a friend."


"I hope so." They watched the boy and dog in silence for a minute. "Do you ride?"


"No. I never learned. I know that Benjamin wanted to learn -"


"But Mrs. Grayson refused," he finished. "So he told me. I'm going to teach him. If you'd like, my sister or I can teach you as well."


"Let me think about it," she said as Lily appeared from the direction of the house, watching her son with the dog. "I heard him laughing," she said.


Benjamin must have heard her voice, because he stopped mid-throw, causing Daisy to stop as well and look from him to where the stick *should* have gone, and back to him. "May I visit the barn and see the horses, please?" he asked, barely looking at his mother.


"Benji," Lily said, reaching out to him.


"My name is Benjamin," he replied.


"I used to call you Benji," she told him. "Don't you remember?"


"No," was his response. Turning away, he threw the stick again, and this time ran after the dog, meeting Daisy midway, putting some distance between himself and Lily.


Kevin put an arm around Lily, but she shook her head. "Take him out to see the horses," she said.


"I'll stay with her," Cassie offered.


Kevin nodded and moved away to join Benjamin, leaving the two women on the path. "Com'on, Benjamin," he called. "Let's go see the horses."


Lily watched them go, sighing heavily. "He hates me."


"Miss Lily -" Cassie said, pausing before continuing. "Did you have a chance to read the letter that I gave you?"


"From my sister?" Lily shook her head. "No. Why?"


"I wasn't sure if I should tell you - Is there someplace we can go and talk?"


"Back into the house, I suppose," Lily suggested, watching as Kevin and Benjamin entered the barn.




"You like her, don't you?" Benjamin asked as they approached one of the stalls.


"Your Mother? Yes. I'm in love with her," he answered. "I want to marry her."


The boy looked at him with disbelief. "But - she's a - she works in a saloon!"


"Who told you that?" Kevin asked.


Benjamin kicked at the dirt and straw under his feet. "I - I heard Aunt Margaret talking about it with someone," he admitted. He gave Kevin a challenging look. "But it's true, isn't it?"


"She *owns* a saloon," Kevin clarified. "It's a business, just like any other. She has nothing to be ashamed of."


Benjamin turned and looked at the horse that was closest to them, clearly unwilling to continue the conversation. "Wow." He lifted a hand, then stopped and looked at Kevin. "Will he bite?"


"Some will. But I think you're safe enough with Midnight. He's Jess' horse. You'll have to get her to show you the tricks that she's taught him to do."


"Tricks? Really?"


Kevin stepped away to grab a carrot from a bin close by and held it out to Benjamin. "He likes carrots."




Jess was coming out of the study as Lily and Cassie entered the house. "Did I hear Benjamin laughing a few minutes ago?" she asked.


"Kevin was introducing him to Daisy," Lily said. She was clearly upset, and Jess moved closer.


"What's wrong?"


"He hates me," Lily told her. "Not Kevin. Benji. He'll never forgive me," she insisted.


"Miss Lily," Cassie said, "if you would just let me explain to you -"


"Why don't you go into the study?" Jess suggested. "It's more private -"


"It might be a good idea for you to hear this as well, Miss Jess," Cassie suggested. "Unless you'd rather she not," she told Lily.


When Lily didn't answer, Jess turned back toward the study and ushered the other two women inside, closing the door behind the three of them. She remained at the door as Cassie spoke again.


"I really hoped that you would have read the letter from Mrs. Grayson before told you this. I don't know if she admits any of it, but I would hope -"


"Admits what?" Lily questioned.


"When you left St. Louis, it broke my heart how Benjamin cried every night for his Mama," she said.


Jess winced at the pain on Lily's face as her friend spun around to stare out of a window. "I told him that you loved him and that you'd be back for him some day - until one day Mrs. Grayson heard me telling him that. She called me into her sitting room and informed me that I was never to mention you to him again. That as far as she was concerned, Benjamin was *her* son, and you were no longer a part of his life."


Lily whirled back around, a look of shock on her face. "She didn't!"


Cassie stood her ground. "I'm sorry, ma'am, but she did. In fact, I heard her tell him more than once that his mother hadn't loved him and had abandoned him to her care."


Lily shook her head in silent denial. "I don't believe that Margaret would do that," she insisted at last. "She said that she understood my wanting to come West, to establish a life for myself and Benji away from St. Louis."


"But it was her idea that you leave him with her instead of bringing him with you," Cassie reminded her.


"I sent him presents on every birthday and at Christmas. I wrote him letters," Lily said. "Long letters, telling him about Providence and Kevin, and Jess and -"


"I know," Cassie said. "She told him that the gifts were from her - or donated them to one of her charities. As for the letters, I saw one of them. She burned that one. I'm sorry. I know this is a shock -"


"A shock?" Lily repeated. "The idea that Margaret would have done all of the things you're accusing her of doing -"


"Why should she lie, Lily?" Jess asked, finally speaking.


"It's all the truth, Miss Lily," Cassie said. "I wanted you to understand why Benjamin is acting the way he is. Right now, he probably *does* hate you. But if you're willing to give him some time - time to get to know you, to see how much you want him and love him, he'll come around. I'm sure of it. Somewhere inside of him, he's still that little boy who cried for his Mama."


That sent Lily back to the window, her fingers tightly grasping the heavy curtain.


Jess stepped forward. "Cassie, do you have any plans for your future?"


Cassie shrugged. "I'd planned to go on to San Francisco. I have a cousin there who said she could get me a job as a maid in one of the fancy homes there. Mrs. Grayson settled enough money on me that I don't have to be in a hurry to find another situation."


