Standard fanfic disclaimer that wouldn't last ten seconds in a court of law: these aren't my characters, I'm just borrowing them for, um, typing practice. That's it, typing practice. I'll return them to their actual owners (relatively) undamaged. This is an amateur work of fiction; no profit beyond pleasure was derived from the writing.

Tongue-Tied

Originally published in Magnificent Love #2 by Neon RainBow Press

by Susan M. M.

"Mama, Mama, look!" Billy Travis ran toward his mother, proudly displaying a string of fish.

"My goodness!" Mary Travis admired the fish with maternal pride. "Did you catch them all by yourself?"

"Chris helped me pull in the big one," the seven year old admitted, "but I got the other two all by myself."

"I hope he was well behaved for you?" she asked.

Chris Larabee nodded.

"And how was your luck?" the blonde journalist inquired.

"Caught four myself. Dropped 'em off at my place," the green-eyed gunslinger explained. "Gonna smoke 'em."

"Well, I'm going to fry these ones up for dinner tonight. Would you like to join us?" she invited.

"Please, Chris?" Billy chimed in.

Chris allowed the shadow of a smile to escape his normally stern visage. "Ain't fool enough to turn down one of your home-cooked meals, Mary."

After dinner, Chris and Mary sat on the porch.

"Thank you for making time for Billy. It means a lot to him."

"A boy needs a father," Chris replied. He didn't add that a father needed a boy. The only way he could deal with his grief for Adam was by keeping it locked away.

After a long pause, he continued, "We – we've both been alone a long time. A man needs a woman to tend to him and take care of him. A woman needs a man to protect her and provide for her."

Mary wondered if he was about to pop the question. It sounded more like a business proposition than a marriage proposal. She didn't want a one-sided marriage, with one person caring and the other merely comfortable. She'd almost prefer an indecent proposition if it had honest affection behind it (and honest lust, if she were truthful with herself. The nights had been long and lonely since Steven's death.)

When she didn't reply, Chris changed the subject. "Billy's old enough to learn to play chess. I thought I'd make him a set and teach him, if you didn't mind."

"No, I don't mind," Mary said.

Chris picked up a scrap of wood, pulled his knife from his pocket, and began whittling.

Mary smiled to herself. She knew Chris well enough to know he wasn't in that big a hurry to start making a chess set. He was just keeping his hands busy to keep his nerves at bay.

Words fell away from them. They sat in the twilight in companionable silence.

"You 'member when I first came to town?" Chris asked.

Mary nodded. She remembered very well. He had frightened her, more than a little, but intrigued her as well. He was the first man she'd noticed was a man since Steven died.

"You tried to exaggerate my reputation in the Clarion to frighten away the bad element."

"And you said, 'Lady, I am the bad element'," she chuckled.

"I'm not so bad as I was then," Chris told her.

"I never thought you were."

"When you nearly married Gerard, I – well, I didn't -- It hurt."

Mary turned to him. "You never said anything at the time."

"I knew he could do better by you than I could," Chris confessed. "Dog-gone it, Mary, I ain't good with words like Ezra, or all romantical like Buck, but darn it, Mary, I –"

She leaned over and kissed him, stopping the flow of babble. She smiled at him, her blue eyes sparkling. She knew his feelings were real, since he was having so much trouble expressing them. "If you're asking me to marry you, the answer is yes."

Chris broke into a relieved smile and kissed her back.