by tannertexaslady

Chapter 1 - 3 | Chapter 4 - 8 | Chapter 9 - 13 | Chapter 14 - 17 | Chapter 18 - 22
Chapter 23 - 28 | Chapter 29 - 34 | Chapter 35 - 39 | Chapter 40 - Epilogue

Larabee 7 - Sunday Morning
Chris Larabee loved his family of brothers and Sunday gatherings had become tradition. This particular Sunday he wished he was somewhere else. His stubborn “sisters” and their well meaning, but misdirected attempts at matchmaking, had him concerned. He really did not want to see any one of them with hurt feelings. Hell, it was going to be a long day. Tanner joined him on the deck for coffee and the silence between them lent calm to the morning. That was not destined to last long after Buck arrived.

“Hey stud.” Buck joined them on the porch. “Anything you need me to do for today?”

“Think everything is covered,” Larabee answered cautiously.

“That’s good.” Buck paced for a minute. “Dammit, I guess, I have to tell you, I couldn’t talk them out of the plan.”

“Didn’t expect you could, Bucklin,” Vin said.

“You both knew and let me worry myself about crazy?” Buck huffed.

“When those women get their mind set, even you don’t stand a chance.” Chris pointed out. “You said that yourself.”

“Yep, but we think you should be the one to tell’ em, we won’t be here.” Tanner offered.

“What do you mean you won’t be here?” Wilmington was almost shouting.

“Cowboy and me are going fishin’. Guess you have to handle ‘em on your own.” Vin laughed.

“Look, if I get Inez and Rain to cancel the extra invites, will you stay?” Buck pleaded.” I will do it right now, give me thirty minutes. Don’t leave until I get back.” Wilmington left to take care of business with his wife.

“Well done, Tanner, I’m impressed.” Chris was relieved Vin had thought out a solution for the problem.”

You’re Welcome

Southern Breeze Ranch

Katrina got a phone call from her brother, he was in town for one day. Kelli gave her the keys to her truck and told her to take it and go visit. She assured her, Linda would give her a ride home and not to worry about it.

Ben came in just as Linda and Kelli finished lunch, with the news that six mares were missing and a fence was down.

“Linda, you didn’t!” Kelli yelled

“Not this time!” Linda jumped up. “Ben have our horses ready.”

“Already done.” Ben replied.

It did not take long to find the downed fence and instead of six mares, they found three geldings. Pony, Peso and Chaucer stood on the side, where the mares should have been. Linda and Kelli caught them and decided to lead them over to the Larabee 7.

+ + + + + + +

Buck straightened out the extra guest problems as promised. Tanner and Larabee were staying, mainly to see Wilmington in the doghouse with his wife. Dinner was a least an hour away and the time centered on the kids. It was then that Maria chose to crawl onto her Uncle Vin’s lap and ask a question.

“What you need, Angel” Vin asked the toddler.

“You find it, you keep it?” Maria asked and played with the buttons on Tanner’s shirt.

“Show me what you found and I’ll tell you” Vin tried to coax the child to show him what she was talking about.

The toddler thought about it and took Uncle Vin’s hand. She led him to the edge of the yard, pointed and said “Mine.”

“Aww Heck,” Vin caught his language, in front of the baby. “Honey, I know you want to keep him, but his mama is probably looking for him.” I know who is looking for this colt. Maria started wailing and Vin explained the problem to Inez and Buck. Unfortunately, when Maria started crying so did Sarah, then Joanne joined in and the adults were having a time trying to settle the girls.

Leading three rouge horses, Linda and Kelli rode into the chaos. Seeing the new people, the babies quit crying. Tanner, Larabee and Standish went to retrieve their errant horses. “Lose something, Cowboys.” Linda said, as she handed over the reins for Pony and Chaucer to Chris. He passed them to Standish and took Linda to meet the others and discuss how to handle this recurring horse situation.

Peso refused to go with Vin, choosing to stay with Kelli. Tanner was not happy with his ornery horse, but could not really blame him for his choice. Vin held his temper and took both Peso and the Kelli’s mare indicating for her to follow him. They might only have a few minutes alone, but he would take it. The Texan put the mare in the corral and led Peso into the barn. “Step one hoof outta that stall, you mule headed beast and you spend three days in solitary.” He would never hurt the animal, but he could lock him up.

“Think he’ll listen to you?” Kelli smiled repeating his words back.

“I reckon we got five minutes, before some busybody comes to check on us.” Vin pulled her closer, “What do you think we should do with it?” Tanner grinned. It is time for her first lesson, Vin.

“You said we needed to talk.” Kelli said feeling she could lose herself completely in the sea of blue, in the eyes before her.

“Not now.” He growled and reached for her. Tanner spent the time giving Kelli a lesson in trust, it was important to him, for her to know he would keep her safe. The Texan now realized he wanted more than sex, from this woman. He wanted her body, mind and her soul and nothing less would satisfy him. Vin stayed in total control. He was letting her know, that it was acceptable to him, to just kiss and explore the depth of their desires, without pressure to go further. He searched for the points that stirred her passion and found more than one. She allowed her hands to wander and found enjoyment by just touching his lean hard body. Both found it a very pleasing experience and ten minutes later, they reluctantly joined the others, trying not to draw attention. Buck was watching as they walked back and was satisfied with what he saw. It about time, Tanner.

They agreed that putting up a double fence was a solution. The one on Larabee 7 side would be electrified. Harm would not come to the horses and it would keep the escape artists in check. “I think we should just put a gate between the two properties and save all of us a lot of trouble.” Chris surprised the group with his statement.

Cowboy, are you sure?

Yeah, Vin, I am sure

Linda’s phone rang and when she finished listening, relayed the message. “The mares are home and the hands are repairing the fence.” Turning to Chris, she asked. ”Are you sure about the gate?”

“Absolutely.” Larabee had no doubts

Making a phone call, Linda ordered Ben to have them add a gate and arranged for him to pick up the colt that was now lying next to Kelli, along with three little girls. With the arrangements made, Larabee talked to Linda, “We could have dinner here instead of your place. Kelli too,” she readily agreed.

During the mealtime, Inez, Rain and Casey took turns asking questions. Chris put a stop to it. Reminding them, that Linda and Kelli were their guests, not criminals to interrogate. He captured Linda’s eyes when she sent him a smile of gratitude. He loved that smile and the way it brought dancing lights into her eyes.

