Innocent Hearts: Part 3

by Radcliffe

Chapter twenty

Jessie came around the side of the barn, stopped abruptly, and stared. A buckboard was pulled up in her yard, and it looked a lot like Kate standing on her front porch. It had been only day or two since she had seen Kate with that Turner fellow out on the range, and she hadn't wanted to think too long about what that meant. In fact she had been working harder than ever just so she wouldn't have to think about it. But she still recalled his arm around Kate's waist, like he owned her, and just remembering it made her want to curse. She had been afraid that Kate might never visit again, and now, here she was. Jessie broke into a run and took the stairs two at a time.

"Kate?" she said in astonishment. She couldn't keep the note of elation from her voice.

Kate smiled at her. "Hello, Jessie."

Jessie looked perplexed. "What are you doing here?" She looked around the ranch. "Where's John Emory?"

"He isn't here. I came by myself." Kate wanted to laugh at the open amazement on Jessie's face, but she took note of the flicker of worry that lingered there as well and added quietly, "I needed to see you."

"Come inside," Jessie said, holding the door for Kate. "It's too hot out here already and it isn't even noon."

Kate carried the basket she had packed and stepped into the cool dark hallway. She waited for Jessie to lead the way, following her through to the library.

As soon as they were seated in two leather chairs facing the empty fireplace, Jessie said, "How did you ever get your parents to let you come?"

"They think that I'm at the Schroeder's helping Hannah."

Jessie looked shocked. "Lord, Kate."

Finally Kate laughed. She was so glad to see her! "They don't expect me until tonight, and I just couldn't wait until John Emory had the time to bring me."

"What's so important?" Jessie asked, her blue eyes clouded with concern. "Has something happened?"

"Last night Ken Turner asked me to marry him," Kate said quietly.

"Oh." Jessie felt as if she had been struck. She stood up quickly and paced to the fireplace, needing distance. Some hard deep pain was threatening to break loose inside her, and she wanted to run. She wanted to be alone, because she didn't think she'd be able to weather it. She closed her eyes for just a minute, trying to get her bearings. She was having a little trouble catching her breath. She tried to swallow around the lump in her throat, but her voice came out choked. "I - that's grand, Kate," she managed.

Kate went to her side, placing her hand on Jessie's arm. She felt Jessie trembling and it brought tears to her eyes. "It's not what you think, Jessie," she said softly. "I told him no."

Jessie stared at Kate, her expression desolate. Her mind swirled with confusion. All she could think was that Kate would be gone. "I don't understand," she whispered.

"I told him no, Jessie," Kate murmured, very close to her now, "because it's you I love."

A strange pounding began in Jessie's chest. Kate's words suddenly set her world straight. All the restless yearnings that had plagued her these past weeks vanished like mist in the sunlight. She wanted to say and do a thousand things, but all she could manage was to look into Kate's eyes. They were so dark, and so warm, and so welcoming. "Kate," she breathed, her voice low, "I--- I don't know what to say. I-"

Kate touched her fingers to Jessie's lips, silencing her gently. "I don't want you to say anything, Jessie." She laid her cheek against Jessie's shoulder, threading her arms around Jessie's waist. "I just want you to hold me."

A soft sigh escaped Jessie's lips. She stood very still, feeling Kate against every inch of her body, the blood rushing hot through her veins. She rested her trembling hands on Kate's waist, marveling at her softness. Very slowly, afraid that Kate might step away, she brushed her face over Kate's thick hair, closing her eyes as the sweet fragrance engulfed her. The sensation was too much to bear, and she groaned faintly.

Kate listened to the beat of Jessie's heart as contentment warred with something much more urgent - a swift stab of pleasure that bordered on pain. "Oh," she murmured, pressing harder to Jessie.

"What is it?" Jessie asked hoarsely, her throat thick.

At last Kate lifted her head to look at Jessie's face and found her expression ravenous, almost wild. Kate forgot to breathe for a long moment. "I don't know," she gasped at last. "I want - oh, Jessie - I don't know what I want." As she spoke she steadily stroked Jessie's back, her shoulders, her chest - needing to feel her, wanting to get closer to her. She wasn't aware of anything save a craving more critical than anything she had ever known.

Jessie was sure she was about to die. Her heart hammered in her chest, her lungs burned, and her legs threatened to give out. Her hands tightened on Kate's body, pulling her near, wanting her close, needing to tell Kate with every fiber of her being how much she needed her. How much she loved her. She had no words, but her heart knew. She dipped her head and pressed her lips gently to Kate's, letting the soft certainty of her kiss speak for her.

Kate's lips parted initially in surprise, then in wonder. Jessie's kiss, tender at first, became more possessive, and Kate swayed in Jessie's arms as heat hummed through her limbs, making her muscles weak and her head light. What she felt in Jessie's embrace was more than pleasure, more than passion. It was a unbearable hunger that threatened to undo her. She drank the sweetness of Jessie's mouth, quenching a thirst older than time.

"Jessie," Kate managed to say when she could bear to pull her mouth away from those sweet kisses, "what you make me feel! Never - I never imagined."

Jessie buried her face in Kate's neck, breathless, so consumed with arousal she could not speak. Her stomach churned with the need to feel Kate's skin. She had no way to control what she had never expected, and she moaned helplessly with the ache of desire. She lifted trembling hands to Kate's face, finding Kate's lips once again, barely mindful of the ferocity of her caresses. Finally, kisses were not enough to assuage her need.

"Come lie with me, Kate," Jessie dared ask, desperate for her.

Kate nodded wordlessly, trusting in the tenderness of Jessie's gaze.

Jessie took Kate's hand, leading her gently up the stairs to her room. A large four-poster bed that had been her parents' occupied the center of the room on a broad braided rug. Kate and Jessie stood close together, hands clasped, just inside the door, hesitating on the threshold of surrender.

"I love you, Kate," Jessie whispered, her voice breaking, an agony of desire shuddering through her frame. She wanted her so much that she was afraid to move.

Kate sensed every ripple of desire in Jessie's slender body and saw every flicker of longing in Jessie's face, and Kate smiled. She stepped away, watching Jessie's expression as she slowly loosened the ties on her bodice. She slipped the dress from her shoulders, her pulse racing as she heard Jessie's quick intake of breath. Covered only by a light chemise, Kate returned to Jessie's arms. Her nipples, taut under the thin material, brushed against the rough denim of Jessie's shirt, and she gasped in surprise at the jolt of excitement that coursed through her. Jessie's hands were on her again, on her skin now, and everywhere Jessie touched, Kate burned.

"I want to see you," Kate beseeched, her fingers working at the buttons on Jessie's shirt.

Jessie stood motionless, a fine mist of sweat breaking out on her face as she looked at Kate. Kate's breasts strained the cotton slip, shadows of pink nipples, firm with anticipation, clearly visible. Jessie cupped Kate's breasts in her palms, and Kate swayed against her, moaning softly. Jessie stilled, afraid that if she moved the great dam inside her would burst and she would do something to frighten Kate. She ached to touch Kate, everywhere. Everywhere. Always.

Her fingers rubbed over Kate's nipples. Kate bit her lip, struggling to see through a haze of arousal. She finally loosened all the buttons on Jessie's shirt and slid it off her shoulders.

"Oh!" Kate cried when she saw the still fresh scar on Jessie's chest. She pressed her lips to it, her hands tenderly stroking Jessie's breasts.

Jessie groaned deep in her throat, lost. "Kate, oh Kate. I can't bear it."

When Kate's lips found her nipple in a soft kiss, Jessie broke at last. She picked Kate up in her arms and carried her in a few quick strides to the bed. She leaned over her, naked from the waist up, her arms braced on either side of Kate's body. She kissed her again, on her mouth, on her neck, not gently this time, but with a primal ferocity that had simmered unheeded for far too long. Every kiss stoked her need. She reached for Kate's chemise, the last barrier, and stopped herself.

"Kate?" she implored desperately, shivering with the ache in her depths.

Kate arched her back, her hands fumbling with Jessie's heavy belt, her voice unrecognizable to her own ears. "Hurry, Jessie, please. I want to feel you against me!"

Jessie swiftly kicked off her boots and stripped the levis from her thighs. Kate removed the remaining obstacle between them, and waited for her, naked and unafraid.

Jessie groaned as her gaze swept over Kate's body, taking in her full firm breasts and the dark triangle of hair at the base of her abdomen. She lay down upon her, carefully, guided by instinct. She found the places that made Kate sigh, first with her fingers and then, needing more, with her lips. She tasted her, drank her, devoured her, all the while thrilling to the soft sound of Kate's cries in her ears. When Kate arched from the bed, body taut and trembling, Jessie hesitated, afraid of her own desire.

"Jessie," Kate murmured, her eyes closed, her face flushed with arousal. She found Jessie's hand and drew Jessie's fingers to the heat between her legs, lifting her hips to take her inside. "Please."

Jessie groaned as the hot slick folds surrounded her, resting her forehead on Kate's breast as she slowly, carefully entered her. Kate thrust against her palm, small incoherent sounds escaping her throat. Jessie's chest constricted, her head throbbed, and a terrible pressure pounded through her limbs. She bit her lip and tried to hold onto reason.

Kate's eyes flew open in surprise, she grasped Jessie's shoulders convulsively, and pushed down hard, once, against Jessie's fingers. Then she was gone, shattering into a thousand separate moments of pleasure, trembling and crying Jessie's name. Kate closed on Jessie's hand and Jessie lost her fight for control. She brought her leg over Kate's, frantic for relief, and exploded at first contact. Her breath was wrenched from her as she spasmed, and she collapsed, exhausted, into Kate's waiting arms.


Kate awakened to the warm sun on her skin. It seemed to be late afternoon, and the air in Jessie's room was still and heavy. Her body felt languid and full from the effects of their loving, and she smiled to herself with the memory of their pleasure. She lay quietly, eyes closed, enjoying the weight of Jessie's hand on her breast. Eventually she opened her eyes and looked at Jessie, so innocent and vulnerable in sleep. Kate's fingers gently explored the line of Jessie's brow, the angle of her cheek, the soft curve of her lips. She raised herself so that she could see the length of Jessie's body, marveling at her loveliness. She lightly traced her fingers over the smooth column of Jessie's neck and along the edge of each delicate collarbone. She bent her head and felt the softness of Jessie's breasts with her lips. Jessie stirred and moaned lightly in her sleep. Kate smiled. Tenderly, she curled her fingers in the blond hair between Jessie's legs and kissed first her abdomen and then the pale skin where Jessie's thigh began.

Jessie's legs tensed and she whispered hoarsely, "Kate -- Kate, what are you doing?"

"Shhh, lie still. I'm loving you," she replied gently. She stroked the silk-soft flesh of Jessie's thighs, then higher, seeking the wet warmth she knew was there, teasing each delicate fold between her fingertips until Jessie groaned and shook. Emboldened by the urgent motion of Jessie's hips, she pressed her thumb to the stiff, engorged prominence and circled it, knowing Jessie as she knew herself. Unconsciously she followed Jessie's body, matching her motions to Jessie's strangled cries. When Jessie arched, tight and trembling, Kate strummed her fingers hard and brought Jessie home.


Chapter twentyone

Jessie pulled the buckboard up behind the Schroeders' house as the sun dropped low, a fading fireball almost ready to disappear behind the distant hills. She turned on the seat to look at Kate.

