It took Rory only a few minutes to remember where he was when he awakened just before dawn broke the next morning. His ribs and aching muscles reminded him far better than any words could have done. His gaze fell upon Shannon, asleep in the rocking chair beside the bed, an open book laying in her lap. She looked like an Irish angel, her red hair bright even in the subdued light, like the ember of a fire about to burst into flame.
Reaching out, he pulled the book from her hands and read the title. Rachel had been fond of Elizabeth Browning's poetry as well. He recalled teasing her about such silly, sentimentalist writings. But the few times she'd read the poems to him, he'd been struck by the strength of the poet's love for her family and husband.
He tried to sit up, but the pain caused by the movement was more than he could manage and he groaned softly. Shannon's eyes opened at the sound and she blinked, looking at him.
"Good morning," he said, trying to smile. "I wasn't going to wake you, but -"
"It's all right." She glanced around at the window. "I needed to wake up anyway. How are you feeling this morning?"
"Better," he lied, this time managing to bite back the groan as he sat up. "Were you sitting there all night?"
She nodded. "Dr. Walsh said that someone should watch you. Poor job I did of it, falling asleep."
"No harm done," he assured her. Handing her the book as she started looking for it, he said, "Here."
"Thank you." She held it close to her, as if it were important.
"From your husband?" he asked.
"Not likely. My father. He took it in trade for a dining room table and chair he made. It was his last gift to me before he died."
"He was a carpenter, then, your father?"
"The best in the territory when he was younger. There wasn't anything he couldn't make when he was sober. I've only managed to keep two of the pieces he made for us. This rocking chair and another. I had to sell everything else to keep food on the table."
He reached his hand towards her, but she rose from the rocking chair before he could touch her.
"I'll find something for your breakfast," she said. "I don't know that there's much in the larder -"
"Don't worry about it. I'm not hungry."
She pretended not hear him and said, "I'll go check."
In the front room, Shannon stood before the window that overlooked the street below, wondering if having Rory spend the night had been such a good idea. She was distracted from her thoughts, however, when a carriage pulled to a stop in front of the store and she easily recognized Deirdre Clement's blonde hair.
"Your sister's here," she called out to Rory. "I'll go let her in."
"Where is he?" Deirdre asked as soon as she entered the store, Shane in her arms.
Shannon could tell that the woman had been crying. "He's upstairs," she told her. "He's fine. He had a good night."
Deirdre went upstairs, almost directly to the room where Rory was laying, as if she had some in-born gift that would bring her unerringly to her brother's side. David and Shannon followed her into the room as she put Shane onto the floor and went to the bed.
"Deirdre," Rory said, enduring her gentle embrace.
"Thank God, you're all right, Rory," she said. Then her eyes flashed with anger as she demanded, "What were you thinking, getting into a street brawl that way? You never stopped to think-"
"Deirdre -" Rory tried to interrupt.
"But then, you never have stopped to think before you
did anything," she said quickly, not giving him the chance
to break her train of thought. "Even back in the old days,
you always acted first and thought later about the consequences."
Shane had come over and tried to climb up beside his father. When Rory couldn't manage, Shannon moved to pick the child up and place him at Rory's side, earning a look of gratitude.
"You might have been killed, Rory! And poor Shane would have been without a mother *or* a father!" Deirdre continued. Then abruptly, she lifted a hand to her forehead as she swayed.
"Deirdre!" Rory and David both exclaimed as David caught his wife and put her into the rocking chair.
"Deirdre?" he said with gentle concern as he began chafing her wrists.
"I'll get some smelling salts," Shannon offered.
Deirdre shook her head. "No. You don't have to do that. I'll be fine," she insisted. "Just the thought of anything happening to Rory - That and " She looked up at David and then said, " and the baby I'm carrying "
Rory's mouth dropped as David's eyes widened with delight.
"A baby?" David said as he somehow managed to kneel beside the chair. "Oh, Deirdre. A baby."
"You should have said something before we left Philadelphia -"
"I didn't know then. I only even suspected just before we arrived here. I still haven't had it confirmed by a doctor, but I know."
"I'm happy for you, Deirdre," Rory said, holding his son. "For you both."
"So am I," Shannon said.
"Take her to see Dr. Walsh," Rory told his brother-in-law. "Put your mind at ease."
