It’s Only Temporary

by Angie

Hanky Alert – Hanky Alert – Hanky Alert – Hanky Alert – Hanky Alert – Hanky Alert – Hanky Alert

This is a very intense, very short time span in the boy’s lives. I hope no one ever has a week like this.

Thanks to Laramee and Crystal for all their beta help. I’d never make it without them.

Size: Approx. 150K

Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3

How could it have gone so very wrong? Chris Larabee, the leader of the elite ATF team known as Team 7, sat in his office drawing his hands through his short, blond hair. Travis had met him at the door to relieve him of his weapon. Somehow, the bust had gone terribly, horribly wrong and a young father of four lay dead in the morgue.

Even as he ran the events leading up to the confrontation through his mind, his stomach churned and his head pounded. Staring at the concrete floor between his legs, Chris watched with a distracted fascination as a drop of moisture fell and landed between his stocking clad feet. The only sound he could hear was the roar of his own breathing. He shut everything else out. He felt that he could hold it together if he could just get home. Everything would be all right as soon as he got to the ranch.


The matchbox car raced down the plastic track and hit the ramp. JD held his breath as he watched the car fly into the air and crash into the plastic brick wall Vin had carefully erected a few inches away. The yellow car hit the wall and the ‘bricks’ exploded. Both boys toppled over as JD made a loud ‘boom’ before dissolving into giggles. Mrs. Potter looked over from the end of the couch where she was busy sewing a button on JD’s shirt. An indulgent smile lit her face as she watched the two orphaned boys playing.

The boys had come to live at the ranch only a few months before. Vin and JD had been found quite by accident in a warehouse Team 7 raided by mistake. While JD had been all right, Vin nearly died from a gunshot wound. The little Texan was still too thin, in her opinion, but Gloria Potter was glad to see how much he had blossomed under the care of the ‘hardened’ ATF agents.


Looking at the forlorn figure on the bench near his locker, Buck Wilmington felt his heart ache for his friend. Chris was horrified at the death of the innocent bystander. William Roth had simply been in the wrong place at the worst possible moment. The young accountant had gotten out of his Toyota Jetta to change a flat tire and found himself in a war zone.

With Team 6 for back up, Chris and Ezra had confidently entered the dry cleaner’s store, which they knew to be a front for selling illegal handguns. Emil Sands, AKA Ezra Standish, had bought three handguns in the past six weeks. All the serial numbers had been altered and the barrels had been filed so that it was nearly impossible to get a match on ballistics testing. The worst part of the whole situation was that the guns were traced back to a shipment that was supposed to have been destroyed. The guns had been turned in as part of a ‘cash for firearms’ program in Kansas City. Josiah was trying to coordinate with the KCPD to figure out how the weapons ended up in Denver.

The man behind the counter looked up and smiled broadly. Emil had said he was bringing a friend who needed an untraceable piece for ‘target practice.’ The darkly clothed blond man looked suitably nervous as he scanned the rows of clothes hanging on the conveyors in the back.

“Mr. Lawson, allow me to present my good friend, Charles Elby. He’s the one needing the item we spoke of last week,” Ezra said smoothly as he sidled up to the counter and rested a hip against it. The smooth-talking undercover agent wore a broad, dimpled smile that put Guy Lawson at ease.

From under the counter, Lawson retrieved a shoebox. Under a handful of wadded up receipts was the small gun. Ezra leaned ever so slightly to look into the box before commenting.

“I believe everything is in order, Mr. Elby, if you have the agreed upon sum,” Ezra paused, counting slowly to ten in his head. He had given the signal and nothing happened.

Just as innocently as accidents happen, the situation went from smooth and controlled to wildly out of control. Lawson, seeing something in the hazel eyes of the blond man, reached beneath the counter and pulled a big, heavy 357 and leveled it at Chris. Ezra reacted with shocked indignation.

“Mr. Lawson, what in the world?”

The man behind the counter never took his eyes off of the blond. His hands nervously clenched around the gun and his finger trembled against the trigger guard. Edging toward the opening in the counter, Lawson gestured Ezra toward Chris.

“I don’t know if I should trust you or not, Emil, but your friend here reeks of cop,” Lawson hissed.

