Characters: Vin, Chris, Ezra, Buck, Josiah, JD, & Nathan, additional original characters, the Wild Bunch, and MCAT team members. Special appearance: Old West Seven.
Rating: FMR, het, violence, and profanity included. Special warning: Strong language and torture scenes included.
Disclaimer: This story is entirely a work of fiction, for entertainment purposes only, based on the characters from "The Magnificent Seven." I don't own 'em, but if I did I would run away with 'em and never be seen again. CBS and Co., Trilogy Entertainment, and MGM had 'em first and do not want to give 'em away. I play at this for fun and do not make any money doing it. No infringement of any copyrights intended. Any references to locations or people are only for story use, and do not intend to depict any real place or person.
Summary, Purgatory Part 1: Descent into Hell: Evil dissenters cast Vin and Buck into Purgatory. Help comes from unexpected sources to rescue them.
The MCAT AU, MCAT (Major Crimes and Acts of Terrorism), are stories are full of mystery, action, humor, and anguish, sprinkled with a touch of fantasy. Also het; all seven are or will be involved in committed relationships. Series #1, Turbulent Transitions, forms the foundation for this AU. Series # 2, Strength & Solidarity, are stories, which center on the Seven's intrinsic bonds of friendship, and brotherhood, forces that have no boundaries. The second series concludes in #7 'Winds of Change'. Further background and information about the characters of MCAT, and the Larabee 7 families, is available @ Magnificent Seven Heaven
Thank you: To our betas, we thank y'all, ~ Wendy, for keeping MCAT on track ~ Sarai, for catching all those rogue commas, ~Raquel, for keeping us straight with our Spanish. Ladies of Muse 7, y'all are great, and we appreciate your feedback. Bountyhunter'slady, the collage you created is awesome. All of your collages amaze me, and I appreciate the art you have contributed to the MCAT Series.
Tannertexaslady Notes: ~ To my granddaughter, Kari, for your encouragement and critique, I love you. Any mistakes are mine. I'm a Texan, born and raised, speak Texan, understand it, and write it, as I know it. The original characters created for this series belong to the authors who created them. The character of 'Raven' first appeared in MCAT Series # 1 ~ Turbulent Transitions, # 7 Reconciliations. 'Cowboy' and 'Tracker' first appeared in MCAT Series #2 ~Strength & Solidarity, #1 Shades of Gray.
* A glossary of Law Enforcement terms used in this series is located @ http://www.tannertexaslady.com/Whatdidtheysay.html
Emails: firstname.lastname@example.org , email@example.com
From Part 1 ~ Descent into Hell
Tanner's head snapped around. His gaze roamed the mountainside, just as Chris's did the same. Something caught his eye, moments before he yelled out. "Get down!"
The seven men were barely on the ground, before heavy gunfire bounced off the vehicles, and viciously scuffed up dirt and stones around them. No man was able to lift his head at first, for the ferocity of the attack. Vin and Buck cursed their lack of weapons, while they watched as the others' drew theirs. Five men fired back intermittently, when the bullets flying around them allowed an opportunity.
"Oww Holy shit!" JD hit the deck when something sharp caught him just below his right eye. He swiped at the trickle of blood, quickly realizing it wasn't bad. He watched in horror as Chris and Josiah suffered similar injuries. Unsure if they were the only ones, he took a breath and returned fire.
"Stay down, Buck that's an order!"
Any other time that remark would have cracked Buck up. Instead, he cursed at whatever it was that bounced off his head, and hunkered down lower.
"Draw their fire, I can run up and around 'em "
Chris glared at Vin, and snapped, "On what, your hands?"
"Shit " He stretched out his arm, and wiggled his fingers. "At least give me a freakin' gun!"
"Shut up and keep down!" Larabee yelled. His order was barely audible over the barrage of gunfire. He saw Nathan grab at his thigh, and Ezra bob dangerously up to get off a few rounds, while, from his kissing dirt position, he was unable to move or see if Buck and JD were okay. A small lull upped the tension. Then, Chris's voice broke the eerie silence as it seemingly echoed through the valley.
That same valley rocked to the sound of an explosion. The only sounds following it were those of heavily armed men in fatigues and ski masks moving over the shale and undergrowth leading down to the highway descending on the huddle of ravaged vehicles and prone bodies below.
Larabee 7, Monday
Once the two vehicles, carrying the seven men to the counseling session, disappeared out the gate, Brodie went in search of Kelli. He had promised Chris that he would keep an eye on her, but even if he had not, he wanted to see for himself where she stood with his son.
Kelli timed her ride to allow Chris and the others a chance to leave before she returned. After a stop at the Wilmington's to visit with Inez, she headed back to her house. She had just removed the saddle from Dancer's back when Brodie walked into the barn. Looking up, she asked. "Are they gone yet?"
"Yep." He moved over closer to the horse and grabbed a brush. "Did you have a good ride?" As soon as she pulled the blanket, he began to stroke the brush across Dancer's flank.
Shrugging her shoulder, Kelli said, "It was okay. I did stop by to see Inez for a bit. Apparently she's not havin' any better time of it with Buck, than I am with Vin."
Nodding, he glanced to his daughter-in law. "Last night was dramatic. Was it all for show or did you mean what you said?"
Sighing deeply Kelli leaned on Dancer. "I was angry, but in retrospect I see now that Vin wanted to goad me into doin' what I did. One of his strongest traits, and one we've often clashed over, is proctectin' the people he loves any way he can. He thinks he has to put distance between us to do that, and for now I'm gonna let him have it his way."
"So you're not giving up?"
"No, hell no ," she shook her head, "whatever happened in Columbia, Vin won't, or can't share with me. Until he can, we can't move past this stalemate that we find ourselves in. I figure he'll do what he can to keep me angry, until he's ready to do somethin' about it."
"Then what happens?"
"Then we work through what we need to." Tilting her head, she took a deep breath and decided to tell Brodie something she rarely discussed with anyone other than Vin or Chris. "You weren't here to see the shape I was in last year after Trey and I were kidnapped by a demented woman named Ice. We were imprisoned in a mausoleum for nine days, and durin' that time I started to miscarry a baby that Vin and I didn't even know we were havin'. By the time we were rescued, it was too late to stop it. I went through months of depression and feelin' guilty, but Vin waited," she laughed, "mostly bein' patient with me until I was ready to talk about it. It's only fair that I do the same for him, although I doubt I can be as patient as he was."
Brodie studied the young woman before him, deciding that she was stronger than she gave herself credit for. She had told him Vin was the rock in their relationship, but from what he could see, they stood on fairly equal ground. He nodded. "I think I underestimated how well my son understands you. If you need someone to vent to in the meantime, I'll be around."
"I might just take you up on that. I do tend to need a target once in a while."
"Fire away, I can take it." Brodie grinned. "Just give me the key to the gun cabinet first."
"Right, take all the fun out of it, why don't you."
Together they cooled her horse down, and returned Dancer to the corral with the others, before walking back up to the house. There they found Walter laying out the lunch Max had sent over for them.
Walter smiled when Brodie and Kelli walked in the door. "Hope y'all are hungry." He purposely looked at Kelli. "Max said she was certain Missy wasn't eatin' like she should."
Glancing at the clock, Kelli mumbled, "I wonder how that session is goin'?"
"You'll hear soon enough. Now sit down and eat something." Brodie pulled out a chair for her. "Afterwards, I need to discuss a few things with Walter."
Kelli sat down. "Fine, I'll eat and then while you two talk, I'm gonna sneak downstairs, and make Vin's room more comfortable for him."
Walter and Brodie looked at her as if she was crazy. Walter could not help asking, "Why the hell would you do that? I thought you wanted him to be miserable alone."
"What? You think I want Vin to move back to our room just because it's more comfortable." She took a bite of her salad, and then said, "I want him to return when he wants us back."
Brodie shook his head and laughed. "The woman has a point, Walter. I just hope Vin can hold out until his head's clear again."
"Don't we all." Walter nodded. The trio ate the remainder of their lunch in silence.
Brodie spread out six folders on the table. "Since you're Chief of Security for Larabee 7, you need to know about the new men coming in to work with you. The threats on Alpha Team are real, and together, I'm certain you and I can find a way to help them out if need be." Walter looked at the information on the six men, while Brodie explained. "These men work for me, they're coming here at my request. They won't get in your way unless you want them to."
Walter nodded. "I appreciate the heads up. So, are more of your men escorting them, today?"
Hawks stared at the older man as if he had just slapped him. The idea hadn't even come up damn, he should have insisted. Walter's phone rang, but he delayed answering for a moment.
"You and Chris never even discussed the possibility?"
"I was more focused on them getting to their session. You're right, I should have insisted." He glanced at Walter's belt where his phone hung. "You wanna get that?"
Walter took the call and then closed his cell, frowning. "One of the ranch hands noticed a rock slide at the entrance to ranch road. Reckon we ought to get it cleared before the boys come back, or Chris won't be a happy camper."
Brodie's gut churned. "Are slides common around here?"
"We have a few, but usually not this time of year."
Kelli walked in the room. "Have a few what?"
Brodie stood, and held out his hand. "I need the keys to the gun cabinet."
Kelli frowned. "All I did was ask a question "
"Now, Kelli." She reached into her pocket and tossed him her keys as he turned to Walter. "Get us some help, but make sure they're all armed. You can call me a paranoid sonofabitch, if I'm wrong."
Walter caught on to what Brodie was thinking. "On it meet y'all at the gate."
Within minutes, three trucks headed toward the site of the rockslide. Before they got there, a huge boom sounded from the other side.
"Damnit!" Brodie sped up and then slammed on the brakes, the nose of the truck inches from the wall of rocks blocking the road. Grabbing a rifle, he jumped out and started to climb them, Walter and Kelli following quickly behind him.
The seven brothers lay motionless. The explosion had knocked them senseless and they were now oblivious to the group of armed men advancing on their position. Within a few minutes, the guerillas were standing over the seven, turning each man onto his front, some of them groaning, but not rousing as the assailants aimed guns at the base of their skulls in typical execution style. Moments later, several shots echoed across the valley.
As he lay there, Chris had seen the briefest of movements from Ezra, enough to know the man was also playing possum. He also knew Vin was right with him, but Buck, JD, Nathan, and Josiah had yet to move.
"Bastards are movin' in.*
*Let me and Ezra deal with 'em, Vin.*
*Get real, Cowboy.*
*Shit. Anything from the others?*
*Can't tell, but I heard Josiah moan.*
Their conversation halted as sounds of pounding feet through grass drew nearer and suddenly they were flipped over onto their stomachs. Ezra and Chris's eyes met briefly, all three men reacting when hard cold steel pressed into the back of their heads.
In a scissor move, Chris's legs raised, enveloped those of his assailant, and twisted him off his feet. The unexpected action allowed Larabee to jump up and disarm one more advancing goon prior to stamping on the downed man's face. Before Chris could regroup, the weapon he had liberated was now the object of a fierce custody battle.
Ezra flipped over in one fast movement and hefted a solid kick to the gunman's groin, and then to his head as the goon doubled over in pain. When Ezra jumped up and turned, he was instantly wrestling for possession of an AK47, while trying to ignore the dozen or so men now swarming around them.
Vin took a millisecond to twist around and gouge his assailant's eyes, using the butt of a now loose weapon to smash into the screaming rebel's head. His victory was short lived when another revolutionary moved in an attempt to disarm him.
All three battled fiercely until one of the weapons they were fighting for, discharged; followed by several shots fired into the air. Spanish profanities flew as their assailants' directed the three men's eyes to the guns aimed at their unconscious brothers' heads, halting them instantly before all three were pushed to their knees and guns placed back at their own heads.
"Vais a Morir, bastardos americanos!"
* I'm sorry, Vin.*
*Me too, Cowboy.*
Closing their eyes as they prepared for oblivion, a sudden rush of cold air moved through them, while their attackers, though unmoving, screamed out in fear.
Fingers bleeding from the urgency of the climb, Hawks blood froze at the crest to see his son and the men he had become close to, about to be executed. Raising his rifle to fire, he stared in shock, at what appeared to be seven men no apparitions on horseback, move through the group below him. The guerillas screamed out in terror as men and horses seemingly passed right through them. Taking advantage of the distraction, Hawks fired repeatedly, his aim true as the now fleeing rebels went down one by one. More gunfire to his side told him Kelli, Walter, and the other men were now assisting. Brodie took off down the debris, his agility keeping him upright as his expertise had his bullets picking off men in ski masks like fairground targets.
Vin, Chris, and Ezra, were now on their feet, prying guns from dead fingers, and firing on the retreating men. Wanting information, Chris pinned one wounded man down, only to see his green-stained teeth form into first a smile, then a grimace of momentary agony as his body convulsed , his eyes rolled and he gurgled his last breath.
"Cyanide pill." A voice behind him said.
Chris spun to face a sweating, panting Brodie.
"Whoever is behind this is damned determined not to leave informants." He reached out to steady Chris as the MCAT Commander swayed, before guiding him to the ground. "Easy friend."
Ezra, also feeling the effects of the blast and exertion, moved gingerly toward Nathan and Josiah, relieved to see both men rallying. "Brothers how badly are you hurt?"
Now sitting, Josiah worked his neck and shoulders. "Nothing an aspirin won't cure, brother."
"You two okay?" Nathan asked, pinching the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger.
"I believe, apart from a few minor cuts and a headache from hell, I'll survive," Ezra grinned, wearily.
"Same here," Josiah agreed, his attention now on Vin, as the Texan, now off his injured feet, crawled over toward Buck.
"Bucklin, you with me?"
Buck moaned, "Unfortunately, yeah. No damned fun having this kind of hangover without the enjoyment of the beer." He glanced urgently around. "Everybody okay?"
"Looks like it aw hell "
Buck saw it too, him and Vin scrabbling through the rough grass to check on a prone JD. Relieved at a strong pulse, Buck rolled the younger man toward him and one handedly, scooped him up, sitting on the ground as he rested him against his chest.
"Hey kid come on, now talk to Buck." He squeezed JD tighter as anxious eyes glanced at Vin.
"People will talk."
As JD hissed out his words, Vin grinned and Buck chuckled. "Yeah, and they'll say you're sleeping on the job, again. Or maybe that pretty nurse is taking more than your temperature, huh?"
"Buck! Oh, God don't make me laugh, the guy hammering in my head doesn't like it."
With a nod of relief, a pat to JD's arm, and a squeeze to Buck's shoulder, Vin again rose to his feet, swaying, until strong arms gripped him. "Easy, son let me help you."
Gratefully accepting Brodie's help, Vin made it over to Chris, Hawks easing Tanner down next to him. "I'm just gonna check on the others, okay?"
Watching him go, Chris raised his hand and cupped Vin's head. Their heads touched for a moment as he pulled the Texan toward him, the enormity of what had just happened hitting them both simultaneously.
"Vin Dad!" Kelli dropped to her knees before them, hugging her father as she kissed his bloody head. "Thank God "
Raising his hand, Chris smiled, nodded, and stroked her face. Touching her hand to his and returning the smile, her liquid eyes turned to Vin, neither of them able to move for a moment. Vin opened his arms and she melted into them, their kiss long, deep, and lingering. "I thought " she began, moving back to look into his eyes.
"I'm not going anywhere, baby unless you tell me to." He pulled her close, his hand cradling the back of her head. "I love you."
Kelli sighed and squeezed him tighter. "Love you too, Tanner."
Arriving after Walter called for their assistance, Rain and Talia set to work immediately, and despite a scolding from his wife, Nathan assisted.
Talia stared around at the devastation and corpses. "How how are they not dead? This this is unbelievable."
"Triage, Nurse Romero," Doctor Jackson reminded, her gaze softening as she looked up at the stunned woman. "You'll have time to dwell on it, later."
"Sorry, it's just such a shock. JD!" Her eyes fell on her charge and she took off.
"Young love," Rain winked at Josiah as she cleaned a nasty cut on his head.
"One can only hope," the big man grinned.
As Brodie returned to Chris and Vin, Tanner held his wife at arms' length. "What the hell are you doin' out here without a vest on?"
Kelli rolled her eyes, and sighed. "I could ask you the same question, Tanner."
"I left mine at home, but you should have taken time to grab one ."
Brodie interceded. "Vin, we didn't know part of the Columbia Resistance was going to be waiting for us, when we left the ranch."
"If you didn't know then how ?" Chris looked at Hawks.
"Gut feeling," Brodie answered. "When one of the hands reported the rockslide to Walter, I realized we screwed up by not taking extra precautions when y'all left this morning." He scanned the bodies on the ground. "It won't happen again."
Chris nodded. "I suppose I should call Travis. He can send Bones, and the mobile MAU out, though I doubt they'll find anything that tells us who these bastards are."
"If you want to, do it, if not, I can make these bodies disappear for you." Brodie waited for Chris to decide.
Larabee thought on it for half a minute, and then answered. "For now, we play by my rules. If we find they're not working then we'll play by yours."
'Then, we should get y'all back to the ranch and let your forensics people clean up this mess." Brodie grinned when he finally noticed Chris and Josiah's trucks. "I reckon we're gonna be shy a couple of vehicles. It's a good thing my men are bringing my truck in with them tomorrow."
Chris turned around and looked at his Ram. "Aw hell, I just got this one broke in good."
"Dad " Kelli started.
"Hang on Kel." Chris whistled for everyone's attention. "From this second on, no one leaves the ranch until we make better security arrangements. Walter, pick four of your men, stay here, and work on getting this road cleared. Wait until the MCAT forensics unit arrives, and then turn the crime scene over to them." He asked Brodie, "How many vehicles are on the other side of this slide?"
Brodie answered, "Kel and I came in Vin's truck. Walter and his guys drove two more."
"Dad " Kelli tried again.
"Just a minute, honey. Rain, you take Talia, JD, Buck, and Nathan with you, back to the Larabee 7. Josiah, you and Ezra take one of the ranch trucks, and Vin and I will ride back with Brodie and Kel. We'll regroup and meet at my house for dinner. We have some plans to make." He started herding them all toward the other vehicles.
"Chris Larabee!" Kelli stomped her foot to get his attention.
He halted and turned to her. "Sorry, what was it you wanted?"
"You just essentially locked down the ranch, but we have Sanchez, Wilmington, and Tanner children to pick up from school in," she glanced at her watch, "less than forty-five minutes. Do we want them to see all this?"
Vin took her arm. "You and I will pick up the kids and keep them busy until we get an all clear."
Chris was already shaking his head. "Vin you're in no condition "
"I'm not an invalid, Chris. They're my kids, and my nieces and nephews. I can hold a gun if need be, and Kel can drive."
Buck halted his movement. "I should go. Three of those kids are mine remember?"
Josiah argued. "I'm in better shape than you two, I'll go."
Vin had already made up his mind. "Buck, you take watch on 'em tomorrow, and Josiah can take the next day, but today we'll handle it." He glared at Chris daring him to say no.
Chris didn't want Vin out there yet, but he recognized that he needed to take control of at least one aspect of his life again. "Fine, we'll go to your house, you, and Kel use the Navigator, and Brodie and I will be your escorts in your truck."
Walter had listened to them and nodded. "We'll have enough of the road cleared by the time y'all come back for you to get through." He watched while they all worked their way around the slide to claim their rides, and then started issuing orders to the men. "Let's get these rocks cleared."
Rain dropped Buck off, giving in to his insistence that she did not need to help him inside. She and Nathan watched as he hurried inside to his anxious wife, noting that for the first time since his return he was acting more like their old Buck.
Once inside Buck walked directly over to Inez, gave her a long hard hug, and then told her. "I'm not hurt just a few cuts and a mild headache." He looked her in the eye, " and if you're willing to give me some time I'll be all right otherwise too."
Inez reached up, stroked her fingers across his jaw, and whispered, "Desde luego, querido."
Buck smiled, turning his head to kiss her delicate hand. "Just hold on to the fact that I love you and need you more than I can ever put into words."
"Oh, mi Amor." With a deep sigh, Inez rested her head against his broad chest, feeling for the first time since all this started that her Buck was finally home.
With the children still at daycare, Talia and JD headed for the bedroom. Stripping and showering before having his healing injuries re-dressed, JD smiled as the pretty blond cleaned up his newest cuts and abrasions.
"What?" she asked.
He held her hand. "You're trembling. Are you okay?"
Talia looked at him. "Not really, no. Seeing the devastation back there I can't believe you all survived."
JD's smile faded a little as he stroked her hand with his thumb. "Yeah I know what you mean. Look I'm pretty good on my feet, now, and my shoulder strap will be off soon. Things are a little crazy around here. I think it's best you go home."
"You want me to leave?"
"Not want, but it's not safe here right now."
Her hand left his and touched his face, moving down his bare chest to stop at the towel around his waist. "I need to stay close to you."
"I I think I'm falling in love with you," she whispered. Their eyes locked.
"Girl I haven't been with anyone but my wife since I was twenty and she was my first. I really like you, too a lot, but " He swallowed. "I'm scared. I literally just got divorced. What if ?" His eyes closed as Talia leaned in and their lips met for the softest of kisses.
"After today, 'what if' is a chance I'm willing to take."
Their next kiss was deeper and left them breathless. JD watched as she stood and undressed in front of him, his heart pounding, and breathing accelerating as he stared in fascination. God, she was just as beautiful as he had imagined. Holding out her hand, she encouraged him to stand, wrapping her arms around his neck as he did.
Now JD was trembling, as a myriad of sensations and emotions battled with each other. It felt so good to be held this way again after so long, and it was different. Talia's touch was softer and the intimacy was different as they became tactile. Not thinking, JD instinctively turned her to lay her on the bed, crying out seconds later as pain shot through his leg. Talia pushed her fingers through his hair as he caught his breath and the pain subsided.
"I guess I'm not up to this, yet," he panted.
"Let me take the lead," she breathed.
Both shaking and sated, Talia laid her head on JD's chest, moving to look at him when his hand cupped her head. Both were emotional and she kissed his neck before cuddling in.
JD hated that he was thinking of Casey at a moment like this, but he was. However, this time, the loss felt different. For the first time in a long while, he was ready to let go. It wasn't just the mind-blowing sex he had just enjoyed. JD had always had a great sex life with Casey. It was more the realization that he really could move on. His life was different, now, and the beautiful woman laying with him had reminded him he was allowed to have fun. He pulled her closer to kiss her.
Pulling back., Talia kissed his nose. "That's the sex over with." She grinned at his stunned expression as she kissed him again. "Next time we make love."
Next time oh joy, there was going be a next time. Cursing his injuries, JD grinned and kissed her deeply. "I'd better warn you now I can go all night when I'm up to par."
"Only all night? Bang goes the weekend I had planned." They both laughed, sighing as she moved off him. "Kids are due, soon, and then Chris's..."
"Yeah, I know. Talia "
She gave him a final kiss before heading for the shower. "I know," she breathed, and left him lying there. "Start dressing, I'll be in to button you up in a few minutes."
While Chris called Cait to let her know he was okay, and to inform her there would be a houseful for dinner, Vin pulled Kelli aside. "I need your key for the gun safe. Mine are still somewhere in South America, along with my wallet, badge, MCAT ID, service weapon, and parts of who I was when I left here."
Kelli saw Chris signal no to her behind Vin's back, but she ignored him. She understood that Vin was asking for more than his gun, he was asking for her trust. "Rest your foot, and I'll save you a few steps. Tell me which one you want and I'll get it."
"The Beretta will do." Feeling the strain of the day, Vin pulled out a chair and sat down at the table.
"Vin, if you're not up to going ." Chris saw the tired lines on his face, and was afraid the whole day had been too much for the healing Texan.
Looking up at him, Vin sighed. "I need to start reclaimin' my life, Chris. I've agreed to continue counselin', but you have to let me find my own way back." He locked his gaze on Larabee and waited.
Chris nodded, as Kelli returned with Vin's gun.
When she laid it on the table in front of him, his hand covered hers. He looked into her eyes and said, "Thanks."
Kelli read in his gaze what he did not say, but then he always was able to speak volumes with his eyes. She nodded, and huskily replied, "You're welcome."
Clearing his throat, Chris said, "Cait is arranging a pizza party for all the Larabee children at Reins. Sally, Willard, Max, and Jessie will corral the kids while their parents are at my place. Once we have the school kids picked up, and we know the road is clear of bodies, we'll take them over there."
Vin stood, slipped his holster onto his belt, and then adjusted his gun in place. "I'm ready, let's go."
Brodie exchanged a concerned glance with Chris, and then said, "You lead, Tanner, and we'll follow."
Kelli drove, while Vin stretched out in the passenger seat. Glancing over at him, she realized that while he might look relaxed he was tense, and in alert mode. She thought of at least a hundred things she wanted to say, but none of them seemed appropriate to discuss at this time. Therefore, she stayed silent.
Vin's soft drawl broke the silence, "I decided to continue the counselin' sessions."
"That's good." She was relieved to know that he was going to go voluntarily.
"Kel I know you and I have a lot to put right between us." Vin straightened and turned to watch her expression. "I need you to be patient give me some time to work through what I need to. Some things happened, while I was in Columbia that you should know about, before we can 'fix' us. I just can't " he paused for a moment, " go there yet, and I need some distance between us 'til I can."
"Take all the time you need, Vin," she threw him a quick glance," but don't think for a second that I'm gonna let you go 'cause I'm not."
He smiled, and reached over to touch a strand of her hair. "I'm countin' on that, baby, and I promise you, we will get things put right with us. In fact, I plan to 'fix' us, and win you back one sweet step at a time."
"You haven't lost me Vin." She sighed. "I hate bein' separated, and you know me, I'd like to just rush things and demand that you that move back into our room now." Kelli tossed him a smile and said, "But I reckon I can be a little patient. At least this time, unlike before we were married, I know what I'm waitin' for."
Her reminder of the time that circumstances forced them to postpone their physical commitment to one another was a bittersweet memory. While it was a frustrating period, they had the opportunity to learn the importance of experiencing intimacy without having sex, which had made their relationship stronger. It was a blind test of faith for Kelli because she had no idea what they were missing. On the other hand, he had learned that there was more to being with a woman than physical contact. Those lessons had served them both well over the past few years. "Then I reckon we're back to agreein' on somethin' already."
"I'll go along with your wishes, for now." She turned for a second to frown at him. "Just don't plan to keep pissin' me off to push me away."
He dropped the strand of hair he was stroking, and squeezed the back of her neck. "Agreed although, I enjoy seein' the fire in your eyes when your Larabee temper flares up."
She pulled in front of the school, cut the engine, and shifted her position to face him. "I don't have your patience, but I promise to try if I slip "
"Then, I'll be there to catch you." He leaned in and lightly brushed his lips against hers. "We'll make it through this Kel we have too much goin' for us not to."
Brodie drove, giving Chris a chance to deal with his throbbing headache. "We were lucky today."
"Yeah, you told me this was coming though, I just hoped we had a little more time before the shit hit the fan."
Hesitating for a second, Brodie sighed and brought up something that was troubling him. "When I reached the top of that slide .I saw y'all on your knees, with those bastards ready to pull the trigger, and my heart almost stopped. Then, out of nowhere. I hell, did I see what I thought I saw? Did I really see seven men on horseback scare the bejeezus out of them? "
Chris grinned. "Let's just say you aren't going nuts, and leave it at that for now. I have a feeling that you'll understand it all sooner than you might expect." He decided to change the subject as they pulled in behind Kelli's Navigator. He nodded in that direction. "It appears our kids might be headed back on the right track again."
Hawks saw Vin lean in and kiss his wife. "Lord I hope so; this worried father stuff is starting to get to me."
"Get used to it I don't care how old they get Father's worry," he glanced at Brodie, "and I'd say you have moved into full dad mode."
"I reckon I had a long talk with Kel this morning. It made me realize that she and Vin understand one another better than I thought." Brodie grinned. "I know I have an extraordinary son, but you also have an amazing daughter."
"I think they're both special...guess that's why fate put 'em together."
"I haven't thought much about fate and destiny in a long time, 'till recently, but now I might have to rethink a few things."
"You just might." Chris's cell rang; he answered, listened, and then said, "Good news. Thanks Walter." Snapping it shut he told Brodie, "Forensics had the truck towed, and Bones had the bodies hauled off to the morgue."
Brodie watched Vin and Kelli exit their truck and stand together beside it to wait on the kids. He reached for the door handle. "Guess we should tell them."
Chris opened his door. "Now we can go straight home, settle all the kids, and then we have some planning to do."
"Calm down, Patron, I hear you, but, you must understand, we had very little time to pull this together." Ray Montoya sighed as Carlos Chavez ranted at him through the phone. Another plan has failed, and the cartels are getting antsier by the day.
"My operative is in Denver now. Together we will defeat this team. Tell our amigos we will deliver they just need to be patient. The next big strike we make will be all we need."
Closing down the call, Montoya sent a text message: 'Armaments on way. Prepare for Armageddon.'
Cait, Barbara, and Rain did not want to miss anything important during the family discussion. They decided to order their meal from the closest restaurant, instead of spending all their time cooking. It was easy to talk Walter into picking up the food when he made the pizza run for the kids. Ready to serve, when Chris gave the go ahead, they joined their men to wait for the others to arrive.
Buck and Inez walked in holding hands, unaware of the smiles on Chris, Ezra, and Nathan's faces. It was good to see the Wilmingtons at least acting normal again. Except for the fact that they had gathered to discuss the danger headed their way, it could have been any other Wild Bunch get-together.
Josiah and Mallory arrived next. She immediately went over to offer the women help with dinner, while he walked directly over to Chris.
"I just talked with Father Rafferty." Josiah accepted the beer Chris offered him. "Under the circumstances he suggested we continue the sessions here on the ranch. He's willing to come, but he had to adjust his schedule to do so."
"When can he be here?"
"Instead of Wednesday morning, he moved the next one to tomorrow afternoon at three."
Chris nodded. "We'll have that one here. After that, we can rotate from one of our homes to another. I feel better knowing we won't be setting ourselves up as a target again."
"I'll pass the word to our brothers." Josiah looked around. "It appears they're all here except for Vin and JD."
"They should both be on their way. When they arrive, we'll get started."
After depositing the kids safely at Reins, Talia pulled JD's truck in alongside the other parked vehicles at Chris's. They looked at each other, goofy smiles instantly adorning their faces. Talia slid closer, and the couple kissed, long and sensually, stopping eventually as they realized they wanted to do so much more. Their private moments kept them focused on one another. Neither heard another vehicle pull in alongside JD's. When Tanner slapped the palm of his hand on the back window, both JD and Talia jumped.
Jumping out of his truck ready to fight, JD shook his head when he saw Vin standing there with a big grin on his face. "Damnit Vin, give a guy a heart attack why don't you."
"Hell, kid. I thought you knew better than to make out when the family was around." Vin held tight to his wife's hand. "Try the barn next time. I know from personal experience y'all will have a little more privacy." He winked at Kelli." It always worked for me and Kel."
Walking behind them, Brodie grinned. He was not sure what changed for his son today, but it felt good to hear Vin in a teasing mood, and to see him trying to get his life back to somewhere near normal.
JD nodded. "Next time, I'll make sure you're wearing a damn bell." He held out his hand to assist Talia from the truck. "You gotta watch him. He might be an ex- ranger, but his special ops training stuck with him. Vin moves like a ghost. He just appears when you least expect him, you never hear him coming."
Talia cut her eyes towards Tanner, and smiled. "I'll remember that."
Brodie was tired of waiting. "Okay kids, can we move on. I'm hungry."
They all headed for the porch. Bringing up the rear and walking hand in hand, JD halted and looked at Talia. "Before we go inside, I have something I need to ask you."
Chris nodded to Brodie, and then relaxed when he saw Vin come through the door behind him. He was especially pleased to see Kelli beside her husband, and moved across the room to greet them. Chris patted Vin on the shoulder. "Down to using one crutch I see.
"Yep, and in a couple of days, this one will be gone."
"Shoot, Vin, you'll be outrunning all of us before you know it." Larabee then hugged his daughter, and glanced to Hawks. "Any sign of JD out there?"
"He was right behind us." Brodie smiled. "I think that little gal of his might have sidetracked him again."
"There they are." Chris saw JD walk in with Talia. He raised his voice to get everyone's attention, "Okay, gang, find a place to sit. I have a couple of announcements to make."
Chris stood with Brodie and Walter, waiting for his Wild Bunch to find a comfortable spot. They had already decided how to explain the new men coming onto the ranch, and made a list of what they needed the family to do.
"You all know by now that we have a potential problem one that could affect everyone who lives on Larabee 7. We were caught off guard this afternoon, but there are a few things we can do to be better prepared in the future. First comes security, and I'll let Walter and Brodie tell you what they're doing."
Walter nodded. "I have six men coming in tomorrow to beef up our security team. They are all experienced, vetted, and here to make things easier for us. They will give me enough men to keep a two-man patrol on the ranch road, at all times. We'll be double and triple checking our fence lines, and reinforcing the measures we already have in place."
Brodie stepped forward, while Walter passed several clipboards around. "We already have a schedule worked out for taking the children to and from school. Other than that, we need y'all to list any appointments, planned outings, or necessary shopping trips you have planned. It's important that we know where everyone is at all times, and at least one, armed man will accompany anyone who needs to leave the ranch. Walter and I will make a master list, and assign someone to escort y'all on each excursion."
Chris continued. "I know this is damned inconvenient for all of you. However, we are doing what we need to neutralize the threat to our families, and ourselves, and I want to err on the side of caution. Travis is also sending two MCAT agents, Raphael Cordova and Mike Langley, to stay with us until we have a handle on what to expect. MCAT is working on their end, and we have access to a few other sources. We do have reason to believe that the attack on Buck and Vin is related to the current threat on our team. I'm confident that between us, we'll find out who is behind all this, and put them away permanently. Any questions?"
Buck had one. "For some reason my appetite is back with a vengeance. Can we eat now?"
Everyone laughed as Chris answered, "Yeah, just try to leave some for the rest of us."
Vin stood and balancing on one crutch, reached into his pocket for an extra set of keys to his truck. "Before I forget," He tossed them to Chris, "You need wheels. Use mine until you figure out what to do about the Ram. You can run us home tonight, and then keep the Silverado as long as you need to."
"Thanks, but that only leaves you with one vehicle for you, Kel, and Brodie to share."
Vin looked at his wife. "Kel won't be goin' anywhere alone, and I'll be able to drive in a couple of days. Her Navigator will do for us, and Brodie has a friend bringin' his truck in tomorrow, so we're good."
JD playfully punched Vin in the side. "Can we move it along here? Buck is already at the table." He and Talia went around Chris and Vin to head toward the food.
"Guess if we want to eat, we should get over there, too." Chris grinned as he allowed Vin to go before him. It felt good to see normal ribbing between his brothers again.
The dinner was going well. Banter was light with everyone interacting, to a degree, which was a far cry from their usual exuberant get-togethers, but considerably better than they had hoped. Although nowhere close to their normal selves, Buck and Vin had been energized by the days' events, talking positively about the need to be more aware during even the simplest of tasks.
Chris reiterated his earlier directive that no one was to leave the ranch without an escort, which prompted Talia to ask to be heard after glancing at JD and receiving a coy grin and a nod.
"I don't know if I'm included in this, but sometime in the next few days, I need to get into town to collect some boxes from Texas."
Chris smiled as all eyes turned to her. "You're with us, honey, you're very much included. May I ask what you're collecting?" He noted her glance to JD and the young man blush, slightly.
"Earlier, JD asked me to stay on and I said yes." She grinned, broadly. "I intend to resign from my job, and I had already asked my mom to send me a few things for the interim now I'll be asking her to add a lot more if that's okay with y'all."
The place erupted with teasing calls as well as words of congratulations, Buck's 'you sly dog', and deep chuckle, warming JD's heart as he tossed him a mock scolding glance. He raised the hand in the sling enough to settle them down, taking Talia's hand in his good one.
"We know this is a little fast, and we intend taking this a step at a time but it just felt right."
Each man glanced at his own partner, Brodie just nodded.
"Kid," Chris said, smiling at Cait. "We know from personal experience, fate sometimes takes us in unexpected directions. I'm real happy for you both." They all nodded at Chris's words.
JD beamed. "Thanks, that means a lot to me."
"Let me know when you need to collect your things and I'll take you myself."
"Thank you Mister Hawks," Talia smiled.
"No problem, and it's Brodie."
Clearing the dishes, the women gently corralled Talia in the kitchen to ask about her home and family, and whether she planned to continue nursing now that she was quitting her job in Texas. JD smiled, flattered that they cared enough to want to know about the lady he had asked to be a part of his and his kids' lives.
"You're sure about this?"
JD looked at Buck as he joined him. "Yeah, I think so. I guess time will tell."
"Do you love her?"
Shrugging, JD sipped on his Coke. "No, I can't honestly say it's love yet, but I care deeply."
"That's a good start," Buck smiled, his gaze falling on the open neck collar of JD's shirt, showing off the bruising he had shared with Buck at the session that morning. "We have to talk about " Buck pointed at JD's throat before resting his arm on the smaller man's shoulder.
"There's plenty of time," JD assured, grinning as the rest of his brothers sauntered over to give him their 'third degree' over his decision to ask Talia to stay.
Vin tilted his head at Ezra indicating he wanted to talk. The two moved onto the deck.
Ezra waited until Vin settled himself in a lounger, and then asked, "Something on your mind?''
"Yeah. I find I'm missin' a few credit cards, and while I was away, my wife evidently juggled our finances."
"Don't worry about the cards. I took the liberty as yours and Buck's attorney to contact the cardholders, and place a stop on y'all's accounts. You both should be receiving new cards soon. As for your financial situation," he sighed, "that may take a detailed look at the transactions Kel made in your absence."
Vin nodded. "If you can come over in the mornin', I'll corral her long enough for you to ask what you need to. I know she did what she thought she had to, but I'll feel better once we get things back where they should be."
Ezra was pleased that Vin was taking an interest in the routine matters of his life. It meant he was slowly getting back to thinking like the brother he knew and loved. "I'll be there early." Standish paused before he said what else was on his mind. "Vin, if you want to talk or need anything I'm here."
"I know, and I appreciate it. For now though, I reckon I just need to take things one-step at a time."
"You need assistance back inside?"
Vin shook his head. "Think I'll stay out here a while. It's nice to look up and see open sky .there were a few times in Columbia, I thought I'd never see the stars again."
Swallowing the lump in his throat, Ezra nodded. He gripped Tanner's shoulder. "I'll leave you to it then. You enjoy the view, and don't worry about anything else. We've got your back." He walked back inside, found his wife, and hugged her close. There was so much more Buck and Vin lost in South America than control of their lives. Ezra only now realized how fortunate they were to have them back at all.
Buck eased his way out onto the porch to find Vin, sitting and gazing up at the stars. "How you doing?"
"Better than I was, worse than I'd like. You?"
"'Bout the same. Guess you heard, Josiah suggested that Rafferty come here for our sessions to save us from traveling in a group."
Vin shrugged. "Makes sense, I guess." He looked as Buck sat next to him. "They're gonna expect us to share what we went through."
Buck nodded. "I know, but how the hell do we even begin to tell em? I mean all of it was bad, but that damn video I can't get it out of my head "
"Me neither, but we have to find a way. Our sanity and my marriage depend on it."
Buck rubbed his hands over his face. "I have to tell Inez, too she deserves to know why I've behaved the way I have since we came home."
"Agreed, but I need to be able to be at peace with it myself, before I can say it out loud to anyone else."
"If that's even possible...to find peace, I mean."
"We have to, Bucklin or we'll lose everythin'." He shifted in his seat. "Reckon we owe it to everyone to try they've been there for us, and stood by us. They ain't about to let go anytime soon."
Buck nodded, squeezing Vin's arm. "Thank God," he whispered.
Chris walked out, and stopped. He was hesitant about interrupting their discussion.
"Join the party, Cowboy. We're only plottin' ways to get y'all to catch up on all our paperwork. We reckon Travis has a stack about three feet tall waitin' on us."
"I wouldn't worry too much about that." Chris grinned. "I know your boss and I'll put in a good word for you."
"I'd feel better when I get my service weapon replaced, and a new badge." Buck sighed. "Feel kinda naked without 'em"
"Travis has already taken care of all that. Raphael is bringing both of your new ID's and service weapons with him tomorrow." Chris looked to Vin. "If you're ready, I'll run you, Kel, and Brodie to your house. Max is bringing your kids home with her."
Vin nodded, gripped Buck's shoulder, and used his crutch to get to his feet. "See you tomorrow, Bucklin."
"You need to add your hospital appointment to the list, tomorrow," Talia reminded him. "Judging by the way your shoulder's healing, I reckon you'll be out of that sling very soon."
JD nodded as he clicked off the lamps to retire for the night. "It feels great compared to what it was a week ago." He pulled her close and she giggled. "That might have a lot to do with a very special nurse I know." They kissed, deeply, recognizing quickly that they were in need of much more. JD pulled back, his hand stroking Talia's cheek as he gazed into her eyes.
"You know I want you God, how I want you right now." His gaze dropped down, his head rising as Talia pulled at his chin.
JD nodded. "They haven't really gotten over their mama leaving them, yet. If they should find us in bed together "
Talia smiled broadly. "You really are special, you know that?"
Blushing, JD grinned.
"Well, the kids are in daycare all day tomorrow," wickedly she smiled, leaning in to give him a face-sucking kiss that nearly dropped him to the floor. "I guess that'll have to hold you until then. Goodnight."
Staring after her, JD grinned. "Whoo!"
Once the children were back at home, baths, bedtime stories, and goodnights claimed the next couple of hours. Brodie had closed himself up in Tanner's office, while Kelli and Vin put the twins down for the night. Bren was the last holdout for dreamland, and as soon as he was asleep, his parents quietly exited the room.
Kelli was very aware of how close Vin was when she closed the door. She tried to quell her racing pulse, but felt as nervous as she did the first time she was alone with him. "I reckon I should turn in, too. They'll be up and energized for a new day by six."
"I know." Standing here so close to his wife, Vin realized how much he missed her. Leaning his crutch against the wall, he reached for her, and drew her to him. He kissed her slowly and thoroughly, testing his own limits as well as hers. With his hands, he left no delicate curve untouched. Heat radiated between them, as she pressed against his muscular chest. With his mouth, he claimed the soft skin on her neck. He felt the vibrations from her throat of the soft sexy sounds she was making and he was fast losing control. Suddenly, strength he did not know he had emerged, forcing him to rethink what he was doing. *Don't ruin your chance to do this right. It's too soon. Discipline yourself to wait*. Taking a deep breath, he released her. Gently brushing her hair back, he hoarsely whispered, "We're not makin' love, until we can talk, baby, and I can't do that yet. Go to bed, and remember I love you."
Swallowing hard, Kelli reached up and touched his cheek. "I promised you I'd give you time. Just don't make me wait too long, Tanner."
Turning his head to kiss her fingers, Vin said, "Soon baby soon, now go please."
Kelli nodded, and turned toward their bedroom. Vin watched her until she went inside and closed the door. He retrieved his crutch, and headed in the opposite direction. When he stopped in the kitchen to get a bottle of water from the pantry, he ran into Brodie.
"You look as if you need something stronger than water." Brodie reached in to the refrigerator and pulled out two beers, offering one to Tanner.
Taking it, Vin said, "Thanks." He walked over, opened the door, and started to move onto the porch, throwing a question to Brodie. "You gonna stand there or join me?"
Brodie nodded. "Reckon I might at that."
They stood in silence for a few minutes, taking in the clear starlit night. Finally, Vin started talking, "I owe you an apology. Somewhere between here and Columbia, I lost what good sense I had, and started thinking crazy. Got it in my head that you and Kel were well let's just say I made an ass of myself with her, and temporarily forgot that you're a man I've always trusted."
"Vin, you don't owe me a thing. I know Wilder's reputation. He was damn good at what he did. Believe me; he studied everything about you to find the best way to go about breaking you. The fact that we're even standing here talking is a testament to your strength."
Shaking his head, Vin disagreed. "He did a number on me .the physical stuff I could handle okay. It was screwin' with my mind that got me. I'm havin' a hard time turnin' loose of the shit he planted in my thoughts. Hell, you trained me to resist that crap and now look at me."
"When I trained you, you were single, had no emotional ties to anyone, and had already hardened yourself to fight anyone who tried to mess with your mind." Brodie took a sip from his bottle. "You're a long way from being that solitary kid, who reported to duty at eighteen. A man who has emotional ties and a family is vulnerable to men like Wilder. He knew he'd never get to you using only physical torture, so he used the fact that there are people you love against you."
Vin looked up. "You know how he used Kel and Chris to get to me?"
"No, but I have a good idea, and when you were swinging that bat around, you called out for them. I've been in this business long enough to put two and two together."
Sighing, Vin nodded. "You would understand, but how the hell can I tell JD, Ezra or any of 'em what happened without it turnin' their stomachs? Chris might have an idea of how bad it was, but even he can't fully imagine what Buck and I were put through .and Kel how do I explain to her why I treated her so badly and expect her to look at me the same again?"
Brodie hated to see his son in so much pain. "Vin, what Wilder did, he did to you it has nothing to do with who you are. The people who love you know that. Hell, if it makes it easier for you, pretend you're talking to them just like you're here talking with me. They won't think less of you because of what that bastard did, any more than I do."
"I've made some really bad choices since I got back some won't be easy to forgive."
"I know about bad choices I've made a few myself that I wish I could go back and change." Hawks laid his hand on Vin's shoulder. "Don't be like me and wish thirty years from now you'd done things differently. You have an opportunity to set your life right now take it."
Vin met Brodie's gaze, and saw nothing but encouragement in his eyes. "You interested in sittin' in on my sessions with Rafferty? Knowin' that at least you won't be shocked at what you hear, might make talkin' about it easier."
Brodie nodded, and swallowed the knot of emotion lodged in his throat. "If it'll help you, I'll be there."