"I will. Have you told Benjamin yet?" David asked his wife.
"No. I - I'm not certain how he'll take the news, to be honest," she confided as David's delight dimmed somewhat. "You know how he is, David. He still misses Caleb so much-"
"I know. And I've done everything I can think of to make him accept me. I don't know what else I can do."
"You can't make someone accept you, David," Shannon pointed out. "It's either there or it's not. Where are the boys, anyway?"
"We left them at the ranch," David told her. "They were going fishing again - in a stream near the house. I'll bring Michael home later."
"Did you bring some clean clothes?" Rory asked, eyeing the valise that David had dropped just inside the doorway when he had rushed to catch Deirdre.
"I packed a case," Deirdre told him. "But I wish you'd come home, Rory, so that I can take proper care of you."
Shannon's reaction was tempered by her understanding of Deirdre's condition and her distress over her beloved brother's injuries. "I'll take care of him, Deirdre," she assured her. "I think the trip out to the ranch would be worse on him than staying here."
"But it's not proper for him to stay here this way without someone to chaperone," Deirdre insisted.
"She very nearly left the ranch to come here when I got home last night and told her that you were staying here, Rory," David informed his brother-in-law.
"Anyone who saw that fight outside knows that Rory was in no condition for anything to have happened," Shannon pointed out. "And Dr. Walsh will be more than glad to back that up if he's asked."
"What about Shane?" Deirdre asked. "He needs his father, Rory."
Rory smiled at Shane as the child slid from the bed to tug at Shannon's skirt, saying, "Up." When Shannon bent to lift him into her arms, he put his chubby arms around her neck and rested his head on her shoulder, his eyes closing.
"I doubt Rory will have to stay in town for very long, Deirdre," she pointed out. "As long as Shane's with you, I'm sure he'll be fine." She rubbed the little boy's back. "Or -" she began, then shook her head. "Never mind. It's a silly idea." Looking at Deirdre, she suggested, "Why don't we go into the other room so that Rory can get dressed?"
"And we can have breakfast at the hotel," he told her.
"I thought you said you weren't hungry?" she pointed out.
"I am now," he said.
Once the women were gone, David opened the case and pulled out a clean shirt. "Do you need some help?" he asked.
Rory cautiously pulled the shirt on. "I think I can manage - but I'll need some help with the boots."
Deirdre looked around the bare room as Shannon indicated the chair and said, "Please sit down, Deirdre."
But Deirdre shook her head, going to the window. "I'm sorry, Shannon. But you have to understand that Rory and I are almost all that's left of our family. Our brother Brian is still in Ireland. And the youngest brother Sean left Philadelphia over a year ago. The idea of losing Rory-"
Deirdre nodded, fingering the yellowed lace curtain on the window. Looking out the window, she gasped, exclaiming, "There's a man down there, watching!"
Shannon joined her at the window, where she had a good view
of the dark bruises on Jennings' face as he flicked the end of
a cigarette out into the street. Pulling Deirdre back, she said,
"That's Mr. Jennings."
"The man that Rory fought with?"
"Yes. He's watching for Rory," she said as the door to Michael's bedroom opened.
"Who's watching for me?" Rory asked, moving toward the window.
Shannon grabbed his arm. "Jennings," she told him.
"Well, he's not going to shoot me in the middle of the street in broad daylight, is he?" Rory pointed out, taking Shane from her. With a soft gasp of pain, he quickly handed him back, saying, "Maybe you'd better hold onto him."
Deirdre's eyes were wide with fear as she realized what her brother was planning. "Rory, you can't mean to-"
"I can and I do, Deirdre," he said. "Come along. Dr. Walsh will be wanting to see you. And after you're finished, you can join us at the hotel for coffee - unless you haven't had breakfast?"
"She was up before dawn making breakfast so we could come here," David said. "But she didn't eat."
"I wasn't hungry," Deirdre insisted, following Rory, Shannon, and Shane down the stairs with David. "David, talk some sense into him, please. He can't go out there."
"What should I do, Deirdre?" David asked, "Tie him up and drag him back upstairs?"
Rory opened the doors and stepped out onto the sidewalk, Shannon and Shane at his side. He studiously ignored the man standing across the street before the barbershop. He managed to hide the smile caused by the bruises on the man's face, but only because he knew his own probably didn't look much better.
