by JjBunny

The stage rolled into town. Inside the small coach was a woman and three small children. This would be their new life. This town would hopefully be their new start. Rae Gallister had high hopes that this town would give them what they needed. Gillian was the youngest, a girl of 6 years old. Next was Caleb, who being only 8 years old was wise beyond his age. And Crystal, the oldest was 10 years old. Rae had her hands full being a widow with three children. But they were all good kids. Rae had been able to support them by singing in saloons. She had been fortunate to always get rooms where she worked so she could keep close to her children. They were everything to her.

She had been so glad to get rid of those awful widow's clothes. Propriety had stipulated that a woman wear black for year upon the death of a husband. She felt like a hypocrite being the sorrowful widow. Jack had been an abusive husband to her and the children. Many times she had tried to leave, but he had found her and she had hell to pay for trying it. She had never been so glad when the authorities had come to tell her that her husband had died in a fire. Their report had been her salvation. But Jack had left her in plenty of debt and it took every penny she had and more to pay it off. But with hard work, and her singing talent, she finally paid it off and left.

The driver opened the door to the coach. "Four Corners ma'am. Let me help you down."

Rae gave her small hand to the driver. Rae was 40 years old and still very pretty with a slight but very nice figure. Her long thick auburn hair, when let down, reached all the way down her back. The driver had enjoyed this trip. Having to drive for days with a beautiful woman was no chore, and she was might cordial too. Rae had been so glad that their trip had been uneventful. Having been through a bad marriage and men who spent more time finding ways to get her into bed instead of courting her, had just plain tuckered her out. The driver had been so nice for the entire trip and a real gentleman too, especially when the children were around. Of course, Caleb had gotten very protective of his mother, and more times than not, had interrupted suitors who wouldn't take no for an answer.

All their luggage was taken off the stage and placed on the walk. They all grabbed what they could at one time. Even Gillian as little as she was grabbed several bags. All three of Rae's children were helpful. That's what made it a lot easier for her. If they had been difficult, it would have been so hard raising the three children without a father. Of course, Jack wasn't much of a father or husband while he was at home. Even close to the end when he left them, the children had become almost afraid of him. Especially when he would come home drunk and hit Rae in front of them. One time she remembered Caleb trying to defend her when Jack had come home drunk and he had hit Caleb. That had been the last straw. No one, no even their father, would ever lay a hand on her children in a fit of temper, drunk or not. So Rae was glad he had left and then died. Otherwise, she might have killed him herself.

They saw the saloon and went over to it carrying their bundles. They would get the rest of it after they settled into their rooms. It just depended on how the owner took to the news that she had 3 children. It never went over very well at first, but she usually got her way in the end. And the children had never been a problem either. Straightening herself up, Rae walked into the saloon, with the 3 children behind her. She introduced herself to the owner, who was adamant about no children, and that she could just turn around and go back where she came from. But Rae stood her ground, and besides, she didn't have any money to go anywhere anyway. The only reason she left her other employment was because the owner decided that Rae was fair game for him, just like the girls he had working there. And besides, Rae decided she didn't want the children subjected to that man.

So here she was, and now the owner didn't want her. "Listen, I'll sing tonight, free of charge. If your patrons don't like me, then we won't bother you any more." Rae had done this before. And it always worked in her favor. As soon as they heard her sing, and with her looks, well, she always made a hit with the men. He agreed and in the meantime, he did feel kinda sorry for them, so he gave them two rooms just so they could rest and cleanup. But, if the patrons didn't like her, well, she would be outta there by the morning. Rae thanked him, and the four headed up the stairs to their rooms.

Rae got the rest of her luggage into the rooms and settled in. What she needed was a bath so she could change clothes for tonight. "Crystal, I'm going to find the bath house and clean up. Make sure Caleb and Gillian get some rest, then we'll go eat something."

"Ok momma. I'll take good care of them."

Rae knew Crystal would take care of the two youngest. Poor thing, she had to grow up fast, but she was a good kid. Rae found the bath house and settled in for a long, hot soak. Women, of course, were separated from the men, but you could still hear them talking. Some time later, she overheard three men talking. "Well, you should have seen him. That little girl followed him all over the place. He couldn't shake her. Just when he thought he ditched her, there she would be. The little thing just kept looking up at Vin with them big blue eyes."

Rae knew who they were talking about. She had been this route so many times. It couldn't be anyone else. Gillian. She must have slipped out of the room. Probably after the two were asleep, Crystal probably went to sleep too. Gillian must have gotten up. Without thinking, Rae quickly dried herself, dressed, then went into the room where the voices were. She didn't care if they were naked or not, she knew they were talking about Gillian.

"Ma'am! We're taking a bath here!"

Rae didn't even acknowledge the comment. "The little girl you were talking about. Was she about this high, big blue eyes, and really long dark brown hair?"

"Yes ma'am. That's exactly what she looked like. She was down near the general store. She yours?" Rae didn't answer, but turned abruptly and flew out the door. Buck looked at JD then Chris. "Well I sure am going to enjoy taking a bath from now on, if we get visitors like that!" JD and Chris just rolled their eyes.

Rae went up and down the walk area until seeing the general store across the street. As she started to walk towards it, a man in buckskin came out holding a little girl's hand. And, yes, it turned out to be Gillian. Rae called her name, and Gillian extricated herself from Vin's hand and ran to her. "Momma, I woke up and missed you. This man said he would help me find you." Gillian looked up as Vin crossed into the street.

Tipping his hat, Vin looked at Gillian then Rae. "Ma'am, your little girl has been following me all over town. Don't you think you should keep a better eye on her."

Rae looked up at the man, trying to hold her temper. "Excuse me, but I don't need to be questioned as how I take care of my children. She was left with her older sister. Now Gillian, you know you are not supposed to leave the room. You could have gotten hurt." Turning to Vin, Rae looked into those blue eyes. "I'm sorry she was a bother to you, and I thank you for holding on to her." With that, Rae turned, with Gillian in tow and walked towards the saloon.

Vin smiled as Gillian, in tow, who turned her head and waved to him. He tipped his hat with a "you're welcome," and watched the two walk off. He thought how pretty the little girl's mother was and with that little girl, he bet they were a handful for someone. He just wondered who they were since he hadn't seen them before. He just knew that little girl had hooked onto him for some reason, and wouldn't leave. He would have thought her mother would have done a better job of watching her. Now he would have to listen to Buck for the next several hours about his little shadow, unless he could find a way not to see him for a while.

That night, Rae dressed herself in one of her finest dresses, figure fitting and daringly low cut. She would have to really make an impression tonight to keep this job. She had worked out the songs with the piano player, so now all she had to do was sing. She started out with a slow and seductive song, then followed with a few lively ones. All three kids had been sitting at the top of the staircase, crossing their fingers. Rae had told them that all the prayers they could pray were needed so maybe they could stay. Rae had noticed the three men she saw in the bath house sitting at a table with several other men and the buckskin clad man whom Gillian had been hanging on to earlier.

