A New Beginning

by Kim

A very long time ago, someone posted a challenge to make all seven of the guys brothers. Rebecca posted a fic, "The Reading of the Will," and it inspired this fic. I wanted more contention and angst in the relationship between the seven brothers- and their feelings toward their father. The premise of this fic is absolutely based on Rebecca's original premise, with the brothers meeting at the reading of their father's will and Lincoln wanting them to live together for a year. Hopefully, this one is different enough that people can enjoy them both. This is the first in a series.

"For the last time, I don't have any more idea than you or Nathan, Buck," Chris Larabee said in a voice that was more than a little exasperated, as he punched the elevator button for the 4th floor.

Nathan laughed. "No point getting riled up, Chris. You know he's gonna ask you again, before we get to the second floor. Man's got no patience at all."

Buck grimmaced a little, but it faded quickly into a sheepish grin. He gave a little shrug acknowledging his brother's judgment. "I can't believe you two aren't the least bit curious. Dad didn't want the will read for six months and a week ago we get a letter telling us, 'I'm sorry and please try to understand.' Understand what? What's he sorry for?"

Chris rolled his eyes and started to answer but the elevator stopped with a gentle bump and the doors slid open. "Hallelujah. Hopefully Andrew will have some answers so you can stop bugging the hell out of us." He clapped Buck on the shoulder and stepped out of the elevator.

Nathan and Buck followed and the three men stopped at the door of their family attorney's office. "I don't know what he's going to tell us, but whatever it is, it's what Dad wanted. We're gonna do our damndest to make sure Dad's last wishes are carried out," Chris said and opened the door without waiting for the other two to comment.

Four other men were sitting in the waiting room of Andrew Brock's office, Chris noticed. He nodded briefly, politeness long since drummed into him by his mother. The other six men exchanged equally banal acknowledgments of one another. "Hi, Jackie, we're here to see Andrew."

"Hello, Mr. Larabee. Just a moment," the receptionist said and picked up the phone.

"That Andrew Brock?" Chris heard. He turned around to see who had spoken. One of the four men had bright blue eyes and long brown hair. He looked to be about twenty-five, wearing old, but clean jeans and a rumpled white dress shirt, with the top button undone, under a tie that was, to put it charitably, poorly tied. A belt that looked as worn as the jeans, with a turquoise buckle and cowboy boots completed his outfit. He looked completely out of place in the understated elegance of the attorney's office, but he looked Chris square in the eye.

"Any of your business, who we meet with?" Chris challenged with a glare. Buck and Nathan exchanged uneasy looks. Buck started to say something, but Chris stopped him with a raised hand. Chris's eyes never left the long-haired man's.

"Reckon it is, if I'm gonna be in the same meetin'," the man answered mildly, a small grin on his face, his own eyes not falling away under Chris's steady glare. "Vin Tanner," he said and held out his hand to Chris.

Chris studied the man for another few seconds, before his body relaxed and the glare eased into a smile. He held his own hand out and was surprised to feel the other man grasp his forearm instead of his hand. Chris's own hand seemed to close instinctively around Vin's forearm. "These are my brothers, Nathan Jackson and Buck Wilmington. Nathan and Buck each shook hands with the other man.

"Uh, I, uh, I . . ."

"Cat got your tongue, boy? Spit it out," Buck looked at the second of the other four men in the room, who was now standing just behind their group. A young man, a boy really, with long dark hair and dark brown eyes, wearing a suit that was at least a size too big and a Baltimore Ravens cap was looking at them, his eyes nervously darting from one to the other. "I have a meeting with Mr. Andrew Brock, too," the boy said, uncertainty in his tone.

"That makes six of us." A man Buck figured to be between forty and fifty, with steel gray hair and blue eyes and wide shoulders stood up. He was almost as tall as Buck and Nathan. He wore a suit that had seen better days, but fit him better than the boy's. "Josiah Sanchez," he said and held out his hand.

"Oh yeah, I'm JD Dunne," the boy added hastily.

"We're here about our father's will," Buck offered. Chris glared at him, but Buck waved him off. "Ol' Chris is a mite touchy sometimes, but don't let him fool you. Right about now, he's just as curious as the rest of us. He just hides it better."

"Gentlemen, I believe he's about to get more curious," the last man in the room said. All six pairs of eyes turned to see a conspicuously well-dressed man of about 30 standing. His brown hair was neatly coifed and his nails were manicured. His charcoal gray suit fit him perfectly. The collar of his sky blue linen shirt was crisply folded over. His silk tie was perfectly tied and a neatly folded linen handkerchief peeked out of the top of the breast pocket. He wore a diamond studded tie clip and cufflinks, and glossy black shoes.

"You, too?" Nathan asked.

"Ezra P. Standish," he said and turned to Jackie. "I believe you should inform Mr. Brock that there are seven irate gentlemen in his waiting room."

"I'm calling him now," Jackie said, phone already in hand.

"Mr. Brock, the Larabee brothers are here. Yes, sir. That's right, sir. Yes, sir. Right away." The seven men didn't bother to pretend they weren't listening. All seven stared at her. She hung up the phone and stood up. "Gentlemen, if you'll follow me.

Jackie led the way down a hall. She opened the third door on the right and stood with her back to it and motioned them inside. "Mr. Brock is waiting for you, gentlemen."

Andrew Brock was sixty-three years old. He had a full head of white hair and wore horn-rimmed glasses. His own suit rivaled that of Ezra's. He had been the Larabee family attorney for over twenty years and Linc had been a close friend.

"Hello, Chris," he said and put out his hand. "Buck, Nathan." The four of them shook hands warmly and then he turned to the other four men. "And, you must be, Josiah Sanchez, Ezra Standish, Vincent Tanner and John Dunne. I'm Andrew Brock."

"Vin Tanner"

"Ezra Standish"

"JD Dunne"

"Josiah Sanchez"

More handshakes were exchanged, as each of the four stepped forward and gave his name.

"Would any of you like some coffee, or perhaps a glass of water, or a soda?" Brock offered.

