by Angie

This is the result of one too many sad shows on the TV and a really deep blue funk. No one else has read it so any mistakes are all mine. It’s dedicated to all who lost loved ones. Kleenex warning – smarm warning!

It all started with the ringing of the phone. Vin stepped out of the shower and wrapped a towel around his hips as he padded quickly through the apartment. He picked up the receiver and answered.

“Tanner,” he said while he watched the rivulets of water run down and puddle on the floor around his feet. At first, he thought there was no one there until he heard the softly whispered voice.

“Vin? It’s Sadie.”

With three words, the call thrust Vin back through time. His heart surged and his grip on the receiver tightened. After swallowing a few times, he was able to speak again.

“Sadie? Where are you?”

“At the bus station. I need to see you. Please?” She sounded desperate and alarm bells began to ring in Vin’s brain. He glanced at the clock; he would be late for work.

“I’ll be there in 15 minutes. Will you be all right?”

“Please hurry! I need to see you,” she answered.

The Texan quickly dried off and pulled on clothes. As he was sliding behind the wheel of his beloved Jeep, he pulled his cell phone. He tried the ranch first and got the machine. Sighing, he dialed Chris’s cell.

“Chris, I’ll be late this morning. I’ll call you later, okay?”

“Is everything all right, Vin?” The team leader sounded concerned.

“I have to meet someone this morning. I’ll call you later,” Vin said again, hoping to put off a discussion of what was going on.

“Watch your back,” Chris said as he closed the cell phone.

There were a few people milling around the bus station when he pulled the Jeep into a parking space. He didn’t see Sadie outside and climbed out to go looking for her. Stepping into the building, he scanned the cavernous room. His gaze came to rest on a young woman sitting on the bench with a battered duffle bag on the floor at her side. He crossed the room and stopped, waiting for her to acknowledge him. When her brunette head rose, he was startled at her appearance.

“Vin! Oh God you look good,” she announced before coming slowly to her feet. She passed one arm around him and leaned against his chest. He returned the gentle embrace, resting his chin on the top of her head.

Memories swirled in his mind as he stood in the bus station with his arm around a woman he hadn’t seen in 10 years. She was shaking slightly and he tightened his arm around her. Drawing a deep breath, he released her and tipped her face up so he could study her eyes.

“How did you find me?” He asked.

A wistful smile crossed her face before she answered.

“I had a friend look you up on the web. It was easy,” she replied.

“How long are you gonna be here?”

“As long as you’ll have me,” came the hopeful response.

A warm smile lit his face as he pulled her bag from the floor and slung it over his shoulder. He slid his arm around her again and steered her toward the door. Tossing her bag into the back floorboard, he took her arm and helped her into the seat. He pulled the seatbelt and leaned across her as he buckled it, feeling the catch in her breath as he pressed against her. She flashed him a wan smile as he pulled away.

Parking outside of his apartment building, Vin hurried around the Jeep and helped Sadie out. He grabbed her bag and tossed it over his shoulder. Gripping her elbow, he helped her into the building. Seeing that the elevator was down again, he looked at the woman at his side.

“It’s four floors. Can you make it?” His concerned expression darkened his handsome features.

“Yeah, I’ll make it," sadie answered with a slight smile.

By the third floor, the young woman’s strength was waning. Her face was covered in a light sheen of perspiration and her steps slowed. Vin paused at the landing and watched her closely. When her flagging steps reached his side, he stopped her.

“If you stay right here for a minute, I’ll run up and drop your bag and come back for ya,” he offered.

“No, I’ll make it. You go ahead,” she gestured toward the next set of stairs.

By the time they reached the apartment, Vin was more than concerned about Sadie. She was drenched in sweat. He dropped her bag and lifted her into his arms. Her startled gasp of pain stalled him as he studied her face. The dark circles under her eyes accentuated how thin she was and he was startled at how little she weighed. Depositing her carefully on the couch, he grabbed the blanket from the back and covered her lightly.

