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

MCAT Office
Larabee did make it to the office on time, in spite of the fact he had only dropped Linda off forty minutes ago. He smiled at the thought of the woman that was now his. Only twenty-four hours ago, he was full of doubts, now he felt better about what the future might bring. The fact that she loved him and accepted his reasons for not getting married again lifted a heavy weight from his shoulders. A knock on the door gained his attention. “Enter.”

“Morning, stranger,” Vin had a big grin on his face. “Horses taken care of, Pony said to say hello.”

“Damn, I should have called to let you know, I forgot I had you coming in early.” Chris said, “Sorry.”

“I got you covered, Cowboy, no problem” Vin was still smiling when there was another knock on the door, this time Buck came in without waiting.

“Caught you two hiding.” Buck snipped. “You leave us out there to face the enemy alone?”

“What enemy?” Chris asked.

“Reed, that’s who, the man ain’t done anything, but run his mouth all morning.” Buck had reached his limit. “One more word about you or Vin, the accident, JD or Kelli and I swear it’s lights out for him.” Buck made a fist to emphasize his point.

“Buck, cool down.” Chris ordered.

“It’s my job, I’ll handle him.” Vin said and was already out the door. Tanner went straight to Reed’s desk and had only one thing to say. “You have a class that started five minutes ago, get to it or clean out you desk.” Any thought of a smart comeback was lost when Sam looked at Tanner and saw the steely glare in his eyes. Reed grabbed his jacket and left.

Larabee watched from the door of his office and with a nod to Vin, silently approved of Tanner’s method and Chris knew he was the right man for this job. It was time to play hardball with agent Reed. The remaining agents quickly got back to work.

After eleven, a package from Texas arrived for Vin, Buck signed for it and took it to Tanner’s office. Buck hung around waiting to see if he would open it. “I think I can open it without any help.” Vin smiled as Buck moved to the door. Tanner left it for a good while, torn between wanting to read what he knew was in there and tossing it away unopened. Finally, he decided he had to know and slitting the top of the package with his knife, several files slid out onto his desk. His friend in Texas, from his days of bounty hunting, had been very thorough in researching and retrieving the information he had requested. Vin picked one up and started to read. Tanner had been lost somewhere in Texas for over two hours when Buck stuck his head in the door.

“Chris is waiting on us, he finished with Ezra and Josiah and now it’s our turn.” Wilmington waited for a response.

“Yeah...right behind you.” Vin gathered the files and slid them into a large brown envelope. Once sealed, he placed them in his desk drawer, locked it and left. Larabee was waiting.

Buck was already sprawled in a chair and Tanner leaned back against the credenza. Chris closed the file lying on the desk, then ran his hands over his face and sighed. He missed the old team seven, but knew there was no looking back. MCAT would come together and be the best, but it would never be as it was and he knew it.

“It’s not the same, is it?” Buck felt he knew what Larabee was feeling. “It’s not bad, but it just takes some getting used to.”

“No, but I knew going into this it would be different.” Chris straightened up and decided to move on. “Okay, this is where we are. Ezra and Josiah gave me their read on our new agents. I think we agree that Sam is going to be a problem. Kelli Coulter is still on sick leave, but the report from Ezra was positive. Katrina Santos should be an asset and Pam Walton needs to be in the office. Pam is, however, having a difficult time fitting in with the rest of us through.”

“Santos will have her in the middle of things before you know it.” Tanner volunteered this information. Seeing the confused look Buck shot him, he continued, “After this weekend, all of Kelli’s belongin’s should be at my place, Pam is movin’ in as Kat’s roommate.”

Chris turned to Wilmington, “Buck, I want you to work with our two new agents, Mark Westin and Justin Michaels. These are the files on them and they are due in tomorrow. Next week we have two more coming in, Ross Anderson and Paul Roberts. JD will be back tomorrow and he will be working with Pam. I want our own information system set up because we will not depend on outside sources to research information for us. Vin, when is Kelli coming back to work and will she still be able to be your backup?”

“Probably won’t be until the end of next week. I can have her back on the gun range in two, maybe three weeks. Kelli knows how to handle guns and with some extra trainin’, she will be good for most situations. The only ones that concern me would be long ranges. Her accuracy cuts about twenty-five per cent.” Tanner gave a smile, “But I’ll work on that with her.”

“Hardships are part of the job, Vin.” Buck grinned, “Working with her must be hard for you.” He ducked when Tanner threw a pencil at him.

Larabee shook his head and smiled. “You two get the hell out of here, we have work to do.” He watched as his two best friends wrestled with each other going out the door. Some things will never change, Larabee, thank God

+ + + + + + +

Larabee and Tanner did not make it home until after six. By the time they checked with George and got a report on the horses and ranch activities, it was almost seven. Chris hurried to shower and change since he was meeting Linda for dinner. Vin headed home. He was anxious to see just what Kelli had managed to do, today. Yesterday he found her out with the horses and made her promise to rest today. Rest? Right, Vin, the woman does not know the meaning of that word.

As soon as he entered the house, he knew she had stayed busy. The aroma from the kitchen told him she had supper ready and the neat appearance of the room said she had done some housework. A stack of work files were on the table. Ready to remind her she was injured, he marched to the bedroom, but he stopped when he found her curled up asleep in his rocker. Vin smiled, Guess it’s our rocker now. Watching her he thought about the files he had read earlier. Trust, Tanner? You are lucky she let you even talk to her. She had every reason in the world to cut off her emotions and to trust no one. Yet, Kel opened her heart and gave you her love, entrusting her soul to your safekeeping. She gave you a gift Vin, guard it faithfully. He whispered softly, “Te quiero, Tejas.”

Kelli woke up while Vin was in the shower and went to the kitchen to check on their supper. It was beef stew made in the crock-pot and not a big deal to fix. She was trying to reach two bowls when a male hand beat her to them. “Dammit, Tanner, you need to wear spurs!” She jumped and groaned when the sudden movement caused her pain. “At least I would know where you are!”