"I don't want to let you go," Jessie said softly. Kate's hand had rested on her thigh the entire hour it had taken Jessie to drive into town, and Jessie didn't want her to move it. Ever. She questioned the rightness of being with Kate no more than she questioned the rightness of rising each morning to work her land. The places in her heart that had lain empty and waiting were filled. Her life seemed whole and all of a piece with Kate by her side. For her it was simply the truth of things, and she thought no further than that. Loving Kate was right.

"I don't want to leave you either," Kate answered quietly. Of that she was certain. "I need to say hello to Hannah, so that my day won't be a lie, but I'll come back to the ranch as soon as I can get away again. My mother is starting to get used to me driving into town alone. She doesn't need to know I'm coming to you."

Kate's eyes were luminous, and her face flushed with more than the August heat. She couldn't think yet, her body was still too stirred. She had never experienced such an awakening of self, so suddenly, in both body and mind. She had known when barely in her teens that she did not desire the future that was expected for her, but try as she might, she could not picture another. Certainly there were women who struck off on their own, many of them traveling into the western territories as teachers and seamstresses and laundresses, but Kate had not seen herself among them. She had not been raised to envision independence and had only managed through her love of words and her endless curiosity to discover that there were worlds beyond her own socially defined sphere. Still, nothing had ever prepared her for Jessie, nor for what they had shared.

She knew little of what physical intimacies men and women enjoyed, having heard only veiled references from her mother and wild speculation from her girlfriends, but she knew what Jessie Forbes stirred in her. She knew what she held in her heart for Jessie, and when that ardor echoed in her body, she welcomed it. Jessie's tenderness and answering passion fulfilled her. Why it was so, she could not say.

"I'll come as soon as I can," Kate repeated firmly, needing to reassure herself as well as Jessie. She was already missing her.

"It will be a trial waiting," Jessie stated, her voice low, her fist opening and closing on her thigh as she struggled to describe her desire. She wanted Kate in her arms again; she wanted to hear Kate's cries of abandon as she touched her. She shuddered with the memory. "It's like I'm hungry for you, Kate."

"Jessie," Kate breathed, the wanting starting again. "I don't know what it is, but I can't stop thinking about being with you." She blushed. "Like we were today."

Jessie looked away, watching night approach as the blue sky flamed into purples and pinks and deep oranges with the dying of the sun. She spoke quietly. "I don't have words for what happened, Kate. I don't know if there are words for it." She gazed at Kate, her eyes burning brighter than the dazzling colors that surrounded them. Her body rippled with tension. "But I know that I love you. Life wouldn't mean much to me now without you. That won't ever change."

Kate smiled, her heart filling with the tenderness of Jessie's sweet, sure vows. "I love you, too."

For the moment, that seemed enough.


Hannah rinsed out the dishtowel and hung it over the wooden rod inside her back door, watching the two women in the buckboard through her kitchen window. They were only talking, and she couldn't hear their words, but she didn't need to. She was watching their faces. Jessie had that solemn, serious expression on her face, the one Thaddeus had worn when he was working his way up to proposing, and Kate gazed at Jessie the way every young woman in love looks at her beau. Hannah wondered why she wasn't more surprised by it. She supposed it was because she had lived more than half her life on the frontier, and she had learned that city ways didn't count for much out there. There were women without husbands due to famine or fancy or fate, and they did what they had to do to get by. Some married for safety, forgoing love; some stepped up when widowed to fill their men's shoes, managing families and farms on their own; and some came west with no intention of being anybody's wife right from the start. Living close to the bone, with death a constant shadow, you learned fast to take what goodness life sent your way when you could, because sorrow was just over the horizon.

She looked at the two of them and couldn't see much harm to the caring. She sighed, wondering what Martha might think if she was ever to be faced with it.

"Hannah," Kate said breathlessly as she came through the door, "I'm so sorry I'm so late. I met Jessie and-"

Hannah smiled, shushing her with a shake of her head. "That's fine, Kate. I like your company, and I'm always happy to see you, but you don't need to feel obliged to spend your time over here. I don't expect there's anything you'll need to know that you won't find out when the time comes."

Kate nodded, only half-listening as she watched Jessie untie her horse from the back of the buckboard and prepare to leave. Every movement of her graceful hands reminded Kate of the way they had felt on her body, and her head grew light with the memory. Jessie swung into the saddle, turned to the house, her eyes searching for Kate, and then she was gone with one last smile. Kate finally turned away to find Hannah regarding her speculatively. Kate's face flamed because she was certain that Hannah could read every thought.

Hannah pulled a tray of biscuits from the oven, sliding the metal onto a cooling stone on the counter. "Jessie Forbes is a fine young woman. Works hard and turns an honest profit," she remarked, her back to Kate.

"Yes," Kate said cautiously.

Hannah wiped her hands on her apron as she turned to regard Kate steadily. "Next time you should invite her in for a drink before she has to ride all that dusty way back to the ranch."

Kate struggled for words, and finally whispered, "Thank you, Hannah."


"You're a sight for sore eyes, Montana," Mae said as she stepped up to the bar beside Jessie. "Seems I only see you when someone's plugged you full of holes."

Jessie grinned sheepishly. "Hello, Mae. I was hoping you'd be around.

Mae studied her quizzically. "The sun's just set, Jess. The varmints won't be out for a while, so I'm not busy. Why don't you come sit down and tell me what brings you into town in the middle of the week."

"How about you let me buy you dinner?" Jessie countered, wanting company. She had resisted going home because she knew the house would rattle with loneliness, and she already ached for Kate.

"I believe I'll take you up on that," Mae said, threading her arm through Jessie's. When they had moved into the dining room, she once again regarded Jessie curiously. She didn't think she'd ever seen Jessie look moody before. "What're you fretting about, Montana?"

"Hmm? Oh! Why nothing, Mae," Jessie said quickly, blushing. She'd been thinking about waking up and feeling Kate's hands on her thighs, and about the way Kate knew just how to touch her in those spots that set her head to spinning, and how just when she didn't think she could stand another second without some part of her bursting, Kate had done just the right thing and she had exploded. Remembering it brought the feelings back so strongly she almost gasped.

Mae leaned back in her chair, watching a flood of emotions play across Jessie's expressive features. How Jess ever managed to win at poker, she didn't know, because Jessie's face was an open book. And what Mae saw there made her heart sink. Jessie's eyes were a little hazy, and her skin was flushed under her tan. Her body almost quivered. Mae thought she could feel the heat radiating from her. Jessie Forbes looked like a woman who had been well loved, and recently.

Mae knew better than to ask, because Jessie was too honorable to tell. She said casually instead, "What brings you in here today, Jess?"

"I drove Kate Beecher over to the Schroeders'," Jessie replied. She wanted to tell Mae about the extraordinary thing that had happened to her, but she barely had words for it herself. Plus, it was so intensely personal, so special, that she couldn't imagine sharing the details with anyone. "She was out my way and it was getting late."

"Visiting was she?" Mae probed.

Jessie smiled, and nodded faintly. "Yes."

"How nice," Mae remarked coolly. She hoped that Kate knew what she was doing, because she was willing to bet that Jessie didn't. From the looks of her, she was too far gone already to see trouble coming.

"Well, Jess," Mae said softly, laying her hand on Jessie arm. "You know you've always got a friend here if you ever need one."

Jessie looked at her quizzically, then took Mae's fingers lightly in hers. "I'll remember, Mae."


Chapter twentytwo

Kate, her hair whipping behind her in the breeze, turned the buckboard expertly through the gates of the Rising Star ranch and looked expectantly toward the house. Her skin tingled with the familiar excitement that accompanied each visit. The sun had never felt so good, nor the air so clear. She pulled into the yard just as Jessie came out onto the porch. Kate drew a breath, seeing her again as if for the first time, only now her body held the memory of Jessie's caresses, and that alone was enough to stir her. She stepped onto the running board, her eyes dancing with happiness and the first awakening of desire, as Jessie crossed the ground in quick eager strides.

"Kate!" Jessie cried, her hands on Kate's waist, swinging her down from the wagon exuberantly.

Kate laughed aloud and wrapped her arms around Jessie's neck, her lips searching for Jessie's as her feet touched the ground. They stood together under the bright morning sky, lost in their embrace, as carefree as they would ever be.

After a moment, Jessie pulled her head back, flushed and breathless. "Kate," she admonished teasingly. "I thought you wanted shooting lessons."

Kate knew from the way Jessie's hands strayed over her and the hoarse tone of her voice that Jessie's mind was not on the plans they had made. Kate pressed her lips warmly against the tanned triangle of skin bared by Jessie's shirt and sighed contentedly.

"I did, until just a moment ago," Kate murmured. She marveled at the way Jessie's touch aroused her. Even hours after she returned home, she still tingled where Jessie's hands and lips had stroked her. She had never imagined love would feel like this. That love would be a thing of the mind and the heart, yes. But the wanting! This was something so unexpected she could think of little else.

"We'd better go now or I won't let you away for hours," Kate said reluctantly, but her tone was unconvincing. Even more telling was the rapid rise and fall of her chest as her breath grew short.

Jessie didn't let her go, but moved her lips close to Kate's ear instead. "We can always go later," she murmured, very aware of the trembling in her legs. "And I don't think I can ride." She kissed the sweet skin of Kate's neck, and they both groaned. "I'm about to forget myself altogether."

Kate pushed her away, but her fingers brushed lightly over Jessie's breasts. "Inside the house," she whispered, watching Jessie's color rise and her pupils grow large. "Quickly."

They made it to the bottom of the staircase before Jessie grabbed Kate and pressed her to the wall, her hands searching for the ties on Kate's dress. She had her hands inside Kate's bodice an instant later, lifting her breasts free of their restraints.

"Lord, Kate," Jessie groaned as she lowered her lips to Kate's hardening nipples, "I've missed you so."

Kate struggled to stand as a flood of arousal threatened to take her legs from under her. Her head fell back against the wall and she curled her fingers in Jessie's hair, pressing Jessie's face to her body. Jessie's tongue was on her, kindling a fire that spread downwards with unchecked abandon. It was always like this, and never the same. Jessie's desire inflamed her and every ounce of her body responded. She quickened in a heartbeat and teetered on the brink of dissolving for long agonizing, wonderful moments, crying Jessie's name, begging for her to touch her.

Jessie sensed Kate's passion rising and her caresses became more insistent. Kate trembled against her and there was a desperate edge in her voice. With effort Jessie raised her lips from the sweet warmth of Kate's breast, gasping, "Wait, Kate. Let me take you to bed."

Kate managed to open her eyes and shook her head, her hands twisting in Jessie's shirt. Her eyes were huge dark pools of yearning. "No," she choked. "No. Now. Now, please."

"Help me," Jessie demanded urgently, fired by Kate's need. She lifted the light cotton of Kate's dress for Kate to hold and knelt on the stairs before her. Gently she pulled the final barriers aside and leaned forward, kissing the very center of Kate's desire. Kate jerked against her and cried out. Jessie closed her eyes, her arms around Kate's hips, supporting her. She listened to Kate as she caressed her, tracing the soft swell of engorged tissues with her tongue, sucking gently while Kate sobbed with pleasure. She followed the rhythm and call of Kate's need, losing herself for long moments in the scent and taste of her while Kate's hands fluttered over her face, leading her to the places that made Kate moan. She felt Kate grow and harden under her tongue and knew without telling that the end was coming. She continued to stroke her as Kate arched against her mouth, feeling her own heart stop as Kate's pulse beat wildly under her lips.

