This story is rated R for adult situations, sexual situations and mild language.

Miss David Returns
Kate M-T.

If you are brand new to reading my Bonanza fanfic, you should know this story is part of a series.  While each and every story is complete to itself, certain characters and events continue from story to story.  It’s generally best to read them in sequence.  The correct order is:  Restitution, A Penny for Your Problems, Defending Miss David, Betrayal, Chaos, Ringgold, Encounter at Oxbow, Kinship, Threshold and finally Miss David Returns.  This story starts immediately at the end of the preceding story (Threshold) so at the very least you may want to read that one first.

My usual disclaimer:  The following is a work of fan fiction and is not intended to infringe on any copyrights held by Bonanza Ventures, David Dortort, NBC Television, or any other holder of Bonanza copyrights.  Comments are welcome at


Joe stood motionless and rigid in the bright spray of afternoon light, streaming through a row of tall, rectangular windows.  A distant part of his mind struggled to place his surroundings in semi-believable order.  He reminded himself he was not dreaming--that he was in fact standing in the sprawling drawing room of the Circle C ranch.  He had been summoned there by his friend, Shey Cutter, who’d insisted on presenting him with a gift for his birthday.  But not just any gift. As befitted his crass, cavalier friend, Shey had gone the extra mile, crafting a surprise even Joe could not have fathomed.

He felt the floor waffle beneath him as he glimpsed the slender, dark-haired woman seated on the davenport.

“Good God,” he breathed, barely able to get the words past his constricted throat.

With graceful poise, Lorna David stood. “Happy Birthday, Joe,” she greeted with a hesitant smile.

Though a year had lapsed since last they’d seen one another, Joe well recalled the feelings he’d harbored when they’d parted.  Lorna David had once agreed to be his wife.  For him, despite the long intervening months, those feelings, however aged, were still vibrantly alive.  Visibly shaken, he struggled for composure.  “How--”  Once again, words failed him.  Wetting his lips, he tried to make sense of her presence.  Behind him he heard the soft tread of footsteps, informing him Shey Cutter had retreated to the foyer, allowing him privacy.  “Lorna, I--”

“It’s a shock, I know,” she said, stepping nearer.  Attired in a foam-colored blouse, and sweeping skirt of forest green, she looked both earthy and divine.  The blouse was form-fitting, tailored to accentuate the firm swell of her breasts; the narrow pinch of her waist.  A blush of rose infused her cheeks with color, softening the glossy black veil of curls framing her face.

Joe shuttered aside the distraction, disturbed by the warm heat her presence kindled in his body.  “Lorna, what are you doing here?”

“Shey wired me and asked me to come.”

“Shey?”  An image of his meddling friend sprang briefly to Joe’s mind.  Confused, he blinked.    “And you came--just like that?”

Abruptly uncomfortable, Lorna looked at the floor.  “He said it was your birthday.”

“And that brought you all the way from the East Coast?”  Joe’s voice was suddenly hard.  Was this some sort of game his best friend and his ex-fiancée had devised at his expense?  No woman in her right mind uprooted herself and came halfway across the country on the strength of a telegram, unless--

Unless she still has feelings for me.

“You’re leaving something unsaid,” he ventured at last.  He held his breath, then slowly exhaled as her eyes tracked to his face.  Her gaze was soft and apprehensive, the wishful glance of an awkward girl-child, not a woman ten years his senior.

She glanced at the floor.  “The timing seemed right, and Shey told me about Callie.  We were acquainted many years ago, and I thought I’d like to see her again.  She’s been kind enough to put me up in town, until I decide--”

“What?”  He pounced on the unspoken thought.

Slowly, Lorna shook her head.  “I don’t know, Joseph.”

The use of his full name sent an odd shiver coursing through him.  With effort he kept his hands at his side.  He ached to touch her . . . to feel the smooth satin of her skin beneath his fingertips; taste the heady wine of her lips on his.  But time and distance kept them awkward, like strangers stepping around something neither wanted to admit.

Joe cleared his throat.  “Where’s Kevin?”

“Back east, with my aunt.”  Lorna hesitated, clearly as uncomfortable as he was.  Tugging a lace handkerchief from beneath the ruffled edge of her sleeve, she worked it nervously between her fingers. “I didn’t think it would be a good idea to bring him.  Perhaps later, if I decide to stay.”

The breath caught in Joe’s throat.  The shuddering lurch of his heart intensified in his chest as he dared to believe the impossible.  “Are you saying that’s likely?”

Determined, Lorna met his eyes.  “I’m saying you and I should talk, Joe.  I-I’ve had a lot of time to think about things, and--”  Her fingers twisted on the handkerchief, bending and kneading the delicate lace into contorted shapes.  To Joe she seemed almost agitated, but he was too ensnared by her words, to pay her demeanor more than a passing thought.  “--I may have made a mistake in leaving.  I-I may have made a mistake about us.”

Daring to believe the impossible, Joe strode across the room.  Restraining himself from touching her, he hovered just shy, staring down at her, eyes alight with a burgeoning thread of hope.  “Lorna, do you mean that?”

Her chest rose and fell as she shuttered away a deep breath.  Self-consciously her eyes dropped to the floor.  “I thought there would be someone else in your life by now,” she mumbled.

Emboldened, Joe touched her arm, gripping her just above the elbow.  He wanted to tell her there had never been anyone else, that he still loved her with the same passion he’d held on the day she’d left.  Yet he sensed her hesitation, and feared frightening her with the strength of his emotion.  He loved her too much to ruin the potential of a second chance, thus restricted his response accordingly.  “There’s no one else, Lorna,” he said sincerely.

For a fleeting instant, she seemed saddened by the admission, but as quickly as the emotion touched her face it died, and Joe could never be sure.  Smiling slightly, she placed her hand over his, where it rested on her arm.  “Perhaps we could have dinner together?” she suggested.

“I’d like that,” Joe said simply.

It was a start.  Of what he wasn’t certain.  With effort, he tempered a rise of elation. Their emotions were fragile and brittle, and didn’t need the added complication of heartfelt reaction.  When Lorna suggested they meet later that evening, Joe readily agreed.  Emotions strung with the effort of containment, he escorted her outside to her rented buggy.

Only after she’d left, did he return to the house to find Shey Cutter.


“I know, I know.”  Shey held up one hand as Joe re-entered the drawing room at a crisp pace.  Once Lorna had left, Shey had retreated to the ornate room, fully expecting an irate confrontation with his friend. “I can see it on your face, Cartwright.  I shouldn’t have meddled.”

Joe never stopped his straightforward stride, stalking determinedly for Shey.  “You conniving, interfering, devious--”  Locking one arm around Shey’s neck he pulled him into a hug, “--wonderful, good-as-gold, squirrelly excuse for a friend!”


Shey popped out of the hug, as Joe released him with a laugh.   What the blonde-haired man had expected to be righteous anger on his friend’s part, amounted to relative good humor.

Still grinning, Joe sprawled in a chair.  “I don’t know how you pulled it off Shey, but I can’t thank you enough.”

His back framed by the fireplace, Shey appeared wary.  “You’re not angry?”

“Angry?”  Joe’s face lit with an engaging grin.  “Why would I be angry?  Okay, I admit--you had no right sticking your nose in my business, but you did it out of concern, right?”

“Uh, sure, Joe.”  Still not certain of his friend’s frame of mind, Shey approached cautiously, settling on the edge of the sofa.  He’d known Joe long enough, to know the other’s emotions changed with quicksilver alacrity--one moment steady and smooth, the next crackling with brimstone.  In retrospect, he hadn’t expected this reaction at all.  The Joe he’d grown close with over the last year was more apt to bristle for the interference, then offer gratitude for the thoughtIs he really that far gone on Lorna?

Sitting forward, Shey braced his legs apart, lacing his hands between his knees.  Joe was still grinning like a delirious hobgoblin, legs sprawled out before him, staring up at the ceiling, with a distant look in his eyes.  “We’re having dinner tonight,” he said, as if that simple truth should send Shey dancing with glee.

Shey cleared his throat, intending to tether the other to earth.  “You know, Cartwright, she just said she’d come for a visit--say hello to Callie; wish you a happy birthday.”

Suddenly acute, Joe’s gaze focused on Shey.  “What does that mean?” he snapped sharply.

Hearing the riled edge of emotion in his voice, Shey sighed.  “It don’t mean nuthin’, Joseph.  I’m just pointing out, you shouldn’t get your hopes up--”

“Who said I am?”  Gripping the arms of the chair, Joe sat bolt upright, planting his feet apart.  Both tone and posture betrayed his sudden belligerence.

Muttering, Shey lowered his head, lacing a hand through his hair.

“I didn’t hear that,” Joe snapped.

“Yeah, well, it’s better you didn’t.”  Irritated, Shey pushed from the sofa, “Look, Cartwright, I might have muffed up royally with this one--you know what I’m saying?  I thought I was doin’ you a favor, but if that fine-bred filly leads you around on a nose-ring, I’m gonna be kickin’ my own hide clear to Christmas for the interference.”

“Then maybe you should just keep out of my business,” Joe retorted crisply, rising to his feet.

Hands on hips, Shey stared him down.  “It’s a little late for that, wouldn’t you say?”

Joe held his gaze, visibly bristling.  In just a short span his emotions had run the gamut from giddy high to edgy belligerence.  Another man might have stopped to consider the concern behind Shey’s words, but Joe had abandoned all rationally a long time ago when it came to Lorna David.

Turning, he stalked from the house without a parting word.


The ride to the Ponderosa passed in a haze of distorted scenery for Joe.  Trees, rock and scrub brush all melded in an unfurling tapestry he barely saw.  Snow-capped mountains and craggy hillocks watched dispassionately as he struggled with his own inner demons.  Though he quickly dismissed Shey’s words, he couldn’t stop his thoughts from roaming to Lorna.  Her presence had awakened feelings he’d thought long buried.  Long, endless months in which he’d tried to put her out of his mind, even going so far as to entertain a number of failed relationships.  The painful truth was that he still loved her--that he’d never healed from the bitter hole she’d gouged in his heart.

What will Adam think?

Unconsciously, Joe tightened his hands on the reins.  His relationship with Adam was oftentimes prickly and distant, despite the underlying love they shared for one another.  Lately that erratic relationship had been more on an even keel, but Lorna’s arrival was likely to change that.  Adam had loved her first.  Despite that relationship coming to an agreeable end, Joe couldn’t help but feel partially responsible.  In trying to protect the woman he knew his brother loved, he’d fallen in love with her himself.  It seemed an eternity ago he posed as her fiancée, hoping to dissuade her dead husband’s brother.  What had started out purely as a desire to assist, had ended in a confused mire of tangled emotions and raw feelings.  Unfortunately, for Joe, those feelings had never quite died.

The early spring sun was beginning to creep closer to the earth by the time Joe reached the ranch house.  There were a few chores he knew he should attend to, but his mind was on Lorna and the dinner date they’d set for that evening.  The stack of wood beside the barn still needed chopped, and he’d promised Ben he’d fix the hand crank on the kitchen well.  Would it really be so terrible to leave both until tomorrow?

Ushering Cochise to her stall, Joe quickly stripped the horse of saddle and blanket, and gave her a quick rubdown.  He was halfway to the house when he saw the front door open and Hoss come tromping outside.

“Hey, Joe!”  The big man’s face split in a gap-toothed grin as his slender brother approached.   “I thought I heard someone ride up.”  He waited until Joe was at his side, then clapped a hand on his shoulder, falling in step. “So tell me, little brother--what’d that braggart friend of yours get you for your birthday?  Knowing Shey Cutter, I bet it’s somethin’ viper crazy--like one of them fancy swords you’re always yammerin’ about, or a belled bridle for that durn spoilt horse of yours.”

Despite his mood, Joe spared a smile.  “You aren’t even close.”

“Ain’t I?”  Hoss’s expressive face crumbled in bewilderment.  “If you tell me it’s something trite-simple like a pair of fancy spurs, I’ll choke that peacock, after all the caterwaulin’ he did ‘bout how special it was gonna be.”

Joe chuckled.  “Don’t worry, Hoss.  Shey outdid himself.”

“Well I sure don’t see you carryin’ nuthin.’”  Gripping his arm, Hoss pulled him to a halt as they stepped onto the porch.  Overhead, the roof slanted a wedge of bluish shadow onto the dusty ground, blotting the diminishing light from Joe’s eyes.  Disturbed by the concentration he saw in the other’s gaze, Hoss frowned.  “There’s something you ain’t telling me, Joseph.”

For a moment the younger man seemed troubled, but just as quickly the faint hint of anxiety left his face.  Joe grinned impishly.  “Darn right.  I’m not telling you what I got for my birthday.”

Leaving Hoss sputtering behind him, Joe beat a hasty retreat to the house.


Though he’d kept Hoss at bay, Joe knew he’d eventually have to tell his family about Lorna’s return.  He simply didn’t want to dredge up the turmoil he knew her presence was sure to cause.  Adam would likely retreat behind a stony mask, while Hoss grew solicitous, and Ben worried.  Joe anticipated enough problems of his own, juggling uncertain emotions, without having to sort his family’s into the mix.

Because he didn’t want to cause any problems likely to irritate his father, Joe managed to fix the crank on the well, and chop half the wood, before retiring to his room in preparation of his dinner date.  He bathed, shaved, and took time arranging his clothes--something he rarely fussed over.  Though he considered donning his Sunday best blue suit, he feared the extra finery might make him appear over eager.  In the end, he settled for a clean pair of pants, crisp white shirt and immaculate black string tie.  Collecting his hat and jacket from the bed, he bounded downstairs, eager to escape with minimal confrontation.


“Joseph?”   Standing in the Great Room, studying the local paper, Ben glanced up at the clatter of hurried footsteps on the stairwell.  The sight of his youngest son, dressed for an evening out, made him tilt his head in speculation.  Folding the paper together, Ben let his arm drop limply to his side.  “Are you headed to town?”

A skittish smile flickered over Joe’s lips.  He cast a quick glance between his father, and Adam, who was seated in the wing chair by the fireplace.  Alerted by his choice of clothing and the small amount of cologne he’d applied, both men were clearly curious.  Stepping to the couch, Joe skimmed the brim of his hat through his hands.  “Uh . . . yeah, Pa.  Actually, I’ve got a date.”

“Oh?”  Mildly intrigued, Ben stuffed one hand into his pocket.  “That wouldn’t be your gift from Shey Cutter would it--an evening on the town with another one of his ‘ladies?’”

Flushing, Joe ducked his head.  Briefly he wondered if he’d ever live down the practical joke Shey had played on him last spring, when his cavalier friend had sent him on a blind date with a prostitute.  Clearing his throat, Joe dragged a finger under his nose.  “No, Pa,” he assured, raising his head to meet his father’s level gaze.  Oddly, Ben’s question wasn’t too far from the truth, considering Shey had arranged Lorna’s arrival.

“Mmm, hmm.”  Ben pressed his lips together noncommittally.  “This came up in an awful hurry, didn’t it?”

Fidgeting, Joe tugged a finger along the edge of the sofa.  He was acutely aware of Adam’s gaze, mildly interested, never wavering.  A trickle of anxious sweat broke out on the back of his neck.  “I took care of the well, Pa, and I’ll finish the wood tomorrow.  Most of it’s done.”  Exasperated, he squared his shoulders belligerently.  “I didn’t think riding to town required a family discussion.”

