Magnificent Seven Alternate Universe

REGULATORS - A Group Effort by Sue M

A Group Effort

by Sue M

Alternate Universe: The Regulators

Main Characters: Seven

Summary: Five angelic voices, a songwriter, and an entrepreneur connect, and in their quest for success find companionship, contentment, stability, and family.

Author's Note: I'm not in the least bit musical, though I dabble in poetry. This premise came along when Mary Ann and I chatted and she shared a little bunny she had, but that she knew she would never write. So I intended to write a quick, just-for-fun, one-off chapter for her and some friends. They loved it (bless 'em), and I continued.

Initially, this was never meant to be taken seriously, as the AU is a little different from the usual, but over the last three years, I've put in a tremendous amount of work, and so the AU's become very special to me, and far from the 'simply for fun' piece it started out as.

I confess, I'm a little nervous to share it, but hey, these guys inspire me, so I'll take my chances :o)

This AU will be open after the establishing story arc has been completed. However, I'm happy to answer any questions, so feel free to email me. When I open the AU, I will insist that particular criteria be followed, which I will also be happy to share when the time comes.

Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy :o)


My humble thanks to Mary Ann for her generosity and friendship; to Nancy for her invaluable help, wisdom, kindness, and for housing my stories, and to those who have offered me their support and encouragement.


Disclaimer: Just playing. I know I can't keep 'em…damnit!

The Regulators AU by Sue M.

An AU created by Sue M, from an inspired concept by Mary Ann; who graciously encouraged me to keep going.

Chapter One


From the table he was sitting at, an immaculately dressed man's green eyes flashed in the flickering candlelight as he slowed his solitary applause, bar for the small gaggle of 'groupies' close to the raised area, for the vocalists exiting the nightclub stage. He still was uncertain why he came to this establishment tonight. It was a far cry from the classier institutions he frequented, but the anonymous voice of the man who somehow gained his cell phone number was most insistent he turn up here, and specific in who to look out for.

Ezra P Standish did so love a mystery, and decided to turn up.

Having watched the performance, and providing the objects of his interest were agreeable, he now felt confident it was a decision he would never regret. All he needed to do was convince the five performers he was just entertained by, to trust him. These days however, that was a big 'ask'.


Ezra, who was once one of Denver's most successful and prominent showbiz agents stared around the dimly lit nightclub and shuddered. One thing he was certain of, the five magnificent singers he was tipped off about earlier most certainly did not belong in a dive such as this. He concluded that they were either very new to the circuit, or in the hands of inept management.

Finishing his whiskey, Standish stood, tossed some bills onto the table, and moved toward the establishment's backrooms. Ezra excused himself as he worked his way through the small group of eager ladies hovering there. Their very presence enforced his gut feeling that what he was about to undertake was right. But there was much to do, and the quicker the task began, the better. In the gloomy backroom corridor, he quickly returned a call. Pressing redial, Ezra heard the voice of his unidentified benefactor.


Standish smiled. "You were right, they are disorganized, and badly handled, but all have the voices of angels. I intend to approach them with an offer the moment I end this call." There was a pause.

"Awesome. You won't regret it. I've been around these guys for six months now, and I just know, with good management, they'll be right up there with the best."

"My friend," Ezra pushed. "Could we meet?" There was another hiatus.

"Sure, but only if the fellas accept your offer. Call me." The recipient's final words ended the call.

Returning his cell phone to the inside pocket of his Armani jacket, Standish adjusted his clothing, approached the door with the temporary sign marked 'Regulators' and knocked.


Thirty year-old, blond-haired, green-eyed, Chris Larabee stared around the shabby, dimly lit dressing room at the despondent faces of his companions; two he had known for less than six months, one man for a year, and the other, more than twelve years.

Twenty-nine year-old Buck Wilmington was six foot four inches of lean, dark-haired, blue-eyed, crooning, ladies' man. He and Chris knew each other from college and were part of a band together back then. Buck was the best man at Chris's wedding, and Chris and Sarah's first and only choice as Godfather to their son, Adam. Buck had also been there when Chris buried his beloved family after a drunk driver rolled them off the back road to their ranch, resulting in the truck bouncing down a rocky incline, and it being crushed almost beyond recognition. Sarah and Adam died instantly. After a rough few years following the tragedy, the two men eventually lost touch, and Chris continued to abandon his passion for music and singing, for the mantra of a whiskey bottle.

One year ago was where Vin Tanner came in. While occupying a bar stool at a dingy, country and western roadhouse Chris finally dragged himself out of an alcoholic stupor to listen to the wiry, shaggy-haired, blue-eyed, fella singing his heart out on the stage, while mostly being ignored by rowdy, beer-swilling patrons. The lyrics of Vin's songs reached into Chris's heart and exposed the blond's past and present as if Vin had lived them himself. Chris was instantly drawn to the man, and from that night, found himself moving from bar to bar to hear Vin sing.

Being a perceptive man, twenty-four year-old Tanner quickly became aware of his 'stalker' and one night after performing, bought Chris a drink. They talked extensively, and as though they had known each other all their lives. Chris learned Vin was orphaned at five, after which he was brought up by his grandfather, who taught the youth to play guitar. When the man died, Vin was still young, and so went into the system and through various foster homes and child care establishments.

When old enough, he took up a job in a hardware store in a small Texas town. Vin signed up as a 'Weekend Warrior' to learn shooting and survival skills in order to eventually become a bounty hunter, like his father before him. At last he was able to break free and make his own way in the world, and was getting darned good at bringing in those choosing to skip bail. However, Vin's first love was singing and songwriting, a talent he inherited from his mother, and playing his guitar, a skill courtesy of his grandpappy. Between chasing bail jumpers, Tanner performed whenever, and wherever he could get a gig.


While chatting, Chris and Vin hit on an idea to combine their talents, and for the first time in a long while Chris was excited. Larabee invited Vin to his home to talk more, and the Texan agreed. Walking through the bar's parking lot to their trucks, they came upon a group of men attacking a solitary black man and stepped into the fray. The grateful, though injured man agreed to be taken to Chris's home to get patched up, and it wasn't long before the three realized how much they had in common. From that day, Vin, Chris, and twenty-seven year-old, six-foot five, slender built Nathan Jackson, song-writer and qualified EMT - a profession he had undertaken to keep him solvent between selling his songs - became firm friends and business partners.


One day, a month or so later, Nathan introduced Chris and Vin to a friend; an amazing baritone by the name of Josiah Sanchez. Thirty-eight-year-old Josiah, a six foot two inch, broad-shouldered, blue-eyed, salt and pepper-haired beefcake, was an ordained minister, but found his true calling in music. Chris and Vin quickly warmed to the wise, easy-going, man, and Josiah fitted in with them instantly. After discussions about collaborating, it was decided the ranch, which was currently without private stock, and being used to stable the horses of paying clients, would become the new base for all four men to live, as well as work from.

Practicing together with songs Nathan had written, they quickly realized they were onto something, and Chris made a call he should have made years before. Soon Buck was ensconced at the ranch and working with his new…and old create a singing sensation that they felt confident was achievable.

But something was lacking.

Unsure as to what, or who, that was, the four singers and their resident songwriter traveled from bar to bar in search of their missing 'ingredient'. It came in the surprising form of, not a bar or club performer, but a young, short, dark-haired, hazel-eyed street singer by the name of John Daniel Dunne, who they came across in one of Denver's malls singing for loose change. Having recently lost his mother to a long illness, and consequently his home, the seventeen year-old was living on the streets and literally singing for his supper. At first, Chris was unconvinced that JD was right for them, he feared him too young, but Buck's persistence that he was wrong, Josiah's and Nathan's agreement with Buck, and Vin's quiet acceptance of the boy, convinced him to give JD a chance. That decision, and JD's agreement, supplied the teenager with the opportunity of a new career, and most definitely a home.


However, after six months of hard work between their day jobs, and only able to obtain crap gigs, the pressure was taking its toll. The spark the group felt and exhibited when singing on stage, was instantly extinguished once their performance was over. Despite a small collection of female fans following them around, the lack of appreciation by most of their audiences burrowed away at their self-esteem.

To top it all, Nathan was unable to accompany them to this evening's gig, so their solitary cheerleader wasn't there to pick them up out of their post-performance despondency. Even JD, normally full of fizz and pop, was quiet. Just about to attempt to rally the group, Chris instead answered a knock at the door. He peered at the slim, five-foot ten, auburn-haired, well-dressed man with the gold tooth, which glinted when he smiled back at him.

"Can I help you?" Chris leaned out of the door and pointed. "If you're lost, toilets are that-a-way."

Twenty-eight year-old Ezra Standish chuckled. "If you mean the unsanitary cubicles harboring more germs than a septic tank, not only am I aware of their location, but I choose to pass." He handed Chris a business card.

"My name is Ezra P. Standish. I'm an entertainment manager, specializing in music, and after observing your performance this evening, I would like to offer you a proposition." He smiled wider when Chris stepped back to let him into the dressing room, and nodded to the other four other men seated in there, and staring at him. Taking up the offered seat, but not before removing a linen handkerchief to wipe the chair's surface, Ezra set out his proposal.

"You want to manage us?" Vin asked once Standish was finished.

"In a nutshell, yes," Ezra replied. "I have excellent contacts and can assure you, within the next six to twelve months, you will be performing at any location of your choosing, from Las Vegas, to the Hollywood Bowl."

"Really?" Buck asked, warily. He snapped his fingers. "Just like that?" He glanced down at the hand now on his arm.

"Hold on, Buck, let the guy talk."

Ezra answered, nodding his thanks to the youth who spoke up for him. "No, sir, not just like that. Your act will take a lot of fine tuning, not to mention the need for publicity, but that's my field, and would be taken care of by me personally should you agree to let me take you on." He smiled.

"I believe you to be extremely talented, possess considerable potential, and with your looks and physiques, highly marketable. There is a gap in the market right now, and your act fits it perfectly." Ezra stood.

"Think it over. My number is on my card. Call me with your decision, whatever it might be, but please act swiftly. There is much to do." He turned to go, but looked back just as his hand rested on the door handle.

"Oh, and one last thing. I highly recommend you keep your songwriter. Your original material is fresh, and innovative, and suits you perfectly. Plus you get to retain all royalties."


It took a good thirty seconds after Standish left before anyone spoke.

"Goodness me." All eyes turned to Josiah. "Brothers, I believe we may have just hit paydirt."

"Vin?" Chris turned to Tanner.

The Texan shrugged. "Can't hurt to ponder it some. We don't have much else to concern ourselves with right now."


"Well, Stud, it's out of the blue…" He smiled at JD. "But I can't see how giving it some thought could hurt."

JD was staring at something on his open laptop. When JD joined them, Buck quickly learned the boy was highly proficient with computers and bought the second-hand laptop for the kid he had instantly grown fond of; and it rarely left JD's side. "Uh, guys…" He turned the screen to the others. "I Googled Mr. Standish…."

The four men crowded round to read the shocking results of JD's search before attention turned to Nathan Jackson when he entered the room. The songwriter glanced over at what they were reading as they filled him in on what had just transpired.

"I've heard of this guy, a real sharp operator, and when all this shit about him kicked off, I read up on him. At first I figured the guy was crooked, too, but after doing some more digging of my own, I now believe he was framed."

" don't think this guy absconded with all his clients' money as the newspapers suggest, Nathan?" Chris asked.

Jackson shook his head. "Not now. Like I said, I did at first, and although nothing suggests he was ever officially cleared, he was never formally charged, either. I think evidence points more to his ex-business partner doing the deed than Standish himself."

The five paused for thought. "Who was his business partner?" Chris asked. He glanced around at a squeak from JD.

"Uh…" The boy raised his eyebrows. "It was his mother." Stunned silence met JD's reply. JD looked beyond shocked, more like mortified.

"What kind of a Mom screws her own kid out of his business and fortune?" JD said, softly.

Nathan spoke. "I guess one that has no conscience." He gestured to the door.

"I'm just gonna go get our money, and then we can leave. I'm guessing this guy Standish is looking to starting his business up again, and if memory serves me right, he was the best. Are you interested in what he had to say?"

Chris glanced at the others who all nodded. "We need to talk further, all of us, but...yeah, it sounds promising."

Nathan exited the room and walked a little way down the corridor before he dialed his cell.

"Mr. Standish? Sorry to contact you first…" he smiled to himself. "…and I hope I'm not jumping the gun, but…we might be meeting real soon."


Due to his recent business difficulties and so no longer the proud owner of his beloved Aston Martin, Ezra pulled up into an allocated parking space, blipped the lock of his 2007, tungsten gray Mustang and crossed the residential parking area toward his three-story townhouse. He smiled as he tucked away his cell phone and considered Nathan's words.

"And so it begins."

Chapter Two


After watching a sleek Mustang glide up the Larabee ranch driveway, JD turned from the window and looked to his five apprehensive companions.

"He's here."

Acknowledging the nod from Buck to join them, JD moved among his new friends…family…and along with the others, faced the door. When the knock came, Chris moved to answer it.

"Mr. Standish, come in."

With a smile, Ezra stepped over the threshold, shaking Chris's hand as he did so. "Thank you for getting back to me so promptly. And the name is Ezra."

All moving to sit around the circular dining table, Ezra wasted no time in fully laying out his proposal.

"How can you be so sure there's a niche in the market that we fit?" Vin Tanner asked.

"I assure you, Mister Tanner, I know the music business, and you most definitely have come to my attention at the right time. If you are willing to sign with me, I already have two gigs lined up for next week, pending your approval." The southerner looked at JD.

"Mister Dunne's age has posed issues, but providing dispensation in an establishment selling alcohol is in place for performers under twenty one, or one can be applied for, we should have plain sailing."

No one missed JD's dejected sigh. Chris shook his head. "None of that, now. We won't be singing in bars forever…" he turned to Ezra. "…Will we, Ezra?"

Standish smiled and a flash of hope fluttered in his heart at how Chris posed his question. "Absolutely not. I am currently in talks with a small recording studio I have shares in. I'm hoping you can cut a disc within the month."

"You're yanking our chain," Buck huffed.

"I assure you, I am not. I only said I am in negotiations. There is much to do before we take that step."

"Like what?" Josiah asked.

Ezra took a breath. "Appearance, fine-tuning, hiring musicians to accompany you…no more backing tracks, gentlemen."

"What's wrong with our appearance?" Vin asked.

Not wishing to antagonize his possible new clients…his only music clients, right now, Standish stood and walked around them. "Long hair is acceptable, but it needs to be styled." His gaze passed between Vin and JD, though JD's locks were more unkempt than overly long.

"Manicures, brow shaping, attention to skin, more fresh food, fruit and vegetables, and less take-out. More water, than beer. Quality clothing, not supermarket suits."

"Manicures?" Buck huffed. "That's for sissies."

"My hair's just fine…" Vin complained.

"I don't drink beer," JD argued.

Ezra raised a hand. "Do you want to be successful and appeal to the masses, or continue to entertain drunks?"

Chris nodded. "Okay, you make a good point. However, all that costs money…something we don't have much of."

"I will bankroll you," Ezra assured, re-taking his seat.

"And why would you do that?" Nathan asked, finally. He was watching the proceedings with an analytical eye. "What do you get out of it?"

'Make or break time', Ezra thought. "I take fifty percent of all earnings for the first year."


"You're crazy!"

Standish halted the anticipated tirade. "I consider it fair recompense for payrolling all that needs to be done until success has been achieved. Your side jobs will have to go, and there may be occasion for me to pay your utility and food bills for some time. In short, should we somehow fail; I will be the one out of pocket."

"We'll have that in writing?" Chris checked.


There was a long pause and a fast exchange of glances.

"Could you give us a minute?"

Ezra smiled and stood. "Of course." With a salute-like tap to his forehead, Standish stepped outside.

Chris stared around at the others. "Thoughts?"

"It's a hell of a risk. We do the work, he gets half the money," Nathan pointed out.

"He is paying for everything," Josiah reminded. "We have no means to do that, or have the contacts he has."

Vin shrugged. "We ain't doin' too well right now. What's there to lose?"

"Everything?" Buck worried.

"JD?" Chris asked.

The boy's eyes went wide. "I just wanna be famous."

Laughter broke the tension.

"I have to say…" JD continued on a more serious note. "He has kind eyes."

Everyone paused for thought, and five slow nods were supplied.

"What about Standish's past?" Buck asked, breaking the quiet.

"Well, let's bring him back and find out," Chris decided.


Standing on the decking of the ranch house, Ezra stared around at the distant mountains and pastures. He took a deep breath, appreciating the fresh air, and natural beauty surrounding him, and then took a tentative glance back at the house.

He couldn't explain it, but something was drawing him to these men. It wasn't just the raw talent, it was something much deeper, something he had never experienced before, not even with his mother.


Saying it in his head, Ezra almost laughed. How could he feel a connection to six complete strangers? How might that be possible? Yet, he did. Their voices and personalities touched his very soul…called to him. He wondered if it were at all possible these men could ever feel the same about him.

Before he could ponder further, the door opened, and Chris beckoned him in.


Once again seated at the table, Chris got straight to the point. "You must realize we checked you out."

Ezra smiled at JD's blush, giving away the one who had done so. He liked this kid, open and honest. He could definitely work with him. "Of course, I would expect nothing less."

"Would you care to tell us what happened?" Josiah asked.

Barely disguising the discomfort of being reminded of his recent past, Standish nodded, and thanked Buck for the whiskey placed before him. "Well…"



"Mother, you look amazing. You are positively glowing. It would seem your vacation has rejuvenated you."

Inside Downtown Denver's swish agency office on 17th Street, Maude Standish, tanned, dressed in Europe's finest haute couture, and positively glowing after her month's vacation, bent to kiss her son's cheek. "Darling, you are correct. I had the most wonderful time."

She smiled. "I've met someone."

Raising one eyebrow, Ezra sat back in his high-backed leather chair and placed his pen down onto the oak desk. "Already? It was only two months ago you dispensed with husband number four, Mother."

Excitedly, Maude perched on the desk and took her son's hand. "I know, but this man is different. He's kind, thoughtful…" she grinned. "…Sexy. Ezra…he makes me feel like a woman should. Desired, adored, unique."

Ezra patted her hand. "Splendid, truly, I'm happy for you, but…take time over any impending nuptials this time, would you?"

Maude stood. "Too late, sweetie, we're already married."

"Good Lord."

Maude pouted. "Be happy for me, darling."

Composing himself, Ezra nodded, and forced a smile. "I am, truly." He stood, moved to a cabinet and extracted a file. "Your return is timely. We have been approached by a particularly intriguing illusionist. In all my experience, I have never encountered such a talented individual in this field…"

"Ah…" Maude stood and moved toward him. "Actually darling, I fear our business association is coming to a close. Jules has asked me to move to Monaco with him to be his business partner there, and I've accepted."

Slamming the drawer closed, Ezra turned. "I see. Good of you to let me know so promptly." He walked back to his chair and sat down.

"Son…don't sulk. We've had a good run, but I'm getting stale, and feel the need to move on. I will of course, require my half of the business in order to set up with Jules. Hard cash would be preferred."

Ezra glared. "I'm sure it would, but as you know, our reserves are tied, as are our clients' investments. They trust us to deliver high dividends on their hard-earned salaries, and our collective capital is not instantly accessible."

Maude smiled. "I see. How inconvenient. Well, on that note, I think I'll head home and consider my options. I'm a little travel weary, so a good night's sleep will assist in my deliberations."

Watching her breeze out, Standish sighed. "Why am I surprised?" He said to himself. "Our two years together is the longest period we have ever managed to endure each other's company."


Two weeks later, Ezra was sitting with his bank manager who was armed with numerous letters and telephone messages from frantic clients unable to withdraw from their accounts. The resulting investigation bore grim news.

"Gone? Everything? How is that possible?" Ezra asked. "Ours and our clients' investments carried heavy penalties for early termination."

"A cover letter, with your signature waived any such penalties, and with details, gave permission to recoup said penalties from your personal bank account. The existing funds from all accounts were cleared six days ago."

Ezra was reeling from the revelation. "My signature?" He watched the man push a photocopy of a cover letter across the desk between them which did indeed order accounts to be closed and informed of a link to an offshore account where the funds could be transferred. It displayed his company's logo, and, at the bottom, was his signature…or rather, a very good forgery.


"Your clients are baying for blood, Mr. Standish. The police…"

"No…I will resolve this. I have several properties and a rather fine car I can sell. Some personal investments, also. I will put a dossier together and perhaps you would be so kind as to oversee the transactions and distribution of any remuneration."

"Sir, it's unlikely there will be enough…"

"It will have to suffice." He stood to leave. "My attorney will be in touch."

Inside his black Aston Martin, Ezra's white-knuckled grasp on his steering wheel reflected the pallor and rigidity of his features. The rain falling on the Mile-High city mirrored his tears at the realization his own mother had betrayed him, and in doing so, destroyed his reputation. He was ruined, about to lose everything…and once more, alone.



Ezra drained his whiskey glass. "Of course, rumors declared I skipped out on my clients, taking with me the bulk of their investments. Petitions were filed against me, but investigations were inconclusive. With Mother out of the country, and because I had voluntarily attempted to reimburse some of the losses, actions were dropped."

