MCAT Series # 2: Strength & Solidarity Series concludes. # 7

~ Written on the Winds Trilogy ~

# 2 Devil Winds

'Answers come freely when we listen to our hearts.'

Legends of the Quest

Written by Tannertexaslady and Sue M

Characters: Vin, Chris, Ezra, Buck, Josiah, JD, Nathan, OFC's, additional original characters, the Wild Bunch, and MCAT team members.

Special appearance: OW Seven

Rating: Gen ~ Het ~ violence ~ profanity ~ Due to the subject matter of 'Devil Winds', some scenes depict domestic abuse against women.

Disclaimer: This story is entirely a work of fiction, for entertainment purposes only, based on the characters from "The Magnificent Seven." I don't own 'em, but if I did I would run away with 'em and never be seen again. CBS and Co., Trilogy Entertainment, and MGM had 'em first and do not want to give 'em away. I play at this for fun and do not make any money doing it. No infringement of any copyrights intended. Any references to locations or people are only for story use, and do not intend to depict any real place or person.

The MCAT AU, MCAT (Major Crimes and Acts of Terrorism), are stories are full of mystery, action, humor, and anguish, sprinkled with a touch of fantasy. The seven have formed a real family now, pooled their resources, and jointly own Larabee 7 Ranch. Someday, when law enforcement becomes too much, the L7 will be their retirement sanctuary. Also het; all seven are or will be involved in committed relationships. Series #1, Turbulent Transitions, forms the foundation for this AU. Series # 2, Strength & Solidarity, are stories, which center on the Seven's intrinsic bonds of friendship, and brotherhood, forces that have no boundaries. Further background and information about the characters of MCAT, and the Larabee 7 families, is available at Magnificent Seven Heaven.

Written on the Winds Trilogy:

#1 Winds of Change

#2 Devil Winds:The second story in this trilogy, unfolds as a 'perfect storm' blows into the lives of our seven unexpectedly. Spurred on by the winds of the devil, it will test their strength, tenacity, and faith, requiring them to make tough choices if all seven are to survive its pervasive fury intact.

A "perfect storm" is an expression that describes an event where a rare combination of circumstances will aggravate a situation drastically.

Tannertexaslady Notes: Any mistakes are mine. I'm a Texan, born and raised, speak Texan, understand it, and write it, as I know it. The original characters created for this series belong to the authors who created them. The character of Matt first appeared in Series 1- # 5 Illusions. 'Raven' aka Brodie Tanner, first appeared in Series 1 - # 7 Reconciliations. 'Cowboy' and 'Tracker' first appeared in Series 2 - # 1 Shades of Gray.

Acknowledgments: To my betas, thank y'all ~ Sarai, thanks for catching all those rogue typos and commas. Wendy, great MCAT beta, and Christy, I also appreciate your help. Ladies of Muse 7, y'all are wonderful, and I'm grateful for your feedback.

Bountyhunter'slady, the collages you create are awesome. All of your collages amaze me, and I love the art you have contributed to the MCAT Series.

From Sue: Ditto to the betas, Jo, and Muse girls. Thanks for keeping us on track.


Larabee 7, Friday July 17

Jesse swung his leg over the saddle, and jumped down from his horse to open the gate, allowing Chris, Buck, Vin, and JD to herd the new stock through to join the other horses they had collected over the past three weeks. Under their fathers' direction, Jason and Caleb stayed out of the way. It had taken most of the day, but the group of tired, dusty riders felt confident they had rounded up twenty- five head of the best rodeo horses on the ranch.

As the gate swung shut, Buck grinned at Jesse, Jason, and Caleb. "Thanks boys for helping us. They'll do fine in this pasture until we need them for the rodeo."

Jesse remounted his horse and looked at Chris. "Dad, can me, Jason, and Caleb ride on to the ranch together?"

Chris glanced to Buck and Vin, who both nodded. "Okay, but take it easy, and rub those horses down when you get to the barn."

Watchin the boys ride off, Buck smiled, and with a note of pride in his voice, he said, "Those three are getting tight, and turning into damn good horsemen."

"Hell, they're gettin' enough practice lately," Vin agreed. "When they haven't been helpin' round up rodeo stock, they're out ridin' just for the fun of it."

JD used his hat to fan his face. "This damn heat's enough to make me wish we were finished. Tell me again why Ezra, Nathan, and Josiah aren't out here with us in this inferno?"

"Josiah had a date with his wife today." The Texan smiled. "We can't deny a man time with his woman, can we?"

"Ezra took Barbara to her doctor's appointment, and on the way back he was supposed to drop off papers for Donald and Lillian to look over. If all goes right, they'll close on the old Southern Breeze house by next week."

"Leave it to Ezra to kill two birds with one stone. He convinced Donald the place was perfect for them, and solved our money flow problems at the same time." Vin reined Peso in closer to Pony.

Chris passed his canteen to JD, shaking his head in amusement as the younger man held it above his head, and wet his hair and face with a satisfied smile. "I'm not complaining. Donald and Lillian get what they want, they're close enough to spend time with the kids, and L7 won't miss the thirty acres, or the house."

Buck rolled his shoulders. "Nathan and Rain are still at Disneyworld with Terrell and Ronesha; I don't think they're due back until tomorrow." He sighed. "We 'are' supposed to be on vacation, remember?"

"Thanks." After finally taking a drink, JD handed the canteen back to Chris. "I think going back to work will be our vacation, all this 'free' time on the ranch is damn hard work."

Chris laughed. "Ranch work is hard, and since we almost doubled in size when we bough Matt's property, it seems that it never stops. I'll be talking to Travis on Monday, and it probably won't be long before we're all back at MCAT. Although I'm not sure how in the hell we're going to keep all the work up here and there."

"Travis better not call us back before Kel and I get 'our vacation'. We've spent all our time with our kids. We missed the sign-up with the junior skeet-shootin' league for Jason when I got hurt, so I've been workin' with him one on one. Thanks to that damn cat, we didn't get to ride much in the early summer with 'em, but we've been makin' up for lost time. Between all that, four wheelin', fishin', givin' him and Andi martial arts lessons, and chasin' the twins, Kel and I haven't had time to do much for us."

"You'd better plan it quick. I don't know how much longer we'll be off work." Chris warned.

"Got it all figured out. I'm just waitin' for Dad's cast to come off next week so he can babysit," Tanner grinned, "per his request. Then Kel gets her belated birthday celebration."

"Aside from the two days I took the kids to see Casey; I haven't planned any other vacation stuff." JD leaned forward in his saddle. "At least the girls are enjoying their time at the daycare. They especially like that new teacher." He imitated his children's chatter with his hand opening and closing. "All I hear from them is Miss McCall says this, or Miss McCall says that."

"Hey Kid, they're paying attention, that's a good thing." Buck said as he watched the horses, making certain they all got along with the ones already in the pasture. "Inez has been sending Sarah, Maria, and Tannis to the daycare this summer, too, mainly because she likes the new teacher."

JD glanced at Buck. "Yeah? Maybe it's time I checked her out for myself, see what all the fuss is about." He nudged his horse closer. "You and Inez have anything special planned?"

"Hell, it's been so long since we planned for just us, I've damn near forgotten we still could." Buck wiped the sweat from his brow. "Damn, I'll be glad when this heat spell breaks."

Chris checked his watch for the time. "It's after three; I think the horses will do okay without us. Let's get out of this damn heat, and head to the house."

Edging toward him with a cheesy grin on his face, Buck directed Chris's attention toward some none to discreet positioning by JD and Vin. The younger men whooped, touched their heels to their mounts, and raced across the open meadow toward the Tanner homestead, both riders laying low over their saddles.

"I should've known those two couldn't resist." Larabee shook his head, grinning. "I wonder which kids are going to grow up first...'theirs', or..." he nodded towards JD and Vin, 'ours'?"

Buck laughed as he urged Bear on. "Aww, c'mon stud, you know we wouldn't have 'em any other way."

"True," Chris's grin widened, he glanced at Buck, read his face, kneed Pony, and shouted, "but we can sure as hell give 'em a run for their money."

Park Meadows Mall

Mallory and Inez had spent the entire morning walking from one end of the mall to the other, searching for the special items they needed to throw Barbara a surprise baby shower. Checking off the last item on their list, they were both satisfied with their shopping expedition.

Glancing at her watch Mallory grimaced. "Lord, where did the time go. I told Josiah I'd meet him at the front entrance by eleven, and it's ten after now."

"Go," Inez waved her hand, "It's not every day a woman steals time with her husband for a romantic lunch. Buck and I haven't been further than McDonalds with the kids, lately."

"Walk out with me, and we'll load all the bags in his truck. He can unload them when we get home. We'll get Cait, Kelli, and Rain, to meet us at my house tomorrow morning to finalize our plans."

As they moved toward the front entrance, they saw Josiah waiting by the door, with a big smile on his face. "How did I know you two would be late?"

"The same way I knew you'd be early." Mallory leaned over to kiss his cheek. "Honey, would you put this stuff in the truck, it all goes to our house."

Taking the bags from his wife, and then Inez, he asked her, "Do you want us to walk you to your car?"

"No, you two go on and have a wonderful lunch. I'm going to take advantage of my free day away from home and do some more shopping. "

Josiah nodded. "Enjoy your day," he looked at Mallory and grinned, "that's what we plan to do."

Mallory hugged Inez. "I'll call you later."

Shaking her head, Inez grinned, and said, "No, you'll call me in the morning, I have a feeling you might be busy later."

"I hope so." Mallory said with a smile, waving to her sister of the heart as she walked out with Josiah.

Inez turned and went back into the mall. She loved having her children close, but having a day to leisurely shop with no interruptions was something she missed. Today, at least, she would take time for herself.

Denver Hilton

Lunch at the bistro in the Denver Hilton was a treat, but what followed... was a wickedly delicious afternoon romping in one of the hotel's most expensive rooms was pure heaven.

Josiah and Mallory enjoyed champagne and strawberries, as they initially relaxed into a luxurious, lavender scented hot tub, the warm, bubbling water prompting their first session of lovemaking. Now, they had retired to the bedroom, where they were making the most of their afternoon away from home, their children, and their visitors. Tess and Keira were no problem, but Josiah felt less inclined to practice the more animated lovemaking the pair had become accustomed to, while their temporary guests remained.

Josiah also wanted to celebrate, and support his wife's decision to take a new career path. He couldn't think of a more fun and intimate way than this.

Park Meadows Mall

After hours of wandering the mall, Inez decided it was time to go home. She had not bought a thing for herself, buying instead for the children and Buck. Smiling as she waited for the elevator to take her to the lower level parking, she thought about her family. They were the center of her life, and she was only fooling herself to believe she could go even one minute without thinking about their needs and wants first.

Lost in her thoughts, she almost missed the level she was suppose to exit on, but stuck her foot in the door to hold the elevator. Reaching over she pushed the button that read open, and said a silent prayer of thanks when the door released. She gasped when a rush of hot air assaulted her as she stepped out, contrasting sharply with the air-conditioned interior.

It was only a short distance to where she had parked earlier this morning, but now there were fewer cars, and the silence was eerie. With her keys in one hand, and her shopping bags in the other, Inez hurried towards her car.

She never heard him coming.

Waiting in the shadows for hours, was no hardship, delivering his message was too important, no matter how long it took. He knew she would eventually come back to the car. When the elevator door opened, he smiled, but quickly changed his expression when another woman appeared, forcing him to alter his plans. She was the wrong one, but...she would have to do. As she stepped out of the elevator, he waited for her to pass. The tap of her heels echoed in the enclosed area as he slipped behind the trim Hispanic beauty. Snatching at her hair, he jerked her head back, clamping a brawny hand over her mouth to muffle her screams. Locking his arm around her body immobilized her movements; scattering several shopping bags on the ground alongside her keys.

She struggled when she felt his hand press against her chest, but she was no match for his brute strength. He effortlessly dragged her struggling form through an exit door, and into a dimly lit stairwell, shoving her to the wall, before the force of his slap knocked her to the concrete floor. Bringing down his fists was easy. After all, this was her fault. The stupid bitch needed to learn.... "You should pay more attention, bitch"... he kicked her ... " Dress decently, and pick your friends carefully." ... he punched her in the stomach ... " Tell the bitch and her 'minders' they should take care of their own damn business, and stay out of mine." ...messages he relayed as he hammered away at her crumpled form repeatedly.

Stepping over her motionless body, and ignoring his skinned knuckles and blood-spattered shirt, he cracked opened the door to check the parking garage for movement. Pleased to see that he was in the clear, he nonchalantly walked away without giving so much as a second glance to his victim. The man sighed with satisfaction and smiled as he exited the building.

'Those interfering bastards will learn.... Don't screw with me and mine.'

Larabee 7

Racing towards the ranch, Vin and JD pulled ahead of Chris and Buck, much to their delight. JD frowned when suddenly the Texan pulled up short, and a concerned look crossed his face.

Wheeling his horse around, JD rode up beside Vin. "What's wrong?"

A rush of information hit Vin all at once, a distant urgency in an unfamiliar mind, and a whirl of questions, anxiety, and emotions from JD.

"Don't know for sure, but... somethin' ain't right." He pointed to the drive in front of his home, where Walter was standing next to a uniformed Denver Police Officer. Easing back on the reins, Vin cleared his thoughts, and curled one hand around JD's forearm. With a nod, they walked their horses up to the pair and dismounted.

Walter approached the duo as they rode closer. "JD, Vin...thank God. Do you know where Buck is?"

"He's coming. What..." JD glanced at the cop. "What's happened?"

Before Walter could answer, Buck and Chris came into view. While waiting for the two men to join them, Vin closed in on Walter, his expression requesting an explanation.

"I sent the boys inside with Max. It's bad," was all the head of security could impart before Buck was striding toward them.

"Chuck?" Buck laughed, "Chuck Simpson, long time no see. How are you doing? What brings you all the way out here?" He was pumping the man's hand enthusiastically as he spoke, his actions slowing as he took in the old acquaintance's somber demeanor. "Chuck?"

"Buck," the cop attempted a smile, but it failed to reach his eyes. "Is there somewhere we can talk?"

Looking around at his brothers and Walter, Buck tightened his smile. "Ain't nothing you can't say in front of my family, Chuck."

The wide-eyed look of alarm on JD's face, coupled with expressions of deep concern on Chris and Vin's, gave Buck an instant attack of nerves. "My God...what's happened?"

Clearing his throat, while glancing around at the ensemble, Sergeant Simpson spoke, "We responded to a call from Security at Park Meadows Mall, concerning an assault in the parking garage. He paused, briefly. "Buck...I'm sorry...the woman was Inez...I knew I had to tell you in person...a phone call just didn't seem right."

A strange feeling passed between the four brothers, one that Vin and Chris were more than familiar with, but one that completely threw Buck and JD as both men instantly began breathing rapidly.

Shaking his head in denial, Buck said, " wife is out shopping with Mallory Sanchez. What are you saying?" His hand grasped the sergeant's arm as his voice rose, causing JD to jolt. "WHAT ARE YOU SAYING?" The distraught man shrugged off Chris's hand, his gaze fixed on the cop in front of him.

Chuck's expression filled with compassion. "EMS took her to Denver Memorial. I'm sorry,'s pretty bad."

JD did not realize he had moved closer to Buck until they touched arms. He could feel Buck's body trembling, while he desperately fought his own fears to find the right thing to say.

"Thanks Chuck, for making this personal. We appreciate it, and if you would, give Tanner the details." Chris spoke for all of them. "C'mon, big guy. You, JD, and I will go to the hospital; Vin will handle what needs doing here."

Larabee's mind was in no less turmoil than the others' were, but he knew he had to take control. Buck and JD were clearly at a loss, Buck bordering on shock. Chris acknowledged Vin's nod, and soon the three were in the Ram running full lights and sirens, heading into Denver.


Denver Memorial Hospital

The three men, having raced to the hospital running lights and siren, rushed through the doors. Doctor Gilford met them when they entered. Realizing Buck was in no condition to wait, he gave them a brief overview to prepare them as they walked to Inez's room. "You need to know...Inez is on strong painkillers. She has a concussion, cuts, contusions, a hairline fracture to her cheekbone, bruised ribs, and a few fractured fingers. Her right wrist was also broken, but I was able to set it without surgery. While I know you're upset and angry right now, she needs your support more than anything." His message received, the doctor stepped back, allowing them to enter the dimly lit room.

Buck's stifled wail was heart wrenching as the gentle man half walked, half fell to his wife's side. Kneeling, he gazed through tear-filled eyes at the face he cherished, a face...he wept harder...a face he could barely recognize right now. Her left cheekbone was purple and grossly misshapen, so much so, Buck seriously doubted only a hairline fracture lay below the swelling. Her nose was puffy, and had a strip of dressing covering what appeared to be a jagged gash across it, while white strips held together a cut across her brow. There was barely space between the bruising, some extending to her neck, and the split in her lower lip was blue and fat.

Crying softly, his trembling hand hovered over the finger splints on her right hand, while he tried to ignore the bruising that peeked above the neckline of the hospital gown she was wearing, wondering how far down they ran. Panic struck him, but Gilford saw his question and pre-empted it.

"She wasn't raped," he whispered.

All at once, Inez's blackened and swollen eyes blinked open. "Mi amor."

Her whisper drew him closer. "Hush, mi amada. Sleep, I'm right here." He kissed her forehead and laid his head next to hers.

Chris felt the blood leave his face when he looked at the battered features of a woman he had known many years, and loved like a sister. Anger rose within him while he watched Buck's anguish unfold, touching a hand to his chest as the developing physical bond all seven men shared caused an unbearable ache. Suddenly snapping back to the moment, he took JD's arm, and guided the younger man outside.

JD's cry was a little more audible than his companions' were, before a rush of pain, emotion, and anguish, a hurt so profound stole his breath; almost taking his knees from under him. Apart from the sheer horror of seeing someone, he loved as family, lying so seriously injured, Buck's pain and anguish seemed to engulf him, adding to his own distress. Before he realized what was happening, a strong hand had steered him further from the door.

"JD, breathe!" Clamping his youngest brother's face between his hands, Chris stared at him, relieved to see him nod, and gulp in air.

"Oh, God..."

"I know," Chris fought back his emotion. "I understand, Kid...hang in there. Buck and Inez need us, no matter how we feel..." He watched JD shake his head, then place a hand on his chest.

"No, it...I will, it's just that..."

Chris touched a hand to his own chest. "I know," he whispered, wishing he could come up with another phrase to explain he was on JD's wavelength.

Dunne turned his head, unable to stop his tears, and unwilling for his long-time hero to see them, but grateful for the strength in the grip at the back of his neck. Chris envied JD and Buck. Both so tactile and empathic, never wanting to show their emotion, but always able to express it, anyway.


"Analysis later, kid...let's ride this storm, first." They both looked up when Isabella and Cait entered the corridor, followed by Vin and Kelli.

Tanner already knew what was coming as far as emotion was concerned. He had felt the collective impact of his brothers' grief during the journey here, but had kept it to himself. The women had enough to deal with. Seeing JD leaning heavily against a wall, and he and Chris so clearly suffering, Vin went directly to them, while the women held back for a moment gathering their thoughts. The Texan placed a hand on the back of Chris's and then JD's neck.

"It's awful, Vin." JD sniffed as his lower lip trembled, and he ran the end of his tongue along it. Chris simply made eye contact with the Texan and nodded.

Tanner turned to Kelli and Cait. "Y'all go inside with Isabella."

The women entered Inez's room, and seconds later, a disheveled, weary, and distressed Buck emerged. Chris pulled him in, and Buck clung to him, snaking out a hand to drag JD into the embrace, while his eyes flashed to Vin, begging him to join them. The four held firm, not moving for a long few minutes.

Sensing Buck's building rage, Vin guided them into a side room, and held onto JD as the brunet wandered in circles for a moment, then proceeded to vent his anguish verbally and physically, by pounding at an empty bed, and then upended anything not bolted to the floor. Chris flashed his badge, waving security away and watched Buck exhaust himself. JD pulled out of Vin's hold, and stood in the brunet's path.

Stopping when he focused on JD, Buck simply stood and stared for a few seconds, then dragged the grateful young man into a tight hold, crying hard as they clung together. Neither man knew what to do next...except...simply be there.

Denver Hilton

Josiah held his wife in his arms, and considered extending their time here at the hotel. A beep alerted him to a text message on his cell. About to ignore it, Mal caught his eye.

"It might be about the children."

With a nod, and grunting as he stretched to retrieve his cell phone from the nightstand, Josiah read the message. Noticing his frown, Mallory pulled back a little. "What is it?"

"It's a Message from Vin, telling us to meet him at Denver Memorial."

Josiah instantly felt the need to join his brother. In less than twenty minutes, the couple was doing just that.

Denver Memorial Hospital

Chris and Vin eased out of the room, leaving Buck and JD to console one another. Moving away from the door, they stopped close enough to view both Inez's room, and the one their brothers were using.

"Tell me," Chris said.

Tanner had been busy. "Sent a message to Josiah... I told him and Mal to meet us here. Cait's parents are stayin' with Grace and Cody, and Tess is at Reins with JD and Josiah's kids until one of us gets back there. Jesse's at our house helpin' Max and Dad with our brood, and Caleb."

"How is Isabella holding up?"

"Cait and I broke the news to her, while Ezra and Barbara took over with baby Bella and the girls. We didn't tell anyone much; Isabella...all I can say is she is one helluva woman. She didn't panic, just gathered what she thought Inez and Buck would need, and said, 'let's go'.

Deep in thought, Chris nodded. "Does Chuck know how it happened?"

"Only what the security tapes caught. The worst of the attack took place in the stairwell. He gave us a copy of his preliminary, but... they don't have much to go on to identify the assailant." Vin glanced at Inez's door. "A detective will be up later to get her statement...if she's able."

Seeing Josiah and Mallory exit the elevator, Chris moved to intercept them. He quickly filled them in on events, as he knew them. "Inez is pretty much out of it right now. Doc says her condition is serious, but stable."

Josiah closed his eyes, sending up a brief prayer, while chastising himself for not staying to escort Inez to her car. "I should have insisted on staying."

"Since when did you get ESP?" Vin clamped his hand on the big man's shoulder. "You had no way of knowin' some jerkass would be waitin' in that garage."

Mallory squeezed her husband's hand. "He's right and you know it." Nodding to Chris and Vin, she started past them. "I'm going inside, I might not be able to help much, but I can add some sisterhood strength."

Waiting until Mallory disappeared through the door, Josiah then asked, "How is Buck?"

Chris shook his head, saying, "Not good...him, or JD."

Glancing into the other room at Buck and JD, Josiah tried to swallow the lump in his throat when he saw them talking, then embrace. "Damn, damnit to hell..." He glanced down at Chris's hand on his arm.

"Hang in there, Brother...there'll be time to vent, later."

With a nod, Josiah attempted to relax his tense shoulders, and waited for their next move.


Detective Lou Masterson had asked for this assignment. He had known the men of MCAT back when they were ATF Team 7. Hell, his history with Chris and Buck went back to the days the three of them patrolled the streets of Denver as rookie cops. Approaching the trio standing in the hall, he took a deep breath. It was never easy when one of their own was involved, and through her marriage to Buck... Inez Wilmington was one of them.

Chris saw him first, extending his hand to his old friend. "Lou, it's been a long time.'

Nodding, to Josiah and Vin, he accepted Chris's handshake. "Yeah it has. I just wished we were all out on the lake in my Ranger, fishing, instead of meeting under these circumstances."

"Me, too," Chris said with a sigh. "Are you taking the lead on the Wilmington case?"

"You bet. In fact, I requested it." Lou paused, "How is she?"

"It's serious, but she's stable, and heavily sedated, according to the doctor. We've all had an opportunity to see her, but I doubt you'll get anything from her tonight." Chris stared at door to Inez's room, while he related her condition. "I want the bastard who did this."

"We know it falls under DPD jurisdiction, but we'd like to be kept in the loop," Vin requested, thinking about how frail Inez looked laying in that bed.

"I'll tell you what I know, which at the moment is not much. Chuck told me he gave you copies of the security tapes, so you're already aware that the assailant's face was not visible. We did find where we think he waited...for a long time."

"Waited for Inez...specifically?" Josiah questioned.

"We have no reason to suspect it was more than being wrong time, wrong place, although, we will pursue all possibilities." Detective Masterson glanced at his watch. "I can come back in the morning to speak with Missus Wilmington, but I thought Buck might want to arrange for her car to be picked up. It was not part of the crime scene, and Chuck made sure her personal belongings were locked inside."

"We can do that for him." Chris turned to Josiah and Vin. "You two want to handle it? Maybe Lou will be nice enough to walk you through what happened."

Lou nodded. "Be glad too.

Josiah and Vin exchanged glances, making a silent agreement, and then Vin looked at the Detective. "Do you mind hangin' around a few minutes; we need make arrangements for our wives to get home.

"Meet me in the lobby coffee lounge when you're ready." Lou turned to Chris. "Tell Buck I'll see him in the morning." Nodding to them, he walked off, leaving the three brothers to work out what they needed to do.


JD had been scared many times during his lifetime. At first, he feared others would perceive him as weak, until six men taught him fear was good, fear was what kept you sharp, and focused. Fear kept you from screwing up...kept you alive.

Here he sat, cross-legged on a hospital bed, in the middle of a room that appeared as if a tornado had hit. His hands curled around the wrists of a man he loved like a brother, and had done for years, despite there being no blood ties, at least not in this lifetime. He was terrified, while he waited supportively for Buck to acknowledge him. Violent crimes against women was part of police work, a very, very ugly part, but unavoidable. Nevertheless, this...what had happened to Inez had brought it screaming to their front door, and suddenly JD was afraid for all the wonderful women that shared his and his brothers' lives. How could they protect them? Would they want protection? They were hardly shrinking violets, but they would surely understand the men's need to want them safe, wouldn't they?

"That you shaking or me?"

Buck's voice startled JD from his musings. He swallowed as his gaze met the distraught features of his big brother. "Me, I think."

Buck tried to smile. "Both, I reckon."

JD nodded, and then asked, "Can I get you anything?"

"Got all I need right this minute." Buck sighed, and then his expression changed to anger. "I want this mother fucker!"

"I know. He's ours, Buck; you have our word on that." JD failed to stop a tear as his heart broke for his brother.

Buck's head dropped. " see her like imagine what she must be going through now...what she went through then...all alone." He felt JD squeeze his wrists tighter and he raised his head again to look at him "I love her so much, JD...have done since that first day she laid into me." He suppressed the emotion he felt rising in his throat. "I feel like I failed her..."

"NO!" JD's head was shaking and now he wanted to embrace him. "Don't say that...don't EVER say that..." The ache in his chest was back and it seemed Buck was reacting to it and JD's need to comfort him, as the brunet pulled JD in and the pair held on tight. "Don't ever say that, Buck."


When Buck and JD exited the room, they walked together from the adjoining corridor into Inez's room.

Kelli, Cait, and Mallory joined the men in the hallway, making room for Buck and JD to sit with Inez, and Isabella.

Josiah understood how emotional this was for his wife, and opened his arms to her. "You okay?"

Mallory sighed, nodded, and savored the comfort her husband offered. "I've seen this so many times, but here...with Inez...damnit, it 's not suppose to happen to people you love."

Vin held on to Kelli, and spoke softly, while rubbing his hand in circular motions on her back. "Josiah and I are goin' to the SOC, with Detective Masterson." He glanced over to Mallory. "Mal, would you take Kel home?"

"Sure," Mallory answered, and then looked over at Chris. "I want to be here when Inez gives her statement. You'll tell Buck for me?"

Chris nodded. With his arm around his bride, he set his chin on the top of her head. "Honey, I want you to take Isabella, and JD back to the ranch."

"JD won't leave..."

Larabee raised his hand to Cait's statement. "JD's a good kid, and a good dad. He'll know it's the right thing to do, and we can't expect Tess to wait at Reins all evening. I'm going to stay with Buck until Inez can make a statement, which won't be today. Tomorrow, we'll organize the kids so anyone wanting to visit, can." He looked at the others. "Is everyone okay with this?" He was pleased to see they all agreed.

"We'll head on down to meet Masterson," Vin took a last look at the door. "If y'all need anythin'..."

"I'll let you know." Chris hugged Mallory and kissed Kelli's cheek, before the women walked off with their husbands.

"Now comes the hard part." Chris sighed, moved to the door of the hospital room, and crooked his finger, beckoning JD to come out of Inez's room.

"NO! Chris, please, I don't wanna leave Buck..." Distraught...and torn, JD glanced back into the room at Buck, Isabella, and Inez. Chris waited patiently for the answer he knew JD was coming to. He smiled when JD nodded, and squeezed the back of his neck supportively.

"Today we have to play things by ear since Buck's children have no idea what's going on. Isabella will need to talk to them when Cait drops you and Isabella home." Gripping JD's shoulder, Chris assured him, "I'll stay here tonight and keep watch over Buck for you. Okay?" He smiled inwardly at the resigned look on JD's face, understanding how he felt. If Vin was in as much emotional pain as Buck, he wouldn't want to leave him, either.

JD thumbed over his shoulder. "Just gonna go in and say goodbye."

As Chris watched JD go, Cait sidled up to Chris and kissed him. "You okay?"

Chris shook his head. "No, none of us are. The bastard that did this is going down...but while we're making that happen, we'll all pull together. And that's what helps us survive, right?"

"Right." Cait stroked his hair. "Leave your cell on vibrate, I'll call you later. I love you, cowboy."

"Love you too, Lady."

Whispering their plans to a nodding Isabella, JD headed back to Buck, squatting down next to him. "I...I have to pick up my kids..." His voice broke as he spoke. No matter how right it was, JD still didn't want to leave them.

From his seat next to the bed, Buck leaned in and their foreheads touched. "Give those babies a kiss from me...and hug ours for us, would you?"

JD nodded. "I'll be back tomorrow."

"I know..."

JD placed his on his chest to stave off the ache. "I...I love you both..."

Buck actually smiled. "Back at ya, Bro. I'll see you tomorrow."

Standing, JD leaned over to Isabella, cupped his hand to her ear, and whispered to her, "How do you say, 'I love you big sister', in Spanish?"

Isabella whispered the translation to him, and then JD moved next to Inez, bent over and kissed her forehead, before softly saying, "Te amo hermana mayor."

Isabella followed suit, then kissed Buck. "What would you have me say to the niños Buck?"

The brunet sighed and thought for a moment. "Use your discretion, but...don't lie to them, or deny them information if they ask. Tell them daddy will call them in the morning."

Nodding as she swept away a tear, Isabella kissed him again, before leaving with JD and Cait.

Tanner Home, 8:00 pm

Mallory gratefully accepted a cup of coffee as she and Kelli took a seat at the kitchen table. At first, she was reluctant to linger, but having spoken to Tess, and the young woman assuring her she would happily hold on to Joanne and Adam for as long as Mallory needed , she gratefully took a break from the roller coaster ride they had all been on the past few hours.

Neither woman spoke for some time, their minds filled with images and thoughts about the day's proceedings. Mallory sighed, and Kelli finally spoke as she glanced back at the room where the children were watching a DVD. "I feel I should be doing somethin'."

"For Inez?" Mal asked.

"Inez, Buck, JD, and the kids...anyone...this is so horrible." Her trembling hands took the mug of coffee to her lips.

Mallory shivered. "I feel so bad that Josiah and I were having such a wonderful afternoon, while..."

Their gazes met and they nodded. Right now, they had no words, just a heart full of pain, and a head full of confusion. Setting her mug down, Mal stood. "I should go." Kissing Kelli on the cheek, she walked to the door, smiling when the redhead insisted she watch her leave. A call from JD gave Mallory the opportunity to get home just before her children, but as she traveled, her mind was in turmoil over the day's horrific events. She had no doubt the repercussions of this awful day would reverberate around Larabee Seven for a long time to come.

Wilmington Home

Barbara and Ezra watched Cait and Isabella approach the Wilmington home. Taking the baby from Barbara, Ezra kissed Isabella and Cait's cheeks, whispering his commiserations, before walking out to the Larabee's truck. Barbara embraced them both as tears fell. Chris had called to keep them updated, and the mother-to-be was heartbroken for a woman she, as well as four others, had grown to love as a sister. While the two Wild Bunch women escorted a tired-looking Isabella inside, Ezra turned sad eyes away from the heart-wrenching scene, and continued on to the vehicle.

He noticed JD slumped in the front passenger seat, and decided to approach him. When JD turned his way, Standish smiled, holding a now animated Bella toward him. "Someone wants to see her uncle."

JD's initial reaction was lacking in enthusiasm, but one look at the wriggling, grinning baby, and remembering Buck's parting request, prompted him to open his door, extend his arms, and take Bella into a tight embrace. Ezra smiled as JD blew on her neck and tummy, swinging her up to delightful giggles. Standish quickly moved in when the younger man buried his face into the snuggling child, and began to shake with emotion. Taking Bella, Ezra pulled JD close and joined him in the outpour of emotion as he experienced something of the wave of anguish JD, Buck, Vin, and Chris had shared earlier. By the time Cait returned to the truck, both men had composed themselves, and the brothers exchanged a parting look that ensured they would talk soon. Cait then drove JD home to pick up his truck, so he could collect his children. The pair glanced at each other as they pulled up outside the Larabee house.

Cait touched his face. "Will you be okay?"

JD nodded, as he walked her to the door. Their homes were close, but JD had insisted that he see her into the house.

"Will you?"

Hugging for a good while to avoid the obvious answers, JD gave a tight smile, waved goodbye, and walked toward his home. Cait shuddered and wondered how they could all get through this, while instinctively knowing, as a family, somehow, they would.

Park Meadows Mall

Vin pulled in and parked behind Detective Masterson. Then he and Josiah walked over to view the scene personally, as Lou gave them a running narrative of what he knew. Stepping across the yellow crime scene tape, the Detective began, "Our unknown waited here for a good while, and according to the tapes had several other possible victim pass by, before Inez." He pointed to an area in the shadows, which had a good view of the elevator door. "We lifted some boot imprints, and found a few cigarette butts on the floor, which our lab is testing now for possible DNA." Moving on, he showed them where Inez first encountered her assailant. "Once she exited the elevator, she started walking straight to her car. We found her keys, and shopping bags here." The floor had chalk marks indicating where they discovered each item.

Josiah mentally calculated the distance between the elevator and Inez's car. "It appears she followed basic safety rules. Parking close to the exit, and carrying her keys in her hand as she approached her vehicle."

Lou nodded. "She did, but somehow he still managed to come up behind her without causing alarm. The security cameras caught him grabbing her from behind, and dragging her to the stairwell door over there. Apparently, he was aware of the camera locations, and kept his face turned away from them. Once he had her in the stairwell with the door closed...even someone passing out here would have no way of knowing anyone was in there."

Vin opened the door, stepping inside. Blood smears on the wall and floor made him cringe as he tried to visualize the nightmare Inez had encountered here. "He had pretty much all the uninterrupted time he wanted...yet he didn't rape her." Turning back to Lou, he made an observation. "It's been my experience that most assailants, who attack lone women in parkin' garages, don't do it just to beat the hell out of them, unless it's personal."

Josiah agreed. "I saw what he did to Inez. It was brutal, callous, and degrading, was also a deliberate, controlled action from a man, who feels superior to women, and regards them as nothing more than second-class citizens. This was personal for him, and by doing so much damage to her face, he wanted everyone to know it. I believe Inez was his target...the question is...why?"

Lou sighed. "I told you that officially, we have no evidence that says Inez was his intended target, but my gut and my years of experience say she probably was. Now, it could be she encountered him somewhere else, and offended him in some way without her even knowing it. Men who get off degrading women like he did don't need a legitimate them; any imagined slight could set him off."

Vin's expression hardened. After all the bullshit their enemies' had subjected their families to over the past few years because of their work in law enforcement, it was entirely possible this was another strike at the team, or specifically to Buck, maybe from one of his old cases. "I don't want to tell you how to do your job, Lou, but considerin' the attacks against our families stemmin' from the cases we've worked on...this feels like more than a damn coincidence."

Lou considered the possibility and said, "Point taken Tanner. I'm running a search for any similar attacks in the area, but I'll also have some prints made from the tapes for Buck to look at in the morning. Hell, even without a good view of his face, one of you might recognize the bastard, or Inez might be able to work with our sketch artist if she saw him. If none of those things pan out...I'll need some old case files to start on..."

"You'll have what you need from us," Vin assured him. "We want the sonofabitch as much, or more than you do."

"I'll work up a profile after Inez gives her statement." Josiah volunteered. "We also have alternate resources you might not have access to. We'll share whatever we come up with."

"I'll take all the help I can get on this one." Lou shook his head. "Whoever the bastard is, he'll soon know, you don't touch a cop's wife, and expect it to go away." He pulled a set of keys from his pocket. "You'll find her purse and personal items in the trunk." If either of you are planning to be there, I'll be at the hospital before ten."

Josiah took the offered keys. "We'll be there." He and Vin shook Lou's hand, thanked him for his cooperation, and then retrieved Inez's car, before heading home.

Reins of Change

JD barely recalled the drive from his provisional home to Reins, his mind filled with thoughts of Inez, Buck, and their little ones. He wanted to be a good brother and uncle, he really did, but every time he closed his eyes, he could see Inez lying in the hospital bed, battered and bruised, and hear Buck's wail when he first saw her. Before he realized it, he was at the Reins security gate, which once the kids had gone home for the day, needed a pass to get in. Fishing around in his glove box, he rolled down the window and held up an ID to a small scanner. The gate opened, JD did not pull away until it closed again. He parked in front of the daycare, blipped the lock, and headed in.

"Oh honey, daddy will love this. Shall we clip it to the drying wire?"

Daisy nodded to her teacher, who was crouching next to her, a sleepy JJ balanced on her hip. "Can I paint anuvver one, Miss Mucawl?"

"Sure, I'll go check on Lilah, Keira, and Adam and get you more paper." She stood. "Joanne, how is your drawing coming along?"

"I might have to finish it tomorrow, is that okay, Miss McCall?"

Tess smiled. "Oh sure, that's fine. It's lovely; who did you say it was for?"

"Uncle Ra and Aunt Barbara. See? That's their house, that's Uncle Ra, that's Aunt Barbara, and that's gonna be their baby."

Tess nodded, absently kissing JJ's head as he fussed. "Yes, I see. I'm sure they'll love it. Are you going to color it in?"

"Mm hmm...tomorrow."

"Miss Mcawl..."

"Ooh, sorry Daisy, I was getting you some paper, wasn't I? Oh!" She startled as she turned, on seeing a young, dark-haired man resting against the doorframe, watching her, her rapid heart rate slowing when Tess realized she recognized him. They had never met, but she had seen him at least twice at Josiah and Mallory's home.

JD was mesmerized with the tranquil activity in the small classroom. Lilah was sitting on a beanbag in a corner, looking through a picture book. Adam was sitting next to her and pointing, the pair nodding and giggling as she flipped the pages. Joanne and Daisy were being creative on some easels, while a little dark-haired girl with one arm in a cast, was awkwardly brushing a doll's hair as she intermittently kissed it. But it was the soft kiss from the teacher, to his drowsy son's head that gave his heart a little lurch. An act so natural, the raven-haired woman hadn't even realized she had done it.

Now, JD was looking at her. So, this was the infamous Miss McCall. She was a pretty, young woman, with chocolate brown eyes and long dark hair; loosely pulled back to keep it from falling forward, though a few loose strands framed her face. Realizing his wool gathering was over as their gazes met, he straightened, smiled, and, extending his hand, he approached her.

"Hi, I'm JD...JD Dunne, Lilah, Daisy, and JJ's dad. You must be Miss McCall?"

Returning the smile, Tess took the offered hand, not so much shaking it, as holding it for a few moments. "Hi, pleased to meet you, Mister Dunne."

JD's grin widened. "Lord, please don't call me Mister Dunne. Call me JD."

He had a nice smile, she mused. "Okay, but only if you call me Tess."

"Tess." JD nodded. "Pretty name. Is it short for anything?"

"Thank you; it was my maternal grandmother's. No, it's just Tess. My Great grandmother decided, when choosing the name, that she would use one that wouldn't get shortened over time, and my mother decided to follow suit." She laughed. "That was way more information than you needed, wasn't it?"

JD chuckled, softly as his two rug rats and their cousins suddenly clicked he was there, and ran to greet him, their calls waking JJ, who gave a drooling grin on seeing his father and flexed his little fists for a cuddle. Taking him and then squatting down, JD made a fuss of each child, kissing them all and chatting briefly with Joanne and the twins, while Adam clung to his arm.

"Well," he grunted, as he lifted JJ up. "Usually, it's me that gets asked the questions about first names, so it was kind of a pleasant change."

Walking around as she tidied, Tess tilted her head. "And what does JD stand for?"

"Aah, nothing special."

"That's not right. Then you'd be called A.N.S." Her eyes flashed with mischief.

Urging the kids to help with the tidying as he set JJ back down on the floor, JD flashed a lop-sided grin. "Oh, you're quick." He laughed, softly. "Okay, it stands for John Daniel."

"Well, John Daniel, your kids are ready when you are, I'm just waiting on Mallory..."

Flipping open his cell, JD punched in a number. "Mal...where are you? Don't rush, I'm at Reins, I might as well drop Tess and the kids off. Okay, later." He pre-empted Tess's protest. "It's a long story, one that Mallory will no doubt fill you in on, but, if it's okay with you, I'd rather Mallory go straight home, and I'll get you back to Josiah's. Do you mind?"

She had stopped next to Keira, her hand nestled in the little girl's soft tresses. "No, that's real sweet of you, thanks." She noticed JD's gaze drawn to the little girl. "Oh, this is my daughter Keira." Tess addressed her daughter. "Keira, say hi to John Daniel."


Approaching, the young agent smiled. "Hi Keira, and my friends call me JD." He pulled a face at Tess, who grinned as she collected the children's coats.

"Hullo, JD." She pointed to her cast. "I have a boo-boo."

Easing down and resting on his haunches, JD nodded. "So I see. I'm real sorry about that. You know, I have a rule that says, if a friend of mine has a boo-boo, I have to give them a dollar." He glanced at Tess, aware of a look on her face, but not really understanding it right then. " it okay to give you a dollar to make your boo-boo feel a little better?"

Tess gave a little nod of consent, but right then, was marveling at how Keira had allowed JD to get close. Troy's violent behavior had made the little one wary of men, but her instant take to JD gave Tess new hope that her daughter was coming through the fear a little.

Keira's face lit up as she took the offered dollar. "Thank you, Jaydee."

Gently ruffling her hair, JD grinned. "You're welcome, Keira." He eyed the expectant gazes of the now gathered children. "What? You all have boo-boos?"

About to come up with an explanation, JD halted Joanna before she kicked off, pulling out his wallet and handing out the money. "Okay, I guess I'll buy that. It's been a long day, and you've all been good." He pushed his wallet into his back jeans pocket. "Right. We all set?"


He turned to Tess. "Ready?"

With a nod, she put Keira's jacket on her, and moved to shut off the lights.

It took some maneuvering, but with Keira on Tess's lap, JJ, Lilah and Daisy strapped into their seats and Joanne squeezed in beside Adam, JD closed the Explorer's doors before climbing in. Suddenly he stopped, turning sharply, as the hairs on the back of his neck stood up. He had the strangest feeling there was someone there and placed a hand at his back to keep it on his gun. Seeing the area deserted, he shook his head, put it down to a bad day, climbed into the truck, and slowly pulled out.

'He stepped back sharply into the shadows. Damn...that was close. Who was 'this' guy? This was an unexpected development, and one he was not happy with...not happy with, at all.'


Dunne Home, 6:00 am

JD felt guilty, rushing his children through breakfast, but he so desperately wanted to get to the hospital. One by one, he braided the girls' hair, first Daisy then Lilah's. The action caused him to fight his emotions, as the memory of Inez spending time teaching him how to do it after Casey left, dredged the horror of yesterday's events to the surface.

He hadn't slept much last night, often rising to get a drink or just wander around. At one point, he had watched his children sleeping, gazing at the girls in tears, as his anxiety toward how he could ever protect them from such an attack, mingled with his exhaustion and heartache. No matter how good a cop, or father he was, something like this could happen to any one of the women he loved...already had...and he was powerless to prevent it, no matter how many cautions or precautions he set in motion.

Securing Lilah's braid with a tie, then a pink snap-on ribbon, he turned her toward him, smiled, and kissed her nose. "All done, Button. Go get your jacket. Oh hey, Daisy drew me a picture yesterday, are you gonna draw me a picture today?"

Lilah nodded. "Uh huh. Gonna draw our house."

'Vin's house', JD thought absently to himself. He grinned. "Neat." Lilah stared at him.

"What is it, baby?" he asked.

The little girl rubbed at her nose and took a deep, exaggerated breath. "When's we goin' home, daddy?"

JD frowned. "We...we are home, sweetie."

She leaned in and twisted her fingers into his shirt. "Noooo, silly, when's we goin' to our 'real' home? Is it all better, now? I wants to sleep in my bed. My bed was pink, I liked it. Don't likes this one..."

JD's world narrowed at the question. Oh, God...the girls thought they could go back to Nettie's one day. It never occurred to him that they hadn't fully understood the place was gone. Closing his eyes for a moment as exhaustion and shock overwhelmed him; he took a deep breath to recover. He really wasn't up to this right now. JD opened his eyes and forced a smile.

"Come on, we gotta go. We'll talk about it later, okay?" Relieved to see Lilah grin and nod, he kissed her. Picking up a grinning JJ, JD prepared for them to leave, while trying hard not to dwell on the nagging thought that he was failing his kids...badly.


Barely recalling the drive in, JD parked in the hospital's underground garage. Blipping his truck's central locking system, he shivered as he looked around him. There were cameras here, too, but now he seriously had to wonder just how effective they were. They sure as hell hadn't helped Inez at the mall.

As he made his way to the elevator, his mind drifted back to his earlier conversation with Lilah. Funny how a simple question from an innocent could create so much turmoil in his mind. Until the attack on Inez, his only negative thought was getting through his upcoming birthday as a divorced man. With all his brothers' married and settled, he figured it would be just him and the getting drunk any more, or a sexy surprise waiting for him in the bedroom this year. He shrugged...well; there was always the porn channel on cable.

As he stepped into the elevator, and pushed the up button, JD leaned back against the car wall, JD wished he could talk to Buck, or Chris about Lilah's question...or any of the guys for that matter, but now was not the time...not that he could tell that to a small child. As the elevator dinged, JD smiled and offered a slight nod to a man stepping out, not really noticing when he looked back at him as the doors closed. Moving down the corridor, JD concluded that he should follow Buck's suggestion; Lilah's innocent remark was the prompt he needed to build his own place. That thought evaporated when he drew nearer the hospital room Inez was in. He stopped before going in, the ache in his chest, back with a vengeance, then, stepping forward, he tapped on the door, and walked in.

'So, he's connected to them.' The man that entered the elevator had hovered around the hospital, eager to learn if the cops had a clue about who had attacked Inez, and was now smug in the knowledge they did not. He had also seen, first hand, the people who stood between him and the prize, which belonged to him. As he left the parking garage, he was already formulating a plan for his next move.

Standish Home

Ezra moved around quietly as he dressed, so as not to wake his wife. Once finished, he exited the bedroom and headed for the kitchen to start breakfast. Being with the Wilmington children yesterday made him feel that he was at least doing something to help, and as much as he wanted to be with his brothers at the hospital, he was more worried about Barbara now. The doctor told them her blood pressure was elevated, and the stress from hearing the news about Inez, he was certain had not helped lower it.

"You didn't have to sneak out of the room, I was awake." Barbara stood in the kitchen doorway. Sighing, she ambled towards the chair. "I didn't sleep well, thinking about Inez. Those babies will be shocked when they see their mama, and all her bruises."

Holding the chair for his wife, Ezra waited until she was semi-comfortable, before responding. "They remember how Buck looked when he and Vin came back from South America. As long as they know their mother will be all right, the children will manage ...most likely better than the adults."

Barbara conceded. "You're probably right. We really should go to the hospital today to see Inez."

"Doctor Ryder told us yesterday you needed more bed rest. I intend to see that you get it. We'll visit with Inez when she comes home, and..." he set a cup of hot cider in front of her, "I looked at your calendar. I think you should consider rescheduling some of your upcoming commitments and appointments."

"I know, it's just...some of these commitments can't be rescheduled, like the CASA meeting Monday night. Who can I find on such short notice to fill in for me?"

"Kelli is qualified to hold that meeting. Ask her, I'm sure she wouldn't mind." Ezra watched his wife while he buttered her toast.

"Maybe, and I suppose I could change some other things on my agenda for next week." Barbara looked up at her husband, needing reassurance. "Tell me again. Our baby is okay, this blood pressure business is not critical, and we only have a month to go right?"

Setting her breakfast plate on the table, he moved behind her to massage her neck. "Our baby is fine, we only have a month, and as long as we follow doctor's orders, your blood pressure should not be a problem."

Leaning back to enjoy Ezra's ministrations, she sighed again. "I'll call Kelli after breakfast."

Tanner Home

Max had come over, even though Saturday was usually her day off. She insisted on being available to help, and truthfully needed to stay busy. Clearing the breakfast dishes, she told Kelli. "You do what you need to, I'm here for the kids, and we'll be fine."

Placing her hand on Max's back, Kelli said. "You should be in your new home enjoyin' it, but I appreciate you bein' here. Vin's on his way to the hospital, I'm takin' Caleb and Jesse home, gonna see if Isabella needs anythin', and then I promised Cait I'd help her at Reins. There are still a few things to work out with the new CPS intake facility."

Max nodded. "Walter mentioned some concerns about security with all the coming and going." She smiled at Kelli. "Go, if I need you, I'll call."

Reins of Change

Cait handed over the file to Walter. "This should give you a photo, and info on everyone involved with the CPS intake center."

Walter took it. "I know it probably sounds like overkill to be this paranoid, but considering the trouble we've had the past few months, I don't want to overlook anything."

"You're thorough Walter. There's nothing paranoid about that. I feel better knowing we're not relying on just the State vouching for all the new people around here." Cait suppressed the memory of her own attack that attempted to surface. "My Reins clients understand that security is a necessity, and they're not complaining about the new measures you've added to protect all of us."

Walter nodded. "I'll get back with you if I need anything else." He tipped his hat, and walked over to his truck to leave.

Kelli pulled in beside Walter's vehicle, exited her own truck, and said, "Hi Walter. Max has food warmin' for you at our house."

He waved as he climbed into the driver's seat, and called back, "On my way, now."

Kelli waited for Jesse to come around from the passenger side to join her before they walked over to meet Cait. Her cell rang, and she motioned for Jesse to go on, while she took the call.

Cait hugged Jesse when he walked up. "I'm so proud of you. Volunteering to help with the children last night was a very nice thing to do."

A bit embarrassed by the compliment, Jesse only nodded and then asked, "Do you need me here, or should I go to Granddad and Nana's?"

"Your grandparents are leaving Monday for Virginia to pack, and conclude the sale of their old place. They want you, Grace, and Cody to spend the weekend with them." Cait rubbed her son's back. "I'm doing okay here, and your dad is coming home with Vin later. "I'll call if anything changes; go enjoy your time with them."

"Love you Mom." Jesse kissed her check and hurried off to see the rest of his family.

Kelli passed him on her way over to talk with Cait. "Jesse is a great kid."

"Yeah he is. We're lucky to have him."

"I think he lucked out in the parent department too." Kelli looked at Cait, and noticed the tired lines around her eyes. "Are you feelin' okay?"

"Yes, I just think this last month has caught up with me all at once. Then yesterday... seeing Inez..." Cait shook her head. "I hoped we could all enjoy some peaceful days for a while."

Kelli agreed, "Life has been full lately. I just got off the phone with Barbara. Her doctor wants her to rest more to keep her blood pressure down, so I'm goin' to fill in for her Monday night at the CASA public awareness meetin'."

"If you want some company, I'll go with you. By then, Chris should be caught up on his sleep enough to handle the kids."

"Sure, we'll leave around five-thirty, and should be home before ten. Now, what do you need my help with?"

"I have to meet with, Ida Rinker, the supervisor at the intake center. I want you to sit in on that meeting." Cait started to walk toward the dormitory building. "I prefer we all know where we stand, and not have any surprises, or unexpected changes later on. With you there, I have a witness to what she says."

Walking in step with Cait, Kelli grinned. "In other words, you don't trust her."

Cait smiled. "You could put it that way."

Denver Memorial Hospital, 9:30 am

Josiah, Mallory, and Chris stood in the hallway, giving Buck and JD a chance to talk in Inez's room. Dunne had dropped his kids' at Reins early and was at the hospital before seven-thirty, determined to be close by if Buck needed him.

"I parked Inez's car at our house. It can stay there until Buck's ready to look it over." Josiah relayed the events of last night to Chris. "Lou said he would be up around ten to talk with Inez."

"She had a rough night, not so much physically because the pain meds are working, but mentally it's taken a toll on her, and she had more than one nightmare." Chris shook his head. "Buck just sits there, needing to touch her; like he's afraid she'll disappear."

