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



A Matter of Trust


by Debby K



Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman
A Matter of Trust
by Debby K

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

Sully awoke with a stiff back. The floor in Katie's room did not afford the same comfort as his own mattress. His little girl had experienced a bad dream during the night, and with his presence, he wanted to reassure her that all was well.

"Poppy," she looked down on him as light dawned through the window.

"'Mornin', sweet girl," he sat up slowly.

"Could you take me t' school today?" she requested. "I'm helpin' with the Independence Day program."

"Sure, honey," he reached for her hand. "You still scared?"

"Sort of," she hedged.

Sully pulled himself up to sit on the edge of her bed, "It was just a dream, Kates."

"It was the bad men again, Poppy," she wiped the tear from her cheek.

Sully pulled her into his warm embrace, "Do ya wanna stay home t'day?"

"No," she shook her head. "I promised I'd help."

"I don't want you t' worry," he brushed back a stray lock of her blonde hair from her face.

"I won't worry if you take me," she assured.

"It's nice havin' you home durin' the day again," he smiled.

"You're not home very much lately," she reminded.

"I wanna finish the Reverend's new school," he touched her nose.

"Are there a lot of deaf an' blind children?" she wondered.

"Enough t' need a school," Sully tilted his head. "I smell breakfast cookin'. You hungry?"

"Sort of," she nodded. "Thank you for stayin' with me last night, Poppy."

"You're welcome," he kissed her cheek.

Katie slid from her bed to don her robe and slippers. As he watched her depart, Sully marveled at how she seemed so like Michaela. With each day, he could see more of his wife in her.

His thoughts were interrupted by Josef's voice at the door, "Papa."

"Hey, Joe," he smiled.

"I think I did somethin'," he frowned.

"Did somethin'?" Sully was puzzled.

"In my bed," the little boy looked down ruefully.

"We'll get it cleaned up," Sully rose stiffly.

"I'm sorry," Josef lamented. "I thinked I dweamed I was at the pwivy."

He chuckled softly, "Accidents happen."

Soon, Sully had his son cleaned and the bedding changed.

Josef felt relieved, "Now Mama won't know."

"Joe," Sully paused. "It's okay for your Ma t' know."

"She be dis'pointed," the little boy speculated.

"In you?" he opened his eyes wide. "Never."

"Ya don' think so?" Josef put his hands on his hips.

"'Course not," he rubbed his back. "Go eat your breakfast now."

When Josef left him, Sully placed the soiled sheets in a large laundry basket in the hallway. Already, it was nearly full with dirty diapers.

He paused at the doorway of the twins' room. At least they were still sleeping, he thought to himself. At that instant, he heard Annie stirring.

"Papa," she spotted him and reached up from her crib.

"'Mornin', darlin'," he smiled as he entered the room. "You wantin' t' go join your brother an' sister downstairs?" he kissed her cheek.

"Eyes," she invited him to play their special game.

Sully grinned, "Okay. Where's your green eye?"

Annie pointed to her left eye.

He added, "Where's your brown eye?"

The little girl pointed to her right eye and smiled, "Booful."

"Yep," Sully kissed her sweetly. "My sweet Annie's beautiful, just like her Ma."

"See Mama," she pointed toward the door.

"Mama's still sleepin', like Noah," he caressed her blonde tresses.

"NOAH!" she shouted.

"Shh," Sully cringed.

The noise was enough to waken the little boy.

"Hey, No-bo," Sully ruffled his son's hair. "You hungry?"

"Cookie," Noah's eyes widened.

"No," Sully feigned a frown. "Not for breakfast."

"Pweace, Papa," Noah implored.

"Not for breakfast," he repeated.

Sully lifted both youngsters from their cribs and set them down to stand on their own.

"Mama," Annie pointed toward the door again.

She began to scamper from the room and down the hallway.

Sully caught her just as she was about to enter her parents' room, "Come here, honey. Let Mama...."

Suddenly, the bedroom door opened, and Michaela reacted, "Sully?"

"Hey," he smiled sheepishly. "I was tryin' t' keep the kids quiet."

Michaela knelt down to greet the little ones, "Keeping these two quiet is impossible."

The twins settled down after a morning hug from their mother.

At that moment, Bridget reached the top floor, "I thought I heard these two roamin' the place. Come on then, let's get ya fed."

"Cookie," Noah voiced his favorite.

"You'll not be havin' that for breakfast, laddie," Bridget took his hand. "You're worse than that Josef an' his pokles. Come on, now. I've got your brother an' sister downstairs, so if ya want anythin' t' eat, ya best get movin'."

"Thank you, Bridget," Michaela stood up.

The nanny winked as she left them.

Michaela turned to her husband, "Hello, you."

"Hello, yourself," he smiled faintly.

"A busy morning?" she suspected.

He nodded and entered the bedroom, heading straight for Hope's cradle.

"How's this little girl?" Sully leaned closer to the baby.

"Two months old and sleeping like an angel," Michaela closed the door and approached him. "We both had a good night's sleep."

Instinctively, Michaela began to massage her husband's back.

"How'd ya know I needed this?" he relaxed at her touch.

"You have that look," she continued to work her magic.

Within moments, Sully felt his back muscles lose their stiffness.

"You got a way about ya, Dr. Quinn," he turned.

Resting her palms on his chest, she lifted up for a kiss.

"Mmm," he grinned. "Ya got lots o' ways about ya."

"I was thinking...." she paused.

"Yea?" he anticipated.

"Why don't we take the children for a picnic tomorrow?" Michaela broached the subject. "The weather has been beautiful and...."

"Sounds good...." his expression changed. "But I gotta work on the school."

"Sully, you've worked on it every day for weeks," she pointed out.

He shrugged, "It takes longer when I'm by myself. Brian an' Matthew can't always help me."

"Perhaps I could help you then," she offered. "I can pound nails."

He raised her hand to his lips, "I don't want you gettin' callouses."

"I'll wear gloves," she countered.

He cast a glance toward the cradle, "What about feedin' Hope?"

"I can bring her with me," she pointed out.

"I'll build the school," he stated. "You get your rest. You'll be headin' back t' work soon."

"What about you?" she suspected. "You hardly rest at all. You look exhausted."

"It's just from sleepin' on the floor last night," he excused.

"Did Katie say anymore about her dream?" she wondered.

"She mentioned the bad men this mornin'," he remarked.

Michaela felt a chill at the recollection of their daughter's kidnapping, "That was such a terrifying experience for her. It's remarkable she hasn't suffered even more nightmares from it. But why would she be dreaming about it now?"

"I don't know," he considered. "She wants me t' take her t' school t'day."

"Poor darling," Michaela began to make the bed. "I'll speak with her before she leaves."

Sully began to help her, "Joe had an accident last night."

"He wet his bed?" she frowned.

"Yea," he acknowledged.

She started toward the door, "I should change the sheets before...."

"Already taken care of," he interrupted.

"You have had a busy morning, Mr. Sully," she gently caressed his cheek.

Sully stepped back awkwardly, "All part o' the job."

"The job?" she was uncertain.

"The job of bein' a Pa t' your children," he winked.

"Most men would never do what you do," she mused.

"Most men don't have what I have," he went to his basin to wash his face.

"And what do you have that other men don't?" she teased.

"The most beautiful wife in the world," he returned.

Her cheeks flushed, "I'm hardly beautiful with...."

He paused to gaze at her adoringly, "Ya still take my breath away when ya look at me, Michaela."

"Sully," she neared him.

Sweetly, they kissed. Soon, there was hunger in their contact.

When they parted, Sully recited in a raspy voice:

"Their lips drew near, and clung into a kiss;
A long, long kiss, a kiss of youth and love...
Each kiss a heart-quake for a kiss's strength,
I think, it must be reckon'd by its length."

Michaela spoke near his ear, "That must be my Byron."

His grin indicated she was correct.

"Dr. Bernard is coming by today," she informed him.

"Your incision hurtin'?" he grew concerned.

"No," she assured. "It's completely healed."

"Good," he caressed her temple.

At that moment, Hope began to stir in her cradle.

"I'll get her," Sully turned.

Gently lifting the infant, he kissed her cheek. Hope yawned.

Sully turned up his nose, "We got a dirty diaper here."

Michaela retrieved a fresh one as Sully set the baby on their bed. Soon, she was cleaned and changed. Again, Sully lifted and doted on his daughter. He detected a slight smile on her, prompted by the expressions he made at her.

"Look, Michaela," he marveled. "She's smilin'."

"It's amazing, isn't it?" she touched his arm. "With each new milestone our children reach, it's still as exciting as with our first."

He glanced at her with a loving grin, "I wonder if it's like that for all parents."

"I would imagine so," she nodded.

Michaela noticed a look of fatigue on her husband's face.

"Why not stay home with us today?" Michaela invited. "The children miss you, and I...."

He tensed, "I told ya I can't, Michaela. I gotta work on that school."

She sighed, their mood broken, "One day won't hurt."

"There's been plenty o' days when you stayed at the Clinic because ya had a job t' do," he reminded. "What I gotta do is just as important."

"I didn't mean to imply that it's not important," she defended. "But there is no deadline for its completion."

He shook his head, "Ya don't understand."

She reached for him, "I want to."

He looked away, "Why don't you talk t' Katie, then I'll take her t' school?"

"All right," her shoulders slumped.

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

"Horace, my good man," Preston tapped the Depot counter top.

"What do you want?" he did not look up.

"I want to know if the train from Denver is on time," Preston specified.

"See for yourself," Horace gestured toward the chalkboard schedule.

The banker glanced at it, "Good. Now, I'd like to...."

"I'm busy," Horace interrupted.

"What in blue blazes is wrong with you?" Preston put his hands on his hips.

"Nothin'," Horace walked away.

Preston sighed, "Perhaps it's time this town hired another telegrapher."

Horace pivoted, anger in his eyes, "Since you usually get what ya want, I guess that's one more reason for me t' lose my job."

"Lose your job?" he paused.

"That's right," Horace raised his voice. "I heard you're gettin' one o' them telee-phones."

Preston grinned, "Yes, I am having one installed at the Chateau."

"An' what if other folks do the same?" he frowned. "Where's that leave me?"

"Well," Preston pondered. "I suppose you could learn to operate the switch board."

"Switch board?" he tilted his head.

"To connect the lines," Preston explained. "Now, stop feeling sorry for yourself and think about that."

Horace sighed and walked away from him.

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

Dr. Bernard closed his medical bag, "Well, Dr. Quinn, I'd say that your incision is completely healed."

She acknowledged, "That's what I thought."

"Are you still experiencing any pain?" he questioned.

"Only occasional twinges," she replied. "Obviously, I cannot lift anything heavy. That does prove a challenge with the twins."

"And have you had your monthly yet?" he continued.

"Yes," she returned.

Bernard set the baby on Michaela's bed and listened to her heartbeat, "Is she sleeping through the night?"

"She has for the past two nights," Michaela responded.

He smiled at the little one, "Hello, Hope."

The infant moved her legs and puckered her lips to suck.

"I think she might be wanting her Mama," the physician rose up. "I'll leave you now."

"Dr. Bernard," Michaela paused. "I want to thank you for everything."

"You're most welcome," he smiled.

When the physician departed, Michaela lifted the baby and prepared to nurse her. At that moment, Annie entered the bedroom.

"Well, hello," Michaela smiled.

"Hey," Annie grinned.

Michaela directed the little girl to sit beside her.

"Hoop," Annie touched her sister.

"Hope," Michaela gently amended. "Can you say Hope?"

Annie tried again, "Hopa."

"I suppose that's better," the mother mused.

Annie softly caressed her sister's hand, "I luv."

"Sweet Annie," Michaela gazed at her tenderly. "You love Hope."

"Hopa doll," the child compared.

"Not a doll," Michaela corrected. "She's your sister. Can you say sister?"

"Katie sisah," Annie knew.

"Yes," Michaela agreed. "Katie is your sister, too. And so is Colleen."

"C'ween," Annie attempted. "Picurs, Mama," Annie pointed to the family scrapbook.

"You want to look at pictures?" Michaela questioned.

"Uh-huh," Annie nodded. "See Papa."

"Can you wait until I finish feeding Hope?" Michaela gazed down at the infant.

"Hopa feed," the little girl leaned closer.

"Yes, she's very hungry," she told her.

Annie slid from the rocker and left the room, returning quickly with her doll. Holding it as if she were feeding the baby, Annie patiently sat and watched until her mother was finished with her sister. When Michaela finally put the infant in her cradle, she turned to the toddler.

"Let's see," Michaela fetched the scrapbook and opened to the first page.

"Papa!" Annie pointed to her parents' wedding photo.

"You should have seen your Papa on that day," Michaela's eyes became misty. "He was, and still is, the most handsome man I have ever seen."

"Hans," Annie smiled.

Michaela regretted, "I'm afraid I had some harsh words with Papa this morning."

Annie did not understand, and continued to point, "Bran."

"Yes," Michaela clasped her little hand. "That's Brian. He's far away in Chicago. I miss him."

"Miss," Annie agreed.

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

"And so, students," Teresa Slicker smiled. "That's the schedule of events for our Independence Day celebration. Are there any questions or comments?"

Wendell Reed raised his hand, "Do comments have t' be about the Fourth of July?"

Teresa contemplated, "What else did you want to discuss?"

The boy replied with a grin, "I'm gonna get adopted by the Reverend an' Miss Isabel."

"That is very good news," Teresa smiled. "What other plans do you children have for the summer?"

Katie shrugged, "I guess I'm gonna help Mama an' Papa with our new baby."

"That is very nice, as well," Teresa nodded. "Samantha? What will you do?"

"I think I'll do some matchmaking," she retorted with a gleam in her eye.

"Matchmaking?" Teresa was curious.

"My cousin Lewis and.... a girl he's sweet on," Samantha answered.

Katie frowned, "If you mean my sister, Colleen, I don't think that's right."

"Right?" Samantha was taken aback.

"She's married t' Andrew," Katie countered.

"I thought they were divorced," Samantha returned.

"What's divorced, Mrs. Slicker?" Amanda Calloway questioned.

Teresa raised her hand to end the topic, "I think that is enough discussion. I'm going to let you go now, but I'll see you here on July 4."

Most of the children bolted from the room, but Samantha and Katie remained.

"I'm sorry, Katie," Samantha sensed her friend was upset.

The little girl sighed, "It's okay. I guess I just have other things on my mind."

"Like what?" Samantha inquired.

"I don't wanna talk about it right now," Katie gathered her belongings. "I'll see you at church. Good bye, Mrs. Slicker."

"Good bye," Teresa looked up from her desk.

Samantha approached her teacher, "Did I say something wrong?"

Teresa assessed, "I do not believe so."

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

Katie decided to walk to the construction site where her father was working on the new school for deaf and blind children. She enjoyed watching him build things. Ever since she could remember, Poppy had measured and sawed and hammered things. He even made her bed.

She passed by The Gazette office and waved at Dorothy through the window. Then she paused at the old Clinic. Looking up, she saw Matthew and Emma chatting on the balcony.

"Hey," she smiled.

"Hey, little sister," Matthew grinned. "You finished at school?"

"Uh-huh," she nodded. "You comin' t' supper tonight?"

"We'll be there," he winked. "See ya later."

"Okay," the little girl continued on her way.

As she passed the mercantile, Loren spotted her, "Hey, Katie girl. How about a lemon drop?"

"No, thanks," she waved.

"Suit yourself," he shrugged.

Katie neared the Livery and waved to Robert E, "How's Abraham?"

"Fat an' sassy like his Ma," the blacksmith chuckled.

Katie smiled and continued on her way. In the distance, she spotted the new hospital and just beyond it the construction site where her father would be working.

"Little girl," a man's voice startled her. "Where are you going?"

Katie looked up at him.

The man had dark hair and eyes. His mustache covered his mouth.

"Did you hear me, child?" he spoke in a cold tone. "I asked where you are going."

Katie did not stop to answer. She bolted from him and headed straight for the construction site.

"Poppy! Poppy!" she shouted.

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

Sully heard his daughter's screams and stopped sawing a board. Wolf growled and ran toward the child, followed swiftly by Sully. When Katie reached her father, she was out of breath. Tears streamed down her cheeks.

"What's wrong, Kates?" Sully enfolded her in his arms.

She pointed, "There was a strange man askin' me where I was goin'."

"Where is he now?" Sully surveyed her path.

Katie turned, "I.... I don't see him."

"What'd he look like?" he queried.

Katie shook her head and leaned against his shoulder. Tears flowed anew.

Sully soothingly stroked her back, "Tell me, honey. Did... he touch you?"

"No," she shook her head.

Sully lifted her and started toward the Depot.

"No, Poppy," she protested. "I wanna go home. Please, take me home."

"All right," he did not want to upset her further.

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

Josef leaned his elbows on the window ledge, staring at the road leading toward the homestead.

Michaela approached her son, "They'll be home soon."

"I thinked I wait a lot for folks t' come home," he considered.

Michaela concealed her smile, "You're very patient young man. The day will come when I'll be sitting here at this window waiting for you."

"Ya will?" he turned. "What day?"

"When you're all grown up and on your own," she explained. "I'll wonder, 'Will Josef come to see me today?'"

He pledged, "'Course, I will, Mama."

"That's what you say now," she touched his nose. "But little boys grow up and meet special young ladies."

"Who's my special young lady?" his eyes widened.

"I think she'll be the most beautiful young woman in Colorado Springs," she pondered.

"Like you?" he ventured.

"I'm flattered that you would think of me that way," she mused.

"You the most beau'ful woman, Mama," he clasped her hand.

"Thank you," she kissed his cheek.

"Thanks for talkin' t' me," he looked at her with his father's eyes.

"You don't have to thank me for that," she caressed his head. "I love talking to you."

"But ya got a lot on your hands with the kids," he offered.

"Fortunately, I have wonderful hands to help me, too," she assured.

Josef turned just in time to see the cloud of dust from Sully's horse, "Papa an' Katie's home!"

He rushed to the front door and opened it. Sully dismounted and tied his horse to the front post. Then he gently helped Katie down.

"You're home early," Michaela smiled.

"Mama!" Katie rushed to her embrace.

"What's wrong?" Michaela's brow wrinkled.

"A stranger talked t' her," Sully returned to his horse. "Scared her pretty bad. I'm goin' back int' town t' see what I can find out."

"Be careful," Michaela cautioned.

As her husband departed, she led her daughter into the house.

"Wanna play, Katie?" Josef asked.

"Not now, Joey," the little girl set her things on the table. "Are the twins sleepin'?"

"No," Michaela gestured. "Miss Bridget has them out in the garden."

"Bring 'em inside quick, Mama," Katie insisted.

Josef's eyes widened at his sister's reaction.

Michaela assured, "Katie, Sweetheart, you're safe."

"No, Mama," she shook her head. "We gotta get the kids in here, an' lock the doors 'til Poppy comes home."

"Josef," Michaela took his hand. "Would you go check on Hope for me?"

"Why don' ya jus' say ya wanna talk t' Katie alone?" he posed the question.

"All right," she said. "I'd like to speak with your sister.... alone."

"Can I go play in your office?" he requested.

"May I?" Michaela corrected.

"I thought you're gonna talk t' Katie," he put his hands on his hips.

Michaela sighed, "Yes, you may play in my office."

The little boy touched his sister's hand, "Mama will make ya feel better."

With that, he left them. Michaela guided Katie into the kitchen and poured her a glass of water for her. Then sitting at the table, she drew the child into her embrace.

Katie was silent but soon tilted her head onto her mother's shoulder.

Michaela kissed her temple, "You're safe, my darling. Nothing's going to happen to you."

"Oh, Mama," Katie began to cry. "I don't wanna leave you an' Poppy again."

Michaela's eyes welled with tears, "You won't leave us, Sweetheart."

"I'm sorry," the child spoke with a voice full of emotion. "I don't wanna worry you."

"Katie, nothing is more important than our family," she asserted. "And if you're frightened, we want to help you. Your father will find this man who spoke to you."

Katie suddenly trembled.

Michaela thought a change of subject might help, "Would you help me check on Hope?"

"Uh-huh," Katie wiped her eyes.

Michaela took her hand as they climbed the steps. When they reached the cradle, they found the baby awake and alert.

"Hello, Hope," Katie smiled down at her.

The baby moved her arms and legs.

"I think she knows my voice, Mama," Katie's eyes brightened.

"I think she does, too," Michaela agreed.

"May I hold her?" the little girl requested.

"Certainly," Michaela helped her.

Guiding her to the rocking chair, Michaela placed the infant in her sister's arms, then sat beside them. Gently, they rocked back and forth.

"She's a good baby," Katie assessed.

"Just as you were," she replied.

"I wanna protect her from all harm," Katie kept her eyes on the little one.

"You sound like your father," Michaela smiled.

Katie's tone was serious, "I know he'll try."

Michaela stared at her with concern, "Of course, he will."

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

Sully spoke to many of the townsfolk, asking if they had seen a stranger in town. Katie had told him what the man looked like, but no one had seen anyone by that description.

He returned to the spot where Katie had met the man. Searching for footprints, he was unsuccessful at isolating any of them. What would he tell his daughter? Was there truly a need to be alarmed? Katie was not prone to exaggeration or hysteria.

Sully went to the Sheriff's Office. Entering the small structure, he cleared his throat.

Hank looked up from the desk where he had been napping, "You come t' turn yourself in?"

"Very funny," Sully frowned.

"What brings ya then?" he became more attentive.

"You see a stranger in town?" Sully posed the question.

"There's lots o' strangers in town," he shrugged. "Why?"