"All right, then. Reckon I should turn in for the night." Vin tossed his empty beer bottle in the trashcan. "See you in the mornin'."
James Tanner watched his son head back into the house, and then did something he had not done in a long time. He prayed asking for a chance to right the wrong he done so long ago.
Returning to his room for the first time since morning, Vin flipped the light on as he walked inside. The first thing he noticed was his favorite comforter laying on the bed, then the pictures of their children sitting on the dresser, and his personal journal lay on the nightstand next to a reading lamp. He smiled, recognizing Kelli's hand in the makeover of his temporary sleeping quarters. Turning the lamp on, and the overhead light off, he stripped off his clothes, and climbed into bed.
Picking up his journal, he realized he had not added anything to it in over three weeks. When he opened the book, he found several envelopes, each one labeled in his wife's handwriting 'Special excerpts from my book of memories.' The accompanying note instructed him to read one per day. Curious, he picked one and ripped it open. Inside he read:
Tonight I had another one of my reoccurring nightmares a bad one. I didn't want to wake Vin, but he was there beside me as I stumbled toward the bathroom to be sick. I was shaking so badly, all I could do was cry, sit on the floor, and lay my head on the cool porcelain of the bathtub. Vin grabbed a washcloth and ran water over it. He sat on the floor next to me, pulled me close, and tenderly washed my face and neck. Then he cradled me against him and gently rocked, as he softly whispered soothing words to calm me. It was at least twenty minutes before I could move, and I was hesitant to meet his eyes because I was certain my loss of control disgusted him, but he was waiting for me to look up. I'll never forget what he said, "I told you, we would handle this together, and I'm not goin' anywhere. I'm a Tanner, stubborn as hell, and I've never quit on anythin' in my life. You are just as strong or you would not have survived to become the woman you are. I figure between the two of us, we can take on these nightmares and send them back to hell, where they belong."
And we did
Vin folded 'the memory' and tucked it into the back of his journal. He remembered that night and how much he wanted to make her pain and those vicious nightmares go away this was her way of saying she wanted his to go away too. Taking his pen, he wrote a short piece in his journal, then took a blank sheet of paper, and penned a memory of his own. Tomorrow he would slip it onto the nightstand next to their bed for his wife to find. When he finally turned off the lamp, he felt better than he had since that ill-fated morning he had left for Texas. Brodie had reminded him that he did have a choice in how this all turned out, and Kelli reminded him of who he was He was a Tanner, and had never quit on anything in his life .now was not the time to change that. Tomorrow he was going to start fighting his way back into his life and for the first time since he returned from Columbia he was confident he would succeed.
Larabee 7, Tuesday Morning
Having slept through the night without experiencing another night terror, Vin was up early. It felt good to be standing in his own kitchen, making coffee, and eagerly waiting for the chaos he knew was coming. This was his home his family, and his life. He smiled when Kelli came in, carrying Bren.
Reaching for his son with one arm, he slipped the other around his wife's waist, pulling her close for a good morning kiss. Taking a good look at her face, he saw the tired lines around her eyes. "Rough night, baby?"
"This little one is cuttin' a tooth, and was awake half the night." She sighed. "Then, my dreams kept wakin' me when I did get a chance to sleep."
Shifting his hold on Bren, Vin traced her facial features with his fingers. "If you're worried about Ezra comin' over to straighten out our finances don't. I understand you did what you had to, and we'll be fine."
Lifting her gaze to his eyes, she shook her head. "I'm not worried about that... If we'd lost everythin', we'd still be fine. Without you, the trusts, the house, the land, or the balance in our bank account doesn't matter."
"We will be all right Kel, in all respects, I promise." He caressed her neck. "Thanks for leavin' me your memories they helped keep the nightmares away last night."
"I have plenty if you need more. In fact, I have a whole book of 'em. They're what kept me goin' when Trey and I were lost they'll keep us goin 'til' you exorcise your demons."
Vin nodded. "I'm gettin' there Now, what do we have to do to help you sleep?"
"It wasn't bad dreams that bothered me " She stepped back from his embrace, and turned to pour herself a cup of coffee. "Let's just not push ourselves like we did last night."
Suddenly it dawned on Vin what she meant. He'd spent a long time taking a cold shower this morning for the same reason. While he hated to put her through the same discomfort, it proved to him that he had not completely destroyed the physical part of their love. She still wanted him, and once they talked through what happened, they could find their way back to a satisfying love life. The thought of working their way back to that point made him grin. "I can't promise that, baby. I told you I had a plan to put us back together. That includes physically, as well as mentally, and emotionally. I want it all." He reached over and patted her on the butt, his hand lingering for a few extra seconds. "All's fair in love and war."
Kelli turned around and tried her best to glare at him. "Unless you want war Tanner, you'd best move things along a lot quicker. I don't plan to spend all my nights fightin' erotic dreams."
Vin only grinned, and talked to his son. "Bren, you'll have to be patient with your mama. She may be a little cranky for a while. When you get older, you'll understand. If you don't then I'll explain it to you."
Shaking her head, Kelli took her coffee, and headed for the porch. The sound of her husband's laughter followed her, but it also gave her hope again for their future.
Walter and Brodie took their coffee onto the Tanners' deck, spread their lists on the table, and sat down. It sounded easy enough to cover everyone when they were off the ranch, but it took a good amount of coordinating to do it right.
"I'm taking Talia to pick up her stuff from Texas, so I might as well cover JD for his doctor appointment, while we're out." Brodie checked those two errands on the master list. "We need to make arrangements for the kids after school."
"Mallory and I are pickin' 'em up today. I'll have one of the men follow us just in case we run into trouble."
Brodie nodded. "What about Father Rafferty? I know he's coming here for the counseling session later."
Walter chuckled. "He told Josiah he had God as an escort, and that's all he needed."
Vin came out to join them. "Anythin' I can do?"
"Yeah. Get that damn foot healed enough to wear a shoe, and we'll have you running all over the place." Hawks eyed the sock Tanner was wearing on his injured foot. "I noticed your next doctor's appointment was not listed last night."
"That's because I didn't list it." Vin pulled out a chair and sat down with them. "I can put my weight on it now, and walk pretty well without any crutches. By tomorrow I should be able to slip on a boot."
Walter furrowed his brows and said, "So you're not goin' back to the doc?"
Walking up the steps, and followed by two men, Chris heard the exchange. "If he doesn't, Doc Gilford might just personally hunt him down." He grinned, and stepped aside to make introductions. "Walter you've met Raphael, this one is Michael Langley."
"Pleased to meet you, Michael," Walter said as he stood, shook his hand, and then slapped Raphael on the shoulder. "Good to see you again."
Chris continued. "Brodie Hawks, meet Raphael Cordova, damn good agent, and a qualified pilot. Michael Langley, new to MCAT, but former ATF, and according to Captain Tanner over there, he has the makings of a fine sharpshooter." Chris sat down next to Tanner
Hawks stood and greeted them, "Nice to have y'all onboard."
"Of course you both already know Vin."
Vin started to stand, but Raphael gripped his shoulder to keep him seated, as he laid his and Buck's new IDs, badges, and service weapons in front of him. "Good to have you back, friend."
"Thanks, and it's good to be back. I'll make sure Wilmington gets his." Vin gripped his hand, and then nodded to Mike. "Welcome to Larabee 7."
Walter told them. "I'll show y'all where you'll be bunkin', and then give you somethin' to do."
Brodie stood, too. "My men won't be in until noon. In the meantime, I'm going to take JD and his girl to pick up her stuff, and then take him to his doctor's appointment."
Langley and Cordova exchanged glances. Raphael mouthed to Mike; 'JD's girl' .That was definitely something they would ask about later.
"See you later." Chris waited until it was just him and Vin, giving Tanner a visual assessment. "You look better this morning. Did you sleep okay?"
"Missed havin' my nightly nightmare for a change." He glanced at Chris. "Yeah, I'm doin' okay. I managed to put a few things in perspective last night, too."
Chris nodded. "That's good to hear. You ready for today's session?"
Vin laughed. "Actually, I think I'd rather go fishin', but I realize the road back for me runs through those sessions." He paused for a second, before saying, "I asked Brodie to sit in on 'em."
Chris was surprised, but pleased to know he had his thoughts straight about Brodie again. "He's a good man, Vin, and I know he cares about your welfare. If you're comfortable with him there that's all that matters."
"I don't want any of you to think I'm choosin' him over y'all. It's he trained me Chris. I may have forgotten for a while, but he's a man I trust as much as I do you." Vin shook his head. "I can't explain why, since we've never been what you call close friends, but he probably understands me, as well as you do."
It was hard for Chris to withhold anything from Vin, but he forced all thoughts about Brodie's identity aside. "You've always followed your gut feelings, no reason not to now." He stood and patted Vin on the shoulder. "I need to run over to Reins. If you need anything just yell."
Standing, Tanner said, "Actually, I need you to drop me at Buck's. I want to talk to him before our session."
"No problem, I'll pick you up when I'm done at Reins."
Inez hugged Vin when he walked in. "It is good to see you in my home again, Vincent."
"Thanks, Inez. It feels good to be movin' around." He stood back and looked at her. "You're as beautiful as ever."
"And you are just as charming."
Buck was finishing breakfast. "There's plenty, if you're hungry."
"Naw, I'm good. I just wanted to bring these over," he laid down Buck's new MCAT equipment, "and talk with you for a few minutes." He took the cup of coffee Inez handed him, nodding his thanks. "I can wait 'til you're done eatin'."
Nodding, Buck slipped his new ID and badge into his pocket and grasped his service weapon. He sighed, and looked at Vin, "One more step, right?"
Grabbing his cup, Buck stood, refilled it, and said, "I'm done. We can talk on the porch if you want."
The two moved onto the deck and sat down side by side.
"You're getting around a helluva lot better. If you didn't have just a sock on that foot, it'd be hard for anyone to know you were injured." Buck glanced at his brother. "But you didn't come over here to talk about your foot."
"No I wanted to talk about our session today. I know you don't particularly like him, but I asked Brodie to sit in. He understands about the kind of stuff we went through." Vin met Buck's gaze. "I'll tell him not to though, if you're uncomfortable about it."
"Hell, I don't really know him well enough to dislike him." Buck sighed. "You do know him, and if you want him there, I guess it don't matter to me. The truth is, I'm not looking forward to telling anyone what we went through, and having another body in the room won't make a difference."
Vin stared off toward the mountains, and for a while, they sat without saying a word. Finally, Tanner broke the silence. "While we were in Columbia I thought we'd never see this place again. We made it back alive for a reason, and I'm ready to start tryin' to put that shit behind me. If talkin' about it is how I have to do it then I reckon talkin' about it is no worse than livin' through it."
"All I know for certain is that we made it this far, and I sure as hell don't want to go back. So we tell 'em what they need to hear and move forward."
"Agreed." Tanner watched Larabee drive up in his Ram. "There's my ride. You want to visit with Chris before we leave?"
"Tell him I said hello. I think I'll save visiting for after we get through this counseling stuff. If any of 'em still want to visit after that I'll sit with 'em the whole day and talk."
Vin stood, squeezed Buck's arm, and said. "They will and we'll want them to the sooner we get it all out, the sooner things will shift back closer to normal for us."
Buck nodded. "I'm ready for something to be normal maybe today is the day our nightmare finally ends."
"See you at Chris's." Vin slowly walked out to meet Chris, gave him Buck's message, and then they headed to Tanner's house.
A knock at the door, had JD ushering Talia into the girls' bedroom with the kids, as he reached around his back for his gun and called out. "Who's there?"
Brodie's voice floated through the solid oak door. "It's Hawks, JD."
Checking before unlocking the door, JD smiled as he let the man in. "Hi. Is it okay to drop the kids at Reins, first?"
Brodie smiled. "Sure. You all set?"
JD nodded. "Yep. I'll just go get " He grinned as the girls ran at him and Brodie, squealing as they clung to both men's legs. JD chuckled at Brodie's expression.
"Sorry, I guess they kinda like you."
Brodie smiled at the girls, and tweaked each of their noses. "I reckon I could get used to that."
Halfway to the hospital, JD addressed the morning's itinerary. "Just drop me off at the hospital and pick me up after Talia gets her stuff from the freight office. That'll cut down on "
"We stay together," Hawks stated. His glance to JD made it clear there was no room for argument.
JD nodded. "Sure, sorry."
Hawks smiled. "I know you're used to taking care of yourself under normal circumstances, Kid, but circumstances right now are anything but normal."
"I know, I just thought " he nodded, "Never mind, let's do it."
All the way from the hospital to the freight office, JD flexed his shoulder. It felt good to feel it moving freely with no more than a dull ache and a little stiffness. Talia squeezed his hand and he smiled at her, glancing out of the window as he realized they had arrived.
"Four crates, you say?" Brodie checked.
"Yes," Talia confirmed as all three exited the truck. They were about to enter the collection depot when Talia stopped them, took JD's hands and looked him in the eye. "Are you sure, now?"
JD smiled, leaned in, and kissed her on the lips. "Yeah, I'm sure," he said, softly. With a huge grin from the young nurse, the three continued inside.
On the way home, Brodie grinned to himself as Talia excitedly talked about re-decorating the room she had taken, JD nodding dutifully, but was obviously watching the passing countryside. *Understandable after yesterday's ambush.* The next time he glanced in his rear-view mirror; he frowned and hit the gas.
JD instantly became interested. "Problem?"
"I think we're being followed. Hold on."
Hearing a soft gasp from Talia, JD touched a hand to her face. "I swear to you, it's gonna be fine." He saw her nod vigorously; proud that she trusted them so much. He pulled out his gun. "Anything?"
"They're still with us," Brodie confirmed, going even faster. Suddenly the back window shattered and Talia screamed as she, Brodie, and JD ducked.
"Shit!" JD looked out of the broken window, about to fire.
"Get the hell down, JD that's an order!" Brodie yelled.
"I'm covering you!" Dunne yelled back, indignantly.
"Forget me, I'm expendable, you're not. Down!"
The second shot persuaded JD to do so, for now. He hugged a trembling, hunched up Talia. "It's gonna be okay, we're almost home." Watching as Brodie called ahead to the ranch, JD decided he was not about to lie down on the job and turned toward the rear window, ready to meet any more gunfire.
"Shit, they're gaining."
"Tell me something I don't know," Brodie cursed, his foot pushing the accelerator, knowing they were traveling too fast for this type of road.
"I think I can take out a tire."
"Back-up's coming, stay down." As Brodie spoke, he saw two vehicles, in the distance, hurtling toward them. The following truck suddenly made a sharp one hundred eighty degree turn, and raced off in the opposite direction.
JD couldn't help whooping as the two trucks raced past them in pursuit of the retreating vehicle. "Are we gonna help?"
"No," Hawks stated, "we keep going."
Chris was on his front deck, pacing. Walter had called to apprise him of the situation, and one by one, the other brothers had arrived.
"Anythin'?" Vin asked, hopping from the Navigator the second Kelli threw it into park.
"No," Chris said tightly, his eyes never leaving the direction of the main gate.
"Chris?" Buck asked, as he approached with Ezra, Nathan, and Josiah, close behind him.
"You know as much as I do," Chris answered. The sound of a speeding, over-revved vehicle tearing over gravel as it neared, had them all looking down the road. They held back their relief, while they waited for it to stop and reveal whether anyone was hurt.
As they halted, Brodie jumped out and pulled open the back door. JD eased Talia over the glass and into Brodie's arms; the man lifted her gently to the ground, and then embraced her.
Kelli immediately stepped forward and took the girl from Hawks. "Come on let's go get a drink and sit awhile."
Talia glanced back at JD, who gave a tight smile and a nod. Exhaling, as he exited the truck, he bent over and rested his hands just above his knees, while he waited for his breathing to return to normal, and the trembling from either the adrenaline rush, or shock, he wasn't sure which, to dissipate.
A little breathless himself, Hawks looked at the five anxious faces, and nodded to their silent question.
Buck approached JD, his hand resting on the bent back. "You okay, Kid?"
Nodding, JD straightened, his gaze moving to Brodie. As they made eye contact, he strode meaningfully toward the older man, both hands pushing Brodie hard in the chest, much to the surprise of all gathered there. Despite the impact causing a shockwave of pain through his shoulder, JD's glare was unwavering; the index finger of his raised hand waving in Hawk's face. "No one, but no one, is expendable you got that? No one!" he ground out, loudly, through clenched teeth.
Brodie stared at the young agent, his features a mix of surprise, and growing amusement. Snatching up the smaller man, he gave him a tight clinch, patting his back hard, twice, before releasing him and holding him at arm's length. "Got it."
Nodding his approval, JD took another deep breath and looked at his startled brothers. "I need a drink."
"Let's get a coffee " Buck started.
"No, I mean a real drink," JD stated.
Turning back to Hawks, JD's gaze softened. "Thanks."
Brodie nodded his reply.
Buck grinned. "Come on, I know where Chris hides the good stuff."
They watched them leave, and then the remainder of the seven stared at Brodie, waiting for an explanation. "I guess he told me," Hawks grinned.
Guessing what had transpired, Chris spoke, softly. "JD's right, no one's expendable."
Hawks nodded. "I'll keep that in mind." He didn't share the warmth that moved through him as those words penetrated his warrior's soul.
All eyes turned to the returning vehicles and the men exiting them as they reported to Hawks. "They didn't make it. Missed a bad bend went off the road, flipped, and blew. No survivors. We got a clean-up crew on it."
Brodie looked at Vin and Chris. "Damnnit."
Talia took the coffee from Kelli, nodding gratefully as her shaking hands grasped the cup.
"How are you doing?" Kelli asked, smiling as she took a seat next to her.
"I've had better days," she replied.
"If you walked away now, JD would think no less of you, and neither would the rest of us."
"Well, I would," she said, determinedly. "So I guess I'm seeing this through to the end."
Kelli grinned and hugged the younger woman. "Girl, it's a wild ride, but you're gonna love it." Seeing JD and Buck enter, she moved back outside and left the three together.
"I'll go get that drink," Buck offered and left JD and Talia alone.
Talia stood and then she and JD embraced, fiercely. "I'm so sorry," JD whispered in her ear.
"Don't be," she answered. "Just hold me."
Returning, Buck winked at JD, and quietly placed a glass of whiskey on the coffee table for him, before joining the others outside.
Pulling back, Talia looked at JD. "Wanna go home and make out?"
His brow furrowed. "Huh?"
A hint of a smile played on Talia's lips. "I need comfort, so it's either sex or food. I'm not hungry, so "
Placing his hands on either side of her face, he grinned, and then kissed her, soundly. "You said next time we'd make love, not sex."
"So I did." She licked his lips. "Well, making love takes hours," she said, huskily.
Ray Montoya was livid, and ranting, "Bastardos hijos de puta!" How the hell could something so simple cost him the lives of three of his best men? He sent out his next order by text. 'Begin payback immediately.'
Larabee Home, Tuesday Afternoon
Father Rafferty arrived a half hour early to prepare for the next session, and was pleased to see that Larabee had the den set-up for their meeting. He placed his hand on Chris's shoulder. "I know you're concerned, but I feel we made good progress with our last gathering. The support you and the others are giving Buck and Vin is exceptional."
"They'd do the same for any one of us, Father. We're family, and it's what families do."
"Indeed," He looked toward the door, "here comes your family now."
Rafferty excused himself, and asked Vin and Buck to join him in the den, before they began. Seeing them comfortably seated, he asked a question. "I have no doubt the path we're about to travel will be an arduous and painful one for you both. I feel though that how you travel that path is entirely your choice would you prefer a few consultations alone before you share your personal experiences?"
Glancing at each other, Vin answered for both of them. "We've talked about this. A few days ago, we'd have snatched your hand off at an offer like that. However even though we're still not sure how much we can share, we realized these men risked everythin' to come after us, and have asked for nothin' in return, but for us to give counselin' a chance. We decided we'd like to try this as a group with an option to change our minds if it all gets to be too much."
Albert smiled. "Very well. There's coffee and juice over there, help yourselves, and I'll go bring in the others."
Six men looked up as Father Rafferty entered the living room. "Before we start, I just needed to remind you this is going to be extremely painful and difficult for them. I will start by asking questions. Try not to interrupt when they talk unless they look for a response or ask a question. Be careful not to patronize, and if it becomes too much for any of you, look to me and I'll call a break. Okay?"
They all nodded and quietly filed in behind him.
After everyone settled with a beverage, Rafferty started straight in with a question. "Did you realize early on during your flight that you were being hijacked?"
Buck nodded. "As soon as the plane door closed, I turned to greet Mike our pilot, and saw a stranger standing there. It all went to hell in a hand basket from there. We scuffled, and that's when they broke my hand by stomping on it."
Vin continued, "They were waitin' for us. The way they had things planned, neither of us had much of an opportunity to fight it was all over in a couple of minutes. We didn't know if they wanted the plane if we were bein' kidnapped for a ransom or if they wanted to use us as hostages for some kind of terror attack."
Buck stood up and began to pace the room. "It wasn't until we landed that we both realized just how much trouble we were in " he shook his head. "In the military we always knew there was a possibility the enemy could capture us, and all we needed to do was repeat our name, rank, and serial number . but we weren't at war and this was not a matter of them wanting classified information. Hell, we had no idea at first what they wanted. We were isolated, and it was days before I knew if Vin was where I was, or if he was even still alive."
Vin glanced at Brodie. "Everythin' I'd ever been taught led me to expect bein' bound and stripped." He paused. "But wakin' up naked and hangin' by my wrists from a hook in a ceilin' no trainin' on earth can prepare you for how that truly feels. I expected to get the crap beaten outta me, but I'd forgotten just how fuckin' much it would hurt. I figured out early on though that Wilder wasn't after a damn thing he was just a sadist bastard who enjoyed inflictin' pain. He had this damn quirt he laughed with every lash he struck across my back."
JD and Ezra tried discreetly to wipe away their tears. The others were no less affected, but with military backgrounds, they knew just where Vin and Buck were coming from. The military would attempt to prepare you for the worst, but the reality was, there were some things that training drills could not imitate.
"Some of it seemed meaningless," Vin continued. "Heavy weights on my thighs hurt like hell but did little else . until he tied my head back and looped a cord around my throat that tightened with each added weight. Then then I thought I was gonna choke to death. That was when that was when Wilder cut my hair."
Nathan now understood how Vin obtained those horrible bruises on his thighs. He closed his eyes, and held them tight, in order not to show a reaction.
Buck swiped away a tear. "He beat me, over and over and I just stared at him, I was determined the bastard wouldn't break me." Buck stopped, unsure whether to continue. A quick look at JD, then Chris, and back to Vin, steeled him. "He took the baton and swung it hard at my groin, twice. I couldn't stop myself from crying out, but worse, I couldn't stop myself from peeing. Blood and urine poured down my legs and Wilder laughed he ridiculed me. Then he left me standing in my own piss and blood."
JD was beside himself, every bone in his body screaming out to go to Buck. He glanced nervously at Father Rafferty for guidance. Sensing his need, Buck looked at him and taking the lead, opened his arms. That was all the invitation JD needed, as he moved toward his best friend, the pair clung to each other, while Buck cried, softly. The brunette had shared his most humiliating memory and survived intact.
Father Rafferty decided a break was necessary. "Let's take a five minute recess. Stretch your legs, refill your cups or glasses, and then we'll continue."
Vin's gaze fell on Chris, his heart aching to see such sorrow in his best friend's eyes. *You okay?*
*You two survived that's all that matters.*
Brodie walked up and stood beside Vin. "You're doing fine, Lieutenant. The pain doesn't end when the beatings stop, but being able to talk about it shows that you won in the end."
"It's a long way from over there's still a lot I can't talk about yet."
Placing his hand on Vin's back, Brodie said, "Eventually you will though, and when you do, you'll be free of that bastard forever."
Pulling back, JD and Buck gazed at one another, a silent acknowledgement, passing between them as they held each other's forearms in a comforting support.
Rafferty called for their attention, and waited for them all to sit again. He leaned forward and spoke directly to Vin and Buck. "From what you both have recounted, I gather that neither of you had contact with the other at this point. I can only imagine how it made you each feel. Added to your physical pain, it must have at times, been almost unbearable. Are you comfortable sharing how you felt?"
Buck exchanged a glance with Vin, and then started. "After the first day, Wilder added to his physical assaults. He started fmessing with our minds. One time, just before he finally put us together, he came in, beat the hell out of me, and then set a recorder on a small table .for hours all I heard was a baby crying over and over he wanted me to believe it was one of my babies. At first, I knew better, but after a while it just that's all I could think about. What if " He stopped, unable to voice his worst fears.
Josiah listened, but his heart ached for his brothers. He was glad Father Rafferty had agreed to help because he knew he was too close to Vin and Buck to give them objective counseling.
Vin laid his hand on Buck's arm, and squeezed. "Y'all have to remember we had no idea if we were the only ones taken if our families were safe, or even where we were. Wilder played heavy on that told us that Chris and JD were in the other room and he was testin' out torture techniques on us before he tried 'em on them." He turned his head and blinked back tears. "By the time we were in the same room I reckon he'd done enough damage that even knowin' we were both alive it didn't help either of us much."
"The only reason he put us together was to see one react when the other was hurt." Buck bit his lip. They were getting too close to the real torture and he just wasn't ready to go there yet. "The hell I'd already experienced by Wilders hand was nothing next to what he had planned ." Buck began trembling ."I .I'm sorry I can't not yet."
Father Rafferty realized they had reached a new level, and whatever else had happened would have to wait, to be disclosed later. "I think we've covered a lot today, and we've made excellent progress. I suggest we stop for now, and then pick up again on Thursday. Is that agreeable?"
The wave of relief that swept over the room was almost physical. Chris stood. "We already agreed that the next session will be at Vin's. You name the time Father, and we'll be ready."
"Then let's say early . one 'o'clock." Father Rafferty took Chris's nod as affirmation, stood, and approached Buck and Vin. "With your permission, I'd like to say a prayer."
They both nodded, and everyone joined hands, as the priest began, "Most loving Heart of Jesus, bring health in body and spirit for our troubled brethren, extend your hand to me, O Lord that I may serve you with all my strength to help those who need help. Touch gently these lives, which you have created, now and forever. Amen."
Father Rafferty said his goodbyes. Chris closed the door behind him, and searched his brothers' faces. He saw the unshed tears, pain, anger, and all out exhaustion. "Why don't you all go home? We'll get together tomorrow and discuss the incident Brodie and JD ran into earlier."
Ezra, Nathan, and Josiah stopped to hug Buck and Vin before leaving. JD grabbed his keys, and gently took Buck's arm. "Come on, I'll take you home."
Buck nodded, patted Vin on the back, and said, "Brother, I think this session should count as two or three steps."
"At least," Vin smiled, "I figured more like four or five."
Brodie pulled out his keys. "You ready to head to the house Vin?"
"Yeah. See you later, Chris." He wearily walked out the door.
Chris nodded to Brodie. "He's on your watch now. Keep him focused."
Vin repeated his routine from the night before. After the kids were down, he walked Kelli to their bedroom door. He gave her a passionate goodnight kiss, leaving them both breathless, and then reluctantly retreated to the front deck to recover.
Brodie walked out, handed Vin a beer, and then hitched his hip on the railing to sit. He had observed enough over the past couple of days to know that Vin was getting his priorities straight, but he still was not quite there yet. "You do know if you keep baiting your redhead, she's liable to take your head off soon."
After taking a swig of his beer, Tanner sighed. "Uh huh, but I hope before that happens, I'll be past the worst of this crap, and be able to tell her what needs tellin."
Brodie decided to give Vin some unsolicited, but crucial advice. He had learned, from his own time in hell, and from years of on the job observations, how some men managed to make it all the way back after being tortured, while some were never the same. "What you tell her should be complete, but not necessarily detailed enough to have a lasting effect on your future together. After experiencing the type of event you encountered, it's imperative to get it out of your natural thought process by reducing the memories to a manageable size. Then you put them in a mental box, seal it, and never open it again. It's the only way not to have to live with them the rest of your life."
Narrowing his brows, Vin realized he had never heard Raven talk about his personal experiences, and what he said sure sounded personal. "Were you ever ?"
"It was years ago only my imprisonment lasted more than two years." He cleared his throat. "It takes time to recover, but you made a good start today on reclaiming your life."
Understanding what Hawks was saying, Vin nodded. "Retellin' how Wilder physically abused us was easy compared to the psychological shit he pulled." He shook his head. "Never figured I'd let anyone fuck my mind up as bad as he did. I reckon I knew deep down it was all bullshit I know I wanted to believe it was but after a while it was hard to sort out what was real anymore." He looked over at Hawks. "Hell, listen to me goin' on about that, when you had your own dust-up today."
"I don't mind listening, Vin. You need to vent, I'm here, anytime, day or night." His expression darkened. "As for today, if Talia and JD hadn't been in the truck, I'd have killed those bastards myself .but my first priority was getting her and JD to safety."
The Texan considered his words for a few seconds. "I know you, and you had back-up too damn quick for it to just be convenient. You might have six men here, but how many are out there that you're not mentionin'."
Brodie laughed, relaxing a bit. "Reckon you do know me at that. Let's just say that keeping the people on this ranch safe is important to me, and I've taken extra precautions."
"I've never seen you get so personally involved in a mission. What's changed?" As soon as he asked the question, Vin started to get flashes of Brodie's thoughts. It surprised him because since this mess started he had not been able to do that with anyone except Chris. What he did 'see' did not make a lot of sense, but something was definitely trying to come through.
Not really knowing how to answer the question without saying more than he felt Vin was ready to hear, Brodie shrugged. "Guess I'm getting soft in my old age."
Tanner knew there was more that Hawks was not saying, but for now, he decided not to push him. He grinned. "Reckon that's why you and Chris are gettin' along. You both have so many years on the rest of us youngsters."
"Careful there, son," Brodie growled teasingly. "Keep sassing me like that and I'll have to prove to you what us old guys can still do."
"When I get back on both feet, I might give you a run for your money, but for now I'll just say good night." Vin tossed his empty bottle in the trash, as he had the night before, and turned to go inside. He had another memory to open before he went to sleep, and found he was looking forward to it. Just as he passed the door, he could have sworn he heard Brodie's voice in his head say, 'Goodnight, son.'
Wilmington Home, late evening
Isabella smiled to herself as she watched Buck and Inez talking in the lounge, the conversation occasionally peppered with Inez's musical laugh and Buck's deep chuckle. There was no doubt the couple had turned a corner. She popped her head in the doorway as she passed. "Is there anything you need? I'm heading for bed."
They both shook their heads. "I think we'll be headed there too, soon, thank you."
She smiled at Buck. "Si?"
"I I just wanted to say "
She raised her hand. "Hush child, apologies are not necessary between families when times are turbulent. I love you, mi sobrino never forget that." As she bid them goodnight, they too rose, clicked off the lights, and headed for bed.
Inez smiled as Buck welcomed her to bed with a big smile and open arms. Both naked, they cuddled close, a real cuddle that was tactile, and loving, and left them sighing with contentment. Buck kissed her, long and deep.
"Thank you for believing in me, and standing by me. Soon, I hope to be able to take you like this, in my arms and show you just how much I truly love you. Please be patient. I have a lot to tell you, and I will, I just need to find the right time and the courage."
Returning his searing kiss, Inez, her face less than an inch from his, nodded. "I will wait until eternity if that is how long you need. I am yours, mi Amor, and I love you with all my heart whenever you are ready for me, I will be here."
Snuggling in close, they drifted into a solid sleep, their first in a long time, Buck smiled, just before his eyes closed, when he felt the tiniest of stirrings in his loins.
In his motel room, Ray Montoya grabbed his cell phone when it beeped. Reading the incoming text message, he smiled. 'It has begun.'
Larabee 7, Wednesday Morning
Vin carefully pulled on his left boot, and made a tentative attempt to stand. It took a moment to regain his sense of balance, but for the first time in almost three weeks, he was standing straight, with his full weight on both feet. Not a big thing in itself; however, to his way of thinking, having full control of his movements again was a giant step forward. He made his way to the kitchen, set the coffee on to brew, and then walked outside.
Brodie entered the kitchen, saw that the coffee was finished, and reached for a cup. Glancing out the window, he caught sight of Vin, trying out his new mobility. His mind raced back to the day his son took his first steps. He had carried him out to the barn, set his almost eleven-month-old boy on a bale of hay, and told him to wait while daddy fed the horses. Within a few minutes, he felt a tug on his jeans, and looked down to see his only child standing next to him with a big smile on his face. After that, there was no stopping the youngest Tanner. Vin followed his dad everywhere he went, usually running instead of walking.
Shaking his head to return to the present, Brodie grabbed a second cup, filled both, and then walked outside. "Look at you, thirty-four years old, and walking on your own. Guess at this rate you might catch up with us old guys pretty soon." He handed Tanner his coffee.
Taking the cup, Vin brushed his hand against Brodie's, and suddenly he saw an image of a young boy laughing, as he ran across a grassy field. He was running to someone, and for a split second, he thought it was Bren or Trey, but quickly realized that it wasn't. Then as unexpectedly, as the vision appeared it vanished. Giving himself time to clear his head, Tanner drank from his cup, before responding to Brodie's statement. He glanced over to Hawks and grinned. "It won't take me long, you're slowin' down, and I'm just hittin' my prime."
Any off color retort Hawks might have had, was mute, when Kelli walked onto the deck. "I thought I heard voices out here." She looked at Vin leaning against the railing with both boots on, and raised a brow. Her eyes sought his, silently sending a question.
Vin did not need to read her thoughts to know what she was asking. "The foot's good, and I slept peacefully through the night." He grinned. "Do I get a reward for that?" He extended one arm, inviting her to join him.
Walking into his embrace, she laid her head against his chest as his arm wrapped around her, and whispered, "The memory you left me was a good one." Raising her head, she gazed into his eyes, seeing the man who had led her into a life filled with love. He had taught her to believe anything was possible, as long as they kept faith in one another. That belief gave her the strength to be patient with her husband. He held her heart in his hands, and she trusted him to protect it.
Vin had waited until she looked at him. Lowering his head, he brushed her lips with his, while his arm tightened around her waist. "Our memories are gonna pull us both through, baby. Between the two of us we'll put this hell behind us, and become stronger by doin' it."
Years of repressed emotions surged forward to lodge in Brodie's throat. In spite of all the mistakes he had made, the biggest being not going back to claim his young son; Vin had managed to overcome a life without a father's guidance and had become a man any father would be proud to call his own. Hawks realized he was already in way over his head, and emotionally drowning, in his son's life. The sooner he made a clean breast of things with Vin, the better for both of them. If they had some kind of future as father and son, it would be more than he deserved, if not he needed to get out of Vin's life and let him be.
Clearing his throat, Hawks said, "I hate to interrupt young love, but Kel, I noticed on the calendar you keep on the refrigerator that you and Andi have doctor appointments on Friday. You didn't list them the other night."
Kelli glanced at him. "Yeah the kids are out of school that day, and since I had an appointment, I thought it would be a good time for Andi to have her regular checkup. We don't have to go I'll reschedule hers, and mine " she glanced at Vin. "It was only for an injection "
Vin frowned. He knew she was referring to the fertility treatments Doctor Weeks was administering, and missing one could mean she had to wait a month, and begin again. "If you stop takin' 'em, you'd have to start all over, and they're hard enough on you as it is." He looked at Brodie. "She needs to keep that appointment."
Brodie nodded. "I'll escort them myself, if that's all right with you." Although he understood how Vin got his signals crossed about him and Kelli, he did not want to rekindle any doubts.
"I know you're capable of protection' 'em, and I trust that you would, with your life if necessary," he shifted his gaze to Kelli, "but I'm responsible for keepin' my family safe. I'll be your back-up."
The fact that Vin voiced his trust in him made Brodie feel good, and reinforced his decision to tell his son the truth. "Then I'll add the date to the master list." He hesitated a moment. "I'd like to talk with you privately about something when we get back on Friday, if you'd plan on setting some time aside for me."
Vin felt Kelli tense in his arms, and noted the look she exchanged with Hawks. He understood that his wild thoughts about them being lovers were born out of Wilder's sadistic games, and he was past that now. Still, he sensed there was something else they shared, and his gut told him that whatever it was, it was important. Evidently, he would find out Friday. "If you think you can still sit a horse, we can saddle up, have a good ride, and plenty of privacy."
"I can still ride circles around you, kid."
"We'll see about that, old man."
The soft gurgles coming from the intercom hooked on Kelli's waistband told her the twins were awake. She cast an anxious glare toward Brodie, and was not happy that he ignored it. "Reckon our quiet time is over."
Vin swatted her on the butt. "You concentrate on Trey, and I'll handle Bren. We'll let Hawks take on Jason and Andi, 'till we can rescue him." He nodded to Brodie and followed his wife into the house.
Brodie took a deep breath. Protecting his son from the outside threats, bent on destroying him and his team, was one thing he was certain he could do. Explaining to him why he had to grow up alone, and why he had waited so long to tell him the truth, was another. Hawks hoped he could accomplish both, without leaving too much damage behind.
Sleepily, JD walked from Talia's bedroom and into the kitchen, smiling to see her sitting at the breakfast bar and rifling through a box. He approached her, embracing her from behind as he nuzzled her neck and slipped his hand inside her blouse.
Placing her hand over his, she smiled and turned to him. "Hey, yourself, stud."
He blushed, slightly and leaned in to kiss her. "How long have you been awake?"
"I didn't sleep long, but, after yesterday and this morning, I figured you needed some rest." She gasped slightly as his thumb brushed her nipple, applying pressure to his hand to halt him. "Behave! Don't get me started. I need to empty some of these boxes."
She gently shook her head as she recalled, on his return home, how JD celebrated his first day since Columbia, of driving his children to Reins, by taking her to her bed, eagerly demonstrating his newfound vigor three times, before they both fell into an exhausted sleep.
JD grinned. "Sorry, it's just I haven't felt this alive in a long time. I've been running on autopilot for so long, now well it's just so amazing having you here. I can't believe how lucky I am."
Talia stood, faced him, and put her arms around his waist, pulling him close. "I never knew making love could be so beautiful. Thank you." Her arms moved around his neck and they kissed, long and hard.
"Boxes," JD stuttered, needing a breath. He rested his head against hers. "You're right; it's time we made you more comfortable, here." He straightened to look at her. "You are okay here, aren't you? I'm not coming on too strong, am I?" The doubts were back, and it showed in his expressive eyes.
Talia ran a thumb over his lips. "I'm exactly where I want to be," she sighed.
Relieved, he smiled and glanced at the worktop, noticing what appeared to be a jewelry box. "That's pretty."
Beaming, she took his hand and guided him toward it. "Look what I found." Unpacking some tissue paper from the base of the pretty, carved box, she revealed several braided leather bracelets with a small bead at one end. "I used to make these in college and sell them. Being one of eight kids, money was tight; there wasn't much spare cash, so these eased the pressure a bit."
Picking one up, JD's fingers turned it to examine it. "Neat. Are these spare?"
Talia nodded. "I didn't even know I still had any."
"May I have this one?" He gazed at her, hopefully.
"Really? You'd wear one of these?"
She hugged him. "I'd love for you to have it. They're called friendship bracelets, you know." Taking it from him, she looped it around his right wrist and secured the bead toggle. "Suits you," she smiled.
*Yeah, you do*, he sighed, inwardly. "Thanks, I love it." He glanced around. "Can I help you with anything?"
"Nah, I put two of the boxes in the barn, for now, if that's okay. Nothing really urgent in them, just shoes, sneakers " she glanced down. "Stuffed toys."
JD's chuckle made her look up and she squealed as he tickled her ribs and belly. "You got a teddy bear? Huh? Huh?" He pulled her close. "Aren't I cuddly enough for you?"
"No." She watched his eyes flash. "What I want to do to you may well be inappropriate for a teddy bear."
JD growled in her ear as he started 'walking' her backwards toward the sofa, his lips, and tongue toying with hers as they moved. "That sounded like an invitation, to me."
"Aah, to hell with the boxes," she purred and kissed him deeply as their bodies responded and prepared for another thrilling, sensuous ride.
Walter and Brodie had come back from taking the children to school, and making their morning rounds. Kelli poured them more coffee, just as Vin returned to the room. "Kel, I found all the papers Ezra requested, except one. You made a thirty thousand dollar withdrawal, and he needs the transaction number. The bank never credited the money back to our account."
"That's probably because I never made the deposit to return it. I still have the money, at least most of it, in my top dresser drawer."
Vin rolled his eyes. "Only my wife would keep that much money layin' around the house, and never give it a second thought," he kissed the top of her head, "but I still love her." He started back to the bedroom to get it, but a knock at the door stopped him. Making a u-turn, he opened it to find one of Brodie's men standing there.
He looked around Tanner, and addressed Brodie, "Commander, you need to see this."
Walter, Vin, and Kelli followed Hawks outside, to see what Hawks men had in the bed of their truck. Brodie looked first and swore, "Where the hell did you find this."
"Sir, we found it at Camp Larabee while making our regular sweep of the area."
Walter and Vin recognized the device for what it was, but Kelli had to ask, "What is it?"
"It's an IED ." Vin explained, "An improvised explosive device is a homemade bomb constructed and deployed in ways other than in conventional military action." He pulled out his cell. "I'd better call Chris we need a team meetin'."
Thirty minutes later most of the MCAT team, plus Walter and Brodie, had assembled in the Tanner's living room. JD was the last one to arrive, walking in with Talia.
JD glanced around the gathering, confused as to why Cait, Inez, Rain, and Barbara weren't there. "When Buck said meeting, I thought it was for everyone."
"Team meeting, kid," Buck grinned, offering a wide smile to Talia. "Nothing personal, honey."
"Oh," was all JD could say, looking apologetically at his companion.
Kelli approached from her seat next to Mallory, and took Talia's hand. "Come on, I can catch up later." With a wink to a grateful JD, she led the young nurse out of the house.
Yawning, JD plopped down between Buck and Vin.
Buck's grin widened as he winked at the others. "Damn, kid you'd better ask Nathan for some vitamins."
Jackson looked across at them. "I know you're much stronger now, JD, but you should still be getting plenty of bed rest."
"Don't reckon bein' in bed's his problem," Vin teased, toying with the leather wristband.
"Guys!" JD groaned, his face and neck flushing red as he slapped Vin's hand away.
"Hate to be the party pooper," Chris interrupted, "but we have a serious breach of security to discuss."
Expressions sobered as all eyes turned to their commander.
"Security found a bomb at Camp Larabee this morning. They defused it, and then brought it here."
"How the hell did someone get on the property without us knowing it?" Buck leaned forward. "I mean I thought we had the best security system on the market."
"You do, Buck," Brodie answered. "However, with over four thousand acres to cover, even the best is not good enough to keep out a well trained expert that's determined to complete a mission."
Walter looked at Hawks. "What do we need to do to make it better?"
"I could make a few suggestions, but the truth is, if someone wants to find a way in bad enough... they will." Hawks turned his gaze to Chris. "I told you the men you're dealing with won't play by your rules, Larabee."
Josiah sighed. "You said you knew who paid Wilder. Aren't these the same men, who are trying to kill us now?"
"No. The bastards who paid Wilder are dead." He looked to Vin and Buck. "I made sure they knew why they died, too." Glancing back to Chris, he continued, "The cartels all have a grievance against Americans in general, but they especially have a hatred for your MCAT team. They have a new leader now. Some of it has to do with your recent missions some goes back farther."
Chris nodded. "I take it you know who's calling the shots, now."
"I do, but not who he's working with in Denver. One phone call from me, though, and the man in charge is dead, but that won't solve our problem. We need to identify who he hired to come after y'all here."
"We're Federal Agents, not paid assassins." Chris shook his head. "In our world we have procedures, and there are certain lines we don't cross. While I appreciate the sentiment behind your offer, I'd rather get the man on American soil and have him arrested."
"We'll play by your rules for now, Larabee. I'll see what I can do to get Chavez to return to Florida."
"Chavez? Carlos Chavez," Ezra asked. "I thought he was no more than an arms dealer anymore."
Brodie shrugged. "Evidently, he has higher aspirations. If he succeeds in taking out this team, he can just about write his own ticket with the South American Cartels."
"Damn," Nathan swore, "I figured we'd heard the last of him after his kids died last year."
"He knows us from way back when we were still ATF." JD considered the facts. "Someone who knows us that well is more dangerous than someone who doesn't know our capabilities."
"We need to stay alert, double our escort teams, and work our local sources by phone from here. Somebody out there has heard something when we know who all the players are, then we make our moves."
Vin glanced at Buck. "Chris, we can call off these sessions with Rafferty until we resolve this. That would give everyone more time to work their sources."
Chris was already shaking his head before Tanner finished. "No I need you and Buck back one hundred percent. We'll continue your sessions, and we will beat these bastards at the same time." Addressing them all he said, "Go home, start those calls, and keep your eyes open."
Ezra pulled Vin aside, while the others prepared to leave. "I took the information you gave me, and using my POA I talked with your bank." He reached into his jacket pocket. "All you need to do is sign these papers, deliver them to the bank, and then they will handle putting your finances in order, per my instructions."
"Thanks, Ez. I'll put 'em with the cash Kelli kept. When we go out Friday, we'll swing by the bank, and drop 'em off when I deposit the money." Vin clasped Ezra's arm. "I appreciate you lookin' out for us."
"You're welcome, brother. If I may be of further assistance just yell, and I'll come day or night."
"I know." Vin smiled. "Tell the others I'll be out in a few minutes." Vin headed for the bedroom with the papers in his hand.
Vin headed straight for the dresser. Although he knew his home was safe, the sooner he had that cash back in the bank, the better he would feel. He had to smile though, thinking about how unimportant the money was to his wife. Kelli might have a temper he had to deal with on occasion, but she was not high maintenance, and never demanded that he buy 'things' for her to prove his love. Pulling out the drawers he saw the money laying on top of a thick brown envelope.