Josiah nodded. "Understandable, Buck is like the rest of us, he needs to put action to his feelings. Knowing there's nothing he can do except to wait is difficult."

Mallory glanced at the door. "I hope all of you are prepared for the fact that Inez might not remember anything about the actual attack."

Chris understood how trauma affected the memory. He was not; however, ready to accept that they might not be able to find Inez's attacker. He heard the ding of the elevator, and glanced in that direction to see Vin striding towards them. "Morning, I hope your arrival means I have a change of clothes."

Vin passed him the bag Cait had sent for her husband. "Your wife asked me to deliver this personally. So go change already." Tanner wrinkled his nose, exaggerating the smell of his friend. "You're a bit ripe."

"I feel like half the dirt on L7 is still on me." He nodded to Josiah and Mallory. "I'm going to find a shower, but I'll be back before Lou gets here." Slapping Vin on the back as he walked away, he said, "Thanks."

"You're welcome," Vin answered turning to Josiah and Mallory. "How are Buck and Inez doin'?"

"JD is in there for Buck, and Inez is holding her own." Mallory answered.

Vin wasn't ready yet to go inside. "Anybody talked to Nathan yet?"

Josiah nodded. "I talked to him earlier this morning. He and Rain are already on the way home as we speak. They'll be stopping by later to visit."

Inez's room

Buck held on to his wife's left hand, sitting in the same position he had for most of the night. He had watched every breath she took, anticipated her needs, and silently prayed as she slept. If it were possible, he would have gladly changed places with her, sparing her any pain. His thoughts drifted back to how he and Inez had taken the long way to being together. They danced around how they felt, each reluctant to accept the inevitable. She certainly had reasons to doubt his sincerity; his reputation with women did not exactly inspire visions of long-term commitment, and happy ever after fairytales. When it came to talking to her, he could never find the romantic words he wanted to use because he would not risk the possibility of her rejection. Instead, he resorted to using humor, and did not allow her to see how desperately in love with her he was.

Eventually she had tired of waiting and called him on it. She told him to put up, or shut up. It was then that he knew beyond certainty, she was the one woman who really understood the man beneath the jovial facade he used to hide the depths of his emotions. From that day forward, she became the center of his world, anchoring him during the storms life threw in their path. He loved her with all his heart and soul, and without question, he would lay down his own life to protect her.

Looking at her now though, he knew he had failed to do that...she was hurting, and it ripped into his being to know there was not a damn thing he could do to take away that pain. Buck swiped at his eyes, brushing away the tears, which threatened to spill down his cheeks. He felt Inez squeeze his hand, and JD's voice pulled him back to the here and now.

"Did you hear me, Buck?" JD waited for his brother to look at him. "I said Lilah got me to thinking about our future. The kids need stability and a place to live where they know they belong...I've decided to take your suggestion, and start plans to build close to you and Inez."

Glancing first at his wife, he saw the slight nod of her head, and then looked up at JD. "We knew you'd come around sooner or later. Whatever we can do to help, you know we will."

JD nodded, and leaning in, spoke directly to Inez. "I thought... maybe when you feel better... you'd give me some ideas on how to add 'a woman's touch' to our new home. I know the kids miss all the little things Casey used to arrange for them. It's important to me that they feel like it's their home."

Talking was difficult, so Inez squeezed her husband's hand again, indicating that he answer for her. Buck understood. "She'd be happy to, Kid."

The door opened, and Doctor Gilford walked in with Inez's chart in his hand, and a smile on his face. "Good morning." He moved to the side of the bed. "I looked over your lab results, and I'm pleased to note that your blood work looks good." He picked up her right hand, studied the color of her fingertips, and then gently laid it back on the bed. "Aside from continuing a regimen of pain medication, I can't do much else to reduce your discomfort. It's going to take time for you to heal, but I see nothing evident that would impede a full recovery."

Buck anxiously asked. "So there's no permanent damage, right doc?"

"Correct. The wrist and fingers should be fine in a few weeks, and..." he leaned over to check the bandages on her face, "...While it looks bad now, I don't even expect to see any scarring. I know you might not feel like it now, Missus Wilmington, but you are a very fortunate woman. A month from now, all physical evidence of this incident will be gone. I do recommend though, you talk to a counselor because I've found that with assaults such as this, it is often the mental scars that linger the longest."

"Mallory Sanchez is a counselor and has already been speaking with her." Buck smoothed his hand over Inez's hair. "I'm also very familiar with the need for working through traumatic events."

Doctor Gilford remembered the damage inflicted on Buck in South America. "Of course, I recall some of your recent traumas." He turned his attention back to Inez. "Unless you have an objection, I'm inclined to allow the detective in to see you. I'd like to keep you under observation for another twenty-four hours, but see no reason to keep you here longer than tomorrow."

Reading his wife's non-verbal signs, Buck said, "She'll see the detective. I'll plan for her to go home tomorrow, just let me know what she needs."

Gilford nodded. "I'll be back in the morning, and have your discharge instructions listed." He patted her on the leg. "Rest as much as possible and let Buck wait on you for a change." He then acknowledged JD with a nod, and made his exit.

Chris walked in as the doctor was leaving. "Buck, Lou is here. Mallory wants to sit in on the interview, too. Are you ready for them?"

Glancing to his wife, Buck nodded. "Sure." Seeing JD move to leave, he grabbed his arm, and held firm with a small wink. "JD can stay, too. Tell Lou and Mallory to come on in."

Understanding that this was something Buck needed to supervise himself, Chris sent the detective and Mallory into the room, but waited outside with Vin and Josiah.


Fifteen minutes later, Lou stepped out of the room, looked at the trio waiting for news, and shook his head. "She didn't see his face, and only remembered him saying something about people minding their own business, not his." He handed Chris a photo. "Buck came up blank on this one."

Studying the picture, Chris asked, "Where does that leave us in the investigation?" Before Lou could answer, Buck rushed out of the room, and headed to the elevator.

JD came out behind him, and looked at Chris, reading the question in his eyes. "He just suddenly jumped up and ran out."

Vin looked down the hallway, where Buck was angrily pounding on the down button. He felt the anger and frustration radiating from his thoughts. "I got him."

JD shook his head saying, "No, I should go with him," and started after Buck.

Chris stopped his youngest brother, as the Texan walked down the corridor ahead of him. "Vin will make sure he doesn't do anything foolish. Stay with Inez and Mallory." He placed his hand on JD's shoulder. "Buck will be okay, Kid. If Vin's on it, he's figured this is something he needs to help Buck deal with, let's give them some breathing space."


Without saying a word, Vin stepped on the elevator with Buck. He followed him out of the hospital to a garden area between the emergency room and the main building. Buck paced the length of the small area, as the Texan leaned against the gazebo, and silently observed, not wanting to interfere, but staying close enough that Buck knew he was there.

After what seemed hours, but was in truth barely fifteen minutes, Buck stopped in front of his brother looking at him with anguish in his eyes. "I thought we left Wilder's hell behind us, but it don't want to go away...when Inez told Lou what she remembered, all I could envision was that damn video, and how God damn helpless I was to stop her from being hurt."

Vin gripped Buck's shoulder, and took a deep breath. "Like it or not, our time in South America is part of our life... we can't change the fact that it happened. What Wilder put us through...I reckon will always be there somewhere in our minds, but it's not who we are, Buck. You couldn't stop Inez from bein' hurt in that parkin' garage anymore than I could protect Kel and Andi when our Navigator blew, but that doesn't mean we failed."

Buck sighed. "I put Inez through hell when we came home, and we're just now getting to the point, I thought we could put all of it behind us. I thought Wilder's hell was gone forever. Today it all came rushing back to me."

"I know Buck. We both let that Devil mess with our heads." Vin squeezed his brother's shoulder harder. "Because of that damn video, I did some things I'll be sorry for, and remember the rest of my life, but because I regret somethin' I can't change... doesn't mean I gotta give it power to control me."

Looking into the eyes of the man who had shared the horrors of hell with him, Buck finally acknowledged to himself what he had known in his heart all along. The memories would never leave them. They would always be there ready to pounce, if either he or Vin allowed them to rear their ugly heads, and today he had given those horrific memories an opening. Tightening his lips, and nodding his head, he said, "Reckon I just needed to put things in their proper place."

Vin pulled Buck into a hug, slapping him on the back, as he gruffly said, "We survived, Bucklin, and neither of us are gonna slide back into the hell Wilder created."

"We 'did' beat the bastard, didn't we?" Buck released his hold on Vin. "Thanks for reminding me, brother."

Stepping back Vin nodded. "Next time, you might be the one remindin' me."

Buck took a deep breath; resigned to the fact that there probably would be a next time those memories crept into their thinking. "As much as I hate either of us having to go through all that, I'm glad we got through it together. I hope to hell neither of us has a next time, but if we least we know who to call."

Breaking into a grin, Vin said, "You got that right. Now, how 'bout we go back inside and see your beautiful wife?"

Denver Memorial, 5:00 pm

Nathan and Rain exited the elevator, and headed towards Josiah standing at the end of the hallway. Max offered to watch Ronesha and Terrell so they could visit with Inez a while. It was good to be home, but distressing to hear not all had gone well in their absence.

Josiah grinned as they approached. "Welcome home."

Nathan nodded. "It's good to be back in Colorado, but I wish this stop wasn't necessary. What the hell happened?"

While Josiah related events to Nathan and Rain, Mallory came out of Inez's room to join them. She hugged Rain, and then waited for her husband to finish speaking. "It will be good for Inez to see new faces up here. Chris left with Vin about an hour ago, and Josiah and I are heading home soon." She looked at her husband, "JD wants to stay so I told him we'd take his kids for the night."

"No problem. I know it distressed JD to have to leave Buck last night. No one knows Buck as well as JD, and vice versa, barring Inez. Some quiet time together will do all three of them good."

Linking her arm through Josiah's, Mallory said her goodbyes to Nathan and Rain, waited for Josiah to do likewise, and the couple left. On their drive home, Mal glanced at her husband. "You think JD is really as okay as he appears? I know how close he is to Inez."

Josiah sighed. "JD recently told me, that life for him since his and Casey's separation, and consequent divorce, has been tougher than he expected, not to mention lonely. The fiasco with Talia didn't help either. The one thing he was grateful for was how Buck and Inez have been there for him, throughout. Add to that the times Inez and Buck have taken care of him pre-Casey, when he was injured, and since then, and you may begin to understand why Inez's attack has hit him so hard."

Leaning in, Mallory kissed his cheek. "I'm glad JD's staying tonight. Inez needs reassurance now that nothing has changed in her life. I bet having Buck and JD together with her is just the right medicine to prove that."

Chuckling Josiah nodded. "If I know Buck and JD they'll have her spirits lifted in no time."

Inez's Room

JD and Buck had stepped out for Rain and Nathan to visit with Inez. Guiding Buck to a seat in the cafeteria, JD bought two coffees and some sandwiches and encouraged Buck to eat.

"You're doing great, Bro. You're always fantastic at times like these."

Buck frowned. "What?"

"Oh, I know inside you're in knots..." he grinned slightly. "...But you always hold on, and keep whoever needs it going. I..." JD blushed, slightly. "I'm not sure I've said this, lately, but...I don't think I'd have made it through some of last year's shit without you, Buck."

Buck cracked a smile. "Elegantly put, kid." They both laughed, softly, until Buck's façade dropped and tears fell. He felt JD's hand curl around his and squeezed back. "Oh, God, Kid...why her? Why any woman?"

"That's what I kept asking myself all last night," JD answered.

"And...I know I should be grateful the bastard didn't rape her...yet, all I can think of is...why? He went to all that trouble, and didn't rape her, or rob her. Then, this message he left with her. Who's meddling in his business? Did he mean her...or me? Is this over or is he gonna come back for her?"

JD straightened. "Over my dead body..."

Swiping at a tear, Buck gave a thin smile. "Yeah." He gazed at him. "I should say,'re no slouch in the support department, either."

"We've got a great support network."

"That's not what I meant, Kid."

JD squeezed his hand and whispered, "I know."

They sat in silence for a while, JD relieved to see Buck eat two of the sandwiches. "Forgot to say, I finally got to meet Miss McCall, yesterday."


"Tess McCall... she's the new daycare teacher at Reins."

Buck nodded. "Oh yeah, the teacher your girls keep going on about. What's she like?"

"She's great with the kids. I had a chance to watch her for a while. I can see why they like her. She's got an adorable little girl, too, just a bit younger than the twins."

Buck sensed there was more. "Shame she's ugly, huh?"

"Ugly? No...she's real pretty, got dark hair and..." JD made a face. "Nice try, Buck."

Buck released his first real grin since hearing about Inez's attack. He draped an arm across JD's shoulders. "We shall see. Come on, let's go back."

Deciding now was not the time for debate, JD nodded, and both men rose, taking their cups and wrappers to the trash can before heading back to Inez's room.

Inez listened intently as Rain and Nathan told her about their trip. She had wanted to hear about it, and it had been a pleasant diversion from her pain, but now she was tiring. The visiting pair realized this, and they were grateful to see Buck and JD re-enter the room. Inez's heart soared at seeing Buck looking brighter, her gaze falling on the young man with him. Those two were so good for each other. Rain and Nathan stood, Buck held up his hand.

"No need to leave, guys."

"We know, but we should," Nathan replied. "We came straight here after dropping the kids with Max, and still have a fair bit of unpacking to do." He turned to Inez. "We'll see you tomorrow."

With the tiniest of nods, and a kiss from both Nathan and Rain, Inez watched them leave, and then Buck and JD took up their seats on either side of the bed.

"Hey, the kid here's thinking of hitting on his kids' daycare teacher."

"I am not!" JD protested. Coughing and lowering his voice, he leaned into Inez. "As usual, your husband's talking crap."

Inez gave a small deep noise from her throat as she squeezed both their hands.

"Was that a laugh, Lady?" Buck asked, the second squeeze to their hands answering his question.

JD grinned. "See, she's agreeing with me."

"Nu uh...she wouldn't dare. I know where she hides her candy stash." Another little noise from her made both men's hearts soar. Leaning in, Buck carded his fingers through her hair, smiling, and gazing lovingly at her until she was asleep. Patting the chair next to him prompted JD to move to there. The pair leaned into each other as they watched the Hispanic beauty sleep.

"We're gonna beat this, JD."

JD leaned in harder. "We already are, Buck...we already are."


Tanner Home, Sunday Morning

With coffee in hand, Vin stood on the deck waiting for the sun to peak over the distant mountains. The scene at the mall, alternating with the sight of Inez in her hospital bed, had haunted his sleep. Over the years, he had seen women who were beaten, some worse than Inez, but she was family, and that made all the difference. As he gazed out at the vista, he felt, more than heard, his father coming out of the house.

"Mornin', Dad, " he said without turning around.

"You look like hell, Son. How much sleep did you get?" Brodie moved over to 'his' chair, the thump of his cast reverberated on the deck as he walked. He sat down close to his son, propping his foot on the railing.

"Not much," Vin acknowledged with a deep sigh. "Buck is devastated, JD's not far behind him, and Inez..." he shook his head, "...all because some God damn sonofabitch needs to hurt a woman to feel like a man."

Brodie understood his son's distress. Seeing the ugly side of life was nothing new for Vin, and while it was never easy, in his line of work most men learned to deal with it, keeping their personal feelings separate from their professional duties. "The need for power and control is the motivation behind most violent acts against women, but.... you already know that. Inez is part of your family and that makes this personal, but...something else is bothering you. Do you know what it is?"

Vin attempted to sort through the various emotions he was experiencing, before answering. He hurt for Buck and Inez, empathized with his brothers' and their pain, was angry that violence had touched his family again, and felt guilty because he was relieved that Kelli was not the victim. Sitting down next to Brodie, he nodded. "Hell, I hate this happened to someone I love as a sister, and feelin' the hurt it's caused my family is dauntin'." He cut his eyes to his dad. "I try not to dwell on the dangers we face in our work, but I worry about Kel, and how easy it would be for her to be injured....raped, beaten, or killed.... but, seein' Inez lyin' in that hospital last night, I realized... Kelli is probably safer in our work environment, than Inez was in that mall. I thanked God it wasn't my wife, who stepped out of that elevator. Makes me a real bastard, huh?"

"It only makes you human, Vin." Brodie curled his hand around his son's arm. "You, me, your brothers, and anyone involved in law enforcement sees things we wished no one ever had to see. It's natural to want your loved ones protected from all of it. Unfortunately, that's not always in our control. Don't feel guilty for how you feel...if the situation was reversed, Buck would probably think the same thing." He sighed. "Just as I believe in the work I did for thirty years, but right now...with all the hoopla and investigating going on, I'm glad it's not me still out there in the field, but a lot of my former associates are going to get caught in the fallout."

"I reckon." Vin nodded. "I guess you retired at the right time. I can't imagine what the hell the AG is thinkin'. You, and men like you, do what's necessary to make the world safer, and just because the political winds have shifted, a lot of men who put their lives on the line for this country are gonna be exposed, and crucified for followin' orders." He reached over and covered his father's hand with his. "I'm glad you won't be one of 'em."

"It's all in the timing, Son. It was the right time for me to change course; it was the wrong time for Inez to step into that parking garage. I wish we had a crystal ball to see the future, but we don't, and's not chance that guides us, but the choices we make. I've made some good ones, and some bad not coming back for you...that I'd like to take back, but I have to live with all of them, including the consequences. From what I've seen, Inez is a strong woman, she'll come through this okay, and so will the rest of you."

"We will, but the bastard who hurt her won't." Vin understood what Brodie was saying, and did feel better talking it out. Keeping his perspective in focus was how he could help the most. Buck would help Inez heal, and all of the brothers' would help Buck through this. Together they would find the bastard responsible, and make certain he never had the opportunity to hurt another woman. He leaned back, took a sip of his coffee, and gave thanks that his father made the choice of reentering his life. It was good timing.

Denver Memorial

JD zipped up the overnight bag as Buck finished easing his wife into a jacket, leaving one sleeve empty to accommodate the sling for her broken wrist. Glancing around, JD nodded and smiled. "All set."

"Honey," Buck warned. "I know you want the guys to go ahead with the cook out, but maybe you should rest up like the doc..."

"I will rest," she rasped back, "but I would just like to visit with the family for a little while."

Buck's gaze switched to JD, the younger man nodding and smiling. "Just for a while then, and... no square dancing."

"Hummm..." Inez's little laugh was accompanied by her good arm going across her middle. Buck looked at her guiltily for hurting her, but her twinkling gaze assured him she was just fine. Slinging the bag over his shoulder, JD stepped out to get a wheelchair.

Buck looked at his wife. "I love you so much. Don't ever forget that."

"How could I ever?"

"Just so we have an understanding."

"We do."

JD returned with the wheelchair, helping Buck guide Inez into it. Doctor Gilford popped his head inside. "Ready?"

"Ready as we'll ever be," JD answered, looking to Buck for confirmation.

The brunet nodded. "Thanks, doc." He took an envelope from the physician.

"A copy of my notes, and two prescriptions. One to fill now, the other in four weeks. After that, you shouldn't need them, my dear." Inez nodded once.

"I'll go get 'em filled." JD started to leave.

"No need, JD, Inez already has a week's supply in the envelope." He smiled. "Take care, and I'll see you in a week to check on your fingers and wrist, okay?" Stepping back to allow the chair out of the room, the doctor sighed, his heart full of admiration for his patient and her family.

Wilmington Home, Sunday Noon

At Inez's insistence, the Sunday barbeque was still on, only it would be at the Wilmington's home instead of at Larabee's house. She and Isabella had planned a surprise for JD's birthday, and she did not want to delay it. Josiah and Nathan strung a 'welcome home' banner across the backyard between trees, while the rest of the Wild Bunch was busy preparing for Inez's arrival.

Buck had spoken to Caleb, Sarah, Maria, and Tannis by phone, warning them that Mama had some bad boo-boos, and Isabella did her best to prepare them. Like most of the Wild Bunch kids, they took it in stride, and were just anxious for their mother to come home.

Cait had stayed close to Isabella most of the morning, although the older woman's strength of spirit impressed her. Seeking out her husband, she told him, "I think we have everything taken care of, but we should make it a short day. I'm sure Inez will wear out quickly, and we don't want to push her." She glanced to where Ezra was hovering over Barbara, and smiled. "Not to mention that Barbara might very well revolt if her husband doesn't give her some breathing room."

Chris grinned. "Ezra will just have to learn like most men do when their wives are eight months pregnant...there's showing concern...and then there's...'get the hell away from me'." Cait's expression said he was not being funny. He cleared his throat, and changed direction. "I'll keep things moving, honey. Spend time with your parents. I know you hate seeing them leave."

Glancing over to where her parents were holding court with the children, she nodded, swallowing back a rush of emotion. "I'm being silly, but...having them here has made me realize how much I've missed them."

Placing his finger under her chin, Chris tilted her head. "Nothing silly about showing you love someone. Just remember, they'll be back in a couple of weeks, and be living right up the road."

Leaning into Chris's side, Cait pushed back her errant emotions. "Who are we missing?"

Chris scanned the group. "Josiah and Mallory are supposed to be on their way, so aside from Buck, Inez, and JD, I think we're all accounted for."

Sanchez Home

Josiah had taken a box of food out to their truck, with Joanne, and Adam on his heels. Mallory smiled when she looked up from cleaning JJ's face, and saw Tess and Keira enter the room. "I'm glad you decided to go with us."

Tess smoothed her daughter's hair, and sighed. "It feels a little we're intruding on family."

"One thing you'll learn about our Wild Bunch, we're all family by choice, and we choose to have you and Keira with us today." Mallory grinned when Lilah took one of Keira's hands, and Daisy urged the young girl to follow them towards the door. "Besides, you teach most of the kids on the L7, and know their parents. Those you don't are no different than the ones you see every day."

Nodding, Tess smiled. It had been so long since she had been able to relax, and she did miss being close to her own family. When Mallory told her they wanted to include her and Keira today, it felt good to belong somewhere again...even if it was only for the day. "Is there anything I can do to help you?"

Shifting JJ to her other hip, Mallory nodded towards the table. "If you grab that bag, I think we're all good to go."

Tess picked up JJ's diaper bag, and followed Mallory to the door. Closing it behind her, she hoped that maybe she and Keira had finally found a place where they could stay put for a while.

Wilmington Home

Seeing Buck's truck pulling in, the family stood in anticipation. JD jumped out first and immediately went to Inez's door. Once Buck had joined him, the pair eased the woman out of the truck, supporting her on her walk to the porch. Unable to contain their delight, the waiting group applauded, bombarding her with welcomes as she took up a heavily padded chair.

The Wild Bunch women stuck close to Inez, attentively attending to her needs. Satisfied that his wife was doing okay under their attention, Buck ambled over to where his brothers were starting to congregate, keeping one eye on Inez, while he half-heartedly listened to what they were discussing.

"Last I heard there were three hot spots still burning west of us," Chris said, watching Vin approach after he had finished pushing Andi on the swing.

Vin heard what Chris said, and nodded. "We need to pay close attention to 'em. There's talk about the 'Devil Wind' kickin' up ...if they do...those hot spots could explode."

"Devil Wind...what's that?" Nathan asked.

Vin repeated what his grandfather had told him. "Strong winds, the old-timers call Devil Winds blow in off the desert southwest of here, over the mountains. Combine 'em with the drought conditions we're havin', and we've got trouble."

Josiah continued the explanation, "The air, the fuel, the grass, plants, everything is dry. Then you have this hot blast of wind coming in, which is nothing but more dry weather on top of that, add the fires, then we have a windstorm with fire. That's why they call it a firestorm. Once fire gives it ignition, then it's on, everything around it is dry and ready to go."

"Hope it don't come to that, the devil's been busy enough around here." Nathan pulled up a chair, sat down and propped up his feet. "Now that I'm back, I can help more with the work around here."

Chris nodded, glad that Nathan had brought up a subject they should address. "We've talked about needing someone to oversee ranch operations when we go back to work. I think you'll all agree that since we've practically doubled in size, there is an urgent need to supervise the day-to-day operation."

"If that's a nice way of saying the work never ends...then I agree." Josiah interjected.

Chris laughed along with most of the others. "That's exactly what it means."

Ezra decided to share what he had been working on. "I've written a proposal outlining pay and benefits for whoever we hire, which I can provide copies of to you all. The pay is not the highest, but there is a bonus based on year-end profits, and after one year, providing we all agree... a five percent ownership option." He moved over to make room for JD, who had stepped away for a moment to chase down JJ. "I can place an ad, and conduct the initial interviews. Once I narrow down the potential applicants, I can share them with the rest of you, if y'all are agreeable."

Vin noticed his father in deep discussion with Donald, and decided to make his own suggestion. "Before we place an ad, I wanna throw a name into the hat for consideration... Brodie Tanner. He grew up workin' a ranch in Texas, knows how to run one, and he's got a family interest in seein' things go right on L7." Smiling at the response he witnessed, he added, "I haven't discussed it with him, but I'd like to at least see if he's interested."

Chris scanned his brothers' faces, noting that they agreed, and told Vin. "See what he says. I'd feel better having someone we know and trust, in that position anyway."

"Then I'll talk to him." Vin agreed. "His cast is comin' off Tuesday, and I know he's been givin' some thought to what he wants to do."

"If he is interested, I will be more than happy to discuss the particulars with him." Ezra offered.

Having spent the past thirty-six hours at the hospital with Buck, JD was anxious to hear news about the progress made in finding Inez's attacker. "Are we handling Inez's case?" He saw Buck turn, and knew he had his full attention. "I mean...we should take the lead on this...right?"

Chris shook his head, watching for Buck's reactions. "Detective Lou Masterson DPD, is lead investigator on this one, JD. We can help him, but so far, he's on top of it."

Buck nodded. "He's a good man, and a good cop."

Josiah put his hand on Buck's back. "I have Inez's car parked at my house. Chuck gathered her personal belongings, and locked them in the trunk. Whenever you want...I'll bring it over for you."

"Inez asked me about her purse... she'll be happy to know we don't have to cancel credit cards, and replace her driver's license." Buck sighed, and looked at Josiah. "Maybe tomorrow huh?"

"Anytime, Brother." Sanchez patted him on the back. "Whatever else you might need..."

"I'll let you know." Buck cleared his throat, trying to get rid of the big lump of emotion he felt stuck there. "You see Travis tomorrow, don't you Chris?"

"Yep, and it could take most of the day. I figured we'd all meet Tuesday morning at my place to discuss where we stand with MCAT." Chris met Buck's eyes. "He knows what happened with Inez. He won't rush you."

"Good 'cause before I go back...I want to see the bastard, who hurt Inez either locked away, or dead." Buck swallowed hard, looking over to his wife. "Don't matter to me which one."


Glancing along the drink table as he went for a beer, JD smiled at Tess, who was choosing a soda. "Hey there, Tessie, glad you could make it."

Josiah instantly ceased talking as he watched the young woman's stifled reaction to the mispronunciation of her name, causing the rest of the brothers to look on in curiosity.

"Well, hello John Daniel. It was nice to be invited."

Biting back a smirk at her reply, JD leaned one hip against the table as he opened his beer. "Yup, that's me...www johndaniel dot com." He grinned as he took a swig from the bottle.

She pointed to the backward facing Patriots cap on his head. "Ah...that would explain why I couldn't find you at www wearsgeekyheadgear dot com," she grinned.

Half- spitting out his gulp with the chuckle he fought not to release, JD wiped at his mouth with the back of his hand. The rest of the family's curiosity ensured that they now had an audience watching the little encounter between the pair.

"'Scuse me, Tessa...manners."

"You have some under that hat?" She smirked. "Well, there's hope for you, yet."

Coughing, and then opening his mouth, a small voice interrupted JD's next remark.

"Hullo, Jaydee."

Reluctant to drop their teasing, JD dragged his gaze away from the pretty daycare teacher to smile at Keira, who was struggling to reach a juice box from the table. Picking up the drink, JD popped the straw into it, and handed it to her. "Hi, Sugar. You having fun?"

"Uh huh. Lilah and Daisy showed me where the worms live and they's gonna put 'em in their pockets so's they can take 'em to school in one of your hats, tomorrow."

The look of alarm on JD's face as he scanned the area for his twins caused Tess to laugh. "Sounds like your girls' might not take after you, John Daniel, they have taste."

JD pointed a finger at her as he removed his cap and pushed his fingers through his unruly black hair. "You know...using my middle name's gonna get real old, real quick, Tessie."

"For who, me, or you?" Tess grinned.

"Juh-mi-ma." Keira spelled out as she sucked on her juice box. Her mother's eyes flashed in alarm and JD slowly closed in on the little one.

"What was that, Keira?" he asked.

"Mama's miggle name is Juh-mi-ma." She cupped her hand to her mouth as she attempted a whisper, and failed, her words cutting clean across the almost silent gathering. "Shhh...its s'posed to be a secret."

JD's grin broadened as he silently thanked all that was Holy for that little gem.

"Jemima?" He waggled his eyebrows at his new tormenter.

Tess looked at him with mild frustration. "It was my paternal grandmother's name."

"Jemima..." JD was enjoying himself, now. "Tess Jemima...has a kind of...ring to it, doesn't it? Oh, doesn't. Hey, how about Tessie Jemima?" He was much closer to her, now. "Yeah...that works...Tessie Jemima...I like that..."

"You're easily amused, John Daniel," she snapped back. "You should get out, more."

"Ah, getting out's overrated. Who needs it, with entertainment like this...'Jemima'...?"

Buck leaned in to his brothers. "Anyone know what's going on here?"

Josiah chuckled. "I'd take a guess that young John Daniel has made himself a new friend."

Buck eyed Josiah in mock surprise. "Friend? Would hate to meet his enemies, then." Despite his words, Buck watched in amusement and delight. It was good to see JD relaxed around a woman that wasn't part of the family or work, again.

Taking a cue from Inez, Kelli, Isabella, and Rain disappeared into the house, returning with a huge cake in the shape of a large blue motorcycle and with a few sparkler candles alight on it. A chorus of 'Happy Birthday' went out, and JD looked toward the three women in surprise. As the children gathered around, JD gaped at the cake adorned with his initials.

"Wow!" He glanced around at the grinning faces, his gaze falling on Inez. He pointed and mouthed, "you?"

The Mexican woman managed a small grin. "And Isabella," she said softly.

JD felt a mix of honor, delight, and raw emotion wash through him. He truly hadn't expected this...especially as it was a little early. Leaning in, he kissed Isabella. "Thank you," he whispered.

The older woman beamed, and then kissed his cheek. "Que son la familia, estamos felices de hacer esto. You are family and we are happy to do this."

Choked by her words, JD approached Inez. Recalling what he had learned to say in the hospital, he spoke to her, softly. "Gracias hermana mayor. Thanks big sis." He so wanted to hug her, but her injuries would never allow it, so they carefully touched foreheads and grinned at each other.

"Da-ddy...we wants you to blow out the big candles."

Snapping back to the task in hand, JD grinned at the twins and a squealing JJ, bouncing in Cait's arms. "Well..." he tapped his chin." I'm not sure if I can do it alone."

"Me, me, me!" The Dunne twins instantly volunteered and several other little faces drew closer.

"Cool, I got me some help. Come on, then, gather 'round." He spotted Keira's big blue eyes staring back in anticipation, but the little one was way at the back, next to her mother. "Hey, Keira, you said we were friends, right?"

She gave an exaggerated nod.

"Could you help me out, here?"

With a tiny, but audible gasp, she made her way toward JD and he gently positioned her between his girls, as the other Wild Bunch kids formed a semi-circle. Holding his son above the throng and facing the cake, JD announced for them to blow, on three.

"One...two...two and a half..."

"Uncle JD!"


JD and the others chuckled. "Three!"

With a collective gasp and then a noisy rush of air from each child, they blew out the candles. As the adults clapped, JJ got caught up in the excitement, and did something between a blow and a spit, squealing with delight when his family laughed and clapped.

JD chuckled. " spit icing...nice!"

"Daddy." Lilah's voice was very small.

He turned to her. "Mmm?"

"Is mommy comin' to sing happy birfday?"

Handing JJ back to Cait, JD half crouched, and faced his daughter. "No, baby...Mommy's not coming."

"Oh..." Lilah paused. "Well, is Talia? 'Cause she said at daycare 'see you later', when is 'later', daddy?"

After feeling an odd rush of warmth passing through him from head to toe, one moment JD was staring at the expectant faces of his girls, the next he was facing out toward the pasture he hoped to build on, soon. He felt a warm, supporting hand on his back.

"You okay, Kid?"

Bracing himself by clutching at the deck rail, JD inhaled. "Holy shit!" He couldn't let go, he was shaking, and very aware that Buck, Chris, and Nathan were next to him. Finally, his face still drained of color, he let go of the rail and turned to them.

"I don't get it. Why now? I thought I'd covered all this with the kids. Why is Lilah asking me these things, now?"

Chris squeezed JD's shoulder. "Kids' minds work in funny ways. We've had a wedding, Brodie's here, Donald and Lillian...they're seeing the other kids gaining family, and they've lost everything, even their home. Something's clearly triggered Lilah off recently. Just roll with it, JD, in a day or two she'll have moved on to a new question." He could see JD was not convinced that this wasn't down to him.

There was a long pause before JD waved them off. "Go on, rejoin the others." He forced a grin. "I'm fine now, honestly."

Nathan caught their eye and nodded. "We'll just check on the kids and we'll be back, okay?"

"Sure, great. Thanks."

As they left him, Buck pulled at Nathan's arm. "Why are we leaving him there?"

"He's embarrassed, Buck; he just needs a minute..."

"Embarrassed? We're his family for Christ's sake..." Buck sighed, and then nodded. "Just five minutes."

Chris shook his head, smiling. "We'll see."

Hearing footsteps behind him, as he looked back out to the pasture, JD was just about to admonish whoever it was for returning, when he turned, and saw Tess standing there.

"Hi. I...just wanted to thank you."

"For what?" He half expected a rib at his embarrassing display, not that he could remember much about it.

She smiled. Damn, JD thought to himself, she had a pretty smile.

"For involving Keira. You do realize you're now officially her new best friend."

Now JD was smiling. "She's a sweetie."

"Uh huh...but then, I'm biased." They both laughed, and she moved in closer. "I'm sorry about whatever it was that upset you, back there. Clearly it's something you're struggling with."

"I thought I was past it." JD blew out his cheeks. "It's a real long story...and not one I care to think about." He shrugged. "Maybe, if you're still interested, I'll buy you a coffee one day, and tell you about it."

Tess nodded. "And that day, I'll buy dessert, and then tell you about mine...if you're still interested."

"Dessert? You got yourself a deal, Girl." Now they were both leaning on the rail. JD pointed. "See that meadow...that's where I'm gonna build our new home."

"Good choice, it's really pretty."

JD nodded. "Buck suggested it. It'll be nice, having my own place."

Tess nodded sadly. 'Wouldn't it though?' she thought. She and Keira had been running, way too long. She nudged him. "Come on, John Daniel, I think they're waiting on you to cut your cake."

Straightening, he waved her on. "After you, Jemima."


It became evident that Inez was tiring. Seeing Buck go to her, JD was soon next to them. Bidding them all goodnight, she waved, and between her two favorite men, shuffled into the house. Despite her insistence they all stay, the group decided to call it a day, and began helping Isabella pack up.

The women made Barbara sit while they busied themselves. She beckoned Tess over to her, and the young teacher sat down. "How are you settling in?"

Tess smiled. "Really well, thanks. Everyone here is so kind. For the first time in a long while I feel...connected."

Barbara nodded. "These are exceptional people....the women are strong, clever, and caring, and the men are fiercely protective, loving, and intelligent. My time here has been one of the happiest of my life."

Watching her daughter interacting with the children, Tess relaxed back. "I thought the kids were remarkable, today, considering poor Inez's injuries."

"Mmm, they are a resilient little group. They don't scare easily...if they can see the person is doing okay, they can overcome the visual hurts. Though, I have no doubt there will be questions behind closed doors."

"I was so proud of Keira." She looked at Barbara to explain. "She has seen me more than a little beat up in her young life. I was so afraid it might scar her. Then when Troy hurt her..." she shuddered, and Barbara held her hand and smiled.

"I was surprised she allowed so many men to get close, physically." Tess smiled. "She seems quite taken with JD."

Barbara bit back the urge to suggest Keira might not be the only one. Tess, Keira, JD, and his kids were all on the edges of recovering from traumatic relationships, the last thing she would want to do was scare either of them off from a budding friendship. "Help me up, would you? The little one is using my bladder as a trampoline, and I need the bathroom again."

Both giggling, Tess helped Barbara to her feet, and the mother-to-be waddled into the Wilmington house for one final bathroom break before heading out. Tess found herself staring back at the youngest brother as he exited the house, and gathered up his kids. It had been a long time since she had enjoyed another man's company in the way she did, today. Waving to Mallory to acknowledge she was ready to leave, she called to Keira.

Hearing Tess was ready to go; JD ambled over with JJ tucked under one arm, like a football, his little legs kicking out as he squealed out his delight of his daddy's game with him. "See you bright and early tomorrow, Tessie." He grinned.

"That a threat or a promise, John Daniel?" She looked down as Keira joined them, frowning at her grimy hands. Tess asked, "What have you been doing?"

"Worms," Keira replied, breathlessly.

Absently touching a hand to his hatless head, JD groaned. "Aw hell! Lilah...Daisy...there'd better not be worms in daddy's hat!"

The dispersing family chuckled at the girls' failing look of innocence as JD trotted over to them. Making her way to Josiah's SUV, Tess watched him go, suddenly looking forward to 7:00 am the next morning.

Having waved off the family, Buck allowed the kids to visit with Inez, who was now in bed, before Isabella bathed them and put them down for the night. He brought his wife and himself a cup of warm cocoa, and sat on the edge of their bed. "How are you doing?"

"I'm good, my husband. I will be all the better for a cuddle with you."

"Are you sure you're up to it? I could go crash on the sofa..."

"It may hurt at first, but the immense comfort and satisfaction it will give me, will more than make up for it."

With a nod, Buck stripped to his boxers, climbed into bed, and finding the best position for her comfort, took his wife into his arms. They both sighed as the closeness engulfed them.

"I wish you could make love to me," she whispered.

"Soon, mi amor." He pulled her close and inhaled as she snuggled in. "Sleep, darlin'. I love you."

"Te amo, también, mi amado. I love you, also, my beloved."

As he held his wife and listened to her soft sighs while she slept, Buck kissed her hair, whispered his gratitude that he still had her with him..., and wept.


Monday Morning

Chris drove Cait over to her old house. Holding Grace and Cody in their arms, Donald and Lillian met the Larabees as they exited the Ram. When their parents came into view, the toddlers yelled and squirmed. Jesse came out carrying his grandparents' luggage, setting it on the ground, smiling when he saw his mother and father.

Cait rescued her father from an overload by taking Cody. "Jesse is going with us to the airport. This one and Grace need to go on to school." She waited for her parents to say their goodbyes to the younger Larabees, and then walked the children the short distance to the daycare.

Chris kissed Lillian on the cheek. "I'm sorry I won't be coming to the airport with you, but I have a business meeting at MCAT, I simply cannot reschedule."

Lillian hugged her son-in-law. "I understand. A man has to do what a man has to do."

Donald extended his hand to Chris. "I'm bringing back twenty head of the finest stock in the country, including one or two that I expect you'll be interested in adding to the L7 line."

"I'm looking forward to seeing those horses. We'll make certain everything is ready at your new house for the movers when they arrive. Are you following the stock trailer, or flying back?"

Lillian laughed. "You don't think Donald would allow his prized horses to travel without his supervision do you?"

"Yes...well they do need proper care." Donald pulled Chris aside, while Jesse loaded their luggage into Cait's van. "I wanted to ask you before I said anything to Jesse. I have the perfect horse for him in Virginia. With your permission, I'd like to give it to him when we come back."

Chris studied his father-in-law. Although he had planned to find the perfect horse for his son, it obviously meant a lot to Donald to share that experience with his grandson. Considering the way he so readily accepted Jesse, it was difficult to refuse his request. "As long as I get final approval, I think getting his first horse from his Granddad would be a nice memory for him."

"Excellent. I'll make certain that he understands his father has final say-so. Thank you, Son."

Cait rejoined them. "Okay, Grace and Cody are settled, it looks like Jesse has all the luggage taken care of...I guess it's time."

Chris leaned over and kissed his wife, whispering close to her ear. "Don't go all mushy, honey. They'll be back in a couple of weeks."

Smiling up at her husband, she sniffed. "Married a month, and you already read me like a book."

Glancing at his son, Chris grinned. "Jesse, you take care of your mother, and keep the Kleenex handy." Cait swatted at her husband, as she climbed into the driver's seat of her Reins' van. He only grinned wider.

Chris shut her door. He stood there until everyone was inside the van, and Cait had pulled out, before going back to his truck. Travis and MCAT were waiting for him.

MCAT Office, 11:00 am

The first thing Larabee noticed was the lack of vehicles in the parking lot. On a workday, the lot was usually full, but he counted only three, other than his own. Walking to the entrance, he found the door unlocked, and went inside. Empty desks and a quietness that was not indicative of the MCAT office welcomed him. Glancing to the second level, he saw that Gunny's desk was also empty, but Travis's door was open. Inhaling deeply, he shook his head over the strange set-up, and then proceeded up the steps.

Suzanne looked up and smiled when Chris walked through the door. "He's expecting you, Sir." With only a slight nod to Travis's administrative assistant, Larabee continued into his boss's office.

Orrin looked up from the paperwork he was reading. "It's good to see you Chris. You're looking well. Apparently married life is agreeing with you." He motioned for Larabee to sit down. I was sorry to hear about what happened to Inez. I do hope she's doing better."

Settling in a chair, Chris nodded. "It'll take time, but Inez should make a full recovery. As for me, Cait is a definite plus in my life." Leaning forward Larabee cut to business, "Kinda quiet outside. What did you do with everyone?"

Orrin laid down his glasses. "MCAT is going through appraisal stage... most everyone is on well-deserved leave. It's come to my attention that if we proceeded as we were, I risked burning out too many agents." Travis held up his hand. "I know you warned me, and in retrospect I should have listened. My priority was having MCAT prove itself to the powers that be, and I lost sight of the toll it was taking on my agents. Unfortunately Alpha team and their families paid a huge price for my negligence."

Chris sat back, his gaze fixed on Travis. He had come in here with a list of grievances to iron out before he would allow his team to come back. While taking leave was not a solution for all of his issues, it sounded as if Travis at least recognized they were on a collision course with more disasters, unless some things changed. "Does this mean MCAT is not going to try and be the indestructible super powered prototype of law enforcement anymore?"

Travis cringed at Chris's description. "I suppose I deserved that barb." He sighed. "I think MCAT's position in law enforcement is firmly established now, and while we will still prioritize threats of domestic terrorism, our case load in the future will be more balanced. No more shadow operations, and no more running my agents emotionally into the ground. They'll have more downtime between major cases, and I'm taking steps to protect the personal information about them that's available to the outside world."

A new voice entered the discussion. "The security level for MCAT has been raised, and all information that could be obtained from the internet regarding any of our MCAT Agents has been removed." Walking towards Chris from the doorway, the newcomer, carrying several folders, approached Larabee. The man was dark-headed; probably in his mid- fifties, medium built, and sported a neatly clipped and shaped full beard, giving him a dignified appearance. Extending his hand to Chris, he introduced himself. "Samuel Russo; it's good to finally meet you, Commander Larabee. I'm looking forward to working with you."

Chris recognized the name. Samuel Russo was a former FBI agent, who left the Bureau to take a job as a Federal Prosecutor in Chicago. Appointed to a Federal Judgeship, those in law enforcement circles referred to him as, 'Give 'em hell, Sam'. He retired from the bench a few years ago, and since then had written several books about crime, criminals, and law enforcement in America. It did not take much brainpower to figure out why Russo was here. Shaking his hand, Larabee said, "Judge Russo, You must be the new Assistant Deputy Director of MCAT."

"I am, but please call me Sam; I'm not a Judge anymore." Glancing at Travis, Russo cleared his throat. "Forgive me Orrin; I thought you had already told him."

"I was just about to," Orrin motioned with his hand, "please, both of you, sit." He looked at Chris. "When I told Sam what I wanted in an ADD, he immediately asked me to consider him for the position. I think you two will work well together, but I'll let him explain the changes he has proposed." Travis nodded to Sam to do just that.

"I've researched MCAT back to day one, and have files on all of the agents." He met Chris's gaze. "I admire your dedication, leadership style, and your choices. How you managed to lead the best response units in this country, and fulfilled the needs of ADD, I have no idea, but you did, and very well, I must say. Of course, I want to sit down with each member of Alpha team, and get to know him or her better, and I will. For now, I'd like to concentrate on a few ideas I have that can make your job easier." He handed Chris a folder. "I've outlined my proposals for you to review. You'll find that any, which directly involve your agents, I've left for your approval. Others, such as the one that focus on our training facility, and leave time, I have already implemented."

Chris took the file. "I'll look this over, and get back with you." He glanced at Orrin. "Just when do you expect MCAT to be back on active status?"

"We've set a target date for September first. In the meantime, I'd like you and Sam to review the proposals, come to an agreement, and start the ball rolling." Orrin sighed. "I find that I'll be spending more time in Washington dealing with administrative duties, and... I plan to take more time off myself to spend with Evie, which means I won't always be around for day-to-day operations. I will of course, intercede when I can help, but it will fall on yours and Sam's shoulders to make the decisions that will drive MCAT into the future."

It was what Travis did not say that Chris heard the loudest. He had no plans today of stepping aside, but that day was coming.... soon, and he was grooming Samuel Russo to replace him. Leaning back in his chair, Larabee exhaled loudly. "Tell me where we stand."

Russo studied the man he had become acquainted with through perusing the years of documentation of his work. "My most important function will be as a buffer between the demands of the political world, and your business of fighting crime. Law enforcement officers stand between the law and the lawless, and we should not discourage them by setting up unnecessary pitfalls on the path to justice. I want you to have what your units need to continue their work without interference from desk jockeys, who have no idea how to lead men, and do not understand the consequences of failure."

Chris laughed. "That would definitely be a plus."

"I also took the liberty of going through the stack of applications that have piled up in your absence." Russo passed Chris several more folders. "These are ten of the most qualified for you to evaluate. If you don't find any that meet your criteria, then feel free to ask for the rest." He met Chris's eyes. "Bottom line, whatever I can do to relieve you of having to deal with annoying details, I'll do it. Keeping the integrity of MCAT intact, and maintaining the elite status of your units is my priority. If that means taking fewer cases, so be it. We're going to demand that other agencies clean up their own dirty work. MCAT is not their personal catchall, and throwing every badass they don't want to deal with to your units is unacceptable. Your agents deserve respect and consideration for the work they perform." Sam sighed. "I'll get off my soapbox now, but let me buy you lunch. I might even shut up long enough for you to get a word or two in."

Russo had hit upon many of the things that Chris felt was important. Russo saw the world not as an idealist, who had grand illusions about how law enforcement should work, but as a realist who saw it for what it was. We do not live in a perfect world, and the men and women in law enforcement worked diligently to protect the innocent from the evil that we know exists. While the system of law in this country was by no means perfect, it was what we had to work with, and any restraints that prevented it from doing its job should be resisted. "You're preaching to the choir here." Chris smiled, and threw an amused look at Travis. "If we're done..."

Travis was pleased to see two men he admired getting along. "All except this." He handed Chris a folder that had Mallory's name on it. "I reviewed your request. You'll find what you wanted in there." He stood, addressing both men. "Gentlemen, the future course of MCAT is in your hands. Guard it well, and ...enjoy your lunch."

Chris spent more than the lunch hour getting to know the man, who now had a big role in making MCAT work. It appeared Samuel Russo was now the man that for all intent and purposes was in charge, and he had firm ideas about the role of MCAT in the modern world. They ended up back at the office, where they worked through the afternoon, reviewing proposals. While Larabee found he agreed with many of them, after a few hours he also knew they would probably be butting heads...often.

Larabee home, 5:00 pm

Chris handed Cody over to Jesse. "Go ahead and strap him in his car seat. I'll hurry your mother along. Grace, you go with Jesse, okay?" Smiling as he watched his children walk out the door, he sighed. Now if he could urge 'his baby' to shift into high gear. Seeking her out, he ran into her coming out of their bedroom. "Get a move on it, woman. You know Max hates it when her dinner guests are late."

"I'm ready." Cait smiled, kissed him on the cheek, and sashayed down the hallway, calling back to him, "Are you coming, Cowboy?"

Shaking his head, Chris grinned. God he loved that woman.

Tanner Home, late evening

All Chris wanted to do was relax, while he waited for Cait and Kelli to return from the CASA meeting. He and Vin had been playing pool since the kids went down for the night. Brodie and Jesse were wrapped up in an action movie, upstairs, and he was about to beat Tanner again. Studying the position of the balls on the pool table, he lined up his next hit, and then made his shot. The balls fell into the pocket, and he turned to Vin with a grin. "You owe me ten bucks."

Tanner shook his head, smiled, and passed Chris a beer. "Take it out of the twenty you owe me."

Returning his pool cue to the rack, Chris sat down, propping his feet up. "Think you can handle another month of 'free time'?"

Vin sat down in the chair next to Larabee. "Hell, we get another month off; Alpha team might cease to exist."

Taking a sip of his beer, Chris shook his head. "Not funny, but you're damn close to being right. I think time off for our team is more dangerous for us than actually being in the middle of a case."

"It sure as hell ain't been much fun." Vin absently rubbed his now healed ribs. "...well you did get hitched, and we've spent time with our kids, and Nate went to Disney World with his family."

"Yeah, and we had your Navigator blown to hell, almost killing Andi and Kel. The barn was set on fire, and a damn sleeper agent tried to kill our children, drugged Barbara, and cut the brake lines on Mal's car." Chris took another sip. "Montoya attempted to wipe us off the face of the earth. JD's house was blown to kingdom come, car wreck in Louisiana, almost plane crash, and that damn cat landed you and Brodie in the hospital, before attacking Inez is a target."

"Damn! When you put it that way...I think we outta outlaw vacations period."

"I'll drink to that." Chris raised his bottle and clicked it against Vin's. His cell rang, and he growled, "What now?"


Driving home, Kelli and Cait talked about the meeting. The alarming number of abused and neglected children that were in need of interventions was heartbreaking, and unfortunately, there was no simple solution for it. Child Advocates donated their time and expertise to help, but the need was increasing faster than the number of volunteers.

"I got into law enforcement to make a difference, but every time I watch the news, or pick up a newspaper there seems to be two or three atrocious stories concernin' abuse to children. I wonder sometimes if what I do is helpin' make the world a better place for 'em, or just holdin' the status quo."

Cait smiled at her stepdaughter. "I think you've had too much time away from work to think. I know from what Chris tells me that you're a very good agent...what I saw tonight also tells me you have an intense passion for working with children."

"I do love my work, and after twelve years it would be hard to walk away, but spendin' all my time with the kids these past three months has been heaven...." Oncoming headlights suddenly blinded Kelli, as a truck swerved into her lane, stopping sideways forty feet in front of them. "What the hell ...."

Slamming on the brakes, and twisting the wheel to avoid a head on collision, her SUV came to a stop across the opposite lane. Grabbing her gun, she yelled at Cait. "Stay down, call Chris...tell him we need backup at the six mile marker on Ranch Road." Jumping out of the truck, she found herself at a disadvantage because he had cut his lights. Steadying her weapon on the hood of her Yukon, she shouted to the man standing beside his vehicle. "I'm a Federal Agent, raise your hands, and step away from your vehicle."

Instead of obeying, he stayed in the shadows, and shouted back. "Tell your bitch friend to mind her own God damn business, or next time somebody dies. Your men can't protect you."

"I've got a better idea. You give yourself up, and I won't drop you where you stand."

Using a high beam spotlight, he aimed it towards the agent, temporarily blinding her. Taking advantage of her momentary loss of focus, the unknown man jumped into his truck, threw it into gear, and peeled out, passing the Yukon at a high speed. Kelli fired as he sped by, but failed to slow him down. "Damn!"


Racing down Ranch Road Chris and Vin listened as Cait relayed what was happening. Larabee pushed the Ram to ninety, and it still was not fast enough to get there before they heard shots fired.

"First Inez is attacked and now this. What the hell is going on?" Chris pressed down on the accelerator, moving the needle past ninety-five.

"Better slow it down, Cowboy, we just passed the five mile marker, and accordin' to Cait they're sittin' in the middle of the road."

"Damnit!" Chris hit the brakes, sliding the Ram sideways to avoid hitting Kelli's truck, as it came into the range of his headlights. Throwing the gearshift into park, both men exited the Ram, and hit the ground running.

"Damnit, pay attention, I said green, not black!" Cursing, Kelli threw her cell phone, barely missing Vin's head as he came around the front of the SUV.

"Whoa, baby. No need to get hostile." He grabbed her arm, and pulled her into his embrace. "You okay?"