"Someone scared Katie t'day over near the hospital," Sully informed him.

"Scared her how?" Hank questioned.

"Spoke t' her," he replied.

"That's all?" Hank rolled his eyes.

"Look," Sully leaned closer. "When a strange man talks t' my daughter an' scares her, that's plenty. You understand?"

"Sure," Hank backed down. "Don't get yourself worked up. What's the man look like?"

As Sully described the stranger, Hank nodded.

"I'll keep a look out," the sheriff pledged.

"Much obliged," Sully departed.

He headed for the Gold Nugget. When he entered, it took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the dark interior. Then he spotted a man matching the description provided by Katie.

Sully approached, "You new in town?"

"Here on business," he replied. "May I buy you a drink?"

"No," Sully responded. "You happen t' talk t' a little girl near the Depot t'day?"

"A little girl?" the stranger ran his finger across his upper lip. "Matter of fact, I did."

"Why?" Sully's tone changed.

"Why did I talk to her?" he clarified.

"Yea," Sully waited.

"What business is that of yours?" the stranger became defensive.

"She's my daughter," Sully frowned. "Now, why were ya talkin' t' her?"

The man seemed calm, "I thought she was lost."

"What made ya think that?" Sully persisted.

He noted, "She seemed distracted. I felt sorry for her."

Sully felt more at ease. The man seemed sincere.

The stranger inquired, "I certainly didn't mean any harm."

"Okay," Sully nodded. "Thanks."

"Are you certain I can't buy you a drink?" he offered again.

"No," Sully turned and left.

The man lifted a shot glass of whiskey and downed its contents in one gulp.

After wiping the back of his hand across his mouth, he spoke to himself, "You should keep a closer eye on that child. She's a beauty, she is."

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

Sully entered the homestead and walked into the kitchen. He heard the voices of his children overhead. He smiled, then rubbed his aching back.

"I thought I heard you," Michaela descended the steps. "Did you find out anything?"

"I found the man at the Gold Nugget," he reached toward the cooking pot atop the stove. "Seemed harmless enough."

"Harmless?" she was surprised.

"He said he thought Katie was lost an' just asked her where she was goin'," Sully nodded.

"That's a relief," she relaxed.

When Sully lifted the lid on the pot, Michaela cautioned, "It's hot."

He shrugged, "Can't feel it with my callouses."

"Sully," she stepped closer. "About this morning. I.... I'm sorry we quarreled."

"We didn't quarrel," he amended.

She caressed his arm, "I know that your work is important, and I admire your determination to finish it."

He melted at her touch, "I'm sorry, too. I guess I been a little on edge."

"I still think a day of rest would...." she was interrupted.

"I'll go tell Katie what I found out," he stepped away.

Michaela watched him ascend the steps, "What's wrong with you, Byron Sully?"

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

The children rushed to their father when he entered Katie's room.

"Did ya find the bad man, Poppy?" Katie anticipated.

"What bad man?" Josef queried.

Bridget anticipated, "Come on, you leprechauns. I can use some help with supper."

Josef frowned, "I wanna know."

"Joe," Sully's tone was stern.

The child sighed, and took Annie by the hand. Following the nanny, the little ones left Sully alone with Katie.

He took her hands, "I found the man, honey. He said he didn't mean t' scare ya. He thought you were lost."

"You believe him, Poppy?" she inquired.

"He seemed t' be tellin' the truth," Sully nodded. "I don't think it's anythin' for you t' worry about."

"What about my dream?" she looked up at him.

"Maybe we could take your mind off it," he offered. "How 'bout a picnic t'morrow?"

"I'd like that," she threw her arms around her father's neck. "Thank you, Poppy."

Sully kissed the top of her head, "Go on an' help Miss Bridget, sweet girl."

When Katie reached the door, she spotted her mother.

"Poppy said everythin's okay," the child informed her.

"Good," Michaela embraced her.

The little girl left her parents. Sully stood up.

"Could we talk?" Michaela requested.

"'Bout what?" he avoided looking at her.

"About...." she was interrupted by the baby's cries.

Sighing, she left him to tend to their daughter.

Sully watched Michaela walk down the hallway to their bedroom. He closed his eyes and exhaled in frustration. He could not tell her the reason for his tension. His debts for building the new school were mounting, and Sully had been buying on credit. He was determined to complete the structures as soon as possible, but how much longer would Loren provide the lumber without full payment?

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

"Bridget," Michaela helped her peel potatoes. "Have you noticed anything different about Sully lately?"

"Ya mean how hard he's workin'?" she drew back a stray lock of her red hair. "Aye."

"He seems so engrossed in his work that he hardly has time for his family," Michaela pondered.

"The lad always works hard, darlin'," Bridget knew. "But you know there's nothin' more important t' him than you an' the wee ones."

"He's exhausted," she walked to the window.

"Havin' five little ones t' provide for is a lot o' responsibility," Bridget speculated.

"But he's not being paid to build the school for the Reverend," she doubted. "In fact, I have no idea where he's even getting the money to purchase the building supplies."

"Then I reckon he's workin' hard t' keep his mind off somethin'," the nanny perceived.

"Keep his mind off something?" Michaela tilted her head. "Like what?"

"You could ask him," she encouraged.

Michaela considered, "He's been like this since.... our anniversary."

"Go talk t' him, lass," Bridget urged.

Michaela removed her apron and set it neatly across one of the kitchen chairs. Then she reached for her shawl and headed for the barn.

She found Sully pitching hay at a rapid pace.

"Supper ready?" he saw her.

"Not yet," she approached.

He resumed his work.

"Sully," she touched his shoulder.

He stiffened, "I gotta finish this, Michaela."

"Finish with hay?" she was surprised. "You can't even pause long enough to speak with me?"

He stopped again, "What did ya wanna talk about?"

She took a deep breath, "I want to know what's bothering you. You seem so.... distracted."

He avoided looking at her, "I'm just tryin' t'...."

He swallowed hard, unable to express himself.

"Sully, please tell me what's bothering you," she implored. "Does it have something to do with this school for the deaf and blind children?"

"I love you," he stepped back.

"I love you, too," she followed.

"You should get back in the house, Michaela," he tensed. "The baby might need ya."

Her shoulders slumped. Shaking her head, she pivoted to leave. Sully resumed his labor.

Michaela's thoughts swirled as she walked toward the homestead. Why had he told her he loves her out of the blue? Why did he avoid looking at her? Why did he step back when she neared him?

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

The children were finally settled into bed for the night. Michaela sat in her bedroom rocker nursing Hope. Sully paused at the doorway so he would not disturb them. He smiled at the gentle lullaby Michaela was humming to their daughter.

Then he felt a surge of guilt for avoiding the conversation with her in the barn earlier. He saw Michaela raise the baby up to pat her back and entered the room.

"I hope Katie will sleep okay t'night," he mentioned.

"Sully, you're sure that man meant her no harm?" she worried.

"He seemed sincere," he assured.

"Perhaps the plans for Independence Day will keep her mind off this unpleasant dream," Michaela was hopeful.

"I think your idea was a good one," Sully changed the subject.

"My idea?" she was uncertain.

"About a picnic t'morrow," Sully smiled as he sat beside her.

"I thought you had to work on the school," she noted.

He affirmed, "I wanna spend time with my family."

"Good," she cupped her hand to his cheek.

"Mind if I hold Hope?" he reached out.

Gently, she placed the sleeping child in his hands. Sully cradled her and raised her to tenderly kiss her forehead.

He grinned, "Sometimes I wish time could stand still so our kids won't change. Other times, I think about what it'll be like when they're all grown with little ones of their own."

"I've had a glimpse of that," she mentioned.

"A glimpse at when the children are grown up?" he was amused.

"Don't laugh," she sounded serious. "I've never told you about it."

"Tell me now," he invited.

"Very well," she settled herself. "It was the first Christmas after you had told me you loved me. I was in the Livery with that young couple who were expecting their first child."

"We hid 'em there 'cause their fathers were lookin' for 'em," he recalled.

"Yes," she nodded. "That's when I had the vision."

He was fascinated, "Vision?"

"Charlotte Cooper came to me," she explained. "I was in low spirits, and she showed me what I meant to this town.... to the children."

"You had doubts about that?" he clasped her hand and raised it to his lips.

Michaela resumed, "Charlotte showed me a Christmas past, when I spent the night with a hospital patient while the other residents went home to their families."

"Christmas past?" he grinned. "Sounds like Scrooge, but you're a far cry from that character."

"Eventually, she gave me a glimpse of Christmas future," she smiled.

"What was that like?" he was intrigued.

"Matthew and Colleen were there with their families," she detailed. "We were waiting for Brian to come home."

"Where was he?" Sully was curious.

"You'll never guess...." she paused. "He was in the Merchant Marines."

"You're kiddin'," his eyes widened. "Did he make it home for Christmas?"

"Yes, he did," she smiled.

"Good," he wrapped Hope's fingers around his thumb. "I reckon it was a happy holiday for us all then."

She was silent.

"Michaela?" he was puzzled. "Wasn't it happy?"

"I didn't get to see the rest," she told him. "I was hoping to see my husband, but all I had was a glimpse of his silhouette."

Sully joked, "He better have looked a lot like me."

"You won't believe me when I tell you whom his shadow resembled," she hedged.

"Who?" he questioned.

"Abraham Lincoln," she maintained a straight face.

Sully burst into laughter, "Ol' Abe?"

"Yes," she joined him in chuckling.

"Good thing it was just a dream," he retorted.

"My life is much better than the dream," she smiled.

Sully held up Hope's tiny hand and gently kissed her fingers, "You ever think we'd be sittin' here with another little one t' love?"

"No, but I'm ever so grateful that we are," Michaela leaned closer.

He sighed, "I have lots o' dreams for our kids, but I regret the world we're leavin' 'em."

"You have nothing to regret," she assured. "No one has done more than you to try to insure that our children will grow up in a better world."

"An' you," he looked at her with love.

Michaela commented, "I've learned with our older ones that as much as we have dreams for them, ultimately, they must make their own destinies. All we can do in the end is educate them, guide them and love them."

"An' try t' prepare them for what's ahead," he added.

Michaela touched Hope's hand, "What lies ahead for this little one?"

"Whatever our kids become, you realize it'll be in the twentieth century?" he pondered.

"The twentieth century," she marveled. "Imagine the medical and technological advances."

"Imagine the destruction of our land," he countered.

"Are we going to argue?" she raised an eyebrow.

"No," he grinned.

"Sully," she touched his arm. "I wanted to ask you something."

"What?" he anticipated.

"The money for the school...." she hedged. "I was wondering where you're getting...."

He interrupted, "Don't worry about it."

"But, all of that lumber...." she studied his expression.

His mood changed, "I'll take care of it, Michaela."

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

As morning business began to pick up at the Mercantile, Loren concluded his calculations and rubbed his chin. He stepped from behind his store counter and glanced across the street toward the Clinic.

"What ya lookin' at?" Jake looked up from reading the Gazette.

"Seems strange not havin' Dr. Mike there anymore," he noted.

"She'll be back t' work in no time," Jake returned. "You know her."

"Even when she does return, she won't be at the Clinic much," the older man folded his arms.

"Somethin' else botherin' ya?" Jake noticed his demeanor.

Loren hesitated, "I got a customer who ain't been payin' me."

Jake scoffed, "Nothin' unusual about that."

The storekeeper frowned, "He's been placin' some big orders, an' he's always been prompt payin' me before."

"Maybe he's fallen on hard times," Jake reasoned. "You need paid right away?"

"If I'm gonna keep supplyin' him, I am," Loren nodded.

"Maybe you oughta have Hank talk t' him then," he suggested. "Show him that ya mean business."

"No," Loren shook his head. "I'll talk t' him."

"Suit yourself," he shrugged.

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

"Katie!" Michaela called to her daughter at the edge of the lake. "Be careful! Don't get so close to the deep water."

"She's okay," Sully glanced at the little girl.

He continued to wade in the shallow water with the twins. Annie was catching on quickly to her father's lessons in swimming, but Noah preferred to simply splash the water. Josef guided his boat closer to his younger siblings.

Teresa Slicker sat nearby, "Maria enjoys the water."

Michaela smiled uncomfortably, "She seems to be having a good time with the other children."

"Yes," Teresa looked down. "But she has no brothers and sisters of her own."

Michaela observed her remark with interest, "Would you and Jake like to have more children?"

Teresa's mood shifted, "That is none of your concern."

Sully spoke to his son, "Joe, let's you an' me take the twins an' look for some worms."

"Are we gonna fish, Papa?" the little boy's face lit up.

"Yep," Sully lifted Annie and Noah.

With her husband and children further away, Michaela broached the subject again, "Please don't misinterpret my intentions, Mrs. Slicker, but I am a physician."

"And a mother," Teresa observed the sleeping baby in her arms.

Michaela caressed Hope's hair, "I know what it's like to think you might never have another child."

"That is none of my business," she tensed. "Nor is it your business that Mr. Slicker and I have but one child. Now, please do not bring up the subject again."

"Of course," Michaela studied her expression. "I just thought perhaps you might wish for another."

"I have prayed a great deal for our Blessed Mother to guide me," Teresa acknowledged.

"Yes, prayer is important," she nodded.

Teresa glanced toward the water with alarm, "I do not see Maria."

"Katie!" Michaela called. "Where's Maria?"

The little girl pivoted, "She's right.... She was right beside me a second ago."

"Maria!" Teresa shouted.

"Somethin' wrong?" Sully was quickly at their side.

"Maria has disappeared," Michaela informed him.

Sully swiftly dove into the water.

"Katie!" Michaela directed her daughter. "Come here, right now."

The child waded toward her mother. Michaela began to dry her off as she watched Sully.

Teresa made a sign of the cross and uttered a silent prayer while Sully made repeated dives into the murky water.

"Mama, what's Papa doin'?" Josef became curious.

"Sit down beside me with the twins, Sweetheart," Michaela directed.

Suddenly, Sully emerged from the water with the lifeless body of Maria Slicker in his arms. He made his way to the shore as quickly as possible and set the child on the blanket beside Michaela.

"Is she sleepin'?" Josef was puzzled.

"Joe," Sully lifted Hope into his arms. "You an' Katie keep the twins back."

Michaela worked to revive the little girl.

"Maria!" Teresa's emotions were intensifying.

Sully attempted to calm her her, "Michaela's doin' all she can."

"My child...." Teresa could not go on.

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

With Michaela struggling to save her, Maria began to cough. Water spewed forth from her mouth, and the little girl started to cry.

Michaela closed her eyes and sighed, grateful that the child was alive.

"Maria!" Teresa lifted her sobbing daughter.

"She'll be fine now," Michaela felt a lump in her throat.

Sully knelt down beside his wife, "You did good."

Michaela observed the mother and child, "We came perilously close to losing her."

"I shall take my daughter home now, Dr. Quinn," Teresa stated.

"I think I should check her more thoroughly before...." Michaela was interrupted.

"Gracias," Teresa carried Maria and left them.

"That woman," Michaela shook her head as she watched them depart. "Why is she like that?"

"She's just stubborn," Sully set Hope in her arms again.

"Mama," Josef spoke up. "Are we done with the picnic?"

"Yes," Michaela felt emotionally drained as a tear trickled down her cheek.

"Why ya cryin'?" the little boy observed.

"Your Ma's just tired, Joe," Sully explained.

Katie added, "Mama saved Maria's life."

"She did?" Josef tilted his head. "Where was I?"

"Right here watchin'," Katie frowned at her brother.

"I thought she was kissin' Maria," Josef remarked.

"Joey," Katie shook her head. "What are we gonna do with you?"

The little boy considered, "I think ya have t' keep me around."

Sully ruffled his son's hair, "Let's go, kids."

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

Jake entered his house only to find it empty. He glanced at the cupboard in which he sometimes kept his whiskey. Suddenly overwhelmed by the need for a drink, he approached it. Then he stopped to take a deep breath. He had not consumed alcohol since he and Teresa made up. It had taken a long time for them to inch their way back to one another.

He told himself that this could jeopardize the fragile truce he and his wife had reached. Then he began to tell himself that one drink would not hurt. He could control it.

He heard the door, "Teresa?"

"Mr. Slicker," she rushed in with their child.

"Somethin' wrong with Maria?" his brow wrinkled.

"She nearly drowned," Teresa informed him.

"What?" he scooped Maria into his arms.

"Senor Sully saved her," Teresa stated.

"How?" Jake was puzzled.

"At the pond, Maria was invited by Dr. Quinn to swim with her children," Teresa's voice choked.

"I play?" Maria seemed to be fine.

"Sure," Jake set her down.

"I do not want you to play now, Maria," Teresa countered. "I want you to go to your room to rest."

"Please, Mama?" the little girl frowned.

"Go to your room," Teresa repeated.

The child's shoulders slumped, and she left them. Jake watched her depart and suddenly felt the powerful longing for a drink.

"Maybe we oughta take her t' the hospital," he assessed. "Have one o' the doctors check her out."

"Dr. Quinn looked at her," Teresa noted.

Jake folded his arms, "Did Dr. Mike say she's okay?"

"You trust her, do you not?" she gazed at him curiously.

He raised an eyebrow. "'Course I do."

"More than you trust me?" her tone became disapproving.

"What kinda question is that?" Jake frowned. "She's a doctor."

"And I am Maria's mother," she stated. "I know when she is all right."

With that, she turned and left him. Jake sighed and glanced again toward the wooden cabinet. Then, shaking his head, he headed out the door.

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

"Poppy," Katie approached her father as he rocked Hope.

"Hey, sweet girl," he spoke softly.

She positioned herself beside him and leaned down to kiss Hope's forehead.

"She's growin' so fast," the little girl whispered.

"I was just thinkin' the same thing," he smiled.

Katie tilted her head against her father's arm, relishing the back and forth motion of the rocker.

"Somethin' on your mind?" Sully finally spoke.

"I was thinkin' about Maria," she revealed. "I was real scared for her today."

"She's gonna be okay, thanks t' your Ma," he assured.

She looked up at him with admiration, "And thanks t' you."

Sully cradled Hope in one arm so that he could put his other around Katie.

Kissing her temple, he noted, "Things that give us a scare make us appreciate what we got."

Katie curled the baby's tiny fingers around her thumb, "I appreciate all I got."

"I know ya do," he caressed her blonde tresses. "Somethin' else on your mind?"

"My dream," she told him. "I was thinkin', maybe it was a warnin' about Maria.... you know, that she was in danger."

"You might be right, honey," Sully surmised. "But she's fine now. So are you."

"I feel safe when I'm with you, Poppy," she looked at him with adoring eyes. "I know you won't let anythin' happen t' us."

Sully felt a lump in his throat. A flash of memory passed before him as he recalled how helpless he felt when she was kidnapped.

"May I come in?" it was Michaela's voice at the doorway.

"Sure, Mama," Katie slipped from the rocking chair to make room for her.

"You don't have to get up, Sweetheart" she approached them.

"Where's Joey?" Katie was curious.

"He's showing the twins how to hop on one foot," Michaela mused.

"How many times have they fallen down?" Sully chuckled.

Michaela grinned, "Every time they attempt it, they tumble onto the floor in a fit of giggles."

"I'll go help them," Katie offered.

"Always the big sister," Michaela watched the little girl as she departed.

"So, how are you feelin'?" Sully extended his hand to invite her to join him.

"Rather tired," she admitted as she sat beside him and caressed Hope's tiny fingers.

"Maybe you should take a nap before dinner," he considered.

Michaela kissed the baby's hand, "This little one will be hungry soon."

Sully resumed the rocking motion, all the while, unable to take his eyes off Hope.

"What are you thinking about?" Michaela broke the silence.

"Katie said somethin' about her dream," he broached the subject.

"What?" Michaela queried.

"She said maybe it was a warnin' that somethin' bad would happen," he explained. "Not t' her.... but t' Maria."

"That poor child," Michaela shook her head. "Her father lets alcohol control his life, and her mother has a cold heart."

"Maybe it ain't so much a cold as it is a wounded heart," Sully offered.

"Wounded?" she was puzzled.

"Teresa seems like someone who's built up a wall around her feelin's so she won't get hurt anymore," he perceived.

She considered his words, "You may be right, but how can we help her?"

"Michaela," his tone had a hint of disapproval. "We got no right t' interfere."

"Someone I knew long ago built up walls to keep from being hurt," she mentioned.

"I suppose you tried t' break down those walls," he sighed.

"Yes, I did," she smiled.

"An' what happened?" Sully was curious.

"I married him," she kissed his cheek sweetly.

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

Preston approached Loren, Jake and Horace at the bar of the Gold Nugget, "May I buy you gentlemen a drink?"

Loren looked up, "What put you in such a generous mood?"

The banker stood taller, "I'm always generous."

Horace, who was standing nearby, overheard, "Ha!"

Preston grinned, "I'll overlook that laugh and treat you to another sarsaparilla, Horace."

Hank poured drinks for the trio as he joked, "When Preston's buyin', don't say 'no.' What's got you in such high spirits, anyway? You foreclose on some widow's mortgage?"

"My, my, gentlemen," Preston's eyes widened in disbelief. "Can't a man celebrate with his friends when good fortune comes his way?"

"What good fortune?" Jake challenged.

Preston returned, "It just so happens that I have invested in an international venture that will reap great rewards."

"International venture?" Hank leaned closer.

"Yes," Preston took a sip from his glass. "A grand canal, in Panama, being built by a man named de Lesseps."

"What the hell kinda name is that?" Hank frowned.

"It's French," Preston noted.