"No thanks" and "no" from the seven men and the attorney turned to Jackie. "That will be all thank you, Jackie."

"Andrew, what the hell is going on?" Chris demanded when the door closed behind Jackie.

Andrew held a hand up to cut off any other questions. "I'll explain everything, or rather your father will. If you'll just have seats please gentlemen."

None of the men looked happy, but they all took seats at the long table that dominated the room. Andrew Brock wheeled a television cart containing a thirty inch television and a VCR. He turned them both on and then removed a video tape from his briefcase.

"Gentlemen, I know you're all curious. But, you're about to watch Lincoln Larabee's last will and testament. There are things he wanted you all to know and he wanted to tell you himself. I'm only sorry that he's not here to tell you in person. Please, hold your questions until after you've seen the tape. With that, he pushed the play button on the VCR.

"Hello, boys. Chris, Buck, Nathan."

"Dad," Chris murmured, when Linc appeared. Nathan and Buck smiled wistfully at their father's image. Lincoln Larabee had been a vital healthy sixty-four year old man when a sudden massive heart attack had claimed his life. He'd been a loving father who had shown the three of them about honor and decency and doing the right thing. He hadn't been afraid to show his affection for all three of them, even in public and they'd loved him deeply.

"By now, you're probably wondering who these other fellas are and they're wondering what the hell they're doing there." Lincoln took a deep breath and picked up a glass from just outside the camera range. He drank half of what looked like water and then the glass disappeared out of camera range again. He took another deep breath, but he looked directly into the camera. His blue eyes were clear when he spoke.

"These men are your half -brothers."

"What the fuck?!"

"Wha'did he just say?"

"Mr. Brock, I'm afraid, I'm going to have to insist on having some questions answered immediately."


Vin kicked his chair back and stalked over to stare out the window. His whole body radiated tension. Ezra stood quickly and grabbed the table with both hands. He was staring intensely at the attorney. JD was staring from the television to each of the other men and then back at the television. His eyes were suspiciously bright and he opened his mouth like he wanted to say something, but then closed it again, without saying a word. Josiah stroked his chin thoughtfully, and looked into each of their faces.

The Larabee brothers, on the other hand, were still seated. However, their expressions were also shocked. "Guess we know what Dad meant in that letter," Buck said softly. As in all things, Chris took the lead. "Turn that damn thing off and talk to us, Andrew."

"Chris, I'm sorry. Your father's wishes were very explicit. I'm not to tell any of you anything, until you see the tape. Please, just watch it." The attorney's voice was pleading. "Please, Mr. Standish, Mr. Tanner, please, just sit down. JD..., Josiah, just please watch the tape."

Ezra nodded curtly and retook his seat. JD said nothing, but he closed his eyes and bowed his head. Josiah closed his eyes and inclined his head and then sat down. All eyes were on Vin and he abruptly turned and dropped into his chair.

"Play the fucking thing!" Vin snarled and glared at the screen.

"Right, just let me back it up a bit." The screen went blue for a few seconds and then Andrew pushed play again.

" . . . half-brothers." Lincoln's voice repeated. "I'm sure you're all confused and angry. Don't blame Andrew. He told me more than once to talk to you all, but it never seemed to be the right time. Mostly, because I was too cowardly to face you all, but not entirely. The last few years, we've taken a lot of hard licks. I just didn't want to add to the turmoil. I thought that the other boys were fine. It didn't seem like I had the right to push myself into their lives. At least that's what I told myself. Mostly, I think, I didn't want to face them. For the first time in my life, I backed down from doing the right thing, because I was afraid. I'm still afraid. Afraid, that I've made it impossible for you all to be the brothers you should have been all along. I'm afraid that my cowardice has cost you boys the family you're supposed to have. But, Andrew can verify, I had every intention of facing you all. It took me two years to track all of you down. If you're seeing this, it's because I've been dead for six months. Chris, Buck, Nathan, I didn't mean for you to find out like this. I was going to tell you all, but, life's got a way of interfering with the plans we make. I'm sorry, to the four of you I didn't know for putting it off, but I had to give your brothers some time to come to terms with my death, before they found out about you."

Lincoln's voice broke and he closed his eyes. A hand with a full glass appeared on the screen and he took it gratefully. They could see a slight tremble in his hand when it closed around the glass. He drank the entire thing and held the glass out of the camera shot. His eyes were still closed. Finally, he took another deep breath and began speaking again.

"I'm sorry. I can't tell you all how sorry I am. The only thing I can do for you now, is try to help you become the family you were meant to be. Andrew has drawn up a contract for each of you to sign. If you agree to the terms, at the end of one year, you will be given a one-seventh share of the Double L. If you don't agree to the terms, your share will be divided among the brothers who choose to sign the contract. I want you to live at the ranch, as brothers. There are enough bedrooms for all of you. It's why I put that addition on the house, that you three thought was crazy."

Buck and Nathan and Chris couldn't help but smile, when they remembered trying to talk their father out of adding two more bedrooms to the six they already had.

Lincoln's image smiled briefly, before he continued talking. "I guess I should start at the beginning. That would be Josiah. I met your mother, Helen, in church, of all places, a couple of weeks after I graduated from high school. I was eighteen, and had an athletic scholarship to Colorado when she came to town. She was twenty-seven, full of life and the loveliest woman I'd ever seen. The boys will tell you, I always did have a weakness for the ladies. Buck comes by it honestly."

Nathan and Chris snickered a bit and Buck couldn't help his own smile. He gestured, palms up, admitting to his father's assesment. JD smiled at him, the only one of the other four to look away from the screen.

"Anyway," Lincoln continued. "Helen was every boy's fantasy. I fell head over heels in love with her. She told me right up front, that we had no future. I was so crazy about her, I didn't pay any attention. In August, she told me she was pregnant. And, she said, she was going back to her husband. She said, he was a preacher and they'd raise the child together. I wish I could say, I'd fought for you both, but the truth is, I fell out of love almost as quickly as I fell in love. The idea of being a father, giving up my dreams scared the hell out of me. I was too young and selfish to understand what was truly valuable. I let Helen and my unborn child walk out of my life and I felt nothing but relief. I'm sorry, son."

