Family Matters
Family Matters

MCAT: Hell of a Ride #2: Family Trilogy Part 1
by - Tannertexaslady & Wendymypooh

"What lies behind us, and what lies before us, are tiny matters compared to what lies within us." Ralph Waldo Emerson

Characters: Seven, OCS, the Wild Bunch, and MCAT Team members. OW Seven and Special reference to MCAT Charlie Team in Texas.

*Brodie aka Raven first appeared in Series 1/Reconciliation. Ancestors made their presence known in Series 2/ Shades of Gray/MCAT San Antonio est. Turn the Page

The MCAT AU: 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. Series #3 brings MCAT to its fated conclusion. Further background and information about the characters of MCAT, and the Larabee 7 families, is available @ Magnificent Seven Heaven

Family Matters: Family is family, past and present, whether by blood, birth, marriage, work associations or community. When a missing person report hits close to home, it makes solving the new MCAT case even more imperative. The twists and turns into a strange subculture stemming from an alternative lifestyle, pushes the known beliefs of typical law enforcement into a weird encounter.

Tannertexaslady: Any mistakes are mine. The original characters in the MCAT series belong to the authors who created them. Wendy, you have been there from the start, thanks for agreeing to finish the journey. Series 3 will conclude the MCAT adventure. While it has already been one hell of a ride for me and muse, series 3 holds a special place for me. This set of 7 stories will be the ultimate ride. Muse is in complete control and I hope y’all like where she takes us.

Wendymypooh: I am honored to be once again writing with Sherry. MCAT has, and will always, hold a very special place in my heart.

Acknowledgments: Mary Ann thanks for signing on as collage maker for series 3. Sue, your poems are awesome, and a great addition for the series. Muse Ladies...thank you. Nancy, the home you give the boys @ blackraptor is greatly appreciated. Miranda and Karissa, thank you.

Disclaimer: This story is a work of fiction for entertainment purposes, based on the characters from ‘The Magnificent Seven.’ I don’t own 'em. No infringement of any copyrights intended. Any references to locations or people are for story use, and do not intend to depict any real place or person.


Chapter 1

Vin's personal journal:

Been a while since I wrote in here, but to be fair it’s been one hell of year, and my life was in an upheaval for most of it. So, reckon I should play catch-up.

In April, rebels kidnapped and tortured Buck and me. We figured we would never return to our loved ones, but our brothers didn't give up, and rescued us from a South American hell. In addition, I discovered a man I knew for years as Raven, was my father, Brodie. We found common ground, and day by day, our bond becomes stronger. Mallory retired in May and started a new career counseling abused women. Chris and Cait married in June, adopted Jesse, and another little Larabee is on the way. Ezra and Barbara had a baby girl in August, and little Pearl is the light of their lives.

An accident in August almost cost me my life, but love pulled me through. In September, we lost Casey and Nettie. In October, Kelli fell ill, and when we found out she was pregnant, I thought I would lose both her and the baby, yet our faith and love prevailed. Her health bounced back after emergency surgery, and we expect another Tanner heir sometime in May. Thanksgiving Day we spent with family at Ezra's home. It's been a rough year for the rest of the Wild Bunch, too, and we all had reasons to be thankful.

We all have struggled with ‘The Legacy’, which Tracker, Cowboy, and the other old boys passed on to us, yet slowly we are making some sense of it. Personally, I go back to MCAT work in two days, and still wrestle with my path as a Heart Warrior. I am confident our Legacy will provide the answers I need in its own time, but it is frustrating and a test of my patience. My recent vision is troubling and confusing. Before I can decipher its meaning, I must wait for more clues to make their presence known to me. Last Friday, Kel and I had breakfast with our kids before we turned them over to Brodie. We then took a flight to Santa Fe, New Mexico, rented a truck, and spent a good part of the day retracing the steps of Tracker and his Anne.

My great-great-grandfather and I are a lot alike; still, I have not completely understood our deeper connection. A hundred plus years ago his and Anne’s fates crossed paths, but their timing was wrong. He had a destiny to fulfill with six lost brothers, and she sacrificed her life to make certain he lived to complete his journey. As I stood at her grave, the purpose of our link hit me. All that was of him is within me, as Anne is in her great-great grandniece, Kelli. Mistress Fate took more than a few twists and turns, and over more than a century to correct her error in time, while she set things right for them. I sensed the affirmation of that at her grave, and even stronger when we drove on to Texas, and stood at Tracker's burial site in the Tanner Family Cemetery.

My cousin Wyatt and his wife, Janet, met us at the Tanner Triple T, and welcomed me home. Funny, all the time I thought I was alone, part of my spirit remained here where my father, and our ancestors lived and loved. I took the long way around to return, but now the circle is complete. My past and present are one, and Kelli and I will finish the earthly journey Fate denied Tracker and Anne.

We shared supper with Wyatt and Janet, and he gave us a map to our hilltop vacation home. Brodie visited here two weeks ago and set up a getaway for Kel and me to enjoy. As Raven, he prepared the cabin in Colorado, and I was impressed. This time though, Dad out did himself and made certain we experienced a slice of heaven in Texas. Yesterday we drove over to old Fort Concho, played tourist, and shopped for Christmas gifts before we hunted for arrowheads to add to Jason's collection. Afterwards, we ate barbecue at the Texas Roadhouse, and stopped at a local country dance club for a while. I reckon I kinda showed off riding that mechanical bull. Hell, what can I say? It made Kel happy. We came back here, settled in, worked on our baby diary, and loved the night away

Today we enjoyed a lazy breakfast, walked a few trails, and talked for hours. When we returned, Kelli fell asleep on the sofa. She needed her rest, so I decided to record my thoughts and conclusions. I hate to think about leaving tomorrow, but our trip put my life in perspective for me. I'll let Kel read my musing tonight, along with something special I’m sure she will like,

What Lies Within

This man you see before you, has ventured on a journey,
To walk a path that seeks the truth,
A part of me that from my youth
Was treacherous and lonely.

My passage brought me brothers, six men I could rely on,
To watch my back and stand with me,
While we fulfil our destiny,
And serve at duty’s calling.

And then I met a vision, of beauty, grace, and passion,
Who stirred in me a need and love,
A blessing sent from Heaven above,
That sent my senses soaring.

My soul mate stands beside me, through trials and tribulations,
You keep me strong, you share my pain,
You walk with me through fire and rain

Supplying no restrictions.

This love is unconditional, my heart is yours forever,
What lies within is yours to see,
and offered for eternity,
While vowed to fail you never.

Empowered by those around us, we are alone no longer,
Our passion searing as the sun,
Our bodies joined our spirits one,
‘Til journey’s end. Together.

Vin closed his journal, grabbed his camera, and moved over to catch a shot of his wife for their baby's diary before she awoke. He dropped to one knee beside the couch, smoothed his hand across her baby bump, and whispered to the life within. "You, little one, fought to be here, and are livin' proof that the infinite journey of the strong Tanner and Larabee men and women who came before you continues.

+ + + + + + +

The Jacksons made time for their anticipated trip to Colorado Springs

After stirring the fire, Nathan twirled the poker and slashed through the air. "En guard."

Rain giggled, "You're crazy, but I love you."

He returned the poker to the tool holder and dropped down on the couch beside his wife. "I used to be good at fencing. Now, I'm so out of practice, I think even Terrell could beat me."

She leaned into his side. "You know what they say, "All work and no play make Nathan a grouchy man."

"Funny, I thought we played all morning, and I'm not the least bit grouchy." He kissed the top of her head and brushed her bare hip with his fingers. "In fact, the past two days were damn near perfect as far as I'm concerned."

Her blood warmed to his touch, and her pulse quickened. "You chose the ideal place for us. I love it here…always have." She turned in his arms. "Remember the first time? I was still in medical school, and you'd moved to Colorado from Kansas City. No more long-distance romance…we came here to celebrate."

"Yep, and we've been together ever since." He shifted his hand to her backside, lowered his lips to her neck, and inhaled her scent. "I love you woman, and in the future, we're going to make more time for weekends like to this."

"Umm…keep doing that and our lunch will be late."

+ + + + + + +

Meanwhile, it was Chris’ turn to host the brothers.

Ezra smirked as he laid down four queens and raked in the pot. "Thank you, gentlemen, I enjoy taking your money. Buck, I believe it's your deal."

"Shoot, I'm done." Buck threw his cards in the middle of the table and glanced towards the door. "I'm broke, hungry, and ready to enjoy some football."

"Can't help you with the money, but there's food on the counter, and the game doesn't start for another thirty minutes." Chris passed his cards to Josiah. "He's not coming, Buck."

Ezra helped Josiah clear the table. "I dare say our young brother found something far more interesting than football to entertain him on a Sunday afternoon."

"Reality check, Buck. The only ones who don't know that we know about them are JD and Tess." Josiah chuckled. "It's the best un-kept secret in the Wild Bunch."

Buck pushed back his chair and headed to the counter to raid the chip, dips, and sandwiches Cait had prepared for them before she went to her parents' home with the kids. "Why don't JD come out and say they're seeing each other? Hell, I think young love's great."

"The same reason, Vin kept Kelli under wraps, and I kept Barbara to myself, as long as possible." Ezra stole a chip off Buck's plate. "Our Wild Bunch tends to overwhelm new members. Once a relationship is in the open, alone time disappears."

"Amen to that," Chris grinned to soften his response. "I love them all, but nothing gets by our Wild Bunch."

"Speaking of …" Josiah picked up a sandwich. "Is everything all right with Cait? Mallory said she's been a little distracted."

Chris closed his eyes. It was damn hard to keep anything from this bunch. "She's pregnant, still working part-time, corrals two preschoolers, and a teenager, who spends more time in his room than with the family. What makes you think something's wrong?"

"Point taken. Jesse always acts so grown up. I forget sometimes he's still a teen." Josiah sat in the recliner and picked up the remote. "I'm glad we have a few years to go with JoAnne and Adam."

Buck settled in the other recliner, surrounded by a bowl of chips, and a big plate of food. "Pre-teens are not easy to handle either, and with girls, you've got all those intense adolescent hormones. Nowadays, with all the stuff going on at school, they don't have to hit thirteen to develop an attitude."

Ezra passed around bottles of beer. "I don't even want to think about Pearl starting school. Please…let me savor the moments of her babyhood, and not experience nightmares of what's to come."

Buck took the bottle and sat it between his knees. "Keep 'em coming, Ezra. Since we don't need to be at work until Tuesday, I plan on nursing a hangover tomorrow."

"Turn up the sound, Josiah, the pre-game show is starting." Chris stretched out on the couch; however, his mind was on Cait. Soon, they needed to share their news, but she was not ready yet. As for Jesse, he planned to talk with him later tonight. One way or another he would find out what troubled his son.

+ + + + + + +

JD took Tess by the hand and led her into his movie room. "I can't believe we got all four children down for a nap at the same time."

"Well, it might have something to do with the ice cream you promised them." Tess smiled when JD shrugged his shoulders.

"Bribery worked, and if luck is on our side, we’ll have at least an hour alone before they wake up." He sat on the couch and pulled her down beside him. You wanna watch a movie or," he wriggled his eyebrows, "make out?"

"Hmmm…decisions, decisions…." She giggled when JD growled and leaned in for a kiss that started out slow and then deepened.

It did not take long for them to enter dangerous territory. JD forced himself to pull back and took a moment to rein in his physical desires. He gazed into Tess’ eyes. "We’ve discussed this, and I respect how you feel, but …"

She placed her finger against his lips. "It's not you…. don’t think for a second that I doubt you, John Daniel. After Troy… I need to be certain I'm ready for that kind of commitment again, and it would be more than a fling with you. Once we make love, there won't be any turning back, you know it, and so do I. We owe it to our children and ourselves to be sure about where we're headed."

JD understood her reservations. After Casey and Talia, he did not have absolute confidence in his judgment either, and he cared for Tess too much to screw things up between them. He nodded. "We wait, when the time's right I want us to be ready for the next step." He smiled and nuzzled her cheek with his nose. "I promise you when we do make love, we'll both be ready for that commitment." He reached over her picking up a handful of DVDs. "You choose the movie, but no sex, romance, or suggestive ones. I don't think my libido could handle anything like that right now."

Tess placed a chaste kiss on his lips and smiled. "You're a good man, John Daniel." She browsed through the movies and chose a show about holiday cooking. "This one should be safe enough for now and give us some ideas for Christmas dinner. You did ask for my help hosting, yes?" When he nodded and rose to load the disc, Tess sighed. Not that she needed one; however, JD had given her another reason to love him.

+ + + + + + +

Jesse asked permission to go to his room the minute he finished eating and cleared the table. Chris glanced at Cait and nodded. The past two weeks their son withdrew more every day. A father-son talk was long overdue.

Cait pulled the dishtowel from her husband's hand. "Grace and Cody are in the playroom. I'll take care of the dishes. You go talk to Jesse."

On his way down the hallway to the playroom, Chris peeked over the child safety gate, which blocked the entrance. Grace and Cody were busy building a castle from blocks and did not even notice him. With a smile on his face, he moved on to Jesse's room and knocked on the door before he entered.

He did not miss the computer screen flash as he walked in, and his son's hurried attempt to shuffle the papers on his desk. "You finished all your homework?"

"Didn't have any. I was just messing around with some drawings."

Chris walked over to stand behind Jesse and placed his hands on his son's shoulders. "I take it you're enjoying art class?"

Jesse shrugged. "It's okay. I'm not nearly as good as the other students."

Chris reached down and picked up one piece that drew his attention. The art was different, to say the least. Dark and brooding, he figured it was supposed to be an angel. He almost missed the artist's name written in the bottom corner. "Bianca? This isn’t yours?"

Jesse grabbed it and shook his head. "In art, not everyone's a freshman like me. One of the older girls in the class drew it."

"I see," Chris recognized the signs of defensiveness in Jesse's actions, and decided to probe a little. "I didn't realize some of your art classes were mixed grades. This girl, Bianca, you're friends?"

"Kinda, she's nice to me, but …. well, she’s seventeen, and I'm fourteen, and … a freshman." Jesse slipped the drawing under his mouse pad. "She draws all kinds of Goth stuff, and I think it's pretty cool."

Not prepared to admit that he had no idea what Goth stuff meant, Chris decided to change the subject. "Is there anything you want to talk about? School? The new baby? Girl problems? You know because a female is a little older, doesn't make her less attractive."

