MCAT Transitions
by tannertexaslady

Edited by Tonny

Disclaimer: This is entirely a work of fiction for entertainment only, based on the characters from “The Magnificent Seven.” I don’t own them, but if I did I would run away with ‘m and never be seen again. CBS and Co., Trilogy Entertainment, and MGM had ‘em first and don’t want to give ‘m away. No money has been made for having fun writing about them. No infringement of any copyrights is intended.

Warnings: Relationships are or will be established. If you do not like the boys married or involved, in heterosexual relationships skip this AU.

Characters: Focused on Chris, Vin and OFCs, all of the boys are here, though.

Story: Introduction to new AU MCAT (Future stories will have plenty of H/C to go around,)

Transitions, is about the set up for this new unit, as well as their personal lives involving the Larabee 7 Horse Ranch and family life. You will find romance, humor and personal challenges throughout this story.

Transitions is the beginning of a series of stories that involve MCAT. This one centers on the changes taking place in the personal lives of our seven heroes. Our boys have worked together for seven year as Federal Agents and formed their own family of brothers. They have even become partners to establish The Larabee 7 Horse Ranch. A place, set up, to raise horses, for profit and a dream for a secure future for their families. However, after September 2001, federal law enforcement started to change. Old priorities gave way to new challenges and better ways to meet them. When Team Seven is disbanded, Chris Larabee is offered an opportunity to become Unit Commander for a new Task Force, MCAT (Major Crimes and Acts of Terrorism). A unit of federal agents that take on any or all cases, too complex or too hot for other agencies to handle.

Acknowledgments: References are made to the ATF universe created by MOG with my appreciation for drawing me into this fandom. Tonny has been my editor and resident Larabee expert and I know she plans to play in this sand box. Ladyhorsewhisperer has contributed suggestions and helped keep me on track with details concerning Larabee 7 horse ranch. Brigitta, your writing has inspired my work and your support has given me the confidence to pursue it.

Special thanks to Mary for her Beta work and her friendship. In addition, to every writer before me that has shared their work with the rest of us, thank you.

Notes: Any mistakes are mine, as are the original characters I have created for this series. You are welcome and encouraged to play in this AU, but no slash pairings please.

Size: Approx 565K


The sun was rising over the distant mountains. Last night’s rain had left a clean fresh smell to the air. Chris Larabee, coffee in hand watched as a new day began and reflected on the changes in his life. He took out his journal and began to write.

When I lost Sarah and Adam eight years ago, I thought my life was over and stopped believing in the future. That is, until I became the leader of an unruly bunch of misfits and formed the best ATF unit in the country. People call us the Magnificent Seven, I just call them family. My brothers have become the catalyst to resurrect my old dream of owning a horse ranch.

A year ago, after a long string of dangerous cases, we started to plan for a future that does not include having someone shoot at us several times a week. We needed something to be there, for retirement or if suddenly one of us were permanently disabled and could no longer work. We pooled our resources and invested in good breeding stock to start our new horse ranch “Larabee 7”. Some day the best horses in the country will come from here and our name will be synonymous with quality breeding.

At the rate our family is growing, it has been a wise move.

Josiah met and married Mallory five years ago. She is an ATF agent and the leader of team six. Joanne, their two year old will have a baby brother in about two months. They live just down the road Buck has been married to Inez four years now and now they have two of the most beautiful daughters in Colorado. Their home is finished and only one half mile from the main house.

Nathan finally married Rain and although they keep a place in town, they are building a home on the ranch property. Rain found out last week she is pregnant, so I expect construction will speed up. JD and Casey married a little over a year ago. They live with Nettie. She needs their help to keep her place going and it joins this property so they are still close. Only four days ago, Casey gave JD the news. He is going to be a dad before Thanksgiving.

Who knows what Ezra does with his personal life? The southerner spends a lot of time traveling between the ranch and his townhouse. He never seems to have a problem finding female companionship. Ezra passed the bar and now he is the personal legal counsel for Larabee 7 and the family.

As I watch Vin come up from the barns, I think about the brother of my soul and friend. He moved out here last year to oversee the breeding program and keep an eye on me. We remolded the living quarters next to the main barn to suit his comfort and to make him closer to the horses he loves. Tanner can be one very dangerous sonofabitch if crossed or if his family is threatened, but with women he is painfully shy and more insecure. I hope someday he finds the right woman and settles down, too. His record of success, so far, has not been too good in that department, but if anyone deserves to be happy it’s Tanner. Without him, I might still be stuck in the past, but he has pulled my soul out of a black hole and refuses to let me slide back.

Overall, I would say, I am a damned lucky man to be surrounded by men like these. I may never marry again, but that does not mean I will not look. In addition to three nieces and soon to be new babies, we have several mares due to foal. I hope that my neighbors will retire soon and offer their place for sale. That property would be a perfect fit with this one and would give us the room we need to expand. We will all still be working for a few years, but the future is looking good.

A ringing cell phone startled Chris from his reflections.

“Larabee.” He listened to the voice of his boss, “Yes, Orrin I can be there in about forty five minutes.” A meeting in Travis’s office was such a great way to start the day!

Federal Building 8:00 a.m.

Chris Larabee entered Travis’ office unaware that his life was about to change again.

Facing the window looking at the Denver skyline, Orrin was searching for the right words to say. Turning to face the man, he has come to think of as a son, he prayed that the younger man would see the opportunity he was offering.

“Chris take a seat.” Travis sat across the desk and looked Larabee in the eye. “Seven years ago you sat in that chair and we discussed the formation of a new team. I admit, I had my doubts about the men you brought together and was not sure they could ever work together as a unit. You have proved me wrong. I am pleased to say. Your team has done an outstanding job and the results have made me proud.”

“Orrin just get to the point.” Chris was beginning to get an uncomfortable feeling in his gut.

“Yes…well, team seven is being disbanded.” Holding up his hand to stop any reaction, he continued, “Hear me out before you say anything please.”

After jumping up at Travis’ words, Chris slowly sat down again. He nodded for the AD to continue.

“The world has changed in the last few years and law enforcement needs to change with it. We will still have a few teams remain in place for our routine cases and Riley from team eight will be in charge of those. However, we are forming a task force that will handle special assignments, beyond what is typical of the cases we have handled in the past. We will take cases from several different agencies and assist with others.” Orin stopped to sip some water. “The new task force will be called MCAT which stands for Major Crimes and Acts of Terrorism. This is an independent unit. We will be flexible enough to work any case that lands in front of us. Working under my direction, I want you to be the man in charge. As unit commander, you make the plans and you head the action. You would answer directly to me.”

Silence hung in the room for a few minutes before Larabee spoke. “Orrin, how long have you known about this?”

“I have known long enough to have some details and suggestions for you to consider if you are interested.” Orrin saw a glimmer of curiosity in the younger man’s eyes.

“Go on.” Chris was not prepared to commit, but did feel the need to hear the man out.

“I would suggest Tanner be in charge of the daily activities of the agents and rank directly under you, as your squad captain, he has the leadership qualities for the job. It is your choice entirely of course and you may keep all members of team seven that choose to stay. The benefits are greater but so are the risks. Mallory Sanchez will be in the unit as an agent, if she wishes, however, her team would transfer to another office. Initially, you would get four new agents, with others joining in the weeks to come. After six months, you will be free to replace any or all of them, if you decide to. The unit will be under your command and you will have a lot of freedom to run it as you see fit. My position would be Deputy Director and you would only have to answer to me.”

“How long do I have to consider this offer and what happens to my team if I refuse?” Chris asked.

“I’ll give you a week to think it over before I offer it to anyone else. I have only six weeks to make this operational. MCAT will be the best of the best because this unit will model the ones to follow. The old team units will scale down in number and some agents will transfer out. The remainder will handle only small cases and stake out duties. As for your team, that would be up to the new unit leader, if you decline to take the position. He or she may or may not accept them. They are the best at what they do, but I am not convinced they could be effective with a more ‘conventional’ supervisor. My best guess is whoever it will be would bring in their own people.” Orrin was relieved to have it all on the table.

“I’ll let you know.” Chris rose to leave and turning to Travis, he had one last question. “Am I free to discuss this with the boys?”

“As long as they realize it is all confidential, I don’t see why not. This will affect their future as well. Just one thing, Mallory is due in here in the next hour and I ask you to wait until I have talked to her. In the meantime, team seven will stand down for this week. Take the time and use it wisely.”

The two men shook hands and Chris left with more on his mind to consider than when he entered. He headed for the elevator and pushed the button to floor seven.

Team 7 office

Larabee entered the bullpen and without a word went straight to his own office slamming the door behind him.

“What do you suppose put him in a bad mood?” JD was curious.

“Vin, didn’t he have a meeting with Travis?” Buck glanced at Larabee’s door then to the sharpshooter.

“Yep.” Vin answered as he reached for another doughnut.

“Well, do you know what the meeting was about? JD asked.

“Nope.” The sharpshooter picked up his coffee.

“Aren’t you just a wealth of information?” huffed Buck.

“I feel confident gentlemen, that if it was a grievance about us we will soon find out,” stated Ezra.

“You’re right about that. Now who did what to whomever that they weren’t supposed to?” Nathan inquired.

A chorus of not me filled the room.

“Josiah, you’re not saying much, any ideas? JD was determined to find out something.

Josiah just shrugged and turned to the paperwork on his desk. He knew Mallory was going to see Travis too. However, he was not ready to speculate about what that meant.

“Tanner! My office now!” Larabee shouted through the close door. All eyes turned to the Texan. He shrugged his shoulders and headed to the boss’ office.

“Close the door behind you.” Chris said without looking up. When he heard the door close, he turned to the sharpshooter and met his eyes.

“What’s up?” Vin could read Larabee like a book and what he saw was a brother in conflict. From what, he did not know yet, but eventually he would.

“Not now.” Chris stood and came around the desk. “Meet me at home as soon as we leave here and tell the boys conference room in five minutes.”

Tanner was intrigued with the look Chris had in his eyes. It was not anger or hurt, but something he had not seen before. He knew the older man would tell him about it when he was ready. Therefore, he nodded in agreement and proceeded to carry out his order. “Conference room boys,” ordered Tanner.

Five voices threw out five different questions. Vin raised his hand in a stop motion and herded them to the right room. They were just in their seats when Larabee walked in and went straight to the head of the table.

“As of now team seven is on stand down status,” announced Chris

“Why?” JD asked

“How long?” Josiah wanted to know.

“What did we do now?” Ezra inquired.

“With or without pay?” Nathan needed to know

“Damn.” Buck simply stated.

“Enough!” Chris silenced them all with one word. “We are officially down until further notice.” Larabee raised his hand to stop further questions. “This is not up for discussion at this time.” He continued, “Unofficially, I want you all at the ranch house at five, minus spouses. We will discuss this then.” Once Chris left everyone sat in stunned silence, until Vin got them to moving.

“You heard the man, go home. See you boys at five.”

Larabee 7 Ranch 1:00 p.m.

Chris had time enough to change clothes before Tanner drove in. He met the younger man on the deck, handing him a cold beer. They sat in silence for a while then Chris decided it was time to talk about it. “Team seven as we know it is history. Decision time brother, we move up or out.”

“What’s our choice?” Tanner now realized what he had seen in the older man’s eyes. Indecision, something he was not used to from Larabee.

“There are few options. We go with the new program, stay and possibly have to spilt up and transfer or we find some others way to pay for all this.” Chris swept his hand across the horizon.

“I can always go back to bounty huntin’, which should keep us and the horses from starvin’.”

“Then what happens to your breeding program?”

“Hell, I don’t know.”

“What about the others?”

“Lar’bee, you think too much.” Vin drained the last of his beer. “So what’s Travis want us to do?”

“Travis wants me to take on a new task force. MCAT, it stands for Major Crimes and Acts of Terrorism. He offered me the job of unit commander and picked you to ride herd on the agents, as squad captain.

“Lar’bee, I love you like my brother and would walk through hell for you, if you asked, but I ain’t wearin’ a suit everyday for nobody.”

Chris laughed so hard he had tears in his eyes. “Your only complaint is about wearing a suit?” Vin could always lighten a situation and drain away the stress, Larabee absorbed like a sponge.

“You want to tell me more or stand there and laugh all day?”

“Just so you know if we do this, right now I can only say for sure that you and I will be working together.” Larabee got his laughter under control. “If the rest of the seven decide not to come aboard, we may have to go with all new people.” He continued, “The rules will be flexible, which means you probably won’t have to be in a suit every day.”

“Let’s do it.” Tanner would support his brother no matter what. Chris nodded and with their hands extended, formed their warrior’s grip sealing their commitment.

Larabee Seven 4:40 p.m.

It was only twenty minutes to five, but all of team seven was present and accounted for. They were anxious to get to the point of this meeting. Seven men took seats around the den and waited for something, which they sensed, was a major announcement.

“Chris, I think you have made us wait long enough,” Buck said, what they we all thinking. “Either tell us or shoot us, but do something.”

“I need to ask some questions first and want you to all wait until I finish.” Chris turned to Ezra with his inquiry. “Ezra, you are the financial associate of Larabee 7. Can you tell me how long before this place can carry its expenses independently and turn enough profit to support all of us?”

“Yes…well I don’t have the exact figures with me but I would have to say, to be independent, at least six to eight years. When it could support seven families? At least ten to twelve years.” Clearly, Ezra was surprised by the question, but he continued. “We need to expand our acreage so with a note for the land add on another year at least. Understand most of our investments are tied up in assets and there is not a lot of cash on hand.”

“Thanks, that’s good for now.” Chris turned to the others “I wanted you all to know where we stand here before I told you the rest.”

“You’re not quitting are you?” JD was on his feet.

“Sit down, JD and no I am not quitting.” Chris prepared for the explosion to come. “Our team is to be disbanded within the week.” A chorus of voices, some questioning, some curses and yells, assaulted the room. Chris waited for calm and suddenly a shrill whistle silenced them all.

“If you wanna know more sit down and hush!” Tanner took control and when the rest took their seats, he turned to Chris and nodded.

Chris took them through the same basic explanation, which Travis had given him few hours earlier. “Josiah and Mallory have already discussed this. She is leaving in two weeks and taking maternity leave to be home with the babies. Josiah is joining the new unit.” He turned to Sanchez and nodded his approval. “As for the rest of you, this is a decision you will have to think about. The alternative is to find a new line of work or stay on in the old ATF units with the risk of transfer.”

“You have already decided to do this, haven’t you Chris?” Buck knew his old friend would not leave them to chance with someone else, if they decided to stay.

“Yes, I intend to tell Travis tomorrow.” Addressing the others, “You have time to think this over discuss it with Inez, Rain and Casey. As your friend and brother, I want you to take the time to consider how this will affect your future and your own families. This is an opportunity to be part of something new, but will have greater risk and at times keep you away from home, for longer than you have been. It is also an opportunity to make changes in your life and do something else if you choose. Bottom line, it is your decision.” Vin has already told me, he is staying. He will become squad captain for the unit, but I do need an answer from all of you, before Monday.”

“Since I am single and have no one else to consider. May I give you my affirmative answer now?” Ezra sought Larabee’s acceptance and got it with one look.

“Now, since I am sure your ladies are waiting to hear from you, go home. Talk to your wives and tell them family BBQ on Sunday,” Chris tried to dismiss them. They were not ready to leave what was the last meeting of team seven, as they knew it. Eventually he and Vin got them out the door, except for Buck and Ezra. Once they were gone, Standish discussed with Chris their options for the Larabee 7.

“Do you want me to continue pursuing the property next door or put it on hold for now?” Ezra was curious.

“With at least four of us still working I don’t see why not. We need the property and we could handle the note, if the others are strapped for cash.” Larabee explained and then Ezra said good night.

“Buck, I know you, what’s on your mind?” Chris had known this man for over twenty years.

“Just want you to know I’ll support whatever you do. I know Inez will agree.” Buck wanted his oldest friend to have no doubt, about his support, before he left for home.

“Well, the herd is movin’, all we gotta do is keep ‘em in line,” the Texan drawled.


The next morning the sky was grey with the promise of rain before the day was over. The chores were quickly finished and after breakfast, Chris called Travis and gave him his decision. Orrin was relieved to know Larabee was staying and offered to send over the files for the new transfers. The promised files would be couriered over within two hours. Larabee and Tanner were working in the barn when they heard a car in the drive. Vin, thinking it was the courier, offered to meet him, but to his surprise, it was Ezra.

“Ez, didn’t expect to see you this early.” Tanner moved closer to the car. “You don’t look so good pard.”

“Would you and Mr. Larabee please join me on the deck?” Ezra headed in that direction.

Both men joined Ezra, after a few minutes. Seeing the look on Ezra’s face, Chris decided to get some refreshments before hearing the man out. He disappeared into the kitchen and came back with three bottles of beer.

Standish grabbed one and drank quickly. The fact he never looked at the label had the other men concerned. “I want to assure you, Mr. Larabee, I will not hesitate to file a law suit, if needed. This injustice will not be tolerated!” Ezra angrily paced the deck.

Vin and Chris exchange a look that said, What in the hell is he talking about?

“Furthermore, I intend that every reputable business, in Denver, will know how unscrupulous and underhanded that man is.” Ezra finally found a chair and sat down.

“That’s fine, but do you mind telling me just what in the hell you are talking about?” Chris asked.

“This property, this land, our future!” Standish was not making much sense as he waved his hands through the air.

“’Ez, calm down and start at the beginnin’.” Vin was trying to understand why the southerner was angry.

“I am referring to the broker that Mr. Anderson hired to handle his property. His name is Simon and I have been working with him for months to secure the property for Larabee 7. This morning I received a phone call at the ungodly hour of eight. It was Simon telling me the property was no longer available. Well we had an agreement that I would have first bid on the land and when I reminded him of that he just laughed and said that’s the breaks!” Standish was pacing again.

“Are you saying he sold it to someone else?” Chris could feel his own temper growing.

“I believe, that is what I just expressed quiet plainly!” Ezra’s own anger had not waned.

Vin decided now was the time to calm the waters and suggested they take a ride over there and see if the sign was still up. He was hoping this was all a misunderstanding. Just then, the courier from Travis drove up. Signing for the package it was quickly set aside and forgotten. The three men loaded in Chris’ truck and headed to the Anderson’s place. When they got there, they found the gates locked and chained. The “For Sale” sign had sold plastered all over it.

“A ‘pears we have new neighbors, Cowboy”

The trio made their way back to the ranch and the phone was ringing as they walked in. Travis wanted Chris to know there was no rush now to set up the interviews. The remodeled offices for the new task force, on the twelfth floor would not be ready until the middle of next week. Orrin told him to enjoy the next few days off because the upcoming weeks would be a challenge. Larabee was glad to hear it. Now they would have the chance to tie up loose ends on the property, before they started on MCAT.

Southern Breeze Horse Ranch

“Why do you think this is necessary?” Linda asked for the third time.

“I explained my reasons. I need a place closer to work and it’s not as if I will never be here.” Kelli explained again.

“You could quit and help me here full time. It’s not a necessity that you work and what about your horses?” Linda pointed out.

“You won’t throw my horses out, we both know that. It has been four months since your father died and I have stayed long enough to help you move in here. You will do just fine. The horses will keep you busy and I will be around. I am startin’ a new job and need to focus on it.” Kelli hated to do this but knew it was best and Linda needed to move on with her life.

“It just seems like we are always going in different directions.” Linda sighed.

“Well, tonight at least we will be in the same place. You do remember we were gonna to try that restaurant down the road?” Kelli decided her friend needed a diversion. “I promise, you can help me decorate my new place.” She knew how much Linda liked to take on a new project and spend money.

Different as night and day, Linda and Kelli had met ten years ago in Louisiana and instantly became friends. Then Linda and her father moved to Colorado for his health and Kelli moved back to Texas. Over the years, their friendship remained steady, in spite of the fact, that they rarely had time to visit. When Linda’s father died four months ago, Linda called and asked her to come. Kelli took a leave of absence from work to help her with the horses. Linda’s father had planned this move before he died, so it was with Kelli’s encouragement that Linda followed through with it.

The Dubois families had been raising thoroughbreds since 1939. They had produced some of the top racehorses in the country over the years. Of Linda’s four brothers, only one stayed in the family business. She spent most of her life working with her father to compensate for it. Brought up with in affluent lifestyle and with the constant excitement of the world of horseracing, she was usually outgoing and loved to have fun, however, this last year she had stayed close to home to care for her dad.

Kelli Coulter was more reserved and spent much of her time in the outdoors. Growing up in the system, courtesy of the State of Texas, she had no known relatives. Linda was the only person she was close to and she had become family to her. Kelli discovered, at an early age, life was tough and she had learned to be tougher. Her work was an important part of her life and by her own choice left little time for personal relationships. Trusting others with her inner feelings was something she did not do. She loved a challenge and looked forward to her new assignment. Starting a new life in Denver could be a good thing.

Friday Morning

“JD just called, said he and Casey talked it over and decided he’s stayin’ with us.” Vin informed Larabee. ”That makes six.”

“Good, Nathan called earlier and said the same thing.” Chris was relieved they were all staying. He could not help but worry about his family. He handed Vin a cup of coffee and they both went out to the deck.

“We need to make a grocery run before Sunday or we may have some hungry people here.” Chris noted. “Guess I should make a list and see what everyone else is bringing.”

“I’ll do it, ol’ man, know how much you hate it.” Vin volunteered and acknowledged Larabee’s nod of thanks with his own. “It’s only fair since your payin’.’’ Tanner grinned as he headed for the kitchen.

Later in the afternoon, Ezra showed up and Vin roped him into helping. Standish planned on staying the weekend and spending time with the family on Sunday and since none of the three had plans for tonight they decided to go out for dinner. They chose to try the new restaurant down the road. The meal was good, but the scenery was better. Most of the other patrons were families, but two women sat on the opposite side of the room. Chris noticed the beautiful blonde-haired woman right away. She had an elegant look that appealed to him. He thought about it and for a brief moment considered trying to talk to her, but decided against it. Larabee, you are so out of practice.

Vin was watching her dinner companion. The auburn haired beauty, for some reason drew his attention and he was surprised to feel a stirring of lust course through his body. Damn, Vin, tell your boys to control themselves. As the women left the restaurant, he mentally shook his head. You just need to get laid, Tanner, been too long

Outside the two women walked toward their car. “You look like the cat that just ate the canary,” Kelli observed her friend and was please to see her in good spirits. “What’s put that smile on you face?”

“How could you miss that gorgeous blond with the green eyes?” I may be out of practice but I am not dead. Linda grinned, “Don’t tell me you missed the one watching you. It was pretty obvious he was interested.”

“Really I didn’t notice.” Kelli headed for the truck A man looking that sexy ought to be outlawed. Linda was still laughing when she caught up with her.

Larabee 7

Larabee and Tanner sat on the porch and watched the night sky. Everything else might change, but the bond that brought these two men together was rock solid. They had been through many difficult times in the last seven years and no doubt would face more, in the future. However, whatever the challenge, neither man would have to make a stand, alone.

“You havin' second thoughts, Lar’bee?”

“Never have been one to like change and this will definitely be a change.”

Silence hung in the air for a few minutes. “Could work out.” Vin thought for a minute, “Hell, everyone reckoned Team 7 would fall flat and look how good we turned out.”

“Now that is a scary thought.” Chris found a smile, he knew what Vin was doing and appreciated it. Yeah, they had turned out okay and found a family in the process and he had come to love them all. Admittedly, at times they could still act like a group of schoolchildren, but this band of misfits, was the best response team in the country. If there was any group of men, that could make this new unit work, they could. Monday would be the start of a new chapter, in all of their lives and he had confidence in these men, that he called brothers. “Thanks to you and the boys, I have had plenty of practice dealing with overgrown children. Maybe this new group will already be grown-up when we get them”

“Your life would be dull and borin’ without us around.”

“That it would be, my friend”

Thanks Vin.

You’re welcome

Larabee 7 - 6:00 a.m. Saturday

Chris was pouring his first cup of coffee when he heard Vin approaching, swearing a blue streak.

“Damn ornery, no good, hard headed mule, I should just shoot the sonofabitch and get it over.” Tanner was still muttering curses when he ran into Chris on the deck.

“Sounds like somebody got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning.” Chris laughed

“Laugh all you want to Lar’bee, you won’t be laughin’ long.” Vin smirked.

“Why?” Chris was starting to get one of those feelings. “What’s wrong?”

“Peso’s gone, along with Pony and Chaucer, all three broke out of the damn barn last night.” Vin was understandably angry.

“Get Ezra and I’ll saddle the other horses.” Larabee was not laughing now.

”Standish, get yer ass outta bed now!” Vin was banging on Ezra’s door.

“Vin, the house better be on fire for you to wake me at this hour of the morning,” grumbled Ezra.

“Chaucer’s gone and he took Pony and Peso with ‘em!” Vin was still yelling.

“He would never… oh, never mind, I will be right out,” replied Ezra.

Standish and Tanner met Chris at the barn. Grabbing some rope, they mounted up and headed out to find the missing horses. It did not take long to find them, but they were amazed at the scene before them. There they were acting like lovesick schoolboys. On one side of the fence, there were three mares. A palomino, that had Chaucer bucking and running, just like a colt. Peso was acting the same with a black beauty and even Pony was cutting up for a chestnut Arabian. What happened next had to be unreal.

Chris, Ezra and Vin shook their heads and tried to catch their disobedient horses. Chaucer eluded Ezra at every turn and Peso kicked out at anyone near by. Pony was staring at the Arabian, as she appeared to smirk. When Chris approached, she took off shaking her head and snorting with her tail flipped over her back. Pony watched her trot down the boarded fence and tore after her with a whinny. Chris was astonished. Then Tanner running to stop Peso, tripped and fell into a pile of horse manure.

“Dammit! Enough of this!” Vin mounted his borrowed horse and pulled out his rope. He happened to be on Wilmington’s horse, Bear and when he threw the rope, Bear crow hopped and began to buck. Chris and Ezra began to laugh. While Vin and Bear were tearing up the ground, two huge clods of mud splattered them both. They stopped laughing and started cursing. Tanner went flying off the mule-headed horse, landing in the mud.

In the meantime, Peso, Chaucer and Pony trotted back to the barn as if nothing was wrong. Bear, who wanted to be unsaddled, soon joined them. Returning to the paddock three angry, mud caked men just stared at their innocent looking horses. Tanner limped to his place for a shower and Ezra and Chris took care of the horses.

They gathered on the deck for lunch and discussed the escape artists, residing in the barn. “I think you need to go meet our neighbor and see what you can work out about the fence line. If the man plans to keep the mares on this side, we might have a bigger problem. Hunter gets wind of ‘em and that stud will be jumping fences. We have too much invested in him to let that happen.” Vin was concerned about, ‘Bounty Hunter’ their founding stallion.

“I’ll go talk to the man, either of you want to come?” Chris questioned.

“No!” Ezra and Vin both said.

Ben Watson greeted him, believing him to be the owner; Chris started to question him about the mares.

“We have just about everything ready for the fencing, just a few minor things to work out. The boss is particular about details.” Ben explained.

“You are not the owner?” Chris was surprised, by this revelation.

“Lord no, I‘ve been working for the family for twenty-five years and know every single one of the horse and their sires, but I don’t own them.” Ben stated. “Here comes the boss now.”

”Hello, I’m Linda Dubois and you are?” The blonde beauty inquired.

Chris had to give himself a firm mental shake before he could answer. “Larabee, Chris Larabee. I am your neighbor and I am here to talk about our horses, yours and mine and how to keep them separated. Damn, Larabee, it is the same woman from last night.

About five minutes later Chris left in a daze. Somehow, their talk had gone from fences, toward getting to know each other and now he found himself leaving with an invitation for dinner in two days.

Don’t lose it, Larabee. She just wants to get to know her new neighbor. He could not help the anticipation he felt though.

Linda was starring after him, not believing she had just invited a man like that for dinner. Her heart still had not settled from the fact he had accepted.

Larabee 7 - Sunday morning

The morning sky was ablaze with the sun’s first light. Vin Tanner stood on the deck and soaked in the sunrise. Watching the world wake up was his favorite time of day. He felt, rather than heard, Larabee approach. The two men stood in comfortable silence for a good while.

“You might want to keep the stud on the east side for a while.” Chris explained, “May take some time to get the mares situated.”

Vin nodded, “I’ll move him today,” he was curious. New owner?

“Female, blonde, 5’6’ with green eyes,” Chris smiled. Lady from the restaurant.

Vin finished his coffee and left to tend the horses. Chris followed a few minutes later. He was just in time to hear Tanner yell, “Damn stupid, ornery no good, sorry sonofabitch!” Larabee shook his head and went for some ropes. Peso and Pony were at it again.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah and Mallory arrived first and Joanne toddled straight to her Uncle Ezra. Buck, Inez and the girls arrived shortly thereafter. Little Maria ran to her Uncle Vin and little Sarah was whisked up by her Uncle Chris.

“You okay stud?” Buck questioned.

“Tell you about it later.” Chris answered while swinging Sarah onto his shoulders.

JD and Casey arrived next along with Miss Nettie. Casey and Nettie headed for the kitchen to join Inez. Arriving last, Rain joined the women and Nathan went to check on Josiah and the BBQ

Inside the women were discussing babies and men. They decided to commit to finding suitable mates for the three single men of the family.

“I say, if they don’t do something soon, we have no choice.’ Inez voiced her opinion.

“Chris has been alone long enough and Vin’s getting older every day.” Rain offered, “Ezra, too”

“Well, if they won’t, guess we’ll have to.” Nettie agreed

“I say, we make a plan,” Casey thought they all should be married or at least involved with someone.

Today they decided to put their plan in motion. Outside, Ezra was relating the events leading up to the escape fiasco. When he finished the other men were laughing so hard there were tears in their eyes. The children joined in, not understanding why but enjoying the sounds of laughter. That is how the women found them, when they brought out the prepared food.

“It seems you are enjoying yourselves,” Inez smiled and Buck retold Ezra’s story getting the same reaction from the women.

“Glad y’all think it’s so funny.” Vin glared hard enough for all three of them.

“So are we going to check out their stock?” JD decided it best to change the subject.

“I hadn’t thought much about it.” Chris was noncommittal. Right, going back over there is all you have thought about, Larabee

Josiah indicated the meat was ready and the next hour was filled with good food and family talk. The babies were all down for a nap and the adults were relaxing. Talk turned to work.

“When do we get more information on this new job? Nathan asked.

“Monday I meet with Travis and lay out the particulars.” Chris explained. “Then we start the interviews with the new transfers.”

“Do we know who they are yet?” JD was curious, as usual.

“I have the files but have not looked at them,” said Chris. “I will handle the interviews and Tanner will be keeping you guys in line.”

“What do you need the rest of us to do?” Josiah was ready to get started.

“Starting Monday, I want to get our office ready to move. We get the entire twelfth floor and it should be ready by Wednesday. JD will be in charge of packing and setting up our files. Nathan and Josiah, I want you two to help him. Everything should be finished and ready to go within the week. I thought later this evening, we would start evaluating the files and Josiah, your input would be appreciated.” Chris planned to expand on the explanation but Mallory stopped him.

“Enough about work, Josiah and I would like to tell you something.” Mallory took Josiah’s hand and indicated he should take over. “We have an announcement to make.” Josiah stood up. “We wanted to let everyone know we have decided on a name. Chris already knows, but we wanted to share it with all of you. Our boy will carry the name of Adam Josiah Sanchez.” The news pleased everyone.

“Speaking of babies, has everyone noticed how these little ones dote on their uncles?” Rain looked directly at Chris, Vin and Ezra.

“I know Maria and Sarah think the sun rises and sets with their favorite single uncles.” Inez grinned.

“Joanne certainly has their number,” Mallory added with a smile.

Chris’ gut was talking to him and Vin was starting to get an uneasy feeling. Ezra had paled slightly.

“You do remember, I introduced Mallory and Josiah.” Rain was pleased to add.

“Children are such a blessing, don’t you think Vin? Casey was no to be left out of the plan.

“I think you guys just became targets.” Buck laughed. “Once these gals set their mind on something, they can be relentless.”

The Texan jumped up saying something about checking on the horses. Ezra immediately offered to help. They left, for the barn with Chris glaring holes in their backs.

“So Chris, when was the last time you had a real date?” Nettie asked.

Chris’ rescue came with the ringing of his cell phone. “Larabee,” he snapped at the caller. After listening to the person on the other end of the line he responded, “Yes of course, I can do that now.” Addressing the others, he explained about the file he had to fax for Travis right away and excused himself. In the barn, Tanner closed his cell phone and grinned.

+ + + + + + +

After cleaning up outside, they all went inside, to continue their family time. The babies were still sleeping and thankfully, the conversation moved back to work issue. Tanner and Standish returned and tried to stay clear of the interfering females.

Vin was daydreaming about the woman that he could not shake from his thoughts. For some unknown reason she seemed familiar, but he knew they had not met before. Just your imagination, Vin. Every time he tried to read, he saw blue eyes, soft curves and red hair. His body was reacting just thinking about her. Hell, Tanner, you’re acting like a fourteen-year-old kid. Stop it!

Chris was thinking about their new blond, sexy neighbor. Truth Larabee when was the last time a woman affected you this way?

Buck watched the two of them and after a while had to ask. “Hey, you guys okay?”

“Just thinking.” Chris answered

“’M fine, Buck, just readin’.” Vin replied

“Well, you have been looking at the same file for forty-five minutes and no one has commented on the fact, that three of the new transfers are women.” Buck laughed.


“Are you sure?”

“Yep, that’s what I thought.” Buck just shook his head

Meanwhile, in the barn seven horses were restless as they watched their owners disappear into the house. Chaucer could not wait another minute to visit their new neighbors again. He tried to open the gate, but now it was tied shut. This was not a problem for Peso because he had a gift for untying ropes. With Pony on lookout, Peso had the gate open in record time. Chaucer took the lead, followed by Peso, Bear, Milagros, Ben and Quincy, after all, they wanted to have some fun too. Pony waited until they had all passed and then nudged the gate shut.

Chaucer led the seven horses by the back of Larabee’s house. As soon as Pony was free and clear, he arched his neck and pranced his way to the fence. The others followed. Bear made the mistake of sniffing the mare Pony had his eye on and got himself nipped for it. Pony swung his hindquarters around to deliver a kick, but Bear took the hint and moved on down the line to visit a beautiful blue roan mare. The rest of the horses wasted no time in getting acquainted with the other mares.

Sarah was the first to wake from her nap and went straight to her father. “Hey darlin’, did you have a nice nap?” Buck said to his oldest.

“Daddy, why is Bear outside?” she asked, rubbing sleep from her eyes.

“Baby, Bear is in the barn with the other horses.” Buck said confidently.

“No daddy, I saw him out my window, they all run off.”

Everyone looked expectantly at Buck, except Vin, as he hurried to the barn. This time all the horses were gone. Everyone had followed him out and had no trouble hearing him curse.

“Aww Hell!”

Chris was sure the damned ornery animals were back with the mares. Seven frustrated men each grabbed a bucket of oats and a rope, planning to retrieve their missing horses. The women of the family went inside with the children and started to reheat the food for supper.

“You know girls, I think those horses have more sense than at least three of their masters.” Nettie laughed. A chorus of, “amen to that” was heard throughout the house.

Federal Building

Chris was sure Monday morning would never arrive. The horses had repeated their “great escape” again on Sunday evening and they had resorted to using chains and padlocks to keep them in. Larabee was on his way to meet with Travis and welcomed the sanity of work.

“Good Morning Chris. I hope you had a relaxing few days off.” Travis greeted him.

“I’m just glad to be back at work.” Chris would not share how stressful the time off really was.

“Let get down to business and we can be through by lunchtime.” Orrin was ready to get started.

“That will be fine with me.” Chris settled in to work.

When they finished it was time for lunch. Larabee arranged to meet the boys at the Standish Tavern. His head ached with thoughts of things they had to accomplish quickly. Everyone was there when he arrived and Tanner had ordered for him.

“Everythin’ go okay, Cowboy?” Vin asked.

“We have a lot of work ahead of us, but it is doable. Our first joint meeting of agents will be Thursday. In the mean time, we will meet with everyone individually to get things rolling.” Chris reached for some chips.

“It sounds like things will move fast,” Buck observed, digging into the salsa.

“The office records are ready to be transferred and we can have things set up within a few hours of moving.” JD reported, pleased with himself, for getting it done so quickly.

“You will have some extra help; Pamela Reed is a computer expert and will be assisting with the transition,” informed Chris. “Before you ask, JD, she is very experienced and might even be able to teach you a few things.”

“I looked over the gun range scores and think we need to update. If I need to find us a backup for me I want to be sure.” Vin was meticulous about accuracy. “I want everyone on the gun range, to record new scores.”

“Is there a problem Vin?” Larabee asked, concerned that they might have already hit a snag.

“Not really, but some of theses scores are old and I wanna work with current and accurate numbers.” Tanner replied and was thinking about all the things that still needed to be accomplished.

“Do it. Set it up for tomorrow and include everyone.” Larabee raised his hand and continued. “We all have to be re-certified anyway so don’t complain.”

Their lunch came and conversation was at a minimum until their hunger was satisfied. Then the questions started again.

“What do we know about the new people coming in?” Nathan asked.

“We know they are good or they would not have been considered and three of them are women.” Chris offered, that was the best he could offer for now.

“The next few weeks should prove very interesting.” The medic answered.

“I really want to do this only one time so hold your questions until the joint meeting on Thursday.” Larabee requested.

When they were finished, Tanner reminded them to meet at the range. He had called and reserved it for 8:00am.

Coulter’s Place - Monday Evening

Tripping over an open box, Kelli just made it to the phone. Her instructions were to be on the gun range at eight in the morning. Great, here we go again. New bosses always want to start on the gun range. Is it so hard for them to accept that a woman might shoot as well as a man? Guess it is, Coulter but you have been here before.

Firing Range - 8:00 a.m. - Tuesday Morning

Everyone was early because they wanted to observe the new transfers as they came through the door. Chris and Vin were in the office selecting the order of the shooters. “I made these for you guys, thought you would want the information.” JD handed out a sheet to all the old team seven members. Transfers:

Samuel Reed is married with twins, a boy named Marcus and a girl named Martha. He is 6’1’ green eyes 175lbs and dark brown hair. Sam has an extraordinary record most of which is classified. He was educated in the military and a former Navy Seal; he is 34years old and has worked with the CIA. He has a born in Georgia and proud of it. He speaks German and Arabic.

Pamela Walton is 30 years old and was born in Arizona. She is Native American and has long black hair, black eyes, is 5’7” and weighs 133lbs. She is a computer genius and has recently done programming for the Justice Department. She set up a new system to stop information leaks in the witness protection program. Earning a masters degree in computer science at the University of Arizona she went directly from school to working for the State Police.

Katrina Santos was born in New Mexico and is 31 years old. Her father was a police officer killed in the line of duty. His partner adopted her at age nine and with her new family she gained five brother and four sisters, she is single, 5’5”tall and 130 lbs. Katrina is a certified medic. Kat for short has dark brown hair and brown eyes. After leaving the State University, she trained and worked for the Taos Police Department for four years. The next four years, she worked with the DEA and speaks Spanish and Cherokee.

Kelli Coulter from Texas is 27 years old. No early information is available. She is 5’5”tall, 125 lb, dark red hair and blue eyes. She attended the University of Texas and Louisiana State University and has a degree in criminology. Trained with New Orleans PD. Moved back to Texas and worked for the Governor’s office on a State Task force. Coulter also participated in joint operations with DEA. She is fluent in Spanish.

“Thanks JD now we at least know who to look for.” Buck was impressed with JD’s efforts. Pamela Walton and Sam Reed were the first to arrive and were welcomed by the other team members. JD immediately engaged Pamela in computer talk. Josiah wanted to compare notes with Sam. Katrina Santos came in next and wasted no time introducing herself to everyone.

“It looks like our other team member will be late,” Nathan noted it was five minutes to eight.

“That would not be a competent way to get in Mr. Larabee’s good graces…” Ezra started to say more when in walked the team member in question. Chris walked in at the same time.

Welcome to MCAT. I am Chris Larabee, Unit Commander. To my right is Vin Tanner, Squad Captain. I trust you have introduced yourselves to one another. If not, do so before we leave today. We will qualify by teams and for today, we will have our new members with Agent Sanchez and the others with Agent Tanner. We will qualify on targets with Tanner’s team going first.

Kelli could not believe this man was here, concentrating on business was not going to be easy. Focus, Coulter, he is only one man. She had never let a man interfere in her work before and was not going to start now.

“Before we start, you should know Agent Tanner is a qualified firearms instructor and can help you if you need it. Do not hesitate to ask, we are all in the same unit and should support each other.” Josiah instructed. There were numerous smiles and chuckles around the room. Vin Tanner was not only qualified, he was the best in the west or anywhere else. Tanner’s team scored an average of ninety-eight percent accuracy with Tanner at 100%. There was a lot of backslapping and grinning among the members of the team. They still had it.

Josiah’s team was up next. Vin came over to watch and stood next to Coulter. The last person he expected to see here was this woman. Focus, Tanner, she is only one female.

Kelli really tried to ignore him but it was not easy. Hard not to notice his hands, long slender fingers and the man moved like a cat, graceful and sleek. He had blue eyes that held enough fire to melt a glacier. Stop! Since when do you let a man affect you like this?

When the team finished they averaged a score of ninety-seven percent accuracy. “I want the new agents to stay and the rest of you have your assignments,” Vin ordered. “Y’all meet Agent Lar’bee in the range office in fifteen minutes.”

During the break, the four agents became acquainted. When Katrina said she was staying in a motel and had been unable to find a decent place, Coulter had an idea. “I just moved into a new place and if you’re interested we could room together.” Kelli offered.” You can come over after work and check it out.” Kel, you need to socialize and now is a good time to start.

“Great, I think I will.” Katrina liked her and thought they would get along. She took down directions and arranged to meet after six.

Larabee was ready to start this meeting and the four agents were sitting around the room. Tanner was leaning against the doorframe.

“I will make this short. Tomorrow our new office will be ready to move into and you will all be there to help. You will each have a scheduled time for a private interview. Thursday morning at 8:00 a.m., I expect everyone to be ready to work. If you have any challenges and to get your schedule, see with Agent Tanner.” Chris wasted no time with details.

Vin stepped up with a clipboard and called for everyone’s attention. He read off the scheduled interview times for the next day.

Reed, Samuel - 9:00 a.m.

Walton, Pamela - 10:00 a.m.

Santos, Katrina - 11:00 a.m.

Coulter, Kelli - 1:00 p.m.

“You’re expected to be in the office no later than 8:00 a.m. and tomorrow y’all will be issued new cell phones and pagers.” Vin dismissed the group. The new agents exited the office silently and Vin stood in the doorway watching them. She noticed you Vin… It’s only your imagination Tanner… and Vin …your talking to yourself again. “Damn!”

Kelli was the last to leave, when she reached the door, she turned and caught something in Tanner’s captivating blue eyes. Coulter could not quiet identify what it was but the intensity of his gaze would stay in her memory.

Vin re-entered the office and shook his head. Tanner, you had better watch yourself.

+ + + + + + +

Later that evening, Kelli showed Kat around the townhouse and Santos agreed that it would be a great place to share and they could even carpool to work. They found common ground on many issues.

“If you like horses, I spend most of my free time with mine.” Kellie said, “I keep ‘em at a friend’s ranch and you’re welcome to come with me when I go.”

“Try and stop me.” Katrina grinned.

Kelli went with her to pick up her things from the motel.”

That Evening - Larabee Seven

The night sky was alive with brilliant stars and the nights were still cool. Standing on Larabee’s deck, the view was unobstructed. Vin was relaxed and in a reflective mood. By nature, he was a cautious man and found it disturbing he was thinking so much about someone he barely knew. Tanner certainly did not believe in love at first sight, but as for fate and destiny, he held respect. Okay, whatever it is, bring it on, ‘m ready.

Chris watched his brother work through his feelings. He then realized, that for the first time in a long time his own thoughts were taking a turn to a direction, he had not have believed possible. Larabee had resigned himself to the fact that he would not have another committed relationship after Sarah died and now he was rethinking his options.

Both men sat in a comfortable silence and did some serious soul searching.


The twelfth floor was in chaos, the only thing complete was Larabee’s office and that was questionable. Boxes were stacked against the wall, labeled, but out of order. Nevertheless, with almost a dozen dedicated agents on the job it would be in order in no time. Chris Larabee walked in on this mess and was not a happy man. Surveying the room, he made a decision. “We will have the interviews in my office and order lunch in. This office will be functional by the end of the day or no one leaves.” With that announcement, he disappeared into his office.

“You heard the man, let’s get started.” Vin pushed them to get busy.

Everyone grabbed a box and tried to put them in the appropriate place and within the hour, the agents had a space to work. JD and Pamela were busy setting up all the computers. Larabee and Tanner spent the next three hours in interview sessions. By eleven, they were ready for a break. Entering the bullpen, they heard JD telling jokes to the new agents.

“So, have you heard the one about the three legged dog?” JD was ready to tell it as groans sounded around the room.

“JD, we expect them to stay, not be run off by your lame jokes.” Buck grabbed the kid by the neck and pretended to strangle him.

“Brother Dunn, your jokes are not funny.” Josiah tried to explain above the laughter.

Larabee smiled at the antics of his friends. He also kept his eye on his new agents, looking at his watch, he told Ezra to get the orders for lunch thinking this would be interesting to watch. Just as he expected, his brothers had a lively discussion about what kind of food to order.

“Lord, if I have to stand in stead for a waitress at least cooperate for once.” Ezra complained.

“Enough, Ez, deli sandwiches and a few salads will be fine.” Chris reluctantly put an end to it all.

Buck decided to assign the pagers and cell phones while they waited for lunch.

1:00 p.m.

Tanner called Coulter in the office for her interview, Chris conducted the session. Vin sat on the edge of the credenza and listened.

