1890 - Rock Creek, Nebraska

Chapter One

Noah McCloud rolled over and sat up, stepping into his trousers. He rose from the bed and went to stand by the window. It was probably close to noon, judging from the sun’s position in the sky and the number of people in the street. Yet all was calm in Rock Creek. Sheriff James Hickok made sure of that.

God, sometimes he hated this town and everyone who lived in it. Noah had lived here his whole life, save his stint with the railroad and he could not stand it anymore. He only returned because his mother had been ill. Nothing life-threatening as it turned out, but it had been serious enough to frighten his younger sister, Mary, into writing to him. Mary had begged him to come home, if it could be called home. Since it was the first and only time Mary had written to him, Noah felt compelled to do as she requested.

Ever since his twin sister, Natalie, had died during an influenza epidemic almost eight years ago, he had felt so alone. She had only been sixteen years old when she had died, just on the verge of adulthood. Yet her life had ended before it had even begun.

He still had his parents and his sister, Kid and Lou McCloud and Mary. But it just wasn’t the same. Natalie was his twin, his other half. She knew what he was thinking without a word being exchanged. He shook his head, knowing Nat would hate what he had become. He was the proverbial prodigal son.

For a long time after Natalie’s death, he had trouble feeling much of anything. He went through the motions of going to school and finishing his chores on his family’s cattle ranch. Then he ran off, ending up working on the railroad. For the last few years he had split wood, laid ties and even placed and lit sticks of dynamite if needed. Home had been the railroad camps and family had been the dirty, disheartened men who worked there. It was not an easy life, but it was preferable to the one he had been living.

A few weeks before he left Rock Creek, he found a letter which was buried in a trunk in his family’s attic. He had been packing away some of Natalie’s things. She had died almost three months before and no one had been able to do anything about her belongings, so he took it upon himself to do so. He could not stand looking at her clothes in the dresser of the room she had shared with Mary, waiting for her as if she would miraculously appear and put them on. Natalie’s clothes, her long ago discarded dolls, her beloved books, everything was still out.

So he had grabbed a few things and gone upstairs. He found a dusty trunk in the corner and opened it. Much to his surprise it was not empty. Inside he found some old Pony Express things, a notice for orphans wanted, a mochilla, and a tiny pair of trousers. Noah had smiled, assuming they used to belong to his mother. There was a picture as well of the old gang, including the long past ones, both his namesakes, Noah and Ike. It had brought a tear to his eye to see his grandpa Teaspoon. He missed that old man. Teaspoon had died two years before Natalie. A year later, Polly had passed as well. It had been his only source of solace, knowing his grandparents were there to look after his sister.

There were a few more ordinary items in the trunk as well. A hairbrush and some papers. Noah had begun to push some of the older things aside to make room for Natalie’s things, stopping when he found a stack of letters. His curiosity got the better of him and he read a few. Some were from his father to his mother during the war, his aunt Teresa and his uncle Jeremiah’s letters to his mother were in the stack as well. Then he came to one that caused him to see red.

My Dearest,

I know how much you are suffering still and I grieve with you, in my heart. It pains me to know that you no longer want to see me. The few nights we shared were like magic and I shall never forget them. But I will abide by your wishes and no longer call on you. I would never cause you pain deliberately, you mean too much to me.

Know that I will always be here for you, should you ever change your mind. You hold my heart in the palm of your hand.

Forever yours,
G


Noah had dropped the letter, staring at it, wishing he had never laid eyes on it. But he had. And nothing he could do now would put the words out of his mind. His father had cheated on his mother after Natalie’s death! He knew from the date scrawled on the top of the letter that this affair had been a recent thing. He supposed he should be glad that his father did not philander constantly, he thought angrily.

After Natalie death, his father had many, lengthy absences from their home, both day and night. His mother rarely left their ranch. But when she did, she would saddle a horse and ride at a breakneck speed, but other than those brief absences she was always home alone, shunning family and friends, forever mourning the loss of her daughter.

He would like nothing more than to smash his fist into his father’s face. How could he do that to her, knowing how Natalie’s death had broken her? Wasn’t it bad enough that he spent so much time away from home, but to find solace in another woman’s arms?!

Noah also felt a certain amount of disrespect for his mother. How could she continue to sleep in the same bed as him, share his life, call him husband? She had to have known about this affair.
This letter was in her trunk. So obviously she had found it and kept it here as some kind of painful reminder. She was probably blamed herself of Kid’s behavior and this letter was just another way of punishing herself.

But Noah did not understand why she stayed with him. Lou McCloud had been one of the strongest women he had ever seen, but it was nothing but weakness to stay with that man. That man who had betrayed them all.

He watched out the window. A throng of people was gathering. He wrinkled his brow, trying to recall why. Then he remembered, that suffragette, Georgina Kramer was going to speak today. He continued to watch. Jimmy soon appeared, a deputy by his side, both of them ready to maintain their precious order, Noah thought with a smirk.

He was finally able to really smile when he saw Claudia Hickok, her hands cupped in front of her face, shouting orders. From what he had gathered, Claudia fancied herself as a suffragette. Little Claudia had grown up, he noted. Her almond-shaped hazel eyes glowed as bright as they ever had but her hair was different, pulled up, reminding Noah of the times she used to dress up and pretend she was an adult.

Noah stepped away from the window and finished dressing. The rally might turn out interesting. He wondered what Claudia’s parents thought of her feminist views.

Chapter Two

Claudia folded her arms across her chest, watching and listening. That Georgina could give a speech. She was stating her position clearly and loudly, in spite of the loud murmurs that rose from some of the men and women. Most of the young men were in the back, snickering. But the younger women were all paying close attention. This was their future. Georgina was not advocating temperance. Many women chose to embrace that philosophy and for a while Claudia had feared Georgina would too and end up offending half the town, her father included. Instead Georgina had surprised her by advocating the same position she did, that women were citizens and entitled to the same rights as all citizens, not just men, regardless of their sex or color.

She glanced at her father. Jimmy had moved to the back of the crowd, ensuring the boisterous young men back there would not get too out of hand. His deputy, Robert Sutton, was standing next to Georgina’s podium, his eyes flickering over the crowd.

Claudia smiled. They made a good team, Robert and her father. Robert was hired last year and was doing an excellent job, in everyone’s opinion. He and his wife, Grace, were respected members of the community.

Her mother, Abby, came to stand beside her husband. She gave Claudia a quick smile before she whispered something in Jimmy’s ear, causing him to smile. Jimmy then reached down and picked up a little girl, her baby sister, Emmaline. A few moments later, her two younger brothers, EJ and Aloysius, known most commonly as Loy, ran through the crowd, finding a spot on the MacCallister’s store steps to watch the goings-on.

She turned her head when she saw a movement out of the corner of her eye. It was Noah McCloud. He was standing on the porch of the boarding house, watching and hopefully listening. Georgina’s message was an important one. Everyone should pay attention to it.

But as she continued to watch Noah, Claudia found her mind drifting off. Noah was as handsome as he ever was. He had been gone for quite some time now but seeing him again still ran a current of electricity through her. His hair was still short and dark, his eyes still piercingly brown. But he looked as if he had forgotten how to smile. He had not smiled much during the last few weeks he was in town and it looked like he hadn’t changed in that respect at all.

Noah caught her eye and inclined his head a fraction of an inch in her direction. Some acknowledgment, Claudia fumed silently. But what did she expect? Noah always thought of her as a bratty tagalong, his little sister’s best friend, nothing else. He even had the nerve to give her the hated nickname of Shorty!

She gave him a curt nod back, then re-focused her attention back on Georgina. But Noah was not so easily dismissed. Claudia soon found him standing beside her.

“Do your folks know what kind of women you admire?” he asked insolently.

“Yes,” Claudia snapped. “And they admire them too.”

“Even your father?” Noah’s eyebrows shot upward in mock surprise.

“My father is an enlightened man,” Claudia retorted. “Unlike you.”

“Oh I like suffragettes,” Noah informed her. “‘Specially the ones who don’t believe in marriage.”

“They believe that men should stay away from women,” Claudia shot back. “Because they know you men are no good.”

“You really think that?” Noah asked. But Claudia saw he was only feigning being hurt. He was mocking her!

“Well,” Noah drawled. “Florence Kelly said the only difference between marriage and prostitution was that prostitutes get paid better.”

Claudia’s eyes grew wide with surprise. He was quoting Florence Kelly. She never even expected him to know her name, let alone quote her.

Noah laughed softly at her expression. “I ain’t ignorant, Shorty.” He stepped away from her, moving in the direction of the saloon. A few other young men were walking that way as well.

Good, Claudia thought, go. But she was still shocked. He knew about Florence Kelly.

Chapter Three

Lou frowned, watching her only son walk inside the saloon. Noah did not even so much as turn his head in her direction. She lifted a hand to rub her tired eyes. She missed her child. But it seemed as if Noah was no longer willing to be her child.

He had arrived in town several weeks ago, after hearing about her fall from a ladder. Lou was trying to help Kid fix the roof and when she reached down for a shingle, she had lost her balance and taken a hard fall. Ethan Mathews, who was now the town doctor, had been most concerned. Ethan had to drill a hole in her head to drain some of the blood from her brain. It had been a difficult and frightening procedure, but she was now recovering. She still could not remember certain events, both before and after the accident. She had lost some of the hearing in her left ear and she felt so weak. But it was still progress. She was out of bed, moving around, trying to behave as normally as possible.

She glanced nervously around, hoping Ethan was not nearby. He would be most displeased to see his patient running around town. He had lectured her endlessly about the risks she was facing, infection, further injury to the surgical wound, now covered by a thick bandage on the back of her head; she also faced potential injury from falls, as she was not completely steady on her feet yet.

Lou also knew today’s activities would exhaust her by nightfall. She was still getting used to being out of bed all day. This was the first time since the accident she had even ventured to town. But Lord, did it feel good to do some of the things she used to do.

She had been so touched by the kindness people had shown her. People she barely knew had gone out of their way to greet her, ask about her health. Many of her friends had stopped by the house after the accident, bringing food, checking up on her and her family. She had not been surprised by her friends’ kindness but she was surprised that so many people had made it a point to stop and talk to her today, all wishing her well.

Except for her son, that is. She glanced once more at the saloon. Noah appeared to hate her, not with the same virulence with which he regarded Kid, but he still seemed to look down on her, as if she had somehow disappointed him.

Lou wished she knew what exactly had happened to make Noah act this way, but since he would not speak to her beyond asking her how she felt, she was at a loss for answers. She supposed she should simply be happy her son still cared enough to come home when his sister had written him about her fall. Noah’s face had been one of the first sights she had seen when she had woken up.

