Not a Love Story

by JIN

Disclaimer: I don’t own or profit from the boys, etc, etc, etc.

Comments: Don’t worry. As the title states, this is not a love story. Vin and I do not do love stories. It is however, an ATF story with a little violence and cursing and a few hurt feelings thrown in for good measure.

Universe: ATF

Main Characters: Vin, Chris

He was not in love. That was ridiculous. He didn’t do love.

Just because he thought about her all the time, didn’t mean he loved her. Vin knew better than that.

And it wasn’t what Buck said, either. He really didn’t do crushes . . . made him sound like some stupid school boy. He’d never had a crush in his life and he sure wasn’t starting now.

He just liked donuts - that was all. Not that he liked them any more than the next guy; well, maybe a little more. Maybe he did get one every morning. Maybe his whole day felt wrong if he couldn’t stop for coffee and a donut on his way in.

And maybe he had taken the woman behind the counter out a few times. Maybe he did think about her a lot. Maybe he caught himself stupidly grinning now and then.

It didn’t mean anything. He had too much – what was the word for it? Oh yeah, baggage. He had too much baggage to get involved with anyone. He’d had one screwed up life, and he had no illusions how screwed up he was because of it.

The only person he knew who was more screwed up than him was Chris and heaven knew, Larabee had a reason to be a total mess. Talk about baggage.

Of course, Josiah had his moments. No one knew for sure why, but he definitely had some issues packed away in his own baggage.

And Ezra. Standish was just completely beyond understanding, as far as Vin was concerned. He liked the man and respected him, but even his baggage was first class and out of Vin’s league.

The others guys were pretty normal, though, which probably explained why Nathan had Rain, and JD had Casey, and Buck had anybody he wanted.

And besides, Vin was a sniper, for crying out loud. He had no business getting serious. Not that he was serious. He just liked her - that was all.

He did not do love.

+ + + + + + +

“You’re thinking awful hard there, Pard,” Chris said with a knowing grin.

Vin drew his brows together and argued, “Am not.”

Chris sat on the edge of his best friend’s desk, his lips still tilted in a soft smile as he studied Vin. “You’ve been staring at that same screen for a long time now.”

“Ever occur to you I might be working?” Vin asked defensively.

Chris squinted his eyes and twisted his body around to see just exactly what Vin was working on. “Forget your password?” he teased when he saw that the Texan had not even managed to log on yet.

With a furious blush, Vin looked away and busily typed in his password.

“It’s okay, Vin,” Chris spoke calmly. “You’re allowed to think of things outside this office – outside of your job.”

Vin shook his head. “Don’t need anything outside of this job.”

“That’s not true. Don’t make that mistake. You’re too young to let this be your entire life,” Chris advised.

Vin scoffed. “Look who’s talkin’.”

“It’s different for me and you know it,” Chris replied.

Lowering his head as he winced, Vin muttered, “Shit Chris, I’m sorry.”

Larabee reached over to grip his friend’s shoulder. “Don’t worry about it, Vin.” He paused then before asking what he really wanted to know. “So . . . what’s her name?”

Working in close quarters like they did, it was difficult to keep secrets from the other men. It didn’t take a detective to figure out that Vin was seeing “the donut girl”, as Buck had christened her, and that he liked her, maybe more than liked her.

With a long suffering sigh, Vin responded, “Ava. Now will you let me get to work?”

Chuckling, Chris headed back to his office. He’d never seen the young woman, but Buck seemed to think she was alright. Larabee had barely resisted the urge to have her officially checked out. Hell, it was so rare that Tanner was interested in someone, that Chris was “a mite worried”, to quote Buck. Of course, if the woman hurt the team’s sniper, the blond would have to stand in line to get a piece of her.

+ + + + + + +

Ava Roberts worked two jobs and went to school.

And she was sick and tired of it. There had to be a way out. With an exasperated sigh, the pretty brunette tied back her hair and put on her apron, and went to work . . . at a donut shop, of all places.

She was meant to do so much more than this, to be so much more than this. And one day she would be. That day couldn’t come soon enough, she thought as she plastered a phony grin on her face and asked brightly, “Can I help you?”

The harried mother shifted one fidgety little boy in her arms while a slightly larger version hopped up and down on the floor with much too much energy for the early hour, before finally pressing his snotty nose against the glass of the display case.

“Well, sweetheart, which one do you want?” the mom asked with what had to be exaggerated patience. Ava was sure no one could be that content with two bratty kids hanging all over her.

“I dunno.”

He never knew. Forget the fact that this same mom and her same two kids came to this same shop once a week for months and months, peering over the same selection of the same sugary, fat laden, carb-filled substitutes for a real breakfast that lined the case every single day of every single week . . . they still never knew. They still acted like it was a new and different experience.

Ava really needed to get out of there.

The kid picked the chocolate on chocolate. Just like he always did. Mom smiled and cooed like the kid had chosen some profound, life-altering course. The woman had to be on some pretty decent drugs.

“There you go. Enjoy it, Sweetie,” Ava gushed, hating herself for stooping to this level as a means of improving her lot in life.

There had to be a better way. Four more hours of donut duty, two classes, then off to the bar for the evening shift. At least she made good money tending bar – lonely men plus pretty young woman added up to mighty good tips, when she was in a mood to indulge them a bit. And lately, she’d go pretty damn far if it would get her where she wanted to go.

Of course, she’d met the best guy at the donut shop, to her utter amazement. Vin was about as cute as they came, and his sweet, considerate manner turned out to be genuine.

She didn’t believe it at first. She figured the quiet ATF agent was too good to be true, and she flirted with him on a whim, more out of curiosity than anything else. No one could be that unassuming and caring and downright chivalrous. Vin not only held the door open for every Tom, Dick and Henrietta that entered the shop, he actually picked up the snotty-nosed kids and held them over the counter so they could get a better look. He probably was a regular Robin Hood, too, giving everything he had to the poor.

But she hoped not.

Vin was a good-looking man with a good heart and, most importantly, a good job. He could be her ticket out.

+ + + + + + +

It was stupid. He was stupid. They were planning a big bust and all he could think about was his date.

Buck said it was a real fine restaurant. “She’ll be real impressed,” he told Vin.

Not that Vin was looking to impress Ava. Not that he was worried about impressions and perceptions and . . . what the hell was he supposed to wear?

“Vin? You got that?”

Shit. He needed to pay attention or he’d find himself in Chris’s office. That wasn’t so bad – he’d been head to head with their fearless leader before, but he sure didn’t want to explain to the man why he couldn’t seem to keep his damn head out of the clouds.

“Yeah, I got it.” How hard could it be anyway? Same old scenario: gun runners, warehouse, he’d take the high point, watch their backs, clean up, go home.

Go on a date. He didn’t even know how to act in some fancy restaurant. And he didn’t mind spending the money, but he couldn’t help thinking it would buy a family in his neighborhood groceries for a few days, at least. That didn’t seem quite right.

“Vin, my office.”

Aw hell, he’d been made. He should’ve known he couldn’t keep anything from Chris.

He played innocent as he walked through the doors and eased into the chair across from his best friend’s desk. “Yeah?”

Chris sat on the corner of his desk and peered at Vin for what seemed like hours, and Vin shifted uncomfortably under the scrutiny. He was about to scream for Chris to just get on with it when the blond finally spoke up. “Need your feet on the ground and your head on the job for this, Vin.”

Offended now, Vin replied, “You ever known me not to have my head on the job?”