“I am glad to have an opportunity to personally welcome you to the unit. I do realize it may take some time to know everyone, but it is important that we learn to function as one unit.” Larabee stopped for a minute and flipped through her file. “I am curious, your have excellent recommendations from a variety of sources, but numerous writes up for ‘attitude problems’, care to explain?” Attitude, I have experience with and it sounds like she will fit right in with this bunch.

Coulter sighed, “I tend to say what’s on my mind. If I think somethin’ is right, I do it. If not, I have a reputation for raisin’ hell til it is. That probably accounts for half of those.” Lord, can’t the man read? I thought the write-ups were damn specific.

Larabee asked many insignificant questions just to test her reactions. He knew when he had pushed enough and glanced at Vin.

Five more minutes of this, Tanner and the woman will lose her temper.

I didn’t know you could talk so much

“With Agent Tanner’s additional duties, we are looking for someone to fill a backup position for him. Your scores were excellent, but the position carries a lot of pressure. If that was your assigned position, do you feel you could handle it? In addition, would you put in the extra range time necessary to develop it?”

“I can handle pressure and if extra time on the range were necessary I would do it.” Kelli tried to hide her exasperation. I am not new at this of course I can handle it! I think he’s tryin’ to irritate me with these pointless questions on purpose.

“Agent Coulter, if you are offered the position it will be necessary,” Tanner responded and tried not to grin. Chris, I think she would like to throw somethin’ at you about now.

“You will know my decision tomorrow.” With that said Larabee dismissed her and waited for the door to close.

“Well, did you get the reactions you needed to know?” Chris got up to face Tanner.

“She’s got the scores, wasn’t intimidated by you and has the attitude to fit in with this bunch. Yep, I’d say the position is filled.” Vin was sure she could handle it.

5:00 p.m.

With the exception of Tanner’s office, the unit’s new home away from home was functional. The agents started to leave for the day. Chris was already out of his office. “Better hurry, Cowboy, you don’t want to leave the lady waitin’.” Vin laughed at the look Chris threw him as he left.

Chris had plans for dinner with Linda at her ranch and did not intend to be late.

Southern Breeze Ranch

Chris made it right on time. He might be out of practice, but he knew better than to be late. Linda was sitting on the porch swing where he joined her. “Hello Lady, you been out here long?” Chris struggled to start the conversation.

“Not too long, I enjoy watching the sunset from here and try to catch it every evening.” Linda answered. “How is the new unit coming?”

Chris was taken aback, “You know about that?”

“I know things about you that would surprise you.” She smiled and decided to share her secret. “My best friend is in your unit and I talked to her not long ago”

“I forgot you know Kelli...well, I assume you know her since you had dinner with her.” Chris had forgotten she was not alone that night. You’re slipping, Larabee.

“How did you end up here?” Chris wanted to learn all he could about this woman.

“My dad. We moved to Colorado for his health and brought the horses with us. His family has raised horse for several generations. My brothers, with the exception of Matthew, wanted no part of the horse business, so it was Dad and me. We planned on a bigger place, but he died before we could relocate. Kelli came to stay with me for a while and helped me make the move. So, here we are and we now own The Southern Breeze Horse Ranch; we have kept the best of our own bloodlines to breed, raise and hopefully race.” Linda explained.

“We are looking for that perfect horse too. Vin has put together a good breeding program and all the boys are partners. New blood is always welcome and maybe we can do some business.” New is good

“You never know do you?” Linda was enjoying spending some quiet time with this man. “Would you like to see some pictures of my horses? Dinner won’t be ready for another thirty minutes.” He has the most gorgeous eyes

“Sure and here, I brought a bottle of wine.” Chris replied, smiling at her. Linda felt herself melt when she saw that smile. It lit up his entire face. That is the sexiest smile I have ever seen! No, do not go there, Dubois.

Hastily, she rose and let Chris into the house. Chris was happy to follow her. That was because he could enjoy the view of the tight blue jeans fitting around a firm, sensual butt. God, she was beautiful and he loved the way she moved.

“Over here.” Linda motioned the way and suddenly Chris realized he had been staring. He had not stared at a woman in ages! The last time I was staring at you, Sarah. Even after all our years of marriage, you astounded me.

Linda took out the stock books and bloodline charts. Looking up, she saw sadness in Chris’ eyes and wondered what had caused it. Not knowing what else to do, she started talking about her horses and soon Chris was caught up in the conversation. Thirty minutes passed and they were still talking.

“We have Thoroughbreds, cutting horses, paints and Arabians and we even cross them. Sometime, you might like to see our foundation stallion Magnificent One, he is 30 years old and still on the family farm in Louisiana.”

“It would be an interesting trip to make. Especially since our stallion appears to come from the same bloodline.” Chris realized how much he enjoyed just talking to her and was amazed how easy it was. He was smiling again, the sadness gone and he was very unaware what that smile was doing to his company.

They had a good dinner starting with a chef’s salad and chicken and dumplings, corn, tomatoes and homemade bread. For dessert, they had a strawberry-lemon cheesecake. Chris enjoyed every bite although he was not sure if it was the food or the company. He loved what Linda had to say, the things she told him and her sharp mind. He also loved to hear her musical voice and even more her laughter. It sounded like chimes and he could not help teasing her, now and then, just to hear it again. What he did not know was, Linda loved the teasing and did everything she could to see that gorgeous smile light up his face. At those moments, she had to watch herself so she would not get lost in those wonderful green eyes.

Time flew by and before they knew it, midnight approached and Linda walked with Chris to the door. Chris took a deep breath, realizing what he wanted to do, but nervous about it as well. Just do it, Larabee

“I want to see you again, soon, how about tomorrow night I take you to dinner?”

“I would love to,” Linda could not believe they found so much to talk about all evening. Linda, you could lose your senses here

Her answer and the warm look in her eyes gave Chris the push he needed. He kissed her, intending to be quick, he lingered instead and tightened his hold on her. He felt her respond and deepened the kiss, tasting her sweetness and wanting more. She leaned into him and felt a flame of desire sweep through her body. Linda pulled back first and fought to recover her breath. Chris loosened his hold and gently kissed her brow.

Chris moved a step back. “I’ll pick you up at seven.” Reluctantly he said good night and left.

Linda leaned against the closed door until she was steady enough to walk. That man does know how to kiss

Instead of going to bed when he got home, Chris grabbed a beer from the fridge and went out on his deck. He sat in one of the oversized deck chairs and thought about the grand design of life. Eight years ago, when his wife and son were killed by a car bomb, he had thought it was over. Then the ATF came along bringing more than he thought would ever be possible again. First, Vin had been able to penetrate the emotional walls he had built around himself, soon followed by Buck and the other member of team seven. Now he had a new family, friends and hope for a better future.

Sitting here, he realized none of the new parts of his life took away the memories he held dear from the old. They blended and made him, who he is. It was time to move forward and he wanted to include a woman in that future. It was too soon to know if Linda was that woman, but he hoped they had a chance to find out. Somewhere in his heart, he knew Sarah had been waiting for him to realize this and would approve.

He whispered into the night, “Thank you, Sarah, for teaching me to love.”

MCAT Office 8:00 a.m.

Buck was concerned about the time. Chris and Vin were always the first ones in the office. Not only were they late for a pre-set meeting, they were not answering their cell phones.

“Do you think we should drive out and check on them?” Nathan was worried too.

“One more hour and if we haven’t heard anything by then we start searching.” Buck answered taking charge in their absence. “We will push the meeting to later in the day and hope we hear from them soon.” Thirty minutes later the missing men entered the bullpen and went straight to their own offices, slamming the doors behind them. Not one word of explanation came from either one. Their friends exchanged looks that said I am not going to ask.

“Well Buck go find out what happened.” JD encouraged.

“Yes, Mr. Wilmington we will back you.” Ezra added.

“Ezra, I think you should go, speaking for all of us.” Josiah smiled at the thought.

“Buck, you see Chris, Ezra, you check on Vin.” Nathan instructed.

The other agents in the room just shrugged their shoulders and watched the older men discuss the issue. Before anyone had made a move, the Texan came out of his office.

“Meetin’ moved to one.” Tanner tried to retreat, but Ezra intercepted him.

“Did it occur to you or Mr. Larabee, that we might have been concerned as to your location?” Ezra continued, “A phone call would have sufficed.”

“Ez is right, we were about to send out a search party.” Buck voiced his concern. “You should have called.”

“Gonna need two new phones, Buck, need you to set ‘em up today.” Tanner was not ready to say why.

“Hold on, Tanner, there must be a good story behind that and we’d like to hear it.” Curiosity was driving Buck to push the issue.

Vin sighed, he had a raging headache but knew they would not give up until they heard the whole story. He decided to give them a short version of events. “Highway patrol - 6:00am - bangin’ on door - damned mares - our horses on highway - rope-mud-water-drowned phone - you can fill in the rest.” Tanner’s remarks were met with silence then one by one, the men started to fill in the blanks. Laughter broke out and continued to get louder and louder, until Chris’ door flung open. Larabee glared them into silence turned and went back inside.

Kelli started to laugh as she realized the damned mares Vin referred to had to be either hers or Linda’s.

1:00 p.m. Conference Room - Team meeting

Lighthearted banter filled the room as nine agents waited for their leaders. Chris entered followed by Tanner and both had their hands full of folders. Larabee went to the head of the table and was ready to start.

“For practical purposes, we are starting from scratch with this unit. Agent Tanner has a packet for each of you.” He waited until they each had their folder and then continued. “The top sheet is a medical form with your blood type and any allergy information. If you find the entire information correct, pass it along to Nathan and if incorrect, pass it to Tanner. I know you all have someone who holds a power of attorney for medical treatment. I want you to consider adding someone on the team for a second one. We will have official status by the first of next week and in the meantime, I am going to assign each of you a temporary partner.


Sanchez/ Standish

Wilmington/ Reed



Share information and get to know your partners. The other files in front of you contain background information on cases we are likely to inherit. They came to us from a variety of other agencies. Study and learn.” Chris observed as each agent retrieved the information. “The cases we take will be either too complex or too hot for other agencies to handle. Sometimes, they will be long and complicated and sometimes we will roll out with very little notice. When we begin, you will be on duty 24/7 and you will have your pager with you, at all times. There will be many nights, working on difficult cases that you will sleep in the lounge down the hall. There will be times you leave on a moments notice … keep a packed bag ready at all times and within easy access. We have another five weeks to be operational and I have planned some team building exercises, in the next fourteen days, to help in that direction. Over the next few weeks, we will expand the number of agents in this group. We are the first and only team involved with MCAT. We will make it work and set the bar for future units. Are there any questions?” No one asked any for now.

“One last thing, Mallory Sanchez will be on maternity leave beginning Monday. It is also the last day team six will be together and they are hosting a going away party tomorrow afternoon, in the lunchroom at 4:00pm. You will all be free to attend if you wish. You have your assignments, get started.” Larabee left immediately.

“Coulter, in my office, five minutes,” Tanner ordered as they were leaving the conference room. Kelli knocked on the door and hearing “come on in” entered waiting for Tanner to look up and acknowledge her.

“Be with you in a minute, go on and have a seat.” Vin said as he closed out his report on the computer. Determined not to let this woman get to him, his tone of voice was rougher than he intended. “You have been assigned to me to train. Tomorrow mornin’ meet me on the range at seven and bring your favorite rifle. I want to see how you can shoot long range. Vin said all of this trying to avoid her eyes. He knew that would be a mistake. “Any questions?”

“Have you taken anythin’ for your headache?” Kelli wanted to kick herself for saying that. You have to work together Coulter, Remember that! Remember why you never get involved.

“How did you know my head hurts?” Vin looked at her and was surprised she noticed. Tanner, dammit, you looked at her eyes!

“It was just an observation.” Coulter recovered quickly, “Firing range seven tomorrow, is that all?” God, I hope so, it is starting to get warm in here.

Vin nodded and she was out the door. He sat there a full five minutes, lost in a fantasy. He could see desire in her eyes as he drove her wild with kisses starting with her sensual mouth, down her neck, until he reached her breasts … Dammit, Tanner, keep this up and they’ll have to lock you up! Vin shook his head to clear his carnal thoughts and tried to get back to work.

The rest of the day passed quickly and by five o’clock, everyone was out the door. Kelli felt a need to ride and headed for the ranch. She took her mare out and they both enjoyed the run. When she returned to the barn, Linda was waiting for her. “I thought you had a date with Chris, tonight.” Kelli said

“I do, but not until seven” Linda knew Kelli, too well. “You came straight from work to ride?”

“I just needed the fresh air and Dancer needs the exercise.” It was a lame excuse and she knew it.

“Want to talk about it or do you want me to tell you?” When Linda received no answer, she continued, “You have spent most of your life avoiding anything that resembles a relationship and now you finally met someone that has made headway though your defenses.” Linda waited for a response and not getting one made a guess. “It’s the guy you told me about, Tanner, right?”

“Anyone ever tell you you’re a smartass?” Kelli replied, her friend knew her too well.

“I think you have a time or two.” Linda laughed, knowing she hit her mark.

“What about you?” Kelli decided to push back. “You want to tell me you’re not interested in a certain green-eyed blond.”

“We were talking about you girl, not me.” Linda answered.

“I know how much time it took for you to take care of your dad and why you never pursued many relationships. Your brothers, with the exception of Matthew, left it all up to their baby sister to care for your father and now, it’s time you started thinkin’ about what you want.” Kelli continued. “I know you would rather raise horses than anythin’. What’s wrong with findin’ a man to share that with?”

“What are you saying we should do?” Linda questioned.

“Hell, if I know this is new territory for me.” Coulter sighed.

“You know we could just shoot them and not have to worry over it.” Linda smiled as they headed to the house.

“Sounds like a plan to me.” Kelli smiled back and wondered how long it would take to miss a federal agent. Hell, you just want him out of your head, Kel, not injured.

At the house, they decided a girl’s night out was called for. Making plans to include Kelli’s new female teammates they decided on tomorrow night. As they finished Chris arrived.

“Evening ladies.” He flashed a killer smile to Linda and nodded to Coulter.

“I was just leavin’, you two have a good time,” Kelli excused herself.

Chris leaned in, gave Linda a kiss, just to say hello properly and soon forgot the time. He could have stood there all night holding her, but remembered their dinner reservations and stopped while he was able.

At the restaurant

Ezra had recommended the restaurant they went to and he had made the reservations for Larabee. It was first class all the way and Linda loved it. She had almost forgotten how much she enjoyed places like this. Being here with Chris made it all the more pleasurable.

Soon they were lost again in conversation and each other, just like the night before. Chris was the first one to come back to the world around them. “We have been here three hours and if we don’t leave soon they may try to throw us out.” Chris smiled. “Are you ready to go?”

“Ready when you are.” Linda did not think anything could spoil the mood she was in tonight.

They drove to her ranch in a comfortable silence each reflecting on the evening. By the time they arrived neither was ready to end the night. They sat on the front porch swing and started to talk.

“Linda…I enjoy your company” Chris tried to explain his feeling. You more than enjoy it, Larabee, be honest.

“I like you too, Chris Larabee.” Linda had no problem expressing hers. Like, Linda? That is an understatement.

“Think we might spend some time finding out how much?” Chris stroked her cheek.

“Think I could manage that.” Linda decided she could stare into those green eyes forever and totally get lost.

This time she was prepared for the desire that sweep through her body when he touched her. His kiss was slow and sensual, starting with her lips, devouring her mouth and leaving none of it unexplored. Feeling the kisses trail down her neck, she shivered when his warm breath brushed her ear. It would be easy to forget the short time she had known this striking man and longingly she leaned further into his kiss.

Chris felt Linda move towards him and it filled him with warmth. This woman was amazing and she awakened things in him, he had not felt in a long time. He did not want this to be something short and fast, he started to hope this really could be the woman to share his future.

That thought suddenly filled him with fear. He was falling for her hard. But, what if she would…leave?

Linda sensed his retreat, so she slowly pulled back. They looked at each other and Chris swallowed back that sudden fear. No, he would not give in and there was nothing to fear. He had not lost anyone from his new family in all these years. He was ready for this. He wanted this.

“Tomorrow?” Chris rasped.

Linda did not know why Chris had pulled back, but she was relieved he had not lost interest after all and she almost said yes. Then she remembered the girls’ night out. Reluctantly she shook her head. “I have plans for tomorrow. How about having dinner Sunday evening?”

“That sounds good to me.” Chris gave her one more kiss and said goodnight.

Firing Range 7:00 a.m.

Vin had been on the range since six and was already on his third cup of coffee when Coulter arrived. Truth was he had trouble sleeping and had almost called and cancelled this session. Almost took the cowards way out, Tanner...shut up, Vin!

“Coffee?” Tanner offered, trying to behave normally.

“Thanks, but if I have one more cup, I won’t be able to hit the broad side of a barn.” Kelli replied. Coffee is the least of your problems, Kel.

“Then let’s head to the tower and get started.” Vin took the lead until they reached the ladder for the tower. “Ladies first,” He did offer to carry some of her gear but she refused. Stubborn woman.

Kelli hesitated, not sure, if she wanted Tanner behind her as she climbed. On the other hand, if she had to watch his great looking backside climb up first, she knew it would be a challenge to control her wayward thoughts. She took a deep breath and started up the ladder. Okay, Coulter you can do this, forget how good he looks and that charming smile.

Tanner had been thinking about this situation since last night. This was the reason he thought of canceling this session. Dammit, it was going to be a long morning. Reaching the top, Coulter pull out her gear and prepared her rifle. Tanner watched her set up and did not miss the sight of cleavage as she leaned over. His mind wandered, thinking of how it would feel to make love to this alluring woman. Suddenly, he realized what his mind was doing and brought himself back to where they were. Tanner, you are losing it.

Vin put his mind back on work. He was satisfied with her choice of rifle, a Winchester model 70. Tanner waited until she was ready to speak. “I can start at six hundred yards if you want some practice rounds.”

“Fine by me.”

Coulter scored a perfect round at six hundred yards. “You are good, but I can still make you a better shot.” If she lets you, Vin. Tanner took his turn at twelve hundred and made a perfect score.

“Where did you learn to shoot?” Vin finally had to ask. Actually, he just wanted to hear her talk, because he liked the sound of her soft and sensual voice

“Jake taught me the basics but he always said I had a natural ability for it.”

“Jake?” Tanner wasn’t sure why, but hearing that another man taught her to shoot bothered him. Who in the hell is Jake and why does it matter to you, Tanner?

“Mackenzie, he was a Texas Ranger and my guardian for eight years. Jake was a 100% ranger and he believed knowin’ how to handle weapons was mandatory.” Kelli responded. “He taught me a lot about the outdoors and self defense, too.”

“How does he feel about you being in law enforcement?” Vin recognized in her voice the affection she held for the man. Her sexy voice gets to you. Right, Tanner?

“He’s been dead ten years, I wouldn’t know.” She sighed, “He was killed in the line of duty, when I was seventeen.”

“Sorry.” Vin noticed the quick glimpse of sadness in her eyes. Why do you want to comfort her, Tanner?

“Why? You didn’t kill him.” Kelli decided to change the subject. “I will understand if you say no, but I have to ask. Do you mind if I try out your rifle? I’ve read about a Genesis, but never had the opportunity to shoot one.”

Vin grinned and handed her the .308. He was proud of his newest purchase and was delighted she asked about it. The fact that she even recognized it surprised him. It was only just out and top of the line. When she had a problem with sighting the scope, he decided to help her out. Without thinking, Tanner reached around and put his hand over hers to make a correction and that was a mistake for them both.

Tanner’s reaction to touching her was immediate and almost embarrassing. He could feel the heat between them and her response to him was not much better. A stimulating shock passed between them. Vin heard her indrawn breath and felt the quiver that raced through her body. The only thing he wanted to do right now, was not something that was going to happen at a gun range, full of agents. What he wanted would have to wait until he could get her alone. Then … Then what, Tanner? He reluctantly moved and put some distance between them to regain some control. Kelli was a little slower getting her breathing back to normal, but did take the shot and missed.

Tanner, this was not what you expected.

Coulter, you have lost your mind.

Blue eyes met blue and without a word spoken, agreed to discuss this at another time. They packed their gear and headed back down, careful not to touch each other.

MCAT Office - Lunch Time

Larabee was in an extraordinary mood all day. Buck watched him and just shook his head He could not remember the last time Chris smiled so much.

“You are in an unusual mood today, stud. Any special reason?”

“Nope.” Chris was not ready to share his new feelings yet. “Why don’t you see who wants to join us for lunch, at that new Mexican food place?”

Buck knew Chris was up to something, the trick was finding out what it was. Maybe Tanner would tell him. He caught Vin walking across the room. “Hey, Tanner, wait up.” Buck stopped him. “What’s got Chris smiling so much?”

“Don’t know… hell!” Vin watched Kelli walked out the door with Katrina, before he could reach her. Turning back to face Buck, he said, “What did you want?”

Buck decided Chris and Vin both were in another world and thought maybe he would just wait and watch. “Lunch brother, lunch and Chris wants Mexican food, you in?” Buck asked

“Yeah, sure that’s fine.” Vin answered, but Buck was not sure he was here.

3:30 p.m.

Talk was buzzing about Mallory’s party, people she knew from all over the building planned to be there to say good-bye and leave a gift for the new baby.

Before going down to the lunchroom, Kelli reminded Kat and Pam about the girls’ night out, at the ranch. “There will be plenty of loud music, cold beer, Texas ribs and good company.”

“Don’t we get an invite?” Buck asked.

“If you morph into a female before eight tonight, you can come.” Katrina replied with a smile.

As the girls made plans, the men listened and decided a guy’s night out sounded good. Sam declined the invitation. They made plans to be at Larabee’s for a game of cards, a few rounds of pool and drinks. Nathan checked with Rain and found out she would be working the night shift. Tanner saw his chance for talking to Coulter tonight slip away.

Southern Breeze - Later that night

The women had a great time and they did what women do, when men are not around. They talked about them. Katrina and Pam gave them a rundown of the men they had worked with and past relationships. Linda kept them entertained with stories about her brothers and life in the world of horseracing.

Pam had made plans for the rest of the weekend and headed back into Denver. That left Kelli and Katrina to spend the weekend at the ranch.

“Man that was fun! We’ll have to do this at least once a month.” Katrina was excited.

“It would have been more fun if someone had joined the party and not been in her own little world.” Linda looked directly at Kelli.

“What’s up?” Katrina asked.

“Sorry, I just have things on my mind.” Kelli offered an excuse.

“Two legged kind, I bet,” Linda retorted. “Want to talk about him…”

“Think I will turn in, see you in the morning.” Katrina excused herself.

“Well?” Linda waited

“Nothin’ to talk about.” Kelli snapped.

“Right!” Linda did not believe it for a minute and an idea started to form in her head. Okay, Dubois, it is time to interfere.

“I’m headed to bed, it’s been a long day.” Kelli said goodnight.

“I’ll be inside in a bit.” Linda said as she headed to the barn. She had something to do and hoped her friend would forgive her interference.

Larabee 7 - That Same Evening

Josiah left early to check on Mallory. Nathan planned to pick Rain up at work and Ezra decided to stay over. Buck stayed to help clean up, trying to decide if he should give the guys a warning. Loyalty to his brothers won out.

“Inez will kill me for telling you this, but I think you should know.” Buck hesitated before continuing. “The girls plan to set you three up at the Sunday cook-out.”

“What exactly do you mean by set up?” Chris had that look in his eyes.

“You know, women, females, girls, they plan to invite some single ladies they know.” Buck tried to explain.

“Like Hell!” Tanner shouted. “We don’t need that kinda help.”

“I must agree with Vin and demand you stop them.” Ezra was incensed.

“Buck, you best pass the word along. If they try they will be embarrassed.” Chris promised.

“Look, if you three just showed up once in a while with a date, the girls might just back off. They just want to see you with somebody and not spending all your nights alone.” Buck decided to go out on a limb. “Maybe there is someone and you’re not sharing that information.”

Tanner was uncomfortable, Ezra coughed loudly and Chris just stared at Buck.

“Tell you what, I promise, I’ll get them to back off for a while. Just don’t wait too long to share what’s going on.” Buck was pleased with the reactions he witnessed and knew something was in the wind. “Goodnight boys.”

“Gentlemen, we will discover a solution for this dilemma tomorrow, in the meantime I will bid you goodnight” Ezra went to his room.

Chris grabbed two beers and handed one to Tanner. Vin had been quieter than usual tonight, for Tanner. He thought that was impossible and the Texan was extraordinarily unfocused. He knew his younger brother was wrestling with how to handle a problem. More specifically, a certain blue-eyed lady. Larabee decided to help him out.

“Hell Vin, just ask her out, buy her dinner, have a night of wild sex and then come home and forget about it. That should solve your problem.” Larabee waited to see Tanner’s reaction.

“I can’t do that!” Vin gave the blonde an incredulous look. That is no solution, Tanner.

“Why not?” Chris decided to push the limit. “It’s not like you haven’t done that before.”

“I know, but this isn’t the same thing.” Vin said it, but was not sure why. “Not the same thing, at all.”

“Isn’t it?” Chris could see the turmoil in Vin’s eyes and waited. He knew the instant he worked through his thoughts.

Why, Tanner? Because, you like the woman, Vin and want to know her better, not just lust after her body. “No, it isn’t. I want her and won’t be satisfied till I have her, but one night of sex just will not be enough and I know it.” Vin suddenly realized what had eluded him and with amazing clarity knew what he had to do.

Thanks, Cowboy

You are welcome, Vin.

Larabee Seven - Saturday

Chris was the first one up, pleased he beat Vin to the coffeemaker. Stepping out on the deck to greet the morning, he listened to the frisky horses in the barn. Vin joined him in a short time.

“You need to learn how to make coffee.” Vin complained

“Like that stuff you make is coffee.” Chris grinned.

Their ranch manager, George Ramos approached them.

“Mr. Larabee, I wanted to let you know I called the vet to check on that little bay mare. She has been off her feed for a couple days and with her due to foal soon, I was concerned. He should be here about eleven,” George reported.

“Thanks, we’ll meet him when he gets here.” Chris replied.

George had just left when the horses in the barn started to get louder. It sounded like Peso was harassing Chaucer, again. Chris decided to check on them while Tanner fixed himself a ‘decent pot of coffee’. Closer to the barn, he saw three horses in the corral, one of which did not belong there. Running to the fence, he shouted for Tanner.

In the corral, Pony and Chaucer were nipping at a black mare. She squealed as Peso put himself between her and the other horses. Behind her was a foal that was the dual image of Peso. Tanner ran to the corral in answer to Chris’ shouts.

“Where in the hell did she come from?” Chris was afraid he already knew.

“I don’t know, but we better get her and the foal out quick.” Tanner said as he climbed over the fence. Vin easily haltered the mare and led her out with the foal following behind.

“Damn, if I didn’t know for fact he was a gelding, I’d say Peso’s been keeping a secret family.” Chris laughed.

“She’s a beauty and the colt is ‘bout as cute as they come.” Vin was taken with the black mare and her offspring. “At least my horse has good taste.”

“Only one place she could have come from. We’ll take her back after the vet leaves I’ll call Linda and let her know.” Chris said as he headed to the house.

Linda was pleased to hear from Chris. When he explained about the mare and having to wait for the vet she told him she would have lunch ready. She insisted he bring Vin and Ezra to see her horses. They talked for another twenty minutes and planned on lunch at about one.

+ + + + + + +

The vet arrived a little before eleven and checked on the mare. He did not think it was anything serious, but told them what to watch. If she was not eating in the next twenty-four hours, he promised to come back.

+ + + + + + +

It was a little after noon before the trio had the mare and foal loaded into the trailer and on her way home. Ben Watson, Linda’s ranch manager, greeted them and helped Vin unload her and the colt. Linda joined them after a few minutes. Chris greeted her with a quick kiss and formally introduced her to Vin and Ezra.

“I feel like I know both of you already, but it’s nice to officially meet.” Linda’s eyes sparkled.

Katrina walked up and joined them, Ezra masked his surprise at seeing her here but Vin was unable to hide his reaction. It escaped Tanner why Katrina was here unless…Kelli had asked her to come.

“Kat, these gentlemen brought Kelli’s mare home. I just cannot imagine how she got out. Kel had a fit when she found her gone.” Linda explained. “She was relieved to hear that you found her.”

“Well we couldn’t leave the lady stranded, could we?” Chris was curious about the look in Linda’s eyes.

“Perhaps now would be a good time to give you the grand tour. Lunch will be ready in about thirty minutes.” Linda offered. “I could give you a preview of the horses going on the auction block.” Linda tried not to smile, while watching Tanner look around. “If by chance you are looking for Miss Coulter, she’s in the barn Mr. Tanner.”

Chris and Ezra followed the ladies to the paddock. Tanner headed to the barn, to talk to the woman, who had taken over his thoughts. Vin leaned against the door of the barn and watched Kelli brush the black mare. He listened as she talked to the horse. With her back turned it was unlikely Coulter even knew he was there.

“You should be ashamed, runnin’ off to chase some horse you don’t even know and draggin’ your baby with you. I raised you better and that is a good way to get in over your head. I should talk, huh? I feel like I just jumped in deep water myself and have no idea where the shore is. Men will make you think crazy thoughts, but you got to promise, no more runnin’ off, especially with the little one.”

“Think she’ll listen?” Vin decided he had been quiet long enough. Tanner, what now?

“Good lord, Tanner you shouldn’t sneak up on someone like that!” Kelli jumped. Now what, Kel?

“Hidin’ out in the barn? Vin came over to where she stood, closing the door behind him. “Now, maybe we can talk.” Right, Vin, talk. She has you roped in and she does not even know it.

“I’m not hidin’ and I don’t know that we do have anythin’ to talk about,” Kelli actually took a step backwards. Don’t do this, Coulter.

“I think we do.” Vin moved to stand in front of her, reached out and brushed an errant strand of hair back into place. Tanner…dammit…just go with how you feel.

“Maybe we should think about this some more,” Kelli was nervous. For once, Kel, listen to yourself.

“Don’t think so Coulter.” Vin leaned in and kissed her, ever so lightly. He was thinking that he was in control. But was he? He intended to stop at that, but his desire pushed him to explore further. He deepened the kiss and felt her walls of resistance start to crumble, replaced by a wild passion he sensed no other man had known. That knowledge both surprised and pleased him. The taste of her innocence spurred him on, possessively holding on to her. Kelli leaned into him, her fingers tangled in his hair and something else took over. A feeling that this was not new for them, it felt… so very right. Without ever moving his hands from her back, Vin made love to her, one ravenous kiss after another, taking her senses and allowing her no time to recover from one assault, before he started another.

It could have been five minuets or hours, time had stopped and they were both lost in the moment. That kiss might have continued for much longer, had a voice from outside, not finally penetrated through their desire for one other. Vin pulled back without letting her go and thought about not answering. Resting his forehead on hers, he waited a minute, not trusting himself to speak. Whispering to Kelli in a husky voice, he said, “Damn, Ez and his timin’.” She had to agree as the barn door opened.

“Linda wants you to know lunch will be ready in fifteen minutes.” With one look, Ezra took in the situation and retreated, blocking Katrina’s entrance. “We will see you at the house.”

As soon as she was able to speak, Kelli whispered. “You think he knew what we were doin’?” she blushed, uncomfortable with the intrusion of their privacy. Lord, Kel, what happened to your defenses?

“I reckon he does, but we weren’t doin’ anythin’ wrong. Last time I checked kissin’ wasn’t against the law.” Vin relaxed his hold and allowed her to move back. Go easy, Tanner, she’s like a wild colt, you need to use a gentle hand or she will break and run from you. And that, Vin, is unacceptable. “We’ll join ‘em in a few minutes.” Vin reluctantly moved away, giving her some space and him a chance to cool off. After a few minutes, they started for the house. Vin could not resist one last comment.

“We still need to talk, you know.” Tanner grinned when she glared at him.

+ + + + + + +

Lunch was finished in a leisurely manner and soon the horses drew them back. Linda asked Kelli to go to the house and get the papers on their bloodlines. She intercepted Tanner before he could offer to keep her company.

“I have known Kelli for ten years and no one could ask for a better friend. She has earned a reputation as a tough cop and I know she would march into hell for something she believed in. Nevertheless, she is not as hard as people think. She just hides her fears and emotions better than most and with good reasons. I will not stand by quietly and let anyone hurt her. I just wanted you to know that.” Linda stared directly at Tanner.

“You’re not telling me anythin’, I haven’t already figured out. More to the point, if someone hurts her, they will answer to me first and then you can have what is left. ” Tanner, do you know what you are saying? ...Yes, Vin, I do.

Linda did not say more as Kelli brought out the pedigrees and some pictures of other horses. Tanner looked at them first. “Damn, look here Chris, this is Bounty Hunter, our stallion as a colt. He’s related to those horses your starin’ at.” Vin offered him the book.

“I saw it earlier and forget to tell you, you’ll have to tell Hunter he has family over here.” Chris grinned.

“My brother, Matthew, runs the family farm in Louisiana, maybe someday you’ll want to visit Hunter’s other relatives.” Linda added.

All too soon, it was time to head back to the Larabee 7 and tend to their horses. Vin pulled Kelli aside and told her, “You best resolve yourself to the fact, we will talk.” He gave her a quick kiss and joined the others to leave.

“Well, are you going to tell me?” Linda asked Kelli when they left.

“Not much to tell.” Kelli was evasive with her answer. Except, you just lost any good sense you ever had, Kel.

“Did you talk things out and clear the air?” Dubois persisted. “Tell me what happened.”

“Not exactly, we weren’t able to talk much.” That at least was the truth.

“Damn, all that trouble with the mare for nothing.” Linda mumbled and turned to go.

“What about the mare? What did you do? Linda Dubois! You come back here Dammit!

+ + + + + + +

Chris watched his young friend, as they tended the horses for the evening. The uncertainty he has seen yesterday was gone, replace with a look of resolve.

“You know, Linda set you up with the mare.” Chris wanted to keep things in the open between them.

“Actually, she set Kelli up, she did me a favor.” Vin smiled. “I’ve been tryin’ since yesterday mornin’ to get her still long enough to talk to me.”

Chris nodded, “Try to remember you have to work together.”

“That won’t be a problem.” Vin assured him. “Before you ask, yeah I know what I’m doin’. I may not understand a woman, like Ezra seems to, but I do understand horses.”

“Vin, even I know that no woman wants to be compared to a horse.” Chris, for once, was not sure where Tanner’s thoughts were taking him.

Tanner grinned at Larabee’s confusion. “Chris, assume I gave you a wild young mare to tame. How would you do it and not destroy her spirit?”

“Well, the first thing would be to gentle her to touch and then teach her to trust…”

Got it.

Thought you might.

Larabee 7 - Sunday Morning

Chris Larabee loved his family of brothers and Sunday gatherings had become tradition. This particular Sunday he wished he was somewhere else. His stubborn “sisters” and their well meaning, but misdirected attempts at matchmaking, had him concerned. He really did not want to see any one of them with hurt feelings. Hell, it was going to be a long day. Tanner joined him on the deck for coffee and the silence between them lent calm to the morning. That was not destined to last long after Buck arrived.

“Hey stud.” Buck joined them on the porch. “Anything you need me to do for today?”

“Think everything is covered,” Larabee answered cautiously.

“That’s good.” Buck paced for a minute. “Dammit, I guess, I have to tell you, I couldn’t talk them out of the plan.”

“Didn’t expect you could, Bucklin,” Vin said.

“You both knew and let me worry myself about crazy?” Buck huffed.

“When those women get their mind set, even you don’t stand a chance.” Chris pointed out. “You said that yourself.”

“Yep, but we think you should be the one to tell’ em, we won’t be here.” Tanner offered.

“What do you mean you won’t be here?” Wilmington was almost shouting.

“Cowboy and me are going fishin’. Guess you have to handle ‘em on your own.” Vin laughed.

“Look, if I get Inez and Rain to cancel the extra invites, will you stay?” Buck pleaded.” I will do it right now, give me thirty minutes. Don’t leave until I get back.” Wilmington left to take care of business with his wife.

“Well done, Tanner, I’m impressed.” Chris was relieved Vin had thought out a solution for the problem.”

You’re Welcome

Southern Breeze Ranch

Katrina got a phone call from her brother, he was in town for one day. Kelli gave her the keys to her truck and told her to take it and go visit. She assured her, Linda would give her a ride home and not to worry about it.

Ben came in just as Linda and Kelli finished lunch, with the news that six mares were missing and a fence was down.

“Linda, you didn’t!” Kelli yelled

“Not this time!” Linda jumped up. “Ben have our horses ready.”

“Already done.” Ben replied.

It did not take long to find the downed fence and instead of six mares, they found three geldings. Pony, Peso and Chaucer stood on the side, where the mares should have been. Linda and Kelli caught them and decided to lead them over to the Larabee 7.

+ + + + + + +

Buck straightened out the extra guest problems as promised. Tanner and Larabee were staying, mainly to see Wilmington in the doghouse with his wife. Dinner was a least an hour away and the time centered on the kids. It was then that Maria chose to crawl onto her Uncle Vin’s lap and ask a question.

“What you need, Angel” Vin asked the toddler.

“You find it, you keep it?” Maria asked and played with the buttons on Tanner’s shirt.

“Show me what you found and I’ll tell you” Vin tried to coax the child to show him what she was talking about.

The toddler thought about it and took Uncle Vin’s hand. She led him to the edge of the yard, pointed and said “Mine.”

“Aww Heck,” Vin caught his language, in front of the baby. “Honey, I know you want to keep him, but his mama is probably looking for him.” I know who is looking for this colt. Maria started wailing and Vin explained the problem to Inez and Buck. Unfortunately, when Maria started crying so did Sarah, then Joanne joined in and the adults were having a time trying to settle the girls.

Leading three rouge horses, Linda and Kelli rode into the chaos. Seeing the new people, the babies quit crying. Tanner, Larabee and Standish went to retrieve their errant horses. “Lose something, Cowboys.” Linda said, as she handed over the reins for Pony and Chaucer to Chris. He passed them to Standish and took Linda to meet the others and discuss how to handle this recurring horse situation.

Peso refused to go with Vin, choosing to stay with Kelli. Tanner was not happy with his ornery horse, but could not really blame him for his choice. Vin held his temper and took both Peso and the Kelli’s mare indicating for her to follow him. They might only have a few minutes alone, but he would take it. The Texan put the mare in the corral and led Peso into the barn. “Step one hoof outta that stall, you mule headed beast and you spend three days in solitary.” He would never hurt the animal, but he could lock him up.

“Think he’ll listen to you?” Kelli smiled repeating his words back.

“I reckon we got five minutes, before some busybody comes to check on us.” Vin pulled her closer, “What do you think we should do with it?” Tanner grinned. It is time for her first lesson, Vin.

“You said we needed to talk.” Kelli said feeling she could lose herself completely in the sea of blue, in the eyes before her.

“Not now.” He growled and reached for her. Tanner spent the time giving Kelli a lesson in trust, it was important to him, for her to know he would keep her safe. The Texan now realized he wanted more than sex, from this woman. He wanted her body, mind and her soul and nothing less would satisfy him. Vin stayed in total control. He was letting her know, that it was acceptable to him, to just kiss and explore the depth of their desires, without pressure to go further. He searched for the points that stirred her passion and found more than one. She allowed her hands to wander and found enjoyment by just touching his lean hard body. Both found it a very pleasing experience and ten minutes later, they reluctantly joined the others, trying not to draw attention. Buck was watching as they walked back and was satisfied with what he saw. It about time, Tanner.

They agreed that putting up a double fence was a solution. The one on Larabee 7 side would be electrified. Harm would not come to the horses and it would keep the escape artists in check. “I think we should just put a gate between the two properties and save all of us a lot of trouble.” Chris surprised the group with his statement.

Cowboy, are you sure?

Yeah, Vin, I am sure

Linda’s phone rang and when she finished listening, relayed the message. “The mares are home and the hands are repairing the fence.” Turning to Chris, she asked. ”Are you sure about the gate?”

“Absolutely.” Larabee had no doubts

Making a phone call, Linda ordered Ben to have them add a gate and arranged for him to pick up the colt that was now lying next to Kelli, along with three little girls. With the arrangements made, Larabee talked to Linda, “We could have dinner here instead of your place. Kelli too,” she readily agreed.

During the mealtime, Inez, Rain and Casey took turns asking questions. Chris put a stop to it. Reminding them, that Linda and Kelli were their guests, not criminals to interrogate. He captured Linda’s eyes when she sent him a smile of gratitude. He loved that smile and the way it brought dancing lights into her eyes.

Then Buck came between them and started talking. Reluctantly, he shifted his attention to his friends.

Linda kept looking when Chris turned away to listen to his friend. She sighed when he moved and she saw those tight black jeans accentuate the best butt she had ever seen. Linda, you have it bad girl. Quickly, she looked away and tried to pay attention to what Chris and the other men were saying. No, that wasn’t right the others were talking, Chris hardly said anything.

A nudge brought her attention from Chris, back to the other women. “Penny for your thoughts,” Inez smiled. Linda blushed. “Oh nothing, I was just wondering why Chris says so little.”

“That’s just Chris. He never says much. He doesn’t speak more than a three words a day, Vin always says,” the women laughed.

“Really?” Linda remembered the evenings they had spent and how they could not stop talking. He isn’t that way with me

Ben came for the foal and at Larabee’s insistence took the mares’ home. Chris assured Linda, “I will make sure, you arrive home safely and I am positive, that Vin will take Kelli home.” Mallory was tired and Josiah took her and Joanne back to their house. JD and Casey had to take Nettie home and Nathan took Rain to work. That left the rest of the adults to clean up.

“Why don’t you and Vin both come to the ranch, Chris?” They both agreed, but took separate vehicles.

“How about we pick out movies to watch?” Linda suggested when they were all seated in her living room.

“Linda, I need to get home, I work tomorrow and have bosses that insist I be on time.” Kelli looked at Larabee and Tanner and grinned. “I’m just gonna grab my bag and say goodnight, if Vin’s ready to go.”

Vin nodded, “Fine with me.” Remember, Tanner, you want her to trust you.

After they left, Chris asked Linda to sit with him on the porch. He looked at the beautiful slim woman at his side and felt something he had not felt in a long time. He resisted the urge to push an errant blonde lock out of that face with full red lips, that just begged to be kissed. Right now, they needed to talk. He swallowed.

“I haven’t done this, in a long time and the only way I know, is to be direct,” Chris stated. “Maybe I’m on the wrong track but I think we have a chance to build something between us and I hope you feel the same.” Face it, Larabee, you are already sure.

The hesitant words woke a flutter in Linda’s stomach. This gorgeous man had just told her, he was feeling what she was feeling! She suddenly had to fight not to grin like mad. “You are not on the wrong track, but I think it is only fair that you know I have not been totally myself since my Dad died. I feel the same as you but need some time to work out a few things and not rush. Kelli has pushed me to get back to who I am. She finally had to move, to make me realize it. I am not normally a quiet person, I tend to be outrageous at times.” she smiled. “Okay at lot of the time and impulsive. Can you handle that?”

His smile sent a shiver through her. Right, Linda, you want him now and you know it.

“After seeing how you handled getting Vin and Kelli together, I think I figured that out myself.” He grinned, “So, I guess you’re telling me to learn to expect the unexpected.” I can live with that

“Something like that.” Linda then kissed him, letting him know he would not always be in charge. She put every ounce of passion and fire she could into that kiss and Chris responded in kind.

Yeah, he would give her a little time, but not much.

+ + + + + + +

Kelli invited Vin inside and thanked him for the ride home. Not sure what to do next, she offered him some iced tea. “I can’t stand the cold, but will drink iced tea all year long.” She was trying to avoid serious conversation. ”Got used to it, I guess.” Kel, you are so in over your head.

Vin walked to the patio door as he listened to her. It was obvious, that she was more comfortable on the gun range, than she was with a man in her apartment. His male ego appreciated that discovery. Tanner, you found something good, do not mess it up. Kelli joined him on the patio.

“There’s a good view of the mountains from here. That’s what made me decide on this place,” she explained. “Course it’s not as good as the bein’ there, but it’ll have to do.” She stopped talking when she saw Vin’s attention was not on the mountains. Kelli could not believe she was here with this attractive man. She raised her hand to touch his face, brushing back a lock of his hair.

Tanner only saw the view of the beautiful woman in front of him and reached for her. Vin brushed his lips across her brow and slowly worked towards the sensual mouth, waiting for his kiss, which was filled with all passion and desire, then he felt it course through their bodies. Tremors of desire showered through her body and she surely would have melted into the ground, had he not held her. Vin felt her tremble and hungrily sought out more. Kelli had never felt this wild and free. He could have taken her right then, if he wished too, but somehow through the haze of passion, reason returned. This is not how it should be, Tanner. Both of you deserve more than one night and if you do this, that is all it will ever be. He gently pulled her back from the fires of passion, as he recovered his control. The Texan felt the exact moment awareness returned to Kelli. Before she had a chance to react, he was whispering soothing words in her ear.

Katrina chose that time to return home and made sure the couple, she saw on the patio, knew she was there. Kelli and Vin returned inside and talked to her for a few minutes.

“Did you enjoy the time with your brother?” Kelli asked.

“Yes, I don’t get to see any of my family, all that often. He caught me up on what the rest of the brood is doing.” Katrina smiled. “However, if you don’t mind, I’m beat and am headed to bed.”

Vin turned to Kelli. “It’s late. I’ll see you at work in the mornin’.” Then he gave her another tantalizing kiss, he hoped that she would be thinking about the rest of the night. You sure will be, Tanner

Kelli closed the door and knew she was in trouble. Vin had shattered a lifetime of defenses that she had built around herself. He somehow managed to cut through the armor that shielded her emotions. What happens to you, Kel, when he learns the truth? Then walks away.

MCAT Office

Monday morning arrived. Chris saw everyone was in the office on time, except for Ezra. Larabee was sure that man would be late for his own funeral. Boxes were again stacked on the desks around the room. “Alright boys and girls Director Travis sent over a few files for us to sort through.” He waited for the moans and groans to stop. “I know this isn’t your favorite pastime but it will be done today. Get started.” Chris disappeared into his office.

“The sooner we start, the sooner we finish.” Vin directed. “Every agent grab a box and start to work.”

