by tannertexaslady

Chapter 1 - 3 | Chapter 4 - 6 | Chapter 7 - 9 | Chapter 10 - 12 | Chapter 13 - 15
Chapter 16 - 19 | Chapter 20 - 22 | Chapter 23 - 25 | Chapter 26 - 28 | Chapter 29 - Epilogue

Chapter 20

Larabee 7-Sunday

The Texan quietly slipped out of bed careful not to wake Kelli, he knew that she needed to rest, especially after last night and the incredible way she took care of him. He placed an extra quilt over her with a feeling of satisfaction; she was not the only one that knew how to take care of a stubborn Tanner. In the bathroom, he took a good look in the mirror, smiling when he saw the visible evidence of last night’s passionate encounter on his shoulder.

Tanner had a long list of things to accomplish today and he wanted to get started. *Vin, make time to take care of that woman because she damn well makes the time to take care of you.* He decided, that he needed to shave, too, promising himself to take on the scruffy look occasionally for his redhead. He then headed to the kitchen to start the coffee.

Next on the list was his promise to Jason and he continued on to the kid’s room. Fortunately, there were no accidents during the night, both children were awake and he found Jason in a mini-battle with his sister. Andi was stubbornly refusing her brother’s efforts to help her change out of her pajamas into day clothes.

“Mornin’ Jason, need some assistance?” Vin smiled; he recognized the determined look on Andi’s face, he had been on the receiving end of that same look often enough from Kelli to know that Jason had his hands full.

Jason expelled a frustrated sigh. “Andi thinks I’m trying to get rid of her new sleeping clothes and won’t take them off.”

Vin studied the problem for a minute, picked up her new warmer outfit and knelt down in front of the little girl. “Tell you what, you can hide your pajamas under the pillow for tonight and this will be warm enough for you to go outside later to see the horses.”

Andi looked at the jeans and sweater that Vin was holding, thought about seeing the horses and started pulling off her pajamas. The Texan helped her with the new clothes and handed the pj’s to her brother. “Jason, would you put these under Andi’s pillow so she can find them tonight?” The boy halfway folded them and then jammed the pink pj’s under Andi’s pillow, allowing Vin to help his sister with her hair. She sat still long enough for the Texan to pull her hair up and then jumped off the bed.

Tanner helped a struggling Jason make the bed as Andi danced in front of the full-length mirror on the door, admiring her new clothes. “Thanks…Vin.” He hastily added, “Kelli said it was okay to call you that, but I won’t if you don’t like it.” Jason squirmed nervously.

“Vin is just fine, you’re family Jason, Kelli is your cousin and as her husband that make me your cousin, too.” He was pleased to see the child relax. “Now, we’re gonna get breakfast going before she wakes up and we’ll let her sleep for a bit.” The trio made their way to the kitchen, when the Texan showed them what they could do to help.


Kelli was not sure what woke her, the empty bed, the smell of coffee or the sounds coming from the opposite side of the house. A glance at the bedside clock told her it was just after six in the morning and curiosity led her to the kitchen.

Standing in the doorway, the scene before her melted her heart. Andi, with her hair in a ponytail, dressed in jeans and a purple sweater, stood on a chair in front of the counter helping Vin make pancakes. Jason wearing his new jeans and a green shirt was carrying a platter of bacon to the table that he obviously had painstakingly set for four.

Jason set the platter down and when he looked up saw her. "Hi Jason, did you sleep well?" she asked, smiling at him. He hastily sat the platter of bacon on the table and then nodded at her, smiling back a bit guardedly. At least he was smiling, Kelli thought relieved.

Vin lifted Andi off the chair and sat her at the table while Jason took the plate of pancakes. “Morning Texas, breakfast is ready. “ Vin kissed her and made a big production of pulling out a chair for her to join them at the table, much to the delight of the two little Larabees. Andi giggled and there was laughter in Jason's eyes. Vin grinned at her as he whispered, “Rested enough, sleepy head?”

Her eyes promised retaliation for that comment, but she played along. “Wow, this looks great! “ A hot cup of coffee set in front of her cooled her thoughts of payback and gained the Texan another kiss.

Andi smiled up at the redhead. “We hepped.”

Swallowing a bite of pancake, Kelli answered. “I can see that and this is delicious.” They worked their way though an enjoyable breakfast and cleared the table when everyone was finished. The kids wolfed down their food, but were full a lot sooner then Vin or Kelli had expected from two growing kids. While Andi and Jason seemed thoroughly happy with what they had been eating, delighted was even a better word, the two Tanners looked at each other grimly. The evening before they had thought the two had eaten so little because they were too tired, but now they both felt it was due to the fact they had had too little to eat for too long a time. Vin added another chore to his list, ask Nathan if he knew what would be best for their diet at the moment

After breakfast was finished, Vin grabbed two coats. “Jason is gonna help me start on tendin’ the horses, Andi wanted to wait for you. We’ll see you ladies at the barn.” Kelli knew that Vin intended to tell the boy about his dad and stalled to give him time to do it.

“Come on Andi, you can help me decide what to wear.” The little girl followed Kelli to the bedroom.


In the barn, Tanner fed the horses, introducing Jason to each one and showed him what he could do to help. He cautioned him not to come out here alone until he was better acquainted with them and had permission. Dancer was the most docile of the bunch and Vin gave Jason a brush so he could learn how to groom her. Together they worked on the horse while the Texan decided on the best way to talk to the child about his dad.

Finally, he decided that the direct approach was probably the best. “Jason, I know a lot has been going on the last day or so for you and Andi. You might be wonderin’ about what happens next.”

“Yes sir…I like it here and I know Andi does, but…Are you sure we can stay? I know Chris promised, but my dad…might not like it so much.”

Vin laid the brush down and knelt down in front of the boy so he could look him in the eye. “Your dad is not comin’ back Jason. He and the other man at the cabin argued and they are both dead. Do you understand what that means?”

Jason was quiet for a moment before answering. “Yes sir, it means he’s gone like my mama, she left when Andi got born. Patrice said she was with God and watching over me.” The little boy shuffled his feet. “I…I miss her sometimes.”

“I miss my mama, too”. Vin tilted the boy’s head up. “There is nothing wrong with that. I know she’s watching me so I try to be the kind of son she can be proud of, but there were times that I had to let other people help me.”

The child absorbed the words the Texan shared with him. “I think she would like you and Kelli and Chris. My dad...He got mean after she left…maybe now he can be happy again.” Jason hesitated before he asked, “What about me and Andi?

Those words tore at Vin’s heart. Jack was a sonofabitch and mistreated both of these kids, but the only thing this child wanted to think, was that maybe now his dad could be happy again. “You and Andi have a home here on the Larabee 7 and a family that loves you both. Your Uncle Chris wants you here and so do we.”

“Andi never saw dad any other way ‘cept mean and she don’t remember mama at all.” He sounded so much older than his years. “Having a family would be new for her.”

Those words brought back a memory for Vin, having a family was new to Kelli not long ago and like Andi she had no memories to fall back on at that age. But, Andi had Jason and that made a big difference. “She’s lucky to have a big brother that can tell her about her mama and how her dad used to be. I wanted to tell you this first, before we told Andi, I thought that maybe we might talk to her later, together. Would that be okay with you?”

“You won’t tell her without me? Please, I …need to help her understand.” Jason said softly, staring hard at Vin. All protectiveness he felt for his little sister was there. Vin fought the knot that was forming in his throat. ”You got it partner; we'll do it together, alright?”


“You promise?”

“I promise,” Vin said softly, understanding how Jason needed reassurances. Then the boy surprised him again with his next question.


“Does Chris know?”

“I’m gonna tell him later today, Jason?”

The boy nodded, "When can I see him?" he asked. "He said... he said Andi and me could stay. He liked having us around."