Everyone enjoyed her singing, and after the last one, she went up to the bar. Getting a shot of whiskey, downing it to give her some courage, Rae closed her eyes with a quick prayer. Well, it must have worked because she was given the job. He had even commented how good her kids were. Rae looked up at the top of the stairs and smiled at her three kids. They knew when their momma smiled like that, that they would be here for a while.

Vin's eyes followed Rae's looking at the stairs. Gillian had seen him and waved. He tipped his hat. Buck leaned over to his friend. "Well, Vin, looks like you got a little lady infatuated with you. Course, her momma isn't bad either."

Vin just shook his head, and walked towards the stairs. His room happened to be down the hall from the new occupants. She was a cute little girl, but he weren't interested in getting involved, especially with someone who already had a family. And besides, he and the singer didn't quite hit it off the first time they met.

Several weeks went by. Rae sang her heart out. The kids were great. They didn't cause any trouble, and Rae made sure Gillian didn't bother that man again. Gillian had promised that she would be good. One night after the saloon closed for the night, Rae went downstairs. She needed some time by herself. She loved her children, but sometimes she needed to be alone. Though, it would really be nice to share time with someone her age though, but there had been no special person since her husband left, and she really wasn't interested. She had made many friends, especially the men, but she made sure they kept their distance.

The man Gillian had followed around town was usually in the saloon every night. Gillian had found out his name. There was something about him that Gillian liked. Caleb of course didn't like any men. He protected his momma. He was the man in the family. He remembered a little about his pa, and what he remembered he didn't like. And he felt all men were that way, and since he was mean to his momma, well, all men were that way. Crystal though was quiet and never said much. She had been through a lot with Rae and she had just turned into herself. Rae worried a lot about her, hoping she would come out of her shell. She had been asked to do a lot to help with the kids, which Rae had always regretted having to do. Crystal needed to be a child, and she was doing her best to give her that. But a lot of times it was hard to do.

Rae sat at the piano, plunking out a tune, tears rolling down her face. Life wasn't fair. Her children deserved more. More than what she could give. Damn that Jack for what he had done. Damn him to hell. Just about when Rae hit the keys hard with the last damn, she noticed a movement out of the corner of her eye. "Momma, why are you crying? Were we bad?"

Gillian had come downstairs after hearing the piano. She had seen her momma do it lots of times wherever they went. But this was the first time she had seen her cry. "No darlin'. You children are wonderful. You make me happy and make my life better. Why are you up so late? You should be in bed."

"Momma, I can't sleep. Can you sing me a song?"

Rae smiled. Gillian was precious. She always was able to bring a smile to Rae's face, no matter what was going on. Thank God Jack hadn't been around to scar her too. Gillian sat a table and put her head down as Rae began to play her favorite tune that Rae had written. Gillian loved to hear her momma sing that song. It always put her to sleep. Rae glanced over at Gillian who fell sound to sleep. Just as Rae was going to gather her in her arms, a voice from behind her spoke up.

"Here, why don't you let me carry her upstairs." Rae turned to find Mr. Tanner. He had heard the piano playing, not being able to go to sleep. It was hot, so he had just been lying across his bed. He had slipped his shirt on but left is open, and had only his pants on. He had come down the stairs to see what was going on and had seen little Gillian encompassed in light by the lantern, sitting at the table with her head resting on it. Then he noticed Rae. She had a white muslin gown on, low cut in the front and hugging her figure to every curve. Her long dark hair hung down her back, almost where she could sit on it. He had admired her looks when he first met her, but seeing her now, she was a vision. Too bad she didn't have a better temperament. They had not started out on the right foot from the beginning and it hadn't gotten any better.

"Mr. Tanner, I am quite capable of taking my daughter to bed."

Vin turned to Rae, trying not to be too obvious about admiring her beauty. "Mrs. Gallister, I really don't mind. Besides, trying to carry Gillian and hold your nightgown up at the same time, might be kinda difficult. Why don't you just accept an offer of help without getting so touchy!" With that, Vin carefully picked Gillian up in her arms. She never woke up, being just like a sack of potatoes. Rae noticed how carefully Vin had picked her up, and realized that there was more to this man than she gave him credit.

Rae went into the room and pulled the sheet back more as Vin put Gillian in bed. Covering her up, Rae leaned over and kissed her sleeping baby. Vin watched Rae and as she stood up, she turned to look at him. He had a smile on his face and nodded his head. Both quietly walked out. They stood at the open door. Rae turned to Vin. She had not realized how close they were. Looking up into those blue eyes almost made her forget what she was going to say.

"Mr. Tanner, thank you for carrying Gillian upstairs. I know we started off on the wrong foot, but Gillian really likes you, and well, I guess I should be more civil." Rae started to feel uncomfortable standing so close to this man. She could feel her pulse race. In the glow of the hall lantern, Rae was beautiful. Vin was standing so close to her and could smell her perfume. Automatically Vin's hand went to her face and his lips came down to hers. Rae didn't move, didn't object. His lips were warm and sensual. She forgot herself. His lips became more possessive but gentle as his arm slid around her small waist. He could feel the heat from her body through the thin material.

Rae's hands rested on Vin's chest, feeling the strength and warm skin beneath her fingers. Although the kiss lasted just a short time, Rae felt it went on forever, and wanted it to go on forever. She hadn't felt this way in years, and even years before her husband left. Jack was always demanding, never thinking about how she felt. He went for one thing and when he got it, it was all he cared for.

Vin backed up. "Good night Mrs. Gallister," turned and went to his room, leaving Rae standing there.

"Momma. Momma." It was Gillian.

Rae went into see her daughter. "You're supposed to be asleep young lady!"

Rae hugged Gillian. "Did Mr. Tanner kiss you? Did you like it? Do you like him?" Gillian was full of questions.

"Young lady, to sleep with you." Rae smiled at her young daughter. But then a frown appeared on her face. She didn't want Gillian to get too close to Mr. Tanner. She would be wishing for something that he couldn't give.

"Momma, it's our secret about Mr. Tanner kissing you. Caleb would get mad. He doesn't like anyone touching you." Rae smiled again. No, Caleb wouldn't like it at all. He never did. Guess it was from seeing his pa hit her and he was the man in the family now.

"Gilly, it will be our secret." With that she kissed her daughter and bid her goodnight.

In her room Rae lie across the bed thinking about her life up to now. Then she thought about the kiss. Why had he done that? Rae wasn't sure how to deal with it. Mr. Tanner had awakened something in her she hadn't felt in a long time, a very long time and it made her ache for more. She closed her eyes, wanting to feel his touch again, the feel of his lean body. She didn't want to feel this way. She was not going to get involved with anyone again. She had Jack to thank for that. And Mr. Tanner, she was sure, was just toying with her. Probably just to see if she would wind up in his bed. But her thoughts kept going back to how he held Gillian's hand at the store, and carrying her upstairs, and his touch. Rae had responded and she knew he knew she had. She would have to try to stay clear of this man or she might loose herself. But no matter what she tried to make herself believe, her body ached for him again. And with that Rae went to sleep, with the feel of his lips on her lips.

