Episode 5
Life in Providence

"Are ya 'bout ready for the weddin'?" Ma Sutton asked Jess as she poured two cups of coffee while sitting in the kitchen of the house that Ma had had built just down the street from the church. After just three months, everyone in town knew that the woman enjoyed company, and that she made some of the best coffee in town. Most days she could be found sitting on her front porch, rocking and reading her Bible until someone came up to have some coffee.


Grace had joined various church groups, spending a great deal of time with Amanda and Elizabeth and their friends. Eban had determined to 'make his own way' and was spending time doing various jobs around Providence: bank teller, hotel clerk, store clerk, the livery stable, even a brief stint as bartender at Lily's Place. This week, he was working at the Donager Ranch.


Jess stirred the coffee, giving it a chance to cool a little before she answered. "I really haven't had much to do. Between Amanda and Elizabeth and Mrs. Lee, everything's done."


"You're worried about them bein' so young, ain't ya?"


"I am. I know that they've known each other since they were born - went to school together. They've always been close. I'm not sure that Amanda has even considered anyone else as a suitor. But you're right: they're so *young*."


"Do ya think that waitin' til they're older will change th'way they feel?"


"No, of course not." Jess sighed. "Don't mind me. I'm just being a mother hen."


"Another chick is leaving the nest, and it bothers ya."


"Another -?"


"Your brother got married -"


"But he and his family are still at the ranch. Amanda will be moving into town with Andrew - into the parsonage with his parents for the time being."


"And will that make ya worry about her any less than ya already do?"


"No, I'll still worry." She took a deep breath. "But I shouldn't. I know Andrew loves her as much as she loves him. They both trust God to get them through whatever might happen."


"That's th' important thing," Ma declared.


"I think you're right, Ma," Jess nodded.


"Another cup?"


"Half a cup. I have to get back to the office. I have a appointment with client."


Ma shook her head as she poured the coffee. "Been three months, and I still have trouble believin' you're a lawyer too. Guess that's part of the 'complications' ya mentioned."


"Not really. I mostly handle ranch business and wills and deeds for locals, so it doesn't take much time - and I know that Nick would never tell me that he didn't want me to do something that I studied so hard to be able to do."


"He's a good man."


"He is," Jess nodded, fully expecting another interrogation as to why Jess wasn't ready to marry him.


But Ma seemed to have other things on her mind. "You mentioned dealin' with wills -"


"Yes. I have several clients who've had me draw wills up for them."


"I was wonderin', could ya fix up some way for me t'be able to give some of my gold t'people who need it?" Ma asked slowly. "I gave some t'the church, and I'd need t'make sure Grace and Eban have some - but I also don't want 'em t'have too much at once after I'm gone."


"I think I can help," Jess said. "But you're not going anywhere anytime soon."


"Ya never know when the Good Lord'll call a body home," Ma told her.


"Well, why don't we get some figures together, and we can discuss it? After my appointment, of course. I'm sure I can set up a trust for Eban and Grace that would give them money to live on without their having access to the full amount that you give them." Jess smiled. "You know, I've tried to figure out how we've ended up with so many people here in Providence that have money. Nick, Lily and Benjamin, you -"


"Nothin' surprisin' about it, gal," Ma said. "Providence is just blessed. Your Pa made sure of that."




"And here we are again," Nick said into Jess' ear as she watched the celebration of Amanda and Andrew's marriage. She glanced up at him.


"So we are."


Nick held out a cup of punch. "Thought you might be getting thirsty."


"Thank you," she replied, taking the cup from him.


He smiled, looking across the room. "Amanda and Andrew look very happy."


"I'm sure they are." She looked up at him again. "You might as well go ahead and say it."


"Say what?" he questioned in a voice of feigned innocence - but his dark eyes were sparkling.


"Two down, one to go," she said. "But you *are* aware that there's no one on the horizon that Elizabeth is interested in."


"Maybe, maybe not."


Jess frowned sightly. "What is *that* supposed to mean?"


He didn't answer as Benjamin and several other boys ran through them, heading for the doors. "Sorry, Aunt Jess, Uncle Nick," he apologized before turning to follow his friends.


"And to think everyone was worried about him making friends," Jess said. When time had come for school to begin in the fall, Cassie had told them that Benjamin had never attended a regular school while living with his aunt in St. Louis. She had hired tutors to come to the house to teach him, too fearful of something happening to him if he left to go to school. But after a week or two of other children being uncertain about Benjamin, suddenly they realized that he was just like them.


"Kevin said that he's learned how to toss a lariat."


"And he's good at it," Jess nodded, still watching the door. "Who is that with Doc?" she wondered about the young man who had entered the building with Dr. Hawkins.


"Doc's nephew," Nick told her. "Thaddeus Mitchell. *Doctor* Thaddeus Mitchell. He's going to be helping Doc with his practice."


"I do seem to remember Elizabeth mentioning something about that - but I didn't think he would be here for another few months." Jess watched as several of the young women in town seemed focused on the good-looking young man. Only Elizabeth seemed to not care about his arrival, Jess noticed. Turning to Nick, she asked, "How did you know who he was?"


"Doc came into the saloon last night for a drink and mentioned that Thad was arriving in town today. He rode in and is having his things shipped by freight wagon."


As they watched, Thad asked Grace for a dance, while the other girls all looked a bit put out that the relative new-comer had beat their attempts to have that honor. Jess noticed Elizabeth take Eban's hand in hers and speak to him. He shook his head, clearly not sure about dancing in public, since she had been teaching him in preparation for the celebration. At last he took a deep breath and led her out onto the dance floor, where he managed to not embarrass himself or Elizabeth too badly before the song ended.


As they left the floor, they were close to Jess and Nick, and Nick suggested to Eban that Elizabeth might like another cup of punch. "He's a good dancer," Jess said.


"Not bad," Elizabeth agreed. "He's still nervous, but he's just not used to dancing at all, much less in front of other people." Jess thought she saw her youngest sister steal a glance toward Thad Mitchell, who was now talking to Cassie.


"I thought you would have been over there taking to Dr. Mitchell," Nick said.


"I'm sure we'll meet at some point, since I help Doc," Elizabeth told him. "I've been thinking about -" Whatever else she was about to say was interrupted by Eban's return with the promised punch.


"Here, Miss Elizabeth," he said. Looking at Jess and Nick as the music began again, he noted, "I ain't -" he paused. "I *haven't* seen you two out there dancin' yet."


"We're going to rectify that right now," Nick stated, bowing to Jess. "Miss Donager, would you care to dance?" he asked, extending his elbow toward her.


Jess placed her hand on his arm. "Of course, Mr. Everett."


Thad danced by with Cassie, and Jess caught sight of Robert on the edge of the crowd, watching them. "Uh oh," she sighed.




"Robert's not happy that Cassie's dancing with someone else," she told him.


"Have they been seeing each other?" Nick asked, recalling that Robert had been accused of murdering a young woman who worked in the saloon - the case that had brought Nick to Providence.


Jess nodded. "He's called on her a few times for walks in the evening. I don't think he has anything to worry about, but -"


Nick nodded as they turned around, just in time to see Robert tap Thad on the shoulder to cut in and continue the dance with Cassie, who was all smiles. "Nothing to worry about," he confirmed.


"I talked to Robert the other day about Cassie. He said that he's realized that maybe Margie's death was meant to be - that if he'd married Margie, and *then* met Cassie, he'd have a problem."


"So he's really serious about Cassie. Good for him."


"He's talking about getting his own place again. After what happened to Margie, he'd stopped talking about it."


"Kevin told me that he thought Robert might make a good ranch foreman one day."


"Really?" she glanced over to where Kevin and Lily were dancing. "He hasn't mentioned that to me."


"Look at that," Nick said, chuckling, and Jess turned to see Ma dancing with Doc.


"He's been coming over to coffee a couple of days a week," she told him.


"I had no idea," Nick said. "And I thought I knew everything that's going on in town."


"Not everything," Jess told him. "Did she tell you that she asked me to help her set up some charitable trusts and trusts for Eban and Grace?"


"She asked me to do it," Nick said, "but I told her that you'd be better to do it than I would be."


Jess stopped dancing. "What?"


"Jess -" he sighed and followed her off of the dance floor, catching up with her at the door. "Why are you angry?"


"I'm not angry," she told him.


He followed her outside grabbing her cape and his coat on the way. "Jess, darlin, I haven't been working at being a lawyer - between the saloon and cards, I'm a little rusty," he told her, placing her cape onto her shoulders before pulling on his coat.


Jess turned to face him. "But you did the paperwork for the mine transfer -"


"Because at that moment, she had no idea that you were an attorney," he pointed out. "Once she moved here, and found out, it made sense for me to send her to you for any legal work."


"So it wasn't because you thought I needed a client -"


"Oh, Jess, darlin', don't you realize by now how proud I am of the fact that you're a lawyer? A *good* lawyer." He held out his hands toward her. "That's the only reason I would ever send someone to you."


"I thought you were - patronizing me," she told him, putting her hands in his, but not moving closer.

"Never." He shook his head. "I love you."


Finally she moved toward him, the tension draining from her. "You're too charming for your own good, Nick."


"But you love me anyway," he said. "Don't you?"


"Oh yes," she sighed as their lips met.


"Ick!" several young voices said, and the kiss ended as they turned toward the voices. Benjamin and his friends were standing there, staring, making faces usually reserved for mentions of a bath or getting a haircut.


"You boys go on," Nick said. "I'm sure you have other things to do."


"Com'on, guys," Benjamin said. "Before I get in trouble."


"Yeah, let's go pet the horses at the livery stable!" Peter Bradford said, and they all took off - except for Benjamin.


"Sorry, Aunt Jess, Uncle Nick."


"It's okay," Jess assured her nephew, and he turned to follow his friends. "Do you want to go back into the party?" she asked Nick once they were alone again.


"I suppose we should," he told her. "But if I were being honest -"


"Come on," she said. "You haven't danced with the bride yet."


"True. But do minister's wives dance with men who aren't their husband?" he asked.


"Why don't we go find out?"




Jess entered the house behind Elizabeth, watching as she removed the hatpins and the hat she was wearing. Kevin, Lily and Benjamin came in right behind them, with Lily telling Benjamin to go upstairs and change out of his dress clothes and into something else before going to to play with the dog. "And make sure that you put your dress clothes on the back of a chair to air out before church in the morning."


"Where's Cassie?" Jess asked, still watching Elizabeth wander around the parlor.


"Robert's bringing her home," Kevin said. "He rented a buggy in town."


"Nick mentioned that you're considering Robert to train as foreman."


"It's a thought. He's been here for quite awhile - and Hank's been making noises that he's getting too old to keep up the pace that he's set for himself."


"What does Hank think about it?" Jess wanted to know.


"He said that he thinks Robert would be a good choice - when he's ready to retire," Kevin replied with a grin. "You know Hank. He might complain, but he'll keep going as long as he can."


Mariana came in, having changed out of her wedding finery. "Supper won't be long," she announced.


"Thank you, Mariana," Kevin said, turning to Lily. "Why don't we go change before that?" he asked as the sound of Benjamin's feet clattering down the stairs reached them. "Don't go far, Benjamin, supper's nearly ready."


"Yes, Pa," the boy called back before leaving the house, calling for Daisy.


Lily shook her head. "I need to make sure he put his suit where I told him to."


Jess waited until they were out of earshot before speaking. "What's wrong, Elizabeth?"


"Wrong? Nothing's wrong. I just - I mean, it's strange, knowing Amanda's not here. She's always been here."


Sitting on the settee, Jess patted the seat beside her. "Why don't you sit down?" Elizabeth sat down, sighing deeply as she did so. "It's not easy for you, I know. You and Amanda did almost everything together. And now, she's married and living in town. You're lonely." Elizabeth nodded, looking at her hands, clasped in her lap.


"I shouldn't be. It's not like I'm alone here. You're here. And Kevin and Lily and Benjamin. And Cassie's here -"


"And don't forget that Grace has been spending almost as much time here as she has in town," Jess pointed out.


"That's true. But still - it's not the same. Amanda and I - sometimes we didn't really have to talk, but we knew what the other was thinking. You know how we always finished each other's sentences and -"


"I know that you and she discussed this before she got married," Jess told her. "You both knew this would happened no matter which one got married first. I know you'll eventually get used to the way things are now. And so do you. Why didn't you want to talk to Doc's nephew?"


"There were too many others girls around," Elizabeth said. "He barely had time to dance with all of them."


"I don't believe you. You've never been shy a day in your life, Elizabeth Donager. That was always one difference between you and your sister."


"Amanda's not shy, she's just - reserved."


"And *you*, baby sister, are not. So, again, why not let Doc introduce you to him?"


"Because he doesn't want to know me," Elizabeth burst out.




"Doc told me that in one of his letters when they were planning on Dr. Mitchell coming to Providence to help in the practice, Doc mentioned that he was letting me help him, training me as a nurse. When he replied, Dr. Mitchell said that he didn't need any *help* from a girl who's - *playing* at being a nurse." She sniffled, and Jess retrieved a handkerchief from her pocket and held it out to her.


"Thank you."


