Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Starting Over, Chapter 25

Chapter 25
Rock Creek, Neb.
“Did my mommy fall down again?”
Lydia and Jimmy jumped apart, both looking down at little Carl a tad guiltily.
“Um, yeah,” Jimmy muttered, clearing his throat.  “She, uh, hit her… uh… mouth on the table over there.”
Carl looked at Jimmy through narrowed eyes, before nodding jerkily in acceptance of the story.  Turning to his mother, his look softened.  “You oughta be more careful, Ma.  Yer gettin’ hurt an awful lot lately.  And Uncle Jimmy won’t always be there ta kiss it all better.”
Lydia blushed a bright red and looked at Jimmy desperately for help.  Catching her unvoiced hint, Jimmy turned the full power of his grin on Carl, and Mary Kate who’d just stepped through the door after him.  Bending down, he grabbed the little boy up in both arms and tossed him into the air, making him squeal.  Catching him deftly in his hands, Jimmy tucked Carl under on arm, on his hip, and reached out to ruffle Mary Kate’s hair.
“Why don’t we head on over to the Marshal’s office,” he suggested with a devilish grin.  “Maybe if we’re not all underfoot, yer Ma will quit hurtin’ herself.”
Carl nodded, satisfied with the proposed solution.  Mary Kate looked up at him with all the wisdom of her nine years and snorted contemptuously.  Jimmy knew he’d have trouble with that one, and soon.  She was too smart for his own good, and full of her Pa’s self-righteous sense that everything was black and white.  There was no doubting she was Kid’s… well… kid.
Jimmy sat on the porch, ostensibly on watch, but really, he was too busy watching the goings on inside the bunkhouse to have noticed if an entire regiment of Union regulars had ridden into the former Express station’s yard.  Lydia bustled around the room, setting out the platters of biscuits and vegetables, the bowl of stew she’d left simmering on the back of the stove when she’d headed off to work that morning.  The children bickered happily as they laid out the plates and utensils.  She just smiled indulgently at them and continued with her labors.
There was something about her that drew him like a moth to a flame.  And he found he no longer wished to escape.  It wasn’t just that she could cook well enough to satisfy even Cody’s appetites.  Or that she tasted like honeyed milk when he kissed her.  It was so much more than that.
For the first time in he couldn’t remember how long he could actually see a future for himself.  And she was everywhere in it.  He could see her rounded with his child, scolding him for teaching the children how to trick shoot when they should be studying their reading and ‘rithmatic.  He could see her sitting next to him on the porch, withered and greyed with age, watching their children chase their grandchildren across the yard.  He could see it all.  And he wanted it with a ferocity he’d never have dared imagine.
Was this love?  He didn’t know.  He hoped so.  He’d ‘fallen in love’ so many times over the years, but it had always been the wrong time, the wrong place, or worse yet, the wrong woman.  But this?  This was so much more than any of those experiences.  And everything about Lydia screamed that she was the right woman, if he just dared to say the words.  Did he have that kind of courage?
Lydia looked over Jimmy’s shoulder at the two sleeping children sprawled out in the bunkhouse.  She jumped when he suddenly reached around and began tickling her ribs.
“Stop that,” she hissed through a smile.  She grabbed his arm and dragged him out the door to sit on the steps of the bunkhouse porch.  Though they ostensibly were still on guard and keeping watch for intruders, they’d concluded a few days ago they didn’t need to worry any longer.  The trial should already be underway.  Either Kid and Lou had made it, or they hadn’t.  An attack here would now be pointless.
Jimmy reached out to pull the luscious woman next to him into his arms.  But she stiffened and pushed him away.
“We can’t keep doing this,” she whispered, looking pointedly behind her.  “Even if Carl doesn’t catch on, you know full well Mary Kate already has.  Just how long do you think she’ll keep her mouth shut?”
“Until I stop bribing her with peppermint sticks or her Ma comes back, whichever comes first,” Jimmy shrugged, startling a burst of laughter out of Lydia.
“You’ve been bribing her?”
“Yep,” he grinned unrepentantly, his teeth flashing white in the gathering dusk.  “And it’s costing me a fortune.  Do you know how much candy that girl can eat?”
Lydia shook her head despairingly at him.  “You’re going to make that girl fat!”
“Not before her Ma gets back,” Jimmy said, grabbing Lydia and pulling her insistently into the circle of his arms.  She was now sitting on the step below him, between his legs, her back leaning against his chest, his arms around her shoulders, his chin resting atop her head as they both stared out at the spectacular prairie sunset.  “’Sides, Lou would understand.  All’s fair in love and war.  Teaspoon taught us all that.  Lou just lived it a little better than the rest of us.”
“Are you saying this is war?” Lydia stiffened in his arms, afraid to ask about the other.  She felt him shake his head no.
“Feels more like love ta me,” he finally said, barely audibly, holding himself in rigid control, afraid she’d run from him and his sudden declaration.  But she didn’t.  Instead, she melted back into his arms, tilting her head up to smile tentatively at him.
“Does it?” she asked softly.
“Sure does,” he murmured, lowering his head toward hers.  “But maybe I’m wrong.  We should test the theory out a bit.”
His warm lips met her soft ones with a renewed intensity that stole their breath away.  His hands came up to cup her cheeks, holding her face still for his explorations.  She sighed in appreciation as his lips left hers to roam happily toward her neck.
After long moments in which neither of them thought about much of anything, Jimmy pulled back to look down into her bright, moss green eyes.  He cleared his throat noisily, suddenly wondering how Kid had ever had the nerve to do this so many times.  He wasn’t sure he was up to doing it even once.  He rubbed his hands against his thighs to dry the nervous sweat that had inexplicably moistened his palms.  How was it he could face down a deadly gunfighter without flinching, but this little woman in front of him had him all in a tizzy over which of two one syllable words she would choose?
“James?” she asked softly.  “What’s wrong?”
“I was just thinkin’…” he started to say, then trailed off, not sure how to phrase things and afraid of saying something wrong and scaring her off.
“Now that can be a dangerous past time,” she smiled.  He mock-glared at her.  She held up a hand in a peace gesture.  “What were you thinking about?”
“Well, the Kid and Lou and the rest should be back within the week,” he started.  She stiffened.  Was he about to tell her he was thinking about leaving?  “And, well, I won’t have a reason ta stick around no more…”
She started to pull away of him in sudden anger, but he grabbed at her shoulders to hold her in place.  “And… well… I was wonderin’ if maybe ya’d like me to anyways?”
