Declarations of the Heart



Dearest Mary,

As always, you looked lovely today, the morning sun providing an impeccable frame for your beauty as you happily delivered this week's edition of The Clarion News. I never tire of admiring the exquisite picture you make. In fact, it only enforces my need to draw that perfection closer to me.

Admiration from afar is no longer enough for me, my beautiful one. The time is now right for me to emerge from the shadows. I have written the last few notes to tell you how I feel and to prepare you for the changes that are about to take place in your life. You are everything I want. We belong together. You are mine, and I am now prepared to claim what belongs to me. I will reveal myself to you in due course. We will be together very soon.

Yours forever,

Deeply Devoted

The skin along Mary's backbone crawled with a prickly fear as she crumpled the piece of paper into a tight, little ball, wishing she could somehow make the disturbing note disappear, along with its author.

This was the fourth time in almost as many weeks the widow had returned to her office to find an envelope pushed under the door, the word "Dearest" very neatly written on the front. However, this was the boldest admission by far. Until now, he had only conveyed the feelings he held for her, the first note more like something a heartsick school boy would write to his pretty teacher. She'd been oddly flattered and hadn't in any way felt threatened by the youthful enthusiasm. But the tone of the letters had shifted with this latest confession, and the widow had to admit that it frightened her. Another sliver of cold dread shot down her back. She no longer felt flattered, no longer found it amusing.

He was out there somewhere, watching her. The new revelation churned the fear a little faster as her eyes gravitated to the front window of The Clarion. Was he watching her now? Did he follow her? Where did he hide? Who was he? Was this really just a harmless crush? As the questions rushed through her head, the fear evolved into a keen panic.

Rising from the desk chair, Mary tentatively walked to the window. Her eyes scanned the busy, midday street of Four Corners as she struggled to calm the paralyzing apprehension that had begun to fog her mind, the sight having a soothing effect as she viewed the familiar scene. It was a peaceful day in the small, western town; friends and neighbors caught up in the activities of daily life, doing their best to make that life pleasant and livable. There was nothing frightening in what she saw, nothing ominous.

But the little town was growing, and as she skimmed the faces of passersby, there were several she didn't recognize. With the realization, the uneasy feeling returned. Could he be the one? Mary's eyes followed a tall stranger crossing the street, heading for the saloon. Or perhaps him? She spotted another unfamiliar figure making his way to the livery.

What if he wasn't a stranger? What if he was someone she knew, someone she came into contact with on a regular basis, someone who had misinterpreted a casual word or look?

And what if, she tried to rein in the chaotic speculations, you're simply making a mountain out of a molehill? What if you're blowing these harmless little notes way out of proportion?

A rueful smile tugged at her lips as she scolded herself. What if this is just a fourteen-year-old boy whose infatuation will only last another week or two before he finds someone else to shower his attention on?

It certainly seemed the most likely explanation. However... The language used in the notes didn't quite fit the vocabulary of a schoolboy. Then again, a well-read schoolboy might be able to manage the flowery prose. But how likely was that, really? She didn't know, but, for some inexplicable reason, she didn't want to believe what her better judgement was trying to tell her.

Mary's sigh was short and determined. She was overreacting, placing such sinister designs on the letters. It was nothing short of silly.

Just as she reached the embarrassing conclusion, her eyes fell on the hauntingly familiar figure of Chris Larabee as he took up a spot directly across the street from the paper, holding up a post as he too surveyed the activity of the town.

Mary's pulse unwittingly beat an extra time or two as she studied him. Even in his customary black, he never failed to stir a more basic, primal part of her, his hard, lean body and handsome face conjuring a forbidden need. He was one of the most attractive men she'd ever met, and his physical appearance was never lost on her. Indeed, it was an attribute she found impossible to overlook.

But there was so much more to Chris than a handsome face, and the discovery of those finer qualities over the last two years had proved to be her undoing. Oh, there were some not-so-fine things about him. No one was perfect, and Chris Larabee might be a little farther away from perfection than most, but that didn't seem to make a difference to Mary's heart. Despite the very logical, practical arguments she'd waged over and over with herself about the recklessness of her feelings for him, she'd done it, nonetheless. She'd fallen in love with him.

This time the widow's sigh was slow, thoughtful. She was still having some difficulty coming to terms with her acceptance of what now seemed inevitable almost from the day she met Chris Larabee. The awareness was very new to her, still somewhat of a shock. She'd only allowed herself to recognize her true feelings a couple of weeks ago, after all.

