"Yer hoverin', Larabee. What'd I tell you about hoverin'?"
The irritated drawl lifted Josiah's head from the report he was studying. Vin, his face twisted with discomfort and irritation, limped slowly into view. Chris walked a step behind, trying to look unconcerned and failing. Miserably.
"I'm not hovering. But if I was, it might be because you look like you could keel over any minute," Chris snapped.
"You try walkin' on these feet." Vin winced, half-stumbling a step before continuing onward.
Josiah watched Chris make an abortive grab for their friend's elbow before catching himself, his jaw clenched.
"Mornin', Vin. Chris." Josiah leaned back, folding his hands over his belly as he cocked an eyebrow at Tanner. "Didn't expect to see you here."
"He's not staying long."
Vin narrowed his eyes at Chris's proclamation and a silent argument crackled in the air between them as they glared at each other.
"Hey! Vin!" J.D.'s delighted greeting broke the tension. Fresh from the break room with donut in hand, he grinned at his friend, oblivious to what he'd interrupted. "What are you doing here?"
"Hey, J.D." Vin's irritation wilted under all that enthusiasm. "Just passin' through."
"J.D., why don't you see Vin gets settled on my couch, maybe get him some juice," Chris said.
Vin's voice dropped, a warning. "Chris..."
"We had a deal, Cowboy."
Drawing his eyebrows together, Vin opened his mouth. But J.D. got there first. "C'mon, Vin. You want apple or orange?"
After a moment's hesitation, a slow smile spread across Vin's face. "Coffee. Black." With a sideways smirk at Chris he turned and followed J.D.
"Smartass," Chris muttered, leaning one hip on Josiah's desk.
Josiah heard clearly the mixture of exasperation, amusement, and lingering worry in his boss's voice. "You're both looking a bit ragged around the edges.
With a snort, Chris shook his head. "I haven't been this sleep deprived since Adam was born, and I'm getting a helluva lot more than Vin is."
"So...why is he here?"
"Because he's a stubborn pain in the ass." When Josiah just raised an eyebrow, Chris heaved a sigh. "Donovan's wife is coming in at ten. Once Vin found out, he insisted on being present."
"I have a feeling whatever she has to say won't be easy for him to hear."
"Which is exactly why I didn't want him to be a part of this. But short of having Nathan sedate the shit out of him, he didn't leave me much choice."
"He can be a bit...hard headed."
Josiah's lips curved, but he quickly sobered. "Hasn't been much he can control in his life lately. That doesn't sit well with a man like Vin."
Chris ran a hand through his hair and cupped the back of his neck. "I hear what you're saying. I just... I've had my fill of watching him hurt and not being able to do a damn thing about it."
The elevator doors rumbled open and an auburn-haired young woman stepped off, nervously darting her gaze around the area as she clutched her purse tightly in both hands.
"That's her," Chris murmured, standing.
"God be with you, brother."
"That'd be a nice change." Chris pasted on a smile and extended his hand. "Mrs. Donovan? I'm Chris Larabee."
"Please, call me Jean." Her answering smile was as weak as his, but she returned the handshake with firm pressure.
"I'm so sorry for your loss. Sean was--" The words caught in Chris's throat and he fought down a surge of anger. "We're all very saddened by what's happened. I know this is a difficult time, and I really appreciate you coming in today."
A film of tears blurred her blue eyes but she tipped up her chin. "Thank you. I... I want to do whatever I can to help."
Chris ushered her toward his office with a hand to the middle of her back, studying her from the corner of his eye. She was petite, barely reaching his shoulder, with a fine-boned elegance that lent her an elfish quality. Her pale face and reddened eyes betrayed her pain, but she moved with a determined confidence he couldn't help admiring.
Vin was standing at the window, sipping from a Styrofoam cup of coffee. He turned as they entered, his eyes wide and defenseless in his pinched face. "Jeannie."
"Vin." Whatever iron control she'd held over her emotions seemed to shatter, and she burst into tears.
His expression twisted with grief and some darker emotion, Vin set the cup on Chris's desk and wrapped her in his arms, holding her as she sobbed. "I'm so sorry, Jeannie. So, so sorry."
When she tightened her grip, he gasped and flinched. Jean pulled back as if burned, looking him up and down as she brushed the tears aside. "My God, Vin, you look terrible. Sit down."
He must have been feeling as bad as he looked; Vin sat on the couch, drawing her down beside him. Chris positioned his desk chair opposite them.
Jean gripped Vin's good hand, gently touching the broken one. "Are you all right? Are you in pain?"
"I'm okay. Looks worse than it is." Vin shot Chris a warning look. "How are you holding up?"
"Oh, you know. I have my ups and downs." She slipped a tissue from her purse and blotted her eyes. "I'm so glad you're okay, Vin. Sean..." Her voice quavered. "Sean would've wanted that."
Her innocent declaration stole Chris's breath. He watched Vin's face crumple, his throat work as he fought back tears. Suddenly he wished he'd asked Nathan for that sedative. The last thing Vin needed right now was to listen to Sean's grieving--and clueless--widow.
"I'm sorry," Jean said, squeezing Vin's hand. "I didn't mean to make this any harder for you than it already is."
Lady, you don't know the half of it, Chris thought grimly. He linked gazes with Vin, inwardly wincing at the raw pain in his friend's eyes. Vin gave him the barest hint of a nod, then turned his attention back to Jean.
"Jeannie, we've got to ask you some questions, and some are gonna sound kinda personal. But there's a reason for them, and it's real important you tell us everythin' you can."
She wrinkled her forehead. "Okay."
Chris leaned closer, his elbows braced on his knees. "Jean, how long had you and Sean been married?"
"Almost three years."
"So he was already working for the Bureau?"
"Just barely. He'd only been on the job a couple months."
"It's not an easy thing, being the wife of a federal agent."
"Maybe not, but I saw how Sean loved it--it was all he ever wanted to be." She smiled, her lips trembling. "I knew what I was signing on for."
"Had Sean been under any extra pressure lately?"
With a slight hesitation, Chris chose his next words carefully. "Had you noticed anything...different about his behavior recently?"
Jean slipped her hand from Vin's and looked away. "I don't know what you mean."
Angling his head, Vin forced her to meet his eyes. "I think maybe you do."
She bit her lip. "It was nothing, really. He was just...a little on edge, that's all."
Vin glanced at Chris, who motioned him to continue. "About anythin' in particular?"
"He didn't want to tell me, but I overheard a few phone conversations. He was behind in paying the bills."
"Money been tight?"
"Sean handled the finances--I've never been very good with numbers. When I pressed, he admitted he'd made some bad investments. And then there was the accident with the car..." Frowning, she looked from Vin to Chris. "What does this have to do with anything?"
Her question hung in awkward silence for a long moment.
Vin rubbed his head just above the bandage. "Jeannie, I hate to have to tell you this, but...there was more botherin' Sean than a few unpaid bills. He'd gotten himself into a world of trouble."
She was shaking her head almost before he finished speaking. "No, it was just a little setback, Vin. He promised me he had things under control."
"Then he lied. He had a gamblin' problem, Jeannie, and it had to 've been goin' on for a while. He owed some very bad people a helluva lot of money." As he was speaking, he reached for her hand, but she pulled away.
"That's impossible. I'm his wife--don't you think I'd know if he were gambling away our money?" Tears filled her eyes, but her voice turned icy. "Why would you say something like that about him? He was a good man. You were supposed to be his friend."
Chris saw Vin's breath hitch, watched him struggle for words that wouldn't come, and something inside him bubbled up and spilled over. "You want to talk friendship? Lady, your husband sold Vin to save his own neck."
Chris regretted the words the moment they left his lips, the more so for Vin's soft rebuke. But it was too late.
Jean stared at him, her eyes huge. "What do you mean?" She turned to Vin, catching hold of his sleeve. "Vin? What does...? Is he saying the kidnapping,,, That it was Sean's fault?"
Vin just closed his eyes, looking as wrung out at Chris had ever seen him.
"I'm saying Sean got in way over his head," Chris said, gentling his voice as much for Vin's sake as Jean's. "Frank Malone--the guy holding Sean's markers--is very powerful. He runs half the organized crime in this city. And he doesn't take no for an answer."
"The phone calls. The man who showed up at our door," Jean murmured to herself, looking ill. "I just assumed it was a collection agency." She pressed a hand to her stomach. "What did you mean when you said Sean sold Vin?"
Chris glanced at his friend, but Vin just stared down at his folded hands. "Malone wants classified information from Vin," he said, steeling himself against the hurt written in her pale face. "That's why he had him abducted. Sean let Malone's men know when and where they could make the grab. Not only did he set Vin up, he played along, letting Vin think they were both being abducted, when in reality Sean was in on it from the start. In return, Malone was supposed to cancel his debt."
Jean was weeping by the time he finished. "He'd been so jumpy and upset," she said between little gasps for breath. "Then, a few weeks ago, he got really calm. He said I could stop worrying. That he'd figured out a way to fix everything." She stretched out a trembling hand to Vin's cheek. "Oh god, Vin. I'm so... I never..."
Vin flinched at the touch, but recovered quickly. Lacing their fingers, he gave a squeeze, then let go. "I know."
