By LaraMee

Chris Larabee found himself with mixed emotions as the work day drew to a close. While he looked forward to seeing the Adams exhibit, he hated not being home with the boys. Reminding himself that it was normal and healthy to have an occasional evening out alone, he called and reserved a ticket for the evening's festivities. He was relieved that he had when he was told that he had just reserved the last ticket.

At 5:00 drew near, Buck knocked and poked his head inside the door. "I'm gettin' ready to leave. Wanted to make sure you hadn't talked yourself out of goin'."

Seeing the cocky grin on the bigger man's face, Larabee said, "That Saturday job's still open you know." He reached for the phone.

Still grinning, Wilmington just shook his head. "Who'd get the worse end there, pard? I wouldn't be the one ramroddin' the boys - alone - all day."

With a smirk, the senior agent said smugly, "Nothing I'd like better."

Acknowledging defeat, the brunet said, "Okay, fine. I'll see you at home, Stud. Try and have a good time."

Chris glared deeper. "You are one cocky son - " He stopped himself. Walking to the bookcase, he pulled a five dollar bill out of his wallet and dropped it into the swear jar. Nearby, Buck chuckled, but he only said, "See you at home tonight. I've got my cell if you need me."

Clapping one hand on the smaller man's shoulder, Wilmington splayed the other over his chest. "We'll do our best to struggle on without you… dad."

Larabee looked around the gathering, acknowledging a familiar face now and then. The gallery was packed, the low murmur of patrons filling the air. He realized slowly that he didn't really miss this sort of thing; although he was enjoying himself. Teacher's meetings and trips to McDonalds had taken the place of going to art galleries and the theater. And they were just as fulfilling.


The blond pulled his gaze from one of the photographs and saw Mary Travis coming toward him. Gerard Whitman was at her side, her arm through his. On the other side of the blond newswoman was another woman. She was a little taller than Mary, dark haired with an air of professionalism even in this social setting.

"Chris, I haven't seen you at an opening for ages," Mary cooed. "You remember Gerard, don't you?"

Nodding, the agent reached out and shook the other man's hand. "Of course. How are you, Gerard?"

"Just fine, yourself?" The dark haired man replied, smiling warmly.

"Doing just fine, busy as always, but I'm sure you understand that."

"Certainly do." Then he motioned toward the woman on the other side of Mary. "Chris, this is Leigh Talmadge. Leigh's a new junior partner in the firm."

"Nice to meet you, Miss Talmadge," He extended his hand toward the woman.

"Leigh, please." She corrected as she took his hand.

With a nod, Larabee replied, "Chris. So are you new to Denver, or just to Whitman and Cole?"

"Both actually. Gerard and Daniel wooed me away from Finch and Gregory down in Atlanta last month."

"Mary and I drug Leigh out tonight. She's been so busy settling in that she hasn't had a chance to socialize," Whitman explained.

"So, you moved here alone, I take it?"

"Yes," The woman replied. Then she changed the subject. "So, what do you do for a living, Chris?"

"I work for the government," He replied.

"And… are you alone, too?" She smiled coyly then frowned when Mary began to laugh.

"Sorry," the newswoman apologized. "Chris' ranch is a very busy place, lots of action any day of the week."

Her expression one of confusion, the lady lawyer said, "Oh?"

With a smile and a shake of his head, the tall blond said, "I have two little boys to keep me busy."

Leigh smiled politely and nodded. "So, Chris, you're a fan of Ansel Adams?"

"I made Miki cry."

Buck frowned down at the little brunet. JD had been quiet all evening, almost sulking. The big man decided that he'd give the child some time to think through whatever was on his mind, but would bring it up in the pow wow if he needed to. The three of them were sitting around the dining room table, working on the puzzle Vin had brought into their lives. Actually, Vin was doing most of the work, he and JD primarily offering suggestions from time to time.

Turning his full attention to the five-year-old, he asked, "What happened?"

Heaving a sigh, the little boy said, "she was bein' bossy again, and tryin' to make me be her boyfriend. I tried, Da, I really did. I didn't wanna hurt her feelings, but she kept bein' so bossy. Then I just couldn't figure out anything else to do, so I hollered at her."

"You hollered at her?" Buck prompted.

Nodding, JD dropped his head, little chin on his chest. His words were muffled as he continued. "She was tryin' to get me to sit in th' beanbag chair with her, an' kept sayin' that's what girlfriends and boyfriends do. She wouldn't hardly let me say nothin', so finally I hollered. I told her I didn't wanna be her boyfriend or get married, 'cause I'm too little."

