Easier to Ask Forgiveness

By Leigh Stewart

For Catherine - because I really like her Ella series - and thanks for letting me borrow her!

Hannibal Heyes was drunk. His wife was exasperated.

But Ella Hart Heyes was doing her best to contain the emotion that filled her as she contemplated the sight of her husband weaving his way up the front steps. Her life as the only lady lawyer in Montana brought her into contact with many unusual characters – including the ex-outlaw she’d ended up marrying – and consequently, her view of what constituted “proper” behavior was much more tolerant than, for example, her sister’s. However, men’s drunkenness baffled her, and maybe even scared her a little. She’d acquired several clients as a result of the more exuberant Saturday nights at the saloon, and bad hangovers were the least of their morning-after afflictions.

Her husband was definitely in no fit condition at the moment to speak to a respectable lady, no matter how liberal her views might be. Heyes didn’t drink to excess very often, but she had an idea of why he'd come home from the saloon tonight in the inebriated condition – she suspected he was trying to make her angry. Well, she refused to give him the satisfaction – refused to allow him to maneuver her into nagging, or worse – acting exactly like the sort of “proper” lady he’d delight in making fun of.

At least he had come home quietly, without making a public scene - not one that she knew of, anyway. No, that was unfair, she thought. She could trust him on that score, knowing he knew exactly how far he could go – almost, but not quite, to the point of embarrassing her. She tried not to wince as he shut the door behind him and broke into song. Even when sober, Heyes' singing was infamous, and it grew less and less melodic when he drank.

He smelled like whiskey and cigar smoke. He must have spent hours and hours in the saloon, to be coming home even later than she had. It was after midnight.

Ella resisted the urge to cross her arms and tap her foot impatiently.

"Evenin', Missus Heyes, ma'am," he said, trying to chuckle her under the chin, but his coordination was so impaired that his aim was off. He swaying slightly as he stood in front of her, grinning from ear to ear. The grin was impudent, fueled by the apparent delight he was taking in trying to provoke her. The grin, and the accompanying amusement in his brown eyes, confirmed her suspicions.

She stood her ground and sighed. "Heyes, you are impossible." There was a note of reproach in her voice that made her want to stamp her foot, more in anger at herself than at him. She was trying not to act like the stereotypical, aggrieved wife, and yet she couldn’t seem to avoid it.

He drove her to distraction, and he knew it. His smile grew even wider, and he straightened up. "All par' of my charm, my darlin’ li'l wife," he said, pronouncing the words carefully around the effects of the whiskey and patting the top of her head.

He kissed her suddenly, then stood back expectantly to watch her reaction. A calculating expression lit his eyes briefly as he watched her mouth tighten.

She sighed again. "Go to bed, Heyes."

He abruptly grew serious. "Missus Heyes, ma'am, I think I will retire now." He turned on his heel to climb the stairs, his attempt at dignity undermined by sudden hiccups and the necessity of grabbing the balustrade to save his balance.

"Try holding your breath, dear," she muttered as she followed him up the stairs, resisting the inclination to push him down them. As a lawyer, she knew exactly what the penalties would be if she gave into temptation and murdered her husband. Beloved spouse, she thought, enjoying the irony contained in the epitaph she might use for his tombstone.

At least I haven't lost my sense of humor, she thought darkly.

Caroline called her from the foot of the stairs. "Ella?"

She turned, watching out of the corner of her eye as her husband continued to make his way upstairs, not quite staggering. If she was any judge, he'd be waking up with a serious hangover tomorrow. Her blue eyes glowed vengefully as she contemplated just how bad he was likely to feel in the morning. She wasn't planning to make things any easier for him.

"Yes, Caroline?" She looked down at the young girl, hoping she hadn't noticed Heyes' condition. She was uncomfortable at the thought of Caroline and Sandy being exposed to such ungentlemanly behavior, and it gave Ella yet another reason to want to give him a piece of her mind. In the morning, while he was feeling bad. When he'd be less likely to fight back.

Caroline hung her head slightly, then raised her chin to meet Ella's eyes bravely. "I just wanted to say goodnight," she said solemnly. She looked tired.

Ella nodded to acknowledge her ward's pleasantry. Obviously, Caroline understood what was going on with Heyes. It was just one more thing to add to his account. “Sandy and Rachel?” she inquired, feeling a bit guilty that she hadn’t stopped by the room they’d converted into a nursery to check on her daughter.