“You, woman shouldn’t be tryin’ to reach high places.” Vin made her sit while he filled two bowls with stew. He sat one in front of her, poured some tea and sat down next to her. After they finished eating, they moved to the den and sat on the couch for a good view of the stars through the skylight.

“You’ve been busy today.” He commented and waited to see if she would confess to all she had done today.

“Not so much.” Kelli answered defensively, “I still had plenty of time to ‘rest’.”

“I know you’re not used to inactivity, but you have to give yourself a chance to recover.” Vin tried to be patient. “Your shoulder hurts. The way you are flexin’ your fingers tells me that it hurts all the way down your arm. Keep this up and I’ll have to find a way to force you to be still.” Vin reached for an album of pictures on the table next to the couch. “I want to show you somethin’.” He opened the book to a page of landscapes for her to see.

“These pictures are beautiful, where were they shot?” Kelli appreciated the beauty of the terrain. Then she moved closer to him, to see better.

“Not far from here, on the other side of the ranch. Last year I bought eighty acres that joins Lar’bee’s property. I took these pictures to remind me how great it is, when I can’t get out there often enough. I even built a small cabin on it, right by that lake.” Vin pointed out landmarks as he spoke.

“You own it?” She loved it already.

“No, we own it and that’s where we are gonna build a home, someday. The cabin was supposed to be your surprise before you got hurt.” Tanner grinned at her reaction and was glad she liked the property. He was anxious for her to see it.

“How soon can I see it...tomorrow maybe?” She said hopefully.

“Not tomorrow, when you can ride a horse again, we’ll go up there and stay a couple of days. That will not be for almost two weeks or more, if you don’t take time to heal. This weekend, we need to tell the rest of the family you are staying and move your stuff from the apartment. And there is the little matter of a weddin’ to plan.” Vin hoped she didn’t want to take a long time to plan a big wedding.

“Already thought about that and know what I want, if you agree, of course.” The shake of his head encouraged her to continue. “Simple…I want it to be simple. We have to do it at sunrise, outside and keep it informal.”

“You can have whatever you want, but know you’re only gonna have one chance at this. Are you sure you don’t want fancy and formal?” Vin felt he had to at least offer her the choice.

“You are everythin’ I want and I don’t need formal, it’s not my style. I want to start out our married life at sunrise and continue it until the sun sets on our lives.”

Vin had no words to answer, instead he carefully pulled her closer and kissed her, letting his actions speak for him. Soon they were both lost in each other and both thinking she better heal quickly.

+ + + + + + +

Chris made it to Linda’s, by seven-thirty, expecting the usual assortment of people to be around. Surprisingly, he did not see anyone. Linda met him at the door with a warm passionate kiss.

“Maybe I should go out and come back in about ten times.” Chris loved to tease her and see her beautiful smile.

“You could, but you might miss something better.” Linda laughed and led Chris to a chair where dinner was waiting.

“What are you up to now?” He found he was anxious to find out.

“First, we eat and then I will tell you.” Linda was finding it difficult to wait.

They quickly finished their meal and retired to the living room. Chris hadn’t seen anyone around the house, but Linda. He did notice boxes stacked on one chair and he was starting to get curious. “What did you do with everyone and where did you bury the bodies?” Chris grinned.

“Everyone has the night off and if I did bury the bodies, rest assured no one would ever find them. I have four older brothers that taught me, I had to even the playing field any way I could. I learned early, how to play dirty.” Linda smiled thinking about her brothers and their practical jokes.

“Okay, so now tell me what you had in mind.” Chris was past ready.

Linda opened the first box. “I did some shopping while I was home, Victoria’s Secret shopping. I brought some things for Kelli, although I supposed she can’t use them for a couple of weeks. Now, I need to start helping her plan a big wedding. Of course, as the closest person to family she has, I will take care of all the arrangements…”

“Linda… the boxes.” Chris stopped her thoughts before they ran too far away.

“Right, well I wanted your opinion on my purchases.” She started to hold up one frilly item after another, all different colors, some transparent, all definitely sexy. This continued for fifteen minutes.

“Is...that...all of them?” Chris thought it was getting very warm in here. Warm hell, Larabee, down right hot is a better description.

“Actually, there are one or two more.” She stood in front of Chris and slipped out of the dress she was wearing. Beneath it, she wore only the briefest bit of red frill. Chris had envisioned her in this, ever since their first conversation about Victoria’s Secret.

Larabee growled and pulled her onto his lap, “I hope you bought more than one of these because this one is history.”


Chris stood on his deck and took in the beauty of the sunrise. After the last three days, he was ready for this weekend. Yes, it would be hectic, any time the whole family was around that was the case. However, after the last few days of work, keeping up with Travis’ demands and dealing with a dozen agents, family time was a piece of cake.

Tanner walked across the yard and joined him. They stood in silence absorbing the peaceful feeling the ranch always offered. Someday, they would retire and work would no longer be a mistress that demanded so much of their time and the ranch would have their full attention. Until then, moments like this would have to keep them going.

Chris watched Tanner and recognized that his brother was finally in love… not in ‘lust’, as he had been a few times before. Chris had learned the difference when he met Sarah and now, Vin was discovering the depths of a loving relationship. Larabee also knew from what Vin had already told him, they had not made love, yet. However, here stood Tanner as calm as still waters. “How can you be so relaxed, living with a woman you love and having to play the waiting game?”

“Waitin’ has not been such a bad thing.” Tanner smiled, “Sharin’ intimacy with a woman without the sex has been a new experience for me. I never realized how much I was missin’.”

Chris shook his head, recalling. “I think those were the times I loved Sarah the most, special moments of just being together, nothing more. That my friend is the difference that makes it worthwhile.” Chris was thoughtful. “Kelli is a lucky woman, not every man would handle your situation as well.

“Not every man has a woman worth waitin’ for.” Tanner grinned, “Speakin’ of which, I better check on her before she wakes up and starts a new project. That woman doesn’t know how to just take it easy.”