"Dad, I'm fine. I don't have a problem with schoolwork, and I'm looking forward to having a new brother or sister." Jesse bit his bottom lip. "I've been worried about my 'friend'…. Bianca. She hasn't shown up at school since way before Thanksgiving, and nobody knows why. It's not just me that's concerned…her other friends are too."

"Can I help in any way?"

Jesse contemplated his father's offer for a moment. "Nah…I guess sooner or later we'll hear from her, thanks anyway."

"If you think of anything …I'm always here for you."

"I know…. love you Dad."

"Love you too, Son."

Relieved to discover Jesse did not have a problem with the coming baby, or his schoolwork, Chris stood to leave. He figured Jesse liked Bianca more than he admitted. Their son was growing up too damn fast. He vowed, too, that before he went to bed tonight, he would know what Goth stuff meant. He exited, closed Jesse's door, and headed to his computer.

+ + + + + + +

After hours of thunderous noise inside the club, the silence of the night, filled Joanie Sikes with a sense of unease. A fleeting look towards the heavens confirmed the absence of the moon, and a misty haze, which obscured the stars. The young woman drew the hood of her jacket onto her head and turned East for the short jaunt to her apartment. She dismissed the eerie sensation that someone watched her every move, a by-product of a strange encounter earlier in the evening. Nonetheless, she hastened her steps, throwing apprehensive glances over her shoulder, while she covered the distance to her home. Joann’s heart raced, and adrenaline surged through her veins when the stairway came into view, but she resisted the urge to run.

Movement from a darkened corner of the doorway caught her attention. Too late, she realized an ominous peril lurked between her and shelter. A shadow swept down the steps without warning, knocking her to her knees. Stunned by the jolt, fear coursed through Joanie’s body before razor-sharp pain transported her into a bleak void of oblivion.

Chapter 2

Vin opened his eyes and listened to the night sounds in and around the cabin. Dark shadows swirled through his mind, and the ominous awareness of impending danger altered his senses. A slow drip from the kitchen faucet resounded throughout the bedroom. Gentle breezes rustled bushes by the window, creating a sagebrush symphony to entertain the nocturnal animals, which roamed the hills. Beside him, the calm and steady rhythm of Kelli's breathing assured him she was all right. Whatever the threat, it was not here.

Careful not to wake his wife, he eased out of bed, pulled on his jeans, and padded barefoot across the carpet to the rear of the hilltop cabin. Beams of light from a full moon illuminated the room through a panoramic window, casting a soft glow over the rustic interior. As Vin stood there, his mind raced back to the first visions he had in Santa Fe, which led to a hell of a lot of pain for his family. Then, he did not understand what the gift he shared with his Native American grandfather entailed. He had since learned the difference between bad dreams, prophetic images, and better understood his role of interpreter. His frustrations increased, especially after the battle vision a few nights earlier. Similar to the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, he had to link them together to get 'the full picture'. This mystery was just beginning and destined to test the limits of his patience before the final piece fell into place. In the meantime, someone he cared for was in danger, and even a Heart Warrior could do nothing to impede the threat.

The earthy fragrant mix of sandalwood, amber, and white rose drifted across the room. His redhead had tracked him down, and he sensed her presence. Prepared to accept that he must wait until his next vision revealed more information, he turned his attention to his wife. Vin smiled. "You gonna stand there or join me?" He pivoted in time to see her beautiful smile as she walked towards him.

"Had to admire the view."

Vin opened his arms, and Kelli stepped into his embrace. The moment she laid her head on his chest, he realized he needed her love to ground his dark mood. No matter what hell his visions dragged him into, she had the power to pull him back. How did she always know? Vin read her thoughts and grinned. While she no doubt had concerns about why he was out here, she still took time to access every small detail of his appearance. He especially liked her appraisal of his taut shoulder muscles bathed in moonlight, six-pack abs, and his gorgeous ass.

"Gorgeous?"

"I think you 'are' gorgeous, beautiful, sexy, and…overdressed." She kissed the faint scar on his chest and nipped at his shoulder.

"Sassy woman."

Before she had a chance to answer, he captured her lips with hungry urgency and pulled her closer.

Breaking off their kiss, she leaned back "We leave our Texas paradise in six hours. Wanna make another Lone Star memory?"

"My pleasure, ma'am." Together they journeyed to their special place, overflowing with comforting warmth, absolute trust, and unconditional love.

+ + + + + + +

Coffee cup in hand, Chris stared out the kitchen window. He had been at the computer until after midnight last night researching Goth subculture and learned more than he needed to know. While he understood teenagers wanted to show their individuality, he hoped Jesse only liked to view Goth art filled with dark angels, cemeteries, skulls, blood fantasies, and Vampires. Between sorting through examples of strange outfits, weird makeup, and listening to music groups named Disturbed, Bullet for my Valentine, and Theory of a Dead Man, his brain was still reeling. Whatever happened to Bon Jovi, Aerosmith, and Whitesnake?

Cait entered through the back door. "I dropped Jesse at school, and Grace and Cody at daycare. Are you ready to go?" She frowned. "Chris? …Honey, did you hear me?"

He turned towards the sound of his wife's voice. "What? Yeah, I'll take the kids to school." The knit of her brow told him he had answered wrong.

"I already did." Cait tilted her head and studied his profile. Chris the Protector was in full worry mode. With her hand, she cupped his cheek. "Jesse's a good kid; he's not going to go off the deep end on us. We'll keep an eye on our son and be here to support him. Stop worrying."

"Hell, Cait, I'm sorry…" Chris shook his head to clear his thoughts about Jesse, set his cup in the sink, and wrapped his arms around her waist. "I'm all yours for the rest of the day, and you have my undivided attention." He sensed her tension and tightened his hold. "Let's go get this ultrasound and see what Weeks says."

Today would be a long, anxious day, but the calm, smooth tone in his voice, reassured her. She nodded against his chest. "We can do this…right?"

"You bet we can, Babe."

She leaned back and smiled. "I'm ready."

Chris released her, grabbed the coats, and helped her with hers. He could do nothing to change the outcome of her tests, even so, his faith in their destiny steeled his resolve, and no matter what the results, they would be all right.

+ + + + + + +

Buck was on his second pot of coffee, and his head felt as if someone had used it for a bowling ball. He had lost track after beer number six at halftime but reckoned he should have quit while he was ahead. As he raised the cup to his lips with an unsteady grip, the back door banged open as JD bounded into the kitchen.

"Hey, Buck, beautiful morning huh?" He grabbed a mug and headed to the coffee pot.

Hot liquid sloshed on his hand, and Buck cursed, "Damn, Kid, don't yell." He set his cup on the table and pulled a napkin from the holder to sop up the spill. "Why are you so chipper today?"

Joining him, JD shrugged. "I love this time of the year. We've got a day off work, cold weather, snow, and twenty-five days 'til Christmas." He squinted and stared at Buck. "You look awful. You sick?"

"No, I … had a few too many beers while I watched the football game at Chris's yesterday. You know…the one you decided not to come over for." Buck's disappointment dripped into every word. "We missed you."

JD's gaze dropped. "Yeah…well…I figured I needed to spend a few extra hours with my kids. Who knows when another hot case will come along, and force us to work late nights? It's not like they have a mother around to make up for me being gone."

Buck had no argument for that and for a moment wondered what he would do in JD's position. Jobs as Federal Agents demanded attention and big chunks of time. So do families. Without Inez to anchor their home life, how could he and their children cope? He hoped he never had to find out. Maybe he should cut the Kid some slack.

"Reckon you want to spend today with 'em, too."

JD shook his head. Like it or not, his girls begged to go to preschool. They loved the classes and their teacher, and since Tess had to work, too, with a bit of reluctance, he agreed. "I dropped all three at daycare on my way over. I'm gonna pick them up at four, and head over to the mall for pictures with Santa…Tess and Keira are coming, too."

Buck waited a moment to see if JD would say more, but he failed to elaborate. "That sounds like fun. So, what's on your agenda the rest of today?"

JD grinned and threw in his peace offering. "Thought you and I might get in a few games of pool before lunch, but…if you don't wanna get beat I understand."

"That'll be the day…you're on, Kid." Buck reached for his jacket and yelled up the stairs to Inez. "Headed to JD's for a bit, be back by lunchtime."

JD's life was about to change for the better, even if he did not realize it yet. That, Buck understood. He did look forward to the day the Kid shared Tess with them. For now, he'd stand back and let events unfold on his brother's timetable.

+ + + + + + +

Terrell shrieked when his father's van came into view. His morning vigil had ended. He dropped the curtain, jumped off the couch, and called to his sister. "They're here." Ronesha ran as fast as her little legs could, to join her brother. Still, both had to wait until Uncle Josiah opened the door before they welcomed their parents back.

When Nathan and Rain entered the Sanchez home, they experienced a few minutes of blissful chaos with their children. Once the kids wore down, the Jackson's joined Mallory and Josiah for coffee and pulled out a packet of vacation pictures.

Rain passed the photos to Mallory. "We had a wonderful trip. By day, we made the tourist rounds, and by night…" she smiled at her husband, "let's just say we're an 'us' again."

Nathan grinned as he covered her hand with his. "Yes, we are."

The couples spent the better part of an hour talking, and the Sanchez and Jackson families shared a noon meal.

+ + + + + + +

At the hospital, the morning hours flew by, filled with blood tests, examinations, and another ultrasound. They took a break to enjoy a long lunch, and now the Larabees sat in Helen Weeks' private office awaiting results. Their last ultrasound indicated a possible serious medical condition for their baby. The fear of the unknown had been extremely difficult to handle. Between consultations with specialists and genetic counselors, it all came down to this moment.

Doctor Weeks closed Cait's chart, removed her glasses, and turned her attention to the couple seated across from her. She understood the anxiety the Larabees had experienced since their last appointment and wanted to put them at ease as quickly as possible. "The level three ultrasound is one of the best tools at our disposal to detect problems early enough to make a difference. Doctor Richards and I both studied yours Cait, and aside from our initial discovery, there's no reason to expect more complications. Situs Inversus occurs in one out of eighty-five hundred births …

Chris's impatience surfaced. "We understand Situs Inversus means our baby has reversed organs. What we need to know…is our baby’s life at risk?"

"No." The doctor witnessed the change in both Larabees when she answered. "Doctor Richards could find no problem with the heart. Of course, we'll examine the child after birth to be certain, and aside for having to explain to physicians, his or her entire life that their organs are a perfect mirror image of normal anatomy…. heart on the right, appendix on the left, etc., you have no reason to worry."

Cait closed her eyes, squeezed Chris's hand, and sent up a silent prayer of thanks. He asked for both, "You said him or her…I thought this test would tell us…"

"Oh, it did." Helen smiled. "Are you positive you want to know?"

Chris's attention moved to his wife and raised his hand to wipe the tears from her eyes. "Absolutely."

The doctor stood and handed Chris a DVD copy of the ultrasound. "Your daughter’s first home movie."

As her tears formed again, Cait whispered, "A girl?"

Giving Cait a moment to compose herself, the doctor continued, "We’ll keep a close watch on you, but so far, I see no reason to worry. Although I do expect to see you next week, and every week thereafter until your baby arrives. Now go home, get plenty of rest, and enjoy your movie."

Chris struggled with his emotions, but Cait appeared too overwhelmed to speak. He decided one of them should answer the doctor. "We'll be here, Doc, thank you." He shook Helen's hand and then helped Cait with her coat.

Outside the building, they were both giddy, feeling truly blessed. Their sweet baby girl was healthy and safe. Life was good. Chris opened the truck door and assisted his wife inside before he rounded the vehicle and climbed into the driver's seat.

Cait leaned back, and relaxed. "Let's announce our miracle blessing at Christmas."

Chris leaned over and brushed his fingers against her cheek. "In case I failed to say it today, "I love you, Missus Larabee."

"I love you too, Mister Larabee." Cait smiled when his cell rang. "Better answer that."

Grumbling, Chris reached for his cell and snapped it open, barking his name, "Larabee." He listened…." Are you certain? yes…I understand…No…I'm in Denver, but we could be there in about thirty minutes…. thanks." He closed the phone, and turned to Cait, not able to hide his concern from her.

"What...tell me…Chris?"

"That was the school principal… Jesse's missing."

Chapter 3

The trip to the high school took only thirty minutes. For two worried parents, it was an eternity. On the drive over, Chris did his best to reassure Cait, along with himself that they had nothing to fear. Principal Davis had explained his call was not to scare, but instead inform them of Jesse's unusual behavior. The couple now sat in Aaron Davis's office listening to the reasons not to panic.

The Larabees were not strangers to Davis. He knew Chris, Cait, and their adopted son well. "As a parent myself, I understand your alarm, and if I believed Jesse ran away, I would have made my second call to the police."

Chris leaned forward. "You said on the phone, you think he'll come back. What makes you so certain?"

"The student that I talked to told me this is not the first time Jesse has cut school and asked him to cover his absence. Twice last week, he did the same thing, and returned before his final class of the day." Davis shifted in his chair and made eye contact with Larabee. "Jesse is a good student, and until now, I've had no problems with him, but I 'm aware of his concerns regarding a classmate, who evidently, did run away…I think he's looking for her."

"Bianca." Chris gripped Cait's hand harder, and closed his eyes, wishing he had pushed his son for more information about his absent friend.

"Yes, Bianca Lanier. She's in Jesse's art class and has a long history of problems at home."

Cait gave Chris a quick look, and then the principal. "You think Jesse will come back here?"

"I'd bet on it; however, if you and your husband want to treat this as a runaway situation and call in a missing child report, I'll do whatever I can to help."

Chris weighed his options. "What time does his last class begin?"

"Two-fifty-five," Davis scanned Jesse's schedule, "English, room three hundred."

Cait squeezed her husband's hand. "I don't believe Jesse is a runner. I vote we wait."

Glancing at the wall clock, Chris weighed his options. If Jesse did not return by three, he would call in his team, and turn Denver inside out to find him. "All right, but if he doesn't show up for his English class all bets are off and we go active."

Principal Davis understood the difficulty of making their decision. "I'll be at his classroom door. The minute he shows, I will escort him to my office and turn him over to you. School-wise, he'll receive a one-day suspension; the rest is in your hands."