She softened.  “What are you saying James?”
“Well, I’m gettin’ sorta tired of all this sneakin’ around,” he said with a half smile.  “I ain’t a kid no more.  I’d like ta be able ta kiss ya… and maybe  more... without worryin’ ‘bout bein’ caught.  I guess… what I’m sayin’ is… will you marry me, Lydia Monroe Cathers?”
She pulled away from him to stand up and begin pacing the ground in front of the bunkhouse porch.  “Well,” she finally said.  “That depends.”
“On what?” he asked, standing up himself and straightening his guns as if prepping for a fight.
“On why you’re asking,” she said.  She stopped pacing and turned to face him square on, her shoulders back and chin up, hands resting easily at her side, as comfortably at ease as the most experienced gunfighter he’d ever faced, but armed with much more deadly ammunition.  “If it’s just to have the right to kiss me… and maybe more….” she said with a teasing light in her eye, “well, there’s plenty of saloon girls for that.  You don’t need me.”
“And if I do need you?” he asked, stepping tentatively closer to her, his hands resting on the butts of his Colts.
“For what?”
“For my peace ofmind?  For my sanity?  For my….” he hestitated a moment before rushing through the last word, “happiness?”
“Well, that’s another matter,” she smiled softly, taking her own steps toward him.  “See, in that case, you’d need me, not just any old warm body in the night.”
He took another step forward, standing now just mere inches away from her.  His body thrumming with the blood rushing from one end to the other at the speed of light as his heart raced faster than Sundancer had ever crossed the prairie.
“I’d want that body next to me in the night even when it is old,” he whispered.
“That’s good,” she said, taking a last step toward him, so that their chests just barely brushed against each other, their lips hovering a hairsbreadth apart.  “Cause it is going to get old.  Just like yours.”
“We’d have to move West,” he said, “or East.  Far away.  Use another name.  That’s the only way they’ll leave me… us …. alone.”
He reached out to wrap his arms around her, pulling her into his embrace.
“Or,” she whispered into the cloth of his shirt, “we could stay here and let your family keep us all safe.”
“Yeah,” he breathed into her hair.  He brushed his lips gently across her forehead.  “They’re good at that.”
Carl jerked awake at the sound of a bird’s raucous cawing outside the bunkhouse window.  He looked wildly around the room.  Mary Kate continued to snooze in the bunk next to him, but his mother, who he really wanted, wasn’t there.  Standing, he walked toward the bunkhouse’s front door, the horse his Pa had carved him clutched tightly in one hand, the other hand rubbing sleepily at his eyes.
He stepped out onto the porch to find Uncle Jimmy, that’s what Mary Kate had said to call the tall gunslinger, kissing his Ma again.  He sighed.
“What’d ya hurt this time, Ma?” he asked tiredly.  He really wished she’d stop needing get well kisses so she could start giving him more.
Uncle Jimmy and his Ma jumped apart, acting almost as if he’d caught them stealing a cookie out of the cookie jar before dinner.  He knew what that looked like ‘cause he did it every time Pa caught him trying to sneak a cookie.  But Pa would just shake his head, take the cookie and split it in half with him.  It was too bad Uncle Jimmy didn’t have any cookies.  Carl wouldn’t mind sharing a cookie with him.  He was fun to play with.
“Um…” Lydia paused, at a loss for words.  She looked at Jimmy helplessly.
Jimmy hunkered down in front of the sleepy boy.  He brushed the hair out of the boy’s face and smiled at him.
“Son, yer Ma didn’t hurt herself.”
“Then why are ya kissin’ her?”  Lydia winced at her son’s growing accent.  His grammar was becoming atrocious.  She’d have to do something about that, and soon.
Jimmy cleared his throat and looked up at Lydia tenderly for a moment, before turning his full concentration on Carl.  “Well, see, we were talkin’ and I had an idea.  Maybe, if I lived with you all the time, and kissed her regular like, you know, before she gets hurt, we could stop her from ever havin’ any accidents.”  Jimmy paused to see how Carl was taking this suggestion.  “What do you think?”
Carl looked at him searchingly for a moment.  “Are ya gonna live with us like my Pa did?”
Jimmy laughed softly beneath his breath and reached out to gather the boy into his arms.  “Not quite.  I’d marry yer Ma and live with ya until the good Lord takes me home.”  He pulled back to look seriously into the boy’s eyes.  “Sorta like yer Ma planned ta do with yer Pa, but better.”
“Does that mean Pa won’t be my Pa no more?” the child asked, concerned.
“Never,” Jimmy shook his head vehemently.  “It would just mean ya’d have two Pa’s, that’s all.”
Carl nodded sagaciously.  “But my first Pa’s dead.  Remember?”
“Oh.  Yeah.”
Carl leaned his head on Jimmy’s shoulder and yawned hugely.
“I think it’s time to get ya back into bed, young man,” Jimmy said softly, standing up still holding the boy.  “There’ll be plenty of time ta talk ‘bout this in the mornin’.”
“Will ya stay?” Carl asked, his eyes closing even as he spoke.  “And scare the scary things away?”
The words warmed Jimmy’s heart in ways he couldn’t explain.  Lydia stepped up next to him and wrapped an arm around his waist as he led the way back into the bunkhouse.
“Always,” he answered, smiling into Lydia’s eyes.  “Always and forever.”  This was what he was meant to do.  He could feel it in his bones.
Fort Kearny, Neb.
Teaspoon tiptoed out of the room, leaving Lou and Kid to celebrate in privacy as he carefully closed the door behind him.
“How’s he doin’?” Emma asked, coming back through the front door of the blacksmith’s shop.
Teaspoon raised his eyes to meet hers, beaming for all he was worth.  Rushing across the room to her side, he grabbed her hands in his and began dancing around the room with her.  “He’s awake!  And he remembers. He’s got all his memories back.  All of ‘em!”
Emma stared at him in disbelief for a moment, before throwing her head back and laughing in abandoned relief and joy, joining wholeheartedly in Teaspoon’s dance of celebration.
The sound of Sam clearing his throat caught their attention and they turned to look in his direction.
“I hate ta interrupt yer celebration,” he said a touch acerbically, “but I got some news for Lou.”
“You ain’t interruptin’ them young’uns,” Teaspoon started to bluster, stepping toward Sam threateningly.
