XI.

"Hey, Dulcey-girl," Francis said, poking his head around the kitchen door. "I'm going to lock up now. You about done?"

"Yes," Dulcey sighed heavily.

Her life in Providence had been so small, she realized. One tiny room of her own, a daily toil of work on that third floor, Sunday mornings for church, an occasional outing to a store or a walk on the beach. She'd lived there but she had only existed – she hadn't really experienced it. Here it was so different. In eight months she'd become a cook and a baker, a laundress, an accountant, a buyer and yes, a maid, too. All day she'd bandaged the injured, fed the hungry, comforted the downtrodden. Tonight she'd even been a jailer. And then she'd held the tiniest wonder of all God's creation in her arms, all pink and soft and helpless, but so completely alive.

There'd never been quite a day – or a birthday – like it. Now it was back to work. The dining room would be open in the morning. There'd be orders to take, cooking to do, dishes to wash, all part of a now familiar routine. But right now all she wanted was a few moments to herself, a bit of quiet to enjoy without having to walk or stoop or clean.

"Here." Francis caught her arm and edged her back into a chair. "Not yet."

"Not yet?" she protested. "You just asked me to leave."

"Well, not yet," he insisted. "I've got something for you. I would've had it sooner but it got stuck on that train. Close your eyes and hold out your hands," he directed. "C'mon, do it."

"Francis…" It was late and she just wanted this day over with. But how could she refuse him? He was always so kind to her and to bruise the look of delight in his eyes would harm her as much as it would devastate him. She knew he liked her, maybe more than just liked.

So she settled back and closed her eyes and held up her palms. "Will this do?"

Something – paper – was placed in her hands. "Okay, open your eyes…" He was beaming at her. "Happy Birthday, Dulcey-girl."

A newspaper, no a magazine – Dulcey turned it around to read the title and her heart leapt a little. Kessler's Ladies Monthly – her favorite! Just where had he found an issue?

"Francis, oh, thank you!" she gushed. "I haven't seen one in months and months. Oh, I'd save to buy one back in Providence and read it over and over. How did you…?"

He was rocking on his heels and his smile could not get any bigger. "Not just one – a whole year's worth," he told her with pride. "I bought you a subscription. They promised to put it on the mail pouch from the St. Louis train every month. Which they did – only the train was delayed…well, you know."

"Oh, Francis." She stood to hug him. "Thank you so much. It's a fantastic surprise and a wonderful gift. I'll treasure every issue." What an absolutely delightful way to end the day. It made all the calamities of the previous hours fade. Such thoughtful things, chosen just for her – she'd cherish them. These were truly her friends.

Francis peered out into the dining room, nodded as if satisfied with something, then held the door for her. "Sorry your day didn't turn out the way you wanted," he offered sympathetically, falling into step beside her.

"It's all right," she allowed, and found a smile, kept moving. "There'll be others." A birthday was just a day after all. The wonder of a new child and a reconciled couple were experiences that would long last in her memory. And now this day was truly done. She'd read for a bit, leave the balcony door open for a little air. The night looked pretty enough from what she'd seen through the kitchen window. Was it really this afternoon when Jim had returned and had found her washing in her tub…?

Her glance fell on something and she paused, frowning at the out-of-place arrangement on the far table, the one closet to the stairway. There was a white tablecloth instead of the workaday red, a large collection of fresh flowers cobbled together not in a vase but a series of drinking glasses – and the candles. Two of them, white tapers melting with glistening gracefulness down the sides of the deep brown bottles to which they had been affixed. And in the center of all that lay a square box neatly wrapped in brown paper and twine to which a blue ribbon had been added. Dulcey stared. Long ago she'd envisioned candles in bottles like these, a girl's simple dream that had no place out here. She'd never told anyone – wait…

"Francis…?" she began, but he had disappeared; there was a slight snick as the door to Jim's office quietly closed.

"You didn't think I'd forget, did you?"

She swung back around to the sound of the voice – Jim…

He stood on the stair landing, smiling that rare full smile that reached his eyes. His eyes, full of hazel glitter and holding steadily onto her, absorbing her. Jim…

He was freshly washed and shaven. His glossy black hair was combed and still damp at the edges. Even from this distance she could detect the scent of soap and shaving cream and bay rum. He'd donned fresh clothes, had selected the light blue shirt she especially liked on him, had buttoned his vest and tied his tie, polished his boots. His trousers were free of the gunbelt he customarily wore – a concession she knew, for her. For her…

"I'm sorry I'm a little late celebrating," he said, moving down the stairs toward her in that loose legged step of his. "I've been kind of tied up today…"

"It's all right," she demurred, glancing away so he wouldn't see the heat rush to her cheeks and knowing he'd seen it anyway. Nothing escaped Jim Crown's practiced and observant eye. But just the same, she could not let him hold it over her – she had her own morals, after all.

