Maude reached the Four Corners cemetery, to find that she couldnt see a living soul. She could however, hear an indistinct voice, barely carrying against the wind. Since she didnt really believe in ghosts, Maude readily assumed that it was the person shed been looking for and headed towards it.
As she approached, the voice became easily recognizable, as did the words it was saying.
"It was easier when we had the wagon, Mama. Its so far to walk anywhere and I dont think the stagecoach or the train will let me on if I dont have any money."
So now that shed found her, how would be best to approach her? It had to be non-confrontational. The child would probably bolt at the first sign of interrogation.
How should Maude appear to her? Anxious, like any concerned grandmother would be? Nonchalant, as if she were just out for a stroll and had no idea anything was wrong?
But she found that it was a situation which she just didnt have an appropriate angle for. So, in the end, she opted for a standard greeting as her opening gambit.
Angelica started visibly, then she jumped up from where shed been sitting in front of her mothers grave and turned to face the newcomer.
"Grandmother! What are you doing here?"
Selected truth plus a little diversion, Maude decided.
"I was wonderin where you were. And now, after wanderin around for some time, Im rather hungry. Would you care to join me for something to eat? I thought maybe back at the saloon. Or at the hotel, if you prefer."
Angelica shook her head. "Im not going anywhere. But Ive got something for you to eat, if youre hungry"
Maude immediately accepted this first overture. At least, Angelica seemed prepared to talk to her and it was far too early to push for anything more. "That would be lovely, dear."
Angelica began rummaging through her pockets and from them produced some cookies, a small apple and a deck of cards. She handed the food to her grandmother and was about to return the other item to her pocket, when Maude stopped her.
"No, darlin. Why dont we have a little game while were eatin?"
Angelicas eyes narrowed. She wasnt stupid. Her grandmother obviously wanted something. Something she seemed scared to ask for.
You didnt live in a saloon for any length of time without learning that playing cards was a very good way to get people to give you money and other things. And she knew that Maude, like Ezra, was an expert at it. So Angelica had no intention of falling into that trap.
"No, I dont think so."
Maude looked at her thoughtfully and then spoke with a faint challenge in her voice. "If youre not goin to indulge in such activities, why did you bring them with you?"
Angelica shrugged. Her grandmother might as well know. "Theyre an invaluable tool for survival."
Maudes eyebrows lifted. That was a direct quote from Ezra, if ever shed heard one. "Oh? How so?"
"Well, if I ever get lost in the wilderness, all I have to do is deal out a game of solitaire and someone is sure to come along and tell me how to move the cards."
Maude couldnt fully repress a smile. "Did your father teach you that?"
Angelica nodded and her voice became soft and forlorn. "It was the first thing he ever taught me."
Then she looked away. Her grandmother wasnt going to see her cry. In fact, she decided that no one was ever going to see her cry again. Maybe, if she took really deep breaths, she could stop the tears from coming.
Seeing the emotion about to spill over, Maude reached out and placed her hand on the shoulder of the anguished child. "He loves you very much, you know."
Angelica wiped her eyes and shook off her grandmothers grasp angrily. "He used to. He doesnt anymore! He told me to go away and he said hed kill me if I didnt!"
Maude felt tears starting in her own eyes. "Oh, Angel!"
Angelica turned on her vehemently. "Dont call me that! Only he calls me that!"
Maude was taken aback by her fierceness. But this obviously indicated that Angelica was still very possessive about Ezra and that had to be a hopeful sign. Maude managed a slight smile and tried to compromise. "Can I call you Cherub then?"
Angelica was suspicious. The word didnt sound too bad but it seemed to mean something to her grandmother and she had no idea what.
"Because I think it suits you."
Well, that seemed as good a reason as any. "Okay."
Maude sighed as she embarked on the Herculean task of trying to explain the situation to the child. "Cherub, youre fathers been sick."
"I know that!" Angelicas expression clearly indicated that she thought her intelligence was being insulted. "Thats why hes been coughing and staying in bed and the doctors always coming to see him."
"Yes, well. When people are as sick as hes been, it sometimes affects their minds."
Angelicas eyes went wide "Hes gone crazy?"
