By The Light Of Day
by Luna Dey
Second story in the Second Chances series
Back to: Under Cover Of Darkness
Mary Travis sat bolt upright in bed, gasping for breath as she searched the room around her with wide sleep-dazed eyes. The brightness of the sun coming through the window seemed so unfamiliar after two weeks of hiding in a cave during the day and daring to come out only under cover of darkness. She relaxed when her mind registered where she was and that she was safe, and so was Billy.
She heard the clock chime the hour and realized that she had slept most of the day. It was going to take a while to get her days and nights turned back around. It was almost suppertime and since she hadn't been awake to see to a meal for Billy, they would have a treat and eat at the hotel this evening.
Her legs ached when she moved to sit up, bringing back some very vivid memories. "What had I been thinking?" The words sounded loud in the empty room. The scene in the cave unfolded in her mind, and she groaned as she watched it play out. Elbows resting on her knees, she leaned forward to cover her face with her hands, glad no one was there to see her blush. After several long moments, she ran shaking fingers through her hair to comb out some tangles, but even that simple action brought back the feeling of other fingers in her hair.
Reluctantly, Mary stood and set about getting dressed for supper. The reflection that looked back at her when she brushed her hair seemed different somehow. She couldn't figure out what exactly was different, but something was. For tonight, she decided not to do any more with her hair other than a simple loose ponytail, but thoughts of gentle hands untying another ribbon from her hair brought a flush of color back to her cheeks.
She gave herself a mental shake. "I have to stop this. How am I going to be able to look him in the eye if I can't even tie up my hair without blushing?"
"Who you talkin' to?"
Mary whirled to see Chris Larabee standing in her door. "You scared me half to death!" She pressed her hand to her chest in an effort to calm herself and maybe keep her heart from beating right out of her chest. "What are you doing up here?" Chris had been to her room only a couple of times, and both of those were when she needed help moving something heavy.
Chris dropped his gaze to the floor, unable to look her straight in the eyes. "I came by earlier to tell you about the men we caught, but Mrs. Potter said you were asleep." He glanced up at her before he continued, "I figured maybe I could take you to supper, but... I thought maybe something was wrong when you weren't downstairs yet." Finally over his momentary nervousness, he looked at her with one eyebrow raised. "So, who were you talking to?" he asked again.
"No one! I was just talking to myself." It unsettled her that he had come up to her room uninvited and then questioned her like he had the right to know her every move. The only thing was she wasn't sure just exactly how it unsettled her, in a good way or a bad way. "Haven't you ever done that to help you think something through?" she asked curtly.
Larabee half smiled and nodded. "I guess I have. Sometimes when you're out there alone the sound of your own voice is your only company."
'Blast the man,' she thought. 'He knows that smile will work every time.' She sighed and started for the door, well aware that she needed to get him out of her bedroom. People talked, and there were a lot of them in town that would love to find a reason to spread gossip about her. "I was just going to go get Billy for supper."
"He's already had his."
"How would you know that?"
"When there was no sign of you and it was getting so late, I checked to see if he was still at Mrs. Potter's. They were just sittin' down to eat. She told me to tell you he could stay as long as need be so you could rest." He held the front door open for her to step out onto the boardwalk before he continued, "I figured this would be the best time to talk to you. Don't think it is something that Billy needs to hear about."
"I do agree with you on that. Alright, take me to supper." She slipped her hand through the offered arm and they walked together to the hotel restaurant.
Mary automatically scanned the room when she entered, a habit she had picked up since she started running the newspaper. One just never knew when one would find something worthy of reporting. Sitting at a table near the window was someone intimately familiar. Ezra sat alone, as he waited for his order to be taken. She blushed when he looked up and their eyes locked on each other. She couldn't avoid him in a town this small even if she wanted to. But, she found that she didn't really want to, despite the fact that she could still see him naked in her mind, and she had no doubt he could remember her just as clearly.
Mary could see the indecision in the gambler's eyes. Apparently he didn't know just how to handle things either. He broke the gaze first, and she knew that he was giving her the choice of how things would be now. He would take his cue from her, but there really wasn't a decision to make as far as she was concerned. "Chris?" she motioned toward the gambler. "Have you had a chance to talk to Ezra about this yet?"
Larabee shook his head. "No, he headed straight to bed too."
"Wouldn't it make sense to join him so you have to tell it only once?" Chris glowered and clearly wasn't very happy about her suggestion, but he followed her over to Ezra's table. "Ezra? Do you mind if we join you?"
"By all means, be my guests." He motioned to the empty chairs. "It is always preferable to dine with friends than to dine alone."
Ezra took a seat at a table near the window and looked at the menu to find out what was offered as the daily special. He made his decision and laid the menu aside then glanced around the room for his waitress. A glimpse of blue drew his attention back to the door where Chris and Mary stood looking for an empty table. His eyes lingered on Mary; he had always liked that blue dress on her. It brought out the blue in her eyes.
He watched her as she scanned the room and then noticed him sitting there alone. Their eyes locked, and he blushed slightly from the memory of their shared intimacies, but he couldn't bring himself to turn away. The gambler's mask was momentarily forgotten as he tried to decide how things would be between them now that they were back in town. Would she still treat him as a friend, or would things go back to the way they had been before? It was an effort to pull his gaze away, but he decided to leave the choice to her.
Ezra was staring at the closed menu in front of him when she asked if they could join him. 'Oh dear God, don't let me blush,' he prayed silently as he looked up at the pair and accepted their company for the meal.
"May I inquire as to what has earned me the privilege of your association this fine evening?" Outwardly, he maintained an air of calm and confidence, but mentally he was in uncharted waters. 'What do you want of me, Mary? How do you expect me to be?'
"Killing two birds with one stone," Chris replied.
Ezra quirked an eyebrow. "Indeed? And what poor unsuspecting fowl are to meet their untimely demise?"
"You and I," Mary answered as she took the seat that Chris had pulled out for her.
Ezra felt like his heart had suddenly taken up residence in his throat. Surely, she hadn't told him about what had transpired in the cave. No, she couldn't have, or Chris wouldn't be this calm. He swallowed and looked steadily at Mary. "Is there something I am missing here?"
"No! Chris was just going to tell me what happened while we were gone, and I thought you might like to hear it too."
"Indeed I would. Shall we place our order before you regale us with your account of recent events, Mr. Larabee?"
Mary kissed Billy on the forehead after tucking him in that night. She smoothed the soft blond hair out of his face and sighed. "You know, we really do need to get your hair cut."
"Awww... do I have to?" Billy asked through a yawn.
"Yes, but we can put it off for a few more days." She couldn't help but smile at her son's obvious relief that the horror of a haircut didn't loom quite so close. "Want me to sit with you until you go to sleep?"
Mary was a little surprised when he nodded his head yes. She really needed to talk to his grandfather and find out just how much Billy knew about all that had happened. Chris and Buck had taken it upon themselves to bring her son home so he would be there waiting for her when she came back to town. The Judge was running a day behind them and should be there sometime tomorrow. She'd be able to talk to him then.
She sat against the head of the bed and gently stroked Billy's hair as she watched him drift off to sleep. Even then she continued to sit there, watching him, well aware of how close she had come to losing him. Chris had told her that it was her son that the men were after. They figured the blood tie to the Judge would be stronger than the tie to his son's widow. He insisted that if it hadn't been for Vin's tracking skills they might still be looking for them, but Mary felt certain that they had all played a big part in getting the men who threatened Billy's safety.
Morning found her curled up next to her son, one hand resting lightly on his small chest, reassuring her even in her sleep that he was safe.
"Mr. Larabee, would you perchance be intending to speak to Mrs. Travis in the foreseeable future?" Ezra stopped Chris as he passed him on the boardwalk.