Jessie caught Kate as she was about to fall, standing quickly and gathering her into her arms. She kissed Kate fiercely, still inflamed by the same heat that had consumed Kate. Her breath tore from her chest as she desperately pressed her hips into Kate.

"Kate," she groaned, barely able to see. "I-I need-" Her voice trailed off into a strangled sob as she buried her face against Kate's shoulder, shuddering.

"I know," Kate crooned, lightly caressing Jessie's fevered face. "I know." She slipped her hand between them, squeezing her palm to the soft material between Jessie's legs, cupping her. She smiled as Jessie moaned. Quickly, she pulled each button free, working her fingers under the material to find the warmth waiting for her. As Kate squeezed the firm length of her, Jessie swayed, weak with the pleasure of it. Kate met each thrust of Jessie's hips with an answering pressure until Jessie stiffened and cried out. When Jessie trembled in Kate's arms, Kate laughed faintly, glorying in her.


Jessie carried their picnic basket to the buckboard, Kate walking close beside her. Kate's fingers rested lightly on her arm. Jessie's body still tingled with the excitement they had just shared. She grinned as she helped Kate up onto the seat.

"What?" Kate asked fondly, noting her expression.

"Just happy," Jessie answered, swinging up beside her. "Trying to figure out what I ever did to deserve you."

Kate moved her hand to Jessie's thigh, leaning against her as Jessie started the horses out of the yard. "You're just you," Kate said quietly, "and you don't ever have to do anything except love me."

Jessie glanced at her, suddenly serious. "I will, Kate. Always."

Kate snuggled closer, still languorous from their loving, and smiled contentedly. Jessie drove slowly through the lowlands and hills of her property, stopping frequently to point things out to the ever-curious Kate. Jessie took her to see the summer grazing lands, sprinkled with wandering herds of horses, and the out cabins where she and the men stayed during branding times and roundups. From a hilltop overlooking impossibly green meadows, Jessie indicated the steeply rising mountains that bordered her land to the west.

"Those peaks are a natural protection for the highland meadows where the horses winter, Kate. When it starts to frost in the fall, we round up all the young and any pregnant mares and bring them down to that small canyon I showed you earlier. If the winter is really bad, they can't forage, and we feed them."

"Oh, Jessie!" Kate exclaimed, awed by the scope of it all. "It's so beautiful. You must love it very much!"

Jessie took Kate's hand and brought it to her lips. "I never thought I could love anything more. Until you."

Kate slipped her arm around Jessie's waist and rested her head on Jessie's shoulder, stroking Jessie's arm through the soft cotton of her shirt. She thought how much she loved her simple strength and gentle heart. "Jessie," she murmured softly.

Jessie kissed her temple. "What?"

"I don't want things to ever change."

Jessie was quiet so long that Kate leaned away to look at her face. "What's wrong?" Kate asked.

"I can't stand being apart from you so much, Kate," Jessie admitted at last, her voice low and tight. "I want us to lie down together at night and sleep side by side. I want to wake up with you." She looked at Kate, her eyes troubled. "I want- well - If I was a man, I'd want to marry you."

Kate's heart turned over. "Oh, Jessie," she breathed. "I love you."

Jessie searched Kate's face, finding all the courage she needed in Kate's tender gaze. "I want you to come live with me, Kate. Will you?"

It was Kate's turn to be silent. When she spoke, her tone was anguished. "I want to. I want to be with you, married or not, for all my life." She stroked Jessie's cheek, her throat so tight she could barely speak. "But I don't know how."

"If you want to, Kate, that's all that matters to me. We'll figure it out," Jessie said, turning her head and kissing Kate's palm. "We've got time."

She climbed down and reached up for Kate. "Now, how about we give you that shooting lesson."

Kate tried not to think of anything else as Jessie stood behind her, occasionally wrapping her arms around her to steady the Winchester, whispering encouragement in her ear. She even managed to hit the targets Jessie picked out now and then, but she couldn't quite rid herself of thoughts of confronting her parents. How would she explain her desire to be with Jessie? How could she make them see that it was all she lived for? And what would she do if they refused?


Chapter twentythree

Summer grew short and the fall days were upon them before they knew it. Jessie's joy at returning home after hours on the range to unexpectedly find Kate quietly reading on the porch or preparing a meal in the kitchen was undiminished by the passage of time. Their love was simple and pure, and they grew closer as surely and naturally as two branches on the same tree, drawing nourishment from the same spring. The moments they spent together, talking and loving, were precious, bringing Jessie more happiness than she had dared dream of only a few months before. Still, she found herself wanting more.

There were days, sometimes even a week or more, between Kate's visits, and during those times, Jessie suffered from more than loneliness. She couldn't help but think of Ken Turner, who she knew still paid court to Kate. It tormented her to think that he might touch Kate, when she could not even arrive unannounced at Kate's door asking only for the pleasure of sitting by Kate's side. Each time she walked Kate to the buckboard and watched her drive away or rode with her to the edge of town, it was harder to let her go. The nights when she lay down alone were colder and longer than any she could ever recall. She was lonely in a way she never had been before, because now there were places in her heart that only Kate could fill.

"Kate?" Jessie asked one late afternoon, lying naked with Kate in her arms under a heavy quilt while a fire burned in the hearth in Jessie's bedroom. Kate's back was to her front, and she buried her face in Kate's thick hair, smoothing her hands slowly over Kate's stomach until she cupped Kate's breasts in her hands.

Kate stilled Jessie's movement, pressing her palms over Jessie's hands. "I can't think when you do that," Kate admonished lightly, but there was no disapproval in her tone. She loved Jessie's hands on her. "What is it?"

Jessie sighed, closing her eyes, trying to shut out every sensation but Kate. She couldn't, as much as she wished to. "Winter comes early out here, Kate. It will snow soon."

"Yes," Kate said quietly, her grip on Jessie's hands tightening. She waited.

"It's not safe for you to come here any longer," Jessie continued, each word feeling like it was taking a piece of her heart with it. "You could be caught in a blizzard and freeze to death quicker than a minute."

"I can't stay away," Kate whispered. "I can't be without you." She couldn't imagine a week, let alone the long months of winter, separated from her.

Jessie tightened her arms around her, pulling Kate even closer. "I can't have anything happening to you, Kate," she murmured. "I'm not made strong enough for that. Promise me you won't drive out here alone again."

Kate nodded. She knew Jessie was right, and she would never worry her even though it would kill her to go all winter without seeing her. She turned within the circle of Jessie's arms, searching Jessie's face, seeing the misery in her eyes. "We must find another way." She sought Jessie's mouth, kissing her lightly at first, then with a sudden hunger. She drew away with a small cry. "I won't be without you."

"I'll come into town when I can," Jessie ventured. "Maybe you could come to the hotel?" Even as she said it, she knew that it was impossible. The weather was unpredictable at best in the foothills of the Rockies, and even if she could leave the ranch, how would she even get a message to Kate to let her know that she had come? And meeting at the hotel? Impossible. There was no way that they could ever keep that fact from Kate's parents for long. Plus, part of her resisted the idea of meeting Kate for an afternoon's passion, as if that was all there was between them. She never tired of feeling Kate close to her, or of loving her for hours on end, but she took just as much joy in raising her eyes from some piece of work to find Kate sitting nearby with a book in her hands.

"I must speak to my parents," Kate said quietly, knowing the time had come. She could not go on indefinitely avoiding Ken Turner's persistent demands, nor could she pretend to her parents that her reluctance was only because she was not certain that she wished to be his wife. Having lain with Jessie, she could never be any man's wife. Jessie was her heart. "I'll make them understand."

"I'll come with you," Jessie said firmly, moving to get up. "They'll never need worry for your safety nor your care, not as long as I live, nor after either. I owe them the comfort of knowing that."

"Wait," Kate cried, holding her fast. "We have time before I need to be back." She stretched out in Jessie's arms, her legs entwining naturally with those of her taller lover. "I'll not let go of you yet."

Jessie smiled, turning them so Kate lay beneath her, and lowered herself gently upon her. Her chest filled with an almost unbearable sensation of tenderness and wonder, and she set about showing Kate just how much she cherished her. With her lips, with her mouth, with her work roughened hands turned to velvet on Kate's sweet skin, she told her. Her kisses carried the promises and her touch the certainty that she so often had no words to express. I will love you, Jessie's caresses vowed, with all my being, for all my life. You are my reason and my answer and my purpose, her fingers pledged, each knowing stroke carrying Kate closer to fulfillment.

"I love you, Kate, I love you," she finally whispered, her face pressed to Kate's neck, as Kate arched under her, an inarticulate moan escaping her throat.

Jessie held Kate until she quieted and caressed her lightly while she dozed. She could not remember what her existence had been like before her, and she could not imagine a life without her now.


"I want to come with you," Jessie said stubbornly. They sat just up the road from Kate's house, Star tied to the back of the buckboard, waiting patiently. Darkness was falling, and the night was cold. Kate sat wrapped in a heavy wool blanket, her cloak fastened tightly around her. Jessie wore a heavy sheepskin coat, her hat pulled low, her hands bare. Their breath hung in the air, a reminder that they had very little time before nature made separation inevitable.

Kate slipped her fingers from her glove and took Jessie's hand. It was warm. "I know you do, Jessie. But let me talk with them first." Her head ached just thinking about what her mother was going to say.

"They need to know what I feel for you, Kate," Jessie persisted. It was only proper that she speak up. "I don't want you to do this alone. It's not right."

Kate looked at her quickly, hearing a note of worry in her tone. "You don't think that I'll let them talk me out of it, do you?"

Jessie turned to her, and the surprise in her eyes reassured Kate.

"No, Kate, never." Jessie stated firmly. "That's not what I was thinking. I don't suppose there's a word for what we are to each other, but I know that you are the only one I'll ever love. I want us to be together, and the closest word I know to that is married."

"Yes," Kate responded, her shoulders set with resolve. "Go have supper at the hotel and then come back to the house around eight o'clock. We can all talk then."

"I can't eat!" Jessie protested. "My stomach feels like a nest of rattlers."

Kate felt dizzy with apprehension, too. "Then go to the bar and talk to Frank."

Jessie didn't like it, but they were Kate's parents, and she supposed it made some sense to get them used to the idea before she showed up on their doorstep. She bit back a further protest as she helped Kate down from the wagon. Kate swayed suddenly and Jessie gripped her tightly.

"What's wrong?" Jessie asked, alarmed at her pallor.

Kate smiled tremulously, oddly breathless. She shook her head, answering, "It's nothing. I'm just nervous." She reached a hand to brush Jessie's cheek. "I'm fine. You go on now. I'll see you in a little while."

Jessie stood by the side of the buckboard, watching Kate walk away from her, a sinking feeling in her chest. She felt helpless and suddenly very much afraid.


"Something wrong with Frank's whiskey?" Mae asked. "You been standing there with that same drink in front of you for better than an hour."

Jessie looked up, a vacant expression in her eyes. She stared at Mae a second, then smiled weakly. "No. His whiskey's fine."

Mae peered at her, surprised by the bleak tone of her voice. "What's happened? You look like a whipped dog."

"I feel like one," Jessie said bitterly. "Probably worse."

Mae motioned to Frank for a bottle. "Bring your glass, and let's sit for a minute, Jess. You'd best tell me what's going on."