Chris shook his head. “Never.”

“Well then, I don’t reckon there’s a need for this conversation,” Vin said as he rose to leave.

But Chris gripped his shoulder and pushed him back into the seat. “Hold on, Vin. We’re not through yet. You’ve got other things on your mind this time, and we both know it. So we’re gonna talk it through, because lives are at stake and I’m making damn sure before we go in that you’re where you need to be.”

This was why Larabee was the boss. Nothing got past him. Or maybe it was just Vin he could see clear through.

Vin sighed. “Alright. Talk.”

“It’s you that needs to talk, Pard. What’s got you so distracted? Or is it who has got you so distracted?”

A deep frown scored the younger man’s face as he stood abruptly and began to pace the width of the room. “Shoulda never got myself in t’ this. Don’t know what I was thinkin’.”

“Love kind of works that way. Blindsides you sometimes,” Chris said, his eyes softening when he noted the misery on his friend’s face.

Vin stopped and turned to his friend in shock. “Love? Hell, don’t even say that! I ain’t in love. That would be stupid. I’m just nervous because I said I’d take her to this fancy place where I don’t belong and I don’t know what the hell I was thinkin’. Love don’t have a thing t’ do with it.”

Well, it didn’t. It really didn’t. It couldn’t. Just because he’d never quite felt this way didn’t mean he loved her. Vin sat back down, propped his elbows on his knees, lowered his head in his hands and groaned.

“Oh God, Chris, this is pure torture. How do I get out of it?”

With a low chuckle, Chris responded, “Sounds like it might be too late for that, Vin. Might be better to go with it. Quit fighting it and see what happens. In the meantime, be yourself. You don’t have to take her places you’re not comfortable going to. If she cares for you, she won’t mind.”

“Too late this time around. She’s already excited about it. And you know I’m not goin’ back on my word.”

“Of course not,” Larabee said with a smile.

“And you know I’ll be there for you and the boys. I’d never let you down,” Vin added, his eyes locking on the blond’s to confirm his promise.

“I know that, too. But sometimes it’s hard to separate our personal lives from our professional ones. Sometimes emotions get the best of us. I’m just reminding you to work it all out before you go in to that warehouse this afternoon.”

“Got it,” Vin responded as he rose and headed for the door.

“Hey, Vin? What’s she like?”

Turning back to face his friend, the lean Texan answered with a shrug, “She’s smart and she works real hard. Can be kinda stubborn now and then. And she’s good t’ little kids. A lot like you, now that I think on it.”

Chris shook his head as he grinned. “No wonder you’re smitten.”

“Ain’t smitten. Ain’t in love. Just stupid is all,” Vin mumbled as he exited the room.

+ + + + + + +

True to his word, Vin put aside his personal apprehension and performed like the professional he was. Chris wondered why he’d ever doubted his best friend when he witnessed the incredible shooting that once again saved their necks.

Vin was nothing short of amazing when he had to be, although Chris had been hoping he wouldn’t have to be this time around. It should have been simple. It should have been a simple take down, take them in, round up the evidence and leave. But the criminals had a few surprises up their sleeves, namely two well-placed snipers of their own. A fierce gun battle had ensued, with bullets flying from all directions.

Chris really didn’t have time to be nervous when he saw Vin sprint along the catwalk like he was taking a casual stroll through a meadow. He didn’t have time to worry when Tanner took aim and took out first one sniper and then the other. It was all over then, as the team leader and his five partners on the ground easily overtook the remaining four gun runners.

In fact, it didn’t occur to the blond to get anxious at all until Vin climbed down from his perch and approached the group on the warehouse floor. It was then that Larabee noted the look of hatred and promised retribution that one of the criminals aimed straight at Vin.

It was part of the job. They all made enemies and were so used to threats that they rarely wasted time listening, let alone worrying over them. But this particular group was part of a much larger circle, and they were well-connected with deep pockets. Vin had killed two of their men, and it was apparent that it didn’t sit well with at least one of the remaining criminals.

Chris tried to remember if any of them had let Vin’s name slip. Had he called out to the Texan as he made his way down? He thought not, but the nagging seed of doubt and worry was planted.

But Tanner clearly had other things on his mind as he glanced nervously at his watch. Obviously, Vin was more confident balancing a narrow beam with a high powered rifle in his hands than slapping on a tie and sitting down to a linen tablecloth laden with three sets of silverware and crystal stemware.

“Why don’t you go on, Vin. We can finish up here,” Chris offered.

Tanner shook his head. “I can help. I got time.”

“You need to get dressed, Vin. Remember what I told you about the shirt and the jacket?” Josiah asked.

“Good Lord, Vin! You took fashion advice from Josiah?” Ezra scolded. “Well, as long as you remember what I’ve instructed you regarding the wine,” Standish added with an annoyed huff.

Vin was looking pale and a little clammy and Chris could have sworn his hands shook as he gripped his weapon a bit tighter and nodded.

“Let her order whatever she wants, Vin. Girls like that. You try and push them around and it backfires on you.” Even JD knew more about dating it seemed.

“Remember to tell her how she beautiful she looks. That’s the most important thing of all, Vin. Treat her like a princess and you’ll have her eatin’ out of your hands.” Buck would definitely know a thing or two about women eating out of his hands . . . and any other part of his anatomy.

Nathan rolled his eyes. “Don’t listen to any of ‘em, Vin. You just be yourself. If she can’t see and appreciate you for what you are, she ain’t worth your trouble.”

Chris gave an approving nod to Jackson before turning back to his best friend. “Go on and have a nice evening,” he said. He kind of wished at that moment that men were more like women, because if they were, he could have added, “And call me the minute you get home.” But he didn’t say it. He just gave Vin a quick wave and went back to work, pushing aside that niggling worry that sat in the back of his brain.

+ + + + + + +

It was kind of cute, kind of endearing, really, the way he nervously eyeballed the table setting and kept adjusting his tie. And it felt good – really, really good, the way all the heads, male and female, turned when they walked through the maze of tables. Vin looked great, even if he didn’t seem to catch on, and Ava enjoyed the envious looks shot in her direction.

She’d been elated when Vin suggested this place. Elated and more than a little surprised. So far, their dates had consisted of action movies and walks in the park. It concerned her that maybe Vin didn’t like to spend money, or worse yet, didn’t have any to spend. Maybe he was supporting two or three kids somewhere. Most of the men she’d met seemed to be in that sinking ship; forking out cash for kids they rarely spent time with.

Vin didn’t seem to be the type, though. He didn’t seem to be the type for places like this, either, and it was pretty obvious he was uncomfortable in the upper class setting. But at the moment, Ava didn’t particularly care. She was born for fine dining, even if her circumstances hadn’t quite caught up to that fact yet, and she’d enjoy this evening while it lasted.

“So how was your day?” she asked with a glittering smile. She knew by the way he sucked in a breath that she didn’t look so bad herself. The red dress and the new haircut were worth the price.

“It was . . . okay,” he stammered.

“What do you do, exactly?” she asked. Vin never talked about himself, and other than knowing he worked for an ATF team, she had no idea what he actually did. She couldn’t see him as a paper pusher – more like an undercover type. That would be exciting and definitely add points in his favor.

“Well, I . . . um . . . I shoot.”


“People?” Is that what he meant? What else could he mean? Was that an actual position? They paid people to shoot other people?

