Miz Prichard by LaraMee

Disclaimer: I own no rights to the Magnificent Seven, in any AU, and intend no infringement. I make no profit off this, I just enjoy writing about the boys!

Rating: It's LB, so it's pretty tame. . . I'd give it a FRC.

Acknowledgements: Written for Mrs. Larabee, for her birthday. Hope you enjoy!

Dad met Miz Prichard at school; she just started being in the PTO. Her daughter, Marcy, transferred to our school last month. Miz Prichard's husband died last year; he had a diz-ease. She still wears a lot of black, just like Dad did when I first came to live with him. He wears lots of different colors now, even though he wears black sometimes. Buck says it's 'cause sometimes he runs outta clean clothes now, though.

Dad's been going to the PTO since I came to live with him. Buck's in it, too, but Unca Nathan said it's more 'cause he wants to meet new women. I didn't understand that, all there is at PTO meetings is moms. At least that's what I thought 'til Miz Prichard started coming to the meetings.

At first, Dad didn't say much 'bout her. He was more interested in talking about some new paul-see the school board wanted to make. He'd get real upset when he talked about it, and one night he had to put $10.00 in the Swear Jar!

That's when everything started changing. Miz Prichard agreed with Dad; she got angry, too. I ain't sure if she had to put any money in a swear jar or anything. They started talking on the phone a lot, Dad and Miz Prichard, almost every night sometimes. They was making stra-gees. . . Dad says that's just a fancy name for making plans.

Then they started meeting in town, at Dad's office, after work. Dad said there was a few other parents there too, but he mostly just talked about Miz Prichard. One time I heard Buck tell Miz Potter that Dad thought the sun rose and set with Karen Prichard. I guess that's her first name. . . Karen.

Finally they had the meeting where they was gonna talk about that paul-see. Dad was spit-shined and polished. That's what Unca Josiah said, he was gonna take care of me and JD while Dad and Buck went to the meeting. Buck looked nice, too. JD said he had his 'babe magic' c'lone on.

They was still gone when we had to go to bed. I tried to stay awake, but I couldn't. When I waked up it was morning and they was home. It's a good thing it was Saturday, 'cause they was both tired and Buck told us later that they didn't get home 'til after three a.m. He said that they had a "vic'tree celebration" after the meeting was over, and that's why it was so late when they got home.

I figured everything would get back to normal then, but I was really, really wrong.

A few days after the meeting, Dad came home and told me he had something real 'portant to tell me. At first I thought maybe he was gonna have to work late or something, but it was even bigger news than that.

He told me that he was gonna go out on a date. And he was gonna go on that date with Karen Prichard.

He told me on Tuesday, and they were gonna go out on a date on Friday.



The seven-year-old jumped slightly at the call of his name. Turning, he found his adopted father standing at the entrance to the treehouse. He'd come out shortly after Chris delivered the news. He wasn't certain how he felt about the news that his Dad was going to go out on a date.

Larabee stood quietly, studying the child of his heart. As he sometimes did, the quiet little boy had gone off to think over the news he had given him. He had been concerned as to just how Vin would take the news, and he realized now that he had been right to tell him early and give him enough time to get used to the idea. When the child asked to be excused, he knew what he'd do. When he was troubled, or needed to think, he would go to the treehouse with Ringo.

The young Malamute was sitting beside his little master, intently watching the boy, his tail thumping softly on the wooden floor. Vin had learned to take comfort from and to trust his confidence to the dog. Ringo never shared his secrets.

Chris hated it that what could potentially turn into a relationship for him seemed to be such a major problem for the boy. Clearing his throat, he said, "Are you okay?"

The only answer was a one shoulder shrug. Vin turned his attention back to Ringo, one little hand reaching out to stroke through the thick fur.

Larabee waited for several long, silent moments, but nothing more was forthcoming. "Look, Cowboy, I don't want something I do to upset you. All this is, is a date. An evening out with Karen. We're going to dinner and to a play. Then I'll be home, probably after you go to sleep, but I'll be here the next morning. You and I will have the whole weekend together. Why don't you think about what we'll do Saturday?"

Another long, silent moment and then a whispered, "Okay."

"Okay," Chris echoed, just as softly.


When I woke up Friday morning, I felt sort of funny. Not sick, like I needed to stay home from school, but just funny. Sort of sad, sort of mad, and sort of scared. I wasn't even sure why, I just did.

