Chris and company don't belong to me. I'm just borrowing them for a short while.

Safely Home

by

C7

Chris Larabee sat stiffly on his horse as the black gelding slowly made its way onto the dusty main street of Four Corners, the passenger seated across the saddle in front of him making his natural, easy stance on the animal rigid and awkward. It wasn't that he couldn't ride well with another person sharing the saddle, but the closeness of this particular passenger was having a most disrupting affect on his body and mind. He couldn't bring himself to relax. Or...maybe he was afraid to allow himself to relax. His heartbeat still hadn't settled into a normal rhythm, but he was sure that was just from the excitement of the rescue he'd just completed. It had nothing at all to do with the woman he held in his arms. Nothing.

Chris looked down at the golden head of Mary Travis as it rested on his shoulder, another bolt of awareness shooting through him as the movement of the horse caused her slim, supple body to rub against his. Each step the animal took resulted in a moment of agonizing friction between them that had the muscles throughout his entire body tied in knots. What the hell? This wasn't right. It wasn't possible. What the hell was the matter with him?

The gunslinger felt a shudder move through the small body that rested against his and cursed his failure to shield her from harm. Unconsciously, he pulled her closer into the safety of his arms and again tried to ignore the uncontrollable stirrings in his body when her soft, slender arms tightened their hold around his waist.

No. Larabee steeled himself against the tender feeling that tried to worm its way into his heart. He didn't feel anything for this woman. He couldn't feel anything for this woman. He wasn't even sure if the word 'friendship' could be used between them yet. He and the other six men had only been in town a few weeks. Chris respected her determination and grit, nothing more. A woman trying to make her way alone in the untamed frontier deserved his admiration. He did admire her, but he didn't feel anything else.

Nothing. The gunman continued to silently beat the unwanted, emerging emotions into submission. They were dead. Dead. They had died three years ago, burned to ash in the fire that had stolen his family from him. The feelings couldn't be resurrected. Could they? No. He didn't want them to be resurrected. Damn it! No!

But it was too late. The feelings had already stared to stir. From the moment he'd watched this determined woman hold a shotgun up against a group of drunken, Texas cowhands set on a lynching, he'd felt a crack in the wall, seen a splinter of light cut through the darkness. He'd been able to dismiss the assault at the time, to push the surprising recognition into hiding. But when Nora ran into the saloon and told them Wickes had taken Mary Travis and threatened to kill her, the crack in the once impenetrable barrier around his heart opened a little wider, a cascade of unfamiliar fear and seething anger flooding his mind. The sharp stab of anguished panic that had sliced through him made it impossible to ignore his budding feelings for the widow. The thought of Mary in the hands of the vengeful brothel owner had driven the knife of dread deeper while Chris scolded himself for his failure to do his job. She was a resident of the town he had been hired to protect. Like everyone else in the small community, her safety was his responsibility. But... His arms tightened another fraction around the small form that leaned against him. From the moment she'd been taken, Mary had become more to him than simply one of the townspeople he was paid to protect. The renegade emotions had started their unmerciful trek through the break in the wall, and he seemed powerless to stop them. No. As he steered his horse into a spot in front of the Clarion office, Chris Larabee continued to silently deny his heart's response to the woman in his arms.

As they made their way down the street, Chris had been oblivious to the residents of the town as they bustled around him and the seven other riders. But when he stopped his horse and quickly surveyed his surroundings, he became conscious of the odd looks he and his passenger were receiving. Damn, Larabee quietly cursed. He should have thought about the impropriety of the situation, its effect on Mary and her status in the community. He didn't give a damn what the general population thought of him. But at the time, after Buck had finally killed Wickes and they had gotten to their horses, Chris hadn't thought about anything but getting Mary out of there as quickly as possible. When they'd started to mount up, they were one horse short. Taking Mary with him had just seemed...well...natural. She hadn't objected, so here they were. Here they were.