"Yeah, just mad," she answered with a sigh. "Damn dispatcher at the Sherriff's office needs to clean out his ears."

Relieved to see her angry and not hurt, Vin chuckled, knowing he would hear it all from beginning to end. Seeing that Chris had Cait with him, he figured they needed to get out of the middle of the road. "Keys inside?" Kelli nodded against his chest. "Stand over there for a few seconds, while I pull your truck to the shoulder."

Chris saw what Tanner was doing, and sent Cait to stand with Kelli, while he did the same with his Ram. Once both vehicles were secure, the men walked over to their wives.

Larabee started with Kelli, "All right...from the beginning, please." He listened while she gave him a recap of events as they had happened; a growing knot in his gut was saying this was not a case of wrong place, wrong, time.

"So when I failed to stop him, I called Sheriff Dispatch, gave them the best description I had, and asked them to try to stop the bastard at the turnoff. He asked so many damn questions, I'm sure the suspect was long gone by the time he finally dispatched a sector car to the intersection."

Vin walked the area as he listened to Kelli recount the actions of the unknown male. Walking back as she finished, he asked, "You sure about what he said?"

Cait spoke up, "I heard the same thing Kel did, he said, 'Tell your bitch friend to mind her own God damn business, or next time somebody dies. Your men can't protect you'."

' Damn close to what Inez heard.'

'Yeah, and signs say he waited here for a good while. Boot print over there is close to size ten, the same as they lifted at the mall.'

' This is no God damn coincidence'

"Okay y'all, if you know what that means, tell us." Kelli shot Vin an exasperated look.

Chris looked at both women. "It means....this was probably the same bastard that assaulted Inez."


Chris's Home, Tuesday Morning

Cait had the coffee going, and breakfast laid out buffet style. Ezra was the first to arrive, handing papers to Chris for him to look over before the others came. Accepting the cup Cait offered, he filled it from the carafe, and then found a comfortable place to sit.

"Barbara's not with you. Is she feeling okay?" Cait asked, passing Ezra a plate of Danish.

"Thank you...Barbara's blood pressure is still a tad higher than it should be. I insisted she rest while I'm here."

"I have some prepared meals in the freezer. Before you leave, I'll set them out for you to take home." Cait waved to Josiah and Mallory as they walked in. "Whatever we can do to make things easier for Barbara, let us know."

Ezra nodded. "I will. I'm hopeful that all she needs is rest."

Josiah sat down beside Ezra, and while they conversed, Cait pulled Mallory aside. "I wanted to speak to you about Tess. Since my parents have bought their new home, my old place is empty. I'd like to offer it to her and her daughter."

Mallory smiled, and nodded. "That would be a perfect solution. She needs to feel independent. Don't give it to her...let her feel like she's paying her own way."

Placing her hand on Mallory's arm, Cait nodded. "I'll talk to her later today then." She glanced towards the door, and saw Nathan walk in, followed by Vin and Kelli. "I'll let you know what she says. Mallory rejoined her husband, and Cait made sure everyone had either coffee or juice.


Hearing a shrill whistle as he began to climb Chris's porch steps, Buck turned his head and grinned as he watched JD break into a trot to catch up with him. "Hey Buck. How's Inez?" JD asked as he reached the steps.

"Doing better every day," he replied. "Though, she's still having nightmares...but I guess that's to be expected."

JD nodded. "Yeah, but it's still hard for you to see that, right?"

Squeezing JD's arm, Buck sighed. "Damn straight. Doc Gilford suggested she talk to someone. I think she's seriously considering it."

"It helped us," JD reminded.

"That it did, kid," the brunet agreed. "Come on...we'd best go in, I think everyone else is here." They moved to enter the house.


Chris stood up, looking at Nathan, he asked, "Is Rain coming?"

Shaking his head, he explained. "She worked the night shift, and crashed about an hour ago. I didn't have the heart to wake her."

Buck and JD walked in together, sitting in the two empty chairs closest to where Chris was standing.

"Okay everyone, we have a lot to cover, and I know you all have other plans for today. Before I get to our most serious business, I have a side note to discuss."

"I met with Travis yesterday." Chris pulled out a packet and handed it to Mallory.

Taking it, she frowned. "What's this?"

"When you told me you decided not to return to MCAT, I did some figuring. Adding in unused vacation time, incurred leave of absence, and a rollover from your ATF days, you qualified for full retirement. Travis approved it, and as of are officially retired, with full benefits."

Mallory fingered the brown envelope, her emotions threatening to overtake her. This was something she did not expect, but it meant a lot to her having her eighteen plus years of service acknowledged. "Thank you, Chris."

"You are welcome." Chris sighed. "I wish the rest of what I have to say was just as rewarding,'s not. You already know that Travis accepted my resignation as ADD last month, and he has since filled that position. While I am still Unit Commander of Alpha and Bravo team, we have a new Assistant Deputy Director and he has been incorporating some new ideas into MCAT."

"What kind of ideas?" Buck frowned. "We were doing damn good already."

"Evidently, Orrin expects to be spending more time in Washington, and less time with MCAT. He hired Samuel Russo to fill the ADD position...."

Josiah narrowed his brow. "Give 'em hell Sam Russo?"

Chris nodded. "Yep, that's the one. We'll have plenty of time to discuss all the changes he's proposed, but the one that affects you immediately is that MCAT is on stand down status until September." He held up his hand to stop everyone from talking at once. "I spent several hours yesterday afternoon with Sam. I think most of what he has in mind is good for all of us."

"We don't exactly stay healthy with a lot of time off." Nathan shook his head, and sighed. "You think we'll survive another five weeks of vacation?"

"I have no problem with it." Ezra grinned, relieved that he did not have to find an excuse to put off returning to MCAT. Instead, he would be able to stay with Barbara until their baby entered the world.

Larabee smiled. "I didn't think you would, Ezra." He paused to answer his cell, listened carefully, and then snapped it shut. "All right," Chris raised his hand for silence. "We might not be back at MCAT just yet, but we do have something to work on." He saw Mallory and Cait stand to leave, and stopped them. "This concerns everyone, I'd like for you two to stay." He waited for them to sit down. "I didn't mention this earlier because I was waiting for that phone call. Last night we had another incident involving L7 women...." Larabee related what had happened with Kelli and Cait.

"What the hell is going on...first Inez and now..." Buck was flabbergasted, and at a loss for words.

"I know, Buck, and as much as I'd like to say this was a coincidence...I don't think it was. The message he gave was too similar to the one Inez remembers." Chris sighed. "One of our women has somehow this man's mind...wronged him in some way. Now if it was Inez that would be the end of it, so we know it's not her. Kelli identified herself as a Federal Agent, and he didn't react to it. We have to conclude it's not work related, and that she and Cait were only suppose to deliver another message. That was the Sheriff's Department on the phone...they found the truck, no big surprise that it was stolen, abandoned not far from here, with two bullet holes in the bed. They're dusting for fingerprints now."

Ezra pushed down the panic he felt building within him. "If Inez, Kelli, or Cait is not the intended target...that leaves Barbara, Mallory, or Rain."

Chris nodded. "That's the only conclusion we can come to without more information. I know Barbara cannot be upset at this point in her pregnancy, but I need you to go over her cases for the past six months. Nathan, Rain might have come across this person at the hospital...see if she remembers any incident, big or small, where she had an issue with a white male. All we have is a general description, possible mid-thirties, six foot, medium build..." he looked at Mallory. "Anyone you can think of at your battered women's shelter causing problems?"

Mallory thought hard. "Not off the top of my head, but I'll do some checking."

"This man apparently was watching the comings and goings of everyone. We already have enough security for our property, and while he might be watching, I'm confident the ranch is secure." Chris looked over to Nathan. "To be on the safe side, make sure Rain doesn't travel to or from work alone."

Nathan nodded. "I might just hang around while she's there too."

"If I can still access CASSIE from here, I might be able to find info on this jerk DPD could miss. All I need is access to your computer." JD was ready to start digging.

Chris shook his head. "Be my guest, but you'll have to improvise, JD. Travis ordered Pam to shut CASSIE down when the agents went out on extended leave." Looking at his family, Chris added, "This man is probably laying low, or long gone if he's smart, but we'll proceed with caution." Deliberately focusing his gaze on Buck, he said, "We 'will' find him, it just might take some time."

"Oh, I can wait if I have to, but he's going down." Buck tightened his mouth, and curled his fingers into a fist.

JD stood, patting Buck on the leg. "I'll see what I can find on Chris's computer. You okay?"

"Yeah," Buck nodded, "but I want to get home to Inez. I'll see you later, Kid."

Ezra excused himself. "I want to stay close to Barbara, and start on her files. What we don't need right now is her getting upset."

Nathan was next. "As soon a Rain wakes up, well go over some of her contacts."

Vin stood, too. "Dad's gettin' his cast off today. I'm gonna take him, but if you need me, yell." He waited for Kelli, who was talking with Mallory, to join him, and then they left.

Josiah approached Chris. "Whoever this man is...he uses realize that probably means he's an abuser, and because of her work, Mallory is his likely target."

"I considered that, but we'll cover all bases. Keep your eyes open, and any names you come across, pass on to Lou." Chris slapped Josiah on the back, nodded, and watched as he walked out with Mallory. He had no doubt Josiah would be staying close to his wife, and she was safe. Buck concerned him the most though. After all the mental shit that Wilder put him through, he was taking Inez's attack as a personal failure...that combined with his anger...could mean trouble.

Reins of Change

Cait stood at the door of the daycare observing Tess interact with the younger children. She had a special gift of communicating with them, and they had loved her almost from the first day she started. Waiting for her to finish the story she was reading, Cait then motioned for her to come outside. Once Sally took over, Tess walked out and met Cait.

Cait smiled at the young woman, and said, "Walk with me. I want to show you something." It was only a short distance to her old home, and when they arrived, Cait opened the door, motioning for Tess to follow her inside.

Tess was a bit nervous. She could not imagine what the director of Reins wanted with her...unless she was not happy with her work. "Missus Larabee ..."

"It's Cait, hon. Relax I won't keep you long." Cait laid her hand on Tess's arm to reassure her. "Before I was married, I lived here. For the past few weeks, my parents have been visiting, but they bought a new home, and won't need a place to stay any longer. I wanted you to consider renting this house for you and Keira. It's in good shape, close to your work, affords you as much privacy as you want; it comes furnished, and has plenty of room for an active child. Are you interested?"

Tess had trouble finding her voice, but finally managed a short answer. "Yes...yes I am."

"I wanted to offer the place to someone who works on Reins, and you immediately came to mind." She took a piece of paper from her pocket. "See if these terms are agreeable to you."

Looking at the amount, Tess nodded, realizing this was a real offer, not an act of charity. Cait was giving her an opportunity to provide a home for her daughter. Taking a deep breath, she decided to take a leap of faith. "I believe this is fair. I can give you the first month's rent now."

Cait nodded. "You can drop it off to me after work." She reached in her pocket again, pulling out a set of keys. "Go ahead and take these. Move in when you're ready, it's yours."

"Thank you...Cait." Tess glanced around and sighed. "I'd like to stay and explore, but I should get back to work. I'll see you later this evening."

Cait saw the tears in her eyes, but pretended not to notice. Looking at her watch, she sighed, too. "Me too, I have a session in ten minutes." Walking out with the young teacher, she stopped before they parted ways. "I hope you and Keira will be as happy here as I was."

Tess nodded, and then turned to hurry back to the daycare, sending up a prayer of thanks. For the first time in a long time, she felt a surge of hope well up inside her. They had been running for such a long time... maybe...just maybe, life was changing for the better for her, and Keira.

Sanchez Home

It did not take long to review Mallory's case log. Considering that she had only handled five interventions since she started, there was not much digging to do.

"I hate to think that my work could be the reason Inez is in so much misery." Mallory looked at her husband through misty eyes. "I understand the risks involved, but I expected any repercussions to be directed at me."

Josiah wrapped his arms around her. "We don't know your work is connected, and even if it turns out that it is, you are not responsible for the action of an abuser. You know the profile, Mal. Men who thrive on subjecting women and children to physical and mental abuse are obsessive." He placed a finger beneath her chin, tilting her head upwards. "You have no control over their actions."

"I know, but..."

"No buts. We'll give these names to Detective Masterson, and let him check out their alibis. If the person responsible for Inez's attack turns out to be one of these bastards...we'll deal with it."

Tanner Cabin

Stopping at his cabin on their way back from the doctor's office, Vin opened his truck door. "This won't take but a minute. I wanna drop off the stuff I bought while we were out. Then, we'll head on up to your place."

"Take whatever time you need, Son. I'm going to sit here and enjoy the feel of wearing a real boot for a change."

Although he had been moving around better the past couple of weeks, the freedom of having that damn cast off was refreshing. Brodie was anxious to see how his cabin was coming along, too. Vin had been working on it for him, and had supervised the delivery of the furniture he had ordered. Having a son to take on those things was great, but he needed to get the feel of it for himself. Now that he could take on the rest without help, he hoped to have everything finished by next week.

The driver's door opened. "I'm back. Now it's show and tell time." Vin grinned, but refused to elaborate on his comment.

Ten minutes later, they were standing in front of Brodie's cabin. Vin fished a set of keys from his pocket, reached for his father's hand, placed them on his palm, curled his dad's fingers into a close fist, and then placed his own hand on top of it. "Kel, Jason, Andi, and my brothers all helped. What we did, we did outta love, but whatever you don't like say the word, and we'll change it."

Brodie nodded, not knowing exactly what he expected, but this was certainly more than he imagined. The outside was finished, minus a few small details he would add; the deck was ready for a barbeque, with chairs, table, and a big built-in grill. Walking up the winding walkway, he used the key to unlock the front door, and stepped inside. It was everything he had envisioned, and more.

"I don't know what to say. This is... me. I mean this is exactly the way I saw it in my mind when we worked on the plans." He scanned the room, noting the hand carved woodwork, the stone fireplace he wanted, the furniture was what he chose, and situated just as he would have, had he been here. He recognized the small personal touches that belonged to Jason and Andi, as well as his son and daughter-in-law, and suddenly he felt something he had not experience in thirty felt like coming home.

"Kel claimed the kitchen, and bathroom details, said she wanted to make sure you had everythin' you needed. You said you wanted one room the kids would feel was theirs, and they took you at your word." Vin showed him 'the children's room'. "Jason helped paint the mural on the ceilin', and Andi picked the colors."

Brodie smiled. "I reckon they know me pretty well." He turned to Vin. "You all do... truthfully, I'm more comfortable on the back of a horse than with a hammer in my hand....I...well I approve."

"Speakin' of horses, I wanna talk to you about somethin'. How about you finish the tour, and make a list of what you still need, while I grab us a couple of beers. Meet you on your new deck."

A few minutes later, they both were comfortable on loungers, with a cold beer in their hand, enjoying the late afternoon sun. Vin took a swig from his bottle and asked, "Other than bein' retired...have you thought about what you want to do?"

"Not sure. There's not much call for an ex-intelligence agent, who specializes in covert ops. My skills... are not exactly people friendly."

Vin chuckled. "Reckon not, but... L7 needs someone to oversee operations... That is, if you're interested in goin' back to ranchin'."

"Ranching.... My old man must be up there somewhere laughing his ass off. He told me when I was about Jason's age that I'd never get it out of my matter how hard I tried." Brodie nodded. "I guess he was right because here I am, nearly fifty years later and ranch work is something that sounds damn good to me."

"Talk to Ezra in the mornin' then, he can fill you in on the details" Vin stood up, tossed his empty bottle in the trashcan, and turned back to his father. "If we're late for supper, Max might have us court-martialed."

"Then we best get a move on. That is one lady I don't want to piss off." Brodie got up, tossed his bottle, and as he locked up, he smiled to himself. ' Well Dad, I got my family back, and now it looks like I'll end my days on horseback. I hope you're pleased...I know I am.'

Reins of Change

JD grinned as he called to pick up his kids. After giving them a kiss and a hug, he focused on Tess. "You seem to be in high spirits today."

Without thinking, Tess took his hand in hers. "I had some wonderful news today. Cait offered me her old house to rent." She beamed. "It's perfect, John Daniel...just...perfect. It's just what Keira and I need... a place to call our own."

Trying hard not to focus on the warm, delicate hand clutching at his, JD grinned. "Oh wow, that's so cool. That's a real nice house, and right next to Reins." His grin widened. "We'll be practically neighbors!"

Suddenly realizing they were holding hands, they quickly pulled apart and fussed with the children's jackets.

"I can move in right away."

"Need a hand?" he offered.

"Oh, I have nothing to move in..." realizing what he was saying, she nodded. "We've traveled light."

JD nodded. "I'd be happy to show you some good places to shop...when you're ready."

Tess felt emotion rising. "I'd...That's so sweet of you, John Daniel."

JD smiled and shrugged one shoulder. "No's what friends do, right?"

'I have a friend' she thought, her heart soaring at the rapid and wonderful changes in her life. "'s what friends do."

Waving as she watched the little family leave, Tess, for the first time in a very long time, began to have hope.


Tanner Home, Wednesday, 6:00 am

The dream was back. This time it was more disturbing, and made less sense than it had before. Vin eased out of bed, rubbed his hands over his face, and sighed. Why did he see Tracker and Anne, while feeling a profound sense of loss? He glanced back towards the bed where Kelli was still sleeping. They had agreed not to pursue the new fertility drug because of the risks. Was she still in danger from something else? What was missing from his vision? Shaking his head, he headed to the bathroom. There sure as hell was no way he would be going back to sleep.

Twenty minutes later, with a hot cup of coffee in hand, Tanner went to his office, turned on his computer, and waited for it to come alive. Sipping on his coffee, he scanned his emails, stopping at one from his friend in Arizona. It had been over a month since he had sent the report on Casey for JD. Now, he was sending a follow-up. Clicking on the attachment, the Texan hit print, and then waited for the machine to spit out the information. Reading it, he felt a wave of sadness wash over him. Maybe this was what his vision was telling him. Sighing deeply, he folded the report and stuck it in his pocket. He really hated it when his gut feelings about people he cared for, proved to be correct.

Dunne Home, 7:30 am

JD walked in, threw his keys on the bar, and kicked off his sneakers. Smiling, he thought about his new morning rituals. Breakfast with the kids, ride to the daycare, and then spend a couple of minutes talking with Tess. One way or another he was determined to get her to call him JD, instead of John Daniel. Although, the way she said it was nice. Grabbing a cup from the counter he noticed the flashing red light on his answering machine. Hitting the button, he replayed the message. "JD, Vin. I'm takin' my bike out for a while to blow out the cobwebs, thought you might enjoy a ride along."

JD grinned. It had been too damn long since he and Vin had just taken off on their bikes. Hell yes he wanted to go. Hitting speed dial he called Tanner, arranging to meet him in ten minutes.

Both men ready to go, mounted up, flicking up the kickstands as they balanced the machines between their straddled legs. Keys in the ignition, the chokes out, and turned to the on positions, they checked that the kill switches were set to run. Squeezing the clutches in their left hands, right to the grips, they each pressed the starter button and grinned widely as both engines fired up with a satisfying roar. Idling for a minute to fully warm up, and the chokes now in, they snapped down their visors, let out a 'whoop', pushed off, and roared away.

Having decided where they were heading, the pair took turns leading the way, skillfully weaving their powerful machines around sharp bends and narrow roads, and really letting it rip along the straits. It was exhilarating and liberating. Vin and JD reveled in the freedom. They needed to do this more often. Way too soon, they had reached 'Lookout Point'.

Standing at the edge, the view looked like some kind of painting that should be hanging in a fancy gallery. JD took a deep breath of fresh air, and grinned. "Man, I needed this. Being up here sure makes you feel alive, huh?''

Vin squatted, pulled a blade of grass, twisting it in his fingers, and then sighed. "JD, I wanted to get you away from the ranch to discuss a few things."

Hearing the serious tone in his brother's voice, JD gave him his full attention. "Okay, I'm listening. Fire away."

Vin tossed the blade of grass, and looked up. "You know I've talked to Nettie off and on since she left. Lately, she hasn't sounded so good. Hell, she'd been feelin' bad for a while now, just didn't want anyone to know."

"Nettie's sick?" JD shook his head. "She's always been so strong; I guess I never thought about her slowing down."

"Yeah... she's a tough old bitty," Vin smiled, "her words ...not mine." Biting his lower lip, he continued, "This whole thing with's taken a lot out of her. Nettie should be in a hospital, but she refuses... says she's not going to die in a hospital bed." Sighing, he continued, "Evidently, sometime in the past few weeks Casey found out she was ill., and is not handling it well."

JD nodded. "The last time I took the kids to see Casey, she seemed...distracted. I guess it's not easy for her to accept that Nettie isn't indestructible." He closed his eyes. "I hate the way things turned out...I miss talking with Nettie,'s hard, you know. She wants Casey to see the kids, even offered to supervise if I let them come."

Vin looked up. "But, you didn't. Mind if I ask what convinced you?"

"A lot of reasons." JD shrugged. "The way she distances herself from JJ is my main concern, and the different moods she goes through when the twins are around. Mostly... a gut feeling I have. I just don't feel I can trust her with the kids alone." He glanced at Vin. "I took your advice about not rushing things."

"When was the last time you saw Casey?"

Narrowing his brows, JD got one of those feelings. "Why is this starting to sound like an interrogation?"

"Sorry, habit I reckon." Vin pulled the folded papers from his pocket. "My contact in Arizona sent me a follow-up report this mornin'. You should read it." He passed the information to JD.

JD finished reading and looked at Vin. "She's quit her job, stopped going to her meetings, and... Hell, I guess these pictures tell me what she's been doing instead. She's making the rounds of the clubs in Phoenix isn't she? With the meds she's on, she shouldn't be drinking period." He sighed. "This would explain her last telephone call. Initially, she took my decision about the kids well, but the other day, she called me, ranting and raving about how unfair I was being, and that she'd just come down here and damn-well take them."

Vin stood, and placed his hand on JD's back. "You okay? Why didn't you tell us?"

"Me? Yeah, I'm fine." Glancing at Vin he asked, "But when have I had the chance to tell anyone? After what happened to Inez we all had enough to worry about...anyway, I finally realized I'm past the point of getting upset about Casey." He absently rubbed at one of the spots where she had stabbed him. "I do hate that the kids have to pay for her behavior though. The girls were enjoying their time with her. Now...I guess we might end up in court over visitations after all."

"If you need hard copies of those pictures, I can get 'em." The Texan slapped JD's back. "I reckon you want the investigation to continue, too."

He nodded, swigging back some water from the bottle he'd taken out of his bike bag. "Definitely. If she decides to fight me over the kids, I want all the ammunition I can get." JD folded the report, and stuck it in his pocket. "Let's enjoy some serious riding time before we go home." Grinning, he walked toward his bike, and just before he broke into a run, said, "Bet you ten bucks, I make it to the highway before you do." He then hastily replaced the water bottle before jumping on the shiny blue Ninja.

"You're on." Vin hurried to his Harley, and was only a few seconds behind his brother when they hit the straightaway.

Larabee 7, 10:00 am

Stepping out of the barn in time to see Vin and JD returning, Chris smiled, shaking his head. It 'was' vacation time for them, but it had been a long time since he had seen them riding just for the hell of it.

Pulling to a stop in front of him, Vin removed his helmet, and said, "Mornin'."

Chris nodded, glancing over to JD, who wore the same silly grin Vin did. Both reminded him more of teenagers, than Federal Agents. "What are you two up to this morning?"

"Nothing much, just clearing out some cobwebs." JD hooked his helmet on the handlebar, and shook up his flattened hair with his fingers. "Of course Vin has more of 'em than I do," flashing a smile at Tanner, he added, "and he owes me ten bucks."

"Hell, Kid, I went easy on you." Vin stretched, reached for his wallet, and pulled out a ten, passing it to JD. "We're even, but next time it'll be you payin' me."

JD laughed. "Yeah, yeah, Tanner, you keep telling yourself that."

They all turned to look when Ezra's Jag came into view. Coming to a stop beside the trio, Standish opened the door, reached for a folder, which he tucked under his arm, exited, and joined them. "Good morning, Gentlemen. It is fortuitous that I find y'all together. I have a document, which requires your signatures."

"What kind of document, Ezra?" Chris asked, as he took it from Standish, and began to read.

"I met earlier with Mister Tanner," he glanced at Vin, "the elder Mister Tanner that is, concerning the position open in ranch operations. He had several questions, and requests. We were able to come to agreement on them, but I need all our brothers to sign off on his contract demands."

"Contract demands?" Vin frowned. "What kind of demands?"

Chris laughed. "Basically he wants to be sure he's in charge, and not second guessed on everything he does." He ran down the list. "He wants POA to handle ranch business, authority to hire and fire, and with the exception of Bounty, and our personal horses, the right to buy or sell any of the stock at his discretion."

Ezra nodded. "Indeed. He said he didn't want to hunt down seven signatures for every move he makes. I agreed to furnish him with an operations budget, and he will take over keeping our inventory on the computer, and organize our sales. He will of course furnish quarterly reports, and we will review his performance annually. Brodie obviously gave this a lot of thought, specifically listing his responsibilities, and ours. We also agreed on salary and a percentage of profit sharing with a seven percent ownership option at the end of the first year. In addition, if we ever take our corporation public, he reserved the right to take stock options."

JD looked from one brother to another. "We want someone, who can take on the ranch responsibilities, so we can work, and not have to worry about it. Right?"

Chris nodded. "We do." He drew a pen from Ezra's shirt pocket, and signed his name on the document, before passing it to JD. "I have no problem with giving him the authority to run things."

JD signed, and handed it to Vin. "I'm gonna put my bike up, and head over to Buck's house. Inez is feeling better, and I thought I might talk him into helping me with some house plans." He looked at Chris. "Have we heard anything new from Masterson?"

"Nothing that helps us get closer to our suspect." Chris shook his head. "I talked to him earlier, so far, the names we've given him to check out all have alibis for the time of Inez's attack."

Vin returned the document to Ezra after he signed it. "Whoever this man is, he'll slip up sooner or later."

"In the meantime, I wanna keep Buck focused on positive things. I'll tell him to expect you, Ezra." JD started his bike, waved, and took off.

Ezra replaced his pen, and looked at Chris and Vin. "I have three more signatures to obtain, and then I plan to spend the rest of the day with my lovely wife." He gave them a backhand wave as he returned to his Jag.

Vin glanced at Chris. "Unless you think I need to stick around, I plan to take Kel up to our cabin for a couple of days. Figured we'd leave Friday night."

"Hell, you two have waited long enough. Go enjoy your mini-vacation, if anything shakes loose on this bastard, we can handle it." Chris slapped Tanner on the back. "Once we get back to work, it might be a while before you get the chance to spend extended time alone with your wife."

"Not if I can help it. Life's too damn short to have regrets about somethin' we have choices about, and makin' time for us is important." Vin shook his head. "It's been too damn easy for day-to- day stuff to take over our lives. Kel and I already fell into that trap once...I don't plan to let time slip by us again."

"Given this some thought have you?" Chris smiled, already knowing this was a subject that Vin was passionate about, and rightly so. Life was short, and it did not always go the way we wanted. He made a mental note to do some planning of his own with Cait.

"A bit," Vin conceded. "See you later, Cowboy." The Texan started his bike, and headed for home. He had details to work on, and only thirty-six hours to complete his plans.

Larabee Home

Chris walked in, finding his wife at home laying on the couch, instead of at Reins. "Hey, babe, what are you doing home?"

Cait sat up, smiling at her husband. "I made one tiny complaint about being tired, and Willard threw a fit. He put Jesse to work, and told me to go home, rest, and come back when I didn't look so worn out."

Taking a second look at her, Chris realized that Cait did appear tired, and immediately felt bad that he had not noticed. "Why didn't you tell me you weren't feeling well?"

"I don't feel bad...just...I don't minute I was fine, and the next ...I was suddenly very tired." Cait sighed. "Even before our wedding, I was stressed...since then, it's been one thing after another, and I guess my body hasn't caught up with all the activity."

Sitting down next to her, Chris put his arm around her shoulders. "I supposed we have been operating on high speed lately... our honeymoon was more like a five day blitz with the children, and getting them settled into a new routine once we came home was a challenge. I know you enjoyed your parents being here, but you stayed busy all the time they were here, kept working, and dealing with that CPS intake thing. Now, Inez's attack has affected us all." He kissed the top of her head. "Maybe we should take a page out of Vin's book, and set aside some time for just you and me."

Nodding her head, Cait agreed. "It does seem as though we've been lost in the shuffle. I love our life, and the children, but a couple of days of just 'us', sounds like heaven to me."

"Then that's what we need to do. I'm sure I can talk Vin and Kelli into watching the kids for us, when they get back. Then we'll take off a few days next week for some alone time. You decide where you want to go, and I'll make the arrangements."

"I wish it were that easy." Cait mentally ran her calendar through her head. "Monday, I have my yearly check-up scheduled with Doctor Stewart. Tuesday, I have a full day of instruction. Wednesday, I have conferences lined up with the parents of three new students. You told me you were meeting with Russo again on Thursday, and then..."

Chris stopped her. "Honey, there will always be something going on. The key here is 'making time'. Keep your doctor's appointment, reschedule your conferences, or let Shelly and Tony handle them. They're experienced Reins' teachers, and can evaluate new students as well as you can. I'll change my appointment with Russo, and 'we'," he pulled her tighter against him," will disappear for at least forty-eight hours. Trust me...the world won't fall apart without us."

Cait knew he was right. If they waited for the perfect time, they would never slow down. All her preaching to Chris about reducing the stress in his life meant nothing unless she was willing to do the same. "All find us a place that is remote, unreachable, and romantic, and I'll make arrangements at Reins."

Chris grinned. "Plan on leaving early Tuesday morning then, and we'll put the world on hold for a while."

;Dunne Home

Deciding against any hope of getting back to sleep, JD made some tea and sat in the living room. Another phone call...the third this week, had pulled him from his slumber. He sighed heavily as memories of his time with Casey before she stabbed him, flooded his mind. Tonight, her tone on the phone was vindictive and abusive. Each call was escalating her abysmal demeanor. The background noises suggested she was in, or around a club and he couldn't help wondering why, if Nettie was unwell, Casey would be out running the streets, instead of taking care of her.

JD sipped his tea while he stared across the darkened room. Casey's illness had uncovered an alter ego, one that was abusive and violent. His instincts about her, coupled with Vin's assistance, now convinced JD he needed to break ties with the woman he still loved. However, that affection was not the emotion, which had kept them married, but more of a connection to his once happy past. He needed this closure, his own sanity rested on it. That was the reason he had decided that he was going to Phoenix. He would do this face-to-face, visit one last time with Nettie to explain, and then tell Casey it was truly over.

Their children needed stability. Casey could never provide it, he knew that, now. He had already talked it through with Nathan and Rain, turning to them for support and assistance. Rain had been closest to Casey until the divorce, and he thought they would understand his need to close this particular door in person, and they did. He also knew they would keep his plans from the others for the interim. Fortunately, Rain had a few days off, and offered to care for his kids until he returned. So, after he dropped Lilah, Daisy, and JJ, at Reins tomorrow morning, he was heading for Arizona...and hopefully, cutting all ties to his past, allowing him to find the peace he needed to move on to a new life.

His thoughts moved to Tess. He enjoyed talking with her. Granted, they barely knew each other, but, when they talked, it was so natural and relaxed. Even on a good day, right from the start of their relationship, Casey could quickly go from sunny and bright to snappy and argumentative. Mostly he gave her as good as he got, but sometimes he would just take it...often weary from a combination of a heavy caseload and the ups and downs of being a husband and father.

Tess was funny, and kindness came naturally to her. It was good to have a female friend he could turn to. Between Talia and Casey, he wasn't looking for anything more than friendship and neither was Tess, so there was no pressure, which was a true relief.

Standing, he took his empty cup and set it in the dishwasher. Tomorrow he would take the last step needed to leave the unhappy parts of his past with Casey behind, and turn all his energy to building a brighter future for himself and his children.


Wednesday, 9:30 am

Looking out of the airplane window, and down at the vibrant colored Arizona landscape, JD reflected on his morning. Daisy had sensed something was up, and had become clingy. Tess had been a Godsend; she stepped in, instantly getting involved and managed successfully to separate parent and child without tears...well, at least not from Daisy. With a hug from Rain, Nathan drove JD to the airport, the EMT offering an uncustomary hug to his youngest sibling, before waving him off. JD had told Nathan to tell anyone that asked, where he was...but only if they asked, also reminding Nathan to tell them he would explain everything when he got back.

His talk with Nathan the previous day of his concerns about the effects of Casey's refusal to stay on medication had prompted an unexpected decision to visit Casey in person. Nathan and Rain had explained the physical and mental results of such actions, and he suddenly became keen to see it for himself. His and his kids' future happiness depended on him having the full picture. Once Nathan and Rain offered to watch the children, JD went online and booked his seat, planning to return the same day. One thing was for damned sure...he may want to meet with her, but he sure as hell didn't want to stay any longer than was necessary. Been there, done that, and this was one closed door he knew he wanted to stay that way. He sighed. It had taken him a long time to get to this point, but now he was here...he did not intend to go back.

JD was tired of Casey's rants and threats to take away his babies. She had walked away from her life with him, and their kids, without so much as a glance back. Now suddenly she wanted to be 'mommy' again? JD didn't think so. He had doubted her capabilities after she showed no interest in their son, and his concerns that she could stay on her meds had been confirmed by Vin's connection, and consequent communications, showing her living a particularly wild lifestyle, while also quitting her job and counseling sessions. With a heavy heart, JD was now collecting anything and everything that would help him if Casey ever dragged him through the courts for custody. His children needed his protection, and he would do anything to give it to them. He had hastily planned this trip; however, it was obvious ex wife and husband needed a face-to-face talk. It was not one he wanted, nor something that he looked forward to, so he filled his traveling time with thoughts of home, and the hope he could plan the shopping trip he and Tess had discussed, before he left.

As the plane touched down, JD was suddenly looking forward to getting back on, and returning home to Denver. He would always care for Casey, but his life was moving into a better and happier phase...and one Casey most definitely did not figure in.

Wilmington Home, afternoon

Cait and Kelli put the last of the dinners they had brought into the Wilmington's freezer. Kelli smiled at Isabella and Inez, as she sat down at the table with them, "I'm sure y'all could manage, but we all wanted to contribute."

"Mallory and Rain are dropping off prepared meals at the Standish house, too." Cait took an offered cup from Isabella, and sat down next to Inez. "You need anything else?"

Inez laid her hand on Cait's arm. "Catch me up with all that's been happening around here. The only way I knew about Barbara's high blood pressure was overhearing Ezra and Buck talking. My husband tells me nothing."

"Hmmm...not much to tell I reckon... Jason's doing well with his martial arts lessons, Andi wants to play football, Bren and Trey have discovered they like ridin' horses with Dad and Grandpa, and I'm sad to report Buttons found a female raccoon, and decided to move back into the woods. "

"Women will get 'em every time." Inez smiled. "Are the children heartbroken about it?"

Kelli shook her head." Not really. They keep hopin' it means Buttons will be a dad, and they'll have baby raccoons to play with. Oh and... while she's on downtime from MCAT, Gunny's visitin' with Max, helpin' her organize their new place. Brodie's cabin is finished... he'll be movin' in sometime next week...after he takes on our kids for a couple of days...Vin and I are finally takin' our vacation...we leave tomorrow night." She checked her watch. "He should be back from the airport soon with JD." The conversation halted while they pondered over JD's trip for a moment, then Cait continued on with the updates for Inez.

"The only thing I know about is Reins. You already know we hired Tess, and she's renting my old house. might not know we filled the part-time position. Dottie is back, but not ready for fulltime, so I hired her to take care of the nursery at Reins daycare, four hours a day. If her health allows it, she'll increase her hours. Hmmm...what else? .... Jesse is working for Willard the rest of the summer, helping at the stables, and..." she thought a moment, and then nodded, "Chris and I have decided to take a few days just for us next week. We leave Tuesday morning."

"Good for you..." Inez looked from one to another. "Both of you...make the time for your marriages. Once I'm back at a hundred percent, we are taking off for a weekend, too." Inez grinned. "Buck just doesn't know it yet."

Kelli looked around. "Where's Buck?"

"At Camp Larabee, working off his frustrations in the gym. Since Nathan told the boys about JD's trip...well, let's just say he's been a bit tense...and a little hurt that JD didn't tell him. But he has come to terms with that now, whatever Vin said to him helped considerably. Now, all he wants is for JD to come home so they can talk." Inez smiled. "So, Vin won the debate as to who was going to pick JD up from the airport, huh?"

Kelli nodded. "There's more goin' on between Vin and JD than they're lettin' on, but Vin reckons if this trip works out, JD will likely fill us all in, soon."

Cait sighed. "I truly hope he things out. There's a rather nice friendship developing between him and Tess, and right now, I believe it's exactly what they both need."

Inez and Kelli leaned in. "There is? Give!"

Denver International Airport, 6:30 pm

Vin was well ahead of schedule to collect JD. He had fought off both Nathan and Buck for the job; eager to talk with his brother after learning JD had gone to see Casey. He felt partially responsible, wondering if the information he had passed to the kid had in any way prompted the decision to go. Although Nathan had explained, another rather vicious phone call from her, and a long talk with himself and Rain about Casey's meds had been the final push JD needed to clear this up for him and his kids. Every one of them had a deep connection to Casey...and Nettie, but the woman JD was dealing with now, was not the same girl they had seen grow and blossom into a woman, wife, and mother. That thought saddened Vin, but the thought of JD still going through more hell after all this time, saddened him more. Determined he would continue to help in any way he could, Tanner took the exit for the airport. JD needed closure...they all did, and one way or another, they were damned well going to get it.


JD smiled on seeing Vin, leaning against one wall of the arrivals lounge, and holding up a handmade sign with 'Dunne' written on it. He was curious why it wasn't Nathan, but too tired to ask, so, hoisting up his bag, JD ambled over to the grinning Texan.

Vin watched his youngest brother approach, studying his face. He knew that look...only Casey could instigate that expression. Pushing off the wall, he tossed the sign into a trashcan, and stretched out an arm to draw JD close as they walked. "Rough trip, Kid?"

JD swallowed the emotion caught in his throat. "The worst...but at least I've seen it for myself, now. Casey's out of control, Nettie's not up to policing her in any way, and as Casey's determined she doesn't need her meds...what else can I do?"

"You already did more than enough," Vin assured him. "You get what you need?"

JD nodded. "Oh yeah, if she wants to take this to court, I'm ready."

Vin guided JD out of the airport, and toward his truck. "Damn straight," he smiled, taking JD's bag and tossing it into the back. Settling in behind the wheel, Vin signaled, and pulled out. He glanced across at his brother, noticing some marks on his face. "Casey do that?"

JD nodded. "I made the mistake of getting too close."

They rode in silence for a while until Vin spoke again. "You shoulda told me you were goin' up there...I would've come, too."

"I know. But when I was asking Nathan about Casey's meds, he told me Rain was off work for a few days, and they'd take the kids for me if I wanted to go see her. It seemed like a good idea at the time. You've all been through this once with me..."

Vin gently slapped JD's knee. "Idiot."

JD shrugged. "Well, at least that's a better word than she had for me."

There was a brief pause. "Buck's pissed."

JD made a face. "So...he's got enough to deal with. He'll get over it."

Vin grinned. "Reckon you're right."

"Where's Nathan?" JD asked.

Vin checked his rear view mirror before signaling to leave the main highway. "I kinda beat him to it," the Texan confessed. "You know he cracked by noon, right? Buck was all over him like a rash when he figured Nathan knew somethin'." He squeezed JD's knee. "They're worried about you. Maybe it's time we tell the guys what we've been doin'."

"Sorry," JD said, softly. "Yeah, maybe you're right. I just wanted it over with first. I needed to see for myself how she was getting along." He swallowed. "She's threatened to come down here, and just take the girls, Vin...I wanted to know just how likely to happen, that was."

"I'm guessin' it's unlikely?"

JD nodded.

"And now?"

The younger man turned to him. "And now...I thank God I don't have to deal with her anymore." JD sighed. "Does that make me a bad person?"

"Nah," Tanner said with a smile, turning onto the ranch road. "That makes you normal."

JD checked his watch. "I'm just in time to pick up the kids. Could you swing by the daycare?"

"Sure." The men said little else before pulling into Reins.

Reins of Change, 7:00 pm

Looking around as he entered the daycare, the only person in the room was Tess, and she was tidying. The girl smiled. "Hello, John Daniel, what brings you here?"

JD returned the smile. "I figured I should pick up the kids...seeing as they live with me and all."

"Shame you didn't tell that to Rain...she picked them up a half hour ago. They took Keira, too." Tess beamed. "She's really taken a shine to your twins."

JD chuckled. "The worm thing was probably the turning point."

Tess laughed and JD's heart gave a little lurch. She had a musical laugh, and it lit up her face. He jerked from his musings when he realized she was standing in front of him.

"I was about to make some coffee. Would you like some?"

JD didn't, really, but...he didn't want to leave just yet, either. "Sure. Let me go tell Vin to go on home."

"Mallory's coming for me in a half hour, and then we're picking up Keira. You could collect your three at the same time, I'm sure Mal won't mind."

"Yeah, that'd work. Okay...I'll just go tell Vin."

Ten minutes later, JD had stripped off his jacket, and was enjoying his coffee and cookies.

"You took a trip?" Tess asked.

JD nodded, but didn't make eye contact.

"If you ever want to talk..."

"Thanks," JD smiled. "I day, I'll be ready." He turned his attention to the box of cookies. "Double chocolate favorite."

Tess nodded. "Mmm, mine too. This is from my secret stash." She giggled naughtily, reaching for another.

JD did so at the same time, and their hands touched, briefly, before JD slowly drew back. "Ladies first...or in the absence of one, after you."

Tess gasped, snatching up the cookies. "Just for that, John Daniel, you don't get another!" she mock scolded.

JD raised his eyebrows and gave a lop-sided grin. "You reckon you can stop me from having one? Even Vin can't make that claim!"

"I'm very resourceful," she warned, her grin widening as she rose from her chair, and hid the cookies behind her back.

JD mirrored her actions, stepping slowly closer as the girl backed away. "You know, cookies come with a warning...'beware Dunne and Tanner when opening'." He lunged for the hidden hand, cackling as Tess maneuvered, to leave him swiping at thin air.

"Too slow," she laughed, unexpectedly squealing as JD counter-attacked, and wrapped his arms around her to grab the carton.

"Surrender!" he laughed.

"Never!" she replied. Their giggles escalated as the pair wriggled for possession of the chocolate treats.

"Uh...sorry I'm a little early..."

Mid-clinch, the pair looked sharply toward the door, quickly pulling away from each other. "Oh, hey Mal," JD said hastily. "I was hoping I could catch a lift."

Mallory fought back the urge to grin too widely at the flushed pair. "Sure, 'course you can. You ready, Tess?"

"Uh huh...just let me grab my jacket and lock up."

Snatching up his bag and jacket, JD grinned at Mal. "Thanks."

"You okay?" she asked. "You just...took off."

His grin fading, JD nodded. "I will be. I'm's a long I really don't want to get into, today. But soon, okay?"

Unable to help herself, Mallory moved in, and hugged him. "Ready when you are," she whispered.

Outside, JD again had that feeling someone was watching them as Tess strapped herself in. Ex-MCAT agent Mallory Sanchez was picking up on JD's concern, and gave a slight tilt to her head when he looked at her. Covertly indicating to her with his finger to lock the truck doors, JD smiled at Tess. "I think I dropped my keys, won't be a minute." Out of sight, he drew his gun, and eased himself around the buildings. Scanning the ground, JD could see the dirt had been disturbed in one particular concealed area, but with so many people coming and going through the day, he couldn't be sure if this was due to normal activity or not. Eventually satisfied the place was clear, he returned to the truck, just fishing his keys out from his pocket before he came into view.

Mallory eased up the locks, and smiled as he climbed in. "Anything?" she asked.

He winked. "Just a lot of dirt...," he shook his keys, "...and these."

As they pulled off, JD looked back at Reins, before Mallory activated the safety gate to get off the property. He shook his head. This thing with Inez, Kelli, and Cait must have affected him more than he realized, he mused.

Rolling painfully down a small incline, as he scrabbled away, he cursed his luck. 'So damn close...' But he had learned one new thing...these men...were armed. 'Just who the hell are these people?' He knew he had to think hard about was not going to be as simple as he first believed.

Dunne Home, late evening

Having bathed the kids and put them to bed, JD texted his brothers, thanking them for their concern, and telling them he'd check in with them, tomorrow. Relaxing back with a coke and a pastrami and mustard sandwich, JD reflected on his trip. His gaze wandered to the blinking light on his answering machine. Casey had called, again, and JD had listened to her ranting, as the machine picked up. A few months ago, verbal abuse like that would have unnerved him. Now, it was like water off a duck's back. He had better things to do than wait for Casey to get a grip on her chosen life. He knew that now.

As he flicked through the TV channels, his thoughts turned to Tess. Before he knew it, JD had dialed. "Tess?" He smiled. "Hi. I was thinking...maybe you, Keira, the kids, and me could get started tomorrow on that shopping you need to do. Yeah? At eleven? Cool. I'll pick you up."

Replacing the phone, JD relaxed back, grinning. "What are friends for...right?"


Dunne Home 8:00 am

JD had just gotten off the phone with Cait. In his haste to spend the day with Tess and the kids, he had overlooked the fact that the young teacher should be working at the daycare. A hasty call to Cait by both him, and Tess the previous evening had settled the matter...Dottie was available to slot in, but he still couldn't apologize enough. Cait had understood... actually, more than understood. She recognized JD's need to keep his life on track. She also wanted her new tenant finally, to do something that would help her set down roots, and was more than happy to assist them. His phone call that morning was simply to make one last apology, and thank her, again. He had smiled broadly at her reply...'no problem, Hon...that's what big sisters are for...'

JD took a bite of his grilled cheese. Of course, having called Cait last night, but he resigned himself to the next move on her part, and soon found he was having a brief conversation with Chris before saying goodnight. He smiled to himself. Chris had been surprisingly mellow with him. He checked his watch. Buck was due any minute. JD hoped Buck would see yesterday the same way as Vin and Chris had, but he would understand if his big brother had something to say on the matter.

Timing intact, Buck rapped on the door, pushed it open and walked in as he called out. He beamed at seeing JD sitting at the breakfast bar, pushing a mug of coffee his way. Buck stopped just in front of JD. "You okay?"

JD smiled. "I am now, yeah." He leaned into the tight embrace buck offered. He had expected it...hell, he wanted it. "I'm sorry."

Pushing back, Buck smiled. "I had a lot to say to you this morning, but...on the way here, all I could think about was that you were back, and safe, and that all you do is for those babies of yours. It's done with, okay?" Buck took up a stool and grabbed one of JD's grilled cheese sandwiches from his plate.

JD smiled at the move, his expression then sobering as Buck settled down and sipped at his coffee. "It really was a last minute thing. Nathan was just in the right place at the right time, and with you and Inez still getting over her attack...well, I didn't wanna drag you through all my old shit, again." He noted Buck's expression. "But, I promise...if there's ever a next time, I will, okay?" He held his breath as he waited for Buck to answer.

The brunet smiled and bit into his sandwich. "Good enough." JD's relieved grin warmed Buck's heart. Yeah, he wanted to lay into JD for not telling him he was taking off, but just seeing him that morning, brushed aside any debate he had planned. JD needed support, silent or otherwise, and that's what Buck intended to give. "So...I'm guessing you got to see her."

"Uh huh. And unless she takes me to court for custody of the kids, that's likely the last time I ever will. It's over, Buck. She made her choice...walked away without even a thought for how her kids would feel not having her around. Now suddenly she's the medical expert...deciding she no longer needs her meds..." JD huffed. "...Or an income, either, so it seems." He absently touched the cut and bruise just under his right eye. "Her moods are all over the place..." He looked at Buck. "So, enough...I got sufficient evidence against her to keep my kids safe, and that's what I was aiming for." There was a pause while they sipped their coffees. Lilah came from the playroom and both men watched as she glowered at the answering machine, making a deliberate attempt to walk around it. Buck and JD frowned at each other.

"You okay, Button?" JD asked, pulling the little girl onto his lap.

Lilah gave a big nod and snuggled into her father's arms. "Why does mama shout in the little box, daddy? Don't she like us no more?"

JD's head shot up and he looked at Buck, and then over to the table where the offending machine sat. "You heard her, Lilah?"

"Uh huh..." she pointed." See...I putted the naughty jar there. She said lots of bad words."

JD momentarily closed his eyes as realization hit that his kids had been exposed to Casey's hysterics. He looked at Lilah. "Mommy's mad at daddy, baby, not you, or Daisy or JJ...okay?"

"Don't wants to go to 'Zona, daddy...wants to stay here wiv you."

JD kissed her head. "You are, one's going got that?" He felt her nod against his chest.

Noticing that JD was losing it, Buck stood, grabbed Lilah, and whirled her around as she squealed, before putting her down. "Actually, Poppet, you got a shopping trip. Go wash up, and get yours, Daisy's, and JJ's jackets for daddy, okay?"

With a grin, she was gone. JD stood, and stormed over to the answering machine, snatched it up, and was about to rip it from its connection. Buck jumped up and grabbed his hand, "Evidence...remember?"

"I...I..." His head drooped. "I have to stop them from hearing her."

Buck smiled kindly at the techno geek he had seen grow from boy to man, way too flustered at this point to even think straight. He pointed at a button on the machine's side. "Turn it to silent for now, and then call the phone company later to change your number."

"Jesus..." with a nod and a slight look of embarrassment, JD did so and put the machine down before Buck guided him back to the stool.

"What time are you leaving?"

JD checked his watch. "I'm picking Tess and Keira up in half an hour."

"You want me to take the kids? Inez has missed seeing them."

JD reflected on that for a moment...remembering, he hadn't really been sure he was ready to spend the day alone with Tess, just yet. "Nah, we're good, thanks."

"Then, all of you drop by for dinner when you get back?"

"Sure, I'd...we'd like that." They both stood and Buck headed for the door. "Buck...thanks."

The big man grinned. "Later, Kid...have a good day."

Park Meadows Mall

With the convenience of McDonalds' wonderful play area, JD and Tess were enjoying a much-needed coffee. JJ bounced in a highchair while JD fed him fruit slices, as Lilah, Daisy, and Keira played. Maneuvering through the stores with three small girls and a stroller had been far more difficult than JD had ever imagined, but Tess took it all in stride, and they'd had a lot of fun...and had spent a lot of money.

They arranged for the delivery of any furniture, or house items, but Tess's many packages, and bags of new clothes for her and Keira, plus some toys, took up all four spare chairs around their table. The pair glanced across to the play area occasionally to check that their kids were okay, as they sipped their foamy beverages and relaxed.

JD chuckled, leaned forward, and taking a napkin, dabbed at the chocolate-dusted foam on Tess's lip. "Can't think how, but you missed your mouth," he teased.

Tess would have offered a sharp reply, but she focused more on how gently he had touched her. Even when Troy was in his nicest of moods, gentle was never a word she could use to describe how he handled her.

"I...uh, it must have been a sub-conscious effort to try and match that excuse you got going there for a mustache." Actually, for the first time since meeting him, JD hadn't shaved and his dark, possibly two-day growth of stubble was kind

"Ah, mustache envy...I get that a lot." JD chuckled as flashes of memory of his early days as an ATF agent were often accompanied by comments between 'baby face' when he was clean-shaven, to 'peach fuzz' when he had attempted to look cool, like Vin. He gazed into Tess's eyes. She had flashes of green in there...Keira's were blue, so JD guessed Troy's must be maybe blue or gray.


JD grinned, awkwardly. "Sorry, was just wondering where Keira's eye coloring and lighter hair color comes from."

Tess sighed. "Troy's fair...and has gray eyes." She shuddered at how cold those gray eyes now were to her. "My dad has blue eyes, mom has brown. I guess there's a gene in there, somewhere."

JD nodded. "My girls never stood a chance. Both me and Casey have dark eyes, my mom was dark, too...never knew my dad."

Tess gazed at JD's eyes. They weren't that dark...they sparkled and flashed with varying shades of brown and even a hint of green. "Hazel."


"Your eyes...hazel."

"Oh." JD laughed. "Cool."

'Getting all cozy there, are you, runt? I'd be careful if I was think you can protect these women? Think again. I know every move you make...and I'm ready when you are.'

Easing back behind a far pillar on one of the food court tables, he watched the pair's every move. He would never take action in a public place, but it wouldn't be long, now. He had watched these people long enough to know when they were at their most vulnerable...and then, he would strike.

Tess's Home

Dinner with the Wilmingtons and Isabella was noisy, and fun. Glancing back at his truck as he carried a sleeping Keira to her door, JD smiled. "Finally...they're all asleep."

"Been a long day," Tess smiled. "A wonderful day, thank you." She leaned in to kiss JD's cheek, just as he turned slightly to look at the slumbering child on his shoulder, and got him full on the lips, instead.