“Mr. Lawson, I assure you that Charlie here is no cop. He’s just nervous. It took me an hour to convince him to come here and now you go shoving an elephant gun in his face. He has the money, let him pay you for the box and we’ll be on our way,” Ezra charmed.

The door to the shop opened, the bell jangled and the whole world went directly to hell.

William Roth, thinking to call his wife and tell her that he would be late, entered the dry cleaners looking for a phone. He looked up in surprise as he was shoved against the wall. Chris heard the unmistakable sound of a gun clearing its holster and he dove for cover. The large, plate glass window in the front of the shop shattered in a spectacular display. The team leader found himself watching as the tiny shards of glass flew through the air and danced on the white, octagonal shaped tiles on the floor. He felt something hit him in the back and he rolled, bringing up the Glock as he moved.

On impulse, Ezra leapt through the shower of falling glass and dropped behind the remaining wall near a newspaper box. He had a fleeting thought that he hoped he would not be shot by one of the other team as they didn’t work with Team 6 as often as some of the others.


After lunch, Vin and JD went outside to play with the puppies. Mrs. Potter had made them chicken noodle soup and grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch. It was Vin’s favorite lunch because it reminded him of his mom. JD ran across the lawn until Elvis tripped him and he tumbled to the ground, laughing as the puppy stood with his paws on JD’s stomach and licked his face. Vin’s longer legs could still stay ahead of the gangly puppies and he made a large circuit of the yard with Ringo hot on his heels.


A bullet whizzed off of the concrete in front of his face and Chris rolled back through the doorway behind him. He caught a brief glimpse of Josiah as he popped up from behind the gray Plymouth parked at the meter in front of the building. He squeezed off another shot and squirmed to get to his knees behind a stainless steel machine, the purpose of which he could not begin to guess. For now, it was his cover and that was good enough for now.

Buck was pissed! From the surveillance van, he listened to the hail of bullets. Ezra was down in front of the building, pinned there by the crossfire. Josiah was trying to locate Chris in the building but every time he peeked over the trunk of the car, Lawson fired at him. Besides the 357, he also apparently had a 9mm, judging from the speed he was firing at them. Nathan and two of the agents from Team 6 were trying to get into the fire door on the back of the building. The ladies man cursed as he beat his fist against the wall of the van. He felt so helpless.

After making eye contact with Josiah, Ezra knew Chris was still pinned inside the store. From the reflection in the window of the Plymouth, he could see that Lawson was backed into a corner behind the cash register counter. The undercover agent looked over his shoulder and caught movement near the door. The sharpshooter from Team 6 indicated that it was the civilian and that he was trying to get out. Ezra squirmed around and tried to open the door from the outside. Josiah and the sharpshooter were laying down cover fire to keep Lawson from shooting the man.

The glass and steel frame door had a pneumatic closer on the top and was very hard to open while lying on the sidewalk trying to avoid being shot. Ezra grunted as he pried at the door with his fingertips. A bullet struck the door, shattering the glass and sending it onto the southerner like a sudden downpour. Ezra covered his head and tried to scoot away from the larger shards.

In back of the building, Nathan waited anxiously for the man to pick the lock on the fire door. He had heard the recent exchange of fire and the angry outburst from Buck as he looked on helplessly. The hiss and cursing that followed the door glass shattering had the team medic wishing this stand off would end, quickly. The lock finally succumbed to the pick and was ripped free of the hasp. It took a crowbar to open the door and the three agents conferred briefly before darting into the darkened storeroom area.


After running and playing for over an hour, JD slid into one of the chaise loungers and fell asleep with both Ringo and Elvis. Mrs. Potter draped a sheet over the chair to protect the fair complexioned child from sunburn. She leaned over the railing to see where Vin had gotten off to and noticed the boy draping himself over the middle rail of the corral as he watched the horses. Chris had told him that he couldn’t go near the horses without one of the adults and he obeyed. The last thing the blond waif wanted was to see a look of disappointment in his foster father’s eyes.

Chris Larabee had reached into a deep, dark place inside of the young Vin Tanner. The boy had already seen and experienced more in his brief sojourn on earth than some adults and it left the child somber. Under the loving care of the ATF agent, Vin had discovered that he could still be a boy. Relieved of the responsibility of caring for and protecting JD, the boy thrived. He enjoyed school and the chores he was given, working at everything with a single-minded determination to make his hero proud of him.


