MCAT: Turbulent Transition #7
Chapter 16 -
18 | Chapter 19 -
21 | Chapter 22 -
Chapter 25 - 27 | Chapter 28 - 30 | Chapter 31 - 34
Saturday ~ December 9th
Even though Kelli thought she was being quiet, Vin knew each time she had been up for the past two hours. Tanner glanced over at the clock on the bedside table. Four o'clock. It was still too early to start the day, and too late to even think about going back to sleep. In a few hours their home would be bombarded with family coming over for Max and Walter’s wedding, but for now it was quiet and just the two of them. He slipped out of bed, pulled on a pair of sweatpants, and went to join her in their rocker.
"Move over, baby.” Kelli made room for him to sit and once he did the Texan drew her close. ”What’s wrong?”
“Nothin’…everythin’ …hell, I don’t know.” She laid her head on his shoulder. “You’re hurt, Chambers wants you dead, and the RMR has a bounty on your head. Our son is barely talkin' to me, and our daughter thinks she’s moved into our bedroom.” She sighed. “Damnit, I sound like a pathetic whiner.”
Vin leaned his head against Kelli’s, and taking her hand laced his fingers through hers. “You let me worry about Chambers and the RMR, Kel. The kids just need a little time to adjust, and ‘m fine.” Tanner gently squeezed her hand, and laced his fingers with hers. “You are not pathetic, or a whiner, and couldn’t be even if you tried. So, what else is keepin’ you awake?”
Kelli shrugged her shoulders in response to his question. Vin knew that there was something else bothering her, and was determined to find out what it was. “Kel, this is me, the man who knows you better than anybody else, talk to me.”
Kelli let out a sigh. “I’m tired all the time, my clothes won’t fit right anymore, and it’s just a matter of time before you get tired of listenin’ to me throwin’ up a dozen times a day.”
It hit him suddenly; his redhead was feeling insecure…about him. Vin wasn't sure what had brought on the sense of insecurity Kelli was feeling, or maybe he did know. They hadn't made love since the night at the cabin when she had told him that she was pregnant. His homecoming hadn't gone exactly as he had planned with him being shot, and then the kids in their bed, and…truthfully his concern that he may accidentally hurt her. Throw in Amberlyn and her flirtations, out of whack hormones, and he could suddenly understand where her doubts were coming from.
It surprised him that she would ever feel insecure about his love for her, but she did, so it was up to him to chase her fears away. “Baby, I 'm goin' to love every moment of this pregnancy, as our babies grow inside of you. No matter what changes occur, or how big you get, you are goin' to be beautiful, and you're only goin' to get even more so by the time the twins are ready to be delivered. As for you bein' tired and sick all the time, Dr. Weeks explained that as soon as your body grows accustomed to the pregnancy, that you won't be feelin' that way anymore. He tilted her face to look into her eyes. “The day I ever get tired of you doin’ anythin’ will be the day after all the stars in the sky go dark forever.” Still holding her hand, he stood up, and pulled her to her feet.
“What are we doin’ Tanner?”
“We are headed for the shower, lady.” Vin led her into their bathroom. He opened the door and reached into the oversized shower stall, turning the water on full blast, testing the temperature until it was just right before turning his attention back to his wife. He released the sash on her robe, slipped it off her shoulders, and let it drop to the floor. His sweats were the next item to be discarded. ”You are a breathtakin' vision, lady.” Tanner had already recognized that his wife’s body was changing. Her breasts had become fuller, her normally slender waist was beginning to disappear as the babies she carried inside of her grew, and her hips were slightly more rounded. All of the changes that had already occurred combined with those that were yet to happen, didn't turn him off in the very least. Instead, they made her all the more desirable to him and he silently chastised himself for not having made mention of that fact to her before now.
Kelli gently traced the fiery red scar on Vin's side, left by the bullet wound he had received only a week ago. “Does it still hurt?”
“No.” He replied softly, wrapping his arms around her. “We are certainly a pair. You didn't want to do anythin' to hurt me because of my wound, and I was concerned about hurtin' you, worried about it bein’ safe for me to make love to you. I reckon we got our wires crossed, Kel. We both want and need the same thing, and it's time that we do somethin’ about it.” Vin lowered his head to hers in a tender kiss that quickly turned passionate. They were both a bit breathless when the kiss ended a few moments later.
“The water’s runnin', wanna join me?” he whispered hoarsely.
“I don’t know… are you plannin’ to do more hoverin’ Tanner?” The smile that lit up Kelli's face was filled with love and anticipation.
“Oh, yeah...” Vin grinned seductively at her, “Among other things.”
He held out his hand to her. Kelli slipped her hand into his without hesitation and let him lead her into the shower where they renewed their commitment and love to one another.
By noon family members were filling up the house, and the women were putting the last minute touches on the decorations and the food. Max had insisted that not a lot of fuss be made over her and Walter’s nuptials, and the ladies of the family had abided by their wishes...to some degree. In keeping with the holiday that was vastly approaching, Max had opted for red roses with sprigs of baby's breath and holly leaves for the small floral arrangements, as well as for her bridal bouquet. Twisted streamers in red, white, and green hung from the doorways and ceilings. Chris, Vin and Josiah had erected an arch that Max and Walter would stand under as they exchanged their vows, and it had been decked with streamers, as well as sprigs of baby's breath, holly, and roses.
In the dining room, the table was bedecked with a white linen cloth, and green and red linen napkins. An extravagant centerpiece of red roses, holly, and baby’s breath was placed in the center of the table. Two hurricane lamps lit with white candles were placed on each side of it, with rose petals and holly leaves adorning the bases of both lamps. Platters of vegetables, fruit, cold cuts, and cheeses graced the table. There were bowls of pasta, macaroni, seafood, potato and green salads. Baskets of rolls or bread, and numerous condiments in little dishes were there as well. On a side table, all by its lonesome stood the two tiered wedding cake with red bows and green ribbons that Ezra had had custom made at his favorite bakery in town.
Country was the choice of music for the day, and JD kept cds loaded into the stereo. The children seemed to be enjoying the festivities as much as the adults, with one or two exceptions. Andi made her turn around the room making certain that all her aunts and uncles knew that two new Tanners were coming soon. She was a little disappointed to find out her daddy had already told them all. She sat down next to her Uncle Ra, and pouted.
“Something wrong Sugar?” Ezra spoke quietly to his niece.
“I don’t got nobody to tell ‘bout the babies.”
She looked so forlorn that Ezra felt obliged to do something. “Well…you could tell me.”
Andi’s face brightened immediately, and for the next fifteen minutes she repeated almost word for word everything her parents had said. “Jason’s not happy ‘bout it, but I am.” She hugged Ezra’s neck. “Thanks Uncle Ra, I love you.” Standish watched her happily run off and then scanned the room for his nephew. His intention was to seek out the young man and have a chat with him, however, at that moment the Larabees arrived with Matt and two people he did not know with them, diverting his attention.
Vin was staying close to his redhead; he did not want her to doubt for one second that her pregnancy had changed anything between them, except to bring them closer. He watched as the Larabees' walked in with Amberlyn, and presumably Marshall. When Tanner realized they were comin their way he leaned over and kissed his wife passionately, making certain that any interested parties knew where his attentions were centered.
Kelli smiled at her dad as he came into the room, and reached immediately for Grace. “Isn't she a doll?” She asked Vin as he took in the beautiful dress that her baby sister was wearing.
“She's pretty all right...almost as pretty as her big sister.” Vin agreed as he caressed Grace's chin with one of his fingers.
“The place looks great.” Chris said, turning around in a circle to admire the wedding decorations. “The ladies outdid themselves.”
“It could have been even better if Max would have let me hire a wedding planner.” Linda said, coming up to them. “Kelli, you remember Marshall?” The man with Linda was dark headed, six feet, and had what most would call classic good look. His skin tone indicated that he did not spend much time outdoors, and his manicured hands showed that manual labor was not on his regular agenda.
“Sure I do” Kelli said glancing at the man who walked up behind Linda with Amberlyn. “Marshall.”
“Kelli.” Marshall said in a smooth voice. “It's good to see you again.” He started to lean down to kiss her cheek, but Kelli shifted Grace between them to avoid it.
“Marshall Vanderson, this is my husband, Vin Tanner.” She bit her tongue to keep from saying what she wanted to say. This was Max and Walter's special day and she wouldn't do anything to spoil it. The two men simply nodded their acknowledgment of each other.
“You have a lovely home. It’s fortunate that Linda and Chris allowed y’all to build on their property.” Marshall smiled. “Most landowners wouldn’t do that.”
“Marshall, apparently Linda had not clarified our living arrangements to you. The Larabee 7 is jointly owned by me, Vin, and five more brothers. We’re all family, as well as co-workers, and share equally.” Chris explained. The land, the horses, and our lives are all connected.”
“How quaint,” Amberlyn commented. “Are all of your brothers married?”
“All, but one, and Ezra is going to take the plunge in April.” Chris replied. “Between us we also have twelve children and another four on the way. I like having my family living close by.”
The Jacksons walked up to join them. “I do hope you two are behaving and giving yourselves a chance to heal.” Nathan smiled as he addressed Chris and Vin. “No one looking at you two now would believe you were both shot only a week ago.”
“Oh, my God,” Amberlyn gasped. “You were both shot? With a gun?"
“Yes.” Vin did not miss Marshall’s disdainful reaction to seeing Nathan and Rain. Sending an intense glare in Vanderson’s direction he explained. “In this case we were up against a white supremacy group. Of course being Federal agents we couldn’t allow them to spread their racist garbage and continue their illegal activities. Chris and I were wounded in a shoot out with ‘em, we survived, their men were not all so fortunate.”
Marshall cleared his throat. “I suppose we should all sleep better knowing that Mr. Tanner.”
“Can we please not talk about MCAT work for one day?” Linda edged back into the conversation. “There is more to life than work.” Noting Marshall’s interest in the Jacksons she explained. “Marshall Vanderson, meet the Jacksons. Rain and Nathan live about a half a mile up the road.”
“They live on this property?” Marshall’s censure was obvious, reacting before he thought about it.
Chris threw his uninjured arm around Nathan’s shoulder. “Brother Nathan is one of the men I told you about. He owns one seventh of the Larabee 7 land that you’re standing on.”
Marshall looked as if he was going to be ill. Chris winked at the Texan who stood grinning next to Kelli, their work was done for now, Vanderson received their message loud and clear.
Josiah called for everyone’s attention. “Brothers, Sisters, family, and friends it is my honor to officiate here today and we are ready to begin.” Gunny stood on one side of him, the only attendant her sister had asked for. The music started and Walter, wearing a dark blue suit walked into the room with Max at his side. Her mid-calf pastel blue dress with billowing sleeves flowed attractively over her body, accentuating her silver hair. When they reached the archway of flowers, the music stopped and Josiah continued speaking.” These two have come to us today to share their commitment with friends and family. Walter Lee Andrews, do you take this woman. Maxine Rae Bowdrie to be your lawfully wedded wife…..”
