Reclamation, Revelation, Resolutions
Reconciliations Part II:

MCAT: Turbulent Transition #7

by tannertexaslady and Wendymypooh

Continues from Reconciliations Part I: Reclamation


Characters: Chris, Vin., and the rest of the seven~ Orrin Travis ~ Nettie, Rain, plus OC.

Rating: FRM, Profanity, Het, some violence and offensive language. MCAT case deals with a sensitive subject matter.

Special disclaimer: The subject matter of the MCAT case is a sensitive one and in the course of writing about it certain offensive terms are used that do NOT reflect the views of either author.

Disclaimer: This is entirely a work of fiction, for entertainment purposes only, based on the characters from “The Magnificent Seven.” I don’t own them, but if I did I would run away with ‘em and never be seen again. CBS and Co., Trilogy Entertainment, and MGM had ‘em first and do not want to give ‘em away. I only play at this for fun and do not make any money doing it. No infringement of any copyrights is intended. This is strictly a piece of fiction; any references to locations or people are only for story use and is not intended to depict any real place or person.

MCAT AU: MCAT (Major Crimes and Acts of Terrorism) is under the leadership of Commander Chris Larabee. It is an independent, versatile, responsive, and respected premier Federal law enforcement agency, demonstrating excellence in all aspects of its operations. In the last year, this MCAT unit has done outstanding work on a number of cases. Most notably, this unit has neutralized three terrorist’s threats, halted at least two assassination attempts of high ranking officials, taken on serial killers, public corruption, computer crimes, and formed several specialized task forces to thwart major criminal activities.

Chris, along with three members of his extended family of brothers, (Vin, Buck, Nathan), and their families reside on the Larabee 7. The seven men work together, and jointly own the ranch, where they are raising thoroughbreds, quarter horses and children. Ezra lives in town, while Josiah and JD reside on adjoining properties to the ranch with their families.

This first series establishes relationships and provides background for the characters in this AU. ‘Reconciliations” is the seventh story in this series.

MCAT Story # 7: Reconciliations (shared in three parts) follows the events that transpired in MCAT #6, Addition and Apprehensions, and references previous stories in this series. It unfolds a year of changes for the Wild Bunch filled with emotional upheavals and danger that will either break them apart or mend the cracks in their relationships that have weakened their bond of strength.

Part II ~ Revelations. Events coincide to reveal hidden truths, as life-altering affirmations are disclosed, and the entire family is forced to confront an evil that lurks in the shadows of their lives, hell-bent on destroying the life that they all cherish.

Acknowledgments: I fell in love with this creative new AU for the Seven the first moment I read Transitions...and then the subsequent stories that followed that drew me further into the lives, relationships, and intriguing cases of the Seven. I'm grateful for the opportunity I had to write with Sherry because I found a dear friend along the way. I want to add my thanks to Sarai for her beta work and Jan for her inspired comments and advice...Wendy

My thanks go to my friend and co-writer Wendy for her talent, and great advice. It has been a fun experience to share the writing of this story with her. Sarai for your brilliant beta work, thank you. Jan, you are greatly appreciated, Jo your artwork is inspirational, and Tonny, thanks for your contribution…I also want to say a special thank you to all of you who have been with me from the inception of my MCAT AU, all the way to the end of this first set of stories. Your comments and suggestions have inspired many ideas along the way, and helped give me the encouragement to continue writing. Looking back to the first story in the series, Transitions, I find that I have also gone through my own transition as a writer. Hopefully I have entertained you with my take on the Seven, keeping the integral parts of each of their individual personalities in tact, while creating new characters for them to interact with, as well as realistic situations for them to work their way through. I will continue to write in the MCAT AU and appreciate y'all for taking the time to ride along....Tannertexaslady...

Both of us would like to thank Bountyhunter'slady for the great collage for this story.

Notes: Any mistakes are ours. The original characters I have created for this series are mine

Size: Approx. 510K


Excerpt from ending of Part 1 ~Reclamation

“…Keep Kel safe, and watch your back.”

“You too, Vin, and if you need me I’m listening for you.”

“That’s good to hear…brother, ‘m open on this end too. Take care.”

Chris held onto the phone even after Tanner hung up, '‘m open on this end, too.' Only a few words, but to Larabee it was the final piece he needed to reclaim all that he thought he had lost forever with Vin. Closing his eyes and concentrating; he could almost feel that invisible door in his mind swing open, allowing him to reestablish that unexplainable connection that had always flowed effortlessly between them…a friendship older than this lifetime… brothers by choice.



Part II ~ Revelations


Chapter 16

Journal Entry ~ November 18th~7:00am

In spite of the fact that the ranch has apparently become a target for the RMR, and life with Linda is deteriorating fast, I did attend my NA meeting last night. I feel good about the progress I have made in the four months since California, but anyone that tells you that it is easy to reclaim your life after you make a wreck of it, has never been in that position. It’s damn hard.

Here I am, though, with my job back a month early. My youngest daughter is asleep down the hall, my eldest is speaking to me again, and my health is good. Best of all, I managed to heal the hole I tore in the relationships with all my brothers, especially Vin. My mind is open again, and so is his. I can feel Tanner back in my life and as soon as he makes it home safely we have a lot of catching up to do. That is, after he gets over the shock of the delightful surprise that Kelli has waiting for him. They are finally going to have the baby they have wanted since the day they were married. The sooner I can get him home, the sooner she can tell him, so that is a priority for me.

Linda is due to have our second child in the last part of May. I know that it has not been easy for her over the last year, but it has not been bad enough to account for what she is putting us through now. She has changed… hell, maybe that’s the wrong word…I think maybe I always knew that Linda had a spoiled side to her, and that she was impulsive. I may have found that part of her personality endearing at first. Now it’s way past that…her childish demands are putting a huge strain on our marriage, even worse she seems to have lost interest in being a mother to Grace and that is unacceptable. I do know that something has to give soon because living this way will only hurt our children and do irrevocable damage to our marriage.

Today, Grace and I are headed over to the Dunnes and Wells' place. Casey has prepared a joint birthday party for Lilah, Daisy, and Terrell; all of them will turn one year old this coming week. I have a feeling we will also be celebrating Caleb’s adoption. It was finalized yesterday and the Wilmington's officially have a son, Caleb Evan Wilmington. Knowing that the adoption is official was only a formality for Buck, and Inez, and Caleb, too. From the moment that Caleb entered the Wilmington’s house, he had already become a member of their ‘forever family.’

Chris closed his journal, replaced it inside his desk drawer, and then went down the hall to say good morning to Grace.

Tanner Home ~7:00am

Kelli thought she had this morning sickness thing under control and was learning how to handle it, but today it had hit her with a vengeance. Twenty minutes of throwing up in the bathroom left her with a headache and feeling drained. She had lain down on the bed intending to only rest for a few minutes, but it turned into more like thirty.

Silently the bedroom door opened and Jason moved quietly into the room. He knew that his mom had not been feeling well for a while now, and he was worried about her. When he saw that she was fully dressed and lying across the bed, he decided to do what he could to make her feel better. He went into the bathroom, found a soft washcloth, and ran cool water over it before taking it back into the bedroom.


Kelli opened her eyes and saw Jason standing next to the bed. “Hey baby. Is somethin’ wrong? Where’s Andi?”

“Andi is in the kitchen with Max, and you’re sick. I brought you this.” He held up the washcloth and was pleased when she reached out and took it.

“Thank you Jason.” She ran the cool cloth over her face and managed a smile for her son. “That feels good.” The concern on his face was obvious and she wanted to reassure him that she was okay. “I’ll be fine; I just have a little headache.”

“Dad could fix it…if he was here.”

Patting the empty space on the bed beside her she invited him to lie next to her. “Come here.” He scrambled onto the bed without a second of hesitation. “I know you miss your dad. I do too, but I promise you he’ll be home soon.” She wrapped her arms around her young son and hugged him.” You don’t need to worry about me either.”

“You promise?”

Kissing the top of his head, Kelli hugged him tighter. “I promise. You are good medicine for me, my headache is almost gone.”

“I love you, Mom.”

"I love you too, and don’t you ever forget that Jason Tanner.” Kelli tickled him and was delighted to hear his laughter. Jason had learned how to be a normal seven-year-old boy over the last year, but at times he showed little signs that Jason the protector was still around. This was one of those times; knowing that Vin was not here, and picking up on how Kelli was feeling, he had reverted to his old self again. This Jason was the one that was so much older than his years, and was in the habit of taking care of first his ill mama, then his dad, and finally Andi. It was also going to be up to her and Vin to make certain that he understood that the arrival of a new baby would not change the love they had for him or Andi.

Once his laughter settled down Kelli made a suggestion. “Let’s go see what Max is makin’ for breakfast before Andi beats us to it. We have a birthday party to attend today.”

1:00pm ~ Dunne/Wells’ Home

JD, Casey, and Nettie had worked all morning to make this party just right for the kids. Considering the fact that Walter had armed men patrolling the perimeter of the property to insure their safety, and the cold temperatures, they agreed to have the celebration indoors. Mallory and Rain were helping, while Josiah was at the hospital picking Nathan up so that he could attend his son’s birthday party. Buck steered Inez into a comfortable chair, and she immediately claimed Grace from her father’s arms. Linda had bowed out of coming, saying that she was not feeling well and Chris did not try to change her mind.

Ezra and Barbara had designated themselves to the task of entertaining the children and coordinating the games for them to play. The two of them had spent the early morning hours discussing their wedding plans. They had put off making an announcement because of the last case and the repercussion from it, but now that Chris had rejoined the family and was back at work, the holidays seemed to be the perfect time to tell everyone. Ideally they wanted Vin to be here too, but in the end they decided to go ahead and spring their news on Thanksgiving Day.

Buck grabbed a beer for himself and one for Chris, handing it to him as he sat down between Inez and Larabee. “Hey stud. Where is Linda?”

“She wasn’t feeling well and decided to stay home.” Chris sighed. “I suppose you’ll know soon enough. She’s pregnant again.”

Wilmington started to congratulate his old friend, but the look on Chris’s face stopped him. “Is there a problem?”

“Hell Buck, as far as Linda is concerned lately, everything is a problem. I had a long talk with Matt yesterday when I went over to tell him about the security breech. It seems that there is a lot more going on than even I was aware of.” Chris studied Buck’s expression. “You know anything about it?”

Buck took a long swig of his beer and tried to ignore the question. “Me? Hell, what do I know?”

“That’s what I am asking. Matt told me about Linda leaving Grace for a whole day, and him having to call Kelli to help out. He also told me that Kelli lit into Linda and dragged her out to the barn. What he couldn’t tell me was what occurred after you and Vin showed up. Is what happened that day the reason that Kelli and Linda are not talking?

“Tell him, Buck.” Inez said quietly to her husband.

“Linda's been doing her best to drive a wedge between you and Kelli.” Buck said reluctantly. “Kelli's most likely been trying to do her best to keep it all to herself, but after Linda had left Grace for hours without formula or diapers....I guess it was the last straw for Kel. When we got there, Vin and I literally had to pull them apart.”

‘I see...” Chris said. “And...?”

“I don't know the gist of the whole argument but Linda said some pretty harsh things about Vin, the Wild Bunch as a whole, and you. Kelli told her not to screw with her family and your eldest was fixing to kick your wife's ass when we arrived."

Chris was quiet for a few minutes as he took in what Buck had told him. Inez bit her bottom lip, trying to decide if she should tell Chris about the argument that Linda had instigated at Jason's party. She decided that Chris deserved to know the truth about what his wife was trying to do


“Yes, Inez?” Chris turned his attention onto Inez.

“There's something else you should be told. At Jason's birthday party, after you and the other men had left to go check out Ezra's Silver Bullet and Vin's truck...Linda was not a happy camper. She was pissed that you were more interested in spending time with the kids and your brothers instead of with her. She started asking me questions; asking if it bugged me about Buck being so close to his brothers and I told her no...That I was thankful for them.”

Inez paused for a moment. “I told her that because of his brothers being in Buck's life, it makes it even more probable that he's going to come home to me and the children. She then went on to say that none of them had been there for you in the past several months, and that you didn't need anyone other than her to make you happy...especially Vin.” Inez fingered Grace’s blanket fretfully. “Barbara urged me to go with her because she knew that I was getting upset. We left and although we couldn’t hear what they said, I know that Kel and Linda had a heated discussion after that.”

“Damn.” Chris said, closing his eyes momentarily and trying to control his anger over Linda's attempts to manipulate his life, and the relationships with the people he was closest too. “She told doesn't matter what she told me...what matters now is the fact that what she has attempted to do didn't succeed. It's been a rough few months, but now things are back on track again, and they will be even better when Vin gets back and he and I are able to have a long talk.”

“I’m sorry Chris; if I can do anything...I’m here.” Buck wished he could help, but he knew Chris well enough to know that his old friend would handle this his way.

“You’ve always been there Buck. Thanks.” Chris looked up and saw Kelli arriving with the kids. “Excuse me, I need to see Kel.” He stood up and walked over to help his daughter with her coat.

“Uncle Chris, look!” Andi was waving a card at him. “It’s from Daddy!”

Kneeling down to her level Chris looked at her prized possession. “That it is munchkin.” He opened the card, recognizing Vin’s scrawl and looked up at Kelli. She mouthed that she would explain later. “Let’s see, it says miss you Sugar, will see you soon, Love Daddy.’

“Yeah…I go show Uncle Ra.” Andi took off in a whirl.

Jason handed him the card he had received. “We both got one.”

Chris grinned as he read Jason’s card. “Your dad is proud of the reports he has been given on your school work.” He squeezed Jason’s shoulder. “I am too.”

“Thanks, “Jason leaned in close and whispered so only Chris could hear him. “I need to talk to you…after you finish with Mom.”

Whispering close to the young boy’s ear Chris answered. “I’ll come find you in a little bit, okay?” The young boy’s nod was all the answer he needed as he watched Jason take off to find his other Uncles.

Kelli waited for Chris to stand up and then explained. “Vin wrote out several cards for each one of ‘em before he left, and then he sent the entire packet to a friend he has in Virginia that mails ‘em to the kids once a week with a Quantico postmark.”

“Judging by the look of joy on their faces it was a worthwhile effort." Chris noticed that she looked pale. "How are you?”

“Okay for the most part, I just wish this whole thing was over already.” She laughed when she saw the look of surprise on Chris’s face and clarified. “I’m referrin' to the assignment Dad, not the baby.”

Chris was quiet for a few moments and then said softly. “That’s the first time you have called me dad in months. It sounds good.”

Kelli only nodded as she moved aside to allow Josiah room to help Nathan inside.

“Welcome back Nate, I supposed now that Daddy Jackson is in the house the real party can begin.” Chris moved to the other side of Nathan. “Lean on me if you need to,”

“It’s good to be back, thanks.” Nathan's eyes found his wife and son and he smiled. “If you two don’t mind, I’d like to get over there by that beautiful lady that is holding my son.”

“No problem brother.” Josiah grinned as he and Chris walked closely beside Nathan and seated him with his lady. “Tell me what you need and it’s yours.”

Nathan took hold of Rain’s hand. “I have everything I need right here.”

Once Nathan was settled, Chris scanned the room to find Jason. He was standing beside Kelli again, and it looked as if he planned on staying there.

“Kel, may I borrow your son for a few minutes?” Chris asked as he walked up to them.

“Sure,” Kelli smiled at Jason. “It’s okay, I’ll be right here when you return.”

Larabee grabbed both their coats and steered the boy to a quiet place on the screened in back porch where they sat side by side. “Jason, what’s on your mind?”

“Mom’s been sick, and since dad is not here, I need to take care of her. I was hoping that maybe you could help. Can you tell me what to do for her?”

Chris saw the concern in Jason’s eyes and knew that he was serious with his question. For a child his age he had seen too many people he loved get sick and disappear from his life. Somehow Chris knew that he had to alleviate the child’s fears. “I know that your mom has not been feeling well and that is why I took her to the doctor myself, so she could get better. The doctor gave her some medicine and told her to rest more and she’ll be fine”

Jason looked over to his uncle and studied him for a long time. “You said she needs to rest…You’re her dad, will you tell her she has to listen?"

“I already have.” Chris measured his words carefully. “I know you and Andi miss your dad, and that he would be proud of you for watching out for her, but I am keeping a close eye on your mom, too. If you think she’s not listening then you come tell me and I’ll make sure she does. She’s not going anywhere Jason, I promise, you just give it a little more time.”

“Okay, but I sure hope you don’t have to give her a time-out. I don’t reckon she’d like that much.”

Chris laughed. “I’ll keep that in mind. You feel better now?”

Jason graced his uncle with a big smile. “I love you, Uncle Chris,” and then he hugged Chris’s neck.

“Love you, too. Now we have a party to go back to. What about it?” Chris took Jason’s hand and they both went inside to join the fun. Larabee saw Kelli watching as they stepped back into the room, and Chris winked at her to signal that all was well.

JD kept the camcorder going and recorded practically every movement that Lilah, Daisy, or Terrell made. He made certain to capture all three cakes on camera before they were cut, one for Lilah and Daisy, one for Terrell, and one to celebrate Caleb’s adoption. For a few magical hours on a Saturday afternoon, the problems facing the adults were forgotten, and worries were set aside. Proud parents, aunts and uncles, looked on as children played and the smiles and laughter of happy children was the only thing that mattered.

Larabee Home

Linda had feigned illness to avoid going to the party with Chris. Truthfully she felt great; this pregnancy was very different from what she had experienced with Grace. She was not having morning sickness, and did not feel exhausted all the time. Of course she was sleeping more and with all the extra help around the house she only had to do the things she wanted to, and had no demands on her time. She had no intention though of letting Chris know how good she really felt.

Since he was out of the house she took advantage of the time and slipped into his home office. She justified her snooping with the excuse that it was the only way she was able to find out anything that was going on with her husband. She knew he had a sponsor…Colonel Mike Tai, and she worried about how much Chris may be listening to him. She had her lawyer hire a private investigator to check the man out. It was beyond her to understand why he thought getting those silly chips was such a big deal. Chris did not need any of that garbage to interfere in his life. He just needed to remember that he was a married man and pay attention to her. It seemed to her that his therapy sessions simply stirred up things that were best left alone.

As was her habit over the last few months, she slipped his journal out of the desk drawer and began to read.

Something has to give soon though, because it is damn hard to live this way…This young man though reminded me of Vin when I first met him…meeting with Travis. I have to do that because it’s the only way I can find out the true reason Vin left MCAT. I know the story Buck gave me sounds good, but my gut says that Tanner is walking on dangerous ground.

“Of course you had to go back to work for VIN! What about me?” Linda huffed.

Orrin gave me full control over this covert mission and I plan to get that smart-ass Texan home. I was able to talk to him tonight and made certain that he understood that NOT coming back was not an option.

“Tanner is a big boy, Chris, he does not need you and you sure as hell don’t need him.”

I can feel Tanner back in my life and as soon as he makes it home safely we have a lot of catching up to do. That is, after he gets over the shock of the delightful surprise that Kelli has waiting for him. They are finally going to have the baby they have wanted since the day they were married. The sooner I can get him home, the sooner she can tell him, so that is a priority for me.

“DAMNIT! Not only has he reconnected with Vin, but now Kelli is pregnant!” Linda ranted aloud. “I will not let them take my place. I am your wife and you are damn well going to put me first! What’s more, I am not going to allow Kelli to get all the attention for her baby when I’m having a baby too.”

She has changed… hell, maybe that’s the wrong word…I think maybe I always knew that Linda had a spoiled side to her and that she was impulsive. I may have found that part of her personality endearing at first. Now it’s way past that…her childish demands are putting a huge strain on our marriage, even worse, she seems to have lost interest in being a mother to Grace, and that is unacceptable. I do know that something has to give soon because living this way will only hurt our children and do irrevocable damage to our marriage.

Linda closed the journal and replaced it to its original position. “Okay Larabee, I may have to change my tactics, but you will not put me second to Vin, Kelli, your brothers, your work, or our children. Cowboy, you may soon find yourself raising two children alone!” The blonde had some serious thinking to do, and plans to make, if she was going to have to compromise to get what she wanted, then so was Chris.

Sanchez home ~late evening

Nathan and Rain were using the guest bedroom in the Sanchez home. Despite the fact that Josiah and Mallory had assured them both that they were welcome to stay as long as they needed to, they were anxious to be back in their own home again. Terrell was finally sleeping in the crib that Josiah had set up for him in their room, and Rain had been fussing over Nathan’s injuries.

“Rain, I’m okay, by the end of the week the stitches will be dissolved and all the soreness will be gone.”

“You were damn lucky that your rib caught the brunt of that knife, otherwise I would have been attending your funeral today instead of our son’s birthday party.”

Nathan pulled her close to him as he lay stretched out on the bed. “If Buck hadn’t been there…”

“Shh, he was, and we’re fine. We were all very lucky. Ezra talked to the insurance adjuster and has information you might want to go over with him. The rest of the family pooled their money together and bought new clothes for Terrell and us, enough to get by anyway, until we can get out. Josiah and Mallory have been there for anything else we need. Chris has been working around the clock to increase the security on the ranch, and they have all offered to help us when we are ready to start working on the house.”

“I guess that I’ve kind of forgotten that we have such a great family here…I…Rain, I have been an ass to all of them. This racist group thing has gotten to me worse than anything I think we have ever been involved with. When I think about Paul, and how easy that could have been me…Then this, you and Terrell are what I should have thought about. If either of you had died in that fire…”

“Honey, this has bothered you ever since they found Caleb. Do you even know why?”

Nathan sighed. “I had some time to think while I was lying in that hospital bed. Although I’m not completely sure that I understand all of it, I think finding that boy and knowing how many others are out there like him, I started to feel guilty. You and I have a good life, friends, both black and white, and a family that have never seen color as an issue. It just seemed as if we were too comfortable and should have been doing more to help black children that don’t have the advantages that we have had.”

“Maybe there are some other ways that we can make a difference, but I’m not sure that being involved with a radical group whether it is a white one, or a black one is the right way. When all this is over we should see what other options we have.”

“You are probably right. I also need to make amends with a few of my brothers too.” Nathan drew her to him and claimed a long slow kiss. “Thanks for putting up with me baby, I know I have not made it easy for you either over the last few months.”

“I love you even when you are acting like a jackass.” Rain smiled and cuddled with her husband; thankful that she was getting her ‘old’ Nathan back, that her family was safe, and they still had a future to look forward to.

Larabee Home

Grace was finally asleep, and Chris walked out of the nursery on his way to the guest bedroom that had been his for the last couple of weeks. Linda was waiting for him and asked him if they could talk.

After the revelations that Chris had heard earlier, he was wary about anything that Linda had to say, but he decided to hear her out. He sat down in the chair by the window. “I’m here, so talk.”

“I’ve been thinking, and have come to the conclusion that maybe…just maybe; I have acted a little capriciously concerning certain things. It’s just that I have found the last few months to be so damn frustrating. It is also difficult for me to admit that I am not the world’s best mother. I know some women are like that, but I never expected to be one of them. Anyway, with a new baby, you going undercover, and all the rest following behind the atrocious things that Jack did…it was just too much. I am not used to being pushed into the background and I did warn you early on that I was spoiled by my father and brothers, but I am now willing to compromise on a few issues if you are.”

“Compromise, Linda? I think we may be well past the stage of compromising.” Chris stood up and went to stand directly in front of his wife. “I may not like the obvious fact that you and motherhood don’t mix, but I can grudgingly accept that as long as you do nothing to endanger our children. Still, I will not stand for your attempts to manipulate me and my relationships with the rest of my family, or any effort to interfere with my work.”

“I have already told my brothers not to come for the holidays. We can reschedule getting together again at a later time. I will also make an effort to mend my friendship with Kelli, and open our home to your brothers and their families. In return, all I ask is for you and me to find some time to spend a few weekends alone, and occasionally go somewhere that is not connected to your brothers or MCAT. Take a few well deserved trips and enjoy a little freedom. Is that so much to ask?”

“Considering some of the damage you have inflicted recently, I think we should take one day at a time for now. I am making no promises until I see that you are sincere about making an attempt to put things right. You show me that you really care about fixing what is wrong with our marriage, and I’ll consider your requests.”

“Chris! I am trying here…” Linda’s voice rose in frustration. She had been certain that Chris would listen and respond to her words, but not like this.

“No more talking Linda, its time to put up or shut up. It’s your choice.” Chris headed for the door. “You know where to find me when you decide.” He grabbed the baby monitor and left the room.

Linda stomped her foot, this had not gone the way she had planned. Damnit Linda, now what are you going to do?”

Chapter 17

MCAT Office- Monday~ November 20th ~4:00 pm

Chris threw his pen down and pushed himself away from the desk. Concentrating on paperwork was difficult with all he had on his mind, and he had dealt with enough paper today. His thoughts drifted back to the weekend. On one hand it had been great; the kids' party on Saturday had been a success, and he had enjoyed the Broncos game with Buck and the boys. On the other hand; the threat to the ranch and the children was very real, and although they had taken the necessary precautions, keeping his family safe weighed heavy on his mind. Linda had been unusually quiet after their discussion Saturday evening, and he wondered what in the hell to expect from her next. Chris would like to think that she had come to her senses, but he knew the likelihood of her giving in easily to his demands were slim to none. Standing up, he decided he needed to get out of this room for a while.

Larabee stood in the doorway of his office observing his agents. He was watching Kelli and had to smile when he saw her jump up and make a quick run to the ladies room. Nathan had been quieter than usual and Chris hoped that he was not pushing himself too hard by coming back in to work so soon. JD, Mallory, and Pam were hard at work programming a new thingamajig into CASSIE. Alex was at the hospital stationed in front of Paul’s room. Mark, along with his K-9 partner Bandit, was at a bomb detection training class. Raphael and Justin were at the elementary school and should be escorting the Larabee 7 children home about now.

“Planning an invasion?” Buck grinned as he walked over to stand by Chris. “You look like a General reviewing his troops.”

Chris smiled. “If I was, you sure as hell wouldn’t pass inspection, Wilmington. What kind of shirt do you call that?”

“Hey, the kids gave me this shirt. See the little turkeys on the collar?” Buck pointed at his collar. “That is in honor of the bird that is giving his life for us to have a big feast.”

Larabee grinned and shook his head, “I hate to be the one to break this to you Buck, but those aren’t little turkeys. They’re roadrunners, and I do hope you had another shirt handy to wear if you had actually been called out to work today.”

“Work? You mean you expected me to…” Buck saw Dr. Metfield walk in. “Uh oh, Bones looks as if he is on a mission.”

Bones set his sites on Commander Larabee as soon as he entered the room, and then made a beeline for him. Without stopping, he pushed by Chris through the door and gruffly stated, “Your office Larabee.”

Chris turned and followed Bones inside with Buck right on his heels, closing the door behind him. “What have you got Doc?”

Dr. Metfield handed Chris his written report as he began to talk. “The knife that was used on Agent Jackson is the same weapon that was used on Agent Roberts. I also lifted two fingerprints. One belonged to Charles Bellows and from the position of his print, I am confident that he is the man that attacked Jackson. After more intense examination I found traces of Agent Robert’s DNA on the handle and one distinctive print that I matched to Anson Ricter. I can also match the blade to the marks on Roberts' body.”

Chris took in the information that confirmed what Vin had already told him and laid the report aside for Director Travis. “Thanks, Bones. I appreciate you personally walking this over. For now this stays confidential.”

Bones added. “Judging from what I have seen of their work that bunch is no better than a nest of vipers. Tread softly, I would hate for any one of you to end up on my autopsy table.”

“That ain’t gonna happen!” Buck affirmed, thinking about Tanner.

Dr. Metfield nodded his concurrence and then he walked out of the office.

“Damn!” Chris swore. “Vin had better find out what their target is really fast. I’ll give him two more weeks. If he doesn’t have it by then I’m ordering him out and we arrest Ricter.” Larabee reached into his drawer and rooted around until he found the bottle of antacid he was searching for.

“Maybe it’s time we rattled their cage. We probably can’t talk to Vin, but after what the RMR pulled here the other night, you know they expect someone to nose around.”

“Did you have anyone specific in mind, Buck?” Chris knew exactly what Wilmington was thinking.

“As a matter of fact, yes I do.” Buck grinned. “Ezra and I are the only people besides you, Travis, and Kel that know where Vin really is. Once they find out your name is Larabee, they might use you for target practice, and Kel…Hell I hate to even think about how they would react to a woman agent.”

Chris nodded in agreement. “You and Standish work it out and leave first thing in the morning. Just make your presence known, and don’t push them too hard. I’ll tell Kelli to warn Vin if he calls tonight, so he won’t be surprised.”

Larabee sat down at his desk to review the reports of the mini crime wave occurring around Denver. There had been random shootings reported involving several minority victims, two suspicious fires set at predominately black churches, and it seemed that the city had been flooded with white supremacy propaganda flyers at every shopping mall and educational campuses in town. Three construction sites had been vandalized, as well as a new car dealership. All were businesses that were owned, or co-owned by minorities. The movement had been busy over the last two weeks, but Chris realized that it was all a smokescreen for whatever bigger crimes were coming. It was ugly anyway you looked at it. He was certain that they were not finished with Larabee 7 yet, and they were only biding their time for an opportunity to get to Paul and Nathan again.

When his office door opened, Chris smiled as he saw his daughter enter the room. His smile faded when he took a good look at her. “Damn Kel, you look like hell, come in and sit down.”

“That old Larabee charm strikes again.” Kelli sat in the chair opposite Chris. “You’re not supposed to tell a pregnant woman she looks like hell, even if she does.”

“Sorry, but you don’t look well.”

“I probably look better than I feel, so you’re forgiven. That’s what I came in to tell you. I have a doctor’s appointment tomorrow and will be in late.”

“When you leave the doctor’s office, go home. It’s the last day we’re open before the holiday, and you obviously need the extra rest. Don’t plan on any work before Monday. If Vin calls tonight, tell him that Buck and Ezra will be snooping around Rocky Meadows tomorrow in full agent mode. They plan to rattle a few cages and generally be a pain in the ass for the locals.”

“If they need some backup I could…”

“No, you won’t. They’re not going to do anything that the RMR does not expect them to do. You are homebound until Monday, deal with it.”

“Fine, be that way!" She snipped. "You just make certain they don’t call any extra attention to Tanner, and don’t forget that you promised Jason to take him ridin’ since he’ll be out of school for five days.”

“I haven’t forgotten, now go home.” Chris watched with concern as Kelli left and then prepared to go home himself. As he thought about what tomorrow’s activities might reveal, he hoped that it would bring Vin one step closer to being home.

Hang in there Vin, it won’t be much longer.

Rocky Meadows, Colorado

Dusty Slater sat at a corner table nursing a beer and observing the men in the bar. It was fairly easy to figure out how the newer ones had fallen into the resistance; they were young, alone, and impressionable. Most of them came from backgrounds that had left them with a low self-esteem and no family to depend on. For them being involved was exciting and adventurous. It was the first time in their lives they had male influences to follow that they looked up to. They were followers, and if they were still on the streets they would probably have joined one of the many gangs that roamed the urban areas, be in jail, or be dead. Yet here, they erroneously thought they had found a place to belong, and had a just cause to fight for.

There was one person that he was having difficulty figuring out, and his instincts told him that this young man was different somehow. Dusty had read the file on Clay Waters during one of his midnight reconnaissance explorations into Chambers’s office, but what he had read did not match what he observed. Clay said all the right things and followed orders, but Dusty had the feeling that there was more to the young man than he was letting on to the rest of the members. He made a mental note to keep a closer eye on Clay.

Kelli had told him that Buck and Ezra were coming in tomorrow. He knew that it was something Chambers expected, and that he would not have an opportunity to pass any information to them. They would be able to get a better picture of how Rocky Meadows protected their own though. It was a joint conspiracy from the sheriff’s office to the local business owners, to the good citizens of the community to conceal the truth about the presence of the RMR. Those citizens that were not members of the resistance were sympathizers, and did all that they could to support the cause. That included stonewalling any outsiders that came around asking questions. Dusty finished his beer, said goodnight, and retired to his room. He still had time to catch a couple of hours sleep before he made another nocturnal excursion to search for more incriminating evidence against the RMR.

Tuesday~ November 21

Travis had arranged for a federally registered car to be at Buck and Ezra’s disposal, and for at least today they were both carrying FBI identification. There would be time later for MCAT to make her presence known in this investigation if necessary, but not now. Agents Standish and Wilmington arrived in Rocky Meadows shortly after eleven, and following procedure checked in with the local sheriff.

“They have the audacity to refer to this minuscule refuge as a town.” Ezra commented as he slid out from behind the steering wheel and closed the car door. Aside from the small motel just outside of town, there were a handful of rough-hewn log structures within the city limits. A general store, a service station/garage, and Bubba’s Bar and Grill made up the business district of Rocky Meadows. The Sheriff‘s office was a small brick building located in the middle of town with a grand total of two cars parked in front of it.

“Hell, Ez, I’ve seem towns smaller than this back home. If you blinked when you passed through them, you’d never know they were there.” Buck said with a grin.

Pushing open the front door, Ezra entered the outer office first and spoke to the woman seated behind the only desk in the room. “Please inform your superior officer that we require a few moments of his valuable time.”

“Hey Sam, the men in black are here to see you!” She yelled.

Men in black? Ezra pantomimed to Buck.

Buck shrugged is shoulders in response, as the two men continued to wait.

“Hell, Mabel, send ‘em on back!” A male voice yelled in response

Mabel jerked her head toward the left and said, “That way.”

“Thank you ma’am,” Buck smiled at Mabel. He then followed Ezra into the other inner office.

There were two men in khaki colored uniforms sitting behind identical desks that faced opposite each other. One of the men looked to be in his fifties with gray streaked brown hair, hard features, broad shoulders, and a stomach that obviously had not missed many meals. The other one was a younger version of the first man and they were clearly related.

“Sheriff? We are…” Ezra started.

“That’s me, and I know who you are. What can I do for the feds today?” The older man that they presumed to be Sheriff Sam Brodie questioned.

“We’re here to investigate the disappearance of our fellow agent Daniel Abbott.” Buck told the sheriff as they produced their badges along with a picture of the missing agent.

The Sheriff barely glanced at the photo and stated. “I haven’t seen him.”

“Maybe you haven’t seen him, but perhaps your deputy has or someone in town?” Buck showed the picture of Abbott to the younger man.

“He hasn’t seen him either, but you feel free to ask around, don’t be surprised though if you don’t get any answers.” He picked up a file and began to read, dismissing their presence.

Buck looked over at Ezra and shrugged his shoulders. Both men exited the sheriff’s office to the outside.

“That went well.” Ezra commented.

“Ya think?” Buck's voice was laced with sarcasm. “Let’s try the General Store first.”

Standish silently agreed and the two MCAT agents crossed the street to the General Store. Buck opened the screen door and stepped inside, followed by Ezra. Wilmington felt as if he had stepped back in time as he took in his surroundings. A soda fountain was on one side the large room. A pharmacy was situated in the back and an array of dry good mixed with groceries filled rows of shelves. A barber’s chair also sat to the right of the front door. Buck grinned and moved toward the middle of the room where several men sat in chairs around a table playing cards while swapping tall tales.

“Gentlemen may my partner and I have a few moments of your time?” Ezra requested.

“Nope, we don’t talk to feds.”

Standish cleared his throat and tried again. “I assure you that we do not mean to bother you.”

“Well, you are. Go away.”

“’Bout as friendly as fire ants ain’t they?” Buck quipped to Ezra

“That is an astute observation Agent Wilmington.” Ezra agreed.

“Are you boys hard of hearing or just plain stupid?” One of the men asked. “My friend told you to leave.”

“All right, we’ll depart, but a word of advice.” Ezra tapped the shopkeeper on the shoulder and flashed a Cheshire grin at the other men. “Only a fool would place a bet when this man is holding four queens.”

Buck snickered as they walked out the door and burst out laughing once they were outside.

“It appears that at noontime everything closes down for lunch, except for Bubba’s Bar and Grill.” Ezra observed.

“Shall we?” Buck gestured toward the only business they had not checked out.

“We Shall.”

Together the two men headed for Bubba’s Bar and Grill. Once inside they removed their sunglasses and met the hostile stares aimed in their direction, none of which came close to a Larabee glare on a bad day. Ignoring the frosty attitudes of the other patrons, Standish and Wilmington walked over to the bar.

Buck glanced around the bar and whispered to Ezra. “I thought them fellows at the store were cold, but I swear the temperature in here is near freezing.”

“Perhaps some libation would help.” Standish attempted to get the bartender’s attention and was promptly ignored.

“Let me try.” Buck offered as he slapped the bar and barked. “How about we get some service over here?”

Bubba slowly turned around and snarled. “What in the hell do you want?”

“A couple cups of coffee and two daily specials.” Buck growled back.

Ezra cringed at Wilmington’s surly attitude and silently prayed that Buck’s infamous temper did not further antagonize an already hazardous situation. As a precaution Standish positioned himself so he could keep his eyes on the other customers. At Wilmington’s signal, they picked up the lukewarm coffee that Bubba has sloshed in front of them, and then moved across the floor to a table in the corner to sit down. Surprisingly the other men found their choice of seating humorous. The two agents shared a perplexed look.

“I wonder what they find so amusing.” Ezra queried aloud to Wilmington as the smirks grew louder.

“Do we really want to know?” Wilmington replied with a question of his own.

“No, we don’t.”

Thirty minutes later they were still waiting on their order and Buck was losing what little patience he had left. Between having no food and the unsettling looks they had been receiving from the other men present, it took all of Ezra’s calm to keep Wilmington from losing his temper.

The door opened and Dusty Slater strolled in. He exchanged ‘howdy’s’ with Bubba, ordered a beer and headed for his regular table. Dusty stopped two feet from it when he saw that it was already occupied. “Y’all are sittin’ at MY table.”

Buck looked at Standish. "I didn’t see no name on here, Ezra, did you?”

“Not that I recall.” Ezra grinned back at Buck, and then addressed the long-haired intruder. “You sir, must be mistaken.”

The room erupted in laughter as the other RMR members waited to see how Dusty would handle the two Feds. It did not take long for them to find out as Slater slowly removed the bowie knife from his belt, took aim, and heaved it into the air. The knife throbbed as it hit its target, embedding deeply into the center of the table.

“No mistake.” Dusty pointed to the knife. “It’s mine.”

Buck plucked the knife out of the table and studied it. “Nice knife, can I have it?”

Dusty growled and within three seconds had his knife in his hand and was holding it at Wilmington’s throat. “Where do you want it?”

Standish was immediately on his feet. His service revolver in his hand pointed at Slater. “Let him go!” He ordered.

The sound of a shell ratcheting into a shotgun chamber echoed through the otherwise silent bar behind them. “Drop the gun pig, or die!” Bubba shouted.

“Back off Bubba, I got this.” Dusty instructed. He pressed the knife tighter against Buck’s throat. “Unless you plan fer both of ya leavin’ town in body bags, you’d best holster that gun and take this piece of shit out of here.”

Standish read the hostile look in Slater’s eyes as well as the antagonistic stances of the other men in the bar, and slowly holstered his gun. Dusty released his hold on Buck and stepped back. Wilmington rose and moved over to Standish; together the two men backed out of the bar. Laughter erupted inside and Bubba yelled. “Drinks are on the house.”

Ezra and Buck did not speak until they were back in their car. Wilmington rubbed his throat and came away with a trace of blood on his finger, exclaiming in disbelief. “He nicked me!”

“What in the hell did you expect? You’re the idiot that asked him if you could have his knife.” Ezra retorted as he started the car and pulled onto the street. “It would be safe to report that our Vin has definitely been accepted as Dusty Slater. Since feds are definitely not on the welcome list in this community, I hope that Dusty stays in good standing with the RMR for a while.”

“Me too, but remind me when this is over to have a long talk with that boy about respecting his elders.”

“Let’s just get him home Buck, and then you can talk to him all you want.”

MCAT Office

Chris listened as Buck and Ezra gave him an oral report on their trip to Rocky Meadows. He had not expected them to obtain any usable information, but he was very interested in everything they had to say about Vin. Evidently the RMR members accepted him as one of their own. It was apparent that they respected his abilities enough to stay out of his way and the incident today probably helped his reputation within the resistance. It did concern Chris to think that when this was over that Vin may have to deal with personal issues about being Dusty Slater, and the things he was required to do or say could come back to haunt him in nightmares.

“I believe it would be prudent to extract Captain Tanner without superfluous delay.” Ezra advised.

“The act he put on for them today was all Slater, but I do know that if they ever make Vin for an agent, he is not gonna last long in there.” Buck agreed.

Larabee looked out the window and tried to pick up on the Texan’s thoughts, but was unsuccessful. “I hear both of you, but we have to trust Vin to know when he needs to pull the plug.”

Buck studied his old friend. “Chris, maybe it would be best if we don’t let Vin make that call. You know as well as I do that once you’re in it’s hard to say quit.”

“I know what I did Buck,” Larabee snapped, “but Tanner is not on pills!”

“Never said he was Chris, and I was not referring to you specifically, so don’t get your hackles up.” Buck said softly. “All I’m saying is that it doesn’t matter who you are, once you’re deeply involved in a mission it’s easy to justify the risks and push to see it through. That goes for you, me, Ezra, Vin, and every other agent that goes under, anytime, anywhere”.

“Having been intimately familiar with that position, I can attest to the truth of that statement firsthand.” Ezra thought about his next words carefully. “The RMR deems itself at war, and Vin has enough experience in special ops, as have you both, to know that leaving a job unfinished is not acceptable. The longer he is in there, the harder it will be to walk away until the job is done. In this case the best that we can hope for is to stop the RMR for the time being. There will be others to step up for the cause once we take out Chambers, Ricter, and their men. Vin is already in far enough that it will be difficult to be objective about that.”

“After what we witnessed today, it may not be easy for Vin any way this goes down.” Buck added.

Chris knew exactly what they were talking about, but he was certain that Vin would be able to see the difference, regardless of how deep he was in. “You both have valid points, but you’re forgetting one thing. Dusty Slater may have difficulty keeping his priorities straight, but Vin Tanner has something Slater doesn’t. No matter how things come down, he has a wife that will be there to keep him grounded once we get him home.”

Buck realized more than anyone how much it had hurt Chris that Linda had not stood beside him after California. He also knew that Chris would never admit it. A wife should be there for her husband when he was down, the same as it was a husband’s responsibility to be there for her when she needed support. Somewhere along the way Chris and Linda had mentally separated and instead of growing closer during a time of adversity they had moved further apart. Wilmington did agree with Chris that it was different for Vin, he had no doubt that Kelli would be there for Tanner no matter how this came down, good or bad.

“How much are you going to tell Kel about the situation in Rocky Meadows?” Wilmington asked.

“She and Vin went into this with their eyes open Buck. In fact they figured that he had less than a 50/50 chance of coming back, and still agreed that it was the right thing to do. I don’t think Kel would be surprised by anything you saw today. I won’t lie to her, or try to make it something it’s not, she can handle it.”

“As long as Kel knows what is going on. I agree with your assessment Chris. I believe she can take on whatever comes, but the stress is wearing on her and I think we should keep a close watch on her for our brother.” Ezra had already noticed the changes in his partner, not all bad, but it did merit some concern.

Chris nodded. “I plan on it.” He rubbed his hands over his face. “You two call it a day and go home, get an early start on the holiday. I’ll be through here in about half an hour and then close up. I’ll stop and see Kel on the way home.” Larabee wanted to find out what her doctor told her, and check on his daughter.

When Buck and Ezra had gone, Chris stood and moved over to the window. Staring out at the snowcapped mountains in the distance his thoughts went back over the conversation here in the office.

Why did you automatically assume that Buck meant you specifically Chris? You’re supposed to be putting California behind you. No one has ever said they believed your behavior was foolish, they only agreed that you had made some bad decisions. In fact, they have made it very plain that you have nothing to prove to them. You’ve spent many an hour with team members bouncing ideas and possible scenarios around to make certain that all the bases were covered on an assignment. So, why did you snap at Buck when he was only doing what you would do in his place? Because you still feel guilty Larabee, that’s why. You have two choices Christopher, you can let the guilt creep back into your mind or now that you recognize the problem, admit that it’s there, and do something about it before it eats away at all the progress you’ve made.

Chris turned away from the window, went to his desk and made a phone call. Colonel Mike Tai was a good listener, and he understood how old doubts could sneak into a recovery. He was also the only one outside the family that Larabee would talk to openly.

“Mike, this is Chris. I’m leaving my office in a few minutes, and I need to talk. Can we meet for coffee?”

Chapter 18

Journal Entry~ November 22 ~6:00am

Today is the day before Thanksgiving and I suppose I should write down a few things that I am thankful for. My children are an unexpected, but wanted blessing in my life. My unborn child is still a mystery, but he or she already has a place in my heart, and my youngest daughter has truly lived up to her name as my saving Grace. She has given me a new outlook on life, and her presence makes each day special. My eldest daughter has showed me that guilt and what if’s have no place in my life. Kelli never held me responsible for her turbulent childhood, although she could have, and she did not criticize me for my bout with pills. The only thing she exploded over and rightfully so, was when I unfairly blamed Vin for things he had no control over. That is what a wife should do. She should stand up for her husband and she did, not only to me, but to Linda also. I think we may have finally made it to a solid father-daughter relationship, and I am looking forward to being there as she goes through her first pregnancy.

My family of brothers and our crazy Wild Bunch are a blessing too. We have been through years of ups and downs with one another and still know that together we are strong enough to face anything that comes our way. I need to add Colonel Mike Tai to my list, the man has been a great support for me and talking to him brings things more into focus. Last night he listened as I attempted to work through feelings of guilt that were trying to resurface. He made me realize that while we are not able to completely erase those feelings, admitting that they are there, and keeping them in perspective makes a big difference. It did for me and today, I feel 100% better about myself than I did last night.

I told Linda that I expected her to mend some fences over the holidays, and I hope she was listening. If we are to have any chance of getting back to a comfortable relationship, she has to realize that my extended family will always be a part of our lives. I will be watching to see if she was sincere when she said she would make an effort to fix some of the wrongs she has done. School is out starting today and I promised Jason that I would go riding with him. I know how much he misses Vin and maybe I can help. I hear Grace letting the world know that she is awake and ready for a new day so I will close for now.

Chris rose from the kitchen table and headed to Linda’s bedroom. He knocked once on the door and entered moving immediately toward the doorway of the nursery. Linda sat up in bed and rubbed her sleep filled eyes. “What are you doing in here? “ She asked Chris.

“Our daughter is awake and in need of some parental attention.” Chris replied as he entered Grace’s room. The baby’s whimpering quieted as her green eyes caught sight of her father. Chris smiled at his baby girl as he lifted her into his arms and walked over to the changing table. He talked softly to her as he removed her soiled garments and dressed her in dry clothing. “Good morning, sweetheart. Are you ready for some breakfast?” She did not answer his question, but she did respond to his voice with a smile.

As he left the nursery with Grace in his arms and headed toward the bedroom door, Linda’s voice stopped him. “If it isn’t too much of an inconvenience, I’d like to wish our daughter a good morning as well.”

“Alright,” Chris agreed. He walked over to the bed and sat down on the side of it. Linda scooted into a sitting position with her back to the headboard and held out her arms for Grace. Chris reluctantly released his hold on his daughter to his estranged wife.”

“Morning Grace,” Linda spoke softly as she gazed down into her daughter’s face. The rare moment of tenderness between mother and daughter moved Chris. He could almost forget all of his and Linda’s problems if only she would become a better mother to Grace.

Linda looked up at her husband and ruined the moment by saying. “Since you are off work until Monday, I gave the Nanny a few days off to spend with her sister. I plan to take it easy and do a lot of sleeping, but I knew you wouldn’t mind taking care of Grace. She’s all yours until the Nanny comes back.” Actually she hoped that once Chris realized how restrictive it was to care for Grace full-time that he might see things from her viewpoint.

“Aside from saying good morning, what are you doing with her during that time?” Chris asked as he took Grace from her.

“Not a lot, but I will be with both of you tomorrow at the dinner.” Linda replied. “Matt will be there and he’ll probably want to spend some time with her, along with YOUR family. So, it’s not as if you won’t have any free time.”

“Don’t put yourself out too much.” Chris said trying to keep hold on his growing temper, “Grace and I will be fine. You make sure you find the time to mend some fences with MY family with all YOUR free time.” He rose with the baby and headed back to the bedroom door.

“You make certain that you tell YOUR family that I’m expecting another Larabee baby and THEY need to be nicer to ME.” Linda yelled after him.

Chris shook his head, knowing that Linda still did not get it. His family was not the problem, she was.

Tanner Home ~8:00am

Max and Nettie began early preparations for tomorrow’s dinner. Today they planned to bake an assortment of goodies for the Thanksgiving feast and prepare some of the side dishes ahead of time. The other ladies would be over later to help, but the two older women wanted to get started before they arrived. Max also wanted to keep a close eye on Kelli. She had her suspicions about the cause of the younger woman’s sickness, but would wait until Kelli was ready to share that information before saying anything about it. In the meantime she was aware that Kelli’s doctor had told her to rest and Max was determined to see that she did just that.

Jason and Andi sat at the table with their mom for breakfast and they were just finishing when Chris arrived.

“Morning ladies, “Chris spoke to Max and Nettie. “I need to leave Grace for a bit, while Jason and I go riding .I hate to ask, but do you have room for one more?”

“Nonsense Chris, we always have room for Grace, you know that.” Max dried her hands and took the baby from Chris.

Chris squeezed Jason’s shoulder. “We’ll be out until at least noon, Buck and Caleb are gonna meet us at the barn.”

“Andi and I will be here Dad, we can handle Grace.” Kelli offered.

Nettie was already shaking her head. “You, young lady will follow your doctor’s orders and rest. Andi and Grace are gonna help us do some baking and you are headed to the couch.”

“You have your orders, Kel, and I wouldn’t argue with Miss Nettie or Max if I were you.” Chris crossed his arms in front of him and challenged his eldest daughter.

“Mom, if you don’t, I bet they tell on you, and Dad won’t be happy when he finds out you’ve been sick.” Jason attempted to copy his uncle’s stance.

Andi had taken Kelli’s empty plate to the kitchen sink and now she was pulling on her mama’s hand. “I take care of you.”

Max and Nettie offered no chance of escape and as Kelli looked at her children and her dad, all of them insisting that she rest, she sighed deeply. “I reckon, ‘m outnumbered.”

“Looks that way,” Chris grinned. “I’ m gonna put Jason on Dancer and JD said Caleb could ride his little mare. Buck is taking Pony out for me, and I’ll take Peso so he can get some exercise.” Larabee was the only one besides Vin that the ornery horse would tolerate for long.

“Vin would appreciate that, thanks.” Kelli knew that it would still be a while before her Texan had time for his horse.

“We’ll have lunch ready for you men when you get back, so work up a good appetite.” Nettie smiled.

“Yes ma’am,” Jason answered as he hugged his mom and said bye to Andi before leaving.

Once they were gone, Max directed Kelli to the couch, and she slept while Andi helped Max.

