CHAPTER "ELEVEN"

MERCY SAT ON the edge of her bed and brushed out her waist-length raven locks in long, slow strokes, a dreamy sort of expression on her face for all that she hadn't gone to sleep yet. The previous few hours of time occupied her thoughts: the way Hoss looked when he came to pick her up...the lovely golden flowers he gave her...the smile of gratitude he aimed her way after she took the snooty French waiter to task...

...the fact that Hoss Cartwright had asked her to marry him.

She recalled freezing for a moment, staring at him, hardly daring to believe that the big, tall man had uttered the proposal—but the strained anxiety on his face after he asked confirmed that the teacher had, indeed, heard correctly...

"HOSS..." MERCY REPLIED, her eyes and face suddenly glowing, "...oh, Hoss...I'm honored that you've asked...of course I'll marry you!" Neither of two young people could help themselves: Hoss pulled Mercy to him and they kissed.

Once again Hoss found himself drowning in a flood of pure sensation—the sight of her sparkling emerald eyes the split-second before her lashes swept closed; the scent of her flowery perfume; the warm softness of Mercy's lips; the throaty purr of satisfaction she made; and the slightly-minty taste as his kiss deepened. His head was spinning and he certainly didn't want to let her go—nor did Mercy seem to wish the embrace to end, either, clinging to his shoulders the way she was—but Hoss registered the soft whinny of one of the horses hitched up to the surrey and put the raven-maned woman from him with great reluctance.

"Mercy," he admitted in a very shaky voice, "You make a man plumb forget himself."

"Oh, Hoss..." she breathed, lifting a hand to cup one of his cheeks tenderly. "...I forget myself whenever I'm with you." For a moment, the man's eyes blazed like the summer sky in mid-morning. He placed one of his hands over the one she had on his cheek and reveled in the feel of her palm against his face for a moment.

"Mercy," Hoss told her, "I'm of a mind to get married as soon as we can."

"The last day of school will be the twenty-sixth of June," she replied in a rush, "We could get married on the twenty-seventh." The tall man grinned down at her.

"And I thought I was getting biggety by hoping for a July wedding," Hoss admitted, a twinkle in his eye.

"Biggety..." echoed Mercy, her lips pursing, "...audacious, imperious, presump—" She got no farther than that, as her newly-accepted fiancé bent his head once again and kissed her very thoroughly.

HOURS LATER, IN the privacy of her little house, Mercy was still warmed by the passion Hoss had demonstrated—and marveling at the restraint he showed. The female smiled to herself now, for—once again—it had been Hoss who had remembered that right outside her front door in the middle of Virginia City was not the best place for the couple to get carried away. He'd left her reluctantly but with a grin that was akin to the sun itself as he drove back to the Ponderosa, no doubt to share his joy with his immediate family.

Family.

Suddenly the euphoric clouds that the jet-tressed schoolmarm had been walking on vanished, and she came down to earth with a very sharp thud.

His family would be happy for Hoss, of course—but none of them knew the truth about her past. A truth she knew she should confess before the engagement was too far along, for Hoss at least deserved to know the truth. He would be fair-minded, she was sure...but would his family share his view? And, as fair as Hoss may be, there were some things that were simply intolerable to most people...

Mercy shivered, dropping her brush onto her night table and darting under the covers of her bed like a child who was trying to beat the bogey-man before he came along and "gotcha." She blew out the lamp and curled into a protective ball under the covers that she pulled up to her chin.

It was a long while before Mercy fell asleep, questions about revealing herself to the man she loved keeping rest at bay.

AT THE PONDEROSA'S main house, Hoss lay back in his bed with his hands folded behind his head, also unable to fall asleep right away, but for a reason that vastly differed from that of his fiancée. He was anticipating showing Mercy off at the party that his father was now most enthusiastically endorsing. Starting tomorrow, the Cartwrights would be spreading the news that, in two weeks' time, they would be hosting a celebration that everyone in the territory was welcome to attend. It was already shaping up to be an event to rival the Harvest Festival.

Hoss closed his eyes and saw, in his mind's eye, the image of Mercy and himself at the cabin he intended to renovate. Instead of the old one-room structure, their version would have at least two rooms added on: a separate bedroom and an enclosed kitchen. The betrothed man found his thoughts straying to the occasion for using a large copper bathtub in the kitchen and idly wondered if he shouldn't just add a room to use as a sort of attached bath house. He could ask Adam about it tomorrow, certain that Mercy would appreciate a convenience like that, especially if there were going to be children to bathe.