"Your mother really did that to you?" JD asked, softly.

"Yes, my mother, Mister Dunne. Have no fear; I'm confident there is not a shred of similarity between Maude, and the dear lady you revere."

JD's features saddened. "My mom died eight months ago."

"I'm sorry," Ezra said, sincerely. Oddly, despite all her failings in the maternal department, one thing he had never done was wished Maude ill. "By your demeanor, I can tell she meant the world to you." His statement was met with a gentle nod.

"Surely your mother will have to answer charges," Buck queried.

Standish shook his head. "No. No one knew we were related. I gave the police her current preferred alias, and they discovered that person was deceased. I always wondered where Mother got her many credentials."

"You took the blame for everything," Josiah concluded.

"It seemed the way to go," the southerner answered.

"And now?" Chris asked.


"Nice townhouse, fancy car, decent lifestyle. Hardly that of a destitute man, huh?" Vin pointed out.

Standish smiled. "I originally maintained a few clients who did not entrust their investments to my company. Eventually however, once they realized I had become the entertainment industry's current pariah, they moved on. I've also enjoyed several successful visits to Vegas over the year, and signed several non-music clients. It's hardly the life of luxury, but I get by."

"We read you walked out on your company, just up and left the building one day," Nathan challenged.

"I did, but as the bailiffs were banging on my door, in the virtual sense, it seemed the rational thing to do. I was not eager to endure any more humiliation."

There was a long pause. Ezra took out the contract he had drawn up and placed it on the table. "I should go. I will leave this for you to peruse at your leisure. It is a contract for one year, with a one month opt out clause, and on the proviso of both parties, an option to extend after one year is up. I advise you to get it looked over by an attorney…for your own peace of mind." He stood.

Chris glanced around the table to gauge the reactions, and then up at Ezra. "I have your word you won't skip out on us?"

Standish smiled. "If you consider my word worthy, then, indeed, you have it."

Chris asked him to sit. "We won't need long to decide."

After Josiah and Chris read over the contract and was satisfied that it was precisely as Ezra claimed it to be, one by one the six men, followed by Ezra, signed. They all stood, and shook hands.

"We were about to eat. You're welcome to stay," Chris offered.

Overwhelmed by the trust shown and the warmth in the proposition, Ezra nodded. "I'd like that very much."

"It's fried chicken," JD said excitedly as he moved to set the table for seven.

Ezra smiled. "Marvelous."


Several hours and a significant quantity of liquor later, or in JD's case, milk, Ezra prepared to head for the small, spare room he was allocated. "Boys, our work begins tomorrow. One thing…as I recently shared my most intimate confidences with you, I wondered if I might be afforded the same courtesy."

Each man nodded.

"Excellent. Until tomorrow, then." Heading for his room, he smiled when JD's crystal clear tenor tones unexpectedly burst forth a rendition of 'One Voice'. The others instantly harmonized with him, their voices surprisingly unaffected by the alcohol consumed. Standish closed his eyes and fought back tears.

"Magnificent. If they can do this when a little drunk, one can only be in awe of how good these boys can become." That thought brought the possibility of the long, challenging road ahead now being considerably shorter than first assumed.


Chapter Three


Due the man's obvious leadership qualities, tough demeanor, and quiet masculinity, Ezra decided that if he could get Chris to agree to the procedures that needed addressing, the others would follow suit. He was proved right, and en-masse the group hit the mall, and to a salon Ezra's clients frequented before his troubles, a salon he part-owned with its manager. Today, she had cleared the books to accommodate Ezra's newest acquisitions.


The ravishing, Mexican brunet kissed her business partner on each cheek in greeting. "Good to see you, have you been well?"

"As well as being embezzled by one's mother can allow one to be," Ezra replied. "And you?"

"Good. A little quieter without your steady referrals, though several of your past clients continue to visit."

Nodding his delight at that fact, Ezra noted the woman's interest was squarely on the six men standing behind him. "Where are my manners? Inez, these are my newest and extremely talented clients. Gentlemen, this is the proprietor of the Lucky Seven Nail Bar and Hair Boutique, Ms Inez Recillos."

One by one they shook her hand, or in JD and Vin's case, introduced themselves from a safe distance.

"Josiah, charmed."

"Chris, pleased to meet you."

"Nathan, Ma'am."

Buck swooped in, took her hand and gently kissed the back of it. "Name's Buck, Buck Wilmington. My, my, but you're a vision to behold, darlin'. Did I uh…catch that title right? Ms Recillos, is it?"

Taking her hand away, Inez's gaze flashed with interest and amusement. "You did, and kindly remember I remain so by choice."

Buck bobbed his eyebrows. "Well…maybe you and me can meet up sometime to discuss this choice of yours."

She smiled, wickedly and looked at Ezra. "I insist I take care of this man's waxing, personally."

The others laughed and she glanced hopefully at the pair yet to speak.

"Vin, Ma'am, Vin Tanner. Howdy."

"Hello, Vin."

"Uh…hi. JD, well, my name's John Daniel Dunne, but most everyone calls me JD, and you can too, if you'd like…"

"Kid, take a breath," Buck urged with a grin.

"Sorry," JD muttered, praying his face didn't look as hot as it felt.

"I would like; thank you, JD." She glanced around each man. "Hair wash first, I think. Then eyebrows, nails, removal of stray and unsightly hairs, a facial massage, and finish with haircuts and restyling. Si?"

"Si," Ezra approved. "And I'd appreciate you putting an assortment of your finest products together so we may continue the regime at our leisure."

"Ooh, expensive, I like it," the woman chuckled.

"Only the best for these boys," Ezra insisted.


Toward the back of the salon, four washbasins were lined in a row. While Buck and JD waited their turn and enjoyed a coffee for Buck, and a soda for JD, Chris, Josiah, Nathan, and Vin were each adorned in a bib-style apron which was tied at the back of their necks. They were guided to four chairs with backs directly in front of the washbasins and were asked to sit down before being urged to lean their heads back into the basins. Nathan glanced at Ezra.

"I'm not performing, and my hair's short. I don't need all this fuss."

Ezra tutted. "Mister Jackson, when the public becomes aware of this group, and believe me, you most certainly will be noticed, interviews by the media, including the press, and TV, will abound. You will be right there at the forefront with the others; you need to be attended to just the same." He grinned at the disgruntled huff in reply.


"That okay?"

Vin opened his eyes and smiled up at the brown ones gazing down at him. He was truly enjoying the scalp massage that went with the wash. "Real nice miss, thanks."

"You have nice hair," she complimented. "You're not going to cut it all off are you?"


Seeing Vin's flash of horror, Ezra stepped in. "Perish the thought. Just a little teasing, trimming, and conditioning." Seeing Vin relax, Ezra did, too.


"Quite curly, your hair, isn't it?"

Josiah smiled. "Like my father's. He detested his curls, I however, embrace them."

"Not too tight. They give a nice kink to your hair," the assistant pointed out.

"Absolutely," Josiah agreed.

"The water's not too hot or cold, is it?"

"It's perfect, thank you. You have a truly gifted touch."

Ezra chuckled to himself as he watched and listened. 'Quite the Mister Smooth' he mused.


"Your hair's very strong. Fine, but strong."

Chris nodded, regretting the action when some water from the spray trickled down the back of his neck and into his shirt. "So I've been told. It's why I rarely grow it too long."

"Oh, you should have some length. Trust me, it'll look really sexy."

Chris chuckled and Ezra smiled at the sound and image. Chris appeared so stern at times, and it was good to see him in a more relaxed mood.

While the first four went off for their next treatments, Buck and JD took up seats at the basins.


Buck inhaled. "What's that you're using? It smells good."

"This stuff is pricey," the girl replied. "It'll make your hair all soft, and glossy."

Buck frowned and due to his position, glanced awkwardly at Ezra. "Hey you ain't putting no sissy products in my hair, are you?"

"As if," the southerner huffed. "Merely replenishing and restoring it to its natural glory, Buck, that's all. Lord knows what you've been using up to now."

"Wal*Mart's 'Great Value' shampoo," JD offered, yelping when, like Chris, he got wet, too.

"Keep still," his hair-washer scolded, smiling when he squeaked again.

"That's twice you've pulled my hair," JD complained.

"Quit wriggling and it won't happen," she retorted.

"Casey Wells," Inez warned, approaching on hearing the commotion. "I've warned you before about teasing the customers."

"Yes, Ma'am, sorry."

Inez smiled and leaned into JD. "For what it's worth, she only does it to the gentlemen she likes."

"Inez!" Casey protested.

Buck laughed. JD hunkered down in the seat. "Swell."

"Can't control the ole animal magnetism, huh, Kid?"

"Oh shut up about freakin' animal maggottism, Buck. It doesn't exist."

"Sure it does, my every pore oozes with it."

"Charming image," JD grimaced. A towel dropped over his face.

"You're done." Casey jerked the towel hard as she dried JD's hair.

"I-I-I w-w-want a-a-a n-n-new a-a-as-s-s-is-s-stant…" The vibrating quality of JD's voice as Casey worked with gusto actually caused Ezra to laugh out loud.


It was clear to all, that the six men seated in reclining chairs with their arms resting on side tables and fingertips soaking in solution were not even close to their comfort zone. Add to that, warm towels covered their faces, making them unable to see what was happening to them. If their bodies had been any stiffer, they could have been used to surf with.

Once fingertips were dried, the face towels were removed and the eyebrow tweezing began.

"Could you please lower your eyebrows Mister Larabee?"

"The name's Chris, and…they don't seem to want to come down."

"Ooh…mmm…OUCH! Miss...those eyebrow hairs have been attached some while, you know," Josiah hissed.

"Aaahhh. You sure you aren't getting skin?" Nathan accused.

"Darlin' you may think that a hot towel eases the pain, but you'd be wrong," Buck insisted.

Vin saw the dreaded implement coming, and put his foot hard to the floor. The assistant sighed when he rolled away from her. "Give up, or I'll have to straddle you." She wasn't surprised the chair went backwards even faster, while the sound of Buck's chuckle and the comment 'now there's an offer you can't refuse', accompanied the action.

JD went one better and leapt out of his chair. "No way! I like my eyebrows just fine, thank you. Stay back! I mean it…I don't want it done…thanks, but no thanks."

Standish placed his thumb and middle finger into his mouth and gave a shrill whistle. "Gentlemen, some decorum, please!" He shook his head. "Lord, I need a coffee…perhaps a whiskey."


Noting Buck was free, Inez crooked her finger at him. "I have a room at the back available. Come with me, please."

With tissues still tucked into his shirt and all around his neck, Buck was out of his seat in a flash. "Darlin', your wish is my command."

Inez smiled and led the away. Buck turned to the others, grinned broadly, then hurried to catch up.

Inside the room, Inez pointed to a treatment table draped in towels. "Strip and lie face down, please. I'll wait outside."

Too eager to please to consider why he should face downwards, Buck undressed quickly and did as asked.

Five minutes later there was a knock on the treatment room door. "Are you decent, Mister Wilmington?"

Buck chuckled. "Well, Darlin', I have been told I'm good..." He yelped at a slap to his bare butt, and then laughed. "Playing rough, huh, suits me just fine. Ooh, and a fast worker, too..." He could feel his butt cheeks part, something cold applied, and then pressure.

"I'm told holding your breath helps," Inez said, with a grin.


In front of house, the five others were about to have their hair cut when an unearthly sound chilled their blood.


Five nervous men looked at the sixth. Ezra bit his lip, he really didn't want to laugh. "I fear Buck has been introduced to waxing."

JD absently touched at the part of the shirt covering his hairless chest. "Thank God I don't have hair here." He blushed at the giggles from the assistants, and wondered what was so funny about having a hairless chest.

All eyes turned to a semi-clothed Buck who was hastily exiting the back rooms with a wide gait akin to that of the late John Wayne.

He pointed back at an advancing Inez. "She...I..." He grabbed Vin's coffee to steady his nerves, and almost choked on the mud-strength brew. "Someone kindly tell me why I need to have hair removed from..." He lowered his voice.

"The crack of my butt." He was too flustered to notice the others' pained expressions, and cries of 'ohh!'

"Not to mention where else she planned on ripping it from. We don't plan on showing down...there, or did I miss a meeting?"

Inez touched a hand to her throat. "Oh, Mister Wilmington, my apologies, I must have confused your treatment with a gentlemen I moved from today in order to accommodate you and your compadres."

Buck didn't miss the twinkle in her eyes, or the stifled female giggles from around him. He smiled. " uh...ha. I see." He slipped on his shirt and did up his fly. "Good one."

Inez brushed past. "Maybe one day I can buy you dinner..." she looked back at him, " way of an apology for my error."

Buck's grin widened. "Maybe."


Several hours later, six men stared back at the seventh, whose grin displayed the glint of a gold tooth.


Looking at themselves in the mirrors lining the walls, the singing group and their songwriter could hardly believe their eyes. The changes were not phenomenal, but under Inez's skilled instruction, they had been transformed from shaggy, handsome individuals to collective Adonis's.


JD's comment said it all as he stared at the sheen on his black tresses, which still held a decent collar-length, as did Chris's, and Vin's, although somehow JD's bangs were determined to still drop forward into his eyes. Buck's thick, dark, wavy locks, like JD's, gleamed, and now were softer, and layered, while swept back with just a hint of a few sexy stray tendrils over his forehead, which suited him.

Chris liked the hint of bangs he now wore, and was surprised how light his hair appeared. Vin's soft curls were intact, but with more shape they looked, if possible, even wilder than usual.

Nathan chuckled as his fingers brushed his soft, tight curls that shimmered with a tiny hint of sparkle from the glitter gel applied, and Josiah liked the way his salt and pepper tresses glimmered under the salon lights, making them appear to move when he did.

Ezra smiled at Inez. "My dear, you and your staff have excelled yourselves."

The six freshly pampered men nodded. Chris spoke. "Can't say it was all fun," he grinned at Buck's exaggerated nod, "but I have to confess, we look good."

"What now?" Inez asked.

"Now, we buy suits, and several alternative, but suitable outfits, and in three hours they are booked to have portfolio shots ready for when we are prepared to go public," Ezra replied, ignoring the groans, albeit more from needing food now, than them not looking forward to the campaign.

"I wonder..." Inez said. "Would it be possible for a sneak preview?"

Collective nods from the guys suggested it would. Vin took out a harmonica from his jacket pocket and passed it to Nathan. The songwriter blew a few notes, and once they all gestured they were ready, he blew one single note. In harmony, they sang a verse and chorus of Nathan's newest, haunting composition.

When they finished, there wasn't a dry eye in the place, including Ezra's. Inez snatched up a Kleenex.

"Madre de Dios, that was...wonderful."

Standish puffed out his chest with pride at his grinning friends. "Yes, it most certainly was."

The tab was paid, and the six men and their manager said their 'thank you's and goodbyes'. They headed off to their next adventure…to find the group's 'look', leaving behind a cluster of very smitten ladies.


Chapter Four


Almost midnight and six weary men returned to the Larabee homestead; Ezra decided to go home and check his mail, with a guarantee to return the next day, though at what time he had yet to disclose.

Their time spent after leaving the salon was as if at the epicenter of a whirlwind. Three sets of clothes needed to be purchased; suits and accessories, and two smart casual outfits with trimmings. The clothes needed to fit the persona of the individual who was to wear them, while bringing said individuals together in a collective image. It took several long, fraught hours, but the group came away happy, and excited.

The photo shoot was exhausting, but judging by the rushes, which the photographer allowed them to preview, successful. They could hardly wait for their portfolios to arrive. Each man was photographed in their three outfits both within the group, and individually, making waiting around tedious with six of them having to go through the process. There were shots of the group without Nathan, as well as with, and even a few with their new manager.

JD had been so hyper Buck feared Chris would end up sitting on him, or worse. However now, while they sat together enjoying a nightcap, he was considerably subdued. Vin frowned.

"Tired, Kid?"

JD shrugged. "Yeah, I guess."

"It's been a rough day. Are you having second thoughts?"

Wide hazel eyes looked up at Chris. "No, oh no…it's just …" He paused. "All that money. I mean, I know Ezra said it was how it would work, but…what if we don't make it big? How will we pay him back?"

"It's a calculated risk Ezra's willing to take," Josiah replied.

"Probably insured against any losses," Nathan chipped in. All six men considered that possibility, and it seemed to ease JD's mind.

"Would hate to have a couple of heavies banging down our door," the boy said softly, unaware of the slight confusion and concerned look Buck threw his way.

Once their nightcaps were finished, the group disbanded and headed to their rooms.


Vin jogged up to the converted attic, pulled down the folding steps and climbed up to his room. Toeing off his boots, he moved to the window at the gable end and peered through the dark to where he knew the mountains to be. After a few minutes of calm, yet still too excited by the day's events to settle down, he shucked his clothes, walked to his nightstand, pulled open a drawer and took out a notebook and pen.

Catching a glimpse of himself in his small vanity mirror, he couldn't help but shake his head at his reflection. A lot less rugged, but it was still him, and that was all he could wish for. It was important that, while he wanted fame and fortune, he wanted to remain true to himself. Taking his pen and pad, Vin eased himself onto his bed. The Texan paused for thought, smiled, and then began to scribble.


Nathan and Josiah stumbled into their room. The large space, which was separated from the next bedroom by a bathroom that they shared with Buck and JD, was bright, airy and, through clever, strategic placing, along with one large wall closet, contained two full extra long beds, each with a nightstand.

The two men got along well, and felt sharing was a small price to pay for the luxury of living in a rambling ranch house and property, for a cost considerably below the market prerequisite. All Chris needed was to cover expenditure like utilities. They all chipped in for the weekly shop. Living this way not only brought the men closer, but gave them an opportunity to work at their art every opportunity they had.

The sunroom to the rear of the property contained a piano, and for some quiet time, Nathan would go there to compose. The room was available to all, and saw many an exciting jamming session. JD and Vin particularly enjoyed the acoustics there, and would occasionally be found in the room strumming their guitars either together, or individually. Sometimes Josiah and Chris would get lucky and have it to themselves to read.


Buck and JD's room was the same size as Nathan's and Josiah's. It was once a guest room, but since Chris had knocked through to the room that used to be Adam's, it almost doubled in size, and comfortably accommodated the pair. Buck had instantly taken to the boy, so Chris felt at ease asking them to share. They hadn't killed each other yet, so it seemed to be working.

Chris often watched Buck hover over the boy much the same way the big-hearted man once did with Adam. At times of stress, Buck's hand would drift toward JD's head and linger there as he deliberated whether he should rest it or not. One particularly bad day for JD, Buck finally let it drop onto the dark tresses, and he and JD moved into a new phase…brotherhood.


Buck glanced at his roommate. One thing that drew Buck to JD was his innocence and honesty, mixed with an effervescent lust for life, but that spirit was sometimes undermined by an innate sadness. Buck knew JD was holding out on him, but also knew it was only a matter of time before the boy would cave, and share. Tonight, JD's features reflected that melancholy and, as on previous occasions, it came on quickly. Something was bothering the kid big time, and Buck promised himself that one day, with or without JD's consent, he would get to the bottom of it.


Exiting the study, Chris rubbed his eyes, locked up the house and headed up to bed. When the group dispersed, the blond logged into his computer and checked their finances. The check from the bar the night Ezra discovered them was pending clearance, so they weren't quite destitute, but it didn't take a genius to realize they needed another gig, and soon, or they would be singing, cooking, and…pretty much doing everything by candlelight.

Glancing in his full-length mirror, Chris took in his new image. He missed his stubble, but Ezra suggested whisker-free was the way to go, so he would give it a shot. After hanging up his clothes, he climbed into the King-sized bed he once shared with Sarah. It was way too big for him, but he couldn't bear to part with it, so, like himself, it stayed. In times of despair after his family's deaths, Chris came close to selling up, but something kept him here, and now he was glad he stayed. The blond shuffled down in the bed.

Once again the ranch was a happy place. He hoped one day he could again have horses in the stables other than those boarding with him, but until that day came, he would concentrate on making the big time, while attempting to corral and encourage the talents of five men who had become as family to him. And maybe one day he'd tell them so.


Ezra stood on the top floor of his three-story townhouse and looked out of his bedroom window toward the direction of Chris's ranch. As he sipped on a brandy, he mused on how he originally considered the six men living there could be his meal ticket back to the big time. Tonight, he pondered on how quickly six talented individuals had captured his heart, and caused him to look at things in a much less business-like way than he cared to do.

They were getting to him and, God help him, he liked it. There had been an instant connection. Despite his past, they were on an equal footing and the six men openly placed everything in his hands, something he was used to, yet this time, he felt humbled, and honored and determined to do right by them.

On that thought, he moved toward his bed. Tomorrow, his trip to the ranch would be later than planned. A good friend had come through and in the morning, Ezra planned to visit with him to make the final arrangements. If things worked out, in three days his new acquisitions…he paused…friends…would be performing, and he found that prospect exciting.


Chapter Five


Yosemite 'Tiny' Smallman poked his head into the dressing room in which the five performers, their manager, and their songwriter were ensconced. Unused to such a large room, the six men and their agent grinned back at the club owner of 'Digger Dave's Nightclub'.