JD swallowed. "Uh..." he laughed, nervously." I...we had a great time, too."

Nodding, Tess quickly reached out, and then took Keira from JD. "See you Monday?"

Picking out her packages, JD took them to her door and dropped them into the hallway. Walking slowly backwards, his hands pushed into his back jeans pockets, he nodded. "Sure...Monday." Even as he said it, he wished it could be sooner, but ...quickly dismissed the thought, as flashes of Talia and Casey suddenly entered his mind. He watched her close the door, and once she looked back at him through the window and waved, he returned the gesture, got into his truck, and pulled away.

Watching him go, Tess touched her fingers to her lips. His lips had been soft, and warm, not hard and cold, like Troy's...or forced on her. That thought shook her out of her reverie, and she proceeded to put Keira to bed. That night, Tess's dreams were no longer the fear-filled nightmares she had been enduring, but were altogether happier and...sexier ones, and for the first time in a long while, she decided, the next morning, she wanted to share her story. She just hoped JD was willing to listen. His friendship meant a lot to her, the least she could do was prepare him for what might be lurking in the shadows.

Tanner Home, Friday Date Night

Vin had planned this night for a while now. He wanted it to be special for her birthday surprise, and because they needed to be just 'Vin and Kelli'. From the beginning, they had promised one another never to forget that they were an 'us' first, and foremost. That vow was an essential piece of the firm foundation that made their relationship strong. Being a son, daughter, mother, father, sister, brother, aunt, and uncle, were all parts of the life they cherished, and of who they were, but they were not complete in those roles without being the' us' that their souls demanded. Taking time for just the two of them, away from the rest of the world, made them better in the other roles life required them to fill.

The Texan had spent the past two days thinking about what he wanted to do, preparing their cabin for Kelli's belated birthday celebration. He used their honeymoon sheets for the bed, stocked plenty of food, wine, and their favorite, chocolate covered strawberries. There were candles set strategically around the rooms, as well as fresh flowers, he had her favorite music on disc, and found the scented massage oil she liked. In all honesty, it was as much for his pleasure as it was for hers, but he hoped she enjoyed her gifts. For the next two days, they would leave behind the stress, responsibilities, and problems they dealt with on a daily basis.

Smiling, Vin leaned against the counter, listening to his family banter around the dinner table. He still found it amazing to see the Brodie he had known for years as a lethal badass sonofabitch, react to the kids' antics, teasing, and laughing with his grandchildren.

Raising his coffee cup to take a sip, the Texan stilled his motion when Kelli walked into the room. The first thing that caught his attention was her scent, a mix of sandalwood and clean mountain air, a fragrance that was uniquely hers. It still astounded him how she so deeply affected him ...yes, he unquestionably desired her, but their relationship was more than sexual. They had connected on a level he had never believed possible between a man and a woman...before her. She touched places within him no other woman had come close to; filled his heart and reached into the depths of his soul, completing him in ways he found difficult to explain with mere words. He clearly understood, however, that the special bond they shared was something to cherish and protect.

It had taken her longer to get ready for their date, but his physical reaction to seeing her proved it was well worth it. She had not gone heavy on the make-up, allowing her natural beauty to stand out. Her slinky black dress highlighted her red hair, revealed just enough of the swell of her breasts to stir his desires, and the way it accented her curves was just damn sexy. Without a doubt, Vin loved her in anything or nothing at all, but she had obviously planned her choices tonight with him in mind, and he definitely approved. The high heels she wore, he knew was for his pleasure, and he appreciated the graceful contours of her long legs. In his mind he could see, and almost feel, those legs wrapped around his neck...shaking his head, he sighed. ' Don't go there, Vin...not yet.'

Jason reacted first, "Wow, Mom, you look... wow."

"...Beautiful, Mama," Andi supplied the word her brother could not find.

Brodie smiled, and nodded, not only seeing her as her father-in-law but as a man who appreciated an attractive woman. "You look great, Kel."

"Thanks," she glanced at Vin, and smiled seeing the warm look in his eyes, then hugged Jason and Andi, "Y'all be good for grandpa."

"We will," they both assured her.

Leaning over, she kissed Bren and Trey on their heads, careful not to let their hands, which were sticky with food, touch her dress. "Love you, babies. The twins squealed and jabbered as they always did whenever Mommy or Daddy, were near. Kelli, spoke directly to Brodie, "We should be home Sunday night, but if you need us, call..."

Brodie grinned. "Relax, Mama, we'll manage just fine."

Wife, mother, friend and lover, she was all of those things, and Vin decided it was time to show her again, how much he loved being her man. Setting his cup in the sink, he walked over, placed his hand at the small of her back, and asked in that soft, sexy drawl she loved, "Ready, baby?"

Only two simple words, but ones that made her heart beat faster. Yes, she was more than ready for whatever he had planned; knowing that the upcoming forty-eight hours would hold a special place in her book of memories.

Looking into his eyes, she could barely utter an answer, "Yes."

Having already said his goodbyes to their children, Vin nodded to his father, and shepherded his wife out the door. His intent for the evening was to be patient, and not rush their enjoyment of being together. Nevertheless, he could not resist pulling her into his arms before he opened the door of his truck, to claim a slow sensual kiss, which held a world of promise for what was to come.

Lost in the feel of his touch, and the affect his closeness had on her, Kelli whispered softly, "I don't suppose we could skip dinner, and head straight for the cabin."

Vin shook his head, and briefly sighed. "Don't temp me woman, I have a special evenin' lined up for us." He opened the passenger door, before lightly stroking his finger along her cheek. "I promised you dinner and dancin', and I keep my promises."

Before she could protest, he urged her inside, and closed the door. Climbing into the driver's seat, he had to remind himself that they deserved a night out...even if all he could think about was getting her to their cabin, and out of that dress.

Kelli watched her man as he drove. Just looking at him still affected her the same way it did the first time she laid eyes on him. His mere presence sent her heart into flips, and stirred fiery passions deep inside her. Tonight, he was wearing sexy black jeans, with a matching shirt that accented the intense blue of his mesmerizing eyes. She knew he deliberately had not shaved the past few days because she loved his scruffy look, and although his hair had not grown as long as she preferred, it curled at the collar of his shirt, and was long enough for her to run her fingers through.... The hunger she was feeling right now, though, was not for food.

Lost in her thoughts about ravishing his body, she was surprised when, after only ten minutes of driving, he stopped the truck. Looking up she smiled when she realized where they were. This was the restaurant where she had first seen him. "You remembered."

"How could I forget where I was the day my life changed forever?" He smiled. "All I planned on that night was a good meal, instead I saw this beautiful redhead who stirred my boys into sittin' up, and takin' notice....little did I know then, Fate was deliverin' me my future."

His smile melted her heart, and as she waited for him to open her door, she thought about that night. She had tried not paying attention to the sexy man sitting across the restaurant, but it was not easy. She felt herself drawn to his eyes, and the intent looks he kept sending her way. If she known then, a passionate never-ending love affair awaited her, she would not have walked out that night without taking him with her.

Waiting for her to get out, Vin grinned, when he had to prod her into moving. He bet wherever her mind was, it was somewhere on the same track his was. "Kel? Baby, the sooner we go in the sooner we'll have dinner."


They sat at the same table he did, the night he first saw her. Kelli let him order for her, and truthfully could not say what it was they ate. Most of their conversation was non-verbal anyway. When she licked at her bottom lip, he squirmed. When he tilted his head and smiled, she sighed. When her foot slowly rubbed against his leg under the table, Vin found it difficult to concentrate. There were probably thirty people around them, but they only had eyes for each other.

Finally, Kelli had enough, her senses were screaming at her to get her Texan alone. "Ask the waiter for the check, and let's go."

His eyes filled with amusement, and an innocent look crossed his face. "Are you that anxious to go dancin'?"

"The only dancin' I'm interested in is private...with you." She smiled, as the twinkle of amusement in his eyes transformed to desire.

Vin motioned to the waiter for the check, paid the bill, and then escorted his wife outside to their truck. Glancing at the woman snuggled next to him; he placed his arm around her shoulders, and drove to their cabin, conceding that his plan to be patient had failed...beautifully.

'Hell, patience is overrated anyway.'


Saturday - Larabee Home, 6:00 am

Chris watched as Cait slept. Running his fingers lightly through her hair, he glanced at the clock. They should have another hour before the children woke, and he knew exactly what he wanted to do with that time. Leaning in close, he kissed her neck; pleased when she made the little mewling sound he loved to hear. Grinning, he wrapped his arm around her waist, and then the ringing of the phone interrupted his intended plans. With a groan, he rolled over, growling, "damnit," to the offending instrument. Reaching over to the nightstand, he fumbled to pick up the receiver. His frustration was evident with his greeting, "What!"

Cait raised her head, turned over, and leaning on her elbow, looked over her husband's shoulder. His facial expression changed from irritation to a grimace, and finally to resignation. Rubbing his back, she felt his muscles tensing, knowing that whatever he was hearing, it was not good.

"Thanks for letting me know. Yeah....I'll tell her.....we will." Replacing the receiver, Chris kept his hand on it for a moment, before cursing, "Sonofabitch."


"Lou ID'd our stalker...he may have gone to ground, but he'll be back."

Wilmington Home, 9:00 am

JD had house plans rolled out on the kitchen table. "I know these are tentative, but since you've been through this, I figured you two could make some suggestions."

Buck nodded. "We learned the hard way about things we wished we'd done." Buck pointed to a place on the paper. "Like what you have for the master bedroom. You need to allow room for possible additions. We're gonna have to tear out a wall to put in the hot tub Inez wants," he smiled as he patted her hand, "but we're starting on it Monday."

Inez still could not talk loudly, but she could make her point. She pointed to the area for the children's rooms, and whispered, "I wish we'd thought about connecting doors...if there were a fire, we have another way to get to them."

"I hadn't thought about that." JD made some notes on his writing tub, yeah; he'd sure like one of those. "You think...." He stopped when the back door opened and Chris walked inside.

"Hey Chris, coffee's hot, grab a cup, drag up a chair, and join us." Buck pushed out a chair with the toe of his shoe.

Chris sighed. "This is more than a social call, Buck." He glanced at Inez. "Lou Masterson called me this morning."

"He caught the bastard, didn't he?" Buck scowled, curling his hand into a fist. "I want ten minutes alone with the sonofabitch."

"Buck, you will let the law take care of that man." Inez sent a frown to her husband. "He is not worth your little finger, and you will not allow him to run our lives."

JD looked first at Inez and then Buck. "I understand how you feel, Buck, but she's right. You, whaling the tar out of him won't change anything."

"Maybe, but it'll sure make me feel a whole lot better," Buck snarled.

Gripping Buck's shoulder, Chris answered first. "Lou did not make an arrest, but we know who the bastard is now. Unfortunately, he's nowhere to be found."

Buck nodded. "All I need is his name."

"Troy Allen," Chris announced, watching for reactions, and it did not take long to get one. JD's head popped up immediately.

"The same Troy Allen that put Tess in the hospital, and broke Keira's arm?"

"Yes," Larabee confirmed.

"Sonofabitch," Buck shook his head. "You think he blames Mallory for his ex finding a safe place to stay?"

"From what we can piece together, and Lou's investigation, he thinks Allen waited for Mal to return with Inez that day at the mall. He wanted to make her pay for interfering." Chris looked at Inez. "You just happened to be the next closest target he could get to."

Inez closed her eyes. "Poor Mal, I have to let her know this is not her fault."

JD fidgeted with his pen. "Has anyone told Tess?"

Chris nodded. "Yeah, I just left from there. She took it hard, blames herself for Inez getting hurt. Said this is why she stayed away from her family, she didn't want someone to get hurt because of her. Cait's making her way there, Mallory stayed with her... she's trying to talk her out of leaving."

"Hell, it's not her fault the man is an obsessive bastard." Buck sighed. "She's as much a victim as Inez is."

Inez started to stand. "I need to talk with her, let her know I don't blame her....she can't take that baby, and go off on her own until that man is behind bars."

Buck stayed her with his hand. "You're not going anywhere, Lady. You aren't ready to go running off...."

Alarm set in on hearing Inez's words. There was no way he wanted Tess and Keira out there alone, either. JD stood up. "I'll talk to her, Inez. Maybe I can get her to come here..."

Buck agreed. "You tell her JD....we don't blame her at all. She's safe here on L7...her and her daughter....if she leaves, she's only giving him more power."

JD nodded, hurried out the door, and headed for Tess's house.

Tess's Home

"Please, Tess, think about this. You're safer here." Mallory had failed miserably to stop Tess from throwing things into a bag, so Cait was trying. Both women's hearts ached to see the resigned look on little Keira's face as she hugged the big rabbit JD had bought for her the previous day, and watched her mama packing.

"You don't understand," Tess sniffed.

"But, I do," Mal insisted. The sound of a truck pulling up barely registered, before JD burst into the house, glanced and winked at Keira, and then stared at Tess.

"What's going on?"

Teary eyed, Tess looked away from him. "I have to go."

Mallory and Cait backed off as JD moved toward the distraught woman. "Why?"

"I just do."

"That's not an answer. Why?" He jerked as, on looking up, her tears spilled and fury sparked from her eyes.

"BECAUSE I DO!" He's evil...he's hurt me...hurt Keira...gone after my family and friends, and hurt them. No more, John Daniel... NO MORE! I like you all too much to do that to you..." She gasped as JD instinctively drew her into an embrace, fighting him at first, before melting into the hug. She sobbed into his shoulder. "I couldn't bear to see any more of you hurt because of me."

JD rubbed her back. "Inez wants to see you," he said, softly. "The first thing she said when she heard was that this is not your fault. Allen's gone to ground...disappeared. What kind of a friend would I be...would any of us let you walk out of here and into God knows what?" He pushed her back a little. "'Sides...I think I've figured out where your secret cookie stash is."

Emitting a sound of a mix between a sob and a laugh, Tess swiped at her eyes. "He'll come here at some take us away."

"Over my dead body," JD assured, his sincerity touching Tess's soul. She was doubt in her mind, JD's, or anyone's cold dead body would definitely be an option for the man she was once married to.

JD glanced over to the ladies, his gaze telling them he was on it. Mallory reached out and walked over to pick up Keira. "Come on, honey, how about Cait and me get you an ice cream?"

Glancing at her mother, and seeing Tess nod, Keira smiled. "'K."

Now alone, JD rubbed Tess's arm. "Coffee?" She nodded as he guided her to the sofa. Five minutes later, they sat, sipping at the comforting brew. Tess looked at her new friend. "Can I tell you something?"


"I've never shared this."

JD nodded and shuffled a little closer to her.

"Troy raped me." She paled when she saw the color drain from JD's face as anger flooded his way too open features. "When he lost his job, he started to drink. At first, he was verbally abusive, but I thought that would change once he went back to work." She sighed. "Then about a year before Keira was born, he started beating on me. I loved him, John Daniel...I had no idea what I had done wrong, or why he wanted to hurt me. One day he had been winding up, I could sense it. I was scared, so when he started pawing at me for sex, I backed off." She swiped at fresh tears and gratefully clasped the hand JD had offered her.

"He beat me hard that day. Barely conscious, he dragged me into the bedroom, ripped off my clothes, and... raped me. There was no love, no remorse; he just forced himself on me. I must have passed out, because I awoke to him inside me again. It was hurting so bad, and I was begging him to stop, but he punched me in the face, and pushed harder. Some time the next morning, I crawled out of bed to find him passed out drunk in the chair in the living room. I got cleaned up, dressed, and left with just the clothes on my back." She paused for a moment.

"He came after me...found me at my parents' house. One day, on his way home from work, someone forced my dad's car off the road, and he was hurt really bad. It was only when Troy showed up at the hospital that we knew he was responsible. My dad is a cop, but I begged him not to report Troy...I thought if he believed I was going home to stay...he'd leave my family alone. Troy swore he'd kill me if I ran again... hurting my dad was simply a warning. By then, I knew I was pregnant, but I knew I had to leave. I quit my job, cleaned out my savings, and left. He found me, and beat me twice more before Keira was born. I swear he tried to kill her while I was carrying her, accusing me of being a whore. He wouldn't accept the baby was his...and he never has. I've been on the run ever since...Denver is the eighth city we've lived in. He's stalked me for the past three years...and he won't stop. Our last encounter...he used Keira to get to me, and broke her arm...I can't let him get close to her again. She still suffers nightmares over it, but I came here to stay, because Mal assured me with at least eight active, or retired lawmen on the property, I'd be safe." Tess shuddered out a breath. "Now, not only am I not safe, but neither are the women here, either."

Unable to hide his emotions, JD squeezed her hand. "Now we know what we're up against, we have a chance to get this jerkass. Come on...come, and talk to Inez."

Nodding, they both stood.

JD spoke. "Tess..."


"I'm honored you chose to share that with me, thank you."

"You're turn next, huh?" she attempted a smile.

He nodded and offered a sad smile back. "You bet."

Wilmington Home

As Buck and JD watched Tess and Inez embrace, the former pulled the latter close. "Good work, Kid." He could feel JD shudder. "That bad?"

JD looked at him; his soulful eyes said it all. "That bad."


"We gotta get him, Buck."

"We will, Kid...and that's a promise."

"Sit." Inez gazed at Tess's distraught, guilt-ridden features.

"I'm so very sorry..."

"Hush, now." Inez took her hands. "As I explained to Mallory, what is in this evil man's mind can in no way be attributed to you...or her decision to bring you here. You, too, are a victim...his first and primary victim. What makes me smile...and to borrow a much used phrase with these amazing seven men...he messed with the wrong guys, this time."

Tess smiled, and then it faded. "But, if I'm gone, he'll never trouble you again."

"No, but he will trouble you and Keira again. As far as the people around you now are concerned, that is no different to it being one of us, and unacceptable. Like it or not, you are now very much considered part of this group, and, believe me, that is no bad thing."

"I want you all to be safe."

"As we do you and Keira. Please...stay."

Buck couldn't help being amused by JD's anxious pacing. He glanced between his youngest brother, and the pretty woman Inez was talking to, concluding that maybe something was happening between them. He stopped the pacing with a firm hand. "You like her, huh?"

JD made a face. "Just as a friend, Buck. Between Casey and Talia, I'm in no hurry to start a new relationship...well, not that kind of relationship, anyway. And I'm pretty sure Tess feels the same. She's been through a lot...we both have. Not sure that kind of baggage any situation."

'You keep telling yourself that, Kid,' Buck thought as he watched the pacing resume. Both men stood still and upright, when the ladies got up, and walked toward them.

Inez, holding Tess's hand, smiled. "Tess is staying..."

JD beamed.

"...On the premise, for now, that Troy stays away. She will review her options, should things change."

JD walked up to Tess. She smiled back, and they giggled. "Well, alright," he cheered.

Buck looked at Inez, winked, and gestured toward the pair. 'Yeah, doubt about it...just friends.' He coughed. "Okay...decision made...let's tell Chris, and decide where we go from here."

Larabee Home, late evening

Chris stood at the kitchen window, staring out into the twilight. He sighed, happily as a pair of gentle, warm arms embraced him, and a soft, yielding body pressed against his back.

"Penny for them?"

"I'm worried."


"This thing with Tess. Bad enough Inez and Mal seemed to be entangled in it, now JD..."

Cait squeezed. "He and Tess have become good friends, Chris...he's just looking out for her."

Turning in her arms, Chris held Cait close. "I know, and I would expect no less of him, but..." He gazed at her. "Should we be leaving with all this going on?"

Cait smiled. "I thought that might be where this is leading. I would love to spend time away with you, but not at the expense of your peace of mind." She kissed his lips. "Go...go talk to JD, get things clear in your mind. Buck and Inez are already on the road to recovery, Vin and Kelli are fine, Barbara's health is being carefully monitored, and she's doing as her doctors suggest," Cait laughed. "Ezra's seeing to that. The fires are too far away to be of concern...the only outstanding worry is this Troy Allen go. I'll be here, waiting when you get back, and then we'll decide." She sighed as Chris gave her a deep, long kiss before nodding, pulling away, and leaving.

"Oh yeah...I'll be here," she smiled, watching him walk out the door.

Dunne Home

Walking the short distance from his house to JD's home, Chris tapped on the door, grinning when his youngest brother peeked through the slightly opened door, gun in hand.

JD pulled it fully open. "Sorry Chris, can't be too careful."

"I agree." Chris walked in, took a seat on the sofa, and waited for JD to stow his gun, and join him.


"I'm thinking on canceling mine and Cait's trip."

JD frowned. "Why?"

Chris relaxed back and rested his right ankle on top of his left knee. "This Allen business has me worried. Now you're more involved..."

JD raised a hand to halt him. "Whoa, boss man, I can take care of myself, okay? My main worry is protecting Tess, Keira, and Mal. But, we're on it. Vin's back soon, Ezra's at the end of a phone, Nathan's primed and ready, Josiah's built like a brick shit house, and Buck's ready to play golf with Allen's balls. Go take a vacation, big brother...we've got this...and you've earned it."

Chris laughed. "You make a good case." He spread his arms, giving JD a questioning look. "You plan on offering me a drink?"

JD jumped up. "Sure. Whiskey?" He saw Chris nod, and then went off to pour a glass, returning with it, and a soda for him. JD gestured to his drink when Chris stared at it.

"I don't drink when I'm on my own with the kids...which is most nights." He grinned.

Larabee sat up and looked at him as JD took a seat. "Just one thing before I go anywhere, tell me everything about Phoenix." He saw JD's face drop.

"Okay, but you won't like it."

"Figured...but I want to hear it anyway."

Larabee Home

As he locked up the house for the night, Chris reflected on his talk with JD. He was proud of the kid for the way he had come through everything. He knew from firsthand experience how hard a divorce could be, without all the other shit JD'd had to wade through. Of course, JD had made a valid point about Tess. With Troy on the loose, she was safer in her new home, especially after the new security measures they implemented at Reins. He would have to think on that. At least he had made his decision to take the trip he had promised Cait. JD was right, they were big boys, they could handle it...besides, he was only a phone call away.


Propping up his head with one hand, while the other held onto a half-empty bottle of whiskey, Troy Allen sat at the small desk in a seedy motel room, and pored over the photos laid out on it. Thanks to a local Wal-Mart and his camera phone, he had some half-decent shots of mostly Tess, with the new man in her life. The one at the mall of that bastard touching her face incensed him, and he took a long draw from the bottle.

He drew a close up photo of Tess, toward him, one finger tracing her face. "Mine..." he slurred, taking another drink. Angrily he swiped away all the other pictures, except the one of Tess alone. "Soon, Missus Allen ...real soon."


Tanner Cabin, Sunday afternoon

Their time together since Friday was just what they had needed to energize their spirits. The lovemaking between them was always great, but it was only a part of what made their get-away special. Yesterday they hiked up the mountain to the mouth of the spring that fed the lake, had a picnic, talking for hours about family, their innermost feelings, and their plans for the future. Vin had even managed to elicit a promise from Kelli to go skydiving with him, something he had wanted to share with her for years, before they returned to work. Then, last evening, they finally got around to dancing to their favorite music, before passion took over for the rest of the night.

They spent today making love, and being lazy. Cuddled on the couch, Vin rested his hand on Kelli's hip, and watching her sleep, he had to smile. He knew that once she was sated and content she would fall asleep...she had argued that she was not the least bit tired, but...she drifted off while they were talking.

Kelli began to moan in her sleep, the sound intensifying to a soft cry, as she thrashed her head from one side to another, apparently caught up in a dream, or nightmare. Vin sensed the underlying fear she was experiencing, and felt a fierce need to protect her. Attempting to sooth her with his gentle touch, he whispered softly, "Easy Kel... you're safe, Baby."

Trapped somewhere between hearing his voice, and the grip her dreams had on her mind, tears rolled down her face, her body trembled, and she yelled for him, "Vin!"

Kelli's tears disturbed him even more. Sitting up, he drew her close, and looked down at her; she was awake now, but appeared to be confused. "Right here, baby..." he tenderly cupped his hand on her cheeks, "I'm right here... see... it's okay."

Taking a deep breath, Kelli relaxed against him, but was unable to stem her flow of tears. "I could hear you, but couldn't find you... I was running down long white tunnels.... Anne was there, not speakin', but pointin' for me to keep on goin'....every time I turned a corner...there was another one.... and your voice moved further away...." Taking another ragged breath, she exhaled, and swallowed hard. "I thought I'd lost you."

Feeling her terror, as he 'saw' the scene she described, the primal protective male part of him kicked in, desperate to ease her fears. She was his destined mate, his fantasy woman, mother of his children, lover, and partner on their journey through life. She owned his heart, and was the only woman who had ever touched his soul. He was as much a part of her as she was of him. Not wanting to show how much her dream bothered him; he brushed the hair from her face with his fingers, and shook his head. "You can't lose me, Texas, because no matter where our physical bodies are," he moved his hand to her chest, laying it flat over her heart, "I'm right here...always have been, and always will be." The Texan waited, and knew the moment she was in control of her emotions again.

Sighing deeply, she nodded, pushed back the thought of her nightmare, and laid her head on his chest. Making an effort to lighten the mood, and direct his attention away from her fears, she said, "I reckon it was only a bad dream. Must have been a result of the spicy Mexican lunch you fixed."

Relieved to hear her attempt at humor, he teased, " liked that, it was almost as good as our sexy dessert." Swatting her on the butt, he smiled. "If you're nice, I'll fix you a Tanner special before we leave for home."

"I'm always nice." Rising up, she ran her hands over his bare chest. "If it's all the same to you though, I'd rather have a special Tanner." She nipped at his neck. "We can eat anytime."

"Sassy wench," Vin said as he kissed her. "You're off those damn shots, and your hormones are still out of control."

Kelli leaned back, and smiled. "Haven't you figured out by now that it wasn't the shots? It's all you, Tanner. You're my drug of choice, and I'm you, Vin. The more I get, the more I need, and the more I need, the more I want...."

Reading the raw emotions in her eyes, Vin could feel the love she offered pour over him like warm, gentle rain. In all honesty, he had to admit his own obsession for her was just as strong, but could not resist teasing her. "Hmmm...I don't know if I should encourage addiction... maybe ...what you need is..." in a flash, he was on his feet, with her in his arms, "...a cold shower." Heading to their room, he had planned to play out his threat, but her words stopped him.

Kelli squealed. "Oh no.... I'm not goin' alone, Tanner ...." With her arms encircling his neck, she buried her head into his chest, and laughed. "If I get soaked, you do too. We're in this together."

"Always...Kel..." Vin stopped teasing; feeling an urgent need to assure her that he was not letting her go...ever. Concentrating on mentally reaching his mate, he set her to her feet, and drew her close, leaning into her with his forehead against hers. Whispering softly, "You're never alone, Baby. There's no place so far away that my love can't reach you... anytime... anywhere... Remember that, and feel the promise of my words...."

Using his mental strength, Vin concentrated, moving his thoughts from his head to his heart.... all his senses...hearing, smell, taste, and feeling...connected. A euphoric flow of energy surged between them, more overwhelming than any sexual climax they had experience, taking them to a place overflowing with comforting warmth, absolute trust, and unconditional love.

Gazing into his eyes, Kelli could feel her emotions rise as the wordless message Vin was sending to her strengthened. A wonderful sense of inner peace and belonging came over her as their hearts beat in rhythm. For a precious few moments, they were one, heart and soul, standing in an endless space where time ceased to exist.

Vin was unable to hold the level of mental power needed to continue any longer, and their connection ended.... all too soon, but ... the feeling of pure bliss they experienced settled in their souls, to draw on whenever they needed it. Vin nor Kelli could explain the how or why of what happened, but neither of them would ever forget the special place it took them.


Working in tandem, it did not take long to set their cabin in order. Kelli collected their personal items, repacked the bags Vin had brought for them, stripped the sheets to wash, and after choosing which flowers to take home, set the others outside. Knowing that it would probably be a while before they returned, Vin removed any food that could spoil from the refrigerator, packing it into a cooler for their trip home, double-checked all the electrical items, and loaded his truck.

Walking out with hands intertwined, Kelli stopped and looked back. "Let's not wait so long next time to come back, okay?"

Opening the passenger door, he kissed her, stroking her cheek with his thumb. "We'll come back soon....I promise."

It was never easy to leave their special place, and in the beginning, they had no reason not to linger. Vin hated to leave as much as she did, and would not have traded one second of their time together for anything on earth. Now though, they had four great reasons to leave, and they were both anxious to get home to their children.

Tanner Home: 5:00 pm

After Vin called to let Brodie know they were on their way home, Jason had been watching out the window for their return. When he saw his father's truck coming down the road, he ran to the door, shouting, "They're home."

Andi, who had been helping grandpa make supper, jumped off her stepstool, and ran after him, anxious to tell her parents all the latest news. "Wait for me, Jason."

Brodie shook his head, and smiled at Bren and Trey, both safely corralled in their playpen. "Guess we lost all our helpers, huh, boys." He did not really expect an answer, but had to laugh when Bren pointed to the door. "Yeah, I know you'd like to be hot on their heels... next time, okay?"

Outside Jason started in first. Giving his mother a hug, he grinned. "Grandpa took us to his cabin yesterday...he said we can spend the night with him anytime we want....well, as long as you say it's okay." He looked at his dad. "We took care of the horses, and supper's about done. We're having lasagna."

Andi giggled when Vin picked her up, and started walking towards the house. "You know what Daddy? Grandpa got lots of memory boxes...he even has some for you, and you know what else... I heard Max say Aunt Barbara might go to the hospital, and that a mean man is after Miss Tess. Uncle Chris came over, and had a long talk with Grandpa, too." She took a breath. "You know what else?" She hugged his neck. "I missed you and mama."

Vin laughed. Who needed to watch the news, when they had Andi? "We missed y'all too, Sugar."

Brodie met them at the door. "You need help unloading?"

"It can wait 'till the noise dies down." The moment Kelli and Vin stepped inside, Bren and Trey started trying to talk over their brother and sister.

Grinning, Brodie nodded. "I see what you mean. Supper will be ready in about twenty minutes."

It took a while for the kids to unwind, and slow down. Vin was holding Trey and Bren, while Kelli made a dash to the truck for her flowers. Just when he was certain Andi had run out of steam, she dropped her next bombshell. "Guess what daddy? I saw a picture of you, and... you didn't have any clothes on. You wanna see?" She ran into the living room to retrieve her prize.

Stunned by her statement, Vin almost dropped the twins, Brodie choked on the tea he was drinking, and Kelli gasped from the doorway.

Looking at his father, Vin asked, "You wanna explain this one?"

Before Brodie had a chance to answer, Andi returned, carrying a picture album, and waving a photo in the air. "See... Grandpa said this is Daddy."

Kelli knelt down beside Andi, glanced at the photo, and her heart melted. Yep, there was Vin, every bit of six-months-old, and naked as a jaybird. It was the only picture she had ever seen of Vin as a baby. To her knowledge, he did not have any mementos from his childhood. She looked up at Brodie, with tears in her eyes. ""

"The boxes Wyatt sent me of stuff my father saved came in yesterday...things he wanted me to have when I came home." He took a deep breath. "He never accepted the fact I was supposed to be dead. When Rebecca left, she didn't take more than she could carry. He had everything boxed up, and put into storage with all my other personal items. Most of the boxes are at my cabin, but I brought down a few things I thought my son would want." He glanced at Vin. "You can go through all of it with me, but the pictures...I remembered Kel saying you didn't have any to hang onto when your mama died."

Setting the twins into their playpen, Vin sat down, drew Jason in close, and had Andi sit on his lap as he turned the pages on the album. He understood now, why Andi was so excited. "Memory boxes...that what we call the ones Jason and Andi's mother made for them, remember Kel?"

Now standing behind her husband, Kelli looked over his shoulder. "Yeah...we did." As he turned the pages, Jason and Andi proudly gave him a running narrative of the descriptions Grandpa had given them. Kelli saw photos of Vin's birthplace, and a younger Brodie standing with a beautiful woman, who could only be Vin's mother, both proudly holding their only son between them. She started the waterworks again when she witnessed her Texan tenderly tracing the outline of his mother in the photo.

Swallowing hard, Vin cleared his throat. Seeing her pictures brought back lost memories of a part of his life that he thought he could never recover. The gift his father had passed on to him was priceless. Biting his lip, he tried to control the tremor in his voice. "Thanks, Dad."

Brodie took a deep breath, attempting to cover his unruly emotions. "You're welcome." Clapping his hands to gain Jason and Andi's attention, he said, " about my helpers getting the table set...our supper is about ready, and y'all are falling behind in your duties."

Carefully closing the book, Vin reached up, and grasped Kelli's hand, which was on his shoulder. No words were necessary to convey how he felt. Not only had he found his father...he now had pieces of his childhood to add to his book of memories.


Finally, the children were all down for the night. After catching up on events that happened while they were gone, Kelli pled being tired, as an excuse, to leave Vin and Brodie alone with their memories, and turned in early. Father and Son sat for a while going through the other keepsakes salvaged from Vin's childhood, and sharing stories, further strengthening their relationship.

"As the years passed, it was gettin' harder and harder for me to 'see' Mama in my mind ... I remember her, but bringin' up her image...." Vin shook his head. "I never thought I'd lose the ability to see, it's all back, as if it were yesterday."

Brodie nodded, understanding exactly what Vin was saying. "I'm glad the kids were with me when I opened those boxes. If they hadn't been there...I'm not sure I could have handed the rush of memories that came to me."

"Reckon it was supposed to be that way." Vin closed the album. "Kel and I had a wonderful weekend, and comin' home to this...was like havin' extra icin' on a birthday cake."

Slapping Vin's knee, Brodie stood. "Thanks for giving me a chance to spend time with the children. I enjoyed every second of it, much, as I hate to admit it...they wore me out. I'm headed to bed."

Vin chuckled. "They can do that. Goodnight, Dad."

Sitting alone, Vin sighed, thinking about the way events had unfolded for him today. The entire day had been an emotional and mentally draining one for him, but it wasn't over yet. It was past time for him to get some answers from another ancestor, and now was as good a time as any. 'Okay, Tracker, you've been avoidin' me long enough; we need to'

' Haven't been avoidin' you...just been kinda busy.'

Looking around, Vin spotted Tracker across the room, standing by the window with his back turned. He appeared as suddenly as he usually disappeared. "You know why I called you, so start talkin'."
'You and your dad are doin' fine... figured once y'all connected, you two would get along. I'm damn pleased to see it.'

Vin stood up, walked over, and stood next to Tracker. "The sent them?"
Tracker shrugged. "Visions...dreams,' he raised his eyebrows, ' the result of spicy Mexican food... whatever they are... is for your interpretation.'

Vin narrowed his brows, and shot the spirit an icy glare. "Cut the double talk, and what the hell are you doin' spyin' on me and my wife?"

' Relax, Vin, nobody spied on you and Kel...I wouldn't allow it under any circumstances. I'm a heart warrior, and read minds the same way you do...or will be able to... if you get it all worked out.' He turned to face his great-great-grandson. 'You want answers that I can't give you. What I can do is remind you that we always have choices...some easy, and some damn hard, but I believe you have the courage to make the right ones. Chance does not always direct Fate. Sometimes we have to forge our own trails to reach our destinies. I can't choose for you, but I can, and will give you the best opportunities to fulfill yours...the rest is up to you.'

Vin studied on his words before speaking. "I get that you can't interfere with my destiny, it's my responsibility, but you can tell me if Kel is safe, and why Anne is messin' with her head."

' Anne is repayin a debt she believes she owes your wife. Focus on your future, Son, hold on tight to who you are, and fight like hell to keep your promises. I'll see you soon.'

"Damn it to hell." Vin slammed his fist on the windowsill. Tracker had pulled his vanishing act without telling him a damn thing he needed to know. The only thing he had left him with was an overwhelming sense that either he or someone he loved was at risk. Whatever was coming...he understood he was in for one hell of a fight.


Cowboy was waiting for Tracker when he returned. He slapped him on his back, and nodded. 'I know that was hard for you, but you handled it well.'

"It don't seem right. A man at least ought to have a little warnin' when trouble is headin' his way. Hell, not a one of 'em has a clue about the ragin' storm spurred on by the winds of the devil that's sittin' on their horizon.'

'You know we don't get to pick and choose for any of them. Right now, things are still in transition for all seven, but soon...they'll have the worst behind them, and see clearly the path that lays before them.'

Shaking his head, Tracker sighed. 'You're assumin' a hell of a lot. They've already had more tests than any seven before them... What makes you so sure they'll all survive what's comin'?'

'This group of seven will have more evil to face than all of those before them combined...they have to be pushed further, fight harder, and be better than we were. They have the strength to survive most anything, but they have to learn how to use it. I believe they will find the power within them when they need it.'

'I kept my mouth shut, but I'm tellin' you now...I don't plan to stand aside, and watch them try to ride out this storm alone, without helpin' any way I can.'

Cowboy replied, 'We've all agreed to help. We'll bend the rules as much as possible, but we can't break 'em. Whatever the outcome, we can only go so far.' Placing his hand on Tracker's shoulder, Cowboy looked him in the eye. 'I don't want to lose any of them either, but they have to play the cards they're dealt. How it ends is not in our's in theirs.'


Monday, Larabee 7

Inez, Mallory, and Barbara enjoyed sipping their cold drinks on the deck. They ignored the hammering, and occasional curses coming from the construction crew, who was expanding the Wilmington bedroom, making room for the installation of their new hot tub.

Mallory glanced at Inez. "Your injuries appear to be healing well. What about the mental ones we can't see? Are you really doing okay?"

Nodding Inez said, "Buck has been wonderful," She reached out, placing one hand on Mallory's hand, the other on Barbara's arm, "and my sisters have been with me every step of the way. I have all the support I need. It is young Tess I worry that girl can stay sane under the kind of pressure that man has put her under I don't know."

"Inner strength, Inez." Barbara looked at Mallory. "It helps when women like you share your experiences...the more people know about domestic abuse...the better they can understand how hard it is to break the cycle."

"I knew it was time for me to talk about it, I just wasn't sure how." Mallory shook her head, and sighed. "I understand now how much it took for Kel to step forward, and talk about her past. Hopefully sharing our experiences will help someone else."

"You helped me, and I am positive you will make a difference to other women you counsel, too." Inez sat back and smiled. "So tell us how baby Standish is doing, Barbara."

Barbara laughed. "Baby is doing fine, its mama, who is struggling. Ezra has been great, but I'm not used to so much inactivity. Tomorrow, when we go back to the doctor, I'm hoping he gives me the green light to get back to at least doing some of the things, I'd like to finish before my due date."

"Speaking of Ezra." Mallory grinned. "What did you do with him this morning?"

"He had an errand to run with JD. Trust me, he won't stay gone long." Barbara smiled. "At the rate he's going...he'll be the one with high blood pressure before the baby gets here. He worries over me constantly."

Inez exchanged a grin with Mallory. "Why should he be any different than the rest of his brothers? I think excessive worrying about their families is a trait they all possess."


Vin pulled his truck up at Buck's house, and turned to glance at his passenger. "Chris, relax. I have your itinerary, Kel and I can handle your kids for five days, you won't be that far away, and the six of us can damn well do anythin' needs doing on the ranch, the same as if you were here." He opened the door to get out, and stopped. "I won't be callin' you to rush home, so if you won't give it up, put your phone on silent, and enjoy your time with Cait."

Chris sighed. "I know, and I'm worrying over nothing I guess, but when Cait and I decided to leave today... it just felt like maybe I was missing something." He nodded. "I hear what you're thinking, Tanner, and you're right. I do need to let go, and remember I have six capable brothers, who don't need me holding their hands."

"Good, now let's check out what our brothers are doing." Exiting Vin's truck, the two walked over to join Buck and Josiah, who were 'supervising' the workers.

Buck grinned when he saw Chris and Vin approaching. "Checking up on us, before you leave, Stud?"

"Hell, Buck, you know Daddy Larabee can't go away without checkin' on all his kids." Vin laughed when Chris tried to glare him into silence.

Josiah tried not to smile, giving Chris the information he knew he wanted to hear instead. "I already circulated Allen's picture around the ranch. Walter has extra security personnel stationed at Reins, and we're staying updated on the wildfires west of here. Rain is working days all this week, and Nathan is at the hospital with her. JD and Ezra had to go into town, and should be back soon. Except for an occasional swear word from one of the workers...all is quiet."

Chris huffed. "Just make sure it stays that way." He looked at Buck. "When do you expect them to finish?"

"By tomorrow night our new hot tub should be installed and in operation." Buck glanced towards his house. "Inez will be happy."

"Trust me Bucklin, you will be, too." Vin walked closer to get a better look at the construction. "It looks like you picked a good crew...they're doin' good work."

"So where are you taking Cait?" Josiah asked.

"I'm not telling yet...not even she knows." Chris tilted his head towards Vin. "I gave him all the information...if you need me..."

"We won't." Buck said quickly. "In fact, you ought to hand over your sat phone, forget about us for a few days, and concentrate on your bride. If there is an emergency with the kids, Tanner knows where to find you."

"I keep tellin' him that, but hardhead just can't let go." Vin gave Chris a look that dared him to prove differently. "You really should leave the phone here...if we need you...I'll track you down."

Chris fingered the phone on his belt, sighed, pulled it loose, and tossed it to Vin. "Fine damnit, but don't make me regret this."

Josiah patted Larabee on the back. "It's only a few days,'ll do you good to totally relax."

They all turned to watch Ezra's car coming up the drive. JD jumped out of the Jag first, followed at a more leisurely pace by Ezra. Dunne approached them, with a big grin on his face, waving a piece of paper in his hands. "I got it. The loan went through, and I break ground on my new house next week."

Buck whooped, and lifted JD off his feet. "Hot damn, Kid, that's great news."

Ezra grinned. "I think our youngest is excited...he talked non-stop all the way here."

"Ya think?" Vin smiled, watching JD as he passed the builder's contract around, giving them a play-by play of the morning events.

After each of the brothers congratulated JD, Chris put his hand on the young man's shoulder. "It's time JD. You deserve good things coming your way. I'm happy for you."

"Thanks...I can't wait to tell the kids." JD blew out his breath. "We're gonna have our own we can make into our own personal haven. It's feels damn good."

"I hate to leave good company, brothers, but I should get my lovely wife home." Ezra turned to Chris, "Y'all have a good trip," and then headed inside to collect Barbara.

Chris nodded. "I suppose I need to drag Cait away from giving Kel the list of instructions she spent half the night writing, or we'll never make her doctor's appointment on time. See you boys when we get back." Larabee turned to walk back to Vin's truck. "Hurry up, Tanner, we're burning daylight."

Vin shook his head. He reckoned Chris had worked out his problem about leaving. Tucking Larabee's sat phone in his pocket, he nodded to Josiah, Buck, and JD. "See y'all later."

Tanner Home

"Cait...Cait..." Kelli squeezed her arm. "Slow down, and chill. If the kids need anythin', I have a key. Max and Gunny are both around, so three extra children is no problem. We love havin' em here. Brodie promised to make sure the old Breeze place is ready for your parents' return next week, and you already took care of what you needed to at Reins. You should concentrate on your get-away with Dad. You two deserve some time relax and plan to enjoy it."

Nodding, Cait took a deep breath. "You're right. I guess I just can't believe yet that we're really going. I was certain something would happen to make us cancel our plans. Then, when Chris said we were leaving right after my appointment... I went into mother mode...I know you and Vin can take care of the kids, but this is the first time we'll be leaving them since the adoptions...I didn't want to overlook anything."

Walking Cait toward the door, Kelli told her. "I plan on pickin' up Grace and Cody early from Reins, and Jesse is comin' over as soon as he and Willard finish with the horses...we'll all be fine." When she saw Vin and Chris drive in, she was relieved, urging Cait outside to Chris's Ram. "Now, you concentrate on havin' a good time."

Chris walked up, encircled his wife's waist, and smiled. "You ready, Babe?"

"I think so." She leaned over, kissed Kelli on the cheek, and then Vin, who was now standing behind his wife. She looked over the list in her hand briefly before Chris took it away from her.

"We're leaving now." Chris hugged Kelli, and handed the list to Vin, who was grinning. "You know where to find us..."

"Go, Larabee...ya'll have a good time." Tanner waited until Chris had Cait in the truck, and was driving off before he laughed. "Lord, I thought they'd never leave." The Texan wrapped his arms around his wife's waist, and kissed the back of her neck. "Where is everyone?"

"Brodie signed off on his contract earlier, and is out lookin' things over. Walter went with him to introduce him to some of the hands. Max and Gunny are in the house with the twins. Andi and Jason are in the loft, watching the new Disney movie, and I'm here."

Vin sighed. "Reckon we need to make an appearance, huh?

"Yep, parents today. But, tonight, you're all mine, Tanner."

"Sounds like a plan to me." Vin swatted her backside as they walked into the house.

Tuesday, Doctor Ryder's Office, 9:00am

Ezra and Barbara sat in the doctor's personal office, waiting for her to come and talk with them. He held his wife's hand, and absently rubbed circles on her palm with his thumb. Both of them jumped when the door opened and, Doctor Ryder walked in. The serious expression on her face did not help them relax. Sitting down, she looked at them both.

"I understand that you have followed my instructions, and no one can fault either of you for your efforts, but...the blood pressure is still high." The doctor held up her hand to stay any response. "We're at thirty six weeks, and coming into the homestretch of this pregnancy and I don't want to take any chances."

Ezra cleared his throat. "So what do we need to do now?"

Doctor Ryder sighed. "I've already called the hospital and arranged for Barbara to be admitted. Right now we are only dealing with PIH, she saw the question on Ezra's face, and explained," pregnancy induced hypertension. If any complications develop, I want her here, where we can monitor her every day." She stood, and spoke to Barbara. "Admitting is expecting you. Once you are settled, then I'm certain your husband will gather whatever you need to make your stay comfortable, but do not plan on leaving until after your baby make a safe arrival." She walked around her desk and squeezed Barbara's arm. "I don't gamble with my patient's well being. We need at least two more weeks for your baby to grow, after that, we have safer options. "

Barbara nodded. "Whatever we have to do...our baby comes first."

"Good. Stock up on fun things to read to pass the time. No stress, and lots of sleep."

Ezra stood and helped Barbara to her feet. "I assure you Doctor Ryder, I will be here with her, and allow nothing to stress my beautiful wife."

"I'll be by to see you, once you're in a room." She looked at Ezra. "I assume you'll be arranging for private accommodations so you can stay with your wife?"

"Most definitely." Ezra nodded to the doctor, and then escorted his wife out the door. His mind was already working through a list of things he needed to do, and the phone calls he needed to make."

Larabee 7

It did not take long for word to reach the ranch about Barbara. The women of the Wild Bunch moved into action mode, gathered the items she would need, and set up a schedule to visit with their sister. Rain promised to keep a close eye on her while she was working, and would be giving them regular updates.

Mallory picked up the bag she had packed for Barbara, while Kelli added in the items Ezra requested. Looking at Kelli, Mallory asked, "You think we have everything?"

Kelli nodded. "Everythin' on the list Ezra read to me over the phone. He'll probably think of more, but this should be enough to get her started. She still has a long way to go, and whatever she needs, we'll get it."

"Then, let's go. No need to stress Ezra out anymore than he already is...he's supposed to be keeping Barbara calm." They locked up the Standish house, and headed to the hospital.

Pagosa Springs, Colorado

"Chris, I love this place. The cabin is beautiful, and best of all we have all the privacy we need to make this trip special." Cait looped her arm through her husband's, and smiled. "Now, wipe that frown off your face and let's start enjoying 'us'."

"It's not you, babe. I just didn't realize we'd be totally cut off from the rest of the world. I gave Vin my sat phone, and there's not even a landline here." He turned to her, and sighed. "I know...I worry too damn much. I'm sure everything is going fine at home." Grinning he pulled her into his arms. "I guess you're just gonna have to...distract me."

"My pleasure, Cowboy." She leaned closer, bestowing a sizzling kiss upon him. "We have a private hot strip, and let's start...distracting."

Tess's House

Stepping out of the bath, Tess wrapped herself in a towel and moved into the bedroom, popping her head into her daughter's room before doing so. Keira had crashed earlier this evening, so Tess made full use of her personal time with a good long soak in the tub.

Dropping the towel to the floor, she looked at herself in the full-length mirror. Her continuous running, coupled with the constant stress she had been under, had ensured her figure remained trim and supple, never having time to settle long enough to get into bad eating habits. The reflection caused her to realize her drapes were open, and, even though no one overlooked her, she moved to close them.

She suppressed a gasp as a shadow moved across the yard. She swore she heard something, too, and her terror rose to think Troy might be out there watching them. Hastily throwing on a light sweater and cropped sweat pants, she checked to make certain the doors and windows were locked, then went back to the bedroom window, drawing back when she realized that she really didn't want to see Troy if he was around. Trembling, Tess went for her cell, hesitating for a moment as she dueled with her fear of being wrong, and her fear of being right. Deciding either way was worth the risk, she dialed.

Wilmington Home

Pushing back from the table at Inez and Buck's home, JD sighed, and patted his belly. "Oh, wow, Isabella, that was amazing, gracias."

Smiling as she cleared the dinner plates, Isabella touched his face. "Eres muy bienvenida, la miel, you're very welcome, honey."

JD's return grin was heartwarming. He couldn't begin to tell them how grateful he was for a home-cooked meal from time to time. He wasn't too bad a cook himself, but nowhere near as accomplished as Inez and Isabella, and it was always a treat to have it put on the table for him and the kids, instead of having to provide it himself. JJ was asleep in the travel crib Inez kept for such occasions, and the girls were with their cousins watching the Disney channel. Taking a sip of his water, JD leaned forward, and rested his arms on the table.

"Soon I'll be right there, looking back at you," he grinned, pointing toward the meadow.

Buck beamed. "And not a moment too soon." He put an arm around his wife, and kissed her head. "We can't wait to have you as a neighbor."

"Me neither," JD nodded. "I never realized how isolated we were at Nettie's." His words caused him to pause, snapping out of his reverie when Buck kicked his foot under the table.

"Hey...don't go there, Kid."

Smiling thinly, JD sighed. "Sorry. She makes me mad, but...I sure hope Casey's okay. I wish I could have gotten through to her in Phoenix, but..."

"But nothing," Buck reminded. "I'm not gonna let her bring you down any more. Things are changing, said so yourself, and it's all good, right?"

Before he could answer, JD's cell chirped out The Pretender's song 'I'll Stand by You'. He grabbed it from his shirt pocket, stood, and turning his back on Buck and Inez, answered.

"Hey Tessie. What?" JD's glance to Buck and his hand going around his back to check for his weapon had the big man on his feet.

"Okay...okay. No, you did the right thing. Sit tight, I'll be right there." He stared at Buck.

"Could you watch the kids for me?"

"What's going on?" Buck was next to him, now as Isabella re-entered the room.

"Tess thought she saw movement in her yard. I'm gonna go check it out."

"I'm coming," Buck insisted.

"Buck, no, I'll be fine..." One look at Buck's face, and JD nodded. "Okay, we'll take my truck."

About to exit, Buck looked back at the alarmed women. "Lock up, open up to no one but us, or one of the family, okay?" Seeing them nod, Buck followed JD out.


Tess paced anxiously inside the house as Buck and JD checked around the outside. She had seen them arrive, and was just waiting on them to give her the news, good or bad. Finally, there was a tap at the door, and JD's voice announced that he and Buck were there. Opening it to let them in, Tess's relief to see them safe was obvious. Torn between being the strong, independent woman she was, and the deep desire to be held, she stood there for a moment. JD took the initiative and pulled her close.

"You okay?" He felt her trembling.

"I am now, thank you."

"All clear." Buck announced. "No sign that anything's been disturbed that we could see, but we'll take another look when it's light."

"I feel so stupid," Tess said, as she reluctantly pulled away from JD's embrace.

"No need to be," JD smiled. "Better to be safe than sorry." He tilted his head. "You gonna be okay here, tonight?"

Before she could answer, Buck touched JD on the shoulder. "Listen, we got the kids. Why don't you crash here for the night, if Tess doesn't mind?"

She opened her eyes, widely. "I have a spare room."

JD looked at her, then Buck. "Well, if you're sure, Bro." He turned back to Tess. "I'll be okay on the couch, and I can watch the yard from there."

Settled, JD offered his truck keys to Buck, and walked him to the door. As they looked out, the pair noted the orange glow on the far distant horizon.

"Not looking good, is it?" JD asked.

"The fire's pretty far out right now,; it doesn't look too good." With a promise to pick JD up in the morning, Buck left. Returning inside, JD locked up, and smiled at the pillows and blankets now on the sofa.

"You sure you'll be okay here?"

JD nodded. "Sure." He pointed at the remote. "You wanna chill out and watch TV for a while?"

Nodding, Tess and JD headed for the sofa, and sat together until she was asleep, her head resting on the young tech's shoulder. Smiling, JD toed off his sneakers and relaxed back, while trying not to focus on how nice it was to have her next to him.

Wednesday, Larabee 7

Vin and Brodie rode out early, both anxious about the latest weather reports, and the raging forest fire, which was now not more than fifty miles to the west of them, and had already scorched twelve hundred mountain acres. The fiery red sun was barely up and the temperature was already eighty-three, and climbing. Dismounting, they allowed their horses a short rest, and a drink from the stream.