Tanner watched Kelli and sensed she was trying to pull back her emotions. That was something he was not going to let happen. He knew she was starting to trust him, but something held her back, he was determined to get past it. Patience Tanner, it takes time, to trust.

Larabee called Vin into his office. “You must have just talked to Linda.” Vin observed. “You got that damn smile that gives it away.”

“Yeah...well, I am meeting her after work and she asked if you and Kelli would join us for dinner.” Chris answered, “Before you say anything, I told her I thought it would be a good idea. She has to leave for Louisiana tomorrow on family business and wanted to get together before she left.”

“I’ll have to let you know, Kelli’s been a bit reserved this morning.” Vin sighed, “Thought I get her on the gun range after lunch, I’ll ask her while we’re there.”

Chris nodded, “Offer’s open.”

Vin left Larabee’s office and located Coulter. He told her to him meet in his office in five minutes. It was ten minutes later when she knocked on the door. “Come in.” Vin knew she deliberately made him wait and decided to find out why before he said anything. I will find out, what makes you want to run.

“You told me to be here, you might as well tell me why.” She really did not want to be here and it showed. Kelli had decided some time during the long sleepless night to just back off from Tanner’s attention. It is safer this way.

“We have a reserved time on the gun range at one. Get your gear and we’ll head over.” Vin saw her relax slightly, once she realized he was not making this a personal discussion. You got your work cut out for you, Tanner.

“That’s all?” Lord, give me strength

“Yeah, we leave in five minutes and Coulter that means five not ten minutes from now.” Vin’s tone of voice made it very clear that was an order.

Firing Range - 1:00 p.m.

This time she never hesitated on climbing the ladder to the tower and set up without saying a word. In fact, she had not said more that five words on the drive over. Kelli hit the mark several times in rapid succession. Vin knew he had to say something before she ruined all the targets.

“We’re here to shoot at targets not try to disintegrate ‘em.” He had to smile, “I think you hit it the first time.”

“Sorry, I guess I got carried away a bit. I do that sometimes to reduce stress.” The truth was she was having a difficult time concentrating, with him so close. “I’ll be more careful.”

Vin studied her for a minute before he asked his next question. He thought he already knew the answer and made sure there was plenty of space between them. “Why are you stressed?” He waited to see if she would tell him. Trust me, Kel.

“I…hell ...You’re the reason I’m stressed, okay!” She sighed, “I think you already knew that.” Of course, he knows that, Kel, the man is not dumb.

He had read her work record and her letters of recommendation. Words that described her were: focused, tough, assertive and never intimidated. It amazed him that he had this effect on her. “Yeah, I did.” He made sure she was looking at him. “You don’t need to be, I don’t expect anything you’re not ready to give and I can be a patient man if it’s somethin’ important. And for the record I consider your feelin’s important.”

With those words, Vin had won the war, never knowing that he was in one. Kelli realized she was fighting a losing battle with her emotions. Lord, Tanner, I just hope we do not both regret this.

“I’ll work it out, now if there are any targets left, it your turn.” She could not stop the surge of pleasure she felt, hearing his words. They stayed on the range for another hour, Tanner showing her how to improve her scores. As they walked to Vin’s truck, he told her about Chris’ invitation to join Linda and him for dinner.

“Are you sure you want to? Linda’s idea of going out usually involves one of those places the waiter has to interpret the menu.” She laughed at the thought of her friend’s idea of good food.

“If it’s too bad, we’ll leave and find somethin’ better.” Vin didn’t care, he was just glad to see Kelli totally relax again. The end of the workday finally arrived, Linda surprised Kelli by choosing a local steak house for dinner and they agreed to meet at 7:30.

+ + + + + + +

Vin knocked on her door at 6:45 expecting to have a good fifteen minutes wait. Instead, Kelli answered, invited him in and the Texan realized he was in trouble. She does not even know how beautiful she is.

The outfit she wore definitely qualified as a test for his patience. She had on a long brown skirt and a yellow peasant blouse, with her long auburn hair flowing over her bare shoulders. Her fiery beauty robbed him of any rational thought.

“Hey, I knew you would be on time,” she said. Lord, does the man know he affects me? “I’m ready I just need to tell Katrina to lock up behind us.” She only carried her house key and gave it to Vin to hold.

Before she could yell to her roommate, Vin leaned in and kissed her slowly and thoroughly, testing his own limits as well as hers. With his hands, he left no delicate curve untouched. Heat radiated between them. With his mouth, he claimed the soft skin on her neck. He felt the vibrations from her throat of the soft sexy sounds she was making and he was fast losing control. Strength he did not know he had, emerged to make him think. Don’t ruin your chance, Tanner, to capture her elusive spirit. Discipline yourself to wait until you do. When he stopped, she was not sure she could stand without him holding her, much less say anything. After a few minutes, Vin spoke for her.

“Katrina, we’re leaving.” Addressing Kelli, he whispered softly, “You might want to put on some shoes.” Sure enough, she was bare footed. She quickly located her heels and they made it out the door.

At the restaurant.

Chris and Linda were already there when they arrived. “We just got here ourselves, haven’t even seen a waiter yet.” Chris greeted them and told Kelli she looked nice. I said nice, Vin, not sexy as hell. Draw back your glare

“This is a great place, haven’t tried it before.” Vin commented. Sorry, I’m a little touchy tonight.

Chris laughed aloud. Can’t imagine why.

Both women gave him a strange look. Fortunately, the waiter arrived about then. Chris ordered baked chicken for Linda and a steak for himself. Kelli wanted a steak so Tanner ordered for them both.

“Vin, I was telling Chris your stallion’s brother will be racing in two weeks. Maybe you and Kelli would like to come with us to watch him.” Linda stated, “It’s an open invitation.”

“I guess that would depend on work, I’ll have to talk to the boss about it.” Vin smiled. “Somebody has to keep things movin’.”

Dinner was great and while they waited on dessert, Linda and Kelli excused themselves.

“Vin, I’ve been watching you tonight and I have a question. Who exactly is in training here, you or her?” Chris laughed. “She seems to be putting you through the paces.”

“I don’t know Cowboy, seems you may have learned a few new tricks yourself.” Vin said smugly and Chris stopped laughing.

+ + + + + + +

In the Ladies room, Linda wanted to push her friend. “Have you had sex with him yet?” Linda asked to get Kelli’s reaction. “Is he as good as he looks?”

“What kind of question is that?” Kelli snapped and blushed, “It’s not any of your damn business.”

“Didn’t think so, you need to quit thinking and just do.” Linda advised. “You girl, are overdue for some enjoyment in your life.”

“Thank you, Mom, for your unsolicited advice and do me a favor.” Kelli waited for Linda’s attention. “Stay out of it and take care of your own cowboy.”

“My cowboy and I are doing fine, thank you.” Linda smiled and followed Kelli out the door.

Both men noticed Linda’s smile and the tint of a blush that Kelli had, but said nothing. Shortly after, they finished their dessert and walked to the parking lot together.

“Have a good trip and tell Matthew, I said hi.” Kelli told Linda.

“I will and you try to misbehave before I get home.” Linda smiled at the look Kelli sent her way.

Night, Cowboy.

Night, Vin.

Tanner took the redhead home and used her key to unlock the door. Once inside, they found Katrina had turned in for the night. Vin reached for Kelli and pulled her closer. “I want you to know, I plan on going home shortly. I’m tellin’ you now so you can relax and enjoy this.” Vin kissed her hungrily and deeply, as he moved to her neck and he nibbled the flesh on the soft spots, he already knew gave her pleasure. He ended his assault of her senses with a kiss. He held her until he was sure she was able to stand on her own. She only realized he was leaving when she heard a raspy whisper of, “Good night, Texas.”

+ + + + + + +

Chris took Linda home and they found themselves back on the porch swing.

“You are very protective of Kelli, aren’t you?” Chris asked.

“Kelli may not be blood related but she is part of my family, so yes I guess I am.” Linda answered.

“Vin seems to like her, hard to believe they have only known each other two weeks.” Larabee commented. Only two weeks and look where you are yourself, Larabee

“Tanner should be honored, she decided to trust him because Kelli doesn’t give her trust easily.” Linda stated firmly. “If Vin were smart, he would not give her a lot of time to think. He should just take her and move things along.” Linda watched for Chris’ reaction. God, does he know how sexy he is?

“What make you think, they haven’t...?” Chris was not used to these types of discussions with a woman. Larabee, you are treading water here.

“I know Kelli better than anyone and believe me, they may be doing a lot of things together, but having sex is not one of them.” Linda almost laughed at the look on Larabee’s face. “Maybe I should buy her some things from Victoria’s Secret. What color does Vin Like?” What color would you like?

“You are not shy are you, Lady?” Chris liked that. You are full of surprises.

“Not really.” Linda smiled, “I bet he would like red, but with her hair color that wouldn’t work. Green maybe?”

“Yellow, Tanner would choose yellow.” Chris thought of Vin’s reaction to the blouse Kelli wore tonight. He also envisioned Linda wearing red, with her blond hair that would be a sight to see. Vin would kill me, if he knew about this

“Yellow it is then. You know, Chris with your help I bet we could have those two in bed together in no time. Linda smiled, as Chris appeared to blush. God, I didn’t think it was possible, but he is even sexier when he blushes! Do I have him thinking in the right direction, yet?

She continued, “I have given some serious thought about our discussion yesterday.” She wanted him to know how she felt. “When I get back from Louisiana, do you suppose Tanner could run things at the office for a couple of days?”

“Maybe, what did you have in mind?” Chris grinned as he thought about the possibilities. His eyes lingering on the form fitting dress Linda was wearing and thinking about the beauty underneath it, that he would love to reveal.

“I was thinking, we might find somewhere private to …get to know each other better.” Linda explained, “There is always someone here with the hired help and your place has family in and out all the time.”

“I can work something out.” Chris pulled her close and let her know how he felt with actions. Desire flared immediately as he ravished her mouth with his. He took time to take pleasure in his exploration. She responded to his touch without restraint, soon they were both breathless and close to surrendering to their fervor. Had it not been for the sound of a slamming door somewhere in the house, they could easily have forgotten there were others around. They both spent several minutes trying to recover their senses.

“What days did you have in mind?” Chris whispered.

3:30 a.m.

“Who in the hell would be calling at this hour?” Kelli fumbled for her phone and finally laid hands on it. The veil of sleep was beginning to fall away.


“Mornin,’ Texas, I’ll be at your front door in twenty minutes, dress warm, bring your clothes for work, grab a jacket and wear your boots.” Vin instructed.

“Dress warm, bring clothes for work, grab a jacket and wear boots, got it.” Kelli had no idea what Tanner was up to and suddenly realized it did not matter. She had no need to know, trusting him completely. She was showered, dressed, left a note for Katrina and was at the front door in twenty minutes. Vin met her with a kiss and a cup of coffee.

“Get a move on woman, let’s go.” Vin opened the door to his Durango and escorted her in.

“Are you always this cheerful at this time of mornin’?” Kelli asked, while admiring his profile, as he drove.

“Not usually.” Vin was honest to a fault “Most mornin’s, I don’t get up ‘fore five.”

Kelli sipped on her coffee realizing it was just how she liked it. This man is full of surprises. She then let the relaxing quiet drift over her.

“You gonna ask where we’re goin’?” Vin hoped not, he wanted her to trust him.

“Nope, just wake me when we get there.” She was enjoying the mystery. They traveled in comfortable silence for about twenty minutes before Vin stopped. It was still dark outside. Tanner opened her door and then pulled some gear from the back of the truck. Looking around, she noted they were in the middle of nowhere in particular.

“Gonna make a short climb.” Vin told her, as he helped her with a harness and clipped a lead on it. “Follow me and stay close.” They climbed the rock wall and this time she did not mind following the Texan. It may be dark, but light enough to enjoy the view in front of her. When Vin reached the top, he reached back took her hand and pulled her up. They were standing on a large flat ledge. Taking off his backpack, he opened it and brought out a blanket, a thermos of coffee and some breakfast rolls. Kelli was amazed, he had thought of everything. Settling on the blanket he had spread out, Vin pulled her to sit in front of him, wrapping his arms around her. She leaned back against him and was sure this was close to heaven.

“Alright, not that I’m complainin’, but what are we doin’ here?” Kelli finally had to ask, though she was satisfied, just to be here with him.

“We are makin’ a memory.” Vin was pleased she had waited so long to ask, “Watch right over there.” He pointed to a mountain in the distance, which the sun was just beginning to reach. “That sun just left Texas ‘fore gracin’ us with its presence, I thought you might enjoy a Texas sunrise.”

Kelli felt the tears form and knew she would not be able to prevent them from falling. A flood of emotion washed over her and what she was feeling was overwhelming. She felt her soul struggle, to escape the shield she had built around it. No one had ever cared enough to do something like this for her. As she watched the sky explode with color, Vin gently wiped the tears from her face and he held her tighter resting his chin on the top of her head. Kelli’s last wall of defense was starting to fall and she was helpless to stop it.

Sitting here, holding her, Vin knew no other woman had ever touched him so completely. A peaceful feeling took root in his soul and contentment surrounded his heart. Tanner, you’re not losin’ it at all, you just found a part of yourself that was missin’. Kissing the top of her head, his thoughts came back to the here and now.

Tanner knew she was moved by this sunrise surprise and he vowed to keep finding ways to give pleasure to her. He poured coffee, giving Kelli time to get control of her emotions. The Texan passed the coffee over and kissed her tenderly, he did not intend to push for more, just yet.

“Vin…” Kelli started to speak, but found her voice unsteady.

“You don’t have to say anythin’ you already told me.” He stroked her cheek. “We need to finish breakfast and get movin’ or we’ll be late for work.” They finished, packed and grudgingly started the trip back to civilization.

MCAT Office - 11:00 a.m.

Larabee entered the bullpen and told everyone to meet in the conference room. “Five minutes and Ezra don’t be late.” Chris commanded.

Chris watched as the agents moved for the meeting. Larabee was pleased to see the varied agents bonding into a unit and knew what he had planned would help that along. Independently, they were all good agents, but now they had to work and get along as a team. With new unit members coming in next week, he wanted this core group to bond. He also wanted to observe and get to know them better. A few days of exercises at the ATF camp were just what they needed. Chris made his announcement and got immediate reaction.

“Would I be correct in assuming that you are addressing only the new agents in the room?” Ezra hated these exercises and was determined to find an out.

“We may be new here, but we are not rookies.” Katrina was quick to defend their status.

“Chris, didn’t you want Pam and me to work on the files?” JD had to try to get out of it.

“No, everyone participates and we have reserved time available for the next three days.” Larabee ignored their groans, “We leave tomorrow morning at 6:00 a.m., and arrange your plans accordingly. You have the remaining part of today to collect your gear and make preparations. Larabee dismissed them. Tanner left the room to catch up with Kelli and asked her to step into his office.

“We need to talk, but not here.” Vin brushed her hair back with his fingers. “Spend the rest of today with me?”

“I just have to tell Katrina to go on without me,” Kelli did not hesitated to say yes.

Vin’s Place

Tanner’s home wasn’t large, but was comfortable. The rustic décor fit his personality and the skylights gave the feeling of open space. Kelli imagined the view of the night sky, visible from any room in the house. They had stopped on the way and picked up a couple of steaks for lunch. Vin cooked and Kelli made a salad and a pitcher of iced tea. After their meal, Vin decided now was a good time for their talk and led her into the living area. Tanner sat on the couch and pulled her down beside him, he wanted to keep her close but not confined.

“It’s time we talked, Texas. You’re holdin’ somethin’ back and I don’t want it between us.” Does she trust you enough, Tanner?

Kelli was quiet for a few long minutes. Vin had a lot of patience when needed and giving her time to answer was important. For that reason, he waited, rubbing circles on the palm of her hand with his thumb. He decided to make it easier for her. “Kel, I promise whatever it is, it won’t make any difference in the way I feel about you.”

“Don’t make promises you might not be able to keep, Tanner.” Kelli decided to get everything in the open. “It’s not a nice story.”

“Real life generally isn’t all nice.” Vin shifted to face her. “I don’t make promises unless I’m sure and I won’t say anythin’ til you’re done.”

She did trust him and knew Vin cared about her, but was it enough? Eventually she would have to tell him anyway. Might as well get it over with and see if he was willing to accept it. The past poured out, as she hesitantly gave him the facts responsible for her need to shield her emotions and her soul.

“Kelli Coulter is not the name I was born with. Fact is, I have no idea of my real name, age or who my family was. A police officer found me injured, outside a church in San Antonio twenty - one years ago, he took me to the hospital and I spent three months there. They were unable to find anyone who knew me, so the state took custody. The social worker gave me a name and guessed at my age. My birth date is the same day they typed a new certificate. I was raised by a lot of different people until Jake became my guardian.” Kelli stopped for a minute before she continued. This was the part, which she had never shared with anyone, not even Linda.

“The medical report …showed evidence of physical and …sexual abuse. The only memories I have of it are in nightmares, which comes in bit and pieces. Kelli was relieved to have it out in the open, but was afraid if she looked at Vin, she would see rejection. Lord knows, it was a disgrace, which she had carried for years.

Tanner had struggled with his own emotions while she told her story. From anger at the system that could not help to rage at the person who abused her and finally, immensely grateful that she was a survivor. It did not matter that they had not known each other long because he knew his heart did not care about time. He only knew with absolute certainty, they would deal with her fears together.

“Kel, look at me, nothin’ you said makes any difference about you and me, except now, I can share some of your pain.” Vin closed his arms around her.

“I don’t think you understand, I have no idea what happened. I have tried to find out, but keep runnin’ into dead ends. Before I met you, it was not that big of an issue. My work was all I needed or wanted and I have made sure to avoid any relationships, which might lead to a physical involvement. Now…‘m not even sure ... I can… What about the scars? They will never go away. What happens if I remember? What...” She got no further before Vin stopped her.

“Kel, I do understand what you’re tellin’ me. I have seen some of the scars and they are only scars, believe me I have my share of ‘em. As for the rest, you are not responsible for what some bastard did twenty somethin’ years ago. You do not have to live with it alone anymore. If you remember, we will deal with it and if you have nightmares, I will be there. If you want me to help look for answers I will, but it does not matter to me how old you are or what your name was. As to what happened, I wish I could change it for you, but I can’t. What matters now is, you’re here and alive.”

“If I knew more, maybe it would be easier, I just …”Vin didn’t let her dwell on her reservations. He kissed her softly and watched the play of emotion cross her face. Tanner knew she had never told anyone else this story and talking about it was difficult for her. These events made her who she is and sharing her emotions was something new. He saw relief in her eyes when she realized the meaning of his words. Finally, he saw acceptance and knew she realized the depth of his commitment.

“I will promise you this, when we make love it will be when you are ready. I will make sure you have no reason to doubt, that you belong with me. It won’t be today, but it will happen and it will be a special time for both of us, trust me.” He sealed that promise with a kiss that left no doubt about how he felt.

Vin then told her about his childhood and early life, about how meeting Chris and the boys gave him such a great new family. He wanted to wave a magic wand and rid her of the uncertainty she carried, but that would take some time. Time he was willing to give. Enough time, Tanner and you can track down the monster responsible for hurting her.

They spent awhile gathering his gear for tomorrow. The rest of the afternoon, they lazed on the couch, alternately talking and exploring the boundaries of their desires.

Tuesday - 5:00 a.m.

The sky was a light golden color and it would soon be dawn. Katrina was leaving to pick up Pam. Kelli was waiting on Vin and thinking about how important he now was in her life.

Face, it, Kel, he just charged through those damn walls and never stopped until he captured your heart. Now he is just as much a part of you as breathing and you would not change it, if you could. Love? Lord, Kel you’ve no experience with that word, but was that the right way to describe the feeling he brought out? Maybe it was, you do want him, to take care of him and share yourself with him. The best part is that this caring, sensitive, soul wants to give the same things to you. To hell with patience, Kel, you have waited all your life for this man. You do not have to deny yourself and wait anymore.

Kelli opened the door before he finished knocking. Once she had Vin inside, she surprised the hell out of him by initiating a kiss he would carry in his memory for years to come.

With out a word, a tug on his shirt brought him closer. One hand sliding around his neck lead to a hungry kiss that left him with no doubt about what she wanted. You hear that soft flutter, Vin? That is the sound of a soul flying free for the first time. He responded by taking his time exploring her body with his hands. Slowly, he fueled the fires of passion and lost himself in that desire. She was drowning and the only one that could save her was Tanner. It took every ounce of strength he possessed to return to sanity. He rested his head on her shoulder, until he could breathe again and felt her breathing slow down. Damn, he hated to think about the limited time they would have for the next three days, kissing her again while he buttoned her shirt, he prayed for a quick passage of time.

“That’s gonna have to hold us for a while, at least til we get back.” he whispered softly. “It’s time to go.”

Federal Building - Parking Garage - 5:45 a.m.

Ten agents were ready to go. Larabee had decided to take two vehicles, his and Vin’s. Gear was packed, seats arranged and navigators were reading maps. All they needed was one more body to complete their group. Everyone knew Standish would not arrive until straight up six.

“I have a feeling’ this is gonna be a long trip.” Kelli mumbled still thinking about earlier.

“What did you say, darlin’.” Buck asked.

“I just wondered if you remembered the map.” Kelli grasped for an answer.

“Yeah, we are all set.” Buck replied. “Relax, we don’t bite and you’re working with the best team in the country. Everything will be fine.”

Ezra arrived and at one minute to six, Larabee was ready to get on the road. The only stop he planned was for a late breakfast and he hoped that by splitting the group it would be a quiet trip. For once, he got his wish.

They reached base camp by ten and Larabee laid out the schedule. Today the team had to complete a pre-planned obstacle course. They had one hour to set up before they received the course layout. The agents were assigned to a remote area to set up camp. Their reactions to ‘roughing it’ resounded loud and clear. It at least helped him get to know his new agents. Chris mentally categorized the information he already knew and worked on how to pair them.

He knew Pam worked better in an office environment. With her skills, she could become a base for information and never leave the Federal building. She was out of her element, out here though. Buck would be a good partner for her. He would do his best to keep her from getting into trouble.

Sam was ex-military and had the skills necessary for the job. However, his by the book attitude might be a problem, especially with the ‘boys’ and their creative minds. He was aggressive and did not approve of women as agents. Vin would get a good read on him and how far he would push.

Katrina had the experience to handle a variety of situations and seemed to be fair to okay in the outdoors although, she preferred not. She was used to working with only one partner and could be independent at times. Josiah perhaps would get a better insight about her ability to adapt to a larger team situation.

Kelli was privately reserved, but outspoken when it came to work. Her proficiency with weapons was good and with training could be even better. She had a range of experiences, which could be useful to the unit. Ezra was good at noticing things most people did not and he would discover any weakness that might need watching.

This left Nathan with JD and both available, if needed. Across the camp Tanner worked and while he helped everyone set up his mind traveled back to the morning. He shook his head, Texas, I thought I was the one with all plans Thinking of Kelli had him smiling as he worked and wondering if could survive many more of her surprises.

“Are we about ready to get started?” Buck asked.

“Yeah, get everyone together,” I’ll be right there.’ Vin answered.

They met in the middle and before Chris and Vin opened the prewritten instructions. Chris gave them directions. We will work in pairs as follows: Vin/Sam, Ezra/Kelli, Buck/Pam, Josiah/Katrina, Nathan/JD.

Larabee tried to be considerate of his female agents. “Ladies, if you need to make a last minute stop do it now, it could cause you some embarrassment out there.” The facilities are there for changing and showering.

The first challenge was to get up and over a rock wall. Tanner had no problem scaling the rocks and Reed was right behind him. Ezra with a little encouragement made it next. Kelli was an experienced climber and had no problem. Josiah and Katrina were next and then Buck had to help Pam. JD and Nathan brought up the rear. They made good time across the rope bridge and Larabee called a ten-minute break.

“Where is a reliable steed, when you need one?” Ezra hated all this outdoor stuff.

“He’s back at the barn with all the other sensible animals.” Buck discovered he was out of shape for this.

“I thought you were the best in the country. Maybe you guys are getting soft.” Sam smirked, “Hell, even some of these gals are doing better and that’s a shame.”

“Why would you think that?” JD asked, not liking Reed’s attitude.

“You may be too young to realize that women have a place and it not doing a man’s job,” Reed spoke to JD, as if he was talking to a twelve year old. “I’ll make you a bet that not one of the women last the whole three days.”

“How much?” he had Ezra’s attention.

“Fifty says they don’t it make past tomorrow.” Sam shot back.

“You sir, have a bet.” Ezra did not miss the mental daggers the women were throwing at Mr. Reed.

“What’s next, Chris?” Nathan changed the direction of the conversation quickly.

“A bungee jump is set up for us.” Chris did not like what he was hearing. In two minutes we will leave to hike ten miles to the jump and from there back to camp.” Keep an eye on him, Vin.

Tanner checked on every team member assuring himself they were okay. He saw Kelli and Katrina with their heads together. They are up to somethin’.

Chris nodded and got everyone moving. They made the ten miles easily and reached the final challenge. They rested for fifteen minutes, while he and Nathan checked on them all.

“I want to go first.” JD, hyped over the thought of making the jump was ready.

“You have my permission to jump for me, too.” Ezra offered.

“You can go for me.” Buck laughingly agreed with Standish but truthfully, he did not feel well.

“I’ll go first, a good leader will show the others how it’s done and be ready for anything.” Sam looked at Vin, when he said it.

“Tanner and I go last, after the others make it safely.” Chris sent Sam a look, that told him to back off.

They made the jumps and Larabee led them on the trek back to camp. Staying in the same pairs, they started back only moving slower.

“Tanner, you have known Larabee a long time, right?” Sam was fishing.

”Yep.” Vin maintained a brisk pace for Sam to keep up with.

“Maybe you can explain to me, why he puts up with such a lax unit. He has allowed most of them to get out of shape and even agreed to work with women.” Sam wanted to get a reaction.

“Ask him.” Tanner showed no outward reaction at all.

“Maybe I will.” He would have to think about it.

When they reached camp, it was time to start supper. Someone turned music on the radio and the others generally avoided Reed, except for the women. Pam made sure he got plenty to eat and Kelli spent time talking to him, giving Katrina a chance to place something in his sleeping bag

Larabee and Tanner watched with some amusement.

“What do you figure they are up to?” Chris was curious, but did not really want to know the details.

“Don’t know, but I don’t reckon I’d want to be him, right now.” Vin speculated and he was sure whatever it was, the female agents had planned, Sam was in for a hard time.

“I asked Nathan to update me on Buck, we may have to change up for tomorrow.” Chris informed.

“Hell, Bucklin will go out half dead before he let’s wonder boy get ahead of him.” Vin said referring to Sam.

Kelli walked over and sat next to Tanner, but directed her comments to Chris. “I know you put some thought into how you paired us up, but I have a request.” Chris’ nod indicated he was listening and she continued. “I want to work with Pam, she having a hard time and I think it would be less embarrassin’ for her with another woman.”

Larabee was sure there was more to the request. “Is that the only reason?” He queried and already knew she would not tell him.

“All I’m willin’ to share with the boss.” She smiled.

“I’ll let you know in the morning.” Chris was positive they were up to something and the less he knew the better.

Kellie got up to leave, but not before she trailed her fingers across Vin’s hand.

You gonna stop ‘em?


Chris went to check on Buck, while Tanner finished his coffee and smiled as he realized he was looking forward to seeing tomorrow’s events unfold.

Base Camp 4:00 a.m.

Tanner was watching the woman in the sleeping bag ten feet away. She was obviously not sleeping well, in fact, it was the sounds of her tossing and turning that woke him. Quietly she got to her feet and walked away from camp. Vin gave her five minutes and followed grabbing his jacket on the way. Must be the fact that most Texans spend a majority of the year dealing with hot weather, but the cold affected her, the same as it did him and it was much cooler this morning. He stood and just watched her for a few minutes making his presence known only when she began to shiver from the cold.

“Mornin’, Texas, trouble sleepin’?” He drawled, as he draped his jacket around her. Vin, seeing her first thing in the morning could be habit forming.

“Too much thinkin’ about the end of this trip, I guess.” She smiled and leaned against him, drawing his warmth as she felt his strong arms encircled her. It was only a few minutes of together time, but it was better than no time at all. Kel, you could get use to this.

He whispered gruffly, “Damn this trip.” Vin needed to change the direction of his thoughts before he gave his resignation to Chris and took off with her. Taking a deep breath, he tried to corral his impatience and asked instead. “You wanna share what you’re plannin’ today?”

Kelli was working on recovering her own composure. “Nope, the less you know the better.”

“Then why don’t we go start breakfast for this unruly bunch?” Tanner kissed her again and with a pat on her backside got her moving. That seemed to be the safest course of action.

+ + + + + + +

The smell of breakfast cooking woke the remaining members of the group. Then suddenly, Reed started cursing and drew everyone’s attention. “Sonofabitch, what in the hell is going on!” Sam yelled.

“Problem, Reed?” Chris walked over to check.

“Hell, I’ve got red welts all over and itch.” He said, as he scratched.

“Maybe Nathan should check you over. Are you allergic to anything?” Larabee called Nathan over. The medic was not sure what had caused the man’s discomfort, but did notice he was drinking a large amount of water. He had no known allergies and insisted he would be ready to go out today.

Tanner and Standish were standing together watching the antics play out before them. Neither was inclined to offer to assist the man who made no effort to hide his dislike for their family. Reed was not making any headway in ensuring himself a permanent place on the team, either.

Katrina approached Standish, “Ezra, what are the odds that Reed does not finish the day still on his feet?” she casually asked.

“I would, on no account, formulate a wager against a known certainty.” Ezra grinned.

Reed insisted he would not let a little thing like itching, keep him from carrying out his duties. “I’m made of tougher stuff than that and will never shirk my obligations.” Sam did make a point of looking at Wilmington, when he made this statement.

Wilmington insisted he was going out today. “I’ll keep close watch on Buck, don’t worry about him, Chris.” Nathan did not believe that there was anything too seriously wrong with Wilmington. He had just overdone the day before and should be fine, soon.

Larabee called the team together, to make some announcements. A few changes in pairing today: Buck/Nathan Katrina/ JD Kelli/Pam Ezra/Josiah. Somewhere over a twenty-five mile course are ten bags that look like this (Holds up a small bag). They could be anywhere and we will find them all before we come back. This exercise is to build physical endurance and powers of observation.

The course laid out was not an easy one. It alternately wound along the river and up through the rocks. Fifteen minutes into their trek, Pam, with a little help, found the first bag hidden in the rocks, one down nine to go.

“Good job, Walton.” Larabee said, “Glad you caught that one.”

When they came closer to the river, Standish found a second one, eight to go. Six miles out Tanner spotted a third, seven left. Reaching a rock formation, the trail became more difficult for most of the agents. The exception was Tanner, who Chris swore was half mountain goat. When faced with a rock wall Chris called a break, to rest before they had to climb.

“Could someone enlighten me, as to the importance of climbing a wall of rock in relation to fighting crime?” A frustrated Ezra inquired.

“It keeps your mind on edge.” JD laughed at his lame joke. “On edge, get it?”

“We got it son, we just don’t want it.” Josiah stated.

Nathan had his hands full, he knew Buck was tired, but refused to slow down. Sam was having stomach cramps and could not seem to quench his thirst. Jackson could not put his finger on what was wrong. He decided to consult with Chris, about how he wanted to handle it. He walked over to where Larabee and Tanner were reading maps. After Tanner heard Nathan’s concerns, he called Kelli over to join them. “You need to tell Nathan what’s wrong with him before he calls in a specialist.” Vin advised, with a thread of amusement in his voice.

“Well hell, nothin’ serious,” she sighed, “Okay, the welts are from a bristly plant Kat packed down in his sleepin’ bag. The thirst is from the extra salt mixed with a few herbs, Pam put in his food last night. Some wild herbs, I crushed up and slipped into his coffee, are causin’ the stomach cramps. All of ‘em are harmless, just a little uncomfortable to deal with.” She huffed, “Are you happy now?”

“Remind me to stay on the good side of you ladies.” Jackson answered warily.

Chris told Jackson to head back with Sam and Buck, so they could rest. Vin tried hard not to laugh and Nathan, while he admired the ladies’ ingenuity, was surprised he had not considered that possibility.

Coulter grabbed another bag she had spotted and slapped it into Larabee’s hands. “Six to go, can we move on now?” She heard them laughing behind her.

Larabee looked at the bag and then at Tanner who just shrugged his shoulders. The group pursued the trail and the next hour saw the discovery of three more bags. Larabee decided to break for lunch. He gave his team an hour to relax and rest before the next twelve miles.

“Hey Chris, if we find the rest of this stuff before we hit the end of the course do we get free time?” JD inquired.

“Excellent suggestion, Mr. Dunne, perhaps even a soirée into the next patch of civilization.” Ezra replied.

“JD, if we finish quickly, yes, you can have the time.” Chris conceded.

The agents rushed through lunch and got back to business, finding the last items in record time. As promised Larabee herded them back to camp, leaving them free for the remainder of the day.

“Are you going to join us in town?” Josiah walked up and asked Coulter. “Some of us are having dinner in a real restaurant and you are welcome to come along.”

“I think I’ll stay around camp and enjoy the quiet.” Kelli responded, “Thanks for askin’.”

“When Sanchez pulled out in Chris’ truck, five people remained in camp, Larabee, Tanner, Coulter, Wilmington and Reed. Sitting around the campfire after their meals, various conversations took place.

“I think I must have caught a bug from my kids, think I’ll turn in.” Sam moved to the far side of the camp and rolled up in his sleeping bag.

“Bug, right,” Buck grinned. “Think he’ll figure it out?”

“Why are you lookin’ at me?” Kelli felt three set of eyes look in her direction.

“Think I will arrange transportation and send him home in the morning.” Chris commented. “Maybe Katrina and Pam could go to keep him…company.” Katrina was a medic and Pam had had about all the outdoor fun, he thought she could stand.

You okay with that, Cowboy?

Yeah, I know what I need to now,

He wants your job.

At the very least, he wants yours.

He got what he deserved, today.

Yeah, Tanner, he did at that.

“Will you two stop that?” Buck was aggravated, “Talk where we all know what you’re saying or don’t talk at all.”

“Did I miss somethin’?” Kelli looked at Larabee and Tanner and they both shrugged their shoulders.

“Nothin’ important, don’t worry about it.” Vin laughed and after assuring himself Sam was asleep, moved to sit next to her. There was no sense giving the man more ammunition to use just yet.”

“Chris, I have to ask you about something.” Buck gave Chris a wink. “Maybe you could help me with a problem.”

They walked a little away from the camp before Larabee stopped and faced his oldest friend. “Buck, I know you, you’re up to something.” Chris waited for an explanation. “Are you feeling worse?”

“Thanks for being concerned, but I actually feel much better,” Buck explained. “I just thought the kids might appreciate some time alone.” He tilted his head in the direction of the camp.

“Leave it to you to think about that.” Chris grinned, “They haven’t been able to exchange more than a few words all day.” Watching them, today, had convinced Larabee they would be able to work together, effectively. It may not always be easy, but they would make it work.

“Well then Christopher, how about a walk?” Buck saw him nod in agreement.

+ + + + + + +

“You did a good job helpin’ Pam today. She’s a little more confident about her place on the team.” Vin commented, watching the reflection of firelight dance in her eyes.

“She has been a help to me with some computer programs. It’s only fair that I help her out here.” Kelli knew what it felt like to feel like you did not belong.

“How are you holdin’ up?” Vin laced his finger through hers as he spoke. He wanted to do much more, but this was not the time or place.

“I guess that depends on what you are referrin’ to.” She heaved a sigh, “With the exercises, great, I love being outdoors. If you are talkin’ about us, I have discovered I do not have near the patience you seem to.” Face it, Kel, you ran out of patience yesterday.

“It’s only one more day, Texas.” Vin was pleased to hear her admission. “When we get home I have somethin’ special planned, just for you.” Your patience is just about gone, Tanner.

“If you tell me what it is, it might make the waitin’ easier.” Kelli was already sure he would not tell her. She had discovered that Vin liked surprises and was disciplined enough to hold his secret.

“Nope, you’re just gonna have to wait and find out.” Vin risked a quick kiss. “I will promise that you won’t be disappointed.”

“I never believed otherwise, Tanner,” She leaned against him and sighed. “I hope your surprise is close to home, I don’t think I could wait out another long trip.”

“Close enough.” The most they could do here, was to hold hands. Tanner did seize another kiss when he walked with her to her sleeping bag. “Goodnight Texas.”

Vin made sure to catch Wilmington before he went to bed. “Thanks, Bucklin.”

“You’re welcome, Vin.”

A few hours later Chris’ truck pulled in and everyone piled out. They busied themselves hauling out sleeping bags and then turned in for a short night of sleep.

6:00 a.m.

A cool front moved through during the night leaving the air clean and crisp. Larabee and Tanner were the first to stir and soon had coffee making and breakfast started. Chris knew his wayward agents did not get back to camp until late. However, that did not stop him from banging two pots together and shouting for them to get up.

“Rise and shine boys. It’s time to get started!” Chris laughed, hearing the moans and groans from assorted areas of the camp. “Get your butts moving, NOW!”

“Gawwd, what time is it?” Ezra groaned.

“Good Morning, Brothers.” Josiah said cheerfully.

“I’m going to check on my patients,” Nathan said as he grabbed his cup.

JD covered his head with his blanket and moaned, “Please, not so loud.” Katrina and Pam started to move around and although Kelli was up, she had not left her sleeping bag. She kept it wrapped around her for warmth as she came to stand next to Vin. Chris watched Tanner hand her a cup of coffee and smiled at the site of his brother being so domestic.

“Mornin’, Texas.” Vin smiled and gave her the cup, “If we didn’t have an audience, I’d offer you somethin’ better.”

“Thanks, for the coffee, but I’d rather have you keep me warm.” She answered in a husky voice.

“Keep talkin’ like that and I won’t be responsible for what happens.” Vin said gruffly, feeling a rush of desire when Kelli said she wanted him and he suddenly wished they were somewhere else.

“Is that supposed to be a threat or a promise?” She laughed first but seeing’ that’ look she finally relented. “Okay, Tanner, this time you win and I will try to behave.”

Vin shook his head, seeing the sparkle in her eyes. Tanner, your days as a single man are numbered. They finished their coffee in silence and then she left to join the other women. The sharpshooter enjoyed the view as she walked across the camp.

+ + + + + + +

Thirty minutes later Chris had Sam on his way home with Katrina and Pam as escorts. He had everyone else break camp and get the trucks packed. Nathan gave him a report on Buck’s condition.” He is much better and should be okay for today.”

Larabee gathered them all together. “Boys and girl, we are on the final leg of this exercise and Nathan and Buck will be joining us. Today we hit a thirty-mile course, the purpose is to test your physical endurance and teamwork. It will not be easy, but remember at the end of the day we go home. Gather your gear, we are leaving in five minutes.”

They had been out for two hours when Chris called a break. “We are hitting some rough country and I do not want any of you to overdo it and that is an order.” He gave the agents twenty minutes to rest.

“Chris, are you sure we need all this ‘training’?” A tired JD asked.

“If you think this is hard, wait until that baby gets here.” Chris grinned, “Keeping up with an infant will make this seem like a walk in the park.”

“You got that right!” Buck laughed, “Still can’t see JD as a Dad yet though.”

“I would say Nathan and JD both have a lot to learn.” Josiah flashed a smile. “You don’t know tired until you spend a few all-nighters with an infant.”

“Alright, let’s get moving we have a long way to go.” Chris clapped his hands to urge them on. The sooner they started, the sooner they could all go home.

“Oh joy.” Ezra mumbled.

“What was that, Standish?” Chris asked

“I said oh boy can’t wait.” Ezra answered with a mock salute.

Twenty minutes later, Larabee faced a rock wall that offered a steep path to the top. Taking no chances, he had Tanner check it out first. “Piece of cake,” Tanner yelled from the top.

Larabee made the climb to the top to help Tanner guide the rest of them up the path. Josiah and Nathan made it next. Buck and Ezra slowly followed them. That left JD and Kelli to finish.

“Okay, use your ropes and go exactly the way the others did.” Chris called down. JD started, Kelli went last. They had made it one third of the way when JD slipped on a loose rock, he reached out to gain his balance and only came up with a handful of air. When he started to fall, Kelli tried to stop him, but failed as JD crashed into her. The rope lifeline slipped from her grasp. Gravity took over and they both tumbled to the ground hitting the rocks, on the way. Above, the men watched, Tanner was in motion the second he saw JD slip. Fear gripped his heart and urged him to move faster. He was half way down the wall, before either of them hit the ground. Larabee and Jackson were right behind him and Wilmington followed

“Don’t move anyone, until I can check them!” Nathan shouted, as he saw Larabee and Tanner hit the ground and move to the injured agents.

Tanner reached Kelli first, grateful to find her conscious, he lightly ran his hand over her body looking for breaks and determining her injuries. When she tried to move she cried out in pain and Vin tried to calm her. “Don’t move Kel just stay still, ‘m here with you and ‘m not goin’ anywhere.”

Buck and Nathan reached the injured at the same time. Larabee stopped JD from getting to his feet, wanting to make sure he remained down. “Examine Kelli first. I think the kid’s banged up good and maybe has a broken arm, but in fair shape otherwise, she evidently broke his fall.” Chris told Nathan.

Josiah and Ezra were there to assist in any way possible. Nathan had them contact base declaring a medical emergency. Nathan gave instructions as he listened to Vin recite his findings. “Her shoulder took the hardest part of the fall, I couldn’t find any broken bones, but there are numerous cuts and maybe a bruised rib or two.” Tanner had not missed much in his examination. The Texan did intervene when she started to move again. “Kel, you already scared ten years off my life, let Nate check you.” The medic examined her, taped her ribs as a precaution and bandaged a cut across her shoulder. He was almost sure she had a shoulder separation, but could do nothing except immobilized her arm.

Jackson quickly checked on JD and found he did have a broken arm and numerous small cut and abrasions. He quickly had the worse of them cleaned and covered and a splint in place for his arm. “As soon as the EMS gets here with some backboards, we’ll move them back to base and from there to the hospital.” Nathan saw the look that passed between Chris and Vin and continued, “It’s just a precaution and they should both be fine.”

Three hours later at base camp Vin threw Buck his keys and climbed into the ambulance with Chris Kelli and JD. Dunne kept trying to apologize, thinking it was his fault for not paying closer attention. “Not your fault JD, not anyone’s fault, just is.” Larabee tried to reassure him.


The nurse threatened to throw him out and the doctor tried using intimidation, but Tanner stood his ground. He was not leaving Kelli alone especially when the doctor said he was admitting her. The doctor confirmed a shoulder separation and it was immobilized. He wanted to put her under observation for twenty-four hours in case of a concussion.

“Vin I don’t want to stay here, please, take me home.” Her eyes pleaded with tears threatening.

“Kel…” Vin started to argue but then thought about a scared child being forced to spend months alone in a hospital in Texas, looking around he could understand why she did not want to stay. The threat of tears, however, was his undoing. “Okay, but you will do everythin’ I tell you, no arguments.” Signs of concussion I know about. The doctor did argue, but he was no match for Tanner. He had her checked out, with a list of instructions and prescriptions in his hands, in twenty minutes.

In the waiting room, Nathan had just finished talking to JD’s doctor when Wilmington walked back in. “Buck, did you get JD to settle down?” Nathan rejoined them. “The doctor told me he was being difficult and refusing to stay.”

“His arm is in a cast, but they want to keep him for observation, just in case. I told him that Kelli was staying and he might as well stay in a bed, since we had to be here for her too.” Buck reported, “They are getting a room ready now.”

“He is staying and I’m sure Vin is getting Kelli settled in now.” Chris was confident of that but his old fears threatened to rise to the surface. His family was hurting and there was no way for him to control it. “If I know Vin, he will insist on at least a three day stay,” Larabee managed a smile, accepting a cup of coffee from Josiah. ” We all know how protective he is about people that he cares for. I would say, he cares a lot about Agent Coulter.”

“That I believe is an understatement.” Ezra laughed. “Rest assured, the young lady will not defy the doctor’s orders with our stubborn brother on watch.” Relief spread around the room as they all realized it could have been much worse.

+ + + + + + +

Vin helped Kelli dress and gave her a rundown on JD. “His arm is broken and he’s bruised up, but he seems to have missed havin’ any worse injuries.” Now though, she wanted to get out this exam room, find JD and make sure he knew she did not blame him and that it was just an accident. They made their way to the waiting room to find the others.

“What are you doing out of bed?” Nathan shouted when he spotted them.

“We’re lookin’ for you.” Tanner answered. “Kel wanted to see and talk with JD, before we leave.”

“Leave? Just where the hell are you going?” Chris snapped. “Have you lost your mind?”

“Yes, home and no, damn you ask a lot of questions, so do you know where he is or not?” The exasperated Texan huffed.

“Kelli, you are not leaving this hospital,” Chris ordered. “The doctor said you had to stay.”

“Already done, Cowboy, it’s Tanner one, doctor zero. We are gonna see JD and then I’m takin’ her home with or without your blessin’,” Vin challenged.

“Allow me to show you the way.” Ezra decided an intervention was in order.

When they arrived at the room JD was waiting in, they were not alone. The other brothers did not intend to miss the fireworks. Tanner and Larabee seldom squared off against one another, but when they did, it was entertaining.

“What are you doing here? I thought Buck said you had to stay.” JD looked at Buck who just shrugged his shoulder.

“Vin’s takin’ me home but I needed to see you first.” Kelli explained tiredly. “I wanted you to know, I don’t think this was your fault. It was an accident plain and simple.”

“I appreciate you telling me that, it helps. However, I only agreed to stay because someone told me you had to stay too.” JD was already getting off the table. “If you’re going home, so am I.”

“She is staying and so are you!” Chris cut his eyes to Vin. “Anyone with any sense can see you two belong in a hospital!” The glare he sent out was full of fire.

“Lar’bee...don’t go there!” Vin sent his own blue glare in Chris’ direction. “We are goin’ home!”

