Disclaimer: The following work of fan fiction is not intended to infringe on any copyright or to make a profit.

Rated: R/NC-17 (M/F)

by Bonnie

It was a warm, sunny afternoon in Four Corners. Judge Travis and Mary were in the Clarion office patiently awaiting the arrival of the stage, which was due at any moment. After all this time, the town was finally going to have a schoolteacher.... and not just any schoolteacher. She was Ellie Graham, the daughter of a dear friend of the judge. His name was Thomas Graham, and he was one of the most beloved and revered judges in the country. He had an exceptional reputation for being an extremely fair judge, but at the same time, upholding the law completely....a consummate professional. Judge Graham had lost his wife, Kate, two years ago to pneumonia, leaving behind his daughter and a son, Will. He was accompanying Ellie on her trip west, but Will was staying behind in St. Louis with his aunt and uncle attending school. Judge Travis hadn't seen his dear friend since he attended Kate's funeral. It would be good to see him again, as it would Ellie....she had turned into a very beautiful young woman. He still remembered what good friends his son Steven and Ellie had been when he had moved his family to St. Louis all those years ago. He often wondered if their close friendship would turn into anything more, but it just wasn't meant to be. He could still remember the two of them saying goodbye when he decided to return his family to the West, tears in their eyes, and wondering if they'd ever see each other again. When Steven wrote Ellie about his plans to marry Mary, she was so happy for him....as happy as she was devastated when she received the news of his death. Her whole family grieved for Steven. Mary had been able to meet Ellie at Steven's funeral and had liked her immediately. He hoped Ellie's move here would be beneficial for them both.

J.D. ran into the saloon and over to the table where Buck, Nathan, Josiah, and Ezra were busy in a fast game of draw poker. Ezra was obviously winning, which was no surprise to J.D. "Hey, fellas, the stage just pulled in. Did you remember we're gettin' our new schoolteacher today?" Just like that, they were up out of their chairs, each finding a window to get the best look at the new teacher. Instead, they saw a tall, nicely dressed, gray-haired man step down off the coach. He turned to help someone step down, but from their vantagepoint, it was very hard to see who this person was. Then he stepped out of the way, and to their delight, a vision of loveliness stood there in the street. She had the most gorgeous golden blonde hair which framed her beautiful face. She was exquisitely dressed, her dress a marvelous shade of green. Anyone could tell she was well bred and polished, a most elegant lady. "Whoa, that can't possibly be our new teacher, can it?" exclaimed J.D. "It must be," replied Buck, "there's the judge and Mary with them now. Fellas, I'd give just about anything right now to be back in the third grade!" This remark elicited laughter from everyone except Ezra. He was still standing there staring at this vision. He hadn't seen anyone quite so beautiful before, and she was actually going to be living in this town. His mind was imagining all sorts of things at that moment....he felt an excitement he hadn't felt in a long, long time...but at the same time he felt suddenly very disheartened. After all, he was who he was...he couldn't change his past no matter how much he wanted to. He would just have to live with the fact that he could never in a million years attract a woman like this!

Tom and Ellie stepped down off the stage just in time to see Judge Travis and Mary walking towards them. "Tom, it's wonderful to see you again," exclaimed the judge. "And here's our new schoolteacher. Ellie, it's so good to have you here!" They shook hands and hugged. "Orin, how's the world treatin' ya'?" asked Tom. "Mary, dear sweet Mary, how are you? You're a vision of loveliness!" Mary blushed and hugged them both. She was so glad they were here...she felt especially close to this wonderful family because of their closeness to her late husband. And now Ellie was here, not only as her friend but also as Billy's new teacher. Just at that moment Billy came running up the street shrieking to his mom about the stage just arriving. "You're right, Billy. Here she is...your new teacher, Miss Graham." She explained how excited Billy had been about her arrival and finally getting to go to school. Ellie stooped down so that her face was level with Billy's. "Billy, it's so wonderful to finally meet you. I have a feeling we're going to get along great." Billy grinned a toothless grin and asked his mom if he could go find his friend, Jimmy. He couldn't wait to tell him about the new teacher and off he went.

About that time, Chris and Vin came walking up. They had ridden over to Eagle Bend to run an errand for Judge Travis and had just returned. The judge introduced them to Tom and Ellie and they visited for a few minutes. He mentioned that there were five others who also worked to protect this town and that Ellie would be in very good hands. He or Mary would introduce them later, but for now why not join Mary and him for dinner at the hotel. Chris and Vin helped Tom and Orin carry the bags over to the hotel. After checking into their rooms, Tom and Ellie freshened up and joined the Travises for dinner. Ellie knew this was going to be one of the most exciting and fulfilling experiences of her life. She couldn't wait to get started!

Early the next morning, Ellie, along with her father, Judge Travis and Mary, walked to the school for the first time. It was in need of a lot of repair and she was going to require a lot of help to get it ready for the children. Her father was planning to stay for a few weeks to help....and to see that she got started out with everything she needed. She had brought a few books with her, but needed to order more, along with supplies and other necessities. She and Mary were getting ready to walk back up to the General Store when in walked Chris, Vin, Buck, and J.D. "Mornin', boys," said Judge Travis, "You're just in time....we'll put you to work!" They all looked at each other and smiled. Chris and Vin said "Good morning" to Ellie and her father and tipped their hats. The judge then introduced Buck and J.D. to Tom and Ellie and explained how their families had known one another for many years. Buck and J.D. shook Tom's hand and tipped their hats to Ellie with a pleasant "Miss Graham." Ellie smiled and said "Please, call me Ellie." Buck and J.D., along with Chris and Vin, all thought to themselves that here was a mighty purdy lady and calling her Ellie would be no problem at all. Soon after, Josiah and Nathan appeared in the doorway. After they had all been introduced and were discussing what repairs needed to be done, the door opened... the last of the "seven" had arrived. "Ezra, it's about time," said Buck. "Come now, gentlemen. You know you can't start without me. Bettuh late than nevuh, I always say," replied Ezra, neatly decked out in a magnificent purple tailcoat. Ellie had been standing with her back to the door when she heard the most amazing voice....this sexy, Southern drawl that sent a shiver up her spine. She whirled around and found herself staring into the most beautiful green eyes she had ever seen. Ezra, too, was locked in the depths of her eyes which seemed to be the most brilliant green he had ever seen. She was even more lovely than he had remembered from yesterday, if that were at all possible. For the longest moment, they held their gaze, as if they were looking into each other's soul. Suddenly, Mary stepped up and said "Ellie, this is Ezra Standish. Ezra, meet Ellie Graham, our new schoolteacher." Ezra was the first to blink his eyes...he stood there stammering, licked his lips, and smiled the most handsome smile she had ever seen. "Hello, Ezra, it's nice to meet you...oh, and you can call me Ellie." Ezra tipped his hat. "I'm very pleased to make your acquaintance....uh, Ellie...I hope your stay here will be a pleasant one." She detected a glimmer in his eyes, a sparkle, a look of interest. She could hardly catch her breath...oh, his eyes...his smile...his voice....his coat....she had never encountered such a spectacular man! Her heart was racing. When she was finally able to speak, she replied, "Oh, I'm sure it will be very pleasant, Ezra. Thank you." He detected a look in her eyes then...a look of interest, perhaps? No, that was silly, that could never happen. He had to put those thoughts out of his mind. Just then, Judge Travis brought Tom over to meet him and they shook hands. He liked Judge Graham immediately as did all of the "seven". They were enjoying the two newcomers immensely. Mary and Ellie then left for the General Store while the men decided how to proceed. As Ellie walked out the door, she glanced back and again met Ezra's green gaze. They both smiled and turned. "Yes," thought Ellie, "very pleasant indeed!"