"Appreciate it." The cushion creaked as Chris leaned back in his seat, prepared to wait, and keep a close eye on Cait. She did not need the extra stress in her condition; however, so far, she was handling the situation well. Another glance at the clock said they had thirty minutes to go…. ten lifetimes for a worried parent.

+ + + + + + +

Their flight from Texas was a smooth one, and Kelli had slept most of the way to Denver. Vin insisted, in spite of her protests, on a stop at the hospital to have blood drawn for her weekly test. She sulked a while, but using his charm and wit, he improved her mood before they reached L7.

Vin pulled his Silverado in front of the house and cut the engine. He had sensed Chris's agitation the moment their plane landed. Noting Standish's parked Jag increased his concern. Instinct told him something was brewing, although at this point, he had no reason to worry his wife, and simply stated the obvious. "Ezra's here."

"Did you call him with our arrival time?" Kelli unsnapped her seat belt.

"Nope," Vin opened his door, "Everthin's covered in ice. Stay put and I'll come around." As he rounded the truck, he tried to reach out to Chris, receiving no response. Extending a hand to his wife, he forced a smile. "I'm glad we went, but it's good to be home."

Kelli slipped off the heated seat and shivered when the cold air hit her. "I loved our trip, even though I missed the kids. Reckon we could take the twins out of daycare early?"

"Why don't we get the Christmas presents we brought back put up first?" he anchored his wife beside him to guide her over the icy sidewalk. "Once 'I' unload the truck, we'll go get the boys."

"I'm not feeble, you know. I can help." She grinned at his growled response. After three days of running around San Angelo, dancing at the club, arrowhead hunting, and vigorous lovemaking in Texas, she found the emergence of his protective stance about ice on the walkway, and extra physical exertion, amusing, and …endearing. "Okay, Cowboy, you're the boss."

Vin had to smile. It was nice to hear the words, but he knew better. Kelli did things her own way, and the minute his back was turned, she would do as she damn well pleased. He reckoned that was one of the reasons he loved her, and why his life was never boring. "Come on, woman. Let's find out what Ez is up to."

+ + + + + + +

Ezra beamed with fatherly pride. His little Pearl had Max wrapped around her finger. When Barbara decided to go back to work, they had to face the childcare issue. Neither he nor Barbara wanted to put Pearl in daycare, yet the idea of hiring a live-in Nanny made them uncomfortable. Thus, the couple had postponed making a final decision…. until today. Barbara was due in court, and probably every day for the rest of the week. In addition, after being off since before the Thanksgiving holiday, he returned to work tomorrow. They needed an acceptable solution. Yesterday Barbara called Cait for advice, and she suggested that one of them talk to Max. When the Tanner twins started daycare, she had only Kelli and Vin to care for until school was out, and the Texan would be returning to work on Tuesday, too.

Consequently, Ezra now sat at the Tanners' kitchen table, talking to Max, and judging from Pearl's response, it was a match made in heaven. "I believe my daughter approves…that is if you're willing…."

Max did not let him finish. "Of course, I'm willing," She smiled down at the baby in her arms. "Pearl is an angel."

"You would be well compensated. Nevertheless, I understand if you need to discuss this with Vin or Kelli first."

"Discuss what?" Vin asked as he and Kelli entered through the back door.

"Welcome home." Max's eyes scanned them both, looking for any sign of ill health. She had been concerned about the trip to Texas being too much, too soon. Satisfied that neither appeared worse for wear, she explained, "Ezra and Barbara are entrusting me with the care of their daughter, at least on the days she has to work away from home."

Kelli peered over Max's shoulder at the contented infant. "Can I hold her?" She smiled when the older woman complied.

Vin spoke to Ezra but kept his gaze fixed on his wife. "She doesn't need to discuss anythin' with us. Max decides for herself." The vision of Kelli cradling Pearl made him lose his train of thought. His redhead had the ability to steal his breath as a sexy vixen, and his heart when her maternal nature surfaced. She carried his child, and the sparkle of delight in her eyes was irresistible. "I reckon it's a done deal, Ez."

Ezra witnessed the bonding in progress. His daughter had made another conquest. "I concur. Pearl chooses well."

"Yes, she does." Vin did not mind at all having Pearl around because her presence resolved two of his biggest concerns. A baby in the house on a daily basis could give his wife time to adjust to him, and the boys, not being home during the day….and Max had someone else to 'mother hen', instead of Kelli. ‘Okay, Chris, your turn…what the hell is wrong?'

+ + + + + + +

Chris gave up sitting twenty minutes ago. Now he paced the small office, waiting for the principal to return, he hoped with Jesse. Stopping in mid-stride, he listened to the voice in his head. 'I'll get back to you on that one, Vin.'

"Honey, are you all right?" Cait appreciated Chris's concern about her stress level; however, he was clearly the agitated half of their partnership, and it worried her. She patted the chair beside her. "Maybe you should sit."

"What I need is for Jesse to walk through that door." Chris plopped down next to his wife. "Class began five minutes ago…you think…." He jumped up when the doorknob turned and held his breath while waiting to see who entered. Jesse walked in, and Chris exhaled, not certain if he needed to hug him or yell.

Cait decided for both. "Hello, Jesse. We're here to take you home." She moved to stand beside their son and nodded to Davis. "Thank you."

Aaron Davis had no doubt the Larabees would talk with the distressed youth and set him straight. "Jesse already knows he has a one-day suspension, and I've signed him out for the day."

Jesse looked his father in the eye. "I'm sorry, Dad."

Chris placed a hand on his son's shoulder. "We'll discuss this at home." He gave the principal a curt nod. "Jesse will report to you Wednesday morning." Three Larabees walked to Chris's truck and made the fifteen-minute trip to the ranch in silence.

Once he parked the Ram, Chris told Jesse to wait for him while he escorted his wife to the house. At the door, they stopped. "I have a good idea about what Jesse is doing. Let's see if he’ll talk to me, if not then you can try."

Cait encountered this sort of situation on a regular basis in her profession but she was not convinced she could be objective when it concerned Jesse. "All right…don't be too hard on his punishment. Knowing we're disappointed will be worse for him than anything else we do."

Chris smiled and kissed her. "It'll be okay…trust me."

"I do."

"Right answer, Mama. Now go rest, while I take on our teenager." Chris waited until she went inside before he returned to Jesse. Without slowing down, he nodded to the barn. "Come help me with the horses."

Jesse's mind raced, and his old insecurities rushed to the surface. Cait and Chris had trusted him, and he blew it. He did not blame them if they decided he was too much trouble, and sent him away, the same as his foster families had. Unlike then…this time he deserved it.

In the barn, he let go. "I'm sorry, Dad. I don't blame you for wanting me gone. Please give me a second chance; I promise I won't cut school ever again. I'll do my chores, make better grades, and…."

"Whoa!" Chris whirled around to stand in front of Jesse and gripped his shoulders. "You're our son and nobody is sending you anywhere. We're going to talk…and you have some explaining to do, but never think for one second Mom and I will give up on you…ever."

Jesse swallowed hard and shifted his head to gaze at the barn floor.

Chris closed his eyes and reminded himself that while Jesse acted more mature than other children did his age; his past was never far beneath the surface of his emotions. Adoption papers did not erase the pain of rejection Jesse had experienced most of his life. He steered his son to a hay bale and urged him to sit as he stretched out beside him. "Jesse, we all do things sometimes that sound right at the time, and yet get out of control fast. I'm sure you had your reasons for cutting class, and I'll listen to them, but no matter what…you belong to us, and nothing you say or do will change that."

The teen fidgeted, while he fought his emotions. In the end, he decided to tell his father everything. "I tried to find Bianca...they say she ran away, but I don’t think so."

"Why are you so certain?"

Jesse raised his head to look at Chris. "She was excited about her future, worked hard to keep her grades up, and already planned which art school she wanted to attend. Said it was her ticket out of a horrible home life…. Bianca comes from a foster home… the parents aren't the same as you and Cait…they… don't seem to care what she does or where she goes. Bianca wanted a better life for herself, after being shuffled around from one place to another…she wouldn't risk losing all the good things she had planned."

"And you figured you could find her when the police can't?"

"Her foster parents are convinced she ran away, and only called the caseworker. They didn't even make a police report. Principal Davis did though, and the desk sergeant said since she's seventeen, unless there was evidence of foul play, she's considered a runaway, and they couldn't launch a search."

Chris's brows narrowed. "You mean no one investigated her disappearance?"

"No, but…I have a list of the places she hung out, and a picture of Bianca…. I thought maybe I'd find her…" he retrieved a paper from his pocket and handed it to Chris. "Guess it wasn't such a good idea, but I kept thinking of her alone with no one to count on… somebody had to do something."

It broke Chris's heart that Jesse understood how Bianca felt, and too many times, he had no one there for him, but no more. "Well, you're not alone now." Chris scanned the list, surprised at the detailed outline Jesse had made. "I'll make a few calls and follow up on these leads for you. Though I want your word that you'll come to me or your Mom when you need help, and you won't cut school again."

"I promise."

Chris's back protested as he rose, forcing an involuntary groan. "You have a one-day suspension from school, but I can't allow you to go unpunished at home." He pursed his lips and thought for a moment, prior to making his decision. "No games or computer time for forty-eight hours, you'll apologize to your mother to make up for scaring the wits out of her, and…help me groom the horses before we go up to the house."

Grateful that his father cared enough to administer a fair reprimand; Jesse threw his arms around Chris and hugged him. "Thanks, Dad, and next time I'll come to you and won't run off on my own."

As a parent, Chris understood the day was coming that his son would not consult him for advice or permission. Until then, he planned to teach him about fairness, the value of trust, and he hoped how to make good decisions. Jesse was young…they still had the gift of time on their side.

On his return to the house, Chris made several calls, while Jesse delivered his apology to his mother. His old friend, Lou Masterson, a detective for the Denver Police Department, took all the information Jesse had collected and promised to investigate Bianca's disappearance. Larabee faxed him a copy of the girl's photo, and then called her foster parents. The conversation with Mister Chanson was short and ugly. Jesse was right about them…they were not interested in finding her. The last call he made was to Vin to explain what was going on, check on his daughter's health, and gain assurance that Tanner would be at work tomorrow morning.

+ + + + + + +

Kelli was busy telling Brodie about their trip, while Jason and Andi sat on the floor absorbing every word, while the twins climbed all over her. Vin replaced the phone receiver and rejoined his family. He had to step across the older children, and pick Trey up before he could sit beside his wife.

She turned her head in his direction. "Everthin' okay?"

"Yep," Vin grunted when Trey plopped on his stomach, "Chris wanted to find out how you were, and make sure I'm up to comin' into work."

Brodie corralled Bren, which gave his daughter-in-law breathing room. "I think the trip did you both good."

"Well, I feel great, and I can attest that Vin is in fine condition. In fact…" Kelli's eyes sparkled with mischief, and her smile signaled trouble to Tanner, "I have pictures to prove it."

Vin growled her name as a warning, "Kel…you wouldn't."

"Wait and see, Cowboy." She took the opportunity to escape, using the flimsy excuse of checking Andi and Jason's homework.

Once she, Jason, and Andi departed, and the twins scrambled down to follow them, Brodie grinned. "She sounds like her old self; I gather you two had a helluva time in Texas."

"We did, and did you get the opportunity to confer with Chris while we were gone?"

Brodie nodded, "Yes, and he appeared relieved when I made my proposal."

"Good, one loose end he won’t have to worry over for now," Vin hesitated before changing the subject. "Kel is better, but I want you to keep an eye on her for me when I'm at work

"You expecting trouble, Son?"

Vin shook his head and leaned forward. "Kel feels good but can't return to MCAT until the doc says so… with me gone, Jason and Andi in school, and the boys at daycare, it won't take long for her to get bored. Trust me… Kelli tends to find trouble when she's at loose ends."

"I think you worry too much. I'll stay close by, and Kel will be fine." Brodie noted the rise of Vin’s brow and smiled. "Son, I've planned major ops to combat and capture some of the most elusive terrorists in the world, I can keep track of one Tanner redhead."

"Uh huh…time will tell."

Outskirts of Denver, midnight

The sound of an engine broke the still silence of the night as a black van materialized from the darkness. On the banks of the Platte River, near Denver, the moon reflected off the water. A cloaked figure scanned the area for the ideal spot. Death rituals needed to be perfect, and this one was no different than the rest. The end had come too quickly, which meant hunting again soon, but proper closure was essential. Once the body was in position, and a black rose lay on the torso, it was time to move on again.

With a heavy sigh, a gloved hand turned the key. The engine roared to life and slowly eased down the unpaved route. Once on the open road, the vehicle picked up speed as the fertile hunting grounds of Denver came into view.

Chapter 4

Images of eerie shadows, mutilated bodies, and bloody water invaded Vin's mind by dawn. No specific victim, place, or time emerged through the obscure mists in his nightmare, yet, he sensed a strangely familiar evil brewing. Frustration, along with an inexplicable anger, welled within him. Kelli believed he had unlimited patience; however, he knew different. He never asked to be a Heart Warrior or a conduit for precognitive visions and dreams, but if something out there threatened someone in his family, he damn sure wanted to find out more…now.

Kelli woke when the aroma of freshly brewed coffee drifted into the bedroom. Even though she abstained from drinking it during pregnancy, desire for a sunrise cup of java still lingered. The bedside clock read five-fifteen, and Vin's side of their bed was cold, which meant he had been up for a while. He threw back the covers, tended to her morning needs, dressed, and went in search of her absent spouse. At first sight, she thought he was simply enjoying quiet time, yet, as she moved closer, she took note of his tense muscles, as well as the firm set of his jawline, and realized something deeply troubled him. While she suspected yesterday his visions had returned, now she was certain. Placing one hand on his shoulder, and the other at his waist, she rested her head against his back.

He sensed her presence before she entered the room. Even though he still needed answers, Vin's inner rage diminished as Kelli came closer. She touched him, and his anger faded completely. With a quick movement, he shifted their positions and now held her in his arms. "I'm all right, Baby."

Her doubt evident, Kelli raised her hand to run her finger along his jawline. "You're a terrible liar, Tanner."

"Busted," She read him too well, then again, she rarely missed anything that concerned him, "but I promise it's nothin' for you to worry about, and when I figure out what's goin' on, you'll be the first person I tell."

"I'll accept that…for now. In the meantime, I'll start breakfast, and you should get ready for work. You don't wanna run late."