Under the cover of the darkness in the storage area, Nathan and the two agents crept forward. The smell of the chemicals stored in the small room was powerful and it burned their noses and made their eyes water. Tory found the door leading out of the storeroom and waived the others to her side. Although a tad on the short side at just over five feet tall, Tory Alison, the explosives expert for Team 6, was known as a powerhouse. What she lacked in bulk, she made up for in sheer spunk. Creeping out of the dark room, the woman crawled along the wall toward the front of the store. Nathan chose to move between the conveyors of clothing, knowing he didn’t have a sturdy cover, he was cautious.

The bell on the front door jangled, oddly loud in the brief pause in gunfire. Suddenly, Lawson popped up and began to fire at the hapless civilian. Ezra tried to pull the man to safety, only to be grazed by a 9mm bullet across his right forearm. Chris jumped up and squeezed off a shot. From the corner of his eye, he detected a slight movement and quickly dropped into a defensive crouch. He recognized Tory and signaled to her Lawson’s location.

When the bell on the front door rang a second time, Chris peered out from behind the machine he was pressed against. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing! Guy Lawson barreled across the front of the store and grabbed the civilian as a hostage. Resting his arm on the smooth top of the machine, Chris waited for a clear shot, when Lawson’s shoulder came into the clear, he fired. The hail of answering shots was furious and brief. When silence reigned, both Lawson and the hostage were dead.

By the time the clean up crew arrived, Ezra had been checked by the paramedics and had the graze on his arm bandaged. The CSI team was busy cataloging the location and caliber of the assorted spent casings that littered the small storefront property. DPD officers maintained the cordoned off area, keeping away spectators and the media.

Denny Cavanaugh, the crime scene lead investigator, interviewed each of the agents involved in the shooting. From the way the bodies had fallen, he had a pretty good idea of where the shot had come from that killed Lawson but he was confused as to who had fired the shot that killed the other man. He studied the entry and exit wounds and kept arriving at the same conclusion, a conclusion he didn’t want to reach. Looking up from where he knelt over the dead men, he found Agent Alison looking over his shoulder.

“Find anything interesting?” She asked. Unlike most of her peers, the female ones anyway, Tory was fascinated with the CSI investigators. The way they reconstructed accidents and murders to get at the truth was nothing short of miraculous in her mind.

“Just checking the trajectory of the bullets that struck the unfortunate customer. Where did you say you were standing when the final shots were fired?”

“I was right behind Agent Larabee. He was using that big machine to line up his shot. It was all over so quickly that I didn’t even see him pull the trigger,” she replied innocently.

Denny got up and walked around the end of the counter. He stepped carefully over the collection of spent brass casings that one of his team had marked in the doorway. While he studied the height of the machine, he rested his arm on the smooth stainless steel surface. The angle was perfect for the kill shot on Lawson. Unfortunately, it was also perfect for the shot that killed the customer. He sighed when he looked out the shattered window opening at the leader of Team 7.


Hearing the slam of a car door, JD’s eyes popped open and he rolled off the chaise, taking Elvis with him. He hit the deck running, eager to see his ‘Da’ and tell him about all the fun he and Vin had had while they were off working.

When the front door opened, Rain Jackson, not Chris or Buck came into the house.

Looking over from where he was coloring on the coffee table, Vin called out. “Hey, Aunt Rain! Come see the drawing I’m doing for Chris!”

“In a minute, Vin. I need to talk to Mrs. Potter for a couple of minutes. Why don’t you and JD play outside for a few minutes,” Rain coached.

“Okay.” Vin carefully replaced the crayon in the box and took JD by the shirtsleeve and led him from the house.

“But I just got in there, Vin! I didn’t even get to say hi to Aunt Rain,” the little brunet protested as he was dragged back out to the deck.

“Is something wrong, Mrs. Jackson?” Gloria asked as she cast a quick glance at the sliding door to make certain it had closed behind the boys.

“There was a big shoot out at the bust this morning. Everyone’s okay, but until the CSI unit finishes their investigation, the guys are going to have to hang around to answer questions. I didn’t want the boys to see it on the news or hear it on the radio. Can you stay this evening? If not, I’ll stay with the boys,” Rain offered.

“Do you think they will be long? I have plans with my daughter this evening.”

“It’s okay, you go ahead then, I’ll stay with the boys. Have they had supper?”