“Joseph,” Ben said sharply.

“I’m twenty-three years old, Pa--”

“I’m well aware of that.”  Setting the paper aside, Ben approached his son.  His black-eyed gaze was a trifle too divining for Joe’s comfort.  Nervously, he studied the tips of his boots.  Relenting, Ben slid a hand on his shoulder.  “Hop-Sing is finishing up dinner.  I just didn’t realize you were going out.”

Joe shrugged.  “It came up unexpectedly.”

“While you were with Shey?”  Adam guessed.

Joe’s mouth thinned in a white line as the mercurial edge of his belligerence returned.  Immediately defensive, he tensed.  His problems with Adam were two-fold:  his brother had never been particularly fond of Shey, and worse--he’d now likely  be a stumbling block in Joe’s renewed relationship with Lorna.  “What does it matter?”

Adam rolled his shoulders.  “Just curious.  Hoss said you didn’t want to tell him what Shey gave you for your birthday.”

“Hoss should keep his mouth shut,” Joe muttered darkly.

Concerned by the acid remark, Ben narrowed his eyes.  “Joseph?  Did you have a problem with Shey?”

“Of course not.”  Realizing the reply was much too sharp, Joe sighed and straightened his shoulders.  “Look, Pa, I just want to go to town.  Shey’s gift was kind of personal and I’d like to keep it that way for now.”

Though clearly not convinced everything was as it should be, Ben nodded.  “Have a good time,” he offered, giving the younger man an affectionate clap on the back.

With a crisp nod, Joe headed for the door.  Once outside, he breathed an audible sigh of relief.  Distressed to realize how tense he was, he tried to rationalize the behavior as he walked to the barn to ready the buggy.  Surely the anxiety he felt was caused by the prospect of spending the evening with Lorna.  Though every part of him desired to hold her intimately in his arms, he knew he’d have to tread lightly, allowing her to set the pace.  They’d been apart much too long to simply pick up the flame of passion, as though it had never been extinguished.

The long ride to town allowed him to re-examine their relationship in detail--every exquisite moment from their first introduction when Lorna had been so obviously enamored of Adam, to their heart-wrenching parting. Realizing his love for her was as strong as it had ever been, Joe swallowed hard. Was it possible she felt the same?

The thought remained as he rode into town, halting the buggy before Callie Garrett’s modest home.  Removing his hat, he nervously laced his fingers through his hair, then stepped onto the porch.  Momentarily holding his breath, he rapped his knuckles against the door.

“Joe--come in.”  Callie Garrett smiled warmly as she opened the door, inviting him to step inside.  Though they’d known each other for almost a year now, he felt abruptly uncomfortable.  She was Shey Cutter’s on-again/off-again girlfriend, but more than that she was now Lorna’s confidante.  For as long as he’d known Callie, Joe had never realized the extent of her relationship with Lorna.  It made him uneasy to think the two women might have discussed him. That Lorna might have shared her feelings for him with Callie, expressing uncertainties he’d never be privy too.

“Callie.”  His smile was tremulous, a trifle too forced.  “Is Lorna in?”

“She’s expecting you.”  Petite, with fawn-colored hair and gray eyes, Callie tossed off an engaging grin.  “Have a seat while I fetch her.”  Halfway from the room, she paused, turning to glance over her shoulder.  “And by the way, Joe--the next time you see that irksome friend of yours, tell Shey Cutter, he’s long overdue in calling.  If I don’t hear from him soon, I’m going buggy riding with Cliff Thompson.”

“Sure, Callie, I’ll tell him.”  Distracted, Joe bobbed his head in agreement.  As Callie flitted out of the room, brightly humming some obscure melody, Joe glanced absently at his surroundings.  Though the furnishings were sparse, the room small, Callie had taken great care adding personal touches.  Lace doilies, fresh flowers, and a quilted afghan draped over a rocking chair, made the room seem warm and inviting.  Moving to the small sofa, Joe perched precariously on the edge.

He thought it odd Shey Cutter had a woman so intent on becoming his wife, while Joe’s own love life was in shambles.  Unlike his friend, he craved marriage, but the woman closest to his heart, suddenly felt like a stranger.

“Hello, Joe.”

Mouth dry, Joe rose to his feet.  Lorna stood framed in the doorway, her dark hair pinned in loose curls against the back of her head.  Attired in a form-fitting, off-the-shoulder violet dress, embroidered with lavender lace, she looked elegant and poised.  A single amethyst stone hung suspended on a delicate silver chain around her neck, drawing attention to the low cut bodice of her snug gown.

“Lorna--”  Stepping forward, Joe extended his hand.  “You look--” He couldn’t stop his eyes from traveling slowly over her body, lingering a trifle too long on her plunging neckline. “--beautiful.”

“Thank you.”  With a demur smile, she extended her hand until their fingers touched.

The contact of flesh on flesh was staggering.  The breath caught in Joe’s throat as unspoken attraction crackled between them.  Firmly gripping her hand, he pulled her closer, forgetting for the moment, time and complications separated them.  Raising his free hand, he smoothed his thumb over her cheek, entranced when she tilted her head to stare up at him.  Lightly skimming her jaw, he dropped his hand to the long, creamy column of her neck.  Before he knew what he was doing, his hand moved to her shoulder, forcing her against him, and he covered her mouth with his own.

She resisted at first, rigid in his embrace, until the commanding insistence of his lips made her mouth open beneath his.  Yielding, she pressed against him, the fit of her body as intimate and snug as he recalled. The blood spiked in Joe’s groin.  He groaned low in his throat, nearly undone by her sudden eagerness.  “Lorna--” Breathing rapidly, Joe drew back, bending to trail his lips across her neck.  “Angel, do you have any idea how much I’ve missed you?  How much I want you?”

“Joe please--I have to talk to you.  I have to explain.”

“Explain what?”  The words were vague distractions--random thoughts he mouthed as he continued to coddle her neck.  It didn’t help that she arched so willingly into his embrace, tilting her head to better feel the fiery trail of his lips--that she pressed her breasts against his chest with all the eagerness of a woman craving seduction.

Remembering Callie in the other room, Joe straightened, momentarily gaining control of his raging passion.  “Lorna--” Voice husky, he rested his brow against hers, kissing the tip of her nose.  “I need to be private with you.  Do you understand what I’m saying?”

Trembling, she nodded.  Raising one hand she fingered the edge of his collar.  “Joe there is no place.  Callie’s here, and--”

“Will you come with me to the Circle C?”

Startled, she glanced at him.

“Shey Cutter’s my closest friend.  You can trust him, Angel.”  Closing his eyes, Joe kissed her softly on the mouth.  Gently, he massaged her bare shoulder, letting his fingers trail lightly over her arm. Breathing deeply, he gripped her waist, pulling her intimately against him.  She gasped softly, responding to the prominent feel of distinctive male arousal.  If Callie were to walk into the room now, he’d be forced to drop his hat in front of his pants.  He couldn’t help the reaction.  Bottled emotion of twelve long months made him crave the intimate contact of her flesh, with the same passion as the unquenchable love in his heart.  “Lorna, I still love you. I’ve never stopped loving you.  Whatever you have to tell me, can wait.  It’s not going to change how I feel.”

Hesitating, she bowed her head against his shoulder.  “Joseph, I don’t want to mislead you.  When I saw you--when you touched me . . . I want to be private with you as well, but--”

“Then come with me to the Circle C.”

Relenting, she nodded.

Relief and anxiety struck Joe simultaneously.  Tipping her chin up, he kissed her hungrily--allowing the complex web of emotions nipping at his heart to wash over her in demanding wave after demanding wave.  Trembling, she clung to him, as eager for the intimacy as he was to give it.   When the kiss ended, she wrapped her arms around his neck and buried her face against his chest.

“I don’t want to hurt you, Joe.”

Gently, he stroked her back.  “You’ll never hurt me, Angel.”

Wrapping his arm around her shoulders, he led her outside to the buggy.  By the time they arrived at the Circle C, the sky was deepening with twilight.  Frothy silver stars emerged, scattered like dust on the darkening sky.  Deep blue, tinged with grape-purple at the edges, the broad expanse of heaven crowned Shey Cutter’s home like a jeweled circlet.  An imposing structure with white frontal columns, elevated porch, and Colonial lines, the two-and-a-half-story home looked nothing like a western edifice.  Seeing it now, the front windows ablaze with warm light, Lorna drew a breath.

“It’s very imposing, isn’t it?”

Flecking the reins, Joe grinned crookedly.  “Half the territory thought Lincoln Cutter was out of his mind, when he built it.  My Pa said he never outgrew his roots in the east, and wanted to bring part of that with him when he came west.”

Suddenly uncomfortable, Lorna nodded.  “I can understand that.”  Resting a hand on his arm, she refocused the conversation.  “I don’t remember you being friends with Shey when I was here before,” she observed conversationally.  “In fact, I was shocked to get the telegram from him.  As I recall, the two of you were hostile with each other.”

Joe shrugged.  “A lot happens in a year.”  The crunch of wagon wheels across grass and gravel filled a momentary silence.  Drawing the buggy to a halt in front of the house, Joe turned in the seat to look at Lorna.  “If Shey hadn’t written you--”  Anxious, he wet his lips.  “Would you still have come?”

Her pause was marginal.  “Yes.”

A slow smile stretched Joe’s lips.  He grinned with dazzling charm, known to melt the staunchest woman’s heart.  In the soft, smoky glow of twilight, his eyes were dark green--deep and dusky as a leaf-strewn forest floor.  Shadow and light sculpted the finely boned planes of his face, adding to the stark sensuality smoldering in his eyes.

Hesitantly, Lorna fingered the edge of his hair where it rested against his collar.  “Joe, you’re still so young.  I know I said I wouldn’t let our ages make a different, but you’re ten years younger than I am, and you haven’t really lived--”

Catching her hand, he brought it to his lips.  “I’ve lived enough to know what I want.  At this moment--right now--” He gazed steadily into her eyes.  “I want you.”

Lorna shivered.  A man didn’t talk to a woman like that.  Not a man who professed to be ethical and upstanding, who played the part of suitor in the courting dance deemed proper by society.  But Lorna had always been attracted to men who flaunted their sensuality.  From her first husband, to Joe, to Garrett--

Distressed, she pushed the thought aside.  The past didn’t matter.  Like Joe, she was entrenched in the moment, controlled by the blatant, undeniable edge of his sheer masculinity.  Being away from him for so long in no way affected the influence he had over her.  What other woman would slip away in the night, seeking a bed in a stranger’s house for the sole purpose of intimacy?  Though her rational mind berated the slanderous behavior, and the unfairness of what she did to Joe, the other thrilled in anticipation of the moment to come.

Startled, she jerked as the front door swung open.  Alerted by the sound of the buggy, Shey Cutter stepped onto the front porch.

“Cartwright?  Is that you?”

Vaulting to the ground, Joe sent Lorna a quick smile.  His teeth flashed white in the darkness.  “Wait here.”

Before she could comment, he sprinted up the front steps, leaving her isolated in the buggy.

At the sight of his friend in string tie and pristine white shirt, Shey arched a brow.  “Ain’t you dressed just a tad showy for a social call?”

Catching Shey by the arm, Joe steered him away from the edge of the porch and the spray of yellow light slanting through the door.  “I need a favor, Shey.  Some privacy--upstairs--no questions asked.”

His jaw slack, disbelief spread quickly over Shey’s face.  “Are you out of your mind, Cartwright?  Do you know what your father would do to me, if he found out I let you have some sordid, improper love nest--”


“--under my nose?  This ain’t no brothel, Joseph.”


“I told you that filly was gonna string you along on a nose-ring.  Let a man think he can drop his drawers for a few minutes, and his brain’s suddenly on the same level as his backside.”

Cutter!”  At the end of his rope, Joe wrenched Shey’s arm for the sheer satisfaction of force.  “First of all, my Pa isn’t going to find out.  Second, I’m in love with Lorna, so I don’t want to hear any off-color remarks about brothels and love-nests, and third--” He inhaled deeply as if striving for patience. “I know exactly what I’m doing.”

Shey snorted.  Irked, he folded his arms over his chest.  “I suppose you want me to leave?”

“It wouldn’t hurt.  You could wander down to the barn and check the stock.”  Witnessing the flash of disgruntled irritation in the other’s eyes, Joe recanted his gruff demeanor.  “Look, Shey--you did an incredible thing, bringing her back here.  I can’t even imagine how you found her, how you tracked her down.  But the fact is, she is here, and I’m still in love with her.  I came this close--” Raising his hand, he held his thumb and index finger together. “--to making her my wife.  I thought I could pretend, but I can’t.”

Scowling, Shey glanced to the buggy and the slim silhouette of the woman perched on the seat.  “What about her?”

“Right now she wants the same thing I do, and that’s a few hours of privacy in an upstairs bedroom.  She wouldn’t have come here--I wouldn’t have brought her, unless I thought I could trust you."

Irritably glancing aside, Shey grumbled something unintelligible.  Lacing a hand through his straight blonde hair, he huffed out a breath.  “You’re worse than a brother, you know that?”

When Joe’s grin stretched to reveal the even line of his teeth, Shey stuffed his hands in his pockets and moodily stalked off the front porch.  “Evening, Miss David,” he called, passing the buggy on the driver’s side, then making his way down the unlighted path to the barn.  Grinning, Joe sprinted down the steps and offered a hand to Lorna.  Assisting her from the buggy, he wrapped his arm around her shoulders, drawing her close.

“I told you he was a good friend.”

“Hmm.”  Pressing a hand to his chest, she toyed with the end of his string tie.  “Sometime you’re going to have to tell me how you go from being enemies with a man, to having a friendship like that.”

“Sometime,” Joe agreed, kissing her softly.

Inside the house, he led her upstairs, drawing her to the bedroom he used when he stayed nights rather than return to the Ponderosa.  Pausing inside the door, he lit the oil lantern, then trimmed the wick to low.  Warm light infused the room with a brassy glow, akin to the yellow glimmer of a late-day harvest sun.  Turning, he caught Lorna’s hand, pulling her firmly against him.

Suddenly shy, she pressed her fingertips to his chest, tilting her head to gaze into his eyes.  Beneath her fingers she felt the rapid race of his heart, the sharp rise and fall of his ribs.  When they’d met earlier today, she hadn’t envisioned the evening ending like this.  She had wanted to talk to him--to explain what had happened in the east--to discover whether or not he might still be able to love her . . . when he realized why she’d returned.

Pushing the unsettling thought from her mind, Lorna concentrated on the tantalizing feel of his body pressed to hers.  It reawakened memories of nights when they’d lain twined in each other’s arms, naked flesh melded to naked flesh--of stolen moments and caresses when he’d stroked her skin to sensitized awareness. Despite his youth, he was ably skilled in the art of lovemaking--a habit she only now realized she was prone to indulge.

Garrett too had been young, only twenty-five, but terribly experienced in a woman’s boudoir.  He’d known how to touch her in a manner that left her quaking for more.  Foolishly, she’d momentarily imagined herself in love with him, when he’d only been interested in a night or two of seduction.  That fatal mistake would likely cost them both, unless she managed to rectify the damage she’d done--to Amherst Filmore, to Garrett--and, mostly importantly--to Joe.

