Episode 8

Nick's eyes narrowed as he watched Jess. "Well?" he asked. "Call or fold?"


"Call," she told him, laying down her cards. "Four ladies."


He shook his head and tossed his cards onto the bed. "Your pot."


"Uh-uh," she said. "We agreed that you would show your cards so I'd know you weren't letting me win, remember?"


Reaching out, he turned the cards over. "Full house. Still your hand."


"Let me see," Jess mused, picking up the cards. "That makes how many hands we've played?"


Nick folded his arms across his chest, watching as she started to shuffle the deck. "Ten."


"And how many have I won?"


He grinned. "Six. You know, maybe I *should* let you sit in on a game with Leroy," he told her. "If for no other reason than to see his reaction when you win. You *are* good."


She smiled, and held the deck out toward him. "You want to cut?"


He shook his head, grabbing her hand to pull her up onto the bed. "Time to quit playing games."


Jess dropped the cards onto the bed and put her arms around his neck. "Mmmm. I think I like that idea."


"Only seven days to go," he pointed out. "Sure you haven't changed your mind about marrying me?"


"I don't know. Let me think -" anything else she might have said was captured by his lips on hers. Once the kiss ended, she said, "Okay, okay. I've thought about it."




"What was the question?"


In answer, Nick pulled her close once again, holding her tightly against his chest as he rained kisses over her face. After the last kiss, he continued to hold her close. "You realize, I hope, that I'm counting the days until you're totally, irrevocably mine, don't you?"


"Hmm," she replied, finally resting her cheek against his shoulder. "I'm counting the hours, too." Her fingers tangled in the dark hair on his chest. "I really shouldn't be here like this. It's positively scandalous."


"Thad brought a shirt for me to wear - would you prefer -?" he moved as if to get it from the bedpost, but Jess shook her head.


"No. I like this."


"So do I," he told her, lifting her chin so that he could kiss her again. "Seven days. Seems like forever at the moment. I still say that we need to take a short trip after the wedding -"


"And spend our first night as a married couple on the train? No, thank you."


"So have you decided where we're going to spend that first night?" he asked.


"The *Presidential Suite* of the Providence Hotel," she informed him, and felt the rumble of laughter under her cheek.


"You mean I've been staying there all this time and never knew that there's a Presidential Suite?"


Jess smiled up at him. "It's really just the two rooms on the top floor. It has it's own bath. They usually rent them out as two different rooms unless there's a special reason to turn it into a Suite. You're laughing at us, aren't you?"


"I wouldn't dare. No, it will be fine. Anyplace where we can be together is good for me." He lifted a hand to trace a line from her forehead, around her ear and down the side of her neck to the top of her blouse, feeling her shiver at his touch. "I love you."


"I love you," she told him, bringing the finger that he'd used to her lips and placing a kiss there before sighing deeply. "I really need to go."


"Why?" he asked, letting her go with great reluctance. "It's only lunchtime -"


"I know. But Amanda and Elizabeth said that they needed me to come to Amanda's today for another fitting for my dress."


"Surely they have your measurements by now -"


"They do, but they're the ones doing the sewing, and insist that I need to actually try it on, so -"


Nick sighed. "Are the arrangements made for the second part of the ceremony?" he asked.


"I think so. Hank and Robert are organizing some of the hands to put the statue on its pedestal and guard it through the rest of the night until after the wedding."


He captured her hand again as she gathered the matchsticks that they had been using in their poker games. "Seven days," he said again.


"You need to start walking more," Jess pointed out.


"I am, when I get the chance. I've been walking out to the dining room for lunch for the last week."


"Don't overdo," she cautioned.


"Make up your mind, darlin'. First you tell me to walk more, then you worry that I'll overdo."


"I just don't want anything to go wrong," she said, leaning in to kiss him. "Because I fully intend to marry you - in seven days."


"Seven days," he said with her, placing his hands on either side of her head to prolong the next kiss before releasing her and watching her leave the room.




"You want this room divided into two rooms, Doc?" Niles Bradford questioned, looking around the parlor.


"That's right. Instead of a single parlor, we'll be turning it into two examining rooms. And the entry hall will be the waiting room."


Ma came from the kitchen, smiling when she saw Niles, who nodded. "Ma'am," he acknowledged.


"What's going on?" she asked Doc, and he placed a hand on her elbow, steering her back into the dining room.


"You said you wanted us to use the house, didn't you?"


"Yeah, I did. But you hadn't mentioned it -"


"Because until Nick's out of here, we can't really start the work that needs to be done."




"What we've been talking about is dividing this room into two rooms. One will be the operating room, and the other, off the kitchen, will be -" he took a deep breath. "Will be our room. If you still want me, Martha."


She stared up at him, her mouth open in shocked delight. "You sure 'bout this, Mark?" she asked.


"Quite sure," he answered, pulling her close and giving her a kiss. "Now, let me show you what else we're going to do -"


"I have lunch 'most ready," she told him. "Why don't we discuss it while we're eatin'?"




While Doc finished his discussion with Niles about the house, Ma set the table for lunch. When he returned to the room, saying, "Niles will be back after lunch," he paused, seeing three plates. "Three plates?"


"Ma, is lunch -" Nick was asking as he came into the dining room, wearing the pants and shirt that Thad had brought over, and saw that someone else was there. "-ready?" he finished, grinning. "Hello, Doc."


"Nick. Are you supposed to be up and about?"


"He's gettin' married in a week," Ma said as Doc held her chair. "Needs to build up his strength for the - festivities," she told him, giving Nick a grin and a wink. "Never heard of a man not dancin' at his own weddin'."


"Jess said that I needed to do more walking," Nick told Doc, who sighed and shook his head.


"So now Jess is a doctor as well as an attorney?"


"Look, Doc," Nick said, "I'm just doing what the lady wants. Lying in bed isn't helping me to recover, is it?"


"No, I suppose not," Doc agreed. "Thad did say that he was amazed at how quickly you're recovering."


"I was highly motivated," Nick reminded him, and Ma laughed.


"Ha! Ya got that right!"


"Did I see Niles Bradford leaving the house as I came from my room?"


Doc nodded. "Yes. We were discussing the work that needs to be done to make the place usable as a hospital and office - as well as two separate living areas."


"Two living areas?"


"The second floor would be used for patients who can go up and down the stairs - and the third floor will be living quarters for Thad and his family."


"Family? Has something happened that I don't know about?"


Doc smiled. "Not on that front. Just getting things ready. When Niles is done up there, there will be a sitting room, and three bedrooms."


"What about a kitchen? Elizabeth likes to cook -"


"The back stairs will make it possible to use the kitchen for both areas," Doc told him. He looked around the dining room. "And this room will be divided into a surgical area, and two smaller rooms - with a small sitting room and a bedroom."


"For you, Ma?" Nick asked.


She smiled as Doc answered. "For the two of us," he said, reaching over to take her hand across the table. "We're going to get married."


Nick smiled at the news. "It's about time!" he declared. "When?"


"We haven't discussed it -" Ma began, but Doc finished.


"As soon as the work on the house is done."


"Jess will be delighted to hear this," Nick told them. He looked at Ma. "What about Micah and Thomas?" he asked, referring to her two sons who were still back in Sutton's Creek digging gold.


"I'll be sendin' Eban up there after next week t'tell 'em the news. Up t'them if they want to come down here and see their ol' Ma get hitched."




"Oh, Jess, you look beautiful," Elizabeth sighed as she stood back and looked at her in the white satin dress. "Doesn't she, Amanda?"


Jess turned to look at her reflection in the mirror. "Is that really me?" she asked, surprised at what she saw.


"Of course it is, silly," Elizabeth assured her. "Who else but you has that red hair?" She studied the dress, reaching out to examine the stitching that fastened the short train to the bustle. "Don't you think that we need to add a way to fasten the train up here so that she can dance at the reception?" she asked her twin.


"I think you're right," Amanda said. "Or find a way to remove the train altogether."


"Oh, no," Elizabeth insisted. She lifted the train in the middle and held it up to the back of the dress, placing it around the bustle. "We could put a small hook on each side, and make a loop -"


"Wait," Amanda said, managing to get out of the chair in which she was sitting and going over to her sewing box. "I think I have something," she told them as she dug through the contents. "Aha. Here it is!" she held up two sets of small pearl-like buttons that matched the ones on the back of the bodice. "We can put one of these on each side of the bustle -" she placed one against the dress, at the edge of the bustle, "And then put a small buttonhole in the train -"


"That's brilliant!" Elizabeth declared.


Amanda tilted her head, studying the dress once more. "I still say that it needs more lace."


"You *always* say that," Elizabeth said.


"Do you think it needs more lace, Jess?" Amanda asked their older sister.


Jess shook her head. "No. I think it's perfect the way it is," she answered. "Thank you both for all the work you've done -"


She stopped talking as Amanda put a hand on her abdomen. "Whoa."


"What is it, Amanda?" Elizabeth asked, helping her over to the chair. "Are you okay?"


"I'm - fine. He's just a little - active." She smiled. "He likes to remind me that he's there sometimes."


Jess had turned from the mirror, and moved to join her sisters. "May I-?" she asked.


Amanda took her hand and placed it where hers had been, watching Jess. "Give him a minute. Usually when he starts, he keeps on for awhile - There."


Jess smiled and laughed softly. "You keep saying he -"


"It's a boy. I'm sure of it."


"You can't know that, Amanda," Elizabeth said. "The Donagers -"


"But this baby is also a Lee. And the first child of the last four Lee sons has been another son. I'd hate to break that tradition."


"I doubt Andrew would be too disappointed if you have a little girl," Jess pointed out.


Amanda sighed. "You're right. But I'd like a boy."


"May I get out of this dress now?" Jess asked. "It's a good thing the wedding is outside - because this material is hot!'


Elizabeth began to unfasten the tiny pearl buttons as Amanda spoke. "Well, we could always replace the satin sleeves with ones made of lace," and all three laughed.




Thad closed his bag, having finished his examination. "Uncle Mark told me that Jess wants to make sure you're able to walk in a week."


Nick grinned. "And I suppose you're going to lecture me once again about being on my feet too much."