When shed lived in San Francisco, Angelica had often seen an old man who lived on the streets and who thought he was someone called General Santa Anna. He used to yell at passersby as if they were soldiers he was commanding. She couldnt imagine Ezra ever acting like that. But, when hed told her to go away, the look in her fathers eyes had been similar to that old mans.
Maude only just managed to keep a straight face "The term is delirious, dear. Hes not thinkin straight but it will only last while hes very sick."
Angelica shook her head. They couldnt just pretend that he didnt mean what hed said. "If he loved me, he wouldnt have told me to go away. And he said that hed kill me. He wouldnt say that if he loved me."
"Oh Cherub, its because he does love you that he told you to go away. He thinks that youll get sick if you see him and that might kill you. And he would think that it was his fault."
Again the child shook her head. "He lets you and the others see him."
"I know it seems unfair, but its because you are a little girl."
"Whats that got to do with it?"
"When your father was just a bit older than you are now, he had a little sister. Her name was Isolde and he loved her very much."
Angelica looked up, intrigued. This was something shed never heard before. "And you did too?"
"Yes, and I did too. But one day he got very sick and she went to see him and got sick as well. He got better but she died and he thinks that it was his fault. Cherub, if the same thing happened to you, I dont think he could bear it."
Angelica digested this. Maybe it was true. But if this sickness was so bad, then Ezra was in danger.
"But what if he dies?"
"He wont. Hes gettin better."
"But he could have! He could have died and I never would have seen him again!"
Maude flinched. There was no point in pretending that Angelica was too young to really understand what losing a parent involved. Shed already had that experience and in a particularly brutal form.
She was obviously incensed by the thought that they had all known that she might have lost him forever and hadnt even given her the chance to say goodbye. And the only excuse available was the truth that she had already been told, that it was for her own good.
"Cherub, we just couldnt risk you gettin sick."
Angelica shook her head and spoke with a childs unshakable belief in their own indestructibility. "I would have been alright! Inez and the rest of you just want to keep me away from him!"
"Why would we want to do that?"
The child exploded in frustration. "I dont know! All Inez cares about is making sure he isnt angry with her. Maybe she wants him all for herself. She made sure that he forgave her for whatever she did to make him angry but she wouldnt let me see him so hed forgive me."
Maude found herself rather perplexed by this argument. "Forgive you for what, darlin?"
Angelica looked uncertainly at her, then took a deep breath and said, "For abandoning him to spend time with you. You know, before he went away. He was really angry about that."
Another chill went through Maudes heart. It rang true and she realised that, added to everything else, shed also managed to come between Ezra and his daughter.
Time to lay all cards on the table. Maude knelt down, placed both hands on Angelicas shoulders and gazed steadily into her eyes.
"Come back with me. Youll see that Ezra loves you and that Inez loves you and that they both want you to stay with them forever."
Angelica stared back doubtfully. "He said that before."
Maude squeezed her shoulders in a desperate attempt to reassure her. "He meant it then and he still means it! Come back with me and see!"
She could see the conflict occurring behind the childs eyes and anxiously awaited her reply.
* * * * *
Nathan sat in the chair by Ezras bed and reread Angies note again. Ten words in all. Rereading them over and over wasnt going to make them change and it wouldnt make him feel any better either.
He kept remembering all the times in the past few days when he might have taken five minutes to talk to Angie. Maybe he could have made her understand. Maybe then she wouldnt have run off.
He sighed and reread the note again. All of them was probably feeling like that.
Nathan started and then looked over to find Ezra awake again and regarding him speculatively.
He shrugged. "Just somethin that Casey found in the saloon."
That had been a question that he had more or less been expecting and hed spent some time trying to think up some answers that he might get away with. He knew that he was a shocking liar and that Ezra was an expert at spotting deception. So he thought that the only way he could pull it off, was to formulate some suitable half-truths in advance.
But he saw that his best effort had been spectacularly ineffective. Well, he also knew (from being told rather than successfully doing it himself) that attack was the best way to divert attention. Best give it a try, and quickly.
"Think you owe Inez an apology."
"Oh?" Ezras eyes narrowed. He could obviously tell that Nathan was up to something, so the healer redoubled his attack.
"Yeah, and ya oughta start treatin her right?"