The thoughts spun carelessly away as Joe pressed his lips to hers.  Yielding, she opened her mouth beneath his, inviting the hungry probe of his tongue.  With trembling fingers she tugged free his string tie, lightly flecking his collar, before easing open the top button of his shirt.  The heat of his lips ignited warm fire deep in her belly, coaxing her to arch suggestively in his embrace.  The track of his hands on her back was both gentle and firm, skimming the bare flesh of her shoulders, before dipping to the hooked closure of her dress.

With a start, Lorna felt one closure slide free, followed by a second and a third.  Skimming his fingertips beneath her arm, Joe traced the neckline of her dress.  The open bodice gaped wide on her breasts, leaving ample room for his lingering touch.  Quaking in his embrace, she freed the remaining buttons on his shirt, eagerly pressing her palm to his chest.  His skin was smooth and warm, rigidly planned with taut muscle.  Hungering for more, she skimmed her fingers low beneath his belt, rewarded by an immediate shift in his body.  His mouth descended on hers, demanding and urgent.  One hand snagged in her hair, carelessly pulling free the pins, until loose curls spilled over her bare shoulders.  With a low groan, Joe urged her to the bed.

Trapped in his control, Lorna no longer had the capacity to reason.  There was only abrupt need and hunger, shamelessly awakened by his ardent touch.  Their clothing was quickly shed, discarded among soft gasps and low moans of pleasure.  His body was as she remembered--lean and deliciously muscled, plaited now with whispering shadow and the brass-soaked glow of a bedside lantern.  When he pushed her down on the bed, she welcomed the pressure of his knee forcing her legs apart.  Eager for his touch, she was surprised when he caught both of her wrists in a singular grip and pulled her arms above her head.  Breathless, she stared up at him.  His eyes were hooded and lash-heavy, burning with the smoky glow of pure passion.  Slowly he stroked her body, trailing brazenly slow fingertips over the rounded globe of her breast; the dip and swell of waist and hip; the quivering silken flesh of her inner thigh.

Lorna moaned aloud.

She felt his lips against her ear, her neck, and then he was kissing her.  Freeing her arms, he slipped one hand behind her head, urging closer contact.  Responding, she wrapped her arms around his neck, slipping her fingers into the thick curling ends of his hair.  He shifted, and she quivered in anticipation of coveted intimacy.  Past and present converged as Joe carried her into that blissful union--beyond shared memories and into the staggeringly pure ecstasy of the moment.

Later, when she could think again--when she drifted slowly back to concrete awareness, Lorna lay twined in Joe’s arms.  In the back of her mind she registered the quiet tick-tock of a steeple clock on the dresser.  Vaguely she wondered what time it was--if Callie would fret over her absence, or if she could spare the luxury of properly reacquainting herself with Joe’s body.

Smiling, she snuggled against his chest. “I’m not even back twenty-four hours and you’ve already managed to seduce me, Joe.”  Experimentally, she drew a lazy finger across his abdomen, pleased when he sucked in his breath.  “You have a knack for making me the center of gossip.”

“If that were true, I’d have gotten us a room at the hotel.”  Sparing a slit-eyed glance, Joe wrapped one arm around her shoulders.  “I’m in no hurry to take you back, Lorna.  We can stay here all night--and get reacquainted.”

The pointed suggestion brought a flush of color to Lorna’s cheeks.  Though she was tempted to spend endless hours with him, luxuriating in the feel of his naked flesh pressed to hers, she knew it wasn’t practical.  More so, the prickly matter of why she’d returned to Virginia City and Joe Cartwright in the first place, remained unresolved.  The thought made her sober abruptly.

Dipping her head, she wet her lips.  “You should probably take me back to Callie’s.”

Sensing the change in her tone, the sudden tension in her body, Joe slipped a finger beneath her chin and forced her head up.  “Lorna, we haven’t even . . .”  He flushed with difficulty.  “We haven’t even talked.  I don’t want you to think because of what happened here, there’s nothing deeper between us.  My feelings for you haven’t changed.”

“Please don’t.”  Pushing away from him, Lorna sat forward, drawing the sheet to her breast.  “Everything is so . . . different.”  Forcing the word, she drew a shuddering breath.  She hadn’t wanted to admit the truth so soon, and certainly not after such intimacy.  Glancing over her shoulder, she plowed ahead while she retained the courage.  “You asked me if I would have come back regardless of Shey’s invitation and I told you I would--but not for the reason you think, Joe.”

Something unsettled crossed his face.  Indecision and concern entered his eyes, shuttering aside the open animation of just moments before.  “I don’t like the sound of that.”

Keeping the sheet wrapped around her, Lorna stepped from the bed.  “Would you give me some privacy while I dress?”

Frowning, Joe hesitated.  She knew he wasn’t one for patience.  He’d always reacted instinctively, existing on short, staggering bursts of emotion.  Watching him now--the play of emotion on his face, Lorna knew he struggled to temper his own unstable reaction.  Relenting with a crisp nod, he pulled on his pants, gathered the rest of his clothes and exited the room.

Folding onto the edge of the bed, Lorna steepled both hands over her lips.  Did she truly love him, or had their ardent passion been nothing more than the unquenchable attraction of two healthy adults for one another?  A year ago she wouldn’t have questioned her feelings for him.  But a year ago there hadn’t been a refined blonde-haired man who made her weak in the knees, nor an overly zealous protector/benefactor named Amherst Filmore.  A part of her did love Joe, but the part she’d left in the east loved a fair-haired upper-crust gentleman named Garrett.  Unfortunately, wealthy and prominently placed in blue-blooded society, Garrett didn’t feel the same about her.

Tortured by the conflict, Lorna pushed from the bed and gathered her clothing.  She dressed slowly, blushing to remember the way Joe had touched her--the way she’d writhed and moaned beneath his skilled caresses.  Was it possible one woman could love two men so passionately?  She’d once created a triangle between herself, Joe and Adam.  Was it possible even now, she created yet another between herself, Joe and Garrett?

Eventually she knew she’d have to tell Joe the truth.  Confide in him about Amherst Filmore and the hired guns he’d sent after her and Garrett.  But that would come later, when she knew where her feelings lay.  For now there was the chance of romance again, with a man she’d once loved as passionately as life itself.

Straightening her dress, Lorna gathered her composure and went in search of Joe.


The return trip to Callie’s home was mostly silent.  Afraid to question Lorna about what had brought her back to Virginia City, Joe allowed her the opportunity to speak on her own.  Declining to readdress the matter, she slipped her arm through his and snuggled against him on the front seat of the buggy.  While he enjoyed the sensation of her body nestled against his, he remained troubled by her behavior in the bedroom.

When she did speak it was to discuss trivial matters--her train ride from Baltimore, how different the climate was in the west, Kevin’s recent fascination with photography, the latest fashions deemed acceptable in the east.  Dropping into silence, she seemed contented by the mere contact of his body so close to hers.  When he turned his head, lightly brushing his lips across her crown, she made no move to draw away.  Later standing on Callie’s front porch, she tipped her head, inviting his kiss.  Breathless, she promised to see him again, but through it all Joe felt slightly unbalanced.

Restless, he chose to return to the Circle C rather than the Ponderosa.  Shey greeted him at the door, then wandered into the living room.  Plopping on the couch, the blonde-haired man braced both feet against the coffee table, boot heels hooked carelessly on the edge. “You look like a long-faced prairie mut, Cartwright.  Don’t tell me she ain’t all you remembered?”

Scowling, Joe dropped his hat on the table.  Retreating to a nearby chair, he sat on the edge, leaning forward and lacing his hands together.  “Keep it clean, Shey.  Nothing between Lorna and I has changed.”

“Uh-huh.”  Unconvinced, Shey rolled his eyes. “Seems to me she’s just a trifle too eager.”

“What does that mean?”

The fair-haired man scowled.  “Do I have to spell it out for you, Cartwright?  How many women you know, would hop into bed with a gent they ain’t seen in a year?”

Joe’s face darkened.  “I told you to keep it clean.”

“Yeah, I know.”  Dropping his feet to the floor, Shey sat forward.  “And there you go gettin’ all hostile aggressive.  You know, Joseph, if I’d had an inkling that femme fatale was gonna turn you into such an ornery cuss, I would’ve left her battin’ her eyelashes in Baltimore.”

Joe smiled tightly.  “It wouldn’t matter.  She told me she would have come back even without your invitation.”

Shey snorted.  “A woman will say anything she thinks a man wants to hear.”  Standing, he crossed to a small table near the fireplace and poured himself a shot of brandy.  Raising the decanter, he offered it to Joe, who shook his head.  “Guess I’m just a tad skeptical of most women.”

“Is that why you keep putting off Callie?”  Joe asked, changing the subject.  From the start, Shey had never been particularly fond of Lorna, and he didn’t like the added suspicion in his friend’s voice.  It was easier refocusing the conversation, than allowing it to degenerate into something unpleasant.

“Who says I’m putting her off?”  With a grimace, Shey tossed down the brandy.

Joe watched as he poured another glass, carelessly sloshing some of the liquid over the side.  “She’s threatening to go riding with Cliff Thompson unless you start calling again.”  Pausing, he considered his friend before blundering ahead.  “You know, Shey--not every marriage ends bad.”

With a distracted grunt, Shey Cutter paced to the window.  Watching him, Joe was reminded of Shey’s unwillingness to talk about his mother.  She’d initiated her own fate many years ago, when she chosen to run off with a card-sharp, leaving Lincoln Cutter with a floundering ranch and two young boys.  It was no wonder Shey was so distrustful of women.

“I ain’t skittish about marriage, if that’s what you’re thinking,” Shey said to the window.  In the night-blackened pane, Joe could see his friend’s reflection--the sharp, angled lines of his face, the heavy straight strands of his moon-pale hair.  “I just ain’t sure Callie’s the one.”    Glancing over his shoulder, he crooked a half-smile.  “Kind of odd, huh, Cartwright?  You dead set on marrying that eastern filly, and me dead set on holdin’ Callie at bay.  What do you think your Pa’s gonna say--hell, what do you think Adam’s gonna say about Lorna coming back?”

Joe bit his lip.  Shey was just as skilled at turning conversation as he was, when he didn’t like the direction it headed.  Uncomfortable, he shrugged.  “I don’t know.”  Standing, he smoothed his hands over his pants and exhaled.  The ride back to the Ponderosa was by no means a short one and it was already dark outside.  “I should probably go,” he said directly.

Turning his back to the window, Shey propped a shoulder against the glass.  “You don’t have to cut and run, Joe.  I’ve boarded shabbier rubes than you.”

“Yeah, I know.”  Retrieving his hat, Joe laced a hand through his hair, then settled it on his head.  “But I wouldn’t want to outstay my welcome, when I might have need of that room upstairs again.”

Puffing out his cheeks, Shey smiled tartly.  “Next time I’m gonna charge you by the hour.”

Joe chuckled.  “Next time I’ll wait till you’re in town.”  Pausing, he cast his friend a serious glance.  “Thanks, Shey.  For everything.”

Pointedly, Shey arched a brow.  “See if you still feel that way a few days from now when your uppity goddess decides whether or not she’s gonna stay.”  With a scowl he tossed down the remainder of his brandy.  “Now get the hell out of here, Cartwright.  I got my own problems.”

With a knowing grin and a backward wave of his hand, Joe left his friend to ponder a slender brunette named Callie and the ever troubling prospect of marriage.


Normally a late sleeper, the anticipation of seeing Lorna again had Joe up and active the next morning, before the rest of his family even awoke.  Unusually restless, he finished chopping the firewood he’d left half-completed the day before, then made a stop at the barn to check on Cochise.  Satisfied the mare had feed and water, he wandered back to the house, venturing inside just in time for breakfast.

The dark aroma of freshly brewed coffee drew him to the table, just as Adam and Hoss descended the steps.  Noting the look of sluggish surprise on Hoss’s broad face, Joe chuckled appreciatively.  “What’s the matter big brother--a little too early for you?”

Seated at the table, Ben cast all three a speculative look.  “He’s probably as surprised as I am to see you this early, Joseph.  Especially considering you got home rather late last night.”

Shrugging, Joe pulled out his chair, then reached for the nearest platter of food.  Forking a mound of scrambled eggs onto his plate, he tried to appear nonchalant.  “I didn’t think you noticed.”

Yawning, Hoss dragged a hand over his face.  “Must have been some hot date.”  Stretching, he hooked both hands together, raising them above his head, making a showy effort of sloughing off the morning’s torpor.  “What’dya think, Adam?”  Deflating like a hot air balloon, he exhaled loudly, then promptly confiscated the eggs from Joe.  “I’m bettin’ our little brother found a pretty face to spark.  And I’m bettin’ Shey Cutter had somethin’ to do with it.  Joe still ain’t told us what Shey got him for his birthday.”

Raising one eyebrow, Adam sipped his coffee.  “If it involves Cutter, it’s bound to be something we’re all going to regret.”

“Adam.”  Ben’s glance was reprimanding and dark.  Sometimes he felt like he was walking a tightrope, trying to balance the interactions of three sons with varying personalities.  Hoss was the amiable peacekeeper, Adam, the moody loner, and Joe, the quick-tempered extrovert.  The wrong word cast in Joe’s direction could easily ignite the sharp, caustic edges of his mercurial personality.   Shey Cutter was a continual thorn between Adam and Joe, despite Adam’s strained attempts to accept the unusual friendship.

Oddly enough, it appeared Adam’s muttered comment regarding Shey had gone unnoticed by Joe.  Ben’s youngest son seemed preoccupied, pushing potatoes and eggs around his plate with a rambling fork.  Bottom lip tucked between his teeth, dark hair rumpled and ragged with curls, he looked barely out of his teens, rather than a man just turned twenty-three.  Realizing something was not quite right, Ben looked steadily at his son.

“Did you have a nice time last night, Joe?” he asked casually.

“Huh?”  Joe’s head came up with a jerk.  A skittish smile flitted over his lips.  “Uh, sure, Pa . . . it was great.  It’s just that--”  Swallowing hard, he looked from Ben to Adam and Hoss, then back again.  “I was thinking . . . you probably should know what Shey did for my birthday.  I mean, sooner or later . . . well . . .”  The smile returned, flighty like before, with distinct nervous edges.

Concerned, Ben leaned forward, bracing his arm against the table edge.  “Joe, is something wrong?”

“No.”  Sitting straighter, he cleared his throat.  “Actually it’s the opposite.”

Intrigued, Adam looked at him directly.  “What did Cutter give you?”

Joe swallowed hard.  “Lorna.  Lorna David.”

In the moment of stunned silence that followed, the air hung close and oppressive.  Ben watched the play of emotion on his youngest son’s face--from unyielding deliberateness to eager solicitation.  As quickly as Joe made the announcement, he rushed to explain.

“Shey tracked her back east and asked her to come to Virginia City.” With an uncertain glance, Joe looked from Adam to Ben.  “He arranged for her arrive on my birthday.  That’s who I was with last night.  I, um . . . thought you should know.”

With a muttered curse, Adam glanced at the table.

Immediately Joe tensed.  “Don’t ruin this for me, Adam.”

Disgusted, the older man stood and dropped his napkin over his plate.  “I’ve got work to do,” he muttered.

Irked, Joe pressed his lips together.  “You see, Pa,” he complained as his brother left the room.  Within moments the front door banged shut, informing them Adam had stalked outside.  “I try to be honest by admitting she’s in town, and that’s how he reacts.  I’m not gonna let Adam ruin this.”