Brodie pointed toward the horizon. "I got a gut feeling that says we could be in for some trouble. There's too much ash in that sky. If the winds change we may not have much time to prepare."

Vin squatted by the water, threading Peso's reins through his fingers. "Reckon we should start emergency precautions...just in case. I'll pass the word on to the others, and then help you start movin' stock." He stood, mounted his horse, and started out. Once, his father was riding beside him, they picked up the pace, and hurried back to the ranch.


Buck, Josiah, and JD, gathered on Vin's deck to discuss their plans. The women were already working through a checklist of precautionary measures to secure family treasures, taking inventory of supplies, and packing 'go' bags for everyone, if they had to evacuate.

"Brodie has the men workin' on bringin' the horses in closer. We might have to put some of 'em in with the rodeo stock we have penned in the north pasture, but we still have time to separate 'em before we need 'em. JD, would you run up to Camp Larabee, see if there's anythin' we need to move from the offices to the underground shelters? "

"Sure, I want to check on CASSIE II anyway." He grinned. "She probably thinks I've deserted her."

"I talked to Willard over at Reins. They're monitoring the fires, and if necessary, they'll send all the kids home. Jesse's helping him do some preliminary preparations." Buck sighed." I also checked in with The CPS intake dorm. The woman in charge said they have their own procedures to follow, and our assistance was not needed."

Vin nodded, and looked over to Josiah. "Would you check with Ezra? He might want a few special things from his house secured. I don't see any reason for him to leave Barbara...their baby is more important than anythin' here. Also let Nathan know what's goin' on when he gets back from droppin' Rain at the hospital."

Josiah said, "I agree, and I'll talk to him, but Ezra is where he needs to be. Whatever we do, we count him out."

Buck glanced from one brother to another. "Do you think we should let Chris know what's going on?"

JD shook his head. "What can he do that we can't?"

"I vote no." Josiah agreed. "Chris can't stop Mother Nature, if she decides to send that fire our way."

Vin agreed, "We'd be doin' the same things whether he's here or not. So, I say no."

Buck sighed. "Okay then. Vin, I'll ride with you to help Brodie and the hands with the horses. Who's gonna monitor the reports?"

"Kel is. If anythin' changes, she'll put out a call to all of us." Vin stood. "Let's get movin', and pray this extra work is all for nothin'."

Reins Daycare

JD smiled as a puzzled Tess watched Mallory take Keira, JJ, Lilah, and Daisy along with Joanne and Adam, leaving her standing alone in the Reins classroom. He approached her.

"Come with me."

"Well, hello to you, too, John Daniel...come where?"

"Camp Larabee. I want to go through a few things with you."

Despite not knowing what 'Camp Larabee' was, Tess bid goodbye to the remaining staff, who were closing down early, and followed JD out. A little while later, she was gazing around the well-equipped gym, her eyes drifting to the mats on the floor. "I'm guessing they're not decorative." She watched him stand in front of her.

"Do you know any self defense?"

"You offering to wrestle with me?"

Pushing that rather appealing idea from his thoughts, JD took a position behind her. "If I grabbed you like this, what would you do?"

'Surrender...' Tess snapped out of how it felt to have him so close. "I'd wonder what I'd done to upset you," she replied.

JD huffed. "I'm trying to be serious here...whoop!" From his new position, prostrate on the floor, he looked back at her in amazement.

"Like that, do you mean?" She grinned as he scrambled to his feet.

"You could have just said yes instead of tossing me over," he sulked, brushing himself down.

Tess was laughing. "I'm sorry, it was just too tempting."

Looking at her, JD grinned. "So, I guess that's a yes to my question, then?"

She drew nearer. "My dad's a cop. He insisted we all take classes. I can shoot, too, well enough to get me out of trouble."

JD shook his head. "I guess that'll teach me to ask first, huh?"

Tess nodded. "Is there a coffee pot around here?

"Sure, why?"

"It's been a long day, could sure use a coffee."

Without thinking, JD held out his hand. "Come this way." It wasn't until Tess's small hand clasped his, that he realized what he had done. Deciding to play it cool, he guided her to a small kitchen area, and the pair was soon enjoying coffee and a candy bar JD scrounged for, as they sat at one of the tables.

"May I ask you a question?"

JD looked at Tess. "Okay."

"Are you divorced?" She watched his face drop.

"I'm sorry, I shouldn't have asked."

He smiled. "No, it's okay. Yeah, I am. Casey was my first serious girlfriend, the first, and until recently, the only woman I'd ever been with. We married seven years ago, and divorced recently. She initiated it, but, in hindsight, it was for the best."

"Was it down to your job?"

JD licked his lips, nervously as he wondered just how much he should reveal. "She became ill. I came home one night from work and..." JD shuddered. "...She stabbed me, twice. I almost died." He swooshed around the remaining coffee in his cup for a moment and watched it swirling. "I waited and supported her through her treatment, but one day, she just decided she wanted out, said she couldn't forgive herself, and needed to make a new life." His features darkened. "For her...our three kids didn't even come into the reckoning." He looked up at her. "Kinda pathetic, huh? A Fed, getting stabbed by his own wife."

Tess took his hand and squeezed. There was so much more to uncover here, but she wouldn't push. "No matter what causes it, domestic violence happens to women and men alike. We were lucky...we survived."

"Yeah, you're right." He drained his cup.

Curious to know just how 'unattached' JD was, Tess asked one more thing. "You said she was your first and only lover, until recently. Is there someone else?"

"No." JD blew out a breath. "There was...but,'s gonna take alcohol to get that story out of me!"

Their eyes met and for a moment, no one spoke, then JD laughed and, relieved, Tess laughed too. JD stood. "Come on, we'd best get back."


The emergency call for assistance to all available fire and law enforcement personnel went out at three in the afternoon. The winds had changed, and the fire, which until now had been contained to unpopulated areas, was racing down the mountainside, and headed due east....several small communities, big ranches, and Larabee7, lay directly in its path.


The emergency call for assistance to all available fire and law enforcement personnel went out at three in the afternoon. The brothers' decided that all the preparations at the ranch could be finished without them. There was never a question about 'if ' they would answer the plea for assistance, only who all would go. So, electing not to call Chris, and minus Ezra, who stayed with Barbara at the hospital, it was Buck, Vin, JD, Nathan, and Josiah who loaded into Wilmington's truck that evening, heading to the fire line to help.

Fire line, Wednesday evening

Arriving at the danger zone was a huge eye-opener for the five brothers. The place was a jumble of hoses, men, and a mass of frenetic activity. A sooty firefighter approached them, his hand extended as all six shook hands, before he handed over leather gloves, helmets, orange brush jackets, and yellow trousers.

"Name's Wirral, I'm the Incident Commander, and I've been expecting you. You'll be helping clear a fire line. The fire grows, and moves due to wind changes...which we can't control, but holding it back and containing small individual fires...we mostly can. Your jobs will be to help construct the line, while watching for flames jumping the fire line, and killing them before they establish themselves." He pointed to the right. "You're assigned to Unit Four. Stick close, don't wander off alone, and if the call goes out to it!"

They all nodded.

"Follow these five rules... Fight the fire aggressively, but provide for safety first. Ensure instructions are given and understood. Remain in communication with crewmembers, your supervisor, and adjoining forces. Stay alert, keep calm, think clearly, and act decisively. Your Crew Leader has an identifying jacket, and his word is law. The equipment's over there, guys. Stay safe."

Suddenly hit by the enormity of the task, they put on their protective gear, and picked up the assigned shovels, rakes, and gas powered leaf blower. Josiah picked up a radio, and they headed for their CL.

Pagosa Springs, Colorado, Thursday Morning, 9:00 am

Waking early with a burning knot in his gut, Chris fought it as long as possible. By nine though, he knew he needed to get home as soon as possible. He could 'hear' Vin calling to him, but his voice sounded so far away, he could not understand what he was saying. All he was certain of was that something was not right at home. Apologizing to Cait for cutting their trip short, they hurriedly packed, and then drove to the small private airport just outside of Pagosa Springs to turn in their rental. The next flight they could board for Denver was leaving in ten minutes. Slamming down the receiver of the only pay phone in the airport office, he cursed, "Damnit. No answer on Vin's cell, or his house. None of the others are answering either."

Cait placed her hand on his shoulder. "Whatever you feel is wrong, honey, I'm sure it's not as bad as you think."

"Maybe," he nodded, squeezing her hand. "I'm sorry for ruining our trip, but...."

"You didn't ruin our trip, Cowboy. We've had two wonderful days, and nights here. Now, we need to ease that gut of yours, and we will, but it will not take away from the special time we had."

Cupping her cheek with his hand, Chris gazed into her eyes. "I love you, Special Lady, and I will make this up to you." Dropping his hand, he picked up their bags. Together they headed for the plane, which would make the one-hour trip to Denver...and whatever was waiting for them there.

Larabee 7, Thursday Morning, 9:00am

Reins of Change had shut down for the day, and CPS temporarily moved all the children in the dorm. The women of Larabee 7 kept the coffee hot, and food in plentiful supply for the ranch hands, who had worked for almost twenty hours straight, moving horses, and preparing trailers for transporting the most valuable animals. All kept one eye on the columns of smoke in the distance, and an ear to the scanner for news.

Kelli and Mallory had dropped Rain at the hospital earlier. On their return, Kelli aided Brodie with the horses, while Mallory helped Inez, Max, Gunny, and Isabella with the food. Tess stayed close by to help with the children. The long tables that were set-up by the barns offered welcomed hot coffee and breakfast. Grabbing a cup of coffee, Kelli smiled at Inez. "This is the best cup I've had all day."

"There's more where that came from." Inez looked at the other returning hands. "It is done?"

Taking a sip from her cup first, Kelli then nodded. "Most of our horses are now in the north canyon, there's a big lake up there, and the cliffs forge a natural firebreak. Bounty and our personal mounts are ready to be loaded into trailers if we get word to evacuate."

Max overheard. "Let's hope it doesn't come to that."

Kelli looked over to where the kids were playing. "How are they holdin' up?"

"Doing fine." Max smiled. "Don't you worry about them, Gunny and I have everything ready to get the children out of here, if we get word to go."

Brodie walked up. "From what Walter tells me, y'all have everything organized down to getting the dog out."

"That we do." Gunny answered. "It all comes down to being organized."

Kelli's cell rang, and she stepped back to answer it, "Hello." She smiled, even though the connection was weak and the voice low, it was unmistakably her Texan on the line.

"Hey, baby, can't talk long. I'm gonna need you to meet me at Denver Memorial..."

"Are you okay, Vin?"

"Just remember what I told you...I'm never too far...Love you, Texas...always have...always will."

Kelli heard a click. " Vin?... Tanner don't you hang up on me..." Closing the cell, she snapped, "Damnit.'

Brodie drew closer, his expression serious. "Something wrong Kel?"

"No...maybe...hell, I don't know. Vin told me to meet him at Denver Memorial... said he loved me, and then he just hung up."

"Is he hurt?"

"I asked, but he never said." Kelli bit her bottom lip. "He sounded all right, but... you know Vin...he wouldn't tell me if he was hurt."

"We've done all we can here, and Walter will take care of your horse...I'll drive you." Brodie set down his cup. "My truck and Vin's are already hooked up to horse trailers. We'll take your SUV."

Kelli frowned. "The children...if the fire comes..."

Max shook her head. "You take care of that husband of yours...Gunny and I can take care of the Tanner and Larabee kids. Inez, Mallory, Isabella, and Tess have the other children covered. Go."

Nodding, Kelli looked at Brodie. "As soon as I say goodbye to our kids...we can leave."

Fire line, Thursday Morning, 9:00am

Hours flew by as, all through the night and into the early hours of the morning, the line of six firefighters, and five MCAT agents dug and cleared a long, deep furrow. It was exhausting, backbreaking work, but they dared not stop longer than to pause to catch their breath, or take in water. The fire swirled ever closer, and the need to contain it from spreading along this particular direction became paramount. His eyes traveling along the line of men as their weary, dirty, disheveled forms dug and raked out the never-ending ditch, Vin couldn't help envying Chris right at this moment. Taking the machine in his weary arms, he tiredly pointed the blower to push more of the endless leaves and debris out of the immediate area.

Josiah and Nathan were digging behind the main group, while JD and Buck followed behind them, to rake away the debris. All four, like Vin, were exhausted, soot- covered, and sweaty, but their hunched forms never wavered from their duties. The heat was intense and occasionally, a man would swipe away sweat and cough, as the smoke whirled around them in gusting patterns. Respirators were on standby should the smoke thicken and come nearer, but, the CL figured if that happened, they'd pull back, because it would be a sure sign the fire was too damn close.

Vin swiped perspiration from his brow, cursing when the gas in his blower ran out. He indicated to the CL he was going for a replacement and trotted back, surprised at just how far they had progressed from the last place they set down the equipment.

As they worked, a treetop exploded and burst into flames, causing the crew of men to duck. JD stared up at the spectacle. He'd heard of spontaneous combustion, but seeing it up close was...terrifying. He suddenly felt exhausted, glancing around to see the others with him were faring no better. He frowned, and shouted over the noise of the crackling and crashing sounds that seemed to be getting closer.


"BLOWER WAS OUT OF GAS," Josiah yelled back.

Glancing back, JD tapped Josiah's arm and spoke close to his ear. "I'm gonna check to make sure he's okay." Before the big man could stop him, JD was gone.

Speaking into his radio, Josiah informed the CL that two of the crew were heading back to the equipment area, and then continued with his digging.

Vin stopped in his tracks when he realized the fire had changed direction, and was now behind their position, and heading their way. He quickly ignored the huge falling flaming tree limbs as he focused on two firefighters staggering toward him through the swirling smoke. Dropping the leaf blower and running to assist, he grabbed both men around the waist and began to make his way back to their unit.

"It's cutting us off," one man rasped out. "We got separated from our unit. We have to withdraw."

"Anyone else back there?" Vin asked.

"Not...sure," the other man admitted. "Don't think so."

Seeing JD heading his way, Vin handed off the two men to him. One waved away help, and continued unassisted. JD stared at Vin.


"Fire's moved around behind us. Go back and tell 'em to get out."

"Okay" He grabbed Vin's arm when the Texan turned away from him. "Wait, where are you going?"

"I'm comin', just gonna make sure no one else is back there."

"Vin..." JD was really nervous about that idea when he noticed just how loud and hot the inferno was getting.

"I won't be a minute, I'll be right with you, I promise."

With a reluctant nod, JD hauled the firefighter toward Unit 4, relieved to see Josiah closing in on him. The big man took JD's casualty from him.

"Where's Vin?"

Catching his breath, JD thumbed back. "He's just behind me. We gotta get out of here..."

Sanchez nodded. "We know, we just got word, that's why I came back." Turning, he helped the man toward the crew they were assigned to, who were now preparing to move out.

JD glanced back, relieved to see Vin running toward him. Suddenly, two enormous overhead explosions startled the young agent. He looked up in horror as two trees combusted almost directly above his head. Hot ash and embers rained down on him and he raised his hands over his head to protect himself. There was a huge crack and with a mighty 'whumph' a massive flaming branch came crashing down in a torrent of fire and heat just behind him. The resulting collapse to the forest floor sent out a shockwave of flames, smoke, and embers, the force of the blast of air knocking him to the ground. Before JD could scramble away or to his feet, a meaty fist grabbed him by the collar yanked him upward.

Concerned that JD and Vin had not joined them, Josiah, Buck, and Nathan had made their way back to find the pair. Seeing JD in the distance produced some relief, only to be short lived when treetops exploded overhead. Now running, the three closed in just as the huge tree limb hit the ground and caused it to shudder under their feet, Buck reaching out to haul JD upright just yards from it. Buck admonished the smaller man screaming out, as he tried twisting out of Buck's grip.


"JD! For God's sake, quit's me, Buck..."

"VIN!" JD was gasping for air through the acrid smoke, and he pointed to beyond the blazing tree limb. Eyes streaming, JD grabbed at Buck and Josiah's jackets, terror in his gaze. "Vin...oh God..." He tightened his grip and stared between the three, his gaze settling on Nathan. "IT FELL ON VIN!!! ..."

The next moments would be etched on the brothers' minds for eternity. As if in slow motion, they all looked back to the now growing wall of flames, smoke, and heat. Instinctively, all four began to move toward the danger area, but before they could gather momentum, a shrill whistle pierced the air, and their heads snapped back to see Crew Leader Mike Hodgson and six other men almost upon them.

"I gave the order to pull out," he called over the crescendo of falling debris and crackling and roaring flames. "MOVE!"

"There's a man back there!" Buck yelled. "You hear me? Our brother's back there!" As he hollered, the firefighters were restraining them while surveying the horrific backdrop.

Mike's eyes filled with compassion. "It's too late, we have to go now, it's gonna overtake us!"


The scuffle was frantic and heartbreaking. Despite the brothers' desperate attempts to get to Vin, more firefighters appeared to help drag away the struggling, howling, pleading agents. The group was out of time, they couldn't stay. The survival of many outweighed the rescue of one man, and Hodgson made a decision that would haunt him for the rest of his career as the firefighters obeyed his command, closed ranks, and hauled ass outta there.


Tanner was satisfied that the area was clear, and was now running back toward JD. He could just see him in the distance, and was about to wave, when a noise unlike anything he had ever encountered before engulfed him, and a heavy weight took him to the ground. As flames rose up just ahead, Vin fought to stay conscious, and tried to move, aware a crushing burden was pinning him down. Then he saw it. Part of the branch lying next to him pointed at his shoulder. The Texan tried to breathe, but all it did was cause unbearable pain, and the terrifying realization that the angled limb was not merely over him, but had passed through his chest, spearing him to the ground.

Vin lay there as time seemingly stood still. He had panicked for a moment, but was now calm. While the fire raged closer, The Texan prayed, making peace with his maker. His thoughts drifted through the agony, settling on his wife, children, brothers, father, and sisters of the heart. He loved them all more than he felt he had ever been able to convey, and while it was sad to think that he may no longer be able to watch over them in an earthly capacity, he would always do so spiritually. With his last rush of adrenaline, he focused on Kelli, hoping she would understand that whatever was to come, it was in Fate's hands, and if the fickle mistress wished him to live through this, he vowed to fight with all his heart to return to his family.

While all around him became heat and ash, Vin's body shivered with the chill that came from his lifeblood slowly seeping into the dry earth beneath him. His eyes closed in perfect time with his slowed breathing, as he slipped deeper into shock. His last consciousness was of a hot, yet oddly familiar breeze whirling around him, ruffling his hair, and whispering his name, before welcome blackness eased his torture.


The safety zone was hushed as the firefighters watched over the silent, huddled group of trembling, grieving brothers. Each wrapped in a foil blanket, the four smoke-streaked men sat on the ground in a tight, supportive cluster. Hodgson was sure they were emotional, the youngest one most certainly was, and while sitting beside his brothers, he pulled his knees in tight to his chest, wrapped his arms around them, and buried his face. His actions caused the mustached man next to him to pull him in close, enveloping them both with his blanket. The other two followed suit, effectively closing them off from all around them.

Hodgson could barely swallow his bottled water, his throat tight from the emotional burden of having to leave a man behind. While he was confident that it had been the right decision, the image of the misery on the faces of the four remaining agents, and the thought of a life taken in the line of duty, on his watch, would stay with him forever.


Safety Zone

Shouts and activity went out all around them, but four desolate men were oblivious to it all. Cocooned in their collective misery, they remained curtained off to the rest of the world as they fought the shock and horror of knowing their brother had burned to death just yards away from them.

They were all trembling, but JD was quaking, his mind trapped in the images of the falling limb like a tape on a loop. He could feel arms enveloping him, but their comfort couldn't penetrate the layer of ice that seemed to encompass him, icy fingers reaching down into his very soul. They all feared losing one of them, had come close way too many times, but to see it like this, irrefutable, irreversible...absolute...was too much to bear.

"We can move back."

The voice seemed to hover like a cloud before slowly slipping through the tiny cracks in their fogged minds. Josiah, then Buck raised their heads.


"The wind changed direction, and the fire is dying down. We're heading back to where we were. I can't be sure if we can find anything, but we need to check..."

Josiah nodded. "We're coming." He gently shook Nathan and JD. "Come on...we need to do this."

Slowly three men stood. Red-rimmed eyes stared up at them, as JD remained taut and huddled, his head shaking. ", he's...Vin's..." He dropped his head to his knees. "I can't see that." He felt himself lifted to his feet, and fat tears rolled down his cheeks as Buck's deep blue eyes gazed into his.

"Do what you can, but know you need to at least go back, you'll regret it later if you don't." He turned his head at the sound of the call to move out, snapping back to JD who was nodding. "Good man."

Buck wasn't of a mind to do this either, but something deep inside told him he needed to go, they all felt the same urge. In minutes, they were already halfway to where they had last seen Vin.


It was a moment for the memoirs...history books, even. The firefighters and agents had passed by smoldering, charred, decimated woodland, their hearts and steps heavy, as they neared their last position. Now they were standing and staring in awe. A circle of untouched greenery surrounded a huge charred limb that lay in its center. No one could comprehend what they were seeing, and no one so much as twitched, at first.

JD, Buck, Josiah, and Nathan suddenly moved as one, their features unreadable as they walked toward the limb. Hodgson felt he should be stopping them, but chose not to. Something was happening here, and he was not about to interfere. As the four rounded the enormous branch, they stopped, and gaped at the vision before them. Vin was sooty and gray in pallor, but in no way burned, as he lay pinned by smaller extended bough, which passed through his chest. A sudden warm breeze passed around and through them, and they snapped out of their dream-like state.


That one unified cry set them all into motion. Nathan and the paramedics on sight instantly set to work. Josiah, JD, and Buck clung to each other, while Nathan held his breath, as one of the EMT's checked for a pulse. When he nodded, four men's hearts returned to a normal rhythm, and all hell broke loose.

They called for Life Flight, and confirmation received that it was en route went out, amidst frenetic medical jargon. Nathan was now with his brothers, the intensity of seeing Vin so close to death, too much to bear. They watched as the medic carefully cut away his jacket, shirt, and tee, leaving only fragments around the impaled bough. A small, specialized chainsaw detached the Texan from his agonizing confinement, and took the protruding branch down to a nub at Vin's back, but left it a little longer at the front, not attempting to remove it.

In less than a minute, a chest drain was inserted, and dressings were packed and sealed around the object. Next, Vin was intubated, and on his side awaiting the chopper. The four agents closed in, and finally laid hands on him, shocked at how cold his skin felt. The ground where Vin had laid was soaked in blood, and JD felt his stomach lurch when his gaze focused on it. He held on, watching with the others as a doctor from the now landed chopper gave permission to proceed, and they eased the unconscious Texan onto a gurney, and into the waiting machine.

The doctor turned, and shouted about the noise of the chopper, "Any family on scene?"

"We're his brothers," Josiah called back.

"We can take one of you." The air flight doctor climbed onboard, as the brothers pushed Nathan to follow her.

The three remaining agents watched the helicopter take off. JD finally threw up, and then they hurried to Buck's truck, still not truly comprehending what was happening, and now running on pure adrenaline and...terror. They had been given their brother back...surely neither God nor Fate would take him again...would they?


Doctor Ria Forbes was concerned. Five minutes out from Denver Memorial, it became clear she was losing her patient. Seconds later, Vin crashed, and practiced hands laid him carefully on his back. While one paramedic attached a device to his tube and bagged him, Ria powered up the portable paddles.


The whining device suddenly thumped out a charge, and Vin's body jerked at the force. A few more bagged breaths and all clear sounded again. Ria stared at the monitor, willing it to react. Dialing up the power, she yelled out once more, and Vin arched upward before dropping back to the cot.

The steady blip brought on huge relief as the paramedic continued to breathe for Vin through the large plastic bladder connected to his intubation tube. Moving Vin back to the recovery position, Doctor Forbes adjusted his fluids, bloods IV, and prayed for a swift and smooth landing.

Denver Memorial Hospital

On the way to the hospital, Kelli leaned back in her seat, willing herself to remain calm, while Brodie drove. She closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. Suddenly she 'saw' Anne pointing down the long white corridors she had seen in her nightmare, and viewed herself running from one tunnel to another...looking for Vin. An ominous feeling of dread raced over her. Jerking up, she reached over, flipped the switch for the lights and siren, and yelled at her father-in-law, "Somethin's terribly wrong...hurry!"

Brodie knew Kelli was not one to panic easily, and the look on her face said she was very near doing just that. Without asking questions, he accelerated, increasing his speed as he wove in and out of traffic, while saying a silent prayer that Vin was all right, and her obvious fear was unfounded.

Approaching the hospital, Kelli saw Life Flight circling the hospital's landing zone, and felt a cold chill travel down her spine. The moment Brodie pulled into a parking space near the emergency entrance; she jumped out of the truck, and started to run towards the double doors of the trauma unit. His own uneasy gut feeling spurred him on, and he wasted no time following her.

Kelli ran to the admitting desk. "Tanner...Vin Tanner...where is he?"

The woman at the desk looked up. "I...don't have a Tanner listed... Are you certain he's a patient here?"

"Yes, damnit...." A sudden flurry of activity down the corridor drew her attention, and Kelli pushed away from the desk to watch. Nurses hurriedly steered an empty gurney down the hallway. She was certain it had something to do with Vin when she saw Doctor Gilford rushing towards the elevator after them. Turning, she quickly caught up with him as he waited for the doors to open. "Doctor Gilford..."

The doctor was not surprised to see her. "'re here, good." The elevator door opened, the nurses pushed the gurney into it, and as he stepped inside Gilford said," I don't have anything to tell you yet, Life Flight is bringing Vin in now. As soon as I'll know."

The doors closed, leaving Kelli standing there feeling confused, and helpless. Brodie walked up behind her, placed his hands on her shoulders, and said softly, "Come on Kel, let's move over here and wait." He guided her out of the hallway, to a small area close enough to watch the elevator, but out of the way.

It seemed like an eternity, but in less than ten minutes, the elevator doors opened again.

Doctor Gilford was barking orders, as the nurses pushed the gurney out, the flight doctor still bagging, and running towards the Trauma unit. Just as they reached room one, Tanner crashed again, and the call went out.


For a brief few moments, Kelli saw her Texan as they passed, and what she saw scared the hell out of her. "Dear God!'' She started after them, but Brodie held her back.

Although what he saw shook him too, Brodie's training kicked in, and his voice remained steady when he spoke, "Let 'em do their job, honey."

Visibly distraught, Kelli took a ragged breath. "You saw...Jesus..." She swallowed hard, and only then noticed Nathan, who had also exited the elevator, and now stood quietly beside her. Turning to face him, she asked, "How bad?"

Nathan turned away, unable to look Kelli in the eye. "Bad enough...he..." Shaking his head, he said, "I don't know...I just don't know." Taking a long hard breath, he continued, "I need to find to Ezra...Buck, Josiah, and JD should be here soon. Someone needs to call Chris...he should be here."

Brodie held on to Kelli. It was not what he said, but what Nathan did not say that disturbed him. He realized that Jackson was uncharacteristically close to breaking down, and wanted to give the man a chance to compose himself. "Go... do what you need to. We'll be right here."

Nodding, Nathan walked off. Relieved that he did not have to say what he was thinking. He had always been able to help his brothers when they were injured. This time though...his presence had failed to make a difference, and he was afraid Vin was going to die. The fear of losing one of his brothers overwhelmed him, and he had no idea what to do about it.

Brodie waited a moment to make sure Kelli was staying put, and then asked, "Do you know how to get hold of Chris?"

Kelli shook her head. "Vin knows, but..." She looked up at him with tears in her eyes. "I won't let him go... I can't do that."

Drawing her into his arms, he held on to her, rubbing her back, while she gave in to the only tears he had even seen her cry in public. "Vin's not going anywhere, Kel...he's too damn stubborn to die."


Running full lights and sirens, Buck drove like a man possessed. They had discarded their outer jackets, but the flame-retardant fluorescent trousers remained, braces holding them up and crossing over sweat-stained tees. JD's white knuckles were in stark contrast to the dark dashboard he clung to, but their hue was more from rigid tension than fear for his life. Josiah and JD attempted to reach someone at the ranch, while Buck silently cursed himself for goading Chris into giving up his sat phone. The only one who knew how to reach Larabee was Vin...and now... 'Don't go there, Wilmington.'

"Mal, I'm all right." Josiah started, "I need you to go over and get Kelli....what? Okay...yeah Buck, JD, and I are on our way there now. The fire is contained so the ranch should be safe...If you do, make sure Walter keeps guards posted; Allen is still out there somewhere. Love you, too." Snapping the phone shut, he relayed the information Mallory had given him. "Kelli and Brodie are already on their way to the hospital." He glanced to where Vin and Nathan's phone lay in the console. "I guess Nathan borrowed a phone, and got through to them."

JD finished his conversation, closed his phone, and turned toward Buck. "I got hold of Inez...Tess has my kids, and is staying with her. Walter has a man posted at your house, Buck."

"Good...damnit," Buck cursed as he swerved to avoid a car that did not pull over for his emergency lights. "We have to find a way to get hold of Chris..." He stopped talking when his cell rang.

JD grabbed it. "You drive, I'll answer." Opening the phone, he could already hear Larabee growling ...'Somebody better answer the damn thing'. "Chris, thank God you called..."

"How bad and where is he?" Chris snapped.

JD was not surprised that Chris knew Vin was in trouble. "Bad... Denver Memorial."

"We're at the airport...on my way." The line went dead.

Looking at the phone, JD shook his head. "He ''knew'...Chris is on his way to the hospital now."

Josiah sighed. So far, they had not speculated on what had protected Vin from the fire, or why the wind suddenly quit, but it was something on all their minds. "How do we explain what happened?"

The silence, which answered him, was deafening.

Denver Memorial Hospital

Kelli had several forms to sign, releasing Vin's personal effects, and authorizing his treatment. While she took care of the necessary paperwork, Brodie retrieved his son's personal items from the nurse to give to his daughter-in-law. The only thing she was interested in was his wedding ring, the rest he held on to for her. Returning to the waiting area, they sat in silence watching for the Doctor to come out of the trauma room.

Dressed in surgical scrubs, Gilford pushed through the double doors, and walked over to the waiting area. Kelli jumped to her feet, but Brodie kept his hold on her. "Easy, Girl.

Stopping in front of Kelli, Doctor Gilford put his hand on her arm. "I won't lie to you...Vin is in grave condition. A two-inch round tree branch penetrated his upper chest at the base of his neck on the right side, exiting his back. His lung collapsed, and he had air leaking into his chest, what we call an open pneumothorax. This type of injury is frightening I know, but he has a chest tube in, and I was able to stabilize his vitals. So far, the blood loss has not reached a critical level. That could change quickly though, once we remove the object that's compressing the blood vessels. I won't know what else we're facing until I get him into the OR."

Taking a shaky breath, Kelli asked, "Can I see him before you move him?"

Gilford knew that question was coming, and had thought long and hard about his decision. He had known Kelli and her family for a while now, and liked them all very much. She was also one of his patients, thus he considered her mental wellbeing important. If the worst happened, he did not want the last image she saw of her husband being one with a tree limb speared through his body.

"We don't have time Kelli; he's not conscious, and is being moved to the OR as we speak. I've handpicked a team of doctors to assist with the surgery, but it will take hours of delicate work to remove that branch, repair the damage, and clear all the debris from the wound." He squeezed her arm. "Be prepared for a long wait, and I promise... I'll do everything I can to obtain a positive outcome." Dropping his hand, he nodded to Brodie, "I suggest you go to the surgical waiting area on the second floor. When the rest of the family arrives, the nurses will tell them where you are." He started to leave, but Kelli grabbed his arm.

Biting her lower lip, she attempted to control the trembling, which racked her body. "You tell him I'm waitin' for him...and whatever happens in there....don't let him go..." She gripped the doctor's arm harder. "He'll fight...piss him off if you have to, just DO NOT...let him go...."

Doctor Gilford answered with a curt nod, turned, and headed to the operating theater.


Tracker started to follow Doctor Gilford. Cowboy stopped him. 'Where do you think you're going?'

'I reckon if the doc can't piss him off enough to fight...I can.'

Cowboy shook his head. 'We've done all the interfering we dare. Our heart warrior has to decide for himself now.'

Tracker sighed. ' He's not ready yet...he don't know what he's capable of doin'.'

'Not our call....he'll either choose to go on, or give up. It's up to him.'

'So we just sit around and do nothin'?'

Cowboy nodded to the waiting area. "You got family over there that need you, and the other six are on their way. It's going to take all seven of us reminding them who they are, to see them through matter what young Tanner decides.'

Barbara's Hospital Room

Before going inside Barbara's room, Rain set down the basket of items she had hastily prepared for her, and then embraced her husband. She understood the doubts, which were tearing him apart, and wanted to help him. "Baby, there is nothing more you could do. It's not like one of the many injuries you guys tend to collect on the job...this was a freak accident, and no one could expect you to work miracles."

Taking her hand in his, Nathan nodded. "I know, but I felt so damn helpless....maybe if..."

"No did everything possible. Now we wait."

"You best get in there and keep Barbara occupied. Send Ezra out and..." Nathan sighed, "I'll tell him what's happened."


Rain took a deep breath, and then entered Barbara's hospital room with a smile on her face. "Okay, Doctor Jackson says it's time for a little sister bonding. Ezra, go find something to do while your wife and I spend some time visiting." She set the basket she carried on the table. "I have an assortment of crocheting, new baby magazines, and some healthy snacks for us to munch on while we talk."

Ezra looked over at his wife, who obviously was delighted that Rain had come to visit with her. "I suppose I could tend to a few matters...if you're okay with it."

Barbara laughed. "Go, honey, you've been here around the clock since I was admitted. You're due some time off for good behavior. I'm fine, and if I need anything I'll call you."

Leaning over the bed, Ezra kissed Barbara. "Enjoy your visit. I'll be back later this afternoon." Glancing at Rain, he smiled. "Watch her, Rain...she's a slave driver." He picked up his jacket, and walked out before Barbara thought of a smart comeback.

Stepping into the hallway, Ezra was thinking about what he needed to accomplish before returning, and did not see Nathan, until he moved into his path. "I almost didn't see you there, Brother."

"Ezra, Rain will keep Barbara busy for a while, we need to talk." Nathan took his brother by the arm, and guided him further down the hall. Stopping by the elevators, he pushed the down button, sighed, and said, "There's been an accident...Vin's hurt...and in ER, could even be in surgery by now. It's bad...real bad."

The look on Nathan's face was one Ezra had never seen before. This was the brother, who stayed calm, informed, and gave them all hope when one of them was injured. All he saw now was unmasked fear, sorrow, and anguish, which chilled his blood as he considered the reason for it. "You have my undivided attention."

The elevator door opened, and Nathan urged Ezra inside. "I'll tell you on the way down."

Emergency Room

Evidently, Chris, Buck, JD, and Josiah had all arrived at the same time, and were assaulting the front desk, demanding information about Vin's condition. The moment Nathan and Ezra stepped off the elevator, they heard the commotion, and hurriedly joined their brethren.

"Tanner, Vin Tanner, where is he?" Chris reigned in his aggravation, when Cait laid her hand on his back.

Josiah stepped forward. "He was brought in by Life Flight."

Filling out her paperwork, Ria heard the request. Spotting six distressed men hovering at the front desk, she walked over, urging them toward the waiting area, and explained what was happening.

"Your brother went up to surgery about forty-five minutes ago. The other present family members are on the second floor, in the surgical waiting area. As for his condition, I don't want to mislead you." She saw the emotional turmoil on their faces, but decided they should hear it straight. "Mister Tanner's lung collapsed, and he's sustained what we call an 'open pneumothorax'. He crashed twice as we brought him in, and is in grave condition. Right now, his chances are not the best." She offered a thin smile at the anxious men. "However, he's young, fit, and healthy, which can make a difference in his prognosis."

Ashen faced, and reeling from her assessment, the six brothers stood there, each feeling the pain of the others as strongly as their own. After all the tight spots they had been though together, 'an accident' was not supposed to separate them....not this way.

"Thank you." Josiah recovered enough to tell the doctor, before she left them.

Chris shook his head. "Vin is still with us, and by God, we are not letting him go. If he can't fight for himself, then we'll fight for him." He held out his hand, palm up, as one by one the other five followed his lead. "We just have to believe, and listen to our hearts. Remember who we are, and how our past strengthens the solidarity the seven of us have already formed."

Cait watched in awe, feeling the power rippling through the air as six brothers sent their strength to the seventh. Hesitant to say anything, she finally asked quietly, "Should we go upstairs?"

'Cowboy grinned at his brothers. They had reached out, and their charges received the message they sent them, loud and clear.'

Surgical Waiting Area

Kelli stood by the window, staring off into the distance, with Vin's ring clutched in her hand, and trying hard to concentrate. Brodie watched her, unsure what to do or say to help. Hell, he was not in much better shape than she was. He heard the ding of the elevator, followed by what sounded like thunder approaching. Turning toward the doorway, he discovered that it was not thunder, but something damn close.

Six men marched down the corridor, escorting one woman, and making their presence known. The magnificent brotherhood had arrived, bringing with them their collective strength, passed down to them through the ages.


Surgical Waiting Area, four hours into surgery

Chris and Brodie leaned back against the window ledge flanking Kelli, who had not moved from her position for hours. Conversation had been minimal, each of the family members lost to their own thoughts. The hands on the wall clocked moved slowly, drawing out each minute into what seemed like an eternity.

Josiah studied each of his brothers as they waited. Buck and JD's soot-streaked, weary faces, the expression of disbelief on Nathan and Ezra's, and the mask Chris put up to cover his emotion, showed the effects of the wide range of emotions they had all experienced over the past few hours. While they had pieced together the events of the last two days, and the accident, for Chris and Cait, no one had mentioned the unexplained miracle they witnessed at the fire. Leaning forward in his chair, he broached the subject they had all been avoiding.

"Anyone have a thought about what happened out there this morning?"

Buck halted his pacing, and glanced at Josiah. "You mean how in the hell the winds suddenly stopped, and after being passed over by a raging inferno of fire, Vin was untouched by it?" He shook his head. "No...haven't given it a single thought."

Nathan looked up. "Well, I have. There is no rational explanation for it. Fire don't go around people... it don't just burns. Vin should've burned to death..." He stopped when he saw Kelli cringe, and sighed.

"It makes as much sense as Chris knowing Vin was in trouble, and heading back here even before that tree fell." JD looked at Josiah. "Or how Nathan got a call through without his phone to Kelli and her being here when the chopper came just is."

"I didn't make that call." Nathan absently commented.

"Vin called me," Kelli said softly.

"Darlin', that's as impossible as Nathan calling." Buck turned towards her. "Vin's phone is in my truck...we all left our cells there when we hit the fire zone, so we wouldn't chance interfering with their communications. Besides, even if he'd had his way Vin was making any calls."

"As impossible, as the area when Vin lay trapped being untouched by the fire?" Ezra asked, and then posed another question. "Are we forgetting the definition of impossible forever changed for all of us when we received our 'Legend Books', and regained our collective memories? I dare say...when it comes to one of our seven...anything is feasible."

"Ezra's right." Chris agreed. "After all we've learned about our past, we're still thinking in limited terms about what is, and what isn't. Maybe the lesson here is that we need to learn more about how to use the gifts we've received, and not take for granted that our ancestors are always going to direct us to what we need to do. Whatever the message is... for Vin's sake, we'd better figure it out pretty damn quick."

Operating Room

Doctor Gilford had successfully removed the tree branch, sutured the nicked carotid artery, and he was in the process of methodically repairing the other damage left behind. Next came the hardest part, which was removing the minute particles of tree, clothing, and other debris in the wound. It was painstakingly slow work, but necessary to prevent infection. Suddenly Vin's chest started to fill with blood.

"Damnit, I've got a bleeder here." Gilford worked furiously to locate the source of the blood flow. "Come on Vin...don't give up now."

"BP is falling...60/40.....50/30... 40/20.... we're losing him."

' Vin felt as if he had been running nonstop through the empty stark white corridors for hours. Every time he believed he had found a way out, another long hallway awaited him. He was tiring, and stopped, leaning against the wall to catch his breath...for only a moment. Behind him he knew was a beautiful restful place, filled with soft breezes, extraordinary revelations, and tranquility. He briefly saw his mother, Tracker's Anne, and the baby girl he and Kelli had lost too soon. They waited silently for him to make his decision. As much as he liked it there though, he knew he belonged somewhere else. With images of his brothers, and their lives together pulling him into the corridors, he entered the maze of twists and turns to return, but it was getting harder to keep going.

Tracker's words played in his head...'Focus on your future, Son, hold on tight to who you are, and fight like hell to keep your promises.'

Vin comprehended that his future belonged to his living children and his unfinished life with his wife... He also knew he was one of seven men who held a special destiny, and now he felt them calling to him. As for promises, he had promised Kelli...."You're never alone, Baby. There's no place so far away that my love can't reach you... anytime... anywhere... Remember that, and feel the promise of my words...." He recalled her nightmare, and looked around...this was it...she was looking for him...he had to let her know where he was. Pushing off from the wall, he knew in his heart that he had to keep going...his loved ones were waiting for him.'

"Got it," Gilford said, as he sutured the bleeding vessel. "Give me a reading, stat."

"BP 60/40....70/50...he's coming back."

Gilford nodded. "Hang in there Vin, you've made it more than half-way. I'm not going to let you quit."

Surgical Waiting Room, six hours into surgery

The tension in the air was heavy. Buck paced; Chris, and Brodie, arms folded, still leaned against the wall, flanking a hunched over Kelli. Cait sat next to her man, her head resting against his thigh.

Nathan, Ezra, and Josiah slouched in chairs against one wall, and, after using the bathroom, JD now sat hunkered over in a chair against the opposite wall. The jiggling leg was a trait of the younger man's, nerves, and adrenaline always set it off, but the tiny rocking motion as he rested his head in his hands caught the others' attention. Buck approached him, and squatted down. He halted the wiggling limb with a gentle hand.

"Hey...what is it?"

It took a few seconds, but JD finally looked up at Buck. "I keep seeing that...thing crashing down on him. The trees were exploding...the firefighter was injured..." JD shuddered. "I shouldn't have left him. He said he was coming right back...he promised...I should have waited, Buck..." The final few words were a mere whisper as emotion and exhaustion battled for dominance.

Glancing at the others, who were all listening, Buck shook his head. "Knock it off, Kid. You said it yourself; Vin brought out two men, and was looking for more. You were just getting them out of there." He dropped his voice. "You were going back, remember? When we got there and saw that branch take you off your feet..." He shook his head, and glanced at Nathan and Josiah. "We shouldn't have waited so long to come and check on you both. If we'd been quicker..." Josiah nodded in agreement.

Chris pushed his fingers through his hair. "I should never have left. I knew something wasn't right. I can't believe I didn't take a phone..."

"I didn't even offer to help," Nathan whispered. "I just sat in the chopper and watched. I could have helped..."

"At least you were there," Ezra sighed.

Cait and Kelli exchanged glances. The atmosphere in the room suddenly changed, but the women were oblivious to it. The six men and Brodie, however, were not, glancing toward the door to see the OW Seven staring back at them.

'Listen to yourselves. How is this helping Vin? Cowboy scowled. 'Make this right. No one's in the wrong, here. We were able to help, but the real work is in how Vin reads you, and right now, it ain't encouraging.' He looked at the men, acknowledging each one. Stay strong, stay united, stay positive. Send Tanner good thoughts. Guide him home.' He focused on Chris, and nodded. Tracker acknowledged Brodie, while Gambler touched his hat to Ezra, Healer smiled at Nathan, Preacher touched his hand to his heart to Josiah, Rogue winked at Buck, and Sheriff grinned and nodded to JD. In an instant, they were gone and the room's atmosphere lifted.

"Please..." Kelli's voice drew them all back to the here and now. "Vin wouldn't want this."

Chris dropped his hand, and squeezed her shoulder. "You're right, sorry. I guess we were all going a little crazy there for a minute, right, guys?"

They all nodded, mumbling their apologies. Kelli gave them a weak smile. "Let's just stay positive. I know y'all did your best...and so does Vin." She sighed as she glanced at them all. "And I know how exhausted y'all are, but Vin needs to feel your presence."

As they nodded, Cait stood. "I'll go get some coffee."

Wilmington Home

Lowering his field glasses, Allen hunkered down. He wasn't too far from the Wilmington household, and was now aware of the guard standing on the porch and looking his way. He was sure the man did not spot him, but it had been close.

The early closing of Reins had forced a prompt decision. If he left the property, along with the other parents, he wouldn't be able to get back in until Reins re-opened. So, stowing his truck deep into the woods near L7, he had taken to camping out in the small copse behind where JD planned to build. Troy was used to roughing it. Three years on the road and, occasional shit jobs to keep him going, had seen to that.

Popping up again, he focused back on the kitchen window. His heart lurched. There she was...his woman, his wife. His libido twitched and he closed his eyes briefly, as he imagined her in his arms, inhaling as he recalled the smell of her hair and her heady scent when he aroused her. His eyes snapping open, he glowered at her distant form. First, he had to teach her how to show proper respect. She had another man's brat in tow, while leading him a merry dance for the past three years. That could not go unpunished.

Then he would take her home...just her...and they'd be happy again.


Calling Tess from the window to the mugs of coffee, she had just set down for Tess, Inez and herself, Isabella took up a stool at the breakfast bar. Inez was sitting in a large comfortable chair in the corner of the room. Tess now also sitting on a stool, she and Isabella turned to Inez as they talked.

"It's been a long time."

Inez nodded to the young teacher. "Buck was distraught on the phone, earlier. This is bad, so very bad. I think he, and the others fear Vin might not get through this."

Tess swallowed. "JD...JD sounded awful."

"It has been a very bad few weeks," Isabella concurred.


Tess frowned at Inez. "Sorry?"

"Not John Daniel?"

Tess blushed. "Oh...that's just to wind him up."

"Mm hmm."

"You like him?"

Inez frowned at Isabella as if saying 'don't ask her 'that'. The older woman waved her off.

"Yes," Tess whispered. "But, I'm not ready..."

Both women nodded. "JD has issues, too. Becoming friends is also important." Inez pointed out.

Tess smiled as she sipped her coffee. She hoped she and JD were friends. She enjoyed him being around. Tess sighed. "I hope we hear good news, soon."

Inez looked at her compassionately. How quickly this young woman had taken them all to her heart, as they had her. "I think it may be wise for you and Keira to stay here, tonight. The children need the stability."

"Thank you," Tess said. "I'd like that."

Denver Memorial

Chris checked his watch again and glanced at Brodie, both men now sitting on either side of Kelli. ' Seven hours... seven long, freaking hours'. What were they doing in there, making him...bionic? He glanced around at his brothers, barring Ezra, his filthy, disheveled brothers. Each one had his eyes closed, and was resting his head against the wall behind them. All except JD. Buck had finally stopped pacing, and was sitting next to the younger man, who had his head on Buck's shoulder.

JD half moaned and half whimpered in his sleep, and suddenly, his whole body jerked once, violently. His actions prompted everyone's eyes to open, and Buck to raise an arm to pull a waking JD in close. At that second, Rain entered and all five roused, and sat up. She focused on Ezra.

"Barbara is asleep. I've shared nothing...I figured you'd want to tell her what's happening."

Ezra nodded. "I do, thank you for staying with her." He slumped back, now wondering what he could tell her so as not to upset her too much, while instinctively recognizing she would want to know everything.

As Rain went to Nathan's side, Cait snuggled in against Chris, suddenly needing to be closer. Chris wrapped an arm around her, and kissed her head. "You okay?"

The look between them said it all. No one would be until Vin was out of surgery, and in SICU. As if on cue, a weary Doctor Gilford, still dressed in scrubs, entered and looked at them as they all stood, and surged forward. He glanced around, and then focused on Kelli, Brodie, and Chris.

"I'll give Vin credit...he's a fighter. It's been touch and go, and he's considered critical, but I've repaired his lung, and the nick to his carotid artery. Fortunately, the branch missed his heart, but it took a while to clear the wound of pieces of tree, clothing, and dirt. His body has been through a lot, and while necessary, the surgery only added to the stress to his system. I won't lie to you, right now, it could go either way."

He paused while they absorbed his words, his heart going out to Kelli as she valiantly kept her composure.

"Your support will be paramount in his recuperation. Right now, he's in recovery. I'll have someone come for you when we move him to SICU. He still has the chest drain, and because of smoke inhalation, and the trauma to his upper body, he's on a vent." He sensed their alarm before they could voice it.

"It's a necessary precaution, for now. If..." he corrected himself. "When Vin shows improvement, we'll look at removing it." He smiled, thinly. "Considering all he's suffered, Vin came through surgery better than I could have hoped." Gilford squeezed Kelli's hand, and attempted a smile. "I didn't let him go; now all we have to do is keep him here. I've also arranged for you to stay."

Kelli nodded. "Thank you."

Dropping her hand, he said, "Good night, I'm sure I'll be seeing all of you over the next few days."

Watching the doctor leave, they sat back down, and silently gave thanks. Vin had crossed the first hurdle on his long journey home, and he was still with them.


The doctor allowed them one opportunity to be with Vin, together. Brodie held Kelli's shoulders as he watched the six brothers gather around Vin's bed. Looking to Chris, he nodded, and each of the men placed a careful hand on their injured brother. Closing their eyes, they sent a personal message of love and hope, willing him to fight. The atmosphere in the room became electric as the surge of energy emanating from the seven took the conscious men's breath, and made their bodies tingle. Before leaving, each one said their farewells to Vin, promising they were right here for him.

JD leaned in and touched his head to Vin's. It was a personal thing between the pair, relating back to one kind act by the Texan during their ATF days, an act so unexpected; it had reached JD, despite being in a coma at the time. He hoped he could return the favor this time.

Chris leaned in. "Wake up, you scrawny-assed Texan. We got kids to raise, and a lot of living to do." With a touch of his hand to Vin's head, Larabee pulled back.

Brodie moved in closer, and kissed his son's head. "You are loved, hold onto that, Son."

Kelli took up residence in the seat next to the bed. Her fingers lightly traced her husband's battered features, while she tried to block out the sounds of the machinery that was keeping him alive. Leaning in she kissed his cheek, and whispered softly, "I'm holdin' onto your promise, Tanner. You've never broken one to me yet...and I'm countin' on you not to start now. I love you."

As they all stood in silence looking back at the unconscious man they loved, the ventilator whooshed, the monitors beeped...and they prayed.


Denver Memorial, Friday, 7:00 am

Balancing a tray of coffee, and a bag of food, Chris used his elbow to push the elevator button for the SICU floor. It had taken him a long time last night to talk himself into leaving the hospital with Buck, Nathan, JD, and Josiah. In the end though, he knew Brodie and Kelli would need someone to spell them today, and Cait convinced him that resting up for his 'Tanner' watch, was the smart thing to do. When the door opened, he exited, and walked down the hallway. He found Brodie in the waiting area, across from SICU. The elder Tanner was leaning forward in his chair with his head buried in his hands.

Nudging Brodie's boot with the toe of his, Chris drew the man's attention. When he looked up, Larabee had a cup of coffee ready to hand to him. "I thought you could use a morning pick-me-up." Passing him the container, Chris sat down. "Brought some breakfast, too. You doing okay?"

Glancing towards the small cubicle where his son was, Brodie shook his head. "Vin is one of the most accomplished survivalist I've ever encountered. He's an experienced Agent, an expert at martial arts, a sharpshooter few can equal, and he's a damn good strategist. I know how to protect him from the bastards of the world who thrive on attacking lawmen. I also know how to cover his ass from snipers, terrorists, and a host of other threats, even when he doesn't know I'm there, but all that means do you protect yourself, or your child from shit like this? A tree...a God damn tree....brings him down."

Swallowing hard, Chris struggled to find an answer, since he had been trying to come to terms with the exact same question most of the night. He always believed if one of them went down, it would be in the line of duty, not from something like this. "I wish I had a qualified answer, but I don't." Looking across to the SICU, he watched the machines that were breathing for Vin. "How did it go last night?"

"Rough. Vin didn't wake up, but he started fighting the vent. They had to up his sedation, and add a muscle relaxer to his other meds. I haven't been able to get Kel out of there for more than twenty minutes all night, and she's close to exhaustion." Brodie took a sip of his coffee. "Ezra came down a couple of times, and tried to reason with her, but even he couldn't get her to take a nap."

Chris nodded. "I figured as much. That's why I stopped on my way over and rented a couple of rooms at the hotel across the street. I left a bag of clothes and personal items for you in yours, and did the same for Kelli. All we have to do now is convince her she needs food and rest, if she plans to hold up for the duration of Vin's recovery."

Brodie composed his emotions, grabbed the bag of breakfast sandwiches, took one, and then glanced at Chris. "What is this 'we' business? She sure as hell isn't listening to's your turn to talk to her...'Dad'."

