New Kid on the Block
#6 - Happily Ever After?

by Angie

Okay, it took longer than I expected to finish the story. Thanks to everyone who has commented on the story as it went on its convoluted course. Hopefully, it was worth the wait.

Buck closed his eyes on the plane, hoping that Ezra would take the hint and leave him alone. His mind was in turmoil over the situation with Magda. Thankfully, the southerner sat silently, reading through a book he’d brought along. He also steered the stewardess away from his anguished friend. The flight was smooth and mercifully brief. At the Salt Lake airport, they deplaned quickly with their bags. Ezra kept a hand on Buck’s forearm, guiding him to the car rental counter. The Ford Taurus was brought to the doors and they headed for the hotel Nathan had arranged.

At the hotel, Buck kicked off his shoes and collapsed across one of the queen-sized beds in the room. It took some coaxing, but Ezra finally convinced him that he would feel better if he at least took off his belt and shoulder holster. Once he had the big man up, he did manage to convince him to change into pajamas.

Six hours later, Ezra awoke to the phone ringing insistently on the nightstand. Remembering the wakeup call he had asked for when they checked in, he rolled over and picked up the phone. He decided to let Buck sleep while he showered and dressed, figuring that he needed the rest. Almost an hour later, he gently shook the snoring man.

“Buck? You need to wake up now,” he said softly.

“Hmm? Oh, Ezra. Yeah, thanks,” Buck said as he pushed up from the bed. After a quick shower and shave, he was ready to go to the federal holding facility. Ezra insisted that they had time to stop for a bite to eat.

At the restaurant, Buck was silent. He drank the coffee Ezra nudged toward him but only picked at the plate of food. Finally, he pushed the plate away and turned to stare out the window. Ezra finished his meal and paid the check. Coming to his feet and pulling on his coat, he rested a hand on Buck’s shoulder.

“It’s time.”

The federal holding facility was an intimidating place. The car was thoroughly searched at the outermost fence. As soon as they identified themselves as ATF agents, they were escorted to the main building. Led to a side entrance, they were taken to a bunker-like room where they were divested of their weapons. Led to still another room, they were made to wait. Buck paced like a caged tiger. Some forty-five minutes later, they were taken to a small room devoid of anything that might make it comfortable or appealing. A steel table was bolted to the floor and two chairs sat on either side of it. A bench ran the length of the far wall. An observation window with one-way glass faced the hall. Buck stopped outside of the room and turned to face the guard.

“Where’s Magda?”

“She will be brought along in a few minutes. Please make yourselves comfortable,” the guard answered as he gestured toward the room. Buck looked up the hall again before sighing and entering the room.

Left alone in the room, Ezra moved close to his friend and teammate. “Remember that they may be listening in on our conversation. Take care with what you say.”

“Thanks, Ezra, I’ll remember that.”

Five minutes later, the door opened again and the guard checked the room again before nodding to someone else. Two female guards led Magda to the doorway and held her while they removed the wrist and ankle cuffs. After rubbing one wrist, Magda looked to see who was in the room.

“Buck! Oh my God, I can’t believe it’s you!” Magda cried as she launched herself at him. Buck caught her and crushed her to his chest. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail. The orange, prison issue jumpsuit was too large and hung on her body. When she pulled away from him, she smiled. “Tell me, how is Steven? Is he doing all right? I miss him so much!”

“He’s fine. He misses you and he’s worried about you.”

“You didn’t tell him that I’m in here, did you? Please, please don’t tell him! Buck, promise me that you won’t tell my son what has happened!”

Buck took hold of Magda’s upper arms and held her firmly. “Get a hold of yourself! I didn’t tell him anything except that I was coming to see you. He was afraid.”

“Don’t tell him. As soon as I get out of here, I’ll come and get him. Just don’t tell him where I am. It’ll all be all right as soon as I get out of here.”

“Do you have a lawyer?”

“Whatever for?”

“Magda, do you have any idea of the charges they’re bringing against you?”

“Charges? They don’t have anything on me. They’re just fishing. You’ll see, I’ll be out of here very soon. Then I can be with my son again,” Magda said. “How is Steven doing? Is he well?”

Buck turned a confused expression to Ezra. The southerner gave a slight shrug of his shoulders to indicate that he didn’t know either.

“Your son is a most delightful child, Ma’am. He’s quite intelligent and doing well in school,” Ezra offered.

“He’s such a handsome boy, isn’t he? So much like his father,” she countered. For the next half hour, the woman went on and on about Steven. Every time Buck tried to discuss her arrest, she changed the subject.

“Magda! What’s wrong with you?” Buck asked as he came to his feet to tower over her.

“Wrong? Whatever could be wrong?”

As Buck drew a breath to answer her, the door opened and the guard stepped inside. “Time for her to go back to her cell.”

“I … I brought her a letter from her … our son, may I give it to her?”

“Only after it’s been through the screener. If you give it to me, I’ll see that she gets it later today,” the guard said as she held out her hand. Buck looked to Ezra and then back to the guard.

“May I borrow your pen? I want to write my phone number on this so she can call our son. Please? Tomorrow’s Christmas, they’ll let her make a phone call, won’t they?”

“They might. If she hasn’t done anything to get her privileges taken away,” the guard replied as she gave him the pen. While Buck was writing the phone number on the envelope, the guard drew Magda to her feet and cuffed her hands again.

“Here, this is my number at the ranch, if she could call around eleven? I’ll make sure the line is free so she can get through,” Buck said as he returned the pen and gave up the envelope.

“I’ll see what I can do,” the guard said. She paused, waiting for them to say their final goodbyes.

“Magda, if you need anything, call me. I’ll take good care of Steven. Please call him tomorrow, he needs to hear from you,” Buck said as he stepped closer. She leaned toward him and pressed her cheek against his chest for a moment. The guard cleared her throat and nodded toward the door. Ezra moved to take hold of Buck and lead him out of the room.

Neither man spoke until they reached the guard desk. Buck looked at Ezra, his heart shining brightly in his cobalt eyes. “She sounds … crazy, doesn’t she?”

“Being confined in small spaces can do strange things to a person’s mind,” the southerner answered.

“Gentlemen, may I have a word with you?”

Both men turned to face the speaker. The prison chaplain stood in the doorway watching them. A look passed between the two men before Buck nodded and moved to follow the man. They were led to a large, homey office. The chaplain gestured toward the chairs that sat in a semicircle around a fireplace. When all three were seated, the man spoke again.

“I understand you were here to see Magdalena Sorvotni.”

“Yes?” Buck responded.

“I just wanted to meet you. Ms. Sorvotni has been reluctant to give any information about herself, her family or her friends. Are you an old friend of hers?”