They took a table in the far corner of the saloon, and Jessie told her. She stared at the glass cupped between her fingers, her head down, her voice unsteady, as she spoke of Kate, and their love, and their plans. When she reached the part where she had gone back to the Beecher house that evening, she finally raised her eyes and met Mae's.

"Her father came to the door and stepped out onto the porch when he saw that it was me," Jessie said hollowly. "He told me, very politely, that Kate was indisposed and could not see me. He also told me he thought it best that I not come around again, seeing that Kate would be very busy soon preparing for her wedding to Mr. Turner."

She downed the shot, and held out an unsteady hand for the bottle, pouring another. "He never even raised his voice, but the look on his face could have frozen a pond in the middle of summer." She emptied the glass and set it down hard. "I'd rather he hit me."

Mae stared at her, trying to absorb the tale. As she listened, her emotions had run the gamut from despair to faint hope. Her initial reaction had been shock. She hadn't known what to expect after Kate's visit, but it hadn't been this! Hearing Jessie tell it, watching her face, Mae could see how much Jess loved the girl, and it almost broke her heart. Then, when she heard that Kate's father had put a stop to it, her response had been relief and, God help her, happiness.

"Maybe it's for the best, Jess," she said gently. You'll get over her, she's not right for you, she wanted to scream. But part of her didn't believe it, as much as she wanted to. She remembered the blaze in Kate's eyes when she had said that she loved Jessie, and she heard the torment in Jessie's voice now. They loved each other all right.

Jessie's eyes were wounded as she met Mae's gaze. "How?" she asked brokenly. "How could it be for the best? I love her, and she loves me."

"Her parents would never accept it," Mae continued softly. "A girl like her is supposed to be married. They won't know no other way."

Jessie swallowed. "What about what she wants? What about Kate's happiness?"

Mae couldn't help but laugh, but there was no humor in her voice. "Lord's sake, Jess. Whenever did the feelings of a woman matter in these things?"

"Kate matters, Mae," Jessie said firmly, a spark of life returning to her eyes. "She matters to me more than anything in this world."

"More than the ranch?" Mae asked, wanting to show Jessie the hopelessness of her dream. "Because if you think they're just gonna let her move on out there with you, without a fight, you're more drunk than two whiskeys will make you."

Jessie was quiet a long time, thinking about the look on Martin Beecher's face. She knew when a man couldn't be swayed. "No, I suppose they wouldn't."

"Don't do anything foolish, Montana," Mae said as tenderly as she could. She saw a cowboy approaching from the corner of her eye and cursed under her breath. "Some things aren't meant to be, Jess, even if they are right," she cautioned as she rose to greet the stranger.

Jessie watched Mae walk away with the cowboy, sad to see her go. She sat for a long time, turning the empty glass on the scarred tabletop, until she knew what she must do.


Chapter twentyfour

Kate approached the Schroeders' back door burdened in body and soul, an overwhelming sense of hopelessness leaving her dazed. She had barely slept, her head ached horribly, and she hadn't been able to manage more than a bit of juice at breakfast. She had no idea how she would get through a morning with Hannah without crying, but the thought of staying at home to face her mother's silent admonitions was even more daunting. As she slowly climbed the stairs to the back porch, the door opened and Hannah Schroeder emerged.

"Come inside, Kate," she said kindly, holding the door for her. "It's freezing out here."

Kate nodded absently, but she was having trouble putting one foot in front of the other. Everything seemed so impossible.

Hannah took her arm, guiding her into the kitchen. The heat from the ovens accosted Kate, and, for an instant, she felt dizzy. She swayed slightly, and Hannah slipped a protective arm around her waist while Kate loosened the scarf at her neck and slipped out of her cloak.

"Thank you," Kate said hoarsely. Her throat was dry, almost parched.

Hannah looked at her worriedly and passed a cool hand over her forehead. "You look peaked, Kate. You'd best take care. Sally down at the dry goods store says there's quite a few people down with the grippe."

Kate shook her head. "I'm fine." She gave a tremulous smile, but her eyes brimmed with tears.

"Well," Hannah said quietly, "you've got a visitor. Go on into the parlor there. I'll bring you some biscuits and tea. You look like you could use it."

Kate stared at her, confused. "A visitor?"

"Go on, now," Hannah urged gently.

Kate passed through the quiet house toward the room at the end of the hall where she had met the Schroeders on her very first morning in New Hope. She had been a different woman then, bright and eager and filled with expectations. All she could imagine now was a dark future that held no hope of liberty or love. She stepped into the room and stared at the familiar figure waiting by the window. She closed her eyes briefly, sure that she was dreaming.

"Jessie?" she whispered when she could speak.


And then Jessie's arms were around her and Kate was clinging to her, sobbing. Kate pressed her cheek to Jessie's shoulder, silently seeking shelter in her lover's embrace.

"Kate," Jessie murmured into her hair, stroking her tenderly. "It's all right. It's all right."

But Kate knew that it would never be all right again. "Oh, Jessie. I was afraid I might never see you again."

Jessie's heart thudded painfully at the thought, but she went on as steadily as she could. "Tell me what happened, love."

Kate spoke slowly, her mind still numb. "My parents think I've become unbalanced. That the move out here from Boston has done things to me." She laughed harshly, a sob forming at the end. "Mother is sure that I've had some kind of breakdown, and Father thinks that being uprooted from home has caused me to suffer a lapse in judgment."

Jessie shook her head, trying to make sense of Kate's frantic story. "Because you love me?"

Kate smiled at her, her first real smile. Jessie's steadfast presence settled her nerves, and she felt sanity returning after the nightmare of the previous evening. This, this woman, this love, was real.

When she spoke again, her voice was calmer. "No, my darling. Because I don't love Ken Turner." At Jessie's continued look of confusion, Kate went on, "My mother actually tried to be understanding. She allowed that women often form 'close affections', particularly during stressful times, but every woman knows that those friendships must take a second seat to the responsibilities of a wife. She thinks that I simply need to see that."

Jessie grew still as she listened. "They think that if you marry him you won't love me any more?"

"No," Kate said quietly. "As long as I don't see you, and perform my wifely duties as expected, I don't think it matters at all to them if I love you or not. We will just not speak of it."

Kate recalled the dark look in her father's eyes as he had pronounced that she would accept Ken Turner's proposal, which she should have done months ago, and that they would hear no more of her foolish desire to live at the Rising Star ranch with Jessie Forbes.

Jessie's jaw clenched. "Can they force you to marry him?"

"No," Kate replied. "They love me, despite how it looks. If I refuse, they won't disown me."

"Well," Jessie sighed. "That's something. Maybe if we give them a little time, and then talk to them again. Together."

Kate gazed into Jessie's face, her own eyes dark with anguish. She traced the strong line of Jessie's jaw with tremulous fingers, aching with love for her. "My father was quite clear. They'll send me back to Boston as soon as the roads are passable in the spring if I fail to marry by then." Kate's heart nearly broke as she watched the color drain slowly from Jessie's face and her expression collapse with pain.

"Oh, Lord," Jessie whispered, terror finally making her tremble. "They can't send you away!" Jessie gripped Kate's shoulders in a tortured grasp, her eyes wild. "Can they, Kate?"

"I am of age, Jessie," Kate said slowly, "but how can I defy them? I have neither funds of my own nor any real means of supporting myself. And where could I go?"

Jessie's temper flared, although her anger was not at Kate. "You can come to me! I love you, Kate. You belong with me!" Jessie made an effort to control herself. "That's what you want, isn't it? That would make you happy?"

Kate kissed her quickly. "Oh, Jessie! You make me happier than I've ever been. You are the only thing that matters to me. You must know I love you with all my heart."

Her voice broke and Jessie's throat tightened with love for her. "Then come be with me," Jessie implored.

Kate stroked Jessie's arm tenderly. "Oh my love, if only I could. But my father would never allow it! He would look for me there and I won't have you hurt by this!"

"Hurt!" Jessie cried, her body stiff with rage. "Hurt! How could I live if you were taken from me? I'd have nothing without you!"

Kate slipped her arms around Jessie's waist, holding her as if never to let her go. "Nor I, without you."

Moments passed as they stood together, struggling for calm and reason in a world suddenly gone mad. At last Jessie spoke, her voice quiet and resigned. "Then we have to leave here, Kate. We'll go away, further west to the Oregon territory. There's gold there still." She drew another deep breath, her resolve growing. "I can even pass for a man if I need to. It's happened before without my meaning it."

Kate drew a sharp breath. "No, Jessie! You can't leave the Rising Star! It's your home!"

Jessie held Kate at arm's length and looked deeply into her eyes. "There would be no home for me anywhere without you, Kate. I will not let you go."

Kate saw the certainty in Jessie's blue eyes, and something she needed to see even more - the love. "Oh, Jessie, I'm so sorry!" she said.

Jessie shook her head and smiled tenderly. "It's all right, Kate. Who knows, maybe we'll be able to come back after a season or two." She refused to imagine what it would be like to leave the ranch. She knew what it was like there without Kate, and there was no choice at all as to what needed to be done. "We'll need to leave very soon, before the mountain passes are snowed in."

Kate stepped away and drew a deep breath, feeling suddenly stronger. "When?"

"Before the end of the week."

"Yes," Kate answered, thinking that they had no choice. An instant later she smiled, a thin resolute smile, realizing that for the first time in her life she did have a choice, and her choice was Jessie.

"When can you be ready to leave, Kate?" Jessie asked quietly.

"Soon," Kate said purposefully. "There are only a few things that I need to gather without my parents' notice. The day after tomorrow?"

Jessie nodded, already planning what she needed to buy on her way out of town. She'd settle at the bank and talk to Jed. She could trust him. "We'll leave in two days then."

Kate flung herself into Jessie's arms. "0h Jessie, my love, I'm so sorry."

Jessie held her to her breast. "Don't be sorry, Kate. Your love is all that matters to me."


Hannah watched Jessie ride out of the yard. She turned as Kate came quietly into the kitchen.

"I need to go home, Hannah," Kate said softly. "I'm sorry."

"No need to be sorry," Hannah said, packing some hot biscuits into a basket along with a jar of jam. "Take these. You'll be hungry sooner or later."

Kate smiled fondly. "You've been very kind. I don't know how my mother or I would have managed without all your help. Thank you."

Hannah looked at her steadily, noting the tear stains still damp on her cheeks and the hint of misery in her eyes. It wasn't any of her affair, but it was plain to see that the child was suffering. Seemed to her that Jessie Forbes had looked the same when she had come to the back door just after sun-up asking if she might wait for Kate. Didn't take much sense to see that something serious had happened, and she had a feeling she knew what it was. If it was Martin and Martha coming between those two, she didn't see any hope for it.

She sighed and handed Kate her cloak. "Sometimes those that loves us cause more hurt with the loving than they do with anger. You have to be forgiving, if you can."

Kate kissed Hannah lightly on the cheek and nodded, knowing that she had already forgiven her parents. She wished she could have had their understanding, but there was no time left to wait. She was not leaving to spite them, merely to save herself. As she hurried home in the cold morning sun, she turned her mind to the future, and, finally, hope returned to her heart.