Ezra looked annoyed. "I thought wed already had this conversation."
Nathan blinked, then he remembered the argument theyd had, that night in the Seminole village.
He shook his head. "Not talkin about marryin her."
"Then what are you talkin about?"
"Ezra, that woman loves ya and ytalk ther like ya dont believe that she cares about ya at all. Thats hurtin her real bad. Whatre ya tryin tdo? Hurt her so bad that shell up and leave ya?"
Ezra didnt reply but a shadow fell briefly across his eyes. Nathan saw it and suddenly knew exactly what was going through his friends mind.
"Thats what yer afraid of, aint it?" he said softly, "Ezra, that aint gonna happen."
"So now youre blessed with some form of semi-divine insight into her way of thinkin as well as my own?"
Nathan shook his head in disbelief. Ezra made his living, largely by discerning the hidden thoughts of complete strangers. How could he possibly be blind to the undisguised loyalty of someone as open as Inez?
"Yd only havta ask her and that womand stay with ya fer the rest of her life. No, ywouldnt even havta ask. Shed do it anyway, unless ya finally manage tpush her away. Hell, Ezra! Ylove her, dont ya?"
Ezra almost seemed to squirm without actually moving a muscle. "And what if I do?"
"If ylove her then ya gotta trust her. I dont know if she can keep goin on if ydont trust her. It hurts her too much."
Nathan realised that hed probably pushed this point as far as he could. Ezra was getting seriously annoyed.
"Do you have any other advice?" he asked tersely.
Nathan smiled. He actually did have a small fallback strategy.
"Yeah, drink this!"
He picked up a cup from the bedside table and handed it to Ezra who eyed it suspiciously.
"What is it?"
Ezra sniffed at it. "And?"
"A mixture of herbs and honey."
"Id rather have some brandy in it."
Nathan smiled briefly. "Not until yve got a bit more strength. Thisll help build that up."
Ezra sipped at it. It was one of Nathans less repulsive concoctions. In fact, it was rather pleasant.
Silence descended as Ezra finished the drink and Nathan was grateful for the reprieve. Maybe he wasnt so bad at this misdirection thing after all. Ezra seemed to have forgotten the note entirely as Nathan reached out to take the empty cup from him.
"So if youve exhausted your supply of distractin comments, maybe we can now discuss the contents of the paper you were readin earlier."
Nathan froze. One day hed just learn not to take Ezra on at this game.
Seeing Nathan on the back foot, Ezra pushed his advantage. He managed to lift a hand and held it out. "Dont try and conceal it. Just give it to me."
Nathan couldnt think of a reasonable excuse not to but he had to cushion the blow somehow.
"Theyll find her," he said, as he handed it over, but Ezra didnt even hear.
He immediately made a brave but futile attempt to get out of bed. Nathan easily pushed him back.
"Where the hell dya think yer goin?"
Ezra fixed him with a hostile glare. "Where do you think Im goin?"
"Ya aint got enough strength tstand, let alone go lookin anywhere!"
"Where did she go? How long ago did she leave? Why did she go? What the hell have you lot been doin to her while Ive been lyin here?"
This accusation was too much. The tension and lack of sleep, for more than three days, had caught up with Nathan and his patience finally snapped.
"We kept her outta here, like ya asked us to. No, like ya demanded we do. Shes bin confused an lonely. An yesterday she broke in tsee ya an ya yelled at her tgo away."
Ezra stared at him for a second and then redoubled his efforts to get out of bed. But he fell back again, even before Nathan needed to restrain him.
The healer was ashamed of his outburst. What were a couple of sleepless nights compared to what Ezra had been through? The man had nearly died and now he was understandably vexed about was happening to Angie. And Nathan also knew that one of the reasons he had spoken so roughly, was that Ezras reproach had come too close to the whisperings of his own guilt-ridden conscience.
He put a hand on the gamblers shoulder and spoke gently but firmly. "Ezra, stop it. Yll hurt yself. An if folks are worried about you, they cant be out lookin for Angie."
Ezra was breathing harshly again from the expended effort. "So, why...arent you...out lookin?"
"Coz we were all that worried about you. Somebody had tstay with ya."
Ezra took several deep breaths before speaking again. He had give an appearance of being reasonably calm or Nathan would never agree to his suggestion.