Vin smiled as he lay across his bed. He didn't know what possessed him to kiss Gillian's momma like that. Hell, she didn't even like him and he didn't even really know her. But when his lips touched hers, he felt her response. He felt her body respond. It was all he could do to break from that kiss. God knows she probably had plenty of experience, and if it weren't for the kids being around, he wouldn't mind trying out that experience. With the way she reacted to his kiss he probably could have pursued a night a passion easily. But, he stopped. There was something about her he couldn't put his finger on. Maybe he had her all wrong, and she was just trying to make ends met with having children and all. And there was plenty of women in the town, more than willing to share themselves with him. Still, there was something about this woman. One thing for sure, she had a temper, and he had felt the sting from it more than once. As he lie there though, he kept remembering those lips, and the feel of that body against his. He remembered how she looked in the glow of the lantern, the light playing with those soft curves, and the transparency of that gown, just thin enough to get your mind to working. Damn, he needed a cold bath. He was aching.

Next morning, Rae was up early. This was going to be there day to have fun. It was about time. Rae had found out about a lake not too far from town. She had taken some of her first pay and ordered some picnic foods. They would be ready this morning for her to take the children for a swim and picnic. "All right, children, I have a surprise for you." Rae had come into their room, opening the curtains to let the sunlight in.

Hands wiped sleepiness from eyes. "What's the surprise momma?" Caleb was always ready for surprises. They didn't have them too often, but when they did momma always had good ones.

"We're going on a picnic and going swimming. Now hurry and get dressed. We have the whole day." With that Rae turned and went to get a wagon and the picnic food. Meanwhile, the children hurriedly dressed, Crystal helping Gillian. Crystal and Caleb were ready first, telling Gillian to meet them downstairs after Gillian told them she needed to sit on the chamber pot. Of course, Gillian hadn't really needed to go. As she watched her sister and brother go downstairs, she slipped out of their room and walked to Mr. Tanner's room. The knob turned, and she went into his room.

Vin was usually pretty alert, but for some reason, he didn't hear the little Gillian walk in or feel her climb up on his bed. Gillian sat quietly with legs crossed at the end of his bed, chin tucked in the palms of her hands. Not having much patience, Gillian only sat for a few minutes. Gillian decided to wake the man up by tickling his feet. "Mr. Tanner. Mr. Tanner. Wake up. Wake up!"

Vin abruptly sat up reaching for his rifle. He then realized there was a very small creature sitting on the end of his bed. "What the hel..... Gillian, what are you doing here?"

"Mr. Tanner, my momma and sister and brother are going swimming. Wanna come?"

Vin just shook his head at this little intruder and smiled. "Well, Gillian, first of all, you need not come into a man's room. Ain't polite. And besides, I don't like to swim."

"Please. Please. My momma is really pretty when she's wet." Vin laughed. He bet she was not only pretty but beautiful when she was wet. He could imagine how all those curves would feel all wet.

Clearing his throat, because just thinking like that was causing him problems, looked at the little blue eyed creature. "Gillian, you run on now. Have a good time. Go on."

Rae had come back into the saloon seeing only two of her three children. "Crystal, where is Gillian."

Crystal was sitting at a table, elbows on it with hands on her cheeks. "Oh momma, you know Gillian, always having to go to the bathroom." Rae shook her head and told her two other children she would check on her.

Rae looked in the room to find no Gillian, and had a good idea where she was. "What am I going to do with her." Rae walked down to Mr. Tanner's room and spied the door slightly ajar. She heard Vin and Gillian just finishing their conversation. She straightened her self up and knocked. "Gillian. Gillian. What have I told you. I have a good mind not to let you go. Now out of Mr. Tanner's room, now!"

Gillian sighed and climbed off the bed. She scooted past Rae with her backside away from her, knowing she would get a paddling. Rae smiled then turned to Vin as he stood up coming towards her. Rae didn't want him to come close, afraid she would feel the same pulsating beat of her heart and her body heat up. After all, she was still a woman with needs too, sometimes those needs frightening her. She looked up into those blue eyes and wonderful smile. "I'm really sorry, Mr. Tanner. I don't know what to do with her except keep a rope tied to her. She should have never disturbed you. I promise, I'll try to curtail her pestering you. I'm really sorry." Rae's reserves were weakening. The man was too close. She noticed his muscles, his walk, his smile. She stepped back several steps until she backed into the wall.

"Really? So far you haven't done a real good job at keeping Gillian in tow." He was so close to her. He knew he unnerved this woman and for some reason he enjoyed it. He was drawn to her.

"Well, I'm sorry Mr. Tanner." Rae had become huffy at his last statement. She was trying to make better of a situation and the man was infuriating.

Vin smiled. "Mrs. Gallister, I'm just teasing you. Gillian wasn't bothering me. In fact, she invited me to go with you all."

Rae's mouth dropped open. "Mr. Tanner, well, I, uh, well." Vin got closer, and he could pick up her scent. He knew he had unnerved her.

Leaning closer to her, near her ear, Vin whispered. "Don't worry, Mrs. Gallister, I don't like to swim." Her lips looked so inviting slightly parted the way they were. Oh hell, what could she do, except slap him for being forward. Rae knew it was coming and should have turned to walk out, but the man had put a spell on her, that was it, a spell. She wanted those lips of his too. She could hear her heart pounding, and feel the heat build in her body even before he kissed her. His lips lightly touched hers, teasingly moving around on hers, with a moist tongue finding its way into her mouth. Rae couldn't control her body. She leaned into him as his arms encircled her waist. The kiss deepened as bodies molded to each other.

Rae's better judgment kicked in as she pushed herself away from Vin. "Mr. Tanner, you, we.... I'm sorry. Uh, I need to go. I shouldn't have..... I need to go." With that she turned and almost ran down the stairs. Vin smiled. My God, she was wonderful. He had not wanted to stop, nor did she. This was a new feeling for him. It wasn't lust for this woman. Damn, he needed her.

Rae ran down the stairs, the children noticing how red her face looked. "Momma, you all right? You're not sick are you?"

Rae tried to calm down. "I'm fine. I just wanted to get going and running down the stairs, well, I got hot. Everyone ready to go?" Everyone was so excited that they forgot about how Rae looked and ran outside to get into the wagon. Rae turned to look up the stairs before she walked out. God how she wanted to go back upstairs and make love to that man. Jack had always told her that she had the heart and body of a harlot. With Jack it had started out wonderful but then making love to him in later years had almost been a chore and him being so abusive. But with this Mr. Tanner, maybe she did have the heart and body of a harlot. She wanted this man and ached for him. She wanted to make love to a man she didn't even know but made her body crave for his touch. Rae turned to the door trying to forget how she was reacting to this man with big blue eyes and a beautiful smile. A least a swim in the lake would temper her desires.