Then Buck came between them and started talking. Reluctantly, he shifted his attention to his friends.

Linda kept looking when Chris turned away to listen to his friend. She sighed when he moved and she saw those tight black jeans accentuate the best butt she had ever seen. Linda, you have it bad girl. Quickly, she looked away and tried to pay attention to what Chris and the other men were saying. No, that wasn’t right the others were talking, Chris hardly said anything.

A nudge brought her attention from Chris, back to the other women. “Penny for your thoughts,” Inez smiled. Linda blushed. “Oh nothing, I was just wondering why Chris says so little.”

“That’s just Chris. He never says much. He doesn’t speak more than a three words a day, Vin always says,” the women laughed.

“Really?” Linda remembered the evenings they had spent and how they could not stop talking. He isn’t that way with me

Ben came for the foal and at Larabee’s insistence took the mares’ home. Chris assured Linda, “I will make sure, you arrive home safely and I am positive, that Vin will take Kelli home.” Mallory was tired and Josiah took her and Joanne back to their house. JD and Casey had to take Nettie home and Nathan took Rain to work. That left the rest of the adults to clean up.

“Why don’t you and Vin both come to the ranch, Chris?” They both agreed, but took separate vehicles.

“How about we pick out movies to watch?” Linda suggested when they were all seated in her living room.

“Linda, I need to get home, I work tomorrow and have bosses that insist I be on time.” Kelli looked at Larabee and Tanner and grinned. “I’m just gonna grab my bag and say goodnight, if Vin’s ready to go.”

Vin nodded, “Fine with me.” Remember, Tanner, you want her to trust you.

After they left, Chris asked Linda to sit with him on the porch. He looked at the beautiful slim woman at his side and felt something he had not felt in a long time. He resisted the urge to push an errant blonde lock out of that face with full red lips, that just begged to be kissed. Right now, they needed to talk. He swallowed.

“I haven’t done this, in a long time and the only way I know, is to be direct,” Chris stated. “Maybe I’m on the wrong track but I think we have a chance to build something between us and I hope you feel the same.” Face it, Larabee, you are already sure.

The hesitant words woke a flutter in Linda’s stomach. This gorgeous man had just told her, he was feeling what she was feeling! She suddenly had to fight not to grin like mad. “You are not on the wrong track, but I think it is only fair that you know I have not been totally myself since my Dad died. I feel the same as you but need some time to work out a few things and not rush. Kelli has pushed me to get back to who I am. She finally had to move, to make me realize it. I am not normally a quiet person, I tend to be outrageous at times.” she smiled. “Okay at lot of the time and impulsive. Can you handle that?”

His smile sent a shiver through her. Right, Linda, you want him now and you know it.

“After seeing how you handled getting Vin and Kelli together, I think I figured that out myself.” He grinned, “So, I guess you’re telling me to learn to expect the unexpected.” I can live with that

“Something like that.” Linda then kissed him, letting him know he would not always be in charge. She put every ounce of passion and fire she could into that kiss and Chris responded in kind.

Yeah, he would give her a little time, but not much.

+ + + + + + +

Kelli invited Vin inside and thanked him for the ride home. Not sure what to do next, she offered him some iced tea. “I can’t stand the cold, but will drink iced tea all year long.” She was trying to avoid serious conversation. ”Got used to it, I guess.” Kel, you are so in over your head.

Vin walked to the patio door as he listened to her. It was obvious, that she was more comfortable on the gun range, than she was with a man in her apartment. His male ego appreciated that discovery. Tanner, you found something good, do not mess it up. Kelli joined him on the patio.

“There’s a good view of the mountains from here. That’s what made me decide on this place,” she explained. “Course it’s not as good as the bein’ there, but it’ll have to do.” She stopped talking when she saw Vin’s attention was not on the mountains. Kelli could not believe she was here with this attractive man. She raised her hand to touch his face, brushing back a lock of his hair.

Tanner only saw the view of the beautiful woman in front of him and reached for her. Vin brushed his lips across her brow and slowly worked towards the sensual mouth, waiting for his kiss, which was filled with all passion and desire, then he felt it course through their bodies. Tremors of desire showered through her body and she surely would have melted into the ground, had he not held her. Vin felt her tremble and hungrily sought out more. Kelli had never felt this wild and free. He could have taken her right then, if he wished too, but somehow through the haze of passion, reason returned. This is not how it should be, Tanner. Both of you deserve more than one night and if you do this, that is all it will ever be. He gently pulled her back from the fires of passion, as he recovered his control. The Texan felt the exact moment awareness returned to Kelli. Before she had a chance to react, he was whispering soothing words in her ear.

Katrina chose that time to return home and made sure the couple, she saw on the patio, knew she was there. Kelli and Vin returned inside and talked to her for a few minutes.

“Did you enjoy the time with your brother?” Kelli asked.

“Yes, I don’t get to see any of my family, all that often. He caught me up on what the rest of the brood is doing.” Katrina smiled. “However, if you don’t mind, I’m beat and am headed to bed.”

Vin turned to Kelli. “It’s late. I’ll see you at work in the mornin’.” Then he gave her another tantalizing kiss, he hoped that she would be thinking about the rest of the night. You sure will be, Tanner

Kelli closed the door and knew she was in trouble. Vin had shattered a lifetime of defenses that she had built around herself. He somehow managed to cut through the armor that shielded her emotions. What happens to you, Kel, when he learns the truth? Then walks away.

MCAT Office

Monday morning arrived. Chris saw everyone was in the office on time, except for Ezra. Larabee was sure that man would be late for his own funeral. Boxes were again stacked on the desks around the room. “Alright boys and girls Director Travis sent over a few files for us to sort through.” He waited for the moans and groans to stop. “I know this isn’t your favorite pastime but it will be done today. Get started.” Chris disappeared into his office.

“The sooner we start, the sooner we finish.” Vin directed. “Every agent grab a box and start to work.”

Tanner watched Kelli and sensed she was trying to pull back her emotions. That was something he was not going to let happen. He knew she was starting to trust him, but something held her back, he was determined to get past it. Patience Tanner, it takes time, to trust.