Gazing down again, Chris watched Mary raise her head and look up into his face. The picture before him caused a tight fist of anger to churn in his gut as a dark frown hardened his brow. The anger was directed at both Wickes and himself, but mostly at himself. After all, Wickes was dead. He'd been punished for what he'd done. Chris, on the other hand, was still alive, still feeling, as much as he tried not to, as much as he didn't want to. The regret and shame, like small splinters of glass, started to slice their way into his mind. He'd let this happen. She'd been hurt because of him. He'd tried to help Lydia and the others, but things had gotten out of hand. He hadn't been able to protect Mary, keep her safe. And now, she sat in his arms scared, beaten and bruised. His jaw clenched when he recognized the remnant of fear that still lingered in her blue eyes, the ugly bruise discoloring the normally creamy skin around her eye sending a fresh jolt of rage surging through him.

Pulling her arms from around Chris's waist, Mary leaned back as far as the saddle would allow. The gunslinger watched a rosy blush cross her cheeks as she dropped her eyes from his and glanced around at the other riders as they stopped their mounts on either side of the pair. She seemed abruptly aware of the people around her, and Chris felt the cool distance, which had all but disappeared during this recent ordeal, begin to grow between them once again. When he acknowledged the regression, his mind forcefully balked at the thought. His hungry stare traveled from the honey softness of her hair as it flowed down her back, to the beautiful, proud profile that was close enough to touch. His grip on the reins tightened as he checked the movement of a rebellious hand when it started to reach out to caress a smooth, pink cheek. Hell, he cursed again. This is crazy.

Where was it coming from? This damnable ache of tenderness. This weakening twinge of longing. He didn't have these feelings anymore. He couldn't have these feelings anymore. Distance was the only thing that could be between him and Mary Travis. It was the only safe thing for them to share. The gunman had a way of destroying people that got too close to him. His mouth tightened as he pushed back against the guilt that washed over him as he remembered his wife and son. He was no good, no good for anybody, especially someone like the widow Travis. But the hard logic he tried so desperately to interject into the mental battle he waged with himself didn't seem to be having much of an effect on his body or his heart. He wanted... No. Chris stubbornly refused to give into the increasing need. If he ignored it, buried it deep inside, smothered it, it would go away. It had to go away.

"Mister Larabee." Mary's shaky, uncertain voice pulled Chris back from the abyss of his reeling thoughts. He met her anguished gaze and felt another jab of guilt tear through him as he once again came face to face with the result of his failure to protect her. The color in her cheeks deepened before her eyes left his to concentrate on some unknown spot behind his head, her nervous tone a light whisper when she finally continued to speak. "I..."

"Miz. Travis?" Nathan suddenly appeared beside Chris's horse and looked up at the couple, his concerned gaze fixed on Mary. "Miz. Travis? Can I help you down? I want to take a look at those bruises and make sure you're okay all 'round."

A gracious smile tugged at the widow's lips. "I'm perfectly all right, Nathan. But I would appreciate the help down. Thank you."

The former slave put his hands around Mary's waist and eased her to the ground. When Chris saw her falter as she tried to straighten up, he jumped to the ground and was beside her in a second, a concerned hand reaching out to touch her arm. She wasn't 'perfectly all right'. She was proud and pigheaded, but she wasn't all right, at least not at the moment. From the minute he'd untied her from the bed in Wickes' tent, she'd needed support. He wasn't sure if she was physically hurt or still mentally shaken by the experience, but he was sure of one thing. Nathan would give her a good once-over to find out.

"Mrs. Travis?" Chris's short inquiry sounded much more harsh than he'd intended, anger with himself bleeding through in his tone. He was worried about her, more worried than he wanted to be, but the concern seemed to get lost somewhere along the journey from his mind to his mouth. He groaned inwardly when it became apparent that Mary had taken his question just the way it sounded--the wrong way.

Obviously offended by the severe note in his voice, Mary Travis leveled her shoulders and looked Chris squarely in the eye, the stubborn line setting her mouth reflected in the defiant spark that danced in her lovely eyes. "As I said," she pulled her arm away from Chris's hand, "I'm all right. There's no need to put yourselves out on my account."

Damn, Chris silently berated himself. He'd done it again.

