Rock Creek, Nebraska Territory, 1866

Chapter One

“You ready Jimmy?” Cody asked impatiently, tapping his foot as he stood poised by the door of Teaspoon Hunter’s home.

“Yeah, yeah,” Jimmy sighed wearily. He picked up his hat, which was lying on a table and practically slammed it onto his head. “You really think this party is gonna help anything?”

“Can’t hurt,” Cody replied as the two men hurried down the street to the meeting hall where the party Rachel had organized was to take place.

Teaspoon had been shot almost two months ago and Rachel was extremely concerned about the progress or lack thereof that the marshal had been making. She had written to both Cody and Jimmy a few weeks ago, asking them to come back in the hopes that Teaspoon would be cheered by the sight of seeing all ‘his boys’ together again. It had, some, but not to the degree Rachel had been hoping for. Thus, she had organized this birthday party. Jimmy wasn’t sure about any of this, but as Cody said, it probably couldn’t hurt. But Jimmy firmly believed that sometimes all a man needed, was to be left alone.

Jimmy and Cody had arrived a few days ago, both shocked to see how fragile Teaspoon appeared to be. It was as if being shot had sucked the zest for life right out of the marshal. But when they entered the hall, Teaspoon wore a wide grin, beaming at the many townsfolk who had gathered to celebrate this momentous event. Maybe Rachel was right. She was his wife after all.

“‘Bout time,” Lou McCloud said, hurrying to greet her friends. “And they say women take forever to get ready.”

Jimmy grinned as he picked her up off the ground and spun the very pregnant young woman about, her bulging belly pressing against him. He held her as though she was still as slim as she had been when she was an Express rider. “Nag, nag, nag,” he laughed. “It’s a wonder you ain’t wore Kid’s ear plum off.”

“He probably likes it,” Cody chimed in.

“I love it,” Kid added, draping an arm across his wife’s shoulders once her feet were finally back on the ground. “You boys should try it sometime.”

“What? Married life?” Cody grimaced.

Jimmy nudged Kid in the ribs. “Don’t let him fool you. He’s a goner. Can you believe he fell-” “Ah!” Cody shouted, quickly cutting his friend off, unwilling to be teased mercilessly about the name of his intended, Louisa. “Here’s the little fella I’ve been looking for.” He picked up a small dark-haired boy, who was about four years old. “How you doing, Noah?”

“Good, Uncle Billy,” Noah McCloud said solemnly.

“Well, that’s good to hear. You ready to go see the birthday boy?” Cody asked with a chuckle at the seriousness of the child.

“He’s a good boy,” Jimmy said, almost wistfully as he watched Cody disappear into the crowd with Noah in tow.

“He is,” Kid said. Noah was his pride and joy. He followed Jimmy who made his way to the punch table and picked up a cup, sipping slowly from it as he leaned against the wall, observing the many people milling about the hall.

“You okay?” Kid asked. Jimmy had a far away look in his eyes.

“Yeah.” Jimmy glanced at Kid and asked, “you ever regret it?”

“What?”

“Not joining up with the Confederate army?”

Kid shook his head. “I was all set to go. Teaspoon came down to the train station with me and I was just about to board when he told me.”

“What?”

“He told me that Lou was expecting.” Kid shook his head once more. He had been so shocked, first that it was Teaspoon who was telling him the news and second was the news itself. He still had trouble believing that Lou was going to let him go to war and never say a word to him about their child. He took a deep breath and continued. “Then I got to thinking about how we all left.” Jimmy had left with Rosemary and Cody had joined the Union army, dispatched to who knew where, while Buck decided to remain in Rock Creek, as a deputy. “And how Noah died.”

Jimmy nodded, remembering the day, a wave of grief washing over him. It never got better, the pain he felt for Noah’s passing.

“And I knew if I went and fought for the South I couldn’t name my son after him,” Kid added. It had hit him, bags packed, standing by the train. His son would never bear the name of Noah if he fought for his home. Noah would never allow it, so he turned right around and came back to Rock Creek. It was one of the hardest, yet easiest, decisions he had ever made. He loved Virginia, but in the end it was just a place and Noah, in spite of their differences, had been his friend, his family and Lou was his life. “So I came home.” Rock Creek, Lou, Noah and now the new child Lou was carrying, that was home to him now.

Jimmy smiled. “I had my doubts too.”

“About joining the army?” Kid asked in surprise.

“Yeah,” Jimmy replied. But he pushed himself off the wall and began to walk away, leaving Kid to simply stare at his receding figure.

Jimmy threaded his way through the crowd and found Buck and his wife, Jane. “Go on,” Jane was saying.

Buck made a face at Jimmy and picked his son Isaac up. “Care to join me? I gotta get Ike here some cake.”

Jimmy flashed Jane a smile before he followed Buck, watching as the Kiowa fed his two-year-old son a piece of Teaspoon’s birthday cake, while little Ike somehow managed to wear as much cake as he ate.

“You okay?” Buck asked, his face creased with concern. Jimmy did not look right at all.

“Yeah.”

Buck opened his mouth, to contradict his friend’s words when he saw Jimmy go white. “What’s wrong?” he asked quickly.

“Nothing,” Jimmy said. He moved from Buck’s side to the girl he saw standing at the cake table. The blonde-haired girl was picking up and balancing several plates of cake in her arms.

Jimmy grabbed a plate as it started to fall.

“Thanks,” the girl said, turning around to see her would-be rescuer. “Jimmy,” she whispered, her gray eyes filled with panic. She immediately set the plates back down on the table, her hands were shaking too badly to carry them. Straightening her shoulders, trying desperately to regain her composure, she said, “I knew you’d come back here, someday.”

“Are you here because of me? Were you looking for me?” Jimmy asked softly. When the girl didn’t answer, he said, louder, “Tess, were you looking for me?”

“No,” Tess cried. “No,” she repeated, quietly this time. She began backing away from the table and when she bumped into Cody, she turned around and ran.

“Was that Tess?” Cody asked Jimmy, unable to keep the shock from his voice.

“Yeah,” was all Jimmy could manage.

Crawford, Nebraska Territory 1862

Chapter Two

“You can stow your stuff under the bed and there’s some hooks along that wall you can use,” Len Stokely continued showing his newest hand around the Holden ranch. He gave the young man an assessing look. “You sure ranching is your style?” he asked doubtfully.

Jimmy nodded.

“I don’t care too much for gunfighters,” Len told him and Jimmy smiled. Something in his tone reminded him of the first time he had met Teaspoon.

“Neither do I,” Jimmy said ruefully.

Len grinned then, a visible wave of relief washing over him. “Well, the Holden ranch is big enough for almost anyone to blend in.” He glanced at Jimmy once more, as they stepped outside. “If they wanna.”

I wanna, Jimmy thought to himself. Nothing sounded better to him than being just another anonymous ranch hand. He had heard about the Holden ranch back in Sweetwater, as Crawford wasn’t too far from his old stomping grounds. And when he stopped by to see Emma’s former residence, the new owner had told him that the Holdens were looking for hands. Lucky for him, it turned out to be true.

As Len continued to talk, pointing out buildings, introducing him to the other hands, Jimmy’s mind began to wander. After Kid and Lou’s wedding, almost five months ago, he and Rosemary had soon left Rock Creek, getting engaged a few weeks later. But try as he would, it wasn’t meant to be. Rosemary wanted him to be someone else, her late husband or maybe even Jimmy’s father. But he wasn’t either man. So they had parted ways.

He had met up with Cody soon after, almost accidentally and his friend had tried to convince him to join the army, but Jimmy had rebuffed him. He had just spent the past few months trying to be a square peg in a round whole and wasn’t ready to try again so soon.

Thus he had just wandered about, making enough money gambling to eke out an existence. It was almost refreshing, the anonymity of his new life. He wasn’t anything or anyone to anybody. Not a deputy nor a friend or even an Express rider. And with the start of the Civil War, no one seemed to have any interest in challenging Wild Bill Hickok. Being the fastest gun around just wasn’t as important as it used to be. So he had drifted from one town to another, checking out the sights, both old and new, until he heard about the Holden ranch. He decided then that he had had enough of wandering and being a ranch hand would be a nice change of pace.

He glanced once more around the Holden ranch. It was prospering in spite of the war or maybe because of it. Andrew Holden had taken it upon himself to keep the Union army stocked with beef and horses. And from the looks of it, was making a tidy profit by doing so.

“You know anything about breaking horses?” Len asked.

Jimmy grinned. “Used to be an Express rider.”

“Wasn’t what I asked,” Len drawled and Jimmy’s smile grew even wider. The man was challenging him.

“So where’s the horse that needs breaking?” Jimmy asked, almost insolently.

Len broke out in a smile then. “Right this way, Mister Hickok.”

Chapter Three

Tess Holden stared out the widow of the stage, her hands folded in her lap as the stage hit yet another rut in the road on the way home, practically jarring a few teeth loose. Home, she couldn’t wait to get home! Of course getting home would require her to answer a million questions. Probably none from her father, Andrew Holden would have nothing to say. What could he say? Grace Holden, her stepmother, would probably just scold her for her foolishness. Her older sister Marion would be the one asking questions, her husband, Gavin McBride, simply looking on, shaking his head at his wife while he looked at Tess in sympathy.

How was she going to explain this to anyone? Would she tell them the truth? That her fiancee, Daniel Weatherly was a lout, that he jumped into any woman’s bed who crossed his path? When she had first come to New York to meet his family, she had suspected he had once had a fling with the saucy maid who cleaned her room. But she forgave him, she was to be his wife, what did his past matter? But it wasn’t the past, Danny was still sleeping with that maid, with her, the cook’s assistant, even the high and mighty Eliza Chamberlain, the daughter of one of Mr. Weatherly’s business associates.

She had put her foot down then. “Enough Danny,” she had shouted. “It’s them or me.” But Danny had laughed at her, telling her that they were nothing, just amusements until he married her. And maybe she would have believed it had Danny not seduced her months ago. It had happened in her father’s barn, a few weeks after Danny had arrived. He was some kind of cousin to Len Stokely, the Holden ranch’s foreman, and had been sent to Crawford to learn the meaning of work, or some other such nonsense.

And Tess, being the fool she was had fallen for him. The handsome and rich Daniel Weatherly had smiled at her, brought her candy, taken her for long rides and picnics, causing her to fall into his arms. No one ever fell for her, the plain sister of the breathtaking Marion McBride, nee Holden. She hated it when people asked about her sister, expressing surprise when they found out they were sisters, let alone related. Was it her fault that she inherited her father’s fair hair while Marion got their mother’s dark wavy locks? It was that startling contrast of light eyes and dark hair that made many a man weak in the knees when they saw Marion. But they soon shied away from her, upon being the recipient of her sharp tongue.