“Can I get you anything?” He asked as he pressed his palm to her forehead.

“A glass of water and my bag, please?”

He brought her the water and pulled the bag to the side of the couch. She opened one of the outer pouches and pulled out a couple of pill bottles. Checking the labels, she opened one and shook a pill into her hand. She washed the pill down and sank back against the end of the couch.

“Okay? So tell me what’s going on. What’s wrong, Sadie?” Vin asked as he sat, cross-legged on the floor in front of the couch. Her trembling hand reached out and she caressed his cheek.

“I was so crazy about you,” she whispered. “I never stopped thinking about you after you left, you know?”

He wrapped his larger hand around hers and squeezed. In an expression of extreme tenderness, he pressed his lips to the back of her knuckles. Her breathing was jagged for several moments before she relaxed. When he reached out to stroke her face, she was unconscious.

Curiosity got the better of him as he pulled the medications out of the pouch. They all had her name on them and Vin only recognized a few of the drugs. Morphine patches, Oxycodone and Nexium he recognized, the rest were like Greek to him. He replaced the bottles and debated his options. Something was terribly wrong and he needed to know what. He picked up the phone and called the office.

“Chris, listen, I’m going to need some days off,” Vin launched without preamble.

“Is something wrong? Are you all right?” Chris immediately felt his chest tighten. The almost supernatural bond he shared with the sharpshooter had his senses tingling.

“It’s personal Chris. I can’t tell you any more than that right now. I need some time, okay?” Vin let his voice do the pleading and hoped that his friend and boss wouldn’t press the issue.

“Okay Vin, take as much time as you need. Keep in touch though,” Chris requested.

“I will. Thanks,” the Texan said before hanging up the phone. After checking on Sadie again, he went to the computer. He spent the next hour researching the names of the drugs he’d found in her bag. By the time she began to stir, he had an answer and his heart was heavy.

“Hey sleepyhead! You hungry?” Vin asked, forcing cheer into his voice that he didn’t really feel.

“Yeah, I could eat something. You cooking?" she asked as she sat up and pulled the blanket up closer around her.

“Nah, I figured we’d order in. What do you feel like? Still a pasta fanatic?” He asked with a teasing smile. When he’d seen her last, she was the foremost expert on pasta that he knew. Seeing her smile and nod, he picked up the phone.

Lunch arrived later and he brought it to her on the couch. He offered her a can of soda from the fridge and she refused, drinking water instead. She closed her eyes as she savored the rich white sauce on the cooked-to-perfection pasta. Like Vin, she avoided the large pieces of broccoli mixed into the dish. While she didn’t have as strong an aversion to green vegetables as he did, she just plain didn’t like broccoli. They both knew that the flavor of the dish was different without the annoying greenery, so they pushed it to the side of the plate. When Sadie sighed and let her head come to rest against the back of the couch, Vin decided that it was time for answers.

“You’ve got cancer?” he asked after taking away her plate. Her head came up sharply and he saw the tears that pooled in her eyes as she looked at him. He moved to sit beside her on the couch and reached for her hand.

“How did you figure it out?”

“From the meds in your bag. I looked it up on the Internet. What kind is it?” he asked, not really wanting to know but needing to all the same.

“Ovarian, incurable and deadly,” she said with surprising frankness.

“H-how long?” he asked as his hand moved nervously on hers.

“Not long. A couple of weeks, maybe less,” she whispered as she squeezed his hand. “I just wanted to see you one last time. God, I was so crazy about you!”

Vin stretched his arm around her and drew her up into his embrace. He could tell from her breathing that she was in pain but she clung to him anyway. Her arm wrapped around his neck and she pressed her forehead snuggly into his shoulder. She pushed against the arm of the couch with her feet until he lifted her into his lap. After several minutes of feeling her shudder in pain, he whispered into her ear.

“Is there anything you can do about the pain?”

