Summary: Ben has met a woman in town with a tragic past. Drawn together by a common thread of lost love, their friendship grows until one night one of them makes a proposal for a closer relationship.
Rating: MA/R Word Count: 1,755
Thanks again to Cheaux for her kind mentoring.
“If ever you want to share my bed, you know where I am”, she said.
“No expectations. Just one night,” she said.
Ben Cartwright didn’t like to lie to his sons. He never failed to divulge the entire truth of any situation that came into question, and raised his sons to do the same. That’s why today when he told them he would be spending the night in town in order to attend an early meeting at the bank tomorrow, he felt a little guilty. The facts were not entirely true – but true enough.
It had been some time since he ventured into town alone. Adam offered to go with him, but Ben declined his offer. He always seemed to be with one or more of his sons, and, not that he didn’t appreciate their company, it’s just that sometimes a man wants to be alone – to cut loose a little and act like any other man. Play some cards, drink some whiskey – without his sons as an audience.
Tonight, however, he had other plans for his evening. Plans that didn’t include being alone.
Three times a widower, Ben had been without a wife for the past sixteen years. The circumstances of his wives’ deaths had inflicted pronounced damage to his heart, to the point he felt unable to give what was left of it to another woman. Although there were many ladies in town who would be thrilled to be the next Mrs. Cartwright, none of them had sufficiently caught his eye. Daring not to tempt fate and become entwined in another marriage, he decided to be grateful for the loves he had known, and not look again for a partner.
But that didn’t mean he was a man without needs.
There were many places in Virginia City where a man could find certain comforts without commitment. Ranch hands and miners regularly took advantage of the opportunities to find a working gal ready to share a drink, enjoy an evening, or spend the night with any man having the funds in his pocket to equal her fee.
Ben might have enjoyed the offerings of brothels in other towns where he could enjoy anonymity, but not here in Virginia City. He was a pillar of the community and an important member of many organizations in town, including the church council. Citizens of Virginia City held him to a higher standard than the average man. Had he been seen in the company of a professional woman, word of his immorality would most certainly sully the Cartwright name and all it stood for. And what would he tell his sons?
But being alone could cause even a moral man like Ben Cartwright to risk almost anything to know the comforts of a woman. He had not forgotten the feeling of a bare woman lying in bed behind him, pressed against his back with her arms around his chest and her legs entwined in his . . . the anticipation of unfastening a woman’s blouse, revealing her breasts . . . the excitement of running his hands up a woman’s legs and slowly pulling down her drawers. A pledge of marriage would certainly provide all these things, but sometimes a solitary man just wanted to, well, let go without the obligation of love.
Adam knew the feeling well, but, unlike his father, he was able to enjoy the company of such women now and then without retribution from the citizens of Virginia City. After all, an unmarried man his age certainly couldn’t be expected to live a priestly life. But a man like Ben Cartwright had a reputation to protect.
Ben met Mary quite by chance. Late one night, on his way down the darkened street that led out of town, he heard a woman’s terrified screams coming from the café. Alarmed, he stopped his horse and quickly jumped down. Upon hearing another blood-curdling scream, he burst through the café doors with his gun drawn, ready to save a fair maiden from certain danger. Expecting to find an intruder, a thief, or worse, he instead found the café owner, Mary Gallagher, in her bare feet, standing on a chair, nervously pointing to the place in the kitchen where a mouse had run over her feet. She was terrified but laughing at herself at the same time. Soon she had Ben laughing, too.
Since that day, Ben could not stop thinking about her. He started to frequent her café every time he was in town. When he dined at her restaurant, she always prepared his food personally, and occasionally joined him at his table. She was fun to talk to and always ready to debate the latest political news or discuss articles from the local newspaper. He had almost forgotten how wonderful it was to engage in some innocent flirting with a beautiful woman. He began to feel a faintly familiar feeling, one he thought had left him long ago – desire.
