Debby K's Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman Fan Fiction



Obsessions


by Debby K

Click here to read Chapter 17



Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman
Obsessions
by Debby K

************
Chapter 1
************

Sully sat on the porch swing, rocking Hope back and forth. In the time since his return from Atlanta three weeks earlier, the children had hosted a birthday party for Michaela and him. They had scarcely let their father out of their sight. Hope in particular had demanded his constant attention. Sully did not mind. His spirits had continued to improve daily thanks to the love of his family. Only at night, did the dreams of Andersonville come to him. He kept them to himself, hoping they would fade.

Michaela had returned to working at the hospital but only during morning hours. The rest of the day was reserved for Sully and the children. Her stomach problems had begun to abate, and with the help of Bridget's cooking, Sully had gained back some of the weight he had lost.

Determined to rededicate themselves to their love, Michaela and Sully had begun a new daily activity to which they looked forward. Since their return from Atlanta, each day when Michaela came home from work, they would eat lunch with the twins. Then they would put the children down for naps and retire to their room. There, they would talk about their most profound feelings, or they might speak of nothing in particular. Some days, they would quietly fall asleep with the little ones. Some days, the children wanted to play with them.

But on many afternoons, Michaela and Sully would do far more. Their love making had always been vigorous and pleasurable, but of late, it had taken on an aspect that neither could quite define..... it was.... spiritual. For Sully, being so connected to his wife had become an integral part of his healing . For Michaela, it completed their bond on a level beyond measure or words and an exploration of the depth of their union.

Wondering which kind of afternoon this would be, Sully anticipated the arrival of his wife.

Hope roused him from his reverie by murmuring, "Pa."

He smiled. "I'm right here."

Resting his lips tenderly on his daughter's hair, Sully helped the baby to clap her hands together. Hope giggled and cooed. Her dark hair and blue eyes set the child apart from her blonde haired sisters. She was special. Then again, Sully contemplated, each of the children was special.

He smiled. "How ya doin', Hope?"

"Ood, Papa," the baby attempted enthusiastically.

"Good?" Sully interpreted.

Hope pointed to the small wooden chair he had made years ago when Katie was a toddler.

"Ya wanna sit in the chair by yourself?" he asked.

Hope clapped her hands together.


Sully knelt down and set her on the seat. Hope's smile lit up his soul. He knew she was nearly ready to walk on her own, and he did not want to miss a single second of her milestones. At that moment, Bridget opened the front door. There stood the twins.

The nanny commented, "These two are gettin' under my feet while I'm cookin'. They want t' see their Pa."

Sully clapped his hands, prompting the twins to run to their father. Hope applauded the scene.

"Swing, Papa." Annie pointed.

Sully scooped them up and set them on either side of him on the swing.

Noah tilted his head. "Mama home now?"

"Soon, No-bo," Sully replied as he ruffled the boy's hair.

Annie pointed, "No-bo funny."

At that moment, they heard a horse rapidly approaching the homestead.

Sully glanced over his shoulder to see Michaela on Flash. "There's your Ma."

"Mama!" Annie and Noah proclaimed in unison.

Michaela quickly dismounted and rushed up the stairs to greet her children. Then she raised up to kiss Sully.

She whispered in his ear. "I missed you."

"Missed you, too." He caressed her cheek.

Michaela knelt to embrace the twins. "How were these two?"

Annie answered, "Good as gol'."

"That's gold, Sweetheart," Michaela corrected as she reached to lift Hope from the chair. "How's my baby?"

Hope began to cry.

"What's wrong?" Michaela frowned.

"Don." Hope pointed.

Sully realized. "She wants t' sit in the chair like a big girl."

"Oh, my, I'm very sorry, Miss Sully." Michaela knelt down and returned her to the chair.

Hope clapped her hands. "Ood."

Sully inquired. "Anythin' new in town?"

"Things were quite busy at the hospital." Michaela led him to the swing and sat down. "There was an accident at Cryer's Sawmill. Several men had severe cuts that required suturing. Oh, and Matthew has initiated the process for obtaining my bank charter."

"Wonder what Preston will do when he finds out?" Sully posed the question.

She replied, "Frankly, I don't care. That man is loathsome."

Sully slid his arm around her shoulders. "What about Myra? Have ya talked t' her about workin' at the new bank yet?"

"No," Michaela returned. "I was thinking of inviting Samantha and her to dinner. The children love Samantha, and while they visit, I could ask Myra."

Sully grinned.

She noticed. "Why are you smiling, Mr. Sully?"

"I like seein' that fiery look in your eyes," he answered.

She raised her hand to his neck and kissed him, then uttered provocatively, "I believe you're the only man who appreciates my fire."

He teased, "I better be."

"What about you?" She wondered. "How was your morning?"

He paused and looked down. "Pretty good. Bein' with the children helps."

"Did you have any.... memories today?" She carefully phrased her question.

Sully grasped her meaning. "When I was in the barn doin' chores, it was strange. Somethin' as little as a smell can bring everythin' back in a flash."

She sympathized. "It will get better. I promise."

He linked her fingers in his, then raised them to his lips. "You didn't need t' come home from the hospital so early if you're needed there."

"I'm needed here," she avowed. "You and the children are my priority. When I thought you were dead...."

She could not continue as tears formed in her eyes.

Annie noticed and approached her mother. "Mama cwy?"

Sully lifted the toddler while Michaela quickly wiped the moisture from beneath her eyes.

Michaela assured, "I'm fine, Sweetheart."

Annie leaned over to kiss her cheek, then slid down and returned to playing with her brother and sister.

Michaela composed herself. "I have recurring memories of what happened, as well."

Sully counseled. "We'll make new memories, an' soon enough, the bad ones will fade."

A bitterness welled in Michaela. "I want Preston to pay for what he did to us."

"Hey." Sully peered into her eyes. "It ain't like you t' talk this way."

She lowered her head pensively.

"Michaela." Sully grew concerned. "Did somethin' happen t'day with him?"

"No," she denied.

He vowed, "I'll make sure he can't hurt us again."

She took a deep breath, then confessed, "I wish he would leave town. I can't even stand the sight of him."

Sully reluctantly began to fathom the depth of his wife's feelings. Michaela was not one to hate. She always tried to see the good in folks. However, throughout his ordeal in Atlanta, he had the advantage of knowing that Michaela was alive. She, on the other hand, believed he had been killed, maimed. She had grieved beside his casket.

Sully kissed her temple. "I understand."

She stood up and extended her hand. "Shall we eat lunch?"

************

Jake and Loren sat opposite one another at Grace's Café savoring her meatloaf lunch.

The older man queried, "So when's the new opera house gonna be finished?"

"The final touches are bein' made," Jake informed him. "Haven't ya seen the flyers around town? They even advertise the first play."

"I ain't noticed." Loren sipped some coffee. "What is it?"

He replied, "Camille."

"Camille?" Loren turned up his nose. "Never heard of it. What's it about?"

Jake summarized, "Some woman gets tuberculosis an' dies."

Loren retorted, "Sounds real upliftin'. You think spendin' all this money is worth it? Folks can always go t' Denver t' see plays an' operas."

"It's Dr. Mike's money, $80,000 worth," Jake returned. "An' she thinks it's worth it. Besides, it'll bring business t' town."

Loren related, "Elizabeth left that money t' Dr. Mike, but the way she spends it on charities an' Indians, it won't last much longer."

Preston had overheard from a nearby table and joined them. "You must be speaking about Michaela."

Jake smirked, "Your favorite subject?"

Loren interjected, "Nah, money's his favorite subject."

Preston added, "From your conversation, gentlemen, it sounds like you were discussing both."

Jake clarified, "That's right. WE were discussin' it. Not you."

The banker seemed offended. "I see no reason to exclude me from the topic. Who knows more about money in our fair town than I?"

Loren leaned his elbows on the table. "All right. What d' you think o' the new opera house?"

Preston's eyes lit up. "I think it's splendid. Three stories high, I dare say, it will not be surpassed west of the Mississippi. And think of how it will enhance property values on Tejon Street."

Grace came over and added, "That's where my new café's gonna be."

Jake eyed her. "We want property values t' go up. That won't happen if coloreds own a business there."

Grace lifted his plate and started to walk away with it.

"Hey," Jake protested. "I ain't finished with that."

Grace paused and turned to face him. "Yes, you are."

He asserted, "No, I'm not."

Grace remarked, "Either you're finished with it, or you'll be wearin' it."

Loren burst into laughter. "Hah, she told you."

Jake's cheeks flushed. "Well, I'm the mayor, an' I say ya can't treat customers that way."

She got the last word. "When this colored folk says you're done, you're done."

************

The children had gone down for their naps quickly. Sully and Michaela lay side by side facing each other on their bed. Tenderly, they caressed each other, followed by loving kisses.

"Michaela," he spoke low. "I been thinkin'."

"About what?" She kissed him again.

Pausing to relish her attention, he became lost in her eyes and maneuvered closer. Sliding his arm beneath her, he playfully rolled her atop him.

She repeated with a giggle, "What were you thinking?"

He gazed into her eyes, "I been thinkin' I like us spendin' this time just t' ourselves each day."

She smiled and toyed with the hair on his chest. "Do you think Bridget suspects that we don't always nap each afternoon while the children sleep, Mr. Sully?"

He retorted, "We got five kids. I figure she suspects how that happened."

She reminisced, "I remember when I used to feel somewhat wicked for doing this during the day."

"I recall you lookin' for me at the Livery one afternoon for just this purpose," he teased.

"What an afternoon that might have been, had Matthew not interrupted us," she sighed.

"Serves me right for not lockin' both doors downstairs." He ran his finger along her inviting lips.

Michaela mused, "That was when I had discovered that a wifely duty was a misnomer."

Sully cupped his hand to her neck. "Any regrets?"

"Regrets about us?" Her eyes widened.

He amended, "Any regrets about your wifely duty?"

"Only momentary." She raised an eyebrow.

Sully was surprised. "When have you regretted us makin' love?"

She rejoined, "I believe it was somewhere around the ninth or tenth hour of labor with each of your children."

"Oh," he chuckled. "But ya got even. Let's see, with Katie, ya pulled my cheeks. With Josef, it was my ears. With the twins.... What was it with the twins?"

She recalled, "It was your hair."

He gestured toward the crown of his head, "I got a bald spot from them."

"Well, my pain was momentary," she remarked. "And the rewards lasting."

Sully cast a smoldering look into her eyes. "When's the last time I told ya I love ya?"

She paused to calculate. "I believe it was yesterday at about this time."

He teased, "You think it's too soon t' say it again?"

"Not in the least," she replied. "I never tire of hearing it."

He placed his hand on her neck. "I love ya, Michaela."

"I love you, Sully," she returned.

They commenced a leisurely kiss.

Then Sully gently guided Michaela back against the pillows to recite:

"O happy hours when I may once more encircle within these arms
The dearest object of my love,
When I shall again feel the pressure of that 'aching head'
Which will delight to recline upon my bosom,
When I may again press to my heart which palpitates
With the purest affection that loved one
Who has so long shared its undivided devotion."

Michaela ran her fingers through his hair. "Was that Browning?"

"Which one?" he invited.

"Elizabeth?" she guessed.

"Nope." He grinned.

"Robert?" She assumed.

"Nope." He was pleased.

She tapped his side playfully. "Sully, who was it?"

"Alexander Hamilton Rice," he answered.

"The Governor of Massachusetts?" She was surprised.

"See?" He raised an eyebrow. "You don't know everythin' about your home state."

She caressed the line of his jaw. "I've learned many things from you, Mr. Sully."

"Yea?" He smirked. "Like what?"

She kissed his chest. "This."

She kissed his chin. "And this."

She kissed the sides of his lips. "Oh, and this."

"Mmm." He appreciated her tender ministrations. "You're a good student."

Suddenly, she touched a particularly sensitive spot. "And I certainly mustn't forget this."

Sully gulped. "You're jumpin' t' the head o' the class now."

Michaela stifled a laugh.

Sully toyed with the ribbon on her camisole, then pulled down the material to fondle her. Michaela's skin became taut. His lips tempted her further.

Gently clasping the sides of his head she guided him to even more gratifying areas on her skin. Then Sully peered intently into her eyes.

Michaela gave a subtle nod of her head. His tantalizing touches reached the opening in her cotton drawers. He separated the material, prompting her skin to flush.

"Sully...." Her voice was urgent.

When he lifted up to hover over her, she slid her arms around his waist and ushered him ever closer. Their contact was electrifying. They paused to absorb every nuance of the other's movements. With heighten senses, they rhythmically pressed their bodies together. Tensing, relaxing, entering, holding. Pulses sped at a dizzying rate.

Sully closed his eyes, anticipating the zenith of their union. Michaela felt a heat building within her. Each movement of her husband fueled the flame even hotter. No longer in control of where their bodies were guiding them, they tried to muffle their moans.

Then it came. They trembled in a blinding crescendo of pleasure. Never had they felt more alive or in love. Their interconnection melded their hearts and souls.

When they finally began to calm, warm kisses and caresses followed. Enfolding her in his arms, Sully kissed Michaela's temple.

He whispered, "You feel like I do?"

She felt his heartbeat. "I dare say, I do."

"I sure am glad." He began to drift off to sleep.

Michaela stroked his protective arm as it lay across her. Each day began with a belief that their love could not be any better. Each day ended with the realization that it was. He completed her. And she silently vowed that nothing or no one would ever separate them again.

************
Chapter 2
************

Myra unlocked the bank and routinely went to her position at the teller window. She preferred this hour of the workday. Preston would not arrive for another hour, and she could read The Gazette in peace.

Then she heard the door open.

Surprised to have a first customer at this hour, she looked up. "Dr. Mike! It's good t' see ya." Then she glanced toward Preston's empty desk. "He ain't here yet."

Michaela acknowledged, "I know. I want to speak with you alone before he arrives."

Myra's eyes widened, "Ya do?"

"Yes." Michaela nodded. "I came to invite you and Samantha to dinner tonight."

She was pleased. "Oh, that would be grand. We'd love t' come. But.... oh, no, I forgot we told Horace we'd have supper with him t'night."

"He's welcome to join us," Michaela added.

"Then, I'll just tell him we're all dinin' at Dr. Mike's t'night." She smiled. "Thanks."

"Good. See you at 6:00 then." Michaela exited the bank and spotted the sheriff across the street in front of his office. "Good morning, Hank."

"Mornin', Michaela." He noticed where she had been. "You change your mind about Preston?"

"Pardon me?" She was uncertain.

He gestured. "You're leavin' the bank. I thought maybe you ain't mad at him anymore."

Michaela frowned. "I have no use for Preston A. Lodge III."

Hank was surprised. "I ain't never heard you talk that way about someone."

"Need I remind you that this someone nearly got my husband killed?" she remarked tersely.

He folded his arms. "Unfortunately, we was never able t' prove that."

She sternly pointed her finger at him. "I'm not done trying."

Hank looked at her intently. "Michaela, there's somethin' you oughta know. You remember back in 1871 when that politician Ezra Leonard came t' town talkin' about statehood?"

"Of course, I remember," she returned. "His son was kidnapped by Noah McBride."

"Right," Hank tilted his hat back. "You know a bunch of us went lookin' for the boy, Sully an' Preston included."

"What does that have to do with anything?" She was puzzled.

Hank went on. "I'm guessin' that Sully never told ya about the punches he landed on Preston for goadin' him."

"Matthew told me about it," she recalled.

Hank informed her. "One thing ya gotta learn. When someone like Preston sees somethin' he wants, he don't care if it belongs t' someone else. He figures a way t' get it. He calculates your weak spot, then moves in for the kill. He wanted Sully t' hit him, an' Sully did. He prob'ly thought it would make you see Sully different. Just be careful."

"What makes you say that?" she asked.

He nodded toward the bank. "He's a snake. Don't play his game."

She denied, "I'm certainly not playing a game."

He warned, "Don't underestimate him, Michaela."

She looked at him with resolve. "And don't underestimate me."

As Michaela pivoted to leave, Dorothy caught sight of her from the Mercantile porch.

Waving, the redhead crossed the street to her, "Michaela!"

"Good morning, Dorothy." She smiled.

"Do ya have time for a cup of coffee at Grace's?" the friend inquired. "I ain't had time t' talk much with ya since you an' Sully got home from Atlanta."

Michaela nodded. "I'd love a cup of coffee."

They strolled toward the tables at the Café.

Grace approached and gestured, "Sit here, ladies. It's closer t' the stove."

After greeting their friend, Michaela and Dorothy settled at their table and sipped the hot brew.

"So," Dorothy probed. "How's Sully doin'?"

"I believe he's making progress," she noted.

Dorothy smiled. "You sound like a doctor."

"I am a doctor." Michaela mused.

"You're a wife, too," she encouraged. "How's your husband doin'?"

Michaela marveled at how Dorothy could come to the point. "Well...."

Dorothy noted the blush in her cheeks. "I take it things are gettin' back t' normal."

Michaela kept her voice low. "Better than normal."

The friend leaned closer. "That's what's causin' the gleam in your eye?"

Michaela nodded. "It's been.... we've been...."

"Like newlyweds?" Dorothy completed her sentence.

Again, Michaela nodded as her cheeks reddened further.

Dorothy observed, "No need t' feel embarrassed, Michaela. You're rediscoverin' what ya mean t' each other."

Michaela revealed, "It's more than that, Dorothy. I'm not even certain that I can put it into words...."

The redhead reasoned, "I think it's the fact that ya can't have more children. Some women find that liberatin'."

"Liberating?" Michaela was puzzled.

"Uh-huh." Dorothy patted her hand. "There's no holdin' back anymore."

Michaela pondered, "I've never.... held back with Sully."

She added, "Maybe ya don't think ya have, but.... well, a woman's body changes. You're the doctor. Ya oughta know that."

Michaela sighed. "There are some things my medical books don't mention."

"Well, enjoy what you an' Sully got," Dorothy advised.

************

Sully stacked the wood he had chopped so that he could have easy access to bringing it into the house. Wiping his brow, he looked toward the house and saw two little heads above the window sill watching his every move.

He grinned and waved, then returned the ax to the barn and headed for the homestead. When he entered the house, the twins rushed to him. Lifting them, he kissed each cheek.

Annie returned the kiss, but Noah reached up toward the beams in the ceiling. Sully boosted him a bit higher to touch one. The little boy giggled with glee.

Bridget wiped her hands on her apron and approached him. "I reckon you an' Dr. Mike will be.... nappin' this afternoon."

Sully felt his cheeks warm. "Uh, prob'ly."

She grinned. "Well, I was thinkin' of goin' int' town. Would that be okay?"

"Sure," Sully said. "You don't have t' ask permission, Bridget."

She raised an eyebrow. "I just wanted t' be sure ya didn't need me t' watch the wee ones."

"You go ahead," he suggested. "Michaela will be home soon. I can handle the kids."

"If ya want, I can fetch Katie an' Josef from school before I come home," she added.

"That would be real good," he replied. "Thanks."

She removed her apron and began to put on her coat.

Sully set down the twins in order to help her. "Somethin' special goin' on in town?"

Bridget commented, "Dr. Mike said we're havin' guests for dinner, so I got some shoppin' t' do. An' Loren asked me t' lunch. Then he wanted t' take me over t' the Garden o' the Gods."

Sully grinned. "You goin' courtin'?"

Her cheeks flushed. "I've known the man for three years. If he was gonna ask me t' marry him, he'd have done it by now."

"It took me that long t' tell Dr. Mike I loved her." Sully confessed. "Bridget, do ya love him?"

She paused to consider her feelings. "I love him.... like a good friend. At my age, there's no romance."

He placed his hand on her shoulder. "One thing I learned is if ya love someone, ya gotta tell 'em. Don't waste one second of your life regrettin' things that could've been."

She confided, "Sully, I know my place, an' I love my life. It's here with you an' Dr. Mike for as long as you'll have me. The leprechauns are growin' fast. You'll not need me soon enough. Then.... well, then I suppose I'll move on, if I'm still alive."

The thought horrified Sully. "Move on? No, Bridget. You're family."

She smiled. "We'll see, Lad. We'll see."

As she opened the door to exit, she saw Michaela coming up the steps.

Michaela observed the nanny. "Hello, Bridget."

She smiled. "Your lunch is on the stove, an' I'm headin' for town t' get some fixin's for dinner. How many will we have?"

Michaela stated, "We'll have five guests."

Sully was amazed. "Five? I thought you were just askin' Myra an' Samantha."

Michaela sighed. "Well, Horace is coming with them. And I invited Colleen and Andrew."

Sully tilted his head. "What about Lewis?"

"He left for San Francisco today," she related. "He's attending a convention there."

Bridget patted her arm. "All right, I'm off."

"Goodbye," Michaela responded.

After greeting her children, Michaela washed her hands and set plates on the table.

Sully put the silverware beside the dishes. "How was your mornin'?"

"Fine," she replied blandly.

Sully placed napkins on the table. "Somethin' happen?"

"No." The brevity of her answer suggested otherwise.

"Hey," Sully drew her into his embrace and caressed her cheek. "What's botherin' ya?"

She explained, "Hank saw me exiting the bank."

Sully anticipated. "And?"

"And.... he wanted to warn me," she confessed.

"Warn ya?" Sully was unsure.

Michaela detailed. "He wanted to warn me that Preston is good at goading, discerning people's weak spots and using them to his advantage."

"We already know that," Sully observed.

She resumed, "He told me to not underestimate him."

Sully was interested. "An' you said?"

"I said to not underestimate me." She stepped back and returned to the kitchen.

Sully watched her. Michaela always busied herself when she was perplexed by a problem. He approached her as she stirred the soup.

He massaged her shoulders, then took the spoon from her. "Let me."

"I'm perfectly capable of stirring it myself." She was short with him.

He countered, "I ain't your enemy, Michaela."

Instantly, she regretted her tone. "I'm sorry, Sully. It's just.... the man infuriates me."

Sully grinned. "Hank or Preston?"

"Preston," she sighed.

Sully lifted her chin. "We gonna let him spoil our afternoon?"

A smile appeared at the corner of her lips. "No. I've done little but think about it since I woke up."

He ran his finger along the line of her jaw. "Me either. So, how 'bout we eat?"

"Children," Michaela beckoned. "Let's wash up for lunch."

************

Alone in their room, Michaela and Sully lay in each other's arms.

He stroked her soft skin. "You're kinda quiet."

"I suppose that's unusual for me," she mused.

Sully tilted her chin up for a kiss. "Tell me what's botherin' ya."

"Who said anything is bothering me?" she hedged.

"Hey." His gaze penetrated to her soul. "It's me."

She took a deep breath. "Sully, do you think I've ever.... held back with you?"

He was unsure of her meaning. "Held back what?"

"My.... enthusiasm?" she replied.

"Enthusiasm for what?" He was still uncertain.

She sighed. "For.... us."

Sully noticed her expression. "You mean makin' love?"

"Yes." She was relieved that he finally understood.

He turned to look at her more fully. "Why would ya ask somethin' like that?"

"I just wondered." She avoided looking at him.

Sully leaned on his elbow and kissed her shoulder. "Michaela, if you ever held back, I surely never knew it. Do you think ya have?"

"No," she quickly assured. "At least.... not that I know of."

He tilted his head. "What's got ya wonderin' about this?"

"I had a conversation with Dorothy," she admitted.

"You talked about it with her?" He sounded upset.

Michaela defended, "There have been times when I've sought Dorothy's advice in such matters. You know that, Sully. Don't you recall when she even included some of it in her book?"

"I remember," he replied. "But we been married nearly 11 years, Michaela. Unless I'm missin' somethin', I think we've been real good t'gether."

She caressed his cheek. "So do I. Very, very good."

He took a deep breath. "Then I'm gonna ask ya somethin'.... an' I want ya t' be honest with me. Don't try t' spare my feelin's."

Her brow wrinkled. "What do you want to ask me?"

He clasped her hand. "When we make love.... you know that I.... well, I'm real satisfied."

She smiled demurely. "Yes, I know."

He eyed her intently. "Well, all these years, I thought you were, too. Are ya?"

"Oh, yes, Sully," she assured.

"Are ya sure?" he earnestly asked. "I mean.... well, there's somethin' that happens deep down, not just emotionally, but physically. You know what I'm talkin' about?"

"Of course, I do." She nodded.

"What's it feel like for you?" He was blunt.

Michaela was at a loss for words. "It.... well, it's.... I get.... I have...."

He had second thoughts. "You don't have t' tell me if it's too embarassin'."

"No, I want to tell you." She composed herself. "I feel as if.... every ounce of energy in my body comes together at once.... then surges through me. My heart speeds up. My breathing becomes faster. Often, the sensations repeat themselves with your.... movements. Afterwards, I feel tremendously relaxed and, most of all, incredibly loved."

Sully tenderly kissed her. "I think ya oughta stop talkin' t' Dorothy about that subject."

The edge of her lips curled in a smile. "So, you believe I'm not holding back?"

"If you're holdin' back, I can't imagine what it would be like if ya let yourself go," he teased.

Michaela admitted. "I suppose I let some of my old insecurities get the better of me."

Sully kissed her, then slowly drew back. "You got nothin' t' feel insecure about. You're beautiful.... desirable.... an' in case your old insecurities were wonderin'.... you have the same effect on me."

"I'm very glad." She smiled.

Sully linked his fingers in hers. "Ya know, over the years, we taught each other what we like. As I told ya yesterday, you're a good student, but you're also a good teacher."

"I've taught you?" She was amazed.

He grinned. "You taught me where t' touch ya an' kiss ya."

Michaela voiced her concern. "Sully, in my experience as a physician, I've learned that couples often.... well.... lose their enthusiasm. Their bodies change, and that aspect of marriage decreases in frequency and intensity."

He chuckled. "You tryin' t' tell me we'll get tired of each other?"

"Well... no, but...." She hesitated. "I guess I wonder if we will."

He assured, "Only thing I can guarantee is that I'll love ya more every day that we're t'gether. How we show that love might change. I reckon as long as we're physically able, we'll keep makin' love. That is.... if ya want to."

"Of course I do," she quickly responded.

He questioned, "I would like t' know one thing."

"What?" She anticipated.

"Why'd ya bring up this topic with Dorothy in the first place?" He waited.

************
Chapter 3
************

Michaela detailed to her husband, "Well.... Dorothy believes that since I can't conceive another child, it's liberating for me."

He chuckled. "Liberatin'?"

"Yes." She attempted to gauge his reaction.

Sully lovingly stroked her arm. "How 'bout we keep this subject just t' ourselves? Let Dorothy think what she wants. We know how we feel an' what we got."

"As long as you know how happy you make me," she added.

He grinned. "I might need a reminder after all this talkin'."

Michaela clasped the sides of his face, caressing his skin with her thumbs. Then she sensuously kissed him.

Drawing back, she uttered, "Does this remind you?"

He slipped the strap of her camisole from her shoulder and kissed her milky flesh. "Does this make ya feel more liberated?"

She tingled and felt herself begin to melt. "I.... I think so."

Sully used the tips of his fingers to fuel his wife's longing. Michaela became more aware of the sensations that she had described to him a moment earlier. Her pulse raced as he continued his provocative motions.

Sully's lips followed his fingertips. Every pore of Michaela's body came alive. Each touch generated new desires.

She kissed his chest and gazed upward into his eyes. "I believe you're right, Mr. Sully."

He was having a difficult time controlling his yearnings. "Right about what?"

"There are some topics on which I should not consult Dorothy," she replied.

Michaela discerned the familiar look in her husband's eye. She smiled alluringly. Her subtle gesture magnified the ardor burning within Sully. He situated himself to convey the full measure of his devotion. Exhilarated from his actions, Michaela enthusiastically encouraged more. Their moist bodies clung to each other in an effort to prolong their union. Repeated surges of pleasure engulfed them. Finally, spent from their movements, their racing hearts began to calm and relish the sensations.

Enfolded in Sully's arms, Michaela kissed his chest.

He lifted her chin for a tender kiss, then uttered:

"The hours I spend with you
I look upon as sort of a perfumed garden,
A dim twilight, and a fountain singing to it.
You and you alone make me feel that I am alive.
Other men it is said have seen angels,
But I have seen thee and thou art enough."

"Was that Lord Byron?" she speculated.

"George Moore," he identified.

She tingled at the way he said the poet's name. "Sully...."

"Umm?" He was feeling somewhat drowsy.

"If I ask you something, promise you'll think about it?" She said.

"I promise," he pledged. "What did ya wanna ask?"

"I was thinking that perhaps it might be good for all of us to get away this summer," she presented.

Sully posed the question, "What for?"

"After all that we've been through, I believe a change of scenery would do us good," she explained.

He wondered, "Where'd ya have in mind? Boston?"

"Well," she paused. "My sisters haven't see Hope yet. Perhaps we could go there, then down to Washington to visit Brian."

He studied her expression. "You really wanna go?"

"Yes, I do." She nodded. "I believe it would be valuable to the children, as well."

He kissed her sweetly. "Then we'll go."

She embraced him more fully. "It will be a grand adventure."

"Now I got somethin' t' ask you." He smiled.

"What?" She anticipated.

Sully cleared his throat, then spoke. "Would you do me the honor of goin' t' the openin' of the opera house with me?"

She mentioned, "Do you know what play is being performed?"

"Uh-huh," he replied.

Her eyes saddened. "I had hoped for our La Traviata."

