Chapter 1 - 2 |
Chapter 3 - 5 |
Chapter 6 - 8 |
Chapter 9 - 11
Chapter 12 - 14 | Chapter 15 - 18 | Chapter 19 - Epilogue
How can we live without our lives? How will we know it’s us without our past?
This is playing out better that I could have imagined, she is almost as good with suffering as Larabee. More pictures to add to my collection and soon Larabee I will have you here to see them all. I know Tanner is going crazy and that means Christopher that you will suffer even more. One by one, you will lose everyone you love until finally it will be just you and me.
The events to come will be interesting to watch unfold and I cannot wait for the next reports. Larabee you will suffer as I have suffered, I promise you! You hell is just beginning and you will not be going there alone.
It was after five before Standish and Tanner stepped off the plane in Dallas. Vin filled Ezra in on the details during the flight and as he expected Standish understood and respected the need for discretion. Finding Walter was easy, the man was waiting for them and recognized Vin from one of the pictures Kelli had sent him. The hard part, for the Texan was hearing the man recount all that had happened while she had been there. They sat in the coffee shop and discussed the details.
“I thought my mother was bad, Maude is an angel compared to this creature.” Ezra was looking forward to meeting this woman and challenging her.
“Did she give Kel, the information you told her to bring?” Vin was anxious to get hard facts to follow.
“As far as I know, Kelli wouldn’t say. The only thing I can tell you is she used my computer and got a DNA file for me to have run against hers. She gave me the report along with five thousand dollars to have it done quickly and with no name attached, unfortunately she erased her trail on the hard drive,” Walter explained.
“When can we see this woman?” Vin wanted to confront her immediately.
“That may be a problem. She was not happy with the way your wife dismissed her and refuses to meet with you.” Walter was sorry to say.
“All I need is a name or address. We will see her and see her tonight, one way or another.” Vin waited for Walter to retrieve his notes.
Tanner passed the notes to Ezra, who already was working on it with his laptop. “Appreciate what you have done and for watchin’ out for Kel. We’ll take it from here and one of us will let you know when we find her.” He shook Walter’s hand and said goodbye.
Ezra had an address and he and Vin were there in thirty minutes. The woman, Marissa Lyons, lived in an affluent suburb of Dallas and her house was definitively in the rich-r-us class. They agreed to use their MCAT status to get in the door and that they would not leave without the information they came for. Vin decided to let Standish do the talking and Ezra had them inside in no time at all, making sure that she did not see Vin’s last name.
“Mrs. Lyons, this is a delicate matter, we need to discuss the young woman you met yesterday.” Standish tried using his charm on the woman.
She looked over her shoulder to see where her family was. “In here, please.” She took them to a separate room and closed the door. “I don’t know anything about that girl or whatever she has done. You have no reason to come to my home and harass me.” *The feds were not part of our bargain, you bastard and you will pay extra for this!*
“May I ask what business you had with the young lady?” Ezra was still attempting to be polite while Vin stood silent.
“Lady? More like an insolent bitch. I made her a legitimate business proposition and she would not even consider it. I should have known she was some kind of criminal. Her kind usually is.”
“Her kind?” Tanner spoke, taking an intimidating step forward.
“You know, lower class trash, I suppose I should count myself fortunate she declined my proposal.” Marissa huffed.
Ezra stepped in front of Tanner to stop him from going after the woman. “We do know why you met Mrs. Tanner and that you gave her some information. I suggest you give us the same information or my partner might decide to question the rest of your family.”
“Tanner? Is that her name? It does not matter and I told you it was strictly a business deal. I…” She saw the arctic blue glare aimed in her direction and hesitated. “If I cooperate will you leave?”
“Most assuredly” Ezra stayed close to Vin while the woman went to a wall safe, opened it and removed some papers.
Marissa sighed and decided to tell them the truth, at least some of it. “Oh alright, It was a personal meeting; she threatened to blackmail me for this information and I cannot have my family know about this. She now has the originals, but these are copies of the documents that I gave her, if you catch her, you make sure she knows I never wish to lay eyes on her again. Now leave and do not come back.” She escorted them to the front door.
Once it was closed, Ezra turned to Vin. “Are you okay?”
“I cannot believe Kel, is actually blood related to a bitch like that …” Vin reined in his rage. “Let’s get out of here and go someplace we can look at this”
They drove a few blocks away and stopped at a park, Ezra turned on the dome light so Vin could see. The Texan read for a few minutes and suddenly stopped.
“SON OF A BITCH! … Vin opened the car door and jumped out of the enclosed space. The quiet Texan disappeared, replaced by a ferocious beast on the prowl for a target to receive his fury. He wanted to find someone …anyone, but settled for the wall of the recreation building, pounding the hard surface until his knuckles bled.
“VIN! Tanner! Stop it!” Ezra was alarmed, the sharpshooter rarely lost his composure and although he had seen him angry a number of time, he was always in control. Blind rage was just not something he expected from the Texan. He knew he might catch Tanner’s wrath, but could not allow him to hurt himself. “Brother, listen to me, we can’t help Kelli if you lose it!
Calm down and talk to me. Vin?” When those expressive blue eyes look up at him, he saw intense pain and anguish. “Vin?” Standish steered the Texan back to the car and checked out his hand, talking non-stop to break the tension. “We need to get this x-rayed, see if anything is broken. We should probably acquire some food and lodging for the night, too. Maybe…”
“Ez, stop!” The Texan heaved a sigh and pushed his hair back. “My hand will wait… I ... The sooner we get to Kel the better, for everybody.”
“You know where she is?” Ezra was not sure about the calm that had fallen over the Texan. It was like waiting for a volcano to erupt. He could see the turmoil in Tanner’s eyes.
“Yeah… I do … she’s trapped somewhere between the past and the present in a livin’ hell.”
Dallas, Friday 6:00 am.