"Not at all. I do think you need to start going up and down the stairs here - slowly at first. But I also think that it might not hurt if you get out of this place and walk around town. Take someone with you - in case you start hurting too much - because I know that you'll likely do more than you should."


"And if I start hurting?"


"Have whoever is with you either get you over to the office - or get me."


Nick nodded in agreement. "Are you releasing me from this place?"


"Not for a few more days at least. Maybe until the day of the wedding. It's not your legs that worry me. I'm still keeping an eye on your back - There's nothing wrong, but - well, I suppose it's just that I've never known anyone who healed as quickly as you have."


"It's called living right, Thad," Nick said with a grin.


"Uh huh. Whatever it is, I wish I could bottle it. I wouldn't have many patients left, but we'd make a fortune."


"I already have one of those. And I think you do, too."


"Surprisingly, no." Seeing Nick's surprise, Thad went on to explain. "While Uncle Mark did send money back east for my mother and me, and paid for my education, Mother insisted that he wasn't going to send her more than we needed to survive. She didn't want me to feel like I didn't have to work for a living."


Nick nodded. "I can understand that. It makes a difference when you know there's money that you don't have to work for. I was lucky. After my father disinherited me, I was able to make enough as a lawyer and playing poker so that I could support myself. I made quite a few 'deals' to keep wearing silk shirts in those days, I can tell you. Then my mother passed and left me some money. You don't seem to be any the worse for not having grown up with money."


"It taught me the value of a dollar," Thad agreed. "And it also made me think twice when they offered me what seemed like a fortune to stay at the hospital instead of coming out here to help my uncle and take over his practice."


"Do you think that you made the right decision?"


Thad didn't hesitate before answering the question. "I'm sure of it. This - this is what being a doctor should be about. Helping people who need help." He smiled. "Besides, if I hadn't come out here, I wouldn't have met Elizabeth."




Nick was sitting on the porch with Ma when Jess arrived the next morning. Seeing him sitting there, she smiled. "What's this?" she asked as he stood up. "Hello, Ma."


"Mornin'," Ma replied.


Nick captured Jess' hand. "I thought we might take a walk around town."


"Is this doctor approved?" she wanted to know, looking at Ma for the answer.


"Thad said he could do it. Long as he takes someone with him."


"And that, darlin', is you."


"Go easy," Ma called as they slowly went down the steps and into the street.


"Thad must think you're almost recovered if he agreed to this," Jess said, her arm though his as they walked along the street and up onto the boardwalk. Several people passed them, some driving wagons, or riding horses, and each one waved at them, saying they were glad to see him out and about.


"More or less," Nick replied to Jess' comment. "He's not ready to fully release me, however."


"He's probably just making sure that you're okay," she told him, smiling as someone else spoke to Nick.


"I think I love this town almost as much as I love you," he observed, returning her smile.


"So you're marrying me because of the town, not because -" he steered her into the old freight depot, and backed her against the door to kiss her.


"I said 'almost'," he told her. "You will always be my first priority, Jess. If you came to me tomorrow, and said that you were leaving Providence, I'd question you about it, but I'd go wherever you wanted to go."


"I believe you would," she said, smiling up at him, as she pulled his head down for another kiss. Resting her head against his chest, she sighed. "I'm going to miss this."


"What? Kissing me? That, darlin' is going to happen all the time."


"No. I was talking about slipping into this place - or my office to steal kisses."


"Ah. Well, I'll see what I can do." He smiled. "But I'm supposed to be walking, not standing here, sparkin' my best girl."


"Your *only* girl," she corrected, sighing again as they stepped back out onto the sidewalk.


They walked down the street, then crossed to the station as the morning train came to a stop. Instead of climbing up onto the platform, they stayed in the street next to it, watching as a few passengers came out of the car. "What the -?" Nick muttered, and Jess followed his gaze to see a woman wearing blue silk trimmed with white feathers. Her bleach-blonde hair was piled up under a hat that was trimmed with still more feathers.


"Nick?" she questioned, but he shook his head and started back down the street, moving much more quickly that they had been moving before.


But a strident voice called out from the platform, causing him to stop and close his eyes. "Nick? Nick, honey, is that you?" She caught up with them, ignoring Jess. "I thought it was you, Nick honey! I got here as soon as I could - you wouldn't believe the trouble I had - oh, but I'm here now, and everything's good. I missed you!" Her words were punctuated by her wrapping her arms around Nick and pulling him into a long kiss.


Jess stood there as Nick pushed the woman away, aware that everyone on Front Street was watching. They could hardly miss it, since the woman spoke in a loud tone, probably hoping that it would carry and embarrass Nick. "Belle! What are you doing here?" he demanded to know.


"I told you that I'd follow you, Nick, honey," she said, taking his arm to half-drag him down the street. "Don't you remember?"


Nick turned to look at Jess over his shoulder with a look of apology and shock. He stopped Belle's headlong attempt to pull him with her and stood there. "What I remember is that the last time I saw you was in Dodge City - and I told you *not* to follow me. Now, I would suggest you buy a ticket for the return train this afternoon and go back to wherever you came from." With those words, he turned back toward Jess.


"But Nick, honey!" Belle called after him. "I love you! You promised -"


"I never promised her anything," Nick told Jess as he got back to her. "Come on," he said, putting his hand on her arm, but not moving until she did as well.


"Where are we going?" she asked.


"Nick, honey -!"


"The station's back down the street, Belle. Goodbye," he said without looking at the woman.


Belle gathered her skirts and looked around with a loud "Humph!" Spotting the hotel, she stormed inside.


Glancing back, Nick turned Jess toward the saloon. "The saloon?" Jess questioned. "She probably knows that you own it - she'll follow us -"


"We can talk in the office," he said, noting that the doors were open. "And if she comes in here, we'll go out the back door."


Jake's smile was huge as he looked up to see them enter. "Boss! I thought I saw you a few minutes ago -"


"Listen, Jake, is Eban in the office yet?"


The bartender looked confused. "No. He said something yesterday about being a little late this morning - why?"


"Jess and I need a place to talk - if a blonde you've never seen comes in here, you haven't seen me, okay?"


"A blonde?" Jake questioned. "Uh, sure thing. I haven't seen you today."


"Thank you." Nick led Jess over to the door that led into the storeroom, and then into the office. Closing the door behind them, he leaned against it, as though he might have to stop Jess from trying to leave. "I *can* explain - if you're willing to listen," he said.


"I'm listening," she replied.


"I first met Belle at the same time I met Lilly and Glenn. She was working as a hostess at their gambling house. She flirted with me - but those girls are paid to flirt with the customers. I never encouraged her - besides, she was - heavily involved with another gambler from down in New Orleans. Jean-Phillipe Devereux."


Jess finally lifted her head to look at him. "I've heard that name. Wasn't he the man who -?"


Nick nodded. "Shot Glenn Taylor after Glenn accused him of cheating."


"And then you shot him - So - this - Belle transferred her - affections to you after you killed him?"


"That's about it."


"She sounded like you were supposed to be expecting her here," Jess said.


"As I told her, the last time I saw her was in Dodge City, Kansas. And that was a year before I arrived in Providence. She keeps finding ways to track me down and follow me. I've told her every time that I don't care about her, and don't want to see her again." He was quiet as she stood there. "Do you believe me?"


She took a deep breath. "Everyone in town heard her - the things she said. They're all going to believe -"


"Jess, I don't give -" He stopped, regaining control before continuing. "I don't care what everyone else says or thinks. I do care about what *you* believe." He held out his hand in silent invitation. "I love you, Jess. I told you that I have never loved any woman before you." Seeing her disbelief, he sighed. "I've been *with* other women, yes. But I never *made love* to them."


"Did you - and she-?"






"Never," he repeated. "I give you my word. I was never attracted to Belle Carson in that way. In *any* way," he corrected. "Please believe me, darlin'." When she still didn't move, he spoke again. "Do you really think that I would have stayed here, would have worked so hard to win your love if I was expecting her to arrive and come between us?"


That argument finally seemed to reach her, and she placed her hand in his before moving into his arms. "I believe you," she told him.


"Thank God," he murmured as their lips met. "Still want to marry me?" he asked, looking down at her upturned face.


"Yes." She slid her hand to the back of his head and pulled him down to her this time.




Jake was wiping down the bar, thinking about what Nick had told him when he heard the swinging doors open. Looking up, he had to blink several times as he saw the woman standing there. The blue silk that snugly encased her ample figure was liberally trimmed with white feathers, as were the hat on her white-blonde hair and the closed parasol that she used as a walking stick. "May I help you, miss?" he asked.


She sashayed over to the bar, looking around the room. "They tell me that this is the only saloon in town." The Southern accent was so thick that Jake thought it could have been cut with a knife.


"Yes. But we're not open yet."


"The man at the hotel told me that, too," she said. "I'm not looking for a drink right now. Just some information."


"Be glad to help if I can," Jake told her. He'd met *ladies* like her before. She figured that he was so in awe of her looks, he would tell her anything she wanted to know.


She turned around to face him, leaning over the bar in an attempt to impress him with the cleavage above the feathers. "Where is Nick?"


"He's not here," Jake answered, moving to pick up a glass from the bar - deliberately letting it fall to the floor - where it shattered. "Sorry," he told the woman. "I was a little - distracted," he explained, dropping his gaze to her bosom and grinning.


She smiled and raised a hand to his cheek, stroking it. "Nick won't appreciate your being - distracted," she pointed out. "What's your name, honey?"


"J-Jake," he answered, continuing to act the part.


"I'll be back later, Jake honey," she told him. "And I might even have a drink."


He watched as she turned and slowly left, then grabbed for the broom to sweep up the broken glass.


"What was *that*?" a feminine voice called from the top of the stairs.


Jake winced and smiled as he looked up to see Cara coming down the stairs. "Some lady looking for information," he told her, pouring her a cup of coffee. "You're looking beautiful this morning."


She rolled her eyes at his attempt at flattery. "I know that woman," she told him. "She's trouble."


"How do you know her?"


"We worked together several years ago," Cara said. "What information was she looking for?"




As soon as they heard glass breaking, Nick and Jess froze, ending the kiss. Without saying a word, Nick opened the door and paused, listening as Jake told someone that he'd been distracted. Signaling Jess to keep quiet, he led her past the back stairs and out through the rear door into the alley. From there, they moved toward the north end of the street.


