A/N: this was written for a friend who asked if I would write a story for her and Buck. Maria, I hope you enjoy it!

CHAPTER ONE

“That sky looks a might ominous son, you’d best put some miles between you and the weather.” The old stationmaster advised Buck.

“Thanks, I will, HAAA” Buck kicked his horse and rode off toward Rock Creek.

The sky had taken on a greenish tinge that looked bad. The clouds were in a formation that reminded Buck of the blacksmith’s anvil. The sun was gone. Buck rode on for several miles. I don’t like the looks of this, Buck thought to himself. It really doesn’t feel right. A mile or so later he reached a small stream and stopped to water the horse and fill his canteen. The horse flattened his ears and nickered.

“You don’t like the looks of things either huh, boy?” Buck patted the horse’s neck in an effort to calm the restless animal. The horse snorted. “Yeah, it don’t smell right either.” Buck remounted and began looking for shelter from the upcoming storm.

They’d only gone a half mile or so when Buck spotted a cabin in the distance. There was a lean to off to one side and Buck hoped they might offer a bit of shelter. The wind was picking up and it had started to rain. The sky had darkened to twilight even though it was mid afternoon. The cabin was still a half mile or so away. The rain came in sheets, cold icy needles that hurt when they hit. The storm was loud, the wind was screaming. Suddenly a bolt of lightening split the sky and hit the ground near the cabin; the thunder was louder than any Buck had ever heard before. It proved too much for horse and rider and Buck found himself unseated and rolling on the ground as the frightened animal fled. He cursed and began picking himself up when he saw it; a twister. Buck flattened himself down onto the ground and put his hands over his head. Time stood still, the wind screamed and beat his body with everything it picked up. He could hear someone screaming then he realized it was himself. The ditch Buck had landed in served him well and after an eternity the wind moved away. Every muscle in Buck’s body hurt. He was covered in mud and blood. He’d been cut hundreds of times from grass and tiny pebbles the wind had thrown at him. His ears hurt. He was alive. The whole ordeal had probably lasted less than five minutes.

He looked in the direction of the cabin and to his horror it was gone. The twister had flattened the structures. Buck rose to his feet and began to run towards the devastated area, if someone was there, they’d need help. He fell several times his own body still shaky from the ordeal.

“Hello, is anybody here?” Buck called when he reached the pile of wood that used to be someone’s home.

Buck looked around hoping that whoever lived here wasn’t home when the twister hit but his heart sank when he found the first body. The man was older probably in his mid to late forties, his neck had been broken. The next body was another man, a bit younger, probably in his late thirties. He was impaled by a beam; Buck hoped his death had been quick. It was then Buck heard a muffled cry. “Hello, where are you? Can you hear me?” Buck stood still listening hoping to hear the sound again. He began to dig through the rubble where he thought the sound had come from. He was rewarded with another cry; a wail, like a baby.

He found a boot, a man’s boot, attached to a horribly twisted leg and another dead body. This man was only a year or so older than himself. Under the man’s body was a woman and under the woman was a baby. Buck worked feverishly to free the man’s body so he could reach the baby; it was whimpering. Buck prayed as he worked, asking the Spirits to help him save this child’s life. He finally succeeded in freeing the man’s body and moved him off the woman. He was reaching for her arm to move her when she moaned.

“It’s gonna be alright Ma’am, I don’t mean to hurt ya but I gotta help your baby.” He gently moved her body just enough to free the toddler. He gently picked up the terrified tot and checked him over. He had some cuts and bruises and his arm was broken but other wise he looked ok. The child had a death grip on Buck’s neck and Buck rubbed the child’s back in an effort to soothe him. “I gotta check on your momma, little buddy. It’s gonna be alright.” Buck managed to shift the baby to his hip and suddenly realized why women had hips. Using his other hand he moved a bit of debris and was able to roll the woman over.

She was young; younger than him, maybe sixteen or seventeen. Buck wondered if maybe instead of being the baby’s mother she was his sister. She moaned again. “Miss, miss, hello, can you hear me?” Buck gently patted her face in an effort to wake her. Her eyes fluttered open and he saw the most beautiful green eyes he’d ever seen. “Hi, I’m Buck Cross, your cabin got hit by a twister but you and your baby are gonna be alright.” He caressed her face, she looked horrified. “I won’t hurt you. I’m gonna help get you out of here and back to someplace safe.”

Her gaze shifted to the child squirming in Buck’s arm. She reached up and touched the child. “Matty, Thank God.” Her eyes shifted to Buck’s face. “You’re hurt.” She ran the back of her fingers over Buck’s cheek, they came away bloody. He winced in pain. She struggled to sit up and Buck helped her. The rain had abated but not stopped, they both shivered.

“We need to find some shelter. It looks like you need to rest up a bit.” Buck looked around. The sky was brightening and he could see the surrounding area a bit better. “What’s your name?”

“I’m Maria; please there are some men here that will kill you if they find you talking to me. Give me Matty and get out of here….. PLEASE!” Her voice was desperate, she was ready to cry.

“Maria, how many men are there? I’ve found three.” Buck shifted Matty to the other hip in case he needed to get to his gun. “Can you stand?” He reached an arm around her almost lifting her as she struggled to stand. She was painfully thin.

“Three? You’ve found three, what does found mean?” Maria started looking around her and really seeing the devastation for the first time. “Oh My God” she leaned heavily on Buck as she spotted the man Buck had pushed off of her.

“I’m sorry but they’re all dead. That one was on top of you and Matty.” Buck pointed to the man closest to them.

“Are you sure? Are you sure they’re dead?” Maria took Matty from Buck and began checking the toddler for herself.

“I’m sorry, Maria, but yes, I’m sure.” Buck led them away from the debris that had been their home.

“Don’t be, they were mean, hateful men. If it weren’t for Matty here I probably would have killed myself long ago.” Maria stated flatly. Buck looked shocked. “Buck, is that right?” Buck nodded. “They made my life a living hell. They didn’t deserve to die so quickly”

He reached for her arm to help her walk, she pulled away. “Please, No. Not yet.”

“I won’t hurt you….” Buck didn’t know how to respond. “Are you hurt; I think Matty has a broken arm.” The child wailed as if on cue.

“There’s a heavy strand of pines over in that direction, we can find some shelter there. Have you seen our horses? How did you find this place anyway?” Maria looked at him quizzically.

Buck set up a small camp using pine boughs then went back to the cabin to see if he could salvage anything useful. While he was there scavenging, two horses, followed by the one he’d been riding, showed up. All three had scratches and were bleeding in spots but otherwise were fine. Buck found another saddle and saddle bags. He saddled one of the horses and filled the saddle bags with the items he took from the debris.

By the time he arrived back at the campsite, Maria had found some water and had cleaned up both Matty and herself. Buck looked at her; she was beautiful, and tiny. He tended to the horses and joined her. They spread the blankets he’d retrieved out to dry by the fire and heated some coffee. Buck caught a rabbit and Maria roasted it, Matty was happily attempting to remove the splint they had tied the arm up with, cooing to himself. “Is that your son?” Buck finally asked.

“Oh, no, He’s my nephew, and the son of the man you pulled off me. You’re a mess, what happened to you? Let me clean up some of those cuts for you.” Maria gently brushed back the matted hair from Buck’s face. “You’re gonna have a black eye, its already almost swollen shut. Hold still its just water…..” She washed the cuts on Buck’s face and neck.

“The lightening spooked my horse and he threw me. I landed in a ditch but then I got caught in the twister. It felt like it was trying to rip me apart.” Buck looked down at himself for the first time since the storm broke. His clothing was ripped to shreds in some places. He was covered in mud and blood. His back felt like it was scraped raw. He touched his back; his fingers were bloody “Where did you get the water? I guess I should wash up a bit.”

“There’s a small pond just past those trees. If you rinse out your clothes I’ll hang them up to dry.” She looked at Buck with an expression on her face he couldn’t read.

“Ok, be right back.” Buck made his way to the pond and attempted to scrape off some of the mud and blood from both himself and his clothes. He finally gave up and dunked his head under water to get the mud out of his hair.

“You could use a clean change of clothes and a bath!” she laughed as he reentered the little camp. She had hung his coat up to dry near the fire.

“Well, I guess that will have to wait. Can you ride?” Buck checked the blankets and found some had dried.

“I haven’t ridden a horse in ages, not since I was a little girl, but I guess I’ll learn!” She checked the rabbit and proclaimed it done. “Come on Buck, leave those for a bit, eat while it’s hot.”