As she had a dozen times before, the widow had watched Chris lift her son onto his horse and climb up to settle in behind Billy, the fishing poles tucked securely in the saddlebag. The gunman had offered her a warm smile and assured her, "I'll have him home in time for supper, Mary. With any luck, we may even bring supper back with us."

"I'll look forward to it. You two be careful and have a good day."

"See ya, Ma." Billy had raised a hand to wave as Chris turned Outlaw around to head down the street.

I love you. The words had formed in her mind and nearly took her breath away when she realized that she hadn't directed them only at Billy, her eyes trained on Chris's retreating form as they echoed in her head. The pledge had been made to both, her son and Chris.

The surprise lasted several long seconds before she'd found the fortitude to shake herself from its grasp, curiosity momentarily freeing her from the overwhelming astonishment.

"I love you, Chris Larabee." Unable to stop herself, Mary had whispered the heart-felt declaration aloud, venturing to hear what it sounded like on her lips. To her astounded ears, it had sounded right, true.

Since that day, she'd been wrestling with the admission and the emotion it evoked, the confusion it fostered. Guilt had been the first thing she experienced. Until she'd met Chris, she hadn't thought herself capable of loving again. Steven had been her friend, her partner, her other half. Falling in love again seemed wrong somehow, almost traitorous. It was that unshakeable feeling that had made her turn down Gerard's proposal. That and the simple fact that she hadn't truly loved him.

Chris, however, was an entirely different story. Mary no longer had any doubts about the feelings she held for him. The love was there, and it was strong--stronger than she would have dreamed possible. And even though Steven had been dead for nearly three years, she was finding it hard to extinguish the tiny spark of shame that flickered in the back of her mind, telling her that she was betraying him, that she was turning her back on his memory.

Again, Mary steeled herself against the distressing self-incrimination. She would always love Steven, always carry him in her heart, but he was gone and she was here, very much alive. As decadent as it sounded, she needed...she wanted. Her gaze continued to be transfixed by Chris as she fought to stifle the ache he encouraged. She hadn't been looking for it to happen, it simply had, with no real cooperation on her part. Regardless of the tide of opposition she'd rallied against her growing love for the gunman, she had finally succumbed to it. She'd put up a good fight, but in the end, it hadn't made one bit of difference, and deep inside, she knew Steven would want her to go on with her life.

Go on? Where was she to go from here? As far as she knew, she was in this...situation all by herself. How did Chris feel? She couldn't be entirely sure. She couldn't even be somewhat sure, for that matter. She'd had inklings that he might feel the same way--a look here, a touch there, but he'd never come close to saying anything that would strengthen her hope that he cared for her the same way she cared for him. If he felt it, she needed to hear him say it.

How long could she stand in silence and wonder? A smile suddenly curved Mary's mouth. If Chris did feel anything for her, she might be a hundred years old before he got around to telling her. Opening up was definitely not one of his strong points, after all. And... The smile disappeared. She knew the memory of his own family still haunted him.

So, what now? The questions continued to hound her. What next? Should she make the first move? Should she walk up to him and tell him in no uncertain terms how she felt about him, bare her heart to him? The very idea nearly had her quaking in her boots. What if he didn't return her feelings? The possibility not only scared the wits out of her, but she found it extremely painful. Did she have the courage to open herself up to the unknown? She wasn't sure. But her happiness was worth the risk, surely?

Mary's hands clenched with the frustration of her musings, pulling her attention back to the crumpled piece of paper in her fist. Opening her hand, she looked down at the bothersome note before centering her sights back on Chris, the earlier fear all but forgotten. What would he think of her secret admirer? Would he be jealous? Or would he care at all?

As she continued to contemplate Chris, Mary watched Gloria Potter approach him. Her pleasant smile was returned as he straightened from the post and tipped his hat.

He has such a wonderful smile. The stray thought flashed through Mary's mind as she wished she could see it a little more often.

The conversation was short, Chris barely doing anything other than nodding his head a couple of times. Another tip of the gunman's hat and Gloria turned and started across the street. When Mary realized she was making her way toward the paper, she quickly moved away from the window. She was seated at her desk when Gloria entered the office, the note a distant memory as it lay at the bottom of the waste bin next to her desk.

End part 1