Larabee called Vin into his office. “You must have just talked to Linda.” Vin observed. “You got that damn smile that gives it away.”

“Yeah...well, I am meeting her after work and she asked if you and Kelli would join us for dinner.” Chris answered, “Before you say anything, I told her I thought it would be a good idea. She has to leave for Louisiana tomorrow on family business and wanted to get together before she left.”

“I’ll have to let you know, Kelli’s been a bit reserved this morning.” Vin sighed, “Thought I get her on the gun range after lunch, I’ll ask her while we’re there.”

Chris nodded, “Offer’s open.”

Vin left Larabee’s office and located Coulter. He told her to him meet in his office in five minutes. It was ten minutes later when she knocked on the door. “Come in.” Vin knew she deliberately made him wait and decided to find out why before he said anything. I will find out, what makes you want to run.

“You told me to be here, you might as well tell me why.” She really did not want to be here and it showed. Kelli had decided some time during the long sleepless night to just back off from Tanner’s attention. It is safer this way.

“We have a reserved time on the gun range at one. Get your gear and we’ll head over.” Vin saw her relax slightly, once she realized he was not making this a personal discussion. You got your work cut out for you, Tanner.

“That’s all?” Lord, give me strength

“Yeah, we leave in five minutes and Coulter that means five not ten minutes from now.” Vin’s tone of voice made it very clear that was an order.

Firing Range - 1:00 p.m.

This time she never hesitated on climbing the ladder to the tower and set up without saying a word. In fact, she had not said more that five words on the drive over. Kelli hit the mark several times in rapid succession. Vin knew he had to say something before she ruined all the targets.

“We’re here to shoot at targets not try to disintegrate ‘em.” He had to smile, “I think you hit it the first time.”

“Sorry, I guess I got carried away a bit. I do that sometimes to reduce stress.” The truth was she was having a difficult time concentrating, with him so close. “I’ll be more careful.”

Vin studied her for a minute before he asked his next question. He thought he already knew the answer and made sure there was plenty of space between them. “Why are you stressed?” He waited to see if she would tell him. Trust me, Kel.

“I…hell ...You’re the reason I’m stressed, okay!” She sighed, “I think you already knew that.” Of course, he knows that, Kel, the man is not dumb.

He had read her work record and her letters of recommendation. Words that described her were: focused, tough, assertive and never intimidated. It amazed him that he had this effect on her. “Yeah, I did.” He made sure she was looking at him. “You don’t need to be, I don’t expect anything you’re not ready to give and I can be a patient man if it’s somethin’ important. And for the record I consider your feelin’s important.”

With those words, Vin had won the war, never knowing that he was in one. Kelli realized she was fighting a losing battle with her emotions. Lord, Tanner, I just hope we do not both regret this.

“I’ll work it out, now if there are any targets left, it your turn.” She could not stop the surge of pleasure she felt, hearing his words. They stayed on the range for another hour, Tanner showing her how to improve her scores. As they walked to Vin’s truck, he told her about Chris’ invitation to join Linda and him for dinner.

“Are you sure you want to? Linda’s idea of going out usually involves one of those places the waiter has to interpret the menu.” She laughed at the thought of her friend’s idea of good food.

“If it’s too bad, we’ll leave and find somethin’ better.” Vin didn’t care, he was just glad to see Kelli totally relax again. The end of the workday finally arrived, Linda surprised Kelli by choosing a local steak house for dinner and they agreed to meet at 7:30.

+ + + + + + +

Vin knocked on her door at 6:45 expecting to have a good fifteen minutes wait. Instead, Kelli answered, invited him in and the Texan realized he was in trouble. She does not even know how beautiful she is.

The outfit she wore definitely qualified as a test for his patience. She had on a long brown skirt and a yellow peasant blouse, with her long auburn hair flowing over her bare shoulders. Her fiery beauty robbed him of any rational thought.

“Hey, I knew you would be on time,” she said. Lord, does the man know he affects me? “I’m ready I just need to tell Katrina to lock up behind us.” She only carried her house key and gave it to Vin to hold.

Before she could yell to her roommate, Vin leaned in and kissed her slowly and thoroughly, testing his own limits as well as hers. With his hands, he left no delicate curve untouched. Heat radiated between them. With his mouth, he claimed the soft skin on her neck. He felt the vibrations from her throat of the soft sexy sounds she was making and he was fast losing control. Strength he did not know he had, emerged to make him think. Don’t ruin your chance, Tanner, to capture her elusive spirit. Discipline yourself to wait until you do. When he stopped, she was not sure she could stand without him holding her, much less say anything. After a few minutes, Vin spoke for her.

“Katrina, we’re leaving.” Addressing Kelli, he whispered softly, “You might want to put on some shoes.” Sure enough, she was bare footed. She quickly located her heels and they made it out the door.

At the restaurant.

Chris and Linda were already there when they arrived. “We just got here ourselves, haven’t even seen a waiter yet.” Chris greeted them and told Kelli she looked nice. I said nice, Vin, not sexy as hell. Draw back your glare

“This is a great place, haven’t tried it before.” Vin commented. Sorry, I’m a little touchy tonight.

Chris laughed aloud. Can’t imagine why.

Both women gave him a strange look. Fortunately, the waiter arrived about then. Chris ordered baked chicken for Linda and a steak for himself. Kelli wanted a steak so Tanner ordered for them both.

“Vin, I was telling Chris your stallion’s brother will be racing in two weeks. Maybe you and Kelli would like to come with us to watch him.” Linda stated, “It’s an open invitation.”

“I guess that would depend on work, I’ll have to talk to the boss about it.” Vin smiled. “Somebody has to keep things movin’.”

Dinner was great and while they waited on dessert, Linda and Kelli excused themselves.

“Vin, I’ve been watching you tonight and I have a question. Who exactly is in training here, you or her?” Chris laughed. “She seems to be putting you through the paces.”

“I don’t know Cowboy, seems you may have learned a few new tricks yourself.” Vin said smugly and Chris stopped laughing.

+ + + + + + +

In the Ladies room, Linda wanted to push her friend. “Have you had sex with him yet?” Linda asked to get Kelli’s reaction. “Is he as good as he looks?”

“What kind of question is that?” Kelli snapped and blushed, “It’s not any of your damn business.”