At first she had been confused, not remembering Noah had been gone for a number of years. She had embraced him so tightly and she could not help but be hurt by the way he held himself so stiffly in her arms. Even as she began to remember the bitterness and acrimony that had gone on between Noah and his parents before he left, she still clung to him.

Noah barely resembled the boy he once was. He was taller, his face was leaner and harder. But he still had the same chocolate brown eyes, his mother’s eyes, and the same straight brown hair which stuck up at the crown of his head where his cowlick swirled. Both Noah and Natalie resembled their mother, while Mary had her father’s blue eyes and dark curls.

She supposed she should be happy with the fact Noah came home because of her. But it hurt knowing he was only staying for Mary’s sake. Mary was engaged to be married and her wedding was to occur at end of next month. Noah had only agreed to stay until that day. Lou prayed she could find some way to make sure he stayed on after that event.

“How you feeling?” Kid asked, coming to stand beside his wife.

Lou nudged him playfully. Kid worried about her health constantly. But even Lou knew he had cause. She knew how lucky she was to still be here. “I’m fine.”

She felt Kid’s fingers play with her hair. It was short once again. All those years of growing it out and look at her. She was right back to where she was during her last year as an Express rider. Her brown hair, now interspersed with gray, hung down a few inches below her ear lobes. Ethan had to shave the back of it for her surgery. She had snipped the rest of it off so she did not appear to look utterly ridiculous. It was only now beginning to grow out, making her look half-way human once more. She hoped she would be able to do something with it by the wedding.

“Lou,” Kid began carefully.

“Please, Kid,” Lou sighed. “I will go home and rest. I promise. Later.” She glanced at the saloon. “I saw Noah.”

Kid nodded. “I saw him too.”

Lou looked closely at him. She saw the flicker of pain cross his face. She had to do something. Noah was not a stranger. He was their child, he had to come home. “I have an idea,” she said slowly.

“‘Bout what?”

“Noah,” Lou replied. She spoke quickly when Kid began to object. Her husband believed that Noah should be given his space. He was a man now and should be treated as such. Lou was sure he was only saying this because he was hurt. Noah had not said more than half a dozen words to Kid since his return. And every conversation had been about Lou’s health or Mary’s wedding plans. Nothing had been said about Noah’s activities over the years or the ranch or anything personal. And Lou saw how much that hurt Kid. She knew he was pulling back, to avoid any further hurt, in fact she was sure if it.

“It’s his birthday next week,” Lou continued. “I thought we could throw him a surprise party.”

“He’d hate it,” Kid responded quietly.

“I know. But maybe if he could just see how much everyone still loves him . . .” Lou’s words trailed off. She knew it was a longshot. Yet she had to try.

Kid kissed the top her head. “I could never say no to you,” he chuckled.

“Oh you used to,” Lou laughed. “But I got you wrapped around my finger now.”

Kid draped an arm around her shoulders as they began to walk toward their wagon. “That you do, Lou,” he said with a smile. “That you do.”

Chapter Four

Noah scowled fiercely at everybody in the room. He supposed he should be happy the whole town was not here. It was bad enough having this many people here. The list of guests included; Jimmy Hickok and his family, the McClouds, the MacCallisters, Ethan Mathews and his family which now included a wife, Diana and two children. Doc Mathews, now known as Old Doc, and his wife, Cook, were all here too. Everyone was gathered in the restaurant, which was now run by Cook.

A birthday party for crying out loud! How ridiculous could his parents get? He half-expected them to make him wear a hat and blow out the candles on a cake.

It was bad enough he had been ambushed and his own sister had helped. Mary had told him she wanted to discuss his mother with him at the restaurant, so Noah came. He expected to find his sister, Mary, and maybe her fiancé, Caleb Quinn, there as well. Oh Mary and Caleb were here alright, they were here and so was a whole mess of other unexpected people.

Noah gritted his teeth and tried to smile at Cook when she asked him about the potatoes. The potatoes were fine, so was the chicken, the ribs, the beans, the cherry cobbler and the chocolate cake. Everything was fine, except the company, he longed to shout. Actually, it was not everyone. Just his father. If Kid would leave, Noah might be able to have a decent time. But Kid was lingering by the door. Guarding it might be a better word, making sure his son would not bolt and disappear into the darkness.

Noah smiled to himself upon catching sight of an unguarded side door. He would not have been surprised to see his uncle Jimmy there guarding it. But no one was there. Knowing this was his chance, Noah slowly made his way to the door and slipped outside.

He leaned against the rail, trying to gather his thoughts. He should just run straight for his room above the remodeled general store. After Tompkins’ death, Mary’s fiance’s family bought it. Caleb was now running it and was apparently quite successful.

“Aren’t you gonna open your gifts?” a voice from behind him asked.

Noah turned around and saw Claudia Hickok standing there. So much for his quick escape, he thought, grimacing.

“They just want you to be happy,” Claudia added.

Noah shook his head. He was so sick of this, everyone expected him to be the same boy he was before Natalie died, before he found out about his parents. Couldn’t they see that the boy was gone and he was never going to return?

Noah stepped off the porch and stalked in the direction of his rented room.

“You really are an idiot, you know that don’t you?” Claudia called out.

Noah ignored her and continued to walk rapidly. Much to his chagrin, Claudia ran to catch up to him. “Nat would hate what you are doing to them,” she continued.

Noah stopped in his tracks and glared at her. She had better not bring up his sister’s name again. But knowing Claudia, she would.

“I know you are trying to hurt your folks on purpose,” Claudia said. She stood in front of him, her hands planted firmly on her hips. Noah tried hard not to groan out loud. He was going to be lectured by Claudia, Claudia of all people. She was his baby sister’s closest friend. What was next, all the little Hickoks ganging up on him?

But he could not help but notice how pretty she was. He had known women far more beautiful, but Claudia had an air about her that would make any man stop and take notice. From her black straight hair and striking hazel eyes, down to her narrow waist and long legs, any man would look twice at her. But it was not so much her appearance as her air. Claudia was alive, so full of energy, it was practically combustible. He had forgotten that about her. Even as a child she possessed that aura.

“But why do you want to hurt Mary?” Claudia added.

“Huh?” Noah said, feeling rather stupid. He had been distracted from her lecture by her sweet little face.

“You know when you ran off, it almost killed her,” Claudia told him quietly. “She lost her big brother and big sister all in the same month.

“I don’t know what happened between you and your folks,” Claudia continued. “And I know it’s probably none of my business, but it is Mary’s. Can you please talk to her?”

“Later,” Noah muttered almost to himself. He hated hearing this, the hard truth. Dammit all, Claudia was right. Mary had suffered just as much as he had, losing Natalie. He had not even thought about her losing him as well.

She put her hand on his arm. “Good. Now come back to the party, for Mary’s sake at least.”

“Fine,” he grumbled, allowing Claudia to lead him back to the restaurant, albeit reluctantly. She was going to keep bringing up Mary’s name until he agreed to do whatever she asked, so why not just give in now? He knew it was a losing battle to argue with Claudia.

As they approached the steps, he stopped. Claudia looked curiously at him.

“You change your mind?” she asked.

“No,” Noah replied, his eyes fixed on the window. He could see the forms of the people inside. He wondered if anyone even noticed his absence. He frowned knowing Claudia was right. Mary would have seen his desertion and she would be hurt. “Did Mary say that to you?” he asked, recalling her earlier words.

“What?” Claudia asked. “That it killed her to lose you?”

Noah nodded.

“No,” Claudia answered. “Not in so many words, but she was so sad for so long.” She glanced up at him. As Noah waited for her to continue, he reached up and pulled a long strand of her hair from where it was caught in the collar of her dress.

“Your whole family was,” Claudia continued, but Noah could see that she was no longer lecturing him, she was flustered. He smiled slightly. He flustered her! It was rather enjoyable to see what his touch, his very nearness did to her. Claudia’s cheeks were now a pretty shade of pink, her hand twisted the edge of her collar, only a few inches from where he had touched her.

He knew Claudia used to have quite the crush on him, following him everywhere, forever hanging around his bedroom whenever she came to his house. But he did not know she still had feelings for him, at least until now.

“Are you listening to me?” Claudia asked crossly, apparently noticing his reverie.

“Yep. Every word,” Noah replied lightly. When Claudia narrowed her eyes suspiciously at him, he added, “I’m going back in, ain’t I?”

Claudia let out a small sigh of relief. “Good.” She moved toward the door. As she placed her hand on the door, she noticed Noah had not moved to follow her. She turned, ready to scold him once more, only to be interrupted by Noah.

“So what did you get me, Shorty?” Noah asked, an insolent smiling tugging at his lips.

“It’s inside,” Claudia answered cryptically. She waved her hand, motioning him up the stairs.

“No,” Noah said, his feet still firmly planted on the road. “Not your family.” He had seen EJ lay a small package on the table. “You.” He had also seen Claudia linger at the gift table. At first he thought she was simply looking over the packages, but her actions and reactions of this evening dispelled him of the notion. Not to mention the way her hand kept brushing against the pocket of her dress. She had something in there, something she obviously valued.

Claudia glanced inside the building, then as if making up her mind, she walked down the steps and reached inside her pocket. “If you make fun of me . . .” she said threateningly before handing him a small package.

Noah took the box, noticing how closely Claudia watched him. As he lifted the lid, his eyes grew wide. Inside was a small silver medallion attached to a piece of leather.

“It’s from Noah Dixon’s saddle,” Claudia explained. Her father had brought home the saddle after Grandpa Spoon’s death. He had discovered it in Teaspoon’s attic. “He was your namesake,” Claudia added hesitantly, noticing the odd look Noah wore.

Noah quickly raised his eyes. He was not angry or upset. Oddly enough, he was moved by the gesture. Not just the kindness of giving him a gift separate from her family, but the thought that must have gone into both choosing and making it. Lately he felt as if he had no connection to anyone anymore. But as his fingers brushed the cold silver, he realized he was probably more like his namesake than he ever imagined. How many times had Grandpa Spoon told him about the chip Noah Dixon carried on his shoulder?

“Noah?” Claudia said questioningly.

Noah held the necklace out to her. “So put it on me,” he said, trying to regain some of his own equilibrium by attempting to throw Claudia off balance. Part of him wanted to see how far he could push her but an even bigger part of him wanted Claudia to touch him.

Claudia took the necklace and moved quickly to stand behind Noah. He found himself surprised to feel a current run through him as her fingers brushed the back of his neck.

