Chris sat under the apple tree in the back garden, wrapped in a blanket, his feet propped up on a box with a cushion. The late afternoon sun had warmed him and he’d drifted to sleep not long after Ezra and Timothy, Charlotte’s oldest boy, had settled him there. This despite the nap Charlotte had insisted he take after he’d sat in the parlour, listening to Penny play the piano for an hour. Now he half dozed, watching Charlotte, who’d come out to join him a short time ago. Her lap was covered in lace, her head bent in deep concentration as she placed fine stitches across the fabric that would be Jemma’s bridal veil. Her oldest child’s wedding was in less than two weeks, and every time Charlotte was sitting, she was working on some sort of wedding finery.
He was content to enjoy the companionable quiet, watching her delicate fingers work the needle, remembering those same fingers had placed the precise stitches currently in his abdomen. He supposed she’d had a lot of practice in the nearly a century and a half she’d been alive. Once more, he cast his thoughts back to their conversation of that morning and his curiosity about her first death; he seemed unable to turn his mind away from the subject.
Seeming to sense his regard, Charlotte looked up from her sewing, the sun making her pale blue eyes sparkle. A small smile pulled at her lips as she said, “You may ask, Chris.” She put her needle aside, folding her hands on her lap. “After all, the question has been burning a hole in your brain these many hours.”
God damn it! Seemed mind reading ran in the family. He looked at her ruefully. “Hate it when you and Ez do that.”
Chuckling, she waved a hand at him. “Well?”
“Don’t want to bring up bad memories,” Chris demurred. She didn’t respond, merely waited patiently for him to decide. Sighing, he finally asked, “How did it happen for you; when you died?”
“I was shot,” she said simply.
“That it?” he asked, trying to dampen his curiosity, but not succeeding very well. Lord, the more time he spent with her, the more he realized that a great many of the things that drove him crazy about Ezra came from her.
She pondered for a moment. “It was sufficient to the task.” There was a look on her face that practically dared him to rise to the bait. Yeah, just like Ezra.
“I’m thinking I owe Ez an apology,” he told her, half amused, half aggravated.
She laughed delightedly. “Why, Mr. Larabee, whatever can you mean?”
He shook his head, grinning, and recalled a time last year when the very infuriating ‘Widow Black’ had him entertaining thoughts not so innocent in nature. That was before Matthew Adamson, her old friend and mentor had reentered her life, and Ella had reentered his. But that was then, and now…. Well, things were different now. He’d do well to remember that.
Finally, she relented. “It was 1767, Macau, I was twenty-eight.”
“A century ago,” Chris said half to himself.
She looked surprised, “Why, I suppose it was at that.” Her eyes took on that faraway look he was beginning to recognize. “And it was about this time of year, now that I think about it.” She gave herself a shake, continuing, “We – Jack, Matthew, and I – had been in China for several months. It had been an uneventful voyage, and our business nearly concluded when we were ambushed by a pirate captain who held a grudge against my husband. Though we were outnumbered by him and his band of brigands, we had been victorious, with only the mopping up left. That was when I spied a flash from the corner of my eye. I do not even remember consciously thinking about it, only throwing myself between the pistol and Jack’s back.”
She wasn’t looking at him, staring off at some point past his shoulder, and she was very still. Then she shrugged her shoulders. “Dying wasn’t as I had expected it to be. The pain was less than other injuries I had suffered, and I felt so calm. I remember the look in Jack’s eyes as he held me, my life’s blood draining away into the sand beneath us. It was if he were dying instead of me. There were so many things I wanted to tell him…,” her voice drifted away and she brushed at her eyes with a hand.
“And after?” he asked softly, not wanting to startle her from that place she was remembering.
“After? Well, Jack didn’t take it well; not that he wasn’t grateful that my death was not permanent, but that I had died in his place, you see.” She looked as if she weren’t sure Chris would understand. But he did, more than she realized.
“That’s understandable,” he told her. “No man wants the woman he loves to die for him.” His throat tightened, remembering Sarah, and how she had been murdered because of him.
Charlotte looked stricken, realizing where these revelations of hers had led his memories. “Chris, I’m sorry. This is not something we should be speaking of now.”
“No, Charlotte, I asked. You shared your deepest secret with me n’ the others, but I don’t really know you—and I want to.” It was the truth. Charlotte had revealed the secret of her Immortality out of love for Ezra, but he knew she’d never truly been at peace with that decision. She was as much an enigma to him today as she had been the night she’d plunged Josiah’s dagger into her chest last year as a demonstration of her and Ezra’s Immortal nature.
