Disclaimer: Not mine I'm just playing. I'll put'em back when I'm done.

Rating: PG

Synopsis: Maude announces her arrival and a surprise for Ezra, which he is none too happy about.

Sequel to Misconceptions.

Two months after Bella came to Four Corners, Ezra received a telegram from his mother announcing her arrival in town. And that upset him, because there was an addition to the telegram which didn't bode well for him.

He found himself staring forlornly at the telegram all through breakfast until Nathan decided to find out what was bugging him.

"What's wrong, Ez? You ain't hardly touched your breakfast," he said.

Ezra blinked and gave him a somewhat puzzled look. "I beg your pardon?"

"I said, what's wrong? You ain't touched your breakfast. And you're more distracted than usual. So, I figure something's wrong," Nathan repeated.

The rest of the seven stopped their conversations and turned their attention to the somewhat flustered-looking gambler.

For a moment, Ezra glanced around at them, then sighed. He might as well just tell them what was bothering him. They would find out soon enough. "Maude is coming to town. In a week," he said, a sound of despair to his voice.

"That ain't never bothered you this much before," Buck claimed, frowning a little.

"It wouldn't bother me now if it wasn't for this little addition in the telegram," Ezra replied and pushed it across the table to Buck.

Buck picked up the piece of paper and eyed it for a moment. "Coming to Four Corners in one week. Stop. Have a surprise for you. Stop. Love, Maude," he read, then looked back over at the gambler. "What's wrong with that? You don't like surprises?" he wanted to know.

"Not her kind of surprises," Ezra lamented and slumped back in his chair. "If she brings a surprise, I will be the one to suffer its consequences," he added cynically.

"What you reckon she's bringing?" Vin asked, slightly curious about this. He wasn't too fond of Maude as it was. He had never liked her ability to cause her son to have the worst case of nerves anybody had ever had whenever she came to town.

"I have an idea what it could be," Ezra said and sighed heavily.

"Well?" Vin asked, looking curious.

"If I am not entirely mistaken... she's not coming alone. She's going to bring Mabel with her. My third cousin. Whom she wants me to marry. Because she has... money," Ezra said, his expression suffering.

"Loaded, huh?" Buck asked and Ezra nodded, looking like a doomed man. "That can't be so bad, can it?" Buck asked on.

"You have no idea," Ezra replied and closed his eyes, rubbing the bridge of his nose, sensing the beginnings of a headache.

"She's done this before, hasn't she?" Chris asked.

"Yes. A few years back. In another town. One I will never be able to go back to, I assure you," Ezra said, rolling his eyes in anguish.

"She embarrass you?" Nathan asked, genuinely concerned about this unhealthy relationship the gambler had with his mother.

"When doesn't she?" Ezra asked back, not looking at anybody.

"You got a point there," Buck said and took a sip of coffee. "You're good at conning people. Why don't you con your mother to get outta that... marriage with your third cousin. Ain't that illegal, by the way?" he asked and glanced around at the others.

Ezra looked up, slightly surprised by that suggestion. "I have never been able to con her successfully. She always knows what is going on. Besides, my darling mother does not care about legal. You should know that by now," he said after a moment's worth of contemplation.

Buck smirked. "What's the worst thing you could do to her?" he wanted to know. "What would really get to her?"

"Buck!" Chris said, a warning in his voice. He knew his friend well enough to know how devious he could be. And the tone to Buck's voice had that certain something about it right then.

Ezra still stared at Buck. "Well, to her, appearance is everything," he said thoughtfully. "Anything that... well... would make her look bad, I guess. What do you have in mind?"

The smirk on Buck's lips broke into a full-fledged grin. "If ever you were to marry, what type of woman do you reckon she'd dislike the most?" he asked.

That made Ezra frown. "Well, knowing her, she would strongly disapprove of... a woman without means. My dearest mother doesn't marry for love. She marries for money. And she wants me to do the same. Hence Mabel's arrival."

"So, if you were to marry a... woman without means who at the same time is a... 'soiled dove', what would she think of that?" Buck asked. He most certainly had gained everybody's attention at that point.