"Most likely will, why do you want to know?" He glared at the smaller man but the gambler didn't flinch.
"If you would give her a message for me, I would be quite appreciative."
"What kind of a message?" Chris growled, and was rewarded this time when he saw a slight widening of Standish's eyes in reaction to his tone.
Ezra hesitated a moment, then squared his shoulders and looked Larabee straight in the eyes. "Would you impart to her that I have not forgotten our wager, and I would like to ascertain what arrangement she proposes for me to collect the debt."
Chris's glare turned icy. "That's one thing you can ask her yourself." The blond grabbed Standish by the jacket and pushed him ahead toward the Clarion office.
"Mr. Larabee, I assure you, a message will be quite adequate," he said as he tried to step out of Chris's way. 'Of all the days to catch the man in a particularly foul mood,' Ezra thought.
"I'm not doin' your dirty work for you, now go." Larabee pushed him again sending him in the direction he wanted him to go.
Ezra saw Mary come rushing out of her office when she saw the two headed toward her door. "What is going on here?" Her eyes snapped at Chris when she saw him give the gambler another small push.
"That is what I'd like to know! And, Ezra is going to explain it. Aren't you Ezra?"
"Mrs. Travis, I apologize. I merely asked Mr. Larabee to deliver a message to you, and this is the response I received," he said as he yanked his jacket free of the other man's grasp.
Mary glared at Chris before she looked back to Ezra. "What was the message?" she asked, as casually as she could manage.
"I merely asked him to remind you of our wager and inquire about how you proposed to handle the payment of the debt." He couldn't help the hint of a smile that touched the corners of his mouth when she actually laughed.
"Is that all? How does tonight sound, or is that too short of notice?" She stood with her arms folded across her chest glaring back at Chris, as she waited for the gambler to reply.
"Tonight would be quite acceptable." Ezra struggled not to grin at the stunned look on Chris's face as he listened to the exchange. He really didn't know if he had ever seen Larabee's face turn quite that shade of red before.
The blond looked from one to the other before settling on the gambler. "You conned her?" he snapped.
Mary jumped in before Ezra could answer for himself. "He certainly did not! We made a bet and I lost! It is as simple as that."
"Don't 'Mary' me, Chris Larabee!" she seethed.
Chris looked back at the con man. "What kind of a bet?"
"Nothing of any great consequence. Simply something to keep our minds occupied during our exile," Ezra commented casually as he adjusted his jacket and brushed off an invisible spot of dust.
With a sigh, Mary finished the explanation. "When I was so worried about what was happening with Billy, Ezra told me how you were going to get information to us. He said he would wager that you would include word about Billy in the message, and I accepted the bet."
"That was a sucker bet! How could you even think that I wouldn't tell you about your son?" Chris fumed.
Mary was unfazed by his outburst. "I didn't think that. I was almost certain I would lose when I agreed to the bet."
Larabee's mouth dropped open, and he looked at the pretty blonde in disbelief. "You're not serious? But..."
She clearly tried not to laugh again but she couldn't contain it. "He put up a ten dollar gold piece against a home-cooked meal." She grinned at the expression on Chris's face. "It was worth losing to have something to think about, and I don't mind paying up at all." Mary turned to Ezra with a huge grin on her face. "Tonight, 7:30 and don't be late."
"I would never keep such a gracious hostess waiting, I'll be there promptly at the designated hour." Southern charm nearly dripped from him as he bowed slightly to Mary. "Until then."
Pulling himself up to his full height, which still left him having to look up at the gunman, he gave a curt two-fingered salute and a slight nod of the head. "Mr. Larabee." With a quick turn on his heel, he headed back toward the saloon, but he couldn't help but overhear the next couple of comments as he walked away.
"I really don't like the sound of this," Chris stated. "I think I should be there."
"You most certainly will not! I do not need a chaperone. You trusted him enough to send me off for two weeks in a cave with him. Besides, you don't control me, Chris."
Larabee was left standing open-mouthed on the boardwalk staring at a closed door and a retreating back.
At exactly 7:30 Ezra stepped into the Clarion office. The small bell on the door announced his arrival. "Is that you, Ezra?" Mary called from one of the rooms behind the office. She stepped through the door and smiled when she saw him there.
"I trust that I have not kept you waiting." He found himself unnaturally nervous being alone with her for the first time since that last night in the cave. It had been several days since they returned to town, and he still noticed a soft blush to her cheeks when he happened to catch her looking at him.
"Not at all. Come on back." Mary reached past him and latched the office door before leading him back into her living area.
Ezra had never been beyond the office before, and he took the opportunity to look around. There were two rooms in the back. One was a small sitting area and the other was the kitchen. He presumed that the bedrooms must be upstairs. "Your abode is quite charming. It suits you."
"Thank you! There isn't much I can do with it really, but it's home."
He paused a moment when he noticed the table set for two. "Is young Billy not joining us?"
Mary shook her head no, and then turned to face him. "I think there are some things we need to talk about, so he's staying at Gloria Potter's tonight. Why don't you have a seat? This will be ready in a minute or two."
Ezra settled at the table, feeling a bit awkward. "I find I am uncertain as to what is customary for a dinner guest in this locality; however, back in Atlanta a gentleman would be quite remiss if he did not contribute to the evening's refreshments." He produced a small bottle of fine brandy from his inside jacket pocket. "Perhaps this will be appropriate for after our repast."
She took the bottle and read the label. "How did you manage to get something like this around here? I haven't had brandy since we came west."
"It pays to stay on good terms with the barkeeper. I have small quantities shipped in when I can procure it." He smiled, showing off his dimples. "It provides a small mote of civilization in this..."
"Backwater town?" she supplied. "I know that's what you think of Four Corners, Ezra. Compared to what you're used to, it probably is."
"I don't intend any offense. What I mean is that many of the refinements of the larger cities have yet to reach us here." The town was very important to her, and he mentally kicked himself for being so insensitive.
Mary sat the serving bowls on the table and took her seat before she responded. "I know, but we are growing." She looked at him quizzically. "Ezra, do you suppose you could drop some of the formality tonight? I miss the more relaxed you from the cave."
"I can," he replied.
The meal passed too quickly from Ezra's point of view. The chicken and dumplings and fresh baked biscuits were among the best he had ever had, and the conversation had relaxed into the easy banter they had during their temporary exile. All too soon, the table was cleared and the dishes were done.
Mary grabbed a couple small glasses and settled back at the table with him. "Let's give some of this a try," she told him as she poured a small amount in each glass.
"I seem to recall that you mentioned something you needed to talk to me about." He sipped at the brandy and watched her struggle with what she needed to say.
Mary tried to speak but found nothing came out. "You'll think that I'm..."
Ezra held up a hand to stop her. "My dear, Mrs. Travis, I thought we had covered that during our temporary exile. You really must stop assuming that you know what I'll think." He could see her blush, as she swallowed and tried to start again.
"It's just that it is a topic that I never thought I would be discussing with anyone, especially a man." She ducked her head, unable to meet his eyes.
He shifted his chair closer and covered her hands with one of his where she had them tightly clasped on the table in front of her. "I have never known you to be at a loss for words. Please... tell me what concerns you."
She licked her suddenly dry lips and tried again. "I wanted to talk to you about what happened in the cave that last night."
"I was under the impression that we already had."
"We did, but there is something else... and... the only way I can get the answers I want is to ask." She shifted suddenly to pull one hand from under his and laid it lightly on his forearm. "Ezra, I am not a wanton woman."
A slight smile curved his lips when he looked her in the eyes. "At no point did I ever have that opinion of you, Mary."
The blush was back. "You might change your opinion after you hear what I have to say."
"Why don't you try me, and we'll see?"
"I loved my husband, Ezra. I would never want to dishonor his memory, but..." she paused again to choose her words. "...is it always like that?" she blurted out.
