CHAPTER 11

The wagon rolled and bumped along the dry, sometimes rocky ground. Sully looked over at Michaela as she fanned herself. It was a truly hot day...and she had worn a long sleeved dress for the ride. Her face looked flushed and he was starting to get a bit worried about her.

"Ya know...it's real hot out here, and there ain't nobody to impress...why don't you change outta that fancy dress and put on somethin' more comfortable?" he asked, giving her a no-nonsense gaze.

She stopped fanning and gazed back at him, slightly surprised that he would bring up such a subject.

"I beg your pardon."

"You heard me. You wanna pass out from the heat?"

"Mr. Sully, as a physician, I think I'm quite qualified to tell if I'm on the verge of overheating or not. You really take liberties sometimes, don't you?" She huffed.

"Liberties? I'm just tellin' ya like it is. Miss Quinn," he added sarcastically.

Michaela shot another glance at his profile, surprised at his tone of voice. He stared straight ahead, both hands on the reins, elbows resting on his knees, long wavy hair fluffing in the hot breeze. He looked totally unaffected. But as she kept watching, his face betrayed him and a hint of a dimple appeared in his cheek as he tried not to grin. He was teasing her!

She turned back to scanning the scenery...and fanning.

After a few more minutes, she huffed a sigh and snapped her fan shut, turning on the springy seat and beginning to climb in the back.

"Where ya goin'?" he asked with a glance.

"Just keep your eyes on the road, Lieutenant, and I won't have to report you to your superiors," she quipped, knowing he would know she was teasing, and finally making it into the back and shutting the curtain. Closing the back curtain also, she began rummaging around in her trunk for something more suitable – which she grudgingly agreed she needed.

Finally at the bottom, she came across a thin, a lightweight cotton blouse and skirt. These would do. Struggling against the swaying and bouncing of the wagon, she proceeded to release the buttons on the back of her dress and wriggled out of it.

Then as she picked up the blouse, she glanced down at her corset. The thing was extremely tight and tremendously uncomfortable in this heat, the whalebone gouging her skin. Dare she remove it and just wear a chemise under the blouse? What would Sully think?

She closed her eyes as she imagined her mother's shock at such lewd behavior. But then, Sully was right, she could very well pass out from the heat – and then what? Sully would undoubtedly have to loosen her clothing as well as the corset to cool her off – and that would be worse! She shook her head to that idea and began unlacing the offending object.

Taking in a deep, fortifying breath once the garment was discarded, Michaela quickly donned her chemise, slipped on the blouse and skirt, and swiftly gathered her hair into a large 'bun', very glad to lift the long, hot tresses off her neck and back.

Several minutes later, the curtains parted and she began climbing back out onto the seat.

Sully was just in the act of taking a drink from his canteen and he glanced over at her, his eyes sweeping down her frame and up again as she settled.

He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

"Now ain't that better?" he asked gently, his eyes showing definite pleasure at her choice. For a moment, he allowed his gaze to settle on her chest, which was bouncing with the sway of the wagon, and he knew instantly she had removed her corset. The realization of what he was observing made his body come alive in ways it definitely shouldn't and he quickly averted his eyes back to the road ahead, unconsciously clearing his throat.

She glanced at him and inclined her head in agreement. "Yes, thank you."

He smiled at the soft tone of her voice and took both reins in one hand to loosen his neckerchief and wipe his face with it, which had suddenly gained even more perspiration.

Watching him, she realized his wool uniform coat was buttoned clear up to his neck, his blue pants with the gold side stripes damp with sweat. With a mischievous grin, she turned her head to the road again, remarking offhandedly, "You could do with a bit of your own advice, Lieutenant. That wool coat must be beastly in this heat."

His lips rose in a half grin as he glanced at her. "It's regulation."

"Mmm hmm. But as you said... 'It's real hot out here, and there ain't nobody to impress'..." she quoted him in a near perfect mimic of his dialect.

Amused, he gave a short chuckle. "True." Glancing around to see where their escort riders were, he proceeded to loosen the top three buttons on his uniform, spreading the material open, very glad for the immediate cooling effect.

"Better?" she asked sweetly. He glanced over at her and surprised her with a wink.

Chuckling together, they rode on in companionable silence.

Thinking about her eventual destination, Michaela turned her head several minutes later and glanced at his profile.

"Tell me about Colorado Springs, Sully..."

Pursing his lips in thought as he decided what to tell her – and what to leave out, he began, "Well...it's not very big, just three short streets...got a boardin' house, saloon, mercantile, barbershop, livery, telegraph office...church," he paused, thinking of the graveyard next to that structure.

"Tell me about the people...you mentioned a Charlotte Cooper..." she prompted, wondering about this female who wrote him regularly.

Sully smiled and nodded. "Charlotte. The Widow Cooper. She's got three kids – Matthew, Colleen and Brian. She runs the boardin' house and she's the town midwife, too," he added softly, clamping his teeth as he steered his mind away from his experience with Charlotte in that capacity.

"Oh, that's wonderful. I look forward to meeting her," she answered, relieved that Charlotte sounded too old to be sweet on Sully. "Who else?"

"Well...there's Hank that runs the saloon...he's kinda rough around the edges. There's Jake, the barber, and Robert E., the blacksmith..." he paused for a moment, and then continued, "And Loren Bray, he owns the mercantile."

For the next little while, he told her about other townsfolk, events that had happened in the town, surrounding countryside and its proximity to the beautiful Pike's Peak, and more.

"It sounds lovely," she mused, imagining a quaint little English hamlet.

He shrugged. "I wouldn't call it lovely..." he returned, picturing six inches of mud in the streets after a rain.

She remained silent for a few minutes, trying to bolster her nerve to ask him something that was burning in her mind. Finally, she took a deep breath, stealing a glance at his profile as she asked, "Is there anyone else of interest in town? Any...single, eligible females?"

