Chris had been the last person Mary expected to see today when she'd heard the door to the Clarion open. She'd honestly thought after what happened last night Chris would go back to avoiding her. It hadn't even crossed her mind that he would show up to apologize for his behavior. She certainly hadn't dreamed he would repeat anything from last night, but he had. Chris Larabee had just told her he loved her. He wasn't in a drunken stupor, and he wasn't caught up in the throes of passion. He was sober, solemn, and sounded completely sincere. And Mary had no idea how to respond.

Mary blinked the tears from her eyes as she studied the man in front of her. She tried to put a name on the expression he wore. It wasn't defeat; resignation maybe. Did he honestly believe she wouldn't want to talk to him again? That she could simply let him walk out of her life? She had decided last night that wasn't possible. However, she didn't think she was ready to throw her arms around him and tell him all was forgiven, either. As much as she'd wanted to hear Chris tell her exactly what he just had, she couldn't forget about the last few months. She couldn't forget that he'd left and gone to another woman.

She'd told Chris he didn't owe her an explanation regarding Ella, and she'd spent a lot of time convincing herself that was true. She and Chris had never had any kind of understanding. No promises had ever been made and they hadn't even openly confessed they felt anything for one another. He did have the right to be with anyone he wanted without having to justify himself to her. Even so, she hadn't liked it when he'd left, she'd felt something about the situation wasn't right, and when she'd found out a little about what had happened, it hurt. Truth be told, it still hurt, but being hurt, maybe even a little angry, didn't mean she was ready to push Chris out of her life forever. He needed to know that too, especially since he was standing at her door looking so lost and alone.

"You don't have to leave," she told him closing the distance between them.

He remained silent but some of the uncertainty left his eyes as she stepped towards him.

By the time she was in front of him Chris still hadn't said a word and Mary decided if they were going to get anywhere, she was going to have to continue. "Thank you," she said. "For telling me about . . . everything." She had moved in closer than she had originally intended to, but she'd found it hard to stop herself while she was staring into those intense green eyes of his.

"After what I did last night, you deserved to know everything." Chris sighed. "Mary, when I left I planned on comin' back."

"I know. Buck explained some things."

"Buck's got a big mouth," he mumbled.

Mary smiled slightly. She could tell he wasn't really upset with Buck. The smile faded as she thought about some of the things Buck had told her. Mary was certain that woman had changed all of them in some way, even if it was indirectly. "It wasn't easy for anyone was it?"

"I'd change it if I could."

That deep sadness was back in his eyes and Mary's heart twisted at the sight. Yes, she was hurt, and there was even a part of her that was mad, but she knew Chris had to be hurting too. She didn't approve of the way he'd been dealing with that pain, but she understood why he'd been doing it. She remembered all too well how betrayed she had felt when she'd found out Stephen's killer had been living in town, so close to her, for all those months. She couldn't begin to imagine how betrayed Chris felt, being as close to Ella as he'd been. He didn't have the satisfaction of knowing Ella would pay for her crimes.

The longer she stood there, the more confused she became. She still didn't know how to respond to Chris. She wanted to believe everything he'd told her, but there was still a lingering doubt that she could trust him. But oh, how she wished she could. She wished it just as much as she wished she could make all that pain in his eyes disappear. "Chris," she said reaching up and softly touching his cheek.

Chris' eyes locked with hers and something, Mary wasn't sure what, passed between them. Chris closed what little distance remained between them and kissed her. Kissed her long and good much as he had last night, except there was no alcohol fueling this one, and Mary responded to him. Her arms went around his neck and she returned the kiss, putting just as much effort into it as Chris was. She wanted this, she wanted him, she had for a long time now, and she wanted this to last.

They broke apart only when Chris' need for air made him, and even then he didn't release her. He stood there, his forehead on hers, panting slightly, and Mary relished the contact, hardly believing this was real. She loved Chris. She could admit that now. There were some things they needed to work through, but as long as they loved each other they could do it. As long as Chris was willing to stand by her and Billy, they could work everything out.

Mary stiffened; her heart skipping a beat when she thought of her son. Chris noticed the difference in her posture and peered down at her. "Mary?"

Mary stepped out of his embrace. Berating herself for letting Chris sweep her away from her good sense again and dismayed that she was only now thinking of Billy. "I'm sorry, Chris. I shouldn't have done that." She loved the man, but she wasn't ready for this, not yet. There was still too much she was unsure of. She forced herself to meet his eyes and when she did she saw the hurt in them. No, it wasn't hurt, it was pain. Pain far more severe than she'd seen last night. And this time, she had put it there.

She was about to apologize again when he smiled slightly, hiding some of the intensity. "It's all right. I understand." He took a step back. "Goodbye, Mary."

"No." She grabbed his arm this time. She wasn't letting him walk away until he knew exactly what she was thinking. If only she could sort it out. "I don't . . . I . . . I need . . . time. I just need some time."

"Time?"

Mary nodded. "I'm . . . I don't think I'm ready for this, Chris. Not yet."

Chris dropped his eyes for a moment, and when he looked back up that flicker of pain had returned. "Would you have been ready a few months ago?"

