Chapter 40

God, this was awkward.

Every instinct he had told Jack to tuck tail and run. He couldn't remember a time he'd felt so uncomfortable. It felt like every move he made was being heavily scrutinized and saved to judge him for later. He wanted nothing more than to just leave. Yet he stayed. The man that sat across from him seemed to feel as awkward as Jack did, but he stayed put just like he did. Neither spoke a word, just sat at opposite ends of the table, and held each other's gaze. Philip Ross had looked surprised when he'd shown up which lead Jack to believe he had definitely expected him to not come. What was this man's game?

A loud thud sounded from the other room and broke their stare down.

"Catherine, are you alright sweetheart?" Philip made to stand from the table.

"I'm fine! Just dropped something! I'll be out in just a moment."

Philip breathed a small sigh and resituated himself in his chair. "She's been in the kitchen since this afternoon. Whenever I tried to help, she waved me out." He spoke without looking at Jack. "If I'm not mistaken, I would guess she's trying to impress you." Finally, Philip returned to lock eyes with him.

Having a conversation with Philip Ross didn't exactly appeal to him, but Jack had agreed to be here. "Cat doesn't need to try to impress me." Talking about the woman in the kitchen was a safe topic, Jack wagered. At least for now.

Emotion flickered through Philip's eyes briefly before the indifference returned. "Annabelle used to call her that."

Jack could recall a vague memory from years ago of Cat telling him that same thing. "I remember her telling me that when we was younger."

A small, but strained smile played at the other man's face. "My daughter thinks very highly of you, Marston. I have never heard her talk about someone like she does you. I'm afraid I don't exactly share her views." Philip lifted his hand to scratch his chin. "And yet, I'm thankful for you in a strange way."

"Pardon?" Jack was beyond unsure of how to respond otherwise. Had the man drank before Jack got here? Was he being nice? What reason would Philip be nice to him?

"Catherine hasn't told me very much about your relationship. One reoccurring theme of the things she has told me is how often you were there for her and kept her happy. I'm thankful you did."

Shifting in his seat, Jack struggled with a response. He still felt like Philip was toying with him, wanting to catch him off guard. His defenses rose even higher. Jack bit back the insult that lingered on his tongue and remained quiet. Mere moments felt like hours with Philip staring back at him like he was. "No problem." Jack almost kicked himself. He struggled that hard for that lame reply? What the hell was wrong with him? Where was Cat? If she were here, he could just focus on her and this dinner thing would be over before long.

"Sorry for the wait, gentleman." Relief flooded through him the moment he'd heard her voice. The door to their right swung open and Cat stood with her hip propped against it. In her hands she carried a large, steaming pot. She shuffled her way over to a small table pushed up against the wall and placed it in the middle of the serving stand. Once she was pleased with the placement, Cat turned around to face them. She had her hair up in a surprisingly neat bun, small tendrils of hair stuck to her forehead. She looked incredibly pleased with herself. Jack wasn't sure if he had ever seen her smile so brilliantly before. "I hope you're both hungry."

"Absolutely starving, darling." Philip hadn't hesitated to respond. "Would you like me to help serve?"

"Nonsense, Father." She waved off his offer. Cat turned her attention to Jack for a moment and offered another wide smile before turning back to the food. She hummed a happy tune as she reached up into a cabinet above the stand to pull out some dishware.

Though he was wildly uncomfortable, Jack found that his desire to run away had lessened. He didn't enjoy being around her father, and he surely didn't like being sat at the dinner table with him like they were friends. Cat, on the other hand, seemed to be overjoyed at his being here and hadn't stopped smiling since he'd arrived. Jack supposed having to sit at the dinner table with Philip Ross was a small price to pay if it made her this happy. Not like it was gonna kill him to do it, right?

Thankfully, the actual dinner was mostly uneventful. Cat did most of the talking, in between her buzzing around in her hostess role. Jack was surprised at how well she fit into the role truth be told. The meal she had prepared for them had been delicious and Jack was reminded that it had been years since he'd had a good tasting meal. His mother, bless her, had never been a good cook.

"Marston, have a drink with me."

For the first time, Jack found himself in complete agreement with Philip. The tea Cat had served was good, but he could use something stronger. "Sounds good to me." He stood from the table and meant to follow Philip. Before he got too far, he felt Cat's hand touch his shoulder. He stopped and let Philip walk to the other room alone. He glanced her way and found her to be grinning at him.

"Thank you." She whispered. "I know you're uncomfortable, so you don't have to stay very long if you don't want to. I'll be cleaning up, just come find me before you go."

"Ain't goin' too terrible." He refused to admit his discomfort, but he wasn't lying when he said this hadn't gone as terrible as he would have expected.

Her smile softened. The hand on his shoulder tightened a moment before she dropped it to her side. "It is going a lot better than I thought it would. I'll be in the kitchen if you need me." Jack nodded and went to go find Philip in the next room.

The other man stood in front of a small side table that was nestled between the sofa and a single chair. His back was facing Jack, but he could see a bottle of liquor in his hands. "I'm not sure what your drink of choice usually is, but I've got this bottle of imported brandy. Haven't had a reason to pull it out yet."