Three weeks later, the repairs were made, the books were on the shelves, the supplies were in the storeroom, and all Ellie needed were the children. Tomorrow was the first day of school. She felt as excited as a schoolgirl herself, partly because her dream of becoming a teacher had finally come true...and partly because of that handsome Southern gentleman whom she had become so attracted to. Her friendships were blossoming by now, and she and Mary were becoming so close. She loved it here in Four Corners. Everyone was so helpful and kind and had made her feel so welcome...she genuinely liked them all. J.D. was funny and a lot like her younger brother-she enjoyed his jokes and laughed at all of them...she got along great with J.D. He had introduced her to his friend, Casey, the other day.....she could tell he was really sweet on Casey and suspected the feeling was mutual; Josiah was wonderful and so wise--he was becoming her confidante; Buck was a flirt but was so much fun to be around; Vin was always so polite and helpful and always made her feel safe; Nathan was not only a wonderful friend, but was also a great teacher--she had worked in a hospital for a short time back home and now had the opportunity to work with Nathan in his clinic at times...she was gaining all sorts of valuable experience just watching him...he was so compassionate and caring and really was a very skilled medic; and, of course, Chris--Chris was so handsome...so strong and protective, and yet had a very gentle side to him, too -- she could see why Mary loved him....that fact was so obvious, although Mary had never admitted it....she could tell just by the way they looked at each other sometimes that the feeling was mutual. One of these days, she thought to herself, they would both realize that they could no longer deny their feelings for one another. She hoped that day would be soon...she wanted so much for Mary to be happy--as happy as she had been when Steven was alive and she knew that Steven would want that too. But the one who sent shivers up and down her spine was Ezra. Just the anticipation of seeing him each day drove her crazy. Of course, she couldn't let anyone know that....she had to hide it the best she could....actually, she really needed to try to get him out of her mind....it was obvious to her by now that he was not interested in her...he was just being very courteous and helpful like the others. Yes, she would have to concentrate on other things...she had a class to teach tomorrow.

She went back to the storeroom to retrieve some things off the top shelf....she climbed the ladder midway to the top when she heard someone come through the door. "I'm in here, Mary." she yelled. Mary had promised to meet her at dinnertime, then walk back to the hotel with her for dinner. She turned just in time to see Ezra walk through the storeroom door, looking splendid in black pants, white shirt, and a beautiful red brocade vest. And...the gunbelt....they way it hung low on his hips....the gunbelt! "Oh!" she shrieked, and jerked the ladder so that it almost tipped. She could feel herself falling backwards when suddenly she found herself in the arms of the most irresistibly handsome man God put on the face of the earth! Her arms involuntarily wrapped themselves around his neck and hung on for dear life. Their eyes met and again that same feeling came over them both. A feeling like...this is my soul mate...this is meant to be...you are what I need and want in my life...! But then Ezra gently set her down....she removed her arms from around his neck....and they both stood silently for a moment. "Are you okay, Ellie?" he asked. "Y-yes, I'm fine," she replied, nervously. "Th-thank you...that was clumsy of me. I-I'm glad you were here." Again, they continued to gaze into each other's eyes. Then the silence was broken by someone coming through the door. This time it was Mary. When she saw that Ezra was there, she was delighted. She suggested that maybe each one of the "seven" could walk Ellie home each night when she might be working late. After all, this street is very poorly lit. Ellie argued and said Mary's concerns were silly, but Mary won the argument. After tonight, they would take their turns...she would talk to the others tomorrow. Ezra grinned and agreed to help in any way he could. Deep down, he really liked the idea, anyway. He tipped his hat to them both and turned to leave. Suddenly, he remembered why he came in the first place. He handed a book to Ellie. "Oh, Ellie, !

I know you have an appreciation for books...I thought you might take pleasure from this one...it's a book of poetry and short stories. I've had it since I was a young boy. I thought...uh...maybe you can affect its application somehow." She took the book from his hand, meeting his eyes. "Why, thank you, Ezra," she said, "...what a thoughtful gift. I'll cherish it." He tipped his hat, smiled, and turned. She watched him as he walked out the door...she knew now that she would never be able to get this wonderful, thoughtful man out of her mind.

That night, after Mary and Ellie had finished dinner, they headed for the Clarion office where the judge and Tom were visiting. Billy was there with a book, excitedly paging through it, and finding it very hard to wait until tomorrow. Ellie went over and sat beside him. "Hi, Billy, are you ready for tomorrow?" she asked. "Yeah," he replied with a grin that seemed to brighten the whole room. "Jimmy can't wait either. It's gonna be fun." At this, Ellie looked up at Mary and winked. "I hope he still feels that way a couple weeks from now." They all laughed. Mary reminded Billy that they had to go now so he could get some sleep. He will have a very busy day tomorrow! Billy hugged his grandpa since the judge was leaving on a short trip first thing in the morning. They all then said their "goodnights" and went on their way.

Tom walked his daughter back to the hotel and up to her door. He kissed her fondly and wished her well her first day of being a full-fledged teacher. He told her how proud he was of her and how proud he knew her mother would be, too. They both became teary-eyed and held each other for a moment. Ellie thought to herself how lucky she was to have a family like hers...she was so proud to be his daughter and she missed her mother so much...she had been such a wonderful mother, so full of life and so beautiful until she became ill. Her mother had a heart of pure gold and her death left a very empty space in their lives, and Will's, too. Her brother had been very close to his mother, and he had found it very hard to cope with her death. When Ellie took the job in Four Corners, Will hated to see her go and she hated to leave him, too. She truly missed her brother. Her father then left to go back to his own room and Ellie opened her door. She lit her dresser lamp and realized that she was still carrying the book that Ezra had given her earlier at the school. She sat down and started to read. She paged through it and suddenly she found a page where several verses in a poem had been underlined. She stopped to read:

I see her beauty, and I ache
To touch her, I feel my heart will break.
All that's right in my sight...
Is in her eyes, emerald bright.
As rays of sunshine caress the sky,
Her golden hair cannot deny...

That is beautiful, she thought. Had he been the one to underline these verses? she wondered to herself. Did this poem have some significance to him? If so, she couldn't help but wonder just what that significance might be. She laid the book on her night table and got ready for bed. She hadn't realized just how tired she was until now. She took her bath, washed her hair, and went to bed. She had a busy day tomorrow and she really needed to get some sleep. But sleep didn't come for quite a while. She kept seeing HIS face, HIS eyes...hearing HIS voice. And that poem was haunting her....if only...........finally.....sleep came.

Morning arrived sooner than Ellie would have liked. She awoke early, but wished she felt more rested. As she sat on the edge of her bed, she noticed the poetry book on her bedside table and her thoughts immediately went to Ezra. She had to stop this...after all this was the first day of school. She smiled at the thought, jumped up, and went to her wardrobe to pick out her dress. She decided on her yellow gingham....she always felt so cheery when she wore yellow. It reminded her of sunshine and that reminded her of her mother. That was her mother's favorite thing-sunshine. It had rained the day her mother had passed away - she always thought in the back of her mind that the rain contributed to her mother's death in some way. She hated rain....but she loved the warm sunshine and this was a beautiful day! After performing her ablutions, she brushed her hair 'til it shone. She decided to wear her gold combs in her hair today instead of her usual style of loose curls. She liked what she saw in the mirror when she was finished and started out the door. Her father was just coming out of his room when she stepped into the hall. He greeted her with a big smile and told her how lovely she looked. They started downstairs, when suddenly she turned and told her father to wait. She had forgotten something! She went back into her room and retrieved the poetry book from her bedside table. She held it to her heart and thought to herself "now I have everything I need to start this glorious day!"

Ellie's first day of school was a complete success. Besides Billy and his friend Jimmy, there were three other youngsters their age, along with five older children. She could tell right away that Billy was a lot like his father - very smart and inquisitive. She knew he would be a wonderful student. She had really grown fond of Billy these past few weeks and she was sure the feeling was mutual. She could tell by the way his face lit up whenever he saw her. Yes, indeed! Billy and his mother had found a place in her heart, just as Steven had many years ago!

Later that evening, Buck came to the school....it had been decided that he got to be the first to walk her home. Mary had asked them all earlier that day to work out some sort of schedule and, of course, Buck spoke right up. She smiled about the thought, but, of course, was a little disappointed at the same time. She really was pleased to see Buck, though....she had always liked him....he flirted a lot....but she knew that was just his way....he liked all the ladies! And they all liked him! He had animal magnetism!