At first Tess had been afraid that she was just a way for Danny to pass the time until he returned home. But then he had asked her to marry him. He had gone to her father first and gotten his permission and Tess had swooned with the romance of it all, not knowing until a few days ago that her father had found out about the two of them and had forced Danny to propose.

“It would have been better to just let him go,” Tess muttered to herself, ignoring the strange look the elderly woman across from her shot her.

After their engagement was announced, Danny told everyone that he wanted to take Tess to New York to meet his family and so they had gone. What a horrid trip! Mr. Eugene Weatherly, Danny’s father, was overbearing and arrogant, even more arrogant than his son. While Phyllis Weatherly sat in a corner, drinking. The little mouse never said a word. Tess had looked down on the woman when she first met her, but she didn’t anymore. If she had actually ended up married to Danny, she would be the same way in a few years.

Maybe some other woman would have been able to handle Danny’s constant philandering, but she couldn’t. She used to hope that Danny loved her the way her father had loved her mother or even her stepmother. Or Marion. Even now, after almost seven years of marriage and two children, Gavin could still make his wife blush with just a look and it was one of the only things that ever silenced Marion’s acerbic comments. But obviously that wasn’t the case with her and Danny.

The day she left New York, Danny had shouted at her, telling her it was all her fault, that she wasn’t woman enough for him and Tess had boarded the train sobbing. She knew she wasn’t as beautiful as her sister or stepmother, or as smart as her mother or as courageous as her father. But Danny had told her that he loved her. She realized now, he was using her and would say anything he could to get her into bed. She wondered once more why. Why her? Was she a challenge? Was she a way to pass the time? Did Danny ever love her or even like her? Or maybe all she was was a convenient excuse for Danny not to marry Eliza, like everyone expected him to do.

Tess glanced out the window, relieved to see that the hills were just beginning to rise up again, her signal for home, she was finally home. She put her hand up, shielding her eyes from the brightness of the sun. She hoped the stage made it home before it began to rain, which, despite the blueness of the sky was inevitable. The sky was covered in sweeping white clouds and right behind the wisps were soft billowy white spots, mares’ tail and mackerel skies, a sure sign of rain in Nebraska.

Chapter Four

“She shouldn’t be going,” Andrew Holden murmured to his wife, who was dressed and waiting by the door. He smiled when he saw his wife touch the cameo at her throat, pleased that she had decided to wear it. They had discussed the matter at great length, Grace had been very reluctant to wear one of Miranda’s, his late wife’s things. But Andrew had wanted her to have it. She was his wife now, his daughters were just going to have to accept this fact.

Grace Holden frowned slightly. “Maybe, maybe not.” She absently re-pinned a lock of her brown hair back into place.

“Grace,” Andrew hissed. “You know why she left New York. Hell everyone knows. She should just stay home, until the worst of the gossip passes.” Ever since Tess arrived, almost three weeks ago, the gossip started. And it wasn’t showing any signs of slowing down.

Tess didn’t hear her stepmother’s reply, as she crouched by the banister upstairs, listening to them discuss her going to the spring social. She quickly got to her feet and ran back to her room. Fine, if her father didn’t want her to go, then she wouldn’t go.

It hurt hearing her father, whom she adored, speak about her like that. Him of all people. She had hoped he would be supportive, instead he acted ashamed. She knew her relationship with Danny moved too far too fast and maybe she should have done more to slow it down, but she didn’t. And nothing she did now would change that fact.

She knew why her father didn’t want her to go, Andrew Holden hated gossip. And right now, Tess Holden, breaker of engagements, the girl who carried on shamelessly with Danny Weatherly was back in town. She wasn’t deaf, she had heard the whispers in town. But what did her father expect her to do, marry Danny or bury herself in a hole?

Suddenly Tess began to feel angry. She had been a good daughter all her life, working hard on her studies, learning all the things a young lady should. She could even sew and cook, something her stepmother had never mastered, but none of that seemed to matter now. All her father was concerned with now was gossip. And since her father seemed to pay so much attention to the gossip about her, she would give him and the rest of the town even more reasons to gossip.

She flung the door of her closet open and pulled out a red dress which she never wore, as she had bought it on impulse, to please Danny. She never wore it because Marion had told her she looked like a harlot in it. Well good, that suited her just fine. She quickly removed the blue dress she was wearing and put on the red one, re-cinching her corset as tight as one person possibly could. She glanced in the mirror, Marion was right, she looked like a harlot, the red dress was far too tight and quite low-cut. But then that is what she wanted, right, to draw attention to herself?

She moved back to the mirror and began to pick up some of the curls in the front and pinned them on top of her head. She had seen a few women in New York with their hair styled like this, but this wasn’t New York. Even more reason to shock the townsfolk of Crawford.

Her hair was normally stick straight, but Marion with the aid of Belle, the maid, had fashioned her hair into masses of curls, which until a few moments ago were bound back in a simple ponytail. But no longer.

Once she was satisfied with her appearance, she marched down the stairs, standing quietly until her parents finally turned around and noticed her. Her father’s jaw dropped open while her stepmother made a strangled noise. When Tess looked at her, she saw that Grace was trying desperately not to laugh.

Tess felt another surge of anger, but this time mostly at her stepmother. It was bad enough that Grace had stepped in and taken over her mother’s role so completely? But now she had to wear her jewelry? The cameo at Grace’s throat hadn’t escaped Tess’ notice. How dare her father give her that? It should be passed down to her or her sister. But now it would probably go to any children Grace would bear.

Tess continued to fume inside when she saw the merriment in Grace’s eyes. She had some nerve laughing at her. But when Andrew opened his mouth, probably to reprimand his daughter on her appearance, Grace put a restraining arm on him, silencing him with a look.

“Are you ready?” Grace asked, still having a great deal of trouble concealing her amusement.

“Yes,” Tess said defiantly. She strode ahead of her parents, out the door and into the awaiting buckboard.

“Grace,” Andrew said slowly. “She can’t be seen like that. She... she...”

“She’s upset,” Grace told him. “And this is her way of letting you know.”

“Me?!” Andrew exclaimed. “What did I do?”

“She thinks the world of you, Andrew,” Grace answered patiently. She knew how Tess worshiped her father. “She probably heard what you said and you hurt her feelings.”

“But,” Andrew sputtered indignantly. “I didn’t do anything wrong.” He hadn’t said anything about her foolhardy relationship with Danny, in retrospect that was incredibly stupid. He paid for her ticket home when the engagement ended. He even fired a ranch hand who dared to make an impertinent remark about his daughter.

“She needs you,” Grace said. “Let her do this and don’t let it show how much it upsets you. Just be supportive. She’ll regain her senses.”

Andrew shook his head. “I hope you’re right,” he muttered, holding out his hand to his wife so she could join Tess on the buckboard.

Chapter Five

Jimmy glanced at all the people at the dance. He was positive that the whole town of Crawford was there, everyone either dancing or eating. He hadn’t wanted to come, but Len had persuaded him, telling him that Andrew Holden expected all his hands there. So in an effort to keep in his new employer’s good graces, Jimmy had come. And he had even danced a few times.

He frowned slightly, recalling one particular dance. He still had trouble imagining that flirty girl in the red dress, who was now dancing with one of his fellow ranch hands, was Andrew Holden’s daughter, Tess. The girl had danced with every man even remotely close to her age in the building and flirted shamelessly with the rest. All with her father watching and fuming, Jimmy noted as he saw Andrew Holden standing in a corner, glowering at his daughter.

As he continued to watch the crowd, he heard Tess laugh. It was a brittle sound, rather like the sound a cup made when it hit the floor. She then moved away from the man she had been dancing with and went to the punch bowl, where her sister Marion stood, arms crossed.

“What do you think you are doing?” Marion demanded of her sister.

“Dancing,” Tess replied sweetly.

“So that’s what they call it?” Marion asked irritably. “Well Crawford ain’t like New York. You are just adding fuel to the fire.” She stopped her tirade then. “You’re doing this on purpose, aren’t you?” she asked, feeling rather shocked. She couldn’t believe that this scantily clad, man-eating creature in front of her was her baby sister.

“Whatever are you talking about?” Tess asked in her very best southern belle voice.

Marion shook her head. “When you wake up tomorrow and remember how you acted tonight, don’t come crying to me about it.”

Tess ignored her sister, hoping that her silence would give her sister the hint that she wasn’t in the mood to be mollycoddled today. The rumors were flying and from some of the talk she had heard, she was worse than the town tramp, so why not play the part?

Tess glanced around the room. She was fairly certain she had danced with every man here. “Who’s that?” she asked upon seeing a young man lounging against the wall. He had sandy brown hair and brown eyes. But it was the way he wore his guns that caught her eye. She studied the young man once more, the way he wore his guns reminded her of some of the ten-cent novels she had read on occasion.

She looked at the young man again. Had she danced with him? She couldn’t recall right this minute. “Marion, who is that?” Tess asked once more, lifting her chin in the man’s direction.

“One of the new ranch hands,” Marion answered. “His name is Jimmy Hickok.”

“Hickok?” Tess asked, her eyes lighting up. “As in Wild Bill Hickok?”

Marion looked sternly at her sister. “That’s what I’ve heard.” She caught her sister by the arm as she started to move in the young man’s direction. “Don’t go embarrassing the poor fella. From what I’ve heard, he fits in real nice and doesn’t make any claim to being a gunfighter.”

“Me? Embarrass someone?” Tess laughed mockingly. “Why would I do that?” She stepped quickly in the gunfighter’s direction. She wanted to get away from her sister before Marion got the last word in.

But before she got very far, she heard her sister call out, “be careful, Tess.”

When finally she reached the man’s side, she smiled up at him and cooed, “care to dance?”

Jimmy eyed her uncertainly. She was pretty enough, once you got past the garish dress and ridiculous poodle-like hair. She looked a lot like her sister, except Marion’s looks were far more dramatic, as she had dark hair to go along with her grey eyes while Tess had pale blonde hair. Tess was slightly built, as Marion was, both women had turned up noses, along with clefts in their chins. The only difference, aside from coloring appeared to be that Tess had a small dimple in her left cheek when she smiled, whereas Marion had none.

But her looks did not make him hesitate, it was something else. Maybe her eagerness to make a spectacle of herself or maybe it was the sense of despair that hung over her. Whatever it was, it was enough to make him say, “thanks, but I think I’ll sit this one out.”

“Why Mister Hickok,” Tess practically purred. “I don’t think I’ve ever been refused by such a handsome gentleman.”

“I appreciate the compliment, but I’m a little tired,” Jimmy told her. “I think I might just head on back to the ranch.”

