by Angie

I had so much fun with this story. Please take it with a grain of salt. Crystal made a quick beta check of it and fixed my mistakes, bless her. This is what happens when I have a slow day at work.

It was almost unbearably quiet in the saloon. Ezra sighed as he turned the last card on his game of solitaire. JD had gone to bed an hour ago and Vin was on patrol. Chris was at the jail keeping watch on their one and only prisoner. Josiah was taking it easy because of the fall he had taken from the ladder two days earlier and Nathan was off at the Seminole village visiting his lovely paramour. Inez was clearing the last of the glasses from the tables and Buck was just slipping away with Millie.

Gathering his cards and tapping them square, Ezra tucked them into his pocket. On the side of his table was the new book his mother had sent. She was always sending him interesting books whilst on her travels. A slight smile lit his face as he read the first paragraph.

Ezra wakened as the table was jostled open. The Richards Conversion pistol was in his hand before his eyes were properly focused. What he saw when he finally opened his eyes properly was enough to stun him into silence.

Josiah stood on the dais, dressed in his finest suit with Maude in his arms. His mother was resplendent in yards of silky white material. Was that? No, it couldn’t be! A a wedding dress? Ezra sat up in his chair and rubbed his eyes.

“Now Ezra, is that any way to greet your mother on her wedding day? Come now, dear, get up from that chair and greet your new stepfather properly!” Maude chided the stunned gambler.

“M-mother, did I understand you correctly? You and Mr. Sanchez are now m-married?”

“That’s what I said dear. Now, go upstairs and get changed, I have another surprise for you.”

The happy couple moved off, leaving the stunned gambler sitting in his chair feeling very much like Alice in Wonderland. A half hour later, when he had made himself presentable, Ezra descended the steps. An all out wedding party was going on in the saloon. Josiah and Maude were waltzing around the room with idiotic smiles plastered on their faces. As soon as his mother saw him, she called out loudly.

“Ezra dear, how good of you to finally make an appearance. Come dear, I want you to share in my happiness. Josiah and I have decided to have a family. Now I know you always wanted a brother to play with growing up, so we decided to adopt young Mr. Dunne and Mr. Tanner. Isn’t it wonderful, Ezra?”

“B-but, M-mother, surely you jest. Mr. Dunne and Mr. Tanner are grown men and hardly in need of a mother and father at this late stage of their life,” Ezra protested.

“Now, Ezra, don’t upset your mother. Besides, it’s already done. Judge Travis drew up the papers this morning. Come on, greet your brothers properly, son.”

Vin and JD materialized at his side wearing identical smiles. Ezra reluctantly accepted JD’s enthusiastic hug and then Vin’s one-arm embrace. He sank into a chair feeling terribly confused. The situation went from bad to worse as Maude announced that she was moving into Ezra’s room and that he would have to find some other place to sleep for the duration of their honeymoon and until a suitable dwelling was acquired for the family.

The confusing situation went from bad to worse over the course of the next couple of weeks. Ezra missed his comfortable bed and was cranky and irritable. Maude scolded him repeatedly for his ‘un-gentleman like’ behavior. His new stepbrothers, on the other hand, could do no wrong and had his mother wrapped around their fingers. The situation took another turn for the worse one afternoon. Vin bounded into the saloon and informed Ezra that Maude said he had to take JD’s patrol that afternoon, as she was going riding with Josiah and the boys. Swallowing his angry retort, Ezra shoved his chair back and stormed out after the tracker.

“Mother? On whose authority are you rearranging the patrol schedule?”

“Well, I didn’t figure you’d mind, darling boy, you were just going to sit in that stuffy saloon all day. This way, you can be doing something useful and help your brothers at the same time. I cleared it with Mr. Larabee. Now, be a good boy and do as your told and I’ll see you at supper.”

Ezra stood there and watched the four of them ride off. Buck stepped up behind him and clucked his tongue softly.

“Looks like your stepbrothers are turnin’ on ya, Ez,” the ladies man said.