Hmm...maybe he should add two bedrooms instead of just one..? Their baby would naturally sleep in the same room with Mercy and himself, but after the child was old enough to not require constant supervision, it would be nice to have some privacy again...

It was a long time before Hoss fell asleep, visions of a house with at least three stories and several wings and filled with children having segued into his dreams.

SOON THE VERY excited scuttlebutt began flying all over town and into the surrounding area:

Ben Cartwright was having a celebration that would be held from the ninth of November (after church services, naturally!) through to the twelfth and everyone who could come was invited. Although the event was rather rushed, people in the area agreed that it was best to hold it as soon as possible before snow began to fly and made traveling for those further away from the Ponderosa all the more difficult. Any event hosted by the Cartwrights promised to be the party of the season!

This party was going to be a bit different than the ones usually held on the Ponderosa, as it would take place at the new house that Adam had built for his bride, Eve. Tongues were wagging about the way Adam had designed the building and about the newfangled washout closets supposedly installed there.

There were other rumors that, besides the marriages of Ben and Adam—and the official adoption of Naomi and Gabriel into the Cartwright clan—there was going to be the announcement of an engagement...and everybody in Virginia City knew that Hoss Cartwright was sparking the pretty school teacher, Mercy Harris, so it only made sense that this would happen. Such an historic event was not to be missed!

THE GUEST IN Room 2121 of the Palace Hotel in Virginia City was anticipating this "party of the season," too...only her anticipation was not a good thing—not for Mercy Harris and Hoss Cartwright. But the matron was patient, biding her time until the very best opportunity would present itself...an opportunity that suddenly waved like a red flag before a bull.

The woman chuckled to herself. Oh, no...she wouldn't miss this party for the world!

Sunday, November 9, 1862

BEN CARTWRIGHT CONSULTED with his indispensable houseman, Hop Sing.

"All the beef and chicken for tonight is ready, Mr. Cartwright," the oriental man said with assurance. "Plenty of vegetables to go with them, too. This will be a number one party!" Ben grinned at Hop Sing—although he still slipped into his own unique syntax from time to time, the cook's English had improved marvelously under Eve's tutelage.

"We couldn't possibly do it without you, Hop Sing," the silver-maned man replied earnestly.

"You better get upstairs," Hop Sing said a bit brusquely, for all that he beamed at his employer's compliment, "Mrs. Cartwright be needing your help." Ben nodded and mounted the stairs, privately translating the phrase to "Mrs. Cartwright be wanting to make sure you're properly dressed for party." He made his way to their bedroom and knocked.

"Come in, Ben," Cassandra's voice bade him before he could follow up his rapping on the door with an inquiry as to whether she was dressed. The man stepped into the room and closed the door behind him, noting that his wife was inspecting herself in the mirror. Ben's dark eyes drank in the comely picture of the silvered blond wearing a green bombazine gown that had a modest V-neckline and a wide, bell-shaped skirt that was all the rage in the circles of high society back in the Old States.

"How did you know it was me, Treasure?" he asked, smiling as he approached her. Cassie turned to face him with an impish smile of her own.

"Gabe, Naomi and even Becky don't knock," she pointed out. "If it had been Hoss, Joe or Hop Sing, then the knocking at the door would have been more imperative, since none of them would even think to come to our bedroom to see me unless it's a bit of an emergency." Ben had to chuckle at her logic.

"You are quite correct," he conceded. "You look wonderful...but do you think I'll pass inspection...?" He held open his arms so that she could see Ben was also wearing green—though his was of an olive shade rather than the forest green that Cassandra had on. The suit was set off by his ubiquitous silver brocade vest. Ben's wife stepped even closer to him and trailed a hand over his chest.

"You'll do, Mr. Cartwright," she told him with a smile.

"Good," Ben replied. "There's a lot of happy news to announce at the party, and I certainly want to look my best."

"Are you sure you remember everything you want to announce, Ben..?" prompted Cassie with that humorous sparkle in her silver-gray eyes.

"Woman, you cut me to the quick!" her husband huffed in mock-affront. "Let's see...there's our marriage, of course...Adam and Eve's marriage...Gabriel and Naomi's adoption...and the engagement of Hoss and Mercy, as well."