"Oh, Elizabeth, honey, I'm sure he'll change his mind once he sees how much you've learned over the last two years. Doc Hawkins tells me all the time how glad he is to have your assistance with his patients."


"Do you really think so?"


"You go to Doc's office on Monday and do what you've been doing, and before long young Dr. Mitchell will wonder how he's managed without you." Jess smiled. "He's rather good looking, isn't he?"


Elizabeth sniffled again. "Is he? I didn't notice," she said, but Jess knew better.


"That curly blonde hair and I think his eyes were blue -"


"They're hazel," Elizabeth corrected quickly. Too quickly. "Okay," she confessed. "I *did* notice," she said with a hint of a smile. "But that doesn't matter. What matters is that he doesn't think I'm serious about being a nurse."


"Then prove him wrong." Jess stood up. "Come on. Let's go change out of our wedding vlothes and get ready for supper."


Elizabeth stood as well, slipping her arm around Jess' waist as they went toward the stairs. "Thank you."


"Just doing what any big sister would do," Jess pointed out. "Anytime you need to talk, you know I'm here. I might not finish your sentences the way that Amanda would, but I can listen as well as she can."




After Sunday dinner - the first one without Amanda in attendance, Jess and Nick excused themselves to take a walk. The north wind blew through the yard, sending them into the barn for shelter. "Ohh," Jess said as Nick pushed the door closed. "I wasn't expecting it to be this cold today."


"Looks like snow's on the way," Nick said. "By the way, I don't think I've had a chance to mention that I received a telegram from the railroad yesterday."


"No, you haven't mentioned it. What did it say?"


"They've begun laying the track for the spur line," he told her.


"They have? When will they get here? That's big news, Nick! I can't believe that Lou didn't tell anyone!"


"I swore him to secrecy," Nick told her, grinning at her excitement. "I told him that I wanted to tell you first."


"There are plans that need to be made! We have to get started on the train station, and -"


Nick sat down on some hay as she paced in front of him. Picking up a piece of straw, he put it in his mouth and shook his head.


"When do you think they'll be close to this area?" She didn't give him a chance to answer before continuing. "We need to tell Kevin -"


Her move toward the door caused Nick to reach out and grab her arm, pulling her onto the hay beside him. "Whoa there! It will be at least another six months before the rail crew gets close to Providence and the ranch. And Kevin," he told her, lifting her hand to his mouth, "can't do anything about it until tomorrow. Right now, I came out here hoping to spend some quality time with my favorite lady."


"Favorite?" she questioned, her eyes softening as she put her arms around his neck.


"One and only," he clarified. "Forever," he dropped a kiss on her left eye. "And ever." His lips moved to her right eye. "And ever." This time his lips met hers in a long kiss. "How about supper in town tomorrow night?" he asked. "I already asked Jake to take over for me."


"Sure of me, are you?" Jess asked, playing with some straw that she pulled from his hair.


"If you say no, I'll just spend all evening playing cards," he told her.


"I suppose, to keep you from doing that, I'll have supper with you," she said.


"And if you come in early, we can meet with the town council and give them the good news. If you want to be there, that is."


"You know I do." Jess ran her fingers through his dark hair before tracing the edge of his ear.


"Jess, darlin'," he growled, "You're playing with fire."


Her look of innocent surprise was genuine. He was sure of it. Rolling them over, he kissed her long and hard, and both drew deep breaths when it ended. "Nick?" she whispered, but he shook his head and rolled away, rising to his feet at the same time.


"No. I refuse to - Jess, until we're married, no."


"I'm not a child, Nick."


"No," he said, running a shaking hand through his hair. "You're a fully grown woman who's never -"


"I've kissed men before," she told him defiantly.


"It's not the same, Jess," he told her. "Kissing is one thing. But -" he shook his head.


She looked up at him, then held out her hand for him to help her up as well. "I'm sorry, Nick. I don't know what came over me. I've never acted this way with anyone else."


"That's good to know." He pulled her close, resting his forehead on hers. "I do love you. But I also respect you. Too much to take advantage of the way you make me feel when you're in my arms." He smiled, touching her cheek. "I can wait. For as long as it takes."




As they entered the house and returned to the parlor where Kevin, Lily and Elizabeth were talking, Jess went over to the fireplace, holding her hands out. "Brr. It's gotten cold out there."


"Hank's convinced that it'll snow before the week's out," Kevin told her.


"Nick said the same thing, didn't you?" Jess asked.


Kevin, standing close to Jess, plucked something from her hair. "What -?" Jess asked, turning to see him examining a piece of hay. Glancing at Nick, she moved to sit down beside Lily.


"Do I need to clean Pa's old shotgun?" Kevin asked with a grin, looking from Jess to Nick.


"Don't be silly," Jess said. "I just said that it's cold out there. We went into the barn to talk -"




Glaring at her sister in law's teasing, Jess looked at Nick for assistance, but he seemed disinclined to give any. "To talk," she repeated firmly, "and sat down on some hay - I leaned back, and I guess that's how I got hay in my hair. Isn't that right, Nick?" she asked pointedly.


"Oh, yes. That's precisely how it happened," he nodded.


"You won't believe what he told me -" she realized that her choice of words might have been better, and she was grateful when Elizabeth spoke.




With that, Jess glared at Nick. "Oh, I got a telegram from the railroad yesterday. The rail crew is laying rail for the spur, and should be here in - oh, about six months if they can stick to the schedule."


"That's really good news," Lily said.


"Six months? That means the line should be up around the time we need to ship the herd out," Kevin noted.


"Imagine, being able to get on a train and go all the way to Denver," Elizabeth sighed. "Or even San Francisco!"


"Well, either of those trips will require taking the train out of Providence to the east to the railhead, and then on to Denver or even San Francisco," Nick confirmed.


"But it won't be nearly as dusty, and you'll be able to sleep in a berth - there will be sleeping cars on the line, won't there?" she questioned.


"Of course."


"Nick and I are going to tell the Town Council about it tomorrow afternoon," Jess told them. "And I'm sure they'll start getting things ready for the station and whatever else needs to be done."


"This is so exciting!" Elizabeth declared.




"Are you sure that I can't convince you to stay here tonight?" Jess asked Nick as they stood on the porch. Jess was wrapped in her cape, and Nick was wearing a heavy coat that he'd tied to the back of Spirit's saddle. "It's too cold to ride all the way into town. You'll freeze."


"I'll be fine," he assured her. "I'm not sure it's a good idea for me to stay here tonight."


"Nick, I -"


"I know, darlin'. But I'm only a man, after all. I love you. Just remember that." He gave her all-too-brief kiss. "I'll see you tomorrow. What time shall I tell the others that we need to meet with them?"


"Around three, I think."


"See you then."


She watched as he got into the saddle and rode away into the gathering darkness, saying a prayer for his safety on the ride back into Providence.




The Providence Town Council consisted of Gregory March, Carl Collins from the hotel, Niles Bradford, who owned the livery, Leon Carter from the Mercantile, and Paul Grover, who ran the freight/stage office. Sheriff Morgan was included in the meeting at the Town Hall, as well as Jess, since she was the legal representative for the town.


Nick's news was well received by all of the council - except for Paul, who sighed. "Looks like I'm going to have to find something else to do - anyone have any ideas?"


"I have an idea, Paul," Nick said. "Let's talk after the meeting."


Carl suggested that the town start work on the train station. "We already have a plan, but we need workers -"


"Everyone in town can help -" Greg March said. "Be like a barn raising. It won't happen overnight, but I'm sure the ladies in the area would be more than happy to take are of feeding everyone -"


"It would be like a town social," Leon suggested. "I think it's a good idea."


"Someone's still got to be in charge of it all," Carl pointed out.


"I vote for Niles," Paul said.


"Me?" Niles questioned. "Why me?"


"You've had a hand in building most of the town - including the building we're sitting in," Paul reminded him. "And you drew up the plans for the station, so you know it better than anyone else."


"Who else thinks Niles should be in charge?" Leon asked. Four hands were raised. "Looks like you're it, Niles."


Niles sighed. "Okay. I'll get to work getting things ready this week. When I get that done, we can meet again to decide when to begin the acual building process."


"Good plan," Greg nodded. "Anything else we need to discuss before the regular meeting next week?"


"Are we going to make an official announcement to the town about all of this?" Jess asked.


"Not sure we need to," Greg told her. "I think the news will spread through the territory faster than we could draft anything official." They all laughed, nodding at the truth of his statement. It was the reason why they had never had a newspaper in town. There was no need of one. "I move we adjourn the meeting."




Jess stayed as Nick and Paul began their talk about Paul's future. "You know, Paul - we're going to need a stationmaster. And I'll bet that the station plans could be adjusted so that frieght could be off loaded or loaded from or to the train. And the stage line will have to continue to run, just transporting to and from the station."


Paul had been nodding in agreement. "Yeah, that sounds right. But what does that have to do with me?"


"I think you're the man for the job," Nick told him. "You've already got experience in scheduling, rail schedules aren't that different -"


"You really think they would hire me?"


"Well, I *do* have a little pull with the railroad," Nick pointed out, and Paul grinned.


"So what you're saying is that *you* are hiring me for the job."


"Yes, that's what I'm saying."


"Thank you. Thank you!" he repeated, shaking Nick's hand. "I gotta get back to the office - Thank you again." He nodded at Jess. "Miss Jess."


She smiled. "Very deftly handled, sir," she told Nick. "I wasn't sure that you were aware of Paul's concerns about the railroad coming to town."


"It's a routine problem. What the freight and stage lines don't realize is that there's room for them *and* the railroad out here. The railroad can't go everywhere, and that's where the freight and stage companies come in." He placed her cape over her shoulders and took her arm as they turned toward the doors. "Well, what are your plans until supper?" he asked.


"I'm going over to see Amanda, and then over to Ma's for a cup of coffee."


"And then?" he asked once they were outside.


"I have papers to look over at the office. Why?"


"Just curious. I have to go and work on the books at the saloon."


"Have fun," she said, smiling, knowing that while he had no problem with the books, it was the one thing he really didn't enjoy. "You know, you could ask Eban to help. He's helped me with the books at the ranch." Nick was shaking his head. "I know, he didn't like tending bar, but doing the books wouldn't be the same."


"That might be an idea," he said. "I remember how easily he toted up all those numbers when we were weighing that gold."


"And he *likes* doing things like that," Jess nodded. "I'll see you later."


Nick looked around before dropping a quick kiss onto her lips. "Six p.m. At the Cafe," he confirmed. "Tell Amanda and Ma that I said hello."


"I will."




Amanda opened the door of the parsonage, smiling when she saw Jess. "I didn't expect to see you in town today," she said, then lowered her voice. "We're having a meeting about the church Christmas Bazaar," she confided. "Would you like to join us?"


Jess peered over her sister's shoulder into the parlor. "No, I can't stay," she said. Most of the women in that room were married, and had been friends with Jess in school. The church bazaar was held every year to raise money for the school. "I just wanted to say hello."


"How long will you be in town?"


"I'm having supper with Nick at six."


"This meeting will probably go on until close to five," Amanda said.


"Have fun," Jess told her. "I'll tell Elizabeth -"


"Where is she? I thought she told me she would be here for the meeting."


"She didn't mention that," Jess said. "She came into town with me but had to go to Doc's. Something about whether or not he needs her to keep helping him."


"Amanda, dear," Rebecca Lee called, coming to the door. "Oh, hello, Jessica."


"Mrs. Lee," Jess replied. The preacher's wife was the only person who used her full name.


"Would you like to join us? We're planning the bazaar -"


"I'd love to, but I have to meet with someone. I just dropped by in the chance that Amanda might be free." She gave Amanda a hug. "I'll see you later."


"Tell Elizabeth I missed her today."


"I will. Good afternoon, Mrs. Lee."


As the door closed behind her, Jess sighed. No doubt Amanda was going to discover that the life of a pastor's wife wasn't her own. Jess admired Mrs. Lee - she'd been Jess' teacher in school, and had never said a word about how 'inappropriate' she thought it was for Jess to have gone to college and become a lawyer instead of getting married and raising a family. She had been there for her after her mother's death, and after her stepmother died, offering to help with the babies if necessary.


Jess had taken her up on the offer for a little while, until she had realized that she was perfectly capable of doing the things she was advised to do without any assistance.


She squared her shoulders and stepped into the street, heading toward Ma's house for some coffee.




Elizabeth had found Doc's office empty when she arrived, a note on the blackboard outside informing people that he was out visiting Mrs. Cooper and would be back soon. Mavis Cooper was expecting her first child before long, and Doc had been worried about her.


She set to work cleaning up the already spotless office, then chose one of the medical books behind the desk and sat down to start reading it while she waited. Grabbing a piece of paper and the pen, she wrote down any questions that she might want to discuss with Doc as she read.


When the door opened, she smiled at the elderly woman who came into the office. "Hello, Mrs. Garnett," she said, rising to go around the desk.


"Elizabeth?" she questioned, squinting, refusing to wear the spectacles that Doc had given her several years ago. "Of course you're Elizabeth. Amanda wouldn't be here. Especially not now that she's married. Where is Doc?"


"He's gone to visit Mavis Cooper," Elizabeth told her.


