Till We Meet Again

by Laurie Ann

Darkness. Nothing but darkness. Had he opened his eyes, hadn't he? The swirling sensation that was taking over his mind, intensified as he tried to move his head. He lunged his body forward and twisted, realizing he was bound securely to a high-backed chair, his arms tied just above the elbows to the sides of the long back, with his hands tied behind. His calves and ankles were strapped to the front legs, and even though he rocked it, the chair remained immovable. Escape was out of the question for the time being.

Vin searched his memory. Ella's taunting smile had been the last thing he remembered before succumbing to unconsciousness. His capture was obviously a tool to be used against Chris, to make him obey. Squeezing his eyes shut to keep another bout of dizziness from overtaking him, Vin admonished himself for falling for such an old trick. He knew the Brigger's attack was a trap, and knew Chris didn't want him leaving the saloon without the others. Yet, he fell for a woman's scream. He had to be sure, didn't he? It could have been one of the women who lived in town. Vin lowered his chin upon his chest in frustration.

But it had turned out to be Ella.

+ + + + + + +

Chris tried to hide his disgust as Ella caressed his hand. He wanted to wrest his hand free and run from her and her treachery as fast as he could. In his mind's eye, all he could see was Sarah's smiling face as she waved goodbye to him for the last time, Adam huddled under her protective embrace.


The gunman shook himself mentally. He couldn't dwell on his family in her presence. Ella had to be convinced she was the only one in his life, if Vin was to survive.

"We were something together, weren't we?" Ella laughed.

"Yes, we were," Chris forced himself to say. "But we'll have the rest of our lives to remember."

Ella eyed Chris warily. "This is what you want...right? I need to know Chris if this is real, and not because of that tracker."

Against every fiber of his being, Chris rose from his seated position and gave the murderess a small kiss on the cheek. "I wouldn't be here if I wasn't serious. True, I was worried about Vin, but I sense a change in your attitude. You don't seem to hate him as much."

The cunning brunette arose and went to the night stand, retrieving the book she had been intently reading. "I found this in the reading area. It showed me the errors I made back at the ranch."

Chris' brow furrowed as he recognized the seven men drawn on the cover, the author's name reminding him of the annoying little man who chased them for several days. The little bastard went back and wrote a book on them? "Did he mention Vin's bounty in this?"

"Yes, that's how I found out about it."

"I'll kill him," Chris growled through gritted teeth.

How many copies of this story were circulating? Flipping through the book, his anger grew as he discovered the author had actually used their real names! Slamming the book down on the table, Chris glared out into space. If he ever saw that little weasel again....

"I'm grateful he wrote the book, or I might have still carried out my hatred towards Vin instead of understanding how he fit into your life. It made me realize that these men had a special relationship to you, and that by trying to hurt them, it would end up hurting you."

Chris nodded emphatically. "And Vin?"

Ella stood directly behind Chris' chair and laid her head against the side of his face, her hands weaving down the front of his white shirt. "Somehow your inner most being connected with him, and I knew if I forced him from you, that I would lose you forever."

"So the little fight in the saloon was planned to draw Vin out?" Chris said, wanting to cut to the chase.

"From the other run in at Nesbitt's place, I knew Vin was a worthy fighter. If he managed to get away from Jacob, I knew a scream from a damsel in distress would bring our sweet tracker out to the rescue." Ella smiled and bit her lower lip, obviously pleased with herself. "I told Jacob that if Tanner should break free, he was to run outside behind the hardware store and wait. I would handle the rest."

"Why then have them beat the hell out of the others?"

Clearing her throat, the femme fatale twirled a strand of hair nervously between two fingers. She had picked up the tinge of irritation in Chris' voice at the last statement. "I wanted your friends roughed up just a bit...so they wouldn't be in shape to go chasing after Vin...." She studied the gunfighter's face intently before continuing. "Are you sure you want....?"

"Tell me everything," Chris tried not to bark, "and don't spare anything. I don't want any more secrets."

"I wanted to talk to you alone, Chris, and with the others, Vin in particular, I wouldn't get your undivided attention. I knew with just the two of us together, we could see past everything and renew our love."

"And we have," Chris managed to speak softly. "Just let him go and we can concentrate on our wedding plans."

Ella laughed softly. "He'll be waiting for us at the ranch. I want him to be in the ceremony, in our future and in our baby's life. If Vin is that important to you, then he's important to me. I understand that now. I have it planned perfectly, my love. Vin will never leave you."

The gunman forced a smile as his nerve endings began to tingle in alarm. Every warning sign in his head was screaming that something was seriously wrong with her sudden forgiveness. Agreeing to marry Ella wouldn't free his friend.