RMR Training Grounds

Dusty had finished the morning training and Chambers was waiting for him. It seemed that word of yesterday’s little tussle with the feds had reached him. Slater prepared himself for Karl’s reaction. He was either here to congratulate Dusty for standing up to them or to chew his ass out for drawing attention to Bubba’s Bar.

Chambers fell into step with the younger man as they walked back to the main compound. “Would you have done it?”

“That depends on what yer referrin' to.” Dusty answered cautiously.

“From what I hear, you came damn close to killin’ a Fed. I thought you were here to lay low.”

“There’s a difference between layin’ low and runnin’ scared. I ain’t hidin’ from a Fed or nobody else. They get in my way, and I’ll move ‘em…one way or another.”

Karl nodded. “Just thought you should know that if you had, any man in that bar would have helped you dispose of the bodies, and no one in town would ever admit to seeing them. They wouldn’t be the first Feds to interfere where they shouldn’t and they damn sure won’t be the last.”

“I would have handled it; I clean up my own messes.”

Karl nodded and changed the subject. “I expect you to share dinner with us here tomorrow. It’s Thanksgiving and I‘d like to have our entire group together. Food will be served in the communal dining hall at one. If last night’s maneuvers were successful I expect some explosive news from Denver soon, and then we will have another victory to celebrate.

“Last night?”

“Nothing for you to be concerned about, but some of our white brethren will find out what happens when you choose to live with inferiors.” They reached the compound and Dusty’s truck. “Come with me to my office, I’d like to get an update on how the new recruits are doing.”

Dusty saw his opportunity to make a phone call slip away, so he did the next best thing. Cowboy, you had company last night, look for something explosive.

Larabee 7

It was almost noon and Chris and Buck were headed back toward the barn with the boys. It bothered Larabee that they had seen small signs that indicated a large animal or possibly a human had been moving through the woods close to the houses on the property. He wanted to get back to confer with Walter, and take a good look at the video that had been recorded from the fence line in the last twenty-four hours.

The boys were riding behind Chris and Buck rode up beside him. “I know that look. What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know Buck, but something doesn’t feel right. The sooner we get home, the better I’ll feel. I think…” Chris suddenly heard Vin’s voice in his head and his message was crystal clear.” Cowboy you had company last night, look for something explosive.” Chris felt a chill travel down his spine as he realized that his instincts had been right. They did have unwelcome guests last night, the two legged kind. I’m on it now brother, thanks.


“Trouble, Buck. I’ll tell you on the way; keep the boys between us, and let’s ride.”

Tanner Home

The smell of lunch cooking was more than Kelli could take when she awoke. She quickly grabbed a magazine and jackets for her and Andi, talking to Max on the way out. “We’re goin out by the swings for a while, I need some fresh air.” She hurried her daughter out the door and then sat on the wooden glider that Vin had made for them, while Andi played on the jungle gym.

Caught up in reading, it was Andi’s shrill yell at Tracker that drew Kelli’s attention. “Tracker, stop it!” The dog had hold of Andi’s shirt in his teeth, and was trying to drag her backwards.

Rising to go to her daughter’s aid, Kelli shouted a command to the dog, “Tracker down!” He ignored her, continuing to pull on Andi as the child yelled at him. Before the redhead was able to reach them, Tracker had actually managed to drag Andi to the ground, and much to the little girl’s outrage, forty pounds of dog was sitting on her, preventing her from getting up.

“Mama, make him move!” Andi was not hurt, but she was clearly annoyed with the Australian Shepherd.

Once Kelli was close enough, she grabbed the dog by the collar and attempted to move him. Stubbornly he refused to go willingly. “What is wrong with you?” Suddenly he broke free of Kelli’s hold and ran about two yards in front of Andi, barking continuously. Helping Andi to her feet Kelli realized that something was seriously wrong for the dog to behave this way and she held onto her daughter’s arm. “Tracker, sit.” This time he obeyed her command immediately, and ceased barking.

“Bad Tracker,” Andi started toward the dog and Kelli stopped her.

“Let me check on the dog, Andi, you stay put.” As Kelli approached the Aussie, he stood up and would not allow her past him. “What’s so important that you don’t want us over there?” She spoke softly to the animal and knelt down to pet him. Scanning the area around the dog she saw what he had been protecting Andi from and she drew in a sharp breath. Recognizing the device as something that she had seen in one of Vin’s weapons manuals, she knew that shifting any weight on the ground could be dangerous. “Andi, listen to me carefully. When I tell you to, I want you to walk, not run, back to the house and go exactly the way you came over here. Tell Max I need to see Walter, and then you stay inside. Now start walkin’.”

Andi hesitated. “You and Tracker come to?”

“Soon baby, now go,” Kelli watched as Andi made her way up to the house and breathed a sigh of relief when she was safely inside. “Ok Tracker, it’s you and me. We’re going to stay very still until reinforcements come, and they figure out how to get us out of this mess.” Kelli continued to stroke the dog’s head to keep both of them calm as she watched for Walter and wondered how in the hell an antipersonnel explosive device found its way onto the kid’s playground.

It seemed as if it took forever, but it was only ten minutes before Walter arrived with Chris and Buck. He had been at the barn when Max called and the other men rode in as he was talking to her. Although none of them knew what the problem was they sent the boys into the house with orders to stay there on their way to investigate. As they approached the area where Kelli was with Tracker she stopped them with an upraised hand.

“Don’t come any closer, and watch where you step. Tracker and I are less than twelve inches from some type of antipersonnel explosive device. We’re not movin’ so I hope you have a suggestion as to how to get us out of here.”

“Damnit,” Buck mumbled below his breath. “Of all the things those bastards could have done, placing that type of device on the kid's playground is the worst. Even jarring the ground around it could set it off, and if one of them had stepped on it…”

“I know Buck. You’re the bomb expert, how in the hell do we neutralize it and get Kel out of there?”

“It depends on what it is, and we can’t assume it’s the only one. You keep talking to Kel, I’m gonna call Mark. I’ll need some equipment, and then we need him and Bandit to sweep the area. Be back in a few minutes.” Buck started toward the house.

“Better call Inez and the others while you’re up there. Tell all of them to stay inside until we know what we’re dealing with. Also have Raphael use the copter to get Mark out here with that equipment; he can land on the road outside the gate and it will be quicker.” Chris instructed. “Walter, I need you to get the video that was taken last night. I want to know how the bastards are getting on the property.”

As soon as Walter and Buck left, Chris sat on the ground and began a conversation with Kelli trying to keep both their minds off the present danger. “I gather that Tracker is the hero of the day.”

“Yeah, he dragged Andi down and sat on her to keep her from walkin’ over here and then stopped me when I came over to check on him. The only problem I see is that he parked his butt too damn close to the thing.” Kelli kept her voice low. “Dad, what kind of monster plants one of these things on a playground?"

“One that disregards human life and believes that his message is worth any sacrifice necessary to be heard.”

“That’s the kind of men that Vin has to deal with every day, right?”

Chris sighed. “Unfortunately yes, in fact it was Vin that sent me the warning, but he only knew that it was some kind of explosive. I’m glad he didn’t know where it was or he might have killed the sonsofbitches by now, and I want to be there when those bastards go down.”

Buck returned. “Raphael and Mark are on their way to the helicopter now. Kel, can you describe to me what you can see?”

For the next fifteen minutes, Buck asked questions and Kelli answered the best she could as he wrote down everything she said. By the time he was finished, he had a fairly good idea of what kind of explosives they were dealing with, and knew what he would have to do to disarm the mine.

“That’s good darlin’. Are you doing okay?” Wilmington attempted to keep the anxiety he was feeling, out of his voice.

“That depends. Tracker and I are fine for now, but if my doctor hears about this, I think I may be in big trouble. She told me to reduce the stress in my life, and somehow I don’t see that happenin’ today.”

Chris thought about her condition and whispered to Buck. “We need to get her out of there Buck, talk to me.”

“We can’t risk it with her that close Chris. Even if we told her to run, she could never make it far enough to avoid injury if that thing goes off. According to what she is seeing the pin is out of it and anything could set it off. The radius of the blast would kill all of us. As soon as Mark gets here with our equipment I can replace the pin and you can pull her out. As long as she has been kneeling there, I doubt that she could even stand unassisted, much less walk.”

“It’s not polite to whisper, you know. I already am fairly certain that there is not much you can do without the right stuff to do it with so you don’t have to keep it a secret.” Kelli attempted a smile. “Besides, if you keep whisperin’ I might just get paranoid and I know that is not good for reducin’ stress.”

Shaking his head, Chris did smile. One thing he had passed on to his eldest was Larabee grit and she was making the best of a bad situation. “You are reprimanding me? Didn’t you ever learn to show respect for your elders?”

“I reckon I missed that somewhere along the line.” She shifted slightly. “My leg is beginnin' to cramp though, so whatever you have planned, anytime is good as far as ‘m concerned, but you had better have a way to get Tracker out of harm’s way too. I owe him for savin’ our daughter’s life.”

“I’ll make sure he gets a steak for dinner, and we’ll get him out.” Chris heard the helicopter in the distance.” Buck, take my truck and meet them at the gate.” Buck left again and Chris continued to talk to Kelli until Wilmington returned ten minutes later.

Mark and Buck put on specialized suits that used flame and fragmentation-resistant material similar to bulletproof vest. The suits were designed to increase the odds of survival for them should the munitions detonate while they were close. Buck planned to replace the pin in the mine beside Kelli to render it harmless and have Chris help out as soon as he was in position to work on it. Moving in slowly they had to get past the dog, and he was not too happy about the strange looking men coming close to his mistress.

“Easy boy, it’s just Buck and Mark”. Kelli kept Tracker calm while the men moved around them. As soon as they were between her and the mine Buck quickly replaced the pin. Without delay, Chris was there helping Kelli to stand and assisting her away from the area. He had one arm around her waist and the other on Tracker’s collar.

Within minutes, Buck called an all clear and then Mark dug up the neutralized bomb and carried it to a secure container. Their job was not finished until Bandit searched the surroundings and indicated that there were no more explosives in the immediate area. He would have to repeat that process again close to the Larabee, Wilmington, and Jackson homes, but additional handlers were coming in with more dogs to cover the larger area.

Chris took Kelli and Tracker inside and made her sit down before she saw the kids. “Dad, let’s not tell Vin specifically where it was when he calls, there is nothin’ he can do about it, and it would only make it worse for him if he did know. “

“We’ll hold off with the details, for now, but sooner or later he’ll find out.”

“Later, I hope.” Kelli stopped the conversation as Jason and Andi ran in the room to check on her. Max fussed over her and then insisted that she go to her bedroom and rest until suppertime.

Buck, Mark, and the other bomb technicians worked all afternoon, finding two more devices. One was near the Jackson home, and the other on the trail that laid between the Tanner and Wilmington home that Caleb and Jason used all the time. Finally satisfied that they had found all the mines, and had disposed of them, Mark and the others left, while Buck met with Chris and Walter.

“You did good Buck. Thanks to you and Mark we have more to give thanks for tomorrow.” Chris squeezed Wilmington’s shoulder; he knew how stressful the day had been for him. “Walter and I figured out how the bastards got in, but since tomorrow is a holiday all we can do now is to put a man on the surveillance camera, and keep someone on it twenty-four seven. We can’t do anything else until Friday, and then we plan to start electrifying the fences, it may take a while to cover the entire ranch that way but we’ll do it. Go home, hug your kids, and give Inez my love.”

“I will, and you make sure to give Tracker that steak, he deserves it.”

“Absolutely and then I’m gonna check on Kel before I take Grace home. Walter and Max are staying here tonight to keep an eye on her and the kids for me. JD escorted Nettie home and said they would be over early in the morning.”

Buck said good evening and left. Walter promised to call Larabee if he needed him and Chris peaked in on Kelli to make certain she was sleeping, before he picked up Grace and headed home.

Wilmington Home~ 9:00pm

Bedtime had finally come to the Wilmington household. Buck had sent Inez onto their room with a kiss and a promise to join her shortly. He oversaw Caleb and the girls changing into their pajamas, brushing their teeth, and hearing their prayers. Two stories later found all three children tucked into their beds, and Buck making his way down the hallway to his and Inez's bedroom. He entered the bedroom and smiled when he saw Inez sprawled asleep across their bed, fully clothed

He moved over to the bed and kneeled down to remove her socks and shoes. Inez stirred at the touch of her husband's hands on her legs and struggled into a sitting position.

‘I’m sorry. I must have fallen asleep.” Inez said around a yawn. “The children tucked in?”

“Yes.” Buck replied.” Sarah wanted another story read to them, but I drew the line at two and told them that it was time for bed.”

Inez laughed. “They usually get only one story from me when I tuck them in. Sarah seems to be picking up techniques in persuasion from Ezra.”

Buck chuckled. “I'm going to have a talk with Ezra and make sure he finds new ways to embellish his stories to the children, other than teaching them some of his tricks in manipulation.”

Inez laughed again. “Don’t be too rough on him...he does try his best not to do or say anything that can give the children any ideas.”

Buck rose and moved into the adjoining bathroom and came out with a tray loaded down with lotion, a basin of water, washrag, and a hand towel. He set it on the nightstand and then walked over to the dresser and pulled out a nightgown for Inez and a pair of pajama bottoms for himself. He changed and then helped Inez out of her clothes and into her nightgown.

He settled her back onto the bed and proceeded to first wash, and then massaged each of her feet. Now that she was in the last few weeks of pregnancy, Inez's feet tended to swell and ache. Massaging them had become an almost nightly ritual, and one Inez had come to appreciate.

Buck's tender administrations didn't end with massaging her feet that night. He moved onto the bed and after applying more lotion to his hands, he began to work at the tired muscles in Inez's neck and shoulders. As the massage continued, Buck trailed soft kisses along her elegant neck, and added tender caresses to all regions of her body.

Inez moaned in response to the fire that Buck's lips and hands ignited within her. Buck eased his wife back onto the covers and stretched out his long frame beside her as he continued his assault on her senses. This close to giving birth made it uncomfortable for Inez to make love in the normal way but there were other ways to pleasure her, and Buck proceeded to do just that, immensely grateful that they had been given another day together.

Chapter 19

Standish Townhouse ~Thanksgiving Morning

“Ezra.” Barbara breathed out her lover's name as Standish played the strings of her desire. She had awakened to the sensation of Ezra's nibbling on her neck and his hands caressing her body. She had shifted onto her back and gazed up into his emerald green eyes and felt her breath leave her at the look in them. The intensity of his love radiated from his green orbs, and brought tears to her eyes, spreading warmth throughout her body.

“You’re not supposed to cry, love. We’re announcing our engagement today, not being sentenced to jail.” Ezra teased her and was pleased when he had elicited a smile from her beautiful face.

“Are you certain that you are okay with our plans? I know how important appearances are, especially if your mother…”

“Shh." Ezra tightened his arms around her. “Barbara Delaney Lindsey, I cannot believe you said that. You lady, are the most real woman that I have ever known and I would marry you anywhere, anytime. I love your plans to include the Wild Bunch and my brothers. If Maude shows up for our wedding, fine. If she doesn’t, I am fine with that too. You are the only presence that I require.”

“I love you Ezra Standish.” The warmth between them quickly turned into desire as they cuddled under the covers to spend extra time together before leaving for the ranch.

Wrapped in each other's arms they savored the pleasure their love produced between them. Ezra did not care what the rest of the world thought about their plans; he held his once in a lifetime love in his arms and that was all that mattered to him.

Larabee 7

Chris was in the nursery dressing Grace for her first Thanksgiving with the family. He did not know what Linda had planned, and the way things stood with them at the moment, it really did not matter to him. He and his youngest were headed over to the Tanners to spend time with the Wild Bunch. If his wife wanted to join them fine, if not…well he could handle that too. At this point in his life he wanted to enjoy the simple things that meant the most to him. Spending time with his family, listening to the laughter of the children, watching the babies as they explored their new surroundings, and taking pleasure in the peace he had only been able to find here on the ranch.

He could understand why Linda wanted to make up for the years she was tied down to the horse business and taking care of her father, but he could not comprehend how she could possibly think that Grace or the new baby would take away from her enjoying life. For that matter, he had trouble figuring out why she could be so jealous of his ties to his brothers and their families. To Chris that was what it was all about, children, family, and home. One of the best days of his life was the day he heard Kelli call him dad for the first time, and Grace…she was the perfect gift for a man that thought he did not want to risk starting over. He was also certain that he could never live in the money oriented jet-set, adventurous world that Linda found so appealing. Hell, he had all the adventure he could handle with his work.

Standing in the doorway, Linda watched Chris as he spoke softly to Grace and wondered why it bothered her so much to share him with their daughter. All she knew was that it did, and she knew with certainty that taking care of children was not what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. She had the money to live where she pleased and to try whatever she fancied, anytime, anywhere in the world. Why it was so hard to make Chris realize what they could have, she could not understand. If he would only let go of this place, and those brothers of his, Linda knew her life would be perfect. She did not need to see her brothers all the time. Hell, the less she was around them, the better for her, was how she felt about it, and if her husband would let go of his past he could do the same and enjoy a new lifestyle…with her.

“What time is dinner being served?” She finally spoke.

“Two o’clock and it won’t be served, it’s an open buffet. I expect there will be people in and out all afternoon. Grace and I are going over early to spend time with the family, after yesterday, I think we all need to be together.”

“I can not believe that you did not come and tell me yourself about what was going on.”

“Linda, I was kinda busy trying to help diffuse the situation. Besides, you slept through it all, so no harm done.”

Refraining from hurling back an angry retort, Linda simply stated. “If you don’t mind waiting, I‘ll get dressed and go over there with you. I would rather know what’s going on instead of giving all of them a chance to talk about me behind my back.”

Chris picked up Grace and nodded. “We’ll wait for you in the other room, don’t take all day.” He walked out with his daughter in his arms, leaving Linda alone.

Dunne Home

It was a madhouse as the Dunne's finished breakfast and began to ready themselves and the twins for the holiday. JD had taken Nettie over to the Tanners earlier and she, Max, and Gunny were in full holiday cooking mode by the time he had left. If his daughters would cooperate they might make it back over there in time to visit with the rest of the family before the other team members arrived. Casey took Lilah and bathed her with no problem, but JD had his hands full trying to corral Daisy for hers. Ever since the girls had started walking it was a daily routine to play chase with dad, and with Daisy it was never a walk. She ran full speed everywhere she went. These days it was a full-time job to keep both of them in one place and to curb their inquisitive little minds.

Casey laughed when she saw the predicament her husband was in. Daisy thought he was playing a new game and at the moment she was winning. “Here, you take Lilah, and I’ll tackle the wild one.” She handed a clean, sweet-smelling, and dressed daughter over to her dad, and then took on the second one.

Shaking his head, JD laughed. “I don’t know how you do it every day, Case. I suppose we should count our blessings that they were not triplets, we’d be outnumbered.”

She gave him a saucy look and grinned. “That doesn’t mean we can’t stop having fun trying for another one. Who knows what we may have in store for us.”

JD frowned and thought about what his wife just said. “Casey? Just how many kids do you want to have?”

She only smiled at him in return and continued on to the bathroom with Daisy as he followed her. “Case, maybe we should talk about this. Casey?” Her gentle laughter was the only answer he received.

Wilmington Home

Buck had the girls dressed, and Caleb had been ready for over an hour. They were now waiting on Inez to finish dressing, and join them. Although she loved her children, and enjoyed most of her pregnancy, she was more than ready for Tannis to make her entrance into the world. These last few weeks were taking forever to get through, and she was moving slower.

“Daddy, is mama coming?” Sarah was anxious to move.

“Yes sweetheart, try a little patience.” Buck answered.

“Pay-cents, what’s that?” Maria questioned.

“It's patience, and it means to wait for something good.” Caleb explained.

Buck grinned. “I couldn’t have said it better myself, son, and your mama is certainly worth waiting for.”

Inez heard that last exchange as she walked into the room and smiled. “I’m almost ready, there is one more thing I want to do before we leave.” She motioned for the kids to move closer. “I am a lucky woman and God has been good to me. I want to give thanks for my beautiful children and my loving husband.” Buck put his arm around Inez and they joined hands with the children for a short prayer. “Amen.”

“I guess Caleb was right about that patience thing huh Dad?” Sarah smiled.

“Yep,” he hugged his wife, “Right as rain. I reckon we’d better get moving before these kids mutiny on us.” He kissed Inez as they walked out the door.

Sanchez Home

Rain and Mallory had left early to assist Max, Nettie and Gunny with preparations for today’s feast. Nathan and Josiah had a few minutes to talk over coffee while the remaining trio of children watched cartoons in the family room.

Nathan fidgeted with the spoon beside his cup. “Josiah, I appreciate what you and Mallory have done for us, letting us stay here while the contractors work on our house, the crib, the…”

Shaking his head Josiah stopped him. “No need to say anything Brother, that’s what family does for one another.”

“I haven’t been acting much like family lately.” Nathan hesitated, “Not sure I can explain it just yet, but I’m working on it.”

“No hurry, when you decide you need to talk, I’ll be around.”

Shouts from the family room drew sighs from two experienced dads.

Josiah grinned. “One television, three kids, I was wondering how long it would take for the blissful silence to end.”

Looking at his watch Nathan smiled. “Four minutes and thirty-two seconds.” Both men took a last sip of coffee, placed their cups in the sink, and then went to claim their children. It was going to be a long day.

Tanner Home

The delicious aroma of two turkeys cooking in the oven and one on the rotisserie filled the house, along with an assortment of side dishes simmering on the stove. Desserts ranging from cranberry bread to chocolate cream pies and everything in-between covered an extra table that had been moved into the dining room. Max, Nettie and Gunny had set a tight schedule, and Mallory along with Rain had been put to work the moment they arrived. Kelli had been in earlier and Max insisted that she go back to bed saying something about a kitchen being no place for a sick woman.

Mark arrived early with Bandit and let him run over the area where the kids would be playing. He was certain that they had found all the explosives yesterday, but figured it wouldn’t hurt to play it safe. Chris and Linda drove in while he was outside and Linda headed inside immediately, leaving the baby with her husband. Chris, carrying Grace, walked over to where the younger man waited for his dog. “Mark, you think something was missed yesterday?”

“No sir, but I thought that all the parents would feel better if Bandit went over the area one more time.”

“No doubt about that, “Chris agreed. “You’ve been working with Bandit for a while now and talked to several dog handlers. It’s not something Tracker was trained for, how do you suppose that he knew that there were explosives on the playground?”

“I don’t think he did. Australian Shepherds are smart and have a keen sense of smell as well as a protective nature. My guess is he knew that the mine didn’t belong in his territory and he could pick up the strange scent of the humans that put it there. The actual smell of the explosive did not mean that much to him, but his instinct was right on. The rest was just what Aussie’s do, protect their people, in this case it was Andi and Kelli.”

“That makes sense and thanks for looking out for our kids today.”

“No problem sir, I’m glad Kelli invited me. It was not possible for me to make it home this year to be with my family, if I wasn’t here it would just be me and Bandit alone in my apartment eating TV dinners. It’s really nice to have friends that I care about to share the day with and this year I’m especially grateful to still be around.”

Chris thought about that fateful day when the MCAT office was torn apart by rocket propelled grenades and how different the outcome could have been. “We all have a lot to be thankful for this year and I am glad you are here with us today.” Larabee grinned. “I’ll give the kids an all clear and in a few minutes, I would bet that you and Bandit will be having some company out here.”

Mark flashed him a smile. “I’m the oldest of five kids; it will make it seem more like home, so send them on.”

Walking back up to the house, Chris thought about how his MCAT team had become extended family, it was a good feeling, and he was looking forward to the rest of the day. Casey had joined the ladies in the kitchen, and JD stayed outside with Mark, while Buck settled Inez in the family room, which seemed to be where all the family was gravitating to, including the kids. He noticed when he walked in that Linda had found a comfortable place and was deep in conversation with Inez.

Jason and Andi spotted their uncle and he shifted Grace in his arms to prepare for their greeting. “Uncle Chris!” Jason saw him first but Andi was faster.

Andi giggled as he managed to catch her while balancing Grace.” Morning Sugar,” Chris set her down. “If you two want to play outside, Mark and Uncle JD are out there with Bandit.”

“Mama said we have to stay inside ‘til the cows come home.” Andi pouted. “That’s a long time, ‘cause we don’t have no cows.”

Kelli had walked up behind them and laughed when she heard Andi’s interpretation of her words. “I suppose y’all can go outside as long as you stay where Mark or Uncle JD can see you, and you’re right Andi, we don’t have any cows, I should have said somethin’ else.” She watched the kids make their escape before their mama had a chance to change her mind.

Buck sat down next to Inez and said. “Mark told me what he was doing, and it does make me feel better knowing he and Bandit are out there with the kids.”

Chris sat down and made a place for Kelli beside him, handing Grace over to visit with her big sister. “I know we have to do something to stop those bastards from getting on the property but on acreage this size, that’s not an easy task. I’ll be damned glad when this mess is over.” Chris wanted all of his family together and he would not rest easy until Vin was home safe.

“Kel, where have you been all morning?” Linda questioned, not happy about the seating arrangement.

“I’ve been a little under the weather and Max sent me back to bed after breakfast.”

“It’s a good thing it’s nothing serious, especially with Vin off on some assignment God only knows where. I know how difficult it is to reach an agent once he’s undercover; in fact, Tanner flat out refused to give Chris any messages for me.”

“Who said anything about Vin being on an undercover assignment Linda? He’s trainin’ in Quantico and Kel talks to him regularly.” Buck commented, curious about where Linda was getting her information. “I thought everyone knew that he quit MCAT for another job.”

The surprise on Linda’s face was evident. “He quit MCAT? When did this happen? I thought he was on some covert mission that you were working on Chris.” She gave Kelli an accusatory look. “You’re moving and didn’t tell me! When are you leaving? Why on earth would Vin quit? Did you make him do it because of Chris? Of course we’ll buy your house; we wouldn’t want strangers to move in here.”

“We are not movin’ and our house is not for sale! Vin makes his own decisions, and Dad had nothin’ to do with it. Just where in the hell did you hear that he was undercover?” Kelli snapped angrily.

Larabee thought back to any discussions that Linda might have overheard about Tanner’s mission and he was certain that he had not had any while she was around.. There was only one place she could have seen any mention of where Vin was and that was if she had read it…in his journal. Chris also replayed in his mind her conversation about compromise and her impulsive behavior through his mind and realized that her offer to work things out was a direct result of her snooping into his confidential diary. Reining in his anger over her blatant invasion of his privacy he forced himself to stay calm. “Linda, the Tanners are not selling their home or moving, and what Vin does is really none of your business.”

Realizing her error, Linda quickly tried to cover her statements. “Mallory told me Vin was away and I assumed he was gone due to MCAT business. I never even considered the idea that he had quit.”

Buck knew that Chris was angry about something, but also knew that now was not the time to push the issue. “It surprised all of us when Tanner announced his career move, so I can see where you would assume he was on an assignment.”

Linda glared at Chris. “It was an honest mistake. If you told me what was going on once in a while, I wouldn’t have to guess would I?”

“If you cared to know, I’d tell you, but you have made it clear that you don’t, so why waste my time and energy?” Chris stood up. “Raphael and Selina just arrived and I need to talk to them.” Chris left and intended to make a point of keeping his distance from Linda until he had his anger under control. He knew that a confrontation would only result in another argument that solved nothing, and it was best to have a plan to gather proof of her subterfuge before facing her.

Linda decided that it was time for her to join the other ladies in the kitchen, leaving Kelli, Buck and Inez to continue on any conversation without her.

Kelli locked eyes with Buck to silently let him know that the subject of Vin was closed. “I reckon I should say hello to some of the new arrivals. Looks as if everyone is here except Justin and Alex, and they both had other plans with family today.”

Inez smiled. “We’ll let you go Kel, but please leave that adorable sister of yours with us.”

Grinning, Kelli handed Grace over to Inez’s waiting arms. “Enjoy, I’m goin’ over to talk to Ez and Barbara.” On the way she stopped and spoke with Bones, making certain he was comfortable and had something to drink. Katrina waylaid her and wanted an introduction to Matt, who seemed pleased to keep Kat entertained. She waved to Pam across the room and finally made it over to where Ezra and Barbara were seated. “Hi, you two look happy.”

“I’ve never been happier.” Barbara smiled. “Ezra told me you weren’t feeling well, how are you?”

“Thanks to Max, I am well-rested and feelin’ much better.”

“That’s good to hear, because I would hate to do all your paperwork next week.” Ezra grinned “Lord knows I have to carry most of it as it is.”

“Since when Ez? You dump three-fourths of the reports on me to do now.” Kelli replied.

Barbara saw one of their ‘did to, did not’ arguments coming and intervened. “Kel, have you heard from Vin today?”

“Yep, bright and early this mornin’, he even managed to talk to the kids and heard Andi’s rendition of ‘Happy Turkey Day’ to the tune of happy birthday to you.” Kelli smiled. “I promise you, he won’t forget it anytime soon.”

Chris walked up and asked to speak to his daughter for a minute. “Kel, just about everyone is here, and dinner is fifteen minutes away from being ready, since Vin isn’t here to do it, would you like for me to play host and get this shindig rolling?’

“Be my guest, they’re used to you bossin’ ‘em around anyway.”

“Fine, I have a couple of announcements to make before we eat so I suppose now is as good a time as any.” Chris moved over by the fireplace to get everyone’s attention and within a few minutes the room was full.

Buck whistled loudly to get them settled down. “Big dog has something to say so listen up.”

“Thanks Buck.” Chris grinned. “I’ll make this as short as possible. I want to thank Nettie and Max for heading this dinner up, and also thanks to the rest of our lovely ladies for their help. The buffet will be open when I finish, but there are a couple of things I want to say first.”

“Speech, speech,” Buck yelled.

“Not likely, Buck, but I do want to thank all of you for sticking with me during a rough year. Being together today is nothing short of a miracle for a few of those present and we all have much to be thankful for. I talked to Ross and his wife yesterday and he seems to be on the road to recovery. After a visit to Denver Memorial on Tuesday I am happy to report that the doctors upgraded Paul’s condition to guarded, and he is holding his own. For the MCAT team, I have another announcement. We have a new member among us, the official paperwork came in yesterday afternoon, and Travis called me last night with the news. Selina Cordova will begin working with us on the first, and we welcome her to the team.”

A chorus of cheers rippled through the room and congratulations were given to their newest teammate.

“I also want to share with you a personal announcement. Mistress fate has decided to bless our lives with another Larabee baby. Grace and Kelli’s newest sibling will be arriving in May.”

“You sly old dog, keep that up and you two will catch up with me and Inez in no time. Congratulations.”

“According to Miss Nettie and Max, the buffet is ready to open and…”

Larabee stopped speaking when Ezra tapped him on the shoulder “Before we partake of this delightful feast, Barbara and I would like to have a moment of your time.”

Chris stepped back, allowing the couple the floor, and said, “Go for it.”

Taking Barbara by the hand Standish began speaking. “After conscientious consideration of our emerging feelings for one another, Barbara and I have come to the conclusion….”

JD yelled. “Plain speak, Ezra. We don’t have all day to translate and the food’s getting cold.” He winced as Casey elbowed him in the ribs to shush him.

Ezra let out an aggrieved sigh and looked at Barbara who smiled, he tried again. “Barbara has agreed to make an honest man out of me. We’re getting married in April, details to follow.” Standish grinned at JD. “Is that plain enough for you?”

The couple was quickly surrounded by well wishers. It was a joyous group of friends and family that shared in the bounty of food and celebrated their blessings at the Larabee 7 today.

Rocky Meadows, Colorado ~late evening

Vin could not help but reflect on the days events. If he had been at home his day would have been spent with friends and family celebrating life, love, and giving thanks for all that they had been blessed with this year. Instead, his day at the compound had been a trial of endurance. After talking to Kelli this morning, he was aware of the events that transpired yesterday at the ranch, minus a few details. His first impulse had been to find Chambers and make the sonofabitch sorry he ever took on the Larabee 7 property as a target, however, reason prevailed and he reigned in his anger.

Once he had calmed down he realized that taking Chambers out of the equation was not enough, they had to take them all down somehow. Yet, having to share a meal at the compound, knowing that one of the bastards there had planted the explosives that could have taken the life of his wife, kids, or any other unsuspecting member of his extended family was not easy. It was getting damn hard to keep up his Dusty Slater act and as far as he was concerned the sooner this mission was over, the better. Even so, from what he had heard today, it looked as if he would be here a while longer.

Karl Chambers was disappointed that his Denver ‘fireworks’ had not resulted in good news for them, but he spent a great deal of time today bragging about the brilliant strategies he had for the RMR. He had promised that by the end of next week he would unveil the plans that would assure that everyone in Colorado knew that the RMR was at war. The whites in this country would not back down, nor allow their gene pool to be infested with inferior waste. Not as long as there were soldiers in the resistance willing to fight for the purification of the white race. Vin knew that he had to find a way to stop that from happening, before they required him to do something that would compromise his position or get him killed.

Fate, I could use your help here, I would like to make it home alive from this one.

Chapter 20

MCAT Office ~ Monday November 27 ~7:30am

After the holiday break, Chris should have been rested and refreshed, but he was far from it. The relationship between him and Linda had been stressed and precarious since Thanksgiving Day. He was still upset over the thought of her reading his journal and playing games with the information she had garnered from it. She had taken exception to how he announced the impending birth of their new baby. Being upstaged by Ezra and Barbara’s proclamation was bad enough in her book; Chris mentioning Grace and Kelli’s name in his announcement, but not hers, was unforgivable. He made certain that he and Grace stayed busy away from the house for the rest of the weekend.

Today had not promised to be better than the last few either. Rain Jackson had received a phone call from a young patient of hers that had had problems with domestic abuse from her live-in boyfriend. She was hurt badly this time, but was reluctant to go to a hospital. Rain gave her the address of a clinic close to her and agreed to meet her there. It was a thirty-five minute drive to an area on the outskirts of Denver, but it was not the usual clinic that Dr. Rain Jackson worked in. Nathan was restricted to desk duty and not allowed to drive, so Josiah volunteered to take her, if Chris approved it. Reluctantly Larabee had agreed and Nathan rode into the office with Mallory, while Josiah drove Rain to the clinic where her young patient was waiting for her.

Chris had a feeling in his gut that he had not been able to shake and Vin was predominately on his mind. When Josiah called him this morning and said that they had a challenge, Larabee should have known then that it was going to be a helluva Monday. He felt confident that Walter was on top of the security at the ranch, but he was hesitant to condone any reason for a member of the family to leave the property with the exception of coming here to the office. He would feel one hundred percent better when he knew that Sanchez had delivered Rain back to the ranch safely.

Picking up the phone he tried Travis’s office again, only to find that the Director was still out. Orrin had promised to make a few discreet inquiries as to the identification of the man they knew only as Raven and who he was working for. Larabee was certain he would be less apprehensive once he was assured that the man did indeed have Tanner’s well-being as a priority on his agenda. Until he was convinced though, he would not give up on his search for the mysterious Raven’s true identity.

Rocky Meadows, Colorado ~ Monday ~ November 27th

Dusty Slater had adjusted to his daily routine fairly well. In the mornings he would arrive at the compound training grounds by five-thirty and prepare the day’s activities, including teaching martial arts and giving shooting instructions to the young recruits. When they finished at noon he would usually stick around and mix with some of the members to pick up bits and pieces of information or attend the classes that Karl Chambers had organized. In the afternoon he would return to town and work at Bubba’s Bar and Grill until eight and then join with the bar patrons until he retired to the back room to sleep, or do a little midnight reconnaissance.

After almost four weeks he had discovered the identity of the men that attacked Nathan and Paul. He knew with certainty that Abbott was dead and had a fair idea of where his body could be found. There were enough bits of information that he had been privy to that he could begin to piece together a larger picture of what the RMR had planned, and he had been able to gather enough physical evidence to connect the RMR, particularly Chambers, to an assortment of unsolved crimes. The threat to the ranch was still a very real possibility and although he had acquired some information about their plans, he still needed more details. There were packets of evidence that he had hidden, but it was useless unless he could get it to the right people. The problem was that since he was new to the group someone was usually monitoring his activities away from the compound and he had found it damn near impossible to get any information back to Denver. The few stolen minutes he did managed to attain were the times that he use to call Kelli and check in.

This morning he arrived at his regular time and found Karl Chambers waiting for him. “Morning Slater, don’t bother with getting out the usual gear. I have something special planned for today. Anson should be here soon and he will fill you in on the details. I’ll see you later, after your assignment is completed.”

Dusty raised an eyebrow and nodded. “Yer the boss.”

A few minutes later Anson showed up with six of the younger recruits ranging in age from seventeen to twenty-two. “Okay boys, Mr. Slater will be going with us today. Remember this is a practice run, you are to observe and learn.” He grinned “Of course you may feel free to kick some black asses while you are learning.”

Anson had pulled a large white passenger Van up close and when he slid open the side door he pulled out a box. Inside was an array of weapons and several ski masks. Passing them out, he took note that most of the men were grinning from ear to ear. The young men were excited and pleased that Anson had chosen them to be on his team. This would be a first time experience for most of them and they were eager to get out there and raise some hell.

“Load up; I’ll give you the details on the way to our target.” Anson looked over to Dusty, “Coming Slater?”

Dusty was standing between a rock and a hard place. If he refused to go then he could kiss his ass goodbye because Chambers would call him on it. Going with them could mean getting into the middle of a potentially illegal operation. He was aware that Chambers was waiting to see what he would do. Damned if you do and dead if you don’t Tanner. Make your call Vin.

“Yep, but I’ll use my own weapon.” He walked over to his truck and pulled out his 9mm GLOCK, not knowing just what he may be walking in to, he preferred to carry a weapon that he was familiar with. Returning to the van he crawled into the front passenger seat. “Ricter, ’m waitin’ on yer ass.”

Chambers stayed around to wave them off, but before he returned to his office he gave them one very important message. “Always remember in any contact with the so called enforcers always stick to five words. I HAVE NOTHING TO SAY. No one can help you but you yourself once you are in the hands of the enemy.”

Anson Ricter climbed into the driver’s seat and started the van. It would take them approximately one and a half hours to reach their destination, but Anson did not intend to implement his plan until eight, so they had plenty of time. He turned east when they hit the main road and took the route that would lead them to an area not far from Denver.


Arriving shortly before eight, Anson Ricter had parked in an obscure area close to today’s target and after removing the van’s license plates, he was instructing his soldiers on what to do.” First off, take a deep breath, keep very cool and remain detached. This is a practice exercise and we will be reviewing everything we do today. We already know from our scouting mission that there are no security cameras in this place and no silent alarms. When we do this for real that may be different, but for today I want to see how you react under pressure.”

Chip Bellows huffed. You act like we ain’t ever done this before.”

“You have and I’m sure old Dusty here has, but the rest of these men are new to the cause and have not had the opportunity to spread their wings. We need for them to at least get their feet wet before we join with the other troops next week. Hitting one little clinic out in the middle of Podunk, Nowhere is nothing compared to coordinating the simultaneous attack on twenty two of them in four different cities. Now do you know what your main objective is?

“To intimidate any darkies we encounter!”

“To destroying all equipment and records we find!”

“To instilling the fear of God into all the heathens we come in contact with!”

The younger men thought they had it all figured out. Dusty laughed and shook his head. “Wrong.”

Bellows smirked. “What the hell do you think we’ll be doing?”

“Makin’ sure we don’t get busted, and that we all get out alive.” Dusty stated bluntly.

Anson may not like Slater, but the man knew what he was doing, and he voiced his agreement. “We can’t carry our message if we’re sitting in jail or dead. You all have a brain, use it, intimidate, destroy and terrorize, but do not lose sight of the fact that this is only a skirmish. Our real battle is coming and the war is never-ending. Check your weapons, and secure your mask, we move in five minutes and we are out of there in under ten. Drag your feet and you get left behind.”

Receiving assurances from his team that they understood his instructions, Anson pulled on his mask, started the engine and drove to the front entrance of clinic. The side doors of the van flew open as eight armed, masked men exited the vehicle and then entered through the front door shouting and waving guns.

Rain had just walked out of a back room with Lawanda Sims, the young woman that she had come here to help. Josiah had been waiting for them by the registration desk and stood when he saw them coming toward the front to offer his assistance. He knew that Rain wanted to get the young lady safely to a woman’s shelter before they headed home. As he reached out to take Lawanda’s hand to steady her, the front doors burst open and all hell broke loose.

Eight men brandishing guns rushed in the room and yelled, “EVERYONE FREEZE!”

Immediately one of the men jumped over the desk and taking the telephone in his hand ripped the cord out of the wall. Two more moved down the hall kicking examination room doors open and dragged out patients in various stages of dress, lining them against the front wall. Everywhere they went, they destroyed anything in their path. Five of the men stationed themselves around the waiting room. One by the front door, which Josiah pegged to be the leader and one by the side entrance, the remaining three began to yell racial slurs and threats to all the blacks in the room.

Resisting the urge to go for his gun, Josiah tried to shelter Rain and Lawanda the best that he could as he watched the storm of terror and destruction running rampant throughout the clinic. That man stationed by the side entrance caught his attention though and he thought there was something very familiar about him. When intense blue eyes met his stare Sanchez sucked in his breath and held it as he tried to read the message the young man was sending him. Vin

Josiah’s attention turned as the man closest to them reached to drag Lawanda out from behind him. Before he could react Rain began to hit the assailant with her fist and screamed at him

“Leave her alone!”

“Back off you black bitch!” Chip shoved Rain against Josiah and kept his hold on Lawanda.

Rain regained her balance and shoved him back, forcing him to release the young woman. The masked man raised his gun, aiming at her head, and was prepared to shoot to stop her attack, but instead found himself being spun around and roughly pushed toward the front door. The man that Josiah had recognized placed himself between Rain and the other assailant’s gun.

“Not in front of the god damn windows and a room full of witnesses you idiot!” Dusty exclaimed, and then took Rain Jackson by the arm and half-dragged her to the closest empty room, pushing her inside.

Moving quickly to get Rain’s attention, Vin lifted his mask enough for her to see who he was. Whispering he said. “I’m sorry, but Chris can explain. Now scream and don’t stop.’” He raked his arms across a counter on which glass containers were setting. Picking up a broken piece he cut his forearm enough to bleed and then yelled. “Ya cut me, ya damn bitch!” Raising his gun he shot into the wall, and then motioned for her to stay put as he backed out of the room.

Running to the front he yelled again. “Let’s get the hell out of here!” All eight attackers backed out the door and jumped into the van. As it sped off Josiah ran to the room that Rain was in and found her sitting on the floor, crying and shaken, but alive and unharmed.

Helping Rain to her feet he heard her say softly. “Vin…it was Vin, Josiah. He stopped that man from killing me.”

Sighing deeply Josiah answered. “I know. We need to get out of here before the local police show up.” Normally Josiah would stay and help the locals as much as possible, but under the circumstances he did not want them to question either Rain or himself. “If you’re up to it I want us to go to the MCAT office.”

“I’ll be okay, but I won’t leave without getting Lawanda to that woman’s shelter.”

“I’m sorry Rain, but she took off the minute those men left.” He let her lean on him as they walked out of the confusion in the clinic and headed to Josiah’s SUV. He was trying to figure out what he was going to tell Chris when he called to tell him that they were coming to the office…and why.


Since they had left the clinic Dusty had been sitting silently in the passenger seat, while inside him Vin Tanner was battling a wide range of emotion. The inner conflict he had felt from the moment that he realized that Josiah and Rain were right in the middle of Anson’s practice run was working to chip away his control. He could still see the terror in Rain’s eyes when Bellows had that gun pointed at her head, and the more he thought about what could have been a tragic outcome, the angrier he became

Anson had driven almost fifty miles before Dusty grabbed his right arm and ordered him to stop.” PULL OVER NOW!” He did and as soon as they were stopped, Dusty jumped out and jerked the back side door open, dragging Chip Bellows outside. He hauled off and with his fist connected with the younger man’s jaw, knocking him to the ground.

“Ya almost blew the whole fuckin’ mission! Yer a god damn soldier in a war! NEVER let it become a personal vendetta! Ya lost yer cool and damn near made a fatal mistake in the process!”

Chip did not get up to face Slater, but he sat on the ground and huffed.” That black bitch put her hands on me and deserved to die. You just stopped me from doing it so you could.”

“Prove it!”

“What the fuck does that mean? I know you shot her!”

“Did ya see me do it?”


Anson stepped between them. “I think the point is…if you’re going to kill someone…don’t do it in front of two dozen witnesses. Bellows, you had better pay attention. The enforcers can not charge you with a murder just because someone thinks you did it, but an eye witness can put you on death row. You lost your control and that is unacceptable. You’ll be lucky if Chambers doesn’t do worse than hit you when he finds out what you did.”

Dusty had not hit Chip hard enough to work off his anger, but for now it would have to do. He opened the passenger door and climbed back into the front seat. “Ya comin’ or we gonna sit here all damn day?

MCAT Office ~10:00am

Chris was seated at his desk, going over some financial reports for the supplies that had been used to turn the old airport hangar into their base of operations. The amount astounded him, but all he had to do was sign off on everything, and then pass the reports onto Travis. His phone rang and he ignored it; Gunny would let him know if it was significant. A few moments later, his intercom buzzed and Gunny informed him that he had an important call.

“Agent Sanchez is on line one. He says it’s urgent that he talks to you.”

“Thanks, Gunny.”

He picked up the phone at once and hit the ‘one’ button. “Larabee.”

“Chris, the clinic that I took Rain to was just invaded by eight masked men with heavy artillery and nasty attitudes.” Josiah told him as he headed the car toward the office. “We’re both okay, but I thought you should know …Vin was one of them.”

“Sonofabitch! What in the hell happened?

“I’ll give you details when we get there. Bottom line, he saved Rain’s life, she’s just shaken up a bit, and we left before the locals arrived to ask questions.”

“Make it fast.” Chris told him, his mind whirling with questions that he wanted answers to, and wasn't sure he was going to get them all from Sanchez.

What in the hell did you get yourself into now Tanner?

Whatever it was Chris knew that as far as the team was concerned Vin’s cover story was gone. There was no way to conceal what he was doing. He only hoped that Vin’s action did not compromise his position with the RMR and put him at greater risk. He punched the intercom. “Gunny, I need all available agents in the war room now and the Director on the line ASAP.” Travis needed to know that their ruse of being detached from the RMR investigation had just been shot out of the water.

Five minutes later Chris walked into the conference room and he still had no idea how he was going to handle this latest development, he only knew that there was no easy way to break the news. The thoughts he had bouncing around his head from Vin only indicated anger. Nathan, Ezra, Kelli, JD, Pam, and Mallory were waiting for some sign of what Larabee had on his mind. Buck knew by the look on Chris’s face that whatever it was it was not good.

Larabee decided on the direct approach. “We have a situation. The clinic where Rain went to meet her patient was invaded by several heavily armed, masked men with bad attitudes. Nathan, Rain is okay, and she and Josiah are on their way here now.”

Nathan visibly relaxed when Chris said that Rain was okay. “Thanks,” but he had a lot of questions. “Do we know who they were?”

“I don’t have all the details but…”Chris looked over to Kelli. “This incident will have serious ramifications for all of us, and you all need to know that Vin Tanner is not in training at Quantico.”

“Chris!” Kelli stood up.” What are you doin’?”

“If he’s not in Virginia, then where in the hell is he and what does this incident have to do with his whereabouts?” Nathan asked curiously.

“What connection does Vin have with Josiah and Rain?” Mallory was puzzled about how one fact could tie with the other.

“Hold your questions and let the man talk!” Buck tried to stop the barrage of reactions.

“Chris?” Kelli was almost in tears, she wanted to be angry, but the feeling, of impending dread made it impossible to keep her emotions in check.

“Kel, relax, I probably should have done this differently, but in a few minutes Josiah and Rain will be here and everyone needs to know the truth before they arrive.” He waited to see if she would argue or sit down and was relieved when Ezra gently urged her to sit. “Vin has been working a covert assignment within the RMR in an effort to keep MCAT out of the line of fire. Travis sanctioned it, and it was important for the team and the rest of the world to believe that Vin was not in Colorado.”

“I knew it!” JD shouted. “Vin wouldn’t leave us!”

“Dusty Slater, “Nathan whispered as he began to piece together what he should have already seen. He also realized that he would have seen it if he had not been so wrapped up in his anger.

“Yes, Vin Tanner, and Dusty Slater are the same person, and from what we know, he is in solid with that group of lunatics. We knew from the beginning that someone tipped off the RMR about Nathan and Paul, and since we had no idea who it was, we had to keep knowledge of Tanner’s involvement known to only a handful of people.”

“God, the things I said about Slater…”Nathan could not even look at Kelli. “Did he at risk because of my big mouth?”

“Don’t think so Nate…his cover was tight, and the real Slater was killed three months ago. Anything you may have said to…others, probably only reinforced his badass reputation.” Chris could see that Nathan was now regretting a lot of his actions.

“You said that his cover was tight.” Kelli swallowed hard. “Does that mean that he’s in trouble now?”

Chris wished that he could give her a definite answer. “We don’t know that Kel, but he was there at the clinic this morning and according to Josiah, he possibly prevented Rain’s death. If he’s been compromised because of it…I don’t know.”

“Probably not,” Josiah said from the doorway as they arrived, and Rain moved straight into Nathan’s waiting arms. “Vin used his head and managed to extract himself from a situation that had the potential to force him into revealing his true identity.”

“Rain, you need anything?” Chris waited for her to control her tears and Nathan to satisfy himself that she was okay.

“No, I’m fine, but if Vin had not been there this morning, I probably would not be here.”

“I think I should explain. “Josiah sat down next to Mallory and retold the events that had transpired at the clinic up to the point that Vin pushed Rain into the empty room.

Rain took over. “Vin raised his mask so I would know it was him. He told me he was sorry and that Chris would explain. Then he told me to scream and not stop. He busted up the room, cut his forearm with a piece of broken glass to make it bleed, and then pretended to shoot me by shooting the wall instead. I know that other man intended to kill me, I could see it in his eyes…” She began to softly cry again

The room became quiet as each one tried to digest the story they had just heard until Chris broke the silence.

“Josiah, do you think it was believable?”

“Yes, I do. If I had not known it was Vin, I would have thought that…well it looked real enough.”

“If we think Vin is in trouble…we can go in and get him out, right? JD asked anxiously.

“We could try. Tanner has kept in touch with Kel by phone, but even then he has to keep the conversations short. As of today they have been watching him too closely for him to get any written info or evidence out. We can only guess at the layout of the compound and the areas that we could safely try to extract him from if it became a necessity.”

“When is he supposed to come out?” Nathan asked.

“Tanner already knows who was involved in the attack on you and Paul, he has a good idea where Abbott is buried, and he knows that the RMR has something big planned soon. I imagine that today’s assault was some kind of trial run for the big event. He is still trying to pin down details on their plan to hit Nathan and Paul again. I gave him two more weeks to find out those details, and then he is to come home whether he knows or not.”

“What do you need from Vin that he hasn’t been able to get out?” Kelli questioned uneasily.