Before Buck could reply, Ezra spoke. “They share a child together. She abandoned the boy on Mr. Wilmington a couple of months ago after being absent from his life for a decade.”

“Relax, please. I don’t work for the government. Nothing you tell me goes any farther than this room. It’s just that, with the holiday coming, I was concerned about her,” the chaplain said quickly.

“If I give you my phone number, … could you … get her to call our son? Steven is so worried about her. I don’t think they’ve ever been apart for this long or over the holiday,” Buck said.

“Of course, I’d be glad to handle that for you. It would do her good, I think, give her something to look forward to. If you’ll just write the number for me, I’ll speak to her guards and have her brought here to make the call,” the chaplain offered. Buck took the small notebook and began to write. He added his address and cell phone number.

“If anything happens to her or if she needs anything, will you call me?”

“Certainly, may I put this in her file?”

Buck shrugged his shoulder. He didn’t care as long as she called Steven. Seeing that the men were not in a talkative mood, the chaplain rose and showed them back to the desk where they had surrendered their weapons.

In the car again, Ezra noticed the tense set of Buck’s jaw and the fist clenched tightly in his lap. Deciding to give him a while to think, he reached out and turned on the radio. They rode to the airport with only classical music filling the air between them.

At the ranch, Chris found that he had his hands full. JD awakened after only a few hours of sleep, crying for his Da. Vin tried to comfort him before coming in and waking his father. Steven lay stiffly on his bed, choking back his own tears and wiping them away on the sleeve of his pajamas. Rather than take the boys to bed with him, the blond carried his blankets into the other room and settled on the floor between the beds. An hour later, he felt a small body joining him on the floor and snuggled JD to his chest as he went back to sleep.

In the morning, he got up and started breakfast for them. His heart ached for the boys as they sat silently in the living room, staring at the television. Not even the rambunctious actions of the pups could stir them to play. Only Vin had any appetite, eating all of the food on his plate. The other two boys ate about half before they resorted to pushing the pieces around on the plate.

“Scrape off your plates and put them in the sink. Go get on some warm clothes, we’re going for a ride,” Chris said to all of the boys.

“On the horses?” Vin asked hopefully, the recent deep snows had prevented them from taking the horses out for the past few weeks.

“Yeah, just up and down the driveway a few times. It’ll be good for them.”

Steven swallowed hard and said nothing. He scraped the food from his plate and put it in the sink. He followed the others to the bedroom and began pulling on thermals and heavy jeans. A half hour later, he followed Chris and the others down to the barn. Dropping onto a bale of hay, he watched as the other boys eagerly brushed Peso and Milagro. Chris worked silently in another stall, brushing Pony and getting him saddled. He walked the horse out of the stall and flipped the reins around a rail before he moved to helping the boys with their saddles.

Finally, the horses were led out of the barn. Steven hung back, hoping they would leave him sit. He had told his father that he hadn’t ever been around horses but the truth was that he was terrified of the large animals. Chris called for him and motioned with his hand for the older child.

“Come on, Steven, let’s get you up here.” He patted the saddle and waited. The dark haired child cautiously approached and eyed the horse apprehensively. Chris took hold of the boy and lifted him into the saddle. Looking back, he saw that Vin had helped JD to mount and was struggling to get his boot into his own stirrup. Chris waited to see if the child would ask for help or if he could manage it on his own. Finally, with a grunt of pride, Vin pulled himself up into the saddle and leaned over to pat Peso. Giving both boys a nod, he pulled up into the saddle behind Steven and nudged the horse toward the driveway. He could feel the tension radiating off of the youngster’s body. Slipping his arm around the boy’s stomach, he drew him back against his coat.

“Dad! Look at the deer!” Vin called excitedly as he pointed toward the rolling hills. A small herd of deer had come out of the woods to nibble at the tall grass that had not succumbed completely to the heavy snow.

They stopped to watch the deer for a few minutes before Peso decided he’d had enough of standing still and neighed loudly, startling the deer back into the woods. Chris looked back, expecting to see disappointment on Vin’s face. Instead, the blue-eyed child laughed, throwing back his head as he did. Seeing Vin laugh, JD giggled softly and Chris looked down to see that Steven was smiling too.

After riding for a while, they returned the horses to the barn for a good brushing and some extra treats before heading to the house. While the boys changed out of their heavy clothes, Chris put together hot soup and grilled cheese sandwiches for them. After lunch, they all piled up in the living room in front of the fireplace and watched a movie until the boys dropped off to sleep. In the quiet of the naps, Chris thought about Buck.

At the Salt Lake airport, Ezra steered Buck into a restaurant and insisted that he eat something. Although he denied that he was hungry, when the food arrived, he dug right in. When the waitress removed the dishes and took their dessert orders, the southerner decided that it was time to talk.

“Are you going to be all right?”

After a long pause, Buck nodded. “Yeah, I think so. I don’t know what I expected. She’s always been flighty. I just hope she calls Steven tomorrow.”

“I think the good chaplain will do his best to make sure she does. Have you thought about what you’re going to tell Steven?”

“No, I guess I’ll wait to see what she tells him tomorrow.”

With that plan in place, Ezra turned the conversation to more pleasant things. In a few minutes, they were smiling and laughing about what the boys were going to say and do about their Christmas gifts. By the time their flight was called, Buck was acting much more like his old self, smiling and flirting harmlessly with all things female.

After their naps, Chris kept the boys busy getting things ready for the Christmas dinner. He put all three of them to work scrubbing and peeling vegetables and mixing cookie dough while the pies baked. With the radio blasting Christmas music, Chris soon had the house filled with the smells of the holiday. As he was pulling a pan of cookies from the oven, the phone rang.

“These are hot, don’t touch them,” Chris warned before moving to pick up the phone. He was relieved to hear Buck’s voice on the other end. After assuring himself that his friend was all right, he hung up the phone. As he headed back into the kitchen, Steven stopped him.

“Was that my dad?”

“Yeah, he wanted to let me know they were getting on the plane. He’ll be here in a few hours.”

“Did he see my mom?”

“Yes, he did.”

Instead of more questions, the boy nodded and turned back toward the kitchen. As Chris entered the room, he heard a slight giggle. Scanning the pan of cookies he had removed from the oven, he noticed the cookie missing. A quick look at Vin and JD told him where the missing treat had gone. Both boys had melted chocolate smudged around their lips.

“Did you boys have a cookie?” he asked gruffly.

Steven moved closer to the other two boys and shared their contrite expressions. He had smudges of chocolate on his pants where he had wiped his fingers. Chris managed to hold back his grin for all of sixty seconds before he gave in and let them off the hook.