“Anything strong enough to stop it makes me sleep all the time. They call it palliative care. Just hold me for a while, please?” She stared into his pale blue eyes before nuzzling against his neck.

That evening, she was feeling stronger. He left her to shower while he ordered supper for them. After they ate, he gathered her up in his arms again and they watched a movie. He chewed on his lip as he fought the urge to force her to take something for the pain. She asked him rub her back, that it helped and he carried her to his bed to lay her down.

By midnight, the pain was unbearable and she asked him for the morphine patches. He watched as she tried to open the bottle with trembling hands. Taking the bottle, he withdrew one of the patches and removed the protective foil covering.

“Where?” he asked.

She pulled up her sweatshirt and guided his hand into placing the patch on her stomach. Applying pressure to his hand, she urged it in gentle circles. He watched as the powerful narcotic took control and her eyes became glassy and unfocused. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she clung to his hand.

“Don’t fight it. Rest and I’ll be here when you wake up,” he told her.

“It steals what little time I have left,” she whimpered as she pulled him closer.

Vin gathered her into his arms as he spooned around her and brushed his lips against the nape of her neck. The audible sigh she made brought tears to his eyes. All night, he lay drifting in and out of sleep as he held her.

The palest streaks of dawn were coloring the sky when he felt her move again. She rolled over and snuggled against his chest as her arm rested across his stomach. His hands ran up and down her back in feather light touches.

“I need to ask a favor of you,” she finally said.

“Anything,” he answered.

“There’s some papers in my bag. My will. I want to be cremated and my ashes scattered some place beautiful. I already paid for everything, you just have to call the number on the papers and they will take care of everything. I didn’t know who else to turn to,” she said.

“I’ll do whatever you want,” he whispered around the lump in his throat.

For the next few days, Vin catered to her every wish. He took her for a long drive in the mountains to the most beautiful place he knew. They watched the sun rise and set before returning to his apartment. They watched old movies together. Sadie seemed to be rallying, her color improved a little and she wasn’t in as much pain it seemed.

The team called every day to check on Vin. Chris couldn’t shake the overpowering sense of melancholy that was invading his soul. He pleaded to stop by the apartment but Vin asked him to wait. Assurances that everything would be explained in time pacified him. Josiah called, offering to bring anything that the sharpshooter might need and was politely thanked and declined.

After fielding the fourth or fifth call in one day, Sadie stared at Vin.

“You should go back to work. I didn’t mean for you to stay with me all the time. I don’t want you to lose your job or anything,” she said.

“I’m not in danger of losing my job. I have leave time saved up. The guys are just worried about me.”

“It sounds like you found a family,” she chided.

“I have. At first, I didn’t even realize it. We were just a bunch of guys working together. You’d like Chris. He and I connected immediately. He can tell more about me with a glance than most people could in a lifetime. He lost his wife and son in a car bombing. Buck says that he almost died of grief. Oh, you’d like Buck, too. His heart is as big as the great outdoors. He has this incredible fountain of love that he pours out like the rain. He kept Chris alive until he was strong enough to want to live again.”

Vin got up and brought a blanket to wrap around Sadie before he continued.

“And then there’s JD. You remember little Jimmy Padlowski? If you can imagine it, JD is Jimmy grown up. He’s all this energy and enthusiasm and he just embraces the world. Sometimes, JD makes me tired just watching him. And Nathan, he’s our team medic. He’s always on me about my diet. He’s a good, gentle man. He’s always taking care of us and worrying on us. Kind of like Josiah. He’s the oldest one of the team. His daddy was a missionary. He’s been all over the world and knows all kinds of interesting things. His voice just makes you feel calm when he talks.”

The doorbell interrupted the conversation and Vin got up to answer the door. He quietly explained to Marta, the little girl who lived across the hall, that he had a guest and that she would have to come back another time. Sadie caught bits and pieces of the conversation in Spanish and smiled.