Josiah was listening to the whole thing with a curious expression. Vin was grinning weakly, obviously already having figured out what Buck was going to suggest. Nathan was somewhat stunned and not too sure he approved of the direction this was going in. J.D. looked lost, and Chris was just watching the whole thing with a mixture of concern and amusement.

"What are you attempting to suggest?" Ezra asked, not sure he understood the big cowboy correctly.

Buck was already grinning from ear to ear. "We fake a wife for you," he said. "Everybody's in on it, pretending you got married to..." he glanced around, caught sight of someone and waved her over, "... Bella," he ended.

Bella came over to the table and glanced around at all of them, a look of expectancy in her eyes. "What's up, boys?" she wanted to know.

"You just got hitched," Vin replied and chuckled under his breath.

That made her frown. "I wasn't that drunk last night," she argued, aware that he was joking but not sure why.

"Bell, we need your help," Buck said. "Ez's mom is coming to town in a week and she's bringing a surprise for him. He ain't too happy about it, so we gotta play a little prank on her."

Bella's attention snapped over to Ezra, who looked pretty stunned by that suggestion. "Maude is coming to town?" she asked and he nodded, glancing up at her.

"She would never approve of him marrying a lady of the night, if you catch my drift," Buck went on. "So, what better way than getting him hitched with one?" Giving his sister an expectant look, he kept on grinning. "You in on it?"

Chris wasn't too sure he liked this. He figured it would be an insult to Bella, but the woman looked anything but insulted.

"Sure," she replied with a smile and easily dropped down on Ezra's lap, wrapping her arms around his neck. "If you'll have me?" she added, smiling sweetly at him.

It was quite possibly the first time ever that any of the six had seen Ezra tongue-tied. He had yet to utter any sound of either agreement or disagreement. Instead he merely sat there and stared at Bella as if he had never seen her before. "I... uh... well... uh..." he tried but couldn't find the words at first. The second the initial surprise subsided, though, he could actually see the potential of the plan and smiled. "That... just might work," he finally said and slipped an arm around Bella's waist.

"Great," Buck said. "I reckon we'll leave it up to the two of you to figure out the details," he added.

Bella's smile had turned a little devious. She loved playing pranks on prudes, and from what she had heard about Maude the woman was way too hung up on how things looked on the outside. "I'm game if you are," she said to Ezra.

The gambler gave her a smile. "Oh, I am. Most definitely."


The remainder of that week was spent planning how to handle the situation. Ezra and Bella stuck together like glue, plotting and planning.

"Well, I believe we are as prepared for this as we can be," Ezra finally declared, then snapped his fingers. "Oh, before I forget," he added and pulled something out of the pocket of his vest. "We cannot be married without having a sign of our affection for each other," he said, took Bella's hand and pushed a glittering golden ring onto her finger.

Bella raised the diamond-covered band of gold up for closer inspection, her expression one of awe. "Oh my Lord," she said and smiled happily. "If she don't fall for this, she don't fall for nothing," she added.

He put his own on his ring finger, a plainer version of her wedding band. "They are only on loan, my dear. So, please, whatever you do, don't lose it," he admonished her.

"I would never," she exclaimed. "When is she going to be here? On the stage coach tomorrow morning?"

That made him swallow visibly. He wasn't really aware how clearly he showed his discomfort at that moment, and Bella felt sorry for him. Despite all the hardship she had endured in her life, she had always been able to count on her mother's affection. "I believe so, yes. Why?" Ezra asked her.

They were sitting together at the gaming table, where they had done most of their planning. "Well, I was thinking. Is the stage coach on time around here?" she asked back.

"Usually, yes. Why?" he tried again.

"In that case it will come in at 9 a.m. I think I have been here long enough to know that you don't get up that early," she said and smirked when he cleared his throat, slightly embarrassed. "Don't fret. I understand that perfectly. As it were, though, do you believe your dear mother might be barging in on you?"

Ezra nodded, an expression of distaste on his face. "That is quite likely, yes," he said.

"Well, if we are supposed to be a married couple, she might catch onto the con if she finds you alone," she said, staring into his eyes when he raised his gaze to meet hers. "To make this a successful 'surprise'," she went on, seeing the dawning realization in his eyes, "I should spend the night. And all the other nights until she either leaves or catches on to us."