Larabee was pleased for his brother and hoped he had years of happiness in front of him. Vin was not the twenty-six year old loner, he had first met seven years ago. Tanner had lost his insecurities and matured since then. Chris was proud to know the man he watched walk across the yard. Looking at his watch, he realized Linda would be here soon to help him prepare for the family invasion.

Within two hours, Chris and Linda were in the kitchen working, but not alone. Rain and Inez were there to ensure Chris got things right. Nathan had been delegated to keeping the children busy. Buck was waiting to help Tanner move Kelli’s belongings from her old apartment and the house was quickly filling with family.

“I’m glad to see so many people here.” Vin said from the doorway “Maybe together y’all can make sure Kel rest and does nothin’ to overexert herself while ‘m gone.” Tanner ignored the look Kelli sent him.

“When you figure out how to stop her, let me know.” Linda answered. “I’ve been trying for years to slow her down.”

“Don’t worry, she will behave. Nathan is in the next room and I will tell on her, if need be.” Chris assured, “You and Buck go on and be sure to let Katrina and Pam know they are welcome to join us.”

“I am capable of still doin’ somethin’.” Kelli did not care for all the extra attention.

“Know you are, Texas and that somethin’ is to get better.” Vin kissed her so fervently, she had no chance to protest, then whispered, “Be back soon.”

“Looks like Tanner found a method that works for him, Linda,” was Buck’s parting remark.

Linda decided to spare her friend some embarrassment and ask Kelli to join her on the deck. She wanted a chance to talk to her anyway and now seemed like a good time. She left Chris to deal with all the questions she was sure Inez and Rain were firing at him.

Outside on the deck, Linda steered Kelli to the best of the lounge chairs and made sure she was comfortable, despite Kelli’s indignant glare. She looked her best friend over, trying to hide the worry she felt. “So, catch me up on how you are.” Linda was anxious to hear details. “We don’t get to talk like we used to.”

“Well, I have a screwed up shoulder, I’m on sick leave, miss my horses and have enough people around me to fill a Texas football stadium.” Kelli sighed. “I can’t ride, have trouble puttin’ a shirt on and have to take all that damn medicine. What else is there to know?” Kelli deliberately misunderstood the question.

“I know all that! But how do you feel, really feel? Are you in much pain?” Linda wanted to know and took the chair next to her friend. When Kelli shook her head, she sighed. “Even when you are hurting, you wouldn’t say, would you? Kelli, you know I am here for you always.” The two friends smiled at each other. After a few moments, Linda’s smile grew wicked.

“So lady, what about you and Vin? How are things going? Is he easy to get along with? Moreover, is he making sure you are taken care of? Because if he isn’t, I’m coming straight to the rescue, you know that!” She squeezed Kelli’s hand for a moment, knowing it was hard for her best friend to believe she was loved.

“Things are okay.” Kelli tried to change the subject. “How are my horses?”

“Your horses are fine and you are not going to change the subject. You are living with the man, planning on marriage, probably had long nights of hot steamy sex and all you can say is, ‘things are okay'. And we still have to discuss the plans for your wedding!” Linda finished and waited for answers from her best friend.

Chris inadvertently saved her from having to answer when he joined them on the deck. At least, that is what Kelli believed. Larabee had heard most of the conversation and felt since Vin was not here, he needed to intervene on his behalf. He could see that for some reason discussing their relationship was distressing for Kelli. Larabee stored that observation away for now, but made a mental note to talk to Vin about it later.

“What are you two up to?” Larabee waited to see what they would say.

“I was tellin’, Linda, how much I missed my horses.” Kelli answered. That much is true.

“Why don’t I get with Vin and work out a way to move them over here. That way you’ll have your horses close and can check on them yourself.” Chris wanted to ease Kelli’s concerns about her horses and give Linda something new to work on at the same time.

“Chris, that’s a wonderful idea and I can come over and help her with them until she’s better.” Linda had a new focus and was excited, not to mention it gave her another opportunity to see Chris.

“You do know how many horses we are talkin’ about, don’t you?” Kelli could tell by the look on his face, he did not. She quickly made sure he was aware of the facts. “I have five mares, one with a colt and the other four due to foal soon, plus Dancer. They are quarter horses though, not thoroughbreds like yours.”

“We will find room for all of them. Kelli, this is your home now, too.” Chris was sincere about his offer.

Slowly everyone made their way to the ‘lion’s den’, as they affectionately called Chris’ home. Josiah was in charge of the BBQ, while Nathan and Ezra corralled the children. Buck and Vin made it back and finished unloading the truck as JD and Casey arrived. They had just put Nettie on a plane to Phoenix to visit with her sister for a while. Katrina and Pam decided to unpack Pam’s possessions and take a rain check for the next get together.

The wives gathered to compare notes on expected babies and children. Linda joined them to get better acquainted and had pictures of nineteen nieces and nephews to show off. Kelli sought to avoid too many questions and passed on sitting with them. Most of the men were talking about work or women. Since Chris had Vin deep in conversation, she went where she was most comfortable, to visit the horses. Tanner watched as she headed to the barn and decided to give her a few minutes before he followed.

“We can move the horses tomorrow. Since we only have eight mares in one of the stables, we can put them together.” Chris realized he had lost Vin’s attention. “Tanner…?”

“Yeah that will work…we’ll move them tomorrow.” Vin had waited all he was going to. “We can talk later.” He headed to the barn leaving Chris to wonder about his abrupt departure. When he found Kelli, she was brushing Peso.

“You’re gonna spoil that ornery horse even more than he is already.” Vin grabbed a second brush and joined her. “Peso would have you do this all day and never get tired of the attention.”

“I enjoy it, even if I can only do it one-handed.” When she saw the concern in his eyes, she felt the need to dispel his worry. “Tanner, I am fine, I just needed…, hell, I don’t know, to be somewhere ….”

“Safe and comfortable?” Vin put the brush down and moved closer to her.

“Yeah, I suppose…’m just not use to so many people speculatin’ on my sex life. Now, even Linda is askin’. You would think there are a millions other things they could discuss.” Kelli hesitated... “People have been assumin’ things about me for years and it doesn’t bother me. It’s just not somethin’ I feel comfortable talkin’ about and answerin’ their questions.”