“Rock Creek is about a day’s ride from here. That’s where I’m from, I used to ride for the pony express but now I just do some special runs and help out as a deputy. The Marshall, he’s a friend of mine, he’ll help you get in touch with your family.” Buck loved looking at her green eyes.

“I don’t have any family, they’re all dead. I guess it’s just me and Matty now.” Her eyes drifted to the far edge of the clearing, Buck could barely make out something that might have been two grave mounds. One was recent.

“I’m sorry, Maria. I’ll take care of the other bodies in the morning.” Buck touched her arm and she flinched. “Are you hurt? Did I hurt you?” His voice full of concern.

Maria looked away, and then turned her attention to Matty. “I’m fine; just leave the bodies to rot.”

Later that night Buck woke to hear the soft sounds of someone crying. “Maria? Are you OK?” He could see her, her face buried in the blankets, her body shaking with each sob. He got up and gently drew her into his arms. She stiffened up at first then melted bonelessly into his chest. “It’s gonna be alright, you’ll see”

Maria cried herself to sleep in his arms and Buck spent a sleepless night wondering what had gone on in that cabin.

CHAPTER TWO

Buck must have dozed off because he suddenly became aware of the smell of coffee. He sat up quickly and his head and body protested. His head was pounding and all the little cuts and bruises from the day before either stung or throbbed. His back cramped and he yelped in pain. Every muscle in his body hurt. He closed his eyes and held his head in his hands, groaning.

“I hope you feel better than you look.” Maria’s voice brought him back to the present. “I didn’t have the heart to wake you after you were so nice to me yesterday. Matty’s still asleep, poor little guy. I’m so glad he’s gonna be OK. ” She handed him a cup of coffee and brushed the hair back from his face. “That really is a nasty cut; you’re lucky whatever cut you didn’t take your head off.”

“It sort of feels like I wish it had…how are you?” Buck looked up at her. She smiled and her eyes lit up her whole face. “You have a beautiful smile.”

She blushed, “thank-you.” This man was so different from all the men she knew in her life. He treated her like a person rather than a possession. He’d held her all night and her clothing was still all in one place. She turned away from him so he couldn’t see the tears that threatened to spill over.

They packed up the horses and began the trip home. They took turns holding Matty, who didn’t want to be held. “He’s a real wiggler; I never knew something this small could be so hard to hold on to.” Buck finally broke the silence. “How old is he?”

“He’s almost fifteen months. If you think he’s hard to hang on to now just wait till he’s having a bath.” She laughed.

“You have a pretty laugh too; I wish you’d smile more. Why didn’t you want me to bury those men? What did they do to you?” Buck asked; the stricken look on her face made him instantly regret the question.

“Will you promise me that Matty will be taken care of?” she looked down. “I guess I belong to you now so… “

“Whoa, wait a minute, what makes you think I own you?” Buck pulled the horses up and touched her arm.

Maria stiffened at his touch. “You found me. I’m nothing to anyone, they were going to start selling me to travelers, but I guess I’m yours now.” The tears were so close to falling. She looked so fragile it almost broke Buck’s heart.

“No, Maria, I don’t own you. No one should own another person.” He took her hand in his and squeezed it gently. Matty chose that moment to pull on his earring. “Ow, OW, OW, No, Matty! Help me….”

Maria giggled, “Turn more to me.” She disentangled Matty’s fingers from Buck’s earring and hair, taking the child into her lap. “He thought that was a toy, sorry. Did it hurt?”

“It felt like he was going to rip my ear off, I’m bleeding!” he looked at the spot of blood on his finger that had just touched the assaulted ear.

“I think you’ll live!” She laughed. He looked so distressed it was comical. “Want me to kiss it and make it better?” Their previous conversation was forgotten as Matty vied for their attention.

“I’d like that” Buck pouted, than clapped his hand over his mouth. DID I say that out loud? He was sure he was beet red.

“Figures” Maria grumbled but was surprised when Buck kicked his horse and started their journey again.

They stopped to rest around mid day near a small stream. Buck spread out a couple of blankets, tenting one of them so Matty could nap in the shade.

“You seem to be afraid of me. I’m not going to hurt you. Why is it every time I come near you, you shy away? You never answered my question earlier. Why didn’t you want me to bury those men?” He sat on one side of the blanket, Maria sat across from him. “You’re safe, please understand that. I don’t know what they did to you, but they’re dead. They can’t hurt you. I only want to help.” Buck reached for her hand, she didn’t pull away.

“Buck, you seem so nice, I’m just afraid…” she was looking down again, worrying her bottom lip with her teeth. “I was a little girl maybe seven or eight when the wagon train we were with got attacked…”

Buck pulled his hand back. “I’m sorry; I shouldn’t force myself on you.” Buck was surprised when she reached for his hand.

“You’re not to blame for the attack. And it wasn’t Indians that did the attacking. It was those men, them and a few others. My sisters and mother, some of the other younger prettier women and myself were all taken. All the men were killed. I don’t know what happened to the older women. I can still remember one of the men saying ‘use ‘em and loose ‘em’. I’ve always feared that phrase. It’s funny I can remember that like it was yesterday but I can’t remember what my last name was…… Anyway, the men, those three, plus a few more divided up the women and girls. They let me and one of my sisters stay with my mother and another woman. I don’t know what happened to the rest, including my other sister.” Her tears were finally allowed to flow and Buck opened his arms.

“Maria, I’m dirty and I probably smell bad but my shoulder is here for you.” She finally looked up and moved into Buck’s outstretched arms. He tenderly embraced her letting her choose the closeness she’d allow.

“My mother protected me as much as she could. I know they did horrible things to her and the other woman, I could hear noises at night. The men were animals. They were mean and hit my sister and me if we didn’t do something right or were in the way. I did a lot of chores like cooking and cleaning. My sister did all the mending and washing. My mother told us we had to be useful so we wouldn’t be used like her. We’d all be beaten a lot and there were lots of men that came to the cabin. Mother would shut us in a cupboard while she took care of them. She cried a lot. I never found out for sure what happened with them but I think I know now. The other woman got pregnant about five years ago and I saw them beat her to death when she started to show. The guy you found on top of me was young too, only about four years older than me. He and I used to play together then his Pa, the old guy, said it was time for him to become a man. He got beat a few times but finally he told me he lay with my mother.” Maria’s voice was trembling but she needed to tell Buck everything. “Does that mean what I think it does? My mother would never speak about any of the men or what they did.”

“You’re probably thinking the right things. You don’t have to tell me this, I can see how much it hurts you. It’s all behind you now.” Buck rocked her, his own anger boiling.

“Yes, I do Buck, I need to tell someone. Please listen to me?” her eyes pleaded with him. He could loose himself in those eyes! He nodded.

“My sister and I lived in fear, but it was all we knew. One day they told my sister she was ready to become a woman and a special man was going to visit her. They gave her a new dress and momma did her hair all pretty and told her not to fight, she said it would be easier. My sister was seventeen, the same age I am now. They took her someplace and when they brought her back she was different. She said it was horrible, how could momma do this to her? Her own daughter. After that we were kept apart, I did all the housekeeping and cooking. The younger man sort of took her as his own and momma let him. She got pregnant about two years ago and died giving birth to Matty. I did all the things around the cabin plus cared for Matty while momma did whatever the men asked her to do. Momma stopped speaking and finally she stopped eating. I knew it was just a matter of time before they took me too.” Her story was interrupted when Matty let them know he was awake and hungry. “I need to tend to him. Thanks, Buck”

“Anytime, I think I’ll stretch my legs a bit, answer a call of nature. I’ll be back in a few.” Without thinking Buck kissed her head and gave her a little squeeze before letting her go to a now wailing Matty.

Her eyes widened at the show of affection and then she recoiled from him. Maria quickly crawled to Matty and picked the little boy up. Buck cursed under his breath and walked away.

CHAPTER THREE

They arrived in Rock Creek late in the evening. Buck took them directly to Rachel’s house. “This is it, this is where I live, and well, actually, I live there in the old bunkhouse. My friends Rachel and Teaspoon live here, in the big house. Lou and Kid have a small ranch a ways down the road from here. You’ll meet them later; right now I bet you’d like a hot meal, a warm bath and a soft bed. I’m sure looking forward to being clean again.” He spoke softly hoping to calm the shaking girl. Matty slept comfortably in her arms.

“I thought I heard horses, son, I was worried about you.” Teaspoon opened the front door and stepped out on to the porch followed by Rachel. “I see you have brought some friends. Hello, Miss, Teaspoon Hunter at your service!” Teaspoon tipped an imaginary hat and came down the steps taking Maria’s elbow gently guiding her toward the house. “Buck, I’ll be right out to help you with those horses.”