“Didn’t think so, you need to quit thinking and just do.” Linda advised. “You girl, are overdue for some enjoyment in your life.”

“Thank you, Mom, for your unsolicited advice and do me a favor.” Kelli waited for Linda’s attention. “Stay out of it and take care of your own cowboy.”

“My cowboy and I are doing fine, thank you.” Linda smiled and followed Kelli out the door.

Both men noticed Linda’s smile and the tint of a blush that Kelli had, but said nothing. Shortly after, they finished their dessert and walked to the parking lot together.

“Have a good trip and tell Matthew, I said hi.” Kelli told Linda.

“I will and you try to misbehave before I get home.” Linda smiled at the look Kelli sent her way.

Night, Cowboy.

Night, Vin.

Tanner took the redhead home and used her key to unlock the door. Once inside, they found Katrina had turned in for the night. Vin reached for Kelli and pulled her closer. “I want you to know, I plan on going home shortly. I’m tellin’ you now so you can relax and enjoy this.” Vin kissed her hungrily and deeply, as he moved to her neck and he nibbled the flesh on the soft spots, he already knew gave her pleasure. He ended his assault of her senses with a kiss. He held her until he was sure she was able to stand on her own. She only realized he was leaving when she heard a raspy whisper of, “Good night, Texas.”

+ + + + + + +

Chris took Linda home and they found themselves back on the porch swing.

“You are very protective of Kelli, aren’t you?” Chris asked.

“Kelli may not be blood related but she is part of my family, so yes I guess I am.” Linda answered.

“Vin seems to like her, hard to believe they have only known each other two weeks.” Larabee commented. Only two weeks and look where you are yourself, Larabee

“Tanner should be honored, she decided to trust him because Kelli doesn’t give her trust easily.” Linda stated firmly. “If Vin were smart, he would not give her a lot of time to think. He should just take her and move things along.” Linda watched for Chris’ reaction. God, does he know how sexy he is?

“What make you think, they haven’t...?” Chris was not used to these types of discussions with a woman. Larabee, you are treading water here.

“I know Kelli better than anyone and believe me, they may be doing a lot of things together, but having sex is not one of them.” Linda almost laughed at the look on Larabee’s face. “Maybe I should buy her some things from Victoria’s Secret. What color does Vin Like?” What color would you like?

“You are not shy are you, Lady?” Chris liked that. You are full of surprises.

“Not really.” Linda smiled, “I bet he would like red, but with her hair color that wouldn’t work. Green maybe?”

“Yellow, Tanner would choose yellow.” Chris thought of Vin’s reaction to the blouse Kelli wore tonight. He also envisioned Linda wearing red, with her blond hair that would be a sight to see. Vin would kill me, if he knew about this

“Yellow it is then. You know, Chris with your help I bet we could have those two in bed together in no time. Linda smiled, as Chris appeared to blush. God, I didn’t think it was possible, but he is even sexier when he blushes! Do I have him thinking in the right direction, yet?

She continued, “I have given some serious thought about our discussion yesterday.” She wanted him to know how she felt. “When I get back from Louisiana, do you suppose Tanner could run things at the office for a couple of days?”

“Maybe, what did you have in mind?” Chris grinned as he thought about the possibilities. His eyes lingering on the form fitting dress Linda was wearing and thinking about the beauty underneath it, that he would love to reveal.

“I was thinking, we might find somewhere private to …get to know each other better.” Linda explained, “There is always someone here with the hired help and your place has family in and out all the time.”

“I can work something out.” Chris pulled her close and let her know how he felt with actions. Desire flared immediately as he ravished her mouth with his. He took time to take pleasure in his exploration. She responded to his touch without restraint, soon they were both breathless and close to surrendering to their fervor. Had it not been for the sound of a slamming door somewhere in the house, they could easily have forgotten there were others around. They both spent several minutes trying to recover their senses.

“What days did you have in mind?” Chris whispered.

3:30 a.m.

“Who in the hell would be calling at this hour?” Kelli fumbled for her phone and finally laid hands on it. The veil of sleep was beginning to fall away.


“Mornin,’ Texas, I’ll be at your front door in twenty minutes, dress warm, bring your clothes for work, grab a jacket and wear your boots.” Vin instructed.

“Dress warm, bring clothes for work, grab a jacket and wear boots, got it.” Kelli had no idea what Tanner was up to and suddenly realized it did not matter. She had no need to know, trusting him completely. She was showered, dressed, left a note for Katrina and was at the front door in twenty minutes. Vin met her with a kiss and a cup of coffee.

“Get a move on woman, let’s go.” Vin opened the door to his Durango and escorted her in.

“Are you always this cheerful at this time of mornin’?” Kelli asked, while admiring his profile, as he drove.

“Not usually.” Vin was honest to a fault “Most mornin’s, I don’t get up ‘fore five.”

Kelli sipped on her coffee realizing it was just how she liked it. This man is full of surprises. She then let the relaxing quiet drift over her.

“You gonna ask where we’re goin’?” Vin hoped not, he wanted her to trust him.

“Nope, just wake me when we get there.” She was enjoying the mystery. They traveled in comfortable silence for about twenty minutes before Vin stopped. It was still dark outside. Tanner opened her door and then pulled some gear from the back of the truck. Looking around, she noted they were in the middle of nowhere in particular.

“Gonna make a short climb.” Vin told her, as he helped her with a harness and clipped a lead on it. “Follow me and stay close.” They climbed the rock wall and this time she did not mind following the Texan. It may be dark, but light enough to enjoy the view in front of her. When Vin reached the top, he reached back took her hand and pulled her up. They were standing on a large flat ledge. Taking off his backpack, he opened it and brought out a blanket, a thermos of coffee and some breakfast rolls. Kelli was amazed, he had thought of everything. Settling on the blanket he had spread out, Vin pulled her to sit in front of him, wrapping his arms around her. She leaned back against him and was sure this was close to heaven.

“Alright, not that I’m complainin’, but what are we doin’ here?” Kelli finally had to ask, though she was satisfied, just to be here with him.

“We are makin’ a memory.” Vin was pleased she had waited so long to ask, “Watch right over there.” He pointed to a mountain in the distance, which the sun was just beginning to reach. “That sun just left Texas ‘fore gracin’ us with its presence, I thought you might enjoy a Texas sunrise.”