“I didn’t know you spoke Spanish,” she said as he eased in behind her on the couch again.

“Learned it on the streets after I left,” he explained. “Now where was I? I told you about Chris and Buck, and JD, Nathan and Josiah. That just leaves Ezra P. Standish. He’s our undercover agent. You’d like him too. He’s a real character. All this charm and sophistication on the outside covering an insecure little boy on the inside. It took us forever to convince him to let his guard down. He had it rough growing up. I wish you could meet all of them, you’d really like them.”

“Why can’t I?" sadie asked as she struggled to turn around to face him.

“You want to? I didn’t know how you were feeling and I don’t want to over tire or stress you,” he quickly defended. Deep down, he was scared of how she would react to all of them and how they would react to her.

“I would love to meet your family. It’ll comfort me to know that you won’t be alone when I…” she began.

“Don’t!" he said. “Please don’t say it, okay?”

“But you know it’s going to happen. Every day I live is another day but eventually it’s going to happen,” she reminded him.

Vin’s hand tightened on her chin and he kissed her. His eyes burned into her soul and she blinked back tears. Catching hold of his hand, she pressed a kiss against his lips. He opened his mouth slightly and she brushed her tongue against his. After a minute, she shifted her weight until she could sit straddle of his thighs. Running her fingers through his hair, she placed searing kisses along his jaw to his ear.

“I’m still crazy about you,” she breathed before running the tip of her nose around the shell of his ear. She felt the shudder that coursed through him as she nipped at his neck.

Vin’s head lolled back as she continued to set his senses on fire. His desire for her soon had him squirming in discomfort. She slid one hand between their bodies and under his shirt. The moment her fingers brushed, feather light, along his ribs, he groaned softly. His hands began their own path of discovery up her back. In his mind, they were both teenagers again, exploring love for the first time. As his fingertips encountered her bra, his thoughts were taken back to a summer’s day.

It was one of the last foster homes Vin had been in before he left for the last time. He knew that the caseworker had done some fast-talking to get him in there because the family had only taken small children before. The Kline’s were an older couple who lived on a farm. They had agreed to take on the teen Tanner because they could use the help. For Vin, it was a little slice of heaven. It was where he met Sadie.

Sadie Kline was just about the prettiest thing he had ever seen. She was kind to the lonely, displaced boy suddenly thrust into their midst. Her shy smiles led to furtive kissing in the barn after a few weeks. One dreary Saturday, the two teens were left alone at the house, as the adults had gone into town to run errands.

Neither one had any experience with sex. Both were absolutely terrified of getting caught.

It started with kissing. They had kissed before. It gave way to touching and exploring. Vin ran his hands up and down her back, holding her more tightly against his hips as his desire made itself known. She pulled one of his hands up and guided it to her breast. The deep ache she was experiencing turned to tingles of pleasure as he gently massaged the tender mound of flesh.

The two teens, shy and unsure of themselves, slowly undressed each other. Although Vin had seen pictures of nude and semi nude women before, it didn’t compare with the real thing. His fingers danced over her body as she made pleasured moans and whimpers. He kissed her neck and shoulders as he rubbed his body against hers. She writhed and squirmed as she pushed his lips toward her breasts.

Afterwards, Vin sat bathed in a cold sweat as he realized what he had done. Her cry of pain and the blood on their bodies told him all he needed to know. He was in trouble. She tried to placate him, explaining that it was normal for that to happen the first time and that it hadn’t really hurt that bad.

In the end, she pleaded with him not to tell her parents and that they wouldn’t mention it again. Unfortunately, some things are difficult to avoid. Passion flared between the young people until the inevitable happened, they were caught. Mr. Kline snatched Vin away from Sadie and flung him against the wall. He would have taken his fists to the dazed young man if his daughter had not stayed his hand.

It took less than an hour for the caseworker to arrive to take him away. Vin packed his things while listening to Sadie scream at her father. The sound of a sharp slap turned the screaming into sobbing and Vin’s hands shook as he shoved his meager belongings into a duffle bag. It was the last time he saw her.