After supper, the boys divided to get cleaned up. Vin begged to be allowed to shower in his dad’s room and Chris made him promise to be very careful and clean up after himself. He ran a bath for JD and added a generous amount of bubble bath. Some time later, he heard the child singing and grabbed the camcorder. Cautiously, he slipped the door open and stuck the camera through the opening. In a sweet, light voice, he heard JD singing.

“I want a hippopotamus for Christmas. Only a hippopotamus will do. I don’t want no toy, no stinky tinker toy …”

Finally, all three boys were bathed and dressed for bed. They set up a plate of cookies and a thermos of milk for Santa near the fireplace before snuggling down on the couch to watch ‘Frosty the Snowman’ and ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.’ Before the movies were over, all three boys were asleep. One by one, he carried them to bed before settling back on the couch to wait for Buck.

After leaving the airport, Ezra stopped by his condo to pick up a couple of changes of clothes and his gifts for the others before heading for the ranch. They pulled into the driveway and quietly entered the house. Chris was sprawled out on the couch, asleep. Ezra headed for the tree to put down his gifts while Buck headed for the bedroom to look in on the boys.

In the darkened bedroom, Buck couldn’t help but smile. Steven and JD were curled together in the bottom bunk. He knelt down beside the bed and ran his hand from one dark head to the other before pulling the blanket up to cover their bare shoulders. He also covered Vin, whose bed looked as if he had been doing a lot of tossing and turning before being able to fall asleep. When he came out of the room, Chris and Ezra were talking quietly in the living room.

After catching the blond up on things, Buck prepared to go to bed. Chris jumped from the couch and stopped him.

“Before you go to bed, you have to see something. They played this song on the radio a couple of times today,” Chris said as he plugged the camcorder into the jacks on the front of the television. In a moment, the screen was filled with the sight of JD, happily splashing in the bubbles and singing about a hippopotamus. He scooped handfuls of bubbles and piled them on top of his head as he played, oblivious to the camera capturing every adorable minute. When the picture ended, Buck had a broad smile on his face.

“I’d better get to bed, we’ll have an early day tomorrow,” Buck said as he headed for his room. Chris helped to settle Ezra on the sofa bed before turning in himself.

The southerner was awakened by a soft sniffle just as the sky was beginning to turn from inky black to soft gray. He opened his eyes to see Steven kneeling near the tree. From the jerky motions of the boy’s shoulders, he could tell that he was sobbing. A rush of familiarity swept over Ezra as he was carried back to the many times he had spent Christmas feeling like an outsider.

“Steven? Are you all right?” Ezra called softly as he sat up on the bed. He heard the boy sniffle and saw him nod. “Would you like to talk about it?” He saw the head shake. “Then why don’t you at least come up here and get under the blankets.” After a minute, the boy reluctantly stood and crawled into the bed. Ezra fluffed one of the pillows and set it on the other side of the bed. He didn’t crowd the boy, he just let him settle. After another couple of minutes, Steven lost the fight to hold it all inside and turned to sob on Ezra’s shoulder.

Chris awoke as Vin crawled into bed with him. He rolled over and curled around the boy, nuzzling against the long soft tresses. “You ready to get up?”

“Nah, just woke up,” Vin replied thickly.

“JD awake?”

“He went to Buck’s room.”

“And Steven?”

“He’s with Uncle Ezra.”

Curiosity got the better of the blond and he waited until Vin was soundly asleep again before slipping from the bed. He peeked into the living room. In the dim light he saw the dark head tucked tightly under the southerner’s chin. Smiling, he returned to his nice, warm bed.

Not too much later, Chris was awakened by a gentle nudge. He opened his eyes to a smiling face. He could tell from the excited look in Vin’s eyes that it was time to get up. He nodded and rolled over to get out of bed. He could already hear JD’s high-pitched ‘whispers.’ By the time he reached the living room, Ezra and Buck had folded up the sofa bed and built a fire. The welcome scent of coffee drew him to the kitchen.

The boys were allowed to open a few presents while waiting for the rest of the team to show up. Josiah and Nathan drove up together and carried in a large stack of presents for the boys and the team. There was a flurry of activity before they settled down to open their gifts. All five of the men watched Steven as his smile grew larger and larger with each gift. He seemed genuinely surprised that all of the team had bought gifts for him. There was a wistful look in Ezra’s eyes as he watched the boy get the Christmas that he had wanted each and every time he had been dropped off with strangers or his extended family while Maude ran a con.

As it got closer to eleven, Buck began to get nervous. Luckily, the boys were so busy playing with their new toys that they didn’t notice. Ezra kept reaching out to give Buck’s shoulder a squeeze, calming him so that the boys didn’t realize. Chris, Nathan and Josiah were in the kitchen, fixing brunch for everyone.

The phone rang, bringing all eyes to the trembling hand reaching out to answer it. Buck picked up the receiver and spoke into it. A moment later, he motioned Steven to come closer. The boy hesitantly took the phone and spoke. As soon as he heard the voice on the other end, his eyes filled with tears.

“Momma? Where are you? Are you all right?”

The conversation was painfully brief. Buck leaned against the wall and pressed the back of his head against the wall as he heard the softly whimpered ‘I love you, too,’ before Steven slipped the receiver back into the cradle. The boy stood, trembling, for a moment before turning to bury his face Buck’s shirt. Buck picked him up and held him as he cried. Chris and the others slipped out of the room to distract Vin and JD.

The phone calls from Magda came regularly, once a week. They seemed to comfort Steven in one way and upset him profoundly in another. As soon as the boys returned to school, Steven started his therapy sessions. Dr. Tavist was a very pleasant woman and she seemed to bond with the boy immediately. By the end of January, she was able to paint a much more clear picture of the life Steven had lived.

On the other hand, the situation with Magda continued to be a source of tension for Buck. After finding out that he had been to the federal holding facility, the FBI had questioned him at length. Ezra, Chris and Judge Travis had stayed at his side the whole time. Since they couldn’t find any connection between Magda and Buck other than the handful of letters she sent him from France, they dropped him from their investigation. Ezra made a few discrete calls and got an attorney to represent Magdalena, since she seemed reluctant to defend herself.

Months passed. Steven made steady progress with the therapist. He did well in school and, other than a few lapses in judgment that got him into trouble with Eli Joe and Freddie, was a model student. His relationship with Buck and Chris grew stronger, as did his relationship with Ezra. The boy blushed furiously the first time he slipped and called the southerner ‘Uncle’ but that soon became the usual way he referred to him.

The JTTF investigation wound to a conclusion regarding Magda Sorvotni in late March. Buck looked up in shock as she stood across the desk from him and announced that she wanted her son back.