“Does it bother you that most of them believe we have been havin’ a wild, torrid affair?” Vin put his arms around her while he talked. He knew why she did not want to answer many questions and he could not blame her for that.

“No, if I were them, I would probably assume the same thing. What bothers me about their assumptions is when they talk about them. Because then I start think’ about it and its difficult enough not be able to do anythin’ about it, as it is.” Kelli heard Vin chuckle. “Dammit, Tanner, it’s not funny. The last image I need to be thinkin’ about now is long nights of hot steamy sex, as Linda expressed it so descriptively.”

“Then picture this instead.” Vin started with a slow lingering kiss that took away Kelli’s ability to have any rational thoughts. Then he leisurely traced down her throat with his tongue. One hand was on her back to hold her firmly in place, the other exploring alluring curves. Her soft moans of passion encouraging him to go on, he drew her closer to him. Were it not for her shoulder’s painful reminder of her injury, their waiting might have ended here. Even dazed by desire, Vin knew the different sound he heard in her last moan, brought on by pain not passion. As slowly as he had advanced, he retraced the same pathway back to where he started. Leaving her with a kiss, that made up for any pain brought on by their hunger for more.

Vin held her for a long time. Assuring himself, he had not caused any further damage to her shoulder with his lapse into passion. He knew she was okay when he heard her complain.

“I hate to tell you this, Tanner, but that did not help change my mental image of hot steamy sex.”

Vin laughed, ”Well, now that we have that mental image firmly in place, how about we go eat and then tell this nosy bunch we intend to have hot sex the rest of our lives.” Slowly they walked back to the house and joined the others who could not help but notice how close they stayed together.

Tanner had made a decision that he was sure he would answer for later tonight. Vin knew Kelli could take care of herself in most situations. The fact she had survived what life had thrown at her proved that. Vin felt his anger rise when he thought about what had been done to her. If he ever found the people responsible….Now was not the time for his anger though, he had other worries. Vin could feel how doubts were quietly slipping into Kelli’s thoughts and he knew he had to do something. He was positive that she loved him, but olds fears threatened to dredge up insecurities from her past. So the quicker her place in his life was secure, the better for both of them. Tonight, he would set a swift course in that direction.

After the meal, Chris called for everyone’s attention and was surprised when they all shut up immediately. Evidently, their curiosity was stronger than the urge to talk. When Larabee turned over the speech-making task to Tanner, no one made a sound.

“Y’all know I don’t make speeches, so I’ll try to make this easy for you. Most of you already know Kelli has moved to the ranch to be with me. What you don’t know is we are goin’ to be married here, two weeks from today. Y’all are invited to share it with us, but I should warn you ahead of time, it will be outside at sunrise. That means somebody had better explain to Ezra, what time sunrise is.”

When he finished everyone talked at the same time. The moving part was expected, but Vin’s announcement of a wedding, in two weeks, surprised everyone, including the bride who did not know they had set a date.


Racing Peso and Pony across open country to meet the morning sun revitalized the men that rode them. Larabee and Tanner rode the wind to welcome the beginning of a new day and to strengthen the bonds of their friendship. As they slowed to a more leisurely pace, they rode in comfortable silence until reaching a meadow, where the horses received a well-earned rest.

“For a while last night, I wasn’t sure you would survive the aftermath of your announcement.” Larabee chuckled. “I thought we would have to call in SWAT to get you and Kelli out of the room. I would say the family was a little enthusiastic in offering you congratulations.”

“That's not funny, now I know how a sardine feels packed in one of them tiny cans.” Tanner sighed. “Then I still had to deal with Kel, she was a bit put out I hadn’t talked to her about settin’ the date.”

“Why in the hell would you announce a date without talking to her first?” Chris noted a flash of anger cross Tanner’s face. “Vin...?”

“Chris…damn…I just want to make sure we are already married before I talk to her about her past.” Seeing the concerned look on Larabee’s face, he tried a better explanation. “She hasn’t done anythin’… except to survive a childhood that that was a livin’ hell. I checked into some old records for her and was able to find out more than she can remember. Hell, Chris, her whole identity was created by the state of Texas, name, birth date and age. She does not even know what causes the nightmares she has. But the information I have explains a lot… if I ever find the people responsible …” Vin stopped as his rage threatened to make an appearance.

“Vin, you need to talk this through, your anger is showing.” Chris wanted to find a way to help. “You know whatever you say stays between us.”

“I don’t even know all of it yet and Kelli doesn’t remember, except subconsciously. Someone…Chris, you would not believe the condition she was in when she was found abandoned. Kel was… we are talkin’ about a four or five-year-old child abused in the worst possible ways. The state didn’t do her many favors after that, either. Somebody… hell, more than one somebody, was damned irresponsible and she has been the one to pay a high price for it. The more I find out, the more I am amazed she ever let me get close to her.” Tanner paced as he spoke, working off some anger.

“Kelli let you get close because she recognized something I already know. You have the most caring spirit I have ever known. Vin Tanner provides shelter for damaged souls and then heals them with love and nurturing. I speak from personal experience and Kelli knows, as well, that you are not capable of hurting her.” Chris said emotionally.

“Right now, she is overwhelmed by all the well meanin’ questions and the attention from family. Kelli suddenly finds herself facin’ life with all her emotions at risk. Some old doubts are startin’ to surface, that I want to put a stop to. After we are married, I know it will be easier for her and then we can face her past together.” Vin felt better just letting go of some of his anger and having Chris listen to him.

“Whatever I can do to help find some answers for both of you, I will. I have access to some sources that you may not be able to get into.” Chris offered placing his hand on Vin’s shoulder. “Anytime you need to talk, I’m available. And when you do find the people responsible, I’ll be at your back when you confront them.” Larabee had no doubt that Tanner, somehow, would find out. “Now, why don’t we bring Kelli’s horses home for her?”