The ceremony continued for ten minutes, and then the entire room broke in applause along with cheers when Josiah introduced Mr. and Mrs. Walter Andrews. Gunny hugged her sister and her new brother-in-law, as well-wishers quickly surrounded the couple. At some point over the next hour the older couple slipped off for their planned three day honeymoon while everyone was preoccupied with food or conversation.
Kids were either down for naps or playing in the loft area Vin had designed expressly for that purpose, and the afternoon excitement was winding down. Gunny and Nettie oversaw the clean-up effort and they were finally satisfied that it was completed successfully. Family and friends had all gathered in the living room and sat around the fireplace relaxing and enjoying the opportunity of being together, most of them anyway. Marshall and Amberlyn stayed close to Linda after she had introduced them to everyone, he had not found his comfort zone among this group, and she had not found any available men to flirt with.
Matt made a point to seek out Vin and Kelli. “I heard your news, and I wanted you to know that I am truly happy for both of you. Congratulations.”
“Thanks Dubois.” Vin answered for them. “Your friend doesn’t look too happy though.” He nodded toward Marshall.
“Correction Tanner, he is Linda’s friend, I’m just the brother that got talked into letting him stay with me.” Matt was quick to explain. “As far as I’m concerned, he can leave anytime.”
Matt, why in the hell did Linda bring them to Colorado?” Kelli asked.
“I advised her against it. “He sighed as he looked over at his sister. “Linda is not listening to me though, she’s…hell I’m not sure what she is, but I can read the signs. She’s restless, and I guess you know as well as I do what that means.”
“Unfortunately I do.” Kelli knew Matt well enough to know that although he would not publicly admit his disapproval of his sister’s behavior, privately he did not approve of her constant need for change and attention. “You still seein’ Kat?”
Matt grinned. “Every chance I get.” He stood up. “If you will excuse me I have to see a boy about a raccoon. I promised your son, to check Buttons out before I leave; it seems he’s concerned she might have babies.”
Vin squeezed Kelli’s hand. “We told him about the twins, and he may be reactin' to that. If you don’t mind we’d appreciate knowin’ what he’s concerned about.”
“No problem. Dr. Matt is on the case.” He left to look for Jason and Buttons.
JD and Casey came over and sat down. “When you two are ready JD and I can fill you in on what to expect with your twins, “Casey offered. “You might want to check out the group we joined when we found out about the girls. It’s called “Managing with Multiples” and if you don’t want to attend the meeting you can go online for a ton of information.”
“You best give Vin the URL JD, he’s readin' everythin’ he can about twins.” Kelli laughed. “At the rate he’s goin’ he’ll be an expert before we’re half-way there.”
“Nothin’ wrong about doin’ a little research.” Vin answered defensively.
“Hell, I did the same thing starting the minute we knew.” JD agreed. “Of course we didn’t know as soon as you did, Casey was almost four months along when we found out.”
“That’s one of the advantages of going to a specialist. Dr Weeks was already monitorin’ everything about me, even before we got pregnant.” Kelli added. “We appreciate your offer, and ‘m sure we’ll be yellin’ for your help.”
JD grinned. “That is what family is for isn’t it? Trust me when I say, Lilah and Daisy have taught us plenty to share with you.”
“I bet they have.” Vin grinned, and then he saw what was going on across the room with the Wilmington's. “It looks as if Tannis may be ready to join the party.” They all got up to go over and see what was happening with Buck and Inez.
Buck was helping Inez to her feet. “Judging by how hard she’s squeezing my hand, I’d say this time it’s the real thing.”
“I’m fine, Buck, just…oh...” Inez grimaced in pain. “Maybe we should go to the hospital.”
They had already planned who would go where. With Vin still in protective custody, and Nathan a target as well, they could not risk bringing trouble to the hospital, if it was at all avoidable. One of them had to stay to fulfill the requirements for protective custody, and the children’s care had to be considered. Josiah and Mallory were to help Buck with Inez. JD and Casey would also accompany them to the hospital. Chris would stay with Vin and Nathan, and Ezra had volunteered his and Barbara’s assistance with the children. Gunny and Nettie would be a backup for the kids, and keep the food and coffee coming while everyone at the ranch waited for news from the hospital.
Josiah and Mallory were providing the transportation for them, and after checking on Joanne and Adam, they were ready to leave. Inez insisted on saying goodbye to her children. “I’ll be home in a couple of days, and have your new sister with me.” She hugged Sarah, Maria, and Caleb, before allowing Buck to take her outside. After hugging Lilah, and Daisy, JD and Casey followed them in their car.
As it goes with kids, they sensed that something big was going on around them and acted…like children. Nonstop talking, squealing and bids for attention made a noisy household, and Marshall Vanderson decided that he was not sticking around for it.
“Dubois, take me home.” He snapped at Matt, before turning his attention to Linda. “Apparently the nuptial party is over, and the children’s hour has begun. I bid you adieu, dear lady, and will speak with you later.” Politely saying goodbye to the others he donned his coat, and walked out the door, expecting Matt to do as he requested.
“Linda, when you do speak to your friend, you may kindly inform him that the Southern Breeze is not his home and that I am not his personal servant.” Matt instructed his sister.
“Matt, you know how Marshall is, I’m sure he did not mean it the way it sounded.” Linda defended her friend. “Would you please drive him to the ranch, I know he’s not used to children and would be very uncomfortable if he had to stay.”
“As soon as I speak with Vin, I’ll take him to the ranch, but not for his sake. I think these good people have enough to be concerned about without having to put up with your Mr. Vanderson.” Matt nodded to Tanner and the two men left the room for a private discussion.
“I didn’t know those two were even on speaking terms. What is all that about Kel?” Linda questioned.
“Whatever it is, it’s their business Linda, not yours.” Kelli answered, handing a squirming Grace over to her father.
Ezra walked in to make an announcement. “I have several servings of cake and ice cream waiting in the kitchen, but you must be age seven or younger to indulge. Do I have any interested participants?”
Maria wrinkled her nose, “Huh?”
“Cake and ice cream for everyone,” Chris interpreted. He grinned as most of the little people ran out of the room, and then commented. “I wonder if Ezra has ever heard the term, sugar rush.”
“If he hasn’t he will be experiencin’ it firsthand in about thirty minutes.” Kelli laughed. “Ezra and Barbara have planned to spend the holidays with us, so they can see all the kids through Christmas. By the time they spend the day with ten sugar laden kids, they might change their minds.”
Matt and Vin reentered the room within a few minutes, Dubois saying his good-byes, and Vin returning to his place beside Kelli on the couch.
Everything okay, Vin?
Jason is afraid Buttons will have babies and then die.
Damn, nothing’s ever easy with kids, is it.
“Kelli, I never pegged you as the domestic type, I thought you were all guns, and dangerous stuff. I have a difficult time seeing you as a mother.” Amberlyn directed her comment to the redhead.
Oh, I still know how to shoot, but there are other things in life I like better.” Kelli grinned at her husband. “My family keeps my life excitin', in fact. I probably should go check on our two.”
“You are not goin' to be chasin’ hyped-up kids. That activity does not qualify as rest, and stayin’ off your feet.” Tanner threw his arm around her to draw her closer, and grinned mischievously. “Besides, you’ve had enough exercise today.”
Linda was sitting back observing everyone around her. Kelli was obviously happy, and, after spending the last week with Amberlyn's frivolous chitchat, Linda was beginning to miss the redhead’s friendship. She also realized that Chris and Vin were communicating again, and her hope that they would not mend their differences was gone. After watching the rest of the family today, she knew her husband’s relationship with his brothers had not really changed; it had only taken a detour for a while. Chris Larabee was back among them, the same as he was when she had met him. What made you think you could change that Linda? Chris told you often enough how he felt about the Wild Bunch. Didn’t you listen? This is one time you may have overplayed your hand Dubois. Not only have you alienated your best friend, you may have destroyed your marriage in the process. You lost your bet, lady, now you have to live with the consequences. You know that Larabee will never back down about his work, his family, or his children. So what do you do now?
Denver Memorial Hospital ~9:00pm
The Wilmington’s had made a mad rush getting to the hospital, but seven hours later found them still waiting for baby Tannis to make her first appearance. Buck held Inez’s hand assuring her that he had checked on their other children and they were fine.
“We’re almost there darlin’. Buck squeezed his wife’s hand as she worked through another contraction. He was already dressed in hospital scrubs prepared to stay with Inez throughout the entire delivery.
“We husband?” Inez gritted her teeth against the pain. “You have the easy part.”
Buck grimaced with his own pain as his smaller wife gripped his hand with what felt like jaws of steel “You’re so right, but I promise to make it up to you sweetheart. Tell me what you want, and it’s yours.”
“I want…the doctor…now Buck! I think our daughter is on her way.”
“Now...you mean right now?” Looking into Inez’s face, he knew she meant it. “I’m getting the doctor.” He threw open the door and grabbed the first nurse he encountered. “Inez says now, and if she says it, you better believe it!”
“Calm down Mr. Wilmington, Dr. Ryder is own her way, and the delivery room is ready.” The nurse smiled. She had never lost a mother on her watch, but some of the father’s. …well they did not fare as well. “I was on my way to your wife’s room when you stopped me” She motioned for him to move out of the doorway, “if you don’t mind.”
Within five minutes Inez was wheeled into the delivery room. Once those double doors opened, Buck relaxed, and squeezed his wife’s hand. “Darlin’, we’ve been here before and together we‘re gonna bring another beautiful girl into this world.” He thought about how scared they had been when Sarah was born… neither he nor Inez knew what to expect, and probably missed some of the pleasurable moments of the birth of their firstborn because they were so wound up. Then when Maria made her entrance into this world they took time to savor the moments apprehension had robbed them of the first time.
Buck knew that the miracle he was witnessing was beyond description and being here with Inez during the birth of their third daughter was a breathtaking experience.
“Okay Dad, are you ready?” The doctor asked. “Here comes your daughter.”
“We’re ready.” Buck answered, and as he held his wife’s hand Tannis Rose Wilmington made her entrance into the world. “God, she is beautiful.” He whispered in awe when he saw the dark-haired, seven pound, squirming infant, and heard her first cry.
“You did it beautiful lady.” He said softly to Inez.
“We did it husband.” She corrected.
The nurse handed Buck scissors and instructed him. “Cut the cord, Dad.” As he did it fatherly pride filled his heart. Within minutes the nurse laid his new daughter in his arms and tears rolled down his cheek as he moved closer to Inez. “Tannis Rose Wilmington, this is your wonderful mama, welcome to the world baby girl.”