Sully teased, "I reckon we got the same story but without the music."

"Yes," she agreed. "Camille."

He joked, "Maybe we could hum the songs."

"Sully." She tapped his side.

At that moment, a little voice interrupted their conversation. "Mama. Papa."

Sully lifted up and glanced toward Hope. "I'll get her."

He pulled on his cotton drawers and went to the crib. Then he lifted the baby and brought her to the bed. Michaela kissed the little girl before rising and beginning to dress.

Sully looked up from the baby to question Michaela, "Well? You never answered."

She eyed him charmingly. "The honor would be mine. I'd love to accompany you to the play, Mr. Sully."

He lifted his daughter toward the ceiling, prompting giggles from the child. "Ya hear that, Hope? The second most beautiful woman in the world is goin' t' the play with me."

Michaela tilted her head. "Second most beautiful?"

He settled his daughter on his lap, then covered the baby's ears for a moment. "Well, when I'm with Hope, I gotta let her think she's the most beautiful."

Michaela came to his side and sat on the edge of the bed. "So you merely flatter whatever woman you're with?"

Sully sighed. "Ya caught me."

She reached over to caress the baby's dark hair. "She is beautiful. And since she's my daughter, I shant be jealous."

Hope began to point at objects in the room. Each time she babbled a word, Michaela or Sully identified the correct pronunciation.

Sully observed, "I think she's just pretendin' she don't know what words t' use."

Michaela smiled. "If you two will excuse me, there is much to be done before our guests arrive."

He offered, "You need any help?"

"No, thank you." She quickly braided her auburn tresses. "I'll leave you and the most beautiful woman in the world to enjoy the afternoon."

When she started for the door, Annie and Noah appeared hand in hand.

Michaela was surprised. "How long have you two been awake?"

Annie shrugged, but Noah answered, "All day."

Michaela put her hands on her hips. "You mean you didn't take a nap?"

Annie shook her head. "Nope."

Michaela probed further, "Why not?"

Noah giggled. "We hear Mama an' Papa."

Michaela's eyes widened. "Uh.... you heard us talking?"

The little boy replied, "Nope."

As her cheeks flushed, Michaela turned to her husband. "Sully.... what do you think they heard?"

He patted the edge of the bed. "Come on up here, kids."

Michaela lifted them up, and they soon positioned themselves beside their father. She paused to listen to their conversation.

Sully helped Hope to stand and bounce up and down. Annie and Noah applauded enthusiastically.

Michaela was still curious. "Sully?"

He glanced at his wife. "Can't ya see I'm gettin' them off the subject?"

She folded her arms impatiently. "Aren't you curious about what they heard?"

"Nope," he replied.

Michaela sat beside them. Annie and Noah quickly scooted closer to their mother.

As Michaela straightened the children's hair, she gently probed. "When you said Papa and I woke you up.... what did you hear?"

Annie paused to consider. "I hear the bed."

"Me, too," Noah added. He began to jump up and down. "Like this."

Michaela guided her son to sit down, then turned to her husband. "Sully, they heard us.... you know...."

"So?" He kissed the top of Hope's hair.

Her cheeks reddened further. "Doesn't that upset you?"

He placed his hand atop hers. "We left the door open 'cause Bridget ain't here. It's nothin' t' be upset or embarrassed about. They don't know what we were doin'."

"But.... if they heard us.... perhaps when Bridget's here, she does, as well," Michaela reasoned.

He repeated, "So?"

She took a deep breath and sighed. "What she must think."

Sully pointed out, "Yesterday ya wondered if she really thought we were nappin'. Michaela, it's our home, an' she's been with us for three years. 'Course, she knows what we do. But she don't tell anyone. An' she don't say anythin' t' us about it. It's kinda like that doctor-patient confidentiality thing you got."

She fell silent.

Sully clasped her hand. "Hey.... if you'd rather we didn't have our afternoons anymore...."

"No," she quickly interrupted. "I love our afternoons."

He teased. "So this ain't gonna make ya hold back?"

She could not help but smile. "I suppose not."

Sully leaned closer to kiss her. As he did, Noah and Annie embraced their parents, wishing for a kiss of their own. Michaela and Sully lovingly obliged them.

************

Horace's eyes widened. "Dr. Mike asked us t' dinner?"

"Uh-huh," Myra acknowledged.

His brow creased. "Ya s'pose we should dress up?"

"Dress up?" She frowned. "Horace, we're goin' for supper, not a cotillion."

He pondered, "Wonder what she wants."

"I told ya," she sighed. "She wants us t' come t' dinner."

Horace explained, "No, I mean I wonder why she's askin' us."

She hedged, then mentioned, "She invited Samantha an' me, an' I told her we were eatin' with you, so she told me t' ask you, too."

"So, she don't really want me," he assumed.

Myra looked at him curiously, "Ain't you been listenin' t' me? She said you could come, too. That means she wants ya."

His shoulders slumped. "Not like she wants you."

She tried another tactic. "All right, then, don't come."

He frowned, "Don't you want me t' come neither?"

Myra tried to keep from raising her voice. "Look, Horace. We'd like for ya t' come. Dr. Mike wants ya t' come. So.... please come t' dinner with us."

He smiled, then suddenly thought, "Wonder if Sully minds me comin'."

************

Bridget leaned back in the padded seat of Loren's carriage to enjoy the view of the Garden of the Gods.

"Sure, 'tis a grand sight, Loren," she observed. "It almost looks like those rocks are sproutin' up from the earth."

"I know." He nodded in agreement. "I used t' bring Abigail here when she was a little girl. She had all sorts o' questions about how they got that way."

Bridget grinned, "An' what blarney did ya tell her?"

He chuckled. "I told her they was real thin castles."

"An' she believed ya?" Bridget doubted.

"Until she was around 8 or 9 years old," he fondly remembered.

Bridget pointed. "That house over there does look like a castle."

Loren identified, "That there's General Palmer's house."

"I've heard his name before," she thought back. "Didn't he found Colorado Springs?"

"Yea, an' the Denver an' Rio Grade Railroad," Loren acknowledged. "His wife, Queen, gave our first concert, too, back in '72. She sang a bunch of Italian arias that no one understood. I guess when ya marry rich, ya can do whatever ya want."

Bridget chuckled. "They must be real proud o' that house o' theirs."

Loren described, "When the General first built the house, it was a wooden frame. Sully helped on it. Palmer's been addin' on t' it this year. It's got more rooms than ya can count an' stone walls, with a tower, too. Folks around here used t' call the place 'Little Garden of the Gods,' but some Scottish landscaper he brought in from Chicago t' spruce up the place called it 'Glen Eyrie' for 'Eagle's Nest.'"

Bridget smiled. "Glen Eyrie. Tis a fine place for a family t' live."

Loren sighed. "Not any more. His wife had a heart attack last year at the age of 31. The Denver doctor told her t' move t' a lower altitude. So, she an' the two daughters went back East. I heard she's expectin' another baby this fall. Queen never spent that much time here anyway."

"The General must miss 'em," she considered.

Loren agreed, "I reckon he does."

Bridget commented, "Wee ones need both their Ma an' their Pa."

He noticed the tears forming in her eyes.

"You thinkin' about when Sully was taken away t' Atlanta?" he assumed.

"Aye." She wiped the moisture on her cheeks.

Loren reached into his pocket for a handkerchief and gave it to her. "Sully ain't like most men."

Bridget was curious. "What do ya mean?"

He reasoned, "Not all Pa's take the kinda time t' be with their kids as he does. Lookin' back, I wish I would've spent more time with Abigail an' less at the store. Much as Dr. Mike exasperates me at times, she made me see the good in Sully after years of hatin' him. Those children they got.... I feel like they're part o' me, too. Ya know.... the grandchildren I might've had."

Bridget remembered hearing of the animosity Loren once held toward Sully. "'Tis good ya made your peace with the lad."

He wiped his nose with his sleeve. "Yea, well we best be gettin' back t' town."

Bridget wondered, "Why'd ya bring me out here, Loren?"

"I figured you could use a little break from watchin' them kids," he replied. "That a good enough reason?"

She smiled. "Aye."

************

Preston tallied the number of guests on the Chateau register.

"Very good." He smiled to the clerk. "A full house."

A voice spoke from behind him. "Mr. Lodge?"

Preston pivoted. "Ah, Penberthy. I've been expecting you. Join me for dinner."

The older gentleman's wild hair and unkempt appearance always unsettled Preston a bit, but Jonas Penberthy was one of Denver's finest attorneys, and Preston trusted his loyalty.

Penberthy followed him into the dining room. Preston poured glasses of wine and ordered their meals.

No longer able to contain his curiosity, the banker commented. "I was quite intrigued by your telegram today. What could possibly be so urgent?"

The lawyer downed the glass of wine. "That's good stuff."

Preston filled his glass anew. "Your wire?"

Penberthy pulled some papers from his carrying case. "Yes, I thought you might be interested in this."

The banker eyed the papers. "What is it?"

"It about an application for a nationally chartered bank," Penberthy informed him.

Preston raised an eyebrow. "Why would I want that? The reserve and capital requirements are so much higher. I prefer my state charter."

He returned. "This inquiry is not for you."

Preston grinned. "Then why are you telling me about it?"

"I have a friend in the Comptroller's Office. He brought it to my attention because the inquiry came from Colorado Springs."

Preston's smile disappeared as he grabbed the papers. "Let me see that. Who requested information about chartering a bank here?"

The attorney pointed to a name in the first paragraph. "Matthew Cooper, the attorney for one Michaela Quinn Sully? I've been waiting and watching for a competitor to challenge you for years, Preston. It appears the time has come. Now, here's what I think we should do to block...."

Preston raised his hand to interrupt. "I don't want to block it. Let her do it."

Penberthy was surprised, "What? But I thought you wanted to maintain strict control of the financial assets of Colorado Springs. A competing bank could weaken your position."

Preston rubbed his hands together. "This is almost too good to be true."

The attorney sighed. "I'm afraid I'm not following your thinking."

"Oh, Penberthy, don't you see?" he paused. "Michaela knows nothing about running a bank. This will be like taking candy from a baby."

"So you're counting on her bank to fail?" he assumed.

"Counting on it?" Preston chuckled. "I guarantee it. And when that happens, she'll look for someone to come in to prevent her bank from closing."

"You?" the lawyer speculated.

"She would never knowingly sell it to me," he knew. "But one of my agents can do my bidding." Preston clapped his hands together, barely controlling his glee. "And once that fortune of hers is gone, she'll soon find that being the wife of a slovenly mountain man is not for her."

Penberthy leaned forward on his elbows. "What d' you have against Mr. Sully?"

Preston eyed him intently. "Since I came to this town, he has gotten in my way. He breaks the law with impunity. He even committed treason, for goodness sake. I have tried for over ten years to get him out of my way, and now.... his own wife is giving me the means."

The attorney rubbed his chin. "I find it hard to believe that she would establish a bank without her or her representative knowing what she is doing."

"Let's have another glass of wine, shall we?" Preston poured. "Let me offer a toast. To the poor creatures of this world who think they know what they're doing."

************
Chapter 4
************

After all of the guests were seated, Sully held Michaela's chair for her to sit, then he took his place at the opposite end of the table. The children were located in the kitchen to eat, so that the adults could converse without interruption as they dined. The Wedgwood China, crystal glasses and new table cloth gave the room a formal appearance.

Myra spoke admiringly, "Everythin' looks real nice, Dr. Mike."

"Thank you," she responded as she set her napkin on her lap.

Bridget made certain that all of the dishes were placed on the table. "Will there be anythin' else, Dr. Mike?"

"No, thank you, Bridget," she glanced up.

"I'll go keep an eye on the leprechauns then," she winked.

Sully watched on as Michaela chatted with their company. He smiled to himself. She was in her element, entertaining guests. He suddenly thought back to his trip to Boston to find her. How awkward he had felt. When she glanced up briefly to look his way, she turned up the corner of her lips. He nodded as if to say, "I love you, too." She raised an eyebrow, then returned to the conversation.

Horace leaned over to Sully. "New dishes?"

"Yep," he replied. "Got 'em for Michaela's birthday."

"Real nice." Horace held up a spoon. "New silverware?"

"No," Sully added. "They belonged t' her Ma."

Colleen cast a glance toward Andrew. "You're not eating very much."

He raised his napkin to his lips. "I'm afraid I'm not very hungry."

Her brow creased. "Is something wrong?"

He did not want to reveal the reason. He felt quite nervous in his ex-wife's presence. "No. I'm just tired."

"I can understand why," she remarked. "You were at the hospital all day."

"Yes, that must be it." He took a sip of water.

Andrew glanced around the room. It seemed rather odd to him. He was sitting beside his former wife. Across from him sat Horace and Myra in the same situation. Was Michaela playing matchmaker? His first inclination was to decline her invitation to dinner, but the opportunity to see Colleen outside of the hospital was too good to pass up. Now that he was with her, he felt anxious.

Sully noticed Andrew's discomfort and leaned closer to whisper. "Say somethin' about her dress."

"Pardon me?" He was uncertain.

Sully clarified. "Colleen's dress."

"Oh, uh.... yes." Andrew toyed uncomfortably with his collar, then turned to Colleen. "That's a beautiful dress."

Her cheeks flushed. "Thanks. Don't you remember where I got it?"

Andrew went blank. Where had she gotten it? Did he buy it for her? What should he say?

Sully interceded, "Colleen, Hope's about ready t' walk. We figure maybe sometime in the next week."

Andrew looked at him in relief.

Colleen's eyes widened. "That's wonderful news, Pa. I'd love to be here to see it."

Without thinking, Andrew chimed in. "Me, too."

Colleen turned to him. "You would?"

As the two of them chatted, Sully turned to Horace so that Michaela could broach the bank topic with Myra.

"So, Horace, how's everythin' at the Depot?"

He sighed, "Busy, busy, busy. They're addin' another train t' Denver."

While Sully distracted Horace, Michaela saw her window of opportunity. "Myra, I've been thinking about something."

"What's that, Dr. Mike?" She tilted her head.

Michaela prefaced, "What would you think about a new bank in Colorado Springs?"

Her eyes widened. "New bank? That would really make Preston mad."

Michaela replied, "What could he do about it?"

"He's stopped other banks in the past," Myra recalled. Then the thought occurred to her. "You know somethin' about a new bank?"

Michaela was direct. "Yes, mine."

"Yours?" She was surprised. "You startin' a bank?"

"I am," Michaela avowed.

Horace overheard. "Ya are?"

Colleen picked up on it. "I think it's a great idea, Ma."

Myra cautioned, "Be careful, Dr. Mike. You know how ruthless Preston is."

Michaela's jaw tensed, "I know better than anyone. Perhaps it's time his monopoly ended."

Andrew counseled. "No offense, Michaela, but what do you know about running a bank?"

"Very little," she confessed. "However, from my dealings with Jedidiah Bancroft, Preston and his father, I can't say that I admire the profession. That's another reason for my starting one. I want people to put their money with someone whom they can trust to be fair and reputable."

Myra shook her head. "Dr. Mike, it's hard enough for someone t' start a bank who does know somethin' about it. But you don't know anythin'."

"I can learn." She paused for effect. "If I have a good teacher."

Myra probed, "Who's gonna teach ya?"

Michaela came to the point. "You."

"Me?" Myra pointed to herself. "I can't teach."

She added, "Then perhaps you might be willing to run the bank."

Myra's jaw dropped. "What?"

Michaela explained, "You certainly know the profession."

Horace interceded, "Just a minute, Dr. Mike. Myra's got enough on her hands just workin' as a teller."

Myra scowled at him. "Don't you think I can do it?"

He countered, "You said yourself it's hard enough t' start a bank even when ya know a lot about it. What if it fails? What happens t' folks' money? Don't ya remember that panic back in '73? Preston had t' close his bank."

Sully entered the conversation, "But he opened again."

Michaela completed his thought, "Thanks to my husband. When Sully found a buyer for his Chateau, it enabled Preston to maintain the bank's solvency and eventually to even regain control of the Chateau."

Andrew noted, "Rather ironic, don't you think? Sully was the one who enabled Preston to stay in business, yet Preston has repeatedly tried to ruin Sully."

Sully observed, "Preston likes people owin' him, not the other way around."

Michaela's tone changed. "Well, it's my intention to see that his intimidation and domination of the lives of innocent people come to an end."

There was stunned silence.

Sully interceded, "Long as Preston has the only bank in town, he'll just keep treatin' folks the same. Sometimes competition is good."

Andrew was doubtful. "I've worked with Preston. He sees competition as a way to crush his opponent."

Colleen questioned, "Don't you think Ma can do this?"

The young man turned it around. "I think the question is, should she do it? I have no doubt that she can."

Michaela stated, "I have stood up for what's right all of my life, Andrew. I'm not going to stop. I have an even greater reason to do it now."

Andrew admired her tenacity. In fact, he wished he had more of it himself. "But you've never gone up against someone like Preston."

Horace observed, "That Denver lawyer of his arrived in town t'day. Wonder who he's goin' after now."

Sully was intrigued by the revelation. "Denver lawyer?"

Horace nodded. "Penberthy's his name. He came with a satchel full o' papers. Every time that man arrives, Preston sends out a dozen telegrams. 'Course, I can't tell ya what they say."

Michaela asserted, "He can bring as many lawyers as he wishes. I won't be deterred. The days of Preston A. Lodge's hurting people are over."

Myra made up her mind. "I'll help ya, Dr. Mike."

Horace was shocked. "Myra!"

Myra admonished. "Hush. It's my decision, not yours."

Suddenly, Michaela felt something at her feet.

A smile crossed her face, "Sully, are all of the children accounted for?"

He was puzzled. "They're in the kitchen with Bridget, 'cept for Hope. She's upstairs in bed. Why?"

Michaela continued to feel something, this time leaning against her leg. She scooted back her chair and reached down, pulling Noah onto her lap.

"Hide seek." The little boy clapped his hands. "Ya find me."

Everyone laughed, and the tension was broken. Sully stood up and rounded the table to lift his son.

"No mad, Papa." The child patted his father's shoulder.

Sully kissed his cheek. "I ain't mad, No-bo, but ya know better than t' play when we're eatin' supper."

Noah shrugged. "I done."

As Sully returned Noah to the kitchen, Michaela shook her head, "I apologize."

Myra chuckled, "No need, Dr. Mike. I remember when Samantha was that age."

Horace recalled, "When Samantha was that age, ya left me."

Myra frowned, "Don't go bringing that up."

Colleen returned to the subject. "Ma, if you need my help with this bank, I'll do whatever I can."

"Thank you, Sweetheart," she answered. "Now, I must ask that what we have discussed remain in strict confidence."

Andrew started to say, "But...."

Colleen quickly turned, "But what?"

He sat back in his chair. "Nothing."

Andrew watched as Michaela, Colleen and Myra discussed the new project. Then he glanced over at Horace. Again, they had something in common. They had both once been married to headstrong women who were bound and determined to do something that was certain disaster.

************

Sully sat by Hope's crib, stroking the baby's back.

Michaela's voice beckoned, "Can you help me with this?"

When he looked up, he saw her back turned to him and knew that she wanted him to help get her out of her dress. He smiled. She had managed to dress herself without his help, but now, alone in their room, she needed assistance getting out of it.

He thought to himself, "Must be an invitation."

Grinning, he approached her. He kissed her shoulder and neck.

She tingled. "The dress?"

"Real pretty." He placed his hands at her waist to turn her around.

She saw the love in his eyes. "Mr. Sully, I need your help unhooking the back."

"How'd ya get in this thing without me helpin'?" He enfolded her in his arms, then kissed her.

Michaela drew back slowly. "Bridget helped me."

"Oh." He released her. "Should I use your bandage scissors?"

"No, thank you." Michaela turned her back to him, and Sully began to work on the hooks.

After each hook, he kissed her shoulders and neck anew. "You were the most beautiful woman at the table t'night."

She mused, "What about Hope?"

He retorted, "She wasn't at the table."

Michaela began to melt at his ministrations. "I want to thank you for what you did at dinner this evening."

"Noah just wanted a little attention," he assumed.

"Not only for taking care of our son." She felt the dress loosen. Pivoting, she specified, "I mean, thank you for supporting me. I saw how Andrew and Horace were."

"How they were?" he asked.

"When Myra wanted to help with the bank, Horace disapproved," Michaela explained. "And Andrew had the same reaction toward Colleen, even though they're no longer married."

Sully grinned. "Maybe that's why they ain't married anymore."

Michaela stepped out of her dress. "So, you merely agree with me to stay married to me?"

He encircled her in his arms. "It does have its advantages."

She rested her hands on his shoulders. "Oh, Sully, I know this isn't going to be easy, but Preston must be stopped."

Sully removed the pins from her hair, prompting her long tresses to cascade down her back. "Nothin' worth doin' comes easy."

"Nothing?" She raised an eyebrow. "What about.... making love?"

"That an invitation?" He grinned.

She lifted up to kiss him. Then she began to unbutton his shirt and vest, pausing to kiss his chest. Sully closed his eyes, delighting in her attentiveness. Soon both had divested themselves of their clothing. Flesh against flesh, they stood by the fireplace enjoying the warmth. Soft strokes. Tender kisses. Welcoming arms.

She tilted her head against his chest, prompting Sully to kiss the top of her head.

He whispered, "Tell me what you're thinkin'."

She took a deep breath relishing the scent of him. "I'm thinking about how fortunate I am."

He ran his palm lightly up and down her back. "That's all?"

She tilted her head back to gaze into his eyes. "Isn't that enough?"

"Sure, it is," he noted. "But I know you. Somethin's been on your mind since dinner."

She confessed, "Sully, if our friends and family don't think starting a bank is a good idea, how will the town react?"

"You know your family will support ya," he assured. "Colleen said she would, an' Matthew's workin' on the bank charter for ya. Brian don't know about it yet, but he'll support ya, too. The town respects ya, Michaela. You earned it."

His words vanquished her self-doubts. "Know what?"

He raised an eyebrow. "What?"

"I love you, Byron Sully," she uttered.

He spoke low in return. "So happens, I love you, too."

Her arms slid around his waist and she pulled him closer. Instantly, Sully's body reacted. Michaela smiled beguilingly. Sully took her hand and led her to the bed. They positioned themselves on it to be face to face. Gentle kisses followed.

Sully caressed her neck below her ear, then kissed her sweetly. Moving back, he spoke from the heart:

"I am tied to very thee,
By every thought I have;
Thy face I only care to see,
Thy heart I only crave."

Running her index finger lightly along his jaw, Michaela guessed, "Was that Swinburne?"

Sully kissed her finger tips. "Charles Sedley."

She sighed, "I never seem to improve with my guesses."

"That's okay," he assured. "You're good at a lot o' other things."

"Such as?" she queried.

He took a deep breath. "Hmmm. Let me count the ways."

"Sully, I'm serious," she requested. "Your opinion means more to me than anyone else's. I value what you say."

"All right." He slid his arm beneath her shoulders. "I'll tell ya what you're good at." After pausing to choose his words carefully, he began. "You're good at inspirin' folks t' do their best. You're good at thinkin' things through 'til ya come up with answers. You're good at rightin' the wrongs ya see. You're real good at healin' the sick an' injured."

She felt tears well in her eyes.

Sully noticed the moisture trickle down her cheek. "Hey. Why ya cryin'?"

She felt a lump in her throat. "I don't know."

Sully gazed at her adoringly. "There's one thing I forgot t' mention."

"Oh?" She was curious.

He drew her hand to his heart. "You're good at.... no, you're best at bein' my wife an' the mother of my children."

"That's my most favorite of all," she expressed. "Now, may I tell you what you're good at?"

He shrugged. "If ya want."

She nodded. "I don't tell you nearly enough, and for that I apologize."

"You got nothin' t' apologize for," he added. "I know how ya feel."

Michaela went on, "No, I need to tell you what you're good at, too."

"All right," he listened.

She commenced, "You're good at taking care and providing for our family. You're good at building things, fashioning them with a perfectionist's eye for detail. You're good at sensing how people are thinking and feeling. You're good at seeing into the heart and soul of a situation, then giving levelheaded advice on how to proceed."

"Maybe I oughta run for president," he joked.

Michaela resumed, "And you're best at being my husband and the father of my children."

He ran his hand enticingly down her side. "There's one more thing I forgot t' mention that you're good at."

She trembled at the sensations he was stirring. "What's that?"

He lowered his voice to a whisper. "You're real good at makin' love."

"I forgot to mention that about you, as well." She toyed with the hair on his chest.

Sully felt his body react to her inviting actions. "We done talkin'?"

She sensed his need and pressed her body against his. "I believe so."

"Good." He could scarcely contain his yearnings.

Michaela discerned the familiar change in her body as it longed to join with him. Sully's heated gaze penetrated to the very core of her. She could feel his muscles tighten as he positioned himself for greater intimacy. She trembled at the prospect of making love with him.

Sully studied every nuance of her body with kisses and caresses. Though he was intimately familiar with her figure, her beauty never failed to rouse his longings. Kissing her neck, he inhaled the scent of her.

Then he paused.

"Sully?" She wondered. "Why are you stopping?"

His brow wrinkled. "I thought I heard somethin'."

She grew impatient. "What?"

"Must be Bridget listenin' at the door," he teased.

"Sully!" She reacted.

He chuckled.

She rose from the bed and reached for her robe.

"Where ya goin'?" he questioned.

She went to the window in silence.

"Michaela." He felt a pang of guilt. "I'm sorry."

She did not reply.

************
Chapter 5
************

Sully stood up and went to his wife. "Hey, you okay?"

Michaela took a deep breath and sighed. "Sully, how could you make light of something like that?"

"I told ya I'm sorry," he defended. "I was only teasin'. I didn't think it would upset ya."

She frowned, "How could you think it wouldn't upset me?"

"Look, why don't we go back t' bed?" he invited. "Ya kinda got me all worked up here."

She glanced down. "Yes, I can see that."

Sully was becoming impatient. "Michaela.... please don't be upset with me."

She turned from him and went to the bed.

He followed, anticipating a return to their amorous mood.

His hopes were quickly dashed when she lifted a pillow and blanket. "I believe the living room fireplace is just as warm as this one. Good night."

With that, she opened the bedroom door and gestured for him to leave.

Sully quickly donned his buckskins and departed in silence. When he reached the top of the steps, he heard his wife close the door behind him. How quickly things could turn, he pondered as he descended the staircase. He fumbled his way in the dark until he spotted the faint few embers in the fireplace.

Still feeling the effects of their prelude to making love, he decided to step outside to cool off. When he crossed the threshold, the chilly air hit him with a sobering jolt. Wolf followed, tail wagging with the anticipation of a nocturnal adventure. Sully descended the front steps and headed for the barn.

************

Michaela returned to the window and moved the curtain back to look outside. She heard the front door open and close. Then she spotted Sully's form walking in the direction of the barn.

She sighed to herself. In the midst of making love, for Sully to have teased her was unconscionable. What on earth could he have been thinking?

Restlessly, Michaela walked to her night stand and lifted The American Journal of Pharmacy she had been meaning to peruse. With only mornings spent at the hospital, she had been falling behind in her reading. Of course, she relished the time spent with her family, but she feared losing her edge when it came to medicine's current practices.

Michaela thought back to what she had once told Sully when a malpractice suit had nearly cost her medical license. "Being a doctor--it isn't just what I do. It's who I am."

With a shiver, Michaela opened the journal. Leaning back against the pillows, she began to read:

"EXTRACTION OF COLCHICIA FROM THE SEED BY LEMUEL I. MORRIS.
"The powdering or grinding of colchicum seed has always been a source
of much labor and annoyance to the pharmacist, and to overcome the
difficulty, the purchasing of seed already ground has often been
resorted to, a practice which does not commend itself to the profession,
for the reasons that the powder is more expensive and can be very
easily adulterated."

************

From the barn, Sully observed that the bedroom light was still on. Michaela must be reading, he thought. His body had calmed, and he was starting to shudder. Moving quickly, he returned to the house and spread out the blanket by the fire. As he sat down on it, Wolf whimpered and came to his side.

Feeling somewhat sorry for himself, Sully spoke to the animal. "At least you don't turn on me, boy."

Wolf looked toward the steps then whimpered again.

"She threw me out, that's what," Sully answered the animal's unspoken question.

Wolf seemed to accept the remark and settled himself beside the hearth. Sully punched the pillow. Then he placed a log atop the embers. Soon the dried wood illuminated the room and cast enough heat to warm him. After striking the pillow again, Sully positioned himself on his side in an attempt to become sleepy.

************

After reading the same paragraph three times, Michaela sighed with the realization that she could not concentrate.

She lowered her head and toyed with her wedding band. "Sully."

Only a few weeks had passed since she had believed him to be dead. She had vowed if she got him back home safely, she would never take one second of their life together for granted. Now, she had relegated him to sleep on the floor downstairs.

She went to Hope's crib to insure that the baby was warm. "Your Papa thinks you're the most beautiful woman in the world, young lady. He adores you, Hope. So do I, my darling."

The sound of her mother's voice prompted the slumbering child to pucker her lips.

"Look at you." Michaela smiled. "If Papa were here...."

She stopped. Sully should be here to see his daughter. She should never have sent him away. He was merely teasing her. She knew that. Why did she become upset with him?

Feeling increasingly remorseful, Michaela headed for the door.