“Sandy has already turned in, and Rachel is sleeping – like a baby.” Caroline’s affection for the five-month-old infant was evident in the way her face lit up whenever she talked about her. And ‘sleeping soundly’ was a big improvement, as the baby had been suffering for weeks from what the Doctor thought must be colic - despite the fact that she should already have grown out of it. Her crying had been disrupting the entire household, and they were all tired and cranky as a result.

Ella smiled at the small joke and nodded again. “Thank you, Caroline. Good night.”

She entered the bedroom she shared with her husband whenever he was living at home, half-inclined to administer a wifely lecture then and there. However, Heyes’d apparently had other ideas.

Her husband was sprawled on the bed, only half undressed, and he was already fast asleep.

Well, at least he isn’t snoring, she thought as she changed into her nightgown.

Ella lay down next to him and raised herself up on an elbow, restraining an impulse to brush the long dark hair off his forehead, pursing her lips at her discovery that she was wide awake and was wishing he was, too. But waking him up while he was in his current condition was out of the question, and anyway, she doubted she could wake him.

She studied him for a moment. With his face relaxed in sleep, he appeared younger, and curiously innocent. Quite misleading, she thought, and not simply because of his rather checkered past. Nearly a year’s worth of marriage had taught her that his sense of humor could be devilish, and that he could be more stubborn than any mule.

She sighed deeply, disturbed by the thought that – indirectly, anyway – she was responsible for him spending yet another evening in the saloon. She’d been working late for weeks, tied up with a court case that seemed to drag on and on. And whenever she was home, she tried to spend as much time as she could with little Rachel, feeling guilty that she was neglecting her daughter for the sake of her job. The problem was simple: Heyes was feeling ignored, and he’d been in the little town of Blue Sky, Montana long enough that he was bored and restless. He and the Kid would have left weeks ago, but Heyes had put it off while Rachel recovered.

Ella lay down and closed her eyes, but she had a hard time drifting off to sleep. The memory of the calculating expression in his brown eyes infuriated her every time she remembered it.

Not surprisingly, Heyes was still asleep when Ella woke early the next morning. He’d rolled over onto his stomach, and his face was turned away from her. Best let him sleep it off, she thought. Most of her anger had dissipated during the night, and she blew a silent kiss in his direction before gently shutting the door.

Caroline was already up with the baby. “Morning,” Ella greeted them cheerfully. Sandy was apparently not up yet, and the Kid hadn't put in an appearance either.

"Morning, Ella," Caroline returned. She looked intently at the older woman.

Ella felt the weight of her scrutiny. "What, do I have something on my face?" she joked, reaching up to brush off whatever it was as she poured herself a cup of coffee.

Her ward shook her head. "No. I was just curious..." She hesitated.

"Curious about what?" Ella prompted. She had an idea that Caroline wanted to ask her about Heyes and felt her face grow a little red at the thought. She hoped she was wrong.

"Well..." Caroline busied herself with the baby for a moment instead of continuing.

Rachel was making adorable cooing noises, a vast improvement over the sounds she'd been making lately. Her hair was growing in thick and dark, just like her father's, and she had his eyes, too. Judging by the amount of noise she could produce, she'd grow up to be like him in more ways than just her appearance.

Ella smiled at the pretty picture Caroline made with her daughter as the young girl fussed over the infant, and she spared a quick thought for her husband, still asleep upstairs. Even though she was no longer angry, she knew they needed to talk, and that sooner would be better than later.

Caroline straightened up. "More coffee?" she asked.

Ella noticed the change of subject, but chose not to say anything about it. Caroline had many qualities, but reticence was not one of them. In fact, there were times that Ella was shocked by her ward's ability to ask adult questions, wondering where she got some of her information. There was a trunk in the attic that she hoped the young girl had not gotten unlocked, because it was full of French novels she considered highly unsuitable for a girl not quite sixteen…

And since Sandy had moved back in following her separation and subsequent divorce, Ella suspected Caroline had heard a story or two about an unhappy marriage. She sincerely hoped Caroline was not thinking that she and Heyes were in the same dire straits. Sandy's ex-husband Ray had been abusive, to the point that even his father had favored ending the marriage – so much so, that Rick had helped her obtain the divorce. As a lawyer, Ella well knew that Sandy might still be married to the man who’d beaten her, had it not been for her father-in-law’s support and intervention.