“Ain’t got no choice,” Sam said, shaking his head.  “Judge says she’s got ta come back and finish testifyin’ or he’ll declare a mistrial and Lampton gets off scott free.  She’d kill all of us if we let that happen.”
“Damned straight I would,” Lou spoke up from the doorway of the little bedroom that served as the blacksmith’s living quarters.
Everyone turned at the sound of her voice.  She stood in the doorway, Kid leaning heavily against her shoulder, her arm wrapped around his waist, helping steady him.
“Welcome back, son,” Teaspoon said happily, unable to wipe the joyous grin off his face.
“It’s good ta see ya, Kid,” Sam said.
“How are ya feelin’?” Emma asked in concern.
“Better,” Kid said.  He reached up to ruefully rub the back of his head.  “Still got a headache, but nothin’ like before.  This one feels…. almost good.  Like things are… healin’.”
Emma nodded, satisfied.
“That’s good, son,” Sam said, walking up next to his wife and wrapping an arm around her shoulders, ignoring the glare she tossed his direction.
“What’s this ‘bout Lou needin’ ta testify again?” Kid asked, worry furling his brow.
“Sorry ‘bout that,” Sam said.  “But the judge is insistin’.  She left in the middle of the case when you collapsed.  He wants ta hear the rest of what she has to say.”
“It’s alright, Kid,” Lou said softly, looking up at him.  “Now that I know yer alright, it ain’t no big deal.  Just another day in court.”
Kid looked down at her searchingly for a moment before nodding his acceptance of her decision.  She grinned up at him.  The parts of Lu that she’d preferred over Kid, like his ability to step back and accept her decisions even when he didn’t like them, seemed to still be there.  That was good.
“Ah, we’d better get goin’,” Sam said.  “Judge gave me only 20 minutes ta come get ya and have ya back in court.”
“Comin’,” Lou said, leaning up on tiptoe to press a light kiss to Kid’s lips.  “Don’t go nowhere,” she whispered against them.
“I ain’t goin’ anywhere,” he answered seriously.  Placing one hand on the doorway to brace himself, he reluctantly released his grip around her shoulders and gave her a gentle push toward Sam.
She followed the Marshal toward the door, looking back over her shoulder several times just to assure herself that he was still there and hadn’t changed.
Once she was gone, Kid turned to Teaspoon.  “Help me get back ta court, would ya?” he asked seriously.  “I don’t think I can make it on my own and I wanna be there.  I don’t like the way that lawyer was goin’ after her.”
Teaspoon sobered, remembering, and nodded quickly.
Lou walked into the courtroom next to Sam and nodded at Judge Thayer.  She was ready to go.  There was nothing Lampton’s lawyer could do or say to upset her right now.  She was flying on cloud nine and just wanted to get this over with so she could go back to getting reunited with her husband.
The judge motioned to the witness’ chair and Lou walked forward and settled into it easily.  He then banged his gavel several times, calling for quiet.
“Alright then, let’s get back to work ladies and gentlemen.”  He turned to Lou.  “Mrs. McCloud, I remind you that you are still under oath.  Do you understand what that means?”
Lou nodded at him.  “Yes sir, I do.”
“Alright then.”  He cleared his throat and glared over the tops of his glasses at Lampton and his lawyer.  “Before your young man collapsed that cretin over there was asking some highly irregular questions.  Would you care to take a moment to set all our minds at ease so we can get this trial over with.”
“Certainly, sir,” Lou smiled.  “It’s really quite simple.”  And she launched into her story.
Kid looked around the fort’s grounds as he moved down the boardwalk toward the officers housing where the trial was.  He noticed the frenetic activity and lack of civilians and looked questioningly at Teaspoon.
“What’s goin’ on here, Teaspoon?” he asked, concerned.  “I ain’t heard nothin’ ‘bout no Indian trouble.”
Teaspoon shook his head tiredly.  “Nope.  Indians here ‘bouts have mostly quieted down these last few years.  So much so, the Army’s abandonin’ the fort.  Turnin’ it over to the state.  These are the last of the troops and they’ll be gone by the end of the month.  That’s why Sam’s been out here so long.  He’s not just over-seein’ the trial but also co-ordinatin’ the handoff for the state.”
Kid shook his head in disbelief.  “Things just won’t be the same without this place around.”
“Things never are, son,” Teaspoon sighed, thinking about all the changes he’d seen in his numerous years.  “But one thing ya can always count on, no matter the changes.”
“What’s that?” Kid asked curiously.
“Family, son,” Teaspoon smiled at him.  “Family.”
As Teaspoon and Kid arrived at the officers housing, people were streaming out the door, chatting amiably and smiling broadly.  Several gave Kid odd looks as they passed him by.  He wondered what that was all about, but brushed the thought away as he searched the crowd for Louise.
Suddenly, there she was, standing in the pretty purple dress at the top of the steps laughing at something Sam had just said.  Kid sighed.  Just seeing her made his head feel better.
“Kid!” she called, waving excitedly to him.  Like magic almost, the crowd parted and she tumbled down the steps and into his open arms.  He hugged her tightly to him, enjoying the warmth of having her close, closing his eyes to savor the moment.
“I take it things went alright?”
“Yes,” she smiled.  “Judge Thayer wouldn’t even let Lampton’s lawyer ask me anymore questions.  Just had me tell our story and then sent the case to the jury.  It took them less then five minutes to find Cole Lampton guilty.”
“Good,” Kid smiled down at her.  “As soon as they get the hanging over with, we can head home.  I miss Mary Kate.”
“Me too,” Lou said.  She reached up and cupped his cheek in her hand.  “Let’s go home in the mornin’.  I’ve seen enough hangin’s.  Sam’ll make sure ever’thing goes accordin’ ta plan here.  Let’s just go home.”
“Fine by me,” Kid said, smiling down at her.  “I’m ready ta get back ta my life.”
Supper that night was a joyously raucous affair as everyone spoke at once, asking Kid questions, sharing their own experiences over the last few years to bring him up to date on all he’d missed and just generally celebrating.
But it was obvious to all he was tiring quickly.  Shortly after they’d finished eating, Emma nudged Sam none to gently.  He looked down at her in surprise and she nodded in Kid’s direction, then at Lou.  He followed her gaze and then blushed at the look he saw passing between the two young people. 
Clearing his throat, he stood and pulled Emma up next to him.  “We’ll be goin’, now,” he said.
Emma nodded.  “Yes, we all need to get a good night’s sleep before hitting the trail in the morning.”