+ + + + + + +

The sounds of footsteps echoing in the distance greeted Vin. As the steps came nearer, he squinted his eyes in preparation for the onslaught of brightness he knew would be coming.

Vin strained to listen as he heard coming footsteps. A sound of a key turning in a lock caused the sharpshooter's survival instincts to kick in.

The door creaked open from lack of use, announcing the arrival of Vin's kidnappers. Silas Brigger entered first, the lantern held high as he inspected the prisoner. His older brother, the one who ambushed the tracker earlier that night, followed close behind.

"Don't know why yer worryin' over 'im for," Jacob Brigger complained.

"Makin' sure he don't git sick. She said that ether can make a person that way, and him wearin' a gag can make him choke," Silas explained, pulling Vin's gag down. He placed the lantern on the floor when he noticed Vin blinking hard from the light.

"Don't know why she wants 'im alive," Jacob snarled, looking down at his bandaged leg. He literally had to pull Vin's embedded spur out, but only after carrying the unconscious sharpshooter to his wagon. Silas had already hitched up Tanner's horse to it, and was waiting for the cargo. Then it was a mad dash to Ella Gaines' ranch before the prisoner regained consciousness.

Silas ignored his brother and concentrated on Vin. "Are ya feelin' sick?"

Vin remained silent, trying to get his eyes to focus properly.

"He ain't gonna tell us," Jacob grumbled, grabbing a handful of Vin's hair in back and jerking his head up. "If'n he's sick, he'll just puke all over ya, 'stead of talkin'."

"Stop it!" Silas barked. "She don't want us hurtin' him."

The humongous brother released his grip, his mouth fixed in a sneer. "Ain't no one gonna see nothin' if'n I beat on his gut...."

"We're not ta touch him," Silas said stiffly.

"Reckon she don't want no bruises on my corpse?" Vin finally spoke, his eyes darting around his prison. His eyes widened in shock as he viewed the objects in the room. What was all this? Pictures of Chris lined wooden shelves, with bullets, knives, razors, jewelry, spurs, clothing and other trinkets surrounding the photos. A newspaper headline screamed of the horrendous murders of Chris' wife and son, a charred locket draped across it. He couldn't repress the shudder than ran through his body at the thought of Ella's cruelty. This was some twisted shrine to Chris.

"He ain't gonna be sick," Jacob smirked, tying the gag back in place. He grabbed Vin's chin and squeezed it firmly, making the tracker look at him. "Like Miss Ella's special room? Hope ya do, cause I hear ya might become part of the collection."

A muffled growl escaped from behind the gag as Vin tugged against his cloth bonds, wanting to shove the taunting words down Brigger's throat.

"Ya ain't goin' nowhere," Jacob smiled, "at least not till Miss Ella says so." The large man straightened and motioned for his brother to follow as he walked to the door.

As the door closed, Vin was grateful for the darkness. He wouldn't be able to look upon the mementoes surrounding him. Brigger's words rang through his head. He might become a part of the collection? The items in the room represented an obsession forged in blood. Was his to be added next?

+ + + + + + +

The evening rolled on endlessly as Chris made himself listen to Ella's plans for their future together. The gunman shook his head, and forced his attention back to the woman in front of him. Even when he found his friend, Ella would still be a threat.

"He's safe," Ella's slightly impatient voice invaded Chris' mind. She threw her fiancé a chiding glance.

"Huh? Who?" Chris floundered.

Ella grinned and shook a finger in his direction. "Now who's keeping secrets?"

"Secrets? I'm only thinking."

"About your precious friend.... Your brow is drawn, lips pursed, eyes far off and distant. The worry is written all over your face." Ella folded her arms across her chest. "This is supposed to be about us, not him."

Chris knew he had to handle her just right or all he worked for would be lost. She was getting tired of being sensitive and understanding. He reached for Ella's hands, looking intently into her eyes.

"I was thinking about how I caused all this friction between you and Vin. I should have told him about us, how much I wanted to get back together."

The murderess gave a confident smile. "I give you my word that the Briggers will not harm one hair on his head. They're only to see to his comforts until I arrive. I promise I won't take your precious tracker away from you. When we get married at the ranch, you'll see he's the same as the last time you saw him."

Please God, let him be alive. Chris found it odd to be praying, especially since he declared there was no God after his family's murder. But he needed all the help he could get, even from a faith that was dead and buried.

The soft chiming of the grandfather clock in the foyer of the suite caught the murderess' attention. "Oh Chris...., look at the time! It's getting late, and we should be turning in."