"Would you be willing to stay on here, at the ranch?"


"I've never worked on a ranch, Miss Jess -"


"I was thinking along the lines of your taking care of Benjamin as you've been doing for the last five years - with Lily's approval, of course -"


"I'm sure Benjamin would appreciate you being here," Lily agreed without turning around.


"The problem is that he's not a baby now," Cassie told them. "Beyond helping him with lessons and making sure he doesn't get into trouble, there's not much 'taking care of' that needs to be done."


"Very well, then, Mariana could use some help around the house on occasion," Jess said. "Would you be willing to -"


"I think I would be. This is a grand house - I doubt I'd find anything like it in San Francisco."


Jess smiled. "I'm not sure about that, but I think we have a deal."


"If you'll agree that my payment for the now will be room and board. As I said, I have funds."


Holding out her hand, Jess nodded. "It's a deal."


After shaking Jess' hand, Cassie looked at Lily. "Miss Lily, read the letter. I really hope that she admitted to the things I've told you. After all, by the time she wrote it, she knew that everything she hoped for wasn't going to happen. And if you want to talk, -"


"Thank you, Cassie," Lily said.


Cassie smiled tightly at Jess before leaving the study. Jess stood watching Lily for a long moment. "Talk to me, Lily," she said.


"I don't know what to say. For Margaret to have done things she claims - I knew she had problems with having lost her son, but for her to try and steal mine - It's unconscionable. The Margaret that I thought I knew - could have I have so wrong about my own sister?"


"Where is that letter?" Jess asked her.


"Upstairs in my room. It was in my pocket when I was trying to go to sleep. I took it out and put it on the nightstand."


"I think that you should go upstairs and read it now."


Lily nodded. "I suppose you're right," she replied.




Lily picked up the letter that bore her sister's neat hand. Going to the window, she watched as Kevin and Benjamin came out of the barn, with Daisy at the boy's side, and go to the corral to look at the horses there. Taking a deep breath, she broke the wax seal on the envelope and removed the paper inside, unfolding it. The date indicated that it had been written just a few days before Margaret's death.


"Dear Lily,

If you're reading this, it means that I'm gone, and that Cassie and Benjamin have joined you. I've little doubt that the girl will tell you about my actions regarding your son - most likely to explain why he appears to have little use for his mother.

Whatever she has told you - it is likely the truth. From the moment he was born, slightly more than a year after the death of my Daniel and his father, I schemed and plotted to convince you to leave St. Louis and to leave the boy with me. As soon as you left on your journey West, I began my campaign to make Benjamin forget about you - and if that wasn't possible, to convince him that you simply abandoned him to go back to your life working in saloons, just on the off chance that you might decide at some point to attempt to reclaim the child.

I admit to having burned the letters you sent to him - I would have kept them, but I wanted no chance of their falling into his hands at some later date. The gifts you sent were from me. He never knew the difference.

Even if Cassie hasn't told you any of this, I've no doubt that if your friend Nicholas Everett should find you, he'll tell you what he found when he came to see Benjamin a year ago. I informed him at the time that I had already spoken to my attorney about gaining full custody of the child."


Lily sat down in a chair next to the fireplace, stunned that Nick had known about this, and had said nothing. Of course, she had rebuffed all of his attempts to talk about Benjamin - because of her own guilt at having left him in St. Louis to begin with. But she *was* going to have a talk with him about it when she saw him again.


"I cannot honestly say that I'm sorry for what I did - but I know it was wrong of me. Finding out that I'm dying has made me face that fact. I haven't found the courage to tell Benjamin the truth. I suppose I couldn't face his anger and scorn in my final days on this earth. I do know that he's an intelligent young man who will eventually see the truth of your love for him once you're together.

I know that I can't expect you to forgive me, but I pray that God will.

Your Sister,


Lily wasn't sure how long she sat there until there was a soft knock on her door. Quickly attempting to wipe away the tears on her cheeks, she called out, "Who is it?"


"Kevin," came the answer.


"Come in," she called back, not moving. "Where's -?" she began as he entered the room.


"Downstairs with Jess. He was hungry, so she was going to get him some cookies and milk." He knelt beside her chair, taking her free hand in his. "She told me that you were up here reading your sister's letter."


Lily held it out to him. "Here. You can read it."


He took the paper. "You're sure?" he asked, and when she nodded, he quickly scanned the page, feeling his jaw tightening with each word he read. "Your sister -"


"Was a real piece of work, wasn't she? She admits to trying to steal my son and turn him against me, but doesn't apologize for it, and then expects me to forgive her anyway. When Cassie told me about all of this -"


"When did she do that?"


"After we came back into the house," she explained, telling him about the conversation in the study with Jess.


He wasn't surprised that Jess had offered Cassie a job, they had discussed more than once that Mariana really needed some help on a daily basis. He just hoped that Mariana agreed with them. But right now, his main concern was for Lily. "I really think that Cassie's right - with time, Benjamin will realize how much you love him."


"I pray you're right, Kevin," she sighed.




As the family sat down to supper, Amanda and Elizabeth kept the conversation going, asking Benjamin about his 'meeting' Daisy and the horses and some of the hands. He answered their questions while trying his best to ignore the woman sitting to his left.


When Mariana entered with a platter of fried chicken, his eyes widened. "Chicken!" he said.


"Never fails," Mariana said, laughing. "I've never seen a boy yet who didn't love fried chicken."


"It's my favorite!" he declared, looking at the other dishes that she brought in. "And mashed potatoes and gravy - and carrots? Yum!"