The whole day at school, I still felt funny. It seemed like the day was really, really long. Almost like it couldn't still be Friday. When we got home, I tried really hard to do my chores and finish my homework. But the only thing I could think about was that Dad would be home soon, and then he would be getting ready for his date.

Dad and Buck came home at 6:00, just like usual. Only it wasn't just like usual. Buck got changed out of his work clothes and him and JD went out to the barn. He asked me if I was going to help them out, but I said I'd be there in a few minutes. He just winked at Dad, nodded at me, and left with JD bouncing along behind him, like he always does, talking a million miles a minute.

I followed Dad to his bedroom. He picked out some special clothes and then went into his bathroom. I heard him turn on the shower, and he was in there for a while. After the shower turned off I could hear the blow dryer and then his 'lectric razor He came out with his shorts on, but he was already shaved and his hair was combed real nice.

He put on a red shirt and a grey tie, and his grey suit that he only wears for special things. I guess that means his date with Miz Prichard is special.


"How do I look, Pard?" Chris smiled down at his son, who was sitting on the end of his bed, as he finished smoothing down his tie.

Studying the tall blond, Vin said, "You've got yer special suit on."

His smile faltering slightly, Larabee said, "Yes, I do."

Eyes drifting down to stare at the bed, the seven-year-old began to trace the design on the comforter. "Oh."

Dropping to the mattress beside his son, Chris reached out and stroked a hand through the thick, dark blond hair. "Vin. . . are you still upset about this?"

"Nope." Pushing himself off the bed, he started for the door.

"Vin. . ."

Turning back, the little boy said, "I hope ya have a real nice time with Miz Prichard tonight, Dad. I'm gonna go out and help Buck now, okay?"

Heaving a sigh, the tall man said, "Yeah. . . yeah, okay. I'll give you a kiss good night when I get home. . ." he found himself talking to the air.


Buck looked up at the sound of someone entering the barn. In a lightly teasing tone he said, "Hey, Junior, you timed it just right. We're about done out here."

"'Kay," Vin said absently, climbing up onto a bale of hay and sitting cross-legged. Picking a straw out of the bale, he began to twirl it in his little fingers.

"Hey, Vin!" JD chirped, cheerfully oblivious of the situation. "Come help me clean out the trough."

Little Tanner looked to see his adopted brother standing on a bucket beside Pony's food trough, picking stray bits of straw out of the bottom of the container. It wasn't really necessary, but it was a way for them to keep the mischievous five-year-old out of trouble. Instead of going to help, Vin simply shook his head and stared off into space, still fiddling with the straw.

Coming over to sit down beside the older boy, Buck unknowingly reached out and stroked his hand through the child's hair, just as Chris had earlier. "Hey, Junior, wanna talk to ol' Buck about whatever's got you bothered?"

"No," Vin replied softly. "Ain't nothin' botherin' me."

"You sure?"

"Yep." Little Tanner jumped down off the hay and went to where JD was. With an obvious lack of enthusiasm, he began to help the younger boy with his chore.

A few minutes later, Chris came out to the barn, standing in the doorway. "Just wanted to let you guys know I'm leaving. I've got my cell if anything happens, okay?"

"I reckon we'll be fine, ol' son, but okay. You have a great time with that fine lady. We'll see you in the morning."

"Bye, Chris, see you tomorrow! Can we have pancakes for breakfast?"

With a chuckle, Larabee said, "Take that up with your da, Li'l Bit. Vin?" When his son glanced up, he said, "I'll see you in the morning?"

Nodding, young Tanner turned his attention back to the trough, essentially dismissing his father.

Opening his mouth to say something more, Chris caught Buck's eye. The bigger man shook his head then nodded toward the little blond. With a nod and a wink, he silently reassured his old friend that he'd take care of things at home. Heaving a sigh, Larabee nodded, turned and left for his truck.


I don't know why I was so mean to Dad. I don't know why I was so mean to Buck and JD all evening, either. Buck even checked my forehead 'cause he thought I had a fever or something. I still had a funny feeling, but I didn't feel sick.

We ate dinner then me and JD had to get ready for bed. After that, we played Candyland, but I didn't even care that I didn't win. I'm pretty sure Buck tried to let me win, but JD winned instead. We watched a movie; Buck said I could choose, but I didn't really care. JD picked so we watched Monsters, Inc. again. He drives me crazy sometimes 'cause he wants to watch the same movies over and over again. I don't think Buck and Dad are real happy about letting JD pick, either, but they don't say nothing. It's only fair that he gets to pick sometimes.