Not far from Denver…
Chip Bellows knocked on the oak door, and waited for permission to enter. Chambers had not been an easy man to be around since Dusty Slater had disappeared. Their scheduled attacks on the clinics had to be scrapped, and new targets had been selected. While their plans were developing rather quickly, they weren’t moving fast enough to suite Karl. After witnessing Anson Ricter’s execution, Chip had been careful not to incite the older man’s anger. Today, however he had news that might just appease Chambers and solidify Bellow’s place in the RMR organization.
“Come in!” Karl yelled impatiently.
Bellows opened the door and walked into Karl’s new office. “Sir, I have something that I think will interest you.”
“Don’t just stand there. Spit it out!” Chambers snapped.
“I have a …friend who works at the Federal courthouse, and she is a supporter of our cause. She managed to obtain a copy of a deposition that Federal prosecutors intend to use to indict you, and several members of the RMR.” Chip handed him a folder.
Karl took the file, opened it, and began to read, as Bellows stood by silently. The more Chambers read the more he smiled, this was exactly what he wanted. The man that had lied to them all, stolen his trust, and cost him ten years of work in Rocky Meadows now had a name. “Well done Chip. I will see that your friend receives her reward.”
“You want me to eliminate him?”
“Not yet. We’ll take our time and do this right. I want to know everything about this man first. Is he married? Does he have children? If so what are their names, ages, and do they attend school? I want to know what this man values in his life. Then, and only then, will I have what I need to settle up with Captain Vincent Tanner.”
Journal Entry ~ December 20th ~7:30am
This is the time of the year that the children of Larabee 7 are in their element. Even though Linda had our tree delivered this year, last Saturday Grace and I went on the traditional Christmas tree finding expedition that the Wild Bunch has made every year. Thankfully, I was able to disperse with my sling, and my shoulder is healing well. We hitched up the two sleighs in the barn for the kids, and took them with us in search of the perfect trees. Of course Tannis stayed home with Inez, and Linda bowed out, but the rest of the Wild Bunch made the trek. By the time we had finished we had a tree for the Sanchez, Dunne, Wilmington, and Tanner homes, ten tired, but excited children, and several adults that were ready for spring.
The Jacksons will not be able to move back into their home until sometime in January, so they will continue to stay with the Sanchez family through the holidays. Barbara and Ezra are staying with the Tanners, but they are alternating their attentions with all the Larabee 7 children during this special time of the year. Grace and I have managed to be at each of the brother's homes for a range of tree decorating experiences. I did not want her to miss out of the fun, and the special time spent with our extended family.
On the home front, Linda and Amberlyn have been immersed in party plans, and any free time they have had has been spent at the Southern Breeze. I sense that my wife has been slowly coming to the same realization that I have…that we are not ever going to find a compromise between us that will make us both happy. She wants Grace and me out of the way today while the final preparations are finished for the party tonight, so we are headed over to Vin’s house this morning.
Chris placed his journal back into his desk drawer, locked it, and then went to Grace’s room to collect his daughter for their morning outing.
Breakfast was finished, but Barbara and Ezra lingered at the kitchen table enjoying a second cup of coffee with Vin. The traditional family Christmas dinner would be at the Wilmington’s this year, and Nettie, with Casey’s assistance had things well in hand for the upcoming celebration. Gunny was spending Christmas with her sister, and they had thrown themselves into preparing the Tanner home for the holiday, while getting Max’s adopted family back on schedule.
Chris came in the back door with Grace, and Max claimed the baby, as Larabee hung up his coat. He grinned knowing that Max was as attached to Grace as she was to the rest of the kids, and although she would never admit it, she worried about how the Nanny was treating her. Caring for a child was one thing, but showering them with love and extra attention was something you could not pay people to do. “She’s fine, but I know she enjoys being here with you, when I’m gone.”
“I suppose that makes us even then, I enjoy having her here. You sit; I’ll take care of Grace.” The older woman immediately took charge of the baby.
Knowing that both of his daughters were in good hands with Max, Chris grabbed a cup of coffee, and joined the others at the table.
“Mornin' Chris,” Vin greeted him first. “You’re just in time to add your words of wisdom to a challenge we were discussing’.”
“Let me guess… It’s Jason right?”
“I thought he would come around with a little time, but it’s been two weeks since we told him about the babies. He avoids Kel, will barely speak to me, and his attitude has completely done a one eighty”. Vin explained
“While it is not unusual for a sibling to have a reaction to hearing that a new addition is coming into the family, Jason’s history makes this a little more delicate.” Barbara had observed Jason and was concerned as much as Ezra was about his attitude.
“I attempted to converse with the young man; however, he is not listening to me either.” Ezra added.
‘We thought when Tannis was born, and he saw that Inez was home safe, he might see things differently, but…no.” Vin sighed. “Kel is upset over it, ‘m frustrated, and Andi stays mad at him. I’m not sure what to try next.”
Larabee thought about it and then offered his suggestion. “Kel has a doctor’s appointment today, Ezra, you go with them. Take some extra time; do some Christmas shopping, lunch, whatever. If Barbara will keep Andi busy, I’ll spend some time with Jason and talk to him. No promises, but he might open up and tell me what it is that he finds so disturbing.”
Sounds like a plan to me, ‘m ready to try anythin’ that may help.” Vin answered as he stood up. “I need to push Kel a bit, or we’ll be runnin’ late.”
“DADDY!!!!” Andi screamed from the other room. “Jason’s bein’ mean again!”
Chris stopped Vin from going in to his children. “You take care of Kel, Barbara and I will handle this.”
If it had been anyone other than Chris, Vin would have argued about it, but he trusted Larabee with his life, and his family. “Okay, just… hell, do what you can. Ez, we’ll be ready to leave by eight thirty.” Tanner headed to the bedroom, while Barbara went to Andi, and Standish made his preparations to accompany the Tanners to the doctor's office.
Larabee walked into the room where the children were and motioned to Jason. “Grab your coat, and come down to the barn with me.”
Jason hesitated for a moment, and then complied with his Uncle’s request. The pair walked across the snow covered ground in silence, headed to the barn where Jason’s Dreamer was. Larabee knew how much the boy loved that little bay colt and figured that was as good a place as any to start, he would have to play it by ear and try to get the child to admit his fears. As they neared the barn, Chris tried to find the words he needed to get through to his nephew. He knew that he couldn't prod him too much or the seven-year-old would end up just clamming up on him and that would just make the delicate situation even worse.
Opening the big stable door, the two of them entered quietly, and Jason went directly over to his colt. Chris followed him and leaned against the stall door. “He’s growing like a weed.”
Jason stroked his hand down Dreamer's neck. “He sure is. I wish he’d grow faster though, then maybe…” The boy stopped himself and turned away.
“Maybe what?” Chris knelt down and reached for Jason’s shoulder, gently turning the child toward him, “Maybe what Jason?”
Jason shrugged,” If he was bigger, he might not miss me if I had to leave.”
“Leave? Where do you think you are going?” Chris asked gently.
“I didn’t say I was leaving, but… sometimes things happen…bad things.”
“What bad things are you talking about?” Chris prompted, rubbing Jason's shoulder reassuringly.
Jason was silent for so long that Chris thought he was not going to answer him, and then he whispered softly. “My Mama left, and then dad got mean, and we had to move.”
Chris tilted the child’s chin up for him to look him in the eye. “You trusted me Jason, to keep my word about getting help with my sickness, and I did. Do you trust me to always tell you the truth?"
His voiced quivered, but he answered. “Yes sir.”
Larabee rubbed the child’s back as he spoke. “I know it was hard to see your first mama sick, and then a lot of terrible things happened when she…left, but I promise you that will not happen the same way, ever again. You trust Vin, too, and he doesn’t lie to you. I know he explained to you what was going on with Kelli, and you know he will be there for you, and Andi. You also have me, and all your other uncles and aunts.”
Jason was fightin his emotions and making every effort not to cry. “I…I don’t want to lose mom and dad. How can I be sure Kelli…Mom won’t go away?”
“Jason, none of us knows what the future holds. I wish I could give you a lifetime guarantee, but I can’t. Things happened with your first mom for a lot of reasons though, she was not in good health, and she was unable to have proper medical care, but having a baby was not why she died. I’ve seen her medical records Jason, and your mother had an illness that she did not know about until after she found out Andi was coming. She chose to give Andi life, and delayed treatment for herself. It did not work out the way she wanted it to, but I am certain that if she had it to do over she would choose to do the same thing because she loved you and Andi very much. You know that don’t you?”
“Yes.” Jason reluctantly agreed, and studied the man in front of him. Chris had never lied to him, and Kelli was his daughter. If she was in danger he would know it. Wouldn’t he? “Aren’t you worried about Mom?”
“I am always concerned about my children the same as your mom and dad are about you and Andi, but worry about her having those babies…no… Look at all the babies we have around the Larabee 7, they are here, and so are their mamas. Tannis came home last week…so did your Aunt Inez. Your mom is going through the same thing all mothers do when a child, or in your mom’s case, two babies are coming. She may have some days that she doesn’t feel well, and she definitely will look different, but Kelli's not going anywhere Jason.” Larabee said drawing the small boy into his arms. “She's strong and healthy and Dr. Weeks, as well as your Dad, are going to take real good care of her. She loves you and Andi, and she wants you both to be happy about having two new brothers, or sisters.”
“Two more girls!” Jason exclaimed, he had not even thought about the babies as girls or boys.
“Maybe, or boys, or, one of each, we won’t know that for a while, but they will be your siblings, the same as Andi is. Your parents love for you both won't change, and no matter what the future holds, you will always have a home here on the ranch. You belong here Jason, and you never have to worry about leaving this ranch or your family.”
“I reckon mom and dad are mad at me. I haven’t been too nice the last couple of weeks.”
“They are not mad, only concerned. I do know that your parents love you, and it hurts them to see you upset. I know it will help your mom and your dad, to know that you’re not upset with them. So, what do you say? Can you let go of your worrying, and trust them the way you trusted me to do the right thing?”
The child thought about it and figured if his Uncle told him it was going to be okay, it must be true. “I reckon I can. Thanks for talkin’ to me Uncle Chris.” Jason hugged Chris’s neck. “I’ll let mom and dad know ‘m not mad, anymore, but I have a question?”
“Fire away pard.”
“You think if I talk to the babies before they get here, I can convince ‘em to be boys?”
Vin knew Kelli was disappointed to hear that she was to continue her home-bound status, and in particular that she was borderline anemic. For the most part she was resting, eating properly, and following doctor’s orders. The fact that she was constantly queasy, and she was becoming ill several times a day however, was pulling her health down. Once they left the doctor’s office, Vin insisted that they do some quick last minute shopping. After picking up her new prescription, he gave Ezra directions to where he wanted to take her. He intended to make it a short excursion, not enough to overexert his wife, but he thought that some new clothes, and a special dress for the party tonight would lift her spirits, and take her mind off Jason, at least for a while.
