Disclaimer: I don't own them. I wrote this story about them, but didn't get any money for it. I must be doing something wrong...

Fess Up

by Linda Bindner

The knocks on Marie's back door sounded more like ghostly scratchings in the night than a bid to enter her house. As it was, the only reason that Marie even heard them was because she happened to be studying one of her medical books by the light of the fire in the kitchen stove. She almost knocked over her cup of cold tea when she jumped at the noise. Fully alarmed now, she rushed to the back door, but didn't immediately yank it open. Her mind on how she had been taken prisoner by a gang of criminals not long ago, her house taken over, her medical services the only thing keeping her alive, she was understandably nervous when she heard that noise. “Who's there?”

“Marie! It's me - open up!”

Jack. Marie's heart instantly settled into a less erratic rhythm at the sound of his voice... though it was strange to hear even his voice at eleven o'clock at night.

Marie fumbled with the lock on the door, then pulled it open to find the hulking form of her fiancé standing in the doorway.

“Jack!” she exclaimed, instantly alert; something must have happened for him to show up so late on her doorstep. “What's wrong?”

Jack unceremoniously pushed passed her inside. “Shut it, quick! I don't think anybody saw me... especially since it's so late. But I'll never hear the end of it from Bennett if he hears that I was sneaking around my fiancée's house this late at night.” It thrilled him to say the word 'fiancée,' so he said it every chance he got.

Marie shut the door, then stared at him, annoyed. “If nothing's wrong, then why are you here?”

“What?” Jack jovially said, happy to be under cover at last. “Can't a fella just say 'howdy' to his girl without causin' all this fuss?”

Marie had to stop herself from sarcastically rolling her eyes. “You have to admit that this is unusual even for you, Jack Craddock.”

Jack looked like he'd been caught being naughty. “Yeah, alright, I guess I am bein' a bit on the dramatic side, showin' up here like this.” He glanced around at the empty kitchen, then through the inner doors to the dining room and the rest of what he could see of the deserted house. “I suppose that Lucy's already in bed for the night?”

“As far as I know, she's not listening on the stairs,” Marie told him, purposefully slowing her speech so he could understand her this late at night. Her accented rendition of the English language tended to become slurred when she was tired. “Was there something you need?”

That one question made Jack start fidgeting immediately. “Uh... you could say that. You're sure we're alone?”

“I was just studying a little before bed. No one has been here all evening. And Lucy went to bed hours ago.”

Jack waved his hands in the air in order to dispel some of his nervous energy. “Good, good. 'Cause what I got to say is for your ears only.”

Well, this was alarming! Marie's ears would have pricked forward if she were an animal. “What is it?”

Jack was now more nervous than Marie had ever seen him. “Ah... maybe you'd better sit down for this. Maybe I'd better sit down.”

Jack's stall tactics were setting her teeth on edge. “Jack! Just tell me.” Abruptly inspired, Marie asked, “You're not postponing the wedding, are you?” Inspired again, she barely retained control over her facial features. “You want to call off the wedding.”

Jack practically recoiled. “Hell no! What put such a crazy notion in your head?”

Completely irritated rather than soothed by Jack's words, Marie crossed her arms over her chest. “Let me think - you show up at my door late at night, acting mysterious, wanting to be alone...”

Jack's grin was just short of lascivious. “Wantin' to be alone with you... that ain't so strange.”

Marie was hardly amused. “Jack!”

“Alright, alright! I was wanderin' 'round tonight - takin' in the sites...”

“In the dark?”

“Yeah - in the dark - tryin' to talk myself outta what's prob'ly the dumbest idea I've ever had...” His fidgets had increased tenfold by now.

Marie stilled his hands by taking them in hers. “Jack, what's wrong?” Her voice was far less irritated and much more cajoling now.

Jack was too distracted to see the confusion in her eyes when he yanked his hands away to pull his hat from his head and run an agitated hand through his hair. “What I gotta say is... well, it's...” Jack suddenly looked Marie straight in the eye - her confusion had disappeared as his anxiety increased. “You might not like me much when I'm done.”

Marie's brow furrowed. “I like you just as you are - you know that.”

Jack shook his head, making his long hair shiver against his shoulders. “Not once you hear this, you won't.”

“I doubt that.” Marie cast him an invitation to open up to her with just the expression on her face.