When he would have grabbed for a chicken leg, Kevin spoke up. "Whoa, there, buddy. Have to bless the food first." The family joined hands, all except for Benjamin, who hesitated and looked as if he might refuse to take his mother's hand. "She won't bite, buddy," Kevin told him. Benjamin slowly brought his hand onto the table and allowed Lily to hold it. "We thank you, God for this day that you gave to us." Kevin prayed, "Thank you for bringing Benjamin and Cassie into our home. Thank you for this food and for the hands that prepared it. Thank you for your Son, and for the blessings You have for us in the future. Amen."


Everyone repeated that final word, and Benjamin quickly extricated his hand from Lily's and started to reach for the chicken again. This time it was Cassie who stopped him. "Manners, Benjamin."


Kevin took the plate and a piece of the chicken, passing it to Lily, and she passed it to Cassie, who placed a leg on Benjamin's plate. All of his anger was suddenly gone as he picked it up and bit into it, barely giving Cassie time to put anything else onto his plate. "Mmmm," he said, savoring the chicken as Mariana came in with some biscuits.


"Now he can't tell us more about Daisy and the horses," Elizabeth said, smiling.


"If you start eating, it won't matter," Amanda pointed out, "since your mouth will be full, too. And you *know* how much you love chicken."


"Especially Mariana's," Jess agreed.


When Benjamin asked for another piece of chicken, Kevin told him he could - "But don't fill up so much that you won't have room for the chocolate cake that Mariana made for dessert."


The boy's eyes widened upon hearing those words, and he quickly swallowed the chicken. "Chocolate cake? That's my favorite!" he declared as the adults laughed.




After the meal, Mariana came in to start clearing the table, and Cassie stood up. "Do you mind if I help, Mariana?" she asked.


"It's not necessary," the housekeeper replied.


"I know, but I think I should start earning my keep." She picked up plates and followed the older woman into the kitchen.


"I hope you told Mariana -" Kevin said in Jess' direction.


"I did. She's not sure about having full time help, but she'll get used to it."


"Cassie won't be taking care of me?" Benjamin asked.


"When you need her, yes," Jess told him. "But you're old enough that you can do a lot of things for yourself that she used to do for you. Besides, anyone who's learning to ride a horse doesn't need a full-time nanny, don't you think?"


"I guess," Benjamin replied.


"Which horse are you going to let him ride, Kevin?" Amanda asked.


"Greylady," he told her, referring to an older gray mare who was gentle and easy-going.


"Good choice," Elizabeth said. "Is that old youth saddle still in the tack room?"


"It is. We're going to start our lessons by cleaning it up tomorrow," he said.


"Youth saddle?" Lily asked.


"Pa bought it for the twins," Jess explained. "We had two of them, but Kevin sold one a few years ago."


Benjamin giggled. "Pa?"


"That's what we called out father," Kevin explained. "He was Pa, and our mother was Ma."


The giggle vanished as Benjamin glanced in Lily's direction. "May I go outside and sit with Daisy for awhile?" he asked.


"You'll have to ask your Ma," Kevin told him.


Benjamin looked at Lily expectantly, but didn't ask the question. "I suppose it would be all right, Benji," she told him.


"My name is Benjamin," he told her.


"Go on, Benjamin," Kevin said. "Just stay on the porch once Daisy joins you."


The boy left the table and the dining room as fast as he could as Kevin grabbed Lily's hand.


"Time, remember?"


She nodded, clearly upset by the incident.


"Why don't we go into the parlor for some coffee?" Jess suggested, calling out for Mariana to bring the coffee when she was ready.




After talking to the girls about Lily's son after the saloon had closed, Nick stopped by the hotel before going to get Spirit saddled. It was late when he got to the Diamond D. He took Spirit to the stable, then went to the house with the valise he'd packed.


Not wanting to wake the house, he sat down on the steps to remove his boots. Looking out over the dark landscape, he felt his body start to relax from the day's events. But he still knew when she came out onto the porch to join him on the steps.


"I guess you got my note," Jess said, also looking out into the darkness. She had sent the note in with Pedro when he returned the surrey to the livery stable.


"I did. Thank you for suggesting that I come out here instead of riding out early in the morning. But what I really appreciated was the post-script."


"Post-script?" she questioned, looking at him now.


"P.S. I love you," he quoted, putting his arm around her shoulders.


"You look tired. Busy evening?" she asked.


He lifted his shoulders. "A little busier than normal for a Thursday night. Most of it was due to word about Benjamin's arrival."


"Does that mean that you weren't able to play as much poker?"


He sighed dramatically, holding up three fingers. "Only three games," he confessed.


"Poor darling," she said, and they both laughed softly.


"How did things go here?" he asked her.


Jess sighed. "As well as could be expected." She filled him in on what had happened after he'd left, finishing with, "Why didn't you tell Lily about what her sister was trying to do?"


Nick shook his head. "She knows?"


"Her sister mentioned your visit in the letter. Lily was curious about the reason, too."


He looked at her. "Would you be okay with my saying that I need to talk to her about it first?" he asked.


"I suppose so."


"Thank you," he replied, giving her a kiss.


Jess stood up, holding out her hand to him. "Why don't I walk you to your room so that you can get some rest?" she suggested.


"Now that's an offer that I can't refuse," he replied, taking her hand in his as he stood up, then carrying his boots and the valise in one hand, his other arm around Jess' shoulders. In the hallway outside of his room, he pulled her close once more. "Are we still on for the picnic tomorrow- later today?" he asked in a quiet voice.


"You bet we are," she answered. They kissed before he went into his room, leaving Jess to continue to her own room.