"Well now, you can stop worryin and go out and look for her."
Irritation crept into Ezras voice, despite his resolution to seem calm. "If youre goin to stay here whether I behave myself or not, what incentive do I have to even try?"
"Please go, Nathan!" Ezra resorted to blatant pleading. "Each extra person participatin in the search might make the difference in findin her. And as you said, I dont have the strength to go anywhere."
Nathan reluctantly agreed. "Okay, but Caseys downstairs and shell be up here real regular, tmake sure yer doin the right thing."
Nathan looked at him dubiously but, having forced himself into a corner, nodded and went out to join the search. But he gave a final warning, as he walked to the door.
"Ill be back soon an so will the others. They were gonna meet back downstairs, an hour from now, anyway."
Ezra nodded, in his turn, and tried to appear every inch the model patient. However, as soon as the door closed behind Nathan, he made another effort to rise from the bed and quickly fell back, panting.
It was no use. Angelica was wandering alone out there with no one to protect her and there was nothing he could do about it.
Nathan had said that hed shouted at her and told her to go away. How could any father treat his child in that way?
So now, hed lost her and it was entirely his own fault. Hed broken the bond of trust between them and Angelica would pay the price.
He had to do something! He couldnt just lie here while she could be in danger. If hed sent her away, then he had to get her back.
But his next attempt sent him tumbling to the floor, dragging the bedclothes with him. He landed with a considerable thud and lay there, gasping for breath.
"Oh, well done, Ezra!" he muttered breathlessly to himself.
The room was spinning around him and it hurt to move. But he had to try. And keep trying!
He fell back again and this time, darkness finally came to claim him.
"Im sorry, Angel girl," he managed to whisper before it descended.
Maude could hear a heated argument in process, as she and Angelica climbed the stairs of the saloon.
"How can so many of you not be able to find one little girl?"
So, Ezra was awake.
"Oh cmon, Ez! Were trying! Remember how long it took us to find Billy, that time he ran off? An Angies much better at hiding."
Poor Mr Wilmington. He had surely made every effort.
"Do I have to do it myself?"
Truculent and impractical. Typical of Ezra.
"Dont even think it! Im not gonna pick ya up off the floor again!"
Well said, Mr Jackson. Dont stand for any nonsense.
But still, Maude was pleased to hear Ezra being so recalcitrant. He was obviously recovering well. And maybe she hadnt been able to prevent his pain over losing Angelica, but now she would be able to relieve it.
She signalled for her granddaughter to wait outside and remain quiet. This sort of entrance had to be effected with suitable aplomb. She would go first and try to pave the way.
When she entered the room, she found it somewhat crowded. Not only Inez and her sons six associates had gathered at his beside, Dr Elliott, Mr Dunnes young wife and Mrs Travis were also there.
"Is there enough space to permit the entrance of another visitor?"
Ezra turned his head to look at her. Someone had apparently been kind enough to prop him up in a sitting position, so that he could harangue his friends and colleagues with greater comfort.
"Mother! Where have you been?"
She smiled. It was nice to see that he had actually noted her absence. Shed thought that Angelicas had probably occupied his mind to the exclusion of all else.
"Most recently, at the local cemetery. But before we embark on a lengthy discussion about that, Ezra, I have a companion who craves admittance." She reached out into the corridor and drew her granddaughter into the room.
Angelica heard her name chorused in various forms, and she was unsure whether to smile or to run.
She looked to her father and thought that he still seemed rather angry and unkempt. Shed been told that he would be glad to see her. Well, maybe he still wasnt feeling very well and that was making him cranky.
"Angelica Teresa Velasquez Standish!"
Ezras words caused Angelica to flinch. All four names - she was still in really serious trouble.
"What on earth did you think you were doin?"
Angelicas anger resurfaced. At times like this, it was obvious that shed inherited every iota of Teresas fire.
Her grandmother had convinced her to return with a promise of reconciliation and understanding, not interrogation.
But if he hadnt got the message from her note, she was fully prepared to tell him again.
"I was going away. If you dont want to be my father anymore, thats fine! I can look after myself. I dont need you or anybody else!"