Holding up a hand, Ben tried to stave off the outburst.  “Let’s just take things slowly, Joseph.  The fact that Lorna’s back in Virginia City, doesn’t mean--well . . . I just don’t want to see you get hurt.”

With a disgusted grimace, Joe shook his head.  “I’m a big boy, Pa.  I can take care of myself.  And--” he added with a deliberate glance for both Ben and Hoss, “--my own love life.  Excuse me.”

Pushing from his chair, Joe left the room.


Bracing his arms against the top bar of a split-rail fence, Shey Cutter watched as his head wrangler worked on gentling a blaze-faced cow pony.  It always seemed odd to him that “gentling” implied something serene, while the actual task of breaking a wild mustang was grueling for both man and animal.  This cow pony--a modest 12 hands--was quickly nearing the end of its endurance, after being bridled and hobbled, then released through a punishing, bucking ride.  Shey knew it was the third day the wrangler had worked with this particular horse, and the pony was almost to the point of submission.  Attempting to teach the animal to ignore unexpected sounds and motions, the rider hazed it with a rain slicker, then rode to a standstill.

“He’ll be a good one,” Rob Falcon, Shey’s foreman, said at his side.

With a curious glance, the blonde-haired man smiled.  “Horse or wrangler?”

Falcon chuckled.  “Both.”  Pausing, he nodded to an approaching rider.  “I think you got company, Boss.  Look there--”

Shielding his eyes against the glare of early morning sunlight, Shey followed Rob’s direction.  A rider had just broached the horizon, approaching at a clipped pace.  As he drew nearer, Shey frowned, realizing the upcoming confrontation was likely inevitable.  Muttering darkly, he told Rob to keep the wranglers working, then stepped away from the corral to greet his visitor in private.

Huffing out a resigned breath, Shey pushed his hat back on his head.  “Morning, Adam,” he said as the older man drew abreast.

Drawing rein beneath a large ash tree, Adam dismounted.  His face was grim as he looped the reins over a low-hanging branch.  Judging by his set expression, Shey guessed the visit was far from social.  “So,” he said with a flippant grin, “I’m guessing Joe told you who he spent the night entertaining.”

Facing him belligerently, Adam placed his hands on his hips.  “You’ve got rocks in your head, Cutter.  How could you ask her back here, knowing how Joe feels about her?”

“Whoa--” Holding up both hands, Shey pressed his lips together.  “I’m bettin’ this has more to do with how you feel about her.”

“You’re wrong,” Adam snapped.  Above his head the wind moaned through the branches of the tree, awakening the creak of aged timber.  “I might have had feelings for her once--maybe even right up until the point when she left.  But a lot happens in a year.”  Frowning, he shook his head.  “I’m thinking of Joe, Shey.  This is going to end up hurting him worse than before, if she leaves again.”

Uncomfortable, Shey shrugged.  Overhead the branches sighed and moaned, making him concentrate momentarily on the sudden nipping gusts of wind.  The sky, though cloudless and blue, was rimmed with a dark edge on the horizon.  “So maybe she won’t leave,” Shey ventured awkwardly, as abruptly unsettled as the distant storm.

Disgusted, Adam shook his head.  “You’ve got a real knack for causing havoc with my brother, you know that Cutter?”

“What does that mean?”

“It means I don’t understand the two of you,” Adam exploded.  Stalking to the tree, he wrenched the reins from the branch.  “Every time I think I’ve got you figured out--that maybe you aren’t the idiot I thought you were--you do something so confoundedly stupid, I’m convinced you’re really playing some insidious game and you’re out to nail Joe’s hide to the wall.”

“Listen, Cartwright--”

“No, you listen!”  Wrenching around, Adam stabbed a finger in his face.  “You might have thought you were doing Joe a favor, but I guarantee you this ridiculous stunt is going to backfire.  I know Lorna.  She’s going to leave again and he’s going to be worse off than before.  When that happens, you better be ready to pick up the pieces.”

Swinging up onto his horse, Adam reeled the animal around.  Disturbed, Shey watched him vanish in a cloud of dust and debris, kicked up by the backlash of his stallion’s hooves.  Biting his lip, he glanced again at the sky.  He hadn’t really considered what was involved when he’d hired the Pinkerton agent to track Lorna David.  He’d just known he’d wanted to do something special for Joe--a friend who was confounding and confusing, closer than his own brother had been, and yet, up until a year ago, a bitter enemy.  A normal gift hadn’t seemed appropriate for that kind of unorthodox friendship.  He’d searched until he’d found the one thing he thought would make Joe happy.  But Adam was right--

Lorna David was bound to bring another storm.


Stepping from the post office, Adam slipped a handful of letters into his saddlebag.  He’d decided on the spur-of-the-moment trip to town, simply as a means to cool down after his confrontation with Shey.  It had taken every ounce of control he possessed not to strike his brother’s friend.  Somewhere in the confused, heated muddle of his thoughts, he knew Shey meant well, but that realization was buried beneath the foolishness of what the younger man had done.

It was difficult adjusting to Joe’s friendship with Shey.  For too long Adam had viewed Lincoln Cutter’s youngest son as nothing more than a bully and a troublemaker.  He’d spent a good part of his youth patching up Joe’s bloody noses and cuts, most of them courtesy of his brother’s run-ins with Shey and his gang.  When they’d gotten past school age, the brawls had become more violent, and Adam recalled a time or two when he’d been tempted to take Shey apart for fighting unfairly.  Reconciling that same Shey Cutter--the foul-mouthed youth who thought nothing of jumping Joe from behind, or fighting when Joe was outnumbered--with the suddenly respectable rancher who professed unshakable friendship with his brother, was next to impossible.  Though Joe had adapted quickly, proclaiming Shey his closest friend, Adam remained distrustful and often annoyed.  It wasn’t in his place to become involved, but he’d spent the last year witnessing first-hand what Lorna’s departure had done to Joe.  It was true what he’d told Shey--his own feelings for the dark-haired woman had waned with the passing of time.  There remained a minute fondness, but he had no desire to renew his relationship with her.

With a glance down the street, Adam considered the hour.  It was too early to visit the saloon, though he was sorely tempted.  Deciding on breakfast and a cup of coffee, since his own early meal had been interrupted, he headed for the hotel.  Stepping indoors, he removed his hat, dusting it against his pants.  He could see into the rear room where early-rising patrons already occupied a handful of tables.  As he started for the dining area, a conversation at the registry desk drew his attention.

“Did you say Lorna David?”

Halfway across the room, Adam stopped, drawn by the uncertainty in the desk clerk’s voice.

“That’s right.  She might have gotten into town a few days ago.”  The man who waited to register was tall and thin, with straw-colored side-whiskers and shaggy flaxen hair.  His mouth was heavy and thick-lipped, his eyes lusterless and gray.  Dressed in a shabby, dust-covered suit, he appeared to have just arrived in town.  A well-worn saddlebag was thrown over his shoulder.

“I’m sorry, Sir,” the desk clerk said.  “We’ve no one staying here by that name, but you’ll find your room at the top of the stairs.”

Scowling, the stranger collected his room key and turned.

“Excuse me.”  Stepping to his side, Adam studied him directly.  “I couldn’t help over-hearing your conversation.  Did you say it was Lorna David you’re looking for?”

Dull eyes narrowing in marked suspicion, the stranger nodded.  “You know her?”

Feigning cordiality, Adam smiled briefly.  “I’m Adam Cartwright.”  He extended his hand.  “I didn’t get your name.”

Pausing longer than socially acceptable, the man shook hands.  “Hal Cooper.”

“How do you know Lorna?”

“A friend.  From back east.”  The gray eyes narrowed further.  “You didn’t answer me--do you know her?”

“I did.”  Glancing over his shoulder, Adam looked to the dining area as though he was impatient for breakfast, and was only making idle conversation.  “She used to live around here--somewhere at the end of town.  She left for Baltimore about a year ago.”  Pressing his lips together he smiled toothlessly.  “Want to join me for coffee?”

“No thanks.”  The words were curt and distinctly unfriendly.  Scowling, Cooper looked Adam over from head to toe.  “If you hear anything, I’m in room five.  It’s important I see Lorna, so I’m willing to pay for any information you can give.”

Adam feigned ignorance.  “She’s not in trouble, is she?”

“Course not.  Just friends back east lookin’ out for her.”  With a tip of his hat, the man turned and walked up the steps.  Adam stood staring after him, disturbed by both his presence and his interest in Lorna.  Thankfully the desk clerk had only recently arrived in Virginia City himself, and thus knew nothing about Lorna David or her involvement with the Cartwrights.

Puffing out his cheeks, Adam exhaled.  Was it possible the woman who had caused his brother so much grief, was bringing trouble yet again?


Anxious, Lorna bit her lip.  Steam from her morning tea rose and warmed her face, but it couldn’t disperse the troubling edges clinging to her thoughts.  Sunlight streamed through a nearby window, spattering the small table with bright yellow squares, each perfectly formed cube, broken by a sliver of shadow from the lattice framework on the glass.  Twirling a spoonful of honey into her tea, Lorna raised the cup to her lips and stared across the table at Callie.  “I shouldn’t have told you,” she said despondently.

Callie wet her lips.  “You needed to tell someone,” she managed, though she was clearly uncomfortable.  Glancing at the teacup resting neatly in her hands, she struggled to point out the obvious.  “Lorna, you have to tell Joe the truth.”

“That’s the problem,” the older woman persisted.  “I don’t know what the truth is!”

Frustrated, Callie sat straighter.  “You just told me you’re in love with Garrett.”

“Garrett has no feelings for me,” Lorna admitted miserably.  “He was just a dashing, sensual man who I encountered on a whim.  We spent two weeks together while he was in Baltimore.  I fell in love with him from almost the very start, but he made it plain, he wasn’t interested in a relationship.

“And that’s when Amherst Filmore grew possessive?”  Callie guessed.

Sighing, Lorna leaned back in the chair.  “More than possessive--he became downright vindictive.  I don’t know what happened, Callie.”  Attempting to sort through the muddle of the past year, Lorna set her cup on the table and fingered the edge of the saucer.  “I didn’t know anyone when I first arrived in Baltimore--just my aunt.  Amherst was an acquaintance of an acquaintance.  I thought he was charming and kind.  And he was so much older than me, I looked on him as a father more than anything else.”

“Yet all that time he was growing enamored of you,” Callie said intuitively.

Sadly, Lorna nodded.  “I didn’t notice at first.  He was more of a protector and benefactor.  He did things for me--bought things for Kevin--small things, so I let it be.  We had dinners together, and took an occassional day trip in his carriage.  Maybe I was encouraging him, but I honestly thought his attentions were innocent.”

Callie snorted none too delicately.  She’d spent enough time in a brothel--if only as a seamstress and domestic helper, to realize men never did anything innocently.  Motive was the keyword when a man lavished attention on a woman.  She couldn’t believe someone of Lorna’s age and past experience--having worked as a dance hall girl, and once been married to a notorious gunslinger--could be so utterly naïve.  Then again, Callie thought, biting her lip.  Maybe she’s not.

“When Amherst found out about Garrett, that’s when everything turned ugly,” Lorna continued, oblivious to Callie’s musing.  “I tried to convince him that Garrett wasn’t serious about me--that it was just a romantic fling, but he’s dead set on making Garrett pay.  He’s hired a killer to track and murder him.”

“And Shey’s telegram arrived at the same time all this was going on?”  Callie shook her head in disbelief.  She wanted to rattle her friend--to tell her to stop toying with the affections of the men in her life, but she played the part of sympathetic companion.  Perhaps if she found the right words, Lorna would admit the truth to Joe.

“Yes.  The timing couldn’t have been better.  Garrett came west himself--something to do with an inheritance.  I sent a letter to him in California, but I’m afraid he won’t take it seriously.  Aside from which--he’s an eastern-bred gentleman--a college graduate.  He wouldn’t stand a chance against a hired gun.”

Callie felt a flush of irritation on the back of her neck.  “But Joe would?”

Realizing how horrible it sounded, Lorna pressed a hand to her lips.  “I just want Joe to go with me to talk to Garrett . . . until I can convince him the danger is real.  I need the protection.  Garrett needs the protection.”

“So basically you want Joe to risk his life so you can see the man you love?”

“Callie, don’t be so cruel!”  Pushing from the chair, Lorna paced to the window.  Wringing her hands together, she turned to face her friend.  “I don’t know who I love--that’s the problem.  After last night--”  Flushing, she lowered her lashes.  “When I was with Joe, all those feelings came back.  I’m afraid I might still be in love with him.”

“Is that such a bad thing?”

“No.  It’s just . . .” Her voice trailed away in remorse.  “ . . . I’m confused.”

Mouth settling into a thin, white line, Callie stood.  “I don’t mean to be blunt, Lorna--but you can’t afford to be confused.  It isn’t fair to Joe Cartwright.  Particularly if anything you’ve done, or plan to do, is going to place him in danger.”

“You make it sound like I don’t care.”

“It isn’t that,” Callie returned flatly.  “It’s just that I do.”

Setting aside her teacup, Callie left Lorna to mull over the matter.  Whatever the older woman decided, Callie’s mind was already made up.  She’d likely incur the wrath of both her friend and Joe, but she valued Joe Cartwright’s friendship too much to remain an impartial observer.  Though she loathed the role of gossip, she already knew she’d have to tell Shey.  After all--he was responsible for bringing Lorna to Virginia City in the first place.

Knowing Shey as she did, it was inevitable the truth would get back to Joe.

And that was exactly as she intended.


By mid afternoon, Joe was sweaty and grimy from clearing the overgrowth off a stretch of land bordering Flatrock Creek.  He’d been stuck and prickled by brambles and jagged branches, all tangled together in a bristling, skeletal knot of dead growth, more times than he cared to count.  Dragging the back of one hand across his brow, he mopped aside a clinging film of perspiration, then settled his hat more comfortably on his head.

The air was sticky and close, perpetrating an eerie kind of stillness as the sun slid behind a gathering mass of clouds.  The ragged path of an advancing storm scuttled across the southern sky, growing closer by the minute.  Impending rain weighed heavily in the air, hanging oppressively overhead in bulging blue-black clouds.

Joe stopped long enough to retrieve his canteen from the rear of the buckboard he’d brought from the Ponderosa.  The rickety wagon contained all manner of tools--hatchet, ax, shovel, pick, saw--all carelessly strewn over the rear bed.  Perching on the lip of the wagon, Joe let his legs dangle off the back as he considered the nearby creek.  Rushing water sputtered over jutting rock, frothing white then subsiding in smooth eddies and green-purple rings that gradually dissipated in the moving stream.  At the creek edge, dense brush had gathered in thick clumps, jutting outward to create a barrier in the gentle flow of water.  He’d toiled most of the morning with the obstruction, hacking back the gnarled growth, most of it dry and brittle, some still thriving where nutrient-greedy roots sank into receptive soil.

Preoccupied, his mind wandered to Lorna and the exquisite night they’d spent at the Circle C.  Just recalling their heated lovemaking brought a warm flush to his face.  Immersed in his thoughts, Joe didn’t hear Shey approach, until his friend was almost on top of him.

“So this is the lazy kind of work you do,” Shey commented blithely, tethering his horse nearby then casually sauntering to the wagon.  Thumbing his hat back on his head, he placed his hands on his hips and considered the creek with its accompanying tangle of overgrowth.  “I guess it’s better than cookin’ your flesh on the branding fires.”

Joe’s mouth turned in a wry grin.  “What do you want, Cutter?”