“A very astute observation, Mr. Wilmington. That would indeed appear to be the case.” Ezra turned on his heel and headed for the livery. He had no intention of irritating Mr. Larabee, he was miserable enough without that added burden.

While out on JD’s patrol, a rabbit bounded out of a hole and startled Chaucer, causing him to dump Ezra in an undignified manner. The gambler lay sprawled on the ground as the chestnut gelding raced back to town. Ezra got up and dusted himself off and headed for town.

It was nearly dark by the time he made it back to Four Corners. Nathan rushed down from the balcony outside of the clinic to make sure Ezra was all right.

“Thank you, Mr. Jackson. Your concern is most meaningful as it does not appear that any of my ‘family’ are at all worried by my late return,” Ezra said tiredly.

When the healer finished cleaning the minor abrasions on Ezra’s hands, he patted the bright-red-jacketed shoulder.

“Ya need to get somethin’ to eat and come back tomorrow so I can check ya hands again, okay?”

“Thank you, I believe I will do just that and them I shall get some rest.”

When the gambler reached the saloon, Chris was boiling.

“Where have you been? You have patrol tonight! Josiah, Vin and JD stayed with Maude at the new homestead they bought and Buck’s gone off with one of his lady friends. I just got in from my patrol so don’t think I’m going to cover this one for you!”

The exhausted gambler only sighed and turned back thru the batwing doors. He was gratified to see that someone, probably Yosemite, had tended to Chaucer. He pulled the gelding from his stall and saddled him, wincing when the leather rubbed the scrapes on his hands.

Overnight, Ezra formulated a plan. He would bed down in the hayloft with his bedroll, that way no one would bother him. The exhausted, achy gambler climbed into the loft just as the sun was rising and dropped into a deep sleep.

Buck climbed into the loft around noon and wakened Ezra after Yosemite let slip that the gambler had been up there since before dawn.

“Ezra? Hey Ez. Come on, Chris is looking for you. Go get cleaned up and I’ll cover for you for a while.”

“Bless you, Mr. Wilmington. I shant be too long,” Ezra groaned.

When he ran into Chris an hour later, the gunslinger was more than a little miffed. His hazel eyes scorched Ezra when he finally slipped into the jail.

“Vin said you were taking his shift watching the jail today. I have to ride to the train depot in Willow Grove and I’ll be gone for a couple of days. Buck’s in charge while I’m gone.”

Chris left the sputtering gambler, mounted the black gelding and sped off. Ezra sank into the chair behind the desk and muttered toward the lone prisoner, “What just happened here?”

Later in the evening, Nathan brought supper for the prisoner and relieved Ezra. The exhausted southerner made his way to his room above the saloon. The only spot of joy in his miserable existence was the thought that he would be able to sleep in his featherbed that night. He skidded to a halt when he opened the door to find nearly everything he owned was gone. Buck stuck his head in the door and whistled.

“Damn, Ezra, looks like they cleaned you out!”

“You know who the cretinous reprobate is and you did nothing to prevent it from happening?” Ezra asked, dumbfounded.

“It was your family! I figured you knew all about it. They came in with a buckboard and carried it all out early this morning. I guess they figured you were going to be staying out at the homestead with them.”

Too tired to even think about it, Ezra checked the closet and found only one change of clothes left behind. His very plain tan coat and his least favorite pair of pants was all that hung in the closet. Taking the clothes, he walked past Buck and headed for the livery. Figuring that the gambler was heading out to his mother’s house, Buck went to the jail to check on Nathan.

“Hey Buck, you see Ezra?” The healer asked.

“Yeah, he didn’t even know they’d moved all of his stuff. He was pretty dazed by the whole thing.”

“The thing I can’t get over is the way Josiah and the others are treatin’ him. They’re treatin’ him like a poor relation!” Nathan huffed.

“I’m gonna talk to Chris about it when he gets back,” Buck said.

