Through the Eyes of Love

A storm named Kitty Russell raged through the upstairs rooms of the Long Branch, hurling vases against the wall and smashing knickknacks to the floor. The multi-colored profusion of dresses strewn across the bed and over the chairs gave evidence of an earlier outburst as well. Now she yanked her robe from its hanger and slammed the doors of the armoire closed. Wrapping herself in the robe's chocolate brown warmth, she sat down at her dressing table and began stroking the brush through her long red tresses, idly watching the flickering lamplight reflected in the silver handle.

Nowhere near finished with the full hundred strokes, her gaze fell on the picture a traveling photographer had taken of her and Matt so many years ago. She threw the brush at the mirror, slammed the picture to the floor, buried her face in her folded arms, and burst into tears.

Damn him! How dare he? How could he? After all these years.

She knew the train from St. Louis had come in on schedule, and Burke confirmed that Matt Dillon had been on it. That had been nearly two hours ago, and years of familiarity with his routine--reports, bath house, shave--told her that any minute she would hear the steady but eager tread of his footsteps on the back stairs.

There was, of course, a multitude of times when he had come to her first--grimy, unshaven and exhausted after days or weeks in the saddle, taking her in his arms and vowing the damned reports could wait--or write themselves. But this time he wasn't tracking outlaws. This time he was....

She choked off a sob and lifted her head and dabbed at her eyes.

No way was he going to catch her crying.

She rose from the dressing table and stood, smoothing her hands over the soft velvet of her robe.

Better to be standing for this.

She went to the window and pressed her hot forehead against the cold pane, watching the dark street for the man she knew so well—or did she?

Minutes later she saw his tall frame rounding the corner, heading for the alley. Another minute and then a knock, followed by the sound of a key scraping the lock.

And then he was standing in front of her, the frigid night air sweeping into the room with him as if a harbinger of things to come.

In two strides he was across the room, reaching for her, his big hands cold on her upper arms even through the heavy robe.

"Take your hands off of me, Matt Dillon. Burke said you were back, but I wasn't sure you'd have nerve enough to come up here." Her tone matched the night air as she wrenched herself from his grasp.

Not exactly the homecoming he had dreamed about on the train.

He stared, stunned, as she continued. "Oh, that's right. You think I don't know."

His eyes took in the disarray of the room. "Kitty, wha…"

"How could you, Matt, how could you?"

He tried again. "How could I…"

"Exactly. How could you? I honestly believed this was a business trip, a special assignment, you said. And I was naive enough…stupid enough, to believe you."

"Kitty, it was a busine…"

"Oh, no you don't," she shrieked. "You're not going to talk your way out of this one. What I want to know is how many other so-called "business" trips you've had over the years?"

He kept his voice deliberately low. "Please, Kitty, calm down and tell me what I did, or what you think I did. And could you maybe not yell…they'll hear you downstairs."

"Like that's ever mattered to you before. How many times have you loved it when I've yelled, lain there all smug and proud of yourself that you'd brought me to screams…" Her body and voice began to quiver as she remembered his hands, his mouth, his body and the pleasure he could bring to her. She would miss that. Trembling, she turned away, her fist pressed tight against her mouth.

He moved behind her, gently placing his large hands on her shaking shoulders. "Kitty, did something happen while I was gone? Please sit down and tell me what's going on 'cause I swear I have no idea what you're talking about."

He guided her to the settee and settled her against the cushions, then went to the side table and poured a generous glass of brandy from the crystal decanter. He handed her the glass with a quiet "drink this," then methodically removed his hat and heavy coat and hung them on the wooden peg inside the door. Never taking his eyes from her, he unbuckled his gunbelt and hung it over the twin peg. Moving again to the side table, he poured a second glass of brandy for himself and joined her on the sofa.

She was calmer now, and he was hesitant to incur her wrath again, but he had to find out what was going on, what had happened while he was gone. Cautiously, he rested one long arm along the back of the settee, just grazing her shoulders. She flinched but didn't pull away…and she didn't yell at him. "I'd say we got off to a bad start here, Kit. Would it help if I go back outside and come in again?"

He was hoping for a smile, but she sadly shook her head. "Nothing will help, Matt."

"Kitty, try starting at the beginning. I know you're angry with me—maybe as angry as I've ever seen, but I swear to you, I have no idea what I did. Could you help me out just a little here?"

"Oh, I'm angry all right. I'm furious…and I…I just can't believe you would do this to me…to us." She had promised herself she wouldn't cry in front of him, but it was going to be difficult to keep that promise.

Patiently, he tried again. "Did I do something to upset you...or to hurt you?"