"I thought you understood that it was only pretend?"

"Yeah, I do… but I don't think Miki does." The little boy turned wide, doe eyes to look at his father, the tear filled eyes bored directly into the man's heart.

Smothering a chuckle with a cough, the child's Da said, "Well I reckon I'll just have to trust you on that. You shouldn't yell at people, though, Little Bit. You'll need to apologize."

Frowning, little Dunne said, "I tried to say I'm sorry, but she took off."

"Well I'm proud of you for remembering to do that, son. But here's the thing. We've always got to remember to treat ladies with respect. Even when we don't like what's going on, we need to be polite with 'em. So tomorrow I'd really like it if you'd apologize again. Maybe if she's had a little time to get over feeling bad, she'll hear you better."

Huffing out a breath that ruffled his long bangs, the little boy said, "Okay, Da… I'll try."

Reaching out and rubbing the little head briskly, Wilmington said, "That's all I can ask, Little Bit."

Buck smiled contentedly as he watched the two boys from the bedroom doorway. They were snuggled beneath the blankets, curled up in their beds. Vin had been restless as the time for bed drew closer. The little blond had fought sleep for some time, succumbing only after hearing two bedtime stories. Several times he had asked the same questions.

"What time's Dad comin' home?"

"He said he'd be home around 11:00."

"Can't I stay up 'til then, just this once?"

"Junior, you know your bedtime is 8:30."

"What if somethin' happens? What if the truck gets broke or somethin'?"

"He's got his cell phone with him."

"Will he come say night to me?"

"I'm sure he will."

"What sort 'a place did he go to?"

"Chris went to a museum to see some special photographs."

"An' he likes goin' there?"

"Yep. He and Sarah used to go a lot." Buck saw the worried expression form on the tiny features.

"Will he be sad when he comes home?"

"I don't think so."

"I don't want him to be sad."

"He'll be okay."

And on and on, Buck beginning to think that he was spending the evening in an alternate universe. JD had been quiet and Vin was an endless font of questions.

Now, though, the seven-year-old was sleeping peacefully, Cat tucked against his chest. In the bunk beneath him, the brunet bundle of energy had switched off for the night. His little rump in the air, the child of his heart was snoring softly.

Chris smiled across the table at the pretty brunette he was sharing a late dinner with. Leigh returned his smile then her brow creased with a frown.

"No, Harvey, I don't care what Masterson wants. The meeting goes as planned tomorrow morning." Impatiently she disconnected the call and laid her cell phone on the table. With a smile of apology, she said, "I'm sorry."

Shrugging, Larabee said, "sounds as if you've got something important coming up tomorrow." She had already received half a dozen calls during the course of the evening.

Dark eyes glittering, the woman said, "Very. I'm negotiating a rather large merger. If it goes as planned, I think it may very well put me ahead of schedule."


"Five year plan. This deal will be quite a coup for me and I'm certain it will put me in good stead with Gerard and Daniel. I could make senior partner in less than five years."

"Ah," the Senior ATF agent smiled and took a sip of coffee. "Sounds as if there's not much room in your life for anything not connected to work."

"Oh, I can make room… if something strikes my fancy." She smiled flirtatiously as she sipped her glass of white wine. "Is there something more important than work for you Chris?"

"Several things," the man said sincerely. Then his voice softened as he explained, "The boys come first. I've discovered that there's nothing as important as your family."

Shrugging indifferently and missing the pain in the man's face, Leigh said, "I suppose. But it must be difficult. Do you share custody with their mother?"

Chris shook his head. His mind was filled with images of both his life with Sarah and Adam and what he shared now. Barely aware that he was speaking, he said, "Their mothers are dead, so is Vin's father. The boys were living on the streets when we found them. Officially, Buck is adopting JD and I'm adopting Vin. But that's just the legal version. They both - " He stopped, suddenly aware of the change in his dinner companion. She was wearing a look that was a combination of shock and distain. "Is there a problem?"

"You voluntarily took in someone else's children?"

Bristling at her tone, he replied curtly, "Yes."

Shaking her head, Talmadge asked bluntly, "Why?"

His voice growing cooler by the syllable, Larabee responded with, "I doubt that I could explain it. Maybe if you had children - "

"I do. My daughter is… ten? Maybe eleven. She lives with her father. The last I heard, they were living in… Maine. One of those towns with the strange names… Wiscasset… or maybe Madawaska? I can never remember."