JD fell asleep before they even got to the really good part, where Mike and Sully and Boo are flying around on that door. Buck let me turn off the movie and watch TVLand for a while.

I had to go to bed, even though I didn't feel tired. Buck already took JD to bed; he was sleeping sideways when I got in there. Buck straightened him back up, but I ain't sure why. He'll be sideways again in five minutes. Then Buck tucked me in, and made sure Cat was where I could reach him.


Buck yawned and looked up as his friend and boss came into the den. "Hey, Stud, how was the date?"

Dropping down onto his recliner, loosening his tie, Chris replied, "It was nice. We had a good time. I guess."

"You guess? It has been a long time since you went out," Wilmington teased.

With an ironic grin, Larabee replied, "I guess so."

"So. . . that all you're gonna tell me?"

Shrugging, the blond said, "Not really a lot to tell. We went to Girardos for dinner then caught the Revue at the Community Theater. After that we had a drink at Caradillies and I took her home."

"There's gotta be more to it than that."

With a snort, Larabee said, "We talked about the kids."

"Well, at least you had somethin' in common," Buck replied with a laugh.

"Ha-ha. Two grown-ups, on a date, talking about pediatricians, the best brand of peanut butter, and the lack of decent cartoons on TV."

"Well, at least you had something to talk about. Shoot, half the women I go out with. . . I don't think English is their first language."

"Yeah, well, it was a bit depressing to find out that I really don't have anything else to talk about." Waving away further discussion in that direction, he asked, "How's Vin?"

"He was quiet all evening. Distracted. Any idea what's going on with him?"

Shaking his head, Chris said, "Not really, unless it's something about me going out tonight, but he won't tell me if it is. He wouldn't talk to you?"

"Nope. Just went through the motions and went to bed. He was asleep about an hour ago when I checked on 'em. Look, why don't you go on to bed, and we'll see if we can't sort this all out in the morning?"

"Yes, Pa," Larabee replied with a wry grin.


When I waked up it was morning. I got out of bed and went down the hallway to Dad's bedroom. He was in bed, still asleep. That made me feel a little better, so I went back to me and JD's bedroom. He was just waking up so we went and got some cereal and went to the den. JD turned on the TV to Nickelodeon and we watched cartoons while we waited for Dad and Buck to wake up.

Buck waked up first and made pancakes for us, just like JD had asked yesterday. I ate a little, but I wasn't real hungry. We was almost done when Dad came into the kitchen. Buck smiled and called him 'Mr. Sleepyhead' and told him the coffee was hot and there was pancakes keeping warm in the microwave.

Dad got a cup of coffee and sat down across the table from me. I knew he was looking at me, but I just looked at my plate and made designs in the syrup with my fork. Dad said good morning, and I told him good morning and asked if I could be excused to go get dressed. Dad said okay, but I don't think he was very happy about it.

After I got dressed I did my chores, nobody even had to 'mind me to. Then, since I got done faster than anyone else, I went outside. Me and Ringo went up to the treehouse, cause it's quiet there. Especially when JD ain't around.

I stayed up there for a long, long time and nobody came up there. I kept thinking about Dad and him going out with Miz Prichard. I don't even know why. I just did. Then Dad came out to see me.


"Hey, Cowboy."


"You busy?"

"I'm thinkin'."

"Oh. Thinking about what?"

Vin shrugged, unable to put his thoughts into words. He was a small, confused child. "Nothin'."

Coming into the wooden structure, Chris sat down across from the little blond. "You've been awfully quiet for the last few days."

"I guess."

"Can you tell me what's going on?"

After several silent minutes the young boy said frankly, "No."

Larabee knew the child wasn't being difficult. If he said he couldn't put his thoughts into words just yet, then he couldn't. "Okay. Well, have you thought about what you'd like to do today?"

"No." The word was delivered with a sigh.

"It's a nice day today. How about we go for a ride?"

There was little enthusiasm when he replied, "Sure, okay."

They walked to the barn together, preparing their horses for the ride. Lifting Vin into Peso's saddle, Chris mounted Pony, and they rode from the barn.

Fifteen minutes into the ride, Larabee wondered if he had made a mistake. He had hoped that getting Vin out into the open, where he felt more comfortable, would relax him enough to talk. It didn't seem to be the case, however.