"Very good," Cassandra nodded as she approved the list. "But...there's one more bit of news, though I'm not sure if you want to make it public just yet."

"Oh?" Ben prompted, his eyebrows elevating. "What would that be, Treasure?"

"The announcement that the newest member of the Cartwright family is due to arrive about the month of June," she told him, her eyes on his face. Ben gaped, then gave a delighted laugh.

"And why wouldn't I want to announce the anticipated arrival of my first grandchild?" he exclaimed, beaming.

"Because it isn't your grandchild that will be arriving, Ben," Cassie explained, taking one of his hands and putting it to the front of her waist as she spoke. For a moment the Cartwright elder could only stare and blink, not quite comprehending what his wife was telling him.

"But...but...how..?" he asked, flabbergasted. Cassandra laughed.

"You have three grown sons, Ben Cartwright!" she answered. "You already know how..! The question is...how do you feel about it?" The man continued to stare at the woman he married, seeing the slightly-anxious look on her face even as her hand held his in place over the belly that sheltered the baby they had created together. Ben blinked.

"I...feel..." he said slowly, then suddenly swept his wife up in a fierce yet tender hug, "...overjoyed! A baby! Hallelujah!" Ben kissed Cassie with spontaneous emotion. When they parted, she was laughing with happiness as well as relief.

"I'm so glad to hear you say that, Ben," she confessed. "I was afraid you'd think I was too old...or that you were." He paused for a moment, realizing that he would be in his mid-seventies when this baby reached adulthood, but then he shrugged.

"It's something that can be a concern," he admitted. "But...you're sure you're expecting?" She nodded her silver-and-gold head.

"Elvira advised me that I might be increasing when we all went to the kitchen—you know...when I was so upset about the idea of your adopting the children..?" Cassandra replied, pausing until Ben nodded. "She was the first to suspect—because she's had children of her own—and told me to wait until the time my next monthly course was due. Well...the time for it has come and gone...and no course." His wife was a bit pink in the face, prompting Ben to cup her face in his hands.

"Now, Treasure, no blushes between us," he assured her gently. "We're a consecrated couple in the privacy of our own room...and, besides...I love you. I'm thrilled that we'll be having a baby together..." Ben's dark eyes sparkled with humor.

"And I can't wait to see the look on the faces of Adam, Hoss and Joe when we tell them the news!"

ADAM CARTWRIGHT HAD (what would appear to the casual observer) a completely neutral expression on his handsome face as he watched his wife adjust her sapphire-blue gown for the twentieth time in the space of three minutes. Eve, however, knew better: there was laughter deep within the hazel glow of his eyes as he regarded her from where he leaned in the doorway to their bedroom. His arms were crossed and her husband looked the picture of nonchalance, while the brunette was fussing about her appearance.

"Are you sure this gown is suitable for the occasion, Adam..?" she asked anxiously. "Honestly, I feel as though I have...iron barrel hoops circling my hips!" As she spoke, Eve picked up handfuls of the bell-shaped skirt, then released them in a huff.

"Come now, it's not that bad," chided Adam. "You're not wearing hoops, only petticoats."

"Twelve petticoats...each of them made of horsehair, thank you!" his wife retorted. "Why can't I just wear the gold gingham? It's so much more comfortable...and suited to ranch work." Adam came away from the door and walked toward her.

"But this is a party, Eve, and not work," he pointed out implacably. "It's also the very first party we are hosting in our brand-new home. Since everyone in the territory is coming to our...castle, so to speak, it behooves you to dress like a queen." Adam's chiseled lips twitched into a smile.

"Queens..." she replied with a smirk of her own, "...have the benefit of having hoards of pages around to help hold up heavy trains and such. I, however, have to drag about these skirts all by myself." Eve snorted. "I'll bet you'll be wanting me to sport a set of crown jewels and a scepter, too, for the benefit of the masses—perhaps even a cloak of royal purple trimmed in ermine!" Adam opened his mouth to respond when her flippant remark prodded a forgotten memory.

"Why, Eve..." her husband drawled, moving past her to where his chest of drawers stood, "...you've read my mind!" The man opened one of the top drawers and began rummaging through it.