Maria tried to hide her fear as Teaspoon touched her but Rachel saw the fear in her eyes. She quickly took her from Teaspoon and shooed him after Buck.

“I’m Rachel, honey, what’s your name? Buck, I’ll have supper waiting on you so hurry and clean up.” Rachel looked Buck over and then added, “Do you want me to send Teaspoon for the doctor?”

“I’ll be fine, Rachel, her name is Maria and the little one is Matty. They’ve been through a lot. I told her you’d help them.” Buck gathered the reigns and began leading the horses to the barn.

“Of course, we will. Buck, are you sure you’re OK? Just put the horses away and grab some clean clothes, Teaspoon will tend to the horses. I want to get a good look at you.” Rachel followed Maria into the house and Teaspoon headed out to help Buck.

“Buck, you don’t look so good. What happened out there?” Teaspoon asked as he cooled the horses down and Buck stripped out of his torn and mud covered clothes. “Son, your body looks like one big bruise. Some of those cuts are still bleeding. Don’t bother with a shirt. Rachel will only have to get another one; let her tend to you first.” Teaspoon walked over to where Buck was washing up, the water a mixture of mud and blood. “That’s a nasty cut on your head; the doc really should look at that.”

“We got caught in a twister Teaspoon. Every part of my body hurts, even my eyelashes.” Buck sat down heavily on a bale of hay. “I thought I was gonna die. It was so loud.” He shook his head at the memory. “I don’t know all of what Maria has been through, but we gotta help her Teaspoon. She was kidnapped and held like a slave. I guess her mother and sister were forced to be whores. I don’t know if she was or not. She’s afraid of me, of men in general. I felt so helpless.” He buried his head in his hands and cried; the emotions of the past two days hitting him all at once.

“We’ll work it all out, Buck.” Teaspoon put his arm around Buck’s shoulders. “When you’re done here come in the house.” Teaspoon left Buck to pull himself together.

Maria was having her own emotional upheaval in the house. Rachel had taken her to a guest room and given her clean clothing for herself and blankets for Matty. “I’ll draw a bath after supper. You can wash up a bit here first. Tomorrow we’ll get you settled better, this will have to do for tonight.” Rachel hugged the girl and placed a tender kiss on her forehead.

“Rachel, you’re too kind, I’m sorry to put you out like this. Buck wouldn’t leave us. I told him we’d be OK but he insisted we come here.”

“Nonsense, there’s nothing to be sorry about! Buck knows I’d tan his hide if he left the two of you to fend for yourselves. He’s a good man. He only wants what’s best for you, I’m sure. I’ll have supper on the table in ten minutes. What does Matty eat? Does he need a bottle or can he use a cup?” Rachel took the little boy in her arms for the first time. “Is his arm broken? Poor little tike!” She kissed him as he reached for a stray bit of hair. “You get changed I’ll take care of your son.”

“He’s my nephew, Please help him… I don’t care what you do with me but please help him.” Maria sank down on the bed in tears. Rachel was at her side in an instant.

“We’re going to care for both of you, Honey, Shhh, everything’s gonna be alright, don’t worry.” Rachel rocked her two new charges until the tears stopped. “Come on, get changed the men will be in for supper any minute.”

Twenty minutes later they were all seated around the table watching Matty pick out the carrots from the beef stew and squash them in his hand. Buck had put his shirt on after Rachel washed his back for him. Maria and Buck sat beside each other, each doing their best to not touch the other. They both asked for seconds and Rachel warned them she had an apple pie for desert. The talk was light and no mention of the past was brought up.

The doctor arrived after dinner and looked everyone over. He set Matty’s arm and gave both Maria and Buck salve for their injuries. Rachel and Teaspoon walked him to the door. “Keep a close watch on Buck. He’s hurt a lot worse than he’s letting on; he’s lost a lot of blood. I’ll check back tomorrow or the day after but if he has a change for the worse get me right away. Try to make him rest, tie him down if you have to. I don’t know what happened to Maria before the storm but she’s been beat and probably starved. She has a few older scars and bruises that didn’t come from that storm. She tried to hide them and she wouldn’t talk about it. The little boy is in good shape other than the broken arm. I don’t think he’s been hit or abused. He’s been relatively well fed. He’s got some bumps from the storm but he’s fine otherwise! My guess would be she took the beatings to protect him and gave him her food. Well, Good night”

“Good night Doc” they said in unison, “and thanks again” Rachel added.

“Buck, why don’t you sleep over here for the next couple of days? Just until you’re back to your old self.” Rachel put her arms around Buck and kissed his head as he sat on the sofa. “I’ll set up the daybed down here for you.”

He let her hold him a moment or two. “That’s Ok, Rachel I’d rather sleep in my own bed. I’m really worn out; I’ll see you in the morning.” He rose to head over to the bunkhouse when Maria called to him. He walked over to where she sat holding a sleeping Matty. “You’ll be OK here; Rachel gave you a bed right?”

“Don’t you want me to sleep with you? I thought…..” Buck silenced her with a kiss to her forehead. This time she didn’t shy away.

“You’ll be fine here I’ll see you in the morning, OK?” Maria nodded.

CHAPTER FOUR

Life returned to normal at the station over the next couple of weeks as Maria settled into her new life as housekeeper while Rachel was able to concentrate on teaching school. Maria and Buck were becoming friends but she still stiffened when he touched her, even when they were with other people. Lou and Maria became fast friends and spent hours together. Neither woman had an easy childhood and they found they had a lot to talk about. Matty was thriving and found a ready playmate with Lou and Kid’s daughter Lauren. They were only days apart in age and soon learned to outsmart the adults in their lives.

Buck’s body was slow to heal and he was frustrated. He was relieved no one was there to see him in the mornings when he could barely get out of bed. His muscles were stiff and his joints ached. Teaspoon had restricted his riding and only allowed him to do light work around the station and the office. Buck was secretly glad but it still bothered him. He wanted to know more about Maria but she made excuses to avoid being alone with him. He found himself wanting to be with her more and more. She had light auburn hair which had a bit of a curl to it that reminded him of Emma. Rachel’s cooking was helping her loose her skeletal appearance and she fit into clothing better. Her petite figure was very pleasing to the eye! He made up his mind he was going to court this green eyed beauty. He prayed she’d let him.

Early one morning, about a month after her arrival at the station, Maria thought Buck was up and in the barn working. She walked in to the bunkhouse to get his laundry and found him still asleep in his bunk. His silky hair was spread about his head and face and his long lashes rested on his cheekbones. His lips were slightly parted and drawn into a slight smile. His blanket had been pushed down slightly past his waist and his longjohn bottoms peaked out. One hand rested on the pillow, palm up, near his head and the other was lying on his bare chest. He had a cute little snore that Maria found adorable.

She stood there just watching him sleep for several long moments. Suddenly he shifted his position to his side and mumbled something. The blanket fell from his hips to the bed leaving him clad in only the longjohns. She had lived with men all her life but her mother had sheltered her. She’d never seen a man in this state of undress before. She gasped and Buck opened his eyes.

“Maria, what are you doing here?” He quickly grabbed the blanket and covered himself. He looked so cute, all flustered, she couldn’t suppress a giggle as she fled the bunkhouse.

Later that day Buck found Maria alone in the house. “Spying on me this morning, huh?” he teased her. She blushed but let him touch her cheek with his fingers. “Why did you run? Do I frighten you that much? I won’t hurt you, I hope you know that.”

“Buck, I know you won’t hurt me. It’s just…. It’s just that…. Well, you’re different.” She looked right in his eyes. He was falling in love with her and he was sure she was about to tell him to drop dead. He didn’t want to hear it.

“No, I’m sorry, I know I’m different. I promise not to touch you again. I don’t know what I was thinking. I’m sorry.” Buck turned to leave.

She shocked both of them when she grabbed his arm. “Don’t go Buck, please…..” Maria touched Buck’s face and realized his eyes were moist. “It’s true”

“Huh? What’s true?” now Buck was truly confused.

“Lou said you were falling in love with me and I told her no one would ever want me like that.”

“Maria, why do you say that? You’re beautiful, Lou’s not wrong. I just don’t want to push you into anything. You’ve had a hard life and now you’re free to do what you want… I thought you didn’t….wouldn’t want me.” Buck’s voice dropped to almost a whisper. One hand caressed her face, his other touched her arm. She stiffened. “I’m sorry. I think its best if I leave for now.” He stepped away from her and ran directly into Rachel as she came through the door. The laundry basket landed on the floor. Both Rachel and Buck swore.

