John dressed as quietly as he could then turned to the woman sleeping in the bed. He hated leaving her just now, but he needed to get out before anyone else starting stirring. Besides, he promised Jake he'd be there to relieve him this morning. Before slipping out the door he leaned down and gently kissed Ida's cheek.
She stirred at his touch. "Leaving already?" she asked sleepily.
"Fraid so. I told Jake I'd be at the office at dawn to relieve him."
"What time is it?"
He smiled sheepishly. "A little past dawn."
"Will you be back tonight?"
"Depends. If I can talk Jake into staying again tonight I will. I don't want to leave the office unguarded as long as a prisoner is there." The marshals were due to pick up a prisoner and transport him to the capitol any day now. The only trouble was, they'd been hearing that for nearly a week now. John wanted someone there around the clock until the man was gone. Jake was willing to work the extra hours to make sure that happened but John hated asking him to stay every night, the poor boy deserved a chance at a life outside the sheriff's office too. But if John was at the office, he wasn't with Ida, and he'd waited a long time to be with Ida.
Ida nodded. "I understand."
John leaned down and kissed her again. "I'll do my best."
When he tried to raise back up, Ida wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him down for another kiss. She was warm and tender and it was tempting to climb back in the bed with her. He finally pulled away. "I have to go, Ida."
She dropped her arms. "I know."
He got one more kiss in before he stood up. "I'll be back tonight." He'd bribe Jake if he had to.
Grabbing his boots he opened the door and stepped into the hallway. It had been almost three months since his and Ida's first night together and they had settled into something of a routine but Ida was still insistent that they keep as many people in the dark about their relationship as possible, including Buck. He had thought Ida's position as madam might make her a little more open about things but so far she still insisted this was bad for him. Having to sneak in and out every day wasn't what he wanted and quite frankly it wasn't good enough, but if he couldn't have what he wanted, he'd take what he could get. For now at least.
He was so deep in thought as he exited the room that he didn't see the figure standing just a few feet away watching his every move.
The familiar voice stopped him cold and he silently cussed himself. Guiltily he looked at Buck. "Buck," he greeted.
Buck looked at his mother's bedroom door and back to John. "What are you doing here?"
Standing in the hallway with Buck, John didn't feel like a man past forty. What he felt was more akin to seventeen or eighteen and being caught by a girl's father instead of her son. He cleared his throat. "Buck . . . ."
"It's barely light out. Were you here all night?"
"Buck, I really don't think I should be the one to tell you about this."
Buck swallowed. "You-you were with her, weren't you?"
John sighed. This was not how he'd wanted Buck to find out about this, but he wouldn't lie. That wouldn't do any of them any good. "Yes, I was."
Buck paled slightly. "You . . . you didn't . . . pay for it. Did you?"
"No," John said firmly. "I've never paid for it."
Buck instantly looked more at ease. "Good." A moment later his face changed again. Wait, you've never . . . " he trailed off as a smirk came to his face. "As in . . . this isn't the first time?"
John sighed an embarrassed chuckled escaping. This was definitely not how he'd imagined this morning going. Or how he'd intended on Buck finding out about him and Ida, but what was he supposed to do. The boy knew now, he couldn't exactly bow out gracefully, not when Buck had seen him coming out of the bedroom at the crack of dawn. Honesty was the best policy now. "No, it's not."
Buck looked at the bedroom door again. When he turned back to John he was grinning. "Well . . . that's uhh . . . that's nice."
John ran a hand through his hair. "I'm sorry, Buck. You shouldn't have found out this way. We've talked about how to tell you about . . . well, about us. It just never seemed like the right time." That wasn't completely true, he'd been in favor of telling Buck right after their first night together, but he wasn't going to tell Buck it was his mother that had refused to tell him about the relationship.
"It's fine." Buck shrugged. "I mean I've always sorta hope it would happen. How – how long have you . . . ." Buck looked away as he sort of shrugged again.
John braced himself against the wall and pulled a boot on. "Bout three months now. Your mama . . . wanted to keep it quiet for a while."
John finished putting his boots on. "She doesn't think it would good if everyone in town knew. Good for my job that is."