As soon as Claudia fastened the necklace securely around him, he clasped her hand and pulled her directly in front of him.

“Like it?” she asked nervously.

Noah nodded. “Thank you,” he said softly, sliding his hands down her arms, settling them around her waist. Leave it to Claudia to make him feel this way. But he always found it hard to be angry at her, for anything.

Claudia grinned. “You’re welcome.” She tried to move toward the door once more, but Noah held her firmly in place. “Come on, you’re missing your own party,” she said, in a feeble attempt to make Noah release her.

His fingers gripped her waist firmly and pulled her close. Little Claudia Hickok was not so little anymore and she did something to him, something he never expected. He brushed his fingers across her cheek. “You grew up good, Shorty.”

Noah bent his head to hers and kissed her. He was not sure what Claudia’s reaction would be at first. But judging from the way she clung to him, he knew. She wanted this kiss as badly as he did.

“Noah,” Mary McCloud said, opening the door Claudia had been herding him toward. “There you are. I’ve - ” Then she stopped speaking, shocked to find her best friend in her brother’s arms.

Claudia ducked out of Noah’s embrace and raced up the stairs. Noah soon followed. He pinched Mary’s cheek playfully. “What did you think, I ran out on my own shindig?”

Chapter Five

“So?” Mary looked expectantly at Claudia. Claudia was busying herself with some papers on the desk of the general store where she worked as a clerk. Mary smiled to herself, probably one the reasons she had gotten to know Caleb so well.

“I am so behind,” Claudia complained, moving a new stack of papers in front of her. “Caleb is expecting a huge order this afternoon and I haven’t even processed yesterday’s.”

Mary planted her backside on Claudia’s papers. “I don’t care about inventory. I want to know about you and Noah.” She cleared her throat meaningfully. She would have loved to talk to Claudia about what she had seen last night, but after Noah and Claudia came back into the restaurant, she did not have a chance. Noah was ushered to the gift table and Claudia was dispatched to the back room to help cut cake.

Claudia shook her head. “I don’t know,” she admitted quietly. “He kissed me and then nothing. He didn’t even try to talk to me later.” She played with the corner of one of her papers. “I was hoping he’d ask my pa if he could see me home.”

Mary frowned. “You know he ain’t like that. He’s . . . he’s . . .” She stopped. Noah was not a typical man. He was her brother and she loved him dearly but something had happened to him and sometimes she was not even sure he had a heart. He was often callous and unfeeling. He might care for Claudia in his own fashion. But Mary was honest enough to know her brother was only going to hurt Claudia, maybe not now or tomorrow, but he would.

“You didn’t see him last night,” Claudia interrupted.

Mary’s frown deepened at her friend’s dreamy expression. Claudia had fallen hard for Noah, that much was obvious. It was probably too late to warn her off.

“He looked almost like he used to when I gave him the necklace,” Claudia continued. She looked up at Mary. “He really liked it.”

“I’m sure he did,” Mary said dryly. The way he was pawing at Claudia, Noah would have liked anything Claudia would have given him. She sighed softly. She was being far too cynical, as always, but that was her nature. Sometimes she was surprised she was the one who was engaged to be married, not Claudia. Claudia always looked for the best in people, while she looked for the worst.

Mary could not help but smile as she saw her fiancé, Caleb, walk into the store. She smoothed a stray curl back and straightened her blue dress. Caleb loved her in this dress. Yeah, she was surprised she was the one engaged, but that was only because of Caleb. Everyone had been shocked when they announced their engagement. Caleb Quinn was well off, but no one would ever expect him to win her jaded heart. Caleb was by no means handsome. His face was soft, almost round and his reddish hair was already thinning on top. And his beautiful green eyes were hidden by a thick pair of spectacles. But Mary adored him.

Their courtship had not gone smoothly. Mary had rejected him upon first meeting him, but Caleb never gave up. And look at them now. Even Mary had to admit, they could be quite sickening, the way they fawned over each other. Caleb may not be much on the outside, but inside . . . Mary beamed at him, Caleb was truly the most beautiful man she had ever known.

Mary tore her eyes away from Caleb for a moment and looked at Claudia again. She looked miserable. “Maybe we could all meet for a picnic dinner,” she suggested. Claudia was her friend and if she had to learn it for herself, then so be it. Maybe just spending some time in Noah’s company would convince Claudia of the fact, Noah was not the kind of man one dreamed about marrying. She glanced at Caleb once more. Especially when compared to her fiancé.

“Really?” Claudia breathed.

“Yeah, why not?” Mary said, warming to the idea. The weather was nice and the ground was dry. “I’ll go talk to Caleb and Noah, then we’ll come by and get you.” She paused, glancing at the clock. “‘Round four?”

Claudia beamed at her. “I’ll be ready.”

Chapter Six

Claudia coughed, putting her hand over her mouth, hoping she covered her mirth sufficiently. She knew she had failed when Mary turned to glare at her. Claudia smiled demurely at her friend, trying to soothe Mary’s ruffled feathers, even though she knew it was not her fault that Caleb was off talking about things no one understood. She played with a loose thread of the blanket she sat on, before picking up a glass and taking a sip of the lemonade Mary had made and generously brought. In fact, Mary had supplied all the fixings for this picnic. She made sandwiches, which were spread out on the blanket, cookies, the lemonade and some salad.

“The study of pharmaceuticals is going to take off,” Caleb was saying. “And I intend to be involved in it.”

Noah nodded, looking at Caleb rather blankly.

“Smile and nod,” Claudia whispered to Noah, who did just that.

Claudia set the glass down and reached for a cookie, shrugging her shoulders at Mary who was still glaring at her. This was not her fault, Claudia decided. Who knew making an innocuous comment about the sweetness of the lemonade would have led to this? Caleb was going on and on about a drink he called coca - cola.

“I’m telling you, if I can get in on this, I will be a millionaire,” Caleb continued. His normally placid face was practically glowing with excitement.

“Because of a drink?” Claudia interrupted.

Caleb looked at her. “You haven’t had it,” he told her. “The taste, the marketing, even the packaging, it’s all unique.”

Claudia frowned and soon felt Noah poke her in the ribs. “Smile and nod,” he said softly, grinning at her.

Claudia did giggle then.

“I tried some of it in Atlanta a few years ago,” Caleb said. “It was incredible.”

“Caleb was saying we could travel for our honeymoon,” Mary interjected, placing a hand over her fiancé’s. “Atlanta would be nice, wouldn’t it dear?” She fluttered her lashes at him. “He has so much to do with the store and all but he would travel if I wanted to. He would do just about anything for me.” Mary fluttered her lashes once more.

Caleb picked up a napkin and handed it to Mary. “Is there something in your eye?” he whispered loudly.

Noah laughed out loud then. Mary was the very picture of rage after that comment. She looked like she was ready to clobber poor Caleb. Claudia wondered what her friend was up to. Caleb rarely made small talk. Not that she didn’t find some of his conversation interesting, but he was so focused on what was new that he didn’t care about life’s day to day activities. And Mary knew this. She loved the fact that her fiancé was well-educated and so very curious about the world around him.

Everyone knew Caleb was a genius. An eccentric genius and his area of expertise seemed to be pharmaceuticals. He had already gone into business with Ethan, starting an apothecary. Claudia couldn’t understand why Mary was expecting him to act like Romeo when she knew good and well Caleb was more like the monk from Romeo and Juliet than the hero.

“The bottling rights were sold for just one dollar,” Caleb exclaimed. He looked startled when Mary jumped to her feet and stalked off.

Caleb frowned as he stood up. “‘Scuse me,” he said, hurrying after Mary.

“Is he always like that?” Noah asked Claudia.

“Always,” Claudia replied. “He’s a nice man, but sometimes I don’t know what the heck he is talking about.”

“Oh I knew what he was talking about,” Noah said. “I tried that coca - cola stuff myself. It was good and I think he is right. Just seemed kinda funny that he didn’t know Mary didn’t care.”

“But Mary normally does care,” Claudia said. “I guess that’s why he didn’t see it. You know how good Mary is with numbers. Caleb is always talking about his concoctions and Mary figures out how much it will cost and what the profit will be. If anyone we know ever becomes a millionaire, it will be those two for sure.”

“It always made Mary so mad when she couldn’t spell like Nat did,” Noah said softly. Claudia frowned when she saw the faraway look in his eyes. She did not want to see him full of melancholy anymore. And up till that moment, Noah appeared to have been enjoying himself.

“Until she found out what a whiz she was at math,” Claudia added brightly.

Noah nodded, a ghost of a smile flickered across his face.

“Both you and Mary have a head for numbers,” Claudia continued. “I wish I did.”

Noah tickled her chin with a blade of grass he had been fiddling with. “You were the history buff as I recall.”

Claudia bent her head, hoping he didn’t see her blush. But she was so touched that he remembered. Happy in fact that he knew anything about her. “I was just good at putting dates with events,” she said dismissively.

Noah tipped her head up, his fingers lingering on her face. “You were good,” he told her in a voice that would broker no argument. “And you are still good at organizing. I heard tell that Caleb and that store of his would be lost without you.”

“Every store needs a good clerk,” Claudia said lightly, somehow managing to look Noah in the eye.

“You are the backbone of that store, Shorty,” Noah said, pulling her to her feet. “And don’t you forget it.” He took Claudia’s hand and led her to his horse, which was tethered and grazing a few feet away from them.

“Wait,” Claudia began.

Noah freed his horse and gestured to Mary and Caleb. Caleb had his arms around Mary, their heads close together. “Let ‘em make up alone.”

When he saw Claudia hesitate, he added, “What, you afraid to be alone with me?”

“No,” Claudia said, making a face at him. “I just think we should say something.”

“They’ll figure it out,” Noah announced confidently, swinging onto his horse. He pulled Claudia up behind him.

Claudia agreed, content to sit behind him, her arms around his waist, her head leaning against his broad back.

When they reached the Hickok home, Noah leapt off his horse and helped Claudia down. “Thanks,” Claudia said, kicking a rock awkwardly. She wished she could make this moment last, but she just didn’t know how.

Noah glanced at the small house. “Your folks home?”

“No,” Claudia replied. “They are visiting your folks. My ma made dinner for them.”

Noah gave her a grin that made her heart flip-flop. “All alone, huh?”

Claudia blushed at his tone.

Noah tucked an errant strand of hair behind her ear. “Don’t worry,” he whispered. “I won’t do anything that you don’t want me to do.” He pulled her close and kissed her, gently at first. But as he felt Claudia respond to him, he appeared to be as out of control as Claudia was, one hand sliding up her back, brushing against her neck, while the other hand slipped lower, pulling her closer, his hips pushing against hers.

