A word of warning – This hasn't been betaed. I'm sure there are tons of mistakes, so read at your own risk. And if you do bother reading, thanks much!

Chapter 4

The wood gave way under the sharp axe blade, the power of Chris's swing easily splitting the log in two. He reached down and grabbed another piece, placed it on the tree stump and swung again, relishing the tug on his sluggish muscles as he worked. After nearly a week of bed rest, he was grateful for the distraction…and the solitude. Although he still had a little healing to do, the ache in his leg was all but gone, and he'd spent the last two days catching up on some long-overdue chores.

He swung the axe again, embedding the blade into the tree stump, and yanked the blue bandanna from the back pocket of his black pants. Wiping the sweat from his forehead, he scrutinized the pile of wood. It would be enough to get him by for a while. It was early April. The nights and mornings were still on the cold side, but the days were beginning to warm up. Soon, he would only need the wood for cooking. He shoved the bandanna back into his pants. Now he just had to stack it all on the porch.

He glanced up at the sun. Almost noon. He'd only had a couple cups of coffee for breakfast. He was hungry. The wood would wait until after lunch.

As he turned to walk back to the cabin, he heard the approach of a horse…wheels. A buckboard? He looked over his shoulder to see just that making its way toward him.

Chris knew if he didn't head back into town in the next day or two, Nathan would be riding out to see him. The former-slave wouldn't wait much longer before insisting on examining Chris's leg and making sure it was healing properly. Although, he'd brought bandage supplies with him when he left Four Corners three days ago, Larabee had gotten the impression that the healer didn't quite trust his ability to look after his injury. Until Nathan got to see the wound again with his own eyes, he wouldn't be satisfied.

But as the buckboard got closer, it became very clear that it wasn't Nathan driving it.

Mary? Damn!

Chris's gaze fell to the ground as his gut tightened. She'd tormented him his first night back at the cabin, but for the last two days, he'd successfully kept her from his thoughts and dreams. It had been the most restful sleep he'd gotten since the shooting. The time away had done him good.

He lifted his sights back to the approaching widow, his jaw clenching against the enticing sight. But apparently it hadn't been enough time. Was there enough time? In the day, in the week, in the year?

Get hold of yourself, Larabee. Shake it off. You can control this.

Taking a deep breath, Chris did his best to summon his debilitated defenses. She shouldn't be out here. He didn't want her out here. She was intruding on his privacy. Poking her nose in where it didn't belong. Larabee grasped at the anger, desperate for it to shield him from her unrelenting influence, but it was a meager barrier, the paltry irritation he managed nothing compared to what it should be. The wall around his heart crumbled a little more, his efforts to rebuild it pathetically inadequate.

Chris pursed his lips in frustration.

You really are a weak bastard, aren't you? If you truly care about her, you'll show some guts, some spine. The hole in your leg. Remember? You got shot. You'll get shot again. Or maybe next time, she'll get shot instead of you.

A genuine anger flared to life, and Chris embraced it, determined fists forming at his sides. He wasn't weak. Neither Mary nor Billy would suffer because of him. He would begin repairing the wall. He would bury his unwavering affection. He didn't have a choice.

Renewed resolve flowed through Chris as Mary pulled the buckboard to a stop a few feet from the pile of wood.

"Good afternoon, Mister Larabee." The widow wrapped the reins around the break handle and proceeded to get down from the wagon. Before Chris could get to her to give her a hand, she was on the ground.

"Miz Travis." Larabee gave a slight bow of his head as he stopped, standing next to the wood pile. "Didn't expect to see you out this way. Is everything okay?" The possibility of trouble in town suddenly hit him.

A scowl tightened his features as he took an urgent step closer to Mary. Silently, he waited for her reply, but one wasn't forthcoming. His frown deepened, and he searched her face for some indication of an answer. It was almost as though she hadn't heard him. She seemed oddly distracted somehow, her gaze centered on his shoulders before trailing down his chest.

He looked down at himself. He knew he was dirty, but he didn't think he was too—


He wasn't too dirty. He was too naked.