Five brothers stood aside and grinned, Ezra was taking bets on the winner. He favored Vin, but Nathan had confidence in Chris. Buck placed his money on Tanner. Josiah knew better, the outcome was already clear. “Brother Buck, we best decide on who is driving home. I have a feeling we will be leaving soon.” Josiah laughed.

“JD, ‘m takin’ Kel out of here, you want a ride, we’ll wait for you.” Tanner knew Kelli was fading fast and decided to end the argument.

“I’ll drive so you can keep a watch on her,” Buck offered. “Ezra can navigate and JD will be more comfortable stretched out in the back seat of Chris’ truck.” Chris knew he had lost this round when Buck gave him a gentle reminder. “Try to remember brother, if it had been Sarah, you would not have backed down either.”

Vin sat in the back seat and Kelli leaned against him. It might be a few hours until they reached home, but she could think of no better place to be. “This is ‘bout right. I finally get you in the back seat of my truck and there ain’t a damn thing we can do that wouldn’t hurt you,” Vin whispered to her. Judging from the sounds of amusement coming from the front seat, Buck and Ezra heard him too.

“Don’t make me laugh, it hurts.” Kelli whispered back.

“Son, with that shoulder injury of hers, all I can say is I hope you like cold showers for at least a couple of weeks.” Buck smiled. With Buck’s words, realization hit them both at the same time.

“Damn!” Kelli and Vin said in unison.


For once, morning came too early for Vin Tanner. He spent the night sitting in a chair, watching Kelli try to sleep through her pain in his bed. Realizing he could not take it away, he did everything possible to ease the hurt. Sometime during the night, he came to terms with the fear he felt when for a few minutes yesterday, he thought he might have lost her. That fear had transformed into an overwhelming need to have her in his life. Vin was content, just sitting here listening to her breath. She belonged with him and he was prepared to convince her to stay. All too soon, it was time to tend the horses and he knew he needed to get moving. Satisfied that she would sleep after taking her pain medication, he left to take care of the morning chores. He sensed Larabee was there before he saw him enter the barn.

“Morning Vin, how is Kelli doing?” Chris was hesitant, not sure, Tanner was ready to talk to him yet.

“She’s sleepin’. You heard anythin’ about JD?” Vin was concerned about the younger man.

“Not this morning, but Nathan was going over early to check on him.” Chris continued, “Nate said he would be here after that to look in on Kelli too.” He saw Tanner nod in agreement.

“Look, Vin, you know better than most that I can be a bastard at times. I cannot fault you for being protective of the woman you care for. I was the same way with Sarah and it seems I just forgot what it was like to care that much.” Chris made an effort to sooth things between them.

“Maybe you’ll get another chance to remember, Cowboy.” Vin accepted Larabee’s’ offering. “And I do know you can be a bastard, but I think I’ll keep you around anyway.” In their usual companionable silence, they finished the chores quickly and walked outside. Buck had just arrived with Inez and the girls. The babies sought out their Uncles. Sarah was delighted when Chris picked her up and Maria giggled as Vin lifted her up in the air.

“What brings you two out so early?” Chris asked as little Sarah checked out his pockets.

“We talked about it and thought today would be a good day for the family to be together. Casey will bring JD over later and Josiah said Mallory needed to get out of the house. Rain will be out as soon as her shift is over and Ezra is picking some things up in town for us. You do not have to do a thing we have it all covered. It’s just…well…we just need to be together.” Buck finished his explanation.

“I understand and think you’re right.” Chris knew how suddenly life could change. They were lucky yesterday and everyone knew it.

“Vin, I made some soup for Kelli and you make sure she eats it.” Inez handed it to him in exchange for a squirming Maria. “I will be over later to see her.”

“Thanks Inez.” Vin was appreciative of more than the soup. Inez was telling him that they accepted that Kelli was important to him and for that reason to them.

Inez took both girls inside to begin preparations for the day. Before he followed his wife, Buck gave Chris a rundown of his phone calls. “Katrina is coming by later to bring some clothes and things for Kelli. Pam is out of town for the weekend and Reed said he was recuperating from a twenty-four hour bug. When I told him about the accident, he just said he was not surprised, dismissed it and said he would be in on Monday. Buck finished and then went inside. Chris remained outside with Vin.

“What did Linda say when you told her what happened?” Vin thought to ask.

“I haven’t told her yet.” Chris answered just realizing he should already have called her.

Not good


Vin left to check on Kelli and Chris reached for his cell phone. He gave Linda a basic report on the accident. Linda said she would be on the next flight out and would take Kelli to her ranch to recuperate. Chris agreed to pick her up at the airport after she let him know the time. Now all he had to do was tell Tanner, that Linda was planning to take Kelli to her home. Later, Larabee, tell him later.

Tanner heard the water running in the bathroom and knowing Kellie was up, put the soup in the kitchen and went to investigate. He waited, leaning on the doorframe for her to come out. “You okay, Texas?” He asked through the door.

“Depends on your definition of okay,” she tried to laugh as she opened the door. The bruises were starting to show color and she had been unable to brush her hair as she usually did, with only one hand. Thanks to the pain medication she was able to move, though slowly.

“You should have waited for me to help you.” Vin reached out to steady her, but wasn’t sure how to hold her without it hurting.

“Trust me, you’re not gonna make it worse and with the meds you gave me, ‘m feelin’ no pain at the moment.” Vin led her to his favorite rocking chair and assisted her in joining him. Once he had a comfortable hold on her she continued, “I’m sorry you got stuck takin’ care of me, Lord, I took your bed and probably kept you up all night.”

“First of all, I want to take care of you, second, I gave you my bed you didn’t take it and third… I want you to keep it, you belong there.” Vin watched for her reaction, “Stay with me Kel, I want to share it with you... not just til you’re well either.”

“Vin, are you sure?” She realized her heart was racing and tried to slow it down, by thought alone.

“Hell, that’s not the way I meant to say it, but yes, I’m sure. For now, just to be close and to hold you. Later, after you mend, I want to make love with you and God willin’, babies.” He gathered his courage before he spoke his next words. “There are three things I value more than anythin’, one is my name and the others are love and family. I want to give you all of that.”

Sitting with him, black and blue from bruises, her hair in disarray and her arm in a sling, she could not believe this man still wanted her in his life. For a woman who seldom cried, Kelli found more tears than she thought was possible for one person to have. In fact, she had cried more since she met Vin than she had in the last fifteen years combined. She only managed to nod her head since her voice refused to cooperate.

“I reckon, I’ll take that as a yes,” Vin was relieved. He had planned this differently, but found he could not stop once he got started. Tanner knew this was right for him and right for her, they belonged together. He was content just holding her until her pain returned. “Now, you are going to rest and I’ll heat up the soup Inez sent.” He kissed her first and then helped her to bed. He knew his life was about to change considerably, but he was looking forward to every minute of it.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan arrived and went to the main house to report that JD was doing fine and to find his other patient. He found Chris and Buck instead. They told him where to find her. “I thought Vin made a practice of not having female company here at the ranch.” Nathan commented, “In fact, I remember him telling me that not long ago.”

“Guess he decided to make an exception,” answered Chris. “Linda will be here tonight though and plans to take Kelli home with her.

“I wouldn’t bet on that stud.” Buck spoke directly to Chris, “She might just have a fight on her hands.”

“You don’t know Linda once she makes her mind up, I don’t think even Kelli can change it.” Chris smiled when he thought about seeing Linda again.

“No, I don’t, but I do know Vin and trust me, brother, he is not going to allow it to happen.” Buck grinned thinking about it.

“Regardless of where she is going, she is here now and I want to check on her.” Nathan said as he headed out the door.

Nathan went to Tanner’s place to examine Kelli and was satisfied the pills, the Doctor prescribed for inflammation, were helping. He recommended a doctor in Denver for her to see on Monday, having already set her an appointment and then warned her not to place any strain on that shoulder, unless she was willing to risk permanent damage. The Texan walked him out.

“I hope you know, she shouldn’t engage in any extracurricular actives for a while. Speaking of which, I do trust you two are practicing safe sex.” Nathan was very serious and could not understand Tanner's outburst of laughter.

“Trust me, Nate, couldn’t be safer.” Vin smiled and kept the explanation to himself.

As promised, Inez went to see Kelli, followed by Rain, Casey and then Katrina. Vin started to think his quiet home had been renamed Grand Central Station. He began to re-think the wisdom of telling the family their news, just yet. Once they knew, any chance of time alone with Kelli would be over. Seeing an opportunity to discuss it with her, he shared his thoughts and she agreed they should wait a while to tell the others. Together they slowly walked over to the gathering at the main house.

“About time you two decided to join us,” Buck placed his hand on Vin’s shoulder and lowered his voice. “I’ll try to run some interference for you, but you know you have given them reason to speculate about your actions.”

“Appreciate it, Buck.” Vin loved them all, but he knew them well enough to know they could be overwhelming at times. “Don’t plan to stay long.”

The kids entertained the adults and the women talked about babies. With three pregnant wives in the bunch, it soon became an enlightening round of discussion. “I can’t wait for the next fives week to pass, seems like I have been pregnant forever.” Mallory sighed.

“Just think, Rain and Casey have this to look forward to.” Inez smiled, “You will love every minute of it, but be oh so thankful when it over,”

“Kelli, do you like kids?” Casey asked. She had been designated by the other women to find out what she could about Kelli and Vin.

“What...yeah I like kids….” She saw Vin watching her and was amazed that he could stir the fires of her passion so quickly, with one look. Remembering his loving caress and the pleasure she gained from touching him, only increased her desire. She was not paying attention to the conversation around her. Casey’s next question, however, did get her attention.

“You and Vin are practicing safe sex, aren’t you?” Casey was fishing, but the question did bring Kelli back from her fantasy. She was saved from having to come up with an answer when Vin rescued her, telling the ladies it was time for her medication. She passed him an appreciative look.

As they started home, Chris stopped them to say he was leaving to pick Linda up at the airport. “She plans on you being ready to go home with her, Kelli.” Chris informed her, “I’m picking her up in an hour.”

“Take her home Cowboy, she can visit tomorrow,” Vin answered. “Kelli’s on her way to bed and Grand Central is closin’ for the night.”

Chris watched them walk away and shook his head. Things would definitely get interesting tomorrow. Then he had to smile, one more hour and Linda would be here.

+ + + + + + +

Vin got Kelli in the door and locked it behind him. It was the first time he could remember locking it this early, but he had seen enough family today. He was not going to share the rest of the night with them. Focusing his attention on the woman beside him, he drew her close and walked her to the bedroom.

“You, Texas, are gonna take your medicine and go to bed to sleep.” After making her comfortable and kissing her good night, he started to leave.

“Where are you going?” Kelli expected him to stay, “I thought we were supposed to share.”

“I’ll be in later, but right now I have a date with a cold shower.” Vin heard her gentle laughter as he closed the bathroom door. Gonna be a long two weeks, Tanner, get use to it.

+ + + + + + +

Chris had no problem spotting his lovely blond as she walked though the gate. Her plane was on time and so was he. He welcomed her home with a kiss, which let her know he had missed her. As they waited for her luggage, he filled her in on the details about the accident.

“Well of course, I am taking her home, she can’t stay in your guestroom when you go back to work and I have plenty of room.” Linda had assumed Kelli was at Larabee’s home.

“Actually, she’s not in my guestroom, she’s with Vin.” Chris explained as they made their way to his truck. “He insisted she stay there and she accepted.”

“I won’t let him take advantage of her when she’s hurt. He can just wait until she’s better to see her.” Linda was adamant. I said misbehave, girl, not go off the deep end.

“Either way, she’s already asleep tonight and we can work it out in the morning.” Chris changed the subject as they got in his truck. “I have missed you.”

Pulling her close, he kissed her, starting with her sensual mouth, exploring with his tongue and sucking on her lips as he moved his attention to a downward path. Alternately nipping tender flesh with his teeth and raining kisses on her beautiful neck. A car engine coming to life close by, had Chris grudgingly withdraw from her heated passion. Slowly, they both came back to reality. When Chris knew he could make a coherent sound he whispered to her.

“Welcome home”


The more you need morning coffee the longer it takes to make. There must be an unwritten law somewhere that dictates that. Tanner needed his coffee and so much more, but he would settle for the hot brew. He waited until Kelli was asleep before he joined her in what he used to think was a big bed. It was not big enough to keep him away from her during long night. Finally, he quit trying to fight the inevitable, rolled on her side on the bed and held her close for the rest of the night. It was heaven to wrap his arms around her and know she was staying with him, but hell, knowing that he could not make love to her without hurting her. Vin already knew he would wait no matter how difficult it was, because they deserved their first time together to be special. He knew it was not going to be easy, but then nothing worthwhile ever was.

Just as the coffee was ready, he heard Kelli cry out and rushed to check on her. What he found was not what he expected. Evidently, she had decided to change clothes using only one hand and without completely removing the sling on her arm. The oversized jersey monster had her trapped in its grasps. A rescue was definitely in order, if Vin could stop laughing long enough to help.

“Very funny, Tanner, a little help here would be appreciated.” Kelli failed to see the humor, he apparently did.

“Alright, Texas, but first, are we puttin’ on or takin’ off?” He tried to be serious, but could not quite get there.

“Either…both…I don’t care! Just do somethin’.” She was by now desperate to get free of this imprisonment.

Vin had her untangled before she could say another word. Liberating her from the jersey, he realized how little else she was wearing. He retrieved one of his shirts that did not have to go over her head, but buttoned instead. In short order he had it on her and her arm immobilized again. The only mistake he made was to make contact with her eyes and see a mirror image of his own desire. Without any hesitation, he drew her to him and instead of quenching that desire magnified it into a raging inferno of passion with only a touch. One hand sliding around her waist to bring her closer, the other lovingly protected her injured shoulder. One more kiss was all he could allow to satisfy their hunger before calling a retreat. They may be forced into a waiting period, but Vin refused to deny them the pleasure of being intimate. He also knew that for now, Kelli would follow his lead, trusting him to guide both of them safely through this tempest.

A knock on the door indicated it was time to open Grand Central, again. Nathan and Rain waited for Tanner to answer and invite them in. Nathan examined Kelli quickly and then Rain took over. “Gentlemen, it’s time for you to depart for a while.” Rain instructed, “The lady is due for having her hair washed and a decent shower, come back in an hour or so.” Rain had brought the necessary items to accomplish this task. Quickly, Rain had the injury covered and Kelli in the shower and even changed the bed sheets while she waited. Once Rain helped her wash her hair, it was dried and brushed. Kelli dressed and felt like a new person.

“Thanks Rain, I feel better already.” Kelli did appreciate the help. She knew Vin would have done it, but it would not have been easy for either of them.

“You are very welcome.” They joined the men and before the Jacksons left, Rain made one more offer. “Kelli, I know Vin has to work tomorrow, so I’ll be here at ten to take you to the doctor. By the time we are finished these two can treat us to lunch.”

“You have a deal.” Kelli accepted and the men quickly agreed.

+ + + + + + +

Chris sat in his study staring at the same piece of paper he had been trying to read for thirty minutes. He should have been reviewing the files on the new team members due in next week. Instead, he was thinking about his conflicting wants and needs. He knew, without a doubt, he wanted Linda and all her sexy body had to offer. Just the thought of her sensual curves had him aroused. He wanted someone permanent in his life, to share with her the things a man only shared with the woman he loved. That was something he had missed since Sarah was gone, but never realized it, until now. The doubts he held now only surfaced since Friday’s accident and he needed to get past his doubts. Would he ever be able to control his fear of losing more family? He needed to reconcile his emotions and reservations before he moved any further into a new relationship. The only question he had now, was how?

“You gonna sit there all day and brood?” Vin asked, leaning on the doorframe. “Linda called and is on her way over to see Kel. I thought you might want to know.”

“How do you do it, Vin? Chris asked, “How do you deal with the doubts and make it appear so damn easy to start changing your life?”

Vin thought for a moment, reading the real question in Chris’ eyes. “For a few minutes, I thought I might have lost Kel before we ever had the chance to share the kind of love and life you and Sarah had together. I could no more control that rock shiftin’ than I can control the next sunrise and knowin’ that scares the hell out of me. However, I am grateful we still have that chance and intend to take every second of the time given to us, to make as many memories as we can. Because as sure as I’m standin’ here, there will come a day one of us will die, leavin’ the other to go on alone. The memories we make will have to sustain the one left behind.” Vin stopped and reckoned Chris would work the rest out on his own.

Chris sat deep in thought about the words Vin had shared and was a little amazed the Texan said so many of them. Then he shifted his focus to the time, realizing Linda should just about be here. He put the files away and went out to meet her.

Vin met Ezra in the middle of the yard. Standish had dropped by to check on Kelli and had just left Tanner’s place. “It is my wish to extend an offer of my services, should you required supplementary provisions for your care of Miss Coulter.” Ezra stated.

“Thanks, Ez, appreciate the offer but I think we have what we need.” Vin had long ago learned to decode Ezra’s words. What I need is a traffic light at my front door.

“Should you find out otherwise, you need only ask.” Ezra offered as Josiah and Mallory drove up.

“Afternoon brothers, beautiful day.” Josiah held Joanne, who was already reaching for her Uncle Ezra and Mallory went straight to Tanner’s place. Vin just smiled and shook his head. Chris joined them, watching for Linda as he saw Joanne take a leap to Ezra’s waiting arms. He listened as Josiah explained how restless Mallory was waiting for the baby to come. Larabee drifted into fantasy, thinking about the woman who was fast taking over his thoughts full-time. He thought about how it would it would feel touching her and making love all afternoon and into the night, with no interruptions. …

“Chris… Lar’bee...Are you listening?” Vin was trying to get his attention.

“What?” When did Mallory get here and where were the others going?

Vin gave Larabee an indulgent look and just smiled. “They’re going inside to find some leftovers from yesterday and Linda is coming up the drive.”

You with me, Cowboy?

I am now.

Linda exited her truck and came to stand beside Chris and then he gave her a warm kiss hello. Tanner stood with his arms crossed, waiting for her to say something. When she did not, Chris resigned himself to playing referee. Without a word, Vin led the way to his place. When they went inside, Kelli was nowhere in sight. “Lar’bee, you know where everythin’ is, get what you want.” The Texan headed for the bedroom where he knew his redhead was. He found her, curled up in the rocker they had shared yesterday. Vin hated to disturb her, but thought it best to get this over.

“I’m not asleep, just restin’ a little. Linda made it over, I assume.” Kelli opened her eyes and took in the sight before her. She loved to run her fingers through his long hair, his voice.... she could listen to all day and his eyes spoke more with one look, than some people said in a lifetime. His extraordinary body and catlike movements could keep her busy watching him all day.

“Chris too, but say the word, Kel and I’ll tell ‘em to go away.” Vin reached to help her up, wrapped his arms around her and drew her to him, he was concerned about the pained look in her eyes. “Are you sure you’re up to this now?” He felt her head shake affirmatively. “Alright, but pills first, Linda can wait a bit.”

Vin led her to the couch, sat next to her and held her close to him. Prepared for a long discussion he was surprised when Kelli started first. “Linda, don’t say anythin’, just let me talk, it looks worse than it is and is nothin’ life threatenin’. I will be good as new in a couple of weeks. Just so you know, I am not goin’ home with you, although, I do appreciate your offer. Furthermore, let me save some energy by answerin’ all your questions now. Yes, I am sure. No, I have not lost my mind. Yes, I know what I am doing. Yes, I know it's only been three weeks. No, I am not gonna reconsider. I am stayin’ and you better get used to it, because I happen to love this man and plan to spend the rest of my life with him.” Kelli knew her friend’s thoughts, too well.

“In case, you missed any part of that, we’re gonna marry soon and she’s stayin’ here.” Vin looked at Chris and read the approval in his eyes.

Make some good memories.

Plan to, Cowboy.

“Kelli, welcome to the family or the group, I fondly think of as the ‘wild bunch’. I‘ll try to make them all behave until you get to know them better, but I will not make any promises.” Chris was pleased by Vin’s choice and wanted them both to know it.

Linda was silent for a minute before speaking. “If you’re happy, my friend, then you know, I am happy for you.” Linda watched her ‘little sister’, but spoke to Tanner. “Vin is a fortunate man and if he ever forgets that, I’ll make sure he gets reminded.” She saw something in Kelli’s eyes, which she had never seen before and realized it was peace. She was finally letting go of the past and Vin was the man responsible for that.

“Tanner, I think your lady needs to rest, we’ll talk more later.” Chris saw how tired Kelli was, took Linda’s hand and walked her outside. The more Larabee thought about talking to Linda the less he wanted to do it. This was not the time or the place to do this. She might run the opposite direction, if she knew how much extra baggage he carried. Chris was not prepared for that possibility and was having a helluva argument with himself, when he realized Linda was speaking to him. Larabee you need to focus.

“Chris, I have two mares overdue to foal and need to see about them.” Linda hated to leave, but knew she had to. “Can you forgive me for going so soon?” God, does he know the effect he has on me?

“Only if you spend tomorrow evening with me, I’ll take off early and pick you up at four. There’s somewhere special I want to take you.” Chris knew he had received a reprieve and now had time to plan and make it right. You have to make it right, Larabee. Fail and you lose too much.

Chris wrapped his arms around her and gave her a kiss full of promise and hope. The best he could do, standing in the middle of the yard, with so much family in residence. As she left, he began to make plans for tomorrow. A day, which could change the course of his life


Another hour and the sun would make its way over the mountain to grace another day. Kelli had slept for twelve hours and felt rested and refreshed. She slipped out of the bed quietly, taking care not to disturb Vin. She knew he had not slept that long and he had to work today. There was no sense waking him until necessary. A quick trip to the bathroom and she headed to the kitchen to start the coffee.

He knew the exact moment she woke, heard the change in her breathing and as she slipped out of bed, he felt the loss of her warm body. Watching her cross the room, Vin appreciated the graceful way she moved. He loved the color of her hair, strands of lighter red highlighting the darker wine-red tresses, which flowed across her shoulders. Tanner knew sleeping in the same bed was not the smartest move, given the circumstances, but that was one pleasure he was unwilling to relinquish. When she left the room instead of coming back to bed, there was no reason for him to stay there either. After a few minutes, he followed her into the kitchen. “You are supposed to rest not work.” The Texan walked up behind her and kissed the back of her neck. “It’s gonna be a long day for you seeing the doctor and all.”

“Don’t forget the lunch you owe me, afterward.” Kelli turned to face him and any thought of speech, forgotten. He was wearing only sweatpants and the beauty of his body astounded her. Tanner, you are going to be the death of me yet.

Vin savored the moment, her reaction and the flash of desire in her eyes was another image he would file in his memory. He gathered her in his arms and very thoroughly kissed her, until he felt himself begin to lose control. Kissing her brow, he decided retreat was the wisest course of action. In a gruff whisper she heard his parting remark. “I owe you more than lunch, but you’ll have to wait to collect.” Forty-five minutes later, he was on his way to the office.

MCAT Office

No matter how unique this unit was, one thing remained the same. The government’s love of paper, it showed in the stacks of files the agents still had to worked through and study. There were so many, it was a good thing they had another three weeks before their first official assignment. The only one to escape the drudgery was Standish because Larabee had sent him on a special errand.

“Conference room, five minutes.” Chris entered the office like a whirlwind, issuing the order as he briskly made his way across the room. Larabee had been in a meeting with Travis for the last hour and no doubt had more instructions for the team. Chris passed by his office and instead went to Tanner’s. Vin was on the phone when Larabee knocked and he entered without waiting for an invitation. He overheard the tail end of the conversation.

“Yeah, Fed-Ex will be fine, thanks, I owe you one. Next time I’m in Texas, I’ll buy you lunch.” Vin hung up the phone and faced Chris.

“Lunch in Texas? Better be with a male or a certain redhead might have something to say about it,” Chris teased.

“It is. Tired of your office already, Lar’bee?” Vin changed the subject.

“I talked to Travis. Since MCAT is an independent unit and answers only to him, he has the authority to set his own policies. You and Kelli can still work in the same unit as long as it does not create a problem with your supervisor, in this case me. You are both professionals and I do not foresee any difficulties, but if you find out it’s too much, let me know.” Orrin did say he expected an invitation to the wedding, however,” Chris explained.

“Thanks, that’s one less thing to think about.” Vin was glad Chris had thought to inform Travis so soon. “That’s not why you have that grin on your face though.”

“You’re right. I am taking off at two, you will be in charge of this zoo after that.” Chris was beaming.

“It has to involve Linda or you wouldn’t have that silly grin plastered on your face.” Vin laughed, “I hope I’m not as easy to read as you are.” They were both still smiling when they made it to the conference room.

Once there Chris looked at his agents old and new.

“I will make this short and sweet. Travis wants current certifications on everyone within two weeks. If your status is over six months old, you will attend classes to bring you up to date. Tanner has a list on which classes you each need to take to recertify. Dates and times will be on you desk by morning.

Jackson is setting up a schedule for physicals. Get your appointment time from him and remember no physical means no job. That is all for now, you are free to return to your ‘interesting’ array of files.”

+ + + + + + +

Ezra returned shortly after lunch and went straight to Chris’ office. Larabee was anxious about the results of his assignment.

“What took so long? Did you do it? Do you know what time it is?” Chris was pacing the floor.

“The endeavor is accomplished and the outcome, I think, you will find agreeable.” Ezra smiled at Chris’ obvious attack of nervous tension. “Your directions and all necessary items are in this envelope. Enjoy your evening.” Standish took his leave.

Chris sat at his desk and stared at the envelope as if it would jump up and bite him. Finally, his curiosity won out, he had to see what Standish had done. A slow smile began to cross his face as he read his instructions. Committing the directions to memory, he slipped a key in his pocket and destroyed the note. Ezra, I owe you.

+ + + + + + +

Larabee left the office at two, heading home to shower and change. He stopped only long enough to check in on Kelli, for Vin. Assured the she was okay, he was ready to pick up Linda and arrived at her ranch shortly before four. She greeted him with a brilliant smile and a kiss.

“You ready?” Chris was not going to enlighten her about their destination just yet.

“Born ready, Larabee.” Linda knew she would go anywhere as long as Chris was there.

The trip took an hour and a half to complete, but they never ran out of conversation. Their journey ended high in the mountains in front of a beautiful chateau. Awed by the spectacular view from this elevation Linda was speechless for a moment. “This is fantastic! Who does it belong to?” Linda regained her voice.

“Us, at least for this evening.” Chris took pleasure in the look of joy on her face.

The inside was just as beautiful as the outside. An elegant table set with china and crystal lay before them, a gourmet meal was warming in the kitchen. Scented candles, waiting for the touch of a match, were scattered around the room. “Chris, this is so beautiful, how did you manage to do all this?” Linda liked what see saw and the thought of what this could mean.

“I confess, I had a little help from someone that is a connoisseur of the good life.” Chris turned on that killer smile. “I wanted this to be perfect for you.”

The meal was excellent and the sounds of Nat King Cole drifted from the stereo. When they finished, Chris asked Linda to sit by the fireplace. He needed to tell her a story and wanted her full attention. Problem was he was not sure how to start. “I think you know by now how much I enjoy being with you… However, there are some things you do not know and I want everything in the open between us.” Just do it ,Larabee.

“I always have and always will be a private man. My life is not an open book and there are only a few close friends who know, how my past has affected who I am. I was married to a woman who was the most important person in my life. Why she loved me is still a mystery to me, but she did. Sarah was loving, beautiful, graceful and had a terrific sense of humor. She never put up with my moodiness and temper, if I yelled she yelled right back and I loved it. After four years of marriage, we were blessed with a son, Adam Christopher, who quickly became the center of our life. He had me in one pocket and his Uncle Buck in the other. ..” Chris stopped for a moment to collect his emotions.

“Eight years ago, I lost them both…a car bomb intended for me, stole my family and left me a broken man. For the next year, I tried to stop existing, but failed. I drank too much and tried to run off every friend I had. Buck took the brunt of my anger and to this day, I cannot figure how he put up with the shit I threw at him. Then Travis can along with an offer to run a unit in the ATF. I thought I could lose myself in work, but it did not work out that way. I met Tanner and he seemed to know what I needed, more than I did and still does most of the time. One by one, each of the boys became part of my new family and worked their way into my heart. I wanted you to know all of this, because I am not sure I will ever be able to risk marriage again and… children. Sarah had just found out she was pregnant again, a week before she…died. I could never stand to lose that much again. I do want you in my life, but the only thing I can promise is to love you and spend as much time together as possible.”

Linda listened to Chris pour his heart out and felt the tears that rolled down her face. She knew how hard it was for him to tell her about his family. Not sure what to say, she did the only thing she could think of to let him know how much she cared for him. Rising to her feet, she stood before him and wrapped her arms around his neck.

“Chris, I am thankful you had Sarah and Adam in your life. They have made you the man I love. Right now, I cannot tell you I will never want more. I really do not know and I have many responsibilities with the family business, which demand my attention. I do love you and I know I want you. Can’t that be enough for now?” Linda spoke from her heart.

Looking into her eyes, Chris knew that would be enough and pulled her closer. This woman loved him and he knew that somehow they would make it work. What started out as a slow tender kiss became more intense, as he felt her respond. All the love Linda felt for him poured out and they soon found themselves lost in desire.

Kissing her with all the passion, he had held back before, Chris lifted Linda in his arms and carried her to the bedroom. Afterwards they clung to each other whispering words of promise and love. They stayed together most of the night, making love several times, only more slowly. It was almost dawn before, regrettably, they knew they had to leave. Both vowed to look only to the future.

MCAT Office

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

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

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

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

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

“What enemy?” Chris asked.

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

“Buck, cool down.” Chris ordered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+ + + + + + +

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You own it?” She loved it already.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+ + + + + + +

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


+ + + + + + +

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MCAT Office - Wednesday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Larabee 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+ + + + + + +

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+ + + + + + +

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday Evening

Kelli paced the floor waiting for Vin to get home from work. Tanner should already have been here. She knew the brothers were having a meeting at Chris’ tonight, to discuss what to do about the stables. Even her good news would have to wait because this was getting serious. After a million trips back and forth across the den floor, she heard the sound of his Durango and stopped pacing. It’s about time, Tanner

Vin was grateful to be home, he had thought for a while today he might be spending this night in jail. That is where they put people, who attempt to kill their best friend. Still might end up there if Larabee did not get his head straight. Seven years he had known this man, knew every bad mood he had, he thought. Now the man had to go and invent a new one. The meeting tonight should be a barrel of laughs. Maybe the six of them could form a conspiracy and …nope that probably would not work. JD would end up telling someone, for sure.

“Tanner, you have to do something, anythin’, but find out what in the hell Larabee thinks he is doing!” Kelli met him at the door.

“I already know what he is doing. He has transformed into a grade A jackass. One, that will be lookin’ for some new agents when we all quit. Provided, that he doesn’t manage to kill us all first.” Vin grumbled.

“Linda likes to ‘do the outrageous’ when she is upset. We now have enough weddin’ presents to open our own store. Five pre-paid trips to take, in the next three months and, she has planned a regular shower, a lingerie shower, three nights of dinners on the town and an overnight in a penthouse suite. All are to be used within the next week.” Kelli was getting desperate. “One more shoppin’ trip and I will be a basket case. Look what she bought today!”

Vin started to laugh at the brief, very brief, lingerie set she held. Not that he wouldn’t like to see her wear it, but pink kittens? “Not your style, Texas.”

“It’s not funny and if I hadn’t been there you would be wearin’ purple silk briefs with black leopard spots on it!” She was glad to see Vin stop laughing and maybe realize this was getting out of hand.

“Purple? Look… it doesn’t matter, it all can be returned.” Vin shook his head again. “Purple?”

“Vin, it more than that, Chris is avoiding me and I have to work for the man. Linda is avoidin’ you and now tells me, she will not be attendin’ the weddin’ because Chris will be there. I am her friend and cannot say no when she is upset like this, but I need help.”

“Okay, I get the point, but just what can we do about it?” Tanner hated to think about interfering.

“I don’t know, but somethin’ better happen fast. With the phone calls, the shoppin’ trips and the extra plans, we may never have any time alone. While you have your meetin’ tonight, Linda wants me to go to the mall with her, again. She will be here shortly.” Kelli smiled and played her ace. “Of course we are having a lot of practice …waitin’.”

Vin just remembered she had seen the doctor today and realized Kelli was using both hands. The sling was gone, at last. “What did the doctor say?”

“He said I was doing great and lifted all my restrictions, as long as I keep going to physical therapy and stay on desk duty until I finish it.” Kelli waited for Vin’s reaction. Tanner grinned and grabbed her around the waist pulling her to him. For the first time in a long time, she was able to place both arms around his neck and pull him closer, too. Unbridled passion threatened to overtake them as Vin buried his mouth on her neck, drawing her flesh into his mouth, one tender bite at a time. Kelli leaned her head back, giving him free access to continue down her throat…the ringing phone they could pay no attention to, however, Chris’ bellow of ‘Tanner!’ at the door was harder to ignore. Vin sighed and pulled back. “Dammit!”

“Be with you in a minute, Chris.” Vin yelled at the annoying door. “Hold those thoughts, Texas. This thing between Linda and Chris ends tomorrow, if not before, one way or another.” He had to steal one more kiss and regain his composure before he opened the door.

+ + + + + + +

Six of the men discussed the bids before them, needing to make a decision on which one to accept. The seventh man sat aside and said nothing.

“What can we afford, Ezra?” Josiah tried to get things moving. “The insurance won’t cover it all.”

“Anything we decide on will require addition funds obtained in the form of a loan. I have however arranged for said loan to be made through a private source and we will not require bank intervention.” Ezra explained.

“In other words, Ez is gonna front the money.” Vin translated for the others.

“If we have to rebuild anyway, shouldn’t we go ahead and implement the changes we wanted?” Nathan remembered what Chris said they needed.

“Yeah, we could have thirty six stalls, instead of the twenty four we had in each stable. With the success, we are having with the breeding program, we would have no trouble filling them, quickly.” JD was seeing the possibilities.

“Could even put in the new treatment room Nathan suggested.” Buck thought that was a fine idea. “Also the new video security alarms in the foaling stalls.”

“Chris, what do you think?” Buck risked asking.

“Whatever you decide is fine with me.” Chris got up and went outside, leaving the rest of the men at the table.

“Gentlemen, I believe it’s time for a short break.” Ezra announced. After a nod from Tanner, Buck went after Chris. JD and Josiah went to replenish their beers.

“Ez, need to talk to you for a minute.” Vin motioned him over.

“What may I assist you with, kind sir?” Ezra asks.

“Couple of things, first Kelli would like to talk to you. She thinks she owes you an apology for the other day.”

“Nonsense, she did nothing you or I wouldn’t have done under the same circumstances.” Ezra laughed, “Of course next time I will not underestimate the lady’s skills.” Noting the look of concern on Tanner’s face, he continued, “I will make a point of talking with her, brother.” Sometimes when it was just Vin or Chris, Ezra dropped all the big words and spoke with his emotions instead. “I will make sure she knows I was not offended.”

“The other thing is about Larabee 7. I know you handle all the legal side of things for us, so I need your help. I want you to set up for Kelli and me, what you did for the other guys and their families. Also, change my will and figure out how to keep Kelli’s horses separate from ranch assets. Kel wants you to talk to her attorney, too.”

“I would be happy to do that for you. In addition, before you ask about a fee for these services, allow me to do this for you as a gift. Call it part of a wedding gift, if you want.” Ezra was pleased to see Vin’s nod of acceptance. “I will sit down with both of you and see what we need to do.”

Buck entered the room with a look on his face that would freeze hell. Chris followed in a few minutes and he was trailing his black cloud behind him. Again, they tried to set their plan for the new stables.

“Okay, we all…most of us agree each building will be enlarging to thirty six stalls. The treatment room will have all the latest equipment installed and double in size. We will move the buildings to the locations Vin suggested and install safeguards for water drainage off the roof.” Ezra was writing this down. “Anything else?”

“Don’t forget the sprinkler system and the smoke sensors.” JD remembered.

“Right JD., Glad you reminded us.” Ezra waited. “Alright then, I think we have everything covered and as the hour grows late, I believe we should adjourn….” The ringing of Tanner’s cell interrupted him, Vin knew immediately it had to be Kelli… the ‘wild bunch’ was accounted for.

“Tanner…You’re where? ...What in the hell happened? …Yeah, I can do that…Are you both okay? ...NO! Do not argue with the man…Kel...maybe he is a stupid ass, but… No … I don’t think telling him that will help…Tell Linda to keep her mouth shut, too…I’ll be there are soon as I can ….No, I don’t think you can legally shoot someone for being a jerk...About forty-five minutes or so…Yeah, me too.”

Six set of eyes focused on Tanner waiting for an explanation. Big smiles accompanied quiet laughter. Hearing Vin’s end of the conversation, they knew there was a good story coming. “I need to go get two very angry women out of jail.” Vin sighed and knew an onslaught of questions was coming.

“Jail! Oh, this has got to be good.” Buck laughed because he knew if they were hurt, Vin would already be gone out the door.

“Do you need the assistance of an attorney?” Ezra inquired. “I will gladly offer my services.”

“No, just proof Kelli is a federal agent, since she is on sick leave her ID and gun are locked up. I guess I should be thankful because if she had her weapon, Denver might be minus one police sergeant.”

“I’ll go with you and we’ll take my truck.” Chris stated, “Any charges?”

“No, as long as we can prove who she is.” Knowing the others as well as he did, he decided to tell them what he knew. “Short version, incident at the mall, needed intervention, she did it, security detained Kelli for some questions, police arrive, didn’t believe her about being an agent, made some crude comment to Kelli that Linda took exception to and let them know it, both were arrested and taken to jail, supervisor was called, gave Kel one phone call and there you go.” Vin had left a lot out, but this was enough for now.

Ready, Cowboy?

Lets ride.”

Chris did not talk on the ride to the police station, but he was secretly anxious about the prospect of seeing Linda. The last forty-eight hours had been sheer torture for him. He wanted, no needed, to see her. Some how he had messed thing up and he was ready to try to fix it. Maybe she would appreciate that he was coming to get her out of jail. What ever landed them in this fix, he was glad, it made getting together much easier. Larabee had not convinced himself to go see her, but now circumstances had intervened. Hopefully, she would be receptive to hear him out. When they reached the station, Chris entered first and went straight to the desk sergeant, who actually took a step backward when faced with two very intense looking men.

“Supervisor, now!” He pulled out his ID and the sergeant called his boss. He met them at the front desk and seeing the look on their faces, decided to cooperate.

“You have one of my agents detained. I want her and her friend released immediately.” The glare that accompanied that statement was enough to make the man move faster. He took Tanner and Larabee to the holding area. They heard the two females before they could see them. Vin hoped they could get them both out fast, before real charges were filed.

“Turn them loose, Holden, this man has proof of ID.” The supervisor ordered, when the man hesitated he added, “Now!”

“You’re kidding, right, no way somebody that hot looking…” He stopped as he caught site of two fiery glares aimed in his direction, one green and the other blue.

“You will apologize to Agent Coulter for that remark along with any others you may have made. Are we clear?” Larabee was in the man’s face. Holden did apologize as he unlocked the cell door.

Linda was not sure if seeing Chris, here, was a good or bad thing. She only knew that her pulse quickened and her heart raced when she saw him. Since the police impounded her truck, she hoped Chris would offer to drive her home and then at least she could be near the man for an hour or so.

Once outside, Kelli and Linda let out some of their anger. By the time they reached Chris’ truck, the men had heard the whole story. Larabee knew he would file a complaint with DPD. There was not excuse to treat them the way they were treated and someone would be held accountable. Chris did offer to drive Linda home and she sat in the front, after Vin claimed the back seat.

“Just drive, Lar’bee. And flip up you rear view mirror, we plan to be busy back here, doin’ somethin’ hot and steamy.” Vin drew Kelli to his side and giving her a wicked grin whispered, “Wanna make out?” Her laughter was the only response he got.

Chris drove and decided to drop off Vin and Kelli before he took Linda home. When they reached her ranch, she started to get out of the truck and he grabbed her hand.

“Can we talk?” Chris suddenly found himself nervous again. Just like the first time he had asked her that question.

Linda hesitated a moment, “Take me to retrieve my truck in the morning, throw in breakfast and we’ll talk then”

“Deal.” Chris said goodnight and started counting the hours until breakfast.

Saturday - 5:00 a.m.

Tanner could not sleep, it had been late when they finally made it home last night. Kelli had barely managed a shower before the adrenaline rush from her anger wore off and the day’s events took their toll. Probably just as well, Vin wanted to get them both away from here for some private time, at least that was his plan. Their plans had not been too successful in this relationship. He had to smile thinking about all the events that had led to today. In spite of the fact, that circumstances had intervened again in their quest to become lovers, he felt closer to Kelli than if they had been together for years. Today, however, their waiting would end and if anyone tried to interfere, he might just have to shoot someone. As he sat here with his morning coffee, he heard her moving around and knew she was awake. Now he could tell her where he intended to take her to get away. He poured her a cup of coffee and headed back to the bedroom.

Kelli woke up this morning feeling more anxious about the day than she expected. Somehow, today she wanted this waiting to end, much longer and she knew her confidence would fail and trepidation would replace it. She was not afraid of Vin, but did not want to disappoint him either by suddenly becoming nervous. Lost in her thoughts, she missed hearing him come in the room and was startled when he walked up behind her.

“You really need to stop doing that, Tanner!” Kelli yelped in surprise when he grabbed her around the waist.

“Good morning, Texas.” Vin said, setting the cups on the dresser, he turned to face her. “We need to talk.”

“Talk?” Standing here looking at this amazingly sexy man, talking was not the first thing that came to her mind. Kelli knew the instant her self-confidence exerted itself and would not let this opportunity pass. “Don’t think so, Tanner.”

She grabbed a handful of his shirt and pulled. Vin needed no encouragement to possessively draw her closer. Any thoughts about conversation were forgotten when he saw the desire in her eyes. He kissed her hungrily and deeply, her heart pounded, her stomach fluttered and she was gripping his shoulder, so she would not fall. His hands caressed her body as he undressed her, moving her towards the bed and somehow in the process, Vin removed his own clothes. He pulled her with him onto the bed and his hands were suddenly all over her. He stroked her shoulders, the curve of her spine and her silky thighs. She kissed him with all the feelings of passion he had ignited inside her. He tried to temper the insatiable demands of their bodies.

“Damn,” he whispered. “We need to slow down.”

“Why?” she demanded.

He had to concentrate in order to answer her. “I want this to be perfect for you.” Vin knew that she had never been made love to before and wanted this to be right for her. She stroked his back, nearly overwhelmed by the strength she found in him.

“It is perfect,” she whispered.

He could not wait any longer to make her his. His hands shook as he gently kissed her. He wanted to go slow, but found her response to him electrifying. With energy, born out of their passion, they finally became lovers and as one, they found their reward for all the waiting they had endured.

Afterwards Vin held her and whispered the words of love that she needed to hear and he needed to say. He felt an overwhelming possessiveness. He did not know how he managed to find her or why she loved him, but she belonged to him now and he did not want to let go. Tanner, she thinks she need you, you reckon she will ever know how much you need her?

It also pleased the Texan that the sun was just now making its way into their room. This was certainly the most spectacular sunrise he had ever experienced and it was a memory he would carry for a lifetime.

+ + + + + + +

Chris was at Linda’s front door by six-thirty, which was shortly after sunrise. He had spent most of the night tossing and turning. Finally giving up on sleep, he got up and prepared to leave early to pick her up. After calling her to say he was on his way he thought about his decision. Sometime during the long night, he realized he did not want to spend the rest of his life alone. He decided he would give her all the time she needed, but was going to make it clear that he wanted her back. If he had to apologize, he would, somehow. Linda was ready when he arrived and instead of leaving immediately, she asked him to sit on the porch with her.

Chris knew this was the time that would determine, if they still had a chance to move forward. He was right back where he started from and now that he was here, was not sure what to say next. “Linda…I….” Chris swallowed hard and continued, “I let my past sneak back into my life and you paid the price for it. I’m sorry for hurting you that way.” he risked a look to see how she was reacting. “I would like for us to have another chance and this time I will remember that there are two of us involved.”

Linda had thought about this all night and she realized what was missing in their relationship. They were great together sexually and she knew she loved him, but she did not really know him. Not the way she wanted to. She wanted what Kelli had found, a way to know this man intimately, without depending on sex to speak for her. She would find out with her next words if Chris was sincere about wanting another chance.

“Chris, I have given us a lot of thought and I do want to be with you. However…I think we need to back up a few steps and really get to know each other. Are you willing to do that and see where things go from there?” Linda held her breath waiting for his answer.

“I think we can do that and we can start with breakfast, if you are willing.” Chris knew she was right. He knew what turned her on, but did not know what she liked in her coffee. He realized he wanted to know all the little details that made her the woman she was.

“Okay, let’s go.” Linda hoped she could learn enough about him in the next few weeks to help keep the past firmly in its place. This would be a start.

+ + + + + + +

Chris was back at his ranch by nine-thirty. Linda was coming over, shortly, to make sure Kelli had all the arrangements for next weekend finished. When Larabee left his truck, he heard the horses restlessly moving around in their stalls. He decided to check and was surprised to find that Vin had not tended to them this morning. Chris quickly took care of feeding them and then went to check on Tanner.

Vin heard the pounding on the door, but was unwilling to move. He and Kelli had spent the morning making up for lost time. After their first session of lovemaking, they had showered together. That had resulted in another hour spent in passionate exploration of each other’s bodies. He wanted to show her all the ways they could make love and today was her first lesson. Whoever was at the door was not leaving, so reluctantly, he slipped on his sweats and trekked to the door, to deal with the persistent caller.

“Chris! Why in the hell are you tryin’ to beat down my door?” Tanner was annoyed with the intrusion.

“I thought I should make sure you were still alive.” Chris grinned as he figured out the reason for Tanner’s irritation, “Peso, said hello.”

“Damn, I forgot the horses.” Vin was not really surprised by his lapse of memory. “Sorry, I had other …things on my mind.”