Claudia pushed his hat off his head and wound her hands in his hair. Lord, how she had hoped he would kiss her again and she was so glad that he was. His kisses made her feel tingly right down to her toes. But the kiss ended all too soon, as Noah jerked himself away from her.

“What?” Claudia asked, her breath coming rapidly.

Noah shook his head ruefully. “I told you I wasn’t gonna push you, but damn, look at me.”

Claudia regarded him curiously. “Push me?” She did not understand that comment at all. He was not pushing, Claudia wanted that kiss every bit as much as he did. Then it struck her, maybe she was the pushy one. “You didn’t want to kiss me?” she half-whispered.

“What I want, I shouldn’t have,” Noah replied cryptically. He moved quickly toward his horse.

“Noah,” Claudia called out, feeling utterly baffled by this conversation. How could he just leave? Nothing he said even made sense.

“Be good, Shorty,” Noah shouted over his shoulder as he galloped away.

Be good, Claudia seethed silently. What was she, eight?

Chapter Seven

“If you’d just hire another deputy, we wouldn’t have to keep trading nights like this,” Robert Sutton grumbled. But Jimmy saw the smile in his deputy’s eyes. It was a complaint, but a good-natured one.

Still, Robert’s comment had merit, he decided. Jimmy just was not sure who he would trust to hire as deputy. Abby told him he was just too picky, but he had to be. He still remembered what had happened with Beau Tolliver.

“I’ll think about it,” Jimmy said, grinning slightly. He had to get moving. He and Abby were taking dinner to the McCloud’s tonight. All of them save, Claudia. She was going on some picnic with the McCloud children. Jimmy hoped she enjoyed herself and that Noah behaved himself. He remembered how fond Claudia was of Noah as a child, but Noah was very different now.

Jimmy knew Claudia had a tender heart, he did not want her to get hurt. But he also knew telling her this would push her right into Noah’s arms, so he bit his tongue and waited. Noah’s true nature would be known to all soon enough and it would be revealed if he was still the same boy he used to be or a bitter, angry man.

“Think about it hard,” Robert said. “You know Grace is due in a few months and she’s sounding just like Claudia. Ever since that suffragette came to town, she’s been on me to stay home more, get ready for the baby.” Robert looked horrified at the thought of caring for a newborn.

Jimmy chuckled. That was his girl. “You’re just mad she is making your wife think,” he shot back as he left.

*~*~*


“Thanks for coming over,” Lou said, starting to rise from the table.

“Sit down,” Abby said sternly, jumping to her feet. She began clearing the dishes quickly, continuing to speak as she moved back and forth from the table.

“Sit down, Abby. Leave the dishes,” Lou chided her.

“They’re done already,” Abby announced. “I just put them in the sink.” She finished piling the dishes on the counter and took a seat next to Lou. “I’ll leave the washing to Kid.”

Lou smiled. She had been glad to see Jimmy and Abby, as well as their children. The three youngest Hickok children were outside now, taking turns pushing each other on the swing that hung from a large elm. Her children were far too old for it, but Lou never had the heart to take it down. And now she was glad, there were still children around to use it. Not to mention the grandchildren that would be coming.

Lou shuddered slightly. Grandchildren, she was going to be a grandmother in the next few years. But she could not help from sighing. She wished both her son and daughter would give her lots of grandchildren to spoil.

“Something wrong?” Abby asked quickly when she saw Lou’s distant expression.

“Just thinking about Noah,” Lou replied.

Abby regarded her curiously.

“I’m glad he went on this picnic. It will be good for him to go out, do things, like he used to,” Lou continued. She was especially glad Claudia was going on this outing as well. She may not know her son very well anymore, but she saw the way he looked at Claudia.

Abby frowned, but she remained quiet and Lou knew she did not like her daughter spending time with Noah. Truthfully, Lou could not blame her, but she still hoped Claudia would be able to do something. Maybe give her son a reason to stay longer in Rock Creek than he planned.

“Abby,” Jimmy said, stepping into the kitchen. “Emmaline is raising cain out there.” He glanced apologetically at Lou. “Sorry, but I think we need to take her home. It’s way past her bedtime.”

Lou stood up. “No, don’t be sorry. I still remember what it’s like to have little ones.” She touched Jimmy on the arm. “Thanks for coming over.”

Jimmy smiled. “Anytime, Lou.”

*~*~*


It was not long before all the Hickoks were loaded in the wagon and on their way home. Once they reached their place, Jimmy carried a sleeping Emmaline in, while EJ and Loy trudged behind him. Abby picked up the box she had used to transport the meal to the McClouds and hurried inside as well. She made sure the boys were on their way to bed and began washing the utensils she had used earlier.

Jimmy stepped outside and leaned against the railing, his eyes raised at the darkened sky.

“Did you have fun today?” he asked Claudia, as she came to stand beside him.

“Yeah,” Claudia replied, slipping underneath Jimmy’s arm. This was their nightly ritual. Every night they spent some time alone, catching up on the day. Jimmy wanted to make sure Claudia knew how special she was to him. For a while he had worried that having other children would affect his relationship with her, so he went out of his way to make sure she knew how much she meant to him. Their evening chat was one of those things.

“Caleb went on and on ‘bout some drink called coca - cola,” Claudia continued. “He thinks it’ll make him rich.”

Jimmy grinned, his hand smoothing Claudia’s hair. “Knowing Caleb, it probably will.” He glanced at her face, hoping she would look at him. He would know then, know whether or not Noah McCloud was going to become a problem.

It wasn’t that he did not like Noah, he did. What he did not like was the way Noah treated his parents. Jimmy wasn’t sure what caused this behavior but he did see the grief it caused Kid and Lou. Plus he had heard some talk around town. Noah was a hell-raiser. Not that he looked down on the boy for it. How could he, knowing what he used to be? But he knew better than anyone, the life that Noah lived was not one that would be suitable for Claudia. Noah might be of a marriageable age, but he was not ready for marriage. He was not ready for any kind of relationship, not with his little girl.

Jimmy saw that Claudia’s eyes were fixed toward the heavens and it made him sad. She was avoiding this issue. There could only be two reasons. One she did not trust him when it came to the subject of Noah or two, she had already fallen and did not want Jimmy to know.

“Claudia,” Jimmy began. If she would not discuss Noah willingly, then he would have to be the one to start the conversation.

Claudia stepped away from him. “I think I hear Emmaline.” She began moving rapidly toward the door. “I’ll go check on her.”

Jimmy sighed as his daughter vanished. He knew now what the answer to his unspoken question was - Claudia had fallen hard. He wished he had been a little more discrete when he had spoken about Noah when the boy had first come to town. Claudia had obviously overheard him voicing his disapproval and now felt she had to hide her feelings. Yet he saw through her anyway.

He pushed himself off the railing, ready to go inside as well. But before he made it to the door he felt a sharp pain in his left arm.

Dropping to both knees, Jimmy turned around, looking desperately for the sniper, the person who had just shot him.

“Jimmy!” Abby cried, rushing to his side. She crouched down next to him.

“Get inside,” Jimmy hissed.

“No, not without you,” Abby snapped, covering her fear with angry. She tugged on his good arm, beckoning him inside.

Jimmy soon gave up his futile search for the gunman and with both them keeping low to the ground, they went inside.

Chapter Eight

Claudia scowled at Noah. She could see him outside the window of the general store where she was working. He was talking to Myra Henson. If it could be called talking, she thought uncharitably. Noah was laughing, his fingers running down the length of Myra’s arm, stopping at her fingers. Claudia wouldn’t have been surprised to see him raise her hand and kiss it, but mercifully he did not.

She swallowed her jealousy. Now was not the time for this. She had more important things she had to discuss with Noah. If only he would only hurry up and get rid of Myra.

A few seconds later, Noah appeared to have done just that. She saw Myra sashay across the road. Knowing Noah was probably in his room upstairs, Claudia jumped out of her chair.

“Caleb,” she called out. “I’ll be back soon.”

Caleb, his nose in a book, waved his hand absently at her. Claudia was sure he did not even know when she worked and when she didn’t. She could really take advantage of the situation, had she the mind to. But fortunately for Caleb, she didn’t.

Claudia raced up the stair and pounded on Noah’s door. He stared at her for a moment, his surprise at her presence reflected in his eyes.

“Jeez,” Noah half-shouted. “What’s wrong? The way you were pounding on that door, I thought you were gonna break it down.”

“I gotta talk to you,” Claudia said curtly. She still smarted from seeing him with Myra. He kissed her and now he was flirting with Myra?!

Noah opened the door wide and Claudia stepped inside. “So what can I do for you?” he asked gallantly.

Claudia made a face at him. She would not be distracted by his behavior. Obviously he was trying to charm her again for some reason. “I want you to become a deputy,” she announced.

“WHAT?” Noah shouted.

“You heard me.”

“A deputy?” Noah repeated, dumbfounded. “Why a deputy? Why me for crying out loud. I have work.”

“You work whenever you feel like it,” Claudia snapped. She knew, from Mary, that Noah worked a few days at the various ranches around town whenever he needed money.

“I like it that way,” Noah smirked.

“Why? So you can have more time to spend with Myra?” Claudia retorted angrily.

“Myra?” Noah sounded genuinely puzzled.

“Oh never mind,” Claudia yelled. “I don’t know why I bother.” She moved toward the door.

“Shorty.” Noah caught her quickly. “Wait.”

“For what?” Claudia pushed at him in vain. But she could not get away, he was holding her too tightly. “How could you?” she cried.

“How could I what?” Noah yelled back.

“You kissed me!” Claudia tried to turn away from him. This was too hard. But she wasn’t going to pretend. She had feelings for him and she knew he knew, so why bother hiding it.

When Noah frowned, his face perplexed, Claudia longed to smack him. He had better not pretend not to understand.

“Shorty,” Noah began.

“Don’t Shorty me,” Claudia yelled. She looked at the ground. “I thought you liked me.”

Noah touched her head with his. “I do,” he said softly. “More than I should.”

“What does that mean?” Claudia whispered.

“With Myra, it wouldn’t mean anything,” Noah answered.

Claudia did manage to push Noah away from her then. She could not believe what she was hearing. He was willing to be with Myra because she was the town light skirt? “Stay away from me!” she snapped. “You are disgusting.”

Noah grabbed her around the waist and flung her onto the bed. “Listen!” he yelled.