Taking her hand Tanner, led her into a boutique called, ‘Great Expectations’, which he had discovered online last night. “This won’t take long Kel.” He gave the manager his name and she brought out several outfits that he had placed on hold via the Internet. He handed them to Kelli for her to try on.
Casting a skeptical look at the stack of clothes Kelli did take them, and then headed for the dressing room
“I was not aware that you shopped online, Vin?” Ezra grinned. “It seems you are a man of many talents.”
“Kelli mentioned that her regular clothes were getting tight, so I did some investigatin’. At least I looked before I leaped into this, which is more than I can say about you and Blaze Butler. Whatever possessed you to help her go to Rocky Meadows?”
Standish considered his words carefully. He had begun to hope that Tanner had forgotten his intentions of having a talk about his participation in the whole Blaze Butler escapade. He should have known better. Vin was like a dog worrying at a bone when he got something fixed in his mind. “I was stuck between a rock and a hard place, brother. Kelli would have certainly gone ahead with her intentions to see you at Rocky Meadows, with or without my assistance. I made a decision to collaborate with her so that I would have the added security of knowing that the undercover alias that she chose was solid. I wanted to make certain that she would have the necessary funds, transportation, and accommodations to carry off her plan, and to personally oversee her arrival in town until she was safely ensconced in your care. There was also the matter of supporting my partner, as she ingeniously reminded me.”
“I never dreamed that my little redhead could con the best conman I know.” Tanner grinned. “In this instance it worked out, but in the future do not let those persuasive blue eyes, and sweet smile convince you to go along with her on anythin’ when you should know better…brother.”
Kelli walked out about that time and prevented Ezra from answering. She wore an emerald green, sleeveless, deep v necked dress that had an empire waist with gather detailing, and a scalloped hem. “Well, do I pass?”
“With flyin’ colors baby, do you like it?” Vin admired the graceful way his wife moved.
“I do. I also like the blouses and denims you chose, but ‘m too tired to keep tryin’ on clothes.”
The boutique manager overheard Kelli and quickly offered to assist her. She took the other outfits, offered a few suggestions on new lingerie, and nightwear, and then helped the redhead change back into her own clothes. Within a few minutes Kelli returned to the waiting area, Vin paid for their selections, and the trio headed back to the ranch. Ezra called ahead to let Max know they had not had lunch while they were out, and to warn Chris that they were on their way.
Jason had been watching for his parents to return, and the minute he saw his dad’s truck he ran to the door. Chris realized that the child was anxious to assure himself that his parents would forgive him. The second the door opened he ran to Kelli.
“I’m sorry Mom, I really do want more brothers…or sisters; I just didn’t want you to die.” The tears he had held back earlier now rolled down his cheeks.
Kelli knelt down and reached for her son, pulling him into her arms. “I love you baby, and I plan to be around for you and Andi for a long time.” Her tears mixed with his as she held him. She felt Vin place a supporting hand on her shoulder to steady her, but her only concern was for the little boy that was standing in front of her. “Jason, these babies will look up to you as their big brother, and I know you are the best big brother in the world because you already are that to Andi.”
Vin placed his other hand on Jason’s back. “We’re all gonna take good care of Mom, son. I was kinda hopin’ though that you’d help me when I start workin' on the nursery.”
Jason looked up at his dad. “You still want me to?”
“You bet.” The Texan knelt down, pulling his wife and his son into his arms and said softly. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Chris knew that Barbara was deliberately keeping Jason’s sister busy so he could have an opportunity to talk to his parents. “Jason, would you go tell Andi that lunch is ready?”
“May I accompany you young sir?” Ezra held out his hand, Jason took it and followed him into the other room.
Tanner stood, and helped his wife to her feet. The first thing Kelli did was to go over to Chris and hug his neck. “Thanks, Dad.”
Chris held his eldest daughter, and saw the relief on his brother’s face, that was all the thanks he needed. “Right place, right time, he would have come around soon enough, but I’m glad I could help.”
Max wiped her eyes, and said gruffly. “Lunch is ready Missy; you will eat, and then rest up for tonight.”
“Yes ma’am.” Kelli answered, while wiping away tears. “I have a feelin’ it’s goin' to be a long night, but it’s been a great day.”
Larabee Home~ 6:00pm
Linda had finished dressing in a red, floor length, chiffon gown, with a plunging neckline, and open back that was certain to cause all male eyes to focus on her the moment she walked into the room. Linda was in the process of going over last minute details before her guests started to arrive. She had hired a caterer for the event, and meticulously gone over what foods and beverages were to be on the menu for the evening. There would be four girls in festive attire to serve the food, and a bartender to serve drinks from the portable Champagne bar, ready to serve a variety of cocktails mixed with peach schnapps, crème de cassis, cognac and apricot brandy.
The ranch house had been professionally transform into a wonderland of white roses with sprigs of baby's breath and holly leaves, white candles floated in bowls of cranberries The sounds pf Classical holiday music drifted throughout the house. A Christmas tree decorated with white and gold was the focal point of the large living room, furniture had been moved, and replace with stylish chairs. The centerpiece for the table was also white roses, accented by holly leaves, and set upon a red tablecloth interwoven with threads of gold. Platters of honey ham, roasted beef and turkey were waiting to be brought out by attendants, as well as Shrimp Scampi, and Shrimp Creole, along with assorted side dishes, breads and condiments.
She was briefly having second thoughts about tonight; Linda wanted to pull off an elegant celebration, with all the trimmings, not the usual disorganized country feast that most of the Wild Bunch tastes catered to. Linda knew that there was more at stake tonight than the success of a party. This was the night Chris was supposed to realize what they were missing in their lives by limiting their social contacts to the ranch. Tonight Larabee would see how the other half lived, and the world that Linda wanted for them.
Linda was standing before the long buffet style table that the caterer had provided checking off a list she held in her hand of the hors d'oeuvres that was suppose to be served. Including Thai peanut chicken salad in endive leaves, pita triangles, roasted eggplant, onion, and red pepper dip, Moroccan spinach and red lentil pancakes with cumin-dated sauce, add small Russian pancakes cups of smoked salmon or caviar, scrimp and corn coquettes with a mixture of exotic dips.
Chris walked in the back door, while Linda made her last minute inspection of the food. “You’d better get showered and changed, our guests will be arriving soon Larabee.”
“I've already showered today, and haven't done anything strenuous in the last hour or so to break a sweat.” Chris replied. He waived his hand, indicating the décor of the room, and the food. “This really wasn't necessary Linda. The Wild Bunch is family, not some high-faulting official that needs impressing. Cold cuts, pizza, and beer would have been fine to serve.”
“I didn't just invite your family to this party, Chris. Besides Amberlyn, Marshall and Matt, I invited a few people that I have become acquainted with in town. They aren't what I would call friends yet, but they are of good social standing.” Linda retorted.
“You should have told me you had invited other people to the party. I could have given the Wild Bunch the option to decline the invitation if they wanted too. None of them are comfortable about putting on airs to please other people as you seem to be.”
“It would do you and them all a bit of good to learn how to handle social surroundings that don't include gun ranges, dark alleys, and hospitals.” Linda remarked. “You are the leader of the MCAT unit, as well as the entire family, and you need to set an example for them. Even though I don't approve, you do hold an important position in the government, and whether you like it or not, I do represent the Dubois family. They expect me to meet certain...social obligations. It won’t hurt your Wild Bunch to be exposed to a little class.”
“Linda, my Wild Bunch has more class in their collective little fingers, than your friends could ever hope to have. They will all go along with this extravaganza you have orchestrated, not because they like it, but because I ask them too. “Chris turned toward his room, and then stopped. “By the way, in case you’re interested, I just left our daughter with Max, Walter, and Gunny. The three of them volunteered to watch the kids tonight, since you did not invite them to your elegant shindig, or make provisions for the children’s care. You might want to write them thank you notes…It would be the courteous thing to do.” He exited the kitchen and went to change clothes, leaving Linda alone…again.
Matt Dubois and Marshall Vanderson were the first to arrive to the party, much to Chris's chagrin. Marshall was dressed in an elegant Armani pinstripe suit, had his hair slicked back in a style that Ezra wouldn't be caught dead in, and seemed to pay Larabee no mind at all as he immediately sought out his sister and Linda. Matt was wearing a more casual, but expensive look in creased designer jeans, a long-sleeved blue silk shirt with a button down collar. As Marshall disappeared from the room, Matt made his way over to Chris and started a conversation.
“How long do you plan on allowing Amberlyn to stay, Larabee?” Matt asked.
“Why do you ask?"
“I want to know the moment you've decided you can't stand to listen to her insipid prattle any longer and kick her out, because as soon as you do, her brother is going to be hitting the door right behind her. Marshall is driving me nuts.”
Chris grinned. “I guess we do have something in common, Dubois. That annoying trait must run in the Vanderson family.”
“I wish it would run all the way back to Louisiana.” Matt huffed. “I knew Linda was on a tear since that thing in California, and teed off at Kel, but to bring the Vanderson siblings here is pushing it too damn far. You and I may not always agree Chris, but you don’t deserve what Linda has been dishing out lately, and neither does Grace.” Matt looked Chris in the eye and stated. “You should know, I am loyal to my family, but I’m not blind to my sister’s faults, and I do see what is going on. I love my niece, and I want what is best for her, even if that means going against Linda. Grace needs a loving home, and a parent that puts her needs first.”
Larabee studied his brother-in-law’s face, understanding his message. “I know saying that wasn’t easy, but I appreciate it, Matt.”
Matt nodded and moved off to grab something to drink. Chris watched him as he walked away and wondered if Linda was the only one that did not see the handwriting on the wall. If Matt and the rest of the family could recognize the signs that their marriage was over, why couldn’t she?
Larabee 7 ~ December 20th ~ 7:30 pm
Chris knew that this party had disaster written all over it, but it would not start with his Wild Bunch. They would put there best foot forward for him, and whatever lay ahead for the evening would be a result of Linda’s doing. Like every thing else she had done over the last few months, she had planned this party, her way, without thinking about what was good for anyone other than herself.
Buck and Inez were the first family members to arrive, and Chris ushered her to a comfortable chair. “For a lady that just had a baby last week, you look gorgeous, and rested.”
“Thank you sir, Inez smiled. “ I’ll take all the compliments I can get tonight, and I’m rested because Miss Nettie is staying with us to help with the baby.”
“She is beautiful isn’t she? “Buck grinned. “You don’t look so bad yourself stud. Nice jacket, and how in the hell did Linda get you to wear a red shirt?”
Chris glared at him. “I do happen to wear other colors than black and blue, Buck...and, for your information, this was the only thing out of what Linda wanted me to wear tonight that I agreed on.”
“I think it looks great.” Inez commented. “So who are we supposed to impress tonight?”
“Inez, you do get to the point. Linda has invited some people other than family; she thinks we don’t know how to act sociable.” Chris sighed. “She’s never seen us at one of Travis’s mandatory, 'be there or else' gatherings, I suppose.”