"I went to college, as planned. Spent four years, playing baseball and basketball and I actually learned a thing or two. And, I met my wife, Caroline, Chris's mother. She was a spitfire. And, damned if she didn't lead me on a merry chase. Took three years to get her to marry me. She was just as pretty as she was wild and a hell of a lot smarter than that. I never could understand why she settled for me and I never could understand, why she didn't throw my ass out on the street more than once. But, she didn't and I thank God for every minute we had together, even the ones she spent cussing me."

Lincoln paused and turned to the side. "Give me something a hell of a lot stronger than water" they heard him say to an unseen person. A short glass of amber colored liquid appeared and Lincoln sipped at it.

"Chris came along less than a year after we were married. I guess that would have made you about eight, Josiah. I loved Caroline with all my heart. But, it's no secret, I had a weakness for women. I loved everything about them. I almost lost Caroline twice. But, she was a damned fine woman and she never let on to Buck or Nathan how hard it was for her to know I was their father."

"Buck's momma was a sweet pretty gal I met when Caroline and Chris were in Indianapolis taking care of her mother, when her cancer got bad. Chris was six months old. I know Caroline needed to be there, and her mom needed to have her daughter and grandson there during her last days. I never resented the two months she was there. I would have gone with them, but the ranch was just getting started and I couldn't leave it. We didn't have any help then. I didn't resent it, but understanding didn't stop me from being lonely. And, Molly Wilmington was just about the kindest woman I ever met. Anyone who knew her would tell you that. She saw a lonely man and she listened to him talk about how much he missed his wife and son and she gave him comfort and tenderness and never asked for anything. Not even when she found out she was pregnant. She didn't even tell me until I ran into her in the park with her son one day. Buck, you were two years old and you looked up at me with my own eyes. Molly told me she never meant for me to know. She didn't want to interfere with my marriage."

"I might have been a selfish bastard when Josiah was born, but having Chris made me realize what I'd lost. I thought about trying to find you then, Josiah, but it seemed more selfish to interfere with your life at that late date than it was to give you up. I wasn't about to make the same mistake with you, Buck, that I made with Josiah. I told Molly I wanted to be part of your life. Telling Caroline was one of the hardest things I ever did. But, she never once blamed you, Buck, or Molly. She sure as hell blamed me though and for a while there, I didn't think she was going to forgive me. She did though. And, she insisted that Chris and Buck be raised as brothers. She and Molly put aside their hurt to make sure you boys had the life you were entitled to. And, when Molly died, Caroline was the one who made the funeral arrangements and told me to bring you home, Buck."

Buck stood up abruptly and left the room. Andrew pushed stop on the VCR and the screen turned blue. Nathan started after Buck, but Chris stopped him with a hand on his arm. "Let him go. He just needs a minute."

"He ain't the only one needs a minute. Hell, I feel like I need a fucking year," Vin muttered.

"I think it might be kinda cool to have you all for brothers," JD offered shyly.

"I don't believe it's at all cool. I neither need, nor want, six half-brothers," Ezra said disdainfully.

"Well, we weren't particularly expectin' to get you for a brother either," Nathan snapped back.

"That's enough!" Chris slapped the table. "It doesn't matter whether we want each other or not," Chris said. "According to dad, we are brothers."

Josiah said nothing. He leaned back in his chair, with his arms folded over his broad chest. He studied the others thoughtfully.

"Him sayin' it, don't make it so," Vin replied. He stared defiantly at Chris.

"Dad was a lot of things, but he wasn't a liar," Chris said coldly and glared back at Vin.

"Mr. Tanner, Chris, please," the attorney pleaded with them.

The door opened and they all turned to see Buck stepped back in, a sheepish smile on his face. "Sorry, boys."

"Very good," Andrew said in a relieved voice. Does anyone else need a break?" Andrew asked. Murmured "nos" and he turned the tape back on.

Lincoln sipped at his drink again. "Nathan, Chris's mom went back east to care for her father. Chris didn't go this time, because he was in school. Buck's mom had died the year before and the two of them were a handful. A friend of Caroline's recommended your mother, Alva to help take care of us. She moved into a guest bedroom. Alva was sweet and pretty and kind, but she was just about the saddest woman I knew."

Chris caught Nathan's eye and smiled and Buck slapped Nathan's knee gently. Nathan ducked his head and closed his eyes.

"Alva would take care of you boys and the house and I'd take care of the ranch. At night, we'd sit in the kitchen and have a glass of wine and talk. At first it was about nothing more than whatever it was you two boys had gotten into that day and little things that were going on at the ranch. But after a while, we started to really talk. She knew how much I missed Caroline and I found out why she was so sad." He paused and drank the rest of his drink. He held it out and waited for it to be returned. Another small sip and he continued.

"Alva was married and had three kids. And, she'd left them in Arkansas. She loved them, but six months before I met her, she'd been assaulted. She couldn't deal with it and she was afraid to tell her husband. I tried to convince her to talk to him, to explain, but she was afraid. I was the first person she'd even told about it. We drank a lot more that night than we ever had before and one thing led to another and well, I guess I don't have to spell it out for you. Both of us were ashamed of what had happened. We agreed that there'd be no more wine at night and it didn't happen again. Maybe the best thing I ever did was the phone call I made the next day. I called Obediah Jackson. I explained to him that Alva worked for me and that she missed him desperately. And, I told him what had happened to her and that's why she had left him and their kids. He was a good man. He asked me not to tell her I'd talked to him. He was afraid she'd run away again. As sad as she was, I never saw a woman happier than when he showed up with their three kids. God, that woman was a beauty when she was happy. She offered to stay until I could find someone to help out, but I told her no, we'd muddle through. And, we did, didn't we boys?" He laughed and Chris and Buck laughed out loud. "We had us a high time of it, until your momma came home and found out we'd been eating TV dinners and fast food and you boys had been late for school three times." He shook his head. Buck and Chris exchanged grimaces. They remembered how Caroline had torn into all three of them. "But, it was worth it, wasn't it?" Lincoln smiled broadly at them.

