Maggie clenched her fingers around her cup of tea, then took a deep breath and said it. "Mom? I--I found out. About my father. I mean--he's not really my father, is he?"
Ellen Stern looked sharply at her, then said "Maggie..."
"You lied to me. Why did you do that?" Maggie was angry, not foremost about this, but her mother was there, and it was easier to let her anger out with her than with others.
"Well. It's complicated." Her mother sighed. "How did you find out?"
"I met Benton Fraser--I'm sure you know who he is. We put things together. The date of my dad's...well, the date of Matt's death, for one. You never told me what the actual date was, and it's not like I had any reason to look it up before." Maggie kept silent about the actual circumstances of the discovery--she didn't want to bring Robert Fraser's ghost into it, and anyway, it wasn't really about that.
"Then you know..."
"...that Robert Fraser must've been my father, yes."
They were both silent. Then her mother nodded and said. "It's true. Yes. He's dead now, so I suppose it doesn't matter."
Maggie slammed her cup down on the table, spilling some of the tea. "What do you mean it doesn't matter? It matters to me!"
Her mother huffed out a breath. "Yes, of course. I'm sorry. I'm not doing this well. I meant, the reason I never told you about it is gone now."
Her mother rubbed at her weatherworn face, the corners of her eyes wrinkled from wind and sun. "Well, Bob was...he was traditional in some ways. If I'd told him, he would've offered to marry me. Would have felt obligated to do it, I think."
"And you didn't want that?"
"No. Look, can you see me as a wife?" Her mother turned her hands up, as if to show the ridiculousness of the idea.
"You were once."
"Yes, but--Matt and I, well, it's water under the bridge now." Maggie realized that she didn't actually know much about what her parents'--no, Matt and her mother's--relationship had been like. Her mother had taught her how to skin and butcher a deer, but there was a lot they didn't talk about.
"I didn't mind having Bob visit once in a while, but I was doing fine on my own. And his heart was anywhere but here, anyway. Probably with his dead wife, God bless her. I met her a couple of times, before she died. She was a fine woman."
"And he never realized?"
"About you? No. He wasn't the sharpest axe in the woodshed when it came to some things. A damn good Mountie, though. Maybe some things breed true." Her mother smiled at her, a hint of pride in her expression.
"Oh, come on. He doesn't get the credit for that."
Her mother's smile broadened into a grin. "You're right, he doesn't."
Maggie smiled back, and then she sighed. She couldn't seem to hold on to her anger, and most of it wasn't directed towards her mother anyway--it was just that her life had been turned upside-down in more than one way recently. But Casey was dead. He'd lied to her worse than her mother ever had, and she wasn't sure that if he were alive, she wouldn't want to kill him all over again.
"I think this is a day for my good whiskey," Ellen Stern said, getting up from the kitchen table to go and get the dusty bottle from her bookcase, with the whiskey she only drank from on special occasions. Maggie remembered how they'd had a glass each to celebrate after she came back from Depot. Her mother had come down to Regina to attend the graduation ceremony, but it hadn't really felt real to Maggie until she'd hung her Stetson on the wall of her mother's cabin and they'd stood there clinking their glasses together. The whole world had felt bright and new and open to her then.
Her mother poured a couple of fingers of whiskey into the small glasses she kept for the purpose, and Maggie swirled the amber liquid around.
"What do you want to drink to?" her mother said.
"An end to lies," Maggie said, taking a sip. The sharp, rich, smoky taste filled her mouth. It really was good whiskey.
Her mother bowed her head. "An end to lies," she echoed, and drank.
"Anything else you want to tell me, while you're at it?"
"Hmm. I think that's all the deep dark secrets I've got. Unless you want to know about the time I got into a bar fight and broke someone's nose."
Maggie grinned. "Maybe I do. I'll save that for another time, but I'll hold you to it." She took another sip of whiskey, trying to drink slowly to savor it.
"What did you think of Benton, then? A chip off the old block, isn't he? Handsome boy, too. I hope you didn't take a shine to him."
"Mom, please." That question wouldn't be half so embarrassing if she hadn't been drawn to Benton at first, before she knew. He was handsome, she couldn't deny that. But brothers were harder to come by than handsome men, and it's not as if she wanted to hook up with anyone for a good long while, anyway.
She sighed. "I wish...I wish I could've known him. When we were younger."
Her mother said nothing, and when Maggie looked at her, she was looking down into her whiskey. "I should've told you, shouldn't I?"
"Yes, you should have."
"Just because I didn't want to complicate things with Bob...well, too late now. Maggie, I'm sorry."
Maggie's throat closed up a little, and she took another sip of whiskey and nodded, without saying anything. The whiskey was going to her head a little--she didn't drink often. Before she could think about it, she said, "Mom? Did you--did you want me? I mean, if I was an accident--"
"Oh, Maggie. Of course I wanted you! I admit, you were a bit of an accident--I mean, I didn't even realize for months that I was pregnant. I just kept to my trapping routes and wondered what was making me so fat while I was working so hard." She snorted. "Crazy, but I just wasn't expecting it. But once I had you, I wanted you. You were a darling baby, so quiet and happy to just lie there and gurgle in the sled. Of course, that changed when you hit three. Lord, you had a temper."
Maggie giggled, from relief and from the whiskey. "And then you taught me everything you knew."
Maggie got up and put some more wood on the fire. "You know, I'm thinking of changing my name."
"I really don't want to stay with Casey's name. And it seems like I'm not a Stern, like I thought I was. Guess I could've been a Fraser, but it's too late for that." She looked at her mother, sitting there with her short graying hair and her thick red sweater that Maggie remembered her knitting when Maggie was just a little kid. "I thought I'd go with Johansen."
"My maiden name."
"Oh, Maggie." Her mother blinked a little and wiped at her eyes. "Don't mind me, it's just the whiskey." She shook her head. "No, what am I saying, of course it's not the whiskey. Maggie Johansen."
Maggie couldn't help smiling. "You approve, then?"
"Of course I do." She leaned her chin on her hand thoughtfully, swirling the last of the whiskey around in her glass. "You know, that never occurred to me--I guess it was just force of habit, to keep Matt's name so long. But maybe it's time for a change."
"I think I'll change my name with you." Her mother raised her glass.
"To a name of my own," Maggie said, and they drank to it.