Ezra burrowed into the blanket and sighed; he couldn’t believe how his mother and friends were treating him. He made up his mind to ride out in the morning to demand that they return his belongings.

Bright and early the next morning, Ezra rode out to the new ‘Sanchez’ homestead. He entered the house and looked around in shock. The interior of the house was immaculately decorated in muted shades of gold and burgundy. Their eyes swept over him and their expressions showed their distaste for what they saw.

“Ezra dear, you look a fright! Go out and get cleaned up and I will save breakfast for you,” Maude said finally.

“I only stopped by to demand the return of my belongings to my abode in town. Mother, I do wish you had consulted with me before removing them.”

“I’ll not have you taking that tone with your mother, Ezra. Apologize at once and go get cleaned up. Later, you can ride back into town with me and help me with the roof of the church,” Josiah said in a menacing tone.

“Mr. Sanchez, I have no intention of working on the church roof with you, this afternoon or any other afternoon. I only came here to request the return of my belongings, my bed and clothing as well as the safe box with my savings in it, Mother.”

“Well, Ezra dear, we gave your bed to Vin as it is better for his back. As to your wardrobe, young JD took a liking to several articles of your clothing and I have sent them off to be altered for him. The safe box contained barely enough for the down payment on the homestead, I almost had to use my own funds.”

Ezra’s face went thru several shades of red before he recovered his voice.

“You, you, you what?”

Josiah dropped his linen napkin to the table. He strode purposefully toward the gambler and took him by the arm. Ezra offered no resistance as he was dragged from the house and toward the barn.

“Until you can control your mouth and your temper, you will stay out here. The stalls need to be mucked out. I’ll be back in a couple of hours to take you into town with me.”

Ezra was shoved into the barn and the door shut and latched behind him. He sat where he had landed for several minutes before getting up to check the door. Confirming that he was truly locked in, he began to pace. A short time later, the door opened and Maude came in carrying a tray. Vin stood in the doorway to make sure he didn’t try to leave.

“Honestly, Ezra, I don’t know why you can’t just accept what is happening and be happy for us. Your brothers have adjusted,” she paused when she caught the grouchy expression on his face. “Very well, suit yourself. Josiah said you will stay here until you have cleaned up the stalls.”

Ezra P. Standish was not going to muck out stalls! No matter how long they kept him here, he was not going to do it. ‘A gentleman does not engage in physical labor.’ Josiah brought him lunch and pointedly looked into the stalls.

“You’re only making this harder on yourself, son.”

“I have already told you how much I dislike that appellation, Mr. Sanchez. You may be married to my mother but you are not now, nor will you ever be, my father!” Ezra started quietly and gradually, his voice rose to a yell.

By the next morning, Ezra was tired, grouchy, and mad as a wet cat. He grabbed the rake and began to savagely clean the stalls. With each stroke, he vowed to get out of the barn and away from the homestead and NEVER to return.

JD brought breakfast and was surprised to find the stalls cleaned. Ezra shoved past him and strode angrily to where Chaucer stood in the corral. He saddled the horse quickly and swung into the saddle.

“Josiah said to tell you to come right to the church to help with the roof. He wants it finished by the end of the week,” JD called as Ezra rode out.

Settling Chaucer in his stall, Ezra debated going to Judge Travis. This time Maude had gone too far. He was lost in thought and didn’t see the raven-haired beauty standing outside of the next stall. Her voice startled him so badly that he activated the derringer without a second thought.

“Ezra! No!” Chris’s voice stilled the finger that trembled on the trigger.

The woman backed away until she reached Chris and them she turned and ran.

“Mr. Larabee, forgive me! I didn’t realize anyone else was here,” Ezra stammered as he replaced the gun inside of his sleeve. Chris noticed the pain on the gambler’s face and moved to grasp him by the wrist.

The derringer had opened the blisters on Ezra’s hand. Chris stared down at the tender mess of the gambler’s hand before reaching for the other one.

“What have you been doing?”