Kelli felt the tears form and knew she would not be able to prevent them from falling. A flood of emotion washed over her and what she was feeling was overwhelming. She felt her soul struggle, to escape the shield she had built around it. No one had ever cared enough to do something like this for her. As she watched the sky explode with color, Vin gently wiped the tears from her face and he held her tighter resting his chin on the top of her head. Kelli’s last wall of defense was starting to fall and she was helpless to stop it.

Sitting here, holding her, Vin knew no other woman had ever touched him so completely. A peaceful feeling took root in his soul and contentment surrounded his heart. Tanner, you’re not losin’ it at all, you just found a part of yourself that was missin’. Kissing the top of her head, his thoughts came back to the here and now.

Tanner knew she was moved by this sunrise surprise and he vowed to keep finding ways to give pleasure to her. He poured coffee, giving Kelli time to get control of her emotions. The Texan passed the coffee over and kissed her tenderly, he did not intend to push for more, just yet.

“Vin…” Kelli started to speak, but found her voice unsteady.

“You don’t have to say anythin’ you already told me.” He stroked her cheek. “We need to finish breakfast and get movin’ or we’ll be late for work.” They finished, packed and grudgingly started the trip back to civilization.

MCAT Office - 11:00 a.m.

Larabee entered the bullpen and told everyone to meet in the conference room. “Five minutes and Ezra don’t be late.” Chris commanded.

Chris watched as the agents moved for the meeting. Larabee was pleased to see the varied agents bonding into a unit and knew what he had planned would help that along. Independently, they were all good agents, but now they had to work and get along as a team. With new unit members coming in next week, he wanted this core group to bond. He also wanted to observe and get to know them better. A few days of exercises at the ATF camp were just what they needed. Chris made his announcement and got immediate reaction.

“Would I be correct in assuming that you are addressing only the new agents in the room?” Ezra hated these exercises and was determined to find an out.

“We may be new here, but we are not rookies.” Katrina was quick to defend their status.

“Chris, didn’t you want Pam and me to work on the files?” JD had to try to get out of it.

“No, everyone participates and we have reserved time available for the next three days.” Larabee ignored their groans, “We leave tomorrow morning at 6:00 a.m., and arrange your plans accordingly. You have the remaining part of today to collect your gear and make preparations. Larabee dismissed them. Tanner left the room to catch up with Kelli and asked her to step into his office.

“We need to talk, but not here.” Vin brushed her hair back with his fingers. “Spend the rest of today with me?”

“I just have to tell Katrina to go on without me,” Kelli did not hesitated to say yes.

Vin’s Place

Tanner’s home wasn’t large, but was comfortable. The rustic décor fit his personality and the skylights gave the feeling of open space. Kelli imagined the view of the night sky, visible from any room in the house. They had stopped on the way and picked up a couple of steaks for lunch. Vin cooked and Kelli made a salad and a pitcher of iced tea. After their meal, Vin decided now was a good time for their talk and led her into the living area. Tanner sat on the couch and pulled her down beside him, he wanted to keep her close but not confined.

“It’s time we talked, Texas. You’re holdin’ somethin’ back and I don’t want it between us.” Does she trust you enough, Tanner?

Kelli was quiet for a few long minutes. Vin had a lot of patience when needed and giving her time to answer was important. For that reason, he waited, rubbing circles on the palm of her hand with his thumb. He decided to make it easier for her. “Kel, I promise whatever it is, it won’t make any difference in the way I feel about you.”

“Don’t make promises you might not be able to keep, Tanner.” Kelli decided to get everything in the open. “It’s not a nice story.”

“Real life generally isn’t all nice.” Vin shifted to face her. “I don’t make promises unless I’m sure and I won’t say anythin’ til you’re done.”

She did trust him and knew Vin cared about her, but was it enough? Eventually she would have to tell him anyway. Might as well get it over with and see if he was willing to accept it. The past poured out, as she hesitantly gave him the facts responsible for her need to shield her emotions and her soul.

“Kelli Coulter is not the name I was born with. Fact is, I have no idea of my real name, age or who my family was. A police officer found me injured, outside a church in San Antonio twenty - one years ago, he took me to the hospital and I spent three months there. They were unable to find anyone who knew me, so the state took custody. The social worker gave me a name and guessed at my age. My birth date is the same day they typed a new certificate. I was raised by a lot of different people until Jake became my guardian.” Kelli stopped for a minute before she continued. This was the part, which she had never shared with anyone, not even Linda.

“The medical report …showed evidence of physical and …sexual abuse. The only memories I have of it are in nightmares, which comes in bit and pieces. Kelli was relieved to have it out in the open, but was afraid if she looked at Vin, she would see rejection. Lord knows, it was a disgrace, which she had carried for years.

Tanner had struggled with his own emotions while she told her story. From anger at the system that could not help to rage at the person who abused her and finally, immensely grateful that she was a survivor. It did not matter that they had not known each other long because he knew his heart did not care about time. He only knew with absolute certainty, they would deal with her fears together.

“Kel, look at me, nothin’ you said makes any difference about you and me, except now, I can share some of your pain.” Vin closed his arms around her.

“I don’t think you understand, I have no idea what happened. I have tried to find out, but keep runnin’ into dead ends. Before I met you, it was not that big of an issue. My work was all I needed or wanted and I have made sure to avoid any relationships, which might lead to a physical involvement. Now…‘m not even sure ... I can… What about the scars? They will never go away. What happens if I remember? What...” She got no further before Vin stopped her.

“Kel, I do understand what you’re tellin’ me. I have seen some of the scars and they are only scars, believe me I have my share of ‘em. As for the rest, you are not responsible for what some bastard did twenty somethin’ years ago. You do not have to live with it alone anymore. If you remember, we will deal with it and if you have nightmares, I will be there. If you want me to help look for answers I will, but it does not matter to me how old you are or what your name was. As to what happened, I wish I could change it for you, but I can’t. What matters now is, you’re here and alive.”

“If I knew more, maybe it would be easier, I just …”Vin didn’t let her dwell on her reservations. He kissed her softly and watched the play of emotion cross her face. Tanner knew she had never told anyone else this story and talking about it was difficult for her. These events made her who she is and sharing her emotions was something new. He saw relief in her eyes when she realized the meaning of his words. Finally, he saw acceptance and knew she realized the depth of his commitment.