************

As Sully lay back on the hard floor, he listened carefully for any sound, the slightest hint of someone coming. Please, God, let someone come. Anyone except Tague.

Sully held his head. His strength was waning. How much longer could he endure? The meager amounts of food and water he received would soon take a fatal toll.

"Michaela," he uttered. "Don't give up on me. Please don't give up...."

"Sully." Michaela touched his shoulder.

He bolted up suddenly, roused from his nightmare.

He clasped her shoulders. "You're real?"

"Yes," she assured. "Oh, Sully. I came to tell you how very sorry I am for how I behaved. I was being vain and foolish. Please forgive me. I should never have sent you down here."

He tried to acclimate himself to reality. "I was dreamin'. I.... I was in Andersonville, an' Tague was...."

She interjected, "It's my fault that you had this dream. You were making such progress, and now you...."

Sully embraced her. "No.... it ain't your fault. I.... I haven't told ya, but I've the same dream nearly every night. It don't usually wake me up."

Her brow creased. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"I didn't wanna worry ya," he replied.

Michaela clasped the sides of his stubbled face. "As your doctor, I need for you to tell me when these dreams occur." Pausing, she added, "As your wife, I want to comfort you when they do."

At that moment, she noticed the beads of perspiration on his forehead. She withdrew a handkerchief from her pocket and gently dabbed them dry.

Then she stood up, "Come. Let's go to bed."

Silently, Sully lifted his pillow and blanket. Then, linking his fingers in hers, he followed her up the steps.

When they reached their bedroom, Michaela closed the door and embraced him. "Please forgive me, Sully. I told you I would never take one second of our being together for granted.... then, I behaved like an adolescent."

He ran his hands up and down her sides. "Don't be so hard on yourself. I shouldn't have teased ya. We just got done tellin' each other what we're good at, then I went an' spoiled the mood. I owe you the apology."

She cupped her hand to his cheek. "I suppose my sense of humor is somewhat lacking."

He grinned. "I think ya got a good sense o' humor, but.... it ain't funny when someone hurts the other's feelin's. That's what I did."

"Does that mean you forgive me?" She raised an eyebrow.

"'Course, I do." He kissed her sweetly. "An' d' you forgive me?"

"Always." She smiled.

He glanced toward the bed. "I reckon we should get some rest."

"Not quite yet." She touched his arm. "I want you to tell me about your nightmares."

"I'd rather not talk about 'em." He turned away.

"Sully." She approached him again. "You obviously still harbor fears over what happened. Discussing them, bringing them into the open, could help you to allay them."


Sully was terse, "Michaela, I said I don't wanna talk about 'em. What happened in Atlanta is over with, an' I gotta stop thinkin' about it. That's all."

She endeavored to calm him. "I respect your feelings. If you won't talk about it with me, perhaps Cloud Dancing could offer some insight."

Sully was growing impatient. "I don't wanna do that either."

"What are you afraid of?" She was blunt.

He tensed.

She slid her arms around his shoulders. "When I was shot, did you let me go on having nightmares without trying to help?"

"'Course not," he noted.

She challenged, "Then why won't you let me help you?"

Sully warmed at her tender touch and sighed. "I guess I'm stubborn."

"You?" She smiled. "No. You're not stubborn."

He took a deep breath and sighed. "I guess.... I wanna think that everythin's back t' normal when it ain't."

"Some things are back to normal," she counseled. Then she kissed his cheek softly and spoke low, "Some things are better than ever."

He grinned. "I know I gotta concentrate on you an' the kids.... how much ya mean t' me. I don't wanna have these dreams. I tell myself they'll stop."

"Perhaps it is significant that they haven't," she speculated. "Then again, you've only been home for less than a month. The mind is a fragile thing. How it copes with trauma depends on the individual. You've experienced so much, Sully. You must allow yourself.... your mind, to heal."

He drew her hand to his heart. "You said I've experienced so much. I think about my life before I met you. Losin' my Pa, my brother, my Ma, then Abigail an' Hannah. Much as I grieved, it wasn't anythin' compared t' what I felt when I thought I'd never see ya again."

Michaela observed the tears welling in his eyes.

She felt her emotions swell. "I know what you mean."

"You've had your share o' traumas," he reminded.

She wiped the moisture on her cheeks. "I got through them because of your love."

He pondered, "When ya keep things bottled up, I reckon they come back t' haunt ya."

She nodded. "Precisely what I was trying to get you to see."

Sully stood and walked to the fireplace. He knelt down and placed another log on the flames, then went to Hope's crib. He smiled down at the baby. Her curly dark hair gave her an angelic appearance.

Michaela joined him. "What are you thinking about?"

He considered. "Life."

"That's a rather broad topic," she said.

Sully could not resist lifting the baby and holding her close. "Look at this face, Michaela. We got these beautiful kids, each so different, but still part of us. How'd that happen?"

She related, "Well, I can explain the biological aspect of it, but.... when I look at our children, all I can see are miracles."

He lifted the little girl higher in order to kiss her forehead. "I think about how they'll turn out.... all the hopes an' dreams I have for 'em. I wasn't sure I'd ever get t' see 'em grow up."

Michaela stroked his arm, then touched Hope's cheek. "I think I'd like them to grow up to be like their father."

Sully grinned. "I was thinkin' I'd like for 'em t' turn out like you."

She observed, "Let's hope they simply grow up to be happy."

"Good thought," he agreed.

He returned his daughter to the comfort of her crib. Then Sully turned to face Michaela. He placed his hands on her shoulders.

She wondered, "Are you feeling somewhat better?"

"Uh-huh," he acknowledged. "I reckon I've gotta get over this obsession with what happened."

"I'll do whatever I can to help you, Sully," she offered. "And I am resolved to do anything to prevent you from being hurt again."

He noted the change in her tone. "You talkin' about that bank t' compete with Preston?"

She cited, "I'm talking about all of the Preston Lodges, Tate Rankins, Sergeant O'Connors, John Caraways, the Jack Tagues and Julia Halls of this world. I'm tired of our being the victims of their evil schemes and actions."

He caressed her neck. "We can't stop every evil person in the world, Michaela. All we can do is hold on tight t' what we got. That makes it harder for others t' hurt us."

"Then why did you punch Preston?" She posed the question.

He lowered his eyes. "I punched him outa anger. You know as well as me, anger can make folks do things they shouldn't."

She probed, "Are you saying you shouldn't have punched him?"

"I'm sayin' I got five little children who have t' grow up in the shadow of how I act," he informed her. "I don't want them t' use violence when they get angry, but most of all, I don't want them t' have t' defend their Pa t' their friends."

She stood straighter. "You're well worth defending. I see nothing wrong with standing up for what's right. Throughout history, men and women have taken controversial positions because it was the right thing to do. Though it might not have been popular or understood at the time, our society has benefited from such individuals."

"Well, I don't know if punchin' Preston falls int' that category," he retorted. "It felt good at the time, but.... I ain't sure if he was worth bruisin' my knuckles."

"People like Preston must be stopped," she defended. "He's malicious and cruel. He should not have free rein to control our town or our lives."

Sully cautioned, "An' because he's malicious an' cruel, he's dangerous, Michaela. We gotta tread real careful here. We don't think like he does. That's a good thing, but it means he's hard t' figure out."

"Oh, I believe I have him figured out," she stated.

Sully studied her expression. "You're real set on this."

"Indeed I am," she avowed.

"I never saw ya so resolved t' do somethin'," he remarked. "I mean, I've seen ya fiery an' determined plenty o' times, but this is different. Isn't it?"

She reflected on her emotions. "Yes, it's different. A person can turn the other cheek only so many times before she has to take an eye for an eye."

"So you wanna be Preston's judge an' jury?" Sully queried.

Michaela eyed Sully seriously, "I want him to never hurt us or anyone else again. When I thought you were dead, when I considered my future without the love of my life, when I believed our children would never have your love or guidance as they grew up, I didn't know where to turn.... what to do. The pain was immeasurable, indescribable. And why did it happen? Because a pompous, greed-driven banker thinks he can make me love him. Perhaps once he understands that the only thing I feel for him is unadulterated loathing, he will finally leave us alone."

Sully measured the depth of her feelings. "This has changed you, Michaela."

"How could it not change me?" she countered. "I felt as if my heart had been ripped from me. The notion that losing you would make me turn to him, or any other man, is absurd. And when will he stop his machinations? You're still alive. I'm still your wife. What will his next scheme be?"

Sully shook his head. "I don't know if he's worth spendin' so much time an' energy on."

She queried, "After all he's done to you.... to us, don't you think he should be stopped?"

"'Course, I do," he responded. "I just don't know if this is the way t' do it."

"I'm not willing to sit around and wait for him to conspire against you again," Michaela asserted.

Sully smiled slightly. "I guess I never imagined what I was gettin' myself into when I married you."

Her tone softened, "Do you regret it?"

"Nah." He grinned. "I think I'll keep ya."

She smiled. "Good, because you couldn't get rid of me if you tried."

He circled her waist with his arms. "I don't even wanna try."

"I just thought of something, Sully," she paused. "Perhaps you continue to have these nightmares because of Preston."

He was puzzled. "How ya figure that?"

"The dream of Andersonville may be symbolic of something else in your life.... something that continues to be a threat," she explained. "Once Preston has been dealt with, the dream may resolve itself."

He contemplated her notion. "Remember when Brian went through a superstitious time of believin' in witches an' spells?"

"Yes," she recalled. "He had terrible dreams about it."

"Remember he tried even more superstitious things t' make 'em stop?" he added.

"Where is this leading?" she wondered.

"In the end, he had t' vanquish the demons himself," Sully pointed out.

She understood his analogy. "Preston is not imaginary. He's all too real."

"An' I gotta vanquish my own demons if I wanna stop dreamin' about Andersonville," Sully affirmed.

************
Chapter 6
************

Sully descended the steps with a twin in each arm. Katie and Josef were already sitting at the breakfast table.

Bridget looked up from preparing their meal. "Ah, 'tis the rays of sunshine up, at last."

Sully quipped, "You talkin' about the kids or me?"

"Both." She gestured. "Ya slept late, Lad. Dr. Mike was up an' gone early."

"I didn't even hear her," Sully replied as he set the children at the table.

Noah began to reach for a biscuit.

Sully corrected, "Hold on, No-bo. Not so fast."

The little boy proclaimed, "I hungy."

Annie chimed in, "Me, too."

Bridget tied napkins around their necks. "Well, let's make sure the food ends up in your tummies an' not on you."

Noah held out his arms wide. "I got big tummy."

Josef turned to his father. "Did you get up an' come down here last night, Papa? I heard someone."

He hesitated, then responded. "Uh, yea Joe."

The little boy persisted, "Did ya have t' use the pwivy?"

Bridget interceded, "We don't talk about privies at the table. Now, finish up, or it'll get cold."

Sully explained, "I just came down here.... t' check on things, Joe. Nothin' t' worry about."

Katie changed the subject. "I have a spellin' test Monday."

Sully smiled. "I'm sure you'll do real good, Kates."

The little girl noted, "Did you know there's two ways t' spell 'night?'"

Josef asked, "Why?"

Katie explained, "'Cause there's two different meanin's. If ya talk about the time of day when there's no light, it's spelled n*i*g*h*t. If ya mean a soldier that wears armor, it's spelled k*n*i*g*h*t."

Sully's face beamed, "That's real good, honey."

At that moment, they heard Hope's cries from upstairs.

Bridget wiped her hands on her apron, "I'll go get the babe."

Josef returned to the subject. "Why don't ya say kay-night?"

"Because that's not a word," Katie answered. "The 'k' is silent."

Josef scratched his head. "Then why we gotta learn it in the alphabet?"

Katie patiently detailed, "The 'k' isn't always silent, Joey. Like with my name."

The little boy pondered. "How ya know when it's silent?"

The sister informed him, "That's why we learn spellin'. Then we know."

Sully added, "Kates just said another word with a silent 'k.' 'Know.'"

The thought occurred to Josef. "If it's silent, can ya see it in' the spellin' book?"

Katie sighed. "Joey, it's silent, not invisible."

Sully glanced at the clock, "I got some errands t' run, kids. Kates, Joe, get your coats on. Ya promised t' help Miss Grace get her new restaurant ready. I want ya t' be good, an' help her nice. I reckon she'll be nervous."

"Why?" Josef queried.

"'Cause she wants everythin' t' go right on her openin' night," Sully informed his son. "Now, Robert E will bring ya home later."

Katie smiled. "I hope we get to play with Abraham."

Sully started for the door. "I want ya t' do more helpin' than playin'." Annie started to follow her father, but Sully gently stopped her. "You stay here, darlin'."

"Papa." She frowned.

Sully touched her nose. "No poutin'. You're too pretty t' pout."

Annie smiled. "I pwetty?"

Sully winked. "Yep. An' ya got your Ma's eyes, so that makes ya even prettier."

Annie closed her eyes. "I pwetty now?"

Sully bent down to kiss her. "Yep."

Bridget descended the steps carrying Hope. The baby saw her father and became restless, preferring for him to hold her.

Sully extended his hands. "I'll take her for a minute before I go."

Hope instantly settled.

Sully was curious. "Bridget, how was your ride out t' the Garden of the Gods yesterday?"

The nanny's face lit up. "Oh, it was grand. What a view.... an' the stories Loren told...."

"What kinda stories?" Sully was interested.

"One was about how he used t' take Abigail out there when she was a wee lass," Bridget recalled.

Sully thought back. "I remember her tellin' me about it. I wanted us t' go, but she never wanted to after Loren disowned her."

Bridget went on, "Oh, an' we saw that grand house General Palmer owns. It's magnificent."

Sully nodded. "Sure is."

"Loren told me you helped build the original," she spoke admiringly.

"It was good work at the time," Sully remarked. "I liked the General but not the railroad he brought."

Bridget lamented, "'Tis a shame he's got all that money an' that beautiful home, but his wife an' wee ones can't be here t' share it with him on account o' her heart attack."

"It's been years since I saw the General," Sully thought back.

Katie bounded down the steps, "I beat ya, Joey."

Breathlessly, the little boy followed on her heels. "Jus' wait 'til I get big as Papa. Then I win."

Sully kissed Hope's cheek. "All right. Let's get goin'."

************

Matthew stood at the doorway of his mother's office and cleared his throat.

She looked up from her notes. "Matthew! Please come in."

He removed his hat and sat opposite her. "Hey, Ma. Do ya have a few minutes?"

"For you, always." She smiled. Then she noticed the leather satchel under his arm. "Is this about the bank?"

"Uh-huh." He slid a stack of papers from the satchel. Taking a deep breath, he looked at her. "Ma, are you sure you wanna do this?"

Michaela tilted her head. "Of course, I am. Why?"

Matthew answered as he handed her the papers, "This is real complicated. All the things ya gotta fill in an' submit t' the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. Names of your board of directors an' officers, shares that you're issuin', financial statements, bank policies. The list goes on and on."

She affirmed, "I can do that."

He added, "Ya gotta buy U.S. government securities, deposit them with the Comptroller, so ya can get national bank notes in return."

"I can do that, as well," she stated.

He considered her expression. "You sure you know what you're gettin' into?"

The thought occurred to her, "Matthew, if you don't feel qualified to handle this, I'm certain I can...."

He interrupted, "I can handle it, Ma. But.... well, have ya thought this through?"

"What do you mean?" she challenged. "Don't you believe I'm capable?"

"'Course, I do," he defended. "But bein' a banker takes a lot o' time an' effort, as well as money. Do ya wanna spend so much of it on this? It might mean bein' away from Sully an' the kids."

She folded her hands and rested them on the desk. "I am adamant that Preston Lodge be stopped.... by any means at my disposal."

Matthew pointed out, "There's no guaranteein' this will stop him or even slow him. He ain't only a banker, Ma. He's int' all kinds o' things.... railroads, stocks, land. Even if you start a competin' bank, what makes ya think that will make a difference t' him?"

"Pride," she answered simply. "His won't be the only bank in town anymore. I know that will rankle him."

"Ma, Preston's the kinda man, who when he gets rankled, will just become even more ruthless," Matthew noted.

She frowned. "And we should simply accept that? We should passively sit back while he ruins lives? Matthew, how can you forget what he's done to Sully?"

"I ain't forgot," he replied. "But he's powerful. We gotta be careful."

************

Sully stopped the wagon at the entrance to Glen Eyrie to admire the view.


He thought back to the wood and adobe house he had first worked on for Palmer back in 1873. What a year that had been. Sully had relished his freedom again and had labored hard to pay back the debts Michaela and he had incurred. When he hadn't been working for Welland Smith on Park business, he had been doing odd jobs anywhere he could find them. And Palmer had a generous nature where hiring workers was concerned.

Sully scanned the lush landscape. From the rock spires and canyons to the streams and trees, it was an incredible sight. Palmer so loved the valley, that he would not even permit a single tree from it to be cut down or marred. He once had a road built around a tree because it had a bird's nest in it.


A voice from behind interrupted his reverie. "Sully, is that you?"

It was Palmer on horseback. Though a year younger than Sully, the Pennsylvania Quaker had much thinner hair and a mustache.

Sully greeted him. "Hey, General."

Palmer dismounted and extended his hand. "What brings you out here?"

Sully gestured. "Just admirin' your house. Sure has changed a lot."

"With more changes to come." He smiled. "I've got more stone being quarried. I've had good luck with my gardens.... daylilies, pink and white sweet peas, and marvelous roses, but I still haven't been able to grow English ivy. I wish I knew the trick."

"Maybe we don't have the climate for it," Sully suggested.

Palmer queried, "How's your beautiful wife and those children of yours?"

"Real good," Sully informed him. "Katie an' Josef go t' school now. The twins are int' everythin', an' Hope is.... well, she's kinda got me wrapped around her finger."

Palmer smiled broadly. "A baby girl will do that. My little girls will have a new brother or sister come November."


Sully questioned, "That's good news. I had heard Mrs. Palmer had health problems. She must be doin' better if she's expectin' a baby."

His eyes saddened. "Yes, but she can no longer live here to enjoy what I've built." Quickly, he changed the subject. "Why don't you come in and enjoy some tea with me? Do you need work, by chance? I've come up with an idea for some of my fireplace mantels."

"Oh?" Sully anticipated. "What's the idea?"

Palmer raised an eyebrow. "I want to embed them with some of the fish and shell fossils I've found along the creek."

Sully considered, "Sounds real interestin'."

Palmer mounted his horse. "Come on then. Let's talk."

************

When Michaela arrived home for lunch, she was swarmed by the twins. She sat down to devote time to each one as they went on about their morning. They had a penchant for exaggeration, but Michaela enjoyed their tales just the same.

She noticed her husband's absence. "Where's Papa?"

Annie shrugged. "He take Kat an' Joey."

"I know. They're with Miss Grace." Michaela's brow creased as she contemplated that was hours ago. "He should have been home by now."

Noah headed for the door. "I find Papa."

Michaela gently drew her son back. "Hold on, Sweetheart. Perhaps Miss Bridget knows."

The nanny heard her name. "Perhaps I know what?"

Michaela inquired, "Do you know where Sully is?"

"He said he had errands t' run." Bridget informed her.

Michaela's mind raced. Where could Sully be? Ordinarily, she would not be as concerned, but she wondered if Sully's feelings were still hurt by her banishing him from their bedroom last night. No, that couldn't be it. They had talked afterward, and he seemed fine.

Bridget sensed the reason for her angst. "Don't worry, Lass. He was in good spirits."

Michaela smiled at her perceptiveness. "Thank you, Bridget. Perhaps he went to the Indian school to visit with Cloud Dancing."

"Aye." She smiled. "Well, I've got the table set for lunch. Who's hungry?"

"Me!" Annie and Noah spoke in unison as they slid from their mother's lap.

Bridget raised an eyebrow. "Dr. Mike?"

"I'll join you shortly," she spoke absently. "I want to check on Hope first."

The nanny told her, "I put her down for her nap just before ya got home. With any luck, she's sleepin'."

With that, Michaela rose and ascended the steps. She entered the bedroom and approached the baby's crib.

Sure enough, Hope was asleep. For several minutes, Michaela tenderly caressed her dark curls and stroked the baby's back. Then she raised the blanket to insure her warmth.

Michaela whispered, "Sleep, my darling. Mama and Papa love you."

"Sure do," Sully's voice came from behind her.


"Sully!" Michaela was taken by surprise. "Where were you?"

He removed his tomahawk belt and draped it on the bedpost. Then he came up behind her and enfolded her in his arms. "Went out t' The Garden o' the Gods. I ran int' General Palmer. He invited me int' Glen Eyrie. You oughta see the place, Michaela. It makes your Ma's house in Boston look like an Army tent."

She mused, "That grand?"

"It's a regular castle," he stated.

As he described the tour that Palmer had given him, Sully was animated and enthusiastic.

Michaela smiled when he concluded. "It sounds like quite a project."

Sully turned her around to face him. "It's really kinda sad."

"Sad?" She was puzzled.

"He's doin' all that work, but Queen an' their children can't be with him t' share it," Sully said. "She's even expectin' another baby."

"What about her heart condition?" Michaela recalled.

Sully answered, "Her doctors back east say she's doin' okay. She's even sailin' for England."

"England!" Michaela was amazed.

Sully raised her chin for a kiss. "If your health meant ya couldn't live in Colorado with me, there's no way I'd stay here."

Michaela recalled words from the Book of Ruth:

"Wither thou goest, I will go
Wither thou lodgest, I will lodge."

Sully kissed her sweetly. "You turnin' the tables on me with a quote?"

"It's one of my favorite passages in the Bible," she returned. Then she inquired, "What prompted you to go to The Garden of the Gods this morning?"

Sully related, "Just felt like it. Hearin' Bridget talk about goin' out there with Loren reminded me I ain't been there for a while."

She noticed he had closed the door, "Are you hungry, Mr. Sully?"

He grinned, "The General gave me a bite t' eat. You?"

Her cheeks flushed, "First things first. Hope's napping. The twins are otherwise occupied, and I've got you to myself for the moment."

Sully turned his head toward their bed. "You feelin' tired, are ya?"

"I was up rather early." She began to run her fingers through his hair. Kissing him again, she drew back slowly. "You smell good."

"Must be that outdoor scent," he teased.

Their eyes locked, bright with passion and anticipation. They kissed. At first, it was slow and exploring. Their breathing began to speed up. Sully guided her back onto the bed.

He positioned himself beside her, both still fully clothed.

Enfolding her in his arms, he whispered, "I sure am glad I fell in love with you."

Their kissing resumed, this time more urgently.

He pulled back to catch his breath, but she urgently began to unbutton his shirt.

Her kisses across his chest fueled his desire. He reciprocated by undoing the front of her blouse. His adoring hands explored and aroused every part of her.

Michaela reached down to guide him closer. Sully gulped at her boldness. They had reached the point of no return. Soon their clothes lay in a heap on the floor. They rolled on the bed, seeking a comfortable position to consummate their love. Finally, they found it.

Their bodies moved rhythmically in perfect harmony. Michaela clutched his shoulders, locking in their physical connection. The results were exquisite. Spasms of delight began to envelop them as he probed deeper and deeper toward the core of her being. In sweet surrender, they gave their hearts to one another. It was an ever new, yet ever familiar feeling.

With the warmth of their union still fresh, Sully peered into her eyes to recite:

"Primeval my love for the woman I love,
O bride! O wife!
More resistless, more enduring than I can tell,
The thought of you!"

She smiled, "Ah, I recognize one at last."

"You do?" He kissed her shoulder.

"That was Mr. Whitman." She was pleased.

"Good guess," he retorted.

She protested, "It wasn't a guess. I recollect his work."

"If you say so," he conceded.

With smiling eyes, she tenderly touched his cheek. "You make me so happy, Sully. I hardly know how to tell you how much I love you. Mere words seem inadequate."

He grinned. "You can say a lot without even talkin'."

"For example?" She was curious.

"For example...." He paused to give her an ardent kiss.

"Ah." She savored his gesture. "I see what you mean."

He toyed with a strand of her hair, "So, what're you wearnin' t' the opera house openin' t'night?"

"What would you like me to wear?" She turned it around.

An impish grin appeared on his face.

Michaela playfully tapped his side, "I have to wear something, Mr. Sully."

"How 'bout the gown ya wore t' the opera we went to in Boston?" he suggested.

"Will you wear your white tie and tails?" She raised an eyebrow.

"Sure." He replied, knowing he would be highly uncomfortable. "Least I can do when the most beautiful woman in the world will be on my arm."

"You're taking Hope?" Michaela joked.

Sully chuckled. "See? You DO have a sense of humor."

"Well, I shall be with the handsomest man in the world," she contemplated. "And that's no joke."

"Michaela...." Sully paused to gauge her reaction. "Chances are, Preston's gonna be there."

"I would assume so." Her expression was unchanged.

Sully wondered, "You okay with that?"

************
Chapter 7
************

Michaela tensed, "As long as Preston stays away from us. What about you, Sully?"

"Same with me," he responded. "Long as he don't come near us, I'm okay."

Michaela raised an eyebrow. "It so happens, that I have reserved one of the theater boxes for us, so we shall be undisturbed."

Sully grinned, "An' I reserved us a table at Grace's new café before the show."

The thought occurred to her. "I'm going to miss the one behind the old clinic."

"She's still gonna serve breakfast an' lunch there," Sully pointed out. "It's hard t' give up places that mean a lot t' us."

She was curious. "Are you speaking of anyplace in particular?"

Sully stroked his wife's arm. "I was thinkin' about Glen Eyrie. The General holds ont' it, even though his family ain't here t' share it."

"Perhaps they can join him one day," Michaela speculated.

Sully smiled. "Just makes me even more grateful for what we got. I can't give ya a grand home like Glen Eyrie, but I wouldn't trade what we got for anythin'."

"Nor would I." Michaela tenderly kissed him. "You've given me a beautiful home with beautiful children to share it with us. I wouldn't trade places with Mrs. Palmer."

Sully mentioned, "The General offered me some work. I'm goin' over t' Glen Eyrie on Monday mornin'."

"Oh?" She sat up and donned her robe. "Doing what?"

"Workin' on some special mantels for his house," he specified. "You should see the things he's brought over from Europe.... parts o' castles."

"That's amazing," she remarked as she began to search through her armoire.

Sully came to her. "What're ya lookin' for."

Michaela continued. "My gown."

Sully tugged lightly on her sleeve to bring her back into his embrace. "How 'bout another kiss?"

She pretended to hesitate. "I have too much to...."

Sully interrupted her with a kiss. "What about your mornin'? Ya didn't tell me about it."

Her expression changed. "I had a visit from Matthew."

"Somethin' wrong?" Sully presumed.

She replied, "He explained to me the extensive details of starting the new bank."

Sully detected a hint of doubt in her voice. "You still wanna go through with it?"

She tensed. "Of course, I do."

"Hey." He caressed her cheek. "I ain't doubtin' that you can do this."

Her tone softened. "I'm sorry. I suppose I've become somewhat defensive about it."

He linked his fingers in hers, then raised her hand to his lips. "I'll always believe in you, Michaela."

She turned up the corner of her mouth. "I know you will."

He added, "But I also wanna protect ya from gettin' hurt."

"I can think of nothing that hurt me more than believing you were dead," she declared.

He acknowledged sadly, "I know."

She kissed him softly. "Now I need to...."

He interrupted her with another kiss. His warm hands slid along her form and loosened the tie around her robe.

Michaela could feel herself melt into his arms. "Sully.... I should get...."

He inhaled his wife's perfume. "Get what?"

The alluring scent, combined with the proximity of her soft skin, propelled his longing. He caressed one breast, then her other, prompting the desired effect.

Michaela shivered at his touches. "I.... I can't remember." She put her hand atop his, directing it to her most pleasing places. When he reached a particularly sensitive area, she arched her head back slightly.

Her thoughts raced. He was doing it again.... creating the aching desire in her to make love. They had already united their bodies when she came home for lunch, and here they were in a prelude to doing so once again. How was it possible? It seemed so natural, yet a thought crossed her mind. Was it an obsession? Her mind began to lose its focus. Sully touching her, wanting her. The world was disappearing, and only the two of them existed.

He ran his hand along her thigh. "I love you, Michaela."

She never tired of hearing the words. "I love you, too."

Michaela had one more lucid thought. If loving him were an obsession, she could only think it a healthy one.

Each movement now sped them toward fulfillment. With a final shudder, they reached it. Snuggling closer, they basked in the afterglow of renewing their love.

Sully felt drowsy, but Michaela was energized.

She pulled his hand to her lips and kissed his fingertips. "Sully?"

"Mmm?" He opened his eyes.

"If I ask you something, promise you won't laugh," she prefaced.

"I promise." He became more alert. "What d' ya wanna ask?"

She hesitated.

He propped himself up on his elbow, then leaned down to kiss her shoulder. "What is it, Michaela?"

She came out with it. "Do you think we're.... normal?"

He wondered, "Normal about what?"

Her cheeks flushed. "About.... making love."

"Why would ya ask that?" He was puzzled.

"Well...." She took a deep breath. "We do it so frequently."

He sat up, a concern occurring to him. "Too frequently? Michaela, if you don't wanna...."

"No...." She quickly assured. "I do want to. I remember when we were first married, I thought something might be wrong with me because.... well, I had such strong desires to be with you."

"And?" He anticipated more.