He stopped before her, reached for her hand and squeezed it, his grip engulfing hers. His clean scent rolled over her and she inhaled it, reveled in the heady feeling it wrought within her, closed her eyes for a moment. Jim…

"Here," he said, picking up the be-ribboned box and holding it out to her. "Been trying all day to give this to you." He broke off his gaze to glance briefly about, frowning with dismay. "I wanted to do it up right, but…"

"It doesn't matter," she quickly interrupted, bringing his warm hazel gaze back onto her. It really didn't matter. This day, this unrelenting day was finally over and it was just the two of them. "It was just…circumstances."

"Hmm," he said, squinting a little skeptically. He pressed the box into her hand. "Well, you'd better open it quick, before any more 'circumstances' come our way."

She let it rest in her palm a second more while feeling rippled through her, part excitement, part delight. A gift from him. Wrapped oh-so-carefully, even the blue ribbon was smartly tied with both loops and ends perfectly even. She didn't want to ruin it by opening it and taking away this moment. He meant so much to her.

He was waiting in that still manner, his eyes settled quietly on her, so close that she could quickly be enveloped in his grasp, could easily press herself against his broad chest and lay her head on his shoulder, stroke his jaw. But first this – his gift to her.

Despite the wrapping it came easily undone. With trembling fingers she removed the lid, peeled away some batting…

"Oh," she gasped. "Oh –oh, Jim…"

She couldn't get anything else out, couldn't tear her gaze away from it. A gold, open- work pendant gleamed up at her, delicately crafted in the shape of a shield. In the very center a smoothly cut moonstone glowed luminously at her, inviting her touch. It was warm and secure, winking with flecks of iridescence shining infinitely from within. Twin chains of matching, smooth-edged open work formed the necklace. It was exquisite, feminine – and perfect.

"Jim…" Dulcey looked up to him, a sudden terrible shyness overtaking her. "For me?"

He nodded. "Picked it out the last time I was in Topeka," he told her.

The image swept into her mind , this big man in dark wool working his way around a jeweler's store, yet not uncomfortable, even though he'd probably worn a gun somewhere on him. She knew he'd examined every piece, choosing the best one, the perfect one for her.

"I hope you like it," he added. " I thought it-" He broke off, suddenly taken up by his own bout of bashfulness.

"No one has ever…" she said softly, still touched by the gentle thoughtfulness. "And I've never owned…" She had no jewelry, only the thin gold ring passed down from her mother to her, a precious family heirloom. But nothing else. And he knew it; he saw her every day without anything around her neck, had seen her on those precious few party evenings with no brooch or earrings or anything of the kind. And so he'd given her… "Oh, Jim, it's just beautiful."

His smile broke across his face, and the delight reset the glitter in his eyes. Again Dulcey felt her cheeks heat and had to look away. She dipped her fingers into the box and lifted it out, loving the smooth feel of the metal. Carefully she straightened the chains, reached around to put it on, but her trembling fingers fumbled over the catch.

"Let me…" he offered.

She slowly turned, their hands brushing as they exchanged grasps on the chain. A soft silence settled over them as she stood holding her hair out of the way, the back of her neck exposed to him, feeling his even breaths warming her skin as he worked the clasp.

"There," he said after a moment and then she felt him settle it against her neck. "Let me see it proper…" She turned back to face him; he was still smiling, though it calmed as his gaze roved over her. He nodded in satisfaction. "It's prettier now that it's on you."

She glanced down at it, at the burnished gold and glistening stone against her blouse, feather-light but secure. "Jim – I – I…"

His touch made her look up to him. "Happy birthday, Dulcey," he rumbled out, then leaned in and touched his lips to her cheek. "Dulcey – I…"

She shook her head and placed fingers against his lips; she didn't want him to say it. "I know," she said.

He took her hand, kissed it, then held her gaze with his glittering one. Her own breath quickened, she couldn't help it. He was so tall and strong before her with his dark and shining hair, perfectly formed lips, strong cheekbones, that cleft in his chin. His focus was absorbing her, lifting her all up from the inside, drawing her ever closer. Something unhidden in his hazel stare struck her, sizzled through her…

His hand came up, touched her cheek, held; she felt the ridge of calluses along his palm. He dipped his head, glanced down – at her lips, his own parted slightly, his breaths increasing. Her fingers reached up, touched the still damp black hair edging over his collar. It was quiet, so quiet, and then even that was gone and it was just the two of them in this moment, drawn together, his gift linking her to him. For a second there was a flash of light upon metal – first her necklace and then on his badge. The badge that still put up some resistance but now weakening under their feelings.

He leaned in – or perhaps she was doing the leaning. It didn't matter. She loved him, she did indeed, and there was nothing that could possibly ever mar this…

"Marshal! Come quick!"

She jerked and quickly pulled away, as always, for no one could know…

"No," he said, catching her wrist and bringing her back to him. "Not yet." His arms slid around her, hands locking behind her back, drawing her up close. "Not quite yet…"

And then he kissed her.

END