"Adam Cartwright, what are you doing?" the brunette's voice shook a bit. "I swear, if you pull out a tiara, I'm going to scream!" He found what he was looking for and turned to her, smiling as he placed a pair of small hinged boxes in her hands.

"No tiaras, Your Highness," Adam assured her, "But something that I hope you'll like, regardless. Please...open them." She looked at the boxes and then up at him with slightly-narrowed eyes before she did as he asked, first opening the one that was almost square and seeing within it the decorative sapphire-and-diamond brooch Adam had purchased from Mr. Hagermann. Eve drew in her breath, her cocoa-colored eyes widening.

"Ohhhh...Adam..." she breathed, amazed, "...it...it's lovely."

"Open the other one," he said, unable to keep the note of eagerness from his voice as he gestured to the other box—this one a long and slender rectangular shape. His wife glanced up at him, then did so, unveiling the matching bracelet.

"They go with your gown," Adam pointed out the obvious. Eve's mouth quirked.

"Help me put them on..?" she asked. Her husband took the brooch from her as Eve unclasped the bracelet and fastened it around her left wrist. Adam pinned the remaining jewelry to the gown, centering it on the bodice that cut horizontally from shoulder to shoulder, leaving them bare—but frowned as it suddenly occurred to him that the sparkling gems drew the eye to her chest. He found himself a bit annoyed at the realization that other people—men in particular—would likely be staring at that spot on his wife. The sable-maned man opened his mouth to say something, but the brunette woman moved to the mirror to look in it.

"Ohhh...they're so beautiful, Adam, thank you!" Eve enthused. His objection died on his lips, which were soon engaged in his wife's physical expression of gratitude.

"I'll wear them only for tonight, though," she murmured when she'd pulled away from Adam. "Since this is the first night of the celebration...Adam..?" Her question was uttered when he took her by the shoulders and pulled her against him again.

"You thanked me for the bracelet," Adam pointed out, "But there's also the pin...and the dress...and the petticoats...and the—" He punctuated each item on the list with a kiss, but Eve cut him off before he could begin naming her individual items of lingerie by throwing her arms around his neck and returning his buss with passion.

"Eve! Adam! The guests are arrivin'!" Mother MacGruder's voice called out from the other side of the door. The couple sighed regretfully and went to greet the newcomers, pretending not to notice Elvira's knowing smirk when they emerged from their bedroom.

HOSS CARTWRIGHT, DRIVING a two-seater, dropped Hop Sing off at his oldest brother's house and then drove on to town to collect his fiancée for the premier of the extended party. He couldn't keep the bright, sunny grin from his face as he anticipated making their engagement official. In his pocket was a box that held a ring he and Mercy had selected from Mr. Hagermann's jewelry store together earlier in the week—an oval emerald surrounded by four round diamonds in a delicate gold setting. Hoss had insisted on the emerald because it matched Mercy's eyes.

As of tonight—right after Ben made the official announcement at the party—Mercy would be wearing that ring, publicly declaring her intention to become the middle Cartwright brother's bride.

Hoss thought back to last week's supper after the Sunday service: the entire family had come together to welcome Mercy into their midst and, for a moment or two, Hoss swore that the jet-tressed young lady was going to burst into tears. However, between the twins tugging at Mercy's sleeve and the other womenfolk eagerly chirping about this subject or that, she had thankfully been prevented from doing that...or much of anything else while the couple was at the Ponderosa.

She had been very attentive on the ride back when he had started asking her questions about what she wanted in a kitchen and her thoughts about having an attached bath house on the cabin he was converting for their use. Mercy had almost seemed on the verge of crying again at one point, but then she threw her arms around Hoss and kissed him until he forgot about everything else.

He couldn't wait to see what the ride home from the party was going to be like!

JOE CARTWRIGHT CHECKED over the harness rig of the horses that were attached to the family surrey. Everything was sound and tight, so he led the animals and the vehicle to the hitching rail in front of the house and secured them there before going indoors in order to finish getting ready for the party that would taking place over the next few days.

The entire family was looking forward to celebrating the milestones being honored by the party: the marriages of Pa to Cassandra and Adam to Eve...the soon-to-be-officially-announced engagement of Hoss to Mercy Harris...and, last (but not least) the adoption of Gabriel and Naomi.

Joe's face flushed as he recalled his initial reaction to hearing Cassie agree to have Ben become the legal father to the Callahan brood: horror.