To allow them both a moment to regroup, Chris made a run to the water cooler. When he returned, he surreptitiously handed Vin a painkiller along with the little paper cup. For once his friend didn't argue.
"I don't know what to say," Jean said, still sniffling as she sipped from her own cup.
"You don't have to say anythin'," Vin replied. "None of this is your doin'."
"But there may be a way you can help," Chris said, reclaiming his seat. "The man who called on the phone and came to your house--did you ever hear his name?"
Jean frowned. "I don't... No." She looked apologetically at Chris. "Sean started to use a name once, but the guy cut him off."
"How 'bout his face?" Vin asked. "If you saw his picture would you recognize him?"
"Maybe." She squared her shoulders and nodded firmly. "Yes, I think I would. You think maybe it was this Malone person?"
Chris shook his head. "Frank Malone wouldn't soil his hands with something as mundane as collecting on a debt. He's got hired goons for that. But it's a good bet whoever was leaning on Sean for the money also offered him the deal."
Vin started to rise. "I'll see she gets set up to look at mug shots."
On his feet in an instant, Chris stopped Vin with a gentle hand to the chest. "I'll set her up," he said, pitching his voice for his friend's ears only. "You stay put and let that painkiller kick in."
"Aw, hell, Chris, I can--"
"We had a deal, Cowboy."
Vin huffed his annoyance, but relented, turning to Jean. "Chris'll take you downstairs where you can look at some pictures of past offenders," he told Jean. "Odds are the guy's got a record."
"I'll do my best." Jean looked intently into his eyes, her own glistening. "You have to believe that Sean wouldn't have done this unless he had no other choice. You were his friend, Vin."
Vin swallowed hard, his voice rough with doubt. "I thought I was. But, Jeannie--"
Chris's breath caught in his chest and Vin went very still as they both stared at her. Jean blotted her eyes, trying to smile. "I found out a few weeks ago, just before... The day after I told Sean, he came to me and told me to stop worrying. That he'd found a way to solve all our financial problems." She shook her head with a ragged little laugh that sounded more like a sob. "I thought he meant he'd taken out a loan--"
Her voice broke and then she was crying in earnest, her face buried in the crook of Vin's neck as he rocked her gently. "It's okay, Jeannie," he murmured, squeezing his eyes shut. "We're gonna be okay."
Chris could only watch them, his hands clenched into fists and his gut churning with helplessness. After a moment he slipped quietly from the room and shut the door.
Why was it the magazines in waiting rooms were always at least a year old? Buck tossed aside a dog-eared copy of Men's Health and wandered over to the nurses' station, where he gave the sweet young thing behind the counter his most charming smile.
"Well, hey there, Cyndi. You're lookin' mighty pretty today."
She glanced up from the paperwork she was studying. "Is there something I can do for you, Mr. Wilmington?"
"Darlin', you're doin' somethin' for me just by brightenin' up the scenery." He leaned in close. "Bet you'd look even finer by candlelight. What would you say to a romantic dinner for two?"
Though she returned her gaze to the chart, her lips twitched in a barely repressed smile. "I'd say I'm on duty."
"And I can see you do your job very well. But you must get time off, right? For all that good behavior?"
Cyndi was openly grinning now, her cheeks dimpling. "Now and then."
"So how 'bout a little food, a little wine--maybe some dancin'. Say later tonight?"
"Well I'd have to check my schedule."
Before Buck could press his advantage, Dr. Lorenzo stepped out of the exam room. Buck caught a quick glimpse of Vin gingerly easing into his shirt before the physician pulled the door shut behind him. He looked over at Buck, narrowing his eyes.
"A word please, Mr. Wilmington."
"Hold that thought," Buck said to Cyndi, then followed Lorenzo over to the row of chairs.
"I have one or two questions for you," Lorenzo said as they both took seats.
"Sure, doc. Fire away."
"What in the hell have you been doing to my patient?"
Buck dropped his jaw and gaped. "Huh?"
"His weight is down, his blood pressure's up, and he generally looks like crap--or hadn't you noticed?"
"'Course I noticed. It ain't exactly a surprise, considerin' he doesn't eat enough to keep a fly alive and hasn't been sleepin' much, either."
It was Lorenzo's turn to stare at Buck. "And did it ever cross your mind to, oh, I don't know, do something about it?"
"Now wait just a cotton-pickin' minute." Buck stabbed a finger at Lorenzo's chest. "In case you hadn't noticed, that boy's got a head made of granite, not to mention a stubborn streak a mile wide. Hell yeah, we've tried to do somethin' about it! But right about now it's takin' all six of us just to help him hold it together."
Lorenzo sagged back in the chair, some of the fire leaving his eyes. "Look, I just expected more progress in Vin's physical recovery. In some ways he's actually lost ground." He glanced at the chart in his hands. "You said he's not sleeping?"
"According to Chris--Agent Larabee--the nightmares are still real bad. Vin wakes up four, five times a night."
Lorenzo tightened his lips to a thin line. "And that's why I gave him the prescription for sleeping pills."
"Except the pills don't stop the dreams, they just make it so Vin can't wake up from 'em. Hell, if I were in his shoes, I wouldn't be itchin' to take 'em either."
With a sharp nod Lorenzo pulled out a prescription pad. "I can give him something stronger that will put him so far under he won't dream." He scribbled something and handed the top sheet to Buck. "This is a temporary fix. Pills are no substitution for real sleep. And he's got to regain some of that weight. But I'll be honest with you--what I just heard from him was a whole lot of anger and not much cooperation."
Buck tucked the prescription in his pocket with a sigh. "I hear ya, doc. It's been a rough week for the kid. We found our missing agent, but he wasn't as lucky as Vin."
Buck nodded. "Vin's takin' it real hard."
"He needs to talk to someone, Mr. Wilmington, and I don't mean a bull session with the six musketeers. I've given him the number of a trusted colleague. Make sure he uses it."
The exam room door opened and Vin emerged, frowning when he saw Buck and Lorenzo with their heads together. "You two havin' a party and I wasn't invited?" The flippant words contained an underlying edge.
"Sorry, but I'm afraid your dance card's going to be pretty empty until you stop looking like shit." Lorenzo stood, tucking the chart against his chest. "Bring him back in a week," he said to Buck. And to Vin, "Remember what I told you."
"How could I forget? You sound like a broken record."
"Hey." Buck laid a hand on Vin's arm, unsettled by the brittle impatience. "Seems to me you were the one who pointed out the doc here is just doin' his job."
"Yeah, well, everybody's got a real good reason for tellin' me what to do. Don't mean I gotta like it." Vin fumbled with the zipper on his coat, then gave up with a huff of frustration. "I'll wait for you at the car."
"Oh, no you won't! You heard what Chris said. For all we know you could still be in danger."
"Hell, at this point I'd risk a little danger if it buys me a minute to myself. Besides, I'm sure y'all aren't done decidin' what's best for me."
"Vin. Vin, you get your ass back here!" Buck watched, incredulous, as his friend stalked out the door. He turned to Lorenzo, gesturing as he fumbled for words. "I, uh, better He's not exactly I gotta go."
"A week," Lorenzo, called. "If he's not looking better I'll kick his ass myself."
"I'll tell him." Buck was halfway to the car before he realized he'd never gotten Cyndi's phone number.
Cursing under his breath, he slid behind the wheel and slammed his door. Turning so his arm was braced across the seatback, he glared at Vin. "Who pissed in your cornflakes? You acted like a spoiled brat back there, and that ain't like you."
Vin stared out the windshield, refusing to meet his eyes.
With a grunt of impatience, Buck shook his head. "Lorenzo is just tryin' to get you well. All of us--we just want to see you back to normal."
To his astonishment Vin barked a sharp laugh. "Normal? Y'all are gonna have a long wait."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Forget it." Vin clenched his jaw, his eyes bright. "I just want to go home, to my place, my stuff. Is that too damn much to ask?"
The bitter, world-weary words pierced Buck's heart. "You know I can't do that, Junior." He forced a smile. "Hey. How 'bout we grab a late lunch at that deli you're so fond of before I take you back to the ranch?"
Vin slumped down in his seat, arms folded and face turned toward the window. "Do whatever you want, Buck. I don't really give a shit." He deliberately closed his eyes, cutting off further communication.
His chest tight with frustration, Buck started the truck and headed for the highway. Suddenly he wasn't too hungry either.
+ + + + + + +
Chris eased the door shut and paused, loosening his tie. Except for the soft tick of the wall clock, the house was silent. He wandered through the kitchen, dark except for the light over the stove, and glanced into the empty den before heading toward the bedrooms.
The door to the guestroom was slightly ajar, and he cautiously peered through the opening. A shaft of moonlight illuminated the bed and Vin, sprawled face down, sleeping hard. Fully dressed, he appeared to have crawled onto the mattress and collapsed, never moving a muscle since. Chris listened to the steady whisper of his breath for several minutes before backing quietly down the hallway.
From the corner of his eye he caught movement on the deck. Buck was leaning on the railing, nursing a bottle of beer as he watched the horses in the corral. When Chris joined him, he gave a slanted grin.
"You're lookin' mighty rough around the edges, ol' son. Travis givin' you a hard time?"
"Travis may be a pain in the ass, but he's not the one keeping me up at night--or fueling this fire in my gut." Chris jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "He been sleeping long?"
"Since we got back from the doc. Three, maybe four hours."