He had no idea, of course, that she even knew Abby's name, and he grinned at this query.

"Out west there's twenty men to every woman, and Colorado Springs ain't got no single females."

Her eyes twinkled, relieved that this Abby must not live there.

"That's a shame. Every town should have at least one."

He glanced at her, noticing the teasing twinkle in her eyes, and immediately a jealous wave rose up from his gut to his chest as he pictured Jake, Hank, or the Reverend drooling over his beautiful Michaela. The fact that he had not staked any kind of claim on her, he conveniently overlooked.

"Yeah, well...you just watch yourself...out west there's lots 'a wolves, too. Sometimes in sheep's clothes."

"Thank you, Sully, I shall. But...the east has its own wolves...however, most of them usually wear top hat and tails," she added with a wry grin.

He glanced her way and they both dissolved in chuckles.

After that, they lapsed into silence again, just content to ride along on the wagon seat, by necessity their thighs occasionally rubbing on the narrow surface. This heightened the awareness for each of them and secret, shameful, thoughts and images came to the forefronts of each of their minds. Michaela fanned herself and purposefully concentrated on the passing scenery.

Thinking of her soon-to-be home, she murmured, "Do you think Charlotte, being the midwife, will accept me as a doctor? Or...will she see me as crowding in on her business?"

He shook his head. "Nah. Charlotte 'll be glad to have ya. She's said many times she wished... we had a doctor nearby..." he added softly, the memories threatening to overtake him.

After that, Sully retreated into himself, his thoughts brooding over his dead wife and child. Then his mood sunk even lower with the horrible memories of what happened when the Indian he was targeting unexpectedly moved. The images made him cringe and he clamped his teeth, tightening his hold on the reins and causing the horses to side step.

Michaela glanced at him, but when she saw his closed expression, she decided to leave him alone with his thoughts.

OOOOOOO

"I'll take first watch. You two can get some shuteye," Sully offered as he sipped a cup of coffee at their campfire that night. They had traveled until the sun began its descent, then Sully ordered they make camp near a slow running stream. After their discussion about Charlotte, Sully hadn't said another word the rest of the ride, but had sunk deeper and deeper into the world of his thoughts.

Michaela was very glad to get down from the wagon and stretch her legs, and even more happy to be able to freshen up a little farther downstream as one of the men, the corporal, stood guard with his back to the lady doctor.

Now, watching the corporal and private spread their bedrolls out and recline on the other side of the fire, a cool evening breeze blew through their camp and Michaela drew her shawl tighter.

Sully noticed. "Cold?" he murmured.

She smiled and shook her head. "No, it feels wonderful after so many hours riding in the heat."

"Yeah...I know what ya mean."

Not wishing to keep the troopers awake, she decided she might as well go to bed herself. Standing up, she murmured, "Well, I suppose I should turn in, too..." then glanced a little ways downstream.

"If ya need ta...use the 'facilities'...I'll go with ya," Sully offered, knowing she would know he meant he would keep his back turned.

"That would be nice...thank you."

Carefully, they made their way downstream, out of sight and hearing of the camp. Michaela washed quickly and tended to business standing in knee-deep water. Then as she turned to climb out, she nearly lost her footing, letting out a startled yelp.

Quick as a flash, Sully turned around and reached for her hand, saving her from plunging totally into the water as he yanked her toward him, catching her against his body.

They each gasped with the electricity of their contact – it happened each time they touched. But now, in the dark, alone, their attraction became almost too strong to ignore. Too strong for Sully...and with a soft groan, he leaned downward, pressing his lips sensually to hers, fulfilling a desire he had fought the entire day. She melted against him and returned the kiss, giving in to the desire she had also fought the daylong.

The kiss deepened and soon Michaela felt the tip of Sully's tongue caressing her lips, begging entrance. With only slight hesitation, she opened to him, glorying in the feel of his intimate kiss as tingles instantly began to roam up and down her body. Of their own accord, his hands found their way into the confines of her hair, dislodging pins and causing the long tresses to begin to tumble in disarray.

Never had David, or any man, kissed her with such passion. She felt lightheaded and as his hands moved down her neck and back, found herself wanting the kiss to go on forever...she wanted him to pull her even closer to him. That thought jolted her back to reality, and her hands began to push against his chest as she moved to break their kiss.

"Oh Sully, I'm sorry...what you must think of me..." she murmured as she pulled back, fairly breathless.

"No, I'm sorry...I was outta line...I..." He immediately countered, his hands moving to gently caress her arms.

"No you weren't..." she argued softly, scrambling for the right words to say, as she was still reeling from the full impact of his tongue's passionate invasion.

His face took on a pained look, barely discernable in the moonlight, but Michaela caught it and she opened her mouth to reassure him again, not wishing him to think he had overstepped any bounds by his actions – she had wanted the kiss just as much as he.

"I...I enjoyed it," she admitted softly, feeling a slight blush rushing to her cheeks.

"You probably wouldn't have if you knew..." he paused, wrestling with his conscience, the memory of his promise to Abby...and the horrible sin he had committed.

"Knew what?" she murmured, still standing within his arms.

He released her and moved back a step, his sigh heavy. He had to tell someone...he was going out of his mind tossing it back and forth trying to decide if he should or he shouldn't...if he could or he couldn't. Besides, Michaela was the only person on earth who knew about that night. Not even the Colonel knew the details. Finally, he drew in a deep breath and took the plunge...

"After what happened on my last mission...if you hadn't been at the fort...I swear I woulda just kept ridin' that night." He paused, trying to see her expression in the moonlight.

She was staring at him expectantly, but certainly wasn't prepared for what he was about to say.

"Michaela, I...I'm thinkin' about desertin'."