"And...." She paused. "I came to believe that it was part of being a newlywed."

He nodded. "It is."

She continued, "We've been married nearly eleven years, and if anything, we make love even more often now."

"Far as I'm concerned, we're normal," he asserted. "We're t'gether so much 'cause we love each other. Least that's how I look at it. Don't you?"

"Yes," she considered.

He gently rolled her over to face him. Then he drew her hand to his heart.

"I love you, an' it feels so good t' be with you," he assessed. "It's like.... we become one body, one heart, one soul."

She smiled. "I feel somewhat foolish for asking."

He assured, "No reason t' feel foolish, but it makes me wonder somethin'."

"What?" She waited.

Sully peered into her eyes. "Just 'cause I feel this way, I wanna make sure you do, too. Are you sure you don't make love outa some kinda sense of obligation?"

"Obligation?" She worried. "No, Sully. Why would you think that?"

"Well, the fact that you asked about us bein' normal got me wonderin' if makin' love is somethin' you felt forced t' do," he expressed.

"You've never forced me," she assured.

Another thought crossed his mind. "Have I hurt you?"

"Hurt me?" Again, she was uncertain.

"Ya know.... 'cause we make love so often...." He paused to assess her reaction. "If it hurts you, maybe that's got ya wonderin' if it's normal."

"You've never hurt me either." She caressed his cheek.

He continued, "Do ya think it's morally wrong for us?"

"Of course not," she affirmed. "We're married."

He was relieved. "Then, the way I see it.... we love each other.... we wanna be as close as we can get t' one another.... Seems pretty normal t' me."

"You're right, and I'm sorry I asked." She warmed at his words. "I really need to get up now, Sully."

"What can I do t' help?" he offered.

She requested, "Could you bring the tub into the house?"

"Yep." He started to rise from the bed.

She touched his hand. "And would you do one more thing?"

"What?" he anticipated.

"Never stop loving or wanting me." She kissed him.

Sully lifted his hand to caress her neck. "I reckon I can agree t' that, too."

************

Michaela, Bridget and Sully gave the children their baths and prepared them for bed. Then, while the nanny occupied the little ones, Michaela took a bath, as well. Bedecked in his white shirt, vest and dress pants, Sully came down to help supervise the children, while Michaela went upstairs to dress.

Sully sat in a wing back chair watching the children play on the rug at his feet. He smiled. Then his thoughts drifted back to the conversation he and Michaela had had earlier in the day. Was it normal to make love so often? The more he considered it, the worse he felt. What would prompt her to ask? He thought making love fulfilled her as much as it did him, but if there was something wrong.... He took a deep breath and sighed. Maybe he was too demanding. Maybe she only pretended to like....

Annie approached her father. "Up, Papa."

He reached down and drew the little girl onto his lap. "You sure smell sweet."

She kissed his cheek. "You sad?"

"Sad?" He made a face. "Nope."

"We play?" she invited.

He could not help but smile. "Sure, honey."

Sully set her on the rug, then knelt down beside the children. Soon, they piled on top of him, playfully attempting to pin him down.

Bridget entered upon the scene. "What's this now? You're gonna get all riled up, an' won't be able t' sleep."

Sully lifted up, scooping them into his arms. "My fault, Bridget. They wanted t' play."

She joked, "I wasn't talkin' t' them."

Sully grinned, and winked. "Maybe I could tell 'em a bedtime story.... try t' settle 'em down."

Katie spoke for all. "Oh, yes, Poppy. Please tell us a story."

"Okay." As he gathered them closer, Annie crawling into his lap. "One day, the Great Spirit was sittin', watchin' some children play. They were laughin' an' singin', havin' a great time. But the Great Spirit grew sad."

"Why?" Annie questioned.

Sully went on, "'Cause he thought about how one day, the kids would grow old. So would the flowers, an' leaves on the trees. An' winter would come with its cold. Nothin' would be green anymore."

Josef pointed out, "But then Spring comes."

Noah clapped his hands. "Good stowy."

Sully grinned. "I ain't done yet, No-bo."

Annie chimed in, "No-bo funny."

Katie raised her index finger to her lips. "Shhh. Let Poppy finish."

Sully continued, "Well, the Creator went back t' watchin' the children. He looked around t' see all the colors of the earth. There was sunlight an' shadows on the ground. There were yellow leaves, blue sky, white clouds. An' then he began t' smile."

Josef assumed, "He got an idea?"

"Right," Sully noted. "He thought about all those colors an' how they oughta be preserved. So right then an' there, he decided t' make somethin' t' cheer himself up an' give the children somethin' t' look at an' enjoy."

Katie contemplated, "Somethin' with all those colors? A rainbow?"

"Nope," Sully answered.

Josef contemplated, "Leaves in the fall?"

Sully shook his head, "No, Joe, but those are good guesses."

Annie tilted her head. "I guess?"

Sully encouraged his daughter, "Go ahead, darlin'."

Annie frowned and looked up at the ceiling. Then her face lit up. "A doll?"

Sully kissed the top of her head. "Not a doll, but that's a good guess, too. How 'bout you, No-bo. Do you know what the Great Spirit made?"

The little boy pondered, then pointed to himself. "Me!"

Sully chuckled and touched his nose. "I'm talkin' 'bout a long time ago, son."

Josef was anxious to find out. "What did he make, Papa?"

Sully resumed the story. "Well, he took out a bag an' started t' collect everythin'.... a spot of sunlight, a handful of blue from the sky, a cloud, a shadow of the kids playin', the black of a beautiful little girl's hair, the yellow of the fallin' leaves, some green pine needles, a red flower, a purple and an orange one."

Josef exclaimed, "He got a big bag!"

Sully agreed, "Yea, real big. An' he added one more thing t' the bag."

Noah's eyes widened. "Me?"

Sully tickled his side. "No, not you. He put in the songs of all the birds. Then he took the bag t' the children an' handed it t' them. He said, 'Open it, an' you'll find somethin' real nice inside.'"

Josef cautioned, "Uh-oh. This sounds like twouble t' me."

Katie questioned, "Did they open the bag?"

"Yep," Sully replied. "An' out flew hundreds of colored butterflies, dancin' all around the children's heads, settlin' on their hair, flutterin' around the flowers. The children were amazed. They'd never seen anythin' so beautiful. Then the butterflies began to sing. That made the kids smile some more."

Josef was puzzled. "I never hear a butterfly sing, Papa."

"Me either," Katie added.

"Me ether," Annie repeated.

Sully looked at Noah. "How 'bout you, No-bo? You ever hear a butterfly sing?"

"Yep," he returned.

Sully spoke again. "There were some creatures who weren't real happy with what was goin' on."

Josef frowned, "Mr. Lodge?"

Sully was taken aback. "Why would ya say him, Joe?"

The little boy remarked, "'Cause he's always unhappy."

Sully marveled at his son's perception, but went back to the story. "Now, think about it, kids. Where'd the butterflies get their song voices?"

Katie knew right away. "From the birds. The birds were unhappy?"

"Right," Sully commended. "Good thinkin', Kates."

Josef queried, "Did they plop on the butterfwies?

Sully was not sure of his son's meaning. "Plop?"

The little boy explained, "Ya know how biwds plop on the porch? It makes Mama an' Miss Bwidget mad, 'cause it's hard t' clean up."

Sully laughed. "No, Joe. The birds didn't do that in the story, but they did complain t' the Great Spirit. They told him the songs belonged t' them, an' they reminded the Spirit that every bird was supposed t' have its own song. The Great Spirit admitted that was true. He knew he shouldn't take what belonged t' them, so he returned the songs t' the birds. From then on, the butterflies were silent, but they're still real beautiful."

At that moment, Michaela descended the steps in her magnificent gown.

Katie's mouth fell open. "Mama, you're beautiful!"

Sully smiled, breathless at his wife's appearance.

Bridget entered the room. "Sure, Dr. Mike, you're a vision."

Michaela's cheeks flushed. "Thank you."

Josef wondered, "How ya walk in that dwess, Mama?"

She replied, "It isn't easy."

Sully went to the small mirror near the door to knot his white tie. He fumbled with it for several moments until Michaela came over.

"Need some help?" she offered.

"Yea." He sounded defeated. "I'm not real good at this."

Josef spoke up, "I help, Papa."

"That's okay, Joe," Sully assured. "Your Ma's helpin' me."

Michaela finished tying the knot and patted it. "You look very handsome, Mr. Sully."

Katie inquired, "Mama, why can't we go t' the play?"

"Well," she contemplated. "It's not really a plot that would interest children."

The little girl probed further. "What's it about?"

Michaela hedged, "Uh.... well, it.... it's about...."

Sully came to his wife's rescue. "It's about a woman who can't be with the man she loves, Kates."

"Oh." She sighed.

Michaela glanced at her husband with relief. "Why can't I be as succinct as you?"

He teased, "'Cause you got all that education."

She smiled flirtatiously. "I didn't learn everything from books, Mr. Sully."

He helped her with her wrap.

Michaela turned to the children. "Good night, my darlings. Mind Miss Bridget."

The children rushed to their parents and embraced them. When Sully opened the door to depart, there stood Loren Bray.

************
Chapter 8
************

"Loren?" Michaela was surprised.

He removed his hat, "Dr. Mike. Sully. I was thinkin' Bridget might need some help watchin' the children t'night."

Sully stepped back to invite him in. "That's real thoughtful of ya, Loren."

The older man shrugged. "Didn't wanna see that play anyway."

Michaela was curious. "Why not?"

Loren stated. "There's enough trouble in' the world without havin' t' watch some woman dyin'."

Katie overheard. "Who's dyin'?"

Michaela explained, "The character in the play, Sweetheart."

"She can't be with the man she loves, so she dies?" Katie was horrified.

Michaela leaned over to caress her daughter's cheek. "No, Katie, that's not why she dies. She's very ill."

Josef posed the question, "Why ya wanna see a play like that?"

Loren raised an eyebrow. "My thoughts exactly. I'd rather sit here with this good company."

Bridget remarked, "Sure, 'tis the blarney talkin'."

Loren insisted, "It's no blarney. If these were my children, I wouldn't be off galavantin' around some theater."

Sully asked, "What if Gilda St. Clair was singin' Beautiful Dreamer at the theater?"

The older man reacted, "Well, that's another story. That's talent."

Michaela defended, "We're raising our children to appreciate talent and the arts, Loren. It just so happens, this is not a plot suitable for young audiences."

"If it ain't good enough for the young, it ain't good enough for me," Loren avowed.

Michaela had a gleam in her eye. "Shall we take them to the Gold Nugget for a beer tomorrow then?"

His eyes widened. "What in tarnation are you talkin' about?"

Michaela reminded, "Don't you frequent the saloon?"

"Sure, I do," he acknowledged.

"Well, if it's good enough for you, it must be good enough for children," she informed him.

Josef scowled. "I don' wanna go t' the Gold Nugget. It's all smokey in there, an' they cuss."

Michaela's eyes widened, "How do you know that, young man?"

Sully interceded, "Okay, we best be leavin'. You kids mind Miss Bridget an' Mr. Bray. Ya hear?"

The children nodded. With that, Michaela and Sully departed for town.

************

Hank folded his arms uncomfortably as he questioned Mary Conway. "You got any experience watchin' babies?"

"Sheriff Lawson, I've worked with children of all ages," she replied.

"You ain't workin' with my daughter," he countered. "You're keepin' an eye on her while Lexie an' me go t' the play."

Mary assured, "Yes, I understand that. When Mrs. Lawson asked me to do this, I didn't realize I would be interrogated."

Hank rubbed his upper lip. "I'm just makin' sure ya know what you're doin'."

Mary stated, "I do."

Lexie entered the room, dressed in her finest gown.

Hank whistled, "Whoo. Look at you."

"I take it you like my dress?" Lexie raised an eyebrow.

Hank smirked, "Sure do."

Mary complimented, "You look beautiful."

Lexie smiled. "Thank you. I'm just happy I can fit into it again."

Hank turned toward Mary. "Okay, one more time."

Mary lifted the list she made. "I know when to feed her, how to change her diaper, when to rock her and when to put her in her crib."

"Good." Hank started for the door. Then he turned back. "What if she cries?"

Lexie touched her husband's arm. "Hank, let's go. They're not going to hold the play for us."

************

Michaela noticed her husband's quiet as they rode in the surrey. She linked her arm in his and leaned against his shoulder.

Then she spoke, "Are you looking forward to the play?"

"Uh-huh," he replied simply.

She studied his profile. "Is something bothering you?"

"No," he fibbed.

She sat up straighter, sensing otherwise. "Sully, what is it?"

He did not want to upset her. "Nothin's botherin' me, Michaela."

She pulled her arm away from his, disappointed that he would not confide in her.

Sully began to feel guilty. Michaela's question about the frequency of their making love still disturbed him. Maybe he was only thinking of his own needs and not hers. He had no doubt that their being together had helped with his recovery from Andersonville, but he would rather still feel the ill-effects of that trauma than make his wife uncomfortable. From now on, he would hold back.... let Michaela initiate their intimacy. Then he would be more certain that it's what she wants.

Her voice roused him from his thoughts. "It's what I said today. Isn't it?"

He queried, "What you said?"

"About making love," she clarified. "That's upset you."

He did not reply.

"Sully, please don't be troubled by it," she implored. "I suppose I was just wondering because I have no experience in this matter."

He wondered, "No experience?"

She hoped to explain. "I don't know with whom I can compare us. Robert E and Grace perhaps?"

He was perplexed, "Why ya gotta compare us t' anyone?"

"That wasn't how I meant to say it." She sighed heavily. "I mean that making love is not something I can discuss with anyone in order to compare our.... well, our frequency."

Sully slowed the horse to a stop and turned to his wife. "Michaela, you don't have t' compare somethin' like that t' other married folks. We ain't like anyone else. What we got.... it's special."

"I know it is," she acknowledged.

He questioned, "Then what makes ya wanna compare us t' anyone?"

She folded her hands and was quiet for a moment. At first Sully thought she was angry, but then she spoke.

Michaela looked down. "When I was growing up, I wasn't like other little girls."

He put his hand on hers. "I know that. Ya spent time with your Pa at his office."

"It's more than that." She swallowed hard. "My sisters all married before I left Boston. Sometimes, when they were together, they would.... talk."

"Talk?" He was curious. "About what?"

She felt uncomfortable. "About being with their husbands. At first, I was shocked that they were so frank, but.... then I came to realize, they were comparing their marriages, trying to determine what was normal. It's not something we could read in a book or even ask our mother."

He chuckled.

"It's not funny, Sully." Her brow wrinkled. "My sisters would also tease me without mercy about never finding a husband.... never having to worry about pleasing him."

"Rebecca teased ya?" He was surprised.

"No," she amended. "They usually waited until Rebecca left."

He could not help but ask, "So how d' we compare t' your sisters an' their husbands?"

She looked up. "We far surpass anything I ever heard them discuss."

"Surpass how?" He probed.

She could feel her cheeks flush. "You know."

He grinned. "So that's what made ya wonder if we're normal?"

"Yes," she affirmed. "Oh, Sully, I didn't mean to upset you, and I can tell that I have."

He confessed, "I started thinkin' you were wonderin' because ya didn't like it anymore."

"Like it?" She was surprised. "You know that I love being with you. I always have."

"That's a relief." He put his arm around her.

"Please." She cupped her gloved hand to his cheek. "Never, ever doubt the extent of my love for you."

He realized, "I know that, Michaela. I wouldn't be alive, if it wasn't for you."

She felt a chill. "I know I think too much. I have self-doubts and begin to wonder...." Her voice trailed off.

"Wonder about what?" He posed the question.

She confessed. "Because I had no experience before our marriage, and you had been married before.... I wondered how I would compare to...."

"To Abigail?" He finished her thought. "I told ya about that before."

She took a deep breath. "I wonder about other married couples. I see so many who are unhappy, and I begin to question why. It's my analytical mind, I suppose. That's one thing that you've changed in me, Sully."

"Your analytical mind?" He teased.

"No." She paused. "I have a passion for learning and for seeing that things are made right."

He nodded. "But ya had that before I met ya."

She clarified, "You awakened new passions in me that I never imagined I possessed. They scared me at first. But you assured me. I suppose, every so often, my old fears and insecurities surface again."

He smiled. "An' I gotta reassure ya again."

"You're quite patient with me, Mr. Sully." She raised an eyebrow.

He mused, "I don't mind. The pay's real good."

************

Grace rushed from the dining room of her new restaurant into the kitchen. "Millie, we're full! There ain't an empty table."

"That's real good, Miss Grace," the waitress nodded. "I best get these glasses of water out there."

"Yes, yes," Grace breathlessly replied. "Go ahead."

Robert E approached his wife. "Try t' stay calm, woman. These folks are the same ones who eat at the Café. They're just dressed up a little fancier."

She insisted, "It ain't the same folk. There's two state senators an' some assistant t' the Governor."

He returned, "Near as I can tell, they eat the same as the rest of us."

She finished arranging two plates and called, "Henrietta, quick, take this t' table five."

The young woman quickly obeyed.

Robert E fidgeted with his tie. "Dr. Mike an' Sully said they hope ya can come out t' say hello. They're over in the corner."

"I saw them come in," she acknowledged. "Did ya notice the dress Dr. Mike had on? It's surely the finest I ever saw."

He leaned over to kiss her cheek. "Anythin' I can do t' help?"

She determined, "Check on how the candles are holdin' up in there."

He nodded and stepped through the door. He and Grace had worked hard on the dining room, hoping to capture the flavor of New Orleans in the decorating. On one wall was a mural of Bourbon Street. On the entrance wall, Robert E had used brick and wrought iron to convey the feel of Grace's hometown. They had purchased the chandelier from a store in New Orleans. In the corner, a pianist was playing selections from Stephen Foster. Grace had originally wanted some Creole music but thought the customers might not like that.

As he walked, Robert E nodded and smiled at the customers.

Reaching the Sullys, he grinned. "Evenin', folks."

"Hey, Robert E." Sully shook his hand. "Everythin's real good."

Robert E pointed to the candles. "I'll have ya know my godchildren put them on the tables. Worked real hard, too."

Sully chuckled, "I told 'em t' work more than play with Abraham."

Michaela began, "Tell Grace we...."

At that moment, Grace reached their table and wiped her hands on her apron. "I wanted t' come out t' see what ya thought."

Michaela smiled. "Everything is perfect, Grace. The food.... the atmosphere.... simply perfect."

Grace's face beamed. "I'm glad ya like it."

Robert E glanced at the clock on the wall. "We best be goin'. The play's startin' in an hour. Grace'll be on pins and needles 'til then."

Grace extended her hand to Michaela. "Thanks for your help an' encouragement.... both of ya."

Sully commended, "You got a lot o'happy customers t'night, Grace. It's a big success."

The delighted couple left Michaela and Sully.

Sully observed, "Lots of important people here t'night."

Michaela concurred, "So I see. And no Preston. How could he miss such a golden opportunity to rub elbows with the elite?"

Sully detected the sarcasm in her voice. "Let's not spoil our dinner with thoughts of Preston."

She smiled. "Agreed."

************

A packed theater awaited the start of Camille." Michaela and Sully shared the upper box at stage right. The vantage point enabled them to see not only the stage, but they could also gauge audience reaction to the performance.

The actors soon captured the hearts of the audience, and by the end when Marguerite, the beautiful courtesan died, there was not a dry eye in the theater. A standing ovation greeted the conclusion of the play.

Sully turned to his wife and saw the tears streaming down her cheek. "Hey, what's this?"

"Oh, Sully." She continued to cry. "This story always touches me so."

"I can see that." He nodded, hoping to comfort her. "But it's only a play. Remember?"

She added, "It's just so terribly tragic."

He agreed, "Yep."

She took a deep breath, hoping to calm herself. "I'm sorry. You must think me melodramatic."

He smiled and lightly rubbed her back. "I wouldn't have ya any other way."

She finally began to gain control of her emotions. "We can leave now."

He stood up and held her wrap. Draping it around Michaela's shoulders, his hands lingered for a moment.

She looked up at him and smiled. "Thank you, Sully."

They made their way to the lobby where they ran into Hank and Lexie.

Hank remarked, "I see Michaela's got red eyes, too."

Lexie stated, "I loved the play."

Hank retorted, "Why is it women love stuff that makes 'em cry?"

Michaela theorized, "Perhaps women relate to Marguerite on a more emotional level."

A voice behind them interrupted the conversation, "Perhaps it's because of the tragic heroine."

Sully's jaw tensed at Preston's voice, but he did not turn around.

Preston continued as he stepped around Sully, "Michaela, Lexie, may I say that you ladies look stunning."

Hank commented, "Stunning. That's a good word, Preston. It's kinda how Sully's punch affected you."

Michaela stepped back. "If you'll excuse us, we have to get home."

Preston continued, "Yes, I imagine it's rather difficult to get out much with your brood. Perhaps this breath of culture in our fair town will give you something more worthwhile to do in the evenings."

Michaela could feel Sully's tension increase as she held his hand.

Hank warned, "Back off, Preston, unless you want folks t' see another tragedy t'night."

The banker grinned. "Oh, I imagine Michaela has Sully in check tonight. He wouldn't want to do anything in front of witnesses. That would 'sully' his noble reputation. He reserves his violent side for when he's away from the watchful eye of the law."

Sully could stand it no longer. "Let's go, Michaela."

As they turned to leave, Preston went on, "Michaela, wouldn't you prefer to chat with someone more literate about the intricacies of the plot?"

Sully began to move toward Preston, but Hank stepped between them. "That's enough, Preston. Sully an' Michaela gotta get home t' their kids, an' you gotta get home t' your money belt."

With that, the Sullys departed.

Hank turned to the banker. "What's wrong with you?"

Preston snarled, "A woman like Michaela deserves better. With all that she's been through because of that man, one would think she would see through him by now."

Lexie entered the conversation. "I guess some people want most what they can't have."

Preston gestured toward himself. "Are you speaking about me or about Michaela?"

Lexie answered, "Dr. Mike has everything she wants. It appears you have nothing that you want."

The banker frowned. "Given your background, I won't be offended by your remarks."

Hank eyed him cooly. "What about her background?"

"Nothing," Preston sighed. "Maybe we should raise a statue in town to Saint Sully. It appears everyone would contribute to it."

Hank warned, "If I was you, I'd steer clear of him."

Preston stated, "We'll see who emerges victorious in the end."

Hank shook his head. "It ain't gonna be you. Now why don't ya just drop this obsession ya got for Michaela?"

Preston countered, "Have you?"

Lexie cast a quick glance at her husband.

Hank put his finger up to Preston's chest. "You think you got everythin' figured out, but you don't know nothin'. Now skidaddle."

************
Chapter 9
************

On the ride home from town, Lexie sat pensively.

Hank sensed, "Preston's comment got ya upset?"

"A little," she responded.

He put his hand on her knee. "Lex, you know Michaela never gave me a thought. She's a headstrong, opinionated an' stubborn woman, who needs t' be brought down from her high horse every once in a while. But she's been a friend t' me, even when I didn't want her t' be."

"You courted her once," Lexie reminded.

Hank chuckled. "That lasted about five minutes, an' it weren't serious. I felt kinda bad that she had all them kids t' raise by herself. Nah, Michaela's with Sully. That's how it oughta be."

She tilted her head. "And what about you? Is being with me the way things ought to be?"

He disliked discussing his feelings. "I reckon. We're married. We got a kid t' raise. That's the way things are."

"Do you miss your wild life?" She posed the question.

He eyed her with a gleam in his eye. "Who says it's gone?"

************

Grace was exhilarated from the evening. As she sat at her vanity to undo her hair, Robert E entered the bedroom.

He walked to the crib. "Abraham could sleep through a cannon barrage."

Grace smiled. "Robert E, I think t'day was one of the best days o' my life."

"Better than marryin' me?" He teased.

"No, but nearly," she answered.

He persisted, "Better than havin' Abraham?"

"'Course not." She rolled her eyes. "How 'bout it was the third best day o' my life?"

He drew her to stand, then embraced her. "I'm real happy for ya, Grace. Ya worked hard all these years, an' now ya got somethin' fine t' show for it."

She rested her palms against his chest, "I owe it all t' you. I couldn't have done it without your help an' encouragement."

"So how much money did ya make t'night?" he wondered.

Her eyes widened. "Enough t' know this business is gonna succeed."

He laughed. "Well then, I reckon it's time we start puttin' some money away. We gotta think about Abraham's future."

She made a face. "Put money in Preston's bank? I'd sooner burn it."

"That's a foolish thing t' say," he reacted.

"I won't save my money in that man's bank," she declared. "Not after all the trouble he's been t' Dr. Mike an' Sully. No, sir."

************

After thanking Loren and Bridget for watching the children, Michaela and Sully ascended the steps to check on the little ones.

Katie heard a floorboard creak when they entered her room. "How was the play?"

"Real good," Sully sat on the edge of her bed. "Made your Ma cry."

"Mama?" The little girl was concerned.

Michaela assured, "I'm fine, Sweetheart."

"I know you must have been the prettiest lady there," Katie commended. "An' Poppy was the best lookin' man."

Sully pulled up her blanket. "I agree about your Ma."

Michaela leaned over to kiss her daughter. "And I agree about your father. Now, close your eyes, my darling."

Katie yawned, then settled back into bed. "Love you."

Michaela spoke softly, "We love you, too."

After looking in on their other children, the parents headed down the hallway to their bedroom. Sully quickly removed his jacket and loosened the tie. Michaela sat at her vanity and began to take off her jewelry.

As Sully continued to undress, he watched his wife out of the corner of his eye. She truly was the prettiest lady there. His heart filled as he contemplated how fortunate he was to be married to Michaela. She was headstrong, opinionated and stubborn at times. But he wouldn't have her any other way. She was also sensitive, caring and loving.

Then his thoughts turned to Preston. How that man grated on his nerves. He had nearly punched him in the Opera House lobby. If Hank had not been there....

Michaela watched her husband in the mirror. "Something on your mind?"

"Nothin' in particular." He removed his shirt, then stepped to Hope's crib. "This little girl's sound asleep." He sat on the stool beside the child, and extended his hand through the rungs to stroke her back. "I think we oughta work on her walkin' t'morrow. She's almost ready."

"Yes," Michaela agreed. "I believe she is. Then we shant be able to keep her in one place. She's quite a handful as it is."

Sully smiled. "Just one more thing I gotta worry about."

Michaela raised an eyebrow. "What else worries you?"

"Knowin' that one day, I'll have t' keep the beaus away from my girls," he said with a grin.

"I pity their suitors," Michaela mused.

Sully rolled the baby's fingers around his thumb. "They better not break my daughters' hearts."

Michaela suspected, "Are you certain that's all you're thinking about?"

He rose up and kissed Hope's cheek, then strolled to the bed. He sat and began to untie his shoes. "Yep."

She pivoted on the chair. "Sully, I know Preston must have upset you as much as he did me."

Sully took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. Then he set his shoes in the armoire and undid his trousers. He placed them neatly on a hanger and draped the jacket over them.

Michaela noted his controlled demeanor. Perhaps it would be best to not bring up the topic again.

She changed the subject. "Let's do something special with the children tomorrow after church."

He climbed into bed. "What'd ya have in mind?"

She rose from the chair and undid her dress. "A picnic, perhaps?"

Sully replied, "Fine with me."

Finally ready for bed, Michaela positioned herself beside him. "A picnic, it is, then."

Sully nodded. "Good."

Michaela cuddled closer to him, and rested her hand atop his heart. "Are you sleepy?"

He opened his eyes. "Not really. Did ya wanna talk?"

She agreed, "If you do."

Sully mentioned, "I think the opera house is a big success. Colorado Springs owes ya a lot for bringin' more culture t' town."

"Thank you." Michaela was pleased. "It was money well spent. I truly did enjoy the play."

Sully acknowledged, "I liked it, too."

Michaela added, "I don't think I properly thanked you."

Sully was puzzled. "Thanked me for what?"

"For taking me to the play," Michaela specified.

He returned, "Oh.... You're welcome."

They fell silent for a moment, both thinking about the unpleasantness with Preston.

Sully stewed as he contemplated the audacity of the man. He never lets up, Sully thought. As he reviewed the evening's events, he remembered a comment Michaela had made a few moments ago.

"I should've stopped him," Sully spoke low.

"Stopped whom?" Michaela was uncertain.

"Preston," he answered. "I should never have let him upset ya."

She consoled, "He'll get what he deserves, Sully. I promise you."

"Michaela, this ain't your battle," he asserted. "I'm the one who's gotta defend my wife against his snide remarks."

She sighed. "We know that punching him doesn't stop him. My way is the only way to get the message across to him."

Sully had not felt this helpless since he was banned from the Indian Reservation.

He observed, "With all the women in the world, why's he so obsessed with you?"

"Perhaps because he can't have me," she noted. "He thinks I'm the piece of the puzzle he needs to complete his life. And you are the one standing in the way of attaining me."

Sully considered her words. "I reckon I never thought of it that way. But, the thing is, we were married when he met ya. What made him think he could ever have ya in the first place?"

She contemplated, "I suppose that's another reason for his disliking you. You won my heart before he ever had a chance."

Sully posed the question, "What if things had been reversed? What if you had been married t' him before I met ya?"

She chuckled. "That's preposterous. I would never have let a man like that even court me."