He stared at her, unable to make up his mind about what he thought of this. Mainly, he was surprised at the directness of her suggestion, although he could see the sense in it. "You would do that?" he asked her after a moment.

Bella smiled. "That's what I do for a living, Ezra. It ain't like I got a reputation to spoil," she replied.

"Well, I assure you that you will be perfectly safe. There are a lot of things I may not be, but I am a gentleman," he promised her.

Bella merely smiled. She might be safe from him, but he sure wouldn't be safe from her. "Good. That's a deal then," she said, leaned in and kissed him. "You gotta get used to this. Ain't gonna do us no good if you look surprised when I kiss you."

He swallowed, then cleared his throat. This was going to be bit harder than he had thought. Mainly because he felt attracted to Bella and had ever since she'd come into town. The only thing that had prevented him from pursuing this had been Buck's response to Vin when he had thought the tracker had gotten involved with her. There were a great many things he would do to avoid getting on Buck's bad side.


Night time approached rather rapidly, and when the time came for turning in Ezra lingered longer than usual. Not that he didn't appreciate the idea of having to share his bed with such a lovely creature as Bella, but he did value his mobility, which he believed would be considerably hampered if Buck caught onto this part of the scam.

Bella had gone to the hotel a little while ago, and it made him all tingly inside to just think of her waiting for him; but at the same time, he just couldn't wrench his mind away from the retribution coming his way if Buck thought anything inappropriate was going on between them. How the big cowboy could think it inappropriate in the first place was beyond Ezra, but he wasn't going to discuss it with Buck.

With a glance at the wall clock, he figured he might be better off just going to bed. He would have to eventually to be able to think straight as soon as Hurricane Maude hit Four Corners. Shaking his head, he bundled his cards and let them drop into his coat pocket. With a nod to Inez, he rose and left the saloon, walking slowly, nearly dragging his feet.

However was he going to pull this one off? Maude would see right through him the very minute their eyes met. She would take one look at him and know what he was up to. And her revenge would be to force him into a marriage with cousin Mabel. The thought alone made him shudder violently, and he came to a stop halfway to the hotel and realized that he was experiencing the worst case of bad nerves ever where his mother was concerned. What he wouldn't give to just be able to get on Chester and ride out of town as fast as his horse would carry him. Just the thought of the degradation Maude would be putting him through for trying to best her at her own game made him feel almost physically sick.

"The best way to get something done," a voice said from behind him, "is to just do it."

He froze, then glanced at Bella over one shoulder. "I thought you had gone to bed a long time ago," he said and turned to face her properly.

"If you think you're the only one who's nervous about this, Ezra, you're mistaken," she told him and raised a lightly shivering hand. "I'm just as jittery about this as you are."

For a long second, he just stared at her, then he took her hand in both of his, stilling the shiver with merely a touch. "I never realized," he admitted. "The funny thing is, that makes me calmer," he added and smiled helplessly.

"Good," Bella said and sighed. "You're the one who will have to carry this burden. It's your mother, after all."

Hooking her arm under his, he urged her forward. "Let's go get some rest. We will need all our acting talents in the morning," he said.


As Ezra had suspected, his mother did indeed barge in on him about fifteen minutes after arriving in town. The sight that met her made her stop short in her tracks. "Ezra!" she exclaimed, causing her son to sit up straight in bed.

Blinking sluggishly, he tried to focus his mind, tried to be as sharp as he knew he would have to be whenever Maude was around. "Mother!" he countered in an equally upset tone of voice. "Do you mind?"

"Oh, there is nothing you have that I haven't seen before," Maude claimed, waving a dismissive hand at him, her eyes on the dark-haired female in his bed. "Would you send this... lady of yours away so we can talk?" she added.

Ezra stared at her for a second, suddenly fully awake. He hoped desperately that he hadn't already betrayed himself by taking too long to answer. "You mean Bella?" he asked, giving Maude a frown. "Why on Earth should I send her away?"

For the first time in a good many years, Ezra had succeeded in making his mother mum for a moment. Maude just could not imagine why he would refuse to send the obvious harlot away when she asked him to. She was well aware that men had their needs and that her son was no different in that respect, but she did expect him to obey her when she gave him a direct order. "Because I asked you to," she snapped, angry over his tardiness. Turning her attention to the woman, Maude made a waving gesture with one hand. "Would you please go away and leave us alone?" she asked, directing her request to Bella.