"You take it easy today." Vin hugged her and swatted her rump. "Walter's gonna feed the horses and escort Jason and Andi to school. Dad will be here in time to get the boys over to daycare. I reckon I'll be up to my neck in paperwork most of the day, don't give me a reason to worry about you, too."

Due to extenuating circumstances, Vin's leave of absence from MCAT had stretched to seven months. Way past time for him to go back, and if not for her illness, he would have returned weeks earlier. Still, Kelli recognized resuming his work routine could take a while, and the last thing she wanted was for him to worry about her. "You concentrate on the job, I'll be fine. Now hustle your butt into gear."

"Not only are you sassy, you're bossy, too." Vin stole a kiss, smiled, and headed to the bedroom.

Today marked the beginning of another chapter in their lives. The rough months of incessant setbacks since his kidnapping were now history. Physically, he was in great shape again and had put the mental trauma of South America behind him. Fortunately, he bore no permanent damage from his accident in August, and at this point, Kelli appeared to be on the road to recovery after emergency surgery. Although, his recurring visions, and what they might mean still plagued him, he was more than ready for a change.

+ + + + + + +

Chris shifted papers on his desk, looking for a copy of the report he faxed to Travis last week. He wanted to arrive at work early to prepare for his meeting with The Director and beat Tanner to the coffeemaker. The commander part of him was glad to turn Alpha Team over to Vin again, but the brother side of Chris did have a few reservations. Before he would allow Tanner back in the field, he needed to make certain he was a hundred percent healed. "Ah hah." Chris spotted the report, stuffed the papers in his briefcase, slipped on his coat, and headed towards the kitchen. As he reached for the travel cup Cait offered, he kissed his wife good morning.

Cait threw herself into their kiss, which quickly turned sensual, fanning sparks of desire in her husband.

He leaned back, took a deep breath, and smiled. "Hmmm, keep that up lady, and I might call in sick."

She straightened his tie and grinned. "Then you could go Christmas shopping with Mom, Jesse, and me." Cait wished she had a camera to capture the apprehensive look on Chris's face. "Besides, you and I both know Chris Larabee would have to be on his deathbed before he took a sick day."

Laughter rumbled through his chest. "True…guess you know me too well."

Cait winked at her man. "I'll take a rain check for the weekend if you still wanna fool around."

"Count on it woman." He glanced at his watch. "I need to go, or Vin will beat me to the office." Chris kissed her cheek, "I'll call later."

Closing the door behind him, Cait smiled. Her life with Chris was one she never expected but would not trade for anything in the world. They had four beautiful children, another daughter on the way, surrounded by the Wild Bunch with their families, and her parents lived close by. When they married, he promised to spend the rest of his life making her happy, and Chris Larabee was indeed, a man of his word.

Chris pulled into the parking lot and uttered a string of curses. Not only had Vin beat him in, Travis and Russo were already here, too. He climbed out of his Ram, grabbed his briefcase, and slammed the door. As he strode towards the entrance, his gut churned, affirming his assessment that today was going to be one hell of a day.

Inside, Vin sensed his arrival and met him with a cup of coffee. "Gunny made this for you, and trust me, Cowboy, you're gonna need it."

"That bad, huh?" One look at the 'new bullpen' provoked a scowl. The grin on the Texan's face alerted Chris that whatever was happening did not bode well for him. "Belay that…I gather this is Travis's doing."

"You ain't seen nothin' yet."

"Don't sound so damn cheerful, Tanner. If it's bad for me, it's sure as hell ain’t good for you either." Chris grabbed the mug from Vin, took a deep breath, puffed out his cheeks, and then released the air slowly before forcing a smile as he proceeded across the room to greet Director Travis. He nodded to Russo, who stood beside Orin, but focused his attention on the Director. "Good morning, Sir. I didn't expect to meet with you until later today."

"When I receive similar recommendation reports from my ADD and my Unit Commander…I use my time wisely. You're getting most of your requests, Chris. I trust you and Russo will iron out the details. In the meantime, I decided MCAT should have Christmas early."

Chris glanced over the room. "You ordered a makeover?"

"I put a rush on the order, so the work could be completed during the MCAT holiday break. Your office is now on the ground floor. I rejoined Alpha and Bravo team, per your request, and had additional state of the art equipment installed. We added touch sense monitors at each agent's desk, a data matrix terminal for Com-Sat, and a smart screen display for the Multiple Threat Assessment Center otherwise known as MTAC, which I'm certain, will please Special Agent Dunne and make MCAT more efficient. Also, expect a shipment of mobile print scanners to arrive later today." Travis checked the time. "I'm due in Texas in two hours, and the jet is waiting for me. I'll leave the unveiling to you and Russo, and I gave Gunny the Christmas bonus checks for you to disperse."

Brows narrowed as Chris cast a skeptical glance at Russo. "Are you saying you won't be back before Christmas?"

"Ten days in Texas with Charlie Team, and then I'm joining Evie in Virginia to spend the remainder of the holidays with our grandson. You're rid of me until after the first of the year." He shook hands with Larabee, Tanner, and Russo. "Take time to explore the new technology, have a good Christmas, and try not to get into too much trouble. Russo's running low on aspirin." Travis smiled, and made his way to the door, nodding to incoming agents as he left.

A collage of thoughts ran through Chris's mind, but the words that stuck were 'new technology'. "Damn, I was just getting the hang of the old technology."

David Russo grinned. "Take time to enjoy a cup of coffee, Chris. We'll hold a joint team meeting in MTAC at nine. In the meantime, check out your new office." He continued to smile while he walked away.

Gunny handed Chris a proposed itinerary for the meeting and a message." Whatever you need, Sir, let me know."

Resigned that he was in for more surprises, Chris sighed. "Send Justin in when he arrives, and Tanner, I want to talk to you before this day gets any worse." He headed into his office, mentally preparing for a very long day.

Vin shrugged his shoulders at Gunny, and followed Chris, hoping Larabee might forget to grill him about his health status. He also wanted to see Larabee's reaction to his new computer, which if the cursing coming from inside Larabee's office was any indication, had already begun.

+ + + + + + +

Arriving at the same time, JD recounted his previous evening at the mall, as they walked across the lot. Buck listened. "You should've seen them. We stood in line for an hour, and when it was our turn, we let the girls go first. That was a mistake. Daisy and Lilah climbed on Santa's lap, pulled his beard down, and then Keira screamed when Santa yelled. My girls blamed him for scaring Keira and kicked him. He was not a happy man, I tell you. Then, JJ started crying, which upset the other kids waiting in line, and before we knew what was happening, mall security arrived and asked us to leave. Of course, I argued with them, and then…. it’s not funny, Buck."

Buck failed to contain his laughter. He could visualize the scene and remembered the first trip with his children to see Santa, which was equally disastrous. "Yeah it is," he chuckled again, "welcome to holiday parenthood, Kid. The closer to Christmas we get, the more outrageous things the kids think up. Be prepared for anything between now and the big day."

JD pushed open the double doors. "Next time, I'll let you play Santa…oh wow… new monitors…. cool."

+ + + + + + +

All the while Chris ranted; Vin sat, and silently observed the familiar phases of 'Larabee anger’. Knowing how much Larabee hated change, and his recent worry about Jesse, his irritated pacing was understandable. At some point, he decided that it was a trait inherited because Kelli traversed through identical stages when she was riled. "Travis blindsided you, but in the end, you got what you wanted, didn't you?"

Chris halted his pacing and flopped down in his chair. "Yes," he waved his hand toward his computer," but I didn't ask for a new system. I'm not near expert level with the old one."

"That's why we count on JD, Pam, and Franklin. With them around, you don't have to be an expert." Vin leaned forward. "You ready to tell me just what you did ask for?"

"Basically, MCAT is expanding with a few alterations. To get what I want, I had to agree to train a new unit for Travis. When Justin's here, I'll detail it for you both." Chris pressed his thumb and forefinger against his forehead, attempting to unwind. He picked up the message Gunny passed to him and began to laugh.

Vin furrowed his brows, perplexed about the abrupt change in Chris's mood. "You okay?"

"This message is from Kelli… she’s attesting to your excellent physical condition and says before I question your physical fitness for doing your job, I should check my email." He eyed the new monitor and huffed. "Right, like I can get into it on this thing." Chris glared at the new touchscreen willing the contraption to spew out his mail.

A ripple of apprehension passed through Vin. As much as he wanted to believe his sweet wife had not shared the pictures she took of him on a mechanical bull in Texas, he knew that was exactly what she had done. He reckoned he should not have teased her about her emotional reactions regarding Anne and Tracker. Paybacks were hell. Then again, if she liked his riding abilities that well…who was he to complain?

"Got it." Chris whistled as he viewed the pictures, leaned back, and grinned. "How many beers did it take to get you on that deathtrap?"

Vin suppressed a smile. "A couple, but hell, it was fun, and your daughter loved it. You know she has a weakness for this Texas cowboy, and watchin’ me ride...excited her, in fact…"

Chris raised his hand to stop him. "Too much information, Tanner, but I reckon if you can ride that bull, you're fit for duty." Chris shook his head, and reached over, intending to delete the photos; however, he inadvertently forwarded them to the entire MCAT system. "Shit, shit, shit."

"What'd you do?" Vin moved to the terminal to look over Chris's shoulder. A roar of laughter sounded from the bullpen, along with a sprinkling of 'ye haws', and applause. Apparently, Tanner's ride had popped up on every screen in the building. Vin closed his eyes, covered his face with his hands, and dipped his head forward. "Fuck, I'll never hear the end of this."

"Not for a while," Chris moved away from the traitorous machine," but it's a done deal now and it won't kill you. Cowboy up and take it, we have important business to tend to, and they’ll get over it…eventually."

Just a few hours earlier, Vin actually thought he missed being here. Now, he could almost hear the wheels in Buck's head turning out the jokes he would have to endure for days. "I'll survive but do us all a favor and stay the hell away from your computer 'till you know what you're doin'."

Chris ignored the urge to defend his lack of technical finesse and reacted to the knock on his door instead. "Enter." When Justin stepped in, he motioned for him to take a seat. "Captains, let's get started. We have a lot to cover before nine."

Both teams waited in anticipation of their captain's entrance. The relocated Bravo agents were anxious to discover the reason. Alpha Team was eager to see Captain Tanner's reaction to his hastily made nameplate.

Justin arrived first. His comfortable manner and easy smile relaxed his agents as he took his place to the left of Commander Larabee's chair. Vin walked in, prepared for the taunts he expected Alpha Team to aim his way. They did not disappoint him. At his seat, a big tent card with Tex scrawled across it waited for him. He flashed them a big grin and took a bow, which set his teammates into a fit of laughter.

When their Commander and ADD Russo entered, the laughter ceased immediately. Larabee headed to the front and waited for Russo to sit before he began. "I hope you all enjoyed your week off, and have returned rested, and ready to work. You might have noticed when you came in that a few things have changed, thanks to Director Travis gifting us with an early Christmas present."

"I never figured Santa would look like our Director," JD grinned, "but man did he know just what I wanted."

Chris resisted uttering his disagreement. "I'm glad you're pleased Agent Dunne since I expect you and your team to instruct our fellow agents on how to operate the new system."

"Of course, Commander Larabee got the 'hang' of it real fast." Buck suppressed his grin and tried to keep a straight face. "A visual message is an outstanding way to announce Captain Tanner's return, Sir."

"Your unique presentation 'spurred' my attention." Ezra covered his smile with his hand; however, that did not stop the other agents from showing their amusement.

"Stow the bad puns. By the end of the day, I expect everyone here to be up to speed with the new system." Chris flipped his notes. "First off, I would like to introduce two new members to MCAT. Agent Ramon Hunter comes to us from the San Antonio Police Department, Homicide Division, now assigned to Alpha Team. Agent Russell Miles comes to us via the DOJ, and a few of you met him working on our last case, assigned now to Team Bravo. He nodded to Miles and Hunter, "Glad to have you on board, see Captain Tanner for your team assignments when we are done here."

After giving his agents a couple of minutes to welcome Miles and Hunter, Chris continued,

"We’re also experiencing the first of a few new configurations within MCAT. Alpha and Bravo Teams will each have distinct responsibilities, which your Captains will explain. In addition, every agent will be available to interchange on either team according to the skills needed. This allows us more flexibility when assessing cases. As agents, you answer to the Captain in charge of your assigned investigation."

Rafael gained Chris's attention and spoke when the Commander nodded. "Basically, we're still two teams, but work like we used to before the grand plan came along to divide us. Is that correct?"

"For now, yes." Judging from the expressions of his agents, they liked this arrangement better, too. Chris finally broke a smile. "Spend the morning organizing your work spaces and getting familiar with your new computers. Captains Tanner and Michaels will notify their respective teams about further meeting times. Dismissed."

As the agents filed out of the room, Chris snagged JD. "First stop…my office. After you show me how to operate that monster, then you can help the others."

JD wisely said nothing and followed Chris to his office. He had a feeling it was going to be a long morning, and he was right.

After JD left Chris’s office, he had spent every moment since, helping other agents with the new system. He plopped into his chair and sighed, barely moving when his cell phone began to vibrate in his pocket. Deciding he should answer, he retrieved the cell and flipped it open. "Hello."

He sat up straighter as he listened to Tess. "Look, I’ll get away from here as early as possible …don’t worry…we’ll fix whatever needs fixing." He snapped the phone shut and headed to Chris’s office.

+ + + + + + +

"Try to stay out of trouble 'till I get home, Baby. I love you." Vin replaced the receiver and turned toward the sound of chuckles coming from the doorway. "I'd planned to give her a hard time about those damn pictures, but she thought she was helpin', and I didn't have the heart to make her day worse. How long you been there?"

Chris stepped inside, closed the door, and pulled up a chair. "Not long enough. I came in to tell you JD left early, and I released the rest of the team a few minutes ago. Kel having a rough go at home?"

Vin leaned forward. "Max threw a fit when she tried to move the Christmas decorations to the big room. Brodie railed her for totin' extra grain to Dancer, and with Mila there to clean, there's nothin' left for her to do in the house. She can’t make a move without Max or Dad checkin’ on her. Even havin' Pearl around didn't help since Barbara picked her up ten minutes after the baby woke from her mornin’ nap. The only bright spot of Kel's day was Doctor Weeks callin' to say her blood tests were near normal again. Her appointment is Friday; reckon we’ll know more then."

