SUMMER GREW SHORT and the fall days were upon them before they knew it. Jessie's joy at returning home after hours on the range to unexpectedly find Kate quietly reading on the porch or preparing a meal in the kitchen was undiminished by the passage of time. Their love was simple and pure, and they grew closer as surely and naturally as two branches on the same tree, drawing nourishment from the same spring. The moments they spent together, talking and loving, were precious, bringing Jessie more happiness than she had dared dream of only a few months CHAPTER TWENTY THREE before. Still, she found herself wanting more.

There were days, sometimes even a week or more, between Kate's visits, and during those times, Jessie suffered from more than loneliness. She couldn't help but think of Ken Turner, who she knew still paid court to Kate. It tormented her to think that he might touch Kate, when she could not even arrive unannounced at Kate's door asking only for the pleasure of sitting by Kate's side. Each time she walked Kate to the buckboard and watched her drive away or rode with her to the edge of town CHAPTER TWENTY THREE, it was harder to let her go. The nights when she lay down alone were colder and longer than any she could ever recall. She was lonely in a way she never had been before, because now there were places in her heart that only Kate could fill.

"Kate?" Jessie asked one late afternoon, lying naked with Kate in her arms under a heavy quilt while a fire burned in the hearth in Jessie's bedroom. Kate's back was to her front, and she buried her face in Kate's thick hair, smoothing her hands slowly over Kate CHAPTER TWENTY THREE's stomach until she cupped Kate's breasts in her hands.

Kate stilled Jessie's movement, pressing her palms over Jessie's hands. "I can't think when you do that," Kate admonished lightly, but there was no disapproval in her tone. She loved Jessie's hands on her. "What is it?"

Jessie sighed, closing her eyes, trying to shut out every sensation but Kate. She couldn't, as much as she wished to. "Winter comes early out here, Kate. It will snow soon."

"Yes," Kate said quietly, her grip on Jessie's hands tightening. She waited.

"It's CHAPTER TWENTY THREE not safe for you to come here any longer," Jessie continued, each word feeling like it was taking a piece of her heart with it. "You could be caught in a blizzard and freeze to death quicker than a minute."

"I can't stay away," Kate whispered. "I can't be without you." She couldn't imagine a week, let alone the long months of winter, separated from her.

Jessie tightened her arms around her, pulling Kate even closer. "I can't have anything happening to you, Kate," she murmured. "I'm not made strong enough for CHAPTER TWENTY THREE that. Promise me you won't drive out here alone again."

Kate nodded. She knew Jessie was right, and she would never worry her even though it would kill her to go all winter without seeing her. She turned within the circle of Jessie's arms, searching Jessie's face, seeing the misery in her eyes. "We must find another way." She sought Jessie's mouth, kissing her lightly at first, then with a sudden hunger. She drew away with a small cry. "I won't be without you."

"I'll come into town when I can," Jessie ventured. "Maybe CHAPTER TWENTY THREE you could come to the hotel?" Even as she said it, she knew that it was impossible. The weather was unpredictable at best in the foothills of the Rockies, and even if she could leave the ranch, how would she even get a message to Kate to let her know that she had come? And meeting at the hotel? Impossible. There was no way that they could ever keep that fact from Kate's parents for long. Plus, part of her resisted the idea of meeting Kate for an afternoon's passion, as if that was all there was CHAPTER TWENTY THREE between them. She never tired of feeling Kate close to her, or of loving her for hours on end, but she took just as much joy in raising her eyes from some piece of work to find Kate sitting nearby with a book in her hands.

"I must speak to my parents," Kate said quietly, knowing the time had come. She could not go on indefinitely avoiding Ken Turner's persistent demands, nor could she pretend to her parents that her reluctance was only because she was not certain that she wished to be his wife. Having lain CHAPTER TWENTY THREE with Jessie, she could never be any man's wife. Jessie was her heart. "I'll make them understand."

"I'll come with you," Jessie said firmly, moving to get up. "They'll never need worry for your safety nor your care, not as long as I live, nor after either. I owe them the comfort of knowing that."

"Wait," Kate cried, holding her fast. "We have time before I need to be back." She stretched out in Jessie's arms, her legs entwining naturally with those of her taller lover. "I'll not let go of you yet."

Jessie smiled CHAPTER TWENTY THREE, turning them so Kate lay beneath her, and lowered herself gently upon her. Her chest filled with an almost unbearable sensation of tenderness and wonder, and she set about showing Kate just how much she cherished her. With her lips, with her mouth, with her work roughened hands turned to velvet on Kate's sweet skin, she told her. Her kisses carried the promises and her touch the certainty that she so often had no words to express. I will love you, Jessie's caresses vowed, with all my being, for all my life. You are my reason CHAPTER TWENTY THREE and my answer and my purpose, her fingers pledged, each knowing stroke carrying Kate closer to fulfillment.

"I love you, Kate, I love you," she finally whispered, her face pressed to Kate's neck, as Kate arched under her, an inarticulate moan escaping her throat.

Jessie held Kate until she quieted and caressed her lightly while she dozed. She could not remember what her existence had been like before her, and she could not imagine a life without her now.

"I want to come with you," Jessie said stubbornly. They sat just up the road from Kate's house CHAPTER TWENTY THREE, Star tied to the back of the buckboard, waiting patiently. Darkness was falling, and the night was cold. Kate sat wrapped in a heavy wool blanket, her cloak fastened tightly around her. Jessie wore a heavy sheepskin coat, her hat pulled low, her hands bare. Their breath hung in the air, a reminder that they had very little time before nature made separation inevitable.