Bella frowned and propped herself up on one elbow. "Ezra?" she asked, sounding somewhat puzzled by the whole thing.

"Never mind her, darling. I'll handle this," he replied, placing a hand on her hip before turning his attention back to his mother. "Would you please wait outside until we are decent?" he requested, giving her a withering glance.

Maude stared at him, realizing something without wanting to admit to it. "I will be in the saloon when you're ready to talk to me," she huffed and slammed the door shut before stalking away again.

Ezra stared at the door for a moment, his right hand still resting on Bella's hip until she sat up. "Do you think she caught on to us?" Bella wanted to know.

"I'm not certain," he admitted. "I don't think so. She would have called me on it at once if she had." Swinging his legs over the edge of the bed, he brushed both hands through his hair, smoothing it back. "Let us go down and meet the menace," he added.

Bella smirked lightly. "What's the hurry? Let her wait. If we come running down immediately, she will know something's up."

"Unfortunately, my darling mother knows me well enough to find it odd if I do not come running when she calls," he admitted, alas a little reluctantly.

Bella nodded. "In that case, we'd better get dressed and get down there," she agreed and got up.


Maude was not in the habit of pacing, but she was pacing the length of the saloon, waiting for her son with a set expression on her face.

Chris was the only of the seven present at that moment. The rest had hightailed it out of there, none of them wishing to witness the utter futility of the con that Ezra was planning on pulling on his mother. They all believed that Maude was on to him already and that she would do her damndest to make him suffer the consequences. Chris had stuck around to prevent it from going too far. At the same time, he kept staring at cousin Mabel, fully realizing why Ezra had so much against the idea of marrying her.

First of all, she had to be at least one head taller than the gambler. She wasn't exactly obese, but she wasn't slim, either. A heavy bone structure added to her already ample size and Chris couldn't find any other wording for it than that she looked mostly like a heifer. Far be it from him to compare any woman with livestock, but it was very hard for him to spot anything remotely charming about her. There wasn't a flicker of beauty about her, nothing indicating any kind of mental capacity or ability to think beyond what was asked of her. He knew that appearances could be deceptive and wondered if perhaps there wasn't a sharp mind behind those watery blue eyes of hers.

Mabel kept her eyes on her aunt, watching the woman pace for a good long while. Finally, the girl rose. "Aunty Maude," she said, stopping Maude in her tracks.

Chris closed his eyes. Those two words were all he had to hear to make him realize what an unbearable ordeal it would be for a man like Ezra to be married to something so unattractive as Mabel. Her voice was nasal and high-pitched and she basically snorted after each word. On top of that, the tone of her voice gave away that she was used to getting her way, too. "Oh lord," Chris mumbled under his breath.

"What, dear?" Maude wanted to know, craning her neck to look up at the tall girl.

"Are you certain cousin Ezra will want to marry me? I cannot bear the thought of having come all this way on that lousy little stagecoach just to be turned down a second time. I will not stand for it, you hear?" Mabel propped her hands on her ample hips and attempted to give Maude an angry glare. It didn't come out right because her poorly set hair insisted on falling in her eyes all the time. Instead of doing the ladylike thing and pushing it casually away, she tried to blow it away and merely ended up spitting in Maude's direction.

The thought that someone should put that poor, wretched thing out of its misery briefly crossed Chris' mind, and he silently berated himself for harboring such thoughts. She couldn't help it, after all. He wondered what had happened to make her this way but pushed the thought aside when Ezra and Bella strode in, arm in arm. For all appearances they looked like a married couple, and if it hadn't been for Chris' excellent grip on his facial expressions, he would have grinned at the mere thought.

Maude was prevented from answering her sniveling niece's demand when she turned to face her son. "Well, it's about time," she stated somewhat angrily, then focused on Bella. "Why are you here?"

Bella frowned, looking slightly offended. "Well, where else should I be?" she asked back, her expression growing a little tense. "It is customary for a wife to be at her husband's side during times of hardship," she added, a slightly hard edge to her voice.