“We need evasion and escape intelligence. He has obtained some physical evidence that could help convict these guys for various crimes, and if his cover was busted, it would help us a great deal to have a map of the compound. We would need to know the best way to get in undetected, position of guards, security cameras, and things like that. We can not get a man close enough in to do that though without arousing suspicions. Still, we won’t let that stop us, now that this is an open secret; Travis has authorized the entire team to work on this exclusive to anything else. I doubt that Tanner will be able to get a call out today, but…”

“You’ll be the second one to know.” Kelli answered, but she was already thinking about how to get the information from Vin that might just save his life if he ran into problems.

“Nathan, we need to know the source of the leak in that group whose meetings you were attending, look at the list of names we have already checked out and see if you can add to it. Ezra, you take care of the media, make certain they report the death of an unidentified black woman. JD, I have topography and aerial maps of the area, but I want you to try to get me some satellite views of Rocky Meadows and extend that to a hundred mile radius."

“I may be able to get a satellite link up for that area. If we can, we’ll have pictures that could help detail the terrain on the outside of the compound. I don’t know what we could see on the inside though, but I’ll try out the new thermal imagery program we ‘borrowed’ from the military.” JD explained with a grin, as he stood up. “I’m on it now.”

“Mallory, will you drive Rain out to the ranch please? Nate, you can go with her if you want to.” Chris thought they might need some time together.” If the local police contact you Rain, refer them to me.”

Nathan whispered something to Rain and then turned to Chris. “I may not have been thinking straight the last few weeks but I am now. I’d like to stay and help, if y’all will have me.”

“Welcome back, brother.” Josiah grinned at Nathan, and then nodded to Chris.

Chapter 21

Every available MCAT agent now had one agenda and that was to get Tanner back safely. Pam kept CASSIE busy with inquiries, while JD worked on setting up satellite images that could possibly assist them in gathering more information about the RMR activities. Mallory had taken Rain home, and she planned to stay with her the rest of the afternoon. Nathan meticulously read over the information Chris had given him on the ‘Without Prejudice’ members and was surprised that there was so much of it. He felt really bad about doubting his brother's interest on this case and vowed to do whatever possible to help bring it to a good resolution.

Kelli dragged Ezra out of the office on the pretense of going out for lunch. She had the start of a plan in her head, but Standish was going to have to help her with it, whether he did so willingly or reluctantly.

Ezra drove to a small cafe about ten miles from the office. Once they had ordered, Standish finally asked the question that he was not certain he wanted answered. “You have successfully extracted me from the warm confines of our administrative center. Would you care to enlighten me as to the motivation for this unanticipated rendezvous?”

“I am goin' to Rocky Meadows to see Tanner. I have a plan to get Chris the information MCAT needs from Vin and you are going to help me pull it off.” Kelli felt that if she could get there with a plausible cover, Vin could give her what he had obtained without arousing suspicion. She also knew that Chris would never consider letting her go…if she asked for his approval.

“Like hell I am! I do value my existence and your plans tend to put me out of favor with Commander Larabee or Captain Tanner or worse yet, sometimes both of them at the same time. This one may cause me bodily injury, and Barbara likes my body the way it is…all connected in the right places.” Ezra thought about his and Buck’s trip to Rocky Meadows and he knew with certainty that any thought of Kelli going there was out of the question.

The redhead sat back and sighed. “I reckon all that talk when you were in the hospital about never underestimatin' my abilities and supportin' your partner was just talk”

“No, of course not I...hell…” Ezra shook his head and sighed deeply. “You are learning to manipulate words rather well.”

“I have a good teacher.” Kelli grinned. “I know what I am doin' Ez and ‘m also aware of the risks involved. This may be the only opportunity I have to help on this case. If it gets us what we need, where is the harm in it?”

“Need I remind you that you have been ill? Even if you had not, this is not the kind of assignment that Chris would sanction.”

“That’s why I have no intention of tellin' him about it." Kelli leaned forward. "I do realize that there will be times when Vin is working undercover that I have to sit back and wait, doing ' nothin'. However, this time I can help damnit, and I will do this with or without your assistance. Besides, can you honestly sit there and tell me that if Barbara was in a bad situation you wouldn’t break any rules to try and help her?”

Ezra knew that he would do the same thing Kelli wanted to do, if he were in her shoes. “Touché. What is this damn plan of yours and how much trouble will it get me in?”

Ezra’s Townhouse~5:00 pm

Standish paced the length of the living room and muttered inaudibly. He could understand Kelli’s desire to help Vin, but he was not at all convinced that this was the right way to go about it. Nevertheless he had agreed to assist her and one way or another he would make certain that she succeeded. Barbara sat on the couch and smiled as she watched Ezra pace. Rarely did she see him in what could only be described as a state of dithering, and she was finding it fairly entertaining. She was aware that Kelli had something to do with the change in her fiancée and was anxious to hear more details.

“Ezra, you’re going to wear a hole in the carpet.”

“She said five. Meet here at five and it’s…three minutes after. She’s late! I extricated myself from the office and ran myself ragged over the last three hours to procure the items she requested and I am here on time!”

The doorbell rang once and Ezra was there before it rang a second time. Throwing the door open, he exclaimed, “You’re late!”

“Damn Ez, five minutes. Don’t blow a gasket.” Kelli moved past him and spotted Barbara. “Hey Barbara, did Standish drag you into our little adventure?”

“Not yet, but I’m dying to hear details.” She grinned. “As antsy as Ezra has been, I bet it has to be exciting and daring.”

“Dear Lord! First my partner cons me into helping her implement an insane plan, and now my significant other thinks it’s an exciting and daring adventure. This little escapade could result in disaster. I expect both of you to take this matter seriously.”

“Oh ‘m serious; I just don’t see the risks that you do. It’s a good plan. It’s not as if I’ve never worked undercover before, besides, Ez, you’re the best covert operative I know. With your help what could go wrong?”

“Would you like me to list the possibilities?”

Kelli emphatically stated, “No. Did you manage to get what I needed?”

Standish sighed and produced the items Kelli had requested. “Identification and credit card in the name of Blaze Butler. Keys to the car that is parked behind my Jag, it is rented in Blaze’s name with a Boulder address, as is this cell phone listed under the same name. Memorize the cell number and the address on this paper. I have located a suitable rendezvous point close to the community of Rocky Meadow, but not too close. From there it should be less than a thirty minute drive to the cabin. The rest of the details that we worked out will be implemented with your call to me. I expect you to be in the office no later than ten or I promise I will send out the cavalry to drag your butt out of there.”

“I will be there Ez, don’t worry, and I took care of things at home. The kids know that I won’t be back until tomorrow. Max is sleepin’ in their room tonight. Walter will be downstairs and Raphael is stayin’ in the motor home. They will take the kids to school in the mornin' and I already talked to Chris. He won’t be checkin’ on me. I told him that I was probably goin' to turn in early and that I would be runnin’ late in the morning. She reached into her pocket and handed Standish the keys to her Tahoe. “The tank is full of gas and I have an extra set of keys that I’ll have with me. Now all I need to do is borrow your bathroom so I can change clothes. You can fill Barbara in on our plan while I do that. I want to make certain that I get to Rocky Meadows before Vin gets off work at eight.”

Barbara waited until Kelli had shut the bathroom door before asking. “Well what do I get to do?”

“You, dear lady, will drive Kelli’s truck to the rendezvous point and then keep me company while I, unbeknownst to my crazy partner, keep an eye on her.”

Kelli Tanner, wife, mother, and agent had gone into the bathroom. Blaze Butler, sexy vixen, came out wearing black hip hugger denim jeans that looked as if she had been poured into them. The jeans covered most of the black leather high heeled boots that she wore. That was tame compared to the candy apple red lace tank top with the scalloped neckline that showed more exposed breasts than a playboy bunny. Added accessories were a black sequined belt, hoop earrings, bangle bracelets, and the red ribbons at her waist that obviously belonged to a thong that was barely concealed.

Ezra stood speechless until Barbara exclaimed. “Cool outfit, Kel. I’ll have to try that look the next time Ezra and I go out.”

“Over my dead body, and dead is what I’ll be when Vin sees you walk into that bar dressed like that. Do you have some sort of a death wish woman?”

“Ez, you worry too much. You’re the one that said I needed to make sure that no one suspected me as a Federal agent. “Kelli patted Ezra on the arm. “Besides, Vin won’t be all that upset and even if he is he’ll get over it....eventually.”

“It’s not the eventuality I am concerned about, it is the initial blast. Need I remind you of my brother’s reaction to the little shopping expedition we had for Gina the airhead? The man was ready to rip into every male customer that dared to even look at you in those skimpy outfits. That was when he knew what we were doing. Springing an overly exposed Blaze on an unsuspecting Vin Tanner is the same as drawing a gun on Chris Larabee. Both actions are guaranteed to end with someone’s demise, and in this instance it will probably be mine for helping you to propagate this madness.”

“Don’t worry Ez, by the time Vin gets through yellin’ at me, it won’t be you that he is thinkin’ about.”

Rocky Meadows, Colorado

Five miles outside of Rocky Meadows, Kelli pulled the rental car off to the side of the road and got out. With gloved hands that covered her red painted fingernails, she opened the hood and with a small knife punctured the radiator hose. Slipping back behind the wheel she started the engine and then took a moment to prepare herself as Blaze. This was not something she would normally do, but getting that evidence and a map of that damn compound for Chris was vital. Knowing also that she could obtain information that may possibly mean the difference between life and death for her husband if needed, had in her opinion, left her with no other options. She also had to assure herself that Vin was okay after this morning’s near disaster for her own peace of mind. Kelli had no illusions about the reactions she would be getting for pulling this unauthorized stunt either. The redhead was confident that her plan would work, but both her husband and father would be furious with her and she was fully prepared to accept whatever consequences came her way.

By the time she reached Rocky Meadows the car had overheated and stalled less than two blocks from Bubba’s Bar and Grill. Blaze reapplied her lipstick, ran her fingers through her hair to give it a wild look, pulled on her form fitting leather coat, grabbed her oversized bag, locked the car, and started to walk toward the bar, which was the only business that was open in this town at this time of night.

Rocky Meadows, Colorado~8:00 pm

Dusty Slater worked at Bubba’s, the same as he did every day from four to eight. Only tonight he was deliberately making extra jobs to do to try and work off some of the anger he had been carrying around all day. Karl Chambers had jumped all over Bellows for his stupidity and had been pleased with the way Dusty had handled himself, but that did little to alleviate the rage that was churning in Vin’s stomach. He had been unable to make a phone call today before coming in to work because most of the senior members of the RMR had come into town to celebrate this morning’s success, so he had no way of knowing how Rain was. If it were not for the fact that he needed to stay in control of himself around this bunch of maniacs, tonight would have been the perfect time to get drunk and say to hell with all of them.

Throwing the last empty box out the back door, he looked around and realized that there was nothing left to do. Apathetically he mentally prepared himself to go up front and join the other members of the RMR that were already in full celebration mode. Dusty pushed open the door and his ears were immediately assaulted by the loud music coming from the jukebox near the dance floor. It wasn’t that he minded country music; but tonight he was in no mood for, Alan Jackson, George Strait, or Garth Brooks. He stood there for a minute to record in his mind who was there and where everyone was positioned. Some members were playing pool or darts; others were just shooting the breeze. He noticed that Karl Chambers had motioned for him to come over to his table and join him, he took a deep breath, hung his coat by the door, and then leisurely ambled over to claim the empty chair that awaited him on the quieter side of the bar. It’s show time Tanner, you had better pack your anger away…for now.

“Slater, take a load off and relax.” Karl pushed a chair out for the younger man that allowed him to sit with his back to the wall and give him a good view of the entire room. “Bubba, bring this man a cold beer! “Chambers yelled above the music. Four other men sat with them, three of which were recruits that Dusty had been training, and Anson made up the forth.

“Rick, we don’t see you too often in here, what’s the occasion?” Anson asked.

“My wife and his…” he indicated the young man next to him. “…are at some kind of baby shower tonight. Karl suggested that we join him and here we are.”

Robert, the third man laughed. “We’ll try to keep you out of trouble then.” He grinned, “But, no promises.”

Dusty fingered his beer bottle absentmindedly, and listened to the young men’s excitement as they talked about the day’s activities. It did not faze them that a woman had purportedly died, and suddenly Dusty was their hero for killing another black heathen. His stomach churned as he tried to block out the sound of the venomous hatred for minorities that dripped off every word they uttered. He wanted to permanently erase the stupid grin that Karl flashed while his young recruits talked about how good it felt to intimidate those ‘damn darkies’. For them to sit here openly and brag about it was nauseating.

Hell Vin, Victor Donner was an evil man, but for him it was all about money. These men spread their hate and violence for the pure pleasure of doing it. Your adversaries here are the good ole boys next door. At least in the real military it was easier to identify your enemies, and they did not try to hide their true selves. Lord it was going to feel good to see these bastards locked up. Hang in there Tanner, only a couple more weeks.

“Dusty, you look like you’re a million miles away.” Rick nudged his arm. “Are you still with us?”

“Yep.” Dusty picked up the bottle of beer and took a swig to clear his mind of Tanner thoughts. It might have worked if the door to the bar had not opened at that precise moment, and he saw a familiar redhead sashay into the room. A feeling of dread rolled over him as his mind ran through several reasons that Kelli would be there; the kids were hurt, Rain wasn’t really okay, Inez had had trouble with the baby, Chris or one of his other brothers was in trouble. Hell, the possibilities were endless. It took every ounce of his self-control to remain seated and to resist the urge to get up, grab Kelli by the arm, and drag her butt out of there. Take a deep breath Vin, and see what’s going on, before you blow your cover. He leaned back in the chair to observe his wife, hoping to get some indication as to why in the hell she was there.

A chorus of wolf whistles filled the room as the other male patrons of Bubba’s caught sight of the sexy redhead that had just entered the bar. They watched as she discarded her coat. Blaze’s hips swung provocatively left to right as she made her way to the bar, oblivious to the collective eyes on her.

Bubba immediately came from the other end of the bar to offer his assistance. “Little lady, what’s your pleasure?” A wide smile creased his grizzled face as he got his first look at the voluptuous curves that had been hidden beneath the black leather jacket.

“Sugar Bear, It’s cold outside; you reckon you got somethin’ hot that’ll warm me up?”

An unidentified voice yelled. “I got just what you need to get warm.”

Bubba scowled at the man and then turn back to the redhead. “You just make yourself comfortable darling, one mug of hot coffee coming right up.”

She gave Bubba a flirtatious smile and asked. “You think you might be able to rustle up some food to go with that?” With his affirmative nod, she gracefully perched herself on the bar stool and pulled out her cell phone. While punching in numbers she deliberately scanned the room as she waited for someone to answer. It was not difficult to find her husband’s searing blue glare that was aimed in her direction. Ignoring him for the moment she turned her attention back to her cell phone.

“Damn,” ‘Robert exclaimed. “I think that I just died and went to heaven.”

“There ought to be a law about wearing britches that tight.” Rick stared. “How in the hell do you figure she got into those jeans?”

“I don’t know, but I can sure as hell help her out of them.” Dusty commented roguishly. He had heard all the comments he cared to about Kelli’s assets and he wasn’t going to wait much longer before he made his move. The sooner he closed the distance between him and his wife, the better he would feel. Once he had her within reach he was confident that anyone that wanted to get to her would have to go through him first and that was not going to happen.

Anson smirked, “In your dreams maybe. Slater, you wouldn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell with a prime piece of ass like that.”

Dusty cocked an eyebrow and drawled. “Care ta put yer money where yer mouth is?”

Ricter pulled a twenty dollar bill out of his pocket and laid it on the table. “My money says she won’t give you the time of day.”

Slater placed a hundred dollar bill over Anson’s twenty and grinned wolfishly. “My money says she’ll be givin’ me the rest of tha night.”

“You’re on.” Anson matched Dusty’s wager and they gave the money to Karl to hold. Ricter was confident that he had just made and easy hundred.

“Slater, if you win…I’ll take over your training tomorrow. You’ll need the extra time I think to recover.” Karl laughed. “Anson, if you win…You get the day off, instead.”

Dusty pushed his chair back and lazily made his way across to the room. I don’t know what’s going on baby, but you’d better have a damn good explanation for coming to this hellhole looking like that, and Chris ought to have his head examined for letting you. He knew that Karl and the others were watching to see what he would do and it had to be believable. Walking up to her and dragging her out of the damn bar was not an option, but he was not going to waste too much time playing games.

Still on the phone, Kelli knew when Vin sat down next to her without looking his way. “I don’t care what your damn policy is! You rented me that piece of crap and now I’m stranded in some hole in the wall place that rolled the sidewalks up at dark! I expect you to get me another car and find a place for me to stay until you get it here!” She was listening to Ezra’s laughter on the phone. “You do that! You had better do it damn quick too!” Snapping the phone shut she huffed loudly.

“Problems?” A masculine voice drawled from her left.

“Damn right!” Turning she saw the smile on his handsome face, but it did not match the storm of emotions raging in his blue eyes. “My rental overheated and died about two blocks from here. I was tryin’ to find a service station or garage, but hell, everythin’ around here is closed up tighter than a drum. I reckon I’m lost again, my daddy always said I had no sense of direction, and could get lost in a shoebox. I have friends waitin’ for me to join them for the holidays and now ‘m stuck in … Where in the hell am I anyway?”

Bubba had been listening to the conversation and volunteered an answer, “Rocky Meadows, Colorado.”

“Yeah, well, now the stupid rental car company is givin’ me a hard time. I told 'em to find me some place to stay and they could damn well pay for it! They’re supposed to call me back, but ‘m not holdin’ my breath. Thanks Sugar Bear, “She smiled as Bubba sat a plate in front of her that held a hamburger and some greasy fries. “It’s frustratin’ as hell to try and talk to 'em, and now ‘m not sure what ‘m gonna do. I guess they expect me to just sit in the cold and wait for ‘em and they’ll do somethin' when they get damn good and ready. My name is Blaze Butler, what’s yours?”

Slater was amazed; he did not think he had ever heard Kelli rattle on so much to get to a point. He damn sure was not used to seeing her dressed…or half undressed as she was unless it was just the two of them. “Dusty…”

“Dusty huh, well I hope you’re gonna tell me that there is some place a girl can get a room for the night in this town, ‘cause it looks as if ‘m not goin' anywhere.” Blaze smiled daringly at Dusty. “Course, if that idiot does find me a room, I’ll need a lift. Reckon you could help me secure a warm place for the night?”

“Yep,” Dusty grinned, “I’ll see ta it personally.”

Bubba recognized that the man had just staked a claim on the pretty redhead and watched as Slater proceeded to captivate the young lady’s attention. Dusty and Blaze talked for a long time and it was obvious to anyone watching that it was a cozy conversation. Anson could see his money slipping away as the two of them moved closer together. Karl let Ricter know that as far as he was concerned Dusty had earned a free night and ordered him to leave the man alone. When Blaze received the call she had been waiting for Dusty offered to drive her to the motel where the car company had made a reservation for her and she accepted the offer.

Helping her with her coat Slater winked at Bubba. “See ya tomorrow.”

Vin held on to his anger until they were outside and in his truck. “Kel, you had better tell me that the whole damn unit is out there waitin’ for you! You don’t belong within a hundred miles of these bastards! What is so damn important that you had to come here and what in the hell is Chris thinkin’?”

“Why don’t you start the engine and drive down the street to where my car is to retrieve my bag and I’ll tell you.” Kelli knew that Vin was furious and that he was going to need time to cool off before he was ready to listen to her, but she was willing to wait.

Stopping long enough at the rental to throw her bag in the truck, Vin drove toward the motel that was arranged for her, and was ready for some answers. “I’m waitin’ Kel.”

“First off, everyone is fine. Max, Walter, and Raphael know the truth about what is goin’ on and they are watchin’ the kids. Rain was shaken up, but thanks to you she’s alive and well. As to why ‘m here, you need a way to get out whatever evidence you have collected, and I can get it to Chris. I also know that you cut yourself this mornin’ at that clinic and I had to make sure for myself that you were okay. Besides, even pretendin’ to kill someone you care about has to be hard, and I thought you might need some support!”

“I’m fine! Chris could have sent someone else; you don’t belong around the scum that’s here!” Vin retorted, still angry.

"You don’t either Tanner, but you’re here, so don’t even say that I can’t manage one night when you have to put up with these people everyday!” Kelli hesitated a moment then plunged ahead.” I made the decision to come here after I found out that you had information that could help the team find you if you ran into trouble. Chris didn’t send me; he doesn’t even know that ‘m here, and even if he did there was no one else to send that could get close enough to you without creatin’ suspicion. Beside, me being here is not any different than when you and Buck as Cord and Sam Buchman went to California to check on Chris.”

Tanner pulled off to the side of the road, slammed on the brakes and threw the gear shift into park. “It damn sure is different! You came in alone! Damnit Kel! What if I hadn’t been here? What if they didn’t buy your act? You really think these bastards would care that you’re a woman if they thought you were an agent? Hell no! They’d kill you in a heartbeat and never think twice about it. They teach their own kids that killin’ is okay from the time they’re old enough to listen. Worse yet what if they did buy your sexy siren act? You have no idea how twisted these men think! I’ve a good mind to haul your butt back to Denver and lock you up! What in the hell were you thinkin’?”

“You just rein yourself in Tanner! I knew you were there when I saw this truck. If you weren’t, I would have never gone inside that bar. I broke that damn car, and I could fix it if I had to and drive away! I deliberately dressed this way to make sure they didn’t know I was an agent and even if they suspected it, I am capable of defendin’ myself! I’m not naive either! I know that these people don’t think the way you and I do, and that this was not gonna be a walk in the park. Maybe you think I was careless, but I thought out this plan before I ever considered actually goin’ through with it." She paused briefly to take a breath. "Facin’ a potentially dangerous situation in exchange for possibly helpin’ you was an acceptable risk to me! You don’t want me here fine! Give me the damn map and whatever evidence you have, take me to my truck and I’ll leave!”

Vin leaned back in the seat and sighed. He was not sure himself if it was anger or fear for her safety that had him yelling at his wife. If he was honest with himself, he would have to admit that having her here, even if it was only for a few hours, was exactly what he needed to calm the rage that had been building inside him all day. His emotions had been in turmoil since he realized that Josiah and Rain had been in that clinic today. He also knew that after today there would be no way to keep MCAT out of this, and his efforts to do so had failed. Seeing Kelli walk into Bubba’s and actually talking to the men that he knew were sick sonsofbitches capable of unspeakable actions…well that was something he had not been prepared for.

“Where’s our truck?”

“It’s parked at the motel. The room that Ezra reserved is at the back and our Tahoe is already there. You just need to go into the office and pick up the key for the room. I had hoped we could leave Dusty’s truck there while we drove on to the cabin for the night, but don’t worry about it! You give me the information that Chris needs and you can either stay at the motel alone, or go back to Rocky Meadows!” Kelli was fighting her own emotions, but was determined not to cry in front of Vin; instead she stubbornly clammed up and refused to say more.

Ezra! Of course Standish helped her, I should have known.

Tanner started the truck and then drove to a wooded area not far from where they had been stopped. “Stay here.”

Right Kel, he finally speaks and all he does is issue an order. You knew he would be angry, but this is too damn much.

When Vin returned he had two large packets wrapped in plastic in his hands. Climbing into the driver’s seat he gave them to Kelli. “Stuff these into your bag.” Tanner put the truck into gear and drove on to the motel without uttering another word. Once there he got out of the GMC, went into the office and claimed the key for Blaze’s room. Back in the truck he pulled to the rear of the building and parked in front of room thirty three, and then turned to face his wife. “I want you to haul your sweet ass over to our truck and warm up the engine. I’ll be there in a few minutes, after I give our motel room a used look.”

Vin waited by the door until he was certain that Kelli was in the Tahoe. He looked around expecting to see Ezra because he knew his brother well enough to know that he was somewhere close by. Standish would not leave Kelli on her own unless he was positive that Vin was with her, even if he knew she would throw a fit at the thought of having a baby-sitter. Finally he spotted him parked further down the row of cars in the lot; nodding silently to Standish, he used the key and went inside.

The first thing Tanner did was to turn on the light and head to the bathroom. Turning on the shower he made sure the soap was wet along with a couple of towels he scrunched up and threw on the floor. Back in the main room he turned on the television and rented an adult movie. The bedspread was tossed on the floor and the sheets were rumpled to make it appear that they had been used. Satisfied that it did look as if a couple had spent the night having wild sex in the bed he locked the door and then stuck the key into his pocket.

Chapter 22

Walking over to their truck, Vin mentally smiled when he heard Ezra’s JAG start up and pull off in the opposite direction. Kelli had the engine going, and the heater on, but she was sitting on the passenger side staring out the window. Settling himself in the driver’s seat, the Texan pulled her to him for a quick kiss. “We are not through talkin’ about this Kel.” It was a silent thirty minute drive to the cabin that Raven had provided for him. Vin slowly began to unwind and relax his guard. For the first time in weeks, he could be himself without looking over his shoulder to see who was watching him. Kelli was contemplating her condition and wondering if she would be able to keep the fact that she was pregnant from Vin, or if she even wanted to.

It was almost midnight when they entered the cabin. Tanner tossed Kelli’s bags on the couch and then immediately moved to the fireplace to start a fire. He had calmed down considerably since the initial shock of seeing her walk into Bubba’s Bar, but he had to admit that she had looked good…too damn good in his opinion. Kelli had outdone herself as Blaze Butler, that woman oozed sexy without saying a word. To Vin though, his wife was always beautiful and he thought she was sexy without all the accessories. The Texan now wanted Blaze to disappear, and he had even managed to leave Dusty out in the cold truck. He and his redhead may only have a short time together here at the cabin, but he sincerely wanted it to be Vin and Kelli with no Dusty or Blaze anywhere close by. Stacking some pillows by the roaring fire, he then sat on the floor to remove his boots.

The first thing Kelli did when they were inside was to pull off the high heeled boots that were killing her feet and then went into the kitchen to prepare a pot of hot coffee. Her plan had been successful, and she would be able to carry the information back to Chris that he needed. All she had to do now was get through the next couple of hours without falling apart, but it was going to be more difficult than she originally thought. In her opinion though, her husband’s reaction to her being there was a bit over the top, he had totally disregarded the fact that she was a trained agent. As soon as the coffee was finished making, she poured the brew into two cups and carried them into the main part of the cabin. She watched as Vin stoked the fire and then he sat back to enjoy it.

She held out one of the steaming mugs to the Texan and commented. “If you’ll explain what it is you want me to tell Chris, we can finish quickly and then we can drive back to your truck.”

Tanner took the offered mug and studied his wife, trying to read her demeanor. He did recognize the woman before him as his spouse. Yet, the words she spoke were more disciplined and formal than he was used to hearing from his fiery redhead. “What in the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“Whatever you want it to mean.” She shrugged her shoulder and then added. “You said you wanted me back in Denver. Just give me the information and I’ll be out of your hair.”

“Aww hell,” he sighed. I didn’t mean it like that.”

“Sure sounded like it.”

Vin set the mug down and stood up. “I didn’t want you anywhere near the ugliness that is hidden in Rocky Meadows.” He moved over to where she was leaning against the couch, and attempted to pull her into his arms. “I did not mean that I didn’t want you.”

Kelli stepped back. “I expected you to be angry, and ‘m prepared to face Chris's wrath, but this was somethin’ I had to do Tanner. In spite of what you may believe, I am a trained Federal agent, not a child, and I do not appreciate being treated like one.”

“I know you're capable of handlin' yourself. Kel, but this situation is different from what you are used to. It’s not your run of the mill, undercover assignment, and you don’t belong in the middle of it.”

“Vin, we started this together, and I am not in the middle of it, you are. I saw a way to get the information you had out of here, and unless you are gonna tell me you had another plan for it; I don’t see what’s wrong with me being the one to help you get it to Chris.”

The Texan sighed deeply. “No, I hadn’t figured out another way, but damnit Kel…I hate like hell havin’ you anywhere near those people.” Vin pulled her to him. “I didn’t see Agent Coulter step into Bubba’s tonight, I only saw my Kel, and I reckon I forgot everythin’ else. I am glad you’re here, and I needed this break, especially after today." Vin wearily explained. "I’ve found that Dusty Slater is a difficult man to live with twenty-four hours a day.”

Kelli was experiencing her own hell trying to keep her emotions under control, and the greasy fries from Bubba’s were making her nauseous. She pushed Vin away and made a mad dash for the bathroom, slamming and locking the door behind her before throwing up.

The Texan reacted immediately and followed her to the bathroom; shocked to find the door locked, he began to pound on it. “Kel, open this door and talk to me!”


“What do you mean no? Open the damn door!”

“I mean…go away…I’ll be out …when I’m damn good and ready!”

“You either open this door voluntarily or I’ll open it my way!”

Kelli rinsed her mouth and washed her face. Looking into the mirror she was surprised to see that with the make up gone, the dark circles under her eyes were so noticeable.Kel you have damn sure made a mess of this! You can’t just tell him you’re pregnant, not until the timing is right, but one look at you and he will know that something is not right. You’ve made it this far, now you need to get hold of yourself and your emotions. Tell him… its stress, that’ll work. Surely Vin will believe that. Having made up her mind to be strong, she dried her face, straightened her clothes, and then opened the door.

Vin grabbed hold of his wife by the arm the second the door opened, taking note of the dark circles under her eyes, and he demanded an explanation. “Kel, tell me what’s going on with you!”

Her resolve to be stoic deserted her when she saw the lines of worry on his face and the concern in his blue eyes. “Nothin,’ I’ve just been a little stressed and worried about you. You know this hasn’t been easy on any of us. I’m not sleepin’ well; the kids are in bed with me every night. Hell, even the damn dog thinks he has to crawl into bed with us. Add all that to the fire at Nathan’s home, the explosives on the ranch, and the children havin’ escorts to and from school on top of all the stress from work and…”

Tanner cocked an eyebrow and gave her an intent look. “And?”

That one word from Vin was all it took for Agent Coulter to disappear and release the flood of tears Kelli had been holding back. She fell into his arms and began sobbing into his shoulder muttering inaudible words. Vin held her closely and waited for her to stop crying Damnit Vin, maybe this was asking too much from her, but none of what she’s told you explains her uncharacteristic behavior. There has to be something else driving her emotions to such an extreme level. All you have to do Tanner is to get her to tell you what it is.

The bed was the closest place to sit and that is where Vin steered her. Sitting with his back against the headboard he pulled her down with him, still holding her tightly. “Baby, I know it hasn’t been easy for you, and ‘m sorry that I yelled when I know you were only trying to help. I’m sure it’s been rough on the kids too, and it had to have been upsettin’ when Nathan was attacked, and then findin’ those damn explosives on the ranch.” Vin began gently rubbing her back in an effort to calm her,” It won’t be much longer, I promise.”

Kelli could not stop crying and was angry with herself because of it. She was supposed to be here to help him, yet she was acting like a hormonal driven female instead. Although she did not regret acting out her plan, she now knew that she had only been fooling herself to think she could get this close to Vin and not tell him the truth. She kept her head buried in his shoulder, and between sobs blurted out, “I’m pregnant.”

She had spoken softly, but Vin heard what she said and his hand stilled on her back. He shifted her enough so that he was able to look into her eyes. “What did you say?”

“I’m sorry…I didn’t intend to tell you until you made it home, and I don’t want to make it harder for you on your assignment. But, it’s too difficult to keep it to myself after all the time we’ve waited. I thought I could make it through seein’ you without … Damnit, this is not how I wanted you to find out; we were supposed to hear the news together.” Kelli started crying again and could not seem to stop.

Vin had heard enough to understand that they had been granted a miracle and he held onto his redhead as a slow grin spread across his face. He had a million questions to ask, but for now he would let her cry. He did offer her a gentle reminder to try and ease her tears. “Baby, I told you once before that whenever we’re together we are home.” With delight dancing in his eyes he pushed her hair back and cupped her cheek. “I love you Kel and knowin' that we’re pregnant will not make it harder for me to get through the next couple of weeks. Hell, it gives me more to look forward to. I will never be so far away that you can’t tell me anythin, and remember, in spirit ‘m always with you.”

“I wanted to tell you, but couldn’t do it on the phone.” She sniffed noisily.” Vin…Chris knows. He‘s the one that insisted on takin’ me to see the doctor when he thought I was sick. I was stunned when Helen told me and couldn’t stop cryin, he was waitin’ when I came out of her office and…”

Vin thought back to his phone conversation with Chris. Keep my family safe for me please.”…. “You know I will Vin. Kel and…all your children are under my protection and I promise you I will not let anything happen to them.

Thanks, Cowboy.

“Hey, it’s okay. If I couldn’t be there then Chris is the one person I’d want standin’ in for me. I’m sure you know that he is goin’ to give you holy hell for comin’ up here, and since I know that, ‘m not goin’ to give it to you double, but you are NOT goin’ to take any more risks for me. I understand that you believed that you had to do this Kel, and I reckon to your way of thinkin’ you had to do somethin’. Seein’ as I know about the baby though, I want your promise that you will let Chris and me worry about finishin’ this assignment. Are we clear on that?”

“Yes.” Kelli easily recognized the love in her Texan’s eyes, along with his obvious exhilaration about their expected child. Sharing moments like this with Vin was what she had sorely missed. Now that he knew about the baby she felt connected to him in a way that even surpassed the closeness they had before.

“We’ll tackle those damn maps and the stuff that Chris needs before we go back. Right now, I want to know everythin’ about our baby, the kids, and how you are really doin’. Then I plan to make love to my beautiful pregnant wife.” Vin drew her close and settled her across his lap, prepared to take note of all that he had missed.

Kelli told him all of it, including her miserable bouts with all day morning sickness. “Dr. Weeks said that she rated this as only a medium risk pregnancy because of the fertility shots and the previous problems I had, but that everythin’ looked good so far. I did have to take a few days off last week for some extra rest, but other than being nauseous most of the time, ‘m fine. She wants to do an ultrasound next week, but I want to try and hold off until you’re home.” The Texan had leaned back with Kelli in his arms and was listening intently to all she had to share with him, enthralled by every word she had to say.

She continued. “I know we can make the kids understand that this won’t change how we feel about them, but I am concerned about Jason, he’s already worried about my health. When he finds out about the baby, it’s bound to stir up memories of when his mother died givin’ birth to Andi.”

“We’ll keep communications open with Jason; he’ll see that this is not the same as his mother’s pregnancy. He may have a few bad memories to overcome, but with enough love and patience, we’ll help him through it.”

“Love, I’ve got plenty of, but I’ve been a little short on patience and long on tears lately.”

“You just hang on til I get home baby.” He kissed her brow. “We have a wondrous journey ahead of us. I’m gonna spoil you to no end and I will be there with you every step of the way.” The Texan kissed her again. “We’re damn lucky Kel. This time last year we thought we would not have any children, then Jason and Andi came into our lives, and now we are goin’ to have another child to add to our brood.”

Kelli locked eyes with the man that had changed her solitary life into one filled with love and family. “I love you Vin Tanner.”

Answering without words, Vin possessed her mouth with a passion filled kiss that released a raging river of emotions between them. Vin took his time because tonight he wanted to share with Kelli the physical pleasures of their love with a special tenderness they could both cherish and hold on to until they could be together again.

Their lovemaking was a gentle joining of two spirits soaring on the wings of desire and euphoria. Vin was a contented man as Kelli slept snuggled close to him, and Dusty Slater was miles away from his thoughts. Making love to his woman, knowing that she carried within her a living essence that they had created was something special that he would carry in his mental book of memories. How she had ever thought that he would not notice the changes in her body, he didn’t know. He could feel the difference in her breasts and the slight rise in her body temperature. In his mind he could already visualize the child nestled inside her body, and he was looking forward to the next few months. It didn’t matter to him if the baby was a boy or girl; he would do everything in his power to keep his children, the baby, and Kelli safe.

Tuesday~ November 28

Time slipped away and all too soon it was morning. As much as Vin hated to think about it, they had to take care of business and leave this piece of heaven. The sooner he finished his work in Rocky Meadows, the more time he would have to spend with Kelli and the kids. Vin ran his hand across her bare stomach thinking of their child and spoke softly. “Kel, wake up baby.” He grinned as she began to stir and then stretched. “I wouldn’t trade the time we’ve had tonight for anythin’ in the world, but we need to get movin’. I want to get through the evidence you’re takin’ to Chris and have you on the road to Denver before eight.”

Kelli raised her head to look at him and smiled. “I know we have to go, but ‘m glad we had this chance to be together, too.”

Vin lowered his head and took the time for a long loving kiss. “You did good Kel; a little R&R is exactly what I needed to endure another couple of weeks as Dusty, and this will all be over soon.” Reluctantly they rolled out of bed, dressed and straightened the room. She had to detour to the bathroom for her first bout of nausea of the day. This time Vin was with her, rubbing her back as she was sick, and then he had a cool cloth ready for her when she finished.

Throwing his arm around her waist as they walked out of the bedroom, Vin smiled, and made a request. “Hang onto that red thong. I’d like to keep it to remember Blaze.”

“Maybe Blaze will show up again sometime and wear it for you” Kelli grinned. “Of course, I doubt it will be anytime in the near future.”

“It better not be. “Tanner swatted her backside softly. “You are under strict orders woman. No more adventures, no risk takin’, no nothin’. Your only job is to take care of our children ‘til I get home. In fact, ‘m gonna have Chris get a non-traceable phone and all my reports are goin’ to him from here on out.”

Kelli frowned at that announcement.

He quickly clarified his statement when he saw that she was going to argue with him about it. “You’re gonna keep yours strictly for me to check up on you, and I will be doin’ that as often as possible. I trust you, Kel, but I also know you too well to think that you will quietly sit on the sidelines and do as you’re told. Call it insurance if you want to, but with Chris’s help I will know if you pull any more Blaze-like escapades. No arguments.” He kissed her to take the edge off his ‘order’.

The Texan pulled her down beside him and began to explain the treasure trove of information that she would be taking to Chris. Vin had drawn maps of the compound including locations of guards, stockpiles of illegal weapons, office locations, and entrances of underground tunnels. They watched him at work and away from the compound, but when he was there he had free access to the entire area. Tanner had secretly used a mini digital camera to take pictures of maps, documents, vehicles, and pages of what Chambers called his trophy book. Several film chips were bagged together for JD to process. He had even copied DVD’S that depicted some of their crimes. Tanner was also positive that paint scrapings he had taken from one of the vans, would match Nathan’s car. Piece by piece he had smuggled bits of evidence out and hidden it, waiting for the opportunity to get it to MCAT for processing.

Kelli felt a chill travel down her spine when she realized the risks Vin had taken to get this information.” I’m certain that there is enough here for Federal prosecutors to pursue and to get search warrants, but Vin, you are the only connection they’ll have for this stuff if they get to court. The RMR will make you their number one target when this all comes out in the open.”

“By then we will hopefully have these bastards locked up, baby. I wrote statements to match each piece of evidence I collected, describin’ when, where, and how I obtained it.” Vin saw the concern in her blue eyes. “It will be okay. There is nothin’ here Chambers or anyone else will miss before I get out of Rocky Meadows. All I need now is more information on the clinics they have targeted, and their plans for the Larabee 7. I promise that the minute I know that, ‘m out of there.”

“You don’t want me to take risks and that goes double for you Tanner. I promise to behave, but if you get your Texas ass in trouble, you had better know now that I will do whatever it takes to help Chris hunt you down.”

Vin did know that Kelli would try to do just that, which is why he planned to have a long talk with Larabee while she was on her way back to Denver. He knew that if the worst happened that Chris was the only one beside himself that had a chance in hell of stopping her from coming back here. In fact he was counting on his brother to do whatever was necessary to keep her in Denver, no matter what.

“I’ll be fine Kel and so will you.” Together they gathered the things that needed to be loaded into the Tahoe, locked up the cabin, and then drove back to Dusty’s truck stopping only long enough for a drive thru breakfast. This good-bye was different from their last one, not easier for sure, but knowing that in a couple of weeks he would be done and home did make it less painful. He cupped her chin and ran his thumb across her lips before leisurely kissing her. “You take care, baby, I’ll see you soon.”

Tanner watched to make certain that Kelli was safely headed toward Denver. As soon as she was out of sight, Vin turned in the room key at the front office, climbed into his truck, and headed for a pay phone.

MCAT office

Chris started the day off with a headache. For him sleep had been elusive last night, his body was tired, but his mind was too damn active. Yesterday could have ended in tragedy for his family. Rain and Josiah were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and it damn near cost Rain her life. If they had discovered that Josiah was a government agent, Larabee had no doubt that he would have been killed. Additionally, any way you looked at what had happened it was not a great position for Vin either. Larabee knew that Tanner kept a good mental balance under normal circumstances, but having to act as if you killed your brother’s wife was anything but normal. Still, in this case it had kept her alive as well as Tanner and Sanchez. Vin would have blown his cover to protect both of them if necessary, and if that had happened Josiah would have tried to help the Texan and then…God only knows how that would have ended.

Even knowing that it was an improbability that Tanner would have been able to get a call out, Chris kept hoping that Vin would manage somehow. The only thing he had picked up from the Texan was anger and frustration until late last night and the brother part of him was concerned about keeping him under longer. The Commander side recognized the importance of finding out the ultimate target that the RMR was preparing to attack and their plans for the Larabee7.

Buck walked into Chris’s office without knocking and handed him a glass of water and two aspirin. “You looked like you needed this.”

“Thanks Buck.” Chris took the aspirin; it was the only pain reliever he used anymore. If plain old aspirin did not work, then he would just suffer through whatever pain he had.

“Are you ready to go over the reports for the unit meeting or do you want to wait til your headaches gone?”

“We can…” Larabee was interrupted by the intercom. “Yes Gunny.”

“Sir, Captain… I mean Vin Tanner is on line one.”

Chris knew that Vin would not be calling him here unless it was urgent. He snatched up the receiver and shouted. “What’s wrong?”

“Relax Cowboy, ‘m on a pay phone, and it should be safe, but while we’re talkin’ you might wanna have JD fix you up with a cell number that I can call you on. As of today you are gonna be receivin'’ all my reports. My cover is secure and those idiots think they gained a victory yesterday."

Chris let out the breath he had been holding. “Buck, tell JD I need a secure cell line ASAP and the number.” Buck was already half-way out the door yelling for JD and Chris turned his attention back to Tanner. “Go on Vin.”

“I hope that you’re sittin’ down brother,” Vin smiled, knowing exactly how Larabee was going to react. “Kel is on her way back to Denver as we speak, but she was in Rocky Meadows last night as Blaze Butler.”

Larabee stood up and roared. “What in the hell was she there for?”

“Evidently to get information that you said you needed and to confirm that I was okay.”

Buck walked back into the room in time to see Chris jump up and hear the string of curses that followed.

Chris stopped shouting abruptly and tried to calm himself before speaking. “And?”

“And she has everythin’ I’ve collected, but I need you to do somethin’ for me. I know about the baby and ‘m delighted, as well as grateful to you for takin’ care of Kel for me, but I want her off this case. I am countin’ on you to keep her in Denver no matter what happens. We’ve been through too much heartache tryin’ to get pregnant to take any chances now.”

“I know what you have been through and I’m happy for both of you Vin. You know that I’ll watch out for her and the kids. Believe me though; when she gets here I have plenty to say to her.”

Tanner chuckled. “You can write her up, ground her, put her in time-out, handcuff her to her desk, or send her home, but…you can’t yell at her Chris.”

“What do you mean I can’t yell at her? Of course I can!” Larabee shouted.

“Nope, you might upset her and as long as she’s carryin my child that ain’t allowed. I want Kel to stay as calm and relaxed as possible.”

Chris heard the pride and protectiveness in Tanner’s voice, but man was he in for a few surprises over the next few months if he thought Kelli would remain tranquil all the time. With a resigned sigh he answered. “Okay I promise I won’t yell at her. What else?”

“There’s not much I can do to keep her from worryin’, except to get the job done here and come home as soon as possible. Still, I need you to keep a close eye on her and the kids, especially Jason. If he finds out about the baby before ‘m back, he’s gonna need some reassurin’. He still remembers what happened when his mother was pregnant with Andi.”

Larabee was quiet for a moment; he had forgotten how Jason’s mother died. “I hadn’t thought about that. Jason is already worried about Kelli being sick and we have talked about it. I promise you Vin, if he figures it out before you’re home we’ll all be there to help him. I assume that this is not a secret anymore.”

“Hell, if I was there I’d be tellin’ anybody that’d listen to me. I…I can’t even describe how I feel.”

“I know,” Chris replied softly. “It’s an awesome experience and you will enjoy every minute of it.” JD walked in and handed Chris a piece of paper along with a cell phone. “You ready for that phone number?”

“Yep, fire away.” Vin committed the number to memory. “Got it Chris, I’ll check in with you when I can. Kel will give you the details about last night, or Ezra will; he’s the one that helped her. The information she’s bringin’ in should give the Federal prosecutors and Bones plenty to work with. The threat to the ranch is not over either so watch your back.”

“You too, Brother,” Chris heard the Texan hang up the phone on his end and then he thoughtfully replaced the receiver in his hand.

“What was all that about?” Buck questioned.

“I’ll tell you later.” Chris marched to the door, opened it and bellowed “Standish! Get your ass in here now!” Larabee’s growl echoed throughout the renovated hanger.

Chapter 23

Since confirming that Blaze’s rental car had been picked up, Ezra had been periodically watching the clock as he waited anxiously for his absent partner to make her appearance. Larabee’s roar startled him enough to spill the hot cup of latte that he had been attempting to drink. Rivulets of scalding rich chocolate liquid trailed down the front of his shirt. Standish jumped up quickly to prevent the same fate to more tender areas of his anatomy.

Josiah was standing close enough to see the signs of distress in the Southerner’s green eyes. ‘What did you do now, Ezra?”

“By aiding and abetting my persuasive partner in the commission of a perilous escapade that allowed her to liaison with our undercover brother, I fear that I have written my own death warrant.” Standish walked toward the Commander’s office. He stopped and turned to Sanchez to issues some important instructions. “My last will and testament is filed in my lower left hand drawer. Please convey my love to Barbara and make certain that Coulter is not allowed to drive my Jag after my demise.” He continued his solitary journey to what he was certain was going to be at the very least an unpleasant experience, or worst case scenario, a lethal one.

Standish walked through the open door and his spirits were bolstered by the presence of two of his brothers. He was fairly certain that Chris would not kill him in front of witnesses. “My posterior and I are present. You wished to see us, illustrious leader?”

“Cut the crap Standish. What in the hell possessed you to aid Kelli in defying orders?”

“To what orders are you referring?”

“The ones that you knew I would have given if you had not decided to play Tonto to Kelli’s Lone Ranger!” Larabee glared at JD when he snickered.

“You would have preferred that she enter Rocky Meadows without my assistance?”

“He’s got you on that one stud.” Buck grinned. “You do know that Kelli would go with or without Ezra’s help if she had her mind made up to do it.”

Ezra was beginning to think that he might just survive this inquisition until Chris lashed out.

‘“That may be true Buck, but some of us know better!” Larabee’s glare shifted back to Standish. “Did it occur to you to wonder why your partner was suddenly restricted to desk duty?”


JD narrowed his eyes and asked. “When was Kelli restricted to desk duty?”

“The minute I found out that she was pregnant!” Chris snapped.

Ezra paled and sat down in the nearest chair, his mind replaying the possibilities that could have transpired. “Dear Lord! Does she know about this?”

“That’s usually the way it works Ez.” Buck grinned as he took in this revelation.

JD’s mouth dropped open in reaction to Chris’s statement. “Does Vin know?”

“He does now. Tanner told me, Standish, that you would give me all the details about this unauthorized covert mission. Start talking and make it in a language I can understand!” Chris sat down and waited for Ezra to begin.

In the next thirty minutes, Ezra revealed all the details of Blaze Butler’s little adventure. It was all Chris could do to stay seated and not interrupt Standish as he spoke. Larabee was already regretting his promise to Vin about not yelling at Kelli, but if it took every ounce of control he possessed, he would honor his word. When the Southerner had finished his narration he sat silently waiting for Chris’s next order.

“Ezra, I want you and JD to go back to work. The second Agent Coulter walks in that door I want to see her.” Chris watched as Standish and Dunne left his office.

“So, Vin is finally joining the expectant fathers club. It’s about time.” Buck laughed. “I wondered when those two would decide to take the plunge.”

Chris was quiet for a moment and chose his words carefully. “It was not their choice to wait Buck. Kel’s old childhood injuries presented a challenge for them. I imagine that Tanner is going to be a tad overprotective in the next few months, not that I can fault him for it.”

“Damn Chris, I would never have teased them so much if I’d known. I thought…”

Chris stopped him. “You thought what they wanted you to think. Let it go, but I may need your help to slow Kel down until Vin is back to ride herd on her.” Chris laughed. “He said that I’m not even allowed to yell at her because it might upset her.”

“Wait ‘til he finds out that everything will probably upset her for the next few months. I know Inez has been a handful this time around. Thank Heavens we only have a couple more weeks to go. I’m not sure who wants Tannis to arrive more, me, or Inez.”

“My money is on Inez.” Chris grinned before turning his attention back to business. “Vin sent us everything he’s collected. Kel should be here in another hour and we’ll need Bones on standby. I’ll give Travis a head’s up so he can work on the arrangements for a Federal prosecutor to start a work-up on the evidence. Arrange a unit meeting for ten in the war room.”

Buck stood. “It’s as good as done, Chris.” Wilmington walked out as Chris picked up the phone.


By now, the entire office had heard about last night’s escapade and when Kelli did walk in she was met with knowing smiles from most of her fellow agents, and an intense glare from her partner. Ezra planned to have his own talk with Kelli, after Chris had finished chewing her out. Kelli’s attention was on making her way to Chris’s office with the packets Vin had given her.

“Chris wants to see you ASAP, Kel. You are in trooo…uble.” JD grinned and pointed to the Commander’s office.

Ignoring JD, she walked past Gunny’s desk and entered Chris’s office without knocking. Kelli was not sure how he knew, but the look on his face told her that he was well aware of her recent activities. “Don’t start on me Commander. You needed this information and here it is.” She laid both packets on his desk. “If you want, I can go over it with you.”

“Sit down Kel.” Chris stood and came around to the front of his desk, speaking softly. “It may be an inherited Larabee trait to push the envelope. If that is what instigated your recent outrageous escapade, I’m sorry as hell to have passed it on to you, but there will be no more lone ranger missions; in fact you are grounded until further notice.”

“Grounded? You make it sound as if I’m ten years old!” Kelli snapped.

“Vin called me and I gave him my word that I would not yell at you.” Chris leaned forward to make certain she heard him. “Do not push me Kel, or you may find yourself on medical leave for the next eight months.” He whispered.

“Damnit, I should have known that Tanner would call you! I’m pregnant Chris, not an invalid, there is no reason that I can’t continue to work in the office.”

“That remains to be seen. One more stunt like the one you pulled with Blaze and I will lock you up myself. Are we clear?”

“As Crystal.” Kelli grumbled, “Now what?”

“Unit meeting in the war room in five minutes, we’ll go over what you brought in then.”