She might as well have grown a second head. Chris felt his chest tighten as she spoke about her child. She had shown more passion when speaking of the next day's meeting. "You don't even know where your child is?"

With an exasperated breath, Leigh said, "look I realized by the time she was six months old that I wasn't cut out to be a mother. My career has always come first, and that's just the way it is. Jason - her father - on the other hand, was born to be a parent. He's very nurturing." She said the last with near disgust in her voice.

He felt as if someone had thrown a pitcher of ice water in his face. Clearing his throat, Chris said pointedly, "Well, at least she has one caring parent."

"Ah, that's the way it is."

"Excuse me?"

"You're judging me. You met me three hours ago, but you assume you know me well enough to make a judgment about my motives. And, since I'm not the stereotypical "mommy", I must be a horrible person."

Chris shook his head. "No, I don't assume that you're a horrible person because you're not the stereotypical mommy. But the fact of the matter is you made a commitment the moment you brought that child into this world. You chose not to honor that commitment in favor of your own, selfish needs. You have no idea what joy you're missing, and you obviously don't care. For that I think you're a very sad person."

Retrieving his wallet, Larabee pulled out several bills. He was thankful that she had driven her car to meet him at the restaurant. Dropping the bills on the table, he rose from his seat. With a curt nod, he said only, "good night, Leigh," as he turned and strode quickly from the room,

Vin woke at the feel of someone brushing the hair back off his face. Opening sleepy eyes, the little boy found his father standing beside the bed, watching him. He couldn't put a name to the expression on the man's face, but it gave him a safe feeling. With a smile he whispered, "Hi, Dad."

Chris smiled back, the long fingers of one hand still stroking through tangled blond locks. "Hi, Cowboy. Sorry I woke you up."

"S'okay." He rolled to his side, snuggling against Cat as that big hand continued to pet him. "Did'ja have a good time?"

Keeping the negative thoughts from showing, Larabee said, "Yeah, it was really nice."

The little boy smiled, even as his eyes drifted shut. "'At's good… I'm glad."

The father continued to stroke his child's silky hair even after he had gone back to sleep. Tucking the blankets around the seven-year-old, he leaned over and planted a gentle kiss on the top of Vin's head. Then he knelt down and checked on JD. With a soft chuckle, he shook his head. The tiny brunet lay sideways on his bunk, chubby, socked feet dangling over the edge. He had chosen his teddy bear to sleep with tonight, and was using it as a pillow.

Showing tenderness not often associated with senior-agent-in-charge Larabee, the blond carefully shifted the tyke around on the bed. JD gruffed and mumbled, but didn't wake. Chris smoothed the thick, black bangs and kissed the younger boy on the forehead. He tucked the child in as well, although he knew it wouldn't last more than a few minutes.

Standing once more, he sighed contentedly. How could anyone voluntarily give all this up?

JD entered the classroom with trepidation. He glanced around, heaving a sigh when he didn't see or hear Miki Moskowitz. He still felt badly for hurting her feelings, but did what he felt he had to do. His Da had helped him feel better about things during their talk. He knew he should apologize for yelling at her again, like Da said. He wasn't sure how soon he wanted to do that, thought.

A familiar giggle caught his attention, and the little brunet flinched. Turning toward the sound, he saw the little girl on the far side of the room.

"Y' gonna go talk to 'er?"

The little brunet jumped, turning to find his foster brother standing beside him. With a frown he said, "You scared me!"

"Sooooooorrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrry!" Vin teased. "Y' know what Buck said. Yer s'posed t' treat a lady nice an' p'lite, so yer s'pose to 'pologize."

"Stop buggin' me, Vin! I'll 'pologize when I'm ready."

"What're y' waitin' for?"

His brow furrowing even deeper, the five-year-old said, "I'm thinkin's all, so just stop buggin' me!"

Vin watched the young boy stomp off angrily. With a heavy sigh he shook his head. Just then he saw Jelly coming into the room. She was with two other girls, all of them giggling. She looked over toward him and waved. He waved back, smiling.

"Hey, Vin, c'mon!" Michael Torres waved him over to the science table. "Come look what we found last night!"

With a glance in Jelly's direction, seeing her head toward the craft table with her new friends, Vin hurried toward Michael.

