Marshal Dillon made a frustrated attempt to rub the grime off his clothes and body as he closed in on the Long Branch, anxious to see how Kitty was fairing after her abduction by the Gunther brothers. His ears perked up at the raucous laughter, foretelling of the busy night inside the saloon, and he hoped it wasn't disturbing her upstairs.
With one hand still on the open door, he stopped dead in his tracks as he entered the dining room, stunned to see his beautiful red-headed friend already back downstairs.
"What," he asked, quickly closing in on the counter where she was helping her bartender fill orders, "you couldn't take more than one night off?"
"Now, Matt," her head jerked up, "is that how you greet all the ladies?"
"Kitty…" he gave her a gentle but meaningful rebuke, with a sharp dark glance at Sam, "You fainted a couple days ago."
"It's good for me to get back to work, Matt." she countered, throwing her bartender a sympathetic smile as she set four glasses on a tray, "I took yesterday off. It was nice; I'll give you that. But I won't get any better sitting around upstairs, bored out of my mind, having to just listen to everything going on down here." She flashed him an encouraging smile, "Besides, it's busy in here tonight."
"Where have you been, anyways?" she continued, "I haven't seen you since we got back. I figured you'd be in here every morning when we opened and we'd have to kick you out at night for at least a week—if not more."
"Work." he growled, his face darkening, "You wouldn't believe some of the stuff that goes on in this town."
"I'm sure, I would." she snorted, lifting the tray before realizing he was holding her elbow, "Now, Matt. I'm fine."
"Kitty…" he shook his head, "You shouldn't be hauling that around. It's not good after a faint. It's too heavy."
"I've got paying customers, Matt," she reminded him, "and they'll be none too pleased to learn Marshal Dillon made me dump their drinks on the floor—or, for that matter, prevented me from giving them what they paid for."
His mouth tweaked upward, "How about if I make the delivery?"
"You?" her jaw dropped, "You've never—"
His grin widened, "I'm a fast learner."
She snorted again, "Yeah, I've seen."
"Carrying a tray of drinks to a table isn't the same as understanding women."
She snorted again.
"You're not afraid I'd spill em, are ya?" he challenged, still grinning.
"Well, now that you mention it."
"Oh, come on, Kitty!" he got serious again, "You just show me who they belong to. I mean it, it's dangerous for you to be carrying that so soon."
"Well…" she was reluctant, but couldn't ignore the worry etched into his face, "alright. Follow me."
"That's better." he looked and sounded relieved as she handed the tray over.
"You just be careful with that."
"I will." his eyes twinkled, "Then can we go upstairs? I-I need to talk to you—alone."
His words stopped her in her tracks and a shot of emotion raced through her when she glanced up to see if he was serious, "Well, a-alright, Matt...we can if you want."
"Good." he looked relieved again, nodding for her to lead the way.
"Howdy-do, gentlemen," he continued, surprising the four men sitting around the corner table, "I'll be serving tonight. Miss Kitty doesn't need to be hauling all this stuff around just yet."
"Well, that's what we told her!" one man said, as Kitty passed the glasses one at a time.
"We were gonna pick em up at the counter to spare her," a second added, "but she wouldn't have it."
Marshal Dillon raised his eyebrows, "Is that so?"
"Yes, sir!" number two babbled on, "Told us to clear out so they could take more orders."
"Now, just a minute—" Kitty glared at him.
"I mean, we're glad to see you on her feet and all, Miss Kitty," number three hurriedly piped up, "It's terrible what happened."
"I don't need reminders, thank you." the feisty red-head gave him a warning look too.
"We're just glad Marshal Dillon brought ya home safe." number four interrupted, raising his glass before Kitty could really get going, "To Marshal Dillon and Miss Kitty!"
"Here, here." the others saluted.
"Well, thank you." Kitty's temper quickly cooled as she let Matt steered her away, taking just a fleeting glance back at the dining room as they mounted the stairs to her apartment.
"You sure you have time for this?" she asked about halfway up, trying to keep her growing emotions at bay, "Dodge isn't gonna take the night off."
"I'm counting on Chester to handle things." he replied, "and he knows where I am if he needs help." He gave her arm a playful pinch, "I told him he better not need any help."
"Matt—" she spoke again, as they stepped onto the landing.
"Wait, Kitty." he shook his head.
"Well," she sighed, speaking again once the door was closed, "It's a lot quieter up here with you than it was when I was alone yesterday."
He grunted a chuckle and a small smile appeared on his mouth, "I'm glad, I—"
"Matt," she interrupted, "I can see it in your face, what you want to say—and, well, as much as I want to hear it, I-I just want to make sure you know what you're doing. You've always told me that your job was too chancy. I know that hasn't changed. I know it never will. So, I just want to know if you've thought—"
"I have, Kitty." he closed the distance between them in a step and took both her hands in his, "I've been thinking a lot."
"Chester and I waited outside that cabin all night, Kitty." he gripped her fingers as if he didn't ever want to let go, "Thanks to that good cowboy, I don't think we were too far behind you, but we had to wait until daylight to get a good shot at them."
He paused to collect himself, "It was hell out there, Kitty, being so close to you but not being able to get you out. I played it over and over in my mind what we could do if we heard you getting into trouble and none of the results gave me any comfort." Pulling her into a tight embrace as tears began to leak down her cheeks, he pressed his face into her hair, "I swore I'd wring their necks if they did anything to you."
A few muffled chuckles sounded in his chest as she relaxed in his embrace, feeling warm, safe, and loved, "You smell the same as when I woke up out there."
"That bad, huh?" he stepped back, "I had a bath when we got back too."
"Oh, not bad." she countered, laughing outright, "It's the first thing I recognized when I was waking up." She stepped back into his embrace, laying her head on his chest again, murmuring, "It made me feel safe." Looking up, she added, "You're voice—when you told Chester to get me something to eat—was what brought me all the way back."
"I worried about you all the way back to Dodge," he continued, staring down into her face and losing himself in her teary blue eyes, "wondering if you were strong enough to ride, if the sun was too hot for you, thinking about all you went through—"
"Matt…" she gently chided, shaking her head slowly.
"We could've stayed in the cabin a day or so," he ignored her, "until you were stronger."
"I'm glad enough we didn't!" she cringed, pulling back out of his arms.
"I never stopped thinking about how all of it was my fault." he bite his lip hard, tears glimmering in his own eyes, "I'm so sorry, Kitty, if I hadn't—"
Now, just a minute, Marshal Dillon!" she rebuked seriously, hands on her hips, "I walked to that bank with you on my own accord. As I recalled, you wanted me to go get us a seat at Delmonico's!"
"By the time we got back," he ignored her, "I knew we couldn't just keep going the way we have—not after you've consumed ever thought I've had for the past few days." He licked his lips then raised her chin for a long slow kiss.
Pulling back, he caressed her cheek with his sweaty thumb, "I even gave us a day. For you to start recovering and for me to test myself. You won, Kitty. Even knowing you were safe in your room and Dodge going to hell in a hand basket, I could hardly think of anything else yesterday." He bit his lip again, "I mean, I know things won't be easy and us being together won't make either of us any safer, but I've come to understand that it'll just make me feel better."
She caught his hand as he reached up to catch a happy tear tracing down her cheek and pressed it to her lips then pulled his head down for another long kiss. When they finally released, all she could say was, "It'll make me feel better too, Matt."