Chris felt his steel resolve sway at the thought of sleeping with Ella. How could he possibly stay in the same bed with that evil woman? The little physical contact he had so far was testing his limits sorely. And Vin needed him. Staying here would only tick away precious minutes that the sharpshooter couldn't afford. But he couldn't afford to arouse Ella's suspicions.

Rising, Ella held out her hand, waiting for Chris to take it.

Fighting the bile that rose in his throat, Chris grinned and took her gloved hand, willing to do whatever it took to gain her trust.


Forcing one leg to move after another, Chris followed Ella to the bedroom. His worst scenario was going to be realized. If he rebuffed her attempts at lovemaking, how horribly would Vin die? Maybe there was one thing he could try to stall....

"Chris," Ella said softly, almost hesitantly, "I hope you can understand this, but I feel that now there's a child, that we should hold off making love until after the baby is born."

Chris' eyes widened slightly, and forced himself to keep his mouth from nearly falling open. That was exactly what he was going to suggest.

Ella mistook her beloved sudden quietness for disappointment. "I would like for you to hold me in your arms all night, but no more than that." She reached up and touched his cheek. "Besides, you look so tired that rest is what you need right now."

"I guess you're right," Chris relented. Being in an embrace with her disgusted him, but it was the lesser of two evils. The gunfighter began to undress at the edge of the bed, unable to bring himself to actually get into the thing. Moments later Ella emerged behind a silk screen, dressed in a rather grand motherly night dress. Pulling back the covers, she patted the bed for Chris to join her. The gunman obeyed, and together they laid back, the murderess sinking happily into his arms.

"Shouldn't we blow out all these candles?" Chris wondered.

"Not just yet, my love," Ella cooed. She burrowed her face into his rock solid chest, inhaling his essence, his masculinity as she entwined her arms around his in a bond of love. "Lie back and relax."

Chris found it suddenly hard to keep his eyes open, but how could he possibly think of sleep with Vin in her grasp? Was all the strain finally catching up to him? Fighting the sleep that beckoned even stronger, he decided to gather more information.

"So when do you think we should get married?" he asked. Despite her rambles about their future together, she never did mention the date.

"In three days."

"Three days? Why so long?"

Ella looked up and smiled. "Impatient are we? I need three days to get everything ready. It'll take almost a day to get back home, and then a couple of days to finish all my plans. I'll send word for you to come when everything is ready...."

"Send?" Chris asked. She was going to be alone with Vin for two days? "I can help. You know, talk to Vin...."

A slight chuckle escaped Ella's throat. "No, my love, I need to be with Vin myself. I'll convince him to accept his new role in our lives. He won't belong to you anymore, he'll belong to all of us."

The hair on back of his neck stood on end as the gunfighter closed his eyes tight. Vin would never submit to or accept Ella, only in death could she quiet his opposition. Only in death....those words echoed in his head as he began to drift off, an overwhelming sense of grogginess taking over.

Ella leaned up and gently kissed Chris' mouth. "Sleep deep my only love," she sighed. "Wine isn't good for the father either." Looking over at the special bottle she prepared, she smiled. Her plans were nearing their end.

+ + + + + + +

His head feeling about to burst, Chris awoke gingerly, reaching to his side to find Ella. As his hand groped the mattress, his alarm grew. Finally able to open his eyes a bit, he searched the room. She was no where to be found.

Clasping the sides of his head to stop the room from spinning, the gunman wondered what could have caused his condition this morning. He surely didn't have enough wine to inebriate himself, so what did happen? Unsteadily he rose to his feet, holding on to the side of the bed for balance. He had to find Ella. Maybe she was in another part of the suite. As he slowly explored each inch of the lodging, his fears mounted. She wouldn't leave without telling him....would she? He couldn't let her out of his sight.

The gunfighter circled around in the dining area and found a piece of white paper on the table. Focusing his still blurry vision, he opened up the slip of paper.

My dearest Love,

I truly regret not being there when you awakened, but I knew you would only try to persuade me to allow you on my journey home, so I left during the night. Don't worry, I'll send word when I'm ready to receive you. We will have the rest of our lives together and this short time apart will be nothing. I also feel the need to inform our Vin about the new life we're entering into, and make sure he fits in perfectly. Until we meet again......I love you, Chris.

Frantically Chris looked at the grandfather clock. It was two in the afternoon. That couldn't be right! He was always up at the crack of dawn. Ella would be at her ranch by now. The letter slipped from his hand as he hurried to the bedroom to retrieve his clothes.