Ezra had yet to say something, but whatever he had in mind could never make Maude more speechless than Bella's well-chosen words. His mother gaped at her in a rather unattractive way.

"A... wife?" Maude finally managed to ask and turned her attention to Ezra, who stood very still, watching her with a certain amount of curiosity.

"Didn't you receive our telegram?" Ezra asked innocently, then turned his head a little to glance at Bella. "See? I told you she didn't receive it, darling. That is why she didn't come."

Bella made a face, looking unconvinced. "I assume you're right," she said and pursed her lips in a contemplative manner. "Well, in that case," she added and released Ezra's arm to take a step closer to Maude. "I am so happy to finally meet you, mother Standish," she said fondly and pecked Maude on the cheek.

Maude looked very much like a fish out of water, gaping in a very unattractive manner and completely incapable of handling the situation in any satisfactory manner. What really made her incapable of responding in any way at that moment was the fact that her son had gotten married. And not only without her consent, but to a harlot as well. The only thing that would redeem this situation was if Bella was obscenely rich. Judging by the way she dressed, though, Maude would be damned if she would believe that for even a second.

Behind her, Mabel took a step closer, looking uncertain about what was going on. "Aunty Maude?" she sniveled. "What does that mean?"

For the briefest of moments, Maude looked like she was about to turn and smack the girl, then she sighed. "It means that my son has done something unforgivable," she said to Mabel, then turned her attention back to Ezra, completely ignoring Bella in the process. "She cannot be your wife. I refuse to believe that you would have married so far below your... station," she told him, her tone full of contempt.

Ezra sighed. This was where it would bear or break. If it broke right now, he would find himself in a rather unfortunate position of either having to marry that boulder of a woman standing behind his mother, or run as fast as he could. He would, in any event, choose the latter. "And what station might that be, mother?" he wanted to know as Bella hooked her arm under his again, giving his arm a light squeeze.

Maude stared at him, trying hard to see through this whole thing. Her initial opinion had been that he was trying to pull a fast one on her, but something about the whole thing didn't really fit. "You know very well. Besides, Mabel would be a much more adequate wife for you. At least she is still... pure," she replied, waving a hand toward his towering cousin.

"What are you attempting to suggest?" Bella asked, sounding a little miffed. "My past may not be pure as snow, ma'am, but I am a human being, after all."

"The most beautiful one around," Ezra agreed. "Can't you just be happy for me, mother? It's not like Bella married me for my money. I don't have any. And I didn't marry her for hers. She doesn't have any, either." Turning to Bella, he gazed lovingly at her. "Just look at her. She is so beautiful that it just takes my breath away."

"You married... for love?" Maude managed to press out, staring at Ezra as if he had completely lost his mind. "I want to talk to you, Ezra. Alone!"

Ezra returned his attention to his mother somewhat reluctantly. "Why, of course, mother," he agreed, then again turned his attention to Bella. "Just let me make sure my lovely bride agrees to me leaving her alone for a bit," he added and smiled brightly at Bella.

Bella looked into his eyes and reveled in this game. She was going to go all the way with him to make sure he got out of marrying that cow standing behind his mother. Whatever it took, that was what she would do. She liked Ezra too much, and she realized how desperately he needed help the moment she had laid eyes on his mother. "I'll be just fine, darling. Don't be long," she replied and kissed him tenderly.

"I'll be right back," he promised and reluctantly let go of her to follow him mother outside.

Maude stopped on the boardwalk and turned to face him, her expression tense. "What in the name of the Lord are you up to, Ezra? You married a harlot? With no money? I have taught you better than that. Why must you continue to embarrass me? And what of poor Mabel? Are you once again going to turn her down, knowing that she will bring unimaginable wealth into your life?"

Ezra listened to the tirade, some of it being old, some of it new, and fought down his need to tell her off. Aware of how Maude would take what he was going to say, he actually relished saying the words. "Money is not everything, mother," he claimed. "I realized that the day I met Bella. And I don't care about her past. Or the fact that she has no money. She is a beautiful, tender, loving woman, and I could not have asked for more. If Bella is all I can have, I will die a happy man." He was so set on convincing Maude that he almost convinced himself in the process. And he did think that Bella was a beautiful and tender woman. What he hadn't expected was that Maude could tell that, too.