"I beg your pardon?" It was extremely difficult to catch the gambler by surprise, but Mary Travis' question did just that.
She sighed and plunged on ahead. "I had never experienced anything like that before."
"Surely your husband..." This time she stopped him in mid-sentence.
"No." More blushing, and she couldn't meet his gaze as she spoke. "You, did things that he... well... it was just never like that. I didn't know there was any other way. I am not a dumb woman but I feel like one." She looked to him for his reaction. "I had no idea..."
Ezra felt the heat rising to his own face when he realized just what she was referring to, and that it was not a fitting conversation to have with a woman. But, she trusted him enough to broach the subject. "Mary, are you saying that there was never anything but the usual activity with your husband?"
"If by usual you mean that it was always the same and not much happened, then yes, that's what I am saying." She stared at her hands, stiffly waiting for his response.
He composed himself before answering. "That does explain some of your hesitations."
Her blue eyes finally locked with his once more and again she asked, "It is always like that?"
"I believe you already know the answer, but no, it isn't always like that. It can be wondrous, or dreadful, or anywhere in between. Why are you asking this?"
"I was wondering if what happened is all there is, or if there is more that I don't know about." She stood up and turned away from him so he couldn't see her face. "I know I shouldn't be asking, but I really want to know."
"My dear, what passed between us was just a good beginning."
She turned back to him, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, as the words sank in. "Can you teach me?" Her hand flew to her mouth but it was too late. She had already said it.
Ezra was stunned momentarily speechless. "Uhhhh... you wish me to explain..."
"I want you to show me," she answered in a steady voice, and he could see that she was serious. "I know what we talked about then, that neither of us love the other, and that's still true for me at least, but I really want to know how it can be."
"Let me make sure I understand you correctly. You are asking me to be with you again, to instruct you in the pleasures of the flesh?" He hadn't considered that there would ever be a second time; he hadn't actually considered there would be a first, but there had been.
"Yes." It was softly spoken but without hesitation.
Mary combed her hair for the third time since coming upstairs. She laid the brush down and smoothed her hands over her hair as she paced slowly around her room. He should be back soon. The memory of the look on his face when he realized what she wanted brought a smile to her face. To say he was shocked would be an understatement.
She tried to make herself sit in the rocking chair and stop pacing but she couldn't stay still. Ezra had told her to go ahead and get some sleep, and he would be back when the town was settled down for the night. He was looking out for her reputation by making sure that he left at a respectable hour, and he didn't want to risk someone seeing him come back in later, so it would be very late. Mary glanced at her bed, at the turned down covers, and knew there was no way she could sleep right now.
Doubts rolled around in her mind more than once while she waited. She knew what she wanted, and she knew that this would have to be the last time. It was more than the risk to her reputation that brought about that conclusion. It was the fact that she didn't love him, not like that anyway. To continue after this would be using him. One thing she had learned out in that cave was that she had done wrong by too many people, and now she didn't intend to do the same with Ezra.
As the time crawled by, a new doubt replaced the old one. What if he doesn't come back? She wasn't sure how she would handle things if he didn't make it, but she doubted that she would ever find the nerve to suggest such a rendezvous again. It had been hard enough to behave so brazenly once, so twice was out of the question.
The sound of the back door closing softly and cautious footsteps on the stairs had her heart racing. Her bedroom door eased open, and she could see him clearly enough in the moonlight that poured in windows to see him look toward the bed and then hesitate when he didn't see her there.
"Mary?" he asked softly.
"I'm here," she responded as she stepped out of the shadows.
"I thought you would be sleeping."
"I couldn't." They stood and stared at each other in silence for several moments.
"Mary, are you sure about this?"
"Very sure." She moved closer to him until only a few feet separated them, and slowly let her robe slide off to pool around her feet.
Ezra watched the robe slip to the floor. As she moved closer, the thin gown hid nothing when she passed in front of the window and was back-lit by the bright moonlight. Every curve of her body was revealed to him. He closed that last short distance between them and cupped her face in his hands as he tipped her up in search of her lips.
That first kiss was tentative, but when she didn't protest he slipped his arms around her and drew her in for more. Each kiss grew bolder until he had her molded firmly against him, with his fingers tangled in the silky strands of her hair to hold her there while his lips devoured her mouth. With her first soft moan she parted her lips inviting him in.
A soft whimper filled the air when their tongues began that first awkward dance together. He wasn't sure if the sound had come from him, or her, or both, but he didn't really care. She grew bolder as she allowed her tongue to slip into his mouth, and he let her explore on her own. Her fingers found their way to his buttons and soon both his jacket and shirt were open, and her slim fingers roamed over his bare chest while the kiss continued to grow more heated.
They had to break away long enough for Ezra to remove his jacket, shirt and small arsenal of weapons. He made quick work of it and soon had her wrapped in his arms again. "Mary," he whispered into her ear. "Follow my lead, Darlin'." He looked into her eyes, colorless in the moonlight. "Trust me."
When she nodded, his lips found hers as he pressed her tightly against him, their bodies molded to each other perfectly. He took the kiss deeper when he felt her hands slide up his back to clasp his shoulders. One hand cradled the back of her head when he released the kiss, only to rain soft feather-light kisses over her face, tasting her with quick flicks of his tongue as he traveled from mouth, to cheeks, to eyes.
His free hand moved languidly down her back, coming to rest on her bottom. Expert fingers gently kneaded the firm flesh through the thin fabric of her gown, the contact pressing her more firmly to him. She gasped softly when he shifted to press his swelling erection against her. Her slim fingers worked at his pants until she had them open, and he sighed when he felt the pressure on his manhood ease slightly.
"Touch me, Mary." He spoke softly, his lips so close that she shivered when his warm, moist breath caressed her ear. "Ahhh... yes," he groaned and trailed tantalizing kisses down her throat when he felt her first tentative touch.
Mary ran her hands over the smooth skin of his back, marveling at the feel of firm muscle beneath it. One small corner of her mind wondered why he kept his strength hidden, but all such thoughts dissolved in a wave of sensations when his kisses became more demanding.
She could feel him hard against her through the heavy cloth of his pants, and a small gasp escaped her lips when he pressed himself to her even more insistently. Without conscious thought, her hands moved to work at the buttons of his trousers, feeling the pressure of his erection against her fingers as she worked each button free.
Touch him! He wanted her to touch him. She had wanted to reach out and feel him that night in the cave, but she had held back, afraid that she would be doing something wrong by following her own desires. Now, she slipped trembling fingers into his open trousers to lightly caress him through his underwear. His reaction emboldened her. She slid her hand in to cup the hard bulge and fondle the fullness of his manhood. She had seen him in the dim firelight that night, but that didn't compare to feeling the size of him pressing hard against the palm of her hand.
The feel of Mary's fingers lightly touching him caused him to sigh in pleasure. He allowed his own hands to roam freely over her supple body, drawing her gown up over her hips. Ezra stepped back slightly in order to pull the thin gown over her head and drop it at their feet. Before she could lure him back into her embrace, he swept her up into his arms and carried her to the bed, reluctantly leaving her there alone.
His eyes drank in the sight of her, pale and ethereal in the moonlight, where she lay watching him and waiting. He toed off his boots and slid his pants and underwear down in one motion, pulling his socks off along with his clothes as he pulled each leg free of the trousers.
The bed creaked when he joined her and drew her to him. He bent his head to kiss the hollow at the base of her throat, leaving a line of tingling kisses on his way up to capture her mouth. Both were breathing heavily when the kiss ended.
Ezra leaned over her and cradled her face with one hand. His thumb trailed lightly over her swollen lips, and he felt her lean into his caress. "Mary, look at me." Desire surged through him, but he made himself wait for her to open her eyes and look into his own before he continued, his voice low and husky from his arousal. "Follow your instincts, Darlin'. Remember, nothing is improper if both desire the coupling."