+ + + + + + +

Vin struggled furtively against his bonds. Though they were fabric instead of rope, they wouldn't budge, holding the captive in a firm, but pain free grip. The young sharpshooter had to wonder why Ella was so gentle on that end. Even if he was bait, she would never let him be able to interfere in her future with Chris.

Chris.... Vin's eyes slammed shut at the mental picture of his best friend marrying that despicable creature. He could guess at why he was still breathing. She was going to make Chris marry her, and he was going to be the incentive.

I'm sorry, Chris, Vin thought as he hung his head sadly. After all his talk about beating Ella at her game, he was going to be the one to force the marriage to happen. Deep down he prayed that Chris would find the strength to ignore her threats. It would kill him to watch Chris being with her.

The key turning in the lock brought Vin out of his morose thoughts. Were his keepers back to check on him? As his eyes adjusted to the light of the lantern, he felt the warmth of a body near his, the perfume giving away the gender.

"Hello, my Angel," Ella cooed, while whisking a hand through her prisoner's hair. "I've almost forgotten how tempting you are. How could I ever forget that spectacular show you put on in the bathhouse?"

Twisting his head away from her touch, Vin felt his cheeks grow hot. The bathhouse. He felt defiled as he came up with the answer. Of course, it was Ella who was watching him undress that night.

"Blushing?" Ella laughed. "Oh, aren't we the sweet one. But....when you take off all those dusty clothes, there is something more rewarding underneath, isn't there?" She placed the lantern on the floor nearby and gazed upon her pawn before inching even closer. "I could do this all night," she purred, giving her sickened captive several small kisses down the right side of his face and neck. She knew the action would incense him, but there would be nothing he could do to stop her.

The brunette grinned when Vin couldn't pull away from her. His struggles only urged her on more, the power rushing inside her like a freight train speeding down a track. Ella was in total control, her every whim obeyed willingly or unwillingly. And it wasn't unpleasant that the man before her was very appealing visually.

Vin turned his head in silent disgust as he felt her eyes caressing every inch of him, mentally peeling off one layer of clothing at a time. He couldn't remember hating anyone more than Ella Gaines right now.

Sitting upon his lap, the femme fatale lightly ran her index finger over the tracker's exposed lips, which peeked out from above and below the gag. Her breaths coming faster, she longingly gazed upon his face, her left hand stroking his soft mane in back. If only those blue sapphire eyes would look back at her, she'd willingly suffocate in them.

"You are so incredibly attractive," Ella panted hungrily into Vin's ear, "a fine piece of manhood who shouldn't go to waste. I'm the woman who could unlock your deepest passions and make you reach for more." Seeing her object of desire cringe, she smiled. "Don't you want to play with me?"

His eyes flashing with defiance and loathing, Vin jerked his head in the direction of the woman's prized possessions...Chris' possessions.

"You're right, my Angel, Chris wouldn't want to share me with another." Ella ran the back of her hand gently across the sharpshooter's right cheek, her eyes smoldering with intense yearning. Would he be able to resist her? She allowed the thought to echo in her mind. It would be fun to explore the possibility, and her beloved need ever find out.

Her hand repeatedly moved over the cheek, her lips churning in expectation. With her free hand she undid the button's to Vin's shirt, snaking it under and then over his chest, feeling every muscle she wished to touch when she saw him in the bathhouse. She buried her face into his hair, allowing the strands to brush over her lips and eyelids. It was only a game, but one she was going to enjoy playing. Besides, Chris and the young man before her were a part of each other spiritually, it was almost the same thing...she wouldn't be cheating.

The mortified sharpshooter gave a cry of alarm as he felt the heat radiating from Ella, his flesh repulsed. Was this some twisted seduction? Vin's shock turned to outrage as he steeled himself against her touch. She wasn't going to win over him.

Without warning, the delicate caressing turned into a painful scratch as she used one of her nails to break skin. Vin watched the fascination dance in Ella's eyes, as the blood trickled slowly down his chest. Her hand reached out to gingerly touch the substance, feeling her pulse quicken as her lips hovered over the wound. He was completely her's, and most deliciously, against his will.

Ella began to lick at the blood like a thirsty dog lapping the last bit of water, her passionate nature rising to the surface. She forgot her plans, the only goal now to make her prisoner realize who he was dealing with, and who was in control. And right now, she only wanted one thing.

Horrified at what she was doing, Vin pulled his body tight, pushing himself as far back from her as possible. A short, muffled shout for her to stop escaped as he shook his head vehemently in protest.