Ezra made the transitions from anger to shock to remorse, in less than a second. "Dont want to...? Oh Angel, how could you think...?" Words failed him. There simply were none that were adequate.
So, despite all of his resolutions about quarantine, he held out his arms to her. And despite all her bravado about not needing him, she instantly rushed forward to be claimed by his embrace.
Nathan started to move forward to separate them but then stopped. It seemed that it would do more harm than good, at this stage. And looking at the fierce desperation with which they both clasped each other, hed probably need a crowbar to do it.
Ezra was too choked by emotion to speak. She was here in his arms again. His own precious Angel girl. And he might have lost her. She might have left him because shed actually believed that he no longer loved her.
Finally, he managed to whisper into her hair, "I thought we said together forever."
And her tear-stained reply came back. "Yes, I thought we said that too!"
All her confusion and loneliness were conveyed in those few words. He had to do something to restore the bond between them. He had to let her know that while he drew breath in this world, she would never be alone or unwanted.
"Angel, whatever happens, Ill always want to be your father."
"I promise faithfully."
He drew her out to arms length so that he could look into her eyes. "Now you once made me promise never to leave you. I need you to promise me that you will never leave me again."
She smiled and wiped her eyes. "Never!" she assured him.
He grinned and decided to qualify his request. "Well, at least not until youre all grown up and we find a suitable young gentleman whos worthy of you."
She shook her head. "Not even then!" she vowed and his grin widened.
"Easy to say now, my Angel, but I wont hold you to that. The promise only lasts until the day of your wedding."
"Would you leave me, if you got married?"
"Of course, not."
"Well, then I wont leave you, if I do."
He resisted the urge to hug her again. "Yes well, some things which apply to fathers are not the same for daughters."
Hesitancy suddenly appeared in Angelicas eyes again.
Ezra had once said that about drinking alcohol and smoking tobacco. He was going to be really angry with her when he found out what shed done with the whiskey. And hed only just forgiven her. It would be a real shame to make him angry again so soon.
Ezra frowned. The conversation seemed to have stopped abruptly and Angelica was anything but a reticent child.
Unless, she was feeling guilty about something.
"Is there something which you would like to tell me?"
Angelica hedged. "Yes, your face is all scratchy. Are you going to shave soon?"
Ezra laughed, she was a born dissembler but it wasnt enough this time. "Soon enough. What else is on your mind?"
Angelica still hesitated. She didnt know where to start.
But her grandmother was prepared to hazard a guess.
"Does it have something to do with the somewhat Bacchanalian odour I detected in your room or the drying whiskey puddle I saw in the kitchen?"
Angelica thought franticly. Shed half-hoped that she might blame the whiskey spill on Cuervo. After all, knocking a bottle of whiskey over was exactly the sort of thing that Inez and everybody else expected from the cat.
But that wouldnt explain how her clothes or one of Inezs aprons had gotten soaked at it. Maybe she could make the truth not sound quite so bad.
"I didnt drink any!" she told her father desperately, "It tastes awful anyway! I just tried a bit and then it spilled and then "
He gazed at her in utter astonishment. "What on earth possessed you to try it, in the first place?"
"Mr Rowan said that it made people feel better when they were feeling sad." She looked at him pleadingly, needing him to understand. "I was really sad and it seemed like a good idea."
Ezra closed his eyes. "Wonderful! Its been less than a year and Ive already driven my daughter to drink!"
Then he looked at her again. He certainly had to discourage the behaviour. "Youll refrain from doin it again, wont you? As the poet said, Drink to me only with thine eyes, And I will pledge with mine."
Angelica looked at him uncertainly. He didnt look angry but his words didnt quite make sense to her.
"Youre not still delirious, are you?"
There were several failed attempts to contain laughter and Ezra turned to his mother, looking for an explanation of this addition to his daughters vocabulary.
Maude shrugged. "Well, I had to say somethin to explain your inexcusable behaviour."
His eyebrows lifted and he turned to his daughter for confirmation of his misconduct. "Was I that bad?"
"Well, you really were quite scary," Angelica said carefully, "You said you were going to kill me."
Shed been deeply hurt but, as long as all was right between them now, she was prepared to forget it.
Ezra, however, was aghast. "I said what?"