He heard Deirdre's soft, "David -" followed by David's reply of "Keep walking, Deirdre."
The couples parted at the doctor's office, with Rory and Shannon continuing to the hotel with Shane now walking between them.
"Is he following us?" Rory asked Shannon.
"He is," she said as she pretended to reach down and straighten Shane's tunic to look.
"Let's hope the hotel dining room is crowded, then."
The dining room wasn't crowded, by any means, but there were enough people that Rory felt safe dining there with Jennings sitting at a corner table across the room. The middle- aged waitress gave them both an assessing look as she took their order and left.
Rory had noticed several such looks when they had entered. Apparently, most of them hadn't bothered to ask Dr. Walsh about his injuries, and chose to believe that he and Shannon had spent the night together- which they had, of course, but not in the same bed.
The idea of another woman's reputation being ruined because of something he had done, knowing it was wrong, weighed heavily on Rory.
Sitting back slowly, he watched Shannon with Shane. "I meant what I said the other evening," he finally said. "He likes you. I don't think I've ever seen him take some anyone as well as he has to you."
"I always wanted more children," Shannon admitted softly. "But with Peter's gambling and drinking -" She shook her head.
"What were you going to suggest earlier?" he asked.
"I said it was nothing,- just a silly idea."
"I'd like to hear it," he told her, his hand joining hers on the child's.
Shannon shook her head again. "No. I don't think so."
"Very well, then, I have an idea," Rory said, then paused as the waitress brought their coffee. Once the woman was gone, he leaned forward once more, saying, "I want you to hear me out before you say anything. Do I have your word that you'll not lose your temper before I have a chance to explain myself?"
"You have my word," she agreed somberly.
"As long as Everett remains a threat, I'm not going to have any peace once I've recovered enough to go back out to the ranch. So that means I'll have to take a place here in town. But then there's Shane," he said, letting his son's fingers curl around his. "I can't leave him with Deirdre and David indefinitely. He's my son, after all; he belongs with me. My idea is that we - you and I - combine households. That way, I'd be around to make sure that Everett isn't bothering you or Michael, and I'd still have Shane with me."
He held up his hand. "I know it's sudden. And we haven't known each other long. And heaven knows, I'm no prize. Deirdre's right - I tend to act first and ask questions later. And when I'm focused on something, I often can't see anything else."
"Such as when you're focused on Ireland?" Shannon asked softly.
"Yes," he agreed. "Such as Ireland. You've never been there, have you?"
She shook her head sadly. "No. Father always wanted to go back, but the money was never there - and there was a price on his head anyway."
"It's the reason he left Ireland to begin with. He killed the son of an English Lord. It was an accident, but his being Irish -"
Rory smiled. "I know. It's the same reason I can't go back. There's a price on my head a well." He sat there for a moment, silent.
"How did you know?" he asked. "About the way I feel about Ireland, I mean. I've never said a word about -"
"You didn't have to," Shannon told him. "It's there in your eyes. Every now and then they get the same look in them as my father's used to have - as if you're seeing something way off in the distance and don't see what's right in front of your face."
Rory sighed. "I've tried to put it behind me, but I can't. There will always be a part of me that longs for the rolling green hills where I was born and raised. But this is my home now." He blinked. "Ah, now, where was I? You made me lose track of my thoughts, woman." He thought back over his words for a second, then said, "Ah, yes. I've a terrible bad temper - almost as terrible as yours -" When Shannon smiled at him, he allowed himself to relax slightly as he assured her, "But I'll do my level best to make you happy and to see that you'd never regret the decision."
"So you're asking me to-?" she prompted, and Rory narrowed his eyes.
"You know very well what I'm asking Shannon Quinn Carson. I'm asking you to become my wife. After last night, I don't think we have much choice in the matter, do you?" he asked, indicating the curious looks they were getting from the others in the dining room.
Suddenly, Shannon began to laugh softly.
Rory frowned. "I'm pleased that you find my proposal so amusing," he growled, frowning.
"It's just - that was my idea, as well, but I didn't want to sound too forward in suggesting it."
Rory's smile returned. "Then you're saying -?" he asked, paying her back a bit of her own.
"Yes. I'm saying yes, I'll marry you, Rory Manion. Although I've no doubt gone daft and my father's probably rolling in his grave at the thought of my marrying an Irishman."