Sully pointed out, "I bet he would've been charmin', givin' ya flowers an' gifts, romantic dinners in fancy places."

She peered into his eyes, then drew his hand to her heart. "I would have seen through his insincerity."

He noted, "Think about it, Michaela. Look at the men who ya almost married.... David, the Reverend, William...."

She lowered her eyes. "David was different, Sully. That was before I met you. The Reverend.... marrying him was something I contemplated briefly in order to spare the orphaned children. I never truly gave it serious consideration."

"An' William?" He posed the question.

She looked at her husband. "When you came to Boston, I knew that William was not the man I love."

He caressed her cheek. "I'm glad I made the trip then."

She returned to the subject. "I believe the course of action I am pursuing will stop Preston once and for all. I'm staking my inheritance on it."

The reality hit Sully. "Your entire inheritance from your Ma?"

"Yes," she said.

He stated, "I reckon I didn't think about how much this bank would cost ya. I can't let ya do it, Michaela. That was money your Ma left ya t' do good works, not t' stop Preston."

She countered, "Stopping Preston is doing good works. I'm helping the people of Colorado Springs, and I'm preventing him from trying to hurt us."

Sully was adamant. "Ya can't do it."

She lifted up, "And you can't tell me how I can spend my inheritance."

He threw back the covers and stood up. Reaching for his buckskins, he turned to her. "Fine."

"Fine." She folded her arms defiantly.

He grabbed his pillow and the extra quilt at the bottom of the bed. Then he exited the room.

************

Sully was met by Wolf at the bottom of the steps. The animal whimpered.

Sully frowned. "No, this time I left on my own."

He spread the quilt out on the rug by the living room fireplace. Taking a deep breath, he lay back and folded his hands behind his head to stare at the ceiling.

He was disconcerted at the thought that Michaela could lose everything because of trying to stop Preston.

"How can I let her risk all that her Ma gave her on account o' me, boy?" He asked out loud.

Wolf circled a few times and settled near Sully's side.

Sully inhaled deeply, then let out the air slowly to clear his mind. Finally, he rolled onto his side, propped the pillow beneath his head and closed his eyes. Sleep soon claimed him.

************

Michaela went to her vanity and found the papers Matthew had given her to review. Her oldest son had been right. The amount of forms to fill out and the commitment of money were daunting. Though they would not come out and say it, she knew her family believed she should not do it.

Did they not understand what would happen if Preston continued his ways? Did they not fathom the dangers of Preston's continued interference in their lives? Did they not comprehend what it had been like to think Sully was dead?

Michaela set the papers aside. "Sully...."

She walked to the bed. Touching the indentation he had left in the mattress, she knelt beside the bed and lowered her head.

"Dear God," she paused. "Please hear me. You have given me so many blessings. I know I don't deserve to ask this, particularly since you brought Sully home to me.... Please, God. Please, guide me to do what is best."

Raising her head, she spoke her husband's name again. "Sully."

It was not supposed to be like this. They had always been able to work things out. But now twice in as many nights, he was downstairs instead of in their bed.

She stood up, pained by the unpleasantness between them. She donned her robe and entered the hallway.

Josef opened his bedroom door at that moment. The little boy rubbed the sleep from his eyes and yawned.

Michaela leaned down to the level of his eyes. "What are you doing up, young man?"

"I hear people walkin' 'round," he informed her.

She assured, "That was Papa. Now back to bed with you."

"I gotta use the pwivy," he insisted.

Michaela suspected the child simply wanted to see his father. "Truly?"

"Uh-huh," Josef acknowledged. "I dwink too much water before bed."

She shook her head and sighed. "All right."

He lifted his hand to her. "Comin' with me?"

"Yes." She smiled.

When they reached the bottom of the steps, Josef spotted his father on the living room floor.

He turned to his mother, surprised. "Why's Papa sleepin' down here?"

She immediately felt uncomfortable. "He.... uh.... we.... we had a little...."

Josef frowned. "Mama, you talk better 'n anybody I know, 'cept when I ask ya questions ya don' know how t' answer."

At that moment, Sully threw off his blanket. "No! Tague! Let me out!"

Josef's eyes widened. "Papa?"

"Sweetheart, go to the privy." Michaela patted his behind.

The little boy hesitated. "What's wrong with Papa?"

"He's having a bad dream," she explained. "Go on, now."

Josef reluctantly left her side, and Michaela rushed into the living room. She knelt beside Sully and touched his cheek.

"Shhh." Her voice was soothing. "It's all right, Sully. You're home. You're not in Andersonville."

He bolted up. "Wha--"

She assured, "You were dreaming. That's all."

He sighed and ran his fingers through his hair. "Why won't it stop, Michaela? Why can't I stop dreamin' about it?"

She rubbed his back. "I wish I knew."

He exhaled loudly in frustration. "I gotta get past this."

"You will," she encouraged. "I'm sorry for how we argued earlier. Oh, Sully, I want nothing more than for us to be happy."

He clasped her hand. "That's what I want, too."

Josef's voice interrupted. "What we doin'?"

Sully drew his son into his arms. "What are you doin' up?"

Josef shrugged, "Usin' the pwivy. You okay, Papa?"

Sully kissed his cheek. "When's the last time I told ya I love ya, big boy?"

Josef scratched his head. "I think this mornin'. Can I ask Katie t' be sure?"

Sully grinned and kissed the little boy's cheek again. "No, that's all right. How 'bout I say it now?"

Josef anticipated, "Sure, Papa."

"I love you, son," Sully said with a lump in his throat.

The child embraced his father. "I love you, too, Papa. Want me t' tuck ya in?"

"If it's okay with your Ma." Sully nodded.

Josef looked at his mother with great earnest. "Mama, I think we better get Papa up t' bed. You, too. It's late."

"You're right," Michaela replied. "Thank you, Sweetheart."

Josef took his father's hand and tugged at it. "Come on, Papa. Up."

Sully pretended that the little boy had raised him to his feet.

Josef glanced at his mother. "You go ahead, Mama. The men gotta talk first."

Michaela raised an eyebrow, then lifted Sully's pillow and quilt. "I'll see you shortly."

When his mother had reached the landing, Josef turned to Sully. "Ya wanna tell me why ya had your pillow an' blanket down here?"

Sully was surprised at how grown up Josef suddenly sounded. He put his hand on his son's shoulder. "Joe, there's some things that're hard t' explain, 'specially when I don't understand 'em myself."

"You talkin' 'bout women?" Josef interpreted.

Sully stifled a laugh. "Not exactly. Let's go t' bed."

Josef held back. "I don' know if ya noticed, but Mama never calls you 'Sweetheart.' She calls us kids that but not you, Papa. Ya ever think about that?"

Sully pondered, "Now that ya mention it, I guess you're right."

Josef seemed perplexed. "Why's she do that?"

"It's called a term of endearment, Joe," Sully explained. "It's kinda like me callin' ya 'big boy.'"

Josef repeated, "Term of underment? What's it mean?"

"It means she loves ya," Sully replied.

Josef's eyes widened. "Well, I know she loves ya! When we thought ya was dead, I thinked Mama would die, too. Ya never heard the like o' cryin'. Us kids was scared."

Sully suddenly realized that he had not spoken to his children about what their mother had been through. "I know it was real hard on her, Joe.... an' you, too. But your Ma's the strongest person I ever met. It was that strength that kept me goin' an' brought me home."

Josef looked at his father with admiration. "You're stronger. I seed ya lift stuff I know Mama couldn't."

"I'm talkin' about a different kinda strength." Sully touched his son's heart. "It's inside ya, helpin' ya get through hard times."

His little brow creased. "You're strong inside, too. Mama didn' tell us what happened t' you, but she said it was real hard. Papa, the hard time's over. Ya think ya can sleep?"

Sully lifted his son up and kissed his cheek. "Thanks for remindin' me how lucky I am."

Josef patted his shoulder. "You're welcome. So, we gotta get Mama t' call ya a term of underment. I'll think on it."

************
Chapter 10
************

Michaela was waiting in bed when Sully and Josef reached the door. Sully set the boy down.

"'Kay, Papa." Josef patted the edge of the mattress. "Int' bed. An' don' wake up Hope. That baby's got a hard time with her teethin'."

Sully obeyed his son. "'Night, Joe."

Josef reached up to tuck in the blanket along his father's side. "'Night, you two."

With that, the little boy exited, closing the door behind him.

Michaela shook her head and smiled. "He's certainly asserting himself."

"I think you better be prepared for more," Sully let her know.

"More?" She was curious. "Does this have something to do with the 'men' having a talk?"

Sully grinned. "He's noticed that ya call the kids 'Sweetheart,' an' he thinks ya oughta call me by a term of endearment, too. He's gonna think on it."

"Oh, dear," she remarked.

"'Dear's' nice," Sully joked.

She smiled. "We've never had terms of endearment for one another. Do you think we should?"

"Might seem kinda strange after all these years," he pointed out.

She pondered. "What about 'darling'?"

He turned up his nose. "I can't see myself as a darlin'."

She considered further. "'Honey'?"

He grinned impishly, "Only kinda honey I like is with berries an' you."

"There's 'dearest,'" Michaela offered. "And 'love.'"

Sully wondered, "Do ya really wanna be called by a term of endearment?"

She considered, "I.... I'm not certain. What did you have in mind?"

He thought about it. "It would seem strange callin' ya anythin' but 'Michaela' or 'Dr. Mike.'"

She offered, "Do you think we should have pet names for one another when we're in front of the children?"

He chuckled. "Ya mean stop bein' ourselves around our kids?"

"No." She reflected. "But.... they might expect it."

"They might expect five dollars for doin' their chores, too, but we ain't gonna pay 'em," Sully stated. "Joe might forget all about it by mornin'."

She stopped to deliberate on her words carefully. "Sully, about what happened earlier...."

He touched his fingers to her lips. "Let's talk about it later. We best get some sleep now."

When he closed his eyes, she whispered, "I'm sorry."

He opened an eye, "We'll talk in the mornin', dear."

************

Michaela tossed and turned all night. She dreamed about her bank failing. She dreamed about arguing with Sully, and she dreamed that he left her. When the first rays of sunlight filtered into their bedroom, she opened her eyes.

She rolled over to look at her husband, but he was not beside her. As her eyes began to focus, she spotted him in the rocking chair with Hope. Both father and daughter were asleep.

Had the baby wakened during the night? Michaela had not heard her if she had.

Michaela yawned and stretched her arms. She felt a headache coming on. As quietly as she could, she rose from the bed and drew on her robe.

Sully heard the floorboard creak and opened his eyes.

He kept his voice low, "You an' Hope had a rough night."

Michaela approached them and caressed the baby's fine hair. "Why didn't you get me up? Did she cry?"

"More like whined," he specified. "It's okay. I couldn't sleep much anyway. You were real restless."

She sat beside them on the double rocker and sighed. "Oh, Sully, I don't want us to argue about this bank."

While still cradling the baby in one arm, he put the other around Michaela's shoulders. "An' I don't wanna see you takin' advantage of or hurt."

"Nor I, you," she added.

He leaned down to rest his lips on Hope's head. "Puttin' all our time int' thinkin' about Preston takes away from what's important. Our family."

She rubbed her temples.

He noticed, "Headache?"

"Yes," she admitted.

He pulled her closer. "I'll go make ya some willowbark tea."

Handing Hope to her, Sully left them.

Michaela quietly rocked back and forth for several minutes. There was something about holding her children when they slept that was incredibly relaxing to her.

Hope puckered her lips and yawned. Then she settled again.

Michaela thought about their plan to take the children on a picnic today. Her headache made the idea seem suddenly unappealing.

Then her attention turned to the stack of papers on the vanity. She felt torn. She was having second thoughts about going through with the bank. The disadvantages seemed to outweigh the advantages. Yet, what else could be done to humble Preston and stop him from interfering in their lives?

Before long, Sully entered the room. "Baby still asleep?"

"Yes." Michaela smiled.

He set the tea on the table beside the rocker, then after placing Hope in her crib, sat beside his wife.

"Come here." Sully invited Michaela to sit on his lap.

She obliged. Then he handed her the tea. She took several small sips.

Sully softly stroked her hair. "Better?"

She nodded and took another sip. "Thank you."

They sat in silence while she continued to drink the tea. When the cup was finally empty, Michaela leaned over to place it on the table. Then she tilted her head against her husband's shoulder.

He suggested, "Why don't you go back t' bed? Bridget an' me can take care o' the kids."

"No," she insisted. "I can do it. Just give me a few minutes."

He lifted her chin and sweetly kissed her. "Why you gotta be so stubborn?"

"I thought you liked it," she retorted with a smile.

He grinned. "Only after our disagreements are over."

She became serious, "About last night, Sully, I...."

He stopped her with a kiss. "Last night, we were tired. I shouldn't've walked out like I did. Much as I don't like it, if you wanna spend your inheritance on this bank, then...."

She interjected, "It's not that I want to spend my money on it. I feel duty bound to weaken Preston's power and hold on Colorado Springs. Another bank would dilute his profits. In the long run, everyone would benefit."

"If that's what ya want." Sully enfolded her in his arms and began to rock back and forth.

Michaela smiled, "This is relaxing."

"Good." He linked his fingers in hers. "You been puttin' a lot o' pressure on yourself ever since we came home from Atlanta, thinkin' ya gotta act against Preston. It's got ya losin' sleep an' bein' on edge. He ain't worth it, Michaela."

"You're worth it," she pointed out. "So is our marriage and happiness. Preston is a threat to both."

Sully raised her hand to his lips and kissed her knuckles. "Now that we know his ways, we can be on guard more."

"Why should we have to be on guard all of the time?" Her volume rose. "He's evil and must be stopped."

Sully reacted with a calm voice. "Shh. Let's just not think about it t'day. All right?"

She sighed. "I'm sorry. Today is for the children. I know."

"It's for all of us," he amended. "I realized somethin' last night."

"What?" She was curious.

"The kids don't know all that I went through in Atlanta," he informed her.

"They know that a bad man treated you terribly, but, no, I didn't give them details," she informed him. "You're not going to tell them, are you?"

"'Course not," he assured. "What you an' the children went through.... thinkin' I was dead.... It had t' have been worse than what I was endurin'. 'Least I knew you were alive an' well."

She reflected, "It was hard on all of us."

He clasped her hand more securely, "Grief's the hardest thing a human bein' can endure, Michaela. I'm sorry ya went through it."

"Even more reason why I want Preston to pay," she declared.

Sully peered into her eyes. "Preston didn't win."

"He caused us to be apart for weeks, Sully," she reminded.

He noted, "We're back on that topic again."

She looked down, "I'm sorry."

"How's your headache?" Sully inquired.

"Gone," she answered.

"So, why don't ya go back t' bed for a little while?" he encouraged. "The kids won't be up for another hour."

"Only if you come with me," she invited. "I promise not to be so restless."

Sully pretended to acquiesce. "Ya talked me int' it."

They soon situated themselves side by side, with Sully's arm resting beneath her shoulders.

He closed his eyes, and thought she had, too. Then he felt her toying with the hair on his chest.

She whispered, "Sully?"

He warmed at her tone. "Mmm?"

With love reflecting in her eyes, she mentioned, "Since we're spending the afternoon with the children, we'll miss our little.... rendezvous here in our room.

Sully grinned. "I love it when ya talk French."

She whispered near his ear. "Je t'aime."

He kissed her sweetly. "My favorite phrase."

Michaela paused as if to think. "We have an hour before the children waken."

He nodded. "Plenty o' time for a nap. Right?"

"Wouldn't you like to do something else?" She raised an eyebrow.

He pondered, "We could play checkers."

"Checkers?" She turned up her nose. "Not very romantic."

"Oh, ya wanna be romantic?" He rolled onto his side to look at her more fully.

She cast a coy glance at him.

He held back, waiting to see if she initiated anything beyond flirtation.

Michaela studied his expression. "Is something wrong?"

"No." He told her sincerely.

She felt slightly uncomfortable. "I thought we might.... well.... since we have the time...."

Sully came to the point. "You tryin' t' tell me ya wanna make love?"

Her cheeks flushed. "I thought you did."

"Do you?" he questioned.

Her voice was soft, "Yes."

"Why?" Sully teased a little further.

She was taken aback. "Why? Because.... because I love you."

"I love you, too," he added.

She was becoming frustrated. "Sully, this isn't what we usually talk about beforehand."

"Remind me what we talk about," he urged.

She looked down. "We.... we talk about how much we love one another.... how good we feel.... then.... you...."

He pointed to himself. "Wanna know what I like?"

She looked at him with concern. "What?"

"I like when you initiate things," he revealed.

She turned up the corner of her mouth. "It's rather bold of me."

He lay back flat on his pillow. "Well, if you don't want t' initiate...."

Michaela touched her finger to his lips and maneuvered herself atop him. She began to kiss his neck and chest.

Sully closed his eyes, relishing her attention. Then she sat up, straddling him while she removed her gown. He resisted reaching up to caress her.

Michaela tossed her gown onto the floor and flipped her hair over her shoulder in order to have freer access to her husband's chest. She returned to kissing him, working her way up to his neck.

Sully's heart raced. She was visiting every place he enjoyed.

"Michaela." He could scarcely find his voice.

She continued her solicitousness. "Is this what you had in mind?" She knew it was.

"Uh-huh." He nodded.

She kissed his temple. "Would you like to know what I was thinking about during the play last night?"

He played along. "What?"

She whispered her answer in his ear.

His eyes widened. "Michaela! I'm shocked at you."

With her fingertips, she began to massage around his ear. Then she softly kissed the lobe. As she moved to kiss him fully on the lips, she lowered her hand to caress his thigh.

Instantly, he came alive. "Ya know those talks ya overheard your sisters havin'?"

She continued her movements. "Mmm-humm."

Sully gulped. "Did they ever talk about doin' this?"

She smiled. "Never."

Her hand found his passion.

Sully could control himself no longer.

"Michaela...." His voice was husky.

"Mmm?" She was pleased at his response.

He stopped momentarily to gaze lovingly into her eyes. "I appreciate your...."

He stopped when she pressed herself against him.

She raised an eyebrow. "My.... enthusiasm?"

He maintained his composure. "Je t'aime, Michaela."

She repositioned herself. "I love you, too."

With that, their teasing banter ended. Both were poised for making love, and when it came, their union was blissful in its gratification and totality.

Afterward, Sully embraced his wife. Then he spoke low:

"I wanna fall asleep by your side.
I wanna dream about you all night long.
If I die, your face is the last thing I wanna see,
An' if I wake, the first when I open my eyes.
I gave ya my heart nearly 14 years ago.
I gave ya my hand almost three years later.
I give ya my soul every time ya look at me."

"Sully, what a beautiful sentiment." Michaela was overcome by emotion.

"It's how I feel." He gently touched the moisture on her cheeks. "Never, ever believe for one second that what we got ain't natural. There's nothin' more natural than you an' me wantin' t' share the joys of bein' in love."

"Thank you for always patiently reminding me what I should keep foremost in my heart," she responded.

Enfolded in one another's arms, they soon fell asleep.

************

The late April day brought sunshine and warmer temperatures to Colorado Springs. After church, Michaela and Sully loaded the children into the surrey and headed out to the Garden of the Gods. When they arrived, the parents spread a quilt on the ground and began to set out their picnic lunch.

After they ate, the children wanted to climb and run. Sully indulged them, while Michaela stayed behind with Hope. The baby babbled merrily and clapped her little hands together as she watched her siblings.

Suddenly, Michaela heard Noah crying. "What's wrong?"

The little boy rushed to his mother.

"Noah," Michaela held his hand. "What's wrong, Sweetheart?"

As he continued to wail, Sully came to them holding Josef under his arm. "You sit here," he directed his older son.

Josef sat contritely and turned his lower lip under.

"Sully," Michaela set the baby on the quilt and drew Noah onto her lap. "What happened?"

"Josef hit him," Sully stated.

"He hit me first," Josef countered.

Michaela frowned. "Josef, you know better than to do this. Why would you hit your brother?"

"T' teach him a lesson," the child answered.

"What lesson?" Michaela probed.

"I teached him t' not hit me," the little boy replied.

In his mother's arms, Noah began to calm.

Sully stood over Josef frowning. "Boys, it ain't right t' hit."

Josef explained, "Wendell said ya hit Mr. Lodge."

Sully was struck by the revelation that his sons were imitating his behavior.

Michaela noticed her husband's expression, then turned to Josef. "I want you to apologize to Noah right now."

Josef hesitated.

Sully added, "What are ya waitin' for? Do what your Ma says."

Josef looked up. "Papa, did you 'pologize t' Mr. Lodge?"

"Josef Michael Sully," Michaela spoke sternly. "You do as you're told."

Taking a deep breath, Josef turned to his brother. "I'm sowwy, Noah."

Noah reached for his hand. "I sawwy."

The two boys shook hands and within seconds were bosom buddies again.

Sully ordered, "All right now, fetch your sisters. It's nearly time t' go home."

Michaela glanced up at her husband. "I can't believe Josef did that. He's normally such a doting brother."

"I figure he's just tired," Sully excused.

When the children reached their parents, Hope stood up and clutched her mother's hand.

"Sully...." Michaela anticipated her first steps. "Look."

"I see her." He smiled as he reached out his hands to the little girl. "Come on, Hope. Walk t' Papa. You can do it."

Noah demonstrated. "Like me, Hopie."

Hope watched her brother.

Michaela noticed the intensity of the baby's expression. "Watch Noah, Sweetheart. You can do it."

Still holding her mother's hand, Hope ventured one step. Then she let go and took two more.

Sully encouraged, "That's right. Come on."

Hope wobbled a few more steps until she reached her father. The children applauded.

As Sully embraced the little girl, Michaela's eyes moistened.

Josef commended, "Ya did good, Hope. Now ya can walk jus' like us."

Her face beaming with excitement, Hope applauded herself. "Ood!"

"Very good, Sweetheart," Michaela commended. "And you did it before your first birthday."

Josef approached his father. "Papa, Mama called Hope 'Sweetheart.' I jus' want ya t' know I thought of terms of underment for you an' Mama."

"I can't wait t' hear, Joe," Sully mused.

************
Chapter 11
************

Michaela was interested in her son's idea. "What names did you choose, Josef?"

The little boy pointed to his mother. "You can be 'Muffet.'"

Michaela smiled. "As in 'Miss Muffet'?"

"Yep," Josef informed her.

Michaela probed further. "And what about Papa?"

"He's 'Spider,'" Josef noted. "'Cause Spider sat beside Miss Muffet. Ya like 'em?"

Sully remained straight-faced. "That's real good, Joe. But didn't the Spider frighten Miss Muffet away?"

The little boy pondered. "It's just names, Papa. You don' have t' act like they's weal."

Sully chuckled. "Good thinkin'. I doubt if your Ma wants t' eat curds an' whey."

Josef tilted his head quizzically. "I always wonder what they are."

Michaela explained, "They're made from milk."

"Oh." The little boy accepted.

Katie chimed in, "What's a tuffet?"

Michaela noted, "It's a small stool."

Sully turned to his wife, "Well, Muffet, I guess we best get the kids home."

She played along, "All right, Spider."

Katie frowned, "Joey, I don't like those names for Mama an' Poppy."

He put his hands on his hips. "You got any better ideas?"

Katie answered, "They should call each other whatever they want."

The little boy put his head down. "I was only twyin' t' help."

Michaela drew him into her arms. "Papa and I are quite grateful that you would want us to have endearing names for one another, Josef."

Katie felt a pang of guilt. "I'm sorry, Joey."

At that moment, Hope toddled over to her brother and put her arms around him.

Josef looked at her in awe. "Hope walked t' me!"

Sully clapped his hands. "Okay, kids, let's pack up. Time t' go home."

************

Sully lowered the lamp and climbed into bed. "I think we waited too late in life t' have children."

Michaela was surprised. "What do you mean?"

"My back," he noted. "The kids wore me out today."

Michaela ordered him, "Roll onto your stomach. I'll put some liniment on it."

"You don't have to," he resisted.

She rose from the bed and went to his chest of drawers. Retrieving the soothing liquid, she returned to his side. Sully positioned himself on his stomach. Michaela poured some of the oil into her palm, then began to rub it soothingly across his aching muscles. Her hands worked their magic. Sully could feel the tension and pain leave.

He smiled. "Mmm, you got a way about ya, Michaela."

"I do?" she mused.

"Mmm-hmm." He closed his eyes to savor the warmth of her touch.

After several minutes of her massaging his back, Michaela noticed that her husband had fallen asleep. She went to the basin to wash her hands, then turned to gaze at him.

How she adored watching Sully while he slept. What he had endured in Georgia broke her heart. But now, safe in their home, she would ensure that no one ever took him from her again.

Though Sully had not discussed it with her, Michaela knew that what had happened with their sons' punching one another today weighed heavily on him. He had nothing to feel guilty for. She normally abhorred violence, but she understood Sully's actions toward Preston.

Daunting as the prospect was, starting a bank to end Preston's monopoly was the right course of action. Of that she was certain. Any fears and doubts she had felt ebbed when she looked at Sully peacefully at sleep. She was certain that once he truly felt safe again, the nightmares would cease. Stopping Preston would guarantee Sully's safety.

************

Colorado Springs bustled in the early Monday morning hours. Sully tentatively stepped into the bank.

Myra spotted him immediately but kept her voice low. "Hey, Sully."

"Myra," he acknowledged.

"What brings ya here?" She was puzzled.

He gestured toward the banker. "I come t' see Preston."

Myra's eyes widened. "Ya gonna hit him again?"

"That ain't my intention," Sully avowed.

By this time, Preston had noticed his presence and approached. "My, my. The mountain man has left his lair. To what do we owe the honor?"

Sully eyed him cooly. "I came t' talk."

"Talk?" Preston grinned. "That's not one of your strong points, is it now?"

Sully kept his calm. "So, can we talk?"

Preston motioned toward his desk. "Of course. Please, have a seat."

With Myra watching intently, Sully stepped toward the back of the bank to Preston's desk.

Sitting opposite the banker, the mountain man opened the conversation. "I'm here t' talk about what's happened between you an' me."

"You mean your unprovoked attack on me upon your return to Colorado Springs?" Preston mentioned.

Sully's jaw tensed. "Yea. I.... I wanna apologize."

Preston grinned. "Apologize? Did Michaela put you up to this?"

"No," Sully returned.

Preston leaned forward on his elbows anticipating more. "What's your real purpose in coming here?"

Sully attempted to reason. "Truth is, this feud you got with me.... it's gone far enough. I don't want my wife or kids gettin' hurt anymore. You don't like me, an' I don't like you. That ain't gonna change. But we need t' put that aside for the good of others."

Preston posed the question. "Why this sudden change in attitude?"

Sully folded his arms. "I reckon we gotta think about folks other than ourselves."

Preston tapped his fingers on the desk, then stood to look out his window as he considered Sully's words. "Well, being a reasonable man, of course, I am willing to think about the good of others."

As the banker spoke, Sully noticed the top sheet of paper on a stack to the left side of Preston's desk. He quickly skimmed it, recognizing Michaela's name and the mention of a bank.

Preston turned around to face him. "So, you are proposing a truce."

Sully nodded. "Right."

"Agreed," Preston consented.

Sully's eyes narrowed. "Just like that?"

"You expected more?" he questioned.

"No strings attached?" Sully added.

Preston raised his hands. "No strings. I think it's a good business practice to mend fences with the husband of our fair town's preeminent physician."

"Business," Sully uttered.

He refrained from saying more. Then after a nod, he turned to depart the bank. Hank noticed his exit and approached him on the street.

The sheriff smirked. "You beat the hell outa him again?"

Sully chuckled. "Temptin' as that is, I made a truce instead."

Hank's eyes widened. "A truce? You been drinkin' more than that sarsaparilla?"

"Nope, I'm sober," Sully assured. "See ya, Hank."

With that, he walked toward the Mercantile. As Sully strolled along, he contemplated what he had read on Preston's desk.

Preston knows about Michaela's bank, he thought. Surely, Myra didn't tell him. And it was doubtful that Horace or Andrew had either. Then Sully wondered how the banker might try to block Michaela's efforts. He grew more concerned. Michaela was up against more than she knew, and somehow, some way, he had to help her.

************

Colleen entered the office she shared with her mother at the hospital. "Hey, Ma."

Michaela raised her head from her reading. "Colleen. Good morning. I thought you were taking the morning off."

"I came in early to catch up on some patient charts," she replied.

Michaela recalled, "Sully and I didn't see you at the play."

"I didn't go," Colleen revealed.

She inquired, "Why not?"

"Andrew asked me to go elsewhere," Colleen answered.

She probed further. "Where?"

Colleen sighed. "Ma.... He wants to start courting me."

Michaela's eyes widened. "Courting you?"

"Yes." Colleen nodded. "Rather than go to the play, we rode over to Manitou."

"Oh?" She was surprised.

The daughter shrugged. "It was a pleasant enough evening."

Michaela anticipated more. "Only pleasant?"

Colleen studied her face. "That's all, Ma."

She inquired, "Do you feel anything toward him?"

Colleen contemplated. "Sometimes I think I do.... but.... truthfully, I'm not sure."

"I see." Michaela nodded.

The young woman leaned forward to speak low. "I know we've had talks before about love, but...."

Michaela wondered why she stopped. "But what?"

She took a deep breath. "Remember those dime novels and serials I read when I was younger?"