"What did Lorenzo have to say?"
"Considerin' what Vin looks like right about now, what do you think he had to say?" When Chris raised an eyebrow at the acid tone, Buck's shoulders curled. "Sorry."
"I take it the doc gave you a rough time?"
Buck snorted. "Lorenzo was a cake walk. Vin, on the other hand, acted like a little shit."
"He sassed the doc, blew me off when I told him not to go out to the truck alone, and damn it, he ruined my chance to score a date with the woman of my dreams."
"Hell, Buck, anything in a skirt is the woman of your dreams."
"I'm serious, Chris. I don't know what bug crawled up that boy's ass, but I--"
"I'm pretty sure I do." Chris watched Peso do his best to annoy Pony, not really seeing the horses. "Did Lorenzo say anything I should know?"
"'Bout what you'd expect. Kid needs to sleep, to eat. He gave him some stronger sleeping pills that should stop the nightmares altogether. The bottle's on the counter by the sink."
Chris chewed the inside of his cheek. He hated the thought of heavier drugs almost as much as he knew Vin would, but couldn't see an alternative. "Is that why he crashed so hard?"
Buck shook his head. "Nope. He was runnin' on fumes by the time we made it through the door. Stumbled into the bedroom and was out like a light." He huffed. "Guess bein' a pain in the ass wears you out." But his voice held more affection than irritation.
They stood shoulder to shoulder in companionable silence as Buck drank his beer. He followed the final swallow with a satisfied belch and a slap to Chris's back. "Think I'll head on home."
"You sure? There's lasagna in the freezer if you're interested."
"Nah. J.D.'s havin' dinner with Casey so I'll have the place to myself. I may not have the lovely Cyndi's number, but I always got backup."
"Now why does that not surprise me?"
After Buck had climbed into his truck and driven away, Chris locked up and turned off the porch light. Walking into the kitchen, he fingered the new prescription bottle, holding it up to the light and staring at the bright pink caplets. Finally setting it aside, he pulled the foil pan of lasagna from the freezer and popped it into the oven.
Cooking was good, occupying his hands and providing a welcome distraction from his troubled thoughts. He chopped lots of fresh vegetables for the kind of garbage salad Vin adored, sliced and buttered two wedges of garlic bread. When the lasagna was hot and bubbling, he set it atop the stove to cool and went to rouse Vin.
With a gentle push from his fingertips, he nudged the door open. To his surprise, Vin was no longer sleeping. His back to the headboard and his injured hand propped on one upraised knee, he was staring blankly into the darkness. As Chris moved slowly into the room, he took in the sweat-damp hair and rapid rise and fall of his friend's chest. Easing onto the edge of the mattress, he waited for Vin to speak or look at him. When several minutes passed without either, he sighed.
"Dinner's ready. You should eat."
"I made a salad. And there's garlic bread."
Vin drew his brows together, mouth turning down in a scowl as he looked at Chris for the first time. "Did you suddenly go deaf, Larabee? I said I ain't hungry."
So Buck wasn't exaggerating. Chris returned the glare. "Well frankly, Vin, I don't give a rat's ass whether you're hungry. Doc said you need to start eating, and I'm damn well going to make sure you do."
His face flushed with anger, Vin leaned in close. "No one makes me do anything. So unless you got handcuffs and a few of the boys with you, I'd say you're outta luck."
"What the hell is your problem?"
"My problem? My problem is you--all of you." He gestured wildly, his jaw clenched. "Tellin' me what to do, what to think, what to feel, who to talk to... I don't need you pokin' your nose in my business, tryin' to help. I've taken care of myself my whole life, and you know what? It's a damn sight better that way."
Now Chris could hear it, the open wound beneath Vin's tirade. "This isn't about me, or the boys, or even Dr. Lorenzo." He calmly regarded his friend. "Say it, Vin."
"Fuck you." Vin slid off the bed and flicked on the light. He tugged open the bureau drawer.
"Not exactly what I had in mind." He watched Vin pull out a stack of tee shirts. "What do you think you're doing?"
"Goin' home. I've had more than enough of this shit."
"Like hell." Chris rounded the bed and slammed the drawer, placing his body in front of it.
Vin curled his fingers into a fist. "Get outta my way, Chris."
"Or what? You're gonna hit me? Who are you really mad at, Vin?" When Vin tried to move around him, he blocked him again. "Say it."
"Get the hell outta my way!"
"You can pull this 'I don't need anybody' crap all you want, I'm not buying it. Only one person screwed you over, and it wasn't the boys or me. Why won't you just fuckin' admit it's Sean you're pissed at?"
"Because I can't!"
Silence punctuated Vin's anguished howl. They stared at each other, chests heaving, until Vin shuffled over and folded onto the side of the bed, head cradled in his uninjured hand. Chris sat down beside his friend, absorbing the fine tremors racing through the hunched form.
"Don't you get it?" Vin asked, his voice muffled. "I trusted him, and he set me up, handed me over to those bastards and made me think... And I can't even... I want to hate the sonuvabitch, I want it so bad, but--"
"It's hard to hate a man who was trying to protect his wife and unborn child."
Vin's hunched shoulders confirmed his words.
"Does it help to know that if the little shit walked through the door right now I'd probably take him apart him with my bare hands? Or that there'd be five men in line right behind me?"
It startled a weak puff of laughter and lifted Vin's head, though it didn't drive the shadows from his eyes.
"Sean screwed up," Chris continued, holding Vin's gaze. "He made a boatload of stupid mistakes. And as if that wasn't bad enough, he chose to betray a friend rather than admit he was in too deep and ask for help. I'm sorry for his wife, and for that baby. But don't cheat yourself, Cowboy. You've got a right to be madder than hell."
Vin was quiet, chin tucked to his chest as he picked at his bandaged fingers. Chris waited him out, encouraged by the release of tension when Vin stopped holding himself stiffly upright and leaned comfortably into his side.
"Did Jeannie have any luck with the mug books?"
"Yeah. She did." Chris didn't try to mask the smug satisfaction in his voice, and Vin immediately picked up on it.
Vin's head snapped around. "Benny? I thought he was just a third-rate bookie."
"Evidently he's moved up through the ranks. Malone's had him overseeing a chunk of the illegal gambling he's got going. Including the action from Sharkey's Pub." Chris studied Vin's face, saw the connection made.
"Wait a minute. Sharkey's... Didn't I just see somethin' in the news about the cops bustin' that place?"
"Yep. Nailed them for gambling, drugs, and prostitution. A triple play." Chris grinned. "Guess who's sitting in lock-up right now, ripe for a deal?"
"You really think you can get him to talk?"
"It's his only chance to avoid a long prison stretch. I'm guessing he'll be receptive. Josiah and Ezra are going to talk to him first thing in the morning."
"Good. That's good. Maybe he'll actually be able to tell us why Big Daddy Malone is suddenly so all-fired interested in me." Vin knuckled the skin above his right eye and cleared his throat. "I, uh... I was a real shit to Buck and the doc."
"Really? He never mentioned it."
Vin chuffed. "Yer a lousy liar."
"You can apologize next time you see him, but I wouldn't lose any sleep over it. Buck's had plenty of experience as a punching bag. He'll be sure you make it up to him."
"I guess I got that comin'."
Chris stood and faced him. "Now are you gonna come eat some of that salad and bread? Or do I need to hunt up my handcuffs and call the boys?"
"Reckon I'll spare you the trouble." Vin rose from the bed and followed him to the door. "Think the doc will be as forgivin' as Buck?"
With a snort, Chris shook his head. "You better hope so, Cowboy. Considering it's Lorenzo we're talking about, I'm guessing paybacks really would be a bitch."
Vin sighed. "Was afraid you were gonna say that."
Chris slammed the gearshift into park but didn't shut off the engine. Hands locked on the steering wheel, he turned a glare on the man seated beside him. "This is a bad idea."
With a huff of exasperation, Vin reached over and twisted the key. "Cuttin' me outta this would be a bad idea," he said, his raspy voice loud in the sudden silence. When Chris still looked unconvinced, he rolled his eyes. "I'm fine."
"Right. That's why Buck's got Lorenzo's teeth marks in his ass."
"We had a deal."
Only Vin would have the balls to throw his own words back at him. "I must've been out of my mind. Look, Vin--"
"Didn't I take the damn pill last night?"
"One night's sleep doesn't cure more than a week of sleep deprivation."
"And didn't I eat what you set in front of me?"
"It was a sandwich. You didn't exactly stuff yourself." When Vin just looked at him, Chris sighed. "Yes."
"Way I see it, I've held up my end of the bargain. Now we can sit here and argue 'til the cows come home. But I'm still gonna be in that room hearin' what Benny has to say."
"Wish to hell I'd never taken that call from Josiah with you in the room." But Chris got out of the truck.
Vin awkwardly eased out his door until he was standing beside the vehicle, pausing for a moment with his hand braced on the roof and his face twisted in a grimace. "Ain't like I didn't know they were seein' Benny this morning." He moved around the hood to join Chris. "You really think you could've kept me from hearin' that he'd agreed to a deal?"
"I'd have given it my best shot," Chris muttered.
"You know, I can still remember my mother, Larabee, and you don't look anythin' like her."
"Lord, you're a pain in the ass."
"Back atcha, Cowboy."