Rory laughed, then placed a hand to his ribs as the pain caught him off guard and his eyes met with Jennings' to darken an otherwise happy occasion.
"Rory, are you sure this is what you want to do?" Deirdre asked her brother.
They were in the shabby living quarters over the store again, waiting with Shane as Shannon went to speak with the local minister about marrying them and David went to fetch Michael and Benjamin.
"More sure than anything in a long time, Deirdre," he assured her.
"But you've only known the woman for two days. That's not enough time-"
"Sometimes a couple of days is all a person needs, Deirdre," he told her. "Besides, if young Michael refuses to consider it -"
"He won't," Deirdre declared. "You should have heard him last night. All he could talk about was you and how wonderful you were - how well you acquitted yourself in that fight." Looking up at him, she said gently, "I just don't want you making a mistake, Rory. You deserve to be happy."
"And I am," he assured her. "I am. Happier than I ever thought possible after Rachel died. Can't you find it in yourself to be happy for me, Deirdre?" he asked.
"Its just that - things are changing so quickly. The move here, the new baby, losing you and Shane -"
"You're not losing me and Shane," Rory pointed out. "You're gaining another sister and nephew."
"But we won't be together. You'll be- here-" she said, indicating the gloomy surroundings. "Rory, you can't mean to raise Shane and Michael in this place. It's almost as bad as the cottage back in Ireland."
He put a hand on her shoulder. "You let me worry about that, now," he told her.
Jennings was just lighting another cigarette when Henry Everett approached him and asked, "Anything going on?"
"They went and had breakfast, then Clement left town in the carriage and Miz Carson left, as well. He's up there with Clement's wife and the baby."
"Where did Shannon go?" Everett asked.
Jennings jerked his head toward the far end of the street. "Down that way. Didn't see where; I was too busy watching the building."
"I want this resolved soon, Jennings," Everett said. "The freight company in Denver just wired me and inquired if Manion had sufficient credit to cover a delivery of goods."
"As soon as I get Manion alone," Jennings promised, flexing his gloved hand on the grip of his gun, "he's a dead man."
Shannon returned, informing Rory that the Reverend Morgan had agreed to marry them that afternoon at the church. "He does want to meet you beforehand, though," she warned him.
"I think we can arrange that," Rory told her. "If you'd prefer more time, Shannon -"
"No. There's no reason to wait," she told him.
Rory kissed her hand as Deirdre asked, "What are you going to wear?"
"I hadn't given that a thought," Shannon admitted. "I don't have anything suitable."
"Why don't we go look?" Deirdre suggested. "Perhaps we could find something."
Rory listened to them talking softly in the other room as he went to the window and looked down at the street. Jennings was still there, and when he saw Rory, he smiled. Nodding, he slowly removed his gun from its holster and ran the cylinder down his sleeve, keeping one eye on the window where Rory stood watching.
Taking out a dragoon of British soldiers had been easy compared to trying to take out a lone gunman, Rory decided, stepping away from the window as David returned with the boys.
"Shannon!" he called. "David's returned."
She appeared in the doorway, nervously wiping her hands on her skirt as she met his eyes. "I'll go talk Michael," she said.
David and the boys were just entering the store when she got downstairs.
"Hello, Ma," Michael said.
"How is Uncle Rory?" Ben asked.
"He's upstairs," Shannon told the young boy. "Why don't you go see for yourself?"
"Come along, Benjamin," David said, guiding his stepson toward the stairway. "I'll go with you.
When Michael would have followed them, Shannon grabbed his arm. "Not so fast. There's something I need to talk to you about." Her son went still, alerted by the seriousness of her voice. She closed the outer doors, and then pulled him into the storeroom.
"Did I do something wrong, Ma?" he asked, frowning now, trying to think back over his actions of the last few days. "If it's about that frog I teased Mary Davis with -"
"No, of course not," she assured him, sitting down on a crate. "But we will talk about that later," she promised. "Michael, do you like Mr. Manion?"
"Sure I do."
"And - if he and I were to get married -"
"Married? You and Mr. Manion?" Michael asked.
"Yes. He asked me this morning - and I said yes. But if you're against the idea -"
"I think it's great!" Michael told her, smiling broadly.
"Can I go see him?"