Whipping her tongue over her blood covered mouth, Ella pulled back, her chest heaving wildly. A surge of adrenaline coursed through her body like a branding iron, the sweetness and warmth of the blood sending her senses into a frenzy. It was absolute domination, the red fluid her captive's life essence. How incredible it felt! Hands clutching at her lace bodice, she began to tear at the fragile buttons until she heard the sound of horses coming up to the house.

"No!" she screamed, coming back to reality. "I almost betrayed my Chris! You low life bastard!" Immediately, Ella composed her manner and straightened her hair and dress. "I keep forgetting that my attraction to you is based on your 'connection' to Chris. And it's that connection that's going to bring us all together."

With that ominous note, the murderess locked her guest inside the tiny shrine, and glided downstairs to greet her new arrivals, leaving Vin to ponder his fate.


Chris just finished buttoning up his black jeans when he heard the sound of the door to the hotel room opening. Sliding his gun quietly out from it's holster, he inched closer to the opening of the bedroom. He drew in a breath as he peered around the corner, gun first.

"Dammit Wilmington!" he cursed when he recognized the ladies' man.

Buck lowered his hands, grateful to see Chris okay. "We was worried 'bout ya," he offered in explanation, pointing behind him to Nathan. "Heard from a guest Ella had left last night, and when ya didn't come back...."

"Why didn't you come and get me last night?" Chris barked as he lowered his gun.

"Didn't know till just a couple of minutes ago." Buck looked his old friend over. "Looks like ya tied one on, Pard."

Chris' eyes were blurry, and his hair disheveled. He looked like the wild and woolly Larabee Buck used to know. The ladies' man moved in closer. Hey Nathan, yer a doctor, ya ever see eyes that red before?"

Nathan grunted, wanting to stay alive a few more years. Chris did look terrible, but he couldn't believe the gunman would get wasted with Vin in trouble. Something didn't sit right.

"I didn't get drunk," Chris said irritably, "but it sure feels like I did. Can't believe I slept in this late."

Seeing the bottle of wine still on the table, Nathan walked up to it, swishing the bottle. "Did ya drink some of this here wine?"

"Yeah, but only two glasses."

"I think maybe you were drugged," Nathan muttered. "I saw some white residue in the bottom. She didn't want you wakin' up for a while."

"She didn't want me going with her," Chris explained. "Left me a note, wants to talk to Vin alone first and get things ready for the wedding." He groaned and held the side of his head, willing the dull pain to subside. "I've got to get to him...now...before she has a chance to do anything."

"Did she tell ya she was goin' to do somethin'?" Buck asked with a worried glance to Nathan.

Chris snorted sarcastically. "She was doing her best to let me think he was fine and dandy. She wants him to be a big part of our lives together..., especially the baby's."

"Vin?" Buck asked incredulously. "That woman don't have a fondness for him or for any of the rest of us."

"I know," Chris said with a involuntary shiver, "She blames Vin for breaking us up this last time."

"We're gonna have ta watch our backs, Chris," Buck said, placing a hand on the gunman's arm. "Those Briggers are watchin' every move we make. We even got a visit from one this mornin'. Said if'n we try ta go after Vin, he's as good as dead. And we're ta make sure you stay in town till Ella calls for ya."

"I can't!" Chris grabbed the front of Buck's shirt, and pulled the lanky gunslinger towards him. "She's going to do something to Vin! I know it! I ain't going to sit around and wait till she kills him! She ain't taking another away from me!"

Buck managed to pull off the white knuckled grip Chris had on his shirt. He could read the fear and frustration in his friend's voice. The very same emotions were coursing through him. What Chris feared could very well happen to Vin, Ella was unstable. Rushing after their friend could cause his death to come quicker, and inside Buck vowed he would do what it took to get his young friend back in one piece.

"Take it easy," Buck said in a soothing tone. "We've gotta think things through 'fore we go into action. We only got one chance ta git that boy back where he belongs, and we best be makin' sure it's right."

"But Ella's with him," Chris said angrily.

"And if she is, he's gonna be gone by the time ya git there," Nathan added sadly.

Overwhelmed by his headache and emotions, Chris sank wearily into a chair, his face covered by his hands. It was all his fault. He knew Ella Gaines was a woman to stay away from the first minute he met her, but he couldn't keep himself from dancing near the flames. She was exciting, intoxicating, provocative...and deadly. Sarah and Adam paid with their lives and now Vin was in danger of becoming one of her victims. If only....

If only.... Chris felt the bitterness of those two words hit his core. If only he had ignored Ella that night at the saloon she worked at. If only he hadn't led her on. If only he had come back from his trip to Mexico that night Adam and Sarah were murdered. If only he had ridden through Four Corners instead of staying. If only he had listened to Vin that night at Ella's ranch. If only he had shot her when he had the chance.....