"Did I really say that I was going to miss sneaking around?" Jess asked, and Nick grinned in response.


"I think you did," he confirmed, stopping to look past the feed lot down Front Street. "I don't see her. Either she's still in there with Jake or she went back to the hotel. Let's go."


Within a few minutes, they were back inside the relative safety of Ma's house. "I expected you two t'be out for awhile longer," she told them as they entered the parlor. "Somethin's wrong," she observed as Nick sat down on the sofa. "Your legs botherin' ya?"


Jess sat down beside him as Nick shook his head and answered, "It's worse than that, Ma."




Nick finally told Jess to go home for supper. "No reason for you to stay here," he told her.


"What if she comes over here to see you?" Jess asked. "You know that she'll ask people about you - someone is bound to tell her that you're here."


"Ma won't let her in. You need to go home. I'll see you tomorrow morning at church."


"What about lunch tomorrow? Will Thad let you ride out to the ranch?"


"I could probably manage a buggy ride - but I doubt he'll agree. I'll talk to him about it when he comes for supper. Spirit's going to think I've abandoned him," he sighed.


"No, he's not. I've been riding him into town occasionally," she informed him.


Nick shook his head in surprise. "You - what? He doesn't like it when someone else rides him."


"I guess he likes me," she told him.


"He has good taste," he said, pulling her close. "Be careful going home. And tell Lily not to worry about Belle being in town."


"She will. You know she will."


"As long as you're not worried anymore, it's all good."




Jess was sipping coffee when Lily entered the parlor and sank onto the sofa beside Kevin. "She's down. Let's see how long she sleeps tonight," she told her husband, gratefully accepting a cup from Jess. "Thank you. I had forgotten how babies don't sleep a full night."


"She's only a month old," Elizabeth pointed out. "She'll start sleeping longer before too long."


"Now you're an expert on babies, are you?" Kevin teased.


"After spending all of that time with Mavis and her baby, I think I could be considered an expert," Elizabeth replied. "Besides, I've been reading about them in some of the medical books."


"Took bad that Cassie isn't available to take care of Kate the way she took care of Benjamin," Kevin said, and smiled when Lily shook her head.


"Even if she *were* available, I wouldn't let her do it. I'm enjoying taking care of Kate. I wish now that I had been allowed to take care of Benji when he was a baby, instead of letting my sister hire someone to do it. Cassie was wonderful with him, but I should have insisted on doing it." Kevin took her hand in his as she spoke.


"You're awfully quiet this evening, Jess," Elizabeth noted. "Is everything okay?"


"I have a feeling she's starting to realize how close the wedding is," Kevin said. "By this time next week, you'll be a married woman," he told Jess.


"I was going to ask you, Jess," Elizabeth said. "Who was that woman that half-dragged Nick down the street this morning?"


"You saw that?" Jess asked.


"I had just come into town, and was looking through the window when I saw her. Nick didn't look happy to see her -"


"He wasn't," Jess said with a sigh, aware that Lily was frowning in her direction.

"Who was it, Jess?"


"Belle Carson."


"Oh my. That's a name I haven't heard in a long time."


"Who is she?" Kevin asked.


"She worked for Glenn at the gambling house in Memphis," Lily explained. "She spent quite a bit of time with Jean-Phillipe Devereux during those days before he shot Glenn."


"And before Nick shot Devereux," Jess added.


"So why is this woman in Providence?" Elizabeth wanted to know.


Jess, Kevin, and Lily looked at each other, before Jess spoke again. "Elizabeth, maybe you should -"


"No, I will not go to my room like a child," she announced. "I'm a grown woman, and I have just as much right as anyone else to know what's going on. So - why is she here?"


It wasn't Jess who answered as Lily spoke. "Belle became - enamored of Nick after Devereux's death. I don't remember ever seeing him give her any encouragement, but she let every other hostess know that he was 'off limits', as she put it. I think she followed us to St. Louis - I seem to recall Nick mentioning something about having seen her at a club where he'd gone to play poker, and that he hadn't gone back because of it. He hasn't mentioned her since he got here, so I thought she might have gotten the message and moved on to greener pastures. I guess she didn't?" she asked Jess.


"According to Nick, she's been following him around ever since. And every time she turns up, she tries to create trouble for him. He's told her in no uncertain terms that he's not interested, but she doesn't seem to understand."


"She probably does, but she can't accept it," Elizabeth said. "Like -" she paused and looked at Jess.


"Uncle Charles," Jess finished. "It's okay, Elizabeth."


"The question that I'm guessing Nick had was if you believe that he's never had any interest in her," Kevin pointed out.


She nodded. "When she got off the train this morning, I wasn't sure - I mean, here's this woman declaring that she loves Nick and insisting that he promised her - something, making it sound as though he was expecting her." She shook her head. "I was ready to call off the wedding," she confessed. "But after we talked, and he explained everything -well, as he said, he wouldn't have spent all this time here, and worked to get me to say yes if he had been expecting her all this time."


"I suppose that makes sense," Kevin nodded. "If I were a cynic, I'd be less likely to buy it."


"Kevin!" Lily exclaimed. "Nick would never -" she turned to Jess. "He avoided Belle Carson like the plague when I knew him back then. I saw him sneak out of the gambling hall without finishing a game when she came downstairs. Is she still as brash and brazen as she was?"


"I only saw her for a minute -" Jess said, but Elizabeth spoke up.


"She is. You should have seen her go from the hotel to the saloon - I've never seen any of the girls who work at the saloon walk the way *she* was walking. And that blue silk and feathers -"


Lily smiled at Elizabeth's comment. "I was always lucky with the girls. Speaking of the girls - Cara worked with Belle a few years ago."


"She did?"


"Cara didn't like her much from what she's told me. Jess, really, you don't have to worry about Nick."


"I'm not," Jess assured her. "I just hope that Belle doesn't cause too much upheaval in town."




"Oops," Jake muttered to Cara as he looked at the door. "She's back."


Cara pasted a smile on her face as she turned to greet the woman, who was now wearing a bright green dress similar to the blue one she'd worn earlier. "Hello, Belle! It's been a long time."


Belle's eyes narrowed as she probably sought to place a name to the face. "Cara honey! It has been, hasn't it? What on *earth* are you doing out here in the middle of nowhere?"


"I'm helping manage the place," she informed Belle. She indicated the man behind the bar. "I think you've already met Jake -"


Belle turned and gave Jake a big smile, reaching out to slide her finger along his jawline. "Hello, Jake honey. How about that drink now? Whiskey."


"Why don't we move to a table while we catch up?" Cara suggested, moving toward the table nearest the bar and sitting down. Belle joined her.


"So how is it that you're managing the place? I thought Nick owned it."


"He does. At least, he owns half of it," Cara said. "Lily owns the other half."




"I'm sure you remember her. Lily Taylor? Only it's Lily Donager now, of course."


"Lily - Taylor. Oh, yes. Her husband owned a place in Memphis ages ago."


"Her first husband was killed there."


"That's right, he was, wasn't he? And then she left Memphis with Nick."


"He took her to her sister's in St. Louis," Cara nodded. "And left her there."


"And now they're both here. Very convenient."


"Lily's married again," Cara informed her. "Why are *you* here, Belle?" she asked directly.


"Because Nick's here, of course. I always go where he is. I heard he owned a saloon, and figured he would need help running it-"


"He doesn't. So why don't you just pack up and take the train back to where you came from?"


Belle sat back, and the smile on her face sent a chill along Cara's spine. "I can't. Nick needs me."


"I doubt that."


"Oh, Nick always needs me. And I need him. So why don't you just tell me where he is so that I can go talk to him?"


"Look, Belle, leave him alone. He doesn't want you in his life. He's in love with -" Cara bit back Jess' name.


"Who? That red head he was with today? She's not right for him. I could tell that right off. While I'm here, I think I'm going to show Nick how much help I can be with this place." With those words, she stood up and moved around the room, smiling and talking to the customers.


Cara stood and went back to the bar as Jake said, "She certainly knows how to work the room," he commented, shrugging as Cara glared at him. "Just stating a fact."


"You're going to have to keep an eye on how much everyone's drinking so she doesn't oversell," Cara told him.


"I do that anyway." He reached across the bar to cover her hand. "Trust me to do my job."


She rewarded him with a smile that faded when she turned back to the room. "She's Trouble. With a capital 'T'."


Across the room, Leroy looked up as he won a hand and saw Belle standing there. "Well, where did you come from?"


"I'm new in town," she told him, placing her arm across his shoulders. "I'm Belle. What's your name?"


"Leroy," he told her with a salacious grin.


"Hello, Leroy, honey," she replied, bending forward slightly to whisper something into his ear before reaching across him to pick up his empty glass. "Let me refill your drink, honey, and I'll be right back." Sauntering across the room, she placed the glass on the bar. "Another drink for the gentleman," she told Jake.


Jake reached under the counter for the bottle they used for the card players and refilled the glass. Belle picked it up and stared at the liquid. "Looks a little weak."


"It's what he's been drinking," Jake told her in a firm, no-nonsense tone. It was time for her to know that he wasn't buying what she was selling.


Belle's eyes narrowed as she looked from Jake to Cara, then she turned and carried the drink back over to Leroy's table. "Here you go, honey," she told him.


"Why don't you pull up a chair?" Leroy suggested. "You're going to be my lucky charm."


"You get anymore luck, Leroy," one of the others at the table said, "and we won't have money to keep playing."


"Well, I'm ready to play again!" another man declared, lifting his glass. "I need another drink!"


Cara looked at Jake, who shook his head as Cara moved toward the table. "Come on, Roy, I think it's time for you to go home. Don't you?"


Roy sighed, nodding his head, but Belle stood up. "Why don't you get the man another drink, Cara, honey?" she asked.


"He's had his limit," Cara told her, helping Roy to his feet as Jake came around the bar, removing his apron.


"I'll be right back," Jake told Cara, who nodded as she continued to meet Belle's confused gaze.


Belle turned to smile at Leroy. "Won't be a minute, Leroy, honey," she said, following Cara back to the bar. "Is this the way you take care of Nick's business? Refusing to sell drinks to customers?"