“Those things are as fancy as this shindig is, and we manage okay.” Wilmington gazed around him at the assorted decorations. “I'd hate to see the figures it cost to put this one together though.”
“Trust me Buck; you don’t want to know how much all this hoopla cost.” Larabee said.” Linda is footing the bill out of her own money for this...I've got my children's futures to think about.”
Buck chuckled. “Inez honey, are you thirsty? Do you want me to get you something to drink or eat?”
Inez shook her head. “I'm fine for now. If you want to go on and sample some of the food, be my guest. I'll wait for you here.”
Buck patted Chris on the shoulder. “Don’t worry; I’ll pass the word to the rest of the family. We won’t embarrass you tonight.”
“Never thought you would friend. “Chris saw Josiah and Mallory walk in, “Excuse me Inez, our brethren are beginning to arrive.”
Larabee greeted the Sanchez’ and the Jacksons, wondering where in the hell Linda was. Her guests were coming in, and she should be here to meet them. As soon as he welcomed the next several people that Linda had invited, and the Dunnes he went to look for his wife. He found her deep in conversation with Marshall.
“Chris interrupted.” Our guests are arriving Linda, shouldn’t you at least greet the ones you invited?”
“Oh, already?” Linda asked innocently. “Duty calls, excuse me Marshall.”
“I'll await your return.” Marshall replied as he watched Linda sweep across the room, just as she had planned, revealing her designer gown, and accepting compliments on it along the way.
Chris cocked an eyebrow at him. Regardless of the fact that he already considered his and Linda's relationship over, he'd be damned if he'd let another man think he could come into his house and stake any kind of claim on his wife, estranged or otherwise. Larabee waited until after Linda had moved away before stating. “Tread carefully, Vanderson...You wouldn't want that pretty face of yours to get rearranged.” Without waiting for a response from Vanderson, Chris moved back into the living room.
He was just in time to greet the Tanners as they arrived. He smiled as he took in the radiant expression on his daughter's face as she and Vin made their way into the room and over to him. The Tanners made a striking pair in their emerald green and black coordinated outfits. “You look beautiful Kelli,” he said leaning forward and kissing her lightly on the cheek. “Tanner, you don't look so bad either.”
“For an old man, you clean up just fine, too.” Vin quipped.
“It’s a good thing you're married to my daughter Tanner. Otherwise I’d have to take you outside and show you old.” Chris grinned. “You feel okay Kel?”
“As well as I ever do these days.” She smiled. “Don’t worry dad, ‘m fine and I do know where your bathrooms are, if necessary.”
“Bucklin said we need to be on our best behavior. Does that mean we should plan for a borin’ evenin’?” Tanner grinned. “No brawls, no food fights, no licentious displays under the mistletoe?”
“Licentious? Lord I think Ezra is rubbing off on you Tanner. Speaking of Standish, where is our resident gentleman?”
“Barbara and Ezra will be here in a few minutes. Andi, Sarah, Joanne, and Maria, conned Uncle Ra into a bedtime story first.” Kelli explained.
“Let's hope the man uses words that the girls can understand.” Larabee said with a grin. “Let's get Kelli seated somewhere, and then see what kind of refreshments there are.”
Vin seated his wife next to Inez and left the pair talking about babies. He and Chris went in search of some decent refreshments. One look at the hors d'oeuvres, and Tanner knew he could not take those back to Kelli, or she would spend the rest of the evening throwing up in the bathroom. It seemed that the choice of beverages was not much better, Champagne or wine, not a soft drink, or pitcher of tea in sight.
“You two can quit looking, I gave Inez water, and she passed on the rest of this stuff.” Buck joined them. “Inez is nursing Tannis, and some foods, especially spicy ones, she can’t eat. She certainly can’t drink champagne or wine.”
Chris shook his head in frustration. Enough was enough. Linda’s quest to force him to do things her way was over. It was bad enough that she did not invite Nettie, Gunny, Max, and Walter to this party, but to not even consider the children and any special needs of the Wild Bunch was inexcusable. It was past time to make his stand. “My house, my rules, come on, we’ll raid the kitchen.” Larabee led the way, and within a few minutes had managed to make two attractive sandwiches, one for Inez and one for Kelli. He had Vin, and Buck grab two sodas on the way out of the kitchen, and then hand delivered his masterpieces to the ladies.
Inez smiled. “I’m sure I could have managed, but thank you.”
“Dad, it looks great, but you didn’t have to do anythin’ special for me. It may not sit well with Linda.” Kelli protested.
“Sure I did, you two are way more important to me than appearances. Besides, I have to think about Tannis, and our two special additions. Eat, and enjoy.” Chris moved away from the ladies and whispered to Buck and Vin. “Be prepared for anything, Chris Larabee is about to put his own mark on this party.”
“Now Chris, think about what you’re doing. It’s just a party, we’ll all be fine. Don’t do anything rash.” Buck advised.
“You’re wrong Buck, it is more than a party, it’s a line drawn in the sand, and I’m crossing it.” Chris retorted.
“Remember the Alamo Chris? Lt. Col. William Travis asked the Texans to cross a line drawn in the sand to fight Santa Anna, they did, and… they all died.” Tanner reminded him, looking to Buck for reinforcement.
“I don’t plan on dying, just taking back what’s mine. Vin, you grab JD, and scrounge up some junk food, between the two of you I know you have enough stashed at your homes to feed an army. Buck, you, and Josiah go round up some beer, and soft drinks. I’m going to find some decent holiday music.” Chris eyed both men. “Go on, I know what I’m doing.”
Buck had known that this day was coming. Chris may have been sidetracked temporarily, but it had only been a matter of time before the old Larabee that he knew and loved, came roaring back to take charge of his home again. Linda may not know it yet, but her days of trying to manipulate her husband were over. “You’re the boss. Come on Captain Tanner, you heard the man, we’ve been drafted.”
“Right behind you Buck, but let’s hurry. I don’t want to miss this battle.” Vin stopped to whisper a message to Kelli before he left. Passing Ezra and Barbara coming in as he was on his way out, Tanner gave them a warning. “Chris is plannin’ to make a stand tonight, and the shit’s about to hit the fan.”
“Don’t worry Ez, it’s not you.”
“Oh joy. Someone else is on Larabee’s hit list for a change.” Standish grinned. “I think we shall procure a front row seat for the entertainment.” Ezra left his fiancée sitting with Kelli and Inez, and headed to the bar, obtaining two champagne cocktails, one for him, and one for Barbara. After delivering Barbara her drink, he went in search of Larabee, finding him sorting through cds, and then loading them into the stereo. “May I be of assistance?” Ezra questioned his brother.
Chris glanced up at him. “Not presently, but you may be drafted for crowd control if things get heated up.”
Ezra raised a brow at the ominous words spoken by his brother. He had seen that look on Larabee’s face before, and was well aware that whatever Chris had planned did not bode well for someone. “My services are at your disposal.”
Larabee grinned at him. “Until then, stand clear and watch the show.” Conversations stopped in the room as the music suddenly changed from classical to country. Strands of George Strait singing ‘It’s Christmas Time in Texas’ filled the room.
“Here we go…” Kelli muttered under her breath from her place beside Inez. Tanner had warned her that Chris was up to something, and she was certain that this was only the beginning. She saw JD and Vin come in from the kitchen with huge grins on their faces, and Buck, with Josiah’s assistance was having a discussion with the bartender, stacking cases of cold beer and soft drinks behind the bar.
Larabee could see all of the people that Linda had invited wearing puzzled expressions on their faces as conversations died down. In the middle of it all, JD took his wife’s hand, moved into the center of the room, and took Casey into his arms. Like the other brothers, he had been warned that things were about to heat up, but he wasn't about to let it stop him from enjoying himself either.
“Chris, what are you doing?” Linda said, walking over to where he stood by the entertainment center.
“Playing some Christmas music,” Chris replied. “No one is enjoying that boring classical music, except maybe Ezra, and if this is supposed to be a party, I want it to be fun.”
“Larabee, my guests were enjoying it, and it is proper to have soft classical music in the background to promote stimulating conversation.” Linda placed her hands on her hips. “Put it back.”
“No. Your guests had their time, now my family will enjoy the rest of this celebration…with country music, and decent food.” Chris smiled when he saw the attendants bring out platters of good old fashion chips and dips, desserts cakes, and pizza. He made a mental note to thank Vin, and JD for thinking of the pizza.
“If you had wanted to have some input on the party arrangements Chris, you should have said so. I gave you plenty of time to add your stamp of approval to the preparations, but did you pay any attention? No. It’s the same old story, just a different day. You've got time to have coffee with Vin. You've got time to be at your family's beck and call, or time to spend with Grace. You've got time for everyone else, but me, your wife. When is it ever going to be my time?” Linda told him heatedly.
“Linda, we will talk about this, but unless you want all your new friends to know about our marital problems.’ Chris nodded to the surrounding people. “I suggest that you lower your voice, smile, and enjoy the rest of the party.”
Taking a deep breath, Linda tried to calm herself. She was so angry that she had forgotten that there were other people around. Whispering harshly, she spat out, “We will talk about this Larabee, and it will be tonight!” She pasted a smile on her face, spun around, and walked over to stand next to Marshall.
After getting everyone's attention, Chris made an announcement. “Ladies, and gentlemen, we are here to celebrate the holidays and have some fun. Please enjoy the music, and feel free to grab a partner to take a twirl out on the dance floor. More food has arrived, along with cold beer and soft drinks, Merry Christmas.” Chris then moved around the room making polite conversation with all the guests.
Amberlyn tried in vain to get one of the brothers to dance with her; however they all declined, choosing to dance with their ladies instead. Finally she joined Marshall and Linda to pout for a while. “Linda we should have invited more single men.”
Linda was seething inwardly as she watched her elegant celebration turn into a common everyday party. “It would seem that we should have cut the invitation list by about six brothers, and their partners.”
Marshall appeared by her side with a glass of champagne for the blonde. “Linda, I am so sorry, I know you and Amberlyn worked hard to try and bring some sophistication to this group. Your husband, at least should have supported your efforts.”
Linda took the glass of champagne from Marshall's hand and lifted it to her mouth, her lips parting to take a sip, when the glass was suddenly removed from her hand. Startled, she glanced up into Chris's furious green eyes. “You're not drinking alcohol while you're carrying my son, Linda.”
Marshall bristled at Linda's side. “One drink is not going to do any damage.”
Larabee turned his attention onto Marshall. “I suggest you stay out of this, Vanderson.”
“Fine, I won't drink. I'd rather be dancing anyway.” Linda said, reaching for Marshall's hand and leading him onto the dance floor.
“Guess it’s you and me, sugar.” Amberlyn grinned.
Chris shook his head, and walked off, leaving the young woman to find another dance partner. He headed over to join his brothers. For the next hour he watched as Linda tried to teach Marshall, how to dance country. Slowly the guest began to filter out, and finally it was only family left in the room, aside from Marshall and Amberlyn.