They rode to the end of the pasture, dismounted, and walked to the little spot they often stopped at. Settling at the trunk of a tree, Chris drew his knees up, propping his arms across them. He watched his son choose another tree, sitting in a mirror position. Larabee couldn't help but smile at that.

They sat for half an hour, neither of them speaking. Chris was holding his breath, waiting for the boy to say something. Just when he had all but given up hope, a little voice came to him across the warm breeze.

"You gonna marry Miz Prichard?"

That wasn't exactly what he expected. "What?"

A little louder now. "Are you gonna marry Miz Prichard?"

"No. What makes you think that, son?"

With a shrug, Vin said, "I thought that was what dates 're s'posed to be for. You go out with someone to see if you wanna get married to them."

Standing, Chris approached his son, sitting down once more, this time in front of the seven-year-old. "Vin, dates don't necessarily mean that you're going to marry someone. Buck goes out a lot, but he doesn't get married to any of the women he dates."

"Well, Unca Nathan says Buck don't have real good taste in women, so I figured he hadn't found a lady to get married to just yet."

Larabee couldn't help but laugh at that. "Well, I won't say your Uncle Nathan is wrong about that, but I'm telling you the truth. Going out on a date doesn't mean I'm going to get married."

"Jimmy Parsons said his big brother, David, went out with this lady and he didn't come back home. He 'loped to someplace called Vegas and got married. Now they gots a baby and David has to work a lot. Jimmy said he don't hardly ever get to do anything fun."

"Well, I don't know Jimmy or David, so I don't know whether David made a good choice or not. But, Vin, that's an unusual case. I don't know of anyone who got married after just one date."

"So. . . yer not gonna marry Miz Prichard?"

"Not at the moment, no. Is this why you've been so quiet this week?"

With a nod, Vin said, "I was 'fraid you'd get married and then she'd be my step-mom. I heard a lot of bad things 'bout step-moms. They don't like their step-kids, and they're real mean to 'em."

Reaching out to ruffle the child's bangs, Chris said, "I promise you, Vin, if I ever get married, it will not be to someone who doesn't like you. You're my son, Cowboy, and you come first. Any woman I get married to, you're going to like her and she's going to like you.

"Hey, I've got an idea. What if we invited Karen. . . Mrs. Prichard. . . to lunch tomorrow? And her daughter, too. Would you like that? You and JD could show Marcy around, and you could get to know both of them."

Vin thought about this, turning all of this information over in his mind. Finally he asked, "What if I don't like her?"

Without hesitation, Larabee said, "I'll never go on a date with her again."

"What if she don't like me?"

"Same thing. . . I'll never go on a date with her again."

A mischievous glint lit blue eyes as the child next asked, "Can I 'cide what we're gonna have for lunch?"

Recognizing that look only too well, Chris chuckled as he said, "How about we decide together?" Putting out his hand, he offered, "deal?"

Slapping his little hand into the much bigger palm, Vin nodded. "Deal."


When we got back to the house, Dad called Miz Prichard and 'vited her and Marcy to come to the ranch for lunch. He looked over at me, smiled, and gave me the thumbs up, so I figured she said yes.

I was nervous, but I wasn't real sure why. I'd met Miz Prichard before, and me and JD are in class with Marcy. Marcy's between me and JD, she's. She's real quiet; JD says she's even quieter than me. Then he laughs. JD laughs at some silly stuff.

I talk to Marcy sometimes. I showed her around the school, it's my job to do that, the first day she came to school. She told me during lunch that her daddy had died and I told her that my Mom and Dad was both dead, and then Chris found me and now I'm his son. She told me a lot about her daddy, he sounded real special. I don't know if it made her not so sad, talking about him, but I think it did.

We cleaned up the house, so it would look nice for Sunday. JD complained about that; he wanted to play. So, Buck made him a deal, that they'd spend the whole day in town Sunday, and JD could pick out everything they did, if he helped me clean up our room.

Later, me and Dad looked in the pantry and the refrigerator, and figured out what to have for lunch the next day, while Buck and JD fixed dinner. Mostly Buck fixed it, JD handed him stuff and put the napkins on the table.

I didn't feel so sad, but I was a little nervous. I liked Marcy, and I understood that Dad wasn't gonna marry Miz Prichard just 'cause they went on a date. But, I still got a funny feeling in my stomach when I thought about the next day. Then JD made one of his jokes. He teased me that me and Dad was gonna be on a date when Marcy and Miz Prichard came out for lunch.


