Kitty Russell scooted the nearest chair out from the table and took a load off her feet. She and Floyd had just finished closing up the Long Branch after a busy, exhausting night. Floyd was a good barkeep and she personally like him, but nothing had been the same since Sam died. Sam was more than an employee, he was family. Her eyes misted at the thought of him. Kitty was not a particularly religious woman, but she liked to think that somehow Sam knew how her life was about to change. And that he was pleased.

Last night at this time she had been looking forward to crawling into bed and drifting off to sleep. But not tonight—she was expecting company. He had stopped by earlier, checking in at the Long Branch as he had every day the past 20 years when he was in town and physically able. There was no set time, but she knew at some point the saloon doors would swing open and the Marshal of Dodge City would make an appearance.

He had a commanding presence, standing over six and a half feet tall, and he would slowly scan the room as if evaluating each patron for signs of possible trouble. But his eyes always stopped when they came to the main reason for his visit—the beautiful redhead who owned the establishment. He would casually walk over to her, tip his hat, and say, "Hello, Kitty" with a grin and a twinkle in his eyes. If business was slow enough and the town was quiet, he would join her at a table for a beer and chat about the day's events. Other times, when she was too busy to talk or he had something important to take care of, they would exchange quick pleasantries with a promise to see each other later. And that promise was always kept if possible, after hours, upstairs in her room.

Kitty chuckled to herself as she thought about his brief stop earlier. He had been out of town for over a week, taking a prisoner to Hays and attending to some personal business there. She was used to him being away for days at a time—you did not last 20 years with Matt Dillon if you didn't accept that the responsibilities of his job frequently took him away—but she never got used to missing him. And the feeling was definitely mutual, so much that it was often difficult for him to maintain his preferred reserved demeanor when he first saw her after one of these separations. This had been one of those times.

He had entered the Long Branch almost the minute he had returned from his trip, as was his habit. Exhausted, smelling like a mixture of horse, leather, dust, and sweat, he needed to let her know he was back more than he needed to rest or take a bath. There would be plenty of time for that. Right now he just had to see her—and make plans for later.

The saloon was crowded and noisy and Kitty didn't see him walk in. But as she served a tray of drinks to a large table in the back, she caught sight of him standing near the door. She wanted to throw her arms around his neck, kiss him on the lips, and tell him how relieved she was that he had made it back safely. Especially this time. But instead, she waited for him to come over and said with an inviting smile, "Welcome home, Cowboy. How was your trip?"

He tipped his hat and said "Too long, as usual." Then he added with a smile, "But successful."

She knew what he meant, and a tingle went up her spine. "Looks pretty busy in here tonight," he continued. "Everything going OK?"

Her casual nod assured him it was, and he took a quick survey of the room for his own satisfaction. But he didn't take his eyes off of her for long. She was wearing one of his favorite dresses—emerald green taffeta with a sheer neckline and sleeves—and it fit her ample curves as if it had been specially made for her body. Her fiery red hair was swept up in a twist, loose curls hanging down around her face. Now well into her 40's, her beauty still took his breath away—the same as it had 20 years ago, when the most stunning young woman he had ever laid eyes on first crossed his path during breakfast at that cafe. He wanted to tell her how much he had missed her, but he simply said, "I'd better go tell Festus and Newly I'm back and check on things. See you later?" Yes, she confirmed, definitely later.

The men at the table paid no attention to the conversation that was taking place in code before them. They were too busy drinking whiskey and outdoing each other with tall tales. But had anyone been paying attention, it would have been nearly impossible to miss the sexual spark that ignited the air between those mischievous smiles and deep blue eyes. And had anyone looked as closely as Kitty had, they would also have noticed that Matt's excitement over seeing her was not waiting until later.

"Make sure that gun doesn't go off accidentally before you get back here" she said softly in his ear as he headed toward the door. He held his laughter until he got outside.

Matt walked toward the jail, still laughing every time he thought about her comment. She could always make him laugh, one of the many things he loved about her. No doubt about it, Kitty Russell was unlike any woman he had ever met. He had known that from the very beginning, before he had ever asked her out on a date. She was her own woman, independent and hard-headed and opinionated, and she took care of herself. She had a head for business and earned a living that even successful men envied. She depended not on finding a husband to support her, but on her own ability to save enough money to live comfortably after she retired-an ability he was certain she possessed. She had an easy rapport with children much as she had with adults, but she did not have an overwhelming maternal instinct that demanded she have a child. She would have welcomed one—she certainly had enough love to give—but she didn't need one to feel complete. Eventually, he learned that the value of her friendship was matched only by her passion in the bedroom.

By Matt's reckoning, he had somehow lucked into the perfect woman many years ago. And to his incredible good fortune, she still loved him despite everything, and she would be waiting for him later that night. He knew the best decision he had ever made was to not take that for granted anymore.