She turned and faced him then, sapphire eyes brimming with tears. "How did you think I'd feel? Or didn't you think I'd ever find out, being you were all the way in Saint Louie and all? Guess you didn't count on Ben Harris getting here before you did."

"Ben Harris? The whiskey drummer? What's he have to do with this?"

"He was in here yesterday—said he ran into you in St. Louie."

Matt nodded. "Yeah, we were staying at the same hotel—had a drink together in the bar."

"He said that, too."

Matt smiled gently, but he was genuinely puzzled. "You can't possibly be upset because I had a drink with Ben."

"Hardly. What did you do after that?"

"I…I went to my room, I guess."

"Ben said that, too. Did you see him again…have breakfast together, another drink?"

What could she possibly care how often he had seen Ben Harris?

"No, that was it, just that one night." Matt was cold and tired from the trip and he wanted to crawl into bed with his woman in his arms. "Why? Did something happen I should know about?"

God, she didn't believe he could sit there so innocently.

"Something happened all right, and you know damned well what it was. Give up the act, Matt. Ben saw you…with…with…her…c-coming out of your room the next morning! How could you, Matt? How c-could you?" Her anger returned full force and her voice trembled and her blue eyes flashed as she pulled away from his arm and jumped from the sofa.

"So that's it. Kitty, you weren't supposed to know…"

"Obviously," she said dryly.

Patiently, Matt tried again. "Kitty, I…" And then it hit him. "Oh, Kitty, no…it's not what you're thinking. I told you before I left, this was a business trip…Washington, the Secret Service, asked me to…and she's…they asked me to work with her, Kitty. That's all there was to it…just government business."

"Give it up, Matt. Do you honestly expect me to believe there are female marshals? And what the hell's the Secret Service anyway?"

"No—no female marshals—at least not that I know of, but there are female government agents—some very good ones, too. You've heard stories of women who worked as spies during the war, haven't you—Elizabeth Van Lew for the north, Belle Boyd and Rose Greenhow for the south? There were others, but I'm sure you've heard of the ones I just mentioned. Doc's even talked about seeing the Van Lew woman at Libby Prison—you remember, the one they called Crazy Bet?"

"What's that have to do with you and this woman?"

He shrugged and shook his head. "Nothing really. I'm just saying that women are perfectly capable of performing covert intelligence operations, sometimes better than men. And Mariah Trenton is one of them. You won't find her name on the government payroll, but she works for them--same as I do. They sent us to St. Louie to…well, I really can't tell you what it's all about…what we were doing…but believe me, Kitty, it was business for the United States Government."

Maybe she had been wrong? She wanted so much to believe him.

She took a deep breath and sat down next to him again. "Did you know about her…about this woman…when you left here? Did you know you were going to share a hotel room with her?"

This time he drew her against his chest. "We didn't share a room, honey. Mariah stopped by my room on her way to breakfast. We had a final report to send by special courier to Washington, and she came in to go over it with me. We signed the papers and went down to the dining room. That's all there was to it. I guess that must be when Harris saw us…and jumped to the wrong conclusion. And yes, I knew there would be a special operative meeting me there, but I didn't know it was going to be a woman."

"That's all?" She looked up into his honest eyes and knew he spoke the truth. "Nothing else happened?"

He kissed her forehead. "Absolutely nothing else happened, unless you count sitting through a lot of boring meetings and trying out some big city surveillance tactics that probably won't work, but that's about it."

"Why can't you tell me what you were doing…I mean, if it was nothing…"

"Well, I'm not the one who doesn't want to tell you. The government…the Secret Service…" He chuckled. "Yeah, that's really its name--it's a branch of the Treasury Department, and they're taking on a new role that will deal with protecting the President of the United States when he travels…and that's probably more than I should have told you, but under the circumstances, I guess you do deserve some kind of explanation."

"Why'd they want you, Matt? I mean, I know you're the best at what you do, but protecting presidents is a bit out of your league, isn't it?"

"That's what I thought, but Senator Murphy reminded them of the protection I provided for Chief Joseph all those years ago, and they seemed to think I might have something to contribute. Not sure they were right, but…You still mad, or may I really kiss you now?"

She laughed against his shoulder. "You better, or I'll get mad all over again."

Muttering something that sounded vaguely like "God forbid," he gathered her into his arms and tenderly kissed away the remnants of tears on her cheeks. His warm mouth moved to hers and found a home there—kissing, caressing, teasing, tasting, loving, lingering. His hand slipped inside her robe and found a full, warm breast ready and waiting for him. He bent his head to suckle, and she moaned into his graying curls. "Matt…please…"

"I'd take you to bed, but it looks as if someone had a temper tantrum over there." He winked at her and nodded toward the bed. She laughed and slipped out of his arms to quickly gather the scattered articles of clothing and toss them over the nearest chair.