While Gloria explained the meal in progress on the stove, Vin and JD were plastered against the side of the house. JD turned wide eyes on Vin as the questions began to bubble up in his fertile little brain. Vin quickly silenced him before dragging him down the lawn toward the corral.


Orin Travis glared at the CSI detective with a mixture of rage and disbelief. He had followed the man through the entire scenario twice and still couldn’t believe what he was hearing. The inside of the small storefront was peppered with bullet holes and shell casings, how could the man be so certain which bullet had killed the customer?

The medical examiner had already removed the bodies and Travis found himself staring at the taped outlines on the floor. Pulling his handkerchief from his pocket, he wiped his face before turning to face the agents huddled around the surveillance van. They were all drinking canned sodas that one of the police officers had bought at a market up the block. Drawing a deep breath, he nodded to the CSI agent and walked away.

“Boys, we need to go back to the office and go over a few things while they’re still fresh in our minds. I’ll meet you there in fifteen minutes,” Travis announced.

“Aw, come on judge, can’t we do this tomorrow or Monday? Some of us have a life outside of work!” Buck protested. He wanted nothing more than to go home and hug his foster son.

One of the biggest surprises connected to the two orphans living at the Larabee ranch had been the complete change in Buck Wilmington. Once upon a time, the man hit on anything female. He had already dated almost every single woman in the secretarial pool and most of the single female agents in the building. He had a ‘little black book’ that rivaled the Denver telephone directory. But when JD came into his life, something changed. Gone was the man who would schedule two or three dates in an evening if he could get away with it, in his place was a man who would blow off a playboy bunny or supermodel if he had something to do with his foster son.

Buck had come to love the little dark-haired whirlwind with all of his heart. He couldn’t imagine his life without the child. Everything he did now affected JD and caused the big man to think carefully about the decisions he made for himself. Although he still went on dates, more and more often, they were with single moms and other kids. He felt like he had discovered a great, untapped resource for all things dealing with children. It was rare to find a day when he did not have a game token from the arcade in his pocket.

After getting a firm look from the judge, Buck’s shoulders slumped and he climbed into the driver’s seat of the surveillance van. When everyone was inside, he headed for the office. In the rear view mirror, he noticed that Chris seemed unusually somber. It had hit all of the men when they pulled the wallet from the dead man and found the photo of four children, which was part of the reason Buck wanted to get home so badly.


The team filed into the office and found Judge Travis already waiting for them. He motioned them into the conference room. When everyone was seated around the table, he began without preamble.

“This is a sticky situation. The CSI investigator feels that the civilian was killed by one of my agents. Until the investigation is complete, Teams 6 and 7 are on desk duty. You will all be questioned by someone from IA. I suggest that each of you take tomorrow to reconstruct the situation in your mind and write down as much as you can remember. I’ll see you here at 8AM on Monday morning. Chris, if I can have a word with you?”

The team leader followed Travis out of the conference room and through the bullpen to his own office. When the judge pulled up short in front of him just outside of the office, Chris froze in his tracks. Staring into the older man’s face, it was all so clear.

“They think I killed him?”

“The investigator said that from the trajectory and the positions of the other shooters that you’re the most likely candidate. They’re going to do a complete reconstruction of the incident and get back to me. Until their investigation clears you though, I’m going to have to ask for your weapon, Chris.”

It felt as if he had been slapped, Chris recoiled from the older man who stood patiently waiting for him to surrender his gun. Hearing the conference room door open, the blond man ripped the Glock from his shoulder holster and handed it to the judge before whirling around and walking into his office. The echo that the door made when it slammed rang loudly in spite of the sound dampening ceiling tiles installed overhead.

As Buck came up the hall, he saw Travis slip the 9mm into his belt under his jacket. The brilliant blue eyes fixed on the older man with a look of disbelief before he stepped past the man to get to Chris.

“You know I have to do it, Buck. You’ve both been through this before.”

“But you’ve never been where he is right now, have you?” Wilmington hissed before turning his back and slipping into the office. He paused and studied the bowed shoulders of his oldest friend. He couldn’t miss the drop of liquid that fell from Chris’s cheek. For several minutes, he only stood there watching, waiting for the other man to talk.

“What am I going to tell the boys?” Chris asked, his voice just above a whisper. “How am I going to tell them that I killed a man with four small children at home?”