"Yeah, it was, dad," Chris whispered.

"I never saw Alva again. But, five years later, I got a call. It was Obediah. He told me Alva had been killed in a car accident the year before. He asked me if I'd meet with him. He told me Alva had died and he said there was something he needed to tell me. I was sorry to hear Alva had died, and I agreed readily. He came to Denver and what he told me shocked me, to say the least. He was dying. And, I had another son, Nathan. He truly loved Alva and when they realized that he wasn't your father, he didn't care. He raised you as his own. But, he was in a fight he couldn't win and he wanted to make sure you were taken care of. Alva had told him I was a good man and would do right by you. I hope I did, son."

"You did, Dad," Nathan said, not bothering to hide the tears rolling down his cheeks. "You all did." Chris and Buck each put a hand on one of his knees.

Another sip of his drink and Lincoln went on, "Telling Caroline about you, was harder than telling her about Buck. And, it was harder for her to forgive me. She almost left me. I think she would have, but, she never gave up on anything in her life. I think that you were the biggest reason she didn't leave me, Nathan. She took one look at you, four years old and scared to death, without a mother and about to lose the only father you'd ever known and she just couldn't turn her back on you. She promised Obediah that she'd love you like her own. And, she promised him, that she'd make sure you knew your brothers and sister. That was the main reason she insisted on six bedrooms. She wanted them to feel welcome and that our home was their second home. We had some good times over the years."

"Things were rocky at first. You missed your family. But, Caroline worked her magic on you and we became a real family. The ranch had really taken off and life looked like it was going to be good. And then, Caroline died. I spent a year in a bottle and I'm damned sorry for that, boys. I should have been stronger and I'm really sorry I let you boys down when you needed me most. But, you boys stuck together, and when I got my head out of my ass, you were still on the path Caroline set you on."

"I had to go to New Orleans for business. I don't even remember what it was about now. All I remember was meeting the most fascinating woman I ever knew."

"Mother," Ezra stated.

"Maude was beautiful, intelligent, charming, shrewd, and I'm sorry to say it, Ezra, the most conniving woman on the planet."

"A sentiment most men who meet her come to share, I assure you, gentlemen," Ezra said without looking away.

"She was dazzling. Sparkly and shiny and with a laugh that could melt butter. I fell hard and fast. But, she had no interest in being a rancher's wife. I found out pretty damn quick that her only real interest in me was my wallet. I wanted to hate her for it, but I just couldn't. What a woman!" He laughed and shook his head.

"I was a fool and I paid for it - literally. I sent Maude twenty-four thousand dollars every year in child support. She married another man, and moved to Europe. Ezra, Buck and Nathan were easy to be a father to. Caroline was there to make it easy. But, you- your mother was never gonna live in Colorado. Hell, the only thing she was ever gonna do in Denver was ski. And, that was only if they closed Switzerland."

Everyone except Ezra laughed.

"Well, it was just easier to let you go. I'm not proud of it, but I already had three boys to raise on my own. And, Maude assured me you'd be fine. She sent me a letter telling me about your progress every year. You seemed happy, so I left it alone." He sipped again from his glass, his unfocused eyes staring into the past.

"Gentlemen, let me simplify this by saying up front, that I am neither surprised nor offended by- " he hesitated for a moment, our father's opinion of my mother. The words 'our father' dripped venom. "My mother is an amazing woman. Men much more sophisticated than Lincoln have fallen prey to her charms. Most of them, I dare say, would willingly fall prey again. If you will all excuse me for a moment."

Ezra got up and walked out the door. Brock turned off the tape.

"How can he talk like that about his mother?" JD's voice was outraged.

"Man knows his mother, kid," Buck said grimly. "It's not for you to judge what you don't understand."

"I'll be back in a minute," Vin said and left the room.

He found Ezra in the elevator lobby.

"Mr. Tanner." Ezra acknowledged his presence

"Vin." Tanner leaned against the wall.

Ezra eyed him for a long minute. "Vin," he agreed. "You didn't need to follow me. I'm not so devastated that I'm going to do anything rash or foolish."

"Never thought you were," Vin asnwered mildly. "But, unless that kid in there is a lot older than he looks, reckon I'm next. And, I just might do somethin' rash."

"Noted, Mister- Vin," Ezra said with an amused smile. "Do you need another minute, or are you prepared?"

"The hell with it," Vin said, and pushed off the wall. "Reckon that old bastard left enough to pay for anything I break."

"If he didn't, I'll pay for whatever you break and consider it money well spent," Ezra answered.

The two men laughed and went back to the conference room.

"I apologize, gentlemen." Ezra inclined his head toward his brothers. "Mr. Brock, if you please," he said and sat back down. Vin sat in his chair and the attorney started the tape again.

They watched Lincoln drink again and then he started speaking again.

"Maude was gone and I went home. Home to my boys. Luckily, for me, Caroline had rubbed off on all three of you and you never got into any serious trouble. But, I could see how you all missed having a woman around. So, I hired someone to help out. Bonnie Tanner's name suited her. She was pretty as a picture and I don't think I ever saw her without a smile. She came to work for us in May, a year after Ezra was born."

"Miss Bonnie," Chris breathed. "I remember her."

"Not a big surprise there. I remember how you used to moon after her," Buck said with a smile.

"Hell, even I remember that," Nathan said.

Everyone except Vin laughed.

"She was the first woman I ever gave flowers," Chris remembered. "She laughed and it was like music. And, she thanked me, like I'd given her a dozen long-stemmed roses, not a bunch of honeysuckle from out behind the barn."

"I remember how heartbroken you were when she left," Buck said and they turned their attention back to the screen.

Lincoln went on. "She told me she couldn't stay past the summer. Truth be told, that suited me just fine. I'd have fallen in love with her in a minute, if I had given myself the chance. But, after Maude, I had made up my mind to never get that close to a woman again."