“Mucking out stalls,” Ezra answered flatly. “Please extend my apologies to the young woman. I have a rendezvous with Mr. Jackson, excuse me.”

Nathan cleaned and bandaged both of Ezra’s hands and insisted that he remain in the clinic to rest. For once, he got no argument from the southerner as he collapsed onto the bed without even removing his boots. Nathan gently tugged off the footwear and tossed a blanket across the sleeping form.

When Ezra awoke, he was somewhat refreshed. Heading for the saloon, he figured to grab a meal and try to figure out his next move. Inez smiled in sympathy as she brought him a large plate of chicken and dumplings and a pitcher of tea. By the time he finished eating, he was tired again. Not wanting to wear out his welcome with the healer, he headed for the livery and the hayloft again.

Changing into the only clean clothes he had, Ezra rolled up his dirty clothes and blanket and dropped them into Chaucer’s stall. He was mildly surprised to see Prophet, Peso and Dancer in their stalls. As he stepped out onto the boardwalk, he froze. There, just outside of the saloon, was JD wearing Ezra’s emerald green jacket. A surge of anger flushed his cheeks as he strode into the saloon. Inside, Maude, Josiah and Vin sat calmly eating breakfast. Josiah looked up.

“I’ll be expecting you to help out over at the church today, son.’

“Don’t hold your breath, Mr. Sanchez.” Came the acid reply.

Buck glided across from the bar and steered Ezra away from the impending explosion of temper.

“Hey Ez, have you seen this?” Buck held the Clarion.

“No, I have not had the luxury of reading the paper yet today. What is it you wish for me to see?”

“Just this. Look at this article. Have you seen the gorgeous woman roaming around town with Chris? She’s like a cousin of his or something. She’s come out here to find a husband! Her father is loaded and he wanted to get her away from the mealy mouthed poor hands that have been camped out on his doorstep for the past year. Chris is throwing a big party in the saloon for her to meet all the eligible men in the township. What do you think, Ezra, are you going?”

Crestfallen, Ezra glared toward his mother’s table. He noticed for the first time that Vin was wearing an elegant wool jacket that perfectly set off the pale color of his eyes. He sighed.

“Alas, I shall not be able to attend, Mr. Wilmington. My wardrobe and other belongings are being held hostage at Mr. Sanchez’ homestead. I have nothing suitable to wear to a party.”

Before Buck could stop him, Ezra was gone.

The door to the livery opened and Ezra choked back the liquid emotion flowing down his cheeks. Switching from the coarse brush to the curry comb, he continued to groom Chaucer.

“He’s beautiful,” a feminine voice complimented.

“Thank you.”

“My name’s Olivia, Olivia Stone. We didn’t get a chance to be properly introduced before.”

Shame washed over Ezra and his eyes began to dart around looking for a quick exit. Seeing none, he stammered.

“I-I do hope Mr. Larabee extended my apology. I deeply regret that I frightened you.”

“Yeah, Chris told me. Are you attending the party tomorrow night?”

“Unfortunately, I shall be unable to attend as I have other plans but rest assured, a woman as lovely as yourself will have no problem finding a suitable partner. If you will excuse me, I have another commitment.”

In order to avoid any further invitations to the party, Ezra moved the ladder to the side of the church and climbed onto the roof. He spent the rest of the afternoon removing and replacing the damaged shingles.

It was nearly dark when Nathan demanded that he come down from the roof. He was immediately steered back to the clinic where a hot bath was waiting. Ezra meekly complied with the order to bathe. He made no comment when a nightshirt was dropped beside him on the bed as he dried his body. A rich beef broth was poured into a mug for him to drink along with a mug of the pain killing tea.

The gambler was blissfully unaware when Nathan cleaned and bandaged the battered hands. He didn’t even twitch as a blanket was tucked under his arms and he slept.

Buck nudged him awake just long enough to press another mug of broth into his hands followed by a cup of herbal tea and then a few sips of clear water. Ezra mumbled thanks before nuzzling into the pillows around him and dropping into a deep sleep.