"Nothin' of the kind, Miz Travis." Nathan cast his leader a questioning glare before looking back at Mary. Shaking his head, he continued, "I'll hear none of that. Come on now. Let's get you inside and take a look."

Mary's unforgiving gaze moved from Chris to the healer as she continued to protest. "Really, Nathan. I'm fine. There's nothing for you to look at."

"Nathan'll be the judge of that." The group's leader chose to overlook the irritation he knew his highhanded remake would bring from the widow. Her anger didn't matter, not really. He wanted...needed to know that she wasn't hurt, that she really was all right. It was all that mattered.

"Now wait just a minute." Mary turned back to Chris, a fiery challenge smoldering in her eyes. I--"

"Please. Please...Mary." The gunslinger's quiet pleading seemed to knock the fight right out of the widow Travis as an astonished disbelief clouded her face. It was the first time he'd ever used her Christian name. Maybe it sounded as strange to her as it felt to him.

The gunman quietly withstood Mary's searching eyes while they roamed his face in what seemed an effort to understand the desperation she'd heard in his voice. He didn't try to hide anything from her, not this time. If it would get her to drop her guard and let Nathan to look at her, he would allow her a quick glance at the pain and guilt he bore for her condition.

After several charged seconds of stillness, Mary relented. Her eyes remained focused on Chris' face when she slowly nodded her head, her voice little more than a bewildered murmur. "Okay...Nathan. Yes. Let's... go."

Chris watched in satisfied silence as the black man helped Mrs. Travis up the stairs.

When the pair reached the top, Lydia dismounted and walked up to stand on the first step. "Mrs. Travis?" Her voice was low and hesitant as she wrung her hands in a visible sign of discomfort when Mary turned around to face her. "Mrs. Travis, I...I'm real sorry about what happened. If it hadn't been for us..."

"No, Lydia." Mary shook her head as she interrupted the apology, a sad smile curving her lips. "Please. It wasn't your fault. You don't have to be sorry. You had to get away from that man. You had to. Never be sorry for wanting to be free and having the courage to do something about it."

"Amen," Nathan chimed.

"You said it, Brother." Josiah added his approval before getting down from his horse.

Mary flashed a warm smile at the preacher and her escort before she and Nathan turned back toward the Clarion.

Chris looked on as the pair disappeared into the building and felt the shadow of a smile pull at the corners of his mouth. He'd listened to Mary's kind, encouraging words to Lydia and felt the crack in the wall grow a little wider. He tried to stop the warmth that crept into his heart, but he just couldn't seem to find the energy.

"Well, I think I'll take a quick look around. See if any of Wickes' boys decided to follow us again." Vin spoke as he adjusted his hat.

"I don't think any of 'em 'll be that stupid, but you never know. It's a good idea. JD, why don't you go with him?" Chris looked at the young sheriff, whose attention had been distracted by two of the town's newest citizens making their way down the street. Nora and Emily moved quickly toward the group, their worry apparent in the stern frowns on their faces. The big smile on JD's face could only be described as...silly. Chris shook his head. The kid had no idea. No idea at all. "JD?" The gunslinger tried again, this time with a little more force.

"Huh?" The boy jerked his eyes back to the group's leader, an embarrassed smirk crossing his mouth. "Ah...."

"You wanna go with Vin and take a look around? See if we're gonna have company again?" Chris put his hands on his hips while he waited for an answer.

"Ah...yeah. Sure." JD nodded.

The two ladies joined the group gathered in front of the Clarion. Vin and DJ tipped their hats before reining their horses toward the street and heading out of town.

"Lydia." Nora laid a comforting hand on her friend's arm. "Are you and Mrs. Travis okay? We've been worried sick since you lit out of town after Mister Larabee and the others."

The older woman smiled while she patted Nora's hand. "We're both fine, honey. Thanks to Mister Larabee and his friends." She offered the smile to each of the remaining men, who in turn touched their hats in recognition of the gesture.