"Bonnie was a smart woman, and she wasn't about to settle for a man who didn't love her the way she deserved to be. There's no good reason for me to have let her walk out of my life. But, I did. And, Vin - bet you're surprised I know you go by Vin, not Vince or Vincent, aren't you?" He chuckled a bit. "Never underestimate what a good private detective can find out. Now, where was I? Oh yes, I'm not gonna lie to you, Vin. She told me about you, before she left. I offered to marry her, but she knew it was out of obligation and she wasn't about to settle. She told me not to worry about her, that she'd be fine. She was going to move in with her brother."

"Uncle Vince," Vin said quietly.

"I wrote to her a few times and I tried to send her money. She sent the checks back torn in half and wrote me not to feel guilty. You were doing fine and you were both happy. She wrote me once or twice a year and I convinced myself that it was better for you to leave things alone. I went on with my life. Chris and Buck were almost teenagers and they kept me on my toes constantly. The scrapes those boys could get into." He shook his head in amusement. "Luckily, Nathan took after his momma. He was on the honor roll at school and he wanted to be a doctor even then. I was busy with raising the boys and one day I realized it had been a couple of years since I heard from Bonnie. I tried calling the number she'd left and no surprise, it had been disconnected. I called the sheriff's department where her brother worked and was told he'd quit the year before. No one had any idea where he'd gone. I wrote to her, but the letter came back with "Moved" scrawled across the front. I should have tried harder, I know that. But, I told myself that if Bonnie wanted to get in touch with me, she would."

"She died, you bastard," Vin hissed at the screen. JD gasped out loud.

"My sympathies," Ezra said too softly for anyone but Vin to hear.

"You were the hardest one for me to find, Vin. When I started looking for all of you, I found out that your mother had died when you were five and - well, I guess you know what else I found out. I'm sorry I didn't try harder when Bonnie stopped writing. I wish I'd done right by you. Please, don't hate my boys, because of me. They're good men and they'll be good brothers, if you just give them a chance." He bit his bottom lip and looked away from the camera.

"I need another drink!" Lincoln spoke to the unseen assistant. He looked down at the full glass that appeared on screen.

"'Scuse me," Vin said and hastily left the room.

Andrew stopped the tape again and the other six men stared uncomfortably at one another. The tension was increasingly high and JD visibly jumped when the a phone in the corner of the room rang. All heads turned toward it.

"Yes, Jackie," Andrew spoke into the receiver. None of the brothers bothered to pretend he wasn't listening.

"I see."

"Is the water off?

"Alright. Is he still in there?"

"Not unless you feel threatened."

JD's eyes got wide and he asked, "Should one of us go out there?" he asked in a hushed tone.

"No. If there's any justice at all, our reluctant brother has just spent an exorbitant amount of Lincoln Larabee's money," Ezra replied coldly. "If there was any real threat, security would have called, not Mr. Brock's secretary," he added in a gentler tone.

"Man has to deal with this kind of thing his own way, son," Josiah spoke quietly, the first words he'd spoken since introducing himself.

"I'll handle it, Jackie. Thank you," Andrew said, and hung up.

"Gentlemen," he said, turning to face them. "We have a bit of a problem. Mr. Tanner has vented his anger on the executive men's room and now he's sitting in my lobby."

"That's his problem," Chris snapped. He'll come back in when he's ready, Andrew," he added. "Just play the tape."

"That's just it. I can't do that, Chris. I understand that he's upset, but your father insisted that all seven of you view the tape in it's entirety, together. We can't finish this, until he comes back. I'm prepared to wait as long as necessary, but given his mood, Mr. Tanner might decide to leave entirely. And, if he does - - "

"Let me talk to him." Josiah surprised everyone. "We might just have a thing or two in common."

Ezra studied him for a moment, before nodding. Buck waved a hand, at the door. "Go ahead," Chris said.

Josiah smiled at them and left.

Vin was sitting in the same chair he'd been in before the meeting. He nodded grimly at Josiah, who dropped down in the chair next to him.

"My mother died when I was twelve," Josiah said. "And, I never had another happy night, until I left home when I was seventeen. My father resented that my mother had died and left him another man's son to raise. By the time I left home, I hated him almost as much as he hated me."

"I was fifteen when I ran." Vin's words were so low Josiah had to strain to hear them.

"Those men in there think they understand, but they don't. Not really," Josiah said. "None of them has ever been alone, truly alone."

"Maybe the kid," Vin said quietly.

"Maybe," Josiah replied. "But the thing is, we're not gonna know, unless you come back in. Lincoln stipulated that all seven of us watch the tape together."

Vin processed that for a minute and then said, "So, unless I go back in, the kid - JD?" he looked at Josiah, who nodded confirmation. "He ain't gonna find out about his ma?"

"Not a thing," Josiah said.

Vin looked toward the room where the others waited and then back at Josiah, before he smiled half-heartedly. "Seems like the excitable type. Might just bust a gut, if he don't get to see it."

"He might," Josiah said.

"Hell!" Vin declared.

"Hell," Josiah agreed and stood up. "C'mon, when it's over, I'll buy you a beer."

"If they don't throw my ass in jail for beatin' up their toilets, I'll take it," Vin said and went back with him.

"Are you done with your little tantrum?" Chris sniped, when they re-entered the room. Vin, didn't answer him, but he flipped his middle finger in Larabee's general direction.

Vin sat down and Ezra leaned over. "I trust you spent freely," he whispered.

"They'll be pissin' with the peons for at least a week," Vin answered just as quietly. "You bail me out and Josiah'll buy you a beer.

Ezra started to answer, but the sound of Lincoln's voice drew his attention.

"I went east looking for a stud for the ranch. I found one, too. Or I should say, your mother found one for me. Annie Dunne knew more about horses than any man I ever met. She was thirty-five years old and had given up a job as a professor at Villa Julie to become a horse trader. We traveled all over Maryland. During the day we'd drive from farm to farm and and at night we would stay at a bed and breakfast. Your mother would entertain me for hours. God, she was funny. We found the perfect horse on a farm just outside of Salisbury. It was going to take a couple of days to finalize the transaction and while we were having lunch at this little tiny outdoor café, she said Ocean City was just an hour away and why didn't we - now, let me see, how did she put it? Why didn't we go -"

"Down the ocean." JD said it with him.