The morning crept by, filled with math and science. He spent recess in the play fort, the shadows offering him some security. He refused to admit that he was hiding from Miki. He just felt like being alone this morning. True, he hardly ever felt like being alone, but still…

JD's attention was caught by a giggle nearby. He peeked out of the window, his little mouth dropping open. Miki was being pushed on the swings, nearly flying into the sky as she went higher and higher. What was most shocking of all, though, was that Eli Joe Chavez was pushing her.

"Higher! Higher!" Miki squealed.

The little brunet frowned, turned away from the window, and slid to his bottom into the thick carpet of pea gravel. He couldn't figure it out. Just yesterday she had cried when he told her he didn't want to be her boyfriend. Now she was over there, giggling and playing with that stinky old Eli Joe. He'd end up getting her into trouble, JD just knew it. By the end of the week, Eli Jo would have her stepping on toes and sneaking things out of peoples' backpacks.

Another giggle rang through the air and young Dunne shook his head. What was it he'd heard Uncle Nathan say once? Oh yeah… women were just pickles!

Vin looked up from working on his spelling words to see Nettie Wells standing just inside the classroom door. He smiled, even though his stomach did a flip-flop at the sight of the social worker. She smiled back, winking to let him know that things were alright.

As if sensing the older boy's thoughts, JD looked up from where he was reading a book. His gaze traveled from the older boy to the older woman. He smiled and waved; only a little concerned at her appearance at the school.

Carolyn Roquette moved across the room, greeting the familiar woman from the division of children and families. The two women spoke quietly for a moment then Mrs. R. motioned to the boys.

Vin and JD walked across the classroom, the older boy blushing as most of their classmates seemed to be watching him. The smaller boy trotted along happily beside him, enjoying the attention they were getting.

"Hello, boys, " Nettie greeted them quietly. "I hope you don't mind me coming to visit you at school. I wanted to see how you were settling down to schoolwork this year. Would you like to come with me? Your teacher said it would be fine and I let your dads know as well."

"Is Dad coming here, too?" Vin asked.

"No, it's just going to be me and the two of you. Is that all right?"

Young Tanner considered the situation, nodding after a full minute of consideration.

"Good. Well, let's go somewhere we can sit down and talk for a while, okay?"

"'Kay." Reaching up, JD took her hand as she led the two boys from the room. They moved through the quiet hallway to a little office. It was the room the counselor used to talk to any of the children who were having trouble.

Nettie looked at the little blond when he giggled. Smiling at the sound, she asked, "What's got your funny bone tickling you, Vin?"

Trying to sober up, and failing, the seven-year-old explained, "I was just thinkin' that Eli Joe an' Freddy ought t' just live in here."

Shaking her head, the older woman said, 'Well, just so long as it's not you or JD."

"No ma'am! I ain't - "


"Haven't been in here for a real long time!"

"I only been in here once… or twice, maybe," JD added proudly.

"Well, that's good to know," Mrs. Wells nodded. The three of them took seats, the boys sitting on the couch, while she settled on the chair.

The social worker couldn't help but note the changes so obvious in both children. She remembered the first time she had visited them at the school. They had perched on the couch as if ready to bolt at any second and they had been so close together that JD had practically been sitting on Vin's lap. Both of them had regarded her with suspicion and fear, clearly terrified that she would drag them away from the first security they had known in months. She had spent the majority of that meeting trying to reassure them that she was as interested in keeping them together as they were.

Quite a difference from the children she saw before her now.

The boys sat at opposite sides of the couch, leaning back as they relaxed. There was a hint of wariness in Vin's bright blue eyes, but she doubted that would ever completely leave him. For the most part however, he regarded her calmly, as if they were having a social visit.

There were other differences as well. Both boys had gained weight over the past several months. JD was carrying just a little "baby fat" and while Vin was still small for his age, he was making healthy gains in both height and weight.

Nettie pulled herself from her thoughts as she saw the boys growing uncomfortable under her scrutiny. Smiling once more, she said, "I was just thinking about how much you boys have changed since you first came to live with Chris and Buck."

Frowning as he considered her words, the overly serious young Tanner asked, "Is it good changes?"

"Yes, son, it is." She watched his thin little body tense and then quickly relax at her assurance.

"We gotta change a lot, 'cause Da an' Chris don't want us wearin' dirty clothes," JD responded in his concrete way.

"Jay-Deeeeee!" Vin groaned, rolling his eyes.