JD snickered behind his hand as he watched Marshall try to follow Linda in the intricate steps of a line dance. “He should really give up trying, before he hurts himself.” he mumbled softly to Casey.
Casey elbowed him in the side. “Be nice. Wasn't so long ago you didn't know how to do some of those dances either.”
“What?” JD exclaimed. “I was never THAT bad.” Casey cocked an eyebrow at him. “I wasn't, and you know it!”
Casey giggled and reached for his hand. She loved to get a rise out of him from time to time. “No, you weren't.”
The song ended and a slow one came on, and some of the other brothers led their wives out onto the floor to dance. Larabee watched as Marshall pulled Linda into his arms, holding her altogether too close for his liking. He was struggling to keep himself in check and not let the other man goad him into a confrontation, when Vanderson's hand lowered to cup Linda's left buttock, and his Larabee temper flared. He rose from his chair and took a step toward the other man, but was intercepted by Vin and Buck.
“Chris.” Tanner put a warning hand on his brother's shoulder, while Buck blocked his path.
“He's not worth it.” Wilmington said.
Josiah and Nathan had both seen what Marshall had done and decided to intervene as well. Together they moved over to where Marshall and Linda were dancing. “This dance is over.” Josiah said.
Nathan reached out and gently took hold of Linda's arm, pulling her away from Marshall. “Can I have this dance?”
Before she could say a word, Marshall's angry voice filled the room. “Get your hands off of her, boy!”
Nathan stiffened at Marshall's usage of the racist term 'boy' in reference to him, but chose not to respond to it. Instead he chose to draw Linda further away.
“Don't you walk away from me, when I'm talking to you, boy.” Marshall said, starting after Nathan.
Josiah grabbed him by the arm and said in a cool voice, “I wouldn't do that if I were you.”
Marshall swung on Josiah, who instinctively ducked the blow and put the other man into a headlock. “I think you've worn out your welcome.” Sanchez said as he proceeded toward the door.
“Unhand me, you cretin.” Marshall struggled against Sanchez.
“Let him go, Josiah,” Chris said softly, and watched as Sanchez immediately loosened his hold on the man.
Marshall pulled free, and yelled to Linda. “Call the police! I am pressing assault charges.” He was confused when she did not move, and the men surrounding him laughed.
“We are the police.” JD called out to him. “You won’t find a lawman in the state that would take you seriously.”
There was more laughter from the rest of the men, and their ladies, as Larabee stalked up to Vanderson. “Get the hell off of my land! I don't ever want to see your ugly mug on it again, or I'll personally kick your ass off of it!”
Matt stepped forward to stand next to Larabee. “That goes for the Southern Breeze, too. You were an ass ten years ago, and you’re an ass now. Go back to Louisiana, Marshall.”
“How in the hell Linda puts up with this uncouth bunch I don’t know, she deserves better. At least where I come from we know how to treat women, we don’t use them to produce baby after baby, and work in horse barns. Dubois, take me home. Larabee may be able to order me off his land, but Linda owns part of the Southern Breeze and she won’t make me leave.” Marshall retorted
“Wrong Vanderson, Linda sold me her share of the Southern Breeze before she married Chris, and I have since bought out my sibling's interest. The Breeze belongs to me and YOU are not welcome on it.” Matt answered. “I suggest you book a flight home, or move into Denver, before these gentlemen…or their wives take you apart piece by piece.”
Linda had heard enough. “Marshall, we’ll work this out tomorrow. Take my car and Amberlyn, go into town and stay at a hotel tonight.” She handed him her keys, and a credit card. “Charge it to me.” Linda turned to Matt and said “I am going home with you.”
“No, you’re not, Linda. You need to stay here and talk to your husband, I'll call you tomorrow.” He nodded to Chris and followed Marshall, and Amberlyn out the door.
Ezra cleared his throat. “That went well.”
Chris was now staring at his wife. “Linda and I need to talk. I will see all of you in the morning.”
Josiah, Mallory, Nathan, and Rain left quietly. JD and Casey followed them as Ezra helped Barbara on with her coat, nodding to Larabee on the way out the door.
Buck helped Inez to her feet and the Wilmingtons moved over to Chris to say their goodbyes. “Take care, pard.”
Larabee nodded, his green eyes intent on Linda.
Vin and Kelli were the last to leave. “Grace can stay the night with us.” Tanner stated
“Night, Dad, “Kelli said, giving Chris a hug after throwing Linda an angry glare.
Chris hugged her briefly back. “I’ll be over in the morning to pick up Grace.”
Linda started in on Chris as the door closed. “How dare you! You ruin my party, start a fight with my friend, and then make a scene in front of your family. I have tried to get you to listen to me, but no! You always have other priorities! Now you embarrassed me in front of everyone!”
Chris stood silent for a minute as Linda ranted. He had planned to wait until after the holidays to discuss this, but after tonight, that was impossible. “You are right about one thing. I should have listened.”
Halting her tirade, Linda started to pay attention to Chris's soft spoken words. “What did you say?”
“You told me the first week I met you that you were recovering from your dad’s death, and that you were not yourself. You told me you were spoiled, impulsive and bold. Expect the unexpected I believe were your words” Chris sighed. “You remember that?”
Linda hesitated before answering. “Yes.”
“I discovered on my own that you like to manipulate. I saw the way you maneuvered the meeting with Kelli and Vin by deliberately letting the black colt out. Then I discovered that you only use the truth when it’s convenient. You do remember the lie you told about Kelli going to Louisiana?”
“You also resented my brothers from the beginning, especially Vin, and you hated my work. You liked being in control, and being the center of attention. I should have seen it.”
“When I was at my lowest point after finding out Kelli was my daughter you came to me, not to help me through a rough time, but because you wanted me to forgive you for lying to me. You took advantage of my guilty feelings hoping to divert attention away from your own transgressions and it worked. I only saw my beautiful blonde… the best thing that had happened to me since Sarah died.”
“Chris we were more...”
“We were good…in the bedroom. Out of there we competed. You wanted me to be something I can never be, and I…wanted to live again. Then Jack came along and gave you another chance to have things your way. Instead of supporting me, you saw a chance to change me… you did for a while, but it didn’t last.”
“Yes, you did, Linda." Chris kept his voice low and continued. "When I went undercover, I thought you were worried about my safety, but you were more concerned about me leaving you alone with our child."
"Chris, I knew nothing about babies…I needed you here with me."
"Then when you found out I gave in to using pills again, you saw it as a betrayal to you. You never were worried about what it meant to me or my well-being. Instead, you use it as an excuse to attempt to manipulate my life, and tried to use our daughter to emotionally blackmail me into doing things your way."
"I…didn't…" Linda stammered." It wasn't like that."
"You know what? We still could have made a good life together in spite of all that except…you became jealous of our own child. You want to be the only baby in this family Linda and I can’t go for that. You invaded my privacy by reading my journal. You tossed a ten year friendship away when Kelli settled into a new life, and you perceived her to be competition to you. When I needed your help to fight those damn pills, you used it as a way to make demands for what you wanted. You used Grace to blackmail me well…NO MORE!”
“What do you mean no more?” Linda was shocked by Chris's calm demeanor. She expected to see the infamous Larabee temper, hear him yell in a jealous rage, anything but this.
“I mean…we are headed in different directions, and have been for a while now. You thought you could use Marshall to make me jealous. I won’t allow the man to disrespect you like he did tonight in our home, but...I was not jealous. I do care about you Linda; however I can not give you what you want, and you have made it clear that you cannot accept what I want. We had some good times, and I will treasure those moments. As of May, we will have had two children together, and for that I will be eternally grateful... You showed me that I can live again, and love. That is a gift I can never repay, but…we are not destined to be lifetime partners.”
“You’re saying we end it, just like that?” Linda sat down stunned, only now realizing that Chris was not going to yell, or speak in anger.
“Our time together is almost over, Linda. Our son will be born in five months, I want you to stay here, and let us at least finish what we started together. After that you are free to follow your dreams. Lord knows, you cannot find them here. I warn you though…I will fight for custody of the kids, and Matt will support me on it.”
“Matt knows all this? How …Did you?”
“He came to me, Linda. I did not tell him anything, but I think he saw what I have already realized…We came together for a reason; we both needed one another at that particular time in our lives. Matt also knows that while you may not be thrilled with motherhood, you do not have it in you to hurt our children to spite me. I know it, too. There is too much of your father in you to do that.”
She recognized that Chris had already made his decision, now it was her turn to decide what she was going to do. “What do you want from me Chris?” Linda prepared herself for his answer.
“Five months…I want us to see through the birth of our son together. No Marshall, no Amberlyn, no houseful of servants, and no more hostility. I hope that we can reach an amicable agreement and part as friends, for our sake, as well as the kids. It’s up to you how we write our final chapter as man and wife.”
Linda tried to absorb Chris’s words, and reconcile them into something she could accept. Did she want Chris because she loved him, or because she knew she could never have him to herself? Could she be a mother to two children? Hell, she already knew the answer to that one. Was it possible to come to an agreement now when there was no marriage to salvage? Chris saw through her demands, and so did Matt, she could not fault either of them for seeing the truth …she wanted more than she had here. She gave her father a year of her life; she could give the father of her children five months. They may not agree on what they wanted from their marriage, but they could agree to the perfect ending.
“Five months Chris, you get the children, we use one lawyer, we name our son Christopher and we’ll try to part as friends." She stood up to face the man that was still her husband, "Merry Christmas."
Chris saw the truth in her eyes, and not surprisingly relief. Linda had dug her spurs into the wrong cowboy, and she knew it, but she did not know how to get off the ride, and preserve some shred of dignity in the process. By allowing her to be the one to set the terms, Chris had given her the out she had been looking for, but was afraid to take. In the end, her freedom was what mattered to her, and now that she knew it was obtainable, there was no reason for them to continue to fight.
As he watched her walk out of the room Chris whispered softly, Merry Christmas, Linda."
Journal Entry ~December 26th ~9:00am
In five days we will face a new year, I for one am ready to let this one go, it has not been an easy twelve months. I do however; feel as if a heavy burden has been lifted from my shoulders. Linda, I believe is as relieved as I am to end the battle between us, and although she would not have admitted it, she had known for a long time that we were not going to find common ground between us, at least not enough for our marriage to work, and make us both happy. The last few days have begun to make up for the past months of misery that we have suffered. We even managed to salvage a few peaceful days for Christmas, and found we can talk without worrying that what we say will lead to an argument. Marshall and Amberlyn have gone back to Louisiana, and I have discovered a new respect for Matt Dubois.
After the first of the year Linda and I will announce our decision to the family, and then sit down with Ezra. We agreed to have him represent us in our divorce proceedings, of course it will not happen until our son, Cody Christopher is born, but we will have an agreement worked out beforehand. We’ll let Standish haggle with Linda’s estate attorneys, and hammer out the child custody agreement.