"Yes, thank you," she said, holding out her cup.

Caroline's pale eyes met her more blue ones. "Are you angry with him?" she asked levelly, her gaze very direct as she poured.

Ella took a sip of coffee to cover up the fact that her face had grown warm again. "What makes you ask that?" she asked, knowing as the words left her mouth that her ward recognized it for the prevarication that it was. But Caroline was also extremely perceptive, and Ella hoped she would understand why she was uncomfortable discussing something as personal as the topic of why her husband had stayed out late to drink so excessively.

Caroline set the coffeepot down and returned her attention to Rachel. "Oh, no reason," she replied, smiling down at the baby, who was trying to insert a chubby foot into her toothless mouth. She wiped up the spill of drool.

Ella smiled too, and hers was tinged with a touch of relief that the difficult subject had been avoided, at least for now. "I'm headed for the office," she said, “right after I’m done feeding Rachel.”

"Okay, then I’ll see you at lunchtime," Caroline replied, fixing her with that same measuring expression, and both of them knew that Ella meant she'd be working quite late - again.

Ella's partner, Jeremy Chadwick, was already at the office, and he was already industriously at work. The sight of him sitting behind the desk covered by documents and open books made her feel guilty, as if she had come in late, although she knew she hadn't.

"Good morning, Jeremy," she greeted him cheerfully.

Jeremy looked up as she entered the room, but he merely nodded abstractedly before returning his attention to the page of the law book he'd been reading.

Ella hung up her coat and crossed the room to her own desk. She'd been chasing after an obscure legal reference the previous night, and a new idea on where the elusive text might be found had occurred to her during the walk to the office.

She took up the book she wanted and eagerly began turning the pages, intent on her search.

"Everything okay?"

Her partner's question surprised her. First Caroline, and now Jeremy.

She looked down at herself in mock alarm. "What, am I wearing a sign or something?"

He shook his head. "No, but if you'll recall, I have years and years of experience, and I recognize the symptoms."

"Of course you do," she said, with only the slightest hint of sarcasm. Although younger than she was, her partner had been married for several years, and he and his wife Melanie were famous for being the epitome of marital accord, harmony, and happiness.

He raised a single eyebrow at her comment but merely asked, "Was it a big fight?"

She tried not to bristle at his brotherly inquisitiveness. After all, if anyone had a right to show concern, it was her long-time partner and best friend. "It wasn't a fight at all," she said defensively.

Jeremy's eyebrow raised up a notch. "Really? I'm glad to hear it." His dry tone suggested he disbelieved her but wasn't inclined to argue the point.

"Right. So let's get back to the Middletown case, shall we?"

"Certainly," he agreed.

His amenability to her suggestion pleased her, but he held her gaze for a moment longer before returning to his work. Ella knew what he meant to convey - that any time she wanted to talk about it, or ask his advice, he'd be there for her, like always.

Comforting to know, she thought, appreciating the bond of friendship between them, and wishing she knew what she was going to say to Heyes when she got home.

The morning passed quickly, and before she knew it, it was time for lunch - hers this time, not Rachel's. I can’t wait for her to get started on solid food, she thought, not for the first time, chafing under the necessity to interrupt her work every four or five hours. At least Jeremy never said anything about it – not that he’d be likely to joke about such a delicate subject.

Since she'd only had coffee for breakfast, Ella was hungry but had been ignoring it while she worked. She hoped Jeremy couldn't hear her stomach growling. He hadn't commented on it, so she assumed that either he wasn't hearing it, or he really was being extra considerate of her feelings this morning.

Rosa's voice in the outer office quickly snapped her out of her reflection. Oh, no, she thought. She'd forgotten she'd promised to eat lunch with her older sister today. Since Rosa had made the trip into town especially for that purpose, there was no way for her to gracefully back out of it.

A quick frown flashed over her face at the unwelcome interruption, but she smoothed it out just as quickly. Ella did love her sister, but they were two very different people, and spending time together usually tried her patience to the limit.

You'd think Rosa would be happy now that you're married, she told herself wryly. But if Rosa was slightly disparaging of Ella, she was much more overt in her disapproval of the ex-outlaw she'd married.