“Well, if you are going, would you mind escorting me back to the ranch?” Tess asked, her eyes wide with innocence. “I do believe I’m feeling a bit tired myself.”

Jimmy grimaced slightly. This wasn’t going at all as planned. He was supposed to come to the social, eat some good food, dance to a few songs and then go home, having made his requisite appearance. “I don’t know,” Jimmy began.

Tess covered her mouth with her hand, hiding an exaggerated yawn. “Thank you Mister Hickok, I appreciate your kindness.” She then tucked her arm under his and started to walk toward the door, dragging Jimmy along with her.

Unwilling to make a fool of himself by treating his employer’s daughter rudely, Jimmy tightened his arm around Tess’ as both of them made their exit.

“I’ll go get a buckboard,” Jimmy said, extricating himself from Tess’ grip.

“I’ll be waiting,” Tess smiled. She watched as Jimmy walked to the group of ranch hands gathered outside. She assumed he was asking which buckboard he could use. Tess glanced at the window and saw her father’s disapproving face. She could almost hear his thoughts - Not another one. “Yes Daddy, another one,” she whispered softly. And this one was a gunfighter.

“I got the buckboard,” Jimmy called out. He bounded up the stairs, “Ma’am,” he said loudly, trying to get her attention. She was staring off into nothingness.

“Huh?” Tess asked, shocked to see Jimmy refer to her as ma’am. Ma’am? She was now a ma’am? Her mother was ma’am, Grace was a ma’am, even Marion was a ma’am. She had been Tess to all the ranch hands for so long, it took her by surprise to be referred to as ma’am.

“I got the buckboard,” Jimmy repeated patiently.

“Oh,” Tess replied. “Thank you.” She took a step toward him and put her arms around his waist, wondering for an instant if her father was still watching. She certainly hoped so. She was going to give him something to watch.

“You’re welcome,” Jimmy replied, trying to gently free himself from Tess’ arms. But before he could, Tess stood on her tiptoes and kissed his lips.

It was a small kiss, one that could easily be dismissed as gratitude, but Jimmy found himself kissing her back, surprised by the tightening sensation he felt in his stomach when he kissed her. He kissed her again and again, small kisses which quickly melded into one, no beginning and no end. Until Jimmy jerked himself away when he heard shouts exchanged between a few other hands who milling about outside.

He turned back to Tess. He knew he had to say something. What to say, he had no idea, but it didn’t matter, because when he turned back, he found himself alone. Tess had vanished.

Chapter Six

Jimmy lined the tin cans along the fence he was supposed to be mending. It had been two days since the dance and he had only seen Tess once. Why this fact bothered him was beyond reason. But after he had kissed her, he found himself thinking about her. Were the rumors about her true and that’s why she kissed him? Or was she using him as a weapon against her father? Andrew Holden had not been shy in expressing his disgust at his daughter’s behavior, going as far as to apologize to Jimmy if Tess had embarrassed him.

He had no idea why she had kissed him or why he had kissed her back. He just wished he could forget it. But he couldn’t. Mending fences certainly didn’t keep his mind from wandering, so he went back to an old and tried technique for him, target practice. It was hard to think about anything else when he focused his mind on putting a bullet through a can.

He had just turned to face the cans when he heard a shot. Quickly whirling about, his gun drawn, he saw Tess, who was aiming a rifle at his cans, knocking them down rapidly.

“Sorry,” she said, “didn’t mean to scare you.”

“You didn’t scare me,” Jimmy replied, lowering his weapon. “But you keep sneaking up on people like that, you’re liable to get yourself shot.”

Tess shrugged, as if she didn’t care whether or not she got shot. “I just came by to apologize for the other night. I didn’t mean to make you feel uncomfortable.”

“It’s alright,” Jimmy replied, feeling rather sheepish. He felt as though he should say he was sorry too, but it would be too awkward, apologizing to a pretty girl for doing what came natural.

“You didn’t,” he said as he turned back to the cans, prepared to shoot the remaining ones. But instead he found himself picking them up, as Tess had hit each and every one of them. “Nice shooting.”

“Thanks, my father taught me,” Tess said, continuing to stand by the tree. “I was supposed to be a boy.”

“What?”

“A boy. There were three boys between Marion and me, but all of them died before their first birthday.”

“I’m sorry,” Jimmy said, setting the last can on the fence. He turned around to ask Tess a question, but found himself alone. He frowned slightly. That girl had the strangest habit of just appearing and just as quickly disappearing.




“I heard Tess was looking for you,” Len said when he saw Jimmy returning to the bunkhouse late that afternoon.

“She found me,” Jimmy replied.

“You might be better off staying away from her,” Len said cautiously. He liked this young man and didn’t want to see him caught in a potentially sticky wicket.

“She came to see me,” Jimmy responded, unable to hide his irritation. He did not need this aggravation, not from Len or Tess.

“She got her heart broke a little while ago,” Len explained. “A cousin of mine was here. He was engaged to Tess up till last month.”

“So?”

“I saw you kiss her,” Len said. When Jimmy didn’t answer, he opened his mouth to continue. Obviously he would have to spell this out for Jimmy. “I don’t know why she settled on you-”

“No, not me,” Jimmy interrupted angrily. “I’m just a ten-cent hero. Not the kind of fella one of the great Holdens should be seeing.”

Len sighed loudly. “I didn’t say that. I just want you to know Tess is hurt. And so are you.” Even though Jimmy didn’t say a word to him, he saw it. The young man was wounded, same as Tess and putting those two together was nothing but trouble.

Jimmy raised a hand, hoping to end Len’s lecture. “I ain’t looking to be involved with anyone and if I am, it sure wouldn’t be the boss’ daughter.”

“Don’t get me wrong,” Len said quickly. “Tess is a nice girl. She may not be as pretty as her sister, but she’s a sweetheart.” He paused, then added, “it’s just you fit in real nice around here and I’d hate to see anything mess that up.”

“Thanks,” Jimmy replied absently. Even though he resented Len’s interference, he appreciated the older man’s concern. It had been a while since anyone cared what happened to him.

Len smiled at him. “I’ll see you at dinner.” He left then, heading in the direction of the dining hall.

Jimmy began heading toward the bunkhouse so he could wash up before dinner. He wondered what Len meant by his words. Tess was just as pretty as her sister. Maybe even more so.

Chapter Seven

Tess sat in her bedroom staring out the window. For some unknown reason her mind kept drifting back to Jimmy Hickok. Why was he here, of all places? Maybe he was wanted for some great crime or hiding from another gunfighter. Nah, he didn’t look like a criminal and if he was wanted, one of the other hands would have turned him in for the reward by now. And he didn’t look like the kind of man that would hide, especially if the ten-cent novels about him were true. What was the number of men he was supposed to have killed, nineteen, twenty? So why was he here?

She turned from the window upon hearing a knock at her door. “Come in.”

“Tess,” Andrew Holden said, entering his daughter’s bedroom. “Are you busy?”

“No,” Tess answered curtly. She knew she was being rude, but her father’s criticisms still stung. “Mind if I sit down?” Andrew asked, poised by the door.

“No,” Tess shook her head, her tone softening. She scooted over on the bed, making room for her father.

“I’m sorry if I hurt you,” Andrew began. He sat down on the bed, his fingers touching the childish flowery print. Tess had so much little girl in her, still. Even though she was seventeen years old, she was still his baby. And he liked it that way.

Tess raised her eyes and looked directly at her father. “Then why did you say that? Are you ashamed of me?”

Andrew wrapped his daughter in a bear hug. “Ashamed? I could never be ashamed of you.”

“Then why?” Tess asked softly. “Why didn’t you want me to go to the social?”

“I hated the way the biddies were talking about you.” Old women, Andrew thought angrily once more. He could put the whole lot of them to work, that should occupy their time. “I didn’t want you to hear anything that might upset you. Instead I was the one who upset you.”

“I’m sorry about Danny,” Tess said, hesitating. What a subject to be talking about and with her own father!

Andrew released his daughter from his embrace and studied her, his eyes hardening. “You can’t keep doing these things. You have to start using your head. Maybe if you had done things right, you and Danny would be married now.”

Tess looked away, her eyes filling with tears. “I know. I didn’t think.”

“You never think,” Andrew said with a heavy sigh. “You’re not a child anymore. You can’t expect everyone to treat you like you are a princess. But I guess that’s my fault. I’ve spoiled you. You have to remember what kind of man Danny is. He is wealthy, old money kind of wealthy and he comes from a powerful family.”

When Tess refused to look at him, Andrew added, “what did you think? You would have the same kind of relationship with him that Marion has with Gavin?” Why would Tess even want such a relationship? Those two were forever squabbling one minute, making up the next.

Even though his oldest daughter had been married for quite some time now, it still rankled him, the way Gavin and Marion had run off together. Of course Gavin had proven himself to be a hard worker and he had come to depend on his son-in-law for many of the day to day ranch activities. But he used to have such high hopes for Marion. With her uncommon beauty she could have made a fine match with a far more suitable man. His oldest daughter’s marriage had made him even more determined to make sure Tess found herself a worthy husband.

“No,” Tess whispered. She knew now no one would ever love her as much as Gavin loved Marion. “I’m sorry, Daddy.”

“Now, about that Hickok fella,” Andrew said, clearing his throat.

“I’m sorry,” Tess said again. “That was all my fault. I wanted to upset you.” The last thing she wanted was for her father to be angry at Jimmy.

“You don’t like him?”

Tess shrugged.

Andrew let out a small sigh of relief. “It sure seemed like you did.”

Tess could feel her cheeks growing warm as she recalled the kiss.

Andrew rose to his feet and patted his daughter on the back. “I’d appreciate it if you stayed away from him.”

“Why?”

“He’s a gunfighter, Tess. He’s not looking to settle down and be a husband and father,” Andrew answered. Of course, neither was Danny Weatherly. But at least Danny had money, he could keep his daughter in the style she was accustomed to, not to mention what having a Weatherly in the family would mean.

“I don’t want a husband,” Tess mumbled in response. She had pretty much decided to become a nun, the first Lutheran nun. But Andrew had already risen to his feet and was heading to the door. “I’m sorry, Daddy.”

Andrew paused by the door. “I know you are. And I know you’ll find someone else soon, someone much more suitable. Just use your head next time.”

Tess nodded, as the door shut behind her father. She picked up the pillow lay down, her desolation becoming almost unbearable at this point. “I’m sorry,” she whispered again.

A few seconds later, Tess heard another knock at the door. Without even bothering to get up, she said, “come in.” It was probably Marion.

Tess heard the bedsprings squeak and felt a warm hand smooth back her hair. “How are you doing?” Grace asked.

Tess grimaced slightly. She definitely did not need this. Her stepmother often tried to play mother to her, never once figuring out that Tess did not need a mother. “Fine,” she mumbled in response.