Realization of what he wanted to do was like a bucket of ice water being thrown on him and Vin’s hands tightened on Sadie and pushed her away.

“What?” she gasped, passion leaving her slightly confused by his sudden stop.

“I can’t,” he said as he fought to regain control of his body. “I just can’t!”

“Why? Vin, talk to me,” she pleaded. “I need you.”

“I can’t. I don’t want to … hurt you again,” he replied.

“Oh, baby, you never hurt me! What you and I did together was beautiful! Please, please love me again. I need you,” she whispered as she strained to get close to him again.

“But, you’re sick. I don’t want to …” He couldn’t frame his protest in words but it shimmered brightly in his eyes.

“It won’t hurt me, Vin. The cancer is inside me. I need this. Please?” she pleaded as her hands caressed his face.

Gathering Sadie in his arms, Vin carried her to the bedroom. He made love to her gently. Afterwards, she cuddled with him and they reminisced about their hopes and their dreams. When she was soundly asleep, Vin slipped from the bed and called Chris.

Things at the office had been quiet. The team had been called upon to provide backup for Team 2 on a bust the day before and they were just filling out the required paperwork. Chris felt a tingle of excitement as he saw Vin’s number on the caller ID after the phone rang.

“Hey Vin, you ready to come back to work?”  he said as soon as he picked up.

“Chris, can you call the guys together and put me on the speaker?” Vin asked.

When the team was all gathered in the office, Chris put the call on the speaker.

“Okay, we’re all here. What’s up?” the team leader asked.

“I wanted to know if you all would be willing to be at the ranch tomorrow around noon if that’s all right with you, Chris. There’s someone I want you to meet,” the sharpshooter explained.

“Sure, we can do that. Who is she?” Chris asked.

“A friend from a long time ago,” Vin answered evasively. “I just wanted to warn you, she has cancer. She’s dying and she came to me for … aw hell, I don’t know why she came to me. I want her to meet you but I just wanted you to know so you weren’t surprised or nothing.”

“Do you need any help?” Nathan asked hesitantly.

“No, we’re all right. I just wanted her to meet everybody. I already told her about you and she wants,” Vin’s voice cracked with emotion. His ragged breathing was evident through the speaker. “She wants to know I’ll be taken care of when she’s gone.” The softly muted sobs carried clearly in the office where none of the team dared to so much as breathe.

“We’ll be there for you, son,” Josiah said around the lump in his throat.

The next day, the six members of the team gathered at the ranch, awaiting the arrival of the seventh. Nathan had cautioned all of them about what to expect with regard to her appearance or behavior. Although they were most concerned with JD, he was the one who had most recently dealt with the wasting death of a loved one and probably had the greatest understanding of them all. When the Jeep arrived, they hung back, not wanting to rush out and crowd Vin. It was evident immediately that he was pampering her as much as she would allow. There seemed to be some disagreement between them as to whether or not she could make it up the slight incline to the house. She glared at him and he settled for holding her elbow as she walked.

“I like her already,” Chris whispered to the others.

When they entered the house, the rest of the team was standing in the living room. Vin dropped a bag under the hall tree and led his friend forward.

“Everybody, this is Sadie Kline,” Vin said as he coaxed her into the room.

Nathan’s experienced eye told him that the young woman was seriously anemic. He studied her pallor and the way that she moved and guessed that she was also in great pain. It was obvious that the loose fitting clothing was meant to disguise the wasting of her flesh. He could see that her hands looked like a skeleton with tight gloves on.

“Can I get you anything?” the medic inquired.

“You must be Nathan,” she said with a twinkle in her eyes. “He told me you would be the first to ask.”

An awkward, embarrassed blush crept into Nathan’s cheeks as he studied the floor for a moment.