“You’re kidding, right? You go off and leave the boy without looking back and now you just expect to breeze in here and take him away again? No! You can’t have him! You can have visitation with him but you’re not taking my son!” Buck yelled as he came to his feet. The rest of the team moved up to provide support.

“Your son? Steven? He’s not your son, Buck. I only told you that so you would keep him for me. Now you tell me where he is this minute!” Magda said, her eyes glittering with rage.

Buck felt as if he’d been gut shot. His heart clenched in his chest as he sank to his chair. Chris waved the security guards into position to prevent the woman from leaving. He slipped into his office and called Nettie Wells.

The caseworker showed up with two of Denver’s best. Magda turned, her expression one of pure shock as she was arrested for child abandonment. As the officers began to lead her away, her cries of displeasure rang loudly in the confines of the office.

“You can’t do this! Steven is my son! He needs me! I’m all he has! I’ll get even with you, Buck Wilmington! If you thought I hurt you before, just wait until I get finished with you this time!”

The elevator doors closed on the end of her tirade. The eyes of the team turned to Buck as he looked to them for answers. Ezra was the first to snap out of his reverie and turn toward his computer. Within seconds, he had pulled up a copy of Steven’s birth certificate and passport.

“When did you say Magdalena left for Paris?”

Buck’s eyes went unfocused as he searched for the date in his mind. Chris spoke up to provide the month and year.

“And you’re certain she wasn’t expecting when she left Denver?”

“She may have been, but it didn’t show,” Buck said, his expression growing more puzzled.

“Buck, according to his birth certificate, Steven was born less than a month after she left Denver. You couldn’t have missed something like that. And look at his passport, something’s not right. His passport was issued in France, not the United States.”

Realization dawned and Buck felt ill. His fingers danced over the keyboard until he accessed the site he was thinking about. Nobody breathed as the computer compiled the information. When the reports appeared on the screen, Buck wiped the sweat from his forehead with his palms as he sagged back against his chair. Steven had been kidnapped from the Washington/Dulles airport!

“Oh, my God!” Nathan whispered.

Ezra printed everything and tucked it into a folder while waiting for Buck to recover from the shock. When Josiah reached out to steady him, the southerner realized that he, too, was experiencing shock. He allowed the profiler to steer him into a chair.

An hour later, the entire team strode into Nettie’s office. Buck dropped into one of the desk chairs and Chris took the other. Nettie looked up from the report she was working on to meet the men’s worried expressions.

“The police booked her and she’ll make bail in a couple of hours. I already notified the judge and requested a hearing for her to establish visitation with Steven. I’m requesting supervised visits so she doesn’t try to take off with him. Of course, we’ll have to do the DNA test now to determine if she’s telling the truth,” Nettie said.

“She is. He isn’t mine. The thing is, he isn’t hers either,” Buck said flatly.

“How do you know that?”

Ezra handed off the folder and Nettie flipped through the pages. She sighed as she looked at the missing person’s report on the baby stolen from the airport. Turning back to her computer, she pulled up some more information.

“What do we do now?” Chris asked.

“Well, for now, Steven stays where he is. You’ll have to bring him in for the DNA test to confirm whether or not he is the missing Kelso baby. As soon as we receive confirmation, we’ll have to arrange to return him to his biological family.”

“Just like that? After all we’ve been through with him? Just give him back? You can’t do that!” Buck protested.

“I’m sorry, Buck. If he is the Kelso baby, he has to go back to his family,” Nettie said firmly.

“Will she be allowed to see him?” Josiah asked.

“Not until we know for sure if he’s her son or not.”

Keeping the secret from the boys was the hardest thing they’d ever had to do. Every time the phone rang, Buck leapt to answer it. He’d made an appointment for Steven with Dr. Two Eagles to draw the blood for the DNA test and told Steven that it was just a routine part of his physical. Ezra did some research and discovered that the Kelso family had three other children, a boy and twin girls. David Kelso was a research assistant at a biotech company and Jenny Kelso was a stay at home mom. Every year they organized a memorial service on their son’s birthday and published new age enhanced photos of the missing child.

The phone rang and Buck looked away from his computer screen to answer it.

“Buck, it’s Nettie Wells. I got the results of the DNA test. Steven is Davey Kelso.”

“My God. What do we do now?”

“First we need to break the news to Steven. Then I need to get in touch with the FBI in Washington and have them inform his parents.” When she heard the soft gasps, she gently prodded, “Buck, are you going to be all right?”

“No, I’m not,” he said softly.

They made plans to meet with Dr. Tavist so they could break the news to Steven. Nettie got a Friday afternoon appointment so they would have the weekend to allow the boy time to adjust. Buck asked that Magda be allowed to come in after they had told Steven. It was going to be a long, painful weekend for the family at the ranch.

Friday morning at the office was a tense and miserable time for the team. Josiah and Nathan were going to go out to the ranch and spend some time with JD and Vin after school so that they could be there when the news was given to the youngest members of the family. Buck had invited Ezra to be there with them as he had become a very integral part of Steven’s support system.

The children were on the playground when Buck arrived to pick up his ‘son’ from school. He asked that they bring him to the office so that the other boys wouldn’t see him. Steven came in from the playground, his cheeks red from running and playing, excited that his father was picking him up early. He hurried into the office and threw his arms around Buck.

“What are you doing here, Dad? You want me to go get the other guys?”

“No, son. We have an appointment with Dr. Tavist this afternoon. Go get your book bag,” Buck managed. Steven’s expression became one of concern but he nodded and hurried to get his things. By the time he returned to the office, Buck had managed to pull himself together. He escorted the boy to the truck and buckled him in.

When they reached the doctor’s office, Steven recognized the Dodge, his heart clenched in fear. He got out of the truck and slowly approached the building. He felt a little better when Buck rested a hand on his shoulder. That feeling dissolved as soon as he saw the nervous look on Uncle Ezra’s face and the tense set of Chris’s shoulders.

“Right this way, son. We don’t want to keep the doctor waiting,” Buck said as he pulled Steven toward the familiar office. Nettie was already in with the doctor, making arrangements for additional sessions as needed. Steven took one look at the caseworker and stopped in his tracks. Ezra rested a hand on the boy’s shoulder and gave him a reassuring squeeze.

Steven’s stomach was tied in knots. He knew something was terribly wrong. His hands clenched on the arms of his chair as he crossed his ankles and tensed his knees. It took everything in him not to cry. Finally, all of the adults were settled in chairs around the room, looking at him. Dr. Tavist nodded to Buck and he cleared his throat.