“I know your father can be hard on you sometimes,” Grace said thoughtfully. “I think he forgets that you are a girl.”

Tess didn’t even bother to answer. She knew how badly her father wished she was a boy. She was just a general disappointment to him.

“I just don’t think your father realizes that Danny isn’t right for you,” Grace told her quietly. “Danny takes what he wants, damn the consequences.” She waited quietly, until Tess looked at her. “From what I’ve heard, you are like your mother, a giver. You give everything you have to someone you love.”

Tess turned her head, unwilling to let Grace see her tears. What right did she have to bring up her mother?

“Just be careful who you give your heart to next time,” Grace continued. “Make sure he knows how to take care of it.”

Tess lay quietly until Grace finally left her room. Why? Why did she have to come in and talk to her? Why couldn’t she just leave her alone? She didn’t need or want Grace to play mother. Her real mother was dead and it was all her fault.

And what Tess resented most of all was how Grace’s words made her feel. Because after Grace said those words, the dread she had carried around in her heart ever since she came home lightened considerably.

Chapter Eight

Tess watched the group in the store warily. She had dreaded coming here, dreaded the stares and whispers she knew would be coming. And when she got to the store, there were stares and whispers, but much to her surprise, they were not directed at her. They were directed at Jimmy.

She didn’t know he was going to be here. Had she known, she would have stayed home, as she still had trouble meeting his eyes. Len must have sent him here on some errand, she realized. Jimmy was fast becoming the hand Len most often turned to when he needed help.

“Old biddies,” Tess muttered angrily, realizing she sounded just like her father. They truly must lead empty lives to be gossiping about some young man they scarcely knew. Suddenly, Tess reached a hand out and pushed the cans behind Mrs. Barton. The rail-thin dark-haired woman jumped in fright while the storekeeper looked at her disapprovingly. A loud discussion soon arose, dealing with who would pay for the cans that were dented and the bowls. When Tess had pushed the bowls, they had rolled into a bowl display and knocked the glassware to the ground, shattering all of them.

Tess quickly scurried outside. She certainly didn’t want anyone to point a finger at her. But she couldn’t help but look inside through the window and smile as she watched Mrs. Barton’s fluttering hand movements.

“Thanks,” she heard a voice behind her say. Tess turned and saw Jimmy there. Tess stared at her shoes for a moment. “Mrs. Barton deserved it,” she replied, raising her eyes.

Jimmy just gave her a small grin.

“You still working on the fence at the north end?” Tess asked. She quickly looked at her shoes again. Was her mouth not connected to her brain? What on earth possessed her to say that?

“Yeah,” Jimmy answered. And when Tess looked at him once more she found that he was no longer smiling but watching her closely, the expression on his face unreadable.

Tess smiled shyly at him before she hurried away, not looking back once. She knew Marion was going to be at the dressmaker’s store soon and she didn’t want her sister to lecture her any more than she already had. But if she had looked back, she would have been very pleased to see that Jimmy’s eyes were following her, all the way down the street.

Chapter Nine

Tess glanced at Jimmy from the corner of her eye, hoping he didn’t see the way her eyes kept wandering back to him. She had been coming here for the past couple of days, knowing that Jimmy was here, still working on the fence. In spite of her father’s wishes and the many lectures she gave to herself, she kept coming back. Jimmy Hickok was not what she expected, not at all. He wasn’t arrogant or standoffish. He was genuinely interested in what she had to say. She could tell from the way he asked questions about her family and the ranch. And he never once brought up Danny’s name. Plus his stories about the Pony Express fascinated her.

“Hand me a nail,” Jimmy said, holding out his hand to Tess who picked up a nail from the ground and gave it to him. As he began to pound the nail into the fence, he looked at her once more. She looked a whole lot better today and all the other days she came out to visit him. Much better than she did at the dance. She wasn’t made up or had her hair fashioned in some ridiculous style. Her clothing was also different, today she was dressed in a simple green dress and her blonde hair hung down her back in a thick braid.

“Do you ever take off your guns?” Tess asked, making note of the fact Jimmy was working with both colts strapped to his legs.

“Safer that way,” Jimmy replied.

“That’s right, Marion told me you were a gunfighter.” Tess moved to Jimmy’s side and placed her arm on him when she saw his mouth tighten with anger. “I didn’t mean anything by that,” she said quickly. “I know what it’s like...” She stopped speaking then.

Jimmy let the hammer fall from his hand and cupped her chin with his hand. He knew she didn’t mean anything by her statement. Of all the people he had met of late, Tess understood what it was like to have people talk about you, crediting you with things you may or may not be responsible for. “What it’s like having a reputation that’s not all your own making?” Tess studied the ground. He knew! Of course he knew. Who didn’t know? “What? You mean you don’t think I’m the whore of Babylon?” she asked, her tone harsh.

Jimmy lifted her chin up, so she had no choice but to look at him. “I try to make my own judgments.”

“I was engaged to a man, his name was Danny Weatherly,” Tess began speaking rapidly, stopping only when Jimmy placed his fingers on her lips.

“You don’t owe me any explanations,” he said quietly.

“I thought he loved me,” Tess whispered, allowing Jimmy to lead her to a tree where they both sat down under an overhang, protected from the noon sun. Part of her wanted him to know, but suddenly it became much more important that he not think badly of her. She couldn’t tell him what happened between Danny and her, she just couldn’t. He would stay away from her and rightly so and she didn’t want that to happen.

“But he didn’t?”

Tess shook her head, looking down once more. “Everyone thinks they know what happened. But they don’t.” The lie caused her stomach to hurt, but she couldn’t make her mouth form the true ones. No one, except for Marion and Gavin paid her much attention, no one that is until Jimmy came along. Even Danny at their closest rarely ever listened to her, really listened. It did her broken heart good to be with someone as exciting and handsome as Jimmy Hickok. If he could find her interesting, maybe someone else would as well.

She certainly didn’t expect him to become her beau. There was no reason for him to settle for someone as plain as her. But even as she told herself Jimmy would never be interested in her, Tess began to hope that he was. And if he really was interested in her, she would tell him. She would tell him everything about herself.

Jimmy took her hand in his, his fingers rubbing the soft, smooth skin covering her palm. “Before I came here, I was engaged to someone who thought I was someone else.”

“Who?”

“Her late husband.”

“Her husband?” Tess looked at him quizzically. “Did it hurt?”

“Yeah,” Jimmy replied. He continued rubbing her palm while he told her more about Rosemary, and much to his surprise he felt the weight on his shoulders lighten. Maybe Rachel was right, maybe it was best not to keep everything bottled up, pushing the world away.

It was late in the afternoon when Jimmy and Tess finished speaking. “I’m sorry,” Tess said with a smile, not sounding sorry at all. And she wasn’t sorry, as she had thoroughly enjoyed herself this afternoon. “I’ve kept you from your work.”

“That’s okay,” Jimmy grinned back at her. “I think the boss will forgive me.” He stood up and pulled Tess to her feet. Once she was standing, he drew her into his arms. Being with her, talking and laughing, it made him realize that in spite of all his protests, he really didn’t want to be alone. He wanted to be with Tess. Sweet little Tess was someone he had grown quite fond of in the short period of time he had known her.

Tess smiled up at him. Maybe he was interested after all. Maybe she would tell him about herself later, the truth, once they got to know each other better. Maybe he wouldn’t judge her so harshly if he knew her as a person. She moved her hands to his waist, her fingers gripping his shirt.

And when Tess looked up at him, Jimmy felt a wave of desire wash over him once again. “You wouldn’t mind taking a ride with me after supper would you?”

“I’d like that,” she answered. And this time she didn’t even have to stand on her toes. Jimmy bent his head, burying his lips in hers.

Chapter Ten

Jimmy pulled on his gloves, eyeing the two identical young men, boys really, before him. Zeb and Zeke Turner, twins who worked on the Holden ranch with him had just found out about his reputation and were now pestering him about Longely, Caulder and a few other names.

“Now, now,” a voice from behind Jimmy called out. “You young ‘uns had best be going. Otherwise, Wild Bill just might decide to teach you both a lesson.”

The Turner twins both flushed, their cheeks as quickly becoming as red as their hair as they mumbled something about Len looking for them before they vanished. It was then Jimmy turned around. He knew that voice. “Well, what brings you by here, Cody? Looking for an honest day’s work?” He hadn’t seen or heard from Cody in months and he certainly never expected to see him here of all places. Jimmy had been at the Holden ranch for over a month and he hadn’t been in touch with any of his old friends.

“I’m here to see if I can interest you in an honest day’s work,” Cody retorted.

Jimmy grinned at him. “I’m sure I can get you hired here. The foreman thinks quite highly of me.”

“Highly of *you* ?” Cody snorted. “Besides, I’ll have you know I already got work.”

Jimmy raised a brow at him. “You mean the army hasn’t kicked you out already?”

“Nope,” Cody replied cheerfully. “I’m here on army work. Well, not here, exactly.”

“Where then?” Jimmy asked.

“The Garrison place.”

“The Garrison place?” Jimmy repeated. The Garrison ranch was second in size and scope only to the Holden property. The two ranches frequently competed with each other for business with the Holden ranch usually coming out on top. “You’re a ranch hand?” he asked, incredulous.

“Kind of,” Cody said sheepishly. When Jimmy looked at him expectantly, he added, “posing as a ranch hand for the army.”

“Why?” Jimmy frowned.

Cody sighed softly. He wasn’t supposed to reveal so much, but the army didn’t know Jimmy the way he knew Jimmy. He knew if he was going to get any cooperation from his friend, he would have to tell him everything. “The army suspects Milt Garrison of running guns for the south.”

Jimmy began to shake his head. “You’re out of your head. Milt Garrison ain’t that stupid. He does enough business with the Union army to keep his ranch going and then some.”

“Milt Garrison’s father was born in Georgia,” Cody informed him.

“And that’s why he’s running guns?” Jimmy began to laugh. “You got the army thinking as clearly as you do.”

“This is serious,” Cody said sharply, his harsh tone quickly silencing Jimmy’s laughter. “They know someone from around here is running guns and the two most likely suspects are Milt Garrison and Andrew Holden.”

“WHAT?”

“Keep your voice down,” Cody admonished him. “You heard right, Mister Holden’s a suspect too.”

Jimmy stared at him, a growing sense of dread filling his belly.

“I’m working at the Garrison ranch to see if I can find out if it’s Mister Garrison who’s running the guns and-”

“And you want me to do the same here,” Jimmy finished wearily. “You are out of your head. I ain’t doing anything as crazy as that. Mister Holden has been nothing but good to me, I ain’t gonna run around behind his back, playing spy.”

“You know,” Cody said slowly. “I thought for a while you were gonna join up with me.”