"Jason, so do we. Kelli and me, we love having you two around and so does all the rest of the family. Believe me, we do. As for seein' Chris, let's wait and see how he's doin', alright?" Vin could see Jason didn't like that last part, but the boy nodded anyway. A surge of anger rose up in the Texan and he vowed to himself he would help Jason feel so much at home that he would dare to get angry, throw a temper tantrum even, or show it when he was sad. He wanted Jason to feel secure enough that he no longer felt the need to be this passive.

"Come on," he said softly. "Let's finish here. You like horses, don't you?"

Jason nodded. "Chris said he wanted to teach me to ride. Do you think I could learn? To ride, I mean?"

"Jason, I'm sure of it!" That finally brought the boy's precious smile out and Vin grinned back. A moment later, they were compatibly grooming the horses again.

They heard Andi’s chatter before they could see her and Kelli. The little girl bust into the barn with a form of enthusiasm found only in a three year old. “Jason! We go see baby horses! Kelli has lots and lots of them! Come on!”

“I figured if you and Jason were finished here, I’d take them down to see the colts.” Kelli grabbed Andi before she could climb into Peso’s stall.

“What do you think, Jason? You reckon you can keep these two out of trouble for me while I go check on a couple of things?” Vin wanted to go see Chris while Kelli kept the kids occupied.

The small boy answered immediately, “Yes sir.” Grabbing Andi’s hand, he gave her instructions. “You stay with me and listen to Kelli.” They both took off with the redhead and Vin headed to the ranch house.

Larabee home

It was still early when Tanner entered the kitchen and he found Nathan alone nursing a cup of coffee. Everyone else was still asleep and Vin welcomed the quiet, but did not expect it to last long.

“How is he, Nate?” Tanner listened as he poured himself a cup of coffee.

“Josiah is with him, he had a rough night. He wants to see you though and I’ll warn you now. He refuses to take the Buprenorphin that could make this easier for him and wants me to keep everybody else away. That will not sit well with Buck, JD and Ezra for sure. He also asked about Jack, I told him he was dead, but that you would have to tell him what happened.” Nathan wanted to say more but hesitated.

“All of it Nathan,” Tanner pressed him to continue.

“He’s not fighting Vin, I know it was rough, but dammit, it’s as if he trying to make this as hard as possible on himself. At least with the Buprenorphin, he would not suffer the difficulties of withdrawal and could function pretty close to normal until all the other drugs got out of his system.

Vin nodded thoughtfully and then asked, “Is he able to talk?

“Yeah, he should be okay for a few more hours before the next bout of hell hits him”


Chris was awake when Tanner came in and he looked like hell had already arrived. He was a flat out mess. His skin was pale with dark circles under his eyes and his hair was so dirty it looked brown instead of blond. Larabee had fought all of Nathan’s efforts to clean him up and he still wore the same grimy clothes that they had found him wearing at the cabin.

Josiah excused himself. “I think I’ll go have some coffee with Nathan. “

“Take your time Josiah, Chris and I need to talk.” Vin sat next to the bed, but said nothing.

“Just say it, this entire fucking mess can be laid on my doorstep, I know it and you, know it too! I fucked up royally!” Chris waited and still the Texan stayed silent. “Well? I thought you came in here to talk! Tell me off, yell; say I should have known better, should have fought harder, should not have waited twenty-five years to find my brother, hell anything, just say something! I deserve whatever you want to throw at me!”

“You seemed to be doing a good job of beatin’ yourself up. Why should I stop you?” Tanner deliberately kept his voice low and even. “When you’re through rollin’ around in that puddle of self pity you’ve created for yourself we’ll talk, until then I think I’ll just sit here and let you rant.”

Chris shut up, rolled over and turned his back to Vin, neither man spoke for a full five minutes.

Without turning back, to look at him Chris finally asked. How did he die?” When Vin didn’t answer Larabee finally rolled over to face him. “Tell me... I need to know.”

The Texan took his time in answering. “You want to know how the official report reads or the truth?”

Sitting up in the bed, Chris could not believe what he heard. Vin was as honest as the day was long and would never falsify a report for any reason. “Dammit Tanner, what did you do?”

“I protected your ass and your career! The end result was the same no matter how it happed. I just chose not to put you in the middle of it. As far as the rest of the world knows, your kidnappers argued and when Lester aimed his gun at your brother, I killed him, but his gun fired first and he shot Jack. You were in the next room too ill with a fever from infection to know what was going on. We used one of Jack’s aliases to identify him so no family connection is on record and drugs were never mentioned.”

“Go on, tell me what really happened.”

“Evidently, Jack intended to leave, call in anonymously to have authorities find you strung out on drugs and rescue the children. When Lester came back, he wanted to kill Jack and you with a lethal injection of heroin making it appear as a murder-suicide, while the kids froze to death locked in a shed by the lake, he planned to make a clean getaway. They were arguin’ when I got to the cabin, Jack told Lester he was leavin’ and then Smite turned the gun on you instead. He cocked the hammer, I shot him and his gun went off killin’ Jack.”

“If he was aiming at me, how did Jack end up being shot?”

“That’s what I’m not certain about, Jack either deliberately got between you and the gun or attempted to grab the gun when it fired and was killed by accident. The only person that knows his intentions for sure is Jack. Personally I would like to think he made a last ditch effort to redeem himself by savin’ your life.’ Vin gave Chris time to digest this information.

Larabee drew in a deep breath and fought the feelings of regret that tried to overtake him. “Then what happened?”

“We moved you to the other room. Buck wrote up the incident stating that Lester murdered Jack. After we found the kids, Raphael flew us all here and Rain had the medicine you needed waiting for us. Bones claimed the bodies from their county coroner, case closed.”

“So you all were in on this little conspiracy and risked losing your own careers for me.”

“We don’t see it that way; we took care of our brother because we’re positive that you would do the same for any one of us. There is no point in the whole world knowin’ what Jack did to you. It stays in the family unless you want to tell ‘em different.” While Chris was alert, Vin wanted to cover everything. “There are a few more things that you should think about.”

‘You might as well get it all out.”

“We are not givin’ up on you Larabee. One of us will be here at all times whether you want us to be or not. Funeral arrangements need to be made for Jack and that should be your decision on how to handle it. You also have a woman down the hall that already had one emergency trip to the hospital and she is confined to bed rest for at least another week to protect your unborn child. She needs you. Plus, there are two orphaned kids over at our house that need to see that you are okay. So, you can make this easy on everyone by taking help or you can be a stubborn sonofabitch, feel sorry for yourself and tough it out the hard way. It’s up to you.”

Chris laid there and thought about everything that the Texan had told him. He would never know if Jack sacrificed his life to protect him, but he did know that no matter what, he was his brother and should have a decent burial. Linda did not deserve to be shut out and he needed to shake this drug thing fast to be with her. Then there were two little Larabees that needed to know that they had a place here. His family of brothers had got him this far, surely he could make it the rest of the way.

Larabee decided to fight back. “Vin, ask Nathan to come in and tell him to bring that damn Buprenorphin stuff with him. Josiah, too, I think it’s time I cleaned up some and I probably will need their help. Get JD to find out where Carol Larabee is buried and then tell Buck that I expect him to hold down the office until you or I can get back. Oh and ask Ezra to come see me, I need to know where I stand financially if I’m gonna pay for Jack’s arrangements. Also, get me a damn cell phone, I may not be able to see Linda yet, but I can sure as hell talk to her.”

“Sure thing Cowboy, welcome back.”

The rest of the morning passed, filled with a flurry of activity. Chris managed a shower with Nathan and Josiah’s help and felt 100% better. He saw, JD, Buck and Ezra, making sure they knew he was back to stay. He managed to talk to Linda long enough to allay her fears and assure her he would be on his feet soon. His leg hurt, but not so bad that it was unbearable and he reluctantly admitted that Nathan had been right about the Buprenorphin. It did help ease the worst of the withdrawal symptoms and eliminated the disorientation that had plagued him for over a week.