Michaela smiled. "How could I forget?"

Colleen confided, "I wanted to be swept off my feet. I wanted to be in love with my whole heart."

"Isn't that how it was with Andrew and you, at least in the beginning?" Michaela assumed.

She shrugged. "I thought it was. He was so handsome."

"He still is," Michaela pointed out.

Colleen folded her hands on her lap. "I don't know. Lewis is handsome, as well."

The mother posed the question. "Do you think you're in love with Lewis?"

"Is it possible to love two men at the same time?" Colleen ventured.

Michaela recalled, "I once asked Sully the same question."

"What did he say?" Colleen was curious.

Michaela stated, "Paraphrasing, he told me, 'If you were one of the men, would you want her to?"

"I suppose it's not fair to Andrew or to Lewis," Colleen interpreted. "I can't let them both think I'm interested if I'm not."

"Sweetheart." Michaela offered her support. "I wish I knew a way to help you."

"I know I have to find happiness for myself," Colleen spoke.

Michaela noticed her expression. "Happiness first comes from within oneself. Are you truly happy with yourself?"

"What do you mean?" She was uncertain.

"Well, do you find fulfillment with your life.... with your profession?" Michaela was direct.

Colleen hesitated. "I.... I guess so. It's what I've wanted to be since I met you."

"And we had some arguments about it when you wanted to go off with Gilda St. Clair," Michaela remembered. "You accused me of being like my mother in trying force you to do something against your will."

"I'm sorry about that, Ma," Colleen regretted.

"My point is, if my guiding you in the direction of medicine made you choose a profession you don't like...." She was interrupted by her daughter.

"No, you didn't make me do it," Colleen assured. "It was my choice."

Michaela commended, "You are an extremely gifted physician, and medicine is the better for having you."

"Thanks." Colleen's cheeks flushed. "In answer to your question, I don't regret becoming a doctor. Sometimes I think it's the only thing I do enjoy."

"Sweetheart, I wish there were something I could do to help you sort through the feelings you're having," Michaela remarked.

"That's just it, Ma, I don't really have feelings about anything," the young woman admitted.

Michaela was disturbed at the revelation. "What about your family?"

"That's not what I mean," she clarified. "I'm talking about.... well, feelings toward a romantic relationship."

Michaela observed, "Colleen, you haven't given yourself time to heal since your divorce. It's been terribly painful for you."

Tears appeared in the young woman's eyes, "Ma, it's hard to talk about it."

Michaela stood and went to her.

Embracing her daughter, she invited, "Perhaps it's time you did. I'm willing to listen."

Colleen began tentatively, "When I got married, I thought I would be so happy. I had dreams, and I had the man I thought I wanted to spend my life with. When I realized he wasn't, I denied the doubts. I felt guilty. Andrew had never given me reason to not love him. But.... in time, I knew that we weren't right for one another."

"I remember when we came to visit you in medical school," Michaela thought back. "You were having difficulties even then. You were both too busy to spend time together."

Colleen reminisced, "So you and Pa took us to the opera. La Traviata, as I recall."

"There's a lot to be said for the power of a romantic play." She smiled. "Perhaps if you had come to see Camille...."

Colleen chuckled. "If only something as simple as a play could make things better."

"I know," Michaela acknowledged. "When your Aunt Marjorie went through her divorce, she was beside herself. She felt quite insecure and wondered if she would ever find happiness."

"She found it for a time with Loren," Colleen pointed out.

Michaela mused, "A most unlikely pairing, but yes, he made her very happy. And I truly believe that you'll find happiness, too. You're young and beautiful, with so much to offer the right man when he comes along."

"How can I be sure it's not Lewis, or even Andrew?" she wondered.

"All I can say is that when he does come along, you won't be able to deny your feelings," Michaela spoke from experience. "In the meantime, I want you to feel free to talk with me as often as you wish."

"Thanks, Ma," Colleen smiled. "It helps knowing I can come to you. I know you're busy with the kids and...."

She interjected, "Never too busy for you."

Colleen inquired, "By the way, how are the children?"

Michaela's eyes brightened with pride. "Hope took her first steps."

Colleen smiled. "That's wonderful."

"We're having a small birthday party for her this evening, if you can make it," she invited. "It's just family."

"I'd love to come." She nodded.

************
Chapter 12
************

Sully finished rubbing polish on the fine mantel just as General Palmer entered the room.

Palmer commended, "I'm glad you were available to work on this, Sully. There's no better carpenter in Colorado."

Sully was humble. "Don't know about that, but I'd say there's no finer house in Colorado."

Palmer stood straight and put his hands on his hips. "How I wish I could hear the sounds of my little girls' laughter filling it."

Sully nodded. "Kids sure do have a way of makin' a house a home."

"Now." Palmer paused to reach into his pocket for an envelope. "Here's payment for your work."

Sully accepted it. "Much obliged."

Palmer offered, "Can I get you something to drink?"

"Water's fine," he answered.

Palmer walked to his beverage cart and poured him a glass. "I know you're quite an expert on the land around here, Sully. And I know that you've opposed a lot of its development, especially that brought on by my railroad."

Sully sipped the water without responding.

Palmer came to the point. "I'd like your advice about something."

"My advice?" Sully pointed to himself. "'Bout what?"

"When Colorado Springs was founded, you and I were younger men," he explained. "I don't think I fully realized the impact of all that I started. But now, I have children. So do you. I see things differently. At the rate the town is expanding, I'm afraid our children won't be able to enjoy the beauty of their surroundings. What has already been built should be treasured, but.... Well, how can we have both progress and keep Colorado Springs a beautiful city to rival those east of the Mississippi?"

Sully considered his answer carefully. "I always though it'd be good t' have more trees in town. Ya know, line the streets with 'em. Then put parks where there ain't any buildin's. They don't have t' be big like New York's Central Park, but any green places would be good."

Palmer contemplated. "Trees.... Yes, I like that idea."

Sully noted, "Michaela tried t' get it passed by the town council a few years ago, but they wasn't willin' t' spend the money on it."

He was puzzled. "Given your wife's inheritance and proclivity for charitable endeavors, I'm surprised she hasn't offered to pay for it herself."

Sully shook his head. "Last time the town council brought it up, she didn't have the money. I kinda forgot about it 'til now."

The General gestured toward himself. "Well, I'd like to pay for it now. I can supply the trees. You plant them. Hire men to help you, if you want."

"But...." Sully began to protest, then stopped. He liked the idea. "What kinda trees ya have in mind?"

"How about cottonwoods?" the General proposed. "They're fast growing."

"Might have some trouble gettin' enough water t' the roots," Sully speculated.

"Then build some irrigation canals, too," Palmer added. "You have to dream big, Sully."

He rubbed his chin. "I reckon ya do."

Palmer glanced at his watch. "It's going on noon. Will you stay for lunch? I'd like to discuss some more ideas with you."

Sully knew that Michaela would be coming home for lunch, but he wanted to continue his discussion with the General. "You think one o' your workers could go t' my homestead, an' tell Michaela where I am? She's expectin' me."

"Certainly," Palmer agreed.

************

The children helped spread the icing on Hope's birthday cake. It was all Bridget could do to keep them from icing one another in the process. Positioned in her high chair, the baby was attempting to climb out of it. Michaela spotted her.

Lifting the child and setting her on the floor, the concerned mother warned, "No, Hope, you have to wait for someone to help you out. You could fall and hurt yourself."

"Ma...." she pointed to the cake.

Michaela smiled. "That's your birthday cake, my darling. After dinner, you'll get to blow out your first candle."

Katie came to them. "Didn't you have my first birthday party in the meadow?"

"That's right," Michaela recalled. "And Wolf ate your first slice of cake."

Katie giggled.

Josef wondered. "What about my first birthday?"

Michaela remembered. "We had a small party for you because Katie was still recuperating from her surgery. As I recall, you were going through a stage of removing your socks at every opportunity. You proceeded to take off your socks and put them on the cake."

The children laughed.

Katie added, "That was when I fell off Flash."

"You gave us quite a scare, young lady." Michaela's tone was serious.

Katie pointed out. "Everybody's okay now, Mama. So, we can all eat cake."

"One piece after dinner," Michaela advised. Eying the clock, she sighed. "I don't know what can be keeping your father. Mr. Palmer's workman said he was staying at Glen Eyrie for lunch, but he should have been home by now."

At that moment, the front door opened.

Sully removed his coat. "Sorry I'm late." Then handing his wife his pay envelope, he smiled. "Look at this, Michaela. Look what Palmer paid me for my work."

Her eyes widened as she counted. "Sully!"

Sully drew her into his embrace. "Know what else?"

"What?" She rested her hands on his shoulders.

Sully detailed, "He wants me t' plant a bunch o' trees t' line the streets of Colorado Springs. Wants me t' create some small parks, too, as the town spreads out."

Michaela noted the enthusiasm in his voice. "I haven't heard you this excited since your early days with the Parks Service."

He grinned. "Michaela, this is gonna be big. Real big. There's no reason for the town council t' say 'no,' since he's payin' for it. An' it'll be steady work for a long time t' come. Even better, I don't have t' travel t' do it."

"Speaking of travel, will we still be able to see Brian this summer?" she mentioned.

"I'll make my own schedule," he noted. "Should be able t' take a couple weeks by say, late June, early July."

She turned up the corner of her mouth in a smile. "It appears we have more to celebrate than a birthday tonight."

At that moment, Sully felt something tapping at his knee. He looked down. It was Hope, standing on her own.

He lifted the baby. "Look at this little girl. Happy Birthday, Hope."

She pointed toward the cake, "Hungy."

"Okay." Sully kissed her cheek. "Let's eat."

************

Michaela finished brushing her hair and turned to look at Sully as he played with Hope on the bed. "My goodness. Isn't that little girl sleepy yet?"

"Don't look like it," Sully returned. "She must still be excited from all the cake an' gifts."

"I believe she received more than our others on their first birthdays," Michaela calculated.

"Could be." He lifted the baby and carried her to the rocker. "Maybe this'll help."

Michaela came over to sit beside them. "Sully, I'm concerned about Colleen."

"She seemed pretty quiet at supper," he noticed.

Michaela analyzed, "She and I had a talk today. Her divorce is affecting her more than I realized."

"Divorce is real hard," he sympathized. "But I reckon it's better than stayin' in a marriage ya don't want."

"She doesn't know what she wants anymore," Michaela informed him. "She's lost her way."

Sully clasped his wife's hand. "She'll find it."

"I don't know what to tell her to do," Michaela's shoulders slumped.

Sully counseled, "Sometimes ya don't have t' say a word in order t' help someone. She knows you're here. She knows you'll listen."

Michaela leaned her head against her husband's shoulder and caressed Hope's cheek. "I hate to see her so lost."

He squeezed her hand slightly. "I know. But she's gotta find her own way on this."

Michaela gazed into his eyes with love, "I'm so very proud of you, Sully."

He was surprised. "Proud of me? Why?"

"Your work for General Palmer," she mentioned. "You'll be able to do so much for Colorado Springs. He recognizes your talent."

Sully grinned. "Never thought of myself as havin' talent."

Michaela noticed that Hope had fallen asleep. "What about your talent for lulling our children to sleep?"

He winked. "Maybe I oughta become a teacher."

She took Hope from his arms and kissed the baby's forehead. "Happy first birthday, my darling."

"Quite a day for her." Sully stroked the baby's arm.

They placed the child in her crib and pulled a blanket up to provide warmth for her. Then the parents climbed into bed. Settling in each other's arms, they lay quietly.

Sully comforted, "Colleen's gonna be okay, Michaela."

"I can't help but worry," she admitted.

He smiled. "I know."

She fell silent again.

Sully decided to broach the subject. "I went t' Preston's bank this mornin'."

Stunned, she sat up. "You what?"

"I went t' talk with him," Sully told her.

She tensed.

He stroked her arm. "I apologized for punchin' him."

Her eyes narrowed. "Sully...."

Sully went on, "I told him we oughta set aside differences for the sake of others."

She climbed out of bed. "I can't believe you did this. He's our enemy. He nearly destroyed us."

"Michaela." He endeavored to explain, "After what happened with our boys hittin' each other, it's clear I gotta set a better example."

"And what kind of example does it set for Preston?" she posed the question. "He'll merely perceive this as a sign of weakness."

"He knows I ain't weak," Sully countered.

Exhaling to calm herself, she made no reply.

"Don't be mad." Sully reached for her.

Michaela turned away.

Sully sighed and drew on his buckskins. Then he lifted his pillow. "I was hopin' you'd understand."

With that, he exited the bedroom.

Michaela shook her head. How could Sully have gone to the man who wishes him dead? What had happened to her husband? He had stood up to many men who threatened their family in the past. Why wouldn't he stand up to Preston?

************

Sully set his pillow by the living room hearth. Wolf looked up at him.

"Don't ask," Sully spoke to the animal as he sat on the floor.

Wolf came over to him and whimpered.

Sully leaned back so that he could look up at the mantel photographs. Happy times. Happy faces. His eyes settled on the wedding portrait. Michaela was so beautiful that day. But then, she was beautiful every day.

He folded his arms across his chest and glanced at Wolf. "I reckon she thinks less o' me for doin' this. Prob'ly thinks I'm yellow."

************

Michaela paced. She was increasingly concerned that Sully was withdrawing from her rather than resolving their disagreements through discussion. Just how much had Andersonville changed him, she wondered. Or perhaps it had prompted him to return to his old life as a solitary man.

************

Sully felt torn. He wanted to apologize for walking out on Michaela. It had taken many years of marriage for him to overcome his penchant for walking out, rather than talking through their disagreements. He sighed in frustration. There was no one on earth whose opinion mattered more to him than Michaela's. But.... she wasn't thinking clearly on this. How could he make her see.....

"Sully...." Michaela's voice beckoned from the bottom of the steps.

He stood up and went to her.

Hesitating at first, they both spoke at the same time. "I'm sorry."

They embraced. Then Michaela pulled back and framed his face in her hands. Her touch was tender. Sully raised her left hand to his lips and kissed her rings. Silently, they went up the steps and reentered their bedroom. They settled into bed again, each reluctant to speak.

Michaela finally broke the silence. "I can only imagine his reply."

"Who?" Sully was uncertain.

"Preston's," she answered. "When you apologized."

Sully informed her, "He agreed with me. Said it was good business."

She rolled her eyes. "Business, of course."

Sully paused, then said, "I found out somethin' else while I was there. I saw a paper on his desk. It had your name on it, an' it had somethin' about a bank charter."

She was horrified. "Sully! How could he have found out?"

He assured, "I don't think Myra would tell, but Preston has his ways. He finds out things."

"Then I'll have to act quickly," she reasoned. "He may have had time to formulate a plan to block my efforts."

"Michaela...." Sully started.

She was adamant. "Don't try to talk me out of this."

Sully touched her chin. "Sooner or later, if ya don't let go of grudges, they take over. Remember the bad feelin's Loren had toward me all those years?"

"That was different," she pointed out. "His daughter had died, and in his grief, he had needed someone to blame. You didn't have anything to do with Abigail's passing. Preston, on the other hand, has been quite active in trying to hurt us without any provocation."

Sully countered, "I ain't sayin' Preston's gonna change. He's still gonna be the connivin' snake he's always been. I'm gonna keep a cold eye on him an' never turn my back, but I ain't gonna be obsessed with gettin' back at him."

She tensed. "Are you saying that's what I've been doing?"

He ran his finger along her jaw. "I'm sayin'.... take a look at how ya been thinkin' an' feelin'. Is he worth all the upset?"

She pondered his words. "Sully, I don't think I can let go of the anger I feel toward him."

He nodded in understanding. "Lettin' go's hard. But if you're holdin' on t' your anger, it takes away from holdin' on t' the things ya love."

She avowed, "It's precisely because I love you, that I want to stop him."

"Listen t' yourself, Michaela." Sully paused. "Look at how often we talk about him. More than we talk about our own family."

She felt a lump in her throat. "Sully, you know what it feels like to lose your spouse. Don't you understand what I went through without you?"

He gently guided her into his embrace. "But ya didn't lose me. I'm right here."

Her eyes reddened. "Preston brought Tague here. They made me think you were dead. I.... I couldn't...."

She was reduced to tears.

Sully encircled her quivering body in his arms. "It's okay. Let it out."

For several minutes, she wept. When her emotions began to ebb, there was a soft knock at the door.

Sully spoke low, "Who is it?"

"Me, Papa." It was Josef's voice.

Michaela quickly wiped the tears from her cheeks as her husband drew on his buckskins. Then she nodded to Sully to open the door.

The little boy entered his parents' room. "I think I hear someone cryin'. I came t' check on Hope."

Sully gestured toward the crib. "She's sleepin', Joe. You should be, too."

The child folded his arms. "I got a question."

Michaela had composed herself. "What's your question?"

Josef turned to the bed and climbed up beside her. Then he whispered, "Was you the one cryin', Mama?"

She could not lie. "I was having a few moments, yes."

Josef tenderly stroked her cheek. "What kinda moments?"

Michaela defined, "Moments when I simply needed to cry. But it's nothing for you to worry about."

"I don' like my girls cwyin'." Josef sweetly kissed her cheek. "It makes me sad inside."

She marveled at her son. "You sound like your Papa."

Josef glanced toward his father. "You won' let her cry no more. 'Kay, Papa?"

"Okay, Joe," Sully agreed.

Then the little boy leaned closer to his mother again. "Did Papa call ya Muffet?"

She stifled a laugh. "Why do you ask?"

"I jus' wondered." He shrugged.

Sully lifted him up. "Come on, big boy. Back t' bed."

When father and son departed, Michaela began to ponder what Sully had said. In some respects, her husband was right. Thoughts of how to stop Preston had been dominating her time. But was revenge what she wanted? Had it become.... an obsession?

"No." She shook her head.

Sully overheard as he returned to the bedroom. "No what?"

"No.... no more thoughts of Preston tonight," she answered.

Sully removed his buckskins and slid back into bed beside her.

She rolled closer and rested her head against his shoulder. "I love you, Sully."

He placed his hand gently on hers as it lay atop his chest. "I love you, too."

Her thoughts drifted to the day's activities. "Can you believe our little Hope is a year old?"

"Nope." He smiled. "Seems like only yesterday she was born in the new hospital."

"And you had lost your sight." She sighed uncomfortably. "None of our babies entered this world in uneventful circumstances."


He chuckled. "That's what ya get for leavin' the comforts of Boston."

She lifted up to look into his eyes. "I wouldn't have met you had I stayed in Boston."

He smiled. "Then I'm real glad ya didn't."

Leaning over to his cheek, she whispered, "Good night, Spider."

He grinned impishly, "'Night, Muffet."

Michaela turned up the corner of her lips in a smile. "I may have to stay away from your web, Spider."

He kissed her sweetly. "I'm more like the wolf spider. It don't spin a web. It hunts its prey."

"Am I your prey?" She posed the question coyly.

He smirked. "Only if ya wanna be."

She ran her fingers through his hair. "I'd rather be your partner."

"I guess that could be arranged." He kissed her softly.

They closed their eyes. After several minutes, each thought the other had fallen asleep, but thoughts of their future.... of Preston.... occupied their minds. It would be another restless night.

************
Chapter 13
************

Preston looked up from his ledger book in the Chateau office. Rubbing his eyes, he rose from his chair. He had not been able to concentrate on the numbers because his mind kept returning to his visit from Sully earlier in the day.

He folded his hands. "Why did you really come to see me, Sully?"

He doubted that Michaela had put him up to it. "Perhaps Hank...." He quickly dismissed the notion. "No. But I intend to find out why. A man like you does not simply make peace unless...."

Preston's face paled. "Does he know something?"

He frowned. "There is no way he could have found out that Penberthy told me about Michaela's little banking game. Then what else could it be?"

Sighing, he loosened his tie and glanced at the clock. "Going on midnight. I suppose the good Sullys are tucked away in their little cabin for the night."

The thought of going to bed alone.... again.... disturbed Preston. Sighing in frustration, he poured himself a glass of scotch. Then he sat down at his desk again. He pulled open one of the desk drawers. After sifting through some papers, he found the photograph of Michaela which he kept at the bottom.

He lifted it and set it on his desk. "So beautiful.... passionate.... fiery."

A light knock on his door interrupted his reverie. Swiftly, he returned the photo to his desk. "Who is it?"

Andrew's voice spoke from the other side of the door. "It's me, Preston. I saw the light under your door. May I come in?"

"Certainly." He sat up straighter.

Andrew entered the room.

"Have a seat." Preston gestured toward the chair opposite himself. "What are you doing up so late?"

"Couldn't sleep," Andrew returned. "You?"

Preston sipped, "Would you like some scotch?"

"No, thank you." Andrew shook his head.

Preston was beginning to feel the effects of the liquor. "So, what's on your mind?"

Andrew inhaled deeply, then slowly let out the cleansing air. "What's always on my mind?"

"Colleen." Preston assumed.

The young man nodded. "I don't know, Preston. I keep getting somewhat confusing messages from her."

"She sends you messages?" The banker leaned back in his chair.

Andrew smiled. "No, I mean, at times she's her old self and appears to like my company. Then at other times, she's cold and aloof."

"Women." Preston sighed.

Andrew tilted his head. "Don't tell me you're still pining for Michaela."

"Don't be ridiculous," he denied.

Andrew requested, "Maybe I will have that drink after all."

Preston poured a glass for him, then raised his own in a toast. "To unrequited love."

Andrew nodded in agreement.

************

As the Colorado sun rose in the sky, Sully approached the Indian school and spotted Cloud Dancing.

Dismounting his horse, he embraced his Cheyenne brother. "It's good t' see ya."

"And to see you," Cloud Dancing replied. "The children will be glad you have come. They have worked on a dance."

"I'd love t' see it," Sully remarked.

Cloud Dancing noticed, "You are eating well."

Sully chuckled. "That's a nice way of sayin' I put on some weight."

He smiled. "You needed to, my brother. How are Dr. Mike and the children?"

Sully informed him with pride, "Hope's walkin' now. Just had her first birthday. Katie an' Josef are doin' real good in school. An' the twins.... well, they're gettin' int' everythin'."

"That is good," he acknowledged with a smile.

Sully walked with him toward his friend's lodge.

Cloud Dancing perceived, "You did not say how Dr. Mike is."

"I'm worried about her," Sully admitted. "She's real bent on goin' after Preston."

The medicine man nodded. "It is understandable."

"You know her, Cloud Dancin'." Sully paused. "She don't have a mean bone in her body. But the way she talks about stoppin' him from ever hurtin' us again.... it ain't like her."

"The desire for revenge is strong." He nodded.

"After Washita, you rode with the dog soldiers on account o' what Custer did there," Sully remembered. "It wasn't like you either."

"And it brought no comfort to me," he added. "What about you, my brother? Do you not want revenge for the part Preston played in your being taken to Atlanta?"

"I gotta admit, part o' me does," Sully confided. "That's why I punched him when I got home. But, then I started thinkin' about how my kids would see me for doin' that."

"What does Dr. Mike want to do to stop Preston from ever hurting you again?" Cloud Dancing queried.

Sully detailed, "She wants t' start another bank in town t' give him competition."

"This other bank would be good for the town, would it not?" Cloud Dancing observed.

"Sure, but I also found out Preston knows about her plan," Sully detailed. "No tellin' what he'll do t' stop it. I'm worried about her, Cloud Dancin'. Seems like it's all she talks about anymore."

They entered the medicine man's lodge.

Cloud Dancing gestured for Sully to sit, then spoke softly, "I must tell you something. I have never seen Dr. Mike like she was when she thought you were dead. You and I know what such a loss is like."

Sully pointed out, "I understand that. Sure. But, like I told her, she didn't lose me. I'm home now."

"Maybe she is still grieving," Cloud Dancing speculated.

Sully tilted his head quizzically. "But I ain't dead."

"Dr. Mike was given a vision of what could have been," the Cheyenne friend noted. "Sometimes that is more terrifying than what is."

Sully contemplated his words. "You sayin' she still thinks I'm dead?"

"The mind and heart do not always see eye to eye," he spoke. "Her mind knows that you are alive. Her heart fears that if she does not act to stop Preston, the vision of what might have been could really happen."

Sully folded his arms. "What can I do t' help her?"

"You must work on the heart." He gestured toward Sully's chest. "Yours as well as hers."

"My heart?" Sully was surprised.

"It is troubled with memories of your time in Atlanta," he perceived.

Sully sensed, "The Spirits told ya?"

"You have dreams." The medicine man knew. "And this troubles Dr. Mike."

"I tried t' keep it from her," Sully admitted.

Cloud Dancing shook his head. "The bond between you and Dr. Mike is too close for secrets. If one heart is troubled, the other is, as well."

"How can we mend?" Sully asked.

He replied, "The two of you must go to a place where you can cleanse your hearts."

Sully contemplated, "A sweat lodge?"

"It does not have to be a ceremony," he counseled. "But it must be soon."

Sully nodded in agreement.

Cloud Dancing added, "There is more than one way to do something, my brother."

"What do ya mean?" Sully was uncertain.

His friend pointed out, "This bank. Is Dr. Mike's way the only way?"

Sully smiled. "Maybe not."

************

Hope stood up in her crib and bounced. "Mama, up!"

Michaela opened an eye and sighed. "It can't be morning." Slowly, she sat up. "Sully?"

He was not in the room.

"Mama." Hope called again.

Michaela drew on her robe and went to the crib. "Good morning, my darling. How is my one year old?

"Kib, Mama." The little girl smiled.

"Kib?" Michaela questioned as she lifted her.

Hope puckered her lips and kissed her mother's cheek.

Michaela smiled. "Oh, kiss."

"Kib." She kissed her mother again.

Michaela obliged and kissed her back. "Can you say kiss?"

Hope watched her mother's lips intently. "Kiff."

"Kiss," Michaela repeated.

Hope smiled.

Michaela stroked her dark curly tresses. "It will come."

She set the baby on the bed.

"I wonder where your father is," Michaela spoke softly.

"Papa," Hope pointed to the door.

Michaela could hear the other children as they descended the steps. The smell of bacon and coffee wafted up to her room.

"It appears we're the last to rise," Michaela commented as she leaned her elbows on the bed to speak to her daughter.

"Up," Hope requested.

Michaela took a deep breath and glanced toward the bank charter papers.

She felt a lump in her throat. "Oh, Hope. What am I going to do?"

The baby noticed the change in her mother's voice.

She reached toward Michaela's lips. "Kiff."

************

Sister Mary Martha rushed into Colleen's office. "Dr. Cook. You're needed immediately. Two men who have been brought in. It's Dr. Cook and Mr. Lodge."

Reaching for her stethoscope, Colleen followed immediately. When she arrived in the examining room, she quickly checked their pulses. The smell of liquor filled the air.

"They're drunk!" Colleen frowned.

"Quite," Sister Mary Martha agreed.

Colleen was disgusted. "Were they at the Gold Nugget?"

"No," the nun replied. "They could not be wakened by the Chateau staff this morning."

After further examination, Colleen assessed, "They're cold and clammy."

The sister added, "Their coloring isn't normal either, and respiration is slow."

************

Sully entered the homestead and was quickly greeted by the twins. He swooped them into his arms and kissed their cheeks. Stepping into the kitchen, he smiled at Hope, who was sitting in her high chair.

Bridget noted his arrival. "Where were ya, Lad?"

"I went t' see Cloud Dancin'." Sully set down the twins. "He taught the children there a dance. I want my kids t' see it soon."

"Lord help us when they start dancin' a jig around here," she said with a gleam in her eye.

Sully sat down beside Hope and drew the baby into his arms. "Bridget, would ya mind if Dr. Mike an' me went away for a day or two?"

"I reckon not." She wiped her hands on her apron.

He added, "Matthew an' Emma could help with the kids an' takin' care o' the animals."

"Where might you two be goin'?" she inquired.

"Up t' our special mountain," he responded. "I think it might do us both good t' get away."

The nanny nodded. "Aye, it might at that."

************

Michaela was met at the hospital door by Sister Mary Martha, who filled her in on their two newest patients. When Michaela climbed the steps to Andrew's room, she found Colleen sitting beside the bed.

Michaela whispered, "How is he?"

"Holding his own." She stood. "Both he and Preston had consumed massive quantities of alcohol."

Michaela looked at Andrew's chart. "His respiration is improving. Has he wakened?"

"Just for a few minutes," she noted. "He was very groggy. Preston hasn't responded at all."

Michaela tensed. "When was the last time you checked on him?"

"Sister Mary Margaret has been with him," Colleen informed her. "I can go check if...."

"Colleen," Andrew's voice was weak.

"Right here." She turned and went to him.

"I.... I'm sorry I...." He struggled to stay awake.

Colleen comforted as she clasped his hand. "You're going to be all right."

Michaela retreated into the hallway and pivoted to look into Preston's room.

Sister Mary Margaret came to her. "Dr. Quinn, Mr. Lodge hasn't regained consciousness."

"I see." Michaela did not move from the hallway.

"Would you like to see his chart?" The nun offered.

Michaela hedged. "Isn't Dr. Cassidy here?"

"Not yet," she replied.

Michaela nodded. "I.... I'll take a look at his chart then, if you wouldn't mind getting it for me."

The sister obliged and retrieved it for her. Reviewing the chart, Michaela glanced at it uncomfortably. Her mind wandered. She began to feel guilty for not caring about Preston's condition. She willed herself to concentrate.