“They don’t know for sure that you did it! Let them do their investigation. They’ll clear you. If you did hit him it was an accident! Hell, there was enough lead flying in that store to build a VW! It could have come from any one of us!”

“Not from you.”

“I didn’t want to be in the surveillance van! I would have been perfectly happy to be the buyer! You made the call!” Then Buck’s voice softened, “Come on, let’s go home.” He really didn’t want to hurt Chris or make him feel any more responsible for the debacle at the dry cleaning store.


Both boys had been bathed and were playing quietly in the living room when the Dodge pulled up in the driveway. Matching looks of excitement lit their faces as they jumped to their feet. As soon as the front door opened, both boys eagerly flung themselves into the arms of the arriving men. JD chattered a mile a minute, filling Buck in on every moment of the day that they had missed. Chris sank to his knees in the entry foyer, crushing Vin to his chest so that the boy wouldn’t see the naked emotion he was unable to hide.

“Da? What’s wrong with Chris?” JD asked.

“He’s just had a hard day, Little Bit. How about you and me head back to your room and read for a while and give them a chance to catch up?” Buck encouraged as he carried the small boy away.

Gripping Chris’s face between his small hands, Vin stared into the pain filled hazel eyes. ‘You’re home now,’ the look said softly. The child’s sky blue eyes blasted through the layers of pain and anguish and right on into the aching heart. Chris let go a sob and buried his face in Vin’s shoulder. The child, with a wisdom older than either of them together, simply stood and absorbed the emotional onslaught as he smoothed the wrinkles from the dark colored tee shirt.

After several minutes, the tight knot of overwrought emotions loosened and Larabee came to his feet, lifting Vin into his arms. He migrated slowly to the big recliner in the corner and slid into it with a heartfelt sigh. The little blond curled up and rested his head on his foster father’s chest, listening to the steady rhythm of his heartbeat. His little hand never stopped the soothing motion of stroking Chris’s collarbone and the side of his neck. With a gentle squeeze of the boy’s hip, the blond sniffed.

“I missed you today, kiddo,” he said softly.

“I know,” Vin answered.

“I had a really bad day.”

“It’s okay, you’re home now. Want some coffee? Aunt Rain made it a few minutes before you got home. I think Uncle Nathan must have called and told her you were coming.”

“Yeah, I’d like a cup of coffee. Can you get it or do you want my help?”

“I can get it, you just rest,” Vin said as he slid over the arm of the chair.

Chris pressed back into the recliner and tried not to let the day’s events parade through his mind. Instead, he concentrated on the bass rumble of Buck’s voice and the delighted giggles from JD. After a moment, he felt a warm mug pressed into his hand. Vin stood like a servant, waiting to see if his lord and master needed anything else. Then the older man held out his other arm and the child climbed happily into the chair and snuggled back into Chris’s arms.

That was where Buck found them an hour later. Pulling a quilt from the back of the couch, he covered them both. As he was easing the loafers off of Chris’s feet, he caught the hazel gaze. He smiled warmly as he finished his task.

“You want a pillow?”

“No. Thanks Buck. I needed this.”

“I know. Why do you think I asked to come home in the first place? More soothing than warm milk, aren’t they? See you in the morning.”

After Buck turned out all the lights and checked the doors and alarm system, he slipped into his room. Chris sat in the dark, afraid to close his eyes. He was afraid that he would have a nightmare and frighten the child in his lap. Eventually, exhaustion won and he slipped into a deep slumber.


A tiny hand closed on his fingers and Buck awoke suddenly. When his heart had receded to its proper place in his chest, he found his voice.

“What the matter, Little Bit?”

“Can I sleep with you? Vin’s sleeping in the chair with Chris and it’s too quiet in my room.”

Drawing back the blanket, Buck welcomed the child into the warm hollow and snuggled him tightly to his chest. He heard the tiny contented sigh as JD nuzzled into the crook of his arm.


Morning came and with it, the memory of the previous day’s events. Chris did his best to conceal the story from Vin. In truth, the child was only concerned that all of his ‘Uncles’ were safe and sound, the rest was just filler.

The phone rang about mid morning. Nathan wanted to know how they were feeling. During the course of reassuring the team medic, Chris invited him and Rain to come out to the ranch for the afternoon. He then called Josiah and Ezra and extended them the same invitation. Buck and JD volunteered to go to the grocery store to pick up what they would need for a real barbeque.