Christmas day we spent at the Wilmingtons and Linda quickly discovered that the Wild Bunch had enough ‘class’ not to mention the events that transpired at our party on the twentieth. In fact, I think Linda even enjoyed herself around them for the first time in months …no pressure to perform…she could just be herself for a change. The children kept everyone entertained with their excitement over ‘Santa’s visit’, along with a steady stream of descriptions of what he had brought them. I was also amused by my oldest child’s pleasure over receiving the stuffed twin teddy bears that Vin gifted her with. Vin and JD pulled out the snowmobiles from the barn and spent the afternoon giving the kids rides on them.
While we have enjoyed the holidays, none of us have forgotten the danger that lurks out there from Karl Chambers and the RMR. It’s like waiting for the other shoe to drop. A state wide search for the man and his followers has turned up nothing, and even Raven has not been able to get a good lead. I will not be able to rest easy, until I am certain that Vin, Nathan, and Paul are safely out of that man’s reach, however I have confidence though, and we will prevail over the evil that men such as Chambers produce.
Linda went over to the Southern breeze today to have a heart-to-heart with Matt, while Grace and I spend the day working on plans for her baby brother’s new room. I already have a good idea about what I want, and Tanner agreed to help me draft the blueprints. With my great ideas, his talent for drawing plans, and our brothers to help, we should have Cody’s nursery ready to build, as well as a good start on the one for the twins, in no time at all.
Southern Breeze Ranch
Matt was enjoying the peace and quiet of his home, without an annoying guest to inconvenience him. He had personally driven the Vanderson siblings to the airport on Friday, and watched them board the plane that was destined for Louisiana. Linda had enough problems without an ex-fiancée around to muddy the water for her. Looking at the hallway clock, he realized that his sister would be here any minute. After seeing how relaxed she was yesterday at the family Christmas dinner, he hoped that she had found a resolution for the unrest in her life. Whatever she had decided he would try to support her…as long as he could be assured that Grace and his future nephew were in loving hands.
The front door opened and Linda walked in, hung up her coat, and then gave him a hug. “Don’t look so worried, I came unarmed.” She grinned. “Although for a while I did consider shooting you. I have since had second thoughts about such drastic measures.”
“So, am I to take it that you and Chris worked out your differences?” He had not asked before, knowing that Linda would tell him when she was ready.
“Yes, and…no.” Linda sighed and then sat down on the couch with Matt next to her. “I underestimated Chris; it seems that he does know me, much better than I thought. He saw what you saw, I wasn’t happy, and I was determined to make him miserable, too. Our battle is over Matt, it’s time for me to move on.”
“Don’t be Matt. You were both right not to let me go unchecked. Chris and I have decided to go our separate ways, after our son is born. It’s right for me, and I have come to realize it is right for him. I am giving him custody of the children; you and I both know I make a better Aunt than a mom. Chris helped me get past Daddy’s death, and I helped him find out that he can have a love life after Sarah and Adam. We were good for each other for the time we had, but not forever.”
“Are you okay?”
Linda smiled, “Surprisingly yes. I care for Chris and the children of course, but spending the rest of my life on the Larabee 7 is not for me. Motherhood is definitely not my strong suit either. Chris needs the kids, and they will need him. He can give them love, attention, and the strength they’ll need for their future. I’m afraid all I could offer them is a Nanny and uncertainty.”
“Linda, are you sure?”
“Yes, it is better this way…I need to fly Matt. I may crash and burn, but it’s my choice. The children will be safe with Chris, and they will have a good life. Hopefully he will find someone to share his life with that will love being stationary on the ranch, and will embrace his family lifestyle.” Linda laughed. “Who knows, maybe I’ll find a man that will want to center his life on me, and together we can travel round the world, footloose and fancy-free.”
“You know, even if you do, you may discover that it’s not what you want, sometimes it’s the feisty spirit that keeps a relationship going. I think that is what attracted you to Chris, and why you and Kel stayed friends for so long. Neither of them gave in to you.”
“No… no they didn’t” Linda’s smile wavered a bit. “I’ve burned those bridges Matt, and now I will have to live with it. I was unfair to Kel, and I was not a supportive wife to Chris. Maybe, I could have done things differently, but I didn’t. They deserve some peace, and I need a fresh start.”
Matt squeezed her hand. “I’m not going anywhere, and I will keep an eye on Grace and…Have you decided on a name for my nephew?”
'Cody Christopher, we agreed on the name. I wanted Christopher, but was convinced that he would always be little Chris, so we added Cody…” Linda brightened. “I’m not leaving until after the baby is born, so we have time for all this mushy stuff later. I am spending the day with you, and right now, I want to see the new colts.”
“Sure, “Matt stood up and offered her his hand. “You are gonna love the last two that I purchased.” He helped her with her coat, grabbed his, and together they walked out to the barn. Matt knew his sister was tough, he only hoped she was not making the biggest mistake of her life. He was however extremely grateful that she seemed to have gained some peace with her decision. Also, since she and Chris had decided to part in an amicable way, he was off the hook. As much as Matt loved his sister, the kids were better off with their dad, and he would have supported Chris’s effort to fight for them…now it appeared that he would not be forced into that position.
Larabee 7 ~Tanner Home ~11:00am
Ezra and Barbra had one more gift to give. They had decided to treat the older children to a day at Chucky Cheese Pizza, and the arcade. Jason, Andi, and Joanne had been ready to go for the last hour, and Buck was on his way over with Caleb, Sarah, and Maria. In fact, the kids were so excited that Chris and Vin had decided to work on blueprints, after they left, and the noise level dropped in the house.
Kelli sat at the kitchen table nursing a cup of hot tea, and smiled. “Six kids? Are you certain you two know what you are doin'?”
“Oh ye of little faith,” Standish grinned. “You, partner, should know that I am perfectly capable of handling myself in any circumstance. Furthermore, Barbara faces some of the toughest lawyers in town in the courtroom on a daily basis. Of course we can manage spending the day with six wonderful children.”
Chris laughed. “How are you going to fit them all into the silver bullet, Ezra?”
“Hmm... that is a complication that we didn't consider.” Standish admitted. “Perhaps I should obtain a rental vehicle for the occasion?”
Ezra was surprised when Barbara dangled a set of keys in front of his face. “Planning dear, Vin gave me the keys to the Tahoe. We’re all set, car seats and all.”
The back door flew open, and three little blurs raced into the room. “We here!” Maria announced. “Can we go now?”
“Right on schedule, too.” Standish declared with a Cheshire grin at the three new arrivals. “We’ll depart in a few moments, after a bit more conversation between us adults.”
“Huh?” Maria asked, looking up at him with puzzled eyes. “What's that mean Uncle 'Ra?”
“It means we are going to go after our folks get done talking.” Caleb told his little sister.
“We’ve waited for…eeeeev…er already.” Andi sighed. “Talk fast Uncle ‘Ra, I’m hungry”
“Me too,” Sarah put her two cents in. “Pleeeease, can we go?"
“Please Uncle Ezra, we’ve been good.” Joanne pulled on his jacket, and gave him a soulful look.
Buck grinned. “You might as well give in Ezra; first they use the big eyes, and then come the tears.”
Ezra made a resigned gesture with his shoulders, all of it a show for the children. “I suppose we should depart now. We wouldn't want all the best tables to be gone.”
“Yah!!!!!" Several children’s voices rang out in sync. Barbara laughed, and handed Ezra his coat. Jason and Andi ran over to hug their Mom and Dad, while Buck received three hugs from his kids.
Vin stood up, and helped Andi, and Joanne into their coats, while Ezra and Barbara aided Maria and Sarah. The boys refused assistance and were more than ready to go. “I’ll help you get ‘em settled in the Tahoe, after that you’re on your own.” Tanner stated counting heads, and then herded six kids out the door. Chris and Buck shook their heads, hoping that this little excursion would not do the Southerner in.
Chris set his cup down, and rose from the table. “Buck, we’re working on nursery blueprints downstairs, wanna join us?”
“That would be downstairs where the pool table is, right?” Buck grinned “I think I might be persuaded to ‘help’ out for a while.”
“I thought you might. “Chris spoke to Kelli. “Tell Vin that we’ll meet him downstairs.”
“I’ll tell him.” Kelli smiled at her Dad. “Y’all try not to work too hard.” She watched the two men disappear, and waited for Vin to return.
Ten minutes passed before the Texan walked back in the door.” For better or worse, they’re off.” He stopped at the table, leaded down and kissed his wife. “They won’t be home until six. Why don’t you take advantage of the quiet and chill out on the couch?”
“I was just waitin’ for you. Max has Grace with her and Walter. Dad and Buck are already downstairs and I…” Vin kissed her again as he helped her to her feet. “…am headed for the couch to…"she sighed."…rest.”
“Good answer.” Vin walked her into the living room, with Tracker right beside them. Tanner covered her, and made sure she was comfortable before he went to join his brothers, leaving the dog curled up at Kelli’s feet. The Texan was certain Larabee and Wilmington were engaged in the work of playing pool. It was a good thing they had several months to go before the babies arrived, he doubted they would get any real work done today.
On their way over to the Tanner home Walter intercepted a Fed-X delivery addressed to Kelli Coulter Tanner. He and Max walked into the house with Grace, and found Kelli sleeping on the couch.
Max said. “Just leave it on the end table; she’ll see it when she wakes up. I’m going to put Grace down for her nap, and then I’ll start heating up lunch.”
“You do that. I’ll let Chris know we have returned with his baby daughter.” Walter grinned, and set the package down beside the sleeping redhead. “Sounds as if they may be workin’ on a game of pool, maybe I’ll join ‘em.” The door to the lower level was open and the unmistakable noise of an in progress billiard game drifted upstairs.
Max kissed her husband on the cheek. “Tell them we’ll eat in thirty minutes.” She went into the den to lay Grace in the playpen, while Walter headed downstairs to join the other men.
Vin greeted the older man. “You’re just in time to help me show these two how we play pool in Texas.”
“Only one way son, and that’s to win.” Walter took the pool cue that Tanner handed him, and grinned. “Hmmm, let me see if I remember how to do this.”
Buck elbowed Chris in the ribs. “I think we’re fixing to learn the Texas hustle.”
Walter prepared to take his shot. “By the way Larabee, your youngest daughter is takin’ a nap in the playpen, and your oldest one is sleepin’ on the couch.”
“That’s good to know.” Chris grinned. Now, you plan on talking or shooting pool.”
“Patience is a virtue, never rush perfection.” Walter broke and the other men watched in awe as all of the solid colored balls, one by one, dropped into the pockets. Two shots later Andrews had cleared the table, and he and Vin claimed victory. “That gentlemen, is what we call the Texas Express.”
“Texas Express my ass.” Buck growled. “Rack ‘em up, this time …we break.”