“Nathan, I know that I didn’t act like it, but I do appreciate all your help.” Larabee knew he had been an ass and wanted to make sure that Jackson knew it. “I owe you and Rain a lot.”

“You’re family Chris, we’re not keeping score and right now I think you should rest a while. You’ve accomplished a helluva lot in the last couple of hours; give your body a chance to catch up with your mind.” Nathan picked up a book and settled in the chair opposite the bed. “I’ll be here if you need anything.”

“You always have been Nathan.”

Late afternoon

Justin, Mark and Ross had been gone less than ten minutes when the truck was unloaded. Kelli helped the kids put up the rest of their news clothes, while Vin and Ezra set up the new game cube for them. After a few minutes of instruction, the kids caught on fast and soon were engrossed in Spyro’s adventures, chasing butterflies as a little purple dragon.

“Ez and I can handle two kids and a purple dragon, go visit with Linda while you have a chance.” Vin walked with Kelli to the door and helped her put on her coat making sure to hug her in the process. “We’ll even have supper ready by the time you get back.”

“You think Chris will see me now?”

“There’s no harm in askin’ baby, just don’t take it personally if he doesn’t.” The Texan buttoned the top button on her coat and kissed her. “Linda has already talked to Chris so she should be in good spirits.”

The ranch house was fairly quiet for a Sunday afternoon, it seemed strange not to see all the family here and kids running all over the place. Nathan and Rain were spending some time with Terrell. Josiah went home for a while to be with his family as well as Buck and JD was in with Chris while he slept. Kelli moved on down the hall to Linda’s door and knocked.

Matt opened the door. “Come on in.” He was fast becoming a permanent fixture here at the ranch and Kelli was still not over being mad at him for his atrocious behavior.

Ignoring him, she greeted Linda instead. “How are you doing, lady?”

“Better, I talked to Chris and as soon as he gets the green light to use his crutches again, he’ll be in to see me. He sounded good and if Warden Matt would turn his back for a few minutes, I’d be down the hall with him.” Linda said wistfully. “I suppose I can wait a few days, but I really need to talk to him face to face.”

“Give the man a break Linda, he’s made up his mind and I doubt that you’ll be able to change it,” Matt gave his sister a look that said ‘leave it alone.’

“I might not, but I bet Kelli could talk some sense into him.”

Kelli had no idea what Linda what referring to. “Talk to him about what exactly?”

“Misplaced guilt! Chris actually plans to pay for that bastard’s funeral and attend a service for him. After what that man did, he doesn’t deserve anything from Chris!”

“I don’t think misplaced guilt has anything to do with it. Jack was his brother and from what I understand, he was not always this way. The death of his wife and drug use changed him. In the end he tried to do the right thing and his kids deserve a chance to see him properly buried.” Kelli was relieved to hear that Chris was going to do this.

“Don’t you dare stand there and defend what that bastard did! For all you know his kids could be just as bad.” Linda was disappointed in her friend.

“I’m not defendin’ what he did, but whether you like it or not life is not all black or lily white! Those kids are blood related to me and to Chris, too and if I ever hear you say something that damned stupid again, I promise I will kick your ass, pregnant or not! Jack made some bad choices and did terrible things, he blamed Chris for events that he had no control over, but he died taking a bullet meant for his brother. That has to count for somethin’!”

“There is no excuse for what he did.”

“Maybe not Linda, but with a little push in the other direction, that could have been Chris after he lost Sarah and Adam or me if Jake McKenzie had not come along. Not everyone grew up in your world and always had someone there to keep the ugly side of life away. Jack was a weak person, it cost him everythin’ and hurt a lot of people, but I will not sit in judgment of him.”

“Then I guess we just don’t see it the same way, Kel.”

“You keep your illusions of what you think the world should be, but I’m warnin’ you now, I will not allow you or anyone else to talk Jack down to his kids or judge them for what he did. I heard enough of that bullshit when I was growin’ up from all the ‘good’ folks that judged me not for who I was, but for what happen to me. I will be attend’ Jack’s service with his children and fully support Chris’ decision.” Kelli moved to the door, “I’ll see you in a few days.” She walked out without another word.

Standing in the hallway Kelli fought back a flood of memories that Linda’s words had turned loose. She stood in front of Chris’ door and started to knock, but her feelings were just too out of control. Betrayal by a blood relative was familiar territory for her and she knew how hard this must be for Chris, but she would wait until she was in command of her emotions again to talk to him. Instead she whispered, “I do understand and you’re doing the right thing.” She turned and headed home.

Chris had been restless for the last hour and lay awake sorting through his thoughts. He mentally reviewed the conversation he had earlier with Linda, her words mixed with his feelings. Was he acting out of guilt? Did Jack deserve any more of his attention? Would it matter how or where he was buried? Could he pretend that he never had a brother and just forget about him? One part of him wanted a chance to rant and rave at Jack for the hurt he had caused to so many people, somehow making him pay for it. The other part of him wanted to hold that six year old again and offer comfort to a child grieving over the loss of his mother. Suddenly it all became clear in his mind; he knew without a doubt that his decision was right, but there was one more thing that he had to do.

*Wherever you are Jack, I forgive you.* A warm feeling of peace settled over him.

Chapter 21

MCAT Office- Thursday morning-five days later

Buck had the office running smoothly, and MCAT was back to work on the cases they had put on hold with their efforts to find Chris. He even managed to stay on Gunny’s good side most of the time. Everyone made an extra effort to keep the unit operating at peak efficiency until their Captain and the Commander returned. Travis sent down a directive that the office would be closed on Friday and to show their support for Chris, they all planned to attend his brother’s funeral tomorrow.

A loud murmur in the outer office drew Buck’s attention and he stepped to the door to find out what was going on. To his surprise, Chris and Nathan were making their way across the room and Larabee was wearing a walking boot on his left leg. Although he needed to gain back a few pounds and he was still too pale, Larabee had come a long way over the last five days in recovering from his weeklong ordeal.

Wilmington smiled with relief, the trip to see the orthopedic doctor was all good news. Chris was walking without crutches and using an orthopedic walking boot instead. “I didn’t expect to see you today, come on in and tell me about it.” He followed Larabee into the office, but Chris refused to sit behind the desk.

“That place belongs to you Buck, at least for another week or two, until Vin comes back.” Larabee was in pain, but glad to be out of the house.

Nathan waited until Chris was comfortable before he sat. “It will be at least three weeks or more before the boss here completes his therapy.” He noticed the slight tremor of Chris’ hands and knew that he was overdoing, but Larabee insisted on coming here before they went home.

“We’re doing okay, but Vin can have it anytime he’s ready with my blessings.” Buck laughed, “Right now I think he has his hands full, between court, the doctor appointments and preparing Jason for school. I think he and Kel are finding out that having kids in the house can change your entire life.”

“I know I haven’t seen much of him in the last few days and I haven’t seen Kel at all since…I’ve been back.” That bothered Chris and he determined to find out why as soon as possible. “Thought maybe you might know what was going on. I know Inez has been over to see Kel a few times.”

“Hell Chris, she just wants the kids to get used to her, Inez and Mallory have it all worked out. Inez will keep Andi while Kel works and Mallory will be picking Jason up after school and taking him to our house, between the two of them I think they have it covered. If there is anything else, I guess you’ll have to ask Kel.” No way was Buck going to dive into this one. Some things a man just had to handle on his own and only a fool got between two females having a disagreement, especially when the women involved were Kelli and Linda.

Chris was skeptical, he was sure Buck and Nathan both knew more than they were saying. “Okay, I’ll let you off the hook and find out for myself. I just wanted to come by, say hi to everyone, and do something normal again. “

“You should know that Travis is closing the office tomorrow and the entire unit plans to be there with you for Jack’s funeral. Their choice, they were not ordered to attend.” Buck watched for a reaction.