Ella had the feeling it wasn't so much Heyes' past that Rosa disliked. It was more his willingness to allow Ella to continue to be independent, outspoken, and undomesticated. Allowing her to continue to work, for example, instead of staying home all day to take care of their baby.

As if he had any say in the matter, she thought. He'd know full well what he'd been getting into - they'd talked about her work before they'd gotten married, and her need for independence might have caused her to be unmarried still, if she hadn't gotten pregnant with Rachel.

She spared a thought for her husband, wondering if Heyes was out of bed yet, and wondering how awful his hangover might be. She hoped it was truly terrible, enjoying the vision of him struggling to get out of bed, pale with suffering from the massive headache and upset stomach she was sure he must have.

The thought made it easy to put a smile on her face. "Hi, Rosa," she said pleasantly. "I'll be ready to go in a second."

She could have sworn Rosa did a double take as she looked at her.

"I thought we'd have lunch at Austin's," Rosa said.

Ella thought her sister continued to regard her peculiarly. Well, maybe it wasn’t so peculiar - it seemed to be the way everyone was looking at her today. And trust Rosa to take charge of the lunch arrangements and pick the most expensive place in town, not that there was a large choice of restaurants in Blue Sky.

She sighed. It was easy to guess what the subject of conversation would be over lunch.

Rosa finished ordering and then watched to make sure the waiter had moved out of earshot before leaning forward to whisper sympathetically, "You poor dear. Has it been really awful?" She even patted Ella's arm.

Ella was getting more than a bit tired of everyone assuming there was a problem between her and Heyes, especially when she was feeling so mad at him. She decided to pretend that she didn't know what her sister was talking about.

"Has what been really awful?" she asked, using the tone of ‘it’s a perfectly innocent question’ that she’d long perfected in the courtroom.

Rosa looked at her with the expression of smug superiority that Ella had hated since their childhood together. The two girls had always looked enough alike that they might have been twins, if Rosa hadn’t been older and maybe a bit heavier after having so many children. Watching her sister always gave Ella the eerie sensation that she was somehow looking at herself, in the future. That’s the same ‘holier than thou’ expression the ‘nagging wife’ wears, she thought, doubly resolved to avoid it.

"Oh, Ella, you know what I'm talking about."

"No, I don't," she persisted, but she had the feeling she was fighting a losing battle.

Rosa rolled her eyes. "It's as plain as daylight. I knew just as soon as I looked at you. Why didn't you tell me sooner?"

As if I’d confide my marital woes to ‘Miss Priss’, she thought, using her childhood nickname for her sister. "What, that I'm pregnant again?" she joked.

Her sister looked properly scandalized. "What?"

"No, no, I'm just kidding," she assured her quickly. "What are you talking about?"

Rosa shook her head slowly. "When a woman is fighting with her husband, it shows."

This made no sense to Ella. "Oh? How? Where?” Her tone wasn't quite as dismissive as it might have been yesterday, before everyone started asking her the same question. She was genuinely curious, and also slightly appalled. She made a show of examining her person, as if looking for spots.

Rosa clucked her tongue, as if chiding her. "Oh, Ella, you know. It's written all over your face." Her own grew serious. "Have you thought about how you'll make it up to him?"

Ella could have cheerfully throttled her sister. Not only was she making assumptions - correct ones - about the state of Ella's marital relations, she was also putting the blame on her.

She could feel her expression freeze into her best ‘opposing counsel is an idiot, but we have to make allowances' face as she silently counted to ten.

The waiter came back with the food, and Ella took advantage of the interruption to take a deep breath to compose herself. She smiled graciously as he set the plates down and thanked him as he left.

It occurred to her that so many people seemed to want to offer her advice today, maybe she should just listen and get it over with. "What do you recommend?"

She said goodbye to Rosa and walked back to the office alone, deep in thought. Her sister's "suggestions" had amounted to one thing - that she should give up her “peculiar” notion that she was carrying on in their father’s footsteps in favor of staying at home all day to take care of her husband and her baby, like a “normal” woman should.