The lake was beautiful. The sun was warm. Caleb and Gillian hardly waited for the wagon to stop before they got down, stripped to their underclothes and waded in the water. "Caleb, you watch out for your sister." Rae yelled to the two children as she and Crystal got the food and blankets out. Rae took her blouse and riding skirt off, wearing only a light chemise and linen bloomers. Crystal sat on the blanket with her poetry book. Rae wanted Crystal to go swimming and enjoy herself. "Darlin' why don't you come in and swim with us."

"Momma, I will later but I really just want to read. Please?" Rae looked at her serious daughter. If there was just a way to release the child in her.

She pained for her. "Ok sweetheart, but not too long." Rae left her daughter totally engrossed in her book while she went into the water with Caleb and Gillian.

Vin had seen Rae and the children leave. No way he wanted to go swimming but the look on Gillian's face when he said no, well, the little thing was devastated. He hated hurting her feelings. Hell, well, it wouldn't hurt just to show up and just watch. So, Vin saddled his horse and headed towards the lake about an hour after they left.

He could hear the squeals before he even saw them. He watched from a distance, as Rae, Gillian, and Caleb splashed each other. Even from a distance he could see Rae enough when she stood up, soaking wet, that it made him ache. She looked like a vision with her clothes clinging to her slender but curvaeous body, and long flowing hair. He looked around for Crystal and noticed her sitting by herself, reading. She never even heard him walk up nor did Rae and the kids see him. At least him being here made him feel they were better protected.

"Hope I'm not intruding."

Crystal jumped at the sound of his voice. "Gosh Mr. Tanner, you scared me. Did momma invite you, because if she did, she never said so."

Vin sat down next to her. "Gillian invited me. How come you're not in the water?" Crystal eyed him, not sure whether she liked him or not. She knew Gillian liked him a lot, but Gillian always liked to latch on to someone.

"I like to read. Momma says I'm too serious. I should play more. But I really like to read, especially poetry."

Vin looked pensive. "Readin' and writin's important. Never had anyone to teach me. What I know, I learned from doing, not reading, but heard poetry 'for and think it's right pretty. Would you like to read me some?" Crystal smiled. That's all it took to win her heart. She read several poems to Vin and they talked about what they might mean. Vin mentioned that sometimes just hearing the words made it sound good instead of trying to figure out what they meant.

Rae hadn't seen Vin ride up or sitting with Crystal. She decided to see if she could get Crystal to put that book down and come in swimming. She wasn't looking up when she walked toward her daughter. "Crystal, why don't you come in swi.......... Mr. Tanner! I didn't see you ride up." Rae didn't even realize how she looked soaking wet until she saw the admiration in Vin's eyes.

"Ma'am, just checking on you and the children, making sure you were all right. Crystal's been readin' her poetry to me. Right pretty words."

Rae knew she should cover herself up, but in reality she really didn't feel embarrassed in front of Vin, even wet. There was something about him. "Well Crystal, come on and put that book down and join us. Mr. Tanner, feel brave at getting wet?"

Crystal put her book down. "Mr. Tanner, I'll go in if you go in."

Vin looked at both the ladies. "Well, I'm not a swimmer, and don't particularly like getting wet on purpose."

Rae gave him an evil grin. "Chicken."

Vin smiled back as Crystal giggled. "No, no not chicken, just don't want to get wet."

Rae backed up. "Chicken. Chicken." Caleb and Gillian had finally seen Vin. Caleb just crossed his arms with a "I don't want him here."

Gillian was gleefully happy. "Mr. Tanner! Mr. Tanner! Come swim with us." She came out of the water, running up to Vin, pulling his arm. "Please come swim with us. We're playing catch with each other." Gillian kept pulling. Crystal kept saying she wouldn't go in unless he did. Rae was still calling him a chicken.

All of a sudden he growled real loud, sending Gillian laughing and running into the water with Crystal right behind her. He glanced at Rae with an evil grin. "Chicken, hugh? I'll show you chicken." Rae stood there not knowing what to except. He quickly removed his hat, shirt, suspenders, and boots. Somehow this woman staring at him made him wonder if the pants should come off. He was wearing long johns but not sure if he would be able to hide his excitement at how Rae looked.

Rae didn't realize until too late that Vin would strip his pants off and jump at her. Before she could react, Vin grabbed at Rae, picking her up and heading toward the water. "Mr. Tanner, Mr. Tanner. Put me down. I didn't mean it, calling you a chicken."

Vin smiled. "Too late, Mrs. Gallister. You're gonna pay for calling me a chicken." He carried Rae into the water until waist high. She felt good in his hands and the longer he held her, the less he wanted to let go of her. Rae had been laughing at first, but as they went into the water, her arms around his neck, and feeling his body against hers, well, the smile faded and was replaced with a different look. And if the children had not been around, she knew that this time, her body would overrule her brain.

"Now what were you calling me, Mrs. Gallister." Vin kept an evil grin on his face, Rae knowing she was in trouble. Big trouble.

"Now Mr. Tanner, put me down. I was only trying to get you to come into the water, I didn't mean......." Rae wasn't even finished with her sentence when Vin just threw her out into the water. She came up sputtering and Crystal and Gillian giggling. "Mr. Tanner!" With that, Rae splashed him right in the face and then the girls started. There was nothing but splashing until Vin called uncle. They all stood there laughing, until Rae turned to see Caleb off by himself. As she walked off, Vin and the girls played around in the water, but Vin kept watching as Rae approached Caleb.

"Momma, I don't want him here. I'm the man in the family. We don't need him." Caleb had his arms crossed with a frown on his face. Rae had tried to cheer him up but to no avail.

"All right Caleb. You just sit here then. Gillian invited Mr. Tanner, and you're being rude." Rae turned and walked back to the group.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Tanner, but Caleb is just being rude. I guess with the bad experiences he remembers of his father, well, he doesn't like any men, especially around me. He's very protective. Damn his father for what these children remember."

Vin looked over at Caleb. "Ma'am it's all right. Don't know if I can help, but how bout I talk with him?" Rae looked at Vin. She had never met anyone so concerned about her children. It was nice to know there were some men out there that had other things on their mind besides fighting, drinking, and women.

"Go for it, Mr. Tanner. But I must warn you, my son is very strong willed. Can't understand where he gets it from." With that Rae smiled and turned to play with the girls.

Vin took a deep breath. He didn't know much about children, but at least he could try with Caleb. He walked over to Caleb and leaned against the big rock Caleb was leaning against. He folded his arms just like Caleb was doing. Caleb looked up at the man, then tried to stand taller. Vin stretched out somewhat to make himself more on Caleb's level. Both looked at Rae and the girls playing. "Not interested in swimming any more?" Caleb didn't say a word. "Your momma would have a lot better time if you would join them."

Caleb turned and looked at Vin. "My momma and sisters and me just getting along fine without you hanging around. All men want to do is hurt my momma. They pretend to like us just so she will like them. But they really don't mean it. Then momma cries a lot."