A surge of emotion rushed through him and Chris was not sure what to say, so he just nodded his head and mumbled, “Tell ‘em thanks.” He stood to leave. “See you at home, Buck”

Larabee 7-noon

Linda’s doctor told her she could be up for two to three hours, as long as she did not overdo it. She enjoyed the freedom of moving around the house and spending time with Chris. Since Larabee was able to keep an eye on her, Matt was over at the Southern Breeze more often and only stayed at Larabee 7 every other day to offer help where it was needed. Chris had however caught up on a few things that happened while he was gone and vowed to keep an eye on Matt, especially where Kelli was concerned.

After their first conversation about Jack, Linda had refused to talk to Chris about it anymore. He knew how she felt and she would leave it at that. Today however, he pushed the issue as they sat in the living room together. “Have you decided about going with me tomorrow?”

“I’m not ready to leave the house yet; I probably should stay here and rest.” Linda did not want to refuse to go, but Dr. Ryder’s cautions made it easier for her to say no. “I don’t want to overdo and be confined to that damn bed again.”

Chris was quiet for a few minutes before he broached the subject of the kids. “Linda I want you to meet the kids and we need to discuss their future. I want to adopt them.”

“Kel and Vin have custody of them and they already live on the ranch, so there is no reason to rush things. We have our own baby coming and a wedding to get through first.”

“I know, but after talking to Ezra, I’ve been thinking. Adoptions take time and there are investigations and reports that have to be made to the court. We do not have the advantage of being pre-certified like Vin and Kelli. The sooner we start on it the better and maybe we should push the wedding date up. We need to be married and prove we can provide a good home for them.”

Linda was uncomfortable. “Chris, we need to think about this and why you want to adopt them.”

Chris had never considered that Linda would be hesitant about taking on the kids and his surprise showed. “I thought the only reason you have put off meeting them was because of your confinement to bed. “Are you saying you don’t want to apply for adoption?”

“I’m not sure if I do or don’t, but I see no reason why we can’t wait and decide after our baby is born. Chris, I’ve never been a mother and taking care of one baby is scary enough. Those kids already have a lifetime of problems to deal with and maybe it would be better for someone more qualified to take them on.”

”Their names are Andi and Jason Larabee, not those kids! Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think Kelli has ever been a mother either and she didn’t hesitate to take them. Just who do you think they belong with, Linda?”

“Kel is not pregnant either; if she was she would feel differently about it. She knows this is not permanent for her and can afford to be generous with her time. Besides, if she wants kids she should have her own, not take on someone else’s. They belong with someone that doesn’t know who their father was and what he did.”

Everything started to fall in place, Chris knew now what Buck, and the others were not telling him. Kelli was not avoiding him, she was avoiding Linda and he had missed seeing the problem. * Hell, Larabee, it’s your problem, too.* “Linda you need to meet them, before you say things like that and this weekend will be the perfect time. I’ll arrange with Vin and Kelli to let us have them for a few hours on Saturday, that will give you a chance to get acquainted with them.

“You can try, but I doubt Kelli will agree. She’s upset with me and won’t talk to me or return any of my phone calls right now.” She saw the expectation of an explanation written on Chris’ face.” It is nothing serious, just one of those things we go through occasionally. We’ll work it out, but for now, I’m getting tired and think I’ll go lay down for a bit.”

Larabee watched her leave the room. *Chris you have some work to do.* He reached for the phone.

Tanner home- 3:00pm

“Uncle Ezra’s here!” Jason ran to the door to greet the man he had come to like a lot. Standish called earlier, asking permission to take Andi and Jason to McDonalds, followed by a front row seat at a puppet show.

Jumping up and down along side her brother Andi was yelling. “Uncl Ra here! At least she did not call him Ez.

“Are you sure you can handle this Ez?” Kelli had her doubts.

“Absolutely, Master Jason and I are very capable of caring for one little princess.” Ezra assured her,” Enjoy your time alone, we will be returning no later than 7:30pm and you have my word they will not overindulge on candy.”

Vin helped with the car seats, once they were strapped in he stepped back as Ezra drove away and he put an arm around his redhead. “Relax Kel; they’ll be fine.” The Texan was concerned with how attached she was becoming to the kids and knew something else was bothering her. So far, he had not been able to get her to talk about it, but while Ezra had the kids occupied, he intended to find out what it was.

They were only in the house a few minutes when someone was at the door.” I’ll get it.” Vin wanted to talk to Kelli and was slightly irritated by the interruption.

”Damn Chris, look at you and your fancy walking boot, come on in. You just missed the kids; Ezra took ‘em for a few hours for dinner and a puppet show.” Chris had made a point of talking with Jason and Andi as often as he could, but he was not here to see them.

“Since this is my first day of freedom, I though I’d come visit and see how things were going.” Chris sat down where he could watch Kelli and her reactions. “I’ve missed seeing you, Red.”

“It’s been a busy week, we were in court Monday and I suppose Vin told you we were granted custody of the kids. The emergency order was only good until the hearing.”

“Yeah I heard Ezra was their advocate and that lawyer friend of yours did a helluva job pushing things through.”

“Barbara Lindsey, yeah she’s great. Anyway, after that we had to get them to a doctor for their shots and complete physicals. Then we had to enroll Jason in school immediately and they tested him for placement. We found out today that he did well enough to begin as a first grader. Of course, we had to shop for school clothes and supplies, too. He starts on Monday and I think he’s kinda lookin’ forward to it.” Kelli explained.

“In between all that we had our own doctor appointments. Both doctors insisted on another week off before they’ll sign release papers, said we hadn’t follow their orders about proper rest.” Vin laughed, “Hell, I think Nathan must have talked to ‘em before we got there and told on us.”

Chris leaned forward.” I think I can help you out some. I’d like to take the kids on Saturday, at least for half the day. I want to spend some time with them and Linda needs the opportunity to get acquainted.”

“Sounds like a great idea I know they have wanted to see more of you, too.” Vin was glad that Chris was taking control again. Since he wanted to adopt them, the sooner they knew it the better for everyone involved. “They need to know what your plans are as soon as you get the paperwork started.”

“You know what I want Vin, I would like to adopt them.” Chris studied his daughter.

Kelli stood up. “Actually we already have plans with them for Saturday. The weather promises to be nice and I told them they could ride Dancer.”

”If they want to ride, we can make it early and then they can spend some time with Chris, but you know Jason has been lookin' forward to getting ridin' lessons from Chris.” Vin recognized the look on her face. “Kel we talked about this, you knew going in that it was a strong possibility that Chris would apply for adoption and they would probably only be with us a couple of weeks”

“Maybe it’s time we talked about it again.” She looked to Chris. “I don’t think it’s in their best interest for you to adopt them. They would be better off with us.”

“Kel, don’t you think this is somethin’ we should be discussin’ or is this, what you haven’t been talkin’ to me about?” Vin did not like doing this in front of Chris, but he felt he was close to finding out what the problem was.

Chris knew now that whatever happened between Linda and Kelli had everything to do with the kids and evidently was serious. “You want to tell us what transpired between you and Linda?”

*This all started after Kelli went to see Linda on Sunday and now that I think about it, Kelli had not been to the ranch house since then. How in the hell did I miss this one?*

*The same way I did Vin, until this afternoon.*

*Have you figured it out?*

*Most of it, but there are still a few pieces missing.*

“That’s enough! You two are not going to gang up on me and if you have somethin’ to say, then talk about it dammit, don’t think it! What happened between Linda and me is history. I want to keep those kids and I will not let anyone put them through the hell I had growin’ up. End of discussion!

“Sorry baby, but this is just the beginnin’ of this discussion.” Vin sighed, this could be a long evening. “We’ve never kept secrets from one another and we’re not going to start now.”