She smiled as she imagined Heyes' reaction if she even hinted at such a thing, finding it impossible to picture him settling down contentedly with a clinging, thoroughly domesticated wife. He was at least as independent as she was, and he had always told her that her strong will was what he loved best about her. Even better, he didn't just say it, he really meant it. At least he did most of the time, except when a trial got really out of hand and she started working late for weeks on end – like now.

Of course, Rosa had taken the opportunity to lecture her on “wifely duties”, and Ella had used every last trick she’d ever learned in the courtroom to maintain an impassive demeanor – from pinching herself to literally biting her tongue. She found what worked best was counting the number of times she cycled between outraged fury and barely contained hysterical laughter, as her sister had blithely blathered on about a man’s ego and a wife’s duty to assuage it.

Well, maybe Rosa wasn’t entirely incorrect about the ego part, she reflected wryly – Heyes certainly did have a rather high opinion of himself sometimes. Not that I necessarily disagree with him about that, she thought, and a small, affectionate smile crept over her face.

She laughed out loud as she recalled Rosa’s horrified expression when she’d joked about being pregnant - despite the fact that Rosa obviously cared for her husband Matthew, she carried on as if their four children had been delivered by the stork rather than conceived through the conventional process.

The laughter was a welcome relief from the tensions that had oppressed her for the last few weeks – the workload of the trial, the baby’s colicky screaming, the lack of sleep – not to mention how little time she’d had to spend with Heyes. Almost a year’s worth of marriage, half of which he hadn’t even been home for - and he might as well be out of town working at one of his odd jobs for all that she had seen of him lately.

She waved at Sven Rasmussen, the town's Deputy Sheriff and one of her staunchest supporters, smiling secretively to herself as she wondered whether he'd lock Heyes up if she asked - just for a night or two - the next time her husband came home as drunk as he'd been last night.

Or, since Heyes could be as stubborn as a mule, maybe she should just hit him over the head to make him behave. What was it that the stereotypical nagging wife used to hit her husband - a rolling pin? She tried to remember whether they had one in the kitchen, wondering if an especially heavy legal book would make an acceptable alternative.

Ella reentered the office in high spirits, to find Jeremy deep in conversation with her nemesis, archrival, and favorite sparring partner, Rick Johnson.

The sight of the red faced, middle-aged man never failed to bring out her combative spirit. "Hello, Rick," she greeted him, almost gaily.

Both men looked up and smiled, but Rick's faded almost immediately. It was replaced by an expression of concern mixed with a touch of guilt, an emotion that looked out of place on his crafty old face.

"Oh, not you, too!" she exclaimed. She was reminded of a small boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

"Well, Stan told me this morning," he said, somehow looking like he was suddenly eight years old. He was referring to the one crony of his that Ella had always disliked on principle.

"Stan told you what?" she asked. She never yielded an inch to Rick without making him fight for it.

"That he'd been out drinking with Heyes," he replied. Oliver Stanley, or Stan as his friends called him, had the morals of a jackal - that is to say, he had none, and was well known for his tendency to try to take advantage of anyone weaker than himself.

"Oh?" she inquired briefly, removing and hanging up her coat. Ella had helped prosecute more than one case involving Stanley - such as the Middletown case, where his opportunistic business practices figured prominently. Although she hadn't won them all, she'd helped put a damper on some of his worst excesses, and she had high hopes of winning Middletown. She found it difficult to imagine Heyes having a friendly drink with Stanley, let alone several. Her husband knew that Stanley was a party in the trial she was currently involved in, and he detested the man as much as she did, partly for her sake but also out of his own sense of right and wrong.

But it was also possible that Rick was just trying to push her off balance. It wouldn't be the first time, as he usually did something to try to upset her whenever the two of them were on opposing sides of a court case, as they currently were with Middletown.

"Yeah - him and Mike. And Harry. Apparently it was quite a party." He was referring to Mike Norris, a banker who could only be characterized as "shady", and Harry Blackwell, one of the partners who owned the saloon.

His tone suggested that Heyes had been mixed up in something other than a simple bout of drinking. She could easily imagine Rick's friends plying her husband with whiskey in an effort to get him to say something inappropriate, either about her or the case, or to simply embarrass her with a drunken public scene.

The thought made her smile - she was confident that Heyes had matched them drink for drink without saying a word she could take amiss, and it was like him not to say anything about it to her once he got home.

Jeremy merely watched silently from the sidelines, knowing from long experience that neither would appreciate his joining in, on either side.