"Nick knows about it. We don't let our customers get drunk - or play poker until they're broke. Most of these men are family men and if they lose too much, they won't be able to buy food for their families."


"That's not your problem. Your job is to -"


"My job is to do what my boss tells me to do. And Nick is the boss."


"I have *never* in my life been in a saloon that stops selling drinks to a customer simply because he might have had too much."


"You've never been in a saloon in Providence," Cara responded. "I think you should leave now, Belle *honey*."


"You are going to regret speaking to me like this," Belle told her. "Once I talk to Nick -"


Cara turned and went behind the bar to fill a mug brought over by Rose clearly ignoring the other woman's incipient tirade.


Belle made a show of turning and leaving the saloon, pausing for a moment as she heard Leroy calling her name. "Belle, wait!"


She continued down the sidewalk, hearing the swinging doors behind her before she turned to give her best beckoning smile to the man following her. "Leroy, honey," she said slipping her arm through his, once he caught up to her, "Is there somewhere we can go so we can get to know each other a little better?"




Jess smiled at Nick as Kevin brought the wagon to a stop in front of the church. Benjamin stood up, calling out to a friend, "Pete!" He turned to Kevin. "Pa, may I go talk to Pete?"


"You may. But don't be late for church," Kevin admonished the boy.


"We won't be." He jumped down, stopping at Nick just long enough to say, "Hi, Uncle Nick! Excuse me!" before taking off again. "Hey, Pete!"


Lily, holding Kate, waited for Elizabeth to get down before handing her the baby, then got down with Kevin's assistance. "You're looking very well," Nick told her, moving to extend his hand to Jess to help her down.


"Thank you. So are you. I'm so glad to see you walking, Nick." She looked down the street. "Where is -?"


"Haven't seen her this morning," Nick answered, retaining his hold on Jess' hand as he spoke. "Cara and Jake stopped by earlier to tell me that she spent a few minutes in the saloon last night, and that Leroy followed her out."


Jess sighed. "You don't think he would tell her -"


"Possibly," Nick said. "I'll ask him about it when he shows up."


"Maybe she left on the early train?" Kevin suggested, but Nick shook his head.


"Jake said he checked on his way to get Cara. She's still checked in at the hotel."


"It's a good thing you're staying at Ma's then," Jess told him. "Not that I don't trust you, of course. It's *her* that I don't trust."


Nick smiled, lifting her hand to his lips. "Let's go in, shall we?"


Jess turned to asked, "Oh, did you ask Thad about going out to the ranch today?"


"He said that he can't stop me, but he doesn't recommend it. So it looks like I'll be having Sunday dinner with Ma and Doc."


"And me," Jess stated. "I told Mariana this morning that I might not be home for dinner when we left the house."




During the service, Kate became fussy, so Lily took her outside and walked up and down the sidewalk. "Shh, baby girl," she whispered. "Shhh. Mama's here."


"Well, well. If it isn't Lily Taylor."


"It's Lily Donager now," Lily replied, turning to face Belle. "And please keep your voice down. There's a church service going on, in case you weren't aware of that fact."


Belle glanced up the stairs. "From what Leroy told me, everyone in town is in there - except for poor Leroy. He's a bit - indisposed this morning."


"What did you do to him?"


"I didn't do a blessed thing, Lily honey. It was his choice to drink a full bottle of red-eye that he had squirreled away in that shack he calls a house."


"And of course you took advantage of his drinking by asking him about Nick." Kate began to cry, probably because Lily wasn't happy. "Shh. It's okay, Katie."


"A new husband, a new baby - you're really starting over, aren't you? I guess everyone knows about your past -"


"Yes, and they've accepted me anyway," Lily informed her. "So don't try to threaten me, Belle. And leave Nick alone. He's not interested in you. He never was."


Belle smiled, a tight, feral look that caused Lily to inhale sharply. "You're wrong, honey. Nick and I are two of a kind. We understand each other. Oh, he might say he's not interested in me in public, but behind closed doors -"


Lily shook her head, refusing to listen to anymore, then turned to go back into the church, pausing long enough to say, "Good bye, Belle."




After the service ended, Lily quietly informed the family of her conversation with Belle outside of the church. "So Leroy probably told her where you're staying, Nick," she said.


"She's across the street," Elizabeth pointed out.


"Where?" Jess questioned. "I don't -"


"Down there, near the hotel," Nick said, studiously not staring in that direction. "Jess, are you sure that you want to stay in town for dinner?"


"Try and stop me," she replied, slipping her arm through his in a gesture of defiance.


He smiled and patted her hand. "That's my girl."


"You know it."


Lily handed the baby up to Elizabeth. "Nick, I'm worried. Belle - she wasn't stable back in Memphis. I don't think she's any better now. She seems convinced that, well - that you and she are - well, -" she glanced at Jess before continuing, "- involved."


"I'm aware of that. But we're not. We never have been, and we never will be."


"I know that. And I think Jess does too -"


"I wouldn't be standing here if I didn't," Jess confirmed. "Once she realizes it's a lost cause, she'll leave for greener pastures."


Thad came over to the wagon. "Elizabeth, if you wouldn't mind, I thought I'd ride out with all of you."


She moved over on the seat, still holding Kate. "How will you get back to town?"


"I thought that - since Jess is staying in town for dinner, she could use my buggy to get home, and I'd use it to come back."


"Thank you, Thad," Jess told him.


Kevin helped Lily into the wagon, and called for Benjamin, who was talking to some of his friends nearby.


Jess and Nick waved after them, aware that Belle was still watching. "Well, shall we?" Nick asked, extending his hand toward Ma's house. As they walked, he asked, "You're sure that you don't believe what Belle is saying?"


Jess shook her head, looking up at him as they walked. "You've never lied to me. I don't think that you would start now. If you tell me that you and Belle have never been - together, then I believe you." As they stopped at the bottom of the steps to the house, she smiled. "I love you."


"I still don't deserve you," he told her, kissing her hand.


"I know." She gave him a cheeky grin. "But you've got me."




Amanda, Andrew and Mrs. Lee were also guests for lunch at the Sutton house, and Jess found herself praying that Belle would stay away at least until after they left. When dinner was over, Mrs. Lee commented about Jess and Nick having just attended their last church service before they became man and wife. "It makes me happy when I see a couple so devoted to each other and to God," she was saying as there was a knock on the front door.


"I'll see who it is, Ma," Eban said, but Nick sent Ma a look that caused her to stand quickly.


"No, Eban, I'll go. You set down, and have another cup of coffee."


Nick felt Jess' tension as Ma left the room. "Can I help ya?" The voices easily carried from the front door, and Jess' gaze fell to her hand in Nick's.


"I'd like to see Nick, please."


"He's busy," Ma told her.


"Not too busy to see me, I'm sure. I'll just come in -"


The screen door banged as Ma said, "No, you won't. Now git." They heard the front door itself close and the sound of a key being turned in the lock.


"My gracious," Mrs. Lee fretted. "What on earth? Martha?" she asked as Ma returned to the room. "What is going on?"


"Nothin' t'bother yourself 'bout, Rebecca," she said, as calm as she could be.


Mrs. Lee continued to frown for a moment and might have continued her questions, but Andrew spoke. "As Mother was saying - it's nice to see a couple so dedicated to each other. I think the entire town is looking forward to next Saturday afternoon."




Eban offered to go get Thad's buggy when Jess was ready to leave later in the afternoon. "It's still early," Jess told Nick as they went back into his room to talk.


"I'd just feel better if I knew it was still daylight while you were going home."


"You sound as if you think she might try to hurt me."


"At the moment, I'm not sure what she might do. Just be careful."


"I will be," she assured him, touching his cheek. "You look tired."


"Just angry, and frustrated that she's here at all - this close to our wedding day." Reaching into his vest pocket, he pulled out his derringer. "Here. Take this with you."


Jess looked at the small gun, then up at him. "You really *are* worried, aren't you?"


"Yes, I am." He grabbed her hand and placed the gun into it. "Humor me, please? You're not in your buggy, or riding Midnight with your gun close at hand. And I know, since it's Sunday, you aren't carrying the derringer that I got you, so - knowing you have this will help me sleep a little better."


Jess nodded, tucking the gun inside the waistband of her skirt. "Happy now?" she asked.


"Thank you," he said, pulling her into his arms as they heard Ma call out.


"Eban's back!"




Jess was just passing the train station when she saw Belle step out into the street, directly in front of the buggy, leaving Jess with no real option but to pull back on the reins. "Whoa! You must be crazy, standing in front of my horse!"


"We need to talk, Miss Donager."


"I don't think that we have anything to talk about, *Miss* Carson," Jess replied. "So, if you'll excuse me -"


Belle reached up and grabbed the reins, her eyes narrowing dangerously. "No, I won't excuse you. We're going to talk."


Jess shook her head, pulling the gun from its hiding place. "I don't think so. The only thing I have to say to you is that you need to leave town. Now let the reins go, Belle."


"Just trying to save you some heartbreak. He's done this before, you know - romances a woman until I show up, then uses me as an excuse not to stay or go through with their plans to get married. And you know why he does it? Because he really loves me. He promised to marry me."


"One more word, and I'll use this," Jess told her. "And no one in town will say a word about it. Now move."


Belle stood there, glaring at Jess before finally releasing the reins and stepping back out of the way.


"Ghee up!" Jess called to the horse, and waited until the gelding cleared the track before putting the gun back in her waistband and sitting back. She honestly wasn't sure if she wanted to laugh or to cry. Belle's obviously transparent attempt to shake Jess' confidence in Nick's honesty left her feeling drained more than anything else.


The question she had to ask herself, though, was whether or not she would have really used that gun if had become necessary. She hoped that she wouldn't have to find out.




"I really wish I had driven Jess home," Nick told Ma as they had coffee.


"Ya heard what Thad said about your riding anywhere for the next week," Ma reminded him. "If ya want to risk a relapse -"


"I know. And I know that Jess can take of herself. I just -"


"Cain't help but worry 'bout her cause ya love her."




The sound of loud knocking on the front door caused them to exchange a look. "Think it's her again?" Ma asked.


"It could be. She's nothing if not persistent."