Vin was distinctly uncomfortable now, blushing and loosening his tie like he was about to pass out. “I can’t really talk about it,” he mumbled.

No, if he really went around shooting people, Ava supposed it would be best if she didn’t know about it. But it certainly added to the intrigue. Quiet, gentle, bordering on boring Vin was a sniper? That put a whole new spin on the relationship, she had to admit.

She spent the rest of the evening talking about her plans instead. With a little luck and hard work, next year at this time she’d be in law school. Vin’s head shot up at that. He knew she was in school, but he didn’t know what she was studying for. She couldn’t tell by his expression if he was impressed or intimidated, but it didn’t matter. Nothing and no one could change her mind.

He relaxed a little after that, or maybe it was the expensive wine he’d ordered. That surprised her, too, that he had the slightest clue what to order. Vin Tanner had been full of surprises all evening. She’d actually been thinking of ending the relationship after dinner – convinced the young man couldn’t help her get where she needed to go – but maybe she’d stick around. Maybe there was a lot more to the Texan than she’d first realized.

“So how about we go somewhere a little more private?” she hinted. And when he didn’t immediately take the bait, she dropped the subtle approach. “Your place or mine?”

He was furiously blushing now and practically ripping the tie off his throat as he stammered, “What? I mean . . . are you . . . are you sure?”

She slipped her hand over his, “I’m not a teenager, Vin, and neither are you. My place is close by.”

+ + + + + + +

Had he really said he shoots? What kind of answer was that? Oh yeah - a stupid one.

The bust that afternoon must have bothered him more than he thought. In spite of his reputation and his skill, he really didn’t take killing men lightly. Of course, normally he’d be kicking back and sharing a few beers with Chris about now, restoring his balance with a friend who knew and understood.

Instead, he was dressed up in starchy, uncomfortable clothes trying to be someone and something he wasn’t, and the worst of it was that it was his idea.

What the hell had happened to him? How did he become this gawking, awkward, ignorant idiot? Vin felt like someone had placed a spell over him. Or maybe he’d hit his head harder than he thought when he took that fall in the bust last month.

It was ridiculous. He was blushing like he was seventeen.

He was a sniper, for God’s sake. And a good one. An ATF agent. An adult. Confident and competent. But hell, this woman reduced him to a quivering teenager.

He couldn’t even look at her without getting damn near breathless. Then again, who could blame him? Every single eye in the place was on her when they walked to their table. She’d had her hair done a little different and that dress . . . he loved red. It made her green eyes sparkle and showed off her figure and Lord, his mind was going in directions it hadn’t been to in far too long.

Maybe that was the problem. Maybe his hormones were sick of being ignored and he just needed to be with a woman and get it over with.

Or maybe, he really liked her. Ava was different than most of the other women he knew. She was so smart and sure of what she wanted, and she didn’t play games. He felt different when he was with her; even being in expensive restaurants ordering food he’d never heard of wasn’t so terrible when she was sitting across from him.

It was a damn good thing he didn’t believe in love.

And then she went and suggested they go to his place. He figured it was all over then. One look at his apartment in Purgatorio and she’d run so fast his head would spin. Thank goodness her place was nearby, or he would have been forced to come up with an excuse.

It nagged him for a second that that thought had crossed his mind. He normally didn’t play games, either, preferring to be honest and straightforward. But then she had him by the hand and he couldn’t remember what the problem was.

She was the most beautiful woman for miles around. She was going to be a lawyer. She was so out of his league.

Good thing he didn’t do love.

+ + + + + + +

Chris was happy for Vin.

Really, really happy. It was great that Vin had found someone to spend time with. In fact, Tanner practically glowed.

He glowed so much that it had Chris completely unnerved. And that niggling worry just wouldn’t let loose.

Sometimes, he had trouble sleeping at night just thinking about it, which was totally ridiculous and completely unnecessary.

There had been no fall-out from the bust two weeks before. No threats, no signs that it was anything but over, at least until the trial began.

And he certainly didn’t need to worry about Vin’s new love interest. He hadn’t met her yet – only Buck had, and that bothered him some. But it really wasn’t something to worry about.

Vin had changed some; dressed a little nicer, combed his hair, started listening to Buck. Okay, so maybe there was some reason to worry.

But all in all, things were good. Vin was happy. There was absolutely no reason to keep an eye on Tanner.

Which was precisely why Chris stood up from his desk and moved swiftly across the room to peek out the window into the outer office. Just as he figured, Vin sat at his desk, working feverishly on his latest report. The other men were there, too, with the exception of Ezra who had taken a few days off. He could hear their good-natured banter through the door; could see by their grins and relaxed posture that it was a good day.

Nothing to worry about.

Except Vin had written him a note the other day and made the‘s’ backwards. It had been ages since Tanner had made that mistake. It was nothing more than an indication that his best friend was more distracted than usual, but in their profession, distraction could be deadly. He thought about calling Vin’s attention to it, but it would only embarrass the man. And it was only one letter on one note . . . nothing to get excited over, nothing to worry about.

But then there was the way Vin talked. Chris hadn’t heard his friend say “reckon” in weeks. It was like Tanner was consciously watching every word. Vin did that sometimes, worried that he sounded like a country hick and tried to hide his drawl just a bit – but not like this.

Or maybe it was how Vin’s ears perked up when JD started talking about what was ‘in’ and what wasn’t, or when Ezra made mention of some cultural event. Vin never cared about those things before, and Chris couldn’t really believe he cared about them now. After all, Tanner was the most grounded, down-to-earth man he knew. Nothing could change that, or rather no one could change that.

Or could she?

It hit him then, like the proverbial ton of bricks – Vin was reinventing himself. Trying to be something he wasn’t for this woman. That was so unVin-like that Chris had let himself believe it wasn’t happening.

It wouldn’t work. And Vin would be the one to suffer the fool.

And Chris still couldn’t get the look that gun runner gave Vin out of his head.

He stole another peek at his friend through the glass. He’d have to keep a close eye on Tanner.

There was just so much to worry about.

+ + + + + + +

If Ava could get more nights on at the bar, she could give up the donut job. But that wasn’t likely to happen. She was pretty well stuck for the time being, unless she found herself a rich guy, which wasn’t looking real promising, either.

Vin was a nice distraction, she had to admit. But she was beginning to get the idea that not only did he not have any money, he didn’t really care about ever having any. He hadn’t even invited her to his apartment which, from her experience, meant he had something to hide.

The guy at the end of the bar was waving her over. Now there was a looker . . . well-groomed, perfect smile, designer shirt. Ava tossed her hair over her shoulder and pasted on her best smile.

“I don’t recall seeing you here before,” she said as she took his order.

“Yes, well, I don’t normally frequent this type of establishment. However, I had some unencumbered time on my hands and found myself in the vicinity.”

His voice was like silk. His fingernails were manicured. She snuck a glance at his ring finger. Either he wasn’t married, or pretending he wasn’t. Either one would do.

She made a point of brushing his fingers as she handed him his drink. “What’s your name?”

He paused and looked her in the eye; weighing what he saw and apparently approving because he answered, “Ethan.”

Even his name sounded classy, she thought. It was more habit than anything to give him her “bar” name. She’d gone by a different name since she started working there to keep away the jerks. This guy clearly wasn’t a jerk, but it wasn’t in her nature to get careless. “I’m Lisa.”

She could have sworn she saw a momentary note of surprise in his jade eyes, but decided she must have imagined it when he merely nodded and said, “It’s a pleasure to meet a woman of your obvious charms in such an unlikely setting.”