She took a shaky breath, finally nodding. “Jack was furious; at Matthew, for never telling him what my future held, but most of all at me. He spent three days blinding drunk in a dockside tavern before I went to fetch him back.”
“And how did he take that?”
This time there was a genuine smile on her lips. “About as well as you did a few days ago.”
“That good, huh?” he asked wryly.
“Just so,” she agreed. “He knew about Immortals, had known what Matthew was, as we both did. He just hadn’t expected his wife to be one—the vagaries of fate.”
“And after? Did he come around?”
“Oh, yes. Not that he wasn’t more than a little relieved the first time he saw me in moonlight,” she said lightly.
Chris was bursting with questions, especially about the moonlight comment, but anything he might have asked was preempted by the familiar voice of Buck Wilmington ringing across the garden.
“Hey, stud! Yer looking mighty fine for a man who was gut shot and sewn up twice!” Buck Wilmington called out as his long stride brought him to where Chris and Charlotte were sitting, Vin Tanner following behind him. “Ma’am.” He tipped his hat to Charlotte. “Though if it meant being nursed by a lady as lovely as you, I might consider gettin’ shot myself.” He flashed his most charming smile.
Charlotte laughed at Buck’s outrageous statement. The big man never failed to bring a smile to her lips. It was just impossible to not to be cheered by his good humour and expansive personality.
“Ma’am,” Vin greeted her with a matching tip of his hat. “Bucklin’s right, pard; yer looking a whole lot better than the last time we saw ya.”
“Charlotte and Ezra’ve been taking good care of me,” Chris told the two men as they sat down on a bench across from him.
“Chris has been an exemplarily patient,” Ezra told them, coming up to join the group, little Constance holding his fingers as she toddled alongside him.
“S’pose miracles do happen,” Vin teased, earning him a glare from Chris.
Letting go of Ezra’s hand, the golden haired three-year-old, ignoring the other adults, raised her arms to Buck. “Uncle Buck!”
“Why there’s my favourite lil’ gal!” Buck obligingly picked her up, encompassing her in a huge bear hug.
While Buck loved all Charlotte’s brood, he had a soft spot for the youngest, and she for him. It had only been a matter of minutes during that first Sunday luncheon last year for Constance to latch on to the jovial ladies man. When he visited, they were practically inseparable.
She giggled as he settled her on his lap, giving her a big kiss on the cheek. “It tickles!” Reaching up, she petted Buck’s mustache.
“Prob’ly thinks you have kitten hidden in that thing,” Chris needled his old friend.
“You’re just jealous,” Buck shot back. “All the ladies love ol’ Buck’s mustache!”
“Is pretty!” Constance agreed, beaming at her ‘Uncle Buck’.
“There? Ya see?” Buck tweaked Constance’s nose, making her giggle again.
Chris just snorted and Vin and Ezra grinned.
“And a very fine specimen it is,” Charlotte agreed with a smile, earning an emphatic nod from Buck.
“Now, Mz Black, don’t be encouragin’ him,” Vin told her, a mischievous gleam in his eye. “His hat’ll be a mite too tight fore long iffen you keep it up.”
Charlotte just shook her head and laughed. “You gentlemen will be my guests at supper, won’t you? And stay the night of course. Then Ezra can ride back to town with you in the morning.” Chris had improved enough that Charlotte could make do with help from her sons, allowing Ezra to return to his duties in Four Corners.
“Would like that just fine, ma’am,” Vin said.
“Sure would,” Buck agreed.
“Good! Then I shall leave you all to catch up while I go see to supper. Would fried chicken suit you?”
Ezra’s eyes lit up at that; it was his favourite. “It would indeed, cousin,” he affirmed quickly. “And was that peach cobbler I smelled on my way through the kitchen?”
She stood, carefully folding the lace she’d been working on, placing it in a cloth bag, before looping the handle over her arm. “It would indeed. I thought you might like a meal with some of your favourite things,” she told him fondly. “There may even be some hush puppies, if you play your cards right.”
“Why, Charlotte, you do spoil me,” he told her with a flash of dimples.
She squeezed his shoulder. “My prerogative, Ezra.”
All the men but Chris stood politely as she made to leave. “Come along, sweetling, you can help me make supper for your Uncle Buck,” she told Constance.
The child shook her head. “Wanna stay wif Buck.”
“Now there,” Buck said soothingly. “Tell you what, you go with your mama now, and before breakfast tomorrow, we’ll take my horse and ride down to the river. We can pick wildflowers for your mama. Would you like that?”