“I will promise you this, when we make love it will be when you are ready. I will make sure you have no reason to doubt, that you belong with me. It won’t be today, but it will happen and it will be a special time for both of us, trust me.” He sealed that promise with a kiss that left no doubt about how he felt.

Vin then told her about his childhood and early life, about how meeting Chris and the boys gave him such a great new family. He wanted to wave a magic wand and rid her of the uncertainty she carried, but that would take some time. Time he was willing to give. Enough time, Tanner and you can track down the monster responsible for hurting her.

They spent awhile gathering his gear for tomorrow. The rest of the afternoon, they lazed on the couch, alternately talking and exploring the boundaries of their desires.

Tuesday - 5:00 a.m.

The sky was a light golden color and it would soon be dawn. Katrina was leaving to pick up Pam. Kelli was waiting on Vin and thinking about how important he now was in her life.

Face, it, Kel, he just charged through those damn walls and never stopped until he captured your heart. Now he is just as much a part of you as breathing and you would not change it, if you could. Love? Lord, Kel you’ve no experience with that word, but was that the right way to describe the feeling he brought out? Maybe it was, you do want him, to take care of him and share yourself with him. The best part is that this caring, sensitive, soul wants to give the same things to you. To hell with patience, Kel, you have waited all your life for this man. You do not have to deny yourself and wait anymore.

Kelli opened the door before he finished knocking. Once she had Vin inside, she surprised the hell out of him by initiating a kiss he would carry in his memory for years to come.

With out a word, a tug on his shirt brought him closer. One hand sliding around his neck lead to a hungry kiss that left him with no doubt about what she wanted. You hear that soft flutter, Vin? That is the sound of a soul flying free for the first time. He responded by taking his time exploring her body with his hands. Slowly, he fueled the fires of passion and lost himself in that desire. She was drowning and the only one that could save her was Tanner. It took every ounce of strength he possessed to return to sanity. He rested his head on her shoulder, until he could breathe again and felt her breathing slow down. Damn, he hated to think about the limited time they would have for the next three days, kissing her again while he buttoned her shirt, he prayed for a quick passage of time.

“That’s gonna have to hold us for a while, at least til we get back.” he whispered softly. “It’s time to go.”

Federal Building - Parking Garage - 5:45 a.m.

Ten agents were ready to go. Larabee had decided to take two vehicles, his and Vin’s. Gear was packed, seats arranged and navigators were reading maps. All they needed was one more body to complete their group. Everyone knew Standish would not arrive until straight up six.

“I have a feeling’ this is gonna be a long trip.” Kelli mumbled still thinking about earlier.

“What did you say, darlin’.” Buck asked.

“I just wondered if you remembered the map.” Kelli grasped for an answer.

“Yeah, we are all set.” Buck replied. “Relax, we don’t bite and you’re working with the best team in the country. Everything will be fine.”

Ezra arrived and at one minute to six, Larabee was ready to get on the road. The only stop he planned was for a late breakfast and he hoped that by splitting the group it would be a quiet trip. For once, he got his wish.

They reached base camp by ten and Larabee laid out the schedule. Today the team had to complete a pre-planned obstacle course. They had one hour to set up before they received the course layout. The agents were assigned to a remote area to set up camp. Their reactions to ‘roughing it’ resounded loud and clear. It at least helped him get to know his new agents. Chris mentally categorized the information he already knew and worked on how to pair them.

He knew Pam worked better in an office environment. With her skills, she could become a base for information and never leave the Federal building. She was out of her element, out here though. Buck would be a good partner for her. He would do his best to keep her from getting into trouble.

Sam was ex-military and had the skills necessary for the job. However, his by the book attitude might be a problem, especially with the ‘boys’ and their creative minds. He was aggressive and did not approve of women as agents. Vin would get a good read on him and how far he would push.

Katrina had the experience to handle a variety of situations and seemed to fair okay in the outdoors although, she preferred not. She was used to working with only one partner and could be independent at times. Josiah perhaps would get a better insight about her ability to adapt to a larger team situation.

Kelli was privately reserved, but outspoken when it came to work. Her proficiency with weapons was good and with training could be even better. She had a range of experiences, which could be useful to the unit. Ezra was good at noticing things most people did not and he would discover any weakness that might need watching.

This left Nathan with JD and both available, if needed. Across the camp Tanner worked and while he helped everyone set up his mind traveled back to the morning. He shook his head, Texas, I thought I was the one with all plans Thinking of Kelli had him smiling as he worked and wondering if could survive many more of her surprises.

“Are we about ready to get started?” Buck asked.

“Yeah, get everyone together,” I’ll be right there.’ Vin answered.

They met in the middle and before Chris and Vin opened the prewritten instructions. Chris gave them directions. We will work in pairs as follows: Vin/Sam, Ezra/Kelli, Buck/Pam, Josiah/Katrina, Nathan/JD.

Larabee tried to be considerate of his female agents. “Ladies, if you need to make a last minute stop do it now, it could cause you some embarrassment out there.” The facilities are there for changing and showering.

The first challenge was to get up and over a rock wall. Tanner had no problem scaling the rocks and Reed was right behind him. Ezra with a little encouragement made it next. Kelli was an experienced climber and had no problem. Josiah and Katrina were next and then Buck had to help Pam. JD and Nathan brought up the rear. They made good time across the rope bridge and Larabee called a ten-minute break.

“Where is a reliable steed, when you need one?” Ezra hated all this outdoor stuff.

“He’s back at the barn with all the other sensible animals.” Buck discovered he was out of shape for this.

“I thought you were the best in the country. Maybe you guys are getting soft.” Sam smirked, “Hell, even some of these gals are doing better and that’s a shame.”

“Why would you think that?” JD asked, not liking Reed’s attitude.

“You may be too young to realize that women have a place and it not doing a man’s job,” Reed spoke to JD, as if he was talking to a twelve year old. “I’ll make you a bet that not one of the women last the whole three days.”

“How much?” he had Ezra’s attention.

“Fifty says they don’t it make past tomorrow.” Sam shot back.

“You sir, have a bet.” Ezra did not miss the mental daggers the women were throwing at Mr. Reed.

“What’s next, Chris?” Nathan changed the direction of the conversation quickly.