"Caleb, I'm not here to hurt anyone, especially your momma and you kids. What makes you think I would hurt her?"

Caleb looked up at Vin, looking for something in his eyes. "Well, my pa used to hit her all the time. She cried a lot. Even when I was littler, his eyes would look mean, and momma would tell Crystal and me to hide till pa went to sleep. But we could hear them. Momma would try to get him to settle down and then he would hit her and keep hitting her. I'm glad he's dead. I wished him dead. He died before Gillian was around. She would have hated him too. But she don't know no better. She never been around it. She wants a pa. We don't." Caleb looked straight at Vin again with that statement.

Vin noticed how tears started to form in Caleb's eyes, but the boy held them back. He felt sorry for those kids and what Rae had had to put up with. That son of a bitch husband of hers didn't deserve the family he had. Yeah, Rae had a sharp tongue but she seemed to use it when protecting her children. "Look Caleb, I wouldn't hurt your momma. She's a fine lady and deserves to be happy. Ain't nothing between us. Just trying to be her friend and yours too if you let me. She depends on you being her only boy, and you done a right nice job of taking care of her too. Tell you what, if'n you want me to go, I will."

Caleb looked at the man. There was something about him that Caleb liked but couldn't put his finger on but he sensed that Vin wasn't there to hurt them. Even Crystal seemed to like him, and before she never liked no one. Maybe he would see how it worked out. And momma did seem happy whenever he showed up. "All right Mr. Tanner, but if I see you making my momma sad, you'll be sorry."

Vin smiled to himself. Looks like he won that round with the lad. He had never been good around kids and really hadn't liked being around them, but there was somethin' about these kids that he felt drawn to and their momma too. He held his hand out to Caleb. "How about you and me shakin' on it, man to man." Caleb beamed. No one had ever called him a man before. Maybe Mr. Tanner weren't so bad after all. Caleb held his hand out and shook Vin's. "Now Caleb, how about we men go over and show them women how much water we can stir up."

Rae had periodically glanced over at Vin and Caleb. Caleb was hard to get through to. Damn that Jack for what he had done to the children. And what was it about Mr. Tanner that attracted her so much. Yes, she ached for a man, but whenever anyone had gotten too close, her guard would go up and then with the kids, they also never took to anyone. Jack had made her that way. The continual beatings and verbal abuse had taken their toll on her. But with Mr. Tanner, she couldn't put her finger on it. Mr. Tanner was a young man, a hired gun from what she had heard, not a man who you would think would take to children. She saw Caleb shake hands with him. She smiled. Caleb never took to anyone, not anyone and had always been her protector.

She turned as she saw them coming, with an awfully determined look. Then the growls from both Vin and Caleb and then the water started flying from both sides. Later that afternoon after lunch, Rae and Vin sat on the blanket while the children played down by the lake. Rae glanced over at Vin while his eyes stared out across the lake. She noticed his strong features, sky blue eyes, the strength in his body. Even with his shirt on she could feel the power of the man. She was clearly affected by his closeness. "Thank you Mr. Tanner, for making this day even better than I expected, for all of us."

Vin turned to Rae and smiled. "My pleasure Mrs. Gallister. Got to admit, it's been a long time since I have really relaxed. It was good." He smiled at her.

Rae had to pull her gaze away from the devastating smile. "Mr. Tanner, I know I haven't known you very long, but, well, please call me Rae. I think it would be appropriate, and especially after you slipping in a few kisses, well, I think it would be appropriate."

"Well ma'am, Rae, sounds right to me as long as you call me Vin." God, he wanted to kiss her then. She wanted him to kiss her. But both sat there. Now was his chance but just wasn't sure how to approach her. Before when he had caught her and kissed her, well, it just happened.

Feeling slightly uncomfortable, Rae called to the children. All came running up. "Yes momma. What is it?"

Rae looked at the three. "Time to be gettin' back. It's gettin' late."

All three chimed in. "No not now. We're having fun. Please momma. Please. Can we stay? Mr. Tanner, get momma to stay a little longer. Please."

"Don't think it's that late Rae. How about Caleb and I rustle up some rabbit, and we can just fix it here and have a nice fire going?" Vin didn't want it to end. He was really enjoying himself. Rae looked at them. Kids were still begging, Vin was giving her a smile that she was sure it had been a conspiracy between him and the children to stay longer.

"Well, I don't know." Rae tried to look serious, but the smile just slipped in. The kids saw it and jumped all over her.

Vin stood up. "Come on Caleb, let's get us a couple of rabbits." And they walked off. Later, when darkness settled in, the stars peppered themselves in the sky around a full moon. Vin and Caleb had found several rabbits and Vin had showed him how to shoot, clean and cook it. Caleb was having a great time with Vin. Rae didn't know what Vin had said to Caleb, but whatever it was, it performed a miracle. She had never seen Caleb take to someone like he had Vin. But that worried her too. She didn't want to see Caleb hurt, so if this bond between them stopped, she knew her son would be the looser. The kids had tuckered themselves out, and had slipped off to sleep next to the fire.

Rae was down by the water's edge. Vin had followed her down. "What made that smile change to a frown, Rae?" Vin had seen her face change in an instant.

"Oh, I'm sorry. My mind just wandered off into a different direction." Rae tried to bring the smile back.

"Somethin's bothering you. Tell me."

Rae looked at Vin. "Oh, I guess I'm worried about Caleb. You seem to have made a hit with him. I just don't want him to be hurt. None of my children to be hurt."

Vin looked over at the sleepers. "Caleb told me bout your husband. Don't seem right that a man do that to a woman or their kids. I know you don't know me, but I promise I won't hurt them youngins or you. Never taken to youngins before, and don't know what it is about yours but they're great. You done a right good job raising them." Somehow Rae believed Vin wouldn't hurt them. But it was hard to trust even after all those years.

"Jack, my husband, seemed right nice when we started courting. He drank heavily but well love is blind. Not too long after we married, the verbal abuse started and a few slaps here and there. It wasn't long before I was pregnant with Crystal that he got worse. I don't know how I lasted all those years. I tried running away, but he would find me and it would be hell to pay. I finally decided that staying was easier than running and being found. I didn't dare deny him anything. When I found out I was pregnant with Gillian, he was furious with me. Said it was all my fault and even tried to accuse me of having another man's child. I was only four months pregnant, when he just up and left. No word or anything. It wasn't long after Gillian was born that money became real tight and I starting working. That's when I found out about all the debts Jack had run up. I worked long hard hours, and if it hadn't been for the children, I don't know how I would have made it. It took me a long time, but I paid those debts. Then one day the authorities came by and said that Jack had been killed and the only reason they knew about me was papers he had left behind. So, here I am a widow with three children. I totally regret and hated that marriage but not the children produced from it. They were and are the best things that have happened to me. They're my life and I won't let anyone anymore ever hurt them if I can help it."