"Y'all okay in here?"

Chris nodded. "Just fine, thanks."

Yosemite grinned. "Good to know. The strippers are just finishing up, then the DJ'll play some music for ten minutes or so while the ladies freshen up and refresh their drinks, then you're up. You got quite a mix of ages out there, so y'all should do fine." As he walked out, Ezra followed him.

"I wanted to thank you again for doing this for me…for us."

Yosemite nodded. "Mister Standish, you stood by me and sent artists my way when I could barely keep afloat. You helped me build a reputation, and I kept my business. Helping you out is the least I can do…just sorry all I had right now was a bachelorette party."

Ezra smiled. "If these boys can reach this crowd tonight, then they're exactly the men I believe them to be."


"Nervous, Kid?"

JD's gaze met Buck's and he nodded. "Yeah."

The brunet dropped down in the seat next to JD and he placed a steadying hand on JD's jiggling knee. "First time I've seen you like this."

JD shrugged. "I guess…uh, I guess a lot's riding on tonight. I mean, this is a pretty big club…a lot of big names have played here…"

"It's just a rich girl's bachelorette party," Vin reminded. "The strippers are the real entertainment."

"Maybe we should go out there naked." Buck raised his hands at the horrified stare from JD and the glare from Vin. "Just kidding. Shoot, guys, chill out."

Nathan took control. "Okay, let's run through the song order one more time…"

Ezra returned to his new friends just as the running order was confirmed, and the room lights flashed. "I believe that's our cue," he noted. The six men were quickly on their feet.

"I wonder…"

All eyes turned to Josiah. "I'm no longer deeply religious, but…maybe our new undertaking should start out with an extra ritual?" He held out his hands, and everyone, including Ezra linked hands with him.

"Father in Heaven, watch over us this night, and give us the strength and conviction to give our best. Amen."


Chris made a fist and placed it in the center of the circle. "The Regulators."

There was a collective fist-bump. "Go us!"

"Let's do this!"

Chris's final words caused a flurry of clothes and hair adjustments before they moved in single file toward the stage. Nathan, and even Ezra stood nervously in the wings to watch.


After they were announced, the five men stood side by side on stage and realized no one but their usual little group of followers had even noticed them come on.

Tough crowd.

To make things more complicated, their first song was A-Capella. With a nod from Chris, JD's unaccompanied, crystal clear voice belted out the first lines of a song that held a special place in his heart.

Just One Voice,

Singing in the darkness,

All it takes is One Voice,

Singing so they hear what's on your mind,

And when you look around you'll find

There's more than

One Voice...


Living and working in DC, Karina McBride was back in her hometown of Denver to party with her family and friends before marrying a senator's son and returning to Washington. The male strippers were a hoot, but now in her mid-twenties, and surrounded by aunts, her mother and grandmother, she wondered if maybe her Matron of Honor had gone a little OTT.

However, the liquor was flowing, including champagne, and their night was in full swing and would definitely be one to remember. Over the din, her twenty-one year old sister suddenly stared at the stage, and a truly beautiful voice began to capture not only her attention, but the attention of all the babbling ladies around them.

Just as each of them were becoming aware of the five rather yummy, casual-smart dressed guys standing on stage, the handsome youth singing was joined by two more voices in melodically haunting harmony.

… Singing in the darkness,

Joining with your One Voice,

Each and every note another octave,

Hands are joined and fears unlocked,

If only

One Voice…


"Who are these guys?"

Karina turned to the now silent women standing or sitting facing the stage. She shook her head. "I have no idea. Daddy and Melody arranged everything." Just as hissed comments of approval for individuals, as well as the group itself began to rise, the final two voices joined in.

… Would start it on its own

We need just One Voice

Facing the unknown,

And that One Voice

Would never be alone

It takes that One Voice…


Ezra looked at Nathan and hoped the man's grin was as good a sign as he wished. While he already believed they were performing above and beyond his expectations, he worried his judgment was colored by his affection for these men. "Nathan?"

Jackson chuckled. "Are you seeing this? Those women are hooked."


… All it takes is One Voice,

Shout it out and let it ring.

Just One Voice,

It takes that One Voice,

And e-very-one-will-sing!

There was a split second of silence, and each singer feared they'd failed. And then it started…applause from their regulars, rising to cat calls and whistles, whoops and wild ovations from the rest of the room. Chris jolted the stunned group into action. JD and Vin snatched up their guitars which were leaning against stands close by, to both lead the others into their next, boisterously performed song. They were having fun, now.

All babies together

Everyone a seed,

Half of us are satisfied

Half of us in need.

Love's bountiful in us

Tarnished by our greed

Oh, when will there be

A harvest for the world...

JD and Vin's hair swayed as they strummed vigorously and the smiling group burst into animated, harmonizing song. The ladies were on their feet, clapping and jigging along to the beat. Karina beamed at her mother. Now it was a party…and with eye candy to boot. The guys finished with a flurry, and to more wild applause. Grinning and waving, they soaked it up, and then Chris introduced them.

"Hey there…thank you, thank you. We're The Regulators, and we're gonna slow it down some now. This is a song written by a remarkable songwriter and our close friend, Nathan Jackson. We hope you enjoy it."

With a nod to the club's resident band, Vin's guitar was discarded for a harmonica and the five sat on stools to sing the first song Nathan ever wrote for them. While a haunting melody of guitar and harmonica led them in, in the wings, Ezra squeezed the nervous black songwriter's shoulder and winked.


I wandered all across this land, to find the man I love.

I thought of him most every day, and prayed to God Above.

That he might guide my sorry soul to help me make amends,

For I left home for pastures new, swapped family for friends.

Daddy please forgive me,

I took a turn for wrong,

I pray each day to see your face,

Our parting's been too long.

But I recall your eyes that day,

All filled with hurt and pain,

Please tell me I can come to you,

And talk with you again.

My aching heart apportioned blame, I saw no more than this,

But I was wrong, I know that and this man I sorely miss.

I've tried each tested method, to find where he could be,

To tell him I'm a changed man, the son he hoped I'd be.

Daddy please forgive me,

I took a turn for wrong,

I pray each day to see your face,

Our parting's been too long.

But I recall your eyes that day,

All filled with hurt and pain,

Please tell me I can come to you,

And talk with you again.

But all these years of searching, have brought me emptiness,

Missed times I wanted badly, and haunting loneliness.

And now I'm standing at your grave, I know our time is through,

I hope that when my life is done, I'll once more walk with you.

Daddy please forgive me,

I took a turn for wrong,

I've wanted just to see your face,

Our parting was too long.

I'm haunted by your eyes that day,

All filled with hurt and pain,

And my heart now is broken

'Cause we may ne-ver talk…again.


Sitting around the ranch's dining table that night, six weary, but buzzing men looked to the seventh. Ezra placed a check on the table and thrilled at the response.

"Holy shit!"

"How much?"

"Praise the Lord."

"Was this the agreed fee?"

"I ain't ever seen that much money in my life."

"This is really ours? We didn't get the stripper guys' check by mistake?"

Standish chuckled. "It's all ours. Yosemite was delighted with your performance, and wants to book you once a month, for the next six months. He tossed in a bonus and a sweetener, whether we decide to take the offer, or not. Tomorrow, I will get my bank to divide your half of this money into six checks so you may deposit the money into your accounts." He paused while they absorbed everything.

"JD, I understand you have a sound knowledge of computers. I hope we can get together soon to set up an electronic diary that will link to mine, and individual bank accounts so we can arrange transfers from a central account for future remunerations."

"Sure, just say when." He blew out a breath. "Man, I can't believe how it went tonight."

"They loved your song, Nathan," Chris praised.

"Was thinkin'," Vin posed. "Does it hold meanin' for you? Only it felt as though it did."

They were surprised when Nathan nodded and swiped away the start of a tear.

"Yeah, actually, it does." He took a moment to gather his thoughts. "Since I was little, I loved poetry. Mama reckoned I got that from Daddy. She…my Ma…was a doctor. A real good one. Daddy wanted me to be one, too. He said I had the gift of healing." Nathan smiled. "I guess I was real good at patching up my brother and sisters. We were happy. Life was good, Daddy was a musician and songwriter, and to make extra money, he tooled hand-made tack, bridles and such. People from all over the country would buy from him…either over the internet, or from his workshop. It brought in good money, and kept us going between him selling songs, or getting writer's block.

"One summer night I woke up to the sound of Mama crying and Daddy yelling. I crept downstairs and listened. That night, after her shift, she was attacked and raped by a hospital director. He did…bad things to her…bad, bad things…and daddy was all for going after him and killing him with his bare hands.

"Mama stopped him. She called the police, and told Daddy they would do this the right way." Nathan shuddered out a breath, unable to stop the tears. "Thing is, after going through all that, no one supported her. Everyone believed the director, and Mama was shunned by her friends and colleagues, until she eventually gave up her job. The hospital refused to acknowledge her request for references, and without 'em, no one would hire her.

"Over the next few years she fell apart, and all Daddy seemed to do was ignore it. One day, while Daddy was doing a couple 'a gigs out of town, we came home from school to find she killed herself. I couldn't look Daddy in the eye…couldn't forgive him for letting her go like that. He refused to talk about it, and so when I was eighteen, I left home." He looked up from staring at his hands to see six, compassionate faces watching him.

"A few years back, I learned that Ma wouldn't let him near her, and without her income, after a while Daddy didn't have time to fight her on it, he just worked whenever, and wherever he could to make ends meet. I also found out that Daddy had been tried and sent to prison for attacking the man who raped my Ma. All those years…all that pent up anger, finally drove him to the revenge he wanted that fateful night. Heard he got paroled for good behavior, and on compassionate grounds. Not sure what those were. I went searching for him, but haven't found him…yet."

Josiah sat upright. "Yet?"

Buck frowned. "The song…"

JD finished. "He didn't die?"

Nathan smiled. "Don't know, but I sure hope not."

"But…the ending of the song," Buck pushed again.

Nathan shrugged. "Had to end the song somehow."

All six sat back as they absorbed Nathan's story. Chris nodded to the songwriter. "Appreciate you sharing that with us, Nathan."

Jackson sighed. "Felt good to say it out loud."

Ezra smiled at JD's swipe to his eyes, and blinked back moisture from his own. Not so long ago, he asked each man to share his back-story in the same way he was asked to do. He felt humbled to be included in the telling of such a sorrowful tale, and couldn't help wondering what else might emerge about these wonderful men. He was pulled from his thoughts when JD stood.

"I'm going to bed." JD picked up the check and kissed it. "Goodnight my one day Viper Red, Viper Dodge Roadster Convertible."

To the sound of chuckles, and a playful push as his roommate accompanied him, the group called it a night, and looked forward to what tomorrow would bring.


Chapter Six


Two days later, in the living room of the Larabee homestead, Ezra raised his phone and snapped off a photo. The six men in front of him jumped into life.

"Why'd you take a photo?" Chris asked.

Ezra grinned. "Well, this was the first time I have ever seen you collectively struck dumb, and wanted to capture it for posterity."

There were chuckles, but the surprised expressions remained. "For real?" JD asked. "We have a slot in a recording studio next week?"

"Indeed," Ezra confirmed. "I have succeeded in arranging for you to record a demo disc. With this, I can approach radio and television stations. Publicity is everything, my friends." He smiled. "What I need from you is a choice of three songs to record. In my humble opinion, I think 'One Voice' should be one of the choices. It, for whatever reason, has become your signature tune and, sung A-Capella, is captivating." He noted the shared glances.

"I wonder, would it be impertinent of me to ask as to why this song has meaning for you?"

All eyes turned to JD, and the boy gave a small nod. Chris took up the story. "We advertized for a fifth group member. We felt we were missing something, but, as to what, we had no clue. There were plenty of applicants, but after a week of try-outs, it was clear we'd hit rock-bottom, and were no nearer to finding another member.

"Myself, Buck, and Nathan hit the mall one afternoon to pick up a few things. We were passing a recess that led to an emergency exit when an unaccompanied voice echoing around there caught our attention." He looked at JD and smiled. "It was odd 'cause we hadn't meant to go over to that side of the mall, and it was pretty noisy, yet…" he winked at JD, "…yet JD's voice carried above it all. He'd attracted a small crowd, and was belting out 'One Voice' with all his heart."

"It was mesmerizing," Buck cut in, eliciting a blush and head-duck from JD. The brunet grinned and pulled him close.

"I was busking," JD decided to add. "I only got to eat if I sang." That comment caused Buck to tighten his hold on the youth. JD grinned as he looked around at his friends. "I won't lie," he glanced shyly at Chris, "a few guys asking me to go home with them to sing was pretty scary."

They all chuckled. "But you clearly did," Ezra pushed.

JD shrugged. "Hey, they offered me a bed for a night and a steak dinner. I figured if they got up to any funny business, I'd just hi-tail it outta there."

Standish was visibly shocked, realizing JD had put such an enormous amount of trust in these men. "Why did you go? You surely must have understood the danger you might have placed yourself in."

JD nodded. "Sure, but…" He looked at Buck and grinned. "Buck poked at me. Told me he'd seen more meat on a Thanksgiving turkey the day after Thanksgiving." JD touched his hair.

"And he made fun of my cap…but what convinced me was when he kept nagging at Chris to give me a chance. Chris was worried I was too young." JD blew out a breath. "But Buck won, and I went with them."

Chris interrupted the murmurs to finish what he'd started. "Anyway, after we'd eaten, JD sang. Instantly Vin joined in, then one by one the rest of us and…it just clicked. By the end of the song, all doubts were gone. The five of us, and Nathan, knew we were meant to sing together."

Ezra sat back in his chair. "Astounding." He watched JD stand. "JD?"

JD gestured, but it was obvious his reasoning was bogus. "Just gonna use the bathroom."

Buck waited until JD left and sighed. "It freaks him out a little to think if we hadn't been there that day…you know."

Standish fully appreciated the fickle hand of fate. "Indeed." He looked to Nathan. "My friend, I would ask we talk about the songs you should choose to record."

Nodding, Nathan stood, and the pair walked toward the sunroom.

Josiah noticed Buck look wistfully toward the direction JD went. His large hand enveloped the brunet's wrist. "Leave him a while, Buck. Whatever it is JD's holding close, I believe, in time, he'll share it with us."

Buck's eyes widened. "You've sensed it, too?"

"We all have, Pard," Chris assured. Vin nodded.

"It can't be bad; he's not a bad kid, is he?" Buck more stated than asked.

"No way," Vin confirmed. "I'm guessin' it's more somethin' he feels ashamed to let out."

That comment had each man wondering what could be so bad for JD to be be embarrassed about that he couldn't share…yet.


The song list complete, Nathan sat back on the sofa in the sunroom and scratched at his head. "I'd prefer to have somethin' fresh for the guys to record."

Ezra nodded. "Agreed. Is there anything you may be working on?"

"I'm always working on something, but it's whether I can fine tune it, and have the guys learn it in time. You ain't exactly given us a lot of it to prepare."

Standing, Ezra patted his shoulder. "When opportunity knocks, only a fool doesn't answer the door. A time slot at the studio came up, and I snatched at it with both hands." He smiled. "Knowing how much you want this, I would bet all I own that you and the others will come through." With a now familiar two-fingered tap to his temple, Ezra winked, and left.

With a puff that blew out his cheeks, Nathan sat at the piano, composed himself, and began to play.


Hearing the music, Vin excused himself from the others and jogged up to his room. Opening his nightstand drawer, the Texan took out his notepad and clutched it to his chest. He chewed on his lip while he made a decision, then, book in hand, left the room.



The composer looked up from tinkling the ivories and smiled. He gestured for Vin to join him.

"Mighty pretty tune. You got words?" Vin asked.

Nathan sighed. "None good enough for this tune…yet." He noticed the notepad in Vin's hand. "What's this?"

"I uh…" Vin blushed. "I wondered if you'd give me an honest opinion on this." He held out his book and watched as Nathan read. He was almost beside himself by the time the composer looked up.


Tanner nodded and took the book. "Yeah, I know, you're right, it's crap…"

"NO!" He watched Vin startle and look back at him with eyes wide. "No, it's…" Nathan smiled. "It's awesome." He patted the piano stool and the grinning Texan joined him.

"Would you mind if I fitted your words to my tune?"

'Mind?' Vin tried to stay calm. "No…I'd like that. When I heard you play, I felt my words would fit…if you didn't already have some."

With a grin, Nathan played.


Chuckling at the sound of Buck singing in the shower, JD fired up his laptop and logged into Facebook. He frowned at literally dozens of 'Friend requests', and a photo tag of himself and the guys at Digger Dave's. He followed the link and audibly gasped at the page that opened.

"Mary Ann's Regulator's page," he said aloud. "Mary Ann's what?" JD read on, his squeak growing at every new paragraph.

"Holy crap! Buck…BUCK!"

Armed with a scrub brush and with only suds to cover his modesty, Buck ran into the room expecting to be fighting off assailants. He spun around, eventually confused, and facing his roommate.

"What?" His eyes narrowed. "What did you get me out of the shower for…?"

A pale-faced JD turned his laptop toward the man. "Look!"


In the living room, Josiah and Chris sighed at the thundering of feet down the stairs, and put down their books in anticipation. Both men's eyebrows rose to see Buck wearing just a towel, and a now flushed JD holding out his laptop.

Chris frowned. "What the hell?"

"Look, guys." JD placed the laptop onto the coffee table.

Josiah's jaw dropped. "Good Lord."

"Look how many 'likes' we got," JD said, pointing to the 'thumbs up' signs below the many comments.

"Who are these people?" Chris asked. He felt a little unnerved by the overwhelming commentary.

"It looks like Mary Ann was at the Bachelorette party," Buck offered.

"We got fans," JD whispered.

He jumped to life. "WE GOT FANS - Loads of new fans!" He and Buck laughed, hugged, and then danced around the room, while Chris and Josiah howled in amusement. Vin and Nathan hurried into the room, both grinning, despite having no clue as to what was happening.

"Why is Bucklin nekkid and dancin' with JD?" Vin asked, unsure of wanting to know the answer. He and Nathan looked at the laptop screen Chris turned to them.

"We have fans," Chris grinned.

The group hi-fived and fist-bumped, before calming down some. Nathan spoke, no less excited.

"Yeah, well we got us a new song, too." He chuckled at the cheers and looked at Vin. "It's one me and Vin wrote together."

Chris looked at them admiringly, and nodded his approval. He turned to Josiah. "Get Ezra back here if he's free. Guys…" he pointed toward the sunroom. "Let's go practice."


A week later, while they waited to be called into the recording booth, the five singers, composer, and manager grew nervous, but excited.


Tanner looked at JD. "Yeah?"

"The other day, you asked Nathan if his song had meaning."

The Texan nodded.

"Do you mind if I ask…does yours?"

Vin glanced around at his friends; no, not just friends, they were becoming more like family. Despite the irony of knowing JD was holding out on them, Vin decided it was time to share. Maybe it would encourage the kid to open up, too.

"My Ma died of pneumonia when I was real little. I don't recall much about my dad. Mom said he died while out chasin' a bail-jumper." He smiled. "My dad was in the army. When he came out, he took up bounty huntin'. All I remember about his death is Mom cryin', a lot, and for a long time.

"She had the most beautiful voice and would sing to me all the time. She could write poems, too. Her words used to paint the most amazin' pictures in my head. For years after she passed, I wasn't too good at writin', After Grandpappy died, I never stayed around a school long enough to learn to read and write well, but I took a class after I left the National Guard, and I write a lot better now.

"Grandpappy taught me to play guitar, and we used to play together after dinner. After he died…I got taken into the system." He sighed.

"I was lost. 'Bout everyone I ever met lied to me about somethin', and I got so's I didn't trust anyone. Right through to my teens, all I had to keep me goin' was my music, and Ma's final words to me."

Vin took a shuddering breath. Looking around at the affected group, Ezra was concerned it might not be the right time for this, but decided to let it go. He too, was curious.

Tanner continued. "She told me 'You're gonna meet a lot of people, some good, some bad, and all wantin' you to do things their way, but son, you're a Tanner, and don't you ever forget that. You hold that close, and follow your heart, and you'll never go wrong.'"

He took another breath to further compose himself. "I've been out on my own for just over eight years, since I was sixteen. Joined the National Guard for a while, learned to shoot…got real good at that. When I left, like my Dad, I took up bounty huntin'; just to put food in my belly…I never really liked it. I preferred to sing, somethin' I found useful as a teen on the streets when I had no money." He saw JD nod, and the others finally understood why Vin had been so quickly drawn to the youth when JD joined them. They both were forced to survive on the streets at some point.

"Although I can play guitar, but I'm not real good at writin' music, so a lot of lyrics added up in my notebook, but until now, had no way to…" he glanced at Nathan and grinned, "...set my words free."

His gaze locked with Chris's. "I met Chris after I noticed he'd been watchin' me sing for a few nights." Vin offered a dimpled grin. "And, I guess y'all know the rest." He looked at JD. "So, yeah, Kid, this song, and all my poems, have meanin' to me."

JD was unable to control a sniff. "Wow…"

The group sat quietly and basked in the friendship surrounding them, a friendship that had just grown another level deeper.