Buck nodded. "But why didn't you tell me?"
John grimaced. Despite Buck' earlier grin, John could tell the boy was a little uneasy with what he'd just learned. Or maybe just shocked. He couldn't say he blamed Buck; it wasn't every day a boy caught a man coming out of his mother's room. Even given her profession, John doubted Buck had seen any of the men Ida had entertained over the years. He sighed. "We should have, Buck; I'm sorry we didn't. Ida thought the fewer people that knew, the better. We were gonna tell you . . . ."
"I understand," Buck said quickly. "I guess."
John wished he could have done something to prevent Buck from finding out this way. If he'd left Ida sooner, or maybe stayed for one more kiss he could have preserved a little of Buck's innocence. "Up kinda early, aren't you?" he asked hoping to get Buck's mind off what he'd just learned.
Buck shrugged. "Yeah, a little. Just wanted to enjoy what summer is left. I told Mister Sims I'd be at the livery early today. Sooner I can get my work done the sooner I can get to havin' fun."
John nodded. "Good thinkin'."
Buck looked at the door again and smiled slightly. "I guess I need to get goin'."
"Buck . . . ."
"It's ok, John. Really. I'll – I'll see you later."
John nodded. "Yeah, see you, Buck." He watched as the boy left and then sighed heavily. He hoped Jake wouldn't mind waiting a little longer because he needed to talk to Ida.
Buck was glad for his work at the livery that day. Being around the horses was calming and it helped clear his head. His head certainly needed some clearing after what he'd seen this morning. He couldn't say he was upset about it; after all, he'd wanted this for a long time. He was confused by it though, and the mere fact he didn't know what to make of the situation confused him even more. Then again what was he supposed to think? Sure he'd always hoped that one day Mama would see John as being like a father to him, maybe even seeing him as a husband, but he'd never dreamed he'd wake up and see John Parker strolling out of his mother's room, boots in hand, looking like he'd just woke up.
Buck smiled remembering the guilty look on John's face this morning. He sort of enjoyed seeing John's obvious discomfort, and he'd be enjoying it a lot more now if not for one thing, why had this been hidden from him? Sure he knew what John told him, but that just didn't make sense to him. He wasn't the town, and this wasn't just any woman; it was his mother. He had no desire to know about every man that had ever been in his mother's room, he was all too aware of what his mother had done before she'd become a madam, but this was different. This was John. It wasn't as though he had just been there for . . . or had he?
A knot formed in Buck's stomach and his thoughts became even more jumbled. He'd assumed when John had said this wasn't the first time that meant John wasn't just around for a good time, but maybe that's why they hadn't said anything about it. He was sure Mama know he sort of considered John his pa, and he knew for a fact that John knew. Maybe they didn't want him to know they were keeping company because it wasn't anything serious. John had said he'd never paid, but Mama was the madam. She could see anyone she wanted to for whatever price she wanted to. Buck started to feel a little sick. He didn't like that idea, frankly, he hated it, but he couldn't think of any other reason for his mother not to tell him about all this.
Buck went over to where his horse was and dropped his arms over the top of the stall. "Why wouldn't they tell me, Genevieve?" The mare watched him with her big dark eyes. She had no answer for him but Buck smiled anyway. "I guess they had a reason but I'd sure like to know what it was."
He pushed off the stall with a sigh and continued his sweeping. He was almost to the end of the aisle when he turned back to his horse. "They had a reason, right? You don't think that John's just . . . ." Buck trailed off.
His mind was telling him no. John wouldn't do that. Never had Buck known John to go into a brothel for company, but then again, why would he tell Buck if he did? Buck was pretty sure the man had never been in the Palace for any kind of entertainment reason, however, and it was a little insulting to think John would go anywhere else to have his fun.
Buck turned back to his horse. "Do you think I should talk to him?" Genevieve snorted and bobbed her head. Buck smiled again. "Is that a yes or a no?"
Again the horse had no answer for him and Buck continued his work. The longer Buck worked, however, the more uptight he became. He wanted answers, answers he didn't have and wasn't sure how to get. He realized this was a rather private topic, but he felt he was involved enough to deserve some answers.