"Nothing?" Her eyes searched his and saw the sincerity in what he said.
"Nothing, as long as it is desirable for both." He kissed her, tenderly this time, then locked his eyes on hers. "All you need do is tell me to stop, if you find something disagreeable."
Words were forgotten as she gave herself over to him. His lips explored her, pausing at her breasts to tease the nipples with his tongue until she arched up, pressing insistently against his mouth. Again his lips traveled downward, teasing every part of her before settling in the inviting nest of blonde curls between her legs. This time he didn't stop when he knew she was close. He continued until she cried out when she reached her peak, and he greedily lapped up the fluids of her release.
Ezra eased back up over her trembling body to press a kiss to her lips, allowing her to taste herself there. He smiled down at her, and brushed a stray strand of hair out of her face. "I believe now it is your turn," he whispered huskily, just before he rolled off of her and onto his back.
"I don't understand." Mary sounded almost timid in her uncertainty.
"You have no wish to touch me, as I touched you?" He was sure she did want to, but her reaction told him what he needed to know. Her husband had never offered himself to her, and apparently had done little more than sate his own needs in their bed.
She hesitated a moment, and he began to wonder if he had misread her, but she answered by moving to straddle his body as he had hers. He willed himself to hold back, to give her time to explore him, and he let her take control, for now.
Her lips left a trail of fire as she kissed her way down his throat. When he gasped at the touch of her lips at that sensitive area where his neck curved to meet his shoulder, she picked up on the reaction and paused there, tormenting him with flicks of her tongue, before she traveled on. His nipples hardened instantly when her mouth closed over first one and then the other as she let her hand slip down to lie over his swollen member.
Ezra groaned and squeezed his eyes shut when she left the hard nubs to continue her way downward. Her hand tormented him just lying there. He wanted her to wrap her fingers around him, to stroke him, to drive him to the brink with her touch, but she didn't move even one finger. He was seriously starting to rethink the idea of letting her follow her own lead when he felt her breath against him. His eyes flew open and he looked down the length of his body to see her, so close the heat of her breath was torture. She glanced up at him and caught his eyes in question, and he nodded slightly in response.
He swallowed hard and licked suddenly dry lips. It took him a moment to steady his breathing and find his voice. "You don't have to."
"But, you would like it?" she asked him breathlessly.
"I would like it very much." His voice wavered as he struggled to hold his own need in check.
Mary ran delicate fingers over his length. Hearing the sharp intake of breath the touch caused, she grew bolder and wrapped her fingers around the long thick shaft. Ezra groaned and fought the urge to thrust into her hand. He shivered at the first experimental touch of her mouth, and he was mesmerized as her watched her draw back and lick her lips, before deciding to try more. Then her lips parted and he felt her tongue lap up the bead of sticky fluid that had oozed from the tip.
She smiled at his reaction and glanced up to catch his eyes as she slid him into her mouth. All of his senses were screaming for release, and her slow explorations were exquisite torture. He laced his fingers in her hair and silently guided her in taking more of him in and drawing back, only to repeat it all again. She caught on and discovered that a swirl of her tongue had him twitching and clutching the sheet to keep from grabbing her by the hair and plunging himself deep into her throat.
He couldn't take much more, and he reached down to wrap his fingers over hers to slide them up and down the base of his shaft as her mouth continued to work over the head. A tightening signaled that he was so ready and he forced himself to pull her off of him. "Stop! I'm about to..."
The words were cut off by a loud moan when he felt himself engulfed again in that wet heat. The intensity of the sensation brought him over the edge and he cried out as he exploded into her mouth. He felt her swallow and the suction drew up even more of his seed where it was eagerly consumed.
Mary crawled up over him, just as he had done to her, and pressed her lips to his in a fiery kiss that left them both breathing hard and unable to speak. When Ezra managed to calm himself enough, he kissed her gently, enjoying his taste in her mouth. When he hugged her to him he was certain she could feel his heart pounding under her hand where it lay on his chest. "You didn't have to," he said softly.
"I know." She shifted so she could see his face while she spoke. "But, I wanted to."
He lightly stroked her back and they both sighed, causing them both to giggle at their identical reactions. "We'll rest a bit..." He snuggled her closer against him. "...then we go to lesson two."
"Billy, you be home by lunchtime," Mary called after her son as he dashed off to play with the Potter children. He seemed to be unaffected by the events that had sent her into hiding. His grandfather had kept him as sheltered as possible from what was happening at that time. When Billy had wanted her to sit with him until he fell to sleep the first night they were both back home together, she had thought the worst. But, it turned out he had simply been upset to come home from a long visit with his grandparents, only to find his mother was not there waiting for him. The fact that she had ridden into town barely an hour later didn't make up for her not being there.
Mary sighed as she watched him go. He seemed to be growing up right in front of her and no amount of wishing was going to keep him a little boy. She wouldn't really wish that though. Seeing him grown with a family of his own had been a source of many dreams for her, and she often woke up disappointed to find that they had been only dreams.
She brushed a loose tendril of hair out of her face and stepped back into the Clarion's office. Everything was nearly finished for this edition of the paper so she didn't have anything pressing to do, and a short nap was really sounding good. There was no reason she couldn't lie down for a few minutes. Just when she had thought she had her schedule back to normal, she started getting so tired again. They had been back several weeks and she was still struggling to wake up at a respectable hour.
Mary loosened the buttons of her collar and stretched out on her bed. Her head had barely hit the pillow before she was asleep. An hour later she woke with a start and sat bolt upright, instantly regretting the sudden movement. A wave of dizziness and nausea hit her, causing her to break out in a cold sweat. She barely managed to scramble from the feather mattress fast enough to grab the chamber pot from under the bed before the vomiting started and continued until there was nothing left to come up.
She sat on the floor, leaning back against the bed with her head tipped back against the mattress. The last of the dry heaves seemed to be over, and she laid a shaky hand across her eyes to shield them from the light streaming into the room. "No wonder I have been so tired," Mary said to the empty room. She truly hoped that Billy didn't catch whatever she was coming down with, and she decided to make a trip to see Nathan if she continued to feel this bad.
Reluctantly, she raised her head and waited to see if the dizziness came back. 'So far, so good. Now, if I can just stand up without getting sick again.' Slowly, Mary pulled herself up until she was sitting on the side of the bed. The thought of bending over to put the lid on the chamber pot so she could take it out to empty it wasn't a pleasant one, but she didn't really have much of a choice. With one hand braced on the bed frame, she managed to steady herself enough to get the job done.
It took several minutes for her to make her way shakily down the stairs and out back to the privy, but by the time she got back inside she was getting somewhat steadier on her feet. She sat the empty pot on the steps leading up to the living area. It could wait until she had to go up for something else; right now she just needed to sit down for a minute. On her way to the chair, she poured herself a glass of water from the pitcher on the counter.
Mary was surprised at how much better she felt after drinking the water and just sitting still for a little while. She finally decided it must have been something she had for breakfast that didn't agree with her, and whatever it was, it was over now. It didn't take long before she was up puttering with the typesetting and running some trial pages.
Several days later Mary woke up and immediately found herself kneeling next to the bed vomiting into the chamber pot. She felt a small hand on her back but couldn't even look at her son; she could do nothing to reassure him as the violent retching continued. The sound of rapid footsteps heading down the stairs barely registered in her mind.
The next thing she knew a cool wet cloth was pressed to her forehead and the strong hand holding it supported her, while the other rubbed her back, until the dry heaves eased. When she started to sag against the side of the bed those same hands lifted her effortlessly and laid her back in her bed. She looked up to see Nathan leaning over her, a look of concern in his dark eyes.
"Billy came 'n got me."