“Steven, son, there’s something we have to tell you. I know that you told the doc that you and your mom moved around a lot and that there were some bad men that kept finding you …”

“Has something happened to my mom? Is she all right?” Steven’s voice was tight with emotion and a single tear slowly rolled down his face.

“She’s fine! She’s just fine, Steven. I didn’t mean it like that. It’s just that she told me something that I didn’t believe and now that I know it’s true, it means other things will happen,” Buck explained. “Tell me something. When did she tell you that I was your father?”

“Just before we left Baltimore, why?”

Buck’s throat closed around the words and his eyes burned with bitter tears. He dragged his gaze away from Steven and tried to regain control. When he began to sob, Ezra spoke up.

“Steven, your mother told Buck that he isn’t your father, that she only said that so he would be willing to keep you.”

“But why would she do that? Why would she lie to me?”

“I don’t know but she did. Do you remember a few weeks ago when you saw the doctor and he drew that blood sample? That was so they could do a DNA test. They compared your DNA to Buck’s and proved that he isn’t your biological father,” Ezra gently explained.

Steven came to his feet and angrily crossed the floor to stand in front of the southerner. A look of pure rage contorted his face as his shoulders rose and fell with his breath. His hands were clenched into fists as he opened his mouth and began to scream.

“It isn’t true! It isn’t true! He is my dad! He is my dad, you take it back!”

Each cry of denial was punctuated by a swing of the boy’s fists as he pummeled Ezra’s chest. The southerner had come to his feet when Steven crossed the room. He tried to pull the distraught child into his arms but Steven continued to flail with his fists as he sobbed his denial. Buck drew a deep breath and came to his feet, catching Steven’s wrists and preventing him from hitting Ezra as he wrapped his arms around him. When the child ceased his struggles, Buck eased his grip and turned Steven to face him. Dropping to his knees, Buck looked up at the boy with tears rolling down both of their faces.

“I’m sorry, son, it’s true. I wish to God it wasn’t but it is,” Buck said.

“And there’s more, Steven,” Chris added. “We discovered that Magda isn’t really your mother. It seems that she snatched you in the airport as she was flying out of the country.”

The child’s face paled as his mouth hung open in a silent cry of ‘no’ as his eyes locked on Chris. When the blond didn’t take it back, he looked to Nettie and then to Dr. Tavist. Seeing only sorrow in their expressions, Steven began to shake his head in denial. Just then, the side door opened, the one that led to the doctor’s private office. Magdalena stepped into the room and held out her hands.


Buck let his hands drop from the boy as soon as he started across the floor. Before Steven was within arms reach of the woman, he began to shout.

“You lied to me! I hate you! I hate you! You take it back! Tell them you lied! He is my father! He is! I hate you, I wish you were dead!”

Steven’s venomous attack stunned the woman and she backed away from him until her back touched the wall. Chris leapt from his chair and moved to intercept Steven before he could actually strike the stunned woman with his flying fists. He tried to put his arms around him but Steven turned from him to run back across the room to Buck. He launched himself at the man he had come to believe was his father and climbed him like a tree until he could bury his face in the side of Buck’s neck. Ezra stood at Buck’s side, running a hand lightly up and down the boy’s back.

Magdalena blinked out of her shock and looked across the room. Something like anger crossed her face as she stared at her son in the arms of her former lover. Pursing her lips, she started across the room only to find Chris and Dr. Tavist blocking her path. Even as she gathered her breath to protest, the Larabee glare burned into her very soul.

“You’ve done enough, don’t you think?” he snarled. Dr. Tavist steered her back into the office and out the other exit.

Nettie shook her head in awe as the two men comforted Steven and Buck. She would give them time to pull themselves together before she began to lay down the rest of the situation. Earlier that day, she had been in contact with the FBI missing person’s unit and found that they had been in touch with the Kelso family. The Kelso’s would arrive in Denver the next day to meet Steven. She had managed to convince the FBI that Buck was willing to surrender the boy but that it would need to be done slowly for Steven’s sake. She hoped to be able to convince them to let him finish the school year. Hearing the soft comments coming from the knot of men, she knew that they were almost ready. Dr. Tavist slipped back into the room and nodded to the caseworker to let her know that Ms. Sorvotni was gone.

Ezra handed Steven another handkerchief from his seemingly endless supply as Buck lowered the boy to his feet. When Buck sat down, Steven climbed into his lap and glared across the room.

“She’s gone, Steven,” the doctor said gently.

“What’s gonna happen to me now?”

Nettie cleared her throat to get his attention. When the swollen red eyes turned her way, she began, “Your parents are coming here tomorrow to meet you. They aren’t going to take you away from the ranch, not yet, they just want to meet you.”

“I – I don’t have to go with them?”

“Not yet. You will have to go eventually but we want to give you a chance to get used to the idea. We’ll arrange some visits with them, both here and at their home, before the end of the school year.”

“What if I don’t like them?”

“You gotta give ‘em a chance, son. Like you gave me? They’re your mom and dad. I’ll bet they’ve been so worried about you,” Buck said as he tipped the tear streaked face back.

“It’s been all my life. How do you know they didn’t forget about me?”

Ezra reached into his pocket and pulled out a thick envelope. He leaned across the space between the chairs to hand it to Steven. Inside were the last three ‘missing’ posters the Kelso’s had made. There were copies of the letters they had written to the FBI to keep after them about the case. The envelope showed that they had not given up or forgotten their eldest son.

With shaky hands, Steven looked from one paper to the next. He was holding in his hands tangible proof that his parents hadn’t forgotten him. The knot of terror that had gripped him began to loosen slightly. He folded the pages and tucked them back into the envelope.

The arrangements were made for Nettie to meet the Kelso’s at the airport and to accompany them out to the ranch. Chris said that they would arrange a bar-be-que and let the kids play outside so they didn’t feel trapped in the house. Dr. Tavist said she wanted to come out well beforehand so she could talk to Steven again and so she could evaluate the first visit. Emotionally exhausted, Buck willingly surrendered his keys to Ezra and allowed the southerner to drive them home.

Arriving at the ranch, they found the others in the midst of making pizza. Nathan had bought the necessary ingredients and the boys were happily patting their crusts into shape. Steven didn’t say anything as he hung up his bag and went to change out of his school clothes. Taking their cue from him, the adults carefully curbed their curiosity. Steven came into the kitchen and washed his hands before receiving his ball of dough to shape. The oven was preheated and the boy’s pizzas were put in first. Nathan and Josiah noticed that Steven was quiet and clung to Buck and Ezra but they didn’t comment on it. Cokes, generously spiked with whiskey, were placed in the three men’s hands.