"Don't be doin' this, ol' Pard," Buck said. He knew Chris was beating himself up, and had to get him into action. "Vin would want ya figurin' a way ta git him home, not feelin' sorry for yerself."

"What the hell?" Chris rose from the chair, his eyes tearing the ladies' man to pieces.

"Actions speak louder than thoughts," Buck challenged as he walked to the suite's door. "I'm headin' back ta the jail ta think of a plan, then doin' it. Not mopin' around." His harshly chosen words worked like he hoped to get Chris on the warpath.

Pulling out Vin's harmonica from the pocket of the suit jacket, Chris placed the cherished object in the front pocket of his jeans. Buck was right. They had to think of a plan, and fast.

+ + + + + + +

Vin felt of sense of dread as he heard the door unlock. She was back. Girding himself mentally and physically for another attack, he waited for her figure to saunter in. Ella wasn't going to break him.

Carrying a basket full of candles along with her lantern, Ella smiled sweetly at her guest. "The delivery men just left, so I can keep you company," she murmured softly. "It's amazing what people can get done with the right amount of money."

One by one, Vin watched the brunette place candles around the shrine, her eyes drifting off dreamily as she rambled. She was talking to him like she would a regular visitor, passing the time with idle chat about the weather, or small details of the neighbor's coming and goings.

The tracker shifted in his chair, trying to get some feeling back into his restricted limbs as well as his mind.

Ella heard the creak of the chair, and stopped her chatter. "Are you uncomfortable, Angel?" she asked, walking over to check on her pawn. "I specifically asked them to use fabric instead of rope so you wouldn't be in pain," she said, rubbing a hand over Vin's bound ones. "But being in one position for a long period of time would cause discomfort."

She stood up and gently brushed away a strand of hair off Vin's forehead. "I can't let you go just now. You're not ready yet. But after tonight, you won't be feeling any pain or discomfort ever again." Smiling, she sat herself in the tracker's lap. "And what those men brought, I got especially for you. I know you'll like it, it's beautiful. I was actually surprised at the quality for only a day's worth of notice. It's so nice being wealthy, the right amount of money can buy you any and everything you want...."

An intense loathing overtook Vin's emotions as he felt Ella's body snuggling up to his. Knowing he should keep his mind off his emotions and on a plan of escape, the tracker struggled to maintain his rage. He wanted to literally throw the woman off him, but had to settle for the mental picture. Turning his head, he kept his eyes from gazing upon her hated features.

And what had she purchased for him? A coffin? The only way he knew of never feeling pain again was to be dead. She was going to kill him and bury him out of sight. Did she honestly expect Chris to accept it? Not to guess what she had done? Vin took a quick glance to his left where knives and razors taunted him with their nearness, yet inaccessibility. If he wasn't strapped down to this immobile chair..., he could easily free himself. An almost inaudible sigh escaped. He couldn't lose hope.

Searching Vin's face, Ella noted the withdrawn air of her prisoner, the refusal to even look her way. Had he finally come to realize he had lost? Would he stop fighting her and do what was best for Chris? A smug satisfaction filled her. There was nothing Tanner could do. Yet, she still found herself wondering what was going through the young man's mind. Curious, she undid the gag, forcing herself from the temptation to crush her lips upon his. She had to retain his purity if her next phrase was to work. It was almost destroyed before by getting carried away, and she would have to be extremely careful in the future.

"Is that better?" Ella asked, fetching him a small bit of water to drink from a nearby basin in the hall. Allowing her captive a few sips, she smiled graciously. "I'm sure you have questions."

Vin looked at her in utter disbelief. Questions? Hell yes he had questions! Quelling his anger and disgust, Vin decided to play nice while she was in a friendly mood. If he stalled for time...maybe Chris and the others could reach him....or if by a miracle, he could find a way out.

"Why'd ya bring me here?" Vin hesitated, fighting hard to keep his voice civil.

Ella threw her head back and laughed. "I knew that would be your first question. See? I'm getting to know you as well as Chris." She patted the side of Vin's face. "I needed you and Chris separated. He wasn't thinking clearly and with you out of town, he finally came to his senses. He practically proposed marriage right away!"

Vin's eyes flashed with agitation and distress.

Ella cupped Vin's chin and gazed into his pained eyes. "It's not what you're thinking! I didn't threaten him with your safety. He came up with this on his own. All he needed was to be away from your influence for awhile...that's all." She paused and faintly touched a strand of Vin's hair in back. "I understand now how much you mean to him. I have no intentions of destroying you."

"Yer sayin' yer goin' ta let me go?" Vin asked, incredulous.