She knew it was going to be a good night when he pulled out his fat wallet and gave her a twenty dollar tip.

Now here was a man who understood money.

Maybe she should break that date with Vin and stick around late tonight.

+ + + + + + +

Vin couldn’t look at himself in the mirror. Not that he particularly enjoyed looking at himself to begin with, but not looking because you didn’t care how you looked and not looking because you couldn’t stand to see yourself were two different things.

Aw hell, he was so screwed up. He had no business having a relationship. No, it wasn’t a relationship. That would imply there were feelings involved; serious, love-type feelings, which of course, he didn’t have.

Damn, he was really, really screwed.

And really, really stupid.

But then, that was no surprise. He was clueless when it came to women. It had taken him months to live down the Charlotte debacle. He cringed just thinking of it. He’d been attracted to the young, unhappily married woman because she needed him. Or he thought she did. It turned out he was way off about her, and even farther off about her and him together.

That was precisely why he didn’t do the love thing.

Then he met Ava, and he was immediately attracted to her because she was the opposite of Charlotte - independent and strong and honest.

Honest. Something he hadn’t been since the beginning. No wonder he couldn’t look himself in the mirror. He’d been acting like something and someone he wasn’t because he figured if she knew the truth – knew who he really was, she wouldn’t be interested anymore.

Now why should he care so much? She was just a woman. Except that when she reached out for his hand or whispered in his ear or took him back to her place . . . Lord, the blood rushed to his head just thinking about it. He must be lonelier than he’d thought.

Either that or he really liked her.

Okay. So maybe that was it. And maybe she liked him, too. Maybe he hadn’t been fair to her. Sure she liked nice things and nice places like most women did, but maybe she’d be just as happy to sit with him on a mountain top at sundown. Maybe she wouldn’t care that he lived in the worst part of town in a run-down apartment building.

Or maybe, she only liked the man he was pretending to be.

Vin groaned as he plopped down on the edge of his bed. There was no way he could continue this charade. It wasn’t fair to her. Ava deserved better.

He’d have to come clean and the sooner the better.

Ava had called earlier and said she was going to stay on and work the late shift. He’d never bothered her at her other job, but maybe she wouldn’t mind if he just had a drink and waited for her to get off.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra had a hunch.

Standish normally bent over backwards not to get involved in his cohorts’ personal lives, but this time there was something off with Mr. Tanner’s new paramour. And Vin, of all of them, least deserved to have his heart trampled on.

He couldn’t explain it, especially since he’d never met the young woman. And he couldn’t explain his reaction to Vin’s sudden desire to alter himself. Certainly, Ezra should be overjoyed that his friend had finally embarked on a self-improvement course.

Yet, he was not only unimpressed with Vin’s efforts, he was . . . worried.

When it came right down to it, he liked the uncouth, unkempt Texan just as he was. Any woman worth a grain of salt would easily see what kind of man Vin was and surely appreciate the gem hidden in the rough.

But Ezra had a hunch that Miss Ava not only didn’t appreciate Tanner, she was more than likely using him for some unsavory purpose.

The bar she reportedly worked at was not one of his usual haunts. In fact, he had to steel himself to enter through the battered, chipped doors. Once inside, he quickly and hopefully, inconspicuously, made his way to a seat at the end of the bar. The pretty bartender took note immediately, and when she turned flashing green eyes his way, Ezra was certain he was face to face with the object of Vin’s affection.

Ah, it was no wonder the young man had been so distracted of late. Ava was certainly a beauty with an air of confidence that set her apart from many others her age. It would be understandable why a man – less experienced than himself, of course – would fall for her charms.

He hesitated when she asked for his name. Had Vin mentioned him? Not likely, but presumably possible, so he told her, “Ethan.”

Ezra liked that name far better than his own. It had class and could not conceivably be shortened to something as unpalatable as “Ez”. Of course, were the young woman and Vin to have a long-term relationship, it was highly likely he would have to defend his deception in the future, but for now, it seemed best to remain essentially incognito.

He was stunned when she responded with her own name, “Lisa”. Was he mistaken? In the wrong place at the wrong time talking with the wrong woman? Or was she playing a game as well?

This could take more time and skill than he’d initially planned on. But he did so enjoy the challenge.

And the more time he spent conversing with the young woman, the more enchanted he became. In fact, Ezra began to hope that he had stumbled into the wrong bar and met the wrong woman. When Lisa got off duty and invited him to a cozier booth in a secluded corner, he had no difficulty accepting the offer. After all, if she was Vin’s love, it was better for a friend to uncover the truth about her before matters got out of hand. And if she wasn’t, he was in for a pleasant evening, indeed.

Ezra started thinking he was lonelier than he’d realized, because when she stroked his arm and whispered in his ear, he almost forgot why he’d come in the first place.

And he never saw Vin watching from the doorway.

+ + + + + + +

Vin entered the door of the tavern and after his eyes adjusted to the dim light, he peered around the room until he spotted her. It took him several seconds to realize what he was seeing; Ava snuggling up to another man. He caught his breath and moved in just a few feet farther to be sure his eyes weren’t betraying him.

No. She was definitely getting up close and personal with another guy. And Vin knew the guy very well.

The team seven boys had never met Ava. Buck had seen her in the donut shop, but he was the only one. Still, they knew her name. They knew where she worked – both places.

There was no way Ezra could not know.

Vin wished he was Ezra now, because Standish would know a word that meant the stupidest of stupid.

Well, whatever that word was, he was it. Why would he ever believe a woman like Ava would want him anyway? She was beautiful and smart and she could have anybody she wanted, including a guy with intelligence, money and class. A guy exactly like Ezra.

Vin felt the air leave his chest, and he panicked at the notion that he might just pass out right there. He had to get out quick, before anyone noticed he was there. Before anyone had time to call out to him, or offer explanations, or God forbid, apologies. He really couldn’t deal with that.

The air in the streets felt clear and cold, and he gulped it in like a man who’d been buried alive. His heart hammered in his chest as he sprinted back to his car, only the thought of making a clean get-away penetrating his brain.

Later on, he’d have to think about it. Later on, he might have to acknowledge that he cared.

For now, he’d just be grateful that he didn’t do love.

+ + + + + + +

Chris was happier when he just had that niggling, unsubstantiated, overblown worry.

Now he definitely had something to worry about.

Vin was unhappy. Vin was, in fact, plainly miserable. Of course, he denied it; went so far as to accuse Chris of being a mother hen.

Tanner had come to work that morning at his usual time. He’d sat at his desk and turned on his computer and got busy sorting through his mail. That was the first clue. Vin never actually read his email. He knew Chris would tell him if there was anything he really needed to know, so he mostly just deleted it.

Chris had said, “Good morning, Vin,” and Vin had responded, “Mornin’,” without looking up and that was pretty much it.

But it was enough for Chris to know that something wasn’t right. “What’s wrong?” he asked, hoping to get the problem resolved before the other men showed up.

“Nothin’.” Eyes still peeled on that damn screen.

“Vin . . .”

“Leave it alone, Chris.”

“I just . . .”

Finally, Vin raised tired eyes and gave up a ghost of a smile. “Quit yer fussin’. Yer actin’ like that mother hen Buck always teases y’ about.”

Chris had returned the smile and headed into his office. It was only after he’d sat at his desk a few minutes that he realized how much he’d missed that slow easy drawl Vin had been working so hard to hide recently. Well, he wasn’t trying now.