Lydia's grateful gaze fell on Chris last and he bowed his head in quiet acknowledgment while ignoring the flirtatious sparkle he saw in her eyes. She was a pretty woman, but no one special to him. He hadn't wanted anything to happen to her or the other girls, and as a result, had been compelled to try and help them, but the connection went no further. He had sought her out, just as he'd sought out others of her profession many times in the past, for physical gratification. Pure and simple. There had been no emotional attachment, only the fulfillment of his body's need. He liked Lydia. Hell, he was grateful to her. After all, she'd saved his and Mary's lives. But his feelings went no deeper.

"And thanks to you," Chris figured now was as good a time as any to express his gratitude. "Wickes didn't put a hole through me or Mrs. Travis. I was dead set against having you come with us, but I was glad to see you when I did. Thank you, Lydia." He tried to smile, but fell a little short when he recalled the events of only a few hours ago. He'd found Mary relatively unharmed and was trying to make a quiet getaway when he'd run right into the barrel of Wickes' gun. His first thought had been to protect Mrs. Travis. He'd pushed her as far behind him as he could in hopes that if Wickes shot him, the sound would bring the others in time to save Mary. But he hadn't had to worry about any of that, thanks to Lydia. She had appeared out of nowhere, pistol drawn. In the blink of an eye, two shots rang out and Wickes fell to his knees. Chris wasn't much on shooting people in the back, but if anyone deserved it, Wickes did. The gunslinger would always be grateful for Lydia's act of courage.

"Well, ladies." Ezra Standish cast the group a charming smile before stepping down from his horse. "I believe it's time we got back to your lessons. As they say, practice makes perfect. The smoother the edges, the more eager the potential patrons of the heart will be."

"Yeah, Ezra," Buck cracked as an evil smirk spread across his face. "You outta know. Edges don't come no smoother than yours."

Chris almost didn't stop the short bark of laughter that hovered on his lips. Covering his mouth with his hand, he was able to keep silent. Buck, however, didn't try to contain himself and chuckled to his heart's content. The women, who had helped dress Ezra for his performance, also seemed unable to keep from indulging in a little laughter at their teacher's expense.

Ezra coolly absorbed the good-natured ribbing as Chris looked the gambler up and down. The gunman couldn't find any sign of the costume Standish had donned just a few hours earlier. Once the fighting started, the con man must have gotten rid of the unnatural attire as fast as possible. Though how he'd done it so quickly, Chris would never know. The gambler had been late in joining the group on the ride back to town; maybe that accounted for the apparent slight of hand.

Chris hadn't been forced to witness the actual distraction Ezra had come up with, but he would never forget the comical picture of the distinguished southern gentleman in a purple dress, wig and make-up. The sight would be forever imbedded in his memory. As a fresh picture of the elegantly dressed gambler materialized in his mind's eye, another surge of laughter threatened to overtake him. He still couldn't believe he and Vin had talked Ezra into it. But Standish had wanted to help, and he'd swallowed his pride in order to do so. Some of Chris's distrust of the gambler had dissolved when Ezra had agreed, however grudgingly, to do what the seven's leader had asked him. However, Chris still found it a little difficult to warm up to Standish's persistent scheming.

Ezra shook his head as he walked up to the three women. "Now, we'll have no more of that, ladies. It was all done in the line of duty. I propose we retire to the church for further instruction."

Emily's voice was tinged with skepticism when she attempted to challenge the southerner's suggestion. "I don't know 'bout this learnin' manners an' such, Ezra. Maybe we should just--"

"Nonsense." The gambler gathered the women together and started ushering them down the walkway. "One can never be too schooled in the art of society. Come along." Pausing, he shot Buck an impatient glance. "Well, Mister Wilmington, would you care to join us? The ladies are still in need of someone to practice on." With that, Ezra continued to shepherd his reluctant flock toward the church.

"Well, as long as I don't have to dress up, I'd love to spend a little more time with the ladies." Buck flashed a mischievous grin at Chris and Josiah before trotting after the teacher and his students.

Slowly shaking his head, Chris turned back to look up at the Clarion door. A somber frown replaced his subtle smile while he wondered if Mary was okay. How much longer was Nathan going to take?