"Never heard o' him," Loren remarked.

"He is the man responsible for the Suez Canal," Preston informed them.

"Never heard o' that either," Loren shrugged.

"The completion of this canal will be the greatest engineering accomplishment of mankind," Preston grinned. "Not to mention the most profitable. President Hayes himself has announced that the United States will have jurisdiction over it. Do you have any idea what that will mean for American business and investors?"

"I'm more interested in business here in Colorado Springs," Loren sipped his drink.

Preston's forehead creased, "Why? Isn't the Mercantile doing well?"

Jake slurred, "He's got someone who ain't been payin' him for some big big orders."

"Then you should turn matters over to the law," Preston encouraged.

"That ain't how I do business," Loren leaned his elbows on the bar.

Hank grinned as he touched his revolver, "I wouldn't mind collectin' for ya."

"No," Loren frowned.

"Big orders...." Preston considered. "For what?"

Loren spoke, "Lum.... nothin'."

"Lumber?" the banker raised an eyebrow. "For a building project, no doubt. Why, the only thing being built right now is that foolish school for the deaf and blind children."

Loren lowered his head.

"That's it," Preston was pleased with himself. "And the man who is building it is Byron Sully. So, he's not paying you. That's unusual, considering his wife's wealth."

"Sully ain't one t' take his wife's money," Horace knew.

"Nonsense," Preston waved his hand. "Why do you think he married Michaela?"

Jake tilted back his hat, "My guess would be 'cause she loves him."

"Love?" Preston spoke sarcastically. "How could a woman like Michaela possibly feel love for such an unrefined loathsome creature? No. Given her sensitivity and charitable nature, I'm sure she feels sorry for him."

Jake chuckled, "You gotta be kiddin'. You really believe that?"

"I have proof of it, gentlemen," Preston boasted. "Without her money, Byron Sully would be penniless and frolicking around with his little animal friends."

Jake shook his head, "What d' you know about love?"

Preston frowned, "What do you? What are you doing here in a saloon when you should be home with your wife and daughter?"

Hank folded his arms, "Well, if Michaela only stays with Sully 'cause o' her charitable nature, maybe you should try bein' just as charitable, Preston. She might like ya then."

Preston felt a revelation, "You may be right, my good man." He removed his wallet from his pocket. "Loren, how much is Sully in arrears?"

"I ain't said it's Sully who owes me the money," Loren downed the remainder of his drink.

Preston began to place bills on the bar top.

Loren watched him, then spoke up, "That looks like enough t' cover it."

"Splendid," Preston's face beamed. "Now, you just let me know when you need more."

"Why you doin' this, Preston?" Horace was skeptical.

The banker returned his wallet to his pocket, "Let's just say it's a down payment on my future."

Hank laughed, "You think you got a future with Michaela?"

Preston tilted his head, "I think it will soften the animosity she has had toward me, particularly after.... well, the unfortunate events of last spring."

Horace chimed in, "You mean when she lost that baby?"

Preston tipped his hat, "Good evening, gentlemen."

Hank poured another round, then leaned closer to Loren, "So you gonna keep that money?"

"It pays the bills, don't it?" the older man replied.

"You can bet Preston's got somethin' up his sleeve," Hank rubbed his chin. "An' when Sully finds out what he's done, he's gonna give him one hell of a thrashin'."

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

Michaela tucked the edges of Katie's blanket securely, "Did you say your prayers?"

"Yes," Katie rested her hands on her stomach.

"Good night, my darling," Michaela leaned closer to kiss her.

"Mama," the little girl requested. "Could you sit with me 'til I get sleepy."

"Of course," Michaela positioned herself beside the child.

"I was thinkin'," Katie hedged.

"About what?" Michaela anticipated.

"Do you ever think about what it would be like if ya never married Poppy?" she queried.

"Why on earth would you ask that, Sweetheart?" Michaela was amazed.

"Because Colleen's not married t' Andrew anymore, an' she seems closer t' Lewis," Katie noted. "It got me thinkin'. What if she'd never met Andrew? Would she have been happier with Lewis from the start?"

"I think Colleen and Andrew were happy once," Michaela considered. "But they began to drift apart when they worked together in Boston."

"What if you an' Poppy never got married?" Katie persisted. "You were engaged t' David before.... an' ya told me that William wanted t' marry you when ya went back t' Boston."

"If I had never married your father...." Michaela paused. "Then I would never have had you."

"You'd never have children?" Katie's eyes widened.

"Not you," Michaela touched her nose. "You're a part of your father and me. And I can't imagine my life without you."

"So you made the right choice," Katie assumed.

Michaela affirmed, "I have never doubted that for an instant."

"That must be what love is, huh, Mama?" Katie pondered.

She clasped her daughter's hand, "It's being certain of where your heart is."

"I guess Colleen wasn't certain," the child considered.

Michaela sighed, "It may take some time before she knows what she wants, Katie. However, she needs us to be here for her."

"I'm here for her," Katie nodded. "But I don't think I'm much help."

Michaela turned up the corner of her mouth, "You're more help than you know."

"How?" Katie wondered.

"Because you love her," she replied simply.

Katie considered, "I'm certain of that."

Michaela smiled, "Did you have any other questions?"

Katie did not want to sleep yet.

She was curious, "How'd you get Poppy t' love you?"

Michaela was surprised, "I.... I don't think I did anything in particular."

"Why don't I answer that?" Sully stood at the doorway.

"Poppy, come in," Katie invited.

Sully entered the room and sat on the other side of their daughter's bed.

"So, why did you fall in love with Mama?" Katie persisted.

Sully grinned, "I reckon it was her hair."

"Her hair?" Katie was amazed.

"Most beautiful hair I ever saw," he agreed.

"Ya fell for Mama 'cause she's beautiful," Katie concluded.

Sully became serious, "There's beautiful on the outside, an' beautiful on the inside. It's what's inside that matters most. Your Ma's got inner beauty.... how she cares for folks.... how she stands up for what she believes in.... that's why I fell in love with her."

"I think Mama's beautiful on the inside an' out," Katie reasoned.

"I think you're right," Sully remarked.

Katie yawned.

"Do you think you can sleep now?" Michaela touched the dream catcher above her daughter's bed.

"Yes," Katie smiled. "I enjoyed our little talk. It was like old times."

"Old times?" Michaela was uncertain.

"Before the other kids came along," Katie clarified. "You an' Poppy would sit an' talk with me before I went t' sleep."

Michaela felt a pang of guilt, "Katie, I'm sorry that I haven't been paying as much attention to you as I used to."

"No," Katie sensed her feelings. "It's okay, Mama. I liked those old times, but I like things now, too.... when we're all t'gether doin' things. It makes me feel like I belong t' somethin' special."

"You belong t' our family, honey," Sully told her. "An' that's real special."

"I know," the little girl yawned again. "I love you both."

"We love you, too, sweet girl," Sully kissed her forehead.

"Good night, Katie," Michaela kissed her, as well.

Sully lowered the lamp and clasped Michaela's hand. Together, they exited the room and headed down the hallway.

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

"Mr. Slicker?" Teresa heard her husband enter their bedroom.

"Who else would it be?" his breath reeked of alcohol.

"You have been drinking," she sat up and turned up the lamp.

Jake swayed, "What makes ya say that?"

She took a deep breath and sighed.

Jake removed his jacket, then stumbled to the bed to take off his shoes.

"You will not be sleeping in here tonight," her tone was one of disapproval.

Jake fell back onto the pillow beside her and immediately passed out. Teresa felt a lump in her throat. Tears trickled down her cheeks as she contemplated her marriage. She loved Jake, but she could no longer endure his bouts of drinking. What could she do? Where could she turn?

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

Sully awoke to the feel of Michaela snugly spooned against his chest. He yawned, then kissed her bare shoulder.

"Good morning," she smiled at the sensation.

"'Mornin'," he ran his fingers through his hair. "I reckon I best get int' town. I'm expectin' another shipment of lumber today."

Michaela turned to face him, "Please don't become angry with me for asking this, Sully, but.... all of this lumber you've been using, how are you paying...."

He interrupted, "I told ya it's nothin' t' worry about."

She sensed he was pulling away from her.

"Wait," she touched his chest. "I don't like having secrets between us."

"It ain't a secret," he denied. "But I know you. You'll wanna pay for things, an' I don't want ya to."

She countered, "But you accepted that I donated the land for the school. Why is this different? It's not for our family. It's for those poor children."

"It is different," he insisted. "This is a debt I owe."

"For what?" she was puzzled.

"I owe the Reverend for wantin' t' help me when I was blind," Sully explained.

"Then I'm in his debt, as well," she stated.

He took a deep breath and exhaled loudly.

"You're part of me, Sully," she opened her heart. "What you owe, I owe. What I have is yours."

"We ain't gonna settle this, Michaela," he grew more frustrated.

At that moment, Hope began to stir. Sully pulled back the blanket and went to the baby. His face lit up the instant he beheld her. Cradling her, he kissed her forehead.

"Mornin', Hope," he smiled.

The baby's legs kicked back and forth, and her little arms waved at the timbre of her father's voice.

"She's hungry, no doubt," Michaela reached for her.

Sully settled the baby on Michaela's lap, then went to the basin to wash his face. An uncomfortable silence hung over the room as she nursed Hope. Suddenly, overwhelmed by her inability to reason with her husband, Michaela began to quietly cry.

Sully turned to see her wipe the moisture from beneath her eyes.

He went to her and sat on the edge of their bed, "Michaela, please don't cry."

"I'm sorry," she swallowed hard. "It's just.... sometimes I don't understand you."

He spoke low, "Sometimes I don't understand myself."

Her tears continued.

Sully raised his hand to touch one as it trickled down her cheek, "I know ya don't understand why I gotta do this on my own, but.... could ya try at least t' respect my decision?"

A wrinkle creased her brow, "Of course, I respect your decision. I only want to lessen the burden on you."

He caressed the back of Hope's head, "It's no burden t' do what I think is right."

Michaela gazed at him with profound love. Sully's eyes met hers. At that instant, he knew that as much as his wife wanted to intercede, she truly did respect his wishes.

"Thank you," his voice choked slightly.

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

Jake awoke with the stale taste of liquor in his mouth. He squinted against the morning light as it filtered into his bedroom. Turning, he saw that his wife was beside him in bed, her back turned away from him.

"Teresa," he lightly touched her shoulder.

She tensed and drew back.

"I'm sorry about last night," he apologized.

"Sorry that you broke your word to not drink again?" her tone was unforgiving.

"I didn't mean anythin' by it," he excused. "I just got a little carried away."

"Senor Slicker," she rolled over to face him. "I think you do not understand what you are doing to your family."

"I said I was sorry," he sat up. "What more do ya want from me?"

"I do not know anymore," she felt her emotions building.

Teresa began to cry.

Jake felt a pang of guilt and touched her cheek, "I wish you could try an' understand me."

"I will never understand you as long as you drink," she charged.

"Maybe I drink because of you," he shot back.

"You do not drink because of me, Mr. Slicker," she wiped the tears from her cheeks.

"Maybe you wish you wouldn't have married me then," he became defensive.

Teresa did not respond.

"Fine," he sat up. "I'm goin' in t' work."

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

"Hey, Loren," Sully entered the Mercantile as Loren turned the sign to read "Open."

"'Mornin', Sully," he smiled.

Sully pulled out several bills from his pocket, "I brought some cash t' pay what I owe ya."

"Don't worry about it," Loren waved his hand. "It's taken care of."

"Taken care of?" Sully was puzzled.

"That's right," Loren lifted a pencil and began to jot down some amounts. "So's the new shipment of lumber."

"What are you talkin' about, Loren?" he was uncertain.

"Let's just say an anonymous donor took care of it," Loren nodded. "I'll get Billy Donaldson t' help ya load it in your wagon."

Sully's jaw tensed, "That won't be necessary. I ain't takin' the lumber."

"What do ya mean?" the shopkeeper questioned. "It's all bought an' paid for."

"I said I ain't takin' it," Sully pivoted and left the store.

"What in tarnation's wrong with him?" Loren said to himself.

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

"Lexie," Michaela was surprised when she opened the door. "It's nice to see you. How are you doing?"

"I wonder if I could talk with you, Dr. Mike...." Lexie hedged. "About something that's concerning me."

"Of course," Michaela stepped back to invite her in. Gesturing upstairs, she smiled "It's a rare moment of quiet with the children. Please sit down."

Lexie folded her hands, "I guess you won't be going back to work anytime soon."

"Actually, I thought I might return to work at the hospital for a few hours each day quite soon," Michaela returned.

"How soon is quite soon?" she wondered.

Michaela noticed her demeanor, "Did you need my professional opinion about something?"

Lexie steeled herself to confess, "You warned me to be on the lookout for.... something.... after that attack."

"Yes," she suddenly realized. "Do you suspect.... Oh, Lexie, do you think you're pregnant?"

"My monthly is very late," she revealed. "And I've been sick at my stomach a lot, especially in the mornings."

"I see," Michaela nodded seriously. "Would you like for Dr. Bernard to..."

She interrupted, "I was hoping you could check me, Dr. Mike. I really don't want anyone else to know about this."

"I understand," Michaela sympathized. "I'm afraid I can't get to the hospital right now. If you wouldn't mind, I could examine you here."

"I don't mind," Lexie shook her head.

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

Sully slowed the wagon at the bottom of the mountain and began to traverse the climb on foot. His heart was beating so fast, he thought it would pound out of his chest.

How could Michaela do this? How could she go behind his back and pay for the lumber? He had trusted her.

When he reached the peak, he stooped down and picked up a stick. Shouting as loud as he could, he threw it. His yell echoed repeatedly until it could be heard no longer.

"Why, Michaela?" he kicked the dirt.

He had to confront her about this, but it had to be away from the children. Finally feeling calm enough to return home, Sully started back down the mountain.

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

"Dr. Mike?" Lexie studied her expression. "Am I?"

"Yes," Michaela began to wash her hands.

"Damn!" Lexie felt tears welling in her eyes.

"Have you said anything to Hank?" she queried.

"No," she wiped the moisture from her face.

"I can give you some tea to settle your stomach," Michaela reached into her medical bag.

"Can you give me something to.... get rid of this baby?" she spoke up.

"Lexie," Michaela's heart sank. "I can't do that."

"It's the seed of that monster," Lexie's anger grew. "I don't consider that a human life."

"It's a part of you, as well," Michaela explained. "An innocent child."

"Promise me you won't tell anyone I'm pregnant," she requested.

"Of course, I'll keep your confidence," Michaela pledged. "But I do want you to discuss this with Hank."

"I'll think about it," Lexie began to dress.

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

Josef reached Izzy's pen with a bucket of table scraps. When he dumped the contents into the pig's trough, he spotted his father nearing the house in the wagon. Just as Sully jumped down from the buckboard, Josef reached him.

"Hey, Papa," the little boy smiled.

"Hey, Joe," Sully began to unhitch the wagon.

"I help ya?" his son offered.

"No, thanks," Sully walked past him and entered the barn.

Josef followed. His eyes widened as he watched his father hurl the bridle, reins, harness and other equipment one by one onto the dirt floor. The little boy stepped forward and began to lift them to return them to their proper places.

"Looks like you're dwoppin' a lot o' stuff, Papa," Josef remarked.

Sully averted his eyes, ashamed that his son had seen him express his anger in such a manner.

His tone softened, "You best get in the house, Joe."

He clasped his father's hand, "Wanna go fishin'?"

"Not right now," Sully sighed. "Would ya do me a favor?"

"Sure," Josef looked up with admiration.

"Go ask your Ma t' come here," Sully folded his arms and walked toward the other end of the barn.

Josef paused to eye him, then turned and rushed from the structure.

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

Michaela exited the house with Lexie just as Josef bounded up the front steps.

"Mama, Papa wants t' see ya in the barn," the child informed her.

"In the barn?" Michaela was puzzled. "I thought he was working on the school today."

"Nope," Josef pointed. "He's dwoppin' stuff."

"I'll be going now, Dr. Mike," Lexie handed her a coin.

"That's not necessary," Michaela returned it to her.

"I'll take it for ya, Miss Lexie," Josef held out his hand.

"Josef," Michaela was embarrassed. "Go into the house, please."

"But...." he began to protest.

Michaela gently touched the top of his head, "Now."

The child's shoulders slumped as he obeyed his mother.

When Lexie mounted her horse, Michaela cautioned, "You shouldn't be riding anymore."

"Thanks, Dr. Mike," she turned the horse and departed.

Michaela headed for the barn. When she reached the entrance, she could not see her husband.

"Sully?" she stepped inside. "Josef said you wanted to see me. Where are you?"

"Over here," he came out from the shadows.

She tilted her head, "He said you were dropping things. Are you hurt? Is it your vision again?"

"Throwin' things is more accurate," his voice was stern.

"What's wrong?" she edged closer. "I thought you were working on the school today."

"I was," he glared at her.

"Why are you looking at me that way?" she felt uncomfortable.

He could control his upset no longer, "How could you, Michaela?"

"How could I what?" she was clueless.

"Don't go actin' like you don't know what I'm talkin' about," he shot back.

She was taken aback, "Sully, I honestly don't know what you're talking about."

He lifted the pitchfork and began to toss fresh hay into one of the stalls, "I guess our conversation is over then."

"What's put you in this mood?" she probed.

"You!" he raised his voice as he pivoted.

"Me?" she pointed to herself.

"You always gotta have it your way, don't ya, Michaela?" he accused.

"Have what my way about what?" she put her hands on her hips.

He hurled the pitchfork against the wall, prompting her to jump in shock. She had not seen her husband so angry in a long time.

Hoping to soften him, she reached out, "Sully, I don't understand."

"That's the problem," he spoke through clenched teeth.

He lifted a blanket and saddle and began to place them on his horse.

"If you're angry with me, at least I deserve to know why," she edged closer.

"I'm leavin'," his voice quaked slightly.

"Leaving?" she felt her heart sink. "To go where?"

"I don't know," he did not look at her.

"That's your solution?" she grew more frustrated. "Just leave? What about your obligations here? What about your children?"

"I ain't desertin' my obligations," he defended. "I just have t' think."

"Sully," she touched his arm. "We can resolve whatever it is that has you so upset. If you tell me what it is, perhaps I can...."

He interrupted, "You done enough fixin', Michaela."

She took a deep breath and gazed into his eyes. The love she had seen earlier in the morning was replaced by pain.

"Sully, what have I done?" she spoke softly.

"Too much," he tightened the saddle.

Then he walked past her and headed toward the homestead. When he reached the kitchen, he spotted Bridget.

"I'm goin' away for a few days," he informed the nanny.

Katie and Josef approached their father.

"Where ya goin', Poppy?" Katie queried.

"Thought I'd go check my traps," he kissed her sweetly.

"I'll come with ya," Josef volunteered.

"Not this time, Joe," Sully forced a smile.

"Where's Mama?" Katie noticed her absence.

"In the barn," Sully headed up the steps.

When he reached the twins' bedroom, he stood at the doorway to watch them at play.

"Hey, you two," he knelt down.

"Papa," Annie smiled. "You play?"

"Not now, honey," he scooped them into his arms. "I wanted t' say goodbye."

Noah began to toy with his father's beads, "We go?"

"No," Sully kissed their cheeks. "But I'll be home soon as I can."

"Bye," Annie tilted her head against his shoulder.

"I love you," he whispered to them.

He set them down to return to their game. Then he stepped into his bedroom. After stuffing a change of clothing into his travel pouch, he approached the cradle. He tenderly lifted Hope and smiled at her.

"Hey, pretty girl," he kissed her fingers.

The baby remained asleep but moved slightly, comfortable in her father's embrace.

"Papa?" Josef stood at the doorway. "Mama's cryin' in her office. I think she need ya."

Sully returned the baby to her cradle. Feeling a lump in his throat, he caressed his son's head, then walked past him.

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

"Dr. Mike," Bridget knocked on her office door. "Little Hope's cryin' for ya."

The door opened slowly. Michaela's face was red, and her eyes were puffy from crying.

"Thank you, Bridget," her voice trembled.

"Lass," the nanny was shocked at her appearance. "What's wrong?"

Michaela straightened up, "I'll be fine. Hope needs me."

Bridget watched wide-eyed as Michaela strode past her and climbed the steps. Katie, who had been watching the exchange, approached the nanny.

"Somethin' real bad's happened, Miss Bridget," the little girl observed.

"Aye, darlin'," the nanny put her arms around the child. "But things will be right soon as folks see clear."

"Who's not seein' clear?" Katie questioned.

"I don't know," she replied.

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

Hank nailed a wanted poster to the bulletin board outside the sheriff's office. When he turned to enter, he heard a familiar voice.

"Do you have time to talk with me?" it was Lexie.

"For you?" he grinned. "Sure. What's on your mind?"

She gestured toward the door, "Could we speak in private?"

"In the jail?" he raised an eyebrow. "Sounds kinda fun."

"I'm really not in the mood for jokes, Hank," she stated.

He opened the door and waited for her to enter, "Suit yourself."

When they were alone in the office, she took a deep breath and exhaled slowly.

"Ya look like ya lost your last friend," he noted wryly.

"I probably have," her stomach felt queasy.

He put his hands on her waist and drew her closer, "What's wrong, Lex?"

Unable to control her emotions any longer, she burst into tears.

"Hey," Hank was uncomfortable. "Things can't be that bad."

"Yes, they can," she quivered. "I went to see Dr. Mike."

"Did ya eat some o' her cookin'?" he quipped.

Lexie came out with it, "I'm pregnant, Hank."