WAR Room

Bones, Greg, and Katrina were waiting when Chris entered carrying the two packets sent in by Vin. Mark walked in and signaled for Bandit to lay by his chair and Nathan sat down next to Josiah. Mallory gave Kelli a sympathetic nod as she sat next to the redhead. JD and Pam took their usual seats and Buck positioned himself between Chris and Justin. Ezra came in last and sat on the other side of his partner, determined to stay mad at her for a while. Rafael and Alex were the only active missing members and they were at the elementary school until the children were dismissed.

Larabee waited until all his agents were seated and then took his customary place at the table to begin their meeting. He would deal with Ezra and Kelli about their unauthorized mission later, for now they would tackle the evidence. “During a covert mission, Agents Coulter and Standish were able to retrieve valuable information from Agent Tanner’s reconnaissance of the RMR. We have our work cut out for us to process and categorize this evidence as quickly as possible. Kel, since you already know what is in here we can speed things along if you help.”

Chris opened the first packet as Kelli came up to stand beside him and he dumped its contents onto the table. “According to Vin, the DVD’S are copies that show actual crimes being committed by members of the RMR. The smaller plastic bag contains paint scrapings that Vin believes will match Nathan’s car. He took them from a van on the compound grounds, after observing a similarity in tire treads of those we discovered at the scene of Nathan’s accident. Pictures of the vehicle and the pattern of the tires are included with other photos on these chips.” Kelli pointed to several chips on the table. “I don’t know what else is on them.”

The Commander opened the second package that contained mostly maps and documents. Kelli continued. “The map Vin drew of the compound is very specific, including the location of what the RMR called the torture room. Some of these documents are copies of financial records, membership information, inventory lists, and medical records, other maps, and pages from what he calls Chambers’s trophy book. He also included detailed statements of when, where, and how he obtained this information.”

Chris began dividing up the items laid out on the table. The photo chips and DVD’s he gave to JD. “Put your team on this immediately. I want to know what’s on there and I want to know now.” JD, Pam, and Mallory returned to their individual CASSIE stations to begin working on it right away.

The plastic bag of paint scrapings he handed to Bones. “See if these will match what we have from Nathan’s car.” Larabee picked up a handful of documents. “Ezra you take the financials, and Josiah you go over the membership information. Nathan, you do go over the medical records. Buck, you and I are going to memorize these damn maps. Mark, I want you and Justin on stand-by until we see what’s on those pictures and those DVD’S.”

JD walked back in. “Chris, the first DVD is ready to go. The photos should be downloaded in another fifteen or twenty minutes.”

“Start it up.”

All eyes were directed to the screens in front of them as the DVD began to play. It was difficult to watch as they realized that FBI Agent Abbott was the star attraction. As they watched him being interrogated by disembodied voices, and tortured by unknown hands, the air in the war room was filled with muttered curses and gasps. In spite of the horror of watching a fellow agent being tormented, they continued to view as he was taken through a mock trial, found guilty of treason, and sentenced to death by a firing squad. Kelli left the room before it showed Abbott’s actual death in the next day’s timeframe. Ezra nodded to Chris and followed her.

Finally the disk ended and a dozen agents sat shell-shocked by what they had just seen. Chris decided that a break was needed. “We’ll meet back here in fifteen minutes.”

Buck waited until it was only him and Chris before he spoke. “You do realize that Vin has put himself in the middle of a potentially explosive trial. There is no way to get around him testifying when this gets to court. The defense will do everything they can to discredit Vin's methods of obtaining this stuff, and if that fails Tanner will be marked for elimination.”

“I know that, and I think Kelli knows it too." Chris threw down one of the disks. "Viewing the other DVD’S and pictures I believe should be optional to the members of the team. I think I’ll go check on Kel while we are on break.” Chris walked out, leaving Buck reading maps on the table looking for Vin's escape line.


Kelli had bolted out of the war room and headed straight for the ladies room. Her stomach had revolted against her as her mind replayed the horrific scenes of Agent Abbott’s torture and execution, substituting Vin’s face for Abbot’s. She barely made it into a stall before she lost the contents of her fast food breakfast. By the time Kelli had finish retching, she was shaking and weak, with tears cascading down her face. She moved out of the stall and over to the bank of sinks, where she turned on the cold water and proceeded to splash it on her face.

Outside the bathroom door Ezra leaned against the wall and waited for his partner to exit. The unmistakable sounds of heaving from within alarmed him. He was contemplating going inside to offer his assistance when Chris joined him.

“How is she?” Larabee asked.

“Compared to what?” Ezra retorted. “She’s sick, how in the hell is she supposed to be!”

Chris glared at the Southerner. “Who’s in there with her?”

“She’s alone.”

“Not for long. Keep watch for me.” Chris pushed the door open and went inside announcing his presence. “Dad is coming in.”

“I’m fine, go away.”

“Sure you are.” Chris replied with a soft smile, taking in her tear streaked face and pale complexion. “Try again.”

Kelli’s answer was to burst into tears.

Chris pulled her into his arms and held her against him as she cried. He whispered soothing words into Kelli’s ear as he stroked her hair with one hand and waited for his daughter to regain control of her emotions.

In between sobs she said. “That could be Vin.”

Chris tilted her head to meet her eyes and attempted to reassure her. “It won’t happen to Vin, not on my watch.”

“I know you will do your damnest, but don’t make promises about things that you can’t control.” Kelli shuttered and then sighed. “I’ll be okay and ‘m probably holdin’ up your meetin’.”

“The meeting is on break time, and I’m making the viewing of the rest of the DVD’s optional. What do you say we blow this place and go back outside?” Kelli nodded and they walked slowly out the door. Ezra was relieved to see Kelli making an effort to smile and he silently vowed to keep a close eye on his young sister.

Once back in the office, Nathan hesitantly approached them and offered Kelli a cup of herbal tea. “This should help sooth your stomach.”

Kelli glanced at the cup and looked up to see the uncertainty in his dark eyes. She also recognized the signs that their old Nathan was finally coming back. Taking the mug as a peace offering she whispered, “Thanks. If it works I’ll need a gallon of this stuff to take home.”

Nathan tentatively smiled. “I’ll start on it now.”

MCAT War Room

After spending the next few hours in the war room, a clearer picture of the RMR was beginning to evolve. The DVD’S and some of the documents that Tanner had managed to copy were very graphic and shocking. Not only had these men committed disgusting crimes against minorities, they had recorded them for their own enjoyment. The pictures that Vin had taken and the documents he had copied would be the basis for a detailed Federal racketeering case. The group would be charged with offenses such as Violent Crimes In Aid of Racketeering, using the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations law, also known as RICO.

“Justin, you and Mark start tying this information to official case files. I want correct dates, places, and names of the victims involved. CASSIE can help; just let JD know what you will need.” Chris continued to study the maps.

Josiah finally made the comment aloud that they all had been thinking. “Vin took a great deal of time to copy so much material, and it had to have been risky for him to do so. Chris, in light of what we have before us, wouldn’t it be a good time to pull him out?”

“We will Josiah, soon. I am aware that the prosecutors will be basing their case on connecting Tanner to the evidence and they'll want him out, too, but we still need more information on their target. All we know is that it involves twenty -two clinics; we need to know where, and when. It will be a priority for us to figure that out. We also have this to deal with.” Chris threw out the picture of Nathan and Paul with a red X across their faces. “The hit on our agents is still active and according to one of these maps they have more plans for Larabee 7.”

Nathan had been unusually quiet as he had been mentally kicking himself for ever doubting Vin. The proof of his erroneous thinking was sitting on the table before him. In spite of all the outrageous accusations he had leveled at Tanner, the man had gone into a perilous situation to see that justice was served. He knew that he could not undo what he had done, but he could damn sure help to see that the Texan did not pay for his mistakes. “Chris, what does the map of the ranch show?”

Chris looked up and saw the sincere concern in Nathan’s eyes. “Not much. There are several X’s marked on the map and we’ll have to physically go to these spots and see what we can find. Vin only knew the locations, but not what Chambers had planned. He did tell us though that they intended to target the kids if necessary to get our attention, and we know after last week’s incident that they are willing to follow through on that threat.”

Ezra had been looking over the inventory lists and commented. “According to this list, they have an entire arsenal at their disposal. It appears that they have obtained a large amount of assorted explosive materials. That would explain how they came into possession of antipersonnel mines, but doesn’t provide a connection to the RMR.”

Greg came in with a report on the paint scrapings and handed it to Larabee. “Commander, it’s a match. The vehicle that Tanner took these scrapings from was unquestionably the same one that ran Agent Jackson’s car off the road.”

Larabee looked at the tired and strained faces around the table. “We will work straight through on this until we have what we need to bring Vin out. You all have assignments, get to work on them.”

Agents moved to the outer office and to their desks, but Kelli stayed behind to talk to Chris. “You did not assign me to anythin’.”

“No I didn’t, and I’m not going to. “Chris sighed. “Kel, I know that you think that you need to help, but take a good look in the mirror. You have dark circles under your eyes, you’re way too pale and I can tell that you are close to exhaustion. I’m ordering you to go home and rest. I plan on talking to Max to make certain that you follow those orders, and if memory serves me right, you have a doctor’s appointment tomorrow. See Dr. Weeks and then take some time off with the kids.” He saw that she was going to argue and he beat her to it. “I promised Vin that I’d watch out for you, and even if I hadn’t, as your father I won’t stand by and watch you make yourself sick with worry, or from being overworked.”

Kelli saw the concern in his eyes. “I’ll go home as long as you promise to keep me informed about anythin’ that involves Vin.”

“You got it.” The father part of Chris reacted and he hugged his daughter. “I know you won’t stop worrying completely until Vin is home, but let me shoulder some of it while you take care of yourself and my grandchild.”

Shaking her head, Kelli smiled. “I can see you as Dad, Uncle, Commander, and Chris, but grandfather? That may take some getting' used to, especially since you have another baby comin'”. She was excited for Chris, but wondered how in the hell Linda would take care of two children when she was having trouble caring for one. “I reckon you and Vin will have to compare notes when he gets home.”

“Yep, someone has to educate him about how to handle a pregnant woman; it might as well be me.” Chris grinned.

Kelli smiled back. “Vin will manage quite well, thank you.” She then resigned herself to the fact that she was to be homebound for the next few days. “I’ll go home as soon as I talk to Ezra. I reckon I need to apologize to him for not tellin’ him the whole truth yesterday.”

Chris watched her go and silently prayed that he would not have to eat his words about Tanner’s safety. The sooner this whole mess was over, the better he would feel.

Kelli went straight to her desk and Standish was waiting for her. “You should have told me.” He admonished her not only with his words, but a stern look as well..

“Would you have helped me if I did?”

“Absolutely not!”

“That’s why I didn’t tell you. I needed to see Vin and do somethin’ to help. I’m sorry that I held back the complete truth from you, but ‘m not sorry that I went to Rocky Meadows. If it makes you feel better, Chris is sendin’ me home and not allowin’ me to work on this case.”

“Your apology is accepted and I don’t blame Chris one bit for ordering you off this one. You go home and take care of yourself and try to stay out of trouble for a while.”

“I’ll try, but ‘m not makin’ any promises.” Kelli picked up her bag and kissed Ezra on the cheek.” Thanks Ez for your help, at least now Vin knows about the baby and I can quit worryin’ about how to tell him.” Kelli slipped out the door leaving Standish to wonder how she had managed to transform a risky adventure into a disguised blessing.

Journal Entry ~November 28~11:30pm

I no longer attend my meetings three times a week, now I’m down to only one, and I have finished the counseling sessions with my therapist. I was running late tonight, but I did make it. It’s funny, I never thought I wanted any part of this routine in the beginning, and now I find that I miss it when I cannot attend. Maybe it’s because I can see the difference in my counterparts each week. It’s not the same as family, but having shared similar experiences makes it comfortable to be in this group. The feeling of accomplishment is great, and being able to help new members is gratifying.

When I arrived home Grace was still awake and I spent time with her before rocking her to sleep. I tried to talk to Linda, but she was still upset over our morning argument and refused to listen to anything I had to say. After my conversation with Vin and hearing his excitement about their new baby, it started me to thinking. I really would like to be more involved with Linda’s pregnancy, and I miss hearing all the little details that are happening with our unborn child. I suppose Linda believes she is punishing me for not going along with her plans for us, and in a way she is. Hopefully we can find some middle ground soon.

I am concerned about Kelli; she has been too stressed and does not look well. I talked to Max and she assured me that she will be able to keep her in line at home. If it had not been for the fact that Kel was pregnant I think I would have still been yelling at her for that stunt she pulled last night... But, she made it back safely and I will reluctantly admit, although not to her, that we do have more information to work with now. Hopefully with what we have, and a few more days of Tanner reconnaissance we can get Vin out of there and home where he belongs. The two of them have waited long enough for this baby to be a reality and now they deserve the opportunity to share the experience.

If I could just get that knot in my stomach to disappear I would feel as if we were home free, but I learned a long time ago,…it ain’t over til it’s over.

Chapter 24

MCAT Office ~Thursday ~ November 30th ~ 2:00 pm

Chris poured over heaps of information that the team had compiled since Tuesday. JD’s satellite hookup had sent back dozens of images, but none of them could add much to what they already knew. Tanner’s maps had been very detailed, and Larabee felt confident that they had the best possible picture of the layout of the compound from them. Nathan was spending his time on the list of members of ‘Without Prejudice’ group, determined to ferret out the leak that past on information about him and Paul to the RMR. Even with all the sources they had access to though, the elusive Raven was still a mystery.

Larabee’s office door opened and Buck walked in with Ezra. “You wanted to see us?” Wilmington questioned and he stretched out on his favorite chair as Ezra sat down opposite him.

“Standish, Agent Selina Cordova starts to work here tomorrow morning.” Chris stated. “I want you to be her training officer

“Why?” Buck straightened up in his chair. “What about Kel?”

“She is going to be out for a while, on the doctor’s orders.” Larabee hesitated before continuing. “As of yesterday her pregnancy is considered high risk. The doctor cited low blood pressure, higher than normal hormone levels, and stress as the contributing factors, but I think there may be more to it than what Kel told me. Regardless of the reasons, she has been restricted to limited physical activity, partial bed rest for the next few weeks, and told to reduce the stress in her life. That means no driving, no work, and no running sixteen hours a day.”

“Damn, did that trip to Rocky Meadows cause it?” Ezra was feeling a ton of guilt for assisting her.

“No, it‘s a combination of several things, but Dr Weeks assured her that it is not due to anything she did or did not do. Once she gets past the next few weeks, she and the baby will be on safer ground.”

“I’m sure Max will keep her off her feet, and the doc can help with the blood pressure, but as long as Vin is under she’s gonna worry. What can we do to help reduce the stress of that?” Buck asked.

“Get the answers we need quickly, and bring him home.” Chris stated the obvious.

“Of course, I will assume the role of teacher for Miss Cordova instructing her of the requirements expected as an MCAT agent, and oversee her edification.” Ezra assured Chris. “I will as well, continue to assist in the efforts to bring our brother home.”

“We can now match names to eighty percent of the faces Tanner took pictures of, and we have narrowed the RMR’s potential target to five medicinal corporations that operate clinics in multiple cities. JD is running all the information through CASSIE as we speak.” Buck informed them “If we can identify it from here, then we can pull Vin out. We’ll just have to cover our asses on the ranch without further risk to Vin.”

“I’m starting to have a bad feeling that I don’t like, and he’s coming out on Monday, even if we don’t have all the answers.” Chris vowed.

“It is definitely going to be a long four days.” Ezra said what they all were thinking.

Chris nodded in agreement. “I’m leaving here in an hour. The contractors are coming in tomorrow to start work on the Jackson home, and Walter and I are working on a security arrangement to assure that they are the only ones that will have access to the property. You two keep things rolling here and call me if anything new comes in.”

“You got it.” Buck and Ezra both stood and exited the office as Chris began clearing his desk of paperwork so he could leave.

Larabee 7

After a few days of searching, Linda had finally given up looking for Chris’s journal, at least for now. She wanted to go back and see where she had missed the fact that Tanner had quit MCAT. Her husband had not left the book in any of the usual places that he wrote, and she was not ready to rummage around his bedroom for it. That meant that she would have to wait until he used it again in his home office. The blonde placed phone calls to Casey and Inez, finding out that Kelli was home for a few days, and she decided that if she wanted to know what was going on she would have to talk to her oldest friend directly. She was certain that enough time had passed for the redhead to cool down and talk to her. Making one last phone call she then headed out the door.

Tanner Home

Kelli hung up the phone and then went to find Max to inform her that a guest was on the way over. She found the older woman in the family room with Adam and Andi, apparently in the middle of reading them an engrossing story. Grace was sound asleep in the playpen next to her.

Max looked up from the book and frowned at Kelli. “You are supposed to be resting. What are you doing up running around?”

“There is just so much rest I can take Max. I was on my way to the kitchen to find somethin’ to drink, and the phone rang. Linda is coming over, it sounds as if she wants to talk. I wanted you to know that we would be in the livin’ room if you came lookin’ for me.”

“You take yourself in there now Missy and prop your feet up. When we finish with this story, I’ll bring you some hot tea.” Max gave the younger woman a stern look. “Go on now, and I warn you, if I hear an argument between you two, I will intervene.”

Kelli sighed. “I hear you and ‘m goin now.” Settling in the big chair by the fireplace she wondered what on earth Linda could have on her mind. It was not a long wait to find out because Linda was knocking at the entrance within a few minutes. Max waved Kelli off when she started to get up to answer it, and met Linda at the front door.

Linda entered under the older woman's scrutiny and sat in the chair opposite Kelli. She waited until Max had left the room to begin speaking. “I thought it was time for us to have a talk.”

“Not sure what we have to talk about, Linda, but say what’s on your mind.”

“Kel, we have had our differences many times over the last ten years and have always found a way to resolve them. I think it’s time we both mended some fences and work to get things right between us again, especially now.”

“What do you mean, especially now, Linda?”

“Well, you know that I am pregnant and from what JD told Casey so are you. I wished that you had told me yourself, instead of me hearing it secondhand, but now that I know, we can go through this ordeal together and make it fun.”

Kelli ignored the comment, and had another agenda she wanted to follow. "I've had a lot of time to think about things, and I have come to a few conclusions. Do you want to hear them?”

“Of course I do.”

Kelli chose her words carefully. “I think the reason we managed to stay friends for so long was the fact that we lived in separate states, saw each other only two or three times a year, and had our own lives. When you would call and complain about yours; I could listen, offer some comfortin’ words, and then return to my life. I knew you were high maintenance, but it never bothered me because frankly I had nothing else going on with me, except for work. I overlooked a lot of the outrageous things you said or did for a long time. Knowin’ you as well as I do, I did not believe that anythin’ you could do would surprise me, but I was wrong.”

“It’s because you know me so well and accept me for who I am that we are friends Kel.” Linda said. “You know me, my family, and all the crap that I put up with from my older brothers. I thought you understood why I did all those things.”

“Oh I understand you, Linda. You are spoiled to the bone, you have a need to be the center of attention, spend money to impress others, and get tired of new things almost before you have the price tag off of them.

The smile on Linda’s face began to slip as Kelli continued.

“Life is one new adventure after another for you, and the only time you stopped in one place very long was durin’ the last year of your dad’s life when he needed your help and your brothers weren’t around. When your father died, you were lost, he had always been there to support your outrageous activities, and rein you in when necessary. You found yourself having to face life on your own for the first time ever. Then you met Chris, and jumped right back into your old habits, only your dad was not around to keep your wild side in check. Your target was always the best lookin’ man you could find, and then you would use your good looks and sex to keep him interested…until you got bored. Chris was a challenge for you, though. He was the one that you had to catch because he was so elusive and you were positive that you could get him thinkin’ your way sooner or later.”

“That’s not true! Chris the love I have always wanted, and our life should be perfect. It would be if he could just let go of the past.” Linda exclaimed, her voice rising a little.

“That’s just it, he has let go of the past, and your life is still not what you want. There are no fairytale relationships Linda, marriage takes two people willin’ to work together to make it a success. It’s a partnership that may not always be fifty-fifty, but if it’s strong that doesn’t matter because there is no score to keep. Its being two individuals that blend their lives together, not one dictatin’ what the other should do or else. Havin’ a family is part of sharin’ your love, not an ordeal to get through or take away from what you have.” Kelli thought about how different it was for her and Vin, and wanted the same kind of relationship for her father.

“Chris is not trying to compromise, or work at our marriage. He only cares about Grace, his brothers, and the rest of the damn Wild Bunch. I come last on his list, behind all of them. That is not how it is supposed to be.” There was anger instead of hurt in Linda’s words.

“What have you done for him? Were you there when he needed your support? Do you care about the things he cares about? Can you be a good parent to Grace and your new baby, or are you goin’ to compete with them the rest of your life? Are you willin’ to accept Chris Larabee for who he is, or does he have to change to suit your idea of perfect? Answer those questions and you might find out the reason you are havin’ problems, because you get back from a marriage what you are willin’ to put into it.”

“Maybe I do want more out of life, is that so wrong?”

“That depends on who you are willin’ to step on to get to where you want to be. You have already managed to successfully destroy our friendship. I’ll be civil to you, but we will never be close friends again. I know that you dislike my husband, but I love him. Vin and our children are the most important people in my life. Chris is my father. He and the Wild Bunch are all part of my family. You have a problem acceptin’ that, and ‘m tired of your manipulations to have things your way. I am also aware of how you tried to destroy my relationship with Chris, and for me that is an unacceptable line to cross.”

Linda snipped. “I suppose Chris told you that I interfered.”

“It doesn’t matter how I know, what matters is that I do.” Kelli sighed. “What you decide to do about your marriage is your business, but you had better make damn sure you don’t hurt your children in the process.”

“You have made it clear that you are siding with Chris and Vin against me.” Linda stood up “Maybe it’s time we both made some changes. Don’t worry; I won’t bother trying to patch things up between us again. I hope you don’t regret this Kel, you may need me someday and I just might not be in a forgiving mood.”

“I reckon I’ll have to take my chances on that Linda, but I sincerely hope for your sake that you find whatever it is that you’re lookin' for.” Kelli watched as Linda walked out of the house without saying another word, and was disappointed that she did not even look in on Grace while she was here.

Max came in with a cup of hot herbal tea as soon as Linda left. “You okay?”

“I will be. You were listenin’ weren’t you?” “Kelli shook her head at her new mother hen. “I’m sorry it came down to this, but I’ve had time to think about the friendship that Linda and I had and where we are now. She hasn’t changed, but I have, and ‘m not willin’ to overlook the outrageous things she does, as I have in the past.”

Max nodded her agreement. “For everything there is a season, and the winds of change are blowing for you, Missy. Moving forward is the only choice you can make. Now, what about that rest you are supposed to be having?”

Kelli groaned. “I know, you’re not goin' to let me up on it, but I think that I’d like to sit here and enjoy my tea until Jason gets home.”

Max reluctantly agreed. “Just so you know I am watching the clock. I intend to see that you stay off your feet a minimum of fourteen hours today, and every day until your doctor says different.”

Kelli smiled and saluted her as Max went to check on the other children.


Chris looked at his watch as he climbed into his truck and started the engine. The thirty minutes he had spent on the phone with Travis had thrown off his timing, but he felt fortunate to leave the office behind by three thirty. His mind was working overtime as he drove, and his gut was churning right along with it. He knew they were close to having all the information they needed to break the RMR, but those few small pieces that were still missing were driving him to distraction.

It may have been the mental overload or just plain not paying close enough attention, but Chris did not see the truck that pulled out in front of him until it was too late. Cutting the wheel to a hard right to avoid a collision, he hit the shoulder of the road at a high speed and slid his truck sideways attempting to stop. When the truck finally ceased moving, he sat there for a moment to get his bearings, and then jumped out to see if any damage had been incurred.

Larabee was so intent on inspecting for damage that he failed to hear the man that moved in behind him until he was grabbed and shoved forcibly onto the hood of his truck. A second person quickly blindfolded him, and handcuffed his hands at his back as he struggled to break free.

“Easy Larabee, we were told to deliver you in one piece, and I am inclined to follow those orders, but don’t push me.” A male voice hissed.

“Who in the hell are you, and who wants to see me bad enough to risk the penalty for kidnapping a Federal agent?” Chris identified that there were at least two men holding him, and he thought that there was a third one, but he couldn’t be sure yet.

“You’ll know soon enough, for now be a good boy and make this easy on all of us.” The men holding onto him dragged Larabee to a waiting vehicle; one man shoved him into the backseat and then got in beside him, while the other one took the driver’s seat.

Chris heard his truck start up in the distance. “Adding car theft to the charges?”

“Shut up Larabee!” They started moving in what seemed to be a westerly direction.

“You’re not much for conversation are you?” Larabee said sarcastically. A sharp jab to his ribs took his breath, but Chris mentally detached himself from the pain. He tried to concentrate on sounds that he could hear above the road noises, and keeping track of the turns that were made. Something about the way the men were acting reminded Larabee of the military, and he never heard any names mentioned. Whoever these guys were they were good, but he could not resist taunting them. “Are we there yet?”

“Unless you want to involuntarily sleep the rest of the way, I’d advise you can the sarcasm.” The man seated next to Larabee growled.

“You know, a nap sounds damn good, thanks for suggesting it.” Chris laid his head back against the seat and feigned sleeping, all the while making mental notes of the things he heard, and the movement he could feel. His internal clock told him that approximately twenty minutes had passed when he felt the vehicle come to a stop and the man sitting beside him roughly shook him.

“Wake up Larabee! We’re moving out!” The unknown man opened the car door and pulled Chris out of the backseat to his feet. “Don’t try anything stupid, just follow directions and this will be over soon.” The man took the blond by the arm and guided him inside a nearby building. Once inside Chris heard a chair scrape across the floor for him to sit on.

“Lieutenant Larabee, I hear that you have been looking for me,” said a voice from the surrounding darkness.

“Hard to say since I don’t know who in the hell you are.” Chris retorted.

“Remove his blindfold and release his hands. “The voice ordered, and within moments Chris found himself freed from his restraints and allowing his eyes to adjust to the bright light aimed in his direction. The only name you need to know is Raven.”

Chris saw the outline of a man standing behind the light, but could not see him clearly enough to distinguish any features. “You could have called, written a letter, or sent a telegram.” Larabee quipped.

With a thread of amusement laced in his voice, Raven answered. “I could have, but I wanted to face the man that Hawk calls his brother. Your reputation has preceded you Lieutenant. In addition to what our mutual friend has told me about you, I did some research of my own.” A file was thrown on the table.

“What’s that?”

“That, Lt. Larabee, is a folder that outlines the highlights of your life.” Raven began to recite from memory. “Chris Larabee, oldest of two, one brother, John Andrew aka Jack and your parents Clint and Clarice are deceased. You graduated at the top of your class and excelled in sports. One year of local college and then you joined the Navy to finish your education. You applied and were accepted to the SEALS, and served ten years. During that time you participated in numerous black op assignments, earned the Navy Cross and two silver Stars, and you were honorably discharged. Your law enforcement career began with the DPD and you partnered with Buck Wilmington in homicide, during which time you received countless citations for service above and beyond. When your wife Sarah and son Adam were killed you quit the DPD, grieved for a year, and then received an offer to join the ATF. Eventually you gained your own command of team seven, then MCAT. You are married and have one baby daughter and last year discovered that you had another grown one. How am I doing?”

“You’ve done your homework.” Chris answered cockily. “I’m impressed; you get a gold star for excellence."

“Hawk tells me that you are a good man, and he trusts you implicitly, that is good enough for me. He sought out my assistance and I gave it, no questions asked. You have my word that I only have his best interest in mind with my actions and my only need is that you return that trust. Why I am helping him does not concern you, suffice it to say I owe him, more than that I cannot tell you. It is not necessary that you know who I am or how I do my job and I must respectfully request that you cease your inquiries about me. I am aware that Lady Hawk is no longer taking his reports and that you are the one I should contact with any news concerning our young friend.”

“That’s correct.” Chris bristled a bit. He knew nothing about this man, but Raven knew everything about him and his family.

“When Hawk contacts you, it is imperative that you order him out no later than 6:00pm on Sunday the third of December. Several groups will be converging in Rocky Meadows Monday afternoon. My information indicates that there are at least two individuals among them that will know that he is not Dusty Slater.” Another folder hit the table. “My interest is not in case building, but inside this folder you will find additional information that could aid your team in gathering evidence against the RMR, and the name of the informant that passed on the information about your agents. My objectives are to insure that Hawk makes it out of there alive, and stays that way.”

“Then we both have the same objectives. Keeping Tan…Hawk alive is my main priority.” Chris now had a good idea of who he was dealing with, and while he had questions, he would not pursue them. Larabee was confident that whatever his reasons were, this man was only interested in Tanner’s wellbeing and that was enough to know. “I will withdraw my inquiries, and although this meeting has been enlightening, I hope like hell we do not have a reason to communicate again.”

“As do I, Commander Larabee, but rest assured I will be vigilantly keeping watch until you have our friend safely home. We will not meet face to face again. If you will give me your word that you will wait five minutes after we depart before leaving this room I will not have you restrained again.”

“You have my word.” Chris would honor this man’s request, if for no other reason than he was someone that Vin considered trustworthy.

A set of keys landed on the table beside the folders. “Your truck is parked outside; give my regards to Hawk when you see him.” Suddenly the light went off and the room was thrown into darkness. Larabee heard the men move out the door and then waited for five minutes before he gathered the folders, picked up his keys, and exited the room.

Brother Vin, you have some strange friends.

You just now figuring that one out Cowboy?

Chris climbed into his Ram and picked up the cell phone that was lying on the seat beside him. Dialing a familiar number he waited for an answer.


“Buck, we have a change of plans. This is what I need you to do…” Larabee outline several tasks for the Captain to set into motion, and then hung up. He started the engine and then smiled when he realized that he was only a five minute drive away from home, apparently Raven had been keeping a close watch on all of them.

Rocky Meadows, Colorado ~3:30pm

Dusty stood at the front of his class of RMR recruits, watching them perform the fighting techniques he had been teaching them over the last four weeks, and was reminded of another class he had taught not long ago. As he continued to observe them, he received a sudden flash of alarm concerning Larabee. He was careful not to make any noticeable movements to indicate that anything was wrong, and he focused his attention inward. The quicksilver connection between him and Chris had been opened again, and he was now receiving a jumble of broken questions as well as a sense of darkness. He was not able to decipher what the incomplete questions were about, but he knew they were not directed at him. It was as if Chris was answering someone else’s inquires with smart ass remarks, and had no idea who he was speaking to. Except for the initial flash of alarm, Larabee was not indicating the presence of immediate danger, but he was pissed off.

Slater relaxed as he felt Larabee’s anger turn to comprehension. Dusty’s unease turned to amusement when he realized that Chris had somehow become acquainted with Raven’s odd sense of humor.

Brother Vin, you have some strange friends.

Satisfied that Larabee was okay, Dusty shifted his concentration back to the here and now. He already realized that his time was close to running out with the RMR. Karl told him this morning that as of the Sunday he wanted Slater to moved out to the compound, and to forget about working at Bubba’s after tomorrow. The first of several groups would be arriving at the compound beginning Monday to combine forces with Chambers’s men, and unless he pulled out soon, he would be unable to leave when that happened. The last thing Dusty would do in his role of RMR trainer would be to attend the strategy meeting Sunday afternoon, at that time he would be given the rest of the details of Chambers’s plan. After that, Dusty Slater would simply disappear.

Chapter 25

Larabee 7 ~Sunday December 3 ~11:30am

Several events had been set into motion since Larabee had had his encounter with Raven and his men. As soon as Vin was in the clear, a warrant was ready to arrest Gary Hough on conspiracy to commit murder charges. He was the young man that attended ‘without prejudice’ meetings with Nathan and Paul. Apparently Hough had been feeding information to the RMR continuously over the past year and knew what was planned for Agents Jackson and Roberts. The only thing that might save him from the death penalty was the fact that Paul‘s condition was slowly improving. Federal prosecutors were working to secure RICO indictments against Chambers and twelve of his closest associates. All they needed was to have a judge issue arrest warrants based on Tanner’s testimony in front of a grand jury.

Chris wished that the day was already over. He knew that it was going to be one of the longest days of his life. Last night’s conversation with Vin was to be their last contact until Tanner called him tonight to confirm that he was out of Rocky Meadows and headed home. Larabee hated the waiting part of an undercover mission. The closer you got to the end, the slower time passed. On top of the worry about concluding this mission, Linda had taken off with Matt for a trip to Louisiana sometime Friday. She did not even bother to tell Chris that she was leaving or how long she planned to be gone. She had only left him a note on the kitchen counter for him to find when he arrived home from work.

Larabee stood in the kitchen making up bottles for Grace. When he had discovered that Linda was gone, he had immediately given the Nanny time off. He did not like the woman in the first place, and he would be damned if he would put up with her interference between him and Grace. He knew he could care for his baby without that annoying woman in residence.

Buck walked in the back door. “Morning stud,” Wilmington stopped at Grace’s baby seat that was sitting on the table. “Hey darlin’, how’s our girl?”

“She’s great, just hungry.” Chris sat down and placed her in his arms to feed her. “Sit down and take a load off Buck. What brings you out and about this morning?”

Wilmington sat down. “Did Vin call last night?”

“Yep, and he should be home tonight. He promised to call me by six to confirm that he made it out with no problems.”

“I bet Kelli is on pins and needles today.”

“Vin talked to her after we set a time, but he was not going to tell her he was coming home. He figured she would worry all day and this way he can surprise her and the kids.” Chris shifted Grace’s position in his arms.

Buck nodded. “Good thinking on Vin’s part. It’s gonna be hard enough on us, no need for her to stress over it, too.” He hesitated to ask, but he had to know. “Did you figure out who Raven is, and do we trust him?”

“The way he came up with Dusty's cover story was too well orchestrated to be impromptu and who he is working for is something we don't want to know. Raven is probably a black ops specialist with the Clandestine Service of the CIA, and there is not much classified, or unclassified that he doesn’t know, or have access too. My guess is he knows Vin from his Ranger days, and most likely trained Tanner." Chris said. "After meeting with him I’m convinced that he has Tanner's best interest in mind. Besides, Vin trusts him and that will have to be good enough for us. For reasons we will never know, he owes our Texan, and the man did not hesitate to help when Tanner asked for his assistance with this mission.”

“I know Vin has as much blacked out on his records as we do. I reckon if this Raven guy is the one that trained him, then it’s a plus for us.”

“After watching the action of those sadistic bastards on the DVD’s that Tanner copied, I’ll take all the pluses we can get.” Chris sighed. I’ll be damn glad to see the backside of this one.”

“You and me both, “Buck grinned, “I can’t wait to get that ornery Texan back home. I owe him a good ass-kicking for the close shave he tried to give me when we were in Rocky Meadows.”

“Stand in line Buck. Vin and I have a few things to work out first.” Chris smiled. “Then you can take him on.”

The back door opened again, and Ezra walked in. “I dropped Barbara at Kel’s house, and thought perhaps I might come over, and visit for a while. Did our Mr. Tanner call?”

Chris smiled at the Southerner. It appeared that all of them had the same thing on their minds. “Vin should be on his way home by six. You might as well wait with us.”

One by one, the other brothers began to congregate at Chris’s home. By two o’clock they were all accounted for, and going through the motions of playing cards. Their minds however, were not on the game, but on Vin, and all eyes were on the clock

Rocky Meadows, Colorado ~2:00pm

Dusty drove into the compound and stopped; he sat in his truck for a few minutes to prepare for the meeting to come. He had cleaned out his room at Bubba’s earlier that morning, and loaded what little he had into the GMC. Chambers believed that he was moving out to the compound, but Slater had other plans. Within a few hours he would be on his way to Denver, and back to his life as Vin Tanner. All he had to do was make it through this damn strategy meeting, and then find an opportunity to leave. By this time tomorrow he would be home with his family, and Rocky Meadows would only be a bad memory.

“You had better get a move on Slater; we’re starting the meeting in ten minutes, and Chambers demands promptness.” Chip yelled as he walked across the yard toward the main building.

“On my way,” Dusty replied. He threw his jacket on the seat before exiting the vehicle, closed his truck door, pocketed his keys, and resigned himself to a couple more hours of listening to Chambers’s rhetoric. He headed toward the main building, but stopped when someone called his name.

“Dusty, wait up,” Clay Waters shouted from behind him and jogged the short distance to catch up with Slater. “Did you know that one of the other groups came in early this morning?”

“No, but what’s that got to do with me?”

“Raven thought you might want to know. The group that came in is from Texas, and an old friend of Dusty Slater’s was asking Karl about you. Chambers is damn anxious to see you.” Clay waited to see what Dusty would do.

Slater locked eyes with the younger man, and saw in them the words he was not sayin. Clay had never been easy to read, and blended in easily with his surroundings, a sure sign that Raven had trained him, too. He realized that he should have known that Raven would have an operative inside the RMR to cover his ass, and for Waters to reveal his presence to Dusty, something serious had transpired. “Kid, in this business ya don’t make many friends.” Dusty looked at the big oak door, decided to listen to Clay’s warning, and his gut that was telling him it was time to leave. “Ya go on in; I forgot somethin’ in my truck.”

“Sure, see you.” Clay watched as Dusty calmly walked back to the GMC, unlocked the door, and climbed inside. It did not surprise him that Slater started the engine and then drove out the gate. What did surprise him was the sight of a white van pulling out from behind one of the buildings, to follow him.

Dusty saw the van pull out behind him, and knew instinctively that if he headed toward Rocky Meadows someone there would probably be waiting to stop him. Although it did not matter much at this point, he surmised that whoever had been asking about Dusty Slater had evidently known enough to alert Chambers that the man he had hired was an imposter. In the span of a few minutes Dusty Slater had ceased to exist, and Vin Tanner was resurrected. The only problem was that Tanner now had to find a way out of Rocky Meadows alive.

Tanner knew that it was Anson at the wheel of the vehicle that was closing in behind him, and Bubba’s black truck sat across the road about a half a mile ahead of him. Had it not been for Clay, Vin would have walked into a trap, and a certain death sentence. He should have known that Raven would have a contingency plan in place, and thanks to his old commanding officer’s paranoia, he at least had a chance to make a getaway. That was more than he would have gotten from Chambers. He reached under the seat for the cell phone that he had kept concealed, and punched in Chris’s number as he drove.

Larabee 7

Five minutes ago, Chris had thrown his cards down, pushed his chair back from the table, and stood up.

“Are you alright Brother?” Josiah questioned.

“No.” Larabee began to pace the length of the room as five sets of eyes followed his movements.

Buck and Ezra exchange worried looks with Josiah and Nathan. They recognized the look on Larabee’s face, and knew that something was not right. JD jumped as Chris’s cell phone rang.

“Talk to me!” Chris had grabbed the phone from his belt and answered immediately.

“The shit just hit the fan Chris. I’m boxed in on FM225 heading east from the compound. ‘M gonna have to ditch the truck and hoof into the mountains, meet me at…”The phone suddenly cut off.

“Tanner!” Chris shouted into the phone, “God damnit!” Larabee threw the useless instrument across the room.

“What’s wrong Chris?” Nathan asked.

“Tanner has been compromised, we’re moving into rescue mode. Lock and load ‘em boys, we’re going hunting.”

They all knew the routine. Buck sent out the alert to the rest of the unit, pulled Larabee’s copies of the maps from his office, and then called Inez. JD used Chris’s CASSIE connection to set up current satellite views that might help them locate Vin, and called Casey. Nathan called Rain to let her know that she would be needed to monitor Inez, since she was due to deliver at any time, and to keep watch on Kelli’s medical status. Jackson planned on being on that helicopter when they left to hunt down Tanner.

“Chris, Vin marked two places on this map, I think he may have preplanned a rendezvous point, in case he needed a place to run. We should probably split up, you and I can have Cordova fly us in by copter, and try to intercept him somewhere close to here.” Wilmington indicated a spot on the map. “The others could drive in, and work their way backwards from the other place he marked, then we could all meet at a designated position.”

“Sounds like a plan to me. Buck, have Justin, Alex and Mark stay at the ranch to help Walter. We don’t know how they made Vin. They might only know that he is not Dusty, but if they know his real identity, Chambers may target his family. I want Mallory and Selena to stay with the women as part of a protection detail.” Chris was packing a bag for Grace as he talked. “Ezra, you’re going with me over to the Tanner house. I’ll have to leave Grace with Max, and we have to warn Walter that there may be trouble coming. Then we have to let Kel know what’s going on.”

“Do you really think that’s advisable? Ezra doubtfully questioned. “Considering her condition?"

“You said Barbara was already there, and once the other women and kids are together, I think they can keep Kelli calm. Besides, she’s not stupid. I think when her house begins to fill up with family and agents; she might become a little suspicious.” Larabee placed a call to Travis and waited for him to answer. “As soon as I talk to Travis we’ll head over…Orrin…we have a situation.”

Rocky Meadows Area

“Damn! Vin threw down the cell phone, he cursed himself for not recharging it after he used it last night, but he didn’t think he would need it again. He mentally ran over his options, and knew that he did not have many choices. It was going to take all of his skills to stay alive long enough for the cavalry to come charging in. Making his decision, he cut the wheels of the truck to the right, and headed off the road, forging his own trail down the rocky slope toward a stand of trees, coming to a stop less than ten yards from cover. Knowing that Anson was only a couple of minutes behind him, Vin grabbed his partially filled backpack, adding three bottles of water, and as much ammunition as he could carry to its contents. Tanner stuck the 9mm Glock inside his waistband, and then picking up his Winchester, he took off at a fast jog toward the trees.

Anson had pulled his vehicle over to the shoulder of the road. He knew the van would not make it down the incline, but he had another way to stop his prey. Exiting the van, he grabbed his gun, and walked to the edge of the gravel area. He raised the 30/30 rifle and located his target through the scope, with a bead on his quarry he pulled the trigger, and then smiled when he saw the man he knew as Dusty Slater hit the ground.

“Hot damn! You got the bastard!” Michael Stevens yelled.

“Come on, you can help me bring him up, Chambers will want to see his body.” The two men made there way down the side of the hill they were standing on, to the spot they had seen the man fall.

There was no body to be found. “I know this is where he fell.” Stevens walked around the area, shaking his head in disbelief.

Anson knelt down and studied the area around them. He ran two fingers over the leaf strewed ground, and felt them graze across something moist. With closer inspection he realized that the wetness he had felt was actually blood, and a wicked smile curved his lips. “Let the games begin.”

Tanner Home

Chris stood outside the door and received a status update before going inside to see his daughter. Josiah helped Mallory to settle their kids in, while Nathan said his goodbyes to Rain and Terrell. Max had no problem taking Grace, and the baby was sleeping contently in the playpen. Barbara was helping to organize the sleeping arrangements, and planned to keep Jason and Andi occupied while Chris talked to Kelli.

“Inez will be fine no matter what happens, Chris. She insisted that we don’t worry about her; she said her life was not at risk, Vin’s was, and that is where she wanted me to be. Besides, Tannis would not dare arrive ‘til her Uncle Vin gets back here, and Casey, Miss Nettie, and Selina will be keeping Inez company.” Buck assured. “I’m gonna say good-bye to her and the kids and meet you at Camp Larabee.”

“Alex, and Mark, as well as Bandit are with Walter setting up additional patrols for the ranch. All the equipment we need is at Camp Larabee, too, and Raphael will be flying the copter in, landing on our private helipad, near the first barn. I’ve already said my goodbyes to Casey and the girls, and I’m going there now to open up the CASSIE station. Pam will be there shortly and will monitor our communications,” JD reported. It had been decided that Josiah, Ezra, Nathan, and JD would drive to the Rocky Meadows area. “I’ll be ready to leave when you are Josiah.” Dunne followed Buck out the door.

“Ezra, Nathan, and I will stick around until you talk to Kelli, in case you need some extra support.” Josiah offered.

“Thanks,” Chris knew he had put it off long enough. He walked back to his daughter’s bedroom and knocked on the door. She was supposed to be sleeping, but somehow he knew that she wasn’t.

“Come in.” Kelli waited for the door to open, “Hi Chris. “The lights were low, and she was curled up in an oversized chair by the fireplace.

Chris moved over to sit close by. “Kel...I need to talk to you.”

Kelli prepared herself for bad news after seeing the look on Chris’s face when he entered the room. “Just tell me Dad.”

“Vin’s in trouble and we’re going after him.” Chris moved to sit beside his daughter. “He’s headed into the mountains, and you know the RMR will have a hard time finding him once he’s in there. Raphael is flying me and Buck in by copter, while the others drive up. We’ll probably have Vin safe and sound by the time they get there.”

“You’re wasting valuable time worryin’ over me. I’ll be fine as long as you bring my Texan home. Have Josiah take the Tahoe, it’s full of gas, and it will hold more people, and equipment than his truck.”

Chris could only nod because at that moment, he felt a burning pain in his side. He was certain that it was Tanner’s pain that he was feeling. Composing his features he made an effort to disguise his reactions, and said. “Mallory, Barbara and Max are gonna stay with you and the kids.” He pulled her to him for a hug. “Kel, I will bring him home.”

“I know you will, now go.” She waited for him to leave the room before she allowed her tears to fall, and prayed that Chris could reach Vin to bring him home safely.

Camp Larabee ~3:30pm

Chris parked his truck close to the barn door, while Josiah pulled in behind him in the Tahoe. Their preparations were finished and they were all ready to go Tanner hunting. Raphael had the helicopter loaded with the equipment Chris had requested, and a map of the Rocky Meadows area was spread out before him on the hood of his vehicle.

“Copter is ready Chris. I’ve looked at possible LZ’s and think this is the best place to drop you and Wilmington.” Cordova pointed to an area close to where Vin had called from.

Larabee brought out the map that Tanner had sent to him. “I need to be as close to this X as possible.”

Raphael nodded. “That’s doable.”

The other men had gathered around to listen and Nathan spoke up. “I want to go with you and Buck.”

Already shaking his head no, Chris answered. “The last thing we need is for your face to be visible to those bastards. NO.”

“Chris, I need to be on that helicopter. I’ll stay with Raphael, but if any of you get hurt, I need to be there.” Nathan argued.

Larabee saw the guilt displayed in Nathan’s eyes, and realized that his need was more than being available as a medic. Jackson needed to be there when they found Vin. Chris was certain that their Texan was already injured so he diffidently agreed that Nathan could come with them. “All right, you and Cordova will drop us, and then set up a base camp here." He showed them on the map. “Josiah, this is where we’ll meet up with you, Ezra and JD.”

“With a little luck, we’ll be there before dark.” Josiah replied.

“Pam will coordinate our communications, and we’ll stay in touch by radio. We will only use codenames, and Josiah, change the license plates on that Tahoe, or take them off completely. I do not want to give the RMR any information they may not already have.” Chris gave them last minute instructions. “We have bad weather moving in, and I plan on us finding Tanner before it gets here. Let’s ride.”

Sanchez used the red and blue emergency lights on the Tahoe to push the speed limit, and at the rate they were traveling they would make it to the place Vin had called from in record time. If necessary he would not hesitate to use the siren, too. The sooner they reached the area, the better their chances were of finding Tanner tonight. He hated to think about Vin having to spend the night somewhere on a cold mountainside alone, when his brothers were so close.

JD sat in the backseat and posed a question that he had been unable to stop thinking about. “What will happen if some of the RMR people find Vin before we do? You think they would put him on trial the way they did Abbott?”

Ezra was positive that if the worst happened, another fate awaited Tanner. As Dusty Slater, he had not only breeched their security, he worked his way into their trust, and that would cost him his life instantaneously if Chambers or Ricter found him first. “It is up to all of us to make certain that they never have that opportunity, JD”

Raphael had Chris, Buck, and Nathan, in the air and on their way to Rocky Meadows within minutes. Chris stared out the window, and thought about the last year. It had been rough for all of them, but Jack’s treachery had almost been Larabee’s undoing. The only good things that had come out of that situation were Jason and Andi. Chris had never regretted allowing Vin and Kelli to adopt the kids, and since his relationship with Linda had deteriorated so rapidly, he was all the more grateful that he had. In spite of the hurdles, he had made it all the way back to being the old Chris, except for facing Vin to let him know how much he valued their friendship. It was difficult to even consider that after all they had been through; he may not get that opportunity, and would then have to tell Jason, Andi, and Kelli, that he had failed them.

Vin, we’re on our way

“We’ll find him Chris.” Buck interrupted his thoughts. “Tanner knows how to stay alive out there and we were part of the best damn extraction team the NAVY SEALS ever had. He’ll do his part, and we’ll do ours. As Lt. Larabee used to tell us, ‘Failure is not an option’.”

Chris grinned. “Thanks for reminding me Sergeant Wilmington.”

Nathan had been quietly reflecting on his personal journey through doubt the last few months. Listening to these men that he called brothers, and thinking about the one that was out there waiting for them to come, he did something he had not done in a long time, he prayed.

RMR Compound ~ 4:30pm

Chambers paced as he waited on word from Ricter. Moving his operation was the last thing he had planned, but a necessary precaution to take. Dave Arness had arrived early this morning, and reacted strongly when Dusty Slater’s name was mentioned. Karl wanted to believe it was all a misunderstanding, but Dave said he was there the day Slater had been killed in Texas, and saw his body as the enforcers claimed it. When he was shown a picture of their Dusty, he had no doubt that Chambers had been deceived by someone that wanted him to believe that Slater was still alive. Their plan to apprehend Slater when he walked into the meeting room had failed; somehow the man knew they were waiting for him, and he had attempted to slip away unnoticed.

Karl was furious that despite the trap that his men had set, somehow the infiltrator they had known as Slater had managed to escape. The compound had been placed on high alert status, and contingency plans were being implemented to move their operation. The Ledger Militants had offered them an extraneous facility they owned that would be their new base. Karl hated to abandon the compound he had organized after ten long years. Nevertheless, he could not risk the possibility that Slater was a Federal agent, and had passed along too much information. He did vow that if by some chance Slater managed to elude Anson on that mountain, and reached safety that he would find out his true identity. He would not rest until the bastard was caught, and Chambers planned to be there when ‘Slater’took his last breath.

“Sir, the women and children will be escorted out in ten minutes, and our equipment is being loaded on trucks as we speak. I have everything I need, and will be taking Bellows and Stevens with me.” Anson reported.

“Don’t disappoint me Ricter, or I’ll see you dead right along with that imposter.” Chambers stated coldly. “I want you to take at least six more men with you.”

“Fine, but I know this area like the back of my hand, that sonofabitch will be dead by nightfall.”

“See that he is, Anson.”


Raphael had dropped Chris and Buck almost two hours ago, into an area they believed that Tanner would have to come through to make the rendezvous point that Chris thought he was headed to. Jackson and Cordova would be about ten miles to the north of them, setting up a base camp to meet with Sanchez, Dunne, and Standish. If Vin was not found tonight, Larabee and Wilmington would make a cold camp, and then continue on in the morning, while the others began a grid search from base camp.

The radio crackled. “Leader one, this is preacher, break. We have located last contact point and vehicle, break. Signs show that our lost lamb is injured, break.”

“This is Leader one, assemble at point two, break.”

“Affirmative Leader one, over and out.”

Josiah’s message had only confirmed what Chris already knew. Vin was injured, and darkness as well as the temperature, was falling fast. Okay Tanner, help me out here. At least let me know I’m in the right place, and you had damn well better hang on until I get to you.