He picked it up and saw Kelli's name scrawled across the front, but he recognized the handwriting as Brodie's, and instructions on the front read, 'Panama, do not open until you are in flight for rescue.' It was not normally in his nature to pry into his wife's private things. The only time he ever saw the contents of her journal was when she chose to share with him, and she respected his privacy the same way. Still his desire to find answers about what she and Brodie shared was strong, and the temptation was too much to resist.
Sitting on the edge of their bed, and feeling guilty, he hesitated for a brief time, before finally pulling out the contents. The first thing he saw was a packet of legal papers, which he pushed aside. Then, he found the letter and began to read. While reading, he found the answers to questions that had haunted him for most of his life. Shivering, his emotions ranged from anger to heartbreak, and he felt a loss deep in his soul for all the years that could have been. He realized that he never really understood, until now, how devastated Kelli was when she found out about Chris. Vin clutched at the papers as he was transported back to a vague memory of a man smiling at him. One who made him feel secure and safe and then he was gone *Daddy.* Wiping away, his unwanted tears, he stuffed the letter back into the envelope, and his trembling fingers picked up the other packet. The one holding the last will and testament of James Wyatt Tanner.
*Now you know.* Tracker had been waiting for this moment for a long time. *Sorry you had to find out this way. My other plan kinda went south, when I realized I'd put too much on Kelli, and I had to find a way for you to make this discovery yourself.*
Vin stared at the apparition standing at the end of the bed. "You interfered in somethin' you should have left alone."
Tracker nodded. *This was not somethin' that could be left alone any longer you were already gettin' close with your research, but without help, you would never have found out why, or how much James did to protect you. You needed to know, and I mistakenly believed Kelli was the best person to tell you. I didn't expect James to unintentionally put her in the middle with his request.*
Grabbing his anger he stood, and glared at Tracker. "You used Kel, and almost cost us our marriage in the process."
*She did tell me my timin' sucked, but you need to believe that I never intended for her to get hurt leadin' you to this is my attempt to right that wrong. It's all in your hands now.*
"This is what he plans to tell me on Friday?"
*Yes I might not agree with all the things he did, but I do know he loves you. You need to decide if the choices he made are choices you can forgive.*
Taking a deep breath, he bit at his lip, and lowered his voice, "A month ago I would have been furious, and probably kicked his ass before throwin' him out of my house now after bein' in the same position he was in I reckon I need to think on it some before we talk."
*Lay your anger aside, and trust your instincts,* Tracker voiced his advice, and then disappeared.
Sighing deeply, he returned the packet to the dresser drawer, and moved the papers Ezra gave him to the nightstand. A lot of things about Raven made more sense now. Regardless of the reason, he had always been around whenever Vin needed him, and even knowing that coming to help this time would put his identity at risk, he came anyway. Vin wondered what he would have done; given the same choices, his father had to face. He had a lot to think on, and decided the best thing he could do for now, was to wait before he said anything.
Following a tour of their property, Kelli made their last stop at one of her favorite places. "You have horses!" Talia walked into the barn, delighted at seeing the elegant creatures looking back at her.
"Uh huh," Kelli answered, stroking her own steed. "This is Dancer, she's mine."
The blonde reached out to stroke the horse's nose. "She's beautiful."
"Do you ride?"
"I do," Talia nodded, "but it's been a while."
"How about I take you on a tour of Larabee Seven tomorrow? You can ride Jason's horse, Dreamer."
Talia's eyes widened. "You mean it? Oh, God, yeah I'd love to, I'm dying to see the ranch. Thanks."
Kelli beamed. "Cool, that's a date."
Hearing voices up by the house Kelli reckoned the meeting was over. "Guess we should join the others." They slowly walked back toward the house, talking about possible remedies for Bren's teething problems.
Josiah, Nathan, Buck, and Ezra had already left. Chris stood on the porch talking with Brodie, and JD was waiting on Talia, when she and Kelli came into view.
"There you are." JD stepped down off the porch and drew Talia close.
"Kelli invited me to ride tomorrow. She plans to give me a grand tour of Larabee 7."
Considering the subject of their meeting, JD glanced up to Chris.
Chris nodded. "It should be all right. Kel, just make sure you let one of us know where you plan to ride."
"She will," Vin said as he walked up to stand between Chris and Brodie, "and she'll be armed."
Brodie commented. "It's probably best that we all stay armed, even if it's only a trip to the barn. My men are going to double the nightly sweeps, and keep close tabs on the women and children, but that doesn't mean they'll catch everything."
Vin finally turned to look at Brodie or rather James; the man he now knew was his father. He studied his profile and saw him in an entirely different manner than he had only a few minutes earlier. Although he wanted to be angry, he was finding it difficult to sustain. "Around here, we've learned to expect the unexpected. Just when we think we have it all figured out fate has a way of makin' her presence known, and opens another path to our future."
¡" Vais a Morir, bastardos americanos!" Montoya paced his small motel room. He had wanted to keep Larabee guessing about his next move, but he had found his little surprise, and ruined it. Grabbing his cell, he angrily sent out an urgent text. 'Step it up .I want blood.'
Larabee 7, Thursday Morning
Talia and Kelli started out early. JD had stayed at the house to help Vin prepare for the session later in the day. Having traveled around most of the property, they headed for a steep rise.
"Who did you say lived here?" Talia asked as they crested a ridge and looked down on a stately property.
"Ezra and Barbara, come on, let's go say hi."
Seeing their approach from the kitchen window, Barbara came out to greet them. "Hey, what brings you out this way?"
Halting the horses, Kelli leaned on the horn. "I'm showing Talia around. Just thought we'd stop over and say 'hi'."
"Would you care for some tea or coffee?"
"Sure, why not?" Kelli grinned, both women dismounted, tethered their horses, and followed Barbara into the house.
"Have you had a good pregnancy?" Talia asked Barbara, her coffee cup now drained.
"It's been wonderful except for when the boys went to Columbia and Ezra got hurt. Although, it was more me being worried for him and the others, not the baby."
"When will you know if it's a boy or girl?"
"Soon," Barbara beamed. "We're very excited."
"Oh, I'm sure you are," Talia smiled back. "I hope I'm still here to see the baby arrive."
Kelli frowned. "Are you and JD okay?" She watched the girl nod.
"Oh yes," she smiled, shyly. "Wonderful, actually, but were in the early days, yet don't want to assume too much."
"JD had us very worried a little while back," Barbara reminisced, "but he's done so well, especially with the children. In the short time you've been here, you seem good for him."
Talia nodded. "Being here with him, and you all, has meant everything to me. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else."
After a slight pause, Barbara leaned forward. "I have a meeting this afternoon at the courthouse." She looked at both of them. "I'd love some company."
Kelli frowned. "I'd love to, but I want to stick close, since Vin's in another session with Father Rafferty later today."
"Um I'm free, if the offer's still open," Talia spoke up.
"Wonderful," Barbara smiled. "My escorts are picking me up at ten thirty. We'll swing by for you, and then we'll have an early lunch. My meeting won't last more than twenty minutes and we'll be home before two."
As they rode away, Talia grinned at Kelli. "You're all really wonderful, you know that? Y'all made me feel so welcome."
"You've made it easy," the redhead smiled back. "Welcome aboard, Talia."
Vin and JD had been watching for their women to return. The Texan turned to his youngest brother, and asked, "Everythin' okay with you and Talia?"
Smiling, JD nodded, "Yeah, really good." Then he frowned. "I guess you think I'm crazy, huh?"
"Nah, not at all. She seems...perfect." Vin realized he hadn't much to back up that statement because the pair hadn't really talked a lot. He shrugged; he had been so off-kilter lately, he figured he would get a chance to know the young nurse soon enough. She apparently was keeping JD well and truly occupied. Vin quickly grinned. "By what Buck reckons, you won't be needing physical therapy with all the activity between the two of you."
JD chuckled, waving as he saw the girls approaching. "No comment."
When they rode in, the two men walked down to the barn. Talia was so excited, she was talking a mile a minute, and when she laid eyes on JD, she greeted him with a big grin.
JD smiled, and glanced at Vin. "Something tells me she had a good time."
"Ya think?" Tanner laughed and headed over to help his wife. Leaning down to kiss her, he asked, "Have fun, baby?"
Kelli's lips lingered on his for a moment, enjoying the good mood Vin was in today. "We did have a good time." She slipped the blanket off her horse, while he hoisted Dancer's saddle onto the rack.
Talia nodded. "We had a great time." She looked at JD, as he lifted the saddle off Dreamer. "Kelli showed me everything. Then we stopped to visit with Barbara. She invited me to go into town with her. She has a short meeting at the courthouse, but we planned to have lunch first. Since you're going to be tied up, I thought "
"Slow down, girl." JD kissed her. "If you want to go, and escorts are arranged it's fine with me, but you don't need my permission."
"Her escorts are picking her up at ten-thirty. Lord that only gives me an hour to shower, and change."
"We'll finish with the horses." Vin nodded to JD. "Take her home and I'll see you later." He was already leading Dreamer to his stall.
"Thanks, Vin." JD grabbed Talia's hand and they left.
Closing the gate on Dancer's stall, Kelli smiled at her husband. "That was nice of you."
Walking up behind her, he lifted her hat off her head, tossed it, and then wrapped his arms around her waist. "I just wanted to get you alone in the barn." Pressing his hard body against hers, he leaned his head down and began trailing kisses along her neck. Stopping, he tightened his hold on her, and whispered close to her ear, "I love you, Kel, and as God is my witness, I never intended to hurt you. Given enough time, I hope you can find a way to forgive me."
Kelli sighed, turned in his arms to face him, and raised her hand to his face. "I've already forgiven you. I'll admit I was hurt, but it didn't take me long to realize that my Vin, was not the man who hurt me. You were still tethered to the atrocities that sadistic maniac put you through, and had no more control over your actions, than I did."
Grasping her hand with his, he turned slightly to kiss her fingertips. "I had this plan, to win you back with romantic gestures, and soft words. I wanted us to come together next week on our anniversary." He paused. "Last night I did a lot of thinkin', and realized I needed your forgiveness to come freely not because I plied for your attention."
Smiling, Kelli shook her head. "I find your romantic gestures and soft words irresistible, but I don't need 'em to love you. That's not why I agreed to marry you."
"Why did you marry me?"
"You mean other than the fact that you're incredibly sexy, have a cute ass, beautiful eyes, and a smile that makes me weak in the knees?"
Vin tilted his head and smiled, "Yeah, other than those things."
"You care, Vin . you care deeply. You made me feel special loved .and safe in your keepin'." She tenderly stroked his check. "You have a gift for seein' inside people to touch their souls, and uncover the parts of themselves they try to hide from the world. Then you gently keep tuggin' away, until all those dark places are illuminated by light."
Swallowing the emotions her words stirred within him, he said, "I've already told you what I want what do you want?"
"I want you back in our bed I want to hear you breathing beside me I want to reach out and be able to feel your heartbeat, and I want to make love with you."
Vin nodded. "Then after the session today I reckon I should move back in if you're sure we can wait until I tell you "
She placed her finger over his lips. "You'll tell me when you're ready we don't have to have a timetable to be us we just need to want to."
"Oh I want to." Vin drew her close, brushing his lips over hers. He felt her soft touch on his neck, and the taut muscles beneath his shirtsleeve clenched pulling away from her, he took a deep breath. "God knows, I want you, baby, but not here tonight is ours I want to do this right."
Not trusting herself to speak coherently, Kelli nodded. They slowly walked back up to the house, as she listened to her husband talk about their future. She was certain now that whatever happened, they would be facing it together.
Tanner Home, Counseling Session
Buck was the first to arrive, anxious to get this session over with, and move on. "I've been thinking, Vin. If we just get it all out in the open maybe, we can start healing faster."
"I've been doin' some thinkin', too. That bastard has had us in his crosshairs for too damn long, and I'm sick and tired of it. I want my life back, and today I plan to cut the ties Wilder's had on me."
"Then we agree today they hear it all."
*If you two are still speakin' to us we'd like to stand with you today.* Tracker said as he and Romeo appeared.
Romeo looked at Buck. *No one else will see us, or know we're here we just want to offer our support.*
Buck grinned, and glanced at Vin. "What do you think?"
"I reckon we could use all the support we can muster," he pointed his finger at Tracker, "but no more interferin'. We sink or swim on our own with this one."
Tracker smiled and nodded. *You always have we can't make you do anythin' you don't want to. All we can do is nudge things along. Y'all do the rest.*
Romeo grinned. *Your destiny has always been in your hands. You two survived because of who you are not what we did.*
Buck sighed. "Well in case I forgot to say it I'm glad you hung around."
Vin gazed at Tracker. "It meant a lot to know you were lookin' out for Kel and Chris I appreciate it. As for the other I been doin' a bit of soul searchin', and I have a feelin' you'll be pleased with what I found."
Chris walked into the kitchen with Father Rafferty, and yelled, "Where is everyone?"
Tracker and Romeo faded away, and Vin answered, "In the livin' room. Come on back."
Within a few minutes, all the brothers, and Brodie were present.
Father Rafferty began the session. "When we left off Tuesday, it appeared that you both had reached a point where it was difficult to relate events that happened once you were moved together. Do either of you feel better about discussing that period today."
Buck felt Romeo's presence nearby. It fortified his resolve, and he began, "Seeing that Vin was alive helped me a lot. I thought together we could fight harder, and between the two of us, resist Wilder's plans. I was wrong he used the fact that we cared about one another and plunged us further into hell. Physically he continued the beatings and then he brought out this thing he called a "
"Picana," Vin filled in the word for him, and noticed the slight cringe Brodie attempted to hide.
"Yeah that's it anyway he doused us with water and then used that thing to send electric shocks through our bodies said he was gonna use it on JD and Chris once he perfected it with us." Buck swallowed hard and looked at Vin. "You're gonna have to tell them about the tape I can't."
JD and Chris exchange glances, while Nathan fit the last piece into his medical puzzle.
Vin took a moment to gather his thoughts. "As much as it hurt the physical shit I think we could have handled it was when he started tellin' us about our families that it got real tough." He steadied his gaze on Brodie. "He told us he had our wives had his pleasure with 'em, and passed 'em around after a few days of that he decided to give us proof he wheeled in a TV and a video player the tape was dark, but it looked like it could have been ...Inez and Kelli." He sucked in his breath. "Bottom line, we had to watch two women, he said were our wives, be brutally raped Wilder and some other bastard called them by name...at the end they took a gun and blew the tops of their heads off. At that point I would have made a bargain with the devil himself for a chance to save them."
Buck had tears in his eyes. "That scene kept playing in my mind over and over and over I didn't want to believe it was Inez, but how could we be sure?"
"Wilder temporarily won with that it stayed with me too. Hell, I almost let it destroy my marriage and a friendship I value. I would've done anythin' in my power to protect what's mine even if it meant walkin' away from the very ones I love most in this life and I almost did, but " Vin saw Tracker standing behind Brodie, and felt empowered. "A friend told me that the only way Wilder would succeed was if I chose to let him well, I choose not to. I killed the bastard, and now I'm reclaimin' my life."
Vin's words resonated with Buck. He nodded, looked over to Vin, and said, "Me too. I'm tired of lettin' a dead man in Columbia dictate my life. Wilder and Gaunt both got what they deserved."
Father Rafferty was pleased to see Vin and Buck aggressively take on their memories; however, he had a question. "You said Wilder and Gaunt, that's a name neither of you have mentioned before."
"He worked for Wilder, and was also the man who fired the missiles into the MCAT office a while back." Vin met Josiah's eyes. "I wasn't walkin' out of there as long as he was alive."
Josiah nodded, understanding now why Vin killed an unarmed man, and Ezra was glad he had not tried to stop Tanner when he shot him.
Father Rafferty sat back. This session was much stronger than the last one. Tuesday had taken an emotional toll on everyone. Today he felt the determination and grit of all involved to rally their support for their brothers. He closed his eyes and said a silent prayer of thanks. These two were going to make it. Addressing Buck and Vin, he said, "I believe we have made great progress. I want you both to think about how you feel, and act the next several days, and perhaps when we meet again on Monday we might find that your decisions to take control of your lives are enough to finish the healing process."
Chris stood and shook the priest's hand. "Thank you Father."
Rafferty shook his head. "I didn't do anything but give them an opportunity to talk. They did the hard work." He nodded to Larabee, and then walked over to Vin and Buck, grasping their hands. "I'm proud of how far you both have come, and have every confidence that the worst, is indeed, behind you. I'll see you both Monday morning at ten." Patting Vin on the shoulder, he said, "I'll see myself out. God bless you both."
Vin looked over to Chris. *I never did like takin' the long way around anythin.'*
*Welcome back.* Chris was positive now that Vin was on the right track, which meant he and Kelli would soon be too, if they weren't already.
Brodie walked up to Vin, looked him in the eye, and said. "You chose well."
"Hey I just know when to listen to a man who gives good advice." Vin grasped Brodie's forearm. "Thanks."
JD hugged Buck, warmed by the strength in the returned embrace. "You turned a corner today, bro, I can feel it." He felt the vibration of his cell in his pocket, pulled it out, and answered. Listening for a moment, his gaze moved to Ezra as he said, "He's here with me we'll be right there." He turned, grabbed Standish by the arm, and began tugging at the Southerner. "That was Talia. Barbara is ill. We need to go."
Dunne Home, Afternoon
Mike and Raphael had driven the women into and out of town without a hitch. When they stopped outside the Dunne property to drop Talia off, she turned to Barbara. "JD won't be here for a while, and he left me the keys to his truck. Why don't you come in for a drink and I'll drive you home?"
Barbara nodded. "I'd love to."
The pair chatted as they enjoyed their refreshments. Barbara smiled. "Ezra tells me JD won't say much for fear of being teased, but believes he is very happy right now."
"He is? I must be honest, I was afraid it might all be going a little fast." She frowned. "I worried maybe it was just a patient-nurse romance, or worse, a rebound from his divorce. But I really don't think that's the case."
"Darling, I know so. These men are very special and don't give in to dalliances easily. It took Ezra and me a long time to finally admit we couldn't live without each other, but he was worth the wait."
Talia smiled. "They are all wonderful, aren't they? They make a great team so much support."
"They've become like brothers," Barbara stated. "Their track record is second to none. I truly admire Kelli and Mallory for being a part of such a dangerous, but worthy profession. It's not something I could do."
Talia nodded. "Nursing's tough sometimes, but I couldn't imagine doing anything else."
"Not even a mother and wife," Barbara teased, grinning at Talia's blush. She checked her watch. "I hate to go, but I have a conference call in an hour." They both stood.
"Sure, come on, let's get you home."
Waving goodbye, Barbara turned to walk into the house when a sharp cramping pain caused her to double up. "Oh " Shrugging it off, she attempted to continue on, stalling as she leaned heavily on the porch frame as the pain hit again. "Oh God Ezra "
A short distance away, Talia checked her rear view mirror before pulling out of the long driveway. She stopped the truck. Something had caught her eye as she glanced back at the house. Wondering if she would look silly going back, she decided to do so anyway. Her speed increased as she saw Barbara hunched up on the porch. Sliding the truck to a halt, Talia threw open the door and raced over to the stricken woman.
The lawyer turned to her, beads of sweat on her brow and upper lip. "Help me "
"Oh God oh God. Okay, okay I need to get you inside." Helping Barbara to her feet, they went into the house, and Talia laid the frightened woman on the sofa, elevating her legs high she wasn't sure if Barbara was miscarrying or having contractions. All she knew was that they needed help fast. Holding Barbara's hand, she dialed 9-1-1, then, JD as she had no one else's number logged into her cell, who assured her Ezra was on his way. By the time the ambulance and two of Brodie's men arrived, not to mention all seven brothers, Barbara was drifting in and out of consciousness.
Chris decided that he and Brodie would go to be with Ezra. Rain called ahead to the hospital and had Doctor Ryder on stand-by.
JD took one look at Talia and said, "We should go, just to make sure Talia sees that Barbara will be all right."
Exchanging glances with Brodie, Chris nodded. "You two can ride with us. The rest of you will have to stay here, any more and security would be a nightmare. Raphael and Mike will escort us."
Terrified, Ezra talked to her while the paramedics took her BP, and an EKG, accompanied by listening to the baby's heart rate, also. Within half an hour, they were heading for the hospital, the parting words from the paramedics suggesting there was no immediate danger, but that she would likely stay in overnight.
Denver Memorial Hospital
After much pacing in the waiting room, Ezra finally joined the others from Barbara's room, his face pale and etched with fear.
"She's fine. The baby's on a monitor and the heartbeat is good and strong. An Ultrasound has shown no problems, but Barbara's exhausted, so she'll be staying here, tonight, as will I. Please go home, and," he tried to hold on to his emotions. "Thank you for being here." Seeing JD with his arms around a pale Talia, he approached, his right hand touching her face. "My dear I can't thank you enough for what you did, today."
"Ezra," Talia began, "I was just in the right place at the right time I didn't "
"You did more than you'll ever know. You kept her calm and got help swiftly. I am in your debt."
Talia tilted her head. "Well I guess, in that case, if it's a girl, you could call her after me." She grinned, and squeezed his arm. "Just kidding, I'm glad I was there for her."
Standish couldn't help smiling, a look of deep approval passing between him and his youngest brother.
Chris approached them. "Cait's holding the kids, so we'll leave. Raphael is staying with you, Ezra. Do not wander off, got it?"
"Chris, right now, I'm unsure as to how I'm even standing, much less able to wander off," Ezra replied.
With embraces to all, and assurances that he would keep them updated, Ezra returned to his wife's bedside. Holding her hand, he gazed at her, smiling as she peeked at him.
"If you wanted me home quickly, you only had to ask, my love," he teased.
"Is the baby ?"
"You're both fine," he assured. "But when you are home, and even though this is likely not related, we will be discussing your need to cease working for the duration of the pregnancy, and the need for more rest."
Barbara nodded. "After today, I'll stay in bed every day, if it keeps our little one safe." The pair kissed and she settled back to sleep. Ezra watched his baby's heart registering strong and true on the monitor, unable to stop the tears as he silently thanked God for being there for them this day.
Vin sat on the porch swing, and talked quietly with Brodie who was perched on the deck railing. "What kind of game do you think Chavez is playin'? If he wanted us dead, seems like he'd order an all out assault instead of piece mealin' his attacks."
Hawks took a swig of his beer. "For him I'd say it's personal. He wants to make y'all's lives as miserable as possible keep ya'll guessing, and on the edge, before he ends his game."
"Hell, he has a long way to go if he intends to beat Wilder's misery."
"You did good today, Vin. You have your head straight. Knowing you, nothing can stop you now."
Tanner nodded. "I feel like me again, but I still wonder if Wilder had made me choose walk away forever or put my family at risk of harm just what I'd have done." He watched for any reaction from Hawks.
Brodie halted his hand in mid-air. Vin's wondering hit a little too close to home. "He didn't do that so I reckon the question is moot."
"Yeah, but it would have been hell for me either way." He took a long drink from his beer. "When all is said and done I guess I should consider myself lucky that it wasn't worse."
Kelli walked out to join them. "Dad called. Barbara is all right, and should be comin' home in the mornin'." She sat down next to Vin, and leaned into his side. "I know it must have scared the hell out of both of them."
Laying his arm across her shoulders, Vin nodded. "I remember the scares we had Ezra must be a basket case."
Brodie decided to give the young couple some alone time. Stretching, he yawned. "I'm beat. Think I'll turn in for the night, and see y'all in the morning."
"Goodnight." Kelli waited until Brodie walked back into the house and then looked up at her husband. "With all that's been goin' on, I didn't get a chance to ask about your session. Did it go okay?"
"It was good." He traced the features of her face with his fingers. "I know you said, you could wait, but I need to tell you why my head was so messed up, before we go to our room."
"Vin...You don't have to "
He placed his finger on her lips. "I know, but I want to " he proceeded to explain about Wilder's mind games and how they blended in with his jealousy. Leaving out the graphic details, he told her why he could not control himself that night when they made love, and why he didn't trust himself around her after that. Wiping the tears from her cheeks, he sighed. "You deserved to know, baby."
"If tellin' me helps you put it behind us, I'm glad you did, but all I need is you back with me where you belong."
Vin took her hand, stood, and helped her to her feet. "Then...let's go home." He led her through the house to their room, lifted her into his arms, and carried her inside. All he could think of was holding on to the beautiful woman in his arms and becoming one with her.
Setting her on her feet, Vin gazed into her eyes. "Before we make love, we need to do somethin' very important." He reached into his pocket and brought out her wedding ring. "I want this back where it belongs, too."
Kelli went over to her jewelry box, pulled out his ring, and returned to stand in front of him. "Are you willin' to take yours back?"
"Absolutely. There's no power on earth that can break us Kel. I know that now. Our love is stronger than the evil that tried." Taking the lead, he repeated part of his vows from their wedding day. "You are my chosen mate, my anchor, and the part of my life, which completes me." Kissing her lips, he took her left hand, and slowly slipped on her wedding ring as he gazed into her eyes.
"This band of platinum I give you, complete in its creation.
No join. Seamless, continuous, perfect, as are you, to me.
This I give to you as a token of my adoration.
For you to know, my body worships you
And that, my mind embraces you.
My words are from the heart,
My love is from the soul.
I am yours, for all eternity."
With tears in her eyes, Kelli took Vin's ring and placed it on his finger. "You are my chosen mate, my anchor, and the part of my life, which completes me. All that I have is yours, as well as my love, my life, and my undyin' trust." Their reunion was powerful, sensual, and complete.
Tears flowing, he leaned forward to capture her lips, tasting her own salty tears, and then softly whispered. "We're home, baby." He snuggled in tight and they settled down to a sated, contented slumber, their left hands clasped to complete the union.
Ray smiled when he read the latest message on his cell. 'Plan executed. Expect a volatile end to the week.'
Standish Home, Friday Morning
Doctor Ryder released Barbara early, and told her to go home and rest. Like a mother hen, Ezra eased his wife into their room, tenderly laying her onto their bed before dashing out to make some tea. On his return, he pumped up pillows behind her, and finally settled next to her, just on the edge.
"Are you alright?"
Barbara smiled. "Darling, I told you, I'm perfectly fine, now. I have no idea why I had pains, though the doctor believes it could be due to a small tummy bug. Today, however, I'm a little tired, but me and the little one are fighting fit, and seemingly going full term so stop fretting."
Standish squeezed her hand. "Good to hear, my love. I apologize for my eagerness in caring for you, but yesterday scared me so much. I just want to wrap you in cotton and keep you in my arms for eternity."
"Sounds ideal," Barbara sighed as she sipped her tea, "but I fear it will be cumbersome for you in executing your MCAT duties." The pair laughed softly, their eyes locked in a silent message. They knew they had come through a terrifying ordeal but had decided that the least time they spent dwelling on it, the sooner their ragged nerves would mend.
"I've taken the trouble of sending flowers to Talia for her kindness and diligence," Ezra informed her, sipping on his own tea.
"A lovely idea, my darling." Barbara agreed, stifling a yawn. Ezra was instantly settling her down.
"Sleep, darling, I'm not leaving."
"Would you lay with me?" Barbara implored. "We'd love a cuddle."
Toeing off his shoes, Ezra slid onto the bed and carefully spooned his wife. They were both exhausted, and soon drifted into a sound sleep.
Talia grinned as she glanced at the magnificent bouquet adorning the kitchen worktop, sighing contentedly as she felt JD approach and kiss the back of her neck. "Aren't they gorgeous?"
"No less than you deserve," JD grinned. "I'm glad you're getting along with the girls. I'm so proud of how you helped Barbara."
She took his hand and kissed it. "This is an amazing place," she said, "And so are all of you absolutely wonderful. You have a unique set up here. I can't tell you how thrilled I am to be a part of it. Thank you for inviting me to stay. The invitation meant more to me than you may ever know."
"Are you happy?" JD asked, cuddling her close.
"Very," she said, softly. "Are you?"
"With you ecstatic," he grinned, it fading with his next words. "But until I'm convinced that Buck and Vin are fully healed, I find it real hard to be this happy while worried about them. Does that make sense?"
She nodded. "And that's one thing I love about you, you have such a sense of honor and loyalty to those you love." She kissed him, leaving no guesswork in what she wanted.
*Again?* JD thought as he returned the kisses. *Shoot, someone up there must really like me.* "I was gonna go over and check on Buck," he gasped, quickly realizing those plans would be a little delayed as they moved into her bedroom. *What the hell, Buck will understand.*
Buck checked his watch.
"Expecting someone?" Inez asked as they sat in the kitchen drinking coffee.
"Thought the kid would be here by now, he said he'd drop by," Buck answered, a small grin turning his lips upward. "Mind you, I don't reckon he can hardly walk the way he and that little gal of his are going."
Inez giggled. "Young love, mi Amore. Fresh, exciting and all-consuming. We've all been there."
"God knows he's earned it." Buck took her hand and changed the subject as he gazed into her eyes. "I think I think these sessions are starting to help a little."
His wife smiled. "That is so good to hear; However, I also understand it will take time. Any progress is good, but there's no hurry, querido, I want you whole again, and happy, and will wait for however long it takes."
His thumb stroked the soft skin of her hand. "Knowing the love you have for me, and how the guys care so much, is keeping me straight, now. I know what Wilder did will haunt me for the rest of my life, but I also know that I will put this behind me one day, and return to the life and the people I love without feeling a failure. Life will be good again, darling, I promise."
"Oh, my love it always was we've just hit a very large and painfully cruel bump in the road." Intertwining their fingers, they sat in comfortable silence as they gazed out at the mountains in the distance, through the big kitchen picture window, finally able to look forward with enthusiasm instead of dread to their future.
Josiah and Mallory joined Rain and Nathan for mid- morning coffee, after they dropped Adam off at daycare. The men felt the need to talk about yesterday's session, and find a way to come to terms with all they had heard. The women stepped outside, so they could talk freely.
Mallory glanced at her friend and grinned. "What do you say we leave our husbands to talk, and run a special errand?"
"I'm game if you are." Rain smiled. "I could use a change of scenery."
After telling the men they would be gone for a while, and assuring them that they would not leave ranch property, the two were on their way.
"So come on what's with all the rushing and secrecy?" Rain glowed with curiosity as she glanced across at Mallory, who was driving them toward JD's to see Talia, then on to see Cait, Inez, and Kelli.
"I realized that we haven't thrown a wedding shower for Cait. It occurred to me, the boys have a session at JD's coming up next week, which gives us time to prepare. Talia will need to be elsewhere, I'm guessing, so this would be an ideal time for us girls to have a get-together in Cait's honor."
"Brilliant thinking," Rain grinned. "Where should we hold it?"
"Not sure, let's see what the others think. We'll have a big spread. I think we need something to lift us all . and gifts we have to get gifts "
Rain nodded, enthusiastically before frowning and clutching the dashboard. "Mal ?"
The MCAT agent was pumping the brake pedal. "I I have no brakes."
Staring out of the windshield at the slope they were traveling down, Rain swallowed. "Parking brake?"
"Not working "
"Oh God "
Using skills that she had learned in training, Mallory swerved and maneuvered until her vehicle veered off the road and continued through underbrush at increasing speed.
Rain grabbed her cell, and frantically called her husband. "Nathan Mal's brakes have gone out we're "
Both women screamed as the car hit a small dirt bank and flipped.
Nathan's blood ran cold as he heard his wife's frantic appeal then two terrified screams before the sickening sound of crunching metal. He stared at Josiah, his cell in his hand as if it was a ticking bomb.
"What?" Josiah was already on his feet.
"We gotta go " was all he could get out before the pair raced out to Nathan's Dodge.
Chris sat on the porch, and shuffled through the security reports for the past twenty-four hours. "Damn, looks like our men were busy last night."
Brodie nodded. "Yep, they answered half a dozen false alarms, and found evidence that someone had been snooping around."
"We were talkin' about this last night, Chris." Vin leaned against the railing, next to Brodie. "Whoever is behind this is tryin' to spook us. I think all these security breaches are a distraction, and they have somethin' bigger planned."
"Could be, but we won't take any unnecessary chances." Chris looked at them. "I know the two of you can probably handle anything that comes up, but I'd feel better going with you today."
Walter joined them and heard Larabee's last statement. "Might not be a bad idea." He glanced at his watch, and turned to Vin. "I delivered Jason safe and sound to the Wilmington's. Shouldn't y'all be gettin' a move on it? Andi's appointment is at eleven."
Vin shrugged. "We're just waitin' on Kel and Andi. You know how women are they always find one more thing needs doin'."
Chris looked up and grinned. "I think that's an unwritten rule of the 'women's' code'."
"I heard that, Dad." Kelli walked out with Andi. "Walter, Max wanted a word with you." Moving aside for Walter to pass, she glanced at Chris and smiled. "Be good, or I'll have to have a long girl talk with Caitlyn."
"Honey, I'm always good. If you don't believe me ask Cait I don't hear her complaining." Chris laughed when he saw a slight blush on his daughters face.
"Too much information for me." said Kelli, shaking her head. "Come on, Sugar, we'll get the truck started while these 'gentlemen' decide if they're ready to go."
Vin leaned over and kissed his wife. "We're just finishin' up on some security talk; I'll be there in a minute."
Andi pulled on her mama's skirt. "Can I make the truck beep?"
"Sure," Kelli answered as she handed Andi the keys. She watched her run ahead to the Navigator. "I don't understand the fascination she and Jason have with the remote access alarm, but they fight over who gets to 'beep' it." Giving Vin a stern look she said, "Don't be long, or we'll be late."
Observing Kelli hurrying after her daughter, who was repeatedly beeping the alarm off and on, Brodie laughed as he stepped down off the porch. "You'll never have a dull minute with that one, Vin."
"That's for sure. If Andi thinks it she does it." Vin started to join Brodie, but stopped when Chris's cell rang.
Chris frowned, as he listened. Snapping the phone shut, he explained. "That was Josiah Rain and Mallory had an accident. The brakes went out on Mal's car."
Brodie's head snapped around. He looked over to the Navigator that Andi and Kelli were approaching. Ducking down, he saw the flash of red beneath it. "Damnit NO!" He took off in a dead run, scooped Andi into his arms, and then tackled Kelli. Using his forward momentum, he turned his body to cushion their fall as the trio hit the ground, and then rolled over them, to cover their bodies with his own.
Seconds later, an explosion rocked the ground beneath them, shattering the windows of the house a hundred yards away, and sent a fireball shooting upwards more than a hundred feet. Reacting to Brodie's yell, Vin and Chris ran after him. The blast tossed them backwards, both landing hard as the Navigator erupted into flames, and debris littered the area.
Shaking, Rain glanced around her. Her world was upside down and filled with the sound of creaking metal and glass falling. Glancing across, she saw Mallory rubbing her head. "You okay?"
"Think so you?"
"Everything's moving okay, so, I think so, yeah. Can you move?"
"Not sure seatbelt's jammed."
"Just relax, I got through to Nathan he and Josiah will be here any minute, I'm sure." Rain tried not to convey how afraid she was. Her door was buckled in and pinning her arm, but she had flexed her fingers and was sure there was no or little damage. Mallory's head was bleeding, but not much, so Rain felt sure, barring hidden injuries, they had come through this. A vehicle sliding to a halt close by, at first had them worried, until they heard their husband's voices, then relief flooded over both women.
Straight down onto his belly, Nathan looked in through the side window, relieved to see the two women looking back at him. "We'll have you out in no time," he smiled, his outward expression belying his inner turmoil. Dropping down next to him, Josiah unloaded the tools from the Dodge. Nathan forced open the door, carefully checking Mallory over and pleased with her responses. Taking a blade knife, he then sliced through her seatbelt, before he and Josiah eased her out, to sit in the rough grass. Josiah took her in his arms for a few seconds before they moved on to Rain.
Mindful of the glass fragments, Nathan eased himself over the roof above the driver's seat. "You have to be accurate, girl. Do I need heavy-duty gear to get to you? How badly are you hurt?"
"I can move, honey, please, just get me out of here."
Taking the strain, Josiah's great strength pulled the jammed door open, while Nathan cut Rain's belt. Sanchez held her until Nathan could release her. Slowly, Josiah cautiously pulled the trembling woman out, and eased her down onto the grass.
Nathan swapped sides with Josiah, who then held his wife close. "Are you really okay?" He relaxed a little as she nodded into his chest.
Mallory kissed Josiah. "I'm fine, just really shook up."
They all looked up at the sound of a huge boom, the ground seemingly vibrating as black smoke palled into the air in the distance.
"Oh God," Josiah rasped. "That's from the direction of Vin's place."
All four rising, they made their way to the Dodge and headed toward Vin's.
Already aware of the sound, Buck felt the vibration as he walked from the bathroom, instantly hurrying to the porch. As soon as he saw the smoke, he kissed a fearful Inez, told her to keep Jason busy, then called to the man Brodie had assigned to his home. He ordered him to stay alert before jumping in his truck, and heading toward the black smoke. He dialed Ezra.
"I guessed you heard. Stay with Barbara, and lock the place down I'll be in touch." He picked up an incoming call. "You okay, Kid? Yeah, I think it's at Vin's stay put no, listen " he sighed. "Good point, if it is at Vin's, Max is there, but Talia can help, too. Call Nathan. Thanks."
Temporarily stunned from the force of the blast, Chris moaned and attempted to sit up. As he did, he saw the burning shell of the Navigator, and the huddled, unmoving bodies of his family. His mind raced back to the day Sarah and Adam died. The scene before him chilled his blood, and sent stabbing pains through his heart. *God, not again.*
Vin shook his head, attempting to get rid of the ringing sound in his ears, and managed to raise himself to a crawling position. Then the realization of their situation hit him full force. Staggering to his feet, he saw Walter making an effort to drag Brodie, Kelli, and Andi away from the burning Navigator. A rush of adrenaline surged through his body, and he ran toward them, aware that Chris was right behind him.
Brodie was on his knees, trying to catch his breath between fits of coughing. He waved off their help. "Get the baby and Kel out of here." Suddenly strong hands were there to assist him, and he looked up to see Chris.
"Walter has Andi, and Vin's got Kel, let's get you out of here." Larabee hoisted Brodie to his feet, threw his arm around him, and half-dragged him away from the unbearable heat the inferno created. Once they were a safe distance away, Chris helped Hawks to sit on the ground next to his son.
As she regained consciousness, the last thing Kelli could remember was the sight of Andi standing beside the truck that was now a blazing ball of fire. Panic struck . she screamed for Andi, and struggled with Vin in her effort to find her. The Texan held her tightly, and did his best to calm her, "Shhh, baby, she's okay." He curled his hand around her neck, wiped the tears from her eyes, and said in a soothing tone, "Look at me, Kel. Andi's all right a little shaken, but okay." Slowly his voice broke through her hysteria and she stopped fighting him.
Chris ripped his belt from his jeans, strapped it around Hawk's bleeding arm, and checked for any broken bones. Satisfied that Brodie was all right to sit on his own for a couple of minutes; Chris turned his attention to his daughter. He took Andi from Walter, and knelt down beside Kelli. "See she's fine, honey."
To assure herself that her daughter was actually there and alive, Kelli reached out with a trembling hand to touch Andi's face. "I thought "
"Mama, you squished me, but I'm okay. Daddy, did you hear the big boom? I did and you know what? The fire went way up, and ." Andi was wound up and ready to tell all, pleased that her mama and daddy were listening.
Gently kissing the top of her head, Chris eased her away from her parents. "Andi, you can tell us about it later, when Jason gets home, all right? You go with Walter now, while your daddy and I take care of mama." He waited until the child agreed and passed her back to Walter, and then asked Vin, "What can I do?"
Vin glanced up, with a look of fear written across his face. "Blanket...towels first aid kit... under the back seat of my truck." With one hand, he wiped the streaks of blood from his wife's face looking for the source, while assessing for other injuries with the other.
Chris nodded, stood, and gripped Tanner's shoulder. "They're alive, Vin, hold on to that."
By now, the ranch hands and Brodie's men were arriving to contain the fire, and assist with the aftermath.
Buck drove in, slammed his truck into gear, jumped out, and quickly scanned the area. The burning truck, broken windows, and debris scattered on the ground told him more than words could explain. He grabbed Larabee by the arm. "Chris my God is ?"
Chris was running on autopilot, the first surge of adrenaline was wearing off, and the effects of all that had transpired were starting to sink in. "Need blankets . first aid kit Vin's truck."
"You get the blankets." Buck steered Larabee toward the house. "I'll grab the first aid kit."
Walter was on his way out of the house with an armload of blankets, gauze, and tape. "Max has the children at the back of the house, and they're all fine." He passed two blankets to Chris. "One is for Kel, and one for you."
"I'm fine," Chris growled as he took them. "Brodie's arm is slashed, you check on him, while I get these to Vin." Larabee hurried back to where Vin kept watch over Kelli and Hawks.
JD pulled in next to Buck's truck, and was out the door in a flash. Talia moved slower, taking in the devastating view in front of her. "Oh my heavens " She snapped to attention, snatched a first aid kit from the front seat of the truck, and hurriedly followed JD.
By the time Buck, JD, and Talia, joined them, Vin already had Kelli wrapped in the blanket Chris had given him. He was dabbing a piece of gauze on the side of her face to absorb the droplets of blood oozing from a nasty scrape. She was calmer now, and able to tell him what hurt, and what didn't.
Talia knelt down next to them, clearly distressed by seeing Kelli injured. "I'll clean those scrapes, if you want me to."
Vin shook his head as he continued to administer aid to his wife, and snapped at her. "I've got it!"
JD heard him and turned around. "Vin, she's only trying to help."
Tanner took a deep breath. "Look I'm not too damn sociable after seein' my wife and daughter almost killed in front of me. Brodie needs his arm tended to she wants to help she can help him."
"Andi?" JD felt a cold chill travel down his spine. "Is she all right?"
Chris touched JD's shoulder. "Brodie got to her and Kel seconds before the blast he pushed them to safety just in time .we were lucky today."
Buck looked over at Hawks. He had never trusted the man, but he could not deny that risking his life to save part of his extended family, raised him to a new level on his trust scale. "Guess we're in your debt again. Thank you."
Brodie shook his head. "Right place right time I'm just glad they're both alive." He smiled at Talia when she moved over to look at his arm. "It's just a scratch, nothing to worry about."
"Looks like a little more than a scratch." Talia examined the wound. "You're probably going to need stitches."
He shrugged. "Not the first time, and probably won't be the last."
Nathan, Josiah, Rain, and Mallory arrived, all were anxious to find out about possible injuries.
Chris looked over the women. "Are you two all right?"
"They seem to be okay. I can't understand though why the brakes failed on Mal's car." Josiah sighed. "After seeing this I'm beginning to think it may not have been an accident."
JD and Buck exchanged looks, and Buck said. "Apparently we missed a lot."
Rain knelt down next to Vin and Kelli, while Nathan went over to check out Brodie. She glanced at Vin. "What do we have?"
"She was out cold for a few minutes after the blast, no broken bones that I can find, and has some bad scrapes and bruises. Possible concussion, and I think her shoulder is reinjured." Vin listed off his assessment of his wife's injuries.
Nodding, Rain set about gently squeezing the shoulder, apologizing when Kelli yelped. "Sorry I think it may only be sprained, but I'd like to see an x-ray to be sure. Since there was a loss of consciousness, we'd better plan on an overnight in the hospital, too."
"No no hospital," Kelli protested, while shaking her head. "It doesn't feel the same as it did when I fell and separated it before " she turned her gaze to Vin. "Please, if I hurt worse tomorrow I'll go willingly, but not now "
Talia stood behind Rain. "Do you want me to call 9-1-1?"
Brodie spoke up. "NO if we need to go to the hospital, we'll make the arrangements. No one is coming on the property we don't know. That includes any kind of ambulance."
Chris nodded. "He's right. It would be too easy to fake an EMT crew after this," he looked over at the truck, "we're not taking any chances.
"Then I suggest we get these two inside so I can examine them properly after that I'll decide who goes where." Rain stood, and began issuing orders.
Chris glanced up when Vin entered the living room. "Is Kel all right?"
"Yeah. After she convinced Rain she was better off at home, and she knew Andi and the twins were safe at Max's, she gave in to exhaustion, and went to sleep." Vin realized that all his brothers were there, and had been waiting on him. "I reckon we need to talk, but I need to tend to a few things first."
Josiah put his arm around Tanner's shoulder. "A crew is already cleaning up all the broken window glass, and another is working on clearing the yard."
"Jason is staying with us for a few days. He and Caleb have missed each other anyway," Buck informed him.
Ezra closed his cell. "I have placed the order for the materials necessary to make the repairs to your home, and requested that they be delivered a.s.a.p."
"Raphael and Mike are on their way to the pharmacy as we speak to fill the scrips for Kelli and Hawks." Nathan grinned, and handed Vin a sheet of paper. "Rain left you a long list of detailed instructions concerning Kelli's care."
"I checked on the horses for you." JD smiled. "Other than Peso trying to bite me, they're all okay, just a little spooked by all the noise."
"On their way back, Mike is dropping Raphael at the MCAT office. Travis is sending the agency helicopter out here. It's already fully equipped for any medical emergency, and if anyone has to go to the hospital, we don't have to depend on outside help." Chris indicated that Vin should sit down. "We also discussed a few changes we want to make concerning security."
Walter waited for Vin to sit down. "We can't get all the materials we need until Monday, and it will take a while to complete it, but the boys voted to fortify our security on the fence lines. We're going to add razor wire to the top, and wire every fence on the property to an electric current. That should slow down anyone who tries to breach it."
Vin shook his head. "So we become prisoners on our own damn property because the bad guys want at us." He stood and began pacing the room. "What about our kids? We just tell them don't touch and be assured none of them will forget, and accidentally be shocked by the fence? Do we build a wall around us, and make this place a fortress? Do we want to teach them to hide behind all the security gadgets? Let them think everythin' is fine when the truth is no amount of security in the world will keep out a man who is determined to get through. We should be out huntin' down the bastards responsible, not hidin' like scared rabbits."