Linda and Kelli were outside when they rode in. Chris was pleased to see Linda and hoped he could spend the entire day with her. The family stayed late last night and she had to leave before they all went home. Larabee wanted to make up for that, today. Linda wasted no time and got straight to the point.

“Larabee, you owe me some time and I intend to collect, today.” She walked up and gave him a kiss than left no doubt, about just what she would be collecting.

Vin took Kelli’s hand, after relieving Chris of Pony’s reins and they left the two blonds alone. He unsaddled Pony and Peso and turned them out in the corral. “You think Chris and Linda have had enough time?” Vin pulled her close for a kiss of his own. “Or should we give them more?"

“I’m anxious to see my horses.” Kelli teased. “Besides, you know what happens with us and barns. Stay in here and I might ‘overexert’ myself and then you would be upset.” She laughed as she reminded him of his words from yesterday. She kissed him again anyway and then they went out to join Chris and Linda. Their thoughtfulness of giving them some time alone though was wasted. Buck already had them both in conversation.

“I thought you two could use some help moving the horses around. We have bad weather on the way and the faster we get it done the better.” Buck was prepared with more help coming. “Ezra and Josiah should be along any minute to join us.”

“Then I suppose we should get started.” Chris knew before long the whole group would gravitate back here.

When Tanner got close enough for only Larabee to hear him, he gave him a message. “I’ll go in half on a traffic light for the front gate,” he laughed when he heard a one word reply.


+ + + + + + +

Moving the horses was easier with the extra workers and in no time, at all, the mares were in their new home. Chris had Kelli’s horses put in the same barn with eight of their broodmares. The ranch had three stables set up for mares and this one was the closest, making it easy for her to keep an eye on her ‘girls’. Dancer, of course was allowed to be with the other saddle horses in the barn by the house and was moved into the stall next to Peso. Vin knew that way, he would not have to go far to find Kelli when she needed to get away.

“Before y’all go, I just want to thank you for takin’ the time to move my horses.” She really did appreciate their help.

“No thanks are necessary, that’s what a family does.” Chris wanted to help her to learn that families could be a good thing.

“Now that the horses are settled, let's eat.” Buck knew the women had gathered to the ‘lion’s den’ and would have food ready. “Come on, Ez, I’ll race you.” Standish and Wilmington were gone in a flash.

Chris and Josiah made a more dignified exit. That left Tanner to pry Kelli away from the horses.

“They’re not goin’ anywhere, it safe to leave ‘em.” Vin was petting the black colt while Kelli made one final inspection of her ‘girls’. “Besides, you know it’s not wise for us to stay in the barn. We could get into trouble before you know it.” He returned the colt to his mother and pulled his redhead to him. He was more than willing to distract her away from the animals since kissing her was the best way to do it. The Texan was right, they could get in trouble fast. He was not willing to risk hurting her again, so Vin reluctantly stopped and they both headed to the house and the waiting ‘wild bunch’.

“I thought we would have to send out a search party for you two.” Buck teased as they joined the others “The kids are fed and down for naps, so it’s just us adults. You can carry on and we won’t tell.” When Tanner picked up a football to throw, taking aim at Wilmington’s head, Buck took cover behind Inez.

“Children, behave, Vin get your bride-to-be something to eat, Buck, go check on the babies.” Inez took Kelli’s hand and made her sit. “Pay no attention to my husband, he just likes to tease.” Inez realized the younger woman might not be ready for some of Buck’s humor just yet.

Vin came back with food and settled Kelli in front of him on a lounge chair. Today, at least, the women would not separate their conversations from the men. Chris understood Tanner’s message and pulled up a chair close by. The other men followed Chris’ lead and did the same. Soon all the adults were enjoying what was left of the good weather.

“Linda, you and Coulter have know each other for a long time, how did you meet?” JD was curious as usual.

“You mean she hasn’t told you? Linda looked at Kelli and saw her shake her head no.

“Well, we met at the police academy. Kelli had transferred to LSU and as soon as she turned 18, she decided to get into the police academy. I had left the ranch, determined to make a difference and had enrolled as well. We hit it off right away. Kelli didn't like it in the dorm and before long we were roommates. We worked together for almost a year and then I had to quit to care for my father. Kelli stayed until she moved back to Texas. To me, she is the sister I did not have and my family loves her. They would have adopted her, if possible, especially my dad, he liked having another daughter around to spoil.”

“Now, we have a chance for her to be part of our family.” Chris wanted everyone to know that he approved of Vin’s choice. “Kelli, you have some beautiful mares, where did you find them?”

“I lived on a ranch for a few years with my guardian. When Jake died, he left specific directions that it was to be sold with the proceeds put into a trust fund for me. The only exception was the horses. I was to choose five to keep and the rest went to auction. I kept Dancer and four mares, the ‘girls’ are from the original four that I kept. The mares are what are left from that time in my life. I… ” She stopped, losing her train of thought.

“Jake McKenzie was a Texas Ranger and the man that taught her to shoot. He also got her interested in law enforcement, so I owe him, otherwise I might have missed meetin’ this woman.” Vin wanted that to put an end to the questions. It was time to look forward. “Josiah, we wanted to ask you if you would perform the ceremony for our weddin’.”

“I am honored that you asked and would be pleased to do so.” Josiah was beaming and pleased he was qualified legally to do it.

“Thanks, we appreciate it,” Kelli added. “If y’all will excuse me though, I need to take my medicine and maybe rest for a while. This has been a long day already.”

Vin took his lady home and slowly the rest of the family left too. Finally, it was only Chris and Linda.

“Now, what did you say about collecting earlier?” Chris had a wicked grin on his face.

“Come inside with me and I’ll show you.” Linda’s grin mirrored the one Chris wore.

Once inside, the talking stopped. The only sound was the rumbling of thunder in the distance. Chris led Linda to his bedroom and taking her in his arms, began to show her how much he had missed time alone with her.