He looked to his left, then to his right and spotted his shirt lying across some of the wood he'd cut. He reached over and snatched it up. Pushing his arms into the sleeves, he dared a look in Mary's direction. With her lower lip caught between her teeth, her gaze met his. A smoldering hunger stared back at him, the same hunger he'd witnessed the morning she'd brought him breakfast-brilliant, compelling.

An answering need rose quickly, Chris's body tightening as the desire darted over him.

No! Hell, no!

He dropped his sights to concentrate on the ground while he buttoned his shirt.

"Yes…yes, everything's fine…ah..." Mary's voice faltered a moment. "I…ah...had to come out this way, so I…I thought- I thought I'd stop by to look in on you. To…see how you're doing."

"I'm good. Doin' fine. Leg's feelin' much better." Chris lifted his head, his attention gravitating back to Mary. He pushed a subtle smile to his lips, awkwardness still thick between them.

Mary avoided looking directly at him, the pink on her lovely cheeks bright as she nodded. "Yes, I can see you're…you've been getting some work done." She raised a hand to indicate the fire wood. "I hope you haven't been overdoing it."

"Nope. My leg's almost healed. The work isn't botherin' it." The concern in her voice tugged at his heart, but he pushed back against the dangerous reaction. "So, you can tell Nathan he can stop worryin'. I'll stop in to see him when I get back into town." Chris took a step forward in an effort to shepard Mary back to the buckboard and send her on her way.

The breeze shifted only slightly, but it was enough. It was too much. The delicate hint of lavender slammed into his senses, a scented kick to his gut, a perfumed assault on his control. Clenching his teeth, he struggled against the gentle attack.

"Thanks for comin' out, Miz Travis. Let the boys know I'll be headin' back to town in another day or so." Chris put a determined hand on Mary's elbow as he began to steer her back toward the wagon.

"I almost forgot." Mary pulled her arm from Chris's grasp and walked to the buckboard. She lifted a covered pot from the floorboard and turned back around. "I brought you some stew and an apple pie. There should be enough here for a few meals. If you don't get tired of it, that is."

The gracious smile on Mary's face drew a defeated sigh from Chris. Okay, stew. Apple pie. Okay. He returned her smile, accepting as the fates seemed to be working against him. "I could never get tired of your stew, Mary. Let me have that." He took the iron pot from her. "Grab the pie."

With a cheerful nod, Mary obeyed, and they made their way to the cabin. Chris opened the door and indicated the kitchen table. The stew and the pie were placed on it before Larabee picked up a bucket from the corner of the room. "Now, get yourself a drink and sit here and rest a minute while I go water your horse. He'll need it before the ride back into town."

Chris worked the pump. The water filled the bucket quickly, and he made his way over to the gelding harnessed to the buckboard. Larabee lifted the bucket up to the horse's mouth and allowed the animal to drink as he continued to grapple with the situation. "I'm tryin', boy. Believe me, I'm tryin'." He confessed to the horse, for all the good it did him.

She looked lovely today. Nothing new. The blue flowered dress brought out the color of her eyes. She wore her hair loose, the golden strands falling to her shoulders, catching the sun; delicate silk beckoning his touch.

His grip tightened on the bucket. No touching, damn it. You need to sit her pretty little behind in the buckboard and point her towards town.

With the horse watered and ready for his trip back to Four Corners, Chris walked to the cabin, Mary's immediate departure uppermost in his mind.

He entered the small building to find a plate, spoon and fork neatly placed at the end of the table, and Mary at the stove.

"I thought I'd heat some of this up for you before I left." The widow said over her shoulder as she stirred the stew.

The picture she presented overwhelmed him, a stubborn need heating his blood while a painful sorrow crept into his mind. She stood in his home fixing him dinner. Innocent enough; a simple fantasy he would never tire of reliving; a longed-for reality he could never allow for.