"What?" The younger boy looked innocently from his brother to Miss Nettie. He frowned as he noticed that the silver-haired woman looked as if she wanted to laugh.

Pulling herself together, the social worker said, "I'm glad to hear that, JD."

"Miss Nettie?"

Finding herself under the intense gaze of the older boy, Mrs. Wells asked, "Is there something on your mind, son?"

Nodding, Vin replied, "How much longer 'fore everything's 'ficial?"

She had wondered how long it would take for that question to make an appearance. Gently, she said, "Probably a lot longer than you'd like, dear, but things are moving as quickly as possible."

"Oh." The soul deep eyes shifted their gaze, but not before the fear shone through.

Leaning forward, Nettie said sincerely, "Vin, I know that you're worried about all this. I wish I could make it so that it was all final right this minute, but the judge has to make that decision. One thing I can tell you is that everything looks very good. I don't see any problems that will keep the judge from saying okay."

"So when's the judge gonna d'cide if we can be 'dopted?" JD asked.

"As soon as he can, son. He has a lot of decisions to make--"

"Nu-uh," the younger boy interrupted. "He's only gotta say yes or no 'bout us bein' 'dopted."

Smiling, the woman said, "Well that's just one of the decisions he has to make. He has a lot of other boys and girls and moms and dads to make decisions about."

"You mean there's other boys and girls that's gonna be 'dopted?" Vin asked.

"There certainly are," she responded. "The judge has to decide each one in order. Sort of like when you line up to go to recess."

"You mean we gotta wait our turn?" The little brunet asked as understanding dawned.


Simultaneously the two boys heaved deep sighs. Then Vin added quietly, "It don't matter how long it takes."

"What do you mean, sweetheart?"

"It don't matter if it takes a hundred years. Chris is my Dad and Buck is JD's Da. Nobody can say nothin' different."

The week passed in a flurry of first week of school activities. The boys quickly settled back into the routine of balancing school work and chores, while leaving enough time for play each day. At the pow-wow Wednesday night both fathers had an announcement concerning the upcoming holiday weekend.

"I thought it would be nice to have everyone over for a barbecue this weekend," Chris said.

"But not ever'one can come," Vin said softly. He had settled in his father's lap, while Larabee sat in his recliner.

Stroking a hand through the thick, dark blond locks, Chris said, "I'm sure your uncle Ezra would come if he could."

Heaving a sigh, Vin said, "He came to the horse show, but I didn't git t' see 'im."

"I did," JD piped up, oblivious to the signs of his brother's distress.

The little seven-year-old shot an angry glare across the room, where JD was sitting with Buck on the couch. Then he felt a pair of strong arms wrap themselves around him as his dad held him close.

Leaning down to rest his check on top of the tousled head, Larabee said, "Vin, your uncle Ezra feels badly that he couldn't stick around to see you. You know, though, that he has to be very careful about who sees him when he's undercover."

"I wish he didn't never have to go under covers no more," little Tanner protested softly.

"I know, but it's part of his job, and he's very good at it. Just like you're good at making new students feel welcome at the school."

"But it still ain't fair," Vin whispered.

"You're right, son, it's not fair. But even though we don't like it, it's part of Ezra's job." Chris wanted to promise that the boys' uncle would return soon, but couldn't. The truth was the southerner might be gone for some time.

"Well, I think a barbecue would be a great idea," Buck said after silence had filled the room for a moment. "And I'd like to invite someone if it's okay."

"Who?" JD wanted to know.

"My friend, Kerri. She's going to be in the states this weekend, and would like to meet you boys."

"How come?" The little brunet asked.

With a grin, Wilmington said, "Because she's heard a lot about you, and wants to see if you're as cute as I've told her you both are."

Wrinkling his nose, the five-year-old said, "I'm a boy, Da, I'm not s'posed to be cute!"

Saturday morning dawned with that holiday air. Chris was on the riding mower as soon as the sun rose, doing some last minute sprucing up in the yard. Buck and the boys took care of the animals and picked up the house before the boys were sent off to play. Soon the sounds of giggling boys and yipping pups rang out across the yard.

Buck left at mid-morning to pick up the flight attendant who was in from England. While he was gone, Chris supervised the boys getting cleaned up and changed for the barbecue while he started the fire in the barbecue pit. The boys settled in to wait for their company to arrive, sitting on the edge of the deck, watching the drive for signs of familiar vehicles.