Buck finished his chores for Mister Sims in record time and once he was given permission to leave he saddled Genevieve had headed for one of his favorite fishing spots. He wasn't fishing today, but he liked being by the water, it helped him think. Between some time by the water and a long ride, Buck figured he could make some sense out of this situation and he was partially correct. By the time he started back to town things didn't make any more sense than they had before, but he had decided he needed to talk to John.
It hadn't been all that long ago when John had taken him out and made him sit through a long awkward talk about girls and how a lady should be treated. One thing John had mentioned was declaring one's intentions to the girl's father. Well, despite what some folks said, Buck saw his mother as nothing but a lady, and she deserved to be treated like one, that included finding out exactly what John's intentions were. Buck figured since Mama didn't have a father to speak up for her, her son would just have to do.
Buck spent the ride back into town practicing what he needed to say with Genevieve, and by the time he had her back at the livery, he was feeling confident in what he needed to say to John. It didn't even seem so embarrassing anymore, to his own ears anyway. He did have a feeling that if his mother ever found out about this she'd have more than a few words to say about it, but Buck couldn't worry about that now. He needed to be a man and talk to John and find out if he was doing right by Mama or not. This was important and he wasn't going to let a little thing like Mama probably saying it wasn't any of his business deter him.
After settling his horse in, Buck left the livery and turned towards the sheriff's office. His stomach rolled slightly at the idea of what he was about to do, but Buck pushed the feeling aside. It was time to be a man whether he liked it or not. Straightening his hat, Buck took a deep breath and started towards John's office. It was time for a man to man talk with John Parker.
Parker was sitting in his office trying to get paperwork done but mostly thinking about Buck. He'd felt guilty ever since this morning when Buck had seen him leaving Ida. Sure, he'd wanted Buck to know what was going on, but he'd never thought it would happen that way. Buck had taken the whole situation well, but John had been able to tell he was unsettled by it too and understandably so. He would have liked nothing better than to have talked to Buck again after he'd discussed things with Ida, but reality had kept him from doing that. He had a job to do, and he hadn't been able to run after Buck to try and explain thing more clearly. At least he and Ida were on the same page concerning Buck now and he was hoping that Ida would be able to help Buck sort through things this evening after he got home.
He stared down at the paper in front of him. He needed to get this taken care of but at the same time, he wanted to get things with Buck straighten out too. He sighed and ran his hands through his hair. Ida had been upset this morning to learn that Buck had found out about their relationship in such an unconventional way, but had told him it would be better to let Buck think on things before they tried to explain everything. He hoped she was right; it felt wrong just to leave it.
Pushing away from his desk, John went to get a cup of coffee. He was almost back to his desk when the door opened and Buck stepped inside the office. John was taken aback at first; he figured he was about the last person Buck wanted to see right now, but he was pleased too. He felt the air between them needed to be cleared and Buck coming to him was a good sign.
He smiled at the boy. "I'm glad you're here, Buck."
Buck looked surprised. "You are? You mean you want me here?"
"Why wouldn't I want you here?"
Buck shrugged and looked around the room in a way that made John thing Buck just didn't want to look at him. "I don't know. I thought . . . ." Buck trailed off and was quiet for a minute before he took a deep breath. "Can we talk?"
John went back to his desk and sat down. "Anytime about anything."
Buck followed him across the room but kept the desk between them. Another long minute passed as Buck stared down at the desk and traced the wood grain patterns with his finger. "Does that include Mama?"
"In light of what happened today, I think that's a good idea." He was trying to sound as easy going as possible. Buck had looked full of confidence when he'd first come in but the longer he stood in the office the more that confidence seemed to shrink.
Buck finally sat down heavily and looked at John before quickly looking away again. "John . . . ." he started before coming to a halt.
"I need to know . . . I mean I think . . . ."
"Is this about what you saw this morning?" John asked getting the feeling Buck was having a hard time putting his thoughts into words.
Buck nodded. "How – how often do you . . . stay with her?"
John had already decided he would be totally honest with Buck, no matter how uncomfortable it might get. They'd hidden this situation from him longer than they should have and Buck deserved the truth. "Every night I can."