Tanner had conceded and let Ezra talk him into staying at a motel for the night, but he was anxious to get moving. It was a little after six and he had managed to get Standish out of bed, but now he had to wait for him to shower. He flexed his hand and grimaced with the pain it caused, but he did not think it was broken, only swollen. A small pain compared to the one in his heart.
Tanner studied his ring as he thought about the woman who wore the matching band, sending her a silent message.*Hang in there, Kel. We can get through this, just call me, baby. Somehow, we will work this out and it’s time for you to come home.* Vin understood that her reluctance to contact him was because she mistakenly believed she was protecting him. While he did not like it one damn bit, he could not find it in his heart to blame her. He picked up the damning papers and read them again.
*It’s a fucking mess, Tanner. Dammit, Chris should have kept her in Colorado; if he had, she would not be going through this now! You cannot undo what has already been done, Vin. No, I can’t, but I will find a way for us to live with it. You had better deal with your own rage first. I know that, dammit!*
“Vin?” Ezra took a good look at his brother. He was not in good shape and he knew that they had better find Kelli fast or it was anyone’s guess what Tanner would do. “Did you call Chris yet?”
“No, you want to call him, you do it, I’m ready to leave!” Vin crossly replied, “I have a good idea where Kel is going and I plan to catch up with her before this day ends.” The Texan was already out the door.
They had been driving for two hours and Tanner had not said a word, he refused to talk to Chris when Ezra called to report in to him. Standish could not take any more of the silent treatment.
“Pull over, we need to talk now!” Ezra withstood the fierce look Tanner sent him and held his ground. “Now Vin!” He waited, while The Texan pulled off the road and threw the gearshift into park, “I think you need to tell me what is going on. You have a rage in you screaming to get out, you refuse to talk to Chris, and you have not even told me our destination. Start anywhere, I am listening.”
Instead of talking Vin pulled out the papers and shoved them in Ezra’s lap. Standish began to read and within two minutes stopped and sighed. This had the potential to change more than one life, certainly Kelli’s and Vin’s, hell all of the family would be affected by this. Ezra knew he needed to remain calm and help somehow, he just was not sure how, yet.
“I cannot image how you must feel. Whatever I can do, whatever you need, you have only to ask and it is yours. Neither you nor Kelli will face this alone, we are family and we will get through this together. Now where do you think my young sister is?”
Ezra’s words helped to push back some of the anger Vin felt. “San Antonio, if she’s not there now, she will be.”
“Very well, let us proceed. You drive and I will handle our communications.” Ezra knew running interference between Larabee and Tanner could have unpleasant repercussion for him. However, he also understood Vin’s need to gain some control over his anger. Once Tanner knew that Kelli was safe there was time to deal with everything else.
Larabee paced his office like a caged tiger. He had not talked to Vin all day, every time he called he got Ezra instead and then only for a minute or two. All his senses were telling him something was not right and if he could connect with Tanner, he would feel better. However, the stubborn Texan had shut him out and he needed to know why, dammit.
“You hear anything yet? Buck walked in.
“Dammit, don’t you know how to knock? Chris snapped.
“Whoa hoss, you’re wound up like an eight day alarm clock. What’s wrong?”
“Hell, I don’t know, it seems like people go to Texas and suddenly we don’t exist here. First, Kelli now Vin and Ezra.” Chris finally sat down.
“Still nothing huh?
“NO! All I get is Standish and all he will say is, we have yet to solicit the details you request. When I get my hands on that southerner I will shake some details out of his ass!” Chris jumped up and began pacing again.
“What does Tanner tell you?”
“Nothing! Not a damn thing. I know he is hurting, but that is no reason to avoid me. “Chris growled, “On top of that Linda is calling four times an hour and I have no information to give her.”
“Chris, he’s upset and worn-out, hell, he don’t talk that much when he’s feelin good, you know that.” Buck sighed, “Linda is concerned, too.”
“Maybe, I just… I need to know.”
“I’m sure we will hear something, soon” *You had better hope so Buck or Chris won’t be the only one snapping around here.*
Kelli was exhausted, but she had accomplished many things. In Abilene, Texas her confrontation with Marissa’s father, rancher William Slade may not have changed anything, but it did make her feel better. At least, she found her true birthplace and discovered what had happened next. Marissa left after she was born and Mr. Slade handed her over to the county children’s home. He told them that a couple that had worked for him a short while took off, leaving the infant behind.
For two years that was home, but that ended when she they placed her with a couple in Austin. The couple they put her with was new to the system, inexperienced and had only a brief background check. With a shortage of foster parents, too many children, too few caseworkers and no computerized records to check, little was revealed about them. Records showed the woman died under mysterious circumstances about six months after that and her supposed husband disappeared with the not yet three-year old baby they called Anne. The effort made to locate the child, produced no results and her foster care records ended up in an inactive file.
A little over eighteen months later at a church on Coulter Ave in San Antonio authorities found an unidentified child, abandon, critically injured and badly abused. Efforts to locate family were unsuccessful and there was no connection established to the missing girl from Austin. From there, authorities gave her a name, an estimated birth date and a series of placements that finally ended several years later when Jake McKenzie became her permanent guardian.
One more stop to make and then she would call Vin and listen to his anger over her actions. Kel looked at the band on her finger and thought of the man that wore the matching one. She knew he had every reason to tell her to go to hell and refuse to speak to her, but she needed to hear his voice.*Hell, you need more than just to hear his voice, Kel, but after what you put him through you will be lucky if he even takes your call. Lord please let this be over soon.*
San Antonio, Texas
“Vin, are you certain about this?” Ezra knew Tanner had good instincts; the ex- bounty hunter had a sixth sense when it came to finding people. However, he was not sure why they were waiting, in a parked car, across the street from a church on Coulter Avenue.
“Yep, this is where it started and this is where she will come.” Vin was positive Kelli would need to come back to the beginning before she could move forward and contact him. He understood how she reacted when faced with a challenge; she had always found a pathway to move ahead and refused to let bad things drag her down for long. However, this time he was certain that she would need his help to reach solid ground. She was smart enough to know that and he was sure that when the initial shock of her discovery wore off she would turn to him.