The Jacksons arrived with veggie and fruit trays. Josiah brought the fixings for chili. Ezra picked up drinks appropriate for the entire group. JD fell and picked up a splinter and had to have Buck to soothe him while Nathan removed it. Josiah nearly had a bonfire in the grill when he picked up the wrong bottle from the table to douse the flames. Chris and Vin spent most of the day at the barn, brushing and tending to the horses.

While JD was playing in the yard with the puppies, Nathan sat on the picnic bench next to Buck. He had been watching the team leader all day and knew that he was seriously upset by the turn of events. Resting his elbows back on the edge of the table, he quietly questioned Buck.

“How is he?”

“Hasn’t said a word all day.”

“How’s Vin taking that?”

“You know those two; they don’t need words to communicate. Kid’s been glued on tighter than his shadow all day. It’s like he knows something but he won’t tell until Chris tells him it’s okay.”

Just about that moment, Chris rode out of the barn on Pony with Vin in the saddle in front of him. Buck couldn’t contain the smile when he saw Vin tip his head back and smile at Chris. There were times when Vin innocently did things that reminded them both so much of Adam that it almost hurt. It was a good kind of hurt, the one that goes with fond feelings and good memories.

The cowboys returned just in time for the meal. JD seemed to sense that Vin and Chris needed their space and he didn’t push for the blond man’s attention. He did, however, monopolize everyone else at the table. Aunt Rain was the only one who could cut up his food properly and Uncle Nathan knew exactly how much salt was safe for the vegetables. Uncle Ezra had been kind enough to pick the seeds out of the watermelon they had shared while waiting for the food to finish cooking. Uncle Josiah knew how to butter the corn on the cob exactly right. When the food on his plate was prepared to perfection, JD had to sit on Buck’s lap to eat. Before half of the food on the plate was gone, he was asleep, draped over Buck’s arm.

Vin ate sparingly, casting glances at Chris to make sure he was eating. When the little Texan’s eyes began to close heavily, Chris slipped an arm around him and pulled him against his side. While the adults finished a leisurely meal, the two orphans dozed, safe in the arms of their guardians.


Monday morning, after the bus pulled away with the boys, Buck finally broached the subject that would be very much on the forefront of their minds for the next couple of days.

“Have you thought about what happened?”

“I’ve hardly thought of anything else,” Chris answered with a heavy sigh.


They reached the office with ten minutes to spare. Josiah had gotten there ahead of them and made coffee. He had also brought in a platter of cookies.

“From the look of this, I gather you couldn’t sleep last night either?” Buck asked as he picked up a cookie and dunked it into his coffee.

“Baking calms me,” the team profiler answered.

Ezra arrived a few minutes later with a Tupperware cake carrier. Without comment, he placed it in the center of the table and walked away. Curious, Chris opened the container and looked inside. It was filled with flaky, multi layered pastries. The icing had not been drizzled on but applied in a design.

When the southerner returned to the break room with his coffee cup and newspaper, Josiah asked, “Did you make these from scratch?”

“With the exception of the boysenberry filling, the store owner said it’s too early in the season for them. The strawberries weren’t the best but they were all the man had and I didn’t want to wake another shopkeeper to search for better quality fruit.”

“You got some poor soul out of bed to buy fruit to make pastries in the middle of the night?” Buck asked incredulously.

“Of course, what would be the point of making the pastries if I was going to use store bought preserves in them,” Ezra replied as if it were the most normal thing in the world.

“You made these, fruit filling and all, from scratch in your kitchen during the night?” Chris asked as he picked up a pastry.

“I was undercover once in a school for French pastry chefs in Atlanta. I learned a good deal more than who was plotting to kill the mayor of that fair metropolis.”

Nathan was the last to arrive. He entered the break room and filled his coffee cup.

“The judge is in the conference room, he came up in the elevator with me,” the medic explained as he looked over the assortment on the table.

“Couldn’t sleep, Josiah?”

“Don’t only look at me, Nathan, that delicacy in your hand was made by Brother Standish.”

With only a raised eyebrow, the medic shook his head. The southerner never ceased to amaze him. After taking another pastry and a couple of Josiah’s oatmeal raisin cookies, he headed for the conference room.