“Stop, STOP IT” Maria screamed. She was in tears. “Please stop…”

Both Rachel and Buck stood and stared at her. Rachel moved to hold her but she backed away, pushing Rachel back toward Buck. “You want to know why I don’t know how to love you Buck? You want to know why I can’t let you love me? Well take a look.” She almost tore the buttons from her blouse as she opened the top and pulled her camisole aside. Her eyes were wild. She had scratched herself when she pulled the clothing away from her body and the scrapes were beginning to bleed.

“Maria, don’t…” Buck began.

“Shut up Buck! Let me have my say and then you can decide if you still want to know me or not. Look, LOOK AT ME!” She screamed. A scar from a bite mark was clearly visible on her breast. She pulled up the sleeves of her blouse and showed them scars from rope burns; there were matching ones on her ankles. “I was going to be their new slave Buck. My Mother died two days before the twister and they started in on me. I know I’m supposed to be a whore, you can’t care about me.” Maria sobbed and fell to her knees. “You can’t” She kept shaking her head and repeating those words over and over. Her hands covered her face.

Buck recovered from his initial shock and dropped to his knees in front of her. Maria reacted violently to his touch and pounded her fists against him.

“LET ME GO!” She screamed into his chest.

He held her tighter as she struggled against him. “Maria, MARIA, Look at me…” He grabbed her face, forcing her to look at him. Her eyes were unfocused. He looked directly into her face. “I’m not going away. You are not a slave or a whore. Let me help you….” Her struggles lessened as he spoke and she finally stopped struggling and clung to him. He gently pulled her blouse over to cover her and drew her into his arms. He was pleasantly surprised when she let him hold her. She was crying as if her heart was breaking. Buck gently guided her to her feet then just as gently picked her up and started for the stairs.

“I’ll get the Doc.” Teaspoon said softly. No one had seen him enter the room. Rachel nodded and followed Buck up the stairs to Maria’s bedroom. Matty had slept through the yelling and Rachel gently moved the sleeping tot so Buck could lay Maria on the bed.

“Why don’t I take Matty home with me, I’ll watch him for a couple of days.” Lou said a few minutes later. “I met Teaspoon on his way to the Doc’s, he told me what happened. I’ve been expecting this.” She looked at Rachel’s concerned face and Buck’s tear streaked one.

“You could have warned me,” Rachel said quietly as she handed Matty over to Lou. Both women looked at Buck who sat rocking a still sobbing Maria. He was silently crying also, he felt like this was all his fault.

“Shhh, Maria, It’s OK, its OK, I’m so sorry I pushed you. I want to help you, please, let me….“ Buck repeated the words over and over to her. He held her close and rocked her in his arms. She didn’t pull away. She was actually clinging to him. Her fingernails had scratched his chest and face and were digging into his shoulder drawing blood; neither noticed.

By the time the doctor arrived Maria had calmed down to occasional sobs and Buck looked more relaxed. “I’d like to talk to Miss Maria alone for a moment. Would that be OK with you Maria?” the old doc asked gently. Maria nodded.

Buck moved to place her on the pillows when she met his eyes for the first time since the whole ordeal started. “I’ll be right out side if you want me….Lou’s right, I love you.” He whispered the words so only she could hear.

“Do you mean it Buck?” she whispered, eyes down cast. “Really? I doubt that.” Maria’s eyes swam in a sea of green tears. Buck did the only thing he could think to do. He kissed her.

“Let the doc check you over, if you need me I’ll be right here, Rachel too.” Buck slowly left the room, closing the door behind him.

CHAPTER FIVE

“I’ve given her something to put her to sleep, Laudanum. Rachel I’ll give this to you so you can give her some when she needs it. Buck, she’s been through hell. I know you mean well son, but if you’re not going to stick by her…. Just don’t make promises you can’t or won’t keep. If you meant what you said earlier you could be in for some rough times. I know you’ve had it rough too. You’re a good man, I know you’ll do right by her.” Buck nodded. “I’ll check back on her tomorrow, Where is Matty? I might as well check on his arm while I’m here.”

“Lou took him to her place for a couple of days. We’ll bring him by the office, what time is good?” Rachel walked the doctor to the porch and promised to make him an apple pie for partial payment of his fees.

Maria spent much of the next few days sleeping but gradually worked herself up to helping Rachel with the household chores. Buck checked on her often and they spent the evenings on the porch swing talking. Gradually her story became clear. If the twister hadn’t hit when it did she would have been forced to service the three men she lived with and any travelers that had the money to pay for a little fun. She cried often and Buck held her. She was growing stronger and more confident in herself as she realized that Buck really didn’t want to own her. The scratches healed and the scars began to fade. The memories were harder to heal.

~*~*~*~

“Matty, MATTY you come back here….” Maria called running out of the house and stopped dead in her tracks. The child was no where in sight. “Matty, where are you? MATTY? BUCK! Matty this isn’t funny where are you?” Her voice was taking on a panicky timber.

“Hey, Maria is this what you’re looking for?” Buck emerged from the barn carrying a naked, squirming, still wet, and now filthy Matty. Maria had to laugh at the two of them. Buck was carrying Matty by the armpits as far away from his body as possible. “I was mucking out the stalls and this one ran through the stuff I had just raked out of the stall. He really smells.”

Rachel had come out onto the porch to see what all the yelling was about. She doubled over in laughter and the sight of Buck and Matty. The look on Buck’s face was priceless as the little boy giggled and wiggled attempting to escape. “Buck, I’ll bet you don’t smell much better!” Rachel teased.

“Very funny, here Maria… I see what you meant when you said he’s harder to hold wet.” Buck attempted to give him to Maria but she ducked away, joining Rachel on the stairs. “Hey come on, you two, someone help me here.”

“Buck I think you could use some water! Soap wouldn’t hurt either…” Teaspoon joined in the fun adding to Buck’s distress. Buck set Matty down in front of him but the little boy wanted up! Buck finally relented and picked him up still holding him as far away as possible when Matty, like all little boys do, pretended to be a fountain and soaked Buck’s shirt and pants. Buck groaned and the other adults roared with laughter. “Son, I do believe you know where the shower is….” Teaspoon finally managed to say in between laughs.

“For a little kid you sure do cause your share of trouble!” Buck finally hugged Matty and turned to the shower.

Buck had shed his clothes and was standing in the shower rinsing soap off both himself and Matty when Maria came around the corner of the house. She stood there watching him playing with Matty, both were laughing. He didn’t hear her approach and chose that moment to open the stall door to reach for the towel he’d placed out of Matty’s reach. His hands were full of a struggling Matty; his attention focused on the tot. Finally he looked up and saw Maria. He blushed from the roots of his hair all the way down to his toes! Maria dropped the towels she was carrying, clapped her hands over her mouth to suppress the giggles and fled.

Several long minutes later Buck arrived back at the house carrying a clean little boy wrapped in a towel. His own shirt was buttoned right up to his neck, not one extra piece of skin was showing despite the heat of the late fall afternoon. Rachel and Maria tried and failed to suppress their laughter. Buck handed them Matty and fled toward the barn.

“Oh Buck,” Rachel called, he turned and looked at the two women. “You’re cute when you blush” Buck turned brighter red and entered the barn.

CHAPTER SIX

Two days later Buck worked up the courage to be with Maria again. They sat on the swing and talked into the evening, neither mentioning his little mishap at the shower! The night had turned cool and Maria shivered, Buck reached out and put his arm around her drawing her close to him. She snuggled into the warmth of his body. “Buck, I’m sorry I tried to push you away. I wanted you to hate me so you wouldn’t use me, you know, like the other men were going to.”

Buck put his hand under her chin and tilted her face up to him. “I’m not that kind of man. I guess you know that by now, huh?” He was getting lost in her eyes. Her breath was soft on his neck. Her hand rested on his leg. He shifted his body slightly so he could bring her face closer to his. Her eyes never left his as he closed the distance between them and their lips met. Her eyes closed and she sighed as he pulled her head closer to him, deepening the kiss. He broke the kiss a moment later and looked into her eyes. This time she reached up and pulled his head to hers and their lips met again. He breathed in deeply and parted his lips slightly. He enveloped her in his arms and was rewarded with her arms circling his neck. He rubbed her back and deepened the kiss, her lips parted, and Teaspoon cleared his throat.

They jumped apart like they’d been burned; each sitting on opposite ends of the swing. “Ummm, Hi Teaspoon, we, um, didn’t know you were there.” Buck stammered.

“I gathered that… Matty’s awake and wants his momma.” Maria excused herself and left to tend to the child. “Were you two having fun? I guess it’s safe to say she’s gotten over her fear of men?”