Chris sat back and decided to see how this played out before he interrupted.

“Fine then, by all means, let’s talk about it! Linda sees the world as black and white, with nothin’ in between. She grew up protected from all the ugly side of life, but I’ve been on the receivin’ end of all those good people that think life only happens one way and that they know how things should be. I know what it feels like to be blamed for somethin’ that you had no control over. I will not allow anyone to judge those kids by what their father did!”

“I don’t think anyone here would do that, Kel.” Tanner saw the hurt in her eyes, moved closer to her, and spoke softy because he wanted her to get it all out.

“Linda would Vin, hell she already has! She has decided before she even meets them that they could be dangerous because of their father, but I reminded her that Chris and I were blood related to him too! And yes we argued about it and about Jack! She thought I would talk to Chris for her and when I told her that I agreed with him...” She stopped to take a deep breath. “It doesn’t matter; her words just made me remember a lot of things I wish I could forget. And she didn’t like what I told her.”

“Would you tell me what you said?” Chris had to know so he could find a way to deal with it.

Kelli was so angry that she had forgotten Chris was still here, but since he asked, she had no problem telling him. “I told her that I would not sit in judgment of the horrible things that Jack did or for him lettin’ grief and drugs rob him of a decent life. That you could have done the same thing after Sarah and Adam died given the right push or me if Jake had not come into my life to keep me straight. Your brother died takin’ a bullet that was meant for you, whether it was intentional or not I‘ll never know, but you are still with us because of it and being grateful for that was more important to me than hatin’ Jack. I told her to keep her damn illusions about what life should be and warned her that I would kick her ass if she repeated what she said to me in front of the kids.”

Chris knew every word of that was true, without Buck’s support in those early days after Sarah died he could have…Later on his family of brothers kept him going and Kel certainly had enough reasons for her life to have turned the other way. One of his biggest regrets was that she knew from experience just how cruel the world could be for an unprotected child. “Kel, do you trust me?”

The question surprised her. “Yes, of course I do.”

Her quick, firm response warmed his heart. “I promise you that I will never let anyone hurt Jason or Andi the way you were hurt and I will only do what is best for them. You are right about Linda and the way she grew up, but she lashed out because she was scared for me, and she is apprehensive about her impending motherhood. She is a reasonable, loving woman, though she sometimes takes the long way from point A to point B, but she always gets there and once she meets Jason and Andi, I know they will win her over. All I ask is that you give me a chance to work this out and we’ll see where it leads.” He was willing to give her all the time she needed to think about this.

Vin wrapped both arms around her waist, drawing her against his chest and whispered. “We can still love ‘em baby, but trust Chris to protect ‘em.” He rested his chin on top of her head, he knew that she was going to cry and she did. When he finally felt a long sigh and felt her head nod, he had her answer. “What time should we bring ‘em over, Cowboy?

Chris again thanked that somebody higher up that had brought these two into his life and saw fit to bring them together. Larabee swallowed the knot of emotion in his throat before he spoke. “I thought we could all have lunch, see how it goes and then afterward, you two can take off for a while.” He stood to leave, but could not resist stopping beside Kelli. He ran his hand over the back of her head, through her hair. “In case, I failed to tell you before, I do love you, Kel.”

Without a word, she turned from Vin to hug her dad, and with her tears still evident he hugged her back. Chris decided that whoever said grown men don’t cry was probably never a father and his own emotions refused to stay hidden away. He placed shaking hands on her shoulders and leaned back to look at this young woman, what he saw was his child… responding to her father’s long overdue declaration of love. He promised himself that he would hold on to this memory, making sure that she always knew there was a place for her in his life.

Tanner fought his own emotions as he watched the two people he loved most in this world. Both were headstrong and had been hesitant to express their feelings openly to one another. Jack’s demons had almost cost Chris his life, but as bad as it was, the threat of that loss helped father and daughter overcome the last emotional hurdle that separated them.

*It looks as if fate struck again, Chris. This time she handed out a tough lesson.*

*Fate can be a bitch or a blessing Vin, this time she knew what she was doing.*

Chris kissed Kelli’s brow and handed her back to the Texan for safekeeping. “You two enjoy some time alone, Ezra won’t be back before 7:30 unless I call him. I don’t plan to tell Linda about this conversation, but I’m going home to share some of my thoughts with her about fate and forgiveness.”

Vin and Kelli were aware of what it had cost Chris physically to come over to make his case for the kids. They stood at their open door and watched to make sure he made it home safely. Satisfied that he was okay, they went back inside, locking the door behind them.

The Texan was well aware that his redhead was in need of some TLC. Emotions were still running high and words were scarce, but they did not need words to covey their feelings. Right now, they needed the comfort they could only find from one another. Taking her hand, Vin turned on some soft music, pulled her close and with a warm glint in his eyes that made her heart race, whispered huskily, “Dance with me, baby.”

Tuning out the rest of the world, they seized hold of this moment in time; it was Vin’s turn to take care of her and ease the pain her unwanted memories had created. Standing in front in front of their fireplace as the sun began to set behind the mountains they swayed to the music. Kelli wrapped her arms around Vin’s neck as his hands lovingly caressed her backside and they took pleasure in discovering a new depth to the riveting emotions that flowed between them. They shared a profound sense of trust and intimacy that was spiritual fulfilling. Tender kisses and unspoken words led to the inimitable joy of togetherness that they only found in each other.


Chris sat in the big chair by the fireplace; he was tired, but felt good about what was happening around him, his blood test should be back by Tuesday and he was hopeful that it would show a negative result for aids. The crutches were gone and he was slowing gaining his strength back day by day. The trip to see Kelli was the best medicine he could ask for, they had reached a new level in their relationship, one he could feel and he knew would only get better. He still needed to talk to Linda, but was positive that they could work through her doubts.

Linda stood and watched Chris for a few minutes before making her presence known. She had done some soul-searching this afternoon and come to a few conclusions that she needed to talk to him about. She had decided that she would do whatever it took to make Chris happy.

“Come on in, babe.” He knew she was there and had waited to see what she would do. “Sit with me.” Chris pulled her down across his lap, holding her close.

She sat quietly staring into the fire, not sure where to start. “I’ve been doing some thinking.”

“Tell me, I promise to listen.”

Chris, I was scared, about losing you, about the baby, hell I guess about everything. I probably said a lot of things to Vin and Kelli, too that I shouldn’t have and there is no excuse except that …Dammit, I need you with me and the prospect of being a mother scares the hell out of me.”

“First of all, I am with you and have no plans on leaving. Second, I am sure Vin understands why you were upset with him and third I know you will be a great mother. Hell, you have been practicing on Kel for years and she survived.” Chris teased and then smiled, “I know I was scared before Adam was born, but that all evaporated as soon as I held him.”

“I didn’t do so well with Kelli. I’ve known her for ten years and thought I was a good friend, but I wasn’t. I never really tried to see things from her point of view and did not push to find out how she came to be the woman I know. It has only been in the last few months that I realized how very different her life was from mine and how hard it must have been for her.

“Linda, you couldn’t know what she refused to tell you.”

“I never asked and I should have. Even after she told me about her childhood; it did not register with me what she really went through. Not until last Sunday... Chris, how can someone survive all that and still be the good person that she is? “

“Fate I suppose has a lot to do with it, that and a strong will. Even out of the worst events of our lives, there can be good things happening. For Kel, she learned to survive from all the people that hurt her. Jake gave her a direction to take for a decent life, Vin taught her that unconditional love is real and that unchained her emotions. Fate showed up again and brought her home to me, giving me a chance to be her father.

“What good can come out of what your brother did?’