"Oh, my," Mrs. Garnett sighed, sinking into the nearest chair. "He said that he would have my pills ready this afternoon. I *need* my pills. I ran out this morning -"


Patting the woman on her arm, Elizabeth said, "It's okay, Mrs. Garnett. Doc made them up for you and left them in the other room. I'll go get them for you." Opening the door into the examination room, Elizabeth quickly found what she was looking for and returned. "There you go. Only two a day, remember."


"Oh, God bless you, dear." She held the bottle to her chest. "I'm so glad that you were here."


"I'll tell Doc that you picked them up," Elizabeth told her, opening the door so that she could leave. "Take care going home."


After watching her walk to the buggy parked in front of the office, Elizabeth went back inside and sat down at the desk again, intending to start reading again. It was just a few minutes later, however, before the door opened and Thaddeus Mitchell stood in the doorway, a look of surprise on his face as he surveyed the open book in front of her on the desk.


"Is there something I can do for you, miss?" he asked, coming into the office and putting his medical bag on the desk. "Do you need to see the doctor?"


"No, I -"


"I saw you on Saturday at the wedding - your sister got married, right?"


"Yes. I'm surprised you didn't confuse us," she told him. "Most people have trouble telling us apart."


"I doubt that a young woman who just married would be here waiting to see a doctor."


"I told you that I'm not here for that."


"Then why are you here, sitting at my uncle's desk?"


"I was - reading," she told him slowly, trying to ignore the fact that his eyes looked more like brown in this light.


"And who gave you permission -"


"Where is Doc Hawkins?" she asked.


"He stopped to talk to someone on the street after we left the livery stable," he told her as that gentleman entered the office and stopped.


"Hello, Elizabeth," Mark Hawkins said, his smile genuine. "Thad, this is the young lady I was telling you about - Elizabeth Donager."


Elizabeth nodded in Thad's direction before telling Doc, "Mrs. Garnett came by and picked up her pills while you were out, Doc."


"Good. I knew she would be worried about them since I had to go out."


"How is Mavis doing?" Mavis Cooper was only a couple of years older than she was, and with such a small town, they'd practically grown up together.


"Good?" Thad interrupted. "You allowed an untrained person to give medication to a patient?" he asked his uncle, as Elizabeth frowned. "Without asking any medical questions or -?


"She's done it before," Dr. Hawkins answered, winking at Elizabeth as Thad turned away, shaking his head in disbelief.


The wink made Elizabeth forget her anger. "Lots of times," she confirmed, picking up the empty pill bottle that Mrs. Garnett had left on the desk. "She left this so you could use it for next time."


Doc took the bottle and handed it to his nephew. "Open it and see if you can figure out what I'm giving her, Thad."


Thad removed the cork stopper and put his pinky finger into the bottle, rubbing some of the power from the interior onto it. Putting the finger to his lips, he frowned. "Tastes like - sugar."


Doc laughed, clapping a hand onto Thad's shoulder. Elizabeth didn't laugh, but she was smiling again. "Hortense Garnett is a middle aged farmer's wife who is convinced she's on the verge of death - but she's as healthy as a horse. When I realized that she was going to drive her husband and me crazy with her constant complaints, I gave her a bottle of sugar pills, telling her to take two a day, one in the morning, and one at night. I've been known to mix a little iron into them, figuring it won't hurt her. Elizabeth knows about it, and so she didn't really give out medication to anyone." His tone turned a bit more serious. "But I trust her to give out any medication that I've prescribed to a patient. She's smart, and willing to learn, and I think that she's an excellent nurse."


"Thank you," Elizabeth said, never having heard him state it in those words.


"Just telling the truth," Doc said to her, waving away her gratitude. "I should have told you all of this before." He smiled at her. "Was there something specific that you wanted or -?"


"No, I just wanted to drop by and ask if you were still going to be needing my help."


"Of course I will. But - would you mind if my nephew and I continue this conversation in private? If you'll be here tomorrow morning, I have to go back out to Mrs. Cooper's to check on her, and I know she would appreciate your being there."


"What time?" she asked.


"Ten a.m.?" he suggested.


Elizabeth nodded, then closed the book on the desk. "May I take the book with me?" she asked. "I had just started a new chapter -"


"Of course. Why don't you leave the questions that you already have here and I'll look them over tonight and we'll discuss them tomorrow?"


"Thank you," Elizabeth said, picking up the heavy tome and let him put her cape over her shoulders. "I'll see you tomorrow morning," she said. "It was nice to finally meet you, Dr. Mitchell," she said before leaving the office.


Doc watched her cross the street before turning back to face his nephew. "You know, boy, the best nurse I ever worked with never went to nursing school. She could do anything I asked her to do, and never shirked or refused to help. I married that woman," he said, sitting down behind the desk. "Your aunt had a feel for nursing that I'd never seen in anyone else - until Elizabeth started helping me. I'd put either woman up against any one of your educated, well trained hospital nurses. Now, for as long as I'm still working as a doctor, Elizabeth is going to be helping me as my nurse. You don't have to use her if you don't want to, but I'd advise you to think about that decision. Do we understand each other?"


Thad stood there for a moment before nodding his head in the affirmative. Looking at the desk again, he said, "So what was she reading when I came in?"


"An anatomy book," he replied. "I've loaned her most of my medical library over the last few years," Doc told him. "She writes down questions and we discuss them." He picked up the paper that Elizabeth had left and scanned it before holding it out for Thad to take. "She *wants* to learn. Are you going to let that go to waste?"


"How do you know she's not just - bored and has nothing better to do with her time? Nursing takes dedication."


"So, you think that only poor women can have the desire to help others?" Doc asked him. "Let me tell you, once you know the Donager family, you'll realize how wrong you are about them. Elizabeth's desire to help others as a nurse, her twin Amanda married a minister. Their older sister Jess - whom you met on Saturday - is an attorney who has handled most of her cases without regard for remuneration. Even their brother Kevin, who runs the Donager Ranch donates cattle to the Indian reservation. Personally, I think that you ought to at least give the girl a chance to prove herself before dismissing her out of hand." When Thad remained silent, Doc sighed and indicated the chair in front of the desk. "Why don't we go over the notes on Mrs. Cooper's case before supper?"




Nick finished the book work he'd come in to take care of and decided to spend a few minutes talking to customers before going to supper. One of the regulars, Olaf Norton invited Nick to join him and his friends for a drink. He sat down and listened to the conversation about the men's farms and troubles with their wives.


Olaf laughed. "Nick's still free to do whatever he wants," he joked.


"That's not what I heard," another man said with a smirk that made Nick frown.


"Until he makes an honest woman of the lady, he can do what he likes," Olaf restated, and the other men laughed.


Except for Nick, of course. It wasn't the first time that he'd heard similar comments, and was almost glad when he glanced up and saw Elizabeth entering the saloon. "Excuse me," he said, crossing to try and cut her off. "What are you doing here?" he asked, wondering why she was carrying a large book.


"I thought Jess might be here," she told him.


"Well, she's not. She mentioned going to see Amanda and going over to Ma's before supper. And you're not supposed to be in here."


"Jess comes in," she pointed out, looking around.


"Usually not when we're open," he pointed out. "Your sister will kill me if she finds you here," he told her, sensing that she just needed someone to talk to. Turning to the bar, he said, "Jake, I'll be back in a few minutes. I'm going to walk Miss Donager down to the livery stable."


"No problem, Boss," Jake replied, smiling at Elizabeth. "Cara just came down. We can handle it."


"In that case, I'll see you tomorrow. I'm taking the rest of the evening off." Taking Elizabeth's arm, he led her toward the swinging doors onto the boardwalk.


"Why don't you let me carry that book?" he suggested, lifting it from her arms. "What is this thing?"


"An anatomy book," she told him. "Doc said I could borrow it."


"So you were over there. Jess told me that you weren't sure about helping him since his nephew arrived."


She told him about Dr. Mitchell's reaction to her being in the office alone - "He seemed to know that I wasn't Amanda," she told him. "He said something about how she wouldn't have been trying to see the doctor since she was just married, which didn't make much sense. Not to me, anyway."


"You weren't introduced to him on Saturday, were you?"


"No, I kept busy - I mean, I was dancing with Eban for most of the party." He caught her hesitation, but didn't point it out. "You should have heard how Doc told him off, Nick," she continued. "He said that he thinks I'm excellent nurse!"


"You already knew that."


"Of course, but - *he's* never said it. Not directly. And Thad- I mean, Dr. Mitchell just stood there. Never said a word. That's when Doc asked me to leave them so they could continue to talk privately." Her eyes narrowed. "I hope he let that nephew of his have it with *both* barrels," she said in a hopeful tone.


Nick somehow kept from laughing at her reaction to the young doctor. It reminded him of Jess' reaction to his own arrival in Providence. "You know, Elizabeth," he said, "I never realized how much like Jess you are."


"Am I?" she asked, looking honestly surprised by his comment. She seemed thoughtful for a moment. "Maybe I am in some ways. But is that a bad thing?"


"Not at all," Nick told her as they arrived at the stable. "Not at all." But he knew that it *could* be - under certain circumstances.




"I saw Elizabeth earlier," Nick told Jess over supper.


"Did she talk to Doc?"


"She did. Apparently he introduced her to Dr. Mitchell - after the young man questioned why she was waiting in the office if she wasn't ill."


"I wouldn't have been surprised if he had thought she was Amanda -"


Nick shook his head and told her what Elizabeth had related to him. "He knew she wasn't Amanda. Don't ask how. But Doc also apparently told him that Elizabeth was an excellent nurse, then asked her to leave them alone to talk. She was hoping that Doc had gone after him with 'both barrels'. She took a huge anatomy book home with her."


Jess sighed. "She sounds like me. Everytime Uncle Otis came for a visit, he would bring a law book for me to read."


"I told her that she's like you."


"She -" Jess began, thinking about what he'd said. "Oh my goodness. She is, isn't she? Poor dear."


"I think she'll manage. You have."


"You think so?"


"Oh, yeah." He nodded as the doors opened and Doc and Dr. Mitchell entered the Cafe. "There's Doc now," he told Jess.


She turned to smile at the two men who moved in their direction. "Hello, Doc. Dr. Mitchell."


"Nick, Jess," Doc said.


"I'm surprised to see you here, Doc," Jess told him. "I thought you'd taken to having supper at Ma Sutton's."


"We were there yesterday," Doc confirmed with a grin. "But I thought I'd let Thad know about other options for meals in Providence. Martha understands."


Hearing him use Ma Sutton's given name, something that very few people in town were even aware of, caused Jess to widen her eyes, and Doc chuckled. "Taking a break from cards tonight, Nick?" he asked, clearly trying to change the subject.


"I have to give someone else a chance to win occasionally, Doc," Nick responded. "If I don't they won't play anymore."


"Nick's the best poker player I've ever seen," Doc told Thad.


"I never learned the game myself," Thad replied.


"I'd be glad to teach you," Nick said. Turning to Jess, he said, "My uncle tells me that you're an attorney?"


"I am. So is Nick."


"But - you run the saloon -" he said, looking at Nick, clearly confused.


Doc laughed. "Let's go have our supper, Thad, and let these two enjoy the rest of theirs. Evening," he said with a nod of his head as he steered the younger man to another table.


"He's in a good mood," Nick observed. "I mean, he usually is, but -"


"Maybe it's because he's not under as much pressure. I'm sure he's been worried about what would happen when he finally had to retire. Providence is growing, and that means more patients. Now he won't have to spread himself so thin in order to take care of them."


"You're probably right," Nick agreed.


"Did you notice that he called Ma by her given name?"


"I did," Nick nodded. "Sounds like it might be serious."


"That would be nice. I know he misses his wife. They were very close."


Nick nodded. "Would you like some dessert?"


"Oh, not tonight," she said, reaching out to cover his hand on the table as Betsy came over with the coffee pot in her hand.


Nick glanced up to see Betsy's eyes focus on their hands, and gently pulled his off of the table as she asked, "More coffee?"


Frowning, Jess shook her head. "No, thank you, Betsy. It was a wonderful meal, as always." When the older woman moved away to the next table, she told Nick, "It's getting colder. I think I should head back out to the ranch."


Nick placed some money onto the table to pay for the meal as he told Jess, "I asked Mr. Bradford to have a buggy ready so that I could drive you home."


"You are not going to drive me home," she said as Nick put her fur trimmed cape over her shoulders and grabbed his own coat from the rack next to the door.


"Yes, I am, Miss Donager," he stated firmly, closing the door behind them.


"You'll have to be out in the cold both ways," she reminded him, putting on her gloves as they walked. "There's no need - I can drive myself."


"I'm well aware of your ability to take care of yourself," he stated as they walked toward the stable. "But humor me, okay? The wind has laid, so it won't be that bad driving back to town."


He heard her deep sigh. "I'm not going to win this argument, am I?" she asked.


"No, ma'am, you're not." He led her into the stable and helped her into the buggy that was indeed waiting before opening the doors. Jess picked up the reins so the horse would pull the buggy outside, then waited for Nick to close the doors and climb up next to her. Moving closer, she smiled as he pulled a quilt out and laid it over their legs. "How's that?" he asked.