Sister Mary Margaret noticed her demeanor. "Are you all right, Dr. Quinn?"

"Yes, fine." She answered. "I.... uh.... I think it would be best if my daughter saw Mr. Lodge."

"But, Doctor...." Before the nun could finish her sentence, Michaela was gone.

With all speed, Michaela descended the steps and exited the hospital. She quickly mounted Flash and directed her toward home.

************

At the sound of an approaching horse, Sully looked up from his shoveling. It was Michaela racing Flash in his direction. She stopped near him and dismounted the horse.

His brow creased. "Somethin' wrong?"

"I.... I couldn't stay at the hospital," she returned.

He put his arm around her. "You okay?"

"Sully...." She felt herself losing control.

"Hey." He embraced her more fully. "What's wrong?"

She detailed, "Two men were brought in to the hospital unconscious this morning. They were heavily intoxicated. One was Andrew. He appears to be recovering."

"That's good," Sully remarked.

"Colleen's with him," she noted.

Sully probed, "Who's the other man?"

She took a deep breath and sighed. "Preston."

"Oh." He nodded. "He gonna be okay?"

"I.... I don't know." She turned away.

Sully gently drew her back. "You don't wanna treat him?"

Her eyes began to water. "I couldn't, Sully. I just stood there in the hall, paralyzed. I've always been able to put aside my personal feelings in order to adhere to my hippocratic oath. But this time, I couldn't."

He ran his hand up and down her back. "It's understandable. Besides, Colleen's there an' Dr. Cassidy. They can...."

She interrupted, "That's not the point. I'm a doctor. I should have been able to do this."

"You're a human bein'," he reminded. "It's not like there's no one else who could help him."

She wiped the tears as they streamed down her cheeks.

Sully kissed the top of her head. "It's all right."

Michaela looked up at him. "I should go back to the hospital."

"If that's what ya want," he uttered.

She swallowed hard. "I should never have left. I.... I don't know what they must be thinking of me."

"Hey." He clasped her hand. "I got an idea. If things are all right at the hospital.... let's you an' me go away for a day or two."

"What about the children?" she hesitated.

He assured, "They'll be taken care of. I think it would do us good. We can talk."

She considered, "Just the two of us?"

"Uh-huh." He smiled.

She nodded. "I'd like that."

"Good," he informed her. "I'll make the arrangements."

************

Sister Mary Margaret crossed the hall from Preston's room in search of Colleen. "Dr. Cook, I need you. Mr. Lodge has taken a turn for the worse."

Colleen swiftly rose from Andrew's side and entered Preston's room. His breathing was shallow.

Colleen pinched him. "Preston! Preston, it's Colleen Cook. Can you hear me?"

There was no response.

************
Chapter 14
************

In the hospital, Michaela mustered the courage to climb the steps. When she saw her daughter standing in the doorway of Preston's room, a sinking feeling overcame her.

"Ma." Colleen noticed her arrival. "Thank God you're here. It's Preston. He's unresponsive to verbal and physical prompts."

At that moment, they heard a loud gagging noise from the room. Preston had vomited. As Sister Mary Margaret began to clean it up, Preston started to choke. Then he suddenly stopped.

It was on this scene that Michaela entered the room. She touched his wrist to assess his pulse. Feeling nothing, she lifted his eyelids to check his pupils. Swiftly, she rested the bell of her stethoscope on his chest. Her face paled.

Her instincts as a physician took over. "Help me get him on his side."

Colleen and Sister Mary Margaret assisted in rolling Preston onto his side. Michaela attempted to discern if there was anything in his mouth. Then she tilted his head back to insure that his airway was open.

Monitoring his pulse, Colleen advised her, "Nothing."

Michaela steeled herself. "Let's put him on his back again."

After repositioning Preston, Michaela leaned over and touched her lips to his. She breathed strongly into his mouth. There was no reaction. She tried again.

Colleen felt a pulse. "It worked."

The up and down movement of his chest indicated that Preston was breathing again.

Colleen commended, "You saved his life, Ma."

Without replying, Michaela made some notations on Preston's chart, then turned to exit.

Colleen pinched Preston's arm and he flinched.

Leaning closer, she spoke, "Can you hear me?"

He weakly responded, "You don't need to shout."

************

Michaela sat pensively at her desk. She had just saved the life of her worst enemy. She felt slight relief that she was able to do it, especially after running away from her feelings earlier. However, tinged this was the reality of knowing Preston would now be able to continue his battle with Sully. Why did it have to be like this? She had never met anyone who so exasperated her. Nothing seemed to....

"Ma?" Colleen entered the room. "Preston's awake. I told him what you did. He wants to see you."

Michaela glanced at the clock. "Has Dr. Cassidy arrived?"

"Yes," she replied.

Michaela queried further, "How is Andrew?"

Her daughter answered, "Much improved. He was able to eat some soup, and his coloring is better."

"Good." Michaela nodded. "What about you, Sweetheart? I know it must have been terribly difficult for you, seeing him like this."

The daughter assured, "I'm fine. Really. I'm more concerned about you. When you took off like that, I...."

Michaela interjected, "I'm sorry I did that. There's no excuse for a physician...."

This time, it was Colleen who interrupted. "It was perfectly understandable." Pausing to assess her mother's demeanor, she spoke softly, "Ma, you took the time to listen to me. Maybe I could help you."

Michaela contemplated. "Perhaps you can."

She was curious. "How?"

"Would you mind if I didn't come in for a day or two?" Michaela posed the question. "Sully wants us to go away."

Colleen quickly encouraged her. "I can take care of everything. It would be good for you.... both of you."

She embraced her daughter, "Thank you, Colleen."

Michaela donned her coat and lifted her bag, then paused to say, "Tell Preston.... never mind. Don't tell him anything. It would only be a waste of your breath."

************

Sully and Michaela slowed their horses as they neared the base of their special mountain. Dismounting in silence, Sully lifted their blankets, canteens and rations of food from the horses. As Michaela watched, he secured the animals. Followed by Wolf, they began the rest of their upward trek on foot.

Michaela had spoken little on the ride. Sully did not probe, figuring she would talk when she was ready. They both had much to say, but there was no hurry.

When they reached the view they both loved, Sully began to construct a lean-to.

Michaela reasoned, "Are you expecting bad weather?"

He gestured toward the West. "I think we might get some rain."

Michaela began to gather kindling wood for a fire. Working together, they soon established their camp. Then Michaela knelt by the fire, warming some of the food Bridget had sent with them.

As he finished his meal, Sully observed, "You didn't eat much."

"I'm not very hungry." She set her tin plate aside. "You can have mine if you want."

"Maybe you'll eat more later," he noted. Then Sully gazed up at the stars. "Looks like the rain passed us by."

"Yes, it appears so," she agreed.

He scooted closer to her and put his arm around her. "You warm enough?"

"I am now." She smiled.

He informed her. "I went t' see Cloud Dancin' this mornin'."

She was curious, "Was it a good visit?"

"We talked about how things have been between us an' with Preston." Sully was frank.

She stared at the fire. "What did Cloud Dancing say?"

"He's the one who said it would be good for us t' get away." Sully grinned.

She raised an eyebrow. "So this wasn't your idea, Mr. Sully?"

He chuckled. "Well, I sure didn't question it."

She wondered, "Did you tell him about your dreams?"

"The Spirits did," Sully mentioned. "Cloud Dancin' said we need t' cleanse our hearts."

"Cleanse our hearts?" She was puzzled.

Sully went on, "He told me we can't keep secrets from one another 'cause we got so close a bond. If one heart is troubled, so's the other."

"I'm not keeping a secret from you," she avowed.

"I tried t' hide my dreams from you," he admitted.

She pointed out, "But I know about them now. How are we keeping secrets then?"

Sully speculated. "Maybe we should just talk.... see what comes of it."

"What should we discuss?" she questioned.

He broached the subject. "Well, ya didn't say what happened when ya went back t' the hospital t'day."

Michaela tensed and hesitated. Sully gently rubbed her shoulder.

After a sigh, she revealed, "I had to resuscitate Preston."

"Resuscitate?" He was unsure.

"Revive him," Michaela clarified. "His heart and breathing had stopped."

Sully commented, "Is he gonna be okay?"

She did not reply.

"Michaela." He anticipated.

"Yes, he'll be fine," she finally reacted.

Sully encouraged her to say more, "How ya feel about it?"

She stood and walked to the edge of their camp. "How do you think I feel?"

He followed her. "Angry.... guilty...."

She turned to face him, tears in her eyes. "All of those things and so much more. I breathed life back into the man who will continue to be our nemesis." Her anger began to pour forth. "I hate him, Sully. I abhor all that he has done to you, and I saved his life. At the same time, I'm ashamed that I feel this way."

Sully enfolded her in his arms. "You got every right t' feel the way ya do."

"No, I don't," she denied. "I'm a doctor. He was my patient, and I didn't care if he lived or died."

"Yes, ya did," Sully assured. "That's why ya saved him, in spite of everythin' he's done."

She wrapped her arms around Sully's waist and leaned her head against his chest. He lovingly stroked her back, feeling the trembling of her body as she cried.

Finally Michaela drew back and gazed into her husband's eyes. "Look what he's done to us, Sully."

He whispered, "Only thing I'm lookin' at is the woman I love. He hasn't taken her away from me."

Her tone was bitter. "He'd like nothing more."

Sully uttered, "We got it all, Michaela. He's jealous."

"And thanks to me, he lives on to try to take it from us," she knew.

Sully sighed. "I wish I knew how t' take this hate from your heart."

The reality of his words struck her. "I never thought about that."

"About what?" Sully wondered.

"Having hate in my heart," she specified.

Sully explained, "That's where hate settles. Believe me, I know. I felt it plenty o' times."

Michaela shook her head. "How did you rid yourself of the feeling?"

"I don't know that I'm totally rid of it." He motioned for her to sit on the blanket beneath their lean-to, then joined her.

"You have every right to hate Preston, even more than I do," she asserted.

Sully explained his feelings. "When I let myself hate, I lose control of myself."

"How?" she queried.

"'Cause the hate takes over.... guides me," he confessed. "When Abigail an' Hannah died, I hated everythin'. I was so angry, I lost sight of anythin' good in the world. It was the same with the Army, Sergeant O'Connor an' what they did t' the Cheyenne. Then again when Conway kidnapped Katie. I got it in me t' kill when I hate, Michaela."

She absorbed his pronouncement, contemplating that she nearly let Preston die.

Sully spoke softly, "Hatred is the madness of the heart."

She recognized the quote. "Byron."

He explained, "The way I see it, I got a choice t' hate. That's what makes it different from love."

"You don't have a choice to love?" She was curious.

"Nope," he answered. "I can't help lovin' you an' the children."

She contemplated, "So, you believe it is possible to simply choose not to hate?"

He admitted, "I do, but there's nothin' simple about it. The Cheyenne chiefs believed that peace is as simple an' as difficult, as necessary an' as sacred an act, as sharin' a dipper of water. If ya think about it, nothin' good ever came from hatin'. I don't wanna waste my heart on the Prestons of this world. I wanna fill it with love for my family."

She observed, "It's a noble sentiment, but I don't know if I can."

He pointed out, "Up until recently, it's how ya lived your life, Michaela. I never knew ya t' hate. I've seen ya get angry. I've seen ya disappointed, hurt an' lost, but I never knew ya t' be so bent on hate."

She began to feel ashamed. "I don't know how to stop it, Sully. I can't choose to forget what Preston has done."

He pondered, "Then maybe just give yourself a break from thinkin' about him."

"A break?" she considered.

He figured, "It's late. Ya had a busy day. Let's try thinkin' about somethin' else."

She went along. "All right."

He patted the ground. "Lie back. It's easier t' think that way."

Michaela mused, "It is?"

"Sure." Sully winked. "That's one of the thinkin' rules."

They positioned themselves on their backs, side by side.

She questioned, "What's the next rule?"

He counseled, "Say whatever you're thinkin' about."

She thought for several moments, then spoke softly, "Hope is trying to say 'kiss.'"

He smiled. "One o' my favorite words." Sully reached into his pocket. "I have somethin' for ya."

"You do?" She rolled over to look at him. "What?"

He sat up and looked down at her. "I wanted t' get ya somethin' special for Hope's first birthday, but it arrived a little late."

"I thought our daughter was the one who was supposed to receive the gifts." She smiled.

Sully gazed at his wife with a look of adoration. "I think her Ma oughta get one, too, for bringin' such beautiful babies int' the world."

He handed her the small package. When Michaela opened it, she beheld a three by five inch framed photograph of a house.

Her eyes widened. "Sully! It's my home in Boston."

He explained, "Rebecca got it for me. She had an artist color it."

Her eyes moistened. "It's beautiful. Thank you."

She leaned closer to kiss him.

He grinned. "Glad ya like it."

"I love it." She held it against her heart.

He noted, "Maybe when we go East this summer, we could show the kids the house where their Ma grew up."

She cupped her hand to his cheek. "You're the most thoughtful man."

He shrugged. "I try."

Michaela kissed him again. "You succeed."

"Now," he paused to unfold their blankets. "We best get some sleep."

She set the photograph in her travel pouch and snuggled closer to him. "May I share your blanket?"

"I was hopin' you would." He shifted it over to include her.

Michaela came to a realization. "Know what?"

"What?" He anticipated.

"According to your rules of thinking, something occurred to me," she reflected. "Since we changed the subject from Preston, my heart has been lighter."

"That's the way it works," Sully observed. "An' that's the way it oughta be."

"I love you so much," she whispered. "I don't want to waste my heart on anything but you and our family."

"It won't be easy," he reminded. "Hate's got a way of creepin' back int' our hearts."

"I have you to remind me not to let that happen," she indicated.

He amended, "We got each other."

Michaela stifled a yawn.

Sully noticed and smiled. "Close your eyes."

She did not resist. "I guess I am rather tired."

He slid his arm beneath her shoulders and drew her into his embrace. "'Night."

"Good night." She closed her eyes.

************

Sully found himself back in Andersonville. The darkness of the stockade weighed heavily on him, as if a boulder had been placed upon his chest. He found it difficult to breathe. Suddenly Tague was standing over him, pressing down on the rock. Sully was choking. He gasped for air.

"Sully," Michaela's voice wakened him. "Sully, it's all right. You were having the dream again."

He awoke with a start, still gasping for air and clutching his throat.

"Take slow, steady breaths," Michaela advised. "I'm here."

Finally, he began to calm. "It was a bad one."

"I know." She nodded.

He ran his fingers through his hair. "It was so real."

"Tell me what you were dreaming," she encouraged.

"I.... I couldn't breathe," he described. "Tague was pushin' a big rock down on my chest."

Michaela touched her hand to his heart. "Oh, Sully, I wish I could help."

He recalled, "Cloud Dancin' said somethin'.... He said when I was gone, you were given a vision of what could've been."

"Your death?" she assumed.

"Uh-huh." He nodded. "He said that can be more terrifyin' than what is. I.... I think that's why the dream keeps comin' back t' me."

"I don't understand," she wondered.

Sully attempted to clarify. "What nearly happened.... me dyin'.... we both keep relivin' it."

She interpreted, "Because our hearts are so connected."

"That's what Could Dancin' said." He caressed her cheek. "'Cause of our bond."

She worried, "Could my thoughts toward Preston be causing you to have this dream?"

"I don't know." Sully pondered. "Maybe we're livin' in the past. We should just try t' think about what's here an' now."

Michaela considered, "I'd gladly give up all thoughts of making Preston pay for what he's done if it stops your nightmares, Sully. I can't bear to see you suffer so."

"An' I can't bear t' see you so single-minded about him," he returned.

"Your health and safety are more important than anything to me," she pledged. "Our present.... our life together right here and now.... That's what should take priority."

He kissed her sweetly. "We got so much. I don't wanna care about anythin' else."

"Nor do I," she affirmed.

He took a deep breath and exhaled the clean mountain air. "Feels kinda good, don't it?"

It took a moment for them to absorb their revelation.

Michaela looked up at the stars. "Sully, when you used to come here long ago, what did you think about?"

He considered. "I thought about how beautiful life is."

"It is," she agreed.

"Not long after I found this place, I lost Abigail an' Hannah," he remembered. "Then I came back after the War.... always by myself 'til I brought you here that Thanksgivin'."

"I remember," she recalled. "I was very touched."

He linked his fingers in hers. "All my best memories center around you, Michaela."

Her heart filled with love for him. "And mine with you."

He chuckled.

"What are you laughing about?" she questioned.

"I was just thinkin' about right before I brought ya here, when I told ya we were settin' off without any maps," he recollected.

"That's right." She nodded. "But we've always had a compass."

He pointed. "The North Star?"

She touched his chest. "Our hearts."

"Mine always points toward you," he concurred.

Michaela concluded, "Sully.... coming here has made me realize something."

He queried, "What's that?"

She explained, "Our actions.... how we live our lives, should never run contrary to our beliefs. I have devoted my life to helping and healing people."

"That ain't changed," he noted.

She went on, "But I also believe in the innate goodness of people. I know there is evil. I know there are terrible individuals. But I can't let them change who I am and what I believe. In my anger and fear over what Preston did, I lost sight of that."

Sully smiled. "Comin' here always helps bring things int' focus."

She added, "It's not the place so much as the person I'm with. You always help me to put things into perspective."

"Michaela." He framed her face. "I been thinkin' about your bank."

She interrupted, "No, Sully. I won't go through with it. It's too...."

He touched her lips with his finger to silence her. "I got an idea."

She raised an eyebrow. "What?"

************
Chapter 15
************

Sully revealed, "Maybe there's a different way t' do it."

"A different way?" Michaela was interested. "What do you mean?"

"T' do the bank," he clarified. "I was talkin' about business with General Palmer. I learned, rich as he is, he had help along the way. There's plenty o' men around here who got their wealth from the mines an' the railroad. What if you could get a group of investors t' found another bank in Colorado Springs?"

Michaela was intrigued. "Perhaps the General might recommend potential investors."

Sully suggested, "His associate William Jackson, Helen Hunt's husband, might be one. I'm sure the General knows some more folks. The point is, ya don't have t' do this alone."

She wondered, "Why haven't they started a bank in town before now?"

"I think they've been concentratin' most of their efforts in Denver," he detailed. "Seems t' me that now's as good a time as any for Colorado Springs t' have another bank."

She thought about it. "You truly believe they would do it?"

"Only one way t' find out," he answered. "Just ask 'em."

She smiled at him. "I shall."

He warmed at the expression of admiration on her face. "I love when ya look at me like that."

Her eyes reflected a profound love. "Sully, I want to apologize."

"What for?" he wondered.

She specified, "For being argumentative and stubborn. For prompting you to leave our bed."

He grinned. "You always welcome me back."

She glanced down. "I'm ashamed of my behavior."


"There ya go again." He kissed her, then slowly drew back. "Always bein' hard on yourself."

"I nearly let a man die," she regretted.

"Nearly don't count," he commented. "Only thing it's good for is givin' us another chance t' make things better."

"You nearly died, too," she pointed out.

He caressed her cheek. "Like I said. We got another chance t' make things better."

She peered into his eyes. "I can't imagine anything better than what you and I have together. Our family. Our home."

He nodded pensively.

Michaela linked her fingers in his, "It was a noble thing you did, apologizing to Preston after all he's done."

Sully noted, "You always make me wanna do noble things."

"My own behavior has been far from noble," she regretted.

He assured, "You still did the right thing. We all have times when we lose sight of who we are an' what we believe. The important thing is t' find it again."

They held one another close.

Sully spoke low. "Think you can get some sleep now?"

"No," she remarked with a smile.

He was surprised. "No? Somethin' ya need?"

"Sully, I feel as if a tremendous weight has been lifted from my shoulders," she confessed. "And it's all thanks to you. Your idea of investors for the bank is the perfect solution.... if I can find the investors."

"Why don't ya start by talkin' t' Palmer," he suggested. "I got a lot of faith in your powers of persuasion."

She looked at him with a soft smile. "You do?"

"Mmm-humm." He nodded. "Look how ya got me t' fall in love with ya."

She mused, "You were the one to say the words first."

He sighed, "It was the longest ride o' my life when ya walked off that train after I told ya I came t' Boston 'cause I love ya."

"Another act I regret," she confessed.

Sully stroked her arm. "You didn't see it comin'? Ya didn't know I was courtin' ya?"

"I was afraid," she noted.

"Of me?" he worried.

"Of what loving you would mean," Michaela clarified. "I would no longer be in control of my heart. It frightened me. But after you left, I felt such emptiness. I worried that by the time I came home, you might have moved on."

"I nearly did," he revealed. "But somethin' kept me here."

"I would have looked for you," she avowed. "That's the incredible thing about our love. It's given me strength to do things I didn't know I could do."

"Like havin' a baby?" he reminded.

Michaela smiled. "It's hard to imagine I feared that. I'm somewhat of an old hand at it now."

He chuckled. "I reckon it gives ya a new perspective in helpin' ladies give birth. Once you've been through somethin' that scares ya, you can help others though it, too."

She concurred, "Yes, I believe you're right. Now I think I know how to help you with your dreams."

"How?" he anticipated.

She explained, "Do you remember when Brian was so afraid of ghosts and witches? Every noise in the night seemed to exacerbate his fears."

"I remember." Sully nodded.

She added, "Do you recall how he was finally able to get over it?"

He thought back. "It was Halloween. We went t' the town costume party." He tenderly caressed her cheek. "You were Cinderella."

She smiled. "And you were my Prince Charming."

He returned to the subject. "As I recall, Brian dressed up like one o' King Arthur's Knights o' the Round Table."

"Right," she agreed. "And he went to the cemetery to vanquish his fears."

Sully was puzzled. "You sayin' I should go t' the cemetery?"

"No, but if you have another dream, I want you to fight back," she asserted.

"Fight back?" Sully was puzzled.

Michaela explained, "Envision yourself fighting Tague.... overpowering him. Don't let the him defeat you in the dream."

He grinned. "I don't know if I can control what I dream."

She pledged, "I'll give you the strength. Hold me. Feel my heart beat with yours. Use the same strength that enabled you to endure your incarceration to turn it around on Tague."

His lips met hers, then he pulled back slowly. "You're incredible, Michaela Quinn."

She returned the kiss. "You can call me Mrs. Sully."

Soon they closed their eyes and let sleep claim them.

It was not long before the dream returned to Sully. He was in the cell at Andersonville. He heard Tague's voice outside cursing him. When Tague unlocked the door, Sully kicked against the wood with all of his might. The door fell onto the sheriff.

Sully felt a surge of strength as he lifted Tague to his feet and struck him. Again, the man fell back and onto the ground. Sully kicked him. Tague reached for his holstered gun. Just as he drew it, Sully stepped on his arm. The revolver fell to his side. Sully lifted it and tossed it away.

Then he returned to Tague and gripped his hands around his jailer's throat. "You're through. Don't ever bother me again."

"I can come t' you any time I want," Tague was barely audible.

"Not anymore," Sully released him. "Now, get outa here."

Tague scurried to his feet and ran.

"Sully." It was Michaela's voice.

"Wha-?" He opened his eyes, disoriented.

She related softly, "You were restless and talking in your sleep. I thought you might be having the dream."

"I...." He struggled to remember. "I was. I did what ya said. I fought back."

"Did you win?" She was curious.

He ran his fingers through his hair. "Tague took off runnin'."

She smiled. "You vanquished him."

"I sure hope so," he sighed.

Michaela reached out for him. "Come here."

They embraced and lay back beneath their blanket. Michaela gently stroked the hair at his temple, pausing to periodically kiss him.

Sully teased, "One good thing about comin' up here."

"There are many good things about this place," she remarked. "But what were you going to say?"

Sully looked at her with a gleam in his eye. "It's harder for ya t' throw me outa bed."

She kissed him. "I'll not do that again, Mr. Sully. I promise."

He joked, "I kinda like it when ya do."

She was surprised. "You do?"

"Uh-huh." He winked. "'Cause then we get t' make up."

She proposed, "Why don't we simply pretend we've had a disagreement? Then we can make up anyway."

"Mrs. Sully, I'm surprised at you," Sully retorted.

Michaela smiled teasingly. "I'm liberated. Remember?"

He opened his eyes wide. "Like Marjorie?"

"Perhaps," she mused as she leaned back onto the ground.

"Next thing I know, you'll be wearin' bloomers in public." He ran his hand along her form.

She suddenly noticed in the sky. "Look! A shooting star."

"Make a wish," he encouraged.

She turned to gaze at him. "My wishes have already come true."

************

The dawning light woke Michaela. Opening her eyes, she smiled, warm and secure as she was spooned against Sully. He had seemed to sleep soundly the remainder of the night. Turning her head slightly, she looked over her shoulder at him.

To her surprise, he was awake and whispered, "Mornin'."

"Good morning," she uttered. "How long have you been awake?"

"Not long." He kissed the lobe of her ear. "I been watchin' you."

She rolled over to face him. "Watching me? Why?"

"'Cause you're so beautiful." He lightly stroked her arm.

"Thank you." She smiled. "Any more nightmares?"

He assured, "Nope."

"Good." She nodded. "Are you hungry?"

He answered, "Not yet. I just wanna look at ya."

She tingled at the intensity of his gaze. "Sully...."

"Mmm?" He noted her nervous tone.

"What would you think...." She paused.

He prompted, "About what?"

"I'd like for us to...." Again, she hesitated. "That is.... here on our special mountain.... it's so...."

He waited for her to finish.

"I mean...." She hesitated. "I'd like for us.... you know...."

Sully finally figured out where she was going. "T' make love?"

She noted the smirk on his face. "I suppose I still have difficulty saying the words."

He touched her chin and kissed her sweetly. "I reckon it's the one subject that puts ya at a loss for words."

She mused, "You seem to be able to discern my meaning even when I stumble."

Sully grinned. "That's 'cause ya get a look in your eye."

"A look of wanting to make love?" She was amazed.

"Uh-huh." He nodded. "It kinda smolders."

Her eyes widened. "I have a smoldering look?"

"Tell me ya love me," he invited.

Without hesitation, she returned, "I love you."

"There it is." He touched her temple.

She turned up the corner of her lips in a smile. "A smoldering glance?"

"Right," he noted. "That's when I know ya wanna make love."

"Well, Mr. Sully, your look betrays you, as well," she observed.

"I got a smolderin' look, too?" He enjoyed their banter.

"Yes," she answered.

"I reckon we got a way of communicatin' without words." He leaned in to kiss her more deeply.

She relished his attention. "What you said about how close you feel when we make love.... it's true, Sully. It's as if our souls mingle."

He stroked back the hair from her face. "I love you, Michaela. I'm so grateful that you love me, too. I can't think of anythin' I'd rather do than make love t' you."

He slid his hand through the opening of her coat to undo the buttons of her blouse. As he kissed her neck, Michaela arched her head back. She quivered when his fingers found her flesh. A soft moan escaped her lips. The scent of being so close to her enflamed Sully's passions.

Michaela ran her hand along his chest, unbuttoning his shirt as she moved. When she reached the waistline of his buckskins, she paused.

His touches generated a growing heat within her. The ardor of his kisses penetrated to her very core.

Beneath the blanket, their bodies touched, and a powerful energy began to engulf them. Sully ran his fingers through her long locks and down her back.

Michaela touched the front of his buckskins and maneuvered her hand around the area.

Sully was immediately aroused by his wife's overtures.

"Michaela...." he gulped.

"Mmm?" She smiled at his reaction.

He teased, "Don't tell me your sisters talked about this."

"I should say not." She continued to stir him.

Sully felt as if he would burst. "I need you."

"I'm right here," she replied softly near his ear.

He undid her riding chaps, then fumbled to remove her pants. All the while, Michaela continued her enticing movements.

When Sully had gained freer access to her, Michaela unhooked his buckskins. Now unencumbered by their clothing, they came together. Initially, their motions were slow and rhythmic. Sully withheld his release until he could no longer maintain control. When he finally gave himself to her, their bodies trembled with incredible pleasure.

They remained locked in a warm embrace while their heartbeats slowed to a calmer pace. Sully protectively pulled another blanket atop them.

Michaela leaned her head against his shoulder. "I've never felt closer to you than I do right now."

Sully kissed her, then recited:

"Thy love has joy,
Pure, undefiled with base alloy;
'Tis not a passion, false and blind,
Inspires, enchains, absorbs my mind;
Worthy, I feel, art thou to be
Loved with my perfect energy."

"Perfect energy," she repeated the phrase. "Yes, that's what it feels like with us. Was that Whitman?"

"Charlotte Bronte," he identified.

Michaela snuggled closer. "Sully, I'm not going to stop disliking Preston, but I do promise you one thing."

"What's that?" He waited.

She went on, "I'll never let my feelings about him take precedence over you or the children."

He clasped her hand and raised her fingertips to his lips. "Neither one of us is ever gonna like him. There's too much bad blood there. An' we'll never trust him. But we can't live our life, if we spend all our time tryin' t' get back at someone who's done us wrong. You an' me, Michaela.... We still got it all. All he's got is his business interests. When I turn out the lamp at night, I'd much rather count my blessin's than count my money."

She smiled as tears welled in her eyes. "I think I'm ready to go home. What about you?"

He agreed, "If we start now, we can be home before the kids leave for school."