Nathan was sitting at the side of the bed when Ezra wakened next. He held a sandwich on a plate.

“Feeling up to something solid?” The healer enquired softly.

“Yes, thank you. What time is it?”

“Nearly four in the afternoon. You’ve slept nearly around the clock.”

“Good lord! I’m sorry to take up so much of your time, Nathan. I have to gather my things and be on my way.”

“No, you’re not going anywhere until your hands heal. You could get a nasty infection right quick with all that damage you got under them bandages!”

Just then, Buck let himself into the clinic.

“Hey, good to finally see them eyes open again,” the ladies man teased.

“I suppose I owe you my thanks too. I have a vague recollection of your smiling countenance during a few brief moments of lucidity over the past day.”

“Your welcome, I think. He didn’t just insult me did he, Nate?”

Ezra smiled for what felt like the first time in weeks.

“No, Mr. Wilmington, I did not insult you. I said that I remember you smiling at me when I woke up briefly,” Ezra translated.

“Why didn’t you say that in the first place?” Buck asked.

“I believe I did, Buck.”

“Hey Nate, did ya hear that? He knows my first name too! Well, Sleeping Beauty, are you ready to get dressed for the party tonight?”

“Party? I am not planning to attend the party. I have nothing suitable to wear and even if I did, I’m sure Mother and Josiah would make a scene.”

With a flourish worthy of a true magician, Nathan brought out the black tux. A silky, snow-white shirt and a blood red cummerbund were placed on the chair along with a black silk cape. A black top hat, gold mask and white gloves completed the outfit.

As each article was displayed, Ezra’s eyes became impossibly larger. He ran his fingertips over the material and almost whimpered that he could not feel the cloth for the blisters and calluses on his fingers.

“It’s beautiful!” Ezra whispered.

“Then let’s get you ready,” Buck called.

After a bath, Buck carefully shaved Ezra’s face. The gambler could not manage the straight razor with the bandages on his hands. It was nearly six by the time the last of the outfit was in place. The southerner’s natural grace showed in the flow of the cape when he moved. He smiled at his reflection in the shaving mirror until his gaze fell on his bandaged hands.

“Don’t go fretting about that, I got it covered,” Nathan called as he saw the saddened expression. In the healers hand was the pair of white gloves. The thick bandages were removed and replaced with thin strips and then the gloves were carefully eased onto his hands. The finishing touch was a polished black cane.

Like a swarm of bees, all of the eligible young men in the area crowded into the saloon around the prettiest flower. Olivia was amazed at the number of men vying for her attention. Two in particular held her eye longer than the rest. The young sheriff, JD Dunne and the taller Texan with the long hair and soul searching blue eyes were her choices.

Inez was busy pouring drinks when the stranger entered the saloon. Her breath caught in her throat as the glass she was filling overflowed. Setting the pitcher aside, she wiped the bar without taking her eyes off of the man. He seemed to glide across the floor. The striking outfit he wore was stunning and the gold mask covered his face from his nose to the curls of dark hair that fell over the top.

Mary Travis’s throat went dry as the man stepped past her. The silky black cape moved and fluttered in his wake. The lantern light sparkled on the gold mask and the polished black cane that hung from his white-gloved hand.

Mrs. Potter and Mrs. Gunderson both stared, open mouthed at the man. Like a fine thoroughbred stallion, he seemed to exude confidence as he slid thru the crowd like a hot knife thru soft butter.

Millie grabbed the saloon girl standing next to her and stared. All of the saloon girls had been asked to keep the men entertained as Olivia chose those she wanted to spend more time with. Intimidated by so many people, the working girls huddled in the corner. The women went weak in the knees at the sight of the man in the black cape.

As she was accepting a cup of tea from Vin, Olivia caught sight of the man in the black cape. The cup danced on the saucer as her hand trembled. She barely managed to set the cup on the table before the white-gloved hand reached out to take her hand and press a kiss on it gallantly. She stared into his emerald green eyes for a moment as a thousand butterflies fluttered in her stomach.