She locked up and he took her arm and led her across the street, around the corner, and on down toward the hotel. Buck was busy talking and being funny, as usual. She was laughing and having a wonderful time telling him about her day, when all of a sudden, she tripped on a step and fell. She felt like she had sprained her ankle....Buck reached down and scooped her up in his arms as if she were a feather. He decided to carry her the rest of the way to the hotel. She was sure she could walk, but he insisted. She giggled as they headed down the street and as they passed by, she noticed Ezra and Vin coming out of the saloon across the street. Vin waved but Ezra just stared at them. Of course Buck had to show off a little and mention how he was taking her to her room and winking in the process. She wasn't quite sure how to interpret the look on Ezra's face, but it was obvious he didn't look very happy. Buck and Vin were enjoying this immensely, but she was starting to feel a little uneasy about being in another man's arms right now. She didn't know why....she just had a feeling. When they arrived at her door, Buck gently set her down and opened her door for her. She found that she was able to walk and decided that she hadn't sprained her ankle at all, that maybe she had just twisted it a little. She was fine. Buck was a perfect gentlemen and left shortly thereafter. She sat down and rested. It had been a long day and she was tired....soon after she readied herself for bed. She suddenly realized that she had left her poetry book at the school.....it gave her an empty feeling....which added to the troubled feeling she already had in the pit of her stomach. She had a feeling that sleep would not come easily tonight either.

Buck returned to the saloon happy as a lark. He went to the table where the other six were all sitting. They were visiting and having a beer and J.D. was busy telling a joke. Of course, they all had to give him a hard time about his joke-telling again. Buck immediately started in about what an angel Ellie is and that the man who wins her heart was going to be very lucky. He wished it could be him. He explained then how she had fallen and he carried her to her room. She was fine, however, but he thought she was a little depressed about something tonight, like something was bothering her. He didn't want to pry so he decided to leave. He looked at Ezra, Ezra looked at him, and Ezra decided that Buck knew something that he wasn't quite saying. He and Buck had become pretty good friends and maybe Buck had been able to read him lately. He wasn't quite sure....but he knew that look meant something.

Later after everyone else had gone, Buck and Ezra were still sitting at the table. Buck was picking up his winnings from the nightly poker game and Ezra was sitting there with the most dejected look on his face. "What's the matter with you, Ezra, mad cause I finally won one?" He grinned and Ezra replied, "Buck, I have every confidence that won't transpire again. My mind just wasn't into the game tonight for some reason." Buck grinned again. "Well, what's your problem....maybe I can help." After several moments of silence, he continued, "Why don't you just tell the girl how you feel?" Ezra glared at him and said, nervously, "Excuse me. Would you mind explaining that remark?" "You don't need an explanation," Buck replied "You know exactly what I'm talkin' about. Don't you think I've noticed how you look at her, how she looks at you.....hell, I'm not blind, Ezra. The look on your face tonight when I was carryin' Ellie to her room....well, it told me all I needed to know. And the way she got so depressed afterwards....she's got it as bad as you do! Now, tell me, when you gonna do somethin' about that?" Ezra could only sit there...he couldn't deny anything Buck was saying. Finally he said, "Buck, what would she want with someone like me....hell, she comes from a fine family, and me, well, let's just say, there's a big difference in our backgrounds. I'm a gambler, she's a lady....what would I ever have to offer her?"" "Do you love her?" Buck asked. Ezra met his staring eyes, and after a moment of silence he replied, "More than anything in this world!" "Alright then," said Buck. "It would appear that you'd have an awful lot to offer her, wouldn't it now. Hey, do you know how lucky you are?" Ezra smiled, "Buck, you have no idea how she feels." "Yeah, I do, I could see it in her face when she saw you across the street tonight. I've seen it in her eyes when she looks at you. And you know what? I don't think she cares at all about the fact that you're a gambler....I think she sees something more in you than you see in yourself." This made Ezra stop to ponder. "Take my advice....you better reach out for happiness any way you can, especially when it's staring you right in the face! Think about it." With that, he smiled at Ezra and got up out of his chair. He left Ezra sitting there with a lot to think about!

The next week, Ellie moved into one of the boarding houses. Her father helped her find one which was suitable....the only problem was, it was still fairly far away from the school so the walks home had to continue for awhile anyway. At least that was what Mary decided! Ellie didn't argue anymore.....she had thoroughly enjoyed these walks and talks with her newfound friends. There were a couple nights when the "seven" were gone out of town, so her father walked her home. She was so sad because he had told her of his plans to go back home to St. Louis by the week's end. She was really going to miss her father, so she relished the time they could spend together before he had to leave. Tomorrow the "seven" would be back and tomorrow night was Ezra's turn to walk her home. Just the thought of that thrilled her beyond belief!

The street was quite dark, lit only by a huge orange ball of a moon. Ezra left the saloon and headed toward the school where he knew Ellie would be. This was his night to walk her home....just the anticipation of spending time with her was burnin' a hole in his stomach! He worried about her when he and his friends had to be gone and she had no one to walk her home. He was glad to hear that her father had done so, and had also heard that her father was leaving by the weekend. He genuinely liked Judge Graham.....in many ways he reminded him of Judge Travis. Although Judge Travis had arrested him at one time, he knew he had it coming. He saw firsthand how fair and professional he was when he sentenced Nathan's father not so long ago, but still allowed him to live out his last days with his beloved son. Yes, indeed, his outlook had changed about many things since he came to this town....since he met his good and loyal friends.....and, since he met HER.

He wanted to try to talk her out of working late, but he could never make himself suggest it. Of course, his ulterior motive was that he would never have this chance to spend time with her....and, oh, how he wanted to spend time with her. He started thinking about how his life had changed since he met her....how important to him it was to just see her each day.....he thought about his conversation that night with Buck....and he wondered if maybe Buck might be right. He had been impressed with her since the moment she arrived...she was beautiful, not only on the outside, but on the inside, too, and that was irresistible to him. When Mary had introduced the two of them, he was mesmerized by her eyes. He couldn't get her out of his mind. Maybe tonight was the night he should do something about it!

He found Ellie coming out of the school, turning to lock the door. When Ezra stepped out of the shadows, she was startled, not only because of someone else's presence, but because it was HIM. Her heart raced, as it always did when he was around...here he was close enough to touch, looking so handsome in a glorious red tailcoat. A day hadn't gone by that she didn't think about him. She knew he was a gambler and Mary had told her a little about Ezra's mother, Maude, but she didn't want to pry with too many questions. She thought if there was anything Ezra wanted her to know, he would tell her in time. She wished so much that he would open up a little...he was so kind but distant at times. She also knew something else about this man. He was one of the most caring, compassionate, and courageous men she had ever known. She had seen it over and over...how he was always there for his friends...how he had time and time again put his life on the line for the people of this town fighting for what is right and just. That was the man she saw behind the gorgeous green eyes...his being a gambler didn't seem to be that important. No, she had never been able to get this handsome man out of her mind. Now, here he was...the man who had become the object of her affection, her protector for this evening. If only...

They made small talk on the way back to her room. They talked about everything from apples to poker and found themselves laughing and enjoying each other's company immensely...both wishing the walk back never had to end. The moon cast a golden glow over them as they continued on their way.

When they reached her room, she unlocked the door and opened it. She turned to thank him and, once again, was drawn into the depth of those eyes! He was staring at her. He thought he could drown in those beautiful eyes, sparkling from the light of the dimly lit lamp in the hallway. They moved inside and he closed the door after him, and for a moment they stood in the darkness, the glow from the street streaming across the room. She walked to her dresser and lit her small lamp, then turned to find that Ezra hadn't moved an inch. He was just standing there, as if in a trance. He seemed to be absorbing every inch of her as a starving man would a feast!

It was Ellie who came to him, who moved into his enclosing arms. As she closed her eyes, she heard her name spoken in a low, groaning whisper. He held her, crushing her in his arms as if he would never let her go. Again, he looked into her eyes. He drew her closer and closer, until their lips touched gently. His mouth was gentle as it took hers. Her pulse was racing and she could feel his heart beating just as fast. He smelled of soap and shaving lather, mixed with a little cigar and whiskey--but he had a deep masculine scent that drove her crazy! She ran her fingers through his thick brown hair and pulled his head to hers. His open mouth claimed hers in a hot, fevered kiss that took her breath away. He loved her sweet fragrance and the feel of her soft, supple body that molded to him like a glove. They fit each other perfectly, he thought.