After a brief talk with Travis, each man retired to his computer to put the events at the dry cleaner’s into words. Chris had called the switchboard and asked that only urgent calls be put through. The men took only a short break for lunch. When they got back, Chris was surprised to find Nettie Wells waiting for him in his office.

“What can I do for you, Mrs. Wells?”

“There isn’t any easy way to say this, Chris, so I’ll just spit it out. I have to remove Vin from your home until the investigation is concluded.”


The diminutive woman blanched at the rage in the hazel eyes that threatened to burn a hole in her. She tightened her grip on her satchel and took a deep breath.

“I’m sure it’s only temporary, just until this shooting mess is cleared up. It’s only because you are directly under investigation. You have to understand that I don’t want to do this to you or to Vin. It’s a state law, my hands are tied.”

“You can’t. Nettie, please, don’t take him away! He’s just starting to open up, to be a kid!”

“I’m sorry, Chris. I’ll be there this afternoon when he gets home from school. You can help him pack his things. I’ll try to keep him in the area if possible.”

“If possible? You don’t even know where he’s going? How can you do that? You know he can’t be away from JD! It’ll kill him! Nettie, please!”

To end the pleading, Nettie Wells came to her feet and rested her hand on the doorknob.

“Will you be there when I pick him up?” Her blue eyes were hard and her heart was hammering in her chest like a heard of buffalo.

“Yes.” Chris answered meekly as he lowered his head to his forearm and let go the great, gut wrenching sobs. He never even heard the door close.

Seeing Buck coming out of the conference room, the caseworker called to him, “Mr. Wilmington, may I have a word?”

Terror, shear unadulterated, pure, perfect terror washed over Buck Wilmington as he listened to the pain-filled sobbing coming from the team leader’s office. His knees felt like Silly Putty as he pushed away from the desk and tried to stand. Like a man walking to a firing squad, he followed the older woman into the conference room and closed the door behind him.

“God have mercy on them,” Ezra whispered.

“Amen,” Josiah intoned softly.

Nettie took a seat at the side of the table and gestured Buck into one across from her. She didn’t miss the tremor in the big man’s hands as he laced his fingers together on the table in front of him. Every line of his face was anguished and tears welled up in his eyes. His breath was catching and his shoulders were rising and falling with each shuddering breath. Nettie took a breath to begin.

“Please don’t take JD away from me. Please, Mrs. Wells. I love that boy! I’d sooner cut off my right arm than have you take him away! Please?” Buck Wilmington was not a man accustomed to begging. And yet, to keep the boy he had grown to love, he would grovel on the floor before this woman if that was what it took.

“I was going to explain to you what’s happening. Someone in my office got wind of the investigation. I don’t know how they found out, but they know that Cavanaugh thinks Chris killed that man. I don’t want to have to remove Vin, I have to. There is no reason to remove JD if you’re willing to move away from the ranch with him until this mess is straightened out.”

“M-move … out of the ranch? I’d live on the moon if you wanted me to, Mrs. Wells. Can I keep Vin too?” Hope fleetingly danced in his eyes before the woman snatched it away.

“I’m sorry, Buck. You aren’t an approved foster parent. You and Chris applied for temporary guardianship of the boys. I’m going out on a limb leaving JD with you as it is. You remember, I explained the difference to you both.”

“Yeah, but that was about getting paid for keeping them. We don’t care about the money; we just want to keep the boys. Please, Nettie, can’t you pull some strings? Please don’t separate the boys.”

“I’m sorry, Buck. I told Chris, I’d pick Vin up when he gets home from school. You and JD can be there to say goodbye. I’ll try to arrange visits for JD to see Vin but I have no legal standing to get you visitation with him. It’s only temporary, until the situation with Chris is resolved.”

Buck nodded, he couldn’t get his voice to work around the knot in his throat. When Nettie closed the door, he lowered his head onto his arms and cried. JD would be devastated that Vin was being taken away. Without realizing it, Buck’s clenched fist slid out from under his head and began to beat on the tabletop, harder and harder.

The bullpen was as quiet as a tomb. Ezra sat, surreptitiously wiping away the tears that pooled in his green eyes. Josiah had such a tight grip on the rosary in his hand that the tiny cut glass beads were leaving a bloody print in his hand. Nathan looked at the picture on the corner of his desk before coming to his feet and heading for the elevator lobby.