Tanner had been on the move for close to three hours, and knew that he would have to stop very soon .Vin gritted his teeth against the agonizing pain that was shooting through his left side, as he forced himself to move on to higher ground. He had not stopped to assess his injury, wanting to put as much distance between him, and the truck as possible. Once he had reached a leaf and needle covered stone plateau on the mountainside he was climbing, Tanner stopped to catch his breath, examine his wound, and scrutinize his surroundings. He shrugged out of his coat, lifted his blood soaked thermal shirt, and got his first look at the jagged flesh that Ricter’s bullet had torn in his body as it pass through his side. It was a through and through, and for that he was relieved. If Anson had been closer when he fired, then this pursuit could have been over hours ago. Having a bullet lodged in his body would have complicated matters considerably, and slowed him down even more.

As Tanner was binding his wound with strips of material from the extra shirt he carried in his backpack, he heard Larabee’s voice in his head telling him to hang on.Easy for you to say Cowboy. Hurry up grandpa, big X marks the spot, and ‘m getting’ kinda tired. He hoped that Chris had studied the damn map he had made, and would recognize the escape route he had preplanned.

Vin uncapped one of the bottles of water, taking a long drink, and then glanced down the slope he had just climbed. In the distance he could make out movement. It was indication enough that Chambers’s men were coming for him, and he had wasted too much precious time resting, he needed to get moving again. Carefully pulling on his jacket, he grabbed his rifle, and slung the backpack over his shoulder. It was time to begin evasive maneuvers, and find a place to dig in for the night.

Chris had heard Vin loud and clear, they were in the right place, and still had a little daylight left, but the chances of finding Tanner tonight were plummeting by the minute. Even using night goggles it was dangerous to move around in unfamiliar mountain terrain in the dark. Larabee knew that Chambers, or some of his men were out there, too, but they would also have to stop at nightfall, or risk the possibility of falling off the mountain in the darkness. Reluctantly he called a halt for the night, but come daybreak he had a Tanner to find.

Chapter 26

Monday~ December 4

Vin awoke with a start. He hadn't meant to fall asleep, only to rest, and mentally cursed himself for giving into the demands of his weary body. He reached into his duffle bag, and took a small drink from the last bottle of water. He cautiously moved aside the tree branches that covered the opening of the small, cave-like hole he had found refuge in the night before, and with pain-filled blue eyes peered up at the sky. It was still the dark purplish-gray of predawn. The sun was about twenty minutes away from showing its presence over the mountain, but Tanner knew that he couldn't wait for daylight to arrive. He had to start moving again, every minute that he stayed idle allowed Ricter, and the other RMR members coming after him, the opportunity to close the distance between them even more.

The Texan gritted his teeth against the sharp pain that shot through his wounded side, as he tried to maneuver his sore body and stiff limbs out of the hole and into an upright position. Evidently he had sustained a few bruises from being bounced around in the truck when he had decided to drive off-road yesterday. The stiffness was from a combination of things; using his muscles in such a taxing manner during the vigorous climbing and from lying curled up, and motionless all night. The good news was that it was so damn cold the blood had finally stopped oozing from his wound. The bad news was that it was so damn cold Vin could not stop shivering and it looked like it was going to snow. He took a moment to center himself. He breathed in and out as he had taught the other MCAT agents to do before each of the rigorous training sessions, and eventually he got the shivering to stop, finding that he could tolerate the pain in his side a little better.

He closed his eyes, picturing the map he had drawn, and given to Kelli to take back to headquarters. Vin remembered the location of the two X's that he had marked on it. If he headed higher up, and a little to the East, he would be closest to the first location that he chosen. It was also the best position for a copter to land, so he knew Chris would most likely have Raphael touch down there. He opened his eyes and let out a breath. Regardless of whether he was closer to one location over the other, he still had another hard climb to reach the trail that would take him around the mountain. He glanced up toward the crest. The climb would have been a fairly easy one under normal circumstances, but it would prove more difficult to navigate because he was injured, and moving slower than he usually did. Add into that equation that he was a hunted man who would be an exposed target once he made it to the halfway point, and Vin knew that the odds of him making it out of the mountains alive were slim without help arriving. Ricter was out for blood, and would do everything he could to make sure that he died a slow and painful death.

Okay Tanner, get your ass up and move. Chris is on the other side of this damn mountain waiting for you. If the bastards behind you want a shot at you, make ‘em work for it.

Vin forced himself into motion. He pulled his coat tighter, grabbed his duffle, and swung it over his shoulder, carrying the Winchester in one hand, and keeping the other free to help him keep his balance as he climbed. He also wanted to be able to draw the Glock he carried in his waistband, if necessary. The road to home led around this mountain, and right then that was the place he wanted to be. He needed to see his kids again, and be there for Kelli and the baby that was coming. He damn well planned to be there when he or she arrived. Tanner vowed to himself to find a way to survive because he was not going to let Chambers or Anson deprive him of being with his family. Meet you at the top of the trail, Cowboy.


Every fiber in his body was telling Larabee that it was imperative to reach Tanner as quickly as they possibly could. He knew that they were in the right place, but he could feel Vin's thinking process slowing down, and mixed with the sense of pain he was experiencing from the Texan via their mental connection, it was a bad sign. Chris had no idea what was going to happen in the next several minutes, or even hours, but his gut was screaming at him to hurry.

Coming at you Tanner

“Hustle it up Buck. I want to find that Texan, and be on our way home before noon.” Chris was already moving out.

“Chris, don't you think we should wait for him here? This is one of the places that Vin marked on the map, and it's where we told Josiah, Ezra, and JD to meet up with us.” Buck realized he was talking to the backside of the blond. “I guess not.” Wilmington mumbled as he moved to follow Larabee.

Five miles to the north of their location, Sanchez, Standish, and Dunne were already geared up, and in motion. The trio knew that the sooner they could get to the rendezvous point, and reunite with their brothers, the better they would all feel. There was an air of urgency in all three men as their thoughts drifted frequently onto their missing brother, and each wondered how he was doing.

At the rendezvous location, Raphael and Nathan were in the middle of breaking camp. Jackson's thoughts were on the Texan as well, and he kept a mental checklist running through his head of all the medical supplies he had brought with him, and in which bag that they were kept. He didn't have the foggiest idea if Vin was injured or not; but he did know that the Texan had just spent a night out in the elements, and could very well be suffering from hypothermia and dehydration, or worse. He hated that he wasn't able to be out there with the other brothers trying to find their lost sheep, but had promised Chris that he would wait in camp. He and Raphael were on standby. The minute Chris called to be picked up, Cordova could have the helicopter in the air, and they could be on their way to Larabee, Wilmington, and Tanner's location immediately. He hoped that the call would come soon, or else he was going to go stir crazy.


Anson was furious. First, Karl had insisted that he bring extra men with him on his hunt, but somehow the infiltrator had managed to elude them last night. The Texan would not be successful in escaping him and the others today. With the light of day aiding them, and none of them injured as their prey was, he was certain that he would be standing over the infiltrator's cold, bloodied body before noon.

“Let's move it! Our prey is going to have to go up the side of this mountain to reach the trail out of here; we have to make sure that he doesn't make it.” Ricter prodded his men into action.

“Hell, with the firepower we have, we'll be lucky to find enough pieces of his no-good traitor's hide to take back to Chambers, especially if we use this.” Bellows pulled several pieces of dynamite out of his backpack to show Anson. “If we can't find him with our high powered scopes, these babies will do the job for us.”

Stevens laughed. “Just make sure you don’t pull part of that mountain down on top of us in the process, Chip.”

“If you two are through with the jokes, we can move out NOW!” Anson snarled as he motioned for the other men to fall in behind him. He wanted to kill that imposter himself, and anyone that tried to get in his way. Moving at a fast pace, he was certain that he could catch his quarry out in the open because there was no way he had made that last climb to the high trail in the darkness. Soon traitor, soon. It only took Ricter twenty minutes to find where the Texan had spent the night, and he knew that there could only be one possible way up for the man. He brought up his rifle, and sited his scope to scan the mountainside.


Tanner paused to try to catch his breath. It was getting harder for him to breathe past the pain shooting through his weary body from his wound. He knew that he had to keep going. He took another breath, wiped the perspiration stinging his eyes from his face with the back of his free hand and mentally called up the faces of his wife and children before him. He used their image to draw the strength that he needed to keep going.

Vin didn't know whether it was gut instinct, or Mistress Fate prodding him, but he suddenly felt the urge to duck his head, and it was fortunate that he did. A bullet flew past his head, and exploded against a boulder a few feet in front of him, sending shards of fragmented rock flying everywhere. Adrenaline filled him in a rush, propelling him to find some cover. He was like a sitting duck in a carnival game out in the open like he was, and Anson probably wouldn't miss the second time around. He moved zigzag up the trail a few more feet, making himself as difficult a target to hit as he could, all the while a cold sliver of dread raced down his spine as he anticipated the shot that would end his life.

He spotted an outcropping of rocks that would provide him as much cover as he was going to get, and dived behind it as he heard the bark of another high-powered gun. He moved as quickly as he could, taking his GLOCK from his waistband and setting it down beside him, removing boxes of ammo out of the duffle bag so that it would be at his ready disposal. Moving into a kneeling position, Vin carefully sighted down his own gun, it was time to suck it up and make his stand. He wasn't going to go down without a hell of a fight.

Cowboy, if you've got a plan to save my ass, now would be a good time to share.

Chris heard the shots. He instinctively knew that Tanner was in trouble, and Vin's call was as plain as if he had been standing next to him. Larabee took off at a run toward the sounds of more gunfire.

“Chris!” Buck had heard the shots as well, and feared that in his haste to get to the Texan's side, Larabee was going to make himself a target as well.

Hang on Vin, we're almost to you. Larabee sent back at Tanner, as he continued his descent down the mountainside toward the location that the shots were coming from. He heard more shots, these somewhat louder than the others, and a grim smile lit his face. Vin was evening up the odds against him. When he reached a clearing, he only slowed down enough to yell at Buck. “Cover me,” and then continued on his course.

“Someone has to be thinking about that fool hide of yours, 'cause it's obvious that you’re not.” Buck retorted as he opened up a volley of gunfire to give Larabee a chance to cross the open space.

Vin heard the voices yelling from above him, and shouted out a warning. “Stay where you are Chris! There are at least half a dozen high powered rifles aimed in this direction! "

“Can’t do that Tanner, make room!” Larabee began his decent down the side of the face of the cliff.

“Make Room?” Tanner exclaimed. “Are you fuckin' kiddin' me? There's barely enough room to cover my scrawny ass, let alone yours!” Vin did the only thing he could do though, and that was to fire are many rounds down the mountainside as possible to give Larabee a chance to make it down the fifteen feet of mountainside to him. Buck was shooting from above him, and miraculously Chris dropped down beside him, still in one piece.

“Took you long enough to get here...” Tanner quipped as he took another shot. "Get lost?"

"Hell no, you're the lost lamb, not me." Chris fired a few rounds down the mountainside." I can’t turn my back on you for a minute without you getting your Texas butt into trouble.” Larabee grinned. “How about we kick some ass, and get the hell out of here?”

“Sounds like a plan to me. You got any brilliant ideas?”

“Not dying would be at the top of the list.” Chris told Tanner. “Taking out a lot of the bad guys would be a close second.”

“Ya think?” Vin replied sarcastically as he loaded his Winchester and took aim again. “When can we expect the rest of the boys to be makin’ their appearance?”

“If they have their usual good timing, I’d say ‘bout right now. “Chris continued to fire as three more guns began to shoot from above. “You ready to hustle up that mountain to join ‘em?”

“I’ll cover your ass, but I don’t think I can hustle anywhere.” Vin believed that the odds of both of them making it to the top alive were next to none.

“Better draw up on that Texas orneriness I know that's inside of you Vin, and get your butt moving!” Larabee shouted at him. “I didn't come all this way, and risk my ass getting down here to you, to leave you behind. Now, move it!”

Tanner shot him a go to hell look, but knew that it was pointless to argue with Larabee when he was in such an indomitable mood. He tried to straighten up and felt red-hot pain shoot through him from his side, even as his muscles protested being put into motion again. He fired several more rounds down the sloping terrain, before he broke cover, and began to scramble up the mountainside as fast as his weakened body could go, with Chris following behind him, pushing him on. More bullets from above and below them whizzed by as they moved toward the grouping of their brothers only a short distance further up.

Suddenly Chris let out an agonized cry, and toppled into Vin, knocking him down, causing both of them to start sliding down the rock face at an alarming rate. Larabee cursed against the throbbing pain shooting through his left arm as he clawed at the ground in order to stop his descent. Tanner managed to do the same, and both men spent precious moments catching their breath before they regained their footing, and were moving back up the mountain, dodging bullets as they went.


Anson had grimaced menacingly as he, and the other RMR members steadily advanced on the man he had known only as Dusty Slater. Another couple of minutes and it was all going to be over, or so he had thought. They were only about 100 feet from the where the traitor had taken cover, and so far neither he nor any of the others had been wounded. He was in for a rude awakening. The moment that their prey took cover, was the moment that they all became targets as well. One by one, he began to hear the agonized cries of his RMR brothers as they fell under the cornered man's bullets.

Then more guns joined the man he knew as Slater, and Ricter knew they were in trouble. He felt pain shoot down his arm as a bullet ripped into his shoulder. He could not stop though; he was going to kill that sonofabitch one way or another. He took cover and yelled to Chip, “Bellows! Pull out that damn dynamite!”

“Yes Sir!” Chip brought out a dozen sticks of the explosive, and was preparing to use it when he heard a helicopter in the distance.


Nathan clung to the side of the helicopter as Raphael maneuvered it toward the coordinates that Ezra had given them a few moments earlier. “Two more minutes and we'll be there.” Raphael shouted over the whirr of the blades. Nathan nodded. The sooner they touched down, the better off he would feel. His brothers were in the line of fire and he needed to be there with them.

Buck and Josiah both slid a few feet down the mountainside, each grabbing hold of one of their wounded brothers, while Ezra and JD continued laying down cover fire. Just as they managed to pull the pair to the top the first explosion detonated close by.

“Fucking sonsofbitches are lobbing dynamite up here!” Buck yelled as he hauled Tanner up and over the top of the overhang, while Josiah did the same with Larabee.

“We've got to get the hell out of here or we're all going to be kissing our asses' goodbye!” Larabee shouted. “Get moving!” He felt the hands of his uninjured brothers, prodding him, and Vin in front of them as together the group moved further up the mountainside. The brothers took turns covering each other's backs as they scrambled onto level land.

There was a 'whish' of something flying through the air and landing in the middle of them. Six pairs of eyes flew to the ground as they realized what had just happened. Vin's reflexes were slowed down by his injuries, but he still managed to pick up the ignited stick of dynamite, break free from the group, and lob it back down the mountainside, shouting, “Parting gift from Dusty Slater, you bastards.” He took satisfaction when he heard the exclaimed curses from below, and then his body began to cave in, as he sank to his knees.

“Tanner! What in the hell are you trying to do?” Chris yelled. “I promised my daughter that I would bring you home in one piece damnit, and you wanna play with the damn dynamite! Get your ass into gear and move!”

“Yes sir!” Vin exclaimed as Buck hauled him up onto his feet, and started roughly dragging him toward the clearing a short distance away where Raphael had managed to set the helicopter down. He swore under his breath as he stumbled over rocks, each jerky movement sending sparks of searing pain shooting through his injured side. Tanner knew that Wilmington was only trying to save both their hides from the volley of bullets Anson and his men were still shooting up at them, even as more sizzling sticks of dynamite were raining down around them.

Explosions were going off all around them, and it would be a miracle if they all reached the relative safety of the helicopter without one of them losing a limb or worse.

Nathan jumped out of the helicopter as soon as Raphael had the bird close enough to the ground, and immediately ran toward his brothers. His dark eyes were full of concern as he took in the way that Vin and Chris both were being helped along, and was anxious to examine them to find out the extent of their injuries. The fact that both were still on their feet was a good thing. Jackson was also eager to add another gun onto their side against their assailants, as rapid gunfire was still going on between MCAT agents and the members of the RMR.

“It wasn't enough that Vin was possibly injured, and would be in need of medical attention?” He snapped at Chris as he reached them. “Without you adding yourself to the list?”

“I can't let Tanner have all the fun.” Larabee retorted as the medic swung his arm around his waist and helped Josiah lead their commanding officer toward the helicopter at a fast pace.

“Fun?’ Nathan snorted in disgust as he helped Josiah load Chris onto the helicopter.” You need to get a new hobby Larabee, or else you're not going to live long enough to walk Grace down the aisle.”

He climbed onboard the helicopter and began to examine Larabee, as Buck placed the near unconscious sharpshooter in the copter on the other side of Chris. “I think this one got up close and personal with a few rocks on the way up, and then decided to play superman with a stick of dynamite.”

Nathan bit off the retort that sprung onto his tongue as he finished his examination of Chris, and turned his attention onto the Texan.

“Gentlemen, perhaps we should talk later, and MOVE OUR ASSES NOW!” Standish yelled as an array of bullets whizzed by them as they hustled to haul their butts inside with the injured pair. Raphael had the helicopter lifting off the ground as JD and Ezra swung their bodies inside, and left the bullets behind, along with Chambers’s men.

“Damn! We made it!” Chris reached around Nathan to clasp forearms with Vin. “Welcome back brother.”

The five other brothers looked on with wide grins on their relieved faces, as for the first time in what seemed like forever, they were seven strong again, and all was right with their world.

“Hold that in place.” Nathan instructed the blond, motioning to the pile of bandages he had placed over Larabee's wound.” We need to stop the flow of blood as best we can until we get you and Vin to Denver Memorial.”

Chris nodded, and placed his right hand onto the compress as soon as Jackson removed his hand.

Nathan turned his attention onto doing what he could for Tanner until they reached the hospital. The side wound was a through and through, and didn't look to be very deep, but it would still need thorough cleansing, and suturing. After dressing it as best as he could, Jackson glanced up at the Texan's face, and was surprised to see Vin's pain filled eyes still open. He fought the urge to look away, knowing that he deserved any recriminations that his brother needed to say to him after the way he had treated him. There was no anger, only unasked questions, and also...forgiveness. Nathan knew that a private talk between the two of them was in order, but that was going to have to wait until a later date.

Cordova set the whirly bird down near the Tahoe. It had been decided that Josiah and JD would drive back to Denver, and Ezra, as well as Buck, would stay with Nathan, and the two injured men. Standish had volunteered to contact Kelli, and Linda concerning their husband’s situation. Once Sanchez and Dunne were on the ground, Raphael lifted off again heading straight to Denver Memorial. Nathan called ahead to alert the ER that two of the seven were on the way in and needed to be seen under assumed names. Buck placed a call to Travis to let him know their lost lamb had been rescued.

Denver Memorial ~Noon

Thankfully the snow that the weather forecasters had been predicting for their area had held off until they were almost to Denver. A shading of the powdery white substance covered the roofs of the cars in the parking lot and the entire hospital, including the helipad by the time Cordova set the helicopter down on. Here in the city, the snow was a wet, and cold inconvenience, but tolerable; had it begun snowing the evening before, or even this very morning while they were still on the mountain, it could have meant the difference between life and death for Tanner, if not all of them.

Even before the moment that Raphael cut the engine, and the flaps ceased whirling around, the waiting hospital staff was moving into action. Two medical teams of three rushed forward with a gurney apiece, and quite proficiently transferred first Tanner, and then Larabee onto them. An IV was immediately started on both patients; Tanner receiving blood and a saline solution to combat dehydration, and Larabee was started on infusions as well. The Texan was rushed off to the elevator to make a trip down to the ER and trauma room one. The identical procedure was followed to transport Chris to trauma room two.

Doctors Gilford and Landers were waiting for their charges, and immediately began their own examinations of the two injured men. Tanner had lost a large amount of blood, and was slightly dehydrated, but Landers felt confident they could avoid surgery. The bullet had passed through cleanly, without nicking any arteries or organs. After ordering two units of blood for Vin, he cleansed the wound, carefully making certain that it was not contaminated, and then sutured the skin.

“What you need now is rest, and antibiotics. Try to stay put, and give your body an opportunity to recuperate, at least overnight, before your next adventure.” Dr Landers signed the orders for medication, and then handed Vin’s chart to the nurse, before speaking to Tanner again. “We’re going to move you to a room, and I will be by later this afternoon to see you.”

“I want to be in the same room as Lar'bee.” Vin told the doctor.

“How did I know that?” Landers patted Tanner on his shoulder. “I’ll do what I can.” The doctor smiled and walked out of the room.

Dr. Gilford had assessed Larabee's shoulder wound and decided the man had been very lucky. The bullet had torn through muscle and just grazed the shoulder bone. The bone was ex-rayed, the wound cleaned and sutured. Since Larabee was a recovering addict, Dr. Gilford prescribed only non-narcotic medication to ease the man's pain.

“I want you to stay in the hospital overnight, Chris.” Dr. Gilford told the blond. “Your body needs some rest to recuperate from the shock of being shot. Someone will be in to take you to your room in a couple of minutes.”

“I want to be in the same room as Tanner.” Chris told the doctor.

“If it's possible,” Dr. Gilford told him and left the room.

Buck had been watching Ezra, and he appeared to be indecisive about something. “Ez, you okay?”

“I find that in this instance, my lack of experience with expectant mothers has hampered my ability to handle what should be a simple situation. How am I supposed to tell a woman that has been ordered to bed rest that her husband is in the hospital?” Ezra was having second thoughts about volunteering for this job.

“It's not like Kelli's going to come through the phone and rip you to shreds, Ez.” Wilmington told the undercover agent. “She’s going to be relieved that we got to Vin in time, and that even though he's hurt, he's relatively in one piece.”

“True, but how in the hell am I going to convince her to stay at home?”

“Hmm, I see the problem. Tell you what, let’s wait until we get these two in a room, and then let Vin convince her. I bet, even in his condition, he’s up for the task.” Buck grinned, and slapped Ezra on the shoulder. “Now with Linda, you’re on your own.”

“Perhaps you…”

“No way in hell, Ez.” Buck saw the trauma room door open and Tanner was being wheeled out. “What room?” he asked the nurse.

“The docs pulled some strings, and arranged for both your friends to be moved to room 503. Larabee is on his way up next; give me five minutes, and then you can see them.” The nurse called over her shoulder on the way to the elevator.

“Alright, Ez, make your phone call while I leave word at the desk for Josiah, and JD, then we’ll go on up." Buck hastily wrote a note for Sanchez and Dunne, and then gave the receptionist instructions to not give out the room number to anyone without calling up first for permission. Wilmington and Standish moved toward the elevator, Denver Memorial should be safe, but they were not taking any chances that the RMR had ears or eyes that could pass word back to Karl Chambers about Tanner.


Chambers paced as he waited word from Ricter. Moving his operation was the last thing he had planned, he was leaving ten years of his life behind, but it was necessary precaution to take. He did not want a standoff with the enforcers; he wanted to elude them for now. At least the good citizens of Rocky Meadows would cover them and never admit they had even been there. Whatever the government found on the property could not be tied to the RMR.

He knew that as more time passed without his second-in-command, and the other men showing up baring Slater's body with them that things weren't going well. This further infuriated him. How he had let the imposter posing as Dusty Slater into his inner circle was beyond him. He wasn't a man who trusted, let alone respected anyone easily, and in about a month's time, the infiltrator had gained both his respect and trust.

It was well after noon before Anson and the other men arrived back at their new base camp, which the leaders of the Ledger Militants had so generously given over to him and his followers for their usage until they were able to locate a permanent alternative. The front of Anson's shirt was bloodied, and his left arm dangled crookedly within the makeshift sling that someone had hastily prepared for Ricter.

“I hope that you have good news to share with me Anson.” Chambers told the other man in a cold voice.

“The bastard had help waiting for him, and a helicopter. He escaped.” Anson reported. “We also lost three men, and four more were wounded

“I warned you what would happen if you disappointed me.” Chambers drew his gun and shot Ricter between the eyes. Anson fell to the floor with a surprised look on his face. Karl stepped up to Ricter's body.” Make it four men we lost.”

Chip Bellows stood in stunned disbelief over what had just transpired before him. Chambers had killed Ricter as if he was swatting an annoying fly, and hadn't even blinked an eye.

Chambers turned towards him. “You're second in command now.” He threw a picture of Slater that had been taken on Thanksgiving, onto the table. “The first thing I want you to do is find out who in the hell Slater is. I have $50,000 for the man who can identify him, and another $50,000 for whomever is brave enough to kill him.”

“Yes sir.” Bellows picked up the photo from the table, wondering how long the man had to live.

Chapter 27

Denver Memorial Hospital~ Monday ~3:00pm

There was a sense of relief and unity as the other five brothers that made up the foundation of MCAT, gathered together in Room 503 where an injured Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner were placed for the duration of their hospital stay. Josiah and JD had arrived at the hospital less than an hour earlier from a hurried trip back from Rocky Meadows.

“Which one of you had the unfortunate task of calling my absent wife to let her know about my condition?” Larabee asked

There was a shuffle of looks among the five brothers at Chris’s bold question. It had not gone unnoticed from them, and their wives, that things weren't right in the Larabee household. Having Chris ask about Linda in such an indifferent way, told them that things between the Larabees were far worse than any of them had imagined.

“At Ezra’s request, I made the call, Chris.” Josiah spoke up softly. “I left a message on her cell phone to call me as soon as possible. Obviously she has not received the communication yet.”

Chris accepted this piece of news with a curt nod. He had expected as much from Linda. The two hadn't been on speaking terms when she had left for Louisiana in the first place, and he and Grace weren't exactly at the top of her list anymore. Of course, it was not as if they had been on a list of any kind where Linda was concerned. “I'm not sure she will call even after she gets the message. Grace and I haven't been on the top of her list of priorities for quite some time.”

An uncomfortable silence hung in the air for a moment.

Tanner was the one to break it. “Which one of you called Kelli?” Vin asked as he scanned the faces of his brothers.

“That would be me.” Ezra replied, “In a manner of speaking.”

“What in the hell does that mean? Vin scowled at the Southerner.

“It means that I gave Barbara a message to pass along to Kelli. I told her to tell my partner that you were with us, reasonably well, and details would be forthcoming.” Ezra shrugged his shoulders. “At least Kelli will know you are among the living, even though she may not know your location at the moment.”

Buck laughed. “In other words you chickened out on talking to Kelli directly so that she couldn't wheedle out of you the information that Vin was in the hospital. Because you knew she would have high tailed it down here.”

“There was that possibility to consider.” Ezra acknowledged Wilmington's astute incite into the situation without shame. “I believe the information that he is wounded should come directly from Vin. He is, in all probability, the one person who is capable of convincing her to remain at home.”

“I appreciate you lettin' her know I was alive, regardless of how she was told the news.” Vin said as he fumbled for the phone on the bedside table. “I should give her a call to assure her that 'm okay.”

“Allow me.” Ezra stepped forward to pick up the receiver of the phone, and began dialing the number. As soon as it began ringing he handed the phone to Vin.

Kelli answered the phone on the second ring, “Hello.”

“Hey baby.” Vin said softly into the phone and heard his wife draw in a breath, and then let it out slowly in a relieved sigh. If he wasn't mistaken, the Texan heard her sniffle as well, and was finding it hard to keep his own emotions in check. It had been too close. If his brothers hadn't arrived when they had, he most certainly wouldn't have survived the volatile gunfight that he had been in the middle of with Anson and the other members of the RMR.

“Kel, I'm fine. A bit battered and bruised, but otherwise in fairly good condition. Chris got himself a bit scraped up as well, and the docs want to keep us both overnight for observation. The important thing is that my time away from our family is finished, and startin’ tomorrow I'm all yours. I want you to stay put for the evenin’. The only job you have is to be there for the kids, take care of yourself, and baby Tanner. Don’t make me worry about you overdoin’, and gettin’ out in this weather.” He listened for a few more minutes. “I love you, too. I’ll call tonight, and talk to the kids; you follow the doctor’s orders.” Vin laughed. “I promise, and I’ll be sure to tell him, bye.” The Texan handed the phone to Ezra for him to hang it up, and grinned at Chris. “Kel said to tell you that your ‘scratch’ better heal as fast as mine, or she’ll be givin’ us both hell for a month of Sundays.”

“She is staying at the ranch though?” Chris asked, knowing his daughter well enough that he was certain no one would be able to stop her if she decided to come here.

“For now, but if Doc keeps us past tomorrow all bets are off.” Vin smiled. “So I reckon we need to heal fast.”

“Baby Tanner,” Buck grinned at the Texan. “I bet it feels real good to say that, doesn't it?”

“Yes, it does.” Vin grinned at Wilmington. “The only regret I have is that everyone seems to already know, and I didn't even get to tell anyone. Kel swears she only told Chris, because he's the one that took her to the doctor's appointment, so how do the rest of you know?”

“I was informed of the happy occasion by an irate Larabee while he was chewing out my posterior for helping Blaze.” Ezra declared. “I swear Vin, if I had known Kelli was pregnant, I would have handcuffed her myself to keep her from carrying out her dangerous exploit.”

“You and I will be havin' a chat about that later, Ez.” Tanner forewarned him.

Standish nodded. He had anticipated that he and Vin would be having some words over his participation in helping Kelli during her dangerous exploit as Blaze Butler.

“Both JD and I were in the room when Chris told Ezra.” Buck added. “Or rather, shouted would be the correct way to describe how we heard the news. I'd be surprised if the whole MCAT team doesn’t know it by now.”

Larabee shot Wilmington a glare as the round robin of confessions continued.

“No one told me that it was supposed to be a secret.” JD said sheepishly. “So I told Casey. She in turn, informed Inez and Mallory that Kelli was expecting.”

“Mallory had already guessed that Kelli was pregnant, and filled me in on her suspicions.” Josiah added. “ I agreed with her after I went over how many times Kelli had been sick at work, and the fact that Chris had put her on desk duty.” Josiah added.

“I have to admit that I had missed all the telltale signs because my head wasn't on straight.” Nathan said, “But once I started paying attention it wasn't difficult to add two and two together to figure out that there was a baby Tanner on the way, and then I told Rain.”

“Who needs a telephone to relay news when we have the Wild Bunch?” Vin said with an aggrieved sigh.

“Don’t worry about it Vin. You do get to tell the kids. As soon as we’re able to, we’ll have a big welcome home party, and let you tell us all again.” Chris grinned, and it was contagious, as one by one all the brothers heartily congratulated Tanner.

The door was pushed open, and Orrin Travis strode into the room with a grim look on his face.

“Welcome to the party sir.” Buck said jovially before seeing Travis's expression.

“Larabee, it's good to have you back, Tanner, I am glad you are still with us...Wilmington, as both the Commander, and the Senior Captain are injured, you are in charge of MCAT. Place Agent Tanner under arrest.”

“Like Hell I will!” Buck exploded emphatically, wondering whether or not the stress of watching over the MCAT team had become too much for the director, and he had finally gone insane.

“I don't think so!” Vin exclaimed, narrowing his eyes at Travis.

“Orrin, are you out of your ever-loving mind?” Larabee asked incredulously, his green eyes intent on the older man's face.

The rest of the brothers were equally shocked at the Director's order, and were ready with their own opinions in defense of Tanner.

“Quiet!” Travis's voice was filled with thunderous authority that echoed through the hospital room. “There are Federal Marshals on their way over here to place Agent Tanner under arrest, and hold him in protective custody. Now, knowing Tanner like I do, he's not going to stand for being in seclusion away from his family, waiting out an arrest and then stay sequestered until a trial is over. Especially with people he doesn't trust at his back. In order to thwart that happening...I'm ordering that he be placed under the protective custody of MCAT. So Wilmington, do your damn job, and arrest Tanner before the Marshals get here.”

Buck locked reluctant eyes with Vin, and saw the slight nod of his head. “Vin Tanner, you are under arrest.” Wilmington turned to Travis. “Do I have to handcuff him, or are you satisfied that he is not a flight risk?”

“I think we know where to find him.” Travis visibly relaxed. “If there had been any other way I would not have resorted to such drastic measures, however I just spent the last hour arguing with two Federal attorneys who are chomping at the bit to get their hands on Tanner as a material witness. They had a warrant for his arrest in the Marshals hand’s before I left the Federal Building.”

“We understand the quandary that you were in, Director.” Ezra assured the older man.

“I'd have been respectful to the Marshal's when they arrived here,” Tanner told Travis, “But I wouldn't have willingly gone with them. I've been away from my family far too long, and no one is goin' to make me spend one more day apart from them, especially now that Kelli is carryin' another Tanner.”

Director Travis blinked at him. “Did I just here you correctly? Agent Coulter, uh, Kelli is pregnant?”

Vin grinned broadly at him. “Yes sir, you heard correctly. Kelli and I are expectin' a baby to add to our brood.”

“Congratulations, son,” Travis grinned. Then he had another thought that stopped him cold. “Did you know this when you volunteered for this mission?”

“No sir. If I had known…Hell, I probably would have done the same thing, but I definitely would have worked it differently, and not gone in alone.”

“You shouldn’t have gone in alone anyway.” Chris interjected, and then grilled Travis. “We’ll guarantee that Vin will testify, but why the big push for protective custody?”

“You know how prosecutors are Chris. All they are concerned with is their case, and the information Tanner obtained while undercover is the biggest part of their case against the RMR. Without Vin establishing the credibility of that evidence they have no case.” Travis explained. “They have already sent a Marshal out to arrest Gary Hough, and they want us to organize a raid on the RMR compound.”

“Oh, joy.” Ezra muttered, earning him a stern look from Travis.

“Are we going in alone or is this going to be a coordinated effort between MCAT and other agencies?” Larabee queried.

“You are not going anywhere Larabee. I have already asked our forensic agents to team up with the FBI on this one. Agent Abbott’s supervisor asked to be included, and I agreed.” Orrin held up his hand to ward off Chris’s argument. “I want our first priority to be the safety of this unit, and frankly, you all look as if you could use some rest. I will let you work out the measures for Tanner and Jackson’s protection.”

“My protection?” Nathan asked with surprise. “I'm not the one in police custody.”

“No, you're not, but I can arrange it if necessary.” Travis agreed. ”You are, however, still in danger from the RMR. From what I know about these people, Nathan they usually don't leave any witnesses behind. You and Roberts are still alive and that has to be a thorn in the RMR's side, along with Tanner's infiltration into their organization. So you need to go along with whatever Chris decides in regards for protection for you and your family. After tomorrow you will not need to worry about Roberts. His sister wants him transferred to a hospital in Atlanta, and I have made the arrangements. He is going to need several reconstructive surgeries, as well as skin grafts in the months to come, and his doctor’s feel that being closer to his family will help his recovery.”

Chris nodded. As much as he hated for the team to miss out on the raid, his priority was the protection of the family. “At least one MCAT agent will stay with Tanner and Jackson at all times. We need to be in contact with authorities in Atlanta to see to it that Roberts has someone guarding him at all times as well.”

“I have taken care of a protection detail for Roberts. You concentrate on our agents here. We are heading into the holidays, and right now I want the unit to stand down until after the first of the year. By then we will know what our position will be, and hopefully have a better idea of what to expect until the trial. For now, you two look as if you could use some rest. The hospital has been informed to black out any request for information on either of you, and your names are not on the registrar’s list.” Travis addressed Buck. “Captain Wilmington, make your assignments, and then I think you and I should intercept those Marshals before they get to this floor.”

“Nathan, I want you to work out with Rain what you will need to care for Chris and Vin when they are released tomorrow. Ezra, you go with him, and if there are any purchases to make, you make them. JD, if our forensic agents are going in with the FBI, I want you to set up communications with them. Josiah and I will stay here tonight.” Buck instructed them before he left with Travis, and then Ezra, Nathan, and JD reluctantly took their leave.

Josiah stood up. “I will be right outside the door. Why don’t you two follow your doctor’s orders for a change, and try to sleep for a while?”

“Yes sir.” Chris told Sanchez cockily.

Vin snickered as the older man tried his best to imitate a 'Larabee' glare at the man who had created it, and failed.

Larabee grinned at Josiah. “Seriously though, getting some shut-eye does sound like a good idea.” Chris closed his eyes and tried to relax his aching muscles. He knew that some of the tension that he was feeling was more from his being alone in the same room with Tanner for the first time since he had been back from California. The pain in his injured shoulder was tolerable, and something that he could manage on the non-narcotic medications that the doctors had prescribed for him. At least he didn't have to worry about the possibility of a relapse, as his mind was focused on other things. It was good to have his family back together again, and he'd go through a hell of a lot more pain than what he was experiencing right now, to make sure it never was torn completely apart. He had waited a long time for the opportunity to make things right with Vin. Now that they were here, face to face, he was not sure where to start.

“Start wherever you feel most comfortable.” Vin's soft drawl drifted across the room to invade Larabee's thoughts.

Chris sighed. He hadn't realized he had been broadcasting his jumbled thoughts so loudly. “I expect the first thing that I need to say to you Vin is that I'm sorry. I was wrong. The way I acted, what I said to you....what I accused you of… hell, most everything I did was backasswards.”

“I wasn't after your job Chris.” Tanner said, choosing his words carefully. “It was you who placed me in charge of MCAT while you went under. I just followed your orders and led the unit to the best of my ability durin’ your absence.”

“I know that, Vin.” Larabee said. “I just got so caught up in wanting to save those kids that I didn't care who it was I had to step around or over, as long as I did it. Part of it I know was the drugs talking, but the other part of it was all me. I let my ego override every other thought until I was in so deep, I didn't know how to get myself out of it. If it hadn't been for you and boys coming in when you did, I’d be a dead man right now, or a prisoner in some foreign country. Once again my brothers came through to rescue my ornery ass, even though this time, it was with me kicking and screaming all the way. I owe you all, and I can't begin to even up the score.”

“No one's keepin' track, Cowboy. We didn't do anythin’ more than what you would have done for us. What you have done for me more times than I can count, includin' rescuing my hide this mornin' before I became the prize trophy for the RMR.”

Chris chuckled in spite of the seriousness of their conversation, as an image of Vin, all trussed up and stuck over a fireplace swam before his eyes.

Tanner must have caught a glimpse of what he was seeing because he chuckled wryly. “You’ve got a twisted sense of humor.”

Larabee grew serious again. “In spite of my bullheadedness, all of you stepped back and let me make the decision about my future without forcing the issue. That means a lot to me. I can't promise that we won't butt heads over something in the future Vin, but I can say that I will do my damnest not to bring the unit or the family down around our heads again"

Tanner considered the underlying emotions he heard in Larabee's voice as he spoke. “It's done, and in the past, Chris. We can only move forward from here.”

Chris let out the breath he had been holding. “Now, that we've got that settled between us...there's something else I want to discuss with you.”

Tanner sighed. He had had a feeling that Larabee wasn't going to let how he went undercover in the RMR go without them hashing it out. “You would have done the same thing Chris.”

“It isn't the fact that you chose to go undercover in the RMR that bothers me Vin. It's how you went under.” Chris told him. “Damnit Vin, you aren't indestructible anymore than I am. I know that I forgot that for awhile, but I'm back to thinking clearly again, and I am certainly not going to make the same mistake twice. Hell, I could even go so far and say it was the pills I was indulging in that made me do it. What's your excuse?”

“I knew what I was doing Chris.” Tanner's voice had a touch of anger in it. “I couldn't walk away from goin' into this assignment, any more than you could not go undercover in California. Not only had those bastards killed one Federal agent, they damn near killed Paul and Nathan too. I don't even like to think of what might have happened to Nathan if Rain hadn't called and alerted me and Kelli that he hadn't come home."

Silence filled the room for a few moments, as the two men contemplated how close they had come to losing their brother.

“I agree that not doing anything was out of the question.” Larabee said slowly. “Why did you go in alone? Why didn't you set someone else in MCAT up as a backup? I understand why you didn’t take someone in the compound, but what about in town?”

"MCAT was not ready then to take on another explosive case when we hadn't recovered from the last one. Besides, who would that have been, Chris? None of the other available agents would have fit in with that group, certainly not Nathan or Sandoval. Buck and JD were needed at MCAT. Ezra was Kel's back-up and Josiah…"

"Okay, I get the picture." Chris knew that the options had been limited.

"As soon as I learned that Chambers wanted a weapons specialist, the cover that Raven gave me was set in stone.”

“It's not like you to trust your life to someone outside the family.”

Vin considered his reply before answering. “Raven isn't someone that I would call a friend, but he is someone that I trust. In the beginnin’, when he was trainin’ me, it was out of necessity. After I worked with him for a while I realized that I trusted him because under his paranoia, and meticulous plannin’, he is an honorable man. He just sees things a bit more in shades of gray than we do because of the constraints of our jobs. I knew that he would be able to obtain what I needed, without askin’ questions that I preferred not to answer, and that he would see his part in my assignment through to the end. If you had been available, I would not have gone to him. It was his extreme mistrust of human behavior that saved my hide. What I didn’t know until yesterday was that he had a man on the inside of the RMR watchin’ my back, and it was his man that warned me that I had been compromised. Otherwise, you would have never had the chance to pull me out of those mountains...I would not have made it out of that compound alive.”

“Raven told me that there were two men coming in today that knew you were not Dusty Slater. What happened?”

“Not sure.” Vin answered. “A group from Texas came in early, and apparently when Karl mentioned Slater’s name alarm bells went off, and they began to compare notes. When Clay used Raven’s name I knew it was time to get the hell out, and not wait for answers.”

“Clay? You sent us a file on him didn’t you?”

“Yeah, but I doubt any of it is factual. If Raven had him in the RMR to keep an eye on me, then the man is long gone now, and ‘m sure that Clay Waters was not his true identity.”

“I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you, but I am glad that your…acquaintance is paranoid.” Chris met Vin’s eyes. “His mistrust saved your life, and I'm forever indebted to the man for that. Gives me a chance to set a few things right again… When I think of how close I came to messing up our friendship because of my refusal to see that I had a problem and needed help...”

“Movin' forward, remember Cowboy?” The Texan knew that Chris needed to say his peace to make his recovery steps, but it was not necessary for him to hear it. “We’re more than just friends Chris, we're family too. Family doesn't keep score or give up on one another when things get rough. You had some things to work out, I stepped back to let you do it and you did. As far as ‘m concerned, were good, and what has past is history.” Tanner grinned, and changed the subject. “Kel told me that we’re not the only ones expecting an addition to the family. Congratulations Dad.”

Chris had reconciled with the last person on his list to make amends to, and just like that it was done. He had known that Vin would not make it harder for him, but he did not expect it to be this easy. Yet it was, and now they could move forward with no unresolved words between them. “Yep, number two is on the way, and I’m thrilled, but Linda…well that’s a long story.”

“Don’t look like either of us is going anywhere ‘til tomorrow.”

Larabee filled Tanner in on what was going on in his life and eventually both men succumbed to the sleep that their wounded bodies demanded.

Room 503 ~9:00pm

A few hours of rest had improved both Larabee and Tanner's conditions dramatically. Chris, Buck, and Josiah were speaking softly while Vin was on the phone. All of them had checked in with their families, except for Chris, and Linda was still not returning his phone calls, but he did assure himself that Grace was in good hands. Tanner had talked to both Jason and Andi, and promised to see them tomorrow. He was saying goodnight to Kelli, and the three men were trying not to listen to his private conversation.

Buck chuckled as Vin hung up. “Sounded a lot like the conversation I had with Inez earlier. I’m glad our baby watch is almost over. You, Tanner, are in for a long few months ahead.”

“I'm ready to experience it all alongside Kelli.” Tanner declared with a wide grin. "In fact, 'm lookin' forward to all the fun."

The three older men glanced at each other and burst out laughing. “Too bad I don’t have a tape recorder right about now.” Buck exclaimed. “I would love to play back your words to you a few months down the road when you've learned just how unpredictable a pregnant wife can be.”

Tanner rolled his eyes at Wilmington as the door opened and Ezra walked in carrying a large bouquet of multi-hued roses.

“Ez, you shouldn't have.” Vin quipped as he eyed the bouquet.

“I didn't. One of the nurses handed them to me and said that they were for Room 503.” Standish told him, setting the bouquet on the table between the two beds. He removed the envelope that had come with the bouquet and frowned when he saw the name written on it.

“What's the card say?” Larabee asked.

“There must have been some mix-up.” Ezra replied with a look of puzzlement on his face. “The envelope is addressed to a Lady Hawk...”

Vin tensed. “Give me the card Ezra.”

Standish handed the card to Tanner as the other men looked on. Vin opened the envelope and read aloud what was written on the card “The Wily Coyotes have moved their den. Scouts have been sent out to bring back the pelt of their wayward cub.” It was initialed with the letter 'R'.

“Damnit” Chris exclaimed.

“What in the hell does that mean?” Buck questioned.

Josiah had been watching Chris and Vin, and did not miss the tension radiating off their bodies. “I believe Brother Buck that it is not a Hallmark greeting.”

“You’ve got that right,” Vin voiced. “Lady Hawk is Kelli. The flowers were sent by Raven as a warnin’. The RMR has moved, and they are lookin’ for me, aka their wayward cub, dead or alive. We need to get home; I am not lettin’ that bastard anywhere near my family.” Vin carefully slipped the IV needle out of his arm, and silenced the alarm on the machine “Ez, I hope your brought us some clothes because we are leavin' here tonight.”

“I did, and your Tahoe has been detailed, and is sitting in the parking lot, but why the rush?” Ezra set the bag he was carrying on the end of the bed. “Barbara followed me over here, and is waiting for me downstairs.”

Chris removed his IV, and grabbed his clothes out of the bag, passing Tanner his. “If Raven knows we’re here, then Chambers could possibly find us, and he could already be aware of Tanner’s true identity. We can’t take that chance or risk that he knows Vin's family is at the ranch.”

Josiah pulled some gauze and tape from the bedside drawer to put on Vin’s arm, and then repeated the process for Chris. He and Buck helped both men to dress, put their shoes on, and then wrestled them into coats.

“Rain has setup a room for Chris and Grace at your house Vin. Give me time to get you both checked out of the hospital and then…”

“No!” Chris snapped. “We are leaving here without warning anyone. Once we are on the ranch property, then you can tell whoever you want to.”

Buck mumbled something about Nathan having a conniption when he saw Tanner and Larabee’s condition. “Okay, all your other gear is already home; all we need to do is get you two downstairs, and out the side door without either of you falling on your face or ass.”

“I will go down, and send Barbara up here to create a diversion with the nurses, while I bring the truck to the side door to meet y’all.” Ezra grabbed the roses, and the bag that Josiah had stuffed with more gauze, tape, and whatever else he found that he thought might come in handy. “Give me five minutes.”

“Buck, you get any closer to me and we're both goin' to be wearin' the same clothes.” Larabee snapped at Wilmington as his long time friend hovered at his elbow, ready to grab hold of him at any moment as the blond started toward the door.

Buck chuckled sheepishly. “Sorry...just trying to help.”

“I know you are...” Chris sighed, gritting his teeth against the pain that shot through his upper chest as he moved, “…just don't do it so close.”

Tanner, although he was still weak and in pain, was able to walk unassisted over to the door to await their chance to escape, but felt as if he had suddenly grown a shadow that was twice his size as Josiah followed closely beside him to lend a hand if he needed it. “Could you spare me a few inches, Josiah? You’re smotherin' me.”

“Sorry, Vin.” Josiah replied as he took a step back.

Vin opened the door slightly and peered out. As Ezra had promised, Barbara was at the nurse’s station, and appeared to be giving them grief over something. He grinned when he heard her demand to speak to a supervisor, and watched the night nurse leave the desk to find one. It was now or never.

“Let’s go.” Vin whispered as the chime sounded for the announcement that visiting hours were over. The four men exited the room, into the hallway, and melded into a group of other visitors that were leaving for the evening. Barbara fell in behind them. It took only a few minutes to make the short elevator ride to the ground floor, and then find their way to the side door. Buck and Josiah helped the injured pair into the backseat of the Tahoe, and Wilmington sat with them. Sanchez opened the front door and climbed in beside Ezra.

Standish waited only long enough to see Barbara walk over to the Jag and get in. Once she was driving out, he pulled in behind her.

“Well this has been a load of fun, “Buck commented. “Next time though, I get to choose the activity...”

Chapter 28

Walking out of the hospital was easier than it should have been. By ten o’clock they were on their way to the ranch, and they had been away from the hospital for twenty minutes. Chris handed the cell phone back to Buck. Larabee had already notified Travis of their abrupt change of plans, and the Director would take care of notifying the U.S. Attorney’s office. Chris also called JD to alert him of their change of plans and he reached Dr. Gilford, explaining his and Vin’s sudden departure from Denver Memorial.

“Doc was not happy, but he did agree to take care of our discharge, and speak with our Dr. Jackson about follow-up treatment, and meds.” Chris reported to the others.

Vin had been trying to find a comfortable position ever since he had entered the vehicle, and had finally found one when he heard Chris’s statement. He straightened quickly up and regretted it. “He’s not gonna call Rain now is he?”

“Gilford didn’t say, but I don’t imagine he’ll wait too long. He was not pleased to find out that neither of us had finished the IV antibiotics.” Chris chuckled. “In fact he was downright pissed about it.”

“Damn! Chris, did you tell him that Rain was at our place?” Vin sounded almost panicked, as he grabbed Ezra’s shoulder from behind.

“Yep, that’s where Ezra said she was.” Chris answered.

“You may cease embedding your fingers into my shoulder at any point in time Vincent. I find it rather difficult to concentrate on driving when sharp projectiles are digging into my skin and piercing pains are traversing down my arm.” Standish snipped.

“Tanner let him go! What is wrong with you?” Buck questioned.

“If Gilford calls our house before we get there Chambers won’t be the only one lookin’ to nail my hide to the wall. I told Kel that Chris and I were only a little bruised, battered, and scratched. I didn't say anythin’ about gunshot wounds.”

“Shit!” Chris exclaimed. “What on earth possessed you to not mention that small detail?”

“I didn’t want her to worry!” Vin snapped back at him. “Course if she hears that we are AWOL from the hospital, and Gilford gives Rain details of…hell, Kel’s gonna think I lied to her.”

Buck laughed. “Tanner, you did lie to her.”

“Vin, I believe you are concerned over nothing. I’m sure Kelli will see that you only had her best interest in mind.” Josiah found it amusing that after Vin had spent weeks under as Dusty in an extremely perilous situation, he was more concerned about the reaction of one five foot five redhead than any dangers he had faced from the RMR.

Tanner heaved an aggravated sigh. “This is Kelli Lar’bee Tanner we’re talking about. One of the traits she inherited from her father, aside from his stubbornness, and an innate ability of finding trouble, is a volatile temper”

Chris sent an irritated green eyed glare in Vin’s direction, and stated. “Damnit, I’m not that bad! I do have a reasonable side!”

Sanchez looked from Tanner to Larabee. “I stand corrected; maybe you should call her…now.”

Ezra grinned, “Damage control Vin, damage control.”