They broke away from their kiss and again gazed into each other's green eyes. "I've wanted to do that since the first moment I saw you," Ezra told her, huskily, in that wonderful sexy, Southern drawl of his. "What took you so long?" she replied, her lips on his. "You have no idea how long I've waited for this moment!" His mouth crushed hers and their tongues met and merged in mutual desire and need. Their bodies molded and he was kissing her deeply, breathlessly. His hand was in her golden hair while his other hand was at her waist, pulling her closer. Her arms wrapped around his broad shoulders and the feel of his masculine body excited her to heights she had never known before.

Suddenly, she felt herself being lowered to her bed--she lay her head on her down pilla and once again met the gaze of those eyes, this time filled with a passion she had not seen before. Suddenly, he pulled away from her and stood up....he turned his back and walked away from the bed. "God, Ellie, I'm so sorry....I don't know what came over me," he said. He picked up his black hat which had somehow found its way to the floor. She sat on the edge of the bed watching him...she had no idea what was going on...her head was spinning. "What's wrong, Ezra? Why are you sorry?" she asked. He turned to face her with a look of sadness. "I'm sorry for behaving in such an ungentlemanly mannuh. I don't know what you must think of me. Can you forgive me, please?" She didn't quite know how to respond. "Ezra, why are you asking me that. Was I complaining?" she asked, softly. He looked at her and smiled that adorable smile he has, licked his lips, and said in his most husky voice, "Maybe not, but I had no right to act that way. You deserve much better treatment than that." She stood up and walked over to him....she looked straight into his green eyes, smiled, and replied in a voice soft and just as husky, "I thought that treatment was pretty good. In fact, I could use another treatment right now." She grabbed his hat, threw it back on the floor, put her hands on both sides of his face and gently pulled him into the sweetest kiss. But he reached up and grabbed her hands and pulled away. "No, Ellie, this is not going to work. I'm no good for you. You deserve someone better than me. I'm a gambler, Ellie. I-I've cheated people before....I've taken advantage of people just to get their money. This.... this...just isn't going to work!" He grabbed his hat off the floor and headed for the door. By this time, Ellie was hot on his heels. She grabbed his arm and stopped him just as he opened the door. She slammed it shut, saying "How dare you pretend to know who or what is good for me! Ezra, we were sharing something very special tonight, something very good. So, you're a gambler, so what...up here you may be a gambler," she said as she put her hands back to the sides of his face. "Maybe in your mind you are, but in here, there is a totally different man." she continued, as she lowered her hands to cover his heart. "And this is the man I see every day, one of the most caring and compassionate men I've ever met...a true gentleman in every sense of the word. THIS is the man I've fallen in love with." she went on. A look of shock came over Ezra's face...he could not believe what he was hearing! "Yes, Ezra, I'm in love with you....it's always been you," she said softly. "So don't...' she continued, "...don't ever think that I could consider you anything BUT a gentleman. I love you so much...I need you in my life, but I just didn't realize how much until tonight." His green eyes looked into hers and he saw something that he had wanted to see for so long....someone who loved and needed him. Oh, God, how he loved and needed her, too. He threw his hat back on the floor, grabbed her and pulled her to him in a blistering kiss. They wrapped their arms around each other as if their bodies ached to be together. He pulled away just far enough to say, his lips still touching hers "I love you too, Ellie. You put a spell on me the day I met you....you and those gorgeous eyes of yours. I never thought anyone would capture my heart the way you have, but I was wrong. I love you so much." Then he kissed her again, deeply, passionately. This time their kiss was long and so pleasurable, both of them in no hurry to end it. When they finally did, they stood, gazing into each other's eyes which were now full of desire and mutual love. How he wanted her...he hadn't met a woman that made him feel quite like this. She was the most exciting thing that had happened in his life and he wanted, more than anything, to make her his own. And Ellie wanted more than anything to be in his arms, to be in his bed, to feel his body next to hers in the most intimate way possible.

Just then, a knock on the door jolted them both back to reality. Hesitantly, Ezra stepped back and opened the door. There stood J.D. "Ezra, we've been looking all over for you." said J.D. "Mary thought Ellie might know where you were...she said you were walking her home tonight. Hi, Ellie, I'm sorry to interrupt, but, Ezra, we gotta ride. Someone shot Mr. Bucklin tonight in a robbery...he's over at Nathan's now...he's hurt pretty bad. Chris thinks there were at least four of them but he's not sure. It was pretty dark over there. He wants the rest of us to go while Nathan tends to Mr. Bucklin. Judge Travis will be back in a couple days, so we need to get these guys quick." Ezra reached down to grab his hat, saying "Of course, J.D., I'll be right there." J. D. nodded, "We'll meet you out front...I'll get the horses. Bye, Ellie," he said, as he tipped his hat. "Bye, J.D." Ellie replied. She looked at Ezra and he returned her loving gaze. "Go...I know you have to....and I'll never stand in your way. Just please be careful and...and come back to me." Ezra hated leaving her, but he knew, just as she did, that he had to go. He started to leave, hat in hand. Suddenly he stopped...he turned back to Ellie and kissed her and held her close once again. "I'll be back, I promise," he whispered lovingly, and then he was gone. Ellie stood there for the longest time, just reliving what had happened tonight, half smiling, half crying. She didn't know whether to be happy or sad...she just prayed that Ezra and all the others would return safely.

Ellie walked down to the clinic to see if she could be of any help to Nathan. Mr. Bucklin was still unconscious lying on the table. Nathan was at his side. Mrs. Bucklin was sitting in a chair on the other side of the room. Ellie quietly entered and smiled at Nathan....he smiled back and walked over to her. "Hi, Ellie," he said. "Hi, Nathan, how's Mr. Bucklin doing?" she whispered. "Well, I think I've done about everything I can do for now. We'll just have to wait and see...he lost a lot of blood...he has a chest wound but I was able to get the bullet out....now we'll leave him in God's hands" he said, quietly. "Is there anything I can do to help you?" she looked up, asking. Nathan shook his head. "Not right now, unless you want to sit with Mrs. Bucklin for a while....she's having a pretty hard time." "Sure," she said "..I'd be glad to do anything I can." Ellie walked over to Mrs. Bucklin and sat down beside her. She reached out and touched her hand and smiled. It was obvious that Mrs. Bucklin had been crying, but she tried to smile back at Ellie. Ellie asked her if there was anything she needed and she said "No, just my husband...I'm so worried about him, Miss Ellie. I don't know what to do. What kind of person would do this?" Ellie reached out and put her arm around Mrs. Bucklin, and Mrs. Bucklin laid her head on Ellie's shoulder. Ellie felt so bad for her....she hoped and prayed that this nice lady wouldn't lose her husband, and she started to think about her own family and how important they were to her. She just hoped that Ezra and the others could catch the horrible men who did this and bring them to justice.....and she hoped more than anything that her friends and the man she loved would all remain safe.

After a while, Mr. Bucklin started to moan and groan a little. Nathan walked over to check on him and realized he was regaining consciousness. He looked at Mrs. Bucklin and Ellie and smiled....this was a very good sign. They both walked over to his side. Mrs. Bucklin reached out and grabbed his hand, "Jack, Jack," was all she could manage. He squeezed her hand and managed a faint smile. "Don't try to talk, Mr. Bucklin," said Nathan. "You're very weak...you need your rest. You're going to be fine." Ellie was so happy she got tears in her eyes and squeezed Mrs. Bucklin's hand. Just then, Mary came through the door....she had just heard what happened and wanted to check on Mr. Bucklin, too. After Mary comforted Mrs. Bucklin for a moment, voicing her encouragement, she and Ellie decided to go outside and talk, but were interrupted by Josiah and J.D. coming through the door. They had returned to town with two of the men from the gang, and, after taking them to the jail, they wanted to check on Mr. Bucklin. It seemed that the gang had split up and Chris, Vin, Buck, and Ezra had gone on to bring in the three that had gotten away. Ellie was a little relieved, but still had an uneasy feeling. She and Mary decided to take a stroll back down the street and talk for a while. Ellie was so glad she had Mary. She definitely needed someone to talk to tonight.