She grabbed his arm and leaned toward him. "Better," she said.


"Gitup," he told the horse, turning the buggy into the road. Once they cleared town, he took the reins in one hand and put his free arm around Jess.


"*Much* better," she sighed, looking up at him. "You know, you could stay at out at ranch tonight and come back into town tomorrow morning -"




"It's not like it's just us in the house," she told him.


"It's just not a good idea," he said. "Unless you're willing to let public opinion force you into something you're not ready to do."


"What do you mean?"


He took a deep breath, pulling back on the reins to stop the horse. Turning in the seat, he faced her. "I mean, darlin', that people talk -"




"About how - close we are."


"Close? Of course we're -close," she said. "We're -"


"We're what, exactly? To everyone in town, all they see is the two of us having supper, stealing kisses when we think others aren't watching, holding hands, going on trips out of town - alone."


"You *were* upset back at the cafe when you pulled your hand away," she realized.


"I wasn't upset, exactly. Just trying to quash some of the gossip I've heard."


"We're friends!" she exclaimed, until Nick gave her a questioning look. "Okay, we're more than friends. But - do people really think that we - that you and I -"


"Yes," he answered simply. "They do."


"And we've only made one trip alone. Ma could tell them -"


"She has, but she wasn't with us for that first night on the trail - or the one after we left Sutton's Creek."


"You've discussed this with her?"


"She mentioned it to me, actually, said some of the ladies who came for coffee had asked her what she knew. And before you ask why *she* didn't talk to you about it, I asked her not to, because I didn't want to upset you before I'd had a chance to think things through."


"Then why take me home tonight?" she asked. "Surely that won't *quash* any gossip -"


"With it this cold?" He chuckled. "Jess, darlin, I love you, but I've no desire to end up with frost-bite.
No, I have a compromise to offer."


"What - compromise?" she asked in a guarded tone.


"You sound as if you don't trust me."


"I trust you."


"Will you agree that we're going to get married - eventually?"


"I would - agree with that," she answered.


"Well, then, I was thinking that we could announce that we're engaged to be married - but without setting a date - until you're ready."


"This is perilously close to asking me -"


"I haven't. Now, how about it?"


"Everyone in town will start asking when we're going to get married," Jess told him.


"My answer will be that we'll get married when we're both ready. And you, darlin', can answer anyway that you like." He was silent as she considered the plan. "If you don't think you can handle the stress -"


"Can I think about it?" she asked.


"Of course. Just let me know." He put his arm around her again. "I'm here, either way. I was only thinking about your reputation. I mean, I'm a poker-playing saloon-owner, so my reputation is already suspect with some people. But yours -"


"Nick, if I was worried about what people thought about me, I would never have gone to law school."


"There's also your law practice to consider. If enough people think that you - but it's not just you that I'm talking about, Jess," he said. "What about your sisters?"


"Amanda and Elizabeth? What about them?"


"Well, how do you think it looks for the sister of a minister to be the subject of that kind of gossip? I mean, it could end up with Andrew having to go to another church in another town. And then there's Elizabeth - who even you agree is a lot like you. If a young man came to town, and heard the whispers about you, how do you think he would feel about her?"


"Being engaged wouldn't change things that much -"


"Enough," he told her. "Engaged couples have a bit more freedom than others do from what I've observed."


"I can't believe no one's said anything to *me* about any of this."


"They wouldn't. You *are* a Donager, after all. That still matters. But as more people move into Providence with the coming of the railroad, that could change." In the moonlight, he saw that she was considering all of the things he'd told her, so he set the horse back into motion.


The remainder of the ride was quiet - until they reached the house. Jess let him help her from the buggy, then turned to him. "Okay. Let's do it."


"Do - what - exactly?"


She shook her head. "What we were discussing a little while ago: get engaged." Grabbing his arm, she pulled him up onto the porch with her. "And that means you are staying here tonight."


"Are you sure about this?" he asked. "About getting engaged, I mean."


"As sure as I'll ever be," she replied. "Don't question it, or I might change my mind."


Nick pulled her close for a long kiss. "I'll put the buggy and horse into the barn and be in the house in a few minutes."


She nodded and opened the front door, watching as he leapt into the buggy and drove it around the house. Going inside, she removed her gloves and cape, continuing into the parlor, where Mariana had yet to bank the fire for the night. Standing there, staring into the flames, she jumped as Mariana appeared from the kitchen. "I'm sorry, Miss Jess. I saw a buggy on my way to take care of the fire. I thought you were in the barn -"


Jess nodded. "Nick brought me home, Mariana. He's going to spend the night since it's so cold."


"I'll go get his room ready, then."


"Thank you. And Nick will bank the fire, so you can go home after."


Mariana nodded and left the room, heading for the stairs.


Jess started pacing before the fireplace, her hands clasped in front of her, her mind racing. The idea that anyone in town would think that she would do anything - She'd been raised in church, she knew what was accepted and what wasn't accepted. Yes, she had probably been more open about her feelings toward Nick than some might be accustomed to, and that would have led her to do some things she might not have otherwise done. But why hadn't anyone spoken to *her*?


"You're having second thoughts," Nick said, and she turned to look at him.


"If I didn't trust you as much as I do, I could think that you've made all of this up -"


"You're welcome to talk to Ma. Or to Jake or Cara."


"Jake or Cara?" she questioned, sitting on the hearth.


"They've heard the talk," he told her. "But they're loyal enough to me to have told me about it." He sat down beside her. "I don't want you to be feel pressured into this, Jess," he told her, taking her hand in his. "We can continue just as we have been if you prefer -"


"I can't do that," she sighed. "For Amanda and Elizabeth's sake if no other reason. I gave my word to their mother, and I guess that I really haven't been setting a 'proper' example for them, have I?"


"In my opinion, you've done a wonderful job with them. They're both beautiful, intelligent young women who want to help others. No one could ask for more than that." He lifted her hand to his lips. "I love you."


Jess smiled. "I don't think I'll ever get tired of hearing you say that."


"Good. Because I don't intend to stop saying it."


She lifted her free hand to his face. "So how do we do this?" she asked.


Nick took a deep breath and pulled something from his vest pocket. "With this," he said. The diamond in the ring he held sparkled in the light from the fire.


"Nick?" she questioned, her eyes wide. "That's not the ring that you showed to Ma."


"No. That was a wedding band that belonged to my grandmother. This was the ring my father gave to Mother when they became engaged. I sent for it a few weeks ago. It's been sitting in a vault in New York since I left."


She suddenly realized he'd been holding her left hand as he slipped the ring onto her finger. "It fits," she said in surprise.


"I, uh, well, I - asked Lily to get me a ring from your room before I sent for it so that it could be sized when it arrived," he confessed rather sheepishly as she studied the ring on her hand. "Well?" he asked. "Does it stay on or should I take it back until -"


"No, I'll keep it," she answered, turning into his arms, sliding her hands up to his neck. "And you."


This kiss was different - deeper, longer, and filled with so much promise that Nick almost - almost - broke his promise not to ask her to marry him again. They sat together for several minutes, entwined in each other's arms before he finally stirred. "I'll bank the fire, and then walk you up to your room."


She nodded, watching as he took care of the fire. "How did you know -"


"I met Mariana coming out the back door as I came in, and she mentioned it to me," he told her, putting the poker back into the holder and turning toward her. "Come on. It's late, and it's been a long day."


At her bedroom door, he gave her another kiss, then waited for her door to close before continuing on to his room, expecting that his dreams would be very sweet.




Jess wasn't surprised to find Nick waiting at her bedroom door when she opened it, and smiled at him. "Did you sleep well?" she asked as he took her left hand in his and kissed the back of it.


"Very well," he answered. "I think everyone else is in the dining room having breakfast. Are you ready?"


She nodded. "As I'll ever be."


He extended his arm toward her. "Then shall we, Miss Donager?"


Jess' smiled widened as she took his arm, and they went downstairs.


Everyone looked up as they entered, and Nick seated Jess at her place before moving to sit to her left, as he usually did when he was there. "Mariana said that you'd decided to stay after bringing Jess home," Lily noted.


"Did you see Amanda yesterday, Jess?" Elizabeth asked.


"Only for a moment. She and Mrs. Lee were having a meeting about the Christmas Bazaar, so I didn't linger very long."


"I was supposed to be there," Elizabeth remembered. "She's not going to be happy with me. But I was busy at Doc's office -"


"I'm sure she'll understand, Elizabeth," Jess told her. "Nick tells me that things went well."


Elizabeth nodded. "I'm meeting Doc at ten to pay a call on Mavis Cooper," she explained. "He said that as long as he's still working, I can still help him with his patients."


"Jess!" Kevin said, surprised. "What are you wearing - is that- where did you get that ring?"


Having had their attention drawn to the ring on Jess' left hand, Elizabeth and Lily both reacted. "Ohmigoodness!" Elizabeth sighed, standing up to look at the ring more closely.


"Does this mean what I *think* it means?" Lily questioned, smiling at her two best friends.


"It means," Nick said, taking the ringed hand in his, "that Jess and I are going to be married - when we're *both* ready. We haven't set a date yet."


Benjamin's voice called out, "May I have another biscuit, please?" drawing attention away from the - to him - far less important conversation that the adults in the room were having.




Once they were alone in the house, Jess told Lily, "You knew he'd sent for the ring, didn't you?"


"He told you that I borrowed one of your rings. Are you angry with me?"


"Of course not. I will admit that I'm a little nervous about all of this. Did you tell you about what people were saying -?"


"No. What -"


Jess sat down on the sofa, sighing. "That he and I - that we - you know."


"Oh my," Lily said, sitting beside her. "I'm sorry."


"The thing is, I don't really care what anyone might say. I love Nick, and whatever happens is between the two of us - but when I realized that it could affect Elizabeth. Or even Amanda -"


Lily nodded, understanding. "People in town always thought that Kevin and I were - more than - friends," she told Jess. "I listened to the innuendo and whispers for years - it was unavoidable working in the saloon like I did. I knew that I could put a stop to them by marrying him, but I was too stubborn. And then when Benjamin came, I realized that I no longer had a choice."


"And that's why I agreed to the engagement. I know Nick's not going to try and push me into marriage, I'm just worried that some of my 'friends' in town might not be as understanding as he is."


"I liked the way Nick put it this morning. That you'll get married when you're both ready. That way no one can say which one of you is hesitant."


Jess looked at the ring on her finger. "Sometimes I think that I'm not being very fair to Nick, keeping him waiting this way."


"Jess, my friend, trust me, if it bothered Nick, he wouldn't be here. That man loves you more than anything." She smiled. "You do realize that since you're 'officially' engaged, it's okay to start planning your wedding?"


"Don't you dare," Jess replied, shaking her head. "I'm not ready for that."


Lily laughed, enjoying her friend's discomfort. "Well, then, Elizabeth and I will have to start planning it for you."




It was almost ten when Elizabeth pulled the buggy to a stop in front of Doc's office. Getting out, she stepped up onto the walk, only to see a note on the door with her name on it in Doc's handwriting.


"Nate Cooper sent his hired man into town this morning to say that Mavis had gone into labor. Follow us as soon as you see this. Doc."


She quickly got back into the buggy as Amanda came down the walk, and called to her. "Elizabeth!"


"I can't talk now, Amanda," she said. "Doc's expecting me out at the Cooper place."


"The baby?" Amanda questioned.


"Probably. Pray."


"I will," Amanda promised, closing her eyes as her sister set the buggy into motion.




Elizabeth barely let the horse stop before jumping from the buggy and hurrying to the door of the small house. The door opened before she could knock, and Nate Cooper stood there, looking more than a little nervous. "Elizabeth. Doc said to send you in as soon as you got here," he said, pointing shakily to the door into the bedroom.


She nodded and went to the door, entering the room. "Thank God you're here, Elizabeth," Doc said to her, nodding to a bowl across the room. "Wash your hands and take her hand," he said, waiting for her to do as he told her before relinquishing Mavis' hand for her to take. Quietly, he said, "It's a breech," before moving to the end of the bed, where Thad was standing.


Mavis Cooper opened her eyes, focusing slowly. "Elizabeth. I'm glad you're here," she gritted her teeth as a pain began, squeezing tightly on Elizabeth's fingers. Elizabeth used the cool cloth that Doc had left to wipe the woman's face, whispering soothing words as she did so. "Doc, what's wrong?" she finally asked as the pain began to subside. "Something's wrong!"


Elizabeth looked at Doc and Thad, seeing their concern as they spoke quietly to each other. Doc kept shaking his head, but Thad kept talking until finally Doc sighed and nodded. Slowly, he moved over to his bag, taking out a bottle and some gauze. Moving back to the bed as Thad went to get his medical bag and bring it over to the bed, Doc bent over the patient to speak softly. "Mavis, the baby's turned wrong, and the only way to safely deliver it is going to be to operate."


"Operate?" she repeated as another pain hit, this one stronger than the last. "Are you sure -?"


"Dr. Mitchell's done several of these," he told her once she was relaxed again, nodding toward his nephew. "It will be fine. Now, I'm going to administer some chloroform to make you go to sleep. And when you wake up, you'll have a new baby to hold." He smiled at her. "Okay?"