Nathan tried to reassure him. "Think ymeant the feverd kill her. Yseemed tthink she was yer sister, at the time."
Ezra closed his eyes as he digested this. Then, still shocked and shamed, he opened them and addressed his daughter. "Im so very sorry, Angel girl. What can I offer you by way of compensation?"
"Make it up to you."
Angelica looked at him thoughtfully. All she had wanted was for him to forgive her, not the other way around. But, on the other hand, she wasnt the type to pass up an offer like this.
What did she want most? Well, shed wanted Ezra to be her father again, but shed already gotten that. So, what had she missed most about him? They hadnt talked for ages and shed really missed the sound of his voice. What would keep him talking?
"Would you read to me?"
He smiled. "Of course. But youll need to fetch a book for me."
"Hang on, Angie!" Nathan interceded, "Yer daddy still aint real well. Yll tire him out readin."
Ezra grinned at him and shook his head.
"A debt is a debt, Mr Jackson. I will read while my strength holds."
Nathan looked exasperated but Inez smiled tolerantly. It was so good to be able to watch Ezra and Angelica interacting again. She was prepared to indulge them a little.
But, to pacify Nathan, she suggested, "Well then, mi nina, you had better also fetch some milk and some of Senora Woolleys shortbread for your father. To help keep his strength up"
Angelica nodded and headed for the door.
"And you might add some brandy to the milk, to help keep my spirits up," Ezra called to her.
Angelica nodded even as Inez and Nathan almost shouted "No!" in unison.
Inez was prepared to make some concessions but not that one, and the childs intentions were ambiguous.
"No brandy! Do you hear me?" she demanded.
"Yes," Angelica said reluctantly and left to perform her errand.
"Senora Woolleys shortbread?" Ezra asked, as the door closed behind her. He was somewhat surprised, as he knew that Inez did most of her own baking.
"Yes, her husband brought it here yesterday. He said to tell you that their whole prayer group praying for you."
Ezra smiled. The way she said it, anyone would think that such religious activities were completely alien to her.
"Did you light any candles?"
"Two each day," she admitted with an almost sheepish smile, "one every morning and evening."
"Thank you," Ezra said simply.
It was one of the things that he admired about Inez. She had strong beliefs and observed certain religious rites but she didnt just follow the dogma mindlessly, or use it to judge or exclude other people.
And that was just one of many things which hed come to appreciate about her. No, one of many things which hed come to cherish and adore.
She was his match as a verbal sparring partner. Her vocabulary was not as extensive, but her intelligence and insight more than compensated. She had a fiery temper but she was also capable of seemingly infinite gentleness and tenderness. She was in no way shy about stating her opinions and they were often critical, but she was also fiercely loyal. She would defend her friends to the death.
Loyal. Yes, indeed. Loyal, faithful and trustworthy. She had never ever done a single thing that indicated that she might be undeserving of his trust. But still hed kept that distance between them. He was sure that he could love her without relying on her. It was, after all, how he dealt with his mother. But it seemed that it might not work like that.
Nathan had said that his lack of trust was hurting her, that it might eventually push her away from him. Could it be true?
Well, he knew that hed hurt her. Hed seen it her eyes over the past few days. The memories were hazy but he knew he hadnt imagined that. And he knew that hed already nearly pushed Angelica away. He hadnt thought that was possible, but somehow hed done it.
It seemed like hed been given a second chance with Angelica. He couldnt make the same mistake with Inez. If he wanted to conserve what they had together, then he needed to show her that he trusted her and accept all the risks that involved.
Well, if one was not prepared to take risks, then one shouldnt be in the game. And, extending the metaphor further, why not up the ante and call her hand? What was the worst that could happen? That hed find that the cards he held werent good enough to match her? That was the same risk in any game. But hed had no chance to stack the deck this time.
He reached out to take one of her hands in both of his. "Inez..." he began tentatively, before the full weight of what he was doing hit him. His voice faded and his gaze dropped to the hand that he held.
But he couldnt give in to cowardice now. He cleared his throat and purposefully lifted his eyes to meet hers again.
"Inez, would you do me the extreme honour of consenting to become my wife?"
Inez stared at him for a second, then instinctively glanced at the door through which Angelica had departed.