Chris nodded; relieved to hear his daughter was regaining her health. Yet, he understood how much she must hate having everyone monitoring her. "Before you know it she will get caught up in all the holiday hoopla, but I’m sure she'll want to come back to work if the doc says she's good to go."

"Hell, I'm just thankful she and the baby are healthy. Around here, at least I'd know what she's doin’. If I try to make her stay home, no tellin' what she'll find to get into that'll make me crazy."

"Either that or you might be minus one father and a surrogate grandmother, cause if push comes to shove with Brodie and Max, my money is on Kelli."

"Mine, too." Vin studied Chris for a moment and read more than he was sure Chris planned for him to know. "You and Cait gonna make an announcement soon?"

"Quit listening to what I'm thinking." Chris tried to sound annoyed but failed. "Officially you'll have to wait until Christmas, but I guess you already know."

"You're broadcastin' loud enough." Vin could sense Chris's relief, and turned serious. "I've known for a while, but figured you'd tell me when you felt certain Cait and your new daughter were all right."

Although he had suspected, it was a relief to confirm that Vin knew, and he was grateful his brother had given him the space to deal with the stress of worrying about Cait and their baby’s health. Since the doctor gave them the good news, and now that Jesse was back on track, Chris felt a huge weight lift from his shoulders. "We both have a lot to be thankful for."

"Reckon we do, Brother." Vin stood and walked around the desk to face Chris. "Now, how can I help you find Jesse's friend?"

"I can't justify making Bianca's disappearance an MCAT case. Masterson's looking into it from DPD, so whatever we do, will have to be on our own time."

"Count me in, Brodie too, if we need him, and I'm sure Kel will help. Hell, you know Josiah, Nathan, JD, Ezra, and Buck would too if you tell 'em what’s goin’ on."

Chris nodded. "I will, but I want to keep it low-keyed…for Jesse's sake. In the meantime, let’s shut down early. We don’t have any other case to work on, and that damn computer has given me a headache the size of Texas."

Tanner's intercom buzzed, and he pressed the button. "Yes, Gunny."

"Captain, would you tell Commander Larabee there's a Denver Police Detective Masterson at the gate requesting entrance to talk with him?"

"I heard Gunny. Tell security to let him in." Chris stood. "I didn't expect results so quick…I hope it’s good news."

Chapter 5

Larabee asked Tanner to join him in his office for the meeting with Lou Masterson. Once the greetings and catch up banter finished, they sat. Lou passed a file to Chris. "I checked the hospitals and the morgue, then spent the morning interviewing the principal, Aaron Davis, the CPS caseworker, Beth Jones, and the foster parents. The information I got from Davis matches what Jesse said. Bianca works hard in school and had plans to continue her education. Jones told me she placed the girl with the Chansons last year. Their relationship was rocky at best, but since Bianca is close to aging out of the system, CPS had no reason to move her again."

Chris scanned the file for a few moments and then asked, "You said you talked to the foster parents. They’re not concerned?"

Lou shook his head. "The Chansons were not cooperative. Said their job didn’t entail caring, just to feed and house ‘these kids’. In fact, they already packed up her belongings, and gave them to the caseworker."

"Some people should never qualify to foster any kid." Vin did not hide his disgust. He accepted that the system was not perfect, but couples like the Chansons disgraced all the good work other foster parents accomplished. "Who the hell do they think is supposed to clothe these children, or provide them emotional support?"

"I don’t think they care, Vin." Lou shifted to face Tanner. "Bianca supported herself. She worked part-time at the mall, a place called Hot Topic, to earn money for her… uh…unique clothing style, and art supplies. Her boss hasn’t seen her in two weeks, and she did not pick up her last paycheck. As for friends, she stayed pretty much to herself." Lou glanced at Chris. "I ran a background on the Chansons for you and gave you a list of who I contacted. She doesn’t fit the profile of a runaway, but unfortunately, because of her age, I can’t do much more than list her as one of the missing, unless we have evidence of foul play, proof she’s in immediate jeopardy or a viable suspect to grill. Too many missing teens and not enough resources…you know the drill."

Chris had already decided to make this a personal mission. "I appreciate what you’ve done, Lou, and understand the limits of law enforcement. We’ll keep looking to find out what happened to Bianca."

"If you uncover evidence, which makes this official for us, you know I’ll be on top of it." Lou cleared his throat and bit his bottom lip. "There’s an additional matter I wanted to discuss… I’ve got a favor to ask if you’re willing." The nod of Chris’s head encouraged him to continue, and Lou handed over another file. "This morning I picked up a new murder investigation. The enclosed notes give you all the gruesome details and the preliminary autopsy report. This is the first one we know of in Denver, but I included two similar cases that popped up in Boulder recently. I’ve got a gut feeling about this one, but our database doesn’t cover other states. Would you run the MO through your system, and find out if any comparable murders outside of Colorado have been reported?"

"Consider it did and done." Chris stood, walked around the desk, and shook Masterson’s hand. "One of our computer techs will get on it ASAP. Might take a few days, but If they’re out there, CASSIE will find them."

Lou nodded and started to leave. "From what I’ve learned about Bianca, she appears to be a good kid stuck in a bad home situation. If you find her…I’d like to know."

"I’ll be in touch, soon." Chris understood the difficulty of ‘letting one go’, but the sheer volume of missing person’s cases made it impossible for the DPD to pursue them all without good cause.

Masterson nodded, and then exited the room.

Chris picked up the files, passing Bianca’s to Vin. "Pam’s still in Com-Sat and can at least begin the search for Lou. While I run this one over to her, you get hold of Carmen at CPS… ask her if she can do some digging for us. Tomorrow, I’ll get the rest of our brothers involved."

+ + + + + + +

JD thought about his brief phone conversation with Tess on the way home. Evidently, he had been so preoccupied sorting out his own feelings, he had missed what was going on with his twins. Yet, thinking back and trying to envision events from a five-year-old’s view, he understood the problem. In their young lives, Daisy and Lilah had lost the two most important women they were closest to…. their mother and Nettie. Talia had only been around a short time, but they bonded with her as well. It made sense they would expect Tess to disappear, too, but their concern caused them to fight with Keira, which was unexpected. Maybe he should have seen this coming…he sighed… did it really matter now how they got to this point? His girls believed Tess would leave…and told Keira her mommy was going away. Now all three girls were upset, not speaking to one another, and beyond usual consoling.

He pulled in, parked out of sight of the daycare, and then called Tess, asking her to meet him outside so they could talk away from little ears. At some point between the MCAT office and here, he made a life-changing decision. He and Casey had known one another for years before they married, although, for them, he was not sure if they ever made a joint commitment, or just did what everyone expected. JD firmly believed Fate brought him and Tess to this place in their lives. They were good together, and each needed the stability a loving relationship would offer them and their children. Waiting would not change the fact he already loved Tess, and unless he was misreading the signs…she loved him, too.

The object of his thoughts opened the passenger door and slid in beside him. "I hated calling you at work but…" Tess swallowed hard, attempting to quell her ragged nerves. "John Daniel what are we doing? Haven’t we both had enough drama in our lives? Now our kids are caught in the middle…what are we going to do?"

JD reached out, drew her beside him, and kissed her brow. "We’re gonna let our kids ‘keep us."

Tess stared at JD with a perplexed look on her face that said he had lost his mind. "Keep us?"

JD smiled and tried to explain. "At first, I figured we’d take it slow… let all of us get accustomed to the idea of you and I being together before we made any life-altering decisions, but I know I love you, and all the time in the world won’t change how I feel. I say we let them do what I think we both want…. make us a family." His words trailed off as he tried to read the conflicting emotions, which crossed her beautiful face. "Tess?"

A million thoughts flew through her mind at the speed of light, but the words … make us a family’ stuck. Somehow, she found her voice. "Are you certain?"

"Hell, this is not how I expected to do this. I thought I’d arrange a romantic dinner…with soft music and flowers…." His confidence of a few minutes ago disappeared when she started to cry. "Ah Tess…damn…I’m rushing things…. you don’t need to answer now…." He stilled when her hand cupped his face.

Tears glistened in her eyes, and in a voice filled with emotion, Tess spoke softly, "John Daniel Dunne, you’ve brought the sun into Keira’s dark life and mine, you make me want to laugh again, and look forward, instead of over my shoulder. I already love Lilah, Daisy, and JJ…almost as much as I love you, and yes…I want us to be a family, too."

Her words washed over him like a warm, gentle rain. JD realized the raging storms, which had plagued his life for the past two years, had ended, and his future had taken a new direction. Lowering his head, he claimed a sweet, tender kiss, which quickly transformed into a mating of wild passions, unchained by the promise of forever.

A nagging voice, emitting from somewhere in a deep recess of his mind, screamed reason, and with a great deal of reluctance, JD pulled back. Both breathless, he took a few moments to regain his self-control, and then brushed through her hair with his fingers. "You make it easy to forget where we are."

Tess nodded as she tried to focus on the here and now. "I think we’re right where we need to be."

"Absolutely," JD flashed an irresistible smile, "JJ, I’m not worried about, he’s too young to feel Lilah, Daisy, and Keira’s insecurity, but the sooner we help our girls understand they get to ‘keep us’, the better off we’ll all be."

"So…what’s this master plan of yours entail?"

"Easy… right now, our girls think there’s nothing they can do to change what happens. It’s up to us to teach them anything is possible. We explain that to be a family we all need to agree and ask their help to accomplish our goal. Unless we’re in for another surprise…I’d bet they ‘d be more than willing."

Tess understood exactly where JD’s mind was going. "We let Keira, Lilah, and Daisy become a part of deciding their future…. not only do we get what we want, they learn we each hold the power to make choices." She kissed his cheek. "Good plan, so where do we start?"

"I stopped on the way home and bought pizza…I’ll take my brood home and while we eat, talk to them about me wanting to keep you and Keira as part of our family." He moved to reach over the seat and retrieved a bag, passing it to Tess. "I bought enough for you and Keira to enjoy while you two talk."

"You were confident I’d agree? What if I’d said no?"

JD shrugged. "Then…I would’ve used my backup plan." He leaned his head and began a ravenous assault of kisses to her lips, neck, and shoulder, pleased to hear her musical laughter. Stopping before things progressed too far, he gazed into her eyes. "I love you, Tess McCall."

"I love you, too, John Daniel Dunne." The glint of mischief in her eyes alerted JD to expect anything, and he was not disappointed. "But if you forgot the pepperoni, I might just reconsider."

"Ah, but I didn’t, so now you’re stuck." He kissed her brow. "Let’s go inside and get our kids. I don’t wanna drag this out cause you and I have serious plans to make." JD opened the door and stepped out of his truck, offering his hand to assist her.

Tess grabbed the bag and grinned as she slid out from his side. She silently sent up a prayer of thanks that God had directed her to this man. His strength, love, and assurances had vanquished the past three years of fear, uncertainty, and turmoil in her life. A situation that had started out as a likely disaster for their girls, and a potential relationship ender for them, now looked to be a blessing in disguise. Leave it to her JD to figure out how to fix what only a few short hours ago seemed unfixable.

Even the prospect of having pizza for supper had not improved the dispositions of his girls. JJ on the other hand made up for their silence with a steady stream of mostly untranslatable chatter and giggles. After setting his son in the highchair and getting him started, JD sat down at the table with Lilah and Daisy. Both girls picked at the crust of their pizza and said barely a word.

"You two look as if you’ve lost your best friend. Wanna talk about it?"

The girls exchanged glances and both shrugged.

JD waited, but when neither child offered to explain their day, he decided to plunge ahead. "Okay, you two eat and I’ll talk." He cleared his throat, and began, "I’ve decided that I like having Tess and Keira around here, and want to ask them to stay with us…as a family."

Deep in thought, Lilah squinted. "You can do that?"

Daisy was more direct. "Did you ask Mommy to stay?"

‘Stepped into that one, didn’t you?’ JD took a drink of tea to stall as he gathered his words. "Sometimes we don’t get to choose because God has other plans for us. Mommy wanted to stay but couldn’t…. Aunt Nettie, too…."

"And Talia," Lilah added.

"Yes, and Talia." He took a deep breath and searched for something to say they would relate with, and then it hit him. "Remember when Uncle Ezra married Aunt Barbara?"

Daisy giggled. "With flowers and stuff."

JD grinned. "Yeah, with flowers and stuff. I want to keep Tess and Keira for our family like Uncle Ezra kept Aunt Barbara."

Lilah pondered for a moment. "I like Miss McCall and Keira."

"I do too, sweetheart."

Tilting her head in a move that reminded JD of Casey, Daisy smiled. "We can keep them…. they won’t go away?"

Careful not to make promises that only God could control, and find the right balance for their young minds, JD explained. "I think if we ask Tess and Keira to be part of our family they would say yes. Would you like that?"

Daisy dropped her smile. "Keira has to want to and she’s mad at us." She gazed into her father’s eyes. "Can you make her unmad, so she’ll say yes, too?"

Lilah glared at her sister. "Daddy can fix anything." She glanced at JD. "Can’t you?"

His daughter’s faith that he could fix anything warmed his heart. He hoped their family talks would always be this easy, but he knew there would come a day those trusting eyes would be glaring at him for one reason or another. For now, he would take the opening Lilah had given him and put his plans into motion. "I’ll call her now and invite them over."

JD pulled out his cell, punched in Tess’s number and waited for her to answer. Before she said a word, he could hear Keira’s excited voice in the background and smiled. Evidently, Tess’s talk with her daughter had been successful, also. "Hi…we wanted to know if you and Keira would like to come over for dessert…we have ice cream…. yeah, the same here… see you in a few minutes then." He snapped the phone shut and grinned at Lilah and Daisy. "Eat up, ladies; Tess and Keira are on their way." Their smiles were all the confirmation JD needed to know he had made the right decision.

+ + + + + + +

Buck had not argued when Chris sent them all home early. He made one stop on the way to pick up a special item he had located on the internet earlier. With only enough time to take off his coat, his kids met him at the door and started sharing the events of their day. He gave each of them his undivided attention. Once they unwound and resumed their normal activities, he then zeroed in on his beautiful wife.

His arms encircled her waist, as he leaned down for a kiss. "Hmmm... nice, and how was your day?"

"Aunt Isabella and I finished our Christmas shopping, and still made it home to pick up the baby from daycare early." She smiled. "I’m learning that our Miss McCall has the patience of a saint. JD’s girls and her Keira were in the middle of a big disagreement when we arrived, but Tess handled it with grace and calm."