Lincoln laughed. "I didn't have a clue what she meant. She laughed and said, that it didn't matter if you lived north, south, or west of Ocean City, that in Maryland, when you went to Ocean City, you went 'down the ocean.'" He smiled wistfully and looked off to the side.

"Mom and I went down the ocean every summer, until she got sick," JD said with tears in his eyes. to no one in particular.

Buck reached over and squeezed his shoulder.

Lincoln seemed to be lost in the memories and the hand that had handed him drinks touched his shoulder. He seemed startled. The hand pointed to the camera and Lincoln shook his head and sighed deeply. He looked back into the camera. "Sorry about that, boys. Now where was I? Annie looked so pretty sitting there laughing, the wind blowing her hair. I had never been to the ocean and I had two days to kill, so why not?

"We spent the next two days enjoying the sun and the sand and the ocean. And, we spent the next two nights dancing and laughing and having the time of our lives. JD, son, we weren't in love, but we liked and respected one another enormously. To this day, I've never met anyone who was a better judge of horseflesh - not even your brother Chris - and that's saying something. But, Annie and I both knew that when my business was over, we'd probably never see one another again."

"I never heard from Annie until a year ago. Out of the blue, I got a call from her. I'd already started looking for the others and I had found Ezra and Josiah. The private detective had a lead on Vin. Annie floored me when she told me we had a son. I would probably have spent a lot more time being angry with her for keeping it from me, if she hadn't told me she was dying. It seemed like such a waste of precious time to be angry at her. She loved you, son. She just wanted to make sure you had someone who'd look out for you. I think she regretted not having told me all those years ago."

Lincoln sat a little straighter and he took a deep breath. "It took losing another little boy and his mother-"

Chris went white. "Turn it off!" he demanded in an anguished voice. His mouth was open and his jaw was working like he couldn't get enough air.

Nathan's lips were pursed together in a tight line and Buck had stood up behind Chris. He had both hands on Chris's shoulders and spoke softly to him. "Easy, Chris."

"What's going on?" JD whispered to Vin. Vin shrugged, "Nothin' good, kid. Nothin' good."

"Mr. Larabee, I'm sorry. Can I get you something?" Andrew Brock asked solicitously.

"You coulda warned him," Nathan said angrily.

"I already told you, your father was very -"

"I don't give a damn what he wanted," Nathan interrupted. "You're supposed to be Chris's friend. How could you blindside him like that?"

"I'm sorry," Andrew said.

Chris was still white, but his breathing was close to normal. Buck clapped him on the shoulder and took his seat again.

"Chris, I'm sorry. Are you able to continue?" Andrew asked.

"Just play the fucking thing!" Chris snarled, sounding exactly like Vin had earlier.

Lincoln had tears in his eyes. "I couldn't have picked out a better wife for Chris than Sarah. She was beautiful and smart and just as much of a spitfire as Caroline was. I told Chris he could have a piece of land anywhere on the ranch he wanted for a house. Sarah was the one who decided to build it right across the yard. Said, when their kids ran away from home to Granpa's, she didn't want 'em to have to cross the street."

Everyone in the room, except Chris, laughed. His lower lip trembled and he had tears in his own eyes.

The tears were rolling slowly down Lincoln's cheeks now. "I knew she was lying. With Buck out and about all the time and Nathan spending most of his time at the hospital, she just wanted to be able to make sure an old man wasn't lonely. I'll be damned if she wasn't right, though. Adam couldn't even walk the first time he headed over to the main house. Him crawling and Chris and Sarah laughing all the way behind him. That boy was truly a joy."

Chris's head was cocked to one side and tears spilled out of his eyes.

"I'm sorry, Chris," Lincoln said. "I know this is hard for you. But, I know your brothers are there for you."

"I had turned over most of the business of the ranch to Chris and Buck and Adam and I spent a lot of time together. He'd come over to the house every morning and we'd putter around. It was Adam who got me thinking about finding you three. He loved the movie Pinocchio. He wanted to watch it every day. And, like any good grandfather, I'd put it on for him. We'd sit and watch it together. One day he asked me if I'd look for him if he was lost, like Gepetto did for Pinocchio. I hugged him as tight as I could and told him, I'd even get swallowed by a whale to find him."

Everyone, even Chris, laughed a little.

"I couldn't sleep that night. I kept thinking about the three sons I didn't know. I didn't even know if you were alive or dead. I hadn't heard from Maude since I'd sent the last payment for Ezra's college tuition. I decided to find you all. I hired a private detective to locate you, but not to contact you. I wanted to know that you were all safe and happy. But, I hadn't made up my mind to meet you all. Not, then.

"Then one day, Chris and Buck had to go to Mexico."

Chris's arms were crossed and his fists were clenching and unclenching. Buck had thrown an arm around his shoulder and Nathan had a hand on his leg. The tears flowed freely down all three of their faces.

"I went into town for some zoning meeting. I don't even remember what it was about now," Lincoln continued. It lasted a lot longer than expected and I ended up staying in town for the night. The biggest regret that I have in my whole life, is not going home that night. I'll always wonder . . ."

He looked down and then back at the camera. "When I went home the next morning, I couldn't even get into the driveway. Police cars and ambulances and fire trucks were everywhere. And, Sarah and Adam were gone. Arson. Someone burned their house down. I didn't understand it then and I still don't understand it." He turned away. "Give me another damn drink!" he snapped and waited for his drink.

He drank deeply and took a deep breath. "I had to tell my son that his wife and boy were gone. It was harder even, than telling Caroline about Nathan had been. We buried them on the ranch, next to Caroline. The next two years were pure hell. If it hadn't been for Buck, I don't think Chris would have made it through. And, the ranch sure as hell wouldn't have. Buck, I don't think I ever told you how proud I was of how you took care of things. You're a good man, son, and a hell of a brother. I hope all of your brothers will know that."