He had already been wrestling with the moral dilemma of being attracted to Rebecca Callahan when she was the daughter of his father's wife, and—thus—his stepsister. The moment the brunet young man realized the basis of his feelings for Becky, the comfort that the Good Book usually gave him had all but disappeared, leaving only the despair and certainty that Joseph was surely bound to spend the hereafter in the bowels of a lake of fire for the urges that kept rearing their ugly heads every time he was within proximity of the blond girl for more than a minute (sometimes less!) However, the announcement that his Pa would be formally adopting the Callahan minors sounded a death knell on any chances of Joe possibly redeeming himself.

He recalled watching as Gabe and Naomi squealed for joy at the prospect of having Ben as their "official" Papa—the twins were jumping up and down and hugging Ben, Cassie and each other over and over again.

"Isn't it sweet?" Becky sighed with a smile on her face as she watched. "The children are so happy...I never realized how important it was for them to feel like part of a whole family." Joe couldn't seem to muster the enthusiasm that Gabriel and Naomi were showing. However, he realized that he had to at least be polite.

"So...when will you officially become 'Cartwright'?" Joe asked. Becky blinked at him.

"Oh...I'm not." she told him. "Uncle Ben is adopting the twins...they need it the most. I'm staying 'Callahan' until I marry." Joe's shock and near-collapse from relief was missed by the blond girl because the twins chose that particular moment to expand their happy dance to include their sister and Becky was whisked away into the celebratory jig.

Yes, Joe was very narrowly saved from eternal damnation thanks to Becky's quick thinking, although she had been acting to keep Cassandra from becoming more upset rather than comforting Joe about his anxiety.

Joe dressed in black slacks and highly-buffed black boots, over which he wore a white dress shirt, a green-and-gold embroidered vest and a black string tie. He knew he was looking his best—as he should for this family-oriented celebration—and he hoped the attention he would invariably attract from the girls at the party would help him keep his mind off Becky.

Yeah...right.

BECKY CALLAHAN HELPED her younger brother and sister with the final details of their own party outfits: Naomi was looking very nice and ladylike in her crisp linen pinafore over a frock that had a pretty red-and-gold flower design in the material, while Gabriel was emulating his soon-to-be "official" Papa and wearing a brocade vest over his gray slacks and white shirt. At present, however, he was ruining the effect by squirming around as Becky tied his string tie around his neck.

"Awww...do I hafta...?" Gabe demanded petulantly. Becky raised an eyebrow at him as she finished with the neckwear.

"It's the first night and all the gentlemen there will be wearing ties," his older sister told him firmly.

"But it's choking me..!" he insisted, gagging. Becky knew perfectly well that his tie was not too tight.

"All right, then," the young woman conceded, "I can understand how a tie isn't something a little boy would want to wear..." Gabe reached up to yank off the offending garment when he realized what his sister had just said.

"Hey! I'm not a little boy!" he denied hotly, a mutinous expression on his face. Becky bent down and stared straight into a pair of eyes the exact same color as her own.

"All the men in our family will be wearing ties, Gabe," she told him firmly, "The only ones who can't are little boys." She reached out as though to untie the bow she'd just made. Gabe, however, pulled back.

"I'm wearin' this tie, then," the lad declared, scooting out of the room, "An' nothin' you can say will make me change my mind!" Both of his sisters watched him go with smiles on their faces.

"Boys are so silly!" Naomi said with a giggle. "He couldn't see what you wanted at all." Becky giggled with her little sister, although in the back of her mind there was another boy—definitely older and, unfortunately, justifiably resistant.

Joe had been remarkably cautious whenever he and Rebecca found themselves in situations where it was only the two of them. Becky knew this was for the best, but she also knew that it was getting harder and harder for them to maintain their decorum around each other.

"You're right, Naomi," Becky agreed with a soft sigh. "Boys often can't see what you want at all." She grinned down at the younger female and held out a hand.

"Let's get going," Becky said brightly. "I'm pretty sure that Joe's got the surrey all hitched up already." Naomi clasped her hand and chattered excitedly as the two girls made their way downstairs. Becky's mind, however, was on what she would have to be doing tonight and for the next several days: sizing up and then picking out viable candidates for her to marry.

Hopefully someone suitable would be in the throngs sure to be attending the celebration...although Becky had to concede that she held little hope there would be a man who could measure up to the standards set by the men in her family.