She finally nodded, a jerky, shaky movement, her eyes still full of fear and uncertainty. "You save my baby, Doc. Elizabeth?"


"Yes, Mavis?"


"Can you pray for me?"


"I have been, but I'll keep doing it," Elizabeth assured her. As Doc started to pour the anesthetic, Elizabeth prayed, "Dear Lord, watch over your daughter Mavis and her precious baby. Guide the hands of those attending to them, and may Your will be done."


Mavis' eyes closed, and Doc looked at Thad. "Okay, I think she's under. Elizabeth can you assist Thad, please?"


Elizabeth released Mavis' now limp hand and moved to wash her hands with the alcohol that Thad had already used and then moved to where he had spread his surgical instruments, handing him what he needed as he asked for it. Finally, he removed the baby, announcing, "It's a boy", and Elizabeth wrapped the infant in a clean towel that was ready. She waited for Thad to cut the umbilical, and placed the newborn beside his mother, checking on the patient's pulse as well. "Still steady and strong," she told Thad, then assisted the doctor with sewing the tissues back together. "I think we can stop the choroform, Uncle Mark," he said. "And check on the baby."


"He was breathing when I put him down," Elizabeth said, looking at him before turning her attention back to Thad's fingers as they worked to finish the sutures.


Doc came around the bed and picked up the baby, examining him before holding him upside down and patting his bottom. "Let's get those lungs fully exercised," he said, and was rewarded by a loud cry. "That's a good boy," he said, grabbing a rag from the washbasin to clean the baby.


Elizabeth blinked away the tears that always came when she heard that sound, and smiled. "Last suture is in," Thad announced, looking up at her. "Miss Donager?"


She blinked, and took the needle from him. "Sorry, Doctor," she said.


"It's understandable," he told her. "We need to change the sheet before Mr. Cooper comes in," he said.


Elizabeth was already moving toward a bureau where Mavis Cooper kept her bed sheets. "Won't take a moment," she assured him as he went to check on Mavis. "She's sleeping."


Once the sheets were changed, Doc opened the door and saw Mr. Cooper standing there, his hand raised to knock. "Come in and meet your son, Nate."


"My - son?" Nate Cooper questioned, moving to the bed to stare at the baby laying beside his mother. Seeing that Mavis' eyes were closed, Nate took her hand, but she didn't stir. "Mavis?" he said, looking up at Doc. "What's wrong with her?"


"It was a breech birth, Nate," Doc explained. "The only way to save the boy and Mavis was to do a Cesarean section."


"A - what?"


"We had to cut her open and remove the baby that way," Doc explained.


"Is she going to be okay?"


"If we can keep her still, and quiet, and keep infection from setting in, she'll be fine," Thad told the anxious husband and father. "She's not to get out of that bed, and only move as little as possible until we tell her otherwise."


"Mavis isn't gonna like that," Nate said.


"Well, I'll be here as much as I can be," Elizabeth told him. "To make sure she does what she's told."


"She might listen to you," Nate nodded, staring at his wife and son. "She was sure it was a boy. I told her that I didn't care, as long as it was healthy." He sank to his knees beside the bed, holding tightly onto her hand, obviously torn between joy and fear. "God, please don't let Mavis die," he prayed. "Please."


"Nate," Mavis said, her voice hoarse from the anesthetic. "The baby -"


Thad and Doc both moved to the bed as they realized she was awake. "You have a son, Mavis," Doc told her. When she would have sat up, he placed a hand on her shoulder. "Don't move."


She frowned. "Why do I hurt so much?"


Doc explained what had happened, and then that it was imperative for her to stay still and follow Elizabeth's directions. "You could become very ill if you don't. Elizabeth will be here most of the time, and she'll keep the incision clean and make sure you do as you're told." Hearing Doc's words, Elizabeth did her best to look stern and serious. "Now, you need to get some more rest."


"The baby," she said, touching the bundle beside her.


"I sent Jerry for your mother," Nate told her. "She should be here soon."


"And until then, I can take care of him," Elizabeth said. "Now go to sleep."


She followed both doctors over to the basin, where they gathered up all of the instruments. "I'll leave some laudanum, Elizabeth," Doc told her, handing out a bottle toward her. "In case she's in pain."


"Is that wise, Uncle?" Thad asked.


"She's given it to patients before," Doc told him. "Why don't you walk out to the front door with us?" he suggested to Elizabeth, who glanced back at the bed, nodding.


In the front room, Doc told her, "You did very well. Didn't she, Thad?"


Thad took a deep breath. "Yes, she did. But she was only following my lead -"


Doc sighed, clearly frustrated by his nephew's obstinance. "Take my word for it, Elizabeth. If you need either of us, don't be afraid to send Nate to get us. I'll get word to your family about what's going on."


"Thank you, Doc," she told him as the front door opened and Betsy Collins entered the house.


"Where's Mavis?" she demanded to know, looking at the three of them.


"She's in the bedroom, Betsy," Doc told her, and then told her what had happened. "I'm leaving Elizabeth here to keep an eye on her. If you can handle taking care of your grandson -?"


"Of course I can. After five children -" she paused, looking worried. "Doc, is she going to be all right?"


Doc placed a hand on her arm. "It's in God's hands, Betsy," he told her.


"Uncle, may I speak to you - outside?" Thad interrupted. "Sorry, Mrs. Collins."


Betsy went into the bedroom, leaving Elizabeth in the front room as Doc and Thad went outside. Moving to the window, she watched as they talked. They were close enough to the window that she could hear what they were saying.


"I really think that I should stay as well, Uncle. Nothing against Miss Donager, but doing that surgery was my decision. If something goes wrong -"


"You were right, my boy," Doc told him, "If you hadn't operated, it's likely that both mother *and* child would be dead. As I told Betsy, it's in other hands than ours. I think that Elizabeth can handle it, but if you would feel better doing so, by all means, stay. I'll go back to town and take care of things there."


Elizabeth stood by the fireplace, warming her hands as Thad returned to the house carrying his medical bag. "You didn't go back to town."


"Mrs. Cooper is my first patient here," he told her. "I need to be sure that she's going to be okay."


"And I couldn't be trusted to take care of her, I suppose, since I'm not a *real* nurse."


"I didn't say that. This is about me, not you, Miss Donager. If I'm going to stay in Providence and eventually take over my uncle's practice, I need people to trust me and to know that I'm willing to do whatever I have to for my patients."


Elizabeth nodded, fighting herself from acknowledging the desire to give him a hug. Where had that come from? She asked herself. "I'm going in to check on Mavis and I'll let them know you're out here."


He nodded, sitting down on the sofa in front of the hearth. "If you would check her pulse and respiration -" he opened his bag and held out a stethoscope. "And her heart rate, I'd appreciate it."


The fact that he was trusting her to do that much made Elizabeth smile. "Of course. You're tired. I know that Doc usually needs some time to rest after doing surgery."


She entered the bedroom to find Betsy sitting in the rocking chair beside the window, holding her grandson, while Nate was still on his knees beside the bed, holding Mavis' hand as he continuously prayed in a soft voice.


Picking up Mavis' other arm, she looked at the watch pinned to her dress, counting the beats. She checked heartbeats, and counted respirations, then pulled the covers back to inspect the sutures. Covering the patient again, she smiled at Betsy. "She's still sleeping. That's a good thing. Dr. Mitchell is still here, in the front room."


"Why?" Nate wanted to know.


"He just wants to be sure that Mavis and the baby are ok," she answered. "Would either of you like some coffee?" she asked.


"No, thank you," Nate said, and Betsy shook her head.


"No, but - if you could heat a little milk? I think the baby's hungry. If you could put a little sugar in it -"


"I'll take care of it," Elizabeth told her. "Excuse me."


Returning to the front room, she started to speak. "Dr. Mitchell -" but stopped as she realized that his eyes were closed. Moving to the desk against a wall, she found paper and pen and wrote down the numbers that she had been remembering before going into the kitchen to find the milk and a pan to warm it in. Mavis had shown her the bottles she was going to use for the baby, so she took one out, preparing it for the milk.


By the time she finished, and was carrying the bottle back toward the bedroom, Thad was stirring. He stretched his arms, yawning. "I guess I fell asleep," he told her, seeing the bottle in her hand. "For the baby?"


Elizabeth nodded, picking up the paper from the desk. "Here are the numbers that you asked for." Giving it to him, she added, "the sutures looked clean, no bleeding."


"I need to re-dress them," he said. "But I hate to try to ask Mr. Cooper to come back out here. I know he's worried."


"He was still praying," Elizabeth informed him.


"Still," he said, standing up, "I need to go look things over." Grabbing his bag, he followed her into the room.




Jess pulled her rig to a stop near the saloon as she saw several people going toward the church. Seeing Milly, heading in that direction, she called out. "What's going on, Milly?"


The other woman's eyes were red, and Jess reached out to her. "Mavis had her baby this morning," she said. "There were - complications and Dr. Mitchell operated to save the baby."




"She's alive, but Doc says it's touch and go. Amanda went around asking people to come to the church for a prayer meeting. Oh, Jess,-" she finally broke down and started crying. Mavis was her youngest sister, and the two were as close as Jess was to her own sisters. Jess held her for a few minutes, and then led her toward the rig. "Come on. I'll take you over to the church."


They entered the church to find it nearly full, and everyone was sitting quietly, heads bowed, as prayers went up for Mavis, Nate, and their baby. Amanda was seated at the piano, but she wasn't playing. Andrew stood in the pulpit, allowing the congregation to lead the prayers.


Jess stayed at the church for almost an hour before squeezing Milly's hand and slipping back outside. She saw Doc and Ma crossing toward the church and met them halfway. "Where is Elizabeth, Doc?" she asked.


"Still at the Cooper place," he told her. "Thad stayed out there as well."


"How bad is it?"


"It could go either way," he told her. "It was either operate or we would have lost both of them. I sent the Sheriff out to your place with a message about what's going on - I guess you missed each other."


"Lucas would have gone cross country," Jess told him, "instead sticking to the road, so it's possible. Do they need anything?"


"Not at the moment. Betsy and Milly had given them what they needed for the baby."


"I took Milly to the church," Jess said, "and stayed awhile."


"That's where we was headin'," Ma told her. "Grace is already in there."


"It's pretty full," Jess noted. "Have either of you seen Nick?"


Ma grinned. "We had coffee this mornin'. When Doc got back, he went to help spread the word 'bout the meetin'. May I see it?"


Jess didn't ask what she meant as she pulled the glove off of her left hand and held it out.


"That's not bad atall," she observed, examining the ring. "See, Mark? Didn't I tell ya?"


Doc smiled. "Good for Nick. And for you," he told Jess, giving her a bear hug. "At least there's *some* reason to smile today."


"Well, the birth of a baby should be a good reason too, Doc," Jess pointed out, putting her glove back on.


"It's a mixed bag, Jess," he sighed. "I think I saw Nick heading toward the saloon."


"Thank you."




The saloon was empty, except for Nick and some of the girls and Jake. Jess stood at the doors, and then stepped inside. Hearing the noise, Nick looked up from the cup of coffee on the bar in front of him. "Jess!" he exclaimed, coming toward her. "Did you hear-?"


She nodded. "I just came from the church."


"Cara and some of the girls are over there," he told her, leading her toward the table near the bar. "Coffee?" he asked.


"I might as well. It's cold out there," she told him, removing her gloves and cape as Rosie came over with a fresh cup of coffee. "Thank you," Jess told her, only to smile as Rosie's eyes widened.


"That's some diamond, Miss Donager," she sighed.


"You mean that your boss hasn't told you yet?"


"Told me what?" Rosie asked.


"That he and I are *officially* engaged to be married."


"That's great!" Jake said as he brought Nick's half full cup over to the table to take a look as well. "Congratulations, Boss!"


"Thank you," Nick said, giving Jess an uncertain look. "I wasn't sure - with everything going on in town -"


"Good news is always a good thing, Boss!" Rosie told him. "Hey, girls," she said to her coworkers, "You need to come and see this ring!"


"Cara's not going to believe this," one of the girls said, telling Jess, "She was ready to take bets that it wouldn't happen."


"Oh, really?" Jess questioned.


"No disrespect," Rosie told her.


"Of course not," Nick agreed. "Cara likes you. I think she was figuring that you'd never say yes."


"Uh huh," Jess nodded, but she was smiling.


"Have you set a date yet?" Rosie wanted to know.


Nick opened his mouth to answer, but Jess spoke first. "Not yet."


"This town's going to have the biggest party anyone's ever seen when it happens!"


"All right, girls, back to work," Nick said, then realized there were no customers.


"We get the message," Rosie said. "Come on, girls, give the happy couple some privacy."


Jess wrapped her hands around her cup. "I feel guilty, being happy when -"


Nick covered her hand with his on the table. "Don't. But it is why I hadn't mentioned it to anyone here," he told her.


"But you did tell Ma."


"You saw her, I guess?"


She nodded. "She and Doc were heading over to the church when I left."


"I had to tell *someone*, and I knew that Ma would keep it quiet. Or, I thought she would."


"She did. The only one she's told is Doc."