At breakfast the next morning, Kevin grabbed a slice of ham, and told Jess, "I saw Nick's horse in the stable when I went out there a minute ago."


"Nick's here?" Lily asked, passing the plate of ham to her son. They had exchanged "Good morning", but nothing more.


"He is. I'm sure he's still asleep, though. I sent a note to him via Pedro when he returned the surrey to town yesterday afternoon. I thought it would be easier for him to ride out here and get some rest instead of having to get up early."


"Did you ask him -?" Lily started to ask, then stopped as she remembered that Benjamin was sitting next to her.


"He said he wanted to talk to you about it first," was Jess' answer. Looking at Benjamin, she asked, "So, what's the plan for the day?"


"First thing, we're going to town to get Benjamin some 'cowboy clothes'," Kevin announced. "Denims, a new shirt and a hat -"


"And boots," Benjamin finished. "But Mr. Donager told me that those won't be ready today, so I'll have to keep wearing my every day shoes while I'm learning to ride."


"Would you mind if I went with you?" Lily asked. "I need to get some more clothes, since I'll be out here for awhile."


"How about it, Benjamin?" Kevin asked the boy.


He was sullen again, staring at his almost empty plate. "I guess," he muttered.


"After breakfast, I'll show Benjamin how to harness a team to the wagon and we'll go to town before it gets too hot."




Kevin stopped the buckboard in front of the Mercantile, jumping down to tie the horses to the hitching post before helping Lily down. Benjamin opted to jump down, however, stirring up a small cloud of dust in the process. "Do you need anything?" Kevin asked Lily, but she shook her head.


"No. I'm going over to the - over to get my things and talk to the - the girls."


Kevin steered Benjamin away from the Mercantile and into the shoe shop next door. Mr. Crane quickly measured the boy's feet and listened as Benjamin told him what he wanted. "I want some boots like Mr. Donager's," he said.


Kevin smiled at the request. "But newer," he said. "These are a few months old."


"Those are good boots," Mr. Crane said. "I'll have them ready tomorrow afternoon, I believe. So you can wear them to church if you'd like."


"Sure! Thank you, sir."


"My pleasure to deal with such a nice young man."


The next stop was Carter's Mercantile, where Nedra Carter showed them denim pants and shirts - and a vest, similar to the one that Kevin liked to wear. "These might need a little tailoring," Nedra told them. "The shirt is a bit big, but that just means he'll be able to wear it longer."


"Elizabeth can handle any alterations they might need," Kevin told her. "Now, we need a hat."


"Straw or felt?"


They looked at Benjamin. "Which one is better?" he asked Kevin, looking at the hats on the shelf.


"Well, straw's better in the summer. It's cooler. Felt is better for winter or going someplace special."


"Could I have one of each?" he asked.


"Whatever you want," Kevin told him.


"Gray or black felt?" Nedra asked the boy.


"Gray," he answered firmly.


She looked at him, then picked up several gray hats before nodding and putting one on his head. "How's that?" she wanted to know, holding up a mirror for him to look into.


"Wow!" he declared, looking at Kevin. "What do you think, Mr. Donager?"


"I think it's perfect," Kevin announced, winking at Nedra.


"I'll get everything wrapped for you," she told them.


"Except for the straw hat," Kevin told her, plucking it out of her hands and handing it to Benjamin before removing the felt and handing it to her. "Thank you."


Benjamin put the straw hat on, looking in the mirror. "Do I look like a cowboy?" he asked.


"If I didn't know better, I'd think you'd been living out here all your life," Kevin assured him.


Lily was waiting at the buckboard, a valise in the back when they came out and put the packages they were carrying into the wagon as well. "Well, you look very handsome in your hat, Benji," she told him.


"Thanks." It was the first time that he hadn't objected to her use of the name.


The adults eyes met over the top of his head as she continued. "You must have bought half the store. What did you get?"


"We told you what we were going to buy," Benjamin reminded her. "Don't you remember?"


Lily sighed and was silent as they started back to the ranch.




They weren't back when Nick came downstairs and gratefully accepted the coffee from Mariana. "I kept your breakfast warm," she told him. "I'll bring it to the dining room for you."


"You're a God-send, Mariana," he told her, "Thank you."


The twins smiled as she vanished back into the kitchen. "She usually tells us that if we miss breakfast, we'll have to wait until lunch time,"Amanda told him.


"I think she understands the extenuating circumstances for my being here and made an exemption for me."


"Well, if you ask me," Elizabeth said, "I think she's fallen for your charm just like we all have."


"No one asked," Jess said, coming into the room. "But you're probably right." Looking at Nick, she said, "Good morning. How did you sleep?"


"Like a baby," was his answer.


"Do you want breakfast?"


"Mariana's getting it," he told her. "Care to join me?"


"I think I could have some coffee," she nodded as she went into the dining room with him, leaving her sisters in the parlor.




"Are you sure about this?" Nick asked as they rode out for their picnic. "Lily's going to expect me to be there when they get back -"


"Would you rather postpone our picnic?" she asked.


"No," he admitted. There were riding side by side, and he reached out for her hand. "I'm looking forward to some of that chicken that Mariana said she was sending with us."


Jess threatened to pull her hand away, but he held on tightly, laughing as he leaned over to give her a quick kiss. "Sometimes I wonder why I put up with you, Nick Everett," she said.


"Because you love me," he told her simply. "Where are we going?"


"Up to the lake," she said. "It's a little cooler there."