Chapter twentyfive

Kate's head ached terribly and the house seemed intolerably warm as she hurried about gathering up the few clothes and personal treasures that she could not leave behind. Her father was at the newspaper office and her mother was out running errands. It was the first chance that she had to pack. She had written a letter to her parents explaining what she had done, praying with each painful sentence that they would understand and someday believe that she was happy. She put the envelope on her bedside table, intending to leave it in the kitchen the next day for them to find. She wanted to get everything ready so that she could leave as soon as the house was empty in the morning. Tomorrow was Martha's day to visit her new friends at the ladies' weekly luncheon gathering. Tomorrow, she thought, tomorrow I will go to Jessie and we will make a new life.

It had only been twenty-four hours since they had parted, but she already missed Jessie terribly. Now, when things were so very hard, she needed her near. Jessie was always so calm, so steady. So strong. When she thought of Jessie leaving the ranch, Kate's heart ached. She had only to envision Jessie standing on the wide front porch looking contentedly out over her land, or astride one of her great horses, grinning and confidant and so totally at peace, to know what a great sacrifice Jessie was making. Kate hated for Jessie to give up such a part of herself, but she could not imagine any other way. They could not stay, and Kate could not give her up. They must go, because to lose Jessie would surely kill her.

She opened her travel trunk, the one she had packed with such optimism less than a year before. She passed a trembling hand over her forehead, wiping with a handkerchief at the icy sweat that had broken out there. She felt suddenly cold. Shivering, she reached for a shawl. She finished filling the suitcase, adding to the top her slim book of sonnets. She remembered sitting by Jessie's bedside reading them, and the thought of Jessie warmed her even as her body grew more chilled. She dragged the heavy valise toward her closet, suddenly lightheaded. She grasped the dresser for support, dizzy. She had had no breakfast, being much too nervous to eat. She could not recall if she had eaten dinner the night before. It was becoming more difficult by the moment for her to think clearly.

"I must get something to drink," she murmured, frightened by the trembling in her limbs. She descended the staircase unsteadily and made her way carefully to the kitchen, one hand trailing along the wall, struggling to stay upright. She found a pitcher of tea her mother had left in the heavy icebox and carried it with shaking hands to the table.

"A bit of bread and honey is all I need," she murmured, her vision wavering slightly. She laid the shawl aside, much too warm now.

As she reached for a glass, her head spun and a wave of nausea overtook her. She clutched the counter, her knees buckling, the room swirling about her. A curtain of gray obscured her vision, and she was dimly aware of the cool kitchen floor under her cheek. Barely conscious, too weak to rise, she called Jessie's name. She lost all sense of time. At some point she was aware of being moved, and voices rising and falling somewhere far away. She struggled weakly, protesting incoherently, as someone removed her clothing. She tried desperately to focus, knowing there was something she must do. Somewhere she must go. Eventually her body surrendered to the fever and she slipped into total unconsciousness, Jessie's name, unspoken, on her lips.


Jessie paced the length of the porch, watching the dusk give way to darkness. A tarp-covered wagon stood waiting behind the house, packed with all they would need for their trip over the Rockies. Star and Rory were fed and bridled, ready for the journey as well. She stood at the rail, one arm braced along the porch post, staring toward the cookhouse. There were lights in the windows and the smell of stew in the air. Jed would be there, with the men. God, it was hard, saying goodbye.

Jed had said little when she told him she was leaving. He had stood quietly, chewing thoughtfully on a piece of hay, as Jessie explained that she would send legal papers giving him the authority to handle all the business affairs of the ranch. She thought at one point her voice would give out, but she held steady and looked him in the eye while she talked.

When she finished and fell silent, Jed had looked past her toward the mountains, as if gauging the climb. "You'll need to hurry if you're going to beat the snows," he said finally.

"Yes," she replied, waiting.

He had taken off his hat and brushed it lightly against his thigh. They leaned against the corral fence, the two of them, hunched in their heavy jackets, eyes tearing faintly in the cold wind. "I know you ain't running from the law," he said at length.


"There are only two things I know that will make a man leave his home," Jed remarked quietly, his eyes still fixed on the distant hills. "The law, or a woman."

She stiffened slightly, pushed her hands a little deeper in the pockets of her jacket. "Yes."

He looked at her, and all he saw was the same clear gaze and steady strength he had always seen. "Ain't nothing you can do but leave?"

Her eyes grew dark with pain, the anger gone now. "No."

"Well," he said after another long pause. "When you feel you can come back, it will all still be here waitin'. I can assure you that."

They had remained a while longer, their shoulders barely touching, watching the sky cloud over and the wind blow bare branches around the yard. She was glad for his company because it kept the sadness away.

That had been hours ago, and Kate should have arrived before sundown. Jessie looked up the road in the descending gloom for the hundredth time, even though she knew in her heart that Kate would have come by now if she were coming at all. Something must have happened. Perhaps she had been discovered. A faint voice in the back of her mind kept whispering that perhaps Kate had changed her mind, that Kate would have come had she wanted to. Perhaps when the moment had come, Kate could not say goodbye. Too much risk, too much loss. Jessie could almost understand if that's what had happened. It would be harder for Kate than for her, leaving everything behind. Maybe what they shared wasn't enough, maybe - maybe --

"No," she growled under her breath, beginning to pace again. She couldn't believe it. She couldn't! She remembered Kate's eyes when Kate had declared that she loved her. She remembered Kate's touch, and her smile, and her soft sighs as they lay quietly wrapped in one another after loving. Of course Kate would come. She had said that she would! But the night said otherwise.

When total darkness finally surrounded her, Jessie sat on the steps, weary from the hours of anxious waiting, elbows propped on her knees, her head down. She stared bleakly at nothing, her mind a blank. The star-filled sky revolved slowly overhead and the night air drew down around her, but she remained motionless, impervious to the cold that slowly chilled her to the bone. When all the lights were out in the bunkhouses, and even the night seemed to sleep, she roused herself. Star and Rory still waited patiently, tied to the wagon, and she could not leave them unsheltered in the brutal wind. Mechanically, she walked them down to the barn, removed their bridles, and led them into stalls. Then she made her way back up to the house, pausing on the porch to search the dark with desperate eyes, hoping to see salvation emerge from the shadows. She swayed slightly, grasping the banister to steady herself, running a hand over her face, surprised at the moisture on her cheeks. She couldn't feel anything. Then, very slowly, she turned her back to the road, walked into the house, and shut the door behind her.


Chapter twentysix

For four days the illness had raged through New Hope, and a growing panic seized the townspeople. Almost half the families in town had been struck by the fast-moving influenza, and everyone knew someone sick with the high fevers, wracking coughs, and suffocating bloody fluids in the lungs. In some homes there had been deaths, mostly among the very young or the very old, the ones with little strength to fight the rampaging infection. But here and there it was a young man or woman, struck down suddenly, and taken within hours. Those who had escaped the disease were afraid to go out and the streets lay eerily deserted. The few who were too restless or too stubborn to stay inside congregated at the saloon.

Frank had come down sick the previous day, and Mae and those of her girls who were still well were looking after the customers in the bar. Conversation was slight, most men lingering remorsefully over half-finished drinks, not wanting to talk of news that seemed all bad. Mae tried to keep up appearances, chatting briefly with each newcomer, forcing a smile. She stared in surprise at the newest face in the long row of unshaven men leaning against the bar. Thaddeus Schroeder nodded hello, his face drawn and pale.

"Thaddeus!" Mae said warmly, "Never expected to see you in here during daylight hours. Wish it was under better circumstances. What can I get you?"

Thaddeus smiled wanly. "A good strong whiskey, Mae. Things are getting terrible, just terrible."

Mae looked at him pityingly and poured him a drink. "How are your people, Thaddeus?" she asked gently.

He looked at her with sorrowful eyes. "My John Emory's ailing with it, but the Doc said last night that the boy had passed the crisis, thank the good Lord. He wasn't sick at all just three days ago, and then --" His voice broke and he looked away. "So fast. It comes so fast." He cleared his throat and reached for the glass that Mae had filled for him. "The Doc says we're probably lucky to have lived through that terrible spell in '52. Makes us stronger now, he says."

She patted his hand. "That's fine, Thaddeus, just fine."

She had missed the terrible epidemic that swept over the western plains and beyond over a decade before, decimating the Indian populations and new settlers as well, but she had seen the effects of the devastating infection in the crowded tenements of New York City, and death looked the same everywhere. She prayed that this outbreak would be over quickly, and the losses few. Lord, life was hard enough without this, too.

But Thaddeus was beyond consoling. He had come to the saloon because he needed to talk, and he couldn't burden his wife, who was so busy herself looking after the boy and helping the neighbors, too. He continued to ramble, almost to himself. "There are so many, Mae. So many others sick with it." He sighed. "More will die, God help us."

"Thaddeus," Mae said kindly, touching his hand. "These people are strong, pioneer stock. They'll survive. Don't you be giving up hope now."

He raised remorseful eyes to hers. "It's Martin and Martha Beecher I feel so bad about. They're not like the rest of us, not used to such hardships. I feel like it's my fault for bringing them out here. That girl is going to be on my conscience, Mae!" Tears brimmed in his eyes and he reached quickly for his pocket handkerchief.

Mae stared at him, an awful fear crowding out her breath. "Thaddeus, what are you talking about?"

"It's their daughter, Kate," he replied when he managed to contain himself. "She came down with the illness yesterday and Doc says she's very bad. Might not even make it til tomorrow." He finished his drink. "My fault. All my fault."

Mae wanted to scream at him to hush so she could think. Kate dying? That couldn't be, could it? Not young, beautiful, vibrant Kate. But of course it could. There was no rhyme or reason to these things, and very little one could do to change fate. Not a thing, really.

She turned away from the lonely man, unable to summon any words of solace. She moved sadly down the bar, pouring shots of inadequate comfort for the mourners.


The house had a dark, deserted look about it. The windows were dead eyes looking back at her, and no smoke curled from the chimney. For an instant her heart seized with terror. What if death had visited here already? Would anyone have thought to tell her? Wouldn't she have known somehow if she were gone? Controlling her panic, Mae knocked on the wide front door. When there was no answer, she pushed open the door and hesitantly stepped inside. It was cold, as if all life had departed days before.

"Who is it?" a low, quiet voice said out of the darkness.

Mae cried out sharply, her eyes searching the hallway, trying to peer into the room from which the voice had emanated. "Jess? For God's sake, Jess, is that you?"

Suddenly a match flared, flickered, and then caught. A moment later lamplight illuminated the library in a faint yellow glow. Jessie stood wraith-like by the fireplace, pale and hollow-eyed. She placed the lamp on the mantle and turned slowly toward Mae, her normally straight back slumped, her gaze dazed and listless.

"What is it, Mae?" she asked slowly. She gripped the edge of the stone ledge tightly, a little unsteady on her feet. She hadn't had much to eat. Couldn't remember her last meal actually. The fireplace was empty; she hadn't cooked. She dimly recalled Jed coming up to the house that morning, or maybe it was the night before, asking after her. Saying he had seen the wagon still out back, warning that the snows were coming any day. She had sent him away, telling him she would not be needing the wagon after all. He had wanted to say more, she could see the worry in his face, but she shut the door. There was nothing to say.

Jessie looked up from the cold hearth, surprised to see Mae standing there, staring at her. She cleared her throat. "What is it?" she asked again.

Mae came forward slowly, wondering if Jessie was sick with what everyone else had. She looked so drained, so empty. Mae had never seen her look like that, not even right after her father had been killed. "Jess," she said quietly. "Jess, are you sick?"

'No, Mae," Jessie said with a shake of her head, confused. She didn't feel anything. That strange numbness was still there, everywhere.