"I'll go tell 'er ta get lost."


Nick reached out a hand. "No. Let her in."




"She'll be expecting you to say no. Might throw her off if you invite her in. Just stay close enough to listen to what's said, okay?"


"I'll be s'close you'll be able t'hear me breathin'," she promised, leaving the parlor. "It's you agin," he heard her say after opening the door.


"I still want to see Nick," Belle stated.


"Come in. He's waitin' for ya."


Nick smiled grimly at the silence that meant Belle was surprised. Finally, she said, "Well it's about time."


"Right through them doors," Ma said.


Nick stood up and faced the doorway as Belle entered the room, pausing long enough to close the doors behind her. "Nick, honey," she said, moving toward him, but Nick stepped behind a chair, putting it between them. "You're angry with me, aren't you?"


"Why are you here, Belle?" he asked.


"You know why I'm here. Because of you. Because you love me -"


"No, I don't, and I've never said that I do."


"No, you've never said the words, but - I know how you feel. You want me. I saw it that first night in Memphis. That's why you killed Jean-Phillipe, because you knew he'd never give me up."


"I shot Devereux because he shot Glenn Taylor and was about to shoot me," Nick told her - not for the first time. "I've told you that before. I barely noticed you that night."


"That's not true, Nick honey. You can tell yourself that all you want, but it's just not true."


"How did you find out that I was here?" he asked, tired of the old argument.


"Oh, that. Your artist friend - that Italian-?"


"Paulo," Nick said, clenching his jaw.


"That's him. He's a funny little man. Can't hold his liquor very well, though. Not like your poker friend, Leroy. It took an entire bottle of whiskey before he - Anyway, I ran into him in Denver last week."


"So you got him drunk and he told you that I was in Providence."


Belle lifted her shoulder and smiled. "He had a smile on his face when I left him," she assured Nick. "Don't you see? I had to come when I heard that you'd been shot - I was glad to see that you seem to have recovered. The thought that you might've -" her voice caught slightly, but Nick saw no sign of real sorrow in her eyes as she continued, "- died before I saw you again-."


"Well, you've seen me, now you can go. Go back to Denver, or Dodge, or anywhere. There's nothing for you here in Providence."


"Yes, there is."


"What?" he asked.


"You. You're not going to marry that woman. I won't let it happen."


"You can't stop me, Belle. Now, it's late, and I'm still recovering, so if you don't mind -"


"This isn't finished, Nick, honey. Not by a longshot. You can't get rid of me that easily."


"Good bye, Belle," he said firmly.


"Good night," she said, smiling as she turned, opened the doors, and left the room.


Ma entered the parlor as soon as the front door closed behind her. "Sounds tetched in the head t'me."


Nick drew a deep breath as he sank back into the chair. "She is."


"I heard her threaten you, can't you get the Sheriff t'arrest her or something?"


"She didn't threaten me with bodily harm - and if she did mean it that way, she could always claim that she just meant that she would find a way to prevent the wedding. She's never stepped over that legal line. She's come close - but she's always just this side of it. That's the frustrating thing about Belle. I think she's crazy, but getting a court to agree - I don't have any tangible evidence. I'll need to tell Lucas about her, though. Maybe tomorrow morning."


"She really believe that ya killed that man in Memphis t'get t'her?"


"Unfortunately, yes, I think she does."


"So what're ya gonna do?"


"Ignore her as much as possible, and hope that she doesn't create too much trouble while she's here. I hope that once she sees that there's no way to stop the wedding, she'll leave on her own."


Ma shook her head. "She's the kind that trouble follows. If everything wasn't already planned, I'd suggest you and Jess get yourselves over t'Brother Andrew and get hitched as soon as possible."


"And let her cheat Jess out of that wedding after she finally decided that she wanted one?" Nick asked, shaking his head. "No. Even if Jess said she was okay with it."


"She would be. Just an idea ya might want ta consider. More coffee?"


"No, thank you. I think I'm going to try and get some sleep."


"G'night. I'm gonna sit out on the porch for awhile, prayin' afore I go t'bed."


"Oh, I'll be doing that as well," Nick assured her, leaning down to give her a kiss on the cheek. "Thank you. Good night."




"Thanks for the loan," Jess told Nick as she handed him the derringer. "It came in handy."


Nick frowned. "What do you mean?"


"I mean, that Belle forced me to stop the buggy as I was leaving town yesterday. She let it go after I pulled out the gun. But not before she told me that you had planned to marry other women before - until she showed up."


"Jess, I never -"


"I know," she reassured him, smiling. "I knew that she was just trying to make me distrust you. That's not going to happen."


Nick pulled her close, holding her as he told her about Belle's visit to Ma's. "Ma declared that Belle's 'tetched in the head'."


"I tend to agree. I didn't see her when I rode into town."


"She'll turn up. Ma also suggested that you and I beat her to the punch and not wait to get married."


"We could -" she said, but Nick had seen the fleeting look of disappointment on her face, and shook his head.


"No. I think we both want to wait for Saturday and everything that's been planned. I love you so much, Jess. And I'm so sorry that she's here and -"


"It's not your fault." Jess pulled his head down to hers for a long kiss. "Let's go for a walk."




As they walked down the street, she knew that he was expecting Belle to appear at any moment. Trying to distract him, Jess suggested, "I rode Spirit in this morning - I think he'd like to see you, at least."


She was rewarded by Nick's smile. "That's a good idea. I'd like to see him, too. I don't have any sugar to give him -"


"We can stop into the office. I have some there for clients in case they want sugar with their coffee."


"You're full of good ideas today," he told her as they approached her office. Jess opened the door, pausing as she realized it wasn't empty.


"Miss Carson," she said, deliberately closing the door in Nick's face. "What are you doing here?"


"I need a lawyer. And since you're the only lawyer I know other than - "


"What can I do for you?" Jess asked, moving around the room so that Belle's back was to the outside windows.


"I know this is strange, considering that you're planning on marrying Nick, but - I want to sue him for breach of promise."


Jess just barely managed to keep from laughing at the woman's declaration. "Breach of - promise?"


"Well, yes. Nick Everett promised to marry me. Now, he decided to marry you - probably because you own that ranch and have money -"


"Do you have verifiable proof that he asked you to marry him?"


"Proof? My word -"


Jess shook her head. "That's not enough. Did anyone else hear him ask you to marry him?"


"No, but -"


"Did you post it in a newspaper?"


"No, but I -"


"Did he give you something such as a ring that you can prove he bought specifically *for* you?"


"Really, Miss Donager -"


"These are all questions that a judge would ask you in court, Miss Carson. It sounds like you don't have any grounds to bring a suit against Nick."


"You still don't believe that he loves me."


"Honestly? No, I don't believe it. You really should take the train out of town, because Nick and I are going to be married in five days - and there's nothing you can do to stop it."


"You sound sure of that."


"I am."


"You can't possibly expect to hold onto a man like Nick. He needs a woman who understands his life. Someone who knows how to love him - a woman like you has no idea what he needs."


Jess managed to hide the fact that Belle had found her weak spot - her fear that she wasn't experienced enough for someone like Nick. But then she realized that he hadn't accepted the experience that Belle had repeatedly offered. He wanted *her* - Jess Donager. "Maybe he'd prefer someone less - experienced," Jess suggested, moving back around to the door. "I think we're finished with our business, Miss Carson," she declared, opening the door, hoping that Nick had managed to duck out of sight.


Jess stood in the doorway, watching Belle walk across the street to the hotel. Turning as Nick appeared from the old freight office, she quickly followed him back into the office. "You've got to start locking that outer door, darlin'," he said.


"I'm sorry about closing the door that way -"


"I understand. I heard most of the conversation," he told her. Taking her chin in his hand, he told her, "It's not your 'inexperience' that I'm attracted to."


"I know. I was just trying to make a point." She put her arms around his neck. "Besides I'm not sure I consider myself to be quite as inexperienced as I used to be after being around you all this time."


"Some people just have a natural talent for loving someone," he whispered. "Especially the *right* someone." He kissed her several times, groaning as the kisses stopped. "Waiting another five days isn't going to be easy."


Jess buried her fingers in his hair. "For me, either," she admitted. A giggle escaped her lips, and Nick looked down at her, surprised. "I can't believe that she asked me to file a breach of promise suit against you."


"It was only an excuse to talk to you, to try to drive a wedge between us."


"She did act surprised to find out that she didn't have a case."


He bent to kiss her again, sighing with frustration. "You mentioned some sugar here somewhere? I think we need to go see Spirit and then finish our walk."


Jess unlocked the inner office and found the sugar cubes, then locked the door again, as well as the outer door. Crossing the street, she and Nick went to the stable, where he fed the sugar cubes to Spirit.


"He looks like he's been well taken care off," Nick said, rubbing the white neck. "I'll have to thank Pedro."


"You'll have to thank Benjamin," she informed him.




She nodded. "He's added currying and brushing Spirit to his other chores - on his own, may I add."


"I'll have to thank him when I see him again."


"You know that he'll do anything for his Uncle Nick." She smiled at him. "Just like his Aunt Jess."


Nick looked around the stable to make sure there were no witnesses before placing an all-to-brief kiss on her lips. "I'm beginning to believe you say things like that deliberately," he told her.


Jess grinned. "You could be right."


His eyes narrowed slightly at her admission. "Five more days," he muttered.


She reached out and pulled his pocketwatch from his vest and opened it. "And two hours and -fifteen minutes," she corrected.


"We're counting minutes, now, too?"


She nodded. "We are," she replied, putting the watch back and patting his chest. "Now, we've come to see Spirit - so where to next?"


"The Sheriff's office, first. I think I need to tell Lucas about Belle - it won't hurt for him to keep an eye on her. And then the saloon," he told her. "I want to talk to Jake and Cara - and I told Eban that I'd look at the books." Patting the horse on the neck, he said, "See you later, boy. Hopefully I'll be riding you again before too long."




By Friday, Nick had almost forgotten about Belle being in town. Almost. He heard from others that she had spent some of every evening at the saloon before returning to the hotel, but she made no attempt to speak to or contact him or Jess. Leroy had been seen around town, but had yet to return to the saloon. Nick was sure that Belle was planning something - some way to prevent the wedding on Saturday.