"It's not a perfect solution Vin, but it will help." Chris tightened his lips, not happy about the vibes he was getting from Tanner. "Travis is going to have Homeland Security send us their daily threat assessments, and all the information they have on the Cartels. Chavez has made it to the most wanted list, and his picture is tacked up in every post office and airport security office in the country. We have CASSIE and all our collective years of experience as officers of the law on our side. We'll work this like any other case we've ever worked, and we will resolve it by the rules, and within the law."
Vin huffed. "Well we know how much help Travis can be don't we? He really came through for Buck, and me, and I don't see him or the 'law' stoppin' the shit goin' on around here. Mal and Rain could have been killed today " he inhaled and glared at Chris. "MY daughter stood less than three feet away from a truck loaded with explosives in her own yard, in front of her home a home that's supposed to be a safe place for her. If Brodie had been slowed down by even fifteen seconds I'd be plannin' a double funeral right now." Vin fisted his hands. "I'm sorry as hell if it gripes your ass, but as for playin' by the rules I lost my fuckin' rulebook in a four by six torture room in South America, and I don't give a damn about what the law says I should do."
Chris jumped up and stood in front of Vin. "It wasn't just your daughter out there Tanner. I could have lost another child to a goddamn car bomb, and I'm just as unhappy about that as you are but we can't just declare war and run off half-cocked like the sonsofbitches who planned all this. We need to stay focused on what we do best we didn't get where we are by letting our emotions run us."
Josiah glanced at Chris and then said, "Look all our emotions are running high today. We need to take a deep breath, and think about what we should do."
Vin turned to Sanchez. "You do that Josiah I know what I need to do." He walked out of the room, and headed outside.
For a moment silence reigned. Then Chris looked over at Brodie, who had remained quiet during their discussions. "I suppose you have something to say."
Brodie stood. "My family was attacked today and that is simply not acceptable. You do what you need to do, Larabee, and I'll do what I need to my way." Without saying more, he turned and followed Vin's path outside.
Buck frowned. "What does he mean 'his' family? Is he claiming to be one of us now?"
Chris sighed. "You'll have to wait for an explanation Buck." He cast an anxious glance toward the door. "Although, I have a feeling you might not have to wait all that long."
Brodie found his son in the barn, brushing down Peso. He stood there for a brief moment, and watched him. This was not the way he had planned to talk to Vin, but it appeared 'fate' was directing things her way. Hawks understood that the next few minutes would change his life. It remained to be seen if it would be a good change or a devastating one.
Vin looked up, and grimaced when he noted the bandages. "How's the arm?'
"A few stitches, no big deal."
Leaning against Peso, Vin nodded. "I didn't get a chance to say it but thank you. If you hadn't "
"If I wasn't there you would've got to them I just happened to be a few feet closer." Brodie walked over nearer to Vin, and took a deep breath. "There's uh something I've wanted to tell you not that I ever planned to, I didn't feel like I had a right, but things have changed lately and... Hell, I'm no good at this kind of thing I "
Meeting his gaze, Vin said softly, "I know who you are."
"A couple of days now, and no Kel didn't tell me. I accidently ran across the papers you gave her, and read your letter."
Brodie shook his head, and gave a half-laugh. "The first thing I learned in my business is to never commit anything to writing that could come back and bite me on the ass. I reckon I let your redhead get to me, and forgot that." Keeping his gaze steady, he said, "So, you ready to kick my ass, shoot me, yell at me tell me I'm a sorry bastard, and to get the hell out my actions justify all of that, and more."
Biting at his lower lip, Vin measured his words. "I reckon I considered all of the above, and a month ago, I would have kicked your ass, but I took some time to think about it. I almost left Kel and the kids, thinkin' that was the only way to protect 'em. Probably would have if you hadn't talk to me about it Wilder might have been a sadistic bastard, but I learned somethin' from all that shit we don't know our limits until we're tested. If disappearin' meant my wife and kids were safe " Vin sighed. "I don't know . While I can't say for certain that I'd have made the same choices you did I can understand why you did." Vin attempted a smile. "At least knowin' the truth sure as hell explains a lot of things about you, and why you kept poppin' up in my life."
"I know you still have questions, and you deserve to know everything, but I'm not sure I have good answers for all of 'em." Brodie met his son's eyes. "There is one thing I want you to believe though I never quit loving you or your mother. There just came a point for me that it was too late to turn back."
Vin read the truth in his father's eyes. "We need to sit down and have a long talk about it. Then we can decide where we go from here, but that'll have to wait 'til this cartel shit is behind us. They tried to kill my wife and daughter I want blood."
Hawks nodded. "I understand, and I feel the same. Your family has become very important to me .I never expected to get so emotionally involved with Kel and the children, but I did." He walked around Peso and stood in front of his son. "You've dedicated your adult life to upholding the law. Don't throw it away now."
Vin paused. "I can fight my own battles, and I'm willin' to take the consequences for my actions."
"I know you are, and my father would be as proud of the man you've become as I am." Brodie took a chance, and grasped Vin's shoulder. "You know what I do my hands are already stained from years of crossing the line to get the job done at any costs. Keep yours clean, and let me do the dirty work. I promise you, those bastards will pay."
Vin studied on it for a moment. "You have connections I don't have, and I won't try to stop, or second-guess anythin' you can do. That also means you won't try to stop me from doin' what I have to do."
Brodie figured that was the best offer he could hope to negotiate. "Deal."
Putting the brush away, Vin glanced over to the man, who suddenly held a new position in his life. Whatever the future had in store for the two of them, one thing was certain for better or worse, Vin Tanner now had a father.
They had cuddled on the bed for some time, the events of the day playing over and over in their minds. Josiah sighed deeply and Mallory looked up at him.
"Are you okay?"
"No, no I'm not. You could have been killed...Rain could have been killed, so could Kelli, Andi, and Brodie not to mention if Chris and Vin had been closer to the truck, too." He held her closer. "What's happening? It was bad enough they attacked the team now they're going after our women and children. What kind of cowards are they?"
"They're the type that only cares about results, not consequences. Honey we all survived. Hold onto that. Brodie's a fine man and he's doing all he can, we'll just have to be more vigilant. Besides, it's not confirmed why my brakes failed." She noted his wince. "What?"
"One of Hawk's men confirmed the brake line had been severed. It was no accident." Feeling her shudder, Josiah cuddled her tighter and lay there, unable to sleep, fearful for what may come next.
Rain shook her head. "No, thanks. I think I'll head for bed. Are you coming?"
She approached him as he stared out of the window, her arms encircling him as she leaned into his back. "What?"
Nathan sighed. "I don't know. There's a piece or two to this puzzle that just isn't slotting in, but I'm damned if I can figure out why."
"Care to share?"
Turning to her, he kissed her head. "Nothing to share, yet, just lots of unanswered questions." He squeezed her. "I can't believe how close I came to losing you and the others, today. I'm sorry you've ended up in the middle of this mess."
"This mess isn't because of you or the other guys, Nathan. Stay strong my love. I'm always here for you." She took his hand. "Come on you need to rest, too."
With a nod, Nathan locked down the house and followed Rain to the bedroom.
The kids sound asleep, JD slipped into Talia's room to say goodnight. He noted her expression. "You okay?"
She smiled thinly. "Not really. It's been a horrible day."
JD nodded, sitting on the edge of the bed. "Yeah, I know. I've been thinking about it all evening. Whoever's doing this, knows our place and routines real well."
"Really?" she asked. "It all seemed rather random to me, just all taking place close together, or maybe it just seemed that way, and it's all been a bit crazy, lately. You know, we're rather isolated, here. Aren't you worried?"
"Nah, we got good alarms, and a great team watching over us." He took her hand. "You did great, today, thanks."
"It's what I'm trained for," she smiled. "Though it cuts deep to treat people you've come to care about." Kneeling next to him, she kissed him, her body leaning in to offer him an invitation to stay. JD gently broke off the kiss and held her hands in his.
"I love being with you, but not tonight, okay? Apart from the kids being here, I learned half of my family almost died, today. I'm really not up to "
"I understand," she smiled. "I'm sorry."
Pulling her close, JD hugged her. "No need for sorry I'm flattered that you like me so much. Maybe we could just talk "
Talia yawned. "Actually, I'm kinda beat, too. How about I make us some warm milk before we settle down?"
JD nodded. "Sounds good."
Cait had wanted to be with Chris so badly this night, but the blond was only with her in body, his mind locked in deep concentration. As their naked forms clung tightly to each other, she sensed his inner turmoil.
"Talk to me."
Chris sighed, his body shifting to look into her eyes. "It keeps playing in my mind walking out the door, Andi activating and deactivating the car alarm. Brodie's shout, and him racing toward Kelli and Andi " his body shuddered. "The noise, the flames, the smell seeing them lying there, not moving." He heaved a ragged sigh. "It was like reliving it all over again."
Cait held him tighter. "Sarah and Adam?" She felt him nod. "Oh, my love I'm so sorry."
"It's not just that," he murmured, "I feel like I'm missing something."
"You're overwrought, Chris. Between worrying about Vin and Buck, seeing the family life you know and love disintegrate with the aftermath of their kidnapping, quitting MCAT and everything else in between you've started second-guessing yourself. I've always found, if you let go a little, the answers you're seeking suddenly fall into place."
"Better hurry up, then," he said softly. "I think we're fast running out of good luck." They kissed with a need they knew would not be satisfied this night, too much had happened in the day, but it felt good to be together.
The fire alarm from the barn, sounded at five. Chris bolted upright in the bed. "Shit!" Jumping out, he pulled on some sweats and ran for the door, turning briefly to Caitlyn. "Stay inside."
Cait sat up,, and stared after him. Suddenly she remembered that the kids were staying with Max and Walter, and leaped of out bed to dress. "The babies!"
Larabee 7, Saturday, 0500 Hours
Racing out of the house, Chris was staring at the beginnings of a fire in the barn, the alarm tipping him off as soon as the first wisps of smoke emerged. Several ranch hands were running for hoses as they moved Pony and the other horses out, he knew his family would soon be arriving to help, once the linked alarms alerted them. Leaving the firefighting to his men, he ran to Max and Walter's place, adjacent to the barn.
Max was already outside with Andi and Bren. Walter was coming out the door, carrying Trey. "We're okay." He handed the baby to Cait when she rushed over.
Chris scooped Andi into his arms, and moved further away from the smoke and heat. "Hey, Sugar. You've had an exciting day, haven't you?"
"Uh huh and you know what Uncle Chris?" Andi's eyes were as big as saucers, as she breathlessly related her version of events. "Tracker woke me up told me to run to Max he stayed with me 'til we was outside, too."
Cait hurried to Chris's side, with Trey in her arms. She smiled at Andi, and asked, "You want to help me and Max with your brothers?"
Overwhelmed by all the excitement, Andi was in no mood to help, and indicated that by shaking her head. "I want mama "
Brodie's truck skidded to a halt near them. Vin jumped out of the driver's side, while Brodie and Kelli exited via the passenger door. They ran over to the small group huddled together, in front of the Andrews' place, looking to assure themselves that the children were safe.
"They're fine," Chris reassured the anxious parents. "Andi said Tracker woke her, and made sure they all got out."
Vin ran his hand over Andi's head, and touched Bren and Trey's faces. "Thank God." He took a deep breath, and then glanced at Brodie. "Take the women and kids up to Chris's house. Stay with them until we get this fire out." Vin trusted Brodie to protect his family, and wanted him to know it.
Brodie nodded. "I'll keep watch over them." He took Andi from Chris, and set her on her feet beside her mother.
"I know." Vin said, and hurried off with Chris to join the others. By now Buck, Josiah, Ezra, and Nathan had arrived to assist.
Hawks steered the women toward Larabee's house. Kelli wanted to carry Andi, but her injury would not allow it. She wrapped her good arm around her daughter's shoulder, and stayed close to Cait, Max, and the twins.
"I'll put on coffee, and start breakfast for the men. They're bound to be ravenous by the time they finish." Max headed for the kitchen, mumbling aloud, a list of things to set out for the deed.
"Kel, the boys can go down in the extra crib in Cody's room. I'll help you get them settled." Cait offered, knowing that Kelli or Brodie should not lift either twin.
"I'll take little Sugar here." Brodie winked at Andi, and asked. Where do you want her?"
Cait tiled her head toward Grace's room. "Try to get her back to sleep in Grace's room."
It took a while to get the twins to sleep. Kelli sat and watched the boys until she was certain they would stay that way, and then went to check on Andi. Standing at the door of Grace's room, she observed Brodie, caringly tucking the covers over her sleeping daughter, before he quietly backed out of the room.
"You're good with children," Kelli said softly.
Brodie turned quickly, embarrassed that she had snuck up on him, without him realizing she was there. "I'm a little out of practice, but Andi is a great kid. She's easy to talk to."
"Yeah, she is." They walked side-by side toward the kitchen, both contemplating the 'what if's' of the past day. "It amazes me how resilient she is. Considerin' all that's happened in the past twenty-four hours, I'm surprised she hasn't had nightmares."
Stopping just before he pushed open the door, Brodie asked, "She said Tracker woke her up, and kept her safe. You know what she's talking about?"
Kelli grinned. "Yes, and I have a feelin' you'll understand soon, too."
Entering the kitchen, Max met them, with an update, and an order. "The men sent word that the fire is out, and they saved our place, but it'll take a while to get the area cleared. You two grab some coffee, and then get your injured butts out on the deck."
"Yes ma'am," Brodie answered with a smile. He poured two cups, handed one to Kelli, and then followed her onto the porch. Waiting until she was comfortable on the chair swing, he leaned against the railing. "I reckon Vin told you that we talked yesterday."
"He did." She studied his face, searching for some sign of how he felt about it, but reading Hawks was not easy. "How do you feel about the outcome?"
"It went better than I expected, or deserved."
"I also owe you an apology." She smiled at the confused look on his face, and decided that an explanation was in order. "I shouldn't have called you a coward. You had your reasons for what you did, but all I could think of was how Vin would feel. Sometimes I let my anger get ahead of me."
Brodie did not want her thinking it was a mistake to speak up, shook his head. "You calling me on it prompted me to write that letter. Although things didn't turn out the way I planned it produced a good result. I'm not certain I had the courage to tell my son the truth. Vin reading that letter opened the door for us to talk."
"What you did yesterday was not the action of a man who was afraid of anythin'. You risked your life to save our daughter, and we're extremely grateful."
He shrugged. "My life was expendable y'all's weren't."
"You underestimate your importance. Vin's waited over thirty years to find out the truth about his father. I'd take it as a personal favor if you'd promise to be more careful, and give him a chance to get to know you."
Hawks gazed toward the barn. "Vin is a fine man, and he's surrounded by people who care for him. He's done all right without me. I'm not sure I have anything to offer him he doesn't already have."
Kelli sighed. "I didn't think I needed a father either, but when I found out about Chris I learned that I'd been missin' somethin' very important in my life. It's what most call, blood ties. Being loved by someone who shares a part of you gives you a sense of belongin' that no other love can duplicate." She laughed. "I've also learned that fathers come in very handy they listen when no one else will, and once in a while even give some good advice."
"You and Chris appear to have a solid relationship. Vin and I are still standing on shaky ground."
"We didn't start out on solid ground. We danced around our new relationship for quite a while, before we hit firm footin'. It's taken time, love, and patience to get to where we are and most of the patience was on Vin's part. In case you hadn't noticed, patience is not a strong Larabee trait. Thank heavens my husband has more than enough to go around when it's needed."
Their discussion ceased when a small tornado ran up the steps, followed by Inez.
"Mom!" Jason yelled as he ran over, and hugged Kelli. "Are y'all okay? Where's dad, and Andi, and the twins?"
Inez smiled, and lifted the tray she was carrying. "My aunt stayed with our kids, so I could bring over some breakfast tacos. When Jason heard about the fire he was so worried I thought I should bring him, too."
"You did the right thing, Inez, thanks." Kelli squeezed Jason. "Andi and the boys are asleep inside Uncle Chris's house. Dad is helpin' down at the barn, but should be here soon. We're all okay."
Jason touched the sling on her arm. "Are you sure?'
"I reinjured my shoulder, but I promise it's nothin' serious." Kelli kissed his cheek. "If you go inside with Aunt Inez, I bet Max will give you some breakfast." Jason hesitated for a moment, but with his mother's encouragement, he nodded, and then went inside with Inez.
Brodie smiled, seeing the concern in the young boy's eyes for his mother... "You and Vin have more than one great kid."
"We do." Kelli looked toward the barn. "I wonder how much longer they'll be."
"Not long," Cait said, as she stepped out the door, carrying the big coffeemaker. "Chris called and said they were on their way up." Inez and Max followed her, with platters of food to set on the table.
Larabee Barn, O700 Hours
Chris tossed one last piece of burnt wood aside. "I think the rest of the men can handle it from here." He looked at his brothers. "Don't know about you guys, but I'm ready for some coffee."
Vin figured that was an offer too inviting to pass up, and nodded. "Pony is settled in our barn, the rest of the horses are in the main stable. Right now, coffee sounds good to me."
Picking up his discarded jacket, Ezra dusted off the soot, and agreed, "Coffee, and then a shower."
"If I know Max, I'd bet there's food to go along with that coffee." Walter took another look at how close the fire came to reaching their home, and sighed. "Thanks for savin' our place."
"Barns can easily be replaced, homes can't." Josiah glanced back to the damage. "We were lucky it wasn't worse."
Disturbed by the disastrous occurrences happening around him, Nathan shook his head. "Does the term snake bit ring any bells? I'm not sure luck has anything to do with any of this." He fell into step with Josiah, behind Chris, Vin, and Ezra.
Buck threw his arm around JD's neck, and grinned. "Took you long enough to get here. Talia must be wearing your butt out."
"Ah Buck, I've just been tired lately, and didn't hear the alarm. Talia don't have anything to do with it."
"Un huh." Buck nudged him in the ribs. "You keep saying that, but I know better."
Chris shouted back. "I think we all know better." As they approached the deck, all of them were grinning except JD.
Vin was the first one up the steps. His eyes searched out Brodie who responded to his unasked questions. "Kids are fine, and asleep inside. No problems, and Kel has been keeping me company after Max threw us out."
Chris and Vin opted for coffee only, and went over to stand beside Brodie and Kelli, while their brothers descended on the food.
"Everythin' okay now?" Kelli asked, visually checking out her husband for new injuries.
Chris answered, "For the most part, although I'll have to build a new barn. Max and Walter's place was spared with only a little smoke damage, and no animals were hurt."
Vin sat down next to his wife just as Jason ran out the door yelling, "Dad!"
"Hey, son." Vin gave him a fierce hug, before placing his finger under his son's chin, and tilting his head up, for a better view of his face. "I didn't know you were here?"
"Aunt Inez let me come with her I was worried about y'all."
Inez walked over, leaned into her husband for a good morning kiss, and then said, "I thought if he saw for himself you were all okay, he'd feel better."
Buck squeezed her waist. "Glad you came." He lowered his head and kissed her again.
"Do we know how the fire started?" Cait asked, as she moved over to stand next to Chris.
"Not yet, but I'm willing to bet it was no accident." Nathan frowned. "Nothing around here lately has been an accident."
"Jason," Vin leaned down, and spoke to his son. "Uncle Chris doesn't have an intercom like ours. Would you go inside, and listen for the babies for us? I'm sure it would be okay for you to turn on the television, if you keep the sound turned down."
"Sure," he answered. Eager to help, he jumped off his chair and ran inside.
Giving him time to get to the den, Vin finally said, "I know things are not going great, but I'd rather not worry the kids anymore than we have to."
"Sorry, Vin, I wasn't thinking." Nathan sighed, not sure what to make of the latest emergency. "I don't like any of this. It's like "
"Psychological torture," Buck filled in the words Nathan was searching for. "Whoever is behind this shit is taking a page out of Wilder's book. They're keeping us stressed and worried about our families."
"The question is how?" Josiah looked to the others for an answer. "How are they getting close enough to do this?"
A nagging thought in the back of his mind had Nathan glancing at Brodie. "All I know is we have a lot of new men around any one of them could be involved."
"We're not jumping to any conclusion without proof." Chris scanned all their faces, wanting to make certain he had their attention. "All the new men who have come onto the ranch have security clearances that are higher than the ones we use at MCAT. I don't know how this is happening, but I do know we'll find out."
"In the meantime," Ezra set his empty plate on the table, "I think I'll head to the house, and check on Barbara."
Josiah nodded. "I'm right behind you. I left Mallory alone with the kids."
"Thanks for the breakfast, but I probably should get back to Rain." Nathan followed Josiah.
JD looked over at Chris, and made a half-hearted attempt at a joke. "You sure know how to clear the deck."
Buck tapped the back of his head. "Very funny, Kid."
Chris glanced over to Hawks and sighed. "The more crap that happens, the worse the doubts are going to get."
"They care about their families' welfare, it's understandable." Brodie noticed one of his men approaching, and went over to meet him. After a moment of discussion, he nodded, and then turned back to the group. "My men found and identified a timing device the fire was deliberately set to start when it did."
"No big surprise there." Chris said as his cell rang, and cursed softly when he recognized the incoming number as one belonging to Travis. Answering it, he spent more time listening than talking. Finally, he said. "Thanks for the update. Maybe this will be the end of it." Closing his cell, he steadied his gave on Brodie. "Apparently, all hell broke loose in Columbia overnight. Chavez is dead, along with several high-ranking officials of the major Cartels. The rebels have overrun several encampments, and the fighting is brutal. You wouldn't, by chance, know anything about that would you?"
"Me?" Brodie shrugged. "Not a thing. Although it means that at least now, all we have to contend with are the local bastards. That makes our job easier." He tossed Vin his keys. "I'm riding back with Pete. Your glass delivery is here, and I want to personally inspect it before we let them in the gate."
Vin showed his appreciation by nodding. "I'll be back at the house soon."
JD yawned, and stretched. "Think I'll head home and try to catch a couple of hours of sleep."
Buck grinned. "Sleep being the operative word there, Sport."
"Bite me," JD laughed, and waved goodbye to everyone.
Inez and Cait exchanged a look.
Cait spoke for them both. "With all that's been going on, we thought it would be good for the kids to do something normal. We'd like to organize a family get-together for tomorrow."
"Excellent idea, Cait, what can I do?" Kelli asked, eager to help.
Smiling, Cait answered before Vin said anything. "You can let us handle this one, and you can organize the next one, after you heal."
Chris nodded. "Go for it. I think we could all use a nice diversion."
Inez smiled. "I'll help with the breakfast clean-up, before we leave, and then get in touch with Rain and Mallory."
Max was already clearing the table. "I've got this." She threw a glance to Kelli. "Jason ate, and I have breakfast warming for Andi and the twins. You should go home and rest, while you can."
Chris agreed, seeing the tired lines, and pain on his daughter's face. "The kids are fine here. Vin, take her home."
"Come on woman." Vin took her hand and helped her to her feet. "You heard your father. I need to take you home and put you to bed."
Buck and Inez left just ahead of the Tanners', who detoured through the house. Vin told Jason he would be over after the windows were repaired to pick him up, before checking on their other children.
As soon as JD walked in through the front door, Talia was with him. She stared at his sooty, disheveled, tired appearance. "Coffee?"
"Nah just had some, thanks." He yawned. "God, I'm so tired, I don't get it. I've been feeling so good."
"Listen," Talia smiled, taking his hands. "You head on back to bed. When the kids wake up, I'll take them out for a while. Okay?"
JD let go of her hands and embraced her. They kissed and it was clear that he would like to have gone further, but JD pulled back. "Damn, if I wasn't so tired "
Grinning, the pretty nurse nodded. "I'll take a rain check. Go I'll check in with you, later."
Ten minutes later and freshly showered, JD dried off and crawled back into bed. *Did he love her?* It was all so different this time, yet she stirred something deep within him when they were together. Maybe he should talk to Buck he didn't think he could bear it if he got this wrong.
Buck held on to Inez's hand as they walked toward the house. "Could we just sit out here on the porch for a little while? I'd like to talk with you." Buck sat on the lounge chair, and patted the spot beside him.
"Of course we can." Inez nestled close to him and sighed. "It's been too long since we did this."
Sighing deeply, Buck wrapped his arm around his wife, and said, "I think I'm ready to take another step. It's time I shared a few things with you." He proceeded to tell her about some of the torturous moments he and Vin had endured while they were in Columbia. When he finished, he was crying along with her. They sat in silence for a long time, drawing comfort from one another, knowing that this was a giant step toward regaining their life back.
Tanner Home, late evening
After supper, Chris stood on the porch, quietly talking with Vin. "I think it's good that Max and Walter are staying here for a few days. It will take a while for the smell of smoke to clear their place." He glanced back toward the house. "Are you sure about Grace and Cody staying over, too?"
"They're no extra trouble, and I reckon that with Max, Walter, me, and Brodie around, we can handle it."
Chris studied Vin's demeanor when he mentioned Brodie. "I take it that you're not too upset about learning that Brodie is your father."
"Oh I've had my moments." Vin smiled when he thought about his initial reaction. "I can't deny that he's a decent man, and after goin' through the shit in South America I understand better about some of the choices he made. As for how it will all work out," he shrugged, "I'm not sure, yet. When this is all over, we'll talk more and go from there."
"Speaking from a father's point of view I know he cares. That's a good place to start." Chris slapped Vin on the back. "I'll be over in the morning for the kids. Try to keep Kel still long enough for her to heal."
Tanner laughed. "I'll try, but I won't make any promises where she's concerned." He stayed outside until Chris drove off, and then decided to go inside to find out what his wife was doing that he was certain she shouldn't be doing.
Reins Sunday, 4:00 am
Caitlyn rose from her bed. Something had disturbed her and she decided, since she was awake, she'd go get some water. Padding sleepily down to the kitchen, she drew chilled water from the ice and water dispenser of the large refrigerator, sipped at it, then clicked off the light to return to bed. A rustling caused her to turn back and peer into the gloom.
A dark shape flew at her, knocking the glass from the redhead's hand as she was pushed back against a wall, her head impacted with it hard, causing her to see stars. Before she could cry out, something was stuck over her mouth; Cait's attacker snatched up her hands, and bound them above her head before he threw the struggling woman to the floor.
Panic set in as she felt her assailant reaching under her nightclothes and pulling at her panties. She shrieked through the gag, her legs flailing as she fought desperately to stop him from raping her, a heavy blow to her face stilled the terrified woman. Now barely able focus on the presence hovering over her, let alone fight him off, Cait prayed, while he tore off her remaining clothing that all he wanted was her body, not her life
Brodie had assigned men to watch over each house, giving the duty at Reins to Pete Salas. Alerted to movement through the window, he saw the kitchen light snap on, then off. Deciding to check it out, he got there while the attack on Cait was in progress, but seconds too late to catch the invader as he fled.
Running a flashlight over the area, he gasped. "Oh shit!"
Chris pulled up outside of Cait's home and ran from the truck without even turning off the engine. Racing into the kitchen, he saw Cait sitting at the table, a man's jacket draped around her as she sipped on water. The bruise on her face and her split lip caused his heart to clench, as he feared the worst.
"Oh God baby "
He kneeled before her and she took his hand. "It's okay I wasn't " she swallowed hard, and looked at the man who scared off her attacker." Thanks to Pete, I'm okay."
Casting a grateful glance toward Hawk's man, Chris embraced her trembling form. "I'm so sorry." He pulled back. "Where's Jesse?"
"Pete took him back to his room and checked out the house at the same time." She began to cry, pulling the jacket tighter around her. "I don't want to stay here, tonight."
"You won't be," Chris assured, grateful to see Vin, Kelli, and Brodie arrive after they got Pete's call.
"Kelli I need clothes," Cait implored, crying softly as the redhead gently helped her up and to her bedroom to change.
As soon as the girls left, Chris's face drew dark, and after checking his gun, he turned to leave.
"Whoa, Cowboy," Vin grabbed his arm, "you're not goin' out there solo to become his next target."
"You think I'm gonna let that bastard get away with this ?"
"We're on it," Brodie assured him, "but I don't hold out much hope of finding him"
In a howl of fury, Chris punched at the wall. "This stops, now!"
Vin, Brodie, and Pete glanced at each other, wishing that were true, while secretly fearing what the hell would be thrown at them next.
Brodie's cell chimed and he answered it. "Stay alert, Kid, someone will be right there." He ended the call, and punched in another number, shouting an order, "Roberts Dunne property, now!"
"What?" Chris's face was white. "What the hell is going on around here?"
Standing in the kitchen, Talia stared, unblinking, at the open front door. Backing slowly into the master bedroom, she hissed, loudly. "JD I think someone's in the house."
Instantly awake, JD grabbed his gun from the safe, and took Talia to the girls' room, grabbing JJ, and handing him to her along the way. Checking that the room was secure, he kissed her cheek. "Stay put."
Anxiously, he closed the door, and eased his way down the small hallway to the living room. The front door was wide open, and his heart pounded as he edged his way toward it. Taking a deep breath, he reached out and slammed it closed, locking it instantly before checking out the rest of the house.
Shivering, but now sure no one was in there, he dialed the number Brodie had given them to call, in case of trouble. After a shaky conversation, he waited for Roberts to arrive. He thanked all that was Holy that, he at least knew what Roberts looked like.
Ray Montoya smiled when he read the latest message, and responded with his next order. 'Chavez is dead. It's up to us now. Turn up the heat, make the siete magníficos suffer.'
Larabee 7, Sunday Morning
The sun was barely peaking over the mountain, shining the first light on the crime scene. Vin and Brodie walked the area around Cait's home, looking for signs that would show how her assailant got in and out unnoticed. It was soon apparent that he had simply walked in through the Reins of Change main gate.
Vin knelt down by the gate and examined the automatic lock. "When Reins closed yesterday, someone used a small piece of duct tape to cover the lockin' mechanism. It appeared that the gate was secured, and no one would have known differently unless they got this close." He stood and handed the balled up duct tape to Brodie.
"Damn, and all our attacker had to do was to wait for the last child to leave for the day. Then he waited until dark, and walked right in."
Tanner scrutinized the fence line. "When we upgraded our security we included Reins, but since Cait had parents comin' in and out with her 'special needs' kids, we couldn't go too high tech. I reckon that's fixin' to change, if Chris has any say so about it."
"Come on," Brodie walked back to the truck, "let's go check out JD's place, and see if we're dealing with only one man or two." On the way over to the Dunne property, they talked about possibilities. "One thing I don't get. The man, who attacked Cait, went after her specifically. As many nights as she spends at Chris's how did he know she'd be at her home last night?"
Vin thought about it and shook his head. "I don't know. It's almost like the bastards have a camera watchin' every move we make. They knew I lent my truck to Chris, and we kept the Navigator. They also knew when you went into town with JD and Talia, and when we went to the church for the first counselin' session."
"I think we should revisit the backgrounds of every man who works for Larabee7."
Reluctantly, Vin had to consider the prospect that one of their ranch hands had sold them out. "I personally know most of them, but maybe one of them got a better offer from our friendly rebels to pass on information. I'll pick up the personnel folders when we go over to Chris's."
Pulling up in front of JD's house, they both exited the truck, and walked the area. By the time they were finished, they had more questions than answers.
JD walked out to talk with them. "Did you find anything?"
Shaking his head, Vin answered, "Not much. Whoever was here didn't leave any sign behind. Did he kick your door in, or pick the lock?''
"The door was open, but I didn't see anything broken, so I guess he picked the lock." JD looked back toward the house, and sighed. "It all happened so fast Talia said she went into the kitchen to get JJ a bottle and then she woke me " he turned back to Vin. "The past few days have been like a nightmare, only it doesn't seem to have an ending."
Brodie joined them. "This one is going to end and I guarantee the bad guys are not going to like how it turns out."
Vin nodded, and gripped JD's shoulder. "Keep your eyes open."
"You too." JD stood on the porch and watched them drive away. He scanned the yard, before he went inside, and hoped that the day would bring a little peace for them all.
Brodie and Vin made a stop at Chris's and found him alone on his deck. "Coffee's inside, help yourselves."
Hawks returned first, and walked over to the railing to stand next to Chris. The two men silently stood there for a few moments, taking in the beautiful view of the mountains in the early morning light. Finally, Brodie asked, "How's Cait?"
"A helluva lot better than I am. She finally went back to sleep about an hour ago." Aware that Vin had joined them, Chris shifted his position. "What did you find in the light of day?"
"More questions than answers." Vin related to Larabee what they found at the Rein's gate, and some of the conclusions they had come to. "I don't think we have a choice, but to suspect that someone on the ranch is sellin' information. We want to take the personnel files, and run a deeper background check on everyone who works for us."
Chris was beyond worrying about offending any of their ranch hands. "Do it. You know where the files are, Vin. Take them home with you, but if you find out the bastard works for us he's mine first."
Vin understood Chris's anger. If it had been Kelli almost raped, instead of Cait, he would feel the same way. "We'll start on it this morning. Do you still want to try to get everyone together today?"
Larabee sighed. "Cait insisted that we don't change our plans. Josiah fixed the brakes on Mal's car, and he'll be over in a couple of hours to fire up the grill. Walter is taking care of the set-up, and Inez, Rain, Barbara, and Mallory have the rest organized. We'll eat around one, so I'll come over and pick up Grace and Cody before eleven, if that's all right."
"You stay with Cait. We'll bring them with us, when we come over." Vin headed back inside to gather the files, and left Chris with Brodie.
Leveling his gaze at Brodie, Chris said, "If you two are right about this, we have a bigger problem than we thought."
"The bastards have been one step ahead of us from the get-go. Having inside information is the only explanation that makes sense."
Brodie and Chris walked down the steps to meet Vin at the truck. Larabee stopped before they reached it and said, "I'm going to stick close to Cait. I'm counting on you to watch over Vin and Kelli for me. He's on edge, and I know she's probably hurting worse than she'll admit."
"Vin asked me earlier about taking Kel to the hospital for an x-ray tomorrow, while y'all have your next session." Brodie smiled, as he opened the door, and slid into the driver's seat. "I told him I would, as long as he was the one who told her."
"I knew you were a smart man the first time I met you." Chris stepped around the front of the truck to open the passenger door for Vin, and waited until he loaded the box of files. Once he was inside, Larabee closed the door, slapped his hand on the side of it, and said, "See you two later.
JD set the phone receiver back in its cradle, pleased to hear that the family barbeque was still on as scheduled. He headed for the kitchen and stopped for a moment, watching Talia, who was loading the dishwasher.
*Damn she looks good enough to eat.* Coming up behind her, JD embraced the young woman. "How are you doing?"
Twisting in his arms, she smiled, draped her own around his neck, and kissed his nose. "Better, for seeing you," she smiled, "Coffee?"
"Love some, thanks. You okay after last night?"
"You were here to protect me, I wasn't worried." Taking the carafe, she poured two mugs of coffee. "Did you find out about the plans for the day?"
After taking a sip of coffee, he answered, "Yep, Chris told me that we're still on. We won't leave to go over there until after noon, though. He said we'd eat about one."
"Good, I'd like to help, and that gives me time to call Rain, and see what I can do."
"Hello in the house!" JD grinned as Buck knocked and peeked around the door. "Everybody decent?"
"Oh, har, har," the young tech jibed, making a face.
Buck pointed at him. "You watch the wind don't change, you'll end up staying that way." He walked up to the breakfast bar. "Ooh, coffee."
Talia pushed hers toward him. "Here, take this one. Help yourself to sugar and creamer."
"Much obliged," the big man smiled, taking up a stool.
They sipped at their brews for a moment, JD finally speaking. "Now, I know Inez makes terrific coffee so, why the visit, bro?"
"I wanted to check on you two," Buck frowned, "and when I called earlier, you said you wanted to talk "
Almost choking out his coffee, JD glanced sideways at Talia. "Oh yeah, thanks."
"And I need to talk to you, too." Buck's glance was more obvious as he grinned at the nurse.
Talia understood that the two men needed to talk privately, and stood. "I need to do a few things in my room. See you later."
Staring at the younger man, Buck watched JD wrestling with something as his focus remained on the countertop. Bending his head, the brunette maneuvered until he had eye contact. "Looks like you got yourself a real big question rattling 'round in that oversized brain of yours."
JD nodded. "It's Talia." He looked up. "I really like her, Buck. But how do I know if it's love?" His shoulders slumped. "Shit, listen to me you'd think I was still a green, twenty year-old."
Buck grinned. "Shoot boy, took you long enough to admit your feelings for Casey, and before the shit hit the fan, you two were great. You've had a lot of crap this past year, and had to behave like a monk, to boot." He smiled at JD's soft laugh.
"Everyone's allowed a little fun, Kid. Me? I reckon this gal's made for you but, even if it turns out to be a wild fling don't mean you can't enjoy it or have feelings for her." He raised his arm to squeeze JD's. "Love's a funny thing comes in many forms drives us crazy and makes us feel alive. Don't fight it, if it's gonna happen, it will."
"You make it sound so easy." JD sighed, wishing he had even a tiny amount of the experience Buck had with women. It would make it a lot easier trying to figure things out.
"It's as hard as you want it to be not that there seems to be any problem, there." He winked.
"Buck!" They both laughed. "What was it you wanted?"
"Ah " Buck put down his mug. "I need you to work your magic for me on CASSIE."
"Okay what am I looking for?"
"The truth about who Brodie Hawks really is."
"Just humor me, okay? After Columbia, anything's possible. Just check him out, and for now let's leave it between us, okay?"
Pursing his lips, the younger man slowly nodded. "Okay, only because it's you. But I gotta tell you, I like the guy and, I trust him."
"Fair comment." Buck drained his cup, and set it on the counter. "Thanks kid, I owe you one."
After Buck left, JD loaded the dirty mugs into the dishwasher. He checked his watch. If Talia stayed busy with the kids, he could get this over with before they needed to be at Larabee's place.
Max and Walter had already started breakfast, when Vin and Brodie returned, even though the only child awake was Jason. The nurse in Max noted Tanner's drawn features. She was not sure whether it was from worry, or pain, but regardless, a little rest could not hurt the healing Texan. "Vin, you're not completely recovered yet, and here you are traipsing all over the place without getting a proper night's sleep. We have the children covered, the food is on for the barbeque, and we'll all leave by 12:30 hours. You get your backside in there with Kelli, and you both catch some proper rest."
Jason giggled. While he was used to Max giving orders, he thought it was funny to hear her bossing his father. "You might as well, Dad, you know how Max is when she's working on a schedule."
Only because he wanted to check on Kel did Vin agree. "I'll make certain Kel is rested, but I assure you I'm plenty healed to do what I need to."
Walter grinned. The fact that Vin even half-way listened to Max, showed him how the younger man accepted their caring presence in his home. Taking care of the Tanners was good for him and Max. It gave them both a purpose to keep thinking young, and a family they could claim as their own. "I thought I'd take Jason with me to help set up at Chris's in a while. He and Jesse make a good team."
Snatching a piece of bacon from his son's plate, Vin nodded. "That's fine; just keep your eyes open. Brodie can fill you in on what we found."
Brodie poured himself a cup of coffee. "After I eat, I'll fill him in, and start on the files. Breakfast looks too good to pass up." He caught Vin's attention. "You take care of Kelli, and do what Max says. Don't push yourself."
Vim mumbled something about too many damn mother hens, and headed for the bedroom. He hoped his wife had listened to him and was sleeping. One glance at the empty bed as he entered the room, told him she had not. Using the bootjack, he removed his boots, and called for her, "Kel?"
"In here," she yelled from the bathroom.
He stood at the door watching her wash her face with one hand, and grinned. She looked younger than her years, standing there barefooted, and wearing nothing but his old shirt. That simple observation was enough to stir his passions. Remembering how much he enjoyed their time in the shower last night sent a wave of heat to his loins.
Walking up behind her Vin wrapped one arm around her waist. "Chris said she's okay. She was sleepin' when we stopped by, which is what you were supposed to be doin'." He leaned his head down to nuzzle the back of her neck.
Reaching for a towel, Kelli patted her face, and then turned off the water. "I tried, but I reckon I'm worried about too many things." She leaned back against him, and met his eyes in the mirror. "Did y'all find any signs of the man who attacked Cait?"
"Not really but whoever it was, he's gone now." He wanted to distract her thoughts. "Tomorrow Brodie is taking you to Denver Memorial for an x-ray on your shoulder. While you're at the hospital, you can see Doctor Weeks and get your next shot."
"Vin my shoulder will be fine, and you know how those shots screw with my hormones. Maybe I should wait until things are not so stressful around here."
"Your shoulder is not fine, and you don't hear me complainin' about your ragin' hormones." Smiling, he watched her in the mirror, as he kissed the back of her neck. A flame of desire flared in her eyes and he knew the moment she decided not to argue about going. He leaned down and whispered close to her ear, "Maybe we both need to lower our stress levels." Without warning Vin swept her off her feet and into his arms. She shrieked, and he grinned. "Baby, you're goin' back to bed, but not to sleep."
Carrying her to their bed, he gently laid her down, making sure to cushion her shoulder with extra pillows. Looking up, his brilliant blue eyes captured her gaze, and the only thought she had was of her Texan. Careful to keep the pressure off her injured shoulder, Vin took them to their private paradise.
With her head resting on his chest, and swathed in his protective embrace, the stress and worry of the past few days vanished. "I love you Tanner."
Vin kissed the top of her head. "Love you too, Baby." Knowing that he and Kelli had survived the worst crisis of their marriage, and that they had made it back to being us, gave his soul peace. He had suffered through hell and come out intact. Lying here, with his arms wrapped around the woman he loved, he knew with certainty that Wilder had lost. Vin Tanner had his life back, and God help anyone who tried to take it from him again.
Larabee Home, Noon
"Daddy," Grace yelled as she ran up the steps, and threw herself at Chris, "we home."
Catching her, Chris grinned. "Yes you are, sweetheart." He looked behind her to see Vin, with Cody in his arms, followed by Andi and Kelli. "What did you do with the twins?"
Vin handed Cody to Cait, who stretched out her arms for him. "We seem to be minus a couple of car seats, and Max has two in her car, so she's bringin' them with her. Brodie will follow her over, and make sure they get here safely."
Nathan had been helping Josiah with the grilling, and heard what Vin said. "Are you sure that's a good idea?" When Vin frowned, he elaborated on his remark. "It just seems like we should be careful who we trust with our kids."
"Our boys are safe under Brodie's care." Vin stared at Nathan. "I trust the man with my life and the lives of my family, the same as I would you or any of our brothers."
"Just remember, Vin, he's not one of us. You might trust him, but that doesn't mean the rest of us have to."
Chris recognized the fire in Tanner's eyes, and decided to intercede. "Unless you have more to go on than words, Nathan, I suggest you trust Vin's judgment, and drop it."
"Sorry Vin, I'm just a little on edge lately." Nathan sighed. "Right now, I'm not certain what to believe, and I guess I forgot that you know the man better than we do."
Vin still did not like being questioned, but he nodded. "I reckon we're all a bit touchy." He took the beer that Chris offered him, and changed the subject. "Guess we weren't the only ones, who decided to come early."
"Mal and Rain are in the kitchen, Ezra called and said he and Barbara were on their way, and JD and Buck should be here soon."
Talia was getting the kids settled in JD's truck, while he made a quick call to Buck's cell phone. "Hey I wanted to catch you before you left."
"How come you didn't use the land line?"
"I couldn't risk it being tapped," JD admitted. "Hawks "
"He he doesn't exist."
"Nu uh. Trust me, I've been everywhere, he's like a ghost. I half expected the CIA to come batter my door down, his records are that tight. Nothing came up under Raven, either."
There was a pause. "Thanks, JD. I appreciate the help."
Dunne blew out a breath. A few hours ago, Brodie Hawks was a man he liked, trusted, and was prepared to fight with anytime, anywhere, without question. Now he couldn't help wondering just who the hell this person was that Vin and Chris thought so highly of and... why was he here with them?
Larabee Home, Sunday Afternoon
The men made a point of spending time with their children, giving the women a chance to visit after the big meal was finished. It had been a long time since the women of the Wild Bunch had been able to simply relax, and watch their families having fun. They hoped it was a sign of things to come.
After checking on her napping twins, Kelli sat down next to Cait, and laid her hand on her arm. "You doin' okay?"
"Yes, but I think I'll feel a lot better when all this is over. Then your Dad and I can move on with our wedding plans." Cait glanced at the other women, and announced a decision she and Chris had made. "In the meantime, we decided that Jesse and I should go ahead and move in here. Willard will keep an eye on my house, and take on more responsibility at Reins for a while. That will give me extra time to help Grace, Cody, and Jesse, adjust to the new arrangements."
"It makes sense." Rain nodded in agreement. "I know Jesse is crazy about Chris already, and Grace and Cody love you, but this will give all of you a chance to bond as a family."
Mallory glanced at the playground for a second, and smiled when she saw Josiah giving piggyback rides to the younger children. Moving her attention back to Cait, she asked, "Have you and Chris settled on a date for the wedding?" Sidetracked about making their plans for a shower, she wanted to know how much time they had to plan another one.
"We're tentatively sticking with June twenty-first." Without thinking, Cait reached up to touch the bruise on her face. "Of course a lot depends on how things turn out with the current situation around here."
Inez did some mental calculating. "That's still a little over six weeks away; surely this will be resolved by then."
Cait sighed. "Chris is certain it will be. I wanted to get married before he had to go back to work, and we have all the legal papers finalized on the children."
"If Chris says it will be over, I'd bet on it." Barbara smiled, and passed on some good news. "As of Friday the judged cleared the way for you to adopt Grace and Cody, and we already have the paperwork for you and Chris to adopt Jesse, so it all looks good."
Kelli grinned, and decided to tease Cait. "Just think, in another month, you'll be a mom with four kids, and four grandchildren."