"Are you ready for this?" Mary didn't intend for the question to sound like an accusation, but she knew it did. She wasn't trying to add to Chris' guilt, but he needed to understand where she stood, too. He was claiming to love her, yet he'd been willing to stay with Ella in spite of that. Maybe they hadn't had an understanding, but it seemed he'd put her away awfully easily for someone he professed to love. She could see where Chris was coming from in regards to Ella being "safe", but that didn't change that he'd left her without a word of warning or a goodbye.

"I'm willing to try," Chris replied.

"I don't know if that's good enough." Knowing how that must have sounded, she rushed to explain her meaning. "What I mean is this isn't about just me, Chris. I have to think of Billy too." Billy was confused already; Mary didn't want to add to that confusion by formally being courted by Chris, at least not yet.

Billy had no idea of what had really gone on at Ella's ranch. Mary told him Chris had left to help a friend, and as far as she was concerned Billy would continue to think that. The boy had asked questions while Chris was gone, concerned by the man's absence. When Chris had come home with a hole in his side that concern had grown, but Mary managed to answer her son's questions without too much trouble. Then Chris started drinking again. The questions Billy now had as to why Chris didn't act the way he always had, or why his mother wasn't as keen on him spending time with the man he idolized as she had once been, were harder to answer.

Mary sighed. She didn't doubt Chris loved Billy, and she was believing more and more that he really loved her, but the question was, did he love them enough? "He thinks the world of you already, Chris, and he's been confused for the last several weeks. What happens if we start something and you get closer, and then you decide to leave again?"

"I ain't plannin' on leavin' here."

Mary smiled sadly. "That's the problem. You didn't plan it when you left with Miss Gains either, but you were going to stay with her." She didn't want to say it, she hated saying it, but Billy's well-being was of paramount importance. She couldn't let Chris get that close to them, let Billy believe Chris was a permanent part of their lives, only to have to pick up the pieces if Chris were to decide he couldn't be what they needed him to be. She was willing to risk that for herself, but not her son.

Chris sighed. "I didn't mean for that to happen, Mary. I know I hurt you but you have to understand, I never wanted it to be like that. I never wanted this to happen."

"But it did happen. You said she was easy, safe. I can't promise we'll be easy or safe. What if you get tired? What if you decide we're not worth the trouble . . . "

"Mary . . . ."

"I can't do that to him. I can't let you in until I know you're ready for us." Mary found she had to blink the tears from her eyes once more. "I love you too, Chris, and I'll forgive you. But I can't trust you right now."

Chris looked miserable but nodded. "Alright."

"I'm sorry, Chris. I don't want to do it this way, but I need time. Can you give me that? Can you give me time to . . . figure everything out?"

Chris cocked his head a little. The sadness was still in his eyes, but a ghost of a smile found its way to his lips. "Time for me to prove I'm worth my salt?"

Mary's cheeks flushed as she looked away. She didn't want Chris to think he had to earn his forgiveness, she just needed to know he was serious about this.

"Mary." Chris gently lifted her chin, making her meet his eyes. "Don't feel bad about it. You're giving me more than I deserve."

"I need to know you mean it."

"I know. You're right to think of him first." Leaning in, he gently kissed her forehead. "Take all the time you need. I'm not going anywhere."

Mary smiled. A little heartbroken she'd had to tell him to wait, but hopeful things would come together soon. "Thank you," she told him before kissing his cheek.

Chris returned the smile and the kiss, but not on the cheek. Once again his lips met hers, but this time, it was brief, sweet, and full of . . . love. It didn't contain the fiery passion of their last kiss, but Mary could feel the love behind the simple action, and that made it even better.

Chris moved to leave but he paused at the door, his brows furrowed as though he was deep in thought.

"Chris?" Mary asked concerned by how contemplative he now looked. "What is it?"

Chris faced her. "I just started thinkin' about somethin'."

"What?"

"I think I'm gonna go out to my place for a few days."

"Why?" Mary flushed again when she heard how panicked her tone sounded.

Chris smiled ruefully. "I've been holdin' on pretty tight to that bottle lately. I could use a little time to sort things out, too."

"I see," Mary said understanding dawning on her. Chris had been drinking heavily for several weeks now. His body would again have to become accustomed to not having a steady supply of alcohol. "When do you think you'll be back?"

"I'll need a few days, at least."

"Friday?"

"I am comin' back, Mary. I swear."

"No, that's not . . . what I meant was, if you're home and you feel up to it, you could join me and Billy for supper Saturday night."

"I'll be back for that." The smile that accompanied the answer wasn't quite a Chris Larabee smile, but it was the closest thing to one Mary had seen for a good long while. He crossed over to her again and delivered another once of those sweet, simple kisses. "And when I get back, I plan on showin' you just how serious I am about you. And Billy." He gave her another smile before walking out the door.

For a long moment, Mary stared at the door Chris had just left through. Her fingers touched her lips, and she smiled remembering the kisses Chris had left her with. She did need time, but she was thinking she wouldn't need as much as she first thought she would. She was becoming more certain by the minute that Chris had meant every word of what he'd come over to tell her. She loved Chris Larabee, and very soon he would be hers, and Mary had no intention of letting him go.

A/N: I'm calling this one done, for now. Thank you to everyone who read, reviewed, followed or favorited. I am planning on a sequel, but I have to get some work done on my other stories first. If you want something that will kind of show you where Chris' head is right now, go listen to the Gary Allen song Her Man.