“To what?” Claudia cried. “You want to be with a woman, so be with one. It’s obvious you don’t feel anything for me. Apparently all women are the same for you.”

“I feel a lot for you,” Noah said quietly.

“You don’t make any sense.” Claudia struggled to get away, but Noah had her firmly pinned to the bed, his big body covering hers.

“What I want,” Noah said, between gritted teeth as one of Claudia’s blows caught his eye. “Is something you can’t handle.”

“What’s that?” Claudia fumed. “I want you, Shorty,” Noah said, his voice turning husky, his lips sliding down her neck. “So bad I don’t think I can even stand it. But I can’t give you what you want.”

“And how do you know what I want?” Claudia asked, her voice trembling. She could not seem to stop her hands from running down his back.

“You don’t want a husband? A family?” Noah whispered. His arms were now wrapped around her, holding her tightly. But it wasn’t to hold her in place, it was to pull her close to him.

“You’re the one who quoted Florence Kelley,” Claudia managed. His touch had her shaking.

Noah smiled. “So we can be together, then just part ways when it stops working for us?”

“Sure, why not?” Claudia replied. Noah’s hands were all over her body, her skin was on fire beneath her clothing, which seemed very, very tight right now.

“Don’t tempt me, Shorty.” Noah’s lips were on hers now, his mouth devouring hers.

It was only when he turned his attention back to her neck that Claudia was able to speak. “Noah,” she whispered. When he finally looked at her, Claudia saw he was fighting some kind of battle and it was obvious he was losing. “I never planned on living my whole life in Rock Creek,” she told him. “I have plans.” She did have plans, but the rest was a lie. After traveling for a while, she would like nothing better than to live in Rock Creek, near her family and start one of her own.

But then she would never know what it would be like to be with Noah. And she did not think she could live her whole life with that regret.

“Shorty,” Noah groaned.

“But you have to say my name first,” Claudia smiled up at him.

Noah shook his head. “I don’t want to hurt you.”

“So don’t.”

“What if I do?”

“Well it won’t be because you made me some promises you never intended on keeping,” Claudia answered. She touched his cheek with her hand. “I know what I’m doing.”

“Shorty,” Noah began again.

“Say it,” she commanded him.

“Bossy. You were always too bossy.” Noah was finally able to smile as he kissed her gently. But he complied, whispering, “Claudia.”

Claudia wrapped her arms and legs around him, opening her body to him in a silent invitation.

Chapter Nine

Claudia struggled with the buttons of her dress. Her hands were shaking, making the normally simple act quite difficult.

Noah tucked his shirt in his pants and sat on the bed. He finished buttoning the rest of Claudia’s dress for her, kissing her once he was done.

He ran his finger down the length of her face, cupping her chin with his hand as he brought her close for another kiss. “You okay?” he whispered.

Claudia nodded.

“I know I hurt you,” Noah began awkwardly. “I didn’t know,” he half-whispered.

Claudia looked at him with a slight frown.

“You should have told me,” he said gruffly. When Claudia continued to look blankly at him, he said, turning sheepish, “I thought you really were like Florence Kelley.”

“In Rock Creek?” Claudia exclaimed. Florence Kelley and her brethren had many interesting ideas about women and sexual freedoms, but living in a small town, under her parents’ roof, Claudia really was not able to live that kind of life, even if she wanted to. What was Noah thinking?

Noah took her hand and held it. “I’m sorry.”

“Would it have made such a difference?” Claudia asked quietly. “Are you sorry we were together?” She studied the rumpled bedspread. She could not look at him. If he was sorry . . .

“I’m sorry I didn’t know,” Noah admitted. “It doesn’t change how much I wanted you. How much I still want you. But . . .” He paused. “I don’t know, maybe I could have made this whole thing easier on you.” He rubbed her knuckles with his thumb. “You seem so sad. Was it really so awful?” he asked, his voice soft.

Claudia shook her head. “It wasn’t awful,” she replied in the same hushed tone. “Just not the same for me as it was for you. But I know men and women can enjoy themselves.”

Noah looked at her quizzically.

“Mary filled me in,” Claudia explained. Mary had told her everything. A woman’s first time was not usually terribly enjoyable. But as Mary said, with a wicked smile, it got better.

“Mary,” Noah sputtered.

Claudia was finally able to smile at his reaction. Why was that shocking? Mary was engaged to be married. While she . . . Claudia swallowed hard. Noah had considered her as loose as Myra, until he found out first hand she wasn’t.

But when she thought about it, was she really any different? She had just started a relationship with a lie, a relationship which was dependent on the fact that there were no promises made and that hurt. It hurt so much more than she ever could have imagined.

“I won’t see Myra,” Noah said quickly.

Claudia let out a small mirthless laugh. He still did not understand. Her feelings had nothing to do with Myra either. It had to do with that hollow sensation inside her. She wanted Noah to put his arms around her and make all kinds of promises, but she knew he would not.

Noah raised her hand and kissed her palm. “It’ll just be you and me.”

But for how long? Claudia longed to ask. She could not understand what was wrong with her. This is exactly what she knew was going to happen. She knew herself well enough for that. She wanted promises, declarations of love. She wanted it all, a ring, a wedding, a family. All with a man who had no interest in making such promises.

“Is this about me being a deputy?” Noah asked quietly. And Claudia wished she could make her smile reach her eyes. Noah knew her too well. He knew something was still wrong and he was going to keep guessing until he figured out what was really bothering her.

“No,” Claudia answered honestly. “But I still want you to be one. Won’t you please think about it?”

“Why? You think because of what just happened, I’ll go to your pa and sign up to be his deputy?”

No, Claudia thought wearily, she did not think that. “I forgot that’s the reason I came up here,” she said softly.

Noah gathered her close. “Do you want me to look respectable?” he asked and Claudia heard the wariness in his voice.

Claudia frowned. What did she care if the townsfolk considered Noah respectable? “Someone shot my pa yesterday,” she told him, turning around to look at his face.

“What?” Noah was shocked.

“He was outside our house, by himself, and someone shot him,” Claudia explained. Her head dropped. “He could have died.” Her voice broke with the words.

Noah lifted her head, so he could look at her. “Is he okay?”

“Yeah. Now.”

“But I don’t know what this has to do with me becoming a deputy,” Noah said after a long moment.

“I want you to help him,” Claudia announced.

“Me?” Noah exclaimed. “He has a deputy.”

“He needs another one and you used to be a good shot,” Claudia said. “And you know him . . .” Her voice trailed off. The Noah of old would help her father, no questions asked. Noah was skilled with a gun and had a quick mind; all things that would be a great help to her father.

But was this new Noah anything like the one she used to know? Did she have any right making demands on him? Claudia wondered.

“He’s my father,” she added, almost desperately.

“Fine,” Noah grumbled. “I’ll do it.” He watched her closely. “It won’t be forever though, just until we figure out who is after him.”

“Thank you,” Claudia said quietly. He must care about her father and her to do this, she decided. But a nagging voice from inside her head persisted in asking the hard questions. Maybe he was just trying to please her to get her into bed again.

“Anything for you, Shorty,” he said, lightly, kissing the tip of her nose.

“Shorty!” Claudia protested the use of the name.

“Maybe tomorrow you can come here,” Noah said, his lips on her throat. “And I’ll get us some dinner, a little wine . . .”

“Maybe,” Claudia laughed, feeling a little more light-hearted at his words. No, this wouldn’t last forever, but for now he wanted to be with her and for now that was enough.

Chapter Ten

Noah glanced at Claudia who was sweeping the general store steps. He smiled at her, hoping she would look his way. But she did not. She was lost in her own little world and it made Noah sad to see it, unexpectedly so.

He and Claudia had been meeting almost every afternoon around five o’clock. He would find her in the stairwell and kiss her until she could not stand up and bring her upstairs. She seemed to be enjoying herself more. In fact, she was quite curious about his body, a fact which made their time together very interesting.

But since Noah was due to report for work at six o’clock, their time together was relatively short. He frowned to himself. An hour was plenty of time, but then again it wasn’t. Claudia was acting strange, she could be her normally happy, bossy self, then for no apparent reason, a curtain fell over her, she would get very quiet and no matter what he did, Noah could not make her smile nor could he get her to tell him what was really wrong.

He did not know if it was still because of what happened with her father. Jimmy was back on the job. In fact, he had only missed one day and Noah was certain it was only because Abby forced him to stay home. And he seemed happy to have Noah working for him. He sent Noah out on a patrol his first day on the job.

That was last week. This week, Noah was splitting the night shifts with Robert, the other deputy. Thus the reason why he had to report to work at six. That was his shift, six in the evening until six in the morning. Until yesterday that is. Yesterday Jimmy unexpectedly told him that from now on he and Robert would alternate the night shifts. They would both work three nights, then switch.

Noah had shrugged. What did it matter when he worked? He was only here because Claudia wanted him here. He continued to watch Claudia from the porch of the sheriff’s office. She would smile and talk to some of the people who came by, then as soon as they left, she went right back to her sweeping. Did pushing a broom really require that much concentration? Why couldn’t she look his way? He would be off of work soon and he would love nothing better than to spend the evening with her.

But his plans were put to rest as soon as he as spotted Jimmy. The sheriff wrapped an arm around his daughter’s shoulders. Claudia looked startled for an instant but she was soon beaming. Noah could see even from his perch across the street how happy she looked. Now why on earth did that bother him so much?

Claudia ran inside the store and when she came out, she was carrying her hat. Noah continued to watch as Claudia and Jimmy made their way to the livery. As they passed by, Jimmy nodded at him and Claudia smiled.

“I’ll see you tomorrow morning,” Jimmy said as he continued to walk.

“See ya,” Claudia called back casually over her shoulder. Noah continued to watch them, a scowl creeping on to his face.

“Well I certainly never expected to see you again.” Noah heard a hearty brogue behind him. He turned around slowly, his hand resting on the butt of his gun.

“No need for that,” a large man with a thin layer of white stubble boomed out. The man fixed his blue eyes on Noah, one hand sitting on his bloated belly, the other jammed in the pocket of his expensive trousers. “We’re old friends.”

Noah’s eyes grew wide. “Mister Flannery?” He could not believe it. Timothy Flannery was a manager for the Burlington Railroad, the company that Noah had worked for so many years ago. He could not call Flannery friend, but the man spent a lot of time at the various camps, so Noah was more than familiar with him.

“Look at you son, you’ve done grown up on me,” Flannery chuckled loudly.