"There's one more thing I need to tell y'all…"

Before Vin could finish, a man entering the room caused the seven to look his way.

"Regulators? We're ready for you, now."


After recording 'One Voice', and Nathan's composition from their gig at 'Digger Dave's', the group prepared to sing Vin's and Nathan's song. It was decided Vin and JD would play guitar and sing the verses, and the rest of the guys come in with the chorus, finishing with Vin and JD singing the final two lines. Inside the control booth, Nathan and Ezra's hearts pounded from a mix of nerves and excitement.

On cue, the two youngest strummed. The group proceeded to sing with a depth of feeling that could only have been evoked from Vin's tale.

Through trials and tribulations, and lonely consternation,

I took a vow to find my destiny.

I've walked a path of sorrow, and even begged and borrowed,

But journey's end has beckoned finally.

My Father died, my Mother cried,

And when she left, the people lied;

But through it all, I stood up tall,

And grew to be the man she saw in me.

This land has fed and clothed me, has been my sanctuary,

Embracing me with nature's majesty.

It's shaped my disposition, while teaching me to listen,

Has been a friend when others turned from me.

My Father died, my Mother cried,

And when she left, the people lied;

But through it all, I stood up tall,

And grew to be the man she saw in me.

My wandering days are ended, good people I've befriended,

They've shown me love and made me smile again.

Endurance was rewarded, acceptance been afforded,

Sweet Mother now your baby boy's a man.

My Father died, my Mother cried,

And when she left, the people lied;

But through it all, I stood up tall,

And grew to be the man she saw in me.

Sweet Mother see the man I grew to be.

Your love helped me to des-tiny.♫


Long after dinner, and with an offer to Ezra to stay so he could celebrate with them, the group were finally winding down for the night. They had laughed until they cried, and though not allowed much liquor, JD was clearly tiddled and fighting sleep, as were several others.

Chris called it a night, but as they moved towards their rooms, JD halted them.


Buck tapped his head. "No more, Kid…come on, bed."

"No…we didn't, Vin hasn't…" He huffed in frustration at the lack of co-operation between his brain and mouth and then looked at Vin. "You said there was one more thin…th-in-g you wanted to tell us."

Tanner glanced at Chris, who gave a tight smile and nodded.

"Yeah, 'bout that." He stood, walked halfway up the stairs, and then looked back at them before heading on up to bed.

"I uh…a few years back; I was accused of killin' a man."


Chapter Seven


"Vin! Hey, Vin!"

The following morning, Tanner peeked out of the sunroom and grinned back at JD in the living room. "You hollered?"

Returning the smile, JD approached. "You got any lemon oil?"

Vin shook his head. "No. You cleanin' your guitar?"

"Re-stringing and cleaning. Once the old strings are off, it's a great opportunity to polish her up before the new ones go on."

"Good point."

JD beamed. "And now I have a little money, I figured it was a good time to pamper the old girl."

Chuckling, Vin joined him. "Please tell me you haven't named…her."

"O-kay, I won't."


JD swallowed. "Uh…okay. Bridget...I call her Bridget. Go ahead, laugh, I can take it."

For some reason, Vin refrained from chuckling. There was something in the sincerity of JD's reply. "Any particular reason?" He watched JD drop his gaze and turn to leave.

"It was my mom's name, and she used to be my mom's guitar."

Vin jumped to his feet. "Wait up, Kid." His long strides soon caught him up. "How about after breakfast, we hit the mall and pick up some supplies. I reckon Ole Chanu could do with some TLC, too."

JD's eyes flashed. "Chanu? You call your guitar 'Chanu'?"

Vin nodded. "After an Indian brother I met along my journey to here."

"He's still alive?"

"Oh sure, somewhere back in Texas." They continued walking.

Waving to the others who were already seated for breakfast, JD nodded. "Neat. The mall sounds good. There's a great music store there." He laughed at Vin's 'duh' expression. "Right, you knew that."


Breakfast was a little subdued, and filled with glances. Tanner put down his fork. "I'm guessin' this is because you want me to elaborate on my statement last night, huh?"

Mumbles of 'that's your choice', and 'only if you want to', reverberated around the table, but after last night's revelation, all were keen to learn more.

"Hell, yeah," JD chirruped, blushing when he realized no one else was as forthright.

Vin couldn't help but smile. He sipped some juice, wiped his mouth with a napkin and began.

"While I was bounty huntin' I was chasin' a bail-jumper called Eli Joe Velasquez. Slippery li'l ass-wipe. One night, I spotted him in a bar. He ran, and so I chased him out through the back, and in and out of alleys, which, despite the occasional streetlight, were murky and shadowy. While runnin' down one dark alleyway I took a dive over somethin' lyin' on the ground. When I pulled out my cell and used it as a flashlight, I could see it was some fella, flat on his back with a knife in his gut." He paused when JD audibly gulped. The last thing he wanted was to have the kid throw up. JD took a drink and urged him to continue.

"Instinctively I hunkered down to check he was still alive. I guess I must've touched the wound and the knife hilt at some point, 'cause when a passin' cop car pulled up at the alley entrance and the officers approached me, I had blood on me, and so they hauled my ass in for questionin'.

"Got interviewed and held for forty-eight hours. My prints showed up on the knife handle and they charged me. At the preliminary hearin' the bond company I was workin' for appointed a lawyer, and the guy told the judge I was a bounty hunter on the case to arrest Eli Joe Velasquez, whose prints were also on the knife. He argued over the positionin' of the knife and my partial prints on the hilt. He reckoned that, to have stabbed the guy…Jess Kincaid was his name…my prints would have had to be heavier, and differently situated...more in the position that Eli Joe's was."

Vin scooted his chair back from the table and demonstrated. "The thrust that killed Kincaid was in, and upward, which needed a lot more pressure than my prints showed."

"I'm guessing you were cleared?" Buck asked.

Vin nodded. "Yeah. The judge found no probable cause and the case was dismissed, but by then I'd been in jail for near four days." Vin's cheek dimpled as his expression saddened. "As far as I know, Eli Joe is still out there."

JD was frozen in position mid-sip of his juice. "Why did he kill the guy in the alley?"

Tanner shrugged. "Wrong place wrong time, I guess. The guy tended a bar a few buildin's down from where I saw Eli Joe. I heard later that the cops reckoned he must've stepped out for a break, and…"

"…Got in the way. Tragic," Nathan finished.

"Clearly, the knife was meant for Vin." Chris's words had all eyes turn to him.

JD visibly shuddered and tossed down his napkin. He was done with breakfast.

"What are you not telling us?" Chris asked. While Vin had shared this story with him before, Chris always felt the Texan was holding something back.

Vin's and Chris's gazes seemed to go beyond a simple stare and held firm until Vin nodded at Chris.

"Well, I heard Eli Joe threatened to put me six feet under if we ever met again."

A crash, a scrape of a chair and JD's repeated apologies as he mopped up the juice he'd dropped signaled for Vin that it was time to stop. Buck took over from JD when Vin took him aside.

"Kid, if I took every threat I ever had as a bounty hunter seriously, I'd never step outside again." He could see JD wasn't convinced...maybe one or two of the others, also. He offered his killer grin.

"'Sides, not only am I a great shot, I'm shit hot at hand to hand combat and martial arts, too." He faked a move on JD. "You want a demonstration?"

JD's tense shoulders finally relaxed and he smiled. "Nah, I'm good."

Tanner nodded and patted the youth's shoulder. "Come on, let's hit the mall."

Buck's eyes lit up and he stopped mopping. "Ooh, room for little ole me?"

JD grinned. "Cool, lunch is on Buck." He niftily danced away from Buck's playful swipe. The laughing trio moved to leave. JD called back.

"You heard that guys, right? Buck said he was old. Owww!" Buck's smack connected this time.


The Texan turned back to face to Josiah.

"Thank you for telling us."

Tanner's handsome face lit up. "It felt good to say it."

"Should tell Ezra, too," Chris suggested.

Vin nodded. "I will."

The three started walking again.

"Hey, Vin."

"Yeah, JD?"

"Could you teach me martial arts?"

Vin caught Buck's horrified look and grinned. "Sure, Kid, why not?"


After hours of shopping, and toting bags filled with new T-shirts, underwear, guitar strings, lemon oil and a multi-pack of cleaning cloths, the three group members decided it was time for lunch. Unable to agree on what to have, they hit the food court, where there was something for everyone.

Joining their respective lines, Buck chose Panda Express, Vin, Taco Bell, and JD, Sbarro's. They sat down at a table, but soon JD needed the bathroom. He put down his slice, licked his fingers, and stood.

"Be back in a minute."

Vin checked his watch. "That's all you got, or your pizza's mine."

JD giggled nervously, backing away and staring at the Texan while deciding if Tanner was teasing or not. Entering a corridor just off the food court that housed the bathrooms, ATM machines, and an emergency exit, JD pushed open the outer door to the men's room. Just as the palm of his hand pressed on the inner door, he was thrust through it from behind with force, and propelled across the bathroom floor, hitting the far wall with the right side of his head, face and shoulder.

Men using the urinals instantly zipped up and hastily left. Dazed, JD was manhandled, turned, and his back pushed against the wall to face three large, neatly attired assailants. He gasped and turned pale.

"Hello, John-boy. We've been looking for you. Mister Nichols sends his regards." He ended the sentence with a punch to JD's gut.

Curled over, and gasping for breath, JD painfully inhaled. Despite hurting, he straightened as best he could and pushed the man away. "I only just handed over the last thing of value I had. You said it would buy me some time."

The man sneered. "Well, let's just say that ole Ninja of yours wasn't as valuable to us as it was to you. Besides, that was over six months ago, and before you up and disappeared on us. Mister Nichols hates when a client does that."

As he spoke, his arm pinned JD to the wall with a chokehold, causing the gasping boy to stand on the tips of his toes.

Despite his size, JD was a scrapper, and even though common sense was screaming 'no!' once the man moved in closer, the kid retaliated with a knee to the guy's groin. Releasing a cry, as well as JD, the goon stepped back and nursing his most delicate area, doubled up in agony.

"You little bastard."

On his signal, the other two men grabbed the youth by the arms.

"You know why I left!" JD hollered out.

Uninterested, one man held him, while the other proceeded to punch. When the third man recovered a little, he retaliated by launching a blow to JD's ribs.


"Holy shit!"

Only seconds into the beating, the bathroom door opened and on seeing the tableau before him, a man entering to use the facilities dropped his packages, turned and ran.

Realizing they were out of time, the goons released JD, who dropped heavily to the floor. With a final kick they left, but not before a parting warning.

"We'll be back for the money, Kid, and if you fail to pay, Mister Nichols wanted us to remind you how he'll take his money's worth outta your ass...literally. Tell anyone about this, and we'll go after your new friends, too."


Out in the food court, Vin leaned over to grab JD's slice of pizza. "You snooze, you lose, Kid."

Buck knew he was teasing, and his attention was drawn to a man running from the bathrooms just as a shrill alarm sounded.

"Help…help…someone's being mugged!"

As if having a premonition, Buck and Vin looked at each other, stood, and then ran toward the bathrooms. Pushing through the gathering onlookers, Buck burst in.

Outside the restroom, Vin noticed the emergency exit doors at the far end of the corridor were open and he ran that way. He just reached the outside when a dark car with tinted windows sped away. Pulling out a small notebook and pen that he carried, partly from old habit, and partly in case inspiration for a song hit, he jotted down the license plate and car details as the vehicle passed him.


"Oh, Jesus."

His hands trembling, Buck kneeled down next to JD. He was shocked when the battered, shivering boy shied away from his touch. "Hey, easy there, Kid, it's me, Buck. Rest easy, there's an ambulance on the way."

Realizing who was next to him, JD reached out. Buck was surprised at the strength in the grip on his wrist.

"No…home, please," JD begged, weakly, while struggling to see through one good eye.

Buck leaned in. "Did they get your wallet?"

Despite his pain, JD almost laughed. His assailants wanted money, yet they never once checked him over for any. "N…no…"

Vin followed the paramedics in, and he and Buck stood together as JD's injuries were assessed and he was eventually taken, by wheelchair, to an ambulance waiting outside.

About to get into the ambulance with JD, Buck turned when Vin grabbed his shoulder. "I'll get our stuff, and call Ezra and the others."

With a grateful nod, Buck climbed inside. Vin didn't move until the ambulance doors slammed shut and they pulled away. It was at that moment the shock of the incident hit him, and Vin shuddered as he dialed while the earlier images, and the disappointment that he believed he'd left violence well and truly behind, haunted him.


Chapter Eight


Ezra sprinted through the sliding doors of Four Corners Mercy Hospital. Aside from the shocking realization that, for the first time in his life he was hurrying because he was worried about someone other than himself, he was far too casually dressed for his liking. A light growth of whiskers accompanying sports slacks and a tennis shirt was not a look he cared to sport in the afternoon.

Vin's earlier call woke him from a deep sleep, and so, under the circumstances, Ezra deemed his appearance to be acceptable. The previous night he wined and dined the owners of two local radio stations, concluding with a visit to a casino. It had been expensive, and boozy, and went on until 6 am, but before parting ways the encounter resulted in him handing over two demo discs and a friendly reminder that he would be 'listening in'.

Expecting to rise late, he was recording both stations' shows for the duration of his slumber. From the moment he rose, he would monitor one station, and record the other, in the hope of hearing any one of the three songs on the discs played.

He reached the reception area and leaned toward the clerk.

"John Dunne?"

She tapped on her keyboard and looked up. "He's in x-ray. His brother is waiting for him in a room just down the corridor."


Ezra thanked her and turned to see Vin just behind him. "What happened?" he asked the approaching Texan.

"Mugged, I think," Vin replied. Realizing Ezra knew where to go, he followed him.

Buck looked up when the two men entered the treatment room and stood. "Guys."

"How is JD?" Ezra asked.

"He's awake. Just gone up to x-ray."

"How bad?" Vin queried.

Buck swallowed. "Bruising, couple of cuts and grazes. The doc reckons no stitches, just some strips."

"Bruising to the face?" Ezra's eyes closed momentarily when Buck nodded.

"Problem?" Vin asked.

"While genuinely horrified for JD that this has happened; I have an interview arranged for the group in two days time. The magazine will want pictures." He paused for thought. "I may need to call in Inez to work her magic."

Buck's eyes flashed and he snapped. "Let's see how the Kid feels first, huh?" He saw Ezra give a rare wince and he waved an apologetic hand. "Sorry, Ezra, it's just been…"

Standish rested a hand on Buck's arm. "Buck, I'm sorry. I don't mean to sound insensitive, but you all have worked so hard for this opportunity and this rollercoaster ride is going full tilt now. We have to strike, and quickly, but, that said, the group's well-being is, and always will be, paramount. I am merely planning ahead, but if JD should be too poorly to participate, I will reschedule."

"Reschedule what?" Chris entered the room. He strode straight over to Buck and rested a hand on his shoulder. "You okay?" Noting Buck's inability to reply, Chris nodded. "Clearly not."

Nathan walked in with Josiah. "I got a sneak peek at JD's notes. Not too serious. Looks like his attackers were interrupted before they could do too much damage."


A nurse standing in the doorway smiled at them. "Are you with John Dunne?"

"Yes," six voices chorused.

"Oh my." She smiled. "He can go home now."

"His x-rays?" Nathan checked.

"He refused one. We're releasing him AMA - against medical advice." She pointed. "He's just down there, in the suture room, having wound-closure strips applied." She left, and six confused men headed in the direction indicated.


JD was sitting on the edge of a bed and failing miserably to get his T-shirt over his head. Walking in, Buck instantly went to assist.

"Hey, here, let me help."

Looking up through one bruised eye, JD smiled. "Thanks." He missed the glances exchanged between Buck, Chris and Vin. "I can go now, right?"

"Didn't the doctor stick around…?" Josiah began.

"I signed off my treatment."

"How? You're a minor," Chris prompted.

JD shrugged. "I lied about my age on the admission forms." He noted the looks. "It wouldn't be the first time."

"JD, do you think that was wise?" Nathan asked.

"Yeah, I do. Now drop it. I just want to go home, okay?" the boy snapped.

The urgency in JD's tone surprised them all. He was usually so easygoing.

"Sure, Kid. No sweat," Buck soothed. He smiled when JD leaned into him.

"I'm sorry Nathan, guys. I'm just a little cranky, is all."

"Not surprising, really," Chris soothed.

The nurse from earlier entered the room and handed Buck JD's top shirt. "There you go, Mr. Dunne."

"Thanks," JD and Buck chorused. As the nurse left, JD's brow furrowed and he stared at Buck.

"Why did you answer to my name? For that matter, why did she even think you were, Mr. Dunne?"

Buck grinned, coyly. "Uh…I may have, uh…told her you were my brother."

"May have, or did?"

"Did." Buck shrugged. "I wanted to make sure they didn't kick me out to the main waiting area, and that I was allowed to stay with you."

Despite his bruises, JD smiled and it had a domino effect on the others.

"'Sides, you are like my kid brother," Buck finished, but this time it caused JD's eyes to well up and him to drop his gaze.

"How about we get the hell outta here," Vin suggested.

Buck held up JD's hospital forms. "I need to get your insurance details, Kid."

Ezra moved to take the forms, but JD grabbed them first and tore them up. "The check Ezra gave me should have cleared by now, I'll pay cash."

Everyone stood around stunned. Ezra stepped forward. "I will cover this visit, and as soon as we're back at the ranch, I'll discuss medical and life insurance cover with each of you."

JD just stared at the man. Nathan quickly jumped into action and commandeered a wheelchair. From his medical chariot, JD glanced around at the six men as it occurred to him that they were all here...for him.

"Thanks." He noted the confused looks. "I felt dumb about all this happening, but...knowing you all came here is..." He struggled against the lump in his throat. "...Pretty neat."

The men smiled and glanced around at each other. For the first time, and without prompting, they had all come together for one of their own, and as six men escorted their injured teenager home, it gave each man a warm, comforting feeling inside.


Once home, and while preparing drinks in the kitchen, Buck looked at Vin and Chris. "You saw those bruises too, right?"

Chris nodded, Vin answered. "Bruises on his upper arms and wrists. Someone was holdin' him while another guy…or guys beat on him."

"Which suggests this might be more than a mugging." Chris rounded. "And I'm thinking maybe has something to do with why he's been holding out on us."

"Well, a bounty hunter buddy of mine is runnin' the plates. We may have an answer, soon," Vin stated. He picked up the tray of drinks and headed for the living room.


It took some cookies and warm milk until, cozily ensconced on the sofa, JD eventually, but reluctantly shared his experience.

"These guys followed you into the bathroom and just attacked you?" Chris asked.

JD nodded.

"Yet, although there were others already in there, they just happened to pick on you?" Vin chipped in.

"Uh huh."

"And you've never met them before?" Buck queried.

JD shrugged. "Nope."

Ezra instantly looked at Chris, and it was evident he, Vin, and Buck at least, knew JD had lied. It was something they'd never known him to do before, mainly due to how, even in fun, he seemed unable to disguise tells. JD lying worried Buck even more, and in the hope of coaxing JD to share what was really on his mind, he sat next to him.

"Thanks for talking about this with us. I know when you're making it on your own, and you're left with no one to confide in, it's not easy to share stuff like this. It's hard to find folks you can trust." His expression saddened.

"When my mom was murdered, I struggled to deal with it, and having no one to talk to about it left me bitter and resentful."

Realizing Buck was about to share his past with them, the men leaned in closer.

" mom...ran an Escort Agency in Vegas."

JD's eyes widened. "She…she was a…?"

"…A saint." Buck smiled. "My ma was a saint. She worked hard all her life, and brought me up, alone. Just before I was born, she met Hilda, who had just opened up a high class Bordello. She took my mom in and I was born there, and while Ma worked for Hilda, I grew up there alongside the other ladies, right up until Hilda was shot dead one night." He noted the surprise. "Cops said she was being robbed." He looked back at the recently 'mugged' JD and seeing he was shocked, squeezed his knee in support.

"There was an outstanding mortgage on the place, a little too rich for Ma, and so it got shut down, but luckily, Hilda taught her everything she knew about the business as Ma worked her way up. The plan was for Mom to take over when Hilda retired...but it wasn't to be, so she took all that knowledge, and some of the girls willing to go with her, and opened up a small, but very high class Escort Agency.

"She was doing real well. Ma managed to set up college funds for me, and a couple of the younger girls who never had chance to go to college but wanted to." Buck sighed. "Life was good.

"One night, a high profile client insisted on Mom being his escort for the evening. She agreed…kissed me goodnight, and went out looking like a million dollars. I never saw her alive again."

"The client murdered her?" Josiah asked.

Buck shrugged. "Looks that way." His face darkened. "What he did to her…" He snapped himself back, that anger was for another time. "To this day, they haven't found her murderer. Mom worked discretely, which is why she was so successful. No client records were kept, and none of the other girls knew who booked her that night.

"For a whole year, I bummed around living off her hard-earned savings. One day, when I was visiting her grave, I recalled her wish for me to go to college. I pulled my act together and got into the University of Colorado…great sports program; met Chris, who I quickly learned was a great listener…and, well I guess you mostly know the rest." He decided it was not his place to share Chris's pain. He'd done so once, and paid for it dearly. Reaching out, Buck touched JD's bruised face.