She stared at him for a long moment, trying hard to work up the righteous anger she felt she should display, but for some reason couldn't really get to the point where she could actually yell at him. Throwing her hands in the air, she attempted to seem more upset than she was. "For Heaven's sake, Ezra. You're waving goodbye to enough money to see you through the rest of your life. Are you really willing to give that up for a fling?"

"Bella is not a fling, mother. She is my wife and I love her. I will honor and cherish her for the rest of my life. And nothing you say," he ended, "will ever change that."

Maude drew in a deep breath and let it out in a sigh. "What am I going to say to Mabel? I promised her you would marry her. I promised her you had come to your senses."

With a shake of the head, Ezra pushed past her and stopped only briefly to glance back at her. "That, mother, is your problem. That is fair retribution for making promises on my behalf without asking me first," he said and strode back into the saloon.


Bella was all smiles for the entire three days that Maude stayed in town. If Maude had expected to catch them off guard, she was bitterly disappointed. There were only a few moments when they were apart. The rest of the time, they stuck together like glue.

Maude would not allow herself to believe it, knowing her son as well as she believed she did, which was what made it hard for her to imagine that he would have married a woman with no means and a tainted background on top, but she was hard pressed to put a finger on the condemning evidence she was trying so hard to find. Eventually, she decided to have a tête-à-tête with Bella, hoping that she could wear the woman down to reveal the scandalous truth.

Striding into the saloon, she looked as haughty and self-assured as always, her back straight, her head held high. She strode right over to where Ezra was playing a game of cards with some hapless fool, her eyes on Bella standing right behind him. "Bella, darling. Can I have a word with you? Woman to woman?" she asked as she came to a stop.

Bella met her gaze and smiled. "Why, certainly, mother Standish." She could almost see the other woman flinch at the name, and she could feel Ezra's shoulder tense under her hand. He was having a hard time at not laughing out loud. Without the slightest hesitation, she leaned in to peck him on the cheek. "I'll be right back, darling," she said, straightened and followed Maude outside.

Maude stopped on the porch outside the saloon and gazed ahead of herself for a moment, trying to make Bella nervous with her silence. Then she turned around quite suddenly. "Bella, I know what is going on here," she said, her tone confident. "I know what you are up to, you and Ezra."

"Up to?" Bella asked innocently. "Mother Standish, I have no idea what you're talking about."

"Of course you do, girl," Maude huffed. "This charade is fooling nobody. Least of all me. I know your type. How much is he paying you for this? Twenty dollars? Fifty?"

Bella stared at her for a long moment, realizing that although Maude might be sure this was a hoax, she couldn't prove it. And it offended Bella severely that Maude would think she was being paid for this. "How much?" she asked, her tone suddenly icy cold. "You think he is paying me for this?" Indignation came easily. She did feel slandered in every sense of the word. "Of all the rotten... disgusting..." she began, her tone of voice trembling with sudden anger. "How dare you?" she then snapped and took a step backward. Pushing the expensive wedding ring in Maude's face, Bella stared at her with cold eyes. "Do you really think he'd spend money on this if this was a hoax?" she demanded, then ripped her hand away when Maude reached for it to inspect the ring closer. She hadn't noticed it earlier. Bella gave her the once-over, her whole essence shivering with indignation. "I suppose I should have expected nothing more from you, anyway," she added.

Maude was taken aback by Bella's reaction and found herself at a loss for words for a second. "What is that supposed to mean?" she eventually demanded to know.

Bella held her head high as she stared at what was supposed to be her mother-in-law. "What do you think?" she asked back, her expression tight. "You don't trust anybody. You don't even trust your son. How can we expect you to believe that he would marry me? I'm just a hussy, aren't I? Nothing worth dealing with?" She nearly spat the words out, putting her soul into the performance, and in the process managed to convince Maude she wasn't acting. "Well, thank you very much for your understanding, Maude. Pardon me if I do not partake in the remainder of your stay here." With those words, Bella swirled around and strode away, offended to the core of her being. As soon as her back was turned, though, she found it extremely hard to keep a smile off her lips.