So . . . the romance was over.

Now if they were women, he could march right back in there and badger Vin until he told him every detail. Hell, forget that. They were friends and that was enough. He got up from his desk and moved back to the door. Through the window, he could see that Vin had propped his elbows on his desk and held his head in his hands.

Shit. Really, really miserable.

Chris was almost through the door, when Buck and JD entered the outer office. Just that quick, Vin was back on track. He even managed to whip off a crack about Buck’s shirt, much to JD’s amusement. Good save, good cover – but Chris wasn’t fooled. He’d get to the bottom of this one way or another.

But he didn’t. No matter what the others thought, if Vin didn’t want to communicate with him, it didn’t happen. In fact, Vin was a master of avoidance and Chris had to respect that – seeing as how Tanner had managed to imitate Larabee’s own best methods. Give him a few years, and Vin would have down the glare, the snarl, and the snicker, too.

It went on for two solid days. Vin was quiet, focused, and completely absorbed in their new case. Completely Vin-like. It drove Chris crazy, although, if the other guys noticed anything at all, they didn’t say it.

It was only when Ezra came back from his time off that Vin cracked just a little. For some inexplicable reason, Vin couldn’t even look at Standish, let alone get out a complete sentence when the undercover agent was in the room. Ezra seemed as baffled as Chris by Tanner’s reaction, but for the time being, it was shoved under the rug and ignored.

Chris was beginning to think women were smarter than men. He knew an office full of women would have talked the subject to death by now. And here they were, stoically pretending nothing at all was going on when Vin’s heart was probably breaking. Maybe that was a little extreme – after all, Vin claimed he wasn’t in love.

But he acted like he was. He got all stupid and odd and he glowed, for heaven’s sake. Only a man in love acted the way Vin had been acting. Had been acting, was the key there. But what could Ezra possibly have to do with it?

Chris focused on Ezra from across the conference table while the men batted around the best way to approach their case. Standish appeared concerned mostly, possibly a bit defensive, and . . . shit, guilty. Standish was feeling guilty. Chris would kill him if he had anything to do with this.

Larabee called the meeting to an abrupt halt and asked Standish to meet him in his office. The others around the table looked at him in surprise, with the exception of Vin, who simply excused himself and left the room.

As the two men entered the office, Chris faced Ezra and demanded, “Tell me you have nothing to do with Vin’s sudden mood change.”

Wincing, the con man mumbled, “Define ‘nothing’.”

Chris pulled his hand through his hair as he paced towards the window. “Why do I have a bad feeling about this? What does my gut know that my head hasn’t been told yet?”

“Actually, I’m a bit unenlightened myself,” Ezra hedged. But at Larabee’s glare, he continued, “But perhaps I can share some rather pertinent information.”

“Go on.” He wasn’t going to like this, he just knew it.

“Well, you see, I was rather . . . uncertain about Mr. Tanner’s new romantic interest and I thought it might be prudent for one of us to uh . . . check her out, if you will.”

Chris groaned. “And?”

“And I went to the establishment where the young lass supposedly worked, and spent a rather eventful evening with a charming woman who introduced herself to me as Lisa.”

Chris groaned again. “The point, Ezra.”

“As I said, she was lovely and quite . . . entertaining, and I was rather confused as to if she was, in fact, Vin’s lady or not. I decided it might be best not to take the chance, and turned down her offer of even more lively . . . entertainment at her home. The next morning, I made it a point to pass the donut shop, and I noted that Miss Lisa was indeed, Miss Ava.”

At Larabee’s furrowed brow, Standish asked, “Do I need to further clarify?”

A third groan and Chris finally responded, “So she lied to you about her name, and she was ready, willing, and apparently very able to cheat on Vin with you.”

“That would be the general idea, yes.” Ezra paused and moved closer to add, “She’s after nothing more than a financial ride, Chris. Funding for her education as well as some of the finer amusements the world has to offer.”

“Damn. I take it you explained this to Vin?”

Now Ezra looked puzzled. “Actually, no. I haven’t seen him. I’m not sure why he’s acting oddly towards me.”

“Is it possible she told him?”

“I rather doubt it. She wasn’t the only one to be less than honest about her identity.”

Chris shook his head. “Well, somehow Vin knows something. And you’ll have to tell him the rest.”


“Who do you suggest?”

“Well, you are his best friend. Surely it would be better coming from you.”

“It was your brilliant idea.”

“Perhaps the two of us, together?”

Chicken. Ezra was unparalleled at disguising his feelings; it was what made him so good at his job. Only the fine line of moisture on his upper lip gave him away this time. Ezra was distinctly uncomfortable about having this conversation with Vin. In fact, he was downright cowardly about it.

And he wasn’t the only one.

Chris sighed and headed for the door. This would be so much easier if they were women. Women liked to talk about shit like this . . . relationships and hurt feelings and love and broken hearts.

He groaned once more, for good measure, and swung the door open to call Vin in to his office.

Vin’s chair was vacant and he didn’t spot the sniper anywhere in the room. “Buck? Where’s Vin?”

Buck looked up from his desk and shrugged. “Not sure. He got a phone call and took off. Said he’d be back in an hour.”

Reprieve. Chris felt guilty that he was so relieved to be able to put this off for a little longer. He could see by the expression on Ezra’s face that he felt exactly the same.

Men were such cowards.

+ + + + + + +

A thousand dollars for a phone call.

Ava couldn’t have heard right. Yet there it was, practically laid out in front of her.

And it couldn’t bode well for Vin. He was an ATF agent. A sniper. Anyone wanting her to contact him, and offering her money for her efforts, couldn’t be acting in Vin’s best interests.

Yet, Vin hadn’t returned her calls, so she really didn’t owe him anything. If he was going to break it off with her, he could have at least told her.

But she wouldn’t want any harm to come to him, either.

“Why?” she asked the well-dressed man standing in front of her. “Are you going to hurt him?” she added bluntly.

The man smiled. He was dark and strikingly handsome in his gray suit and red tie. He didn’t appear to be a criminal.

“I assure you,” he said, “this is personal business only. I only want to talk with him, but unfortunately, he is refusing to meet with me. If you could get him to come here, perhaps I can convince him to give me just a few moments of his time. What could I possibly do to him, here in plain sight?”

Ava hesitated. “I’m not sure he’ll come. I’m not sure he’ll take my calls, either.”

The man smiled again. “I’m sure you can think of something.”

Ava licked her lips as she stared at the wad of bills the man held in the palm of his hand. The donut shop was small, only a half dozen tables and a small bar filling its interior. Most of their business was take-out. At mid-morning, the volume of customers shrank considerably. Still, there should be enough witnesses that the man couldn’t really do anything to Vin.

She reached for the phone and was relieved when the bureau put her call through. Apparently, Vin hadn’t put a stop to that, yet.

“Vin Tanner.”

“Hey. It’s Ava.”

Silence. What had happened? She’d tried to have a little fling with that Ethan guy, but nothing came of it. And there was no way he could know about that anyway.

“Look, Vin, I don’t know what’s going on with you, but I need to talk to you.”

Another long moment of silence and then he said very softly, “I saw you the other night. I was there, at the bar.”

Oh God. Okay. She could pull this off. “I’m sorry about that, Vin. It’s just that he was really coming on to me, and I guess I wasn’t as firm as I should have been about saying no.”

Oh man, that sounded lame, but hopefully he bought it.