Both stood there. Vin kept running things through his mind. Hell, he was too set in his ways to be thinking seriously about this woman. What made him think he wanted to be serious with her anyway. But he sure liked those kids. And as far as their momma was concerned, well, if he wanted a wife or start somethin' serious like, well, she would fit the bill, kids or no kids. Of course seeing her the other night in her nightgown and then in the lake, nights with her could prove interesting.

"Mr. Tanner, why the smile." Rae had turned to look at Vin in the moonlight, admiring his looks and the strength he had. She loved his voice when he talked with her. It was low and soothing, almost mesmerizing. She had placed her hand on his chest. Just thinking about her made Vin very aware of her closeness. He looked down at her.


He pulled her close to him, arms circling her waist. Her arms instinctively wrapped around his back moving up and down, feeling the strength of his body wherever she could reach. He too explored her. His hand moved around to feel the swell of her breast. When he touched her, Rae thought she would go crazy. She knew her body responded instantly at his touch. He moved his lips from hers, and as he ran kisses down her neck, Rae's head went back slightly, moaning at the heat from his lips. Vin broke from her. He had too. It was getting out of hand. Rae knew what she wanted, what Vin wanted. As he backed away from her, Rae unbuttoned her blouse and slipped it off. Next came her riding skirt, then her chemise and pantaloons. They were far away from the kids, where they couldn't be seen. Rae looked up at Vin. I was told one time that I had the heart and body of a harlot. I haven't been with anyone since my husband, Vin, and I am not ashamed of being here with you like this."

The way the moonlight shown down on Rae's body, was more than Vin could take. As she went into the water, Vin quickly took all his clothes off and followed her in. The cool water never tempered either one of them. Lips met and bodies met and molded into one another. By the time they had finished making love, it had gotten a lot later. After dressing, they went back to the fire, waking the children to get ready to go back to town. Vin tied his horse to the back of the wagon and drove back to town. Neither said a word to each other the entire time.

After getting the children to bed, Rae started to open her door. She had tried to get the memories of Vin and what had transpired between them out of her mind. But it wasn't working. Vin had come up the stairs as Rae started into her room.

"Rae, everything all right?" Rae turned to look at Vin. She had not regretted what had happened earlier, and she hoped he hadn't either.

"Yes, the children have had a busy day. They're just tuckered out." She turned but as he touched her arm, she turned back to look up at him. "Vin, I hope you don't think bad of me for doing what I did tonight. I don't regret one minute of it. Not one minute."

Vin smiled. "Rae, you're a beautiful and loving woman. Nuthin' wrong with what you did. I don't think any different of you and as long as you don't think differently of me, well then, I think everything went fine. Just fine."

Vin gave her that sexy grin but then it was replaced with passion. This wasn't the end of their night. Both knew it. Vin picked her up and carried her to his door. "If you don't want to go through this door, I'll understand Rae." Rae looked at the man who held her in his arms. She wanted his man to make love to her. He made her feel alive, more than she had felt in a long time, even when she had been married. He awoke something in her that in a way almost frightened her. Her desire for him was intense, and she craved his touch, his body. Rae didn't say a word, just slid her hand up his neck and onto his face. Her lips came closer until they touched his. Her mouth opened, her tongue opening his mouth to feel the warm wetness. Neither remember opening or shutting the door, but the night was filled with so much passion.

Rae hated leaving him early the next morning. He was sound asleep, but she needed to be back in her room. She kissed her finger, and placed it on his nose, turned and walked out. Rae went into her room and lie across her bed. She could still feel him, smell his scent. She hadn't even realized she went to sleep until Gillian had bounced on her bed. "Momma, it's time to get up." Rae looked at her daughter and smiled. This was a new day and a new beginning. Even if nothing ever came out of her relationship with Vin Tanner, well, she felt like a new woman.

Weeks passed. Vin made it a point to spend time with Rae and the children, but not too much time. He needed to look at what was going on and what he wanted. And it was easy to look at the entire situation. Rae had not said anything and didn't expect anything. In fact, at times, it looked like she actually tried to avoid him.

One night Rae was standing at the bar. She felt a hand touch her back and slide around her waist. She smiled thinking Vin had come up behind her. "Hello luv." Rae stiffened. How could that be. He was dead. Rae turned to face him, what she had been told, her dead husband. He smiled. "Don't look so upset darlin', I'm alive and well."

It took a minute for Rae to get control of herself, and when she did. "Jack? They told me you were dead. What the hell....."

Jack was still smiling. "Rae, can we go someplace private and talk?" Rae turned, feeling dead inside. No, this wasn't happening. That son of a bitch had to be dead. Why didn't he stay dead!

They walked out the back door into the alley. Rae turned to him. Jack pulled her close to him, kissing her, feeling her body. Rae stood stiff as a board. "My God Rae, I forgot how good you feel, how warm you are. You're still as beautiful as ever." Jack backed off after realizing Rae was not responding to him.

Rae's face turned from shock to anger. "You son of a bitch. I thought you were dead. What is going on."

Jack smiled. "Look darlin'. I was in sort of a situation. I was in quite a debt and they were not nice people."

Rae looked at him. "Tell me about it. Even before I was told you were killed, it didn't take long for me to find out about those debts and I had to pay them back, each and every one of them."

Jack shook his head. "And I thank you for that. But the reason I'm here is that I looked for you and the trail led to here. I'm back now my darlin' and we can work this out."

Rae was livid. "You'll not come back into my life again Jack. The children and I have been doing fine without you and I want it to stay that way."

Jack's rage was starting to take the better of him. "Now listen here you bitch, you're my wife, and you'll do what I say." He raised his hand, ready to strike her. Rae flinched. Just as the hand was coming down, another hand wrapped around his wrist.

Jack turned to stare into the face of one angry Vin Tanner. Jack looked at the angry man. "This here's my wife and you don't have no right to stop me from how I treat her. Back off!"

Vin leaned in closer to Jack's face. "Mister, I don't care who you say you are. You'll not lay a hand on her." Rae could see the intense anger in Vin's eyes. He looked at Rae. "Who the hell is he and are you all right."

"Vin, I'm fine. Apparently my dead husband has raised from the dead."

About the time Jack was ready to say something else, three children came through the door. "Momma we saw you go out with a man, are you ......." Crystal recognized him first. "Papa?" Crystal grabbed the two others and moved behind Rae.

"It seems your papa wasn't dead after all."

Crystal became angry. She remembered how it had been when he was alive. "Why aren't you dead. We don't want you here." Caleb remembered him then and moved to the front of Rae. "You leave our momma alone, before I kill you." Rae put her hands on her small son's shoulders.

Gillian peaked around from behind her dress. "You my real papa?"

Jack looked at the three children. "My God Rae, how they have grown. And this little one, she looks just like you." He put his hand out and Rae moved to protect them.

"As far as we're concerned Jack, you're dead. Now leave us alone. You'll not have one part of me or my children. Go away. Leave us alone!"