“I never said anything of the sort.”

“The way Noah died and all,” Cody continued, as if Jimmy had said nothing. “But you left with Rosemary and I figured you were doing your part that way.” He shook his head. “But now you ain’t doing much of anything.”

“Don’t you even think of guilting me into this,” Jimmy began angrily.

“You ain’t gonna help the army out, knowing why they are fighting?” Cody asked, almost innocently. “What would your father say? What would Noah say?”

Jimmy stared at the ground, his face colored with anger or was it shame? Was he hiding, from his father’s legacy, from the guilt of Noah’s death?

“Just look around,” Cody said softly. “See if you see anything suspicious and if you do, tell me and the army will send someone else in to investigate further. You don’t have do anything but keep your eyes open.”

Jimmy raised his eyes and asked, “that’s it?”

“That’s it,” Cody smiled.

Chapter Eleven

Jimmy glanced over at Tess who had positioned herself against the wall, still not looking at him or Cody. He had told Tess about the army’s suspicions and that Cody had asked him to look around and not surprisingly, Tess had been furious. The only way he could calm her down was by promising her that he would tell her about whatever he found first, before the Army and Cody.

Then Tess had taken it another step further. She was so convinced of her father’s innocence that she invited Jimmy to take a look at the books. Jimmy had refused, for two reasons. One, he didn’t know what the army was looking for and two, even if Andrew Holden was running guns, he didn’t want to be the one to lead the army to him. So Tess told him to bring Cody by and he could see for himself that her father was innocent.

Jimmy looked at Cody who was writing down dates and amounts of money that had come through the Holden ranch. He was going to compare these numbers to the Garrison books. If they matched, the next step would be to see where Milt Garrison and Andrew Holden had been on the days in question.

“Just ‘cause they match, don’t mean anything,” Jimmy hissed at Cody.

“Don’t expect the dates to match,” Cody replied. “Least not exactly. I’m more interested in seeing if the numbers do and if the dates are anywhere close.” Andrew Holden and Milt Garrison were not stupid.

“Aren’t you going to question my father?” Tess asked primly. She was the picture of control, but Jimmy could see that she was seething. She somehow took Cody’s questioning of her father’s affairs as Jimmy’s not trusting her.

“No,” Cody shook his head. “It’s way too soon for that.” The army was just poking around, they had no hard evidence. But his commanding officer could not contain his joy when he heard Cody was going to examine the Holden books.

“My father doesn’t even keep the books,” Tess said with a sniff of disdain.

Cody didn’t answer. It really didn’t matter who kept the books, as long as the numbers were accurate. Of course Andrew Holden might have two sets of books. And if he did, they would have to look even harder. But for now, he would hope for the best and see where it led to.

Cody shut the heavy ledger and rose from the table he had been sitting at, stuffing his papers in his pocket. “Thanks,” he told Tess, opening and closing his cramped fingers. He had written down so many things, as he wasn’t sure what was real or even useful, so rather than take a chance, he had written down almost everything.

Tess scowled at him. “My father wouldn’t do what you are accusing him of. He believes in the Union.”

Cody shrugged. Far be it for him to convince a daughter of her father’s guilt. “I hope you’re right.”

“I am,” Tess said firmly.

The three of them walked to Cody’s horse which was tied to a post outside the barn. “I’ll be in touch,” he said, digging his heels into his horse’s side.

Tess watched Cody ride off and then she threw a saddle on her own horse.

Jimmy reached under the animal and tightened the cinch. “Where are you going?” he asked softly.

“For a ride,” Tess replied, her voice no longer angry, just tired.

“You want any company?” Jimmy asked.

“No,” she said, clipping the word. Tess swung her leg over the horse’s back and gave it a kick, riding off in the opposite direction of Cody.

Jimmy briefly considered the idea of following her, but quickly rejected it. She was still angry with him and he couldn’t blame her. But he had to do it. Wasn’t it better that he be involved in this matter, rather than having Tess blindsided by it all?





It was almost dinner time when he saw Tess’ horse return, without her. He caught the white stallion by the reins. Not only was Topper riderless, but saddleless as well.

“Isn’t that Tess’ horse?” one of the Turner twins asked.

“Yeah,” Jimmy replied, grim-faced.

“I wouldn’t worry too much about it,” the boy said, catching sight of Jimmy’s expression.

Jimmy wished he could keep the twins straight, so he could address them properly, but couldn’t, no one could.

“Tess always goes on long rides. She can leave before breakfast and not be back till after dinner,” the twin added.

“But she usually has her horse with her, doesn’t she?” Jimmy asked, unable to keep the sarcasm from his voice.

“It’s nothing,” the twin said. “Her cinch probably broke.” When he saw that he was being ignored, he added, “I bet she’s walking back now.”

Jimmy didn’t answer him. He just went to his own horse and saddled it.

“Where are you going?”

“To find Tess,” Jimmy replied, struggling to keep his tone steady. Anything could have happened to her. Didn’t the Turner boy understand that? Didn’t he know what happened to all the people Jimmy cared about? And Tess had been gone for hours.

Chapter Twelve

Jimmy rode in the direction Tess had taken off in. He had been riding for almost a half an hour when he spotted her, as the Turner twin had predicted, walking. But she was walking with a distinct limp.

“Tess,” Jimmy shouted in relief upon spying her. He pulled up next to her and dismounted. “You okay?”

“My cinch broke,” Tess replied wearily.

Jimmy tugged on her arm, beckoning her to stop. “Lemme take a look at your leg.”

Sighing, Tess sat down. “My ankle got twisted in the stirrup when I fell.”

Jimmy nodded. He untied her laces and started to remove her shoe.

“Don’t,” Tess protested, but it was too late, the shoe was already off. “Now it’s gonna swell up.”

Jimmy lifted her foot and turned it this way and that, checking to see if the bone was broken. It wasn’t. But as Tess predicted, it was swelling and fast. Jimmy started to pick her up. “You can ride my horse,” he offered.

But instead of accepting his offer, Tess kicked her legs, causing Jimmy to set her back down. “What?” he exclaimed loudly.

“I don’t want your help,” Tess snapped.

“What did I do?” Jimmy asked, puzzled.

“This is all your fault.”

“What is? Your cinch broke, I didn’t do anything.”

“Not that,” Tess said, rolling her eyes.

“Cody?” Jimmy asked. This was a conversation he knew he would have, over and over again. “You’re the one who showed him the books.”

“To prove my father is innocent,” Tess retorted. “You think he’s guilty.”

“I don’t know what he is,” Jimmy shouted in frustration. “I only agreed to help Cody so we’d know what was going on. We - you and me. Otherwise the Army would send someone else and we wouldn’t know anything.”

Tess looked at him skeptically.

“Why would I do anything to hurt you?” Jimmy roared, his anger bubbling over. “I love you.” Then he clamped his mouth shut, suddenly very, very embarrassed.

“You really take the cake,” Tess yelled. “Now you love me? I’m not going to do this again. I was just a way to pass the time for Danny. But you, you are even worse. You’re just using me to get to my father.” Tess sat down heavily, her ankle aching. Once again she was being played as the fool. Didn’t she ever learn? “You knew I would do anything for you and you used it against me.”

Jimmy took her foot in his hand, rubbing the throbbing joint. “I do love you,” he said quietly. He didn’t really know it himself till now, but he did.

“Oh stop it,” Tess sputtered angrily. She pushed his hand away, rose unsteadily to her feet and snatched her shoe from where it lay on the ground, wincing in pain as she jammed her foot into it.

“What, you thought you could marry me and be some kind of cattle baron instead of a gunfighter?” Tess asked angrily, turning to face him. She flinched when she saw Jimmy recoil. She had hurt him. But isn’t that what she wanted to do?

Jimmy stared at her for a moment, then shouted, “yeah, Tess, that’s it exactly. I wanna marry you for a ranch.” He stood up, gathered his reins in his hand and began to stalk away. But when he saw Tess fall too far back, limping as she walked, Jimmy slowed his pace until she was next to him once again. He put his arm around her waist, supporting her weight against him.

“I’m sorry,” Tess said softly. She may not look like her sister, but sometimes her mouth and her temper mirrored Marion’s almost exactly. But unlike Marion, she soon regretted the harsh words that sprung forth from her lips in anger. She knew Jimmy wasn’t Danny.

Jimmy didn’t answer. He didn’t even look at her.

Tess reached a hand up to tug on his hair. “Jimmy, I’m sorry,” she repeated in earnest. “I know you wouldn’t hurt me deliberately.” It hadn’t escaped her notice that it was Jimmy who came looking for her. Her father and stepmother probably hadn’t even noticed she was gone, they rarely noticed her absences. And maybe Marion and Gavin would if they lived in the main house, but they had moved out a long time ago and were too busy with their own family to play parent to her.

Jimmy shrugged his shoulders noncommitally.

“I guess I was jumping the gun a bit,” Tess said with a small laugh, trying to make light of the situation she now found herself in. “You never said anything about marriage.”

“You weren’t jumping the gun,” Jimmy admitted reluctantly. “Once in a while I’d think about living here, with you,” he admitted reluctantly. He pictured them being a little like Gavin and Marion, living and working on the Holden ranch. Although he did wonder how long that would last. Would he, as Gavin did, chafe under Andrew Holden’s iron fist?

Tess stared up at him, her eyes filled with wonder. “Really?”

“Yeah,” Jimmy replied. He pulled her close and kissed her. And as always, he took a deep breath when he released her. Her kisses had a dizzying effect on him. Always had and from the way she kissed him back, Jimmy suspected that his kisses had the same impact on Tess.

Tess smiled at him. “You love me,” she repeated, mostly just to hear the words out loud once again, to convince herself that they were real.

Jimmy narrowed his eyes at her, but he couldn’t help from grinning at Tess’ joyful expression.
“Don’t let it go to your head.” he said wryly.

Tess continued to smile at him. She reached up and grabbed his hat, tossing it into the air. Then she wrapped her arms around him. “I love you too.” She pulled Jimmy close and kissed him.

Chapter Thirteen

“See, he’s wearing an Union uniform,” Tess exclaimed, unable to mask her joy. The man her father was meeting with had on a blue coat, not a grey one.

Cody glanced quickly at Jimmy. Tess had told them that her father was going on a short business trip and when Cody had told the Army, they wanted him to follow Mr. Holden. Corporal Spaulding hadn’t heard of any meetings between army officials and the townsfolk, so he was quite suspicious of this one.

Jimmy was staring at the ground and from the expression his friend wore, Cody knew he was thinking the same thing. But Cody was to be the one to say the words aloud. “Could be that he borrowed the uniform,” he said, his tone implying that the color of the uniform meant nothing.

