IV.

They stared at her in the momentary silence, waiting for her answer, MacGregor weaving before her with weariness and completely ignorant of her ordeal, Jim and Francis holding back knowing grins from the kitchen doorway.

Dulcey paused– she hated to lie. But it hadn't been worth trying to tell MacGregor what'd happened to her when he'd been so happy to tell his own tales of woe over his task to obtain the depositions for Jim. Her business partner – and Jim's deputy – was a charming braggart and skillful embellisher of tales. And this morning, after a mostly restful night of sleep, with her exhaustion faded and the details of her ordeal softened, she hated to bring any of it back. So she'd let MacGregor go on, offering small sympathies as she tried to start in on the shambles that was her kitchen, content to keep it all tucked away. But now Mac had wound down and wanted to know just what had transpired in his absence. And no wonder; the kitchen, always spotless, was literally torn apart. Dishcloths, used and damp, lay strewn and crumpled across chair backs; dishes, cups and crockery were stacked in jumbled piles, all dirty. Pots and pans littered the stove top. Spilled flour and sugar tracked across the worktable, eggshells and vegetable peelings filled the sink, and bread lay moldering alongside. Mac thought he'd missed a party. If only it were so, Dulcey thought to herself.

"Well, I had a few days off," she told Mac; that was at least a truth, albeit a thin one. "I rested-" Really, what work had she performed, other than cooking a few small meals? The rest of the time had been spent alone – fearful and waiting.

MacGregor reached out a long arm, unexpectedly patted her cheek with an enthusiastic palm. "Ah, what a good lass," he declared to her with a broad smile, not noticing her slight cringe. Even with all her washing last night, there was still a part of her that didn't want an unfamiliar touch. "You needed it."

"But we're awful glad you're back," Francis put in from the doorway, his own smile thankful. Poor Francis – she owed him some true appreciation. He'd worked just as tirelessly as Jim in rescuing her. Perhaps she could bake him something special. He didn't often ask for much, but he had some favorites.

As for Jim-

He now strolled forward, all freshly washed and shaved and looking as hearty as ever. "We missed you a whole bunch, Biscuit," he drawled with a teasing grin.

That nickname – she detested it and he knew it. Even now his laugh was threatening to break out at her irritation.

"So I noticed," she rejoined in severe tones, making sure they both saw her disapproving look cover the room. Then she whirled to address the mess spilling out of the sink, trying not to laugh at their instantly sheepish looks. She went to work, her hands sweeping through dirty crockery, separating silverware from glass, sorting cups and plates, her mind assessing what to tackle first. And it would definitely be related to cleaning, and not on the notion that she determined early this morning was decidedly female-minded, and one that would have Jim trying to cover his amusement if she but asked. It's over, she told herself again. It's nothing…

Behind her Mac declared himself a dead man if he didn't get some sleep right now. Francis mumbled something about getting breakfast at the hotel dining room. She heard the two of them stroll out, talking and laughing. Dulcey stacked another collection of dishes, turned to grab another load haphazardly piled on the work table. Jim, she noticed, was still there, watching her in that still, observant way of his. Normally she didn't mind his scrutiny when they were at the Inn – more often than not he was thinking of something else at the same time so her puttering about didn't bother either of them unless she tried to make conversation. Well, she couldn't muster up anything this morning. And the room suddenly seemed awfully small with him in it. Dulcey quickly crossed to the stove, checked the warming pan – there was enough water to at least soak some of the dishes…

Jim stepped up behind her; she detected his soft breathing, the presence of his tall form as it suppressed the air behind her.

"Francis will tell Mac before too long," he commented to her back in that rumbling voice of his.

She nodded without turning around. Her insides had gone queerly tight at his closeness.

"How'd you sleep?" he asked her, his tone almost too polite.

"Fine, fine," Dulcey replied, pouring water. She would not tell him that she'd awoken at dawn from dreams of running with blind fear as she'd called his name, desperate to hear his voice, feel his hands grasp hers, tell her that he —

"You?" she asked, trying to deflect his stare – she knew he was staring at her. "Did you sleep well?" She turned to reach for another bunch of plates and barely missed bumping into him, looked only as far up to the badge pinned, as always, to his vest. If their gazes met then he'd read her thoughts and they were dreadful enough…

"Better than I have been," he drawled back.