“Have you thought about what happens after? She may not want to go home…”
“Ez, when I find her she will be home, she belongs with me. I hope in Denver, if not … wherever we are together will be our home.”
“What about the rest of the family?” *Will this revelation be the catalyst that finally breaks us apart?* Ezra could not imagine how hard it would be on Chris to lose Vin as a brother and a friend.*Hell, Ezra, all of you would suffer the loss not just Chris and Larabee would be hell to get along with.*
“I love my family and would give my life for any one of you, but without Kel I... If she can’t stay there…I can’t either.” Vin sighed. “As for the rest, I can’t think about that until I set things right between me and her.”
They waited as evening started to fall and after two more hours, their vigil paid off when a car pulled into the church parking lot. It was dark but the streetlight illuminated that area. Their three-day search was over when the car door opened. Vin had no problem recognizing the figure of the woman he loved, as she walked up to the church steps. He did not need the light to see her, he was familiar with the graceful moves her body made when she walked and he could feel her overwhelmed soul calling to him. Without a word, he slipped out of the vehicle in silence, leaving Ezra whispering something that sounded almost like a prayer.
Kelli felt compelled to be here, although she was not sure why. Maybe it was because this is where Kelli Coulter came into existence. It seemed fitting that when her life was falling apart around her, to be here where it began. Hot tears ran down her face when she thought about what she stood to lose. All because some people were irresponsible and others needed their damned secrets while seeking an elite social status. The sound of a softly whispered drawl penetrated the silence and caused a rush of warmth to cloak her aching soul.
“It’s time to let me back in, baby.” She responded to his open arms and felt them close around her. Vin held on to her, holding close to his heart what was important to him. The Texan immersed himself in the scent and feel of her, as he felt the worry and uncertainty ebb from his heart. “I love you Kel, you don’t ever need to hide anythin’ from me.”
Kelli’s overwrought emotion made it difficult to speak, but she managed a husky whisper,” Vin, ‘m sorry.” This Texan was the only one that had ever been able to reach past the shield she kept around her emotions and in his safe hands, all her protective barriers disappeared. Her tears now flowed freely as she wrapped her arms around her husband and felt his love pour over her.
Tanner held on tighter, wiping away her tears, “You don’t have to do this alone, Kel, never alone.” The sound of her heart beating so close to his assured him that this was real. She was here and he intended to make damn certain that she stayed.
Ezra watched from across the street, immensely relived that their search was over. If what he was witnessing, was any indication, at least this part of their ordeal was at an end. The other part could wait until Vin and Kelli were ready to deal with it. He pulled out his cell phone and made reservations for the night at a very nice hotel on the river walk. He then arranged for Hertz to pick up Kelli’s rental, she would not need it anymore. He sighed and headed across the street.
“Pardon the interruption, dear sister, but I have made arrangements concerning our accommodations for this evening and need to relocate your luggage to our vehicle.” Ezra offered her a warm smile.
“Ezra, ‘m sorry you got pulled into this I know…I owe you.” Kelli tried to apologize, but her tears and raw emotions made it difficult.
“Think nothing of it, I offered my services freely and seeing you two together is more than enough compensation for me.” Ezra saw clearly the price this lovely young woman had already paid for this debacle. An exchanged look with Vin told him he was not the only one concerned for her well -being. “Perhaps, we may defer any more discussion of this matter, until we arrived at our hotel and we are all well-rested.”
“Thanks Ez.” Vin anchored her snugly to his side and walked to the car, refusing to listen to her request for forgiveness. “No more, apologies, I understand why you had to do this, but whatever happens from here on out, happens to both of us.” He knew she needed food, rest and some TLC, which he intended to administer personally. Tomorrow they would deal with their future challenges. Tonight the Texan planned to start repairing her wounded spirit.
The family gathered at the ‘lions den’ for dinner, only the mood was dampened by the fact that three members of the family were not there. Even the children were quieter than normal, perceiving the mood of the concerned adults. It was after eight and still they were reluctant to go to their own homes. Chris had only said three words the entire evening. Buck counted each one and was worried about his old friend. For some unexplained reason Vin had shut him out and that fact was eating away at Larabee.*Tanner you had better have a damned good reason for putting Chris through this.*
Chris answered the phone on the second ring. “Larabee! … Where? ... How is she? …Put Vin on the phone … What do you mean you can’t? … Damn you, Standish, no tomorrow is not good enough, now! …Give me their room number and I will do it myself…I know that! ... Ezra, don’t you dare hang up! …Ezra?” Larabee threw the phone across the room and began a tirade of curses.
“Chris! You are scaring the kids, stop it!” Buck grabbed his arm to pull him outside, but Chris stopped him.
“I...I’m okay, sorry.” He took a deep breath before he spoke. “They found her in San Antonio and Ezra said that aside from being exhausted, she appeared to be all right.” Chris put up his hand to stop the barrage of questions. “That’s all I know, Standish would not even give me their room number so it will tomorrow before we know more.”
“You mean they stayed there? If they couldn’t get a flight out, I can call my brother and have him arrange for a private jet.” Linda offered. “I hope Vin gave her hell for the scare she put us through because I intend to give her a piece of my mind, too.”
“Evidently, they all could use a good rest and decided to stay, but tomorrow I want some answers.” Chris made a vow to find the underlying cause of this mess. *Tanner you will talk to me!*
The heart has reasons that reason does not understand.
San Antonio 1:00.am.
Vin knew she was having trouble sleeping and was not surprised when Kelli quietly slipped out of bed. She stood silhouetted in front of the window and he thought about all the reasons he loved her. *Tanner, the first time you laid eyes on her, she aroused something inside of you and you foolishly thought it just lust. It did not take you long to figure out how her presence soothes your restlessness and brings contentment to your soul like no other woman ever could. Lord, she pleases you! You love her wit, her feisty temperament and wild spirit along with her inner beauty and strength. Most of all she loves you, Vin and she stirs the fire inside you without even trying.* Watching her now, he was very aware of how much he wanted the woman that stood before him.