Shrugging, Shey perched on the opposite side of the wagon.  One foot dangled free over the edge, the other braced resolutely against the ground.  A sudden gust of wind kicked small bits of debris from the earth and scattered the long bangs on his brow.  “Slow day at the Circle C.  Thought I’d see what you’re doing.”

Joe chuckled dryly.  “Does that mean you’re gonna help me for a change?”

“That means--Joseph--I’ve got free time on my hands.  I might even wander in town and visit that lady friend of yours.”

Slapping the cork into his canteen, Joe tossed the round-bellied flask aside.  It landed with a gurgle, settling beside a thick-handled ax and pick, the latter’s pointed tip encrusted with clumps of dirt and grass.  Tilting his head, Joe grinned crookedly.  “You fancy my woman, Shey?”

The blonde-haired man snorted.  “Don’t be an idiot, Cartwright.  I just thought I’d have a chat with her.”  Pausing, Shey bit his lip.  “Thought I might ask her about someone named Garrett.”

Sensing a change in the conversation, Joe narrowed his eyes.  Shey’s tone had altered, and like the impending storm, it warned of something not entirely pleasant.  “Who?”

With an exasperated sigh, Shey pushed from the wagon.  “Look, Joe--Callie told me some stuff.  It ain’t gonna be easy for you to hear, but I think you should know what’s goin’ on.”

Expression suddenly guarded, Joe pressed his lips into a flat line.  “What are you getting at?”

Unable to contain himself, Shey blurted the whole miserable truth he’d just recently learned from Callie.  Not one for finesse, he told the tale flatly, without thought of sparing Joe’s feelings.  Never pausing, he rattled off Lorna’s involvement with both Amherst Filmore, and the man known as Garrett, practically spitting out her reasons for returning to Joe.   When he was through, he fell into silence, aware of the overly oppressive air and the severe glower on his friend’s face.  A lengthy pause ensued.

“It’s not true,” Joe said at last, his voice deadly quiet.  A muted rumble of thunder rolled from the horizon.

Shey scowled.  “Damn, but I knew you were gonna say that.”  Perturbed, he stalked forward.  “Don’t you get it, Cartwright?  That conniving little strumpet is using you--all because she fancies some foppish, stuffed-shirt dandy from the east--”

“Stop it, Shey--”

“--she knows you’re a fast draw, and her college-boy lover ain’t gonna be able to protect himself--or her.”

“I said stop it.”

Shey blew air through his teeth.  “She’s really got her hooks in you, huh?”

Coming abruptly to his feet, Joe glared openly.  “That’s enough.”

Disgusted, Shey shook his head.  “Apparently not.”  The glint of camaraderie left his eyes, replaced by a cold directness thoroughly out of character for the cavalier rancher.  He plunked a finger against Joe’s shoulder, grinding the tip into taut flesh.  “Are you that far gone, you ain’t gonna listen to reason?  You think I’m making this up, Cartwright?  You think I got nothin’ better to do then plot lies about your gilded lily?”

Rain pelted the ground as swollen clouds opened above.   Gentle at first, the shower quickly turned into a steady downpour.  Prompted by a rapid streak of lightning, Joe turned away, glancing toward the sky.  Forcing the issue, Shey gripped his shoulder.

“Don’t be stupid, Cartwright.  She ain’t worth what ever she does in your bed.”

Temper snapping, Joe flung off the grip.  “I said that’s enough!”  His anger exploded, heated and fleet as lightning winging across the sky.  Enraged, he drove his fist against Shey’s jaw, propelling the other backward.  When his friend reeled off balance, Joe lurched forward, grappling him about the middle and bearing them both to the ground.  Before he knew what he was doing, he reacted as he would have a few short years ago--thinking nothing of engaging in a fistfight with Shey Cutter.  There was only Lorna and the lies, and the fact that nothing Shey told him could possibly be true.  He wouldn’t hear her slandered . . . wouldn’t hear off-color insinuations, or even the hint of scandal.  She had come back to him, and no one was going to change that.  Not even his best friend.

Blinded by rage, Joe barely realized when he struck Shey, once and again.  Nor did he register the impact of knuckles against his jaw, the harder blow of a fist against his ribs.  Shey cursed at him, mouthing a blistering string of nonsense he didn’t understand.  And somewhere above the thunder and the deluge of rain, tangled with Shey’s increasingly acid oaths, Joe was vaguely aware of approaching hooves.

Grunting beneath a blow from Shey, Joe rolled to the side.  He barely had time to catch his breath, when a rough hand gripped his collar and dragged him to his feet.  “What the hell is going on here?”  The voice was sharp and merciless, yelled scathingly into his ear.  A solid grip restrained him, pressing ruthlessly on his arm, while the hand on his collar tightened, twisting the fabric of his shirt against his neck.  With a start, Joe shrugged off his incensed stupor.


Looking from his brother’s unforgiving expression to Shey Cutter, who stood a few yards away, hands on knees, Joe inhaled raggedly.

Blonde hair tangled and askew, his face bloody, Shey glared openly.  Straightening, he dragged a hand across his mouth, wiping aside blood.  Taking one step forward, he leveled an accusing finger in Joe’s direction.  “You’re an ass, Cartwright.  Don’t say I didn’t try to warn you.”
Stooping, he retrieved his hat from the sodden ground.  Collecting his horse, he mounted and rode away.

Watching him disappear, Adam tugged gruffly on Joe’s arm before releasing him.  “What was that about?”

Retrieving his own hat, Joe turned his back.  “None of your business.”

“Probably not,” Adam muttered, annoyed by his brother’s pointed rebuff.  “But it doesn’t surprise me.  It was just a matter of time until you and Shey Cutter ended up at each other’s throats again.”

Glaring, Joe laced a hand through his wet curls, then donned his hat.  Tugging the brim low, he glanced aside at Adam through narrowed eyes.  “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”  Though still incensed at Shey for the remarks, he couldn’t help silently re-examining what his friend had said.  It was true--Shey had no reason to create lies about Lorna, especially after he’d gone through the trouble to arrange her passage to Virginia City.  Bending to retrieve an ax he’d left lying by the creek bed, Joe tossed it in the rear of the wagon.  “I’m heading back to the ranch.”

“Not so fast.”  Adam stopped him as he moved toward the front of the buckboard.  Placing a hand against Joe’s shoulder he forced the younger man to halt.  “If you don’t want to tell me what happened here, that’s fine.  I’ve never had much use for Shey Cutter anyway.  But you are going to listen to what I’ve got to say.”

“Which is?”  Joe prompted belligerently.

Adam dropped his arm to his side.  “I was in town this morning, at the hotel.  There was a man there.  Said his name was Hal Cooper.  He was asking the desk clerk for information on Lorna’s whereabouts.”

Joe’s heart lurched in his chest.  Attempting to gather his emotions before the anxiety showed on his face, he shrugged.  “So?”

Adam stared pointedly.  “Joe--he wasn’t interested in a social call.”

“What are you saying?

“I’m saying I think Lorna’s in trouble again.”

A vein ticked in Joe’s temple. Were Adam and Shey conspiring together?  Attempting to appear unaffected, Joe clambered into the front of the buckboard.  “I’ll talk to her about it,” he mumbled, gathering the reins in his abruptly chilled hands.  Rain pattered the brim of his hat and sluiced down his collar.  His cheek throbbed where Shey had struck him. Troubled by the dread possibility that both Shey and Adam were right, he flecked the reins.  “I’ll see you at home,” he responded curtly.

The wagon lurched forward, tilting as it lumbered over uneven gravel.  Swallowing hard, Joe recalled his night with Lorna--wondering if it might be his last.


Much later, when the workday was behind him, and he’d had time to dwell on his confrontations with both Shey and Adam, Joe took the buggy to town, anxious to see Lorna.  He’d bathed and changed, donning a fresh shirt and clean pants, and dragged a comb through the curling ends of his thick hair.  The fight with Shey bothered him more than he cared to admit, and niggling suspicion over Lorna lingered in the back of his mind.  Before their relationship progressed much further, he knew he’d have to address the things Shey had told him . . . he’d have to confront Lorna about the man named Garrett and her connection to Amherst Filmore.

Resolving to broach the matter, Joe knocked on the front door.  Lorna greeted him with a smile, informing him Callie had departed earlier to visit Shey, and they had the small house to themselves.  Still off balance, Joe allowed himself to be pulled inside, his senses overwhelmed when Lorna pressed against him, wrapping her arms around his neck.

“I’ve missed you,” she whispered in a breathless voice near his ear.

Bowing his head, Joe inhaled the tantalizing fragrance of her perfume.  She was cream and lace, and the blissful sun-soaked nectar of an enchanting spring day.  Gripping her narrow waist, he held her trapped against him.  Earlier resolve spun away as he claimed her lips in a passion-starved kiss.  Her soft whimper of invitation urged him to probe deeper, devouring her mouth beneath the possessive hunger of his own.

When the kiss ended, he drew back, breathing raggedly.  Raising one hand, he scraped a knuckle across her cheek.  “I can’t stop thinking about last night,” he said huskily. Concerns over Lorna's Baltimore lover spun away, crushed by an insistent surge of desire. “About how good it felt to have you back in my bed--how I want you there again.”

Looking into his eyes, Lorna stilled.  She’d forgotten how incredibly green they were, framed by a fringe of heavy black lashes.  How his glance sent a shiver skittering to the base of her spine; her heart racing in anticipation of his touch. Tightening his grip on her waist, he caressed the trembling flesh of her midsection with his thumbs.  Lorna’s breath caught in her throat. His grip was powerful and demanding--conveying through mere touch, his intention of taking her into the bedroom.  Just thinking of those moments--his bare flesh melded to hers; his unruly dark hair tumbled over his brow; his eyes slitted and heavy with desire--made her quake in his embrace.

Resting her head on his shoulder, she wrapped her arms around his neck.  “I don’t want to be parted again,” she whispered.

His hands left her waist, stroked over her back, roamed beneath her arms to cup her breasts with exquisite tenderness.  The gentle pressure, kneading her so intimately, made her gasp with pure pleasure.  “Joe, please,” she begged--knowing even as she pleaded, their relationship spiraled into one of physical attraction.  Yes, she loved him, and he probably loved her more.  But what each truly desired was the shared contact of flesh on flesh--an experience never equaled with other partners.

She loved his youth and sheer masculinity; favored his attentions and the skilled stroke of his hands.  Even now, she waited for that exquisite touch to continue.  Slipping one arm behind her legs, he lifted her effortlessly, carrying her down the short hall to the bedroom.

Setting her on the bed, he kissed her tenderly.  Was it possible to love a woman while uncertain of her feelings?  Abruptly, his earlier resolve came tumbling back, forcing him to hold his ardor in check.  “We should talk,” he managed with effort.

Confused, Lorna sat forward.  “Joe?”  Extending her hand, she waited for him to take it, but he made no move.  Her heart thrummed against her ribs as she stared at him, her mouth parting with sultry invitation.  There was no doubt he wanted her--the tight fit of his pants made that plain to see--and yet he hesitated.  Biting her lip, Lorna lowered her hand.

Something had happened.  Something that brought a sliver of doubt to his leaf-green eyes.  “Something’s wrong,” she said warily.

Inhaling, Joe struggled for composure.  “I’ve heard some things,” he said haltingly.  “ . . . about a man named Garrett.”

Lorna’s expression wilted.  Standing, she paced quickly to the window, rubbing her hands against her arms.  A brief moment ago she’d been ready to give this man anything he desired, herself included.  Now she felt abruptly chilled.  “Callie told you,” she guessed.

Distressed to hear a hint of truth in her voice, Joe swallowed.  “It doesn’t matter how I found out.”  A cold knot formed in his stomach.  Had she truly arrived in Virginia City with the intent of using him to protect her eastern-bred lover?   “I still love you, Lorna.  I deserve to know what your feelings are.”

Cautiously she turned.  The light in the room was low, cast from a waning lantern.  Beyond the window, the red-gold tint of late day bled through the dusty glass.  Her expression masked in the faltering light, Lorna spoke slowly.  “I don’t know what my feelings are, Joe.  If you know about Garret, then you know he never professed to love me.”

Feeling the first flicker of anger, Joe stood rigidly.  “But you love him?”

She waited--longer than he considered appropriate, forcing the tightness in his stomach to push against his throat.  “No,” she said carefully. “I’m fond of him, as I am of you.  I simply don’t want him to suffer because of me.”

Fond of me?”  Shaking his head, Joe chuckled bitterly.  “You’re stringing me along.  You want me to play protector and maybe get killed, so you can ease your conscience over this Garrett.”

“Joe!”  Bewildered, Lorna strode forward.  “It isn’t like that at all.  I care for you deeply.”

Flinching from her touch, he ignored her attempt at reconciliation.  “Did you know there’s a man in Virginia City looking for you?” he queried sharply.  “A man named Hal Cooper?”

The blood drained from Lorna’s face.  “Dear God.” Suddenly weak, she sank to a seat on the bed.  “Cooper is one of Amherst Filmore’s hired guns.  If he’s found me, then the others have probably found Garrett.”  Desperate, she looked wildly to Joe.  “Please . . . I’m afraid to chance the journey on my own.  And Garrett has no experience with western culture.  He spent his entire life in the east.  He won’t stand a chance if those gunmen get to him first.”

Incensed, Joe turned away.  He waited, silently fuming, his gut tightening with every tension-bloated moment that passed between them.  He’d turned on his best friend, berated his brother, acted like a fool--all for a woman who simply valued his expertise with a gun.  “Did you have to pretend very hard last night in bed?” he asked bitterly.

Behind him Lorna emitted a short, strangled cry.  Unable to look her in the face, Joe strode quickly from the room, hastily exiting the house.  Outside he clambered into the buggy, his face flushed red with anger and embarrassment.

“The hell with her,” he muttered, urging the buggy down the street, away from town.

But inwardly he knew the relationship was far from over.


Hal Cooper picked at his teeth with a slender wooden pick.  Standing on the front porch of the hotel, he propped a shoulder against the nearest post, watching random late-day activity unfurl around him.  Across the street, the owner of the mercantile swept the boards in front of his shop, preparing to close for the day.  A group of long-faced cowhands straggled into the saloon, and a harried mother urged her children out of the street, away from the path of a buggy.

The man in the buggy looked sullen, his youthful face drawn with traces of remorse and anger.  A trifle too pretty, he was the kind of well-to-do cowhand who routinely soured Cooper’s disposition.  He had the look of a wealthy rancher, his green jacket and light-colored pants, clearly cut from quality fabric.  A stone-colored hat crowned dark hair, cleanly tapered behind the ears, long on the collar.  The kind of man a woman would swoon silly for, Cooper thought sourly.

“See that man there?”  The voice came at his elbow, prompting him to look first at the speaker, then back to the youth in the green jacket as directed.  “I hear rumors you’re lookin’ for Lorna David.”

“And if I am?”  Cooper eyed the stranger suspiciously.  Short and squat, with a bullet-shaped head and long red hair, the man was glassy-eyed and unshaven.

Sniffling loudly, he dragged a grubby hand beneath his nose.  “I could use a jigger of whiskey.  Might have something to share if you’re willin’ to pay.”

Straightening, Cooper towered over the shorter man.  His profession meant he routinely dealt with vermin--cutthroats, cowhands and bordertown scavengers who’d sell their life-mate for a shot of rye.  Pulling a gold piece from his pocket, he held it before the other’s red-veined eyes.  “I’m listening,” he said shortly.