"No!" The denial shot from Chris as he wrestled with the perilous want rushing through him, his puny resolve suddenly all but gone. He couldn't take it anymore, anger coming to his aid as he stalked to the stove and yanked the still-cool pot from the hot burner. "You have to go. Now."

Visibly startled, Mary retreated a few steps, her eyes large with shock and confusion. "I didn't mean… I only wanted to… I…I...shouldn't have...come. I'm..." Her eyes fell to the floor as her voice seemed to fail her, the crack of tears barely audible before the silence.

The sound sucked the rage right out of Chris, a deep breath leaving him as he started to try and clear the air. "Mary, I..."

"I'm...sorry, Chris." The quick apology interrupted him and kept him riveted with surprise until she continued, as if on a mission to explain herself. "It's just...well, I had to know. I had to make sure. You're still hurt. You shouldn't be out here by yourself. I had to be certain. Steven was...killed three years ago yesterday and... after visiting his grave this morning I just... I...had to see for myself. It was silly, I suppose. But…I…had to know that you were all right. I had to."

The tortured eyes that sought Chris's face begged for his understanding, his patience. The widow's raw pain, her palpable fear, reached out and grabbed him, shaking him to his core. It tore at his gut and hammered at his heart.

"This was a terrible mistake." The quiet declaration left Mary as she seemed to misread the anguished expression on Chris's face. "I'll go."

She placed the spoon on the stove before heading for the door, but only took two steps before Chris caught her arm, stopping her in her tracks. "No, Mary."

Staring down at her bent head, Chris willed her to look at him, to forgive him. Agony tightened his throat and worked the muscles in his jaw. He couldn't let her leave. Not like this.

Tears shimmered in the smoky eyes that finally rose to meet his, and behind the moisture, the pain and fear lingered. "I had to know, Chris. I just had to know."

With the whispered confession, the last vestiges of Chris's purpose vanished, the need to console her taking over, guilt over his harsh action driving him to calm her fear. When he pulled her into his arms, his only thought was to comfort. But before he knew what was happening, the sympathetic lips he touched to her temple slowly moved to caress her satin cheek, eventually finding the luscious treasure of her supple mouth-warm, willing.

The kiss was hesitant at first, a faint voice of concern beating in the back of his mind. Although he didn't seem to be able to stop himself, Chris nonetheless knew what he was doing was wrong, and he had no wish to frighten her.

The light contact was a test of sorts, a question. One she answered decidedly, passionately. Increasing the pressure, Mary slipped her arms around Chris's neck, fingers threading through his hair, eager. Encouraged by her response, Larabee pulled her closer, the contact of her slender body heightening his need. Greedy for her, he deepened the kiss, tasting, coaxing. With a low moan, she opened for him, accepting of his hunger, demonstrating some of her own.

Chris slid his hands around Mary's waist and up her back, pulling her tighter as he cradled her head, her hair as silky as he'd dreamed it would be. Unable to get enough, he gorged himself on her tender mouth, lost in her heavenly sweetness. Light pressure on his chest finally brought him down to earth when he realized Mary was pushing him away.

Regret pummeled his thoughts as he dropped his hands from her hair and stepped back. He'd been too aggressive, gone too far. "Mary, I...I'm sorry. I...I shouldn't have-"

A soft finger pressed to his lips silenced Larabee's awkward apology. Shaking her head, Mary took a deep breath. "I needed a little air." Leaning forward, she boldly rested the length of her beautiful body against Chris's, and he felt the fire in his groin leap higher as it threatened to completely engulf him. Did she have any idea what she was doing to him?

"It's all right, Chris." Mary's inviting mouth hovered just under his as she lifted her face with the gentle reassurance, an unmistakable offering he found impossible to ignore. A tender hand reached up and silky fingers caressed his cheek. "Please."

The simple word was little more than a breathless whisper, but the strength of its affect was immeasurable as the unspoken request stripped from Chris what meager control he had left, the passionate need burning in her eyes adding fuel to the raw desire that held him prisoner. He had no other ambition but to give her what she wanted; to take what he craved with every muscle in his body, with every thought in his head.

End Chapter 4