"Lilah and Daisy? With Keira?" Buck frowned. "Must be why JD left early. Maybe I should go over and see if he needs my help."

Inez’s eyes blazed as she shook her head. "You will not. JD and Tess can figure out what to do about their children." Her voice softened. "JD will ask you if he needs advice."

Buck nodded. "I reckon." While squeezing her waist, he bobbled his eyebrows and smiled. "We have at least an hour before supper. Wanna mess around?"

The sound of her beautiful laughter answered his question.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra entered his home and immediately noticed the eerie silence. Glancing at his watch, he realized that it was earlier than his usual homecoming, but still, he expected …what? He removed his coat, stashed his attaché case, and went in search of his family. Walking towards the back of the house, he made mental notations about his home, which he normally took for granted. In the kitchen, the ingredients for their dinner sat on the counter awaiting preparation. The sound of soft classical music drew his attention, and he moved on to the sunroom. There he observed his beautiful wife, rocking their precious daughter with the strands of the Boston Philharmonic playing in the background.

* So, this is what home life is without me around? *

Barbara looked up and smiled. "I didn’t realize it was so late. Welcome home."

"It’s not late; I’m early for a change." Moving to stand behind her, Ezra gazed over her shoulder at his Pearl, the light of his life. Her eyes lit up when she saw her Daddy, and her little arms reached upwards, warming his heart. Reaching for her, he asked his wife, "Is it always this quiet when I’m away?"

Handing their daughter to him, Barbara stood. "Afraid so, Dear. Daddy’s arrival is the highlight of our day." As Pearl snuggled into her Father’s arms, Barbara stole a kiss. "Court dismissed early, so I picked up Pearl, and we’ve spent the afternoon being lazy." She glanced at the pair and grinned. "You two can keep me company, while I work on dinner."

Ezra and Pearl followed Barbara to the kitchen, and the familiar sounds of a home filled his senses. Not for the first time, he wondered how he had ever believed his life as a single man had been his destiny. Compared to this, his previous lifestyle was indeed dull and dreary.

As Barbara cooked, she enjoyed watching Ezra make silly faces for Pearl. "Oh, I almost forgot. Your mother sent a registered letter to you. I signed for it and it’s on your desk."

His grin turned to a frown. "Registered letter? Good Lord, what is Maude up to now?"

Ezra enjoyed his time with Pearl, and reluctantly released her to Barbara’s care, only when he realized that it was past her bedtime. After putting the baby down, Barbara slipped off for a shower, and he took the opportunity to read his mail. Forbidding thoughts assaulted him as he opened the letter from Maude. Typical of his mother, she was making a formal request along with an announcement. She requested that he abide by her preference to be ‘Auntie Maude’ to Pearl instead of Grandmother and informed him that she was now divorced from husband number five. Charles had lasted longer than the previous four, and due to a generous pre-nup, Maude was a wealthy woman again.

Setting the letter aside, Ezra mused on how to tell Barbara that his mother was coming to visit after the first of the year.

+ + + + + + +

Making a stop at the CPS office, Vin had picked up the records Carmen dug up, and a box which contained the items the Chansons returned, which were Bianca’s. The few meager possessions were not enough to represent the life of a young girl, who had to work for most of what she wanted or needed. He suspected they had destroyed most of her personal belongings, only handing over what they deemed appropriate. Vin hated the thought of kids like Bianca shuffled around most of their lives or worse yet, discarded, and ignored. If he had one wish, it would be to find a solution to stop any child from going through that kind of hell.

After hanging his coat by the door, Max stopped him before he left the kitchen and began to tell him everything his wife had been up to today. Vin stopped her, "Dad caught me outside and already told me, but thanks."

Max nodded, pointed toward the family room, and smiled. "They’re all in there."

Vin stood at the door of the den for a few moments before making his presence known. Andi and Kelli had their heads together, working on an art project, while Jason and the twins practiced pretend karate moves on one another. He smiled when Jason ‘allowed’ the boys to outmaneuver him, and they dissolved into giggles. His boys still had a lot to learn, but they were having fun, which was what all kids deserved…’even foster kids.’

His musing stopped when the boys spotted him and began yelling, "Daddy." Vin barely made it to where Kelli was before the twins began running around his legs yelling in a singsong tone, "Tanner, Tanner, Tanner."

Kelli shook her head and grinned. "Guess what the boys learned in preschool today?"

Vin chuckled. "I’m goin’ out on a limb here, but I reckon they learned their last name."

"Good guess, Dad." Jason moved so Bren and Trey could continue their circling.

Andi rolled her eyes. "They’ve only said it a hundred zillion times."

"Get used to it, Sugar. I expect we’ll be hearin’ it a hundred zillion more." Vin finally made it close enough to his wife to claim a kiss. He did not fail to notice the warm glint in her eyes that said she was pleased to see him. "Miss me, Baby?"

"You bet, Cowboy." Kelli whispered next to his ear, "Later I’ll show you how much."

"Sounds like a plan to me." Vin turned his attention to his children. It was good to be home.

+ + + + + + +

Chris sat on the couch and stared into the dancing flames of the fireplace. He realized that he was only prolonging the inevitable, but he dreaded telling Jesse the DPD could not look for Bianca, and there were limits to what he could do.

Cait understood her husband’s reluctance. He wanted to be the best dad possible, and in her opinion, he was, but he felt as if he was letting Jesse down. She lifted her head from his shoulder. "Honey, you go talk to Jesse, while I get Grace and Cody ready for bed." She kissed his cheek. "Our son knows you’ll do everything humanly possible to find Bianca."

Grabbing her hand, he kissed her palm. "Thanks for the vote of confidence, but Denver is a big city. I have a better chance of finding a needle in a haystack than one seventeen-year-old girl, who might have already left the area."

"I have faith in your ability to do the impossible…so does Jesse." She waited for him, and they walked out of the room together, separating in the hallway. Cait to the den to collect their younger children, Chris to Jesse’s room to tell his son that finding his friend would probably take a while.

+ + + + + + +

Across Denver

Her screaming only resulted in making him smile. They all were so predictable. First, they shrieked, then they yelled angry curses, and finally, the tears came. He was not sure which he enjoyed the most. Regardless, this one would serve his needs well. Perhaps he would keep her around longer than he had kept the others. The sight of her ivory skin, against black leather, excited him more than any of the other trophies captured in Colorado, so far.

Chapter 6

Chris stood at his door as he watched his agents enter the bullpen. Noting that Buck was among the first arrivals piqued his curiosity. It was unusual for him to beat Vin into work; however, Tanner already called and said he was running late. A small smile appeared on Larabee's face when he realized Wilmington carried a surprise to Tanner's office. If nothing else, the day would be interesting. Approaching Gunny’s desk, the commander leaned in and told her to send the senior Alpha Team Agents to the smaller conference room as soon as they arrived.

Within a few minutes, five of the seven had gathered as instructed. Chris wasted little time, before starting. "I know we’ve scheduled a brothers’ meeting Saturday at the ranch, however, an issue’s come up, which needs the family’s immediate attention." He picked up several folders and passed them around the room. "A girl at Jesse’s school has reportedly run away, but he believes, and I agree that something else is going on. I promised my son I’d try to find her. The DPD hasn’t found any evidence of foul play, so we're conducting an unofficial investigation. These files include not only her picture but also all the information I've collected." Chris paused for a moment, allowing Vin to quietly slip into the room.

Vin sat in the closest chair, and nodded, indicating for Chris to continue.

Chris acknowledged him with a tilt of his head. "MCAT work is our priority, but I'll take whatever help you can squeeze in to locate Bianca. Any information you guys find is appreciated."

"After talkin’ to Chris last night, I arranged to post a five-thousand-dollar reward and have fliers printed. Bianca’s already listed with the National Center for Missin’ and Exploited Children, and we’ll use the 800 NCFEC number, but Kel and Cait are goin’ today to, pick up a cell with a designated local tip number as well. They’ll also go to the bank and open a reward account before headin’ to Kinko’s." Vin leaned forward and handed Josiah a book and folder. "It's not much, but this is Bianca's journal and notes for a start on her profile."

Josiah nodded and turned towards Chris. "I'll get on this ASAP."

Ezra glanced at his brothers. An unspoken agreement formed among them, which Standish put into words. "We, of course, will add to the funds, and use our collective expertise to assist in your endeavors."

Chris expected their response to be positive, but hearing the words warmed his heart. He then turned his attention to JD. "CASSIE is working on a search for Detective Masterson. Whatever information she spits out, bring to me."

JD acknowledged the directive and then brought up a new subject, "Since this meeting appears to be informal, I reckon I should tell you guys something before my kids spill the beans." He squirmed a bit, cleared his throat, and continued, "Tess and I made a decision yesterday."

Buck leaned forward and grinned. "Well, it's about time."

Glancing in Buck's direction, JD rolled his eyes. "Yeah, I guess it's past time to admit that Tess and I have made a commitment to one another."

While no one was surprised, they all made a big deal about congratulating JD, until Chris glanced at his watch, and drew everyone's attention. "Okay ladies, we’re on company time now. JD, you follow up on CASSIE, Vin I need a moment. As for the rest of you, get to work."

Josiah, Ezra, Buck, and Nathan followed JD out of the room. Vin closed the door and waited for Chris to give him the morning threat assessment report. Instead, he first warned Tanner about a surprise waiting for him in his office.

"Hell, Chris, nothin’ those yahoos do will surprise me."

"You plan on telling me why you were late, or do I wanna know?"

"Trust me, you don’t." Vin thought it best not to say anything about his sleep problems, specifically the lack thereof since his visions had returned. They parted ways at Chris's door, and Tanner continued to his office. As he approached his desk an action figure of a cowboy riding a bull, began to move in time to the music of the song, ‘Should've been a Cowboy’. Suppressing a smile, and shaking his head, Vin lifted the oversized toy, and flipped the off switch. *Gonna be an interestin’ day. *

+ + + + + + +

Kelli ran into Inez as she entered the daycare to drop off the twins. "Hey, woman, you’re out early."

"Sí, Tía Isabelle chose today to do her holiday baking, and I have my volunteer day at the school, so Maria and Bella will stay here." Inez grinned, and leaned forward to whisper, "Lilah, Daisy, and Keira have news…the secret is out."

Cait walked up with Cody and Grace in time to overhear Inez. "What secret?"

"Our JD and Tess." Inez tilted her head towards the big room. "The girls are telling anyone who will listen that they are ‘keeping them’."

"Shoot, they kept their secret longer than Vin and I did." Kelli shook her head. "Leave it to the kids, though, to ‘out’ them."

"It’ll be a relief to not have to pretend we didn’t know." Cait removed Cody’s jacket and hung it next to Bren and Trey’s, and then did the same for Grace. Kissing them both, she told them, "Have a good day." She watched as they scampered off, Cody to unite with the other two-thirds of the ‘troublesome trio’, and Grace to the art supplies.

"I need to go, or I’ll be late." Inez hugged Cait and then Kelli. "Adios!" Inez hurried out the door.

Tess approached the remaining women, noting their smiles. "I guess the word is out, huh?"

"Honey, the moment the kids knew, you might as well have taken out an ad in the paper." Cait hugged the young teacher. "Welcome to the Wild Bunch Sisterhood."

"Same here, Kelli repeated Cait’s welcome with another hug.

"Thanks." Tess laughed. "JD told me last night it wouldn’t take long for the news to spread. I thought it would take a while, but he was right."

"Contrary to popular belief, the Wild Bunch is not as intimidating as you might think." Cait placed her arm around Tess’s shoulders. "To know us is to love us."

Tess nodded. "I’ve been here long enough to witness exactly how wonderful this family is, and I'm looking forward to being a part of it." She glanced into the main playroom and sighed. "It appears Sally could use an extra pair of hands. I'll see you both later."

As Tess walked away, Kelli smiled, before turning to Cait. "Judgin’ from the way she handles our children, I'm sure she'll do fine with the Wild Bunch." She reached into her pocket to retrieve her keys. "We'll take my truck. I've already told Max not to expect me home anytime soon. Truthfully, I know they mean well, but I've had all the motherin’ I can take for a while."

Cait laughed, fully understanding the sentiment. Lillian and Donald were working in over-parenting mode too, and she could use a break as well. "I hear you. How about, once we leave the bank, we put out some fliers, and then splurge on lunch?"

"Sounds like a plan to me, I brought plenty of tape, and two staple guns." With a mischievous grin, she asked, "You reckon we could get away with turnin’ off our cells?" Kelli knew she would not push that far, but she was tempted.

"You do want to live dangerously, don't you?" Cait grinned as she visualized Chris, Vin, her parents, Max, and Bodies’ reactions if she and Kelli went off the grid for the day. "I think we had better leave our phones on or risk a major battle with our men."

"You have no sense of adventure."

"I do, but my sense of self-preservation is stronger."

Both women were still in high spirits as they climbed into Kelli's Yukon, and headed to the bank. For the next few hours, at least, they would not have anyone monitoring every move they made. That fact alone already ensured that the day would be a great one.

+ + + + + + +

One by one, his brothers had stopped by and dropped off a check for the reward fund. JD left his with a computer printout, which detailed the backgrounds of all the people Lou interviewed. Kelli and Cait came by to leave a stack of flyers, along with a list of the places they already covered. For the few minutes he spent with Cait, Chris was able to push back the urgency he felt to find Bianca. Once she and Kelli departed, his mind returned to the missing girl, chiding himself because he was glad Bianca was not his daughter.

Josiah knocked softly and entered after hearing Chris' response. He settled in a comfortable chair, close to the desk, and passed his commander a file. "My preliminary profile on Bianca. From what I've read in her journal, I agree with your conclusion."

Chris leaned back in his chair and nodded. "Jesse was already convinced and my gut agrees. The problem is, Masterson interviewed the parents and the neighbors, and no one saw anything out of the ordinary."

"I suppose we'll be spending our off hours investigating, and re-interviewing everyone. I pulled a few names from her journal we could talk to, and I suggest we run warrants checks on everyone who lives in the vicinity of her house and where she should have caught the bus."

"Lou ran the database for registered sex offenders, who live within a five-mile radius of the area, and JD did a background search on everyone that’s already been interviewed." Chris ran his fingers through his hair and sighed. "One teenage girl vanishes in a city with a population of more than half a million people, and twenty thousand square miles of parks within the city limits…easy right?"