What started as a slow gentle kiss quickly turned into a raging storm of passion. Clothes were discarded and the only thing between them was heat fueled by need. The storm, starting outside, was nothing compared to the one that had just passed between them. As they lay together, whispering the words only lovers shared, Chris felt he had finally conquered the ghosts from his past. He was only looking forward from now on.

MCAT Office - Wednesday

Larabee and Tanner, as usual, were the first ones in the office. Both men were in an exceptionally good mood. Larabee, because Linda had stayed at the ranch and they spent the night making love. Tanner, because Kelli had started physical therapy yesterday and her doctor said she was healing faster than expected.

“You two sit there with your coffee looking like you just won the lottery.” Buck walked in wet from head to toe. "What in the hell do you have to be so happy about?”

“It’s dry in here for one reason. How did you get so wet?” Chris still wore a smile.

“Since you two left so early, you might not know, but it's starting to flood out by the ranch.” Buck shook water from his head. “I got wet trying to get to work, another storm just moved in. You do realize this is three straight days of this wet stuff.”

“Hey, Bucklin, you’re drippin’ on Lar’bee’s new carpet.” Vin laughed at the murderous look Buck sent his way.

Slowly, the other agents filed into the office, each one soaked to the bone. The storm had intensified and no let up was in sight. When Josiah called and said he was staying home with Mallory because of the weather. Larabee started to worry about Linda, he wondered if she tried to make it home in this rain. He ran into Vin on his way to call her. “I just talked to Kel, it’s gettin’ bad out there. Linda is with her and plans to stay til this is over.” Vin was more than a little concerned. “Gets any worse, Cowboy, we might have to consider closin’ shop and headin’ home.”

“Maybe, let me know if anything changes.” Chris was starting to get an uneasy feeling.

An hour later, there had been no improvement in the weather. In fact, it was one of the worse rainstorms to hit Denver in the last three years. Fortunately, it was the wrong time of the year for snow or they would be facing a blizzard.

“I would hazard a guess that our immediate release is not forthcoming.” Ezra commented.

“Now, Ez, what would you do, if Chris sent us home, besides sleep?” Buck asked.

“Yeah, Ezra, you can sleep anywhere, or did you have something else in mind?” JD teased

“Rain is home today, I could sure think of something else.” Nathan grinned.

Katrina and Pam walked up and that kept Ezra for making his next comment, which the ladies surely would not have appreciated.

“You gentlemen need something to do? Chris joined them, “I am sure I can find some more work for you.”

Just then, Tanner tore out of his office, jacket and keys in hand. “George just called we got problems, some of the horses are stranded by floodwaters. He needs all the help he can get, now!” As Chris and the others prepared to leave, Vin tossed Katrina a set of keys. “You’re in charge, send em home and lock up behind you.”

Five minutes later, Larabee and Tanner were driving thought the high water that ran through the streets of Denver. Their vehicles were best suited to use in this weather. Buck and JD rode with Chris. Nathan and Ezra were with Vin. Slowly, the six men made their way to the ranch to help rescue the horses.

Larabee 7

“You can protest all you want, George needs help and the guys can’t possibly be here for at least for a couple of hours.” Kelli was adamant. “You are not the only one that can be out in this, I’m goin’ too.”

“I’m not hurt either, you need to stay….”

“Linda, we’re wastin’ time, let’s go.”

Linda and Kelli joined the rescue. Calming nervous horses and getting them to shelter as the hired hands brought them up from the flooded area. Mother Nature did not cooperate, the rain did not let up, it got heavier. Thunder rolled and lightening lit up the sky. Suddenly above the sound of the storm, a louder cracking noise was heard. The weight of collected water on the roof of one stable had it collapsing. Terrified horses tried to escape and in their fright became panicked, confused and trapped. The women worked with the others, trying to help the valuable thoroughbreds find a way out of what was left of the stable. Tears blended with the rain pouring over them for the horses that had not survived. In the mist of all the confusion, Josiah arrived, taking in what was happening he saw the women right in the middle of it all. He tried to get them to go inside and dry off, but they refused.

"Chris called. They are on their way and should be here soon, please wait for them.” Josiah tried to reason with them.

“Josiah, either help or get out of the way, I can’t leave until all the horses are out.” Kelli refused to quit until the rest of the horses were safe.

“Linda, talk to her...” Sanchez was cut off before he finished.

“Sorry, I happen to agree, it’s too late to quit.” Linda moved around Josiah and went back for another horse.

Josiah did the only thing he could do. He joined in to help, keeping an eye on Linda and Kelli until the rest of the men arrived. As if the collapse was not bad enough, the thunder and the lightening strikes kept the horses in a panicked state. They situation was dangerous not only for the horses, but anyone trying to help. So far, the next stable was unaffected, but the mares inside were reacting to the distressed cries of the other horses. Kelli made a decision that probably saved several horses from certain death. “Linda! ... Linda, we have to turn the mares out before they hurt themselves or the colts!” Kelli was yelling for her voice to carry over the noise of the storm. “Help me turn ‘em loose, they will find high ground and be okay!”

“Alright, but let me go first, you get hurt again and Vin will never let me hear the end of it.” The women went for the mares. They quickly opened the stalls and led them out, one by one turning them loose as soon as they got outside. With only one mare and colt left Linda told her friend to wait, she would get them out.

Chris and the others drove up and tried to take in the situation. Josiah filled them in, emphasizing that the two stubborn women would not leave. Buck and JD went to help George try to find the rest of the horses. Larabee and Tanner decided getting Linda and Kelli out of here was their first priority.

As they went to retrieve their women, a bolt of lightening hit the roof of the stable that only a few minutes ago held over a dozen mares. Vin heard Kelli’s screams and ran to get to her. He seized her by the waist when she tried to get inside the stable, that was now was starting to burn and smoke was filling the air around them “Linda’s still in there!” she tried to break free from Tanner’s grasp.

“Chris will get her out! Vin wrapped both arms around her to hold her back. “Keep still baby, she’ll be okay.”