"Yes, you may," she said, giving him a hug and then following him up the stairs in time to hear him asking a question.
"Is it true, Mr. Manion? Are you really going to marry my mother?"
"If I have your permission, yes," Rory told him seriously, looking across to where Shannon was standing.
"Then it's settled."
"Does that mean you won't be living with us anymore, Uncle Rory?" Ben asked as he stood beside his mother, who was now sitting in the rocking chair which had been brought back out of Michael's room.
"He'll be living here with his own family now, Benjamin," Deirdre told her son in a gentle voice.
"But we'll be cousins!" Michael reminded him.
Benjamin didn't look convinced by his words.
"By the power invested in me, I now pronounce you man and wife," the minister finished, smiling at the happy couple. Closing the Bible in his hands, he said, "You may kiss the bride, now, Mr. Manion."
Rory turned and gave Shannon a light kiss before they turned to receive the congratulations and well wishes of their family and the few close friends that Shannon had sent Michael and Benjamin around town to invite to the small ceremony.
As someone Shannon had known since childhood claimed her attention, Reverend Morgan shook Rory's hand and said, "I know you'd have preferred a Catholic ceremony, Mr. Manion -"
"It doesn't matter, Reverend," Rory assured him. "A wedding ceremony is a wedding ceremony. Same result either way."
"I hope you and Mrs. Manion will be very happy."
"I'm sure we will be. Thank you for agreeing to do this on the spur of the moment -"
"It's not the first time I've joined together two people who've known each other for such a short time. In fact, I once married a young couple heading to California after they'd just met. It seems the wagon train refused to allow anyone who was unmarried to accompany them."
Rory nodded, understanding the reasoning.
David moved over to shake his brother-in-law's hand, saying, "You've done some crazy things, Rory, but this -" He shook his head, then said sincerely, "Be happy."
"I will be."
Michael and Ben ran up to them.
"Mr. Manion -" Michael began. Then stopping abruptly, he frowned and asked, "Is that what I should call you? I've never had a stepfather before -"
"Rory will do- or, if you'd prefer to call me something else, like -"
"Pa?" Michael suggested.
Rory looked down at him. "That will be fine," he agreed, noticing the way that Ben pulled away from David's hand on his shoulder as he listened to the exchange. "Now, what was it you wanted to tell me?"
"Oh, remember what you asked me about earlier? When I went to invite people?"
"Oh, and sure I do."
"It's taken care of. "
"You've got a list for me, then, have you?"
Michael pulled a slip of paper from his pocket and said, "Here. Ma's going to be so surprised."
"That's the whole idea," Rory said with a wink, ruffling the boy's dark red hair. "And remember, not a word to your mother about it." Michael and Ben nodded.
"What are you up to?" David asked as the boys moved away again, his eyes still on Benjamin.
"Just a bit of a surprise for Shannon, that's all," Rory explained as he nodded toward Ben's somber face. "You've got a problem brewing there - I suppose you know that."
"I know. I'm hoping that spending time with Michael might help him. You know that we're taking Michael and Shane out to the ranch tonight?"
"Shannon mentioned it."
"I mentioned what?" Shannon asked, returning at last. "Gone not five minutes and he's already talking about me behind my back," she laughed.
"We were talking about Michael and Shane staying at the ranch tonight," Rory explained, placing his hand over hers as it lay on his arm.
"Speaking of the boys, where did Michael and Benjamin go after the ceremony in such a hurry?"
"Just doing a favor for me," Rory told her with a smile. "Are you ready to go back to the store?"
"I think so," she told him.
As they left the church, they found themselves face-to-face with Henry Everett. "Mr. Everett," Shannon gasped.
"I just wanted to offer my congratulations on your marriage," he said as the rest of the group fell silent, watching the scene. "And to you personally as well, Mr. Manion. I hadn't realized what a shrewd businessman you are. And I hadn't realized how far you would go to achieve your goal. It seems I underestimated you. I won't make that mistake again." He tipped his hat in Shannon's direction. "Good day."
Rory's eyes narrowed as he followed the banker down the street, and then he turned to look at Shannon. Her expression told him that she had understood precisely what Everett had implied as a shadow fell across her face.
"Shannon-" Rory began.
She shook her head. "Let's go home," she told him, but the sparkle had left her eyes.
To Be Continued---