More silence. “It’s for the best, anyway,” he said. “I gotta go.”

“No, wait! I’m in trouble, Vin. Please. I need your help. Just . . . give me a few minutes to explain.”

She could hear him sigh. “What is it?”

“Not on the phone. Come to the shop. Please.”

Another sigh. “Alright. I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

She hung up the phone with a satisfied smile. Vin was so easy. He was such a Boy Scout.

+ + + + + + +

He was so easy. He was such an idiot.

He should have told her to call Ezra. Why hadn’t she called Ezra? Was there really nothing between them, like she said? Was it just a one-night stand for the two of them? He couldn’t decide if that felt better or worse. It didn’t matter, it couldn’t. He was through. He shouldn’t have even taken her call. But he did, and she’d got to him.

Vin spent most of the ten minute drive to the donut shop wondering when the hell he’d lost his mind. He couldn’t even imagine what Ava would have to say or what kind of trouble she could be in that would make a difference in how he felt. But then again, maybe he could sleep at night if he had some closure to all of this.

He just had to promise himself not to get sucked in. No matter what, this was it. Good-bye. The end. Closure.

It hurt just getting out of the car and taking the familiar path to the quaint little shop in the corner of the busy strip mall. How many times had his heart sped up in anticipation of seeing her? That’s when he should have stopped this; when he first realized that he couldn’t wait to get up in the morning and walk this walk . . . up the curb to the sidewalk, past the cement flower boxes, to the pink and cream colored shop on the corner.

Never again. He could live without donuts, although he was particularly fond of the chocolate on chocolate. Maybe JD would pick them up for him now and then.

God, he was certifiable. He should turn around and go back to work. And he would have, except through the window, he saw her standing there at the counter. Smiling.

It didn’t matter. She could turn on the charm but this time, he knew better. He entered the shop, the annoying little bells announcing his presence for the last time. The place was nearly empty, only a guy in a suit sitting at a table, drinking coffee. He seemed out of place, and Vin turned to look a little closer, but just then, the man got up and headed towards the door.

Vin turned back to face Ava. “Well?”

He should probably say more, but then again, she was the one who called. He’d let her speak her mind before he ended it.

But there was no time for that. He sensed that the man he’d noted earlier had come up behind him, and he started to turn when he felt a sharp, searing pain in his back.

He couldn’t remember falling to his knees, but somehow, Ava was above him. The last thing he saw was her eyes filling with tears and her mouth opening in shock. The last thing he heard was her scream.

And the last thing he thought was - this was what he got for falling in love.

+ + + + + + +

Chris should have known.

After all the sleepless nights and the niggling worries, not to mention him and Vin’s so called mind-reading, he should have sensed that Vin was in trouble.

But he didn’t. By the time he got the call, by the time he knew, Vin was in an ambulance on his way to the hospital.

It was short, impersonal. As if the local law officer was giving him an update on the current weather conditions . . . ‘fair skies, warmer temperatures, bullet in the back, your man, Tanner’.

It didn’t seem real, but then, it never did. Chris put down the phone, left his office and said flatly to the other men, “Vin’s been shot. Nathan and Josiah, you go to the hospital. Buck, JD, Ezra, head for the scene. He was at the donut place.”

A ten second pause before the initial shock was replaced with questions, the men tripping over each other as they spoke . . . who, what, how, why?

Chris could only stand numbly and wonder what he should do. Go to the hospital or head over to the damn donut dungeon and wring that woman’s neck? She had something to do with it. His instincts may be off, but it was too coincidental that Vin was hurt where Ava worked.

Nathan had moved up beside him and placed his hand on his arm. “It’ll be hours till they let you near him. Go on to the scene, you can do more good there. I’ll call as soon as I know anything.”

Chris nodded, grateful that Nathan had caught on that he needed someone to tell him what to do.

JD’s small voice was almost lost in the shuffle of computers shutting down and drawers slamming shut. “I think it was Ava that called him.”

Calm overcame the chaos for a moment as all of the men turned to JD. “Did you hear anything, JD?” Chris asked, his voice quavering just enough to betray him.

JD nodded and looked down. He hated repeating Vin’s personal business, but it could be important. “I heard him say something like he saw her the other night, at the bar.”

“Oh good Lord,” Ezra said, his face growing pale as he suddenly lowered himself to his chair.

JD threw a puzzled frown towards Standish, but continued, “Then he said it was for the best and he had to go. But she must have asked him to come because the next thing I know, he’s saying ‘alright’ and he’s leaving.”

“Goddamn! She set him up!” Buck exploded.

There was no response to that as all of the men rushed from the office and piled into the elevator, tight and tense and angry. Once they hit the parking garage, they split off, but first Nathan grabbed Chris’s arm again and promised, “The second I hear anything, you’ll know.”

It was all Chris could ask for, but right now, this very second couldn’t be soon enough to hear that Vin was going to be alright.

The short drive seemed interminable to the blond, yet he couldn’t seem to force his legs to move once they arrived. He was barely aware of Buck gripping his arm and pulling him from the car. “Maybe I should go to the hospital?” he mumbled to Wilmington. It just didn’t seem right, him being here when Vin was . . .

“Nothin’ you can do there. Best way you can help Vin is t’ do your job – get the guy who did this.”

“God, Buck, we have to set up some protection for Vin. Once he finds out Vin’s still alive . . .”

“Already taken care of, Stud. Let’s roll.”

He’d expected something different, someone different. Somehow, Chris didn’t think Ava would be small, petite, pretty. Something more like fangs and glowing eyes seemed appropriate. She was distraught, too, sobbing in the corner as two officers tried in vain to calm her.

Let her cry. Vin’s blood covered the floor and there weren’t enough tears in the world to wash it away.

One of the officers quickly rose to greet the men. “She was the only witness. He came up from behind, used a silencer, and was out the door before she even knew what happened.”

“Oh, she knew. She called Vin. Told him to come.” The bitterness in Buck’s voice was matched by the anger in all four men’s eyes.

The young officer stuttered and shifted aside, “Oh . . . uh, well, maybe you should, uh . . . talk to her yourselves.”

“That is an excellent suggestion, but I do believe it would be best if we do not overwhelm her. I suggest Buck and JD get the details from the local authorities while you and I interrogate the young woman, Chris.”

Chris couldn’t tear his eyes away from the blood on the floor. It was so unreal. And yet, he could picture it all. She must have said she needed Vin for some reason or other, and naturally Tanner had pushed aside his own feelings, ignored his breaking heart, and he’d come. Vin was so easy. He was such a sucker for anyone in need. He was such a goddamn hero.

He probably didn’t even know what hit him. Or at least, Chris prayed that that was the case. He prayed that Vin didn’t know how terribly he’d been betrayed by the woman he’d let himself fall for. He would never know, if Chris could get away with it.

She was looking at him, her eyes still draining tears, but she was quiet now. With the barest hint of surprise, she glanced briefly at Ezra, before turning back to Chris.

He hated her, but she was all he had, and so he forced himself to move in her direction. Pulling up a chair, he avoided her eyes, focusing instead on the scene outside the window behind her. There were three squad cars, their lights still flashing, red beams bouncing off the glass and reflecting in her hair. Chris wanted to tell them to leave, wanted to scream at them to yank down the yellow tape that told the world that something bad happened here. He wanted to turn back time and he wanted to tell Vin that donuts were bad for you and to stay the hell away. He wanted to go back to that warehouse and do it all over again, because he knew, deep down, that it all tied back to that moment when he saw that look in the gun runner’s eyes.