"Then what are you doing in here in the dark?" Mae was so worried and so scared she was beginning to lose her temper. "It's freezing in here, too! Are you trying to get sick?"

The hard edge in Mae's voice penetrated Jessie's muddled consciousness. "I'm not sick, Mae," she said, a little of the life returning to her voice. "What are you talking about? Why are you here?"

Mae gasped. "Lord, you don't know, do you?"

"Know what?" Jessie asked, an ominous dread stirring in her chest. "What's happening?"

"The grippe," Mae said bitterly. "It hit town a bit ago, and the last two days have seen some sorrow."

Jessie's face slowly lost its last trace of color. "Kate," she whispered. God, she was a fool! Why hadn't she gone into town and looked for her? Why had she let her doubts keep her away? She grabbed Mae's shoulders, leaning down to look into her face. Her eyes were wide and wild. "Kate! Is she sick?"

Mae paused, not sure until just that moment what she had come to say. The torment and terror in Jessie's face convinced her. She nodded, then said very quietly, "She's bad, Jess. The Doc says she doesn't have long."

Jessie's head snapped back as if she had been struck. For a moment she was completely still, the only movement a faint pulse beating in her neck. Then a horrible glint flashed in her eyes and a sound more like a snarl that a word tore from her throat. "No!"

Mae reached for her as Jessie snatched her gunbelt from the table and strapped it on. "Jess," she said hesitantly, afraid of what Jessie might do in her state of mind. "Her family -"

The look Jessie gave her stopped Mae cold.

"There's not a man alive can keep me away from her, Mae," Jessie answered stonily, heading for the door. "I can't let her die without me there."


Chapter twentyseven

A commotion at the front door roused Martha from an uneasy slumber. She had been restlessly napping in the small sitting room adjoining Kate's bedroom while Hannah kept watch. Martin had retired to his library hours before, too distraught to sit vigil at his daughter's bedside. Hannah came into the room just as Martha was rising.

"Whoever is at the door?" Martha asked impatiently. "They'll disturb Kate!"

Hannah regarded Martha sympathetically, not mentioning that Kate had not been aware of anything for some time. Martha's hair was falling from its pins, her eyes were hollow, and her face gaunt. Poor woman, Hannah thought, and whispered a quick prayer of thanks that her own son was on the mend. "It's Jessie Forbes. Martin is talking with her now."

Martha stared uncomprehendingly for a moment, her confused expression quickly turning to alarm. "Here? She's here?"

Hannah nodded. She and Martha had had little chance to talk about any of the events of the last few days. She had only just that evening been able to leave John Emory and had come straight to the Beecher house, knowing that Martha would need help looking after Kate. As soon as she arrived, she sent Martha off for some much needed rest. She had been sitting by Kate's bedside, sponging the fever sweat from her face and neck when she first heard the pounding on the front door. She went to the top of the landing to see who was there, afraid that it might have been Thaddeus come to say that John Emory had taken poorly again. Instead it was Jessie Forbes standing in the doorway, and Martin Beecher blocking her way. Hannah thought from Jessie's expression that she might shoot him.

"Why has she come?" Martha repeated distractedly, hastily dressing.

"I suspect that she wants to see Kate."

"Impossible," Martha said firmly.

"I don't think she's going to go away, Martha," Hannah said softly.

"No, I suppose not," Martha said in a strange voice. She slipped her hand into the pocket of the apron she wore and handed it to Hannah. "I found this on Kate's bedside table yesterday."

Hannah carefully unfolded the much-read note and studied the message written there. Oh Lord, she thought, as she read. Poor Kate. When she finished, she slowly handed it back to Martha. She wasn't sure what to say, so she waited for Martha to speak.

"Kate was going to run away," Martha said, clearly shocked by the idea. She looked at Hannah with a weary pain in her eyes. "Can you imagine? She was simply going to disappear somewhere with that young woman."

"Seems they care for one another," Hannah said carefully.

Martha looked at her in surprise. "But to leave us like that! Kate must have been ill, not thinking clearly." But she didn't sound convinced.

"Kate has a sound head on her, Martha. She left that note because she loves you and Martin. She didn't want you to worry too much."

"You're not saying that you approve?" Martha asked in astonishment.

Hannah shrugged. "It's not for me to approve or disapprove. I just think that Kate knows her mind."

"So you think that we should encourage this madness? That I should allow that young woman to see Kate?" Martha queried defensively. Oh, if only they had never left Boston!

"Martha," Hannah said quietly, "I lost my three youngest in the epidemic of '52. It's a sorrow you never get over, burying a child." She saw the expression of pain and fright in Martha's face, and regretted causing it, but she continued on, fearing Kate's loss more than Martha's anger. "Love has strange power. If Jessie Forbes can keep Kate with you, I'd surely say pride had no place in the matter."

Martha stared at her wordlessly. Kate had barely been conscious the last twelve hours, and when she had managed any words at all, she had whispered Jessie's name. Hannah was right. If there was any chance under heaven that this young woman could make a difference - well, she'd worry about the rest of it later. She turned determinedly toward the stairs. "Thank you, Hannah," she murmured as she hurried past.


Jessie faced Martin in the doorway, very close to losing all control. "I must see Kate!" she repeated, her voice dangerously low.

Martin continued to stand in her way, his grief overpowering all reason. He couldn't think of anything except that Kate had planned to leave them, and now she might. "Kate is going to die in peace," he shouted, his anger at the monstrous injustice seeking any object upon which to vent his rage.

Jessie passed a quivering hand over her eyes, unable to bear his words. "No. Please. Just let me see her."

"Why," he said harshly, "what can you do?"

Jessie met his gaze, her face filled with torment. "I love her. Please, I -"

"Get out!" he ordered stonily.

Jessie's could bear the agony no longer. She would not let Kate go this way. She could not. "Get out of my way or I'll kill you!" She reached reflexively for her revolver, but did not draw it, some last fragment of sanity stilling her hand.

Martha gasped, uncertain from the look on Jessie's face whether she meant to shoot Martin or herself. Martha descended the last few steps and moved suddenly between them. "Stop this, both of you! Carrying on this way with Kate upstairs.'' She turned to her husband, her eyes resolute. "Let her go to her, Martin. What harm can it do now?"

Jessie was already past them, taking the stairs two at a time. She slowed when she saw Hannah standing in an open doorway and stepped quietly past her into a dimly lit room, finding her breath suddenly short. She scarcely registered the valise standing open by the closet, nor anything about the room other than the slight figure in the bed. Her heart hammered so hard in her chest she thought its sound alone might awaken Kate. There was an eerie stillness about the way Kate lay motionless, eyes closed, face pale and glistening with sweat. The bedcovers barely rose with each shallow, labored breath. Jessie knelt next to her, reaching out with trembling fingers to gently stroke Kate's cheek.

"Kate," she murmured, the word a faint cry. She closed her eyes for a moment, trying to steady herself, then spoke again, her voice stronger. "Kate, love. It's Jessie." She pressed her lips to Kate's hot palm, her own warm tears landing softly on the fragile skin. "Kate, can you hear me?"

After what seemed a very long time and with tremendous effort, Kate's lids flickered open and her gaze rested feverishly on Jessie's face. "Jessie?"

Jessie rejoiced. Kate was not gone. She would not let her go. "Yes, love. I'm here."

"I - tried- to come," Kate managed, wanting so much for Jessie to know that.

"I know," Jessie choked, drowning in her fear. She struggled for strength, gasping, "And when you are well again, we will be together always. I promise you, Kate. I promise," she repeated desperately. Her voice broke. "Please, Kate."

Kate's eyes were suddenly quite clear, and very calm. She smiled at Jessie, and her voice held an odd note of peace. "I won't be going away with you, Jessie darling. You must be without me for a while."

Jessie shook her head, her body wracked with sobs. "No, Kate! You will be well again."

Kate shook her head weakly and raised her hand to Jessie's tear-streaked face. "Jessie, my only love. You must say goodbye."

Martha Beecher, watching from the hall, stifled a sob and turned away as Jessie leaned over to press her lips to Kate's. This moment was not hers to witness.


Chapter twentyeight

As the darkest hours of night enshrouded the Beecher home, Martha returned to Kate's room. She entered silently, stopping at the sound of soft words murmured in quiet desperation. Jessie was still on her knees at Kate's bedside, her head bowed over Kate's still figure, Kate's hand clasped in both of hers. She was no longer crying, but her voice cracked with anguish.

"Kate," she implored, sure that somewhere, Kate heard her. "I love you, Kate. Oh Lord, Kate, I don't know how I'll -" She brushed at the tears that fell again, drawing a shaky breath. She couldn't let Kate die being worried for her. She straightened her shoulders, but each word tore pieces from her heart. "It will be all right, Kate. I will never leave you, I swear. I will wait here, or hereafter, however long it need be. I am here, love."

Martha placed her hand gently on Jessie's trembling shoulder, shocked at her frailty. Her hard strength seemed to have dissolved as Kate's life slipped away. "Jessie," Martha murmured, her anger and suspicion disappearing in the face of Jessie's torment. "Let it go, child. The Lord will do His bidding."

Jessie turned to Martha in mute despair. Martha was stunned by the desolation in her eyes, and, instinctively, she reached out to comfort a suffering soul. She wrapped Jessie in her arms, holding her while she cried, rocking her and stroking her damp face. At last Martha led Jessie stumbling to a chair by the window.

"Wait here. We will know by morning," Martha said hollowly. She took a chair by Kate's beside to keep vigil. Absently, she reached for the thin leather volume that she had found in Kate's luggage. The book fell open to a well-read page. Martha picked up the photo marking the place and studied the image by the dim light of the oil lamp. Martha could see that Jessie had been smiling at Kate when Kate took the photograph. There was a carefree exuberance about her that made Martha's heart ache. They were both so young, and for a moment she forgot that they were two young women, seeing only the love she could not deny. She began to read the poem that Kate had marked with Jessie's photograph.

So are you to my thoughts as food to life,

Or as sweet-season'd showers are to the ground;

And for the peace of you I hold such strife...

Her vision blurred and she could not go on, feeling as if she had tread upon some sacred place. She looked from Kate's fragile countenance to Jessie's haunted face and prayed for them both.


As the hours passed, Kate's fever consumed her, draining the last reserves of strength from her weakened body. Her breathing grew more and more labored, and finally Martha rose to find her husband, fearing that it might already be too late for him to say goodbye. Her eyes met Jessie's, and Martha had to look away, shaken by the agony in them. She had not thought it possible that anyone, man or woman, could love so unreservedly as that.

When Martha and Martin Beecher entered the silent room just before dawn, Jessie stood by the window looking out into blackness, her back to them, her face veiled in shadows. She did not turn, knowing what they would find. She had heard when the faint arduous struggles of Kate's uneven breathing had stopped, and in that instant, a darkness deeper than night had fallen over her world. It would remain there, she knew, forever. Martha's muffled cry, and Martin's faint groan, pierced her heart and she closed her eyes. She could not bear knowing Kate was gone, even if it might be to some better place. For that she fervently hoped, but it gave her no comfort as the first terrible anguish of loss ripped through her.

In a moment, she thought, in a moment I will go and leave them with their daughter, and their grief. She kept one hand braced tightly on the windowsill, uncertain that her legs would carry her from the room. Her body trembled uncontrollably.

"Martin!" Martha cried.

"Oh Kate," Jessie whispered brokenly.

"Is she gone?" Martin groaned.