“Tell your ‘other thing’ that Linda is on her way to see her.” Chris laughed at the expression on Vin’s face. “I’ll keep her busy at the house for a bit. I suggest you two make it up there or the next person at you door will be Linda." The Texan’s affirmative nod was the only answer Larabee would get.

An hour later found Linda, Rain and Inez deep in discussion on Larabee’s deck. Maria and Sarah were keeping Buck and Chris busy, the two toddlers thought climbing on the deck rail was exciting. Their father and uncle disagreed and had their hands full keeping an eye on the boisterous girls. Uncle Nathan watched the show from a deck chair, too busy laughing to be any help.

“Well, look who decided to grace us with their presence.” Buck grinned as he watched the younger couple walk across the yard. When they were in earshot he said, “Chris, did you notice Kelli lost her sling. Do you know what that means?”

“It means, Bucklin, that she will be back at work on Monday.” Vin smiled as he gave Buck a ‘brotherly shove’.

“Kelli, we need you over here.” Rain beckoned from the other side of the deck. “We need some decisions from you.”

Vin started to follow her, but Chris intervened and whispered, “It’s time she gains some experience on how to handle this family and they need to learn about her, too.” Tanner knew Larabee was right and leaned on the deck rail to watch. He knew it was bound to be interesting.

“Here is a list we made on what still needs to be done for the wedding. We have a lot to do and little time to get it done.” Rain handed her a piece of paper. “Casey and Mallory will be here later to help us. You just need to answer a few questions and we will take care of the rest for you.”

Kelli looked at the ‘to do’ list and shook her head. “I appreciate your offer, but there must be some misunderstandin’. Most everythin’ is already taken care of and what’s left ‘m sure I can handle.”

“Nonsense, you only get married the first time once, every woman wants an event to remember.” Rain smiled, “We want to make this a lavish affair.” With the exception of Vin and Linda, who both were waiting for the explosion they knew was coming, the others expected Kelli to concede to the plans before her.

“We know this is a new area for you, but there are certain things that are expected and with over one hundred guests….” Inez was interrupted quickly.

“Stop! ... Vin, do you have family I don’t know about?” When Tanner shook his head no and smiled, Kelli continued. “There will NOT be a hundred guests, a tent, a catered meal, imported flowers, no formal wear or anything else like that! What part of the word ‘simple is so hard to understand?”


“But nothing! Vin already invited the family to be there. There are only three additions. I asked Katrina and Pam to attend and Vin invited Travis, at his request. The sun will rise at 6:23 a.m., without any assistance from anyone and Josiah has agreed to perform the ceremony. It will take place right over there on the rise by that meadow. I will be there and so will Tanner. He already knows what he is wearin’ and so do I. It will be maybe fifteen minutes and then we will be gone for three days. There is nothin’ else to do!” Kelli looked at Linda.

Linda held up her hands, “Hey, I already got your message yesterday, loud and clear. I cancelled all the extras, I had planned.”

Rain sighed and Inez spoke. “I told them you would not be one to be pushed easily, but they had to test you anyway. They did so want to produce a big wedding. With your approval, I would like to provide a family breakfast afterward, as a gift for our new… sister.” Inez smiled, “We need another strong-minded woman to keep these men in line.”

“As long as you don’t serve somethin’ I can’t identify, we have an agreement.” Kelli returned her smile.

Vin walked up behind Kelli and placed his hands on her shoulders. “Inez, thanks, a breakfast will be great and instead of strong-minded, I think the word is stubborn.” He laughed as he said it and that earned him an elbow to the ribs.

Buck laid a hand on Tanner’s shoulder and grinned mischievously. “ son. About your bachelor party. I’ve got this idea….” That earned Buck an elbow to his ribs from Vin.

Linda watched Chris and the smile that he wore while he held little Sarah. He was watching Buck harass Vin and Linda was starting to realize just how much he enjoyed his family’s antics. He had passed the point of accepting a new family in his life again. Now, if she could only get him to recognize that having his own was no different. Maybe they could have a future together that included having children.

MCAT Office - Late Thursday

One more hour and he was out of this office. Another week and they would be an active unit. MCAT was coming together nicely, but the closer they got to the end of the six weeks the busier they were. Buck was doing well with the new people that had come in the last two weeks. The unit was now home to fifteen agents, well, home to fourteen and a place to exist for Reed. Tanner had stepped into a leadership role as if he was born to it. Larabee recognized, years ago, the Texan had a natural ability to be the person in charge and everyone else knew it too. It seemed, the only one who did not see it was Tanner, until now.

Chris had spent the last few days getting to know Linda better. They had dinner together, visited the art museum and managed to sneak in a horseback ride. He was discovering things about the lady that he found delightful. The only difficulty he was having, was curbing his desire for her. Thinking about their previous wild encounters did not help him control the permanent state of need, he found himself facing these days. However, he had promised Linda time to broaden their relationship and that was what she would get. A knock at the door drew him back to the time.

“Come on in, Tanner.” Chris waited for the evaluations he knew Vin had. The only one Tanner had not personally handled was Coulter’s and Chris took care of that one, to keep things fair.

“Here’s the last of ‘em.” Tanner placed the files on Larabee’s desk. “These should keep you busy.”

“I appreciate you finishing before you take off.” Chris studied his friend. “You know I would give you more time if I could, it’s…”

“Lar’bee, we’re fine with it. Hell, ‘m not sure if we could handle more than three days without interruptions, it wouldn’t seem normal.” Tanner grinned as he thought about the events of the last few days. Finding time alone with Kelli had been a challenge. It seemed everyone was excited about their impending wedding and wanted to be involved. Vin had entrusted the preparation of the cabin to Ezra and Buck. With their collective knowledge of women, he knew they would take care of the details Kelli would appreciate. Josiah had insisted on time to go over the ceremony with them and Nathan felt it was his duty to counsel them about planned parenthood. JD placed himself in charge of Vin to make sure Tanner didn’t forget anything important. He knew they all cared and they meant well, however, each one demanded a portion of their time.

Chris laughed, “I suppose all the help has taken a toll on quiet time.”

“We’ve managed, but I am lookin’ forward to time alone at the cabin.” Vin smiled, “You are pickin’ up my special order, aren’t you?”

“As your best man, I’ve got it covered. Linda and I are going tonight and pick it up.” Chris grinned, “You know her, curiosity is killing her.”

“As long as she doesn’t tell Kelli, that’s fine.” Vin had designed their rings and the jeweler had just finished them. Kel had not seen the design and wanted it to be a surprise.

“It’s almost closing time, take off, I’ll shut things down here. I don’t want to see you or Coulter back in this office before next Wednesday morning.” Chris smiled, “However, if I were you, I‘d rest up for the bash tomorrow night. You do know the ‘wild bunch’ has a helluva send off planned for you two.”

“Yeah, I know they only think they are good at sneakin’ around. I figured it out three days ago. Where is it and what time have you been designated to get us there?"

“You two did not want a bachelor or bachelorette party or a big wedding party. You know this bunch had to organize something. It’s at The Standish Tavern and don’t come before seven.” Larabee acknowledged Vin’s nod as he watched him walk out the door.

Chris stayed busy reading over Tanner’s work until it was time to head out. Linda was meeting him at a nearby restaurant and he was anxious to see her again. She was on time and he was ten minutes late. “Sorry, Travis caught me on the way out and had some last minute things to discuss.” Chris apologized for his tardiness.

“That’s okay, I understand how demanding your work is.” Linda smiled and thought he was the best-looking man in the room. God, this man is sexy without even trying.

The initial awkwardness with each other, after getting back together, was gone. Once more, they were finding that conversation was easy between them. Before they realized it, the meal was finished and it was time to leave.

“I can’t wait to see the ring. I hope Tanner was right to do it this way.” Linda knew what Kelli liked and did not like, but did not recognize that at this point, Vin knew her better.

“Why don’t we walk over from here, it’s not far.” Chris had seen some of Vin’s designs and knew he was more than capable of making it special.

By the time they reached the jewelers, Linda was excited and she could not stop talking. Unlike her friend, she loved bold pieces of jewelry and sparking diamonds. They might be there for Vin, but she took the time to look at some of the newest pieces for herself. She had trouble understanding that Kelli did not want an engagement ring and was leaving it to Tanner to choose their wedding rings. Of course, Kelli did not like to shop as much as Linda did either. She heard Chris’ voice as he told the owner why they were there.

“Chris Larabee, I’m here to pick up and an order for Tanner.” Chris informed the man. “I believe you were expecting me.”

“Certainly and would you tell him it was a pleasure to work on these pieces for him. If he ever decides to change his line of work, I know he would be able to stay busy with designing.”

“Chris silently laughed at the thought, but said he would pass the message along. When Linda saw the results, she was impressed with the two bands of platinum encircled with a rope design and set with blue sapphires. The rings were exquisite, but she wondered about the choice of sapphires, instead of diamonds and she decided to ask the expert.

“The rings are beautiful, but why blue sapphires? What makes them so special?”

“The color blue is linked to emotions such as harmony, friendship and loyalty. Theses emotions belong to features that are permanent and reliable-emotion where fiery passion is not the main element, but rather composure, mutual understanding and unshakeable trust. Sapphires symbolize loyalty and faithfulness, while at the same time expressing love and yearning. Women from many countries chose this stone for engagement or wedding rings for those reasons.” The man was pleased to explain the spirit of the beautiful stones.

“I am starting to believe that Tanner just might understand my friend better than I thought. Kelli will love the design and the message.” Linda was thoughtful. Will Chris understand me that well?

“Linda...You ready to go?” Larabee tried for her attention again. Larabee, what are you going to do about this extraordinary woman?

They walked back to his truck and he drove her home. When he reached her front door, he could not hold back any longer. Chris pulled her close and started with a light kiss, which turned into a passionate declaration of his feeling.

“Linda, I am going home, but I want you to think about me tonight.” He spoke softly before he buried his mouth on her neck to mark his claim on her. His hands caressed her, as he traced kisses down her throat. Hearing the intake of her breath, he knew she received the message he was sending. Once more, he returned to her sensual mouth and thoroughly kissed her until he knew she was ready to surrender. Chris forced himself to ignore what his body was screaming for him to do and released her instead. They would have time to answer their desires later. First, the wishes of their hearts needed tending. She barely heard him when he said goodnight.

+ + + + + + +

After supper, Vin and Kelli took care of the horses for the evening. Tanner spent time with Midnight and liked the colt more every time he was around him. He still was not sure why it was so important to Kelli that the colt belonged to him. Watching her, as she finished grooming her mares he decided now was the time to ask. “Will you tell me now why me owing Midnight is so important to you?" Vin had one arm around her waist as he spoke.

“When Jake became my guardian and moved me to his ranch, I was nine. It was the first place I had ever had considered…home. He gave me a colt to introduce me to horses...” Kelli hesitated. “It was also the first time anyone gave me somethin’ that belonged just to me and I will always remember how that felt. It was special and probably why, even now, I find comfort with the horses. I was not free enough with my emotions then, to let Jake know how much… how much I appreciated him. I wanted to give you somethin’ that was special and sharin’ that feelin’ was the best way I knew how. I can’t explain it any better and maybe…” She did not know where to take it from there.

Vin did understand what she was saying and drew her closer before he said anything. “I couldn’t be there and you gave me the next best thing, Midnight will always be special for just that reason. Thank you, for tellin’ me.” He had wanted to erase that part of her life for her, but now realized that would have been wrong. Those times made her who she was today. The woman he would spend the rest of his life with.

“Why don’t we go home and …talk?” Tanner grinned as they walked back to their house. As soon as they were inside and comfortable in Tanner’s overstuffed chair, he heard the words he had expected.

“Don’t think so, Tanner.”

Kelli matched his grin and started to unbutton his shirt. Once his shirt was gone, she felt her body react to the sight of him. It amazed her that this man belonged to her and she knew she would never tire of this vision. The warm glint in his eyes told her, he knew what she was thinking. Kelli positioned herself in front of him, started a trail of kisses at one shoulder and moved down his upper body, she heard him suck in his breath, as she ran her tongue across his chest. Vin had taught her a lot in the past few days and made her feel things she never thought possible. Now it was her turn. She saw the question in his eyes and did not hesitated, “I’m sure.”

He then pulled her up to straddle his lap and kissed her hungrily. That only served to reignite the fire inside him, but dammit, she was still fully clothed. Tanner set about correcting that little detail.

When Vin had enough strength to move again, he gathered Kelli in his arms and carried her to the bedroom. After taking care of necessities, they crawled into bed. Just before sleep claimed them both, he heard her whisper, “Love you, Tanner.” He wrapped his arms around her and held her as he went to sleep.


The clock read 4:00 a.m.and Kelli was tossing and turning in her sleep. When she cried out, Vin knew she was caught up in a nightmare. He wanted to wake her without scaring her. He softy repeated her name until she was aware of who was speaking, but when he tried to hold her, she pulled away. She stumbled to the bathroom, attempting to be sick, tears were streaming down her pale face. She shook so badly, all she could manage was to sit on the floor and lay her head on the cool porcelain on the bathtub.

Vin grabbed a washcloth and ran water over it. He sat on the floor next to her and pulled her to him, washing her face and neck. Then he cradled her against him and gently rocked her as he softly whispered soothing words. He knew, without a doubt, she was thinking he would quit on her. If anything, he was more determined to find a way to free her completely from her past, but not today. This storm would pass and he was prepared to wait it out. However, his heart ached thinking about how many times she must have gone through this alone.

Twenty minutes had gone by, before she stopped shaking and started to gain back some color. She whispered in a rasping voice, “I’m okay now,” then she dared to look up at Vin, not knowing that he had been waiting for her to do so.

“I told you, we would handle this together and I’m not goin’ anywhere.” He gave her a reassuring smile. “I’m a Tanner, stubborn as hell and I‘ve never quit on anythin’ in my life. You are just as strong or you would not have survived to become the woman you are. I figured between the two of us, we can take on these nightmares and send them back to hell, where they belong.”

Kelli knew she needed a way to get back in control again. “I need … us… I need to control my thoughts again.” Fortunately, Vin was thinking the same thing. They got up and he turned on the shower, the bathroom quickly filled with steam. The need to renew their commitment took over and this time it was not slow and sensual, but fast and demanding. Raw sexual power washed away the viciousness of the nightmare while hot steamy sex triumphed over the ghosts from her past.

Having the entire day just for them was something new. While the rest of the family worked, Vin and Kelli played. After breakfast, they packed a lunch and took the horses out for a run. Tanner showed her some of his favorite places on the ranch before they stopped. They had raced, chased and played like kids all morning.

The place Tanner chose for lunch was a secluded area set by a spring fed creek, which ran though the property. He would come here a lot when he needed to be alone. Since he met Kelli, those times of needing solitude were rare. Vin found serenity with her presence in his life. His soul renewed each time they made love and she was the only peaceful place he needed to be. “I hope you know how to swim, Texas” Tanner had a mischievous look on his face as he started to undress her.

“Vin, that water must not be over forty degrees, if that.” Kelli was hesitant. “We’ll freeze!”

“Not likely.” True to his word, she never got cold. She got Tanner instead and he took her to a place, not on any map, that was theirs alone. Lovemaking, which was driven not by need or lust, but fueled simply by the desire to share their love and a moment of time that belonged to only them. Afterwards, with the sun to bask in they slept curled up together for a few hours. They both knew the chances of sleeping later tonight, were nil. It was close to five when Vin woke. He really hated to see the day end, however, the hour was getting late and family was calling.

He woke Kelli with his gentle touches. “We probably should head back.” He kissed her and said in a soft voice. “If we don’t show up for that party, we’ll never hear the end of it.” The private party planned for them was at The Standish Tavern, one of Ezra’s many business investments. “Ezra, for sure, would never forgive us.”

“If you insist.” She answered while returning his kiss with so much passion and fire, they forgot about family and the time. Vin covered her body with his own and proceed to make another memory to treasure. He spent time to let her know how much he loved her and took pleasure in her reactions, to his touches. She might be reserved with everyone else, but with him, she let go. Their lovemaking had no limitations and no holding back. Vin drove her to a point where wild desire took over and he knew she was ready for him. Afterwards they lay together for a long time before moving. Finally, they knew there was no choice, but to dress and leave this haven.

“Are you sure you are not forgetting something?” Tanner’s eyes held amusement.

“I don’t think so, why?” Kelli though she had everything.

“Boots, Texas, your boots.” Vin laughed when she realized she was barefooted, again.

They knew the evening would be loud and full of activity, so they took the long way home for the extra few minutes of quiet time alone.

+ + + + + + +

The Standish Tavern was closed to the public tonight. Standish had thought of everything. Ezra had made special arrangements for the children. They were to stay in his private quarters with a hand picked nanny, for the evening. The girls were close enough for their parents to check on them and far enough away for the music not to disturb their sleep.

The Tavern decor had been transformed to remind the guests of honor of Texas. A band from the Lone Star State was the live entertainment. The music was country and sawdust covered the floor. The food was Tex-Mex and the beer was Lone Star. Bales of hay lined the room and Texas memorabilia adorned the walls. Ezra even had a mechanical bull in residence and made sure Nathan would have his medical supplies on hand.

“Ezra, how did you do all this?” Linda was amazed, “It feels just like places I have visited in Texas.”

“I assure you, it was not an unproblematic endeavor.” Ezra sighed, “Were it for just anyone, I would never undertake such a challenge. However, for our illustrious sharpshooter and his bride to be, it was a worthy enterprise.”

“You did a good job, Ezra and I know they will be surprised.” Chris gave Standish his approval.

“What time did you tell them to be here, Chris?” Linda asked as JD and Casey came in the door.

“Not before seven, I wanted everyone else here first.” Larabee smiled, “Looks like Buck is going to give the bull a trial run.”

“Brother Buck has already started celebrating. I hope he knows what he is doing because Nathan isn’t here yet.” Josiah shook his head as Buck let out a yell and hit the floor.

Slowly, the place filled with family and friends from work. Someone turned up the music and everyone began to have a good time. The friends would leave by eleven, leaving the family time to present their gifts to the young couple in private. However, in the meantime, the celebration was in full swing.

“Buck, I don’t think we’re as young as we used to be. I remember a time that bull would never stand a chance to throw you.” Chris nudged his old friend.

“I haven’t seen you on it yet, stud.” Buck grinned and he could see a wager coming. “How about we have a little contest?” Chris was saved from answering Wilmington, when he saw Vin and Kelli come through the door. Larabee joined Ezra to greet them and was relieved he would not have to commit himself to riding that thing.

“Welcome to Texas.” Standish smiled when he observed their reactions. “Come on in and stay a spell.”

“Reckon we will, thanks, Ez.” Tanner grasped Standish by the shoulder. “Appreciate what you’ve done, brother.”

“My pleasure. Now, may I suggest you eat first before partaking in libations?” Ezra suggested.

“It really looks great, thanks.” Kelli saw the buffet and realized she was hungry. “If you don’t mind, I think I’ll start with the food.”

“What? Tanner doesn’t feed you.” Larabee grinned, “Or does ‘resting’, work up an appetite?”

“Oh, he takes care of me. I just want to eat before I try out that mechanical bull.” She walked toward the food bar, leaving one very concerned Texan with his friends.

“She’s not serious, is she?” Chris asked, with a little concern of his own.

“Knowing her, she just might be, but it ain’t gonna happen.” Tanner vowed, “With our luck she’d end up in a cast for six weeks.” Vin went to discuss this with his lady. As he walked away, he heard the laughter of his brothers behind him.

Tanner made his way through the crowd, having to stop and talk to friends that cornered him along the way. By the time he reached Kelli, she had two plates in her hand and passed him one, along with an impish grin. The laughter in her eyes made him forget what he was going to say. “’Bout time you got here, Tanner,” she smiled. “I thought I’d have to come rescue you.” Vin grabbed her by the hand and searched for a place they could sit down to eat. Buck intercepted them and had them sit with the family.

“I should have known I would find you all together.” Chris said as he and Linda joined them.

“I was just about to explain about the stripper, I ordered.” Buck laughed when Vin started to choke on his food. “It seems Inez took exception to that and I had to cancel the order.”

“Thank God for Inez, I don’t think I’m in shape for that kind of fun.” Mallory laughed, “I might have laughed hard enough to go into labor early.”

“That depends, was the stripper male or female?” Linda ventured.

“Female, of course!” Buck sputtered. “Why would I order a male stripper?”

“Maybe for your wife.” Rain joined in the laughter around the table.

“We could always get Buck, Vin and Ezra to perform. I seem to remember a case…”Chris was not allowed to finish as three “shut up” looks were sent in his direction.

“Sounds like an interesting story.” Linda was surprised to see this teasing side of Chris. “I’m sure Kelli would be interested in hearing it, too.”

She never got the chance to hear it. Tanner decided dancing was a safer alternative and he took Kelli to the dance floor. They danced through George Strait, Brooks and Dunn and Rascal Flatts before the live band took the floor. Vin made a point of saying hello to all the friends that were there. He made sure to keep Kelli close by, there was no way he was allowing her near that bull or Larabee. Chris was in one of his rare teasing moods and no telling what he might tell her. On the other hand, he smiled to himself thinking about the possibility of showing her what they had to do as undercover male dancers.


Before they knew where the time went, it was eleven and the extra guests said goodnight. Pam and Katrina said they would be at the ranch by five in the morning to help. The only ones left at the tavern were family. Ezra asked the band to stay for a while. They played some romantic songs for the remaining couples to enjoy.

Linda was pleased to find that Chris was a good dancer. Inez enjoyed time with her husband without the kids, as did as Josiah and Mallory. Nathan and JD had no problem getting their wives on the dance floor either. They made it through some beautiful songs from Alabama, Alan Jackson and Colin Raye. When they hit ‘Amazed’ by Lonestar though, Ezra realized it was time to get Tanner and Coulter off the dance floor. It looked as if they forgot there were other people in the room. He dismissed the band and called for everyone’s attention.

“It’s time for us to share a few things and we start with Inez.” Ezra gave her the floor.

“We, meaning Rain, Casey, Mallory and myself, have made a list of the gifts that your friends left for you. We will make sure they are ready for you to open when you return on Tuesday.”

“Thanks, we appreciate it, there was too much going on for me to keep track tonight.” Kelli was starting to like these women very much.

Vin figured this was going to take a while, so he propped up his feet and pulled Kelli into his lap. When everyone laughed his only comment was, “I listen better when I’m comfortable.”

“You have plenty of time to be comfortable, if that’s what you call it now.” Buck grinned, “We decided to get you something we know you need. This is from all of us.” He handed Vin a large package to open. Tanner started laughing before he showed Kelli what it was. It was a miniature version of a traffic light that could be wired to a door like a doorbell.

“In case you need instructions, you keep it on green when it safe to knock, yellow when you’re hopeful and red means, get the hell away.” JD was pleased to explain and assured Vin it would be operational before they returned.

“I don’t know who told, but thanks.” Vin laughed.

“My turn,” Linda handed Kelli a newspaper.

“Thanks, Linda, but what am I supposed to do with it?” Kelli was uncertain.

“Read the circled part out loud.”

“My Texas Lady is the winner of this year’s Kentucky Oaks, maiden race for fillies. Sire: Texas Justice ,Dam: Majestic Lady. She will reside at Larabee Seven Horse Ranch in Denver Colorado. Owners are Vin and Kelli Tanner….Linda! ... You didn’t! ...Thank you!” Kelli yelled in excitement.

“Yep, I did, you were there when she came into this world and named her, its only right. Her papers and history are all in this album. She has several races to finish before she goes off to stud, but it has been arranged, to breed her to that gorgeous red chestnut, “Gallant Red’. I know you will take good care of her.” Linda was pleased to see Kelli so excited.

“Since you are now officially owners of a winner, next weekend you will be going to watch the Preakness run in Baltimore, all expenses paid, courtesy of your family.” Chris grinned when he gave them the news.

“I don’t know what to say.” Vin was lost for words.

“Say thank you, son.” Josiah instructed with a wide grin.

“Thanks, y’all.” Tanner had the start of a smile.

“One more thing, we were at a loss to come up with the perfect gift for you both. Something, in line with the gifts your other siblings received upon entering the state of matrimony. Therefore, we all went in together on this one.” Ezra handed something to Vin.

“Ez, you guys, you already did all this, it…”

“Just look at it, Vin!” JD couldn’t wait.

Vin did look, it was a bankbook for ‘Tanner’s Dream Home’, with a deposit of six thousand dollars. He showed it to Kelli and shared her emotion. “We all contributed and it’s a start for when you decide to build on your property. We all, of course, will help and I will be happy to supervise.” Ezra beamed with delight. The look on their faces said they picked the right idea.

“I...we…aww hell, thanks.” Vin didn’t know what else to add.

“Now that it’s after midnight and in about six hours the sun will be up, I think it’s time to close shop. Tanner, you’re with me. Kelli, Linda will take you home.” Chris waited for his words to sink in.

“What do you mean, I’m with you?” Vin just realized what Chris had said.

“He means tradition, Vin. You can’t see Kelli before the ceremony.” Nathan patiently explained. “We all had to go through it, now it’s your turn.”

“Linda, I’m fine, you can come over at five, like we planned.” Kelli did not like the change in plans, either.

“This is how it is going to be. Vin, my truck, Kelli with Linda, Buck will drive your truck to the ranch and Inez will follow with the girls. Ezra and I will keep you company tonight and no arguments.” Larabee issued his orders.

“It’s just a few hours and it will give me some time to spend with my best friend before she changes her name.” Linda made her plea.

Neither Vin nor Kelli had an argument for that and reluctantly agreed to the change in plans. However, agreeing and getting it done were two different things. “Linda, you ride with Chris, Buck, go with Inez, I got it covered. When we get to the ranch, we’ll follow your plan, but until then we follow mine.” Vin’s mind was set in stone and no amount of arguing would change it.

Chris figured it was the best he was going to get from Tanner and agreed. Buck had already left with his family when Ezra locked up and headed out. Chris and Linda followed him, after Vin assured them they would be along shortly. Sitting in the parking lot of the Standish Tavern, Vin had not yet started his truck. He wanted to make sure Kelli was okay with the change of plans their family had set up.

“I’m okay with it, it’s only a few hours and I get the impression Linda has somethin’ to discuss.” Kelli continued, “I don’t think, I’ll be sleepin’ anyway. Katrina and Pam will be there by five and I can guarantee the other ladies won’t be left out.”

“If you need me, I won’t be far.” Vin sighed. “Sometimes I forget you made it on your own for a long time, before I met you.”

“That doesn’t mean, I want to be alone again, I kinda like havin’ you around,” she smiled.

“Then I guess we’re even, cause I kinda like havin’ you around, too.” Vin graced her with that Tanner grin. “Let’s get it done then, Lar’bee will be pacin’ till we get there.”

+ + + + + + +

Larabee was pacing, Ezra had already taken Vin’s clothes to the main house and Chris and Linda were waiting on Tanner’s porch.

“They will be here, relax, you’d think you were the one getting married.” Linda laughed, ‘Why are you so uptight about this?”

“It’s like waiting for the other shoe to drop. It seems like every time things start to go good for Vin, something goes wrong.” Chris paced some more.

“Chris, they will be fine and so will you.” Linda was confident. “Just don’t let your imagination run so wild.”

“Are you going to stay here this weekend?” Chris tried to clarify his rapid change of topics. “What I meant to say was… I want to spend some time with you this weekend. You could stay in the guest room, if you want and maybe we could go for a ride and later go out to dinner.”

“I think maybe we can work out something.” Linda smiled, “As long as you don’t plan to keep worrying all weekend.”

Just then, Larabee saw the lights from Vin’s truck and relaxed just a little. What he was concerned about was something going wrong, that might hurt his family. Something he may not be able to control. He wanted Vin to experience some of the same kind of happiness that he had shared with Sarah. As Tanner approached, Chris found himself with a real smile on his face.

“You can drop your guard, Cowboy, we made it safe and sound.” Tanner knew Chris was worried and wanted him to know he did not need to be. “Now, if you wanna give me a few minutes of privacy, I’ll be up at the house after that.”

Chris shook his head, “Nope, say goodnight and come on, your clothes are already at the house.”

“Tanner, I don’t think they are going to leave us alone.” Kelli observed.

“Then I guess they will just have to watch.” Tanner then proceeded to passionately kiss his bride-to-be goodnight, holding nothing back. Just when he was sure he was ready to tell Chris to leave, he heard Linda laugh. How could you forget she was there, Tanner? He leaned back and looked at the woman that had changed his life and whispered, “Goodnight, Texas.”

Turning to Chris, he snapped, “Well, are you coming or not?” Vin walked toward the house only after Linda and Kelli went inside. He did not check to see if Larabee followed him.

Once inside Kelli found Linda’s laughter contagious. “I don’t know how you do it because I’m not sure I share your humor.” she smiled anyway. “So, tell me why having some time with me is so important.”

Linda quit laughing and got serious. “I was instructed to give this to you, on the day you got married and since it is after midnight, I guess that is today. I do not know what is in it, but I do know there is one waiting for me, too. If I ever get married, that is. It’s from my dad, he left this for you.”

Kelli took the large envelope and opened it. Inside were two letters, one for her and one for the man she married. She opened the one addressed to her and read it.

Kelli, if you are reading this, then I am not around to tell you this in person. I always thought of you as my second daughter and was honored that you came into our lives. You deserve to find happiness in your life and I hope that on this day, you have found it. I wish I could be there to walk you down the aisle, but we both know that sometimes life takes turns we do not always want. My wish for you is that you have a good life ahead, filled with love and happiness. Please accept the enclosed, as my gift to you on this special day. Love,

Your almost Dad.

Kelli was in tears before she finished and passed the letter to Linda and soon she was crying, too. In the envelope was a bank draft for one hundred thousand dollars. They sat there and cried together until both women cried themselves out. Kelli would wait to share this with Vin. Tonight, two old friends would reminisce about a man they both missed.


Sunrise was forty-five minutes away and the Larabee household was full. All the brothers were there to keep Tanner from being anxious. They were all taking too much and could not sit still. With the exception of Ezra, they each had a story about their own wedding day to tell. They just would not accept that Vin was not stressed about the upcoming event. Actually, the Texan was the only one who was calm. Vin was ready, he was wearing blue jeans and a long sleeve blue shirt that matched his eyes. He would slip into a darker blue western cut jacket when it was time. A little after six he planned to run everyone out and meet Kelli at six-fifteen.

Kelli was ready for them all to go. She was fine, but everyone else was too anxious about details. She insisted her hair was staying down, not up. Her make-up was okay and her dress did not need any more accessories. Her white tunic top had a V-neck and long billowing sleeves. She wore a white skirt that was long and straight. The only accessory she wore was a silver and turquoise Concho belt that rested perfectly just above her hips. Her jewelry was a pair of silver stud earrings Linda gave her as she was dressing. It was already six and she insisted they all leave.

Vin stood by Chris’ deck and waited for Kelli, a quick check of the time showed ten minutes after six. He had already sent everyone else ahead. He knew they might not approve, but there would be a new tradition started today. He and Kelli intended to walk up that rise together as equal partners starting a new life. Tanner was so lost in thought, he almost did not see her. He had to catch his breath when he saw the beautiful woman walking toward him. Tanner, what did you do to deserve this woman? When she was close, he reached for her hand.

“Good morning, Texas.” Vin only managed to whisper.

“Good morning, Tanner.” She managed to whisper back.

“I have somethin’…” They both spoke at the same time and laughed.

Kelli went first and started to unbuckle Vin’s belt. “The Navajo Indians consider it good fortune to wear turquoise, so my gift to you is this.” The gift was handmade, the image of a bronco in perfect profile carved into a turquoise stone, set in a sterling silver buckle. She helped him put it own and receive a kiss for her efforts.

“And this is for you.” He gave her a silver eagle necklace. It had hand cut pieces of sleeping beauty turquoise inlaid into handmade casing of sterling silver, which formed beautiful eagle images. “Turn around and let me put it on you.” Once it was on, she turned to face him. The necklace was the perfect size to rest in the cut of her V-neck tunic. Kel, how did you ever find this man?

“Are we ready to do this, Kel?” Vin asked and received her nod in return.

Five minutes later, they stood in front of Josiah with Linda next to Kelli and Chris standing with Vin. The young couple listened as he spoke the words that would change their lives. They had written their own vows and once their pledge of commitment was made, they exchanged rings. As they did, the sun came into full view over the mountains.

Chris watched the Texan as he took the next step in his life and was pleased for his brother and best friend. Vin was one of those people that always gave more than he received and he deserved some happiness of his own. His glance fell on Linda and saw she had lost the battle with her own emotions and was crying. If this were not over soon she would not be alone. Chris then realized Josiah had stopped speaking.

The ceremony was over and suddenly even being outside was confining. Everyone moved forward, at once, to offer congratulations. Thankfully, the best man with his natural commanding authority, soon steered the group to breakfast.

Thanks, cowboy.”

Anytime, brother.

Breakfast was loud, with everyone talking at the same time. Somehow, Vin got everyone’s attention and quieted them enough to listen. “We wanna thank all of you for sharin’ this with us and for all the wonderful things y’all have done. It means a lot to both of us to know that we have family that cares.” Vin was through talking and was anxious to get moving.

Kelli and Vin cut the cake and while everyone was still eating, they slipped out the door. Buck and Ezra were to keep the group inside, while Chris and Linda saddled the horses. When they reached their house, they hurriedly changed for their ride. Kelli picked up the envelope from last night and put it in her saddlebag with a few other last minute items. She was ready to go.

“Kel, wait a minute.” Vin held up her boots and laughed.

“It’s your fault you know, you make me forget things, Tanner.” She put on her boots and they were out the door.

At the barn, the horses were ready and now if they could get away quickly things would work out great. Larabee and Tanner said all they needed to with a grasp of forearms. Linda took a little longer. First, she hugged Vin and told him to take care of Kelli. Then she hugged Kelli and was close to tears again.

“Linda, we’ll be back in three days and you and I can have lunch on Wednesday, okay.” Kelli knew how emotional Linda was feeling, especially after giving her the letter last night, it had stirred memories of her father. After last night’s crying session, she figured Linda was in for a rough few days. She only hoped Chris would keep her busy.

Chris knew he needed to do something or they would be standing here all day. He put his arm around Linda’s waist and pulled her to his side. “You two have a good trip and we’ll take care of things here.” Larabee nodded to Tanner.

Vin read Chris, loud and clear and wasted no time with words. He and Kelli rode out leaving Linda in good hands.

“Now, lady, about our weekend plans.” Chris had Linda headed away from the barn before she even realized that Kelli was gone.

+ + + + + + +

Taking a direct route at a brisk pace, the trip to Tanner’s property would only take about thirty-five minutes by horseback. Vin took an indirect trail at a leisurely pace so Kelli could enjoy the scenery. He stopped after an hour of riding and asked her to get off her horse. “We are fixin’ to cross the property line and I want you ridin’ with me when we do.” Vin helped her get on Peso and then settled in behind her. She leaned back against him and enjoyed the feeling of belonging. When she got her first view of the lake, she was in awe of the beauty before her.

“Vin, it’s breathtaking. How did you find something so perfect?”

“Just lucky, I guess.” Vin was watching her, not the lake.

There was a corral for the horses and once they were taken care of, Vin took her to the cabin. He insisted she on carrying her inside and once again, she was surprised. Tanner’s idea of a small cabin was not what she expected. She thought they would be ‘roughing it’. The log cabin was actually about the size of their place at the ranch and was more of a weekend getaway with all the comforts of home. She could see Vin’s touch in every corner of it and knew he had done most of the work himself.

“You are a man of many hidden talents.” Kelli smiled, “You could have told me.”

“And miss the look on your face, no way.” Vin was glad she liked it and was anxious to show her the rest of it. He took her hand and led her through the bedroom to the bath. “You should like this.” There was a garden tub, with whirlpool jets and an oversized shower, which looked very inviting. She was pleased to see he had included skylights here, also.

“I don’t know how much time you have spent here in the past, but plan on a lot more in the future.” Kelli could just stay here, forever. “Let’s build a barn, move the horses and never go back.”

“That might take a little while, in the meantime, how about we check out the shower before lunch?” Vin was already undressing her as he posed the question. “We have somethin’ important to talk about.” He began to make love to his new wife and soon they both lost track of time

Much later, after a late lunch they sat on the front porch swing and talked about the future. Kelli figured it was a good time to share the letters from Linda’s dad. She let Vin read the one addressed to her and showed him the check. “I’ve been thinkin’ about all this money we suddenly have and have some ideas about what to do with it all.” With Vin’s encouragement she continued. “I thought we might take the money My Texas Lady won and will win and give it to programs that help children that have been abused. The money from Linda’s dad, we could put into the breeding program for Larabee 7." She watched him for his reaction.

“It sounds like you have given this some serious thought. I agree, but I think we should talk to Ezra and see how to go about it. He is the expert on investments and legal issues concernin’ Larabee 7. Josiah can probably direct us to some organizations that work with children." Vin already knew she had never touched her trust from Jake and expected her to want to give away most of the rest.

“Okay, now your letter. If you want to read it in private, I’ll give you some time alone.” She was prepared to leave.

“Stay where you are, we don’t need secrets between us.” Vin opened the letter and read it.

I may not know your name, but I do know who you are. You are a man of strong character, tenacious and have a compassionate soul. Kelli is too street smart to let just any man break through her defenses. You must also have gentleness and a helluva lot of patience. Kelli trusts you or you would not be in her life, consider yourself fortunate. She is a daughter not of my blood, but of my heart. As much as I wanted her to be part of our family, there was a part of her which she could never give to us. A part she could never give to anyone. The fact, that you are reading this says she has found someone that has reached her soul and given her freedom to love completely. She would not settle for less.

I will apologize now for leaving this for you to deal with, but I never found the right time to tell her this. If you are going to share this with her that is fine, but you might want to keep the information on this page to yourself for a while. Pick the right time to tell her. I know she has told you about her past, she would never consider marriage without telling first. Kelli does not know that I knew about her history. I never told anyone, not even Linda, but I wanted to help. Without her knowledge, I hired the best investigators in the country to search for some answers. They had only limited success. The enclosed disk holds the information they did find. It is the only record and there are no copies. She deserves some answers and I pray that you are the man to help find them. Take care of her, son, or you will answer to this old man in the hereafter.

J.M Dubois

Vin was moved by the old man’s word and amazed he knew Kelli so well. He gave her both pages to read and prepared himself for the tears he knew were coming. He held her for a long time and let her cry. It seemed only fair since he was the one to unlock all the emotions she now had to deal with. However, she did not have to deal with them, alone.


“Now, lady, about our weekend plans.” Chris had Linda headed away from the barn before she even realized that Kelli was gone. “I’m thinking today we laze around here have an early meal and maybe watch a movie or two.”

“Since when does Chris Larabee, laze around?” Linda tried a smile.

“How many times do I marry off my best friend?” Chris grinned,” That’s damn hard work.”

“You’re right, I say they owe us. Maybe we should crash their weekend at the Preakness.” Linda was already feeling better.

“Think you could make the arrangements?” She nodded an affirmative answer, Chris knew now, that if she had a way to redirect her thoughts she would be fine. “You do that, while I try to reclaim my house.”

Linda pulled out her cell phone and Chris went to organize his affairs. Some things are just not that easy, even for Chris Larabee. It was after two before the clean up was finished and everyone went home.

“What movies would you like to watch?” Chris finally had Linda alone and did not plan for her to leave anytime soon.

“You pick the first one and I will pick the next.” Linda wanted to see what he liked.

Chris was not sure what she would like so he decided a comedy was a safe place to start. He settled with her on the couch and soon forgot about the movie. He spent time watching the beautiful woman beside him and soon was lost in thought.

Larabee, you know she deserves a man that can offer more. A man willing to give her the life she will not have with you. She could probably find him too, if you were not in the picture. All the things a woman wants, marriage, children and a future of growing old together. She would make a great mom, just look how she mothers Kelli. Yeah, but Chris, you also know you will not give her up, not yet. There will come a day she will get tired of waiting for you to change. In the meantime, make some memories to look back on, for the long cold nights you will spend alone.

Linda did not really care about the movie. She was enjoying the company of the man beside her, more. Even with no words spoken, it was an enjoyment just to be near him. He was almost the perfect man, if only he was not so set on punishing himself for surviving. Linda lost herself in her thoughts.

Dubois, you are in so deep with this man, you know you will not give up easily. He deserves to be complete again. To find the happiness he wants for his brothers. Chris needs more children of his own to love and nurture. He has so much to give and you know he was a fabulous Dad. Okay, Linda, you wait for as long as it takes. In the meantime, do not deny yourself what you need. Maybe you do not know him as you wish too, but you do know you desire him. Tonight, show him how much you miss his touch, stay with him and make love all night. With time and patience, maybe you can make it last a lifetime.

Chris tightened his hold on the woman, he held. He kissed the back of her neck and felt her shiver. His hand move to caress her lovely body. She may not be ready to let him back in her bed, but he could still enjoy the feel of her. He shifted his position on the couch and drew her down next to him. He spent time to explore every curve of her sexy body with hands that caressed and stroked. Suddenly, she was doing the same thing and he was losing what little control he had. Linda wanted this man, if she could not capture his mind, then she would take his body. She would receive his offer of lust as a gift for herself. Chris was surprised by her boldness, but very satisfied with the results.

Chris said the first thing that came to mind. “I love your choice of movies,” he gave her the Larabee grin and kissed her thoroughly. With a pat to her backside he asked, “Should we move the next episode to someplace more comfortable?”

Linda gave him an impish grin, “What makes you think there is a next episode, Cowboy?”

“This.” Chris kissed her and ran his hands over her warm body.

“Your place or mine?” She gave him a sexy smile.

“Mine’s closer.” He gathered her in his arms and carried her to his bedroom.

Chris spent the remainder of the night making up for the time they had lost. Sleep claimed them in the early hours of morning. The smell of coffee brewing woke him. The clock read nine-thirty, the reach of his hand told him Linda was still with him. Who in the hell, is in the kitchen?

Wearing only his sweatpants, Chris investigated. “Buck, what are you doing here?”

“Guess you forgot about the horse sale.” Buck grinned as he saw recollection cross Larabee’s face.

“Yeah, what time was that?” Chris reached for a cup.

“”We have to be there by noon, if we want to bid on the mare we want.”

“Okay, but Linda is going with us.” Chris hesitated for a moment. “And there will be no comments, Buck. We will meet you at the barn in thirty minutes, “As an after thought, he yelled out the door, “Plan on stopping for breakfast, I am starved.” The only answer he got, was laughter from his old friend.

Now, all he had to do was to wake Linda and tell her. Their lazy day together would be spent with Buck instead, not riding, but buying horses. Yeah, Chris, but there is always tonight

+ + + + + + +

Monday mornings always, come too soon. Larabee was reluctant to see this weekend pass. It was one of the best in a very long time. Linda was his lover again and he was content with his decision to move forward. Vin was happy and that was something that Chris wanted for his friend. They even managed a successful bid on the mare they needed. Now, if the final week of preparations for MCAT went as well…He heard Reed before he saw him.

“You better know the lay of the land, if you want to see action.” Sam was talking to their newest agent. “Larabee treats some of these guys like family and you have to work with women. Of course one of them got smart and starting putting out to one of the bosses so …”

“Reed, in my office now!” Larabee’s good mood evaporated. Once Reed was in his office, he had him shut the door.

“I am only going to say this one time. What my agents do in their personal life is their business. I expect a professional attitude in this unit and that means: Do not gossip! Do your job! No smart-ass remarks! No backstabbing! If you have a complaint, it comes to me! Are we clear?” Those remarks delivered with the Larabee glare had Sam very uncomfortable, but did not stop him.

“I have seen better behaved units in the Boy Scouts. Am I just supposed to ignore the lack of discipline around here? If I were in charge…”

“IF you intend to continue having a career in law enforcement you WILL find a way to resolve your asinine assumptions! If not, I will make a point to see that you spend the rest of your short career doing nothing, but grunge work. Now, get the hell out of my office!" Chris needed to get away from the man before he forgot he was a professional.

Buck stuck his head in the door. “You okay in here?”

“You heard, come on in.” Chris was still standing and was not past his anger.

“I think the entire floor heard.” Wilmington laughed, “Too bad it’s not professional just to shoot him.”

“What’s too bad is, we are stuck with him for another five months, unless he quits or requests a transfer.” Chris was exasperated. “Why is he so vocal, now? I thought he settled down.”

“Tanner keeps a close watch on him and I guess and with Vin gone, Reed decided to test the waters.” Buck speculated. “There is a lot that doesn’t get to you when Tanner is here. He does a good job of keeping a lid on things. Almost as good as you did with us.” Buck laughed, “You trained him right.”

“Yeah, he does. Of course, I got a lot of experience running interference between you guys and Travis. I am finding it difficult to not to have my hand in everything, like I used to. Letting go of old habits is not easy.”

“You have to delegate some of it or with all the new responsibly you will go on overload. We don’t like a stressed-out Larabee. It’s not good for our health.” Wilmington smiled.

“Tomorrow you get to watch him because I will be in a meeting with Travis most of the day.” Chris had to smile when he heard Buck groan.

“You said he either has to quit or request a transfer, right?” Buck had the start of an idea.

“Whatever you are thinking, I don’t want to hear about it.” Chris grinned, “At least not officially.”

Larabee smiled as Buck left. He knew if the boys decided to give Reed the ‘treatment’ they had perfected so well over the years, Sam would be begging to leave before the month was over. If anyone deserves it, it’s him. Larabee, just sit back and enjoy the entertainment.


Vin could not believe it was already Monday afternoon. Tomorrow they would return to ‘civilization’. Each second spent out here, he treasured and he could almost talk himself into staying permanently. They had taken long rides, played in the water, enjoyed beautiful sunsets and made love with the sunrises.

The last three days had been full of revelations for him about Kelli. Every time he thought he could not possibly love her more, she would do or say something to prove him wrong. Each time they made love, he was sure it could not be better. Until the next time they would come together and he found a new level of ecstasy to explore. Sitting here on the porch, watching her walk up from the lake, still mad at him for the disagreement they were having, he realized he even enjoyed arguing with her. Face it, Tanner, your life has never been better.