Kneeling down in front of her captive, Ella gave Vin a smile that caused the young man's blood to turn cold. "I'm saying you're staying here with me, Chris and the baby. I won't allow you to hurt Chris by running off on him because he chose to marry me. He wants you in his life, you're staying."

"I won't leave him," Vin said as he groped for understanding. She wasn't going to kill him? But he still felt a strong sense of hostility emanating from her.

A mean spirited look had taken over in her brown eyes, as Vin watched Ella twist the gag between her hands in an attempt to rein in her fury. "You're a man," she said accusingly. "All men ever think about is running out. Chris was the exception. I knew we were destined to be together, but even he became weak after being under the influence of those who were fainthearted and left me. The only reason you haven't been torn apart for your interference is because of my love for Chris." Her voice turned more bitter. "Now I have to accept you to make sure he doesn't leave me, or the baby."

"Chris don't want ta hurt the baby," Vin offered truthfully, desiring to calm her down and maybe win him some precious time. "Why don't we both go talk ta Chris...." Before he could finish, Ella thrusted the gag back into his mouth from behind, the force of the action surprising the sharpshooter. Damn, she was strong!

Grabbing a handful of golden-brown hair, Ella jerked Vin's head back, her eyes scanning the barely visible lips she resisted earlier. A snarl formed as she took in the shocked, vivid blue eyes of her subjugated guest. He was baiting her! Those eyes, that face, his hair, every inch of him was teasing her, trying to get her to loose control. Anything to ruin her plans. It wasn't going to work. Reaching to her side, she grabbed the razor she had taken from Chris the night of their party. With eyes wide with hate and passion, she began to press the sharp blade into Vin's throat, her other hand still attached to the young man's hair, keeping his head back, the neck exposed.

Her eyes rested on the open shirt of her victim, a red scab catching her attention. It was the small scratch she had made less than a couple of hours ago. Instantly she dropped the razor and her grip on Vin's hair, allowing her prisoner to breathe freely again. No, she had planned too much to permit her handsome guest to dictate her emotions. Of course he was baiting her, he wasn't perfect yet. And maybe he was acting out what Chris would do. Chris' desires for her could be transferring themselves into the person who was with her now...Vin. She had to remember their link to each other. With patience, all her desires will be achieved. A pleased smile graced her broad mouth.

Picking up the razor from the foot of her shoes, the woman gingerly placed it back upon the shelf. "I do apologize, but I don't think I should visit with you anymore. Not until the time is right." Retrieving her lantern, she left Vin to sit in the dark.

Hearing the lock activate, Vin exhaled heavily as he finally relaxed. He would prefer absolute darkness over her twisted nature. Sweet one minute, sexually aggressive another, and murderous the next. Now he could understand how Chris' family could die by her hands how he could be at one time attracted to her.

A shiver ran down Vin spine, remembering her face as she held the razor to his throat. There was something definitely evil he saw. Was he was going to be forced to go through the rages of Hell itself before she was done with him?


"Glad to see you're all right, Brother," Josiah boomed in relief. They had all feared the worst when Chris didn't return the night before. The thought of the gunman being forced to spend time with Ella was center in all their minds. When a hotel guest who had played poker with Ezra told the gambler that Ella had scurried out of town in the dead of night, a thousand thoughts ran through their minds. Why hadn't Chris returned to them? Did he leave with Ella? But the guest had only seen her.

Chris gave a curt nod, his mind focusing on one thing. Getting his best friend out of the clutches of that murdering woman. He didn't notice the worried greetings from Ezra and JD, as he moved to the corner of the jailhouse, his back to them all. He should be out saddling his horse, riding out to Ella's, but deep down he knew Buck was right. His show last night earned him Ella's trust, and chasing after Vin would only destroy what he built. And if she felt betrayed by him.... The gunfighter shuddered and forced himself to dispel those thoughts. He wasn't going to give her that opportunity.

"The damn she cat drugged Chris last night," Buck said with a simmering anger lying beneath his words. "It's damn scary how that woman thinks."

"She is a calculated, cold-blooded, venomous woman," Ezra said disdainfully. "Lies and deception are second nature to the likes of her breed."

"Wouldn't be a bit surprised if she was related to the serpent in the Old Testament," Josiah added.

"And the best way to deal with serpents is to charm them," Ezra elaborated. "Hence, we must become snake charmers."

"I'd rather shoot 'em than charm 'em," Buck huffed. "Works a whole hell of a lot faster."

"Our leader has all ready provided the music," Ezra replied. "We only need to draw her in to snare her."