Being federal agents spared them a little of the red tape involved in talking to a prisoner, but by the time they met up with Ezra and Josiah in the interrogation room, Vin couldn't disguise his eagerness to sink into a chair. Still, he waved off their concern.
"Before you ask, I'm fine," he said, dividing a warning scowl between the three of them. "And I'd appreciate it if y'all didn't look at me like that when Benny's in the room."
"Good afternoon, Mr. Tanner. It's a pleasure to see you." Ezra took the seat to Vin's left, adjusting his suit jacket and smoothing his tie.
"Likewise, brother." Josiah sat beside Ezra, the barest hint of a smile curving his lips.
Vin blinked, then relaxed his shoulders. "Thanks. It's good to be seen." He narrowed his eyes at Chris. "If Larabee had his way I'd be locked up at the ranch with Nathan pourin' horse piss down my throat."
"I could still take you back," Chris retorted, amused in spite of himself when Vin flipped him the bird. He switched back to business. "Before he gets here--are you two sure Benny really knows why Malone had Vin abducted? That he's not just stringing you along to weasel out of doing hard time?"
Ezra exchanged a long look with Josiah before answering. "While Josiah was speaking with you on the phone, Mr. Aguilar and I had our own little chat. I suggested to him that offering a bit of information as collateral might go a long way toward legitimizing his claims and thus solidifying a mutually beneficial arrangement with us."
Vin huffed and shook his head. "Lord, Ez, it don't take all them ten-dollar words to say you told him to put up or shut up."
"Some of us actually enjoy employing a more extensive vocabulary," Ezra drawled. "Be that as it may, our would-be informant delivered."
Motioning for him to continue, Chris growled, "Go ahead."
"He knew all the details," Josiah said, his gaze passing over Vin before coming to rest on Chris. "Where they took Vin. The beatings. Drugs." He pressed his clasped hands under his chin. "Even where they dumped Sean's body."
Before Chris could respond, the door opened and a guard escorted a short, stocky Hispanic man into the room, manhandling him into the chair on the opposite side of the table.
"Lose the cuffs," Chris said.
The guard pulled out the key, but hesitated. "You sure?"
Chris gave Alvarez a wolfish grin. "If he's stupid enough to try something, any one of us will be happy to show him the error of his ways."
With a shrug the handcuffs were removed and the guard headed for the door. "I'll be outside. Just call when you're done."
Silence. Alvarez shuffled his feet, darting glances at the four men watching him from across the table.
Chris pulled out a chair and sat beside Vin. He folded his arms across his chest and inclined his head. "We're listening."
Alvarez's lips parted and he drew his brows together. "What? You think I'm gonna-- I ain't givin' you nothin', man. Not until I see what I'm gonna get. In writing."
Silence again, until Josiah cleared his throat. "Now, Benny, something's telling me maybe Ezra and I didn't make ourselves clear."
"Or the fool has a death wish," Ezra murmured.
Like a snake uncoiling in preparation to strike, Chris unfolded his arms and leaned across the table. "You want a deal?" he asked, his voice a low purr. "Listen carefully. You're going to tell me everything you know about what Malone wanted from Agent Tanner. If I like what I hear, I might put in a good word with the judge when the time comes--"
"Might? Fuck you! You think I'm stupid? I ain't--" Alvarez started to get up but Chris clamped a hand on his wrist.
"Sit down and shut up."
Alvarez subsided, wariness replacing his fury. When Chris released his wrist, he rubbed at the red marks left behind.
"As I was saying," Chris continued, "if I decide all you're peddling is a load of bullshit, not only will I see that your sorry ass lands in prison for the maximum sentence, I'll make sure your pal Malone knows you were trying to cut a deal at his exp
nse. And I'm guessing he's not someone you want to piss off."
"What do I care, if I'm stuck behind bars anyway?" Alvarez blustered, but a muscle twitched high on his cheek.
With a smile, Chris settled back in his chair. "I think we both know a man like Big Daddy Malone has the resources and the persistence to overcome any obstacles."
Alvarez licked his lips, his gaze flicking from the fading bruises on Vin's face to his broken fingers.
Chris pushed away from the table. "This was a waste of time."
"No. Wait." Alvarez rubbed a hand over the back of his neck, turning sullen eyes on Chris. "I'll tell you what you want to know. But you gotta protect me, man."
After regarding him coolly for a long moment, Chris nodded. "Done."
Alvarez scrutinized Chris's expression as if weighing the truth of his statement, then took a deep breath. "Donovan had been dancin' in and out of debt to Malone for more than three years. But the last eight months, his luck was for shit. Got in so deep, he was hockin his wife's jewelry just to make his payments."
Vin made a soft sound of disgust. "Jeannie thought she'd lost that ring. She was real upset 'cause it was her great-grandmother's."
"Malone'd let me lean on him, rough him up, but only a little," Alvarez continued. "Every time I wanted my boys to really work him over, he'd tell me not to damage the goods. That havin' a fed in his pocket was gonna come in handy some day."
"Charming," Ezra said.
"Turned out he was right," Alvarez continued. "Couple months ago he sees an article in the paper about the ATF bustin' some guys for selling guns. Donovan's face was right there in black and white." Alvarez shifted his gaze to Vin. "So was yours."
"The Alexander case," Josiah said.
"Son of a bitch," Chris muttered.
"He did some checking, found out you two was pretty tight." Alvarez hitched a shoulder. "Bingo. Donovan's more than just a pain in his ass."
"'Cept I don't know Malone, never even met him," Vin said. "What the hell did he want from me?"
Alvarez curled his lips. "Revenge."
"Bullshit!" Vin slapped his palm on the table. "I just told you, we've never crossed paths."
"Gonna have to do better than that, Benny," Chris said.
"Did I say he wanted revenge for himself?"
"Y' ain't said much of anythin', far as I can tell," Vin snarled.
"Malone's got a younger sister, man. Names Kate. She's the one put Frank on your ass."
"A sister? You've gotta be..." Vin surged to his feet, steadying himself with a hand on the chair's back before pacing across the room. "I don't know what kind of scam you're tryin' to pull, Benny, but I don't know Frank Malone, and I for damn sure don't know his sister!"
"I've heard enough," Chris said. "I'm calling the guard."
"The sister's husband used to run action out of Dallas." Benny spoke quickly, the words tumbling over each other. "Some gambling. Drugs. His name was Michael. Michael Cappaletti." He looked at Vin. "Ring any bells?"
From the corner of his eye, Chris saw his friend freeze. He turned in time to watch the color drain from his cheeks. "Vin?"
Vin stumbled back a step, hand fumbling to press against the rough cinderblock wall. His lips moved, but at first no sound emerged. "Cappaletti?"
Chris closed the gap in two quick strides and gripped his friend's arm. The muscle was like iron under his fingers. "Vin. What is it?"
The sharpshooter just shook his head, his expression as dazed as if he'd been sucker-punched.
"Way I heard it, your buddy and Cappaletti got quite a history," Benny piped up. "He's the one helped bust the dude four years ago. Him and some punk named--"
"Max," Vin breathed.
"Get him the hell out of here!" Chris barked, locking both hands in Vin's shirt as his friend's legs crumpled and he slid down the wall. He vaguely registered Benny's protests, Ezra summoning the guard, and Josiah ushering the disgruntled prisoner out of the room.
Vin drew his knees to his chest and pressed his forehead to them. Chris eased down so that he was facing him, one hand encircling his friend's ankle. He waved off Ezra and Josiah, his heart pounding as he waited Vin out.
"I remember." Vin's voice was a raspy whisper as he lifted haunted eyes to Chris's face. "I remember all of it."
Vin swiped at the sweat beading his upper lip. "'Fore I came to Denver, when I ran away from the last foster home... I was livin' in Dallas. On the streets." He paused, gnawing hard on his lip.
"Wasn't long before the money I stole ran out. I had no food. No place to stay. And no one gave a damn about helpin' me." He swallowed hard with a bitter little laugh. "Well, 'cept for a pimp who had his own ideas 'bout how I could make some cash."
Chris's stomach twisted and he heard Ezra's soft hiss of breath.
Vin peered at each of them as if searching for condemnation. What he saw must have given him the courage to continue.
"Right about the time that offer was startin' to look good, I met Max Cooper." Vin pressed the heel of his hand to his temple with a reluctant smile. "I was fifteen. Max was eighteen, been livin' on the streets most of his life.
"He caught me goin' through a dumpster--I hadn't eaten in a couple days. Not sure what he saw in a scrawny kid like me, but he took me under his wing. Got me a decent meal and a place to crash in the abandoned warehouse where he lived. More important, he showed me the ropes: the best places to get free food, how to avoid gettin' my ass kicked..." He clenched his jaw. "And ways to make money that didn't involve whorin' myself."
"Sounds like a good friend." Josiah's low rumble startled Chris into looking over his shoulder--he hadn't noticed the profiler and Ezra move closer.
"Reckon he saved my life."
"So what happened?" Chris asked quietly. When Vin looked at him, he hitched one shoulder. "You wound up in Denver. Something must have changed."
Sorrow flickered across Vin's expressive features. "Yeah. Max did. All of a sudden, he had more cash, enough to actually buy groceries, to move us out of the dump we were livin' in and get a cheap apartment. At first he'd just say he got a job, wouldn't tell me any more. But eventually I figured it out. He was workin' for Cappaletti."