"Meeting Chris was a turning point in my life." He glanced fondly at his long-time friend. "He was wild, and I loved him for it. He brought me back from the brink, reminded me of how it felt to have fun and, boy howdy, did we have fun. Chris was there for me during my darkest years, and I vowed to repay him for it all, despite him never asking, or expecting me to do so."

When a solitary tear dropped from Buck's eye, Chris's misty gaze fixed on him and his slow nod acknowledged all that Buck had meant to him when he lost Sarah and Adam; even if he didn't say so at the time. It was clear to the others that Chris's look meant the world to Buck.

With a heavy sniff, Buck turned back to JD. "I guess what I'm trying to say is I…we' for you, too, Kid. None of us here are alone any longer." He smiled to see Ezra's reaction to that. "If you ever need to talk…"

For a moment, the six held their breath as a clearly affected JD looked about to speak. Instead, he struggled to his feet. "Uh…I…I need to sleep. I think those pills Nathan gave me are a little strong." He smiled, but it lacked its usual wattage. "Thanks guys."

Watching him walk away, Ezra called out. "JD, before you go, may I ask…do you have an aversion to hospitals?"

Looking back, he wanted to say 'yes, I spent years escorting my mom in and out of them, watched her waste away in one,' but unaware his expression was answering Ezra's question, he simply shrugged. "I don't have insurance."

Ezra spoke. "My dear boy, as a minor, you should have a Medicaid card, and I would see to it forthwith, but there is no need as the first task I undertook after leaving the hospital was to apply to insure your good selves under my company name, and that includes health insurance. You can rest easy, my friend, the moment you have all signed the paperwork, your health expenditure will soon be in good hands."

JD was visibly stunned. "All these years, I should have had some kind of card for medical treatment?" The realization that he would have been covered for x-rays and medical care was the moment JD was robbed of the brave face he'd been displaying. His aching body, and pounding head were about to betray him.

Buck was on it and next to him in a flash. "How about I walk up with you? I think I left my phone in the bedroom. Wouldn't want it going off and disturbing you, would we?"

With an appreciative nod from JD, and to the background sound of a chime from Vin's cell, JD gratefully accepted the help and the pair headed for their room.


Half an hour later, and satisfied JD was resting comfortably, Buck returned to the living room. He was surprised to see no one had moved. "Guys?"

Vin replied. "Got a message back on that license plate."

Buck sat down. "And?" It was clear by their expressions that he wasn't going to like the answer.

"It's registered to Nichols' Incorporated, a fully licensed money lending agency, among other dubious dealings"

Buck glanced at the others. "Loan sharks?"

"Legal loan sharks," Nathan said with distaste.

"Nasty bastards too, apparently," Vin continued. "Their main office is in Topeka, Kansas, where the older brother and their mother work, but they have offices all over."

"Denver?" Josiah asked.

Vin nodded. "Boston, too."

"Holy shit."

"Indeed, Buck," Ezra agreed. "I'm assuming we all have the same thoughts on this development?"

"Why the hell would JD go to those assholes for money?" Buck wondered. "And why won't he talk to us about it?"

"Point is, it looks like he did, and if that's the case, we need to figure out how to get him to open up about it, and then find a solution," Chris summarized.

"I'll do some more diggin'," Vin assured.

"Allow me to investigate also," Ezra added. "I have some business contacts I can approach." He noticed Nathan scribbling, but due to the guarded positioning of himself and his notes, it was clear the group's main composer wasn't ready to share yet. Ezra stood.

"I also need to talk to the journalist I arranged to meet with you in two days. If rescheduling is an option, I will rearrange the interview, if not, I will return to talk to JD. I hate to push like this, but to become successful, we must endeavor to take opportunities when they present themselves, while attempting not to create the impression to the media that we are unreliable." With his now customary salute, he left.


"Anyone hungry?" Josiah asked. When no one seemed bothered, he headed for the kitchen. "Perhaps just some sandwiches, then."


Those remaining looked at Chris.

"Got to get these cupboards of ours cleaned out, or the press are gonna roast us alive."

One by one they nodded their agreement, while wondering if that was an indication Chris was also ready to share soon.


While driving, and pondering his next move, Ezra turned on the radio to help him think. Music soothed him, and as he headed for home for a shave and a nice hot shower, he formulated a plan of action. Luckily, the road behind and ahead was clear when he suddenly screeched to a halt. Turning up the radio's volume, he grinned and touched his chest when his heart seemed to pound against his ribs. He dialed his cell.


"JD…turn on the radio…the station you said drives Buck crazy." There was a pause, then Ezra outright laughed at the squeal. "I assume you're hearing what I'm listening to."

"This…this is awesome," JD slurred, sleepily, before outright chuckling.

"Call the others," Ezra began, but was cut off.

"S'okay…they heard me yell, and came up." He giggled. "I've never seen Vin dance a jig before."

Standish was surprised when Chris's voice came back at him next. "This is phenomenal. I can't believe our song's playing on the radio. Thanks, pal. JD's gone to his laptop and he says The Regulator's Facebook page is lighting up."

Ezra's own grin was wide enough to expose his gold tooth. "My pleasure entirely. Now, encourage your poets to compose, and your singers to refrain from straining their vocal chords further, and I will be in touch soon."

Happy beyond words and with a renewed determination to get this group into print, and at their convenience, Ezra headed home.


Chapter Nine


Two days on, and having successfully pushed back the magazine interview for a week, Ezra had a new target in sight. He was not surprised to get a call to his office before setting off for the meeting he'd arranged, and so agreed to meet the caller outside the offices of 'Nichols Incorporated'. On arrival, he stepped out of his Mustang and eyed Chris and Vin.

"Buck not with you?"

Pushing away from leaning against his black, GMC Sierra, Chris shook his head. "We decided not to tell him. I know how we feel about facing these bastards, and can only guess at what Buck wants to do to them."

"Indeed." Ezra turned serious on them. "Please allow me to do the talking."

"Are you tryin' to tell us we lack civility, Ezra?"

Standish paused in search of a diplomatic reply to Vin's question. He shrugged. "Yes."

There was a momentary ripple of laughter until Ezra's next question sobered the mood. "How is JD?"

"Real quiet."

Vin's raspy response spoke volumes. JD was the ultimate kid brother; young, loud, boisterous, animated, painfully innocent in so many ways, and a constant source of amusement accompanied by spontaneous bursts of singing. His current brooding, and self-imposed solitude since his encounter with Nichols' goons, was unsettling.


In his bedroom, JD stared at himself in the mirror and heaved the sigh of the heavy-hearted. He was sick to his stomach at the thought of having to leave his new home and his…yeah, he could call them that now…his family.

But Nichols' henchmen threatened, among other things, to go after his friends if he didn't pay up, or told them anything, and as JD glanced at his checking account statement displayed on his laptop screen he knew there was no way he could pay up yet. Even with the money he'd just earned, it was a drop in the ocean to what he owed. Because of him his friends were at risk, so JD believed there was no alternative, to protect them he had to leave. Just as things were kicking off for the group, he needed to go.

That truth caused him to fight back the tears.

"Hey Kid."

JD jolted when Buck unexpectedly walked in. He slammed down his laptop lid and swiped at his eyes. "Damnit, Buck."

Buck paled and placed a hand on JD's shoulder. "Sorry, buddy. I wasn't thinking." He appreciated that the boy was a mite jumpy after his ordeal.

JD glared, wanting desperately to begin the release process and push the man's concern away, but one look at Buck, and the youth melted. "Sorry, I guess I'm still a little…you know."

Buck squeezed the shoulder under his hand. "Yeah, I know. Come on downstairs, huh? There's only me, Josiah, and Nathan." He sighed. "We miss you, Kid. You can't mope around up here all day."

"Sure I can." JD sighed and nodded. "Sorry, I really don't mean to snap. Look, just give me some time, would you?"

Buck attempted a smile. "Sure, you got it, Li'l Brother." He turned to leave.



"Where are Chris and Vin?"

"Meeting with Ezra, why?"

JD blew out a relieved breath. "No reason, just curious." He watched Buck leave and the threatening tear spilled over his dark, lower lashes and rolled down his cheek. Tonight, he had to get away tonight. He couldn't risk their safety any longer.


"Mister Nichols will see you, now."

Sitting inside the waiting room of Nichols Incorporated, the three men stood and entered the office of the company's VP, Peter Nichols. From his large high-backed, leather chair, Peter looked the three up and down and arched an eyebrow.

"What can I do for you?"

Chris rested both his fists on the man's desk and leaned menacingly in. "For a start, you can tell your goons to lay off JD Dunne." A small cough reminded Chris that Ezra wanted control, and slowly, he straightened and stepped back.

"Little runt owes me money," Peter retorted.

"Due to your extortionate interest rates, he always will," Ezra chimed in.

"Boy knew what he was signing."

Ezra's eyes flashed. "While JD's smart enough to appreciate his mistake, and to gauge the exorbitant expenditure he has brought upon himself, I have calculated that he was, at the time of signing, beside himself with despair at the terminality of his mother's illness and her mounting hospital bills, and you sir, took advantage of that."

Chris and Vin exchanged stunned glances. They hadn't realized that.

Peter shrugged. "I make the money available; I don't force anyone's hand in taking it." He exhaled noisily. "My time is limited, is there anything else you want?"

Ezra placed a check from his wallet onto the desk. "Yes, for you to accept this as full reimbursement for Mister Dunne's loan."

Peter read the amount, laughed, and slid the check back toward Ezra. "This is a mere fraction of the total amount."

"No, it's the entire original loan, plus a generous sum over the calculated interest of the initial figure, and at today's current bank rates." Now Ezra was leaning in. "Let's be realistic, you will never regain your full compensation from the boy, so this way, you cannot lose."

"So says you." Peter sat back and folded his arms across his chest. "And if I refuse?"

As one, Chris and Vin took two furious steps forward, but Ezra raised a hand to stay them.

"Mister Nichols, you're a businessman, and I have no doubt you appreciate a good deal when one is presented. Also…" He took a piece of folded notepaper from his inside jacket pocket, placed it on the desk, and pushed it toward the man.

"I have many favors owed me, some of which are from the men on that list. I would hate to call in my markers…" He smiled. "But I will, if necessary."

Taking up the paper, Peter unfolded it and read it. He swallowed, and then looked first to Ezra, and then the check, which he picked up. "Pleasure doing business with you."

Ezra presented a document. "Please Sign here to conclude this arrangement. You are also declaring that this information will remain undisclosed, the forfeit of which should you do so…" he picked up the notepaper and raised it. "…Has already been discussed."


Outside the building, Vin gave an admiring, low whistle. "Dude, you are one hard-hittin' piece of work."

Chris nodded. "Hats off to you, and…thank you. How did you find out about JD's mom's hospital bills? And…who's listed on that paper? We've learned that the Nichols are about as hard-assed as they come, and don't scare easily."

"My apologies, but I cannot divulge any of that information, save to say that in reply to the second part of your question, let's say certain men of...notoriety, have needed an entertainer at short notice and my contacts within the business have helped me be of assistance." He grew serious. "Please do not disclose the details of this encounter with JD. We will merely report that my offer was accepted."

"Uh, where did you find the money?" Vin asked, fearing JD might have a new debt around his neck. He was surprised to see Ezra's gold tooth gleam as he grinned wider and held up another document.

"This helped. Let's say the check was an investment in lieu of earnings to come." He handed them a contract. "I have examined it in detail, and it is ready for signing."

Vin's jaw dropped open as he looked over Chris's shoulder to read it. "A record deal?"

"Not the biggest company in Denver, but a reputable and well established corporation. They heard our demo disc and liked it. Next week, they want you in the studio to record a single, and discuss cutting an album, and this was also the deal I struck with the journalist to delay the interview. He will have exclusive rights to the session." Standish grinned. "Gentlemen, we are on the up."

No one cared that passers-by were staring as the three whooped, hi-fived, and hollered in delight. Vin ran trembling fingers through his hair.

"Can't wait to tell the kid. I sure hope this cheers him up some."

Chris agreed. He…they all, missed the old JD.


JD was reluctant to join the group downstairs, but Buck gave him little choice as he dragged him along anyway. The opportunity to look the boy over after seeing little of him over the last two days caused them all to be shocked. He was bruised, but also pale, with dark scoops under his eyes.

Chris pushed his surprise to the back of his mind and urged Ezra to share his news. JD smiled, as the excited friends celebrated noisily. Ezra raised a hand.

"Though this doesn't concern you all per se, after some delicate negotiations, I have transferred my few existing clients to another agency. As of yesterday, I am your exclusive manager."

The group went quiet. "But…what if we don't work out…"

Ezra smiled at Nathan. "The notion of failure has never even crossed my mind." He turned to JD and gestured toward the den. "May I have a word in private?"

More than a little concerned, JD walked with him into the den.


After listening to what Ezra did, JD stared incredulously at the man. "How?"

"He simply accepted my stipulations and signed to the agreed terms. He is a businessman first and foremost, and recompense for the original sum, with interest, is considerably better than none from the continually increasing figure. The money I used was an advance payment on your record deal, and has been absorbed as expenses." He smiled. "JD, you are free of this burden."

"But…No! Surely the money belongs to the guys…"

"Trust me; I have calculated this transaction to the final penny. From today, you owe nothing, to no one."

JD cursed inwardly at more gathering tears. "How did you find out about all this?"

"A friend of mine owed me a good turn. He is an excellent PI, and very discrete..." Ezra smiled. "As am I."

JD stared long and hard, and then he shakily stepped forward and threw his arms around the southerner. "Thank you," he rasped.

Taken slightly aback, the man smiled and awkwardly embraced the boy. He patted his back. "No need to thank me. I was merely protecting my investment." The twinkle in his eyes as they separated indicated he was teasing. "Come. Let's join the others. I brought champagne."


Several hours later, and it was evident that JD's spirits hadn't fully lifted. Neither the news, several games of poker, nor the champagne, encouraged him to share more with them; and no one doubted there was more. Disappointed, but far from ready to throw in the towel, the group of seven men retired to the sitting room to relax before bed.

After a few minutes of quiet companionship, Josiah began to speak.

"My father was a lay preacher, and one day, when I was around seven, he decided to pull up stakes and become a missionary overseas. My ever-devoted mother convinced me it would be an adventure, and so we followed behind a few weeks later. In truth, it was an adventure and a huge learning curve for me. I believe it taught me tolerance, and clemency, while opening my eyes to living a simple existence without the pressures and trappings of modern day life." He sipped his coffee as he talked.

"I was nine when Mother became pregnant. She lost him during a difficult childbirth; a boy, who Father baptized Jeremiah. When I was thirteen Mother was expecting again. She suffered a pregnancy filled with sickness and fever. The local doctor, an Englishman, suggested that she either leave for more modern facilities to give birth, or go home to the US as he feared that if she stayed where we were, he might be forced to make a choice between her, and the baby."

Seeing he had the guys' full attention, Josiah continued. "Father said no; that God would, as always, be the voice of reason, and so she stayed. During childbirth, Hannah was deprived of oxygen, and Mother needed to be cut to get the baby out." The big man faltered, but recovered quickly so as not to lose his nerve.

"Mother bled to death that day. Eighteen months later, a specialist visiting the village confirmed that Hannah's mental abilities were such that she would likely never be capable of fully taking care of herself, but that her chances would improve if she was back home and in a specialized facility. Despite the news, Father refused to give up his calling, and so from her birth, and five years beyond, I brought Hannah up myself, while growing to hate our father past all hope of reconciliation."

"When did you eventually get home?" JD asked, his eyes showing clear signs of being affected by the tale.

Josiah smiled. "Thank you for asking. It wasn't easy. With the help of charity workers, I smuggled Hannah and myself home via a freight ship. A shipmate kept us fed and watered, and liaised with charity workers when we docked in the Port of Salem, New Jersey. From there we were taken to a number of shelters, ending our journey in a Catholic-run sanctuary just outside Vista City. I applied for copies of my official papers, returned to employment and also took time to become ordained as a minister. The Sisters of Santa Lucia took care of Hannah, and at first, I visited her five times a week, which dwindled to two, then one..." Josiah's blue eyes filled.

"I hadn't seen her in three years." He was relieved to note only a few surprised reactions. "I traveled a lot, preaching the gospel and offering my muscle for free in a bid to make amends for my neglect of Hannah, and negative thoughts against my father. While on the road, I was told Hannah suffered a breakdown, and was now kept in isolation for her and her fellow patients' safety." Josiah's features saddened and his voice dropped low.

"I was furious with God, questioning why, after all she'd suffered, would he do that to her. I also considered myself at fault, for not visiting more often, so I made a point of calling on her. When Hannah saw me, she became hysterical...she didn't know me, and so the Sisters suggested I leave and stay away for a while. They promised to write regularly with updates providing I kept them informed of my whereabouts.

"And Hannah?" Vin asked.

Josiah stared at his empty mug. "Deteriorating. She fears everyone but two of the Sisters, now." He looked at them and nodded at their regretful expressions.

"Sorry," Vin finally managed to say.

"Thank you." Josiah stood. "And thank you for listening. I'll bid you all goodnight." As he passed JD's position on the couch, the big man bent over and placed a gentle kiss on the boy's head. "Sleep well, son."

JD's head tilted back to look at him, and then his gaze followed Josiah up the stairs, and until he disappeared. "'Night."


That night before retiring, Nathan scribbled down a tune that played in his head all evening, while in his room, and inspired by both Buck's and Josiah's back-stories, Vin jotted down some lines for a new song.

'Life's daily grind had never once removed her ruby smile,

The promise of adventure kept him happy for a while,

A man became a brother and revived a soul in pain,

But the ladies in their lives would never see the world again.

The fickle hand of fate can often cut us to the bone,

To steal away our hopes and dreams, or take each breath alone,

But we can turn the tables if we have a mind to strive,

To beat the odds, fight through the tears, and find a better life.'

Unsure if the message in the content was how he wanted it to sound, Vin decided to sleep on it. With a yawn, he stood and undressed for bed.


Chapter Ten


The next morning while mucking out the horses boarding with him, Chris couldn't get JD's distress off his mind. Going with the knowledge of how JD seemed to be struggling to put behind him Chris's original refusal to have him in the group, and strove repeatedly, and unnecessarily, to impress him, the re-energized widower made a decision. That evening after dinner, and while the others moved into the living room, JD was keen to hit the hay. Having none of it, Chris took him by the arm through to the living room, and sat him in a chair. He perched on the coffee table, faced a stunned JD, and with a quick glance at the others as they hastily took up seats, Chris began to talk.


"Sarah played piano. She was beautiful, and so was her voice. I was in a band, and real wild in my younger days, but she tamed me. She was at one of my band's gigs, and I fell for her on sight. I would have done anything for her.

"After I left the band, we got married, and performed together for a while. She wrote songs, too, and a few were bought up by other performers, but once she got pregnant we realized our income wasn't enough to raise a family; so with what we'd saved we put down a deposit and took out a mortgage to buy this ranch.

"Sarah had a difficult pregnancy, and was poorly after Adam was born, but she was strong, and fought back to full health, and I had the happiest five years of my life.

"She was five months pregnant with our second child, when she had an appointment for her second ultrasound scan. Buck was in town, and she urged me to go meet him instead of going with her, and insisted I drag him home for dinner. I was reluctant, but she was so insistent I agreed, after which I watched her and Adam pull away. I then drove to a bar to meet Buck. I never saw them alive again."

He paused and tried to overlook the audible gasps.

"A Drunk driver forced her truck off the road and it was crushed after tumbling down a rocky gradient. They never stood a chance, the drunk however walked away with scrapes and a concussion. To her credit, Sarah was great with finances, and her insurance paid off the mortgage to this place, not that I gave a shit right then. I couldn't see past wanting to be with them." He looked at a misty-eyed Buck.

"Big Dog over there stood by me through the whiskey, tears, and anger, right up until the day that I, in a drunken rage, blamed their deaths, and me not being with them, on him. Understandably, he walked away. I'd chased away the one good thing I had left in my life; I'd already given up on my music. I guess I was in a pretty dark place for a good while, but around six months later, I heard one of the songs that Sarah wrote play on the radio. As the royalties began to roll in, I pulled myself together, and never drank whiskey, at least in anger, again."

Visibly affected, Chris sat forward and with hands clasped, and his arms resting on his knees, he looked into JD's eyes. "Sometimes, life deals us a shit hand, Kid. It's how well you choose to play that hand which establishes your path through life, and helps determine the man you chose to be. Even when Buck was around I didn't share my problems, I let them consume me, and it nearly destroyed my life. Don't let that happen to you, JD. We're here for you, let us help." Patting JD's knee, Chris rose, and took up his usual seat.


A trembling JD hiccupped in an effort to hold in the emotion Chris's story and heartfelt plea evoked. His gaze turned to Nathan and Vin as the latter took up his guitar. Nathan laid out sheets of music on the coffee table and looked around at them all before urging Buck to join Vin. His gaze rested on JD.

"Vin and me wrote this recently, and hoped maybe to use it at our recording session. We'd like to know what y'all think."