With an exaggerated sigh, Chris stood up, walked over to the glass wall of Vin's SICU cubicle, and motioned for his daughter to come into the hallway. Greeting her with a hug, he walked her to the chairs, and asked, "How you doing, honey?"

"I'd be a whole lot better if Vin would wake up."

Brodie passed her a cup of coffee and a sandwich. "You need to eat something. Might as well be this."

Kelli nodded as she took the offerings, and sat between Brodie and her father. "Doctor Gilford should be by soon."

"Once you talk to him, you and Brodie are out of here." Chris stayed her protest with a hand on her arm. "You both have clean clothes, and your own room, waiting for you across the street at the hotel. It's my turn to spend time with Vin, and the others will be up soon."

Shaking her head, Kelli started to argue. "I can't leave, Dad..."

"Yes, you can. When Vin wakes up, I don't want him kicking my ass because I failed to take care of you for him." Recognizing the question in her eyes, he softened his tone. "He is going to wake up, Kel. Probably not today, and maybe not tomorrow, but...he is coming back to us." He squeezed her arm. "Now eat. Gilford will be here soon, and then I want you to get some proper rest."


Even after Gilford left, and explained it would be a couple of days before he lowered the meds enough for Vin to rouse, it took Chris and Brodie another half hour to get Kelli moving. It was only after her father reminded her that Jason and Andi were waiting to hear from her that she agreed to leave for a short while.

Settling down in the chair beside Vin's bed, he tried to reach his brother mentally, to no avail. Sighing, he picked up the book he had brought with him. "This is one of your favorite westerns, Vin. I'm going to start reading it for you, and whoever sits here after me, can read you the next part." Although he did not really expect an acknowledgement, a small part of him was disappointed when his brother did not respond. Leaning back in the chair, he opened the book, and began to read aloud.

Larabee Home

She had been keeping herself busy, planning the reopening of Reins on Monday, and catching up with her children, but now Cait was sitting quietly in the main room. After feeling a little nauseous and tired, which she put down to the events of the past twenty- four hours, resting while sipping on a ginger ale seemed to be a good course of action. The phone ringing had her on her feet again to answer it.

"Oh, hello Doctor Stewart, what can I do for you?" She frowned and dropped to a chair. "No, I haven't got to my messages yet, and yes, I'm sitting, why?" Cait listened intently; unaware of how pale her features were at that moment as surprise adorned her beautiful face.

"'re sure? But, I thought... well, I know that, but" Standing, she reached for her drink, and took a long draw, before returning to her seat. "Yes, yes that is a lot to consider. I..." She glanced at her watch. "Chris isn't here right now, but I know he'll want to talk with you, too. When?" Tucking the handset under her chin, Cait shakily scrawled down the appointment time he gave her. "Thank you, we'll be there."

Replacing the receiver, she sat stock-still, her hands to her face as her mind absorbed the conversation. Absently, she stood and walked to the master bedroom. Looking at herself in the mirror, she touched a splayed hand to the front of her jeans, then turned sideways and stroked her belly. Cait's eyes filled with moisture, as she tried to comprehend the news. Years ago, this would not have come as such a shock, but her age.... in the middle of menopause, this was something she never expected to be possible. Yet, according to the doctor, it was indeed happening now. She and Chris had just received a miracle.

Her mind replayed what the doctor had said about the difficulties a woman of her age could face, and he wanted her and Chris to come in, and consult with him, to ensure they had all the facts before them before deciding how to proceed. How to proceed? That was one major decision she and Chris would likely agonize over. Although, in her mind, Cait, who was smiling through a torrent of tears, kept staring at herself in the mirror, already sure of what she wanted. First, and before the impending appointment, the beautiful redhead had to tell the man she loved with all her heart...he was once again, going to be a father.

Jackson Home

Nathan wandered tiredly through his home. The little ones were at daycare, and Rain was at the hospital. After volunteering to cover a shift, she rode in with Chris for safety. The gentle black man was lost in his thoughts as he absently brewed some herbal tea. Neither one of the six men had wanted to leave Vin, but each man knew they had no choice. Children needed reassuring, and they themselves needed a hot shower and rest after toiling at the fire zone for so long. Stirring the hot water into his mug, he kept going over and over what they had experienced, in awe of this awesome power bestowed on them. When Vin recovered...and he would recover, Nathan was in no doubt of that, he felt it might be wise for the seven of them to make some time for themselves and talk about this. He needed to reassure himself that he wasn't the only one, despite reading in his Legend book, what to expect, who was struggling with such a calling.

Sanchez Home

Josiah was sitting at the desk in the study, idly flicking through his Legends book. While embracing all that it said, he had found a question he needed answering. Was Vin's miraculous sheltering from the inferno an act only reserved for him alone, or had they all been protected at some point in a similar way? He often found himself reflecting on how one brother or another had survived an ordeal. Was it always the divine intervention of Fate, or merely their good fortune?

The questions unnerved him, just as the enormity of that miracle had, and he decided to suggest all seven of them meet up to discuss it as soon as Vin was well enough.

Mallory watched him from just outside the door. Josiah was a deep thinker, but his near silence since coming home from the hospital had been almost too much to bear. She hoped he would let her in soon. He needed comforting.

Wilmington Home

Buck walked around the den, his eyes studying the pictures adorning three of the four walls. One wall was entirely of his immediate family, but the other two was of years of the Seven together, fishing, football, camping, rafting...laughing. He was particularly fond of one of him, JD, and Vin after a weekend fishing trip, holding up the biggest fish he'd ever seen. It was almost as big as the kid was, a point demonstrated by Buck as he held a laughing Dunne by the ankles, upside-down and next to the fish that a grinning Tanner was holding up on the other side of JD.

Buck sighed. The guys had promised they would go fishing again soon, just after they got back...but never did. It was never really about the fishing...just about the closeness and now Buck was thinking maybe, when Vin was up and about, they could maybe finally keep that promise.

Tess's Home

JD stretched and frowned as he looked around him and tried to get his bearings. He pulled himself up in the bed and yawned, recalling how Tess had insisted he and his kids stay with her so she could take them to Reins with her the next day to give him the chance to rest.

Rest? JD huffed. More like collapsing with exhaustion than sleeping. His weary body had betrayed him, because his mind had wanted to go over what had happened, if only to banish the images from his dreams. No such luck, though. Sleep had claimed him minutes after his head hit the pillow, and the inferno that almost took his brother away danced through his mind all night.

He frowned at a knock to the bedroom door, thinking he was alone. "Yeah?"

"Can I come in?"

"Sure." He forced a smile as Tess entered, carrying coffee, and two bacon rolls. He didn't mean to feel so down, but right now, he doubted if even his kids could raise his spirits.

Tess returned the smile, while trying not to think about the fact JD was naked in the bed, due to having no change of clothes last night. "I thought you might be hungry. Inez told me none of you had eaten for almost 24 hours. Buck's dropping some clothes over for you later, when he picks you up to go to the hospital."

Taking the offerings, JD nodded. "Thank you. Not just for this, but for all you did for us yesterday. Lord knows, you have enough of your own concerns, without all this."

"It was no trouble," she assured. "We're setting up for Monday. I'm on a break, and have to get back, soon. Is there anything else I can get for you?"

Their gazes locked and for a moment, the pair was lost in a warm and comforting sensation. JD shook it off. "Nah, I'm good, thanks." He suddenly remembered he was naked. "Uh, Buck won't be long, will he?"

Tess smiled. "I gave him a key, and there's a robe on the chair over there. He said about..." she looked at her watch. " hour."

Watching her leave, JD sipped his coffee. 'Ah, Vin...' His stomach was in knots, so he pushed the rolls away. There was a lot he wanted to talk over with his brothers... so many things he needed to understand. He wondered if he could persuade them all to get together for a weekend once Vin was home.

Denver Memorial, Noon

Chris gazed at his wife as she sat down next to him at Vin's bedside. He hadn't been expecting her. "Hello, beautiful."

She glanced at Vin. "Any change?" She watched Chris shake his head. Pausing for a moment, she took his hands in hers. "Can we step out; I need to talk to you?"

Chris frowned. "Are you able to say it here? Josiah just left, and JD and Buck are on their way up." He glanced over at Vin. "I don't want to leave him alone."

Although it might not be the way she would have planned, or romantic, it did seem fitting to share her news in a place where life was so precious. "Sure." Cait took a breath, and squeezed his hands tighter. "Doctor Stewart called."

Alarm coloring his features, Larabee swallowed hard. "What?"

Raising his hands to kiss them, Cait smiled as tears fell from her lashes. "We have to see him this afternoon at two, there's a lot to discuss..." Releasing one of his hands, she touched his face. "I...I'm having your baby."

The emotion overwhelmed Chris as her words seeped into his tired mind. "We...we made a baby? But...but I thought you..." His hands were now free, and he was holding her arms. "Oh my God..." As his eyes filled, he pulled her in, and kissed her, long and deep. Pulling back, he laughed. "I can't believe it...we're having a baby."


Buck peeked into Vin's room to see Ezra sitting with the unconscious Texan, and holding a one-sided conversation. Seeing Ezra wink, Buck guided JD to some chairs and they waited their turn to go see their brother. Running a weary hand over his face, the brunet eyed his youngest brother. JD looked as tired as Buck felt. Clearly, like him, the younger man had not slept peacefully last night. Hoping to ease the unspoken tension, he nudged him.

"So...naked in a pretty lady's home, huh?"

Raising his gaze from the floor, JD half grinned. "Cut it out, Buck."

"Aw, come on, you knew I wouldn't let something like that pass, didn't you?" He watched JD sit back, and stare at his hands, finally looking up at Buck.

"Do you have any idea how it feels for me to know...albeit well out of my control...but to know three women successfully took me out in the space of two years?"

Buck frowned. "You're not dwelling on things we all thought you put behind you, are you? You must know how we all think about..."

JD halted him. "No...well, not so much these days." He licked his lips, and looked at Buck. "Talia..." he shifted in his seat. "Talia made me feel...dirty. I let things escalate way too fast because I hadn't gotten laid in over a year, and it blinded me to everything else going on around me."

Buck shook his head. " can't think like that, kid. That little bitch was a pro and fooled all of us, not just you."

JD shrugged. "I know, was me she laid with Buck. When I look back, we were never really friends, just two people...I thought...having fun together."

Buck nodded, slowly. "And Tess?" He caught a flash of something in JD's eyes before it disappeared.

"Tess is...special. I really like how our friendship's developing, but...that's it. I'm not ready to want more right now, and I'm trying very hard not to mislead her, or allow things to get away from us. I just...I just really need a friend right now, and I'm pretty sure that's how she feels, too." He smiled at the comforting hand now squeezing the back of his neck.

"Kid," Buck said, softly. "Women are...wonderfully intricate creatures. Most of the time they can make your heart soar, and your weary body feel alive, or just be there for you to help you through the day. A woman's friendship is a precious gift, and I have every reason to believe you and Tess have a real nice camaraderie building. I also reckon you got the right idea, Kid. Letting it nurture with time will make it all the sweeter should you two ever develop feelings for each other. I'm sorry I teased you..." he winked. "But you make it so darned easy sometimes." JD grinned, looking up as Ezra exited Vin's room. They both stood and smiled at Ezra.

Buck placed a hand on JD's back. "Go ahead, kid...go tell Vin we're waiting on him." He and Standish watched him enter the room and close the door.

Ezra pointed after JD. "Problem?"

Buck shook his head. "Nah...just trying to work through some things is all." He smiled. "How's that beautiful lady of yours doing, did you tell her about Vin yet?"

The southerner nodded. "After talking with the doctor and being assured she was well enough to take the news, I shared the details of Vin's accident with her." He smiled. "She's a strong lady, and while I have no doubt it hit her hard, her only concerns were for Kelli, Brodie, and all of you. I left her sleeping to relieve Chris, and check on Vin, but I'm heading back there, now."

Buck nodded. "Give her our love, and tell her, me and the Kid will be down to check on her, later."

Ezra smiled and they shook hands. "I will...thank you."

Doctor Stewart's Office, 2:00 pm

The nurse had escorted him and Cait into the doctor's private office, and simply told them to wait. Chris squirmed in his chair. He was excited about the prospect of becoming a father again, but concerned, too, about Cait's health. Glancing to his wife, he squeezed her hand; his normally calm, cool, and collected Cait, now looked scared, and anxious.

"I love you, Cait. Whatever we face, we face together."

Cait nodded. "We can do this, right?"

Before Chris answered, Doctor Stewart walked in, smiled when he saw both Larabees, and then sat at his desk. "I'm glad you're both here. Before you ask, yes I double-checked the blood work. Cait, you are definitely pregnant. The calculations of how far were a bit more difficult since your cycles have been fewer and farther between over the past year, but...I can tell you that you are likely six weeks along, which would make you due the end of March."

"I conceived, right around our wedding day," Cait whispered.

Doctor Stewart smiled. "Now, I am not an obstetrician, which is why I am giving you the names of two who are, and they both specialize in high risk pregnancies. I know it's fashionable for women to postpone getting pregnant these days, but in your case, you were already showing all the signs of menopause. Change of life babies can be a blessing, but going through to full term can also carry challenges. A woman over forty-five has a fifty percent chance of miscarriage. On top of that, one of the biggest risks involves chromosomal complications such as Down syndrome, and I strongly advise genetic counseling. You also are at higher risk of developing other complications during pregnancy, including gestational diabetes, preeclampsia, and placental problems." Seeing the distress on both their faces, the doctor sought to reassure them. "I'm not trying to scare you, but I do want you informed. Under careful supervision, by an obstetrician experienced with high-risk pregnancies, you could also sail through this one with no problems."

"You said we need to see someone who specializes with high risk pregnancies." Chris did not want to think the worst until they had more information.

"Yes," the doctor passed Chris a piece of paper, "Doctor Helen Weeks, and also Doctor Susan Ryder are both excellent. I suggest you choose one, and make an appointment immediately."

Cait nodded. "I recognize both those names."

"Doctor Stewart stood, walked around the desk, and laid his hand on Cait's shoulder." You are otherwise in excellent health. Talk to one of those fine doctors, learn all you can, and then decide what you want to do. I wish you both the best of luck."

Chris stood, shook hands with the doctor, and then escorted Cait out the door. He understood that the doctor was just being thorough, but he knew something the doctor did not know. Cowboy told him several weeks ago. 'You still have a few surprises coming in your future', and only last month that 'Fate had a gift waiting for him.' Smiling, Chris now understood, and with Cowboy and Fate working together, he was not worried at all about his wife, or the newest little Larabee.


The Rocky Motel, Denver, Saturday Night

The time Troy Allen spent on L7 land had been fruitful in one extent...he had discovered a way on and off the land where he would be undetected. He had also overheard two older men discussing new security measures, which would encompass the properties at the edges of he knew he was running out of time.

His frustrations had come to the fore due to the proximity of his wife, but his inability to get access. She was rarely alone...untouchable...unreachable. He smiled. But not for much longer. He had done a lot of wandering during his time camping out on the land, and he knew exactly how and where to get his wife alone. It was now just a matter of timing it right.

Just thinking about Tess set his libido twitching again. He longed to hold her, and caress her. Once he reminded her of her place, he would do just that. Meanwhile, he had an itch that needed scratching, so he donned some clean clothes, sucked his dinner from his teeth, ran a hand through his mussed, dirty, blond hair, and set off for the town's nightlife.

The Brass Rail Club, Denver

Allen's gaze roamed the lights and bars of the town's little corner of hell. He knew what he wanted, but first, a drink. Taking up a stool at the bar he decided on, he ordered a whiskey, and turned to rest back against the counter as he perused the bar's interior. Topless girls were open-legged and shimmying up and down poles while men leered at them. The music was loud and Troy threw back his drink as he watched the sensual spectacle, requesting another whiskey. By his fourth, he had spied what he was looking for, and sitting upright to promote his still lithe, six foot-two-inch frame, he smiled.

Monique's luck this evening seemed distinctly out as she sipped on her martini, and stared around at the fat, greasy, sweaty men surrounding her. Still, one more pole dance, and most of these yahoos would be ready to spout like 'Old Faithful', and the prospect of a night's easy money kept her sitting in the booth opposite the bar. A new customer at the counter drew her attention. He had light eyes that seemed to bore into her very soul as he smiled at her. He was not like the usual clientele, and she found herself drawn to his easy smile and long, slim torso. Maybe this would be one night she could escape the five or so 'two minute wonders' she usually picked up. As he stood, and then approached her, she licked her lips in anticipation.

Troy's eyes flashed at the trim, dark-haired brunette, pleased to see her return his interest. Easing himself off the stool, he ambled over to her booth. "Can I buy you a drink?"

"My drink's cost a hundred, and I take an hour to enjoy it." She winked.

Troy grinned, and offered his hand. "Sounds perfect. What'll it cost for extras?"

"I'm open to negotiation." She smiled, taking his hand, and walking with him to the door.

"Awesome. You're in for a good time, Sugar."

"Thank God." They both laughed, and left together.

Pit Stop Motel, Sunday, 2:00 am


"My name's Monique,'re payin', so I guess Tess is fine."

Troy looked down at the still partially clothed brunette, tenderly trailing his fingers along her jaw.

Monique, eyes closed, sighed. "Mmmm...wonderful..." Her eyes flew open as he ripped her blouse and bra from her body. "Wha...?" A powerful blow to her face rendered her semiconscious.

"You're...all...the...same!" Troy spat out, his words punctuated by closed-fisted blows to the girl's delicate features. Ignoring the screams as nails raked at him in desperation, he kept hitting, enjoying the sight of her blood, and the sound of crunching cartilage. "You're all nothing but a bunch of trashy dressing whores." He continued raining blows all over the now unconscious woman's torso, as he raped her.

Now sitting naked in the dark, one leg draped over the side of the wicker chair he was occupying, Allen sucked in a lungful of nicotine and toxins as he smoked his cigarette, and stared at the woman on the bed. Exhaling, he sighed. This had been nowhere near as satisfying as he had hoped. It was time to make his move...time to take back his wife...and no one was about to get in his way this time.

Once he was dressed and was ready to move out, Troy walked over to the bed, and tapped Monique's disfigured face. She moaned, softly, but didn't wake. "You have to needed to learn you can't screw around with me. This is your fault; I hope I helped you see where you've been going wrong." Tossing a fifty-dollar bill at her prone form, he sneered. "You weren't all that good, girl. Be grateful I paid at all."


Climo Wallace was a quiet little man, and the last person one would imagine a traveling salesman to look like. Still, he had sold funeral plots for over ten years now, and though he would never make his fortune, he did okay.

Living out of motel rooms had become his life since his wife had left him eight years earlier. Hearing couples having sex through the thin adjoining walls had also become 'the norm' for him...he even found it helpful toward his own, unaccompanied carnal needs, and had been enjoying himself this evening, courtesy of the really noisy pair next door...until the scream.

It became clear, seconds later, that the noises now were not from sex games. He hunkered down in his bed, and tried to ignore the sickening sounds of pummeled flesh. Once it went quiet, he listened intently. He finally ventured to the window, the curtains twitching when he heard a door slam. Wallace watched a man leave the room, dip his head down, walk toward the parking lot, and pull away in a truck. Climo paced for a while, unsure, or unwilling, he couldn't be certain which, to get involved. His conscience won out, and he tiptoed from his room to the window next door to peek through the gap in the curtains.

The sight of the naked, beaten, unconscious woman splayed out on top of the bedcovers, stole his breath, and made him nauseous. It took a moment or two to gather his thoughts before finally moving back to his room to dial 911. He prayed he was not too late.

Onlookers gathered around the taped off room as cops swarmed around in search of clues. The ambulance had pulled out a good half hour ago, taking the seriously injured hooker to the hospital. Detective Lou Masterson walked cautiously around the room, crouching, picking up, and dropping things into evidence bags as he maneuvered between the attending cops and forensics, wincing as one of the flashes from the camera caught him off-guard. Moving to Climo's room, he sat on the man's bed and smiled.

"Mind if I ask you a few questions?"

Wallace looked at him from his seat at the desk in the room. "Ain't nothing I can tell you, I hardly saw anything."

"Maybe...let's see. You told my colleague you went to investigate after you saw a man leave the room and drive away. Can you describe him?"

"Best look I got was at the truck, but the light there is kinda...yellow. If I had to take a guess, I'd say he was blond...maybe."

"Tall, short...old, young?"

Climo nodded. " least six foot, I reckon. Not real good at ages, but...maybe mid thirties?" He became animated. "I recall he was smoking...saw it glowing inside the truck."

"Good." Lou stood. "I need you to come down to the precinct; I'd like to run some mug shots by you."

Climo shrugged. "Okay, but I don't think I can help, much."

Detective Masterson clapped him on the back. "You already have, already have."

Denver Police Department, Early morning hours of Sunday

Lou Masterson studied the photograph in his hand that Wallace had picked out. Calling the Larabee home yesterday, he had learned of Tanner's accident. With that knowledge, he had told Cait he would update Chris as soon as he could.

Every available unit was looking for this maniac. It had been unnerving enough to learn the man Climo had ID'd was Troy Allen...ex-husband to a woman now known to be staying on L7 property. It was positively terrifying to hear Climo recall that the name called out during the heat of the moment by the assailant was not that of the woman, he was attacking, but of the woman, he had been stalking for three years. Lou sighed. His could not put off his meeting with Larabee much longer.

Larabee 7, Sunday, 6:00 am

Troy snuck back onto L7 just as the sun was rising, and cursed to see his campsite disturbed. He had finally found a place to get on and off the property undetected, and now it seemed the fair-haired man in the Stetson had discovered there was an intruder on the property. He seethed as he crouched in the undergrowth, watching the older man destroy his hideout, but was determined not to let this minor setback stop him. He was not going to lose his chance to reclaim what was his, and he felt the timing was perfect, or at least he had until this. He fingered the gun in his pocket, and for a brief moment considered shooting the bastard.

' Not yet...Tess first, and then ...'

Glancing around at the surrounding countryside, his mind worked overtime for a solution. Suddenly, it came to him, a sardonic smile playing on his lips. It would take some setting up, but it was the perfect distraction. For now, he would have to back off, but soon.... they wouldn't know what hit them.

Wilmington Home, 6:00 am

Buck held his wife in his arms. They had found pure bliss amid the tangled sheets, and early morning rays of the sun. Rolling over, he took her with him, holding her in his arms as they both attempted to recover from their magnificent union.

Kissing the top of her head, he asked, "You okay, Darlin'?"

Snuggling closer, Inez murmured, "ummm... More than okay, love." It had taken a while for her to heal enough for physical loving, but slowly life was returning to normal for them. The one thing she had missed the most was their early morning lovemaking.

As their racing heartbeats slowed, the call of the upcoming day crept back into their thoughts. While their life was coming together, there was a lot that needed fixing before they could put this all behind them. Vin needed to wake his ass up, Barbara and Ezra needed a healthy baby, and Troy Allen needed to be caught.

"Dad! Sarah won't give me my pink blouse." Maria yelled from down the hallway.

Inez grinned. "I think they are spoiled to 'Daddy' being home."

"Yeah, well I think you and Isabella are training 'em to yell for Dad." Heaving a big sigh, Buck swatted his wife's backside. "Guess I need to go referee." He rolled out of bed, and headed to the bathroom to dress. The never dull-for-a- moment activities in the Wilmington home had begun for the day.

Larabee Home, 7:30 am

Chris sat on his deck with a cup of coffee, and pondered on the worries, which seemed to be piling up around him. He still was not mentally able to reach Vin, and that concerned him the most. According to Doctor Gilford, weaning him from the vent was a good thing. His Texas brother was breathing eighty percent on his own now, and should be rousing, but so far...nothing. Then there was his daughter. Kelli was pushing herself, and the strain of waiting, was beginning to wear on her. Brodie finally agreed to come home yesterday to spend time with the children, so she would quit worrying about them, and could concentrate on Vin. Barbara and Ezra were also playing the waiting games, and both were on edge about the impending birth of their first child.

Also weighing heavily on his mind was Cait. He was thrilled to learn they were having a baby, but his wife was already moving into mother mode, and thinking about all the things that could go wrong. The fact that her parents were due in the first of the week did not help her anxiety. Chris hoped that when they saw Doctor Weeks, she would be able to ease Cait's fears for their child.

Finally, Lou Masterson had called at seven this morning, and said he was on his way out to discuss an important break in the Troy Allen case. Any one of these situations was enough to add stress to all their lives, and combined, it was overwhelming. He sincerely hoped the children kept Cait busy at least until Lou had been here and gone.

Brodie stepped on to the deck, and nudged Larabee out of his dream world. "It's a good thing, I'm not an enemy sneaking up on you Larabee, or you'd be in big trouble."

"You're out from the hospital?"

Sighing, Brodie sat down. "Nothing new. I spoke with Kelli about fifteen minutes ago. Vin hasn't stirred. I'm on my way up there now to give her a report on the kids, and relieve Josiah, who stayed with Kel last night, but I needed to talk to you first."

Chris nodded. He knew Brodie had spent all day Saturday with the Tanner children, attempting to ease Jason and Andi's concerns about their mother and father. "I'm listening. You want some coffee before you start?"

"Thanks, no. I've been up since five, and I'm coffeed out." Brodie leaned forward. "I rode out early to check on the stock the hands moved yesterday. What I're not gonna like."

Closing his eyes, Chris braced for something else to worry about. "Go on."

"Someone...and if I had to guess who, I'd say Allen, has been camping in a grove of trees just west of where JD is planning to build. I destroyed the campsite, and alerted Walter, but figured you should know."

"Lou Masterson is on his way out with some kind of news about Allen." Chris shook his head. "It wouldn't surprise me to find out he's the one camping on L7 property. Until we merge completely with the old Southern Breeze, and extend our security all the way to the old homestead, we're vulnerable."

"I'd bet my hat it's him, but I'm going to let you, the boys, and Walter handle it." Brodie stood. "Right now, I'm headed back to the hospital. Maybe I can convince that hard-headed daughter of yours to get some sleep, and my hard-headed son to wake up."

"I'll bring you some lunch around noon. Tell Kelli, I expect her to be sound asleep in a comfortable bed at the hotel by then. Tell your son...just tell him we're waiting."

Brodie nodded. "See you later."

Watching him go, Chris felt a chill travel the length of his spine. He had a bad feeling, and couldn't shake the thought that more trouble was heading their way.


When the call came from the gate guard that Masterson had arrived, Chris directed him to tell Lou to meet him at the barn. On the walk over, he ran into Buck, who was on his way to talk to him, and asked Wilmington to join him. Whatever the Denver Detective had to say concerned him, too.

While they waited, Buck told Chris, "I was coming over to tell you I'm going ahead with the Reins Rodeo plans. Vin may not be in shape to participate, but hopefully he'll be home recuperating by then."

Chris glanced at Buck. "He has to wake up first. I'm giving him one more day to rest, and if he's not awake ...we might have to hit him with some brother mojo or something."

Placing his hand on his brother's shoulder, Buck said softly. "He's made it this far, I know he's coming back to us, Chris."

"Any day now would be fine with me." Chris watched Masterson drive up, and exit his car. "Morning Lou."

Lou had been up all night, and was not in the mood to ease into his news. It was not going to be pleasant, no matter how he told them "Chris, Buck, I was sorry to hear about Tanner. I hope he's better real soon." He sighed. "I hate having to be the bearer of more bad news, but...this can't wait."

"Figured it was urgent, or you wouldn't be calling me at the crack of dawn on a Sunday morning." Chris inhaled deeply. "Best get straight to it, Lou."

Nodding, he moved closer to the two agents. "Allen damn near beat a hooker to death last night. She's in critical condition at Mercy. A witness ID'd him, and said...he kept calling the woman Tess. Our boy has escalated from stalking and assault, to assault with intent and rape; if she doesn't make it, we'll up the charges to murder. He's spiraling out of control, and there's no telling what he'll do next. I have an APB out on him, but so"

"He's been camping out on L7 property, too." Chris noted the surprised look on Buck's face. "Brodie found it this morning...not far from where JD's fixing to build. It has to be one else has cause to be in a position to watch your place, and Tess's."

"That sonofabitch," Buck snarled. "Right under our noses."

"Walter is already on it." Chris assured him. "I think until this guy is caught, you might have Inez suggest to Tess that she and her daughter stay at your place. CPS isn't coming back until the end of the week, and I'm going to ask Cait to hold off reopening Reins, too."

Lou agreed. "We're on it, but don't take any unnecessary chances. I'm also asking county to double their patrol units out here. If Allen is stupid enough to try and take on MCAT Agents, the County Sherriff's Department, and the DPD, he's walking on very thin ice." He reached out and shook both Buck's and Chris's hands. "I just wanted to tell you personally where we stand. I'm going to catch a couple of hours of sleep and then get back to work on tracking this bastard down."

"We'll do our part," Chris told him. "Keep in touch."

"I will." Lou nodded, walked back to his car, got in, and left.

Buck bit at his lip. "I'll pass the word on to JD. I'm sure he can help convince Tess to stay at our house."

"I'll tell Nathan and Josiah, but I don't see any point in adding to Ezra's worries right now." Chris glanced at his watch. "I want to be at the hospital by noon. Let's find Walter and arrange for some extra protection around your place, and then alert the others."

Denver Memorial Hospital, Noon

Chris carried the food Max sent up for Brodie and Kelli, telling him that fast food junk they were existing on here was not good for them. Waiting for the elevator, he grinned, thinking about how 'delicately' JD had convinced Tess to move over to Buck's house for a few days. The kid had marched in, told Tess that Inez needed her help, and to pack a bag, he was taking her and Keira over there himself. Inez took care of the rest. The poor girl never had a chance to protest.

Stepping off the elevator, and walking toward the waiting area, Chris knew something was wrong when he saw that Josiah, who should be home catching up on his sleep, instead, was still here.

Approaching him, Chris set the food on an end table, and quietly asked, "What's going on?"

Josiah turned to Chris, and the expression on his face was somber. "Gilford was here. Vin's lungs sound clear, he's breathing eighty percent on his own, and there is no sign of infection, but the doctor is concerned that he's not waking up. Since we don't know what happened during the time before we found him alive, he thinks oxygen deprivation might be an issue, and Doc ordered a round of tests." Josiah glanced at the SICU. "Brodie's in there trying to talk Kel into leaving for a while, but..."

"Did Gilford mention the possibility of brain damage in front of her?"

Josiah sighed. "He didn't pull any punches, Chris."

"Damn," Chris said as he sat down. His mind was reeling from this new development. Not sure how he was going to deal with the possibility, he damn sure did not know how to advise his daughter. "It'll take more than Brodie and me to drag her out of here."

"I know it doesn't sound good at the moment, but I think you should read this," Josiah handed him a book. "I found this passage yesterday, and spent part of the night reading our Legend book to Vin."

Chris took the Legend book from Josiah. It seemed that every time one of them reread it, something new popped up relevant to whatever they were experiencing. Larabee opened it to the place Josiah had marked, and read aloud...

'In each incarnation of the seven, one is chosen as a Heart Warrior. The heart is the gateway to the Unseen World, to the Spirit World. It takes real concentration to do this. To connect to our own heart is a mental state. This mental state is our inner stillness. The Heart Warrior must go through a learning transition, sometimes needing to break from the earthly plain to understand the depths of his responsibility to the others.'

Sighing, Chris first looked at Josiah, and then to the cubicle where Vin lay. "You think Vin is our Heart Warrior, and all of this has to do with strengthening his mental abilities? To connect us all to the legacy we've been given?"

"I think each of us will face a test of our individual strengths. Yours started when you had that stress attack. You learned to let go of the things you felt you had to control." Josiah nodded toward the SICU. "Vin is making his own journey, and I believe once he finds his answers, he'll return to us."

Chris considered Josiah's words. If he was right, then it would explain why and how Vin survived the fire. The eternal circle of seven protected him. It also would mean that each of them faced a test of their own. His first instinct was to call Cowboy on it and demand an explanation, but... this group of seven was Chris's to lead, and if this was all part of a grander scheme of things, then they would have to use their gifts to help Vin find his way home.

"We'll let Gilford run his tests, but I want all six of us here tomorrow morning. If it takes every ounce of strength we can collectively muster...we're going to drag that Texan back from wherever he is, and hold on to him until he's strong enough physically, to hold on for himself."

' Unseen to the human eye, Cowboy stood by, watching with his brothers. They glanced from one to another, and grinned...their charges were growing, and beginning to realize that they held the power to keep their seven intact. While they still had many lessons to was a good start.'


Larabee Home, 5:00 am

The dreams that woke him were full of memories from long ago lives, and special moments between him and his younger brother. The problem was that they were 'his' memories, not Vin's that haunted his night. Careful not to wake Caitlyn, Chris quietly slipped out of bed, pulled on his clothes, and headed for a place to clear his mind. Standing on his deck, Chris watched the brilliant display of heat lightning performing in the distance. It was fascinating to watch, but useless. The fire that had put Vin in the hospital was under control, and no longer a threat, but Larabee knew that for L7 to be safe, they needed rain and lots of it...sooner, rather than later. More importantly, though...he had to find a way to reach Vin. Directing his thoughts to their Legends of the Quest lessons....Chris assessed what he knew.

'Our past is the past. Our future is what we choose to make it... we have to believe, and listen to our hearts. Remembering doesn't change who we are, it only strengthens the solidarity the seven of us have already formed. The skills we all possess will intensify. Our minds have already recorded the events we are trying to explain, and there is no need to discuss what all of you already inherently know. Cowboy had told him to 'Quit questioning, and start listening. 'Your wisdom, Chris, is all they need, and it is you, who will lead 'this' assembly of seven warriors into the future.'

The wind picked up, and Chris could hear the whispers of their ancestors, "You have to believe it... not wait until you see it first, touch it, and then believe it... You have to say it from the heart. The heart is the source of emotions, which can cause unbelievable things to happen. Our Heart Warriors bind the lessons from our past to our future."

"Heart Warrior, "Chris repeated softly, nodding his understanding. While they all had a role to perform within the seven, Vin's designated task was to take this journey for them, and then use his visions to help meld their individual strengths into a force of one. 'Our greatest strength is our solidarity.'

Cait quietly walked up beside her husband, and handed him a steaming cup of coffee. "Did you find your answers?'

"Yeah...I think I did." Slipping one arm around her waist, he kissed the top of her head. "How are you feeling this morning?

"Good...especially after our talk last night." Cait took a deep breath. "We've been given a gift, and it's foolish to worry about what if, or question what we should do. When we see Doctor Weeks, I want her to understand that we have no decision to make. We choose life...period." She tilted her head, looking up at the man she loved. "Together we can handle any challenges that lay before us."

Chris smiled, and tightened his hold on her. "That we can, Lady....that we can."

Dunne building site, 06:30 am

JD yawned and checked the time. Six-thirty...the workers were due any time now. As he stood in the meadow where his house would stand, he glanced behind him, into the grove where Allen had camped. He hadn't been able to help himself, coming up here early, courtesy of Isabella and Inez taking his kids last night, to see where Allen had spied on them. Glancing around the remnants of the camp caused him to shudder at the realization of its proximity to Tess, Keira, and Inez, which meant in actuality, Allen had slipped past them all. He recalled his time at Tess's home when he made it impossible for her to refuse to go with him to Buck's house. His words and actions, while determined, had been gentle, but at the very start of his visit, he remembered how just for a second or two, Tess had shrunk away from his touch. The look on her face had crushed him, a look, he determined, he would never be the cause of again.

She had rallied instantly, her common sense overcoming her flashback of fear. JD, though, had not missed seeing the mental damage Troy had inflicted on her, and decided that Buck would have to stand in line...Allen needed to pay for what he had done to Tess and Keira, first.

JD had not helped himself either, when curiosity got the better of him and he accessed the report on the hooker Allen had allegedly beaten. Its details did not sit well in his gut and added fuel to his personal anger over what Tess must have endured at the hands of this madman. Lunatic...he nodded to himself. Yep, that's what this man was all right, a bone-fide, needs to be in a padded cell, straitjacket also required, loony, or...dead. Dunne shook himself. No, he was better than that. Besides, death was too easy for that slimy bastard. He needed to feel pain, to suffer the same way his victims the very least.

The sounds of vehicles snapped JD back to the here and now, a grin forming as a familiar figure ambled up the hill toward him. "Hey, Buck."

"Morning, kid. I hope you don't mind me joining you."

JD grinned at the big man. "Are you kidding me? I can't think of anyone else I'd rather have with me than you or one of the others." His features saddened as the image of Vin in the hospital bed flashed through his mind. This day would be perfect if Tanner would wake up, too.

Buck squeezed his shoulder. "We see this started, grab some breakfast, and then it's to the hospital to meet up with the others. Chris is determined we're gonna break ground in more than one way, today, kid...this is gonna be a good day."

"Mister Dunne?"

With a nod of determination to Buck, JD turned to face the man climbing out of a large truck, meeting his extended hand and shaking it. "Yes sir and you must be Mister Flintock."

"Call me Jed. I like to work on first name basis with my clients, if that's okay?"

Dunne nodded. "Sure. In that case, I'm JD and this is my neighbor and brother, Buck."

Buck and Jed nodded to each other, while a huge digger trundled into view. JD gasped slightly as a mix of nerves and excitement caught his breath.

Jed smiled. "We're gonna build you a great home, JD. Trust me. I'll go over each level of work with you. That way, if we need to make changes or adjustments, we can. Today, we'll mainly level the ground, and start digging the basement. Tomorrow my plumbers will be on-site to begin their work.

JD returned the smile, nodding. "I plan to stay involved as much as possible, myself." He handed the construction boss a piece of paper. "I have things to do today, but here's my cell number if you need me."

Jed nodded. "Thanks. Now, if you're ready, we'll get started."

JD was grateful to feel Buck at his back, his hands supportively on JD's shoulders as the scoop of the backhoe made the first impact to the ground. JD smiled to himself. This was it...the beginning of a new era for him and his family.

Doctor Weeks Office, 8:30 am

Helen Weeks smiled as she sat down opposite the couple sitting in her office. Opening Cait's chart, she began, "All the test results look good. Cait, you are in excellent health, and I see no reason for your age to be a problem for us. The only discrepancy I found was in Doctor Stewart's math. I calculate your due date as April seventh." She looked up. "I do recommend genetic screening, but not until you are at least twelve weeks along. Our immediate goal is to make it through the first trimester. For now, I'll monitor you closely, and I believe with a few adjustments to your work schedule, you will do fine."

"What kind of adjustments, Doctor?" Cait was willing to do whatever was necessary.

"I want you to cut your work week down to no more than twenty hours. Rest when your body tells you to, take your vitamins, and see me once a week." Doctor Weeks sighed." I would tell you to reduce the stress in your life, but my experience with Kelli has convinced me that when it comes to Larabees or Tanners that is not always an option. Just do what you can to not overly stress yourself."

Chris squeezed his wife's hand. "I plan on taking good care of her, Doctor, and want to be as involved as possible. Vin told me you were great about answering questions."

Helen laughed. "He would know, he had plenty of them." She cleared her throat. "I visited with Kelli, and checked on Vin yesterday. I understand this is an intense time for the family, just make certain you both pace yourselves. There is no reason at this point to make big changes in your lives, but be aware that if I think it's necessary, my instructions could change at any time."

"Whatever you say, we'll do." Chris glanced at Cait. "We'll try to make this pregnancy less eventful than Vin and Kelli did with their twins."

Doctor Weeks stood and walked around the desk, placing her hand on Cait's shoulder. "I understand that going twenty seven years between pregnancies can be scary. Concentrate on your baby, and enjoy this time...if we run into challenges, we'll cross that bridge when we get there." She handed Chris the paperwork for their next appointment, and the prescription for pre-natal vitamins. "I'll see you next week, but don't hesitate to call me if you have any questions, or concerns."

Chris stood with Cait, they said their goodbyes, and then he escorted her out of the office. Their journey was only beginning, but they were off to a good start.

Barbara's Hospital Room

"Come on in," Barbara said when Chris and Cait pushed the door open. "It seems like forever since I've seen either of you."

Ezra stood, allowing Cait to sit next to the bed. "She wants to hear all the latest goings on outside this hospital."

Chris smiled. "Cait's catching up herself, but I'd bet you two will find plenty to talk about.

Ezra leaned down to kiss his wife. "I'll be back as soon as I can, but..."

"Don't worry about me; you do what you need to, I'll be fine. Give Kelli my love and I expect a full report on Vin when you get back." Barbara returned Ezra's kiss, and watched as he and Chris left. Turning to Cait, she sighed. "I know Ezra is worried, how are the others holding up?"

Cait shook her head. "You know how it is...when one hurts, they all do, but Chris believes Vin will be all right, and I trust his instincts." Leaning forward she patted Barbara's hand. "I want to hear about you and Baby Standish."

"Baby Standish," Barbara smiled, "is my favorite subject." The two women made themselves comfortable, and began discussing babies and husbands, trying not to think too hard about the drama unfolding in the SICU.

SICU Floor, 9:00 am

Chris and Ezra stepped off the elevator, and turned towards the right to join their brothers in the waiting area. As they approached, they could hear Buck's booming voice above the rest.

"The last thing Vin needs is the damn doctors arguing over him."

Nathan's tone was softer, but Chris recognized the note of disgust in his voice. "It was all I could do not to intervene; fortunately Kelli gave them what for, even though her voice is almost gone, and threatened to move Vin to a private nursing home if they didn't get out of her sight."

Walking up, Chris looked at Nathan, and said, "From the beginning please."

Nodding, Nathan sighed. "I've been here all night, and watched a steady stream of 'interested medical personnel' come and go. It seems Vin is something of a celebrity around here. Not many patients arrive with a tree limb stuck through their least not alive. Anyway, our Vin has drawn a lot of attention, and I guess Kelli had enough. She talked to Doctor Gilford, and appeared satisfied with what they decided..."

Chris interrupted, "What did Gilford say?"

"He said Vin was doing better than he expected. He's off the vent, and breathing on his own, there's no signs of pneumonia, no infection, and no fever, he's just hasn't woke up yet. Gilford also said it would be a while before Vin healed, but he was optimistic. The tests he ran did not indicate any reason he should not be awake, and from what he could tell there was no damage from lack of oxygen to the brain. He and Kelli agreed to move Vin to a private room, and Doc said he would arrange it."

"So, what's the problem?"

"When Gilford left two more doctors showed up...that's when the shit hit the fan. The two other doctors, both young opportunists in my opinion, came up here, and started by telling Kelli they wanted to run more tests. That they wanted to document Vin's ' amazing case' for some medical journal, and while they respected Doctor Gilford's abilities, they felt he was mistaken. No human could survive the intensity of that fire unscathed, and then the surgery without brain damage. She said no. Then they made a grave mistake...they started talking to her like she was hurting Vin by not getting another opinion, and arguing with her, and then..."

Chris nodded. "I know my daughter....then the shit hit the fan."

"Yep, and then some." Nathan shook his head. "She ripped into both of them. If it hadn't been for Brodie, I think she would have done some serious damage, too. He stepped in, physically restrained her, told them to leave, and I called Doctor Gilford, who came down and left orders that no doctor other than him was to examine Vin."

Chris glanced through the glass and saw Kelli in with her husband, and then looked back to his brothers. "The only thing Vin needs is the power of seven. We'll wait until he's moved, and then I want to recreate what we think happened out there."

Josiah nodded. "I think you're on to something Chris. Vin's injuries are real, and we know they'll take time to heal, but whatever kept him alive is more than any tests can explain. It's connected to all of us, our past, and the code our Legend books gave us to live by."

"Where's Brodie?'" Ezra asked.

"He went down to the accounting department to give them a check. It seems they were in a snit about Kelli insisting on a private room, and insurance only covering the cost of a semi-private." Buck explained.

"I want to talk to Kelli. Would one of you go in with Vin for a while?" Chris needed to explain to her what he wanted to do.

JD stood up. "I'll stay with him. I want to tell him about the groundbreaking on my new house anyway."

Chris walked with JD to the door, and motioned for Kelli to come out. JD slid into the chair she vacated, and started talking to Vin.

"Hi Dad," Kelli croaked out, readily accepting his arm around her shoulder.

Frowning, Chris did not like what he was hearing. "You sound awful."

Kelli shook her head. "I'm fine, just been talking to Vin non-stop and my voice is going."

"I don't reckon your encounter earlier helped either."

"Probably not, but my husband is not here for them to run tests on like a damn guinea pig. Doctor Gilford is not overly worried, and I know Vin will wake up when he's ready." She leaned into Chris, and fought back the tears, which threatened to fall. "Vin's always told me he was with me no matter where we were, and I'm really tryin' to hold on to that, but I feel so lost. I need him, Dad."

"I know, Honey." Chris hugged her, and then guided her to a chair, sitting down next to her. "When are they moving him?"

"Sometime within the next hour or so, I reckon. Gilford's keepin' the chest drain in a few more days, and givin' him extra oxygen through a nasal cannula. He's still on pain meds, but Doc says physically all he needs is time to heal. As for why he's not wakin' up... if Vin doesn't come round soon, he said we'll try some other options if necessary, but I know he hears me..."

Chris squeezed her hand. "I think I know how we can reach Vin, but you'll have to trust me on this one. Once he's in a private room, I'd like to try something. If it works, then I expect you to get some proper rest. Vin will need you while he recovers, but you won't do him much good if you wear yourself down."

Kelli nodded. "I trust you dad, and know you wouldn't do anythin' to hurt Vin. So, whatever you have in mind...we'll try."

Chris saw Brodie coming down the hallway towards them. "The boys and I will stand guard on Vin. I want you to go downstairs, have some breakfast, and walk outside to get some fresh air before you come back. I'm sure Brodie won't mind going with you."

"He would like that very much." Brodie heard Chris's suggestion and agreed. "I got all the accounting stuff taken care of, and breakfast sounds good."

Kelli glanced at Vin's door, sighed, and then decided. "We won't be long." She stood and walked with Brodie to the elevator.

Chris waited until the elevator door closed and called Josiah, Buck, Nathan, and Ezra over. "Ezra, while we wait, would you change places with JD? I want to hear every detail the four of them can recall about Vin's accident."

Ezra nodded. "I'm on my way." He walked over and motioned for JD to come out of Vin's room, and took his place, allowing his brothers a chance to confer.


It took longer than they expected to get Vin moved, but by late afternoon, he was in a private room. Doctor Gilford came in to check on him, and once he was satisfied that his patient was stable, he told the nurses to leave Vin alone with his family, and then left.

Josiah explained to Kelli and Brodie what they were going to do. "I know you both understand the unique circumstances, which revolve around the seven of us. We believe Vin was protected by the power of seven during the fire, and that same power is what will help him return to us."

Brodie knew about Tracker, and while he never claimed to understand it all, he was supportive of the idea. "I'm very familiar with that special link Tanner men have with the past, and I assume it works pretty much the same for the six of you. What do you wants us to do?"

"Kelli, I want you on one side of Vin, and Brodie, you on the other to watch the door." Chris indicated where they should sit. "We're going to form a circle around him; the way we believe our ancestors did to protect him from the fire. Keep talking to him. We're going to attempt to merge our mental energy, and our hearts to call to our brother."

Kelli remembered the way Vin did that at their cabin between the two of them. "Vin's done was an amazing experience, but it drained him fast...he was only able to hold the mental energy for about a minute."

Buck quipped, "I've been called a lot of things in my life, but no one has ever had cause to call me minuteman."

JD shook his head. "Buck, you have a warped sense of humor."

"You're just figuring that out, JD?" Nathan said with a smile, "We've known it for a while now, but we still love him."

Ezra was ready for the challenge. "Vin might have figured it out first, but now it's our turn to perfect it."

Josiah realized that it was nerves driving his brothers' words, and if he were honest with himself, he would admit he was just as nervous. "There's six of us...we should be able to hold on long enough to reach him."

"We 'will' reach him...we have the power, it's time we started using it." Chris waited until Kelli and Brodie were ready, and then reached across the top of Vin's bed for Buck's hand, the other he extended to Josiah, who reached for Ezra's. Nathan held on to Ezra's other hand, and took JD's who completed the link with Buck. Closing their eyes, they concentrated, moving their thoughts to their hearts, reaching out to their 'lost' brother.

Kelli could feel the energy swirling around them. Holding his hand, she leaned her forehead against Vin's and whispered, "Remember your promises Tanner...feel their words, you've been gone too long...."

As the energy level rose, a hush fell over the room. Brodie divided his attention between Kelli's hopeful vigil, and the door. He knew the last thing they needed was for someone to walk in and disturb this. Glancing at his son, he looked for any visible signs of change in his condition, and the six men whose gently vibrating bodies would have been enough to observe just by themselves. Suddenly a soft collective intake of breath took the experience to another level, and all Brodie and Kelli could do was watch.

Each man sifted through his personal memories to find a special one to call Vin back to them. All at once, their thoughts merged, and they became as one mind. Powerless to stop it, the six men took a journey through time, seeing conversations and incidents between themselves and Vin, while able to observe what each brother was seeing, also. The images came fast and furious until the various days they each met up with Vin twelve years ago...then it slowed.

Now the recalled memories were more poignant, consisting of conversations and events that were either turning points in their relationships with Vin, or something deeply personal between them, bringing with them the emotions each memory held. Their breathing became rapid as they ascended to the point where they last saw or spoke to Vin. The recall brought deep sadness for Buck, Josiah, and Nathan as it took them to the moment Vin walked away during their firefighting. For JD it was tears as the images of him waving to an advancing Texan to then see his brother disappear underneath a heavy, burning bough assaulted him, allowing his brothers, for the first time, to see it through his eyes, too.

Then it came. Chris and Vin's mental link opened like a creaking door, only they all saw it...felt it...heard Vin's voice calling to them as the image of him standing in the center of a white, empty room touched their souls. Chris's whispered thoughts floated over the images. We're waiting, Tanner...we need you, Kelli needs you, the kids do, and Brodie...come home.'

For the second time in five days, Vin felt a hot, yet oddly familiar breeze whirling around him, ruffling his hair, and whispering his name. Reaching out through that link, his gaze implored them. I can't find y' me...

Six voices sounded all at once. We're here, and we're not leaving without you.'

Brodie and Kelli glanced at one another. Neither of them had missed seeing Vin twitch. It was not a monumental, bang the drum change, but it convinced the pair that the six men had reached him. In an instant, the link was broken, and while Chris, Buck, and Josiah clung wearily to the bed, Ezra, Nathan and JD slid down to the floor on their butts. A warm hand on Buck's back assured Brodie he was fine, in spite of his shaky appearance, as were Chris and Josiah, who were with Kelli. Moving to the three, who sat hunched on the floor, Brodie could see Nathan was already rising, pulling Ezra up with him.

JD looked up to see Ezra pulled to his feet, and was about to struggle to his own when strong hands gave him the momentum to push up off the floor. JD smiled weakly at Brodie. "Thanks."

For a long few moments, no one spoke. JD and Buck looked at each other and grinned, then glanced around the others, who were now, also grinning. The smiles turned into laughter and soon, despite Brodie and Kelli not understanding why, the eight of them were laughing hard and long.

Finally all settling down, JD took a breath, and said, "That was awesome." They all nodded.

Kelli touched Chris's arm. "Dad?"

Larabee smiled. "We reached him, Kel...we did it." He glanced around his brothers, a mix of love, pride, and gratitude in his features. "We've sent him the all we can only hope he takes the shortest route home."


Wilmington Home, Tuesday, 9:00 am

Buck cautiously opened the door, even though the guard at the gate called ahead, and told him there was a delivery coming his way. He frowned at the girl, who now stood on the Wilmington porch, looking beyond her to check that her van was marked with a company logo. "Can I help you?"

"Tess Allen?"

Not really focusing on the second name, Buck noted the large bouquet of beautiful flowers, and nodded. "Who wants to know?"

"There's a note." The girl smiled. Passing them over, she gratefully accepted the tip Buck gave her, and waved goodbye.

Moving the flowers to the kitchen countertop, Buck called out," Tess, delivery for you."

The young teacher walked from her temporary room into the kitchen, Inez and Isabella, both curious, not far behind her. Eying the bouquet, Tess gasped, "Oh my!" Taking the card, she pulled it from its envelope and smiled as she read the message. "'See you soon'. That brother of yours is a sweetheart, but he needn't have gone to this trouble, I'd watch the kids for him anytime."

Buck pondered her words, while more than a little surprised at JD's generosity...not that the kid was tight with money, but he and Tess were only just getting to know each other...this seemed way over the top for a thank you. Inez and Isabella fussed and cooed over the gift, and Buck felt sure there was a comment in there somewhere about husbands and flowers...or the lack of. Another knock at the door provided a much-needed distraction.

JD's head poked around the door, quickly followed by it opening further, and his twin girls entering in their usual dignified manner...squealing and running to their family as JJ, planted firmly on JD's right hip, giggled and clapped his hands at his sisters' theatrics. Daisy approached Tess with a gorgeous arrangement of yellow roses and baby's breath. The child's offering, although adorable, bemused the teacher.

"Here ya go..." Daisy whispered, loudly. "They's a fank you from daddy, but he was too shied to gived them to you hisself."