"Sounds like it was fun," she said, sitting down at her desk and winking at her partner. She knew Rick had lost this particular encounter, and she smiled victoriously, enjoying the fact that she could more than hold her own against him.

He blinked and smiled back, his normal piratical grin. He realized he'd lost, but he never missed a beat as he picked up his hat and said, "See you in court, Mrs. Heyes," as he left.

"I am going to go home early today," she told Jeremy as evening approached.

His glance at the window was telling - he didn't have to actually say it.

So she did. "Yes, before it's dark outside."

Jeremy shook his head and muttered something about marital accord.

"What?" Ella asked, knowing he wasn't seriously objecting to her early departure.

"I said, you'd better reread Tomey and Bartow, chapter ten," he said, trying unsuccessfully to keep a straight face. He was referring to the legal definition of justifiable homicide.

"Well, I was thinking earlier about a nice, um, heavy book," she smiled back, glad that he understood.

"Take the Blackstone, then," he said, snapping it closed and offering it to her with a grin.

"Jeremy, don't tempt me,” she laughed. She knew he was consulting it extensively for the Middletown case.

"You know that if it even came to trial, Judge Clayton would preside - and I think he'd let you off easy. He adores you, and he's never been too sure about Heyes."

She laughed again. "I'll be back in the morning."

But Heyes wasn't home when she got there.

Ella stood on the front porch and looked at her husband's partner, who looked particularly unhappy at being the one who had to deliver the bad news to her.

Kid Curry sat on the top step. Ella might have suspected he'd been waiting for her, except she knew that he and Sandy had been taking a walk about this same time every afternoon.

Her former ward was finding it difficult to be around any man after the break-up of her first marriage, but she seemed to be making an exception for the Kid. Sandy was the only one unconscious of the fact that the Kid loved her deeply, although it was true that he was taking his time to court her. It was rather uncharacteristic of him, especially since they were living under the same roof and therefore frequently together– but as Heyes had pointed out, young ladies were usually very quick to fall in love with his partner, so it was a new experience for him when one didn’t.

Ella tried not to look disappointed at the news of her husband's absence, but she knew it must show. "Did he say when he'd be back?" she asked the Kid as she sat down next to him.

"Nope." His reply was succinct, and she could tell by his expression of disapproval that he'd had a few cross words with his partner before he'd left. The Kid apparently hadn't been part of last night's carouse, which was not really surprising to anyone who knew how carefully he was trying to present himself in a good light to Sandy.

Ella normally resisted asking the Kid about Heyes, knowing that her husband's partner was uncomfortable discussing him with her, and that her husband would be angry if he ever found out they had. But she could always hope that he'd volunteer the information...

And the Kid seldom disappointed her. "Look, Ella, you can tell me it's none of my business...” He trailed off, watching for her reaction.

She shook her head. "You know I never have. And I won't." He started to speak again, but she stopped him. "And you know I won't tell him, either."

His face lit up in one of his engaging grins, and she found herself thinking how lucky Sandy was to be the object of his affections - he really was a very nice man.

"Well, it prob'ly won't surprise you to know he was feelin' pretty hungover."

She shook her head, withholding a comment that it served him right, especially in light of what Rick had told her.

"And it prob'ly won't surprise you that he's feelin', well, pretty useless right now."

Ella could hear the Kid's careful attempts to avoid sounding critical, and she simply nodded, knowing how frustrated her husband was in the small town. The Governor had granted the elusive amnesty just over a year ago, and both Heyes and the Kid had yet to find an honest profession that really suited them. There was no work for them in Blue Sky, and Heyes was strongly disinclined to allow his wife to support him.

In many ways, the current life of the two ex-outlaws closely resembled their former one – on the move from one temporary job to the next, away for months at a time. Ella knew Heyes was restless and would have been somewhere else working these past few weeks, had it not been for the family obligations that were keeping him tied down.

But it had been more than just that same old argument lately, and she knew it was because she had been neglecting him for her job and the baby. And if there was one man in the world who was likely to stir up trouble when he was bored and restless - just for something to do - well, she was married to him. But as hard as she worked, and as much as she tried to do, there was only so much of her to go around.