"Where's Nick?" Lily asked Amanda and Elizabeth when she and Benjamin and Kevin returned to the ranch. Cassie was upstairs, helping the boy change into his new "cowboy" clothes so Lily thought it might be a good time to corner her old friend about Margaret's letter.


"On a picnic with Jess," Amanda answered.


"Really? Jess knew that I wanted to talk to him -"


"You weren't here, Kevin pointed out. "I think they had planned the picnic before you read the letter."


"But the point is that she knew, and -"


"They won't be long," Elizabeth assured her. "Jess said to tell you that they would be back early so that Nick could go back to town before things got busy at the saloon."


"He's not trying to avoid you, Lily," Amanda assured her.


"Humph," Lily grunted, turning away to go into the parlor.


"Not that I'd blame him if he were," Elizabeth whispered.


"I'm ready, Mr. Donager," Benjamin announced, and Lily joined them as they turned to watch the boy come downstairs. "Once I get my boots, I'll *really* look like a cowboy!" he declared, frowning as looked down at his serviceable black shoes.


"You're close enough now," Kevin assured him. "I don't think that Graylady will care about your shoes."


"You look very handsome, Benjamin," Elizabeth declared, "doesn't, Lily?"


"Like he's been dressing like that for years," Lily nodded.


"Can we go out to the barn now, sir?"


Kevin took the boy's hat off, putting it beside his own on the table before saying, "After lunch." Seeing Benjamin's disappointment, he grinned. "I think Mariana has some more of that chicken -"


"And chocolate cake?"


"And chocolate cake," Kevin nodded, grabbing Lily's arm as they followed her son toward the dining room.




Jess watched as Nick slept, his head in her lap in the shade of an oak tree. "Nick?" she said softly, not surprised when he didn't respond. Reaching over, she plucked a fallen leaf from the grass beside her and tickled his nose with it. "Ni-ick."


He lifted a hand to brush the leaf away, still not opening his eyes. "You're disturbing my rest," he said.


"I'm sorry to do this, but you need to get back to the house to talk to Lily. I'm sure she's waiting - and probably not very patiently."


Opening his eyes, he stared up at her. "You just want to hear her take me to task," he accused.


"Would I do that?"


He lifted his arm again, this time to capture her head and start pulling it down. "If I'm going to have to face the music, I need something to give me strength," he told her, kissing her.


"Better?" she asked,


"Not sure."


She initiated the next kiss. "How about now?"


"I suppose it will have to do," Nick sighed, sitting up. Standing up, he helped her to her feet and walked her over to where the horses were tied by the water's edge. "I enjoyed the picnic," he told her, looking across the lake. "I really like this place."


"It's my favorite place on the ranch."


"I can see why," he told her, helping her into the saddle before going over to Spirit.


"If you feel up to it tonight, your room will be ready again."


"I think I'll stay in town tonight," he told her. "I'll need to sleep a little longer before working again on Saturday night. It's pay day for most of the ranches in the area. But thank you anyway." He backed his horse up to turn him away from the water. "We'd better get back before Lily becomes even more angry with me."




Kevin and Benjamin were in the corral when they rode into the yard. Under Kevin's watchful eye, the boy was seated on the gray mare, walking her slowly around the fence.


"You look like a natural, Benjamin," Jess said as she and Nick dismounted and Pedro came over to take their horses.


"I'll need mine in a little while," Nick told the hand. "A little grain won't hurt."


"Yes, sir," Pedro nodded, leading the animals away.


"He *is* a natural," Kevin said, sounding, Jess thought, like a proud father.


"Do you really think so?" Benjamin asked, pulling up beside them.


"Looks to me like you'll have to put him on the payroll before too much longer, Kevin."


Nick's comment caused Benjamin to look at him for a moment as Kevin spoke. "Lily's waiting for you, Nick."


"I know." He glanced at the house. "She's probably watching from a window, waiting for me to fall into her clutches."


"I know you," Benjamin said.


"We've met," Nick nodded. "Yesterday when you got to town."


"No, I mean - at Aunt Margaret's. In St. Louis." He thought for a minute. "Around my last birthday. You brought me a present."


"So I did. I wasn't sure you'd remember. What was the present?"


The boy thought again. "A cowboy hat," he said. His face darkened. "Aunt Margaret took it away after you left," he told them.


"I'm sorry to hear that. But it looks like you have another one - and it looks good on you."


The sound of a door closing behind them drew Jess' attention. "I think we need to go to the house," she said, touching Nick's arm, drawing his attention to Lily standing on the porch, hands on her hips.


Nick reached up and touched the brim of the straw hat. "See you later, pardner," he said, turning toward the house with Jess at his side.


"Who is he?" Benjamin asked Kevin as he watched them walk away.


"Nick Everett. An old friend of your Ma's. Do you know what a godfather is?"


"Yes. One of the boys from church had one that adopted him when his parents both passed on."


"Nick is *your* godfather," Kevin said.




"You ready to ride some more?" Kevin asked, trying not to be jealous of the boy's interest in Nick.


"Sure!" Without any urging, Benjamin clicked his tongue and gently kicked the horse forward.




When they were halfway across the yard, Lily turned and went back into the house. "Whoa," Nick observed. "She *is* angry. I could see that from over at the corral."


"You're not scared, are you?" she asked, smiling at him.


"Of Lily? Of course not. I'm just sorry that any of this has happened. But - just the same, don't leave me alone with her, please."


"Oh, don't worry. I'm not going anywhere."


They entered the house to find Cassie and the twins on the stairs. "Where is she?" Nick asked.


Elizabeth pointed toward the parlor. "In there," she said. "I'd throw my hat in first if I were you."