“Chris?” Ezra’s voice was soft and as gentle as his touch on the blond’s hand.

Chris turned hallowed eyes to the young woman but his voice was like steel, “Tell me what happened. All of it.”

She choked and looked down, twisting a towel in hands that shook. Finally, she met Chris’s eyes as she spoke in a hoarse whisper, “I swear I didn’t know.”

“How much? What was Vin’s life worth to you?” Chris demanded angrily. He may have felt like his head was drifting somewhere outside his body, but he was thinking clearly enough to remember what Ezra had told him – for Ava, it was all about money.

Her eyes widened but she didn’t answer the question. “He just told me to make the call. He said he just needed to talk to him. He said he wasn’t going to hurt him.”

“Go on,” Ezra encouraged.

“I didn’t even realize at first what had happened,” she said, her eyes glazed as she stared at the blood pooled on the tile. “He just . . . went down on his knees . . . and he looked at me and . . . then he was on the floor and there was blood everywhere. Oh God.”

She was crying again and Chris wanted to shake her. Wanted to tell her to just stop playing the concerned, remorseful girlfriend and look, look what she’d done.

“Tell us about the man. Who was he? What did he look like? What did he say?”

Rambling, disjointed sentences followed, and Chris had to concede that the girl was in shock. But she was able to give them a decent description, which Ezra immediately shared with the appropriate agents.

Chris was about to push for more, when his phone rang. He sprang to his feet and moved to a back room for privacy. If the news was bad, there was no way he could handle it with that girl staring him in the face. Who was he kidding? If the news was bad, he couldn’t handle it, period.


“He’s in surgery, Chris. It was low caliber, close range. The guy knew what he was doing. Another half inch to the right and it would’ve pierced his heart. Vin must’ve suspected something – he must’ve moved.”

“So he’s . . . he’s gonna make it?”

The silence was deafening. Finally, Nathan answered, “It’s too soon to know for sure, Chris. Might be a while until we really know.”

“I’m on my way.”

Of course he was on his way. What the hell was he thinking coming here anyway? Buck was wrong and Nathan, too. There was nothing he could do here. He needed to be with Vin. He needed to be out of this place – away from red stained tile and yellow tape and a greedy, blood-sucking woman.

He left the back room and nearly ran into Buck. “Hold up, Chris. Tell us what Nathan said.”

Closing his eyes briefly, he took a breath before replying, “He’s in surgery. And I’m going.”

“Yeah, alright, but let’s talk on the way to the car,” Buck insisted.

“So talk,” Chris responded as he pushed through the doors of the shop.

“Why here? Why not take out Vin some place more private? Why involve the girl at all?”

Chris stopped mid-stride as he formulated his answer. “Vin pretty much spends his life between two places: a federal office building and a run down tenement where he is beloved and protected. If he goes out, it’s with us or with her. Where would you look for opportunity?”

Buck shook his head. “Takes guts to do it in broad daylight in a busy shopping center.”

“He’s a professional. And he bought his only witness. Not so risky.”

“Maybe he paid her, maybe he didn’t, but the fact is, she’s talkin’. And as much as you’re gonna hate this, she’s gonna need protection, too.”

As he climbed in his car, Chris tossed back, “Do whatever the hell you want with her.”

+ + + + + + +

Ezra felt like he’d been punched in the stomach when JD spoke up about the call. Vin saw him with Ava. He must have thought the worst. Of course, he thought the worst. He’d have no reason to think otherwise.

And Ezra never got the chance to explain. Vin could die thinking that Ezra had betrayed him.

He couldn’t fix that yet, maybe never, but he could get to the bottom of what had happened. After Chris climbed back in his car and left for the hospital, Ezra turned back to Ava. Her eyes were red and swollen, but she’d finally stopped crying. She sat very still with her head down, seemingly oblivious to the activity around her.

Ezra pulled a chair next to her and said in a low voice as he sat, “How much, Ava?” It didn’t matter, or it shouldn’t. But somehow, he wanted to believe that she hadn’t sold Vin out for a cheap dinner.

She turned towards him. “You’re his friend?”


“You weren’t interested in me at all, were you? You were just trying to protect him.”

“That was my intention.” Too bad he’d done such an incredibly incompetent job of it.

She sighed and pulled a wad of bills out of her pocket. Blood money, Ezra thought.

“I didn’t know. I really thought . . .”

“You didn’t want to know. And if you’d really thought, you would have warned him, not invited him to certain trouble.”

Stuffing the bills in Ezra’s hand, she rose stiffly and said, “I want to go home.”

Ezra gripped her arm and pulled her back down. “I don’t believe you understand, Miss . . . whatever your name is today. You’re a witness in the attempted murder of a federal agent. You accepted cash to participate in the attempt, in fact. Now your testimony just might keep you out of jail, but it also might cost you your life. The organization that hired the assassin to take out Vin would have no problem taking the same measures against you, I assure you.”

She gasped and Ezra could see tears filling her eyes once more, but he felt no compassion towards her. She’d gotten in over her head out of pure ignorance and greed, but she was not the victim here. Vin was, and Ezra couldn’t get the look the Texan had given him as he came to work that morning out of his head. Hurt, yes, but there was more – almost like resignation. Had Vin decided Ezra was the better man for Ava?

It wasn’t so. And he couldn’t tell Vin that right now, but he surely could tell her. “I wonder if you have any idea what you gave up?”

Ava blinked and looked at him uncertainly.

“You’ll never find another man like Vin Tanner,” Ezra said, his voice breaking. “All the money in the world couldn’t buy you what he could have given you.”

With a sob, the young woman laid her head in arms and wept once more.

+ + + + + + +

It wasn’t just that Vin was fighting for his life. It was what kind of life would Vin have after this?

Chris could hardly bear to think on it. After Charlotte, he’d been convinced that it would take a long time for Vin to trust again. He’d been right. According to Buck, it had taken Vin months to decide to ask Ava out.

And look how it turned out.

Vin might very well resign himself to a loveless life forever.

It wasn’t right. Vin had so much to offer. He deserved so much better. He deserved the whole package; wife and kids and white picket fence, because even though he said he didn’t want or need those things, Chris knew he yearned for them. It was a dream the younger man kept out of reach because he was convinced he couldn’t have it.

He’d be even surer of that now, and as much as Chris hated Ava for her part in putting the bullet in Vin’s back, he hated her even more for taking away that hope, that dream.

“Chris?” Josiah interrupted his thoughts when he sat down in the vacant chair next to the blond and handed him a fresh cup of coffee.

“Thanks,” Chris replied dully. He was surprised when he looked up at Sanchez and noted moisture filling the big man’s eyes.

“He’s not gonna die, Josiah,” Chris offered, because he figured it was what they both needed to hear.

Sanchez nodded as he spoke, “It’s just that . . . it was a fine thing, seeing Vin so happy. It’s hard to accept how it turned out. Vin deserves so much more.”

A tear escaped then, a small drop running from the corner of Josiah’s eye, down his check and across his whiskered jaw. Chris had to turn away, that single tear cutting deeper, meaning so much more, than the bucketful of tears Ava had shed.

Nathan stepped into the waiting room just then, a bit breathless when he told them, “Vin’s out of surgery. The doctor’s on his way.”