He missed the elevator and took the stairs to the main floor. When the doors opened, Nettie jumped away from the man standing in the opening. Nathan rested his hand on the sensor that held the doors open and studied the woman. He had only met her a few times over the course of helping his friends get custody of the boys. She was a petite woman with steely blue eyes.

“Can I help you with something Agent Jackson?” She asked with all the courage she possessed.

“M-my wife and I are licensed foster parents. We’d be glad to take Vin.”

“That’s a very generous offer, Agent Jackson. I’m sure you understand how awkward it would be for you to have custody of the boy your boss is so emotionally invested in.”

“Rain and I are invested in that boy too, Ma’am. I’ll be sleeping in the garage if I don’t do my best to bring him home with me. We don’t have any other kids in the house right now. Please?”

He felt the icy blue eyes brush over him and resisted the urge to shudder. It didn’t matter that he hadn’t even spoken to Rain; he knew that she would take the boy in a heartbeat. It would be hard, but it was only temporary.

“Very well, Agent Jackson. I will go to the office and prepare the necessary paperwork. You must understand that this will be like any other placement. No unsupervised visits, he cannot see Mr. Larabee unless I am present. Are you prepared to tell them that they cannot see one another?”

“It’s only temporary, Ma’am. We’re going to straighten this mess out and clear Chris, then he can have the boy back.”

“If the judge decides that it’s in Vin’s best interest. You know that the custody thing was supposed to be temporary. I’ll recommend that he be returned, but it’s ultimately up to the judge.”


Sitting at his desk, Chris tried to regain control of his emotions. He jumped to his feet and headed for the men’s room. Josiah followed at a discrete distance. He stood and watched as Chris battered the door of the stall at the end of the row. Blow after blow struck the metal door. When the first droplets of blood appeared, he stepped in and put his arms around the distraught man.

“Why, Josiah, why? She’s taking him away! It isn’t fair!”

Holding the devastated man against his chest, the older man rocked him gently. When the tremors eased and the breathing evened out, Josiah loosened his hold. Staring into the hazel eyes, he nodded encouragingly. “Let’s get you cleaned up and get you home.”

At his words, Chris’s knees folded. Josiah lowered him to the floor. The words were garbled through the sobs.

“I can’t do this to him, Josiah. I can’t let her take him away! It’ll kill him. Oh God, Vin.”

“We’ll get through this; I promise you that God won’t give either of you more than you can bear. You just have to trust that this is only temporary.”


The conference room door opened and someone came in but Buck didn’t bother to lift his head from the table. His heart was too heavy. His new home and happy family was disintegrating and he was helpless to stop it.

“Do you feel like talking?” Ezra asked as he sat down next to Buck.

“She’s going to take Vin away from us. She’ll let JD see him but not me. Oh God, Ezra, how is JD going to take this? Vin’s been with him ever since he lost his mother. This has got to be killing Chris. She said I have to leave the ranch if I wanted to keep JD with me at all. I can’t even be there for him!”

“We won’t let him go through this alone. You and JD are welcome to stay at my condo. I have more than enough room and it’s familiar to the lad. It should help to reduce the trauma.”

Looking up from the tabletop, Buck tossed a grateful smile at the southerner. He offered his hand and received a hug instead. The air lightened perceptively and the two men sat in a companionable silence. For the next half hour, they planned a smooth transition from the ranch to the condo. They left the conference room just as Josiah brought Chris out of the locker room. Their eyes met and they slammed into each other. Buck crushed Chris to his chest as he murmured apology after apology into the blond man’s ear. Josiah rested a hand on Buck’s shoulder.

“If you’re going to arrive at the ranch ahead of the boys, you should be going.”

The two men looked up and nodded.

“I’d like all of you there. Vin needs to see all of you before he goes. JD will need all of us,” the team leader said despondently.

“Chris, I guess now is as good a time as any, I have to take JD and leave the ranch or she’ll take him too. I’m going to stay with Ezra at the condo until it’s all over.”

As the pain washed over him, Chris only nodded. Drawing a deep, shaky breath, he headed for his office to get his keys and cell phone. At the elevator lobby, he did a headcount. “Where’s Nathan?”

“He left a little while ago and didn’t say a word,” Josiah answered.