Josiah nudged Maude and glanced toward the stranger. The woman’s icy sapphire blue eyes drilled into the back of the man, taking in every measure of his body. She was sure it couldn’t be Ezra, the man was too tall to be her son. Vin caught her eye and shrugged one shoulder. Before anyone else could react, the stranger had drawn Olivia to her feet and was leading her to the open center of the floor. The musicians struck up a melodious waltz and the crowd began to pair up to join the dance.

Ezra was careful not to smile, lest his gold incisor betray him. He was also careful of how he spoke so that his voice would not be recognized. He kept his posture tall, knowing that the top hat and lifts Buck had slipped into his shoes disguised him well.

“How long are you staying in Four Corners, Miss Stone?” Ezra asked.

“Only a couple of weeks. Uncle Chris doesn’t approve of Daddy letting me go off like this. He thinks Daddy should just pick someone suitable and be done with it.”

“And what of romance, of love? Are you in love with someone?”

“No. The boys at home only want me for Daddy’s money,” she said with a pout.

“I couldn’t help but notice you said boys not men. Could it be that the right man has yet to come along and sweep you off of your feet?”

Before she could answer, the music ended and the charming stranger melted into the crowd. A sweet ache set up in Olivia’s chest as she watched him walk away. Vin glared down a couple of potential suitors as he worked his way to her side.

Inez studied the man as he came to the end of the bar. She passed him a glass of tea and tried to catch his eye. Buck and Nathan watched from the corner opposite of Maude and Josiah. Chris kept his eye on Olivia as he tried to concentrate on the conversations happening around him. The barmaid caught the hazel eyes and questioned the stranger’s identity, when Chris shrugged, Inez shook her head and smiled.

As the evening wore on, those not chosen began to wander away. Chris had ordered that no alcohol be served at the party and, without the possibility of spending more time with the lovely lady, they were losing interest. By nine that evening, the crowd had thinned to a half dozen hopefuls, the rest of the regulators and the saloon girls.

Sitting at the table on the raised dais, Maude, Josiah and JD watched Vin as he courted Olivia. In the opposite corner, Nathan sat with Chris. Near the bar, Buck was busy exploring the delights of Millie. Inez worked her way down the bar to the stranger. He gave her a slight smile as she refilled the glass of tea. The musicians struck up another waltz and the barmaid found herself being drawn from behind the bar. The stranger guided her onto the dance floor.

Olivia glanced over the shoulder of her dance partner and tried to catch sight of the handsome stranger. She was fascinated to see him gliding around the floor with the beautiful Mexican woman.

A slow smile spread across Inez’ face as she recognized her dance partner. Using the tips of her fingers, she tipped his face up until she caught sight of the green eyes. Buck laughed softly into Millie’s shoulder when he realized that Inez had recognized Ezra. The gambler guided his partner closer to another couple and offered to trade dance partners.

Vin scowled as Olivia willingly moved into the arms of the stranger. He smiled as he accepted the hand of the pretty barmaid. Maude glared at the stranger and then at Vin for surrendering ‘the prize.’

As the hour was nearing midnight, it appeared to Chris that Olivia was quite taken with the stranger. He felt badly for Vin as he was being scolded by Maude for his failure. JD was asleep, his head resting on the emerald green jacket folded on the table. Josiah was dozing lightly in between agreeing with his wife.

A sudden disturbance in the street had the regulators running for the batwing doors. A single gunshot was fired and the sound of horses thundering down the street into darkness had everyone standing on the boardwalk. It was in that moment that Maude happened to glance around and catch sight of the derringer in the white-gloved hand. Recognition washed over the woman and she started thru the crowd.

Olivia pushed thru the crowd and came up on the left side of the stranger. She never noticed the gun in his right hand as he pulled her close and put his body between her and the retreating bank robbers.