*She needs you, Tanner, her soul needs a safe place to heal. Hell, it took you a lifetime to find her and you need her just as much as she needs you, so what do you do now? Show her where home is, Vin. Hold on to her, let her know that she will always have a place to belong in your life.*
Last night she had tended to his hand, he made her eat, drew her bath and then held her while she fell into an uneasy sleep. They did not talk about the thing that was on both their minds and he wished that he had an easy answer for her. Now was not the time for talking though, this was the time to reaffirm their commitment to each other. He joined her by the window that overlooked the famed San Antonio River Walk and wrapped his arms around her, whispering softly, “I missed you baby.”
Kelli surrendered to his touch, turning she leaned into him and let her need for this man take control of her actions. “I missed you, too.”
The Texan looked deep into her dark blue eyes, losing himself in the love and desire, he saw there. Vin’s eyes never left hers and like so many times before she silently spoke tohis soul. Emitting a low husky growl, he took the softness and hunger of her mouth, filling her with his presence, being filled by her in return, while his hands sought out the soft curves that he knew by heart. Kelli savored the touch of the man she thought she had lost. Soon they both were back in familiar territory. Passion directed them to the bed and the outside world disappeared, leaving the two lovers lost outside the realm of time. Together they made their own way home.
Vin held her possessively and was aware when she surrender to the sleep her body required.*What are you going to do now, Tanner? You know the next few weeks will be difficult and you cannot avoid Chris for long. She needs time to come to terms with her conflicted feeling. Hell, Vin so do you! Chris is your best friend Tanner; he is your brother by your own choice. I know that, but Chris will have to wait, dammit! He may not know what he did, but I cannot help feeling he is responsible for her hurting. You had better work this through, Vin, or it will destroy your life as you know it. Isn’t that the same torment Kel, has been going through? She wanted to protect you Tanner. Yeah, now I need to protect her and give both of us time to reconcile the past and the present.* Vin sighed, knowing there were no cut and dried answers and let the mantle of sleep replace his conflicted thoughts.
Larabee 7 Saturday morning
Chris was up early and could feel his anger building. He just could not imagine Vin being upset enough with him to avoid him completely. However, he had made several failed attempts to talk to the Texan and that seemed to be the case. Larabee felt guilty about his part in ‘losing’ Kelli in the first place, but he never felt his brother would carry it this far.
Linda could not sleep either and when Chris left their room, she followed him to the kitchen, pouring coffee for both of them. “You don’t suppose he was angry enough with Kelli to do something stupid, do you? He wouldn’t physically hurt her would he?” Linda’s concerned was growing. “Maybe that’s why he is avoiding you.”
“Vin? Never! He might verbally give her hell, but hit her? No way and he would take offense that you even suggested it.” Chris snapped. “No, he’s upset with me for letting her go off alone and not knowing where she was.”
“But you thought …” Linda realized too late that she had reminded him of her part in this mess.
“If you had not lied to me, I guarantee I would have known what she was doing. Until now, I trusted you and didn’t ask any questions Now because of your lies, Kelli and Vin are having problems, Vin is mad at me and I have to find a way to trust you again. If I have learned anything in my life it is that lies, as well as secrets have a way of coming out and people get hurt because of it.” The more he talked the angrier Chris became.
“So, you are saying this is my entire fault! Did it ever occur to you that there are some things you cannot control, Larabee.” Linda huffed, “Furthermore, the last time I checked Kelli was over twenty one and could make her own decisions without your permission!”
“Yeah and she has to answer for what she did, but so do you. You lied to me Linda and there is no excuse for that!” Chris shouted.
“Just what are you saying, Chris?”
“I… I think we need some time apart for now, at least until I can think more clearly about this. I love you, but I have to be able to trust you if we have any chance of staying together.”
“You mean you have to make sure Vin is okay with it, before you can forgive me.” Linda was fighting back tears.
“I mean I need to know you will always tell me the truth.” Chris was holding back his anger. “You’re feeling better now, I will take you home. I promise to let you know when Kelli gets back so you can talk to her.”
San Antonio Saturday Morning
Vin couldn’t stay asleep and finally gave up trying. He quietly left the bed and went to the other part of the suite so he would not wake Kelli.*Okay Tanner, you have always managed to put things in perspective before. Why is it so damned hard to do it now? You know why, Vin, because of the pain this mess has caused. You want to make someone pay for that, but who is really the one to blame? Do what you have to Tanner and then take the time to put your lives back together. That is the only way for everyone to find common ground to build on. Rein in you anger and focus on getting through this.*
Kelli stood at the door and watched the conflicting emotions cross Vin’s face.*Kel, how could you have ever believed you would be able to walk away from this man? All the paths your life has followed brought you to the place to find him. The cost of any hurt endured along the way was a small price to pay for his love. The rest does not matter, you love him, so find a way to work through this and make it okay for him, too.* Lost deep in his own thoughts, for once she thought he was unaware she was there. She wanted to find some way to give him peace again and then her own guilt began to surface. The middle was a hell of a place to be and he did not deserve this kind of torment.
“You know none of this is your fault,” Vin knew what she was thinking.” Hell, you’re the innocent one in this whole thing.”
“If ‘m so innocent, why do I feel so guilty?”
“Maybe it’s because you care so much.” He pulled her to him, “Baby, I don’t do things I don’t want to do. Now stop worryin’ ‘bout me, before I have to do somethin’ drastic to distract your thoughts.” Tanner grinned running his hand under his shirt that she was wearing and found bare skin.
“You still don’t play fair, Tanner.” Kelli managed to whisper, “But I love you for it.” She wrapped her arms around him, letting one hand slide down to caress his backside, the other trailing over his muscular back. Mischief danced in her eyes and she smiled. “Drastic distraction sounds like fun, especially from a gorgeous naked Texan.”