Licking his lips, the man spoke quickly.  “I ain’t seen the woman, but I been ‘round these parts a spell.  That peacock in the buggy is Ben Cartwright’s whelp, Joe.  They got a huge spread--damn greedy lot of ‘em--outside Virginia City.  If Lorna’s in town, Joe ‘id know about it.  He an’ the woman spent some time in the hay, a year or so ago.  You hear what I’m sayin’?”

Grimacing distastefully, Cooper flipped him the coin.  “I hear you.”

As soon as the man had his payment, he scuttled out of Cooper’s way, rushing in the direction of the saloon.  Exhaling, the mercenary glanced down the street in the direction the buggy had taken.  Though he had no true lead on Lorna, the information was a step in the right direction.  If nothing else, he’d pass a few hours coercing the young man in the green jacket.

Smiling tightly, he stepped from the porch and headed for the livery stable.

Coercion was something he did very well.


“Shey, you’re positively miserable tonight.”  Agitated, Callie Garrett paced in front of the fireplace, pausing only long enough to cast an annoyed glance in the direction of her moody boyfriend.

Slouched in a chair, his head propped in his hand, Shey spared a brief, rankled glance.  “I didn’t ask you to come.”

Callie pressed her lips together.  If she were a man, she’d give him a matching bruise for the one on his left cheek.  “I thought Lorna and Joe could use some privacy.”

The protest earned an even blacker glance from Shey.  Irritated, Callie approached and stood glaring down at him, hands lodged on her hips.  “You’re acting like a churlish child who didn’t get his way on the playground,” she snapped.  “I know you’re upset over that fight with Joe, but sitting here mulling about it--”

“Callie.”  An icy glower cut short her words in mid-sentence.  She stared at him with the same frosty defiance, until he sighed and leaned forward holding his head.  “It’s just been a miserable day,” he muttered.

Kneeling at his side, Callie placed her hand on his arm.  She felt suddenly guilty for her reprimand.  While she hadn’t known Shey or Joe more than a year, she knew their friendship was exceptionally close. As a result, she knew Shey had to feel horrible for the conflict he’d initiated in inviting Lorna to Virginia City.  She’d heard all the stories and rumors about Shey and Joe in the past--how as young men in their late teens and early twenties, they’d been more inclined to scuffle, then look at one another with anything even remotely resembling good will.

“I’m sorry,” she recanted in a soft voice.  “I know you’re upset about your friend.”

Shey’s eyes flicked to the side.   Lowering his hands, he wet his lips.  “I shouldn’t take it out on you..  Come on--”  Catching her fingers, he escorted her to the door.  “I’m miserable company, Callie.  I’ll make it up to you on another night.”

Hesitating in the foyer, she looked at him questioningly.  There were times she thought she loved him and other times when he was just a friend.  Snagged between the two, she wondered if she’d ever manage to convince him an intimate relationship didn’t have to feel like a trap.  The thought made her think of another woman who’d yet to play fairly.  “Do you think Lorna will be honest with Joe?”

Shey drew open the door.  Beyond the threshold, the wide porch was soaked in scarlet, bloodied by the dying light of the sun.  “I think she’ll say whatever it takes, to get what she wants from him,” he answered tightly.  Catching her hand, he tugged her forward, pressing his lips lightly to hers.  “Good-night, Callie.”

“ ‘Night, Shey,” she mumbled.  Walking down the steps to her buggy, she wondered if he was even capable of the passion she’d seen in Joe.


Trapped in his thoughts, Joe paid little attention to the passing scenery as he took the well-traveled road from town.  He was angry, even hostile over the knowledge that Lorna had loved another man, but how many women had he dallied with the preceding year?  The past shouldn’t matter. Still, the realization that she hadn’t pined for him with a broken heart hurt his vanity.  Swallowing with resolve, he jerked on the reins.  She was back where she belonged, and as long as she was truthful, he could overlook her conduct in Baltimore.

Urging the horse from the main road, Joe drove the buggy over a hillock, forking through a small copse of trees.  Hilly ground unfurled, rolling across a short meadow fording the western perimeter of the Circle C.  Though he had no intention of visiting Shey Cutter, the shortcut would shave at least twenty minutes off his time.

Dusk settled around him, soft and gray, ringed with grape-purple and silver mist.  The last rays of the setting sun melted into the horizon, staining earth, trees and sky with blazing streaks of red-gold fire.  In a matter of mere moments, Joe heard the approach of a rider behind him.  Realizing most travelers rarely strayed from the main road, he pulled the buggy to a halt, glancing over his shoulder.

“ ‘Evening.”  The man who addressed him was lanky and tall, with straight flaxen hair tucked behind his ears.  Bushy side-whiskers made him appear older at first glance.  On closer inspection, his lusterless gray eyes and thick-lipped mouth bespoke a man only nearing thirty.  “Your name Joe Cartwright?”

“That’s right,” Joe said carefully, uncertain how the man knew him.  “Do I know you?”

“Not likely.  Name’s Hal Cooper.”  A wide, toothy grin spread over the older man’s face.  “Just heard you might know the whereabouts of a friend of mine.”  The grin relaxed slightly, easing into something oily and repugnant.  “Lorna David?”

Tensing, Joe felt his unease spread into silent alarm.  There was no mistaking this was the man Adam had told him about.  “Sorry,” he returned flatly, his voice void of emotion.  His mouth thinned into a rigid line.  “Guess I can’t help you.”

“Too bad.  I thought maybe she’d be worryin’ about her kid.  You know--”  Cocking his head, Cooper arched a singular brow.  “--all alone back east with no one but a frail female to look after him.  A boy that age could find himself in a heap of trouble.”

Gooseflesh prickled down Joe’s arms.  A tight, constricting knot formed in his stomach.  “Are you threatening Kevin?”

“Is that what you think?”  Cooper’s voice was soft and melodious, pitched low with silken inflection.  In a movement deceptively casual, yet too quick to follow, he withdrew a pear-handled revolver from beneath his coat.  “You got it all wrong, boy--it’s you I’m threatening.”

The gun exploded.

Searing fire ripped through Joe’s right shoulder, throwing him bodily against the seat.  Startled by the close proximity of the gun’s report, the horse lurched forwarded, bolting into flight.  Half-toppling from the seat, Joe grappled for the reins.  His fingers felt abruptly numb as pain splintered down his arm, erupting from the ragged hole in his shoulder.  With his left hand he groped for his revolver even as he struggled to bring the horse under control.  Behind him, he heard the rapid thud of retreating hoofbeats.

Senses dull and sluggish with pain, he wrenched the buggy to a halt.  Drawing his pistol, he glanced over his shoulder, searching for Cooper.  As quickly as the man had appeared, he’d vanished, lost among the tangle of brush and trees beyond the hillock.  Nervously licking his lips, Joe inhaled unevenly.  Still clutching his gun, he pressed his left hand to his right shoulder, awkwardly trying to staunch the flow of blood.   Something wet and sticky trickled down his back, and he knew from the heated path, the bullet had exited clean.  One-handed, he tugged on the reins, forcing the horse to maneuver sharply left, veering for the nearest haven of safety--Shey Cutter and the Circle C ranch.


The sun had all but vanished by the time Joe reached the stately two-and-a-half-story home of Shey Cutter.  Breathing raggedly, he leaned forward in the buggy, vainly striving to remain upright.  The jarring ride over vast meadows and hillocks had aggravated his shoulder wound, intensifying the level of pain, until it spiked fresh with each labored breath.  His right forearm felt numb and useless, his fingers clumsy appendages barely capable of simple contraction.  The searing flame in his shoulder gouged through bone and sinew, burrowing ever deeper in his back.  Fatigued and light-headed, he stumbled from the wagon, catching himself on the side before his legs could buckle.

Bowing his head, Joe drank unsteadily of the cooling twilight air.  Sweat glistened on his forehead, beading the unruly ends of his bangs with sparkling, crystalline droplets.  For Lorna he had to plod forward--for the woman he couldn’t part with, no matter the injustice she’d done; for Kevin, alone and defenseless back east.

Pushing from the buggy, he placed one foot in front of the other, crossing the short distance to the steps.  The sound of his breath was ragged in his ears, prompted by the hot flow of blood saturating his right arm; the multiplying agony in his shoulder and back. He wanted to sink to the ground, fold up into a ball and surrender to sleep and pain.  But there was Lorna--beautiful, doomed Lorna who saw him more as gunslinger than lover, yet nothing she did could change the way he felt about her.  Gripping the banister with his blood-stained left hand, Joe pulled himself up the steps.

“Cutter!”  Joe stumbled across the porch.  Sagging against the door, he holstered his gun and rolled his hand into a fist.  “Shey.”  Joe pounded on the door, thankful for the solid support of the frame.  Dizziness nipped at the edges of his senses and he swayed momentarily. Bracing his arm against the door, he bowed his head against his sleeve.  “Damn it, Shey,” he muttered, too weak for much of a protest.

Within moments the door swung inward.  Shey Cutter appeared on the threshold looking generally disagreeable and smelling slightly of whiskey.  His hair was disheveled and the tails of his white shirt hung sloppily over his pants. A half-empty bottle of rye dangled from his right hand. The skin over his cheek was mottled and discolored, courtesy of their earlier fight, adding distinctive rough edges to his unkempt appearance.

“Cartwright.  What the hell do you--”   Rankled at first, his expression changed to one of alarm as he registered Joe’s blood-soaked arm.  “Damn it, Joe, what happened to you?”  The edge of irritation fled, quelled beneath worry.  Carelessly dropping the bottle, Shey lurched forward, unconcerned when liquor poured from the neck and dribbled over the floor.  Kicking the bottle aside, he caught Joe’s left arm, slinging it over his shoulders.  Supporting his friend, he helped him to the living room, where he eased him onto the sofa.  “Ain’t we done this before?” he quipped, recalling a previous occurrence when Dayle Coleman had put a bullet in Joe’s side.  “You got a real knack for attractin’ lead, you know that Joseph?”

Joe wet his lips.  “You were right . .  .” Blinking, he tried to focus his suddenly unstable vision.  “  . . . about Lorna.  There’s a man--after her--”

“And you got in the middle.”  Sitting at his side, Shey peeled back Joe’s jacket, examining the ragged tear to his flesh.  His friend flinched beneath the gentle prodding, prompting the blonde-haired man to abandon the scrutiny.   “You were lucky.  Looks like it went straight through.  Where’s the vulture who did this?”

Resting his head against the back of the sofa, Joe closed his eyes.  “Should be here soon.”  The pain had receded from excruciating fire to a cold ache that spread across his chest and back.  His right arm felt numb and useless.


Wearily, Joe nodded.  “Why else would he let me live?  He threatened Lorna and Kevin, then shot me when he could have killed me.  He wants me to warn Lorna, and thinks I’ll lead him to her.”

“So you brought him here instead?”

Tired humor made Joe’s mouth turn in a crooked grin.  “I didn’t want you sulking, left out of the fun.”

“You’re a real pal, Cartwright, you know that?”  Standing, Shey crossed to the nearest window, glancing across the dusky landscape.  Within a half-hour, daylight would be completely gone.  There was no better time for an attack, then the stealth and shadow of night.  Frowning, he moved to a small table and withdrew his spare gun from the top drawer.  Behind him, he heard Joe checking the housing on his revolver, cycling through all six chambers.  Wordlessly he left the room, returning a short time later with a tray of bandages. “Can’t do a whole lot for that wound right now,” he announced as way of explanation, “but at least we can stop the bleeding.”

Joe spared a glance for the window.  “I don’t want Cooper catching us sleeping.”

“He ain’t gonna do anything ‘til it’s dark, Cartwright.”  Moving about the room, Shey extinguished all the lanterns except the one nearest the couch.  In the weak vapid glow, Joe’s face was streaked with perspiration, his green eyes, gem-bright.  A gray cast replaced the normally healthy glow of his skin, gouging cadaverous shadows beneath his cheeks.
With a nod, Shey indicated the other’s jacket.  “Think you can shrug out of that?”

“No problem.”  The false bravado fell easily from his tongue, but the action proved difficult.  Grimacing, Joe stilled when the sudden movement left him white-faced, swallowing back nausea. The jacket was half off his shoulder when he inhaled sharply.

Moving to his side, Shey supported his blood-soaked right arm, gently but firmly tugging the jacket free.  The garment fell behind him, and Joe sagged against the couch, exhausted.  Once more his eyes slipped closed.

Silent, Shey mopped up blood with the makeshift bandages he had gathered.  He applied packing to both the entrance and exit wounds, then wrapped a pressure binding around Joe’s shoulder, looping it beneath his arm to hold the compresses in place.  His friend grunted once, turning his head to the side.  Prompted by the insistent handling, Joe moaned softly as slumbering pain awoke with fiery insurrection.

“Sorry, Joe.”  Shey spoke more softly than normal, the barbed edge that so often accompanied his comments missing altogether.  His hand lingered on Joe’s shoulder when he was done tending the wound--silent support that lasted a moment before slipping away.  “Is she worth it?” he asked quietly.

Surprised by the sincerity of the question, Joe rolled his head against the sofa to look at Shey. Is she worth it?  Did he love her, or did he love the idea of being in love--of having a woman so much older than himself reacting like an eighteen-year-old when she was in his arms?  He loved Lorna’s maturity, but he also loved the fact, when it came to the bedroom, he was the one in control.  “I can’t abandon her,” he admitted truthfully.  Whatever his feelings were, whatever hers were, she needed his help, and that was enough.  Unfortunately his relationship with Lorna had driven an unexpected wedge between himself and Shey.  He owed his friend an apology.  “About today--”

Tensing abruptly, Shey raised a hand for silence.  The creak of a floorboard rippled through the room, followed by the clink of a boot striking glass.  The low-bellied rumble of a mostly empty whiskey bottle rolling across the floor told Joe and Shey exactly where Cooper was. Shey guessed he’d entered from the rear, then made his way front to the foyer.  With a sharp glance for Joe, Shey doused the lantern.  Both men eased from the sofa, one flanking left, one right.

Shey shot one tight glance at his friend, worried for Joe’s physical stability, before refocusing on the shadowy entrance to the foyer.  From the corner of his eye, he saw Joe extend his hand to brace himself on a chair.  Though his gun-hand was steady, securely holding his pistol, his damaged right arm was cradled against his chest.  Inching closer to the entrance, Shey shot Joe another glance, silently mouthing for him to remain where he was.  No one in Virginia City was faster with a six-shooter than Joe Cartwright, but his friend’s reflexes were currently drastically impinged.

Ignoring him completely, Joe darted to the other side of the doorway, bracing his left shoulder against the wall.  With his arm bent at the elbow, gun pointed skyward, he tucked his forearm close to his chest.  Facing him across the shadow-draped entrance, Shey scowled.  Even at this distance he could see the strain on Joe’s face, the ashen cast of his skin, the sheer effort of will employed to remain on his feet.   Pressing his lips together, Shey motioned to the opening with his gun, then tapped the barrel against his chest.  Across the room Joe plainly shook his head.  A loose floorboard echoed from the foyer, closer this time.