"Mary, how do you do it?" she asked. "How do I do what, Ellie?" answered Mary, a questioning look in her frosty green eyes. "How do you put it out of your mind when Chris is in danger?" Ellie inquired. "Chris! W-What do you mean, when Chris is in danger?" Mary asked, nervously. Ellie smiled and said, "You know exactly what I mean....Mary, I know how you feel about him. Why don't you just admit it?" Mary hesitated for a moment then said, "Why don't you?" Ellie stopped in her tracks and looked at Mary. ""Why don't I what?" she asked. "Why don't you admit your feelings for Ezra?" she said, smiling a mischievous smile. They both just stood there, staring at each other, and suddenly, both of them burst into laughter. "It seems we can't hide anything from each other, doesn't it?" said Ellie. "Yes," Mary said, "and I think it's wonderful...to have a friend like you. Ellie, I'm here for you, if you ever need to talk. I've known for a long time now that you have feelings for Ezra....it's written all over your face when he's around.....and not only that, I'm pretty certain he feels the same way." Ellie looked down and smiled. "He walked me home tonight, Mary. He was there when J.D. came looking for him. Mary," she continued, "Ezra and I love each other very much. And, I'm so worried about him, I can hardly stand it." "I know, Ellie, I remember feeling that same way, but you have to have faith that they'll be safe. They're all so strong and smart and they have a way of making everything safe around here. Don't worry...he'll be back soon....and safe." "Do you mean Ezra...or Chris?" Ellie asked, mischievously. "Stop teasing me, Ellie." said Mary, grinning. "You can't hide it from me, remember?" teased Ellie. They continued on their walk. "He loves you, too, you know." Mary looked at her incredulously. "Ellie! Stop!" pleaded Mary. "Well, he does," continued Ellie. "Remember, when you told me about how Gerard had proposed when you went on that wagon train.....well, when Chris asked you if!

you loved Gerard, why do you suppose he wanted to know that? I'll tell you why! It's because he loves you and he had to know from your own lips that you loved another man.....you couldn't tell him that, Mary. And you couldn't marry Gerard because you knew you didn't love him. Don't you see....you and Chris love each other! I think the two of you need to sit down and have a little talk!" "Ellie, you're impossible!" said Mary, as they arrived at Ellie's boarding house. "But I don't know what I'd do without you!" Mary told her how happy she was about her and Ezra and they gave each other a sisterly hug. Ellie smiled as Mary walked away...she hoped she had given Mary a lot to ponder tonight!

The next morning when Ellie arrived at school, she was still worried....Ezra and the others had not come back yet. She hoped she could get through this day....this was really hard, she thought, but there was no way in the world she ever wanted to change this man. He was his own man and she respected what he was doing for the people of this town. This was something she was going to have to accept. But she now knew that prayer would play a mighty important part in her life from now on. She would have to be strong, somehow...

Chris, Vin, Buck, and Ezra had been pursuing their prey for hours now, so Chris and Vin circled around another way while Buck and Ezra continued on. This way, they could watch from all sides to make sure these desperados didn't try anything sneaky. They wanted to wait until the time was just right to make their move. Finally, the three outlaws, thinking they were home free, pitched camp. They couldn't have been more wrong. All of a sudden, the "four" moved in and took them by surprise. One of the scoundrels tried something stupid and ended up on the wrong end of a bullet. Buck and Ezra tied up the other two, while Vin and Chris held their guns on them and soon they headed back for town. They were several hours away yet, when they decided to stop and rest their horses. The two outlaws sat over to the side, their wrists tied, while the "four" rested themselves. Ezra took a swig from his flask and leaned back to relax. His mind started wandering back to Four Corners and the events of the last twenty-four hours. He smiled and thought how wonderful it was going to be to get back there....to HER. Buck noticed his smile and commented, "Bet I know what you're thinkin' about! Or should I say, who!" This made Ezra a little embarrassed in front of Chris and Vin, but by the smiles on their faces, they already knew. Buck continued, "Hell, you might as well tell 'em....they're gonna find out anyway." Chris and Vin looked at each other and grinned. Then Vin spoke up, "Does this have somethin' to do with a certain schoolteacher we all know?" Buck started laughing out loud and this made Ezra blush a little. "Gentlemen, gentlemen, please....when there is something to report, I shall do so....now can we please turn this discussion in a different direction. You know," he said as he checked his pocketwatch, "we really should be leaving!" The other three all looked at each other and Chris spoke up, "Yep, school must be gettin' out about now!" They all had a good laugh at Ezra's expense, but he didn't really care...he was glad they knew. He wanted to shout it to the whole world!

That evening, instead of going to the school to work, Ellie decided to walk over to the church. Josiah was there and Ellie walked in and sat down. Even though Josiah was easy to talk to and had a way of making her feel secure, she didn't quite know how to start this conversation. She just knew she needed to talk with him. "Something troublin' you, Ellie." asked Josiah. "You wanna talk?" "N-No, not really," she replied. "Just thought I'd sit here for a while." Josiah watched her with concern. He could tell by the look on her face that something was terribly wrong. He walked over and sat down beside her. She glanced up and met his worried gaze and immediately burst into tears. He put his strong arm around her and held her close. "That's it, let it out. You'll feel better." he said, comfortingly. "No, I won't," she cried, "I feel so alone right now." Josiah looked at her. "Alone? Why do you feel alone? ...you've got your father, Mary, all your friends...it appears to me that you're anything but alone!" Ellie then explained to him how her father would be leaving in a couple of days and she would miss him terribly. But that wasn't all. "What else bothers you, Ellie?" asked Josiah. Ellie got up and walked over to the window. She dabbed her eyes with her handkerchief and turned to face Josiah. "I'm worried about Ezra, Josiah." she said, her voice trembling. "You're worried about Ezra?" he asked, a look of surprise on his face. "Yes," she said, "I am...you see...I-I'm in love with him. And, he loves me, too....and we just found each other...and he had to leave...and he's not back yet...and I'm so scared..." she cried. Josiah jumped up and held her close. "Ellie, Ellie...he'll be fine...they'll be back soon, you'll see." He smiled and continued, "You and Ezra...I had no idea...well I'll be darned...that's wonderful...that's really wonderful! I couldn't be happier." "I'm happy, too, Josiah....happier than I've ever been in my life...and I'm trying to be strong, but I'm getting so worried. They've been gone so long!" she cried. He guided her over to one of the benches and they sat down again. "Ellie, listen to me, there's nobody better at what they do than those four men. The rest of that gang that robbed and shot Jack Bucklin were headed south at a pretty fast pace. It's gonna take 'em some time to catch up with 'em and bring 'em back here. I can almost guarantee they'll come ridin' in soon with those outlaws, hog-tied and muzzled!" She smiled a weak smile and Josiah couldn't help but say it again "You and Ezra, I'll be darned!" he grinned, shaking his head. "You know," he continued, a chuckle in his voice. "That guy's got more tricks up his sleeve than anyone I know!" She looked at him, questioningly. "What do you mean--tricks?" she asked. He proceeded to tell her about some of the "tricky" things Ezra had done in the past to contribute to the safety, protection, and stability of his friends and this town.....things like how he posed as a Confederate soldier at the Seminole Village, drawing his gun in the face of certain death, his knowledge of cannons, and how he basically saved the day.....how he always seemed to have just what was required at the moment, like the slingshot when they went with that wagon train not so long ago...he had to chuckle at the thought......and then, of course, how he saw Ezra risk his own life for all of them when the Nichols family came to town. Ellie was amazed...she knew Ezra was brave, but she had no idea just how very brave he really was. "You know, Ellie, even though Ezra has made a lot of mistakes and he can really frustrate a person at times with his money-making schemes, he's got a big heart.....he's got a soft spot for children....he's got a lot of compassion for people. Unfortunately, he's also got a lot of demons from his past he has to overcome, but he's really been working on doing that. He's come a long way since I first met him. Now you can help him....the love of a good woman can work wonders for a man!" She smiled and said, "He told me he's not good enough for me...I hated it when he said that, Josiah." "Well, maybe he believes he's not good enough. He doesn't see what other people see in him. That's what we need to do is help him see himself as the man he truly IS, not the man he THINKS he is!" "Thanks, Josiah," said Ellie. "I'm so glad we had this talk." "Anytime, Ellie, anytime." he replied, softly.