Vin hadn't said anything about Ezra since the pow-wow, but the men knew he was still bothered. While part of it was the fact that his uncle hadn't stayed around to see him at the horse show, there was more to it than that. Both the boys were affected by the man's disappearance each time he went "under covers".

"Dad, I see Unca' 'Siah's 'burban!" Vin called out.

"Okay, thanks, Cowboy."

A few minutes later, the blond heard, "Here comes Unca' Nathan an' Aunt Raine!"

"Okay, thanks, Little Bit."

"Da! It's Da an' Kerri!"

Larabee chuckled. The smaller of the boys acted as if it had been days rather than a couple of hours since he'd seen his father. "Okay, just don't go out there - "

"'Til the car stops!" The boys shouted together.

Buck looked across the truck to regard the pretty blonde in the passenger seat. "So, you ready to meet this bunch?"

With a soft laugh, Kerri Fox replied, "As ready as I'll ever be I suppose."

"Well, just don't let 'em get the best of you." With a wicked grin, he reached out and lightly stroked her face as he added, "I wan'cha to save the best for me."

Playfully swatting at his hand, warm brown eyes sparkling, Kerri said, "You're incorrigible, Buck Wilmington!"

"Well, darlin' - " The man's comments were cut off by the sound of two voices, calling out to him.



With a soft groan, Wilmington dropped his head as he muttered, "Leave it to kids… never let two adults be alone for a minute."

Smiling broadly, the woman exited the truck cab. She immediately found herself set upon a tiny brunet dressed in denim shorts and a red tee-shirt, followed quickly by two half-grown dogs. Trailing behind them was a small blond who was also dressed in denim shorts, with a deep blue tee-shirt.

"Hi, I'm JD, I'm glad you wanted to meet me, do you think I'm cute like Da says? This is Elvis an' Ringo, an' that's Vin. Vin! Come an' say hi! You can come meet Chris an' Unca' 'Siah, an' Unca' Nathan an' Aunt Raine but Unca' Ezra ain't here right now 'cause he gots to be under covers. We're gonna eat in a little bit, but if you want me an' Vin can show you 'round, do you wanna see Torkus? He's feelin' a lot better now, but we still gotta be careful with 'im. Did Da tell you 'bout Torkus? It was a aksident but he got runned over but he can eat an' drink an' walk around ag'in. An' you can meet our horses. My horse's name's Milagro; that means miracle."


With a shocked expression, the child looked around to find that all of the adults had gathered around him, smiling as they all called out the familiar words. His eyes widened, and then he smiled. Cheerfully he crowed, "I AM BREATHIN'!"

The boys took great joy in showing Kerri around the ranch. Even Vin warmed up to the charming woman quickly. She let them lead her around; taking their hands as they all but ran from place to place. By the time they were called to eat, she had been introduced to every living creature on the place, and given a child's tour of the house.

Dinner was served, bowls of potato salad, macaroni salad, baked beans, and cole slaw complimented the grilled selections of hamburgers, hot dogs, pork chops and chicken tenders.

"My goodness, there's so much food," the visiting blonde said, "Are you sure you're not expecting an army?"

With a puzzled expression, Chris asked, "You have gone to dinner with Buck, haven't you, Kerri? The rest of us will be lucky to get half a burger."

"Oh, aren't you a funny, funny man," Wilmington groused, throwing a crumpled paper napkin at the broadly grinning blond.

"Uh-oh, Da, that's litterin'," JD warned as he watched the paper projectile bounce harmlessly off Larabee's shoulder and land on the grass.

"Yeah, Buck, what's wrong with you?" Chris said in a scolding tone as he reached down, picked up the paper and lobbed it back at his friend.

Deflecting the paper with his hand, Wilmington grimaced as it changed course and bounced off Kerri's cheek. "Sorry, darlin'."

"DA!" JD yelped in a shocked tone. "You hitted a girl!"

Grabbing up the mangled napkin and tossing it back at the big man, the Brit said, "Yeah, Buck, what's the matter with you?"

As the rest of the gathering laughed, Wilmington groaned as he said, "I'm outnumbered."

The group of family and friends enjoyed the hearty meal, settling in afterwards to enjoy some lively conversation. The other adults seemed to take great joy in telling Kerri the most awkward stories they could come up with concerning Buck. The mustached man's face took on an increasingly darkening red shade as each story seemed to be more embarrassing than the last.