He expected Jess in town before long to meet with Andrew about the final details for the ceremony, so he decided to risk a trip to his room at the hotel to pack up his things, since he'd be moving out to the ranch on Sunday after church. There were also a few things that he thought he might need after the wedding. Carl was at the front desk when he entered the building, and smiled.


"Nick! You're not moving back in for one night, are you?"


"No, but - I do still have some things in my old room, right?"


"No one's touched anything up there except for Thad and Eban when they've come to get things for you."


"I wanted to pack the rest of my things - and one of the cases I'd like put up in the - Presidential Suite, if you don't mind."


"Of course not. Not long now, is it? One day left."


Nick checked the clock behind the desk and grinned. "Twenty-six hours and - ten minutes," he said, and Carl laughed, handing Nick his room key. "Here you go."


"Oh, if you see Jess ride in, let me know, please?"


"Will do."




Nick was grateful that most of his things had been moved over to Ma's over the course of the last month - so there wasn't much left for him to pack up. As he finished the smaller case and started with the open trunk, he heard the door open, and turned to see Belle standing there. "Belle. What are you -?" his questioned went unfinished as she pointed a derringer at him. He made a move to retrieve his own hold gun from it's pocket, but Belle shook her head.


"Slowly, Nick, honey. Take it out with your left hand and toss it into that open trunk on the other side of the bed." Nick did as she instructed him to do, lifting his hands.


"Now what?" he asked.


She closed the door, leaning against it. "If you tell me that you've changed your mind and won't marry Jess Donager, I won't have to use this."


"You don't seriously think that you can get away with killing me."


"That's entirely your decision, Nick, honey. I told you that you wouldn't marry her. Killing her won't do it - it would only make you angry. Threatening to kill her unless you told her it was a mistake wouldn't work - you'd just come back here the first chance you got. So that only leaves one option." As she spoke, she slowly moved closer to him - but still out of arm's reach.


"If you can't have me, then no one will, is that it?" he questioned.




Jess was riding into town when Carl called from the walk in front of the hotel. "Jess!"


She pulled Midnight up to the steps. "Yes, Carl?"


"Nick's upstairs. Told me to let him know when you got to town - but - well, that woman came in right after he did."


Jess got down and tied the horse to the rail. Reaching into the pocket of her riding skirt, she curled her fingers around the handle of her derringer. "Thank you, Carl. Would you mind going over to tell Lucas that he might be needed?"


"You don't think she would - I know she caused problems when she first got here, but the last few days -"


"I need to get up there, Carl," she told him. "Please?"


"I don't think he's in his office. He went down the street earlier -"


"Then find him," Jess said shortly, and Carl nodded nervously, moving down the street.


Jess went into the hotel, sitting in a chair to quickly remove her boots. No sense in warning Belle if she was right. Placing the boots beside the chair, she climbed the stairs, then moved to the door of Nick's room. Leaning forward, she heard voices.




"I'm not going to just let you shoot me, Belle -"


"I didn't expect that you would - It's going to look like you killed yourself," she told him, and Nick saw a glint of madness in her eyes that had never been quite so obvious before. "Turn around. Now lie down on the bed."


Jess opened the door, the derringer now out of her pocket. Nick was still standing, facing the window, and Belle was between them, her own small gun pressed against the back of his neck. "If you make one move, he's dead," she declared.


"Jess," Nick said, but Belle pushed the barrel of the gun even closer.


"Be quiet," Belle told him.


"She won't shoot you, Nick," Jess told him. "Because if she shoots you, I'll shoot her. And I'll use the second bullet on myself, because I won't want to live without you."


"You're bluffing," Belle said. "You're not the type to kill someone -"


"If you shoot him, I'll have no reason *not* to kill you. I don't think that you're willing to die - for Nick or anyone else. You *could* try to shoot me - and then try to take Nick with the second shot, but I don't think he'll let that happen."


"If you shoot Jess, Belle, I'll kill you with my bare hands if necessary." He felt the gun slide from his neck and yelled, "Watch out, Jess!" as he ducked and rolled across the bed. He made a grab for his gun from the trunk, but before he could fire, Belle whirled toward the door and Jess moved away from the shot and fired at the same time.


Belle stood there for a moment before falling to the floor, a pool of dark red forming on the front of her green satin dress. Nick rose from the floor and moved to where Jess was leaning against the open door frame. "Are you all right?" he asked, pulling her into his arms.

She nodded. "You?"


"Yes." Belle moaned, and they both moved to kneel beside her.


"I could've made you - so - happy, Nick, honey," she said. Looking at Jess, she said, "You better - treat him right - or - I -might just come-back-" her body went limp, and Jess felt for a pulse before shaking her head.


Nick reached out to close Belle's eyes as they heard the sound of boots on the stairs. Lucas appeared in the doorway, his gun drawn. Seeing Belle laying on the floor, he put it back into the holster. "What happened?" he asked.


"It was self defense, Lucas," Nick told him. "She tried to shoot Jess." He sighed. "We'll stop by the office later and give a full statement - if that's okay."


"Sure." He looked at Jess. "Are you okay?"


She nodded. "I'll be fine, Lucas," she assured him.


As Nick led her out of the room, Lucas told Carl, "Go get Dr. Mitchell and someone over here to move the body down to Joe's."




"Where are your boots?" Nick asked as they went down the stairs.


Jess slowly pointed to a spot beside the chair across from the bottom step. "There," she told him, and Nick's concern grew. She sounded disconnected, distant. He sat her down in the chair and knelt to put the boots back onto her feet, then stood and pulled her up - without her making one sound of protest. "Where are we going?" she asked.


"Over to your office. Where is the key?"


"We're supposed to be over at Amanda and Andrew's," she told him as they stopped in front of the door.


"We'll go in a few minutes. I need the key, Jess. Please." He was relieved when she pulled the key from her pocket and handed it to him. "Thank you." Unlocking the door, he guided her inside, then closed the door. He took her hand to lead her over to the other door and unlocked it. Inside, he saw her seated and started opening desk drawers.


"What are you looking for?" she wanted to know.


"The whiskey you keep here for clients."


She stood up - and swayed. "Ooh." Nick moved quickly to get her back into the chair. "I'm - dizzy," she said.


"Where is the whiskey, Jess?" he asked.


She shook her head, as if trying to clear it. "Cabinet - next to the door."


Nick opened the door and sighed with relief as he removed the bottle and one of the two glasses beside it. Pouring two fingers into the glass, he knelt beside Jess and held the glass out to her. "Here.


"I don't need -"


"I know you don't like whiskey, but it's one of the best ways I know to fight off shock. Drink it."




"Drink it and I'll explain, darlin."


Jess' hand was shaking as she took the glass from him and tossed back the contents, fighting a gasp of distaste and shuddering.


"You've never had to kill anyone before, have you?"


Jess closed her eyes as everything suddenly became clear. "No," she whispered. "Now I know, don't I?"


He took the empty glass from her and put it onto the desk. "Know what?"


"When she stopped me on Sunday night and I pulled the gun on her - I wondered after it was over if I would have been able to - to pull the trigger." Suddenly she was in his arms, crying.


Nick held her, saying a prayer of gratitude for those tears. "It's okay, Jess," he told her over and over. "It's okay."


"Why am I crying over - over her?" Jess finally wanted to know.


"Because you're a decent person, who regrets the loss of any life," he said. "Killing another person is something that should never be easy. Your reaction says that you still have a conscience. You had no choice but to do what you did, Jess. She would have killed you."


"Would you really have -"


"Killed her? Yes. I love you."


"I love you," she replied, reaching up to touch his face with a hand that was still trembling.


He reached out and grabbed it, placing a kiss on her palm. "Do you need another drink?" he asked.


"No," she declared firmly, wrapping her arm around his neck and pulling him into a kiss. "Hmmm," she murmured. "Much better than whiskey."


Smiling, Nick pulled her onto her feet. "Are we still getting married tomorrow?"


This time, she slid both arms around his neck. "I don't think I could stand to wait longer than that," she told him.


Nick stared down into her eyes for a long moment before lowering his head to hers for another kiss. "Let's go see Andrew. Then we need to talk to Lucas."


Jess sighed, and Nick saw her lower lip shake very slightly. She wasn't over it - he only hoped she'd be okay until after the wedding - so that he could be there to pick up the pieces.




Elizabeth and Amanda were both there while they discussed the final plans for the ceremony, which was to be held in front of the white-rimmed circle at the end of Front Street. The entire street would be blocked off, and chairs would be brought out from the Town Hall for people to sit in if they wanted.


Jess saw Elizabeth's concern, and tried to avoid her sister's attempt at conversation, but at last Elizabeth spoke up. "Are you both okay? I was across the street -"


Nick looked from Jess to Amanda, uncertain how much to say. "Elizabeth told us what happened when she got here," Amanda assured them, reaching out to take Jess' hand. "*Are* you okay?"


"I'm fine," Jess insisted, brushing off any concern. "It was - tragic, but Nick and I are both okay." She smiled, covering Amanda's hand. "Really. Thank you for being concerned."


Nick asked Andrew to step outside with him to discuss something, leaving Jess alone with her sisters. "What about the statue?" Amanda asked, keeping her voice down in case her mother in law woke from her nap.


"Hank and Robert and some of the hands will come in late tonight and put it into place, then stay to make sure no one else gets too close."


"And we'll all unveil it right after the ceremony," Elizabeth added. "This is so exciting!" She laughed. "I don't mean that your wedding isn't exciting, but -"


"I think we understand, Elizabeth," Amanda said. "I just can't believe that we've managed to keep it a secret from everyone except family. And sometimes *from* family," she finished, as her husband and Nick returned.


The conversation shifted away from the surprise for a few more minutes, before Nick told Jess, "We need to go."


"Of course. I'll see you tomorrow morning, Amanda," she said. "Are you sure you're okay with my coming here to get dressed before the ceremony?"


"Since your dress is still here, you really don't have a choice, do you?" Amanda questioned.


"I understand now why you insisted on keeping it to make any final alterations," Jess agreed. "Thank you."


After they left, Elizabeth stood up. "I have to get back to the office -"


"One moment, Elizabeth," Andrew said. "Nick wanted me to ask you to do him a favor."