Jack played with the rim of his hat, running it first one way, then the other. “I gotta tell ya before I talk myself outta it again... I lied for years - I already know how to read.”

Wood sighed as it settled in the stove fire, but otherwise silence reigned in the kitchen.

The silence was wearing enough for Jack to suggest, “Say somethin' Marie. Say you hate me, say you never want to see me again, say that I tricked you, say...”

“I wasn't in love with my first husband.”

Jack was almost too astonished to remain standing. “Say what?”

Marie now looked nervous... and guilty. “That time before... when you and Clive asked me to marry you... I told you both that I... wasn't over my... husband.”

“I remember.”

Marie turned away in her nervousness towards the paper-strewn table. “It was an excuse... so I wouldn't have to hurt either of you.”

Jack's brow was furrowed now, though his was in sympathy. “You didn't hurt anyone.”

Marie barked a laugh. “No, I didn't. Because I... lied. It was the only thing I could think to do at the time.”

His hat momentarily stilled in his hand. “Then why..?”

Marie ran a finger around the lace-edged tablecloth. “I didn't want to get married again, not that I didn't want to marry either of you. That's why.”

More silence met this confession. A clock sitting on the counter ticked quietly to itself, the only noise in the house. A stair creaked, but other than that, the silence was absolute. At last Jack hesitantly inquired, “And... now? What do you think now?”

Marie's eyes brimmed, showing her own anxiety over this. “I was sure you would... you would find out someday. You wouldn't want what someone else didn't...”

“That's not true, and you know it!” Jack forcefully contradicted before she even had the chance to finish. “What kind of man wouldn't want..?” Jack gestured in Marie's direction, too flabbergasted to speak.

Marie's ghostly smile spread across her face again. “He was very... how do you say?... ambitious. A good man, a good doctor...” Then her face fell. “Just not a good husband. But I didn't know that for many years.”

More silence spawned more hesitation. Jack carefully studied Marie, not wanting to upset her more than she already was, but curious enough to want the truth. “Did you ever love him?” he finally asked.

Marie softly grunted another laugh. “At first,” she admitted. “Then... it happened so slowly, I didn't even notice. He was always with his patients.”

“I thought you were his nurse at first.”

“I was. That's how we met.” A small smile graced Marie's lips as she remembered. “He was so charming... he reminds me of Clive, actually. He paid attention to me... then. I was young... he was handsome... we talked for hours... we were married almost before I knew it.” The smile widened. “Things were good at first. We were always together... I was his nurse, he was the doctor, Paris was beautiful... then came the Commune.” Marie's smile fell away. “You know about that. We were deported... my parents were killed.”

“I'm sorry to hear that, Marie.” His hat was once more spinning in his hands. “I didn't know that about your parents.”

One big breath later, Marie smiled as if to wipe away the bad memories. “That was a long time ago. We ended up here, and Jacques built this house...”

“Mighty big house for just two people,” Jack commented.

Marie's brows rose, this time with a sardonic twist. “Such a big house... and no children, even though we'd been married for ten years by then. It was so we'd each have our own room.” She gave an astounded shrug into the silence. “I thought wanting that was normal, that we had a normal marriage.”

Jack's expression matched hers. “But it wasn't?” She mournfully shook her head. “I'm sorry, Marie.” Being married had been the best few years of Jack's life, and it saddened him to hear that every married couple hadn't experienced that same joy.

Another shrug was her only response to his comment. “I didn't want to marry again,” Marie calmly stated, “But I didn't know how to tell you that without... I didn't think you or Clive would understand.”

“Well,” Jack said after a moment. “I can't speak for Clive, but I would have... I would have...” He faced Marie, a picture of restrained agony. “I would have waited for you, Marie! Whenever you decided... If you're not ready now, we can just call off...”

The ferocity in Marie's voice took Jack by surprise. “We are not calling of the wedding, Jack Craddock! I might not have thought I was ready before... but you didn't ask me before.”

Confused, Jack's hat stilled in his hand again as he regarded Marie. “I sort of asked. You sort of said no.”

“I said no to getting married again,” Marie corrected. “I was afraid that if I married, I would become no more important to you than what I can do for your jobs.”

“You know that's not how I ever thought of you, Marie.”