Sam looked down at his wife, startled.  “What?”
“I’m going with them, Sam Cain,” she said tightly, a smile covering her steely determination.  “I want to meet Mary Kate and catch up with my boys.  I’ll take Noah and Ike with me.  You can catch up with us when you’re done here.”
“But… but… .I thought this was a family vacation,” Sam sputtered.
“And we’ll be spending it with family,” Emma said firmly.  “And if you’re not there, whose fault is that?  That’s what happens when you keep secrets from your wife!”
Tying the ribbon of her bonnet underneath her chin, she marched straight-backed through the door and into the night air.  “Take your medicine like a big boy, Sam, and maybe I won’t make you sleep on the sofa.”
“Now, Emma,” Sam called after her, racing to catch up.
“Well, they’ve certainly not changed,” Kid marveled.  Teaspoon and Lou laughed with him as they could hear Sam and Emma bickering their way down the boardwalk.
Teaspoon stood and grabbed his hat as well.  “I’ll be headin’ over ta the enlisted men’s quarters,” he said.  “I’ve got an old friend I want ta check in with.  I’ll see you two in the mornin’.”
And just that quickly, Lou and Kid found themselves suddenly alone.  Inexplicably nervous, Lou stood and began to clear the dishes off the small table they’d sat clustered around.
“Um, I’ll wash these,” she said, not quite looking at her husband.
Kid reached out and placed a hand on her arm, gently restraining her.
“Let me help,” he said, taking the plates from her hand and pointing toward the fireplace where a pot of water hung over the flames, bubbling merrily.  They worked side by side in silence, getting cold water to mix with the hot, then scrubbing and drying the dishes until they were stacked neatly in the cupboard.
Kid closed the cupboard door with a slight bang that made Lou jump.  He looked at her oddly, then reached out to drag her into his arms.
“What’s the matter, Lou?” he asked.  “You’ve been actin’ like a long-tailed cat in a room full of rockin’ chairs ever since Teaspoon left.  Afraid I’ll ravish ya?”
She pulled back a bit to look up at her husband. Her eyes narrowed as she searched his face carefeully.
“You ain’t mad?”
“About Mary Kate?”
Suddenly he remembered how he’d reacted the last time he’d remembered himself as Kid.  He shook his head.  “No.  Oh, don’t get me wrong, I was furious when I got Teaspoon’s letter and found out why ya wouldn’t come with me.  But that was ten years ago, Lou.  I’ve had plenty of time ta get over that.”
“I don’t understand.”
Kid pulled her over to the bed and sat down on it, pulling her down between his legs so he could wrap his arms around her and hold her close while talking.
“The war taught me a lot.  And one thing I learned is what ya kept tellin’ me back durin’ the Express.”
“I tol’ ya a lot of things, Kid,” she said in exasperation.
He laughed a bit.  “This was somethin’ ya kept sayin’ over and over.  Ya told me ta be yer man, not yer Pa.  Ya asked me ta respect yer decisions, ta let ya fight beside me instead of constantly tryin’ ta protect ya.  I didn’t understand then.  I loved ya and tried ta do what ya wanted ‘cause I didn’t want ta lose ya, but it was hard.  It certainly didn’t come naturally.  And that’s why ya kept accusin’ me of hoverin’.  I was too afraid of losin’ ya and so I tried ta protect ya from everythin’ and everyone.”
Lou nodded.  She remembered those times well.  She’d wondered at times if they could ever get past that, much as she loved Kid, she needed to be herself, too.
“But since then, I’ve learned a lot.  I’ve learned ya can’t control other people, even if it is for their own good,” he said smiling self-deprecatingly.  “I’ve learned ta respect their decisions and simply be there for them, but to wait to be asked for help.  And I’ve learned I much prefer being in love with my best friend who can act like an equal partner than being responsible for every life decision of another person, constantly worrying I’m making the wrong choice for them as well as myself.”
“That’s a lot of learnin’,” Lou said softly, wonderingly.
“Ten whole years’ worth,” Kid smiled.  “And now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to make up for missed time.”  Leaning down, he began to nibble at her neck.  “Unless ya’ve got somethin’ better in mind.”
She moaned in response, quite willing to follow his lead at the moment.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Nothing Sweet: The Goodbye

Summary:  Saying goodbye to a loved one can make one re-think their priorities. 
Author's Note:  This is the 12th installment of my Sweetwater Romance series, following Nothing Sweet: Kid.  This comes at the end of the Season 3 episode Presence of Mine Enemies.  This installment was not part of the original plan, but one of the shots at the funeral just grabbed my eye and the body language of the three characters just spoke to me.  This is what they said. 

She stood there feeling cold.  It wasn’t necessarily a cold night out.  But right now she was freezing. 
She’d removed her hat out of respect and stood, clutching it tightly to her, trying to hold in the screams and sobs that were banging their fists on the inside of her chest, making every attempt to escape.  She said nothing, afraid that the slightest word would tumble the fragile control she clung to. 
She didn’t know how to do this.  She didn’t want to be here, to say goodbye to her brother.  It wasn’t fair.  Of all of them, why him?  He shouldn’t be dead.  She should be.  But he was the one who’s body lay there, his face covered by the grey blanket Buck was pulling up over it.  She flinched as Buck let the blanket settle into place, for a moment seeing black herself, as if it were her under the blanket.  As it should have been.
Ike.  She missed him so much already.  He was always there to provide a solid shoulder of comfort, to listen when she needed to talk or to simply sit there with her in silence if that’s what she wanted, to ride out at her side to take on the world.  He’d always accepted her as who and what she was, maybe because few had rarely offered him that same acceptance.
She flinched infinitesimally as Buck lowered the torch to the branches and logs they’d helped him pile up under the bier earlier to create the funeral pyre.  As the flames caught and spread, crackling with an unholy joyful chitter, she fought back the tears, swaying in her effort to stay upright. 
Her hands tightened around the brim of the hat she held to her abdomen.  She felt as if it was the only thing holding her together.  That if she let go of it, she’d fly into a thousand pieces here and now. 
She had a sudden, piercing longing to feel his arms around her, holding her tight, helping hold her together.  But he stood several feet away, stiff in his own grief… and anger.  And she didn’t know how to close the gap that was growing steadily wider between them, wider with each moment, each second, each beat of her heart. 