"Can't go wrong with a good brandy."

Philip chuckled softly. "Ain't that the truth. Why don't you have a seat? I'll pour you a glass." He gestured to the sofa with a nod of his head. Jack decided he would share this drink with Philip and then he would go home. He spent more than enough time with Philip Ross today. Even if the man was being strangely polite, he still didn't trust his intentions. Nevertheless, Jack took a seat like Philip had suggested.

Philip handed him one of the two glasses and sat down in the chair. He took a length sip of the brandy, with Jack following his lead. Philip exhaled, swirling his glass about. "I'm shocked you came, Marston." He admitted.

"And why's that?" Jack wasn't sure how he felt about being proved right. He didn't care about Philip's opinion of him, yet it still didn't sit right with him that he thought Jack wouldn't show.

"From what I know about you, you didn't seem to be that type of man."

"You don't know anything about me."

Philip took another drink from his glass before replying. "And I don't like that one bit, son."

"Don't call me that." Jack warned through grit teeth. He could feel the anger rising in his chest, but he tried to keep it at bay. He was sure Philip was trying to get a rise out of him and he refused to give him the satisfaction.

"I'm not going to beat around the bush with you. You are not the type of man I want my daughter to be with."

"You just admitted you know nothing about me, how the hell do you know what kind of man I am?"

Philip set the glass atop the table at his side and focused on Jack. "Then tell me what kind of man you are, Jack Marston. Prove me wrong."

"I think I made it pretty clear that your opinion don't mean shit to me, Ross." He snapped.

"I don't have to allow Catherine to see you, you know. I can stop this. Your relationship is happening because I'm allowing it." Philip retorted with eyes narrowed.

Jack laughed. "Guess being controlling assholes runs in the family, don't it? Good thing Cat seems to take after her mother." He stood up with the intention of leaving. "If you're done, I think I'll leave now."

"Don't talk about my wife as if you knew her, Marston." Philip stood up and held firm in his stance.

"Then don't talk about me like you know me!"

"Do you have plans to marry my daughter? Plans to take care of her? Are you getting money legally or illegally? How am I supposed to know any of these things?" Philip let out a sigh of annoyance. "I was hoping this would go well and that my first impression of you wasn't correct. I had plans to offer you a job at the bank. Perhaps if you apologized—"

"Fuck right off, Ross." Jack turned on his heel and began to walk away. "I'm not a God damn charity case, I don't need you or anyone else to coddle me." Anger led his footsteps as he stomped through the house. Coming here had been a mistake, that was for sure. Never again would he step foot in Philip Ross' house, no matter how much Cat begged for him to. He was thankful that he didn't hear the other man trailing after him. He needed out of this house now. Slamming the door behind him, Jack bounded down the porch steps and began to make his way towards his horse. It had begun to grow dark outside in the time he'd been here, Jack noted. He was more than ready to be back in his own space. The sound of the door opening again only quickened his pace.

"Jack, wait!"

Jack stalled upon hearing Cat's voice call after him. It had just dawned on him that he'd forgotten to say goodbye to her in his anger. "I'm not going back in there, Cat." He needed her to be aware of that before she wasted her time.

"I wasn't going to ask you to." She closed the distance between them and stood at his side. "I heard the door slam and I was confused. What happened?"

While relieved she wasn't trying to coax him back inside, he still wanted to go home. "Ain't nothing for you to worry about, Cat. Just know your Pa and I aren't ever gonna get along."

"You're upset, it's absolutely something I should worry about." Her tone was firm, yet soft. Jack turned to look at her and found her eyes swimming with concern. "What happened?"

Jack shook his head. "He just made sure that I knew he don't like me and he could put a stop to this if he wanted." He didn't want to get into details but he didn't want to lie either.

Cat's worried face switched to that of anger, brows furrowing and lips thinning. "I'm sorry, he said what?" She took a breath and relaxed her features. "I'll talk to him and make sure he is well aware that he does not dictate our relationship."

"Ain't gotta do that, Cat."

"My father has no business disrespecting you like that, especially when you are a guest in our home. I will be correcting him." She gave a small sigh, taking hold of his hand. "I'm sorry, if I had known he was going to be rude, I wouldn't have asked you to come."

Her touch soothed his anger almost immediately. This wasn't her fault, Jack told himself. He didn't want to take his anger out on her, anyway. It wasn't like she knew her father would be an ass. Holding her hand tighter, he pulled her closer to him so he could wrap his arms around her waist. Their first public display of affection wasn't lost on Jack, but he couldn't find the will to care now. Cat didn't seem to mind either. She draped her arms around his neck and brought him closer. With a sigh, he allowed himself to relax as he drank in her comforting touch. "I love you." He told her. He was sure there were more bumps ahead in their relationship, but for the first time in years Jack held hope for the future. As long as she was there. That's what mattered to him.

"I love you, too." Her voice filled his ears.

He let go of her waist to take her face in his hands. "I'll see you soon, alright? I'm gonna head home."