"I love you, Kate," Jessie thought, forcing herself to turn, wanting to see her, not knowing how she would say goodbye.

Martha stood with her hand resting on Kate's cheek, boundless joy on her face. "Her face is cool! The fever has broken. She is only sleeping!"

Jessie bowed her head and wept.


Jessie was seated by the bed, Kate's hand in hers, when Martha returned from speaking with the doctor. Kate slept on peacefully. Jessie brushed her lips over Kate's palm, then laid Kate's hand gently down upon her breast. She rose to face Martha, fearful of the news.

"He said that it will probably be a long convalescence, but there's good reason to hope she will recover fully," Martha said quietly, standing just inside Kate's bedroom door. For some reason, she felt as if she were intruding on something intensely personal every time she looked at Jessie Forbes look at her daughter. There was nothing unseemly about it, only something so intimate it made her uncomfortable. She hadn't imagined even a man and a woman could share such feeling.

"I'll be going now," Jessie said softly. She could barely manage the words. She was worn beyond exhaustion. Empty.

Martha stared from Jessie's tortured eyes to Kate, deep in healing sleep. She said nothing. It was best, at least it would be in time, if this could end now.

"Will you tell her I was here?" Jessie asked, brushing sweat from her face with a trembling hand. "Please?"

"It would be best if I didn't."

The words struck like a blow and Jessie's eyes flickered closed for a moment. She steadied herself with one hand on the edge of the bedside table. When she caught her breath, she met Martha's gaze directly. "Would it? Is hurting her ever for the best?"

Martha looked away, remembering the words Kate had written in the farewell letter. "I love her, more than I will ever love anyone else in my life. I need to be with her, or my life will not be worth living". Surely, surely, Kate could not have meant that. "What would you give to make her happy?" Martha asked suddenly.

"Anything," Jessie answered immediately.

"Then go, leave her. Let Kate alone to live the life she should." The words were spoken pleadingly, with no anger. Martha had seen enough to know that there was no sin between them, only an ill-advised affection. Women were not meant to live for passion, or even happiness, but to do their duty. Kate would simply have to accept that!

"Mrs. Beecher," Jessie said steadily, mustering all the strength she had left. "If Kate tells me to go, I swear to you that I will never see her again."

"And if she does not?" Martha asked wearily.

"Then there is nothing and no one who will keep me from her. If you send her away, I will find her. I promised her that I would never stop loving her." She looked one last time at Kate and then slowly walked past Martha toward the stairs. "I meant it."


Chapter twentynine

A steady rapping on the door awakened Jessie. She looked around the room, trying to figure out where she was and how she got there. She was on a bed, still in her clothes, her hat and gunbelt on the chair nearby. Her head ached and her stomach was queasy. She turned toward the window. It looked like it was late in the day, and as she struggled to orient herself, the rapping came again.

"Come in," she croaked. She cleared her throat and tried again. "Come in." She swung her legs over the side of the bed but didn't feel steady enough to stand just yet. Mae came in carrying coffee and toast on a tray and Jessie could have kissed her.

"Lord, that smells good," Jessie groaned.

Mae sat down on the bed next to Jessie and set the tray between them. "Well, you look a mite better than this morning, but not by much. Drink some of that. You need it."

Jessie reached for the steaming cup, vaguely recalling that she had stumbled into the hotel just after dawn. Mae had still been up. She remembered Mae's arm around her waist, helping her up the stairs. And Mae laying her down, and starting to unbutton her shirt.

"Thanks," Jessie said at length. "For last night - this morning, I mean."

"How are you, Jess?" Mae asked. It didn't seem to her that the sleep had done Jessie much good. Her eyes were darkly shadowed, her face drawn and etched with pain. She didn't look quite as wild as when Mae had seen her out at the ranch, but she was still far from right. "How's Kate?"

A faint light of happiness flared in Jessie's eyes. "She's better, Mae. The Doc says-" She faltered, her throat suddenly tight, and she looked away. In a minute she continued. "The Doc says she will get well."

Mae put her hand gently on Jessie's arm. "That's fine, Jess," she said, meaning it. "That's fine."

Jessie nodded. "Yes." She stood wearily. "I should get back to the ranch."

"You should lay back down and sleep for two days," Mae said roughly, standing quickly, moving to stop her from reaching for her gunbelt. "You're in no shape to ride. You look like a good wind could blow you away. You need rest, or you'll be sick abed too and no good to anyone, least of all Kate."

"Kate?" Jessie asked dumbly. She was having a very hard time making sense of anything anymore. Just a few days ago she had been set to leave behind everything she had ever known so that she might have a life with Kate. Then for long agonizing hours she had believed Kate was about to die, and that nightmare haunted her still. She had no idea what to do next.

"You don't think you're the first person she'll want to see when she wakes up?" Mae said with exasperation. "You're going to need all your wits to handle that family, and she's going to need you to be strong."

"What if they won't let me see her?" Jessie said, her voice low and tortured. Lord, she was tired, and her mind was so muddled.

Mae cursed her own stupidity. Why was she always taking Kate's side in all of this? Why hadn't she just ignored Jessie's protests and finished undressing her this morning? She should have just crawled onto that bed next to her the way she'd been wanting to do for years, and maybe then Jessie would have given up this damn fool idea of being with Kate Beecher. Mae looked at Jessie and knew why she had done none of those things. Jessie loved Kate and there was no changing it. She sighed. "Montana, I don't believe there's a man alive who could stop you from doin' something if you set your mind to it. Once you get some sleep, you'll know that too."

Mae put her arm around Jessie's shoulders and directed her back to the bed. Jessie followed without objection, and even let Mae remove her shirt and pants. She smiled faintly when Mae leaned down and kissed her lightly, chastely, on the mouth. By the time Mae gently closed the door, Jessie was asleep again.


Kate opened her eyes and lay quietly in the still room, listening to the sounds of pages quietly turning. She was very weak, but there was no pain. In fact, she felt very calm, serene. After a moment, she moved her head on the pillow and looked at her mother, who sat reading nearby.

"Mother," Kate whispered.

"Oh!" Martha exclaimed, dropping her book in her haste to reach Kate's side. "Oh, Kate. We were so worried!"

Kate smiled faintly. "I'm sorry."

"Hush," Martha chided gently, brushing Kate's hair back from her face. "I'll get your father. He's still asleep."

Kate held tightly to her mother's hand. "Wait."

Martha pulled the chair closer and sat, watching Kate worriedly.

"Where is Jessie?" Kate asked softly.

Martha hesitated, then answered truthfully. "I don't know."

Kate's expression darkened. "Is she all right? She isn't ill is she?"

"Not that I know of. Don't upset yourself, Kate," Martha urged. "You need to worry about getting well. Nothing else."

Kate shook her head. "I need to see her. When she comes, be sure to wake me."

Martha looked at her in surprise. "When she comes?"

Kate's smile was fleeting, but sure. "She'll come, as soon as she's able. I know that she was here. I can remember her voice. Her hands." Kate looked at her mother, knowing her expressions well. "You found the note, didn't you?"

Martha dropped her eyes. "Yes. We can talk about that later."

"There's nothing to talk about," Kate said faintly, suddenly very tired. "I will never change my mind. No matter what we must do, where we must go -"

"Oh Kate," Martha sighed as her daughter gave in to sleep. She despaired of ever changing Kate's mind. And if she couldn't, then what was she to do? She and Martin could not force her into marriage, and if she sent Kate East, what then? Would that be enough to keep them apart? Martha remembered the determination on Jessie Forbes' face and the certainty in Kate's eyes. She did not think so.

She had almost lost Kate to death, and the unthinkable agony of that near loss lingered in her mind. Kate had been returned to her, a gift. She would surely lose her, she realized, if she tried to stand in their way, and that thought was more unbearable than anything else. She remembered Hannah's words: Love has strange power. If Jessie Forbes can keep Kate with you --- She leaned down and kissed Kate's cool forehead, whispering a prayer of thanks for her child's life.


Jessie unconsciously straightened her shoulders as Martin Beecher opened the door. He stood looking at her for a long moment, as if making a decision. He looked years older. Jessie figured she didn't look a whole lot better herself. She had slept one entire day through, and when she had awakened she found her shirt and pants cleaned and waiting by the bedside. She had dressed hastily and come straight to the Beecher's. Now she waited for him to say whatever he needed to say. She was calm, resolute. Only Kate could send her away.

Martin stepped out onto the porch and closed the door. He searched his pockets for a cigar as he walked to the rail. It was starting to snow, and the air was very cold. He snipped off the end of the cigar and lit it as Jessie came to stand beside him.

"Strange country, this," he said at last. "So beautiful, but so deadly."

"Is it so different, back in Boston?" Jessie asked quietly.

Martin looked at her, surprised. "Not so beautiful. Maybe just as deadly, but it more often kills the spirit than the body."

She nodded, thinking there couldn't be much worse than dying inside while you were still walking around. The way she had felt when Kate was sick. "How is Kate?"

"She is very weak, and she will need a long rest. The doctor said another episode like this one could be dangerous. But by spring, he said, she should be fine."

Jessie sighed, some of the tension leaving her body. Spring. Five months.

"Is it true, what she says?" Martin Beecher asked, his voice low, his eyes still fixed on the far away mountain peaks. "That you love her?"

Jessie turned to meet his questioning glance. "Yes."

"She says that the two of you will go away, west somewhere, if we try to prevent her from living with you at the ranch." He said it as if the words were foreign to him, bewilderment in his tone and expression.


Finally he met her gaze directly. "Will you promise me something?"

She waited.

"Will you promise to care for her always?"

We will care for each other, she thought, but she understood what he was asking. "Yes."

"And you will not take her away from us."

Jessie shook her head. "No, I would never want to do that. Kate loves you."

Martin sighed tiredly. "Then I'll not keep you from her. I will not lose her to pride."

Jessie felt suddenly dizzy as a great weight was lifted from her heart. She drew a deep breath, and then another, finally feeling the strength return to her limbs. "I'd like to see her now."

"She's waiting," he said softly. He did not turn as she walked into the house.


Kate was sitting up in bed, her eyes alight with joy, as Jessie came toward her. She frowned just a little when she saw the dark circles under Jessie's normally clear eyes. Then Jessie was leaning down to kiss her, and she forgot everything except how soft were her lips and how gentle her fingers as they stroked her cheek.

After a long moment Jessie stepped back and smiled. "Kate."

"Hello, my darling," Kate answered, reaching for Jessie's hand and tugging her down onto the bed next to her. She rested her head on Jessie's shoulder, wrapping her arm around her waist, sighing contentedly.

Jessie pressed her lips to Kate's temple. "Your mother is likely to come up here, Kate," Jessie warned. "She saw me on my way inside." She had been surprised at Martha's calm greeting. There had been something close to acceptance in her eyes.

Kate shook her head, holding Jessie tighter. "No, not this time. In the future we may very well have a chaperone while I am living here, but not this time. She knows how much I need you here now."

"Lord, I love you, Kate," Jessie whispered, gently stroking her. "When you're well, you'll come to the ranch."

"Yes," Kate answered, drawing strength from Jessie's presence. "Soon."

Jessie hesitated, remembering Martin's warning about Kate's still fragile health. Winters at the ranch were the hardest season of the year. She often couldn't get into to town for weeks because of high snows and frigid temperatures. She couldn't risk Kate falling sick again that far from medical care. "You'll need time to recover, Kate. And winter has come. You should stay here until spring."