He’d given her an ultimatum and she didn’t know how to answer it.  She couldn’t fathom saying goodbye to him, too.  Not after all they’d been through together.  She just hoped, with that small corner of her soul still able to feel hope, that if they had a tomorrow it would be worth the wait.

He refused to look her direction.  She’d ridden several lengths behind everyone else as they’d made the somber procession to this lonely place out on the prairie.  It had been Ike’s favorite spot in Rock Creek, a rise overlooking the town and surrounding farms.  That’s why Buck had chosen it for his final resting place.
He’d fought every instinct he had not to drop back and ride at her side.  But he’d told her what happened next was up to her, now he needed to let her make her choice.  No matter how hard that might be for him.  Could he say goodbye to what they had, if that was her decision?  He didn’t know.  But the die was cast now.
He hunkered in on himself, clenching his jaw to remain stoic as the body of his brother was slowly eaten up by the flames of his funeral pyre.  He’d never felt more alone.  Cody stood just inches from him on one side, Emily on the other.  But he might as well have been the only person there for all the comfort he took from their presence.  The only one who could offer that comfort stood stiffly several feet away.  He could see the pain vibrating through her body and the need to run to her and wrap his arms around her was almost insurmountable.
He’d set his feet down a path with an end he couldn’t foresee.  For once he’d left the control in someone else’s hands and it scared him to the bone.  Until she made her choice he could only trust in everything they’d been through together and the love they’d shared.
Unnoticed, silent tears began coursing down his cheeks.

He stood watching the flames release his brother’s spirit to walk the starry path to the afterworld.  It was a good funeral.  It had been a good, though unnecessary, death.  Ike had died giving his life for someone he loved.  No man could ask for more from life.
So why did he want to ask so much more?  He wanted back the years with his brother that man’s bullet had stolen from him.  He wanted back the peace of mind Ike had always brought him.  He wanted back the future Ike could’ve had with Emily, the love, the marriage, the children and grandchildren.  He could see that future so clearly in his mind.  But now it was all gone.
Would he see Buck in the afterlife?  He was no longer sure.  His Kiowa side said yes.  Killing Neville had been the right thing to do.  A life for a life.  But Teaspoon seemed to think he’d done something wrong and that concerned him.  He trusted Teaspoon in a way he trusted few white men, few men period.  If Teaspoon thought something was wrong, he needed to at least think about it.
Buck was so lost in his thoughts he didn’t notice the slight mist that began to fall, then turn to a heavier rain that soon soaked through all his clothes.  He wouldn’t have noticed if a full storm had broken out around him, lightning, thunder and all.  If he had, he would have thought it appropriate that even the skies were mourning the passing of such as gentle, loving soul as Ike’s.
He didn’t notice as his family, one by one, gently laid a hand on his shoulder in commiseration, then trudged toward the horses, mounting up and riding off, quickly swallowed by the black of night.  He didn’t notice Teaspoon escorting Emily to the buckboard and driving away.  He didn’t notice anything at all.
Hours later, long after everyone had gone and even the rain had cleared out, he watched, still unseeing, as the first rays of dawn spread over the prairie, casting all in a rosie glow.
“How can it be so pretty?”
He turned, surprised by the sound of another’s voice near his ear.  There he saw Lou, sitting crosslegged on the prairie ground at his side.  Her face ravaged with a grief that seemed to match his own.  He nodded.  The world should be dark and drear, in mourning as they were.
“What are you doin’ here?” he finally asked, his voice rusty from pain and disuse.  He’d said little since Ike’s death.  He didn’t look at her as he waited, almost uncaring, for her response.  But, she sat so close he could feel her shrug.
“Dunno,” she answered.  “Thinkin’, I guess.  Didn’t really wanta go back to the bunkhouse.  Too… cold.”
Unsure if it was her words or her tone, but something about what she’d said bored straight through the brittle shell he’d erected around his heart and struck home.  He turned to look at her.
“Whatta ya mean?”
“Kid,” she answered simply.
“What happened?” he sighed.
“Kid thinks….” she stopped, gulping back a sob.  “He thinks I don’t care, cause I needed some time alone after…. well, after.  Now he’s sayin’ I gotta choose.”
Buck looked at her a long moment.  He thought about that future of Ike’s he’d just watched go up in smoke.  He couldn’t do that again.
“Choose Kid, Lou.  Choose him.  Choose life.  Don’t wait until it’s too late.  Life’s a fragile thing and it can disappear in the blink of an eye.  Don’t waste a minute of it.”
Without another word, he stood and strode to his own horse, leaping agilely into the saddle without ever touching the stirrups and dashing off into the rising sun, arms spread wide and high, his head flung back to face the sky.

It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday, Boyz II Men
How do I say goodbye to what we had?
The good times that made us laugh
Outweigh the bad.

I thought we'd get to see forever
But forever's gone away
It's so hard to say goodbye to yesterday.

I don't know where this road
Is going to lead
All I know is where we've been
And what we've been through.

If we get to see tomorrow
I hope it's worth all the wait
It's so hard to say goodbye to yesterday.

And I'll take with me the memories
To be my sunshine after the rain
It's so hard to say goodbye to yesterday.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Starting Over, Chapter 24

Chapter 24
Sam, who’d been leaning back lackadaisically against the wall, his chair tilted back on its rear legs only, stiffened as the defense attorney began his attack on Lou.  When the man got to the words ‘Louis Mallory’, the U.S. Marshal sat fully upright, pushing his hat back on his head to better scan the room.  Who the hell was that man talking about?  And why wouldn’t Lou have informed him if she’d met someone?
Teaspoon chortled into his hand, before reaching out to clap one paw on Sam’s shoulder.
“Oh, yeah,” he muttered around a smile.  “There’s something I’ve been meanin’ ta tell you.”
Lu struggled not to groan as waves of pain washed over him.  He felt blinded, unable to fully open his eyes even in the dim confines of the parlor/courtroom.  He’d never been so miserable in his life.
He tried to pay attention to what was being said, but mostly just let Lou’s calm voice act like a soothing balm.  That and her touch were the only things that seemed to break through this growing maelstrom of hurt in his head.
He heard his… the other his… name being mentioned and wondered briefly why.  He’d had nothing to do with the case.
Then, he heard Lou calmly declaring he was her husband.  Him, Louis Mallory.  At that the courtroom erupted into scandalized comments and catcalls.  He shrank from the noise even as he tried to lurch to his feet, desperate to reach his wife’s side, to stand with her and protect her.