Larabee 7~10:20pm

“Yes she is, De Gifford, but let me get this straight. You're saying Tanner and Larabee went AWOL? YOU LOST THEM!” Kelli yelled into the phone, “BULLET WOUNDS? What bullet wounds?” The irate redhead handed the phone over to a worried-looking Rain Jackson. “It’s Dr Gilford… he’s lost Vin and Chris. He said they disappeared from their hospital room a short while ago, supposedly headed here, and that they are both recoverin’ from bein’ shot.” She slid off the bed, and went to hunt Nathan down. Kelli found him in the kitchen. “What is it that you or Vin did not tell me?”

Nathan looked away, silently cursing his Texan brother for putting him in such a predicament with Kelli. He carefully considered his response before answering. “Both of them were scratched and bruised up from sliding down a cliff…They do have wounds that were inflicted on them by a sharp projectile, but they are going to be fine.”

“Wounds inflicted by a sharp projectile Nathan? They were shot…with bullets! Now they have left the damn hospital!” Kelli shouted.

“What! They can’t leave the hospital! What in the hell are they thinking? They both need antibiotics, and Vin needed…oops.” Nathan quickly ceased talking.

“Vin needed what Nathan?” Kelli demanded.

Tanner spoke from the doorway. “I needed to come home to be with my family.” Vin moved slowly into the kitchen, with Chris directly behind him, along with Buck, and Ezra, with Josiah bringing up the rear.

Kelli turned an icy glare onto her husband, ignoring the delightful way her heart rate sped up at seeing him again. “I thought we made a promise that we would never lie to each other, Tanner?”

“I didn't lie...exactly.” Vin said in his own defense, but hurried to continue at the darkening of her eyes. “I just didn't tell you everythin’....because I didn't want you to worry.”

“You don't get to decide how I think or feel about anythin’ Vin, whether it's for a good cause or not!” Kelli threw back at him, tears filling her blue eyes.

Vin moved toward her, hating to see the tears in her eyes, and knowing that he was the cause of them. As he stopped in front of her, he reached out to pull her into his arms, but she shook her head. “No! You aren't goin' to get off that easy!” Kelli snapped, backing away from him.

“Kel, please....let me hold you?” Tanner asked her softly, gazing lovingly into her face.

Kelli's breath caught as she took in the look on his handsome face, saw the apology and love shining in his gentle blue eyes, and she wavered. “We're not done talkin’ about this.”

“I know...” Vin said, hearing the capitulation in her voice, and reached out for her again. This time Kelli didn't struggle, but let herself be pulled into her husband's arms and held there.

Buck whispered to Ezra. “Two minutes, thirty six seconds.”

“Tanner certainly knows how to work damage control.” Ezra whispered back, trying not to laugh.

Kelli stirred at their words. She lifted her head off of Vin's shoulder where she had been resting it, and narrowed her eyebrows at the other MCAT agents. “No comments from the peanut gallery. I have half a mind to rake y'all over the coals for goin' along with Vin and Chris leavin' the hospital when it's clear that both of them are in further need of medical attention.”

“Excellent idea Kel, and Chris I’m going to start with you.” Rain Jackson knew that Larabee was in pain, and she had to manage his care differently than Vin’s. “Off with the shirt Larabee, and let me see the damage.” She heard Tanner’s relieved sigh behind her, “You too Vin. Both of you are going to be checked over, and then sent to bed.”

“Seeing that you both are in capable hands, I’m going home to check on Inez.” Buck grinned at Josiah. “You and Mallory keep an eye on our prisoner; we wouldn’t want Tanner to escape.”

“Prisoner?” Kelli asked. “What the hell does that mean? Why is Vin a prisoner?”

“Damn, Buck, you just had to open your mouth and add more fuel to the fire.” Larabee snapped as he complied with Rain's commands, and began to carefully slip out of the shirt he wore. Wilmington snuck out the door while Larabee was preoccupied.

“It’s nothin’ for you to worry about baby. The Federal prosecutors wanted to put me in protective custody with the Marshals, so Buck arrested me instead.” Tanner held on to his redhead, hoping to diffuse any more explosions.

Kelli was incredulous. Let me get this straight. You go under for over a month, leave your family, risk your ass gettin evidence for them to use, almost get killed, and they wanted to arrest you!” She wanted to rant more, but Vin’s gentle back massage soothed her anger, and felt too damn good to be in his arms again.

“That about sums it up.” Ezra nodded. “It would appear that they are more concerned about their case then how or at what risk their evidence was procured.”

Rain finished her examination of Larabee’s shoulder wound. “It doesn't look as if you've managed to do any real damage to it Chris, but it's going to need to be cleaned again and fresh bandages put on it.”

“Okay...” Larabee said, as Nathan went to work on the bandages.

“Kelli, I'm going to have to borrow your husband for a few moments so that I can examine him as well.” Rain told the other woman.

“All right, Grace is asleep in Andi’s room Dad, and Mal can make a bed up for you in there. Jason and Andi are in our bed. If one of you healthier men would carry them to the family room with the other kids, I’ll get a place ready for Vin.” Kelli looked over at Josiah, Nathan and Ezra.

“Leave ‘em Kel. Tonight I want to be close to you and the kids. Tomorrow is soon enough for them to start sleepin’ on their own again” Vin stated.

“Rain and I are in Jason’s room, so if Grace wakes up we can help, Chris.” Nathan said. “It’s going to be a little inconvenient for you for a while only using one arm.”

“For tonight Mal and I are downstairs, as well as Ezra and Barbara. Tomorrow we’ll work out an arrangement to keep one of us here on protection detail.” Josiah added. “Buck needs to be close to Inez, and Chris you are going to need some assistance for a while.” He took his wife’s hand. “We’ll say goodnight.”

Kelli called after them as they began to walk out. “Max is only a phone call away if we need her, and she’ll be here by five in the mornin’. Breakfast will be ready at six-fifteen.” Kelli saw Tanner’s wound as Rain removed the bandage, and suddenly felt queasy.

“Kel, are you okay?” Vin asked, taking note of how pale his wife had suddenly become. He winced as Rain began examining the wound, checking to make sure that he hadn't pulled any of the sutures loose.

“Yeah...I'm fine...” Kelli said a bit breathlessly as the contents of her stomach turned suddenly. A hand flew up to her mouth as she whirled around and made a wild dash out of the kitchen towards the nearest bathroom.

Rain placed a hand on the Texan’s arm to keep him sitting. “She’ll be okay, Vin, just get used to the sudden exits. Now let me finish with you, and then you are going to bed with your family.” She whispered to the Texan, “Besides, I owe you Tanner. Thanks for coming to my aid at the clinic”.

“I’m just glad you’re okay.” Vin acknowledged her words

Dr. Jackson nodded, and then she called over her shoulder. “Nathan, finish dressing Chris’s wound and then march his butt to bed, too. Tomorrow morning, one of you will be making a prescription run, so I can get these two back on antibiotics.” Surprisingly, Chris didn't argue much with Nathan as Jackson shepherd him into Andi's room. Larabee stood and gazed down at his sleeping daughter for several moments before he eased himself down on the bed that had been made up for him and closed his eyes. The last thing he thought of before he fell asleep was that it was damn good to be back on the ranch, albeit not in his bed, instead of the hospital.

“Barbara or I can do a med run in the morning.” Ezra wrapped his arm around his lady’s waist. “We shall see you good people in the morning.” They walked out of the room side by side.

The first thing Vin did as soon as Rain had finished patching him up was to head towards the bathroom where Kelli had disappeared, despite Rain's admonishment that she would be okay. He let himself into the bathroom after tapping on the closed door, and reached immediately for a washcloth. He wet it, and eased himself down onto his knees, holding it out to Kelli. She gratefully took it from him as she finished retching and wiped her face with it, and then leaned against him. “This is one part of pregnancy I could do without.”

Vin chuckled lightly as they both stood up, and he waited while she rinsed her mouth. “Hopefully it won't last too long.”

"I have somethin' that belongs to you." Kelli took off the chain she wore around her neck, unclasped it to release Vin's wedding ring, and then slipped it on his finger. “Come on Mr. Tanner, now that you're back to being my husband again, we need to get you to bed.”

“Are you propositioning me, Mrs. Tanner?” Tanner quipped as they left the bathroom.

“Not in your condition...”Kelli told him as they headed for the room. “You really should have let one of your brothers move the children....with that wound, the last thing you need is a hand or foot shoved into it durin’ the night.”

Vin opened the bedroom door and stopped as the sight of their beautiful children. Jason and Andi curled up together asleep in that big bed caused a lump to form in his throat. It seemed as if it had been years since he had seen them, instead of weeks. “I’ll take my chances Kel. Tonight I need us all together.” He pulled her close for a long leisurely kiss. “I’m home baby, and I plan on stayin’.” Kelli helped Vin undress, and then climbed into bed, snuggling with the kids, allowing room for her husband to join her. To an outside observer it might look crowded, but as far as Vin was concerned, it was heaven as he gingerly laid on his good side, and wrapped his arms around his family.

Tanner Home 5:30am

Tuesday ~ December 5th

Vin awoke to the sound of Andi squealing “Daddy’s home!” It took him a minute to orientate himself, but he quickly recognized that he was really in his own bed, in his own home. He tried to prepare himself for Andi’s boisterous welcome back, knowing that it was going to be a painful experience.

Kelli quickly grabbed their youngest tornado to keep her from catapulting herself into her father. “Whoa girl, Daddy has a boo-boo, so be careful.”

“You're hurt?” Jason asked, sitting up in the bed and rubbing his eyes. “Did it happen while you were doin' trainin'?”

“It happened while I was gone, yes. I had to do somethin’ kinda like you did when you helped Caleb at school, but I’ll be fine in a few days.” He gently pulled both children close to him. “I’ve missed you two.” He kissed the top of their heads. “We have a lot of catchin’ up to do, and I’ll be around here for us to do it.”

Jason grinned up at his dad. “Does that mean I get to stay home from school today?”

“Nice try son, but you have to go to school, so get movin'. Max will have breakfast ready soon, and Raphael will be here to take you.” Kelli smiled as the exasperated look on Jason’s face. “Your clothes are on the chair, so hit the bathroom, brush your teeth and hustle.”

“Yes ma’am. Dad, you’ll be here when I get home right?”

“You bet I will.” Vin hugged Jason before the boy slid off the bed.

“Andi, you can come with me to the other bathroom.” Kelli saw an argument coming. “You have all day to see dad, so give him a chance to at least have coffee before you try to catch him up on everythin’, okay.”

For the next twenty minutes Tanner laid in bed listening to the routine sounds that he had missed hearing for the last month. He refused Kelli’s offer to help him dress, and managed to drag himself out of bed, ignoring the aches and pains that called to him. The Texan dressed and then joined his family in the kitchen for breakfast, enjoying every second of the morning madhouse. Breakfast was first, Barbara and Ezra joined them, then Raphael came by to pick up Jason for school, Selina followed with Sarah in tow and picked up Joanne. Rain fed Terrell, while Mallory took care of Adam. Max took over for Chris with Grace while he savored a cup of coffee, with Nathan, Ezra, and Josiah.

“As soon as we get the kids settled, I want to check you two out.” Rain warned Chris and Vin as she walked out of the room with Terrell

Chris nodded. “Then I want a meeting to decide how we handle things from here.”

While all the morning activity was going on, Andi carefully climbed into Vin’s lap, ready to tell him all that he had missed while he was gone. Jason did not call her the informer for nothing. “Lots happened when you was away.” Andi told her father

“Really?” Vin asked her with a smile.

“Uh-huh. Daisy, Lilah and Terrell all had birthdays and they gots lots of presents. A’nt Linda's gonna have a baby, and Jason went down to see Peso, ‘cause he missed you, only he broke the rule 'bout going alone. Oh...Uncle 'Ra and Barbara are getting merry and I get to throw flowers at them. I saw Walter kiss Miss Max, too, and Caleb's 'fficial now like me and Jason are with you and Mama, only he belongs to Uncle Buck and A’nt Inez. Mama's been sick alot and Jason's been really, really worried... she don’t always listen to Miss Max and Uncle Chris. Can you put her in time out?”

Vin looked over to Kelli with twinkling blue eyes full of amusement. “If mama doesn’t listen, you can help me put her in time out. How would you like that?” He grinned when Andi nodded yes, vigorously. “Is there anythin’ else that you want to tell me?”

“Tracker knocked me down, too.” Andi took a breath before continuing. “He was real mean, but Mama make him behave and Uncle Chris came while Uncle Buck and Mark wored these funny suits and Bandit barked alot. Mama made me go inside, but I watched out the window.” Andi giggled. “They looked so funny. Mama said we had to stay inside ‘til the cows came home, but Uncle Chris changed her mind and ‘m glad ‘cause we don’t have no cows.”

Vin had to keep his grin fixed on Andi's face as she innocently mentioned the incident involving the land mines being planted on Larabee 7. “You’re right, a lot did happen.”

“Sugar, I think Dora the Explorer is on TV, and I know you don’t want to miss seein’ her. Why don’t you join Aunt Mallory and Adam to watch it?” Kelli helped Andi down and watched her run off. “Our informer, if she knows, she tells.”

“You didn’t tell me that you and Andi were that close to the mine.” Vin gave his wife a stern look.

“I didn’t want you to worry, so I just didn’t tell you everythin’…” Kelli sighed, “I thought you had enough on your mind without knowin’ that… I reckon we're even Tanner, sorry.”

“You’re forgiven, but I expect to hear the whole story.” Blue eyes locked with blue, and a silent agreement passed between them.

Buck and JD walked in, both grabbed a cup of coffee and joined the others.

“How is Inez?” Kelli asked.

Buck laughed. “Miss Nettie is spoiling her, but I think we’re getting real close. It wouldn’t surprise me if we had our Tannis within a day or two.”

“That’s something else we need to plan for, I don’t want anything to go on with any of us without protection. At least until we know for certain that Chambers is in custody.” Chris scanned the faces around the table. “While we wait on Rain, I think we should start making some plans.”

Max interrupted. “You can make your plans without Missy, I know she overdid last night and she is going back to bed.” She addressed Kelli. “Your doctor said you were to rest, and that is what you will do on my watch.”

Kelli knew by the look on Vin’s face that he agreed with Max. “Fine, I’ll go, but while y’all are makin’ plans, I have a doctor’s appointment tomorrow mornin’, and I expect Tanner to go with me. Dr. Week’s office, nine o’clock,” She stood up.

Before she moved Vin grabbed her hand and pulled her over for a kiss. “I’ll be in to check on you in a little bit,” Vin smiled, “and I will be with you tomorrow, baby, count on it.” He watched her until she was out of sight and then turned to the others. “Tell me what happened with the mines.” Buck retold the events of that day, and Vin realized that he had been better off not knowing about it at the time. If he had known he probably would have killed Chambers and Anson, and would now be sitting in prison for murder, instead of here in his home, with his family.

Mark, Alex, and Walter joined them and after a short break with Rain checking on her patients, they continued their strategy session over the next two hours. Since Director Travis had the unit on stand-down status they would not have any new cases. Their only duty was to protect the members of the unit, and their families. Chris decided that with the exception of the forensic unit, they would work from Camp Larabee here on the ranch. Mark and Alex were already staying there, while they helped Walter. While the team awaited news of the results of the FBI raid on the RMR compound they arranged to move what they needed to the ranch, and worked out a protection schedule.


As soon as Grace was down for her afternoon nap, Chris decided to head over to his house for a while. When he entered, he found their housekeeper, Louisa and her niece, Mila, in the middle of a cleaning frenzy. He stood in the hallway for a few minutes and watched them work, before announcing his presence.

“Mr. Larabee, you’re injured!” Louisa exclaimed.

“I’m fine. What exactly are you doing?” Chris questioned the housekeeper.

“Miss Linda called me, and instructed me to prepare the guestroom. She also wants me to finish the holiday cleaning, and to put the house in order for entertaining.”

As much as he wanted some answers, Chris was not going to stand here and interrogate the hired help to find out what his wife had planned. It also was not Louisa’s fault that Linda was not communicating with him. “Carry on then. Grace and I will be away for a few days, so lock up the house when you leave.” Larabee went into his office and shut the door. He leaned back in his chair and thought about the current state of his life.

Linda and I seem to be traveling on different roads. I know where I belong and what I expect from life. She is not sure what she wants…not for the long run anyway. With Linda it is only what she wants for the moment, and tomorrow she wants something different. Maybe fate meant for us to be together for our time to help both of us realize that, and allow us to bring two wondrous children into this world. For everything there is a season… ours is growing short. She is beautiful, smart, and at times courageous, but she needs more from life than what I have to offer. So Larabee…how do you get her to realize that?

The ringing of the telephone brought him back to the present. “Larabee.”

“Chris? I…I’ve been meaning to call, but there has been so much to do. Coming back home for a while has been good for me; I’ve managed to visit relatives, and catch up with old friends. In fact Amberlyn, she’s a friend from college, she is coming back to the ranch with me for awhile. I thought maybe we’d do some entertaining over the holidays and she has offered to help. I think you will like her, she and I used to be inseparable…Anyway… Josiah left me a strange message. Do you know what he wanted?”

Larabee thought about the revelations he had just made about himself and the state of his and Linda’s relationship. “It’s nothing that can’t wait until you’re here.”

“Okay, we’ll be in tomorrow sometime…guess I’ll see you then…” Linda hesitated and then said softly, “Bye”

Chris sat there and held the phone even after she hung up, realizing that she did not even ask about Grace. He would wait until after the holidays, but then they would have a serious talk. They were not a couple anymore, simply two people going through the motions. Somehow though he would have to convince Linda of that, and find a way to keep his children in his life.

One step at a time Larabee. Chris then did something he had never done in all the years he had lived in this house. He exited the room, and locked his office door behind him. Nodding to Louisa on his way out of the house, he slowly walked back over to the Tanner’s home. Grace should be waking up soon, and Larabee planned to be there when she did.


Vin’s day had been spent indulging in the pure enjoyment of being home. Andi had pretty much been his shadow all day, and then Jason had joined her when he came home from school. The best part for the Texan was that he could reach out and touch or talk to Kelli anytime he wanted to. He realized that their immediate future may have a bit of uncertainty involved in it, but he was determined to try to keep his family out of the danger zone. The Federal prosecutor had already been screaming about his refusal to meet with them tomorrow, but he was going to be at that doctor’s appointment with Kelli, come hell or high water. Ultimately they had agreed to have one of their attorneys come to the ranch Thursday afternoon to take his deposition. Tanner’s biggest concern now was how to tell Chris that he was not planning to come back to work for a while. As far as Vin was concerned he had spent way too much time working over the last year and he had a lot of home life to catch up on, especially now with a new baby coming. He was due the time off, and he intended to take it with or without Larabee and Travis’s approval.

Chris found Tanner sitting, in a chair on the deck, wrapped in a blanket when he walked up.

“Where are your shadows?” Chris grinned and sat down in the chair next to the Texan.

“Kel has Jason workin' on his homework, and Andi said it’s too cold out here for her.”

"Are you doing okay?"

"Yeah, 'm just tryin' to clear my head of Dusty Slater. He was a difficult bastard to live with twenty-four hours a day." Vin deeply inhaled some fresh air."Hell, that whole bunch is revoltin' enough to give an aspirin a headache."

Chris smiled at Vin's attempt at humor. "Put them out of your mind for now. Just enjoy being your family."

"I plan to do just that. Any word yet on the raid?"

“I saw JD on the way back over here. Big surprise…the compound was deserted when the FBI moved in and no one in Rocky Meadows will admit to ever seeing any of them. They did find Abbott’s body, right where you said it was.” Chris grimaced when his shoulder hit the side of the chair. “They also recovered a number of other buried bodies from scattered locations on the property and expect to discover more. Bones will try to ID them, but he believes they all date back ten years or more, except one…Anson Ricter was left in plain view in the notorious torture room, and he had been executed.”

Vin nodded. “Chambers does not accept failure, and as far as ‘m concerned Ricter got what he deserved.” He thought in silence for a minute. “Bellows is probably the number two man now. He’s not as experienced as Anson was, but he is afraid of Karl, and will follow his orders. The old man is gonna take Slater’s escape personal, and he won’t quit ‘til he finds out who I am and, one of us is dead.”

“To get to you he has to get through me and five of your other brothers first, and that, my friend…ain’t gonna happen.”

Chapter 29

Tanner Home ~Wednesday ~ December 6th~7:30am

Jason, Sarah, and Joanne had already been escorted to school, while Mallory and Rain had taken Andi, Terrell and Adam to the Sanchez home for the morning. Chris, Vin, Nathan, and Josiah all sat around the kitchen table discussing security for the scheduled family events of the next few weeks. Ezra and Barbara had returned to the Standish town home the evening before, and this morning Ezra was meeting with Bones to get an update on his findings at Rocky Meadows. Buck was sticking close to Inez, in case she went into labor. JD was at the Camp Larabee office, putting the finishing touches on the electronic equipment that had been installed there. He had personally overseen the installation of CASSIE'S twin, and already had it up and running. Kelli’s doctor’s appointment was on the top of Vin’s agenda since she had been ill most of the night, and he was anxious to hear Dr Week’s explanation for it.

“Vin, you spent a lot of time in your office and on the computer last night. Were you able to contact Raven?” Chris questioned.

“I talked to him yesterday afternoon and, yes, we used a secure program. He could only confirm that Chambers has a bounty out on my identity, and also my life. Raven said he would contact me as soon as he knew more.” Vin answered. “We do know that Chambers will either abandon or change his former target, and he won’t stay in hidin’ for long. I put out some other feelers, but we're goin' to have to wait and see what sort of results turn up from those.”

“If you talked to him in the afternoon, why were you closed up so long in your office last night?” Josiah asked, out of curiosity, more than anything else.

Vin mumbled something about research as Kelli walked up behind him laughing. “Y’all know how Vin is when he has somethin’ to investigate. He doesn’t do it halfway. He pulled up everythin’ he could on the Internet about pregnancy, and ultrasounds, and I think he now knows more about what’s goin' on with me than I do.” She picked up his cup to steal a sip of coffee. “He made a list of questions to ask the doctor today.”

Jackson grinned. “Good for you Vin. The more you know, the easier it will be for the both of you. You can’t stop all the crazy things Kelli will do, but at least you’ll understand why she will do them.”

Kelli gave Nathan an irritated look. “Are you sayin' that Rain acted crazy when she was carryin' Terrell?”

“No...Uh…well you know. I…” Nathan sighed deeply.

“You had better quit while you’re ahead Brother Nate, especially before your wife hears you.” Josiah advised.

Walter walked in with Max. “I know y’all have a lot on your plates ‘bout now, but could we have a minute or two of your time?”

“Somethin’ wrong Walter?” Vin asked with concern etched on his face as the older couple sat down to join them.

“No, not wrong. At least we hope that y’all don’t think that it’s wrong.” Walter looked at Max for support. This was going to be harder than he had anticipated. “After we heard Andi revealin’ her observations to you yesterday Vin, we got to thinkin’ ’bout a few things. First off, you are gonna need more room with the new baby comin’, so ‘m movin’ out. Raphael is gonna stay in my motor home.”

“Walter, you can’t leave us!” Kelli was visibly upset at the news.

“Hold on Missy, ‘m not goin' far.” Walter was quick to assure her. “Me and Max are getting'’ hitched. Josiah has already agreed to marry us. There is no way either of us are gonna leave with another baby comin’.”

The room filled with congratulations on the impending nuptials of the older couple.

“Neither of us took time in our lives to have our own families, and all of you have shared yours with us. We feel like we have a passel of grandkids already and as long as you will put us with us we’d like to keep it that way.” Max placed her hand over Kelli’s. “I know we aren’t blood related, but if you’ll have us, we’d like to help see you through havin’ this baby.”

“Of course I will”.

“Of course, WE will.” Vin corrected his wife gently.

What can I do to help with your weddin' plans, and when is it?" Kelli said excitedly.

“You can be there. We don’t want a real fancy weddin’. Just somethin’ simple, and we were thinkin’ about havin’ it this weekend. If Andi is noticin’ that we are…friendly, then its time to make it legal.” Walter answered.

Chris grinned. “I hope you plan to get married here on the ranch, because I am positive that the ladies would love to help arrange it. I’m certain that I can speak for all of us and say we’d like to be there.”

“We would like that, too.” Max cleared her throat, showing a rare bit of emotion. “Chris, I do have a question. Jason and Andi call you Uncle Chris, and they will be siblings to the new baby. What do you expect the newest Tanner to call you?”

“That is a good question, and one we hadn’t thought about yet.” Vin furrowed his brow thinking it over. “How ‘bout it Cowboy, are you ready to be called grandpa?

“Chris isn’t exactly the grandpa type.” Josiah laughed.

“Just what is that suppose to mean?” Larabee shot a sharp glare toward the profiler.

“You just don’t strike me as the Grandpa type.” Josiah said, trying to soothe over Chris’s ruffled feathers. “Of course there are other names such as Pawpaw, Gramps, Pops, Poppy, Papa...Pappy, Grandpas, Grand pap…”

“Enough!” Chris held up his hands as if to surrender. He looked over at Kelli, “Unless my daughter has her heart set on her baby calling me Grandpa, I think it would be best if all the Tanner children called me the same thing. Jason and Andi already call me Uncle Chris, and we wouldn’t want them to think that they were any less special than the child that Kelli is carrying. So having them all call me Uncle Chris, would seem appropriate. After all it looks as if all the kids are getting surrogate grandparents with Walter and Max.”

Kelli looked at Vin and when he nodded his acceptance, she agreed. “Uncle Chris it is, but…I still get to call you dad.”

Chris grinned. "I wouldn’t have it any other way, but I get to call you Missy, I think it suits you.” Larabee knew that he and Kelli had crossed a line in the last few weeks, and he was pleased that they had. Their father-daughter relationship was on solid ground at last. Although they were still bound to encounter a few bumps in the future, he felt that their relationship was in a permanent transition. It meant a lot to him to know where he stood with at least one of his children, since his future with Grace, and his new child was uncertain.

"Deal," Kelli smiled.

“We gotta go Josiah, if we want to make that appointment on time.” Vin stood up, and waited for Kelli to give Chris a hug.

“See y'all later.” Vin said as he walked toward the door with Kelli. He leaned close to his wife, and whispered in her ear. "Chris and Max can call you Missy; personally I prefer your sassy side best." He opened the door for her and grinned when he saw her smile. Josiah followed closely behind them, as today’s designated protector.

Doctor’s Office ~9:00am

Kelli and Vin did not have to wait long before the nurse called them in for her to be seen. Patsy handed her a sterile gown to change into, and took her vitals as well as drawing blood. “You know the drill Kelli. Go ahead and get changed, and then Dr. Weeks will be right in.” The nurse drew the door closed to give her some privacy.

Vin helped his wife change into the hospital gown as much as Kelli and his wound would let him. He pulled out his list of questions for the doctor from his jacket pocket. “I wanted to make sure I didn’t forget anythin’.” He grinned at the questioning look on Kelli’s face. “This is new territory for me too, Kel, and I want to be as informed and involved in it as I can.”

“Well, if you really want to be involved, you could put on this gown and let her poke and prod your body instead of mine.” Kelli’s eyes danced with laughter. She was so glad Vin was here with her that nothing could ruin this day for her.

“You know I would if I could Kelli.” Vin told her seriously.

Kelli sobered. “I know you would Vin. It's enough that you are here with me. We're really doin' it, Tanner...we're havin' a baby.”

“Yes we are Mrs. Tanner.” He pulled her to him and unhurriedly kissed her, reluctant to let her go, even when the doctor walked into the room.

Dr. Weeks chuckled. “It’s good to see you again Vin. I hope you are going to be around a while because we all have a big job ahead of us.”

“Yes ma’am. I wouldn’t miss out on this for anythin’.”

“Good. I know you both have questions, but before we go into them, let’s see where we are. Kelli insisted that we hold off on the ultrasound until this week because she wanted you to be here Vin. As soon as I examine her, we’ll get started on it. I have a good idea why these first few weeks have been a little rough, but I want to confirm my suspicions before I share. Kelli, hop on the table please.”

Kelli made a face, but did as Dr. Weeks instructed. Vin moved to stand at the head of the table, and took one of Kelli's hands in his as he watched the doctor go through the basics of an exam. She checked around the top of Kelli's breasts where the milk glands were located to make sure that she didn't feel any abnormality in them, and then progressed to a pelvic exam.

“Now, Kelli, you might feel a little more discomfort than you would during a regular pelvic exam,” Dr. Weeks said as she got out a few items from one of the cabinets in the room, and placed them on a tray.

Vin had been watching everything that the doctor did, but was puzzled when he saw a condom packet, tube of lubricant, and a probe of some sort. He felt his neck grow hot as Dr. Weeks proceeded to open the condom and slide it over the object, and then rub some of the lubricant onto it. “What the hell is that, and what are you goin' to do with it?”

“This is a TVS ultrasound transducer.” Dr. Weeks explained patiently. “It is a device that uses a technique in which high pitched sound waves are sent out by an ultrasound probe that has been inserted inside the patient. The waves go through the vaginal wall and bounce off the ovaries, and a computer uses the ultrasound echoes to create a picture called a sonogram, displaying it on a video monitor. In the early weeks of pregnancy it is a more thorough procedure than the abdominal technique, provides superior image quality, more details, and can monitor your baby’s heartbeat. This method will also give me the best look for any challenges that may be presented”.

“Okay, so now I know what it is...”Vin said skeptically. “Maybe you can explain to me what the hell you are goin' to do with it?”

“Vin!” Kelli was having a hard time keeping the laughter bubbling up inside of her under control over the way her husband was acting. “I'm sure Dr. Weeks knows what she's doin’. Please, leave the questions until after she's finished with the ultrasound?”

Tanner nodded his reluctant agreement.

“This is going to take a while, and when we finish you will have your own video copy to take home. Why don't both you and Kelli study that screen, Vin.” Dr. Weeks suggested as she had the nurse turn the lights down, seated herself on the stool, and after reminding Kelli not to tense up, she began the procedure.

Tanner stared at the screen in fascination as a picture began to appear on it, and he tried to make out the baby that he and Kelli had created. He was not certain he liked this technique, but if it meant being assured that all was well, he could accept it. As the image became clearer, his eyes were riveted to the screen, and the Texan was so absorbed by what he was seeing, he almost missed hearing the doctor when she spoke.

“Aw...just as I suspected...”

“What? Is somethin' wrong?” Kelli asked Dr. Weeks with a hint of fear in her voice. Tanner squeezed her hand supportively

“Not at all...” Dr. Weeks was quick to assure them.” She reached over and pointed at a small image on the screen and said, “That little one there is responsible for your double dose of morning sickness Kelli.”

Tanner's eyebrows shot up questioningly. “That one, you mean our baby right?”

“Babies...” Dr. Weeks emphasized the s on the end of baby... “ and Kelli are having twins.”

“Two? We’re havin’ two babies at once?” Vin was almost speechless, and Kelli had tears flowing down her cheeks.

“That is generally how twins are born…at the same time.” Dr. Weeks smiled. “I suspected this when Kelli was showing symptoms so early. Add that to a higher than normal hormone level, due to twins, and the shots she took to become pregnant…on top of stress, and you have the perfect recipe for a rough beginning.”

“Twins, baby...We're havin' twins.” Tanner said softly to his wife as he gazed lovingly into her tear-streaked face.

“I heard...” Kelli whispered hoarsely back at him as Tanner lowered his face to hers for a sweet, tender kiss

Dr. Weeks cleared her throat. “I'll give you a few moments alone so that Kelli can get dressed, and then you can join me in my office.”

Vin acknowledged her words with a nod, too caught up in the special moment with Kelli to take his eyes off of his wife. Under the cloak of winter they had received two miracles.


Once the initial shock started to wear off, Kelli dressed and they hurried to Dr. Week’s office, anxious to hear what Helen had to say. They sat side by side, and gave her their full attention.

“Multiple pregnancies are a little different than singles. You are just at seven weeks along, your due date for one baby is based on forty weeks; with twins it’s considered full-term at thirty eight weeks. Your date of July 17th may or may not hold, twins tend to come early, and we want to try to get past the first of July. I want you to continue with the extra rest for a few more weeks, mainly to give your body a chance to catch up to the babies. Increase your calorie intake, continue with the prenatal vitamins, and try not to get yourself stressed-out. This pregnancy is considered high risk now, due to the fact that more than one baby is involved, your medical history, and the assisted reproductive therapy, but I see nothing that indicates any major problem at this stage.” Dr Weeks continued. “I know you must have a million questions so what are the top five?”

“Vin has a list of ‘em, I just want to know that the babies are okay.” Kelli said.

“Your babies are fine. It’s mama that needs the rest. Give me your list Vin.” Dr. Weeks held out her hand. Taking the list she began to read, and write down answers. She did chuckle over a few of them, but once she was finished she gave the list back to Tanner. “All very good questions Vin, it appears you have been reading up on what’s coming.”

“Not as much as I will be. “Vin looked at her answers and grinned, but had to ask anyway. “Number three is okay, for sure?”

“As long as it doesn’t hurt, and we have no complications, yes.” She addressed Kelli. “Right now your babies are taking a lot from your body, so we need to make certain you stay healthy. I will see you every two weeks, but at any time you don’t feel right, do not hesitate to call me. These are my instructions for you, and a list of some reading material that will answer the questions most commonly asked.” She passed the information to Vin. “After we get through the first trimester, then we’ll discuss you going back to work.” She also handed him a video cassette, along with two pictures in a folder. “The first photos of your babies, and a video of the entire scan.” Tanner took both, and had a hard time keeping his eyes off the tiny images of his children.

“The all day mornin’ sickness, will it ever go away?” Kelli asked.

“I guarantee it will be gone by the end of July.” Helen laughed, and then apologized. “I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist that answer. Truthfully, I don’t know. It may go away and come back later, or simply ease up. As long as it doesn’t get worse, you’ll just have to live with it.” The doctor looked at her calendar. “I will see you again on the twentieth. Try to enjoy each day, stay as relaxed as possible, and love each other. That’s the best thing any parents can do for their children.”

“Those things we can do, especially the one about lovin’ each other.” Vin took Kelli’s arm as she got up. “Thanks Dr. Weeks, we’ll see you in two weeks.” He could not hide the grin on his face as they entered the waiting area. Josiah stood up and joined them, opening the exit door for Kelli.

“Judging from the happy look on both your faces I assume everything is okay.” Josiah observed.

“It’s better than okay, Josiah, it’s fantastic. “Vin replied. “We do need to stop at a bookstore on the way home; I have some readin’ to do.”

When the elevator door closed Kelli could not hide her curiosity any longer. “Let me see that list Tanner.” Vin pulled it out of his pocket and handed it to her; he knew that she was checking out question number three when he heard her gasp.

“Vin! You asked her if…” Kelli almost forgot they were not alone, but the smile on his face confirmed that he had indeed asked if making love was on the can do list. She began to laugh as Vin wrapped his arm around her waist, and kissed her. On a scale of one to ten, she reckoned that today was a twelve.

Larabee 7~1:00pm

Buck had come over an hour ago asking Rain to come to his house to take a look at Inez. He was positive that his wife had all the signs of early labor, and did not want to take any chances. Nathan had gone with her and Chris, with Mallory’s help, had just put Grace down for a nap when the Tanners arrived home with Josiah.

Josiah walked in first carrying a large bag of books that he sat on the end table. “I thought I would never get Tanner out of the bookstore.”

“Tanner shopped in a bookstore? What in the hell did he want there?” Chris questioned.

Vin heard him as he walked in with Kelli, “Books, what else?” The Texan had practically glued himself to his wife over the last few hours, and had moved into major hovering mode. Kelli was willing to indulge him, to a point, and they had talked about the babies while they looked over the many books that were available on the subject. They had also decided to talk to the children tonight about the pregnancy.

Josiah laughed. “Mostly books about babies, but I did talk Kelli into a couple of good ones about profiling. Since she will be on desk duty when she returns to work, it seemed to be the opportune time for her to consider a change.”

“So what did the doctor say, and when can you come back to work?” Chris asked as he picked up a couple of books to see the titles.

“Kel still needs to take it easy, and if she is allowed to come back to work it won’t be for another six weeks at least. Other than that we’re good.” Tanner grinned. “The doctor did an ultrasound today, and it was an awesome experience.”

Chris grinned, remembering what it felt like to see Adam, and then Grace for the first time with an ultrasound. He hoped he would have that opportunity again with the new baby. “You seemed pleased about it.’ He lifted one of the books that dealt with sibling involvement in a pregnancy. “I take it you plan to talk to the kids soon.”

“I am more than pleased and yes, we plan on tellin’ the kids tonight.” Vin answered again. “We want them to be as involved as possible, and feel more secure about their own place with us.”

“Kel, can you still talk?” Chris teased.

“I don’t need to, Vin has everythin’ covered.” She smiled as she sat on the couch closest to the fireplace. “Where is everyone?”

“Andi, Grace and Adam are taking an afternoon nap, and Mallory is downstairs. Buck thinks Inez may be starting labor, so Rain, Terrell, and Nathan are at the Wilmington's. Max is fussing in the kitchen about you missing lunch, and your scheduled naptime.” Chris smiled when he saw Kelli make a face, and heard her mumble something about ‘mother hens.’

“If you good people will excuse me, I think I will join my wife for some quiet time.” Josiah left the living room to seek out his spouse.

Vin sat next to Kelli, wrapped his arms around her, and stretched out his legs. “Man it’s been such a good day; I almost forget about the ache in my side.”

“Maybe Max should take you on as one of her chicks, Tanner. I hear she has been practicing her mother hen moves on Kelli. She…” Chris had picked up another book and read the title aloud. “Everything you Need to Know to Have a Healthy Twin Pregnancy? Was there something you two forgot to mention?”

Vin grinned, exchanged knowing looks with Kelli, and then looked back at Larabee. “Damn, how did that get in there?”

Kelli swatted him on the shoulder. “You might as well tell him, Vin. You’ll bust a gut if you try to wait until you manage to corral everyone in the Wild Bunch into one place.”

Tanner leaned over to kiss his wife before answering. “You’re right. Cowboy, we have been doubly blessed, it’s twins. Babies are doin’ fine, mom needs rest.” He pulled out the pictures and passed them to Chris.

“Damn!” Chris’s mind rapidly replayed the years he had known Vin. He had come a long way from the shy loner that he was nine years ago, and they had been through a lot together. Now to see his daughter and Tanner happily married and expecting the babies they thought they would never have, warmed his heart. “Those babies are lucky to have special parents like you two.”

Kelli batted back tears as she moved over to give her father a slight hug, careful of his shoulder injury. ‘Thanks, Dad.”

“They are going to be just as lucky to have you and my other brothers in their lives as well.” Tanner said hoarsely.

Chris met Vin's eyes and understood what the other man could not say aloud. For a while the three of them sat in comfortable silence, absorbing the warmth in the room, the heat from the fireplace took care of the outside, but the emotional ties warmed their hearts and souls.

The contented spell was broken when the front door opened and Linda walked in, closely followed by a younger blonde woman. It was if the devil himself had come strolling into the house, dragging in a cold chill, and bringing tension along with turmoil into the room to stomp out the ties of love and family.

“Chris, darling, did you miss me?” Linda exclaimed as she moved across the floor to his side. She stopped just short of flinging her arms around his shoulders and giving him a hug, when she noticed the white sling around his left arm. “You're hurt? Why didn't you tell me you were injured when we spoke on the phone? I would have flown right home. As it is I had to have our housekeeper inform me of your whereabouts.”

Chris wasn't fooled in the least by Linda's words and actions. “I didn't see any need in spoiling your trip home.”

Kelli rolled her eyes at the sickening act of the caring wife that Linda was performing for her guest. She narrowed her eyes at the blonde woman who had come into the living room with Linda. “Amberlyn?”

“It’s been a long time, Kelli.” The other woman gushed.

“Not long enough,” Kelli mumbled under her breath so that no one but Vin could hear her, and then affixed a smile on her face. “Yes it has.”

“Who are these two perfectly delectable men, Linda?” Amberlyn asked, oblivious to the tension radiating in the room from Chris and Kelli both.

“Where are my manners?” Linda said, turning to her friend. “Amberlyn Vanderson, this hunk of a man is my husband Chris Larabee, and the quiet man sitting next to Kelli is her husband, Vin.”

“Ma'am,” Vin said quietly, ignoring the feel of Kelli's nails digging into his arm. He didn't know what the hell was going on, but Kelli certainly wasn't happy to see this other woman with Linda. As it was, he had already deduced from his own quiet observation of her that she was a woman who was cut from similar cloth as Linda. He would be polite, but that was it.

“Ooh, I love your accent? Where are you from? Are you from Texas like Kelli?” Amberlyn said in a rush of words that was hard to follow as she seated herself on the couch next to Vin.

If she had sat any closer, she would have been in his lap. Vin could almost feel the heated tension radiating off of Kelli, and thought it was best for him to put some distance between himself and Linda's He slid off the couch and moved to stand behind his wife, placing his hands on her shoulders. It was only then that he bothered to answer her question, or rather, one of them. “Yes, I’m from Texas.”

“Linda, you didn't tell me your husband was so dreamy, or his friends too. Wait until I tell Marshall.”

Kelli went still. “Marshall's here, too?” The question wasn't aimed at Amberlyn, but at Linda.

“Yes...he's over at the Southern Breeze with Matt. I couldn't very well be rude and not invite him to come to Denver too, after I had invited Amberlyn for the holidays.”

Chris did not miss his daughter’s reaction at the mention of the name Marshall. “Linda, you know that there is not much around here to keep guests entertained. Maybe they would prefer to stay at one of the mountain resorts.”

“Nonsense, Larabee, Amberlyn is going to help me with the holiday entertaining for the family. You know that a woman in my delicate condition can use all the help she can get.” Linda kept smiling.

The urge to throw up came over Kelli quickly and it had nothing to do with being pregnant. It had everything to do with Linda. “A nanny, housekeeper, and a personal maid aren't enough?” she asked, before she could stop herself.

Amberlyn snorted. “Good help is hard to find and they can only do so much. Linda needed my expertise to direct them, when she needs to rest. Lord only knows how she does it, two babies in two years.” She directed her look to Chris. “Thank God none of my husbands demanded children.”

“Speaking of children. “Vin said. “You haven’t heard the good news Linda.” He grinned as he massaged Kelli’s shoulders. “You are goin' to be a grandma again…we’re havin' twins.”

Chris had to bite his tongue to keep from laughing out laugh. Linda had stilled, and Amberlyn looked at Kelli as if she were an alien. Leave it to Tanner to find a way to diffuse the tension in the room. “They found out today. That makes them two up on us… darling.”

Amberlyn sputtered, “Grandma?” She looked over to Kelli. “Linda is your…?”

“Stepmother,” Kelli smiled. “Chris is my dad.”

“Well, congratulations.” Linda forced a smile. “Chris we should really be going. Are you ready?”

“Our daughter is napping, and I’ve been staying here so Mallory and Rain can help out with her. It’s a bit difficult to lift her with my injury, and changing her with one arm is not easy.” Chris grinned.” Since you are here to take over though, I suppose that’s not a problem anymore. I’ll be home as soon as Grace wakes up.”

“Then we’ll see you there later.” Linda leaned over and kissed her husband, before rising. “Amberlyn, are you ready?”

Amberlyn stood up. “It been a pleasure to meet y’all and Kelli we have a lot to catch up on. I know we’re going to have a fun time over the next few weeks.” She followed Linda’s lead and both women made a quick exit.

Vin resumed his place next to his wife, and Chris leaned forward directing his question to his eldest. “Okay, they’re gone. Who in the hell is Marshall?”

“Marshall is Amberlyn’s brother. The Dubois family has known the Vandersons for years, and Amberlyn as well as Marshall went to LSU. In fact Linda, Marshall, and his sister were an inseparable trio before I transferred in. They ran with the same circle of friends, partied, traveled together, and were really close. When Linda and I moved to room off-campus and…other things transpired they kinda went off in a different direction.”

“What other things Kel?” Vin urged her to continue.

“I never liked either of them our… view of the world was, or is completely different. Linda got tired of the party circuit and then when she…” Kelli hesitated.

“You might as well tell us all of it. I plan to find out anyway.” Chris flatly stated.

“Hell... Linda and Marshal were engaged to be married. In fact, it was all arranged, her father was pleased, and had already given Marshall a substantial amount of money to invest in a business. Three days before the weddin’ Linda called it off, a week later she had enrolled in the police academy, and she has never mentioned his name to me since.”

Chris nodded; it did not surprise him that Linda would drag an ex-fiancée to Denver. She was hoping to make him jealous enough to meet her demands. What did surprise him was the fact that it made no difference in how he felt about their marriage. He had to admit that he loved the times they had together, and cherished his children, but what he felt for Linda was not the kind of love that made a strong union outside the bedroom.

“I’m sorry dad. Maybe I shouldn’t have told you, but Linda should not have brought him here, especially not now.” Kelli hated to see Linda play games with Chris, he deserved better than that.

“I’m glad you did, it saves me the trouble of investigating the man.” Chris reached out and paced his hand under her chin so she would look at him. “Linda and I are worlds apart; and unfortunately I was not able to see that until recently. It may not be easy to do, but I intend to find a way that we can both get what we want.” The sound of Grace’s cries drew his attention. “Don’t worry Kel, it will all work out.” He rose to leave the room and tend to his other child.

Vin waited until Chris was out of the room before asking. “Kel, you said especially now. What didn’t you tell Chris?” He knew her well enough to know she was holding back.

Kelli sighed. “The Vanderson family has always been a strong supporter of the KKK in Louisiana. Amberlyn may be a snob, but Marshall Vanderson is a racist bastard.”

Chapter 30

Friday ~ December 8th

Vin poured himself a second cup of coffee and sat at the kitchen table to enjoy the peaceful silence of the cold December morning. That would change soon enough, but for now all was quiet. The Sanchez family had returned to their home yesterday, along with the Jacksons'. Tanner had given his deposition to the Federal attorneys too, and hopefully they had what they needed from him until after the holidays. The Texan had spent most of his time since he had been home with Kelli and the kids. After telling them about the expected additions to their family, they had made every effort to reassure Jason and Andi that their love for them would not change. Andi was excited about the babies, but the jury was still out on Jason, he had been unusually quiet since he heard the news.

The back door opened. After hanging up his coat, Chris walked into the kitchen and made a beeline for the coffeemaker. “Morning Vin.”

Tanner knew it had not been easy for Larabee since he had moved back home with Grace. Linda and Amberlyn were driving the man nuts, and coming over for morning coffee was becoming a new habit. “Had a rough night, cowboy?"

Chris sat down opposite the Texan. “I don’t think Amberlyn ever quits talking.” Chris sighed. “She and Linda are like two schoolgirls, giggling and carrying on all the time. Where is everyone?”

“I let Kel sleep in, and Andi spent the night at Josiah’s with the other girls. Jason is at school, and I sent Max off to make weddin’ plans with Mallory, Casey, and Rain. They’re comin' over later to decorate for tomorrow.” Vin laughed. “I practically had to run the woman off for the day; she thinks we can’t manage a thing without her. Max even made me a list of instructions to keep things runnin’ smoothly around here while she and Walter are gone.”

“I thought they were only going away for three days?” Chris sipped on his coffee.

“Yeah, they’ll leave after the ceremony, and be back Wednesday mornin’. She was just concerned that I wasn’t healed enough to take it on, I reckon.” Tanner grinned. “Actually I feel great, and ‘m enjoyin’ the hell out of bein’ home with Kel and the kids. In fact…that’s somethin’ I’ve wanted to talk to you about, Chris.”

“I’m not accepting your resignation Tanner, and neither is Travis. That said, I know you have spent most of the last year covering my ass, and you have a ton of down time coming. I think Captain Wilmington and I can work out a schedule to accommodate your needs. I understand you wanting to spend as much time as possible with Kel right now and certainly as she gets closer to delivering. We’ll work it out.”

“Appreciate it.” Vin moved on to another subject. Where do we stand with the rest of the team?”

“Justin left yesterday with his family to spend the holidays in Florida. Pam is leaving for Arizona on Tuesday, and Mark is headed for California at the end of next week. Raphael and Selena are going to Boulder as soon as school is out Wednesday, to stay with Alicia and her family until after Christmas. Alex will be taking off for Vail on the nineteenth. Bones will be keeping his team on identification analysis until the fifteenth, and then he's letting them go until after the first of the year. We should all be back on a regular schedule after the fifteenth of January. Whatever we need to do, we can do from Camp Larabee in the meantime. Although it’s been damn quiet out there with all the militia groups and Chambers seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth.”

“He may be quiet, but he’s still out there. Sooner or later he’ll rattle his chain and we’ll find him.” Vin knew he would ultimately have to face Chambers, but for now he would bid his time, and wait for his chance. “Any word yet from Bucklin about Inez?”

“I think she’s ready to throw his ass out.” Chris chuckled. “She’s had three bouts of false labor, and Buck is a basket case. Miss Nettie threatened to cut a switch to use on him if he didn’t quit driving them crazy. Every time Inez utters a word, he grabs her bag, and heads for the truck.”

“I figured when JD and Casey went home, and the girls went to Mal’s it was getting’ tense. Caleb seems happy that he’s stayin’ with us ‘til Tannis arrives. Guess I can’t make fun of Buck too much, if it were Kel, I’d probably be doin’ the same thing.” Vin got up and poured himself another cup of coffee. “Right now Kel’s lettin’ me hover, but I don’t know how long that’ll last. I just plan to take advantage of it while I can.”

“I thought she would have threatened to shoot you by now. “Chris laughed. “Pregnancy must be having a calming affect on Kel.”

Vin shook his head. “Hardly, I think Amberlyn and Marshall are on her hit list. If that woman pulls another stunt like she did Wednesday afternoon, I think my sweet little wife is liable to tear her apart.”

“I understand why about Amberlyn, but she hasn’t even seen Marshall yet. Why him?”

“It goes back to their college days Chris. She just doesn’t like the man.” Vin stared into his cup thinking, before he spoke. “We might want to keep a close eye on him. Kel says he has a racist attitude.”

“Damn, that’s just what we don’t need. We’ll have to make certain he understands that shit don’t fly around here.” Larabee pushed his chair back and stood up. “I need to check on Grace. Leaving her with Linda and Amberlyn makes me uneasy. Linda wanted to try some new outfits on her that she had recently bought, and I suppose any time Grace gets to spend with her mama is better than none.” Chris started for the door and suddenly stopped. “I almost forgot to tell you. Linda is having an ultrasound today at eleven, and reluctantly has agreed for me to be there. Hopefully with this new 3D thing, I’ll find out if I’ll have another girl or boy to add to the Larabee clan.”

Tanner grinned. “Maybe you’ll get lucky, Cowboy, and have twins too, one of each.”

“I’ll settle for one more for now, thank you. My wife is not Kelli and the thought of having twins might just send Linda running for the hills before this baby is born, and that is not acceptable. See you later Tanner.” Chris closed the door on his way out.

Vin looked at the clock. He knew Ezra and Barbara were coming out to stay for the weekend; it was Ezra’s turn to guard the ‘prisoner’. The Texan figured that he might have a few minutes to spend with his redhead before they arrived. Tanner placed his and Chris’s cup in the dishwasher, and went to wake up his wife. Kelli was already awake, and partially dressed when he walked up behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist. “How are you feelin’ baby?”