"That doesn't scare me." Turning her head to catch sight of Chris, Cait smiled. "I think your father and I can handle it, and any more grandchildren you and Vin decide to add. In fact I think Chris and I can take on just about anything."
Until now, Talia had been listening to the conversation, without contributing much. She gazed at Caitlyn and said. "From what I've observed in my short time here, I believe you and Chris were destined to be together."
Inez laid her hand on Talia's arm. "Honey, you have no idea how true those words are. Cait is like a breath of fresh air that swept into his life, and I've never seen him happier."
"Oh, and before I forget," Cait leaned forward, "While our men are at the counseling session tomorrow, I'd like you all to come over here." She looked at Inez. "That includes your aunt, too. I have some ideas for the wedding, but I'd like a few extra opinions on some of them."
Mallory laughed. "Be careful what you ask for," she glanced to the other women, "none of us are short on opinions."
"Y'all will have to have fun without me." Kelli settled her gaze on Rain. "Vin insists that I get an x-ray on my shoulder, and Brodie is takin' me to the hospital in the mornin' to make certain I get one."
"Good for Vin. You should have had one days ago." Rain was pleased. "I'll call ahead in the morning and have you added to the schedule. What time do you expect to be there?"
Kelli sighed. "We're supposed to leave here by nine, so I reckon ten o'clock. I want to get it over with, and be back here by the time the session ends."
Rain nodded. "I'm sure Doctor Gilford will want to see you, too. I'll let him know to expect you."
The sound of children's laughter drew their attention.
Talia grinned as she watched JD with JJ. The little one, sitting in front of his dad on a picnic bench, was chuckling hard and deep every time JD would lean in and pretend to 'chew' at the baby's neck while making growling noises. It was a beautiful moment, causing most of the adults to watch and chuckle right along with him. Her eyes drifted to Brodie, Chris, and Nathan, deep in conversation about something, and then to the kids. They looked a little lost, so she decided to join them. "If you ladies will excuse me, I see a couple of little girls, who could use some attention."
"Go for it." Mallory grinned when Talia sprinted off toward the Dunne twins.
Taking Lilah and Daisy by the hand, Talia looked at the other children. "Who wants to play on the Jungle Gym?" she called, pleased to see all of them jump up and follow her. She leaned in toward Jason, Caleb, and Sarah, and whispered to her little co- conspirators, "You guys are gonna help me out here, right?"
All three eagerly nodded. "Sure," Jason grinned, "we're the big kids, now, we can help." Less than ten minutes later, Talia, and the kids were howling with laughter as she tried to perform a trick on the equipment that Andi and Jason had shown her, and dared her to try. The adults' attention drifted toward the hilarity, all laughing when their kids cheered her on.
"Little help!" she squeaked to JD as she hung upside-down.
JJ was now with Isabella. Moving closer, JD just stood there, arms folded, laughing. He shook his head. "Nuh uh you go, girl."
Brodie was staring at a point just below her head and up against one of the supports. He suddenly paled. "Oh God " In a split second, he had grabbed Chris, tugging Vin along as he passed him. The other men followed his lead and ran toward the equipment. "Get the kids out of here!"
Without questioning why, the men snatched up children left and right, and raced away, telling the startled youngsters that they had to hide from Talia, quickly. With excited squeals, the kids ran behind their parents on the porch, to hide. With Willard's help, Mallory, Rain, Cait, Max, and Barbara ushered them into the house.
Kelli and Inez stayed to find out what was happening, while Buck, Josiah, Nathan, Walter, and Ezra hovered nervously nearby, to discover what was going on first hand.
With a squeak from the entangled nurse, Chris hoisted Talia off the equipment, and handed her off to JD, who was closing in to get a better look. "Get back. Buck I need you!"
Brodie was already on the ground, carefully brushing away the dirt from some kind of cylindrical object. Vin and Chris stared at what he was uncovering, and felt a chill when they realized what it was. Buck immediately recognized the device, and laid flat on his stomach, prepared to go to work.
"Pipe bomb," Buck hissed, "simple to assemble, but deadly."
Brodie nodded. Anxious glances between them ensued, as a few tense minutes passed. With only the use of tweezers and nail scissors, they disarmed the ordinance.
When Buck held it up, and declared, "It's disarmed," the relief was evident on all their faces.
From positions close by, Ezra squeezed JD's arm as he glanced nervously toward Josiah.
"What what is it?" the young nurse asked, shivering in JD's arms.
"A bomb," Josiah said softly. There seemed little point in breaking it gently.
JD felt her shivering increase, while he stared at the spot where his kids, nieces, and nephews, had been playing only minutes earlier. "Oh God "
Inez suddenly appeared next to him. "Let me, sweetie." Taking Talia from him, Inez helped the distraught girl inside with the other women and children.
Feeling an arm around his shoulders, a stunned JD allowed Ezra to guide him toward the playground.
"Timer?" Chris asked, his face grim.
Buck nodded. "We stopped it with one minute ten to go."
"Fuyckin' sonofabitch!" Vin howled, anger disguising his terror.
"How did you know?" Josiah asked Brodie.
"I noticed the disturbed earth, while I watched Talia dangling from the monkey bars. Considering recent events, it seemed prudent to assume the worst, rather than take a chance that the kids scuffed up dirt."
Realization kicked in, and the men became edgy. Buck's eyes narrowed as he glanced at Hawks. "Can't help to wondering how it is that for almost every incident there's been so far, you've been right there."
"Buck," Chris warned.
"Think about it Brodie Hawks shows up, then you find out he's a man you know as Raven ..he knew where we were in Columbia, and led you right to us. He's been with us from Columbia, to Panamá, all the way to Texas and now here. His men are running all over the place, with free access to whatever they want. What the hell do we really know about him? How many times has he been right there, just in time to save someone? At the rockslide with JD and Talia when they were followed car bomb last night here, today?"
Brodie's eyes filled with compassion, fully understanding their fear, and a need for someone to blame.
Vin stepped forward to halt Buck's tirade, "Easy, Bucklin. Now is not the time to explain, but I can assure you, Hawks is not the bad guy here."
About to counter Vin's words, Buck took a deep breath, paused for a while, and nodded. "Let's leave it there, huh? I need some air."
Vin agreed as he battled with emerging feelings to stand up for the man he now knew, not just as a friend and mentor, but also as his father. This debate was far from over, but emotions were high, and the group needed not just to re evaluate, but be with their loved ones.
Brodie's eyes glistened with pride as he watched his son take control of his emotions. He truly had come a long way in a few weeks.
Recovering his composure, Vin decided to stay. "Kel, you go in with the kids. Once we clear the area, I'll come inside."
Understanding her husband's need to put space between his anger and fear, Kelli squeezed his hand, leaned over, and kissed him. "Do what you need to, we'll be fine." She walked toward the house, and then went inside to join the other women and children.
Feeling JD's body trembling, Ezra pulled him in close. Noting the movement, the others looked at them, realizing that JD was staring at the device Buck had set on the ground. He whispered, "We could have lost everything."
JD's words hit hard as each man reflected on the enormity of what could have transpired.
The Wild Bunch gathering broke-up shortly after a sweep of the immediate area proved it was safe. Chris watched the last car pull out, and wrapped his arm around Cait's waist as they walked back into the house. Jesse had been keeping Grace and Cody busy.
He looked up as the couple entered. "Are we staying here tonight?"
Cait and Chris exchanged glances. When they had talked about her and Jesse moving in, they decided that Chris would talk to the young teen about it. Cait picked up Cody and took Grace's hand. "I think it's bath time. Daddy and Jesse need to talk man-to man."
Chris waited until they left the room, and then sat down next to Jesse. "You know Cait and I plan to be married next month."
"After what happened last night we talked about it. Unless you have a big objection, I want you and Cait to move in here now." Chris hurried to explain. "We still plan to add a room that will be yours, but I'd feel better having both of you with me. How do you feel about it?"
Jesse thought about Chris's proposal and hesitated for a few moments, before saying, "I guess it's okay."
"You sound disappointed. You want to tell me why?" Larabee noticed that Jesse would not meet his eyes. "Look at me, son. Whatever you have on your mind you should say it."
Slowly he lifted his head and gazed at Chris. "I wanted to be officially adopted when we moved in, so I could call you Dad."
Relieved that his objection was easy to fix, Chris grinned. "Jesse, you don't need a piece of paper to call me dad. You're our son no one is going to change that. You can call me dad whenever you're ready."
"Yes, really." Chris pulled the young boy in for a hug. "Cait packed an overnight bag for both of you. Tomorrow we'll start moving the rest of your things over here."
"Can I go tell Mom?"
"Absolutely," Chris said as he released his hold on his newest son.
Jesse jumped up, started to run out of the room, and then turned around. "Thanks Dad." He grinned and hurried off to find Cait.
Watching him leave, Chris smiled. It would be nice if all their problems were that easy to solve. Running his hands over his face, he thought about how close they had come to tragedy today, and shuddered. He had been certain when Vin and Buck started counseling they would all soon be rid of the evil that seemed to follow them from South America. Apparently, it was still alive and well, and somewhere on Larabee 7, just waiting for the next opportunity to strike.
The couple stood watching their children sleeping. Nathan pulled Rain close as he felt her body shaking, quickly realizing she was crying.
"I know," he said, softly, pulling her into him.
"How could anyone do such a thing?" she sobbed. "They're just babies innocents." She looked up at him. "Do you really think Brodie could be so callous?"
Nathan's expression turned anxious. "God, I hope not. But I can't shake the thought that he's been in the right place at the right time so often including today."
"What about the car's brakes?"
Nathan sighed. "That could have happened at any time, Honey. Whoever did it could never know when you'd use the car. I really hate to think Brodie could do this he saved JD and Talia Talia again, today, as well as the kids, Kelli and Andi and then, there's Talia's dilemma. Poor girl's only been here five minutes and her life is under threat." He stiffened as he spoke.
The black man smiled and kissed his wife. "Pay no mind to me you know how my mind works. I trust Vin, and he trusts Hawks I guess I'll just have to keep a closer watch." Taking her hand, the pair headed for a night of poor sleep, and terrifying nightmares.
While sitting up in bed, Ezra watched his pregnant wife walk around the bedroom. He saw her approach the drawer she kept her nightclothes in and patted the bed. "Darling come to bed."
Barbara smiled, a little coyly, her hand smoothing over her bump. She felt so huge, yet Ezra always managed to make her feel sexy. As they cuddled close, she moved her head to look at him. "Still thinking on earlier?"
Standish nodded. "I can't believe someone could be so cold as to plant a bomb in a children's play area."
"Good thing it wasn't well hidden. Almost as if whoever it was, wanted it found."
Ezra stared into her eyes. "My God you may be right." His mind worked overtime as he tried to fit uncooperative pieces of a puzzle together in his mind. Suddenly aware of his wife's eyes on him, he smiled and kissed her. "I do believe I owe you something nice for your help."
"I helped?" she asked. "Oh I hope so; these occurrences have been getting steadily more terrifying."
He kissed her shoulder, and whispered softly, "Sleep, darling, my mind is elsewhere tonight.
Barbara snuggled against him and fell asleep, fully understanding his needs at this time. Sleep eluded him as Ezra's mind was working overtime. Barbara's words had been like a key unlocking a dusty chest, and he wanted to investigate every crevice, confident the answers he sought would soon be forthcoming.
While Mallory helped the kids get ready for bed, Josiah restlessly paced his study. In the years he had been a part of the seven, they had faced many enemies. Some were easy to defeat, others might have taken longer, but in the end, the seven of them had always prevailed. This time it was harder to define just what, or who their adversary was, and the stress was showing on all his brothers.
Suddenly he had an urge to stop and turn around. On the bookshelf in front of him was his 'Legends of the Quest' book. Taking it down, he sat in his chair, and randomly opened it. On that page he read:
The world needs men like y'all men of honor and principle, to counter the existence of evil, especially now. It's the second reason we came and why you are all together in this time and space. Your greatest challenges still lay ahead. The Seven have always been and will always be Their strength is yours to draw on. Embrace the past, cherish the future, and fight like hell for today. Make a better place for your children, and grandchildren. Their destiny is the same as yours and ours to be allied by the timeless bonds of friendships and brotherhood, which tie us all to our past, and gifts us with the promise of tomorrow.
Josiah smiled as he read the words, as a feeling of peace and strength flooded over him. Evil would always be around, but it could only win if they allowed it. Tomorrow he would remind his brothers of that, and together they would find this evil, and destroy it.
Dunne/ Wilmington Homes
The young tech watched as Talia moved around the house. She seemed distracted and distraught, while he felt guilty as hell. What had he brought her into and what kind of maniac sets out to murder innocent children? His own shudder caused her to approach him.
JD gave a thin smile. "I was about to ask you the same question." They came together and JD wrapped his arms around her.
She shivered. "I'm trying not to dwell on it, truly I am , but all I can think of is that I led those children toward what could have been their deaths."
"Hey " JD rubbed her back. "There's no way in hell you could have known about the bomb. Hell, we were all there, and no one saw it until almost the last minute." He cringed as he felt her shudder again probably not the best thing to have said at this point. "I I almost lost everything, today. If that bomb had gone off our family would have died with them. This thing whatever it is has gotten out of hand, and, I'm not afraid to admit I'm scared to death."
Stretching up, she kissed him, tenderly. "I know," she breathed. "It was so close." They became tactile as they kissed deeper, their breathing rapid as their needs grew.
JD pulled back. "The babies "
Talia nodded. "I know I just needed never mind."
They stood there, in the kitchen, clinging to one another for a long while before parting for their own beds. Lying awake, JD checked his watch, grabbed his cell, and dialed.
"This better be good, JD, I'd just dropped off."
"Sorry, Buck I'll call tomorrow "
"Nah speak, I'm awake, now. What's on your mind, little brother?"
"Can't sleep "
"Uh huh mind going over today's events?"
"Mmmm, Buck Vin seemed real upset with you and Nathan, today. This thing's tearing the family apart, isn't it?"
"Families fight, Kid."
"I know." JD swallowed. "I'm just worried this is gonna be hard to fix if it continues like this." He heard Buck shift in his bed.
"JD I can't help you with your fears right now. My head's full of thoughts and I'm still working through them. But, I'm real glad you called, 'cause, I may not have the answers, but I'm always here for you, kid, and I'd rather you called, than not."
JD smiled, Buck's words were like a soothing balm over his pain. "Thanks, Buck the same here. G'night, bro."
"'Night, John Boy." His deep chuckle made JD grin, as he shut off his phone and got out of bed. Maybe he'd check the house over one more time.
The children were asleep, and Kelli had gone on to bed, but Vin could not sleep. He was on edge, and ready to find some answers. Standing on the deck, he stared into the darkness. *I know you're out there, and I'm gonna find you.*
Brodie walked out to join his son. Handing him a cold beer, he said, "I figured you want this." He sat on the swing and watched Vin, noting his tense muscles, and the rigidness of his stance. "Have you forgotten all that I taught you?"
Vin turned to look at him. "I know anger and tactical decisions don't coexist, but damnit twice in the last seventy-two hours, I've almost lost my family. That doesn't sit well with me."
Thinking about his response, Brodie nodded. "You almost lost them but right now they're in your home, asleep, and safe. Your fears are what Wilder played on, and damn near beat you with. If we're going to reach the bottom of all this, we can't let those fears rule us."
Vin knew he was right, if he wanted answers, he needed to quell his anger. He sighed and sat down. "You hit on anythin' with the personnel files?"
"Most of them are clean. There were a couple that I'll take a second look at, and request more information on, but small gambling debts, and paying alimony to three ex-wives is not a lot of reason to turn traitor. I'm not convinced that our informant works for Larabee 7."
"Then how in the hell do they know so much about what goes on here?"
"I have my suspicions, but until I'm certain, I'd rather not say. If I'm wrong it would just make it harder for you." Brodie glanced at Vin. "You might not know it, but it made me feel good to see you so ready to defend me today."
Vin cut his eyes to Hawks. "I've known you as Commander, Raven, Hawks, Brodie, and by a lot of other names. While I might not have always agreed with your methods, I've always known you were an honorable man. Even if we didn't share blood, I'd have defended you. My word should be enough to satisfy any of my brothers today it wasn't, but that's somethin' I'll deal with."
"I don't want to cause you trouble with your family here. Maybe when this is over it'd be best for me to move on quickly."
"Not likely I've waited a long time for the chance to find out about you. You're not goin' to deny me now." Vin stood. "Just be warned I want to know about James Wyatt Tanner. Reckon you better be prepared to peel off those other identities, and find him."
"Reckon that could take some digging. I haven't talked with him in a long time myself."
"Don't make any travel plans." Vin smiled. "We have time, and if need be, I have a couple of shovels around here."
Brodie laughed. "Then I guess I might stick around at least 'til you're ready to kick me out."
"I'm turnin' in." Vin headed for the door. "I have a redhead waitin' for me in my bed, and she's a lot prettier than you. See you in the mornin'."
"Goodnight." Brodie leaned back, finished off his beer, and smiled. His son wanted to get to know him. A man in his position couldn't ask for more than that.
Montoya glared at his screen, as he read the incoming text. 'Failure - will regroup. Take note, Raven is with them.'
Larabee 7, Monday Morning
Hawks was satisfied that they were doing everything possible to protect the Larabee 7 kids. Walter and Mike had escorted the children to school, and he had two men standing watch at Reins daycare. He also had talked with Chris about using the MCAT chopper to run patrols over the ranch during the daylight hours. Pouring another cup of coffee, his thoughts turned to his morning assignment.
Vin walked into the kitchen, picked up his cup, and refilled it. "I know you probably have the trip to the hospital planned down to the last detail, but if you can, I'd like for you to run Kelli by our bank. As long as she's out, I'd like to get that thirty thousand in cash back in our account, and have her drop off the papers Ezra fixed up for us."
Brodie looked up from the map he was reading. "It's doable. We're not driving a direct route, so detouring by the bank is not a problem."
Leaning against the counter, Tanner reached for the map. "I want to know which way you're goin' just in case."
Hawks passed it to him, and drank his coffee, while Vin memorized their itinerary. One of the traits he learned early on that his son possessed was being able to look at something, and immediately commit it to memory. It had served him well in the Rangers, and Brodie had no doubt that it worked for him in law enforcement, too.
Vin handed the map back. "Your paranoia used to drive me nuts, but since it's my wife your protectin' today I'm glad to see you've still got it."
"I don't leave home without it." Brodie grinned. "Relax Vin, I promise you Kelli will be safe. I have two of my best men following us, and they'll make certain no one messes with my truck, while we're inside the hospital."
Nodding his head, Vin sighed. "I've half a mind to ditch this session, and go with y'all."
Kelli walked in. "I heard that, Tanner, and you need to go to that session." She glanced at Brodie. "You always told me Raven was the best at what he does. I'm sure runnin' me to the hospital, and a quick stop at the bank, is not a hard detail for him." Looking back at her husband, she said, "Of course we can cancel "
Reaching for her, Vin pulled her into his arms. "No. You need that x-ray, and I want you to continue the shots with Doctor Weeks." He kissed her, and swatted her butt. "If you plan to be there in time for your appointment with Gilford, ya'll need to get goin'."
Brodie pulled out his keys. "You want us to drop you at Wilmington's?"
"I'm good. Chris is comin' by to pick me up." He walked outside with them, and opened the passenger door for his wife. "Love you, baby." He leaned in, kissed her again, and then stepped back to close the door. With a nod to Brodie, he watched them leave, reassured to see a second truck pull in behind them, before Hawks reached the gate. Tanner was certain that Kelli was in good hands, and now he could concentrate of this morning's session. He had a few things to say that were not on the agenda, but they would have to hear him out anyway.
Chris walked out, as Inez and Isabella were coming in. "Morning Ladies."
Inez smiled and returned his greeting, "Morning Chris. We left plenty of good food to go around, but Buck said he was hungry so you'd better hurry if you want some."
"I'm on my way to pick up Vin, and head that way. We'll guard the food until the others arrive." He held the door for them. "You ladies have a good time." Once they were inside, he headed out to the Silverado, making a mental note to do something soon about replacing his Ram again.
Cait had coffee and cake ready for the women. One by one, they arrived, and soon they were all deep in discussion
"Rain, I have a doctor question for you." Barbara opted for bottled water instead of coffee, and sat down. "I received a call from my doctor as I was leaving the house. She said my problem last week had nothing to do with the baby. She asked me if I'd been drinking herbal tea, which I haven't, and told me they found traces of senna in my system. How could I have come in contact with it?"
"Senna is used in folk medicine, and is a powerful laxative, which would have caused the cramping. As to where you got it maybe at a restaurant, that serves herbal tea, and there was a mix-up."
Barbara nodded. "Maybe I'm just glad it wasn't the baby."
Talia said, "Thank God, that's all it was." She shook her head. "Makes me wonder about how safe it is to eat out anymore. You never know who could have touched your food before you got it."
"I think Ezra and I will be eating in for a while, at least until after our baby is born."
Mallory cut a piece of cake, and then sat next to Inez. "I know when I'm working and have to eat out a lot; we come across some really bad food."
"Barbara, I hope you don't mind, but I borrowed some ideas from your wedding. I thought it was lovely." Cait brought out some swatches of fabric to pass around. "I was hoping that you all could help me choose some colors for the bridal party."
The conversation changed to weddings, colors, flowers, and honeymoon stories.
Denver Memorial Hospital
Brodie glanced at his watch as he and Kelli walked toward the hospital entrance. "Even after stopping at the bank, we made it here with time to spare."
Kelli mumbled. "Would have been fine with me if we got here too late, and had to go home."
He chuckled. "Kelli Tanner, you are a complex woman. You're hell on wheels when you're angry, you hold a strong position on an elite Law enforcement team, and from what I've seen, have no problem standing up to Vin, or your father. Yet the prospect of having to see a doctor makes you surly, and sends you off kilter. It's not that big of a deal."
She challenged him. "Then I reckon, Mister Tough Guy that you plan on havin' the doctor take a look at the stitches in your arm, while we're here."
"My arm is fine." Brodie started to protest, and then sighed. "What the hell I'll see the doc, but only because I don't want you to pout all the way home."
"I don't ever pout, but I am lookin' forward to introducin' you to Doctor Gilford." Kelli smiled as he open the door for her. She couldn't wait for Gilford to meet another Tanner.
Chris and Vin arrived at Buck's house to find Ezra, JD, Nathan, and Josiah already there. Seeing that they still had another twenty minutes before Father Rafferty was due, they decided to enjoy the food Inez and Isabella had prepared.
Buck noticed Brodie was not with them, and was curious. "What did you do with Hawks today?"
Vin ignored the question, so Chris answered. "He's taking Kel in to have an x-ray. I think she also has a doctor appointment," he looked at Vin, "right?"
Answering with only a slight nod of his head, Vin made a point of not speaking directly to Buck. Anything he had to say could wait until the session started. He did not want to get into it before then. Chris read the look of Tanner stubbornness on his face, and decided it was going to be an interesting morning.
JD felt the tension, and wanted to keep things moving smoothly. "This food is terrific. Inez and Isabella outdid themselves."
The sound of a helicopter overhead had Nathan questioning. "That sounds like the MCAT chopper, you think someone is hurt?"
"Raphael is using the bird to patrol the ranch. If someone was injured, we'd hear about it." Chris explained.
Buck asked, "Was that your idea, Chris?"
"We could use the extra eyes, and I approved it. What difference does it make who thought of it?"
A knock on the door kept Buck from responding. He walked over and welcomed Father Rafferty. "You're right on time, Padre. Come on in."
Rafferty greeted each brother, before he sat down. "Gentlemen, shall we begin." He noticed a different seating order than the one they had in the previous session. Until today, Buck and Vin had stayed close, unifying their 'defenses'. Today they sat on opposite sides of the room. Something had changed, and he supposed it was up to him to find out what it was. He waited until everyone was comfortable, and then said, "We've talked about what happened. Today I like to talk about how it's affected your home lives. Buck, would you like to start?"
Clearing his throat first, Buck glanced around the room. "At first it was difficult. I made a pretty good ass of myself with everyone. I know I was unfair to my wife." He specifically looked at JD. "It's going to take me a long while to forgive myself for what I did to the kid."
The Priest smiled. "Forgiveness is the easy part Buck. Your challenge is to put it in perspective, and let it go." Rafferty nodded to JD
"Shoot Buck, I've already forgotten it. You should've too." he grinned. "We all know you old guys suffer from CRS."
Buck frowned, and then it dawned on him what JD meant. He smiled and nodded. "CRS can't remember shi " He stopped and glanced at the Priest. "I get it and I'll try. Lately it's been better, though. I even managed to talk to Inez about some of what I went through."
"That's good." The father looked over to Vin. "Have you discussed these sessions with your wife?"
"Yes, Kel knows most of what we've talked about, and we're good." Vin took a deep breath. "I'm the first to admit that when we returned, I was not in control of my thinkin' I made some really bad decisions, and I let Wilder have power over me from his grave, but I got past that. I thought once I retook control of my actions, it would put an end to the roughest period of readjustment, but a few things have happened lately that have me wonderin'."
"Would you care to discuss your reasons for feeling that way?"
Vin stood up and walked around the room. "We're a close group Father, always have been. We have to trust one another in our line of work because our lives could depend on it. More than that, our friendships demand mutual respect and trust with one another. Until recently, we've done that, but now something's changed. Maybe some think my judgments are off because of what happened in South America, and I can understand that, but when I have to explain myself to men I consider my brothers. That doesn't sit right."
Chris felt a need to say something. "Vin, no one here has doubted you."
Rafferty realized that Vin struck a nerve in the group, and saw several of the men anxious to say something. He decided to sit back and see where this discussion led.
"Haven't they?" He looked at Buck. "I never thought I had to explain myself to you if I ask you to trust my word, you did. Yesterday, you didn't."
Buck stood. "Now wait a minute Vin. I wasn't questioning your word; I was questioning why we're supposed to trust Hawks? Have you ever considered that you might not know him as well as you think you do?"
"I know him well enough to trust him with my life, and have many times. Yesterday I told you it was not the time to explain, and I vouched for Hawks. Truthfully, I didn't think I had to tell you more just to prove somethin' to you."
Buck bit at his lower lip. "I never intended for you to think I didn't believe you, Vin." He walked over and gripped Tanner's shoulder. "I might still have questions about Hawks, but I've never doubted you."
Nathan voiced his opinion, "When Brodie first showed up, we were all obsessed with finding you two, and we didn't ask how he got his information. Now, with all that's going on it seems reasonable to take a second look at him."
"I forgot what was it you said Nathan? Oh yeah he's not one of us." Vin turned to Jackson. "No, he's not MCAT, but then Cait, Inez, Isabella, Barbara, or Talia, aren't either, they're all civilians. I've never heard anyone question their presence here, or ask any of them to prove who they are."
Nathan shook his head. "That's different Vin, and you know it. They're part of the family or in Cait and Talia's cases, close enough. Brodie or whatever his name is, just showed up how are we supposed to know he's who he says he is?"
"How do we know any one is who they say they are?" Vin countered and then took a deep breath. "But you're right. Brodie Hawks Raven or any one of the dozens of names I've known him by is not the name he was born to." He looked at Chris, and saw the unspoken support he offered. "His name is James Wyatt Tanner...he's my father, and if anyone in this room has any reason to have a problem with that, it should be me and I don't. I told y'all I trusted him. That should have been enough."
Father Rafferty decided it was time for a break. "Obviously there is more going on here than we expected. Let's take a brief recess, and give everyone time to gather their thoughts." He also wanted to speak with Josiah before they resumed.
Vin walked outside to think about how much he wanted to say when they started again.
Chris followed him. "You okay?"
"Yeah it wasn't 'til just now that I realized it though." Vin shook his head. "That's the first time I've verbally acknowledged him as my father. It was easier than I expected."
"Maybe it's because you were ready to say it." Chris placed his hand on Vin's back. "I know you remember the long way around Kel and I took, but it worked out all right." He grinned. "Although, for a while there I wasn't sure she'd ever accept me."
"I remember." Vin smiled, and looked at Chris. "Reckon if two hardheaded Larabees can work it out two reasonable Tanners can, too."
"Reasonable, my ass," Chris said with a laugh. "Larabees might be hardheaded, but Tanners dig in deep with their stubbornness. You and James are certain to have more than a few interesting clashes, before you two resolve everything."
"Then it's a good thing you and Kel have kept me on my toes, and given me plenty of opportunities to practice patience." He turned his head and grinned. "Actually, I think I'm lookin' forward to it, as soon as we get this cartel shit behind us."
Chris nodded. "We'll finish it, and we'll do it as seven. Now, if you've cleared that burr from under your saddle, how about we go back inside and do some bonding with our brothers."
Father Rafferty had a few words to say. "After speaking with Josiah, I now realized the reason for all the tension we've encountered this morning. I propose that for the remainder of our time today, we direct our attention to your immediate issues. If Buck and Vin are agreeable, we'll take up with their counseling on Wednesday." He acknowledged both their nods of affirmation." Then Josiah, I believe you wanted to address the group."
Josiah leaned forward and began. "I realize the past month has been difficult for all of us, for a variety of reasons. Buck and Vin kidnapped the difficult obstacles we encountered when we tried to find them, of course being predominate, however we've been tested in a number of ways. Being a target for an unseen adversary is stressful." He looked at JD and smiled. "So is starting a new relationship." Glancing to Vin he nodded. "You not only needed to come to terms with what Wilder did, but you also are trying to find a place for a father in your life. Buck, you had the same issues, and one closer to home with what happened with JD. I believe I can also safely say all of us have been affected by recent events."
"Amen to that Brother." Ezra jumped in. "I felt guilty about Vin taking my place that fateful day and I've been worried about Barbara and our child. I find the feelings I'm facing about becoming a father at times challenging. It is definitely unlike anything I've ever encountered in my life."
Buck grinned. "You think you're confused now, just wait a while. I promise you, criminals are easier to contend with than a precocious toddler."
Vin wanted them to understand where he was coming from, too. "I know anger can cloud reason. I needed to say what I did to get rid of the anger I had growin' inside me. Havin' a father, and tryin' to work out how I feel about him isn't easy, but I knew I needed to defend him, without havin' to explain why."
Nathan spoke directly to Vin. "When, or if you're ready to talk about it I'll listen."
Each of them began to talk about how they were feeling, and reaffirmed their faith in one another. Josiah was happy to see the tension level decrease, and new dialogue open up between his brothers. He glanced at Chris, who also seemed pleased with the discussion. Sometimes you needed a raging storm to cleanse things, in order to see more clearly.
Denver Memorial Hospital
Doctor Gilford walked out of the exam room with Kelli. "You follow my orders to the letter, unless you want me to cut into that shoulder. Keep that sling on until the end of the week, and see me next Monday." He placed his hand on her arm. "Tell that hard headed husband of yours that I expect to see him, too."
"I'll tell him, doc." She watched him head off, and then joined Brodie, who was waiting for her. "Reckon you heard."
"Yep, and I plan to make sure Vin knows that if you don't follow the doctor's orders you might end up in surgery."
"You, sir, have a mean streak. Vin will have a cow when he finds out."
Brodie chuckled. "Now that would be a sight to see." They headed toward the hospital pharmacy to wait on his and Kelli's prescriptions. "I dropped them off while the doc was listing your do's and don'ts. I'd rather have them filled here, than risk making an extra stop."
While they waited, Kelli studied Hawks. Her desire to know more about him prompted her to ask, "Where do you live?"
He shrugged. "Everywhere and nowhere, most of the time my home is a hotel room in whatever country I'm working in."
Kelli shook her head. "You can't put down roots in a hotel room."
"Haven't had any reasons to even consider it until now." Hawks saw the pharmacy woman nod at him, and stood. After collecting the medicine, he gave it to Kelli to put in her bag, and they continued talking as they walked outside.
"Would you consider making a home near Denver?"
Hawk nodded to Pete, who was standing beside his truck. "I'm not going to commit to anything until after Vin and I have a chance to talk. That's not going to happen until this cartel business is over." He steered Kelli toward the passenger side.
Suddenly, Pete yelled, "GUN!"
Brodie reacted by slamming his body into Kelli's. The sound of a single shot rang out, as they went down, and Kelli screamed.
Father Rafferty was very pleased at the way today's session had turned out. The discussions were candid, enlightening, and productive. It was a good call to divert the focus of today's gathering. "I feel we have had a very good day. I'd like to schedule our next session for Wednesday morning. Where have you decided to meet next?"
JD answered. "That would be at my house, Father."
The Priest nodded. "Then I will be there at eleven."
Chris extended his hand to Rafferty. "Thank you for being flexible." He glanced at his brothers, who were all smiling, and still talking. "This was something we all needed."
"You are "
The sound of a vehicle skidding into the driveway drew everyone's attention. Before they had a chance to make it to the door, it opened. Pale and out of breath, Walter rushed in. "Vin Brodie's man called, said they need you at the hospital A.S.A.P . Raphael is waitin' for you at the helipad ."
Tanner was already pushing past Walter, and heading out the door .Chris was only one-step behind him.
Ray Montoya drank his third beer, anxiously waiting for confirmation. He glanced at the clock; it had been over an hour. How difficult could it be, to walk into a hospital, and find out the condition of a patient? A rap on the door had him drawing his gun. "¿quién es?"
"Kinsley, let me in," the man yelled.
Montoya opened the door. "You have news for me?"
Kinsley walked over the the refrigerator, reached inside for a beer, and popped the top. After taking a long drink, he finally answered. "Brodie Hawks aka Raven, died in the emergency room from a single gunshot wound to the head."
"We have our victory today." Ray nodded, and then asked, "And the woman?"
"Not much worse than the bitch I attacked at Reins. Broken arm, head lac she's waiting there now for Tanner and Larabee." Kinsley laughed. "They'll arrive too late, of course, but now we can proceed, yes?"
"No " Montoya shook his head. "I want them to relax think it's all over. Without Raven to interfere, we can take our time. Killing him is a feather in our cap. When I we take out the siete magníficos, our power will be almighty. All will shout Viva Montoya, and our cause will be legendary. Then we proceed to teach these stupid Americans that they are not safe anywhere.
Kinsley finished his beer, tossed his empty bottle, and nodded. "You're the boss."
Denver Memorial Hospital
Pete stood at the helipad, with one arm wrapped around Kelli. His orders were specific. If anything happened to his commander, he was to stay with her until he delivered her to Vin Tanner. As the helicopter approached, he leaned close to tell her," It's almost over, and you did well inside. Now, just follow the directions I gave you."
Kelli nodded as the chopper skids touched the ground. She rushed over to meet Vin and Chris when they jumped out, and threw herself at her husband. While he held her, she whispered close to his ear, "I can't explain here, but once we're on the chopper I'll tell you the whole story. Act devastated."
Vin did not have to act. Seeing the blood that covered his wife's blouse, the bandage on her forehead, and the new wrap on her wrist, was enough to send his blood pressure into the stratosphere. "It better be a damn good explanation."
Chris, huddled in conversation with Pete, and then allowed Brodie's man to steer the three of them to the helicopter. Larabee motioned to Raphael with his upturned thumb, indicating that he was to take off the moment they were onboard.
Holding on to his wife, Vin strapped them both in, and once Chris was seated, the bird lifted off the roof. Kelli gave Chris a piece of paper that listed coordinates, and he passed it to Raphael, who nodded his acknowledgement of their destination.
"Start talkin' Kel." Vin's patience had run out, and he needed to hear her explanation.
She looked at Vin, and then glanced to Chris. "Officially Brodie 'Raven' Hawks is dead. I'm not sure how they did it, but his men arranged it all, and he'll give y'all more details when we land."
Vin took that in, not the least bit surprised by that information, and nodded. "Okay we got that part. Now you want to back up and tell us what the hell happened?"
"Sniper hit us in the parkin' lot. Pete yelled, just before all hell broke loose, and Brodie slammed me to the ground. That's how I got this sprain," she lifted her wrist, "apparently; he had planned for any contingency. Brodie's men swarmed all over us, and he told me to stay down. When he moved to push me, I reckon the bullet hit his vest instead of his head, but he decided to let the sniper think he succeeded."
Chris knew the rest without her saying it. "He faked his death, which with his connections would not be difficult, and then snuck out of the hospital, leaving you to put on a show of anguish. Pete said his orders were to stay with you until we arrived, and I assume the coordinates I gave Raphael will take us to Hawks."
"Yeah that's about it." She squirmed uncomfortably. "Y'all think I can take off this vest now?"
Vin closed his eyes and gave thanks for Raven's paranoid streak, and then sighed. "I think I'd rather you keep it on 'til we get home. Between the sling and that cast, it won't be easy to take off, unless you want to strip in front of your father, and Raphael."
"Point taken," Kelli reluctantly agreed to keep it on, and then she gazed at Vin. "I'm real glad you're not in the CIA. I'd hate to have to live like this on a regular basis. Even knowin' Brodie wasn't dead, it was hard to pretend."
"It's not a life for a family man, Baby." Vin qualified his answer, "At least not for me. Sometimes assignments can take a man deep undercover for months at a time. An agent can have so many identities it's hard for him to remember who he is. Then after all his hard work, no one ever knows he was involved when the outcome is successful, and he can't talk about the things he done." He shook his head, as he looked out the window, and said softly, "It's almost a non-existence."
Raphael keyed in his mic. "We'll land in three minutes."
Hawks' men met them when they landed, drove them a short distance, and ushered them inside a small cabin, which appeared to be in the middle of nowhere. Chris felt a strange sense of familiarity, and then it dawned on him. This was the same place 'Raven' had him brought when his men kidnapped him a couple of years ago. They were not that far from Larabee7.
Brodie turned to greet them. He had a sling on his left arm, and when he saw the look on Vin's face, he said, "bruised shoulder." He grinned at Kelli. "You did all right today."
"Yeah, just don't ask me to make a habit of it." She walked over to him, handed him his meds from her bag, and then punched his good arm. "You could have warned me."
He chuckled. "If I'd known ahead of time I would have, but it was a spur of the moment decision." He glanced over to Chris and Vin. "We don't have much time, and we need to talk." Brodie threw a folder on the table. "Y'all need to see this."
Chris read it and then looked up, trying to control his anger. "When will you have confirmation?"
"Working on it, but it could take a few days. That's why I figured, when they came after me, I needed to die. It might give y'all some breathing room, if our man figures I won't be around to run the backgrounds you can't get to, even with CASSIE."
Vin stared at Hawks. "So we're supposed to just say nothin', act like you're dead, you disappear, and we wait?"
Brodie nodded. "It'll be safer for your families that way. My men will pull out of L7, but be close enough to keep an eye on things without anyone knowing it. If we take the pressure off, and make everyone believe the threat is gone, our subject will relax, and I hope do nothing until we can prove who it is."
Chris realized how difficult this could be for Vin, and told him, "It makes sense. The less people who know the whole story, the less likely our suspect will find out we're getting close. Not that it will be easy to keep it just among us, but with 'Raven' out of the picture, we have a better chance of pulling this off." Chris wanted to find out how committed Brodie was to Vin's future, so he issued a challenge. "It was only a matter of time before you got called to another assignment anyway, right?"
Hawks saw the flash of uncertainty in his son's eyes. "Take a walk with me, Vin." He headed toward the door, and waited to see if he would follow. Pleased to see him move, Brodie opened the door, and the two men walked a ways from the cabin.
Vin stared at the horizon. "When I saw Kel standin' at that helipad alone I thought ," he sighed, and choked back the lump in his throat. "Obviously, you're not dead, but now you're plannin' on leavin', before we make our peace. Not sure I can pretend it doesn't matter."
Sighing deeply, Brodie figured some sort of explanation was due. "When I was rescued from my imprisonment, after more than two years in that hellhole, I was not in good shape. By the time I was in the hospital long enough to realize I was going to live I'd received word that my father was dead, and .your mother, too. I guess I went a little crazy for a while. The agents who rescued me convinced me to join them in covert ops. At that moment in time, Fate opened a door and 'Raven' was born'. The first thing I did was hunt down the bastards, who were responsible for taking me away from my family, and threatened every day to kill you and your mother."
Refusing to look at him, Vin asked, "When did you think to look for me?"
"You were always my first priority, Vin. At first, I thought you and I could make a life, but my assignments became more dangerous, and I couldn't put you at risk. You were doing well with Treyton, and I knew he was a good man to teach you about living right. I followed your life the best I could, and sent money to your grandfather anonymously for your care. Unfortunately, he died while I was deep undercover in Singapore. I lost track of you then, and it took me a while to find you again, but I did. It was just after you went to live with Nettie."
"I read your letter, and after what happened to me in South America, I can even understand why you thought that way, but later, after I was grown didn't you think I'd want to know?"
"Later I didn't think I had the right to screw with your life. In my work, I had to learn to master my emotions, and I did. Being cold and dispassionate worked to my advantage, and nothing stood between me and completing a mission." He shook his head. "Showing my emotions was something I couldn't do, and stay alive. I kept watch on you, knew you were headed in a good direction, and left it at that."
Vin swallowed hard. "So, I get a letter, a five minute explanation, a quick goodbye, and that's supposed to make it all okay."
Hawks bit his bottom lip, and decided to let Vin know what he was thinking. "Fate opened another door today. My men carried Brodie Hawks into that hospital and Raven died there. The man that walked out has two choices I reckon what I do next is up to you, Son. Tell me to get the hell out of your life, and I'll take a new name, keep on doing what I've done for the past thirty years, and walk away when we nail this bastard. Or . tell me we have a chance to get to know one another as father and son, and after this is over, I'll quit this line of work, and spend my time learning how to be Vin Tanner's father again."
Turning to stare at his father, he asked, "You'd do that just quit?"
"You've managed to tear through my defenses, the same way you did Kel's, and for a second chance to be a real father to you, I'd do it in a heartbeat."
Vin took a deep breath, before saying, "Then you'd better hear my conditions," Vin pointed his finger at him. "You disappear on me again, I will hunt you down. Until this mess is over, I want to know where you are at all times. If you're not gonna stay here go up to our cabin. You can keep in touch by encrypted PC, and no one goes up there without me, or Kel knowin' about it. Also, you best remember that you are not expendable I expect you to be alive when this is finished because you and I have a lot to discuss."
Pushing back years of buried emotions that threatened to surface, he nodded. James Wyatt Tanner was still alive and well, and his son cared about him staying that way. "That works both ways Vin. I'll keep in touch, but you'd better stay safe, too."
"I reckon we should go back and make some plans with Chris."
"Yep." James Tanner placed his hand on his son's back, as they walked back to the cabin. "By the way, once you get home make certain Kel tells you everything Doctor Gilford told her. If she doesn't, I will."
Larabee knew the second they entered that something had changed between Vin and his father. Both men appeared to be at peace with one another, and Chris considered that a positive development. "Vin, a lot of this depends on how you handle 'Raven's' death. Do you think you can make everyone believe Raven is dead?"
"Not a problem, Chris." Vin glanced at his father, and nodded. "As far as I'm concerned he is 'Raven' is a closed chapter in my life." After making their plans, Chris, Vin, and Kelli returned to the ranch. Walter was waiting at Camp Larabee to take them home.
Chris waited in the kitchen, while Vin took Kelli into their room to check out her new injuries, and hear the report Doctor Gilford gave her. Larabee took out his cell, called Travis to fill him in, and then hesitated briefly, before calling Buck's number.
Wilmington answered on the first ring, "Chris, where the hell are you?"
"I'm at Vin's." Larabee blew out his breath, if they were going to pull this off, the sooner he told everyone, the better. "We need a family meeting ."
"That's not a problem. Everyone is gathered here, waiting to hear from you or Vin. The way you two rushed out earlier, I expected an update "
"Buck, I only want to tell this once. I'll have Walter drive me over see you in a few minutes." Snapping the cell closed, he looked up to see Vin standing in the doorway. "You stay with Kel. I'll go over and get this started. You know of course, you'll be hearing from your brothers."
Tanner nodded. "I can handle it. If they ask about Kel, her left wrist is badly sprained, but she didn't have any additional damage to her shoulder. She does have to follow doc's orders, or face possible surgery down the line."
Chris grinned. "Reckon that'll keep you busy."
"Reckon it will at that." Vin walked out on the porch with Chris, and met Pete as he was coming up the sidewalk. "You made good time."
"Yep, we did." Pete pulled a set of keys from his pocket. "These are for you. I guess the missus forgot to tell you she rented a SUV while she was in Denver. The papers are in the glove box, and it's paid for through the end of next month."
Taking the keys, Vin smiled. "The Commander thinks of everything, even when he's not around."
"Yes sir." Pete nodded. "My instructions are very specific. Deliver the SUV to Tanner, pick up the laptop, and tell our men to clear off ranch property. He also said you should call me, if you need anything."
Vin tossed the keys to Chris. "You go talk to the family; I'll take care of gatherin' Raven's stuff for Pete."
Larabee nodded. "See you around Pete." He walked on, determined to frame their plan in a way that would not cast blame on Brodie for anything. Vin had enough to deal with already.
"Come on in Pete, I'll show you where the Commander's things are." Tanner led the way, while he hoped Chris was successful.
JD held on to Talia's hand, while they all sat around the living room. "Buck, are you sure he didn't give you any idea about what's going on?"
Buck looked at all the expectant faces around him. "Chris is on his way over, and no he didn't tell me a thing." He sighed. "All we can do is hope that no news is good news."
Josiah and Ezra sat down next to their wives, and exchanged a look. Nathan paced, grumbling that he should have gone with them, and Rain did her best to keep him calm. Cait kept the coffee going, while Inez and Isabella made sure there was plenty of food set out for the group, although, no one appeared to be very hungry.
Chris came in the back door, stopped to hug Cait, and then took her hand to lead her into the Wilmington's living room. Everyone immediately bombarded Larabee with questions, until he held up his hand. "Okay I have a lot to tell you, sit down, and hear me out."
"Where is Vin?" Ezra asked.