JD slapped his forehead. "Daisy! You snitch!" The little girl laughed, and taking her baby brother's hand, followed her twin toward their waiting and excited cousins.

"John Daniel...they're gorgeous, but really, these were more than generous." She pointed to the flowers on the countertop.

JD frowned, looking at them, and then reading the card. "Wow, these are neat..." he shrugged, "but they're not from me."

His words hit Tess like a sledgehammer, and she gasped, her hands going to her mouth. "Oh God...they're from...him!"

"ALLEN...HELL!" Buck yelled out, causing all three women to jump. He held up his hand to apologize. "Allen...the delivery girl asked for Tess Allen...I was so focused on the name Tess and where they had come from, I didn't pay attention...I'm sorry."

Seeing Tess trembling, JD came alongside her. "You okay?" He knew she wasn't, but he had no idea what else to say. Turning to him, her face crumbled, and she leaned in to him. That was all the invitation he needed and he held her close, as gently as he could. "I'm sorry," he whispered.

Isabella brewed some tea and Inez touched Tess on the arm. "Come...sit."

Buck and JD looked at each other.

Tess shuddered and sighed. "He's going to do it, isn't he? I'm going to die at the hands of that madman." She gazed at them. "Please...please don't let him hurt Keira."

"Tess...please..." JD was distraught at her words. "I give you my word, as long as me, Buck and the guys are living and breathing he's not gonna hurt you again. If he even dares to show his face in Denver, he's ours." He held her hands. "Please don't be scared. We're gonna get him, I swear." He felt Buck's hand squeeze his shoulder.

"Come on, Einstein...let's do some good old fashioned detective work." He guided the younger man toward the study and his computer.

When they left, Tess shuddered. "I know they mean well, but they don't know him like I do. Nothing short of death will stop him now. He knows where we are... he'll either kill us, or succeed in forcing us move on again."

Isabella passed her some tea. Inez smiled, and curled her good hand around Tess's slender wrist. "And I know these men. Troy Allen's days are numbered."

Tess sighed and sipped her tea. She wanted to believe that...she truly did.

Denver Memorial

Chris quietly pushed open the door to Vin's room, expecting to see a small crowd of family members, instead he only saw his daughter. He stood there for a moment watching her. She sat in the chair beside her husband's bed with her head resting close to his thigh. Her hand laid over his, and she was wearing what Chris recognized as one of Vin's shirt. He wished he had the power to wave a magic wand, and make everything right in her world again, but he understood, and regretted that in this instance, he could not help his child.

Stepping into the room, he said softy, "Kel, you awake?"

Kelli lifted her head, and looked at her father. "I was just ...." She sighed, "...just waitin'."

Pulling up a chair, he sat next to her. "I didn't expect to find you alone."

"I'm not alone...Vin's here." Glancing back towards the bed, she took a deep breath. "He still hasn't opened his eyes, but he has been movin' around more than he was. Buck and JD stayed a while last night after you took Cait home, and Ezra came down for a couple of hours durin' the night. Brodie was here, but he went home to have breakfast with our kids. "She shook her head, "I reckon they think I've abandoned them."

"No, they don't. I dropped Grace and Cody off at your house on my way up here, and they're doing fine. Jason and Andi have moved into yours and Vin's room, the twins miss you both, but Brodie has made a point to spend time with them. He also said to tell you he filled your list of requests, and would be up soon."

Kelli nodded. "I asked him to pick up a few things for me, since I plan on being here for the duration." Leaning back in the chair, she asked, "Cait's not with you?"

"She's taking a day to rest. Donald called last night, and said he and Lillian would be in sometime tomorrow. She wants to spend time with her parents when they get here, and... pass on some good news." Chris made sure he had Kelli's attention. "We wanted to tell you sooner, but we only found out Friday, and then the timing just didn't seem right."

When Chris hesitated, she prodded him. "Well, are you goin' to share with me?"

Nodding, he said, "Cait and I have been given a blessing...we're having a baby."

Kelli smiled broadly. "Oh Dad, that's wonderful news. I can't think of two people, who deserve the joy a baby will bring, more than you and Cait. Is she doin' okay?"

Chris chuckled. "You mean is she out of shock? Yeah...we saw Doctor Weeks yesterday, and she said so far that everything looks all right. We just didn't expect...Cait believed she was past the age of opportunity...I guess the lesson here is, we should never say anything is impossible."

Glancing at Vin, she tightened her hold on his hand. "We're happy for y'all. I'd say our new brother or sister lucked out in the parent department. Have you told the kids yet?"

"Not yet, but I thought I'd tell Jesse first. Grace and Cody are a little young to understand what it means, and until they see the would be harder to explain to them."

"You think Jesse will do okay with the news...I know he understands his place is secure with y'all, but..."

Chris interrupted her." I've thought about that myself, but I think he'll be all right....he knows we love him, and honestly... I'm going to need his help keeping Cait slowed down."

"I just bet you will..." Kelli stopped when the door opened again, smiling when she saw who it was. "Mornin', Josiah."

Josiah returned the smile, and said, "Morning, all. How's he's doing." He moved another chair close to the bed, and then sat down.

Kelli answered, "Doin' okay. Doctor Gilford was in earlier, and said his stats were up, the incisions looked good, the chest drain was clear, and he felt confident about Vin wakin' soon."

Chris felt his phone vibrate, reached for it, and said, "Excuse me." He stepped into the hallway to answer his cell. After listening, he closed his phone, and walked back in the room to the curious gazes of Kelli and Josiah.

"That was Buck, he and JD are running late, but wanted us to know they'd be up soon."

"Everything okay?" Josiah asked, but he already knew the answer, just by Chris's expression.

"Tess received flowers at Buck's house. The delivery was for Tess Allen."

Sanchez sat up, realizing the implications. "Her ex knows where she is, and is brazen enough to advertise it."

Chris nodded. "Yeah, looks like it. Bastard."

"Is Tess alright?" Kelli asked.

"Not really, understandably she's a little shaken," Chris admitted. "We need to get this guy...and fast. Buck and JD are going to do some digging around, then come here."

Josiah sighed. "Allen's escalating his actions, and getting bolder since he assaulted the girl at the motel."

"Tess is well-protected, and our security is tight. He'll have to do something rash if he expects to reach her, or anyone else on the ranch." Chris sat down again.

"From here on out, I expect he'll ramp up his obsession, and attempt to intimidate Tess as much as he can." Josiah could see where this turn of events was leading. "All bets are off about what his unstable mind will conjure up next."

Chris noted that Kelli was focusing on Vin, and not listening to his and Josiah's conversation. "Honey, we'll keep watch over Vin if you want to stretch, grab something to eat, take a nap, or just get some fresh air."

Kelli shook her head, "I got a couple of hours of sleep before Brodie left, I'm not hungry, and I'm not leavin' this room until Vin tells me to go, but..." she stood, "I do need a bathroom break."

Waiting until she entered the bathroom and shut the door, Chris told Josiah, "I'm as worried about her as I am about Vin."

"She'll be all right, Chris." Josiah looked over at Vin. "Once our young brother awakens, and gets his bearings, I'm positive he'll take charge of making her get some rest."

Both men looked up when the door opened to see Brodie walk in, dropped a bag beside the extra bed, and sat down in Kelli's vacated chair. Glancing at his son, he asked Chris, "Where's Kel?"

"Not far," Chris said, nodding towards the bathroom door. "I can't budge her from this room."

"Tell me about it." Brodie smiled. "I stopped by the hotel, gathered Kel's stuff, checked out, and settled the bill, since she won't be using it now that Vin's here. Hell, it would take a ton of dynamite to get her out of this room."

'Y'all just don't know how to handle her.'

Chris jerked his head up, and felt a wave of adrenaline hit him when he saw that Vin's eyes were open. He nudged Brodie first, then Josiah, and shouted for his daughter without breaking contact with the waking Texan. "Kel, you'd better get back in here."

'Bout time you woke up your ornery ass, Tanner.'

Kelli heard her father, and turned off the faucet, grabbing a towel to dry her hands as she rushed back into the room. "What's wrong?" Her eyes immediately sought out Vin. An emotional rush overwhelmed her, causing her heart to race when she saw the familiar blue eyes that she loved, gazing at her. Her hands shook as she dropped the towel and moved to his bedside. Leaning in close, she took his hand, and feeling him squeeze hers, she could not stop the flow of tears sliding down her cheeks. Whispering softly, she said, "God, I've missed you."

"Love you, Texas." His voice was weak, and barely audible, but Kelli heard him loud and clear.

Smiling as he observed the young couple's reunion, Josiah slipped out of the room to alert the nurses that Vin was awake, and then call the rest of the family. Brodie and Chris stood silently at the end of the bed, both satisfied to wait their turn, while their children shared a special moment, which had been a long time coming.


Doctor Gilford arrived within ten minutes, read the latest stats, and sat down beside his patient. "Vin, I realize you probably have a hundred questions, and you'll get answers for all of them, but for now, I want us to move slowly. Your body has been through a lot, and it will take time to heal properly. I expect you to have a full recovery, and it will come, but it won't be tomorrow, next week, or even next month. I'm ordering the feeding tube removed, and starting you on a soft diet. In a day or so, you'll find it easier to talk, and I want to get you on your will be painful, and you won't be running any races, but every day will be better than the next." Gilford patted Vin's uninjured side. "You made me earn my fee, Tanner, now I'll repay you by being a mean SOB. You won't like all my instructions, but you 'will' follow them." The doctor stood, giving a nod to the family members." I'll check in again before I leave for the night."

Kelli walked up and gave Gifford a hug. "Thank you for carin' enough not to let go, I promise you he'll follow every order you issue."

Deeply touched by Kelli's gesture, Gilford gave his parting words to Vin. "You scared the hell out of all of us, especially this woman. I expect you to be a model patient to make up for it." Exiting the room, he could not contain his smile...this was a win he had not expected, but he was damn glad that Tanner had proved him wrong.

Barbara's Room, Noon

Ezra watched his wife move her pillow for the fourth consecutive time. She seemed flustered, and distracted. "Are you alright, darling?"

Barbara looked at him. "I...I don't feel too good..." As she spoke, her body slumped, and she passed out.

"Oh, dear Lord...Barbara!" Punching the alarm button, Ezra barely recalled his basic first aid training...quickly, but gently removing his wife's pillows to lay her flat. In seconds, nurses and doctors were in the room and they maneuvered him toward the door.

Nathan and Rain arrived to visit, on their way to Vin's room, and were alarmed to see the frenetic activity. Spotting Ezra hovering near the door, they pulled their terrified sibling into the hallway. "What's happened?" Nathan asked.

"Nathan, thank God!" Standish almost collapsed when he saw his brother and sister- in- law. "She...she wasn't feeling well, and then she just...passed out."

Guiding Ezra's trembling body to a chair, Nathan squeezed his arm, while Rain held his hand, the latter speaking. "Don't panic yet, Ezra. It could be something simple. Either way, she's in the best place for them to monitor her and the baby. If there is a problem, they can have that baby delivered in minutes."

Before he could absorb her words, Ezra saw the doctor was approaching them. They all stood.

"Barbara's BP rose rapidly, and made her unwell. I have her stabilized for now...and I've given her a mild sedative to help her relax. Before you go in, you should know this. We've put a BP cuff on her to give us half-hourly readouts, and we're monitoring the baby, as well." She smiled. "So far there's no sign of distress, so you mustn't worry." Stepping back, she gestured for them to go into the room.

New sounds assaulted their ears as they entered. Ezra glanced at his sleepy wife, and then addressed the doctor. "What am I hearing?" He noticed Rain and Nathan smile.

"That's your baby's heartbeat, Ezra." She pointed to the machine beside the bed. "You can see the pulse on the monitor in time with the blips...see?"

Ezra stepped forward and took Barbara's hand in his. "That's our baby?" Glistening eyes looked at his wife. He smiled. "That's our baby."

She smiled, and nodded for him to sit. Clutching her hand, he did so, his gaze never leaving the monitor. He kissed her hand as one tear fell. "That's our baby." He shuddered out a breath. "Are you all right?"

"Yes," Barbara sighed. "But I may need to sleep for a little while."

"We'll see you later," Rain promised.

"We'll tell the others what's happening." With Nathan's words, the pair left as Ezra waved a hand to say goodbye.

"Do you have any questions?" the doctor asked.

Standish nodded. "Is this serious?"

"Not sure, yet," she said, honestly. "The monitoring will help us determine what we need to do next...but for now, everything's fine." Satisfied that watching the monitor kept Ezra too busy to ask more questions, she left the couple alone.

Before he could speak to Barbara, she was asleep. Relaxing back, Ezra watched the monitors. He grinned. "Well, hello there, Baby Standish...I'm your daddy."

Vin's Hospital Room

After establishing what day it was, and hearing the basic events of the past six day, Vin's attention turned to his wife. While he was reluctant to let go of her hand, he recognized the look of total exhaustion on her face. With a bit of gentle nudging from him, Kelli finally relented, and agreed to sleep for a while.

Chris waited for her to crawl into the second bed in the room, covered her, and said, "I'll stay until you wake up, so rest."

"I'll try." Kelli turned over, and was sound asleep within a couple of minutes.

Smiling, Chris drew the curtain, and returned to Vin's bedside, where Brodie was talking quietly with his son. "I'm going to head to the house, and let the kids know you're awake, but I'll be here tonight to spell Kelli." Pushing back his emotions he said, "It's good to have you back, Son."

"Thanks, Dad, for taking care of my family."

"They're my family, too, and it was my pleasure to stand in for you." Brodie looked up at Chris and Josiah. "I'll be back later."

Josiah nodded, and leaned closer to Vin's bed. "I'm leaving for a while, too. Chris can fill you in on what you don't remember."

Finally, it was just Chris and Vin. They did not need many words to cover the detail of Vin's injuries, and Larabee quickly realized that his young brother remembered more than they had expected. "We'll discuss later the deeper meaning of all that's happened; right now you need to concentrate on getting well."

Vin nodded, and rasped, "I was tryin' to find my way back, and when I heard y'all callin' me, I knew I'd make it. I..."

Placing his hand on Vin's arm, Chris shook his head. "Later, Vin...don't strain your voice. We have all the time in the world to go over it all."

The door opened again. Buck and JD had arrived for their turn with Vin. Once they finally had gotten over their excitement about him waking up, and responding to Vin's quiet request to 'tell him everything', they were doing just that.

"I know you won't be able to participate, but you should be home in time to watch." Buck enthusiastically relayed his plans for the reins Rodeo.

Vin nodded at Buck's relaying of the upcoming rodeo, but noticed the distant look on JD's face. Fixing his gaze on his youngest brother, he rasped, "What else, Kid?"

JD didn't bother to gloss over it. "You know, huh?" He saw Vin nod.

JD glanced at Buck, who nodded and winked. "After Tess received the flowers from Buck, we went on the internet and looked up the florist that delivered them. It looks like Allen's using a stolen credit card. We have the DPD scouring tapes from the mall as we speak, to see if they can plot his movements on camera. Josiah was saying, when we arrived, that he reckons Allen's planning to intimidate Tess." He sighed. "What I don't understand is...why telegraph his intentions? I mean, it's not like we didn't already know what he wanted...why lead a breadcrumb trail toward his final strike? It's almost like he wants us to catch him."

"Never been caught..." Vin whispered. "He reckons he got us beat."

JD's head dropped as he stared at the bed rail. "What if he has?" he said, softly, raising his head. "I mean, we're right with her and he's still finding ways to get to her."

Buck squeezed JD's shoulder. "Just things, Kid. Unpleasant, yeah, but it proves just how much we've gotten to him. He can't get close, that's why he's on this course, now. Allen's determined to keep up the momentum until he can figure out his next plan."

JD looked guiltily at Vin. "'s's really getting to me, you know? I hate seeing Tess so scared."

Tanner smiled. "Y'all know I hate bullshit...thanks for tellin' me."

Nathan stuck his head in the door and motioned for Chris to join him in the hallway.

Standing, Chris stepped outside the room. "You can come in, Vin's back, and I don't think he's leaving again anytime soon."

"We will, but I thought you should know about Barbara." Nathan told him about the scare she gave Ezra. "She's all right for now, and in good hands, but I wasn't sure about saying anything in front of Vin."

Chris sighed deeply. "Damn, it doesn't end for our family....when are we going to catch a break?"

Park Meadows Mall, late afternoon

Sporting a pair of non-prescription glasses Troy Allen made his way through the stores. Picking out a dress, he took it to the checkout. As the cashier placed it in a bag, he smiled. "It's for my wife."

"Lucky lady. Is it for a special occasion?"

"Not really," he said, jauntily. "Just wanted to show her how much I love her."

"Wow," the assistant smiled. "What a nice guy you are. I hope she appreciates you, honey."

"Well, she had an affair, and a child by the man," he lied. "Sadly, the child died. She realized what a mistake she'd made and begged to come home. Of course, I welcomed her with open arms. I mean...when you love someone, you'll do anything for them, right?"

"Uh huh..." the girl was taken in hook, line and sinker. She leaned in. "Hey, if she doesn't want you...I do!"

Troy laughed. "Aaah, there's only one girl for me. Thanks, anyway." As he left the store, he laughed to himself 'And they wonder why they get into trouble. God, women just...ask for it.'

Reaching his truck, he sat in the parking lot for a while. Troy pulled out his phone and flicked through his pictures, playing the short video of Tess and JD here, at this very mall, drinking coffee. "I hope you liked your flowers, baby. There's plenty more surprises coming your way." Freezing the frame, he glowered at JD's image. "You too, Mister. You're gonna learn the hard way not to mess with me, or my wife."


Larabee Home, Wednesday, 5:00 am

For the first time since Vin's accident, Chris had slept without those horrible, haunting dreams. He awoke feeling rested and invigorated, positive now that Vin coming back to them was the start of a better phase in their lives.

Turning to his side, he gazed lovingly at the naked, sleeping form of his beautiful wife. Her body was already beginning to show tiny signs of the life growing inside of her.. His emotions rose to the fore as he finally had time to appreciate the gift they had been given. God, he loved this woman, and the idea that he had created a new life with her, excited him

"Was thinking," she whispered, opening her eyes to look at him. "We haven't celebrated our good news, yet."

With a growl, Chris wrapped his arms around Cait and pulled her against him, their kisses long and passionate as their libidos took over and called the shots. It was a celebration to remember.

Davis Caravan Park, Denver, 8:00 am

Troy Allen looked at his watch, and smiled. Delivery number two was on its way. He fingered the DVD disc on the table where he was sitting, his heart speeding up as he recalled its contents. This was a special surprise. He had carried the old VHS tape around with him since Tess had left him, and it had been a long time since he last viewed it. But, thanks to...he read the stolen credit card...Mister Anthony Trante, he not only had a new DVD player to watch it on, but two DVD copies from the old tape to of which would soon be winging its way to a very special lady.

Hooked up and ready to go, he pressed play, and, unzipping his pants, he took his member in hand to watch.

Wilmington Home, 8:30 am

Walter had called to warn them another courier was requesting access to make a delivery to their home for Tess. JD was in the house. He had been there a lot since Inez's attack and now Tess's enforced stay, and it was him and Buck, who now waited on the porch for the van to arrive.

This time, it was a biker making the delivery; his only information was that a man had dropped it at their depot with the address. The brothers made a mental note to request access to the company's records, and any video tapes they may have made during the time Allen visited.

Already screened by Walter for devices, Buck took the package inside. "Do you want to open this?" he asked the young teacher.

She nodded, but her fear was evident. Comforted by JD's presence beside her, she placed the box on the countertop, took a deep breath, and snipped at the pink ribbon. Removing the lid, she pushed back the tissue paper and gasped. Inside was the dress Troy had purchased, and one red rose. The note was simple,

"This is for when you return to me, my love. The next package will be for our first night of passion. I cannot wait to hold you, again."

Buck held up the dress as Tess just stood there and quaked. JD wondered if it was wrong for thinking that she would look nice in it, just milliseconds from snapping back to reality, and snaking an arm around her waist.

"Buck said a real wise thing, earlier. They're just things...and Allen's doing it because he can't get close." He grinned slightly and winked at her gaze. "Yeah, I know, it's a shock...I said 'Buck' and 'wise' in the same sentence..."


JD ducked, but Buck just caught the back of his head and he mock yelped. Tess's horrified expression over the dress slowly broke into a semblance of a smile at Buck and JD's reaction to her delivery. She appreciated their attempt to diffuse the situation, even if it couldn't stop her fear of what was to come next.

She sighed and touched JD's arm. "You're all wonderful, I don't know what Keira, and I would do without you." She dropped her chin to her chest.

JD lifted her face and winked. "Careful, Tessie, you're slipping. That was almost a compliment."

Tess rallied, pushing the package across the countertop away from her. "Oh don't worry, John Daniel...I have plenty of comebacks saved for you."

JD nodded approvingly and waggled his eyebrows. "Good to know."

Buck stepped in. "Kid...I need your opinion on something, d'you mind? 'Scuse us, ladies."

Tess didn't miss the little glance between Buck and Inez as the former guided the younger man out.

In the barn, Buck faced his kid brother. "Let it out." He watched JD's stoic expression crumble as he began to pace and swat at things hanging from hooks.

"We gotta stop this, Buck...he's never gonna quit until we get to him. ' Cause that's what's happening here...he can't get near enough to hurt her without us being right there with him, so he'll keep trying, and trying, and Tess is gonna get more and more nervous and we all know how close she was to leaving..." He stopped his rant, and took a breath, clinging to a support post for a moment. He looked at Buck, his expression one of torment. "We have to put this guy away."

Buck drew near and placed an arm around JD's shoulders. He had recognized the subtle 'blow-up' signs in the house, and had guided him here to vent. "I don't know how or when or who, but...what I do know is we will...we will get him. You're doing a great job of staying strong for Tess...she really needs a friend she can trust, one who supports her."

JD nodded. "I'm trying, really I am, but...seeing her suffering like this...hurts."

Buck pulled him closer. "I know," he said, softly. "Come on, boy...let's call Lou and get him to pull the tapes on the courier service, huh?"

Nodding, JD allowed the big man to guide him out of the barn. Outside, JD stopped and looked up at the building site for his new home. He so wanted to be excited about it, especially now that Vin was slowly on the mend, but right now, all he could think about was getting Tess through this.

Denver Memorial Hospital, 9:00 am

Vin felt more human once Doctor Gilford removed the chest drain and all his extra tubing. For the first time in six days, he actually had his feet on the floor, and managed to walk a few steps without assistance. It exhausted him, but it was progress.

Laying back on his pillow, Vin smiled. "Now all I have to do is pass your breathing test, and I'm out of here, right?"

"Not so fast, Tanner." Gilford cautioned him. "I expect you to be here for at least another three to five days, or so, and then you'll have an extensive period of recovery time at home." The doctor picked up a package he had brought with him, and handed it to Vin. "I had this made for you. The matching piece is on my desk."

Tanner carefully removed the tissue surrounding the object, and then looked at the doctor. "What is it?"

Gilford smiled. "I kept the piece of limb I removed from you, and had it cut into two parts. A friend of mine, who is an artist, cleaned it, and designed it into two pieces of artwork. I keep mine in view to remind me that life is fragile, and even with all my medical knowledge and experience..." he glanced over at Kelli and Brodie, "sometimes the only medical tool available to save a life is the power of faith. I know, without a doubt, that it saved yours."

Vin fingered the piece, and nodded. "Thanks, I reckon we all need remindin' once in a while."

"I'll be in later this afternoon to check on you again." Gilford made his exit, leaving the three Tanners alone.

"I'm headed to the ranch, but be ready for a chess challenge when I come back." Brodie lightly swatted Vin on the leg. "See you tonight." He hugged Kelli and then left.

Kelli sat down beside Vin's bed, and took the artwork he handed her. "As beautiful as this is now, I'll never forget that it almost killed you."

"That's what Gilford meant it to be...a reminder for us to value every second of our lives, and not waste a minute thinkin' about 'almost', or 'what if'." He took her hand. "I have a lot to share with you....I saw my Mama, Anne, and our baby was hard to leave, but I knew I couldn't's wasn't my time...I had to find my way back..."

Vin talked softly until exhaustion took over, and he fell asleep. Kelli leaned back in the chair, and felt a wave of contentment wash over her. Life had thrown them a curve...a test of their faith, and commitment, and they passed it. She had her Texan back where he belonged, and she planned to savor every second of their time together. No matter how long Fate allowed was destined to be one hell of a ride.

Larabee Home, 10:00 am

Chris spent a good while consoling Cait and Jesse when Donald called, and told them about a one-day delay in their arrival plans. Apparently, the friends they were staying overnight with had a couple of horses for sale that Donald just had to see. He informed them they would be in early Thursday morning, and were looking forward to settling in their new home.

After calling the hospital for an update on Vin and Barbara, Chris had planned to talk to Jesse about Cait's pregnancy, but a knock at the door quickly changed those plans. He was damn certain Lou Masterson was not here for a social call. "Lou, what can I do for you? You have news on the Allen case?"

Masterson accepted Larabee's invitation to enter and nodded. "There's no easy way to say this, so I'll just get it out. Monique Ellman died this morning."

Chris shook his head, and asked, "The hooker?" Lou's nod confirmed it.

"Damn. I'm sorry to hear that. it's murder."

Lou nodded again. "Allen's escalating his obsession about Miss McCall, which places her and all of you in grave danger. There's no telling what this man will resort to anymore."

"We can handle things on this end," Chris assured him. "Is there anything we can do to help you?"

"Not right now, but thanks for the offer. We're working on his movements now, and isolating him. We're hoping to have his location soon; someone's ID'd him, and we're checking it out now. It might take some time, but we're cautiously optimistic. You want in on the bust if we find him?"

Chris pondered the offer, but, as there was so much going on at L7, he figured it safer for the police to handle it, for now. "No, but we want in on the interrogation."

Lou expected that. "I'll see what I can do. Will you pass the message on to the others?"

"Sure...and Lou...thanks." As Chris watched him leave, he glanced at the phone. He needed to call Buck, JD, Nathan, and Josiah. This news was not going to go over well.

Wilmington Home, 10:30 am

Replacing the handset, Buck looked back at the animated group of adults sitting around the breakfast bar. They had been attempting to lift Tess's spirits...and now he had to take JD away and break the bad news. He approached them. JD instantly stiffened, he knew that look.

"Kid, can I talk to you for a minute?"

JD stood. "Sure." Following Buck onto the porch, he waited for him to speak.

"Uh...the hooker Allen beat up...she died this morning. I'm sorry." Buck didn't know why he was apologizing to JD...maybe it was for causing the look of anguish on his face right then.

"Oh, God." JD's head was spinning. This lunatic was seriously starting to worry him. He was starting to feel very scared for Tess...not that he would ever show it. "We have to tell her, now."

Buck nodded. "Agreed, but let's plan it out first, okay?"

Davis Caravan Park, Noon

Troy tossed the empty whiskey bottle aside and broke open a new one. His trip to the L7 was not productive. The bastards guarding Tess had put a patrol at the place he had been getting on and off the L7 land, frustrating his attempts to learn if his gifts had created the desired effect. He liked the fact that he could intimidate her, but there was no fun in it if he could not watch her reactions.

His second parcel had been dispatched, but this new turn of events had prompted another purchase and that was also now on its way. He took a long draw from the bottle. He needed a new that would get those men away from his wife. He stared at the TV news report playing quietly in the background and suddenly sat forward. He grinned. That would work.

Barbara's Hospital Room, Noon

Doctor Ryder closed Barbara's chart, and smiled. "The BP is holding, and your baby is doing fine. While I can't say we're out of the woods yet, I do believe you can relax for a few days." She noted the anxious expression on Ezra's face. "No matter what happens from here on out, we've reached a safe zone for your child. Whether it's by c-section or natural delivery, I'm confident that we're going to have a healthy baby sometime within the next two weeks."

Ezra nodded. He wanted their child to have every day needed to grow, but he also wanted the waiting to end. Glancing at the monitor, he whispered, "Your mommy and daddy are right here...anytime you're ready."

Susan Ryder understood the mixed emotions of the young couple. They wanted what was best for their baby, but the anxiety of waiting, especially when there was a known problem was hell. She patted Ezra's hand. "Try not to worry, this time next month, when you're at home with your baby, this will all be a distant memory. I'll see you both later."

Waiting until the doctor departed, Ezra took Barbara's hand. "We can do this...all we have to do is be patient."

Barbara sighed. "You know I always envisioned waking you up, and us making a mad dash to the hospital in the middle of the night. Guess we don't have to do that now."

Ezra smiled. "I promise, if it makes you feel better, once our baby is home, you can wake me, and we'll all three make that run."

"I appreciate that thought, darling, but I think I'll pass. When we get home with our baby...I don't plan to go anywhere for a long while."

Looking up when the door opened, they both smiled when they saw the Sanchez' enter. Mallory came close, leaned down, and gave Barbara a hug, while Josiah handed a takeout box to Ezra. We're playing delivery today. We thought you might appreciate a hot meal."

Barbara seemed pleased. "Thank you. I'm on a special diet, but I know Ezra has not been eating properly, and he won't leave me long enough to get something decent."

"Kelli is doing the same thing. That's why we brought lunch for her, too." Mallory told them. "We're not staying, but want you both to know that all of us are thinking about you."

"I talked to Vin on the phone earlier." Ezra said. "He said he did, but I hope he understands why I haven't been down to see him."

Josiah placed his hand on Ezra's back. "Brother, we've all been where you are, and trust me, we understand. You just take care of your lovely wife, and concentrate on your family."

Ezra nodded. "I will, and when you see Vin..."

"I know...we all know." Josiah grinned. "We're connected remember?" taking Ezra's smile as an acknowledgment, he and Mallory said their goodbyes, and headed to Tanner's room. He saw no need to worry either of them about what was going on at the ranch.

Wilmington Home, 3:00 pm

Buck and JD had been working the computer and the phones for hours, trying to find any kind of lead on Allen.

Isabella poked her head around the door. "Walter called to say two more packages are on their way up."

Tess had stepped back. She couldn't face opening any more parcels from Troy, so Isabella was doing it. The first was a tiny see-through negligee with a note to tell her it was for their first night together. The second was a cell phone. JD raised a hand before they turned it on, and fished into his case. He brought out a wand, and activated it. It's purple light revealed there were no prints. Buck called Chris, and asked him to power up the GPS tracker on his computer, then passed the phone to JD. Talking Chris through what he needed to do, JD watched as Isabella turned it on. It showed 'new message' in the text message box, so Isabella pressed to view it. It was a shaky video. JD frowned at the sounds because they seemed familiar. Playing it again, Isabella showed it to Tess, who gasped out and glanced teary-eyed at JD, prompting the young man to take a look for himself.

"Holy shit."

Now Buck was watching it, his anger growing as the images flickered then died. Chris was demanding information. He had lined up the signal of the new phone on the tracker and was awaiting instructions. Shakily, JD picked up the phone, the accompanying note in his hand.

"The message is a short video of Tess and me in the McDonalds at the mall when we took a time out from shopping with the kids the other day. There's a note, too." Pausing, he felt a strong hand on his arm, and gratefully passed the note to Buck, who also took the phone.

"It says...'How sweet. Kiss the little runt're mine!'"

Buck nodded to Chris's reply. "I know it's ambiguous. We're..." he turned as the cell now sitting on the countertop, rang.

JD snatched up the house phone. "Chris, get ready..." JD had hoped Troy wouldn't be able to resist calling, though, he hadn't expected it to be so soon. Although, this could be the break they were waiting for.

Buck answered it. "You have reached the Good Samaritans, how may we help you?" Buck chuckled, despite it being the last thing he wanted to do. "Trust me, if I could do that, I'd be a very happy man." His voice dropped menacingly low. "Your days are numbered, asshole." He pulled the phone from his ear. "Well, whaddya know, I think I pissed him off."

JD spoke, "Chris?" There was a pause and then JD punched the air. "Nice one!" He looked at the bemused group as he put down the phone.

"While we've been off work I added a few things to Chris's would have been on mine too...but it kinda got blown to bits..." He waved off his last remark. "Anyway, once Chris established a link to this cell, any incoming signals can be traced to the nearest tower." He grinned. "It worked. We got an area. He's telling Lou, now."

Buck yelled out, picked JD up, and spun him around. Laughing, he looked back at the women in the room. "He's a little genius, isn't he? Huh? Damn, boy, I'm glad you're on our side."

The pair looked at each other. The adrenaline rush had reminded them just how much they missed work. It felt good to feel useful again.

JD approached Tess and gently brushed away a tear from her eye with his thumb. "We're gonna get him, Tessie...he's going down."

For the first time in three years, Tess believed it might actually happen. Her smile warmed all their hearts.

Davis Caravan Park, 5:00 pm

Lou cursed a blue streak. It was obvious they had just missed the bastard. There was food heating on the small stove and a half-filled bottle of whiskey on the table. Another empty bottle lay close by, along with several balled up Kleenex tissues. Spotting a DVD disc on the table, he pulled out a handkerchief, picked it up, and placed the disc in an evidence bag, doing the same with several other items dotted around.

He looked out toward the distant highway. At least the suspect did not get to drive away...but Lou figured, if this truck was stolen, Allen would likely simply steal another. Nevertheless, at least today, no one died at the hands of one screwed up drunk driver by the name of Troy Allen.


Allen gasped as he half ran, half staggered. Fucking bad luck. He'd had nothing but since hitting Denver. It had to do with those men guarding Tess. As he rolled painfully down an embankment to cross the busy interstate, he knew it was time...these men had to be dealt with.


Kerr's Croft, Thursday Morning

Chris, Cait and the children arrived at the old Southern Breeze early. Larabee smiled when he saw the new name for the place, 'Kerr's Croft', arched over the wrought iron Gate. "Your father made sure to stake his claim early, didn't he?"

Cait smiled. "That's my dad."

Jesse sighed, his disappointment evident. "Don't look like they're here yet."

Pulling to a stop in front of the ranch house, Chris turned back to address Jesse. "Your grandparents aren't, but it appears the horses have arrived." He pointed to the activity around the stable area. "What do you say we check it out, while your mother inspects what the movers did inside?"

Glancing at her husband, Cait sent him an encouraging smile. She knew Chris planned to talk to Jesse about the baby, and wanted to give him her support. "That sounds like a wonderful idea." She lifted Cody from his car seat, took Grace by the hand, and went inside.

Jesse and Chris ambled towards the stable area, and met Donald's wrangler. "You must be Mister Larabee. My name is Bert. Mister Kerr said to expect you." He shook hands with Chris and then looked at the teen. "You have to be Jesse. I've heard a lot about you from your granddad. Pleased to meet you, Son."

Standing a little taller, Jesse was pleased to know his granddad had talked about him. "Yes, sir, I'm Jesse."

"Call me Bert. Everyone does. Mister Kerr should be here soon. In the meantime, take a look around, and if you need me just yell."

Chris nodded as the man walked off, and steered his son toward the corral. Leaning against the fence, he glanced at Jesse. "I've been trying to find the right time to talk with you, and I reckon this is the best place I know for a serious discussion."

Jesse's head popped up, and he felt his breath quicken, as he tried to think of something he had done wrong. "Am I in trouble?"

" trouble, Son, but I'm going to need your help in the coming months." Chris took a deep breath. "We didn't expect or plan for it, but...your mother is pregnant." He wanted to give him time to let the news sink in, but also assure him this was a welcome event. "We're pleased about it...very pleased, and it means you'll have another brother or sister. I'm just not sure I can slow your mom down without some assistance. You okay with giving your old man a hand?"

Jesse was not sure what to think. He liked the idea of more family, and his father was asking for his assistance, but he had to make certain he understood. He swallowed hard, and asked, "Is mom okay...I mean...uh...don't most women have babies when they're...younger?"

Relieved to see that Jesse was only concerned, and not upset, Chris smiled. "The doctor says she's fine, and with you and me keeping watch over her, we'll make sure she stays that way."

Nodding, the teen smiled, too. "Another brother or sister.... that's cool. What did Granddad and Nana say when you told them?"

"We haven't told them yet, figured we do that tonight after supper. You're Mother and I wanted you and Kelli to know first." Chris laid his arm across Jesse's shoulder. "So for now, this stays with us. We haven't even told your uncles and aunts yet."

It made Jesse feel special to know he was included first. "I won't say a word until you tell me it's okay." He looked up at his father. "Mom knows you told me right? I can start keeping watch on her with you?"

"Absolutely, Son, and trust me, you and I have our work cut out for us." Chris saw a car enter through the gate. "Looks like your grandparents have arrived. Let's go say hello."


Donald and Lillian were already inside, and surrounded by Grace and Cody, when Chris and Jesse entered. Looking up they smiled at Jesse and reached out to include him in their little reunion. Chris and Cait stood by, waiting for the initial excitement to pass.

Jesse broke away first, and went over to Cait. He did not say anything, but smiled and gave her a hug. It was enough for her to know he accepted their news, and that he seemed pleased by it. She smiled back, and whispered to her son, "I love you, Jesse, nothing will ever change that."

Lillian sighed. "The movers did a good job. With a little rearranging, everything will be perfect in our new home."

Donald winked at Jesse. "Uh oh...she said rearrange. That's our cue to head for the stables." He leaned over, kissed his wife, and grabbed his hat. "Cait dear, keep your mother distracted, while I show off my horses."

Cait laughed. "I will." She took Cody from her mother, while Grace continued to chatter to Nana about her day. Nodding to Chris, Cait said, "We'll meet you outside shortly, and then let them settle in a bit."


Taking his time, Donald introduced them to each of his horses, noting Jesse's interest in one particular little bay mare. It pleased him because she was the one he wanted to give his grandson once Chris gave his permission, of course. "She's four-years-old, saddle broke, and has a good disposition."

Chris looked her over, and commented, "She's sound, and obviously well-bred." He knew Donald was anxious to gain his approval, and did not make him wait long. When his son ran ahead of them, and was out of earshot, he said, "She'll make a good horse for Jesse. When do you want to tell him?"

"I thought I'd bring her over tonight when we come for dinner, if that's all right with you."

Chris nodded as they walked toward the Ram, where Cait and the kids were waiting. "That works for me. You also have a couple of horses I'd like Vin to take a look at when he's able."

Donald grinned. "I thought a couple of them would catch your eye."

"The security fencing we talked about is in, and we should be able to start replacing the old stuff by Monday. It will probably be the end of next week before we get to your place though."

"You're the expert on security. Do whatever you think is needed, and I'll pay my share."

Chris told him," I'll make sure whatever we do, your place is included." He smile when he looked up and saw Jesse taking Cody from Cait, and lifting him into the car seat. "I have a full day ahead, and you and Lillian probably need time to unpack, so we'll see you tonight."

After arriving at the truck, and saying their goodbyes, Donald and Lillian watched the Larabee family leave. Turning back to the entrance, he wrapped his arm around his wife's waist, and grinned. "Well, Mama...we're home."

Larabee 7, 11:00 am

Chris stopped at Reins on his way out to talk to Buck and JD. They were doing double duty. Working on the rodeo set-up, and keeping an eye out for Allen. Last night after news of Allen's miss, he, Josiah, Nathan, Buck, and JD worked out a schedule to make certain they would not all be off the ranch at the same time.

Buck pulled off his gloves and walked over to the fence. "You headed up to the hospital now?"

"I have to see Russo first, and then Lou asked me to stop by his office, but I wanted to talk to Walter before I go." Chris looked up at the sky. "Weather report says we might get a break in this drought by the weekend. I want to know how long the rain would delay our new fences going up."

"Well, you just missed Walter and Brodie. They rode out about half hour ago." Buck grinned when he saw JD walking with Tess, gesturing towards them. "I think our boy has definitely found a new friendship."

"Looks like." Chris said with a smile. "Josiah and Nathan are on their way over to help you. I'll be back as soon as I can."

"Tell our Texan, I'll be up to see him tomorrow." Buck slapped his gloves on his jeans, before putting them back on. "You do the running, we'll do the watching."

Chris waved over his shoulder as he walked to his truck. Seeing Russo would not take long, and whatever Lou wanted to discuss, he hoped that it was good news. With a little luck, they might catch that bastard today, and end this once and for all.

Dunne Construction Site

JD and Tess decided to take a stroll. Neither knew why it had come about, it just seemed right at that moment, and they were quietly enjoying the break from the stress of worrying about Troy. They talked as they walked, and soon found themselves at the construction site of JD's new home. Staring at the timber frame, JD jumped up onto the footings, extending his hand to assist Tess in following him.

Turning a full hundred and eighty degrees as he gazed around, JD smiled at the young teacher. "I still can't believe this will all be mine soon. It'll be the first home I've ever owned."

Tess frowned. "But, I thought you were once married."

Dropping down to sit on the edge of the floor, JD nodded as he watched Tess sit next to him. "Yeah, but the house was my wife's aunt's. I paid my way," he assured her, " was kinda like never made it any more mine." He shrugged. "When Casey gave up on us, the house was put into trust for the kids." He made a face. "She said it was her way of providing for her kids' futures. It was only then I realized I couldn't do the same. All I had was some savings and a secure career."

Tess touched his arm, not missing the fact JD had inferred his ex wife had not merely left, but 'given up' on him and the children. "You're forgetting...they have you..."

Grinning, JD nodded. "You bet."

"So," Tess fished. "You decided you could no longer live there? You said once before that you live in Vin's old place right now," she looked at him questioningly.

JD turned to face her. He took a breath and pondered his next words for a moment. "A little while ago someone came into my life...all our lives. We got real close and I actually believed we might have a future together."

"It didn't work out?"

"No. Turned out she was hired to kill us, the team I work with...the men I call brothers." He sighed. "She almost succeeded, too. The house that my kids and I called home burned to the ground, and those same men almost got blown to bits. The kids and I were left with little more than the clothes on our backs, which was hard, but irrelevant when you consider the men I love could be dead now." He couldn't help smiling at Tess's horrified gaze.

"In a strange way, the house being destroyed did me a favor. While it existed, it would always be Nettie's, never really mine." He gestured around them. "This baby will be all ours...mine and the kids...and the insurance money from Nettie's is sitting safe and secure in a trust fund." He tilted his head. "It's not the way I would have ever chosen to go about it, but like Josiah said...'God moves in mysterious ways'." JD nodded and stared down toward Buck and Inez's place.

"Fate sure is a funny thing. Talia almost destroyed our lives, and nearly succeeded in taking everything away from me. But her actions consequently gave me the opportunity to truly start again...and it brought me closer to my family...physically and mentally." He looked at her, shyly. "I'd be lost without them."

Tess stared at him. She couldn't imagine him floundering; he always looked and acted so in control. There was clearly a lot of depth to this young man. She found herself hoping she would get the opportunity to learn more. "I hope your kids one day realize how lucky they are to have a dad like you."

JD shrugged as he blushed. "Trust me, there have been days I felt I could do so much better." He looked as she took his hand in hers.

"You sell yourself short, John Daniel. Your kids are adorable and a true credit to you."

They gazed at each other for a long few seconds until JD broke the spell by pointing toward Buck's place. "I guess we should head back. I can almost sense Bucklin staring back up at us, wondering where the hell we've got to." He stood, pulling Tess up with him. "Do you ride?"

She nodded. "I haven't for a long time, but, yes, I used to ride."

"If you'd like, one day I'll take you over to where my old place used to be."

Tess nodded. "I'd like that." She frowned as he pointed at her, and then laughed as he explained.

"And now you owe me one dessert and at least a bottle of wine, by my reckoning."

She poked his washboard belly, surprised at the firmness there...and the little shiver she got as she touched him. She recovered quickly. "Sure, happy to help you lose those abs, 'pudding boy'!"


With a squeal, Tess took off, JD right behind her, his thoughts drifting to maybe a workout at the Camp Larabee gym in the morning, as he ran.

Denver Memorial, 3:00 pm

After making his stops at MCAT, and the DPD, Chris sat in the hospital parking lot for a few minutes, mentally reviewing the information Lou had given him. Among the items, they found at Allen's temporary living quarters, there was a very disturbing video, and DVD copies of same. Evidently, he made secret tapings of him and his wife in their private moments during happier days in their marriage. Masterson located two copies, but Lord only knew how many more Troy had out there. Lou promised to try and not have them put into evidence, and probably could manage for the ones he possessed to disappear. As for other possible copies floating around, it was out of his hands, and it could end up being extremely embarrassing for Tess if they surfaced. One of the other things he found was equally disturbing. It was a picture of JD with a red bulls-eye painted on his head. That was the one Chris worried about the most. Troy Allen was mentally unstable, and at the moment, in the wind. No one had the slightest idea about his whereabouts. Grabbing the MCAT folder from his front seat, Larabee exited his truck and headed inside the hospital.

Barbara's Room

Mallory and Rain had Barbara laughing as they retold the details of Nathan's run-in with one of the rodeo bulls that had arrived yesterday with the other stock.

Rain grinned, "My man is a wonderful husband, great father, terrific medic, and damn good MCAT agent, but he is not too experienced with bulls. Buck should have warned him; instead, he told Nate that wearing a red shirt would keep them away. He found out really quick...that was not true."

Mallory smiled. "Once he stopped running, and jumped over the fence, Nathan cussed Buck in two languages, wishing he knew more. All Buck did was laugh so hard he almost fell on the ground."

Ezra stood back and watched the women. He was glad they had discovered a way to take his wife's mind off her worrying. Glancing as the door opened he saw Chris, motioned for him to stay where he was, and he would come outside. Stepping into the hallway, Standish smiled. "Our sisters are entertaining my wife; I didn't want to curtail their efforts."

"How are you doing?"

"Hanging in there, as Vin would say. We don't have much longer to go...we'll make it."

Chris nodded. "No matter how difficult it might seem now, when you're holding your baby, you'll realize it was worth the wait. Believe me." He pulled out a paper from the folder, and handed it to Ezra. "I stopped by the office and picked this up for you. All you have to do is sign, and I'll fill in the date."

"Family leave?" Ezra questioned. "I hadn't even thought about that."

"Women get maternity qualify for family leave, it's only fair. It won't start until your baby arrives, but I figured you wouldn't mind spending six weeks at home with your new family."

Ezra nodded. "Thank you, Chris. After the past few weeks, I believe that is exactly where I want to be." He signed the request and gave it back to Chris. "With Vin out for a while, won't my absence leave you short-handed?"

"We'll manage." Chris gripped Ezra's shoulder. "You only have your first child once, I missed out with Kelli, but your situation is different...take time to enjoy the experience."

Clearing his throat, and pushing back an unexpected wave of emotion, Ezra said, "I assume you are on your way to Vin's room."

"I am." Chris grinned. "Now, you get back in there and keep an eye on those women. No telling what they're cooking up." He waited until Ezra reentered the room, before he turned to leave. Tanner was the next stop on his list.

Tanner's Room

Vin handed the phone over to Kelli to hang up. "Jason sounded fine, Andi had lots to report on, and I couldn't understand a word Bren or Trey said, but it was great to hear their voices."

"Thank heaven for your dad. He's the one who's kept the kids from stressin' out. He was here for me too, from the moment I got your 'call'. I owe him, big time."

Vin took her hand. "'We' owe him, baby, and I think I know just how to show him our appreciation...if you agree that is. He needs a horse...we should find him one."

Kelli smiled. "We can do that while you're recoverin'."

Although he had expected her agreement, her answer pleased him. "Come here, woman." Vin pulled on her hand, and when she leaned in close enough he kissed her.

Chris walked in. "Am I interrupting anything?"

Vin grinned. "Not likely...yet, but give me time."

Pulling up a chair, Chris sat down. "Look at you Tanner. A week in the hospital, and you're throwing snappy comebacks, wearing sweats and a jersey...hell, you actually have your ass covered."

"Yep, no more silly hospital gowns for me." He tilted his head towards his wife, and winked at her. "Kel made sure my assets were well protected, I don't think she trusts all these pretty nurses."

"He's feelin' better Dad, as if you couldn't tell already. Of course, a lot of it's the pain meds talkin'. According to Doc, he might need 'em for a while."

Chris smiled. "Which is why, I picked this up from the office." He opened the MCAT folder and handed a paper to Vin. "Your medical leave of absence, just sign it and I'll take care of it."

Vin sighed. "I'll sign, but don't expect me to be off as long as Gilford thinks. A couple weeks at home, and I'll be fine."

Kelli frowned. "You'll be off until he says you can go to work, Tanner, and it won't be a couple of weeks."

"What about you, Kel. You plan on taking off while Vin's recuperating?"

"Work is the last thing on my mind right now." Kelli shook her head. "I know we're supposed to be back at MCAT in a couple of weeks, but school starts soon, and Vin will be home goin' through weeks of recovery and physical therapy. My place is with my family. If you want to let me go, be my guest."

Vin shook his head, and turned serious. "Kel, I'll support whatever you decide, but when you leave law enforcement, I want it to be your choice, not because I got attacked by a damn tree."

Chris held up his hand to stave off an argument. "Hold on...I have a proposal for you to consider." He passed the remaining papers in the folder to Kelli. "When I talked to Russo and updated him on Vin's condition, I also told him you probably would not come in until he was well. Sam's pet project is the training center. He wants to open it up to more law enforcement agencies, and stage a couple of Civilian Police Academies using experienced Federal Agents as instructors. He had this ready for you when I went by there today. Read it over and think about it."

Scanning the pages, Kelli looked up when she finished. "He's offerin' me a trainin' position...workin' two days a week?"

"Like I said, read it over, discuss it, and then decide what you want to do, there's no rush to make a decision." Chris turned back to Vin. "Our first priority is to get you well enough to get out of here." He glanced at his watch, and then stood. "I'd like to stay and visit more, but Cait's parents came in today. They're coming for dinner, and Cait will have a fit if I'm late."

"You gonna tell 'em about the baby?" Vin noted the surprise on Chris's face. "I recall hearin' you and Cait talkin' about it while I was...out of it. In fact, I remember a lot of what all of you said...I just couldn't wake up."

"Yep, we're going to tell them tonight." Chris studied Vin's expression. "You don't remember...You read my thoughts, didn't you."

Vin shook his head. "No, I remember about the baby...what your thoughts are tellin' me is that you don't want to discuss what's happenin' at the ranch." He sighed again. "Look, I know I can't be much help right now, but I don't need y'all takin' turns to come see me... I have Kel here, and we even told Dad to stay home tonight. Y'all have bigger problems to contend with than babysittin' me. Do what needs doin'. I'll be all right. Besides, with me and Ezra tied up for the time bein', you need to be at home."

"How much do you know?"

"Enough. You find that bastard, and kick his ass once for me when you do."

Chris leaned down, kissed Kelli on the cheek, and then nodded to Vin. "Do what Doc says, and don't give my daughter a hard time. I'll come up again, when I can." He headed for the door, smiling when he heard Tanner.

'Watch your back, Cowboy'

Will do.'

Larabee Home, 5:00 pm

The wind had picked up, and a few clouds appeared to be moving in from the north, but the afternoon was still extremely hot. Donald and Lillian arrived early, and when they pulled up in front of the house towing a horse trailer, Jesse ran out to meet them. Chris and Cait followed their son at a more leisurely pace, carrying Grace and Cody.

Looking at Chris for the okay, Donald grinned when Larabee nodded. "Jesse, could you help your old granddad with something?"

"Sure, what do you need me to do?"

Walking to the trailer, Donald opened the gate, stepped inside, and backed the mare out, handing the halter lead rope to his grandson. "This little filly needs a home, and someone who will lovingly take care of her. Your Nana and I thought you might be that someone."

Jesse glanced over to his Mom and Dad. "I can take care of her for you."

Donald shook his head. "No...I don't want you to take care of her for me, but..." he reached into his jacket pocket and extracted some papers. "I want you to take care of her for her new owner."

Jesse unfolded the pages and gasped when he read his name on them. "She's mine? Really mine?"

"She is if you want her. Your mother and father approve, and I want you to have her, if it's okay with you."

The teen was almost speechless, but found his voice with an excited yelp, "Yes!" Looking to his dad, he asked, "Can I saddle her now, and ride?"

Chris set Grace to her feet, and walked over to his son. "Why don't we get her settled in the barn, give her a chance to adjust to her new surroundings, and then in the morning, you, me, and your granddad can ride together?"

Jesse nodded, and threw his arms around his granddad, giving him a big hug. "Thank you."

"You're welcome, Son." Donald smiled. "You do have to give her a good name....something strong..." He walked with Chris and Jesse to the barn.

Cait shook her head, and told her mother, "He'll eventually remember to thank you, too."

Lillian waved her off. "He's excited, and it's not necessary. Seeing the look of pleasure on your father's face, when Jesse's eyes lit up, is enough for me." She took Grace by the hand. "Now, what can I do to help with dinner?" The women went inside with the babies to finish dinner preparations, while the men helped Jesse with his new horse.


Two hours later with dinner over, dishes, cleared, the kitchen cleaned, and the youngest Larabee children in bed, the adults and Jesse gathered in the living room. Chris handed Donald and Lillian a glass of wine, poured one for him, and then gave Cait and Jesse ginger ale.