Vin took pleasure in seeing her smile again. “Sassy this mornin’ ain’t ya?” With both hands he pulled her shirt open, had it over her shoulders, and off within seconds, allowing him to take in the vision before him, he whispered close to her ear. “Let’s go back to bed, baby.”
A soft sexy voice came back with, ‘Uh uh Tanner, right here, right now.” Vin whispered an inaudible reply and took her mouth in rough possession, the Texan wasted no time and began fulfilling her demands.
Afterwards, Tanner held her close to his side. “Come on, Sassy, it still early, let’s go back to bed.”
Kelli woke up to the smell of coffee and saw that it was almost noon. When she realized she was alone in the king size bed she pulled on one of Vin’s shirts and went to search of her Texan. She entered the other room of the suite and realized too late that Vin was not alone. He and Ezra were deep in discussion about something. *Relax, Kel, This shirt covers most of you, and Ezra … is part of this wild bunch that you claim as family.* Refusing to be embarrassed she continued on her path to the pot of coffee that was calling to her.
Vin saw her first and smiled to himself, he knew she didn’t know Ezra was here or she would have been completely dressed. He decided to ease her discomfort using diversionary tactics. Wearing a mischievous grin, he whispered for her ears only, “Morning, Sassy.” With a long lingering kiss, he took her mind off her uneasiness and almost made both of them forget they were not alone.
In the meantime, Ezra retrieved a blanket from the other room and put it on the couch. While watching the couple it struck him that until just now he had not considered how young Kelli really was. *She may be young in years Ezra, but old in life experience. Do what you can to help them Standish.*
“Once more, I loathe interrupting, however there are delicate issues awaiting our consideration.” Ezra was sorry that it was necessary to bring it up when he saw the tension return to both of them. ”However, perhaps coffee and food can come first.” They all ate and then settled in for some decision-making. Vin had Kelli sitting on the couch with him, covered by the blanket and Ezra sat opposite them in a matching chair.
“Kel, Ez knows everythin’ and he was there when we talked to your mother …” Vin started.
“Don’t call her that! Please… she is a lot of things, but she will never be that.” Tanner tightened his hold on her and she immediately became calmer.
“I assure you Kel, all that I know is confidential and in fact, even more than as part of your family, as your attorney it is my duty to protect your interest.” Standish hoped to make this easier. “I have contacted Walter assuring him of your safety. However, I do find it strange that the information you found has not come to light before and assure you I will pursue on your behalf to eradicate any questionable records. Are there any other matters you wish to discuss about this issue?”
“No … That’s all, there is nothing else I need from those people, ever.” She shivered and Tanner pulled her closer to him.
“Very well, now the other side of this…” Ezra was unable to finish his words.
“I can’t go back to Larabee 7, not yet. I need to work some things out in my head first and I have decided to turn in my resignation from MCAT.” She was expecting Vin to react to her statement, but he surprised her.
“We can go wherever you want, but I thought we might move out to our cabin, for now. As for work, we can take some vacation time or a leave of absence until we decide what to do,” his voice was undemanding.
“We? Vin you don’t…This is exactly what I didn’t want, you caught in the middle.”
“Baby, it’s okay. I have some things to work through myself and I can’t think of a better place, unless you don’t want to.” Tanner continued, with her agreement, “Whatever we do we do it together. Neither you nor I chose this, but both of us have to see it through. I promise we will find a way to survive intact.” Vin knew she accepted his promise when he saw the moisture in her eyes and felt her shiver again.
“I hate to break up this Hallmark moment, but you both seem to be forgetting one thing. It does not matter where you go or what you want to happen. Do you honestly think any amount of miles will stop storm Larabee from trying to obtain some answers? Do you believe he will simply give you both a leave of absence without a damn good reason? The man practically crawled through my cell phone earlier when I told him you were not available.” Ezra wanted them to look at all options. “I understand how you both must feel and I will help any way possible, but someone needs to talk to Chris besides me. My position with him is not in good standing at the moment.”
“I’ll handle Chris.” Vin stated softly and knowing Kel was going to argue he stopped her. “I need to do this.”
She studied his eyes and saw determination and truthfully, she knew she could not talk to Chris or anyone else right now, but she understood that Vin needed to, if only to appease his own anger.
“Ezra, can you get us on a flight to Denver this afternoon?” Kelli asked, “And, I want you to know I appreciate what you have done.”
“Certainly and you are most welcome.” Standish sighed, “Vin are you sure this is the best course of action.”
“It’s the only one.”
Ezra had called Larabee and told him Vin would be there in the morning. Chris was not happy about it, but he had no choice in the matter It was late evening when The Tanners reached their cabin and tomorrow they would do some shopping to stock the pantry. Tonight though, Vin build a fire in the fireplace, laid down comforters, and stacked pillows, making a place they could relax with music and spend their time reinforcing their own bond, both sheltered in the other’s love.
Kelli lay with her head close to her Texan’s heart, feeling the vibrations in his chest, created by his soft drawl as he read poetry to her. Suddenly he stopped and she looked up to find a smile on his face, the kind of smile that always made her pulse race. “Vin, why did you stop?”
“I had to take time to store this picture in my memory.” With his fingers entangled in her hair, he cupped the back of her head, pulling her nearer, bringing her mouth closer to his. “You, with firelight dancing on your bare skin, are a beautiful sight.” His kiss was soft and light, with one finger, he stroked her cheek,” Your blue eyes glisten like pools of incandescent sapphires that wield the power to captivate my senses and set fire to my desires. When we make love and you call out my name, I fall in love with you all over again. Vin’s kiss took her breath away, his lyrical words melted her heart once more and they both shut out the rest of the world, entering one that was only for them and then, they made another memory.
Once they were back in the real world, they stayed in front of the roaring fire, sharing their intimate thoughts, amorously wrapped together in one blanket and their minds reluctantly turned to tomorrow.
“Are you positive you want to do this, maybe I should. I don’t want you to resent me later on if it works out badly.” Kelli was anxious about the morning and felt somewhat guilty because Vin had to do something she though should be her responsibility, but for now she did not know what was the right thing to do or to risk.