"That reminds me, I spoke to Eban this morning before I left the ranch - he said that helping me with the books here would be his next job."


"Good. I do think it would work out." She took a sip of coffee. "I wonder if I should drive out to the Cooper place?"


"Elizabeth and Dr. Mitchell will be fine. The last thing they need is for people to start showing up out there."


"But -"


"Jess, what could you do? Betsy Collins is out there, Nate, Elizabeth, and Dr. Mitchell." She nodded in silent agreement. "I think that the best thing would be for you to go home. If anything happens, I'll get word to you."


"Trying to get rid of me?" she asked.


Nick's eyes narrowed as he sat forward to speak in a quiet tone. "Never in a million years," he said.


"That's a long time," she told him.


"Not long enough for me."


"Stop, or I might swoon," she threatened, pretending to fan herself with her hand.


Nick's soft laughter sent a shiver along Jess' nerves. "I refuse to believe that you have *ever* swooned, darlin'."


"What about when we were on the road to Braddock?" she reminded him.


He shook his head. "That was just play-acting. Doesn't count."


"Really? Well, you might be right, in that case. I guess I'm just not the swooning type." His thumb moved to begin making circles on the skin of her wrist, and Jess bit back a gasp, frustrated by the knowledge of her action in his dark eyes. "Nick," she said. "What time is it?"


The smile on his face widened as he released her hand to take the watch from his vest pocket. "Almost three."


"I have to go, then. I might as well take Benjamin home after school. He'll be warmer in the buggy than on GrayLady."


"I'll walk you out," Nick said, pulling out her chair and dropping her cape over her shoulders while she put on her gloves again. "Be right back, Jake."


As he helped her into the buggy, Jess told him, "You should have put on a coat."


"I won't be out here for that long."


"Long enough," she chided gently, picking up the reins.


"I love you," he said before stepping back.


"I love you," was her reply as she set the buggy into motion.




Mrs. Drummond was just opening the door to dismiss the students when Jess pulled up in front of the school. She waved at the teacher, a pleasant, middle-aged woman, who smiled tightly and waved back as her students filed past her. She was a war widow who had come west after her husband's death. Coming down the steps, she glanced toward the church and asked, "Any news?"


"Not yet. But there was talk of keeping the prayer vigil into the evening."


"Mr. Everett came in during lunch and told me what was happening. I didn't tell Johnny Grant. I'll walk him to the hotel, and then go over to the church myself."


"Aunt Jess!" Benjamin called as he came out of the school with his friends. Telling them goodbye, he came over to the buggy. "Is everything all right?" he asked, looking from his teacher to Jess, no doubt feeling the tension. "There are a lot of people at the church -"


"Why don't we stop by the livery and get your horse, and you can ride home with me and I'll tell you about it?" Jess suggested.


"Aren't you going to tell your aunt about your grade on your arithmetic test, Benjamin?"


Benjamin smiled at Mrs. Benjamin's prompt as he climbed into the rig. "I got an A *plus*!" he exclaimed. "The only one in the class!"


"Well, that calls for a celebration," Jess told him. "Why don't we stop by the mercantile to buy you some licorice?"


She saw him watching the church as they passed on their way back to the main road, and even when she stopped the buggy at the Mercantile. She guided him into the shop, nodding at Leon Carter who was working behind the counter, since his wife and daughters were likely down the street. "Some licorice for an A+ arithmetic student, please, Mr. Carter," she told him.


"A+? Well, that gets the young man two for the price of one," Leon said, taking the cover from the jar containing Benjamin's favorite treat.


"Two? Wow! Thank you, Mr. Carter."


Leon gave Benjamin the sack with the strips. "On account, Miss Jess?"


She shook her head and took the penny of her reticule, placing it into his hand. "Thank you."


"Thank you. Don't guess you've heard anything?"


"I don't think anyone has. We're heading home, so -"


He nodded. "I'm going to close up early and go over there for awhile myself."


"I'm sure that everyone in town's spent at least few minutes there at some point today."


"Have a safe trip home," he told her as she followed Benjamin out.


A quick stop at the livery stable to tie GrayLady onto the back of the rig, and they started down the road toward the ranch. "May I take the reins, Aunt Jess?" he asked. "Ma let me the other day, and said I did a good job."


Smiling, Jess handed the reins over to her nephew, halfway hoping that handling the horse and buggy would keep his mind off of what had been going on in town. But her ruse didn't work.


"What happened, Aunt Jess?"


"Watch the road," she told him. "Do you know who Mavis and Nate Cooper are?"


"Johnny Grant's aunt and uncle," he said.


"Well, you knew that Mrs. Cooper was going to have a baby, didn't you?"


"Sure. Johnny's been excited about having a new cousin."


"Well, Mrs. Cooper's baby was born this morning."


"Was it a boy or a girl? Johnny was hoping it was a boy. He -"


"It was a boy," Jess confirmed. "And the baby's fine. But Mrs. Cooper is very ill."


"Did she -" he hesitated, clearly remembering the death of his Aunt Margaret, "die?"


"No. But she needs our prayers. Everyone was going to the church to pray for her."


"Good. What about Aunt Elizabeth?" he asked. "She was going over there - to the Cooper farm, wasn't she?"


"She's staying there until Mrs. Cooper gets better," Jess told him. He nodded, falling silent. As he continued to drive the rig, she heard him speaking under his breath, and realized that he, too, was praying for Mavis Cooper.




Elizabeth helped Thad as he swabbed some iodine onto the sutures and dressed them with gauze. The iodine burned, and Mavis moaned softly. "It hurts," she whimpered.


"Give her a drop of laudanum in a glass of water," Thad told Elizabeth. "If that doesn't ease her pain, we can give her a little more later."


"Yes, Doctor," Elizabeth said, placing the required drug into a glass before filling it with water from a nearby pitcher. "Mavis, I'm going to lift your head so you can drink. Let me do the work and try not to tense up or it will hurt worse. Do you understand?" Mavis nodded, and let Elizabeth give her the medication. "There you go."


"The baby -"


Betsy came over, holding the infant. "He's right here, honey."


"Mama? Oh, Mama -"


"Shh," Betsy said. "Here you go," she said, placing the baby at his mother's side.


"Nate? Where's Nate?"


"Here, Mavis," he said, taking her hand as Elizabeth and Thad moved back. "I love you, Mavis, honey."


"Love you," she said. "Said if it was a boy we'd name him after your Pa -"


"We can discuss it later," Nate told her. "You rest and get better. I been praying for you. We've all be praying."


"Prayers are good," she told him. "Jack. Call him Jack." Her eyes closed again, and Thad moved closer to check her eyes and heartbeat.


"She's sleeping. The medicine will keep her drowsy for awhile."


Betsy picked up the baby. "Nate, why don't you sit down in that rocking chair and hold your son while I fix something for us to eat?"


"He's so little," Nate said, sitting down. "I'm afraid I might hurt him -"


"I'll be right here to make sure everything's okay," Elizabeth assured him as Betsy placed the baby into his arms before leaving the room. "Support his head. There you go."


Nate smiled down at his son. "Hello, Jack," he said, and the baby opened his eyes to stare at him.


"I think he approves of his name," Elizabeth said.




After the meal, Betsy returned to the rocking chair, giving baby Jack more milk, while Nate pulled a chair up to the bed so that he could sleep while holding onto Mavis' hand. Going into the front room, Elizabeth told Thad, "Nate said that you could lay on the settee and get some rest of you'd like."


"And what about you?"


"There's another chair in the bedroom. I'll be able keep an eye on the patient."


"Why don't we share the load?" he suggested. "Wake me in two hours, and I'll take over in there so that you can get some rest. If you would, take pen and paper and check her heart-rate and eyes and respiration every half hour. If her skin start to feel overly warm, wake me."


She gathered the pen and paper as he removed his boots to lay down across the settee - even though he was too tall to do so comfortably. Putting the paper and pen down, Elizabeth pulled an upholstered chair over and lifted his feet over onto it so that he could stretch out. "There," she told him. "That's better."


Without opening his eyes, he smiled. "Thank you."


Smiling as well, she grabbed the knitted blanket that was on the back of the settee and covered him against the cool night air, then gathered her things and went back into the bedroom, leaving the door open so that the heat from the fire could reach inside.




Just before two, Elizabeth tiptoed through the front room to the kitchen to get another bottle for the baby, who was hungry again. She was as quiet as possible, but as she finished pouring the warm milk into a bottle, she looked up and saw Thad standing in the doorway. "I'm sorry. I tried not to wake you."


"It's almost two anyway," he said. "How is she?"


"About the same. I did give her another drop of laudanum. She was restless and wincing because of the pain."


He nodded. "I hope she recovers," he sighed.


"Either way, it will be God's will," Elizabeth replied, covering the bottle.


"Do you really believe that?"


Elizabeth stood, looking at him. "Tell me, Dr. Mitchell, do you believe in God?"


His slight hesitation made her realize that he wasn't really sure. She had seen him and Doc in church, but she also knew that he had likely gone only because his uncle asked him to. "I guess so. I've seen nurses pray over patients in the hospital. Patients who still died. I think sometimes they did it to ease the mind of the patient."


"That's a possibility. But not in Providence," she told him. "Most of us here know that whatever happens, it's all in His hands, not ours. Right now, you're worried about your patient, but you're also worried about what will happen to you if she dies. Am I right?"


"It was my decision to operate -"


"I heard you and Doc discussing it," she reminded him. "If he hadn't thought it was a good idea, he wouldn't have agreed to let you do it. He knows that he's only the instrument that God works through. If God wants the patient to live, then he'll live. God does answer prayer. Believe me, everyone in this area is praying tonight for Mavis and Nate and that baby. That's a lot of prayers going up."


"And you believe that God answers those prayers."


"I do. Even if the answer isn't what we want, that doesn't mean God cares any the less. What we want isn't always what God wants. But we know that one day we'll see that person again. And that's the only thing that really matters."


"Do you think that Mr. Cooper feels that way? Or Mrs. Collins?"


"I know they do. Mrs. Collins was a friend of my mother."


"She died when you and your sister were born," he noted. "I suppose there were prayers then?"


"Yes, but God's plan apparently didn't include her being there for Amanda and me. But he provided Jess to help raise us. And so many others. We're more than just a town, Doctor. We're - we're a family. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to get this to Mrs. Collins so that she can feed baby Jack." Her legs were shaking as she stepped past him and returned to the bedroom, where the baby was becoming more vocal, and Betsy gave her a look of gratitude.


"Thank you. I was starting to worry."


"I was talking to Dr. Mitchell," she explained. "He'll be in here in a few minutes so I can get some rest."


"I'm thankful that you're here, Elizabeth," she said as the baby began to take his bottle. "I hadn't realized how good a nurse you are."


"Thank you, Mrs. Collins," Elizabeth said, hoping that her words to Thad hadn't sounded a death-knell to her career. They spoke softly so not to awaken Nate, who was resting with his head on the edge of the bed, his hand still holding Mavis'.


Thad entered the room, going directly to the bed to gently examine Mavis, and Elizabeth went to write down the numbers on the paper. Returning his watch to a pocket, he told her softly, "I'll wake you in two hours, nurse."


Elizabeth's head snapped up to look at him, her eyes widening at his word, but he showed no sign of even being aware that he'd said it. So she nodded and whispered, "Yes, Doctor," and went out to lay on the settee after slipping off her shoes, only just realizing how tired she was.




Two weeks went by, and Elizabeth was with Mavis when the woman woke up, looking more clear-eyed than she had in some time. "Elizabeth. How long -?"


"It's been two weeks, Mavis. How do you feel?"


"It still hurts, but not as much as it has been." She looked toward the rocking chair. "Where are Mama and -Jack?"


"Nate had to go out to take care of some things - Your mother's in the front room with Milly. Dr. Mitchell!" she called out. He appeared in the doorway, along with Doc. "She's awake, and looks much better -"


"Hello, Mrs. Cooper," Thad said, moving to check her pulse and temperature.


"How are you feeling, Mavis?" Doc asked her.


"I'm not hurting as much, Doc," she told him. "I can take a breath without pain."


"Thank God," Betsy said, standing just inside the doorway with Milly, who was holding baby Jack.


Nate, just returning to the house, pushed past them and came forward. "Does that mean she's going to be okay, Doc?" he asked.


Elizabeth moved to take Nate's arm. "Why don't we let them finish their examination?" she suggested gently. "Then they'll answer your questions."


Once the family members were in the other room, Elizabeth closed the door, moving to join the doctors. "*Am* I going to be okay, Doc?" Mavis asked.


"You're still going to have to take things easy," he told her as Thad and Elizabeth examined the sutures. "So you'll need some help around the house and with the baby - but I think your mother and sisters might be available for that."


"For how long?" she wanted to know.


"Another week, at *least*," Thad answered. "The sutures look good, Uncle," he said, letting Doc examine them.


Elizabeth brought fresh bandages to dress the wounds, and looked at Doc. "How before she can sit up? I'm sure she's tired of having to be spoon fed."


"We can try now," he said. "If it hurts too much, Mavis, when we raise your shoulders, let us know."