"Donald, Lillian, we have an announcement to make." Chris sat on the arm of the sofa, took Cait's hand, and nodded for her to proceed.

Taking a deep breath, Cait began, "You both already know that I am happier than I ever imagined I could be again. Chris, Jesse, Grace, and Cody, have completed me in a way I never thought possible, but apparently God decided to bless, even more. We're going to have a baby."

"A baby?" Donald grasped his wife's hand, and glanced from Cait to Chris. Their faces told him it was true. Grinning like a loon, he raised his glass and said, "Beannachd Dia dhuit." Laughing at the bemused expression on his grandson's face, he translated, "It's Gaelic, and means, 'blessings of God be with you'."

With tears in her eyes, Lillian moved over, and took her daughter's hand. "You're problems?"

Cait handed her glass to Chris and gently wiped the tears from her mother's face. "Mother, I'm all right, and I'm not the first, nor will I be the last, woman to have a change of life baby."

Lillian smiled. "I knew there were big reasons for us making this move...I just never expected this." She hugged her daughter. "I'm happy for you, Kit." Almost as an afterthought she glanced up at Chris, saying "You too, Son."

Donald threw his arm around Jesse, and grinned. "Looks like you and I will have another Larabee to take fishing with us."

Chris explained, "We haven't told the rest of the Wild Bunch yet; we wanted to share our news with you two before we did that. So, other than you, Jesse, Kelli, and Vin, no one else knows." It was a very happy family, who spent the next few hours discussing babies, children, and the blessings of their lives.

After Midnight

Troy Allen, concealed from the road, sat across from the L7 watching and waiting. He was tired of chasing down something that belonged to him. Tess had managed for three years to evade him. He almost had her in Denver, and would have if it had not been for that brat of hers. Now she had conned these men into 'protecting' her on their ranch. He took another drink from the bottle of Wild Turkey in his hand. They had his secret entrance blocked now, and thought they had him beat, but they had no idea just who they were dealing with. After twelve years of playing professional hockey, he damn well knew how to fight, and could fight dirty when he had was time to teach them all a lesson, and take back what was his.

Throwing the empty bottle into the bushes, he climbed on the motorcycle he had stolen earlier, and sped off past the ranch, heading up into the mountains. The old deserted fire road he had found during his previous explorations would do just fine for what he wanted to do. Dismounting, he smiled when he saw the trees bending in the wind. It was the perfect setting for his plan...looking down the mountainside, he could see the light of L7 in the distance. Retrieving another bottle of booze, he uncapped it, took a big swig, and then stuffed a rag into the opening. One flick of his lighter was all it took.... He reached back and threw the flaming 'bomb' into the dry bush, and watched it ignite before he climbed back on the motorcycle.

'Soon...those bastards will be fighting for their lives... then I'll sweep in and take what belongs to me.'


'The call to action came as they slept. The sound of rolling thunder mixed with scenes from dreams of their brethren, alerting each to imminent danger. Josiah, Nathan, Buck, JD, Ezra, Vin and Chris, all woke at the same time with the knowledge that a battle was looming before them. Each instinctively understood the ferocity of the threat, and reached out to one another....evil was near, and it would take the strength of seven to defeat it.'

Larabee 7, Friday, August 14, 4:00 am

Chris rolled out of bed, waking Cait as he dressed. "Wake the kids, take 'em to Vin's house, and be ready to move out if need be. Call your parents, and the rest of the women...we've got trouble."

Cait did not question her husband, intuitively understanding that his warning was serious. Whatever he knew, he knew with certainty. She hurriedly dressed and followed his directions, while he grabbed his cell, and headed out the door.


Buck shook Inez from a sound sleep. "Honey, wake Isabella, and Tess. Prepare the kids to travel, something's ready for anything." He could sense JD stirring, and expected his youngest brother's call....Reaching for the phone only seconds before it rang. "Bring the children here," he hesitated a moment, and then with certainty told him, "Josiah and Nathan are on their way...Chris, too."

Denver Memorial

Kelli heard Vin curse, and immediately jumped to her feet. Rushing to his bedside, she looked for any sign of physical distress that her husband might be experiencing. "What's wrong?"

Throwing the phone receiver on the table, he huffed. "The damn switchboard is shut down, and there's trouble at home. Call the house on your cell, and check on the kids."

While Kelli called home, Vin mentally called Chris. ' Talk to me Cowboy....'

Five brothers, Brodie, Walter, and Willard stood by the L7 stables watching the red glow in the distance, each knowing that it was too damn close for comfort. Chris 'heard' Vin.

'Another fire...this one is close...we're on it....Max and Gunny have your kids...You and Ezra stay put, and try not to worry...I'll keep you posted.'

Vin sighed, cursing again the circumstances that prevented him from being with his brothers. When Kelli closed her cell, he looked at her expectantly. "Tell me."

"Max assured me that they have things covered, there's another fire headed in the direction of the L7, and if they have to evacuate, she'll take the kids, and leave."

Vin nodded, he knew Max would not take chances where the children were involved. A wildfire explained his feeling of danger for his brothers, but something else nagged at him. " Go to Barbara's room and talk to Ezra... tell him about the fire, and find out why he's so distressed...I'm gettin' a bad feelin' from him." He recognized her look of concern, and took a deep breath. "I'll stay put...I go."

Barbara's Room

It took every ounce of fortitude that Ezra possessed not to show his panic in front of his wife. While he sensed that his brothers were in danger, the Standish baby had chosen this particular time to stir. Their child was ready to make an appearance, and he held his breath as the doctor examined Barbara. When the doctor removed the blood pressure cuff, he ventured to ask, "How is she?"

Susan Ryder nodded, and then addressed them both. "The BP is holding, but you're in the early stages of labor. We're close enough to your due date to proceed, and I'll do everything I can to allow you a natural delivery...however... if the BP rises...I won't hesitate to order an immediate c-section." She patted Barbara's arm. "Right now, we watch and wait. One way or another, your baby is coming today. Relax, stay calm, and keep thinking about the little miracle you'll be holding soon. I'm having you moved to the birthing room; it's adjacent to the OR if we need it. I'll meet you there in a half hour to check on your progress."

Ezra watched the doctor leave, took his wife's hand, and smiled. "This is what we've been waiting for, darling. We can do this."

"I want to have a natural delivery, Ezra. It's best for our baby."

Schooling his features, he kept his outward demeanor cool and calm. "Then, that's what we'll do." Inwardly he desperately needed to know what was happening with his brothers, too.

Kelli chose that time to enter, and realized immediately by the look on Ezra's face that now was not the time to talk about home. "Vin woke up, and insisted that I come and check on y'all."

Barbara smiled. "I'm in labor Kel...our baby is coming."

"It would seem that Vin's unique knack for knowing when events are happening is still operational." Ezra tried to read his former partner's face, but she was not giving anything away.

Kelli smiled. "That he does. Are they moving you?"

"Yes, any minute now. You know where the birthing rooms are, right?" Ezra kept his eyes on the monitor.

"Yeah," Kelli grinned, "I know where they are." She walked over to the bedside, and grasped Barbara's hand. "You'll do fine, and I'll come down in a while to check on your progress."

The nurses came in to prepare Barbara for the move. Kelli stepped back, allowing them to work. Briefly, she met Ezra's eyes, and shook her head. Now was not the time to tell him they might not have a home to return to with their child. "Take care of your family. I'll see you later."

Larabee 7

This was not the first time they had to fight a wildfire, but never this close to home. Chris began loading gear into the back of his truck as some of the ranch hands piled into another vehicle after loading chain saws, rakes, and cases of bottled water inside. "Buck, grab some more shovels, axes, and rope, JD, Nathan, and the other men can ride with you. Josiah, you're with me." He looked up at the breaking light of dawn, obscured by rain clouds, and black smoke. "Storm's coming, let's hope it gets here soon."

Brodie nodded. "Most of the horses are still safe in the canyon from last week. We're going to run the remaining rodeo stock, brood mares, and colts across the creek to the lower pasture. Our personal mounts we're taking by trailer to the Kerr's place. The water between them and the fire should make their place safe. As soon as we get the horses taken care of, we'll come up and help y'all."

"No, stay close. Cait talked to her father, and he's preparing to shelter our families. I'm counting on you, Walter, and Willard to get the women and children out if the rain doesn't come soon enough to stop the fire. When I call and tell you to evacuate... Get 'em the hell out of here."

"Consider it done. Y'all be careful..." Brodie's thoughts flashed to the image of Vin with that damn tree branch sticking out of him. "If all of this," he waved his hands to the building and homes, "goes up in smoke, you can recoup your long as no one is killed in the process."

Chris glanced up towards the Tanner home, where Cait was with their children. Opening the door of the truck cab, he nodded. "We'll be back...all of us."

Larabee's Ram pulled out, leading a convoy of trucks. Buck was next, followed by two more vehicles filled with ranch hands and fire-fighting equipment. The women were busy loading 'go' bags, emergency rations, irreplaceable papers, and photos into their cars. Brodie, Walter, and Willard went to work moving the horses.

No one noticed Troy Allen concealed in the foliage across from the L7. He grinned as he watched the frenzied activity on the ranch increase, glancing at the red glow in the distance. Hands loaded horses into trailers, and trucks began to move out. The rest of the men climbed into pickups and took off toward the fire. Soon, just as he planned, most of the men were gone, leaving only a few scattered security people, and the women behind. This was the opportunity he had been waiting for; all he had to do now was to covertly make his way onto the property, and closer to his wife.

Denver Memorial

Kelli had returned, to her husband's room, and relayed to him the news about Barbara. "I couldn't tell Ezra about the fire. He has enough to worry about already."

"He knows, Kel...the same way we all do." Vin threw the covers back. "I can't help at home, but I can offer support to one of my brothers. We're goin' down to stay with Ezra and Barbara. Pull that damn wheelchair over here."

She was about to protest that Vin was not up to moving around so much, but the look of determination on his face changed her mind. "All right, but pain meds first, and if I see you're not up to this we're comin' back ASAP." She pushed the call button for the nurse, telling her that Mister Tanner was going for a ride.

Waiting for the nurse to come with his meds, Vin allowed Kelli to help him change his shirt. "Dad has our kids covered. Chris and the boys have a fire to fight, our sisters have their hands full preparin' to evacuate, and right now...we're the only family available to be there for Ezra and Barbara."

"I'm not arguin' the point, Tanner. I just don't want you to push too damn hard. You have a lot of healin' to do yet. We'll take this one step at a time. Okay?" Kelli smiled when the nurse walked in, and explained where they were going. She waited until Vin took his meds, and then assisted him into the chair. Leaning down, she whispered to her Texan, "You'd better be up for this, Tanner, 'cause if you pass out on me, I'll have to kick your ass for scarin' me again."

Vin reached up, took her hand, and gave her one of his lop-sided grins that always melted her heart. "Baby, my ass is probably the only part of me that doesn't hurt. Be gentle with me, and I promise not to scare you...much."

Kelli sighed. "Lord, Tanner, you are incorrigible, but I love you anyway."

"Then let's go. I'm anxious to find out if we have a new niece or a nephew to spoil." He was still smiling when she pushed him through the open door.

'Standish baby on the way...Ezra needs support...on my way to assist.'

'Arriving at fire line now, tell Ezra we're with him, too.'

Fire Line, 6:30 am

Chris parked well away from the fire. The Fire Department was already on the scene with bulldozers, and water trucks. Joining his brothers, Larabee passed on the news about Ezra, as they located the Incident Commander, who Chris recognized as Bill Latham.

Bill extended his hand to Chris. He acknowledged the others as they took protective clothing from one of the other firefighters. "This one's moving fast, and has your place dead in its sights. The only thing I see that might save the L7 is if the forecasted storms get here fast. You know the drill. Take your men and work with Unit Three." He pointed to the area where men were obviously attempting to construct a firebreak. "The crew chief will give you instructions. We have an air drop coming in, but...what we really need is for that storm to arrive."

"We're on it, and if it breaks through, our families are ready to haul ass." Chris motioned for his men to follow him towards the area Bill directed them to.

Buck noticed that JD was lagging behind, and stopped for him to catch up. "You okay, Kid?"

JD swallowed hard, and took a deep breath. "I keep seeing Vin running back towards the fire..." he cleared his throat. "I can do this."

Throwing his arm around his brother's shoulder Buck squeezed tight. "Not I, JD. 'We' can do this. We're all in this together."

"Right." JD nodded, feeling the strength Buck passed on to him. "Let's go." They hurriedly caught up with the others and went to work.

The heat was wretched, progress was slow, and the work backbreaking, but each time one of them faltered he could feel the other brothers mentally pick him up. They continued for the next few hours, one eye on the sky, and the other on the fire. As the noon hour approached, Chris stopped to assess the situation.

"Buck, that storm is taking its own sweet time getting here." Chris gauged the distance to the ranch. "I don't think we're gonna stop this devil, before it takes the L7."

Sighing, Buck nodded. "We can't stop trying, but I think you're right. It's time for you to make that call, Boss Man."

Chris had kept his cell on him, just for this reason. He flipped it open and waited for a signal. "'s not working. One of us will have to go back and tell them to evacuate."

"Send the Kid. He's having a rough time of it remembering what happened to Vin." Buck suggested, glancing back with concern for their youngest. "He can take my truck and be there in fifteen minutes."

"Tell him to make it in ten." Chris glanced up at the approaching storm clouds. "It's gonna be a race to see which one hits us first....the fire or the storm."

"On it." Buck pulled his keys from his pocket, approached JD, and told him what Chris wanted him to do. He successfully staved off any protest of him leaving, by reminding JD they were out of options. "Stay with the women and kids. We'll find you at the Kerr place after...after whatever happens."

JD gripped Buck's arm. "I'm on my way...take care." He ran towards Wilmington's truck, and started the engine. Taking a last look at the raging inferno marching its way to the ranch, he said a prayer for his brothers' safe return, and headed out.

Larabee 7, Noon

Brodie had already decided not to wait for Chris's call. He had been watching the horizon, and saw no change in the fire's direction for the past twenty minutes. It was time to get their families to safety.

"Walter, you go to the Wilmington's house. Tell Inez, Isabella, Tess, and Rain to take the kids, and get out now. Stay with them. Willard, you go with Cait, Mallory, Max, and Gunny. Escort them to the Kerr place. I'll be right behind y'all after I make one last sweep around the ranch."

Cait was already helping with the children. She stopped long enough to tell Brodie, "Kelli called to let us know Barbara's in labor. Once we get the children settled at my parents' house, Mallory, Inez, Rain, and I are going to the hospital. With my folks, Max, Gunny, Isabella, Walter and you there, we thought there would be enough adults to keep an eye on all of them."

Brodie nodded. "We'll manage. Now, move out. Don't look back....whatever is going to happen...we can't control." He watched as Willard helped Cait with the Larabee children. Taking an extra moment to hug his grandkids before they left, he breathed a sigh of relief when Max drove off with them. Mallory followed with her two. Glancing at his son's house...he hoped not for the last time, he climbed into his truck and headed to the Wilmington's house.

Walter's frustration showed. When Inez told him Tess had borrowed Rain's car and gone to her house to load a few personal things, he was not a happy man. "Why in the hell did you let her go?"

Inez put her hands on her hips. "That poor child doesn't have much. I did not want to see her lose everything. She promised to be back within fifteen minutes, and that was five minutes just another ten minutes is all we'll need."

Shaking his head, Walter said, "We may not have another ten minutes. Get yours and JD's children in your car now." He glanced to the other women. "Isabella, Rain, y'all grab Ronesha, and Terrell, and take my truck. I'll catch a ride out with Brodie after we get Tess."

Hesitating for only a second, Inez heard the urgent tone in Walter's voice and agreed. "Si, but tell her we have Keira, so she won't worry."

Brodie pulled in as they were strapping the babies into car seats. Walter filled him in on events, and the elder Tanner cursed. "Damnit, they should have stayed together."

JD arrived only moments later, jumped out of Buck's truck and stopped when he realized what was going on. "I came to tell everyone to leave. Looks like you're already doing that."

"Once Inez and Rain leave we're almost done." Brodie explained. "The rest are gone...all except Tess. Seems Inez let her take Rain's car and go over to her place to grab a few things. Walter and I were going to get her as soon as we see these kids off."

JD shook his head. "You and Walter stay with Inez and Rain. I'll retrieve our wayward teacher, and get her out of here." He walked over to Inez's car, leaning in to kiss his girls and JJ. "Daddy will see you soon." He shut the door, hit the top of the car, and waited for Inez to pull out. Rain followed them in Walter's truck.

"Don't let that woman screw around, JD. Nothing material is worth dying over." Brodie reminded him, as he and Walter climbed into his truck. "We'll make a quick sweep while we drive out, but I'm certain that you and Tess are the last ones who need to leave."

"We'll be right behind you." JD said, quickly slipping out of his fire gear, before he climbed back into Buck's truck, and turned around to drive towards Reins.

Tess's House

Tess and Keira did not have much, so it did not take long to gather their belonging. Filling a couple of pillowcases with essentials, Tess decided that the rest was unimportant. She had promised Inez she would not be gone long, and intended to keep her word to the woman who had been so good to her and her daughter. With a small smile, she grabbed the large fluffy rabbit that JD had given Keira, and headed outside.

Shutting the door behind her, Tess hurriedly tossed the pillowcases into the back seat of Rain's car. She was reaching to open the driver's side door, when someone jerked her backwards by her hair. In spite of the heat, her blood ran cold, hearing the voice from hell that had pursued her for three years.

"I've been waiting for you, Baby."


JD rubbed at his eyes as he drove toward Tess's home, occasionally ducking down to glance through the windshield to get a better look at the advancing inferno. "Come on, rain..." he chanted. Noting he was closing in on his destination, he sighed. "Tessie, what were you thinking?"

Tess's House

The young teacher screamed out as cruel fingers tightened in her hair, and dragged her backwards, into the house. "No...NO!"

Throwing down the weapon he had brought with him, Tess's assailant snatched at her arm. Troy turned his ex-wife to face him, a sneer on his face, as he looked her up and down. "No one around to hear you scream, Missus Allen... the fire I started made sure of that."

He reeled from the punch she landed on his jaw, briefly releasing her. Tess scrambled over the furniture, and was almost at the door when long arms encircled her waist, lifted her, turned the thrashing woman, and threw her onto the sofa. Unclipping the leather belt from his jeans, it slid noisily through the loops.

Eyes brimming with tears, Tess stared up at him. "Troy...don't do this..." she begged, screaming out in pain as the first lash cut across her breasts, then a second to her abdomen.

"It's your own fault," he warned, striking out another three times before he decided it wasn't satisfying enough. Tossing the belt aside, he slapped Tess hard across the face, his knee and one hand now holding the struggling, screaming woman in place. The next blow was a fist and Tess's head snapped to the side as her body went limp. She never felt the next two punches. Panting with exertion, Allen looked down at the still, splayed form of 'his' woman. His loins ached with need, spurring on his urge to reclaim what was his. He began unbuttoning his jeans, turning sharply at the sound of a truck pulling in.



Noting that the door to the house was open when he jumped out of the truck, JD called out as he approached, "Tessie? Hey...Tess, we gotta go." He walked inside to find her. "Tess, where are...?" What he found almost caused him to choke on the sharp breath he inhaled. "TESS!"

Hands trembling, JD moved towards the bloody, unconscious female, his heart pounding as he tried to comprehend what he was seeing. He just managed to put it together in time to make a fortunate turn. He only suffered half the force of the blow to his head that Troy's weapon of choice, a hockey stick, delivered. Despite seeing stars, JD rolled sideways, trying to buy himself some time. Ignoring the feel of wetness dripping down his face, he raised an arm to block the second blow, crying out in pain, and again when a third strike caught him in the ribs.

A flash of lightning caused his assailant to startle, and JD took the offered momentary respite to leap to his feet. The pair grappled for the stick, their faces only inches apart as Troy loomed over JD in an attempt to retrieve his weapon. "You touched my wife. For that, runt, you're gonna die," Troy snarled out. He kicked, elbowed, and attempted a head-butt to overpower his adversary. "Tess is mine...and I'm taking her home."

Regaining some strength and momentum, JD pushed him back. "No chance...asshole." Spurred on by Allen's threat to a woman he was beginning to care for, and with a force that he always knew he had, but rarely got a chance to exhibit, the young agent won the battle for the hockey stick, and wielded it in his hands.

He glared at Allen. "I played street hockey for years. You're not the only one who can swing this baby around." In two fast and vicious moves, JD pushed the blade into Troy's stomach, doubling the man over. Then, holding the shaft like a club, he swung the blade under Allen's chin. Enjoying the man's cries of pain way too much, he swung hard, twice more, and watched him rolling on the ground in agony. Panting as he caught his breath and watched the spectacle, JD realized for the first time, that their battle had moved out into the courtyard.

Despite his agony, Allen was like a man possessed and as soon as he could straighten, he launched himself at JD, taking him to the ground. Rolling around in the eerie gloom the storm clouds had created, the pair traded vicious punches, while overhead, the imminent thunderstorm raged. A satisfying crunch told JD that Troy's nose was broken, but an elbow to his face took him back to that star-speckled vision the hockey stick caused, earlier. The first large drops of rain hit, reviving him enough to push to his feet and regroup. JD kicked out at the man, who was clinging to his leg, and started for Buck's truck. He barely dove away as a familiar sound just filtered through the noise of the storm, before a gunshot sounded and whistled past his head. 'Fuck, Allen was armed'.

Using Buck's truck for a barrier, JD tried to maneuver around behind Allen, but the man was quick, and fired again, the bullet ricocheting somewhere behind JD. He couldn't risk a stray bullet possibly hitting Tess. He needed to draw Troy away from the house. Either that, or find a gun.

Desperate for a weapon and unable to get to the glove box, JD pulled open the back of Buck's truck. He had just put his hand on something when he felt the touch of cold steel just under his left ear. 'Damn, this guy is quick'.

Troy laughed and the menacing sound chilled JD to the bone to think that this man had become a living nightmare to Tess and Keira. With the storm raging around them, JD half-turned, looking his opponent in the eye. The rain was causing rivulets of blood to streak the men's faces as they glared at each other, their chests heaving from the exertion of the fight.

JD huffed. "Better men than you have tried to take me out, jerkass."

"Yeah? Well, the difference between me, and them is that I have a loaded weapon in your face, and I'm gonna blow your brains out..." Troy cocked his gun, "...then I'm taking back 'my' wife."

In those seconds of gloating hesitation, JD raised the arm that he still held inside Buck's truck, pressed a nail gun to Troy's forehead, and fired. "Says you, mother fucker."

JD stared down at the lifeless body, strangely satisfied by the look on Allen's face as he died. He ignored the gruesome fact that the back of the man's head had exploded in a burst of blood, gore, and brains, threw the nail gun aside, and stepped over the body.

Fighting his rising nausea, pain, and exhaustion, JD staggered back into the house to check on Tess. All his aches and pains were rising to the fore now that the danger was over. Dropping heavily to his knees, he reached out, and gently placed the fingers of his left hand on her bruised cheek. He could see she was breathing, and was reluctant to move her, but knew that she needed to be in the recovery position, and did so, talking all the while, he tended her. "Sorry, Tessie.... I hope I didn't hurt you."

Still only in his tee and jeans from when he had the heavy fire clothes on, JD realized his cell was also in the glove box. Sliding from his knees to his butt, he rested back against the sofa to catch his breath, trying to find the energy to get to a phone. Lightning lit up the interior of the room, the following rumble of thunder masking the sounds of another vehicle arriving. Recognizing that someone was entering the house, JD turned his head wearily toward the visitor. He closed his eyes and dropped his chin to his chest. "Thank God."


Unable to raise JD, and now that the storm had hit, under no more pressure to evacuate, Brodie and Walter had headed back to L7 in search of the missing pair. Checking out Tess's home first, the sight that greeted them turned their blood cold.

"Call the police and an ambulance," Brodie ordered Walter as he threw the truck into park, jumped out, and ran towards the house, barely stopping long enough to make certain Allen was dead. Halting in the doorway, he sighed with relief as he spotted JD on the floor looking back at him. Approaching him, he gently took JD's battered face in his hands to look him over. "Easy, boy."

JD was having none of it, gesturing toward Tess. "She's hurt, Brodie."

Understanding JD's need to see her cared for, Brodie nodded and checked to make sure that she was breathing easily, and was comfortable. "She'll be all right. An ambulance is on the way."

Raising his unsteady left arm, JD pointed toward the yard. "Allen..."

"On it," was all Brodie said, and it was all JD needed to hear. He groaned once, and then relaxed into the man's care.


The storm had effectively extinguished the fire, and it was a jubilant bunch of men, who began stowing their equipment. The celebrations at the fire site had been giddy and silly, but no one was finished. Finally persuading Buck to quit dancing, and get in the Ram, the soaked, exhausted, but happy men headed back to L7. The conversations going back were light, and animated, slowing to a complete halt as the image of the activity at Reins stunned them into silence. Instructing the ranch hands to go on ahead, Chris sped up and drove towards the flashing emergency lights, and what looked to be a tarpaulin set up in Tess's yard.

Four anxious men jumped out of the truck. Buck headed for Brodie, while Chris sought out the officer in charge. Ducking his head into the makeshift tent, Detective Lou Masterson beckoned Larabee inside. Chris grimaced when he caught sight of Troy's battered body and the gore around his head that spread over a wide area.

Lou explained his presence, while Chris studied the scene. "The Sheriff called me in when he realized who our corpse is. This is one case that I'm glad to see wrapped up."

"That makes two of us." Quickly putting the pieces of the scene together, Chris suddenly clutched Lou's arm. "Tess and JD?"

Lou nodded. "A few injuries, but both alive," he assured him.

"How bad?"

Seeing Chris's need to make certain that all was well, Lou smiled. "Go see for yourself, Allen isn't going anywhere." He glanced back as Chris was leaving, "By the way... Allen confessed to Miss McCall that he started your fire...apparently to draw you away from the ranch."

"Too damn bad that bastard can't die more than once." Chris shook his head and walked out.


Buck dodged around the ambulance, his heart in his throat as he realized the EMT was working on Tess in the back of it. He saw Nathan and Josiah heading his way, and finally spotted Walter. Grabbing his arm, Buck demanded to know, "Where's JD?"

"He's inside with Brodie and a paramedic. He's doin' okay, Buck, but they're takin' him to the hospital for some x-rays."

Closing his eyes for a moment to absorb the information, he then looked Walter in the eye. "Allen?"

Walter nodded. "The son of a bitch is dead." He squeezed Buck's arm. "JD killed him."

Unsure at this point, if he was relieved or concerned, Buck headed into Tess's house. He nodded to Brodie, and peered around the paramedics to see him tending JD, who was sitting on the floor.

Brodie approached Wilmington. "Not too bad." He smiled reassuringly. "Gonna need a couple of stitches in his head, his arm's sore as hell, and maybe a bruised rib or two, but...considering what could have happened..."


Brodie sighed. "She took a beating...looks like the bastard used a belt as well as his fists. By what I can gather, JD's timing stopped it from being any worse..." he shook his head, " was bad enough. She's come 'round, some, but they're treating her for contusions, bruised ribs, and a possible concussion. They're about to head to the hospital any minute." He glanced at the doorway as he spotted Chris, Josiah, and Nathan entering.

The paramedics lifted JD onto a gurney. Once on the rolling stretcher, JD lifted his mask to speak to his brothers, trying to dispel the worry he saw on their faces. "Really, I'm's not that bad. You...should see the other...guy."

Smiling, Chris patted his leg. "We'll clean up real quick, and follow you in." Seeing JD nod, they watched as the paramedics rolled him away. Chris turned to the others. "Allen's dead, and evidently he started the damn fire to get us out of here. Appears he and JD had a helluva a fight, too." He took a deep breath. "JD got him with a nail gun."

They all instinctively swallowed. Buck's face formed into a snarl. "I would've loved to take the bastard out myself, but...that's good enough for me." Fifteen minutes later, after each took a quick shower and had changed into clean clothes, the four brothers headed to the hospital.

Denver Memorial ER, 2:30 pm

Buck found JD easily, peeked into the room, and grinned at the hazel eyes looking back at him. "Hey, are you doing?" He was relieved to see that JD had cleaned up and was now wearing scrubs.

"I'm better for seeing you," he half-grinned.

Buck looked JD up and down and placed a hand on the smaller man's shoulder. "You never answered my question, Squirt."

JD sighed, wincing at the slight pull to his bruised ribs. "Really...I'm fine. Mostly bruising and..." he raised his left hand and pointed to his head. "...a gash up here on my head, somewhere. Oh...and for some reason," he flexed his right hand, "my right arm's a little tingly, but the Doc reckons it'll come back as soon as the swelling goes down." He grinned. "Not the first time I've been hit with a hockey stick."

Buck nodded, relief flooding his features. "So, we're out fighting fires and you're taking it easy, huh?" he teased.

"Don't let this battered exterior fool you, hurts like fuck," JD hit back. Their gazes met and spoke volumes. "Really, Bro, I'm's not that bad."

Buck watched JD's gaze drop, and curled his hand around the young man's wrist, well aware of where his thoughts were drifting. "After all he did to Tess, Keira, Inez, that hooker, and Lord knows what else... Then he tried to burn us out....We know he deserved it, JD. You want to talk about it?"

JD swallowed hard. "Maybe later, Buck..." he said softly, and then looked his brother in the eye. "I'm glad I did it."

The brunet nodded. "You ain't alone, Kid."

Noise outside drew the pair's attention, and JD flipped a weary hand toward Nathan, Josiah and Chris. "Hey, guys. I have something I need to do...can you give me a few minutes?"

Glancing from one to the others with big grins, they nodded. Buck told JD, "Tess is in a room two doors down...we'll wait for you."


JD climbed out of bed, wincing slightly as his injuries reminded him they were there, and then padded down the hallway. He softly knocked on the door, and entered the quiet room. Shuffling over to her bed, he moved to the side Tess was facing, grinning when he saw that she was awake. He reached out and took her hand in his. "Hey."

"Oh, thank God," she said, softly. "I've been lying here alone for so long worrying, and no one would tell me anything. Are you okay?"

JD nodded. "Yeah, I'm fine. You?"

"Sore," she sighed, too embarrassed by the welts on her face to meet his eyes, "but I'm doing all right, thanks to you."

JD tenderly touched her cheek. "Look at me, don't have to hide from me." He waited for her to lift her face. Gazing into her beautiful eyes, his heart dueled with his mind as to whether he should tell her that he was the one who killed her ex husband.

"I know."

"Huh?" Her words pulled JD from his musings.

"The police took a statement from me at the house earlier. They told me Troy was dead and I knew you had to have killed him." She paused for a moment and in that moment, JD's heart almost stopped; he feared she would hate him.

"Funny, I always thought his death would affect me more because I did love him once, but the man I fell in love with disappeared, and he became someone I didn't know.... I hope God forgives me for saying this, but all I feel now is relief that he's gone. He can never hurt Keira or me again." She reached up to stroke his battered face. "I was upset knowing he'd hurt you, too." She gave him a small smile. "Thank you." Tess looked at him, hard. "You really are okay, aren't you?"

JD nodded, his throat too tight to answer as he gazed at her bruised and swollen features, his mind reflecting back to Inez's attack. His eyes shimmered with moisture, and he shook his head. "I'm sorry."

Moving slightly, Tess stared at him. "Sorry, why? You saved me."

"No...I...I broke my promise to you."


"I promised..." JD swallowed to get rid of the lump in his throat. "I promised he'd never hurt you again, " he dropped his gaze, "and he did."

Tess raised a shaky hand and touched JD's face again. "JD...but you did stopped him. You and your family protected Keira and me. Thank you."

For a moment, they stared at each other, and then JD grinned. "Does this mean we're friends?"


"You just called me JD."

She smiled slowly. "Hmmm...I guess it does...'John Daniel'."

Tess struggled to sit up a little. "While I've been lying here, I realized I'm finally free. You've freed us, John've given us our lives back. I'll never be able to thank you enough. Keira and I can do anything, and go wherever we please for the first time since she was born."

JD wondered if she could hear his heart tearing in two when he realized those were words that he had neither expected, nor wanted to hear. All he could do was shrug. "No sweat." He took a breath. "Tess..."

Trying to find the words, JD picked at the blanket. Feeling her gaze on him, he looked at her and spoke, "I'm gonna be straight with you. I'm not sorry I killed Allen. When I recall what he did to Inez...and that hooker...and..." he lightly touched her bruised cheek. "When I see what he's done to you, and Keira... what he's put you through...knowing he's dead...feels good." He paused, waiting for a comeback. When nothing was forthcoming, JD continued.

"I'll understand if you want to go home. Being away from family is hard. But...I just want you to know, before you decide...the kids at Reins adore you. You're a great teacher, and a tremendous asset to the project. You'd be missed." He gently brushed some hair from her eyes. "I really like the friendship we've got going's something I think we both need. I'd miss you, too. If you stay, I can help. I know a great counselor, a Catholic priest, but he's a real cool guy, and he's easy to talk to. 'Course, there's also Mal...Cait..." he grinned, "and Josiah. There's a great support team here." He gave her hand a squeeze and stroked it with his thumb. "And then there's me. You'll always have me, if you want to talk, I'll listen. I want to help you through this, too. If you can stay, you have people here who care about you." JD nodded. "I...I just wanted you to know you have options, now." He gave her hand another squeeze before releasing it.

Tess sighed. "It's been a horrible three years. I've often felt alone, frightened, and as if I had no future. I've feared for Keira's life, and worried that if he got to me....she'd have no one to love her the way she should be. Since I've been at Reins, I've been happier than I've been in a long time. You and your family have taken us in, and made us feel like we belong. There simply are not enough words to say how much that has meant to us. You all gave me a job, us a home, , and hope, and now, for the first time in years, I don't have to be afraid anymore."

Trying not to sound pushy, but spurred on by her words, JD asked, "So...what are you saying?"

"That, in truth, I don't know what to do just yet. I miss my family, but I'm happy here. I guess I have a lot to think about. One thing I do know is, I'm gonna go home, see my folks, and hopefully have some time to think."

JD nodded, wishing she had been more conclusive, but realizing pushing her was not the answer. He rallied as he glanced out into the hallway at his brothers. "Tessie...Baby Standish is about to make an appearance. Would you like to come join us?"

Tess shook her head. "No...I'm fine, you go ahead." She tried to avoid his gaze, failing miserably. "I...I feel bad about all that's happened, JD. If I hadn't been here, Inez would never have been hurt; Troy would not have attacked Kelli and Cait either. Mal and Rain wouldn't have felt threatened, the second fire would never have happened..." she looked at him. "And you wouldn't have gotten hurt."

JD frowned for a moment, and then made a face. " that all?"

Tess stared at him, unsure whether to slap him for not taking her seriously, or laugh. She chose to laugh. Standing at the door, Chris, Buck, Nathan, and Josiah overheard what she said, and were now standing just inside the door.

JD grinned. "Well...I got me a dilemma. I'm not about to leave my injured friend," he winked at his brothers, "So I guess you guys'll have to go on without me."

Tess gasped. "No! No, you can't miss being there when the baby is born."

JD leaned in, and said softly, "Then, come with us."

Tess started to shake her head, turning when Chris spoke. "Come on, Tess. Our ladies would wring our necks if we left you down here alone, and they'd be pleased to see that you're still with us."

There was silence, then Tess whispered more loudly than she would have liked. "I have no clothes on...just a gown...with an open back."

JD grinned. "While the idea of seeing your ass hanging out is...appealing... it looks like one of the nurses scrounged up some clothes for you, and left them just over there. I'll get them for you, and we'll step out while you dress."

Five minutes later, Chris, Buck, Josiah, Nathan, JD, and Tess were heading for the birthing suite.


Denver Memorial Hospital, Birthing Center, 1:30 pm

Barbara's private birthing suite was set-up for comfort with an at home atmosphere that included a private washroom, shower, vanity, and a comfortable bed. It was also a functional room, equipped to handle each phase of delivery and recovery, as well as prepared to handle complicated procedures, such as cesarean or any emergency. An alcove area provided a waiting area for family members. For the baby there was a pediatrician available, and a specialized nurse to take care of any situation that might occur. As an added bonus, a mounted camera videotaped everything, so fathers could concentrate on helping with the birth process. Cait, Mallory, Inez, and Rain, quietly entered the room. Although they expected to see Barbara and Ezra, finding Vin there with Kelli was a pleasant surprise.

Without releasing his wife's hand, Ezra glanced toward the door and smiled at their sisters. "Welcome, Ladies."

"I hope we're here in time." Mallory said, as she and Inez approached Barbara's bedside. "Guess your baby didn't want to wait for us to give you a proper baby shower."

Barbara squeezed her husband's hand as a contraction hit, before responding. "I don't know. Our child appears to be taking its own sweet time getting here."

Inez patted her hand. "Patience, Hon. Your baby will be here when it's good and ready. How are you doing?"

"Doctor Ryder says I'm half-way there, my blood pressure is holding, and..." she glanced at her husband, "Ezra has been wonderful."

Standing at the end of the bed, with Rain, Cait said. "When you get home, we're going to throw you a shower, one you and your baby can enjoy together."

Rain added. "At least we'll know then, if we're dressing a boy or a girl." She looked at Ezra expectantly. "Unless," she smiled, "you want to tell us now."

Vin, who was listening in on the conversation, chuckled. "I've been tryin' to pry that out of him since early this mornin' go."

"Ya'll will all know soon enough," Ezra grinned. "Why should I spoil the surprise?"

Mallory shook her head, and addressed Barbara, "We're here for the duration, so you say where you want here, or the general waiting area down the hallway?" She waited for an answer.

Barbara looked at Ezra, who nodded for her to decide. "Stay please..."

Cait smiled. "Okay, but if you change your mind, say the word, and we'll clear the room."

Each of the sisters found a comfortable chair, and settled in for their 'baby watch'. Cait sat next to Kelli, glanced over her to Vin, and then whispered, "Is he doing all right?"

Kelli nodded. "Vin said it was important to him to give Ezra some brotherly support. This is where he wants to be. Doctor Gilford stopped by earlier, checked on him, and appeared satisfied that he was okay. What about home...any news?"

"The rain finally hit as we were leaving to come up here...I think the worst is over. Your kids are with the rest of the Wild Bunch children at my folks' place. Max, Gunny, Isabella, Willard, Walter, and Brodie are all there to help keep them corralled."

Vin leaned over from his wheelchair, and said, "Y'all can stop whisperin'....I can hear you."

"No big secrets going on." Cait grinned. "I'm glad to see you moving around, and unless I miss my guess....your brothers should be here soon to join you."

"I'm a patient man....I can wait." Vin shifted his position, refusing to give in to his aches, and pains. The Standish 'baby watch' continued.


It was more than an hour later that five brothers walked in, completing the circle of seven. Ezra 'read' his brothers, and understood that the threat from Allen was over. There would be plenty of time to gain the details later. He acknowledged their silent message with a nod. Vin simply smiled, feeling the unspoken communications radiating from his brothers.

Tess was with them. She appeared hesitant to enter, but with a little gentle urging from the men, she took a deep breath, and joined them. Inez, Rain, Mallory, and Cait took one look at the younger woman's obvious injuries, and moved into protective mode.

Inez met her husband's eyes. She did not ask questions about what had transpired to cause the young woman's injuries. His gaze told her all she needed to was finished. She stood up, walked over, and first cupped JD's jaw, making sure he was all right. The reassuring look in his eyes satisfied her that he was okay. She then took Tess's hand. "Come, sit with us." She guided her to a chair, settling her between Rain and Mallory. Touching her cheek, Inez whispered, "Accept our support, and let us help you discover how to rebuild your life."

Overcome with emotion, Tess looked at the women who now surrounded her, and nodded. "Thank you."

Prepared for a long wait, Josiah joined his wife, as Nathan did his, while JD found a comfortable position in a chair near Tess, and eased his aching body onto it. It warmed his heart to see her accept support from his sisters.

Buck was also pleased to see Inez take charge of the young teacher. Tess needed caring friends to help lift her from this low point in her life, and his wife needed to move on from the brutality of what Allen did to her, too. Drawing attention away from Tess, he rubbed his hands together. "Reinforcements have arrived. Ezra, tell your baby the uncles are all here, and ready to welcome him or her into the world."

Barbara tried to smile. "I don't think our baby is listening to either of us right now."

Ezra sighed. "It appears our child has a different time schedule than we do. We're still only half-way there."

Buck grinned. "We've all been me." He glanced at his brothers, and could not resist a bit of teasing. "Wonder who's gonna be the next one to stand in Ezra's shoes?"

Chris walked over and stood behind Cait, placing his hands on her shoulders. "Well, Buck...I reckon that would be me and Cait...we're adding another Larabee in about seven and a half months."

"I'll be damned," Buck said softly, and then smiled. "Congratulations." The rest of the Wild Bunch quickly followed suit.

Chris waited until the flurry of excitement his announcement produced to calm down, and then set his gaze on Vin. "Gilford knows you're here?"

Vin nodded. "Yep. In fact, he came down and checked me out earlier. Said all I need is time to heal, and I can do that at home. So, he's springin' me from this place tomorrow."

"Good...that's really good to hear." Chris smiled as he looked from one brother to another. They had met the devil twice in the past few weeks, one sent by nature, and the other manifested from the depths of a twisted mind...but they had all survived. The strength of their unique bond had pulled them through.

Ezra glanced at Barbara and cleared his throat. "We might not have time to say it once things get moving here, but we want you all to know how much it means to share this time with our family."

Josiah squeezed Mallory's hand. "We're family...where else would we be?"

"Indeed." Ezra nodded. His attention diverted when Barbara gasped as another contraction hit.

"That one was stronger." She gripped Ezra's hand harder.

Doctor Ryder chose that moment to enter, and moved to check on her patient. After reading the monitors, and making a physical examination, she stripped off her gloves, and smiled. "Apparently your baby has only been waiting for the rest of the family to get here, before speeding things up to make an appearance." She patted Barbara's arm. "It won't be long now. Expect your contractions to come faster, and to be more intense. We're almost there, and your blood pressure is fine. I'll be back in fifteen minutes...Dad...get ready...the real work is from here on out." She nodded to the rest of the family as she walked out the door.


Speaking quietly amongst themselves, the family tried mentally to send their love and encouragement to Barbara and Ezra as her labor progressed. It was a pleasure to be together, waiting for a joyous event, instead of having to worry about a new challenge for one of them. This was the Wild Bunch at their best. Comforting their injured, silently offering their support to their own, and reveling in the love surrounding them all.

Josiah made his own observations. It seemed fitting that their recent perils ended here, in a room dedicated to bringing forth new life. They could have lost Inez in that parking garage, but they did not. They almost had Vin taken from them, too, but he fought his way back to the living. Troy did his best to destroy Tess and Keira's lives...yet, thanks to JD, he could never touch them again. Then there was Chris and Cait, and their welcome, but unexpected blessing of another little soul for them to nurture. His thoughts shifted to a part of the code given them by their ancestors.

'Preservation of fidelity to our mates, to mentor and protect our children, and commitment to the bonds of unity, are all requisites, which link our past, present, and future.'

Nathan read the pensive expression on Josiah's face. "You feel it, too, don't you?"

Understanding exactly what Nathan meant, Josiah nodded, and a slow smile curved his lips. "Something's changed for us, Nate. I'm not sure where it takes us from here, but I do know we've passed another phase of our lessons."

JD felt it too. Glancing at Buck, he saw the same resolute expression on his face that all his brothers now shared. Although he was not sure why, he broke into a grin. Whatever the future held, he had faced down the demons in his past, and found the peace he needed to take on anything Fate sent his way. He knew in his heart that he had made a good turn in his life.


Doctor Ryder reentered the room. Her demeanor made it evident that this time she intended to stay. Buck recognized the look on the doctor's face as one he and Inez had witnessed on four previous occasions, and mumbled, "Here we go."

Ezra held on to his wife's hand as she worked to bring their baby into the world. Helpless to take away her pain, all he could do was whisper encouraging words to her, "You're doing great, sweetheart...almost there...."

"Ezra," Barbara hissed between contractions, "next time you get to do this part."

The round of laughter across the room, from waiting family members, did not help him find an appropriate answer, nor did the speed of her next contraction. The calm voice of the doctor penetrated the mixture of emotions Ezra was feeling. "One more Barbara...that's it...." The next sound he heard was the wail of his child, obviously not happy about the rush of cold air, which hit bare skin. The doctor laid the infant on Barbara's stomach, while the nurse handed Ezra a pair of scissors. "Cut the cord, Dad." Hands shaking, Ezra willed them to be steady, and did as instructed.

Quickly wrapping the infant in a blanket, the nurse took the baby long enough for the pediatrician to make an examination, weigh, and then measure the newborn, before returning to the new parents.

Placing the baby in Ezra's hands, she smiled and said, "Honey, this is your daddy...Mister Standish, meet your daughter." It took a few seconds for him to realize what was happening....he was actually holding their child....a sudden surge of emotion overwhelmed him.

Barbara leaned back against her pillows, watching the first moments between father and daughter. Tears filled her eyes, as she vowed never to forget the look of awe on her husband's face. "Ezra...honey...are you going to introduce me?"

Mesmerized by the delicate features of his beautiful daughter, Ezra barely heard his wife. "What? Oh ... yes...yes, of course." He turned to let Barbara see their miraculous creation. "She's perfect."

"Yes she is," Barbara agreed, after checking out fingers, toes, and every other inch of her daughter, before handing her back to her father. "She's in your care now, Ezra. Go introduce her to our family...I think I want to sleep a while."

Carefully cradling his daughter in his arms, Ezra leaned down to kiss his wife, and whispered, "I love you, Barb."

"Love you too," she said softly, before giving in to the exhaustion that twelve hours of labor had produced.

Grinning, Ezra carried the new little Standish to the waiting area of the room, and proudly announced, "May I present to y'all our daughter, Miss Pearl Delaney Standish. Sweetheart, our wonderful family has been waiting with Mommy and Daddy, for your arrival."

"Pearl is a beautiful name." Cait said as she peeked at their new niece.

"We named her for Barbara's grandmother." Ezra smiled as all the women made a fuss over Pearl, while his brothers grinned.

Chris, spoke for all of them. "Welcome to the ranks of fatherhood, Ezra. As soon as it all sinks in, you'll find that your life has changed forever in one breathtaking moment."


August 30

The past two weeks had been busy ones. Getting the children prepared for school, amid the excitement of Vin coming home, a new baby arriving, and the Reins annual rodeo had been an all-encompassing task. Finally, the Wild Bunch had the opportunity to do a little celebrating.

Brodie had gone ahead with Jason and Andi, while Max and Walter took charge of Bren and Trey. Since coming home, Vin had not ventured far from the house. Kelli's job was to deliver Tanner to Larabee's for his official welcome home dinner. Pulling in, she stopped close to the play yard. Chris had a lounge chair reserved for Vin set under a big shade tree.

Before exiting the truck, Kelli turned to her husband, and asked, "You ready, Tanner?"

"Reckon I am." Vin placed his hand on her arm. "I want you to enjoy yourself today....catch up with the women, visit with little Pearl...hell, just sit back and prop up your feet if you want. You need a break from worryin' about me. I promise not to disappear on you."

Kelli smiled, and reached out to touch his cheek. "I'll always worry about you, Vin, but...I'll try to tone down my over-protective inclinations. Good enough?"

Vin nodded, and grinned. "Good enough, besides from the looks of it, Chris plans to hover for you."

"That's my Dad." She laughed, exited her side, walked around the truck to the passenger door, and waited for Vin. Together they slowly made their way over to join the family.


The hours passed quickly. Once the meal was over, the older children headed out to play under the watchful eyes of Brodie, Donald, Lillian, Max, and Walter. The younger ones went down for naps, with the exception of baby Pearl, who was the center of attention amongst the women.

Cait especially felt drawn to the newest Standish. Raising her eyes to meet Chris's, she read his thoughts, which mirrored hers. Their choice to welcome their child no matter what the risks was the right one.

One by one, the brothers joined Vin and Chris at the shade tree. Ezra, Josiah, and Nathan stood in its protective shadow, while Buck and JD dropped to the grass, the former sitting, and the latter laying on the lush, soft lawn. They sat in silence for a minute or so, just content to bask in the comfort of each other's presence, until Ezra spoke.

"While pondering how much Barbara's and my little treasure has filled not only our lives, but also our time, it occurred to me that I have been remiss in asking about the events we missed. JD, how close is your house to completion?"

Not opening his eyes, or sitting up as he laid there, JD smiled. "A few more weeks, Ezra. Thanks for asking."

Buck glanced at Standish. "You were where you needed to be, Ez. We did okay while you waited for Pearl." He nodded. "The Reins Rodeo cleared over fifty thousand dollars after expenses. Not bad for three days."

"Not bad, indeed." Standish concurred. "I did find time to confer with our new operations manager. Brodie has some good ideas about diversifying our marketability by adding in some rodeo stock. The profit projections for the first years are attractive."

"Was thinkin'," Vin cut in. "Once JD moves old place would make a good ranch office. Dad could center operations there, plus he'd have a place to sack out when he needs to stay over."

Chris nodded. "Yeah, that would work. We'll run it by Brodie, later."

Nudging Nathan and laughing, as Buck tickled JD's nose with a length of grass, Josiah asked, "When is Tess due back, John Daniel?"

JD sighed, inwardly. No one could call him by his Christian name quite like Tess. He idly slapped away Buck's hand. The brunet grinned as he continued with his teasing.

JD's eyes remained closed in an attempt to conceal the disappointment in her still being gone. "Not sure why you're asking me, preacher."

Buck added his own thoughts to Josiah's. "Say, you gonna ask her out when she gets back, 'John Daniel'?"

Groaning and finally opening his eyes, JD rolled over onto his belly, propped up his head in his hands, and looked back at them all. "'If' she comes back, Buck. It's not like she's called to let us know what she plans to do." He sighed. "Not that I blame her," he said sincerely. "I can't begin to imagine how she must feel after three years of the hell Allen put her through." His second, heavier sigh spoke volumes to his brothers as JD rolled over onto his back, folded his arms under his head, and gazed up at the late afternoon sky.

Silence reigned for a little while until Vin's voice broke through the stillness. "Kelli ain't too happy about this new position Russo's offered...but, seein' as she wants to spend time with me until I'm fit for work, she's gonna take it...for now."

Chris nodded. "I reckon she'll survive it...but at least she's got eight weeks to test it out."

"Eight weeks," Ezra repeated. "That long before you can resume work?"

"At least," Nathan answered for Vin, "and with you out for another month,'s going to be strange for the rest of us returning to work."

"Feels like we've been away forever," Buck said quietly.

Pushing up to sitting position, JD sat cross-legged in front of them. "I feel kinda nervous, and excited about it at the same time. Do you think things will be different now? You we've..." he looked at Vin and Josiah for guidance.

Vin glanced at Josiah, who answered, "Now that we're learning more about our new skills and have our Heart Warrior, you mean?"

JD nodded.

"I guess it's gonna be a little different," Buck put in.

For a fleeting moment, Vin recalled a memory from his journey into darkness. Other images were retuning slowly, and he knew each one was important. He spoke softly. "One thing I learned while I was 'gone'.... The strength of the link between the legacy of our past, and the future destinies of our children, rests on us. I reckon it's our turn to take point."

Chris looked at his brothers. "We already have, Vin. We took ownership of our legacy when we were waiting for you to return. I don't know where the next step of this incredible journey will take us, but I figure it's gonna be one hell of a ride."

A soft, warm breeze set their combined senses into motion. The seven men looked beyond the trees, smiling as the Old West Seven appeared before them.

'Been waiting a while to hear that, Larabee.' Cowboy smiled back at them, and then glanced at his ownbrothers. 'Vin's right and we're handing over the reins... You're all strong enough to move forward. This time belongs to your seven.... You sure as hell don't need us leading you around anymore.'

JD frowned. "Wait...does that mean we'll never see you again?"

Tracker touched a hand to his heart. 'We're right here, Kid. Always have been...always will be. We'll be close by when y'all need a hand, but we're gonna take a step back. Follow your hearts, study your books, and believe in yourselves....The rest will fall into place.'

Recognizing that the timing was right; the Old West Seven smiled, touched their hats, and turned. The current brotherhood watched in awe as the men who had helped them mold their future, and guided them to navigate Fate's planned highway, walked in a line toward the slowly setting sun until their images faded away into the early blush of sundown.

While the visions of their ancestors vanished, the warm, ageless winds of time swirled around The MCAT Seven, filling them with a sense of belonging, hope, strength, and love. They were in charge now. Justice would prevail, the legacy would continue. Each man understood, and was ready for, the next leg of their journey. They also knew it was destined to be the wildest ride of their lives.


Next in the MCAT Strength in Solidarity Series # 7
~ Written on the Winds Trilogy~
#3 Voices in the Wind

Story Notes & Sources, October 2009

Meditations by Wallace Black Elk, LAKOTA, inspired the idea of heart warrior.

Women, men, and teens can all be victims of domestic abuse. If someone you know needs assistance, pass these numbers and websites along. Anonymous & Confidential Help 24/7

National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)

National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673