“Kel, I have given this a lot of thought. I can’t tell you why all of this has come about, but I feel it was set into motion long before you and I met. Just like it was destined for you to be the one to find the key to unlock your past. I am the one that fate intended to talk to Chris. Besides, I think I am the only one that he might listen to and give us the time we need to sort through this. Trust me, you and I will be okay.”
“But at what price?”
Hell is truth seen too late—duty neglected in its season
Chris was past ready to confront Tanner. They had been through too much to let something like this damage their friendship and Larabee was going to make Vin understand that one way or another. Yeah, he could see him being upset about Kelli running off, but this was an overreaction. *Hell, Chris you did not lose her on purpose and according to Ezra she is okay, so…. Why has Vin avoided you? He had better have a damned good reason or else!*
Vin made it a little before seven and sat in his truck for a few minutes to gather his thoughts before getting out. He could already feel the tension radiating from Larabee and with a heavy sigh decided to face the raging storm straight on. Chris was waiting for him.
“It about time you showed, Tanner! What in the hell is going on and why are you by yourself? Where is Kelli? You had better have a damned good explanation for your actions.” Chris made no effort to disguise his irritation and shot the younger man a scorching glare.
“Since you’re being so social, good mornin’ to you too. Which one of those questions would you like me to answer first?” Vin forced himself to remain in control.
“I’ve been waiting four days to hear this, take your pick!” Larabee snipped.
“Kelli is at home. We’re staying at the cabin, in fact we’re gonna be movin’ out there for a while. As to why and your damned explanations, I think you should sit down and listen.” The Texan’s control slipped a bit.
“Vin?’ Chris was beginning to calm down and did not like the feelings he was picking up from the Texan. Larabee then took a good look at the younger man, comprehending that his eyes carried a lot of pain and conflicting emotions.
“Chris, all I ask is that you hear me out and try to understand where ‘m coming from. I’ll make this as short as possible.” He saw the slight nod of Chris’ head and continued. “Kel’s meetin’ with her … with that woman did not go well and she found out more than she bargained for in the process. It’s been a shock to her and her emotions have taken quiet a beatin’ over the last week. I can’t blame her for actin’ the way she did, Hell I didn’t react much better when I found out.”
“That how you hurt your hand?” Larabee interrupted when he noticed Tanner’s injury.
“Yeah, my hand had a run in with a wall and the wall won.” Vin hesitated before he spoke. “Chris ‘m not proud of the way I’ve handled this, but I didn’t expect to have such strong feelin’ about it. Kel and I both need some time to deal with what we found out. I suspect you will, too. I have two sets of letters here, one of ‘em is our request for vacation time or leave of absence from the team, whichever works.” He saw Chris react. “Don’t say anything yet, please. If you can’t see a way to give us that, then you’ll have to take the others two, which are our resignations. Before you decide I think you need to read this.” Vin handed him the same papers Marissa had given Kelli, plus the report Walter obtained and then waited for Chris to read them.
“This is all true? Are you sure?” The information stunned Chris and left him feeling numb.
“Kelli paid five thousands dollars to make sure and even if she hadn’t it all fits. It one big fuckin’ mess and a lot of hurt has come out of it. The lies and secrets have taken a heavy toll and I haf’ta be honest I hold a lot of anger about it. My head tells me I shouldn’t but right now my head is not in control of how I feel. This whole mess has been hard on Kelli, tryin’ to deal with this, plus what that woman and her grandfather did to her. I need to be there to help her work through all of this, if any of us have a chance of makin’ somethin’ right out of it.”
“Christ! I never … I ...Dammit! Vin you know I would have ….” Chris was not sure what to say as realization started to sink in.
“What I know is there is no easy answer, for you, me or Kel. What I know is this was quite a shock and the feelin’s of hurt run deep, as well as the fear of more rejection. It’s gonna take some time to mend,” Vin sighed. “What I know is ‘m stuck in the middle and need to make a choice. The best thing I can do for everyone involved is to be there for Kel and I hope you can understand that.”
“I do, but I need to talk to her, dammit! She cannot avoid me forever. You said she is at the cabin. I…”
“Chris, ’m askin’ you as a friend … no. as your brother, to please give it some time and don’t push her. If you can’t do that for me, then do it … do it for daughter, you owe her that much.”
“Daughter…” Chris looked at the papers again. Vin felt the uncertainty in him and then a sharp stab of pain. When Chris looked up that pain was in his eyes. Why didn’t I see this before? Her familiar looks …the feeling that I knew her…Dammit! I should have known!”
“It seems like I can’t take care of any of my children. First Adam and now …Hell Vin what she went through, I am responsible for that. Fuck! One night, Vin. I was with that girl one night … I never …Why in the hell didn’t Marissa tell me, I would have … “
Chris closed his eyes and tried to gather himself. “No,” he whispered. That is no excuse. Nothing is an excuse for what this has done to Kelli. You were right, somebody was dammed irresponsible and that somebody was me. I just …I did not think that night. Hell, I never even thought about it again afterwards, except that night at your place…” Chris thought about his own wrath on Kelli’s behalf against the unknown person that caused her so much pain and anguish. Now he understood Vin’s anger and why he had been shut out, but he could not blame Tanner for that. He just hoped it would not case permanent damage to their relationship. *Hell, Larabee you would deserve it if it did.*
”What can I do?” Chris resolved himself to start paying for his actions.
“Give us some time. I will wait til tomorrow to start movin’ some things and I will come over every day to tend to the horses. But right now, I think time and space is what’s needed.” Vin saw his own anguish reflected in Larabee’s eyes and wished he could do something about it, but the knew right now he just couldn’t.
“Go to her Vin. I’ll approve the time off … take what you need. I … Hell...Let me know if or when … she’s ready to talk to me.” Then softly, “She’s my daughter, Vin. Whatever happens, that means a lot to me and I would never reject her. I will do anything that needs to be done, anything. Will you … will you at least tell her that?”