Yes, he had grown up, Noah thought. As a relatively naive boy of sixteen, he had admired Flannery, both for his power and position. And he had to admit, the man knew how to wield his power. The violence that often ran rampant in the camps between the various immigrant groups ceased when Flannery arrived. Even the Irish knew not to push their luck. Just because Flannery was Irish, didn’t mean he would side with them. Flannery was always on the side of his bosses and his bosses were only interested in making a profit.

But Noah did not realize that when he first arrived at a small camp in Colorado. He had been so lost. And when Flannery took him under his wing, he had been grateful. The older man made sure none of the other men harassed Noah, he also made sure Noah got to keep his pay and the few belongings he had with him.

Flannery did not expect much or so he thought, just to tell him what had happened during his absences. He later found out Flannery expected him to be his eyes and ears, in other words, his spy. For a while, Noah had done just that. Until the day, Thomas Boyd had disappeared. Boyd had been speaking to a few men about organizing themselves so that they might receive better wages. Noah had told Flannery this and the next day, everyone had been told Boyd had left, seeking employment elsewhere.

Only Noah knew, or at least he suspected. Boyd had been killed. Noah had stayed in the camp a few more weeks, reporting just enough to Flannery so the man would not be suspicious. And as soon as Flannery left the camp, so did Noah. Noah had gone further west, joining up with a different railroad company. He had not seen Flannery in years. In fact, he had not even thought of the man until now.

“How have you been, boy?” Flannery boomed.

“Good sir and you?” Noah inquired formally.

“I’m fine. Look at you, you’re an officer of the law,” Flannery laughed loudly, his eyes fixed on the star on Noah’s chest.

Noah sighed inwardly. He had forgotten how loud the man was. “Yep.”

“And as talkative as ever,” Flannery smiled. “Come on, let me buy you a drink and we can catch up on old times.”

“Can’t,” Noah replied, hoping he sounded regretful. “Working.”

“Well later then,” Flannery said. He waved his meaty hand in the air. “I want to hear all about this fair town.” He began moving in the direction of the hotel. “I’m staying there. Look me up.”

“I’ll do that,” Noah nodded, moving toward the sheriff’s office, hoping Robert would be late. He did not want to have a drink with that man. In fact, he was going to do everything he could to avoid him.

*~*~*

“Hey, Noah,” Robert said coming into the office.

Noah rose from the desk, ready to call it quits for the day.

“I got a favor to ask you,” Robert continued. He looked expectantly at Noah.

“Yeah,” Noah replied warily.

“You think you could switch with me tomorrow?” Robert said. “Work tomorrow night. I’ll take your day shift,” he tacked on hastily at Noah’s scowl.

“You’re gonna work twenty-four hours straight?” Noah asked in disbelief.

“I gotta,” Robert replied glumly. “Grace is after me to go with her to Fairbury to see her sister. I don’t know where she gets these notions, but they just pop into her head and no one can shake them loose.”

Noah smiled slightly. Grace led Robert around by the nose. When he saw Robert ready to start begging again, he quickly said, “Fine.” He would not mind having the day off tomorrow and he was tired of Robert’s groveling.

Chapter Eleven

When he woke early the next morning, Noah raced down the stairs and found Claudia alone in the store, pouring over the books.

“Wanna help with these figures,” Claudia said, rubbing her eyes wearily.

“You look tired,” Noah remarked casually.

Claudia straightened up, frowning.

“You need a day off,” Noah continued. He sat on the desk and tipped her face up. “Tell Caleb you ain’t feeling well.”

“I can’t,” Claudia said regretfully. She was tired, but she had so much to do.

“Come on,” Noah said, leaning in close, kissing her lips.

“I can’t.”

“Please,” Noah said, stretching out the word.

Claudia laughed, he sounded just like a kid again.

“I figured maybe we could go to the lake. You used to love fishing,” Noah added, grinning.

“Fishing, huh?”

Noah leered at her.

“Okay, okay.” Claudia smiled as well.

“Good.” Noah jumped to his feet. “I’ll meet you out front.” He hurried out the door.

Claudia walked slowly to Caleb’s office. “Caleb,” she called out. She debated telling Caleb she was not feeling well, but decided against it. Knowing Caleb he would send her home with some potion then come out later to see if his remedy worked.

“I was wondering if you would mind me taking the day off,” Claudia added. “I wanted to run by the McClouds. I know Mary was in a dither the other day, I figured she could use some help.” That part was true at least. Mary was frantic, certain her wedding would have to be postponed as nothing was going the way she wanted it to go. But that’s the way Mary was. She was probably calm by now as Claudia was certain that she had already gotten her wedding back under control.

And Caleb wanted nothing to do with the wedding. In fact, he rarely brought up the subject, thus assuring Claudia that he would not mention her absence to Mary.

Caleb grimaced at the mention of his wedding. “Yeah, go ahead.” He soon buried his nose back in a book.

As Claudia moved toward the door, Caleb shouted out, “Claudia, can you ask the Turner boy to come in? He can cover the desk, right?”

“I’ll send him straight over,” Claudia smiled. She had planned to do that anyway. Someone had to take care of the customers.

As she stepped out of the store, she saw Noah waiting at the bottom of the stairs, holding his horse by the reins, waiting for her. Claudia’s heart skipped a beat when she saw him there. He looked so handsome.

“What?” Noah asked softly when he saw her expression.

“Nothing,” Claudia said, trying desperately to regain her composure. Why did Noah still affect her so? As he smiled at her, she wondered if he always would and at the same time she wondered how great an effect did she have on him.

“I just gotta tell Ed Turner to come in. He is gonna have to work for me,” she continued.

Noah nodded, waiting, his eyes following her as she ran down the street to a small house. A few minutes later, a young boy, no more than sixteen, ran back with her. Noah could hear Claudia instructing the boy, telling what his duties entailed.

“I got it, Claudia,” Ed said impatiently before ducking into the store.

“And don’t forget to put the coffee and sandwiches out around eleven,” Claudia shouted at the boy’s back.

“Quit your bossing,” Noah said, tugging on her hand. “I think the store can manage without you for one day.”

Claudia frowned, wondering if she had told Ed about the tricky latch on the storeroom door.

“Shorty!” Noah said sharply.

“I’m coming, I’m coming,” Claudia grumbled. Noah swung his leg over his saddle and held his hand out to Claudia. She grasped it firmly and climbed up behind him, suddenly eager to spend the day with Noah. They had not done anything like this in ages.

Chapter Twelve

“Sit down!” Noah roared.

Claudia turned her head around as she smiled. The day was just gorgeous, the sky a brilliant shade of blue and nary a cloud in sight, the temperature warm and there was just enough breeze to cool them off.

She looked once more at Noah. He had rowed the boat off shore soon after their arrival and had already sat down after casting his line into the water. He had been surprised when Claudia had told him that the boat they played in as children was still there. Kid had built it and the McClouds never seemed to mind if the children used it, any children.

Claudia decided she would continue to stand a bit longer, in spite of Noah’s grumblings. Her hook had gotten tangled in line when she cast it from a seated position, so this time she was going to cast the only way she knew how, standing up.

“I’ll do it, just give me the pole,” Noah said wearily. He stood up and handed Claudia his pole, reaching for hers. But just as he stretched out his hand, Claudia leaned toward him, ready to give him her pole. She felt her shoulder jostle his and bent her knees, trying to recapture her balance but Noah somehow went tumbling over the side.

Claudia dropped down to a seated position. “Noah!” she shouted. She could not see any sign of him. “Noah!” she cried once more. But a few seconds later she saw him, swimming to shore. Sighing in relief, Claudia picked up the oar lying in the bottom of the boat and began paddling to the shore.

It was not long before the little row boat hit the rocky beach. Gingerly Claudia stepped out of the boat. “Are you alright?” she asked quickly.

“Do I look alright?” Noah bellowed.

“I’m sorry,” Claudia began, feeling rather dejected. She could not help feeling as though she had just ruined what could have been a perfect day.

“Sorry!” Noah yelled, advancing on her. Claudia automatically took a step back. Then she saw the glint in his eyes and turned, picking up her skirts and running.

“You stay away from me,” Claudia shouted happily as she ran. But Noah caught her quickly and swept her off her feet. Holding her in his arms, he marched to the edge of the lake.

“Don’t you dare,” Claudia squealed. “I mean it!” As Noah stepped into the water, Claudia began protesting in earnest. “I’m sorry, okay. Put me down.” As Noah made a throwing motion with Claudia still in his arms, Claudia shrieked, “Don’t you dare!”

“Dare?” Noah grinned fiendishly at her. He made another throwing motion. Claudia felt herself over the water.

“Noah!” Claudia yelled. She had barely gotten the name out when she felt the water go crashing over her head. She struggled to get to her feet, spitting out mouthfuls of water. She sputtered a few choice words in Noah’s direction as she stood up, but between the rocky bottom and her heavy wet skirts, she ended up falling down again.

“Here, let me,” Noah said, scooping her into his arms. He carried her to the shore, depositing her gently on the ground.

“Get away from me,” Claudia yelled, charging down the beach, continuing to rant and rave. She pulled her wet skirt away from her legs, shouting, “Look at me, I look like a drowned rat.”

“You look beautiful,” Noah said, coming close to her. He moved a damp lock of hair off her face.

“Oh shut up!” Claudia fumed, tripping over her skirt once more as she tried to move as far away as she could from Noah.

“Just take that damn skirt off,” Noah said, obviously growing weary of being on the receiving end of Claudia’s wrath.

“No,” Claudia snapped. She knew she sounded churlish, but that’s the way she felt. She had been so looking forward to this outing and now Noah had to go and ruin it all.

“I’ll build a fire and we can dry our clothes,” Noah replied with an exaggerated degree of patience, further infuriating Claudia. How dare he treat her like she was a child?

“No,” Claudia said, acting just like the child Noah was treating her as.

“Fine, just stand there then.” Noah stalked off and Claudia watched as he gathered a few logs, throwing some twigs on them. It wasn’t long before he had a fire roaring. He stacked a few sticks together beside it, fashioning a rudimentary clothesline. Noah stripped off his shirt and trousers, hanging them over the fire.

Claudia sat down on the shore, wrapping her arms around herself for warmth. She was miserable, cold, angry and so disappointed. Nothing was going the way she hoped, nothing at all. She soon found Noah standing over her.

“Please,” he said, sitting on his haunches beside her, wearing only his long johns. Claudia turned her head to look at him. He certainly looked sincere, as all the humor had vanished from his eyes.

He stroked her hair once more. “Please, Claudia. I don’t want you to get sick.”