"DAAAA-AAAAAD!" Vin called from the bathroom, where he and JD were getting ready for bed.

"What's the matter?" Chris was at the door in a second, a look of concern on his face.

"JD keeps teasin' me!"

With a sigh, Larabee said, "JD, what are you doing?"

"I wasn't teasin' him!" JD argued, indignantly.

"He said me and you are gonna have a double date with Marcy and Miz Prichard!"


Hanging his head, the little brunet said, "I was just teasin'. I didn't mean to make him mad."

"Well, let's drop it, okay? Vin and I are going to have lunch with Karen and her daughter. That's all. Got it?"

"Yes, sir," the little boy's voice was muffled, his chin on his little chest.

"Okay, five minutes, guys." With that, Chris headed back to the den.


I got to pick out the movie for the night, so we watched Spirit. Even when I went to bed I didn't feel sleepy, but it just seemed like a few minutes later that I was waking up and the sun was up.

Me and Dad had breakfast before we went to do the chores, while Buck took JD and left for town. We could hear JD yakking about wanting to go to Maggie Moo's for breakfast and Burger King for lunch and McDonalds for dinner all the way out the door. Buck hollered back in and asked Dad about their supply of antacids. Dad laughed and said he buys them in bulk. I ain't sure where Bulk is, but it must be 'round Wal*Mart.

After we finished taking care of the horses, we went and got cleaned up then Chris started up the barbeque. We decided to grill some chicken and have salad and rolls. Well, he heated up corn for me and Marcy instead of the salad. Kids don't usually like salad.


"Vin? Mrs. Prichard and Marcy are here."

The little boy looked down at his dog, and whispered, "It's gonna be okay," before trotting toward the house, where his father was waiting on the porch. Climbing up the steps, he came to where Chris stood.

Larabee was dressed casually in a white shirt and jeans. He was still a commanding presence, however, something that wasn't wasted on the pretty blonde who exited the PT Cruiser.

Helping her daughter out of the backseat, Karen Prichard smiled and waved toward the father and son on the porch. "Hello!"

"Hi, did you have any trouble getting out here?"

"No, you gave me excellent directions."

While the grown-ups talked, the two shy children stayed close to their parents, gazing silently at one another.

Stopping at the bottom of the stairs, Karen began the introductions. "Chris, this is my daughter, Marcy. Marcy, this is Vin's father, Mr. Larabee."

"It's nice to meet you, Marcy," Larabee said warmly.

"Hello," the little girl said softly.

"I think you've met my son, Vin," Chris directed his comment toward Marcy's mother.

"Yes, Vin was so wonderful in helping Marcy when she started at the school. How are you, Vin?"

"I'm fine, ma'am," the little boy replied softly.

Smiling back up at Chris, Karen said, "Such a young gentleman."

Larabee grinned proudly, ushering their visitors into the house. "We're going to eat on the back deck; I'm going to grill, is that okay?"

"Oh that sounds fabulous," Karen replied, her smile growing into a grin. "We haven't grilled much this year."

"Daddy used to grill," Marcy whispered just loudly enough for the two grown-ups to hear her.

Vin saw the little girl's sad expression and knew he should do something. "Hey, Marcy, you wanna go see our horses? We can't go inside the fence, but they're out in the pasture."

Looking up, the girl said, "Is that okay, Mom?"

"If it's okay with Mr. Larabee, it's okay with me."

"Just do what Vin tells you, he knows the rules, okay?"

"Yes, sir."

The two children ran off together, the sound of giggling soon coming to their parents across the breeze.

Chris gave Karen a quick tour of the house then led her out onto the deck and out into the yard. While the two of them sipped lemonade, they prepared the meal, keeping their eyes on the two children while they did.

Vin and Marcy found a common interest in the horses. Vin told the little girl everything he knew about the animals, and told her stories about Peso, Milagro, Beau and Pony. The children stayed at the pasture fence until their parents called them back for lunch.

"Vin, can you show Marcy where the guest bathroom is, so you two can get cleaned up?" Chris suggested.

"'Kay," Never breaking stride, the little boy ran up to and into the house, the little girl right behind him.

"No running inside!" The big man called out in reminder.

"Yes, sir!" Came twin calls from the house.

"I haven't seen her this happy since. . . well, since her father died."