Just at that instant, they heard someone open the door. They turned to see Ezra standing in the doorway. Ellie and Josiah both jumped up and Ezra's eyes met Ellie's for the first time in what seemed like an eternity to them both. "Everyone OK? Did you get 'em?" asked Josiah. "That we did, Josiah," said Ezra, his eyes never leaving Ellie's. "One poor, unfortunate soul didn't make it....the others are resting comfortably in our fine jail." "Good job...well, I'll...uh..talk to you later....I have some things need doin' in the back..." he smiled and off he went. Ezra and Ellie slowly started walking toward each other, their eyes locked....then she raced into his arms. Their lips met and they both knew that this was where they were meant to be. They held each other for several moments, and finally Ezra, in his most husky voice said, "See, I told you I'd be back....wild horses couldn't keep me away from you. I love you, Ellie!" She smiled at him with tears of joy in her eyes. "I love you, too, Ezra, so very much. I was so worried..." she hugged him, "..I'm so glad you're back safely." He pulled away from her. "My dear," he declared, as he dusted himself off. "I have so much dust and dirt on me right now.....you are going to ruin that lovely dress of yours. I am going over to take a hot bath and then we are going to spend this wonderful night in each other's arms. How does that sound?" he asked, his lips touching hers. "That's what I want, more than anything in this world," she replied, breathlessly. "Well then, shall we go?" He smiled that wonderful smile and off they went.

Ezra took her to her room, kissed her lovingly, and promised to return in a very short while. While he was gone, she picked up her poetry book, held it to her heart, and whirled around the room. She couldn't believe how happy she was at this moment. She sat down and thought about all that had happened in the last day and a half....how she and Ezra had professed their love for each other....the shooting of Mr. Bucklin....her conversations with Mary and Josiah...and the return of the man she loved.....she thought to herself that her life seemed so good right now, nothing could possibly ruin it! Then she remembered the fact that her father was leaving in a day or two and a feeling of sadness washed over her. It disappeared when she heard the knock on her door....a surge of electricity permeated her body at the thought of the man who came to call!

He stepped into her room and closed the door. He was clean-shaven, dressed only in black pants and a white shirt. The sight of this gorgeous man thrilled her beyond belief! She moved into his waiting arms and their lips met in a hungry kiss. Their arms wrapped around each other and their bodies molded together almost as one. Ellie reached up and twined her fingers through his thick chestnut hair. His masculine scent, mixed with soap and shaving lather, again drove her senses wild. They could hardly draw their mouths apart, and when they did, their eyes glazed with passion, they moved closer to the bed. Their eyes held for several moments....finally Ezra reached out to lightly caress her cheek. Then he drew her closer and very gently kissed her lips. Gentle hands started working the buttons of her dress and removed it. He kissed her cheeks, her neck, her shoulders...and ran his hands up and down her spine...moving lower to gently caress the curve of her slender hips. Then his hands moved to the straps of her chemise to gently lower them off her shoulders. It fell to the floor. God, he couldn't believe how beautiful she was, how soft she was....and she was here with him, loving him....he wanted her more than anything. He reached to touch the soft perfection of her breasts and felt her shiver beneath his caress. She felt the most exquisite pleasure just from his very touch! Ezra stepped back and began to remove his clothes. She reached to help him undress seeing the pleasure in his eyes that she wanted him as badly as he wanted her. She gazed at his chiseled arms and chest, his slim, muscular body, and thought the sight of him would take her breath away! He took her hands in his, drew them up to his lips, and kissed them, all the while gazing into her emerald eyes. She did the same with his hands.....oh, those gorgeous, masculine hands....how she loved their touch! Ezra gathered her in his arms and lowered her to the bed. Her head rested on her down pilla and this time when she met his emerald gaze, their lips met in a hot, passionate kiss that left them both breathless. Their tongues merged and explored each other's mouths as if they were ravenous. They kissed wildly, feverishly, his open mouth hot and hard against hers...his tongue thrusting deeply...searchingly. Her soft moans only made his ardor greater....until his passion was almost uncontrollable. His hands started to explore her soft body. She again felt the magic of his touch as one hand started to caress her firm breast sending a current of electricity through her whole body. His lips left her mouth to begin an exploration of their own. He kissed her neck, her shoulders, moving closer and closer to his destination. His lips found the soft curve of her breast and drifted over it, then closed with melting gentleness over her nipple. She shivered and arched into the caress....she had never experienced such pleasure. Finally, he captured her breast with his open mouth, his tongue working its own magic....he sucked gently sending shivers of delight through her body. He moved to her other breast and repeated his assault. She quivered with pleasure as his lips moved over her...never in her life had she experienced anything so tantalizing. Then he moved back to her mouth and reclaimed it in a fiery kiss....his mouth fit so perfectly over hers and with slow, gentle movements of his tongue he melted her very soul. His hands explored her whole body, his fingers finding the center of her aching need for him. She trembled under the sensual magic of his hands...she moaned in mindless ecstasy. Finally, she cried out and his mouth covered hers to absorb her pleasure ....his excitement building knowing what his touch was doing to her. Her fingers again found his luxurious brown hair pulling him closer...then moved to his shoulders...to his chest...and down....down...her hand finally finding its destination. He drew in his breath and gazed into her passion-filled eyes....never had he felt this way...never had he been this happy! It was time....time to make her his own! "I didn't think any woman could be so beautiful," he whispered, "or so intoxicating." The waves of passion were growing higher and higher. He kissed her again, deeply, breathlessly, just the scent of her was driving him crazy....he moved above her. Their bodies met and joined together for the first time. He moved with aching care, not wanting to hurt her and, at the same, just wanting to luxuriate in his possession of her. But he could not bear this ecstatic pleasure much longer. His thrusts increased in force, and her body arched to meet him. Her hands reached to his shoulders, down his back, to his buttocks, holding him closer, caressing him in a way that left him unable to stop until they together reached a climactic explosion that left them both shaking and breathless.

When reality returned, Ezra and Ellie were still in each other's arms, clinging to each other in a loving embrace. He gently kissed her and tangled his hand in her hair. "You are incredible!" he softly whispered in her ear." He gazed into her emerald eyes mirroring his own and said, "Do you have any idea how much you have enraptured me?" She smiled, and replied, blushing "Yes, I have some idea, Mr. Standish." She held his handsome face between her hands and looked straight into his eyes. "And you have totally captivated my heart, as well. I love you so much." she whispered. He looked at her with eyes that were once again overflowing with passion and desire. "I love you, Ellie Graham," he murmured, huskily. "More than you'll ever know." Once again, he drew her into his arms....the blissful ardor they had experienced earlier was renewed....their hearts were joined together in the thrill of their mutual love.

The next day, which was Friday, Tom was busy packing for his trip back to St. Louis. His stage would arrive on Saturday, so tonight was the last evening he had to spend with his daughter. After school, Ellie immediately went to her father's room. She decided she needed to sit down and have a heart-to-heart talk with him before he left town. She found him in his room and the feeling of sadness again washed over her. "Daddy, I wish so much you didn't have to go...I know you do...I know Will needs you, too," she said, "but what will I do without you here? I love you so much." Tom gathered his daughter in his arms and smoothed her golden hair. "Ellie, my darling daughter, you have a wonderful future here in Four Corners...as bright and sunny as your beautiful smile," he said, smiling and tilting her chin upward. "You've made many new friends...friends who love you as much as you love them. I have every confidence that you don't need your old dad around you anymore. You're going to be just fine!" She hugged him as if she would never let go. "I love you, Dad. I'll always need you.", she said, looking into his eyes. "And I'm so very proud to be your daughter." His chin quivered as he said, "I'm proud to be your father and I love you very much. Don't you ever forget that." They hugged and held each other for several moments. Finally, Ellie said, "Daddy, there's something I have to tell you before you leave. She left him and walked across the room, wringing her hands, not knowing quite how to tell him. "Is something wrong, Ellie?" he asked. "No..no, daddy, there's nothing wrong. It's just that...that..well.." Her father was smiling and couldn't contain himself any longer. "You're in love?" he asked. She looked at him with a shocked expression and noticed his smile turning into the biggest grin. "See, that didn't hurt so bad, did it?" he teased. "H-how did you know? You never said anything." she exclaimed. He laughed. "I knew you'd tell me when you were ready. I've known for quite sometime now that this young man...Ezra..was becoming more than a friend. And it's certainly written all over his face how he feels about my daughter. A father knows these things," he continued, a twinkle in his eye. She looked at him and smiled. "Don't you see," he continued, "that's just another reason why my leaving now shouldn't be a problem. I am convinced that you have found your happiness here, Ellie. You have always been a very good judge of character, too, and if you love this man, there must be a very good reason why...there must be a very good heart behind that gambler's facade." She was standing there with tears streaming down her face. Finally, when she was able to speak, she said, "I do love him, Daddy, and I know he loves me, too. He really is wonderful...I wish you had more time to get to know him." Tom laughed, "I have a feeling there will be a lot of time in the future for me to get to know Ezra...I have a feeling he's going to be around for a long, long time." He kissed his daughter's forehead and said, "Now, how about you and I having some dinner. I'm starving." She smiled and nodded and they turned toward the door. Suddenly, she stopped and looked up at her father's face. "Dad, you'll always be my first love." He laughed and hugged her. Together they walked to dinner, smiling, but with a special sadness filling both their hearts.