He took another drink. "About a year and a half after Adam and Sarah, Annie called me. That was five months ago. I wanted to come to Baltimore, JD, but Chris was still having a hard time of it and I couldn't leave him. Annie told me there was time and to stay where I was needed most. So, I did. A month ago, I found Vin. You had some troubles of your own, son. I wish I could have helped you. I'm glad you found your way out of them. I hope you'll look on this as a new beginning for you. Chris seems to have turned the corner. He's not drinking nearly as much and he's taking an interest in the ranch again. I'm going to call Annie next week and arrange to meet JD. I'm going to ask Andrew Brock, my attorney, to contact Josiah, Vin, and Ezra and see if you'll agree to meet me. I hope you will."

"If you've seen this tape, then we didn't get the chance to meet and I've been dead for six months. In this last thing, I've failed you all again. I'm sorry. Andrew will give you all the business details. Good luck to you boys and God bless you."

The tape faded to black. Chris had regained some composure and his brothers let go of him. He wiped the tears off his face and glared at the attorney.

"Gentlemen, I know that was hard for you," Andrew began. Would you all like to take a break, maybe get some lunch, before we get down to the business?"

"I ain't hungry, but I sure the hell do want a drink," Vin declared.

"I owe you a beer," Josiah said.

"I need a drink," Chris said quietly. Buck started to speak, but Chris stopped him. "Just one, Buck."

"Make it a big one," Nathan muttered.

"I believe there is a restaurant on the ground floor of this building," Ezra said. "And, a drink is the best idea I've heard all week.

"Inez's Saloon," Buck confirmed.

They all stood to leave, except JD.

They started to leave the office and Buck turned back to JD. "You comin', kid?" he asked.

"I - I'm not old enough," the boy replied, looking to be close to tears.

The others all laughed. "Hell, we'll buy you a glass of milk," Buck said. "C'mon."

"Great," JD said eagerly and jumped up, grabbing his Raven's cap out of mid air, when it tumbled off his head.

"Geez kid, get a Bronco's hat," Buck said.

"Hello, Chris, Nathan," Inez Recillos said. She pointedly ignored Buck. "I see you have guests."

"Hello, darlin'," Buck said, ignoring her slight. "Do you have a table big enough for all of us?"

"You know I do, Senor Buck," she replied. "This way."

Inez grabbed menus and headed toward the back of the restaurant.

"Thank you, darlin'," Buck said and took the menus. Everyone took a seat at the large table. "Bring us six beers, and a glass of milk."

"Five beers, if you please and a glass of the house white wine," Ezra corrected.

Inez looked at the rest of them and then smiled when there were no more changes. She turned and went back to the bar.

Buck watched her walk away appreciatively. "That is one fine woman," he said.

"Give it up, Buck," Nathan said.

"When I'm dead and buried," Buck answered, still watching Inez.

"That can be arranged," Chris said dryly and everyone laughed.

Inez brought back the drinks and then left them alone. The menus lay in an untouched pile.

The Larabee brothers stared uncomfortably at each other and sipped their drinks. The tension was mounting and finally JD couldn't stand it anymore. "I can't believe I have six brothers," he said shyly. "I always wanted one."

"I didn't," Ezra replied in a superior tone. "And," he continued, "I'm not entirely certain that I do."

"I ain't so sure of it myself," Vin said and took a large drink.

"If dad said he's your father, then you can believe, he's your father," Chris said tersely and drained his beer. "I never knew him to lie about anything.

"Appears you never knew a lot, son," Josiah pointed out.

"If my mom said he was my father, then he was," JD said fiercely.

"Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for my mother," Ezra said dryly.

"You think she'd lie about it?" JD's voice was a mix of outrage and incredulity.

"I don't think anything. I know that my mother could and very well might have lied to Lincoln. He sent her $24,000 a year in child support and he paid my tuition to Duke."

"That's what a father does," Chris snapped.

"Yes," Ezra agreed. "But, my mother's first husband, Percival Standish, also sent monthly stipends. And, her third husband, Randall Benson, paid my tuition. And, her fourth husband -"

"Geez, how many times, has your mom been married?" JD questioned.

"Five," Ezra said. "At last count," he added and finished his wine.

"There's only one way to be sure," Nathan said, when Inez was out of hearing range. "A DNA test."

"No offense," Vin said, "but, I ain't so sure I want to be related to ya'll."

"No offense taken," Chris said. "And, no offense to you, but I am sure I don't want to be related to you."

Vin raised his beer toward Chris, with one finger pointing upward, directly at Chris.

"But, what if we are? Brothers, I mean?" JD asked.

"Then we're brothers," Buck said.

"You boys ready to find out what other surprises Lincoln had up his sleeve?" Josiah said and put his empty beer mug back on the table.

"No, but I don't reckon, I'm ever gonna get any readier," Vin said and stood up.

"Succinctly put, Vin," Ezra said and stood up.

He started to reach for his wallet and Chris stopped him. "Inez will put it on our bill."

Ezra inclined his head toward Chris. "To the lion's den, gentlemen," he said.

The Larabee brothers filed into the attorney's office quietly. Jackie was still behind the desk. "Mr. Brock is waiting for you. He said to send you right back, when you returned," she said and picked up the phone.

Vin hung back. His face was flushed and he fidgeted nervously with his hat. "I'm sorry 'bout your bathroom, ma'am," he said. "Might take me a while, but I'll pay for it."

Jackie smiled kindly at him. "I'll tell Mr. Brock. Now, why don't you go on back," she suggested.

"I trust you gentlemen are all ready to continue?" Andrew Brock said, as he surveyed the room. "Where's Mr. Tanner?"

"Here," Vin said and sat down.

"Very good. I hope you gentlemen had a pleasant - lunch," Andrew said, while he was pulling large white envelopes out of his briefcase. "Here we go," he said and handed each one of them an envelope with their name on it.

"Your father wanted -"

"Mr. Larabee's wishes are premature, considering we're not certain that he was our father," Ezra said.

"We want DNA tests," Nathan said.