"Oh, no," he swallowed hard. Then composing himself, he nodded, "Well, okay. That ain't so bad. We'll just get married, an'.... nobody has t' know the kid's not mine."

"Don't you understand?" she pulled back.

"Sure, I understand," he defended.

"Hank," she was blunt. "I was raped. This child belongs to a rapist."

"It belongs t' you, too," his tone was soft. "That's good enough for me."

"I love you for saying that," she lowered her head. "But I can't have this baby. A baby should be conceived in love."

He pondered, "Seems t' me it's a lot more important that ya love it after it gets here, instead o' thinkin' about how it got made."

Lexie disagreed, "Every time I look at it, I'll be reminded of what happened that night."

"You ever hold a baby?" he folded his arms.

"Yes," she nodded.

"When ya held it, did ya think about how it was conceived?" he posed the question.

"Of course not," she sighed.

"Then why would your kid be different?" he questioned.

Lexie fought back her tears, "Because I would remember how I tried with all of my strength to fight him off me."

"So what d' you wanna do then?" he acquiesced.

"I want to get rid of it," she said firmly.

"That's easy enough," he shrugged. "But you better be real sure this is what ya want."

"Of course, it's what I want," she avowed.

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

After a collecting a large number of pelts, Sully stopped to replenish his canteen in the pristine water of a brook. He noticed his reflection. A memory flashed before him. It was the day he and Michaela were returning from a trip. They had been gone for a week, and something had seemed to be burdening her. Several times, she had nearly told him, but then she had changed her mind about it.

When they had stopped to rest the horses, he had refilled their canteens. As they had prepared to continue their journey, she had fallen and hit her head. He had taken her to a cabin to recover, and they had stayed awake to ensure that she was all right after the fall.

Sully paused, warmed by the memory. He also recalled, that was the occasion when they had finally shared their pain about Michaela's miscarriage of their second child. They decided that night to try to conceive another baby. He still recalled that conversation.

Michaela broached the subject, "I was wondering.... that is, I was hoping.... well, what would you think if we had another baby?"

He smiled, "I can't think of anythin' I would like better."

He began to unbutton her blouse. Slowly, sensuously, he slid the material from her shoulder and kissed her warm skin. Next he began to remove her shoes and stockings. Michaela leaned back, relishing the sensations he was creating. After months of his being in hiding, and having only stolen, urgent moments between them, this was heaven.

"Sully," she slowly ran her fingers through his hair. "Love me."

He gently guided her back onto the floor next to the hearth. As he hovered over her, Michaela reached up and undid the buttons of his shirt. When she touched his chest, Sully's pulse raced at dizzying speed.

"You're so beautiful," he whispered.

"I love you," she smiled enticingly.

"I love you, too," he pulled off his shirt and tossed it atop her clothing.

As he positioned himself beside her, Michaela undid his buckskins. Soon they were divested of their remaining clothing. Flesh against flesh, they felt their desires rising. She began to kiss him with greater urgency, but he clasped her shoulders and drew back slightly.

"Not like this, Michaela," he caressed her cheek. "Let's take it nice an' slow. I ain't runnin' or hidin' from anyone anymore. It's just you an' me, right here, right now. We got all the time in the world."

"You're right," she lightly ran her fingertips along the line of his jaw. "Sully, I want us to make another baby tonight."

"I guess we oughta do less talkin' then," he grinned.

She touched the corner of his mouth, "I treasure your love so much."

He gazed at her beauty adoringly, then recited:

"Words can never tell you....
form them, transform them anyway,
how perfectly dear you are to me,
perfectly dear to my heart and soul."

"Was that Herrick?" she guessed.

"Robert Browning," he corrected. Kissing the tip of her finger, he spoke low, "We got it all now, Michaela. We'll never be apart again."

"Promise me," she implored.

"I promise," he kissed her with all the passion he possessed.

Sully returned to reality, the recollection of that promise suddenly weighing heavily upon him.

"Why'd ya have t' do this, Michaela?" he spoke aloud. "Why'd ya give Loren that money?"

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

Hank reined in his horse when he arrived at the Sully homestead. When he reached the top step, he heard the sounds of the children's voices.

"You sure want a kid?" he said to himself.

Then, bracing himself for the throng of little ones, he knocked.

Bridget opened the door, "Sheriff? Is somethin' wrong?"

"Is Michaela here?" he queried.

"Aye," she stepped back to invite him in.

He was quickly surrounded by Katie and Josef. The twins toddled closer to watch.

"Hank?" Michaela stood with the baby. "Is it Sully? Has something happened to him?"

"Not that I know of," he shrugged. "I came t' talk with ya about.... one o' your patients."

Sensing the discussion was professional, Bridget stepped forward, "I'll take little Hope, Dr. Mike."

"Thank you," Michaela accepted. "We can speak privately in my office, Hank."

She guided him into the room and closed the door.

"Lexie told me she's pregnant," Hank came to the point.

"Yes, she is," Michaela studied his expression.

Hank fidgeted with the rim of his hat, "She wants t' get rid o' the baby."

"I know," Michaela nodded. "But I'm not in favor of that."

"I told her I'd marry her...." he paused. "I'd raise the kid as my own."

"That's very generous of you, Hank," she looked at him with admiration.

He sighed, "That don't seem t' make a difference with her."

"I know that you are acquainted with.... individuals who can rid her of this baby, but...." she hesitated.

"It's her decision," he shrugged.

"If she doesn't want to raise the child, there are others who would," Michaela proposed.

"Like who?" he chuckled. "You an' Sully? You got enough kids runnin' around this place."

"I was thinking of Matthew and Emma," she clarified.

"They live in Colorado Springs," he pointed out. "The kid would still be here as a constant reminder of what happened t' Lexie."

Michaela folded her hands, "Why did you come to see me?"

"I thought maybe you could talk her out o' doin' this," he commented.

"What makes you think I can?" she tilted her head.

"You can talk most folks int' doin' what you want," he smirked.

"Is that what people think of me?" her brow wrinkled. "That I can manipulate them into doing what I want?"

"Nah, not exactly," he smiled. "It's just.... well, you got a way of puttin' things in a real logical way. Folks admire ya. Ya make 'em think."

She lowered her head, "I wish I had that effect on my husband."

"Speakin' o' Sully, why wasn't he workin' on that new school t'day?" he mentioned.

"I don't know," she hid her emotions.

"Seems t' me he'd be itchin' t' finish it now that the lumber's all paid for," Hank informed her.

"Paid for?" she looked up. "By whom?"

"Preston," he stood up.

"Wait a minute, Hank," she said. "What's going on here?"

"Preston was at the Gold Nugget last night talkin' about you," he detailed. "Ya know, he's sweet on you, Michaela."

She grew uncomfortable, "I've certainly never given him reason to believe that I have any interest in him."

"All part o' the fun o' the chase," he winked. "When a woman don't show interest, it makes a man even more interested."

"What's this got to do with the lumber?" she returned to the topic.

Hank told her, "Preston knows ya don't cotton 't him, so I joked that if he was more generous, you might think he ain't so bad. Right then an' there, he gave Loren the money for the lumber."

Her mind raced, "Did someone tell Sully that Preston paid for it?"

"I don't know," he shrugged.

"I've got to find my husband," she determined.

"Where is he?" Hank was curious.

"I don't know," she returned. "He took off."

"Just like Sully," Hank nodded. "Let him come home on his own, Michaela."

"I can't," she insisted. "I have to tell him the truth right now."

"He'll learn it on his own," he counseled.

"He's been working so hard on that school," she sighed. "It's been his passion."

Hank smirked, "Maybe he' needs a different kinda passion. Why don't ya send him over t' the Gold Nugget? I got some girls who'll entertain him.... on the house."

"Hank," she frowned disapprovingly.

He smirked, "You might have a fancy degree in medicine, but I got a lot o' learnin' in what men need. I'd say Sully might be tryin' t' work off some.... uh, excess energy."

"Excess energy?" she was uncertain.

"Michaela," Hank had a gleam in his eye. "Don't ya know what I'm talkin' about? Maybe he.... misses bein' with ya."

Her cheeks flushed with embarrassment, "Hank."

"Just tellin' ya what ya might not've thought of," he winked.

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

Preston leaned closer to Loren, "And what was Sully's reaction?"

"He was damn mad," Loren asserted. "Said he wouldn't take the lumber."

"Excellent," his smarmy smile lit up.

"Why's that?" the shopkeeper was puzzled.

"No doubt, he doesn't want to accept a generous gift for the unfortunate children," Preston explained. "When Michaela finds out, she'll be sadly disappointed in her husband for being so selfish."

"I didn't tell Sully it was you who paid for it," he noted.

Preston frowned, "Why not?"

"For your own protection," Loren put his fingers in his vest pockets.

"Well, anonymity still had the same effect," Preston was pleased. "I'll simply have to find another way to let Michaela know it was my generosity that financed the materials."

"I don't think you know Dr. Mike very well," Loren grinned knowingly.

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

Sully finished the last of the rabbit he had cooked. Licking his fingers, he leaned back and gazed up at the starry sky. So often on his journeys, he would admire the heavens and imagine Michaela was seeing the same sight. It made him feel closer to her.

Tonight, the sky did remind him of her, but this time his heart saddened. Why did she react with such denial today? On the rare occasions when she would keep a secret from him, and he would find out, Michaela would own up to it right away. She truly did seem baffled by his accusation.

"Maybe she didn't...." he stopped. "No, who else would've given Loren the money?"

Positioning himself against his saddle uncomfortably, his thoughts turned to the children. He pulled their photos from his buckskin pocket to study each sweet face by the firelight.

"Michaela," he spoke her name with love.

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

Michaela lifted her head slightly from her pillow. Had she heard Sully, or did she imagine that he had spoken her name? Perhaps he had come home.

She listened carefully, but heard no sound of footsteps on the stairs or in the hallway. Sighing, she lay back down. Then, she felt another wave of tears.

Why would Sully be so angry with her over what Preston had done? She knew her husband detested the banker, and in part, she understood his animosity, but it was not like Sully to blame her for it.

If he didn't come home tomorrow, she would search for him, explain her innocence. Then she sighed in frustration. Why should she have to explain her innocence? This was a matter of trust, and Sully did not trust her. The realization pained her terribly.

"I thought we knew each other so well," she felt another tear welling in the corner of her eye.

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

Jake Slicker stumbled into his bedroom, inebriated again. In the darkness of the room, he did not see that Maria was in the bed beside Teresa. He plopped down on the mattress. Suddenly, Maria burst into tears.

"Jacob Slicker!" Teresa sat up. "Get off your daughter."

"Sorry," he fell onto the floor. "I didn't know she was there."

Teresa scooped the little girl into her embrace, "It is all right, Maria."

The child would not stop crying.

"What the hell's wrong with her?" Jake raised the lamp.

Teresa felt Maria's arm, "My God."

"What?" he questioned.

"Her arm is broken," Teresa repeated.

"We better get her t' Dr. Mike," he staggered toward the door.

Teresa shouted, "I shall take her to the hospital."

"I'm comin' with ya," he insisted.

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

"Ma?" Matthew knocked softly on his mother's bedroom door.

Michaela awoke, disoriented. She sat up, uncertain of the time of day.

"Matthew?" she beckoned. "Come in."

"Sorry t' bother ya," he removed his hat as he entered the room.

"What time is it?" she yawned.

He spoke low to not waken the baby, "It's after midnight."

"What's wrong?" she grew more alert.

He returned, "There's an emergency at the hospital. It's Maria Slicker. Colleen was treatin' her for a broken arm, but she sent for me t' fetch ya. She thinks it might require surgery."

"Could you hitch up the surrey for me?" she requested. "I'll get dressed."

"Sure," he nodded and left her.

As Michaela pulled on a blouse, she gazed down at Hope, "You're about to make your first emergency call, my darling."

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

In his sleep, Sully dreamed about that night he and Michaela had spent in the cabin following her fall.

She was spooned against his chest as they basked in the afterglow of making love. He kissed the top of her head.

"How ya feel?" he spoke low.

"Wonderful," she sighed contentedly. "And you?"

"I feel real good, too," he sat up.

"Where are you going?" she pulled the blanket higher.

"T' get some more firewood," he noted. "We're almost out."

"Sully," she turned and touched his chest over his heart.

"Mmm?" he placed his hand atop hers.

"Do you think we...." she stopped herself.

He smiled, "Maybe. We sure did everythin' right."

"Yes, we did," her cheeks flushed. "Perhaps a little brother for Katie?"

"Or a little sister," he grinned.

Sully noticed the change in her expression and enfolded her in his arms, "We gotta trust that if it's meant t' be, it'll happen, Michaela."

"I trust you," she smiled. "It's the most profound truth I know."

He felt a lump in his throat, "I trust you, too. I always will."

Sully awoke from his dream with a start.

"I gotta get home," he sat up and began to put out the campfire.

************
Chapter 7
************

Loren balanced the box of groceries as he knocked on the Sully homestead door.

Bridget opened it and greeted him, "Top o' the mornin' t' ya."

"An' the rest o' the day t' you," he imitated her Irish brogue.

"Come on in," she stepped back.

"Mr. Bway!" Josef looked up from his breakfast.

Katie added, "Did you see Mama in town?"

"No," he sat down beside her. "What's she doin' there?"

"She left early this mornin' for some emergency," Bridget explained.

"She took Hope with her," Josef added. "Ya think she's okay?"

"How long you been the son of a doctor?" Loren eyed him.

Josef pondered, "All the time I rem'ber."

The older man kidded, "An' ya ain't got used t' her runnin' off at all hours t' help someone?"

"I was scared 'cause Papa go 'way, too," the little boy explained. "He made Mama cwy yes'day."

Loren's brow wrinkled, "Made your Ma cry?"

Bridget wiped off the twins' hands and lifted them from their high chairs, "I think it's time t' go play now."

"I wanna talk t' Mr. Bway," Josef insisted.

"Later, laddie," she gave a look that meant she was serious. "Off with all of ya now. Keep these wee ones out o' your mother's garden, an' stay where I can see ya."

"All right," Katie reluctantly obeyed as she led her siblings out the side door.

"What's goin' on?" Loren looked up. "Sully made Dr. Mike cry?"

Bridget poured him a cup of coffee, "They had a fierce argument, they did."

Loren reasoned, "About that money for the lumber, I bet."

"Dr. Mike didn't tell me what it was about," she answered.

"Hmm," Loren rubbed his chin. "Sounds like Preston's gettin' his way after all."

"Preston?" the nanny frowned.

"We gotta do somethin', Bridget," he asserted.

"You're gonna have t' tell me what's goin' on first," she folded her arms.

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

"Dr. Mike?" a haggard Jake looked up when she entered the waiting room.

"Maria has had some extensive damage to her left arm," Michaela explained. "But I think we were able to save it."

"You think?" Teresa frowned. "You do not know?"

Michaela's nerves were on edge, "Mrs. Slicker, when you impart your knowledge to a student, you know that you have done all that you can. But you have no way of knowing if that student will remember or use the information you have provided."

"There is no need to lecture me about my work," she defended.

"Excuse me," Michaela regretted. "I thought perhaps you would want to see your daughter. She'll be waking soon, and she'll be in a lot of pain. I think if her parents are there beside her, it might help to ease her angst."

"Sure we wanna see her," Jake nodded.

"I would like to know something," Michaela paused.

"What?" he waited.

"How did this happen?" Michaela questioned.

"Uh.... she fell," Jake stated.

"No," Michaela doubted. "This is not the result of a fall."

"It is none of your concern how this happened," Teresa asserted.

Michaela put her hands on her hips, "If this child was beaten, or abused, I shall make it my business."

"Dr. Mike, you know we'd never do somethin' like that," Jake's eyes widened.

"Not when you're sober, Jake," she knew.

Teresa changed the subject, "You said we may see our daughter now."

"Yes," Michaela gestured toward the door. "Sister Mary Margaret will show you to her room."

As they left her, Michaela shook her head in disgust. What was wrong with the world? A precious little girl, who only wanted the love of her parents, had to suffer for their shortcomings. Then her thoughts turned to Lexie. Her child might never even have a chance for life.

"Ma?" Colleen's voice interrupted.

"Yes?" she pivoted.

"Hope needs you," the young woman handed her the infant.

Michaela's face brightened, "Thank you, Colleen."

"I'll go check on Mr. Wallace," Colleen turned to leave.

Michaela carried her baby into her office, closed the door and prepared to nurse her.

She caressed Hope's dark hair and smiled as the baby comfortably settled against her breast, oblivious to the troubles around her. Michaela began to hum softly to the infant.

Then her mind turned to Sully. Though they had been married for ten years, there were times when she still found her husband to be enigmatic. She had finally accepted his need for solitude, but his stubbornness over money continued to puzzle her. He did not object to her using her inheritance on the hospital or even their children's education, but providing food, clothing, shelter.... that was against his principles.

Then she wondered about Hank's remarks to her.... Sully's need for.... intimacy. Her cheeks flushed. It had been months since they had made love. Their soft kisses recently had begun to stir familiar longings. She knew that physically, her body was nearly ready, though the pressure on her incision might be uncomfortable.

Then she contemplated Sully's upsetting encounter with her in the barn. The hurt was still fresh. Obviously, he had misinterpreted the situation, but how could he be so untrusting of her? She had no answers, only the pain in her heart from the memory of his angry accusation.

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

Bridget frowned, "That Preston's a real rascal, he is."

Loren chuckled, "An' it's about time he learned a lesson."

"I have an idea," she raised an eyebrow.

"What?" Loren leaned closer to listen.

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

Sully slowed his horse as he neared the homestead. In the distance, he could see his children playing near the house.

Josef spotted him first and pointed, "Papa's home!"

The children waited anxiously as their father approached.

"Give us ww....rides, Papa," the little boy requested.

"Get up on the steps," Sully gestured toward the front porch.

"May I go first?" Katie requested.

"Let's all go," Sully reached out to position Josef in front of him.

Katie lifted the twins and handed them over to Sully, one for each arm. Then he turned the horse so that she could climb on behind him.

"Careful with the reins, Joe," Sully eyed him. "Hold tight, Kates."

With a gentle movement of his feet, Sully urged the horse onward, letting his son think he was controlling the animal.

Josef could not contain his glee, "This is fun, Papa. You come home after one day."

"I had good luck with my traps," he kissed the top of his son's head.

"So you're not mad at Mama?" Katie hugged him tightly.

"No, I'm not mad," Sully's tone was soft.

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

"Dr. Mike?" Jake knocked on her office door.

"One moment," she did up her blouse. "All right. Come in."

He sheepishly entered the room, smelling of stale liquor.

"I.... I wanted t' thank ya for savin' Maria's arm," he reached into his pocket. "How much do I owe ya?"

"We'll settle on that later," she rubbed Hope's back. "There's something else of a more pressing matter."

"What's that?" he was curious.

"Your alcoholism," she specified. "I'm quite certain that Maria's injury was the result of your neglect."

"Now, look," he paused. "You know I sometimes fall off the wagon. It don't mean anythin' serious."

She frowned, "How can you possibly say that, Jake? Your own child nearly lost her arm. Isn't that serious?"

"This ain't a good time t' talk about that," he turned to leave. "Teresa will be wonderin' where I am."

"Before you go, I want you to think about something," Michaela spoke up.

He hesitated.

She took the opportunity to say more, "I remember when your father came here. You told me about how he had treated his children. He beat you."

"What's that got t' do with anythin'?" he challenged. "I never laid a hand on Maria."

"You will agree with me that he abused you," Michaela stated.

"Yea," he nodded. "So?"

"So...." she studied his expression. "There is another kind of abuse.... just as painful and just as terrifying to a child as physical abuse."

"What's that?" he tilted his head.

"Emotional abuse," she informed him. "Creating a home in which a child fears to trust her parents and wonders if she's loved."

"You sayin' that's the kind of home Maria's got?" he put his hands on his hips.

"Think about it," she explained. "One minute her Papa could be happy and merrily playing with her. The next, he could be arguing with his wife and leaving to go to the saloon. And when he comes home, is he the same man?"

Jake fell silent.

Then his jaw stiffened, "I suppose you an' Sully never argue."

"I won't say that," she admitted. "But our children know that their parents love each other and love them."

"Maria knows I love her," Jake defended.

"Does she?" Michaela queried. "Does she feel warm and safe in your arms? Does she know that she can trust you to protect her and to always be there for her?"

"'Course she does," he defended. "You can ask her."

"No, Jake," she paused. "You ask her."

"All right," he pivoted to exit. "I will."

When he closed the door behind him, Michaela gazed down at the baby in her arms to speak softly, "You know that already. Don't you, my darling?"

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

Sully held a twin under each arm as Katie led the way into the house. The sound of his children's laughter filled his heart.

"Hey, Bridget," he paused to gently deposit the children on the floor.

"Well, you're a sight for sore eyes," she put her hands on her hips. "I suppose you'd be expectin' me t' clean up these wee ones after ya had 'em out there ridin' around."

Sully grinned, "No, I'll clean 'em up. Is Michaela upstairs?"

"No, she's at the hospital," Bridget informed him.

His face paled, "At the hospital? What's wrong? Is it the baby?"

"No, lad," she assured. "Some kind o' emergency with a patient."

Sully turned, "I think I'll ride int' town t' see her. I reckon she has Hope with her."

"Aye," Bridget nodded. "An' I reckon that means I'll be cleanin' up the wee ones after all."

"Aye," Sully winked. "If ya don't mind."

"Off with ya," she waved her hand.

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

"Reverend?" Loren approached the minister.