Once ready, Vin strummed the melody, then the intro, and he and Buck harmonized the lyrics.

It makes your friends' hearts ache to see you cryin',

To know that you are hurtin' deep inside.

We want to ease your pain; and stop you hidin',

And raise a smile upon a face so tired.

Life is short, my friend,

Keep strong, 'til the end,

Laughter helps to raise your spirits along the way.

You are loved, my friend,

And we, recommend,

That our warm embrace envelopes you, today.

This agony that's wellin' up inside you,

Will ease considerably if you would share.

We watch you wrestle with some inner demon,

And wish that you would let us show we care.

Life is short, my friend,

Keep strong, 'til the end,

Laughter helps to raise your spirits along the way.

You are loved, my friend,

And we, recommend,

That our warm embrace envelopes you, today.

Eyes that flash with life are dull and misty,

But we can help them sparkle once again.

Just take our hands and leap the void between us,

And let us strip your loneliness away.

Life is short, my friend,

Keep strong, 'til the end,

Laughter helps to raise your spirits along the way.

You are loved, my friend,

And we, recommend,

That our warm embrace envelopes you, today.

Life is short, my friend,

This is - not the end,

Laughter helps to raise your spirits along the way.

You are loved, my friend,

And we, recommend,

That our warm embrace envelopes you, today.

Come here and let us soothe-your-pain a-way.


The room was silent. Between both Josiah and Chris recently sharing their emotion-filled stories, and the poignant song, everyone was visibly moved. Buck had struggled to sing the final chorus as he watched JD's face crumple. He barely reached him in time before the boy covered his face with his hands and broke down. Buck leaned in.

"I saw the bag you packed. Please, Kid, don't leave."

His plea shocked the others. They hadn't realized JD planned to run. Josiah's large hand stretched over to rest on the boy's dark hair.

"Let it out, John Dunne, and remember we're here for you when you too are ready to share."

Though barely noticeable, they all saw it, the tiniest of nods. It was more than they had expected, but were more than ready to deal with...or so they hoped.


The morning of their recording studio visit, the guys were up early, and over breakfast talked excitedly about cutting their first single. Before going to the studio, Ezra arranged for them to visit the Lucky Seven Nail and Hair Salon; nothing too fancy, just a neaten up in preparation for the accompanying magazine interview and photographs. Despite also being excited about going into the studio, JD toyed with his food, and visibly winced each time the interview was mentioned. Unexpectedly, he stood, causing all to look his way.

"I can't do this without you guys knowing something." He noted the softened expressions and hoped they would still feel that way when he was finished. Buck's hand curled around his wrist and guided him down into his chair.

"When you're ready," Chris encouraged. He watched JD's trembling hand almost spill his juice as he took a sip.

JD began, his voice raspy and shaky in tone as he spoke. "Y'all know I sought out a loan with Nichols' Incorporated." He paused, partly to wait for the acknowledgements, and partly to try to gain some composure. His folded hands rested on the table, and were white at the knuckles from the pressure of the grip he was applying as he talked.

"The street office in Boston is small and far from fancy. I guess the reality for the Nichols is that they're prepared to do loan deals, but not from their nice, classy office buildings. I filled in the application, and then left after being told someone would be in touch." As JD feared, the tears came when he approached the next part.

"The thing is, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer just before my twelfth birthday. She was admitted to the hospital and the oncologist took some scans, and then performed a biopsy." He swiped at a large tear as it rolled over his lower lashes.

"The diagnosis wasn't good, the cancer had spread to the lymph nodes under her arm, and after a lot of talking with the experts, and some research by me, Mom decided to have the breast removed. She was already pretty sick by this time, so although the operation was successful, her follow-up treatment and recovery was slow. The drugs cost a lot, and after three years, her insurance ran out.

"By then, I'd taken up a few jobs to make up for her needing to quit work, and as there was just the two of us, we managed, and I was even able to put some money aside. But that didn't last too long after she fell ill again and the docs told her the cancer was back and had spread to her pancreas and liver. The first drug stopped due to lack of money was the steroid - the doc said it was the least important."

JD faltered and Buck's squeeze to his arm gave him the courage he needed. With a tight smile for the man, he continued, but the emotion was in control, now.

"Her weight went down dramatically, until she looked like a pregnant skeleton with skin."

"Pregnant?" Ezra asked.

Nathan looked at JD and on seeing the slight nod from the boy, he explained. "The fluid build-up around the affected organs would give the effect of her appearing pregnant." He looked at JD apologetically. "His mom would have been N-stage at this point."

Thanking Josiah for the offered Kleenex, JD nodded. "We...we couldn't afford her treatment. She needed specialist palliative care and..." JD sobbed. "...All we could manage was drugstore meds and me looking after her between shifts." He looked imploringly at his companions.

"I was I approached a couple of charities, and they helped some, but...but it wasn't went to a high-street loan shark - and because of my age, were the only lenders that would even give me the time of day."

Affected by JD's tale, Vin cleared his throat. "Ain't no shame in what you did, Kid. You were just lookin' out for your Ma."

JD's liquid gaze met Vin's. "That's not it," he whispered, before taking another sip of juice.

"There were cameras in the offices...understandable as they kept cash on the premises for instant decisions. When I got the call on their decision, it wasn't to where I applied, but to Peter Nichols's office in their building.

"Inside was Peter, his brother Mark, and a lady who I found out later to be their mother. There was also another guy, sitting in the corner of the room." JD shuddered. "Real creepy looking fella. Their mom approached me and after she went over my application, told me I was accepted. She then pointed to the man in the corner and Peter took over. He explained that the guy liked what he saw, and I could have the money, with all payments and interest waved if I agreed to work for this man for the cost of Mom's care and drugs. I asked what I'd be doing, and the guy stood and walked over to me.

"He introduced himself as 'Max', and that I'd be like a personal assistant. I explained about Mom, and he said he was prepared to work to whatever schedule I needed, provided I worked six hours a day, and used some of those hours to prepare his supper and any nightcap he required." JD closed his eyes for a moment and missed the now anxious glances passing around the table.

"I accepted, I mean, I was already taking care of Mom so, what could be so hard, right? Besides, this guy was hardly old - in his fifties, maybe. I signed the deal, agreeing to go back to the original contract if I should default, or the man wasn't happy with me. The first week went great, and Mom was put into a private room in a hospital with round the clock care and meds in place even before I finished my first day. By day four, I was settling into my new job well, getting along with Max, and for the first time in a long while, Mom looked peaceful, and pain-free."

JD was fully crying, now, and after standing, paced the dining room. "Day five..." he sobbed, "...the shit hit the fan. I left the hospital after visiting Mom to make Max his nightcap, and maybe some supper. I turned down his bed, and set out his PJ's...I didn't hear him come in, but...I heard the door click shut." JD applied the tissue to his eyes, and runny nose.

"I was kinda confused and then..." his breath caught in his throat but he waved off offers of help. He get this out.

"He was so strong...he was pawing me...ripped my shirt...touched..." JD caught sight of the horrified stares from his friends and he was done for. His legs buckled and as he fell on his knees to the floor, he curled up, hugged himself, and cried, silently.


All six men stood, but Buck was next to JD in an instant. He went to his knees and pulled JD up from his bent over position. Looking into the boy's distraught face Buck spoke with a degree of firmness to his tone.

"Do NOT blame yourself for that jerkass's behavior, y'hear? This was NOT your fault, JD. Where is he? Boston? I'll find him, and..."

Chris was crouching next to them now. "JD, I have to ask...did he...did he hurt you?"

Looking up, JD's eyes went wide and as he turned his head sharply he first stared at the others, and then back to Chris and Buck. "Oh, no...NO! He didn't...I..." The boy stood and Buck and Chris rose with him.

"Max was pissed at me for not cooperating and lashed out. I kicked him in the nuts and ran like hell." Thankful looks passed among the men.

Buck was so relieved he felt like laughing. Instead, he pulled JD in and hugged him.

JD mumbled into his shoulder. "My nose is running."

Buck smiled and held firmer. "What's a little snot between brothers, huh?"


A round of coffees were taken into the sitting room and leisurely drunk. JD's puffy eyes looked at the wonderful men surrounding him.

"I...I thought you'd all be disgusted with me," he said, softly.

Vin shrugged. "Why? It's not like you did anythin' wrong."

The others nodded.

"But..." JD's anxiety was back. "The interview...what if...what if this gets out? Won't it affect us?" JD asked.

"Hardly," Ezra replied. "If details should emerge, I will be happy to impart that the man attacked a minor...which you still are...not to mention that you were also too young to legally take out a loan. It would be interesting to see how the Nichols got around that." He smiled at JD's slightly comforted expression.

"May I ask," Josiah cut in, "what happened to your mother's care?"

JD sat forward, and holding his mug in both hands, rested his arms on his knees. "I went straight back to Nichols and signed for the money. He didn't give a hoot about what happened, just added on the cost of her care so far to the final figure, minus what I was owed in pay. I think they paid me something just to keep my mouth shut.

"With the loan cash in place, Mom stayed in the care she'd become accustomed to until she died a few weeks later. There was just enough spare for a simple funeral. A few weeks on, and my first monthly payment was it was steep. It took almost all I earned with three jobs, so I had to give up the apartment. I couldn't make the second payment in full so I gave them my Ninja..."

Nathan frowned, and Vin mouthed 'bike' at him. The songwriter nodded.

JD's head dropped forward. "I ran away. Didn't stop until I got to Denver. I figured...if I could do well here, I could wire Nichols the repayments." He looked up and offered a crooked smile. "And you all know how that pipe dream turned out." He shook his head.

"Just before you guys found me, I'd spotted Peter Nichols going into a restaurant in town. I couldn't believe it. Did some digging and found out they'd opened a branch of their business here." JD looked up, sadly. "I really did believe I could put things right if we hit the big time. I guess I was just burying my head in the sand. Sorry, guys."

All six men visibly relaxed, and smiled. "How about we draw a line under it, huh?" Chris asked. There were nods of agreement followed by a companionable silence.

"A toast." Chris raised his mug and the others followed. "Today's the day for a fresh start all round. Here's to success."

"To success," they all chorused.

After another long hiatus, Ezra spoke. "Good thing Inez can work magic with puffy eyes, eh, JD?" He smiled.

JD touched under his eyes and grinned. "Yeah..." he set down his mug and started to rise, "...gonna need air brushing for Buck's photos, though." JD was already running by the time Buck reacted and stood to give chase.

The others chuckled. Chris finished his coffee and nodded approvingly. "Now we're ready for success."


Chapter Eleven


I sensed a change was in the air,

It's one I've needed, to be fair,

I'd lived my life on wing and prayer,

But destiny's kicked in - lucky me.

I struggled with my fate each day,

For food to eat; to pay my way,

And keep those snarling wolves at bay,

Though health was always good - lucky me.

So ne-ver give up on your dreams,

E-ven when life's hard it seems,

Hold yourself in high esteem,

And tell yourself each day - lucky me.

I folded up my cardboard home,

And left behind 'address unknown',

No more to have to be alone,

My time has finally come - lucky me.

I'm doing what I love to do,

At last I have what I was due,

The clouds left and the sun broke through,

And warmed my very soul - lucky me.

So ne-ver give up on your dreams,

E-ven when life's hard it seems,

Hold yourself in high esteem,

And tell yourself each day - lucky me.

No ne-ver give up on your dreams,

Enjoy success and all it brings,

'Cause I was once brought to my knees,

And every day I pra-a-a-a-y,

Lucky me.


In the control room, the feet of Ezra, Nathan and journalist Jock Steele, tapped along to the lively song that was written by Nathan and Vin only a few days earlier. Spirits were high due to the lifted mood, and excitement at cutting their first single. Their happy, bouncy JD was back and, despite having session musicians accompanying them, he and Vin vigorously strummed their guitars as the group sang. To reflect their new optimism, they decided to release a double A-side single, which would consist of the new tune, as well as a change in their original plan, to now go with Nathan's song, 'Father Forgive Me'.

The boys stopped singing and there was a pause before a voice came over the speaker from the control room.

"Fantastic. That's a wrap, guys."

Four men grinned, widely. JD giggled. "'That's a wrap'...ha...awesome. Now, it feels real."

Chuckles greeted the comment. In the control room, Jock turned to Ezra. "Kid's a hoot. He seems kinda...sweet to be in this business."

Ezra nodded. "A nicer teenager you couldn't wish to meet. However, like the others, he's struggled to get this far, so he's are all these men." He gestured to the microphone and the man in the control seat nodded, and then rolled back for Ezra to speak into it.

"Well done, all. Now, if you would gather your belongings, I've arranged a working lunch so Mr. Steele and yourselves can speak in relaxed surroundings."

Inside the booth, JD glanced nervously at the others. Chris gestured not to speak, in case they were still on an open mike. After moving to the corridor outside, he addressed his friends.

"Don't offer any information the journalist hasn't asked for. We have nothing to be afraid or ashamed of, but this is our first interview, so is more about business and a little personal information." He smiled. "Hopefully it's the first of many."

Chris's words were just what they needed to hear, and all seven men headed off for another new and exciting experience.


The lunch, in a private room of a classy restaurant, was going well. Despite a voice recorder running, Jock didn't stop scribbling. He was mesmerized by these enigmatic men, and wanted to encapsulate every facial expression, gesture, and grin that couldn't be captured audibly.

"Pretty fancy eating, here, fellas. Is this normal for you?" He noted a pause before JD made a face and grinned.

"Shoot, no. Pizza, chicken, or burgers are usually what we have." He poked at his near-empty plate. "I mean, this is nice 'n all, but if we had this every day, I'd be sneaking out to Micky D's."

Everyone chuckled and Vin nodded. "I think Ezra set this up more for you than us. We're just regular folk, with simple tastes..." he bobbed his eyebrows, "...and high goals."

More laughter.

Jock brought the conversation back to him. "So, how did you guys meet? Did you all know each other previously? Did any of you audition?"

"Not as such..."

"I did!"

Chris stopped talking and looked at JD.

"Really?" Jock asked. "Did you answer an advertisement?"

JD shook his head. "Nah. Few of the guys heard me singing in a mall."

Steele's eyebrows rose. "Were you in some kind of show?"

"Nope, busking, then these three guys came from nowhere and asked me to go home with them."

Seeing Jock's eyes widen, Buck cut in. "He just means to try out with the group. As for Chris, and me, we go way back, and Josiah came to the house after Nathan called him. Chris picked Vin up in a bar..."

Chris's jaw dropped, Vin's fork clattered to the plate, and JD spluttered on his soda before staring at Buck, as did Josiah, Nathan, and Ezra.

"Uh, no, I didn't mean..."

There was an awkward pause before Steele burst out laughing. "Man, if you guys could see your faces." He nodded to a flustered Ezra.

"Look, guys, Mr. Standish called me for the interview because he trusts me. A while back I got duped on an interview and didn't realize until the article went to print. Because folk in the business saw me as...let's say, an embellisher of the truth...I became unemployable. Once things settled some, I went freelance, and Ezra gave me a break with a few of his clients." He sat forward.

"I'm not here to crucify you, okay? And not just because I owe Ezra, but because I know what it's like to be set up. I just want some background, and to get to know you." He wound back the tape a little to clear the errors, checked it, and relaxed.

"So, Vin, you played bars, and clubs before meeting Chris?"

Vin nodded. "Yeah. Over the weeks I spotted Chris sitting in each bar I played, and went to talk to him. We hit it off right away."

"Chris, I did some research. Your wife was the songwriter Sarah Connolly, and you guys played the circuit for a while?"

"Yeah," Chris said, huskily. "Before she got pregnant."

Steele nodded. "I'm sorry for your loss, she was an amazing songwriter."

Chris smiled wistfully. "Yeah, she was."

His gaze still on Chris, Steele pointed to Buck. "Just how far back do you guys go?"

"'Bout twelve years," Chris replied.

Buck cut in. "From college. We headed a band for a while during our time at CU in Boulder."

Jock scribbled away while nodding. He looked up and smiled. "And you found each other again."

Chris bobbed his head. "Once Vin and I agreed we wanted more than just singing to drunks, and empty bars, and after we met Nathan, I called Buck. Nathan called in Josiah, and we thought we were done, but after hearing JD sing, that's when we knew we were whole."

"I'm a qualified EMT," Nathan said. "I met Chris and Vin when they helped me while taking a beating from some guys."

"Wow," Jock said. "'re the songwriter?"

"One of them. My specialty's music." He gestured to Tanner. "Vin's an awesome lyric writer, and we've found our stride writing together."

Jock scrawled and nodded. "This is great stuff, guys. Josiah, where does your background in music come from?"

"My parents," Sanchez replied. "They were missionaries, and loved to sing and spread the word. I guess I'm lucky I had a decent voice, and the guys here felt I fitted right in."

"Missionaries," Jock repeated. "So, why didn't you follow in your parents' footsteps?"

Josiah hesitated a moment. "I am an ordained minister, but...let's just say the good Lord and I sort of, fell out for a while."

"And now?"

Josiah smiled. "We're quietly getting reacquainted."

Jock's attention turned to JD, who appeared to be trying to duck behind the tall brunet next to him. He looked around Buck. "Why were you busking, JD?"

The boy glanced nervously at the others. When Ezra smiled, he relaxed a little. "My mom died after a long illness. I had no money after her funeral, so I came west and hoped I could make something of myself here."

"Why here, and not say...California?"

JD shrugged. "Dunno, really. I'd always liked the idea of the Wild West, and I love reading up on it. Seemed like the place to go at the time."

"How did you get here?" He noticed JD's frown. "You said you were penniless?"

JD nodded. "Ah...well, I uh...I..."

"What JD's struggling with is that with what little money he did have, he chose to travel - hence his reason for having no money," Ezra explained.

JD hated lies, even little ones, but Ezra's version was a whole lot better than the truth right now. He blushed. "Y-e-a-h...had to sing if I wanted to eat."

Steele was smiling. "Man, this is pure gold..."

"Well, if you want sad, Vin's mom died when he was only five." JD panicked when he saw the Texan stare at him. "Sorry," he whispered loud enough for all to hear, and silently berated himself for getting carried away.

Vin looked like a deer caught in the headlights, He wasn't used to sharing quite so openly. He took a breath and turned to Steele. "Well, he's right, it's true. My grandpappy brought me up 'til he passed, then I went into the system for a while before steppin' out on my own."

"Pure gold," Jock repeated.

Relieved, JD continued. "Oh, and..." Buck hastily slapped JD's shoulder before he said anything more revealing.

"Oww! What was that for?"

"It was kinder than a smack in the yap."

JD made a face. "You may be tall, but I can take out your knee in a New York Minute."

"Well, seeing's that's as far as you can reach, you're probably right."

"Gentlemen!" Ezra pleaded.

Jock Steele was laughing, hard. He swiped at his eyes. "Aaahhh, you guys crack me up." He looked at Ezra. "Are they often like this?"

Standish smiled, wryly. "Oh yes, and sometimes worse."


With the ice well and truly broken, Jock and the guys chatted for the rest of the afternoon while a photographer joined them and snapped away to catch them natural, and relaxed - well, as natural and relaxed as anyone could be after make-up was applied by the photographer's assistant. During the session, Ezra's cell rang and he excused himself to answer it.

Chris noticed Ezra sit down sharply, and his stomach clenched as to why he looked so pale. A minute or so later, their manager told them why.


Ezra turned to Jock. "My friend, you are about to have another exclusive." He addressed the group. "I have this very second received a call from..." he paused. "The White House."

JD interrupted the silence that followed the statement. "Are we in trouble?"

Standish cracked a smile. "The bachelorette party you gigged at in Digger Dave's, was for the fiancée of a Senator's son. Apparently, a charity event arranged to perform at the White House for the weekend after next had an artist cancel. Even for the White House, calendars are tough to clear at such short notice. The lady in question waxed lyrical about a group who sang at her party, and suggested yourselves to fill in. After the organizers did some research, and spoke to several others who attended her pre-wedding affair, they agreed." He waited as the men processed the information.

"The White House wants us to sing at one of their charity events," Chris stated.

Ezra's smile grew. "In front of the President himself, no less."

There was a small hiatus before whoops of excitement, hi-fives, and enthusiastic embraces erupted from the seven men, and all the while, the photographer kept shooting.

Jock stood and shook Ezra's hand. "Congratulations." When the others calmed down, he passed on his good wishes to them, too.

"Mr. Steele."

Jock looked back at Ezra. "Yessir?"

"Would it be of interest to you to travel with us to the upcoming event as our guest? I was thinking it might serve as a follow-up article to this one. If my instincts are correct, you will have no trouble selling the article to an editor after their performance."

Jock Steele's smile grew and he stepped forward to once again shake Ezra's hand. "I'd be honored." He looked back at the now calm six men. "Any chance I can hear them sing one more time...purely for research, of course."

Standish's eyes twinkled as he returned the smile. "Of course." He approached the group, and after a short discussion, they decided to sing a short rendition of 'One Voice' for him, during which the reporter sat enraptured throughout.


After his goodbyes, Jock stepped outside the room to find all eyes in the quiet, semi-filled, main restaurant looking his way. He smiled and thumbed over his shoulder.

"They're called 'The Regulators', and they're going be huge."