Ezra lay awake that night, thinking and wondering about this lovely being curled up beside him. She had her head on his chest and he had an arm wrapped around her shoulders. Everything had turned out just the way he had hoped and prayed it would this day. Maude had announced that she would be leaving in the morning with Mabel; and she had asked him to convey her apologies to his wife, it had not been her intention to hurt the woman's feelings. Ezra had overheard most of the discussion and had been a little taken aback by the fierceness of Bella's replies. When she had come back in he had realized that she was an excellent actress and he wondered if it wouldn't be a good career for her to pursue. Although actors didn't have that good a reputation, they still had a better one than pleasure girls.

At the same time, he still couldn't really get over the fact that she was doing this for him without asking for anything in return. And she appeared to be enjoying herself too. So, what could he possibly do for her in return that would make her life a little easier? Well, he knew a lot of people. One such person was a man with some influence at the theaters of New York, and he wondered if he shouldn't call in a favor owed to get Bella out of her current situation and into one that might not only pay better but might also give her the opportunity of meeting some well-off man who could give her the life she deserved.

For the first time ever, he wished he had a life that would allow for that type of accommodation. That he could ask for her hand in marriage and make a decent woman of her. She was a sensational woman, ready to aide him when he needed it, and that was something he had never really experienced before. Bella was streetwise, inventive and a whole parade of other things that made her the woman she was, but he also believed strongly that she had what it took to become part of the upper class. Bella adapted easily. He had noticed that she had adopted a few of his mannerisms and had even started speaking with a slight twang to her voice. She was picking up words he used and seemed to be able to use them in the right context. In general, he simply believed that she would be able to grow into any part thrown at her. Be it as an actress or a rich man's wife.

Deciding that he would do what he could to help her after this successful con, he finally fell asleep, content in the knowledge that he would be helping her.


Maude did indeed leave the following morning, but not before she patched things up with her 'daughter-in-law'. She apologized profusely to a very cold and stoic Bella, who only reluctantly allowed herself to be mollified. And that only because Ezra asked her to give Maude a second chance.

"I did not intend to hurt your feelings, my dear," Maude insisted for the umpteenth time.

Ezra glanced at the very tightlipped Bella standing at his side, her arms crossed defensively over her chest, then returned his attention to his mother. "I think you will have to live with this, mother. You should not have hurt her feelings like that."

Maude actually looked rather distraught by the whole thing. She apparently felt she had met her match in Bella and was quite taken with the younger woman when it came down to it.

"Won't you give her another chance, darling? I am certain she did not mean it," Ezra tried to sooth his 'wife'.

For a long second, Bella just stared ahead of herself, then her eyes shifted to Maude. "All right. But only because you ask me to," she finally said and turned her attention to Ezra, who smiled with believable relief.

"Thank you, darling," he said and kissed her hand.

Returning her attention to Maude, Bella continued to stare coldly at her. "I do hope that we can avoid such... slandering in the future," she said.

"Oh, most certainly. As I have said before, I apologize. It was never my intention to hurt your feelings, dear," Maude replied, a little uncertain of what to do. "It just came as such a surprise. I mean... if I had only known."

"Well, be that as it may," Bella said. "Let us bury the hatchet, shall we?" With that, she took a step forward, grabbed Maude's shoulders and pecked her on the cheek. "Have a pleasant journey," she said, then glanced at Ezra's towering cousin. "You too, Mabel."

Mabel only snorted and climbed into the stagecoach. Maude took her leave of her son, too, and followed her sniveling niece into the coach. Ezra and Bella remained where they were until the coach was out of sight. Then they both sighed and visibly sagged a little.

"Oh lord," Bella sighed. "What an act."

Turning toward her, Ezra smiled. "You were magnificent, my dear," he praised her. "Beyond magnificent. A true actress."

"Oh, please, no more," she laughed, her cheeks burning red with the fire of embarrassment. "I had fun. These have been an interesting few days, Ezra. Thank you for making me a part of it."

"Thank you for participating, Bella. Which brings me to a point I feel I just have to make," he replied and took both her hands in his. "You have dazzled us all with your talents, Bella. You had me believing every word you said to my mother. I have never been so touched by a performance as I was by that. I truly believe your talents are wasted in this little backwater. So, I want to make you an offer, and I do hope that you will consider it at least."