"It's been difficult for both of you, I'm sure," Chris said gently. "Was he sick for long?"

"Only a few weeks. He hadn't been feeling well, but kept putting off going to the doctor. When he did. . . well. . . it was too late." Tears began to fall.

Reaching for a napkin, Chris handed it over, standing by quietly while the blonde woman dabbed at her eyes and tried to compose herself once more. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to - "

"No, it's all right, really."

He couldn't help it. She looked alone, vulnerable and forlorn. Chris wrapped his arms around her, giving her a gentle hug. Stepping back, he said, "I know it hurts, Karen, believe me when I say that. But also believe me when I say that it does get better."

Nodding, Karen said, "I know. . . that's what my grief counselor keeps telling me that, but. . ."

"You don't really believe it."

"No. . . no, I don't."

Reaching out to brush a strand of blonde hair back from the woman's face, Chris said softly, "It will, I promise you."

Neither adult realized that their two children were standing just inside the den door, watching the exchange.


I looked over at Marcy and she had a real mad look on her face. That s'prised me, 'cause I didn't think she ever got mad. Then, before Dad and Miz Prichard looked our way, she made the mad face go away, and then she had a empty face on.

I started to say something to her. I was gonna ask her why she was mad, but before I could say anything, she took off walking, real fast, out to the deck, then in the yard, and went right over to her mom. I saw Miz Prichard look down at her with a smile. I got over there about that time, and they went over to the picnic table. They sat down, on the same side of the table. I asked Dad if I could help him, but he said to sit down, and he'd be over in a minute. So I sat down on the other side of the picnic table, across from Marcy. 'Bout a minute later, Dad sat a big plate of grilled chicken down on the table. The other stuff was already there, so we was ready to eat.

It was real funny, but Marcy moved way down at the end of the table from her mom after me and Dad sat down.

Dad helped me get my food, and Miz Prichard helped Marcy get her food. Then they got their food, 'cause that's how growed ups usually do. We started eating then. . . well, all of us but Marcy. She kept looking over at her mom, then she'd look at Dad and sometimes she had a mad face on, 'specially when they wasn't looking.

A little while later Miz Prichard said something to Marcy, and then everything sort of got bad.


"Sweetheart, you're not eating anything. Are you feeling all right?" Karen Prichard asked her daughter.

"I'm fine." Marcy replied shortly.

"Don't you care for chicken?" Chris asked.

When the little girl didn't reply, her mother said firmly, "Marcy, you didn't answer Mr. Larabee."

Fire suddenly erupted in the child's eyes. In an angry voice she responded, "I don't have to answer him! I don't like him and he ain't gonna be my daddy!"

Before the others could react, Marcy threw herself off the bench and tore out across the yard. Elvis and Ringo barked as she ran past them, then took off in pursuit as she ran toward the treehouse.

"Oh, dear," Karen said, her voice strained and tear-filled. She started to rise. "I need to talk to her."

"Miz Prichard?" Vin called before she moved more than a step or two away. When the woman stopped, he asked, "Can I go talk to her?"

Frowning in puzzlement, the blonde said, "Vin, I appreciate that sweetheart, but this is something a mom needs to do."

"But. . ." he trailed off, suddenly embarrassed by his boldness.

"What is it, Cowboy?" Chris asked, encouragingly.

"Well. . . no 'ffence, ma'am, but maybe she don't wanna talk to you."

"What do you mean?"

"Well. . . sometimes when I get mad 'cause. . ." turning bright red now, he forged on. "well, at my Dad. . ." looking to see that his father had a little smile on his face, and winked at him, he finished, "well, I don't like talkin' to growed ups about it. So I talk to JD, or my dog, Ringo. Maybe she don't wanna talk to you."

Smiling at the quiet child's bravery, Karen came back and leaned down to look him in the big, blue eyes. "You're a very, very wise young man, Vin." With that she gave him a peck on the cheek.

Fire spreading across his little face, Vin managed a timid smile and then looked over at his father.

"I think that would be a great idea, Cowboy."

His smile widening at the encouragement, Vin dropped down off the bench and sprinted across the yard toward the treehouse. Slowing down, he walked up the ramp to the little wooden structure. At the opening, he stopped.

Marcy was curled up, her little face buried in Ringo's thick fur. Elvis was tucked up against her protectively, tenderly licking at one little arm. She didn't seem to know that anyone else was there.