“A bungee jump is set up for us.” Chris did not like what he was hearing. In two minutes we will leave to hike ten miles to the jump and from there back to camp.” Keep an eye on him, Vin.

Tanner checked on every team member assuring himself they were okay. He saw Kelli and Katrina with their heads together. They are up to somethin’.

Chris nodded and got everyone moving. They made the ten miles easily and reached the final challenge. They rested for fifteen minutes, while he and Nathan checked on them all.

“I want to go first.” JD, hyped over the thought of making the jump was ready.

“You have my permission to jump for me, too.” Ezra offered.

“You can go for me.” Buck laughingly agreed with Standish but truthfully, he did not feel well.

“I’ll go first, a good leader will show the others how it’s done and be ready for anything.” Sam looked at Vin, when he said it.

“Tanner and I go last, after the others make it safely.” Chris sent Sam a look, that told him to back off.

They made the jumps and Larabee led them on the trek back to camp. Staying in the same pairs, they started back only moving slower.

“Tanner, you have known Larabee a long time, right?” Sam was fishing.

”Yep.” Vin maintained a brisk pace for Sam to keep up with.

“Maybe you can explain to me, why he puts up with such a lax unit. He has allowed most of them to get out of shape and even agreed to work with women.” Sam wanted to get a reaction.

“Ask him.” Tanner showed no outward reaction at all.

“Maybe I will.” He would have to think about it.

When they reached camp, it was time to start supper. Someone turned music on the radio and the others generally avoided Reed, except for the women. Pam made sure he got plenty to eat and Kelli spent time talking to him, giving Katrina a chance to place something in his sleeping bag

Larabee and Tanner watched with some amusement.

“What do you figure they are up to?” Chris was curious, but did not really want to know the details.

“Don’t know, but I don’t reckon I’d want to be him, right now.” Vin speculated and he was sure whatever it was, the female agents had planned, Sam was in for a hard time.

“I asked Nathan to update me on Buck, we may have to change up for tomorrow.” Chris informed.

“Hell, Bucklin will go out half dead before he let’s wonder boy get ahead of him.” Vin said referring to Sam.

Kelli walked over and sat next to Tanner, but directed her comments to Chris. “I know you put some thought into how you paired us up, but I have a request.” Chris’ nod indicated he was listening and she continued. “I want to work with Pam, she having a hard time and I think it would be less embarrassin’ for her with another woman.”

Larabee was sure there was more to the request. “Is that the only reason?” He queried and already knew she would not tell him.

“All I’m willin’ to share with the boss.” She smiled.

“I’ll let you know in the morning.” Chris was positive they were up to something and the less he knew the better.

Kellie got up to leave, but not before she trailed her fingers across Vin’s hand.

You gonna stop ‘em?


Chris went to check on Buck, while Tanner finished his coffee and smiled as he realized he was looking forward to seeing tomorrow’s events unfold.

Base Camp 4:00 a.m.

Tanner was watching the woman in the sleeping bag ten feet away. She was obviously not sleeping well, in fact, it was the sounds of her tossing and turning that woke him. Quietly she got to her feet and walked away from camp. Vin gave her five minutes and followed grabbing his jacket on the way. Must be the fact that most Texans spend a majority of the year dealing with hot weather, but the cold affected her, the same as it did him and it was much cooler this morning. He stood and just watched her for a few minutes making his presence known only when she began to shiver from the cold.

“Mornin’, Texas, trouble sleepin’?” He drawled, as he draped his jacket around her. Vin, seeing her first thing in the morning could be habit forming.

“Too much thinkin’ about the end of this trip, I guess.” She smiled and leaned against him, drawing his warmth as she felt his strong arms encircled her. It was only a few minutes of together time, but it was better than no time at all. Kel, you could get use to this.

He whispered gruffly, “Damn this trip.” Vin needed to change the direction of his thoughts before he gave his resignation to Chris and took off with her. Taking a deep breath, he tried to corral his impatience and asked instead. “You wanna share what you’re plannin’ today?”

Kelli was working on recovering her own composure. “Nope, the less you know the better.”

“Then why don’t we go start breakfast for this unruly bunch?” Tanner kissed her again and with a pat on her backside got her moving. That seemed to be the safest course of action.

+ + + + + + +

The smell of breakfast cooking woke the remaining members of the group. Then suddenly, Reed started cursing and drew everyone’s attention. “Sonofabitch, what in the hell is going on!” Sam yelled.

“Problem, Reed?” Chris walked over to check.

“Hell, I’ve got red welts all over and itch.” He said, as he scratched.

“Maybe Nathan should check you over. Are you allergic to anything?” Larabee called Nathan over. The medic was not sure what had caused the man’s discomfort, but did notice he was drinking a large amount of water. He had no known allergies and insisted he would be ready to go out today.

Tanner and Standish were standing together watching the antics play out before them. Neither was inclined to offer to assist the man who made no effort to hide his dislike for their family. Reed was not making any headway in ensuring himself a permanent place on the team, either.

Katrina approached Standish, “Ezra, what are the odds that Reed does not finish the day still on his feet?” she casually asked.

“I would, on no account, formulate a wager against a known certainty.” Ezra grinned.

Reed insisted he would not let a little thing like itching, keep him from carrying out his duties. “I’m made of tougher stuff than that and will never shirk my obligations.” Sam did make a point of looking at Wilmington, when he made this statement.

Wilmington insisted he was going out today. “I’ll keep close watch on Buck, don’t worry about him, Chris.” Nathan did not believe that there was anything too seriously wrong with Wilmington. He had just overdone the day before and should be fine, soon.

Larabee called the team together, to make some announcements. A few changes in pairing today: Buck/Nathan Katrina/ JD Kelli/Pam Ezra/Josiah. Somewhere over a twenty-five mile course are ten bags that look like this (Holds up a small bag).They could be anywhere and we will find them all before we come back. This exercise is to build physical endurance and powers of observation.

The course laid out was not an easy one. It alternately wound along the river and up through the rocks. Fifteen minutes into their trek, Pam, with a little help, found the first bag hidden in the rocks, one down nine to go.

“Good job, Walton.” Larabee said, “Glad you caught that one.”