"Vin is at his house with Kel." Chris cleared his throat. "At 1115 hours, she and Brodie exited the hospital, and while walking to his truck, a sniper fired at them. Kel sustained a sprained wrist and a head lac from hitting the pavement. Unfortunately the shooter went for a head shot, and despite intensive medical efforts to save him, Raven died in the emergency room." He took a breath as he watched his brothers' reactions. The mixture of shock and emotion was heart wrenching.
"No no " JD shook his head, his words were a mere whisper, as he glanced around to the others. "That can't damnit " Talia squeezed his hand, and did her best to comfort him.
Josiah closed his eyes, said a silent prayer, and then looked at Chris. "Is Vin doing okay?"
Chris nodded. "As well as you'd expect. He had mixed feelings about his father, but now he just needs time to sort through his thoughts." Larabee continued. "We have reason to believe that, with the exception of the first attack at the rockslide, Raven was the intended target for the bombs. The fire in my barn, Mal's brake's being cut, and the intruder at Cait's was apparently an elaborate smokescreen to draw him into the open."
Nathan frowned. "Who would know he was here?"
"If he was as deeply involved in covert ops as Vin said it wouldn't be difficult for the wrong people to figure you all had heavy duty help finding me and Vin." Buck shook his head. "Once they identified and targeted him anyone else getting hurt would be considered collateral damage."
"Buck is right. Whoever was after us I think gave up after the rockslide, once they realized they had a bigger fish to fry." Chris watched his brother's faces. They weren't buying it all, but they at least considered the possibility. "Travis agrees. Tomorrow, Raphael will take Buck and Vin to Denver Memorial for their follow up." He looked at Rain. "I'd appreciate it, if you will arrange the appointment, please. After that, he and Mike will remain for the rest of the week, and return to MCAT on Monday. Hawk's men are already gathering their gear, and they should be gone before sunset."
Ezra had his own ideas about what was going on, and he studied Chris. Their Commander wanted them to accept his conclusions, but Standish did not think for a second that Chris really believed what he was saying. "While your information might be correct, I assume we are going to remain vigilant until we are certain."
"Absolutely," Chris answered quickly. "We have our own security team, and I want everyone to still have an escort when they leave the ranch. Once we can confirm our information, then we'll revisit those directives. In the meantime, I suggest we support Vin the best we can, and stay alert. I'm not sure how long it will take for word to get out that Raven is dead."
JD shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "I know how I feel, Vin must be devastated. You think he's ready for company?"
"I think tomorrow is soon enough, JD. Give him some space for now. Vin will probably be ready to hear from his brothers by then."
Tanner Home, Late evening
Kelli laid in bed reading, waiting for Vin to join her. She looked up as he walked into their bedroom, and asked, "Kids all okay?"
"All asleep," Vin answered as he unbuttoned his shirt. "I sat there for a while and just watched 'em breathe," He tossed his shirt toward the dirty clothesbasket, and used the bootjack to remove his boots. "I wondered if I had the kind of courage it would take to walk off from their lives."
"You have plenty of courage, but you would never leave them." Kelli tried to sit up a little straighter; her bound shoulder prevented her from moving easily. "Vin, you're not your father. His circumstances and yours are worlds apart."
He unbuttoned his jeans. "Maybe but I did consider leavin', after I hurt you. I was afraid the kids could be next." He sat on the end of the bed and tugged his jeans off. "It's ironic that Brodie was the one who convinced me I was wrong."
"That ought to tell you somethin' about how hard it was for him." Kelli could not help admiring the view of his sexy ass, and sighed. "He he'd been off in the service, and then on one assignment after another as a lawman. Your grandfather and Uncle ran the ranch, and your mother .well, she and your father didn't have the time together that you and I have had. Plus you have somethin' your father didn't have."
Vin stood up and rounded the bed. "What's that?"
Kelli smiled, "Six brothers, who would fight like hell to stop you from leavin'." A rush of heat skated through her body as she met his gaze; her eyes transmitted her desire for him. "Are you gonna stand there all night, or crawl into bed with me?"
The Texan shook his head. "I know that look woman, and you are in no shape to play tonight." He threw back the covers and lay down behind her. Gently he wrapped his arm around her, and drew her close, using his body to cushion her bad shoulder. Once he was satisfied that she was comfortable, he leaned his head down, and softly kissed her. "Control your hormones."
"That's kinda difficult after watchin' you strip. Can I help it if you affect me this way, and I think you're sexy?" She cuddled closer, and whispered softly, "Vin I did take a pain pill, and while my shoulder and wrist might be messed up the rest of me works just fine."
"Ahh hell," Vin grinned as he smoothed his hand over her bare hip, "it could take a while to prove that." He caressed her backside, and sighed. "Good thing I'm a patient man."
Ray Montoya was a happy man. He was responsible for taking out Raven, a strong operative with a reputation that most of his counterpart feared and respected. By the time he was finished with the formidable seven men of MCAT, everyone would know that he was a force to be reckoned with. Then...his resistance cell would make headlines when they pulled off their ultimate plan. He picked up his phone and punched in a message.
'Victory is ours today. Let them relax, but prepare for the finale. Make certain they never see it coming."
Tanner Cabin, Tuesday morning
Stepping onto the porch to watch the sunrise, James Wyatt Tanner felt as if he had been reborn. Yesterday, his alter ego died, and today he was looking at a second opportunity to complete a life he thought was dead and buried. He sipped on his coffee, and breathed in the fresh mountain air. If anyone had told him years ago that, he would be standing here, on a porch, his son had built, and looking forward to actually being a grandfather, he would have thought they had lost their mind.
*Feels good, don't it?*
He turned quickly to find an unexpected, but familiar spirit sitting in the wooden rocker. "Hawk I never thought I'd see you again." Memories of years gone past flooded into his mind. 'Hawk the Hunter' had stayed with him during the darkest days of his life, had given him a thread of hope to hang onto, and in retrospect, saved his life. He had not seen him since.
*It's been a while, but if you remember, I told you I wouldn't be back, until you came to your senses, and remembered you were a Tanner.*
Tanner sat down next to the spirit that he knew as Hawk. "I know you weren't pleased with my decisions, but you disappeared so quickly, I didn't get a chance to thank you your presence kept me going when I was imprisoned. If you hadn't been there I'm not certain I'd have made it past the first year."
Hawk shrugged. *Me being there just gave you somethin' to focus on of course I thought you'd be smart enough to go home once you were out reckon you had to take the long road back.*
Tanner agreed. "It was a helluva long road. I made more than a few missteps to get here, but I guess you know Vin found out the truth, and still wants me around."
*Yeah, and your Rebecca sent a message she loves you and is pleased to see 'her men' back together, but you should know that took some doin'. I've wanted to get you two together now for more than thirty years. I had to wait for a certain redhead to come along, and then you almost ruined everthin' when you made her promise not to tell Vin the truth until after you were dead.*
"I thought it was best that way."
*Best for who? Kelli was not happy with me for askin' her to guide you, and gave me hell over it. Furthermore, your son is no longer a child he deserved to know the truth a long time ago. I reckon I should have realized that stubborn Tanner streak of yours didn't disappear with your name, but I believed you were smart enough to figure out he was man enough to handle it. When you made a mess of things with Kel, I had to finally bend the rules and help y'all myself.* The spirit glared at him, and then as an afterthought, explained. *By the way, Vin and his family know me as Tracker.*
*Tracker,* Tanner nodded. He remembered the stories Hawk had told him, and that explained the spirits he saw at the landslide, and now Andi's ramblings made sense. "You 'arranged' all this? Why?"
*Y'all are my family; although there were a few times, I considered disownin' you. I told you Vin had a special destiny .he could've used your guidance. Thankfully, he made it on his own, but it wasn't always easy for him. Now I reckon you'll have to learn a few things from him, instead of the other way around. Try to remember everthin' I tried to teach you, and keep an open mind.*
"You've kept watch over him. I appreciate it."
*I did what destiny has called me to do. You have the opportunity now to fulfill yours.* Tracker stood and turned to give him a stern look. *Family ties are stronger than time, and long after we leave this world they still bind us. Take care of yours, and don't stray off again. Next time, I won't be so agreeable about how I get your attention.*
Tracker-Hawk vanished, leaving this Tanner to think about his future.
Walter watched Vin pace while he waited for Buck to arrive. "You really don't want to go do you?"
"Hell no, it was Chris's idea for me to go see Gilford, not mine." Vin stopped, poured himself another cup of coffee, and then sat down next to Walter. "I don't feel right about leavin' the ranch until this mess is over."
"You know I'll keep an eye on Kel and the twins for you while you're gone." Walter sighed, and decided to brooch a subject he had wanted to talk about for a while now. "It might not be the best time to discuss this, but you and Kel already know how much your family means to me and Max. I know you just lost your father, but I hope you know that I think of you as the son I never had."
Vin set his cup on the table. "You and Max are family, and I appreciate how you feel." He waited for Walter to gather his thoughts.
"We've been talkin'. When you gave Max a place to live rent-free in exchange for part of her salary, it was great, but since we got married we'd like to build our own place " he hurried to explain. "She doesn't want more money; we'd just like to build close to your place if you and the others don't mind us usin' the land."
Nodding, Vin understood the sentiment behind Walter's proposal. "I'm sure they won't mind. I'll talk to 'em about it today." He reached over and squeezed Walter's arm. "Kel and I would be pleased to have y'all as neighbors, and if you want I'll help you with your house plans."
"I'd like that, thanks."
They heard a light rap on the door, just before Buck entered. "Hey," he looked over to Vin, "how you doing?"
"Doin' okay." Vin stood, and told Walter, "See you later." Joining Buck, he received the hug he was expecting.
"Sorry about your father, Vin. If I can or if you want to talk "
"I know, Buck. I'll be fine, just need a little time." Vin took a deep breath. "Let's get this hospital stuff over with, the sooner we get back, the happier I'll be."
They headed out the door to Buck's truck, and then on to Camp Larabee to meet Raphael and their chopper ride to Denver Memorial.
Having used the bathroom, JD stood at the sink, staring at the pill bottle in his hand. He had stopped taking his pain meds soon after he came back to his own home, subsequent to Buck's attack on him, not that he'd told anyone, but Nathan and Talia. He thought there should be more in the bottle, first noticing the drop in quantity the previous night when he had knocked them from the cabinet. The kids were clearly fine, so they could not have taken any, not that they could get at them. Puzzled, he had talked to Talia about it. All she could really say was he must have used more than he realized; reminding him that she had given him a few herself, when he was having a rough night.
With a shrug, he had let it go, but this morning, the doubts were back, and he decided he needed to talk to Nathan. He hoped that maybe he could help him put his fears into perspective, because it worried JD that he could have taken more and not even registered it. Checking his watch, the young tech nodded to himself. Vin and Buck were due back from their hospital appointments any time soon. Making his way into the bedroom, he picked up his cell and dialed.
"Hey bro how ?" He grinned. "Cool. How's Vin? Do you think he's up to visitors? Chris's? Okay see you there." Unlocking his gun safe, JD clipped on his belt holster, slipped in and secured the gun and set off to look for Talia, smiling as he spied her in the kitchen. "Hey gorgeous."
Talia raised an eyebrow. "Hmmm what are you after?"
JD chuckled, spreading his arms to proclaim his innocence. "Nothing, I just happened to catch a look at myself in the mirror." He laughed as she playfully lashed out at him, snatching at her wrist to draw her into his arms.
"Actually," he said, softly, "Buck and Vin are heading to Chris's was kinda hoping to go see how they got on at the hospital and check on how Vin's doing."
She smiled up at him, stretching up to kiss him on the lips. "Great idea, would you like some company?"
"Would you mind if I went alone just this once."
"Aww, honey, you're sweet, you know that?" She squeezed him tightly. "Go I was just thinking about what to get out for dinner. I'll see you later." Leaning in, she kissed him long, hard, and deep. "Maybe we'll have time for dessert first, before you collect the kids."
"Wow " he cleared his throat to erase the high-pitched squeakiness in his voice. "Wow and maybe we could talk a while. I'd love to hear about your family."
Talia nodded. "Okay. Call when you're headed back." Releasing him, she watched him leave.
He turned. "Yeah?"
JD smiled, nodding. "I will. You too, and lock up after me." Snatching up his truck keys, he was soon on his way to Larabee's place.
Buck was happily flexing his newly released hand. It felt good and loads lighter without its cumbersome cast. "I was beginning to think I'd never get that thing off my hand."
"They did a great job." Chris smiled as he handed Buck his coffee.
"Yeah, they really did. My tendons are still a little tight, but it feels good."
"What about you, Vin?" Chris handed a coffee to him, and Nathan, who had joined him, Josiah and Ezra to wait for their two brothers to return.
"No issues, I got a clean bill of health from Gilford." Vin glanced at Buck. "I think we can finally put the physical side of Columbia behind us, now."
Buck nodded, unwilling to kill the mood by revealing he and Inez had been unable to make love since his return, while relieved the doctor had given him the all-clear in that department. It really was up to Buck, now. They all reached for their guns as JD sauntered in the door.
"Pah! Shit, guys don't do that!"
"Sorry can't be too careful," Chris apologized, re-holstering.
"But you were expecting me!" JD reminded him.
"Hmm maybe there's an underlying message there, Kid," Nathan teased, while the others chuckled.
"Oh hilarious " JD threw back, and made a face.
Buck pointed at him. "What have I told you about the wind changing and you staying like that?"
"So, I'll look more like you, no big deal," JD snapped back, grabbing a cookie as he took a seat.
Ignoring the laughter, Buck wiggled both hands. "Careful, boy, I'm fully armed, now!"
The hilarity subsided as JD's expression became one of elation. "Awesome, dude." He glanced at Vin. "Hey how are you doing?"
Vin acknowledged the question. "I'm okay thanks."
"Do you feel I mean is it really like you've lost a father or more a good friend?"
"I just asked because well, Vin had just gotten used to knowing he had a dad, then " JD blushed. "Damn sorry, I'm saying this all wrong. I'm really sorry "
Vin slapped his shoulder. "It's okay." He took a deep breath. "The jury's still out on how I'm handlin' Hawks bein' my father. I've accepted it, sure, but there was a long way to go before fully reconcilin' all I needed to. I loved my dad when I was two. I hadn't decided what feelin's I have for him just yet, but " he glanced at them all. "I do know he made me feel good inside here." He placed his hand over his heart.
None of them were unaffected by the sincerity in Vin's words, all they could do was nod. They sat there in companionable silence for a while, each sipping on their coffees. JD dipped another cookie into his already well-sugared brew. "Good coffee, Chris. What is it?"
Chris shrugged. "It's some new Columbian blend that Cait wanted to try."
Vin slammed down his mug instantly, glaring at Chris as he did so. Buck quickly followed, realizing where Vin's mind was. "I've had my fuckin' fill of Columbia. I ain't drinkin' none of their shit coffee, no matter how good it is."
Chris, Nathan, Josiah, Ezra, and JD stared at the pair, uncertain what to say or do next. Mid sip, nerves got the better of their youngest and he snorted into his drink, his eyes as wide as saucers as he realized what he had done.
The second or so of silence felt more like an hour until, suddenly, Vin threw back his head and laughed, and Buck joined him. Moments later, they were all crying with laughter, more from a relief of tension than hilarity from the situation. It felt good damn good.
Taking a deep breath, Vin tried to control his grin. He knew he should act more somber, but it felt good to be at ease with his brothers. He cleared his throat. "Since we're all here, I have somethin' we need to discuss." Walter asked me a question, and I need y'all's approval to give him an answer. "He explained what Walter and Max wanted to do and then waited for the reactions.
Chris looked at his brothers. "I think we can all agree that Walter and Max do more than their share of helping us all, with the children. "I vote yes, we let them build on L7."
It only took a few seconds to make that vote unanimous.
Vin nodded. "I'll tell them as soon as I go home."
The conversation drifted back to their current situation.
Glancing toward Vin and Chris, Nathan commented, "I know what you said after Raven was shot, but I've been thinking on what happened Sunday and about Brodie being around when all those incidents happened."
Josiah nodded. "I've been thinking on that, too. Maybe Brodie wasn't the target. His death might have been the diversion making us think it was over."
Chris looked guiltily at Vin. "Yeah, we've considered that."
"Maybe it was a diversionary tactic but then, after what's gone on the past couple of weeks, who knows?" Vin offered his thoughts. "It seems, whoever's behind all this is tryin' to make us paranoid."
"I keep going back to the idea that someone on L7 has to be feeding information to our adversaries." Ezra frowned. "I hate to think it's someone who works for us, but the man who attacked Caitlyn knew his way around the ranch."
Buck nodded. "That's what I thought, too. I tried to think of our latest hires, and what we know about them, but nothing struck me as too odd about any of them."
"So anyone have any other possible names?" Nathan asked.
"We can't rule out the Marshals that were here a few weeks back. Then there's Mike he's new to MCAT," Chris offered.
JD shuddered; he'd hate to think it was someone that close to them. "I've followed up with some ideas on CASSIE, but so far, I've come up with zilch."
"If Brodie was here, we'd have even better resources," Nathan speculated. They all nodded, and sat silent for a minute.
Chris watched them, intently. "It appears you all came to the same conclusions, but separately. When did you start thinking this way?"
Buck answered, "After Sunday, we started to have doubts, and then when Raven was " he glanced at Vin. "Anyway, it became obvious someone close is behind this."
"I think we all agree that we have a traitor either on the ranch, or connected to someone here." Chris stood, as they prepared to leave. "We know this is not over, we just need to stay vigilant, and hope we find our man, before he strikes again. We're not losing anyone to this conspiracy." Larabee's glare was the one no one ever argued with, and it reinforced their determination.
Outside, JD caught up to Nathan. "Hey can I ask you about something?" The younger man fished out his pill bottle from his jeans pocket.
"Sure," Nathan smiled, listening as they strolled toward their vehicles.
Watching them leave, Chris looked at Vin. "Damn, that was hard."
Tanner nodded. "I hate lyin' to 'em, Cowboy."
"Soon, Vin," Chris assured. "You know how close Brodie feels he is to finding the truth." He placed a hand on the Texan's shoulder and squeezed. "If he doesn't get something by tomorrow, we'll tell them before the session that Hawks is still alive."
Vin sighed. "Not sure that will get us closer to our man, but it will make me feel better."
Wilmington Home, late evening
Rejuvenated by the day's events, his increasing strength and health, Buck wrapped a towel around his waist after his shower, and combed through his wet hair. He smiled at the delicate giggle from Inez, who was had also just showered; her towel started slipping when she walked into the bedroom. In an instant, he was in front of her.
"Let me get that," he smiled, as he tugged on her towel. Gazing into her deep, brown eyes, Buck pressed against her. Dropping her towel to the floor, Buck took Inez in his arms, and kissed her deeply. His hand smoothed over his wife's back, while her breasts pushed against his chest, a soft moan drifting from her lips .
"Querido, I think "
"Don't think, just do " Inez breathed, capturing his lips as her hands caressed his back and butt.
With a growl, Buck hoisted her up and walked her to their bed, their kisses frenzied and deep. Their longing became one of urgency. Laying her down, he draped himself over her, his lips tasting every exquisite inch of her damp, satin skin. The long weeks of doubts, and separation ended, as Buck and Inez celebrated their reunion of souls.
"Why are you thanking me?"
"For waiting, and for believing in me. I love you so much. I've missed this closeness. Thank you for making me feel like a man again. I love you, Inez."
Nestling back against him, she turned her head to kiss him. "I could not love my man any more than I do at this moment. You are my rock, and my soul mate. You are worth waiting for."
Snuggling tighter, they sighed at the feel of their heated skins against each other, the pair settled down, both smiling as they drifted gently off to sleep.
Dunne Home, Wednesday morning
Talia seemed particularly energized this morning as she hummed, cleaned and dusted. JD had tried to help, but she insisted he sort out the kids, take them to Reins, and leave her to it. When he returned, there was a sumptuous spread of the men's' favorite foods on the dining room table.
"Beers, juice, and sodas are in the fridge. The coffee's set to go, just press the button." She smiled as JD approached her, and put his arms around her waist.
"This is awesome, thank you."
"I wanted today to be perfect." With a lingering kiss, they separated to make their final preparations.
Later, walking through the house, to the hall table, he picked up his bike keys and pushed them into his pocket. After the session, he was hoping to blow out some cobwebs, and take some time to think. First, he needed to get the bike out of the barn and check it over. He turned his wrist to check the time. Yeah, he could just do it.
Talia smiled, when she saw JD standing near the front door. Walking toward him, she took his hand. "Well, now everything's ready there's just one last thing." She started guiding him out of the door, and toward the barn.
Buck arrived first, soon followed by Vin and Chris, Ezra, Nathan, and Josiah. Buck let them in, shrugging as they entered. "JD's not here there's a note on the table saying to help ourselves, and he'll be along shortly." He chuckled to himself recalling Talia's scribbled words.
*JD's a little tied up, but he'll hopefully join you soon.*
*I'll bet you are, kid,* he mused to himself.
Josiah told them. "Father Rafferty called to let us know he is running about twenty minutes late."
Ezra patted Vin on the back. "Are you doing all right?"
"Yeah, thanks for askin'." Vin smiled, when he saw the food, and changed the subject. "Looks good, let's dig in."
Ten minutes later, they were again starting to wonder where JD was.
Ezra returned from searching the bedrooms. "He's not in this house I've even checked the cellar. Could he be in the barn?"
Inside, JD frowned at two open crates that Talia had received from Texas. There was packing straw everywhere, and he recognized a familiar smell. A squeeze from Talia had his attention back on her.
"The guys'll be here soon," he reminded her. "Knowing Buck, he'll be the first one at the door."
"Then we'll have to be quick," she giggled, pushing him back against a support. She kissed him fervently, while her hands roamed all over him, moving down to unclasp his jeans belt buckle. Catching his breath, JD stopped her.
"What what are you doing?"
"I need you, now," she gasped. "Please, just a quickie please?"
JD shook his head. "Babe, you know I'd love to, but " he sighed as he saw her disappointment. " These sessions mean a lot to me. I can see how much they've helped all of us, especially Buck and Vin. I don't feel right doing this, now. I'm sorry." His eyes once again drifted to the cases. *Straw gun oil weapons WEAPONS!*
"No, I am," she said. "I should have thought of that. I guess I'll just have to do this, instead." She stroked JD's face, and then without warning, she fisted his hair, and slammed his head hard into the support, twice. While he was down, she took his gun, and threw it aside.
With a shocked grunt, JD saw stars and white light, slipping to the straw-covered floor while trying to focus on the face of the woman he had taken to his bed and his home. "Wha "
He cried in surprise out as she kicked and stomped at him repeatedly the blows coming so rapidly, and with such force that it was hard for the injured JD to defend himself. As he lay trying to breathe through the pain she'd inflicted upon him, Talia dragged his bleeding, semi-limp body by the hair to a stall, and secured his hands with cuffs, through a metal ring. She leaned in, pulling him up by his hair so she could see his face.
"I like you, and that's why I'm letting you live. When I leave, the next thing you'll hear will be your teammates blown to Kingdom come and... My job here will be finished." She kissed him hard on the lips, grinning at his stunned expression, bloody hair and face, and tear-filled, unfocused eyes. "The sex was really great. Thanks to you, I'll have several new moves and positions to teach my husband."
"Please " JD didn't really understand all that was happening but had heard 'blown to Kingdom come' and 'teammates'. He started to panic. "Talia don't please "
She slapped him hard across the face. "Don't beg it doesn't suit you."
He glared back at her, the slap giving him some clarity, as he kicked out. "You bitch; you fucking, demented, two faced BITCH! You do this, and I'll come after you YOU HEAR ME? I'll kill you!"
She smiled, but it never reached her eyes. "That's more like it." Pulling something from her jeans pocket, she covered his mouth with duct tape as he frantically struggled. "I could have killed you and your children any time remember that." She laughed, humorlessly. "You all think you're so smart well, we showed you." Walking away, she turned and blew him a kiss. "Goodbye, John Dunne."
JD's head was pounding, and all he wanted to do was sleep, but he bit back the nausea and dizziness and screamed through his gag. He was shivering violently, while he pulled hard on his restraints, ignoring the slickness to his wrists as the steel bracelets dug into his flesh when he struggled. He had to get to the house he had to get free his brothers were going to die
Chris decided it was time to tell them about Hawks. "While we're waiting...I need to say something... In fact I hoped to say this to all of you, but JD isn't here yet " He glanced at Vin, and the Texan nodded.
"Okay, I'll fill JD in later. The fact is, Brodie's not dead." Chris paused and waited for the exclamations of surprise and yep, there they were, those dreaded expressions of a mix of anger, betrayal and hurt. He raised a hand.
"I know, I know, but Brodie needed to take the heat off to investigate our concerns about it being someone on the ranch, and we had to work on the assumption they could see, or overhear our conversations. We're truly sorry."
"Oh, well that's alright then," Buck seethed. "So, why are you telling us now?" He glanced down at the hand on his arm.
"'Cause I couldn't stand havin' to lie to y'all anymore," Vin confessed, sincerity and regret shining in his eyes. "We might be screwin' up, tellin' you now, but Brodie reckons he's close to an answer after yesterday, we realized y'all seem to be headin' that way too. The time seems right."
Silence reigned for a long minute, no one sure how to proceed, or whether to be angry as well as relieved. Each man looked up and out of the window when JD's truck started up, and they saw Talia drive away. Buck frowned. "Where did she come from? And where the hell is JD?"
Brodie looked at his man, who was reading the dossier on Montoya. "He's obviously not dirtying his own hands here, so we still have to find his inside man."
"Montoya's married." Pete mumbled, passing a photo to his Commander.
Brodie looked unimpressed with that information until he looked at the photo.
Pete placed another dossier in Brodie's hand. "This is his wife."
Hawks was already dialing Chris's cell. "Fuck! Chris it's Talia, get the hell out of there NOW!"
Chris's cell began to ring. He answered, and despite the team's suspicions, Brodie's message visibly shook him. He stared at them all, alarm on his face. "Go get out NOW!"
Six men raced out of the building, barely getting twenty or so feet away, before the house exploded into a million pieces, burning debris falling all around their tumbling bodies while a huge plume of black smoke and orange flame shot way up into the sky.
From inside the barn, JD jerked violently as the thunderous explosion shook the building. He was crying unashamedly, now, screaming out through the gag for the men he had grown up with, and who had made him family.
Those men, his brothers were gone.
The Wild Bunch women were enjoying their refreshments on the deck of the Larabee home, chatting quietly as they waited for Talia to join them. Even if they hadn't been facing toward the Dunne property, they could not have missed the earth shaking boom and the rising smoke, and flames in the distance. Their collective alarm was silent at first, rising to audible cries of fear and terror as they snatched up keys and raced toward their vehicles. Somehow, they knew that whatever had happened was catastrophic; but they had no idea how much it would affect their lives.
That thought horrified them beyond reason.
Flying debris had hit Chris hard, as he was the last one out. He groaned and rolled over, barely aware of his aching body, before succumbing to the welcome, beckoning darkness. Josiah lay prostrate just feet from Nathan, who was scrambling over the dirt to reach him.
As he lay there waiting for his lungs to fill with air, Buck quietly prayed that they actually would. He ached everywhere, but he could move, and turned his head to see Vin staring back at him, though not moving.
Tanner flinched when Ezra touched him. "Vin, can you hear me?"
The Texan swallowed. "You and about a dozen or so ringin'' bells."
"Can you move?"
"Yeah, I reckon so."
Ezra turned to Buck who was now sitting up. "How are you, brother?"
"Still here," Buck wheezed, his gaze moving to the barn that had been hit by flaming debris, and was now on fire. As the fog in his mind started clearing, he looked around at the destruction, unable to comprehend all that had happened. His eyes fell on Chris and Josiah, both unconscious, Ezra and Nathan tending both. Vin was edging toward Chris, Buck currently aware of Nathan yelling they needed to move further back. Buck couldn't argue with that it was damn hot where they were, now.
Clarity growing, Buck had a question he couldn't quite roll to the front of his mind. It was important he knew that. What the hell was it? Pushing himself to his feet, he helped Nathan move Josiah, while Ezra and Vin shifted Chris.
Having checked them over, Nathan was reasonably confident in repositioning the men, while also realizing, they couldn't stay where they were. There were gas lines to the house making it a venerable powder keg.
The barn roof was well alight, now and the brothers stared at it while they transferred to a safer position. A voice floated through Buck's mind as he watched Chris placed down on the ground, the blond stirring slightly, as Vin and Ezra helped him.
*JD's a little tied up, but he'll hopefully join you soon.*
Talia's words from the note left for them hit Buck like a two by four, his head turning sharply toward the newly smoldering structure. *JD * He stopped, leaving Nathan to ease Josiah to the ground, alone. He suddenly tore off toward the barn.
Hanging limply, JD had succumbed to his pain-ridden misery, semi-conscious as he heard a voice urging him awake. His mom had never succeeded in getting him up with soft words, why did this jerk think it would work? He jolted as, what felt like a boot, nudged his leg.
*You ain't giving up on me, are you?*
*What? In case you haven't noticed, I'm injured, bound, and gagged. Go away leave me be.*
Sheriff squatted down next to the youth. *Shoot no Dunne I know would give up like this.*
*How many you know that survived Purgatory?*
Sheriff grinned. *At least one. Your brothers need you wake up.*
No sooner had the voice stopped; JD figured the cruel hand of fate had truly taken his mind when he heard Buck call him. *Wow the dead really do come to collect you.* He was aware of burning debris raining down on him, but he couldn't rally. Unable to free himself, thoughts of his kids' broke his heart, the wound of them growing up without a father, cutting no less deep than the loss of the six men he held dear. He hoped his death would be swift.
JD groaned when it felt like someone shook him, but then the shaking ended. His sigh went deep, as he scorned fate for being so cruel in his last moments.
Buck's heart clenched when he saw JD hanging there. He shook the limp, battered body, and called out to the kid. Realizing JD was not fully with it, and well secured, Buck looked around for bolt cutters, spying them on the far wall. Mumbling that he would be back, Buck hurried to get them, shocked as he saw the open packing crates, one, half full of guns and components, and dangerously vulnerable to the falling, burning debris. Grabbing one of the discarded lids, he laid it over the open case, continued on for the cutters, and returned to JD.
He tapped JD's face hard, relieved when hazel eyes squinted at him. "C'mon, kid we gotta go." A loud metallic snap heralded the cuffs broken, and Buck hauled JD upright.
Dunne felt a sharp tap to his cheek, and peered out through hooded lids at the antagonist. His breathing accelerated, as his muggy brain sorted through the images before him. Suddenly on his feet, JD stared at the man holding him up.
"Buck " he breathed hard. "BUCK!" Throwing his arms around his big brother, JD clawed at the man to get close, desperate to cling to the image, while praying it wasn't just that an image. "Buck, oh God Buck "
Overwhelmed by his own emotion, Buck's large hand cupped the back of the younger man's head, pulling him in tight. "I know, boy I know. Come on, kid we gotta go."
JD reached up to touch his face. "The others?"
"Alive, come on." Buck jerked, when Vin came up on his right shoulder. "Shit, Tanner!"
Wrapping an arm around JD's waist, Vin urged them on, confused when JD dug his heels in. "Bike "
Tanner halted Buck's frustrated cry. "It's right there. Go, I got it." In seconds, three men with a bike exited the smoky barn, much to the relief of the others outside, who were all in varying degrees, awake now.
JD saw his teammates, his brothers, as their damaged bodies littered the ground, his knees almost buckling at the relief and emotion that coursed through him. Before he could succumb to the pain, shock and exhaustion, he stared in horror at the inferno that was once his home, the sound of vehicles arriving, attracting the other men's attention as near-hysterical wives arrived on the scene, along with Willard, Walter, Mike, Raphael, Brodie and several of Brodie's men.
"How he's dead "
Vin shook JD's arm. "We'll explain later."
While tearful reunions and shouted instructions transpired around him, lucidity advanced swiftly as JD stood alone amongst the confusion, his anger building as one name rolled over and over in his mind.
Vaguely aware of Buck yelling for them all to clear out, JD spied Tanner, approached him, and after hiking up the surprised Texan's jeans, snatched the concealed gun from its ankle holster, stuffed into his waistband, and half-ran, half-limped for his bike. Fishing out his keys, JD was straddling the machine and tearing off before anyone could even comprehend what he was doing.
"No NO!" Kissing his wife, Buck snatched the truck keys from her trembling fingers, and raced after his youngest brother faster than anyone could believe possible, yelling back as he started up the truck. "Call the gate shut it down!"
The wind whipped through his hair as JD cut across the open ranchland, hoping he could head Talia off before she cleared the main gate. Seeing his truck trundling along in the distance, he hunkered down and went faster, his heart pumping like crazy at the thought he was going to get the chance to kill this bitch. She had been so confident of her success that she wasn't even hurrying.
Driving like a madman, Buck was struggling a little with his newly repaired hand to hold onto the steering wheel, but he maintained a breakneck speed as he took off across rough terrain in the hope of catching up to JD. It didn't take long to spot JD's truck, halted in the distance with two figures standing to one side and in front of it. Heart in throat, Buck pushed his own vehicle to the limit.
Able to take a more direct route with his bike, JD slewed to a halt just yards in front of the oncoming vehicle. Jumping off as he laid the bike down, he simultaneously produced the gun from his belt. Standing and aiming, with three shots he took out the front tires and shattered the windshield, forcing Talia to stop. With an outer calm that concealed his inner turmoil, he maintained a bead on her as she exited the vehicle, her own gun drawn, and pointed at him.
"Damn, JD, I think letting you live might turn out to be my biggest mistake."
Trying not to succumb to the pain attempting to re-surface, he spat back his reply. "Screwing around with my family's lives was your biggest mistake, Talia. Drop the gun."
She laughed. "Not gonna happen, JD. I guess we'll be dying together, after all."
JD shook his head. "Why?"
"Why? Because my husband's on the verge of becoming one of the most powerful men in South America, and when he is, we'll bring this pathetic country to its knees, and remind you all of just how weak you really are."
'Husband' there it was again she was married. Talia didn't miss the flinch.
"How how could any man let his wife do what you did if he loved her?"
Now Talia was flinching, but she raised her head, defiantly. "Our love goes deeper than you'll ever understand. I would die for my husband; I would die for our cause, something you'll never comprehend."
JD blinked back the threatening tears. "You're right; I'll never understand anyone using themselves like a whore to promote murder." He matched her movements as she raised her gun higher. "You you said you loved me."
"I lied!" she laughed cruelly. "You made it so easy. Just remember, John Dunne, everything I did was by invitation. Not once did I force my way into anything or anywhere. We showed you all to be the amateurs you truly are."
He swallowed. "Not so much we're all still alive, and you're about to get your head blown off your shoulders."
"You will not survive this confrontation," she promised.
JD smiled, though it was the opposite of how he was feeling. "That's a small price to pay to end this."
"If I die, ten more will take my place."
"We've got nothing to worry about then," he countered, "if they're all as incompetent as you." He enjoyed seeing her react to that, while he tried not to let Buck's arrival distract him. He flicked a glance at his big brother, who was stepping out of the vehicle. "Damnit Buck, stay in the truck!"
Before Buck could answer, Talia's gun moved to aim at him, stopping him in his tracks. He watched the evil bitch smile. "Looks like you'll be shooting me and losing your brother, JD. Can you live with that? Having gotten to know you I don't think so. Place your gun on the ground or he's dead."
Trying to control his nerves and his breathing, JD glanced at Buck to see him shake his head. "Don't do it, Kid shoot her freaking head off."
JD was in hell. *Damnit he couldn't just stand here, and watch Buck die *
"Time's up!" Talia announced.
She grinned as she watched him lowering his arm, relaxing her stance slightly. That was all the invitation JD needed. In a split second, his arm was back up, and his first shot went straight between her eyes. The look of surprise on her face didn't register when he walked forward and pumped in another two rounds before Buck's arms wrapped around him.
"Whoa, Kid it's done, she's dead JD come on boy "
"Bitch! You fucking bitch how could you do that? How? Why?" JD struggled in Buck's arms as he screamed out at her body. He went silent for a few seconds, and Buck felt the fight leave the boy.
The howl of despair from JD's lips was chilling as he and Buck went to the ground on their knees, the latter holding the smaller man tighter while he tried to calm him. Events finally overtook the Seven's youngest as he wept uncontrollably, his body shaking violently, despite Buck holding him close. They didn't even register the oncoming vehicle as they huddled together in their misery.
Exiting the truck, Nathan and Vin checked on Talia, ensuring her demise, and disarming her. Satisfied that she was no longer a threat, they focused on Buck and JD. Nathan could see that physically, JD needed attention, while also realizing that mentally, things were deteriorating fast for him. They needed to move. He looked at Tanner, who was squatting down next to them, then to Buck.
"He's going into shock, come on, let's get him to the triage area, and then on to the hospital."
Nathan and Buck helped an unresponsive JD to his feet, while Vin hurried back to his vehicle, and grabbed a blanket. On his return, he eased it around JD's shoulders, at the same time retrieving his gun. His heart ached to see the lack of reaction from JD, while Buck and Nathan talked and encouraged his shivering form into Buck's truck. Relieved to see Hawks men arriving on the scene, they left them to it, and headed back to the rest of their brothers.
Rain looked up from tending Josiah, smiling at the big man as he tried to focus on her. "He has a probable concussion and a broken right arm." She glanced between Mallory and the others, then back to Josiah. "It's a trip to the hospital, Josiah." She smiled wider at his nod.
Moving onto Ezra, Rain decided to place him in a neck collar, unhappy with the stiffness in his neck, and the headache he complained would not go away She gestured to them all as she kept Brodie in the loop. "They're all going to need x-rays."
Cait's voice cried out in alarm. "Rain RAIN! Help "
Snatching up her bag, she hurried over to Chris, Cait, and Kelli, trying not to look as worried as she felt. She watched Chris clutching his chest, struggling to breathe, and writhing in agony, his face a mask of pain.
"Chest aah hurts like hell shit feels like a freaking elephant's sitting on it aaaahh! Oh God!"
Holding his wrist, Rain checked her watch against his pulse, nodding her thanks when Brodie handed her the stethoscope dangling around her neck. Cait was crying openly, memories of her father's first attack flooded into her mind. Rain's next words didn't help as she ripped open his shirt, and listened to his chest, her personal feelings buried beneath a professional demeanor, but fast threatening to surface.
"Until we know differently, I'm going to have to treat him for a possible heart attack." She explained, looking at Brodie. "He needs to go, now!"
Hawks immediately gave instructions to Raphael to land.
Kelli hovered over Cait; her tears fell as her own fear for her father was compounded by not knowing where Vin was, and Cait's anguished sobs. She watched Rain take a small canister from her bag and sprayed under Chris's tongue.
"Try and relax, Chris, this will help." She stood and backed off when the incoming chopper landed, and Mike and Raphael ran over with a fold-up gurney. In less than a minute, Rain was in the helicopter and setting Chris up with an oxygen mask and an IV, also hooking him up to an EKG machine. Mallory helped Josiah in; Barbara assisted Ezra, while Cait and Kelli followed. After Rain's final message to Brodie for Nathan, the chopper took off for Denver Memorial.
From a motel room in Denver a howl of despair ripped through the air. His beloved Talia was...gone.
Brodie spoke quietly with a dazed Father Rafferty, filling him in after his arrival, while he waited for his son, and the others to return. Vin pulled his truck in first, quickly followed by Buck's. Hawks and Rafferty met them. Tanner jumped out, and started to hurry over to help Buck and Nathan with JD, but Brodie stopped him, while the priest went over to aid them instead.
"Vin the chopper took Josiah, Ezra, and Chris on to the hospital." He grasped his son's arm, and moved closer to him. There was no delicate way to tell him about Chris, so he told him straight. "Rain thinks Larabee might be having a heart attack. Kelli and Cait are with him, and when you're ready, I'll drive you there."
Closing his eyes, Vin mentally reached out to his brother, *Chris.* Receiving no response, he was aware of Brodie's strong arm supporting him. When his knees threatened to buckle, he held on to his father's strength. Swallowing hard, he took a moment, and then his training kicked in, replacing the emotions he knew would impede what he had to do. Buck's distant wail of denial pushed him into command mode. Nodding his head, he said, "I'm all right."
Brodie knew the moment Vin gained control, and moved into professional mode. "Walter has four men from his security team with the children at Reins, and I have two men at your house with Max and the twins. The fire department is here, and my men will oversee the clean up for you. Pete and Robert will follow us to the hospital."
Turning to his brothers, Tanner began issuing orders. "Nathan, prepare JD to move, and you take him and Father Rafferty in your truck. Buck, you and Inez follow him, and Pete will take the rear. Brodie and I will take point with my truck .lights and sirens all the way."
Buck started to argue, his head shaking. "No Vin, Inez, and I should stay with JD "
Vin shook his head. "We'll need transportation for everyone to get home " he fixed his gaze on Buck. "Everyone will be coming home, Agent Wilmington. We need to stay focused. Someone tried to kill us today, and until we find the bastard, we need to think, before we rush off, and make ourselves an easy target."
"Right, Captain." Vin's words had the desired effect. Buck reined in his pain and emotions and the agent in him began to react. "Nathan, what do you need us to do?"
"Just give me a hand, would you?" Nathan hissed softly as he examined JD's wrists, talking quietly the whole time he worked. "I'm gonna make you more comfortable, okay?" He sighed, inwardly at the single slow blink he got in response. After removing JD's shirt and tee, he carefully cut off the friendship bracelet that had embedded itself into the lacerations and tossed it, with his bloody shirt, under the rear seat. He wrapped bandages around JD's wrists, and swabbed the abrasions on his face. "Let's get him in my backseat, and Father, you sit with him." Rafferty nodded.
Buck handed his keys to Inez. "Baby, start the truck, and I'll join you in a minute." He knelt down to assist Nathan, and then helped to get JD into the vehicle. "I'm right here, okay?" he assured the younger man. "I'll meet you at the hospital." After shutting the door, he nodded to Vin. "Ready when you are."
Tossing his truck keys to Brodie, Vin told him. "You drive, and tell me everythin' you know about Talia and her connections." He climbed into the passenger seat, and pulled out his cell. By the time the four- vehicle -convoy was halfway to Denver Memorial, Travis had the rest of the MCAT team called into action.
Denver Memorial Hospital
Raphael and Mike stood close by, standing watch, while Cait and Kelli sat in the waiting room, with Barbara and Mallory. They anxiously watched for any sign of a doctor or nurse, or the rest of the Wild Bunch coming through the doors. Rain did come out long enough to tell them that Doctor Gilford had taken over Larabee's care, Josiah would be treated and released, and probably Ezra, too. She promised to come back as soon as she had more information.
Kelli jumped up when she saw Vin and the others come through the double doors. Rain guided Nathan and JD into a curtained area to get Dunne's examinations underway, allowing Father Rafferty entrance, but halting Buck with a promise that he could see him as soon as possible.
Vin went straight over to his wife, giving her the hug he needed as much as she did, "Any word on Chris, Josiah, or Ezra?"
"No word on Dad, Josiah's arm is broken, and Ezra should be out soon I God Vin, what if "
Shaking his head, Vin said. "Chris will be fine .you'll see." Without turning loose of Kelli, he looked over at Cait. "How are you holdin' up?
Cait squeezed Barbara's arm. "I've been better, but for the moment I'm okay." She smiled when Inez sat down next to her. "I just wish we knew."
Buck looked longingly at the closed treatment room door, and said, "The one thing I've learned about doctors and hospitals is they keep their own time-table, and it usually is set on slow."
Rain came out and motioned for Mallory to join her. "You can go in with Josiah now. He's headed down to get his arm casted. I thought you might want to go with him." She walked with her to Josiah's room, and left them to wait on the orderly.
Ezra maneuvered his neck and shoulders, relieved to be out of the brace. He smiled at Barbara when he walked out and saw her waiting. "Are you alright, darling?"
"Me?" She asked, "What about you?"
"Nothing a few painkillers and a good night's sleep won't cure, at least physically."
Barbara hugged him. "Oh God when we heard the blast "
"I know, I'm sorry you were scared, but we survived intact, at least so far. Though I fear the repercussions from this will be far reaching." Their arms wrapped around one another's waist, they settled in with the others to wait for news.
Thirty minutes later, Nathan joined them. "Doc insisted that I get checked out, and determined that I only have a few nasty bruises." He looked at Vin and Buck. "He said either you two get your butts in there for the same, or he'll throw you both out of the hospital, and you'll have to get your news by telegraph."
Neither Vin nor Buck wanted to leave, and started to protest.
Kelli put her hand on Vin's, and told him. "Go on, it'll make me feel better. I don't need to worry about you and Dad both."
Inez did the same with Buck. "If there is any news, you'll hear it as fast as we do."
"We'll keep an eye on things out here." Brodie glanced at Vin. "Pete and Roberts are outside, and you have Raphael and Mike in here."
Tanner sighed. "All right, I'm goin'." He turned to Buck. "Are you comin'?" The two men reluctantly went back with Nathan for their exams.
Since his x-rays showed nothing more than bruising and lacerations, Landers dismissed Buck with pain meds. Chris was still off-limits, so with Inez offering comfort to Kelli and Cait, he sought out JD and Rafferty. He found them, and snuck inside.
Albert looked up from the bed as Buck came in, smiling at the brunette. "How are you?"
Buck nodded, and answered, "I'm good."
"Nothing, yet." Buck looked at JD's slumbering form. "How's he doing?"
"He's been very quiet, hasn't spoken much more than a yes and no, I'm afraid. His x-rays show extensive bruising, but nothing broken, and they've glued the cut on his head. Quite frankly, Buck, I'm more concerned for his spiritual well being than his physical."