“We’re working on it. She still flinches if I come up on her and she doesn’t hear me. Those men were monsters Teaspoon” Buck shook his head in disgust.

“I know it’s not my place to ask but do you know how badly they used her? Did they…. You know….” Teaspoon couldn’t bring himself to say the words.

“I don’t know for sure. I don’t think so. I don’t want to ask. The other day when she caught me coming out of the shower she seemed shocked to see a naked man. I thought that if they’d used her… you know… like that, she’d have seen men before. I’m not any different from any white man so it shouldn’t be that. I don’t know maybe it was just ‘cos she knows I have feelings for her.” Buck looked at Teaspoon and shrugged.

“Just be careful son, let her set the pace. I know you’re ready to court her, and maybe marry her but just use your heart AND your head!” Teaspoon patted Buck on the shoulder and went back into the house.

It seemed like every time Buck and Maria were alone for the next couple of weeks something would interrupt them. Matty demanded attention, Rachel needed help with something, Lou and Kid came over, one of the horses kicked down the stall door, the cat had kittens, Buck was at his wits end. He wanted to do more than a quick kiss. He was growing frustrated and sensed that Maria was as well.

“It was only fair you know,” Maria started as she lay back against his chest sitting on the stair below him while they watched the sunset.

“Huh? What was only fair? What did I miss?” Buck raised one eyebrow and looked generally confused.

“That I saw you coming out of the shower.” Maria tilted her head up toward his.

“How do you figure that?” he was hoping she’d forgotten.

“You’ve seen my body….” She nuzzled into his chest. He smelled so good.

“One little part, you got all of me.” He was blushing and thankful it was dark. “besides that was different”

“Oh, yeah, How?” she was enjoying his discomfort.

“It just was. Do you enjoy torturing me? Come up here you!” He reached down grabbing her waist and pulled her onto him as he lay back on the porch floor. His lips captured hers and he held her tightly against his chest.

“Torture huh? I’ll show you torture…. She began kissing from his jaw up to his cheek then nipped a bit at his earlobe. Then she kissed her way down his neck. He was just beginning to really enjoy what she was doing to him when she tickled him.

“Why You….” He rolled her over and began tickling her. Their tickle fight lasted a few moments until she stopped him in mid tickle with the most passionate kiss she’d ever given him. Their hands held their heads together their fingers entwined in each other’s hair. Buck rolled them back over so she was on top of him, his feet rested on the stairs, her legs rested on his. The kiss deepened and their lips parted, tongues probed gently. Buck held her tightly against him he could feel his desire growing; unfortunately so could Maria.

“Buck I need to go” Maria cried as she pushed herself off of Buck and fled into the house.

“Maria, don…..’t go” but she was already inside. Buck sighed heavily and sat up. He was about to follow her into the house when the door closed and locked. He stood and dejectedly made his way over to the bunk house. He entered his home and kicked his boots off. He didn’t bother with a lamp; he knew the bunkhouse like the back of his hand. What had he done this time? He cursed his body for its reaction to her kisses and fell into his bunk, emotionally exhausted.

CHAPTER SEVEN

“Lou, can I ask you something personal?” Maria had finally found a free moment to get over to their ranch; she needed to talk to Lou, alone.

“Sure, Maria, what’s bothering you?” Lou asked as she set a coffee cup in front of the younger woman. Lauren and Matty played happily on the floor.

“I think I hurt Buck last night.” Maria looked like she was going to cry. Lou nodded and she continued. “We were teasing each other on the porch and I was tickling him, then I kissed him. I mean I really kissed him. He looked surprised but then he rolled us so I was on top of him and we kept kissing. I thought he was enjoying what we were doing but he started breathing a little funny and I must have hurt him while we were tickling, maybe I got him with my knee or something because he had a lump on his stomach and when I leaned a bit on it, he groaned and it got harder. Oh Lou, I hurt him, I didn’t mean to…..” Maria was almost in tears. Lou was trying not to laugh. “WHAT? This isn’t funny”

Lou got up and put her arms around Maria, “Oh, Honey, you didn’t hurt him…. Well when you ran away from him you probably did but he’ll get over it.” Lou decided it was time to explain a few things to Maria that had obviously been over looked in her up bringing. “Buck’s reaction was normal….” Lou went on to explain some of the bodily mechanics involved in the act of love to a very red faced Maria. She decided that for Buck’s sake she’d be very specific so he wouldn’t be left alone and wanting again.

“Oh, OH MY, I’d never even seen a man naked until the day Buck stepped out of the shower and he was pretty quick at ducking back in. I barely saw anything, I just let him think I did cos it was more fun to tease him and watch him turn all red.” Maria laughed when she thought back to that day.

“Be gentle with Buck, Maria, I don’t think he has all that much experience with women. Don’t get me wrong, he’s not inexperienced either but…..lets just say it’s been awhile.” Lou then laughed and added “I wished I’d seen the look on his face when he saw you outside the shower! I’ll bet it was priceless!”

“He was so red!” Maria laughed.

“You should have seen Kid the time I almost walked in on him in the shower” Lou went on tell Maria about that time as both women enjoyed laughing at their men’s embarrassments.

~*~*~*~*~

“Did you have a nice visit with Lou and Kid?” Buck asked Maria over dinner that night.

“Why yes it was a very pleasant afternoon. We talked about all the trouble you and the boys used to cause Lou and Rachel. Rachel, did you really have to pick splinters out of Buck’s backside?”

“Seems to me I recall it was after a little incident in the barn when he lost a battle with a horse and a chicken. He fell backwards into the stall door and slid down!” Rachel and Teaspoon were laughing, Buck was very red.

“Is this Pick on Buck night?” Buck pouted as Rachel placed a generous slice of apple pie in front of him.

She kissed the top of his head, “Will the pie help?” He put on his best hurt little boy look and nodded. Everyone laughed.

Later Buck asked Maria if she’d go for a walk with him. The moon was almost full so they strolled down to the small stream just behind the bunkhouse. The moon reflected off the water made it look like liquid silver as it tripped over the stones on its way south. “I’m sorry if I upset you last night. I didn’t mean to, it’s just that I care for you, a lot. I want to be with you. I want to hold you and kiss you and when you kissed me I guess I got a little out of control. I’m sorry.” Buck was holding her hand as they walked in the meadow beside the stream.

Maria stopped and took Buck’s other hand. “Lou explained a few things to me today, Buck. It’s me that should be saying sorry. I thought I’d hurt you. You’ve been so understanding, so kind, and gentle and I’ve kept running from you. I don’t want to run from you anymore. I’m yours if you want me….. Teach me how to love, Buck. Teach me how to love you.”

Buck brushed away a tear as it escaped her lashes. Her arms were around his waist now and he cupped her face in his hands. He looked deeply into those expressive eyes. The moon light bathed her face in a soft white light and her eyes looked like two emeralds staring back into his own eyes; dark, hidden in the shadows. He used his thumb to wipe another tear away and brought her closer to him. Her breath was soft on his cheek as he closed the distance between them. Their lips met and Buck could taste her tears on her lips, the salty flavor somehow exciting him. He pulled her close and kissed her deeply. They parted several moments later both breathless and wanting more. Buck looked around for a soft patch of grass and led her over to it. He knelt down and pulled her down with him; kissing her the whole time. He laid her back on the ground and he lay somewhat top of her, supporting his weight on his elbows as his hands caressed her back and hair. Their kissing deepened and her hands explored his chest and back. Buck wanted more but he knew she wasn’t ready. Their mouths explored ears, jaws, necks and shoulders but not one button was unbuttoned. Buck had carefully positioned himself so that she couldn’t feel him against her. An hour or two passed and the night air became chilly. Reluctantly the couple headed home, parting at Rachel’s door. Buck looked down into her face; she was smiling, her lips swollen from his kisses. “I love you, Maria.” He breathed quietly into her ear as he held her close. Her answer was a kiss. She opened the door and went inside leaving Buck staring after her.

Buck walked around to the back of the bunkhouse and relieved himself. It would become a nightly routine for the next month.

Fall became winter and the nightly walks were replaced with evenings spent sitting in Rachel’s parlor with Rachel and Teaspoon playing cards, reading, talking about books or just enjoying each others company. Lou and Kid announced they were expecting another baby so Maria and Rachel each began knitting little baby things. Buck and Teaspoon were amazed at the amount of things a baby needed.

“How many baby blankets can one little baby use?” Teaspoon asked as he looked at the two finished ones and the two the ladies were working on. He picked up four pairs of booties, holding them up for Buck to see. “It will only have two legs, right? How many babies are you knitting for anyway?”