"That won't be necessary, gentlemen," Andrew replied.

"Yeah, it will," Vin said in a hard voice.

"I'm afraid you don't understand," Andrew said. "When I said it wouldn't be necessary, I meant, they'd already been done. In Mr. Standish's case, some years ago. Lincoln wasn't quite as big a fool as he may have appeared. Miss Dunne provided a sample for Mr. Dunne. For Mr. Tanner and Mr. Sanchez, a little digging and a little bending of some laws and some persuasion provided the necessary records. Mr. Larabee was definitely the biological father of all four of you. I have copies of all the reports for each of you. Gentlemen, you are brothers."

The seven brothers sat stunned. "As I was saying," Andrew started over, "your father wanted you to get to know one another. He wanted you to live together as a family. He thought you would all be resistant to the idea, so he had me draw up a contract for each of you. The contract divides the Double L into seven equal shares. If you sign the contract, the shares become your property one year from the day, provided you meet the requirements."

"What kinda requirements?" JD asked.

"Each of you is to live in the main house at the Double L for a full year. If any of you decides not to stay the entire year, for any reason, you'll be given the sum of $50,000, but your share of the Double L will revert to the trust. It will also be divided among the brothers who choose to stay. This includes all seven of you. If for any reason, Chris or Buck or Nathan decides not to stay on the ranch, they will also receive the stipend and lose their share of the ranch. Your father gave you two weeks to decide if you would agree to the contract or not. If you sign the contract, your father left $5,000 for you to decorate the room you choose as your own."

$5,000 for one room?" JD was incredulous.

"Lot of money to spend on sheets," Vin said.

"For some of you, perhaps," Ezra said.

Andrew ignored them. "Your father wanted you all to have your own space in the house. He wanted it to be home."

"So, we're just supposed to let four strangers into our home," Chris said.

"I'm not really comfortable with that, myself," Nathan said. "To have a drink with you fellows is one thing. But, we don't know anything about you."

"We aren't gonna steal anything," JD said in a hurt voice. "Well, I'm not," he amended.

"No one said you were kid," Buck said. "But, put yourself in our shoes."

"Reckon no one thinks you might be a thief, kid." Vin was clearly angry. His fists were clenched and his body was rigid. His eyes were narrowed and he was breathing hard.

"Excuse me," Andrew said. "I understand your concerns and so did your father. He thought about this long and hard. He had every one of these men investigated thoroughly, even Mr. Dunne."

"What did he find out?" Chris asked.

"I'm sorry, Chris, but I'm not at liberty to say. Your father weighed everything he discovered very carefully and he left these. I did try to talk him out of it. But, you know your father. He was convinced this was the right thing to do and he did it. Andrew picked up an envelope and dumped it out. Four shiny keys labeled, Vin, Josiah, JD, and Ezra clattered onto the table.

"I know you're all confused and angry, but please, at least try. If not for his sake, then for yourselves. You may not appreciate it now, but you've been given a great gift. Don't throw it away out of anger toward a dead man."

"What happens, if we say no, right now?" Vin asked.

"Then, you receive nothing. You only get the $50,000 if you stay at the ranch for the next two weeks," Andrew answered.

All seven men stared at the keys. JD looked at the grim faces surrounding him. He said, "When Mr. Brock asked me to come here, he said I'd inherited something extremely valuable. I don't think he meant the Double L. And, I'm sorry if none of you wants me there, but I'm gonna see if I can figure out exactly what he did mean." With that, he reached for the key with his name on it.

Chris glared at him and he shrank back into his chair a little, but he met Chris's hostile stare with a defiant smile. And, he held tight to his key.

Josiah looked at every man's face and then took his key. "I think I'll try to help you do that, JD," he said.

"Hell, I got no place else to be," Vin said and snatched his own key off the table. He glared at Chris. Chris's lips tightened into a thin line, but he didn't say anything.

Everyone turned to look at Ezra. He continued staring at his key, before sighing deeply and reaching for his own key.

"WOO HOO!" JD yelled and then blushed furiously and slumped back into his seat.

Andrew spoke again. "There are directions to the Double L in each package, but I hope that you -" He looked at Nathan, Chris, and Buck. "I hope that you will extend your brothers the courtesy of showing them the way home."

Chris was silently hostile and Buck looked from him to their new brothers. Finally he spoke, "Chris can keep up that glare 'til the cows come home. He'll come around."

Chris started to reply angrily, but Buck waved him off and turned back to the others. "Where are you all staying? We can pick up your stuff and get you checked out on the way to the ranch. Any of you need a ride?"

"I do," JD said.

"Alright, we have plenty of room. Andrew, I think it's time for us to let you have your office back. He picked up the envelope the attorney had given him and stood to leave. All of the others followed suit, with the exception of Chris who continued to glare at the room. Everyone stared at him expectantly.

"ALRIGHT!" he finally declared and snatched up his envelope. "Let's get the hell out of here." He stalked out of the room. The others filed after him.

"Mr. Tanner, a moment, if you please," Andrew called.

Vin stopped, "Reckon it's time to settle up for them toilets," he said. "You boys go ahead, I'll meet you in the main lobby."

Andrew waited until the door closed behind JD, then wasted no time getting to the point. "This isn't about the damage you did today," he said. "That will be covered by your father's estate. I'm not going to mince words with you. Your father knew about the trouble you were in. I strongly discouraged him from allowing you into his home. I also encouraged him to tell your brothers exactly what he found out. It was the most difficult choice he made and believe me, he thought about it a lot. But, he refused. He felt guilty about your childhood and he wanted you to have a fresh start. Whatever happened before, you have a chance to make a decent life for yourself."

Vin's eyes narrowed. "I didn't kill that man," he said.

"Your father believed that with all his heart," Andrew replied. "He looked at all the evidence and he watched the tape of your interrogation over and over. In the end, he believed you."

Vin looked at him suspiciously. "I didn't kill him." His voice was barely audible.

"Go home, son," Andrew said softly and put a hand on his shoulder. "Have as much faith in yourself as he did."

The End

Continues in Decisions