“Is there no satisfying you?” Tess half-shouted, her shoulders slumping in frustration. No matter what she did or what they found, Cody always managed to twist it around so her father seemed guilty.

“Spaulding may not know about this meeting,” Jimmy interjected, his face creased with worry. “That fella could just be some quartermaster arranging for supplies.”

“Could be,” Cody said noncommittally.

“Will you check into it?” Tess asked, unable to keep the pleading from her voice.

Cody turned to look at her. “Yeah,” he answered. Then anxious to change the subject, he asked Jimmy, “how are your ribs?”

Tess looked at Jimmy in concern. They had been riding for several hours and the thought of Jimmy’s injury had slipped her mind, her thoughts too filled with worry for her father.

“Alright,” Jimmy replied.

“Well then, I think I’m gonna head back to Spaulding’s camp and tell him what we saw,” Cody said, eager to make his exit before Tess could question him any further.

And when he turned his horse to leave, Tess called out, “you’re gonna check about my father’s meeting with the quartermaster, right?”

“I will, Tess,” Cody answered. He was as anxious as Jimmy was to keep Andrew Holden out of jail.

Tess gave Cody a thin smile, before he rode off. Then she looked at Jimmy, watching his face closely. “How are you? Really?”

Jimmy grinned at her. He pulled his shirt up and removed the binding around his ribs, throwing it to the ground. “Fine.”

Tess widened her eyes at him. “You were faking?”

“Yep.”

“Why?”

“I wanted to go with you,” he replied. He maneuvered his horse next to Tess’ and cupped her face as he kissed her. “Not with Len and the Turner twins.” Len and the Turner twins were going to an auction in Scottsbluff and Len had asked Jimmy to come along. That was until he took a nasty spill trying to break in one of the new horses.

“Good,” Tess said softly, her face coloring.

“‘Sides,” he added with a grin. “You don’t snore as loud as Len does,” he said, teasing her about the many nights they had spent together in each other’s arms. He had been at the Holden ranch for almost three months now and he and Tess were together almost every evening, holding each other and talking, until she fell asleep. And Jimmy simply held her until his own eyes began to close. It was then he would awaken Tess so they could go back to their respective homes. As easy feat, as long as Marion stayed out of the Holden home. Tess hadn’t told her about Jimmy, but Marion was quite suspicious of the two of them. But so far she seemed to be the only one who was suspicious.

Tess didn’t think she could feel any more embarrassment from his first declaration, but somehow she managed. Her face the color of a ripe tomato, Tess gave Jimmy a shove and turned her horse from him, racing away, while Jimmy soon followed.

For a while Tess and Jimmy rode back to the Holden ranch eventually slowing to a more leisurely pace, until the storm that had been building finally arrived and the skies opened up. Hastening their pace once more, Jimmy and Tess rode until Tess spotted one of her neighbor’s hunting lodges.

“There,” she shouted, hoping Jimmy heard her through the downpour.

Jimmy didn’t hear a thing, but he did see Tess turn her horse and followed her. They soon found a shed to settle horses in. Once the animals were secure, they ran to the lodge.

“I forgot this place was even here,” Tess said quietly, grasping the hem of her skirt in her hand and wringing some of the water from the material.

Jimmy came to stand close to her and encircled her waist with his arms as he began to nuzzle her neck.

Tess simply dropped the skirt from her hands.

“Tess?” Jimmy said, his voice questioning. “What is it?” She was holding herself so rigidly.

Tess shook her head. “Nothing,” she replied, turning around as she lifted her head up.

Jimmy just stared at her.
“It’s this place,” she said finally. “My mother and father used to live here when they first moved to Crawford. The DeSmits let them have it real cheap.”

“Before your father was a cattle baron,” Jimmy added, his eyes dancing. He enjoyed teasing Tess about her family’s wealth. It always embarrassed her so.

Tess nodded, dropping her eyes.

“What?” Jimmy asked, the humor in his voice quickly vanishing. “You can tell me,” he said softly.

Tess sighed as she leaned her head against his chest. She wanted him to know, she wanted him to know everything. She once again regretted the fact she hadn’t been honest with Jimmy about her past with Danny. But it had always been hard for her to let people in, to trust them, because whenever she had, she usually regretted it.

Yet she could be honest about everything else and maybe someday she would be able to tell him about Danny. “Did you know my birthday is next month?” Tess said.

Jimmy frowned, wondering briefly why she would bring this up right now. “No.” He pressed his cheek into the top of her head. “So what do you want?”

“Nothing,” Tess whispered. “We don’t celebrate my birthday.”

“What?” Jimmy exclaimed.

Tess raised her head slightly. “Not *on* my birthday. Usually a couple of weeks later.”

“Why?”

“Because on the day I was born, my mother died,” Tess said slowly. She looked at him and saw the sympathy on his face and it filled her with anger. She jerked herself free of Jimmy’s arms and went to stand beside the window, staring outside at the rain which was still pouring down. Why did she tell him? She didn’t want pity. She had enough self-pity to go around for both of them. She just wanted to be with her sister right now. Marion was the only person who ever lessened the sting of losing her mother.

Jimmy moved toward Tess and took her back in his arms. It made sense now. In Tess’ tangled brain, she blamed herself for her mother’s death. It also explained why she was so desperate for her father’s affection, almost everyone’s affection and maybe it even made clear Andrew Holden’s behavior. Though he gave all appearances of being a loving and kind father, Andrew always held back from Tess, always appeared to give her what she wanted. But Jimmy noticed Andrew only gave his daughter what she wanted when it suited his own needs. Maybe Andrew, on some level, blamed her too. “So what do you do on your birthday?”

“I usually spend the day with Marion,” Tess replied, smiling through the tears as she recalled her sister’s stern words. “She starts out by telling me how stupid I am.”

Jimmy smiled back at her. “I can do that.”

A small laugh of surprise escaped Tess’ lips. “Then she tells me about how bad my mother felt when my brothers died and I won’t understand any of this until I have a baby of my own.”

“Understand what?” Jimmy asked, furrowing his brow.

“That a mother would gladly die for her baby,” Tess whispered. Marion told her over and over again that her mother would have gladly exchanged places with her brothers and that she would be happy knowing that Tess was healthy and she would want her daughter to be happy as well.

Jimmy nodded. “Then what?”

“She holds me, tells me about our mother. What she looked like, what she wore, what her favorite things were, everything.”

Jimmy pulled Tess into his arms.

“Not like that,” Tess chided him with a smile as she felt Jimmy’s wandering hands.

Jimmy settled his arms around her waist, while Tess rested her hands on his forearms. “Better?” he asked, smiling as well.

Tess nodded.

“So tell me about her.”

“What?” Tess asked, her face filled with confusion.

“Your mother,” Jimmy explained. “You said Marion holds you and tells you stories. Well, I can’t tell you any stories about her, but I’d like to hear ‘em.”

“You really wanna hear them?”

“Yeah.”

Tess remained quiet for a moment, as if she was thinking where to start and then she began to speak. She told him everything she could remember about her mother. Between Marion’s stories and what she had picked from her father and some of the older ranch hands, that was a lot. And when she was finally done, Jimmy stroked her hair, still holding her close.

For a long time, both of them were silent. It was Jimmy who finally spoke. He raised his head and glanced out the window. “I think the rain stopped.” He released Tess, but before he got very far, Tess caught him by the shirt and pulled him close, her lips teasing his. Jimmy wrapped his arms around her and kissed her back.

“We’ve been gone a long time,” Jimmy murmured, his lips traveling along Tess’ shoulder.

Tess smiled up at him and thanked her lucky stars once more. She certainly never expected to find someone again, but she had. She found someone and she realized now that she never really loved Danny, not the way she loved Jimmy. Danny’s attentions and flattery made her her feel desirable and grown up while Jimmy’s made her feel complete. She now had someone to whom she could turn to and someone she could care for as well. “You’re the only one who ever looks for me,” she said, her fingers undoing the buttons of Jimmy’s shirt.

Tess wrapped her arms around him as they slowly sank onto the small bed in the corner of the one room cabin, both of them loosening and removing bits and pieces of clothing from each other’s bodies. As Jimmy lay close to her, his hands moved underneath her corset and Tess’ skin began to burn while her heart beat so fast and so hard she was sure Jimmy could feel it.

Jimmy groaned softly as he felt Tess’ fingers tug on his trousers. Slowly, he rolled away from her. If he didn’t stop things now, they would soon be past the point of no return. He still recalled Len’s warning, that Tess was hurt and he couldn’t bear to see her hurt again. They had both come off of bad relationships and jumped headlong into this one. He still wasn’t sure if Tess was ready for the next step. “Tess,” he whispered.

“Don’t stop,” Tess murmured, moving herself so her body was underneath Jimmy’s once more. She would do things right this time. Jimmy loved her, he looked for her, he listened to her, he wouldn’t hurt her. Just being with him helped ease the pain Danny had caused. She no longer felt rejected. She felt wanted and she needed so badly to be wanted.

She raised her eyes when she felt Jimmy’s weight come off her. And as she looked at him, she saw that he was studying her. Idiot, the word flashed through her mind. Stupid, brazen, idiot. What was wrong with her? Obviously she had misunderstood Jimmy’s words. Love meant lots of things, it didn’t have to lead to this or maybe he wanted to wait until they were married, or maybe he realized what kind of girl she was. Either way, it didn’t matter, he didn’t want her.

When Tess began to move away, Jimmy saw the pain and the embarrassment there. Waiting might be the smart thing, but he didn’t think it was the right thing. He wrapped his fingers around her upper arm and shook his head, almost imperceptibly. “Stay with me,” he said quietly.

Tess let out a soft breath as she clung to him. “Always,” she answered.

Chapter Fourteen

Jimmy brushed the dirt from his pants and took his hat from the Turner twin who was looking at him, smirking.

“You get thrown like that,” the boy grinned. “You ain’t got no shot of winning.”

Jimmy just shrugged his shoulders.

“Tess is gonna be real disappointed if you don’t win,” the twin added, still smiling. He took off running when Jimmy placed his hat on his head and his hands were free.

Jimmy stared at the boy for a moment, then he heard Tess’ voice. She was bragging about him to some of the other rancher’s children. A few of the ranchers were inside the Holden house, making arrangements for the annual town rodeo which was to occur next month. And some of them had brought their children as well as their own contestants, as a sort of sneak preview.

“You’ll see,” Tess was saying. “Our ranch will win for sure this year.” For three years running, the Holden ranch had come in second to the Saunders. Tess didn’t think she could bear another year of Amelia’s bragging.

“And how do you know?” Amelia Saunders asked primly. Amelia had come to watch some of the hands who had entered the rodeo, her father wanted her to see what kind of competition their ranch faced from the Holdens. She was pleased to see that the Saunders ranch would have little competition.