Lu flinched as the judge began banging his gavel repeatedly against the desk, trying to get the courtroom back under control.
As people quieted down, Lu squinted toward the front of the room, picking out the blurred forms of Louise sitting in the witness chair, the judge leaning toward her, the defense attorney seeming to loom threateningly over her.  He started to push his way through the crowd to her side, trying desperately to listen and understand what he was hearing.
“I’ve known this woman for years now, young man,” Judge Thayer was growling at the attorney.  “And she’s one of the most honorable ladies I’ve ever met.”  He put extra emphasis on the word lady.  “So I’d tread carefully if I were you.  Say the wrong thing and I might just toss you into the cell with your client for contempt.”
“Sir,” the lawyer began in a smoothly controlled voice.  “I’m just trying to determine whether this woman’s word is… reliable.  She says she’s married to this Kid fellow.  But she’s been cavorting around with this Mallory guy.  She’s lied about who she is and what she is so many times in her life I doubt even she knows anymore.  How can we trust a word she says?”
Lu was so intent on reaching the front of courtroom, he didn’t see Lampton’s foot sneak out into the aisle and tripped over it, tumbling forward to land with a jarring thud on the floor, the back of his head bouncing against the polished floorboards twice.
“Lu!”  Louise called frantically, jumping out of her chair and rushing to her husband’s side.
Groaning, Lu tried to pry his eyelids open.  Looking up, he saw familiar and not so familiar faces peering down at him.  Teaspoon.  Sam Cain.  Buck. Teresa.  Louise.  Suddenly, the picture in front of him seemed to bend and flex, like a photo being twisted in someone’s hand.  Then, in snapped into place, sitting straight and proud, everything coming into sharp, detailed focus.  The pain in his head disappeared between one blink and the next, as his mind was suddenly flooded with a lifetime’s worth of memories.  Memories filled with these faces, and others, that meant the world to him.
Lou stared anxiously down into her husband’s face as the muscles in it contorted.  His lips moved slowly.  At first silently.  Then with just a breath of sound.
She leaned forward to try to catch whatever it was he was trying to tell her.  Teaspoon, the judge and the defense attorney moved closer, too, only to back off slightly at her quick glare.
“What is it, Lu?” she murmured, reaching out to run one hand gently across his forehead.  “What are ya tryin’ ta tell us?”
Opening his eyes wide, he looked from her to the others around them, then back to her.
“My name ain’t Lu… Louis.  My name’s Kid.  Kid McCloud,” he finally mustered in a coherent voice.  “And I remember everything.”
Having expended all his remaining energy, he let his head fall back into Louise’s lap and closed his eyes, letting the darkness that had been pressing in on him for hours bring a cool peace as it edged out the world around him.
Lou gasped as she watched Lu’s eyes slide shut, his hand going limp around hers and sliding out of her grasp.  It was too much like other times when she’d lost loved ones.  It felt too much like a death.  Only this was a death she could not accept.
She looked up at Teaspoon, tears streaking her eyes.  She pleaded, “Do something.”
Teaspoon looked around a touch frantically.  “Someone get the doc over here.  Fast!”
Sam looked up at one of his deputies, leaning in over his shoulder to see what was going on.  “Go get Mrs. Cain,” he ordered hoarsely.  “Hurry.”
“Yes, sir,” the young man snapped out, already turning and pushing his way through the crowd toward the door.
“Come on, darlin’,” Teaspoon said gently, leaning down to slide one arm under Lu’s shoulders.  “Let’s get him outta here.”
Sam quickly stepped in to help, Buck at his side.
Lou was pacing back and forth in front of the room the blacksmith had offered them at the back of his shop, wringing her hands in front of her.  She hated this useless feeling.  She’d much rather just go out and shoot her problems out of the way.  But that simply wasn’t an option right now.
“He’ll be alright,” Buck tried to reassure her.  “The Great Creator wouldn’t’ve brought him back to us only to take him away again so soon.”
“Wouldn’t he?” Lou said mournfully, raising her tearstreaked face to meet her friend’s eyes.  “What have I ever done to deserve any special favors from him?”
“You exist,” Buck smiled softly, patting her shoulder.  “That’s all you have to do.”
She hmphed, sounding oddly like a feminine Teaspoon, and resumed her pacing.  Buck watched her go with concern.  Teresa shook her head and walked to his side, placing one hand on his arm.
“Let her go,” she whispered to him.  “There’s nothing you or I can do for her right now.”
“Lulabelle, are you in here?” came a strident call from outside the shop.
Everyone inside turned toward the door to watch a slender red head with slightly frizzy hair pulled back into a tight bun duck through the portal and into the dimly lit room.  She paused a moment to let her eyes adjust to the low lighting and get her bearings.  Slowly she scanned the occupants, scowling slightly as her eyes brushed over her husband’s lean frame.
“I’ve got a few choice words for you, Sam Cain,” she growled in a voice that sent shivers down the spines of all her knew her. None wanted to be in his shoes at the moment and even he seemed to shrink two sizes right in front of them all.  “But first, I’ve got to talk to my girl!”
“Emma!” Lou cried, rushing into her friends opened arms.  Emma sighed and wrapped her arms around the younger woman, holding her tight as she finally let go of all the grief and fear she’d been holding inside and began to sob.  Emma reached up and gently caressed Lou’s head.  “That’s right,” she whispered.  “You just let it all out.  Then we’ll talk everything over and figure things out.”
Teaspoon smiled gratefully at the woman who’d been his right hand and biggest help while running the Express station in Sweetwater.
“It’s good ta see ya, Emma,” he smiled, tipping an imaginary hat her way.
“It’s been a long time, Mr. Spoon,” she answered quietly, leading a still sobbing Lou toward a bench along one wall and urging her down onto it.  “Too long.”
“Apparently,” Teaspoon agreed, glaring at Sam.
Emma cleared her throat as she joined her glare to Teaspoon’s.  “Well,” she finally said.  “We’ll deal with that later.  First, tell me what’s goin’ on.  Why’s my Lulabelle so upset?  Silas,” she paused nodding at the deputy standing just outside the doorway, “wouldn’t tell me anything, except that she was here.”
The large room was quiet, except for the occasional snapping of the wood in the fire, the rustling of the women’s skirts as they shifted positions and whispering between Sam and his deputies as he got regular updates on the trial.
Emma stayed firmly attached to Lou’s side, even when she stood and moved toward the door, leaning on the doorpost to stare out at the now setting sun.  Her tears had dried up an hour ago, but her grief lay heavy on her heart all the same.