Chris remained silent. It was obvious from Vin's tone of voice how he'd felt about the situation.
"I couldn't believe it. Despite everythin', all the times we weren't sure how we'd make it from one day to the next, we'd agreed there was some lines we'd never cross. Just 'cause we were surrounded by shit didn't mean we had to smell like it. Takin' money from Cappaletti, the guy responsible for so much of the stink..." Vin shook his head.
"I sense that you had a bit of a falling out," Ezra said.
Vin snorted. "More like a knock-down, drag-out. By the time we were done, we'd each taken a piece outta the other's hide. And we'd tossed around some real hard words."
He tipped his head against the wall and blew out a slow breath. "I moved out that day, left the city not long after. I'd always wanted to see the mountains, so I lit out for Colorado. I put Texas, and Max, outta my mind, and I didn't look back.
"Then seven years later a bounty I was trackin' took me back to Dallas. Next thing I know, I've stumbled into the middle of an undercover operation the local feds was runnin' on Cappaletti's organization. They pulled in my guy. And guess who was in the cell next door."
"Your buddy Max." Chris winced. "That must've been some reunion."
"Better 'n you might think. All those years had changed us both. Max... Well, let's just say the shine was off the penny when it came to how he saw Cappaletti. He wanted out, he just didn't know how."
"So you aided him in brokering a deal," Ezra said. "Not unlike the one Mr. Alvarez hopes to secure."
"Cappaletti had a big drug buy goin' down and Max knew all the details. With me as his go-between, he delivered ol' Mike to the feds on a silver platter. Judge sentenced the guy to twelve years, and the feds let Max off the hook. Only problem was Cappaletti's people found out and put a price on Max's head."
"They put him in the witness protection program," Chris guessed, sensing where Vin was headed. "Gave him a new identity, a new life."
"The records were sealed," Vin said. "No one was supposed to know where he ended up."
"Except you do," Chris said quietly. "Don't you, Cowboy?"
"Stupid son of a bitch called me about a year ago. Wanted me to know he was doin' good. That he had a family now, and he was stayin' clean. Asked me to get in touch with his ma, let her know he was okay and not rottin' in a ditch somewhere." Vin squeezed his eyes shut but moisture sparkled in the corners. "Dumb bastard laughed when I told him he shouldn't be talkin' to me. Said by now everyone had forgotten all about him."
"But he was wrong."
Chris's statement pulled a soft, choked sound of pain from Vin, and he opened his eyes. "When I woke up tied to that chair, hearin' Sean's screams, I knew it was gonna get real bad. I just never expected..." His voice cracked. "The first time Westin asked, I... I was ready for it to be about the job, you know? Maybe 'bout some case we were workin' on. I could've given him that--would've messed the team up, maybe, and pissed me off for sure, but for Sean..."
He tucked his face into his folded arms, his shoulders hunched. "If it'd been anything else, if there'd been some other choice, I'd've never let them... But I... I couldn't give 'em Max."
Chris laid his hand on Vin's bowed head. It took him a moment to tamp down on his anger before he could speak. "Listen to me, Vin. You think you made a choice, but that's bullshit. There was never a choice to be made." When Vin turned his face to regard him with red-rimmed eyes, he continued more gently. "You have to realize Malone never intended either of you to leave that warehouse alive. The moment you gave up Max's location Westin would've killed you both."
"I concur," Ezra said. "If set free, you could prevent him from carrying out his vendetta against your friend."
Josiah nodded. "And Sean might eventually crack and admit he helped Malone engineer the kidnapping of two federal agents."
"You hear what we're saying?" Chris held Vin's gaze, wishing he could erase the hurt in those blue eyes. "You've got nothin' to beat yourself up about, Pard. You did the right thing."
Instead of answering, Vin pushed himself awkwardly to his feet. "I'm real tired, Chris. Could we please just head home?"
Damn. Chris wanted to force the issue, but Josiah gave a slight shake of his head. Pressing his lips into a thin line, he accepted the big man's hand and let himself be tugged upright.
When they got to the door, Vin paused. "Tell me somethin', huh, Chris? If I did the "right" thing, how come it feels so damn wrong?" He shouldered past the three of them without waiting for an answer.
"What the hell are you doin' here?"
Chris jerked, his pen skittering across the page and leaving a dark scrawl in its wake. Damn it, Paula down in supply was going to think he filled out the requisition while three sheets to the wind.
He scowled up at his oldest friend. "Is there a hope in hell you'll learn to use those knuckles for something other than fistfights?"
"Ain't you ever heard of havin' an open-door policy? Fosters good employee-management relations." Buck sprawled into the chair across from him. "And you didn't answer my question."
With exaggerated care, Chris dropped the pen and folded his hands on the blotter. "I'm doing my job, Buck. How about you?"
"Seems to me your job right now should be keepin' an eye on Junior. Way Ezra tells it he was in piss-poor shape when you left the lock-up."
After the conversation he'd had with Vin, Buck's words sparked Chris's anger. "So I'm slacking off at being his friend, is that it? Tell me, Buck, just what do you think I should be doing for him right now?"
Buck had absorbed too many Larabee fits of temper to respond with anything but a raised eyebrow. "Well, gee, Chris, I dunno. How about being there for him in case he needs to talk about this whole godawful mess?"
"Be there for him? Shit, you think I haven't tried? I'd be glued to his side right now if I thought it'd do any good. He's pulling away, hiding behind those damn walls of his." Chris stood and walked to the window, staring out at the sullen, gray clouds. "He told me to leave, Buck. If I hadn't, he'd've called a cab and gone back to his apartment."
Chris heard the shuffle of feet and a moment later felt Buck's solid presence at his back. A reluctant smile twitched at his lips. Right where he could always count on Buck to be.
"Chris..." Buck moved into his peripheral vision but Chris kept his eyes on the window. "I know you ain't gonna want to hear this, but I think Jim Spencer has got a point."
It took everything he had to keep his anger in check. Chris turned slowly toward his friend, pitching his voice low and deadly. "What did you say?"
Buck held up a placating hand. "Now just listen a minute before you go off on me. I know Jim has been shovelin' a load of bullshit the past week, and Lord knows Travis has had his hands full tryin' to rein him in. But the stuff about Vin seein' a psychiatrist? That ain't so far off the mark."
"You're listening to Spencer now? Next thing you'll be declaring Vin unfit for duty, wanting to pump him full of drugs."
"Oh, cut the crap! You know that's not what I'm sayin'." Running a hand through his hair, Buck took a deep breath. "Think about it, pard. The physical stuff--the interrogation, the torture--is bad enough on its own. But when you add in the way they messed with his head..."
He didn't want to hear this. Hot resentment bubbled up at Buck's determination to press the issue. "Vin's tough. He can get past it."
"'Course he can. But not without more help than you, or me, or any of the boys can give." Buck gripped his shoulder and Chris saw raw emotion in his eyes. "It's too much for him this time, Chris. Shut me down if you want, but I know you see it, too. It's more than just the nightmares and the not eatin'. He startles at the slightest sound, flinches when you touch him. And the light...it's gone clean outta him."
Chris's chest tightened at the truth in Buck's words. "I've already heard this speech from Lorenzo and Travis, and I'll tell you what I told them. He'll never go for it. He's already bitched about having to see the department shrink before he can return to work. And he knows he doesn't have a choice about that."
"Nobody said anything about him likin' it. But he will go for it." Buck paused. "If it comes from you."
"Oh, screw you, Buck."
"Uh-huh." With a faint smile, Buck nodded. "So you know it's true. I ain't sayin' he won't go kickin' and screamin'. Hell, he'll probably use all of them Spanish cuss words. But you gotta stop draggin' your feet, Chris. He respects you more than anybody. You're the one person who can get him to do this. The only one."
Chris gritted his teeth. "Fine."
"You'll talk to him?"
"Just said I would." Didn't mean he had to like it. Chris knew how hard trust came to Vin, and how carefully he guarded his privacy. Pushing him to open up to a complete stranger felt a lot like a betrayal.
Except hearing Buck express his worry crystallized Chris's own. And the light...it's gone clean outta him. Leave it to Buck to put words to the nagging ache he felt each time he looked at his hurting friend.
Buck pulled a dog-eared piece of paper from his wallet and pressed it into Chris's hand. "A couple guys Vin's doc suggested."
Chris pocketed the sheet without looking at it and returned to his desk. Buck seemed as if he were going to leave, but hovered in the doorway. "Um...one other thing."
Chris dropped his pen. Again. "Just one?"
"Spencer wants to see Vin. Now don't get your panties in a wad," Buck hastened when Chris scowled and his face flushed with anger. "He's heard the whole story, and he feels damn bad about what Vin's been through. To tell you the truth, I think he's lookin' to apologize."
"Damn right the bastard should apologize. But he's not doing it on my watch--not right now, anyway."
"Josiah and Ezra weren't exaggerating, Buck. Vin is in piss-poor shape right now. The last thing he needs is Jim Spencer's load of guilt piled on top of his own. Keep him away. I mean it."
Buck blew out a breath and bobbed his head. "I'll try and hold him off."
"See that you do. Because if he pulls another number on Vin like the one at the hospital? I won't be responsible for my actions."