Jack became angry again. "Rae, they're my children too and if you cause me trouble, I'll take them from you."

Rae moved towards Jack. "It will be a cold day in hell Jack Gallister, before you ever get my children. I'll see you really dead if you try."

Vin still had his hand around Jack's wrist. Yanking it out of his grasp, he straightened his clothing. "We'll see, we'll see Rae. Of course that won't be a problem if we stay together as man and wife, like we legally are."

Rae turned dead white and whispered. "No. No."

Jack turned a glance at Vin. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have some private business to discuss with my wife."

No way in hell Vin would let that happen. "Let me tell you somethin' mister, Rae won't be left alone with you for any reason, nor will them children go with you. And I got news for you, you ever touch her or them children and you'll have me to answer to."

Jack looked at the angry man. "I knew my wife was a whore from the start. Apparently she still is." Vin had heard enough. His fist landed right in the middle of Jack's face and throwing him to the ground.

"Don't you ever call her that again. Now unless you want me to fix it so the buzzards have somethin' to pick on, then you best get the hell out of here. And if you try to see Rae or these kids, it will be your last time."

Jack looked at Rae. "You'll be sorry for this Rae. I'll get them kids with or without you." Jack picked himself off the ground, wiping the blood from his mouth where Vin had hit him.

Rae was still holding on to her children. "You'll not get anywhere near the children, Jack. I'll fight you all the way to hell before I let you have them."

Jack dusted himself off. "You heard me Rae. You either come back to me with the children or I'll take them from you. Mark my words. I have friends in high places. You don't have a chance." With that, Jack tipped his hat with a "until later," turned and walked off.

Rae turned to Vin. "Thank you Vin, but hitting him wasn't the answer. He won't forget that. He'll make you pay too. I'm sure he hasn't changed at all. He is very vindictive."

Vin looked at Rae. "I ain't afraid of him Rae and he won't touch you again. Broken down worse then him in a fight."

Rae sighed. "But Vin he won't fight fair. I know him. I just can't believe he is alive. How he could go all those years making me pay for his mistakes, then just show up expecting everything to be all right."

Caleb looked up at Rae. "Momma, we don't have to go back with him do we. I don't like him. I hate him. Please Mr. Tanner, don't let my momma and us go back with our papa." His pleading brought tears to Rae's eyes.

Vin put a hand on Caleb shoulder. "We won't let that happen boy. Come on Rae, let's find the judge and see what we can do to work this out. In the meantime, I don't want you or these kids to be left with him alone. Understand? Rae, do you understand?"

Rae sighed. "I don't know Vin. He'll find a way. And his threat is what I am worried about. Not me. Just my children."

Judge Travis listened to all Rae had to say. He shook his head. "Mrs. Gallister, even though your husband was considered dead, no one could identify him since he allegedly burned in a fire. I'm afraid he has all legal rights unless you file for divorce. I don't agree that he have privileges with the children from what you have told me but the law is the law. And those are his children too." Rae wanted divorce proceedings to begin. The sooner the better.

Vin and Rae walked out of the hotel where they had met with the judge. "Jack will make good his threat if he can, Vin. He won't stand still for me leaving him. I know him. I know what he is capable of." Vin sensed that this man Jack would do anything to keep Rae and the kids. It was just finding a way to stop him. One afternoon, Rae was working with the piano player going over songs. Vin and Chris were sitting at the table with Ezra, playing cards. Jack walked in heading directly toward Rae. Rae looked up to see him walking towards her, with a determined look on his face. "Rae, what the hell is this divorce paper? I told you what I would do it you tried to go against me."

Rae didn't back down, maybe because Vin had seen Jack come and was standing behind Rae. "I told you Jack that you would not get me back or the children. Just sign the papers, and be done with it."

Jack fumed. He had a feeling that his wife would pull something. But he had taken care of that. His friends back East had wired him just what he needed and it was legal too. "Listen Rae, I'll give you one more chance to change your mind. Are you willing to continue our marriage?"

Rae stood her ground. "No, Jack, no. I don't and will not go through the rest of my life or subject the children to you."

Jack pulled out a piece of paper. "Then I have no alternative to give this to you Rae."

Jack handed the paper over, Rae reading as she unfolded it. Her mouth whispered a low "no, no you can't."

Vin put his hands on her shoulders. "Rae, what is it?"

Rae looked up ignoring Vin. "Jack how could you? This says that I am an unfit mother, and that you have been given custody of the children until the courts determine otherwise."

Jack smiled. "I told you Rae that I wouldn't stand for you to deny me of you or my children. So, since you won't come back, the children have been put into my custody. I've rented a small house at the end of town. Have the children ready by this afternoon." He turned and walked out.

"No, no, this isn't happening. He can't do this." Rae crushed the paper in her hands. Chris and Ezra had gotten up and walked over to Vin and Rae.

Ezra pulled the paper from her hands. "I'll find the Judge and see what he says."

Vin leaned into Rae. "I'm sorry Rae. Maybe there is something the Judge can do."

Rae didn't even look at anyone. "I knew he would do something like this." And tears rolled down her face.

The Judge checked on the validity of the paperwork. Unfortunately, it was legal, and set forth in starting court proceedings. He didn't have a choice. Everything was a haze to Rae the next couple of days. She didn't even remember coming into the saloon where court was being held. Jack had denied Rae visits with the kids. Seeing them come into the courtroom, no smiles, just about killed Rae. They had tried to run up to her as they entered the court, but Jack stopped them. Rae listened to what Jack had to say about her being an unfit mother, living in a saloon. He even brought it up that the children were being subjected to the possible wonton, sexual occurrences with a Mr. Tanner. When Rae was asked about the accusations, she didn't deny any one of them. How could she. They were all true, but that did not make her a bad mother, and the children were happy. The judge knew that Rae was a good woman, but facts were facts, and the law was the law. He hated to do it, and even with Mary's urgings to forgo the "damn law" in this case, he awarded custody to Jack. Hearing those words were a death warrant to Rae. She was standing next to Vin and Buck, whispering "no, No, NO!" Before Vin could stop her, Rae grabbed Buck's gun. Vin struggled with her, but a mother's determination gave her strength enough to aim and pull the trigger.

But Vin was able to knock her hand enough, where Jack was only hit in the arm. "I have witnesses that she tried to kill me! You all saw her! I want her arrested for attempted murder!"

That was how Rae ended up in jail. Jack had wanted to play on the sympathy of the townsfolk, so he graciously allowed the children one last visit. They all ran up to the jail, but not allowed to go into her cell. "Momma, Momma, please Momma, don't let Papa take us."

Rae looked up at Jack. "Oh yes, Rae, I've decided that it isn't the best place for the children to be here, so we are going back East."

Rae stood up, looking at Jack. "No, please, Jack how could you. If I agree to stay with you, will you drop the charges?" Rae was desperate. Jack had won but he would make her pay.