“Yeah… yeah Chris I will tell her.”
An emotionally drained Texan made his way back to the cabin. Chris was the best friend, hell the first good friend he ever had and right from the start, they had an easy way with each other. Chris was a part of him, a part he needed to be who he was and that was something that would never change. However, Larabee was hurting now and for the first time, Tanner could not help him get past it, not without forsaking Kelli’s needs and that was not an option, for him or Chris.*This is where you can do the most good Vin, helping to heal the woman that both of you need to see whole again. God willing you will not lose your brother because of it.*
He saw her sitting by the lake and took a deep cleansing breath. She had that affect on him and had since the first time he laid eyes on her.*Yeah Vin, she slipped into your heart and soul, soft as a whisper without even trying. Maybe it had something to do with her connection to Chris. Maybe this was one of those strange twists that fate is so fond of dishing out, whatever it is, you know she belongs with you Tanner.* The Texan made his way down to the lake to join his wife and find some comfort for his battered emotions.
Chris Larabee had faced many challenges in his life and survived them all, even the ones he did not want to. However, this one blindsided him and he had no idea what to do about it. * Why do you cause so much pain to the people you care about? Sarah and Adam died because of your job and your inability to protect them. Buck, your friend of twenty years you treated like shit, when all he did was to try to help. You are also responsible for the pain you saw in Vin’s eyes today and now that Tanner is not shutting you out you can feel the torment he is going through.*
Then there was Kelli, a young woman he had grown to love and care for, as a part of his family. Vin had shared with him the details of her life and dammit, he admired her strength and courage for overcoming the obstacles life threw her way. *Obstacles she would not have had to face if you were not so damned irresponsible, Larabee. She suffered because of you, she is still paying for your actions, and you can do nothing to stop it. Vin made the right choice, she needs him with her and truth be told Vin needs her. Hell, they sure don’t need your help, Chris, you have done enough damage to both of them already.* Chris took the glass he was holding and hurled it across the room and watched it shatter against the fireplace. *Just like everything you touch, Larabee, shattered.*
With a sigh, he picked up the phone and dialed, after three rings, Buck answered. “Buck, you need to have the family at your house today, I don’t feel up to having them all here. … I will see you at work tomorrow ...I just …I need some time to myself … No, I don’t need anything else …”
Chris stared at the phone and made a decision, he dialed one more number, and an answering machine picked up on the fourth ring. “Linda, I promised to call and let you know about … Kelli and Vin. They are back, but will be staying at their cabin for a few days. I … we …Hell, never mind, I just wanted you to know that they are safe.” He hung up the receiver and then pulled out a bottle of whiskey. For the rest of the day and tonight it would be just him and his old friend, Jack Daniels.
Linda heard the message, but was not ready to talk to Chris. *Damn that man! Why do you let him do this to you Linda? How can one person make you so happy and so miserable? Maybe some time alone will make him realizes how much he misses you. Okay, you should not have lied to him, but he did not need to get that upset over it, after all nobody got hurt because of it. Let him sit alone and see how he likes it, a little suffering might just do him some good.*
MCAT Office - Monday
Chris Larabee was already in his office before any of his team arrived, trying to rid himself of a raging headache. As soon as he heard Buck, he called him into his office.
“Hey stud, good morning.” Buck stopped when he got a good look at the man behind the desk. “You must have had one hell of a party last night. The last time I saw you with a hangover like the one you’ve got now was … a long time ago” Buck remembered the times Chris drank after Sarah died, but he was sure Chris was past that now. Wasn’t he?
“I need you to stand in for Tanner for a while. Do you think you can handle that Wilmington?” Chris’ voice was cold, void of any emotion.
“I guess Vin needs a couple days for make-up sex. You know when Inez and I have an argument…” Larabee’s growl interrupted Buck’s recollections.
“What Vin does with … his wife is not a topic for gossip. Starting today, you are acting squad Captain, until further notice. Send Standish in here when he finally decides to drag his ass into work and shut the door on your way out.” Chris dismissed him.
“Now, hold on a minute, first you ditch the family yesterday and then you show up with a hangover from hell. Next, you tell me I’m taking over for Vin until further notice. What in the hell is going on and just how long is until further notice?” Buck raised his voice, “What happened to Tanner?”
Chris stood and walked to the window looking out over downtown Denver. “Vin and Kelli are taking off work for an indefinite period.” Chris sighed, “Plus I suppose you will have to know sooner or later that he and Kelli are moving off the ranch and will be staying at their cabin.”
“They are coming back home and to the team right?”
“I ...I don’t know.” Chris spoke so softly that Buck could barely hear him.
“Not now Buck …Not now.”
Buck just stood there for a minute, before walking out the door and closing it quietly behind him.*Maybe Chris will not talk to me, but somebody damned sure will.* Ezra walked in about that time and Buck hustled him off to the break room.
“Ez, what in the hell happened in Texas?”” Buck demanded.
“Well, in 1836 they had a big battle at a place called The Alamo, near San Antonio I believe and…”
“Very funny, I meant with Vin, He and Kelli are leaving the ranch and now Chris says they both are off the team indefinitely. Chris is hung over and won’t tell me a damned thing and he wants you in his office immediately.” Buck ranted.
Standish sighed, “I recommend that you communicate with Mr. Tanner yourself, if you desire additional knowledge of his situation. Now, if you will excuse me.” Ezra left Buck standing alone and proceeded to Larabee’s office. Taking a deep breath, he knocked and entered.
Neither man said a word for an entire minute. Chris broke the silence, “I know what happened, what I want from you is Marissa’s address and phone number or even a last name will do.”
Ezra thought before he answered, “Chris, I watched two people I care for go through a living hell because of that woman, I do not want that to happen to a third. There is nothing to gain from her, trust me about this and I believe your attentions belong elsewhere. I understand your need to confront that bitch, but I know two people that your time and energy would be better spent on.”
Chris was surprised to hear Ezra refer to the woman as a bitch and to drop his formal speech. “Vin and Kelli don’t want help from me.”