He picked up his pen and resumed writing, not bothering to look up when Buck left, shutting the door firmly behind him.
+ + + + + + +
It was going on eight o'clock when Chris pulled in the gravel driveway and shut off the engine. The house was dark, not even a glimmer of light spilling from the large front windows. He couldn't quite squelch a frisson of anxiety at the sight.
He'd done as Vin asked, honored his request to be left alone. Yet barely a minute had gone by these past five hours that he hadn't questioned the wisdom of that decision. Vin had been quiet when they left the lock-up. Shell-shocked. Chris knew it was his friend's instinct to withdraw when he was hurting. His gut told him he should be fighting that impulse, rather than enabling it.
He paused inside the door, letting his eyes adjust to the darkness rather than turning on a light. Expecting to find Vin down by the corral or out on the deck, he was caught off guard by the motionless shadow on the den couch.
"Hey." He stripped off his coat and sank onto the opposite end.
When several minutes passed with nothing but the sound of the ticking clock, Chris cleared his throat. "Mind if I turn on a light?"
More silence, and Chris was again the one to break it. "You eat?"
"Want me to warm up some of that stew?"
Well, hell. So much for hoping a little solitude would improve Vin's state of mind.
"You gonna help me out or just leave me swinging in the wind?" Chris let his frustration bleed into his voice.
Vin's face was an indistinct blur in the darkness, and his voice was just as featureless. "Reckon I'm not feelin' too helpful right now."
"Turtling up isn't going to solve anything. This isn't going to go away."
No response, and now it was really pissing Chris off. "You've got to talk about it, Vin."
His friend tensed, then stood, his stiff movements testifying that he'd been sitting in the same position for some time. "Told you before and I'll tell you again--I don't gotta do nothin'." He started to walk away, presumably headed toward the bedroom.
"Lorenzo gave Buck the names of a couple psychiatrists. I want you to see one of them." Chris paused, steeling himself. "I won't certify you for active duty until you do."
Vin froze, then slowly turned around. "Fuck you, Larabee." The words vibrated with the force of his anger. "You've got no right--"
"I've got every right, you jackass! I'm your friend, and I'm not about to sit back and watch you self-destruct."
"Really?" Chris turned on the lamp and gestured to the mirror over the bar. "Have you taken a good look at yourself lately?"
Vin flicked a brief glance at his reflection. "Nothin' to see."
"The hell." Chris was up and across the room in three quick strides. Grasping his friend firmly by the shoulders, he turned him toward the mirror.
"You've lost weight--clothes are hanging on you, and I can see you're wearing your belt a notch tighter. There are dark circles around your eyes from not sleeping, and pain lines from the headaches. But that's not the worst of it."
When Chris first began speaking, Vin had glared sightlessly into the mirror, his jaw clenched. Now, his gaze shifted to focus on Chris's reflection.
"You don't laugh anymore," Chris continued quietly. "Hell, you hardly even smile. It's like you've got a weight pressing down on you, and it's slowly smothering you. You've always burned so bright, Vin, in spite of all the shit life's dealt you. But now, it's...it's just like Buck said. The light has gone clean out of you."
"Bucklin said that?" Vin closed his eyes, his voice barely more than a whisper.
"He's worried about you. We all are." With a parting squeeze, Chris released Vin's shoulders and returned to the couch.
Still appearing stunned, Vin followed. "Don't mean to put the worry on you." He tipped his chin up. "I can handle this on my own, Chris. Trust me."
"With my life. But not with this." Chris held up a hand before Vin could retort. "You're too close, pard. You're lost in this mess, and you can't see the way out. You need help--and from someone who knows what they're doing. I'm just making sure you get it."
Vin scowled, his shoulders tightening. "Who the hell are you to decide what's best for me?"
"Someone who's walked the path." Chris pressed onward though Vin avoided his gaze, choosing to stare out at the moonlit deck. "I let it eat me alive, the grief, the guilt. Crawled into a bottle--hell, my stomach's still paying for those months. I holed up here like a wild animal licking my wounds, and I did everything I could to drive the boys away. The way I treated Buck..." He shook his head, a wave of regret tightening his throat.
"But you made it through. And I'm guessin' you never spilled your guts to a shrink."
"I wish to God I had." Chris felt a spark of hope at Vin's unguarded look of shock before he quickly narrowed his eyes.
"The hell you do."
"I nearly killed myself, Vin. But what's worse, I put the team in danger. Josiah took a bullet during a bust because I didn't have my head on straight. I'm damn lucky I never got anyone killed. Maybe if Travis had been a little more demanding and a little less sympathetic, things never would have gotten as bad."
He took a calming breath, lowering his voice. "I'll tell you what I've learned. You either deal with the shit, or the shit deals with you. You can try to ignore it all you like, push it down deep where it doesn't show. But it'll still be there, waiting to pop back up when you least expect it. And God help you, and the people closest to you, when it does."
"I ain't gonna fall apart on you." But rather than belligerent, Vin sounded uncertain.
"Haven't you heard a word I've said?" Chris asked, affection, exasperation, and sorrrow coloring the gentle rebuke. "Pard, you already are."
Vin was very still for a long moment. Then his breathing hitched, and he ducked his head, raising a trembling hand to shield his eyes.
"Hell." Sliding closer, Chris wrapped an arm around his friend's shoulders.
"Thought rememberin' would make it better," Vin choked. "But knowin' what I did... It hurts so bad."
There was no point trying to convince Vin that he wasn't guilty--Chris figured he'd leave that monumental task to the professionals. Instead, he tightened his grip. "I know."
Finally, Vin leaned into him, accepting the comfort. "I'm so tired."
"Got every right to be. It's been a helluva few weeks."
"Sometimes...don't think I can do this anymore."
The desolation in the raspy whisper sent a prickle of unease up the back of Chris's neck. Was Vin talking about the job this time? Or something more dangerous? Either way, he understood.
"I've been there. But you're going to get through this, Cowboy. I promise. It's just that this time? You're not gonna do it alone."
Vin made a sound somewhere between a laugh and a sob. "Don't suppose I got much choice. Yer a bossy buncha bastards--the whole lot of ya."
Without breaking his embrace, Chris fished the list of doctors from his pocket and slipped it into Vin's hand. While his friend stared at it, Chris held his breath, wondering if those long fingers would tighten, crumpling it into a ball. He could feel the war raging within Vin through the muscles thrumming under his grasp. After what seemed an eternity, Vin folded the paper and tucked it into his own pocket. Then the tension flowed out of him, and he sagged against Chris.
"All them fancy degrees and Lorenzo's writin' still looks like chicken scratches."
Chris snickered, dropping his arm as they settled side by side into the cushions. "You ever seen a doctor's writing that doesn't? I think there's a required class on it in med school." Before the silence could grow uncomfortable, he scooped up the remote. "Mind if I turn on the TV? Dallas is playing Denver tonight."
"Why not? It'll give me somethin' else to be depressed about."
"Could always become a Broncos fan."
Vin snorted. "I'd sooner date one of Bucklin's women."
If the humor was forced, Chris could overlook it. And if he wound up with an ache in his shoulder from playing pillow to a snoozing sharpshooter, that was okay, too. For three weeks he'd been telling himself everything was going to be okay.
For the first time, he believed it.
Four days later
"Tip your chin up."
"I'm sick and tired of this shit." But Vin did as he was told, staring over Chris's shoulder while his friend's fingers worked the tie at his throat.
"Relax. A couple more weeks and you'll be able to start using those fingers."
"Couple more weeks might as well be a lifetime."
Chris didn't reply. Instead, he gave a final tug, then smoothed the strip of silk with his palm. "Now there's a sight you don't see every day. Hell, Tanner, you clean up pretty good."
Vin looked down at his crisp, white dress shirt and, thanks to Ezra, tasteful silk tie. The reason for his attire crashed into him, and he was abruptly annoyed with Chris's harmless banter. "Yeah, well, don't get excited. Someone's gotta die for me to dress this way."
He regretted the jibe the moment it left his lips. Before Chris could respond, he pulled away and limped into the kitchen, cursing his stupidity and the pain in his feet. Damn dress shoes were gonna be killers on his still-healing toes.
He took a mug from the cupboard, sensing Chris's presence at his back. A quick glance over his shoulder confirmed that his friend was propped in the doorway, watching him with those damn understanding eyes. "Coffee?"
"Had mine while you were in the shower."
Vin busied himself with pouring and stirring, trying to ignore the eyes boring a hole in the back of his head. When he couldn't stall any longer, he turned, leaning against the counter. "You gonna tell me what was so all-fired important that J.D. had to call here at 7:30 a.m.?" he asked, sipping the hot brew.
"Now may not be the best time."
"Don't give me that shit. Whatever it is, I want to hear it."
Chris regarded him for a long moment. "We know how Malone figured out you'd talked to Max."
Despite the churning in his stomach, Vin kept his expression blank. "His mom?"
"Yeah." Chris moved into the room and sat in one of the wooden chairs. "Turns out Malone had her under surveillance."
Vin set aside his mug, unable to take another swallow. "So when I called her..." He closed his stinging eyes. Oh, God. He might as well have painted a target on her back. His eyes flew open. "Is she...?"