And suddenly Claudia was enveloped in guilt. She knew he must worry about these things because of what had happened to Natalie. She just was not ready to admit she had been wrong. “Fine,” she said, trying to sound irritable. “But only ‘cause you said Claudia.”

Noah gave her a small smile as he took her blouse, skirt and petticoats, hanging them beside his own clothing. He picked up a pole from the boat before coming to sit beside her. “You hungry?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Claudia replied with a frown. He was not even going to try to kiss her, she thought, her ire rising once more. Here she was sitting next to a nearly naked man wearing only her shift and she seemed to have no effect on him at all! She ran a hand through her hair. Probably because she looked like something the cat had dragged in.

Noah set the pole down and caught her hand. Somehow he seemed to know. He always seemed to know. As if he sensed Claudia’s feelings, Noah held her hand for a long moment. He didn’t move and Claudia could barely breathe as his eyes locked with hers.

He lifted her hand to his lips, nibbling on her wrist, his mouth following the bluish veins up until he found her shoulder. Slipping the strap of her shift down, Noah caressed her skin. He then carefully tugged on the edges of her chemise and when Claudia lifted her arms, he pulled it over her head.

With one arm wrapped around Claudia’s waist, he removed his own clothing then used the other hand as a brace, laying them both on sand.

For a long time after making love to her, Noah continued to lie on top of her, seemingly content playing with her disheveled hair.

“You are the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen,” he whispered. And Claudia could only smile. She knew it was a lie, it had to be. She looked awful, but his words still made her feel beautiful. This was the closest she had ever felt to him. She prayed he would not pull away. But all too soon, he did.

Noah sat up and buttoned his long johns. He then reached for the pole, casting his line into the water. But he did wrap his free arm around her, pulling her close.

“I’m sorry for acting like such a brat,” Claudia said softly, pulling her shift over her head.

“You are a brat,” Noah said lightly, kissing the top of her head. “But I had it coming, throwing you in the water like that.”

Claudia smiled, snuggling closer to him. Noah absently ran his fingers down her cheek. And as he did, Claudia was reminded of another time he brushed her face in a similar fashion. “Remember when you knocked the stuffing out of Percy Sutton?” she asked. Percy and she had been quarreling about a ball and Percy had flung it at her in anger. The ball had hit Claudia in the face, sending her to the ground, sobbing. She had been almost nine at the time.

“He didn’t have any cause to throw the ball at you like that,” Noah said and Claudia heard the distant quality to his voice. She wished she could bring him back to her, but she just didn’t know how. She had only brought up Percy because it was a good memory for her. The day she saw Noah pummeling Percy on her behalf was the day she first fell in love with him. But maybe it reminded Noah of something else. Happier times? Natalie? Claudia wished she knew what it was.

“Noah,” Claudia began. She was going to ask him, finally. She was going to ask him the question which had been on her mind for so long - Why did he leave Rock Creek? Was it all because of Natalie’s death?

But before she could utter another word, Noah was on his feet. “Got a bite,” he shouted happily.

Claudia sighed. There was only a slim chance he would have told her but there was none now. Noah only spoke to her without caution in his eyes immediately after making love to her. It was too late now.

Chapter Thirteen

Claudia cringed. She wished she could hide under the store counter she stood behind and disappear. Caleb had just been teasing Mary about being so out of sorts that he had to let Claudia spend the whole day with her yesterday.

“What’s wrong?” Caleb asked. “Didn’t you and Claudia get everything straightened out?” He looked as if he was starting to regret bringing up the wedding and Claudia hoped Mary would drag him in on her plans. He deserved it, him and his big mouth.

“Oh Claudia was a big help,” Mary said, frowning in Claudia’s direction.

“Good,” Caleb smiled. “I figured she would be.” He grinned at Claudia, seemingly not noticing the look of horror she wore. He squeezed Mary’s hand. “Having the Turner boy here all day was a trial. But it was worth it for you.”

“All day,” Mary said, lifting a brow at Claudia.

Caleb finally seemed to notice the undercurrents in the store and frowned. “Well, yeah. Claudia left . . .” He frowned, as if he could not remember what time Claudia left the store and knowing Caleb he probably could not. “Well, I don’t know. It was before lunch.”

“Before lunch, huh?” Mary said, nodding her head.

Suddenly Mary bussed Caleb on the mouth. “You are my angel,” she cooed at him.

Caleb beamed at her, the tension vanishing from his face. “Don’t you forget it,” he grinned, walking back toward his office. “So I’ll see you for dinner?”

“Yes, you will,” Mary replied sweetly. But as soon as Caleb shut the door to his office, she pounced. “Thank you so much for all your help,” she told Claudia sarcastically.

“Mary,” Claudia began.

“So where were you?” Mary demanded.

Claudia sighed. How could someone as sweet looking as Mary cause her stomach to tighten into knots, but she did. Claudia’s stomach hurt as bad as the day she thought her mother was going to marry Carl Boatwright instead of Jimmy Hickok.

“No where,” Claudia mumbled.

“Noah was no where to be seen either,” Mary added.

Claudia could not stop her eyes from growing wide. Mary knew? No, she did not, she could not. But she did! How?

“I’m not blind,” she said slowly, answering Claudia’s unspoken question. “You still look at him with those damn puppy dog eyes and he eats it all up.” She paced the floor for a few moments, gathering her thoughts, finally stopping directly in front Claudia. “So how far has it gone?”

Claudia did not answer, a tattle-tale blush stained her cheeks.

“That far?” Mary said softly. When Claudia finally was able to look at her, she knew Mary did not expect an answer. She knew everything from Claudia’s reaction.

“What I’m going to say, ain’t easy for me, but I have to say it,” Mary said, her voice somber. “Stay away from him. He’s only going to break your heart.”

“How can you say that? You know him better than anyone. He’s your brother,” Claudia protested. She could not believe what she was hearing. She had expected disapproval for letting things go too far too fast. But to stay away from Noah entirely? Mary could not mean that.

“I know he is my brother,” Mary said brokenly. “I love him more than anything. But I know what he used to be and what he is now.” She wiped her eyes. Mary hated crying. She always said she had shed all the tears she was going to shed for Noah the day he left. ‘Let him leave. Who cares?’ Mary had sobbed so many years ago. But Claudia knew she did not mean it. She had seen how happy her friend was when Noah returned home.

“He’s coming back,” Claudia said, trying to not sound too eager. “He’s - ”

“He’s what?” Mary snapped. “He’s trying? He takes you out to dinner? He asked your pa for permission to court you? What does he try to do, Claude? What? Seduce you?” she half-shouted, her voice filled with desperation. “That ain’t right and you know it. You deserve better than that.”

“He needs me!” Claudia shouted back, her own ire growing. “You don’t see the way he looks, so sad all the time.”

“It’s an act,” Mary interrupted.

“An act?” Claudia exclaimed. She could not mean that. “Oh come on.”

“Alright, maybe not an act,” Mary admitted reluctantly.

“It’s not an act,” Claudia told her without hesitation. “The way he holds me, like if he lets go, he will slide right back into feeling empty, ‘cause that’s all he feels inside, empty.”

“And how do you know that?” Mary asked sadly. “He told you this?”

“No-o,” Claudia stammered. “I just know.”

“Because you wanna believe it so bad,” Mary concluded. “Don’t you think I want to too?”

“You don’t even try anymore, Mar,” Claudia chided her gently. “Have you ever asked him to join you and Caleb for dinner? Or get him out to the ranch?”

“He won’t come to the ranch!” Mary exploded. “He hates our folks. How can I respect that in him? He won’t tell me anything and believe me, I have asked.” She shook her head in disgust. “Does he tell you anything about himself? What he did when he was gone? Why he hates our parents?”

“No,” Claudia said softly. She hated Mary for saying that. Mostly because deep down she knew it was true. Noah never said anything personal to her. Sure he complimented her, made her laugh, but never once had any of his words come from his heart. But he cared for her, she knew he did. His life had just gone bad somewhere along the line and he was afraid to show it, really show it.

“He ain’t like your pa,” Mary said, almost gently. “He ain’t a man who came home for redemption.”

“He came home for something,” Claudia retorted. “He came home to help your ma. And he is staying.”

“For my wedding!”

“He became a deputy ‘cause I asked him to be one.”

“He gets paid, don’t he?” Mary asked, dejectedly.

“You don’t know him the way I do,” Claudia told her stubbornly.

“Does he love you?” Mary demanded.

“I - I don’t know,” Claudia admitted. “I think so.”

“He ain’t never told you, has he?”

“No,” Claudia said softly.

“So go tell him,” Mary told her suddenly.

“What?!”

“Go tell him you love him and see what he says.” When Mary saw Claudia hesitate, she added, almost tauntingly, “Scared?”

“No,” Claudia snapped. “Fine, I’ll go.” She knew Noah was upstairs. He was not due to report to work until six o’clock as he was working the night shift for Robert.

Mary nodded at her, watching as Claudia scurried away. “And I’ll wait to pick up the pieces,” she whispered to herself. What she just did bordered on the cruel, but she felt a clean break was the way to go. There was no way she was going to let Claudia end up pregnant and abandoned by her brother.

Claudia ran up the stairs, wiping her palms on the apron she wore. There was no reason to be nervous, she told herself. Noah did love her. He just did not know how to show it.

Once she reached his door, she knocked nervously on it. A few seconds later, Noah appeared, his dark hair damp, his plaid shirt still unbuttoned over his longjohns and his feet bare.

“Hey,” he smiled. “Didn’t expect to see you here.” He pulled her into his room, kissing her.

“Wait,” Claudia managed, ducking out from under his arm. “I wanna talk to you.”

“So talk,” Noah whispered, curling his finger in a lock of her hair, a smile playing about his lips.

Felled by a sudden attack of fear, Claudia knew she could not just blurt out the words ‘I love you’. So she decided to approach this problem from a different angle. Noah may not tell Mary anything, but he would tell her.

“I heard tell you left town because your folks needed money and you joined up with the railroad to earn some,” Claudia said quietly. Part of that was true. Kid and Lou had explained Noah’s absence to their acquaintances that way, but not to her family. Claudia knew he had run away. She just didn’t know why. “Is that true?”

Chapter Fourteen

“No,” Noah laughed softly.

“Then why?” Claudia persisted.

Noah bent his head, catching her lips in a quick kiss. “Does it really matter?”

Claudia held his face in between her hands, her eyes never breaking contact with his once. “Yes.”

Noah sighed loudly in frustration.

“Please Noah, I’d like to know,” Claudia said softly. She touched his head with hers, her forehead resting on his cheek.