"Loren!" his face lit up. "How are you?"

"Fine," he smiled. "Just fine. I was wonderin' if I might have a word with ya."

"Of course," the Reverend nodded. "Please sit down. What can I do for you?"

"Well, it's about that new school for the deaf an' blind children that Sully's buildin' ya," he paused.

"I can't tell ya how excited I am about it," the minister grinned. "There are a lot of folks in the state who have shown an interest in it. I think we'll have a good number of children. And I've already found a teacher to instruct them."

Loren rubbed his chin, "So you'll be needin' lots of furniture, desks, supplies an' the like. Oh, an' a salary for that teacher."

"Yes, we will," he agreed. "I'm hoping that some charities will help in that regard."

"It just so happens I'm in a pretty generous mood myself," Loren informed him.

"You are?" he was curious.

"What would ya say t' my donatin' the money ya need?" the shopkeeper proposed.

"Why.... I'd say 'thank you,'" the Reverend's eyes widened.

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

"Mr. Sully," Sister Mary Margaret greeted him at the reception desk. "Dr. Quinn is upstairs with a patient."

"That's okay," he smiled. "I'll wait."

He crossed to the waiting area, only to see Lexie seated with a perplexed expression on her face.

"Hey," he sat beside her. "How ya doin'?"

"Not so good, Sully," she wiped the tears beneath her cheeks.

"Want me t' tell Sister Mary Margaret to get Michaela?" he offered.

"No, thanks," she swallowed hard.

"Anythin' I can do?" he said.

She folded her hands and looked up with reddened eyes, "I don't think so."

"Well, if ya need anythin', let me know," he probed no further.

After several moments in silence, Lexie turned to him.

"Sully, how long have you known Hank?" she queried.

He considered, "Maybe 20 years or so."

She was quiet again. He waited, not wanting to push her. Unseen by them, Michaela arrived and overheard what transpired next.

Unexpectedly, Lexie posed a question to Sully, "Do you think you could love a child that wasn't yours?"

"Sure," he nodded. "I already do. Matthew, Colleen an' Brian."

She shook her head, "I mean could you love a child that Dr. Mike had if you weren't the father?"

Without hesitation, he answered, "'Course I could."

"How?" she wondered.

Sully answered simply, "'Cause I love her."

"But when you looked at that child...." she hesitated.

"I'd see a part o' Michaela," he affirmed.

There was a pause. Michaela chose that moment to step forward.

"Lexie?" she approached.

"Dr. Mike," Lexie turned. "I.... I came to talk with you, but now I don't think I need to."

"Are you all right?" Michaela questioned.

"I will be," she nodded. "I'm going to speak to Hank."

With that, she left them. Sully gazed at his wife, uncertain of what to say.

He tried something neutral, "How's your emergency patient?"

She sighed, "It's little Maria Slicker. Poor child broke her arm. There were complications."

Sully wondered, "Did she fall?"

"No," Michaela's brow wrinkled. "I think Jake did it."

"What?" Sully was stunned. "He hurt his own daughter?"

"He wouldn't tell me how it happened," she sighed.

"Is she gonna be okay?" he was concerned.

"I believe so," she paused. "At least physically."

They fell silent.

"So...." she spoke first. "How was your.... trip?"

"Michaela," he stepped toward her. "I'm sorry."

At that moment, Sister Mary Margaret neared, "Dr. Bernard is on call now. You've been here since before dawn, Dr. Quinn. Why don't you go home to rest?"

"I shall, Sister," she smiled. "Thank you."

"Where's Hope?" Sully inquired.

"I'll get her," Michaela turned and left him.

Sully took a deep breath. This was going to be difficult. He knew that he had to make amends for the lack of trust he had shown his wife. And she had that disapproving look which spoke volumes to him.

His eyes shown with love as he saw her return with their baby daughter, "Hey, Hope."

Michaela gently handed the little girl over to her father's care, "Are you coming home now?"

He eyed her intently, "If you'll have me."

"We'll talk later," she pivoted and walked out.

Sully held the baby closer, "Your Pa's got a lot of explainin' t' do, Hope."

************
Chapter 8
************

Jake sat in the corner of the hospital room watching the sunset. Teresa had departed to bring them a meal. He turned to look at Maria. Then, standing up, he went to the child.

"Papa," her weak voice reflected her anxiety.

He knelt beside her bed, "Hey, Maria. You hurtin'?"

"Some," a single tear trickled down her cheek.

"I'm so sorry," his own eyes began to well. "Can you forgive your Pa?"

"I forgive ya," she nodded slightly.

"Oh, Maria," Jake sighed ruefully. "I made such a mess o' things. All I ever wanted was a happy family."

"Don't cry, Papa," she sympathized.

His lower lip quivered, "It's my drinkin'. I know it is. Dr. Mike knows, too. She made me think about what I been doin' t' you an' your Ma. But.... it's gonna be better, honey. I promise. Do ya trust me?"

The little girl hesitated.

"Oh, Maria, please believe in me," he implored. "I can't stand it if you don't trust me."

"Try, Papa," she urged. "I hate drinkin'."

"I do too, honey," he swallowed hard. "Sometimes I feel so weak.... But I gotta do better for you. An' I will. So, you just think about feelin' better. Papa's gonna make everythin' all right."

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

Sully and Michaela put on a pleasant facade for their children at dinner. There was no mention of the argument which had upset them a day earlier. Matthew and Emma had joined them for supper. Afterwards, they helped with the clean up and bathing of the children. As Sully took the little ones upstairs to tuck them in, Matthew approached his mother.

"Somethin' wrong with you an' Sully?" the young man sensed. "Ya don't seem like yourselves."

Michaela avoided answering, "Could you do me a favor?"

"Sure," he nodded.

"Could you and Emma spend the night?" she asked. "I'd like for someone to be here to help Bridget with the children until Sully and I return tomorrow morning."

Matthew queried, "Where will you be?"

"Do you know the hot spring near Willow Creek?" Michaela kept her voice low.

"Yea," he smiled, recalling sharing his first kiss with Emma there. "How are you gonna get Sully out there?"

"Leave that to me," she raised an eyebrow.

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

Sully entered the bedroom, "I finished their story."

"Good," she was reading a medical journal in the rocking chair.

"You're still dressed," he noticed.

"Yes," she set the journal aside. "I thought we might take a ride."

"A ride?" he was surprised. "At this hour? Where to?"

She stood up, "Dr. Bernard mentioned that Mrs. Collins has been having trouble with her throat. Since that's not his area of expertise, I wanted to check on her."

"Mrs. Collins' throat?" he was surprised. "Can't one o' the other doctors handle that? You should get some rest. Ya been up all day."

"Andrew and Dr. Cassidy are in Denver for a medical conference," she stated. "And I need Colleen to be on call at the hospital."

"It can't wait?" he folded his arms.

"I really don't want to take any chances, Sully," she mentioned. "If her tonsils rupture.... well, I suppose I could take the baby and go by myself. I don't know what time I'll be back."

"No, if ya gotta go now, I'll take ya," he lifted Hope from her cradle. "We better take a few blankets for the baby. Nights are still kinda chilly."

"Thank you," she said. "Matthew and Emma have agreed to stay here until we return."

"You knew I'd go along with ya?" he tilted his head.

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

"Let's stop here," Michaela directed her husband to halt the surrey.

"Here?" he questioned. "We're nowhere near the Collins' place."

Michaela touched her husband's arm, "I'm afraid that was just a ruse."

"What?" he was uncertain.

"I used that story to lure you out here," she handed the baby to him.

"What are you talkin' about?" Sully was puzzled.

She climbed down from the front seat and held out her hands for the baby.

Sully placed their sleeping daughter in her arms, "Michaela, what's goin' on?"

"You've been kidnapped, Mr. Sully," she smiled.

He jumped down, "What?"

"I thought we could have a little time to ourselves," she was pleased.

"An' Mrs. Collins doesn't have a sore throat?" he put his hands on his hips.

"No," she motioned toward the back of the surrey. "Could you get the things out of the back? I brought a few items for us."

Sully lifted several blankets and a travel bag.

Michaela stepped toward the sound of the bubbling water of the hot spring, "Do you remember this place?"

He persisted, "Sure, but I still don't understand why we're here."

"For a bright man, you're not catching on to this very quickly," she teased. "Now, would you spread the blankets here?"

"I caught on that I've been kidnapped, an' we're supposed t' be by ourselves," he complied. "But why this place?"

"I thought the water might prove.... helpful," she set the sleeping baby on the blankets.

"Helpful for what?" he assisted her.

"Wolf!" she beckoned.

The animal appeared out of the shadows. He positioned himself above Hope's head, curling up to keep a protective eye on the infant.

"You had Wolf follow us?" he was more incredulous.

"To watch over Hope," she kissed the baby's forehead.

"Why's she need watchin' over?" Sully was becoming more confused.

Michaela stepped toward her husband and slid her hands around his waist, "While we're in the hot spring."

His body instantly reacted to her proximity, "Michaela.... you got no idea what...."

She touched his lips with her finger, "Oh, I think I have an idea."

He studied her expression, "You do?"

"The hot spring will make it easier," she lifted up to kiss him.

"Easier?" he was melting at her movements.

She caressed the hair around his ears, "Yes, the buoyancy will make our bodies feel lighter. Why don't you start a fire?"

Sully watched her as she knelt down to insure that Hope was comfortable. He stood awkwardly for a moment. This was definitely not what he expected. He anticipated that Michaela would shout at him for his behavior.

"Well?" she looked up expectantly.

"Michaela...." he searched her expression. "After how I acted yesterday...."

"I told you we'd talk about that later," she returned to tending to the baby.

Sully gathered some wood for a fire. Soon, he had it lit and warming the area around them.

He sat beside his wife and daughter, "She still asleep?"

"She hasn't wakened since dinner," she observed.

"Michaela...." he stroked the baby's back.

"Sully," she interrupted. "I want you to know how much you mean to me. I've been so engrossed with the baby and the hospital that it didn't cross my mind as to why you've kept yourself so busy."

"I know what you got in mind for t'night, but if you're not ready for us again, I don't want...." he stopped when she kissed him.

"I am ready," she whispered. "The water will be nice."

"Buoyancy?" he repeated her earlier comment.

She kissed his neck, then whispered, "The pressure will be less."

Sully resisted, "Shouldn't we make up first? Aren't ya gonna yell at me?"

Michaela simply smiled enticingly.

"Lecture me?" he added.

Again, she said nothing.

Tenderly setting the baby on the makeshift bed, Sully directed Wolf to guard the little one. Then he stood up, reaching down to help Michaela to her feet. He slid his hands around her waist and slowly pulled her closer.

"I love you so much," his gaze was intense.

"I love you, too," she returned.

Transfixed by her beauty, he kissed her. Then Sully felt her hands slipping beneath his shirt. Her warm palms against his flesh ignited his passions.

"Michaela," his breathless response invited more.

"I need you, Sully," she spoke longingly.

He drew her closer and began to unbutton the top of her blouse. Next he guided her toward the water. She invitingly ran her hands down his chest. Michaela could sense the response his bronzed body had to her overtures.

"I reckon I missed ya," his cheeks reddened.

"I've missed you, too," she cast a glance toward the bubbling water.

With one last look at their sleeping baby, Sully scooped his wife into his arms and stepped into the water. Slowly, he lowered them until the warm liquid engulfed them up to their shoulders. Michaela laughed, enjoying his playful initiatives.

"Come here," he gestured with his index finger.

She floated closer.

They kissed again, with parted lips and deeper contact. Sully leaned her against the round rock near the water's edge.

"You comfortable?" he smiled.

"Very," she relished the relaxing sensations created by the hot spring. "But now our clothes are soaking wet."

"Then let's get out of 'em," his gaze reached her soul.

Sensuously, they each removed the other's clothing and tossed the damp garments onto the ground near their blankets.

As he caressed her breasts, Michaela caught her breath and closed her eyes. Sully's warm lips found their way to the lobe of her ear. Arching her head back, she moaned softly at the titillating effects his mouth had.

Then she felt his exploring hand wander lower. It was her undoing.

"You sure?" he paused to gauge her reaction.

"Yes," she could scarcely speak.

He kissed her again. Michaela reached beneath the surface of the water to invite his more intimate contact.

Sully was pleased at her initiative. They had reached the point of no return. Slowly, he brought himself to her. She held her breath, hoping the sensations would be as they always had between them. Sully perceived her tension and paused. Michaela opened her eyes and peered into his eyes. There, she saw only love and tenderness. His gentle movements soothed her.

She touched his most sensitive places, arousing further passions in him. Their rhythmic motion intensified. Finally, in a blindingly satisfying burst of energy, they came fully to one another, trembling from the intense release of their passions. Neither wanted the feeling to end. As their bodies began to calm, Sully stroked back her damp hair from the sides of her face and softly kissed her.

"Michaela," he spoke in the voice she adored. "You okay?"

"Wonderful," she kissed his chest.

He was moved to recite to her:

"How clear she shines!
How quietly I lie beneath her guardian light;
While heaven and earth are whispering me,
'Tomorrow, wake, but dream tonight.'
Yes, Fancy, come, my Fairy love!
These throbbing temples softly kiss;
And bend my lonely couch above,
And bring me rest, and bring me bliss."

Her eyes shone with love, "Was that Shelley?"

"Emily Bronte," he identified. He ran his hands up and down her sides, "How do you feel?"

"In love," she turned up the corner of her mouth.

"I mean physically," he specified. "I didn't hurt ya?"

"No," she caressed his cheek. "You could never hurt me, Sully."

He sighed, "Yes, I could. I did yesterday. I thought...."

"I know what you thought," she toyed with the hair at his temple. "And I won't deny that it hurt my feelings. In fact, Mr. Sully, I contemplated giving you quite an earful."

"I'm so sorry I hurt ya," his eyes saddened. "But when Loren told me someone paid for that lumber, I jumped t' the wrong conclusion."

"I found out it was Preston," she revealed.

"Preston?" he frowned.

"Apparently, he hoped it might create a rift between us," she nodded.

"That son of a...." Sully stopped himself. "I reckon it worked."

"Not a rift," she amended. "You lost your way for a brief time, but that happens to all of us."

He lowered his head, "I didn't trust ya, Michaela."

She took her index finger and raised his head to gaze into his eyes, "You do trust me. That's why you came back without knowing the full story."

He smiled slightly, "I reckon you forgive me."

"You mean I didn't prove that tonight?" she mused.

He drew her into his arms again, "What made you decide t' do this?"

She smiled, "I was concerned you would wear yourself out building that school, chopping wood, working in the barn."

"It was that obvious?" he chuckled.

"Let's say I became aware of it," she kissed him sweetly. "But I hope we've relieved some of that tension you've been building up."

"Some of it," he nodded.

"There's more?" she raised an eyebrow.

"We'll wait a spell," he began to climb out of the water. "Let's check on Hope."

They rose from the warmth of the spring and approached the baby. Wolf looked up and wagged his tail when his master neared. While Michaela draped a blanket around her shoulders, Sully went directly to Hope.

Then he stretched out on his side to gaze adoringly at his daughter, "I wonder if she knows how much I love her Ma."

Michaela positioned herself beside him, "Her mother knows, and Hope will one day."

"Thank you, Michaela," he toyed with a strand of her hair.

"For our little tryst?" she mused.

"For forgivin' me," he playfully embraced her and rolled her onto his stomach. "An' for makin' me so happy."

"You are my world, Byron Sully," she clasped the sides of his face. "And I would give anything, do anything for you."

"You already have," he caressed her damp hair.

Then he ran his hand along her thigh. Flesh against flesh, their close contact began to elicit new longings. Michaela felt her body tingle.

Suddenly, her expression changed, "Sully."

"Mmm?" he was lost in her eyes.

She gulped, "I.... I need a towel."

"Why?" he noted her tone. "I kinda like bein' all wet."

"I've had a little accident," she rolled off him and folded her arms tightly across her chest.

"Accident?" he was unsure.

"This has never happened before," she felt awkward. "Not with any of our other children."

"What's wrong, Michaela?" he grew concerned.

"My milk," her cheeks reddened.

Then Sully saw it across her breasts and stomach, "You okay?"

"Yes," she wiped herself off. "Just embarrassed."

"No need t' feel that way," he assured. "It's only me."

Suddenly, she noticed, "It's all over you, as well."

Sully glanced down, surprised at the amount of liquid on his chest.

"I.... I think perhaps.... that is, I ...." Michaela sighed in frustration.

"Why don't we get back in the water an' rinse off?" he suggested. "Since it never happened before, you think it has somethin' t' do with your Caesarean surgery?"

"No," she shook her head. "I think I should have nursed the baby before we made love."

Again they stepped into the hot springs. Sully watched his wife meticulously rinsing off her chest. He extended his hand to her. Michaela paused, feeling anew the powerful attraction for her husband.

She moved closer, roused by the intensity of his gaze, "What if it happens again?"

"Then we'll rinse off again," he shrugged.

"You're not upset?" she tilted her head.

"Upset?" he touched her chin. "How could I be upset with you?"

"It doesn't put a damper on your.... enthusiasm?" she wondered.

He grinned impishly, "I kinda like the risk."

"Risk?" she frowned.

"Like makin' love near a volcano," he teased.

"Sully!" she splashed water at him.

************
Chapter 9
************

Sully opened his eyes at the sound of a crow's cawing overhead. The sun was rising, and golden rays filtered down onto their retreat. Realizing Michaela was not beside him, he sat up. Then he spotted her, nursing the baby.

"'Mornin'," he grinned.

"Good morning," she smiled.

He scooted closer to them and sweetly kissed his wife, "How'd ya sleep?"

"Quite well," she returned. "You?"

"Quite well, too," he imitated her accent. "You hungry?"

"Yes, famished," Michaela exaggerated.

"I'll fix us somethin'," he started to rise.

"Sully," she bade him stay. "I'd like to discuss something with you first."

"What?" he was curious.

"Hope's christening," she answered. "What would you think of asking Matthew and Emma to be her godparents?"

"I think that's perfect," he smiled.

"Perhaps the Reverend could perform the ceremony on Sunday," she suggested. "It's Independence Day, and Katie will be participating in the festivities in the afternoon."

Sully caressed his daughter's hair, "Sounds good."

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

"Hank," Lexie entered the Gold Nugget.

At first glance, the room appeared empty.

"Over here," Hank called from the darkened corner, where he sat alone.

"Are you drinking?" she suspected.

"Just a little," his words were slurred.

"You should set a better example," she neared him.

"Yea?" he looked up. "For who?"

"For my child," she specified.

"I thought you was gettin' rid of it," he eyed her.

Lexie sat beside him, "What if I don't?"

He leaned forward on his elbows, "You sayin' what I think you're sayin'?"

She sighed, "I'm saying that I'd like for us to get married and raise this child together."

He smiled slightly, "You takin' me as I am?"

"I suppose it would be useless to try and change you," she shrugged.

"Yep," he poured another drink into his glass.

"Are you taking me as I am?" she questioned.

"Pregnant with another man's kid?" he paused. "Yep."

"Promise me something, Hank," she touched his hand.

"What?" he was leery.

Lexie went on, "Promise me that some day you won't look at this child and resent it."

"I reckon you'll just have t' trust I won't," he agreed. "Far as folks are concerned, this is my kid."

"I've never been one to trust very easily," she looked down.

"Me either," he nodded. "I guess we're a good match."

"Hank Lawson, married," she spoke the phrase in disbelief.

"I'm gettin' too respectable," he frowned.

"We wouldn't want that," she mused.

"Tell ya what," he paused. "Maybe now an' then we could.... kinda spice up things. Pretend like we ain't married."

Lexie speculated, "Do you think that's what happily married people do?"

"Most married men I know come here for their spice," he joked.

"Will you?" she tensed.

"I own the place," he reminded. "I gotta come here."

"For spice?" she raised an eyebrow.

"Only thing I can promise you is I'll provide for you an' our kid," Hank pledged. "Is that enough for ya?"

"What about love?" she hoped.

"'Course, I love ya," he smiled. "Otherwise I wouldn't be marryin' ya."

"Not exactly a romantic way of putting it," she pointed out.

"You want romance, maybe I'll buy ya some o' them dime books," he retorted.

"Hank," her tone was serious. "You're under no obligation to me. This isn't your child. So, if you want to back out now, you can."

He took her hands and peered into her eyes, "I ain't perfect, Lexie. I'll stumble an' fall.... a lot. But, I do wanna marry ya an' raise this kid."

"Good," she leaned forward and passionately kissed him.

"Mmm," he raised an eyebrow. "When's the honeymoon?"

"Doesn't that come after the wedding?" she kissed him again.

"Let's go find Jake t' marry us now," he took her by the hand.

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

Josef spotted the surrey approaching the homestead and called out, "Mama an' Papa's home!"

Matthew opened the door so that the children could greet their parents.

When they finally reached the steps, Bridget offered, "I'll take the baby for ya, Dr. Mike."

"Thank you, Bridget," she stepped through the front door.

"Ya look real fine, lass," the nanny noticed the color in her cheeks.

Michaela smiled, "The outdoors can be quite.... invigorating."

"Aye," Bridget winked.

"Matthew," Michaela took her son's arm. "Sully and I would like to ask another favor of Emma and you."

He teased, "Where ya goin' now?"

"No," she chuckled. "It's not like that. We would be honored if you would be Hope's godparents."

"We're the ones who'd be honored," he smiled broadly.

Embracing the young man, she touched his cheek, "Thank you. Can you make it Sunday?"

"We'll be there," he affirmed.