His hooded eyes watched her, knowing there was something more that he needed to ask--she had never before been so insecure about his feelings for her--but it would have to wait. Right now he needed her desperately and it appeared that she needed him just as much.

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

Later, much later, he rolled onto his back and drew her close against his side. His voice still ragged with lovemaking, he gently kissed her temple and asked, "You all right?"

She hesitated and then spoke haltingly into his chest. "Yeah, I'm all right. I…I guess I'm just a little tired." Her voice was shaky and he could feel tremors that had nothing to do with passion running through her body.

"Unh unh. You've been tired other times, but…something's wrong. Are you still mad? I told you...thought you believed me…absolutely nothing happened, Kitty. I'll throttle that damned drummer next time I see him for putting ideas into that pretty red head of yours."

She tried to turn away, but his left arm held her tight. Her voice faltered. "Are you tr-trying to say it wasn't…I wasn't any good? Is that wh-what you're telling me?"

She certainly seemed determined to pick a fight.

"No, that's not what I'm saying. What I'm trying to say is I…I'm worried about you, Kit. You weren't…well, you weren't very enthusiastic, not the way you always are. Oh, you made all the right moves, did all the right things, but your heart wasn't in it. It was sort of like…" his voice drifted off, afraid that he had said too much.

"Go on—say it. Get it all out. It was like what?" she challenged him to continue.

Matt took a deep breath. "Like...well, like your heart and your mind were a million miles away…like you weren't really here."

"Maybe I wasn't, not the me you were expecting anyway," she said flatly.

His lips brushed her curls. "What's that supposed to mean? Want to tell me what's wrong? Think I didn't notice that you turned the light completely down and said you were cold and wouldn't take off your nightgown? That's not like you. And you've never been so...so insecure about my feelings for you. If there's something...if I did something to upset you or hurt you, please tell me. We can make it right."

Again she tried to move away, but he was determined not to let her go. She lay silent and tense against his side until finally she sighed, "No, Matt, you haven't done anything wrong. Honest. This doesn't have anything to do with you; this is about me and I'm sorry I snapped at you."

"I don't understand…it's about you?" A sudden chill washed over his big body as he struggled to verbalize his greatest fear. "Did someone try to…to…oh, God, you're not sick are you…or did someone…hurt you?"

She shook her head against his bare chest and gave a derisive sort of laugh. "Hah, I wish it were that easy. Then Doc could give me some pills or powders and I'd get better. This is a lot worse. And t-there's no c-cure." The laugh turned into a strangled cry and the cry turned into heaving sobs that wracked her body and sent piercing shards of ice down Matt's spine.

"What do you mean...no cure?"

"I mean this won't go away!" Her tears flowed even harder. "It'll just get worse!"

"What has no cure?" He realized he was shaking her, and forced himself to stop. He tightened his arms around her. "What are you talking about, Kitty?"

"I…I…I'm old, Matt. I'm o-old," she managed to choke out between sobs.

Despite his best efforts, the tension that had been building deep in his chest released itself in the form of a loud chortle which he unsuccessfully tried to disguise as a cough. "You're old? That's what all this is about?"

She nodded against his chest. "Don't laugh at me, Matt. It's not funny."

"Sorry. I didn't mean to laugh. That was just relief escaping. Do you know how worried I was? You had me scared to death, honey. I thought something terrible had happened…or was going to happen."

Her voice still muffled against his chest, she choked out, "It is something terrible. I'm not t—the young girl I used to be."

He grasped her chin and gently turned her tear-streaked face up to his. "Well...of course you're getting older. So am I. So's Festus. So's Doc—now that's really old. We all get older, Kitty. That's the price we pay for living."

"Well, I don't like it," she pouted as she pushed herself up to lay her head next to his on the pillow.

"What—it's all right for the rest of us to get older, but not you?"

"Well—it's…but…"

"That makes sense so far. Please continue." He could feel her body relaxing against his, and though it was going to take a lot of patience, he was pretty sure he could coax her out of this inexplicable mood.

"It's just that—well, I know it sounds terribly vain, but my looks have always been important to me…and they've helped me to be successful, and now…"

"And now you are still the most beautiful woman I have ever seen."

She shook her head sadly and whispered, "Maybe once, but not anymore."

Still keeping one arm around her, he turned on his side and propped himself on his elbow so that he could watch her face as he spoke. "Who told you you're old, Kitty?"

She took a shaky breath and answered. "The m—mirror told me. I was brushing my hair and suddenly this old woman was staring back at me. She had gray in her hair, Matt. And…and she had wrinkles, too!"