As soon as everyone recovered from their initial discomfort, conversation flowed easily between them. Vin settled Sadie comfortably on the couch and hovered close to her. The others arranged themselves around the room. They discussed the happenings at the office and caught the sharpshooter up on all the latest gossip. Friendly little tidbits of information about their favorite Texan were passed along to the woman. When it became too much, Vin moved Sadie to Chris’s bedroom and replaced the morphine patch. He sat with her until she was soundly asleep.

The living room was eerily quiet when Vin returned.

“Well?” he asked.

“We like her,” Chris said.

“She’s obviously thriving under your care,” Nathan offered.

The next couple of hours were spent talking and not talking about the young woman sleeping in the next room. Vin would start talking about her and then fall silent. None of them pressed him, they just went on about something else.

Vin went to check on Sadie, to see if she was ready to return to the apartment. As soon as he touched her, he knew something was wrong.

“Nathan!” he shouted, fear tinting his voice.

The medic burst into the room with the others in tow. He moved in close to Sadie and began to examine her. Her temperature was 103.6 and her breathing was rapid and shallow. He turned to the group crowding the doorway.

“Bring me her bag,” he directed of JD.

“Vin, I have to know something. Did she give you any papers? Any instructions about how she wanted things handled?”

The look of betrayal that shone from the pale blue eyes was painful to watch. Vin opened his mouth to reply before he began to shudder. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he lowered his eyes to Sadie. JD put the bag on the end of the bed and reached out to touch Vin’s back. The look of anguish on the younger man’s face reminded all of them poignantly that he had been down this road not long ago. Nathan dug through the bag and pulled out the envelope. His eyes scanned the pages before he folded them and replaced them in the bag.

“She has a DNR, a ‘do not resuscitate’ order in there. Do you understand what that means, Vin?” Nathan asked gently. Vin was staring at Sadie and stroking her hands.

“She don’t want to be hooked up to machines. She told me that already. I’m just not ready for this, not yet,” he pleaded as he looked up at the medic.

“There isn’t anything we can do for her, Vin.”

Nathan left and the others moved in to offer whatever comfort they could to their friend. Josiah knelt and prayed with them before administering last rites. Buck was silent as he stood behind Vin, supporting him physically with his presence. Ezra spoke but the comforting words were beyond the anguished man on the bed.

Peripherally, Vin was aware that JD had not returned and when the reason slammed into his mind, he began to shake. Raising his head, he sought his young friend.

“JD, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for you to have to go through this,” he whispered.

Shock registered on JD’s face as he realized that Vin was apologizing reminding him of his mother. He crossed the room and knelt to wrap his arms around the Texan’s waist. Clinging to Vin, JD wept.

When Nathan returned, he brought a cardiac monitor.

“Vin, we need to know when it’s over, all right? This won’t hurt her at all. Okay?” He waited for some sign of acknowledgement before moving to attach the pads and wires. He turned the volume down so that he could only just barely hear it.

The hours passed slowly that night. Vin sat on the edge of the bed blaming himself for what was happening. If he hadn’t made love to her last night, she might not be dying right now. If he hadn’t brought her all the way to the ranch to meet the others, she might not be dying right now. The pain in his soul was becoming unbearable.

The others took turns sitting with Vin throughout the night. He shared his memories of Sadie with them. The soft tones of the cardiac monitor assured him that she was still alive even as his eyes told him that she was almost gone. It was to Chris that he confided his deepest secret.

“She was the first girl I ever made love to. We were so young!” he exclaimed.

“There is something very special about the first time for a man,” Chris agreed.

“Not just me, it was her first time too. I was scared out of my wits. She had blood on her and I was about to shit a brick. I’d never heard that would happen.”

“It’s hard to imagine you were ever that young and innocent sometimes,” Chris teased. He saw a weak smile cross Vin’s face.

As the first shades of dawn colored the sky, Sadie opened her eyes. Vin was in a trance-like state, hypnotized by the monitor and exhaustion. Her deeper, shaky breath snapped him right awake.