The creaking of the door to the blacksmith’s personal quarters swinging open had everyone turning expectantly in that direction, an equal mixture of hope and fear written clearly across all their faces.
“Well?” Lou demanded before anyone else could gather their wits enough to say anything.  “Is he going to be alright?”
The doctor shrugged his shoulders, moving toward his bag sitting on a table cluttered with the tools of the blacksmith’s trade.  “Hard to tell,” he said matter of factly.  “Mebbe so.  Mebbe no.  It’s hard to tell with head wounds.  Could wake up any minute right as rain.  Might be he’ll sleep a day or a week or a month, then be fine.”
“Or?” Buck asked, stepping up behind Lou, putting a calming hand on her shoulder.
The doctor sighed heavily.  “Or he might never wake up at all.”
“What about his memory?” Teaspoon asked.  The doctor only shook his head, indicating his lack of knowledge yet again.
Swinging his coat around his shoulders, he slid his arms into the armholes as he spoke.  “There’s nothing more I can do for him right now.  He reopened a nasty headwound that looks to be a few years old.  I cleaned that up and sewed it shut again.  Keep it clean.  Try to get some food and water down him.  Call me if anything changes.”
Without another word, he walked out of the building, his shoulders slumped in defeat.
“Come on,” Louise whispered, brushing a lock of sandy hair off his forehead.  Absently she noted that he needed a haircut.  He’d never looked good when he let it get too long, unlike some of their brothers.  She reached once again for the spoon sitting in the bowl resting in her other hand.  “You need to eat something, Lu.  You gotta keep yer strength up.”
Carefully, she used the overly large spoon to pour a precious few drops of the warm, nourishing chicken soup between his lips.  Setting the spoon back in the bowl, she reached out and massaged his throat to get him to swallow the salty liquid.  “That’s it,” she whispered.  “Get strong and come back to me.”
A mélange of sights and sounds swirled in front of Kid’s face so fast the colors blurred and trying to track any one image made him dizzy, until he finally gave up.  But he couldn’t seem to close his eyes to block it all out.
“What’s yore name, son?” a doctor with a heavy Alabaman accent asked him.  “Where are you from?”
“Boy’s, I’m here to learn you my bag of tricks,” Teaspoon declared, strutting up and down in front of him.  “And you will learn ‘em good.”
“Take care of my girl, Lu,” Carl gasped weakly.  “Promise me.”
“He’s not responding to any of the stimuli, doctor,” the woman in the white dress said softly.  “I don’t’ know if he’s ever going to wake up.”
“Because where I was brought up,” Lou said, a mischievous grin popping out, “I was taught when a man comes proposin’, it’s supposed to be on bended knee!”
“Louis Mallory, what do you think you’re doin’?” Lydia smiled down at him, holding out one hand in an offer of aide.  “Get up off the ground.  It’s not like we’re in love or anything.”
“Pa, Pa!  Come look!” Carl, Jr, yelled, running from the creek a middling sized fish flapping from one hand.  “I caught a big one.  It’s thiiiiiis big!”
“Here, Kid.”  He turned at his name to see a young girl with long blonde curls walking toward him, a shiny brooch with a large square green stone at its center held out to him.  He lowered the slingshot he held to his side as he waited to see what she wanted.  “Pin this on please?” she asked in a deep southern accent.
“Are you really my Pa?” a teary-eyed Mary Kate asked.
“Well, excuuuuse us,” Noah smiled.
“Didn’t know you was… busy… Kid,” Cody teased.
“Son, you might as well accept that you’re never going to remember who you were.  Get on with your life,” his major said, patting him on the back sympathetically, before walking away.
“Noodlin’s easy as pie, Lu,” Carl said, leaning forward, neck deep in the creek, both hands under waater.  “And when yer done you got a right tasty supper just sittin’ there waitin’ ta be fried up finger lickin’ good.”
“No!” Buck yelled frantically as he swung around to face Kid.  “If the Kiowa see a gang of white men comin’, Ike’s dead.  Do I have your word?”
“And, well,” Lou paused for a long moment, hand held out toward him.  “I ain’t goin’ anywhere.”
“You want to move west?” Lydia asked incredulously.  “Why?”
“Matter of fact, this is somethin’ of a relief,” Teaspoon smiled, looking back and forth between Kid and Lou, who was hugged to his side.  “I always thought there was somethin’ squirrely goin’ on between you two.”
“Bad news,” Teaspoon muttered.
“How can ya tell?” Buck asked curiously.
“Cause good news always comes at a decent hour.”
“This war is goin’ ta force everyone ta take sides,” Jed said, almost desperately, trying to convince Kid.  “You ain’t with me, yer gonna be ridin’ against me.”
Ike looked at him with a tortured face, obviously struggling not to cry as he gestured desperately.  *You can’t interfere.  Trust Buck.  These are his people.  He knows what he’s doing!*
“I been takin’ chances all my life,” Ulysses told the Marshal.  Turning to Kid, he added, “Virginia boy, you wanta chance it with me?”
The slaver stopped him.  “Well, here’s  a whip.  Let’s see that arm of yours.”  Kid looked up to meet the eyes of his brother, Noah, being dragged to the whipping post in chains.
“How am I supposed to raise a baby on my own, Lu?” Lydia practically sobbed, looking down at the precious bundle in her arms.  “I can’t even take care of myself!”  Looking up at Lu, tears in her eyes, she asked the question he had no answer for.  “How could he have done this to me?”
Doritha, her beautiful blonde hair curled into ringlets, her face and clothes dirty, moved toward the outlaw a step at a time, hand outstretched, too far away yet for Kid to do anything.  “That’s all I got left.  Just give it back.”
He was staring down at Noah’s dead body in a wagon.  Jimmy’s voice cut through him like a knife.  “Then I guess it was just an accident that Frank was on the other side of this massacre?”
Jesse, his eyes alight with the fervor of youthful belief in right and wrong, turned toward him in anger.  “Did you ever think that he knew better than you?  That he was right and you shoulda helped him, no matter what?”
Kid looked up through bleary eyes at Jed on a horse, his gun pointed at Kid, a grimace across his face as he shouted.  “I’ll kill ya!  I swear Kid!  Yer my brother…. but I ain’t gonna hang.”