MERCY HARRIS CAREFULLY inspected her reflection in the mirror. Her current economic circumstances dictated that she wear her only formal gown again. She had managed to obtain a length of nice lace and used it to embellish the gown so that it didn't look exactly the same as it had before. The jet-tressed young lady shook her head at the thought of wearing the same dress over and over, but the situation for her was unavoidable at present.

As a way to relieve her anxiety over tonight's intended announcement of her engagement to Hoss, Mercy allowed herself a flight of fancy about how her one gown could be worn over and over again, not only at different events but in different years...even by different women! Such an absurd figment of her imagination made her laugh!

Mercy's hair was carefully combed, rolled and contained in a snood made of finely crocheted chenille with white satin rosettes over each of her ears. She may not patronize a designer here in in the Nevada territory, but Mercy knew that her appearance was smart enough to do Hoss proud, and that was what mattered to her.

A twinge of conscience struck her just then, for she had yet to make her confession to her fiancé. Hoss and his family were still unaware of her past and she knew in her heart that they had every right to know...but her not-wholly-unjustified fear of what could happen made Mercy put off the inevitable time and again. She had been especially cowed by the revelation that Hoss had made to her about Nathan Riley and his father, Amos about a week ago.

Nathan had been unmercifully taunting the Callahan twins about their "illegality", saying horrible things not only about Ben and Cassandra, but also about the twins' natural mother. It had gotten to the point where even the threat of Mercy wielding the discipline paddle hadn't dissuaded Nate to stop his awful talk. Instead of paddling the boy, however, the teacher had sent word to Amos of Nathan's persistent behavior. The farmer turned up at the school not even an hour afterwards and gravely called his boy to his side...borrowing that paddle from Mercy and taking Nate out of the schoolhouse.

The paddling itself was not witnessed by any of Nate's classmates, but it was enough for them to know that Amos had done so, and confirmed when Nate returned and asked to remain standing for the rest of the day.

Since that incident, Nate didn't speak about or even to the Callahan children nor their parents, natural or adopted. Mercy told Hoss the details when they were driving Saturday afternoon and was surprised by the thoughtfully somber look on his face.

"It's an extreme sort of discipline, Hoss, I have to admit..." Mercy said, faltering to a stop when Hoss shook his head.

"It is, Mercy, but that's not what's on my mind," he told her. "I'm thinking that young Nate was probably being mean because of his own mama...and Amos likely pointed that out to him when he paddled the boy."

"I...I don't understand."

"Of course you don't—you weren't in Virginia City when it happened," Hoss conceded with a nod. "You see...Tina Riley left her family almost four years ago. Folks talked all about how she run off with a whiskey drummer, only they didn't really know the whole truth. Pa and Amos...they're good friends, so Pa was the one that found out the truth: Tina did run off with that traveling salesman—but only after she'd been seeing him behind Amos' back for several years...long enough so's that there's a good chance that Nate may not be the son of Amos."

"Oh, my!" Mercy gasped.

"And if that weren't enough," Hoss continued, "Tina made Nate help her cover up the drummer's visits to their house...and it was Nate who had to tell Amos about it the day Tina run off."

"That poor boy..!" the school teacher fretted, wringing her hands. Hoss reached out and patted them with his own.

"Don't take on so, Mercy," he assured her. "Amos getting firm with his son in public was what Nate needed, I think...cuz I know it doesn't matter to Amos whether Nate is his own natural son or not—Amos thinks of himself as Nate's father, and that's what he had to prove to the boy."

"How do you know, Hoss?" Mercy asked.

"Amos said so to Pa," Hoss answered. "He said the only thing he couldn't cotton to was how Tina had lied to him—not to mention making her own child cover up those lies, too. Amos told Pa that he probably would've forgiven Tina her dalliance, but he could never forgive her for being so deceitful...not that I can blame him a-tall for that. Her lies hurt not just Amos but her own son, too...they were selfish and destructive. I don't think I could've forgiven her if I'd been in Amos' shoes."

Mercy had been rather thoughtful for the rest of the day, but not because she was still feeling sorry for Nathan Riley...no, it was because she knew she had racked up a few falsehoods herself and she had no idea how to explain it to Hoss. Every time she summoned the courage to attempt to start, something would happen and Mercy would end up chickening out on her opportunity.