Kate slipped her fingers from her glove and took Jessie's hand. It was warm. "I know you do, Jessie. But let me talk with them first." Her head ached just thinking about what her mother CHAPTER TWENTY THREE was going to say.

"They need to know what I feel for you, Kate," Jessie persisted. It was only proper that she speak up. "I don't want you to do this alone. It's not right."

Kate looked at her quickly, hearing a note of worry in her tone. "You don't think that I'll let them talk me out of it, do you?"

Jessie turned to her, and the surprise in her eyes reassured Kate.

"No, Kate, never." Jessie stated firmly. "That's not what I was thinking. I don't suppose there's a word CHAPTER TWENTY THREE for what we are to each other, but I know that you are the only one I'll ever love. I want us to be together, and the closest word I know to that is married."

"Yes," Kate responded, her shoulders set with resolve. "Go have supper at the hotel and then come back to the house around eight o'clock. We can all talk then."

"I can't eat!" Jessie protested. "My stomach feels like a nest of rattlers."

Kate felt dizzy with apprehension, too. "Then go to the bar and talk to Frank."

Jessie didn't CHAPTER TWENTY THREE like it, but they were Kate's parents, and she supposed it made some sense to get them used to the idea before she showed up on their doorstep. She bit back a further protest as she helped Kate down from the wagon. Kate swayed suddenly and Jessie gripped her tightly.

"What's wrong?" Jessie asked, alarmed at her pallor.

Kate smiled tremulously, oddly breathless. She shook her head, answering, "It's nothing. I'm just nervous." She reached a hand to brush Jessie's cheek. "I'm fine. You go on now. I'll see you in a little CHAPTER TWENTY THREE while."

Jessie stood by the side of the buckboard, watching Kate walk away from her, a sinking feeling in her chest. She felt helpless and suddenly very much afraid.

"Something wrong with Frank's whiskey?" Mae asked. "You been standing there with that same drink in front of you for better than an hour."

Jessie looked up, a vacant expression in her eyes. She stared at Mae a second, then smiled weakly. "No. His whiskey's fine."

Mae peered at her, surprised by the bleak tone of her voice. "What's happened? You look like a whipped dog CHAPTER TWENTY THREE."

"I feel like one," Jessie said bitterly. "Probably worse."

Mae motioned to Frank for a bottle. "Bring your glass, and let's sit for a minute, Jess. You'd best tell me what's going on."

They took a table in the far corner of the saloon, and Jessie told her. She stared at the glass cupped between her fingers, her head down, her voice unsteady, as she spoke of Kate, and their love, and their plans. When she reached the part where she had gone back to the Beecher house that evening, she finally raised her eyes and met CHAPTER TWENTY THREE Mae's.

"Her father came to the door and stepped out onto the porch when he saw that it was me," Jessie said hollowly. "He told me, very politely, that Kate was indisposed and could not see me. He also told me he thought it best that I not come around again, seeing that Kate would be very busy soon preparing for her wedding to Mr. Turner."

She downed the shot, and held out an unsteady hand for the bottle, pouring another. "He never even raised his voice, but the look on his face could have frozen CHAPTER TWENTY THREE a pond in the middle of summer." She emptied the glass and set it down hard. "I'd rather he hit me."

Mae stared at her, trying to absorb the tale. As she listened, her emotions had run the gamut from despair to faint hope. Her initial reaction had been shock. She hadn't known what to expect after Kate's visit, but it hadn't been this! Hearing Jessie tell it, watching her face, Mae could see how much Jess loved the girl, and it almost broke her heart. Then, when she heard that Kate's father had put a stop CHAPTER TWENTY THREE to it, her response had been relief and, God help her, happiness.

"Maybe it's for the best, Jess," she said gently. You'll get over her, she's not right for you, she wanted to scream. But part of her didn't believe it, as much as she wanted to. She remembered the blaze in Kate's eyes when she had said that she loved Jessie, and she heard the torment in Jessie's voice now. They loved each other all right.

Jessie's eyes were wounded as she met Mae's gaze. "How?" she CHAPTER TWENTY THREE asked brokenly. "How could it be for the best? I love her, and she loves me."

"Her parents would never accept it," Mae continued softly. "A girl like her is supposed to be married. They won't know no other way."

Jessie swallowed. "What about what she wants? What about Kate's happiness?"

Mae couldn't help but laugh, but there was no humor in her voice. "Lord's sake, Jess. Whenever did the feelings of a woman matter in these things?"

"Kate matters, Mae," Jessie said firmly, a spark of life returning to her eyes. "She matters to CHAPTER TWENTY THREE me more than anything in this world."

"More than the ranch?" Mae asked, wanting to show Jessie the hopelessness of her dream. "Because if you think they're just gonna let her move on out there with you, without a fight, you're more drunk than two whiskeys will make you."

Jessie was quiet a long time, thinking about the look on Martin Beecher's face. She knew when a man couldn't be swayed. "No, I suppose they wouldn't."

"Don't do anything foolish, Montana," Mae said as tenderly as she could. She saw a cowboy approaching from the corner CHAPTER TWENTY THREE of her eye and cursed under her breath. "Some things aren't meant to be, Jess, even if they are right," she cautioned as she rose to greet the stranger.

Jessie watched Mae walk away with the cowboy, sad to see her go. She sat for a long time, turning the empty glass on the scarred tabletop, until she knew what she must do.