"No Rae you had your chance. I've decided to sign the divorce papers. Here they are. You're free and clear of me, but the children stay with me." With that he turned and walked out with Rae begging him.

The next two days left Rae cried out. She wouldn't eat or sleep. Vin had tried to make an effort to cheer her up. He and the others were trying to think of ways to get the children from Jack and hide them. Rae paced back and forth in her cell. Late one evening, Vin came in to see her. JD decided he would go for a walk, leaving the two alone. "Vin, I won't let him take my children. You shouldn't have stopped me from killing him."

Vin just shook his head. "And you would be exactly where you are right now, Rae."

"Yes, Vin, but Jack wouldn't have my children." Vin had turned around knowing there was no talking to her. "Vin, I'm sorry."

"Sorry for what Rae?"

"This!" That's when Rae hit him on the back of the head with her water pitcher. Out he went. "I'm sorry Vin, but I can't let him have my children. Please forgive me."

Rae slipped out the cell and locked it back, throwing the keys in the corner. Maybe she would have enough time to ride out to where Jack and the kids were, and beg him to take her back. If not, then one of JD's guns would change his mind, permanently. She slipped out the back, and finding a horse tied out front, grabbed it, and rode

ff. It hadn't taken JD too long to decide to come back, finding Vin sitting on the cot rubbing the back of his head. It took him a while to find the keys, let Vin out, and find the others. Vin knew exactly where Rae would head to.

It was dark by the time Rae had ridden up to the house. She slipped off her horse and quietly went up to look inside the window. The kids were all sitting at a table, hands folded in their laps and heads down. Jack paced back and forth, apparently yelling at the kids.

Rae knew what she had to do. Jack would see her back in jail before allowing her to come back now. She had hurt his pride and he knew where to get back at her the most. She had to make sure the children would not be around to see her do this. Slipping back to the horse, Rae got the gun she had of taken. Cocking it, she walked into the house.

"Momma." "Momma." They were cries of relief as the kids turned to look who was coming in the door and seeing their momma. Holding the gun up and pointing it at Jack, Rae coolly and calmly told the kids to go outside, get the wagon hitched up and head away from town. She would follow later. "But Momma...."

"I said get that wagon hitched and go on now." She was stern, but when she saw the frightened look in their eyes, she softened, but the gun never waivered. "It ok darlings, I'll be along. Go on now, it's all right."

The kids slid past Rae and out the door. Jack hadn't moved but was seemingly amused by all that was transpiring. He gestered to the chair, and with a nod from Rae, sat down. "Well Rae, I has underestimated your strength. You have changed!"

"No Jack, I just got smarter. You may have ruled me and the children some time back, but you won't any more. I'm taking the kids out of here, and you can't stop me."

"Now Rae, how are you going to do that unless you shoot me. I guess that's why you have the gun aimed at me. Just remember, I will track you down, until I find you. You will be a wanted woman when I get through. There won't be a place safe enough for you."

Rae smiled. "Jack, you don't scare me anymore. If I have to shoot you, I will, and with no regrets. I loved you once and you destroyed that love. You have scared our children, and you won't do it any longer." Jack's smiled changed. He had played his last card and it hadn't worked. He went into panic mode trying to come up with something.

Crystal ran in to tell her momma that the wagon was ready. "Momma, let's go. Caleb and Gillian are in the wagon ready to go. Momma? Momma, please, come on."

Not taking her eyes from Jack, Rae told Crystal to get in the wagon and head out. She would follow later. She waited until she heard the wagon go. "Jack, you beat me and the children so much that nothing else matters anymore but their safety. I was always faithful to you. I wanted it to work. I wanted things to be different. But I honestly will tell you that when the authorities told me you had died in a fire, well, I was glad. I could breathe and begin a new life. But it was a hard life with lots of bad memories. If you want to gloat, then gloat over the fact that I could not ever get close to someone, someone to love me and my children. The children didn't want to trust anyone. Gillian was the only one you didn't have time to scar and you are not going to start. Good by Jack."

Rae cocked the gun, but as she got ready to fire, a hand came down on hers. Vin and the others knew where she was going, and had ridden out. Seeing the children, they told the seven where their momma was and what she was doing. They were afraid they would never see her again.

"Rae, no good will come of this." Vin's voice was low and steady in her ear. Tears welled up in her eyes.

"Vin I can't let him live. He'll kill my children. Kill the spirit they have just as sure as if he put a bullet in them. I don't care what happens to me. I want my children to be free of this monster."

As they were talking, Jack took advantage of the situation. From his boot, he extracted a small derringer and slowly lifted it up. What he didn't take into account was how alert Vin was of what was going on. Rae might have caught him off guard, but this man would not. Just as Jack lifted the derringer and shot, Vin squeezed the trigger on the gun Rae was holding. Jack's bullet met Rae on her shoulder, but Rae's shot met closer to its mark, straight in Jack's heart. Before Rae realized what happened, Jack folded and fell to the floor. Just then the rest of the seven came bursting through the door. Nathan bent down to check the fallen man.

"He's dead Vin. Straight through the heart."

Vin pried the gun from Rae's hand. "Rae....."

"No Vin, I'm fine. Just fine." Then she fainted.

The children ran through the meadow full of flowers. They laughed and so did Rae. It was a beautiful, sunny day. The children saw Vin first and ran up to him. Then Rae saw him, and as they met, arms went around each other. A shot rang out. Vin faltered and fell. Rae moved her hand on his chest to see bright red blood on him. Then her hands had blood on them. Then her dress. She screemed Vin's name.

Light filtered through the window. "Rae, you're dreaming. Wake up." Vin slightly shook Rae. "It was just a bad dream. You're all right now."

"My children. Where are my children?" Still groggy, Rae tried to get up.

"They're fine Mrs. Gallister. You need your rest. You been out for days with a bullet in you shoulder. But you're doing all right." Nathan was right by her side.

Rae's eyes cleared and seeing Vin, started to cry. "Sssssshhh. He's dead and gone Rae. He can't hurt you or them children any more."

Later Judge Travis came in. Although he told Rae she technically was an escape he was going to give her a pardon, due to the circumstances. He also said that she was not responsible for the death of her husband. The men had explained that Jack had pulled a gun and it was just lucky she was not killed too. At least this time, she was legally a widow and he did expect her to stay in town for a while to get all the legal items straightened out.

Rae smiled. She was glad Jack was dead. She had no regrets. She knew Vin had been right but ultimately, either she or Jack would had died. She was not going to let him take her children, no matter what. Daily the children came to see her, and so did Vin. Of course, Gillian would always come in hand in his hand. Rae wondered if the child would ever let Vin get out of her site.

It was late one night, and Nathan had allowed Vin to take Rae out for some fresh air and a short walk. "I never felt so free Vin. I'm glad he's dead. This time there is no question and I don't ever have to worry again."

Vin turned Rae toward him. "Once you are feeling better, I think you and I need to talk about you, me and you, those kids, and that pitcher ..."

He smiled. She smiled. Lips met softly and gently.