A firm pat on the back got Chris's attention. He looked to see Josiah standing beside him, a knowing gleam in the preacher's eye. "You can't be everywhere at once, Chris. We do the best we can and hope it's enough. With the Lord's help, most of the time it is. She's strong. She'll be all right. Now..." The big man removed his hand from his friend's shoulder and walked over to his horse. "I'd better get to the church and see what mischief our resident swindler is getting into." Raising a hand to the brim of his hat, Josiah acknowledged Chris's nod before leading his animal down the street.

In the next instant, the door of the Clarion office opened and Nathan stepped out onto the walkway. Chris made short work of the few steps leading to the paper and stopped directly in front of the healer, an anxious swell of concern clawing at his gut. "Well?" Nathan's stern features didn't do much to calm Chris's apprehension, and the gunslinger braced himself for bad news.

"She's okay, Chris." The former slave's expression softened some when he spoke. "Just a few bruises here and there. But she's still pretty shook up. She's tryin' to hide it of course, but this whole thing's scared her real bad. What she needs right now is some rest."

The intense relief that swept through Chris almost made him groan aloud. She was all right. 'Just a few bruises…' But... The guilt started to rise again as the word echoed in his head. But... Some of the scars Mary Travis carried from the encounter with Wickes would remain with her for a while to come, the injury going much deeper than the visible blemishes on her tender skin. Nathan had just confirmed what Chris had suspected from the instant he'd felt Mary's head settle on his shoulder. She had been very subdued on the ride back to town, never once showing any sign of discomfort or embarrassment for the close quarters they shared. She'd reminded him of a pretty doll that had had all the stuffing knocked out of it, and the realization had bothered him a great deal more than he would have liked to believe.

The gunman's gaze dropped to the ground, another wave of bitter reproach pounding at his resolve. He remembered the haunted look he'd seen in Mary's tearful eyes after he removed the rope from around her ankles. He'd asked if she'd been hurt and she denied it. But as he'd searched her face, the shadow lurking in her eyes stopped him in his tracks, a merciless dread bubbling up inside him. He hadn't spoken, but pressed her with an unwavering, concerned stare. She'd again insisted that she was fine, but... The slow burn of a hot rage began to prickle in the back of Chris's mind, his hands forming two white-knuckled fists at his sides. If Wickes...

"No, Chris. He didn't touch her. Not that way." Nathan seemed to read the older man's thoughts as he broke the tense silence. "I felt like I had to ask her. She told me no. I believe her."

Chris's surprise over Nathan's intuitive reassurance quickly dissolved under the resurgent wave of relief that, this time, pulled a heavy sigh from him. The tension slowly left his hands as he looked back at Nathan, the black man's eyes filled with understanding. Nathan Jackson was a good man with a kind heart. Chris had never had any reason to doubt his word and accepted it now without hesitation. Nodding his agreement and thanks, the gunslinger turned to leave. He'd heard what he needed to hear.

"She wants to see you."

The healer's words halted Chris's retreat. Turning back around, he stared at the closed door of the Clarion and wondered what Mrs. Travis would have to say to him. Probably 'I told you so'. Her concerns about having the girls in town had been borne out, and the trouble that resulted had hit closer to home than either one of them would have imagined. She might be frightened and upset, but he figured she was also mad as hell. He wasn't sure if he wanted to face that right now, at least, not without a few drinks under his belt. But bearing her anger would be the easy part. After what she'd been through, he deserved everything she could throw at him. He almost welcomed it.

It was the hollow look of pain veiling her eyes that would be impossible to face. Another glimpse at the soul-altering scars that would rip at his insides and leave his heart more vulnerable than it already was. That shadowed gaze would be a crippling reminder of what his failure had cost her, a harbinger of the guilt that gnawed at him. Could he handle seeing it again so soon?

Another friendly hand on his shoulder brought Chris back from his troublesome reflections. He focused his solemn attention on Nathan's sympathetic face.

Once again, he taller man seemed to have some kind of mysterious window into Chris's mind. "What happened to her... it wasn't your fault. Now go on. I'll see you at the saloon later." With the flash of an encouraging smile, Nathan descended the few steps into the street, grabbed his horse's reins and started toward the livery.