"A favor? Me?"


"He wants you to go home with Jess this afternoon - he's concerned about her state of mind after what happened earlier."


"And he'd like me to keep an eye on her tonight," Elizabeth guessed. "Thank you, Andrew."




"Well, from what Dr. Mitchell told me, Belle Carson died of a single gunshot to the chest," Lucas told Jess and Nick after hearing their report about the events in that hotel room. "There was still a bullet left in your gun, Jess," he said, putting a derringer on the desk between them. "But hers was empty."


Jess blinked. "You mean she fired both barrels?"


Nick watched as Jess stared at the gun in front of her, waiting, as he told her, "I saw the two bullet holes in the door right beside you, darlin'. She didn't miss you by much."


Jess finally reached out and picked up the small gun, quickly putting it into a pocket, as though she didn't want to have to look at it. "Anything else, Lucas?" she asked.


"No, except that I don't see any need to hold an inquest. Seems pretty cut and dried to me."




"Do you want me to take the gun?" Nick asked Jess as they walked down the street.


"What?" she said, then, "No. There's no need. Why were you at the hotel?" she asked him.


"I wanted to get whatever of mine was left in the room so it would be ready when I moved out to the ranch on Sunday after church. Belle had gone out earlier, according to what Eban told me when I saw him, so I thought it was safe. By the time I realized she'd returned, she was already in my room."


"Do you think she would have killed you if I hadn't come in?"


Nick pulled her arm through his, covering her hand with his as they continued to walk. "Yes, I do. You didn't see the look in her eyes. She truly was mad."


"What about your things? They're still up there -"


"I'll get them later this evening," he told her. "Now, why don't we talk about something else?"


"Such as?" she asked.


"How much I love you?" he suggested with a grin.




Nick gave Jess a long kiss as she prepared to leave town. "This time tomorrow, darlin'-"


"We'll be married," she said with a cheeky grin. "And then *no one* can say a word about your kissing me like that in public."


He sought for a reason to delay her further, and was relieved when Elizabeth came out of the livery in the buggy and waved. "Jess! I thought I saw your horse down the street. Why don't we ride home together?"


Jess looked from her sister to Nick. "If I thought for one minute that you two -"


"You've been with me all day," he reminded her. "I haven't spoken to Elizabeth, have I?" he asked the young woman.


"The only time I've seen Nick all day was at Amanda's," she agreed. "There are still some details that we need to discuss about tomorrow, so -"


Nick held out his hand to take Midnight's reins, and once Jess handed them over, he tied the animal onto the back of the buggy, then came back to give Jess a hand up. "See you in the morning," he said, kissing her hand. "I love you."


"I love you," she replied, sitting back on the seat as Elizabeth set the buggy into motion.


Keeping a promise to Jake, Nick stopped into the saloon to spend a few minutes, smiling as the girls and Jake - and the customers, all insisted on drinking a toast to him.


"Okay, friends," he agreed. "But only if the house buys the drink. Set'em up, Jake."


As they were finishing the drinks, Nick heard the doors open, and Jake cleared his throat, nodding toward them. Turning, he saw Leroy starting to back out, looking more than a little embarrassed and uncertain.


"Leroy!" Nick called, and Leroy froze, his eyes wide. "Come in and join us! We're about to drink a toast to my bride to be!"


Leroy came into the saloon, eyeing Nick with suspicion. "Nick, I -"


"Let's have that drink, first." He handed Leroy a glass before lifting his own. "To Miss Jess Donager!"


Leroy took a drink of the whiskey in his glass, but Nick could tell that he wasn't enjoying it. "Can we talk, Nick?"


Nick showed him over to the table near the office door. "Okay, Leroy. Talk."


"I just - I want to apologize for - what happened. I shouldn't have told Belle -"


"Listen, Leroy, I don't blame you. You're not the first man that she pried information out of using liquor. You had no way of knowing about what she would do with that information."


"I heard about - what happened earlier. Is Jess okay?"


"She will be. Killing another person - that takes time."


Leroy nodded, understanding what he was saying. Standing, he said, "Well, I guess I'll be going -"


Nick gave him a sideways grin. "You know, I haven't been here to play cards in a month. Might be a little rusty - no way of telling without actually playing."


"You mean - you're still willing to play cards with me?"


"As long as you've got money to lose," he replied, laughing. Nick stood up, and waved toward the table in the corner under the stairs. "Shall we?"




The next morning, Nick was waiting at the station when the train pulled in. He waited until he saw Paulo step hesitantly onto the platform, looking around, before he stepped forward. "Hello, Paulo."


The sculptor nearly jumped and stopped in his tracks. "Nick, my friend. I - almost didn't come. After what I did -"


"You mean, telling Belle Carson where I was?" Nick asked, and Paulo sighed heavily.


"It was unforgivable. But she was so - so bellisima. So beautiful. Has she - created very much trouble?"


"She tried," Nick confirmed as his friend picked up his suitcase and they began to walk down the platform.


"Is she still here, then?"


"In a way," Nick said. "She's dead, Paulo."


"Dead?! What - what happened? You didn't -"


"No, I didn't kill her. I might have - She tried to kill Jess - but Jess was faster."


"Oh. Jess? Oh my. How is she?"


"She hasn't come to town yet," Nick told him. "She should be here before long, and I have to be back at Ma's before that. So let's get you registered at the hotel, shall we?"


Turning the corner, Paulo looked down the street and finally smiled. "My masterpiece! It's in the circle," he noted, his gaze focused on the canvas wrapped figure at the end of the street. "And there are so many people - "


"Almost everyone that was invited is already here - for what they think is *just* a wedding celebration," Nick said.




As the sound of a the afternoon train whistle began to fade in the distance, Nick stood with Kevin on the platform before the monument. He looked up and saw Jess walking toward him on Doc's arm, a vision in white satin and lace. Benjamin followed behind, keeping the train of the white gown out of the dirt. Lily had preceded Jess, a choice made by both Elizabeth and Amanda, since they had made the dress she was wearing.


Nick smiled at Jess, taking her hand once she gave the flowers she had been carrying into Lily's care. They turned to face Andrew as he began the ceremony.


"Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to witness the marriage of Jessica Donager to Nicholas Everett..."


"...As they have made their vows in the presence of God, and witnessed by those of us here, I now pronounce that they are husband and wife. You may kiss the bride," Andrew said.


Nick lifted the lace veil and said, "I love you," before giving her a kiss that was almost chaste. When the onlookers gave a titter of surprise, Nick winked at Jess and kissed her again, this time with far more depth. Once the kiss ended, he saw her blink at few times, then whispered in her ear, "Are we ready?"


She nodded, waving to her sisters to join them. Elizabeth quickly fastened the train of Jess' gown up out of the way. They had agreed that Nick would begin the announcement. He lifted his hands to quiet the murmurings. "Thank you all for joining us today. I know that traditionally, the bride and groom receive gifts from well wishers, but this bride and groom - and our family - want to give *you* a gift, created by the noted sculptor, Paulo Delvecchio." He nodded at the hands from the Diamond D, who pulled the rope holding the canvas on the statue, pulling it back to reveal the brass monument for all to see.


The crowd gasped collectively in surprise and awe.


Jess stepped forward. "Thirty something years ago, twenty families made the decision to join my father and stay here to build a town. Most of those families are still represented here in this area, and all of those families are named on this -" Kevin picked up the bronze plaque from the base of the statue as she continued, "-which will be affixed to the monument as a permanent tribute to the Founding Families of Providence. These families shared John Donager's dream. Without them - without *you*, that dream would never have become reality. Thank you for being here, and for your dedication to the future of this town." She and the others all began to applaud the gathered crowd.


"Now," Nick said at last, "It's time to celebrate." He led Jess away from the statue to allow the guests to get closer as several of them examined the plaque, searching for their family names. "I think that went well," Nick told Jess. "Why don't we get some punch?"


But as they turned, they found Doc standing there, his eyes full of unshed tears. "Thank you," he said, including them both in his look.


"You're welcome, but you need to thank Elizabeth. It was really her idea." Doc turned to where that young lady was standing with Thad, talking to some of the guests.




"When Reverend Lee died, she said that there needed to be some way to recognize what you and Reverend Lee and the other families did by choosing to stay instead of going on to California."


"I doubt that she got in touch with Mr. Delvecchio," Doc told them.


"No, that was Nick's idea," Jess explained, nodding as Nick moved away toward the punch bowl that had been set up on the side of the street, along with tables full of food - and a wedding cake. "After Elizabeth talked to me, I talked to him."


Doc smiled. "He's a good man, Jess. I'm happy for both of you that you found each other." He gave her a hug and moved off toward Elizabeth.


Rebecca Lee appeared, wiping her eyes. "It was a lovely ceremony," she told Jess. "And -" she waved toward the statue. "I noticed that Mark's name and Matthew's were first on the plaque. Thank you for that."


"The Hawkins and Lee families were the first to make the decision to stay," Jess pointed out. "It made sense to put them first."


The woman nodded, surprising Jess with a hug - something that she didn't do often. "I hope that you and Nick will be as happy as Matthew and I were, my dear."


Nick returned with the punch as the musicians began to tune up and play. "Would you care to dance, Mrs. Everett?" he asked.


Jess put her cup on a table. "Of course, Mr. Everett."


"I have a feeling that this is going to be a day that everyone remembers for quite some time," he said as they moved to the music.


"I hope so. It's been a wonderful day." She smiled up at him, "We're finally married."


"We are indeed. Considering all of the fuss, do you regret saying 'yes'?" Slowly, other couples followed their lead, and the street was soon filled with other couples.


"No," she told him, still smiling. "But it's early yet."


Nick's eyes narrowed slightly, but Jess could see the humor - and the desire. "It's a good thing I love you, darlin'."


Paulo tapped on Nick's shoulder. "Excuse me, my friend. May I dance with the lovely bride?"


Nick kissed Jess' hand before she danced off with the sculptor, and quickly found himself dancing with Elizabeth.


"I wanted to dance with you so that I could beg your forgiveness, Jess."


"*My* forgiveness?" Jess questioned. "What do you need to be forgiven for?"


"Because of my - my weakness in allowing that woman to pry out of me that Nick was here in Providence."