Mary was drawn to Ben, too. She had, of course, heard of the Cartwright family, and found Ben to be everything people said he was – strong, successful, and strikingly handsome. Like her, he was no young buck, but even at his age he possessed a simmering appeal – his silver hair, his dark eyes, his mellow voice. Sometimes while working in the kitchen of her café, she found her thoughts wandering to him, imagining what it would feel like to be in his arms, feel his breath on her neck, have his hands on her body.
At Ben’s invitation, they started to meet socially but not seriously – a dinner here, a dance there. They sometimes picnicked on the Ponderosa, and soon Ben was regularly escorting her to church on Sundays. Together, they engaged in many deep conversations about wounded hearts, loss of loved ones, and loneliness. She had seen the pictures of his son’s mothers and heard the heartbreaking stories of their deaths. She shared with him a picture of her husband and son, murdered by Indians in retribution for a raid on their village by the army. It was rumored around town that she was a widow with a tragic history, but the details of her past she kept to herself. The pain of losing a loved one could only be truly appreciated by someone who also suffered such a loss. The common thread of past tragedies bound them closer together. He understood her inability to give her heart to another, as he did, while at the same time longing for the physical comfort a partner can give.
Both feeling a strong attraction to the other, neither was brave enough to act upon it. The slightest touch they encountered while together would send Mary’s heart racing – walking beside Ben with her arm entwined in his, or his hands around her waist while lifting her out of the buggy, or fingers touching while passing a brandy glass. Mary most certainly felt it, but did he feel it, too?
Last evening, when Ben escorted Mary home from the Spring dance, she could no longer suppress the feelings she had for him. Knowing he was too much of a gentleman to propose anything inappropriate, she decided to state the obvious while hoping she wouldn’t scare him away. When they reached the front door of the cafe, Ben leaned forward, his fingertips on her chin, and gently kissed Mary on her cheek. Gathering all her courage, she wrapped her arms around his shoulders, pulled him in close, and whispered her desires in his ear.
“My darling Ben, if you ever want to share my bed, you know where I am.”
Mary was unsure of whether the proposal pleased or repulsed him. His mouth slightly ajar and a look of shock in his eyes, Ben was rendered speechless. Mary was horrified. What had she done? What must he think of her? He stood silent for a moment, still holding her face in his gentle hands. Tripping over his words, he weakly tried to argue all the reasons why they shouldn’t, none of which made any sense to either of them.
“Just one night.”
Mary asked Ben not to answer immediately, but to consider it a standing offer. If he were ever to desire her company, he need only come to the café at closing time.
Now, only 24 hours later, Ben was riding into town alone, filled with conflict. Many times during the ride from the Ponderosa he stopped Buck, intending to turn around and forget the whole thing. He felt like a schoolboy working up the courage for his first kiss – excited and terrified at the same time. It had been a while since he had enjoyed a woman’s company in bed. Would he even remember what to do? Would he please her, and she him?
Procrastinating all the way down the road, he suddenly found himself at the edge of town. Too late to turn back now, he stabled his horse and walked hesitantly towards Mary’s. The other businesses on Virginia Street were already dark and shuttered. Perhaps she closed the café early and wasn’t even there. He would gladly accept that as a sign it was not meant to be.
He made his way towards the end of the street to the Virginia Café, his heart pounding. He could see lamp light coming from inside. He quietly approached the window and peeked in. There was Mary, busy watering the plants and dusting off the tables.
He mustered all his courage and gently rapped on the glass.
Mary looked over her shoulder and saw dark eyes peering at her, and she beamed. Quickly removing her apron, she crossed to the door and opened it. There stood Ben, hat in hand, the emotions on his face telling her everything his voice was unable to. Without saying a word, she extinguished the lamp and led him through the darkened dining room up the back staircase to her apartment above the café.
Mary and Ben both knew their friendship was about to change, neither knowing where it would end up. But for this evening, two lonely friends with haunted memories and wounded hearts would comfort each other and dream of lost loves.