Ezra drew her attention back to him. "My request has nothing to do with Angelica. It is based solely on what exists between you and myself. Inez, I do want you by my side when I have grandchildren on my knee. And I want youre there as their grandmother and my wife. Will you marry me?"
She was astonished. He seemed in earnest, not to mention extremely vulnerable and self-conscious. And suddenly she couldnt completely repress a small chuckle.
"You want to make an honest woman of me?"
He smiled too. Her gentle humorous tone was familiar and what shed said gave him a glimmer of hope. So he continued in the same vein.
"Well it would be the first time that forming any association with me was said to endow anyone with a degree of honesty but yes, if you would grant me the privilege."
"Then yes. I too would be honoured and privileged."
He almost reached up to kiss her but then caught sight of Nathan hovering and remembered the risk of spreading infection. So he reluctantly settled for squeezing the hand that he still held and grinning like an idiot.
Inez was grinning too. She had sat by Ezras sickbed, over the past few days, and imagined countless possible outcomes. But shed never envisioned this. And she still hadnt managed to tell him everything yet. Shed been about to when Angelica had launched into the story about the whiskey.
She broke into a brief chuckle. "Well your timing is very good."
That puzzled him. He failed to see why the recovery period from a potentially fatal illness constituted particularly praiseworthy timing.
But before he could query that, he saw her exchange a look of understanding with his mother and had to make a conscious effort to subdue his resentment at their effortless unspoken communication. He was only partially successful. His voice contained a distinct note of irritation as he asked, "Would you care to explain your reasoning to me?"
Maude favoured him with a tolerant knowing smile. "Lets just say that I think Angelicas next challenge will be sibling rivalry."
Ezras jaw dropped and his gaze swung back to Inez. "Surely, you jest."
"I do not!" She couldnt help laughing at his astonishment. It took him a couple of seconds to find his voice again.
"How long have I known or how long before it happens?"
"Well, Ive been fairly sure for about two weeks and if all goes well, the child should be born in about seven months."
"Why didnt you tell me?"
Inez arched an eyebrow. "You have not really been in a mood for listening."
A look of annoyance crossed his features. He obviously thought that this was an unfair assessment. But Maude intervened before he could say anything that he might later regret.
"Its better this way, Ezra."
"How so?" he asked sceptically.
"Well, since you have already proposed, Inez wont have to be concerned that you only married her because of the baby."
Ezra snorted. "A large number of people will probably believe that to be the case anyway."
Inez leaned forward with a somewhat conspiratorial grin. "And when did we start worrying about what such people think?"
His annoyance melted into a rueful smile. "Indeed."
They all then looked up at Nathan, when he also started laughing.
"And what do you find so amusin now?"
"Oh, I jus think yer timins good, same as Inez."
The entire room just looked at him expectantly.
"Well, last time we was back at the village, Rain said to me that she thought she might be expectin too."
"And why didnt you say anything?" Inez asked him.
Nathan shrugged. "Didnt seem right to be talkin about such things. Yknow with the worry bout Ezra, an all."
Ezra knew that he owed Nathan a great deal. Apologies for the hurtful things hed said recently. Gratitude for all the healers care and patience. And, not least, the simple duties of friendship.
"Well, as soon as Im on my feet again, we should make another trip to the village to properly offer you and Rain our congratulations. After all, I still need to return that stunning outfit the villagers loaned to me."
Nathan looked hesitant but then said to him, "Actually, the poncho was made fer ya."
Ezras eyebrows lifted, encouraging him to continue.
"Nikkannochee remembered what ya said at my weddin about not havin proper Seminole attire and he an I picked out the colours. And his ma an Opalocka to sewed it for ya."
Ezra digested this. It would be unforgivably ungracious to be disparaging of such a gift. "Then," he said softly, "I will wear it with pride, every time I visit the village."
An uncomfortable air of melancholy had descended and Buck tried to break the mood.
He elbowed JD in the ribs. "Yre laggin behind, JD."
JD looked at him incredulously. "With what?"
"Oh, come on! Inez an Ezra. Nathan an Rain. An you two got married before any of them."
"Well, I didnt know it was a race!" JD exclaimed with an understandable amount of sarcasm.