“Lake still there?” A twinkle of amusement danced in his vibrant blue eyes as she stood before him, with her hands on her hips.

“Very funny, Tanner and don’t do that.” Kelli tried to hold onto some of her anger from the spat, that drove her to seek solitude by the lake. She really wanted another firearms instructor instead of Vin, but he was adamant about training her himself. The look in his eyes was her downfall and wiped away all her remaining annoyance. The effect he had on her was exactly the reason that she wanted someone else to help improve her scores. Vin said no and would not even discuss it. She knew he would win this argument, but… she planned to enjoy every minute of losing it.

“Do what?” He asked innocently as he drew her to him. He first ran his hands down her smooth back. “This?” Resting his hands on her backside, he asked again. “Or this?” Drawing her even closer, he pressed against her and whispered in her ear. “Maybe this?” Finally, he captured her mouth is a fiery kiss than left her unable to object.

“You don’t play fair, Tanner.” All she could manage was a husky whisper while his hands roamed over her. She felt the heat race through her body like a burning fire.

“Never said I did, but it is my playtime and my turn to make the rules.” Vin lifted her into his arms and carried her to the bedroom. Slowly, he undressed her while replacing her clothes with his kisses. When she tried to undress him, he stopped her. “My game, my rules, baby.” He sat her on the edge of the bed and removed only his shirt and boots. “You can look, but you can’t touch.”

“Vin, please.” She reached for him.

“Not yet, I’m not through.” He kissed her stomach and moved up. Her reactions and the sexy sound of her moans of pleasure told him his game was almost over.

“Tanner, please!” Kelli could not handle more, he was driving her crazy with his sensual assault.

When he raised his head and looked in her eyes, he saw only wild desire and he knew she was past the point of being ready for him. It was a while after that before either of them could move. Finally, he rolled to his side taking Kelli with him. “You okay, baby?” Her head rested on his shoulder, so she did not see the look of male satisfaction on his face. He stroked her cheek and brushed back her hair with his fingers.

“Better than okay.” Kelli raised her head slightly to see his face. His blue eyes sparkled with mischief. Speaking slowly and punctuating each word with a kiss, somewhere on his body, she said, “Vin… next… time… I … make… the… rules… and… I’m …a… fast… learner.” Her last kiss had her face to face with the man that had brought her more pleasure, than she ever imagined possible.

“Countin’ on it, Texas.” He wrapped his arms around her to claim her again. “Next time, but we’re still on my time, now.” He said softly, as he began another sensual assault to take her to paradise.

Much later, they sat under the night sky and listened to the sounds of nature around them. Kelli leaned against him as he held her next to him. The Texan felt he owed her an explanation. “There are more than a few good firearms instructors around. However, the truth is, I am better than all of them. I want you to learn the best ways possible to enhance your skills. That increases the odds of you stayin’ safe and uninjured on the job. I will not trust anyone to teach you that, but me. Your safety is too important to me, to let anything get in the way of that.” Vin tightened his hold on her.

“I’m glad you explained and I do understand.” She sighed, “I just…dammit, Tanner, every time I get this close to you, my discipline vanishes. It’s difficult to concentrate when all I want to do is strip off your clothes. You just don’t realize how being near you affects me.” Lord, doesn’t the man realize how sexy he is?

Vin had not been able to figure out why she did not want him to instruct her. Many reasons crossed his mind, but this one he had not considered. One he definitely did not think she would readily admit to. He turned her to face him and wanted to ask if she was serious. One look in her eyes and he knew she was. A slow smile started across his handsome face.

“If you laugh, Tanner, so help me…”

Tanner was not laughing, he was too pleased to do that. He grinned at the thought of Kelli being undisciplined about anything. Hell, her whole life had been about self-discipline and controlling her emotions. Oh, he knew she enjoyed his body when they made love, but her admission was gratifying. He was aware that expressing her feelings was new to her and not always easy. Nevertheless, she had come a long way in a short time.

“I reckon, now that I know my once disciplined wife has no self control, I’ll have to have enough for both of us.” He kissed her slowly and deeply before adding, “But not tonight.” Vin started to unbutton her shirt and she stopped him.

“Tanner, you’re forgetting somethin’, it’s my game, my rules, baby.” She laughed as she pushed him back on the blanket and began to undress him.

+ + + + + + +

Chris made it home by six and was pleased to see Linda already here. They had pre-arranged to meet for dinner and she was staying the night. While he tended the horses, Linda was in the kitchen putting the finishing touches on their dinner. With headphones on, listening to music, she did not hear him come in. When he walked up behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist, she screamed and dropped the tomato she was holding to the floor.

“Chris, you scared the hell out of me.” Her attempt to reprimand him failed when she set eyes on his gorgeous body. She was delighted to hear his laughter as he reached in the fridge for a cold beer.

“You were expecting someone else?” He grinned at the look of desire on her face. Walking to her, he took the cold bottle and touched her neck. She shivered from the chill. He decided she needed to get warmer and kissed her eagerly. The beer and dinner forgotten, he pressed her against the counter and ran his hands over her body. Leaving a mark of passion on her neck, he quickly started undressing her. Not one to be left behind, Linda had his shirt off in a matter of seconds. She sucked in her breath at the sight of his muscular chest and felt the fires of passion take over her body. Chris lifted her and carried her to his bedroom.

“Welcome home, Cowboy.”

It was much later, after they had a long hot shower and another round of hot steamy sex, that Chris realized he was hungry. Trying not to disturb a sleeping Linda, he went to the kitchen to see what could be salvaged from dinner.

“Hot salad doesn’t sound too appealing, does it?” Linda stood in the doorway.

“Not really, but I do make a mean omelet.” Chris smiled and opened the refrigerator to find the ingredients he would need.

Together they straightened the kitchen and then ate their ‘dinner’. It was almost midnight by the time they finished and the dishes had been done. “Let’s get some sleep. I have a meeting with Travis tomorrow that promises to be an all day affair.” Chris had his arms around her and together they went back to bed.

Somewhere, something was ringing. It finally registered with Chris that it was his phone. A check of the time found it was four in the morning. “Larabee.” Chris listened as his ranch supervisor delivered his message. “I’ll be right down, George.”

“Chris, what’s wrong?” Linda was awake.

“A couple of the mares are foaling. One is having problems and the vet is not available until late tomorrow.” He did not want to tell her anymore just now. “Go back to sleep.”

“Chris, which mare is it? What kind of problem?” Linda was already up and getting dressed.

“Linda…Sandstone is trying to foal and something’s wrong. George is afraid we might lose her.” Chris put on his shirt, “I’m going to see if there is anything I can do.”

“Sandy?” That was one of Kelli’s mares, a beautiful golden palomino. “I know that horse as well as Kelli does, I’m going with you.”

Within ten minutes, they were at the barn and Linda rushed to the mare. Speaking softy to her, she got close enough to feel her belly.

“How long has she been like this?” Linda was alarmed to see the horse in so much distress.

“She was doing okay until about an hour ago, then suddenly things turned bad for her.” George explained. “Mr. Larabee, I need to get back to your other mare, she is just about ready. Tonight must be the night for newborns.”

“Go, George. Linda, do you know if an ultrasound was done on her?” Chris thought he might know what the problem was. After a quick check, he feared the foal was breech and stuck.

“We did one before she was moved over here, I’ll call Ben. What do you need to know?” Linda was already dialing the number.

“When it was done, how big the foal was and did it show any potential challenge for the mare.” Chris talked as he continued to examine the horse.

After a few minutes of conversation with Ben, Linda had the answers, Chris needed. “I don’t know how I missed it. The ultra sounds were taken six weeks ago and showed one large foal.” Linda hesitated for a moment, “It also showed a second smaller one. Ben is on his way over to help.”

“That explains it. The larger foal is breech and with the second one pushing, it’s putting too much stress on the mare. We have to get the breech foal out as quickly as possible or we will lose them all.” Chris knew what he had to do and knew there was only a fifty-fifty chance of success. “How long will it take Ben to get here?”

“Not long, but I can help.” Linda offered.

“Just try to keep her calm, you don’t have the strength it will take to do this. Even with Ben to help me, I am not sure we can do it.” Chris waited impatiently for Ben to arrive.

Once Ben arrived, he and Chris put on gloves and together tried to free the larger foal. After five minutes of searching, Chris found a hoof and then quickly found three more and turned the backward baby. Together, he and Ben pulled and the new colt was in the clear. His sister followed in less than two minutes. They got both of them to their feet and found them to be in good shape.

“They’re beautiful!” Linda squealed with delight. “You have two new babies, Sandy. What do you think?”

Chris and Ben sat on the ground once the adrenaline rush of the delivery was over, they were both suddenly very tired. George came over and told them there was another healthy filly in the other barn.

“Ben, would you like to join me for a cup of coffee? “ Chris managed a smile, “I’m buying.” He looked to Linda, “Come on, George will keep an eye on them for a while.”

Once in the house, coffee turned into breakfast, then Linda sent Ben home and cleaned the kitchen. Chris showered and dressed for work. When he returned to the kitchen, she had just finished.

“Don’t you look handsome?” Linda gave him the once over.

“You don’t get any ideas, I am late already.” Chris gave her a quick kiss. “The vet should be here before noon. Are you staying around today with the new twins or at least until Vin and Kelli get back?”

“Try and keep me away from them.” Linda gave him a brilliant smile. Good luck with your meeting and try to stay awake.”

“Will you be here when I get home?” Chris was hopeful. “I can try to be in early.”

“Try and keep me away.” She gave him a kiss to think about today. Chris left for work, Linda headed to the barn.


It was almost three and Tanner had been trying to get Kelli to leave for over an hour. She kept finding one more thing to do and still did not have her boots on. He finally caught her on another trip to check on the kitchen.

“Kel, we have checked and double checked everythin’. The horses are ready, we have what we need and the place will still be here when we come back.” As he spoke, he steered her to the porch and grabbed her boots. “It’s time to go, baby.”

“I know.” She sighed, “It’s just that I don’t ever remember being this content and I’m reluctant to let it go.”

“I promise we’ll be back soon and often.” Vin drew her into his arms and held on to her. “In the meantime, I guess I’ll just have to give you somethin’ else to think about.” He handed her the boots, threw her over his shoulder and gave a light slap to her rear. Ignoring her complaints, he walked over to his horse and once he had her on Peso, he stuffed her boots in the saddlebags. He climbed on behind her and wrapping his arms around her proceeded to give her something else to think about as they headed home. Dancer followed without protest.

“You still don’t play fair, Tanner.” Kelli leaned back against him as his free hand found its way under her shirt.

“Never said I did, but then you don’t either,” Vin growled, “If you don’t quit squirming and behave, you’re going to have a bigger problem to take care of.”

“Is that a promise?” Kelli wiggled against him just a little more and gave him a mischievous grin. “Vin have you ever...”

“No, I haven’t and Peso would probably kill us both if we tried.” Vin knew they would be making at least one stop on the way home. He had to smile though because it was his turn to make the rules.

It was after five when the Larabee 7 homestead came into view. Kelli raced Vin the last quarter mile. He said he let her win, she knew better. As they rode in, Chris was walking from the house.

“I was beginning to wonder if you two were ever coming home.” Chris had a smile for both of them. “I thought I might have to come drag you away from that place.”

“Almost, Cowboy.” Vin returned the smile. “I did have to drag Kelli away.”

“Good thing you did or she would have missed the babies first day.” Chris grinned even more at her reaction. He answered her unspoken question. “Sandstone.”

Vin took Dancer’s reins, “Go, I’ll be there as soon as I take care of the horses.”

Kelli ran to the other barn and Chris helped Vin with the horses. Once Tanner had everything put up the two men walked to the barn to see the latest additions.

“You look like a man with a lot on his mind.” Vin watched his best friend, he had missed their easy companionship.

“Nothing that won’t keep, we can talk later.” Chris felt better with Vin back home.

Linda was in the barn when Kelli got there and was surprised when she found out Chris had already talked to them.

“I didn’t even know he was here.” Linda looked behind Kelli. “Is he coming down here?”

“I think so, he was with Vin when I left.” Kelli’s attention turned to the foals. “Lord, look at them. Aren’t they beautiful?”

Linda told her the story about last night and gave her a report on the vet‘s examination. The colt had his leg wrapped due to a little swelling, but the filly was full of vim and vigor. She finished as Chris and Vin walked in.

“Chris, I owe you, Linda told me what you did and I appreciate it.” Kelli did not want to get emotional, but nowadays her emotions just snuck up on her, along with those damned tears.

“You are most welcome, I’m just glad I was here to help.” Chris gave her a warm smile, “Besides, Sandy did the hard part.”

Vin knew Kelli was battling her emotions again. A change of direction was in order. “Chris, you’re experienced with horses. Did you ever…”Vin never finished his question, but did have an impish look in his eyes.

“Tanner! Don’t you dare.” Kelli snapped.

Chris was not sure of the question, but he did know Vin had goaded his wife and had received the desired results. Kelli was not on the edge of tears now, in fact, she had a decent glare going.

How do you do it, Vin?

Natural talent, Lar’bee.

Better sooth her ruffled feathers.

Looking forward to it.

Chris laughed out loud and slapped Vin on the shoulder. Tanner joined his now annoyed wife and quickly had her back in a good mood.

Linda watched the by play between the two men and was not completely sure what just happened. She did see that Chris was very at ease with his younger friend and for the first time, she recognized the close bond concerning them. It was more than just a friendship. They both had an easy camaraderie with each other. Chris seemed more….open…more …complete?

“You’re real glad he’s back, aren’t you?” Linda was trying to work something out.

“Yeah, things tend to run smoother when Tanner is around.” Chris realized Vin was the anchor he depended on, one way or another. Tanner never let Chris get to far off center and was not put off by his temper or moodiness. They kept each other balanced.

Vin and Kelli checked on the other ‘girls’ and soon found their way back to Chris and Linda. They also made a point to see the other new foal, one of Hunter’s offspring.

“Looks like it might be a long night, that bay mare is startin’ to show signs of contractions.” “Vin shared his observation with the group.

“Then I suppose we should get everyone fed and put on some coffee.” Chris was prepared to wait with them.

“I ordered some pizza and it should be here soon, a welcome home dinner for you two.” Linda offered, “Then we can all wait it out together.”

“How about we meet you at the house, I need to shower and change first.” Kelli felt she needed a little time to regroup.

+ + + + + + +

Once the pizza was demolished, Larabee and Tanner left to meet with George. Vin wanted an update on the rest of the horses and Chris wanted to check on the progress of the rebuilding.

“So, did you show Vin the letter Dad left?” Linda thought Kelli would share all the details with her.

“Yeah and then I gave him the other one.” Kelli continued to gather pizza boxes for the trash.

“Well, what did it say? Did it have a check, too?” Linda was bursting with curiosity.

“No check. As to what it said you‘d have to ask Vin. It was his letter after all and for him to share, if he wishes to do so.” Kelli answered, only halfway listening to her friend.

“I will just bet he tells Chris, what it said.” Linda was frustrated.

“He might. Is there a reason why he shouldn’t?” Kelli stopped what she was doing. Linda now had her full attention.

“I don’t know…It just seems like Chris is more in tune with Vin, than anyone else.” Linda was not sure how to explain it. “He gives Vin a part of himself that he doesn’t share with anyone else. Not even with me and we are supposed to be…hell, I’m not even sure what we are supposed to be.”

“Linda, they have known each other and worked together a long time.” Kelli was uncertain if she should say more. She hesitated for a minute before continuing. “I hear things at work and one thing I heard was about Chris and Vin. It would appear that they have some kind of …unexplained connection. They can somehow read each other’s thoughts and talk without talkin’. I know it sounds weird, but I have seen them together enough to know that there is somethin’ to it.”

“Are you going to tell me that it does not bother you that Vin is ‘connected’, in some way, to Chris?” Linda could not accept that. “Shouldn’t you be the person closest to Vin?”

“Chris was a big part of Vin’s life before I ever met him. Just like you and I have been friends for a long time. These friendships help make us who we are and should not be abandoned, just because we care about someone else.” Kelli chose her words carefully. “As to Vin and I, whatever the connection is between him and Chris, it does not take away from our relationship. I am glad he has a friend that he trusts and one that he knows will be there for him, no matter what. That kind of trust is had to come by in this life and should not be taken lightly.”

“I didn’t say they should not be friends, I just…” Linda was not sure what she felt.

“So, talk to me and tell me what you are thinkin’.” Kelli waited.

“Chris has been upfront about his position, he does not want marriage or more children. I know he can get past that with time, but does he have room for more in his life. Between his work, Vin, the horses and the rest of the family, where do I fit in?”

“From what I have seen, you fit in with Chris, right by his side and that is by his choice. Just because a man can love a lot of things and people, does not mean he has no room for anyone new.”

“I agreed to his terms and I think it will work. However, what happens if I decide I want children later on and he still does not? I am already in love with him and could not just walk away.”

“Once you are confident of your place in Chris’ life, I think you might see things a little differently.” Kelli wanted to help, but was not sure how. “When you accept what he has to offer you, without doubts, you will be happier, but you are the only one than can decide if it is enough.

“You might be right. Maybe I will feel differently when I work things through with Chris.” Linda still had her doubts, however, about where Vin fit in Chris’ life. “What about you? Have you found what you want?”

“The only thing lackin’ is a guarantee that things will never change. I know that is impossible because life does not work that way. However, I have somethin’ that even life at its cruelest cannot touch. Every day Vin and I have together is marked in my memory. No matter what the future holds, I will have known what it feels like to love unconditionally and to be loved the same way. No one could ask for more than that.” Kelli felt those sneaky emotions trying to work their way into her words again.

“I am happy for you because you deserve to experience those things. I have been telling you for years you could find it. You just never believed me.” Linda smiled, thinking about all the arguments they had shared about this particular subject. “Now, about tomorrow, I think I should keep an eye on that colt and we will have lunch another time. Have you thought about names yet?”

“I have not even considered names. With another foal comin’ tonight and work tomorrow, it may take a while. In addition, I have to do some make up time in physical therapy and still write thank you notes for the wedding gifts.” Kelli sighed, “I wonder how many problems it would cause if we begged off on the weekend trip?”

“You would seriously think about not going?” Linda asked.

“Yes, if I can get away with it.” Kelli did not hear Chris and Vin return.

“Get away with what?” Vin walked up behind her and massaged her shoulders.

“Kelli thinks there is too much to do this week to take off for the weekend.” Linda explained.

“Well, at least on the work front she may be right. This week will be full.” Chris agreed. “I almost forgot, I have something for you two.” Chris pulled two envelopes from his jacket giving one to Linda and the other to Kelli. “They are letters of apology from the Chief of Police for the Denver Police Department. The two officers that gave you a hard time have been reprimanded.”

“Thank you, Chris. I know you are responsible for these.” Linda was pleased that he thought to follow up on it.

“Thanks, it more than I expected.” Kelli thought it had been forgotten.

“Besides work, what else would keep you from going?” Chris asked, “Maybe it’s something I can help with.”

“I doubt it, unless you want to write thank you notes, go to physical therapy for me and horse sit.” Kelli smiled, “But, I don’t want any one in the family to have hurt feelins’, if we don’t go.”

“The trip can be changed to any weekend and I’m sure everyone would understand, if you would rather be here with the new foals.” Vin knew why she wanted to stay home and agreed. “Looks like another one of the Larabee mares will foal tonight, too,”

What about your plans to join us?

Not a problem, another time is fine, Vin.

Linda watched and wondered what they were up to now. Maybe you should pay closer attention, Linda.

“Why don’t we go down and check on the ‘girls’. Linda, y’all come down when you are ready.” Kelli sensed Linda wanted to talk to Chris and urged Vin out the door.

“If you still want to go, we can.” Chris pulled her closer to him. “We can do whatever you want for the entire weekend.”

“No, we’ll pick another weekend and all go together.” Linda patted his butt and smiled, “You and I can be together anywhere.”


Chris stood on his deck and waited for the sun to make its appearance over the mountain. Linda had spent most of the night checking on the mares and had not gotten much sleep, so he dressed for work without disturbing her. Two new foals were in the barns this morning, both healthy and happy. He went in and retrieved a second cup of coffee for Vin, he knew he would be here any minute. Just as he made it back to the deck, Tanner appeared and took the offered cup.

“You look like I feel, you get any sleep? Chris felt every one of his forty-four years this morning. Between the birth of the new foals and making love to Linda, he had not slept much.

“Some, between takin’ care of Kelli and keepin’ watch on the mares, it was damned hard to get any rest, though.” Tanner grinned when he saw Chris shaking his head in agreement. At least he was not the only one worn out. From trying to balance his time between his need for his new wife and the demands of caring for the mares, he was dog-tired.

“You know, Vin, if we are not careful, people might begin to think we are getting soft.” Chris said referring to their sorry state this morning.

The two friends stood silent for a few minutes and then suddenly they both started to laugh at the same time. Criminals for years had tried to find a way to slow down the two men, who were considered to be hard ass sonofabitches. The thought that two females had easily accomplished, what no criminal ever had, struck them as funny.

“Linda decided we are having a’ Preakness’ party this weekend. Since we will not be going there, she is going to bring it here, via big screen TV and all the extras. She did not want you and Kelli to miss seeing your horse race.”

“Kelli will like that because she can run out and check on her babies during commercials. Any more of her girls foal this week and she will be insistin’ we sleep in the barn with them.” He smiled at the thought as he watched his young wife come up from the barns. She walked straight into his waiting arms, leaning on him for support. The long night takings it toll on her, she laid her head on his chest and sighed. The Texan rubbed her shoulders and back before giving her a good morning kiss, that was definitely rated for mature audiences only.

“How are your foals?” Chris asked, amused at how much things had changed for his Texas friend. Was it only six weeks ago he had called Vin shy and insecure about how to handle women? He certainly was not that way now. In fact, he had the perfect instincts about the right things to do, at least with this woman.

“They are doin’ great and the vet will be out later this mornin’ to check on them. George promised to keep a close eye on my babies for me today.” She responded tiredly. “I need to go or I won’t make it to my therapy appointment on time.” Kelli forced her self to move. “I should make it into the office by ten.”

“I need to get movin’ too. It wouldn’t be good to make the boss late and Lar’bee looks like he is ready to leave.” Tanner kissed her one more time and then they both went separate ways.


The morning moved swiftly amid a flurry of activity. Anticipation filled the air because everyone knew the time of transitions was nearing an end. Within days, they would be doing the work they had been trained to do. Larabee or Tanner had said nothing yet, but the agents sensed real action was just around the corner and eagerly awaited their assignments.

Fifteen agent stuck on desk duty, for six weeks, had the tension level high and tempers short. Chris decided to give them one final training project. One that was sure to vent some of the built up aggression.

“Conference room, ten minutes.” Larabee issued the command.

As the ream gathered, their usual lively banter was missing. Instead, fifteen agents quietly filed in the room, sat down and awaited their leader. Larabee did not make them wait long.

“The reports I have received on all of you, from Captain Tanner, have been favorable and I am pleased to see the progress that has been made in the last few weeks. I also realize this is a working environment that is new to you. If you recall when we first started, I told you our MCAT unit was the only one of its kind, in existence. That is still true. Therefore, it is a big responsibility for all of us to make sure it is successful.

I do want to make some things clear. Captain Tanner is your immediate supervisor and you will go to him first with any challenges you may have. I am the one, however, that will make the final decisions on assignments and will approve all plans before we go into action. When you go into the field, I go into the field. You will never be asked to do anything, I would not do myself. You do not need to look for me because I have a habit of making my presence know in all operations. That means if you screw up out there, you will have me on your ass in a heartbeat.”

“Sometimes, quicker than that and I speak from personal experience.” Buck could not resist interrupting.

“I can attest to the actuality that Agent Larabee gives no clemency with his reprimands.” Ezra added.

“For those of you who don’t speak Ezra, that means Larabee kicks butt.” JD clarified for the newer agents.

Everyone laughed, some knowing and some thinking, the agents were exaggerating. Chris silenced his rowdy agents with one look and continued.

“Starting Monday, we will be handling our first real case and you will have your assignment given to you then. In the meantime, we will have one more teaching exercise. Agents Tanner and Wilmington will be your instructors for training classes in the art of self-defense. The classes will be from eight to eleven, Thursday and Friday. Only three of you will be excused from this assignment. They are Agents Dunne and Walton, who are preparing background information for our new case and Agent Coulter, who is still on restrictive duty. The rest of you meet at the training center tomorrow morning at eight for your directives. Four of you will be chosen to participate in a friendly match, set for Friday afternoon, against your instructors.”

After giving them their orders, Chris dismissed the agents. With two days on the mats, they should be able to release a lot of accumulated aggression.

+ + + + + + +

Some days have twenty-four hours in them and some add a couple hours of hell just for good measure. Today was one of those days. Any little detail that could delay leaving the Federal Building had occurred and consequently, it was almost seven before Vin and Kelli made it home. Chris was still another fifteen minutes behind them. Thankfully, Linda had already tended to the horses and had the grill ready to throw some steaks on, for the exhausted trio.

“Please tell me that none of the mares look like they will foal tonight.” Kelli loved her horses, but two hours of sleep in the last twenty-four was pushing her limits.

“The all look fine and the vet gave all the colts a clean bill of health.” Linda was happy to report.

‘”Linda, thanks for staying on top of things today and for dinner. I’m glad you were here.” Chris wrapped his arms around her waist and gave her a kiss.

“Appreciate it and thanks for tending to the horses. Cowboy, kiss her again for that.” Vin gave Larabee a big grin.

“Sometimes, Vin, you do make some excellent suggestions.” Chris did kiss her again. He whispered only for Linda to hear, “Once dinner is over, I’ll give you a proper thank-you.”

After their meal, Kelli offered to help with the dishes, but Linda declined. She knew her friend needed some sleep. In fact, they all looked like they could use some sleep. She suggested that Chris relax in the den and that Vin take his redhead home, while she took care of the clean up. No one argued with her.

“Come on, woman, let’s go home.” Vin took Kelli’s hand. A quick check on the foals and the Tanners went home and for once, went straight to bed and slept.

Linda finished the dishes and went to check on Chris. The only sound she heard was coming from the television. She took one look in the den and realized he had fallen asleep in his recliner. Shaking her head, she smiled and she knew she could not carry him, so she gently shook him awake.

“Come on, stud, let’s go to bed, but you owe me double for tomorrow.

+ + + + + + +

Chris stretched and looked at the clock it was almost the morning? The last thing he remembered was sitting down to watch the news and oh yeah…he must have gone to sleep. Then Linda’s voice… Damn, Larabee, she must be madder than hell.

Linda watched Chris walk across the bedroom, he was naked and gorgeous. She had to smile when she heard him turn on the shower. Hot, steamy, sex. What a way to start the morning. She slid out of bed and headed for the shower. Chris owes me.

“Morning, stud.” She undressed and slid into the shower behind him.

“Good morning to you, too.” Chris reached for her and she stopped him.

“No you don’t. I learned a long time ago how to check out a stud before he get near my mares. Now, I need to check you out.” Linda gave him a wicked grin. “Just stand still, I promise this won’t hurt.”

“Good muscle tone.” Linda ran her hands over his chest and arms and then lower to grasp more muscle. “Nice firm butt.” She slid her hand down his long powerful legs. “Tendons are in good shape. Now to see if the equipment is in working order.” When she reached for him, he could take no more.

“Let me show you how it works.” Steam filled the room and the two lovers found a pathway to paradise.

“Well, do I pass?” Chris grinned. Linda could not speak and only nodded for an affirmative response.


Linda and Chris took their morning coffee to the deck and waited for Tanner to arrive. “Chris, would it be all right if I called Inez about the party this weekend? Maybe she could even get Casey, Rain and Mallory to help.” Linda wanted to see if he minded her involving his family.

“Sure, Inez loves to be involved in all those things.” Chris saw no problem with it. Sensing Vin was close, Larabee poured another cup of coffee for him. Just as he set the pot down Tanner was there.

“How did you know he was coming?” Linda was still trying to work through what Kelli had told her.

“Just knew.” Chris shrugged his shoulders and turned his attention to Vin. “I must say you look better this morning.”

“A little sleep and a lot of loving go a long way to restore my balance.” Tanner grinned. “Morning, Linda.”

“What did you do with Kelli?” Linda did not see her.

“She already left for her therapy session, one more and she’s done.” Vin explained. “Oh and Chris, Buck’s ridin’ in with us today.”

“Someone call my name?” Buck joined them. “You ready to kick some butt today, Tanner? I gotta warn you about that new kid, Mark Westin, he is good.”

“Westin reminds me of JD when he first joined us. You gonna be his mother hen now, Bucklin?” Vin smiled, thinking about how Buck was when JD first came onboard. “Seems like you had plenty of practice with JD."

“I think he already is, Vin, you see one of them, the other is around somewhere.” Chris knew Buck liked the kid because he picked on him all the time.

“I’ll take one Westin over ten Reeds any day.” Buck said and received quick agreement from both men. “You know, Tanner, you weren’t so easy to tame, either. Between you and JD, I think Chris and I must have aged an extra ten years.”

“You know Reed will be one of the four to challenge you two, tomorrow. He will have the points for sure to qualify for it.” Chris gave them a warning, “I don’t think he will look at this as a friendly match.”

“We’re ready for him, besides Kel was put out that she wouldn’t have a chance to get some payback for the remarks he has been makin’. I told her Buck and I would do it for her.” Tanner answered.

“You two, watch your backs when he’s around.” Chris knew Reed would try his best to show them up, even if it meant someone could get hurt.

“Yes, Dad.” Vin and Buck answered together.

Chris kissed Linda and said he would call her later and urged her to call Inez. She reminded him she had to go home and take care of some business. She did promise to try to make it back tonight, if she could.


Chris was wading through paperwork when there was a knock on his door.

“Come on in, Coulter.” Larabee responded. “Feeling alone out there?”

“It is strange to be the only one out there, but actually I wanted to give you this.” She passed him some papers, “I am officially released and stopped at the range to re-certify on my way over here.”

“Welcome back, Agent Coulter,” Chris smiled, “Are you sure you don’t want to go by Tanner? Your official records have already been changed.”

“No, I think it’s easier this way, at least here at work. I would not want someone to use our relationship to get to Vin.” She laughed, “Besides, do you really want two Agent Tanners? I have found one to be a handful to keep up with.”

“When you put it that way, I have to agree.” Larabee grinned at the thought. “If you change your mind let me know.” He noticed that she hesitated about leaving. “Was there something else?”

“I know this is not the proper place to discuss this, but it is difficult to talk to you in private at the ranch. Vin told me, he shared with you, information about my…background.” She hesitated…, “I know he is determined to keep looking and I appreciate your offer to help him … I just wanted you to know that.”

“Whatever I can do, I will, helping each other is what friends and family do.” Chris added, “I want you to know, this stays between you, me and Vin, no one else needs to know, not even Linda, unless you chose to tell them.” He saw relief in her eyes, “Anytime you need to talk to me, I will be available.” He acknowledged her nod of acceptance as she left.

Just as Kelli stepped out of Larabee’s office, one of the security officers delivered a packet for Vin. She signed for it and put it on his desk, but could not help but notice it was from Texas. Voices from the hallway drew her attention.

“I told you, Westin, never underestimate a woman” Katrina had a big smile on her face as she entered the bullpen.

“Next time, Santos, I’ll be ready for you.” Mark Westin had a silly grin on his face, too.

As the rest of the agents entered, it was apparent the morning was a success. The tensions of yesterday had vanished, replaced by smiles and laughter. With one exception, Sam Reed had a noticeable limp and a sour look on his face.

“What happened to him?” Chris stood outside his door to see the results of the morning’s activities.

“He tripped on the mat and before you ask, he was alone at the time.” Buck was more than glad to make that announcement.

“I’d say your classes were successful.” Chris was pleased by the outcome.

“I’d say you’re right.” Tanner grinned, “They all did great and the new guys will work out okay, I think.”

“Speaking of which, you two join me in my office we need to discuss a few thing.” With Chris in the lead, Wilmington and Tanner followed him into his office. “Close the door.” Larabee pulled the files for the four new team members. First one is Mark Westin, 26 years old, Caucasian and comes to us from California Highway Patrol. Buck, tell me about him.”

“Mark finished second in his class at the academy, worked LAPD two years and he then applied for CHP and was accepted. He is smart, eager and has a good record. Applied to be a federal agent when he heard rumors that this unit was forming. Finished his training at Quantico in the top one percent of his class. He has the potential to be an exceptional agent.” Buck was proud of the young man and it showed.

Chris nodded and picked up the second file. “Justin Michaels, 48 years old, Caucasian, comes to us from the State Police investigative unit here in Colorado.”

“He has done some damned good work there and was a homicide detective with DPD before that. Good attitude and understands the meanin’ of teamwork. Justin should be an asset for the unit.” Vin had watched the man and knew he would be a team player.

“Okay.” Larabee pulled the files for the two latest additions to the squad. “Paul Roberts, age 31 and Ross Anderson, age 34, both African American and both come from Metro police departments, Paul from Atlanta and Ross from Detroit. I know they have not been here long, but you have both been around them enough. What are your first impressions?”

“Roberts has a quick mind and can think on his feet, he stays in excellent physical condition and seems friendly enough.” Vin observed him during the classes. “Time will tell, though, how he adjusts to federal work.”

“Same with Anderson, his career has been focused on inner city crime. Neither one of the two has any experience with State or Federal work, but they are willing to learn.” Buck had not seen enough yet, to give more of an assessment.

“Good, keep working with them, Buck.” Larabee looked at Tanner, “Coulter was released and re-certified today, get her on the range as soon as you can and let me know how she does.” Chris stood and stretched, “That’s all, get your butts back to work.”

+ + + + + + +

For once, they made it home before six and quickly took care of the evening chores. After checking on the new additions in the barn, Vin and Kelli went home. Chris had arranged to meet Linda for dinner in a nearby restaurant.

“What do you say we skip dinner and go straight to bed?” Vin grabbed Kelli by the waist as she headed for the kitchen. He was delighted to hear her laughter. Kelli looked at Vin and felt a sudden surge of emotion she could not identify. Not passion or desire, but what was it...regret ...sadness?...She wasn’t sure. She took her hand, brushed her fingers through his hair and down his cheek. Vin saw the change of emotions in her eyes.

“Talk to me, Texas. What do you see?” He led her to the rocking chair and pulled her onto his lap.

"I’m not sure…in case you hadn’t notice, my emotions seem to be getting’ even with me. I believe they are seekin’ revenge for being locked away so long.” She wanted to laugh, but seeing the concern on Vin’s face stopped her. “I know I don’t tell you enough about how I feel…it’s just I not sure how to sometimes. Saying I love you, does not seem to cover the emotions that surface when I’m with you. It is so much more than that, but you should hear it more often anyway and all those honey, sweetheart, darlin’ words too. They just are not the right expressions and for the life of me, I don’t know which ones are.”

“Do you know how many ways you say ‘Tanner’?” He saw the confusion on her face and chuckled, “I know your moods and your feelin’s with the way you say my name. Sometimes, you say it with passion, sometimes with annoyance or anger. Most of the time though, it’s said with love and concern. I would not trade that for any of those other words that are often overused and said from habit.” He drew her closer, “You tell me all the time how you feel and you don’t need all those words to do it.”

“I hope so, because you deserve to know how important you are to me.” Kelli sighed.

“I do know. Now, what stirred up this emotional storm in the first place?” Vin knew something had set this in motion.

“I suppose it started when I talked to Chris. I wanted him to know how much his offer to help was appreciated. Then the package from Texas came and I know what you are doing for me on that. The rest is just you, every time you get that warm look in your eyes. I feel it tug at my heart and my stomach has butterflies dancin’ around inside. How do I tell you that with just an expression, Tanner?”

“You just did.” The time for words was past, Vin was feeling emotional himself. Tomorrow they would talk about the package and the past. Tonight, though, he knew their lovemaking would be special and memorable. Vin lifted her and took her to their bed. He took his time undressing her and did not let any part of her body escape his touch. When she tried to hurry him, he stopped her.

“Let me show you what words can’t say.” His voice was barely above a whisper. It was almost eleven before the Tanners sat down and ate sandwiches for supper, but neither one complained. They spent the next hour with the unopened wedding presents. Vin opened and put them up, Kelli wrote the thank-you notes until finally they were finished.

“About tomorrow, since I am released…”

“No, classes are closed, next time.” Vin grinned, “Besides, you are so good at answerin’ phones, we need you in the office.” He kissed her and headed for the bedroom. “Goodnight.”

“Tanner!” She could not believe he would go to bed without her and went to investigate. Just as she entered the door, he seized her around the waist, catching her off guard. She yelped. “You really need to stop doing that.”

“How about I do this, instead?” He picked her up and carried her to their waiting bed. As they drifted off to sleep, Vin heard her whisper.

“Goodnight ,Tanner.”

“Goodnight, Texas.”


Linda did contact Inez and between the two of them, quickly had plans in motion for Saturday. Rain had to work, but Casey and Mallory joined in the fun. They set out early to accomplish their goals. It did not take long to discover that Linda was a natural born shop-a-holic and loved spending money. Fortunately, she could afford her obsession, since the Dubois family had been very successful in the horseracing business.

A pony party for the children was arranged with real ponies from Linda’s ranch. By noon, half the things on their list had been achieved and the women decided to break for lunch.

“How did you arrange a live satellite feed from the racetrack?” Casey wanted to know and knew JD would be interested.

“An old friend of my Dad’s helped me set it up. We will be able to watch all twelve races, if we want.” Linda clarified.

“I’m not sure I understand how it works. Buck has tried to explain it, but I’m not sure he knows all about it either.” Inez smiled, “Which horses do we watch for?”

“In the Black-eyed Susan Race you look for My Texas Lady, that’s Vin and Kelli’s horse. In addition, My Seventh Heaven is her half sister, same sire for both. In the Preakness, one of our horses, Fortune Hunter is running. He is the brother to Bounty Hunter from Larabee 7. If any of those horses win, place or show, it will increase the value of the Larabee horses.” Linda explained while Casey took notes.

“So, you mean Larabee 7 horses can increase in value without even being there?” Mallory was starting to take a real interest in horseracing.

“Linda, why doesn’t Kelli get more excited about thoroughbreds? All of her mares are quarter horses aren’t they?” Inez was curious.

“Kelli is a good friend and I love her like a sister. However, she does not care for all the hoop-la that goes with racing and raises her horses out of love, not for money. The only reason she accepted my gift of a racehorse was that she knew how much I wanted her to have it. She hates it when I spend money on her and I have to drag her to go shopping with me. I have failed to get her to see how much fun it can be making money on the horses and then spending it.” Linda sighed, “I love her anyway though and I’ll just have to shop enough for both of us.”

“What if their horse wins a lot of money?” Casey asked. “What do you think they would do with it?”

“You will have to ask her or Vin about that. I have no idea,” Linda looked at her watch. “You ladies ready to finish our list?”


The agents had returned from their morning classes and the top four had been selected for the match this afternoon. Two new agents, Sam and Mark and two senior agents, Ezra and Nathan would take on Tanner and Wilmington in a friendly match at four. At least, friendly for three of them, Reed was the unknown and he would be watched carefully.

“We are having lunch with Ezra, look over this list Josiah put together and meet us at the Italian place down the street in thirty minutes.” Vin slipped Kelli a piece of paper and with a wink was off to his office.

Thirty minutes later, she watched the two men enter the restaurant. She did not miss the admiring eyes cast in their direction by the other women patrons. Ezra and Vin appeared not to notice the attention they had gained, simply by walking in the room. Kelli was pleased when Vin placed a hand on her shoulders and gave her a kiss before he sat down next to her. Making it clear, he was not available.

After ordering, Ezra began to speak. “I hold documents which require signatures from both of you. I have communicated with your attorney, Kelli. I implemented your request, as well as yours, Vin.” Standish stopped and passed them some documents. “I am confident we have adhered to your wishes and I trust you will find this agreeable.”

“Ez, you put a lot of work into this, thanks.” Vin signed his will and while Kelli read hers, he explained to Standish what they needed him to do next. He told him what they planned to do with Texas Lady’s winnings and about the gift from Linda’s dad.

“This can be accomplished easily, however, are you certain you wish to surrender all monetary gains from this horse?” Ezra waited for confirmation.

“We are sure. Josiah made some recommendations for us to consider. After looking them over, we each chose one. My choice I initialed and Vin circled his.” Kelli handed him the list. “Do what you need to set it up and then let us know what we have to do.”

“I will, of course, defer to your wishes and your choices are excellent. However, as to the matter of investing into Larabee 7, I do have some suggestions.” With their urging, he continued. “Use half of the gift for yourselves. Put it toward building your home, eliminating the need for a mortgage. The remainder will take the form of a loan to Larabee7’s breeding programs, to be paid back with interest over a period of twenty years. This way everyone benefits and you still have the original funds invested for future use.”

Vin looked at Kelli and she nodded. “Set it up, Ez, we appreciate it. I know you could do more with it and probably make us a small fortune, but this is what we want.”

“The only stipulation is that no one is to know where the money came from.” Kelli insisted.

“Rest assured that this conversation is confidential.” Ezra finished the paperwork just as their lunch arrived. They enjoyed their meal and walked back to work.


Once back on the twelfth floor, time moved quickly. Larabee had Tanner in his office for almost an hour before Vin came out and announced they could leave for the training center. Even those not actually involved in the match wanted to watch.

The first round had Ezra challenging Vin. Everyone was sure Tanner would win and he probably would have if Ezra had played fair. It looked as if Standish was about to lose and suddenly Vin lost his concentration. Ezra took advantage and won the match.

“Vin, what happened?" Buck was concerned he might be hurt.

“Forget it, Buck, I’m fine.” Ez won, let’s move on. He left in a hurry, to set up the next match and would say nothing more.

“Standish, what did you do to Vin?” Wilmington now had his curiosity aroused.

“Moi? I only made some unexpected, yet complimentary, observations about his wife’s …natural physical attributes.” Ezra smiled and walked away. Buck’s laughter followed him.

Then, rookie Mark Westin challenged his mentor. Buck was pleased to see the young man had paid attention in class. Alas, he was not yet a match for Wilmington. “You did good kid, with some seasoning you will be even better.” Buck beamed like a proud father.

“Thanks, Buck, the next time you won’t find it so easy to beat me.” Mark walked off wearing a smile and left Buck standing with Chris.

“Be careful, Buck, our new assignments will have many additional risks involved. Don’t get too attached to the younger ones.” Chris knew with fifteen agents, the risk of injury to any one of them had doubled. He wanted Buck to realize it, too.

“I hear you, but with Bucklin on the job, that is one kid I know will make it fine.” Buck planned to watch Westin closely.

Nathan took on Wilmington, just for the helluva it and kept the other agents entertained with their sparing. “Buck, you know for an old guy, you’re not doing bad.” Nathan knew Buck would react to that remark and he did. “Who in the hell are you calling old?” That short lapse of concentration was all Nathan needed. He took advantage of it and had the match won within two minutes. “Better luck next time, Buck.” Jackson slapped him on the back and walked off with a smile on his face, as he heard Wilmington’s vow of payback, in the background.

As expected, Reed challenged Tanner and actually thought he could beat the Texan. “I thought you were tough, hell, you let fancy pants over there beat you.” Reed sneered, “You are going down, boss man.” The return silence from Tanner did prick his confidence, just a little. Sam then fell into his old military training and prepared himself to win. Unfortunately, for Reed, Vin had other plans for the outcome.

Tanner did not play games with the ex-SEAL, he played fair and precise, but had every intention of winning this match. Within five minutes, Sam realized he had underestimated the skills of his opponent. Eight minutes after they started, it was over. Vin offered his hand to the defeated man and Reed, reluctantly, allowed the Texan to help him off the floor.

“Next time, Tanner.”

“Looking forward to it, Reed.”

+ + + + + + +

That evening, Chris found Linda in the kitchen when he came home. The table was set and the smell of fried chicken filled the room. “Welcome home, cowboy.” Linda gave him a warm kiss.

“Hi, yourself.” Chris wrapped his arms around her and kissed her back.

“I left a note on Tanner’s door and told them to come over and join us.” Linda smiled.

“I believe they had other plans for tonight, so it is just you and me.” Chris grinned, “Disappointed?”

“No, I like having you to myself, but Kelli didn’t mention plans. I was hoping to go over the agenda for tomorrow with her. Maybe…”

“They’re newlyweds, remember? You can talk to her in the morning and tonight we make our own plans.” Chris knew what Tanner was going to do, but did not intend to share the information.

“That sounds good to me.” Linda gave him a playful smile, “They might be newlyweds, but I bet they could not keep up with us.”

“Tell you what, I’ll change and take care of the horses, you finish up here. Then we will have the rest of the night together.”

Chris went to change into his ranch clothes and then headed for the barn. Surprisingly, he found Tanner already there. “I did not expect to see you out here tonight.” Larabee was curious. “What about your plans?”

“We are still gonna talk, but Kel had a few messages to return first.” Vin laughed, “It seems Linda got the other women interested in horse racing today and they have all called to ask questions about Texas Lady.”

“You are kidding.” Chris just could not see Inez, Casey and Mallory interested in horseracing. Hell, they did not even know the ranch was a business or if they did, they had showed no interest in it.

“Nope, once they found out how much money could be made racing, they developed a sudden interest in Larabee 7.”

“I don’t suppose Linda told them you can also lose your ass in the racing business.” Chris shook his head. “Lord, I hope they don’t start placing bets, Ezra would have heart failure.”

“I don’t mind the diversion.” Vin sighed, “Showing Kelli that report is somethin’ I wouldn’t mind puttin’ off, if I could.” He hated, to even think about it.

“She deserves to know what you found, Vin. The report, I gave you, isn’t going to make it easier, but you will both get through it.” Chris patted him on the back. “It’s not enough, but it’s a start and if you need me, I’m here.”