"She's fine." Chris nudged a chair toward him. "Sit. You're white as a ghost." When he complied his friend continued. "They had the phone tapped, so they heard the whole conversation. Including you refusing to tell her where her son is. They knew she was a dead end, Vin. That's why they targeted you."
"I could've gotten her killed." He felt numb. Lightheaded.
Chris's fingers gripped his arm, bringing him back. "Bullshit. Max could've gotten her killed. You saved her life by making it clear you weren't going to give her his location."
"Yer splittin' hairs."
"And you're too willing to take the fall for this mess. Damn it, you're the victim here, Vin. Max had no business putting you in jeopardy by making contact."
Vin pinched the bridge of his nose. Barely nine o'clock and the headache was already building. "That was a year ago. Why didn't Malone come after me then?"
"Took him a little time to figure out who you were. And then, I guess the fact that you're a fed made him cautious. He was waiting for an opening, and he's a patient son of a bitch. When he saw that picture of you and Sean in the paper..."
"He had his opening." Vin shook his head. "I can't believe that bastard Cappaletti was holdin' a grudge all this time. Hell, he had a bunch of fancy lawyers--he must've gotten paroled by now." Something unreadable flickered in Chris's eyes. "What?"
"Michael Cappaletti was stabbed during an altercation between two groups of inmates about six months into his sentence. He's dead, Vin."
"Dead?" Vin dropped his forehead into his palm with a ragged laugh. "Shit, we made Malone's little sister a grievin' widow? No wonder he wants to nail Max's ass."
"We're gonna get him, pard. For what he did to you. To Sean." Chris's voice was infinitely gentle. "It may take some time to build a case, but with Benny's testimony we've got a good foundation."
He knew he should respond with something reassuring to convince Chris he was okay, but his brain felt sluggish, the circuits overloaded. He tried to swallow but his mouth was dry as sandpaper. Something cool touched his fingers and he blinked, focusing on a slick plastic water bottle. Huh. He'd never even noticed Chris go to the fridge.
Cracking the cap, Vin downed half the contents. Though he still felt that sense of detachment, his thoughts were sharper. "What about Max?"
"They're already in the process of moving him." Chris's gaze turned flinty, and his voice dropped to a growl. "They'll make sure the idiot knows the cost of his stupidity. He won't be making contact with you again."
For a long time they sat in silence, Vin sipping from the water bottle and Chris shooting him worried glances. He could see Chris struggling, the need to question warring with the desire to give him space. It would almost be amusing, if not for the ache in his chest. He mustered a weak smile.
"'S okay, Cowboy. You can ask."
Chris's mouth curved in response. "Just wondering what's going on in that head of yours."
"Hell, pick somethin' easy, why don't you?" Vin pressed the bottle to his throbbing temple. "It's never really gonna be over, you know? I'm always gonna be lookin' over my shoulder, wonderin' if someone will think I can lead 'em to Max. And we can bury Sean's body today, but every time I see Jeannie and that baby..." His voice cracked and he clamped his lips firmly together.
Chris gave him a moment to rein in his emotions before speaking. "First of all, you've got six ornery cusses watching your back. And as for Sean, well, time takes care of a lot of the hurt. Could be someday you'll be able to remember the good things, instead of the bad."
He wanted to believe that, with a fierceness that hurt. Sighing, he shoved himself to his feet. "Best get movin'. Service is in less than an hour."
"Then let's ride." Chris guided him out of the kitchen, a hand pressed to his neck.
It didn't take away that ache in Vin's chest. But it sure as hell blunted the pain.
+ + + + + + +
The final words of the minister's prayer drifted away on the breeze, replaced by the mourners' hushed whispers as they wandered to their cars. His collar turned up against the cold, Vin stared at the flag-draped coffin.
A warm hand settled on his shoulder, chasing away a little of the chill.
"Been a long day. You ready to head out?" Chris asked.
Vin gestured to the woman still seated on a folding chair. "I'd like to talk to Jeannie for a minute."
Chris gave his shoulder a pat before dropping his hand. "Boys and I will be right over there," he said, indicating a clump of aspen trees.
Jeannie stood as he approached, her smile tear-bright. "Vin." She pulled him into a hug, burying her nose in the crook of his neck. "I'm so glad you came."
He swallowed down the lump in his throat. "Did you think I wouldn't?"
Jeannie pulled back, swiping at damp, blotchy cheeks with a handkerchief. "I'd have understood if you hadn't."
Vin shrugged, his gaze drifting back to the coffin. "Reckon it's like you said--he was my friend." They stood in awkward silence for a moment before Vin cleared his throat. "How're you holdin' up?"
"I don't know... I have my ups and downs." She gestured over her shoulder to where an older couple stood waiting, twisting her mouth in a wry grimace. "I'm going to be living with my parents in Chicago until the baby's born and I can figure out what to do with the rest of my life."
The renewed sense of loss was like a punch to his gut. "You ain't comin' back. Are you?"
Tears welled in Jeannie's eyes and she pressed the handkerchief to her trembling lips. When she finally spoke, her voice was wispy. "I don't think... It hurts living in that house, passing the park where we used to walk, the lake where we were going to build our dream home--"
"Seein' me," Vin said quietly.
"No." She cupped his jaw with small, cold fingers. "It isn't you, Vin. That damn casino, maybe, but never you. I just...I fell in love with Sean when I was sixteen years old and I...I've never pictured a life without him in it." Squaring her shoulders, she raised her chin. "I've got to make a fresh start, and I'll never be able to do that here."
He nodded, regret tangled up with relief. "You better keep in touch. I'd like to know what that new life looks like, once you figure it out."
"I will." Stretching up on her toes, she gazed intently into his eyes. "You be good to yourself, Kevin Tanner. You deserve a fresh start, too."
A quick kiss to his cheek and she was walking briskly across the grass, while he blinked burning eyes and tried to breathe around the weight on his chest.
A fresh start? He just wished he shared Jeannie's conviction that he deserved one. More than anything, he wanted to leave the last few weeks behind.
"Hey, Vin. Got a minute?"
With a jerk, Vin spun around, his hand reflexively reaching for a nonexistent weapon as he took in the tall, trench-coated figure.
Jim Spencer shuffled a quick step backward, hands raised. "Damn, I'm sorry. Thought you heard me coming."
Vin let his hand fall to his side, but watched Spencer with wary eyes. "Reckon I'm not exactly at the top of my game."
"That's understandable. Look, Vin, I--" Spencer broke off as Chris stormed up, Buck hot on his heels.
"Damn it, Spencer, what is it about 'back off' you don't get?" He knotted his fingers in the coat, crowding into the man's personal space.
"Seems to me you're the one who needs to back off." Spencer knocked aside Chris's hand, giving him a sharp shove for good measure. "This doesn't concern you, Larabee."
"Anything that involves one of my men concerns me."
"I only want to talk to him."
Chris curled his lip, his voice low and deadly. "I'd say you've done more than enough talking where Vin's concerned. Or did you just feel the need to twist the knife?"
Buck winced. "Now hold on, Chris, that ain't no way--"
"You sonuvabich! I ought to--" Spencer snarled
Chris's smile was distinctly unfriendly. "Bring it on. I've wanted a piece of your hide for more than a week."
Vin stared, slack-jawed, as the words flew thick and fast. Anger quickly replaced bemusement, and he waded into the fray. "Shut up, all of ya!"
Though he'd been shooting for a roar, his still-healing vocal chords produced more of a croak. But he had the satisfaction of abrupt silence as three heads swiveled in his direction.
Stepping between Chris and Spencer, he pressed a hand to his friend's chest. "'Preciate you watchin' my back," he said, pitching his voice for Chris's ears alone. "But if I need help, I'll ask for it."
They locked eyes, and Vin could clearly read the worry and irritation in Chris's sharp, green gaze.
After a long moment, Chris inclined his head, his lips set in a grim line. "I'll hold you to that." With a parting glare at Spencer, he followed Buck back to where the others were watching with undisguised curiosity.
Spencer rolled his shoulders, smoothing his coat with a short laugh. "I can see how Larabee gets his reputation as a bad ass."
Vin didn't smile. "Never had a better boss, and I sure as hell never had a better friend."
"I didn't mean ... Shit." Spencer ducked his head, running a hand through his salt-and-pepper hair. "I'm screwing this up--'course, that's pretty much what I've been doing since this whole nightmare started."
"You said you wanted to talk to me." The so talk was clearly implied.
With a nod, Spencer drew in a deep breath. "I've read the reports. I know who was behind the kidnapping, and why, and Sean's part in all of it. I'm guessing your team has been doing their best to convince you none of it was your fault. That you did the only thing you could do."
Every muscle in Vin's body clenched as if preparing for a physical blow. "Sounds about right."
"I was hoping it might help if you heard the same from me." The shock must have bled onto Vin's face--Spencer's lips twisted into a wry grimace. "Surprised?"
It took him a moment to find his voice. "Was just wonderin' who you are and what you did with Jim Spencer."
He barked a laugh. "I guess I deserve that." The smile faded from his lips. "What I'm trying to say is... I owe you an apology, Vin. I was so determined to find a missing teammate, I lost my perspective. You were put in an impossible situation. And I'm so damn sorry if anything I've said or done has made you doubt your actions."
It shouldn't matter so much. But somehow absolution from this man, who had shown such fierce loyalty to Sean, eased the guilt in ways that Chris's assurances had not.