Josiah sensed Chris’s frustration and understood how much a successful outcome meant. No man wants to tell his fourteen-year-old son that one of his friends is dead. "I feel certain that we will find her, but considering how long she's been missing, I fear we may already be too late."

Closing his eyes, Chris hoped that Josiah was wrong; however, the little they had to go on did not prove promising. "Then I reckon we should move faster. If we split up the interviews among the seven of us, a couple hours after work should be enough time to complete them." Nodding as he decided, Chris concluded, "Pass the word to our brothers to gather in my office at five sharp."

As he stood, Josiah acknowledged Chris's unofficial order. Before he left, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a check, laying it on the desk. "My contribution to the reward fund."

"Appreciate it."

Before either man moved, JD burst into the office. "Chris, you’d better come see this."

Normally Chris would rail any agent for barging into his office without permission, but from the expression on JD's face, he realized that the younger agent was not even aware of what he had done. "What the hell is so important that you'd risk interrupting a private meeting?"

Stopped in his tracks, JD hesitated for a moment before continuing, "Sorry, but I figured you’d want to know what CASSIE linked to Masterson's case. It's... It’s, aw hell, it's easier to show you, than tell you."

His eyes narrowed, Chris glanced towards Josiah, and then back to JD. "Lead on Agent Dunne."

The three men exited the room and proceeded to Com-Sat. The steady hum of CASSIE's printers churning out page after page of documents greeted them as they approached. JD pointed to the first of three case boards already filled with information and a huge map.

"The red pushpins indicate murders within the past five years, which match the MO of the one in Denver. Mainly in Colorado. New Mexico, Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma. The blue pins mark locations of current open homicides, which match the newest ones." JD looked at Chris before he explained the white pins. "Those indicate similar MO's going back more than five years." He glanced at his data screen. "CASSIE isn’t finished yet…I expect there’ll be more."

Chris tried to count them all but lost track after fifteen. He shook his head, wondering just what kind of monster Masterson was looking for. Whatever it was, if he had anything to say about it, MCAT had the case now. "JD, we need to look at all the police reports..."

JD interrupted him, "Already on it Boss." He turned to pick up a stack of folders, and then handed them to Chris. "I started with the newest ones first and made requests for the rest."

Josiah intently studied the pattern on the boards. "I think we should set this up in MTAC, and once you decide we're going to take this case, I'd like to look at those files."

"Do it, JD." Chris issued the order, as he handed the folders to Josiah. "Make sure Bones gets all the autopsy reports." He then walked out of the room and directly to Russo's office. Barely tapping on the door, he did not wait for an invitation to enter.

Russo looked up from the report he was reading and frowned. The intense expression on Commander Larabee’s face indicated that there was a headache looming in his future. "What do you need?"

"I need a diplomatic call made to your best connection at the DPD. Detective Lou Masterson is working on a homicide investigation, which is growing as we speak. I want MCAT to take the lead on it. I also need to borrow Masterson as a consultant for this one."

"I can do that Chris, but since when does MCAT handle a routine homicide?"

"Since said homicide looks to be the work of a serial killer, who has crossed more than one State line, and has possibly been doing so for a period spanning at least five years. The last time I checked, MCAT stood for Major Crimes and Acts of Terrorism, I'm certain we're looking at a major crime."

Nodding his head, Russo reached for the telephone. "Good enough for me."

Satisfied that Russo trusted him enough not to ask questions, and was not going to argue, Chris turned, walked out of the room, and mentally began making plans. If this case grew, in proportion to the increased churning in his gut, his unit had just stumbled into the gates of hell.

Stopping at Gunny’s desk, he began issuing orders. "Get Lou Masterson on the phone and prepare MTAC for an eight am meeting tomorrow morning."

+ + + + + + +

Platte River Area

A hooded figure scanned the area for the ideal spot. This one should have been the one, then she showed her fear and fought. It did not matter, of course, she was no match for his extraordinary strength. It merely meant that his hunt would continue. Once the body was in position, and a black rose lay on the torso, it was time to move on.

Chapter 7

Chris stood beside Gunny’s desk and observed the flurry of activity around him. His MCAT family had all arrived early, an undercurrent of concern and adrenaline, driving them as they readied themselves to tackle a new case. MCAT, Major Crimes and Acts of Terrorism, is who they were, and confronting the bad in this world is what they do.

Gunny’s voice invaded his thoughts. "MTAC room is prepared, Sir. I laid folders out, coffee is ready, and Agent Dunne personally set up your digital case boards. Will there be anything else?"

"Not now." Moving toward his office, he sent a message to Vin. * Get a move on Tanner, Meeting starts in twenty. *

*Relax, I’m here and team assignments are ready. Don’t forget, I need an hour after to meet Kel at the doctor’s office. *

*Got you covered. *

+ + + + + + +

Agents filed in, and sat quickly, ready, and eager to hear what Commander Larabee had to say. He did not make them wait.

"A few announcements before we start. This task force is now operational. Detective Lou Masterson, DPD will be working with us on this case. Agent Dunne will keep our case board up to date and all info will go to Agent Sanchez to use with his profiling ... Dunne if you would," Chris nodded to the board.

Using a tablet, JD worked his magic on the smart screen, effortlessly gliding through the charts and maps. "CASSIE is still working, but as of 7:45 this morning, this is what we have. The original murder that Detective Masterson brought to us was discovered in Denver city limits. Expanding on that fact and using his notes we found numerous murders in Colorado and surrounding states matching the criteria of this one. At last count, we found twenty-two possibilities spanning a five-year period. I expect that number to rise."

Chris continued, "Thank you JD." Picking up the file in front of him he waved it in the air. "We are still awaiting Bones’ assessments of all the victims’ autopsy reports and Josiah is working on profiles, both of the victims and killer. Until then, familiarize yourselves with the information already in your folders. This will be a joint task force, including both Alpha and Bravo Teams, expanding to Charlie Team, if necessary. Expect some long hours and yes, I know our Christmas break is imminent, but death does not take a holiday." He heard a few groans when the group realized how this new case could alter family plans. "We will do our best; however, it will be prudent to let your families know our schedules are fluid and could well interfere with any events you may already have scheduled."

Holding up his hand to gain quiet, Larabee sighed. "We will be working straight through the weekend. Your Captains have your initial assignments, see them before you leave this room. Dismissed."

Tanner found Chris once he handed out the assignments. "I’m on my way to meet Kel, shouldn't take more than an hour or so."

They walked in tandem to Tanner’s office. "No problem, I doubt we’ll solve all this while you’re gone."

Vin smiled, "Too much to hope for huh?" Changing his mood, he had to ask, "Where does this new task force business leave us with Bianca?"

"Wish I knew." Chris sighed, and said what they both were thinking." Bianca could already be a victim of our killer, but we won’t go there until we know for sure." He knew, and he was sure Vin did, too, that the clock was running down to zero on the chance of them finding Bianca alive. "We will just have to do what we can, although I’m afraid none of us will have much free time."

"Right." Vin grabbed his coat. "Be back soon." A glance at his watch had him hurrying out the door.

+ + + + + + +

Vin could not stop smiling as he and Kelli exited the Medical building hand in hand. They had beaten the odds and been given the best news ever. Not only was Kel one hundred percent healthy, come May, they were adding a new baby girl to their brood.

Leaning into her husband’s side Kelli grinned, and said, "We did it, Tanner."

"Yes we did, and I have a feeling Andi is gonna be over the moon when she finds out the baby sister Tracker told her about will be here soon. Although, I think we should wait a bit before we make a big announcement. Okay with you?"

Kelli nodded, thinking about how fortunate they were. When they approached her Yukon, Vin pulled her into his arms. "I wish we had time to celebrate, but I really need to get back to the office. And just an FYI, expect me to be putting in some long hours."

"I know, but…" Sighing, her thoughts turned to another young girl. "With y’all’s new case, where does that leave our search for Bianca?"

Vin had hoped she would not ask but should have known she would." Truthfully, I’m not sure. We’ve exhausted all our leads, and the odds of findin’ her alive have dropped considerably." The dejected look on his wife’s face was hard to take. He tried to give her something to hang onto. "We still have the reward offered, posters are up, you have the tip line phones, and I reckon a few more prayers are in order. Other than that, we’ve done all we can."

An idea was forming in Kel’s head, one she was not ready to share, yet. She told him, "We both know not to count out anythin’ ‘til it’s over. Our baby girl is proof of that. You do what you need to at work, and we’ll let Mistress Fate take care of Bianca."

"Sounds like a plan," he gifted her with a long warm kiss, before opening the door, and getting her settled inside. "Drive safe, Baby, I love you," he watched her leave, before heading over to his truck, silently sending Chris a message. * Mama and baby doing fine. On my way back. *

+ + + + + + +

Without announcing the baby’s sex, Kelli gave Max the good news. She hoped that receiving a clean bill of health from Doctor Weeks would dissuade the mother hen side their surrogate grandmother was currently exhibiting, from hanging around.

"By the way, I plan to visit with some of the ladies this afternoon." Without waiting for Max’s reply, Kelli headed to their bedroom to make a few calls. Knowing the brothers were knee deep in a new case, she planned to help in the search for Bianca. A few calls to the Wild Bunch sisterhood assured her that they were all happy to assist. They were meeting at Cait’s in an hour.

Cait passed a plate of pastries to Kell and then reached into the cabinet for seven cups. "Inez and Rain are on their way over."

After setting the platter on the center of the table, Kelli took the cups one by one. "Barbara is gonna drop Pearl at our house, and then join us."

"Good, judging from the conversation I had with Chris this morning, none of our husbands are going to have time to look for Bianca anytime soon. So, it's up to us."

"I hear you." Kelli poured hot apple cider for herself and Cait. "When I talked to Vin earlier, he told me pretty much the same thing. He didn’t give me any new details on the case they are workin’ on, but I got the impression it was somethin’ big." She sat in the chair beside Cait. "It's been a while since Alpha Team pulled together a Major Task Force."

"Yes, it has." Cait agreed.

Within minutes, Mallory arrived with Rain, followed by Barbara and Inez. All quickly grabbed a cup of freshly brewed coffee and joined their Wild Bunch sisters at the table. Once Tess arrived, they would get down to business.

Hearing a soft knock, Cait opened the door and stood aside as Tess rushed through and began to apologize. "Sorry I’m late, but the kids…" She stopped when the older woman put her arm around her shoulders.

"No apology necessary, you are here." Cait recognized the uncertainty in Tess’ eyes and thought some reassurance was necessary. "We roll with the flow, and our children always come first. When one of us needs to tend to family, another will step up," she smiled. "That’s why our sisterhood is so awesome."

Across the room, Kelli spotted Tess and yelled. "Sisters, our newest member has arrived. Let’s officially welcome her to the Wild Bunch." One by one they each gave the young woman a hug, easing Tess’s uncertainty about being there.

Waiting until everyone was settled, Cait began the discussion, "Ladies, we know how it is when a case gets started at MCAT." She laughed when most of the ladies heavily sighed and nodded. "Our men will not be home that much, and when they are, their minds will not be on family matters 100%. So, it seems it will fall on us to work at finding Bianca."

Kelli continued, "My doctor gave me a clean bill of health, which means I’m in for whatever needs doin’. We have a $10.000 reward offered for anyone who gives us info that leads to findin’ Bianca. Posters are up all over town, and Cait and I each have a designated phone for tips. What we need is an organized way to run down the leads we get. Cait and I can run some, however, we still must work around our baby watchdogs, Brodie, Max, Walter, and of course Lilian and Donald. And, before you ask, we do not plan to enlighten them or our husbands about our search. They have enough on their plates as it is, without further worry about us."

Rain nodded. "After tonight I don’t work for five days, so I’m free then."

"I will have my Tia watch the children tomorrow and go with you." Inez volunteered. "Where do you want us to begin?"

Kelli picked up a stack of papers and passed them to Inez and Rain. "I made a list of all the places we've already been on top. If you two could hit the free clinics, and the emergency rooms of hospitals other than Denver Memorial, it would be great." She chewed at her bottom lip. "At any given time, there are more than 1300 homeless teens on the streets of Denver. Bianca could be anywhere or nowhere. We need to think outside the box."

We should get a Denver street map," Mallory suggested. "So that we can cross off sections of neighborhoods that we’ve already searched and coordinated a schedule for who will be doing what on any given day. But we can’t keep it at any of our houses or the guys are going to catch on to what we’re doing."

"We can keep it at the daycare," Tess spoke up. "No one but me goes into my office, the daycare is closed on the weekends, and I lock it whenever I’m not there."

"That’s a great idea." Cait smiled at her. "We can use dropping off or picking up our kids as a way for us to update the map and discuss things whenever our men aren’t around."

Barbara held a great deal of empathy for Bianca. Her own harsh memories of being seventeen and unwanted rushed forward. Whatever had driven Bianca to seek extreme survival measures, she was on her own and needed to know that there were people who cared. She reached for another stack of papers, then checked her watch. "I’ve got to head back to work and have meetings scheduled with clients until about four, but I’ll start putting these out at the pro bono legal offices around town, and some of the food places near the courthouse." Standing to leave, she placed her hand on Cait’s arm. "After today, my time is free. Whatever else I can do, just let me know."

"I will, and thanks." Cait waited until Barbara made her exit, and then spoke, "Kel and I are going to run by some of the teen hangouts at the malls. It may be a long shot, but somebody might know someone who knows something."

"Everyone should keep their cells on and let one of us know where you plan to be." Kelli looked at Mallory. "You and I are the only ones with investigative experience, so we'll be the ones coordinatin’ the teams as they head out, and ensurin’ that they remember the self-defense classes that Vin taught them."

"This isn’t going to be dangerous is it?" Inez asked.

Malloy pulled no punches, "Some of the places we’re going to be heading into like Purgatorio, Lakeside Park, and West End are some pretty sketchy areas of Denver, Inez."

"You should be fine Inez," Kelli assured her, "As long as you have your phone, remember what you learned in the classes, and stay aware of your surroundin’s at all times.

Cait knew she could count on her sisters to help. When they were set on a mission, the women of the Wild Bunch were amazing. "I hope our husbands’ plans work as efficiently as ours. Be sure to check in and good luck."