Walter looked at his watch. “Max will have lunch ready in twenty minutes. Lets see what you can do Wilmington.”
Buck deferred to his partner. “Reckon I’ll let Chris work his charm first.” He nodded to Larabee, “Go on, show ‘em how the Colorado Cowboy can handle a pool cue.”
Chris shot his old friend an icy glare. “Cowboy, Buck?”
Shrugging his shoulders, Wilmington grinned. “Hey, it sounds better than Colorado Pops.”
Vin laughed at the look Larabee had on his face.” Cowboy, Pops, Gramps, old man…it don’t matter ‘cause you ain’t gonna beat two Texans at pool.”
“We’ll see about that Tanner.” Chris moved around the table to line up his shot. “Watch and learn boys.” They began a serious game, and lunch was soon forgotten.
Max had a pot of beef stew simmering on the stove, the table was set, and she had just taken a pan of homemade biscuits out of the oven. The problem was there was no one around to eat. She went over to the door that lead downstairs and called to the men. “Shake a leg, lunch is ready.”
“We’ll be up in a minute.” Larabee called back. “One more shot is all I need to show up these Texans.”
“Lord, boys and their toys.” Max muttered, chuckling to herself, as she walked into the living room to wake Kelli. She stopped to admire the view out the floor to ceiling windows Tanner had installed in the huge room. Framed by a background of mountains that were shrouded in white, the snow on the ground glistened in the sunlight. Max never tired of that view, she loved the natural beauty, and the sense of tranquility it conveyed. Sighing, she moved over to the couch to wake up her charge. “Missy,” She shook her arm gently. “The men are on their way up, and lunch is ready.”
Kelli opened her eyes, and stretched. “Be right there Max.”
Turning to leave, Max remembered the package. “You had a delivery earlier, probably a late Christmas present. It’s on the table next to you.”
“Thanks, I’ll check it out, give me a few minutes, and I’ll be in for lunch.” Kelli attempted to sit up, but she had forty pounds of dog lying across her feet, and had to make him move first, “Down Tracker.” Reluctantly the dog obeyed, allowing her to sit up on the couch. She then reached for the package, it was addressed to Kelli Coulter Tanner, and she assumed it was a gift from one of her teammates. Tracker jumped onto her lap, and she sighed. “I promise to show you what it is, but I can’t open it with you on my lap. Move it, brat.” He moved, but was obviously unhappy about being displaced.
Carefully she tore open the outside mail wrap, and was delighted to find a beautifully decorated gift inside. The tag on the package said Kelli, but an envelope addressed to Vin was included, and the redhead set it aside to give to him. She did not recognize the handwriting, but figured it was either from Kat, or Pam., both women were notorious for putting things off to the last minute, and they would both be out of town until after the first. The dog insisted that he was going to be in the middle of it, and jumped back on the couch for a bird’s eye view.
“I thought you could shoot pool better than that Lar’bee.” Tanner heckled Chris as the eight ball missed the hole he had designated it would go into.
Chris shot him a glare. “Not with you jabbering like a magpie. Pool takes skill, precision....”
“All the skill and precision in the world won’t make one damn bit of difference if you can't sink the ball in the hole.” Vin teased as he lined his pool stick up to make his next shot.
“Quit your yammering and just make the shot already.” Buck told the Texan.
Vin sighted down the length of the pool cue much in the same way he did when he was lining up a target in the scope of his gun, before he gave it a gentle push and the eight ball sank into the corner pocket. He turned victoriously to Larabee and Wilmington with a huge grin on his face as Walter slapped him on the back. “Let's see....that makes it two nights of dinners out at mine and Kelli's favorite restaurant with free babysittin’ included that you owe me, Lar’bee.”
Chris rolled his eyes. “I never should have made that bet.”
“Nope…you shouldn't have.” Buck agreed. “I tried to tell you...”
“Shut up, Buck.” Chris said with no real heat, and then turned his attention to Andrews. “How are the new guards working out, Walter?” Chris asked the older man as they put up the game equipment.
“Are we going to go eat, or stand here and talk all day?” Buck interrupted
“Hold your horses Buck, we’re coming.” Chris grinned. “Your stomach can last five more minutes.”
Walter answered Larabee’s question as the four men climbed the stairs and moved into the kitchen.” They’re workin’ out good Chris....very reliable. We haven't seen any signs of unwanted visitors on the property since they were hired.”
“I was just about to call for you again.” Max told them as they entered the kitchen. “Sit, and enjoy while the food’s still hot.”
Tanner felt the hair on the back of his neck crawl, and his instincts were on full alert. “Where's Kel?” He demanded.
“She's in the living room...told me she would be in to eat after she opened the package she got today.” Max informed him.
A chill ran through the Texan and his instincts kicked into high gear.. “A package? What kind of package? Who was it from?” His eyes met Larabee's and Chris read the concern in them as more than curiosity.
“I'm not sure; it's a late Christmas present I reckon.” Walter told him. “It came in special delivery today, and had Kelli's name on it. I brought it inside and set it on the end table before I headed downstairs to join you.”
Vin bolted out of the kitchen and into the living room where his wife was just starting to open the gift in her lap. Without saying a word, he rushed forward, grabbed it out of Kelli's hands, and made a mad dash for the front door. Adrenaline propelled him down the porch steps, away from the house at breakneck speed, and as soon as he felt that he had gone far enough he tossed the package as far as he could. He watched it spiral through the air for a moment, before he turned and started running back toward the house, putting more distance between himself and the parcel in question. The package exploded as it fell to the earth, and he was propelled onto the ground from the concussion of the blast. He rolled over and gazed wide-eyed at the fiery inferno in front of him, as he attempted to catch his breath.
Chris and Buck raced down the porch steps toward him. “Vin!” Larabee yelled as he reached the fallen Texan. “Don’t move until we see if anything is broken.”
“I’m fine, just had the wind knocked out of me.” Vin tried to stand up, but Buck held him down “Let me go, I need to see Kel!”
The Texan shrugged free of Chris and Buck's grasp, and raced back toward the house. He was met at the door by an ashen faced Walter. “I'm sorry, Son...I should have checked it out.” Tanner didn't say a word, only brushed by him and into the living room where Kelli sat in shock and crying as Max tried to calm her. Vin took Kelli into his arms, making an effort to control his own shaking, as he realized just how very close he had come to losing his wife and his unborn children.
“It… it had my name on it.” Kelli gasped out as Vin held her. “I thought...it came from Pam or Kat...I didn't think.”
“Shh...It’s alright. You’re safe and that’s the only thing important to me.” Tanner told her soothingly. “Focus on tryin' to calm down, baby.”
Vin…what if Jason or Andi had been here? What if you …God…How did you know?”
Tanner continued to rub her back in an effort to relax her tense muscles. “I didn’t, but I had a gut feelin' that said you were in harms way… I figured if I was wrong the worst that could happen was that I’d owe you another present.” He refused to let go of her, but the fury inside him was beginning to build. Someone had attempted to kill his wife, and if it took him the rest of his life to find out who it was…that someone would pay.
Chris sat down next to the couple, trying to keep his emotions in check. He hated to question his daughter when she was obviously distraught, but he had to ask. “Kel, do you remember if there was a return address on the package?”
“No, but the paper is on the end table, and…there was a card…addressed to Vin.” She pointed to where she had placed the envelope, but kept a tight grip on Vin’s arm with her other hand. “I just thought… it was another gift.”
Buck retrieved the card and handed it to Chris. “You open it.”
Chris took it, and opened the flap, gently pulling the card out. He revealed a Christmas card, which contained an ominous message for Tanner, “Merry Christmas Dusty or should I say Vincent? See you soon, but first I have some business to take care of. Watch your back traitor.” It was unsigned. Inside the envelope were pictures of Kelli, Jason, Andi, and several more photos obviously taken of the ranch…and of their home.
“Sonofabitch!” Larabee swore in reaction to the threat.
Chris, what does it say?” Tanner reached to take the card from Larabee, but Chris refused to let him see it.
“It’s evidence Vin, the less people that handle it the better. Suffice to say…Someone knows that you are…were Dusty Slater, and plans to make your life a living hell.” He did not want to mention the implied threat to the children in front of Kelli.
“It was Karl that did this! I’ll kill the bastard with my own two hands!” Vin reacted quickly and started to rise, but Kelli held onto him.
“Vin, please wait!” She refused to turn loose of his arm.
“Now is not the time to go running off due to anger. You’d be doing exactly what Chambers, if he is the one behind this, wants you to do.” Chris placed his hand on the Texan’s other arm. “Your place is with Kel and the kids, Vin. The first thing we need to do is insure their safety, and I think you should let Kel’s doctor know what’s going on.”
We need her out of here Vin. Take care of your wife, I’ll tell you the rest later.
Looking into Kelli’s eyes he knew that Chris was right. She was scared, shaken and too damn pale. He chastised himself for being caught up in his rage; he had for an instant, forgotten about her condition, and how vulnerable she and the babies were until they passed the three month mark. “Come on Kel, first ‘m taking’ you to our room, and then ‘m callin’ Dr. Weeks.” He did not give her a chance to argue with him. He stood, picked her up into his arms and carried her to the bedroom.
As soon as Tanner had her out of the room Chris showed Buck the pictures and began issuing orders. “Buck call Ezra, tell him what has happened here. I want you to get Josiah to meet up with him, and stay close until all the kids are back here safe. Nathan and Rain need to bring Terrell onto the ranch, they can stay here until we decide how we’re going to protected everyone. Then, I want you to find a forensics team to go over this card, the wrapping paper, and whatever they can find that’s left of that bomb. Also track that delivery back as far as you can. Call in any team member you can locate, and tell them vacation time is over.”
“On it now,” Buck began making phone calls.
“Walter, double the patrols around the ranch. As of this minute we are on lockdown, and nothing comes in here unless we check it out first. When forensics is finished, do what you can to cover up the damage from the explosion. Max, you had better prepare for more houseguests.” Chris pulled out his cell phone to call the Southern breeze. It was going to take Matt’s cooperation to secure his side of the property that bordered the Larabee 7, and he also wanted Linda safely escorted home. Chambers had declared war, and Chris would be damned if he was going to give the bastard a chance to touch one member of his family.
You’re mine Chambers, and when I am finished with you, then I’ll give Tanner what’s left.
Somewhere, in the mountains, close to Denver…
Karl Chambers sat back in his big leather chair and savored the moment. His antagonist had a name…Vin Tanner…and by now the traitor knew that his identity had been revealed. Even if he did not succeed in taking out his first target, he knew his message would be received loud and clear.
Tanner, I plan to make your life hell as you have made mine. Destroy what you care about as you did to me. Your death can wait… you will not see me coming, and you will not know when…where…or who I will strike at next.
To be continued in
Reconciliations III: Resolutions
Clandestine Service ~The CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) branch that
carries out secret operations.
Clandestine Service ~The CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) branch that carries out secret operations.