After supper, they gathered in the living room. Buck sat on one end of the couch and pulled JD into his lap. Steven curled up next to him with Ezra on the other side. Chris stretched out in his recliner and pulled Vin to his chest while Nathan and Josiah sat on the other couch.

“Boys, we have something to tell you,” Buck began.

Feeling the tension in his father’s arms, JD turned a concerned face up and studied the azure eyes. He then looked to Steven. Ever since they had arrived home that afternoon, his older brother had been strangely quiet. Casting a look at Vin, he saw that the Texan was just as puzzled as he was.

Seeing that Buck was struggling to get the words out, Chris spoke. “We had a meeting with Nettie today. She found out some … upsetting news. You see, Steven’s mother came back looking for him.”

Immediately, JD turned his eyes on the older boy and reached out to grab his arm.

“She told Buck that he isn’t really Steven’s father.”

Vin’s head swiveled against Chris’s chest as he looked to see what affect the comment was having on his father. Upon seeing the haunted look in the hazel eyes, he reached up to slip an arm around Chris’s neck and gave him a hug to comfort him.

“What does that mean, Da?” JD asked as his expression became more worried. “Do we gots to give him back?”

“I’m afraid so, Little Bit. His parents are coming to the ranch tomorrow to meet him.”

“No-o-o-o, I don’t want him to go!” JD wailed as he clung to Steven’s arm. Buck opened his mouth to offer comfort but his throat closed around the words. Ezra came to his rescue.

“He doesn’t have to go tomorrow, JD. Mrs. Wells has convinced his parents to let him stay until the end of the school year.”

“I still don’t want him to go-o-o-o!”

Buck wrapped his arms around both boys and crushed them to his chest. Steven finally let go of the tears he had been holding back as he clung to Buck and JD. The small cluster of Wilmington men wept as the others looked on uneasily. Hearing a soft sniffle, Chris looked down to see that Vin was crying too. He gripped the back of the boy’s head and held him closer as he whispered comforting words.

It was a long, miserable evening at the ranch. Steven went silent along with Vin and JD burst into tears at the slightest provocation. By the time all three boys slipped into an exhausted slumber, the adults were equally exhausted. Ezra poured each of them a drink as they sat in the living room staring at their hands, the floor, the fire or simply into space.

“You know this is going to adversely affect Vin and JD,” Ezra said softly.

“Why?” Buck challenged.

“Steven’s biological parents are coming to take him from you. Don’t you think that’s going to have an affect?”

“Vin’s parents are dead,” Chris spat acidly.

“And we know nothing about JD’s father,” Ezra asserted. “He’s a smart boy. It won’t take him long to realize that if Steven’s real parents can come for him, what’s to stop his real father from coming? And even though Vin’s safe in that regard, he’ll worry about JD.”

“Oh, God!” Buck said as he dragged his hands through his hair.

“I’ll call their therapist on Monday,” Chris said.

It started around midnight. This time it was Steven’s cry of fear that drove the men from their beds. The boy was sitting in his bed, screaming incoherently. Buck surged into the room and gathered the boy to his chest, stroking his back and trying to calm him. Vin sprang from the upper bunk into Chris’s arms and wrapped his arms and legs tightly around him. JD sat like a deer in the headlights, unsure of whom to turn to for his comfort. Ezra eased down onto the bottom bunk and held out his arms. Immediately, the little brunet was smothering him as he cried.

They ended up taking the boys into bed with them, Ezra taking JD so Buck could comfort the distraught Steven. It made for a very long night. As predicted, JD awoke some time later, whimpering and trying to worm his way closer to the southerner.

Dr. Tavist arrived mid morning. Buck met her at the car to tell her about the boy’s emotional state. She followed the sorrowful man into the house. Steven looked up and immediately looked away. Buck motioned for her to have a seat and went to get coffee for both of them. Right around lunchtime, a strange van pulled into the driveway. A tall man with dark, unruly hair got out on the driver’s side. A woman with long, dark hair got out on the passenger side. She immediately opened the passenger slide door and Nettie Wells got out.

From inside the house, JD’s ‘whisper’ rang loudly. “Do you think them are Steven’s parents?”

Two little girls with dark curly hair were freed from their child seats after the older boy had gotten out to stand beside his father. The man said something to Nettie and she nodded, pointing toward something on the horizon. After all of the children were standing on the ground, they turned toward the ranch house. Buck and Chris stood on the porch, the standoff began.

Nettie escorted the family to the porch and made the introductions. David Kelso found himself shaking a decidedly shaky hand. He could see that the other man was devastated. Jenny smiled warmly as she introduced the other children. The seven-year-old, Matthew, gave a gap toothed grin while the four-year-old twins, Katie and Kelly, gazed up with enormous blue eyes.

“Where is he? Where’s Davey?” Jenny Kelso asked as she tried to look beyond the two men.

“He’s out back … with the other boys,” Buck answered reluctantly. “If you’ll … follow me … I’ll take you out there.”

“Remember that she called him Steven, honey,” David prompted his wife gently.

They made their way into the house. Nathan and Josiah stood like stone sentinels, watching as they crossed the room. Jenny’s eyes swept the wall, taking in all the pictures of the dark haired boy she knew to be her son. Her vision swam with tears as she followed the tug on her arm. In the back of the house, the boys were engaged in a rough and tumble game of soccer with another dark haired man. The older boy looked up and his eyes raked over the strangers standing on the deck. Suddenly, he turned and ran for the barn.

“Davey!” Jenny called softly in protest. Buck stepped around the stunned woman and ran for the barn. The other boys stopped playing and stared up with barely disguised looks of anger.

In the barn, Steven collapsed on a bale of hay, sobbing. A moment later, he felt Buck’s arms come around him and buried his face in his shoulder to cry. Buck drew the boy into his arms and sat down on the bale, rocking him gently.

On the deck, Dr. Tavist introduced herself to the Kelso’s. She invited them to sit down while asking the children to go down into the yard and play. Ezra forced himself to smile as he invited the kids to join them. After a couple of nudges, Vin and JD nodded and JD tossed the ball toward the deck. After a few awkward moments, all five kids were playing happily. The puppies cried at being confined and Ezra backed away from the children to release them. They rocketed out of the pen and immediately began to chase the ball. The southerner then silently made his way to the barn.

“I don’t want to go. I don’t want to go,” Steven cried over and over as he wound his hands in Buck’s shirt. Ezra rested a hand on Buck’s shoulder and tried to sound upbeat.

“You really should bring him up to the house. They’re only here to meet him.”

“I don’t want to go!” Steven yelled angrily. “I hate them! Make them go away! They let her take me! If they really cared, they would have found me!”