Tonight, however...tonight she would tell him...

...after they announced their engagement.

MAVREEN O'DONNELL RETURNED to the rooms in the Palace Hotel of Virginia City, Nevada, where her mistress of almost twenty years had been living for the past few months. Originally from Dublin, Ireland, Mavreen was a sturdy young working lass who prided herself on the fact that she was a personal maid to a great lady of Baltimore, Maryland in the United States of America. She'd been proud to be a domestic in a mansion for one of the premiere families of the state—until that dark and horrid day six years ago...the day that nigh drove the mistress mad with grief and rage.

Aye, 'twas a long road from Baltimore to Virginia City, and Mavreen had done her utmost to convince the mistress that they were on the road to an unhappy end if the mistress persisted in chasing down her demons...but the mistress could not be dissuaded from her chosen path. Instead, the lady had given two pieces of a prized set of heirloom jewelry to a pair of reprobates and scoundrels. Mavreen still hadn't been able to prise the information from the mistress about what had been discovered...most likely because the mistress suspected that Mavreen still felt loyalty towards Miss Mercy.

The mistress would have been correct about that, but still the Irish maid was cross with herself—she hadn't been able to find out what the mistress had in mind nor why they were in a town of the Wild West rather than in the genteel suburbs of Maryland. Even in the midst of the Reconstruction that was occurring, Baltimore was infinitely preferable to Nevada. Mavreen entered the suite and called out her arrival as she closed the door.

"I got some white grosgrain for ye, ma'am," she announced as she removed her cloak and reached for the strings of the bonnet tied under her chin. "But there was nary a colored ribbon t'be found—all such notions have been snapped up by the locals...seems there's a rich rancher throwing a party for the terri...tory..." Mavreen suddenly realized that the suite was devoid of the mistress.

This was not good, for the only times that the mistress had ever ventured outside the room unaccompanied by the maidservant were those times towards the beginning of their sojourn here, when the mistress would go out in the company of those two terribly shady men. For the last few weeks, however, the men had disappeared from Virginia City and the mistress had seemed to be almost serene, happy to remain in the room while Mavreen went about her business of securing needed items and such.

The Irishwoman's eyes scanned the sitting room, searching out a clue as to where the mistress may have gone. Her blue eyes caught the glint of silver in front of the fireplace: the flash of reflected light from the frame of a small portrait. Mavreen rushed to where the ornate metal frame lay, picking it up from where it had been flung to the floor, most likely in a fit of rage and madness, dread seizing her heart.

The maid ran from the room, running to the service desk and asking the desk clerk there if he had ever seen the lady in the portrait, shoving the frame into the man's hands. He squinted at the likeness and frowned, shaking his head.

"No, can't say's I have..." he admitted, blinking as the picture was snatched from his grip almost before his sentence was finished. Mavreen pelted out of the hotel, glancing desperately about in a bid to figure out whom she should attempt to ask about the lady in the portrait. Making up her mind, she tore off down the street to where she recalled seeing a sign hanging over a small, cramped-looking building with bars on its windows. Yes—there it was: VIRGINIA CITY JAIL, Roy Coffee, Sheriff.

"Sheriff! Sheriff!" Mavreen shrieked upon hurling herself into the front office. The lanky young man she'd startled off the chair he'd been leaning back in picked himself off the floor and glowered at her.

"Sheriff ain't here," he said curtly. "He's gone to the Cartwright party. I'm the deputy—can I help ya?"

"I hope so," Mavreen cried, pushing the portrait into the deputy's hands. "I need t'find this lady...'tis a matter o' life and death!" Like the desk clerk before him, the deputy stared down at the contents of the frame, frowning as his eyes narrowed in concentration.

"Ya know..." he said, his eyebrows drawing together, "...it's a real humdinger, here—but I could swear this is Mercy Harris."

"Ye know Miss Mercy?" Mavreen gasped, hope surging in her breast. "Ye know where she is?"

"Why, ma'am," the deputy replied, "Of course I know where she is—she's at the Ponderosa...people say she's gonna be engaged to Hoss Cartwright."

"Harris...her name is Harris here?" the maid echoed, then shook her head to clear it of the sluggish stupidity that insisted upon surrounding her thoughts. "Deputy, please—we must get to where Miss Mercy is! Somethin' terrible is going to happen unless we stop it!"