Chris stood motionless, the shock of seeing the fire start and knowing Linda was inside paralyzed him with fear. It was happening again, the same way he had lost Sarah and Adam. He no longer saw the stable in front of him, he saw the flames from the explosion that took his family. Larabee’s thoughts went back to eight years ago, reliving the events that had changed his life, then suddenly he knew he had a chance to change this outcome ...not this time...this time will be different.

Chris rushed into the stable with Ezra and Josiah at his back. The thick smoke was making it difficult to see. The flames had not reached them yet, but time was short and there was a lot of area left to search.

“The last stall, Vin, tell them! There was only one mare left, I‘ll stay, I promise, but tell them, please.” Kelli relented to let the men get to Linda.

Trusting Kelli to keep her word and stay put, the Texan ran to tell the others where Linda was supposed to be. Chris found the blond on the ground trying to shield the black colt from the smoke, a trail of blood ran down her face. Larabee picked her up in his arms and carried her to safety. Josiah picked up the colt, taking him out. Ezra and Vin continued to search for the remaining mare.

“I found her!” Ezra yelled, trying to approach the horse that was hiding in the back corner of the barn, distressed and confused.

“Ez, get out, if I don’t get her, I’m right behind you.” Vin could only find a short piece of rope, but it would do if he could get close enough. The smoke was getting thicker and he would only have one chance to succeed before he was forced to leave the mare. Speaking softy, trying to sooth the nervous animal, Tanner got close enough to put the rope around her neck. He quickly took off his shirt and covered her head to lead her out.

Outside, Nathan examined Linda and was glad to report that aside from a cut on her brow from fallen debris, she would be okay. Chris never released his hold on her, but he had not said one word. Kelli was relived, but kept watching the door of the stable for any sign of Vin. When Ezra came out alone, she rushed forward.

“Where’s Tanner?” You left him in there, alone?” She tried to push past Standish, but he refused to let her.

“Vin is right behind me, he was putting a rope on that black mare to bring her out.” Ezra was not letting her go anywhere. “You need to stay and wait for him.”

“Like hell, I’m not waiting and you better damn well get out of my way!” Kelli gave Ezra a shove he was not expecting. In all the excitement, he made the mistake of forgetting she was a trained agent and injured or not, was more than capable of breaking the loose hold he had on her. She ran to the door and was ready to go in and look for her Texan when he and the mare came out.

Vin turned the mare loose just in time to catch Kelli, as she threw herself at him. He stood there in the rain holding onto the only thing important him. Two of the stables were destroyed and they had lost a number of horses, however, no human lives were taken and they still had each other. Although, he did plan to give her hell for being out here in the first place, that could wait until later.

Chris stood there holding Linda and watched the rest of the stable burn. George told him that he and the other hands had found most of the horses and they were okay. They had only lost five in all the chaos. Chris thought about what had just happened and he realized he would have to let Linda go. Once again, he saw the image of Sarah and Adam in his mind, he knew he could never again risk losing a woman he loved and go through the hell he had experience before. Now he had to find a way to do it and that was going to be the hard part.


The rain finally let up and the storm started to break. It seemed like they had been wet for days, when in reality it was only a few hours. Josiah dropped Buck and JD off at their homes then went home himself, to dry off. Chris took Linda to the house and left her in his room so she could get into some dry clothes.

“Aren’t you staying with me?" Linda was confused by Chris’ behavior. First, he would not let her go and now he acted as if he did not want to be around her.

“I need to get a report on the damage and the horses. You change into some dry clothes and rest a while, until I get back.” Chris closed the door and leaned against it. Larabee, this is going to be harder than you think.

Larabee then met Ezra and Nathan in the kitchen, both men now wore something dry. Standish was already on the phone securing services to raze the two lost stables and builders to start on new ones. Ezra hung up the phone to consult with Chris. “We should have some bids to consider by Friday,” he reported.

“Good, why don’t you two take my truck back to the Federal building? There is not much more we can do this evening. Pick up your cars and go home. I’ll ride in with Vin tomorrow.” Chris insisted.

Tanner sent Kelli back to the house after assuring himself she was okay. He stayed to give instructions to George, on which horses to keep outside and which ones he wanted sheltered. After checking on Hunter, he headed home.

Kelli had already cleaned up and changed clothes managing to do everything except reset her sling. Vin quickly assisted her and then hit the shower to clean up. Then he planned to talk to that redhead about her escapade. When he was in dry clothes, Vin felt better. Kelli had hot coffee waiting for him and finally he was able to ask what he had wanted to for hours.

“What in the hell were you thinkin’, goin’ out in that kind of weather and puttin’ yourself at risk?” Vin was upset, but could not find real anger. “You should have stayed where you were safe.” Thank God, she is.

“What I was thinkin’ was that George needed help and those horses needed someone to calm them!” Kelli turned the tables on him. “I was not the one at risk. What in the hell were you thinkin’, stayin’ in a burnin’ barn’ lookin’ for a horse? Kelli had no problem finding her anger. “Did it ever occur to you that you are not invincible? That you put yourself in unnecessary danger for one horse!”

“Dammit, I thought that mare was important to you and didn’t want to see you lose her!” Vin snapped back.

“That dog won’t hunt, Tanner! I love that mare and I raised her from a colt, but if I had to choose between her and you, she would lose! You are way out of line sayin’ that what I did was unsafe. That you only did what you did because you were lookin’ out for my feelin’s! There is a big difference between you possibly dyin’ from smoke inhalation and me, being a little wet!”

“I just didn’t want to see you get hurt.” He was caught off guard by her anger, yet he was pleased, by her fiery reaction. It told him she felt secure enough with him to say what she really felt. “You’re more important to me.” He softened his words.

“I have managed to take care of myself for a long time, Vin. I do not want you to ‘put’ me somewhere safe. I’ll admit it feels good to know you want to protect me, but I need you beside me, not hovering over me trying to keep all the bad things away. There will be times I need the extra assurances you give me and I love how you make me feel when you do. But don’t you remember what you told me? You said life is not all nice, but together we can get through anything and ’m countin’ on that, Tanner.” Kelli’s anger was gone.