She slid her hands down his arms to rest on his wrists. "Okay, be safe." She agreed, rubbing a pattern of sorts on his skin with her thumbs.

Jack nodded and leaned down his head down to kiss her goodbye. After a few moments, he finally let go of her. He watched her walk away, waiting until he saw her disappear into the house before he began leading his horse away. "C'mon Lucy, let's get home." He told the mare, giving her a few neck pats. "How about we get you a drink first?" The soft nicker she gave him in reply told Jack that Lucy thought it was a promising idea. Chuckling softly, he began to lead her into town. Walking down the path that led into Blackwater, he noticed a figure standing in the middle of the dirt road. The dark made it hard to make out their facial features but he could tell the other person was staring at him.

"You need somethin', friend?" Jack called out while continuing his steady pace.

"From you? Hardly." The other man spat.

Hackles rising, Jack stopped a few feet from him. "Ain't you got anything better to do than bother me, Fordham?" He could see better now and took notice of the lack of Fordham's usual Agent garb. He must've been off-duty, Jack decided.

Archer scoffed. "Don't flatter yourself, Marston. My life doesn't revolve around you."

"Coulda fooled me. Always seem worried about what I'm doing." Jack shrugged and started to walk around the agent. He'd had more than enough of being around people today.

"What were you doing in their house?"

Jack stopped. "Don't see how it's any of your business." He turned his head to look at Archer. They stood shoulder to shoulder now, only a foot or so apart. "But if you gotta know, I was invited. Sat at the dinner table and everything." He was acting like a child, but he didn't care.

"Do you even care what you're doing to the Ross name? They were such a dignified family before you meddled. Now, you've all but destroyed any credibility they once had." Archer's eyes settled on Jack. "I don't know what sort of blackmail you have on Philip to make him side with you. I assure you I'll find out."

"Blackmail?" Jack snorted. "That's new."

Archer rolled his eyes and turned away from him. He stepped a few paces before looking over his shoulder. "Perhaps you should be more respectful of Catherine's honor. Wouldn't bode well for people to see her being mauled by the Marston boy."

Fingers tightened around the reins in his hand. He couldn't decide what bothered him more, that Archer had seen their private moment or the fact that he was right. Jack wasn't an idiot and knew very well that Cat would receive backlash for being with him. Cat being bothered because of him did not sit well with him. Jack shook his head and pushed the thought away, it wasn't the time to think about that. "You sound bitter, Fordham." Both were silent for a few moments, the air pregnant with animosity. Finally, Archer broke the silence.

"Good night, Marston."

"Yeah, whatever."

An unspoken agreement ensued that led the two men on their separate paths. Jack didn't spare Archer Fordham any further attention and focused on getting Lucy the drink she had patiently waited for. The trough shoved against the wall of the Insurance Company's building was still filled with water, thankfully. Jack leaned against the wall, waiting for Lucy to have her fill.

"Tom, you're out late! Ain't one of the perks of bein' an agent not having to work at night?"

Out of curiosity and boredom, Jack turned into the direction of the voice. A police officer stood on the corner, hands thrown on his hips and a grin on his face. Another man in a suit stood there with him, a stack of paper in his hands. "Just gotta put up this bounty poster, then I'm headed home. Karen is gonna wring my neck if I'm out much longer." The agent chortled.

"I'll leave ya to it, then. Lemme know when you're free, I'll buy ya a shot!" The officer insisted.

The two men shook hands and went their separate ways, the officer closer to the saloon and the agent into the train station. Jack tapped his boot up and down in the dirt, thinking about the conversation he'd overheard. He'd never considered bounty hunting to make money until now. He knew his way around a gun, it was one of the few things he held confidence about. A smirk wormed its way onto his face. The look on Archer's face would be priceless if Jack brought in a bounty the agents hadn't. "Stay here, Lucy." Jack told the horse before making his way into the train station behind the agent.

The station was almost empty. In the dim lighting, Jack saw a traveler asleep on his suitcase in the corner of the room. The ticket seller's booth was much more brightly lit and illuminated the surrounding area where the agent was hanging up the poster. Jack approached him from the side and cleared his throat to get his attention. "Mind if I get one of those?" He asked, extending his hand.

The agent gave him a skeptical look but handed him one of the posters in his hands. "You want to be a bounty hunter?" He questioned.

Shrugging, Jack examined the target. "Money's money." He said, looking everything over. Honovi, wanted for petty theft, last known location Bear Claw camp. Wanted Dead or Alive, $120 if brought back dead, $240 if brought back alive. Jack let out a low whistle when he read the reward. $240 was a lot of money, he could definitely use that.

"You ever go bounty hunting before, boy?" The agent asked. Before Jack could answer, he continued. "Luck's on your side, then. Honovi will be a great first start, he's a loner. We just ain't got the time to go after thieves. Got bigger things on our plate, you know." A smile had started to reach the other man's eyes. "Good luck, Marston."

Jack didn't think twice about the man's smile and folded the poster up, sticking it in his jacket pocket. "See ya when I got him." Determination had set in his bones. Tomorrow, he would go start his search. Couldn't be too hard, could it?