“I know... now,” Marie soothed. “Sally and I have talked... when the store was quiet.” Marie looked guilty again for having done something other than work while she was at work. “According to her, marriage is... it's nothing like mine,” she admitted at last.

“Mine neither,” Jack told her in a quiet voice. “Juanita was like... the sun and the moon.” His gaze met hers, his shy grin blazing through the darkened room. “You're like that, too.”

At the unexpectedly soft compliment, Marie tilted her head up to look him critically in the eye. He was often saying or doing somthing that showed his softer side, especially lately. It was often superceded by the toughness necessary for his job as a US Marshal, but it showed itself when least expected. “There is much more to you than I ever thought, Jack Craddock.”

Jack's fidgets began anew. “You don't have to tell anyone, you know.”

Marie suddenly settled back on her feet, pensive. “Jack. Your speech has changed,” she noted in some amazement.

Jack gave a sheepish smile. “Yeah, well... I guess that's part of the reading thing that I wanted to talk to you about.”

Reminded of what he had divulged only a few minutes before, as well as what she had divulged, she wondered what Jack would do if she let her actions become more friendly than she'd so far displayed? What would he do? She had known what Jacques would have done, of course - gently chastised her, as if she were a child playing with fire. But Jack was a different kind of man altogether. How would he react?

With a need to answer that question now in mind, she leaned into him in a most persuasive way. “You said that you can read?”

Jack wasn't immune to her new position, but did his best to ignore it. “Like I said, I...” His face flamed red as her position finally got to him.

“But that's wonderful!” Marie gushed. “Our reading lessons have already made a difference.”

“Uh... no, that's not quite...” Marie leaned further against him, and Jack immediately set his hands to spinning his hat once more in order to keep those hands to himself. “I could read before the lessons.”

Surprisingly pleased to see the effect that she was having on him, Marie sidled half a step closer. It thrilled her the way her own blood was humming at this point. “Jack, I know,” she softly told him.

That made the red pause as it crept up his face, so that half of it was red, the other half white as a piece of paper. “What?”

Marie giggled; she couldn't help herself at this point. “I knew that you could read from the 3rd time we met for lessons. What I never understood was why.” He was close enough now to smell the coffee that he'd been drinking earlier that evening at the saloon. It clung to his breath the way the dust and dirt of his job marred his pants. Even the smell of his special saddle soap wafted to her on a draft coming in under the back door.

“Uh,” Jack grunted as he stared down at Marie, his eyes blank as he mentally scrambled to recall just what they were discussing. Oh yeah, the reading. “In my job, it helps to...” She was wrapping her arms around him now, cradling him in a cocoon of safety that he rarely indulged in. “... to, uh... to pretend to be dumber...” Marie pulled him closer, squashing his hat between them. “Dumber than... those oulaws that...” Seduction was the one word that zipped through Jack's brain before it completely shut down when she kissed him.

His reaction was instant. Before two seconds had gone by, Marie knew exactly what Jack really wanted.

She drew back, eyeing Jack in surprise at the way her own blood now thudded in her temples. “That was... unexpected.”

To be candid, or shocked? “No it wasn't,” he softly replied, opting for honesty - he had lied enough.

Marie blinked in wonder, shaking her head to correct him. “Not your response. Mine.”

Jack grinned at her amazement at feeling what he considered normal feelings - she'd been married before, after all, whether that marriage had ended normally or not! “Why? What was your response?”

Marie blushed this time. “Like yours.”

Jack's grin simply grew as he shyly made another of his confessions. “I've uh... wanted you for years.” Nerves made him more vocal than usual. “Why else do you think I suggested those reading lessons? To spend time with you, be close to you, to see you.”

“Jack,” Marie whispered, her voice soft, but curious. “Do you really need those reading glasses?”

Jack's tiny grin was almost answer enough. “Not when I first started wearing them. I figured that if anyone heard about them, they'd assume I was soft, was easy pickings.”

“And later?”

Jack considered. “About ten years ago, I started having trouble reading. Now they've got real lenses in them. Do you think they look stupid?”

Marie grinned flirtatiously. She thought they were just part of Jack, her favorite part. But what she asked was, “Do you want me to?”

Jack grinned back, just as flirtatious. “How about another one of those reading lessons tomorrow?”

The End


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