Annoyed, Shey eased into a crouch, intending to strike regardless.  With any luck, he could take Cooper out before Joe so much as set foot in the foyer.  Obviously entertaining the same notion, Joe readied the offensive as well.  Realizing it would be better for them to act together if Joe insisted on involving himself, Shey tried to snag his friend’s attention.  Before he could move, a blurred shape darted into the room and the crack of gunfire exploded in his ears.  The high-pitched whine of a bullet whistled past his temple, reflexively dropping him to the floor.   He reacted instinctively, aligning the intruder in his sites, squeezing off a rapid succession of shots.  Across the room Joe did the same, his aim deadly and precise despite his injury.

Struck from both sides, Cooper jerked spasmodically, suspended for a moment by the impact of multiple shots.  Crumbling, his body tumbled to the side, collided with the sofa, then fell limply to the floor. Rising quickly, Shey lit the nearest lantern.  A pool of yellow light washed over the intruder’s face, revealing a slack mouth and glazed, wide-eyed expression.  Barely pausing to register the multiple bullet wounds in Cooper’s torso, Shey turned to Joe.

Exhausted, his friend had crumbled to the floor, back and shoulders supported by the wall.  All color had left his face, leaving his lips bloodless and blanched.  “Hell, Cartwright, you’re whiter than what’s-his-name over there, and he’s ready for stripped pine.”  Depositing the lantern on a table, Shey squatted beside Joe. Slipping his left hand behind the other’s neck, he used his right to fleck away beads of sweat from Joe’s cheek.  “I ain’t no good at doctorin’, Joseph.  I’ll send Rob to town for Doc Martin, and have him collar that she-filly you fancy so much.  But I ain’t goin’ to all that trouble, less you stay awake for the shindig.”

A tired smile crossed Joe’s lips.  “No promises.”  He paused a moment, clearly struggling with fatigue and pain. Fresh blood saturated the bandages, indicating the entrance wound had broken open again.  Uncomfortable, Joe licked his lips.  “I never did get to apologize--”

“So buy me a drink when you can sit a horse.”  Intent on his work, Shey examined the bandage, careful to cause his friend as little discomfort as possible. “What’s the chances of me getting’ you upstairs?”

Chuckling, Joe rested his head against the wall. “Should I worry about that proposition?”

Shey’s glance was barbed.  “Cartwright, don’t flatter yourself--you ain’t nearly that attractive.”  Looping an arm beneath Joe’s good shoulder he helped him stand.

Swaying momentarily, Joe leaned into his friend’s embrace, prompted by a spike of vertigo.  Through weighted lashes he viewed Cooper’s sprawled body, realizing he felt only apathy.  Had the gunslinger been sincere in his subtle threats regarding Kevin? Surely Lorna wouldn’t have left her son unprotected.  Yet Amherst Filmore was obviously a man who played ruthlessly, and wouldn’t think twice in using Kevin to force Lorna back to him.

“Joe?”  Shey’s voice drew him back to the present.  Blinking, he realized his head had rolled to the side, supported by Shey’s shoulder.  Beneath his shirt, cold sweat trickled over his back and chest.  The world grew gray and fuzzy at the edges, withering with staggeringly alacrity.  The room shifted and distended, whirling into something unrecognizable.  Alarmed, Joe linked his fingers into the front of Shey’s shirt as his knees gave way.  “I think you’d better get the doctor now,” he mumbled.  Then there was nothing but the insubstantial mist that came with unconsciousness.


Hands clasped behind his back, Adam paced in front of the window.  Early morning haze blanketed the ground beyond, clinging to trees, earth and mountaintops in wispy threads of phantom-white.  To the east, the sun struggled awake, shredding the vaporous breath of waning night with the bronzed touch of daybreak.  Yawning, Adam rubbed tiredly at his eyes.  He’d dozed only briefly during the night, propped in a chair by Joe’s bedside.

Shey and Lorna had both offered to spell him, but he’d declined, stubbornly remaining with Joe even as the others came and went from the room.  He’d been in town, snooping around the hotel, trying to unearth what information he could about Hal Cooper, when Rob Falcon had arrived in search of the doctor. He’d located Doc Martin himself, relying on Shey’s foreman to find Lorna. Later, after escorting both Lorna and Sheriff Coffee to the Circle C, Rob had ridden to the Ponderosa to inform Ben and Hoss what had happened.  Since arriving, they’d been permanent fixtures in the room as well, each man wrapped in his own thoughts.

Hoss had departed only moments before, venturing downstairs in search of coffee, while Ben remained at Joe’s bedside, gently rubbing his son’s arm.  Though the wound was not life threatening, it had nonetheless taken a toll on Joe and he’d slept soundly through the night, helped by a dose of laudanum.

Once again, Lorna David had proven the poison that nearly cost Joe his life.  They’d talked briefly after she’d arrived at the Circle C, and Adam found any feelings he’d once held for her were gone.  Perhaps the cause had been watching Joe silently torture himself for the last year--whatever the reason, he viewed her with suspicion rather than desire.  For her part, Lorna had spoken softly, assuring him she hadn’t wanted to cause trouble.  Her eyes had brimmed with tears as she relayed how responsible she felt for the outcome.  Shey muttered something about calamity following her like vultures circling a carcass, and for once Adam had to agree with the sharp-tongued rancher.

After Doc Martin and the Sheriff had left, the Cartwrights and Lorna settled at Joe’s bedside.  As he often did when Joe’s family was present, Shey ventured elsewhere, appearing only sporadically to check on his friend’s health.  Long hours stretched into morning and finally Joe stirred and opened his eyes.

“Pa?”  Though his voice was weak, Joe’s query drew Adam from the window.  He watched as Ben grinned indulgently, gripping the younger man’s hand.  Struggling to orient, Joe’s eyes flitted between Ben and Adam, then grew comfortable with the familiar surroundings of the room.  “I remember,” he ventured in a cracked voice.  Supporting his head, Ben tipped a glass of water to his lips until he swallowed a mouthful.

Moving to the bedside, Adam sat in an opposing chair.  “What do you remember?”

With a fatigued sigh, Joe rested his head against the pillow.  A hint of color had returned to his cheeks, but his skin remained drawn, smudged with shadow.  “Downstairs . . . Shey and I killed Cooper.”  Tensing suddenly, he looked wildly to Adam.  “Lorna--”

“She’s here,” Adam assured.  “In the other room.”

“I have to talk to her.”

Ben patted his arm.  “Later, Joseph.”

“Pa, it’s important.  Kevin might be in trouble.”

Wordlessly Adam and Ben exchanged a glance. Fidgeting, Joe struggled to rise, but his right arm was strapped to his chest, forearm folded across his stomach.  Witnessing his struggle, Ben placed a restraining hand on his left shoulder, pushing him back against the pillow.  “Lorna’s sleeping.  I’d like you to try to eat something, Joe.  By the time you’re finished, she’ll be awake, and you can speak with her then.”

Unconvinced, Joe shot Adam a dark glance.  “I suppose he’s already talk to her,” he muttered with a nod for his brother.

Prompted by the hostility in the remark, Adam frowned.  “What do I have to do, to prove I’m not interested in her?”

Joe’s eyes slid to the side, veiled by dark lashes.  “I’m not sure, but you haven’t done it yet.”

Again Adam and Ben exchanged a wordless glance.  Finally Adam nodded in the direction of the door.  “Pa, Joe and I could use a moment alone while you get that breakfast for him.”

Uncertain, Ben hesitated.  Wary indecision creased his face as he looked from one son to the next. Relenting, he eventually nodded and stood.  When he’d left the room, closing the door behind him, Adam focused on his brother.  “Joe, I’m not interested in Lorna--truth is, I’m not sure I trust her.”

Irritated, Joe frowned.  “Shey told you.”

“Yeah he told me.  Normally I don’t place much stock in anything Cutter says, but in this case I think he’s right.  If Lorna really is in love with you, why did she wait until now to come back?”

Closing his eyes, Joe glanced aside.  It was clear to Adam he didn’t want to face the truth.  He’d built an idealized vision of a woman he couldn’t have.  The one who’d returned feigning love, fell dreadfully short of that image.  Wincing, Joe shifted, cupping his left hand over his right elbow. A thin sheen of sweat stippled his upper lip.  “She’s in love with someone named Garrett.  At least she was.”  Pausing, he cast Adam a bitter glance.  “Guess she’s fond of college-bred men after all.  I’m just good in bed and handy with a gun.”

Forcing himself not to respond to the acid remark, Adam waited until Joe’s eyes dropped to the mattress.  “There’s different degrees of love, Joe.  Maybe what Lorna feels for you--what you feel for her without even realizing it, is something a little too suffocating for marriage.”

Suspicious, Joe cast him a guarded look.  “You’d rather she left, huh?”

Adam hesitated.  Telling Joe he thought his brother’s relationship with Lorna was unhealthy would only earn a scathing retort.  At least Joe seemed to be listening, if only half-heartedly. It’s because in the long run--he knows it too.

With a casual shrug, Adam grinned.  “I’d just rather you stayed.”


Uncertainly, Lorna closed the bedroom door behind her.  Painful memories of another time and place returned to haunt her--a time when Joe had lain in her own bed, his body bloody and broken, a bullet lodged in his side.  Present circumstance wasn’t so very different.  Once again, he’d been injured protecting her, and once again she felt the conflict between responsibility and desire.  He’d protected her from Brian Lancaster because his highly defined sense of right and wrong would allow him to do nothing less.  He’d intervened with Hal Cooper because--despite everything he knew about her conduct in Baltimore--he was still in love with her.  At the very least, he was in love with the idea of being in love with her.

“Lorna.”  Joe struggled to sit upright.  It was difficult with his right arm strapped to his chest, but somehow he maneuvered.

Hurrying to his side, Lorna adjusted the pillows at his back so he could sit more comfortably.  A hesitant smile touched her lips as she gazed down at him, tenderly brushing the snarl of curls from his brow.  “You look so young,” she whispered.

Expectant just moments before, his expression turned suddenly hostile.  “How old is Garrett?”

The bitterness in his voice caught her off guard.  “Joe--”

Flushing, he glanced aside.  “Forget it.  It doesn’t matter anyway.”  His gaze rested on a meaningless spot in the far corner, allowing her a brief moment to study him.  His face was drawn and haggard, stark vulnerability plainly evident beneath the surface.  It was that wounded openness that made him appear so young.  Emotional pain lingered in his long-lashed eyes, mirrored by the gaunt hollows of his cheeks.  Part of her wanted to slip into bed with him--hold him cradled in her arms. The other wanted to feel the sensual heat of his body next to hers.  And finally--the logical, responsible woman, knew it was best to let him be.

“I didn’t mean for this to happen,” she ventured softly.  But she did.  That was the horrid part of it.  She’d come back because she’d needed his protection.  In seeking his skill with a gun, she’d ensnared them both in a complicated web of raw passions.  Beyond the bedroom window, the day was bright and sun-filled, drenching the ground with pulsating bands of pure gold.  But she felt only coldness in her heart--a place where neither sun nor warmth could reach.

Joe’s eyes flickered to her face.  “You came for a reason, Lorna and part of it involved my protection.”


“Listen to me,” he said sharply.  “I’m not going to debate feelings--whether you love me, this Garrett, or whoever.”  Pressing his lips together, he stared at her deliberately.  “Kevin could be in danger.”

The blood drained from Lorna’s face. “How--?”  Since the confusion with Garrett and Amherst Filmore first began, they were the words she most dreaded hearing.  Unconsciously, she knotted her hands in the fabric of her skirt.

Relenting slightly, Joe gathered the fingers of her left hand.  “The man who shot me--Hal Cooper--made some insinuations.  Nothing really plain.  Just hints that Kevin wasn’t safe in Baltimore.”

“Oh, dear God.”  A strangled sound slipped from Lorna’s throat.  A sudden rush of tears brimmed in her eyes.  Pulling her hand free, she clamped it over her mouth.  “This is all my fault,” she moaned.  “Joe--my son . . .”

The hard edges of his demeanor withered beneath the blatant fear and self-loathing reflected on her face.  “Lorna.”  Using his left arm, Joe wrapped it about her shoulders and gathered her against his chest.  She sobbed once, a choked sound, then stilled as he gently stroked her hair.  “It could be nothing,” he assured.  “Just a threat so I’d seek you out, and Cooper would find you.”

“I can’t take that chance,” Lorna said quickly.

“I know that, Angel.”  Bowing his head, Joe brushed his lips against her temple.  He was silent a moment, struggling with the horrid truth.  “I don’t want you to go back.”

Drawing slightly away, she glanced at him through wet lashes.  “I can’t stay.”

“I know that, but it doesn’t change how I feel.”  A slight smile touched his lips.  Gently, he stroked a knuckle across her cheek.  “Send a letter this afternoon.  It may be a few days until you can get a stage.  Lorna--”  Uncomfortable, Joe cleared his throat.  “Kevin’s just a boy.  Filmore wouldn’t really--”

Violently, she shook her head, cutting him off mid-sentence.  “You don’t know him.  I didn’t know him.  I’m not sure what he’s capable of, but I wouldn’t put murder past him.”

Expelling a breath, Joe sagged back against the pillows.  Wiping a knuckle beneath her eyes, Lorna pulled free of his embrace and paced to the window.  Green-gold pastures unfurled as far as her eye could see, lush with unparalleled beauty.  As majestic as the sprawling landscape appeared, there was something sad about its vastness--an emptiness that tore at her heart and made her hunger for the orderly, cluttered streets of the east.

“What about Garrett?” she heard Joe ask.  “I thought you wanted to go to California and warn him?”

“I can’t.”  Frustrated, Lorna twined her hands together.  “I’ve done what I could--I’ve sent letters.  I know he doesn’t believe anything I’ve written, but I can’t risk delaying any longer when Kevin might be in danger.”

Worn and frazzled from the bullet wound, Joe sank deeper into the cushions at his back.  Struggling to remain awake, he blinked aside fatigue. "I’ll do what I can,” he mumbled.

Surprised by the offer, Lorna turned.  Distress made her take two steps toward the bed, a sliver of hope awakening in her heart.  It vanished almost immediately, crushed by the weary weight of exhaustion in his eyes.  Overcome by her feelings for him, Lorna felt tears burn her eyes.  Even after she'd deceived him, he still offered to help.  Was it any wonder he deserved someone much better than her?

She smiled tenderly.  “Go to sleep, Joe.  I’ll stay until you wake.”


Four days later, Joe rode Cochise to town, tethering the mare before Callie Garrett’s small home.  At noon tomorrow the stage would arrive and take Lorna back east.  It was the earliest departure she could secure, desperate after Cooper’s insinuations, to make certain Kevin had not been harmed.  Though she and Joe had talked twice after he’d awakened at the Circle C, they’d continued to dance around the issues confronting them.  There was no longer any plea on Joe’s part for her to stay, and no pretense from Lorna that she would.  It was obvious she regretted the danger she’d caused, and painfully clear that she loved him.  Unfortunately it wasn’t the kind of love to cultivate marriage.  Worse, part of her affection remained with an eastern-bred gentleman named Garrett, and nothing Joe did could change that.

Pausing on the threshold, he rapped determinedly on the door.  He knew Callie was elsewhere tonight, purposefully clearing the path so he could spend time with Lorna.  Before she left, he wanted to clear the air--make certain a fraction of the odd, possessive love in her heart remained devoted to him.  Waiting, he flexed the fingers of his right hand.  The sling had come off only that morning, and an occassional ping of discomfort still flared in his shoulder.