“Perhaps, but I have found that sometimes help is needed, even if it is not always wanted. I have given this situation some serious thought. While I admit it is a delicate matter, I have faith in this family to find a way to set it right. However if you desire to waste your time on extracting some type of vengeance instead of trying to regain a lost child, I will supply you with that information.”
“Will you tell me how bad it was?” The agony Chris felt was evident in his eyes.
Ezra asked to use Chris’ phone and called Kelli. After gaining her permission, he related all the ugly details to Larabee and waited for the explosion. However none came, all Standish saw was a brother hurting, trying to hold on to his emotions. After a few minutes, Chris was able to speak.
“She confronted the old man herself?” Chris gave a half laugh. “That sounds like something I would do.”
“Those were my thoughts exactly. Kelli may be having a hard time reconciling her feeling right now, but she is more like you than you may think. Her strength to survive had to come from you because she certainly is nothing like her ...that woman. Given a little time and with some patience on your part, she will remember what she liked and respected about you before. That at least will give you something to build on.” Ezra watched for some reaction to his words and thought he saw a small flash of hope scurry across Chris’ face. *Not much Standish but it is a start.* Ezra stood up to leave, but before he made it to the door. Chris’ words gave him pause.
“Thank you, Ezra, for being there for both of them, I appreciate it.”
Chris did not come out for lunch and in fact, he did not come out of his office all day. Ezra had refused to discuss the situation with any one and Vin was not returning phone calls.
“Dammit.” Buck muttered to no one in particular and went to confront his old friend. Barging into Larabee’s office, he did not give the blonde a chance to speak first. “Chris, I don’t know what is going on, but you can’t shut yourself up in here all day. Whatever is bothering you we can talk about it, you have friends and family that care.”
“Maybe I don’t want friends and family to care!” Chris said angrily, “I think you should mind your damn own business Buck and stay out of mine!”
“Like it or not friend, you are my business. I thought things were better for you, the family, the ranch, the new team and Linda. Hell Chris, we all were happy to see you start a new relationship, but now you’re acting like you did after…”
“After what Buck? After, I killed my wife and our son?” Chris lashed out.
“Chris …we have been here before, you did not kill Sarah and Adam and you know it!
“Buck you don’t know half the things I have done and for that matter, Wilmington, what about you? What did you do all those years of catting around? Do you know? No, none of us knows how our actions can come back and bite us on the ass. Destroy lives…” Chris shut up.
“I don’t know where all this is coming from, but if you won’t tell me, I’ll just have to get it out of Tanner!”
“Buck, I’m warning you, leave Vin alone! You will not even try to talk to him!” Chris moved around the desk and was in Buck’s face. “You pass the word that nobody is to contact Tanner until he is ready to talk! Do I make myself clear enough for you?”
“Oh yeah, that’s real fucking clear!” Buck was furious. “Tanner ignores you, pisses you off and you defend him! I try to help and you give me warnings! Well you know what old friend you can go to hell!’ Buck slammed out of the office and missed Larabee’s soft reply.
“Already there, Buck and this time I took innocent people with me.”
Chris sat alone and looked at the destruction around him. Earlier he decided Jack Daniels was not his friend and could not shut out the pain, so he smashed every bottle in his bar. Then he tore up every closet in the house to find what he wanted, no what he needed to get him through the long night.
He pulled out another photo album and went back to a happier time in his life. *Sarah, I remember this day as if it was yesterday. You were so beautiful and I felt like the luckiest man in the world. Mrs. Christopher Larabee. I know you repeated it at least fifty times on our honeymoon, just because you liked the sound of it. You should have said no when I asked you to marry me, you should have run the opposite direction and if you had … maybe you would still be alive … maybe … No. If you had then we would not have had Adam and I would have missed having my son. Even if it was only six years, I would not trade that for anything, except to have you both back.
Remember this one? Adam was three and Buck …yeah Buck the same man that I pushed away today, the man that saved me from myself when you died. The same man that has been there for me for twenty years, even though, I have not always been there for him. Why does he keep trying? Why doesn’t he just let go? Yeah I know he stays because he has such a big heart and he considers our friendship important. He has not figured out that I am not worth it. Yeah, I hear you shaking your finger in my face, but dammit Sarah, I have made such a mess of things down here.
I told you about Vin and how you would have liked him, hell, you would have taken him in for family. He and Adam would have hit it off real well. Yes, Tanner has done a good job keeping me sane and in line, but now, he is hurting and I am to blame for that. This picture, this is the one taken right after I met that stubborn Texan. We played hooky from work and took off for the lake. That fish weighed ten pounds… okay maybe eight, but it was a beauty. He has been there for me, too and now because of my own irresponsibility I cannot be there for him when he needs me. You see, Sarah… and this is hard for me to tell you, but I hope you would have understood. You always forgave me when I screwed up, but this time I would not blame you if you did not.
This picture is when Vin got married and I was so happy for him, I was his best man at the wedding and it was great. I knew he and Kelli would be good together just as you and I were. She is a beautiful young woman and in many ways, she reminds me of you. She is redheaded and has the same temperament you did. I know she gives Tanner hell when he deserves it, just as you did me. But, honey she had a difficult life and she had no one to look out for her growing up. That is my fault. My first year of college I was a bit on the wild side and never thought much about the future. I damn well should have because … I found out way too late …Kelli is my daughter…I never knew, but I should have. Now she is hurting because of it and Vin needs someone to blame for what she went through. I’m not sure what I would have done back then, but I know whatever it was would have been better than what she got. Now I do not know how to fix it for either of them. If you were here, you would know, because you always knew the right thing to do.
If you can, maybe you could check in on her for me, help her get through the rough spot she is in now. I know I have no right to ask, but maybe you can help her find a way, at the very least to talk to me. It is more than I deserve, after letting you, her and Adam down, but she is here and I would like a chance to be a father to her.*
*Sarah, whether you forgive me or not, remember I love you.*