Secrets always seem to find a way to surface and carrying those secrets alone only adds unnecessary tension to relationships. Tanner knew he had waited long enough to return home. Putting off an unpleasant task was not his style and neither was hurting someone he loved. However, he knew there was no way to avoid hurting Kelli this evening and just not telling her, was not an option. Relax, Vin, she is strong enough to handle this and if she needs to borrow strength from you, that’s okay. Hell, Tanner, she lived through it, readin’ about it could not be worse than that. Readin’, no, rememberin’, well that could be a completely different problem, Tanner. Dammit, get it over with, Vin, you have made her wait long enough. Vin entered the house and found her in the kitchen making a salad.

“I thought a salad would go well with the spaghetti tonight. Knowin’ how you feel about ‘rabbit food’, I put extra meat in the sauce. Of course, you don’t have to have any if you don’t want to. If you would rather have somethin’ else, I …”

“Stop,” Vin stood behind her and she leaned back into him as he wrapped his arms around her waist. She was talking so much because she was anxious about doing this. It is like waiting for a bad storm. You know it's coming and you know it will eventually be over, you just hope it will not cause a lot of damage while it rages. “We don’t have to do this tonight.”

“Yeah, we do.” She took a deep breath, “However, we can eat first and then have plenty of time to go through it.”

After their meal, they moved to the den and got comfortable. The intimidating files lay on the center table, waiting to be opened. Tanner had some question to ask first and decided to get started. “You want to read ‘em or do you want me to tell you?” Vin hoped she would let him just cover the important parts. Several of the reports had many details that were not relevant, to finding answers.

“Just tell me.”

“What is the first thing you can remember?” Tanner wanted to see if his conclusions fit with her perception of what happened.

“I suppose it was the first place they sent me. Evidently, they decided I needed counselin’ and placed me where I was sure to get it. Of course, I never saw the same therapist more than once. The stay in the hospital and the time before that, I have only read about. The records were destroyed when the hospital closed so I only could get what the police had. There was always some therapist talkin’ to me, until I was thirteen.”

“Why did it stop then?”

“Jake put a stop to it when the psychologist said I would not have any more nightmares. The man had used hypnosis and declared me cured.” She laughed, “Actually, I just quit lettin’ anyone know I still had them and they believed me. By that time I had figured out what they wanted to hear and just went along with them.”

“The records from the hospital were destroyed, but my contact tracked down the doctor that treated you and he had his personal records. In fact, he even wrote a damn paper on your case. You did not say one word the entire time you were there and his evaluation was very detailed.” Vin stopped for a moment, he was sure now the doctor was correct. “The social workers guessed you were five, but the certificate was typed wrong and made you six. They did not see any point to correct it and that is the age listed, when your evaluations started. The doctor that examined you, however, was convinced you were not older than four, which explains why it is so difficult for you to remember. Not many people have total memory from that age.” He stopped and pulled out the doctor’s report for her to look at.

“So, you are tellin’ me I am really two years younger than what my records show. I guess most women would love to lose two years off their age that easily.” She started to read the doctor’s report on her injuries, which was different from the police report. She was relieved to know that all the negative evaluations of performing at age level were not her failure, but the therapist for using the wrong age to make comparisons.

Vin watched as she read the doctor’s information and knew exactly when she got to the part listing her injuries. No one, especially a child deserves to be treated so badly. He kept a tight rein on his anger though, that was not what she needed to see now. He had to give her credit because she gave little outward sign of reacting to the atrocious things she was reading. Her eyes and the slight loss of color to her face, however, said she was hurting. When she finished and set it aside he continued.

“The entire problem you had adjustin’ was due to the incompetence of the caseworkers and havin’ too many shrinks. Instead of considerin’ that they could be wrong, they tried to force you to fit what they thought you should be. All it took was that first wrong assessment, after that, it was written in stone. Two years to an adult is no big deal, but in a child’s development, it can make a world of difference. You lost the chance to go through the normal process of growin’ in stages.”

“Well, this does explain why their damn tests were so hard to pass. It also explains why it was so frustratin’ to try to remember.” Kelli looked at him, “This doctor’s report also helps to bury some of the questions that have haunted me for a long time.” Concern showed on Vin’s face. “There’s more isn’t there?”

“Chris was able to find the investigatin officer on your case and talk to him. His name is Walter and he remembered some things that were not in the official report. In fact, he still worked on the case until he retired three years ago.” Vin needed her to know that not everyone forgot about her. “He faxed his notes over this afternoon and I haven’t had a chance to check out the accuracy of everythin’ he sent. At first glance, some of it is consistent with what Dubois’ investigators found.”

“I hear a ‘but’ in there. What else did he send?” Kelli had an uneasy feeling about what was coming next.

“The police questioned two different suspects and because they had no hard evidence, they did not list them in the official report. He did keep his own notes and faxed over pictures of the two suspects.” Vin pulled the pictures out and showed her the first one.

“I don’t think I have ever seen that man before. You know they could have talked to the wrong suspects.” She prepared herself for the next one or at least she thought she did. When Vin showed it to her she knew there was no way to prepare for this. The face she had seen in her nightmares for twenty years was in front of her. The monster was a real person.

“Tanner, I’m gonna be sick.” That was an understatement. Kelli was reliving every nightmare she ever had and could not control her reaction.

Vin knew, immediately, she was in trouble and got her to the bathroom before she was violently ill. Kelli was finding it hard to breath and shaking so badly she could not stand. All he could do was hold her, but he was almost to the point of taking her to the emergency room or at least calling Nathan. Then he realized, he could not do that without an explanation he did not want to give. “Kel, listen to me, you’re safe.” The Texan tried to soothe her with soft words, but was not sure he was getting through to her. Without letting her go, he reached for his cell phone and called the only person he trusted to help. He called Chris and asked him to dig out his most potent bottle of whiskey. Tanner told him to bring it over, use his key to get in and to come alone. In the meantime, he got her to bed, held onto to her and waited for the storm to pass.

Chris came in with a glass of uncut Wild Turkey and left the bottle. “This is strong and should work quickly.” He went into the other room to wait until Vin could talk to him and then he found the picture on the floor. It did not take long to put together what had happened. Thirty minutes later, Tanner joined him. “Is she okay?”

“She will be, she’s exhausted and sleepin’ now, but dammit, Chris, there had to be a better way.” The Texan was blaming himself for not anticipating this reaction.

“Right and you being able to see the future, should have known that this would happen.” Larabee knew Kelli was not the only one having a problem with this. Maybe he could not help her, but he was sure he could get Tanner to see reason.

“Yes… No … Hell, I don’t know.” Tanner paced the floor. “Dammit, this is not right! That bastard is the one that should be hurtin’, not Kel! Why didn’t they jail that sonofabitch when they had a chance? How many more kids has he hurt since then? What the fuck were they thinkin’? God, Chris …”

“Tanner!” Chris got his attention. “Now that we know who he is we can find the bastard.” He waited for that to cut through Vin’s angry outburst. “When we find him, then maybe we get the answers for the rest of the questions.” He knew that statement registered with the Texan. “Then you both can put all this behind you, where it belongs.” When he saw that Tanner was back in control, he grinned. “Now go retrieve that bottle and grab some cards. Linda’s asleep and I could use some company.”

That had played cards for almost three hours and drank through half the bottle before either man said a word. “I know you’re here for me, but ‘m sure Kelli appreciates it, too.” Vin had not had enough to drink yet, he was still able to think.

“Hell, Tanner, what makes you think I’m here for your ornery hide?” Chris smiled, “I may be in love with a blond, but I have always had a weakness for redheads.”

“Sarah was redheaded, wasn’t she?” Vin had not thought about that in a while.

“Yep and life was never dull.” Chris suddenly had a flash of an old memory. “Did I ever tell you about the gal I met my freshman year in college?” Vin shook his head. “I didn’t think so. She had dark red hair, blue eyes and the cutest backside, you have ever seen. I remember a night after a football game…” Larabee never finished his story. Tanner heard Kelli moving about in the bedroom and all else was forgotten.

See you tomorrow ,Cowboy and thanks.

Anytime, if you need me holler.

Chris let himself out and Tanner went to make sure Kelli was all right. She was coming out of the bathroom and once he got a good look at her, he was glad to see she was not pale anymore. She seemed to be much more relaxed and her eyes said her composure had returned. He led her back to bed, lay with her and drew her close. “I never meant for it to go this way and the last thing I wanted was for you to get hurt.” Vin spoke softly and stroked his fingers through her hair as he talked. “Are you gonna be okay about this?” He needed to hear her voice to reassure him, she was back from hell.

“With you here, ’m better and you did not do anythin’ to cause this. It caught me off-guard and I wasn’t prepared for it all to come rushing at me at once.” The warmth from his body wrapped around her and gave Kelli the comfort she sought. “You gave me more than I ever believed I would find, Tanner and ‘m not talking about those damn files. Just so you know, I love you and I am glad you’re in my life.”

“That’s good because I intend on keepin’ you for a while.” Vin found his first smile, realizing the worst was over and it was now time for the healing to begin.


Larabee finished the morning chores and was on his way back to the house. He wanted to enjoy the peace and quiet while he could. Soon, family would arrive to set up for today’s celebration. Glancing at Tanner’s door, he wondered if Vin and Kelli would feel like being around so many people all day and be able to enjoy the races. As he climbed the steps to his deck, he saw Linda waiting with a cup of coffee ready for him.

“Morning.” She passed him his cup with a kiss and then settled on the deck chair.

“Morning to you, too.” Chris sat next to her, prepared to relax a bit before the activities began, but some things just are not to be. One swallow of coffee and Ben drove in the yard with a trailer full of miniature horses. JD and Casey followed him. Mr. Dunne was interested in the set up to view the races. Mrs. Dunne wanted Linda to help her place a bet. Heaving a sigh, Chris got up to help Ben, with Linda directing where she wanted to put the small steeds. Fortunately Buck showed up and helped set up the portable corral.

“It’s going to be a full-time job watching the girls around these little guys.” Buck shook his head, “What happened to my pretty pony?” Seeing the strange look Chris gave him he explained, “That’s a toy horse, it comes with a brush and comb and their mane...Oh, never mind.”

Chris was even more surprised to see Ezra at this time of the morning. “What’s got you out so early?”

“I received numerous phone calls requesting information on how to place wagers on today’s racing events. Strangely enough, all of the requests were from female members of this family.” Ezra smiled, “It is in my best interest to accommodate their wishes or to be set upon by the ‘matchmakers from hell.’ If you will excuse me, my pupils await.”

By nine, almost the entire family had made their way to the ‘lion’s den’ and the lead lion was restless. Not only was his lover busy with everyone else, she was dressed fit to kill and he wanted to get her alone. Linda was thriving, she was an expert at throwing fun parties and had gone all out on this one. So, maybe she was over indulging the kids just a bit, but it was only one day. Maybe there was enough food to feed a small army and she might have gone overboard on the decorating, but when the day was over everyone would remember this Preakness party.

“Chris, if you don’t get Vin and Kelli out to join us, I will have to do it myself. This is supposed to be their party, after all.” Linda was not sure where Chris went last night, but she was willing to bet it had something to do with Vin and Larabee knew more than he was telling.

“I’ll call, okay?” Chris sighed, but he was anxious to see if he needed to run interference for his best friend this morning.

Meanwhile, at the Tanners’, Vin had his own challenges to deal with. Last night’s crisis, evidently, had sent the demons that had plagued Kelli all these years, back to hell. This morning she was facing the day with a different attitude, one he was not sure, just yet, how to handle. Freedom, had his serious, disciplined wife acting like a wild colt, turned loose for the first time to run.

“Kel, please have a heart and change clothes before we go out there, that outfit will make me crazy by the end of the day,” She was wearing skin tight black jeans and a yellow shirt that tied just below her breast. Vin was convinced she would spill out of it before noon. “Besides, you’ll get cold in that outfit.”

“Can’t, I don’t have a heart, you already took it.” Kelli laughed, actually she felt better than okay today. She was fairly sure the old nightmares were gone forever and she had Vin to thank for that. It was time, however, to stop trying to be so disciplined. She intended to enjoy this new freedom and embrace what life had granted her, starting with the man responsible for giving her the chance to find it. “You would never let me get too cold.”

“If you don’t want the family to find out just how out of control I can be, you need to think about changin’.” Vin growled, but he was sure she would reconsider. What they did in private was one thing, but Kelli was too shy to fool around in view of the others.

“A reckless Tanner, now that’s somethin’, I believe they might like to see.” She grinned, “I do hate to tell you this, darlin’, but I don’t think you’ll surprise them.”

“I might not, but you sure as hell will.” Vin grumbled as he answered the phone. “Tanner! ... Yeah Chris … For better or worse we’ll be out in a minute … Just as soon as Kel finds her shoes.” Yep, she was barefooted again.

Gonna be a long day, Tanner

+ + + + + + +

“Well, are they coming over or not?” Linda was anxious for them to see what she had done to make this a special celebration.

“Yeah…Vin said they would be here in a few minutes.” Chris gave Linda a smile, “Are you sure you want to wear that today? You do know you’ll pay for it tonight, don’t you?”

“I always pay my debts, Cowboy.” She gave him a wicked grin and went off to find the other women.

Gonna be a long day, Larabee.

Ezra had the attention of all the ladies, even Rain, who had been filled in on the racing information by Mallory. He was attempting to explain the different between on track and off track betting and the consequences of placing a bad wager to the ladies. He felt it necessary to let them know what they could lose, not for their sakes, but his. He did not want to face the wrath of his brothers, should their wives lose without being duly warned of the possibility.

“Okay, so you explained. Now will you place our bets?” Casey was excited and could hardy wait for the races to begin.

“Give him a chance. I’m sure Ezra will take care of it for you. The races don’t start until after twelve and the Preakness, not until 5:45.” Linda was pleased to see them so enthusiastic about the horses. “Start planning on what to do with your winnings.”

“Or start planning on what to tell your husbands when you lose your… shirts.” Kelli had joined them, amused by the idea of so many racing fanatics on the loose.

“Kel, I have just about given up on you coming.” Linda turned to her old friend and was surprised by what she saw. This person was not the Kelli she knew, her friend would never dress so boldly and the mischievous smile was not her at all. She gave her a grin and asked, “What has you in such high spirits today?”

Kelli shrugged a shoulder, “Just am. Now tell me how you managed to corrupt these nice women with one day of shopping.” She laughed, “Never mind. I know how you did it! Just be prepared to cover their losses and I won’t have to tell them your record of accomplishment on betting. Remember, I know all your secrets.”

Linda turned to Ezra, “Place their bets and I’ll stand good for any losses.” Addressing her friend quietly, “When did you start resorting to blackmail? You are the quiet one, remember?” Linda tried to be serious, but failed and started to laugh.

The men were finding it hard to accept that their wives suddenly had caught ‘racing fever’ and all of them had answered dozens of questions about the horses and Larabee 7. They were also tying to keep up with three very excited little girls. Maria took off running as fast as her little legs would go and Buck took out after her and then stopped when he saw where she was going. He favorite Uncle was on his way over.

“You lose somethin’, Bucklin?” Maria had latched on to her Uncle Vin and was not ready to let him go, yet. “Found this munchkin runnin’ wild over there.” The baby was now perched on Vin shoulders and it looked like she was not going anywhere for a while.

“My reinforcement has arrived, I think I will take this opportunity to check on Josiah and the BBQ.” Nathan gave little Sarah to Chris and went in search of those ribs he knew were almost done.

“She looks too comfy to move her, Vin, besides Joanne here is keeping me busy just now. Buck laughed as Joanne made another run for the little horses. “See what I mean.” Wilmington took her to see the horses, again.

“You okay, Vin?” Chris watched for any leftover signs of anger and saw none. He did sense something else was disturbing the Texan’s thoughts.

“Yeah, ‘m… okay….just…hell, sorry heck.” Tanner was watching Kelli and Linda head their way and was having trouble concentrating on Chris’ words. Damn.

Chris could not imagine what had Tanner so rattled until he looked in the direction that Vin was watching. Linda had changed. She was now wearing an outfit sexier than the first one, tight black Levi’s and a turquoise shirt that was cut too low and too damn tight. Damn. Kelli, well she was sure to drive Tanner around the bend before the end of the day, if he lasted that long.

“I take it last night worked out, okay.” Chris started to laugh at Vin’s disgruntled expression until he realized he was probably wearing one just like it.

“It looks like everyone’s enjoying themselves.” Linda gave Chris a look that said she knew what he was thinking. “Chris, have you noticed how hot it is today?” All she got in return was a muttered curse. She broke out with laughter in response.

“Turn my back for a minute and find you with another woman, Tanner, you are bad.” Kelli winked at Maria and had a glint of mischief in her eyes for Vin.

“My Vin, not bad,” Maria put her two cents in and was rewarded with a smile from Kelli.

“You are so right, sweetheart. Your Vin is good, very good…especially when he’s bad.” Maria didn’t understand what she meant, but Tanner did and Kelli felt a warm rush when she saw what his eyes were telling her.

“Chris, you and Linda can handle the rug rats. Kel and I need to…check on the foals.” Vin handed Maria to Larabee, who now had both girls in his arms.

+ + + + + + +

Tanner led her to the barn and shut the door behind them, “Dammit, we should have gone home instead of here.”

“We have all night at home, baby.” She tugged on his jeans. “Right now, just let me love you.” Then she did, just as he had taught her. He pulled her to him and kissed her and seeing the warmth and desire in her eyes, he fell in love with her, again.

“Tonight better get here soon,” Vin whispered in her ear. “I want you close to me the rest of the day.” He knew the difference in her today was born out of a lot of pain, but he sensed it was here to stay. They had weathered another storm last night and it had left a gift for both of them.

+ + + + + + +

“What time does it start and which ones did we bet on? Ezra, are you sure, you got it right? How do we keep track of each one? What happens if they come in second or third? I forgot. How long does a race usually last? When will we know the odds?”

“Stop!” Ezra was developing a headache and he did not even know who was asking what anymore because the questions were fast, repetitive and endless. “Ladies, please, I assure you your wishes have been carried out. All you need to do now is relax and enjoy this outstanding sporting event.”

“Wanna bet Ez loses it before this day ends?” Buck nudged Chris and laughed.

“As Ezra would say, I do not place wagers when the outcome is already assured.” Chris was enjoying the entertainment though.

“The first race is starting, find a comfortable spot and listen.” JD had the link working and a clear picture on the big screen.

“Anybody see Vin and Kelly? I’ve lost them again.” Linda did not want them to miss the most exciting events of the day. “Chris, can you find Tanner?”

“I’ll find them.” He kissed her, walked outside and headed for the barn, slowly.

Vin, you had both better be dressed when I get there.


Larabee was on a mission, but not by choice. Linda wanted everything perfect and that meant he had to find the missing young couple. He had a good idea where they were and what they were doing and he really could not blame them. Sometimes, you need to take what life has to offer when you can and not wait until it disappeared, forever. Isn’t that what Buck and Vin have been tellin you, Larabee? Chris met Vin and Kelli coming up from the barn, they were already on their way to watch the races.

Message received, Cowboy.

You live dangerously, Tanner

Maybe, but it is rewarding.

“If you two are through, ‘m starvin’.” Kelli smiled at the two men, who until then, had not realized that she knew about the silent communication between them. “I want to eat and then watch the fun when the other women see their first horse race.”

“What will be more fun is watching Ezra lose his cool. My bet is he won’t last through the sixth race.” Chris had no doubt the women would make him crazy by then.

They grabbed a plate of food on the way to the den where everyone was waiting for the races to start. It looked like it was going to be a wet track by the end of the day. Tanner chose to sit in an armchair with one leg stretched out on each side of Kelli, who sat on the floor in front of him. He had a good view of the big screen and of his wife’s yellow shirt.

“Kelli, you almost missed it. Where have you been?” Linda had raised her voice so her friend could hear her. When she did most everyone stopped talking for a minute to see what the blond said. That is why they all heard Kelli’s answer.

“If you must know, I was in the barn, makin’ out with Tanner.” She laughed at the expression on Linda’s face and when she heard Vin choke on his beer.

“Well, hell, that’s sounds more interesting than any old horse race.” Buck shot a grin at Tanner, who was amazed by his wife’s candid comment.

“Take my word for it, Buck, it is.” Kelli smiled, “Much more interestin’.”

“So, which race does My Texas Lady run in?” Chris thought a change in the conversations was due about now.

Linda read the rundown of the races and times and answered as many questions as she could. The children were exhausted from chasing the little horses. Inez and Mallory put them down for a nap. Kelli took their plates to the kitchen and began to pick up some of the mess. Vin went into the kitchen to pick up a couple more bottles of beer and to find his missing wife. He leaned against the doorframe and studied her movements, something he loved to do. Tanner, you are hopeless! Finally, he had to do more than watch and quietly walking up behind her he encircled her waist with one arm and kissed the back of her neck. She leaned back into him and sighed.

“Did I embarrass you earlier?” She turned to face him. “I suppose I might be behavin’ a little reckless.”

“No, you didn’t embarrass me, surprised me a little, but that’s okay. I like this new attitude and I don’t want you to change a thing. Hell, ‘m even startin’ to like this damn shirt, it has a lot of possibilities.” Vin smiled when she wrapped her arms around his neck.

“I thought you were worried about me falling out.” She gave him a long passionate kiss, which he had no problem returning.

“I’ll just have to be a good catcher, if you do.” In a rasping voice he said, “Keep this up and they can watch the damn race without us.” Hearing her laughter delighted the Texan. “Come on, before they send out another search party.” He grabbed a couple of bottles of beer and they went back to join the others. Vin passed one of the bottles to Chris and settled himself in the chair with Kelli across his lap. He intended to be comfortable and wanted to keep her within his reach the rest of the day.

Every time Chris got Linda to sit with him, she would think of something that needed doing and be off again. She knew that the day was going well, but wanted to make sure the family was pleased with the celebration. This was what she loved to do and hoped that Chris would see that she was good at it. It had been a while since she had thrown a party and she was glad she had not lost her touch.

“Okay, the first three races are over and the Black Eyed Susan will be in thirty minutes. Any last wagers, you need to make, do it in the next fifteen minutes. My brother is there with our horses and he said they are in great shape and ready to run. Texas Lady and her half sister Seventh Heaven are the favorites to win.” Linda was glad Matthew was there to keep an eye on the horses, since she was not. He was the only one she trusted to see that they were cared for properly.

Maria wandered into the room and most of the adults were busy talking. So, she sought out her Uncle and climbed into his lap. Kelli offered to get up so the baby could get comfortable, but Tanner shook his head no. He shifted and soon had both Kelli and Maria situated, the baby quickly went back to sleep.

Just before the race started, Buck elbowed Chris in the ribs and pointed across the room. “Think we should do something about that?” Wilmington had a big smile on his face.

“Yeah, I suppose so.” Chris picked up a quilt and walked across the den shaking his head. In spite of all the noise and excitement in the room, somehow Vin, Kelli and Maria had managed to fall asleep. He then covered the sleeping ‘babies’. Even the screams of happiness when Texas Lady crossed the finish line first, did not wake them. Bad ass Tanner, right! Good thing it’s only family here to witness your demise.

“I cannot believe they missed it. Texas Lady won and they missed it.” Linda was having a hard time accepting that someone could not be excited about horseracing.

“JD recorded it and they can watch later. Now, though it looks like Ezra could use some help.” Chris watched Standish head for the door as four excited women, who had just won money on the race, surrounded him. “Ladies, give the man some room and relax you still have six races to go.” That statement got their attention and they backed off giving Ezra some space.

“Thank you, for your timely intervention. I now believe I would rather face the miscreants we encounter professionally, than to place any more wagers for these charming ladies.” Ezra turned to Linda. “They are all yours for the remainder of the proceedings. I quit!” Standish had not lasted through the sixth race.

Chris looked at her with a 'what did I do' grin. “I guess they are all yours.” He moved closer and whispered. “You do have to stop sometime and when you do its payback time for wearing that sexy outfit all day.” Larabee, I think she knows exactly what she is doing.

Nathan was concerned. “Chris, how anyone could sleep through all this noise and not be sick? Did you check for a fever? Maybe I should…”

“I’m sure they are fine, just had a long night. You do remember those days, don’t you?” Chris did not want more questions asked about why the Tanners did not sleep last night. He supposed he needed to wake Vin and let him handle it.

“What do you mean, remember? Rain and I have many nights like that…sometimes.” Nathan smiled, “Maybe we need more of them.” He went to find his wife.

Chris woke Vin, “Do you plan to explain to everyone why two healthy young people are not sleeping at night? If not, I suggest you at least show some interest in the last race.”

Tanner smiled, “We don’t sleep because we are healthy and young, unlike some old men I know.” Chris growled and Vin hastily added, “Alright, I get your point and …thanks.” Larabee lifted Maria and took her to her waiting Dad.

Vin shook Kelli to wake her and whispered. “Just a reminder, we are not alone at home in our bed.” He had to smile, he was positive he heard her issue a garbled curse. “What was that?” He felt rather than heard her answer when she started to rain kisses on his neck and snuggle closer. “You keep doing that, we fly by reckless and go straight to out of control. Not that I mind, but there are children in the room.”

“Okay, let’s stay at reckless … for now. However, I am looking forward to out of control, later. That is, if you are up to it.” The look Vin gave her promised payback for that teasing remark, but it didn’t faze her in the least. Her soft laughter carried across the room.

Vin, you might as well concede, she has your number.

I suppose you are doing better, Cowboy.

Chris glanced at Linda and knew Vin was right, Well, hell.

“Last race and this is the big one, Fortune Hunter, brother to your own Bounty, is racing. If he places, the value of your horse will increase instantly.” Linda reminded them of how important this could be for Larabee7.

The race began and Fortune stumbled at the starting gate, everyone groaned. He quickly recovered and coming from behind passed each of the other horses until he was in third place. The room exploded with yelling and screaming, mixed in with a prayer or two. Finally, the horse moved into second place, only losing by a neck to the first place winner. When the shouting stopped, Linda broke out the bottles of champagne she had on ice and toasted the winners. After that, they were ready to move on to the next stage of the celebration.

Josiah approached Linda and thanked her for the great day. He was, however, taking Mallory home, she had overdone it just a little, with all the excitement. “Inez is keeping Joanne for the night and Mallory will go straight to sleep, we will see you tomorrow. Enjoy the fireworks for us.”

“Take care of her, Sanchez.” Chris patted him on the shoulder and reminded him to call, if they needed anything.

After another round of food and then the clean up the family moved outside. Buck and JD were in charge of the fireworks and promised a spectacular display. Chris and Linda sat on the ground and little Sara joined them. Vin and Kelli sat next to them. Joanne found her Uncle Ezra and settled in his lap to watch. Inez and Casey entertained Maria, while Uncle Nathan cuddled with Aunt Rain in hopes of a long night of his own.

The fireworks were beautiful and there was only one minor mishap. Buck would recover from the misdirected bottle rocket with no lasting repercussions, though. And when sleep claimed the children after twenty minutes, the Wilmingtons took them home. Nathan made a quick exit with his wife, after letting Linda know how much fun they had, as did JD and Casey.

“Ms. Dubois, an excellent day, however, please advise me before the next one. I planned to be otherwise engaged at that time and whenever it is, I will be out of town.” Standish saluted and went home for a well-deserved rest.

“Linda, you did good, girl. This was one of your best efforts yet and we appreciate the work you put into it.” Kelli put an arm around Linda’s shoulder as they walked toward the house. “We had a great time.”

“How in the hell would you know? You slept through half of it and made out with Vin the other half.” Linda laughed at her friend. “I bet you have plans for the rest of the night, too.”

“Linda, I don’t have plans. I have expectations and I would bet you have some expectations of your own.” The excitement of the long day had both of them acting like kids and the two women broke into laughter.

Chris and Vin shook their heads at the two unruly women. They made their own agreement to ride in the morning, but right now there were more pressing matters that needed tending.

You take yours and I’ll take mine.

See you in the morning, Lar’bee.

Tanner walked his wife home and once inside, they left a trail of discarded clothes that led to the shower. “I think I owe you for earlier and that makes it my turn.” Vin intended to take all the turns tonight and definitely planned on more than one. “Besides, I owe you some payback for that remark you made.” Kelli gave him no argument because in fact, she was looking forward to Tanner’s payback.

Chris went around and locked up the house. Linda was in the bathtub and he hurriedly took a shower in the guest bath. He had plans and wanted to finish before she was through. He started a fire in the fireplace and spread quilts on the floor in front of it. A few pillows, a bucket of ice to hold the last bottle of champagne and some soft music completed the scene.

While he waited for his lover, his thoughts drifted. He saw Linda, again, as she had been this day, the center of the party.

God, she's so different from Sarah, in so many ways, from her looks to what she likes!

He could still picture Sarah and see every detail. She had been a fiery redhead who loved home life and only on occasion liked to party. She loved the ranch, but had never shared Chris' dream of raising horses.

Linda loves horse ranching and she shares my dream of breeding a winner. And today, at the party... she thrived on being in the middle of things. God, she is so unpredictable. Bold, outgoing, impulsive. I just can't stay one-step ahead of her thoughts! Not yet different from Sarah, again.

Sarah had been spontaneous at home with him and Adam, but never in public. She had never wanted to be the center of attention, the way Linda had loved to be today. Her dream had been to raise children and grow old together. Sarah had also kept close watch on their finances and didn't give in to impulse buying, as Linda seemed to be. From what Chris had seen so far, shopping seemed to be a sport to Linda. Something else where her spontaneity could lead to unexpected things.

Chris smiled. He realized he would love to try to find out how to get the hang of this woman. Linda took pleasure in the moment, something Chris knew he didn't do easily himself. It was good to be with someone who did though and made him see the preciousness of those moments too. Like those moments of great sex they had, loving sex like he had known with Sarah, only much more unpredictable and he loved that wild side of Linda as well.

And she has accepted me, I'm still a bit stunned by that fact. She has accepted me, knowing this may be all we have to share. She keeps me in check as well, just as Sarah was able to do. Sarah never let me brood and always managed to set me straight, if I drifted off course. And Linda sure doesn't let me brood either. I love how she looks at life and makes me see reason. Now, all that's left is how she will handle my job, when we go out on real cases.

Sarah had accepted Chris' choice of career as a part of who he was, but her fear for her husband's safety had sparked many an argument. Still, she had stood by his side every step of the way, unlike some partners of his colleagues. In the end, it hadn't been him who had been killed by the job though.

He wasn't going to think about that now. He wasn't going to wonder if Linda could handle the pressure of him having a dangerous job or if he could handle having someone he loved in his life again.

Tonight, we will take every minute we can and savor it.

When Linda walked in the room, at first she did not see him. Turning to go, she saw movement by the fireplace. She sucked in her breath when she realized it was Chris, outlined by the firelight. He was naked and the glow from the fire made the muscles across his back shimmer when he moved. God, he was an incredible sight, he turned and looked at her and his eyes drew her to him. When she reached the edge of the comforter, he lifted his hand and invited her to join him.

“Welcome to my party.”


Tanner had the horses saddled, ready to go by six and tended to the others, while he waited for Larabee. He shook his head, thinking about yesterday when Kel had surprised him, again. Vin knew she had enough inner strength to get past the anguish that the details from her past had produced and he had expected her to rebound. However, he had not anticipated it happening so fast or generating the therapeutic response she had shown. Then again, when he considered all the nightmares she had overcome in her life, he should have foreseen the results. Nevertheless, he was pleased to see the woman that he knew behind closed doors, was now revealing her true nature to the outside world. Vin stopped his musing and realized the sun was already making an appearance.

Where in the hell are you, Larabee?

I am right here and not one word about being late.

Tanner passed Chris the reins to his horse and shot him an amused look as he mounted Peso. “Whatever you say, boss.” The retreating sound of his brother’s laughter spurred Larabee into action. He hastened to catch up with his young friend. Vin was riding slow, waiting for Larabee and when he came up even to him, the Texan picked up the pace. The two men rode hard across open country and their horses, appreciating the run, were reluctant to slow down anytime soon. After forty minutes, they had no choice, the men stopped to give their steeds some rest.

Noticing how gingerly, Chris was walking Vin had to comment. “Movin’ kinda slow this mornin’, Cowboy. Hope you not sick or somethin’.” The look in Tanner’s eyes did not show any concern for Larabee’s health though. Laughter threatened to surface at any moment. “You sleep, okay?” The Texan took on a serious look. “I’d hate to think about you missin’ our first case and…”

“I slept on the floor, alright!” Chris frowned when Tanner’s laughter made its escape. “Actually, I didn’t plan it that way, but after … Hell, what am I telling you for? You probably didn’t sleep any more than I did.” Larabee gave him his best glare, admittedly without much heat behind it.

Unfazed, Vin only laughed more, until he got it out of his system. “Probably not, but it was worth the sacrifice.” Larabee acknowledged that statement with a nod of affirmation. An agreeable silence hung in the air for a few minutes before Chris broke it.

“Are we going to continue to search for answers?” Larabee wanted confirmation before he took the next step. “After this long, the chance of finding enough evidence to convict is next to none, you know that.” He knew his friend would not quit if it were just him involved. However, the other night was hard on Kelli and Vin might be having second thoughts.

“We keep lookin’, maybe we can’t convict the bastard, but we might convince him to give up some information. They didn’t use DNA twenty years ago, but now we can at least find out if…if he’s related to her. If he isn’t, then we make him tell us where he got her. Kel’s DNA is on file with the National Registry for missing children so she won’t have to be involved until we find somethin’ to tell.” Tanner was not sure when it had happened, but Chris was now caught up in this as much as he was.

Shaking his head in agreement he added,” That’s good, but I have to admit, Friday night I was sure she would want to quit.” He chuckled, “Then yesterday, I realized that she is much stronger than I first thought. And that is a good thing to know about the people you work with.”

“It’s good to have you at my back on this. Thanks for being there.” Vin knew no more needed to be said on that subject, “Speakin’ of work, have you finished the partner assignments, yet?”

“Yep, with Pam in the office feeding out information to the team, that leaves us with fourteen field agents seven old and seven new. That is how we will start out, until I see how the newer agents do in the field. Josiah will work well with Anderson and Nathan with Roberts. I decided to put JD and Justin together, as well as Buck and Westin.” Chris noted that Tanner nodded in agreement to each pairing, but still had not asked the question he expected. “Ezra will have a fit about having a partner, but Katrina can handle it. You are the one that is blessed with Reed. Hell, you are the only one with enough patience not to kill him. Kelli will work with me, I reckon I have enough practice on how to deal with a Tanner.”

You figured I was worried about Kel, didn’t you?” The expression on Larabee’s face answered him. “I always will worry about her stayin’ safe, just like she worries about me. However, as far as who she works with, I know she can take care of herself and she is a good agent. Trust me, she knows how to raise hell if necessary and won’t be shy about givin’ her opinion.” Vin smiled, “I speak from personal experience.”

Knowing how protective Tanner could be, Larabee thought his concern might spill over into the workplace and be a challenge. His confidence in Kelli’s abilities was good to hear. Chris was convinced, now, that working together would not be a problem for Vin. With that hurdle taken care of, he knew his team was ready for anything.

Now that the horses are rested, I’ll race your home.

No contest, but you can try, Cowboy

+ + + + + + +

Four frisky foals could be a handful, but Kelli loved every minute she spent with them. The lone female in the group was the rowdiest and was fast becoming her favorite, next to Midnight, of course. She gave the colts a run for their money, if they tried to bully her. They were learning not to mess with the young filly

“I thought I might find you here.” Linda entered the foaling pen. “God, they are growing fast.”

“Yep and if I read the signs right, we will have another one before mornin’.” She pointed to the bay mare on the end row. “I reckon Lady Brianna is next and one of the Larabee mares is foaling’ now.”

“Did Vin mention to you when they would be back?” Linda hated to admit that Chris had not thought to tell her.

“I guess they will be here when they get here.” Kelli had no idea how long they would be out. “Is it important?”

“Well, don’t you like to know where Tanner is?” Linda smiled. At least Vin didn’t tell you, either.

Kelli laughed. “Lord, Linda, he is a grown man, he doesn’t need to keep his schedule posted for me.” She could not resist teasing, “I do let him out once in a while without a chaperon.”

“Now, who is being a smart ass?”

“Linda, I don’t care how much you care about someone, everybody needs their own space at times. I know I do and I respect the fact that Vin does, too. After considering her next remark, Kelli decided to interfere. She knew Linda was worried about Chris having enough time for her, once work became an issue. “I know how you feel about Chris, but what are you gonna to do when he in so involved in a case that he forgets to call or doesn’t have time to see you?”

“I know how the job is. You do remember we worked together for almost a year.” She remembered, but at that time, she was not involved with anyone. This was a completely different situation. Girl, that is how he lives, accept it because you love him.

Kelli sighed. She was thinking that maybe she should have said nothing. “I know you do, but Larabee is not a rookie like we were then, he has many more responsibilities. He is the type of leader that will not leave a job until his agents do. He will be the first one in and the last one to leave, period.”

“The unit has not even had a case yet. How do you know that he will do that?” Linda knew she was right, but that did not mean she had to like it. Lord, this is going to be hard, but you will find a way, Linda

“I suppose because I have worked with enough of the ones that won’t.”

“Won’t what?” Tanner managed to get behind her before she knew he was there. She was surprised when he grabbed her and he knew what her next words would be.

“Dammit, Tanner, you need to quit doing that!” When she saw the smile on Linda’s face, she knew she had been an accomplice. She was also sure Larabee was close, by the look in her friend’s eyes. She spoke to Linda, “He doesn’t need any help, he needs spurs, loud ones!” Just how much did they overhear?

Chris was close and he moved forward to give Linda a kiss wrapping his arms around her waist. “Moving quietly is one of Tanner’s hidden talents.” He smiled, “Buck hates it and he is usually one of Vin’s favorite targets.”

“Did you have a good ride?” Linda was glad they were back, maybe now she could have Chris to herself for a while. Looking at him, her doubts disappeared. You will be fine with this, Linda. This is who he is, the man you are in love with.

“It was great, but we talked and thought maybe you two might like a night out.” Larabee had heard enough to know Linda needed some reassurance and was willing to provide it. It was going to be a challenge when their cases were hot and time was short. Taking her out tonight, would help make up for the time he could not be here during the coming week. “How about it?”

“Do we get to pick the place to go?” Linda already had several ideas in mind. When Chris nodded yes, her mind started to race through the possibilities.

“Why don’t you two go? Lady Brianna will probably foal tonight and someone should be here to keep an eye on the other new one.” Kelli would rather be here and she knew Linda would prefer to be alone with Chris. It seemed to her the best solution, for everyone, was for the Tanners to stay at home.

Vin turned her around to face him. “Bri will foal with or without your help and George is here to keep an eye on things. We can have dinner and go dancing after.” Vin knew she loved to dance, but didn’t do it often. Although, not his favorite form of entertainment, he did not mind going. He leaned in close enough for only her to hear and whispered, “Later we’ll do some private dancin’.”

Together they came to an agreement. The men picked an afternoon movie, Linda the restaurant for dinner and Kelli the place to go dancing. They would meet in two hours, giving them plenty of time to eat lunch before they left. Chris and Vin took the foals back to their mothers and George promised to call if any of the mares had a problem.

The Tanners went home one way, leaving Chris and Linda to go in the other direction. While heading back to the house, Chris’ cell phone rang. ”Larabee …Within the hour… Consider it done.”

“Linda, I am so sorry, but I’ll have to give you a rain check for today. We were just passed a hot case that can not wait.” He watched her reaction carefully and was relieved to see her acceptance of the situation. “I promise to make it up to you.” He drew her close and gave her a long passionate kiss which had to last them for a while.

“I’ll be fine, go do what you have to.” Linda knew this would be a test for their relationship. “Just stay safe.”

Larabee pulled out his cell and punched in a code for his team. Fifteen pagers were beeping within minutes.

MCAT was ready to roll into action.

MCAT Office - Sunday 12:50 p.m. - Day One

Orrin Travis was already waiting on the twelfth floor when Chris Larabee walked in the office. Wasting no time on formalities, they immediately began to discuss business. “This is all I have to give you, the rest you will have to come up with on your own.” Travis shook his head, “I still can not believe … Matthews was a good friend and a fine man. I will run interference with the news media for you. Chris, do whatever you need to, but search out the bastards responsible. If you need anything let me know and it is yours.”

“Thanks, Orrin, we will do our best.” Chris noted the box Travis was holding, “Is that for us?”

“What? … .Yes, of course, I thought they should have these now, instead of waiting until tomorrow.” After handing the box to Larabee he started to leave, “Chris… this is your case, show them what the best is capable of doing.” With Larabee’s acknowledgment, he left, passing other agents coming in on his way out.

“Everyone has answered their page, if they aren’t already here then they are on the way in.” Tanner stood in the doorway of Chris’ office. “You okay?”

“Yeah,” he handed the box to Vin. "Get them into the conference room, we need a plan.” Chris grabbed the papers Travis gave him and turned on his copy machine.

1:30 p.m.

Most of the Agents found that waiting was the hardest part of this job. A few grumbled about an interrupted weekend, but one voice was louder than the rest. “This is probably some damn test to see if we show up.” Sam Reed gave his opinion to the others. The senior agents in the room had ignored the complaints until that remark. However, they found it difficult to let that pass, but before they had a chance to respond, Chris entered the room. He passed a folder to Tanner and proceeded to the head of the table. The look on Larabee’s face said this was the real thing and serious, silence descended on the room as instincts kicked in.

“At 10:15 a.m. this morning, Judge Harold Matthews left his home to attend church with his family. Five minutes later, he lay dead in own driveway and two of his children were injured. By 11:00 a.m., a group known as PAL or People’s Army for Liberty took credit for the slaying. They sent their terms to a local newspaper reporter, who contacted the FBI. PAL demands the release of a federal prisoner by the name of Carl Watkins and each day that passes before his release, another judge dies. If he is still in prison by Thursday noon, they threaten to take out a building in downtown Denver with explosives. While the FBI, ATF and several other agencies argued about who has lead on this case, Travis claimed it for MCAT. Before I give you your assignments, take out your badges and lay them on the table along with your ID’s.” Chris sat down and Tanner stood to address the agents.

“Ezra, if you would collect the badges and ID’s, please.” Vin gave Standish a clipboard. “When Agent Standish picks up yours, initial your name on the list I gave him.” As Tanner pulled out the box Travis brought in earlier, he continued to speak. “I have new ID’s and badges for all of you. You’ll see that the badge now shows you to be a MCAT agent. Your ID’s will allow you access to federal law enforcement records from any bureau, that reports to the Justice Department. Your authority will override all other agencies unless they, specifically, invite us to assist. I don’t think they will be askin’ anytime soon. In fact, you probably won’t find many that will welcome you in a friendly way. We do not wanna start a feud with 'em, but we won’t take any gruff from ‘em either. If you have any problems let me or Commander Lar’bee know about it.” Vin assigned the new badges and then waited for Chris to finish writing.

“We have a short time to get to the truth of all this. Pam, you will be in the office to coordinate the information that flows to us in the field. I also want you to update the case board with any information that comes in, no matter how insignificant it might seem to be. Find out everything possible about Carl Watkins, up to and including what he ate for breakfast.” Pam was already out the door headed for the communication base she and JD had set up for the unit.

“JD, you and Justin work on PAL, locate us someone that knows how they operate and drag their butts in here for questioning. Josiah, you and Anderson head to the prison and question Watkins. Nathan, you and Roberts evaluate the security for high profile targets, hospitals, schools and government building. Check for any unusual activities in the last couple of weeks.” Once they had left, Chris gave Standish and Wilmington their orders. “Ezra, I want you and Katrina to start hitting your informants, somebody somewhere, knows what is coming down. Buck, I want you and Westin to take on the Judge’s files see if you can find a connection. We all meet back here by nine tonight, to go over what we have collected.” That covered everything mentioned in their demands, but Larabee felt there was more to it.

“It feels too professional and detailed for a rag tag group of home grown rebels.” Vin made his observations. “Sounds like a well thought-out plan and more personal.” He waited for Larabee to answer.

“I think it’s too convenient to place the blame on a group that did not even exist until three months ago. That’s why you and Reed are going to rattle some cages and see what comes out. Hit your sources, Vin. See what they know.” The Texan had some unconventional resources and good instincts, if it was something else he would find out. Turning to Kelli, “You’re with me, let’s go see what the FBI found out.”

2:45 p.m.

Agent Guy Saunders cringed when he saw ‘badass’ Larabee get out of his truck. The two men had crossed paths more than a few times over the years. Well, not this time, this was his case and he was going to keep it. “Larabee, this is FBI business, not yours. The ATF does not belong here.”

“For once, Saunders, I agree with you.” Chris pulled out his badge, “For that matter, neither do you. This is my case and if you want to work on it then I guess you will have to answer to me.” Larabee took great pleasure seeing the look on the other agent’s face.

“Shit, don’t tell me they tapped you for that fiasco they call a MCAT Task Force.” Saunders laughed. “You of all people should know better. Some hotshot thought this up to get his boss off his ass and it will never last.”

Chris took a step closer to the man. “What I know is, that your full report needs to be in my hands, no later than nine tonight, labs included.” Taking one more step he growled, “If you don’t like it, take it up with the Attorney General. Now, tell me what you already know.”

Agent Saunders sighed because he had read the blasted memo about MCAT and knew that for now, he would have to cooperate. “High powered rifle, the shooter took his shot from somewhere over there. We have not located the exact spot, yet”

Chris saw Kelli head in that direction and decided to see just what she could find. “Walk me through it.” He kept Saunders busy for the next twenty minutes. When Coulter returned and nodded to him, he abruptly cut off the FBI agent. “Make sure you have your report to my office by nine.” He then walked back to his truck, leaving the man standing alone.

Chris waited until they were down the street before he said a word. “Well?”

“It was a single shooter, waited there for a while by the looks of it. I found three shell casin’s, foreign writin’ on ‘em, not like any that I have seen before, but Vin will probably know what they are." She then placed the evidence bags on the seat of the truck, “I bagged a couple of other things I found for our lab to look at.” She noted the look Larabee shot in her direction. “What? I marked where they came from, I even left Saunders a signed receipt for the evidence that he can put in his report. Of course being FBI, I should have left him a map to find the damned note.”

“Remind me not to put you and Ezra together.” Chris shook his head, "I expected you to look, not collect evidence. What if this goes to court?”