He could feel the rough rasp of the rope as it wrapped itself suffocatingly around his neck.  He looked up to meet the eyes of The Hawk.  “If you’ve got an explanation, now might be a good time.”
Lou looked away, unable to meet his eyes for a moment as she struggled to maintain control.  The ring he’d just tried to give her dug into his palm as he clenched his fist around it in his own struggle.  Looking back up at him, she asked, almost plaintively, “What are we gonna do?”
Hinton looked at him, his black face gleaming with sweat in the hot summer sun.  Kid tried to move, but the chains around his ankles held him in place.  Hinton said in a deadpan voice, “Go to hell.”
The sound of bullets whistled past his ears, the cannons firing in the distance made the earth tremble.  The smell of blood filled his nose, making him want to vomit.  The screams of the wounded hurt his ears.  Lu hunkered down behind a log, peering over its edge, wondering why he’d ever wanted this.  Carl nudged his shoulder.  “You got any shot left, Lu?  I’m out.”
The more he tried to escape, the faster the memories came, piling in, one on top of the other.  One second he was swinging a sledgehammer, breaking rocks in a mine prison, doing hard time.  The next he was staring at Louise in a saloon girl dress, furious that she would bare herself like that to all the men in the town.  Then, he was riding along, being teased by a young, curly haired Indian brave who appeared to be a friend.  There were celebrations and moments of somber reflection, laughter and tears, weddings and funerals, too many funerals.  Jed…… Ike….  Doritha…  Noah..  Carl.  And so many others.  Too many to count.  He tried to escape the pain, but it was all around him.
“I think we should call the doc, Louise,” Teaspoon said, watching as the drawn, worried woman he considered a daughter tried desperately to keep her husband from thrashing his way out of bed and crashing to the floor.  “Somethin’s goin’ on.”
“Why?” she grunted, swerving to avoid being hit in the face by one of Kid’s arms as it swung wide at an imaginary foe.  “You heard him.  Ain’t nothin’ he kin do we ain’t doin’ already.”
Emma gasped as she realized Kid was calming.  “Lulabelle,” she said urgently.  “Keep talkin’.”
“What?” Lou said, swinging her head around to look at the older woman.
“I think he’s calmer when you talk.”
Lou looked down at the man on the bed in front of her.  “Is that it?  Do you like hearin’ my voice?” she asked in wonder.  “Oh, I’ve got so much ta tell ya.  So many things you’ve missed.”
Even as the others watched, he stopped his frantic movements, a wild animal soothed by the calming music of the forest.
The dulcet tones of a single woman began to pierce through the fog of pain that surrounded him.  Suddenly she was everywhere.
“What’s the matter, Kid?”  She stared up into his eyes, her face warped with a grimace of pain and…. fear?.  “Never seen a girl before?”
Staring at him from across the table, she said, “Wait too long and the right time might pass ya by.”
Dressed in a pretty pink frock with white lace, standing on the stairs in Emma’s parlor looking down at them all, his brothers crowded around and behind him.  “She knew all along.”
She was riding at his side, fighting at his back, cheering him on, calling him out.
“Kid, wait up,” she called out from behind him, running to catch up.  “I’m ready to talk.”
Standing at his side in a cemetery, dressed in an elegant brown and white dress that had seen some hard use recently, she sighed.  “He died saving my life.  He died for us.”
Her short hair curled around her face becomingly, a grin of extreme happiness on her lips as she stared up into his eyes, kissing a golden ring.  “With this ring, I do thee wed.”
Lying in a bed, her long hair swirling around her shoulders, exhaustion written in every line, she looked down at the bundle in her arms.  “It’s a girl, Kid.  A beautiful baby girl.”
Together they watched a little girl race across the Express yard, her long brown curls flying out behind her as she laughed.  “She’s so much like you.”
“Don’t leave me, Kid,” she begged, staring up at him as he sat his horse.  “You promised never to ride on without me again.  Please, don’t’ leave me.”
Teaspoon sighed as he ran a hand over his eyes.  It had been one of the longest nights of his life.  He’d been able to do nothing but watch as Lou had fought the battle alone, using every ounce of will in her small frame to keep Kid with them. 
Once they’d realized her voice calmed him, she’d spoken non-stop, for hours.  She’d finally petered out, too hoarse to continue, around dawn.  By then he’d been resting peacefully, breathing deeply and steadily.  She’d fallen asleep, her head resting on Kid’s chest, her hand lying atop his next to her cheek.
Teaspoon suddenly straightened in his seat, pushing his hat back, his eyes alert as they narrowed on Kid’s hand.  Even as he watched, the younger man’s fingers twitched again.  And again.  Then they began to twine around Lou’s, closing tightly until her hand was inextricably trapped in his grasp.
“Lou!” he sputtered out in a quiet shout.  “Lou!  Wake up!”
Kid slowly surfaced to the world.  He sighed with pleasure at the feel of the soft bed beneath him.  He started to move, to stretch the kinks out as he greeted the morning, until his hand encountered the smaller, softer one resting atop it.  Slowly, he wrapped his fingers around and through hers and he smiled, not yet opening his eyes.  It was so pleasant to wake with his wife by his side.
A frown marred his forehead.  Why was Teaspoon in their bedroom?
“Lou!”  The call came again, more urgent than before.
This time, Kid felt Lou’s head shift on his shoulder as she sleepily turned to look in Teaspoon’s direction. 
“What?” he heard her yawn.
“He’s wakin’ up.”
Even as Teaspoon spoke, Kid slowly opened his eyes, almost afraid of the pain that would come with the morning light.  But there was no pain.  Only the pleasant lassitude of someone who’s waking from a good night’s rest.
He ran his eyes across the ceiling then slowly, turning his head, down the wall to the side until he found hers.  Blue eyes met brown, a collision of time, thought and love.  He tried to tell her everything he was feeling in that moment without saying a word because he didn’t have any words to describe it.
She stared back at him for a long moment.  Then her own eyes widened in sudden understanding, and a touch of fear.
“Kid?” she asked tentatively, one hand reaching out to cup his cheek.  “Kid, is that you?”
He nodded, a slow smile forming on his lips.  “It’s me.  All of me.  Somethin’ finally got knocked straight ‘cause it’s all there.  Everythin’.”
She gasped in delight, even as he pulled her across his chest to bury his face in her neck.  Soon, though, his own eager lips found hers in a kiss of celebration.  The couple was so caught up in each other, neither one noticed Teaspoon’s excited whoop of jubilation in the background.

Chapter 25