Chapter Twelve


Five days later, and arranged around the ranch's sitting area, six men listened to the seventh member of the eclectic group as he read out Jock's magazine article. Throughout, no one moved, and now Ezra drew his delivery to a close.

"In conclusion, I found these men not only to be honest, laid-back, cheery, and positive, but also close, unreservedly charming, warm, and friendly. They thoroughly deserve success, and the music business is sorely in need of such talented, likeable guys."


Ezra looked up from the sample magazine and waited patiently for someone to talk. When no one did, he spoke. "Well, I thought that to be thoroughly complimentary."

Chris nodded. "Couldn't have been better if we'd written it ourselves."

Buck nudged JD who was next to him and sitting with his mouth open. "You with us, Kid?"

JD's jaw snapped closed and he pointed at the magazine as he replied. "We're on the front cover."

Ezra's grin was warm and broad. "You most certainly are, as well as a four-page spread inside. Jock did outstandingly well by us."

"Do you think our upcoming trip to DC has elevated us somewhat?" Josiah asked of no one in particular.

All eyes turned to who they considered the expert on the matter. Ezra nodded.

"I believe it has helped significantly. When this preview copy arrived on my doormat, it was accompanied by correspondence from Jock and..." he paused for effect, "...stated that the magazine has picked up the option of his next article when he travels with us to the Capital." Ezra took a breath for the best part. "Consequently, the magazine is also picking up the tab for the whole of the trip." He chuckled at the enthusiastic 'whoops' and hi-fives that circled the group.

Unexpectedly, Vin stood. "'Scuse me." He walked off and out through the front door.

Nathan frowned. "Do you think he's okay?" No sooner had he spoken, JD got up clutching his midriff.

"Ooh, my stomach hurts." He walked toward the stairs and went up.

Buck and Chris exchanged puzzled looks before turning to Josiah.

Ezra was no less confused. "What just happened there?"

"I think our youngest are having an attack of nerves," the ex-preacher suggested.

Buck was stumped. "What? Why now?"

Chris rose from his chair and walked to the door. "I may be wrong but, I think being on the cusp of success is something they've wanted so badly, they can't believe it's happening." Chris opened the door. "I'll go check on Vin."

Buck followed suit but headed toward the stairs instead. "I won't be long."

After watching the two men leave, Nathan commented. "Funny, of all the times I've imagined this moment in my head, it never went like this."

Josiah patted his friend's knee. "While dreams do come true, they rarely play out exactly to plan."

"Nerves at this point are preferable to your formal debut in four days time," Ezra suggested.

Josiah and Nathan nodded their agreement.


"Vin?" Chris walked into the stables and called out, but quickly spotted Vin close to one of the boarding horses. "You okay, pal?"

Turning to the blond, Vin rewarded his question with a smile. "Sure." He stroked the blaze on the Black's nose. "It's just that..." Vin swallowed before continuing.

"I've done my time on the circuit, and until I met you, I'd figured I'd reached my level." His eyes glistened as their gazes met. "To know we're right there, on the brink of true success..." he inhaled a shaky breath.

Chris smiled and raised his arm to squeeze the Texan's shoulder. "Hard to take in, huh?"

Tanner nodded. "A little, yeah." His eyes widened. "But I want it, don't fret none about that."

Chris slipped his arm around Vin's shoulders and drew him close. "I wasn't worried." He gave him a gentle tug. "You ready to come back?"

"Could you give me a minute?"

Relaxing his arm, Chris gave a pat to Vin's back. "You bet." The blond walked out of the stables to leave Vin with his thoughts.


Once he was alone, Vin continued to stroke the horse's nose while looking to the Heavens. "Well, Ma, Grandpappy...everythin' I ever wanted is within reach. All those years of hard work finally paid off. I know you're up there lookin' out for me, so if you don't mind, stick around a little longer 'cause, if this goes as well as we hope, I want you to be the first to see that your boy finally made it."


Inside the house, and despite it being his room too, Buck knocked on the bedroom door. "JD...alright if I come in?

"Sure, Buck."

Entering, Buck could see JD was sitting on his bed and hugging his stomach. "You sick?"

JD shook his head. "Stomach's a little swirly."

Buck smiled and took a seat on the bed next to the boy. "Nerves, huh?"

"Yeah," JD whispered. He looked at Buck. "It's not the thought of being famous," he insisted.

Buck's brow furrowed. "No?"

"No! It's just...I got to thinking that...if you guys hadn't heard me singing that day..."

Unable to hold back any longer, Buck gave JD a one-armed hug. "Well we did. Some might laugh, but I reckon it was destiny for the seven of us to meet up. Whatever comes our way from now on, collectively, or individually, we'll see it through, together."

JD leaned in. "But, we all get along so well, what if...what if the pressures of being in demand breaks us up?"

Buck squeezed the lad. "Aww, Kid, you ain't getting rid of us that easy." He felt JD's body relax a little. He released his charge. "Come on, we got some more serious rehearsing to do before we head out the day after next."


Two days on, and the group and Jock Steele were in DC. In the White House's East Room, Vin and JD ducked back out of the way of another large light fitting passing by them. Even though the setting hadn't quite fully taken shape, the stage looked amazing against its opulent backdrop. Today they were to rehearse, ready for the main event tomorrow, and right now all eight were in awe of their surroundings and taking in every intricate detail.

The operation was so vast that the crew and performers had commandeered over a third of the ground floor, including the East Room, Red, Green, and Blue rooms, and the Cross Hall. Chris finally called the group together, and for several hours they went into a quiet corner of the red room and practiced. By early evening, it was their turn to rehearse on the stage so that the sound guys could gauge the levels needed for the group, the camera crew knew which cameras to focus and on who, when, and where, and the musicians knew the music, and their style of intro. By the time their run through was over, The Regulators had been taught about finding their marks, how hot and bright big stage lighting could be, and how to use the cameras to their advantage.


That night the seven friends were comfortably ensconced in the five-star St. Regis Hotel, and in a Regis Suite, which connected with two more deluxe king-size rooms. The men couldn't sleep. Excitement over the next day, and their sheer astonishment at where they were staying vied for first place as the cause.

Also, Jock told them earlier that the sales for the first magazine feature had surpassed all expectations, and after only two days of retailing. The last month or so had been hectic, and with their efforts culminating in a performance the next day which could make or break them, it was hardly surprising that they were all wound up.


Ezra decided he needed to give them a break from the pressure. After disappearing for a while, he returned to the suite's sitting room and addressed all six. "Get dressed for the outdoors." He noted them all staring in surprise.

"Come on, jump to it, we don't have all night." He grinned as they took off for their rooms, and felt a deep humility that they would do so just by him asking. The moment he saw these people he'd felt drawn to them. When they met, his reaction was if he'd known them all his life, and it would seem a similar experience befell the others, also. Despite his undying belief their time had come, Ezra knew that even if things had not worked out, the seven of them were bonded for life.


When the seven men and Jock Steele stepped outside the St. Regis, they were greeted by a chauffeur and a stretch limo. After climbing inside, they visited every one of the city's monuments, and were surprised by how many folk went sight-seeing at night.

At one spot inside the Lincoln Memorial, JD started to sing.

O beautiful for spacious skies,

For amber waves of grain,

For purple mountain majesties

Above the fruited plain!

He grinned at the amazing acoustics. Vin and Buck joined in, and soon a small crowd gathered on the steps.

America! America!

God shed his grace on thee,

And crown thy good with brotherhood,

From sea to shining sea!

One woman in the gathering crowd called out. "Hi. You boys seem familiar."

Chris smiled back at her. "We're getting there," he replied.

"They're singing tomorrow at the White House," Ezra enlightened those gathered, creating mumbling amongst them.

"Would you sing for us, now?" the woman pushed.

"Here, now?" Nathan asked, and was greeted with enthusiastic replies from the prospective audience.

While the seven had a quick discussion, Jock got out his phone and began recording. After the discussion, Ezra withdrew, and Nathan primed them with a note from Vin's harmonica. The five singers spread out a little along the top step and in front of Lincoln's statue, they began to sing in perfect harmony together.

It must have been cold there in my shadow,

To never have sunlight on your face.

You were content to let me shine, that's your way.

You always walked a step behind.

It might have appeared to go unnoticed,

But I've got it all here in my heart.

I want you to know I know the truth, of course I know it.

I would be nothing without you.

Did you ever know that you're my hero,

And everything I would like to be?

I can fly higher than an eagle,

'Cause you are the wind beneath my wings.

Did I ever tell you you're my hero?

You're everything I wish I could be.

And I can fly higher than an eagle,

'Cause you are the wind beneath my wings.


To see the small crowd cheering, and applauding wildly when they finished, confirmed to the men that, while fame was a wonderful thing, making even a small amount of people this happy was truly rewarding. With a small group bow and waves from the singers, the eight traveling companions moved back toward the limo. Jock took Ezra aside as the others climbed into the car.

"I recorded the whole thing." He smiled. "You should have heard the comments. Several people asked me if I knew them, and who they were." His smile widened. "One lady who walked past me actually said to her companion that she'd heard of the guys through a girlfriend of hers."

Ideas and plans raced through Ezra's mind until, after coming to a conclusion, he nodded to himself and replied. "Would you withhold the footage until after they've performed tomorrow? While extra publicity is tempting, I don't want them to be seen as grasping and over-ambitious."

Steele smiled. Any other manager would have gone for instant exposure of such material. He decided these guys must really care about one other to take so much care in protecting each others' integrity.

Jock nodded. "Actually, if tomorrow goes as well as we hope, showing this after the fact will be a much better prospect."

"Thank you." Climbing inside the limo, Ezra could sense the group to be much more settled and relaxed. The impromptu performance was just what they needed to clear their minds. "Hotel?" Glances around, confirmed Ezra's notion.

Chris could see the guys were beyond tired now, and he replied for them all. "Yeah, please."

Within half an hour of the eight men returning to the St. Regis Hotel, the Regis suite and the two adjoining bedrooms they were staying in, were silent.


Mid evening the next day came quickly. JD peeked out from behind the curtain in the wings of the stage and out at the audience of dignitaries, and friends of dignitaries, who had paid to see the charity show performed. He could see the President and First Lady seated front and center row, and poked himself for the fourth or fifth time in the last hour. He simply couldn't believe the 'Big Man' himself was barely yards away.

"Keep that up and you'll be covered in bruises."

JD turned to look at Buck. "Doesn't this seem just a little unreal to you?"

Buck smiled. "Yeah, it does." He glanced out at the current performer. "We're up next." He could hear JD's shaky breath as the boy nodded and he put a hand on JD's shoulder. "We're gonna be great."

Buck was surprised when JD looked up at him and shook his head.

"Nuh, uh...magnificent."

They both chuckled, but sobered quickly when a woman with a clipboard and wearing a headset, urged them away from the wings to join their companions.

It was time.


After some discussion between the seven, they put headsets on, and adjusted unbuttoned, single-breasted, medium-gray jackets and open-collared white shirts. The seven clasped hands and Josiah said a short prayer, followed by a collective, Chris-led, fist bump, and a cry of 'go us!'

A thunderous drumbeat, accompanied by piano, violins, cellos, and electric guitars, played the arranged intro. It was a pleasant change for them to walk on stage and have the audience actually applaud their arrival and look interested in what was to come. Each of the seven could see The President and his entourage close up, which sent their nerves jangling, but they were men on a mission, and nothing would spoil this moment.

As rehearsed, they took their positions and the music for their song started up. From the line-up, JD stepped forward and sang the first two lines of the newest song by Nathan and Vin, and the latter joined him for the third and fourth lines. From then on, all five sang. The group was animated, in high spirits, and put their hearts and souls into the performance as, for a little while; they drew the audience into their world.


Life's daily grind had never once removed her ruby smile,

The promise of adventure kept him happy for a while,

A man became a brother and revived a soul in pain,

But the ladies in their lives would never see the world again.

The fickle hand of fate can often cut us to the bone,

To steal away our hopes and dreams, or take each breath alone,

But we can turn the tables if we have a mind to strive,

To beat the odds, fight through the tears, and find a better life.

A dream of finding family will motivate a man,

To never give up hope while searching any way he can,

The prospect of redemption helped an outcast's self-esteem

When new friends and his peers perceived the man he's always been.

The fickle hand of fate can often cut us to the bone,

To steal away our hopes and dreams, or take each breath alone,

But we can turn the tables if we have a mind to strive,

To beat the odds, fight through the tears, and find a better life.

A soul in torment sought to fight the world and all he knew,

But words sung from the heart of a soul-brother pulled him through,

Two foundlings lost and lonely came upon a family,

Who sheltered them from solitude and life's brutality.

The fickle hand of fate can often cut us to the bone,

To steal away our hopes and dreams, or take each breath alone,

But we can turn the tables if we have a mind to strive,

To beat the odds, fight through the tears, and find a better life.

Yeah, the fickle hand of fate can often cut us to the bone,

It steals away our hopes and dreams, and take each breath alone,

But we can turn the tables if we have a mind to strive,

To beat the odds, fight through the tears, and f-i-n-d - a better life.


Ezra, Nathan, and Jock watched the performance from the wings, the former pair unashamedly tearful. The boys had never sounded so good. Now though, as the song was ending on a powerful crescendo, all three held their breath and waited on how these men would be received. They needn't have worried.


The song climaxed, drawing their moment of glory to a close. Their voices had harmonized perfectly while the audience clapped their hands and tapped their toes enthusiastically to the animated performance. The song ended to thunderous applause, whoops, whistles, and a semi-standing ovation, and each singer found themselves feeling sad that it was over so quickly.

Smiling broadly, the five men linked hands, took a step forward, and raised their joined hands in the air to sweep downwards when they bowed. As they grinned, waved, and walked off the stage, the applause got louder, and continued until the host came on and settled everyone down. While enjoying a fierce offstage group hug, the seven heard the host speak.

"The Regulators, ladies and gentlemen. Weren't they fantastic?"

His words set off the applause again, along with calls for more, prompting the presenter to urge them to come back and take another bow. Ezra and Nathan hastily neatened all five up.

"Go!" Ezra prompted.

Nathan shooed them. "Go!"

A little in shock, and while trying to appear unruffled, the five singers went back onstage and graciously received another ovation, bowing, and waving again before exiting for the final time. Before they could begin to take it all in, a man ushered the eight of them into the green room. There were large TVs set up around the room showing the concert, and photographers and a number of journalists were waiting to greet them. Jock stepped aside, and the guide led the seven to a long table lined with microphones and glasses of water, and where they'd barely sat down before the first journalist introduced himself.

"Great performance, but what's the story behind you, as virtual unknowns, performing alongside such distinguished artists this evening?"

After a pause, Chris answered. "As we understand it, there was a cancellation, and someone in DC who'd seen us performing in a small club in Denver put in a good word for us."

Seeing that the reporter was pleasantly surprised by Chris's frankness, Ezra smiled and leaned into the mike. "Ezra Standish, manager. People of the media, what you see here, is what you get. These boys are immensely talented, kind, upstanding, and honest. Had I answered that question, you would still be writing the reply as I have a tendency to embellish."

Chuckles circled the room.

"Hey, Ezra, you left out good-looking," Buck chipped in with a wink and a grin to the assembled, who again, laughed.

Once each of the seven introduced themselves personally, the probing that followed was comprised of questions about how they met, their ages, their relationship statuses, favorite foods, hobbies, and everything in between. Despite the questions coming hard and fast due to the allotted schedule for each artist, with the guys still on a high from performing, the session was informal, fun, and relaxed. When their time was up and the seven, plus Jock Steele, were led out of the room, it was to an appreciative and enthusiastic applause, which was extended when JD animatedly waved goodbye before a grinning Buck tugged him away.


Inside the red room, all but Jock were lined up in front of a tall board displaying the logos of the event's sponsors. The make-up department quickly attended to the men, and then the group were subjected to numerous photographs; with all seven, without Ezra, without Ezra and Nathan, and then individual photographs for all seven.

From there they were escorted to the State Dining Room, where a sumptuous buffet awaited, but no one could eat until after the concert, when the President and First Lady would be introduced to all involved with the show. They were however, allowed a drink.


It was a long wait in line to shake the President's hand, of which the highlights were him taking the time to ask JD how old he was, and if they wrote their own songs, at which point Nathan and Vin briefly discussed their new writing partnership. Before moving on, the President told them how much their performance was enjoyed - especially, it would seem, by the First Lady, prompting laughter from those within earshot.

At last, they got to eat, but two hours later, no one was more surprised than them to realize they were ready for their beds. Thankfully, the President left a half hour previously, so protocol ordained it acceptable for them to leave.


Despite his charges wanting nothing more than to collapse into bed, Ezra made them hang up their suits and shirts, and put their shoes away. Within fifteen minutes, the only sounds from the bedrooms were soft snores.

Two hours later and dressed in PJs or robes, the seven friends were out of bed and seated in the stateroom's living room digging into a room service order of pizza, beer, and Dr. Pepper as they talked up a storm about their day.


Chapter Thirteen


8:30 am, and Chris answered a knock on the door of their suite. He welcomed in two room service waiters and their carts, tipped them, and saw the pair out. At nine, Jock was joining them for a working breakfast, before they checked out. Luckily for them, and due to the hotel manager being aware of why they were in DC and where they had been the previous night, he graciously allowed them until 12 pm to depart.

Vin joined Chris, went straight for the elegant, thirty-eight cup, shiny, gold-plated coffee urn, and poured a cup for him and Chris. The grinning pair fanned the heady aroma into the air in the hope of drawing the others out of their rooms. It worked and soon only JD and Ezra hadn't joined them. The eager take up of coffee by the others made Chris glad he'd ordered an urn. These guys would see off thirty-eight cups of coffee in no time.

Ezra emerged dressed in black sports slacks and a crisply pressed green, Ralph Lauren shirt. As he poured himself a coffee, he noticed the others looking his way. He arched an eyebrow.

"Am I to be concerned about some part of my attire?"

Buck grinned. "Just getting used to seeing you without a suit and tie on is all."

"Mister Wilmington, if that's all there is to worry about, we are truly blessed." Ezra took up a seat in a comfy chair. He glanced around. "Is our youngest awake, or should I go into his and Buck's room and waft coffee under his nose?"

Chris slapped Buck's hand as he peeked underneath one of the several silver domes on the second cart. Buck pouted and then looked to Ezra. "He's up, just suffering from a late night and a pizza hangover."

Ezra studied the others, sipped his coffee, and smiled. "After last night, he'll need to get used to late nights, as will you all."

The reminder of their White House gig brought smiles all around. They watched Ezra pick up the TV remote and point it. The news was on and the assembled group watched.

"Is the news that important to you, Ezra?" Josiah asked. "You were watching it when we left our room."

"Wait," the southerner urged.

"For what?" Nathan pushed.

Ezra sighed, softly. "Wait."

There was a loud knock on the door and Vin stood to open it. He took a step back when Jock Steele hurried inside.

"Have you seen the news, guys?"

Puzzled expressions greeted the journalist. He turned toward Ezra, who smiled, knowingly. Gazes shifted when JD walked into the room.

"'Morning," he said. His voice was croaky from a mix of tiredness and lack of lubrication, and although indoors, he took a pair of sunglasses out of his shirt pocket and put them on.

"'Morning," the others chorused, but suddenly turned to the TV when an announcement caught their attention.

> "Here in DC, the White House charity event held on behalf of the Bob Woodruff Foundation caused quite a stir with the introduction of an all-male singing group. They're called 'The Regulators', and today, their faces are on the front cover of almost every newspaper in the country. We've been told that the White House switchboard has been jammed by calls from folk wanting to know more about this fresh, lively group who seemed to have sprung from nowhere to perform at the most prestigious venue in the country. And so, we ask the question...who are these guys?"

The presenter of 'Good Morning America' leaned forward in her chair.

"If you're out there, fellas, give us a call."


Ezra had dialed just as the presenter finished talking and a clip of the guys' White House performance, courtesy of PBS, was played. The room fell into an apprehensive silence during the conversation, all those within, jolting to attention when Ezra jumped to his feet.

"Look lively and dress appropriately. In less than twenty minutes, a local television crew will be here."

Chris checked his watch. "That show goes off air in forty-five minutes."

Standish grinned. "Indeed, and they plan to end it after talking to you all live, and with a small performance from yourselves."


All in the room bar Jock Steele stood. Ezra pointed to JD. "Mister Dunne, I hope you don't intend to wear those sunglasses during the interview."

Heads turned to JD, who calmly lifted the shades off his nose to perch them on his head. "I was wearing them because of you, Ezra. Man, your shirt is way too loud for this time of morning."

Even Ezra chuckled, and then clapped his hands. "Jump to it, once the crew arrives, whatever you're wearing is how the country will view you."


With twelve minutes of show airtime left, five of the seven men were ready to face anyone in America who might be watching. The hotel manager rallied for them to provide tall stools so that all the boys could sit together; some seated on the three-person couch, and the rest behind, on the stools.

Ezra and Nathan stood to one side and watched the activity as a crewperson with a light meter stood, crouched, and kneeled around them to take readings, and while several make-up ladies and stylists put a few quick touches to make-up and hair, and covered up any dark rings under eyes. Chris looked across and crooked his finger at the observing pair.