“Vin?" she whispered.

“Hey, you had me worried,” he returned.

“Is it morning yet?" she asked.

“Almost. The sun’s just crawling up the mountains.”

“Can I watch it with you?" she whispered.

Ezra was with them and he carefully switched the monitor to the battery before unplugging it and picking it up to follow Vin. The sharpshooter gathered Sadie in his arms and carried her out to the deck. He settled with her into the glider as the southerner tucked the blankets around her snuggly. Ezra pulled back to give the couple some privacy as he heard the young woman whispering her love to Vin. When he noticed the first irregular rhythm on the monitor, he went to waken the others.

The team gathered on the deck to watch the sunrise with Vin and Sadie. When the Texan called for them to come around where she could see them, they immediately moved. In spite of her temperature and the glassy, unfocused look in her eyes, Sadie spoke softly and clearly.

“I just wanted to ask you to look after him for me. He feels guilty about this no matter how many times I tell him not to. If I had known how sweet it was going to be with him, I would have looked him up a long time ago. I was so … crazy … about … … him,” she whispered.

The irregular sound of the monitor took up a different sound. The flat line alarm was as piercing as any knife. Vin’s arms tightened on Sadie and he buried his face in her shoulder and shook as the wracking sobs left his body. JD was the first to kneel and reach out to Vin, sharing his pain. Chris was next and then Buck. Ezra was shaking when Josiah reached out to steady him and they both dropped next to the glider to reach over the others to touch Vin. Nathan reached out and shut off the monitor before pulling his cell phone. He moved away from the group as he made the necessary calls.

Buck and JD remained with Vin as the others backed away. The county coroner arrived and was advised of the situation. He collected the information from the cardiac monitor and took possession of all the rest of Sadie’s medicine to be disposed of safely. The ladies man was the first to notice the stranger and he began to try to prepare Vin.

“She’s gone now, son. She’s not hurting anymore,” Buck stroked the back of Vin’s head as he spoke.

JD wiped his tears on his sleeve and looked up at the stranger. He, too, tried to coax Vin into surrendering the body. “Come on, we’ll help you,” he urged as he came to his feet.

Vin looked up and shook his head at the man standing so close.

“No, not yet, please?” His anguish was painfully obvious.

Chris tried to assert his authority. “Vin, you have to let her go now.”

Shaking his head, Vin buried his face in her shoulder again. His hands shook as he drew her up closer. The slight rocking motion swayed the glider and his sobs increased in volume. The coroner moved in and reached out to touch Sadie. The Texan glared at him and pulled away.

“I just have to confirm her death, son,” he said gently.

It took several minutes for Vin to surrender the body. He allowed Josiah to take her as he clung to JD and Buck. The coroner, who was also a licensed, practicing physician, handed Nathan a sedative for Vin. The body was loaded on the stretcher and taken away. Nathan grabbed a glass of water and went to the anguished young man.

“Here, take this, it will calm your nerves,” he urged. That Vin took the pill at all was a shock. That he didn’t question it was a sign of how lost he was. Buck coaxed him into the guest bedroom and sat with him until he was deeply, soundly asleep.

“Do we need to make arrangements?” Chris asked.

“No, she took care of everything before she got here. Those papers in her bag were instructions. She’s to be cremated and it’s all paid for in advance,” Nathan explained. “I’ll put in for a bereavement leave for Vin first thing Monday. It’s going to take him a while to get over this.”

The next night, Vin tossed fretfully in his sleep. He had refused another sedative and was having a nightmare. The scene from the barn played over and over in his mind. The smell of the sweet hay and the coy scent of the perfume Sadie wore were burned indelibly in his mind. A sweet ache built up as he remembered making love to her. Suddenly, she was there in the room with him. Vin gasped at the sight of her, as she now looked healthy and glowingly beautiful.

“Sadie? Is it really you?”