“Two beautiful kids for starters. I also learned how lucky I have been to have the friends that stuck with me, even when I pushed them away. I was never alone in my battle to survive as Jack was. Buck was there for me through that hellish first year after I lost Sarah and Adam. Then fate again gave me six more brothers to make sure I paid attention. You came into my life and then Kelli, now we have another child coming to enrich our lives. I also learned what Kel already knew, you have to forgive and move on or it will destroy you.”

“I want to go with you tomorrow and I do want to meet the kids. Maybe since I’m getting a late start on having my first one, God decided I needed a couple more children to balance things out.” She would do this for Chris, hoping that he wanted to adopt for the right reasons.

“Hell babe, thirty-four is not that late, but it would be nice to have a full house.”

Linda had to laugh.” Chris we always have a full house and for a man that just six months ago did not want more children you are getting them left and right.”

“Yeah, I guess I am.”

“If you’re interested, I had an ultra sound when I went to the hospital and I know what were having, but if it’s okay with you I’m not ready to tell the world just yet.”

”Then we won’t tell the world, but you can tell me.”

Linda wrapped her arms around his neck and whispered in his ear. Chris did not say anything, but the smile on his face spoke for him.

Chapter 22

Denver-Friday Morning

The sky was gray and the cold north wind made the thirty-four degree ground temperature feel much colder. The cemetery was about a fifteen-minute drive north of Denver. Chris was surprised to find that Jack had lived in or around the area for the last ten years and that, Jason and Andi were both born in Colorado. It appeared that his brother had been keeping track of him over time, better than Chris had kept up with him.

Chris had decided on a graveside service, Jack would be laid to rest next to the children’s mother, and Josiah agreed to say a few words. Ezra arranged lunch for everyone at the Standish Tavern after the eleven o’clock service. Orrin Travis was there, as well as every member of the MCAT unit and the entire wild bunch attended the service. They were not there for Jack, but wanted to show their support for Chris and the children.

Linda stood next to Chris, observing the kids and their interaction with the rest of the family. Jason stood stoically between Chris and Vin, while Tanner stood next to Kelli, holding a squirming Andi in his arms. Immediately behind them, the five other brothers stood with their own families and the rest of the MCAT team flanked them all. The service was short, but one thing that Josiah said remained with Linda for a long time.

“Jack Larabee may have made many wrong turns in his life, but before we close the book and say the ‘The End’, there is one final chapter to be written. His children will write that chapter and with loving support from family, it will be able to have a good ending. God’s grace is the only thing that leads us through the darkest part of our lives, Jack lost sight of that gift of grace and we pray that his children never do.”

A chorus of ‘amen’ followed and as everyone began to leave, Linda noticed Jason pulling on Chris’ sleeve. He bent down and the child whispered in his ear. Chris straightened up and responded. “I think that is a very good idea, Jason and yes, that certainly is an okay thing to do.” He explained to Vin what the boy wanted.

The Texan set Andi down and watched as her brother took her hand and led her to their mother’s grave. With tears in their eyes, the adults listened. “Andi, this in mama and she would love you a lot. Mama, let me tell you about Andi…” Jason talked for the next fifteen minutes acquainting his sister with the mother she never knew.

Chris did not even try to stop the tears as they rolled down his face. Jason and Andi had been through so much, yet they were still able to give their trust to him, along with the rest of the family to care for them. It was right to have this service and give them the opportunity to believe that their dad was at peace. He made a silent promise to Carol Larabee that her children would be loved and protected, never forgetting the woman that gave them life.

Larabee 7-late evening

“You okay Chris, you look real tired?” Nathan was there to give him his medicine and check on his leg wound. The hospital bed was gone and Chris was looking forward to sleeping without it, at last. He would not share a bed with Linda until he got the results on his blood work. “You having any problems at all, headaches, muscle cramps, chills or nausea?”

“I’m fine Nate, I probably just overdid a little today, that’s all. Go on home to that beautiful wife of yours and hug Terrell for me.”

“I will, but if you need me…”

“Call, I know the number, but I’ll be fine.” This was the first night since he had been home that he would not have someone with him. Chris wanted to be alone, he was tired and had felt kind of off since after the service this morning *Just everything catching up to you, Larabee. Another couple of weeks and this shit will be gone for good.*For the last two days he had felt better, but the medicine that Nathan gave him was not working like it did before and now he felt like hell.

He was restless for some reason, but could not pinpoint why. He did notice that the room seemed colder than usual, but chalked that off to the change in the weather. Nathan had been gone for over an hour when Chris finally drifted off to sleep.

*Jack, you cannot be here, you are dead! Chris rubbed his eyes but his brother was still there when he looked again. God, it was cold, but he felt the sweat pouring off his body. Dammit, what do you want? Still no answer! The pain that shot through his stomach said this was real, but that just was not possible. He looked at the clock and it read 3:00am. He had been asleep for several hours so this must be a dream.

Is it a dream, Chris? Am I dead or are you? Maybe it was you in that coffin today, not me. You stole my life; everything you have should have been mine! Now you want to take my children! Or is this what you want? Jack held a filled syringe and waved it in front of him. You miss the warm rush just after the needle enters your veins, don’t you? No more pain, no more worrying over every little thing … Just nothingness and then freedom.

Get out! Get the hell out of my life! I do not want it and I never did want it! You forced me! Get the fuck out now, Jack! God, it was hard to breathe!*

Chris sat straight up in bed, gasping for each breath, the clock still read three, but the room was empty. The sheets were soaked with sweat, but he shivered from the cold that seeped into his bones. *Get a grip Larabee, it was a nightmare that is all it was.* He had all the things that he wanted in his life and drugs was not one of them. Getting up he went to the bathroom, washed his face, found some fresh linens and changed the sheets. Then he laid down again, but he did not go back to sleep.

Saturday –noon

Chris and Linda were in the kitchen preparing lunch, when the back door flew open and the chatter of two small children filled the room. Vin latched onto Jason, while Kelli wrangled with Andi to remove their coats and dirty boots before they could track across the floor. The kids were excited about their morning ride and found it impossible to stand still.

“Guess what we did, Chris!” A red-faced Jason ran directly to him, his enthusiasm running wild. “We got to ride! Vin and I rode Peso, but Andi had to ride the girl horse with Kelli. Vin even let me feed Pony for you!”

Not wanting to be left out, Andi pushed herself between Jason and Chris. “Me too! We go fast like this!” She tried to jump through the air and she would have fallen on the floor, if Chris had not caught her.

“Easy there little one,” he picked her up, ignoring the pain in his chest when he did. With one hand, he reached down and ruffled Jason’s hair. “Thanks pard, for taking care of my horse.”

Linda stood off to the side watching and waiting for Chris to remember that she was there.

“They’re both natural born riders, Cowboy.” The Texan finally joined them after hanging up the children’s coats. “Kel and I had to practically pry them away from the horses.”

“Why don’t you two, give Chris some room so he can finish lunch, ‘m starved.” Kelli had seen the sudden grimace of pain that flashed across Chris’ face. “We need to get y’all cleaned up before we eat.”

“Before you do, I want you to meet someone, Jason, Andi this is Linda. She lives with me and you’ll be seeing a lot of her.” Chris set Andi down and urged Linda to come closer. “Babe, this young man is Jason and this little whirlwind is Andi.”

Jason immediately became serious. “Ma’am.”

Andi stood behind her brother and peeked around him. “Hi.”

Linda stayed next to Chris. “I’ve heard so much about you that I feel as if I know you already; it’s nice to finally meet officially.” There was an awkward moment of silence. Linda had no idea what was safe to say next.

Chris came to her rescue. “Okay, five minutes until lunch, go with Kel and she’ll show you where to wash up.” The three of them took off down the hall and Larabee had to laugh when Vin dropped onto the nearest chair. “What’s wrong, Tanner they wear you out?”

“I thought I was in good shape, but those two are out to prove me wrong. Even Peso’s tired and I was sure that mule could handle anything. Damn, where do they get their energy?”