“What if we waste time chasin’ the wrong bad guys and a buildin’ gets blown up?”

“So, you think that is the real target here?” Chris wanted to know how his partner was thinking.

“Jake taught me that the best offense is a damned good diversion.” She smiled, “Kinda like you did keepin’ that idiot busy while I snooped.”

“Sounds like Jake was a good lawman and …a good teacher.” Larabee was satisfied with her answer. “Since you went to the trouble to collect it, let’s get this to the lab.”

7:00 p.m.

“How many places like this do you plan to go to?” Reed was tired of Tanner dragging him into one hellhole after another.

“As many as it takes.” Tanner was tired of hearing Sam complain. “If you wanna get dirt, you haf’ta get dirty.”

This particular bar was the worst one, so far. The occupants looked like rejects for Hell Angels and twice as dangerous. “You stay put and keep you mouth shut.” Tanner warned Reed and moved to the bar to talk to his contact, leaving Sam at a table by the door, alone. It did not take him long to forget the Texan’s warning.

“What do we have here? Hey, Croaker… you smell somethin…. smells like pig to me.”

“Yeah… Dog… strong and it’s coming from his direction.” Croaker pointed to Reed and pulled a knife. “Let’s see if pork bleeds.”

Sam jumped up and pulled his badge. “Back the hell off or you will both be in jail before you can say shit!”

That was all it took for the fight to start. At the bar, Tanner was heard to say, “Aww hell!” Just before a bottle flew by his head. Within minutes, the fight erupted in a full-blown brawl. The two agents were in the middle of it and outnumbered seven to one. A shotgun blast from behind the bar silenced the room. The bartender nodded to Vin, who then pulled Reed out from under a pile of bodies on the floor and hauled him out the door.

“Stupid, dumb, sonofabitch. What in the hell were you thinkin’?” Tanner pushed Sam into the truck and then carefully climbed in the other side while holding his sore ribs.

8:00 p.m.

“Ms Santos, in the future, you will adhere to the old adage which states that children should be seen and not heard!” Standish was incensed. His informants expected a dignified encounter with a gentleman. “You interjections were not appreciated! Especially the comment of, ‘Ez, you gonna shoot the shit all night , sitting there and flapping your jaws’? Truly, Ms Santos, that was not a decorous remark.” Ezra held up his hand to stop her from speaking. “Not one word!”

9:00 p.m. MCAT Office

“Chris, I do not believe Carl Watkins has ever heard of PAL before, much less has any value as a bargaining tool.” Josiah was highlighting the details from their interview at the prison. “The man is serving his second year of a three to five year sentence for breaking and entering.” While Josiah talked, Anderson transcribed his own notes.

“This is what I found on him, so far, there is no connection with that group.” Pam passed a folder to Larabee.

JD and Justin walked in to join the other agents. “PAL is a group of disgruntled rednecks, who think if the south had won the war, this country would be better off. They have no record of violent behavior and hold their meetings at a local watering hole called Rebel’s Place. For the record, Rebel is a woman with no criminal record and running that bar appears to be her only source of income.

Buck placed some folders on the table and Westin sat down to listen. “Judge Matthews never had any case connected to any member of that group. However, these three cases he did preside over.” Opening the folder he continued, “All three of the defendants were charged with inciting a riot and allegedly had connections to a terrorist cell here in Colorado. That was something the prosecutor could not prove though and they were sentence to two years in prison. Watkins is an inmate in the same prison.”

Nathan gave his report. “All of the buildings we checked out have good security procedures. However, three locations have had an abnormal amount of incidents, reported in the last two weeks. Two were downtown buildings and the other one is the federal courthouse. Paul and I can start running them down in the morning.”

Ezra stormed into the room, followed by an unusually quiet Katrina. Chris felt the anger Standish was emitting and decided not to comment on it for now. “What were you able to find out?” Larabee waited for Ezra to compose himself and knew the moment his mask fell into place.

“Rumors are flying on the street, but no one is willing to name names, yet. Most of them address something big happening by the end of the week. I will assuredly pursue the quest for information, but will do so, unaccompanied.” With one look, Standish dared anyone to comment. Larabee acknowledged his statement with the tilt of his head.

When Tanner and Reed finally joined them, Chris felt Kelli tense up at the sight the Texan. If he had not been sitting next to her, he may not have even noticed her reaction. His two agents did not appear to have survived their journey to the wilder side of Denver without injury. “What in the hell happened?

Nathan immediately went into healer mode and started to fuss over the men. “I should have expected this. I knew we could not go into a case without somebody getting hurt, one way or another.” The medic continued to fuss and grumble and attempted to examine the agents.

“Already been to the clinic and “m fine.” Vin made sure to transmit that information to his wife. “Just has a little dust up at one of the local dives. Reed here might need a few days to heal, though.” The Texan brushed off Nathan’s help and handed him the doctor’s report on Sam. Sitting down next to Kelli, he continued, “Most of what’s out there indicated somethin’ explosive is coming, soon.”

“All of you give me a one page rough draft on your findings. Then I want you all to get some rest, either here in the lounge or go home, but be ready to rollout by eight in the morning. Reed, you don’t come back without a release from the doctor.” Chris stood up and released his team.

“Josiah, what about Mallory?” Chris knew the baby was due within the next week or so.

“She and Joanne are staying with Inez, so I think I will just stay here tonight.”

“Justin and I are staying, too.” JD did not see the point in making the long drive home. “I think Buck is going to crash at Westin’s place.”

“Gentlemen, you are most welcome to stay at my townhouse, I have the room and it is more comfortable than the lounge.” Ezra made the offer to all of them, but insisted that Vin and Chris comply. “Chris, we need you in top form and a good night’s rest will help. Vin you look like a hot shower is in order and I am sure someone is anxious to look over your injuries.”

Truthfully, a real bed sounded good to Chris. After last night, the couch in his office did not look too appealing. “Thanks, Ez, appreciate it.”

“I am going home, but Vin, take Ezra’s offer. You may say you are fine, but I know your definition of that word and imagine you are hurting, a bit.” Nathan left after giving his advice to the younger man. Tanner agreed, not because of Nathan’s words, but because he wanted to assure Kelli that he really was okay.

11:15 p.m.

“We’ll see you guys in the morning.” Chris turned out the office lights. Tomorrow they would try to identify the real objective in this mess and with a bit of luck be able to prevent a disaster. However, finding one target in a city this size would be a challenge, even for his team.

Three more days and counting, Larabee, a few prayers could not hurt.

Day Two

Chris came in early, only to find several of his team members here ahead of him. Pam was at her computer and Josiah and Nathan were on the phone. Waiting for the rest of his agents to arrive, Chris gave Linda a call and managed a ten-minute conversation before duty called him away. Tanner walked in and showed him the cartridge casing he had just picked up from the lab.

“Yugoslavia M-76 7.92 x57. Long-range caliber, our boy knows what he’s doin’." Vin sat opposite Larabee. ”Whoever it is, he…or… she is serious about killin’ their mark." Tanner waited while Chris answered his phone.

Larabee hung up and sighed. “Number two just took a hit, but we are lucky. It’s not a fatal wound and Judge Connors is expected to recover. Conference room in ten minutes… oh yeah… two of our mares foaled last night and tell Kelli, Lady Bri had a healthy filly at five this morning." Vin simply nodded and left to tell her, while Chris went in search of Josiah.

“Josiah...Wait up a minute.” Chris caught him before he entered the conference room. “How is Mallory this morning?”

“She’s tired, but has been that way for the last two weeks.”

“You okay about working while you wait?” Chris smiled, recalling how he felt when he and Sarah were waiting for his Adam’s birth.

“I am fine, but she is a little stressed waiting. Inez has set up a schedule and she, Casey, Rain and Linda are taking turns keeping her and Joanne busy.” Josiah laughed, “Actually, I think Joanne is keeping them all busy.” By the time, they had finished talking they were inside with the other agents.

“I know some of you have already been hard at work this morning. Who wants to go first?”

“I did some background on the names Agent Wilmington gave us last night and they do have several interesting associations. I made several copies.” Pam handed some folders to Larabee.

“Good work, now go find me a connection to Judge Ryan Connors. He was shot about forty-five minutes ago, but is expected to survive.” Larabee looked at the information as Pam went back to her computer.

Picking up one of the folders, Buck said, “Mark and I will get on this right away, if there is a link we’ll find it.”

“I have a list of the incidents that were reported by security at the locations we talked about. Already have them sorted by time and dates.” Nathan had been at it since six.

“JD, you and Justin work with Nathan and Paul. I believe somewhere in those incident reports, we will find some answers. Kat help them follow up.” Larabee turned to Josiah.

Before he had a chance to ask, Josiah was already talking. “Already set it up, Chris. Anderson and I leave for the prison in fifteen minutes. The warden has put our men in isolation until we interview them.” Sanchez stood to leave. “We should be back here by four this afternoon.”

“Ezra called to tell us that one of his people contacted him and asked for a meet. He set it for nine and then he will be in touch after that,” Tanner continued, “I want to follow up on that M-76 and see where the trail leads.”

“Watch your back and meet us at the federal courthouse at two. First, Kelli and I are going to see what Saunders has found at the shooting scene.”

+ + + + + + +

FBI Agent Saunders was expecting Larabee to show up and this time he was ready to answer his questions. It galled him to have to cooperate, but his supervisor had been very direct with his orders. The attack on this Judge happened outside his home, the same as Matthews and just like yesterday, the driveway was the crime scene. He waited for Larabee to get closer to acknowledge him. “Agent Larabee.”

“Tell me what you know.” Chris wasted no time on a greeting.

“Same scenario as yesterday, Connors was leaving for the courthouse and was hit just as he entered his car. The only thing that saved his life was the car door bouncing as he sat down. The bullet grazed the side of the door and hit him in the shoulder instead of the head. We have already secured the site where the shooter waited. It would appear to be the same as before, of course, I only got to see that one after the evidence was taken,” Saunders sent his best glare to Kelli. “I bet you thought you were being cute with that note.”

“Actually, I thought I was doing your job, any rookie should have been able to find and secure that site within fifteen minutes.” She smiled as she walked off.

Saunders watched her walk away. “Since when do you have a woman partner and is she single?”

“Agent Coulter is on my team and no, she is not single, but I’ll be sure and tell her husband you were interested to know.” Larabee had a wicked look in his eye and grinned. Tanner had tangled with Saunders a time or two and it was not pleasant for the FBI agent. Chris knew what was coming and waited.

“No, don’t tell him. You know what they say, what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him. Maybe I’ll just see for myself just how married she is.” Saunders started to go talk to her, but Larabee’s words stopped him.

“Oh, I’m sure Agent Tanner would find your interest in his wife, worth mentioning.” Chris laughed as the agent in front of him paled slightly and swallowed hard.

“On second thought, I better go get your report ready. It will be in your office by two.” With that remark, Agent Saunders headed in the other direction and Chris went to retrieve his partner. She was studying the mark on the car door.

“Why do you suppose the sniper would wait until the man was in his car to take his shot? He had a clear target from the front door of the house to the edge of the driveway. He could have taken him out at any time.” Kelli was probing, expecting Larabee’s opinion.

“Good question. Yesterday, he managed to hit three moving targets.” Larabee looked thoughtfully at the place the man had waited for the Judge. “Unless … we have two different shooters and this one needed a stationary objective.” Chris considered this idea for a minute. “I’ll meet you at the truck in a couple of minutes. There is something I need to do first.”

Chris was back in less than five minutes and ready to leave. Kelli wanted to ask, but did not. She decided to wait until Larabee shared his opinion voluntarily. They went back to the office to check on the lab results.

+ + + + + + +

It was almost two when they reached the courthouse and Tanner was already there. Chris wanted to check out the security procedures again and see it they could find any sign that the building was under observation.

“I already checked the likely places a sniper would set up.” Vin explained, “Only one of ‘em gives the impression that someone could have been there recently.”

“What about the rifle?” Chris asked.

“Two were ordered on the internet and shipped to Colorado, one, here to Denver. I just got the address and will check it out when we finish in there.” Vin continued, “Of course there could be dozens we don’t know about out there on the black market, but a least it’s a place to start.”

“You won’t go without backup.” Larabee knew Vin would take off on his own, if given the opportunity. “We’ll go with you when you do. Something else for you to think on, the shooter used a .308 today instead of the 7.92 he used yesterday. We might be dealing with two snipers, not one.”

“Damn, as if one ain’t enough.” Vin sighed, “There are eight-seven different types of 308’s.”

They went inside and talked to the head of security. He walked them through all the safeguards that were in place and advised that his people were on high alert. “If anyone attempts to get in with any explosives, we will be able to intercept them.”

“Don’t take any chances, double security until the end of the week.” Larabee gave his instructions and then left the building. Once outside he took a deep breath of fresh air to clear his mind. “Something doesn’t feel right about all of this. Too damned many diversions, we’ll go check out that address and then make our way back to the office. Then we will start from scratch and go over everything, one piece at a time.”

When they came up with nothing at the address the gun was shipped to, Chris pulled in a favor from the DPD and ask them to keep an eye on the place. As soon as someone showed up, he would be advised.

+ + + + + + +

By five, all the agents were back in the office reviewing information and exchanging ideas. Forty-three hours away from the imposed deadline and frustration controlled the mood in the room. The only thing they could agree on was the fact that they still had more questions than answers. After two hours, they still were no closer to a solution than when they had started.

“The men that were convicted for inciting the riot are not the cream of the crop, but so far we have found nothing to link them to the threats.” Josiah was disappointed that their interviews had produced no new leads.

“All of the incidents we tracked down apparently have no common denominators, either.” Nathan was so sure they would find something and was let down when they didn’t.

“The FBI has not been a big help, according to them they have no way of protecting all the judges in the Denver area. They will not even attempt to cover just the Federal judges, much less their families. They suggested we try the U.S. Marshall’s Office.” Larabee was aggravated with all of the agencies that only wanted to pass the problem to someone else, taking no responsibility.

“Well, the street is definitely zipped up on this one. No one can or will say any more.” Ezra’s contacts were suddenly deaf, dumb, and blind.

“Dammit!” Buck jumped out of his chair so fast it turned over, hitting the floor with a loud crashing noise. “This is bullshit!” He began to pace the length of the room, ignoring the surprises looks on the faces of his fellow agents.

“Brother, is something wrong with your chair?” Josiah waited for his question to pierced Buck’s anger.

“What? ... My chair? ... No …no, I just… hell, everything connects to something, but none of it connects together. I feel like I just got off one of them rides at the amusement park. You know the one that spins you around until you don’t know up from down.” Buck picked his chair up and sat back down.

“I think we all feel the same way, Buck, maybe we all need a break.” Chris rubbed his hand over his face, “Everyone go home. We start again at seven in the morning.” When no one moved, he tried a different tactic. “Go! We need fresh minds to tackle this quagmire and to find the right answers.” Slowly the agents began to file out of the room.

Ezra caught up with Katrina. “Miss Santos, I wish to express regret for my conduct last night, permitting my anger to direct my behavior was deplorable.” Ezra apologized.

“We all have been a little stressed, next time I’ll listen more and talk less. Okay?” Katrina accepted graciously.

“Perhaps next time, we both will.” Ezra smiled and shook his head when he realized how easily he accepted that there would be a next time.

The last one out, Chris moved to the window and looked out on the city. Somewhere out there was the next target and someone had the answer to the big questions. They knew the what, when and how, they just needed to know who, why and where.

Two more days and counting, Larabee.

Day 3

By the time the clock read seven, most of the team had been in the office for hours. Sleep was elusive for most of them and mysterious questions summoned them back to the office. There were twenty-nine hours left to find a way to stop a tragedy. Who was behind this? Why were they doing it? Where was it going to happen? Finding the correct response to just one of these inquiries could direct them to answers for the others.

“Conference room, fifteen minutes.” Larabee issued the directive to the team. He was already there when they began to file in the room. The case board had his full attention and he studied it, committing every detail to memory. His gut told him that they had what they were looking for, but just had not connected it to the right piece of information, yet. Once the agents were all together he made his opening statement. “We start over from the beginning. What do we know and what have we done?”

“I guess I can start,” Josiah shifted in his chair. “The release or non-release of Carl Watkins will allegedly trigger what happens tomorrow. We have been unable to find any connection to either the group supposedly responsible for this or either of the judges. It appears, at this point, to be coincidence that three of the men the Judge sent to same prison may have ties to a terrorist group.”

“We also suspect that there are two different snipers involved. One using a foreign made weapon, which would indicate a professional and the other less skilled and using a .308.” Vin didn’t have much more to add concerning the shooters.

“All of the street sources indicated something is out there, but either fear or lack of knowledge has kept them from sharing details.” Ezra sighed.

“Every building, we have checked on, has implemented strict security measure since 9/11. Follow-up on the incident reports for the last two weeks, has not given us anything to go on.” Nathan added, “We still have a few more to go through and should finish today.”

“The Judge’s records do not show any cases with the same defendants and no connection to PAL or to each other.” Buck had been through them all, at least once. “I do plan to go back over them all in detail.”

“Justin and I have interviewed all the members of the People’s Army for Liberty and still believe they are just a harmless group of good old boys with big mouths.” JD felt they had covered each one thoroughly.

“We also know that the FBI agent investigating the crime scenes resents our presence on this case.” Kelli added, thinking about yesterday.

Chris stared at Coulter until she started to feel uncomfortable. He was thinking about yesterday, too. An idea was forming and he wanted to see if he was right before he shared it. “Bear with me on this, but I need to ask a personal question. Does what happened with Saunders yesterday happen often for a female agent?” Chris was sure he already knew the answer, but wanted the others to know.

“Well … Yes ...too many times, unfortunately.” Kelli was not sure where Larabee was headed with this question. However, her instincts said he had thought of something important.

“What happened?” Tanner leaned forward. “What did Saunders do?”

“Nothing serious, he just did what most men do around female agents. He saw the female and did not see the agent. How many times do you see someone refer to a male agent in a report or hear it when they speak? They don’t, it is simply Agent, with us though, it is always female attached to the word agent. Sometimes that can work to our advantage, like in an interview or a confrontation, being underestimated can help, but most of the time it’s a pain. The same thing happens with a suspect, I know it is not intentional, but male and female offenders are seen differently. Most men don’t feel as threatened by a woman.” Coulter explained.

“It is a reality that comes with the job. Always has been, always will be.” Katrina added.

“The truth is most men overlook the fact that a woman can be just as dangerous as a man.” Pam had seen it happen too many times in her career.

“Larabee, I assume there is a point you are getting at here.” Buck was interested, he knew this was leading somehow back to the case.

Chris threw out his next question, “Where is the background report on Rebel, aka Marlene Procter?”

“Rebel? Oh, you mean the woman who runs the bar where that group meets. We only did a check on her criminal history, but not a detailed background report. She did not seem to be the type…Damn! We did the same thing, didn’t we?” JD, as well as Justin just realized their error in judgment. “Pam see what CASSIE comes up with.”

“CASSIE? Who in the hell is CASSIE?” Buck asked.

“Collaborative Analysis System for Sensitive Information and she is our information system. Pam and I programmed her with predictive analog programs and she can retrieve specifics faster and more thoroughly than any system anywhere. We were given access to the most advanced programs out there and put them together in CASSIE. Some of them, the higher ups, are still debating on who should use them, but we have them now. She talks, analyzes and has all of us in her memory banks. There is not much she can’t do.” JD was proud of what they had managed to do in such a short time. Cassie was state of the art and damned near human. “CASSIE can even help you find the perfect gift for Inez’s birthday, which according to Cass, is in two weeks, in case you forgot.”

“Dammit! Two weeks…” Buck was writing a note to himself so he would not forget again.

Pam began working the magic of her keyboard immediately and already had information. “Rebel aka Marlene Procter, applied for a liquor license using a social security number that belonged to a man who died twenty years ago. The only records that prove her existence began to appear six months ago. That bar has been open for business …let’s see … for four months."

Katrina had a thought strike her. “What did this woman look like?”

Justin and JD both looked uncomfortable, but JD bravely moved forward. “She was very attractive, maybe 5’6’, mid thirties, green eyes and blond hair.” Santos shook her head affirmatively and left the room

“Chris, you think there might be something to this?” Nathan was curious now.

“Maybe.” Larabee was noncommittal.

Katrina came back in the room with a picture, “Could this be her?”

“I don’t know … maybe…her hair wasn’t brown and the eyes are different. Rebel’s were green not blue, but yeah I guess it could be her. Where did you get this picture?” JD passed the picture to Chris.

“That picture came from Interpol, but when I saw her she had brown eyes and black hair. Of course, that was several years ago while I worked on one of my first cases with the DEA.” After seeing the confused look on Justin’s face, concerning the change of appearance. Katrina explained, “Hair dye and colored contacts.”

“Who is she?” Ezra was curious, now.

“She is probably the first shooter, she has a dozen different identities and disguises, but she is one of the best professional assassins out there. If she is involved, you can bet someone is paying the big bucks for her services. Playing games and diversionary activities is what she enjoys doing, almost as much as killing.” Katrina sat down and waited for Larabee to say something.

“A woman ‘hit man’?” Mark Westin was having difficulty imagining a woman as a professional killer.

“She is simply known as ‘Lady Ice’ and that is her term, not mine. She has laid claim to over fifty kills and demands a very hefty fee for her services.” Chris added, “Very few people have actually seen her, but she does have a reputation for playing games with her opponents.

“How did you know, Chris?” Buck asked.

“Since yesterday, something has been nagging at me, until a few minutes ago I was not sure what it was. Guy Saunders is an ass, but he is a good FBI agent with fifteen years experience. When Kelli was talking, I realized how easily he dismissed her yesterday as just some rookie female. He never considered, for one second, that she could be deadly with a weapon. All he saw was an attractive female. If he could miss that with his experience, so could one of you. This Rebel knew about PAL and finding the name of a prison inmate would be easy. I remembered what Vin said about this feeling professional and personal. When I saw that she was the only person we had no background on, things started to fall into place.” Chris was now positive this was what they had missed.

“So now we know who she is, but how does that put us any closer to knowing what the target is?" Justin asked.

“I would be willing to bet, Matthews was a paid hit. Connors and whoever is today’s target are just a diversion. Tomorrow is the final act in her little play.” Larabee picked up the phone and called Travis, asking him to come up. “Buck pulled everything on Matthews and we will all go over it. Orrin was a close friend of his and he might notice something. Whoever her target is, tomorrow is the final hit and what better diversion is there than to have a building explode, to get away unnoticed.”

Orrin joined the agents and Chris explained their theory about a professional hit. He agreed to go though Matthews’s files with them and see if he could offer a link to anything they already had, “If you are right, then whoever the target is today will be shot with a .308 and survive. Is that correct?”

“That is my best guess, yes.” Chris answered and as they went through the files, they waited for the phone to ring.

They had been at it for two hours and were working on a box of personal files from Judge Matthews’s office when Orrin jerked back. Holding a picture in his hand, he paled slightly.

“Orrin, what is it?" Chris was concerned by the look on his face.

“I forgot all about this. I have known…knew Harold for over thirty-five years and we were good friends. However, in all those years we worked together only one time. Fifteen years ago, we did one term on the State Parole Board committee together. We must have made decisions on over one hundred petitions for parole. Not everyone was always happy about our decisions.” Orrin recalled those days.

“Who is the other man in the picture?" Chris was afraid he already recognized the man.

“That is the third person on the committee. Then a Judge, now Governor of the state of Colorado. Also, the same man who will be in Denver, tomorrow.”

“Pam, you and Buck pull every case that came up for review during that term. Nathan, get me a copy of the Governor’s schedule and Ezra, back on the street, you know who you need to talk to.” Larabee ordered, as Travis’s phone rang.

When Travis hung up, he sighed. “Judge Ira Stevens was wounded at his home and is on his way to the hospital. The FBI is on the scene now, so it appears you were correct, Chris.”

“Correct, only if the cartridge is .308. Tanner, I want confirmation. Josiah, go with him.” Chris felt his instincts screaming at him. “Sir, you need to call the Governor and convince him to change his schedule. It’s better to be safe than sorry.”

“I know the man, he won’t do it.” Travis hesitated, “I am suppose to spend the day with him and he has at least four appearances on his agenda, plus a luncheon.”

“One of those stops could have a surprise waiting for both of you.” Larabee advised.

“Chris, I have faith in you and your team, you won’t let that happen. Now let’s start with that list of parole petitions.” Travis began to sift through the request.

“In that case, sir, consider yourself in protective custody, as of now.” Chris picked up some files while Orrin mumbled a few choice words.

4:00 p.m.

With less than twenty hours until the designated deadline, priorities had been set. Travis consulted with the Attorney General’s office. The FBI and ATF were chosen to sweep the buildings along the Governor’s route for explosives.

“Buck, I want you to set up and coordinate those efforts and you tell the others how you want it done. The AG has given us controlling authority in this case, if they have a problem with that, give them the number for the Attorney General and they can argue with him. Orrin scheduled a planning session with the other agencies for five-thirty; take Mark, Nathan and Paul with you.” Larabee knew Wilmington would not take any shit from the FBI or the ATF.

“As for the rest of you, MCAT is responsible for stopping and if possible apprehending the sniper, one way or another.” Chris looked them over, “What we need is a plan.”

They worked well into the night and sometime after midnight, felt they had covered all the details necessary to protect the Governor and Travis. A plan was devised to trap ‘Lady Ice’ and with any luck, they would be able to identify the person who hired her.

One day left, Larabee

Day four - 6:00 a.m.

The teams of federal agents had spent all night sweeping the buildings along the route the Governor would travel. With the use of bomb sniffing dogs and heat sensors, they had located and deactivated three devices set to detonate by one that afternoon. A cargo van, at an additional location, held bags of explosives hidden under sacks of fertilizer. They were discreetly off loaded and then replaced with bags of sand. Security was set into place to prevent further infiltration. Confident that the threat of a blast had been neutralized, the focus shifted to containing the sniper and the safety of the intended targets.

“Chris, I think this is overdoing it a bit, I assure you two body guards are unnecessary.” Orrin was a bit irritated after spending the night at a hotel with Sanchez and Anderson. “I already agreed to wear this wretched vest. Isn’t that enough?”

“Sir, with all due respect, until the assassin is apprehended or dead, you will follow my orders.” Chris smiled, “The governor is under the same directive, so just grin and bear it. Agent Sanchez and Agent Anderson will be at your side all day.” His smile turned into a grin, “I am confident that you will find a way to get even with me later.”

“Who do you have with the Governor’s security detail?” Travis asked.

“Agent Jackson and Agent Roberts will stay with them until this is over. Now, if you will excuse me we still have work to do.” Larabee left Travis and joined Tanner in the conference room. Building blueprints were spread across the table and the rest of the agents were studying their assignments. “How does it look?”

“Goin’ by the time the bombs were set for and the best vantage point for a shooter, it has to be this buildin’. A professional would go with the place that would give ‘em the best shot and a chance for a quick exit. This place meets the criteria for all of that.” Tanner explained, “Plus, this is where I would be if I wanted a clean kill and a way out.” Vin smiled. “Hell, even CASSIE says the probability of this being the right place is 98%.”

Chris trusted Vin’s instincts more than the computer because the Texan was rarely wrong, when he listened to his gut feelings. “Tell me.”

“The hotel is open to the public, which makes it hard to control who or what comes in. The room for the rally is the grand ballroom and is open with three levels. At the top is a security catwalk with a full view of the room. There are several small conference room on the second and third level, which we will have secured and locked. The rally begins at one and the crowd will be allowed in startin’ at noon.” Vin gave him a quick rundown.

“Saunders’ team will cover the exits from the outside. Where is everyone else assigned?” Chris knew the tactical side of this plan would not miss a thing. When it came to assessing strengths and weaknesses of positioning agents, Buck and Vin were the best.

“We should all be in place by eight and set in to wait. Buck and Mark will be here, above and to the left of the podium. JD and Justin will be on the right side. I’ll be up top. Ezra will be at the head table with the Governor’s guests and will be in my line of sight. He will be in good position to observe the crowd and if he sees somethin’ and can’t use the headset, he can signal on of us. Katrina will be at the entrance. Once the doors are closed, no one else will be allowed in the room, at least from there. ”Vin showed Larabee positions on the blueprints as he gave him the verbal descriptions.

Chris agreed with the layout, but that still left one agent unassigned. “Aren’t you forgetting someone?” Larabee was puzzled by the quiet chuckles he heard and the grins his agents were wearing.

“We reckon you will be all over the floor of the rally, so Kel’s assignment is to stick with you.” Tanner grinned, “You do have a tendency to move around a bit and somebody has to cover your butt when you do. We won’t be able to without showing our positions, but like you told Travis grin and bear it.”

“Very funny, I don’t move around that much.” Chris stopped when Buck, JD, Ezra and Vin lost their battle with laughter. “You just do your job and my partner and I will do ours.” Larabee could not stop his own smile though, they knew him too well. He would be all over the place checking on his team and they knew it. Just don’t forget that second shooter might show up, too. Wear your vests and watch your backs.”

Waiting was a bitch. The agents were all in place and had been for the last three hours. Headsets were working and the banter between them was in high gear, a lot of it to break the tension. Admittedly, some of it was just to annoy Larabee and it was working.

“We know the damn thing works! Now, we test radio silence for a while and that is not a suggestion!” Chris was wound up and tired of waiting. In five minutes, those doors would open and soon over six hundred people would swarm this room. Sometime within the next hour or so Lady Ice would make her move, if they were right. If they were wrong … Larabee did not want to consider that possibility.

Chris’ headset crackled, “Heads up, the doors are open.” Wilmington’s voice warned.

Twenty long minutes passed watching the crowd and waiting for any sign of something amiss. Suddenly, the headset carried the excited voice of JD Dunn. “Second shooter in custody, .308 confirmed.” They had caught the man trying to break in one of the conference room.

“One down, one to go. She’s here, I know it.” Chris could feel it. But, would she use a rifle or something less predictable? “Keep your eyes open, she could be anywhere.”

“Eagle has a flash of red crossing the stage.” Vin saw it only for a split second, but knew it was a laser. “Floor level, front right side… there it is again.”

Larabee, Coulter and Santos scanned the crowd looking for the source. The agents moved to the front right quadrant of the room, from three different directions. Ezra, Josiah and Nathan were ready to move Travis and the Governor on Larabee’s order.

“Two o’clock, old woman with video camera.” Buck was sure it was her, “Blue dress… the camera!

Chris and Kelli crashed into her at the same time, one from each side, the camera began to fall and the woman stepped back. She found her way blocked by Katrina.

“Lady, your game is over.” Chris placed her in handcuffs while Coulter retrieved the camera.

“Killer video.” Kelli pulled the facing from the camera to reveal a gun, a laser scope replacing the lens.

“You may have me, but this city will pay dearly for it.” The assassin hissed. “You are not as smart as you think.”

By this time, they had moved away from the crowd of onlookers. Chris corrected her erroneous statements. “If you are referring to the big bang, it has been canceled. What we have on you, Lady, will get you the death penalty and it won’t be too difficult to connect you to Matthews’s death either. The only way you might get a reprieve is to tell us who hired you.”

She watched the clock pass one and when no explosions were heard, she realized Chris was not bluffing. However, she knew this day might come and was prepared to bargain, she had kept very detailed records. After considering her options, she made her demands.

“I want that guaranteed in writing from a federal attorney and immunity from prosecution of any alleged crimes that may come to light concerning my … profession.” She gave an evil smile, “Do that and I will name all my employers, past and present.”

Larabee knew they would get no answer as to who had hired her until she made her deal. Therefore, he signed over custody to the U.S. Marshals that were waiting to transport her to jail. The MCAT team returned to their office.

Pam met them as they walked in the door. “Josiah, I have an urgent message for you.” She smiled as she handed it to him.

“Chris … Mallory … Baby… I got to go.” Sanchez stumbled on his words.

Larabee squeezed his shoulder and grinned, “Relax, we got you covered. The rest of us will be there as soon as we finish here, give Mallory our love.” Chris nodded to Nathan while the other brothers smiled. A flustered Josiah was something you just did not see everyday.

“How about I drive? Then we can wait together.” Nathan guided his friend out the door while the remaining agents worked to finish reports.

“Okay, Buck, tell us how you knew it was her.” Katrina had not worked it out and it was driving her nuts.

“Easy, it was her hands.” Buck smiled, “She may have disguised herself as an old woman, but the hands holding that camera belonged to a much younger female.”

“Leave it to Buck, married or not, he notices everything when it comes to women.” Chris commented.

“Except now, I only look not…” He was interrupted when Travis sweep into the room and he was not alone.

“Forgive me, for barging in, but I insisted on coming to meet the team responsible for stopping the attempt on my life. You were not bogged down in red tape and did what you had to do without any loss of life. You all have my heartfelt appreciation. I intend to personally convey to the Attorney General my recommendation that this unit receive a commendation for exceptional work.” The Governor then thanked each one individually before he left.

Travis remained, “Congratulations on a successful end to your first case. This unit did what it was designed to do and did it well. As soon as you finish your reports, I want you all to go home and don’t come back until Monday. You have earned a three day weekend.”

One by one, they all left until it was only Larabee, Tanner and Coulter. Chris noticed how quiet his partner was. “You handled yourself well on this case, Kelli and should be happy with the results. Why aren’t you?”

“Maybe because I know, once that woman gets through dealin’, she will most likely walk away with a slap on the wrist. The information she knows will be too good for the U.S. Attorney to pass up.” Kelli sighed, “Just doesn’t seem fair.”

Chris exchanged a look with Vin before speaking. “You’re right, its not, but we can’t change the entire system, only our part of it. With this unit, we have an opportunity to make a difference. We can cut through all the BS and red tape and do what we are good at. Sometimes it may not end up all fair, but with the authority that we have been given we can level the playing field. The AG has given us the freedom to do what needs to be done without tying our hands in the process. Today, two men are alive because we did our job and who knows how many others could have died in an explosion. That is enough for me, besides, you have to admit it felt good to see FBI Saunders squirm and have to work for us.”

“Yeah did.” A slow smile started, “I think you enjoyed makin’ him squirm, too”

“You’re right, but not half as much as Vin did.” Chris laughed, “I am glad I sent Josiah with you, Tanner or I might not have heard the whole story.”

“Just what did you do to him, Vin?” Kelli had not thought about his reaction to Saunders statements.

“Later, at home we’ll …talk about it.” Tanner grinned and winked at his wife.

Chris shook his head and smiled and then he reached for the light switch. "You two behave. Right now, we have a baby to see about.”

Denver Memorial Hospital waiting room.

There were so many people anticipating the delivery of the Sanchez baby, they got their own waiting room. Josiah was in the labor room with Mallory. Buck and JD took turns pacing the floor and the woman watched with great amusement. Ezra had arranged for a nanny to stay with the children, so everyone could be here and he sat satisfied just to watch his family.

Nathan managed to stay calm until Buck reminded him that his turn was coming. When he looked at Rain and realized they would be next, he wanted to reassure her now. “I hope you know I will stay calm and cool, you don’t have to worry about me.”

“I am not worried, besides, I plan to be too busy to notice.” Rain smiled. “How about you Casey, you worried?”

“Not me.” Casey grinned when the question hit JD and he realized this is what they had to look forward to soon.

Linda watched and listened, but did not join in the conversation. Then she saw Chris walk through the door and her whole day brightened. “Hello, stranger.” He came over and sat beside her, taking in the situation around the room. “No news, yet?”

“No, still waiting.” Linda gave him a smile. “What did you do with Vin and Kelli?”

“They got sidetracked, but should be here in a few minutes.” Chris grinned, “They made a stop at the gift shop and Vin got carried away. Kel was trying to drag him out when I left them.”

Just then, Vin came through the door carrying a huge flower arrangement with blue balloons and blue streamers. Kellie held on to three stuffed animals and three pink roses.

“Son, I hate to tell you this, but there is only one baby coming, unless you know something we don’t.” Buck waited to hear Vin’s explanation.

“Chris and I reckoned the flowers could be from all of us to Mallory and the blue balloons and the streamers are for little Adam.” Vin watched Chris for any reaction to the name as he sat the arrangement down.

“Then why have the pink roses and stuffed animals?” JD asked. “You don’t think she could have more than one, do you?" The possibility of twins had not crossed his mind, until now. He looked at Casey and felt the need to sit down.

“These are for the three young ladies that had to stay at home.” Kelli handed them over to Inez for safekeeping and was pleased to see the appreciation in her eyes.

Buck grinned, “And here I thought you might have you own announcement to make.”

“Not yet.” The Texan smiled as he walked up behind Kelli and wrapped his arms around her waist. “It’ll be my pleasure to work on it though.”

“Just don’t start working on it here or you may get us all thrown out.” Chris tried to sound stern, but the mischief in his eyes gave him away. “But... now it is your turn and then … I suppose Ezra is next.” The sound of Standish strangling on his latté was too much for Chris and he burst out laughing.

Everyone was amused, except for Ezra. He was ready with a good comeback when Josiah walked in carrying a small bundle in his arms. A hush fell over the room.

“Mallory is sleeping, but may I present to all of you, Master Adam Josiah Sanchez. Adam this is your new family.” Josiah was beaming with pleasure. “8lbs 7oz and 21 inches.”

After everyone got a good look at the beautiful baby boy, Josiah walked up to Chris. “Would you do the honor of being the first Uncle to hold him?”

Chris only hesitated for a moment, “I would be pleased to do so.” Holding his Adam’s namesake, he felt the tears form and was sure they would soon fall, but he was okay with that. Surrounded by his family, he felt the love and support from all of them and it was then that he understood what Vin had tried to get him to understand. Sometimes, memories are all we have left and if they are good ones, they will sustain us through anything. He had made good memories with his Adam and he would make new memories with this one. When he raised his head, he caught Linda’s moist eyes and smiled.

+ + + + + + +

After leaving the hospital, Vin took his wife out to dinner. He had thought about inviting Chris and Linda, but once he was satisfied his brother was okay with his emotions, he change his mind. He needed some time alone with Kelli and this was a good place to start.

“You gonna tell me about Saunders or make me wonder?”

“Not much to tell, I just made sure he thinks twice before he decides to hit on any female agents in the future.” Vin watched her, “No I didn’t hit him, but I wanted to.” Tanner had warned him, about showing respect for their female co-workers and he was sure Saunders got the message.

Their meal came and for a few minutes, they did not talk. Truth was, Kelli was lost in her thoughts about this Texan who charged into her life and captured her heart and soul in the process. She was anxious to get home and show him how much he meant to her.

“You know, if you plan on havin’ dessert, you need to get your mind on eatin’ and off what you’re thinkin’.” Vin could read Kelli as well as he could read Chris. “Besides, when we leave here, we’re goin’ shoppin.”

“What makes you believe that ‘m not thinkin’ about dessert?” Her eyes sparkled with amusement. “And maybe I don’t want to go shoppin’.”

”Baby, I hear your message, loud and clear, but first we go shoppin’ and I promise you won’t regret it. So behave yourself and finish your dinner.” Vin was still amazed he had such a mesmerizing effort on her.

"Okay, Tanner, but I want dessert at home and … soon.” She smiled, “You owe me for all that teasin’ today at the hospital and I intend to collect.”

Vin did take her to a shop, not far from the restaurant, that specialized in the type of outfit she wore the first time they went out to dinner. They laughed and played around looking at some outrageous clothes and accessories she would never wear. Then she was surprised to find that her Texan had another hidden talent, he had a good eye for just the right colors that complimented her features. In the end, Vin chose several long skirts and low cut blouses she would be comfortable wearing. Kelli hated to shop and was more than happy to let him do the selecting, in fact, she even wore one outfit home.

“I’ll admit that wasn’t too bad, it was even fun, but why the sudden need to add to my wardrobe?” They had finally made it home and she was past ready to hear him explain.

“Pure selfishness on my part and you can put the blame on that damn yellow shirt. I have become very fond of that shirt and the enticin’ effect it has.” Vin pulled her close, reached under her skirt and ran his hand across her bare leg. “Now, it will be easier to do somethin’ about it.” The Texan had another purpose, one he wasn’t ready to admit to. Kelli needed to experience the pleasurable part of doing some things just for the helluva it. She had missed having that kind of freedom in her life and now she was secure enough to let go and learn to just enjoy some frivolous fun.

Kelli began to laugh, “Tanner, your reasonin’ amazes me, but you didn’t have to do all this.” She drew him close enough to whisper, “All you had to do was ask.”

“Damn, why didn’t I think of that?” He grinned and then became serious, “Kel, today got me to thinkin’. I know when we first talked about it, we agreed to wait for a while to start our family. We needed to be us first and discover each other. But we have come so far since then, maybe we should reconsider. How do you feel about us being next?”

Vin would be a wonderful father and their children would never have any doubts or insecurities about belonging or being loved. She looked into his eyes and saw the love he offered so freely, the commitment she knew she could count on for a lifetime. “I think we should begin workin’ on our first one, right away. In fact, now would be a good time to start. Don’t you think?”

“Yes ma’am I sure do.” Vin drew her in his arms and whispered, “Te quiero, Tejas.”

“I love you too, Tanner.”

+ + + + + + +

Chris and Linda also had a quiet dinner, only theirs was on Larabee’s deck, under the stars.

“I have missed you this week.” Linda admitted. ‘It seems like it has been a month since we sat down together.”

“You know this was actually a short case, some of them will be much longer.” Chris watched to see her reaction. “Sometimes we may be gone for a couple of weeks and some cases could take a month or two to finish up.”

“I understand. I have managed to stay busy, between your horses and mine there are six new foals this week. I have had a lot of family business to tend to and even had a chance to go shopping a time or two.”

“You have been busy.” Chris was happy she was handling his work so well. Maybe now they could settle into a more relaxed relationship.

Linda watched him, “I have no regrets about the choices, I have made and I just want to spend time with you when we can.” She smiled, “I know I will worry about you when you are on a case, but I can learn to live with that.”

“That is good to know, Lady, because I like being with you and want us to spend more time together.” He was relieved to know she was not having second thoughts and was accepting what he had offered with no regrets.

“I want you to think about something.” Chris decided just getting to the point was easiest. “Think about spending your weekends here with me, I know the family is around a lot, but they are part of my life, too. I would like to know that we have something to look forward to each week, instead of wondering if we might see each other.”

Linda masked her disappointment, she was sure he was going to ask her for something more permanent, especially after seeing him with little Adam. “I think I can arrange that.” She would take weekends and given enough time, maybe he would be ready for more.

“You do know this is a three day weekend?” Chris grinned and pulled her onto his lap.

“What holiday are we celebrating?”

“No particular holiday, but I am sure we can think of something to commemorate. Chris kissed her passionately, leaving her breathless. He lifted her into his arms and headed into the house. The only sound in the night was the closing of the door.


The sun was rising over the distant mountains and the warm gentle breeze felt good after the colder mornings of a week ago. Chris Larabee, coffee in hand watched as a new day began and reflected on the last two months of his life. He took out his journal and began to write.

Two months is sixty days or eight weeks… It does not seem long, but I find it hard to take in all that has happened during that time. I never did like change, but the changes that have occurred around here are mostly good ones. The family has some new additions and the newest is Adam Josiah Sanchez, born yesterday. When Josiah and Mallory came to me and asked about using my Adam’s name for their son, I had mixed feeling. They counted themselves lucky that at their age, they had one baby girl, but when Mallory found out she was pregnant again at forty-three, they felt it was a special blessing and he needed a special name. So, I said yes and then when I held him for the first time, I knew it was the right decision.

JD and Nathan are just now beginning to realize how quickly life can change. Waiting for little Adam to be born brought home to them, the fact, that in a few short months they will be waiting on their own babies to come into this world. Little do they know that their life will never be the same again.

Buck shared with me yesterday that he and Inez are talking about having another baby. They hope to have a boy, but I know Buck and he would not mind being surrounded by all females. Another girl would be more than welcomed.

Ezra, though, is still the stable one. Did I really just write that? His life continues to amaze and amuse me, but one of these days, he will surprise the hell out of all of us and let his last defenses fall. When he does, some woman will be there to catch him.

Vin, I suppose has made the biggest personal change and I had to laugh when I read my last entry. I said he was shy and insecure about relationships with women. Tanner did surprise the hell out of me when he found the woman to share his life. He knew within days of meeting her that she was the right one for him and set a tenacious plan into motion, to win her heart. He brought Kelli into the family when they married two weeks ago. As usual, Tanner’s instincts are right on and I know they will be good for each other.

Larabee 7 has twelve new foals, three belong to Kelli, as her horses now reside here. She and Vin were given a winning race horse for a wedding present and My Texas Lady has brought some good publicity to our ranch. Our foundation stallion, Hunter, also has a famous winning relative and that has put a good boost into our breeding program. We did have a fire a few weeks ago, losing five horses and two stables, but the rebuilding is almost complete and will be even better than before.

There have been two big changes in my life, the first concerning work. Travis called me into his office to tell me team seven was history and I felt like a loved one had died. Then he had the nerve to offer me a new position doing something that had never been done before. Starting a completely new type of law enforcement unit with a whole new set of standards. Well, my first impulse was to tell him to go to hell, but then I listened to what he was telling me and I wanted to hear more. The idea intrigued me and when he said the boys could stay on with me, I was hooked. We had six weeks to put it together and just finished our first case as a team. With MCAT, we have an opportunity to accomplish more than we ever imagined. The freedom to work cases the way they should be, the resources to do it with and the authority to override the red tape that has kept us tied down. Team Seven was and still is the best quick response team in the country and now we are training more agents to be just as effective. Damn good agents, too! I am looking forward to what the next weeks and months will bring.

On the personal side, the change has been even more dramatic. I did not think I could find love again, but I did when I met a woman that now shares a big part of my life. Linda accepts me for who I am and understands my needs at this point in my life. She has filled a place that I never realized was so empty, until now. I missed the presence of a woman in my life to love and share things with. As I write, she is asleep in my bed and last night we shared a fantastic night of love. I think I will let her sleep for a while, to rest us for later when we can have some more time alone.

I do not know what the next few weeks have in store, but with a new lover, a family like mine and a new team to work with I know it will not be dull or boring.


Continues in MCAT SERIES # 2 Connections by Tonny