Rachel looked a bit sideways at Maria and winked. Maria’s hand went to her mouth to hide the smirk and the giggle that followed. Teaspoon looked at Buck. Buck shrugged and shook his head. “Two babies are expected, Lou and Kid aren’t the only ones expecting….”

Teaspoon’s head snapped up and he looked at Buck “You sure are good at keeping secrets, Son. Congratulations!” He started to rise to go to Buck but Buck held up his hand.

“Not me, Teaspoon, at least not yet…..” he quickly amended his statement when he saw the look on Maria’s face.

“Ok, then who? You hear from one of the other boys?” He was looking at Rachel. She patted her slightly rounded belly. “YOU? HOW?” Teaspoon looked shocked.

“Well, yes me and I think you should know how, I hope you remember; you were there!” Rachel was laughing.

“Congratulations you old dog!” Buck rose and hugged first Teaspoon and then hugged and kissed Rachel. “I’m really happy for you two!” He sat back down beside Maria as Teaspoon took Rachel into his arms. “I think we need to leave these two alone for awhile…. Want to come over to the bunkhouse or are you too tired?”

“I think we should call it a night, Buck, but I hope the offer will still be there tomorrow.” Maria yawned.

CHAPTER EIGHT

The house was gaily decorated for Christmas and Matty, now two, was into everything. Except today. He had a cold and was miserable. Lou and Kid had invited the two other couples and Matty over for dinner but with Matty sick Maria had to stay home with him. Buck opted to stay with them and they settled in for their own Christmas celebration. A storm had blown in and Buck knew the older couple would stay at Kid and Lou’s rather than risk coming home in the storm. After hours of walking the floor with Matty he finally fell asleep and Buck joined Maria on the sofa in the parlor. The soft candlelight and the warm glow of the fire soon had the young couple realizing they were alone, for the first time in months.

They had kissed and held each other everyday but someone had always been with them. Buck was frustrated and had often sought release at his own hand, alone. Maria had been longing for Buck to do some of the things Lou had described to her. She was frustrated too but was afraid to tell Buck. He had told her only that once that he loved her and she hadn’t told him how she felt. She hoped he still felt the same way but she had her doubts.

She had watched Rachel and Lou glow as their pregnancies progressed and both babies were due in the spring. Lou’s child should come a month or so before Rachel’s. Maria had long conversations with both women and longed for a child of her own. She loved Matty with all her heart but he was her nephew she would never think of him as hers. She felt that would be a betrayal to her sister and she couldn’t bear that. Matty called her Mama and Buck was Dada, Teaspoon and Rachel were Nana and Papa. Someday he would have to know the truth and she hoped she’d have the strength to tell him. She hoped Buck would be there as well.

Buck settled himself into the sofa and drew her to him. “I’ve missed this” He whispered as he lowered his head to kiss her. The kiss became deeper as she twisted to have more contact with him.

“Me too.” She was now lying almost on top of Buck, between his legs. She broke the kiss and leaned back looking into his face. “Buck, do you still love me?” It was a simple question but there was so much hanging on the answer. He pulled her tighter against him. The leg that was stretched on the sofa was trapped under her body and the other was asleep, the foot on the floor. He needed to move he didn’t want to. This felt too comfortable, too right but somehow wrong.

“Yes, Maria, I love you. That’s not gonna change. I love you and Matty very much.” Buck leaned in for another kiss. “I know we need to go slow but do you think you might some day want a husband? Matty already calls me Dada and you both could use a last name.” He looked into her eyes this was it, she could tell him to go away or stay.

“Buck, I don’t know what to say…..” Maria began. Buck’s chest tightened up he hoped he wouldn’t cry in front of her if she rejected him.

“Then don’t say anything now, think it over.” Buck cut her off. Both legs were now asleep and he was in pain. A cough followed by a cry floated down from the bedroom upstairs. Both adults groaned and Maria rose to check on the sick little boy. Once Maria left the room he hit his legs a few times to get the blood flowing again. It was snowing outside and he walked carefully to the window to check on the depths. Rachel and Teaspoon would be spending more than one night at the Kid and Lou’s.

Buck decided to check on the animals and then call it a night. He grabbed his hat and coat and climbed the stairs to say good night. He quietly pushed the bedroom door open and found Maria and Matty sound asleep on the bed. Buck picked up the quilt from the rocker and covered them giving each a kiss on the forehead. He’d gambled and lost. She had Matty, she was safe, she didn’t need him anymore. He closed the door.

He tended to the fire and lit the stove to keep the house warm overnight, blew out the lamps and left a note on the table. It said simply “I Love You, see you in the morning.”

The animals were fine and he gave them extra feed and water in case the storm proved too much and kept him away from them for a day or so. He was glad he had strung ropes from the house porch to both the barn and the bunkhouse and from the barn to the bunkhouse. He couldn’t see more than a foot or so in front of him. Without the ropes he would have been lost. Once in the bunkhouse he shed his wet clothes and lit a fire to keep himself warm. He sat in front of it wrapped in a blanket pretending to read until he was sleepy. He’d made a fool of himself today and probably lost the two people he cared most for in his life. Finally he gave up reading the same paragraph over and over and went to bed. It wasn’t until he moved his head that he realized he was crying. The pillow was wet. Stupid fool, he thought to himself, you couldn’t leave well enough alone. You deserve to be alone for the rest of your life. He finally fell asleep listening to the wind and the snow hitting the windows.

It was still snowing the next morning, Christmas morning. It didn’t mean a thing to him. It wasn’t his holiday. Maria had never really celebrated it either so she didn’t really care what day it was either. They had gifts for Matty, Rachel and Teaspoon but neither expected anything for themselves. He bundled up and made his way to the barn. Everything was still in good shape in there so he fought his way over to the house. He was soaked to the skin and half frozen by the time he got there. It was still early but someone had been up. His note was gone and the table was set for breakfast. The house was warm and the fire burned brightly. He smiled.

“Take off those wet clothes; I don’t want you sick too!” Maria called from the stairs. Buck jumped, he hadn’t heard her.

“I’ll need a blanket or something to wrap up in.” Buck was shivering in front of the fire. She came up behind him and helped him out of his coat.

“Get out of those boots then go upstairs and get out of the rest of those wet things. I mean everything!” She looked at him with a look that said do what I say or else. He didn’t argue.

He was just wrapping himself up in the puff from Rachel’s bed when Maria knocked on the door. “You decent?” her voice chirped through the door.

“More or less”

The door opened just a crack as Maria peeked in. When she saw he was fully covered in the puff she opened the door the rest of the way and entered to gather his wet clothes. “I wish you could see yourself right now, you look so cute all wrapped up like that!” Maria patted him on the head and he stuck his tongue out at her! “Fresh Boy!” She turned her back and left the room quickly, “Breakfast is ready.”

The rest of the day past pleasantly enough, Matty was feeling better and didn’t demand so much of their time. Buck’s clothes dried and he happily shed the puff for the security of his trousers.

CHAPTER NINE

The storm was still raging as they ate dinner and Buck decided he’d stay in the house rather than venture out in the worst of it. He dreaded the long night ahead but the day had been Ok. He began to regret his decision to stay after Matty was asleep and they were alone in the parlor. The warm glow of the fire and the soft lamp light brought out Maria’s beauty even more and Buck wanted to hold her. He wanted to make her his. He buried his nose in a book and sat curled in Teaspoon’s chair.

“Buck?” She softly spoke his name.

Please don’t do this to me he thought. “Hmmm?”

“Why are you over there? The light is better over here”

“Dunno, just got comfortable’s all” Buck kept his eyes glued to the book.

“What’s wrong Buck? And don’t you dare say nothing… the book is upside down” She got up and sat beside him on the floor. “I thought about what you asked me yesterday….”

“Please just say we can still be friends.” Buck looked at her, his eyes full of the pain he felt. “I was wrong to put that kind of pressure on you. I love what we have, if that’s all you want that’s fine. I do love you and Matty. You don’t have to return that love, it’s alright.” He was close to tears and he was babbling but he couldn’t shut up. “Maria, I’m sorry….” His words were cut off when she kissed him.

“Now be quiet and let me have my say, OK?” Buck nodded mutely. “I was thinking about my future and Matty’s. Now you say you love me and Matty but is there room for more?” Buck cocked his head and raised an eyebrow. “I want more than just the three of us. Matty Cross shouldn’t be an only child and Maria Cross wants to feel the same kind of joy that Lou and Rachel are feeling right now. I want to be a mother, Buck, I want a child from my own body to raise and love. I want a husband who feels the same way I do. I want to be taught to love Buck. All my life I’ve feared what a man would do to me. Lou and Rachel have shown me that not all men are monsters. Their husbands are kind wonderful men who actually love their wives and respect them. You’ve been patient and kind you’ve never hit me or called me names. I hit you and scratched you and you still didn’t hurt me. You confused me Buck.”