She looked at him, solemnly nodding. “Can Uncle Bin come too?” she asked, fixing her attention on the tracker sitting next to them. Vin seemed surprised at suddenly being the focus of the conversation.
“Of course he can, baby! Uncle Vin would love to come along,” Buck assured her.
Constance reached out, petting Vin’s long wavy hair as she had Buck’s mustache earlier. “Uncle Bin’s hair’s pretty,” she declared.
Vin blushed, ducking his head. “Thank you, lil’ lady,” he mumbled as the other adults chuckled at his discomfiture.
This time when Charlotte reached for Constance, she went to her mother’s arms with no objections. “I’ll send out refreshments in a bit,” she told her guests, “and I’ll call you for supper when it’s ready.” With a nod, she left the men to their visit.
“And how is Nathan faring?” Ezra asked after they’d reseated themselves.
“He’s doing fine,” Buck said. “But lemme tell you, we need to make sure he don’t ever get seriously hurt! If he were laid up for any real amount of time, one of us would have to shoot him. God damn worst patient I ever did see!”
Vin nodded in agreement. “Man’s a holy terror.”
“That’s hardily surprising,” Ezra opined with a small chuckle. “Doctors do make the worst patients, or so I am reliably informed.”
“How you feeling, Chris?” Buck asked.
“Better’n I deserve.” Chris locked eyes with Vin and Buck. “Apologized to Ezra and to Charlotte, and now I’m apologizing to you,” he said quietly. “I’m sorry for everything that happened; at Ella’s and back in town that day at the saloon. Treated you like crap. My friends deserve better, and I hope you can forgive me.”
“Reckon we can do that, stud,” Buck told him, his eyes heavy with emotion. He’d been down this road with his oldest friend before and had been afraid he might not be able to pull himself from the darkness this time.
“Reckon we can,” Vin agreed, his voice soft.
Chris picked up his pocket knife and the piece of wood he’d been carving before he’d fallen asleep earlier, running his thumbs over them like talismans. He took a deep breath, working hard to get out all he had to say. He was man of few words and had never been good at expressing his feelings. “Thank you, all of you.” He swept his eyes over all three men. “I wouldn’t be here without you.”
Chris felt a calming sense of relief, swiftly followed by gratitude for his friends. Looking down at the wood in his hand, he began to carve.
The next morning, Chris walked slowly across the courtyard to where the horses were tethered. He was taking it easy; in no small part due to a healthy respect for his hostess's ire should he ignore her instructions and find himself once more in need of doctoring. The object of his thoughts stood next to Ezra as he finished saddling Chaucer. She said something that made Ezra smile, and she reached up, kissing him on the cheek. Then she handed him a paper wrapped package that Chris was pretty sure contained leftover fried chicken and biscuits from last night's supper. The gambler's smile broadened as he took it from her, stowing it in his saddlebag.
Chris drew even with the two. "Wouldn't let Vin see that packet," he said, smiling.
"I intend to keep it close to my side," Ezra assured him.
"Have no fear, Vin has a package of his own, though it contains cookies, not chicken," Charlotte told them with a laugh. "How are you feeling this morning, Chris?" she asked, fixing her attention squarely on him.
"I'm fine, Charlotte, honest." Her expression clearly said, 'we'll see'. "Promise I won't overdo."
"I'll hold you to that," she said sternly, and then she smiled, really smiled like he was pretty sure she hadn't done for a while. "I'll need to change your dressing when you come back to the house."
He wouldn't admit it to anyone, but he found that he kinda liked being fussed over; especially if it was a beautiful woman doin' the fussing. "Wouldn't miss it."
She just shook her head. "I'll see you in a few days, Ezra. Thank you for all your help."
"My pleasure, cousin." She patted him on the arm and headed back to the house.
The two men watched her walk away, and Chris said, "You ought to know, Ez, she's on to you setting me to spy on her."
Ezra froze, a slightly panicked look in his eyes. "You're certain?"
"She came right out with it. Saw no reason to deny it." Chris shrugged.
"Saw no reason—" Ezra sputtered, shaking his head in disgust. "Unbelievable."
"Gonna be fine, Ezra, trust me." Chris slapped him on the shoulder. "After all, how mad can she be when she made you your favourite dinner last night?"
Relaxing, Ezra smiled. "Quite true, Chris."
Chuckling, a glint in his eye, Chris added, "Course, you may want to check that leftover chicken for poison."
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