Taking a deep breath, Chris stepped into the Clarion office. He closed the door and scanned the room. It was empty. "Mrs. Travis?" he called before taking a step farther into the room, the click of his spurs the only response he heard. As the silence continued, he walked to the back of the office to find the door to the living quarters ajar. He knocked lightly and called out again. "Mrs. Travis?" Still no answer.

Chris didn't want to go barging into what was Mary's home without so much as a by-your-leave, but if he didn't get some kind of a reply within the next five seconds, he would damn propriety to hell and do just that. "Mrs. Travis?" His volume increased a notch or two when a tiny twinge of panic began to nip at the back of conscience. Where was she? Was she all right?

The palm of his hand rested on the door, but before he could push his way into the other room, the portal opened to reveal the Clarion's owner. Startled and relieved by her sudden appearance, Chris's voice eluded him for a moment as he stared down into the face of Mary Travis. What he saw there made him flinch, her gentle beauty causing him to recoil from the unconscionable ache of longing that suddenly gripped him, while the hollow sadness that still lingered in her eyes made him shrink from the pain of his heightened shame.

"Mister Larabee..." The widow seemed almost as startled by the gunman's appearance as he had been by hers, a bewildered frown touching her lips. "I... didn't expect you so soon. I thought perhaps Nathan would have to go find you."

Removing his hat, Chris moved back a foot or so, trying to ease the uninvited craving her nearness fostered. He was too close, too close. "No, ma'am." He worked to keep the telltale emotion out of his voice. "I was waitin' right outside."

An awkward smile skimmed Mary's mouth before she walked into the office, shutting the door to her private rooms behind her. Nervously clutching her hands in front of her, she moved to stand beside her desk before turning back to face Chris. Her eyes seemed intent on everything else in the room but him, and he wondered at her apparent unease. He'd expected to see a stiff back and an incensed glare, not this almost painfully shy fidgeting. It wasn't like her.

"What is it, Mrs. Travis?" Chris moved forward a few paces, his curiosity piqued.

"I..." Mary dropped her hands to her sides and allowed her gaze to settle on the gunslinger's face. "I want to thank you for coming after me. Well... I want to thank all of the men."

"Don't need no thanks, ma'am." The seven's leader shook his head. "It's our job. Anyway," he quickly glanced down at the hat in his hand as guilt threatened once again. "It was our... my fault what happened. If..."

"No, Mister Larabee." Mary took one step closer with her firm denial.

Chris looked back at her and was surprised to see a precious empathy reflected in her blue eyes, the gentleness of it tapping at his already unstable wall of solitude.

"Only Mister Wickes is... was responsible for what he did," Mary continued. "I don't blame you. What you did for Nora, for all the women, was right, kind. They needed a way out, a place to stay." Her eyes fell to the floor, a crimson flush coloring her cheeks. "I couldn't see that, but you did. They deserved a chance, and I wasn't willing to give it to them. Mind you," her gaze returned to Chris's face, determination dictating the stubborn set of her jaw, "I'm still dead set against any 'working girls' taking up residence in this town, but if they want to try to change their lives, I won't slam the door in their faces again. I..." She focused on the floor again while her hands absentmindedly smoothed imaginary wrinkles in her dress. "I guess what I'm trying to say is..." Once more, she raised her eyes to Chris's face, an intense sincerity tingeing her voice. "I'm sorry. I wanted to... apologize to you for my earlier behavior."

Dumbfounded seemed an inadequate word to describe Chris's reaction to Mary Travis' words. He really wasn't sure if he'd heard her correctly. She was apologizing to him. If a dozen men had come crashing through the door with guns blazing, he didn't know if he would be able to budge. An apology was the last thing he'd expected to hear. And, when he thought about it, it seemed wrong somehow, out of place, backward. She was the one whose life had been at risk because of his failure. He should be apologizing to her, although he knew words would never be enough to make up for what had happened to her. "Mrs. Travis, I..."

"Please, Mister Larabee," Mary interrupted Chris as she took yet another step toward him. "Please accept my apology."