“Showing you age there Vin.” Chris grinned, “Nothing makes you feel older as much as trying to keep up with an energetic kid or two.”

“Why is the girl so small?” Linda asked unexpectedly.

Chris had not thought about it and looked over at Vin. “Andi was a preemie, her mother was barely into her seventh month when she…well when Andi was born. She weight less than four pounds, stayed in the hospital for six weeks and still was sick a lot the first couple of years, but she’s fine now, just small for her age. She’ll catch up as she gets bigger and it sure as hell don’t slow her down one bit.” He did not want to give more details about Andi’s birth and her mother’s death to a pregnant Linda

“How did you know that?” Chris was curious and somewhat ashamed that he had not noticed or asked questions when Jason said Andi had been sick. He realized for the first time that he knew very little about the kids except that they needed help. He also wondered how Jack had coped, alone with a premature baby, a three-year-old boy and losing his wife. .*What else did you not think about, Larabee?*

“One of the things the courts requested. Ezra and Barbra went through a ton of records while we were out lookin’ for you. Got most of ‘em and now they’re all caught up on their immunizations.” Vin explained.

The serious mood was broken when Kelli returned with the children.

“We back!” Andi yelled before Jason shushed her.

“Just in time, too, your food is ready.” Chris set the last of the food on the table. Vin moved over so Jason could sit between him and Chris.

Lunchtime conversation revolved around the horse ride until it was almost over and Tanner broached the topic of them leaving. “Kel and I thought we would clean up a bit and then go look at new trucks this afternoon, gotta replace the old one sooner or later.”

Chris nodded, “I guess that’s something I’m gonna have to do, too. The insurance company declared my truck a total loss.”

‘Heck Chris, you can look, but you’ll save yourself a lot of time if you just call and order another black Ram.” Tanner grinned. “We all know that’s what you’ll end up with anyway.”

Andi giggled and looked over at Kelli. ‘Don’t forget, ‘kay.”

“I won’t forget, but no promises.” Kelli grinned at the look of confusion on Vin’s face. “Andi just suggested a certain color to look for and I told her we’d try.”

“Really and what color is that, princess?” Vin was afraid he already knew the answer.

“Purple! Just like Spyro!” Her answer was no surprise to the Texan because ever since she played that game she wanted everything purple.

Chris however almost choked on his drink of tea. “Purple?” Once he was over his choking spell, he grinned.

*Shut up Larabee.*

Andi nodded her head vigorously. ”Yep, purple.”

Kelli stood up and began to clear the dishes, “Well see what we can do, Andi.” Vin and Jason got up to help, too.

Chris joined them, “Jason and I can handle this and you two can go on if you want.”

Linda had not added much to the conversation, but she was a little disappointed that Kelli had not said one word to her. They had argued many times over the last ten years, but Kelli never let it go for this long without saying something. She had never held Linda’s impulsive outbursts against her before now, either.

She stood up and announced. “I’ll help Andi clean up Kel, plan on having dinner here this evening, I have something special intended for the kids.”

When it was clear that Kelli was not going to answer her, Vin did. “Thanks, we’ll be back before six, call if you need us.” They said good-bye to both kids and made sure Chris had their attention when they left.

A quick clean up of the kitchen and they all moved to the den. Jason and Andi just had to walk and then run all around it, while Chris sat down on the couch, watching them. He tried not to show the sorrow that suddenly had grasped him when he saw how excited the kids were to be in such a big room. It brought back too much of how little they had known in their lives. After a while, they came running to him and clambered half on the couch, half in his lap.


"This is the biggest room ever!" Andi said, holding out her hands to indicate how big. "Even bigger then Sarah's!" The last was said with obvious pride and a grin that said she loved it to be bigger then Sarah's.


"You can race here!" Jason stated confidently.


Chris grinned at that and ruffled the boy’s hair. "Not unless I've taken away some breakables, sport."


"Aw, I wouldn't fall!"


A change of subject seemed to be in order here. "What would you two like to do now?" he asked hastily. *Great, Larabee! What if he says he wants to race you?*


Luckily, both Jason and Andi stated, after one look at each other that they wanted Chris to tell them another one of his stories. Both children climbed further onto his lap and Linda watched as they sat captivated by Chris’ story about wild mustangs.

Andi soon fell asleep and Chris carried her to the bedroom leaving Linda alone with Jason. “You like it here on the ranch don’t you?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“What’s your favorite part of being here, Jason?

He had to think about that because there were so many things to choose from. “Well, I…I like that Vin and Kelli are really nice to us and so is Chris…I guess that’s the best.” Linda was surprised, she was sure he would say horses.

Chris walked into the room. “So Jason, I heard you are going to school on Monday. I can’t wait for you to tell me all the great things that you learn.”

Jason was relieved when Chris sat next to him again. “Yeah, I am, but…” He did not want to admit that he was worried.

“I think I know how you feel, It kinda scary to do something new for the first time. I know I get a little nervous when I have to go to classes, but it goes away real quick.”

“You have to go to school, too! Why?”

“Oh yeah, my boss is always thinking of new ways for me to learn about my job. So he sends me to training classes and then I send Vin, Buck, Ezra, Josiah, Nathan and JD so they can learn, as well as the other agents that I work with”

“You make Vin go to school?” Jason was surprised.

“Sure and I send Kelli too, sometimes. You see Jason learning is important no matter how old you are. How do you think I knew about the wild horses?”

Jason thought about it, “You learned about wild horses in school?”

“Yep I did and lots of other amazing things. Once you learn to read the whole world opens up to you and from there you can do anything and be anything that you want. It all starts with that first step into a classroom and I am proud of you for doing so well on your placements. I already knew that you are smart and now you will get a chance to learn so that you can help Andi when she goes to school.”

“Andi’s not use to being alone, she might be scared.”

“You already met Inez and the other little girls. You think Andi will be okay with them while you’re in class?”

“Maybe…Kelli promised to stay with her at first; you know to make sure she’s okay about it.”

Chris nodded thoughtfully. “That is probably a good idea; you know Kelli won’t leave her if she’s not okay with it.”

“No sir, she wouldn’t, she watches us real good, Vin too.” Chris knew that Jason had no idea how much he said in those few words. He had already given Vin and Kelli the same trust he had for Chris. It was a very good start.

Larabee looked over to Linda, who had been listening. “Babe, why don’t you tell Jason about the special dinner you have planned for them?

“We’re going to have an indoor picnic, with fired chicken, potato salad with all the extras and chocolate cake for dessert. Maybe you can help me set up the picnic area; I thought we would make this room over and eat in front of the fireplace. Afterward, Chris can tell some more stories.” Linda had already made the cake, but Matt was bringing the Chicken and the other food. She had ask Ben Watson’s wife on the Southern Breeze about a dinner that kids would like and Martha had volunteered to do the cooking since Linda was supposed to be resting.

Before he said anything, Jason looked to Chris and when he saw him nod in agreement, he agreed, too. The three of them worked to set up the picnic while Andi slept. By the time she woke up, they were finished and it looked great. Chris took them on a tour to the house, the kids wanting to see everything. They ran into every room Chris showed, racing and screaming in delight when they found something interesting. The attic was by far the biggest success and it was difficult to pry them away. Only his promise they could come back there made them leave reluctantly. Just as they came back down, Matt arrived with dinner.

“Wow it smells good doesn’t it? “ Chris pretended to be a man near starvation, anxiously awaiting the food. It kept the kids entertained, but they did not want to start the picnic until Vin and Kelli got back.

Chris noticed how Jason watched the front door and the clock. Vin said they would be back by six and it was fifteen til now. The relieved smile on Jason’s face when the door opened was one he would not forget, he wondered how many times the child sat waiting for someone that did not show up when they had promised.

Vin crouched down and greeted both children. “Hey pard did you and the little princess have a good time.”