Matt's hand moved to her smooth cheek. "Kitty, you don't have wrink..."

"I do. Don't lie to me. And that's not all—my waist is bigger and my hips are wider. My breasts aren't what they used to be—hell, they're not even where they used to be."

He couldn't resist. "Your breasts are fine where they are, honey--right here in my hands." His blue eyes twinkled as he bunched her gown and caught a large globe in each hand, his thumbs caressing the sensitive tips.

She almost smiled then, but continued, "If I can see that old woman, you can see her, too--and so can everyone else. And...and Ben said the...the woman in St. Louie was young and very pretty and…and it made me wonder why you would want me when you can have a pretty, young girl?"

"Why in God's name would I want some young girl--or anyone else--when I already have you? For that matter, why do you want this battered old lawman when you could have any handsome young buck in Ford County …or any rich old rancher in the state of Kansas?"

"That's easy. Of all those men, you're the only one I love." Her hand reached out and caressed his rugged face.

"Even now--in spite of the gray in my hair? And I'm wider than I used to be. My knee aches in this weather and you can hear my bones creakin' all the way down the boardwalk. 'Member our first time together--when you asked about this scar on my side?" He placed her fingers over the oldest souvenir of his long years as a lawman. "Can hardly find it any more among all the others. My body's kind of changed, too, you know. Have you taken a good look at it lately?"

"Every chance I get. I love looking at your body, Matt." She stroked her hand along his bare hip. "Touching it's kinda nice, too," she added seductively.

"In spite of the fact that it's all beat up and old and not what it used to be?"

"That's not what I see. I see the kindest, gentlest, most honest and decent man who ever lived...a man who has believed in me and taken care of me and loved me for a lot of years...a man I can trust with my life...and with my heart. I love the man behind those scars. How you look doesn't....mat....ter...." She paused, realizing what she was saying, and then continued, "And you still look mighty handsome to me."

He kissed the tip of her nose. "Love. Hmmm--maybe that's why I still want you, too." His teasing tone turned serious and his gentle blue eyes pierced straight into her heart. "Listen to me. The first time I saw you, all wet and covered with mud…you took my breath away that day, Kitty. And you still do…every single day."

"Oh, Matt…that's lovely. But…"

"Shhh,"…he pressed a finger against her lips. "Let me try to finish this. Your looks did take my breath away that day, and they still do. But I didn't fall in love with you for that flaming red hair, or those amazing blue eyes, or that soft skin or that incredible body," he stopped and smiled at her. "Don't get me wrong. I love your face and your body and I love looking at you, but that's all just a bonus. I love you for who you are--in here." With his index finger he traced a small heart just above her left breast and sealed it there with a soft kiss.

Cradling her against him, he continued. "So maybe you do have a few gray hairs and wrinkles. Those little lines around your mouth are reminders of the laughter of our youth. The lines at your eyes are from all the nights you waited up, peering into the darkness, watching for me to come home, and the gray hairs--well, they're all the times you worried about me, nursed me, took care of me, pulled me through when even Doc didn't think I was going to make it."

"Doc wasn't supposed to tell..."

"Oh, he's reamed me out many a time over the worry I've caused you. To hear him tell it, it's a wonder you're not totally gray and shriveled up like old leather."

She laughed in spite of herself. "It hasn't been all that bad, Matt--and besides, you're worth it."

"I still have no idea why you think so, honey, but I'm awfully glad you do." He pulled her against him and covered her mouth with his, a long, hard passionate kiss that left them both gasping. Gathering a deep breath, he captured her mouth again, tongue pushing against her teeth and sliding inside—tasting her lips, suckling her tongue. He caught her hand and guided it slowly down his stomach. His voice husky with love and desire, he whispered, "Does that feel like I don't want you…like you don't excite me any more?"

She really did smile then, and her blue eyes danced as she stretched across his broad torso to turn up the lamp. Then, straddling his hips, she lifted her arms over her head so he could remove her nightgown.

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

Matt grinned down at the quixotic redhead almost asleep in the circle of his arms, "You all right?"

This time she lifted her face from his chest and matched his grin with one of her own. "I'm great. I really am...thanks to you. Was I 'here' this time?"

His lips brushed through her curls. "You certainly were, sweetheart, you most certainly were." He paused, reluctant to ask the next question, but he had to be sure. "How 'bout us--are we all right, too?"

"Hmmm," she demurred. "I'd say we're perfect, Cowboy--absolutely perfect."

Please don't let this feeling end...

It's everything I am.

Reaching out to touch you,

Knowing you're beside me

I'm all right...

Looking through the eyes of love.

from "Looking Through the Eyes of Love"

by

Melissa Manchester