"Don't worry, I will," she told him. They raised her shoulders so that Elizabeth could place pillows and folded quilt behind her, allowing her to sit up a bit. "Would it be - can I hold my baby?" she wanted to know. "And maybe even-" she hesitated.


"Let's wait a week to start nursing him," Doc told her. "But as for holding him-" he nodded at Elizabeth, who went toward the door.


"Mrs. Cooper? Mavis would like to hold her son, please."


They had put the baby on Mavis' chest a few times over the last weeks, but this was the first time that she actually held baby Jack in her arms. Nate, after asking Thad's permission, sat carefully on the edge of the bed, his smile so wide that everyone thought his face would break.


Betsy joined the doctors and Elizabeth and Milly in the front room a few minutes later. "Thank you for what you've done," she told them. "Especially you and Dr. Mitchell, Elizabeth. You gave up two weeks -"


"It's why we're here, Mrs. Collins," Thad told her. "She's not totally well, yet, but it's my opinion that she's on the mend."


"Elizabeth," Milly said, "when you see Jess, let her know that we're going to have a huge party to celebrate her engagement now that things are more settled."


"Oh, I'll tell her," Elizabeth replied, already knowing what her sister's reaction would likely be to the news. Doc must have had the same thoughts, because he chuckled and winked at Elizabeth.




After making Nate and Betsy promise to send for the doctor if Mavis started to bleed, or had any symptom of an infection, Elizabeth, Doc, and Thad left the house. "God does answer prayers, doesn't he, Dr. Mitchell?" she asked, looking up at the clearing sky after a week of snow that had fallen to six inches deep.


"He does indeed," Doc answered. "You'll find, my boy, that God does work in miraculous ways. Especially here in Providence."


"I thought he worked in *wondrous ways*, Uncle," Thad observed. And to Elizabeth, he said, "You see, Miss Donager, I do know parts of the *Good Book*."


"Well, if you stay in Providence, you'll learn more," she told him.


"If?" Doc repeated. "After today, they won't let him go. And neither will I," he told his nephew. "I have plans for my retirement, so I need you here."


"Do those plans include Ma Sutton?" Elizabeth asked, smiling as she got into her buggy with Thad's assistance. Jess had come over before the snow hit a week ago, bringing some clean clothing, and to take the buggy back to the ranch, but Nate had assured her that it and the horse would be fine in his barn until Elizabeth needed it.


"That, my dear girl, is none of your business," Doc told her, picking up the reins of his own buggy while waiting for Thad to join him.


"I bet you and she get married before Jess and Nick do," she told him, flicking the reins and laughing as she set off down the road, hearing Thad's laughter behind her for some distance.




Elizabeth slowed the buggy as she passed by Jess' office, noting that it was dark, and that the open sign wasn't in the window. Her intention was to continue home, but she heard Amanda call her name from across the street and looked to see her sister standing in front of the Mercantile. "Elizabeth!"


Torn between happiness at seeing her twin and desire for a long hot bath and some rest, Elizabeth got out of the buggy to meet Amanda near the walkway, where they embraced. "You look exhausted!" Amanda declared.


"I am. I think that, after a hot bath, I'll sleep for a week. But it looks like Mavis is going to be okay."


"Praise God," Amanda declared as others gathered around them. "Mavis is all right," she told them. "I was about to head back over to the church - now I can tell them that our prayers have been answered."


"They have, indeed," Elizabeth told her as Doc and Thad pulled up to the Doc's office. "There's Doc. Would it be terrible of me to leave and go on home? I really *am* tired. It's been a long two weeks."


Amanda gave her another hug. "Do you want me to drive you?"


"I'll be fine. That horse is probably as eager to get back to the ranch as I am," Elizabeth told her as Amanda walked her back to the buggy as the crowd moved to gather around Doc and Thad.


"So, what was it like, working with Dr. Mitchell?"


"He's an excellent doctor. Very dedicated to his patients."


"Okay, I'm going to let you go - but I expect a full report once you've had a chance to rest. And I also want details about Jess and Nick's engagement."


"You know about that?"


"Everyone in town knows, sister dear. But with everything going on with Mavis, it was put on the back burner and left to simmer."


"All I know is that they haven't set a date - or at least they hadn't when I left the house two weeks ago."


"That's the story we're all getting."


"Haven't you talked to Jess?"


"She seems to be avoiding me."


"I'm sure she's not. She probably didn't want to bother you, since you've probably been busy with the prayer meeting - why aren't you over there, anyway?"


"Andrew's mother insisted that I get some rest. As I said, I was heading back that way-" she glanced toward the church. "And I'd best get over there before someone else tells them the good news about Mavis. Be careful."


Elizabeth nodded, getting back into the buggy and turning it toward home, only to be forced to stop as Nick appeared from the hotel and moved in front of her. "Nick!" she said in frustration. "I'd like to go home!"


"You're going to - as soon as I get Spirit out of the stable and tie him to the back of the buggy."


"I can drive myself."


"You're already half asleep," he told her, jumping up onto the seat beside her and taking the reins. "Gitup," he called out. "Don't argue. I told Jess that I'd make sure you got home safely."


"So you've been waiting and watching all this time?"


"You can say that. But I was finishing breakfast when I saw you come in." He stopped the buggy and told her, "Stay here. I'll be right back. If you try to leave, I'll just follow you." Reaching under the seat, he pulled out a quilt. "Here," he said, placing it over her legs before getting out of the buggy.


By the time he returned he could tell that she was almost sleep sitting up, so he pulled her closer and let her rest against his shoulder. She started to pull away. "I'm okay," she murmured, straightening up again.


"Okay. We can talk. How's Mavis?"


"Well enough that Thad -" she paused, realizing what she had said. "I mean, Dr. Mitchell decided her mother and sister could take care of her. He'll be back out there every day to check on her unless they send someone to get him."


"I take it that you and he got along?"


"We -worked well together," she answered slowly. "He really is an excellent doctor. And he was determined not to leave that house until he was convinced that Mavis would recover."


"Jess told me that this isn't the first time that the town has held prayer vigils for illness or injuries."


"We've done it for as long as I can remember," Elizabeth nodded. "God doesn't always answer in the way that we might want, but we know that He's in control." She looked at him. "Thad - Dr. Mitchell will learn that once he's in Providence for awhile."


"He doesn't know it already?"


"I don't think he had ever really considered it until coming here."


"Can you keep a secret?" he asked, and Elizabeth nodded. "Before I came here, I went to church infrequently. Mother used to take me when I was a child, but I quickly learned that the only reason that my Father went was to make connections for business reasons, not because of his faith."


"That's sad," she told him.


"When I arrived in Providence and heard about how the whole town closed for church on Sundays, I was curious. I could have slept in that day, but I wanted to find out why an entire town would put business aside and spend the morning in a church."


"I thought you went because of Jess," she said with a grin.


"That was part of it," he confessed, returning her grin. "It didn't take me long to figure out the reason - and it got to me. Coming to Providence was the best thing that could have happened to me."


"Speaking of Jess," she said, "I think that Mrs. Collins and Amanda are planning an engagement party."


"Jess will hate that."


"You're smiling," Elizabeth observed.


"I didn't say that *I* would hate it," he told her. "But all the same - wait until I'm headed back toward town before you give her the news, please."




As soon as she saw the buggy pull onto the road to the house, Jess called out to Mariana to start heating some water for a bath. The room with the tin bathtub was downstairs off of the kitchen, so that no one would have to lug the tub or water up and down the stairs.


Next, Jess made sure she could see that Nick was driving the buggy and that Elizabeth was with him before she called to Lily. "Elizabeth's home!"


Lily joined her on the front porch to welcome the girl and she led Elizabeth into the house as Jess took Nick's arm once he'd grabbed the small valise containing the clothes that Jess had taken over to the Cooper farm. "Thank you for bringing her home."


"She tried to argue with me, said that she could drive herself."


"That sounds like -"


"Like you," he finished. "She *is* exhausted. The only thing that kept her awake on the drive out was talking. Mavis is out of danger."


"I thought she might be. If she hadn't been, Elizabeth would still be there. And if things had gone badly, I would have seen it in her eyes. Do you have to go right back?" she wanted to know.


"I'd just finished breakfast when she came into town and talked to Amanda. Doc and Dr. Mitchell pulled into town a minute later. Why don't I go tell Kevin the news and then I'll take a cup of coffee?"


"They're down in the south range," she told him. "I'll ask Pedro to go and tell him after he puts up the buggy."


Nick grabbed her arm. "I'll do that. Why don't you go on into the parlor and talk to your sister?" She smiled and nodded, giving him a kiss on the cheek.


"Thank you."


Nick left the house and found Pedro getting into the buggy, leaving Spirit tied to the hitching post. "Pedro," he called, and the man pulled back on the reins.


"Yes, Mr. Nick?"


"Miss Jess wants someone to go and let her brother know that their sister's home and that Mrs. Cooper is out of danger."


Pedro grinned, obviously delighted to hear the news. "I'll send Eban to do it. He stayed here to help with the tack room today. That is very good news."


Nick returned to the house as Lily was going upstairs. "I'm getting Elizabeth's nightclothes so that she can put them on after her bath," she told him. "The poor dear is so tired."


He moved toward the doors and stopped as he heard Elizabeth's voice. "Before I left Mavis and Nate's, Mrs. Collins told me to let you know that there's a party in the works to celebrate your and Nick's engagement." She belatedly glanced in his direction as he had started to turn in the hope of sneaking out of the front door. "I'm sorry, Nick. I thought you'd gone."


"I really should get back to town," he said, but Jess helped Elizabeth to her feet, pausing long enough to turn narrowed eyes his way.


"No, you're going to stay right here until I help Elizabeth to the bath, and then you and I are going to have a talk."


"Jess -" he said, but realized leaving wouldn't be a good idea. She would probably just follow him as he'd threatened to do to Elizabeth. "Okay, I'll stay."


"Good. Come on, Elizabeth. Mariana has a hot bath almost ready."


"I'm sorry, Nick," Elizabeth said again.


Nick smiled. "It'll be okay," he assured her, but truth was, he wasn't at all sure he believed it.




Jess returned only a few minutes later, and Nick decided to start things off. "Listen, Jess, I had no idea about any of this until Elizabeth mentioned it when we were coming out here."


"I don't care that you didn't know. What *I* want to know is: what are you going to do about it?"


"Me? Why do I have to -"


"It's all your fault, convincing me to become engaged."


"Why don't you want them to have a party to celebrate our decision?" he wanted to know.


"It's just another way to convince me to set a date, to get married," she insisted. "I'm sure they're talking behind my back just as much as they were before, but now, they're talking about how I've finally been *caught* or how maybe now I'll stop pretending to be a lawyer and just be happy as a wife. Even Lily was talking about planning the *wedding*!"


"Did you think that they might be genuinely happy for you?" Nick asked. "You know, when I first came here you accused me of underestimating the people of Providence. I think maybe you're the one underestimating them this time." He thought maybe he had overstepped as Jess turned away from him and stalked across the room. "Look, darlin', I'm sorry. But I really don't understand -"


Jess whirled to face him again. "You don't *have* to understand. Just fix it. I don't care how or what you have to do - I do *not* want an engagement party."


"You know that I love you. But I don't think I'll ever understand you."


"Are you going to do as I ask?" she wanted to know. "Because if you won't -" she made a move to remove the ring off her finger, but Nick took two steps and covered her hands with his.


"I'll figure something out," he told her. "I have no idea how, but -"


"Excuse me," Cassie said, clearly embarrassed as she entered the room. "Miss Lily asked me to go to Miss Elizabeth's room to get something that she forgot. I should have taken the back stairs," she said quickly.


"It's all right, Cassie," Jess told the girl.


"Hello, Mr. Everett," Cassie said. "Excuse me."


Nick walked over to the doors and watched her go upstairs before turning back to Jess. "I think I might have found a way."




"Cassie and Robert."


"What about them?" Jess wanted to know, not understanding what he was talking about.


"They've been spending quite a bit of time together, haven't they?"


"Right now, I think that Robert's just waiting for one of the houses that we keep for the married hands to open up."


"The foreman's house is empty, isn't it?"


"Yes, but Hank's the foreman," she reminded him. "He doesn't use it and sleeps in the bunkhouse side room since he's not married."


"And Kevin has been training Robert to take over for Hank some day -"


"You're thinking that if he's offered that house, then he and Cassie -"


"And that would give the people in town someone else to celebrate," Nick told her. "What do you think?"


"That you're a genius," she told him.


"And I'll also have a discreet chat with Amanda, asking her to pull the reins back on Mrs. Collins or anyone else who suggests having a party for us. Would that make you happy?"


She smiled, taking a step closer to him. "Thank you. I'll mention the idea about the house to Kevin this evening-"


"No, let me handle it. I'm the one who has to *fix* it, remember?"


She slid her hands to his shoulders. "Why do you put up with me?" she asked.


"Because I happen to love you. I'm going to prove to you that no matter what you say or do, that's not going to change."


"I honestly can't tell you why I feel the way I do, it's just -"


"It's what makes you *you*," he told her before kissing her. This time, they were interrupted by Kevin entering the house, calling out.




"In here, Kevin," she called back with a regretful tone, slowly moving away from Nick.