Kate raised herself enough to look into Jessie's face, wondering how Jessie could so easily accept that separation. "Do you imagine that I could stand to be away from you for five months?" Her hand slid slowly over Jessie's chest, lingering over the soft swell of her breast, teasing her until she felt the hardened nipple through her cotton shirt.

Jessie's eyes widened and grew dark. "Kate," she whispered, catching Kate's hand in hers to still her movement. She tried desperately to ignore the pounding that had started in her belly from just that brief caress, aware that she had no strength at all to stop what Kate had begun. "I want you so much just being here next to you. You'll kill me if you do that."

"Then don't make me wait all winter," Kate threatened, but she settled back into the crook of Jessie's arm, too tired yet to do more.

Jessie drew a ragged breath, thanking the Lord that Kate didn't know how near she was to losing all hold on herself. "I'll be gone almost two months before the roundup, up in the mountains with the men," she managed to say. "Won't get down to the ranch but for a few days here or there."

Kate knew that what Jessie said made sense. She could barely stand, and would be of no help on the ranch. But so long! She couldn't imagine being without Jessie's sweet touch all that time. "We'll have little chance to be alone," Kate warned, "if I stay here."

Jessie nodded unhappily. "I know, and don't think I won't be suffering. But I'll ride into town as often as I can." She raised Kate's chin with her fingers, looking deeply into her eyes. "I need you, Kate. I need you to love me, the way we do when we're alone. Lord, how I need that. But I need you well and with me more than anything else." She swallowed, wanting Kate's reassuring touch to banish her fears and the memory of nearly losing her, but knowing that it was not time. She closed her eyes against the fierce wanting.

Kate read the need in her face and heard the yearning in her voice. "Jessie," she whispered, aching to ease those longings. "I love you."

Jessie smiled shakily. "Well, I guess I can wait a while for the rest."

Kate snuggled closer, suddenly exhausted. She might have to wait five months to live with her, but she had no intention of waiting that long to love her again. She closed her eyes, and fell asleep to dream of Jessie.



The people of New Hope slowly resumed their lives in the aftermath of the illness, but for many the struggles had brought changes and a renewed sense of appreciation for each day's gifts. Martin Beecher spent lunchtimes at home, basking in the sound of Kate's soft laughter as she recovered. Never had life seemed so precious.

Kate grew stronger day by day, as content as she could be waiting for the times when Jessie managed to come in from the ranch to spend an afternoon with her. Never alone, through the long months of winter they shared devotions with a glance and made promises on a smile, the brief touch of fingers and the fleeting brush of lips their only caress. As hard as it was to be near Jessie and not be able to touch her as she so desperately wanted, it was harder still to be separated from her. Each time they parted at the door, Jessie would lean near and whisper, "I love you, Kate," and those words sustained her, nourished her, and gave her hope.

Finally roundup week arrived and Jessie brought her herds in to town for sale. As soon as Jessie's business was finished, Kate would return with her to the Rising Star. The week was as hectic as it had been the year before, and most of the time Kate had to content herself with watching Jessie from a distance. The anticipation of seeing her, and knowing that soon she would be with her, always, was sweet in a way she hadn't expected. Now that it was only a matter of days, she could look at her and dream of her touch with delight. When Jessie would catch her eye in the crowd or tip her hat across the corral, a soft smile lighting her face, Kate's heart would trip over itself. Soon, she would whisper, soon.

At last, the waiting was nearly over. The next day was the final day of the auction. Martin had gone out with Thaddeus to put the finishing touches on the paper, and Kate sat with Martha on the porch, listening to the far away sounds of cattle and men. Jessie was out there somewhere. She closed her eyes, missing her. Soon, she thought.

Martha sighed softly, her eyes on Kate's pensive features, mistaking her wistful expression for sadness. "Are you sorry, Kate, that we came here?"

"Oh no! I love it here," Kate cried, her eyes suddenly alight with the truth of it. "I feel as if this is where I was always meant to be." She glanced at her mother and added slowly, "And if we hadn't come, I would not have found Jessie." She saw her mother stiffen slightly, and waited calmly for the words she had been expecting for weeks.

"Are you quite sure about this, Kate?" Martha asked, knowing that there was very little time. She had seen the valises standing packed and ready in Kate's room. "Life will not be easy. Not at all what I would have wished for you."

"Tell me, Mother, what is it you would have wished for me?"

Martha sighed again, searching for dreams long past. "You are my only child, Kate. I wanted everything for you- security, a fine home - the things that would make you happy."

"And love?"

Martha looked at her closely, then nodded. "Yes, Kate. Love, if it were possible."

Kate smiled tenderly, her deep eyes glowing with the vision of Jessie. "Will you believe me, then, when I tell you that I will have all of those things, and more, with Jessie? She is all I want. All I ever dreamed of."

"You have made your choice, Kate," Martha said quietly. "I know that now. I do not pretend to understand it, but I cannot help but believe you. I have seen her look at you, and you at her. I know what love looks like."

"I hope someday that you will be happy for me," Kate replied softly, reaching for her mother's hand. They sat together then, and let peace come.


Jessie answered the knock on her door still toweling the water from her hair. Just an hour before she had finally concluded her business, paid the men their wages, and returned to the hotel to get cleaned up.

She pulled the door opened and stared. "Kate!"

Kate smiled delightedly at Jessie's astonishment and stepped into the room, pulling the door closed behind her. She untied her bonnet and placed it on the small dresser. She leaned back against the bureau, content now just to look at Jessie. Barefoot, Jessie was wearing a clean white cotton shirt and her levis, and her deep blue eyes were already hazy with desire as they met Kate's. Kate thought she had never seen her look so beautiful.

"I have been waiting patiently all week for you," Kate said softly.

Jessie's heart was hammering and she was incapable of forming any thoughts beyond wanting Kate. It was the first time in five months that they had been alone together. Kate looked radiant, a faint flush of happiness coloring her cheeks.

"Kate," Jessie repeated, whispering now. She moved forward, closing the distance between them, unable to take her eyes from Kate's, knowing that her need was plain on her face. She brought her hands to Kate's waist, sighing as Kate stepped into her arms. "Oh lord, I've been wanting you so much for so long," she managed, her voice choking as passion rose within her.

When Kate lifted her face, Jessie's lips were there. She pulled Kate tighter, gasping at the first sweet pressure of Kate's breasts against hers. Tenderly at first, with soft caresses and gentle murmurs, they welcomed one another. They trembled together, barely breathing, amazed at finally being able to touch. But it had been too long, and their wanting was too great, to join gently. Jessie groaned, suddenly on fire, and her hands came quickly to the ties on Kate's dress. She could not bear to lift her lips from Kate's, but pulled roughly at the barriers between them as her tongue moved over and into Kate's mouth.

Kate made small urgent cries in the back of her throat, her fingers on Jessie's pants, pulling the buttons free, pushing the material down her hips, desperate for the feel of her.

"Wait, Kate!" Jessie gasped, finally pulling her head back, shivering with need. "Help me get your clothes off. I can't manage it."

Kate laughed, and began to unlace her bodice hurriedly. "You, too."

They watched each other undress, their breath catching in anticipation as each piece of clothing fell to the floor. Jessie's fingers fumbled at the buttons on her shirt as she lowered her gaze to Kate's breasts, captivated by the faint blush of her skin and the tempting tautness of her nipples. She abandoned her attempts to unbutton her shirt and pulled it off over her head, then hurriedly pushed her levis off. Naked, she stepped forward, intent on feeling Kate's breasts in her hands.

Kate followed her gaze and laughed. Stepping around her toward the bed, she said playfully, "Oh no, not yet. If you put your hands on me, it will be over far too soon." She drew down the covers on the bed and slipped underneath. She delighted in the consternation on Jessie's face, reveling in the sweet power she held over her usually confident lover. "And I have waited far too long for this." She held out her hand, her face glowing, and said softly, "Come love me slowly, Jessie Forbes."

Jessie came to her, standing by the side of bed, and whispered shakily, "I want you so badly, it scares me."

"It doesn't frighten me," Kate responded thickly, beginning to feel the urgency deep inside herself despite her intentions not to hurry. "You could never frighten me."

Carefully, Jessie leaned down, pulling the sheet away from Kate's body with one hand. As her lips touched Kate's, her fingers brushed lightly down Kate's cheek, along her neck to her chest. She ran her palm over Kate's breast, swollen now with arousal, and finally caught Kate's nipple between her fingers. Kate moaned with the swift stab of pleasure, almost a sob, and Jessie fought for control. Quickly, she stretched out on top of Kate, her thigh sliding insistently between Kate's legs, moaning herself as she felt Kate's wetness spread over her skin. She braced herself on her arms, looking down into Kate's face as she began to move against her, her breath suspended as her blood rose high.

"Next time," Jessie gasped, feeling the pressure boiling up within her and the tension rippling down her legs, "next time will be slow. This time, I can't wait."

Kate stared up at her, exulting as she watched Jessie's face dissolve with need. Her hands clasped Jessie's hips and pulled her harder against her thigh, each thrust bringing both of them closer.

"Neither can I," Kate murmured, her vision beginning to dim as her muscles vibrated on the verge of exploding. Back arched, desperately trying to contain the uncontainable, heat seared through her. Her will crumbled as a sharp gasp tore from her. "Oh!"

With a strangled groan, Jessie's head snapped back, Kate's cry pushing her beyond her last vestige of restraint. Her arms trembled, her hips jerked violently, and, finally, she could do nothing but surrender. "Kate, oh Kate," she sobbed.

As Kate came, she wrapped her arms around Jessie and clung to her, holding her safe.


"Kate," Jessie murmured drowsily.

"Hmm," Kate responded, softly stroking Jessie's neck and back.

"It's late," Jessie said with a sigh, rolling away until she lay on her back next to Kate, their fingers still loosely clasped. "You'll need to be getting back."

Kate sat up reluctantly, pushing her hair away from her face with both hands. "I know. My mother is expecting me to help her get food ready for the dance." She regarded Jessie tenderly, stroking her cheek softly. "You will be there, won't you?"

Jessie smiled. "That's where you're going to be, isn't it?"


Kate smiled at the wrangler who stood patiently waiting for her to fill his plate with chicken and potatoes. She had been so busy with the endless stream of people at the food tables, she had barely had a chance to search for Jessie. Thankfully, the musicians had begun to play, and people were moving away to dance. She wiped her hands on a towel and made her way through the crowds out onto the back porch of the meetinghouse for some respite. The nights were still cool, but she welcomed the crisp refreshing air. She gazed up at the dark night sky, punctuated by bright stars, and thought that at this time the next night, she would be standing on the porch of her new home.

She heard the jingle of spurs behind her, but she did not turn. She smiled to herself, savoring the memory of the first time she had seen Jessie and heard the jingle of her spurs.

"What are you thinking?" Jessie asked softly as she stepped up behind Kate and rested her hands lightly on Kate's shoulders.

"Of going home with you," Kate said with a smile, settling back into Jessie's embrace.

Jessie brushed a kiss into Kate's hair. "Are you happy?"

Kate turned in the circle of Jessie's arms and smiled up at her. She lifted her hands and clasped them loosely behind Jessie's neck. "There's no word for what I am," she whispered. "I am loved. I love. I have everything I have ever wanted."

"So do I," Jessie said, kissing her gently.

There in the moonlight, with music whispering on the wind, they danced.


The End


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