Amanda rolled her eyes and half dragged her sister up the rest of the stairs as Cassie followed them, her shoulders shaking with suppressed laughter.


Nick straightened his vest and coat, tossing his hat onto the table before moving to open the door into the parlor. Lily was standing next to the fireplace, watching as he and Jess came into the room. Jess closed the doors, remaining just inside the room. Smiling, Nick said, "Hello, Lily. You wanted to see me?"


She held a piece of paper out toward him. "Read this."


"Lily, I -"


"Read it first, please."


Taking the paper, he realized it was Margaret's letter. He read the words, shaking his head the entire time. "You want me to admit that I knew? Alright, I knew what was going on."


"Then why -" Lily began, but he held up his hand to quiet her.


"Because what she didn't write in this was that *after* she informed me of her intention to all but steal Benjamin from you, she told me that if I found you and told you about it, she would simply deny the accusation - and that while I might be your *good friend*, she was your sister, and she could make you believe that she was telling you the truth."


"I don't -"


"You forget, Lily Mae," he told her, stepping closer, dropping the letter onto a table, "I saw you with her, saw the effect she had on you after you returned to St. Louis."


Lily's shoulders sagged for a moment as she considered his words. "But - if you had told me, and if I had sent for him -"


"Then she would have begun to fight in court to keep Benjamin with her in St. Louis. And with no letters from you to Benjamin showing your concern for your son in her possession, she could very well have won her suit. Besides, when did you give me the opportunity to talk to you about it since I got to Providence?" he asked.


She nodded. "That was what I thought last night," she admitted. "That I changed the subject every time it came up. I still think that you should have insisted on telling me -"


"And what good would it have done?" he asked. "Except to upset you?" He shook his head. "No, I came up with a plan - I'd buy into the saloon and give you a chance to finally marry Kevin, and *then* your case would have had more merit. While Margaret had Benjamin with her, if you were married and sent for him, the court would have looked more favorably on your case."


Jess spoke at last. "He's right, Lily. While you were a widow running a saloon, the court would have been less likely to take him from Margaret's custody. But if you were married and settled -."


"Margaret's death made all of that moot," Nick pointed out. "Am I forgiven?" he asked.


"I suppose so," Lily sighed. "But I'm tired of my friends thinking that I need to be protected from bad news. I've been taking care of myself for a long time -"


"That's what what friends are supposed to do," Jess told her.




After Lily went outside to watch Kevin and Benjamin from the relative safety of the porch, Jess stood watching Nick.


"What?" he finally asked.


"That charm of yours knows no bounds, does it?"


"Are you accusing me of charming my way back into her good graces?" he asked.


"I'm saying it. You and I know that with Cassie's testimony -"


"Sorry, but the moment that she found out that Cassie was even considering speaking against her, Margaret would have sent the girl somewhere else, where she couldn't be easily located. Besides, we don't know that Cassie knew anything for certain -"


"She admitted yesterday that she saw Margaret burn one of Lily's letters to Benjamin," Jess told him.


"That's true, Mr. Everett," Cassie confirmed, and both he and Jess turned to find her standing in the open door. "I'm sorry for eavesdropping - but I was passing the open doors and heard my name -"


"Did she know that you had seen her burning the letter?" Nick asked the girl.


"Yes, she knew. And then she stood up and looked me in the eye and told me that if I ever told anyone else about it, I would never see Benjamin again. I didn't want her to hire someone who had never known the boy's mother, someone who wouldn't at least try to protect him." She sighed. "But I did try to contact you, sir," she said to Nick. "After Benjamin was in bed the night after you spoke to Mrs. Grayson, I managed to sneak out of the house and went to your hotel - but they told me that you had checked out that afternoon."


"That was brave of you," Nick told her.


Cassie smiled. "I thought it would be worth it if you could help Benjamin."


Jess was giving him that look again, Nick realized, and took her hand in his he continued to talk to Cassie. "You have - by bringing him here to his mother. Now, I have to get back to town," he said. "I still have a saloon to run."


"Thank you, Cassie," Jess said, dismissing the girl, who continued toward the kitchen.


Nick was already shaking his head. "Don't start."


"Start what?" Jess asked, following him as he left the parlor and went toward the front door.


"She's a child. She was even more a child the last time I saw her."


"Uh huh," Jess said, taking his hat and handing it to him. "That doesn't stop her from being slightly infatuated with you."


"And how am I supposed to prevent that?" he asked, looking around the entry hall before pulling her into his arms. "Jess, the only woman I've ever loved is you. No one else matters."


Jess rested her forehead against his chest, and a second later he felt her shoulders moving and realized she was laughing. Reaching down, he lifted her face to his and gave her a long kiss.


"Satisfied?" he asked.


"Not really," she said. "But I suppose it will have to do."


"You are shameless, Miss Donager," he said with a smile. "And here I thought you were a babe in the woods."


"It's all *your* influence, Mr. Everett," she replied.


"Do you know what I think? I think it's been there all along, and you were just waiting for the right man to bring it out."


She slid her hands up to link them behind his neck. "Hmm. You *could* be right, I suppose."


Nick bent to whisper in her ear. "But do you really think this is a good example to set for your sisters? They're just around the corner up there, watching us."


Jess turned to look, but there was nothing there. Whirling again, she smiled. "That wasn't very nice."


"Walk me out?" he asked, putting his arm around her waist.


Kevin and Benjamin were coming up the steps as they stepped onto the porch, with Daisy at Benjamin's side. Lily was on the porch as well, but was keeping her distance so not to spook her son.