Vin lifted one shoulder. "Reckon we all get a little crazy when a friend's life is on the line." With a nod at the huddle of men behind Spencer, he smirked. "Even Larabee."
Spencer chuckled. "Yeah. Guess I've got a few more fences to mend before I'm through." He looked at Vin, his gaze searching. "You did the right thing, Vin. I wouldn't say it if it wasn't true."
His throat tight, Vin looked away. "'Preciate it."
"But do you believe it?"
Sucking in a deep breath, he forced himself to meet Spencer's gaze. "That part's gonna take time."
"Yeah. Well, if I can do anything to help you along, let me know." Spencer held out his hand. "We good?"
Letting his hand be enfolded in a firm grip, Vin nodded. "Reckon so."
"All right, then." Spencer tipped his head toward where Chris was glaring furiously at the two of them. "Think I'll head out before Larabee blows a gasket."
It pulled a genuine laugh from him. "Probably not a bad idea."
"Take care of yourself, kiddo."
Vin was still trying to sort through what he was feeling when he was surrounded by six overprotective mother hens--all of them talking.
"Hey, Vin, we're gonna head to the Saloon for a drink. You coming?" J.D.
"Only if he sticks to a Coke. He can't be mixin' alcohol with them painkillers." Nathan.
"Aw, Nathan, lighten up. Hell, one itty-bitty whiskey ain't gonna kill the boy." Buck.
"Considerin' the rotgut you choose to imbibe, Mr. Wilmington, I wouldn't be so sure." Ezra.
"To everything there is a season, brothers, and a time to every purpose under heaven." Josiah.
"You okay?" Chris. By his side. At his back. A constant amid all the chaos.
Vin smiled. "Not yet. But I think I will be."
One month later
"Well, would you lookit what the cat dragged in!"
Chris lifted his head at the sound of Buck's greeting, craning his neck to catch a glimpse of Vin before he was surrounded by his teammates. He set down his pen and moved to stand in the doorway to his office, watching with satisfaction as Vin's cheeks flushed from all the attention.
"Vin! No one told me you were coming by!" J.D. stuck out his hand, and he and Vin proceeded to execute the elaborate shake that was comprehensible only to the two of them.
"That's 'cause we didn't know, kid." Buck inspected Vin, a slow grin spreading across his face. "Lookin' better every day, Junior. Them therapy sessions with the lovely Sandra are agreein' with you." He waggled his eyebrows.
Vin rolled his eyes. "Get yer mind outta the gutter, Bucklin. I been workin' my ass off."
"How those fingers comin' along?" Nathan asked. "You gettin' more mobility? Still havin' much pain?"
With a tolerant sigh, Vin held up his hand and flexed the fingers. Though some residual stiffness was obvious, even from a distance Chris could see he had nearly achieved full function.
"Still a mite clumsy," Vin said, "but it's gettin' there."
"If you'd like, I could show you a few exercises that would increase dexterity." Ezra flashed his gold tooth. "Ones I doubt your lovely therapist will have employed."
"'Preciate it, Ez."
"It's quittin' time, Friday night." Josiah rested a large hand on Vin's shoulder. "We were headed to the Saloon to grab some dinner. Care to join us, brother?"
"Could eat." Vin locked eyes with Chris as he spoke. "But I got a little business to take care of first."
There was an instant of silence as everyone registered the fact that Vin's "business" involved Chris, and then they began gathering their things and moving toward the elevator.
"We'll see you there, then," Buck called, punching the down button. "We'll save you boys some seats."
When the doors had finally shut on the boys' boisterous banter, Chris raised an eyebrow. "This official business?"
His expression unreadable, Vin nodded. "Reckon so."
"C'mon in, then. Have a seat."
Once behind his desk, Chris surreptitiously studied his friend. His stomach fluttered unpleasantly, and he resisted the urge to pop an antacid. Though he was pretty damn sure he knew what this was about, Vin was wearing a poker face worthy of Ezra.
"You come from the doctor?" Chris asked.
"Yep." Vin sprawled comfortably in the chair, his legs crossed at the ankles.
When he didn't volunteer anything more, Chris sighed. "How'd that go?"
"Pretty good." He tipped the chair on its back legs, rocking a little.
"You look like you're finally getting some sleep."
Vin shrugged. "Still havin' bad dreams, but they ain't comin' every night."
"You got your appetite back yet?"
"Put on a few pounds."
And that was the point where Chris's limited supply of patience ran out. "Damn it, Vin, you'd make the Sphinx look chatty. You got something to say to me, or not?"
"Reckon I do."
"Then why the hell aren't you talking?"
One corner of Vin's mouth turned up in a lopsided grin and his blue eyes twinkled. "Just like seein' if I can make that vein in your forehead pop out."
It'd been too damn long since he'd seen this Vin--the mischievous prankster who'd changed Buck's ring tone to "Macho Man" and superglued all of Ezra's poker chips together.
Swallowing down the surge of emotion, Chris made a show of narrowing his eyes. "That won't be the only thing around here that's throbbing if you don't start flapping your gums."
"All right, all right. Cranky bastard." Vin reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a sealed envelope bearing Chris's name. He fingered it for a moment before tossing it onto the desk.
Chris's heart lurched, and at first he could only stare at the innocent white rectangle. With a sideways glance at Vin, he picked it up and slid his finger under the flap, removing a single sheet of paper. As he read, a smile blossomed and took over his face. "Doc thinks you're ready to come back." He peered at Vin over the top of the page.
Chris set aside the paper and braced his forearms on the blotter. "And how 'bout you, Pard? What do you think?"
The laughter left Vin's eyes and the chair dropped back to the floor with a soft thump. "Was a time I didn't think I'd ever be ready."
Chris nodded. He knew Vin had been wrestling with the idea of quitting. When he'd first seen the envelope, he'd feared it contained Vin's resignation. He stood, walking around to lean against the front of his desk. "And now?"
Gazing out the window, Vin massaged the fingers of his left hand. It was a gesture Chris had seen often over the past month; one he doubted Vin was aware of.
"Guess I finally remembered I love this damn job--even if it means workin' with six ornery cusses who'd try the patience of a saint." He looked at Chris, his eyes bright. "I ain't had too many things in my life worth fightin' for. And I'll be damned if I'll let that sonuvabitch Malone steal one of 'em."
It felt as if a weight had been lifted from Chris's heart. "Glad to hear it. Wouldn't be the same around here without you watching our backs."
Vin quirked him a grin. "'S a dirty job, but someone's gotta do it."
Chris sobered. "I'm proud of you, Vin."
A flush crept up Vin's neck, and he tucked his chin to his chest. "No reason to be."
"You're wrong. A lot of guys couldn't've made it past everything you've gone through." Chris shook his head. "Not sure I would have."
"Bullshit." Vin's gaze was incredulous. "You're the strongest person I know, Chris. Hell, you're the reason I--" He broke off, his voice husky. "I wouldn't've made it through the last two months without you."
Locking forearms, they stared at each other--everything expressed in that iron grip. The moment was broken when Chris's phone rang. "Ten dollars says it's Buck, wondering where we are," he said.
"More likely J.D. doin' Bucklin's dirty work."
They shook hands, and Chris punched the button to put it on speaker. "Hello?"
Clinking glasses and the low murmur of voices filtered through the speaker before J.D.'s mile-a-minute chatter blocked them out. "Hey, Chris, what's taking you guys so long? We've got a pitcher of beer, and Inez just brought over some nachos. We're trying to save you some, but I'm starving. You are still coming, aren't--" He cut off as a familiar voice mumbled in the background. "Buck says to tell you the beer's getting warm and the food's getting cold." More mumbling. "And whatever Vin's business is, it concerns the rest of us, too."
"Tell Buck next time he's got something to say to me he can call me himself," Chris said, ignoring Vin's smirk. "We'll be there in five."
He hit the disconnect button and stood, reaching for his jacket. "Let's go. We wouldn't want to keep Buck waiting."
When they reached the doorway, Vin stepped in front of him, blocking his path. "Think you've forgotten something."
Chris frowned. "Yeah? Like what?"
With a smirk, Vin held out his hand, palm up. "A bet's a bet, Cowboy."
Grumbling, Chris pulled the last ten from his wallet and slapped it into his friend's palm. "I had plans for that."
Vin tucked the bill into his pocket with a grin. "Me, too. I'm havin' dinner with the lovely Sandra tomorrow night."
"Your physical therapist? The one Buck's been mooning over?" When Vin nodded, Chris laughed out loud. "You know it's gonna kill him when he finds out."
"Well, hell, Chris, why do you think I'm waitin' for just the right moment? Some things just have to be savored."
"Yeah. They do." His throat suddenly tight, Chris slung an arm around his friend's shoulders. "It's good to have you back, Vin."
"Good to be back, Cowboy." Mischief took over Vin's smile, and he tipped his head at the elevators. "Now how 'bout we go break the news to Bucklin?"
Chris grinned. "Let's ride."
A/N: Whew! This started out as a simple little--yes, little!--birthday fic, but became a six-month journey. Many, many thanks to my three wonderful betas: Angela, LaraMee, and Annie. You truly made this story the best it could be. And thanks to all of you who have offered support and encouragement along the way. It's appreciated more than I can say.