“Tired, but then it seems that I stay that way most of the time.” Kelli sighed and leaned back into him. Normally she became irritated when Vin went into his protective mode, but since they had left the doctor’s office, she was enjoying it immensely. “You’re hoverin' again Tanner.”

Tanner nuzzled the back of her neck, “Yep.” He was not sure how long she would allow him to hover, but he planned on enjoying the hell out of it while it lasted. “Chris said he’s goin’ with Linda when she has her ultrasound today.”

“At least they don’t have to worry about how Grace will react to a new brother or sister. She’s too young to know what is goin’ on.”

Vin knew she had been feeling bad about Jason’s reaction to their news. While Andi was bouncing off the walls with excitement, their son had been quiet and was keeping his distance from Kelli. “He just needs some time to think about it baby, and ‘m sure he’ll be as excited as Andi is in no time at all.” Vin gave her a tight squeeze. "Quit worryin', Jason loves you almost as much as I do."

“I know, love and patience, but damn it’s hard. I just wish…”

“Our son is goin' to be alright, Kel.” he whispered softly. “We’ll make sure of it.” Vin swatted her backside. “I ran Max off for the day, so what do you want for breakfast?”

“Hmmm.... chocolate ice cream sounds good…oh…with crushed potato chips on top.”

“Don’t think so lady, but I will make you some chocolate chip pancakes.”

Leaning her head back for a kiss, Kelli grinned, “Deal Tanner.” She slipped on her skirt, and together they walked to the kitchen. While Kelli had a cup of hot tea instead of coffee, he whipped up some pancakes. It seemed that all they had been able to manage since Vin had returned home were stolen moments. At night, Andi still snuck into their room to climb into bed with them, and Tracker as well as Buttons thought they belonged in their bedroom too. Most of the time one of the brothers, or another agent was in the house, since Vin was considered to be in protective custody, so the Tanners grabbed every chance they could to be alone.

Dr. Susan Ryder’s Office~11:00am

Chris was not happy that his wife had insisted on Amberlyn accompanying them to the doctor’s office. “She didn't travel all the way from Louisiana to be stuck on the Larabee 7 with your friends playing cops and robbers all over it.” Linda told Chris in a loud voice as they entered the office and moved up to the desk to let the receptionist know that they were there for Linda's scheduled appointment.

Chris gritted his teeth. “Lower your voice, Linda. We're in public and I don't want to be broadcasting MCAT business all over the place.”

“Fine, but Amberlyn is staying...and, she's going into the back with us as well. She's never seen an ultrasound done and I told her she could view mine.”

Larabee fought to keep his irritation in check as Linda gave the woman at the desk her name and the time her appointment was. He escorted Linda over to a row of chairs after the receptionist indicated that it would be a few minutes, and then settled himself into a chair and prayed that the doctor wouldn't keep them waiting long, since he didn't think he could take much more of Linda and Amberlyn's company.

Amberlyn watched the other women in the room, and was again thankful that she had made a decision a long time ago never to have children." Linda you should consider having something done to make sure you don’t have to go through this again. Surely two children is enough to satisfy your husband’s need to procreate. You do have to think about your figure, and your future. I just can’t see you tied down to a houseful of children while the world awaits you with so much to offer.”

“Oh, I guarantee you this is my last go round with this misery.” Linda was adamant. I have already talked to Dr. Ryder, and she has agreed to do the procedure as soon as this baby is born.”

Larabee listened to the two women, and was not surprised by his wife’s position. He thought back to how much he and Sarah had gone through to have a child. Sarah wanted a baby desperately, and put up with test after test to find a way to make it happen. Kelli had done the same thing, and even though both women were told not to expect a miracle, they had not given up. Chris was saddened to think that Linda, due to her 'me first' attitude, would never realize the amazing gifts that they had been given, first with Grace, and now with this new child that she was carrying. He knew how fragile life could be and how it felt to lose a child, for Linda she saw their babies as a way to keep him in line, or so she thought.

“Mrs. Larabee?” Chris's reverie was broken by the sound of the nurse's voice calling Linda's name. He rose from his chair and moved to Linda's side, and together they walked toward the doorway that the nurse was standing in. Amberlyn followed silently behind them. They were led down a hallway into an examining room, where the nurse proceeded to check Linda's vitals and write the results down in her records. Before leaving the room, she handed Linda a gown, telling her to change into it, and then left the room.

“Good, God, isn't that about the ugliest thing you've ever seen?” Amberlyn exclaimed, eyeing the faded green gown as Linda changed into it.

Chris couldn't hide a snicker. “This isn't exactly a fashion boutique Amberlyn; it's a doctor's office. The gown is supposed to be functional, not fashionable.”

“If you say so....” The younger blonde’s nose wrinkled up in distaste.

Linda was growing increasingly agitated the longer she laid upon the cold, hard exam table. “Where the hell is that doctor?”

“Seeing to other patients,” Dr. Ryder said as she entered the room with a disapproving look in Linda's direction. “I realize that you are uncomfortable and impatient Linda, but I have to see to the patients whose appointments are scheduled before yours.”

“Let's just get this over with, I have other things to do today, and I'd like to get to them.” Linda huffed.

“As you wish, Mrs. Larabee,” Dr. Ryder performed her preliminary exam, the nurse marking Linda’s chart as the doctor dictated. She prepared for the ultrasound, and continued without another word spoken directly to her patient. “Chris this procedure will take about fifteen minutes; we’ll measure the size of the baby, its position, and make certain everything is as it should be. Before I start I need to know, if we are lucky enough to see this early, do you want to know the sex of your child?”

“I understand, and yes we want to know.” Chris responded.

“Okay here we go.” The doctor began by rubbing a cool gel across Linda’s exposed abdomen to improve the sound condition. Then she slid the transducer across her stomach and a picture began to form on the video monitor. “Yes, there’s your baby, and look at that, he’s posing for us.”

“It's a boy?” Chris asked, his eyes straining to make out what it was on the screen that indicated to the doctor that the baby Linda was carrying was indeed a male. Dr. Ryder pointed with her finger and Larabee followed it until he could make out what the doctor had seen. A lump formed in his throat. A son. He was being given another son. Adam would always hold a special place in his heart, but this time, with his family of brothers to aide him, he made a solemn vow to do his damnest to see this son into adulthood. He planned to take special pleasure in every precious moment they were given together.

“I should have known.” Linda said. “I'm carrying this one so differently than I did Grace. It looks like you'll have another son to carry on the Larabee name, Chris.”

It wasn't the words that struck him wrong; it was the tone behind them. Chris couldn't help thinking back to the joyous day when he and Sarah had discovered that the baby that she was carrying was a boy. Sarah had wept at the news, and Larabee had found himself moved beyond words as he had held her close to him. Linda acted as if having a child was a chore. No, more like a burden that she couldn't wait to get rid of. He supposed his delight in the news would just have to make up for her nonchalance. He couldn't wait to share the news of his baby's gender with his brothers, especially Buck. Wilmington was the only one of his brothers who had been there when Adam was born. He had been the one to grieve alongside of him when Sarah and Adam were taken away, and he knew Buck was going to be thrilled that Chris was being given another boy.

“Chris?” Linda had been watching her husband hoping that he would show some sign that he was grateful to her for providing him with a son. She was beginning to think that there was nothing she could do to break Chris away from that family of his, and have him all to her self. Wherever his thoughts were now, they were not on her. "Chris, we need to be going.”

Larabee had been so caught up in thoughts of his sons that he did not even realize that the doctor had left the room and Linda was dressed to leave. “Yeah, we need to get back home. I promised to help Josiah and Vin make the wedding arch for tomorrow.”

“Don’t forget that we’re having dinner at Matt’s tonight. We also need to make a stop first. I am having a professional decorator dress the house for Christmas and I want to approve the tree he has selected.” Linda took her bag as Amberlyn passed it to her.

“We’ve always taken our Christmas trees from ranch property Linda, they’re better than any you could buy. In fact, we have planned to take all the kids as soon as school is out and find the perfect tree for each of us.”

“Not this year. I’m having a party on the twentieth at our house and I want things perfect…my way.”

Chris started to argue with her about it, but stopped. Unless there was a drastic change, this would probably be the last Christmas they would spend together. Linda could have her damn tree…he was getting a son. “Fine, we’ll do it your way, let’s go.”

Linda and Amberlyn walked in front of him, and Chris was surprised to see Dr Ryder motioning to him from her office door. “You two go on, I’ll meet you at the elevator. “He went over to see what the doctor wanted.

“Everything is fine Chris; get that worried look off your face. Your son will arrive sometime around May 28th. “Susan Ryder smiled, and handed him a packet. “I thought you would want pictures, and a copy of the video.”

Larabee looked down at the packet in his hand and nodded. “Thanks, Doc.” He then went out to join the women at the elevator with a smile on his face. Chris could hardly wait to show his brothers the picture of his new son.

Larabee 7

Chris was never more relieved than when he had driven into the driveway of Larabee 7 and Linda and Amberlyn got out. The two women had never stopped talking...or harping was a better word for what Linda and Amberlyn did all the way home. Not one word of their prattle was about the baby. It was all about the upcoming party. He made a brief trip inside to check on Grace, and found her taking her afternoon nap. He told the Nanny that he was going to be gone for a little while and if there was anything that Grace needed, to call him. Once back in the truck, Larabee drove over to the Wilmington's. He was anxious to convey the news to all his brothers that Linda was giving him a son, but he wanted to tell Buck first. He drove up to the Wilmington's, turned off the truck and got out, heading straight to the front door.

Buck saw him coming, and opened the door to greet him. “Hey ole son, you’re just what I need… another man around here. Miss Nettie and Inez have me outnumbered.”

Chris chuckled. “What did you do to piss them off?”

“Me? I’m just being my sweet lovable self.” Wilmington smiled. “It seems Inez is a bit cranky, and Miss Nettie says I’m not giving my wife room to breathe “

“Yeah, right,” Larabee grinned at him. “Well, I suppose I could take you off their hands for a few minutes at least. Want to go for a walk?”

Buck recognized the look in Chris’s eyes; his oldest friend had something important on his mind. “Sure, just let me grab my coat.”

Chris waited until Wilmington had joined him, before heading off of the porch and into the yard. “Linda and I just came back from the doc's office.”

Buck stopped walking, and anxiously began firing questions to Chris. “What’s wrong? Is it something with the baby? Linda?”

“Uh...No, Buck...God, I’m sorry...I didn't mean to alarm you.” Larabee was quick to say. “Everything’s fine, Buck...It's great, actually. I just wanted to tell you…we're having a boy.”

“A boy?” Old memories flashed rapidly through Buck’s mind. The day Chris announced that he and Sarah were having a son…how proud Chris had been. He remembered the day Adam was born, too…and all the wonderful things they had shared with him for the next six years…and then… how they had both grieved when he was suddenly gone. Tears filled Wilmington’s eyes as he excitedly hugged his brother. “A boy…we’re having a boy!”

Chris felt his eyes moisten in response to Buck's emotional display of exuberance. He hugged Wilmington back, unashamed of the tears that slid unchecked down his face. “I wanted you to know first, before I told the rest of our brothers, and Kel.”

“Damn,” Buck wiped at his eyes. “Chris, I’m honored and happy as hell for you. The rest of the guys are at Tanner’s house helping with the wedding stuff. Just give me a minute to tell Inez your great news and let her know I’m leaving, and then we’ll go tell the others.”

“Thanks Buck.” Larabee said and then motioned for Wilmington to head inside. It had been important to him to tell Buck first, but now that he knew, Chris was anxious to head over to the Tanners to tell Kelli, Vin, and the other brothers the good news.

"Inez told me to tell you how happy she is for you and Linda." Buck said when he came back outside a few moments later and the two of them piled into the truck. Chris drove up to the Tanner's house, turning off the ignition before he and Buck got out of the vehicle and let themselves into the house. There was a blur of activity going on, with Gunny directing it all. Mallory, Rain, and Casey were arranging flowers; Barbara was helping Max in the kitchen. Josiah, Walter, Nathan, and JD were working on setting up the tables and chairs, while Ezra guiding them. The little ones were down for afternoon naps, and the older children were still at school. Chris found Vin sitting at the kitchen table drawing a design for the arch.

“Tanner, where’s my daughter?” Chris wanted her to be here when he made his announcement.

“She had better be restin’. I had to threaten to lock her in our bedroom to get her out of the middle of all this.”

“I bet she was thrilled about that. “Chris grinned. “Would you ask her to come out for a few minutes? I have an announcement to make, and I want her to hear it, too.”

You all right?

I’m great, and I promise, my news won’t upset her.

Vin nodded, stood up, and headed for their bedroom. He closed the door behind him and leaned back against it as he watched Kelli sleep for a few minutes before waking her. Standing here in the serenity of their room, the unsettling memories of Dusty Slater, the RMR, and the last few turbulent months faded away; along with all the disappointments they had faced trying to conceive a child. The arguments they had engaged in about surgeries, the tears, and rollercoaster of emotions they had been riding seemed a million miles away. They had two amazing children with the addition of Jason and Andi to their family, and now they were being blessed with two more little miracles. His bond with Chris was stronger than it was before, and fate again had intertwined itself into their lives. Tanner now fully understood what his grandfather had told him so many years ago…. one day you will rediscover two souls that you have known in the past and once reunited, one will strengthen your spirit, and the other, will reveal your destiny in this life. First Chris and now Kelli had done just that. Treyton Hawk would be pleased for his grandson, and Vin vowed to pass along his grandfather’s wisdom to his children.

The Texan walked over to the bed, sat down on the edge of it, and reached out to brush Kelli’s hair back with his fingers. “Baby, wake up.” He smiled when she began to stir, as he then slid his hand down her back. “Chris is here Kel, and he wants to tell all of us somethin’.”

Kelli sighed as she stretched, and forgetting her earlier annoyance with her Texan, graced him with a smile. “Tanner, you’re a lot nicer to wake up to than an alarm clock, and better lookin’ too.” She reached up and trail two fingers across his jaw line. “Lord, I missed you, while you were gone.”

“Probably not as much as I missed you.” Helping her up, he hugged her. “You’re stuck with me, woman.”

“I’m not complainin’, Tanner. Give me a minute in the bathroom, and then we’ll go see what dad is up too now.” Vin waited on her, and together they walked out to join the rest of the family.


Once everyone was present and accounted for Chris called for their attention “I have an announcement to make so listen up. I wanted to share some good news. This morning Linda had an ultrasound and we found out that the newest Larabee is a boy…Grace and Kelli, are getting a baby brother.”

Whistles, cheers, and applause filled the room, and Chris was surrounded by family that were all thinking the same thing. Adam was gone, and could never be replaced, but fate had given their brother another opportunity to raise a son. They all knew too, that Chris’s emotions were running high, thinking the same thing. There was no doubt that the last months had been difficult ones for all of them, but for Chris most of all. He had struggled to make it past the obstacles, life had thrown at him over the last year and deserved peace and happiness in his life. As they stood together strong in spirit, and basking in the strength of family, sharing his triumph over adversity, each one gave their own thanks for the strength they had found in one another.

Journal Entry~ Friday December 8th ~Midnight

It has been close to four months since California, and today I feel that I have finally broken free of the past that has weighed me down over the last year. My recovery is solid, and although I still attend my meetings, I know that the addiction in my life will never be a threat to me again .Vin was the last person on my list to make amends to, and I have done that. Our bond is reconnected and strong again, maybe even stronger than before. I’m not saying that everything is perfect in my life, but it is manageable, and something that I can handle. I sat here tonight before I began to write and picked up Sarah’s bible, it fell open to a verse that I know she wanted me to read.

Ecclesiastes 3

There is a time for everything, a season for every activity under heaven.
A time to be born and a time to die. A time to plant, and a time to harvest.
A time to kill, and a time to heal. A time to break down, and a time to build up.
A time to weep and a time to laugh. A time to mourn and a time to dance
A time to scatter stones and a time to gather stones. A time to embrace, and a time to turn away.
A time to search, and a time to lose. A time to keep, and a time to throw away.
A time to tear and a time to mend. A time to be quiet and a time to speak up.
A time to love and a time to hate. A time for war and a time for peace
Whatever exists today and whatever will exist in the future has already existed in the past. For God calls each event back in its turn.

This verse sums up our family and my life. I now realize that my time with Linda had a purpose. I have moved forward, letting go of the past that held me back, but our time together as a married couple is almost over. We have two children to forever bind us, but we both see our future differently. Mine is here with my family, hers…she thinks there is something out there she is missing. I do not know what it is; I only know I can not give it to her. Do I regret being with her? No, I don’t. I am however resolved to the fact that our differences are irreconcilable. Surprisingly I am okay with that, as long as we can come to an agreement about the children.

Tonight we went to the Southern breeze and had dinner with Matt. I met Marshall Vanderson, and immediately disliked the man. Not because he followed Linda around like a faithful puppy, but because he is an egotistical bigot. Money, social position, and status are top priorities on his list of important attributes. Aside from his obvious prejudices though, he is exactly the type of man that Linda needs in her life in order to be happy. He would make her, and her family fortune, the center of his attention. He is smart enough to know that she likes to be in control, and he would accept that; he lives the lifestyle she wants me to be comfortable in, and I can not do that. Maybe I should encourage her to spend more time with the man, so she too could realize that we…she and I…are just too far apart to have a future together. All I know for certain is… I have embraced our life, and now it’s time to turn away.

Chapter 31

Saturday ~ December 9th

Even though Kelli thought she was being quiet, Vin knew each time she had been up for the past two hours. Tanner glanced over at the clock on the bedside table. Four o'clock. It was still too early to start the day, and too late to even think about going back to sleep. In a few hours their home would be bombarded with family coming over for Max and Walter’s wedding, but for now it was quiet and just the two of them. He slipped out of bed, pulled on a pair of sweatpants, and went to join her in their rocker.

"Move over, baby.” Kelli made room for him to sit and once he did the Texan drew her close. ”What’s wrong?”

“Nothin’…everythin’ …hell, I don’t know.” She laid her head on his shoulder. “You’re hurt, Chambers wants you dead, and the RMR has a bounty on your head. Our son is barely talkin' to me, and our daughter thinks she’s moved into our bedroom.” She sighed. “Damnit, I sound like a pathetic whiner.”

Vin leaned his head against Kelli’s, and taking her hand laced his fingers through hers. “You let me worry about Chambers and the RMR, Kel. The kids just need a little time to adjust, and ‘m fine.” Tanner gently squeezed her hand, and laced his fingers with hers. “You are not pathetic, or a whiner, and couldn’t be even if you tried. So, what else is keepin’ you awake?”

Kelli shrugged her shoulders in response to his question. Vin knew that there was something else bothering her, and was determined to find out what it was. “Kel, this is me, the man who knows you better than anybody else, talk to me.”

Kelli let out a sigh. “I’m tired all the time, my clothes won’t fit right anymore, and it’s just a matter of time before you get tired of listenin’ to me throwin’ up a dozen times a day.”

It hit him suddenly; his redhead was feeling insecure…about him. Vin wasn't sure what had brought on the sense of insecurity Kelli was feeling, or maybe he did know. They hadn't made love since the night at the cabin when she had told him that she was pregnant. His homecoming hadn't gone exactly as he had planned with him being shot, and then the kids in their bed, and…truthfully his concern that he may accidentally hurt her. Throw in Amberlyn and her flirtations, out of whack hormones, and he could suddenly understand where her doubts were coming from.

It surprised him that she would ever feel insecure about his love for her, but she did, so it was up to him to chase her fears away. “Baby, I 'm goin' to love every moment of this pregnancy, as our babies grow inside of you. No matter what changes occur, or how big you get, you are goin' to be beautiful, and you're only goin' to get even more so by the time the twins are ready to be delivered. As for you bein' tired and sick all the time, Dr. Weeks explained that as soon as your body grows accustomed to the pregnancy, that you won't be feelin' that way anymore. He tilted her face to look into her eyes. “The day I ever get tired of you doin’ anythin’ will be the day after all the stars in the sky go dark forever.” Still holding her hand, he stood up, and pulled her to her feet.

“What are we doin’ Tanner?”

“We are headed for the shower, lady.” Vin led her into their bathroom. He opened the door and reached into the oversized shower stall, turning the water on full blast, testing the temperature until it was just right before turning his attention back to his wife. He released the sash on her robe, slipped it off her shoulders, and let it drop to the floor. His sweats were the next item to be discarded. ”You are a breathtakin' vision, lady.” Tanner had already recognized that his wife’s body was changing. Her breasts had become fuller, her normally slender waist was beginning to disappear as the babies she carried inside of her grew, and her hips were slightly more rounded. All of the changes that had already occurred combined with those that were yet to happen, didn't turn him off in the very least. Instead, they made her all the more desirable to him and he silently chastised himself for not having made mention of that fact to her before now.

Kelli gently traced the fiery red scar on Vin's side, left by the bullet wound he had received only a week ago. “Does it still hurt?”

“No.” He replied softly, wrapping his arms around her. “We are certainly a pair. You didn't want to do anythin' to hurt me because of my wound, and I was concerned about hurtin' you, worried about it bein’ safe for me to make love to you. I reckon we got our wires crossed, Kel. We both want and need the same thing, and it's time that we do somethin’ about it.” Vin lowered his head to hers in a tender kiss that quickly turned passionate. They were both a bit breathless when the kiss ended a few moments later.

“The water’s runnin', wanna join me?” he whispered hoarsely.

“I don’t know… are you plannin’ to do more hoverin’ Tanner?” The smile that lit up Kelli's face was filled with love and anticipation.

“Oh, yeah...” Vin grinned seductively at her, “Among other things.”

He held out his hand to her. Kelli slipped her hand into his without hesitation and let him lead her into the shower where they renewed their commitment and love to one another.


By noon family members were filling up the house, and the women were putting the last minute touches on the decorations and the food. Max had insisted that not a lot of fuss be made over her and Walter’s nuptials, and the ladies of the family had abided by their some degree. In keeping with the holiday that was vastly approaching, Max had opted for red roses with sprigs of baby's breath and holly leaves for the small floral arrangements, as well as for her bridal bouquet. Twisted streamers in red, white, and green hung from the doorways and ceilings. Chris, Vin and Josiah had erected an arch that Max and Walter would stand under as they exchanged their vows, and it had been decked with streamers, as well as sprigs of baby's breath, holly, and roses.

In the dining room, the table was bedecked with a white linen cloth, and green and red linen napkins. An extravagant centerpiece of red roses, holly, and baby’s breath was placed in the center of the table. Two hurricane lamps lit with white candles were placed on each side of it, with rose petals and holly leaves adorning the bases of both lamps. Platters of vegetables, fruit, cold cuts, and cheeses graced the table. There were bowls of pasta, macaroni, seafood, potato and green salads. Baskets of rolls or bread, and numerous condiments in little dishes were there as well. On a side table, all by its lonesome stood the two tiered wedding cake with red bows and green ribbons that Ezra had had custom made at his favorite bakery in town.

Country was the choice of music for the day, and JD kept cds loaded into the stereo. The children seemed to be enjoying the festivities as much as the adults, with one or two exceptions. Andi made her turn around the room making certain that all her aunts and uncles knew that two new Tanners were coming soon. She was a little disappointed to find out her daddy had already told them all. She sat down next to her Uncle Ra, and pouted.

“Something wrong Sugar?” Ezra spoke quietly to his niece.

“I don’t got nobody to tell ‘bout the babies.”

She looked so forlorn that Ezra felt obliged to do something. “Well…you could tell me.”

Andi’s face brightened immediately, and for the next fifteen minutes she repeated almost word for word everything her parents had said. “Jason’s not happy ‘bout it, but I am.” She hugged Ezra’s neck. “Thanks Uncle Ra, I love you.” Standish watched her happily run off and then scanned the room for his nephew. His intention was to seek out the young man and have a chat with him, however, at that moment the Larabees arrived with Matt and two people he did not know with them, diverting his attention.

Vin was staying close to his redhead; he did not want her to doubt for one second that her pregnancy had changed anything between them, except to bring them closer. He watched as the Larabees' walked in with Amberlyn, and presumably Marshall. When Tanner realized they were comin their way he leaned over and kissed his wife passionately, making certain that any interested parties knew where his attentions were centered.

Kelli smiled at her dad as he came into the room, and reached immediately for Grace. “Isn't she a doll?” She asked Vin as he took in the beautiful dress that her baby sister was wearing.

“She's pretty all right...almost as pretty as her big sister.” Vin agreed as he caressed Grace's chin with one of his fingers.

“The place looks great.” Chris said, turning around in a circle to admire the wedding decorations. “The ladies outdid themselves.”

“It could have been even better if Max would have let me hire a wedding planner.” Linda said, coming up to them. “Kelli, you remember Marshall?” The man with Linda was dark headed, six feet, and had what most would call classic good look. His skin tone indicated that he did not spend much time outdoors, and his manicured hands showed that manual labor was not on his regular agenda.

“Sure I do” Kelli said glancing at the man who walked up behind Linda with Amberlyn. “Marshall.”

“Kelli.” Marshall said in a smooth voice. “It's good to see you again.” He started to lean down to kiss her cheek, but Kelli shifted Grace between them to avoid it.

“Marshall Vanderson, this is my husband, Vin Tanner.” She bit her tongue to keep from saying what she wanted to say. This was Max and Walter's special day and she wouldn't do anything to spoil it. The two men simply nodded their acknowledgment of each other.

“You have a lovely home. It’s fortunate that Linda and Chris allowed y’all to build on their property.” Marshall smiled. “Most landowners wouldn’t do that.”

“Marshall, apparently Linda had not clarified our living arrangements to you. The Larabee 7 is jointly owned by me, Vin, and five more brothers. We’re all family, as well as co-workers, and share equally.” Chris explained. The land, the horses, and our lives are all connected.”

“How quaint,” Amberlyn commented. “Are all of your brothers married?”

“All, but one, and Ezra is going to take the plunge in April.” Chris replied. “Between us we also have twelve children and another four on the way. I like having my family living close by.”

The Jacksons walked up to join them. “I do hope you two are behaving and giving yourselves a chance to heal.” Nathan smiled as he addressed Chris and Vin. “No one looking at you two now would believe you were both shot only a week ago.”

“Oh, my God,” Amberlyn gasped. “You were both shot? With a gun?"

“Yes.” Vin did not miss Marshall’s disdainful reaction to seeing Nathan and Rain. Sending an intense glare in Vanderson’s direction he explained. “In this case we were up against a white supremacy group. Of course being Federal agents we couldn’t allow them to spread their racist garbage and continue their illegal activities. Chris and I were wounded in a shoot out with ‘em, we survived, their men were not all so fortunate.”

Marshall cleared his throat. “I suppose we should all sleep better knowing that Mr. Tanner.”

“Can we please not talk about MCAT work for one day?” Linda edged back into the conversation. “There is more to life than work.” Noting Marshall’s interest in the Jacksons she explained. “Marshall Vanderson, meet the Jacksons. Rain and Nathan live about a half a mile up the road.”

“They live on this property?” Marshall’s censure was obvious, reacting before he thought about it.

Chris threw his uninjured arm around Nathan’s shoulder. “Brother Nathan is one of the men I told you about. He owns one seventh of the Larabee 7 land that you’re standing on.”

Marshall looked as if he was going to be ill. Chris winked at the Texan who stood grinning next to Kelli, their work was done for now, Vanderson received their message loud and clear.

Josiah called for everyone’s attention. “Brothers, Sisters, family, and friends it is my honor to officiate here today and we are ready to begin.” Gunny stood on one side of him, the only attendant her sister had asked for. The music started and Walter, wearing a dark blue suit walked into the room with Max at his side. Her mid-calf pastel blue dress with billowing sleeves flowed attractively over her body, accentuating her silver hair. When they reached the archway of flowers, the music stopped and Josiah continued speaking.” These two have come to us today to share their commitment with friends and family. Walter Lee Andrews, do you take this woman. Maxine Rae Bowdrie to be your lawfully wedded wife…..”

The ceremony continued for ten minutes, and then the entire room broke in applause along with cheers when Josiah introduced Mr. and Mrs. Walter Andrews. Gunny hugged her sister and her new brother-in-law, as well-wishers quickly surrounded the couple. At some point over the next hour the older couple slipped off for their planned three day honeymoon while everyone was preoccupied with food or conversation.

Kids were either down for naps or playing in the loft area Vin had designed expressly for that purpose, and the afternoon excitement was winding down. Gunny and Nettie oversaw the clean-up effort and they were finally satisfied that it was completed successfully. Family and friends had all gathered in the living room and sat around the fireplace relaxing and enjoying the opportunity of being together, most of them anyway. Marshall and Amberlyn stayed close to Linda after she had introduced them to everyone, he had not found his comfort zone among this group, and she had not found any available men to flirt with.

Matt made a point to seek out Vin and Kelli. “I heard your news, and I wanted you to know that I am truly happy for both of you. Congratulations.”

“Thanks Dubois.” Vin answered for them. “Your friend doesn’t look too happy though.” He nodded toward Marshall.

“Correction Tanner, he is Linda’s friend, I’m just the brother that got talked into letting him stay with me.” Matt was quick to explain. “As far as I’m concerned, he can leave anytime.”

Matt, why in the hell did Linda bring them to Colorado?” Kelli asked.

“I advised her against it. “He sighed as he looked over at his sister. “Linda is not listening to me though, she’s…hell I’m not sure what she is, but I can read the signs. She’s restless, and I guess you know as well as I do what that means.”

“Unfortunately I do.” Kelli knew Matt well enough to know that although he would not publicly admit his disapproval of his sister’s behavior, privately he did not approve of her constant need for change and attention. “You still seein’ Kat?”

Matt grinned. “Every chance I get.” He stood up. “If you will excuse me I have to see a boy about a raccoon. I promised your son, to check Buttons out before I leave; it seems he’s concerned she might have babies.”

Vin squeezed Kelli’s hand. “We told him about the twins, and he may be reactin' to that. If you don’t mind we’d appreciate knowin’ what he’s concerned about.”

“No problem. Dr. Matt is on the case.” He left to look for Jason and Buttons.

JD and Casey came over and sat down. “When you two are ready JD and I can fill you in on what to expect with your twins, “Casey offered. “You might want to check out the group we joined when we found out about the girls. It’s called “Managing with Multiples” and if you don’t want to attend the meeting you can go online for a ton of information.”

“You best give Vin the URL JD, he’s readin' everythin’ he can about twins.” Kelli laughed. “At the rate he’s goin’ he’ll be an expert before we’re half-way there.”

“Nothin’ wrong about doin’ a little research.” Vin answered defensively.

“Hell, I did the same thing starting the minute we knew.” JD agreed. “Of course we didn’t know as soon as you did, Casey was almost four months along when we found out.”

“That’s one of the advantages of going to a specialist. Dr Weeks was already monitorin’ everything about me, even before we got pregnant.” Kelli added. “We appreciate your offer, and ‘m sure we’ll be yellin’ for your help.”

JD grinned. “That is what family is for isn’t it? Trust me when I say, Lilah and Daisy have taught us plenty to share with you.”

“I bet they have.” Vin grinned, and then he saw what was going on across the room with the Wilmington's. “It looks as if Tannis may be ready to join the party.” They all got up to go over and see what was happening with Buck and Inez.

Buck was helping Inez to her feet. “Judging by how hard she’s squeezing my hand, I’d say this time it’s the real thing.”

“I’m fine, Buck, just…oh...” Inez grimaced in pain. “Maybe we should go to the hospital.”

They had already planned who would go where. With Vin still in protective custody, and Nathan a target as well, they could not risk bringing trouble to the hospital, if it was at all avoidable. One of them had to stay to fulfill the requirements for protective custody, and the children’s care had to be considered. Josiah and Mallory were to help Buck with Inez. JD and Casey would also accompany them to the hospital. Chris would stay with Vin and Nathan, and Ezra had volunteered his and Barbara’s assistance with the children. Gunny and Nettie would be a backup for the kids, and keep the food and coffee coming while everyone at the ranch waited for news from the hospital.

Josiah and Mallory were providing the transportation for them, and after checking on Joanne and Adam, they were ready to leave. Inez insisted on saying goodbye to her children. “I’ll be home in a couple of days, and have your new sister with me.” She hugged Sarah, Maria, and Caleb, before allowing Buck to take her outside. After hugging Lilah, and Daisy, JD and Casey followed them in their car.

As it goes with kids, they sensed that something big was going on around them and acted…like children. Nonstop talking, squealing and bids for attention made a noisy household, and Marshall Vanderson decided that he was not sticking around for it.

“Dubois, take me home.” He snapped at Matt, before turning his attention to Linda. “Apparently the nuptial party is over, and the children’s hour has begun. I bid you adieu, dear lady, and will speak with you later.” Politely saying goodbye to the others he donned his coat, and walked out the door, expecting Matt to do as he requested.

“Linda, when you do speak to your friend, you may kindly inform him that the Southern Breeze is not his home and that I am not his personal servant.” Matt instructed his sister.

“Matt, you know how Marshall is, I’m sure he did not mean it the way it sounded.” Linda defended her friend. “Would you please drive him to the ranch, I know he’s not used to children and would be very uncomfortable if he had to stay.”

“As soon as I speak with Vin, I’ll take him to the ranch, but not for his sake. I think these good people have enough to be concerned about without having to put up with your Mr. Vanderson.” Matt nodded to Tanner and the two men left the room for a private discussion.

“I didn’t know those two were even on speaking terms. What is all that about Kel?” Linda questioned.

“Whatever it is, it’s their business Linda, not yours.” Kelli answered, handing a squirming Grace over to her father.

Ezra walked in to make an announcement. “I have several servings of cake and ice cream waiting in the kitchen, but you must be age seven or younger to indulge. Do I have any interested participants?”

Maria wrinkled her nose, “Huh?”

“Cake and ice cream for everyone,” Chris interpreted. He grinned as most of the little people ran out of the room, and then commented. “I wonder if Ezra has ever heard the term, sugar rush.”

“If he hasn’t he will be experiencin’ it firsthand in about thirty minutes.” Kelli laughed. “Ezra and Barbara have planned to spend the holidays with us, so they can see all the kids through Christmas. By the time they spend the day with ten sugar laden kids, they might change their minds.”

Matt and Vin reentered the room within a few minutes, Dubois saying his good-byes, and Vin returning to his place beside Kelli on the couch.

Everything okay, Vin?

Jason is afraid Buttons will have babies and then die.

Damn, nothing’s ever easy with kids, is it.

“Kelli, I never pegged you as the domestic type, I thought you were all guns, and dangerous stuff. I have a difficult time seeing you as a mother.” Amberlyn directed her comment to the redhead.

Oh, I still know how to shoot, but there are other things in life I like better.” Kelli grinned at her husband. “My family keeps my life excitin', in fact. I probably should go check on our two.”

“You are not goin' to be chasin’ hyped-up kids. That activity does not qualify as rest, and stayin’ off your feet.” Tanner threw his arm around her to draw her closer, and grinned mischievously. “Besides, you’ve had enough exercise today.”

Linda was sitting back observing everyone around her. Kelli was obviously happy, and, after spending the last week with Amberlyn's frivolous chitchat, Linda was beginning to miss the redhead’s friendship. She also realized that Chris and Vin were communicating again, and her hope that they would not mend their differences was gone. After watching the rest of the family today, she knew her husband’s relationship with his brothers had not really changed; it had only taken a detour for a while. Chris Larabee was back among them, the same as he was when she had met him. What made you think you could change that Linda? Chris told you often enough how he felt about the Wild Bunch. Didn’t you listen? This is one time you may have overplayed your hand Dubois. Not only have you alienated your best friend, you may have destroyed your marriage in the process. You lost your bet, lady, now you have to live with the consequences. You know that Larabee will never back down about his work, his family, or his children. So what do you do now?

Denver Memorial Hospital ~9:00pm

The Wilmington’s had made a mad rush getting to the hospital, but seven hours later found them still waiting for baby Tannis to make her first appearance. Buck held Inez’s hand assuring her that he had checked on their other children and they were fine.

“We’re almost there darlin’. Buck squeezed his wife’s hand as she worked through another contraction. He was already dressed in hospital scrubs prepared to stay with Inez throughout the entire delivery.

“We husband?” Inez gritted her teeth against the pain. “You have the easy part.”

Buck grimaced with his own pain as his smaller wife gripped his hand with what felt like jaws of steel “You’re so right, but I promise to make it up to you sweetheart. Tell me what you want, and it’s yours.”

“I want…the doctor…now Buck! I think our daughter is on her way.”

“ mean right now?” Looking into Inez’s face, he knew she meant it. “I’m getting the doctor.” He threw open the door and grabbed the first nurse he encountered. “Inez says now, and if she says it, you better believe it!”

“Calm down Mr. Wilmington, Dr. Ryder is own her way, and the delivery room is ready.” The nurse smiled. She had never lost a mother on her watch, but some of the father’s. …well they did not fare as well. “I was on my way to your wife’s room when you stopped me” She motioned for him to move out of the doorway, “if you don’t mind.”

Within five minutes Inez was wheeled into the delivery room. Once those double doors opened, Buck relaxed, and squeezed his wife’s hand. “Darlin’, we’ve been here before and together we‘re gonna bring another beautiful girl into this world.” He thought about how scared they had been when Sarah was born… neither he nor Inez knew what to expect, and probably missed some of the pleasurable moments of the birth of their firstborn because they were so wound up. Then when Maria made her entrance into this world they took time to savor the moments apprehension had robbed them of the first time.

Buck knew that the miracle he was witnessing was beyond description and being here with Inez during the birth of their third daughter was a breathtaking experience.

“Okay Dad, are you ready?” The doctor asked. “Here comes your daughter.”

“We’re ready.” Buck answered, and as he held his wife’s hand Tannis Rose Wilmington made her entrance into the world. “God, she is beautiful.” He whispered in awe when he saw the dark-haired, seven pound, squirming infant, and heard her first cry.

“You did it beautiful lady.” He said softly to Inez.

“We did it husband.” She corrected.

The nurse handed Buck scissors and instructed him. “Cut the cord, Dad.” As he did it fatherly pride filled his heart. Within minutes the nurse laid his new daughter in his arms and tears rolled down his cheek as he moved closer to Inez. “Tannis Rose Wilmington, this is your wonderful mama, welcome to the world baby girl.”

Not far from Denver…

Chip Bellows knocked on the oak door, and waited for permission to enter. Chambers had not been an easy man to be around since Dusty Slater had disappeared. Their scheduled attacks on the clinics had to be scrapped, and new targets had been selected. While their plans were developing rather quickly, they weren’t moving fast enough to suite Karl. After witnessing Anson Ricter’s execution, Chip had been careful not to incite the older man’s anger. Today, however he had news that might just appease Chambers and solidify Bellow’s place in the RMR organization.

“Come in!” Karl yelled impatiently.

Bellows opened the door and walked into Karl’s new office. “Sir, I have something that I think will interest you.”

“Don’t just stand there. Spit it out!” Chambers snapped.

“I have a …friend who works at the Federal courthouse, and she is a supporter of our cause. She managed to obtain a copy of a deposition that Federal prosecutors intend to use to indict you, and several members of the RMR.” Chip handed him a folder.

Karl took the file, opened it, and began to read, as Bellows stood by silently. The more Chambers read the more he smiled, this was exactly what he wanted. The man that had lied to them all, stolen his trust, and cost him ten years of work in Rocky Meadows now had a name. “Well done Chip. I will see that your friend receives her reward.”

“You want me to eliminate him?”

“Not yet. We’ll take our time and do this right. I want to know everything about this man first. Is he married? Does he have children? If so what are their names, ages, and do they attend school? I want to know what this man values in his life. Then, and only then, will I have what I need to settle up with Captain Vincent Tanner.”

Chapter 32

Journal Entry ~ December 20th ~7:30am

This is the time of the year that the children of Larabee 7 are in their element. Even though Linda had our tree delivered this year, last Saturday Grace and I went on the traditional Christmas tree finding expedition that the Wild Bunch has made every year. Thankfully, I was able to disperse with my sling, and my shoulder is healing well. We hitched up the two sleighs in the barn for the kids, and took them with us in search of the perfect trees. Of course Tannis stayed home with Inez, and Linda bowed out, but the rest of the Wild Bunch made the trek. By the time we had finished we had a tree for the Sanchez, Dunne, Wilmington, and Tanner homes, ten tired, but excited children, and several adults that were ready for spring.

The Jacksons will not be able to move back into their home until sometime in January, so they will continue to stay with the Sanchez family through the holidays. Barbara and Ezra are staying with the Tanners, but they are alternating their attentions with all the Larabee 7 children during this special time of the year. Grace and I have managed to be at each of the brother's homes for a range of tree decorating experiences. I did not want her to miss out of the fun, and the special time spent with our extended family.

On the home front, Linda and Amberlyn have been immersed in party plans, and any free time they have had has been spent at the Southern Breeze. I sense that my wife has been slowly coming to the same realization that I have…that we are not ever going to find a compromise between us that will make us both happy. She wants Grace and me out of the way today while the final preparations are finished for the party tonight, so we are headed over to Vin’s house this morning.

Chris placed his journal back into his desk drawer, locked it, and then went to Grace’s room to collect his daughter for their morning outing.

Tanner Home

Breakfast was finished, but Barbara and Ezra lingered at the kitchen table enjoying a second cup of coffee with Vin. The traditional family Christmas dinner would be at the Wilmington’s this year, and Nettie, with Casey’s assistance had things well in hand for the upcoming celebration. Gunny was spending Christmas with her sister, and they had thrown themselves into preparing the Tanner home for the holiday, while getting Max’s adopted family back on schedule.

Chris came in the back door with Grace, and Max claimed the baby, as Larabee hung up his coat. He grinned knowing that Max was as attached to Grace as she was to the rest of the kids, and although she would never admit it, she worried about how the Nanny was treating her. Caring for a child was one thing, but showering them with love and extra attention was something you could not pay people to do. “She’s fine, but I know she enjoys being here with you, when I’m gone.”

“I suppose that makes us even then, I enjoy having her here. You sit; I’ll take care of Grace.” The older woman immediately took charge of the baby.

Knowing that both of his daughters were in good hands with Max, Chris grabbed a cup of coffee, and joined the others at the table.

“Mornin' Chris,” Vin greeted him first. “You’re just in time to add your words of wisdom to a challenge we were discussing’.”

“Let me guess… It’s Jason right?”

“I thought he would come around with a little time, but it’s been two weeks since we told him about the babies. He avoids Kel, will barely speak to me, and his attitude has completely done a one eighty”. Vin explained

“While it is not unusual for a sibling to have a reaction to hearing that a new addition is coming into the family, Jason’s history makes this a little more delicate.” Barbara had observed Jason and was concerned as much as Ezra was about his attitude.

“I attempted to converse with the young man; however, he is not listening to me either.” Ezra added.

‘We thought when Tannis was born, and he saw that Inez was home safe, he might see things differently, but…no.” Vin sighed. “Kel is upset over it, ‘m frustrated, and Andi stays mad at him. I’m not sure what to try next.”

Larabee thought about it and then offered his suggestion. “Kel has a doctor’s appointment today, Ezra, you go with them. Take some extra time; do some Christmas shopping, lunch, whatever. If Barbara will keep Andi busy, I’ll spend some time with Jason and talk to him. No promises, but he might open up and tell me what it is that he finds so disturbing.”

Sounds like a plan to me, ‘m ready to try anythin’ that may help.” Vin answered as he stood up. “I need to push Kel a bit, or we’ll be runnin’ late.”

“DADDY!!!!” Andi screamed from the other room. “Jason’s bein’ mean again!”

Chris stopped Vin from going in to his children. “You take care of Kel, Barbara and I will handle this.”

If it had been anyone other than Chris, Vin would have argued about it, but he trusted Larabee with his life, and his family. “Okay, just… hell, do what you can. Ez, we’ll be ready to leave by eight thirty.” Tanner headed to the bedroom, while Barbara went to Andi, and Standish made his preparations to accompany the Tanners to the doctor's office.

Larabee walked into the room where the children were and motioned to Jason. “Grab your coat, and come down to the barn with me.”

Jason hesitated for a moment, and then complied with his Uncle’s request. The pair walked across the snow covered ground in silence, headed to the barn where Jason’s Dreamer was. Larabee knew how much the boy loved that little bay colt and figured that was as good a place as any to start, he would have to play it by ear and try to get the child to admit his fears. As they neared the barn, Chris tried to find the words he needed to get through to his nephew. He knew that he couldn't prod him too much or the seven-year-old would end up just clamming up on him and that would just make the delicate situation even worse.

Opening the big stable door, the two of them entered quietly, and Jason went directly over to his colt. Chris followed him and leaned against the stall door. “He’s growing like a weed.”

Jason stroked his hand down Dreamer's neck. “He sure is. I wish he’d grow faster though, then maybe…” The boy stopped himself and turned away.

“Maybe what?” Chris knelt down and reached for Jason’s shoulder, gently turning the child toward him, “Maybe what Jason?”

Jason shrugged,” If he was bigger, he might not miss me if I had to leave.”

“Leave? Where do you think you are going?” Chris asked gently.

“I didn’t say I was leaving, but… sometimes things happen…bad things.”

“What bad things are you talking about?” Chris prompted, rubbing Jason's shoulder reassuringly.

Jason was silent for so long that Chris thought he was not going to answer him, and then he whispered softly. “My Mama left, and then dad got mean, and we had to move.”

Chris tilted the child’s chin up for him to look him in the eye. “You trusted me Jason, to keep my word about getting help with my sickness, and I did. Do you trust me to always tell you the truth?"

His voiced quivered, but he answered. “Yes sir.”

Larabee rubbed the child’s back as he spoke. “I know it was hard to see your first mama sick, and then a lot of terrible things happened when she…left, but I promise you that will not happen the same way, ever again. You trust Vin, too, and he doesn’t lie to you. I know he explained to you what was going on with Kelli, and you know he will be there for you, and Andi. You also have me, and all your other uncles and aunts.”

Jason was fightin his emotions and making every effort not to cry. “I…I don’t want to lose mom and dad. How can I be sure Kelli…Mom won’t go away?”

“Jason, none of us knows what the future holds. I wish I could give you a lifetime guarantee, but I can’t. Things happened with your first mom for a lot of reasons though, she was not in good health, and she was unable to have proper medical care, but having a baby was not why she died. I’ve seen her medical records Jason, and your mother had an illness that she did not know about until after she found out Andi was coming. She chose to give Andi life, and delayed treatment for herself. It did not work out the way she wanted it to, but I am certain that if she had it to do over she would choose to do the same thing because she loved you and Andi very much. You know that don’t you?”

“Yes.” Jason reluctantly agreed, and studied the man in front of him. Chris had never lied to him, and Kelli was his daughter. If she was in danger he would know it. Wouldn’t he? “Aren’t you worried about Mom?”

“I am always concerned about my children the same as your mom and dad are about you and Andi, but worry about her having those babies…no… Look at all the babies we have around the Larabee 7, they are here, and so are their mamas. Tannis came home last week…so did your Aunt Inez. Your mom is going through the same thing all mothers do when a child, or in your mom’s case, two babies are coming. She may have some days that she doesn’t feel well, and she definitely will look different, but Kelli's not going anywhere Jason.” Larabee said drawing the small boy into his arms. “She's strong and healthy and Dr. Weeks, as well as your Dad, are going to take real good care of her. She loves you and Andi, and she wants you both to be happy about having two new brothers, or sisters.”

“Two more girls!” Jason exclaimed, he had not even thought about the babies as girls or boys.

“Maybe, or boys, or, one of each, we won’t know that for a while, but they will be your siblings, the same as Andi is. Your parents love for you both won't change, and no matter what the future holds, you will always have a home here on the ranch. You belong here Jason, and you never have to worry about leaving this ranch or your family.”

“I reckon mom and dad are mad at me. I haven’t been too nice the last couple of weeks.”

“They are not mad, only concerned. I do know that your parents love you, and it hurts them to see you upset. I know it will help your mom and your dad, to know that you’re not upset with them. So, what do you say? Can you let go of your worrying, and trust them the way you trusted me to do the right thing?”

The child thought about it and figured if his Uncle told him it was going to be okay, it must be true. “I reckon I can. Thanks for talkin’ to me Uncle Chris.” Jason hugged Chris’s neck. “I’ll let mom and dad know ‘m not mad, anymore, but I have a question?”

“Fire away pard.”

“You think if I talk to the babies before they get here, I can convince ‘em to be boys?”


Vin knew Kelli was disappointed to hear that she was to continue her home-bound status, and in particular that she was borderline anemic. For the most part she was resting, eating properly, and following doctor’s orders. The fact that she was constantly queasy, and she was becoming ill several times a day however, was pulling her health down. Once they left the doctor’s office, Vin insisted that they do some quick last minute shopping. After picking up her new prescription, he gave Ezra directions to where he wanted to take her. He intended to make it a short excursion, not enough to overexert his wife, but he thought that some new clothes, and a special dress for the party tonight would lift her spirits, and take her mind off Jason, at least for a while.

Taking her hand Tanner, led her into a boutique called, ‘Great Expectations’, which he had discovered online last night. “This won’t take long Kel.” He gave the manager his name and she brought out several outfits that he had placed on hold via the Internet. He handed them to Kelli for her to try on.

Casting a skeptical look at the stack of clothes Kelli did take them, and then headed for the dressing room

“I was not aware that you shopped online, Vin?” Ezra grinned. “It seems you are a man of many talents.”

“Kelli mentioned that her regular clothes were getting tight, so I did some investigatin’. At least I looked before I leaped into this, which is more than I can say about you and Blaze Butler. Whatever possessed you to help her go to Rocky Meadows?”

Standish considered his words carefully. He had begun to hope that Tanner had forgotten his intentions of having a talk about his participation in the whole Blaze Butler escapade. He should have known better. Vin was like a dog worrying at a bone when he got something fixed in his mind. “I was stuck between a rock and a hard place, brother. Kelli would have certainly gone ahead with her intentions to see you at Rocky Meadows, with or without my assistance. I made a decision to collaborate with her so that I would have the added security of knowing that the undercover alias that she chose was solid. I wanted to make certain that she would have the necessary funds, transportation, and accommodations to carry off her plan, and to personally oversee her arrival in town until she was safely ensconced in your care. There was also the matter of supporting my partner, as she ingeniously reminded me.”

“I never dreamed that my little redhead could con the best conman I know.” Tanner grinned. “In this instance it worked out, but in the future do not let those persuasive blue eyes, and sweet smile convince you to go along with her on anythin’ when you should know better…brother.”

Kelli walked out about that time and prevented Ezra from answering. She wore an emerald green, sleeveless, deep v necked dress that had an empire waist with gather detailing, and a scalloped hem. “Well, do I pass?”

“With flyin’ colors baby, do you like it?” Vin admired the graceful way his wife moved.

“I do. I also like the blouses and denims you chose, but ‘m too tired to keep tryin’ on clothes.”

The boutique manager overheard Kelli and quickly offered to assist her. She took the other outfits, offered a few suggestions on new lingerie, and nightwear, and then helped the redhead change back into her own clothes. Within a few minutes Kelli returned to the waiting area, Vin paid for their selections, and the trio headed back to the ranch. Ezra called ahead to let Max know they had not had lunch while they were out, and to warn Chris that they were on their way.