Chris figured the doctor must have wondered what the hell was wrong with them. He told them that Vin had done remarkably well; that barring any complications, he’d survive. They answered the doctor with small smiles and whispered thanks, but even with the good news, their sadness couldn’t be easily dismissed.

Vin deserved better.

+ + + + + + +

He figured he was dying.

Somber faces surrounded him; serious and solemn and sad. He must be dying.

Vin kind of felt that way. He hurt down deep in his heart, and he wasn’t sure if it was because the organ had nearly been ripped in two literally, or figuratively.

It didn’t really matter, he supposed. Either one, either way, was deadly. Shot through the heart.

He was confused a lot of the time. The hours got away from him. One minute, Chris would be there, and the next it was somebody else, but he couldn’t remember how or when they’d changed places.

It didn’t matter. He was having a hard time thinking anything mattered. Even dying didn’t seem as sad as it should have.

Ezra kept trying to talk to him. Kept saying he was sorry and things weren’t as they seemed. Vin tried to follow along, but he couldn’t figure out exactly what Standish was apologizing for. He remembered seeing Ava with him. He could see it in his mind; the shirt she wore that night, the glimmer in her hair, the way she smiled at Ezra and stroked his arm. The way Ezra smiled back. It was a crummy thing for a friend to do, no matter the reason. But it only meant that Ezra was stupid, too. Let himself get sucked in.

It didn’t really matter.

Chris had filled him on what happened. They still hadn’t found the guy who shot him, and the man behind it was already in jail. Chris didn’t figure he’d try again - too risky. Larabee seemed disappointed about it all, having been denied the opportunity to blow someone away on Vin’s behalf. He knew Chris would keep looking – quietly, on the side, though Vin wouldn’t ask him to.

They’d sent Ava away; offered her participation in the witness protection program, even though it probably wasn’t necessary. She’d taken them up on it. She’d finally got her ticket out, at his expense. Or at least, that was what Chris and Ezra said when they thought he was asleep.

Didn’t matter. He wasn’t planning on seeing her again anyway.

The doctor came in, and Vin tried to act interested in what he had to say. Something about eating and being discharged in a few days. That seemed odd. He’d thought sure he was dying, the way everyone was looking at him.

Chris just happened to walk in at that moment. He and the doctor talked about him like he wasn’t there. That happened a lot lately, so he let it slide. Chris was saying that Vin would be staying with him; he’d get him to eat, take his meds, the usual shit. Yeah, okay, whatever.

The doctor finally left and Chris turned back to him, wearing that look, sighing, pulling his hand through his hair as he pulled the chair closer to the bed. Vin wanted to remind him that, apparently, he wasn’t dying. It wasn’t the end of the world, either, as far as he knew, so maybe Larabee should lighten up a bit. But of course, this was Larabee he was talking about, a man who didn’t actually know the meaning of the phrase “lighten up”.

Chris cleared his throat. Not a good sign. It meant he was going to be talking about something he didn’t want to talk about. Something that made him uncomfortable, which was a pretty damn good sign that Vin would be uncomfortable, too.

“Vin? I just want you to know that . . . she . . . all women aren’t . . . you can’t . . .”

“Please don’t, Chris,” he mumbled.

Another long sigh, and Vin thought maybe he should remind Chris that it really didn’t matter all that much. Let him off the hook.

“Don’t tell me it doesn’t matter, Vin. Don’t tell me you’re fine or that you don’t care or that you don’t believe in love because I don’t believe any of it.”

Oh, so that was what the long faces were all about. They were feeling sorry for him . . . ‘Poor Vin, foolish in love, once again. Almost got him killed this time.’

Well, he’d been telling them all along. He didn’t do love.

“Vin,” Chris was trying again. “Not all love stories turn out bad.”

“Not a love story,” Vin protested. “Just a story of a guy who got stupid.”

He was suddenly tired, and since Chris was obviously struggling with the conversation, he’d give him some time to figure out what he wanted to say. Vin didn’t particularly want to hear it, but he doubted he could get out of it completely. For now though, he’d sleep. Let Larabee stew on it all.

Sooner or later, Chris would catch on that it just didn’t really matter.

+ + + + + + +

It was frustrating. Half-way through a conversation and Vin was asleep. It happened all the time since Tanner had been shot, and if Chris didn’t know better, he’d think his best friend was doing it on purpose.

Best friend. Those two words said a lot, implied a lot. Trust, first and foremost . . . commitment, understanding, sacrifice. Responsibility. Vin was his responsibility. It came with the job, with the title. Best friend.

It wasn’t just about taking care of him as he recovered, either, or finding the guy that hurt him. It was about giving him hope. Now if only he could figure out how to do that.

Matchmaking was out. That was a totally female thing to do.

Words wouldn’t cut it this time. There weren’t any words strong enough to take away the sting of this mess. Even Josiah had been at a loss so far.

He was so deeply entrenched in the dilemma that he didn’t hear Buck softly shuffle into the room behind him.

“How’s he doin’?” he asked softly in Chris’s ear, and the blond jumped.

“Damn, Buck! I didn’t even hear you come in.”

Buck pulled around another chair and said worriedly, “Why? Is something wrong? Is he okay?”

“Yeah. No. Sort of. I guess.” Chris shook his head as he gathered his thoughts. “No change.”

“Oh. Well, it’s gonna take time.”

“I don’t think time will do it. I think he’ll just . . . give up.”

“Vin? No way. This will set him back some, but he’s way too strong to let a woman take him down.”

“No, Buck. Not give up on life. Give up on love. I think Vin will just make his job his whole life.”

“Kind of like his best friend?”

That was unfair. Below the belt. And only Buck could get away with it.

“Don’t go there, Buck.”

“You know, Chris, not all love stories turn out bad.”

Now how did Buck manage to do that? Turn his own words around without even knowing he’d spoken them?

“You want Vin to have some hope? Maybe it’s time you set an example for him,” Buck continued on, oblivious, as usual, to Chris’s irritation.

“It’s not the same thing, Buck. I had love. I know how wonderful it can be. It’s not a matter of not believing.”

“It sure as hell is. Look at it this way, whether you’re living without love because you’re afraid of losing it to betrayal or to death – you’re still living without it. You want Vin to believe? You’d best start looking at yourself, because I can tell you, he looks to you most of all.”

Chris really hated it when Buck had a point.

This would all be so much easier if they were women. Or maybe not. Maybe women were as clueless as men when it came to love. Maybe love stories were so popular because they were so hard to come by in real life.

But maybe it was worth the effort to try.

Maybe he owed it to Vin, his best friend, to dig a little deeper and find some hope of his own.

Chris looked over at his sleeping friend and muttered softly, “So maybe it wasn’t a love story this time, Pard. But there’s always next time . . . for both of us.”

Buck chuckled lightly as he clapped Chris’s shoulder. “Hell, yes! That’s the spirit, Stud. After all, love makes the world go round.”

Hell, yes. When Buck was right, he was right.

Love did make the world turn, and it would get Vin back on his feet, but maybe not the way Buck thought.

Chris thought about Ezra going to the effort of checking out Vin’s girlfriend. He thought about Buck giving him advice on love and JD worrying about betraying a confidential phone call. He thought about Nathan continually reminding Vin that he was worthy to be loved, exactly as he was. He thought about Josiah’s tears.

He thought about how many nights he’d tossed and turned, worrying about Vin.

There were different kinds of love. All he really had to do to help Vin was to make him see that his story was, mostly definitely, a love story.

The End