Ezra caught sight of Maude moving toward him with fury burning in her eyes. He stood, rooted to the spot for a moment before his flight response kicked in.

“Forgive me Miss Stone, I must take my leave of you,” he managed as he turned to flee. As luck would have it, or perhaps it was fate, the heel of his boot became stuck in a knot hole and in his rush, Ezra was forced to step out of it. Tripping over the cape, he felt it pull free of his shoulders and flutter to the ground. He didn’t stop running until he was safely hidden in the hayloft of the livery.

Olivia tried to follow as the charming stranger fled. When her foot touched the soft, calfskin boot, she paused. Only a few feet beyond the boot lay the cape and she gathered it and draped it over her arm before retrieving the boot. Chris wrapped an arm around her and guided her back to her room at the boarding house.

By morning, it was all over town that Olivia wanted to meet the man who had so captivated her the night before. She carried the cape and the boot to the saloon and listened as one man after another claimed to be the owner. By midday, she was beginning to despair of ever finding the man.

Ezra was just adjusting the cinch strap one last time. He had traded his fine, expensive saddle for a battered saddle and some cash. He bought a new pair of boots and tucked the rest away. The livery door was opened and he flinched, thinking it might be one of his ‘family.’ He breathed again when he saw Nathan slip in and close the door behind him.

“Where ya goin’?”

“Anywhere, as long as it’s away from my darling mother,” he spat.

“Are ya sure that’s what ya want to do?”

“I don’t have any other choice, Nathan. They won’t let me be if I remain. I shall inform you of my whereabouts as soon as I have found a suitable residence.”

“Let me check them hands again before ya go,” the healer demanded.

Allowing Nathan to unwrap his hands, Ezra sat docilely while the blisters were cleaned and salve applied again.

Olivia glanced up the boardwalk and sighed. Buck looked up from his seat and took in the wistful look in her eyes.

“Looking for anyone in particular?”

“Yes, but I’m afraid he’s gone,” she said as she cuddled the cape in her arms.

“Not yet,” Buck teased, “I have it on good authority that he’s in the livery at this very moment.”

A deep, masculine chuckle chased the young woman as she raced toward the livery. She tugged on the big, heavy door and ducked quickly inside.

The healer was just tying off the last of the clean bandages when the door opened and Olivia stepped inside. Ezra tensed, snatching his hands back and trying to come to his feet.

“Please don’t go!” Olivia breathed as she stepped closer.

Frozen in place, Ezra watched as the young woman moved to kneel before him. Her hands whispered across his and he shuddered. Her eyes traveled from his hands to his face, to his eyes and she smiled. Without taking her eyes off of his, she gently lifted his leg and removed the new, stiff boot and guided his foot into the calfskin boot she’d been clutching to her chest.

Ezra’s heart surged with happiness as Olivia moved closer. Her breath was warm on his face as she leaned closer. He closed his eyes in anticipation of her kiss.

“Senor Standish? Senor Standish, por favor, you must go to bed, it is time for me to close the saloon. Senor Standish, are you all right?”

Confused green eyes studied the barmaid before he leapt away from the table. Coming to his feet, he checked his attire carefully before studying his palms intently. His eyes widened as he turned and raced up the stairs to his room. Flinging the door open, he felt a surge of relief as he took note of his furnishings. Crossing to the closet, he caressed his clothing before turning to stare at Inez, who was watching him with unbridled curiosity.

“Please tell me that you haven’t seen my mother today,” he pleaded.

“No, Senor Standish, your mother has not been here for some time. Perhaps you were dreaming?” She offered.

Noticing the book in her hand, Ezra asked, “What have you there, Senorita?”

“Your book. You were reading this when you fell asleep.”

Taking the book from her hands, he scanned the title, Cinderella, by the Brothers Grimm. Breathing a huge sigh, he closed the book and placed it on the table.

“Are you all right, Senor Standish?”

“I’ll be fine. It was all a dream!”