Buck sucked in a breath. "And you don't . . . you've never given her anything."
John smiled slightly. "No, Buck, and that's one thing you don't have to worry about. I'd never dream of asking her to do that. Your mother is too special for me to do that."
Buck looked at him, clearly confused. "Why didn't you tell me?"
John felt a pang of guilt when he heard the agonized tone in Buck's voice. They should have told him. "I don't know, Buck. We were trying to protect you. Keep you from having to deal with what people would say, or ask you. We should have told you and if I could do it again I would tell you."
Buck seemed to think on that a minute. "So she's not . . . I mean you don't just stay for . . . fun?"
John put his coffee down and leaned forward, holding Buck's eyes. "Buck, I want to tell you a couple of things, just so we're clear. Your mother is very special to me, and she has been for a while now. I know you understand what she used to do so I won't go into it, but I do what you to know that I care for her a great deal and I would never ask her to do something like that for me. Never."
"Do you love her?"
John couldn't stop a smile. "I do," he answered softly.
A light seemed to come on in Buck's eyes. "Really?"
"How . . . much?"
John sat back in his chair again. "How much? What exactly are you asking, Buck?"
Buck took a deep breath and some of his confidence seemed to come back. He sat up straighter and squared his shoulders. "Well, remember when we talked and you told me how I was supposed to treat a lady?" John nodded. "Remember what you told me about being respectful and what would happen if I was to . . . ." Buck shifted in his seat. "You know get a girl in trouble?"
John was doing his best not to smile. Buck was serious about this and he didn't want to make light of it. "I do indeed."
Buck scooted forward some. John could tell he was uncomfortable but the boy seemed determined to maintain eye contact. "What if . . . what if Mama . . . got in trouble? I mean, would you do right by her?"
John did smile now. "Well, I don't think that's something you need to worry about but if it did happen, I'd be delighted to 'do right by her'."
"You really mean that?"
John sighed. "Buck, I'd marry your mama today if she'd agree to it."
"Then why don't you?"
John looked at the boy in front of him. Buck had grown up a lot, this little meeting and Buck's questions had proven that but there was still enough innocence in him that he likely wouldn't understand why Ida wouldn't agree to marriage and probably never would agree to it. "Well, it's not just my opinion that matters, Buck. Your mama has to want it too."
"Why wouldn't she want it?"
"That's a rather complicated answer."
Buck grimaced. "That means you aren't goin' tell me anything."
John laughed. "A man can't just tell a woman they're gettin' married; they both have to agree to it. And there's a lot of things to consider before two people get married. I want you to know this though, I love you mother, and there will never be another woman for me. Even if we never get legally married, I'm staying with her."
"Even if she found out she was gonna have a baby?"
"Especially if she found out she was gonna have a baby."
Buck smiled ruefully and John felt another pang knowing it was personal experience making Buck ask these questions. He pushed up out of his chair and walked around the desk. "Let me tell you somethin', Buck," he said taking the seat next to Buck. "I love your mother, and you. You told me once you sort of saw me as being like a pa. You still feel that way?"
Buck nodded his head. "Yeah."
"Good, because as far as I'm concerned, you might as well be my boy."
Buck's mouth dropped open. "You - you really mean that?"
"Yes, I do. You, me, your mama, as far as I'm concerned, we're family, and nothing is going to change that."
Buck was smiling now and John could tell he was much more at ease than he'd been earlier. "Thanks, John. It was just . . . well, I didn't want you to ever leave her."
Buck may have said her, but John knew he'd really meant us. "I understand, Buck. You have every right to feel that way, but you don't have to worry about it."
"Now why don't you run along on home? I'm sure Ida has a couple of things she wants to say to you."
Buck nodded. "I guess so." He stood up and John followed suit. Buck looked at him a moment before he gave him a quick hug. "Thanks, John."
John returned the embrace. "Anytime."
Buck pulled back. "Ummm, Mama doesn't need to know about this talk, does she?"
John chuckled imagining what Ida would say if she found out Buck had been here asking John about his intentions. "No, I think this can stay between us; man to man."