Buck found that hard to agree with as he eyed the marks on JD's torso, some full-blown footprints. He closed his eyes and swallowed hard. *Little Miss Fucking Sunshine got exactly what she deserved.*
"They've given him something for the pain said he'd be pretty drowsy for a while."
Buck nodded. "No problem, he's with me tonight, anyhow."
"He's hurting, Buck." Rafferty put his hand over his heart. "In here."
Buck nodded again, and whispered, "I know."
Vin was relieved to get a few pain meds and a reasonable x-ray diagnosis. Bruising and cuts he could live with Chris that was a whole other matter. Soon, all but JD and Rafferty were waiting on news, while Buck kept ducking between the waiting room and JD's cubicle to check on the kid.
Nathan stood and began pacing. "I don't understand how we all missed this. If Talia was behind it all, then does that mean it's all over?"
Brodie exchanged a glance with Vin. "She was only a piece of it all. The man behind it is still out there."
"I think we should wait to explain what we know about Talia until we can all go over it." Vin looked to Buck, Josiah, and Ezra for unspoken agreement. When they nodded, he continued, "I called Travis, and he's putting Bravo team out there to help us find this bastard. Once JD, and " he swallowed to clear his throat, " and Chris, are back with us, we'll go from there."
Cait glanced at her watch. "It's been hours, you'd think someone could tell us something."
Surprising most of them, Orrin Travis entered the waiting room. He looked at Vin, and asked, "Any word on Chris?"
Tanner shook his head. "Not yet, you might as well come on in and join us."
Clearing his throat, he answered. "I thought you might want an update. Would you rather hear it here, or step outside with me?"
"We're all in this one together Orrin. Whatever you have to say I think we should all hear it."
Travis nodded. "Very well, we took the information you gave me, and came up with a few possible locations. So far, we haven't seen Montoya or any of his men, but Bravo team is keeping them under surveillance. Homeland Security is monitoring the airports, both public and private, and car rentals. If any of your suspects try to leave Denver by air, they won't get very far. The data you gave me was very thorough." He looked at Hawks. "I can only assume where it came from, but when this is over I would like to speak to your source."
Vin smiled. "I might be able to arrange that, but not anytime soon. When this is over I'm puttin' in for some long overdue vacation time."
"Me, too," Buck agreed, "as long as I don't have to travel. I've had enough of that for a while." He gripped Inez's hand. "I'm thinking I need a few weeks at home to catch up with my family."
"Speaking strictly for myself, I believe it might take a few weeks to get rid of these blasted headaches." Ezra added. "As young Mister Dunne's personal attorney, I'll also have to request personal leave for him. It will take time to file all the proper insurance forms, and make suitable living arrangements for him, and his children."
Josiah lifted his arm, showing the cast. "Doc says at least a month, maybe longer."
Nathan shrugged. "Someone has to keep an eye on these yahoos, and make certain they're physically, a hundred percent, before they even consider going back to work."
Travis sighed. "Your points are all taken. I have already anticipated that I won't have Alpha Team around for at least another eight weeks. Is that long enough?"
Vin saw Doctor James approaching them and stood. "We'll have to get back to you on that, Orrin."
The doctor motioned for them all to remain seated. "Vin, I'm aware that you hold the medical POA for Chris. Doctor Gilford wanted me to tell you that he is finishing some tests, and will be out soon to speak to you. At this time, Chris is resting comfortably, and in no immediate danger. As for details, you'll have to be patient a while longer. Doctor Gilford and Mister Larabee are not in agreement at the moment about his course of treatment."
Cait let out a relieved sigh. "If he's arguing with the doctor, then I know he's all right."
Doctor James smiled and nodded. "They're both very strong-minded men. Right now I would not take bets on which one will give in first."
"Thanks, doc." Buck nodded. Knowing that Chris was being his good old stubborn Larabee self, was good news.
They all gasped when a pale, drawn Larabee exited the exam room twenty minutes later with Doctor Gilford. Cait and Kelli flew to his side, the three embracing, while Brodie stood supportively behind his son. Chris and Vin's eyes met in a moment of understanding.
Gilford did the talking. "While I would prefer to keep him in overnight, I think, under the circumstances, Chris would rest better at home. All the tests have come back negative for any type of heart problem. My conclusion, and Chris seems to concur, is that he experienced what we call a stress attack. After hearing an abbreviated version of what has transpired over the past few weeks, I'm surprised that it did not occur sooner. Of course being thrown several feet across a hard ground and bruising some ribs did not help matters." He smiled at Chris. "Lord knows how, but your heart is as strong as any twenty- year old I know, but you must rest for a while, or this is not going to be the last attack you have."
"Just give me something to get me over the hump," Chris told him. "Once this is over, I'll rest up all you want."
Realizing this was as good as he was going to get, Gilford nodded. "Collect your script from Madeline, and thank you for continuing your generous donations toward my son's college funds, though, I'll take a rain check from now on, if that's alright with you." He shook hands with Larabee, and moved on to his next patient.
Vin stepped forward and he and Chris clasped forearms. "Welcome back, pard."
"Good to be back." Chris grinned, all the while keeping his other arm around Cait's waist. The others surged forward to add their relieved congratulations. Finally, Chris looked at them all. "Where's JD?"
"He's resting in one of the treatment rooms, I'll go get him." Buck smiled, and started to walk off, but Chris stopped him
"How's he doing?" Buck's look was all Chris needed.
"Damn." He took in a breath. "We're finishing this, and reclaiming our lives." He nodded to Travis, and said, "Whatever it takes to get these bastards we'll do it."
Travis agreed. "You'll have all of MCAT's resources at your disposal." He patted Chris on the shoulder. "It's good to see you on your feet. Once this is over, and after your long honeymoon, we'll talk about Alpha Team. In the meantime, since all of the damage you incurred at L7 relates to your Shadow Ops, send the repair and replacement bills, to me. I'll see that they are paid." Orrin turned to Vin. "Justin has orders to keep you updated; I'll let you fill Chris in on where we stand." He said his good-byes and left.
Chris hugged Cait tighter, looked at the clock, and then told them all, "It's getting close to six. As soon as JD is with us, we need to go home, and we'll regroup in the morning at Vin's at 0900 hours."
Peeking into JD's cubicle, Buck smiled at Father Rafferty. "Everyone's had the all-clear to go home. Is he awake?" He nudged his head toward JD as he strode to the side of the bed.
"No, but I'm sure, between us, we can get him to the car. Doctor Landers was happy for him to leave as long as he's not alone." The priest smiled as he watched the large, gregarious man kneel next to the younger man's bed, and talk softly to him. Rafferty prayed, inwardly. *Lord, you did a wondrous thing, allowing these two souls to find each other.*
"JD?" Buck gently nudged his youngest brother's shoulder. "Come on, kid time to go " he caught himself just in time. "It's time for us to get the hell outta here." He smiled broadly as unfocused hazel eyes peeked at him. "Hey."
" home gone "
Buck gently placed a hand on JD's head. "I know," he said, softly, "but I got a bed with your name on it all I need is to get your butt into it."
"'Kay " Rafferty now with him, the pair eased JD upright, waiting patiently for his drooping head to force itself up from his chest. Slowly, they got his legs over the edge of the bed, and Buck slipped JD's sneakers on the bare feet, chuckling to himself as the young man fell forward against his chest and snored, softly. Getting him to stand was a few minutes of trial and error and lots of encouragement, but with JD heavily supported by Buck, the three made their way out to the others.
Raphael and Mike left, taking the MCAT chopper back to Camp Larabee. While the family waited for JD, Nathan and Rain decided they would drop Ezra and Barbara back at L7 to get their car, before taking Josiah and Mallory to Reins to pick up their children. Once they left the Sanchez's at home, the Jackson's would head for theirs. Inez and Buck would take Father Rafferty back to his van, and then JD on to their home, where Isabella had the Dunne and Wilmington children. Vin, Kelli, Chris, Cait, and Brodie would use Vin's truck. Pete and Roberts would follow them all as back up.
The priest and Buck walked out with JD leaning heavily against his brother. "He's still a little groggy."
Inez went to his other side, and clasped JD's hand. "That is no problem; he'll be with us for as long as he needs to." She looked at the Priest. "We'll take you to your van, and we thank you for staying with our JD."
Rafferty nodded, as he opened the door for the family. "This is where God intended for me to be today."
In the parking lot, Nathan helped Buck and Rafferty get JD into Wilmington's truck. He reached over into his vehicle, and scooped up some things from the floor of the backseat, stuffed them in a bag, and handed them to Buck.
"Maybe Inez could wash JD's clothes? It's all he has right now."
That simple statement cut through Buck like a knife. "God, Nathan what a mess."
The black man squeezed his brother's arm. "We'll get him through this. We'll get everyone through this, we have to it's all we have. We'll reflect on all that's happened when it's over but for now "
Buck nodded. "See you in the morning."
Chris reminded them before getting into Tanner's truck, "Stay together, and keep your cells on. I doubt we'll have any problems tonight, but I don't want to bet on it."
The return trip for the four-vehicle convoy was slower and quieter without the lights and sirens. All were relieved when they reached the gates of L7 without incident, and each went on to their destinations to collect their respective vehicles.
Cait settled Chris into a comfortable chair, and then called Willard, asking him to bring Grace, Cody, and Jesse home. Returning to Chris's side, she cuddled next to him. "You scared the hell out of me today. Don't do that again."
He leaned in and kissed her forehead. "I'll do my best not to. In fact, I'm already thinking of a few ways to lower the stress in my life. Once we finish this Montoya business, we'll talk about it."
"Then I pray it's over soon. I want us to have at least time to recover a bit, before my parents arrive from England for our wedding." She turned her head to look at him. "If you think them coming is more stress I can "
"Honey, I'm looking forward to meeting your parents, and I promise this will be over long before they arrive." Chris patted her rump. "You think you can rustle us up something to eat? Willard probably already fed the kids, but I'm starving here."
Cait grinned. "Your wish is my command." She stood and winked at him. "For tonight only, don't get used to it, Cowboy."
Mallory put the kids to bed early, and ordered Josiah to rest in bed. "I don't even want to talk about what happened today. Let's leave that for tomorrow, okay?" She crawled into bed, and snuggled next to her husband. "For tonight, I'm just thankful you're here."
Josiah put his good arm around her, and sighed. "Our guardian spirits must be working overtime to keep up with all of us. I have a feeling once this evil is banished, they might all take a long vacation with the rest of us."
"Ezra, quit fussing over me, the baby and I are fine." Barbara shook her head. "You're the one that needs tending to tonight."
"Aside from a small headache, I am fine," he grimaced when he sat down. "Well, maybe I am a tad sore, but "
Barbara sighed, and said, "But nothing. You sit, while I fix us some soup, and then I'm putting you to bed."
He grabbed her hand before she departed the room. "In case I haven't told you today, I love you."
She grinned. "I love you, too. Now behave, and let me take care of you. Your turn is coming soon enough. In a few weeks, you'll probably have to do everything, while I waddle around waiting for our child to be born."
Ezra watched her walk out, and smiled, he was looking forward to spoiling not only his wife, but their baby, too. He sent up a silent prayer of thanks that he was still here to do that.
Nathan closed the door to Terrell's room, and met Rain in the hallway. "He's finally asleep." He hugged his wife and his hand lingered on her waist as they walked to the bedroom. "You were great today. I'm proud of how you kept yourself together with Chris."
"I just had to put me aside, and think professionally. Although for a second or two, I almost lost it. I was certain he was having a heart attack, and that scared me." She began to undress for bed. "Truthfully, I am surprised that he hasn't had a stress attack before this." Her eyes met his. "This is going to end, right?"
He nodded, and pulled her close. "Yes, and I hope very soon."
Rain laid her head on his strong shoulder. "Yesterday would have been soon enough for me."
Nathan rubbed her back, and thought about the damage Montoya's evil vendetta had wrought in his brothers' lives. *It's past time to end this madness*
Max had supper warming in the oven for them, and the children bathed and ready for bed. Kelli and Vin stayed with the kids' until they were all asleep, and then joined Brodie in the kitchen.
Kelli yawned. "I don't know about y'all, but I'm beat."
"You head toward bed, baby." Vin leaned over and kissed her. "I want a word with Brodie, and then I'll join you." He waited until he heard their bedroom door close, before he said what was on his mind. "If you get a lead on Montoya, wake me. I don't care what time it is."
"Not a problem, Vin." Brodie started clearing dishes from the table. "I'll take care of these. Get some rest, son. You're going to need it. There will be plenty of questions when everyone meets tomorrow. You and Chris need a clear head."
Vin stood, and had to admit, at least to himself that he felt every ache and pain from the day. "Thanks, I think I will turn in, but I have one more favor to ask." He explained to Brodie what he needed, received his agreement, and then said goodnight.
Brodie grinned, while watching his son leave the room. * Guess dads' are good for something.*
Rafferty safely reached his van, and one of Brodie's men escorted him off the property. Buck smiled as he glanced in his rear view mirror to see Inez, JD's head resting in her lap, carding her fingers through his hair, her gaze never moving from his sleeping form.
"Oh, Buck "
"I know, darlin', we'll talk later, okay?" He watched her nod, the pair realizing JD could probably hear them, and didn't really need any kind of replays or analysis, tonight. Pulling in front of their home, his stomach flipped to see JD's bike and truck parked there, the truck's windshield shattered. He shook his head; no point in going over it it was behind them, now. They had to move forward. Parked, he ran around and held onto JD while Inez jumped out. The younger man roused enough to put one foot in front of the other and walk indoors, held up between the pair.
Returning inside, Buck nodded to Brodie's man on duty and locked up. Promising Inez he'd be right there when she offered to make coffee, Buck helped JD into bed, the younger man asleep even before his head hit the pillow. The big man sighed at the sleeping form lying on his side. "Don't give up, kid it'll take time, but we can put this behind us you'll see." After touching his hand to JD's head, Buck left the room for his own bed, and a good hot mug of coffee. In the darkness, he did not see the wide, shimmering, hazel eyes staring at the wall.
Montoya tried to sort out his plans. Feelings of rage and revenge masked the anguish he felt over the demise of his beloved Talia. He could not allow his grief to deter him from achieving his final goal, but it might have to be postponed. He sent a text to Kinsley. 'Failure - operative dead -Seven still alive'
Larabee 7, Thursday, 5:00 am
Vin quietly got out of bed, dressed, and made his preparations for the morning. Now, he stood beside their bed watching the soft curves of Kelli's body as she slept, feeling a wave of emotion surge inside him. True, he had six brothers that he loved and needed in his life, four children he loved more than words could explain, and now he had a father he wanted to know better, but she completed him in a way they could not. She was his destined mate, and owned his heart. Despite the fact that he freely admitted that she stirred the sexual hunger in his body, and more than satisfied his physical needs, his soul reaped the greatest fulfillment of her presence in his life. It was still difficult for him to accept that he had ever doubted her, and regardless of the reason, it was something that would take a long time for him to forgive, even though she already had.
Sitting down on the side of the bed, he reached out, and tenderly trailed his fingers across her face, reluctant to disturb her rest, but determined to carry out his plan. She stirred beneath his gentle touch and he smiled. "Kel wake up, baby."
Hearing his soft drawl, she opened her eyes, and panicked for a moment, when she looked at the clock. "What's wrong?"
Brushing her hair away from her face, he whispered, "nothin'." He shifted his position to allow her to sit up. "Time to get up .don't ask why just trust me." Although she had told him more than once that she did still trust him, Vin was relieved when she complied with his request without question. He helped her dress, adjusted the sling on her arm, and then took her hand. Leading her through the house, he picked up the saddlebags he had packed before he woke her, and continued out the door to head toward the barn.
Kelli smiled and shook her head when she saw Peso already saddled, and waiting for them. Whatever Vin was up to, she was enjoying the adventure. The Texan lifted her onto the horse, and then mounted to sit behind her. She leaned back when he wrapped one arm around her waist, using the other for the reins. One of these days, she was going to find out just how far they could go on horseback, before Peso balked, but today she was content to take pleasure in the feel and scent of the man she loved. Taking the long way around, they rode to the meadow where they were married, dismounted, and Vin reached up to help her down.
Standing there with her in his arms, he smiled. "I had bigger plans for our anniversary, but it seemed more fitting for you and me to be here, where we began the incredible journey of our married life. I wanted you beside me as we watched the sunrise together to hold you, and reaffirm the words we spoke one thousand, three hundred and seventy sunrises ago."
Her emotions rose, and her voice waivered, as she reached up to touch his face. "I can't think of anywhere I would rather be."
"I love you Kelli Larabee - Coulter -Tanner, always have, and always will." He brushed his lips across hers for a delicate kiss. "I want to share at least another nineteen or twenty thousand more sunrises with you. If we get too old to come down here, then we'll sit in our rockin' chairs on the porch and watch from there."
Kelli grinned, and could not resist teasing him, "Only nineteen or twenty thousand sunrises? That's barely over fifty years. I was plannin' on a lot more than that."
"Many, many more, Baby. You've already given me your book of memories, and I didn't forget your anniversary poem." Leaning closer to her, his breath fanned her cheeks as he whispered in her ear,
"I watch you as you lay there, your body opens to me,
Your eyes afire, calling me home, your soft, sweet warmth surrounds me.
Two bodies take a journey, our vessels intertwining,
To ride the storms and weather fair, to kiss your lips and smell your hair
And cry to God as fires ignite, while praying we can keep this night.
And then I hold you closely, your thunderous heartbeat slowing.
To see such love shine from your eyes, the bluest blue, to match the skies.
As all of me is one with you in what we share and all we do.
And know this voyage is but one of plans we have, 'til journey done.
Your whispers softly to me, stir up my fervent longing.
Reminding me that of this night, I want you all, I want this right.
And show you how each sunrise, is like when we're together.
A spectacle of warmth and hue, a fiery star that glows like you.
Another high crescendo, just as the dawn emerges.
The orange tinge that heralds morn, our souls entwined, our love reborn.
This date is marked as ours, its memory empowering.
A celebration of our love, of bands exchanged and vows betrothed.
Our passions chase the sunrise, to race it to its glory,
Rejoicing in an ancient rite that greets the day and sheds the night.
A swirl of stars and colors fly and we embrace and softly sigh.
This wondrous day begins together, our love unbroken, safe forever."
Visually moved by his words, Kelli did not even try to stop the tears that shimmered in her eyes. Vin always spoke from his heart with his beautiful poems, and she heard loud and clear, the love in each word. They had trekked through a dark period of the journey of their lives, and come out stronger than before.
Vin recognized the emotions that crossed her face, and knew they had truly come full circle. Safely sheltered by faith, trust, and love, their future offered new blank pages to add more memories. Placing his hand on the back of her head, he tenderly possessed her mouth for a long, passionate kiss, as the first rays of a new sun streaked across the sky.
James Wyatt Tanner sat on the deck railing of his son's home, watching the young couple that stood in the meadow below. He raised his coffee cup to toast them. *Happy Anniversary.* He heard the first stirrings inside the house that indicated the morning Tanner chaos was imminent, and grinned. Vin had planned a private picnic breakfast for him and Kel, and asked for his father's assistance with the children this morning. For a brief time, he would push aside Brodie Hawks, and the troubles they all would face in the coming days, to play grandfather. It was something he was looking forward to experiencing.
Chris took pleasure in simply being able to stand on his deck, and watch the sunrise over the mountains. For a few agonizing minutes yesterday, he was scared that he would not be around to enjoy anything. In spite of the fact that he had faced death more than once in his career, and would no doubt have a few more narrow escapes in the future, he did realize that he was not immortal. When he heard Rain say possible heart attack though, he knew he was not ready to say goodbye to his children, or his brothers, and wanted his future with Cait. If he had to reduce stress in his life, he also knew the first thing that would go.
*You look better today than you did yesterday.*
Turning around, Larabee was not surprised to see Cowboy standing there. "I feel a helluva lot better, too. I hope you're not here to change that."
*Nope, just wanted you to know we're still around, and tell you to trust fate a little more. As things stand now, I expect you to lead your seven for many years to come. Don't cut that short stop thinking you have to take on everything, and let your destiny come to you. You have six brothers, who love you. They're intelligent and strong. Allow them to share the stress that comes with the responsibility of being one of seven That's how it's supposed to be, and they can take it.*
Larabee nodded. "I get the message. You might aggravate the hell out of me, but I do listen to what you say." He laughed. "Don't always agree with you, but I do listen."
*Take care, son. You still have a few surprises coming in your future. I'd like to see you get them.*
"Does this mean you're leaving?"
*Not yet, although you'll soon understand that our existence is eternally intertwined with all of yours. In the meantime, we'll be close by when you need us.*
Cowboy disappeared, but when he did, Chris felt even stronger than he had before the spirit showed up. Maybe having a pesky spirit hovering in his life was not such a bad thing, after all.
Vin and Kelli returned early. There was a lot to do today, and the remainder of their anniversary celebration would have to wait until after the team dealt with Montoya. They brushed Peso, and turned him loose in the corral, then the Tanners' walked back to their home, hand in hand.
Brodie greeted them as they walked in the door. "Welcome back, and happy anniversary. Jason and Andi are safe at school, and Max has the refreshments ready for the meeting. Now she's bathing the twins."
Kelli walked over and kissed him on the cheek. "Thanks for takin' on our kids." She looked at Vin. "This was a memorable mornin'."
"Hell, I enjoyed it. Jason and Andi kept me entertained, and I can already tell the twins are going to keep you two on your toes."
Vin glanced at his father. "Then I reckon it's a good thing you plan to be around, otherwise Kel and I might never have a chance to be alone."
Brodie smiled, Vin had said it again. He wanted, and expected his father to be a part of his life, nodding he responded, "Anytime, Son, anytime."
"I'm going to gather some clothes to take over to JD and his kids. Vin, you want to help?"
"Be right there, don't lift anythin'." He waited until she was out of the room before asking, "Any news?"
"Nothing new, but I expect Montoya will make a move soon." Brodie walked over to the coffeepot, and refilled his cup. "Take care of Kel; I'll let you know if anything changes."
Walking into the room JD occupied, Buck placed the mug of coffee he carried, down on the nightstand. He took a seat on the edge of the bed, next to the young man who was fighting to stay awake. JD was still in the scrubs they gave him at the hospital, too tired to change when he got to Buck's not that he had anything to change into, anyway. His jeans were in reasonable shape, but Inez declared his shirt irreparable, and was waiting on one from Vin, for the interim.
Buck stared at his youngest brother He was pale, drawn, and bruised, but it was JD's inner hurt Buck was more concerned with, knowing only too well how easily it could drag a person into the abyss of despair and misery and failure.
"Inez made blueberry pancakes, you ?" Before he could finish, JD was shaking his bowed head, his knuckles white as he clung to the edge of the bed.
Relieved to get a response, Buck reached out and picked up the mug, handing it to JD. Nodding, the younger man sipped at the welcome brew, his eyes still fixated on the floor, his only expressions, the occasional wince of pain, and glimpses of an internal fight with his emotions.
"Kelli's dropping over a couple of shirts for you, and some clothes of Andi's and the twins for JJ and the girls."
Buck sighed. It was gonna be a long day if all JD was going to do was nod and say thanks. "We're heading for Vin's in half an hour."
"Can I stay here?" JD's voice was small and raspy.
"Best you come, huh? Better to get it over with, then we can make our plans to get Montoya."
*Damnit* "Look, get dressed and we'll head out, yeah?"
"Sure," JD sighed, ingesting more coffee. Buck gently squeezed the back of JD's neck.
Once alone, Dunne stripped and showered. Unable to wash his hair, he scrubbed at his body hard. He felt unclean, as he lathered and rinsed, lathered and rinsed God, he felt disgusting.
Back in his room, Inez had dropped off some boxers, socks and a shirt, all a little big, but it wasn't as if he had a choice. As he pulled his jeans from the bag Nathan had given Buck, something fell out and dropped to the floor. His heart clenched as he picked up the bloody leather wristband. "Oh God Talia what have you done?"
"Kid you ready?" Hearing Buck's voice, he shoved it in his jeans pocket, frowning as he felt something already in there. He pulled out the pill bottle he had shown Nathan the uh he tried to think the day before? He looked up when Buck knocked and came in.
"You ready ? What the hell's that?" In two strides, Buck was at JD's side and tugging at the bottle. He glanced at the nightstand to see JD's newest meds sitting there. He shook the bottle, trying to keep the anger from his voice. "Where did you get these?"
"I uh I"
"Were you gonna just do it, without even trying? Huh? Where here my house? Out in the woods? WHERE?"
"What are you talking about, Buck?"
"These!" He shook the bottle again. "These and the others you have. Nice and quick, huh? Sure, for you!"
JD was staring at him, now, his gaze flicking between Buck and the bottle in his hand. He suddenly went even paler than he already was. "Oh God! You you think I'm going to going to Holy shit, Buck! Why would you think that?" Anger rising, he poked the bigger man in the chest. "You're crazy, you know that? Besides if I was gonna off myself, I'd use my gun, and get it over with! Mind you, the kind of luck I'm having lately I'D PROBABLY MISS!"
The pair stared at each other for a long while, Buck's lips quivering, before turning into a grin. JD was doing likewise, the pair suddenly laughed hard out loud, not fully understanding why, simply in need of an outlet. However, it wasn't long before JD's laughter turned to weeping as he buried himself in his brother's shoulder, the big man holding him tightly.
"Let it out, kid better out than in."
Buck stuffed the pills into his own pocket, gently squeezed JD's shoulder, and said, "We'll talk more about this, later. Come on, we're gonna be late."
Watching Buck leave, JD pushed on his only remaining sneakers, and tucked in his shirt, ready to follow. He felt the other object still in his pocket and pulled out the bracelet. Disgusted, he was just about to toss it, when something caught his eye. Staring at the bead toggle, his jaw dropped, and he knew he had to show Chris.
Family Meeting, 9:00 am
Chris, Brodie, and Vin stood on the deck, as the family arrived. The women went inside to help Max and Kelli, and one by one, the men joined them on the porch. Buck and JD were the last ones to get there, and their youngest brother wasted little time hurrying up the steps.
With the object of his concern nestled in the outstretched palm of his hand, JD approached Chris. "I thought you should see this."
Vin, and Brodie both moved in closer, and failed to hide the look of disgust that passed between them when they recognized the clasp for what it was. Vin cursed, snatched it out of JD's hand, threw it to the floor, and ground it to dust with the heel of his boot.
"Just what the hell is going on?" Ezra asked, noting JD's dejected demeanor.
"I'm such a loser," JD whispered, looking up as a hand squeezed his shoulder, to see Brodie, staring at him.
"I'm considered the best, kid and she fooled me almost until the end." He looked around. "All of us got taken in by her, JD never forget that." He chose not to elaborate on how they all pieced together the fact that there was a traitor in their midst, just before the Dunne home had exploded.
Josiah, Ezra, Nathan, and Buck finally understood as they looked at the crushed item. Now they knew how Montoya was always one-step ahead of them he had been listening
Finally, they all gathered in the Tanners' living room. No one missed noticing JD's bowed head, and lack of eye contact or that he looked awful. Taking the seat furthest from everyone and nearest the window, JD settled, not really listening as he stared out toward where his home still smoldered, while Chris kicked off their discussion.
"I understand that you all have questions, and you have certainly earned the right to know. I'm not sure we can give you answers for all of them, but we'll tell you what we know. Everything that has happened over the past month, in some way relates to the covert missions our team performed last year. Apparently we pi...," He looked at the women and smiled, " we upset some very powerful men in the Drug Cartels. They pooled their resources, and hired a mercenary named Jake Wilder to organize a plan to eliminate Alpha Team. When Buck and Vin were taken, it was an attempt to lure the rest of us to South America where they hoped to trap and kill us."
Vin took over the explanation. "When that failed, Carlos Chavez, a man we've crossed paths with in the past, came forward and offered them a new deal. He would take us out, and support the Cartels, but he expected a piece of their action, when he succeeded. We all know he failed, and now he's dead .however, the man he used to attack us here in Denver is still alive, and he's the one behind everthin' that's happened here on the ranch. His name is Ray Montoya."
Brodie began, "Montoya is a small time revolutionary, who saw an opportunity. At first, he only wanted to impress Chavez, but when he died, it became obvious that Ray wanted it all. Taking out the legendary Team Seven would make a name for him, and gain him enough power to bring his causes to the forefront. He activated someone he trusted, who was part of a sleeper cell ."
Barbara interrupted him. "Sleeper cell isn't that only for Al -Qaida?"
"Not necessarily." Brodie was quick to answer. "The IRA used them, so have a number of terrorist groups around the world. Sleeper, covert operative undercover are all the same, with one big exception. Whereas an agent or an undercover operative is always taking one assignment after another, someone in a sleeper cell may go for years before being activated, or in some cases never. They're trained to blend in with their peers, to look, act, and think, just like the people we see every day. If they are really good, no one and I mean no one would ever suspect them as being anyone other than who they posed to be." He was glad to see that he finally had JD's attention. At least he was listening, instead of staring out the window.
Cait glanced at her sisters, and asked what they were all thinking. "Are you saying Talia was a sleeper, and she was responsible for everything?"
Chris shook his head. "She only followed orders. Montoya called the plays. We believe now that all along it was their goal to take out our team. He used her just as he would any tool at his disposal. Yes...she was a sleeper, and yes, she followed a cause. Talia was able to fool all of us because she was trained well and thoroughly. She knew as much about explosives as any expert we have on our team, and would be a formidable match for any one of us."
JD finally asked the question he needed to have answered. "Who the hell was she?"
Brodie picked up her dossier. "Her real name was: Gabriella Theresa Olvera, age 33, born in Presidio County, Texas, one of seven children. She attended college in Brownsville, Texas, where she obtained a Bachelor of Science degree. A qualified registered nurse, she was heavily influenced by her eldest brother, Alberto and Hispanic acquaintances at the University, which led her to the man she married, Raimundo Luis Montoya." He paused and acknowledged the shocked reactions to the news that she and Montoya were husband and wife.
"Three years later, while vacationing in Quintana, Texas, she drowned. They never recovered her body, and until this day, her family believes that she is dead. A year later, twenty-four-year-old Talia Felicia Romero emerged, and took her first nursing position at University Hospital, near Tyler, Texas. She worked there for four years, transferring to, on recommendation for her expertise in trauma, TIRR Memorial Hermann Rehabilitation Center for Traumatic Brain and Spinal Cord injury, after three years she transferred from there, on request, to Wilford Hall Medical Center, at Lackland Air Force Base, as one of 15 civilian RNs."
"I'm the one who profiles people, I should have seen it, but I didn't." Josiah glanced at Chris. "What does that say about me?"
"It says you're human, Josiah. You didn't see it because that's how these sleepers operate. There was not supposed to be anything for you to suspect." Chris answered, knowing Josiah felt about the same as they all did.
Inez shook her head. "Her own family she lied to them, too?"
Vin nodded. "The year she was off the radar, before gainin' her new identity, she trained and evidently became one of the best that Montoya had in his crew, though I'm thinkin' that's partly down to his personal connection to her." He looked at JD. "Her being at the same hospital we were in was strictly coincidental, but it was too good of an opportunity for Montoya to miss. He activated her, and she did her job."
"Well enough to fool us all." Chris added. "Now, thanks to JD, we know how she passed information to Montoya."
Brodie held up her cell phone. "With the help of the miracle of modern technology, we also know how he passed the orders to her by text. Evidently, the cut brake line on Mallory's car, the fire at the barn, the attack on Cait, and Barbara's illness, were meant to throw us off, and possibly endear her to us. The shipment of her things from Texas was only a ruse to get the explosives, and transmitter on the ranch, and I fell for it, too. The attack on us that day was to convince us she was a target, too."
He then looked at Vin, and reluctantly told him what else he had found. "The explosives on the Navigator were meant for you not Kelli and Andi. The bomb at Camp Larabee and on the playground was an attempt to get all seven of you, and when that failed she rigged the house, knowing y'all had a session there."
"But..." JD was shocked and confused. "The playground...she would have died too!"
Brodie nodded. "These people are prepared to make any sacrifice for their cause, kid."
Ezra squeezed Barbara's hand. "She could have killed our baby, or any of the children at any time what stopped her?"
Chris sighed, "The same thing that stopped her from killing JD when she had the chance. She might have believed in their cause, but she still was not experienced enough to separate her emotions from her work. If she had been a seasoned operative " he shrugged, "who knows how this would have turned out."
They all sat in stunned silence for a few moments, absorbing that information, and thinking about what Talia could have done. It was a chilling thought to realize that they had all been deceived and vulnerable.
Buck reached over, grasped JD's arm, and whispered. "It wasn't just you, Kid. No one in this room saw her for more than a sweet nurse from Texas."
JD sighed, and nodded. "I hear you, Buck, but it might take a while for it to sink in, and for me to really believe this all happened."
"Take all the time you need, I'm not going anywhere." Buck was relieved to see the start of acceptance on JD's face.
Nathan asked. "So where do we stand with Montoya? Do we know where he is?"
"Not yet, but we're on it," Chris assured him. "Until we apprehend Montoya, we still need to take precautions here on the ranch. He can't fly out and we have enough men looking for him to make certain he doesn't escape he's ours he just doesn't know it yet."
The meeting broke up, with everyone still discussing with one another how they felt about Talia. Buck nudged JD, and said. "Take a ride with me we should talk"
After the Meeting
Chris and Vin walked out on the deck, watching the last of the family leave. They understood that no one would relax until Montoya was either arrested, or dead, but they did all feel better knowing that they had discovered how the bastard obtained information from the ranch. Montoya no longer knew what they were doing, but they did not know what he was planning either.
Vin observed Chris's movements. "You look better today, but have somethin' on your mind." He held up his hand. "My thought readin' is comin' back, and I'm tryin' to control it, but with you and Kel you're both open books. You want to share?"
Larabee shook his head. "I figured if anyone noticed it would be you." He sat down on one of the deck chairs. "I've decided to make a few changes in my life. One concerns MCAT. Taking the promotion to Assistant Director was a mistake, and as soon as we get back to work, I'm resigning from that position. I don't need the added stress, and would rather be in the field. That's where I belong."
Tanner sat on the railing. "As long as you don't expect me to replace you, I don't see a problem." He grinned. "I never saw you as a pencil pusher anyway."
"Yeah well at the time I thought it would appease Linda, and keep me in part of the action. I should have said no, but ."
"You were tryin' to compromise to make your marriage work, nothin' wrong in that. It's too bad you were the only one willin' to find the middle ground."
Chris shrugged. "Linda and I weren't meant to be together, I know that now. Besides, if I hadn't done what I did, I wouldn't have Grace and Cody, or a future with Cait. Fate played a strange hand, and it worked out to my advantage. I can't complain." He raised his head to meet Vin's eyes. "I take it you and Kel have things back on track."
"We're good. I regret what I did, and probably always will, but she understands, and Wilder didn't win. I reckon that's all that matters." Vin turned to stare toward the mountains. "I found the peace I was lookin' for, and all that shit is just a bad memory now." He looked back at Chris. "I'm ready to move on with my life, and thank God I didn't do irreparable damage to our marriage in the process."
"Is Brodie going to be a part of that moving on?"
Vin nodded. "Yeah I think he is. We still have a few things to discuss, but yeah." He smiled, thinking about the changes to come. "It's ironic Kel and I both missed havin' parents as we grew up. Now she has you and Cait. I found out I have a livin' father, and Max and Walter claim us too. Reckon Fate's been workin overtime."
Chris recalled Cowboy's words about a few more surprises, and frowned. "I hope she plans for us to find Montoya, and be able to relax for a while. I've had about all the excitement I can handle for now."
"You and me both. Maybe for your bachelor party, the men folk should retreat to a cabin in the hills, and just bullshit and fish for a weekend."
"Sounds like a plan to me but we have unfinished business first. I want Montoya either behind bars for the rest of his life, or dead. Right now, I don't care which way it happens, as long as it's soon.
Cowboy glanced at Tracker. "Congratulations, it appears you pulled it off, and without bending too many rules. That broken fence is near mended, and you salvaged Vin's marriage."
"That fence was ready to be mended. It only took a little extra nudgin' on my part to set things into motion for the Tanner men to get together. They'll work out the rest." Tracker shook his head. "As for Vin's marriage I can't take credit for that. He and Kelli found their own trail back. Like you said, Fate put 'em together for a reason, and evidently that reason is stronger than any damage I did when I messed up."
"Worked out for you, any way you look at it." Cowboy nodded. "They're all healing well, but still not back to a hundred percent. We'll have to lend them all some strength to confront Montoya."
"I'm always up for a good fight, and it will be a pleasure to help them finish off this particular evil." Tracker glanced toward his great-great-grandson. "Vin's found his peace. I intended to make sure he enjoys it for a while a good long while."
Milagro and Bear picked their way through debris as they neared the smoldering ruins of JD's home. Their riders stared at the devastation, choosing to leave behind the babble that erupted between the families after the meeting, for the eerie silence of a ravaged place that once held years of memories. The barn had barely survived, its structure standing out in stark contrast to the surrounding scorched earth and blackened wood.
Dismounting, JD walked over to the main rubble pile, tears flowing as he scanned what remained of his home. Leaning on the saddle horn as he watched, Buck's tears stung his eyes, and his heart ached for his kid brother. *How the hell were they going to fix this?* He watched JD turn toward the barn and head that way. Buck jumped down and followed him.
The packing cases were long gone, but JD could see where they had been by the pattern of the straw on the ground. He gulped at the blood spatters he saw on the support Talia had smashed his head into, his eyes refusing to look toward the stall where she had chained him, as he believed he had lost everything. Remembering something, JD moved toward another area, kicking at the hay. Crouched there, he felt a strong hand on his shoulder. Closing his eyes, JD leaned into his brother, grateful for Buck's support.
"You found your gun."
Nodding, JD answered, "Talia threw it after she first attacked me. I can't believe it's still here." He sighed. "Its partner was in the safe in the house, though." JD usually carried one or both of his collector twin Colts when at home or on the Larabee 7.
Standing, the younger man looked up into the kind eyes of his big brother. "God, Buck it's gone everything. Photos, certificates, things the kids made, the gifts from their homecomings " he sobbed, his head bowed. " everything."
Buck was at a loss for words. He wanted to say how they were just things, and easily replaced, but JD had only noted things that were irreplaceable. There was no way to make up for years of lost memories.
"Whatever it takes, we'll put this right. I have photos of your kids, right from the moment they were born even JJ when you held him for the first time out of the incubator. I know the guys do, too. Cait will have those girls making you new paintings, and such before you know it. You'll see, it'll all come together you'll see."
"I got pictures of her, you and her, and you two with the kids, too "
"No " JD halted him. " I have to tell her about all this and Nettie. Oh God what are they gonna think of me, I've only had the house a while, Nettie had it all her life "
If JD hadn't been so earnest, Buck would have chuckled at that observation. "They'll understand and move on just like they always did. The insurance will cover the costs for the trust. I think I heard Ezra talking about looking into that as we were leaving. This is your call, JD. We'll help wherever you need us to but, please, Kid don't be afraid to ask."
Swiping at his eyes, JD stood up, and looked at him. "I'm gonna need help."
Buck smiled. "Admitting that is a good first step." Placing his arm around JD's shoulders, the pair exited the barn.
Remounting, Buck spoke as they wheeled the horses away from the charred, smoky ruins. "JD, I'm sorry I jumped to conclusions, earlier. I should know better than to accuse you of planning suicide."
Without looking at him, JD nodded. "Yeah, you should." He turned to Buck and gave him a small smile. "If I didn't know you did it out of love, I'd deck you for it."
Buck laughed, softly. "Yeah I did. Just like you put up with all the shit I threw at you after Columbia. It's what we do." He felt more than heard JD's deep sigh.
JD nodded. "I feel so dirty, Buck," he whispered. "She used me told me she loved me." He glanced at Buck. "She told me that was a lie, you know."
"She said a lot of things, kid. Things we all believed, but you know what? If there's one thing I think she was lying more to herself about than to you it was her feelings for you."
"She almost succeeded in killing you all, how can you say that?"
Buck smiled, sadly. "Easy in the end, when she made her final plans she let you live."
"Without all of you, it would have been worse than death."
"In your eyes, sure in hers you were still warm and breathing."
Not willing to think about Talia any more, JD fell silent, nudging Milagros closer to Bear and grateful for their camaraderie as they made their way back to the stables.
"Oh, by the way," Buck said as they put distance between the charred ruins. "Inez found some of your clothes at our house from when you've stayed over previously."
JD smiled to himself. Well it was a start.
Sheriff and Romeo leaned against the barn door and grinned. It made them feel good to see their legacy live on. They were confident that both JD and Buck had made a turn for the better in their lives. They would each have challenges, but together they would see them through.
Romeo turned and flipped Sheriff's hat off his head. "Some things don't change do they?"
"Dang it. You leave my hat alone!" he reached down, picked it up, and brushed the dirt from the brim.
"You'd think after all these years; you'd get the message and find a decent one."
"I like my hat after all these years I figured you'd pick up on that fact." Sheriff looked up and watched their modern day counterparts' ride away. He grinned. "That boy needs a new hat maybe I'll give him one before we leave."
Romeo smiled, just before he grabbed the hat from Sheriff's hand, and took off running. "Let's give him yours."
Josiah watched, while Nathan repacked his bag with medical supplies. "Do you think all that is really necessary?"
Nathan huffed. "With this bunch, I've learned to be prepared for any contingency. As long as Montoya is on the loose, I want to make certain I have all I need if he surprises us." He snapped the bag shut, and sat down next to Sanchez. "You think Vin and Buck are over the worst of their experiences?"
"I think Vin is looking forward again, and Buck is concentrating on JD. Both of them might have a moment or two of flashback at some point in the future, but I believe they can handle it when it comes." Josiah sighed, and continued. "JD is the one I'm most concerned about. He just got over what Casey did to him, and seemed to be headed in a good direction. Now ."
"JD is stronger now. His journey after Casey's attack prepared him to deal with Talia' betrayal, and he knows that it wasn't just him, she fooled all of us."
Josiah nodded. "The more I read our book, the more I realize how big a part our destiny plays in everything that has happened to us, and around us. I think I've figured out a big part of it our ancestors were real what we see now is the part of them that lives in us. While we see them as separate spirits we're actually seeing ourselves. Their strength and wisdom is within us always has been."
Nathan stared at his friend, and slowly began to feel the power of his words. "You know sometimes you lose me when you start talking like that, but what you said makes sense I feel as if Healer is with me every time I tend to an injury. I don't always see him, but I know he's there Maybe us seeing them is what we need to rationalize what we feel. All I know is whatever it all really means I think we're better men for it."
Preacher and Healer listened as Josiah and Nathan mused about them. Preacher grinned. "They're catching on faster than we did."
Healer nodded. "Of course, they inherited their intelligence from us. Soon they'll all reason it out, and then we won't have to hang about in teaching mode. Then ."
"Then the power of seven will be complete." Preacher smiled. "At least we know they've been tested and passed with flying colors. They're definitely ready for the next stage of their lives. I for one am looking forward to it."
Ezra headed for his study, after making certain Barbara was down for a rest. He had never been the type of man who got nervous about much of anything. Going undercover, facing arms dealers, and other assorted criminals was a piece of cake though, compared to his anxiety over his wife and child's safety. Smiling, he picked up the framed photo of Barbara's ultrasound from his desk, and sighed. It was still difficult for him to believe that his life had taken such a wonderful turn.
*I, too, never imagined my life could be so complete. I was older than you are before I found the joys a wife and child brought to my life.*
Standish whirled around to find Gambler sitting in his chair. "You really should not sneak up on me that way."
Gambler grinned. *You really should be more observant. That is your legacy to use the powers of observation in ways other men fail to consider. You've always been good at it now you will be superb.*
"One of the talents you are passing along to me?''
*One that is yours to hone, and fashion as you wish. You have the potential to be far more dangerous with your mind than your weapon. It will serve you well in your future endeavors with the forces of evil. I, of course, will be close to help you perfect that skill.*
"I was under the impression that our abilities came when we discovered our past."
*They did, but the time has come for you all to accelerate those gifts. Be aware listen to your heart, and have faith in your destiny. It will all fall into place.*
Ezra blinked and Gambler was gone, but on his desk set a sterling silver baby cup. Engraved on it was, the name Standish, and the year, 1881.
Vin rapped on the door and Inez answered. "Vin, you never have to knock. Come on in." Stepping inside, he saw Buck and JD sitting at the kitchen table.
Tilting his head, Vin said, "Thanks, Inez, I wanted to see if JD was up to talkin'."
JD answered. "I'm up to it." He pushed his chair back, and stood. "How about we go on the porch?"
Vin nodded, and followed JD out. The two men pulled up a couple of chairs, and sat side-by-side. For a few moments, neither said a word, both taking in the sweet scent of spring air, and accepting the beauty of the day.
Tanner finally asked, "How are you holdin' up?"
JD shrugged. "I'm alive. My kids are safe, and I still have my family. The ladies of the Wild Bunch have made sure the children have plenty of clothes to get by on, and once I can I plan to pick up a few things I need. As for the rest of it guess I'll have to take things one day at a time."
"That's one of the things I wanted to talk to you about. You already know Max and Walter plan to build near us. She was livin' in my old place as part of her salary. Now that's changed and they'll be stayin' with us until their place is finished, leavin' a two-bedroom, perfectly good home empty. There's enough room for you and the kids to be comfortable, and y'all can stay there until you decide what you want to do."
Surprised by the offer, JD took a moment to answer. "That might be a good solution for us. I know Buck and Inez don't mind, but I hate that Aunt Isabella has to give up her room for the kids and me. I really hadn't given much thought to what we'll do."
"The offer's open. Think it over, and once you decide, let me know."
JD nodded. "I will. You said a couple of things what else is on your mind?"
"Nettie," Vin hesitated before he continued. "She and I have exchanged a few letters, but uh since I found out about my father; I've had an urge to talk to her. Clear up a couple of things, I just recently discovered. I didn't want to call her without talkin' to you first."