The hopeful urgency in her quiet voice stifled any objection Chris may have uttered, while the pleading expression in her clouded eyes tugged at his awakening heart. Cursing the irritating weakness of that particular organ, he nodded his head. If it would ease her mind, he would do as she asked. "All right, Mrs. Travis. I accept."

Chris heard a soft sigh of relief leave her while he watched some of the tension drain from her body. As the rigid set of her shoulders relaxed, Mary lifted a shaky hand to her brow, her relieved smile disappearing only to be replaced by a confused frown. Her knees buckled and she appeared on the verge of fainting. But before her body had the chance to hit the floor, Chris eliminated the space between them and pulled her to him, his arms automatically moving around her. Mary grabbed onto the front of his poncho with both hands and rested her forehead on his chest.

"Mary?" Chris's shocked concern filtered through in his demanding tone. "Mary, what's wrong?"

It took another second or two, but Mrs. Travis finally lifted her head, her flushed face sheepish with embarrassment. "I'm all right. I don't know what came over me. I guess I'm a little tired. I didn't mean to be so melodramatic. I... I'm sorry."

As Chris searched Mary's perplexed face, he knew her collapse had been caused by more than simple fatigue. The events of the day had taken their toll. Damn! He'd stayed too long. Nathan told him she needed some rest. Without another thought, he bent down and lifted her in his arms.

"Mister Larabee, what do you think you're doing?" As Chris turned to the door in the back of the room, Mary protested, appalled by the sudden, unexpected and highly improper move. "I'm perfectly fine, for goodness sake. Where are you taking me? Put me down." She pushed ineffective hands against his chest.

He had no intention of doing what she asked this time, and the look he gave her told her precisely that. Her objections stopped immediately. Overlooking his body's reaction to the soft form he held in his arms, Chris carried Mary though to the living quarters in the back of the Clarion and deposited her on her bed. When he straightened, he cast her another resolute glare. "Nathan said you needed some rest. Now rest."

If the look she threw at him had been a knife, he'd be dead where he stood. In stubborn defiance, she got back to her feet and put her hands on her hips. But before she could manage a single word, she started to sway as the dizziness took hold once again. Chris's hands shot out and grabbed her upper arms to steady her. Looking down into her face, he waited for her to open her eyes, a worried scowl tightening his mouth. He'd done this. He'd put her through this. The guilt pounded in his head.

As his tortured gaze roamed her ashen features, Larabee again became conscious of the bruise that marred her beautiful face. At that same moment, Mary opened her eyes and the dusky orbs collided with Chris's. The hollow fear had returned and the gunslinger felt his gut twist with another spasm of guilt. But even though it pained him to confront Mary's haunted eyes, Chris couldn't find the will to look away. There was something else in the lovely pools. Something he couldn't put his finger on. Something he was surprised to see. Something he wanted to see? A hunger? The same hunger that burned inside him? He couldn't be sure.

Chris seemed helpless to stop the hand that reached out to Mary. His eyes never left hers as he ran a tender finger over the discolored skin at her temple. It was silk against his callused hide. He relished the softness for several long seconds before finding the strength to pull away. As he reluctantly dropped his hand back to his side, he whispered, "I'm sorry too, Mary." He saw the question in her eyes, but chose to ignore it. Pulling on his hat, he nodded a silent good-bye and made a quick escape. When he stepped out onto the walkway and shut the Clarion door behind him, Chris let out a heavy sigh.

Hell! That was too damn close. Things could get out of hand if he let them, way out of hand. But he wouldn't let them. He had his place in this town and she had hers. Their paths wouldn't, couldn't, cross in anything other than business.

Taking another deep breath, he struggled to bury the hungry ache that pulsed through his body. He looked down at his hand and remembered the touch of Mary's satiny skin, one more surge of desire racing through him. No. He wouldn't feel the craving. He would conquer it, or at the very least, control it. He had no other choice.

There was one thing that would help him forget the need. Whiskey. Bounding down the stairs, he grabbed his horse's reins and headed for the saloon.

The End