Lorna opened the door awkwardly, clearly as uncomfortable as he was.  Behind him, the streets of the city were silhouetted with dusk and the cool, feathery touch of virgin night.  Three days ago he’d decided what he wanted from her--what he had to have before she left him forever.  Raising his left arm, he braced it against the doorframe, dwarfing her with his height.  “I wanted to see you before you left,” he said directly.

A lick of heat crackled between their bodies--the sultry memory of what they’d shared together.  A brief image flashed through Joe’s mind:  Lorna, twined in his arms, her naked flesh gilded with moonlight as they’d made love in the summer-sweet grass behind her barn.  How could a single year shatter and twist those emotions into something entirely different, something not quite so pure?

Stepping aside, Lorna mutely invited him to enter.  The interior of the house was as pewter-laced as the twilight-dusted streets beyond.  A single candle, its flame clinging to the last feeble flicker of life, provided the only illumination within.  Removing his hat, Joe tossed it on the nearest chair and turned to face her.  “You’ll tell Kevin I asked about him?”

Not trusting her voice, she nodded.  Trapped in the candlelight, her eyes glimmered brightly.  “I wish it could be different,” she whispered, raising her chin to meet his gaze.  Lips parting, she swallowed with difficulty.  “I wish I loved you enough to be your wife.”

Taking two steps forward, he gripped her elbow, tugging her forcefully against him.  “Do you love me enough to share my bed?”  Cupping her cheek, he tilted her head back until their eyes met. “--a final time, Lorna, before I let you go?”  Slowly tracing his thumb over her cheek, he felt her shiver in anticipation of the one skill he possessed, rivaling his expertise with a gun.
Bowing his head, he pressed his lips to hers, gathering her into the circle of his arms.

She melted willingly, opening her mouth beneath the possessive hunger of his kiss.  Suddenly it didn’t matter what had happened in Baltimore, or what would happen tomorrow.  He was twenty-two again, making love to her in the lush, midnight grass behind her stable, and she was the only thing in the world he wanted.  She was the woman who’d agreed to be his wife, and that illusion, however fractured and timeworn, was sufficient.

Shaken by the sheer masculinity of his touch, Lorna trembled.  Whatever the true nature of her feelings, she was powerless in his embrace, reduced to a simpering girl-child.  She’s arrived in Virginia City with the intent of engaging in a game of seduction, but it was Joe who’d seduced her, leaving her quaking and desiring more.  His lips seared hers with flame, departing abruptly to trail a fiery path across her neck.  Nuzzling the pulse-point in her throat, he gripped her hair in both hands, tugging her head back until the slender column of her neck was exposed.  Luxuriating in the sensation, Lorna closed her eyes, intoxicated by the nibbling kisses he trailed to her collarbone.  His hands rounded her shoulders, then lightly brushed across her breasts. The contact--a nearly insubstantial caress left her gasping in breathless desire.  Moist heat spiraled from her belly as she arched against him, silently begging the renewed contact of his hands.

Locating the buttons on her blouse, Joe covered her mouth with his once again.  His kiss was possessive and deep, serving only to heighten her awareness of his touch.  With her blouse unbuttoned, he slipped his hand beneath her camisole, stroking his fingers across her bare flesh.  Moaning softly, Lorna pressed her breast into his hand, gasping aloud when he thumbed her nipple to a quivering peak.  “You won’t forget me, Angel, will you?”

The sound of his voice, husky and deep, left her teetering on a precipice of raging desire.  “Never,” she promised, wrapping her arms around his neck, feeling the hard press of male arousal through her heavy skirts.  Kissing him hungrily, she twined her fingers in his hair.  She wanted him naked and in bed, his lean, muscular body defined by moonlight and shadow.  She wanted his touch to continue--the intoxicating heat of his flesh, the only substance that mattered until the sun rose.  For one final, blissful night she wanted what they’d had in the past--when she’d lovely him purely, without complication, and he’d held the power to stay the advance of daybreak.

Worried, she looked into his eyes.  “Will you forget me?”  When he didn’t reply immediately, she lowered her hands, tugging impatiently at his belt.  “Do you need convincing, Joe?”

A sly, crooked smile lifted the corner of his mouth.  Eyes smoldering and bright with gem-fire, his gaze left her breathless and off-kilter.  Pausing, he drew his thumb over her moist bottom lip. “I need a memory.”

Bowing his head, he kissed her again--a slow, sensual exploration ripe with the promise of bare flesh to bare flesh.  Drawing back, Joe wrapped his arm possessively about her shoulders.  As he escorted her to the bedroom, each of them breathless with the anticipation of one final night together, he realized for the first time--there was a great deal more that separated them, then a mere ten years.


The following afternoon Joe found Shey Cutter chopping wood off the kitchen at the Circle C.   Though he’d seen his friend twice since leaving Shey’s ranch after the incident with Cooper, the air still felt sticky and unresolved between them.  He thought he’d be in a less agreeable mood after Lorna’s departure, but last night had gone a long way in helping him come to terms with his feelings.  He’d stayed with her until dawn, making love by moonlight, sharing quiet conversation afterwards, wrapped in each other’s arms.  Somewhere in the gray hours proceeding daybreak, they’d finally drifted to sleep, forced to suffer the turmoil of parting a few hours later.

Before she’d left, he’d made an offer he knew he was likely to regret, but couldn’t retract now.  Shey and Adam were sure to rail him for it, but he’d boxed himself in, prompted by a need to comfort Lorna even when she left.  In the long run it would be beneficial for him too--allow him to exorcise some demons, even if it was through hostility.

In the meantime there was Shey Cutter, and the mess he’d made with his friend.  “Hey, Boss.”  A breezy grin stretched his lips as he walked around the corner of the house.  He’d left Cochise tethered out front, drawn by the sound of an ax splitting wood.

Pausing in his work, Shey drew his forearm across his brow, mopping up sweat.   Perspiration saturated his denim shirt, creating dark stains where the open buttons aligned in a “v,” then spread further in a narrow strip down his back.  Bracing his foot against the chopping block, he draped an arm over his raised knee.  “Didn’t expect to see you today, Cartwright.  Hoss was by earlier.  Said you didn’t come home all night.”

Shrugging, Joe leaned against the corner of the house.  Locating a splinter of wood at his feet, he bent to retrieve it.  “I don’t imagine Pa will say much.  He knows Lorna was leaving this morning.”

With a grunt, Shey rolled his eyes.  Turning, he located a log and plopped it onto the chopping block.  If Adam thought little of Shey, Shey thought even less of Lorna.  “So you packed the she-witch--uh, I mean, Lorna--back east?”  Biting his lip, Shey waggled his brows.  “Lighten up, Cartwright.  Half the women in town would pay to crawl in your bed, and you’re stuck on some harpy who two-timed you with a popinjay.”

Joe’s expression was thunderous.  “Shey--”

“Yeah, I know.”  Holding up both hands, ax clutched head-down in his right, Shey retreated a step.  “This is how we butted heads before.  If it’s all the same to you, I’d rather not go back to being enemies.”

Disturbed by the reference to their past, Joe sighed tiredly.  Bowing his head, he rubbed at his temple.  “I still owe you an apology,” he muttered.

“Forget it.”  Dropping the ax, Shey moved beside him, then braced his own back against the building.  Hooking his thumbs into his belt loops, he stared ahead, absently contemplating the wood he’d just chopped.  “I ain’t very tactful, am I, Joseph?”

Joe snorted.  “There’s no ‘very’ involved, Shey.  You’re, um . . .” A lop-sided grin twisted his lips.  “ . . . blunt, to say the least.”  The smile faltered and he glanced aside at his friend.  “At least I always know where you stand.  You tried to do something decent for me, with Lorna.”

With a disgusted smirk, Shey shook his head.  “And what was that?  Adam was ready to wale the tar out of me . . . you did wale the tar out of me . . . you ended up with a bullet in your shoulder, and Miss Prim scampered back to Baltimore after getting her fill of you-know-who under the sheets.”

“Damn it, Shey.”

“Yeah, I know, Cartwright--I’m working on the tact.”  Lacing a hand through his sweat-damp hair, Shey exhaled in frustration.  “It’s just--I don’t like to see you torn up inside, Joe.  Time was, I would’ve sold tickets, but it ain’t like that anymore.  I brought that harp--sorry, Lorna--to Virginia City.  I feel responsible.”

Anger dispersing, Joe tossed the wood splinter aside.  It was as difficult remaining angry at Shey as it was Lorna.  Maybe it had to do with their unorthodox friendship, or their unusual history together, but Joe knew he had to put the issue behind them.  Given the promise he’d made Lorna, it wasn’t going to be easy to do.

“It’s my problem,” he said firmly.  Pushing away from the building, he walked a few paces into the yard.  His shoulder ached and his arm was sore, but he ignored the discomfort as he tilted his head back and stared at the sky.  Though he’d had little sleep last night, he didn’t regret the endless hours for a moment.  “You probably don’t want to hear this, but I made Lorna a promise--I’m leaving by the end of the week.”

Are you out of your mind?”  Incensed, Shey stalked forward to confront his friend.  “Are you telling me you’re going to Baltimore?  Blue-blooded, can’t-see-past-the-end-of-my-nose-‘cuz-I’m-so-uppity, Baltimore?”

Joe’s smile was tight.  “Not Baltimore--California.”

Taken by surprise, Shey blinked.  “What the hell’s in California?”

“Garrett.”  Pausing, Joe frowned.  “Actually that’s not even his name.”

“Wait a minute!”  Patience spent, Shey waved his hands in the air.  “Cartwright, I ain’t hearin’ this right. Are you tellin’ to tell me, you promised that schemin’ femme fatale, you’d go to California and warn her lover about Mr. Big back in Merry-land?”

Disgruntled, Joe dragged a hand over his mouth.  “He isn’t her lover.  They just had a--look, Shey--I don’t want to talk about this.  Not that part of it anyway.  She came out here to warn him--”

“And she was gonna use you to do it!  Damn it, Joe, tell me you ain’t that far gone on the woman.”

“I’m not.” Chest heaving with anger, Joe grappled for control of his temper.  He knew Shey had his best interest at heart, but it didn’t help to have Lorna’s relationship with Garrett, or his own tangled feelings thrown in his face.  Drawing a deep breath, he spoke slowly, struggling for composure.  “If you think I’m blind, or buffaloed, you’re wrong.  She didn’t ask me to do this.  She didn’t trick me into doing it.  Hell, Shey, I don’t even know what I feel for her anymore.  I just told her I’d help her.  Besides--” Still slightly rankled, he cast his friend a sideways glance.  “Maybe I want to meet this Garrett.”

Unrepentant, Shey glared.  “You said that wasn’t his name.”

“It’s not,” Joe admitted. Grudgingly, he rolled his shoulders.  “ ‘Garrett’s’ some kind of nickname she had for him--I think it’s his middle name.  Lorna said he lives on a ranch in Morro Coyo.  His name’s Scott Lancer.”

“What?”  Shey asked acidly.  A single brow launched into his hair.  “No ‘Bartholomew’ or ‘Woodrow?’ The guy probably spends all his time countin’ money and shoving smelling salts up his nose.  One whiff of a branding fire and I bet he keels over in a dead faint.  You really wanna ride all the way to Morro Coyo just to warn a light-bellied pansy like that?”

Joe hesitated.  Why did he want to go to Morro Coyo?  Was it because he secretly hoped Scott Lancer would be everything Shey thought he was--a pathetic milquetoast too feeble to protect himself against Filmore’s goons?  Or did he want to measure himself against the other man in Lorna’s life--the one he saw as competition for her affection?  Some part of him hoped to find Scott Lancer lacking.  College educated, probably older than Adam, Joe convinced himself Lancer was a man who’d readily back away from a hotheaded rancher/part-time gunslinger.  With a little coercion, Joe believed the easterner could be convinced to step out of Lorna’s life--permanently.

“I owe it to Lorna,” he said simply.

Shey shook his head.  “You really are crazy, Cartwright you know that?”  Blowing air through his teeth, he looked at the pile of wood scattered about his feet.  “End of the week, huh?  Well--ain’t much to do when the boss is choppin’ wood.  Guess I’ll go with you.”


The blonde-haired man grinned.  “Someone’s gotta keep you on a leash, Joseph.  Besides--” the grin grew toothy and bright. “--I kind of like the thought of seein’ you with a fancy-footed easterner.  You said you owe me an apology--I’ll take this instead.”

Joe hesitated.  He could argue the point, but he knew from experience, Shey was persistent.  It wouldn’t hurt to have the cavalier rancher along, especially given the unbalanced state of his own emotions.  What he’d finally do when he encountered Garrett, remained to be seen.  “All right,” he said carefully.  “But it’s my call, and my trip.”

Shey grinned like a hobgoblin.  “Hell, Joe, it’s your idiot idea.  I’m just along for the ride.”

Smiling sharply, Joe gave a quick decisive nod.  Scott Lancer was about to meet his rival for Lorna’s affections, and Joe intended to see the meeting was memorable .

--End Miss David Returns--

Author’s Note:  Okay, I realize this isn’t the story most of you expected, but hang in there a moment while I explain a few things:  When I finished Threshold and “plopped’ Lorna David into Shey’s living room, it was one of those “inspired moments.”  Unfortunately the inspiration dried up right after the words “Happy Birthday, Joe.”  For a long, long time I had no idea where the story was headed (which is one of the reasons I never wrote the sequel).  Eventually I did come up with a plot--Lorna returns seeking Joe’s protection, but in the meantime has fallen in love with a man she met in Baltimore.  Lots of angst, Joe denying it, Shey telling him what an idiot he is blahblahblah.  Then a couple of things happened at once--a cyberpal introduced me to a show called Lancer (bless her soul!) and I became interested in the life of George Armstrong Custer (a hobby that quickly grew into a research obsession), Between researching GAC and writing Lancer fanfic (a slew of it--I was really hooked!), Joe and Lorna languished in the sequel netherworld.  Meanwhile, my Bonanza friends were bothering me to finish the story arc so I dug out Threshold and went over my notes for the sequel.  And then the “inspiration” struck again--why not make Lorna’s eastern lover Scott Lancer???  Okay, so maybe you aren’t as excited by the prospect as I am, but for the first time in my life I’m going to write a cross-over.

General rule of thumb:  I don’t like cross-overs.  I started one once (Covington Cross and Bonanza) as a joke, simply because I had the perfect punch-line for the last line of the story.  It lasted two pages before I abandoned it (although that punch line is still rattling around inside my head).  What I’m looking forward to is the prospect of one hotheaded fast-draw (Joe Cartwright) one arrogant, smart-mouthed rancher (Shey Cutter); one short-tempered, notorious gunslinger (Johnny Madrid Lancer) and one ex-Yankee officer and bewildered peacekeeper (Scott Lancer).  So yes--the sequel to Threshold will have a sequel, and I plan to write it much faster than Miss David Returns <g>.

As for dear Miss D and Joe--what does their further hold?  Well, I don’t have a crystal ball handy, but I AM a romance writer, and the romance genre follows a set pattern:  man and woman meet, deny their feelings, fall in love, have a fight, fall out of love, become separated, reconcile, and then???  If the Joe/Lorna story arc were a romance novel, the end of MDR would place them in the “fall out of love/become separated mode.”  Will they get back together???  I rarely dispose of characters any more--I love leaving them “in the wings” to reappear later.  And yes, I know about that “bet”--and who knows--it could just happen in the future.

Kate (cmt)

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