“Later, Shorty.” Noah moved back, trying to break free of the hold she had on him. She had a real knack for doing that, worming her way in where she did not belong. This was not her business. He would keep on saying later until she finally got it through her head, that he wanted to keep things exactly the way they were. He and Claudia led separate lives, Noah wanted it to remain that way.

“Why?” Claudia asked, her voice catching in her throat. Noah saw that she was afraid, of what he was not certain, but there was definitely fear in her eyes.

“Why is it all of a sudden so important to know?” Noah demanded.

“It just is,” Claudia replied, her head dropping dejectedly.

Noah stepped away from her. He needed space. She had to understand that, part of the reason he had even begun this relationship was her willingness to let him be. She had said she would accept what he gave her. But now, here she was making demands, just like a nagging wife.

As he turned back, leaning against the wall beside the window, Noah let his eyes rest on Claudia for a moment, before letting them wander around his empty little room. Some days he would like nothing better than to let her know everything about his life, but then other days he realized there was no point. Whatever they had going now would end. All relationships, no matter how good they started out, ended.

“I love you,” Claudia told him, her voice clear and steady. When Noah looked at her again, he found her eyes fixed on him.

“I love you, too,” Noah said, keeping his own voice the exact opposite of hers. Claudia’s said the words firmly, without doubt. His own words were said flippantly.

Claudia choked back a sob and turned toward the door. As she jerked on the knob, Noah grabbed her, pushing the door shut and moving her so she was flat against the wall.

“I do, Shorty,” Noah whispered, sincerely this time. “I do love you, as much as I will ever love anyone.”

“Then why won’t you tell me anything about yourself? What you’ve been doing since you’ve been gone? What went wrong between you and your folks? I’d even settle for you telling about how you feel about being a deputy,” Claudia cried, turning around to face him. She wiped her damp cheeks with her sleeve, the tiniest bit of hope appearing in her eyes. “People who love one another, share everything, good and bad.”

“You have a whole different view of love than I do,” Noah said softly, brushing away some of her tears with his thumb. “Or maybe it’s just you ain’t been around as much as I have.”

“Love is love,” Claudia said.

“In many ways you are just a little girl,” Noah told her sadly.

“I am not!”

Noah smiled, unable to stop himself from giving her a kiss. “You think love goes on and on and just gets better with time.”

“It does,” Claudia replied quickly.

“Love is like everything else,” Noah said quietly. “It has a beginning, a middle and an end.” It was not an easy thing for him to learn, but he learned it, the hard way. Maybe it would be easier to be like other people, fall in love, expect the best and never see the end coming. But he wasn’t like that. He knew love ended. No matter how badly he wished the opposite.

Claudia shook her head. “It doesn’t have to.”

“It starts out warm and full of promise,” Noah whispered, pressing his body against hers. “In the beginning, it’s hard to keep your hands to yourself, think about anything besides the person you love.”

He felt Claudia tremble and wrapped his arms around her tightly. “In the middle, you start making plans. You get married, buy a house, have some kids.

“Then there’s the end,” Noah continued. “You find out that this person you loved so much in the beginning ain’t enough. He or she doesn’t think the same as they used to or maybe you don’t. So you start looking, not on purpose, but it’s hard not to once you feel like the connection is broken.”

“Is that what happened to you?” Claudia whispered.

Noah smiled. She was always so jealous. “No.”

“Then how can you be so sure?”

“I just am.”

“That’s not love,” Claudia declared. She stood straighter then, separating her body from his. “What you described is lust.”

“Lust, huh?” Noah asked with a bemused smile.

“Yes,” Claudia said quickly. “Lust is fleeting. No one seems as good as they did in the beginning. That’s why people in love are friends too, they laugh, they talk, they cry. They tell each other everything.” Her voice broke with the last words. But somehow she managed to continue. “Love is like a tree, it has roots and it gets stronger with each day.”

Noah pushed himself away from her. “You are so naive.” He scowled at her and asked, almost angrily. “What do you know about love?”

“I see people who are in love every day of my life,” Claudia said. “My folks. Look at them. They went through some hard times but every time they turned away from each other, they came running back to one another and got even closer.”

Noah narrowed his eyes at her. If Claudia’s folks would stop making babies for a few years, maybe they would find out that they actually had nothing in common. “They are still in the middle.”

“You are just gonna twist everything I say, aren’t you?” Claudia half-shouted.

Noah ignored the question and asked one of his own. “Ready to admit I’m right?”

“Grandpa Spoon and Grandma Polly.”

“They left each other and started over, so they ended.”

“Your folks.” Claudia’s eyes glittered in triumph. “They have been together for a long time, through good and bad times.”

“My folks,” Noah said slowly.

‘Yeah, your folks.”

“My folks!” Noah roared. “My folks are the very worst example you could have picked.” He took a deep breath, placing his hands on his knees, trying desperately to compose himself.

But Claudia was like a dog with a bone. Noah cursed himself for letting his emotions get the better of him. She would not let up, not now.

“Your folks met, fell in love and are still together. They have roots so deep that nothing will ever kill their feelings for each other,” she added and Noah knew from the way she spoke she was on to something. She suspected, and rightly so, the people he had been describing earlier were his parents.

“My folks are together because they are nothing but a bad habit for each other. They are too afraid to start over, so they stay together and make a mockery of the word marriage,” Noah yelled.

“What does that mean?” Claudia shouted back.

“Nothing,” Noah said, abruptly turning away from her.

“Please don’t shut down on me,” Claudia whispered, putting her hand on his shoulder. “Look at me,” she commanded him.

Noah turned around and glared at her.

“You said you love me,” Claudia reminded him. “So prove it. Tell me why you are so angry at your folks? Why do you think they don’t love each other?”

Noah stared stonily at her, unable to say a word. She would not understand. His father cheated on his mother! Knowing Claudia, if he told her the truth, she would find some excuse for him. It was because of Natalie, she would say, when the simple truth was his father betrayed his mother when she needed him most. What kind of roots did their love have? Obviously very shallow ones, ones that should be dug up and thrown away. If his father really loved his mother, he would have stood by her side, not found comfort elsewhere.

How could he enter into a relationship knowing what he knew? He might love Claudia but somewhere along the line, something would happen to them and he would be like his mother. He would shut down and Claudia would look elsewhere for what she could not find from her husband. And that would kill him. Noah might have admired his father, but he knew he took after his mother, in all respects, good and bad. But unlike his mother, he would not be able pretend such a betrayal never happened. He did not want to even imagine what he would do if his wife cheated on him.

“Love don’t exist.” Noah ground out the words between his teeth.

“So what you told me was a lie,” Claudia said softly. Noah half-expected her to cry, but she did not. She stood before him, unblinking. “You don’t love me at all.”

“Now whose twisting words?” Noah asked irritably.

“God, I was so stupid,” Claudia whispered. “You know what I thought?” she said, her voice rising in anger.

Noah knew she did not expect or even want to hear an answer, so he stood, silent as a stone, listening as Claudia continued to berate him. “I thought somewhere deep inside you, that boy who beat up Percy Sutton for me was still there. That the boy who always made sure, me, Mary and Natalie got to play stickball with the boys, instead of sitting on the sides with the other girls, was somewhere inside this horrible, cold man. But he ain’t!” She wiped her eyes as the tears started anew.

Noah recoiled visibly at the words. He knew she wanted to hurt him and she did.

“I thought that the boy who worshiped the ground his father walked on finally came home to help his family. But I know now he only came back so he wouldn’t have to feel guilty in case his ma died.” Claudia was sobbing in earnest now.

“And I know you don’t feel anything for me, nothing real, nothing lasting.” Claudia wiped her eyes furiously, as if she was angry at herself for this display of emotion.

“Me, Myra, some saloon girl, what’s the difference?” she continued sadly.

“I ain’t never lied to you, not once,” Noah said angrily. “You knew I ain’t one to make you any promises.” He punched the wall in frustration.

“I know that!” Claudia cried loudly. “I know,” she repeated softly this time, her anger draining away. But Noah’s temper was too hot to fully comprehend that fact.

“You come off like a real suffragette, you know,” Noah told her scathingly. “But when push comes to shove, you are like all the rest.”

“The rest?” Claudia asked, looking bewildered.

“You didn’t have any plans on traveling, you don’t believe in any of Florence Kelley’s ideals. You just wanted to trap me.” Noah grabbed her by the arms and shouted in her face. “You expecting?”

“What?!” Claudia shouted. She broke free of Noah’s hold and struck him. She reached out a hand and slapped him across the face, hard.

“I can’t believe you said that,” Claudia fumed and Noah saw that her whole body was shaking in anger. “I tell you . . ” She started to cry again. “That I - I love you . . ” She stopped speaking once more, her tears falling so hard, she could not continue.

Noah was suddenly enveloped in guilt. “Shorty, I didn’t mean that.” How could he have said that to her? He knew it wasn’t true. He wanted to believe she was like Florence Kelley. All for his own selfish purposes.

“You did!” Claudia sobbed. “That’s what makes it so much worse.” She turned and ran from the room, racing down the back stairs, Noah hot on her heels, shouting at her to wait the whole time.

But Claudia did not even turn around. She ran into the street, blindly. “Whoa there, little lady,” Timothy Flannery said, catching Claudia about the waist. “You best look where you are going.”

Noah reached the street and saw Flannery grab Claudia. “Get your hands off her,” he shouted. He moved quickly to where Flannery stood. He would physically remove his hands if he had to. “Don’t touch her.”

“Slow down, son,” Flannery said calmly. “She was just about to get herself killed, running into the street like that.”

Flannery gave Noah an assessing look and Noah suddenly remembered the state of his clothing. And knowing Flannery, he had already made all kinds of assumption about what he and Claudia had been doing.

But right now he did not care. He just wanted Flannery to get away from Claudia. He gave the older man a hard shove. “You stay away from her,” he warned.

Flannery lifted his hands into the air, in an act of submission. “Didn’t mean any harm.”

Jimmy Hickok ran to join the group. “Claudia,” he called out. “What happened?”

Claudia shook her head, unable to speak. But at the very same moment, Mary ran out of the store. “It’s my fault,” Mary said. “We were quarreling about the wedding.” She looked at Jimmy. “I’m sorry. I’m just a nervous wreck.” She wrapped an arm around Claudia’s waist. And as she led Claudia back to the store, Noah overheard her murmuring an apology.

“Noah?” Jimmy asked questioning, glancing at his deputy’s state of undress.

Noah glanced at Flannery. “Nothing,” he muttered, as he walked away.

“Sheriff,” Flannery interjected smoothly. “I’ve been wanting to meet you.”

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