At the sound of her son's name she tried to sit up, but Nathan easily pressed her back against the mattress. "He's fine. I had him go wait with Josiah 'til I could see what was wrong." He pressed dark fingers against her cheeks and neck and looked puzzled. "Don't seem to have a fever. Were ya feelin' poorly when ya went to bed?"
Mary shook her head no. "I've just been really tired lately."
"Ya hurt anywhere?"
"No. Nathan, I'll be fine. I need to see to Billy."
"Mrs. Travis, Billy is fine with Josiah. Yer stayin' right there." He went to the pitcher on the dresser and poured her a glass of water. "Sip at this, until ya see if it's gonna stay down." He waited until he was fairly sure that she wouldn't need the pot again and then carried it out to dump it.
Mary lay there staring at the ceiling. She had a good idea now what was wrong. This had been going on for several days and she'd felt like this once before. Her thoughts drifted back over the years as one hand gently rubbed her belly. "What am I going to do?" She was so caught up in her own misgivings that she didn't see Nathan watching her from the door.
Ezra grabbed for his gun when his door slammed open, but luckily he recognized the healer before he opened fire. With an effort, he steadied his breathing and slid the gun back into the holster hanging on his headboard. "Mr. Jackson, to what do I owe this rude intrusion upon my slumber?"
Nathan pushed the door closed and threw the latch on it. In two steps he reached the bed, hauled the gambler to his feet and threw him across the room. Before the smaller man could regain his footing his assailant yanked him up and pinned him forcefully against the wall. "I'd oughta just turn Chris loose on ya, but I got more respect for Mrs. Travis than that."
"I am afraid I don't follow your references, Mr. Jackson." He struggled to speak, but made no effort to move, despite the pressure being exerted on his ribs. It would not surprise him to hear one of them crack.
"He trusted ya to keep her safe," Nathan growled at him. "Never figured he'd need to keep her safe from the likes of you. You and yer gentleman ways." The healer leaned in closer and spoke in low menacing tones. "Ya had yer way with her! Ya went and got her pregnant!" He slammed the smaller man against the wall one last time, then let go and turned away in disgust. "Just when I think ya can't sink no lower, ya find a way to do it. Ya go an' force yerself on the one ya were supposed to protect."
Ezra stared at the healer's back, shocked by this attack, but shocked even more by the words the big man had spoken. "Mr. Jackson, I assure you..."
"Don't ya go tryin' to assure me of nothin'. I just came from her bedside where she'd been pukin' her guts up."
"There are other reasons for someone to become ill, a fact of which I am certain you are well aware," Ezra wheezed.
"Ya weren't there! I'd just come back in from emptyin' her pot where she'd been sick in it. She didn't know I was back. She knows what's wrong an' she don't know what to do 'bout it."
Nathan began to pace the room, reminding Ezra of the caged panther he had once seen in a zoo back east. "Mr. Jackson, you could well be mistaken in your assumptions." He tried to calm him but his words only made things worse.
"I don't hear ya denyin' whatcha done!"
Ezra took a deep breath and looked the healer straight in the eyes. "I did not force my attentions on her." He spoke slowly, his own tone now taking on an edge of anger.
Nathan rounded on the gambler and backed him up against the dresser. "Don't think yer gonna get me to believe that. Mrs. Travis is one of the most proper ladies I know. She'd never've let ya touch her unless ya forced her, or ya tempted her into it somehow." He looked down in disgust at the smaller man. "I'll wait a few days 'fore I tell Chris whatcha done." Ezra cringed and Nathan nodded in satisfaction to see that some of his words had an impact. "What I wanna know is what ya plan to do about it?"
Ezra spent that day at his usual table, but he made no attempt to lure anyone into a game of chance. He sipped at his drinks, lost deep in his own thoughts. What if Nathan was right? He'd let his loneliness and his body rule over his better judgement and Mary might be paying for his weakness.
Night came and he still sat at that table. He had moved only when he had to relieve himself. He felt the glare of the healer on him, but he couldn't bring himself to care. All he could think of was that he should have stopped it, both times he could have stopped it.
The saloon emptied and he was left with no choice but to go up to his room, but there would be no sleeping this night. He paced around the room until his legs got too shaky to trust them to hold him upright, then he forced himself to stop and sit in the rocker by the window.
He watched the eastern horizon grow lighter. Color began to streak the sky, and still he sat. Dawn's light drew him up out of the chair, and he made his way silently out into the street. Careful, not to head straight for his destination, he took a roundabout route to Mary's back door. Cautiously, he tripped the latch the way she had told him to that night she had asked him to her bed. Once inside, he eased his way up the stairs so silently even Vin would have been impressed. Her door was open and he could see her still sleeping peacefully. He knew he shouldn't be here like this, but he couldn't stay away. There was a chair just inside her door, and he slipped quietly in and settled there to keep watch over her while she slept.
The peacefulness didn't last long. She moved and moaned as she started to drift up from sleep. Her hand flew to her mouth as she tried to get out of the bed, but her legs were tangled in the covers. Instinctively, Ezra lunged from the chair and grabbed the bucket she now kept sitting by her bed. He was at her side, holding the bucket and leaning her over it when the first wave of nausea hit her. She coughed and gagged bringing on the first round of vomiting. He steadied her and tried to keep her hair back out of the way as the sickness wracked her body. A sound at the door caught his attention and he glanced up to see Billy standing there watching, wide-eyed and scared.
"Billy, wait in your room please." Ezra kept his voice as calm as possible hoping the tone would ease some of the boy's fears. "Everything will be alright. I promise." He was relieved to see the young boy follow his instructions without argument, but it broke his heart to hear the sound of muffled sobs coming from his open door.
It seemed to take forever before he felt it was safe to set the bucket aside and help her to lie back down. He untangled the covers from her legs and smoothed them out over her, before wetting a cloth at the washstand next to her dresser. She looked unnaturally pale when he bathed the cold sweat from her face. Only then did she fully register who was taking care of her.
"Ezra? What are you doing here?" Her voice sounded weak when she tried to talk.
"Mr. Jackson paid me a visit yesterday, and informed me that you had been ill." He brushed the sweat-dampened hair from her face, and brushed his fingers lightly down her cheek. "Why didn't you tell me, Mary?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," she replied.
"Dear lady, never try to con a con man." He moved his hand down to rest it lightly on her stomach. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"I didn't really believe it myself until yesterday," she said softly.
He looked directly into her eyes, the tenderness and affection he felt for her clearly evident in his own. "Mary, I have every intention of doing right by you."
She shook her head and looked away from him. "I don't expect that. It was as much my fault as it was yours, probably more. The last time, I asked you, remember?"
"This isn't about which of us is more to blame. This is about this little spark of life that we have created. I couldn't possibly walk away from a child of mine or its mother." He lifted one delicate hand and pressed his lips to her palm.
"But, we don't love each other."
"Marriages have been built on less than the feelings we do share."
They both looked up to see the healer standing in her door. "Thought I would look in on ya after ya was so sick yesterday. Didn't mean to intrude." He nodded his approval to the gambler and turned to go.
Ezra squeezed her hand and laid it back on her belly before stepping out into the hall after Nathan. "Mr. Jackson, if I may have a word with you."
The healer looked at back him. "Ezra, ya shouldn't a let this happen, but I'm glad to see yer doin' the right thing."
"I understand completely, Mr. Jackson, but that was not to be my topic of conversation." His voice softened and he let the gambler's mask slip away allowing Nathan a brief glimpse into his feelings that no one else there other than Mary had seen. "Is this normal for her to be so violently ill?"
"It affects different women in different ways, but no, it ain't normally this bad. I'll see if I can get her some broth, but for now make sure she drinks some water." He headed on down the stairs, leaving Ezra in the hall looking through an open door at a small boy huddled on his bed hugging his pillow.