Buck grinned. "Good." He started towards the door but turned back before he reached it. "Hey, John. If mama did find out she was gonna have a baby, well, I don't think I'd mind."
John fought back another smile. "I'm glad to hear it, but I wouldn't get my hopes up expecting that to happen. Okay?"
Buck nodded somewhat reluctantly. "Okay."
"Now go on home, son." It wasn't the first time he'd called Buck son, and the term had slipped out without John even thinking about but Buck lit up just the same.
"Yes, sir," he replied before closing the door behind him.
Buck was in much better spirits by the time he got home. He'd found out more during his talk with John than he'd planned on, and he was delighted with what he'd heard. Not only was he convinced of John's feelings for his mother, but he'd found out that John thought of him as a son. Buck had never dreamed John would see him that way, and he couldn't imagine anything better. He'd spent more time than he'd ever let on to Mama thinking about his father and why the man had left them. He'd never wanted to hurt her by letting on how much he wished he had a father so always tried not to ask too many questions, but he'd always wished he could have met his father at least once. For the first time in his life, however, Buck didn't really care if he ever knew anything about the man or not. John had just told him he was just like his own son, and whoever Jack Horton was, he couldn't be as good a man as John Parker.
He was so lost in thought he didn't even see his mother when he got back home and started up to his room. It wasn't until she called his name he realized he wasn't alone. Buck was already halfway up the stairs but turned and found his mother regarding him with a sad smile. "I'd like to talk with you. Would you come here for a minute?"
Buck nodded and went back down the stairs. Mama put her arm around him and led him into her office. As soon as the door was closed she wrapped him in a hug. "I'm so sorry, baby," she told him kissing his head. "I never meant for you to find out like that."
"I'm not mad," he said. "But why didn't you tell me?"
Mama pulled away and led him over to the sofa in the corner, her arm going back around him as soon as they were seated. "I should have told you. I didn't because . . . there are a lot of people who wouldn't agree with John and I being together. We decided it would be better to keep things quiet. I didn't want you to have to deal with the things people might say or ask you, and I didn't want you to have to keep our secret. I thought it was what was best. I think I was wrong though, and I'm sorry."
Mama and John kept saying that, and he believed them, but he didn't understand it. Mama was a madam now. She spent her night walking the floor, making sure her girls were taken care of, and looking like a queen. Buck had always hated the word whore and never thought it applied to his mother, and it certainly didn't apply now.
"Why?" he asked. "Why should they care? You're not . . . you don't do that anymore."
Mama smiled that sad sort of smile again. "But I'm still here; still tied to this place. Certain people won't forget that, and it's important John maintain his reputation."
"I don't understand that."
"Sometimes I don't either, but that's the way it is."
Buck shrugged. "I'm really not mad about seeing John here. I just wish you would have told me. I'd have been happy."
"I made the decision I thought was best for all of us. I'm sorry if it wasn't the right one."
"But I don't care. I like John."
Mama chuckled. "I think it's safe to say you more than like John."
Buck smiled and looked down. "I guess so. I talked to him this afternoon."
Mama looked surprised. "You've already talked to him?"
Buck nodded. "On the way home." He had no intentions of telling Mama all they'd talked about, but he didn't think it would hurt if she knew some of it. "I wanted him to know I wasn't mad too."
"I see. What did you say?"
Buck shrugged. "Just that I didn't mind if he courted you." He looked at his mother eyes shining. "And you know what he said?"
"He said I was like his own son. That means we're . . . well, we're kinda like a family."
Mama smiled at him and pulled him into another hug. "Yes, it does."
"He said we'd always be that way."
Mama kissed him again. "If we have anything to say about it we will." They sat in silence for a minutes before Mama spoke again. "I am sorry, Buck."
Buck wrapped his arms around his mother. He was probably too old to be held like this but never before had he felt so accepted and so satisfied with life, and he just wanted his mama to hold him for a while. "It's alright," he told her. "There's no one else I'd rather you be with than John, and I'm happy."
Mama gave him yet another kiss. "So am I, baby. So am I."
A/N: I'm back. It's been a long time coming, but it's here. Thank you all for your patience.