"Thank you for bringing me here," she acknowledged. "It truly is the place to find our way."

He gave her a gentle kiss. "Thanks for comin' with me."

************

Preston awoke with a start. He had dreamed that Michaela kissed him. Disoriented at first, he realized he was still in the hospital.

"Nonsense." He rang the bell at his bedside. "I should be home."

Sister Mary Martha entered the room. "What now, Mr. Lodge?"

"Where are my clothes?" Preston demanded.

She gestured toward an armoire near the foot of his bed. "In there. Why?"

He sat up, while attempting to keep his gown wrapped around his back side. "I'm leaving."

"I can't let you do that before a doctor sees you," she protested.

"Then tell Michaela to get up here," he commanded.

The nun folded her hands. "Dr. Quinn is not here. Dr. Cook is."

"Fine," Preston returned. "Tell him to...."

She interrupted, "Dr. Colleen Cook."

"Then get her." He gestured toward the door.

The nun left. Preston closed the door behind her and began to get dressed. He only had time to put on his trousers when Colleen entered the room.

Preston looked up. "I'm going home."

She started to protest. "But...."

"That's not a request, Doctor." He glared.

Colleen put her hands on her hips. "Don't you know that you nearly died? Actually, you did die."

"Yes, yes." He waved his hand. "The great Michaela Quinn saved my life. Well, I'm fine now."

Colleen frowned. "You're a very stubborn man."

"And you have a wonderful bedside manner," he remarked snidely.

She countered, "You're ungrateful."

"Your mother gave me no opportunity to thank her," he pointed out.

Colleen felt her anger well. "I don't blame her."

Preston finished buttoning his shirt. "You cannot keep me here against my will. There's no reason for me to remain. And as for your mother...."

"Yes?" She was ready to dispute any insult.

His eyes narrowed. "Tell her I look forward to the conquest."

"What conquest?" Colleen was puzzled.

He grinned. "She'll find out."

************
Chapter 16
************

Dorothy spotted Preston sitting alone at a table at Grace's outdoor café.

She approached him tentatively with her note pad and pencil. "I heard you were in the hospital."

He noted her journalistic tools. "I suppose you're going to gloat about it in The Gazette."

She placed the pencil behind her ear. "No use in gloatin' over someone else's misery. I thought maybe you'd like t' comment on Michaela savin' your life."

"So you heard about that, too." He took a sip of coffee and rubbed his temple.

She gestured toward the chair opposite him. "May I join ya?"

He nodded in the affirmative. "So, you want a comment about the good doctor."

She clasped her pencil again.

Preston pondered. "I suppose she was just doing her job."

Dorothy frowned. "Most folks would be grateful if someone saved their life."

"And most physicians would allow their patients to thank them," he came back.

She was puzzled. "She didn't allow ya?"

"That's right." Preston rubbed his temple. "She bolted from the hospital as if I had cholera."

Dorothy folded her hands. "That ain't like her."

He noted, "In case you hadn't noticed, since Sully's return to Colorado Springs, Michaela has not been herself most of the time. She has behaved abominably."

The redhead attempted to control her temper, "I don't believe that. She's tryin' t' get her life back t' normal after...."

Preston cut her off. "From what the sisters at the hospital tell me, she's rarely there a full day. When she is, Michaela is distracted."

Dorothy considered, "That ain't surprisin'."

"How can you be so cavalier about her behavior?" Preston challenged.

Dorothy's eyes narrowed. "Look, Preston, she's been through a terrible ordeal. Michaela's a strong person, but I've never seen her like she was when she thought Sully had died."

"Are you referring to the first time she thought he was dead or the more recent occurrence?" His tone was sarcastic.

Dorothy leaned toward him. "You ever lose someone ya loved?"

He sat up straight. "My mother."

"Then ya know a little of what it's like," she replied. "Michaela's lost her Ma an' Pa, her sister an' three babies. Then t' think that the love of her life was gone...."

Preston raised his hand. "Spare me the sentimentality. There is no excuse for being rude."

"Rude?" Dorothy's jaw dropped. "You're the one who's rude. Ya been pinin' for her since ya met her. Everyone in town knows it. Ya done everythin' ya could t' interfere in her life, an' I know ya had somethin' t' do with Sully's bein' takin' t' Atlanta."

"Yes, you let your opinion be known in your Gazette editorial." He glared at her. "It's too bad you did not see fit to malign the real villain of our fair town. Byron Sully has a penchant for creating disaster wherever he goes. The man is uncivilized and certainly not deserving of a woman of Michaela's education and breeding."

Dorothy posed the question, "What's it gonna take for you t' let go of her?"

He was surprised. "Let go of Michaela? I have no claim on her."

"Ya can't get her outa your mind, can ya?" Dorothy was blunt.

He became uncomfortable. "My mind is on my business interests."

"What about your heart?" Dorothy questioned.

A voice came from behind her. "Preston don't have a heart."

She turned around. "Hank."

Hank sat down beside her, retorting, "I understand we almost lost our only bank president. Can't hold your liquor, huh, Preston? Should've done your drinkin' at The Gold Nugget. I'd've shut off your tap before ya keeled over."

Preston remarked, "I'll remember that."

Dorothy eyed him sternly. "Too bad ya can't remember Michaela's married."

Preston replied, "Oh, believe me. I'm well aware of the fact."

Hank smirked. "Ya still look kinda green.... sorta like your money."

Preston rose from his seat. "If you'll excuse me, I have a bank to run."

Dorothy interjected. "Before ya go, let me give ya some advice."

Preston objected, "I hardly need advice from you, Dorothy."

She ignored his comment. "Leave Michaela an' Sully alone. Ya done enough damage."

The banker straightened up. "Oh, the damage has just begun."

With that, he pivoted and left them.

Dorothy turned to Hank. "What d' ya think he meant by that?"

"Who knows with Preston?" Hank shrugged.

The redhead pondered. "He's up t' somethin'. I just know it. How far is he gonna carry this, Hank?"

"No tellin'," he noted. "But one things for sure. Sully ain't gonna take much more from him."

"You believe he'll hit Preston again?" She queried.

Hank rubbed his chin. "That was just a sweetheart kiss compared t' what Sully could do."

************

Colleen lay on a bed at the hospital. She had fallen asleep after Preston had departed, and the sisters had left her alone.

The sound of a man's voice startled her. "Colleen?"

She looked up, disoriented at first. "Andrew?"

He folded his arms tightly against his chest. "I want to apologize for my behavior."

She did not reply.

"And I want to thank you for taking care of me," he added.

She eyed him curiously. "What possessed you to do it, Andrew?"

"I'll make no excuses," he stated.

She probed further, "What about Preston's excuse?"

Andrew stepped closer to keep his voice low. "I'm afraid he's.... obsessed with your mother."

Colleen sighed. "I know."

"I've known Preston for many years," Andrew noted. "I've never seen him so single-minded about something. I mean I understand in some respects, but he is carrying it too far."

"Before he left the hospital today, he said I should tell Ma that he looks forward to the conquest," she repeated. "Do you know what he's talking about?"

"His tongue did loosen a bit under the influence of the alcohol," Andrew admitted.

"Do you think he knows about Ma's intention to start a competing bank?" she wondered.

Andrew pondered, "It wouldn't surprise me. I think you'd better warn Michaela."

************

Michaela sipped the cup of tea General Palmer offered. "I understand that Mrs. Palmer has traveled east for her health."

He replied, "We thought it best for her and the baby."

"You'll be there for the birth?" Michaela questioned.

"I plan to be," Palmer answered. "Is that why you came to see me, Dr. Quinn? To check on the health of my wife?"

"Well, there is another reason," she commented. "My husband tells me that you've offered him work overseeing the planting of trees in town."

"He's well qualified for it," Palmer said. "Don't you think?"

"Sully is indeed qualified and knowledgeable for such a project," she agreed. "And he is strongly committed to preserving the land. We're both grateful for this opportunity."

"It's good business to put the right people in the right jobs," he stated.

"And to put our money in the right places, as well," she added.

"Of course." Palmer nodded.

"That's why I keep my inheritance in a Denver bank," Michaela pointed out.

Palmer grinned. "It's no secret what you think of Preston A. Lodge III and his banking practices here in Colorado Springs."

"I'm not alone in my disdain for his tactics," she returned. "It's too bad there isn't another bank here. It would certainly be more convenient for me."

Suddenly perceiving her intention, Palmer probed, "Do you have something in mind?"

She finally broached the subject. "I think there should be another bank here. To be quite honest, I have been considering starting one myself, but I know nothing about the business."

Palmer fidgeted with the end of his mustache. "Are you suggesting that I start one?"

She smiled coyly. "If not you, I'm certain you know others who would. I might be willing to invest in it."

Palmer stood and walked to the fireplace. Running his hand across the mantel, he remarked, "Your husband did this. His talent is remarkable."

"You're changing the subject on me." Michaela raised an eyebrow.

He chuckled. "I normally don't like to tip my hand, but in your case, I'll be frank. I like the idea. I'll approach some of my associates. I have a feeling that they will agree to such a proposal."

"Splendid." Michaela smiled.

Palmer added, "I trust this will be kept in the strictest confidence."

"Of course," she consented. "However, I'll inform my son, Matthew Cooper, about it. As my lawyer, he will handle the details on my behalf. If you'll excuse me, I'm due at the hospital."

"You're a fascinating woman, Dr. Quinn." Palmer smiled.

************

After dropping off his children at school, Sully headed for the Mercantile. Loren was napping in a chair near the potbelly stove when he entered.

Sully cleared his throat. "Loren? You open for business?"

"'Course, I am." The older man bristled. "I was just restin' my eyes."

Sully smiled. "I can come back later if ya need t' rest 'em some more."

"You buyin' somethin', or not?" Loren put his hands on his hips.

Sully gestured toward one of the shelves. "I stopped by for some nails."

Loren nodded. "Help yourself."

Sully stepped toward the containers and began to count out the number he wanted.

Loren watched him. "Buildin' somethin' special?"

Sully smiled, "Another chest o' drawers. The kids have more things than we got room t' store 'em."

The older man inquired, "How's that beautiful baby?"

"Walkin' now." Sully grinned.

Loren nodded. "That's real fine. Ya think I might come an' see her?"

Sully knew the baby reminded him of his only grandchild, Hannah.

"'Course, ya can," he agreed. "As often as ya like. In fact, Bridget's gonna take the twins an' Hope on a surrey ride this mornin'. I know they'd enjoy your company."

Loren remarked, "I can't just leave the store. I got a business t' run."

Sully noted, "Mrs. Fancher could keep an eye on things 'til ya get back. They'll only be gone for an hour or so."

Loren considered. "When's Bridget leavin'?"

Sully glanced at the clock on the wall. "'Bout an hour from now."

He removed his apron. "Could ya watch the place while I go ask Mrs. Fancher?"

"Sure," Sully agreed with a smile.

Loren noticed him cast a glance at the candy jars. "Katie likes the lemon drops best. Josef always asks for the licorice."

Sully grinned. "I know. But their Ma don't want 'em eatin' sweets."

************

Michaela looked at the clock, noting it was past time for her to go home. She could not wait to tell Sully the good news about Palmer. Colleen was scheduled to be on duty at noon, but Michaela did not want to waken her.

At that moment, Colleen entered the office. "Mornin', Ma."

Michaela noted her daughter's fatigued expression. "Good morning, Sweetheart. Are you all right?"

Colleen sighed. "Yes, just tired."

"If you'd rather go back to bed, I'll stay here until Dr. Cassidy arrives," she offered.

"No," Colleen shook her head. "That's all right. I'll be fine."

Michaela queried, "How is Andrew?"

She noted, "Contrite. I doubt if he'll ever do this again."

"I hope you're right," Michaela remarked.

Colleen broached the subject. "Ma, Preston said something before he left this morning.... something that worries me."

A look of concern furrowed Michaela's brow. "What?"

"He said he looks forward to the conquest," she revealed. "Do you think he means the bank?"

Michaela tensed. "Unfortunately, he sees everything in terms of conquests and competitions. It's nothing for you to worry about, Sweetheart."

"I'm afraid I was rather gruff with him," she revealed.

Michaela mused, "No doubt he deserved it."

Colleen noticed a change in her mother. "You don't seem as upset about him. Has something happened?"

"Keep this confidential, but yes," she divulged. "I believe there will soon be a competing bank."

The young woman's eyes widened. "Your charter came through?"

"No, but I've spoken to William Palmer, who might know others who would be interested," Michaela specified.

Colleen smiled broadly. "Good thinking. I'm proud of you, Ma."

"I can't take the credit for the idea," she modestly admitted. "It was Sully's."

Colleen clasped her mother's hands. "Well, whoever thought of it, I hope it stops Preston's manipulations once and for all."

************
Chapter 17
************

Michaela slowed Flash as she approached the homestead. Sully met her at the steps and helped her down.

"Well?" He anticipated. "How'd it go?"

She smiled. "The General was quite receptive to the idea and is going to discuss it with his associates."

Sully lifted her and spun her around in his arms. "That's real good."

She kissed him. "I have you to thank, Mr. Sully."

"Havin' you is all the thanks I want," he retorted as he escorted her into the house.

Michaela commented, "I'm famished. What about...." She noticed the quiet. "Are the children napping already?"

"Loren an' Bridget have 'em on a surrey ride," he explained. "So tell me all about your meetin'."

Michaela enthusiastically detailed her conversation with Palmer as she prepared their lunch.

Sully grinned, "I knew ya could talk him int' it."

She acknowledged, "Wouldn't you love to see Preston's face when he finds out?"

Sully touched her chin. "I like lookin' at your face more."

Michaela kissed him tenderly.

"I was thinkin'...." He paused.

"Yes?" She anticipated.

Sully replied, "I was thinkin' about the children at the Indian school."

"What about them?" She was curious.

"I'd like t' take our kids out t' see the dance they been workin' on," he mentioned.

"Then, by all means, let's go," she agreed.

************

Horace entered the bank and headed straight to Myra's teller window. He noticed that Preston was not at his desk. "Where is he?"

"Preston?" Myra assumed. "He ain't been in yet. Did ya hear about him spendin' the night in the hospital?"

"Sure did." Horace nodded. "Everyone's talkin' 'bout it."

Myra leaned on her elbows. "You think Dr. Mike's really goin' through with startin' a bank of her own?"

He hesitated. "Uh.... well maybe or maybe not. You think Preston's comin' int' the bank at all?"

She was puzzled at his behavior. "Probably. He can't stay away very long. Why?"

Horace pulled an envelope from his pocket. "I got a telegram for him... from Denver."

"I can give it t' him, if ya want," she offered.

Horace hesitated, "I ain't supposed t' let anyone else deliver it."

"Well, ya did deliver it," she pointed out.

He hedged, "But not t' Preston."

Myra encouraged, "It's his bank. If ya put it on his desk, he'll be sure t' see it when he does come in."

"Maybe I oughta take it out t' the Chateau t' see if he's there," Horace contemplated.

Myra countered, "If he's there, he might be sleepin' it off, an' you'd still have t' leave it with someone else."

"I reckon you're right." Horace went to set the wire on Preston's desk. "I gotta get back t' the telegraph office anyway. See ya, Myra."

"'Bye, Horace." She watched him leave.

Then, stepping toward Preston's desk, Myra lifted the telegram.

She held the envelope up toward the window to see if she could read its contents. Suddenly, she heard the door to the bank open. Pivoting, she saw it was Preston.

"Hey, Preston." She quickly set the telegram on his desk. "How ya feelin'?"

He removed his hat and headed for his chair. "Like I've been trampled by a stampede of horses."

"Can I get ya somethin'?" she offered.

He sighed. "No, thank you." He noticed the envelope on his desk. "What's this?"

"Telegram," she replied nervously. "Horace brought it by."

He rubbed his eyes. "Maybe you could go to the Depot to get the mail."

"Sure," she consented.

Myra donned her shawl and glanced over her shoulder as she departed.

Opening the envelope, Preston scanned the words on the page. It was from his lawyer, Penberthy. The banker frowned as he read aloud. "William Sharp Jackson.... a bank in Colorado Springs...."

He set the wire on his desktop and rubbed his eyes again.

Then he sighed, "So, Michaela, you were the ruse to throw me off the track. It was Jackson who intended to start the bank."

After rereading the contents, he felt a surge of disappointment in himself. He had not only underestimated Michaela, but he had allowed his feelings to get in the way of recognizing his true competition. His father would be very disappointed.

Leaning back in his chair, Preston closed his eyes. His thoughts drifted back to his childhood.

His father was in his office when the young son knocked. "Father, may I come in?"

Lodge Senior glanced up from the portfolio he was reading. "What is it? Shouldn't you be in bed or something?"

"No, sir," the boy answered. "It's only a little after six."

"What do you want?" The father frowned.

Preston replied, "I was hoping you might help me."

"Help you?" He was aghast. "You're a Lodge, son. We don't need help from anyone."

Young Preston felt his confidence wane, but he went on. "Father, I wondered if you might consider sending me to a different school. I've been having problems with...."

Lodge cut him off. "I pay a considerable sum of money to provide you with the finest education. There is no other school for a Lodge. I went there, as did my father and his father, not to mention your four brothers. I'll hear no more nonsense."

The boy's shoulders slumped.

Lodge scolded. "Stand up straight. Be a man, Preston. You'll never get anyplace in life if you give up. If you're having difficulty with your subjects, you need to study harder."

The boy sighed, "Yes, Father."

Back to his reality, Preston wadded up the telegram and tossed it on the floor. "Yes, Father, you taught me to be a man, and I studied harder." His tone softened. "But neither you, nor the schools I attended, taught me about the one thing that has eluded me my entire life. Love."

************

Loren held Hope on his lap, relishing the babbling of the baby. With the twins nestled between Bridget and himself, his heart filled with joy.

He smiled, "I gotta say, this is one o' the nicest afternoons I've had in a long time."

Bridget glanced at the twins, who were nearly asleep. "Must be the sparklin' conversation."

Loren lifted Hope higher and kissed her cheek. "You don't know how lucky ya are, Bridget. Ya got these little ones t' fill your time."

She noted his serious expression. "They sure as right keep me busy, but I wouldn't have it any other way. Sometimes though, I wonder just how much Dr. Mike an' Sully will need me when the wee ones are all in school."

Loren's mouth dropped. "Ya ain't thinkin' of leavin', are ya?"

"Not right away," she assured.

His face paled. "I know how much ya mean t' Dr. Mike an' Sully."

Bridget noticed that he was no longer looking at her. "Are they the only ones who'd miss me?"

He added, "Well, the children would, too, of course."

"I see," she sighed.

He was barely audible. "An' me."

Bridget smiled. "That's good t' know." She paused, then asked, "How would ya like t' join us for supper t'night?"

He grinned. "I'd like that.... if ya think Dr. Mike an' Sully wouldn't mind."

"I'll talk 'em int' it," she teased.

************

Sully slowed the buckboard in front of the school just as Teresa and Isabel were releasing the children for the day. Katie and Josef quickly spotted their family.

Katie was puzzled, "Why's everyone here? Is somethin' wrong?"

Sully lifted her into the back. "Nope. I wanted t' take ya all out t' the Indian school before supper."

Josef climbed up with his father's help. "Are we gonna learn weadin' an' writin' there, too?"

Sully handed the twins back to their older siblings. "Nope. I want ya t' see a dance."

Josef held Noah close and advised his older sister, "I keep an' eye on this one, Katie. You watch that one."

The little girl smiled at her brother. "Yes, sir."

After positioning himself beside his wife and baby daughter, Sully clicked the reins, and they were on their way to the Indian school.

Michaela informed him, "Loren will be joining us for dinner."

"Good," Sully acknowledged.

"It seems like he's spending more time with Bridget," she observed.

"They like each other," Sully pointed out.

Michaela watched the passing landscape. "I think it's rather sweet."

"Sweet?" he chuckled.

She sounded slightly offended. "What's so funny about that?"

He put his hand on her knee. "Just the way ya said it. It's real good that they found each other."

Before long, they arrived at the Indian school. Cloud Dancing and several of the smaller children greeted them.

The medicine man held Hope. "It is good of you all to come. The little ones have grown."

Josef pointed to his mouth. "I'm gettin' a new tooth, Cloud Dancin'. Mama says it's a scissor tooth."

"Incisor," Michaela corrected.

Cloud Dancing smiled. "That is good. It means you are becoming a man."

Josef's eyes widened. "I am?"

Sully queried, "Are the children ready?"

"Yes." Cloud Dancing gestured. "This way."

Sully and Michaela sat with their family on a blanket near a large lodge and anticipated the start of the dance. Three Cheyenne children began the steady cadence of drums, followed by the chanting of a song. Dressed in buckskins, others held hands and began to step toward their left in a circle.

Cloud Dancing explained, "This is the Round Dance, which we also call the Friendship Dance. It was used to bring tribes together in friendship. Our children say welcome to yours."

Josef became restless. "Can I dance, too?"

Cloud Dancing nodded. "Go ahead."

Seeing her brother join the dancers, Hope toddled from her mother and approached them, as well. Soon Katie and the twins began to partake in the merriment.

Michaela felt herself relax as she observed the children. Their faces beamed with exuberance. The Cheyenne had known such tragedy and sorrow. Yet, here were their descendants celebrating life. Suddenly, she felt ashamed for harboring thoughts of hatred toward Preston. Sully had been right. It had consumed her.... even blinded her from seeing all of the blessings in her life.

Sully slid closer to his wife and clasped her hand. "You okay?"

"Yes," she assured.

He noted her demeanor. "What ya thinkin'?"

She smiled. "How fortunate we are. Look at our children, Sully, participating in a Cheyenne dance. It hardly seems possible."

"It's all thanks t' you," he observed. "You gave 'em this school."

Michaela peered into her husband's eyes. "Thank you for bringing us here."

He sensed a change in her. "Glad ya could come."

They turned their attention again to the dance. Michaela placed her hand atop Sully's.

He leaned close and kissed her cheek, then whispered, "Everythin's gonna be okay, Michaela. Long as there's children, anythin' is possible."

************

After dinner, Sully gathered his children near the living room hearth. The little ones sat on the floor in a circle around him. Loren decided to join them while Bridget and Michaela cleaned the dishes. Before beginning, Sully settled Hope in Loren's lap.

Then Sully began to explain the tradition of the Round Dance, interspersing his description with Cheyenne words.

Loren watched as the mountain man's face became animated. The older man began to feel guilty for the obsessive years he had spent hating Sully, blaming the young man for what had befallen Abigail. Thanks to Dr. Mike, Loren had made peace with Sully, but it was not until this moment that he came to realize that he truly admired him. Loren observed that the children adored their father, and he was grateful to be included in such an intimate family moment.

As Sully finished the story, Hope fell asleep.

Loren quipped as he glanced down at the sleeping child in his arms. "Well, not everyone found your story interestin'."

Michaela entered the room. "I'll take her, Loren. Come on, children. Up to bed now."

Josef tried to bargain. "One more stowy, Mama."

Sully patted his son's shoulder. "You heard your Ma, Joe. Go on."

Reluctantly, the children obeyed and followed their mother up the steps.

Sully noted the look on Loren's face. "You okay?"

The older man felt a lump in his throat. "Yea. Just thinkin' about what might have been."

"What might've been?" Sully was curious.

Loren wiped a stray tear as it trickled down his cheek. "Never mind. I best be gettin' back t' town. Some of us work for a livin'."

"Loren." Sully helped him stand. "Thanks for comin' out t' dinner."

"I knew Dr. Mike wasn't cookin'," he joked.

Sully spotted Bridget approaching. "I'll go help Michaela tuck the kids in."

Loren spoke up. "Thanks, Sully."

Silently, the mountain man nodded and left the room.

Bridget wiped her hands on a towel. "So how was the story?"

Loren shrugged. "Just another o' them Injun stories."

"That's all?" Bridget anticipated more.

He hedged. "Well.... I reckon it was good. The kids seemed t' enjoy it."

"Anythin' that entertains the leprechauns is good in my book," the nanny retorted.

************

Josef requested that Sully stay a moment. Michaela left them to settle the other children into bed.

The father sat on the edge of the little boy's bed. "Somethin' on your mind, Joe?"

The child spoke, "Papa, did ya see all the Cheyenne kids dancin' with us?"

"Sure did." Sully stroked his arm.

"I was thinkin'...." Josef paused. "Do ya think the Gweat Cweator made anymore butterflies t'day?"

"Why ya ask that?" Sully wondered.

Josef recalled, "You said the Gweat Cweator was watchin' kids in the stowy ya told us before."

Sully nodded his head. "It wouldn't surprise me, big boy. I think he must've been real happy at what he saw. I know I was."

With his index finger, Josef gestured for his father to come closer. "Have ya called Mama that term of underment?"

Sully grinned and touched his nose. "Your Ma an' me got ways of showin' we love each other without words."

Josef raised his eyebrows. "Ya don't need words?"

"Right." He nodded.

Josef pointed out. "That means ya don't need t' learn spellin'."

Sully chuckled. "Good night, Joe. I love you."

"Love you, too, Papa." The child rolled onto his side and closed his eyes.

************

When Sully entered their bedroom, Michaela was brushing her hair.

She glanced at his reflection in her mirror. "I watched Loren's face as you told the story to the children. He admires you, Sully."

Sully removed his beads and shirt. "I don't know 'bout that, but he seems t' have let go o' the bad feelin's he had toward me."

She noted, "I could see it in the way he looked at you."

Sully washed up, then settled into bed.

Setting down her brush, Michaela pivoted to face him. Invitingly, he pulled back the covers for her. She smiled, then removed her robe and joined him.


Warmed by the nearness of her, he lightly stroked her arm.

Michaela observed, "You're rather quiet."

He kissed her temple. "I'm just tired."

"Perhaps you'll sleep well now and have no more nightmares to disturb your rest," she commented.

He smiled at her words. "Perhaps." Sully's thoughts returned to the story time. "Did ya see how Loren held Hope?"

"He sees Hannah in her," Michaela knew.

Sully gently asked, "Does that bother ya?"

"Not in the least," she assured. "I want him to think of our children as part of his family, and I know that Hope bears a strong resemblance to Hannah."

"In many ways, Loren was like me after Abigail died," Sully pondered. "Angry, bitter, wantin' t' strike back at someone.... anyone."

"You found peace with the Cheyenne," she knew.

Sully amended, "But I found love with you."

She gazed into his eyes adoringly. "Would you read some poetry to me?"

He smiled and reached for one of his books on the night stand. "Sure." Opening to a dog-eared page, he began to read aloud to her:

"'Love's Springtide' by Frank Dempster Sherman
My heart was winter-bound until
I heard you sing;
O voice of Love, hush not, but fill
My life with Spring!
My hopes were homeless things before
I saw your eyes;
O smile of Love, close not the door
To paradise!
My dreams were bitter once, and then
I found them bliss;
O lips of Love, give me again
Your rose to kiss!
Springtide of Love! The secret sweet
Is ours alone;
O heart of Love, at last you beat
Against my own!"

Michaela lightly positioned her hand above his heart. "Thank you, Sully. That was lovely."

He set the book aside and encircled her in his arms. "I love you, Muffet."

"I love you, too, Spider," she uttered with a trace of a smile on her lips.

Now content in each others arms, their long ordeal seemed to be over at last. They had independently come to the conclusion that there was no greater gift and no greater healer than their love. Through love, they had weathered heartache and separation. Because of love, they had found their way home. With love, they looked forward to a bright future.

THE END

EPILOGUE

In 1872, General William Palmer had 600 cottonwood trees planted when water was available from city reservoirs. Later, in Monument Valley Park, he had every tree and shrub species found in Colorado.


Colorado Springs had a sizable crew of workers employed by Palmer to maintain the city's parks and trees. In 1910, City Council created the Department of Forestry, a tree ordinance and a city forester position. When many of the cottonwoods did not survive, they were replaced with maple, ash and elm trees.

Today the Colorado Springs urban forest has grown to more than 99,000 street trees, 18,500 park trees and 6,300 acres of open space and regional park forest areas, all valued at over $100 million dollars.

In 1881, his wife Queen (Mary Lincoln Mellen) gave birth to their third daughter in London, England. Upon her death in 1894, the General brought his children to Glen Eyrie.

In 1906, while horseback riding in the Garden of the Gods, Palmer's horse threw him to the ground, rendering him paralyzed. He lay on a waterbed in Glen Eyrie. A sling was constructed to get him in and out of bed. His children enjoyed playing on it, and once a day, he booted all adults from the room to entertain them.

William Jackson Palmer passed away during a snowstorm in March 1909.


William Sharpless Jackson took part in the founding of Colorado Springs, as well. In 1872, he became vice-president of William Palmer's railroad. The next year, he founded the El Paso Bank (later the El Paso County National Bank) and the First National Bank of Colorado Springs. In 1874, he served as Trustee for Colorado College. William S. Jackson retired from his position at the Denver Rio Grande in 1876. In 1884, he took part in the founding of the Denver National Bank. During the same year, the U.S. District Court appointed him receiver of the Denver and Rio Grande Railway Company. He served as receiver for two years. In 1911, he resigned from his positions at both banks. Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, William S. Jackson engaged in mining enterprises, business ventures and real estate. After his retirement, he continued to develop his numerous investments.

His first wife was noted author Helen Hunt Jackson. Three years after her death, he married her niece Helen Marie Fiske. He died in 1919.



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