Standish walked in to sit by Billy and took a few moments to collect his thoughts. He patted the mattress at his side and the boy scrambled over to sit next to the gambler who wrapped a comforting arm around his shoulders. "Billy, look up here at me." The sight of those scared, tear-filled eyes brought a lump to his throat. "You mother will most likely be feelin' ill like this for a while, but I promise you, she will be alright."
Ezra felt the child lean into him and he hugged him closer. "I need you to do something; do you think you can?"
If he hadn't been listening for it he would have missed the faint reply. "I need you to promise not to tell anyone about your mother being ill."
"Is Mama gonna die?" Billy looked up at Ezra like he had the weight of the world on his small shoulders.
"No, she's not going to die."
"Is what she's got catchin'?"
"No, but some people might not understand her being sick like this. You know how some people overreact."
"Like that time they burned all those people's wagons 'cause they was sick?"
"Not exactly, but something like that. Can you do that? Can you promise not to tell anyone?" He hated to have to mislead Billy, but they needed some time to make plans before everyone found out. When he felt those small arms wrap around him, he hugged the boy close. "Promise?"
Nathan happened to catch Ezra alone in the saloon several days later. "I notice y'all ain't told nobody yet. She won't be able to hide it fer too long, ya know?"
"I am well aware of that, Mr. Jackson. At this point there will be no doubt of the circumstances that precipitated our nuptials. Mary said a couple of additional weeks for her to make some arrangements wouldn't make any difference." Ezra kept his voice low. The saloon was deserted except for the two of them and Inez, and Ezra knew from past experience that there was nothing remotely wrong with Inez's hearing.
"What kind of arrangements? Seems to me she'd be wantin' to get that ring on her finger quick as she could."
"As I said, she is well aware that people will know the circumstances very quickly, whether we got married that day we first talked, or a week or two later. She wants a dress for the occasion, and there is no plausible reason for me to deny her that. Every woman deserves her wedding day, regardless of the reasons for that union." Ezra had tried to convince her to have Josiah perform the marriage right away, but she could be one willful and stubborn woman. In the end he had to admit she was right, a few more days wouldn't really matter.
"Any idea when you'll do it?" The gambler got the distinct impression that Nathan was not going to rest easy until he saw Mary and him married.
"Sunday afternoon, if Josiah will be available. We plan to talk to him later today. That's only four more days, Mr. Jackson. I assure you that I have no plans to bolt and run." Standish gave his friend a wink, to let him know that he knew about Nathan's concerns and had no intention of letting him down again.
"So, we all invited to see ya tie the knot?" Jackson smiled for the first time since he sat down.
"I wouldn't have it any other way," Ezra said, and he meant it.
Chris gave Billy a half-smile when the young boy sat down on the step next to him. "You been keepin' yourself kind of scarce lately. Where you been?"
"Been helpin' Mama."
"I'm sure she appreciates that. You're getting' big enough to be a lot of help to her." The man in black concentrated on the piece of wood in his hand and frowned. "What does this look like to you?" He handed the small carving to the boy.
Billy turned it over in his hand and studied it from every angle. "What's it s'posed to be?"
Chris chuckled and shook his head. "Not gettin' out of it that easy. I asked you first."
"Kinda looks a little like a dog," the kid said hesitantly.
Larabee took the carving back and glared at it for a few moments then laughed. "It does look a mite like a dog. I was tryin' for a horse, but I missed the mark on this one." He handed it back to the boy. "It's yours if you want it."
Chris watched as the excitement was quickly replaced by a serious expression, accompanied by a very sad sigh. "Something wrong, Billy?
"I'm not s'posed to say anything to anyone." He sighed again and looked up at his idol with a calculating expression. "Don't s'pose he meant you." He paused and obviously gave his next comment some serious thought before he spoke. "Chris, if Ezra marries my Mama, will that make him my Pa?"
Larabee was totally taken off guard. He couldn't begin to figure what put such an idea in to the young boy's head. "I don't know where that came from, but if your Ma got married again, whoever she married would be your Pa." He looked at the boy quizzically. "What made you ask something like that?"
"Ezra's been at our house a lot. He's been takin' care of Mama while she's sick, but he said not to tell anyone 'cause some folks might not understand."
"Your Ma's been sick?" Chris asked anxiously. He wondered why Nathan hadn't told him. Surely he knew, if Mary had been sick enough to need someone to tend to her. Why had he asked Ezra, and not him, to take care of her?
Billy nodded gravely. "Yeah, she gets real sick every morning when she wakes up."
Chris mentally began to put the pieces together and counted back how long it had been since he had sent Ezra off with Mary to hide her from the kidnappers. It had been three months since they rode back into town. He surged to his feet, startling the boy at his side. Worries turned to anger, and then just as quickly to rage as he strode purposefully toward the saloon.
Ezra and Nathan looked up at the sound of the swinging doors slamming into the wall when they were shoved forcefully open. Both were rooted to the spot by the fury they saw in their leader's eyes. Neither dared to even breathe as they watched Larabee close the distance between them.
"You fuckin' son-of-a-bitch!" Chris grabbed Ezra by the front of his jacket and hauled him to his feet. No longer able to speak through the rage, he hurled the smaller man into the wall.
"Chris, stop this!" Nathan lunged to Ezra's aid but was shoved away with little effort despite his larger size. The healer scrambled back to his feet and tried again, reaching the enraged man just as he was reaching for the gambler where he slumped, dazed against the wall. "No! You can't do this!"
Chris spun and grabbed Nathan by the throat with one hand and squeezed before he drew back and punched him in the face. The force of the blow flung him back into the tables, where he crashed to the floor in a pile of broken furniture and tangled limbs. He was stunned from the impact and shook his head trying to clear away the fog. Blood poured from his nose; it was clearly broken.
With Nathan out of the way, Chris turned his attention back to the man he was after. Ezra was struggling to get to his feet and get his breath. The hard impact with the wall had not only knocked the breath out of him and left him only semi-conscious, but it had also left him powerless to stop Larabee's attack on the healer.
Before Ezra had managed to stand fully upright, Chris's fist connected with his left jaw, snapping his head violently to the right. He started to sag back to the floor but Larabee would have none of that. He held him up with one hand while hammering him with blow after blow before tossing him across the room like a child's discarded rag doll.
Ezra landed against the bar. He clung to it to try to stay on his feet and with considerable effort managed to turn to face his assailant.
"NO!" Ezra screamed.
Mary stood between the two men, doubled over with Chris's fist still against her stomach. Ezra tried to catch her as she fell, but he could only sag to the floor beside her.
The rage instantly disappeared when he had seen Mary's stunned expression when the punch that had been intended for the gambler took her full force. He watched helplessly as Ezra gathered her into his arms, tears streaming down his face, as he tried to rouse her. "Oh God! What have I done?"
By this time the others had started to show up. Buck helped Nathan to his feet so he could check on Mary and Ezra, while Josiah went to Chris. "At this moment it is only God who is protecting you," he growled. He took a deep shuddering breath before he spoke again. "You'd better hope that he keeps it up..." His voice caught and he shook his head in despair.
"I need some help over here," Nathan yelled. Buck had his hands full trying to keep Ezra out of the way, and the healer wasn't in very good shape himself. "We gotta get her to the clinic." He moved back to give Josiah room to lift the unconscious woman, and he gasped when he saw the bloodstains on the floor. The sound drew the attention of the other men.
Josiah was close on Nathan's heels as they sprinted toward the clinic. Buck helped Ezra to stay on his feet long enough to make it across the street and up the stairs. Vin was torn between being there for Ezra and Mary, or being there for Chris. He finally opted for the latter, well aware how dangerous it would be to leave the man alone at that moment. He sat opposite his best friend and waited.
After a few long minutes Larabee looked at him, as if he had only just realized he was there. "You aren't turnin' on me too?"