“I don’t understand… how did I confuse you?” He drew her up so she was sitting in his lap.

“You didn’t beat me. I wanted you to hate me…. you’d promised to take care of Matty so I knew he’d be OK but I thought you were going to use me too; you seemed so angry when I told you about my life in the cabin. I didn’t know what to think when you held me. I wanted to die Buck. Everything I had was destroyed or killed. You believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. You saw a good person in me where I saw only filth and trash. Why Buck?”

“I’m not that kind of person. If you saw anger in me on our way here it wasn’t directed at you it was at those men. I was taught to respect women not use them. If you really want the truth I fell into your eyes the first time I saw you and fell in love with you right on the spot.” He lifted her chin and gently kissed her lips. The kiss deepened and Buck gathered her into his arms. “Lets get more comfortable” He started to carry her to the sofa.

“No, Buck, upstairs” she whispered.

“Are you sure?” His heart was beating wildly. He was sure she could feel it. Her nod sent him to the stairs. “I love you” he whispered as they entered her room. He was surprised not to see Matty’s tiny cot beside her bed. There were candles lit and the bed was turned down.

“Merry Christmas, Buck.” He carried her to the bed and kissed her. “I love you, Buck. Teach me how to love you.”

“Just do what feels right. If you feel uncomfortable tell me and we’ll stop. I don’t want to hurt you.” He kissed her neck, she sighed with pleasure.

She pushed the vest off his shoulders it fell to the floor beside the bed. Her hands were shaking as she reached for the buttons of his shirt. He kicked off his boots and pulled her close to him, kissing her deeply. He felt her relaxing in his arms. His hand rubbed her back and shoulders. She managed to unbutton the rest of his shirt and pushed it aside. She began working on the buttons of his longjohn top. His fingers found their way to the buttons of her blouse and he slowly began unbuttoning them. He checked her face with each button to see if she wanted him to stop he saw only encouragement. He was on fire but he fought to control himself. He was afraid to move too fast and frighten her.

Buck wanted her so badly he was barely in control of himself and fought to maintain what little control he had. He felt her body stiffen slightly and stopped his hand’s movements. He returned his attention to her lips and kissed her deeply as he held her close. Maria finally relaxed a little but he wanted to be sure this was what she wanted.

“Maria, are you OK? We don’t have to go any further if you don’t want.” He kissed the top of her head hoping his disappointment didn’t show too much.

“I’ve never felt like this before Buck. I’m afraid.” Maria looked up at him with those large green eyes, “I don’t want to disappoint you.”

“Don’t be afraid of that, you could never disappoint me. I love you.” He captured her lips in a tender kiss. “Maria, if you’re not sure we don’t have to do anything you’re not ready for.”

“Buck, what’s wrong?” Maria looked scared the tears she’d been fighting finally spilled over and she turned away from him; hiding her face.

“I’m sorry. I thought you were just scared because it was the first time we’d been together. This is your first time isn’t it?” She nodded and bit her lip. “What do you want to do? Do you want to stop?” She didn’t respond. “Do you want me to leave you alone for while?” She still didn’t respond so Buck slowly rolled away from her and off the bed. “I’m sorry; I never meant to hurt you. I think its best if I went home.” He was picking up his vest and was reaching for his boots when she finally spoke.

“I thought you loved me? Please don’t go. I love you.”

“I love you too. I’ll stay if you want me.” He started to pull his boots on and was surprised when she stopped him.

She took his hands and made him turn to face her. His eyes were moist with unshed tears and she pulled him down beside her. “Lou and Rachel told me it would hurt the first time and I guess I panicked.” They clung to each other, each lost in their own thoughts. He rubbed her back.

Buck let her calm down a few moments more and then asked. “Are you ready to try again?”

“Yes, Buck, please?”

Buck sighed as he began kissing her face again, starting with her nose. She giggled as he kissed her eyes and she gave him butterfly kisses with her eyelashes. Soon they we lost in each other as the storm battered the windows. He kissed away her fears and replaced them with pleasant memories and promises of more in the future. The dance was as old as time and both found the rhythm pleasurable. When the music stopped Buck lay holding her close.

“Buck?” Maria asked after a minute or so of having his full weight on top of her. “Buck? You OK?”

“Huh, yeah, I’m fine, how do you feel?” He kissed her tenderly.

“Umm, other than a bit squashed, I feel fine too.” Buck took the hint and rolled to her side. “Much better I can breathe!” She kissed Buck passionately to be sure he wasn’t upset she’d asked him to move. “I love you.”

CHAPTER TEN

Matty woke them up before the sun rose by jumping on the bed directly between them. He was feeling much better. Buck and Maria longed for more time alone but knew it wasn’t to be with the toddler awake and playful. They managed to settle him down enough to get another hour of sleep but the sun peaked over the horizon and lit up the room.

“Up Mama, Up Dada, s’no” Matty jumped off the bed and ran to the window.

“You sure you want more of them?” Buck asked rubbing his eyes. “I better go check on the animals. Rachel and Teaspoon will probably try to make it home today.”

“Buck did you mean what you said, you know about being my husband?” Maria asked as she tied her laces.

Buck was trying to put on his boots but found a ball inside of one. “Hmm no wonder this didn’t fit” He said to a laughing Matty as he held up the ball. He tickled the little boy and turned to face Maria. “I love you and want you to be my wife. Will you think it over? Please?” He had both her hands in his and was looking deeply into her eyes.

“I just have one question, Buck….. When?” Buck fell to his knees and gathered her into his arms. Maria’s I love you was muffled by Buck’s kisses.

“ME TOO! Me Too!” Matty shoved his way between the two adults and insisted on being in the middle of the hugs and kisses.

Buck took care of the animals and shoveled out around the house and barn while Maria made breakfast for all of them.

Teaspoon and Rachel came home later that afternoon and were pleased to see Matty back to his old healthy self. “Lou says we should all come over for New Years day dinner if there are no more storms blowing in.” Teaspoon said over dinner that evening. Something was different about Buck and Maria and he liked the change.

Maria had wasted no time in talking to Rachel about what had happened between her and Buck. Rachel was thrilled to hear that Buck had more or less proposed and it had been accepted. She was shocked to find out the activities of the previous night. Happily shocked. It was a big step for the young couple and a necessary one if they were going to be able to live happily as husband and wife. She knew how much Maria had been afraid of taking that step with Buck but at the same time how much she wanted to be with him. Rachel was proud of her former rider; many men would have just taken what they wanted or at the very least tried. Buck wasn’t like that. Buck had been called a savage, a low life half breed, and a dirty Indian. It was ironic. He was probably, of all the riders, the most genteel, the best educated, and the most understanding, sensitive and loving. He’d be a wonderful husband.

Buck was taking a drink of milk when Teaspoon asked “You two been dancin’?” Buck almost choked and grabbed his napkin in a hurry as the milk threatened to escape through his nose. Rachel and Maria burst into laughter at Buck’s distress and Matty jumped up and down with glee. Buck turned a lovely shade of crimson and excused himself for a moment to clean up. “I would gather the answer to that question would be yes.” Teaspoon continued to eat his dinner as though nothing had happened.

“Teaspoon, you could have warned me.” Rachel slapped his arm good naturedly. “I thought I was gonna have the baby right there!”

Buck returned in a clean shirt and sat back down to finish his dinner. “Sorry about that, son…. But it’s about time!” Teaspoon looked at Buck and smiled. “I swear sometimes you are easier to read than a first grade primer”

“Um, thanks, I think. Since you brought up the subject, sort of… would you like to marry us? We haven’t set a date but whatever Maria wants is fine by me.” Buck squeezed her hand and kissed her lightly on the cheek. She smiled.

“Which happened first the dancin’ or the proposin’? Teaspoon looked at the young couple.

“Buck’s asked me a couple of times and I finally sort of said OK.”

“SORT OF?” all three adults said at the same time. Buck looked horrified.

“Well, he’s never really said the actual words. He asked if I liked the idea of him being my husband. He finally gave me an argument I couldn’t disagree with so I said I’d think it over and then asked when. SO…. I guess I sort of said yes.”

“Buck you got anything to say about that?” Teaspoon smirked and winked at Rachel.