The stagecoach arrived on time the next day and everyone was there to bid farewell to Judge Graham. Judge Travis, who had arrived back from his trip the day before, walked with his dear friend from the hotel. Mary and Ellie walked behind them and Mary could tell that Ellie was getting pretty emotional. She reached out and put a comforting hand on Ellie's shoulder and gave her a look of total understanding. Tears welled up in Ellie's eyes. Tom shook hands with Nathan, Josiah, J.D., Vin, Chris, Buck, and, finally, Ezra. He looked at all of them and praised them for the work they were doing here...he knew he could leave confident that this was a safe place for his daughter to live. Just before he turned, he glanced back at Ezra. "Take good care of her," he said in a quiet tone. Ezra, a look of surprise on his face, smiled, nodded, and tipped his hat to the judge. Tom then turned to say "goodbye" to Orin and Mary. He hugged them both and told them how wonderful his visit had been. He promised to return someday and would bring Will to visit. Then he turned to his daughter. She was standing there looking at him with pleading eyes. He thought how small and helpless she looked...how young she looked for her 28 years...but he knew for her sake he had to be strong. In this town lies her future, he thought. I have to allow her to experience life to the fullest. He reached out and gathered her in his arms. He felt her body quivering. "I love you, Ellie. I'll be back very soon, you'll see. You have a wonderful time teaching all those children their ABC's..." he said, a twinkle in his eye. "You're a remarkable teacher. Never forget how proud I am of you." She nodded for she knew she could not speak. Finally, her voice shaking, she said, "Daddy, I love you..I'll always love you." She hugged him, he kissed her forehead, hugged her one last time, touched her cheek lovingly, and turned to step onto the stage. As it pulled away, everyone waved, and Ellie stood there watching it leave Four Corners.

The judge and Mary looked at each other and then glanced at the "seven". They all looked at Ezra, but his eyes were on Ellie, standing alone in the street. Then he went to her and held her in his arms. Everyone else went their separate ways, but Ezra and Ellie stood there together watching the stage until it completely disappeared from their view. Then he put a protective arm around her and slowly they walked together to her boarding house.

When they arrived at Ellie's room, Ezra opened the door and walked inside behind her. He guided her over to a chair to sit down, then pulled another up to face her. He gently tilted her chin so he could look into her eyes. He gazed in wonderment at the beauty of her emerald eyes, now glistening with tears. "Do you know how very much you are loved?" he asked. She smiled and looked back down at her hands in her lap, her chin quivering. "Ellie, look at me," he said, softly. She did, and he continued. "Your father loves you more than life itself, and he left today, in part, because of that great love he has in his heart. And no matter what, he's always going to be with you...right here," he said, as he brushed his hand against her breast. She felt a tingling sensation permeate her body at this touch. "Your father has given you his strength, and you are carrying it right here in your heart. It will always be right here. The same place you carry my love...my love for you will always be right here." He gently pulled her closer into a sweet kiss and Ellie responded by holding his face with her hands. They gazed into each other's eyes and both knew that their love was meant to be...Ellie knew this man's love would sustain her.

Three weeks after her father left town, Ellie walked to the Clarion office to see Mary. She was over her sadness by now, although she still missed her father very much. He had sent her a telegraph telling her he had made it home safely and that Will said Hi! She felt much better now...school was going really well...and she seemed to have a bounce in her step. She was in love with a wonderful man...just the thought of him excited her and the anticipation of seeing him was sometimes more than she could bear. They had made love many times in the past few weeks, and it seemed that their hunger for each other was rapacious and insatiable at times. The thought of that fact made her smile. Now she was on her way to see Mary about the get-together being planned for Judge Travis' birthday. The judge's wife, Evie, had arrived in town a few days ago, and she and Mary had been able to visit with her yesterday. She was such a nice lady...Steven had been a lot like his mother. So plans were now underway for the judge's birthday dinner. Everyone in town who knew the judge was invited. Mary and Ellie were busy going over the plans when Mary suddenly exclaimed, "I don't have a thing to wear! I need a new dress. I hope I have time to have one made." A stroke of genius hit Ellie. "Come with me," she told Mary, as she grabbed her arm and led her down the street. "What are you doing, Ellie? Where are you taking me?" she cried. "You'll find out," Ellie replied. They reached Ellie's boarding house and Mary had this look of amazement on her face. Once inside, Ellie threw open the doors of her wardrobe and said, "Take your pick, you can have any one you want." Mary's face changed from amazement to total shock. "Wh-what do you mean," she exclaimed. "I mean just what I said, take your pick," replied Ellie. "I'll never wear all these dresses. They're just hanging here, doing nothing. Please, I want you to have one. We're the same size so you can take your pick." Mary didn't know what to say. Ellie was being so generous. She hugged her friend and thought how very lucky she was to have her. After looking at several of the dresses and trying them on, she made her choice. Ellie agreed. She looked beautiful in it! They walked to Mary's place, dress in hand, giggling like a couple of schoolgirls. What a blessing a true friend could be!

The poker game had been going on for what seemed like hours. Two men had dropped out because of the high stakes...but Ezra remained, along with the man with the steel-blue stare. Ezra was winning and now the pot was huge...the other man having bet everything he had. He was certain he had this Southern dude beat...after all...he had a full house...a good hand. Still, he couldn't read this Standish fella's face...he was cool as a cucumber. His steel-blue stare met Ezra's green one and he called. He laid down his hand. "Full house, jacks over eights," he grinned, confidently. Ezra continued to stare into his cold eyes, now knowing where he stood. He laid down his hand. The steel-blue eyes looked down and suddenly turned colder and more hateful than ever. "Four sevens," said Ezra. A feeling of relief came over him...for he had played this game fair and square. He knew he truly was the winner. The man stared back at Ezra with a coldness Ezra had never seen before. The man then got up, glared at him, turned, and walked out. Ezra felt very uneasy about the look in those steel-blue eyes. He had a feeling that maybe he should watch his back from now on.

The next night, J.D. came to the school to walk Ellie home. She picked up her poetry book and headed out the door with him. J.D. asked her, "How come you always have that book in your hand? You take it everywhere with you. How come?" She smiled and replied, "Oh, it's just very special to me...it was given to me by someone I love very much." J.D. grinned. "Now I know...Ezra gave you that book, didn't he?" "Yes, he did, J.D. and it's one of the most precious things I own." They walked on, and J.D. finally asked her, "How did you know it when you and Ezra fell in love..I mean...well, how did you know?" Ellie smiled. She remembered how she felt the first day she met Ezra. "For me, J.D., it was when I looked into his eyes...and when he was gone and I wanted more than anything to see him again...and when I realized that I would do anything at all to make him happy...it's just a feeling you have in your heart...and when it happens...you know it." J. D. was pondering. Ellie spoke again, softly. "J.D., do you have those feelings for Casey?" He looked at her and blushed. "Aw-w, I don't know...I mean no...I mean y-yes...sometimes I do, I guess." She stopped him and looked straight into his eyes. "J.D.," she said softly, "if you think you love her, why don't you tell her?" "I don't know, Ellie...what if she doesn't love me back?" Ellie grinned. "I don't think you have anything to worry about, J.D." They smiled at each other and continued on their way. "Are you bringing Casey to Judge Travis' birthday party?" she asked. "I don't know," he replied, a little nervously. "I'll think about it." They both smiled and Ellie had a feeling that maybe the love she and Ezra had found was spreading to others at a rapid pace.