"Come on you two...all of us."

"Thirty seconds..."

Both men shook their heads, but with five voices insisting, and time ticking away, aides shunted them into position, hastily miked them up, and just managed to neaten them and take any shine off their faces before a countdown from three began.


"...And we hope they're joining us from DC right now. Good morning to The Regulators."

The five group members grinned widely, waved at the camera and replied as one to the presenter. "Good morning, America!"

The woman smiled. "Well, boys, overnight, you've certainly got many female hearts pumping. Did you enjoy your performance in front of the President and First Lady last night?"

Chris replied. "Yes, ma'am, it was an honor, and our pleasure."

She chuckled. "Oh, believe me, the pleasure was all ours. How long have you boys been together?"

Chris proceeded to answer her questions unless they were directed toward anyone in particular, and it was surprising to the group how well informed she was when the interviewer even had questions for Nathan and Ezra. Chris, Buck, and Josiah, were seated on the couch, and Vin and JD, flanked by Nathan and Ezra, sat on stools directly behind. When the presenter targeted the younger pair, they tried to remain calm.

"I spy two handsome young men there at the back who have yet to speak to me." She glanced at her clipboard. "JD, and Vin? Is that right?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Uh, huh."

"Has it occurred to either of you just how dramatically your lives are about to change?"

"Not a problem," Vin replied. "It's not like we'll be alone if it does."

JD looked at Vin and grinned at his reply. The interviewer watched the pair fist-bump and was momentarily captivated, first by their winning smiles, and then the others as they joined in. She shook herself out of her lapse.

"JD, Vin, you might like to know that many of the calls to the White House, were asking about you."

Vin blushed, while JD's brow furrowed. "Why?"

His confusion grew when the others chuckled. Buck hoped JD didn't hear the presenter utter 'adorable' in his earpiece like he'd done.

"On that note, would you boys end our show for us with a song?"

With nods and murmurs of agreement, the five remained seated, and composed themselves. Ezra and Nathan passed JD and Vin their guitars, and then stepped away. The two youngest played the intro to the song earlier decided upon, and all five sang out sweetly, and with passion, and in perfect harmony, ending on a stunning, full-volume crescendo.

When you walk through a storm

Hold your head up high,

And don't be afraid of the dark,

At the end of the storm

Is a golden sky

And the sweet silver song, of the lark.

Walk on through the wind,

Walk on through the rain,

Though your dreams be tossed and blown.

Walk on, walk o-n, with hope, in your heart

And you'll ne-ver walk, a-lone.

You'll ne-ver walk a-lone

Walk on, walk o-n, with hope, in your heart,

And you'll ne-ver walk, a-lone.

You'll ne-ver walk a-lone.


"3-2-1...And...we're out! Thanks guys, that's a wrap."

A flurry of activity kicked off in the room as mics and earpieces were removed, lighting, audio, and camera equipment was packed up, and the suite was eventually cleared of all but its original occupants. For a while, the eight men sat down together in silence, until Vin raised his head and looked toward the carts.

"Can we eat, now?"


Despite that, in particular, Vin and JD claimed cold eggs and bacon were not a problem, Ezra insisted on adding a fresh cart for their delayed breakfast. However, he was overruled and, respectful of the men's insistence of not wasting good food, placed a call to room service to have the food reheated.

A knock at the door of the suite some time later had Vin on his feet in a split second and answering in the hope of it being room service. Instead, he came face to face with a pretty, raven-haired woman with sparkling blue eyes.

Karina McBride instantly recognized the handsome, long-haired man and extended her hand to introduce herself. "Hi. My name is Karina. I spoke to Mr. Standish last night at the White House..."

Vin glanced between her and Ezra. "Uh...hi there..."

Ezra hastily approached the pair. "Miss McBride...please, come in."

With one eyebrow arched, Vin glanced back at the others and saw they were no less confused than he was. All were relieved that Ezra wasted no time in introducing their guest.

"Gentlemen, it was due to your performance at this young lady's bachelorette party in Digger Dave's that you were recommended to perform at the White House."

Chris smiled and stepped forward. "It was you who put our name forward," he stated more than asked.

Returning the smile, Karina nodded. "The second-best decision of my life," she grinned wider. "The first decision, of course, was agreeing to marry my future husband."

Realization kicked in and the young woman was overwhelmed by the group's eagerness to shake her hand, or thank her. Her broadened smile lit up her pretty features.

"You were awesome last night...and again this morning." She glanced toward the front-facing windows. "I should warn you, there's a crowd eager to see you, gathering outside the hotel."

"There is?" JD moved to the window and attempted to look down to the drive, but the angle was too awkward.

"They're collected under and around the entrance portico," Karina explained. "The manager was attempting to move them back when I came in."

JD's eyes widened. "Wh-o-a-a..."

Another knock on the door caused Vin to again hurry to answer it. "Yes! Food. Thank you! Come on in."

Karina chuckled as Vin ushered the waiter and cart in, and he and JD stood together expectantly. Josiah explained.

"Please excuse them, our appearance on TV this morning delayed our breakfast."

"Yeah, sorry, we're famished," JD said as he snuck his hand under a domed platter and munched on a discovered strip of bacon.

"You're welcome to join us," Chris offered while tipping the waiter, and nodding when the man handed him a sealed envelope.

Karina waved a hand. "Thanks, but no, I have to get to work."

"Then let us take you and your future husband to dinner when you're next in the same town as us," Ezra suggested.

"I'd love that, thank you."

Ezra and Chris escorted her to the door, and were aware she appeared to be stalling. "Was there something else?" Chris asked.

Karina glanced around at them all and offered a coy smile. "Sorry, it's just that...well, after I saw you that night back in Denver I uh...I had this fantasy about you singing at my wedding. Of course, that was before things took off for you..." Her eyes widened as the group became energized.

Ezra noted her reaction, and the men's response to her words. He smiled. "My dear, it would be our honor."

She waved a hand. "Oh, thank you, that's so very sweet, but I couldn't possibly impose..."

"We insist," Chris reiterated. "When is it?"

The young woman clasped her hands together, and her eyes brimmed. "Oh my, thank you, thank you. Our wedding's in the spring. If you can give me a card, or contact number, Daddy will call you with the date, and arrange payment..."

The seven, smiling men gathered around her. "Consider it our gift to you, and your future husband, and also our thanks for remembering us for the charity event," Chris added. He openly chuckled when the woman squealed and hugged first him, and then Ezra, before she approached each of the others and happily hugged them, too; even Vin and JD, who were holding donuts at the time. She moved toward the door and looked back at them all.

"Thank you, guys, and good luck. My friends and I are looking forward to your album being released." She grinned and winked. "Don't keep us waiting too long."


Chris closed the door, and then turned to stare at Vin and JD, who had returned to the cart in the hope of finally uncovering the full contents of their late-morning feast. "Really, fellas? You couldn't have waited five more minutes?"

The pair looked sheepishly at Chris. Buck also approached the cart and went for the coffee.

"Aww, come on, Stud, they're growing boys."

Everyone laughed and the remaining men, including Jock, who'd been scribbling away the whole time, joined the others for some food. Chris opened the envelope from the waiter and read the note within. He uttered a soft huff, causing the others to look at him.

"Problem?" Nathan asked.

Chris looked up with an expression of amazement on his face. He smiled. "The news crew apologizes for holding up our breakfast. They took our heated food for their own breakfasts, and paid the hotel to send us up a fresh cart." His smile broadened. "They've added a French pastry basket, and Belgian waffles."

Raised silver domes were eagerly removed from matching platters to reveal the French basket filled with home baked Danish pastries, muffins, pain au chocolat, pain au raisin, and croissants, Belgian waffles with fresh raspberries, warm chocolate sauce and maple syrup, and a plate of glazed donuts - minus two. In addition, there were still the savory selections, with corned beef hash, eggs, pork sausages, and Canadian bacon; with a fresh urn of full-bodied, Corsican coffee to wash it all down, which Buck was already enjoying.

JD spoke in a hushed tone. "This just keeps getting better, and better. I'm scared I'm gonna wake up any minute and this'll all be a dream."

The youth yelped when Vin broke off a piece of waffle, dipped it in the warm chocolate and shoved in JD's mouth.


Tanner grinned. "Still think you're dreamin', Kid?"

The others chuckled and used it as their cue to eat. In an hour, they would head for Dulles airport and on home to Denver, closing this episode of their journey to fame, but with the promise of much more to come.


Part Fourteen


Unaffected bellhops maneuvered clients' luggage, while the hotel's doorman, concierge, and general manager took the large gathering filling the area under the large front portico, in their stride. It wasn't the first time a hotel guest, or guests, drew a crowd, and it likely wouldn't be the last, and the front of house team were more than prepared for what might develop.

However, the arrival of the departing group's limo and its attempt to pull under the portico's canopy, as well as a news team from a local TV station filming the throng while the correspondent talked to camera, had added considerably to the building anticipation of catching a glimpse of the men of the hour. Someone at the front of the crowd suddenly shouted.

"There they are!"

The call caused a surge of excited bodies, which experienced hotel staff comfortably contained, but the TV crew were determined to get these guys on film, and added to the cries for The Regulators.


After two bellhops entered the Regis Suite to load up the guys' luggage, the assistant manager approached Ezra. The pair shook hands.

"Mr. Standish, gentlemen, the general manager wishes me to inform you that a crowd and a TV news crew have gathered outside the hotel in the hope of seeing you. He wondered if you would like us to lead you to your limousine via the rear exit, and through the parking garage."

Hoisting his hand luggage over his shoulder, Nathan stepped forward. "They're here to see us?"

"Yes sir."

"Any ladies in the crowd?" Buck asked through a cheeky grin.

The assistant manager smiled. "Quite a few," he replied.

"I vote we go out through the front door," Buck stated. The others chuckled.

"We should though, right?" JD asked. "I mean...if they've taken the trouble to wait an' all..."

Ezra nodded and checked his watch. "Absolutely, but we must be brief. Although Dulles is only twenty minutes away, we need to check in within the hour."

Dismissing the bellhops, the manager nodded. "Front door it is then. This way, gentlemen."


As the seven men reached the hotel's main lobby and met their adoring public, the camera in Jock Steele's phone caught every expression from shock, awe, humility and excitement. Buck glanced around, and when he saw saw Ezra handing out signed pictures of the group, he was mentally transported back a few weeks.



JD looked up to see Ezra gathering up pictures of the group as the five singers signed them in turn. He sighed, loudly.

"Ezra, we've been at this for hours. We hardly got any fans yet - haven't we done enough? Oww!" His hair ruffled at the tap to the back of his head from Buck. JD shook his pen at the grinning brunet.

"Quit doing that, Buck, or I'll stick this pen where the sun don't shine!"

Buck looked at the boy and tilted his head. "So, you wanna be a star."


"You wanna walk tall - rub shoulders with the big names."

JD nodded, determinedly. "That's right."

"Well then do something for me, would you?"

JD glanced around at the others as they stared in curiosity. "Like what?"

"Get your darned head down, put pen to paper, and get to signing. Being famous ain't always about the good stuff, Kid, it's about all the niggling, tiresome little duties that go with it."

JD huffed and continued signing. "I know that."

Buck looked at the others and smiled. "Sure, Kid, I know you do. Believe me, one day you'll thank Ezra for this." His kind, gentle gaze was waiting for JD's to meet it, and he wasn't disappointed. The pair shared a grin, and continued with their task.



Buck's gaze moved to JD, who was looking his way, and the pair grinned. He then watched JD lean in to Ezra and whisper something, and even though he couldn't hear the words, the smile on Ezra's face confirmed to Buck that JD had thanked him. Buck puffed up like a proud Papa.

'That's my boy.'


Ezra and Chris exchanged glances. Time was moving on - they had to get going. The former raised a hand, while the latter released a shrill whistle. The crowd went quiet, and Ezra nodded gratefully to Chris.

"It's been wonderful to meet you all, but I'm afraid we have to leave for the airport."

The words were greeted by disappointed groans. One voice called out. "Would you sing for us before you go?"

Cheers went up, and Ezra looked to the others while subconsciously glancing at his watch. Seeing the guys were keen, Standish nodded.

"Of course, but it will have to be brief."

The crowd grew excited as the southerner turned to see the group and Nathan were already deciding what to sing. Moments later, Nathan nodded to him that they were ready.

Slipping inside the lobby, Ezra requested five regular chairs. Once the general manager arranged their delivery to the front entryway step, and with a warning to be careful from Ezra, the five singers stood on them so that the crowd could see the men clearly.

With a count-in from Nathan, the five singers sang A-Capella.

I have climbed the, highest mountains,

I have run, through the fields,

Only to be with you,

Only to be with you.

I have run,

I have crawled,

I have scaled, these city wa-lls

Th-e-se city wa-lls,

Only to be with you.

But I still haven't found what I'm looking for.

No I still haven't found what I'm looking for.

I believe in the, Kingdom Come,

When all the colors will, bleed into one

Bl-e-e-d into o-ne,

But yet I'm still running.

But I still haven't found what I'm looking for.

But I still haven't found what I'm looking for.

But I still haven't found what I'm looking for.

No I still, haven't found - what-I'm-looking-for.


With applause still ringing in their ears, the group of eight made their way toward the limo. One male voice called out, and stopped them all in their tracks.

"Mr. Standish, are your new protégés aware of your dubious business history? Will you be siphoning off their earnings in much the same way as your previous clients' savings?"

Six friends looked to the seventh and saw the flash of hurt in his eyes before the pale southerner turned to his accuser. Jock Steele leaned in and whispered to Ezra.

"Karl Fisher, a reporter for The Washington Times...a broadsheet with a questionable history."

Already composed, Ezra nodded his thanks and once he'd halted Chris's and Buck's angry steps back toward the man, and given an anguished JD a quick wink, he replied.

"While I owe you no explanation, I will assure the good people here that I have never been charged for circumstances that were out of my control, and for which I personally offered up everything I owned to rectify." He gestured to his companions.

"Not only did these good men know of the erroneous allegations made against me, but willingly chose to sign with my company, and put their trust in me, in spite of them. In short, my good man, they refused to believe the hype that libel mills such as yours insist on printing."

A huge cheer went up, which caused the disgruntled reporter to shove his way out of the heckling throng. Ezra forced a smile at the supportive crowd, offered them one of his renowned salutes, and then turned to usher the others into the vehicle.


The tension inside the traveling limo was tangible. With a brave face, Ezra broke the silence. "Gentlemen, we knew there would come a time when such a comment would crop up."

"Maybe, but not this early," Chris replied.

"Why?" was all a visibly troubled JD could murmur.

"Just 'cause they fuckin' can," Vin spat out with the intensity of a man who understood.

"Yeah, well, we've got right on our side," Buck reminded.

"Not to mention me," Jock added with a smile. He held up his trusty phone. "And I have the photographs to prove it. A very angry group of fans, if I say so myself."

"He spoiled our trip," JD began.

"No!" Ezra stated, causing JD to jolt. "This incident occurred unexpectedly early, but now it's done. It can no longer loom over us like an unvoiced encumbrance. We are free of its menace." He smiled and leaned forward to squeeze JD's wrist.

"We are on the up, and no longer looking over our shoulders."

A loud 'POP' made all seven jolt. They looked to see a grinning Jock Steele hold up a foaming bottle of champagne.

"Hear, hear!"

Josiah hastily handed out glasses, pausing momentarily on reaching JD. The youth grabbed a bottle of orange juice and grinned as he twisted off the cap. Once the glasses were filled, Chris raised his glass.

"Here's to all the blood, sweat and tears shed to get here. To Ezra for believing in us and working his magic, and to Nathan who recognized we needed help, and found it." He smiled. "To us!"

"To us!" the others chorused. Glasses and a bottle clinked together, and happy chatter filled the traveling vehicle as they looked forward to getting home.



Peter Nichols was seated in the VP's office of Nichols Incorporated. He drummed his fingers on his desk and glared at a computer monitor and the online front page of the Denver Post. With a huff, he sat back in his chair, steepled his fingers together, and placed the tips to his chin as he pondered. Finally, he verbalized his thoughts.

"I've signed away a fortune."

He raised one hand to pinch the bridge of his nose between thumb and finger, and then pressed a button on his intercom. "Ellie, I need an audio conference with my brothers."

> Yes, Mr. Nichols, I'll get them for you." <

Peter once again looked to the monitor, and the picture of The Regulators arriving in DC. He leaned forward and stroked the images of JD, and Ezra. "Bad move, boys, bad, bad move."



"I don't care how! You're there now, just get it done."

Closing down his phone, Eli Joe Velasquez paced the cabaña of a good friend, which was offered to him as a place to stay and hide from the Officers of Denver homicide division. The little band of followers he'd acquired over the years were a motley bunch of varying, disreputable pasts, but loyal to a fault, and if Eli Joe wanted someone disposed of, or brought to him, it would be done. Velasquez was once again counting on that dedication, as right now he couldn't risk crossing the state line.

Passing a small dining table, he picked up the abandoned 'Taos News' from the previous day, and eyed the article on an up and coming singing group from neighboring Colorado. He punched an index finger at the image of Vin Tanner, and with a growl he tossed the paper, sending its pages flying apart.

He began pacing again while waiting on the anticipated phone call to tell him the news he wanted to hear. While doing so, he drew the conclusion that, should his plan fail, this was one man for who he would make the exception of leaving the protection of his safe haven.


I can't, bear to look at her, and see the anguish dulling her eyes,

I hate, what he's done to her, and want so much to put it all right.

But she don't even care I'm alive,

That for her love a mountain I'd climb,

And give my every nickel and dime,

But she don't want me.

I carried her books to school, then walked another five miles to mine,

The years separated us, but I held close the warmth of her smile,

I've watched her heart get broken each day,

And wished that I could help in some way,

But all I have is heartache and pain,

'Cause she don't want me.


Ezra smiled, first at the group, and then to Vin, and Nathan. "That has the makings of an exceptional ballad, boys. A delightful change of pace for the group."

Vin's cheek dimpled and Nathan grinned. The latter spoke. "Yeah, it's coming along. Can hardly wait to get home, and down to some serious writing, huh, Vin?"

Tanner nodded. "Yeah."

"Damnit, Vin, don't be so enthusiastic there, buddy," Buck teased.

There was laughter, and while the five men babbled excitedly about their recent DC experience their two mentors looked on proudly, and the accompanying reporter jotted down every word.


Twenty minutes later, and they were finally through the heavy traffic and traveling more rapidly. Josiah glanced out of the limo windows and saw the signs for the Dulles access road.

"We're almost at the airport."

"Was thinking," Chris said, "when we perform, we have a pianist on stage." He looked at Nathan. "Can't we have you instead?"

The gentle black man's eyebrows rose. "Ooh, no, don't reckon that'll be necessary."

The others rallied.

"Splendid idea."

"Do it, buddy."

"Sounds like a plan, brother."

"Sure likin' that, Chris."

"Please, Nathan. That would be so cool."

Nathan swallowed against a suddenly dry throat. "Let me think on it, some."

Chris nodded. "You bet."

JD broke into the following companionable silence.

"Will we have time to eat before we take off?" he asked.

Buck grabbed the youth seated next to him and wrestled with him. "How can you still be hungry?"

JD giggled as he tried to wriggle free. "I'm...a growing...boy. You said so...yourself."

"You keep eating like that, and you'll be growing in the wrong direction." Buck puffed out his cheeks, and used his hands to exaggerate a rounded belly.

"Soon be catching up with you then, big bro." Seeing Buck's reaction, JD unbuckled his lap belt and moved to sit elsewhere, and fast.

A sudden, vehicle-shuddering bang from the rear, sent the limo veering wildly across the blacktop and its occupants grabbing for something to hold onto. The car's momentum caused it to sideways jump the low metal guardrail at the edge of the highway. The toppling vehicle rolled over a few times, crunched onto its roof and slid down the steep, but short incline before coming to a halt.


For what seemed like minutes, but was actually moments, nothing and no one moved. Struggling through one of the shattered side windows, Jock Steele was the first, and only, to emerge. He dragged his beat-up body a short distance, sat down on the sloping incline, and shakily took out his cell phone. Even as he called in the accident, he could hear the sound of sirens in the distance, and voices talking together somewhere above him.

His eyes filled as he stared back at the up-ended, battered limousine. Shaky and bloodied, he began to crawl back to assist those still inside, but even as he did so, Jock couldn't help but release a soft sob of fear that these magnificent men's calling might be over even before it had a chance to truly begin.

The End?
M7 The Regulators

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Featured Songs/Lyrics


One Voice - Lyrics by Barry Manilow

Harvest for the World - Lyrics by Isley/O'Kelly

America the Beautiful - by Katherine Lee Bates, and Samuel A Ward

I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For - Lyrics by Clayton, Adam / Evans, Dave /Hewson, Paul David / Mullen, Larry / Reina, Victor

You'll Never Walk Alone - by R Rodgers and O Hammerstein II

By Sue M


Father Forgive Me (Nathan's Song)

The Man She Saw in Me (Vin's song)

My Friend (JD's Song)

Lucky Me (The single)

A Better Life (The White House Concert)

She Don't Want Me (Vin and Nathan's 'song in progress')