"Oh, well… that's good," she mumbled. She worked at the soap flakes, made froth, started rinsing, washing...

"Dulcey…" She heard his intake of breath – he was going say something more, and she didn't want to hear it, didn't want to know-

"He said – you were asleep…" she began, cutting him off and cringed at her blurt. She hadn't meant to voice it – why had her tongue betrayed her? Now it was too late. "Whitey, I mean," she stammered on. "He said-"

"You had me plenty worried," Jim admitted gruffly. "Lot of ground to cover in the Outlet."

Dulcey nodded; one thousand square miles of ground out there, and he'd still found her. She opened her mouth but paused. She could stop it right now, just swallow it back and let it go.

Let it hang between them forever…

"He said he made a deal with you," she softly began, letting the plate slide from her hands to the bottom of the sink. Still she didn't turn around – he'd see her blush if she did.

"That's right."

He'd tell her if she was going too far or asking too much. He'd cut off the conversation and close the subject in that abrupt way and then he'd stalk out, slam the door to his office – he always slammed doors. Except for last night…

"Me…for that outlaw Tinker," Dulcey said slowly. Her hands came up out of the suds to grip the edge of the sink.

"Yes."

"Did you? Turn him loose, I mean? Tinker…?" She chanced a glance back. He shifted slightly – his badge winked at her. She should just tell him now what had happened, make him sit at the table while she worked; make it seem normal, like always…

"He's still taking up space in a cell," Jim told her, "because his brother didn't honor the deal. Told him last night that I'd speak to the judge…it might help."

"He said…" Heart pounding hard against her ribs, Dulcey made herself turn to look up at him. He was standing so close to her, within a finger's reach. The east light working through the window cast a clear look to his freshly shaven face, made his dark hair shine. She swallowed, wishing- "Whitey said you…"

"Dulcey," Jim began. He tipped his head a little toward her, his hazel eyes holding steady on her. "There's something you need to know…"

She saw it then. It was all right there in his deep, absorbing stare. The absolute truth. There was no need to voice it, no need to make him utter it to her.

And no need for her to ask – she knew. She knew.

There was a danger to it, she quickly realized, for him and yet also for her. If anyone knew they could use it for harm – that's what he was telling her with the honesty now spilling from his gaze. And there was also a question hovering there, asking for her deepest trust as he gave this very piece of himself over to her. The sheer power of it struck her sharply, made her fear its weight. For it had to be like this, she knew. It could not be any other way. She had to either accept it as it was – or reject it outright.

With her heart embracing him, she nodded at Jim, saw the quiet smile of understanding work across his lips. "Let me make some coffee," she said softly, slowly lowering her own gaze. "I'll bring it to you – in your office." She reached for the pot, worked the pump.

He took it out of her hands and thrust it aside. Slowly he pulled her to him, put his arms around her and held her to him. "Dulcey…" he murmured.

She reveled at the sudden, soft brush of his lips against her forehead; felt his breaths and the strong heartbeat coming from his chest. He smelled of soap and the sun dried clothes she'd folded for him; of shaving soap and tobacco and leather. That first day came back to her – her first look at the quiet, confident man in dress wool calmly gazing out the train window. His easy smile and his appraising eyes under the glitter of that hat band.

Her hand fell upon the badge pinned to his vest. Her fingers started to recoil, but she stilled them. This was who he was – a lawman, a U.S. Marshal. He would not deny it and neither would she. Somehow knowing and accepting it calmed her a little. She felt him relax, too, as if a force had suddenly been lifted from him.

He was her dearest friend – and more. It would be the same the between them, and yet it would be different, too. She could continue to fuss and worry, pepper him with questions, chafe under his bruising words to her, his insistence that she lock her doors, that she not get too involved – she knew now what it meant. As for Jim, he'd go on chasing outlaws, enforce the law, race into danger – maybe even get hurt, or-

Yes, that, too. She had to be prepared for that, had to accept the possibility that it could happen. For if she denied it then she would be denying him. And she could never deny Jim. Never. Not Jim.

They would keep this thing silently between them; keep it safe for each other.

It would remain unspoken. But it would remain.

END