"I would never have wished to cause you any trouble -. Nick told me earlier what happened - please forgive me?"


Jess nodded. "Of course I forgive you, Paulo," she responded. "I don't blame you for anything that she did."


Across the street, Nick kept an eye on Jess. "How was Jess last night?" Nick asked his sister in law.


"She didn't sleep very much. I asked if she was nervous about today, and she said that it was probably the reason, but I wasn't convinced of that." She sighed. "You're worried about her because of what happened to Miss Carson, aren't you?"


"I think she hasn't faced that - or fully faced what happened to your uncle."


"Not *my* uncle," Elizabeth reminded him. Glancing around, she found Jess and Paulo. "Your friend is very charming, isn't he?"


"You are almost engaged, Elizabeth," he admonished her gently. "You shouldn't be noticing such things."


"I didn't say that *I* found him charming, did I?" She did a double take. "And what do you mean that I'm almost engaged?"


Nick chuckled. "Never mind." He watched Jess and Paulo dancing, and when he saw Jess' smile disappear, Nick immediately realized the reason why it had happened. "Excuse me," he told Elizabeth, and moved over to Jess and Paulo. The moment she saw him, she began to smile again, and Nick returned the smile. He managed to put aside any anger toward his old friend as he broke into their dance. "Sorry, Paulo. I need to talk to my bride."


"Of course." Paulo stepped back and bowed before leaving them alone.


"Everything okay?" Nick asked.


"Of course," she assured him. "Paulo was apologizing for telling Belle where she could find you."


Amanda approached them. "Why don't we cut the wedding cake?" she suggested.


"Only if you will sit down," Jess said.


"I have another month, Jess," Amanda informed her. "And I'm perfectly fine."


"I've been telling her the same thing," Andrew confessed as they moved toward the table on which the cake was displayed. "She won't listen to me, either."


Once they reached the table, Nick found a chair and brought it over, then took Amanda's elbow. "There you go."


She smiled and sat down. "Thank you."


"It's a shame to cut such a lovely cake," Jess said, picking up the knife.


"That's what it's for," Lily reminded her.


Nick wrapped his hand over Jess' and they made the first cut, leaving Lily and Ma to finish the job and serve the cake.




The light was fading when Jess and Nick completed another dance, and Jess asked, "I wonder if anyone would notice if we slipped away?"


They were standing near the entrance to the hotel, and Nick looked at her with a crooked grin. "Why, Mrs. Everett, don't tell me that you're tired?"


"Not in the least," she replied. "I just want to be alone with you."


"Why don't we find out what would happen, then?" he suggested, pulling her slowly up onto the walkway, and then inside of the hotel. "So far, so good," he said as they turned to climb the stairs.


The hallway on the top floor wasn't very long, and there were two doors off of it. Nick removed a key from his pocket and unlocked the door, keeping his gaze locked on Jess. When the door opened, Jess started inside, but Nick stopped her.


"Hold on there."


She stopped, frowning. "What's wrong?" she asked.


Nick lifted her into his arms and carried her into the room. "Nick!" she protested. "Put me down! You're not supposed to -"


He kicked the door closed behind them as he lowered her to her feet, but kept her wrapped in his arms. "Thad gave me a clean bill of health this morning," he told her before capturing her lips with his. "I love you, Jess," he said once the kiss ended.


"Not nearly as much as I love you," Jess answered, pulling him down for another kiss.




Nick woke to a dark room, and the absence of sounds from the street below told him it was late. He reached out, intending to pull Jess into his arms, but she wasn't there. "Jess?" he called softly, sitting up and looking around the room.


"I'm here," she said, and he finally found her standing at the window. "They've about finished cleaning everything up," she told him.


"Come back to bed," he said, holding out his hand toward her. "Please." She moved across the room, and he saw that she was wearing his black silk robe. "What's wrong?" he asked as she put her head on his chest, back in his arms once again.


"I just - couldn't sleep," she said, running her fingers through the dark hair. "Nick?"


"Mmm?" he muttered, smoothing her red hair back.


"Was I - was I okay?"


Nick's hand stilled. "I thought we were past this, Jess, darlin'. You were fantastic."


"You're sure?" she asked, and he met her look unflinchingly.


"Have I ever lied to you, darlin'?"




"Then trust me."


"Always," she said, pulling him into a kiss that took his breath away. "Can we - do it again?"


"Whatever you want," he assured her with another kiss.




After church the next day, during which Jess blushed more than she had probably blushed in her life, she and Nick made the trip out to the ranch with Lily and Kevin and the children. Elizabeth had accepted Thad's invitation to have dinner at Ma's.


At the front door, Jess gave Nick a look of uncertainty as he lifted her over the threshold. "I should have asked Thad about this," she said as Benjamin giggled.


"Pa, you did that with Ma after you and she got married."


"Sure did, son," Kevin nodded, taking Lily's hand at the shared memory.


"You can put her down now, Nick," Lily told him.


Nick shook his head. "Not yet." He gave Jess a kiss before letting her down.


"Grownups," Benjamin grumbled, shaking his head in childish disgust.


Mariana came from the kitchen, beaming, having obviously witnessed their arrival. "Pedro will take your cases up to your room, Mr. Nick."


"Thank you, Mariana," Nick replied.


"The room at the far end of the hall, right, Miss Jess?"


"That's right," Jess nodded.


"Benji, upstairs and change your clothes, please," Lily told her son, who made a mad dash for the stairs. "If you'll excuse me, I think that I need to change Kate's diaper."


Kevin followed her. "I'm going to change my clothes, since we're not having company for dinner."


"I think they were trying to give us some privacy," Jess told Nick. She took his hand and pulled him toward the stairs.


"Where are we going?"


"Don't you want to see our room?" she asked.




"We have time. Mariana never has lunch ready right after church - she has to come back here to finish it." She smiled as he put his arm around her.


"You said the last room?" he asked as she guided him down the hallway, finally stopping at the closed door.


She nodded, opening the door. Taking his hand again, she led him inside. It was a masculine room, with an oversize bed framed by a heavy wooden headboard and footboard. The fireplace was almost as large as the one in the parlor, and Nick realized that it likely shared the chimney with that one. He looked around the room before turning to look at Jess, who was standing against the door, watching him.


"This was your father's room, wasn't it?"


"It was," she confirmed, coming over to put her arms around his chest. "The only time it's been used since he died was by Uncle Charles the night that -" she hesitated.


"The night he stayed here," Nick finished, knowing that she had been going to say something else. "We don't have to use this room -"


"It's the furthest from everyone else's room," she reminded him. "Benjamin is three doors back down the hall." She unbuttoned his vest, before reaching back to unbutton her skirt and letting it fall to the floor. "You *did* say we needed privacy, remember?"


Nick picked her up and carried her over to the bed, dropping her onto the thick feather mattress as someone knocked on the door. Jess giggled as Nick groaned in frustration before calling out, "Who is it?"


"It's Pedro, Mr. Nick. I have your cases."


"Just - leave them in the hallway, please, Pedro. I'll get them inside later."


"Yes, sir."


Jess laughed. "I think he's embarrassed."


"He's not the only one," Nick told her, pulling at his string tie and shrugging off his coat and vest. "You are even more shameless as a married woman, Jess, darlin'."


She smiled up at him, watching his movements. "Do you mind?"


Nick answered her question with a kiss.



He woke alone again that night - and saw her standing at the window. This time, she was wearing her own robe, and he grabbed his as he joined her. Putting his hands on her shoulders, he leaned down to whisper in her ear, "Can't sleep?"


She shook her head. "No. I haven't really slept. Not since -" She turned and buried her face against his chest. "I don't understand why. I know it wasn't my fault. She left me no choice. If I hadn't fired, she would have killed me."


"And me," he told her. "Because, like you, I wouldn't have wanted to live without you." He held her tightly. "Jess, is it possible that this isn't really about what happened at the hotel?"


She looked up at him. "What do you mean?"


"Maybe it's about what happened up there -" he nodded toward the mountains, "on the Ridge?"


"That was a month ago," she insisted. "And I didn't - I didn't shoot him."


"But you wanted to," he said. "Didn't you?" She didn't answer right away. "And we weren't able to talk about it - I mean, really talk. I was still recovering from the surgery -"


"The surgery that was made necessary because he shot you." Her voice was rough, and Nick heard the anger. "He shot you - and he killed Pa. Yes, I wanted to kill him. I'd sworn for - for five years that when I found out who killed Pa, he wouldn't stand trial. I know it was against everything that - that I stood for, but it was bad enough that he'd killed Pa, but that he'd tried to kill *you* -" She reached up to wipe the tears away that were falling down her cheeks.


"And you're still wondering if you might have followed through that day on the mountain if he hadn't kept you from having to make that choice."


She sighed. "Could I have done it? Killed him in cold blood? Because that's what it would have been. He didn't have gun or his knife. I don't know. I - don't - know!" she said, beating her fist against his chest with each word.


"Oh, Jess, darlin," he said, holding her tightly as she cried softly. She'd cried that day, but Nick hadn't been there to hold her like this, to offer her the comfort of his arms around her. Finally, as her tears began to subside, he placed his hands on either side of her face and looked down at her. "I don't think that you could have done it. You might have considered it. But when it came right down to it, you couldn't have followed through - unless he found a way to force your hand."


"I think he was trying to do that when he turned and ran toward the edge," she whispered. "For a split-second, I thought he was trying to rush me, to get the gun - I almost fired -"


"You could be right. You said that he didn't want to be hanged - if he could have gotten you to shoot him it would have prevented that. But I'd prefer to think that he wanted to save you from having to make that decision."


Jess frowned. "You - you're defending him!"


"I do think he cared about you, Jess. Is that so hard to believe?"


She considered his words. "I can try."


"Just remember the good times, the laughter before he left the first time."


"Andrew said something similar at his funeral," she told him.


"He's a wise man."


"He said that about you," she told him.


"Feel better now?" Nick asked her.


"I think so. I love you."


"I love you. Think you could sleep now?"


She shook her head, putting her arms around his neck. "No. But I do think we should go back to bed."


"Excellent idea, Mrs. Everett," he agreed, lifting her off her feet to carry her back to the bed.


The End

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