"I'll ride int' town t' see if the Reverend can baptize her then," Sully nodded.

"I'll come with you," Michaela said. "I want to check on.... my patient."

"You got a patient, Mama?" Josef looked up.

"That's why I went to the hospital two nights ago, Sweetheart," she smiled.

Sully chimed in, "I want you t' get some rest, Michaela. I'll check on things for ya."

"Can I come with ya, Papa?" Josef requested.

Michaela spoke to him, "Not this time, Sweetheart."

The child frowned, then stormed up the steps to his room.

"Josef Michael Sully," she called. "You come right back here."

"I'll talk t' him," Sully touched her arm.

When the concerned father reached his son's room, Josef was angrily throwing his toys onto the floor.

Sully stepped in, "I reckon you're doin' this 'cause o' me."

"You best leave, Papa," Josef continued to fume. "I'm mad."

Sully knelt down and began to pick up the toys, "I'm sorry, Josef."

"Why?" the little boy paused to watch him. "You didn' do nothin' wrong."

Sully sat and drew his son into his lap, "I'm sorry I didn't set a better example for ya."

"You set good examble, Papa," he protested.

"No," Sully regretted. "I got angry the other day, and I started throwin' things around the barn. You saw me, an' thought that's the way a man oughta act."

"You didn' hurt nothin'," Josef pointed out.

"Yes, I did," Sully rubbed his back. "I hurt you, your brother an' sisters."

"How?" the little boy was puzzled.

"A Pa's gotta show his children a better way t' act than that," Sully stated.

"It's okay, Papa," Josef rested his hand on his father's shoulder.

"I want you t' do good things, son," Sully looked at him earnestly. "Annie, Noah an' Hope are gonna look up t' you, like you do t' me. How ya think they'll act if they see you throwin' things in anger?"

"They'd throw, too," he surmised.

"Then what?" Sully posed the question.

"They bww.... break stuff," Josef concluded.

Sully sighed, "So, I guess I've done my children wrong by settin' a bad example."

"I got idea, Papa," Josef offered. "If we don' throw stuff no more, the little kids won't get bad examble."

"That's good thinkin', Joe," Sully smiled. "I love you, big boy."

"I love you, Papa," he kissed his father's cheek. "I reckon I still can't go with ya."

"Maybe next time," Sully winked.

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

Hank and Lexie crossed the street to the barber shop. It was locked. Lexie spotted a note posted on the door.

She read it aloud, "His daughter's in the hospital."

Hank wondered, "Who else could perform the marriage, 'sides the Reverend then?"

"Marriage?" Preston overheard nearby. "Who's getting married?"

"We are," Hank grinned.

"I see," Preston turned up his nose at the thought. "Well, Horace could perform it, I suppose."

"Kinda ironic if he would," Hank laughed.

"Shall we ask him?" Lexie suggested.

Preston posed the question, "May I inquire as to why you can't wait for Jake, or why you don't want the Reverend to marry you?"

"You may inquire," Hank mocked.

"Well?" Preston waited. "Why?"

Hank retorted, "I said ya could inquire. I didn't say I'd answer ya. Come on, Lexie."

Taking her by the hand, they headed for the Depot. When they reached the window, they called for Horace.

"Hold your horses," the telegrapher called from outside. "I'm comin'." Then he saw Hank, "What d' you want?"

"It true you can marry folks?" Hank challenged.

"Yea," Horace nodded.

"Then, we wanna get married," Hank stated.

"You?" he frowned in disbelief. "T' who?"

"T' Lexie, that's who," he put his arm around her.

Horace turned to her, "You doin' this under duress or somethin'?"

"No," she smiled. "I'm doing it willingly."

"Humph," Horace began to sift through the papers and books on his desk.

"What are ya doin'?" Hank was growing impatient.

Horace put his hands on his hips, "I need t' find the book with the marriage words in it."

"You ever done this before?" Hank suspected.

"Nope," Horace continued to search.

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

Sully entered the church. Spotting the minister near the piano at the front, he cleared his throat and approached.

"Reverend?" he paused.

"Good day, Sully," the pastor smiled. "How's the school coming?"

Sully rubbed his upper lip, "I.... ah, I ain't worked on it for a couple o' days. There was kinda.... a problem over payin' for the lumber."

"Oh," the minister was unsure of what to say.

Sully resumed, "But the reason I'm here now is t' see if you could baptize my daughter on Sunday."

The Reverend's eyes lit up, "Of course!"

"Good," he grinned.

At that moment, Loren entered the Church, "Sully?"

"Hey, Loren," he offered.

The older man cleared his throat, "I thought I saw you come in here. Ah, Reverend, would ya mind if I had a talk with Sully alone?"

"Not at all," he stood. "I'll just.... make myself useful.... outside."

"Thanks," Loren nodded.

"What's on your mind?" Sully turned to him.

"You," Loren frowned. "Now, I been goin' kinda easy on ya with buyin' on credit, but a good businessman can't be doin' that for long."

Sully was puzzled, "You talkin' about the lumber?"

He raised his voice, "'Course I'm talkin' about the lumber. What else ya been buyin' on credit?"

"But I thought...." Sully was more confused. "I thought Preston gave ya money for it."

"Preston," Loren scoffed. "He gave me money, all right. But it's goin' t' pay for all them supplies that school's gonna need. You're the one who owes me for the wood, an' I'll thank ya t' pay up."

Sully reached into his pocket, "I had good luck with my traps. I can pay ya back half of what I owe."

Loren accepted the cash, "That's enough for now, but don't you go takin' advantage of my good nature anymore."

Sully grinned and shook his hand firmly, "I won't, Loren. Thanks."

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

Seeing his mother lying in bed, Josef softly knocked on Michaela's door.

"Mama?" he whispered.

When he reached her, she yawned and opened her eyes, "Is Papa back?"

"Not yet," he climbed up beside her.

Michaela stroked his arm, "To what do I owe the visit?"

"I was just checkin' on ya," he said.

She smiled, "That's very thoughtful of you. Would you like to nap with me?"

"Ya mean it?" his eyebrows raised.

"Certainly," she drew him into her embrace.

Josef cuddled closer to her, "I like snugglin'."

"I do, too," she kissed the top of his head.

"Miss Bwidget said ya need t' ww.... rrest," Josef remarked.

"That would be nice," she hinted.

"So, I could w....rest with ya," he continued.

She wondered, "Is there something you wanted to tell me?"

"Ya ww.... read me like a book, Mama," he told her.

She chuckled, "So, what is it?"

Josef took a deep breath, "I'm sow.... sorry I got angwy. It's a bad examble for the kids."

She heard Sully's words in his apology, "I think you were showing a little bit of an independent streak, young man. I must say you get that honestly."

He tilted his head, "Can ya get it not honest?"

She smiled, "Getting it honestly, means that.... well, your father and I have been known to be a bit independent minded. Perhaps, we've influenced you. Nonetheless, thank you for your apology. I think you set a wonderful example for your brother and sisters."

"Does that mean ya forgive me?" the little boy questioned.

She kissed him and caressed his hair, "Yes, that's what it means."

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

Sully crossed the meadow and waved to the Reverend, "See ya Sunday."

The minister returned, "With that pretty little girl of yours."

Sully smiled to himself at the description. She was pretty. All of his children were, thanks to the beauty of their Ma.

At the bridge near the church, he noticed Hank and Lexie coming his way.

"Hey," Sully smiled. "Ya look like you're in a hurry."

Hank paused, "We are. We're gettin' married."

"Married?" Sully was surprised.

"Yea," Hank smiled at Lexie. "Hard t' believe, huh."

Sully rubbed his chin skeptically, "You sure about this?"

"Very," Lexie nodded. "Do you know where the Reverend is?"

"He's over beside the church," Sully gestured. "You havin' a church weddin'?"

Hank frowned, "Can't find anyone else t' do it."

Sully folded his arms, "So, when are ya gettin' married?"

"T'day if he can do it," Hank stated.

"T'day?" Sully's eyes widened.

"I suppose we could wait until tomorrow, if the Reverend is busy," Lexie speculated.

"Why so soon?" Sully wondered.

"No time like the present," Hank returned. "See ya."

The couple neared the church.

"Reverend!" Hank called to him.

"Hank?" he was surprised. "What brings you here?"

"We wanna get married," Hank replied.

"We?" the minister was uncertain.

Lexie voiced her consent, "Hank and I."

The Reverend's face lit up, "Lexie! Well, this is good news. And what better place than the house of the Lord?"

Hank became uncomfortable, "Yea, well, there's no one else who can do it. Jake's kid's in the hospital, an' Horace can't find the damn.... darn book."

"Well...." the minister paused. "I like to counsel couples before I perform the ceremony."

Hank was curious, "What kind o' counselin'?"

The Reverend explained, "I ask questions, get you to speak about your relationship, your expectations, issues that may present problems down the road."

Hank's brow wrinkled, "How long will that take?"

"How much time do you have?" the Reverend posed the question.

Hank gazed at Lexie, "About fifteen minutes."

************
Chapter 10
************

Having spoken to Lexie and Hank, Sully proceeded toward town.

A voice called to him as he passed the bank, "Oh, Sully."

It was Preston.

"What d' you want?" Sully frowned.

"Is that any way to greet your benefactor?" the banker smiled.

"You ain't my benefactor," he replied.

"Well, next to Michaela, of course," Preston could not resist a dig.

Sully controlled his temper, "It didn't work, Preston."

"What didn't work?" he folded his arms.

"Don't pretend like ya don't know what I'm talkin' about," Sully eyed him sternly.

Preston's face was unflinching, "I can wait, Sully. You'll slip up eventually and show your true motives."

"Only one who's hidin' his motives is you," he accused.

This time the banker tensed, "When Michaela finds out you are only interested in her money, she'll come crawling to me."

Sully exhaled slowly to calm himself, "When you gonna get it through your head that my wife isn't interested in you?"

"That's not what people are saying," he goaded.

Sully did not take the bait, "Wonder where you'd be if another bank opened in this town?"

His brow suddenly creased, "I've heard nothing about another bank."

"The town's growin'," Sully shrugged. "I think some competition would do you good."

"You're the one who could use some competition," Preston smiled.

"I got no competition where my wife's concerned," Sully asserted.

Then he pivoted and left the banker.

"We'll see," Preston spoke low to himself. "I don't give up that easily. Hmm, I wonder if Yellowstone would be far enough away."

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

"Fifteen minutes?" the Reverend was astounded at Hank's timetable. "Counseling usually takes a few weeks."

Hank retorted, "We ain't got a few weeks."

"Why not?" the minister was puzzled.

"Look," Hank put his hands on his hips. "Ya gonna marry us, or not?"

"At least let me ask you a few questions first," he replied.

"What kinda questions?" Hank grew impatient.

The Reverend considered, "How long have you known each other?"

"Long enough," he shot back.

"Hank, this is serious," the pastor stated. "I have to determine if you two are compatible.... if you share enough common interests to...."

He cut him off, "We are, an' we do."

"Marriage is a lifetime commitment," the minister reminded.

"Well, our lifetime is fritterin' away while we're talkin'," Hank interjected. "Let's have the weddin'."

Reverend Johnson was skeptical, "You seem to be very intent on this."

"You gonna marry us or not?" Hank returned to the request.

The Reverend nodded, "I will, but it will have to be tomorrow. I can perform the ceremony after Hope Sully's baptism and before the Independence Day festivities."

"How 'bout that, Lexie?" Hank winked. "I'm losin' my independence on Independence Day."

Lexie finally spoke, "Reverend, thank you for doing this on such short notice."

"You're welcome," he forced a smile. "I hope you know what you're getting into."

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

Sully entered the hospital and approached Sister Mary Margaret, "I came t' check on Maria Slicker."

Before she could answer, Jake saw him and spoke up, "Hey, Sully."

"Jake?" he was surprised by his fatigued appearance. "You okay?"

His hands trembled, "Could I speak t' ya.... in private?"

"Sure," Sully guided him to the waiting area. "How's Maria?"

"She's doin' better," he sat down. "Colleen said she might be able t' go home t'morrow."

"That's good," he returned. "I'll tell Michaela."

Jake folded his arms tightly against his chest. Sully had seen him this way before as a typical reaction to his sobering up.

"What did ya wanna talk about?" Sully wondered.

"You got kids," Jake began. "They make ya wanna be a better person."

"Yea," Sully agreed.

"What if...." he hesitated. "What if, no matter how hard ya try, an' no matter how much ya wanna be better, ya just can't?"

Sully considered his question, "I don't think kids expect ya t' be perfect. But they do expect ya t' be honest. When ya make a mistake, talk with 'em about it."

"Sully," Jake's voice choked. "I'm losin' 'em. I'm losin' my family."

His brow wrinkled, "Then ya gotta get 'em back."

"I don't think I can," he shook his head.

"Jake," Sully looked at him intently. "I know what it is t' lose your family. An' you ain't lost 'em. They're alive. That means ya got a chance."

"I.... I'm ashamed o' how I treated 'em," he sighed. "They'll never forgive me. I've tried so many times t' stop drinkin', but I always find a reason t' start again."

"Seems t' me there's more reason t' stop than t' start," Sully counseled. "When ya look at your little girl, hopin' she'll always see ya as a hero.... wantin' t' protect her from all harm.... What more reason do ya need?"

"I don't think Maria sees me that way," he denied.

"Sure, she does," Sully countered. "There's no greater feelin' than havin' your child put her trust in ya."

Jake considered his words, "You make it sound easy."

"'Course it ain't easy," he rubbed his upper lip.

Jake's jaw tensed, "If I ever lost my family...."

Sully interrupted, "You gotta make sure that don't happen."

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

Sully reached the top step and approached his bedroom. He smiled when he entered the room. There on the bed were Michaela and Josef. He stepped toward the cradle, where Hope was sucking on her fingers.

"Hey there," he smiled down on his daughter.

Michaela heard him and lifted up, "How's Maria?"

"Doin' fine," he assured. "Colleen said she can go home t'morrow."

"Good," she was relieved.

"I had a talk with Jake, too," Sully revealed.

She shook her head, "He's ruining his life."

"That's what drinkin' can do," he remarked. "He's afraid of losin' his family."

"Then he'd better sober up," she stated. "I wish I could help him."

"Knowin' you, you'll think of a way," he smiled.

"Did you speak with the Reverend?" she queried.

"It's all set," he nodded. Then smiling down on his son, still sleeping in the bed, he asked, "Who's your friend?"

"Josef thought I could use some company," she remarked as she rose. "And he apologized for his little tantrum."

"That's real good," Sully felt a rush of pride in his son.

"I believe I heard a bit of his father's words in his apology," Michaela mused.

"I'm glad he knows he done wrong," he noted.

"He's been changing," Michaela pondered. "I think being a big brother may have something to do with that."

"Maybe," Sully considered. "But I doubt if his mischief makin' days are over."

She smiled.

"You ain't gonna believe what I found out in town," Sully removed his belt.

"What?" she straightened her hair.

"Hank an' Lexie are gettin' married," he kept his voice low.

"I think that's for the best," she remarked.

"You're not surprised?" Sully wondered.

"No," she replied.

Sully eyed her, "There somethin' more t' this?"

She avoided looking at him.

Sully pondered, "She's pregnant, ain't she?"

Michaela did not respond.

He continued, "That's why Lexie was askin' me those questions at the hospital."

"What questions?" she pretended to not know.

"You overheard us," he smiled.

Michaela went to him and slipped her arms around his waist, "You gave very good answers, Mr. Sully."

He kissed her sweetly, "I just told the truth."

"Sully," her brow wrinkled. "Her baby...."

He knew, "It's not Hank's."

"I was afraid this would happen," Michaela shook her head.

Sully tilted down to kiss her forehead, "Babies come int' this world in all sorts o' ways."

She glanced at the cradle, "I prefer our way."

"Me, too," he smiled. "When I was out there by myself, I started thinkin' about when you an' me were at the cabin after ya fell an' hit your head."

She recalled, "That was seven years ago, but I remember that night vividly. We finally talked about my miscarriage."

"An' we tried for another baby," he added.

She sighed, "It didn't happen then, much as I had hoped for it."

He grinned, "We had fun tryin', though."

"We didn't conceive Josef until nearly a year later," Michaela mentioned.

His smile widened, "That was fun, too."

She maintained a serious expression, "I was afraid I would never have another child after losing our baby."

Sully caressed her cheek, "I'd say ya caught on, once ya got started."

"So, what made you think of that night?" she was curious.

He sighed, "I remember we talked about trust. It made me realize I broke my promise t' always trust you."

She studied his expression, then reached up to run her finger lightly along the line of his jaw.

She finally spoke softly, "You were tired and not thinking clearly."

He shook his head, "That's no excuse. There's no one in the world I trust more than you, Michaela. I shouldn't have reacted the way I did."

"If I told you that I forgive you, would you forgive yourself?" she smiled.

"Sure are sweet words," he kissed her.

"What?" she kissed him back.

"Hearin' that you forgive me," he kissed her again.

The light touches began to intensify.

Michaela felt her pulse begin to quicken, "Sully...."

"I know," he drew back reluctantly.

She composed herself, "What is it about us?"

"I think it's called love," he grinned.

She peered into the eyes she adored, "Something takes over us...."

He was moved to recite to her:

"She felt my lips' impassioned touch-
'Twas the first time I dared so much,
And yet she chid not;
But whispered o'er my burning brow,
'Oh, do you doubt I love you now?'
Sweet soul! I did not.
Warmly I felt her bosom thrill,
I pressed it closer, closer still,
Though gently bid not;
Till- oh! the world hath seldom heard
Of lovers, who so nearly erred,
And yet, who did not."

They kissed again, even more deeply. Their hands began to roam.

"I think...." Michaela caught her breath.

"Yea?" Sully smiled with anticipation.

"I think that was...." she kissed him again.

Josef began to stir.

Sully heard him and framed Michaela's face in his hands, gently ending the kiss.

"Thomas Moore," he identified the poet.

"Papa," Josef sat up. "What ya doin'?"

Michaela quickly straightened the buttons on her blouse, "Your father and I were just.... discussing Hope's baptism."

"Oh," the child yawned. "I rem'ber when I got baptized."

Michaela raised an eyebrow, "You do?"

"Yep," he slid down from the bed. "You said I cwied an' cwied."

"Yes, you did," Michaela recalled. "Until Katie calmed you."

"Hope won't cwy," the little boy predicted.

Sully lifted his son high up, prompting giggles from the child.

Michaela smiled, "What makes you think your little sister won't cry?"

Josef answered, "Just a feelin'."

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

Hank sat on the edge of Lexie's bed, "So, I best be gettin' back t' town. You need t' rest."

She clasped his hand, "It's not too late to back out."

He quipped, "No, I gotta make an honest woman of ya."

She lightly placed her hand on her abdomen, "I hope I'll make a good mother."

He put his hand atop her's, "Sure ya will."

"I wonder if it will be a boy or a girl," she said.

"It would be just like you t' go an have a girl," he frowned.

"You'd be upset?" she was uncertain.

"Sure I would," he pretended.

She sensed he was not being serious, "I can't picture you changing diapers."

"Damn right," he turned up his nose.

She raised her hand to caress his cheek, "I love you, Hank."

He leaned down to kiss her, "Get some rest. Ya got a busy day t'morrow."

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

Independence Day dawned on Colorado Springs. Across the nation, small towns and cities alike would commemorate the nation's 104th birthday. Events scheduled for the day included speeches, a reenactment of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and a reading of the winning essay about America by the student who had composed it. The name was a secret, known only to Isabel and Teresa.

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

Jake washed and shaved before heading to the hospital to pick up his wife and daughter. He had spent a sleepless night, weighing over what his future might bring. He had not prepared a speech to open the July Fourth festivities. Maybe he would ask Dr. Mike to say something. She was always good at talking.

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

Spooned against her husband, Michaela felt his hand gently resting on her abdomen. His warm breath on her neck caused her to tingle.

"Sully," she whispered.

"Mmm?" he was barely awake.

"It's morning," she pivoted in his arms to face him.

"So?" he cuddled closer.

"So, we have to get up," she reminded. "We need to get ready for the baby's christening."

"In a little while," he closed his eyes again.

Tenderly, she ran her finger along his sensuous lips. The edge of his mouth curled in a smile.

"You're askin' for trouble," he kept his voice low.

She softly kissed him, "What kind of trouble?"

He slid his arm beneath her and drew her flush against his body, "Startin' somethin' we can't finish."

"There's no buoyancy in our bed," she toyed with the hair at the base of his neck.

"Oh?" he felt his body awakening to her overtures. "Well, there's other ways t' do.... things."

"What are you suggesting?" her voice was flirtatious.

He surprised her by rolling her atop him.

Her eyes opened wide, "Not again."

"Not what again?" he was puzzled.

She lifted up quickly, "I don't want to risk Mt. Vesuvius."

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

Lexie awoke at her ranch and swiftly headed for the privy. She had felt waves of nausea since dawn. Maybe this was not such a good day to get married, she considered. She would have to tell Hank.

************
Chapter 11
************

With tears in her eyes, Michaela ran her fingers lightly across the christening gown which she had made for Katie nine years ago. Annie had worn it, too. And now, it would be for Hope. Neatly laying it across her bed, she lifted her daughter from the cradle and prepared to nurse her.

"Hope," she whispered the baby's name with love.

As she tenderly rocked the child, she could hear conversations coming from the children's rooms. Sully was trying to still Josef long enough to fix his tie. Bridget and Colleen were with the twins, getting them ready for the big day. She knew Katie would be dressing herself but would soon need her mother's help with the bows in her hair.