Tess tipped her head in Jimmy’s direction.

Amelia looked at Jimmy skeptically.

“You’ll see,” Tess said, tossing her head at Amelia. She had seen Jimmy get thrown about half a dozen times today and watched as he missed roping the last three calves he had attempted to catch, but she was still sure he would help her family win the Crawford rodeo this year. In fact, she was positive of it.

Amelia just laughed and went to her horse, ready to leave along with the hands that worked on her father’s ranch.

But Tess lingered. And when Jimmy walked to the barn, she followed him. As soon as they were in the barn, Jimmy pulled her into his arms and smiled. She believed in him so much, it made him believe in himself. Living and working on the Holden ranch had given him a new perspective on life. No one knew who he was or even cared. Between the war and the size of the Holden ranch, he had become almost anonymous, just Jimmy Hickok, plain ole Jimmy to most.

For the first time in a long time he had begun to believe that he could have a normal life. That he and Tess could be together and no one would call him out or come after the people he loved. They hadn’t even heard from Cody, a fact which gave both of them hope, hope that Andrew Holden was no longer considered a suspect.

Tess reached inside her pocket and pulled out a gold nugget. She placed the nugget in Jimmy’s palm. “For luck,” she told him.

“I’ll need it,” Jimmy grinned, looking at the stone in his hand. “But I can’t keep this.”

“Why not?” Tess asked.

Jimmy opened Tess’ hand and put the nugget back in it. “Gold?” he asked, arching a brow upward.

“Fool’s gold,” Tess smiled. She put the stone back in Jimmy’s hand.

“And why is fool’s gold lucky?” Jimmy asked.

“The previous owner of our ranch bought the land because someone said they found gold in the Niobrara River,” Tess explained. The Niobrara crossed the Holden’s property, providing the ranch with much needed water. “So he bought it for a whole lot more than it was worth.”

“But it turned out to be fool’s gold, not real gold,” Jimmy finished for her.

“Uh huh,” Tess replied. “And when the owner found out, he couldn’t get anyone to buy the land for near as much as he paid for it, so my father got it cheap. All that man wanted was out of here, fast, he was so embarrassed.”

Jimmy smiled at her as he placed the nugget in his pocket. He drew her close while Tess tightened her arms around him, leaning back against the barn wall, as Jimmy’s mouth moved from hers, down her neck. She felt his arms move lower, supporting her weight as she became more unsteady of her feet. Jimmy’s kisses made her forget everything, even to stand up.

“Well, well,” a voice called out. “Why am I not surprised to see this?”

Jimmy released Tess and turned to face the voice, his hand automatically touching the handle of his colt. As he studied the young man in front of him, he felt Tess shudder beside him. She was staring at the man, her eyes filling with dread.

The man cocked an eyebrow at him. “I’d watch myself if I were you. She’s my fiancee.”

“Shut up, Danny,” Tess hissed, moving between Jimmy and Danny. She couldn’t believe it, Danny was back.

Wherever Danny was, he was almost always considered the most handsome man in the room. With his jet black hair and light blue eyes, he stood out in the crowd. Women always admired his high cheekbones and strong jaw, while men stood in awe of the Weatherly name. But for once, Tess wasn’t consumed by the thought of how beautiful Danny was. Not with Jimmy beside her.

“So you’re Danny,” Jimmy said easily.

“And you’re kissing my wife-to-be,” Danny shot back.

“I haven’t been your fiancee for quite some time now,” Tess retorted, biting back her tears. Why? Why did he have to come back? And now of all times? She was happy, finally happy, with a man who truly seemed to care for her and Danny had to come back to ruin it.

Jimmy leaned back against the wall, giving every appearance of being relaxed. But when Tess looked at him, she saw how his jaw kept clenching and unclenching. “Go home, Danny,” she continued. “You aren’t wanted.”

“Oh come on,” Danny laughed. “Not wanted.” He looked insolently at Jimmy. “Does she beg you?”

“What?” Jimmy snapped, immediately straightening up.

“Beg,” Danny repeated. “Sometimes she would beg me to -”. Danny stopped speaking. He couldn’t as Jimmy’s fist was in his mouth.

Jimmy stood over Danny’s prone figure. “You heard her, go home, you ain’t wanted.”

“Not wanted,” Danny smirked. “That girl still wants me. You should have seen her when I told her it was over.”

“Shut up!” Tess cried once more. Beg! She never in her life begged Danny for anything, especially what he was implying. She would, on occasion, ask him to hold her. But only so he wouldn’t run off so soon after being with her, making her once again feel like she was nothing to him, nothing but a fleeting moment of pleasure.

When Danny stood up, Jimmy hit him again and the two men fell to the ground. Tess grasped Jimmy by the shirt and tried to pull him away, but she couldn’t. “Stop, please,” she whispered, yanking uselessly at Jimmy’s sleeve.

Several ranch hands came running, upon hearing all the commotion. A few minutes later, Len was holding Danny and another pair of ranch hands held Jimmy by the arms.

“What is going on here?” Len asked angrily. But one look explained everything. He knew Jimmy was involved with Tess and now Danny was back, obviously causing trouble.

“Does she satisfy you?” Danny asked loudly, enjoying all of the attention. “If she does, you can thank me.”
“Let go of me,” Jimmy grumbled, trying to free himself. He finally shook off the two men who held him. He stood in place then, rooted to the spot by Len’s glare.

“Alright,” Gavin said loudly, pushing his way through the crowd of hands that had gathered to watch the spectacle. “Show’s over, go on back to the bunkhouse.” And with Gavin’s words, the crowd reluctantly began to break up.

Gavin put his arms around Tess. “Are you okay?”

“No,” Tess said softly, resting her cheek against his chest. It was over now. There was no way Jimmy would ever want to see her again. Danny had made sure of that. If he continued to see her, he would be a laughingstock. What kind of man would even consider courting a girl like her?

Chapter Fifteen

“Tess,” Marion called out, running to her sister’s side, hoping she could do something. And if she couldn’t do anything, the least she could do was offer support.

Tess closed her eyes. It wasn’t happening, it couldn’t be. But when she opened them, saw the shocked looks on the remaining faces that still surrounded her, she knew it had. Without a word, she turned around and ran, ran straight for her home.

“I can’t believe you,” Marion fumed at Danny. She didn’t know what had happened, but she was sure it was all Danny’s fault. She turned around, running after her sister, shouting at her the whole time to slow down.

Danny smirked at Jimmy. “So does she? Does she keep you happy?”

“Shut up,” Gavin said tersely.

“Oh come on, Gavin,” Danny laughed. “You know Tess still loves me.” He waved his hand in Jimmy’s general direction. “Obviously he couldn’t make her forget me. Why else would it matter what I said?”

Suddenly Gavin slammed his fist into Danny’s jaw. “I said shut up.” He stood over Danny’s prone form. And when Danny started to open his mouth, Gavin announced. “One more word and you’ll have to eat your dinner with a straw.”

Danny’s mouth snapped closed as he slowly pushed himself to his feet. Without uttering another word, he walked slowly back to the bunkhouse. But even Gavin’s threat couldn’t keep the swagger from his step.

You get her used, Hickok, Danny thought. And he was glad the arrogant gunfighter knew about his past relationship with Tess. He was glad everyone knew. He couldn’t believe it when he had heard that Tess was involved with Wild Bill Hickok. One of the ranch hands he still kept in touch with had written to him about them. The man probably wanted to shame him, instead it only piqued his interest.

The very notion of it was absurd. If that man really was a gunfighter he could have any woman he wanted, so why would he want to be with a mouse like Tess? The girl paled in comparison to most women, literally, with her colorless hair and eyes, she also had no figure to speak of. That’s why he had come back, he had to see this with his own two eyes.

And the whole thing had gone even better than he could have ever dreamed. Those Holdens all thought they were so much better than him, that they were morally superior. Well he just showed all of them that one of their own had been willing to wallow in his filth, hell Tess had been begging for it.

It was all good when he had first came to the ranch and took up with Tess. Mr. Holden had even encouraged him to pursue her, telling him how sweet and compliant the girl was, how easy she would make her husband’s life. A stark contrast to the life his own father envisioned for him, married to that harpy, Eliza Chamberlain. Eliza was a shrew of a woman, but she was easy to look at and more than a little entertaining in the bedroom.

But when Mr. Holden discovered he was sleeping with Tess, without the benefit of marriage, well that simply wasn’t acceptable. Thus Andrew Holden had forced his hand and he proposed. And at first it seemed like a good idea. Eliza backed away from him, his father was pleased to see he was growing up. His mother had even stopped drinking for a day or two so she could organize the wedding. But then Tess had discovered he was involved with a few other women and she had had the nerve to leave him. Who was she to walk out on him? Another reason to come back. Not only did Tess simplify his life, but getting her back, it would definitely be a challenge and there was nothing more Danny loved than a woman who was a challenge.

“Jimmy,” Gavin said slowly. When Jimmy continued to stare at Danny’s back, he repeated, louder this time, “Jimmy.”

Jimmy turned to face the man who called his name. “Yeah?” He really wasn’t in the mood to do this right now, there was only one person he wanted to talk to and she had just run away. But Gavin had a set look to his face, so he knew this talk would happen, regardless of what he wanted.

Gavin glanced slowly around at the remaining people who still stood, gaping, and shot them all a pointed look, causing the group to dissipate quickly. Once everyone else had gone, he turned his attention to Jimmy. “So you gonna hightail it out of here too?”

“What?” Jimmy asked, feeling rather muddle-headed at the moment. Why would he hightail it out of here?

“If you’re gonna go, then go now,” Gavin said sternly. “Tess don’t need any more heartbreak.”
“What are you talking about?” Jimmy asked angrily. Danny comes back and all hell breaks lose, but Gavin decides to yell at him?

Gavin crossed his arms across his chest. “Tess is my sister-in-law. I won’t have you or anyone else ruin her name.”

Mind his tongue? Jimmy thought with a grimace. He hadn’t said anything bad about Tess. Gavin obviously had him confused with Danny.

Gavin gave him a look of pure disgust. “And here I thought you were different.” He spun on his heel and left Jimmy standing by the corral. He truly thought that Jimmy would bother to find out what had happened between Tess and Danny.

Gavin marched to the Holden home and threw the door open. He then continued his trek up the stairs to Tess’ room, where he found his wife pounding her fist on the door. “Let me in,” Marion shouted.

Marion turned when she heard the sound of footsteps. “I could just kill him.”

“Who?” Gavin asked warily.

Marion scowled at him. “Danny, of course. Who’d you think?” All Tess kept saying, the whole way home was, ‘it’s over’. She knew that Jimmy was seeing Tess and she hoped it would work out. But how could it, with Danny back in the picture?