Buck dropped down to one knee and took Maria hand in his. “Maria, I love you, will you do me the honor of becoming my wife, please?” He was looking directly into her eyes and missed the movement behind him until the sudden weight knocked him over and Matty jumped from his chair onto Buck’s back.

“Horsey ride, me want horsey ride!” Matty’s sing song little voice pleaded.

Buck was lying on his back with Matty bouncing on his stomach as Maria looked down at him and said the most wonderful words Buck had ever heard. “Yes Buck, I’d love to be your wife. Matty don’t bounce on Daddy after he’s just eaten.” She picked up the little boy and offered a hand to Buck. He quickly scrambled to his feet and kissed her deeply. Matty pried them apart and put his face in-between them. Everyone laughed.

“How about I marry you two over at Lou’s on New Years and we’ll stay over there with Matty and you come on back here for a more private celebration?” Teaspoon asked pulling Rachel to him for a kiss of their own. “I know you’re not big on going to the hotel.”

“We’ll talk about it later. But that sounds like a plan to me.” Maria said as she sat Matty down for desert. “Maybe Matty could just stay at Lou’s for a couple of days and you two don’t have to be put out of your home.”

“We’ll move some beds around and we’ll stay over in the bunkhouse. It’ll be OK.” Buck hated to put anybody out on his account. He was thinking about where they would all live once Rachel had the baby. It wasn’t fair to Rachel and Teaspoon to have the three of them in the house too. He needed to come up with a plan for his family, especially if they were going to work on expanding that family.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

New Year’s Day dawned bright and cold. Buck had hastily constructed a double bed from two of the old bunks and Rachel had helped him fix the bunkhouse up as a temporary residence for him and Maria. Rachel had insisted that Matty stay with them in the big house since it was warmer and more weather tight.

The short ride over to Lou and Kid’s was made in nervous silence for Buck and nervous chatter for Maria. Lou greeted them at the door with a huge hug and immediately spirited Maria upstairs to prepare for the wedding. Matty and Lauren proceeded to empty her toy box on the parlor floor. Rachel joined Lou and Maria upstairs while Kid offered Buck and Teaspoon drinks. Buck actually accepted much to everyone’s surprise.

“You OK there Son?” Teaspoon asked. “I thought you wanted to get married, you having second thoughts?”

“I do want to get married, I love her, Teaspoon, Kid, I’m just afraid that I can’t give her anything. Look at me! What do I really have to offer? I’m a part time deputy that lives with his friends because he doesn’t have any real direction in his life.” Buck sank down into the sofa. He drained his glass.

“Buck things have a funny way of working themselves out; will you trust me on that?” Kid put his hand on his friend’s shoulder. He winked at Teaspoon above Buck’s head. Buck nodded.

A half hour later Lou announced that they were ready for the wedding and took her place beside Kid in the parlor. Rachel stood on the other side of Buck and Teaspoon and held the hands of two squirming two-year olds. Maria came down the stairs. Buck gasped at the sight of her. Her hair was done up with silver combs and cascaded down her back in long gentle curls. Her dress was deep green velvet with light green bows on the sleeves and bodice. Buck recognized it as one of Amanda’s that she kept here to use when she visited. Maria looked more beautiful in it than Amanda ever did.

The vows were simple and traditional. The ceremony was short and Buck surprised Maria with a delicate gold band with a tiny green stone set in the middle. He said it reminded him of her eyes. All the women cried. Buck kissed his bride with such passion that Teaspoon had to clear his throat several times to separate the couple. Lou served coffee while she and Rachel got the dinner on the table.

Dinner was another happy affair of roast beef, roasted potatoes and Matty’s favorite, carrots, which he and Lauren took turns squashing in each other’s hair. Rachel had made Apple and Pumpkin pies for desert and Buck happily ate a slice of each.

After dinner the men sat in the parlor while the women cleaned up. They had all offered to help but were shooed out of the kitchen by the women who felt they would be done faster without the extra ‘help’. Once the women joined their husbands and the little ones were in bed napping Teaspoon stood up. “Buck, Maria, let me be the first to congratulate you and call you Mr. and Mrs. Buck Cross! I want to kiss this bride again, seems her husband was a might selfish the first time around.” Everyone laughed and Buck blushed. “Well, Buck, Maria, Rachel and I have an announcement. The town has decided that it would like its Marshall and school teacher to be a tad closer to their work than we are right now. We’ll be moving into the old Simpson place at the end of February. We’ll be selling the station and we already have a couple of potential buyers.”

Buck’s chest tightened. He was already worried about finding a place for his family and this put a time limit on things. He tightened his grip on his wife’s hand and forced a smile.

Teaspoon continued, he’d seen the stricken look on Buck’s face and figured he better get to the good part quick. “One of the potential buyers owns the land that abuts ours to the northwest; they have a small ranch and are looking to expand. The other potential buyer is a friend I’ve known for a few years. He’s really just starting out but I think he’s got a lot of potential and he’s a hard worker. I’m not sure which of these two men will get the old station, I think they need to talk.”

Teaspoon sat down and Kid stood up. “I’m looking to expand the ranch Buck, but I can’t do it alone. We talked about this before and you said you were interested then; are you still interested?” Kid looked expectantly at Buck and Maria.

Buck looked at Maria she grimaced and tried to pry his fingers off her hand. “Buck, you’re hurting me.”

“Oh I’m sorry” He brought her hand to his lips and kissed the crushed hand. “I don’t know, this is something I need to talk over with my wife. We need to think about where we’re going to live.”

“Buck, you are the other buyer. The station is yours if you want it. If you choose to go in on the ranch with Kid, that’s a bonus. If you don’t buy the station then Kid will buy it and expand the ranch alone. Think about it son. You’ve got a place to live and raise your family.” Teaspoon saw the relief wash over Buck’s features. “You don’t have to give us any answers now and we’ll work out a fair price I think right now you and your bride should head back and start in on the honeymoon!”

Both Buck and Maria blushed and rose to leave giving everyone kisses and hugs as they left. Teaspoon and Rachel opted to spend the night with Lou and Kid so the young couple could be alone.

Marriage agreed with Maria and she was a much more eager lover than Buck anticipated. They kissed often on the ride home and kept touching each other. Buck drove the wagon right into the barn and unhitched the horses quickly. Maria watched him rub them down, feed and water them before he finally turned to her. Her lifted her off the wagon and carried her into the house and up the stairs to her room. They kissed for several long minutes until they were both breathless.

Finally Buck turned to her and undressed her; she quivered with anticipation of what was to come. Buck was just as gentle and loving as he was the first time and again he made sure her needs were met before he satisfied himself. He drew her close and kissed her passionately. “I love you Maria Cross. You have my body, my spirit, and my heart.”

They snuggled together until both of them finally slept. Maria was somewhat disappointed that her wedding night didn’t last all night long but she smiled contentedly knowing that this man, her husband, loved her unconditionally.

The winter passed slowly into spring and Lou gave birth to healthy baby boy they named Noah James. Buck and Kid decided to become partners and the K& B ranch was born. Maria had her own secret that she wanted just the right moment to tell everyone. Rachel and Teaspoon had moved to the house in town while Buck and Maria moved back in the big house. Matty had stayed in the house all along so he was not bothered by all the moves.

The day Noah James was christened Maria announced that she and Buck were expecting. Buck was thrilled and everyone celebrated with the couple. Kid teased Buck about working fast and needing to catch up to him and Lou. Buck reminded him that they were only a few months behind because he considered Matty their first child.

Rachel gave birth to a healthy baby boy also in late April which they named Patrick Ian after Rachel’s father and Teaspoon’s grandfather. He just could not bring himself to name the baby Aloysius. Everyone was hoping Buck’s child would also be a boy and Buck could name him after Ike. It wasn’t to be. On Sept 25th exactly nine months to the day that they first made love Rebecca Snow Moon Cross was born. She was beautiful, with her mother’s light coloring and curly hair and her father’s dark brown eyes. Buck fell in love the moment he saw her and cried tears of joy the first time she was placed in his arms. Maria fell in love with Buck even deeper when she saw his reaction to their daughter.

Matty loved his little sister but he wanted a brother like Lauren had and he made lots of noise about it. Kid teased Buck that he was going to have to start working on that little brother and Buck teased right back when Lauren stated that she wanted a little sister. Matty and Lauren even tried to trade siblings one day by switching blankets but their parents weren’t fooled, much to the four year olds disappointment.

One Sunday after dinner both Lou and Maria announced that they were both expecting. Buck and Kid collapsed in laughter. The race was on.

The End

Special thanks to Leah my faithful Bata who makes these stories readable.

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