"So what do I do with him?" she asked quietly. She hated to think Heyes was unhappy - it made her feel guilty. And she hated to have that guilt piled on top of all the other guilt associated with trying to maintain her valued independence - and she simply couldn’t give it up. That was not only unthinkable, it wouldn’t solve the problem.

"Well, there's not much you can do with him until he cools off," he told her honestly. "Least, that's been my experience."

Both of them recollected instances of Heyes' stubborn temper, and they met each other's eyes and laughed.

"No, probably not," she admitted. "And talking to him starts to sound an awful lot like nagging, and I refuse to nag.”

“Especially since he prob’ly isn’t listenin’ to ya in the first place.”

“There is that,” she commented dryly. “What do you do?"

"I don't recommend you try to settle things my way."

"Your way?" she asked quickly.

"I've, uh, been known to, uh, well, knock him into next Tuesday," he confessed earnestly, but his blue eyes twinkled. "But only when he really deserved it," he hastened to explain.

She tried to match his serious tone, but a smile kept twitching her lips. "Well, I, um, was thinking about bringing home, um, a heavy book - for that very purpose."

They both laughed again.

Ella sighed and looked up at the sky, wondering how much longer it would be before Sandy joined them and the conversation would end. "I don't understand why he wants to make me so angry at him," she said, trying not to sound like she was complaining.

The Kid laughed at her rueful expression. "Oh - is that all! That's an easy one - that's just his way of pickin' a fight – he wants you to argue with him. He does it to me all the time."

Ella was quiet as she thought about this. It was almost the same thing that Rick did, but where Heyes was trying to provoke an argument, her esteemed opponent was trying to gain an advantage - the difference between throwing down the gauntlet to start a fight, and using an underhanded tactic in the middle of one. And by treating her the same way he did his partner, Heyes was honoring her with a unique kind of equality – almost flattering, in a way, but Ella wasn't sure that was quite the right word to describe it.

"If he wants to argue, why doesn't he just say so?" she asked, thinking about how much she liked to argue, and how much of it they already did.

"You know him - he never does somethin' easy when there's a harder way to do it." The Kid shook his head and continued. “And maybe he's just tryin' to get your attention."

Ouch, she thought. "We haven't been seeing a lot of each other lately," she admitted slowly, feeling guilty again. "I'm sure he's bored silly, hanging around with nothing to do."

"If there's one thing Heyes can’t stand, it's bein' bored – he’ll pick a fight and argue about anything, just for something to do. I've even seen him change sides in an argument after he's won it, just to keep it goin'. But that’s good, ‘cause as long as he's still talkin', it's okay - you really only have to worry about what he's up to when he's not talkin’."

Ella merely smiled in reply, as she could think of at least one important exception to this, one the Kid would not know about.

"It's not like we don't argue enough already," she joked.

"You don’t have to argue – just let him have his own way."

She smiled wryly at this, knowing how true it was. “But I don’t want to just give in to him.”

His expression told her that he didn’t always give in either, which was hardly surprising, considering that he was a good match for Heyes when it came to stubbornness.

"And I’m not sure I really want to hit him over the head, either," she added.

"Well, you don’t always have to do that."

And she listened intently while he explained.

It was past midnight, and Heyes still hadn't come home. Ella put down the book she'd been reading and told herself fiercely not to cry.

She wanted to. She'd taken off work early to surprise him, only to find that he'd apparently ridden off in a fit of pique, and he'd stayed away long enough that she was really beginning to worry.

Maybe that was the point - he wanted her to worry. It was one of the things the Kid had told her Heyes might do, and he'd recommended that she simply wait it out.

But she had to get some sleep, or she'd be useless at work tomorrow. She blew out the lamp and pulled up the covers. It seemed to take her forever to fall asleep.

Some time later - she was never sure how much later - she heard him come in. Her beloved spouse. She was torn between conflicting emotions - the impulse to sit up and yell at him for staying out so late was mixed with a sense of relief that he was home, along with the guilt caused by their mutual unwillingness to compromise that was creating the problems between them. There was also a sense of wonder that no matter what else it might be, life with him was certainly never dull.

Heyes must have figured she was sound asleep, because he lit the lamp and adjusted it for a small flame without saying a word to her. Glancing quickly at the bed, he started to undress.

Through the bedclothes and her partially closed eyes, she watched him, admiring his lean frame and the play of muscles in the lamplight with a most unladylike interest. She could tell from his movements that he was sober.