“Jimmy.”

“Jimmy?” Marion wrinkled her nose. “Why him?”

“He didn’t do anything to stop Danny.”

Marion studied her husband. “What did you want him to do? Shoot him?” she asked with only the barest hint of irony. Shooting would be too good for Danny Weatherly.

When Gavin didn’t answer, she focused her attention back on the door. “Tess, honey,” she said, cajoling her little sister. “Let me in. We can figure something out.” She paused, ready to add some more sweetness to her voice when Gavin placed his hand on her shoulder.

“Let me try,” he said.

Marion sighed. “Good luck,” she murmured as she began to walk down the stairs. She glanced backwards at her husband who was knocking at the door, pleading with Tess to let him in.

When she entered the foyer, she saw Jimmy. “What do you want?” she asked, unable to keep the suspicion from her words.
“I’m here to see Mister Holden,” Jimmy announced, hiding his hands behind his back.

“What for?” Marion asked suspiciously, trying to peer around him, see what he was hiding.

“It’s private,” Jimmy said, almost haughtily.

Marion was just about to tell Jimmy exactly where he could go and what he could do with himself when she saw them, flowers. Jimmy was holding a bunch of wild flowers behind his back. “What are you up to?”

Jimmy sighed loudly. “I wanted to ask your father for his permission to court Tess.” He fought the smile that threatened to burst through his scowl, while Marion’s jaw dropped to her chest. He had actually said something which silenced Marion.

“I know I probably ain’t the kind of man he had in mind for his daughter, but I -” He stopped then, unable to continue. Marion had wrapped her arms around him so tightly he could barely breathe.

“Oh, Jimmy,” she squealed. Then just as suddenly as she embraced him, she let go, eyeing him warily. “You’d better be for real.”

Jimmy smiled then. “That’s for Tess to decide.”

Marion smiled back at him. “Lemme fetch her.”

“What about your father?” Jimmy asked quickly.

“I think Tess needs you more right now,” Marion replied before she scurried upstairs.

Gavin frowned when he saw his wife return and at the dreamy expression she wore. “What’s going on?”

“You’ll see,” Marion answered, almost cryptically. Gavin continued to frown, but he moved aside and waited, watching as his wife pounded on Tess’ door. “Tess,” she called out. “There’s someone here to see you.”

“Go away,” was Tess’ muffled response.

“It’s Jimmy,” Marion proclaimed, flashing her husband a wide smile.

Tess opened the door a crack, certain she had misheard her sister. “Who?”

“Jimmy.”

Tess narrowed her eyes at her sister. “That’s not funny. What a sneaky way to get me to open the door.”

“It’s the truth,” Marion told her.

“Mar-” Tess began.

“It is,” Marion interrupted. “Go see.”

“Hmpf,” Tess said. She opened the door of her room wide, stepped out, taking a few steps down the hallway, so she could take a look down to the foyer. Then she saw him and almost fell over the banister. The only thing that prevented her from falling was Gavin’s quick hands around her waist.

Tess stared at Jimmy then looked back at her sister. “Why is he here?”

“How should I know?” Marion said with a shrug. “Why don’t you go ask him?”

Frowning, Tess began to move down the stairs.

“Hey,” Jimmy said softly when he caught sight of her.

“I’m sorry,” Tess began. She once again regretted her silence, her lie. Then she saw the flowers in his hands. “Jimmy?” she asked uncertainly.

“I was gonna ask your father for his permission to court you,” Jimmy said. “I know I probably should have asked a while ago.” He shrugged. “Better late than never, I guess.”

Tess stared at him, dumbfounded. Court her? Now? After what Danny said? After she had deceived him so?

“But Marion decided I should ask you first,” Jimmy continued.

“Wha-at?” Tess stammered.

“I was gonna,” Jimmy started again. Suddenly he found Tess in his arms, covering his face with kisses.

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” Tess cried. She began speaking rapidly. And Jimmy held her, smiling into her neck. She always started talking so fast when she was scared or nervous. Didn’t she understand, she could tell him anything? It bothered him that she still didn’t trust him, but after meeting Danny, he felt like he understood her a little more. He must have hurt her a lot. But she had to know, he wasn’t Danny.

“I should have told you about Danny, what really happened,” Tess continued in her nervous fashion. “I didn’t mean to keep it from you, not for so long. I just never thought things would be the way they were between us.”

“I knew, Tess,” Jimmy said. “I knew a long time ago.”

Tess looked at him. “And you didn’t say anything?”

“It didn’t matter,” Jimmy replied, shrugging his shoulders offhandedly. He wished he had done more when Danny had dragged Tess’ name through the mud. Maybe that’s why Gavin had bellowed at him the way he had. But he had been in a state of shock. Not at the news, but the delivery of it. How could Danny do that to Tess? How could anyone who claimed to love someone do that to the object of their affection?

Tess flung herself at him once again.

Chapter Sixteen

Jimmy knocked on the door that led to Andrew Holden’s study. “Come in,” he heard Mr. Holden’s voice boom out. He opened the door and entered.

“Jimmy,” Andrew said with a smile. He waved his hand, motioning Jimmy to a seat in front of the large wooden desk he sat behind. “What can I do for you?” He frowned slightly. “Nothing wrong, I hope.”

Jimmy sat down in the seat Andrew had indicated. “No sir, nothing’s wrong. I.... I was, I mean -”

Mercifully Jimmy’s stammering was cut off by Andrew’s hearty laugh. “Just spit it out, son.”

“I was wondering if, I mean I would like your permission to ask for Tess’ hand,” Jimmy managed.

“What?!” Andrew half-shouted. Jimmy’s question was a complete shock to him.

Jimmy cleared his throat and repeated his question. He had initially planned to ask Mr. Holden for his permission to court Tess. But when Mr. Holden wasn’t available, he had left, going about his normal business on the ranch. And somewhere in between the day he told Tess about his intentions and this day, he had changed his mind. He and Tess were well past the courting point.

“You’re involved with Tess?” Andrew asked carefully.

“We’ve been seeing each other,” Jimmy admitted. “I know I should have come to you sooner and asked your permission to court her.”

Andrew stood up. “Yes, you should have. Because you would have saved yourself and Tess a lot of heartache.” He shook his head. “I’m sure you’re a fine young man, but I can’t allow my daughter to marry someone who has a reputation like yours.”

“I know I’m not what you would pick in a son-in-law,” Jimmy told him. “But I love your daughter and I’d never do anything to hurt her or put her in harm’s way.”

“But you don’t always have a choice in the matter, now do you?” Andrew asked, almost sadly. Tess, he thought to himself. Don’t you ever think?

Jimmy rose to his feet. “Thank you for your time.” He would not beg. Andrew Holden had made his position perfectly clear. But it was difficult to conceal his bitterness at this turn of events. Mr. Holden preferred that his daughter marry a man like Danny Weatherly rather than him, a fact that hurt almost as much as the idea of leaving Tess. But deep in his heart, he couldn’t shake Mr. Holden’s words, ‘you don’t always have a choice’. How could he live with himself if Tess got hurt and it was his fault, knowing that he took her away from a comfortable life and gave her only misery in return?

Andrew stood up as well. “You’re more than welcome to stay on as a hand. From what I hear both Len and Gavin have come to depend on you.”

“Thanks,” Jimmy replied tonelessly. He would stay, at least until he was sure Cody’s investigation was over. Then he would go. How could he stay here, day after day, see Tess and know nothing would ever come of it? That he could never call her his wife or hold her in his arms again?





Jimmy dismounted his horse and led it to the barn. It had been two days since his talk with Mr. Holden and he had spent as much of it as he could with the herd. The cattle asked no questions, expected no small talk. They didn’t even acknowledge his presence, all of which suited him just fine.

“There you are,” Tess called out happily.

Tess’ smile upon seeing Jimmy quickly vanished when she caught sight of his expression. “What happened? Did Cody get in touch with you again?”

Jimmy shook his head.

Tess hurried to his side and took his hand. “What is it?”

“I spoke to your father,” Jimmy said softly.

Tess’ eyes lit up. “About us?” she breathed. She flung her arms around him. “Oh, Jimmy.”

Gently Jimmy removed her arms from his neck.

“What’s wrong?” Tess asked. It was obvious something had happened, but she couldn’t for the life of her understand what. “He said you couldn’t court me?” she asked in disbelief.

“He said I couldn’t marry you,” Jimmy responded softly.

“Marry you?” Tess exclaimed. “You asked if you could marry me?”

Jimmy nodded.

“You want to marry me?” she repeated. Even though Jimmy had told her that he wanted to marry her, she still had trouble believing it.

“Tess,” Jimmy said wearily. “He said no.”

Tess waved off his words, as if they meant nothing. “He’s like that. You should have seen how angry he was when Gavin asked to marry Marion and look at him now.” Somewhere in between Gavin and Marion’s elopement and now, Gavin had become the son Andrew Holden had so longed for. “He’ll change his mind.”

“Not for me,” Jimmy said, his words laced with anger.

“Jimmy,” Tess began.

“It’s not gonna happen,” Jimmy shouted. “We ain’t never gonna get married. Do you understand that?” Why couldn’t she just stop? Her disbelief hurt almost as much as Andrew Holden’s rejection of him. She knew what he was and she still loved him, but he was never going to be allowed to be with her.

“And that’s it?” Tess asked quietly. She studied his face intently. “Are you leaving?” her voice broke with the words. “Or are you just gonna avoid me from now on.” It hadn’t escaped her notice how little she had seen of him for the past two days.

“It’s probably best if I do leave. But I’ll wait till I hear from Cody, make sure that the Army isn’t still after your father.”

“Don’t bother,” Tess snapped. “You said you weren’t like Danny, you said you weren’t using me,” she shouted. “But you’re worse.” She laughed bitterly. Tess took a step toward the barn door and lashed out once more, wanting Jimmy to hurt as badly as she did. “At least Danny wanted me. All you wanted was the information I could give you about my father.” She couldn’t even look at him, she had to get away, because she knew if she stayed a minute longer, she would go to him and beg him to stay.

“You know that’s not true,” Jimmy yelled back. “You know how I feel about you.”
“No!” Tess screamed. “I don’t know anything.” She shook her head furiously, her blonde braid whipping back and forth. “Not anymore.”

Jimmy reached for her, but she jumped backwards.

“Don’t touch me,” Tess shouted. “And don’t think you have to stick around. Leastwise, not for me.”

“Tess,” Jimmy whispered. But he didn’t say anymore. Maybe she would get over this faster if she thought the worst of him.

Tess looked at him, wiping her eyes quickly so he wouldn’t see them fill with tears. “I loved you,” she said. Then she turned and walked out of the barn.

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