The anguish in his friend's voice was hard to listen to without falling apart himself, but Vin managed to keep his own feelings in check for the moment. "I reckon that depends."
"Depends on what?" Chris ran his fingers nervously through his hair, and looked anywhere but into Vin's eyes.
"Did you aim to hurt Mary?"
"No! I would never..." He choked on the words and gave up trying to get them out.
"Want to tell me what brought all this on?" Vin asked, sounding a lot calmer than he felt.
It took a few moments before he could speak, but finally he found his voice. "I wanted..." he paused. "No, I intended to kill Ezra."
"Why? Ya been pissed at him before, but never like this." Vin wasn't sure he really wanted to know, but he needed to know in order to help his friends, all of them.
"He got her pregnant. I..." Chris wiped a trembling hand across his face and tears formed in the corners of his eyes. "What have I done, Vin? What have I done?" he asked quietly as he let the tears fall.
Josiah laid Mary on the cot and stepped back to allow Nathan to get to her. He watched as Buck helped Ezra in and sat him in the chair near the small bed. "Ezra, we're here for you if you need us." The smaller man nodded slightly, but his eyes never left Mary.
"I think y'all should wait outside. Let her have some privacy," Nathan said without even looking up at them. He knew they would do as he asked without question.
As soon as he heard the door close behind them, he worked to get the long dress and petticoats off of her so he could work with her unencumbered. There was so much blood, and he knew there was no way she could keep from losing this baby. He glanced up at Ezra. The anguish in those green eyes broke the healer's heart, but there wasn't time to console him now.
He was caught by surprise when Ezra slipped from the chair onto his knees next to the cot, and pulled Mary into his arms. "I'm sorry! I'm so sorry!" He clung to her and sobbed against her chest.
"Ezra, this ain't yer fault! Let go of her so I can help her!" The gambler refused to let go. Reasoning with the distraught man wasn't going to work and he needed to get him out of the way.
Nathan headed for the door and yanked it open just as Vin and Chris reached the landing. "Someone's gonna have to get Ezra out of there. He can't handle this, and I can't do what I gotta do with him in the way." The look he shot toward the blond rivaled any of Larabee's own dark glares.
"I'll get him," Buck offered.
"Ya need help?" Vin asked Nathan. "I learned a few things when I lived with the Kiowa."
Nathan stood aside and let Buck go in ahead of him and motioned for Vin to go in too. "I can definitely use an extra pair of hands, and someone who ain't gonna fall apart on me."
It took them all to persuade Ezra to let go, but finally Buck led him out of the room. He stiffened when his eyes landed on Chris waiting outside with the others. After a pause, he turned and started down the stairs, only to collapse on the bottom step.
"Ezra, Nathan's gonna do everything he can to help Mary. Don't go blamin' yerself fer her gettin' hurt." He rubbed the smaller man's back lightly as he tried to reassure him, but backed off when he pulled away from the touch. "Don't know what happened to get Chris so all-fired mad this time, but he shouldn't have let his temper get the best of him."
"You don't understand. It is my fault." The gambler's voice was barely audible.
"How do you figure that?"
"She wouldn't have been there if not for me."
"Ezra, ya know Mary. If she set her mind to gettin' in the middle of things, nothin' would have stopped her. Ya aren't to blame for her steppin' in the way," Buck insisted.
A pair of terrified green eyes looked into a pair of concerned dark blue ones. "She's pregnant, Buck. That's why Chris was after me." He looked away and took a deep breath before he continued, "We were going to be married on Sunday. None of this would be happening if I had controlled myself and not let my lust take control."
"One thing I've learned in the time I've known ya is yer always in control. And, one thing I know about Mary is she wouldn't have let it happen if it weren't somethin' she wanted too." Buck gave the smaller man's shoulder a squeeze and was relieved when Ezra didn't pull away from the offered comfort.
"There ain't nothin' we can do fer the baby. She's gonna lose it," Nathan informed Vin. "I gotta worry 'bout not losin' Mary too."
"I know of something that'll help. Once the baby is out she should stop bleedin' if there's not a bunch'a damage inside." Vin hurried to put together the combination of herbs he'd learned.
"How'd ya come to learn 'bout this?"
"One of the old squaws noticed how I liked learnin' 'bout all the plants an' how ya could use 'em. She used to make sure I could hear her if she was teachin' one'a the young ones." He paused in his explanation as he poured hot water over the mixture of crushed dried plant bits in the cup. "I heard her tell that a little of this could be used to help stop bleedin' after havin' a baby, or..."
"Or more can make 'em lose a baby they didn't want." He glanced at Nathan and waited for his reaction. Nathan looked stunned.
"When this is over, will ya teach me t'make that?" He nodded toward the cup in Vin's hands.
Josiah took a seat on the bench next to Chris. "I shouldn't have said what I did back there. I know, we all know, you would never try to hurt Mary."
"She's goin' to lose her baby because of me, Josiah. I've done more than just hurt Mary." He slumped forward with his elbows on his knees and buried his face in his hands.
"Baby?" JD looked from Chris to the door and back. "Who's...?"
Josiah cut him off before he could finish the question. "Son, this is something you don't talk about to no one, not even Casey," he said firmly.
"I won't, but what's goin' on?" He knew Chris was kinda sweet on Mary, but then there was Ezra in such a bad state, and he had never seen Chris that angry before.
"Mary was havin' Ezra's baby," Josiah told him quietly.
"Ezra's?" The young man looked at the remorseful man hunkered down on the bench next to Josiah. It made sense now. Then his mind caught onto something else. "Was havin'? She's really gonna lose it?"
Josiah nodded. "Nathan doesn't see any hope of savin' it."
Time crawled for the five men who waited outside, but finally the sound of the door opening brought them all to their feet. Buck helped a very unsteady Ezra climb back up the steps. The look on Nathan's face gave nothing away as he waited for them to reach the landing.
The healer took a deep breath and sighed deeply. "She lost the baby." The sound of a muffled sob brought down his own barriers and tears pooled in his eyes.
"And Mary?" Ezra barely managed to ask.
"Vin knew somethin' that the Indians used to stop that kind'a bleedin'. It's stopped fer now. She's lost a lot'a blood, but I think we got it stopped in time. All we can do now is wait."
"May I see her?" The gambler lifted puffy, red-rimmed eyes to search out Nathan's.
Nathan nodded, but held out a hand to stop him before he could go in the door. "Don't move her." He waited for Ezra to acknowledge his instructions then added. "After you've sat with her a bit, we need to take care of you." The healer opened the door to let him inside.
Once Ezra was where he couldn't hear him, he turned to their youngest member. "JD, I need ya to go get me a small wooden box." He held up his hands to indicate the size.
Ezra eased into the chair at the side of the cot and caught Nathan's warning glance as he came in the door. She looked so deathly pale. He picked up one delicate hand in his and shivered at the cold feeling of her skin. "Mary, if I could change things none of this would be happening," he said softly. "It should have been me." He sat there and watched her still form and stroked her hand, hoping she could hear him, or at least know he was there. "I lied when I told you that I didn't love you that way, that the fire wasn't there. It's been there for quite some time." Tears rolled freely down his face, but he didn't care who saw. "I really wanted us to raise our baby together." He caressed her cheek and bent his pain-ridden body so he could kiss her lips.
Nathan gave him a few minutes before he went and rested a hand on his shoulder. "We need to get ya fixed up. We'll be right over here." When Ezra hesitated he gave his shoulder a light squeeze to reassure him. "You'll still be able to keep an eye on her."
Reluctantly, the gambler moved from her side. When he turned to move over to the second cot that had been set up, he saw something that he couldn't take his eyes from and moved toward it.