"Lesson over already?" Nick asked. Giving Daisy's head a rub. "Hello, girl."


"Daisy wanted some attention, so I thought we could talk Mariana into some milk and cookies before he comes back out to play with her," Kevin explained.


Nick saw Benjamin looking up at him and smiled, kneeling in front of the boy. "Yes, sir?"


"I heard my Aunt say that you're a gambler," Benjamin said. "Is that true?"


Nick grinned. "Sometimes, yes."


Jess pulled a deck of cards from inside Nick's coat, smiling at the look he gave her. "I felt it there a minute ago," she told him. "See, Benjamin? He carries a deck with him all the time."




Nick took the cards and shuffled them in his hands, then held the deck out to Benjamin. "Take the top card - don't show it to me, but look at it and put it back on the deck."


Benjamin did as he was told, showing the card to Kevin in the process. Once it was back on the deck, Nick had Jess cut the deck, then held it out to Benjamin again. "Tap the cards with your finger." Once done, Nick kept his gaze on the boy as he pulled a card out of the deck and showed it to him.


"Wow! That's the same card!" Benjamin yelped. "How'd you do that? Can you teach me how to do it?"


"That might be a *little* advanced," Nick said. "I could probably teach you some others - but another time, okay? I have to into town."


Benjamin looked disappointed, but nodded. "Okay."


Nick ruffled the boy's dark hair as he stood up. "See you in a couple of days."


"Com'on, Benjamin," Kevin said, "let's go get those cookies and milk."


Lily followed, pausing to tell Nick, "Thank you."


"I gave you an opening. Take it."


"I will," she replied.


Jess looked up at Nick. "What opening?"


"You don't really think that Lily was married to a gambler, spent most of the last five years around gamblers, and didn't learn anything about card tricks, do you?"


Jess looked at the door. "You mean -?"


"If she's lucky, she just might be able to impress that boy and make him forget for a minute how much he's been taught to hate her."




Jess followed Lily upstairs to her room. "Why are you up here?"


"It's been awhile since I did any sleight of hand," Lily explained. "I need to practice first."


"Do you need a deck of cards?"


"Oh, no. I think it might be better if I use a coin instead."


"Nick said -"


"Oh, I can pull cards out of the air, but I was never as good at it as he is. Before Benjamin was born, he taught me how to do the same tricks with a silver dollar." She pulled a coin from her reticule that was on the dresser.


"Do you need some help?"


"You know, I might at that." She turned back to the dresser and dug out two more coins. "This one isn't really sleight of hand, but I think it might impress Benji." She sighed. "It seems wrong, trying to impress my own son so that he'll like me even a little."


"Sometimes we have to use whatever we have available," Jess pointed out. "What do I need to do?"




After supper, Benjamin joined the adults in the parlor at Kevin's request, just for a few minutes. The boy settled onto the hearth, sighing heavily, clearly wanting to be outside with Daisy instead.


Elizabeth, having been coached by Jess, stirred her coffee as she said, "I heard that Nick did one of his card tricks for you, Benjamin."


He nodded. "He said that he would teach me how to do them," he told her.


"He's very good at it, isn't he? I was amazed the first time he pulled a card from behind my ear."


"He didn't do that," Benjamin said. "Maybe he'll teach me that one."


"I know one that he probably didn't do for you, Elizabeth," Lily said, aware that Benjamin was watching her.


"Which one?" Amanda asked.


"I need three dollars," she told Kevin, holding out her hand. "Please."


Kevin reached into his pocket and pulled out three dollars, placing them into her hand. "There you go."


"Thank you, sir." She put them onto the hearth in front of where Benjamin was sitting as Jess rose from her chair and stood behind him. "Now, I'm going to turn around and close my eyes, and I want you to point to one of the coins. Don't touch it, just point to it. And when I turn back around, I'll tell you which one of the three coins you pointed to." She stood up and turned around, then winked at Elizabeth before closing her eyes.


"Now point to one of the coins, Benjamin," Kevin said.


Benjamin watched Lily, as if making sure she wasn't somehow looking at him, before finally pointing to the coin on the right. "Okay," he said.


Lily turned around, glancing at Jess as she did so, and looked at the coins for a moment, before picking up the right coin. "This one."


Benjamin shook his head. "How did you know that I picked that one?"


"I'll let you think about it for awhile." She sat down on the hearth, picking up the coins and apparently handing all three back to Kevin before looking at the boy. "I can't believe that Cassie didn't make sure you cleaned your ears before coming down to supper."


Benjamin touched his ears. "What do you mean? I cleaned them."


Lily moved closer - slowly, so not to frighten him, reaching out toward his left ear. "Then how did she miss this?" she asked, pulling her hand back as Benjamin pulled back as well - in time to see the dollar in her hand, presumably taken from his ear.


Benjamin's eyes widened like saucers as he looked from the coin to his mother's face. "How'd you do that?"


"Nick isn't the only one who knows how to do it. Would you like me to teach you how?"


"Yes, please. Oh, yes."


"Okay, Benji -" she said, and the spell was broken.


He jumped up. "May I go out to Daisy now?" he asked.


Lily nodded, and he was gone.


"Ok, how *did* you do that trick with the coins?" Elizabeth wanted to know, obviously in an attempt to lighten the atmosphere in the room.


"Do you want to explain, Lily, or -"


"You didn't notice that Jess leaned against the mantle with her right hand when I turned around?"


"I wondered why you did that," Amanda said. "So you were indicating which coin - what if he'd chosen the middle coin?"


"Then I wouldn't have done anything," Jess told them.