The boys had abandoned the grown-ups as soon as their little tummies were full, going off to play with the dogs. From time to time one or the other would return to the group, as if touching base to make certain that they hadn't been forgotten. At one point, JD climbed into Kerri's lap, making himself at home. It didn't go unnoticed by the others that the endearing blonde simply snuggled him close as if they'd known one another for months rather than hours.

Big, hazel-brown eyes studying the woman for a moment, the little boy said, "Aunt Kerri?"

Happy tears filling her eyes at finding herself being so nonchalantly taken into the family, she said, "Yes, dear?"

"How come you talks funny?"

With a giggle, Kerri replied, "Well I was just going to ask you the same thing, JD."

"Me? I don't talk funny!"

"It's called an accent, Little Bit," Buck explained. "People in England, where Kerri lives, all talk like she does."

"But how come? How come peoples don't all talk the same?"

Shrugging, the big man said, "That's just the way it is, son."

Shaking his head, JD observed, "don't make sense. If peoples all talked the same it'd be a lot easier to un'erstand 'em."

As the afternoon sun slanted toward evening, the gathering began winding down as well. Raine and Kerri had become fast friends, Nathan's wife enjoying the fact that she had some female companionship at what had typically been an otherwise 'all-male' affair. The blond had endeared herself to everyone, the boys being particularly smitten with her. Following his little brother's lead, Vin began calling her "Aunt Kerri".

"Boys, I need you to come say 'bye to Kerri," Buck called. The rest of the visitors were getting ready to leave, and he and the young woman had made private plans for the evening.

Racing over from where they had been playing in the treehouse, the little blond and brunet all but tackled her. Laughing, she wrapped an arm around each boy and hugged them close.

"Bye, Aunt Kerri," Vin said shyly.

"When can you come back to see us?" JD asked.

The light faded in the woman's dark eyes. Giving the boys another squeeze, she let go and straightened. She looked around at the faces of each person around her, finally settling her gaze on Buck. "Well… it may be a while, I'm afraid."

Frowning, Wilmington said, "Are they changing your schedule?"

"Sort of," She said, absently chewing on her bottom lip. "I… well, I was offered a promotion with the airline."

A round of "congratulations" rang out from the others, and Buck reached out and gave her a hug. Then they grew quiet as they noticed her somber expression.

"Thank you, all of you. Not just for the congrats, but for welcoming me into your lives so wonderfully." With a sigh, Foxx continued. "It makes it a bit hard to say this, though. The promotion is wonderful; it's a position I've been working toward for several years. However…"

"Darlin', what is it?" Wilmington asked, his concern growing.

"Well… the new position is on the administrative side of the business. It means… well, it means that I'll only be coming to the states one or two times a year, rather than a month."

Buck's face fell, his eyes dimming with sadness as he realized what that meant to their relationship. While they had never made a

monogamous commitment to one another, he had come to rely on seeing her at least once a month when she came to the states. Clearing his throat, he said, "so… are you… have you accepted it?"

Eyes bright with tears, Kerri said, "Yes. I… it was a difficult decision, and I have to say that not seeing you made it even more so. But… well, it really is a wonderful opportunity."

Managing a smile, the big man said, "Well, then darlin', I reckon we'll just have to make the best of it."

Watching the unspoken emotions that both Buck and Kerri were struggling with, Chris said, "Buck? Maybe a… sleepover… would be in order here?"

Grinning at his friend's suggestion, Wilmington said, "Maybe." Turning to the young woman he asked, "What about it, darlin'? Mind having me in your life 'til you leave?"

"Can't think of anything I'd like better."

Da was real sad when he came back from his sleepover with Aunt Kerri.

Yeah, I thought sleepovers were supposed to be fun, but he said they didn't really do anything but stay in her hotel room.

I hope they didn't drink none of that stuff in the little refrigerator.

Well he didn't say anything about having to go to the hospital so I guess he was okay.

I really liked Aunt Kerri. I wish she could come over a lot.

Yeah, I'd like that, too. But Buck said she's got to stay in England to work.

Do you think we could go visit her over there?

I don't know, maybe.

It was sure a fun week, though.

Yeah, even if we had to go back to school.

I'm glad we got an extra day off this week.

Yeah, me too.


Yeah, Dad?

Time to get ready for bed.

???? Okay. Come on, JD.

???? Okay. Bye computer.

The End

Next up - Skunked by Meredith

Index - Puzzling Out Life's Little Lessons

Comments: LaraMee

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