The night before the party, Mary and Ellie stopped by the saloon to ask a couple of the men to help them move some tables and chairs in place at the dining hall in preparation for the dinner party for the judge. When they walked over to the table where the men were all sitting, they didn't notice the steel-blue stares coming from the corner table. The man behind those staring eyes noticed the two beautiful women who had just entered...one a fair blonde...the other with hair of spun gold. He watched as the men stood and noticed how the Standish fella walked over to one of the women and hugged her gently. He knew by the way the gambler looked at this woman that she was his Achilles heel. Now he knew what he had to do...he would get his revenge and have himself some fun in the process!

The big night had arrived. Evie, Mary, and Ellie had prepared the dining hall. Mrs. Potter had prepared the most delicious-looking birthday cake for the judge and everything looked ready to go. Mary left to go get Billy, who had been staying at Jimmy's house all day. People started arriving and the "seven" arrived to help greet everyone. They all looked so nice, dressed up in their nicest clothes. J.D. ended up bringing Casey and winked at Ellie when he spied her watching them from the other side of the room. Casey looked lovely in her pretty rose-colored dress with hair ribbons to match. Ezra walked over to Ellie with a purely lascivious look on his face, pulled her into a corner so they couldn't be seen, and proceeded to kiss her thoroughly. "It's sinful that you should look so beautiful tonight," he whispered. "How will I ever get through this evening without ravishing you?" Ellie did look beautiful in her dress, a lovely shade of violet, with her hair piled on top of her head in elegant curls. He kissed her again and she responded eagerly. When they broke their kiss, she told him in a husky voice, "You look rather delicious tonight yourself, my darling...maybe we can leave a little early." She had a mischievous look in her eye. Ezra, dressed in his elegant black coat, crisp white shirt, and black tie, smiled that wonderful smile of his, licked his lips, and said in his most sexy, Southern drawl, "I'll eat you like half a sandwich!"

Mary, who had left earlier to retrieve Billy from Jimmy's house, had not yet returned. Ellie was getting a little impatient...she liked having Mary around and she knew the judge and Evie would be arriving shortly. She didn't want Mary to miss the surprise. Finally, the door opened and in walked Billy, followed closely by his mother. When Mary walked in, all eyes turned to her. She was a vision of loveliness standing there in her dress of deep blue, which seemed to make her pale green eyes a beautiful aqua. Her gorgeous blonde hair was piled high in delicate curls. She was absolutely stunning! Ellie smiled and met Mary's eyes. Mary's face was saying "thank you" and Ellie's heart was overjoyed that her good friend looked so happy. Ezra came to Ellie's side and together they watched what was unfolding on the other side of the room. Chris had turned around and saw Mary for the first time. His eyes were riveted to her...following her wherever she went. Billy came running up to Chris to say hi and Chris could hardly force himself to look away. Mary joined Billy at Chris' side and Ezra and Ellie could tell by the looks on both their faces that this night could be the turning point for Chris and Mary's relationship. The thought made them look at each other and smile, squeezing each other's hand.

A short time later, the judge and his wife arrived. He was completely surprised, or so he said, and overjoyed that all of these people would turn out to help him celebrate his birthday. They all sat down and enjoyed a wonderful dinner, followed by birthday cake and punch. Then J.D. stood up and announced that he had a joke for everyone. Buck and the others starting moaning and groaning, but Judge Travis said he'd like to hear it. So J.D. cut loose: "When is a door not a door?" he asked, his eyes sparkling. "When it's ajar! Get it? A jar!" Everyone stared at J.D. Ellie wanted to laugh so badly, but she looked around the room and saw what everyone was doing to J.D. and didn't have the nerve to ruin it! So she snickered under her breath...she glanced over at Ezra who was looking at her with a twinkle in his eye...she grinned and just looked down into her lap...she was so afraid she was going to burst out laughing. She glanced over at Casey who was just sitting there shaking her head. The judge and Evie continued to stare at J.D., along with everyone else in the room. By this time, J.D. was getting pretty uncomfortable. He had the most embarrassed look on his face and started to sit down. All of a sudden, Evie Travis started laughing so loudly that everyone turned their attention to her and immediately the whole room erupted in laughter. J.D. had a very satisfied look on his face, and Ellie's heart overflowed with affection for this very special young man.

Later in the evening, when most of the people started to leave, Mary and Ellie started to help Evie clear away some of the leftover cake and punch. After finishing, they sat and relaxed for a while, then the judge and Evie said their "goodnights". The judge thanked everyone for the wonderful evening...the gifts, the cake, and, turning to J.D., thanked him for the entertainment. J.D. and Casey left shortly thereafter, followed by Chris, Mary and Billy. Chris offered to walk Mary and Billy home since Billy was starting to get really sleepy by now...he had had a very fun evening. Ellie smiled at Mary as the walked out the door. She hoped these two wonderful people would end up happy together. She and Ezra said their "goodnights" and stepped outside to leave. Little did they realize that the man behind the steel-blue eyes was watching from the darkness nearby. As they started to walk away, Ezra realized he had forgotten his black hat and went back inside to retrieve it. Ellie remained outside to wait.

She didn't hear him approach from behind. He grabbed her covering her mouth with his hand, muffling her attempts to scream. He dragged her around the corner to the alley behind the building. She fought as hard as she could, but she could not escape his grasp. He was so strong and she started to fear for her life!

Ezra returned and found Ellie gone. He called for her, but she didn't answer. He ran back inside and asked Buck if he had seen her. Of course, Buck hadn't and they ran back outside, accompanied by Vin, Nathan, and Josiah, to look for her. Suddenly, they heard a muffled scream come from the direction of the alley and they took off running as fast as they could...Ezra, Buck, and Josiah from one direction...Vin and Nathan from the other. Ezra was the first to arrive and what he saw horrified him...this monster trying to have his way with the woman he loved. He ran from behind, grabbed the man off of her, swung him around, and landed a left-handed hit that sent him sprawling to the ground. Then he turned around and went to help Ellie. He didn't see or hear the man draw his gun. Suddenly a flash of silver pierced the darkness, a shot rang out, and Ezra turned and saw that Nathan's knife and Buck's bullet had both hit their marks. He pulled Ellie up into his arms and held her as if he would never let her go. She was terrified and shaking uncontrollably. He comforted her for several moments while the others took care of the despicable individual lying on the ground. When she started to calm down, he tilted her chin and looked at her lovely face, streaked with tears. He gently caressed her hair...her cheeks...and said, "I'll never leave your side again, my love. Did he hurt you?" She shook her head no and said, "Can you take me home, Ezra. I just want to be in your arms. Please?" There was no need to answer. His look of love told her all she needed to know.

When they arrived at her room, they stepped into the darkness and held each other closely. There was no need to light the lamp...the moonlight cast a heavenly glow across the room. Ezra held her until she stopped shaking...she realized how safe she was now. She looked up into his eyes and their lips met and melted into a tender kiss. They lingered in each other's arms for several moments...then Ezra reached up and started removing the pins from her hair...her curls cascading down to her shoulders the way he liked them. How he loved her hair! Then his magic hands very expertly removed the dress and the rest of her undergarments. He stood back, gazed at her loveliness, and carried her to the bed, placing her very gently on her down pilla. He then removed his own clothes. He went into her open arms and their lips met in a searing kiss, which ignited the flames of passion they had become accustomed to. After their kiss ended, Ellie looked into his eyes, and lovingly told him, "I thank God every day for bringing me out here to Four Corners...for allowing me to find you...the love of my life. I thank God for you." He looked at her and knew his greatest wish had come true...his dream had been fulfilled. Then he kissed her again, this time possessively, wantonly. They were soon overcome by an all-consuming fire, which swept them away to new heights of passion and desire. He knew she was completely his...she knew he was completely hers. And nothing would ever tear them apart.


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