"What do you have in mind, Maestro?" Josiah asked.

Before Ezra could continue further, one of the Brigger brothers stormed into the building. He eyed the five men suspiciously. Miss Ella didn't want them planning anything.

"Here ta tell ya that ya better not be figurin' on goin' after that tracker," Brigger said coldly. "Miss Ella won't take kindly ta it."

JD jumped in front of the large man, his anger fueling him onward. "And we don't take kindly to her taking Vin!" he spat out mockingly.

Buck stepped forward. "Ya said somethin' like that before. We ain't stupid like you'n yer brothers...followin' that woman's every wish...." His fists curled to his sides, the ladies' man glowered at the man who bested him more than twenty pounds. If he didn't have to worry about Ella's reaction, he'd smash in the brother's face.

"And what is so kindly about being kidnaped and held against your will?" Ezra asked with disdain. "Ah'm afraid our captive friend won't view it that way."

"Don't give a damn what that long-haired vermin thinks," Brigger said with a disgusted huff. His mouth fixed into a mean sneer. "Ain't nothin' but scum anyhow. He's only breathin' cause Miss Ella says so. Me'n my brothers would rather tear 'im ta pieces than ta look at 'im."

His anger stroked even higher, Buck couldn't contain himself. This big mouthed bully was going to be taught some respect concerning Vin Tanner.

"Tell that demon you work for that we will do as she asks," Josiah grumbled through gritted teeth, reaching out to grab Buck's arm to stop him from going after the taunter, "only for Vin's sake. But if that harlot harms one hair on his head...."

"That's enough, Josiah!" Chris yelled. "That is my future wife you're talking about!" The man dressed in black strode up angrily to the group of men. "I will not hear another damn derogatory remark against her again! I'll shoot the next person who does!"

"But Vin is...," JD faltered, surprised by Chris' reaction.

Shaking himself free of Josiah's grasp, Buck placed himself between Chris and JD. "Have ya forgotten why Vin ain't with us? And who's responsible?"

"Vin is safe!" Chris snapped. "Ella told me he was safe, and I believe her. None of this would be happening if I been thinking clearly all along."

"Is this what ya want, Chris?" Buck asked. He understood the tirade, it was for Brigger. I'd be willin' ta let things go, if'n it's what ya want."

Unable to express his gratitude to his old friend, Chris nodded. "I guess deep down it's what I always wanted. I don't like the fact Vin was taken, but he's safe and he'll be waiting for me when I come home for the wedding."

"As long as Vin's okay, and yer happy, I'll keep my views ta myself," Buck vowed falsely. "What 'bout the rest of ya?" He placed a hand on JD's shoulder as the youth inched out from behind him. It was time for all of them to get into the act.

Ezra swallowed hard, catching on. "As much as it pains me, Ah will refrain from speaking out against this union."

"I'll keep quiet," Nathan mumbled.

"I'm with Nathan," Josiah agreed.

They paused and waited for the youngest of the seven to concede. With a heavy sigh, JD nodded. Brigger watched the display and smiled. Miss Ella would be pleased to hear about this. He would have to send her a wire as soon as possible.

Noticing the large brother was about to leave, Chris' voice cut through the quiet. "You boys never did say if you're throwing me a party."

Buck's face lit up, but quickly hid his enthusiasm. "A party? Ya want a party?"

"Why not? I remember you throwing me one hell of a one the last time." Chris met every one of his men's eyes. He had a plan. "Maybe a celebration would bring everyone's chins up off the floor."

"I could use a good stiff drink," Josiah commented.

"Ah would not refuse a refreshing intoxicant right now," Ezra mused.

"A refreshing what?" JD asked with confusion.

"A drink."

"Yeah, I could use a drink too!" JD piped up.

"Fine." Buck tipped his head in acknowledgment. "When ya want it ta happen?"

"How about now? Ella needs a couple of days to get ready, and it'll give me time to get over any hangover I might get."

The six men exchanged looks and one by one, they nodded in agreement.

"Let's go ta the saloon!" Buck coaxed, elbowing past the large brother.

Brigger slipped out of the jailhouse, satisfied with how things were progressing. It would be easy to keep an eye on them if they were all passed out drunk. He'd gather his brothers together and continue their watch at the saloon.

After entering inside the saloon, Chris glance at his men. "Think they'll buy it?"

"They're Briggers," Josiah smiled. "God blessed them with muscles, not brains."

"One thing to thank the good Lord for," Buck had to laugh.

"We're still going to have to put on a good show," Chris said solemnly, bringing the others back to the task at hand. "We have a few minutes until they get here, so let's get this performance going."


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