But the statement earned him another dig in the ribs from the other side. "It aint!" Casey told him pointedly.
"What race?" Angelica asked from the doorway. She balanced a large book against her hip, using it as a tray to carry a glass of milk and a plate of shortbread, in a fair imitation of Inezs technique.
"There aint no race," Nathan told her, as JD and Casey both coloured furiously.
Angelica shrugged and walked over to hand the milk to her father. He grinned as he accepted it and thanked her.
Then, as he took a sip, his grin widened.
"Most fortifyin. My thanks again, Angel girl."
Inezs eyes narrowed and she held out her hand. "Let me taste that!"
Angelica looked apprehensive but Ezra simply withdrew the cup from her reach and said cooly, "I think not. It would be far too hazardous. We cant risk speading any contagion."
Inez knew there was no point arguing with him and turned to Angelica.
"I thought we agreed that you wouldnt put any brandy in it?"
The child shook her head. "No, I said that I heard you when you said that you didnt want me to."
"Cria cuervos y te sacaran los ojos."
Angelicas temper flared again.
"Im not a crow and you cant tell me what to do! Youre not my mother!"
Ezra reached out and took hold of Angelicas shoulder.
In a both placating and warning voice, he told her, "She may not be your mother, but you need to show Inez some respect. After all, she tries very hard to look after both of us. And all three of us are soon to become a proper family."
Angelica was not quite ready to let go of her hostility. "How?" she asked suspiciously.
"Inez and I are goin to get married."
"When?" This was going to change everything.
"As soon as we can."
Angelica felt like the floor was falling out from under her and looked apprehensively at Inez. "Do I have to call you Mama?"
Having spent most of the day talking to her mother by her graveside, the idea of calling someone else by that title really disturbed the child.
Inez felt her heart go out her. Shed never had any intention to try and take Teresas place, but Angelica obviously needed reassuring.
"No, just call me Inez, Angelica."
Angelica still looked disconcerted and Ezra looked for something else to offer her.
"How would you like a new brother or sister?"
She slightly misunderstood the question. It seemed that this was another compensation that they were considering. And they were offering her the choice. After a moments pondering, she decided, "A brother."
Ezra was intrigued by this unexpected answer. "Why?"
Maude grinned. Shed seen how possessive Angelica was of her position in Ezras life and he in hers.
"Because then, darlin, shell still be your only little girl."
Angelica looked up at her, awed and disconcerted that Maude had correctly deduced what she was thinking.
Well, shed soon get used to it, Ezra reflected. And in truth, he was a little comforted that he was no longer the only one that Maude visibly outmanoeuvred in this way.
But his mothers answer also provided a reason for Angelicas renewed hostility. She was afraid that she would be superceded in his affections and again needed reassurance from him.
"Even if the new baby was a little girl, you would still be my one and only special Angel girl."
"And the new baby would be?"
"Special in another way."
Angelica looked a little dubious and she still hoped that the baby would be a boy.
"So when are we going to get this new baby?"
"Well, the preparations have already been made and the baby should arrive in approximately seven months."
Ezra hoped that she wouldnt ask too many more questions and that Inez might explain pregnancy and childbirth at a later date.
"That long?" exclaimed Angelica.
Inez laughed. It must seem like forever to a child of Angelicas age. "These things take time."
Angelica looked at her. When theyd first told her of the marriage, shed been quite jealous that Inez would soon have an official bond with Ezra as close as her own.
But, now that she thought about it, when Inez married Ezra, then she would be another real legal relation for Angelica. Another one that no one could take away. And this new baby would be a real brother or sister. She couldnt contain a small laugh at her sudden reversal of fortune.
Ezra looked at her. " What is it?"
Angelica laughed again. "Its just that I thought I was going to lose my family." She glanced over at Maude. "Both of you. But now it looks like Im going to have twice as many."
Ezra suppressed a smile, as he translated her statement into a proposition in gamblers parlance. "So what do you say, Angelica? Double or nothing?"
He kept his face studiously expressionless and Angelica was unsure if this was a joke or a test. But either way, she thought the answer should be the same.
She grinned at him. "If its double or nothing, then I guess Im in"
Ezra also broke into a proud grin, and reached out to tousle her hair.
"Thats my clever, clever girl!"