Jason had been watching for his parents to return, and the minute he saw his dad’s truck he ran to the door. Chris realized that the child was anxious to assure himself that his parents would forgive him. The second the door opened he ran to Kelli.

“I’m sorry Mom, I really do want more brothers…or sisters; I just didn’t want you to die.” The tears he had held back earlier now rolled down his cheeks.

Kelli knelt down and reached for her son, pulling him into her arms. “I love you baby, and I plan to be around for you and Andi for a long time.” Her tears mixed with his as she held him. She felt Vin place a supporting hand on her shoulder to steady her, but her only concern was for the little boy that was standing in front of her. “Jason, these babies will look up to you as their big brother, and I know you are the best big brother in the world because you already are that to Andi.”

Vin placed his other hand on Jason’s back. “We’re all gonna take good care of Mom, son. I was kinda hopin’ though that you’d help me when I start workin' on the nursery.”

Jason looked up at his dad. “You still want me to?”

“You bet.” The Texan knelt down, pulling his wife and his son into his arms and said softly. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Chris knew that Barbara was deliberately keeping Jason’s sister busy so he could have an opportunity to talk to his parents. “Jason, would you go tell Andi that lunch is ready?”

“Yes sir.”

“May I accompany you young sir?” Ezra held out his hand, Jason took it and followed him into the other room.

Tanner stood, and helped his wife to her feet. The first thing Kelli did was to go over to Chris and hug his neck. “Thanks, Dad.”

Thanks Cowboy

Chris held his eldest daughter, and saw the relief on his brother’s face, that was all the thanks he needed. “Right place, right time, he would have come around soon enough, but I’m glad I could help.”

Max wiped her eyes, and said gruffly. “Lunch is ready Missy; you will eat, and then rest up for tonight.”

“Yes ma’am.” Kelli answered, while wiping away tears. “I have a feelin’ it’s goin' to be a long night, but it’s been a great day.”

Larabee Home~ 6:00pm

Linda had finished dressing in a red, floor length, chiffon gown, with a plunging neckline, and open back that was certain to cause all male eyes to focus on her the moment she walked into the room. Linda was in the process of going over last minute details before her guests started to arrive. She had hired a caterer for the event, and meticulously gone over what foods and beverages were to be on the menu for the evening. There would be four girls in festive attire to serve the food, and a bartender to serve drinks from the portable Champagne bar, ready to serve a variety of cocktails mixed with peach schnapps, crème de cassis, cognac and apricot brandy.

The ranch house had been professionally transform into a wonderland of white roses with sprigs of baby's breath and holly leaves, white candles floated in bowls of cranberries The sounds pf Classical holiday music drifted throughout the house. A Christmas tree decorated with white and gold was the focal point of the large living room, furniture had been moved, and replace with stylish chairs. The centerpiece for the table was also white roses, accented by holly leaves, and set upon a red tablecloth interwoven with threads of gold. Platters of honey ham, roasted beef and turkey were waiting to be brought out by attendants, as well as Shrimp Scampi, and Shrimp Creole, along with assorted side dishes, breads and condiments.

She was briefly having second thoughts about tonight; Linda wanted to pull off an elegant celebration, with all the trimmings, not the usual disorganized country feast that most of the Wild Bunch tastes catered to. Linda knew that there was more at stake tonight than the success of a party. This was the night Chris was supposed to realize what they were missing in their lives by limiting their social contacts to the ranch. Tonight Larabee would see how the other half lived, and the world that Linda wanted for them.

Linda was standing before the long buffet style table that the caterer had provided checking off a list she held in her hand of the hors d'oeuvres that was suppose to be served. Including Thai peanut chicken salad in endive leaves, pita triangles, roasted eggplant, onion, and red pepper dip, Moroccan spinach and red lentil pancakes with cumin-dated sauce, add small Russian pancakes cups of smoked salmon or caviar, scrimp and corn coquettes with a mixture of exotic dips.

Chris walked in the back door, while Linda made her last minute inspection of the food. “You’d better get showered and changed, our guests will be arriving soon Larabee.”

“I've already showered today, and haven't done anything strenuous in the last hour or so to break a sweat.” Chris replied. He waived his hand, indicating the décor of the room, and the food. “This really wasn't necessary Linda. The Wild Bunch is family, not some high-faulting official that needs impressing. Cold cuts, pizza, and beer would have been fine to serve.”

“I didn't just invite your family to this party, Chris. Besides Amberlyn, Marshall and Matt, I invited a few people that I have become acquainted with in town. They aren't what I would call friends yet, but they are of good social standing.” Linda retorted.

“You should have told me you had invited other people to the party. I could have given the Wild Bunch the option to decline the invitation if they wanted too. None of them are comfortable about putting on airs to please other people as you seem to be.”

“It would do you and them all a bit of good to learn how to handle social surroundings that don't include gun ranges, dark alleys, and hospitals.” Linda remarked. “You are the leader of the MCAT unit, as well as the entire family, and you need to set an example for them. Even though I don't approve, you do hold an important position in the government, and whether you like it or not, I do represent the Dubois family. They expect me to meet obligations. It won’t hurt your Wild Bunch to be exposed to a little class.”

“Linda, my Wild Bunch has more class in their collective little fingers, than your friends could ever hope to have. They will all go along with this extravaganza you have orchestrated, not because they like it, but because I ask them too. “Chris turned toward his room, and then stopped. “By the way, in case you’re interested, I just left our daughter with Max, Walter, and Gunny. The three of them volunteered to watch the kids tonight, since you did not invite them to your elegant shindig, or make provisions for the children’s care. You might want to write them thank you notes…It would be the courteous thing to do.” He exited the kitchen and went to change clothes, leaving Linda alone…again.


Matt Dubois and Marshall Vanderson were the first to arrive to the party, much to Chris's chagrin. Marshall was dressed in an elegant Armani pinstripe suit, had his hair slicked back in a style that Ezra wouldn't be caught dead in, and seemed to pay Larabee no mind at all as he immediately sought out his sister and Linda. Matt was wearing a more casual, but expensive look in creased designer jeans, a long-sleeved blue silk shirt with a button down collar. As Marshall disappeared from the room, Matt made his way over to Chris and started a conversation.

“How long do you plan on allowing Amberlyn to stay, Larabee?” Matt asked.

“Why do you ask?"

“I want to know the moment you've decided you can't stand to listen to her insipid prattle any longer and kick her out, because as soon as you do, her brother is going to be hitting the door right behind her. Marshall is driving me nuts.”

Chris grinned. “I guess we do have something in common, Dubois. That annoying trait must run in the Vanderson family.”

“I wish it would run all the way back to Louisiana.” Matt huffed. “I knew Linda was on a tear since that thing in California, and teed off at Kel, but to bring the Vanderson siblings here is pushing it too damn far. You and I may not always agree Chris, but you don’t deserve what Linda has been dishing out lately, and neither does Grace.” Matt looked Chris in the eye and stated. “You should know, I am loyal to my family, but I’m not blind to my sister’s faults, and I do see what is going on. I love my niece, and I want what is best for her, even if that means going against Linda. Grace needs a loving home, and a parent that puts her needs first.”

Larabee studied his brother-in-law’s face, understanding his message. “I know saying that wasn’t easy, but I appreciate it, Matt.”

Matt nodded and moved off to grab something to drink. Chris watched him as he walked away and wondered if Linda was the only one that did not see the handwriting on the wall. If Matt and the rest of the family could recognize the signs that their marriage was over, why couldn’t she?

Chapter 33

Larabee 7 ~ December 20th ~ 7:30 pm

Chris knew that this party had disaster written all over it, but it would not start with his Wild Bunch. They would put there best foot forward for him, and whatever lay ahead for the evening would be a result of Linda’s doing. Like every thing else she had done over the last few months, she had planned this party, her way, without thinking about what was good for anyone other than herself.

Buck and Inez were the first family members to arrive, and Chris ushered her to a comfortable chair. “For a lady that just had a baby last week, you look gorgeous, and rested.”

“Thank you sir, Inez smiled. “ I’ll take all the compliments I can get tonight, and I’m rested because Miss Nettie is staying with us to help with the baby.”

“She is beautiful isn’t she? “Buck grinned. “You don’t look so bad yourself stud. Nice jacket, and how in the hell did Linda get you to wear a red shirt?”

Chris glared at him. “I do happen to wear other colors than black and blue, Buck...and, for your information, this was the only thing out of what Linda wanted me to wear tonight that I agreed on.”

“I think it looks great.” Inez commented. “So who are we supposed to impress tonight?”

“Inez, you do get to the point. Linda has invited some people other than family; she thinks we don’t know how to act sociable.” Chris sighed. “She’s never seen us at one of Travis’s mandatory, 'be there or else' gatherings, I suppose.”

“Those things are as fancy as this shindig is, and we manage okay.” Wilmington gazed around him at the assorted decorations. “I'd hate to see the figures it cost to put this one together though.”

“Trust me Buck; you don’t want to know how much all this hoopla cost.” Larabee said.” Linda is footing the bill out of her own money for this...I've got my children's futures to think about.”

Buck chuckled. “Inez honey, are you thirsty? Do you want me to get you something to drink or eat?”

Inez shook her head. “I'm fine for now. If you want to go on and sample some of the food, be my guest. I'll wait for you here.”

Buck patted Chris on the shoulder. “Don’t worry; I’ll pass the word to the rest of the family. We won’t embarrass you tonight.”

“Never thought you would friend. “Chris saw Josiah and Mallory walk in, “Excuse me Inez, our brethren are beginning to arrive.”

Larabee greeted the Sanchez’ and the Jacksons, wondering where in the hell Linda was. Her guests were coming in, and she should be here to meet them. As soon as he welcomed the next several people that Linda had invited, and the Dunnes he went to look for his wife. He found her deep in conversation with Marshall.

“Chris interrupted.” Our guests are arriving Linda, shouldn’t you at least greet the ones you invited?”

“Oh, already?” Linda asked innocently. “Duty calls, excuse me Marshall.”

“I'll await your return.” Marshall replied as he watched Linda sweep across the room, just as she had planned, revealing her designer gown, and accepting compliments on it along the way.

Chris cocked an eyebrow at him. Regardless of the fact that he already considered his and Linda's relationship over, he'd be damned if he'd let another man think he could come into his house and stake any kind of claim on his wife, estranged or otherwise. Larabee waited until after Linda had moved away before stating. “Tread carefully, Vanderson...You wouldn't want that pretty face of yours to get rearranged.” Without waiting for a response from Vanderson, Chris moved back into the living room.

He was just in time to greet the Tanners as they arrived. He smiled as he took in the radiant expression on his daughter's face as she and Vin made their way into the room and over to him. The Tanners made a striking pair in their emerald green and black coordinated outfits. “You look beautiful Kelli,” he said leaning forward and kissing her lightly on the cheek. “Tanner, you don't look so bad either.”

“For an old man, you clean up just fine, too.” Vin quipped.

“It’s a good thing you're married to my daughter Tanner. Otherwise I’d have to take you outside and show you old.” Chris grinned. “You feel okay Kel?”

“As well as I ever do these days.” She smiled. “Don’t worry dad, ‘m fine and I do know where your bathrooms are, if necessary.”

“Bucklin said we need to be on our best behavior. Does that mean we should plan for a borin’ evenin’?” Tanner grinned. “No brawls, no food fights, no licentious displays under the mistletoe?”

“Licentious? Lord I think Ezra is rubbing off on you Tanner. Speaking of Standish, where is our resident gentleman?”

“Barbara and Ezra will be here in a few minutes. Andi, Sarah, Joanne, and Maria, conned Uncle Ra into a bedtime story first.” Kelli explained.

“Let's hope the man uses words that the girls can understand.” Larabee said with a grin. “Let's get Kelli seated somewhere, and then see what kind of refreshments there are.”

Vin seated his wife next to Inez and left the pair talking about babies. He and Chris went in search of some decent refreshments. One look at the hors d'oeuvres, and Tanner knew he could not take those back to Kelli, or she would spend the rest of the evening throwing up in the bathroom. It seemed that the choice of beverages was not much better, Champagne or wine, not a soft drink, or pitcher of tea in sight.

“You two can quit looking, I gave Inez water, and she passed on the rest of this stuff.” Buck joined them. “Inez is nursing Tannis, and some foods, especially spicy ones, she can’t eat. She certainly can’t drink champagne or wine.”

Chris shook his head in frustration. Enough was enough. Linda’s quest to force him to do things her way was over. It was bad enough that she did not invite Nettie, Gunny, Max, and Walter to this party, but to not even consider the children and any special needs of the Wild Bunch was inexcusable. It was past time to make his stand. “My house, my rules, come on, we’ll raid the kitchen.” Larabee led the way, and within a few minutes had managed to make two attractive sandwiches, one for Inez and one for Kelli. He had Vin, and Buck grab two sodas on the way out of the kitchen, and then hand delivered his masterpieces to the ladies.

Inez smiled. “I’m sure I could have managed, but thank you.”

“Dad, it looks great, but you didn’t have to do anythin’ special for me. It may not sit well with Linda.” Kelli protested.

“Sure I did, you two are way more important to me than appearances. Besides, I have to think about Tannis, and our two special additions. Eat, and enjoy.” Chris moved away from the ladies and whispered to Buck and Vin. “Be prepared for anything, Chris Larabee is about to put his own mark on this party.”

“Now Chris, think about what you’re doing. It’s just a party, we’ll all be fine. Don’t do anything rash.” Buck advised.

“You’re wrong Buck, it is more than a party, it’s a line drawn in the sand, and I’m crossing it.” Chris retorted.

“Remember the Alamo Chris? Lt. Col. William Travis asked the Texans to cross a line drawn in the sand to fight Santa Anna, they did, and… they all died.” Tanner reminded him, looking to Buck for reinforcement.

“I don’t plan on dying, just taking back what’s mine. Vin, you grab JD, and scrounge up some junk food, between the two of you I know you have enough stashed at your homes to feed an army. Buck, you, and Josiah go round up some beer, and soft drinks. I’m going to find some decent holiday music.” Chris eyed both men. “Go on, I know what I’m doing.”

Buck had known that this day was coming. Chris may have been sidetracked temporarily, but it had only been a matter of time before the old Larabee that he knew and loved, came roaring back to take charge of his home again. Linda may not know it yet, but her days of trying to manipulate her husband were over. “You’re the boss. Come on Captain Tanner, you heard the man, we’ve been drafted.”

“Right behind you Buck, but let’s hurry. I don’t want to miss this battle.” Vin stopped to whisper a message to Kelli before he left. Passing Ezra and Barbara coming in as he was on his way out, Tanner gave them a warning. “Chris is plannin’ to make a stand tonight, and the shit’s about to hit the fan.”

“Which direction?”

“Don’t worry Ez, it’s not you.”

“Oh joy. Someone else is on Larabee’s hit list for a change.” Standish grinned. “I think we shall procure a front row seat for the entertainment.” Ezra left his fiancée sitting with Kelli and Inez, and headed to the bar, obtaining two champagne cocktails, one for him, and one for Barbara. After delivering Barbara her drink, he went in search of Larabee, finding him sorting through cds, and then loading them into the stereo. “May I be of assistance?” Ezra questioned his brother.

Chris glanced up at him. “Not presently, but you may be drafted for crowd control if things get heated up.”

Ezra raised a brow at the ominous words spoken by his brother. He had seen that look on Larabee’s face before, and was well aware that whatever Chris had planned did not bode well for someone. “My services are at your disposal.”

Larabee grinned at him. “Until then, stand clear and watch the show.” Conversations stopped in the room as the music suddenly changed from classical to country. Strands of George Strait singing ‘It’s Christmas Time in Texas’ filled the room.

“Here we go…” Kelli muttered under her breath from her place beside Inez. Tanner had warned her that Chris was up to something, and she was certain that this was only the beginning. She saw JD and Vin come in from the kitchen with huge grins on their faces, and Buck, with Josiah’s assistance was having a discussion with the bartender, stacking cases of cold beer and soft drinks behind the bar.

Larabee could see all of the people that Linda had invited wearing puzzled expressions on their faces as conversations died down. In the middle of it all, JD took his wife’s hand, moved into the center of the room, and took Casey into his arms. Like the other brothers, he had been warned that things were about to heat up, but he wasn't about to let it stop him from enjoying himself either.

“Chris, what are you doing?” Linda said, walking over to where he stood by the entertainment center.

“Playing some Christmas music,” Chris replied. “No one is enjoying that boring classical music, except maybe Ezra, and if this is supposed to be a party, I want it to be fun.”

“Larabee, my guests were enjoying it, and it is proper to have soft classical music in the background to promote stimulating conversation.” Linda placed her hands on her hips. “Put it back.”

“No. Your guests had their time, now my family will enjoy the rest of this celebration…with country music, and decent food.” Chris smiled when he saw the attendants bring out platters of good old fashion chips and dips, desserts cakes, and pizza. He made a mental note to thank Vin, and JD for thinking of the pizza.

“If you had wanted to have some input on the party arrangements Chris, you should have said so. I gave you plenty of time to add your stamp of approval to the preparations, but did you pay any attention? No. It’s the same old story, just a different day. You've got time to have coffee with Vin. You've got time to be at your family's beck and call, or time to spend with Grace. You've got time for everyone else, but me, your wife. When is it ever going to be my time?” Linda told him heatedly.

“Linda, we will talk about this, but unless you want all your new friends to know about our marital problems.’ Chris nodded to the surrounding people. “I suggest that you lower your voice, smile, and enjoy the rest of the party.”

Taking a deep breath, Linda tried to calm herself. She was so angry that she had forgotten that there were other people around. Whispering harshly, she spat out, “We will talk about this Larabee, and it will be tonight!” She pasted a smile on her face, spun around, and walked over to stand next to Marshall.

After getting everyone's attention, Chris made an announcement. “Ladies, and gentlemen, we are here to celebrate the holidays and have some fun. Please enjoy the music, and feel free to grab a partner to take a twirl out on the dance floor. More food has arrived, along with cold beer and soft drinks, Merry Christmas.” Chris then moved around the room making polite conversation with all the guests.

Amberlyn tried in vain to get one of the brothers to dance with her; however they all declined, choosing to dance with their ladies instead. Finally she joined Marshall and Linda to pout for a while. “Linda we should have invited more single men.”

Linda was seething inwardly as she watched her elegant celebration turn into a common everyday party. “It would seem that we should have cut the invitation list by about six brothers, and their partners.”

Marshall appeared by her side with a glass of champagne for the blonde. “Linda, I am so sorry, I know you and Amberlyn worked hard to try and bring some sophistication to this group. Your husband, at least should have supported your efforts.”

Linda took the glass of champagne from Marshall's hand and lifted it to her mouth, her lips parting to take a sip, when the glass was suddenly removed from her hand. Startled, she glanced up into Chris's furious green eyes. “You're not drinking alcohol while you're carrying my son, Linda.”

Marshall bristled at Linda's side. “One drink is not going to do any damage.”

Larabee turned his attention onto Marshall. “I suggest you stay out of this, Vanderson.”

“Fine, I won't drink. I'd rather be dancing anyway.” Linda said, reaching for Marshall's hand and leading him onto the dance floor.

“Guess it’s you and me, sugar.” Amberlyn grinned.

Chris shook his head, and walked off, leaving the young woman to find another dance partner. He headed over to join his brothers. For the next hour he watched as Linda tried to teach Marshall, how to dance country. Slowly the guest began to filter out, and finally it was only family left in the room, aside from Marshall and Amberlyn.

JD snickered behind his hand as he watched Marshall try to follow Linda in the intricate steps of a line dance. “He should really give up trying, before he hurts himself.” he mumbled softly to Casey.

Casey elbowed him in the side. “Be nice. Wasn't so long ago you didn't know how to do some of those dances either.”

“What?” JD exclaimed. “I was never THAT bad.” Casey cocked an eyebrow at him. “I wasn't, and you know it!”

Casey giggled and reached for his hand. She loved to get a rise out of him from time to time. “No, you weren't.”

The song ended and a slow one came on, and some of the other brothers led their wives out onto the floor to dance. Larabee watched as Marshall pulled Linda into his arms, holding her altogether too close for his liking. He was struggling to keep himself in check and not let the other man goad him into a confrontation, when Vanderson's hand lowered to cup Linda's left buttock, and his Larabee temper flared. He rose from his chair and took a step toward the other man, but was intercepted by Vin and Buck.

“Chris.” Tanner put a warning hand on his brother's shoulder, while Buck blocked his path.

“He's not worth it.” Wilmington said.

Josiah and Nathan had both seen what Marshall had done and decided to intervene as well. Together they moved over to where Marshall and Linda were dancing. “This dance is over.” Josiah said.

Nathan reached out and gently took hold of Linda's arm, pulling her away from Marshall. “Can I have this dance?”

Before she could say a word, Marshall's angry voice filled the room. “Get your hands off of her, boy!”

Nathan stiffened at Marshall's usage of the racist term 'boy' in reference to him, but chose not to respond to it. Instead he chose to draw Linda further away.

“Don't you walk away from me, when I'm talking to you, boy.” Marshall said, starting after Nathan.

Josiah grabbed him by the arm and said in a cool voice, “I wouldn't do that if I were you.”

Marshall swung on Josiah, who instinctively ducked the blow and put the other man into a headlock. “I think you've worn out your welcome.” Sanchez said as he proceeded toward the door.

“Unhand me, you cretin.” Marshall struggled against Sanchez.

“Let him go, Josiah,” Chris said softly, and watched as Sanchez immediately loosened his hold on the man.

Marshall pulled free, and yelled to Linda. “Call the police! I am pressing assault charges.” He was confused when she did not move, and the men surrounding him laughed.

“We are the police.” JD called out to him. “You won’t find a lawman in the state that would take you seriously.”

There was more laughter from the rest of the men, and their ladies, as Larabee stalked up to Vanderson. “Get the hell off of my land! I don't ever want to see your ugly mug on it again, or I'll personally kick your ass off of it!”

Matt stepped forward to stand next to Larabee. “That goes for the Southern Breeze, too. You were an ass ten years ago, and you’re an ass now. Go back to Louisiana, Marshall.”

“How in the hell Linda puts up with this uncouth bunch I don’t know, she deserves better. At least where I come from we know how to treat women, we don’t use them to produce baby after baby, and work in horse barns. Dubois, take me home. Larabee may be able to order me off his land, but Linda owns part of the Southern Breeze and she won’t make me leave.” Marshall retorted

“Wrong Vanderson, Linda sold me her share of the Southern Breeze before she married Chris, and I have since bought out my sibling's interest. The Breeze belongs to me and YOU are not welcome on it.” Matt answered. “I suggest you book a flight home, or move into Denver, before these gentlemen…or their wives take you apart piece by piece.”

Linda had heard enough. “Marshall, we’ll work this out tomorrow. Take my car and Amberlyn, go into town and stay at a hotel tonight.” She handed him her keys, and a credit card. “Charge it to me.” Linda turned to Matt and said “I am going home with you.”

“No, you’re not, Linda. You need to stay here and talk to your husband, I'll call you tomorrow.” He nodded to Chris and followed Marshall, and Amberlyn out the door.

Ezra cleared his throat. “That went well.”

Chris was now staring at his wife. “Linda and I need to talk. I will see all of you in the morning.”

Josiah, Mallory, Nathan, and Rain left quietly. JD and Casey followed them as Ezra helped Barbara on with her coat, nodding to Larabee on the way out the door.

Buck helped Inez to her feet and the Wilmingtons moved over to Chris to say their goodbyes. “Take care, pard.”

Larabee nodded, his green eyes intent on Linda.

Vin and Kelli were the last to leave. “Grace can stay the night with us.” Tanner stated

“Night, Dad, “Kelli said, giving Chris a hug after throwing Linda an angry glare.

Chris hugged her briefly back. “I’ll be over in the morning to pick up Grace.”

Linda started in on Chris as the door closed. “How dare you! You ruin my party, start a fight with my friend, and then make a scene in front of your family. I have tried to get you to listen to me, but no! You always have other priorities! Now you embarrassed me in front of everyone!”

Chris stood silent for a minute as Linda ranted. He had planned to wait until after the holidays to discuss this, but after tonight, that was impossible. “You are right about one thing. I should have listened.”

Halting her tirade, Linda started to pay attention to Chris's soft spoken words. “What did you say?”

“You told me the first week I met you that you were recovering from your dad’s death, and that you were not yourself. You told me you were spoiled, impulsive and bold. Expect the unexpected I believe were your words” Chris sighed. “You remember that?”

Linda hesitated before answering. “Yes.”

“I discovered on my own that you like to manipulate. I saw the way you maneuvered the meeting with Kelli and Vin by deliberately letting the black colt out. Then I discovered that you only use the truth when it’s convenient. You do remember the lie you told about Kelli going to Louisiana?”

“Yes, but…”

“You also resented my brothers from the beginning, especially Vin, and you hated my work. You liked being in control, and being the center of attention. I should have seen it.”


“When I was at my lowest point after finding out Kelli was my daughter you came to me, not to help me through a rough time, but because you wanted me to forgive you for lying to me. You took advantage of my guilty feelings hoping to divert attention away from your own transgressions and it worked. I only saw my beautiful blonde… the best thing that had happened to me since Sarah died.”

“Chris we were more...”

“We were good…in the bedroom. Out of there we competed. You wanted me to be something I can never be, and I…wanted to live again. Then Jack came along and gave you another chance to have things your way. Instead of supporting me, you saw a chance to change me… you did for a while, but it didn’t last.”

“I never…”

“Yes, you did, Linda." Chris kept his voice low and continued. "When I went undercover, I thought you were worried about my safety, but you were more concerned about me leaving you alone with our child."

"Chris, I knew nothing about babies…I needed you here with me."

"Then when you found out I gave in to using pills again, you saw it as a betrayal to you. You never were worried about what it meant to me or my well-being. Instead, you use it as an excuse to attempt to manipulate my life, and tried to use our daughter to emotionally blackmail me into doing things your way."

"I…didn't…" Linda stammered." It wasn't like that."

"You know what? We still could have made a good life together in spite of all that except…you became jealous of our own child. You want to be the only baby in this family Linda and I can’t go for that. You invaded my privacy by reading my journal. You tossed a ten year friendship away when Kelli settled into a new life, and you perceived her to be competition to you. When I needed your help to fight those damn pills, you used it as a way to make demands for what you wanted. You used Grace to blackmail me well…NO MORE!”

“What do you mean no more?” Linda was shocked by Chris's calm demeanor. She expected to see the infamous Larabee temper, hear him yell in a jealous rage, anything but this.

“I mean…we are headed in different directions, and have been for a while now. You thought you could use Marshall to make me jealous. I won’t allow the man to disrespect you like he did tonight in our home, but...I was not jealous. I do care about you Linda; however I can not give you what you want, and you have made it clear that you cannot accept what I want. We had some good times, and I will treasure those moments. As of May, we will have had two children together, and for that I will be eternally grateful... You showed me that I can live again, and love. That is a gift I can never repay, but…we are not destined to be lifetime partners.”

“You’re saying we end it, just like that?” Linda sat down stunned, only now realizing that Chris was not going to yell, or speak in anger.

“Our time together is almost over, Linda. Our son will be born in five months, I want you to stay here, and let us at least finish what we started together. After that you are free to follow your dreams. Lord knows, you cannot find them here. I warn you though…I will fight for custody of the kids, and Matt will support me on it.”

“Matt knows all this? How …Did you?”

“He came to me, Linda. I did not tell him anything, but I think he saw what I have already realized…We came together for a reason; we both needed one another at that particular time in our lives. Matt also knows that while you may not be thrilled with motherhood, you do not have it in you to hurt our children to spite me. I know it, too. There is too much of your father in you to do that.”

She recognized that Chris had already made his decision, now it was her turn to decide what she was going to do. “What do you want from me Chris?” Linda prepared herself for his answer.

“Five months…I want us to see through the birth of our son together. No Marshall, no Amberlyn, no houseful of servants, and no more hostility. I hope that we can reach an amicable agreement and part as friends, for our sake, as well as the kids. It’s up to you how we write our final chapter as man and wife.”

Linda tried to absorb Chris’s words, and reconcile them into something she could accept. Did she want Chris because she loved him, or because she knew she could never have him to herself? Could she be a mother to two children? Hell, she already knew the answer to that one. Was it possible to come to an agreement now when there was no marriage to salvage? Chris saw through her demands, and so did Matt, she could not fault either of them for seeing the truth …she wanted more than she had here. She gave her father a year of her life; she could give the father of her children five months. They may not agree on what they wanted from their marriage, but they could agree to the perfect ending.

“Five months Chris, you get the children, we use one lawyer, we name our son Christopher and we’ll try to part as friends." She stood up to face the man that was still her husband, "Merry Christmas."

Chris saw the truth in her eyes, and not surprisingly relief. Linda had dug her spurs into the wrong cowboy, and she knew it, but she did not know how to get off the ride, and preserve some shred of dignity in the process. By allowing her to be the one to set the terms, Chris had given her the out she had been looking for, but was afraid to take. In the end, her freedom was what mattered to her, and now that she knew it was obtainable, there was no reason for them to continue to fight.

As he watched her walk out of the room Chris whispered softly, Merry Christmas, Linda."

Chapter 34

Journal Entry ~December 26th ~9:00am

In five days we will face a new year, I for one am ready to let this one go, it has not been an easy twelve months. I do however; feel as if a heavy burden has been lifted from my shoulders. Linda, I believe is as relieved as I am to end the battle between us, and although she would not have admitted it, she had known for a long time that we were not going to find common ground between us, at least not enough for our marriage to work, and make us both happy. The last few days have begun to make up for the past months of misery that we have suffered. We even managed to salvage a few peaceful days for Christmas, and found we can talk without worrying that what we say will lead to an argument. Marshall and Amberlyn have gone back to Louisiana, and I have discovered a new respect for Matt Dubois.

After the first of the year Linda and I will announce our decision to the family, and then sit down with Ezra. We agreed to have him represent us in our divorce proceedings, of course it will not happen until our son, Cody Christopher is born, but we will have an agreement worked out beforehand. We’ll let Standish haggle with Linda’s estate attorneys, and hammer out the child custody agreement.

Christmas day we spent at the Wilmingtons and Linda quickly discovered that the Wild Bunch had enough ‘class’ not to mention the events that transpired at our party on the twentieth. In fact, I think Linda even enjoyed herself around them for the first time in months …no pressure to perform…she could just be herself for a change. The children kept everyone entertained with their excitement over ‘Santa’s visit’, along with a steady stream of descriptions of what he had brought them. I was also amused by my oldest child’s pleasure over receiving the stuffed twin teddy bears that Vin gifted her with. Vin and JD pulled out the snowmobiles from the barn and spent the afternoon giving the kids rides on them.

While we have enjoyed the holidays, none of us have forgotten the danger that lurks out there from Karl Chambers and the RMR. It’s like waiting for the other shoe to drop. A state wide search for the man and his followers has turned up nothing, and even Raven has not been able to get a good lead. I will not be able to rest easy, until I am certain that Vin, Nathan, and Paul are safely out of that man’s reach, however I have confidence though, and we will prevail over the evil that men such as Chambers produce.

Linda went over to the Southern breeze today to have a heart-to-heart with Matt, while Grace and I spend the day working on plans for her baby brother’s new room. I already have a good idea about what I want, and Tanner agreed to help me draft the blueprints. With my great ideas, his talent for drawing plans, and our brothers to help, we should have Cody’s nursery ready to build, as well as a good start on the one for the twins, in no time at all.

Southern Breeze Ranch

Matt was enjoying the peace and quiet of his home, without an annoying guest to inconvenience him. He had personally driven the Vanderson siblings to the airport on Friday, and watched them board the plane that was destined for Louisiana. Linda had enough problems without an ex-fiancée around to muddy the water for her. Looking at the hallway clock, he realized that his sister would be here any minute. After seeing how relaxed she was yesterday at the family Christmas dinner, he hoped that she had found a resolution for the unrest in her life. Whatever she had decided he would try to support her…as long as he could be assured that Grace and his future nephew were in loving hands.

The front door opened and Linda walked in, hung up her coat, and then gave him a hug. “Don’t look so worried, I came unarmed.” She grinned. “Although for a while I did consider shooting you. I have since had second thoughts about such drastic measures.”

“So, am I to take it that you and Chris worked out your differences?” He had not asked before, knowing that Linda would tell him when she was ready.

“Yes, and…no.” Linda sighed and then sat down on the couch with Matt next to her. “I underestimated Chris; it seems that he does know me, much better than I thought. He saw what you saw, I wasn’t happy, and I was determined to make him miserable, too. Our battle is over Matt, it’s time for me to move on.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be Matt. You were both right not to let me go unchecked. Chris and I have decided to go our separate ways, after our son is born. It’s right for me, and I have come to realize it is right for him. I am giving him custody of the children; you and I both know I make a better Aunt than a mom. Chris helped me get past Daddy’s death, and I helped him find out that he can have a love life after Sarah and Adam. We were good for each other for the time we had, but not forever.”

“Are you okay?”

Linda smiled, “Surprisingly yes. I care for Chris and the children of course, but spending the rest of my life on the Larabee 7 is not for me. Motherhood is definitely not my strong suit either. Chris needs the kids, and they will need him. He can give them love, attention, and the strength they’ll need for their future. I’m afraid all I could offer them is a Nanny and uncertainty.”

“Linda, are you sure?”

“Yes, it is better this way…I need to fly Matt. I may crash and burn, but it’s my choice. The children will be safe with Chris, and they will have a good life. Hopefully he will find someone to share his life with that will love being stationary on the ranch, and will embrace his family lifestyle.” Linda laughed. “Who knows, maybe I’ll find a man that will want to center his life on me, and together we can travel round the world, footloose and fancy-free.”

“You know, even if you do, you may discover that it’s not what you want, sometimes it’s the feisty spirit that keeps a relationship going. I think that is what attracted you to Chris, and why you and Kel stayed friends for so long. Neither of them gave in to you.”

“No… no they didn’t” Linda’s smile wavered a bit. “I’ve burned those bridges Matt, and now I will have to live with it. I was unfair to Kel, and I was not a supportive wife to Chris. Maybe, I could have done things differently, but I didn’t. They deserve some peace, and I need a fresh start.”

Matt squeezed her hand. “I’m not going anywhere, and I will keep an eye on Grace and…Have you decided on a name for my nephew?”

'Cody Christopher, we agreed on the name. I wanted Christopher, but was convinced that he would always be little Chris, so we added Cody…” Linda brightened. “I’m not leaving until after the baby is born, so we have time for all this mushy stuff later. I am spending the day with you, and right now, I want to see the new colts.”

“Sure, “Matt stood up and offered her his hand. “You are gonna love the last two that I purchased.” He helped her with her coat, grabbed his, and together they walked out to the barn. Matt knew his sister was tough, he only hoped she was not making the biggest mistake of her life. He was however extremely grateful that she seemed to have gained some peace with her decision. Also, since she and Chris had decided to part in an amicable way, he was off the hook. As much as Matt loved his sister, the kids were better off with their dad, and he would have supported Chris’s effort to fight for them…now it appeared that he would not be forced into that position.

Larabee 7 ~Tanner Home ~11:00am

Ezra and Barbra had one more gift to give. They had decided to treat the older children to a day at Chucky Cheese Pizza, and the arcade. Jason, Andi, and Joanne had been ready to go for the last hour, and Buck was on his way over with Caleb, Sarah, and Maria. In fact, the kids were so excited that Chris and Vin had decided to work on blueprints, after they left, and the noise level dropped in the house.

Kelli sat at the kitchen table nursing a cup of hot tea, and smiled. “Six kids? Are you certain you two know what you are doin'?”

“Oh ye of little faith,” Standish grinned. “You, partner, should know that I am perfectly capable of handling myself in any circumstance. Furthermore, Barbara faces some of the toughest lawyers in town in the courtroom on a daily basis. Of course we can manage spending the day with six wonderful children.”

Chris laughed. “How are you going to fit them all into the silver bullet, Ezra?”

“Hmm... that is a complication that we didn't consider.” Standish admitted. “Perhaps I should obtain a rental vehicle for the occasion?”

Ezra was surprised when Barbara dangled a set of keys in front of his face. “Planning dear, Vin gave me the keys to the Tahoe. We’re all set, car seats and all.”

The back door flew open, and three little blurs raced into the room. “We here!” Maria announced. “Can we go now?”

“Right on schedule, too.” Standish declared with a Cheshire grin at the three new arrivals. “We’ll depart in a few moments, after a bit more conversation between us adults.”

“Huh?” Maria asked, looking up at him with puzzled eyes. “What's that mean Uncle 'Ra?”

“It means we are going to go after our folks get done talking.” Caleb told his little sister.

“We’ve waited for…eeeeev…er already.” Andi sighed. “Talk fast Uncle ‘Ra, I’m hungry”

“Me too,” Sarah put her two cents in. “Pleeeease, can we go?"

“Please Uncle Ezra, we’ve been good.” Joanne pulled on his jacket, and gave him a soulful look.

Buck grinned. “You might as well give in Ezra; first they use the big eyes, and then come the tears.”

Ezra made a resigned gesture with his shoulders, all of it a show for the children. “I suppose we should depart now. We wouldn't want all the best tables to be gone.”

“Yah!!!!!" Several children’s voices rang out in sync. Barbara laughed, and handed Ezra his coat. Jason and Andi ran over to hug their Mom and Dad, while Buck received three hugs from his kids.

Vin stood up, and helped Andi, and Joanne into their coats, while Ezra and Barbara aided Maria and Sarah. The boys refused assistance and were more than ready to go. “I’ll help you get ‘em settled in the Tahoe, after that you’re on your own.” Tanner stated counting heads, and then herded six kids out the door. Chris and Buck shook their heads, hoping that this little excursion would not do the Southerner in.

Chris set his cup down, and rose from the table. “Buck, we’re working on nursery blueprints downstairs, wanna join us?”

“That would be downstairs where the pool table is, right?” Buck grinned “I think I might be persuaded to ‘help’ out for a while.”

“I thought you might. “Chris spoke to Kelli. “Tell Vin that we’ll meet him downstairs.”

“I’ll tell him.” Kelli smiled at her Dad. “Y’all try not to work too hard.” She watched the two men disappear, and waited for Vin to return.

Ten minutes passed before the Texan walked back in the door.” For better or worse, they’re off.” He stopped at the table, leaded down and kissed his wife. “They won’t be home until six. Why don’t you take advantage of the quiet and chill out on the couch?”

“I was just waitin’ for you. Max has Grace with her and Walter. Dad and Buck are already downstairs and I…” Vin kissed her again as he helped her to her feet. “…am headed for the couch to…"she sighed."…rest.”

“Good answer.” Vin walked her into the living room, with Tracker right beside them. Tanner covered her, and made sure she was comfortable before he went to join his brothers, leaving the dog curled up at Kelli’s feet. The Texan was certain Larabee and Wilmington were engaged in the work of playing pool. It was a good thing they had several months to go before the babies arrived, he doubted they would get any real work done today.


On their way over to the Tanner home Walter intercepted a Fed-X delivery addressed to Kelli Coulter Tanner. He and Max walked into the house with Grace, and found Kelli sleeping on the couch.

Max said. “Just leave it on the end table; she’ll see it when she wakes up. I’m going to put Grace down for her nap, and then I’ll start heating up lunch.”

“You do that. I’ll let Chris know we have returned with his baby daughter.” Walter grinned, and set the package down beside the sleeping redhead. “Sounds as if they may be workin’ on a game of pool, maybe I’ll join ‘em.” The door to the lower level was open and the unmistakable noise of an in progress billiard game drifted upstairs.

Max kissed her husband on the cheek. “Tell them we’ll eat in thirty minutes.” She went into the den to lay Grace in the playpen, while Walter headed downstairs to join the other men.

Vin greeted the older man. “You’re just in time to help me show these two how we play pool in Texas.”

“Only one way son, and that’s to win.” Walter took the pool cue that Tanner handed him, and grinned. “Hmmm, let me see if I remember how to do this.”

Buck elbowed Chris in the ribs. “I think we’re fixing to learn the Texas hustle.”

Walter prepared to take his shot. “By the way Larabee, your youngest daughter is takin’ a nap in the playpen, and your oldest one is sleepin’ on the couch.”

“That’s good to know.” Chris grinned. Now, you plan on talking or shooting pool.”

“Patience is a virtue, never rush perfection.” Walter broke and the other men watched in awe as all of the solid colored balls, one by one, dropped into the pockets. Two shots later Andrews had cleared the table, and he and Vin claimed victory. “That gentlemen, is what we call the Texas Express.”

“Texas Express my ass.” Buck growled. “Rack ‘em up, this time …we break.”

Walter looked at his watch. “Max will have lunch ready in twenty minutes. Lets see what you can do Wilmington.”

Buck deferred to his partner. “Reckon I’ll let Chris work his charm first.” He nodded to Larabee, “Go on, show ‘em how the Colorado Cowboy can handle a pool cue.”

Chris shot his old friend an icy glare. “Cowboy, Buck?”

Shrugging his shoulders, Wilmington grinned. “Hey, it sounds better than Colorado Pops.”

Vin laughed at the look Larabee had on his face.” Cowboy, Pops, Gramps, old man…it don’t matter ‘cause you ain’t gonna beat two Texans at pool.”

“We’ll see about that Tanner.” Chris moved around the table to line up his shot. “Watch and learn boys.” They began a serious game, and lunch was soon forgotten.


Max had a pot of beef stew simmering on the stove, the table was set, and she had just taken a pan of homemade biscuits out of the oven. The problem was there was no one around to eat. She went over to the door that lead downstairs and called to the men. “Shake a leg, lunch is ready.”

“We’ll be up in a minute.” Larabee called back. “One more shot is all I need to show up these Texans.”

“Lord, boys and their toys.” Max muttered, chuckling to herself, as she walked into the living room to wake Kelli. She stopped to admire the view out the floor to ceiling windows Tanner had installed in the huge room. Framed by a background of mountains that were shrouded in white, the snow on the ground glistened in the sunlight. Max never tired of that view, she loved the natural beauty, and the sense of tranquility it conveyed. Sighing, she moved over to the couch to wake up her charge. “Missy,” She shook her arm gently. “The men are on their way up, and lunch is ready.”

Kelli opened her eyes, and stretched. “Be right there Max.”

Turning to leave, Max remembered the package. “You had a delivery earlier, probably a late Christmas present. It’s on the table next to you.”

“Thanks, I’ll check it out, give me a few minutes, and I’ll be in for lunch.” Kelli attempted to sit up, but she had forty pounds of dog lying across her feet, and had to make him move first, “Down Tracker.” Reluctantly the dog obeyed, allowing her to sit up on the couch. She then reached for the package, it was addressed to Kelli Coulter Tanner, and she assumed it was a gift from one of her teammates. Tracker jumped onto her lap, and she sighed. “I promise to show you what it is, but I can’t open it with you on my lap. Move it, brat.” He moved, but was obviously unhappy about being displaced.

Carefully she tore open the outside mail wrap, and was delighted to find a beautifully decorated gift inside. The tag on the package said Kelli, but an envelope addressed to Vin was included, and the redhead set it aside to give to him. She did not recognize the handwriting, but figured it was either from Kat, or Pam., both women were notorious for putting things off to the last minute, and they would both be out of town until after the first. The dog insisted that he was going to be in the middle of it, and jumped back on the couch for a bird’s eye view.


“I thought you could shoot pool better than that Lar’bee.” Tanner heckled Chris as the eight ball missed the hole he had designated it would go into.

Chris shot him a glare. “Not with you jabbering like a magpie. Pool takes skill, precision....”

“All the skill and precision in the world won’t make one damn bit of difference if you can't sink the ball in the hole.” Vin teased as he lined his pool stick up to make his next shot.

“Quit your yammering and just make the shot already.” Buck told the Texan.

Vin sighted down the length of the pool cue much in the same way he did when he was lining up a target in the scope of his gun, before he gave it a gentle push and the eight ball sank into the corner pocket. He turned victoriously to Larabee and Wilmington with a huge grin on his face as Walter slapped him on the back. “Let's see....that makes it two nights of dinners out at mine and Kelli's favorite restaurant with free babysittin’ included that you owe me, Lar’bee.”

Chris rolled his eyes. “I never should have made that bet.”

“Nope…you shouldn't have.” Buck agreed. “I tried to tell you...”

“Shut up, Buck.” Chris said with no real heat, and then turned his attention to Andrews. “How are the new guards working out, Walter?” Chris asked the older man as they put up the game equipment.

“Are we going to go eat, or stand here and talk all day?” Buck interrupted

“Hold your horses Buck, we’re coming.” Chris grinned. “Your stomach can last five more minutes.”

Walter answered Larabee’s question as the four men climbed the stairs and moved into the kitchen.” They’re workin’ out good Chris....very reliable. We haven't seen any signs of unwanted visitors on the property since they were hired.”

“I was just about to call for you again.” Max told them as they entered the kitchen. “Sit, and enjoy while the food’s still hot.”

Tanner felt the hair on the back of his neck crawl, and his instincts were on full alert. “Where's Kel?” He demanded.

“She's in the living room...told me she would be in to eat after she opened the package she got today.” Max informed him.

A chill ran through the Texan and his instincts kicked into high gear.. “A package? What kind of package? Who was it from?” His eyes met Larabee's and Chris read the concern in them as more than curiosity.

“I'm not sure; it's a late Christmas present I reckon.” Walter told him. “It came in special delivery today, and had Kelli's name on it. I brought it inside and set it on the end table before I headed downstairs to join you.”

Vin bolted out of the kitchen and into the living room where his wife was just starting to open the gift in her lap. Without saying a word, he rushed forward, grabbed it out of Kelli's hands, and made a mad dash for the front door. Adrenaline propelled him down the porch steps, away from the house at breakneck speed, and as soon as he felt that he had gone far enough he tossed the package as far as he could. He watched it spiral through the air for a moment, before he turned and started running back toward the house, putting more distance between himself and the parcel in question. The package exploded as it fell to the earth, and he was propelled onto the ground from the concussion of the blast. He rolled over and gazed wide-eyed at the fiery inferno in front of him, as he attempted to catch his breath.

Chris and Buck raced down the porch steps toward him. “Vin!” Larabee yelled as he reached the fallen Texan. “Don’t move until we see if anything is broken.”

“I’m fine, just had the wind knocked out of me.” Vin tried to stand up, but Buck held him down “Let me go, I need to see Kel!”

The Texan shrugged free of Chris and Buck's grasp, and raced back toward the house. He was met at the door by an ashen faced Walter. “I'm sorry, Son...I should have checked it out.” Tanner didn't say a word, only brushed by him and into the living room where Kelli sat in shock and crying as Max tried to calm her. Vin took Kelli into his arms, making an effort to control his own shaking, as he realized just how very close he had come to losing his wife and his unborn children.

“It… it had my name on it.” Kelli gasped out as Vin held her. “I came from Pam or Kat...I didn't think.”

“Shh...It’s alright. You’re safe and that’s the only thing important to me.” Tanner told her soothingly. “Focus on tryin' to calm down, baby.”

Vin…what if Jason or Andi had been here? What if you …God…How did you know?”

Tanner continued to rub her back in an effort to relax her tense muscles. “I didn’t, but I had a gut feelin' that said you were in harms way… I figured if I was wrong the worst that could happen was that I’d owe you another present.” He refused to let go of her, but the fury inside him was beginning to build. Someone had attempted to kill his wife, and if it took him the rest of his life to find out who it was…that someone would pay.

Chris sat down next to the couple, trying to keep his emotions in check. He hated to question his daughter when she was obviously distraught, but he had to ask. “Kel, do you remember if there was a return address on the package?”

“No, but the paper is on the end table, and…there was a card…addressed to Vin.” She pointed to where she had placed the envelope, but kept a tight grip on Vin’s arm with her other hand. “I just thought… it was another gift.”

Buck retrieved the card and handed it to Chris. “You open it.”

Chris took it, and opened the flap, gently pulling the card out. He revealed a Christmas card, which contained an ominous message for Tanner, “Merry Christmas Dusty or should I say Vincent? See you soon, but first I have some business to take care of. Watch your back traitor.” It was unsigned. Inside the envelope were pictures of Kelli, Jason, Andi, and several more photos obviously taken of the ranch…and of their home.

“Sonofabitch!” Larabee swore in reaction to the threat.

Chris, what does it say?” Tanner reached to take the card from Larabee, but Chris refused to let him see it.

“It’s evidence Vin, the less people that handle it the better. Suffice to say…Someone knows that you are…were Dusty Slater, and plans to make your life a living hell.” He did not want to mention the implied threat to the children in front of Kelli.

“It was Karl that did this! I’ll kill the bastard with my own two hands!” Vin reacted quickly and started to rise, but Kelli held onto him.

“Vin, please wait!” She refused to turn loose of his arm.

“Now is not the time to go running off due to anger. You’d be doing exactly what Chambers, if he is the one behind this, wants you to do.” Chris placed his hand on the Texan’s other arm. “Your place is with Kel and the kids, Vin. The first thing we need to do is insure their safety, and I think you should let Kel’s doctor know what’s going on.”

We need her out of here Vin. Take care of your wife, I’ll tell you the rest later.

Looking into Kelli’s eyes he knew that Chris was right. She was scared, shaken and too damn pale. He chastised himself for being caught up in his rage; he had for an instant, forgotten about her condition, and how vulnerable she and the babies were until they passed the three month mark. “Come on Kel, first ‘m taking’ you to our room, and then ‘m callin’ Dr. Weeks.” He did not give her a chance to argue with him. He stood, picked her up into his arms and carried her to the bedroom.

As soon as Tanner had her out of the room Chris showed Buck the pictures and began issuing orders. “Buck call Ezra, tell him what has happened here. I want you to get Josiah to meet up with him, and stay close until all the kids are back here safe. Nathan and Rain need to bring Terrell onto the ranch, they can stay here until we decide how we’re going to protected everyone. Then, I want you to find a forensics team to go over this card, the wrapping paper, and whatever they can find that’s left of that bomb. Also track that delivery back as far as you can. Call in any team member you can locate, and tell them vacation time is over.”

“On it now,” Buck began making phone calls.

“Walter, double the patrols around the ranch. As of this minute we are on lockdown, and nothing comes in here unless we check it out first. When forensics is finished, do what you can to cover up the damage from the explosion. Max, you had better prepare for more houseguests.” Chris pulled out his cell phone to call the Southern breeze. It was going to take Matt’s cooperation to secure his side of the property that bordered the Larabee 7, and he also wanted Linda safely escorted home. Chambers had declared war, and Chris would be damned if he was going to give the bastard a chance to touch one member of his family.

You’re mine Chambers, and when I am finished with you, then I’ll give Tanner what’s left.

Somewhere, in the mountains, close to Denver…

Karl Chambers sat back in his big leather chair and savored the moment. His antagonist had a name…Vin Tanner…and by now the traitor knew that his identity had been revealed. Even if he did not succeed in taking out his first target, he knew his message would be received loud and clear.

Tanner, I plan to make your life hell as you have made mine. Destroy what you care about as you did to me. Your death can wait… you will not see me coming, and you will not know when…where…or who I will strike at next.

Continues in
Reconciliations III: Resolutions


Clandestine Service ~The CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) branch that carries out secret operations.