“Yep and you know what? When I go to school ‘m gonna learn to tell stories just like Chris.”

Andi was trying to tell Kelli about the wild horses. “They run free and nobody catched ‘em, not like ‘ancer. They run and run and that’s how we got horses.”

Kelli smiled, “Well, ‘m glad they were fast because I love horses.”

“Me too.” She took Kelli’s hand and led her to the picnic area. “We gonna have a pi…What we gonna have Jason?”

“Picnic Andi, a picnic.” Jason shook his head and grinned. “Come on Vin.”

“Lead me to the food, ‘m starved.” Tanner let the child lead him and was not surprised when he indicated that they sit next to Chris.

Satisfied that the Tanners were close, Jason sat on the floor by Chris e, making sure that Andi was next to them. Linda sat behind them is a more comfortable chair. Matt was on his own as far as the child was concerned. The kids ate, but not as much as Chris expected them to and he gave a questioning look to Vin.

*They don’t eat a lot yet, but give ‘m some time for their stomachs to get used to it and they will.*

*Lord, how did they manage so long without giving up?*

*Larabee stubbornness, I reckon.*

Kelli elbowed Vin and whispered, “You got somethin’ to say, share with the rest of us.”

Tanner grinned and whispered back to her, “I’ll share plenty with you, after the kids go to sleep.”

“Then I suppose I should help clean all this up so we can head home.” Kelli got up and started picking things up. “Chris looks tired, keep him company and I’ll help with the rest of this.” She took the leftover food to the kitchen and began putting it in containers.

Matt and Linda worked on turning the den back into a den, while the kids stayed close to Chris and Vin listening to them talk.

Kelli had been in the kitchen for about ten minutes and was almost through when Matt came in with the last of the food. He set it down and decided this was the best chance he would have to talk to her so he jumped in before she had another chance to dismiss him.

” Kel, I know you’re still angry and I don’t blame you, but could you just listen for a minute?”

“Say what you have to say and get it over with, Matt”

“First, I owe you an apology for my behavior. I really am sorry and I promise not to be such an ass in the future. I would like it if we could be friends again.”

“Fine Matt, let’s just forget it and move on.” Kelli started to leave.

“Wait, please. I can see that you are happy with your life now, but would you explain something to me?”

“What Matt?”

“We were friends, why didn’t you trust me enough to tell me why you didn’t want more?”

“I did tell you, more than once.”

“I mean about your childhood, I would have understood your reasons if I’d known. When Linda told me how your childhood was and about Jake, it all made sense after that and I can see why you did not want to be more than friends at that point in your life. I can also understand your strong feelings about the kids. Hell, being shuffled around and not knowing your real identity must have been tough.” When he saw the look on her face, he hastily explained. “After your…disagreement with Linda I asked her what you were talking about and she told me.”

“If I had wanted to tell you, I would have.” Kelli was surprised that Linda would discuss her past, with anyone no matter what the reason. She was overwhelmed with mixed emotions of hurt and anger plus a few more that she could not identify. All she wanted to do was to get away to sort them out.

“Matt…I have to go.”

“Kel, I didn’t mean to upset you, I just wanted to make things right.”

“You didn’t upset me, but I need to get the kids home for baths and bed.” She grabbed the children’s coats and boots; she would have to wait until later to work through what she was feeling.

Back in the den Chris was just finishing another story when Kelli came back in the room. Vin knew immediately that something was wrong, but her eyes asked him to wait for an explanation.

“The food is put up and it’s time for us to go home.” She took Andi’s coat and helped her put it on, while Vin helped Jason with his.” Thanks for dinner Chris, try to get some rest.”

Chris knelt down and said goodbye to both kids. “I’ll see you tomorrow, rest up and if the weather is nice I can watch you ride again.” Both children left with a smile on their face.

Tanner home

It was an hour before the children had baths and were ready for bed. The promise of more horse riding tomorrow encouraged them to go to bed and Vin read to them for a good twenty minutes before he was sure that they were both sound asleep. He turned off the big light and headed to the other bedroom, it was time to see if his other baby was ready to talk to him.

Kelli was right where he had left her, curled up in their oversize rocking chair by the bedroom fireplace. Without a word, the Texan sat down beside her, pulled her across his lap and held her close. He did not know yet what battle she was fighting, but he wanted her to know that she did not have to fight it alone. They sat, rocking comfortably in the silence for another fifteen minutes before Kelli stirred.

“I think I figured out what hell ready is. It’s a feeling crossed between wantin’ to shoot someone and wantin’ to hide somewhere to have a good long cryin’ spell. I just can’t decide which one I want more.”

“Tell me who needs to be shot and I’ll do it for you.”

She lifted her head, looked at Vin and could not stop the start of a smile. “You wouldn’t even ask why first?”

“I trust you baby, if you say it needs doing, that’s good enough for me.”

“I love you, Tanner and you always know what to say or not say to make me feel better.” She rubbed the back of her hand across his strong jaw. “Thank you.”

“We’re in this love together Kel, anything that touches you touches me, too. “Vin still wanted to know what had happened, to see if he did need to shoot someone. “You ready to share with me now?”

A long deep sigh told him she was. “I finally had no choice about talking to Matt. He apologized for being an ass, said he wanted to make things right so we could still be friends and then told me that if he had known about my childhood he would have understood better. I guess me sayin’ no wasn’t good enough. Apparently, Linda decided to tell him about my nomadic childhood and Jake. He said he understood now why I did not want a relationship and why I’m so defensive about the kids. It could have been worse, I reckon, she could have told him everythin’. Thank God she didn’t.”

“Of all people she should know that you don’t care to have that part of you life discussed. What in the hell was she thinkin’?”

“Yeah, I know. I thought the same thing and I can’t decide if ‘m more angry, hurt or…hell I don’t know how I feel... That’s just somethin’ I’m not comfortable with. I was already upset with her about the kids and right now, I don’t trust myself to talk to her without making the situation worse and I have no idea what to do about it. Then…hell there’s so much going on at one time, Chris, the kids and I…just need to work on some things racin’ around in my head I suppose.”

Tanner knew what he would like to do, but Kelli needed to work through this first. It was her call and he had no doubt that when the time was right, Linda would be hearing from her and the rest... somehow it would all work out. “Take all the time you need and I’ll back you no matter what you decide.” The Texan knew that all he could do was just be there if she needed him and it promised to be a long night, but together they would make it through to another morning.

Larabee home

Matt went home and Linda turned in early. Nathan came by to give Chris his Buprenorphin and asked him again another twenty questions about how he felt. His head hurt too bad to talk so he just nodded that he was fine and he went to bed as soon as Jackson left. It took him longer tonight to get to sleep, along with the headache, every muscle in his body burned when he moved. Damn, he was supposed to be getting better wasn’t he?

It was 2:00am and the chills were back. God he hurt everywhere and it was just so damn hard to breath. Chris thought if he could get rid of the pain, it would be bearable. Stop it Larabee, you do not need anything! I need sleep dammit! I need to rest...for tomorrow…he had something important to do…

*Another long night Chris? I brought an old friend of yours with me; you do remember Phillip Deveraux, don’t you? You need relief. Go on, you know what to do…

Fuck you Jack! Go away!

I’ll never go away because no matter what you will always want this. That damn syringe again! NO! NO! NO! You hear me! Yes Chris! End the pain, you know how!*

Chris sat straight up in bed, the pain was worse now, so much worse. *Fuck this shit!* He went to the bathroom and tore through the medicine cabinet until he found what he was looking for. There in the back was a bottle of pain pills, leftover from God only knew when, but it didn’t matter to Larabee how old they were. He shook out two of them, went back to the bed, and grabbed the water glass that sat on the bedside table.

He put the pills in his mouth, threw his head back and swallowed *Just this once, Chris to make it through the long night.*