The healer realized Ezra wasn't right with him and turned in time to see him reach for the cloth that covered the basin on the counter. "Ezra, No!" He watched as the gambler continued as if he hadn't heard him.
He took a deep breath and swallowed hard to steady himself before he folded back the cloth. For a moment his whole world swirled around him as a wave of dizziness claimed him, but he closed his eyes against it and forced it away. When he opened them again he looked back down at the tiny body of their child. It was so little it would have fit in the palm of his hand, but it was already very nearly fully formed.
Nathan started toward Ezra, but Vin stopped him with a shake of his head. His eyes seemed to tell the healer to let their friend deal with the loss in his own way.
Everything was in miniature, arms and legs, ears, and even tiny little fingers and toes. His baby... his and Mary's. Tears dripped off his chin where they ran unchecked down his face. He reached out and lifted one tiny little hand on the tip of his finger. "I wish you could know how much I love you," he whispered to the tiny little form.
His vision blurred and grew dim as everything caught up to him and he collapsed. Vin had been ready and caught him before he hit the floor, and with Nathan's help they got him to the cot.
They had finally gotten Ezra patched up. He had a couple ribs that appeared to be cracked, some serious bruises, and one hell of a lump on his head from where he first hit the wall. Someone would need to wake him up every couple hours just to be safe, if they ever got him to go to sleep.
A knock on the door signaled that JD was back. Nathan went to the door and got the box he had sent the kid for. Careful to stand where he could block Ezra's view, he removed the tiny body from the basin and wrapped it in a clean towel before placing it in the box. Once that was done he turned back to the gambler. "Ezra, Mary can't make this decision, so I'm gonna need to ask ya to."
His eyes fell on the small box in the healer's hands, and he knew what decision he was being asked to make. He reached out to touch the box, sorrow clearly showing in his eyes; there was no sign of the gambler's mask now. His eyes drifted over to Mary and he made his decision. "On top of her husband. That way she can visit them both and no one will be the wiser."
Nathan knew what he was implying. "The rest of us know, but no one will learn it from us. All they need to know is that she was hurt trying to stop a fight."
"Thank you. It is not for me but to protect her reputation."
"I know. I'll take care of what needs to be done." He nodded toward the box. Ezra's hand still rested against the side of it, and he didn't want to take it away until his friend was ready.
"Good-bye little one." Ezra dropped his hand away and turned his face to the wall. He couldn't watch them take their baby away in a box.
The first thing the men outside noticed was the box in Nathan's hands. None of them had the slightest doubt about what it held. "I told Ezra that I would see to this, but I need to be here for Mary."
Chris stared at the small box that had become a makeshift coffin for a tiny life that he had extinguished. Nothing would ever be enough to make amends for what he had done, but he could start trying now. "I'll do it." He felt five sets of eyes boring into him. "I have to." The depth of the remorse in his eyes was lost on none of them.
"I'll go with you, brother," Josiah offered.
Josiah reached for the box, but Chris wouldn't let him take it. He was responsible for the death of this child, and he would bear the burden of carrying it to its grave. "I'd appreciate it, Josiah."
Nathan explained where Ezra wanted the child buried, and also told them of the promise that he had made that no one would know what had happened to Mary. They all agreed without hesitation.
Ezra was still fighting sleep when Nathan went back inside, and Vin slipped out quietly. "Ya need to quit fighting it. I give ya my word, I'll wake ya if anythin' happens."
"Tell me the truth. Is she going to survive this?" His voice caught in his throat when he asked.
"There ain't no guarantees, but as long as no infection sets in, she should do fine. Mary's a strong woman and she's got Billy, so she won't give up without a fight." Nathan settled onto the chair between the two cots. "Ezra, I couldn't help but hear what ya said to her earlier. I'm sorry I thought the worst of ya again. Ya really do love her don't ya?"
"Yes, I do." The gambler let the truth of his feelings show. "When we were in that cave, it was both heaven and hell on earth. Heaven because I had her there all to myself and hell because I couldn't really have her."
"But you did," Nathan commented.
"On the last day we were there. The day was our night then." He smiled half-heartedly at the memory. "It was so cold and damp in there that we had taken to sharing the blankets just to stay warm."
"That had to be hard fer ya, if ya were really wantin' her to start with."
"It was. But, I wouldn't have given up those times I had the pleasure of waking up beside her to ease that torment." He sighed and looked into Nathan's eyes and saw compassion there, instead of the contempt he often saw.
"Ya made it through to the last night. Couldn't ya have..." he stopped when he saw Ezra wanted to say something.
"We didn't know it was the last night there at the time. I had yet to go to the drop off point." He felt he owed the healer some explanation; after all, he had kept his word and not told anyone, to give him a chance to make things right. "Mr. Jackson... Nathan... it was loneliness. We had both lost our mates, and we needed to know we were both still alive, that we hadn't died along with them."
"Both?" He saw Ezra nod.
"I lost my wife four years ago."
"Why didn't ya ever tell us?"
"It still hurt too much to talk about it. Then when I realized I had feelings for Mary, I felt like I was betraying her memory." His eyes asked what he couldn't ask aloud.
"I'll keep it between us. If ya want the others to know ya can tell 'em when yer ready." Nathan patted him on the shoulder and gave him a conspiratorial wink then got out of the chair. "Now, ya go to sleep or I'll give ya something to put ya to sleep."
Ezra drifted off, listening to the sound of pages turning. He had never realized how comforting that sound could be.
Mary had recovered from her ordeal without the townspeople finding out the truth, although there had been some comments about the freshly dug spot on her husband's grave. The general consensus was a large animal had been digging there, due to some ingenuity on Josiah's part.
Chris had tried to talk to Mary, but she refused until after she was released from the clinic to go home. He finally managed to catch her alone and the feared gunman begged her to forgive him. She refused him, saying the only contact she wanted with him was in dealing with her newspaper. She just couldn't forgive him for the death of her unborn child.
Ezra had managed to stay completely away from Chris during the last few weeks. He had been relieved of duty while he mended, and once he returned to his role as peacekeeper, one of the others brought him word of his assignments.
He had spent most of his time in his room, or at the clinic sitting with Mary until she was released. She had declined his offer to go ahead with their wedding, but he could tell she was pleased that he had offered. Deep down he had desperately wanted her to say yes.
It had been a month, and Ezra decided it was time to face Chris. They couldn't keep avoiding each other forever. He waited until it was late enough that the saloon would be close to empty and made his way down the stairs. Larabee sat alone at their customary table, a half empty bottle of whiskey in front of him. "Falling back on old habits?" he asked him.
Chris looked like he had just seen a ghost when he saw the gambler standing next to him. He reached to refill his glass and was startled to find the bottle wrenched from his hand. Ezra threw it against the wall and then grabbed the partially filled glass and downed its contents, leaving Chris staring at his empty hand. "I'm not drunk enough to let you get by with that," he growled.
"You will let me get by with it, and you will listen to what I have to say." He took a seat next to the blond. "I will always regret the loss of the child, but as much as I want to blame you completely, I can't. It was my fault too."
Larabee wondered at the uncharacteristically plain speech, but decided to be grateful for it. "No, it was me. Ezra I am sorry for what happened, but sorry won't change things," he said sadly.
"Sorry can change things. It can open the door to forgiveness. I owe you an apology also," Ezra offered.
"Why would you owe one to me? I was the one who killed the baby."
Ezra flinched at the brashness of the statement, but squared his shoulders and continued, "You entrusted me with someone you held dear, and I betrayed that trust. I think it is time we work on forgiving each other."
"Tell me one thing. Did you love her?" The thought of the gambler just using Mary had been what sent him into such a blind rage, and that same thought had continued to haunt him.
"I still do," he answered honestly.
Chris half-smiled and offered his hand to Ezra. "That makes two of us."
|Second Chances Index||On to: Heat Lightning|
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