"Marcy?" Vin said softly. When she didn't respond, he said, slightly louder, "Marcy? It's me, Vin. Can I come in?" He felt silly asking permission to come into his treehouse, but he figured it was the polite thing to do. When she still didn't respond, he moved toward her, sitting down on the other side of Elvis.

"Go away!" Came the little girl's voice, muffled by the thick fur.

"I ain't gonna go away yet. I wanna talk to you."

"No! Go away! I hate you!"

Shrugging off the hateful statement, little Tanner said, "I just wanna tell you that I know it's sad to lose your daddy. I cried for a long time when my Mama died. I never knowed my born Dad, but I 'magine I'd be sad 'bout losin' him if I knowed him like you knowed your daddy.

"I got mad when Dad and your mom went on their date."

"You did?" Marcy was looking over at him her face barely visible behind a screen of fine blonde hair and thick, black dog fur.

"Yep. I wasn't happy 'bout it, 'cause I thought ya only went on a date if you wanted to marry the other person. But Dad told me that all it was, was gonna be a date. It don't mean that they're gonna be married."

"It doesn't?"

"No, sweetheart."

The two youngsters looked up, shocked, to find their parents standing at the entrance of the treehouse.

Karen continued. "Sweetheart, Mr. Larabee is just my friend. Like you and Vin are friends. We like one another and grown-ups enjoy being together with their friends, just like kids do."

"But. . ."

"But what, honey?"

"I seen you huggin' each other!"

"Oh, sh—shoot," Chris muttered.

Walking closer to her child, Karen Prichard said, "Do you know why Mr. Larabee was hugging me?"

"That's what growed ups do when they love each other! That's what you and Daddy always said!"

Nodding, Karen dropped to her knees next to her daughter. "Yes, they do. But grown ups also hug one another when one of them is sad."

Curious now, Marcy sat up, wiping at her tear-washed face. "Was Mr. Larabee sad?"

"No, darling. I was sad. I was talking about Daddy and. . . I. . . well, I was really sad." Karen wiped at her own tears, then reached out and stroked her hand across her child's flushed face. "Mr. Larabee knew I was sad so. . . well. . . he hugged me."

"I know how sad it can be when you lose someone you love very much, Marcy." Chris squatted down beside Vin, but his eyes were on the little girl. "I lost my wife, just like your mom lost her husband. . . and your daddy. And I know that sometimes, when you're really sad about that, it's nice to get a hug."

The little girl seemed to study their comments for several, silent, moments. She looked over at Vin, as if seeking reassurance. When he smiled at her, she managed a small smile of her own. Looking back at her mother she said, "You're not gonna marry him?"

Smiling wider, Karen said, "Mr. Larabee is just a friend, sweetie. Maybe we'll like each other more than just friends and maybe not. But you need to understand that no one will ever take your daddy's place."

"And. . . if we did start liking one another more than just friends, I would never, ever, try to take your dad's place," Chris added.

"Yeah," Vin said, with a smile now, as well. When Dad 'dopted me, he didn't even tell me I had to change my last name. He said he wouldn't try to take the place of my borned Dad. But now he's my Dad, too. And he loves me a lot, a lot, a lot. So I'm lucky, 'cause I got two Dad's. One lives in heaven with God, and the other one lives here with me. So he can take care of me and make sure I'm safe. Okay?"

Marcy stared at her friend for a full minute, then she looked back up at her mother. When Karen only smiled and nodded, she looked over at Chris. Chris, too, smiled at the little girl. Marcy looked back at Vin, as if to verify what their parents were saying. When Vin, too, smiled, her flushed face began to glow with a smile that dominated her face. She moved to her mother's side and found herself enveloped in a hug.

"Well, I don't know about anyone else," the tall blond said, "but I'm still hungry. Shall we go finish dinner?"

Standing, still holding her daughter, Karen said, "I think that sounds wonderful."

The quartet started back out of the treehouse, only to stop on the ramp.

"Oh da - darn it!" Chris yelled. "I didn't even see them leave."

Looking around his father, Vin groaned, "Oh, no! Dad, I'm - "

"Don't worry about it, Pard. They saw an opportunity and they took it. I think, though, that they're gonna spend a little time in their pen."

The four of them stood on the ramp for another moment, watching while Ringo and Elvis, tails happily wagging, devoured the remains of the picnic.

"Well," Chris said with a sigh, "How does McDonald's sound?"


PS: Mrs. Larabee, I hope you have a wonderful birthday!