There was a light tap at the door.

"Come in," Michaela invited.

Katie entered, holding the blue ribbons she had selected to go with her white dress.

"My, don't you look beautiful," Michaela smiled.

Katie sat beside her on the rocker, "Thanks." She noticed the christening gown on the bed, "I can't believe I wore that. It's so little."

"It was one of the happiest days of my life," Michaela informed her. "Your father carried you into the church and didn't want anyone else to hold you."

Katie giggled, "But didn't Miss Grace have t' hold me?"

"Yes, eventually," she returned. "But your father kept a close watch to see that she didn't drop you."

"Poppy's always keepin' an eye out for us," the little girl remarked.

Michaela nodded, "Yes, he is."

Katie confessed, "I'm kinda nervous about the essay contest."

"Your entry was wonderful, Sweetheart," Michaela commended.

"Do you think it might win?" the child wondered.

"I believe it has a very good chance," she nodded. "But win or lose, you should be proud of it. You put a lot of work into it."

"I liked paintin' the scenery for Philadelphia," Katie's face beamed. "I bet I'm the only student who has a Mama that went t' school there."

"Perhaps," Michaela recalled her recent reunion.

"Could I ask ya somethin'?" Katie broached the subject.

"Of course," she consented.

"What were you an' Poppy fightin' about the other day?" the child inquired.

Michaela chose her words carefully, "It was all a misunderstanding, Sweetheart. It's nothing for you to worry about."

"I know ya made up," she smiled.

"Oh?" Michaela raised an eyebrow.

"Uh-huh," Katie looked up at her. "I can tell."

"You can, can you?" she pretended to be surprised.

"You an' Poppy have a special way of lookin' at each other when everythin's okay," Katie informed her.

"That's the way people who love each other look," Michaela noted.

"You look at us real special, too," Katie observed.

"I'm sure all mothers and fathers view their children in that special way," Michaela remarked.

"No," Katie shook her head. "There's kids at school who don't have parents like you an' Poppy. I'm lucky."

"So are we," Michaela smiled.

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

"Hold still, Joe," Sully clasped his son's shoulders. "I gotta get this tie straight, or your Ma will be upset."

"I don' like it when Mama's upset," the little boy tried to not move. "Like when ya haved your fight."

Sully swallowed hard, ashamed that his children had been witness.

"Joe," Sully paused. "Everythin's fine now."

"I know," the little boy smiled. "Ya made up."

Sully grinned, "How ya know that?"

"Mama's eyes smile when she looks at ya," the child noticed.

Sully winked, "Sure is a pretty sight, huh?"

"Yep," Josef turned up the corner of his mouth in a grin reminiscent of his mother's. "Make my tie look real good, Papa."

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

Hank slowed the carriage he had rented from Robert E. Dressed in his finest suit and freshly bathed, he straightened his tie and knocked on Lexie's door.

When she opened it a crack, he peered in.

"You okay?" he sensed a problem.

"I don't feel very good this morning," she stepped back to allow him to enter.

"Ya look like hell," he observed.

"Thanks," she sighed.

"No, I mean ya look sick," he clarified.

"Nausea," she held her stomach.

"I'll take ya t' the hospital," he offered.

"No, Hank," she shook her head. "It will pass. I've felt this way for the past few mornings."

"I said, I'm takin' ya t' the hospital," he insisted.

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

Sully cradled Hope in one arm, as he assisted Michaela from the surrey. She turned to glance back at town.

Colleen noticed, "Don't worry, Ma. Matthew will bring Brian as soon as the train gets here."

"Apparently, it's running late," she remained tense.

The twins began to toddle around the meadow until Bridget corralled them.

"Hey there," Loren approached.

"Loren," Michaela smiled. "It's good to see you."

"Good t' see you, too, Dr. Mike," he grinned. "I hear tell there's a baptism t'day."

Sully proudly displayed his daughter, "Yep. This pretty little girl right here."

Loren held his finger for the baby to clasp, "She looks real fine."

Coming toward the church at that moment was the stranger who had frightened Katie several days earlier.

Handing Michaela the baby, Sully touched her arm and went to speak with the man.

"You comin' t' church?" Sully inquired of the man.

"You again," he tilted his head. "If you must know, yes, I am."

"You got business in Colorado Springs?" Sully probed further.

"I do," he put his fingers in his vest pockets. "I am going to be working as an instructor for the new school for deaf and blind children. I had been led to believe that its construction would be completed soon, but apparently the man who was building it took off."

"No, he didn't," Sully said. "I'm the man. The name's Byron Sully. I took a break, is all."

He extended his hand, "Dr. Harold Quantrell. When will the structure be ready for occupancy?"

"I got a dormitory and classroom nearly finished," Sully informed him. "I figure by the end of the month, maybe."

"Sully?" Michaela approached them with the baby. "Is everything all right?"

Sully introduced, "Dr. Quantrell, this here's my wife, Dr. Michaela Quinn."

"How do you do," she shook his hand. "Are you a physician?"

"No, a professor," he amended. "Are you?"

"A medical doctor, yes," Michaela acknowledged.

"I see where your daughter gets her beauty," Quantrell gestured toward Katie.

Sully identified, "This is the man Katie.... met in town."

She tensed, "It is?"

Quantrell apologized, "I'm sorry I frightened her. I thought she was lost."

Michaela eyed him skeptically, as Dorothy approached them.

"Dr. Quantrell, it's nice to see you again," the redhead smiled. "That article I wrote about you should be in the paper Wednesday."

"I look forward to reading it," he tipped his hat. "Now, if you'll excuse me."

When he left them, Michaela confessed, "I don't trust him."

Dorothy was puzzled, "Why not?"

"He makes me feel uneasy," Michaela remarked. "And he frightened Katie."

Dorothy was curious, "Frightened Katie?"

"She ran into him near the Depot," Michaela explained.

Dorothy mentioned, "He has a lot of experience workin' with children."

At that moment, Josef's cries disturbed them.

"I'll get him," Sully rushed to the boy. "What's wrong, Joe?"

"My tie," he pointed to the loose ends.

"I'll fix it for ya," Sully knelt down. "Nothin' t' worry about."

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

Dr. Bernard removed the stethoscope from his ears, "Everything is fine, Lexie."

Hank clasped her hand, "You sure, Doc? Maybe Michaela oughta take a look."

"She's at the church for her baby's christening," the physician noted.

"What about Lexie's stomach?" Hank questioned. "Can ya give her somethin'?"

"Yes, of course," he nodded as he went to the medicine cabinet.

"You're already a nervous father, Hank," Lexie teased.

"Father?" Bernard was puzzled.

"We're gettin' married t'day," Hank informed him.

"Congratulations," the physician smiled.

Lexie interjected, "I think we should wait until...."

Hank interrupted, "We ain't waitin'."

"Here, Lexie," Bernard handed her a glass. "Drink this. It will settle your stomach."

"Then I'll take ya back t' the ranch t' get on your weddin' dress," Hank insisted.

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

At the Depot, Brian smiled and shook hands with his brother, "Hey, Matthew."

"Hey, little brother," Matthew grinned. "We gotta get t' the church."

"I'm pretty tired," Brian hesitated.

"Too tired t' see my goddaughter get christened?" Matthew raised an eyebrow.

"Hope?" he realized. "You're gonna be her godfather?"

"Yep," Matthew nodded. "Ma's nervous as can be, so let's get movin'."

Andrew's voice was heard, "Do you think anyone would object if I attended?"

"Andrew," Matthew shook his hand. "Sorry I didn't see ya. 'Course ya can come."

"Would it make things too uncomfortable for Colleen?" he wondered.

"I don't think she'd mind," Matthew assessed. "Come on."

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

Sitting in the pew, Sully touched his wife's arm and spoke low, "He'll be here. Don't worry."

"I thought I heard the train whistle," she spoke low.

At that moment, she heard Brian's voice, "Ya did hear the train."

"Brian!" she turned to embrace him. "How was your trip?"

"Real interestin'," he smiled. "The Democrats nominated...."

Before they could speak further, the Reverend cleared his throat and began the service.

"Today is a joyous one indeed," he smiled. "Not only do we gather to worship the Lord and to offer thanks for our great country, but we are here to celebrate two of God's greatest gifts to us.... a baptism and a wedding."

Michaela leaned toward Sully, "I don't see Hank or Lexie."

"Maybe he got cold feet," Sully speculated.

She smiled, "That's what Mother thought you had done, too."

He grinned, "I wouldn't have missed our weddin' for...."

Hope began to whine. Sully repositioned his daughter in his arms, hoping it would calm her.

"Oh, no," Michaela caressed the baby's cheek. "Another baptism with one of our children crying."

Josef slid from Colleen's lap and stepped closer to his baby sister. Softly, he rubbed her belly and smiled.

With a yawn, Hope closed her eyes and drifted back to sleep.

Sully gazed at Michaela and sighed, "Close call."

The minister's voice spoke up, "Michaela, Sully, would you bring Hope forward, please?"

Sully carefully held the baby so that her position would remain comfortable. With Michaela looking on, he handed his daughter over to the pastor.

Reverend Johnson tenderly held her and said, "Will the child's godparents step forward at this time?"

Matthew clasped Emma's hand, and they joined Michaela and Sully. At Sully's subtle nod, Brian and Colleen brought forward Katie, Josef and the twins.

The minister resumed, "It is my joyful honor today to baptize the new daughter of Michaela and Sully. How blessed are we to be here as witnesses to the spiritual birth of this child. In the Bible, Peter said, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit."

Then he turned to beckon Matthew and Emma.

They stepped forward. Emma took the baby and gently held her as Isabel guided her husband to the baptismal font.

The Reverend spoke again, "Hope Lauren Sully, I baptize thee in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit."

At the touch of the water upon her head, Hope's arms and legs moved. Her lips puckered. But she did not whimper.

Sully cast a proud glance at Michaela, "Joe was right. She didn't cry."

As if on cue, Josef whispered, "Is she baptized yet?"

"Yes, Sweetheart," Michaela touched the top of his head.

"Good," he grinned. "Now can I taked off this tie?"

She returned, "Not yet."

The minister cleared his throat and addressed the congregation, "And now, as hard as it is to believe, today we are going to have the wedding of Hank and Lexie."

A tittering of conversation began among the congregation. Grace began to play the wedding march on the piano, but there was no sign of the bride or groom.

"Uh, Reverend," Loren spoke up. "They ain't here."

"What?" the minister was surprised.

************
Chapter 12
************

Reverend Johnson cleared his throat uncomfortably, "Well folks, I guess there isn't going to be a wed...."

Hank's voice from the back of the church cut him off, "Start the music again."

The minister smiled, "Grace?"

She began the wedding music again. Hand in hand, Lexie and Hank stepped forward. He nervously straightened his tie.

Josef noticed and whispered to his father, "He don't like wearin' a tie either."

"Yep," Sully smiled.

Reverend Johnson addressed the couple in a low voice, "Do you have anyone to stand up for you?"

Hank pivoted, "Jake ain't here." Then he nodded to Sully.

Sully noticed and stood up to go to him. Lexie turned to Michaela. She also stepped forward to join the couple.

"Go ahead, Reverend," Hank said.

"Very well," he resumed. "Dearly beloved. We are gathered here...."

As he spoke, Colleen turned. Her eyes met Andrew's, and a tear began to trickle down her cheek. She swallowed hard, hoping he had not noticed.

But he had. He felt a lump in his throat. Where had they gone wrong? Was he too demanding? Was she too uncompromising? He still could not get over the divorce. How could he live apart from her when he still loved her?

Colleen suddenly felt terribly warm. As quietly and discreetly as she could, she slid out the side of the pew and walked to the back of the church. Stepping onto the porch and down the steps, she walked to the cemetery.

Soon she found herself beside her mother's grave. She knelt down, picking a few weeds from beside the headstone.

"Hey, Ma," she spoke in a whisper.

Then she suddenly lost control of her emotions. She began to weep.

Her voice trembled as she wiped the tears from her eyes, "Oh, Ma, what a mess I've made of things. I wanted to be a doctor more than anything in the world. But it wasn't just because of Dr. Mike. It was also because I wanted to help people like you. Maybe you wouldn't have died if...."

She stopped, again overcome by the grief she felt. Then she felt a supporting hand on her shoulder.

"Colleen," it was Andrew.

She looked at him through reddened eyes, "I'm sorry. I should be inside."

"It's okay," he knelt beside her. "You were talking to your mother?"

"Yes," she admitted.

"I wish I could have met her," he smiled.

"She ...." Colleen sighed. Composing herself, she went on, "She worked very hard to give us a good life, especially after Pa left. Everyone liked and respected Ma."

"Was she like Michaela?" he wondered.

Colleen smiled for the first time, "Not really, other than the fact that she cared a lot about folks. Ma was the first person to befriend Dr. Mike."

"I thought Sully was," he teased.

"Sully was...." she hesitated. "Different."

"I've heard stories," he mused.

She settled back, suddenly very comfortable in his company, "What have you heard?"

"You know men talk," he grinned. "They said Sully spent a lot of time with Dr. Mike.... alone."

Colleen's brow wrinkled, "They never did anything improper."

"Knowing them, I'm certain that's true," he nodded. "But you know how people gossip anyway."

"Yes," she looked down.

Andrew reached out to raise her chin, "Colleen...."

Tensing, she turned away, "No, Andrew."

He concealed his hurt, "I understand. I.... I guess I'll leave you to speak with your mother some more."

She felt a pang of guilt, "I'm sorry. You don't have to go."

He eyed her intently, "We've hurt each other a lot, but through it all, the incredible thing is we're still good friends.... dare I say, best friends?"

She nodded silently.

He went on, "I'd give anything to go back to what we once had."

Colleen studied his expression, "But we can't go back. We've changed too much."

"Have we?" he posed the question.

"Or maybe we didn't know each other as well as we thought," she speculated.

Andrew realized they were at another impasse and did not wish to press her further. Resting his hand atop hers, he did not speak again.

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

Reverend Johnson requested, "May I have the ring?"

"Ring," Hank's shoulders slumped. "Uh.... I don't have one."

The congregation began to converse among themselves.

Loren offered, "Want me t' go get one at the store?"

"Hold it," Hank reached into his pocket and withdrew a cigar.

"What are you doing?" Lexie was puzzled.

Hank slid the band off the cigar and placed it in the minister's palm, "Use this."

"What is it?" he was puzzled at the light weight of the object in his hand.

"A temporary ring," Hank informed him. "Now, go ahead."

Reverend Johnson instructed, "Place the.... uh, ring on her hand and repeat after me: With this ring, I thee wed."

Hank took a deep breath and did as he was told, and vows were exchanged.

Finally, the pastor proclaimed, "And so by the powers vested in me, I now pronounce that you are husband and wife. You may kiss the bride."

Hank gave an impish grin, then drew Lexie closer for a passionate kiss.

Michaela and Sully smiled.

The congregation erupted in applause as Grace struck up a recessional song.

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

Before the afternoon games and picnics commenced, the townsfolk gathered at the stage that had been constructed near the school. Hanging in the background was a mural painted by the children.

Michaela and Sully spread out several blankets near the front of the stage so that they could watch the festivities.

"Sully," Michaela cradled Hope.

"Mmm?" he acknowledged.

"I'm going to take the baby to my old Clinic office to nurse her," she informed him. "I'll be back shortly."

"Do ya want me t' come with ya?" he offered.

"No, thank you," she smiled. "I think you'll have your hands quite full as it is."

Sully glanced down to see the twins crawling over Brian, whom they had pinned down on the blanket to tickle.

"I see what ya mean," he grinned as he joined them.

Michaela carried the baby toward town. When she neared the Clinic, she saw Jake and Teresa approaching with Maria.

"Well, hello," she greeted them. "How is Maria doing?"

"She's doin' real good," Jake smiled. "We're headin' over t' the opening ceremony, but I was wonderin' if you could do me a favor."

"Of course," Michaela agreed. "What is it?"

"I was hopin' ya might say a few words at the start," he invited.

"A few words?" she turned up the corner of her mouth.

"As few as ya can," he nodded.

"I'd be honored," Michaela accepted. "I'll be there shortly."

"Thanks, Dr. Mike," Jake smiled.

She watched as the couple left with their daughter. Teresa had not uttered a word to her. What would it take before that woman accepted her friendship, Michaela wondered. Hope's fussing brought her attention back to her baby.

"Come, my darling," she stepped toward the Clinic door.

After unlocking it, Michaela entered. The room was stuffy. She had not occupied the office since Hope's birth. She sat at her old desk and unbuttoned her dress, preparing to nurse the baby. As the infant cuddled close to her mother for nourishment, Michaela's thoughts wandered. Each corner of the room reminded her of something that had happened in her career since coming to Colorado Springs.

It was where she had operated on countless patients, delivered numerous babies.... and where she had lost her sister Marjorie in that devastating night.

"So many memories, Sweetheart," she caressed Hope's dark hair.

A tear formed in the corner of her eye. She knew it was part of the post-birth experience. Her emotions would often surge strangely. Then she heard someone at the door.

"Sully?" she anticipated.

The knob turned. She suddenly had a flashback to that terrible morning when she was shot seven years ago.

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

Jake approached Sully, "Looks like everyone's havin' a good time."

"Yep," he nodded. "How's Maria?"

Jake gestured toward his daughter, "If it wasn't for the cast on her arm, you'd never know she was in the hospital."

Sully assessed his manner, "Things are goin' good then?"

He asserted, "I'm not gonna lose 'em, Sully. I'll do whatever I have to."

"Does that include not drinkin'?" Sully queried.

Jake swallowed hard, "Yea." Then he turned to look toward town. "What's keepin' Dr. Mike? She said she'd speak at the ceremony, an' it's about t' start."

"She went t' feed the baby," he explained. "But, you're right. She should've been back by now. I'll go check."

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

"Who is it?" Michaela protectively covered her baby. "Sully, is that you?"

"Dr. Quinn?" it was Harold Quantrell's voice.

The door opened slightly, "I thought I saw you come here, and I noticed the Clinic sign. I thought perhaps...."

She interrupted, "Dr. Quantrell, please don't come in here."

"Is there something wrong?" he opened the door fully.

Michaela was embarrassed, "I.... that is.... would you please turn around?"

He did as she requested, "I'm sorry. I was curious to see where you practice medicine."

She quickly buttoned her top, "This was my old Clinic. I have a new hospital now, just beyond the Depot."

"Quantrell?" Sully stood at the doorway. "What're you doin' here?"

"I'm sorry," he apologized. "I seem to be making a habit out of being in the wrong place at the wrong time."

"Michaela?" Sully stepped past him toward his wife. "You okay?"

She took a deep breath, "Better now that you're here."

Sully turned to the man and asserted, "I think you better leave."

"Yes, of course," he agreed. "Again, my sincere apologies."

Sully closed the door behind him, then went to Michaela. Kneeling before her, he caressed the baby's hair, "You sure you're okay?"

"That man frightened me, Sully," she confessed. "He came in here while I was nursing Hope. He might have seen...."

"Shh," he comforted. "I'm sure he didn't see anythin'."

She glanced down at their daughter, "I'm afraid she's still hungry."

"You go ahead an' nurse her some more," he said. "I'll stay here an' see that he don't come back."

"But the children," she spoke anxiously.

"They got plenty o' folks t' watch 'em," he pointed out.

"I told Jake I would speak at the opening ceremony," she positioned the baby again.

"They can wait a little while longer," he assured.

Hope contentedly settled back to nursing at her mother's breast. Eased by her husband's presence, Michaela smiled down at her daughter. Sully grinned and stroked the baby's cheek.

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

Hank opened the ranch door, then carried Lexie across the threshold.

"Welcome home," he grinned as he kissed her.

"Home," she suddenly thought as he set her down. "We haven't talked about where we'll live."

"What's wrong with this place?" he tilted his head.

"I won't be able to take proper care of a ranch much longer," she pointed out.

"Then I'll take care of it," he shrugged.

"Hank, you're not a rancher," she shook her head.

"Never thought I'd be a husband either," he raised an eyebrow.

"My husband," she eyed him curiously. "How does it feel?"

"Don't feel much different," he pondered. "You?"

She considered, "It's not the circumstances I imagined they would be."

He was puzzled, "What's missin'?"

She removed her hat, "Well, I imagined my wedding day would be romantic, with a sumptuous dinner and champagne and...."

He interjected, "No reason it can't be all that."

"No champagne," she gestured toward her abdomen.

He tempted, "We can still have dinner an' romance."

"True," she smiled. "What would you like for dinner?"

He drew her into his arms, "I was thinkin' I'd like t' start with the romance."

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

Michaela concluded her speech, "And so, it is with great pride that we celebrate this one-hundred fourth anniversary of our nation's birth. May we never forget those who gave so much so that we could enjoy our liberty."

With that, the program began. The children began to reenact the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Sully and Michaela beamed when Katie stepped forward to speak her line.

"Perfect," Michaela nodded.

When the play concluded, Isabel asked for everyone's attention.

She announced, "The children have also written essays on what our country means to them. It is my pleasure to announce the winner at this time. Then I shall call forward the student to read the winning composition for you." She paused for effect, then proclaimed, "The winner is.... Katie Sully."

There was applause.

Katie shyly stepped across the stage, her paper in hand. She glanced down at her parents. She could feel their love and pride, and it filled her with the courage to read her essay in front of all of these people.

She cleared her throat and spoke. So intent were Michaela and Sully at listening to her, they did not notice Noah and Annie toddling toward the stage steps. The twins climbed up and ran to their big sister.

Katie stopped, embarrassed at their antics.