A soft voice startled all three of them. “We looked for you. We never stopped looking for you. When you disappeared, my world stopped. I wanted to die.”

They looked up to see Jenny Kelso standing in the open doorway, tears rolling down her cheeks. She slowly walked toward Steven, pulling a swatch of cloth from her pocket. It was a piece of a receiving blanket, threadbare from being handled.

“I’ve carried a bit of your blanket with me every day. I never gave up on finding you. I felt so badly for taking my eyes off of you. It was only for an instant. I was checking the tickets and making sure I had everything in the diaper bag. It was only a minute, son, I swear!”

Steven looked at the woman for a long time. All of his life, Magda had told him that the bad men would take him from her. He realized that she knew the truth. Every time she had shielded him from the cameras in the store, she had been hiding him from this woman. Slowly, he leaned away from Buck and looked at Jenny. She took another step toward her son and stared into his eyes, so darkly blue like her own. With a trembling hand, Steven reached out and touched the scrap of material and felt the tremors that shook the woman.

“You’re really my mom? My real mom?”

“They did a DNA test. She really is your mother,” Ezra reminded him.

“And you really looked for me, all this time?”

“Every day,” Jenny said. “Would you like to meet your brother and sisters?”

It was an exhausting afternoon for all of them. The Kelso’s let their older son play with the other kids and didn’t push him. When they gathered around the picnic table to eat, Steven sat next to Buck and invited Ezra to sit on the other side. Josiah asked a few directing questions to get them talking to each other. In a short time, David Kelso was smiling as Steven explained some school project. Dr. Tavist prompted Jenny about the photo album they had brought with them later in the evening. Buck swallowed a lump in his throat as he watched the boy eagerly settle next to the woman to look at the pictures.

The Kelso’s visited again on Sunday. The team organized a trail ride for all of them. The twins rode with their parents. Matthew rode with Josiah, having come to like the older, graying man. Steven rode alone, something he had been working on diligently since early spring. Because they were short a horse, JD rode with Buck. They made a circuit of the large pasture, Vin and Steven taking turns in pointing out animal tracks. Before they had to leave again, the Kelso’s made arrangements to visit again in a couple of weeks. Buck also told them that he had made plans to bring Steven to visit them in their Rhode Island home.

It was only five weeks until the end of the school year. Steven’s emotional state gyrated wildly. The boy went from resigned acceptance to complete denial. Buck and Chris had their hands full dealing with the grieving, frightened child and Vin and JD too. The boys were all making regular visits to their therapists. Dr. Tavist counseled with Steven primarily, but she also met with Buck and JD. She urged them to make a memory book for Steven to take with him into his new life. Magda reluctantly gave up several photos of the boy as he was growing up.

The situation with Magda was a highly charged one. She admitted to taking the child and her attorney was pleading insanity. She begged to be allowed to see the boy. As badly as it infuriated Buck, the therapist felt it would be good for him to resolve his issues about the woman he had thought to be his mother. After one visit, during which Magda tried repeatedly to embrace Steven and he violently rejected her, Dr. Tavist decided that the visits were not a good idea.

While Buck and Steven went to Rhode Island to visit the Kelso’s, Chris dealt with the boys. They were sullen and withdrawn for a couple of hours after dropping the others off at the airport. The blond decided that something drastic was called for and enlisted the rest of the team’s help.

An impromptu rodeo sprang up at the ranch. Josiah enlisted the use of a church van to pick up kids from a local group home and several families from Purgatory. Inez jumped on the chance to help out when Ezra informed her of the need to boost the children’s flagging spirits. She gathered the ingredients and necessary cooking utensils and headed for the ranch.

Chris had the boys up early, mucking out the stalls and cleaning up the corral. When he brought out several sawhorses and began to fashion lassos from the bundle of rope JD had dragged from the barn, Vin’s interest piqued. Uncle Nathan arrived, only to leave again with the Dodge and a small horse trailer. When he returned an hour later, he had several goats, a pair of lambs and a young calf. The new animals were turned into stalls in the barn. JD immediately lost interest in the goings on in the corral as he knelt to pet the noses of the lambs.

It was a good day in spite of the way JD occasionally looked toward Buck’s truck and sighed dramatically. The kids took turns trying to lasso the sawhorses. The animals in the barn were loved, petted and fed until they could hardly walk. Inez stayed busy all day, making and serving food for the kids and the adults. As the sun was drifting toward the horizon, Josiah began to deliver the guests to their homes. Ezra and Nathan stayed to help with the clean up before the medic left to return the other animals to their home. The southerner leaned on the corral gate and watched as Vin and JD dragged the sawhorses over to be returned to the barn.

“Uncle Ezra, do you think we could do this again before Steven leaves? He won’t have all of this at his new house,” JD asked.

“I’m sure that we can manage that,” the southerner replied as he petted the boy on the top of his head.

Meanwhile, in Rhode Island, Buck and Steven were on ‘company’ behavior. Steven was trying so hard to be good and polite that it was painful to watch. The boy was so nervous and uptight that he ended up suffering with a headache and upset stomach. The Kelso’s had put up an extra bed in Matthew’s room for Steven to use while he was there. When the older child became ill in the middle of the night, it was Jenny who went to him. She held him as he cried and cleaned him up afterwards. Instead of taking him back to the bed, she led him to the rocker recliner in the living room. Despite the fact that the boy was nearly as tall as she was, Jenny pulled him into her lap.

A soft voice hummed under his ear and a warm hand massaged the taught muscles in his neck. Steven resisted until his tired body couldn’t resist any longer. Sighing softly, he relaxed into her arms. David awoke a few hours later and went in search of his wife. When he found her dozing in the recliner with her eldest son in her arms, he wept. In his mind, he saw her the night they brought their firstborn home from the hospital. He looked over the mantle to the picture of Jenny nursing the baby in the hospital. His heart clenched as he remembered the hell that they went through when the Davey disappeared. The police blamed her, saying she must have killed the baby. When Matthew was born, Family Services made random visits to the house to check on him.

Snapping out of his reverie, he reached for the digital camera they kept on the bookshelf. He took several shots of his wife and son, preserving the tender moment forever. The flash woke Jenny and she smiled up at her husband. As tears rolled down her cheeks, she held out her hand to him.

“He’s really home, isn’t he? It isn’t a dream, is it?”

“He’s real and he’s here but it’s only for the weekend, remember?”

The following weekend, the Kelso’s flew back to Denver. Chris and Buck had thrown together another rodeo for Steven’s family. Several of the children from the boys’ school had been invited. A circus like atmosphere filled the air as the children laughed and played. Steven begged to be allowed to ride one of the ponies in the small corral. Since the boy had worked so hard to overcome his fear of the horses, Buck agreed to allow him to show off his improving skills. As he was putting the horse through its paces, one of the children approached the fence with a balloon. A splinter in the top rail touched the balloon and it popped, startling Steven and the horse.