"I think I'm going up to my room," Lily announced. "Goodnight."


"I'll walk you up," Kevin said, following her out of the room.


"Poor Lily," Elizabeth sighed. "I just feel so -sorry for her. What is going to take for Benjamin to accept her?"


"I wish I knew," Jess said.




"It's only been two days," Kevin told Lily as they approached her room. "You can't expect to overcome five years of your sister's lies in that short a time."


"I know," she nodded. "But it still hurts every time he looks at me and it's like he's looking past me. Like I'm a stranger."


"You are to him, honey."


"But so are you, and Jess, and - even Daisy gets more attention that he gives me."


"You know, one day, he's going to suddenly realize that you love him and that you're not going to leave him again."


"But I did leave him," she said. "All of my good intentions about sending for him some day don't matter. The fact is -"


"The fact is that if Margaret hadn't told him lies about you, it wouldn't matter. This is all on her, not you."


"I should have brought him with me when I came out here. We could have managed, and we would have been together."


"The three of us are going to go on a picnic tomorrow," Kevin decided. "I'll go down and tell Mariana -"


Lily shook her head sadly. "He won't go if he knows I'm going."


"I think he will. Lily, he didn't hesitate to take your hand tonight when I said grace before supper. Last night was a different story. You're wearing him down, and I think that spending time with you is exactly what he needs."


She managed to smile at him. "Do you really think so?"


"It's worth a try." A gentle kiss, and he reached behind her to open the bedroom door. "Now, get some rest. And remember that I love you."


"I love you," she said. "Goodnight."




She was almost asleep when she heard soft whimpers coming from Benjamin's room. Tossing aside the covers, she grabbed her robe and went out into the hallway, wondering why Cassie hadn't heard him. Without knocking, Lily entered the room and moved toward the bed, thinking how small he looked in it as he lay there, tossing and moaning.


"Don't go," he muttered. "Please."


Reaching out, Lily touched his hair as she sat down on the edge of the bed. "Benji," she said in a soft, soothing tone. "I'm here, darling. Mommy's here. I'll never leave you again," she promised.


Suddenly his eyes opened, and he looked up at her. "You left me."


"It wasn't because I wanted to," she told him. "I wanted to take you with me."


"Why didn't you?"


"Your aunt wanted you to stay with her," she said slowly, uncertain how much she could tell him. "I told her that I would send for you when I was able to take care of you - I'm sorry, Benj-Benji." She half expected him to pull back from her as he usually did when she used the name. When he didn't, she felt tears in her eyes. "Leaving you was so hard for me - but I thought she would give you the stable home that I wasn't able to then."


"She used to call me Daniel sometimes," he told her. "Cassie finally told me that her little boy had been named Daniel. She never let me do anything. And she kept telling me that you hadn't wanted me around and that that was why you left me."


"That wasn't true. I loved you. I still love you. You're my baby boy. My Benji," she told him, smoothing his hair with a shaking hand. "All I want is a chance to prove to you how much I love you and that I've missed you. Can you - find it in your heart to let me do that?"


He threw his arms around her neck. "Oh, Ma! I think I've missed you, too," he declared.


They sat there on his bed, both crying, until they realized that they were no longer alone. Cassie, Kevin, Jess, and the twins were all standing just inside the room, crying.


Even Kevin's blue eyes were suspiciously moist. Lily held out her hand toward him, inviting him to join the two of them. He touched Benjamin's hair and pulled Lily close to his side as the Jess ushered her sisters and Cassie from the room.


"You know what I think?" Kevin asked. "I think we should all get some sleep, because tomorrow, we're going on a picnic."


"A picnic?" Benjamin repeated.


"Yes, sir. You, me and your mother-"


"Can Daisy go, too?" Benjamin asked. Lily smiled at Kevin.


"I think so. But you need to ask your Ma if she minds."


"Ma? Can she?"


"Of course she can," Lily agreed. "But Kevin's right: we both need to go to sleep." She pulled the covers back up over her son, and bent down to give him a goodnight kiss on the cheek. "Goodnight, Benji."


"Night, Ma. Mr. Donager."


"Why don't you call him 'Pa'?" Lily suggested. "Since he and I are going to get married."


Benjamin sat up again. "Wow! Night, Pa!" he said, a huge smile on his face as he lay back down,.


In the hallway, Kevin pulled Lily into his arms for a long kiss. "Did you mean it?"


"It looks like I have no choice," she said. "If I don't marry you, I'll end up fighting you and Jess and the twins for my son."


"We can discuss the particulars with Reverend Lee on Sunday after the service," he told her as they reached her bedroom door again.




Two weeks later, Kevin Donager and Lily Mae Taylor became husband and wife, with Benjamin escorting his mother down the aisle of Providence Church. The reception was held in the newly completed Town Center, funded mostly by a donation made by one of the town's leading citizens.


That citizen now approached Jess and bowed. "Would you care to dance, Miss Donager?" Nick asked, smiling when she placed her hand in his and they joined the rest of the dancers. "I told you that this place would be worth it," he recalled.


"So you did," she replied. "You were right. For once," she added.


After dancing in silence for a while, he said, "You know that I'm counting Kevin and Lily's marriage as the first step of four in my plan."




"Step one, those two get married. Then," he nodded to where Amanda and Andrew Lee were dancing across the room, "step two, Amanda marries Andrew."


"And step three is Elizabeth and - someone," Jess guessed. "And step four?"


"It's obvious, I think."


"Step four is that *we* get married."


"You said it, I didn't."


"Don't worry. I know that you keep your promises."


"Always," he replied.


The End

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