"Hi, Nick," Kevin said as he focused on Jess. "Eban rode out and told me that Elizabeth's home and that Mavis Cooper is okay."


"Elizabeth's having a hot bath, and then going up to get some badly needed rest. She's exhausted."


"Two weeks taking care of Mavis - I'm sure she is. But she's okay otherwise?"


"She'll be fine after she rests," Jess assured him. "If you'll both excuse me, I'm going to go see how things are going." She kept hold of Nick's hand for a moment before leaving them alone.


Kevin sat down. "I'm glad she's home - and that Mavis is all right."


"We all are," Nick agreed. "Kevin, do you remember mentioning to me about Robert becoming Hank's second in command as it were?"


"What?" Kevin asked, clearly surprised by the change of subject. "Oh, yes. I think he'll make a good foreman with some more experience. Why do you ask?"


Nick quickly filled the other man in on the plans for the party and Jess' reaction to those plans - and his own idea to replace his and Jess' in the minds of Mrs. Collins and others. "What do you think?"


"I know Hank has no plan to marry - he was married for a little while years ago, and when she died, he said never again. I'm sure he wouldn't have a problem with Robert and Cassie using the foreman's house."


"How about this? If he changes his mind, *I'll* pay to have a brand-new house built for him and his wife."


Kevin shook his head. "I'm sorry my sister is so expensive for you."


"I think she's worth it," Nick replied. "Now, to talk to Robert."


"Why don't I send him into town when I get back out there?" Kevin suggested. "We could use some more feed, and I'll suggest that he stop by the saloon for a drink -"


"I'll keep an eye out. He hasn't come into the saloon much since what happened to Margie."


Lily appeared from the direction of the kitchen. "Hello, darling," she told Kevin, coming over to give him a kiss. "Jess told me you were here. She's taking Elizabeth up the back stairs since it's closer. The poor girl fell asleep twice in the bath."


"I'll go see if I can help," Nick told them. "Excuse me."




He heard Jess telling her sister, "We'll stop here for a minute so you can rest a little," when he got to the first step. He took the steps two at a time to get to them. "Nick! What-"


Scooping Elizabeth into his arms, he winked at her. "I thought you might be in need of a knight errant," he told her.


Elizabeth managed a tired giggle at his gallantry. "Thank you, sir," she said.


Jess moved ahead of them once they got upstairs and opened the door of Elizabeth's room, pleased to find that either Cassie or Mariana had already turned the covers down. She waited for Nick to lay Elizabeth onto the bed and pulled the covers up. Turning to Nick, she said, "I'm repeating her words, but - thank you."


He bowed. "My pleasure, darlin'. I'm going back to town. Are we still having supper tomorrow night?"


"Yes." Her smiled widened as he took her hand and kissed it. "Love you."


As he left the room, Nick heard Elizabeth begin to cry, and stopped to look in through the almost closed door as Jess sat down on the bed. "What is it, honey?"


"Oh, Jess, I was so-so sc-scared," the young woman sobbed. "Mavis was - she almost died -"


"But she didn't," Jess told her. "It wasn't her time."


"Maybe I'm not cut out to be a nurse."

"Nonsense. You're a good nurse." Elizabeth's tears started to subside as she finally exhausted herself, and Nick finally went back downstairs and left the house to return to town.




Robert entered Lily's Place and looked around, smiling as several of the regulars greeted him, inviting him over for a drink, but he shook his head. "Just came in for one," he told one of them, heading to the bar. "Beer, please," he told Jake.


"One beer, coming up," Jake replied.


Robert picked up the mug and turned to survey the room, nodding at Nick, who was seated at his table. "Not playing cards tonight?"


"Too early," Nick answered, pointing to an empty chair. "Can we talk?"


"I guess so," Robert said, sitting down.


"Tell me if this is none of my business, but - you and Cassie have been seeing a lot of each other, haven't you?"


"I - guess," he answered hesitantly.


"You bring her home from church on Sundays. Jess tells me that you and Cassie took walks in the evening before it got too cold -"


"Yes, we've been seeing each other," Robert confirmed. "Actually, we decided to get married the weekend before you and Miss Jess got engaged," he said.


"You did? Why didn't you say anything?"


"Cassie didn't want to take attention away from you and Miss Jess," Robert explained.


"Have you discussed a date for the wedding?"


"Well, that's part of the problem. Until one of the houses on the ranch open up -"


"What if I told you that you and Cassie could use the foreman's house at the ranch once you're married?"


"Hank's the foreman," Robert told him.


"I know. Just answer my question."


"You could arrange that?"


"I can. You know that Hank's training you to take his job when he finally decides to retire - and he's not using the house, so -"


"So Cassie and I could set a date sooner rather than later!" Robert finished. He was grinning from ear to ear as he stood up. "Excuse me -"


"Aren't you going to finish your beer?" Nick asked, but Robert shook his head.


"I need to get back to the ranch so I can tell Cassie about this. Thank you, Mr. Everett!" He held out his hand to shake Nick's. "Thank you!"


"You're welcome," Nick told him, chuckling as Robert left the saloon.


Cara came over to take the half-full mug of beer. "What was that all about?" she asked.


"Oh, nothing. He and Cassie are getting married."


She looked toward the doors. "Really? I'm glad. He's a nice guy. Deserves to be happy. Margie was never right for him, but he couldn't see it."


Nick got up from the table. "I need to go see someone," he told Cara. "I'll be back before it gets too busy."




The town was different this evening, Nick noted. Instead of the somber feeling that had permeated the town over the last two weeks, things felt happier, as if the town was looking for a reason to celebrate. The weather was still cold, but it the wind wasn't blowing, and the snow was mostly gone. As he walked down the street to the parsonage, Nick smiled as he hoped that Amanda would be free to talk.


The elder Reverend Lee came to the door after Nick knocked. "Nick!" he declared. "This is a surprise. How may I help you?"


"Evening, Reverend," Nick said. "I need to speak to Amanda, if she's not busy. I have a message from her sister."


"Come in, please," the older man said, stepping back. "I'll go get her," he said as his wife called from the back of the house.


"Who is it, Matthew?"


"Someone to see Amanda, dear," he replied as Amanda herself appeared from the direction of the kitchen. She was untying the apron she was wearing and smiled when she saw him.


"Nick. Hello. Is everything okay?"


"I need to talk to you. Jess has a favor to ask," he added in a soft tone.


"Why don't we go into the front parlor?" she suggested. "Excuse us, sir," she said to the Reverend. Once in the parlor, she told Nick, "Andrew is paying a call on the Coopers. Mrs. Lee and I were starting supper. What's going on? It is about Elizabeth?"


"No. Elizabeth will be fine once she gets some rest." He took a deep breath before saying quickly, "Jess doesn't want anyone to plan an engagement party for us."


"Oh my," Amanda said. "That could be a problem. I know that Mrs. Collins and Milly -"


"So do I. And so does Jess. She's *not* happy about it."


"I can imagine," she nodded. "Jess has always been a very private person. You want me to try to stop the party don't you?"


"Well, the party for us, yes. But I have an alternate couple in mind."




"Robert and Cassie."


"He finally asked? I'm so glad. Elizabeth was infatuated with him when he first started working at the ranch," she told him. "I was happy when she finally outgrew it."


"I think he and Cassie are going to set a date this evening."


"And *I* think that I can steer Mrs. Collins and Milly in that direction instead of toward Jess." She smiled. "And with the bazaar and Christmas coming up, I don't think there will be any problem keeping them from planning a party for Jess, but after the first of the year - all I can say is that I'll try."


"Thank you."




After dancing several dances, Nick led Jess toward a corner of the room, grabbing two glasses of punch on the way. "You can thank me now," he told her.


She smiled at him over the punch. "I'll thank you later," she promised.


"And with the wedding date set for just after the New Year," Nick added, "you should be safe from any parties for at least a full month."


"And what then?" she asked.


"I suppose I'll having to start matchmaking and find another couple." He sighed. "I never thought of myself as a marriage broker."


"I'm sorry, Nick," she told him, touching a hand to his arm. "I won't make you do that again. I just need a little more time to get used to the idea of our being engaged, I suppose. Hopefully a month will be long enough."


"So you're trying to tell me that if - after Robert and Cassie's wedding - Betsy or Milly decide to have a celebration for us, you won't insist that I stop it from happening?"


"I'm saying that I hope I won't," she said.


"I'll accept that response," he replied, smiling at her. "So, shall we have another dance?"




Christmas Day dawned with a clear sky and cold temperatures. Without a child in the house for several years, most of the family had lost some of the exuberance which Benjamin brought back as he woke just after sunrise and rushed downstairs to see what might be waiting under the tree that had been set up in the parlor the night before by the adults.


The adults, including Nick, who had agreed to spend the night at the ranch, found him sitting cross-legged at the base of the tree, his chin resting on his fists when they came down a little later.


"Merry Christmas!" was heard throughout the house, and Lily laughed as she saw her son.


"Benji! How long have you been down here?"


"A little while," he said, looking a bit sad.


"What's wrong, son?" Kevin asked the boy, kneeling beside him while looking up at the others.


"It's not here," Benjamin said.


"What's not here?" Elizabeth wanted to know, picking up several brightly colored packages. "There are a lot of boxes here with your name -"


"But none of them are a new horse and saddle," he sighed.


"Well, a horse is a little big to put under the tree, don't you think, buddy?"


Benjamin nodded in response to Nick's observation, then looked up at his mother. "I guess it was too much to ask for."


"Why don't we open the gifts?" Lily said. "Benji, would you pass them out, please?"


He sighed again and stood up, picking up packages and handing them out to whoever they were for - slowly getting into 'delivering' the gifts. "What about these for Aunt Amanda and Uncle Andrew and -"


"Just leave those under the tree," Jess said. "You can hand those out when they get here for dinner."


"There aren't anymore, then," Benjamin announced.


"What about that one at the very back?" Elizabeth asked, pointing to a small box against the wall.


Crawling under the tree, Benjamin frowned. "It's another one for me," he said, shaking the box. "I don't hear anything."


The adults laughed. "Why don't you open it up and see what's inside?" Lily suggested as everyone stopped opening packages to watch the boy.


He opened the package, his frown deepening as he pulled out a piece of paper. Upon reading what was on it, his eyes widened. "What's it say?" Lily asked.


"Go to the barn," he told her. Suddenly he turned and took off, going through the kitchen to the rear door.


"Well, let's go," Kevin told everyone, leading the way after the boy.


Benjamin pulled the barn door open and entered to find a nut-brown pony with a brand new youth saddle on its back. "Wow!" he declared, hugging the animal as the adults entered the barn. Turning around, he went to hug first his mother's neck, then Kevin's. "Thank you, thank you! He's beautiful. And the saddle -"


"The saddle is from Aunt Jess and Uncle Nick," Lily told him.


"And my present to go with him is still in the house," Elizabeth added, wrapping her arms around herself. "Now, it's cold out here, so I'm going back to the house to finish opening my presents."


"Can I ride him later?" Benjamin asked, clearly not wanting to leave the barn.


"After dinner," Kevin said. "I still have to adjust the stirrups for your legs. Let's go, shall we?"


Back in the house, Benjamin was delighted by the saddlebags that matched his new saddle. "They're big enough for your school books and more," Elizabeth told him, accepting his hug of thanks with a smile.


Nick opened his gift from Jess, surprised to find a red satin brocade vest. Looking at Jess, he smiled. "Thank you."


"Thank me, too," Elizabeth told him. "Jess bought the material, but I made the vest."


"Red?" he asked, holding it up.


"I thought you needed some color -" Jess said, "and it's perfect for Christmas."


"Open yours," he told her.


She found the one from him and opened it, laughing as she lifted the lace shawl - also red. "You knew about the vest, didn't you?" She turned to her sister. "Elizabeth?"


"I promise, I didn't say a word!"


Jess put the shawl over her shoulders and smiled. "You're the only red head I've known who could wear red," Lily said.


Elizabeth made breakfast for the family after going to get dressed, and then gave the kitchen back to Mariana, who wore her new Christmas finery while preparing Christmas dinner.




Nick, wearing his new vest, entered the parlor to find Jess sitting on the hearth, looking at the tree. "You look a bit sad," he told her, sitting beside her.


"I'm not, really. It's just that, Pa always hoped that the house would be full on Christmas. I hope he's watching and seeing how his dream has come true."


"And there will be more soon," he noted. "Amanda and Andrew and the Lees - that's four more. Anymore than that, and the place will burst at the seams."


"I'm glad you're here," she told him, turning to look up at him. "Thank you for the shawl," she told him, readjusting it on her shoulders.


"Thank you for the vest." She leaned against him. "I've never really had big family Christmases," he told her. "Ours were usually very simple - my parents and me. We would open our gifts, have breakfast and that's it. No Christmas dinner, no laughter."


"So you're glad you're here, too," she said.


"Yes," he nodded. "Very, very glad." He was about to kiss her when there was a knock on the front door, and Benjamin bounded down the stairs.


"Aunt Amanda's here!" he announced.


Jess smiled at Nick. "Merry Christmas, Nick."


"Merry Christmas," he replied, giving her a kiss anyway. They *were* engaged, after all.


The End

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