Bella blinked in surprise. She hadn't expected to receive anything, didn't want to receive anything. "Ezra..." she began, but he stopped her by pressing a finger against her lips.

"Hush. Hear me out," he said. "I know a man in New York who is deeply involved in the theater business. He has the power to make you a famous actress. And with your talents, you will be touring the world before long. Will you allow me to send him a telegram on your behalf?"

Bella's expression remained jovial, but her eyes had a slightly sad look to them. "I greatly appreciate the offer, Ezra. Truly I do. But I have no wish to go to New York," she said as the smile slowly faded from her lips. "Too many... painful memories." The veil of sadness expanded to her expression, and she turned away to hide the tears rising in her eyes.

"Oh my lord. Bella, I am so sorry. I had no idea," he tried, appalled by the fact that he had caused her to remember that rape she had to live with.

"You couldn't know," she said and sniffed, briefly dabbing her nose with her handkerchief before turning back to face him. "I know you meant well and I really, truly appreciate it. I just can never go back there."

Taking her right hand in his left, he brushed away a wayward tear with his right thumb. "You've just saved me from the horrible ordeal it would have been to marry Mabel, and here I am making you sad. I am truly sorry. How can I make it up to you?"

Shaking her head, Bella tried to make him understand that she didn't expect him to pay her. "Nothing, Ezra. I have enjoyed myself more these past three days than I have in a good long while. And that is more than enough for me. I don't have high demands."

"Well, you should. You are a beautiful and intelligent woman. You deserve only the best. At least let me take you to dinner tonight, then," he suggested.

"All right," she agreed. "What about Maude? Will you tell her or leave it up to her to figure it out?"

Ezra hooked her arm under his and they started walking toward the saloon. "Well, I have given that some thought and... well... I think I'll just pretend it never happened. That will really make her furious," he said with a smile. He was still concerned about her, though, and wished he could do something, anything to help her.

Bella smiled again, her eyes still shiny from the tears. "I can imagine. I hope she has learned her lesson. Although I would not mind repeating the charade if she decided to come back for another visit."

That made him grin. "Well, that most certainly would be an option," he agreed and winked at her. "Especially if that means we'll be sharing the same room again."

Chuckling under her breath, Bella knew exactly what he meant by that. "Oh, but you have been the perfect gentleman," she told him, a slight tinge of regret in her voice.

"I should hope so!"

They came to an abrupt stop and both glanced back at Buck, who had turned up behind them. Turning around, they both stared at him. Ezra suddenly felt very much at risk.

"Stay out of this," Bella advised her brother.

"You've spent three nights with him. You want me to believe nothing happened?" Buck wanted to know, a warning in his voice.

"I told you before and I will tell you again: Stay out of this. This is none of your concern," Bella warned him, instinctively pushing between Buck and Ezra.

Buck eyed her for a moment, realizing that if she was right and nothing had happened between them, then he might make it happen by pushing her. Throwing up both hands in a deprecating gesture, he took a step back. "All right already. I'll stay out of it," he agreed with a grin. "So, she bought it?"

"Big time," Bella agreed, still a little cautious.

"Well, good. Maybe she'll behave next time around, huh?" he asked on, looking at Ezra.

"I sure hope so," Ezra said, not feeling entirely safe yet.

"Don't you have somethin' to do other than stalking us?" Bella wanted to know and propped her hands on her hips while tilting her head a little to the right.

Buck knew that look she gave him, and he didn't feel much like having a shouting match with her in the middle of the street. Besides, he did have something else to do. "Sure. Just wanted to make sure everything's all right," he said.

"Everything's fine. Now git," she said, pointing off in a general direction.

Grinning, he hurried to do as he was told, fighting to subdue the need to wring the truth out of Ezra. He could always do that at a later point when Bella wasn't around.

Bella watched him go, then turned back to Ezra. "Sorry about that. He gets a little possessive sometimes," she apologized.

Ezra nodded. "I know," he agreed. "Maybe we should not consider a repetition of this particular con anytime soon," he added.

"Might be a good idea," Bella agreed and took his arm again when he offered it. "Buck can get so single-minded sometimes. I just don't know where he gets that from."