"Noah! Annie!" Michaela shouted.

"I'll get 'em," Sully jumped to his feet.

The audience began to laugh. Katie's cheeks reddened. How could she go on?

Sully scooped the twins into his arms, then paused to assure Katie.

"You're doin' real good, honey," he whispered. "Just look at your Ma."

Katie did as he said and cast her gaze toward her mother. Michaela smiled and nodded.

The little girl took a deep breath, then concluded her speech to a standing ovation by those present.

Loren leaned closer to Bridget, "So, the plan worked. Preston's mad as a hornet though."

She kept her voice down, "You think he'll try anythin' else?"

"He don't give up," he replied.

"Well, he'll not be breakin' up those two," she asserted. "That's a bond that's for life."

He gestured toward Colleen, "Not like her, eh?"

"Poor darlin'," Bridget was sympathetic.

"Maybe we should come up with a plan for her," he suggested. "We kinda work well t'gether."

"Loren Bray," she chuckled. "Are you sayin' we should do some matchmakin'?"

"Nah," he winked.

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

Lexie leaned back against Hank's shoulder. He protectively pulled up the sheets.

She sighed, "So Mr. Lawson, are you hungry now?"

"What'd ya have in mind, Mrs. Lawson?" he kissed the top of her head.

"Why don't you help me cook?" she suggested.

He drew her closer for another kiss, "Maybe we could stay here a little longer."

She grinned and held up her hand, "A cigar band, hmm."

"Don't ya like it?" he pretended to be offended.

"I've never seen anything quite like it," she chuckled.

Hank slid his hand along her shapely form, then kissed her, "Dinner can wait."

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

After they ate their picnic lunch, the Sully family settled to listen to Brian talk about attending the Democratic Convention in Chicago.

"Everyone was thinkin' that Samuel Tilden would be the nominee again," he noted.

"Well, he did win the popular vote in '76," Michaela observed.

"Right," Brian went on. "But he hasn't been well. An' John Kelly of Tammany Hall opposed his nomination."

Katie queried, "Who's Tammy Hall?"

"Tammany Hall," Brian clarified. "That's the powerful group that runs New York City. So, Tilden stepped back an' sort of ran the convention without bein' the party's candidate."

Colleen was curious, "Who did decide to run then? This John Kelly?"

"No," Brian shook his head. "Several men had their eyes on the nomination. Senator Thomas Bayard of Delaware was one. He was respected as a politician, but he favored hard-money an' that upset the soft-money supporters."

Josef tilted his head, "I thinked money is hard."

Brian tussled his little brother's hair, "That means he believes money should be backed by gold or silver. Many also thought Bayard wouldn't do well against the Republican ticket of two former Union generals, Garfield and Arthur. Plus, Bayard was on the 1877 Electoral Commission that chose Hayes over Tilden. Even though, he voted for Tilden on that commission, it didn't look good."

Matthew spoke up, "Stop keepin' us in suspense, little brother. If Bayard didn't get the nomination, who did?"

Brian grinned, "I'm gettin' t' that. Samuel J. Randall of Pennsylvania is the Democratic Speaker of the House. He let it be known that he wanted the nomination, but wasn't willin' t' campaign for it. Plus, Randall favors protective tariffs, an' the Democratic free-traders don't like that."

Michaela pondered, "What about Horatio Seymour? He had the party nomination in 1868, but Grant defeated him."

Sully frowned, "What kinda name is Seymour?"

Michaela contributed, "It's a famous name dating back centuries. Why even King Henry VIII had a wife named Jane Seymour."

Brian teased, "If I remember my history, he had six wives."

Sully grinned, "Six?"

Brian laughed, "Back t' Horatio Seymour, he said he'd rather have his own funeral than be nominated again."

Matthew frowned, "So, ya gonna tell us, or not?"

"I'm tryin' t' build the suspense," Brian stated. "I had t' include all of these details in my article."

Colleen teased, "We can read that later. Tell us who won the nomination."

"General Winfield Scott Hancock of Pennsylvania," he announced.

"Figures they'd pick a general," Sully nodded. "They figure if the Republicans are runnin' one, so should they. It worked with Grant an' Hayes."

"Wave the bloody flag," Michaela had heard the phrase. "Let the public know that they served in the War to end slavery."

"Is there gonna be another war now?" Katie wondered.

"No, Sweetheart," Michaela assured.

Sully glanced toward the meadow, "Looks like they're startin' the games. Who wants t' be my partner?"

All of the children raised their hands.

"I'm going to take the baby home," Michaela said. "We're both rather tired."

"We'll take ya in our wagon," Matthew offered. "It'll give us a chance t' hold our god-daughter again."

"Thank you," Michaela smiled.

"Will ya be back t' see the fireworks?" Katie asked her older brother.

"Wouldn't miss 'em," he winked.

************
Chapter 13
************

"Poppy, they're gettin' ready t' start the fireworks," Katie pointed.

"So they are, Kates," he grinned. "Let's all sit down over there." As he settled the children, Sully drew Matthew aside, "Could ya do me a favor?"

"Sure," he agreed. "What is it?"

"The Reverend hired a man t' teach the children at the school for deaf an' blind children," Sully paused.

"Dr. Quantrell," he nodded. "What about him?"

"I want ya t' check on him," Sully requested.

"Check on him?" Matthew was puzzled.

"His background, his credentials," Sully specified. "I don't trust him. There's somethin' about him that don't sit right."

"Okay," Matthew acknowledged. "I'll see what I can find out."

"Thanks," Sully replied.

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

Michaela sat in her bedroom rocking chair to nurse Hope. It had been a long day, and she was exhausted. The house was empty except for the two of them.

"A rare moment of quiet," Michaela smiled down at her daughter.

Curling the infant's fingers around her thumb, she began to softly hum.

A noise suddenly disturbed her reverie. Then she realized it must be the fireworks.

"I wonder how Annie and Noah will react to the noise?" she spoke softly. "They'll be in Papa's lap, no doubt."

Hope was oblivious to the sound.

Michaela raised the baby to her shoulder to lightly rub her back. The little girl was alert and seemed to be looking for someone.

Michaela noticed, "Papa will be home soon."

At that moment, she heard another noise. Then she discerned Wolf's barking. Rising from the chair, Michaela stepped to the window. In the stark darkness, she could see nothing.

Taking a deep breath to calm herself, she tenderly set Hope in her cradle and attempted to still her imagination. Sully had often told her it was a powerful thing.

"That's all it is," she spoke to herself. "My imagination."

Then she wondered if the doors were locked. After taking one last look to see that Hope was sleeping, she donned her robe and headed down the hallway to the steps. She paused at the landing, not hearing the sound again.

Convinced that there was nothing amiss, she pivoted to return to her bedroom, but then she heard it again. A thumping against the door. And Wolf continued to bark. That was not her imagination.

She stepped toward the kitchen window to glance outside. What she saw amused her. There stood Iggy attempting to nudge the front door open with her snout. Perhaps the sounds of the fireworks had frightened her. Michaela debated whether or not to go outside. Then, as she contemplated, she spotted Iggy plop down on the doorstep. Smiling, Michaela shook her head and pivoted to go upstairs. Sully would take care of the animal when he got home.

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

The twins slept on Brian's and Bridget's laps on the wagon ride home, while in the back seat, Katie and Josef amused themselves with words to describe the fireworks.

Bridget turned to look at Brian, "Sure is good t' have you home, lad."

"Thanks," Brian grinned. "It's good t' be home. I missed your cookin'."

"That Harpers Weekly didn't give ya money for a decent meal?" she was surprised.

"Nope," he shook his head.

Katie pointed, "There's our house."

Sully guided the horse toward the homestead and reined it in when he reached the steps.

Brian offered, "I'll carry Annie upstairs, then I'll come down t' help ya with the surrey, Pa."

"Thanks," Sully stepped down.

"What's that?" Brian saw an animal on the front porch.

"It's Iggy!" Katie recognized their pig.

Sully frowned, "Joe, did you make sure her pen door was locked?"

"I thinked so," the little boy shrugged.

"Well, we best get her back in it," Sully encouraged.

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

"Hank," Lexie touched his chest to waken him.

"Mmm?" he stirred.

"We still haven't eaten, and I'm hungry," she sat up.

He ran his hand tantalizingly down her back, "I reckon it's time I fixed ya somethin'."

"You can cook?" she was surprised.

"Sure," he grinned. "How about rabbit?"

"I don't have any," her brow wrinkled.

He gestured toward his gun, "I'll go huntin'."

She sighed, "Hank, I have some left over beef stew in the spring house."

"Okay," he shrugged. "I'll heat it up."

She ran her hand along his cheek, "Do you know what you've gotten yourself into?"

He grinned impishly, "I never do anythin' I don't wanna."

"So married life agrees with you so far?" she studied his expression.

"Long as we stay in bed," he retorted.

"I thought you were going to fix us that beef stew," she pointed out.

"We can eat it in bed," he joked.

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

"Sully?" Michaela yawned.

"Sorry I woke ya," he apologized. "It's been a busy night. The kids are in bed now."

"Did you get Iggy back in her pen?" she questioned.

"Yea," he chuckled. "Turns out Josef didn't close the latch tight."

"She gave me quite a scare," Michaela sat up.

"How's that?" he removed his suit coat and tie.

"I heard noises when you and the children were in town," she explained. "I thought it was....."

He wondered why she stopped, "Thought it was what?"

"Never mind," she rose and went to the cradle to check on Hope.

The baby was wide awake and sucking on her fist.

He slid his hands around his wife's waist, "Why don't you nurse her? I'm gonna wash up."

"I will," she agreed. "But first, I'll say good night to the children."

After putting on her robe, she went to the twins' room.

Annie was asleep, but Noah was pointing to the ceiling and softly uttering, "Boom."

"Did you enjoy the fireworks?" Michaela rubbed his belly.

"Boom, Mama," he became louder.

"Shh," she touched his lips. "Were they pretty?"

"Uh-huh," he yawned.

"You can tell me all about it in the morning," she leaned down to kiss him. "All right?"

"Wight," Noah agreed.

Michaela secured his blanket, then checked on Annie. Quietly exiting the room, she crossed the hall to knock on Brian's door.

"Come in," he beckoned from the other side.

She entered the room and found him sitting at his desk writing.

"Finishing your article?" she wondered.

"Yep," he smiled. "Oh, Ma, it was so excitin' bein' in Chicago. There were other reporters from all over the country. An' t' think I was right there where history was bein' made."

She noted his expression, "This is the happiest I've seen you in quite a while."

He gazed at her with love, "It's been a long time since I felt like I belonged in a job. They've offered me a position, travelin' around the West t' write for them."

"Oh, Brian," her eyes widened. "That's wonderful."

"I think I'm gonna accept," he informed her. "I'll still be home a lot, too, t' help Miss Dorothy."

"Good," she smiled. "I'm so proud of you."

"Thanks for bein' patient with me, Ma," he reached for her hand.

"I love you, Brian," she clasped it. "And I want you to be happy."

"Bein' in a job ya like helps," he returned.

"I couldn't agree more," she kissed his forehead. "Good night, Sweetheart."

"'Night," he returned to his writing.

Michaela shut the door and walked down the hallway to Katie's room. The little girl was sitting up in bed reading.

"Something interesting?" Michaela entered the room.

"Mama," she smiled. "I thought you were asleep."

"I'm sorry I've been so tired," Michaela sat on the edge of her bed.

"That's okay," the little girl sympathized. "Havin' a baby wears ya out."

"I'm very proud of you, Katie," Michaela's eyes grew moist. "You did a marvelous job standing up there to read your essay."

"I was so embarrassed when Noah an' Annie came on the stage," she shook her head.

Michaela smiled, "They wanted to share the glory with their big sister."

The little girl rolled her eyes, "I don't know how you put up with all of us."

"Put up with you?" Michaela caressed her cheek. "I don't know what I'd ever do without you."

"I guess we won't have ya home much longer," she surmised. "You'll be startin' back t' work at the new hospital."

Michaela caressed her golden tresses, "I was thinking about that. Perhaps I'll wait until school starts."

"That's not for another two months," the little girl calculated. "Don't ya miss your doctorin'?"

"I must admit that I do," she admitted. "But another two months won't be bad, as long as I can spend it with you children."

"Oh, Mama," Katie's eyes lit up. "That would be fun."

"You're already growing up so fast," Michaela's heart filled. "I don't want to miss anything."

"I'll slow down my growin' up so you can watch then," Katie offered.

"Then you'd better get some rest, my dear," Michaela touched her nose. "Did you say your prayers?"

"Yep," Katie set her book aside and slid down on the mattress.

"Good night," Michaela kissed her forehead. "I love you."

"I love you, too," the little girl smiled.

Michaela lowered the lamp and headed for Josef's room. She navigated through his messy floor and reached the bed, only to find her son totally covered by his blanket.

"Josef?" she lifted it.

"Hey, Mama," he sat up, his hair disheveled.

She straightened his locks, "What are you doing under there?"

"Nothin'," he avoided looking at her.

"Josef Michael," her tone was serious.

"I was just playin' with...." his reply was interrupted by a frog which hopped out from beneath the covers.

Michaela lifted it, "You know you're not permitted to have your critters in the house."

"I think he sneaked in," Josef fibbed.

"Then you had better sneak him out," she frowned.

"You come with me?" he requested.

"Yes," she handed him the frog. "Let's go."

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

Sully heard the front door open and wondered what was happening. Exiting the bedroom, he started down the steps just as Michaela and Josef were heading up.

"What's goin' on?" Sully asked.

"We taked a fwog outside," Josef informed him.

Sully cast a quizzical glance at his wife.

Michaela responded, "It was under his bed covers."

"Oh," he grinned. "I'll see ya later."

Michaela felt her body tingle at the timbre of her husband's voice. Then she followed Josef to his room to tuck him in. After supervising his prayers, she kissed him good night and returned to her room.

There she found Sully cradling Hope in the rocking chair. She stepped to the basin to wash her hands.

"Was she fussing?" she inquired.

"Not too much," he slid so that his wife could join them on the seat.

Michaela dried her hands and sat beside him. Then lowering the strap of her gown, she gathered the baby into her arms to feed her.

Sully stood up and returned to his dresser, "Horace gave me a telegram after ya left the picnic."

"Oh?" she was curious. "From whom?"

"Welland Smith," he replied. "He.... uh.... wants me t' do some work in Yellowstone."

"Yellowstone?" she frowned. "So far away?"

"I been farther," he pointed out.

She felt a lump in her throat, "Are you going?"

"I'm thinkin' about it," he stood beside her. "I'd be gone a month or two."

Michaela did not look up. He knew that she was upset at the prospect.

"What about finishing the school?" she questioned.

"I'd finish the buildin's before leavin'," he informed her. "Speakin' of that school, I asked Matthew t' check on Dr. Quantrell."

She tensed, "That man...."

"I trust your instincts about him, Michaela," Sully noted. "Katie didn't feel right about him either. Both my girls can't be wrong."

She smiled, "Is that what I am? Your girl?"

He rejoined her on the wide rocker, "Yep."

Michaela revealed, "I told Katie I wouldn't go back to work until the start of school."

"Oh?" he was surprised. "I thought you were itchin' t' return."

She gazed down at her child, "It's different after this baby, Sully. As much as I miss my work, I see how quickly they're growing, and I want to spend as much time as I can with them. Katie will be entering fourth grade, and I'm not certain about Josef."

"He don't turn six until December," Sully mentioned. "You think he's not ready t' start school?"

"Perhaps I'm being overly protective," she speculated.

"You?" he teased. "Never."

She sighed, "At any rate, I want to spend this summer with the children. Going on walks, picnics, taking them swimming.... it's over all too soon."

He slid his arm around her shoulder, "I won't take that job."

"No," she lifted up her head to look into his eyes. "It's what you want to do."

He countered, "What I want t' do is be with you an' the kids. You're right. They grow up so quick."

She felt her emotions surging again, "The truth is, I don't want you to go away from us for that long a time, but I know that you have to do the work in which you believe. It's your way of making the world a better place for our children."

He lifted her chin for a sweet kiss, "Sometimes you think too much."

"You should go," she finished nursing Hope and gently set her in the cradle. "I'm being selfish. It's just.... well, after I have a baby, my emotions get away from me.... and I don't always think clearly."

Sully stood up to join her.

Drawing her into his arms, he smiled, "I didn't tell ya what a good speech ya gave t'day. Very impressive."

"Thank you," she turned up the corner of her mouth.

He sensed she was still troubled, "I got an idea."

"What?" she was curious.

"Maybe we could both do what we wanna," he paused. "What if you an' the kids come with me t' Yellowstone? You could still do the walks, picnics an' swimmin'."

"Come with you?" she considered his proposal. "But we'd be so isolated. What if one of the children were to become ill?"

"Then we'd have a real good doctor with us t' take care of 'em," he reasoned.

She sighed, "Come with you.... There was a time when I wouldn't hesitate to pack up my medical supplies and go off on an adventure."

He teased, "I think that was five kids ago."

She fell silent.

"Ya don't have t' give me an answer," he advised. "Just think on it."

"All right," she consented.

They crawled into bed and tucked their forms close together.

Michaela rested her palm on his bare chest, "Brian wants to continue working for Harpers Weekly. It would take him around the West, covering stories."

Sully linked his fingers in hers, "He seemed happy talkin' about that convention."

"Yes, he did," she agreed. "Happier than he's been in a long time. But Colleen doesn't seem any happier divorced from Andrew."

"I wouldn't expect her to," he said. "Not that quick anyway."

"Did you see Andrew talking with her at the cemetery when we came out of the church?" she asked.

"Yea," he stroked her arm.

"They were at Charlotte's grave," she noted.

"Did that upset ya?" he queried.

"Of course not," she replied. "It just seemed like they were having a poignant moment."

"Poignant moment?" he smiled.

"Are you mocking me?" she raised an eyebrow.

"Nope," he kissed the top of her head. "I like poignant moments."

"We've had our share," she remarked.

He turned slightly to kiss her more passionately.

"Sully," she ran her fingers lovingly through his hair.

His hand began to roam across her full form. Michaela gulped, instantly aroused by his loving attention.

He gauged her reaction, "Think this might be one of them poignant moments?"

"Meaning pleasurably stimulating?" her voice sounded different.

"Yep," he anticipated.

"Perhaps if you recite a poem," she drew back teasingly.

He cleared his throat, then quoted:

"Come to me in my dreams, and then
By day I shall be well again.
For then the night will more than pay
The hopeless longing of the day.
Come, as thou cam'st a thousand times,
A messenger from radiant climes,
And smile on thy new world, and be
As kind to others as to me.
Or, as thou never cam'st in sooth,
Come now, and let me dream it truth.
And part my hair, and kiss my brow,
And say My love! why sufferest thou?
Come to me in my dreams, and then
By day I shall be well again.
For then the night will more than pay
The hopeless longing of the day."

"That was a long one to memorize," she mused.

"Poignant enough for ya?" he teased.

"Very," she smiled. "Was it Herrick?"

"Matthew Arnold," he identified.

"Let me see if I can remember the main points of it," she lifted up. Reaching to sensuously caress his temple, she whispered, "Part your hair...."

"Mmm," he closed his eyes. "That feels good."

She continued, "And kiss your brow...."

Her lips lightly touched his forehead.

Then Michaela softly spoke near the lobe of his ear, "My love, why sufferest thou?"

His heart was aflame with longing for her, "Michaela.... I think we better stop now...."

"Shhh," she ran her hand down his chest. "You think too much."

"But...." he tried to control his breathing. "What about..... ya know...."

"I've nursed the baby," she pointed out.

"Your incision...." he mentioned.

She knew he was right. Yet she yearned for him.

He perceived Michaela's hesitation took a deep breath to calm his desire for her.

Averting her eyes, she spoke low, "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have.... initiated this."

He smiled and caressed her cheek, "I always appreciate your enthusiasm."

She felt her emotions building, "Not when I can't.... fulfill my wifely duties."

He drew her into his arms and softly ran his hand up and down her back, "Makin' love ain't a duty. You know that."

He saw a tear trickle down her cheek.

"Michaela, don't cry," he implored. "Your body ain't ready for us t' do this in our bed yet. Ya need t' be completely sure."

"It could take a while longer," she assessed.

He grinned, "Well, that preview ya gave me at the hot springs proves that we still remember how."

She turned up the edge of her lips at his attempted humor.

He added, "Just knowin' ya want me is enough for me."

"I've been told that a man.... needs more," she told him.

His eyes widened, "Told by who?"

"Hank," she spoke before thinking.

"Hank?" he was puzzled. "You been talkin' t' him about us?"

"Not exactly," she hedged. "But when you took off, and I didn't know where you were, he suggested that you.... needed.... female companionship. He even offered one of his girls at the...."

Sully interrupted, "That's why ya kidnapped me?"

She fell silent.

"Michaela," he spoke her name with love. "Hank knows what some men need, but he don't know everythin'."

"Oh?" she anticipated more.

He ran his finger along the line of her jaw, "He don't know what it is t' love you. He's got no idea how just hearin' ya say my name makes me feel alive. He can't understand how lookin' at ya makes my heart pound so fast, it's like t' jump outa my chest. An' he sure don't know what it's like when we're t'gether. I got no desire for any other woman but you."

"You don't think Lexie and he will be that way?" she speculated.

"Like us?" he chuckled. "Trust me. They'll never have what we do."

"I do trust you," her heart melted. "And I love you, Sully."

"I love you, too," he drew her closer. "An' I'll always.... always trust ya."

THE END




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