When they came closer to the river, Standish found a second one, eight to go. Six miles out Tanner spotted a third, seven left. Reaching a rock formation, the trail became more difficult for most of the agents. The exception was Tanner, who Chris swore was half mountain goat. When faced with a rock wall Chris called a break, to rest before they had to climb.

“Could someone enlighten me, as to the importance of climbing a wall of rock in relation to fighting crime?” A frustrated Ezra inquired.

“It keeps your mind on edge.” JD laughed at his lame joke. “On edge, get it?”

“We got it son, we just don’t want it.” Josiah stated.

Nathan had his hands full, he knew Buck was tired, but refused to slow down. Sam was having stomach cramps and could not seem to quench his thirst. Jackson could not put his finger on what was wrong. He decided to consult with Chris, about how he wanted to handle it. He walked over to where Larabee and Tanner were reading maps. After Tanner heard Nathan’s concerns, he called Kelli over to join them. “You need to tell Nathan what’s wrong with him before he calls in a specialist.” Vin advised, with a thread of amusement in his voice.

“Well hell, nothin’ serious,” she sighed, “Okay, the welts are from a bristly plant Kat packed down in his sleepin’ bag. The thirst is from the extra salt mixed with a few herbs, Pam put in his food last night. Some wild herbs, I crushed up and slipped into his coffee, are causin’ the stomach cramps. All of ‘em are harmless, just a little uncomfortable to deal with.” She huffed, “Are you happy now?”

“Remind me to stay on the good side of you ladies.” Jackson answered warily.

Chris told Jackson to head back with Sam and Buck, so they could rest. Vin tried hard not to laugh and Nathan, while he admired the ladies’ ingenuity, was surprised he had not considered that possibility.

Coulter grabbed another bag she had spotted and slapped it into Larabee’s hands. “Six to go, can we move on now?” She heard them laughing behind her.

Larabee looked at the bag and then at Tanner who just shrugged his shoulders. The group pursued the trail and the next hour saw the discovery of three more bags. Larabee decided to break for lunch. He gave his team an hour to relax and rest before the next twelve miles.

“Hey Chris, if we find the rest of this stuff before we hit the end of the course do we get free time?” JD inquired.

“Excellent suggestion, Mr. Dunne, perhaps even a soirée into the next patch of civilization.” Ezra replied.

“JD, if we finish quickly, yes, you can have the time.” Chris conceded.

The agents rushed through lunch and got back to business, finding the last items in record time. As promised Larabee herded them back to camp, leaving them free for the remainder of the day.

“Are you going to join us in town?” Josiah walked up and asked Coulter. “Some of us are having dinner in a real restaurant and you are welcome to come along.”

“I think I’ll stay around camp and enjoy the quiet.” Kelli responded, “Thanks for askin’.”

“When Sanchez pulled out in Chris’ truck, five people remained in camp, Larabee, Tanner, Coulter, Wilmington and Reed. Sitting around the campfire after their meals, various conversations took place.

“I think I must have caught a bug from my kids, think I’ll turn in.” Sam moved to the far side of the camp and rolled up in his sleeping bag.

“Bug, right,” Buck grinned. “Think he’ll figure it out?”

“Why are you lookin’ at me?” Kelli felt three set of eyes look in her direction.

“Think I will arrange transportation and send him home in the morning.” Chris commented. “Maybe Katrina and Pam could go to keep him…company.” Katrina was a medic and Pam had had about all the outdoor fun, he thought she could stand.

You okay with that, Cowboy?

Yeah, I know what I need to now,

He wants your job.

At the very least, he wants yours.

He got what he deserved, today.

Yeah, Tanner, he did at that.

“Will you two stop that?” Buck was aggravated, “Talk where we all know what you’re saying or don’t talk at all.”

“Did I miss somethin’?” Kelli looked at Larabee and Tanner and they both shrugged their shoulders.

“Nothin’ important, don’t worry about it.” Vin laughed and after assuring himself Sam was asleep, moved to sit next to her. There was no sense giving the man more ammunition to use just yet.”

“Chris, I have to ask you about something.” Buck gave Chris a wink. “Maybe you could help me with a problem.”

They walked a little away from the camp before Larabee stopped and faced his oldest friend. “Buck, I know you, you’re up to something.” Chris waited for an explanation. “Are you feeling worse?”

“Thanks for being concerned, but I actually feel much better,” Buck explained. “I just thought the kids might appreciate some time alone.” He tilted his head in the direction of the camp.

“Leave it to you to think about that.” Chris grinned, “They haven’t been able to exchange more than a few words all day.” Watching them, today, had convinced Larabee they would be able to work together, effectively. It may not always be easy, but they would make it work.

“Well then Christopher, how about a walk?” Buck saw him nod in agreement.

+ + + + + + +

“You did a good job helpin’ Pam today. She’s a little more confident about her place on the team.” Vin commented, watching the reflection of firelight dance in her eyes.

“She has been a help to me with some computer programs. It’s only fair that I help her out here.” Kelli knew what it felt like to feel like you did not belong.

“How are you holdin’ up?” Vin laced his finger through hers as he spoke. He wanted to do much more, but this was not the time or place.

“I guess that depends on what you are referrin’ to.” She heaved a sigh, “With the exercises, great, I love being outdoors. If you are talkin’ about us, I have discovered I do not have near the patience you seem to.” Face it, Kel, you ran out of patience yesterday.

“It’s only one more day, Texas.” Vin was pleased to hear her admission. “When we get home I have somethin’ special planned, just for you.” Your patience is just about gone, Tanner.

“If you tell me what it is, it might make the waitin’ easier.” Kelli was already sure he would not tell her. She had discovered that Vin liked surprises and was disciplined enough to hold his secret.

“Nope, you’re just gonna have to wait and find out.” Vin risked a quick kiss. “I will promise that you won’t be disappointed.”

“I never believed otherwise, Tanner,” She leaned against him and sighed. “I hope your surprise is close to home, I don’t think I could wait out another long trip.”

“Close enough.” The most they could do here, was to hold hands. Tanner did seize another kiss when he walked with her to her sleeping bag. “Goodnight Texas.”

Vin made sure to catch Wilmington before he went to bed. “Thanks, Bucklin.”

“You’re welcome, Vin.”

A few hours later Chris’ truck pulled in and everyone piled out. They busied themselves hauling out sleeping bags and then turned in for a short night of sleep.