“Oh Vin, sweetheart, you’re going to be all right. You have your friends at your back. I’m so glad that we had the chance to be together. You were the first and last love of my life. I will be with you always. I’ll be the sun on your face and the breeze in your hair. Just know that I loved you.”

Vin opened his eyes to the sun peeking through the curtains on the window of the guest room at the ranch. He had a sudden urge to go out and watch the sun rise over the mountains. He pulled on his jeans and slipped outside. A heavy morning dew hung in the air and the rising sun cast a rainbow of unbelievable size and color in the sky. As he stood watching the scene unfold, some of the pain in his heart loosened and he sighed.

On the next Saturday, the team gathered with Vin. A procession of vehicles followed the Jeep into the mountains. When they reached the place where he had taken Sadie, they stopped. Vin walked to the edge of the high precipice and opened the container of ashes. Staring into the brilliant sunlight, he felt his eyes burn as he opened the jar and began to pour the ashes into the slight breeze. When the container was empty, he replaced the lid and turned to face the others. No words were exchanged as he walked back to the Jeep and left.

It was almost two weeks later that the certified letter arrived at the office for Vin. He didn’t recognize the address and opened the envelope carefully. Several pictures spilled from the heavy paper as he unfolded it. His heartbeat quickened as he looked at the pictures. A little girl smiled in what looked to be a school picture. Lining the pictures on the desk, it was apparent that there was one a year from birth to the present. With shaking hands, he unfolded the pages and scanned the letter. It was from an attorney in Texas. Sadie had given birth to a little girl just eight months after Vin left the Kline family. She named the girl Tanner and gave her up for adoption. The family agreed to send a picture of her every year to the attorney. In the letter, the attorney acknowledged the receipt of Sadie’s death certificate and said that he would forward the pictures as they came. Picking up the most recent picture, he felt tears rolling down his cheeks. The girl so resembled her mother that it hurt to look at her.

Chris noticed that Vin seemed upset and wandered to the sharpshooter’s desk to see what was wrong. He saw the row of pictures and picked up the letter. As understanding dawned, the team leader placed a comforting hand on his young friend’s shoulder. As the pale blue eyes tipped up, they were full of tears.

“She had to give up the baby, her parents wouldn’t let her keep it,” Vin said sadly.

“She looks happy,” Chris offered.

“Yeah, but I’ll never get to know her,” the Texan countered.

“There’s a website where you can register the information about yourself so that she can find you when she starts looking. She’ll be old enough in a few years,” the blond said by way of encouragement.

“And her mother will still be dead. I have a child out there. I never gave up my rights!” Vin announced. “I want to meet her, get to know her.”

Ezra made some discrete inquiries and found out that the girl lived with her adopted family in the Oklahoma panhandle. After contacting the attorney who had sent Vin the pictures, the southerner took a few days leave. When he returned, he handed an envelope to the sharpshooter.

“Tanner McKindry plays the piano and takes tumbling classes. She is the only child of Jack and Maisy McKindry, who cannot have children of their own. She knows that she is not the biological child of the people she knows as her parents. They have told her that her mother and father were too young to be able to take care of her properly. She believes that they loved her so much that they wanted her to have a good home. Her parents are willing for you to meet her if you want,” Ezra said softly as Vin flipped through the pictures in the envelope.

“She’s happy and loved?” Vin asked.

“Yes. Her parents dote on her. She is a very happy, well adjusted little girl,” Ezra confirmed.

“Did you get to talk to her?”

“No, I watched her from a distance. I thought you should have the opportunity to decide if you want to meet her now or wait until she’s older,” the southerner replied.

It was several weeks before Vin reached a decision. He sent a letter and photographs of himself and of Sadie to the McKindry’s. He assured them that he didn’t want to do anything to upset the child. He asked that they show her the picture and tell her that they both loved her. He left it up to them whether or not to tell her that her birth mother was dead. From then on, he would wait until she was ready to meet him.