He stripped down to his longjohns and blew out the lamp, then gently pulled back the covers on his side of the bed and got in.

Ella waited until he was settled before reaching over to kiss his shoulder. "Hello, husband," she said softly into his ear.

Heyes was startled, but he recovered quickly, like a cat always landing on its feet. He turned over to face her.

It was too dark to see, and he was very skilled at hiding his feelings, but he didn't seem to be angry. She thought that it was a promising way to begin.

"Hello, Ella," he said in that resonant baritone of his. "I didn't know you were still up. I was trying not to wake you."

She loved the sound of his voice, but sometimes he did talk too much. "That's "Mrs. Heyes" to you," she said firmly, drawing him into a kiss, as much to silence him as because she wanted him. Ella was briefly amused by the thought that if she’d avoided having to play the nagging wife, it was only because she’d been reduced to manipulating her husband by other means, before telling herself that she had a tendency to talk too much, too, and told herself to shut up.

She kissed him deeply, openmouthed, feeling his breathing become quick and shallow to match her own.

He pulled away from her and started to say something.

“Shhh,” she hushed him with a gentle finger pressed against his lips. “We’ll talk about it later – I promise.” She felt his lips curve into a smile as he kissed first her finger, then the palm of her hand, and started working his way up the rest of her arm.

He put his hand behind her shoulder to bring their bodies together as their legs intertwined, and Ella could feel his kisses through every part of her as she moved more closely to him. She put her arm around his back and slipped her hand beneath his undershirt, enjoying the sensation of warm skin. She tingled wherever his fingers touched her.

It wasn't long before their clothes were scattered on the floor, and she was lost in the sensations of their lovemaking.

"Mmmm," she said once they came up for air. "That was nice."

He rolled onto his back and held her possessively while she snuggled underneath his arm, pressing herself against the length of his body. She could feel how much he loved her by the way his arms tightened around her.

With her ear pressed against his chest, she could hear the rumble of his voice whenever he spoke. She lay there and listened to the rhythmic beating of his heart.

"Ella," he started, gently stroking her arm.

"Mrs. Heyes," she corrected him, pushing herself up on one elbow and wishing she could see his expression. "Have I told you lately how much I love you?"

He inhaled sharply but didn't respond for a moment. "Well, Mrs. Heyes, since you asked, no. I haven't seen a whole lot of you lately." He sounded a bit hurt by this.

She knew it was as much from his pride as hurt feelings. Surprisingly, the insight had come from something Rosa had said, but she doubted that she'd ever admit as much to her sister.

"I know. I am sorry," she said, and she sounded contrite because it was true. “I’m even driving you to drink.”

"You’re not,” he started, exasperated, then stopped. “Distraction, maybe.”

“I know. Mea culpa, nolo contendere." She lay her head back down on his chest.

“What does that mean?"

"That I'm guilty as charged," she said. "Would you consider offering me an amnesty?"

"Hmmm," he said, kissing the top of her head as he considered her request. "As I recall, I had to go straight to get mine. What's in this for me? Would you promise to start behaving like a proper wife?"

"I could try..." Her words sounded doubtful, even to her own ears.

"You do, and I will leave you." His chest rumbled with a throaty laugh.

She laughed with him. "I will try to do better about how much time I spend at the office, though. The Middletown trial should start winding up next week - how about we take a week off and visit Denver - just the two of us?"

"What about Rachel?"

She smiled, knowing he was intrigued by the idea when he immediately started looking for the flaws in the plan. "I'll ask Melanie to help - I don't think she'd mind." She paused while she thought. "Or, we can take her and Caroline - guess that would make it just the four of us."

"That sounds like a plan." There was a smile in his voice as he answered, and she reached up and traced the dimple that she knew was there, even though she couldn't see it.

She kissed him again and lay back down, relieved that the current domestic crisis was apparently over - for now, and until the next time. As she drifted contentedly off to sleep, the Kid's final words of advice recurred to her.

"Just do what you have to do. Heyes is smart enough that he usually figures it out - just takes him a while sometimes. You can always apologize for it later." His grin was full of mischief.

She understood precisely what he meant, and her smile matched his own. "You mean it's easier to ask for forgiveness than permission."

"Exactly."

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