“You’re right, but protectin’ the ones I love is part of who I am. You might just have to remind me, occasionally, when it gets to be too much.” Tanner grinned, “If today is any indications, I don’t think you will have any problem with that, in fact, I’m countin’ on it.”

“Keepin’ you in line could turn out to be a full-time job. It might take me years to get it right.” Kelli finally laughed when Vin pulled her to him. He gave her a kiss filled with more promise than passion, but it felt just right.

+ + + + + + +

Chris sat in his chair for a long time with old images flashing through his thoughts. First, Sarah and Adam and then Linda, if he kept this up, he would never get anything straight in his mind. How did he let the past drag him back into hell? Could he let her go? Would he be able to let her stay? The only answers he had were more questions.

“Why don’t you explain to me what happen today?” Linda had been watching him for some time.

“We lost some horses and had a fire,” was the only answer he was willing to share.

“I am aware of that. I want to know what happened to us.” Linda sighed. “Don’t tell me you don’t know what I am talking about, because you do.”

“You could have died out there today! That’s what happened.”

“Yes and I could break my neck the next time I get thrown from one of my horses. That doesn’t mean I’ll deny myself the pleasure of riding.”

“It’s not the same thing. Today, all I could do was see what happened to Sarah and Adam. What does that say?”

“It says you are human and have lived a life that is filled with memories, some good and some bad.” Linda wanted him to see that clearly. “I’m here with no permanent damage and I have you to thank for that.”

“No, I can’t do this, Linda. I won’t live with the chance of losing someone I love again.” Chris thought he had it worked out. “I can’t see you anymore.”

“Listen to yourself, you can’t or you won’t. I was under the impression that it takes two people to have a relationship. What about what I want or do I have any say in this?” she waited for an answer and when none came, she continued.

“You know, I just realized you want to live in the past, you want to be alone. You are so wrapped up in your self right now, that you cannot see what is right in front of you!” Linda started grabbing her things. “Fine, you want to be alone the rest of your life, so be it! I’m going home, but if you think my leaving will get you out of your self imposed hell, you have a lot to learn.” Linda slammed the door on her way out.

“It’s better this way.” Chris whispered to the closed door.

+ + + + + + +

“Just a couple boxes, I won’t lift them, but I want you to know what’s in them.” Kelli was trying to talk the Texan into getting two of her moving boxes out of the spare room. He put them in there when he moved her things and she could not lift them yet. “Two and only two, show me which ones you want.” Vin figured if he didn’t she would wait until he was not here and do it herself. Tanner retrieved the boxes and set them in front of her. She chose to open the smaller one first.

“These are the pictures, I wanted you to see.” Kelli opened an album that was full of photos of the mares. “This one shows the lineage of that black colt that you like so much.”

“He’s got some nice lookin’ relatives and good breedin’. He will make you a good horse.” Tanner was impressed with the colt’s history.

“Actually, that’s why I wanted you to see this. I want you to have him, he looks just like Peso and you can call him whatever you want. I just want to pick his registered name.” She hoped he would accept without an argument.

“Kel, are you sure, I’ll break him for you if you want, but…”

“I know you would and once we are married, he will be part yours anyway. I just want to register him with your name on the papers. I want him to be your horse and only yours.”

“I accept, now, what kind of name did you have in mind?” For some reason this was important to her so Vin decided to accept graciously.

“Well his father was ‘Sun Song’ and I want to register him as ‘Vin’s Midnight Sun.”

“As long as I don’t have to call him Vin, I don’t see why not,” he smiled at the thought. “Midnight, I can live with.” Looking at the other box, he wondered what else she was up to. “So, what’s next?

“This one I won’t open because since I met you it’s not that important to me anymore. However, I know you will probably pursue this and there might be somethin’ in there can help. This box holds every piece of paper on every lead I have followed, to try to find out about my past. I even put most of it on computer disks. I have already gone through missing child cases in nine states. Since records were not all computerized back then, it has been a long slow process. It is yours, keep it or throw it away, burn it, if you want. Use it or not, I don’t care, I’m through diggin’, for answers.”

“Why doesn’t it matter?” Vin listened intently. Maybe she has it figured out, Tanner.

“I probably will always be curious, but I want to move forward. If you find out anythin’ that will be great and if you don’t that will be okay, too” Kelli sighed, “You might have noticed the last week has been…unsettling… for me…I was havin’ some problem adjustin’ to…everythin’. I am not used to allowin’ for so many emotions and I may still have nightmares. I can’t promise I won’t. However, I realized today…while you were still in that stable, the only thing that mattered to me was seein’ you safely out of there. I refuse to let my past eat away at our future.”

“Do you want me to quit lookin’? I will, if bothers you.” Tanner, you do not really want to quit.

“It won’t bother me and I will tell you anythin’ I can remember. Do whatever you feel is necessary. Would I like to know? Yes. Do I have to know? No. Your love has given me the freedom to let go of that obsession. Open it if you want to, the only family I need to know about is right here.”

Vin looked for any sign of distress in her eyes. All he saw was the love she offered. He wanted to take her now and he knew it would be great. He also knew that he would not and if he had to stand in cold showers, twenty-four hours a day until she healed, he would. There was no way he would take a chance on causing her more pain. She had had enough of that in her life. When he made love to her, it would be good for them both.

Tanner reached out and pulled her to him with one hand splayed across her back. His other hand brushed over her brow. He ran his fingers through her hair and stroked the side of her neck. Then he gently placed a kiss on her temple and whispered softly, “I love you, Kel, don’t ever forget that.” Vin knew he would open that box and he would keep looking to find her past. Maybe she did not have to know anymore, but she damn well deserved some answers.

Kelli’s cell phone rang and she answered it, while Vin looked through some of the papers. After a few minutes of listening, she said okay and hung up.

“It seems I am going shoppin’ tomorrow.” Kelli sighed again.

“Thought you didn’t like to shop.” Vin stopped for a minute to listen.

“I don’t, but Linda needs a shoppin’ fix. Apparently, Chris just broke her heart.”