"I don't mind you staying in touch with her. Hell, Vin, she was part of your life too, but I need to tell her about the fire. After we finish our business with Montoya, I'll call her. You might want to wait and talk to her after that."
"Works for me. I just didn't want you to think I was takin' sides "
JD shook his head. "I'd never think that .you've known her longer than me. You should stay in touch with her."
Buck walked out and joined them. "Is this private or can I sit, too?"
Smiling, JD nodded. "At your age I'd suggest you sit every chance you get." He grinned when Buck pretended to swipe at his head, as he pulled up another chair. "Hey watch that."
Although he was not sure what had prompted JD's better mood, Buck was glad to see it. "Any word yet, on Montoya?" He watched JD for his reaction, and was pleased to see there was none.
Vin shook his head. "Not yet, but he'll surface soon, and when he does "
"We'll be there to take him out." JD finished the statement. "It's past time to put this Cartel shit behind all of us."
Buck and Vin exchanged glances, and Wilmington said what they were both thinking, "You'll get no argument from us on that."
Midnight, on the other side of Denver
Kinsley paced, and kept throwing glares toward Ray Montoya. "I don't see why we have to quit. Talia might be dead, but we're not."
Ray stopped his packing and turned to Kinsley. "The mark of a smart leader is to know when to fight, and when to stand back and regroup to fight another day. We have lost the element of surprise and the Seven will be waiting for us to make a move. It would be suicide on our part to give them the opportunity."
Kinsley stopped his pacing. "It could be a long time before we get this close again."
"Our war is not over, but this battle is lost. They have men watching the airports, and it is only a matter of time before they find us. We need to regroup, and prepare to fight another day. Perhaps our glory will be delayed, but we still will have our day. Now go, gather our men, and meet me at the private airfield at six. Our plane will be ready to take us to South America."
Kinsley slammed the door on his way out. Ray sat down and gazed at a photograph of Talia. "Everything I do will be for you, Gabriella...I will kill them eventually, and become all powerful, and it will all be for you."
Friday, Camp Larabee 0300 Hours
It began with a phone call; Brodie personally contacted, and mustered the seven men to a meeting that he knew they would not want to miss. Word had reached Hawks of Montoya's whereabouts; however, he had vacated his motel room by the time Homeland Security arrived there. From that point, he had insisted that the seven men of Alpha Team be involved as primary law enforcement, his considerable influence ensuring it would be so, with the proviso Homeland Security remain involved.
Larabee called Travis, who assured him that Bravo Team would back them up, and hurriedly set a plan of action in place, before Alpha team, Brodie, and a handful of his men, fully equipped with AK47s, geared up. Plans in place, they prepared to depart for a private airfield on the outskirts of Denver. Larabee glanced at his team, his brothers. This one was for all of them
The chopper on its way, their thoughts drifted to their loved ones, and all they had recently endured. Chris smiled as he recalled the moments after Brodie had called him.
Leaning in, Chris kissed Cait soft and deep, his hands caressed her as he did so. "This is it, babe. Save me some breakfast, would you?" He watched her sit up, her beautiful naked body shimmering in the moonlight.
Chris grinned as he holstered his gun and grabbed his keys. "Always."
Vin had watched his wife sleeping, her peaceful, deep breaths soothing him as he watched her naked body relaxed in slumber. Despite wanting to climb back into bed and make love to her, he wanted this moment more. He needed closure on a period in his life that he would never forget, but could now put firmly behind him. They would do this, and he would return to the children he loved and the wife he treasured and begin a new chapter in their wonderful life, safe in the knowledge that good had prevailed, and evil had been vanquished.
Josiah prayed. In spite of his casted arm, he was one hundred percent with his brothers. One strapped arm would not prevent him from firing a gun, and he sure as hell wasn't being left out of this particular battle. Uncurling himself from around his wife's sleeping form had been far less difficult, knowing what was about to transpire. The time had come; they deserved some peace, and goddamnit they would succeed this day.
Barbara and Ezra had been in the kitchen when the call came. She had been unable to sleep, and he stayed up with her. As Ezra prepared, he was well aware of his wife's building fear, and crossed the room to kiss her. "We will be triumphant, my love, and I will be back soon to help you " he smiled. " Relax."
"I know," she sighed, nuzzling his hand as he caressed her cheek. "Take care."
Driving to Camp Larabee, he was empowered by his talk with Gambler, and the knowledge that all his brothers would be with him this day.
"Victory will be ours," he proclaimed, as he pulled into Camp Larabee.
Having returned from settling Ronesha, Rain, and Nathan had just completed an energetic session of lovemaking when he got the call. He looked back at the woman that held his heart before heading out. "Keep it warm," he grinned. "I'm not done with you yet." Her giggle had made his heart soar, just as her loving gaze had assured him her thoughts, and heart was with him. This was going to be a good day. This was the day they would reclaim their lives.
Buck had disturbed Inez as he prepared to leave. She had made herself some tea as he had snatched up his things, and then gone to rouse JD. This was what he needed. The chance to close this festering wound once and for all. The scars would remain, but they would fade, in time, to be a constant reminder of the fact he survived hell, and was now safe in the bosom of a loving family a family that had shown him he was not alone, and love really could conquer all. He smiled as JD, still tousle-haired, but wide awake, joined them.
Dunne stood watching his sleeping children, and then leaned down to kiss each tiny head. He was still a long way from fully reconciling what Talia Gabriella or whatever her name was, had done to him and his family, but with every hour that passed, it was getting easier. This upcoming event would certainly assist the process. No one blamed him, but he still berated himself for giving in to the 'luxury of self-indulgence'. He smiled. *Damn Ezra and his and his fancy analyses * Feeling the loss of packing only one gun, he moved toward the kitchen, grinning as Buck and Inez smiled at him.
With a chaste kiss to Inez's cheek, JD exited the house. Buck's kiss was far more demonstrative filled with passion, fire, and a promise that he would return for more. With a grin and a blown kiss, he followed JD out.
Brodie looked at his son, then to all the men who had become family to him. He could say that now 'family'. They had endured purgatory together, and were all determined this would be their 'deliverance from evil'. Never one to dismiss the odds, Brodie also considered this day might not be theirs. However, one thought stayed firm in his mind, he could not have fought with braver men.
Columbine Airfield, CO
The eight men studied the papers in front of them, glancing occasionally to the plane on the tarmac that waited for clearance from air traffic control a clearance that would never come. Homeland Security had apprehended Kincaid Ruiz Kinsley en route to the airport. It was clear he was not about to talk any time soon, but his briefcase had been a goldmine of information, revealing terrifying plans to contaminate Denver's water supply.
Just as startling were the elaborate plans for an aerial attack on Larabee 7. The eight men were still reeling from that revelation, not doubting for one minute that they would have been unlikely to survive such an attack. Fully in command mode, Chris brought them back to the here and now.
"We end this now! Mount up."
They climbed into the open backed truck, which waited for them, and headed to their chosen position.
Raimundo Luis Montoya was agitated. None of his men had arrived, including Kinsley, and no one was answering their phones. He unclasped his seatbelt, and once again, approached his pilot.
"What is taking so long?"
Captain Aiden Ferris shook his head. "It's like this sometimes. This is a small airfield, Denver International, and several others get priority. We're in a line sometime in the next hour, I'm told."
Montoya didn't like this one bit. Something wasn't right he just knew it. His suspicions were confirmed when the sound of an electronic bullhorn permeated the air.
"This is Homeland Security. Open your doors and prepare to be boarded!"
Rushing to a window, Ray hissed, when he saw the vehicles lined up alongside the plane he crossed to the opposite window both sides. He went back to the cockpit. "Take off!"
Ferris stared at him. "No way," he started to stand, "I'm releasing the doors." His eyes went wide as something sharp and long penetrated his body. A ghastly shriek and gurgle accompanied the gush of blood from his mouth, when Montoya hand reached over Ferris's shoulder, and plunged a knife deep into the pilot's belly, levering it upward for full effect.
Tossing the bloody body aside, he jumped into the vacant chair. It had been a while, and several years of soft living, but Ray knew he could get this bird airborne. Throwing switches and pressing buttons, the plane roared to life, and began taxiing down the runway.
Homeland Security paced the plane's movement, but they were losing ground fast. Montoya waved at them, with a triumphant chuckle. Looking ahead at the runway stretched out before him, he only hoped that the ensuing gunfire wouldn't hit anything vital as he gained speed.
The cold tarmac was fast heating up in the early sun's rays, sending waves of heat toward the sky. He howled in frustration, when through the shimmering air, a contorted image appeared before him. A vision of three trucks, parked in a line just ahead. Closing in, he could now see seven men, seemingly standing shoulder to shoulder, in the backs of those trucks, fully armed, and aiming straight at him.
He laughed. "You will never succeed," he yelled confidently, feeling the nose of the aircraft slowly beginning to lift.
JD glanced left and right at his brothers, all standing tall and oozing confidence. Raising his gun, he prepared never doubting for one minute that he, and these men he loved, would see this through successfully despite the big fucking plane headed straight for them.
Chris's command sent their adrenaline into overdrive. They were ready for anything.
Seven AK47s barked out their ammunition, the plane bombarded with deadly missiles as it continued on its course. Yards from their position, the plane's nose lifted, and then soared over their heads just feet above them. Not even ducking, the seven continued firing.
"Try and catch me now, mother fuckers!" Montoya howled. His elation was short lived when the fuselage took several hits, and the plane briefly shuddered, before exploding into a giant fireball, only minutes from clearing the airfield's boundary.
Someone yelled, 'DOWN!'
A gigantic cauldron of orange and black flames lit up the morning sky, raining burning debris on the earth below. Nathan, Ezra, and Josiah went flat, Chris and Vin doing the same, instantly followed by Buck and JD. The noise was deafening, and the heat unbearable as the seven shouted out their fear for one another. Two-fire trucks were approaching fast, Brodie clinging to one for dear life, while it raced toward the inferno, the main body of the plane now plummeting, and bouncing ahead of them as it disintegrated.
One truck continued on, firefighters had the hoses over the three stationary trucks in moments, soaking the men within. Brodie jumped up onto the first truck, and peered inside, all around him holding their breaths for news, and more than a little startled when he laughed, loud and long.
Disheveled and sooty, one by one, seven men emerged to stand, clearly shell-shocked, but alive, and only suffering minor injuries. They stared around themselves, as a grinning Brodie scanned them all.
Vin eyed his father, and then nodded toward the burning debris behind them on the tarmac. "Ya think we got him?"
One by one they started laughing, soon laughing so hard, the surrounding personnel could only join in the personal celebration. Chris stretched out his hand and each of the brothers placed theirs atop of his.
"Let's get the hell outta here."
As the eight men moved away from the rising, black smoke, and blazing inferno, those around them could only watch in awe, and thank all that was Holy, that these men were on their side.
MCAT Office, debriefing
Justin and Bravo Team were in charge of the paperwork, but Chris and Alpha Team needed to give their statements. They also wanted an opportunity to talk with Montoya's men, before Homeland Security hauled them off to Federal lock-up. Travis sat in on the de-briefing.
Captain Michaels outlined the takedown at the airport, and tried not to let his pride in Chris's team influence the details. Wrapping up his presentation he said, "With the arrest of Montoya's men, we're confident that the threat to Alpha Team is over. Homeland Security will be questioning each of them in regards to their terroristic plot to contaminate the water supply of Denver, and their aborted plan to attack Larabee 7."
Chris listened, and then stated, "You have Montoya's right-hand man. I want to talk to him."
Justin exchanged a look with Travis, who nodded. "We have Kincaid Ruiz Kinsley in holding. Homeland Security is on their way over to pick him up. I'll have him moved to interrogation for you. How much time do you need?"
"As long as it takes," Chris answered, as he stood, motioning for Vin to go with him, and headed for the interrogation room. Josiah, Ezra, Buck, Nathan, and JD followed to ensure that Chris was able to have a private conversation.
Before they entered, Larabee told Tanner, "Take off any restraints you have on your thought reading. I want to know which bastard attacked Caitlyn."
Tanner nodded, and prepared for the confrontation, while the rest of the team fanned out to make certain no one interrupted the interrogation. Chris and Vin left their weapons with Buck, who understood exactly what Chris had planned.
The first things Larabee did as he entered the small room were to unplug the video camera, and draw the blinds. He pulled up two chairs, and then he and Vin sat down to wait for Kinsley.
Agents Guy Saunders and Alex Sandoval escorted the shackled man into the room, and made him sit opposite Larabee and Tanner.
Guy nodded to Larabee. "Take all the time you need. We haven't photographed him yet thought we'd do that after you finish with your questions."
"Appreciate it," Chris answered, but never took his glare off Kinsley. Once Guy and Alex were gone, Larabee leaned forward. "You're going to tell me everything you know about Larabee 7."
Kinsley laughed. "I ain't telling you shit. I know my rights I already asked for a lawyer, and that's all I got to say."
Without warning, Larabee hit the table with his fist, and was pleased to see Kinsley flinch. "You're classified as a terrorist you don't get a lawyer, and I don't give a damn about that, or what happens to you in court. I'm even going to let you choose how you leave here. You can walk out crawl out or be carried out, depending on what I hear."
The prisoner swallowed hard. The fire he saw in this man's eyes made him extremely uncomfortable. He shrugged. "What do you want to know?"
"A woman was attacked last week on the ranch. Who touched her?"
He shook his head. "I don't know anything about that."
Tanner said softly, "He's lyin'." Vin could see what Kinsley was thinking, but was not about to tell Chris. When Larabee mentioned 'woman' and 'attack', the Texan saw the replay of the attempted rape flash into Kinsley's mind. If Chris knew what he thought about Cait, he would kill him, and Vin was not going to let his brother go to prison over a low life piece of shit.
"No no I'm not lying. Montoya planned all of it I just " His eyes darted between the two agents, " he did it."
"Take off your shirt," Vin ordered him, and then told Chris. "If he has a tat on his right shoulder that says 'whorelover' he's lyin'."
Kinsley leaned back, and crossed his arms in front of him. "Ray did it, and you can't prove otherwise."
Chris stood, walked around the table, fisted his hand on the collar of Kinsley's shirt, and jerked. The shirt ripped, exposing the man's shoulder, and the tattoo.
"You sonofabitch!" Chris pulled him out of the chair and slammed him hard against the wall. "You like hurting women?" He popped him in the mouth, busting his lip. "That woman is mine!" He kneed him in the groin, and before Kinsley could double over from the pain, Larabee kneed him again, this time with more force. Once more, he slammed the man's head against the wall. Oblivious to the blood, blind rage threatened to take over his actions, but when he started to hit him again, he felt Vin beside him.
The Texan grabbed his arm. "He's not worth it Chris. He won't last a month in prison before someone claims him as their bitch he'll pay .You have a woman that loves you, waitin' for you at home. Don't make me have to tell her you're in jail for murder."
Larabee took a deep breath, released Kinsley, who slumped to the floor, and nodded. He was satisfied that the man's injuries were worse than Cait's had been. "Now it's over, let's go home." They walked out, collected their weapons, and as Larabee passed Saunders, he said, "You need to take out the garbage it stinks in there."
Saunders grinned. "It will be my pleasure, Commander Larabee."
Alpha Team exited the MCAT office, leaving their last piece of business . finished.
Larabee 7, early evening
Seven weary warriors sat on Larabee's deck with their feet propped on the railing. The beer was cold, and their hearts lighter. They had weathered the storm, and come through a bit tattered, and bruised, but victorious. It felt good to just sit and enjoy one another's company, without worrying about what was coming next.
"It was nice of our wives to have the beer chilled and waitin for us." Buck reached into the cooler for another one. "They've planned a celebration barbeque for tomorrow, too."
Josiah nodded. "I think they're as relieved as we are to see the end of this mess. Maybe life can return to normal around here."
"Normal?" Ezra asked. "Since when have our lives ever been what's considered normal?"
"Kel told Brodie that with the Wild Bunch...normal is, to expect the unexpected." Vin tossed his empty bottle toward the trashcan, and grinned when he made it. "I reckon that just about sums up our lives."
"Where is Brodie?" Chris asked. "I figured he'd be celebrating with us."
Vin shook his head. "He's clearin' up some spook business, and turning over the reins to Pete. He's really gonna quit, and we're gonna try to catch up on some lost time."
JD had been studying the contents of his bottle. "You know out there today it felt like like we were an army."
Nathan agreed. "Yeah as beat up as we all are...it was as if we suddenly gained the strength of . of ."
"Seven?" Chris filled in the blank. "I have the feeling we weren't alone."
Nodding in agreement, they were unaware that their Old West counterparts were close by; still standing watch over the men destined to pass their code of honor to the next generation of seven.
What the wicked dreads will overtake him; what the righteous desire will be granted. When the storm has swept by, the wicked are gone, but the righteous stand firm forever. Proverbs 10:24-25 (NIV)
Saturday, Dunne Property
Snapping down the kickstand with his foot, JD climbed off his bike and walked toward the rubble that was once his home. It was still smoldering, though just wisps, now. He swallowed hard at what might have been if his brothers had been in there when it blew, closing his eyes as the emotion of the last few days threatened to overtake him again. There was nothing he could see that he could recognize, not a piece of furniture nothing. Somewhere in there was his 46 inch flat screen TV he smiled, sadly. Buck had helped him pick it out, much to Casey and Nettie's dismay. It was rather large for the old-style house, but he had actually wanted the 52 inch. Then there was his own 'wall of sound' again, bought by him and created with Buck. He had missed the one from their bachelor pad, and decided he wanted to recreate it. Funny Casey wasn't too fond of that, either. All material things, but the things that had allowed him to put his stamp on a home he had never truly felt was his.
It was hard to pick out the layout with so much debris. Sometime soon, the machines would come to clear it all away his whole life was about to go into a dumpster.
*Shoot, Buck would kick his ass for thinking like this,* he mused. But he couldn't help it. He just needed to get past this find some closure. *Hmm maybe that's what this was closure.*
He had already decided he was going to gratefully accept Vin's kind offer of using his old place, but JD knew, deep down, it was only a matter of time before he would need a bigger house. Two girls and a son, growing like weeds, plus himself, added up to more than two bedrooms, but, at least now, he had the luxury of time to think it through. Spotting something, he picked his way through the rubble and pulled back a few pieces to uncover the object of his curiosity. He sighed. *Lissy doll*. Daisy couldn't sleep well without her. Lilah took hers everywhere and had it with her the day the house blew, so, in the past two days, the girls had been sharing. Smiling, JD dusted her off, knowing Daisy would be thrilled to have her back.
Taking one last look back at what, a year ago, was a happy home, he straddled his bike, flipped up the kickstand, pressed the starter and wheeled the blue Ninja around to roar off back toward the Wilmington property.
Vin and Brodie had been banished to the deck as Kelli buzzed around the kitchen preparing some dips and desserts for the family barbecue Vin checked his watch in less than two hours. Max, Walter, Willard, and Sally were throwing a party for the children at Reins, so the adults could have their own celebration. For now, the two men were enjoying a pot of coffee, but Vin, at least, intended to have something considerably stronger at Larabee's.
"It's time!" Kelli called from somewhere inside.
Brodie grinned on hearing the thunder of tiny feet heading their way. "I'll be happy to do the honors and take them to Reins."
Vin smiled, putting down his mug. "How about we do this together?" As Brodie agreed, Jason and Andi came bounding out of the house, closely followed by Kelli and two squirming rug rats.
Andi twirled around and asked, "Do I look pretty, daddy?"
Vin hugged his daughter. "As a picture, Sugar." He glanced at his eldest. "You look mighty fine, too, son."
Jason dropped his head, a bit embarrassed. "Thanks, Dad, I wanted to look nice"
Vin tilted his head up, and looked him in the eye. "Good thinkin', but how about you take a spare pair of jeans just in case you want to play a little. It'll save those nice new pants you're wearin'," he leaned in conspiratorially, "and stop your mama from gettin' mad if you tear or dirty 'em."
Jason grinned before heading back inside. "Yeah!"
Vin jerked, laughing as a finger dug into his side. "I heard that, Tanner," Kelli mock scolded, then smiled. "Good thinkin', I've put some play clothes in the bag for Andi, too. I have no idea what's planned over at Reins for all the kids but I hope they took their vitamins, I reckon they're gonna need them."
Watching Brodie take the twins, and usher the older kids to the car, Vin pulled Kelli into him and kissed her, moving to her neck as he nipped and licked at the skin. "You may want to take your own advice, lady I'm lookin' forward to cuttin' loose, today. I claim all your dances, and when we get home I plan for us to have a little private celebration of our own."
Kelli smiled as her eyes flashed. "Oh, don't worry, stud I'm way ahead of you, there." Parting, he swatted her butt and, grinned as he watched her sashay back indoors.
Ezra couldn't help smiling as he watched his naked wife stomp around the bedroom.
"I look fat in everything!" she wailed, tossing another outfit onto the pile on the bed. Fresh from his shower, he caught her hand and took her in his arms.
"Be comfortable. You look beautiful in anything, so wear what feels cool and loose, and stop worrying
Barbara looked deep into her lover's eyes. "Thank you, for making me feel desirable and loved despite feeling more like a walrus."
Standish laughed and held her closer. "Thank you for being the most desirable, beautiful, and sexiest woman in the world." With a final kiss, they separated, before dressing and heading to Larabee's place.
Mallory had just dropped Joanna and Adam at Reins. Josiah was helping her load up some of the food she had prepared, to take to Chris's house. Closing up the truck, Josiah took in a deep breath.
Mallory smiled. "Happy?"
Stroking his strapped arm, Josiah nodded. "Peace has returned to Larabee Seven, I still have six brothers, all but one has healthy wives or partners, another has found a father, and we all have wonderful children." He nodded. "Yes life is good and I'm happy."
"I'm so glad," she said huskily, stroking his face and arm before straightening," Because I have more boxes, inside." With a giggle, she trotted on inside.
Josiah laughed. "Oh I see gonna be one of those days, huh?" He looked to Heaven, grinning. "Thank you."
"Terrell Nathanial, get yourself in that car now or you won't be going to no party, young man!"
Terrell peeked at his mom. "I can't find it!"
"Find what?" Rain asked, approaching him with Ronesha in her arms.
"My 'tendo it's not here."
"Why would you need your Nintendo, at a party, son?" Nathan asked, joining them.
"Caleb said he'd help me get to level four on Kong."
"Well, he'll have to help you another time unless you don't want to go to the party?"
Terrell looked at his father, horrified. "'Course I do, Daddy." He grabbed Nathan's hand. "C'mon stop your jawin', we'll be late."
Avoiding the frosty look from Rain at the phrase he had only thrown at her a half hour ago, Nathan chuckled nervously, snatched up his son's hand, eased Ronesha from her mother's arms, and headed out. "Won't be long," he called, feeling the eyes boring into his back as he left. He helped his son into the truck. "Boy you keep doing that and daddy's gonna end up sleeping in the barn."
Terrell's eyes widened. "Ooh can I come?"
Nathan smacked his forehead, wondering how long it would be before his son repeated that one.
"She's hungry now?" Buck was exasperated when Inez unclasped her nursing bra, and settled on the couch to feed Bella.
"Your daughter is hungry. What would you have me do, make her a sandwich?"
Corralling Caleb, Sarah, Maria, and Tannis, Buck rolled his eyes. "Noooo just pointing out the timing, is all."
"Check they all have a change of clothes, and don't forget Bella's bottle in the fridge and she'll need more diapers " Buck went about his tasks miming her words as she spoke. "I know what you are doing, and it will not earn you points for our homecoming."
Buck stopped in his tracks, grinning back at his beautiful wife. "Now darlin' don't get me "
"The children are listening," Isabella warned as she entered the conversation, and popped Bella's bottle into the diaper bag.
"I know " Buck said, exasperated. "Lord, dual nagging I think I'll move into Tanner's old place with JD."
Inez looked up. "He's taking it?"
"Sure, he told Vin just before he headed off on that damned bike of his."
"Daddy said 'damn'," Maria announced, gleefully.
"Ookaay let's go," Buck ordered, before any more damaging words escaped. As he reached the door, JD walked in. "Hey, Kid you okay?"
JD held something up. "Found Lissy doll."
"Lissssyyyy!" Daisy squealed, clutching her father's legs when she ran to him.
Squatting down, JD grinned and handed the doll over. "She needs a bit of a wash, but she looks okay."
"Thank you, Daddy," Daisy sniffed, hugging the doll tightly.
"Just gonna drop the kids at Reins. You coming? Be easier with two trucks."
JD found the thought of driving the truck that Talia stood next to when he shot her, troubling. He swallowed hard, and his face paled.
Isabella joined them. "Inez is happy for you to use hers."
Flashing a grateful smile to the Mexican beauty as she handed Bella over, he and Buck left to take the children to Reins.
Before heading back, Buck stopped, and asked JD, "How are you doing?"
JD shrugged. "Aah, I'm fine just trying to get my head around it all, you know?"
"I'm always here for you, Kid don't forget that."
He smiled. "Yeah, I know. Thanks Buck. Uh " he hesitated, deciding to forge on when he saw Buck's concerned expression.
"It's great Vin's letting me use his old place, but " he sighed. "I'm gonna start looking at properties around the area something bigger."
Buck frowned. "But you got the land. They'll clear it and " He watched JD shake his head.
"Nah I can't go back there. Ezra said something about selling L7 the land. I'm gonna ring Casey and Nettie tell them about what's been happening here, and if they're agreeable, I'll sell. I have quite a bit tucked away of my own, too, so it shouldn't be hard to find something "
Buck placed a hand on his shoulder. "Hold that thought, okay? You make the call, then me and you are gonna have a little talk okay?"
Unsure where Buck was going with this, JD nodded. "Sure."
An hour later, the two men were walking up a slight incline a quarter mile from Buck's home. Stopping, they turned to look back at the Wilmington house.
"Nice here, huh?"
JD nodded. "Yeah, I always have loved the view from your porch."
"Was thinking of a way to improve on that view."
Frowning, JD looked at his big brother. "How plant trees? Be kind of a shame, this meadow is so pretty in the dawn light."
Buck stifled a grin. "Pretty? Yeah, it is. I figured a nice big house in the middle of it might look good, too."
JD was confused. "Don't you like where your house is?" He grunted at the light swat to the back of his head.
"Not a house for me a house for you!"
It took a second, but Buck thought his expression was priceless when JD realized what he was suggesting.
"Me build here?"
JD pointed. "And you right there "
"Uh huh." Buck chuckled. "You may want to snap your jaw shut there, kid lots of insects about this time of year." He placed a hand on the shocked young man's shoulder and squeezed. "Well, what do you think?"
"Are you kidding? I love it, but I guess I need to think on it, some. It won't be cheap."
"Well, let's leave it there. It, at least, gives you some options." Buck squeezed harder. "Truth is, I'd hate to have you move off this land. I like having you close, little brother. We may be older, have new commitments, and, dare I say are wiser " he laughed, softly. "But, the way I feel about you will never change. You're my family, and I want you close."
JD blew out the intake of breath he'd been holding, as the annoying emotions from earlier, fought for dominance, against the restraints he held on them. He nodded, unable to utter more than just one word. "Ditto."
Slowly, the pair headed back to Buck's, JD occasionally looking back at a meadow he had fallen in love with years ago. His heart suddenly felt much lighter.
Enjoying the peace and quiet now that the kids were at Reins, Chris was making final preparations. The food was ready and the beer was cold. Soon his brothers' and their wives' would be here, plus Brodie, Isabella and an unexpected guest, Father Rafferty. JD had offered to supply the music, but Chris had non-too-subtly declined, knowing he would be belting out a mix of soft rock most of the afternoon and evening. Today they were going Country and Western, and he wanted to do some dancing. Chris laughed as he glanced at Cait. Him Chris Larabee dancing. God this woman was good for him. He waved as he saw Vin, Kelli, and Brodie arrive.
"Here we go, babe."
Vin grabbed three beers from the cooler, passed one to Brodie, and another to Kelli. Winking at his wife, he drew her close, patted her rump, and said, "First round of many." He found a comfortable lounger, sat down, and pulled Kelli onto his lap. "I plan to enjoy myself today."
Laughing, Kelli leaned back against his hard muscled body, and whispered, "I plan to enjoy you tonight, my man. So keep that in mind when you go for the next round."
Tilting her head, the Texan leaned his down to claim a leisurely kiss, his hand sliding over her ribcage, coming to rest beneath her breast. It pleased him that she did not protest, and was not embarrassed for all to see him show his desire for his woman. "Stay close, by tonight, I'll have you begging."
Deliberately wiggling on his lap, Kelli grinned. "Keep this up and we might have to make a trip to the barn."
Chris was pleased to see his daughter and Vin back to their old selves again. He only hoped they lasted through the barbeque, and some dancing, before their enthusiasm for one another had them running for home. He cleared his throat. "Vin, have you decided to replace the Navigator with another one?
Dragging his gaze from him wife, Tanner answered, "Actually since Kel is so hard on vehicles, I was thinkin' about ordering her a military-issue, four-wheel drive, armor-plated, Humvee. She'd really have to work at it to destroy one." He dodged the elbow she aimed at his ribs, and laughed. "Hey I only lost one to your three."
"He's got you there, Kel." Chris grinned. "Maybe you should think about something sturdier."
Kelli glared at her father. "Yeah, and how many trucks have you had to replace?"
Saved from having to defend his less than stellar track record for damaged vehicles, Chris stood when the others began to arrive.
Several hours later, and the brothers were pretty well inebriated, their laughter ringing out across the meadows, as the group of men and women totally relaxed for the first time in a long while. Vin, Chris, Josiah, and Nathan were on benches with their women snuggled on their laps, Brodie sat close by. Barbara and Ezra were sitting together and holding hands. Isabella and Inez were watching Buck and JD, who had been arguing for a good twenty minutes about something, seemingly going around in circles.
"What are you arguing about?" Inez finally asked.
Buck frowned. "Not arguing "
"Yes you were."
JD pointed at her. "Y'know we mighta been. Wh what were we talking about?"
Buck's brow creased. "Dunno what were we talking about?"
JD raised his arms. "Thasss what I asked you!"
"No no I just asked you "
"Oh, Madre de Dios!" Hearing a romantic tune, Inez dragged Buck up to dance, the big man grinning broadly, as they held each other close. The other couples followed suit.
Brodie approached Isabella. "Would you care to dance?"
"I would love to," she beamed. Standing, she placed a hand on his shoulder, and held his hand as he guided her gently around.
At first, JD smiled as he watched the happy couples dancing close, but images of a pretty blonde, and him making love started to assault his senses. He wondered if the nausea creeping up on him was from the memories, or the beer.
"I hear you're moving in close to here."
Hearing the priest's voice, JD snapped out of his reverie, pointing to a building in the distance. "Yeah over there until I get back on my feet."
"What have we discussed about accepting help, John?"
JD nodded. "I know but " he sighed. "It's hard to think about being here under these circum circ umstan conditions, y'know?"
"You mean around people who love and care for you, and want you here, with them?"
JD paused for a moment, and then wagged a finger at the priest. "Quit doing that."
Albert laughed. "Doing what?"
"Making sense." They both laughed as they watched the sensuous slow dancing come to an end. JD got up.
"Where are you going?" Rafferty asked.
Dunne tapped his nose. "Got me a CD in the truck gonna liven up this party!"
Before Albert could stop him, JD was gone. "Oh dear." A minute later, the dulcet tones of Sesame Street's 'Me like Cookies' was belting out.
JD peeked out at his amused, but confused family. "Oops wrong one," he chuckled.
Vin shook his head, took Kelli's hand, and told them all. "The food was great, loved the company, and right now I'm a little drunk, but I have a willin' woman, and a big ol' bed waitin' on me, and I'm not gonna let either one go wantin'. So goodnight family we're headed home."
It did not take long for the others to follow suit. This barbeque had been a success, and a welcome reprieve for all of the Wild Bunch.
Tanner Home, Sunday, May 10, 5:30 am
He woke when Kelli left their bed to check on Bren, who was apparently having a restless night, judging from the sounds coming through the intercom. While Vin waited for his wife to return, he threw the covers aside, and padded into the bathroom to take care of business. He expected to feel the remnants of a hangover this morning, but his head was fine. Smiling, he recalled the family celebration yesterday. His redhead had made certain everyone understood that the Tanner marriage was strong, and on solid ground. There was no room for anyone to doubt that had Kelli not only had forgiven him, but also trusted him, and had no reservations about showing her affection openly. When they returned home, they held their own private celebration.
Looking in the mirror, Vin considered what he knew about his wife. Although her thoughts were an open book in his mind, some he had trouble reconciling. Kelli saw him as the one who rescued her from a life of loneliness, the rock she depended on to keep her emotions in check, and the one who would steer them through the storms that Fate threw into their lives. The loyalty, love, and trust he found in his six brothers had completed the part of his life that needed stability, and they were family, but Kelli was the one, who completed him. Before her, he had no idea that his soul was missing its mate, and that in her love he would find his greatest strength. She believed she needed him more than he needed her, but she was wrong. She was the rock he leaned on, and she kept him focused on the things that mattered. The Texan could not imagine living without the woman who had unconditionally given him her heart, mind, and soul their love created life, and would be with them for all of eternity.
The object of his thoughts reentered their room, and the first thing she noticed was their empty bed. Turning to seek out her husband, she saw him standing by the bathroom door, wearing a smile on his face and nothing more. She took a moment to enjoy the vision of his now healed, and in her opinion, damn perfect body, taut muscles, and sexy assets, before she smiled, and said, "Happy Birthday, Vin."
Reading her mind did have its advantages, she saw him as the lover who fulfilled her wildest dreams. He loved 'seeing' the erotic visions she had about them, and took pleasure in fulfilling her desires. Moving with the grace and agility of a wild predator, Vin crossed the room to her, a feral gin upon his face, as he came to a stop before her. "Now I can unwrap my present." After untying her silk robe, he gently pushed the soft fabric over her shoulders. The garment fell to the floor, exposing her naked beauty, as his hand slid over her bare hip, brushing against her skin erotically. "It's okay I can handle anythin' with you," he breathed in her ear.
Their eyes met, Kelli's glistened to see so much love, and unreserved trust from her husband. She ran her hands over his shoulders and back, resting them on his firm butt for a few seconds. "Read this thought."
With a growl, Vin swept her into his arms, and then laid her on the bed. Moving gently, he brought them to their sides. He paid delicate attention to her, kissing her slender neck, while his fingers stroked through her red hair.
They both knew what came next. Of course, talking about it and doing it were two different things. When they had first discussed this, it sounded unproblematic. Now that it was time to implement their idea, Kelli began to have a few doubts. Looking into his eyes, she asked, "Are you sure?"
With a firm set of his jaw, he answered, "Yeah, I'm sure." He then rolled onto his back, laying himself open to the woman, who had wrapped herself around his heart.
Her gaze never left his for a moment, as she opened a drawer, and removed several items. Still with eye contact, she raised each of his arms, and secured his wrist to the headboard with silk scarves, kissing him long and deep before she blindfolded him. Kelli expected his body to tense, but when he didn't she relaxed, and kept going. Tying his ankles to the footboard, she moved to kiss him again. "Anytime you want to stop tell me."
"I trust you, baby, and I need to do this." Vin's soft drawl assured her, giving Kelli confidence to continue. Smoothing oil onto her hands, Kelli then began to make love to him, attempting to exorcise his memory of being tied and helpless in Wilder's hell and she did.
With trembling hands, Kelli released each tie. Lying on his chest, she sighed softly as his strong arms enfolded her, both overwhelmed with emotions by what they had achieved.
Certain now that his nightmare from hell was truly behind him, replaced by a loving fantasy that he was sure they would repeat soon, Vin whispered, "Thank you."
"It was my birthday gift to you, although," she smiled, "I'm glad you shared."
Love, trust, and faith had delivered him from another evil. He also wanted to build on that feeling to make sure she understood his deep need for her, and put to rest something that had been a never-ending source of contention for them both. Vin held her close, with his chin on the top of her head. "I know I can be a possessive sonofabitch where you're concerned, and my need to protect you has always been difficult for you to put up with. I've tried to control it, but I'd be lyin' if I told you I could stop. You're part of me Kel you're mine, and I love you."
Kelli recognized that he was doing more than just stating something she already knew; he needed her to finally accept the part of him he was unable to change even for her. Vin loved, respected, and lusted for her. He was an enlightened male in most respects, but his genetic code made him a warrior, and his natural instinct was to claim ownership, and protect what was his. As far as she was concerned, that was an unbeatable combination. She could live with his possessive ways, what she could not do, was live without him in her life.
"I belong to you, Tanner, but it works both ways don't forget that."
Her Texan grinned, and without warning, flipped their positions. Leaning over Kelli, he prepared to stake his claim, and said, "I'm yours, baby, always have been always will be."
Brodie's booming voice and a loud rap on their bedroom door drew their attention. "Incoming breakfast and kids are on the way. Hope you two are decent."
"Stall 'em for a couple of minutes, and we will be," Vin yelled back. He rolled out from beneath the covers, grabbed Kelli's gown, threw it to her, and then pulled on sweatpants, before crawling back in bed.
Kelli giggled, when Vin decided she was not dressing fast enough, and helped her along. "Honey, I think you need to unlock the door, or miss your birthday breakfast."
"Damn," he cursed, rolled out of bed again, unlocked the door, and then hurried to rejoin his wife. He shouted, "All clear," mere seconds before the door opened. Andi and Jason entered, singing Happy Birthday off-key, one carrying a tray, the other presents. Brodie followed them inside, holding a carafe of coffee, and three cups, which he set on the nightstand.
Vin took the tray from Jason, and held it, while he and Andi crawled onto the bed.
"This looks great." Vin set the tray down, taking note of the fruit, toast, assorted jams, ham, and scrambled eggs. "You two did all this?"
Jason smiled. "Uncle Brodie helped, but we did most of it."
"Thanks, 'Uncle' Brodie," Kelli took the cup of coffee he passed to Vin for her.
Brodie had missed too many of Vin's birthdays, and this was one he planned to share with his son. Taking his cup, he sat in the rocker to watch the fun. Andi and Jason insisted that their parents eat, before their father could open his presents, but could not hide their impatience.
Andi talked non-stop. "The babies are still asleep. They're too little now when they gets bigger, we'll let them help. Are you almost finished Daddy?"
"Gettin' there, Sugar," Vin smiled, "you, and your brother can help then I'll be through faster." That was all the invitation the oldest Tanner children needed. They dug in, and soon most of the food was gone.
After carefully setting the tray on the floor, Jason jumped back onto the bed, and handed his father his first present. "This is from Andi, me, and the twins."
Taking the flat neatly wrapped gift, Vin shook it, which sent Andi into a giggling fit. "It don't rattle, Daddy."
"Oh then I reckon I should just rip off the paper, huh?" Vin made a big deal of shredding the paper, and then saw what was inside. "Wow season tickets for the Bronco games . Wonder who might want to go with me to see 'em?"
Jason answered. "They're for a sky box so all of us can go, and Uncle Chris, and Uncle Brodie, and Uncle, Buck, and Caleb, and "
"I get it, son and I really like it that y'all thought about all the family bein' included." He hugged both children. "Thank you."
"This is from mama she let me give it to you." Andi handed him another slender package.
When he opened it, he grinned. "Tickets for the ice-capades I suppose if football is too rough for Mom, and you," he tweaked Andi's nose, " we can go together to see Disney on Ice." The smile on her face, and fast nod from his daughter said it all. Vin leaned over and kissed his wife. "Thanks, baby."
"One more, dad," Jason said as he handed him a big box. "This is from Uncle Brodie."
Vin looked over at his father. He did not realize until just now, how much it meant to have him around. This was the first birthday gift he had received from him, at least that he could remember, and that alone made it special. Gently removing the paper, he found a beautiful chest that held a medieval-themed chess set. Picking one up of the hand-painted pewter pieces, Vin smoothed his thumb over it, admiring the intricate artisanship, and smiled. "It a beautiful set, thank you."
Brodie nodded. "Kelli told me you liked to play I do, too."
"Then I'll have to challenge you to a game." Vin replaced the pewter knight, and closed the chest. He looked at Andi and Jason. "First, though, I think I need room to get dressed. Your uncles, aunts, and cousins are comin' over later today for cake, and ice cream."
The kids happily scrambled to clear the paper from the bed, and hurried out of the room. Brodie picked up the tray, and started to leave, but Vin stopped him.
"Thanks for helpin' em. This was nice I'm glad you were here."
"I enjoyed it as much as you did, I think. I'll get Jason and Andi settled, and then use your office to make a couple of calls. Happy Birthday, Son." Brodie walked out, closing the door as he left.
Kelli snuggled close to her husband. "Happy?"
Vin wrapped his arm around her. "You, the kids, great gifts and my father was here." He squeezed her harder. "Six weeks ago, I thought my life was gonna end in that hellhole in South America, and today I see a beautiful future for us all. What more could I ask for?"
Vin leaned against the doorframe of his office, and waited for Brodie to end his call. He made a conscious effort not to read his thoughts. Once Hawks replaced the receiver, he asked, "You done?"
Stretching back in the chair, Brodie nodded. "Yep, as of this moment, I am officially unemployed, and legally I don't even exist." He vacated Vin's chair, and walked over to the stack of boxes in the corner, idly fingering the labels. "I have to go to Virginia sometime in the next couple of weeks and sign papers, but no more secret life, or long covert assignments, and I reckon I need to do something about becoming legal again."
Tilting his head to indicate the boxes, Vin smiled. "There's a lot of Tanner family history in those files if you're interested. I've been meanin' to sort through it, but my leisure time's been scarce the past few months."
"Hell, I could probably recite most of it from memory. My daddy loved to tell stories heard 'em since I was big enough to sit on his lap." He cut his eyes to Vin. "You're too big to sit on my lap, but I still remember most of them if you're interested."
Vin nodded, not answering directly. He and his father still had plenty to discuss, and he figured there was no better time than now to do it. "We never did get to take that ride you up for it now?"
"Ready when you are lead on."
Vin led Peso over to saddle him. "You can ride Midnight, if you think you can handle him. I haven't worked with him in a while, and he does have a wild streak."
Brodie grinned. "I've forgotten more about horses than you know, and most who know me, say I have a wild streak of my own. If he has four legs, I can ride him." He reached for the bridle, and soon had Midnight ready. Stepping into the stirrup, he swung his long leg over the saddle, and joined his son, who was waiting for him.
They rode without speaking; Vin led the way, and soon reached the edge of Larabee 7 property. Dismounting, he threw the reins over a branch, and walked over to a large boulder. "This marks the boundary between L7 ranchland, and my property. Figured if we're goin' to talk, it should be on Tanner land." Vin sat on his haunches and picked up a twig. "I've been thinkin' about what I wanted to say don't see much point in rehashin' the past. You did what you thought was best at the time. I have no right to second-guess any of that. I am disappointed you didn't find a way to tell me the truth after I was grown you had plenty of opportunities."
Sitting next to his son, Brodie nodded. "I did and I should've there were many times I wanted to, but I felt I had no right to claim you after being absent so long. I won't make up an excuse because there is none." He looked at Vin, with regret showing in his eyes. "I screwed up you deserved to know."
Staring out at the land below, Vin realized that the whys, could haves, and should haves, did not really matter, when the wants and desires of the heart were strong. Just as Kelli had forgiven him for his screw-ups he could forgive his father because love did not set conditions it just was. It all came down to what he wanted, and he wanted his father in his life. "Then I reckon we should only discuss the past when we work on the family history for my kids." He broke the twig in his hand, and turned to his father. "So since James Wyatt Tanner is legally dead how do we undead him, and what does he want to do?"
Brodie breathed a relieved sigh. "I've been giving that some thought. Your cousin Wyatt is running the family ranch, and from what I hear, he's doing a good job at it. Another Wyatt Tanner could confuse his business dealings. Your grandmother was the only person who ever called me James, and your mother always called me JW. I've been Brodie off and on for thirty years. Unless you object I thought I'd legally petition to change my name to Brodie James Wyatt Tanner."
"I reckon that fits you. Hell, you were Brodie longer than you were Wyatt." Vin brought up something that weighed heavily on his mind. "Your father stimulated in his will, that if you were declared legally dead, your inheritance passed on to me. It was held in trust for me until I found out about the Texas Tanners, but it belongs to you."
"No I don't want to get entangled in all that. I have more than enough to live on, and what's mine goes to you eventually anyway. You keep that trust with four kids; you're going to need it to pay for their college." Vin started to protest, but Brodie stopped him. "If it's mine, then I can decide where it goes it's yours, deal with it, and move on. I want to find me a piece of land, and build me a cabin like yours away from the hassle of the city."
"I hoped you might think that way, and I know just the place. Kel and I already discussed it, and we'd like you to have half of those eighty acres down there." Vin pointed toward the land next to their cabin." We don't need it all, and have no plans to build on it. You could take the forty acres north of the lake, and build the cabin you want. We'd still have our privacy, and so would you, plus you're close enough to visit the kids and us. If you want to live somewhere else, you'd at least have a mountain retreat."
"Sounds good," he grinned, "if the price is right."
"It is we're deedin' it to you, and before you say no .it's ours, we decide what we want to do with it, and we want you livin' close by. It's yours, deal with it, and move on."
Brodie nodded, smiling when Vin threw his words back at him. "I accept, but only if you agree to help with the building plans."
"Now tell me how did you learn about the Texas Tanners?"
"That's a long story, and one I'm not sure you'd believe."
"Try me, you might be surprised." Brodie leaned back against the boulder, anticipating a good long story.
Vin sighed, and sat down, too. "It all started when I began to have visions while I was in Santa Fe, and has a lot to do with your great-grand father Hawk the Hunter."
Next in the MCAT Strength in Solidarity Series: # 7 ~ Winds of Change
*Vin's poem, Chapters 7 & 18, written by Sue M