Buck’s heart leapt into his throat as he saw the horse shy away from the sound. He vaulted over the rail and reached for the reins. He was only a second too late. The horse wheeled hard, hitting the rail with his hip and spilling Steven from the saddle. He put his hands out to break his fall just as Buck managed to get hold of the reins and calm the animal. A scream galvanized the crowd and brought all the adults running. Buck tossed the reins around the rail, securing the horse as he turned to run for Steven. Ezra and Josiah were already there, holding back the crowd so Nathan could check for injuries. Before Buck could see Steven, he heard the plaintive cry.

“Momma! Ow, that hurts! I want my momma!” Instantly, Jenny Kelso knelt to console her son. Chris slapped Buck on the shoulder and gave him a slight smile. Through a well of tears, Buck watched as Jenny petted and soothed the injured arm. Nathan stood and brushed his pants legs.

“Not broken. He’ll be fine.”

After the drama in the corral, Chris decreed that the horses were off limits. There was plenty to do without them and the rodeo went on without further incident. That night, after they tucked the boys into bed, the blond noticed the slumped shoulders of his oldest friend.

“Are you going to be okay with this?”

“Yeah, no, … hell I don’t know, Chris. We’ve been through so much with him. I just hope we’re doing the right thing.”

“We don’t have a choice. He’s their son, not yours.”

“I know. I know. I just feel so helpless.”

The days with Steven gradually wound down. Jenny flew out for the commencement celebration and going away party that the class held for Steven. Knowing that the whole team was being affected by the situation, Judge Travis gave them a couple of days off. They had packed and shipped several cartons of Steven’s things earlier in the week. At the end of the day, Steven was given a tee shirt that all of his classmates had pressed their painted palms against. He was also given a booklet with the names and addresses of his classmates along with a stack of postcards.

That night, Jenny stayed at the ranch. Mrs. Potter had made a buffet style meal of everyone’s favorites. Before she left, the housekeeper presented him with a blanket embroidered with his name and the date it was completed. She had been preparing it for his birthday but wanted to give it to him early. With tears brimming in his blue eyes, he hugged the older woman.

The next afternoon, a somber parting happened at the Denver airport. The five members of Team 7 gathered along with the two boys to say their goodbyes to Steven. Plans had already been made for the Kelso’s to return for the Fourth of July party. His therapist records and medical records were transferred to the pediatrician who treated the other three Kelso children. Steven swiped tears from his face with the wad of tissue his mom had stuffed into his pocket. Nathan stepped forward and embraced the boy, wishing him well. Josiah pulled a simple gold chain and cross from his pocket and hung it around the boy’s neck before hugging him and reminding him that they would pray for him. When Ezra stepped forward, Steven’s control slipped and he began to openly sob. The southerner wrapped his arms around the boy and whispered into his ear. After a couple of minutes, Steven nodded and released the grip he’d had on the southerner.

Chris felt a sweaty hand disengage from his as Vin stepped forward and handed one of his model horses to Steven. It was a precious gift, the horse resembled Vin’s beloved Peso. The boys hugged and Vin wiped his tears on his shirtsleeve before Ezra pressed a handkerchief into his hand. Chris knelt down and ran his hands up and down Steven’s arms. He embraced the boy firmly and smiled up at him. JD unwrapped his arm from Buck’s thigh to hug the older boy. He mopped his tears on Steven’s shirt and promised to exchange e-mails with him everyday. From his pocket, he pulled a picture of the three boys and the puppies that Josiah had taken a few weeks earlier.

Buck’s throat hurt with the effort of holding back his emotions. When Steven had first arrived, he’d been conflicted about the boy. Slowly, gradually, he had come to love him as desperately as he loved JD. They had been through so much together in the past six months. The recent weeks had been especially difficult. It would have been easy to feed and nurture the anger Steven felt toward Magda. Buck had spent hours talking to the boy, trying to convince him that what Magda had done was a product of a mental illness that she had been unable to help herself. He had also assured Steven that he would always be available to him if he needed to talk. The Kelso’s agreed that it would be too cruel to deny the child contact with the people he had accepted as family.

The paging system called for pre-boarding on their flight and Jenny tapped Steven on the shoulder. He was clinging to Buck and sobbing. He began to shake his head ‘no’ and closed his fists in the material of Buck’s shirt. From his angle, Chris could see the torrent of tears rolling down Buck’s cheeks. Meeting Jenny’s eyes, he nodded. They reached out, each taking hold of the person they were taking home. From his perch on Ezra’s hip, JD began to cry. Josiah rested his hands on Vin’s shoulders and gave him a gentle squeeze. Jenny gripped Steven’s wrists and lifted his hands as Chris pulled Buck away. Jenny wrapped her arms around the boy and began to steer him toward the boarding gate.

“We’ll call you when we get home,” she called as she handed off their tickets.

Chris kept them busy at the ranch so that they didn’t stare at the phone waiting for the phone call. The boys helped to rearrange their bedroom after Buck and Chris took down the extra bed. They found a few of Steven’s belongings in the room and began to assemble a package to send in a few days. They finished the bedroom and started on cleaning up the family room when the phone rang. Buck picked up the receiver. After a brief conversation, the dark haired man wiped at tears building up in his eyes. He passed the phone to JD who spoke for a minute and then passed it to Vin. Chris took his turn, Steven telling him that he was all right and would call again in a day or so.

That night, Vin and JD were draped across their father’s laps and sound asleep. After talking to Steven, they had gone outside to work on the barn and then played with the puppies until they were exhausted. The boys picked at their supper until they were allowed to go and bathe. They watched videotape together until they dropped off to sleep. When the news went off, Chris struggled to his feet with Vin in his arms. Buck was staring at something across the room and looked startled when the blond nudged him.

“Let’s get them into bed.”

“Yeah, I’ll be right there,” Buck said.

It was a long few days as the family at the ranch adjusted to the loss of Steven. JD was a little clingy at first but with his normal, youthful flexibility, he was soon acting like his regular self. Both boys eagerly checked their e-mails for word from Steven and spoke to him on the phone whenever he called.

Just before the Fourth of July, Buck testified at a hearing for Magdalena. She was sentenced to ten years for kidnapping Davey Kelso. In exchange for her plea, she was to be confined in a facility where she could get mental health counseling. Surprisingly, David Kelso also appeared and pleaded for leniency for the woman. He didn’t want his son to feel guilty all of his life, Steven still loved her.