+ + + + + + +

Chris rubbed the palms of his hands down his face as he leaned against the conference table and stared at the evidence boards. It was difficult to believe one person could be responsible for all the homicides they had listed, but at some point, during the long day, they had all come to the same conclusion. The cases were too similar to be coincidence, which meant that someone had been getting away with murder for years. Now that killer was openly working in Denver, this is where MCAT would stop that monster’s reign of horror.

Lou walked up and stood beside Larabee. "Hard to believe the sonofabitch got away with it this long."

"Not really. He kept jumping jurisdictions and changed his MO as technology evolved. His mistake was coming to Denver. We're gonna nail the bastard." Chris pushed off from the table, checked the time, and said, "It’s late, let’s get out of here, at least say hello to our families before we crash for the night, then start over in the morning."

Larabee caught up to Vin, and as they walked toward the parking lot. "You said Kel was fine but didn’t say anything about her coming back to work. Doc veto it?"

" No, she was released for work but said she would wait ‘til after the first of the year. Reckon she’s not too keen on ridin’ a desk." Vin unlocked his truck. "Personally, I’d rather her be here so I could keep an eye on her, but guess I’ll have to have Dad do it for me at the ranch."

"Josiah could certainly use her assistance on profiling for the task force." Chris wondered if he should step in and talk to her about work.

Vin nodded his head while he threw his coat and briefcase inside his Silverado. "I’m sure Josiah would welcome the help, but Kel was dead set against hurryin’ back to the office. My gut says she is plannin’ to enjoy her new health status."

"You don’t believe she would do anything reckless do you?"

"Reckless? No. But I know Kel. Now that Weeks says she is okay health wise, I expect her to rebel and insist Dad and Max back off the Kel-watch detail. She’s gotta stay busy at somethin’ all the time, and that somethin’, whatever it turns out to be, is what concerns me. It’s her Larabee side, she can’t help it."

Chris grinned, "You’re right and all I can say is better you than me." Opening the door of his truck, he turned toward Tanner. "At least I know Cait will keep calm, rest, and is not likely to find trouble."

"Hell Chris, with Kel, trouble finds her, which is why I’m gonna talk to Dad."

"Always knew you were a smart man." Chris climbed into his Ram, waved to Tanner, and both men drove out into the night.

Chapter 8

Trapped in a vision, which refused to let go, his mind fought to lock on the message. A sinister cloaked figure beckoned him to follow through the fog of time, light as darkness swilled around both. Gliding through the centuries he witnesses each gathering of seven, called to fight when evil reached a boiling point and threatened to tilt the scales of light and dark.

While justice slips back into the mists to wait for the next calling, evil plotted, for without light there is only darkness. Year after year the rogue master trains his fledglings, plans his attacks and works to discover a pathway to ending our battle forever. Ultimately wanting to ensure our next calling is the last, tilting the world from balance into darkness and evil forever.

Restlessly thrashing about, he threw the bed covers onto the floor, while he tried to make out the face of the rogue, to no avail.

"Vin! Vin!" Kelli shook his shoulder, trying to wake her husband without endangering him or her in the process. "Talk to me, Tanner."

Without warning his hand curled around her wrist and he softly spoke, "I almost saw him, Kel." Taking a deep breath, Vin adjusted his position, pulled Kelli close, and recounted…the events. Although he was not certain which part was a vision, and which was a memory. He had felt each gathering as if he was in the midst of them, yet whatever the message was, it was not clear enough to pursue further, for now. Returning to the present, he kissed her brow, and tightened his hold on his redhead, "sorry this mess woke you."

Kelli listened to his words and felt his heartbeat slowly return to its normal rhythm. Questions filled her thoughts, but she understood Vin had no answers to give. "No sorry necessary, I signed up for the long haul, Tanner. If it touches you, it touches me, and whatever you need from me, it’s yours."

"One of the many reasons, I love you." Vin knew Kelli had the power to anchor him from anywhere the turmoil of his mind could take him. He was more than willing to let her do just that. "You wanna go back to sleep or maybe you’d be interested in a Tanner special instead?" Her lyrical laughter made him smile

Shifting her body to lean on her man, she grinned, "I’m thinkin’ the special sounds delightful."

Visions? Memories? Dreams? Whatever they were, the Tanners left them behind as they let love fill their souls.

+ + + + + + +

Kelli smiled as she filled her cup with hot apple cider, pulled out a chair, and sat down at their kitchen table to enjoy it. Life was good, she felt great, their baby girl was healthy, and the rest of her pregnancy was not expected to be anything but normal. Vin was running late, but his mind was no longer in turmoil. She understood his need to ground his thoughts, and their morning special session of lovemaking had done just that. She, too, had enjoyed it as much as her husband. Jason stayed over with Caleb, Andi with Joann, and the twins were in daycare. Walter and Max were gone for the day, and though she loved them both dearly, a little alone time was nice, too. The sound of the door opening behind her gained her attention. Turning she saw her second favorite Texan remove his coat, toss it on the chair next to her, and head straight for the mug rack.

"Mornin’ Brodie."

Entering the room, he smiled at his daughter-in-law but did not speak until he held a steaming mug of coffee in his hand. "Morning Kel," he joined her at the table, "hope you don’t have outdoor plans today, ‘cause it is damn cold out there, and more snow’s expected." At his son’s request, he had taken a close interest in her comings and goings the past two weeks, and some had aroused his curiosity. He had never given up the paranoid streak that had kept Raven and others alive back in his clandestine days, and he would do what was necessary to protect his family. Although he did not know exactly what she was up to, he knew in his gut that Kelli was involved in more than Christmas preparations. Today, he was determined to find what.

She had nothing to hide but had no intention of broadcasting her plans for the day. "The twenty-fifth is only days away, and the cold makes it feel more like Christmastime, don’t you think?" Since her initial health scare in October, her family had watched every move she made. After Doctor Weeks gave her an all clear, they reluctantly backed off, and now Kelli was enjoying her freedom.

Brodie decided to fish for information. "I reckon it does, you just keep an eye on that snowfall. I’d hate to have to come dig your truck out of a snowdrift if you venture out." He sipped his coffee and waited for her to react.

"I do plan to finish up some shoppin’ today, but I’m certain I can manage the weather without needin’ assistance." Although she was not sure how she was certain Brodie knew more than he was saying about her daily trips away from the ranch.

Recognizing that she was not going to explain more, he said, "You’re family, just stay safe." Finishing off his coffee, Brodie stood, then walked over to the sink to rinse his cup, before returning to where she sat and reclaiming his coat. He hugged Kelli before shrugging into it. "I’ll be around if you need me," he said before leaving the Tanner home.

Kelli sat a few more minutes, thinking she should come clean about her extracurricular activities, and persuade Brodie not to tell Vin until their big MCAT case was finished. Sighing deeply, she decided not to take that chance, Brodie was sure to tell, regardless of her reasons. After rising to put her cup in the dishwasher, she headed to the bedroom to change her clothes. She and Cait had two leads to follow up on this morning. Hopefully, today would be the day the tip line paid off, and they would find Bianca

+ + + + + + +

Tanner was running late and thought he would slide into the office under the radar. He should have known better. Larabee had already zeroed in on him and he heard the Commander’s voice yammering inside his head. *Late again? Kel okay? The Kids? Or did you just think your presence was not needed? * Rushing into his office he removed his coat, threw it on the rack by the door, then grabbed the paperwork stacked neatly on his deck before making a u-turn, and exiting. He was not ready to tell Larabee about the weird vision he had last night.

*Kel is fine, kids are great. If you really wanna know why I’m late, talk to your daughter. She was in need of extra attention. In fact, it was a very pleasant way to be delayed. *

Vin grinned when he heard Chris yell, * Stop! I don’t need details. MTAC in ten. *

Quietly walking up behind Chris he said, "I’m caught up and good to go."

Chris should be used to Tanner appearing suddenly, but still found it disquieting. A question, which had been nagging at him, came to mind. "I’ve been forgetting to ask you, have you talked to Kel about this case?"

"Not really, she knows we activated a task force, but I kinda left out the details about why. With her pregnancy and Bianca missin’, I figured it would upset her to know more."

"Same here, the last thing I want Cait thinking about is a psychopath murdering young women." As they continued walking toward MTAC, they also discussed possible new strategies including one which was sure to ruffle feathers. "We are almost two weeks in and spinning our wheels. Think we will take Josiah’s latest profile and have Alpha Team work an undercover angle on it."

"Judgin’ from what I read yesterday, Ezra won’t be excited about settin’ it up." While they talked, Vin studied the drawn features of his brother. "You believe this ties into Bianca’s disappearance, don’t you?"

"Hell Vin, it fits, and she is on the missing list of possible victims." Larabee stopped by the door leading to MTAC and turned to face Tanner. "Jesse trusts me to find his friend. How will I face him if we find her dead?"

Noting the troubled look in Chris’ eyes, Vin wanted to assure him they could be wrong, but those words would not come. Instead, he did the next best thing. "Look, if we have learned anythin’ this past year, it’s that nothin’ is impossible."

Nodding, Chris agreed, "You’re right, just keep reminding me." He scanned his ID card to open the MTAC door and stepped inside. With his Captain following, they moved to the front of the room to address their Task Force. Maybe today was the day they would get the break they needed.

The noise level dropped when the Commander and Captain walked in, and all were ready to hear the latest. They did not have to wait long. Chris began, "A couple of notations, Captain Michaels and Detective Masterson are working a homicide and will be joining us as soon as possible. During the past two weeks, we have amassed a large amount of information. Our three teams have visited each body dump site in five states and coordinated with local law enforcement reviewing their case files. Unfortunately, we have no physical crime scenes or witnesses found yet. We can, however, confirm through autopsy and police reports that twenty-one of our victims are conclusively tied to this killer. Using those reports, we now have enough to pull together complete profiles. Agent Sanchez is ready to share with us." With a slight nod of his head to Josiah, Larabee sat down and gave his agent the floor.

Josiah slowly stood, approached the digital board, and began his presentation. "Agent Dunne and I have put together a visual presentment to give you a better feel of the details we have uncovered so far."

He used a tablet to move pictures of young and beautiful women across the screen as he spoke. "I begin with our victims, twenty-one as of today. As you can see there are several similar traits they share appearance wise. Each one has dark hair, light eyes, petite physical structure, are close in age, and most importantly they share a unique lifestyle.

All these young ladies were known to regularly visit Goth Clubs in their respective areas, which were their last known locations before they vanished. These businesses cater to both Goth and Vampire subcultures. The Vampire Subculture also incorporates some elements of S&M. This subculture divides itself into smaller communities or family units, too. Places where people gather to indulge their choices of alternative lifestyles and role play, as well as dressing in a way known as a ‘Goth’ look.’ I believe these clubs are a hunting ground for our killer. They fit a pattern of a certain type of woman the killer is looking to find."

Sanchez saw a hand go up and was prepared to field questions. "Yes, Hunter."

Agent Ramon Hunter had as a homicide detective, occasion to question a few suspects, who had Goth personalities, and was familiar with the clubs. "In my experience, the Goth culture is not known for combative behavior. Are you suggesting these victims were chosen simply because they live the Goth lifestyle?"

"Yes, and you are correct." Josiah acknowledged. "Being Goth, itself is not making a violent statement, it’s more rebellion or protest against structure, conformity, and authority. That’s why you see so many adolescences follow the ‘look,’ and visit clubs designed to attract them. However, as in any unorthodox gatherings, there are those, often older individuals, who troll the younger target rich scenes. Our killer is not Goth but has found fertile ground to cull out the loners trying to assimilate."

Another question from Nathan. "Did the reports give you any clues about the killer’s methods?"

Josiah nodded and slid his finger across his tablet to move the screen. Replacing the pictures of smiling young women, with autopsy photos, which displayed the heinous depths of the killer’s work. "It appears that the killer took time to restrain and torture the victims in various ways. The knife cuts on the forearms and legs indicate mutilation. Puncture marks show that he systematically withdrew blood until the bodies were drained. All the women were brutally beaten and sexually assaulted during their captivity. Finally, after an undetermined length of time, and failing to fulfill his need, the killer then sliced their throats." He stopped for a moment to observe the reactions from his teammates. Anger had not yet taken root, but it would come. Instead, a numbing silence filled the room as each agent visually struggled to take in the brutal scenes displayed on the screen. Unfortunately, the worst was yet to come.

Waiting until Michaels and Masterson slipped into the room, and onto their respective chairs, Josiah continued. "After each murder, the killer used a very detailed ceremony when he disposed of the bodies. All the victims were redressed in black gowns, taken to a location near water, and laid out to appear they were sleeping. Their hands, clutching a single black rose, were then folded in a prayerful manner, his signature. His death ritual is as telling as the way they died, which brings me to the killer’s profile."

Sanchez abandoned the screen and turned his attention to his teammates. "Our subject is male, twenty-five to thirty-five years old, intelligent, organized, obsessive, compulsive, high functioning, confident., and possesses unlimited monetary resources. He exhibits the signs of a paranoid psychopath who adheres to certain deviant blood and death rituals, which are essential to him. He also believes himself to be a … Vampire."

Nervous laughter escaped from a few of his fellow agents, while others only exchanged subdued glanced with one another. Buck was the first to give voice to what they were all thinking. "You mean a vampire wannabe, or he role plays at it, right?"

Josiah was ready for their initial disbelief. "No. He believes he is a real, immortal, blood drinking, a predator of the night, vampire, and is looking for his perfect mate. The frustration of not finding his dark bride drives him to kill again. He uses his alternative lifestyle community to hide in the same way other serial killers hid within normal societies. This makes finding him harder, but not impossible. " Sanchez placed his hand on the smooth mahogany table before him and finished by saying, "One thing is certain. He will continue to kill until we stop him."

Detective Masterson, seated beside the team profiler, slid a photo from his portfolio and spoke, "Captain Michaels and I worked another body dump earlier, girl named Joanie Sikes," he passed the picture to Josiah. "this is one of his earlier kills," sighing, he added, "number twenty-two."

Chris stood, reclaiming the meeting from Sanchez. "Alright ladies and gentlemen, we have a lot of information to digest, and more work to do. Bravo Team meet with Captain Michaels in conference room two, he will direct you to your next tasks. Alpha Team, conference room one in ten minutes. Before we leave, take note, per Assistant Director Russo’s orders, Family Matters, we will take a five-day break for Christmas. December twenty- third through the twenty-seventh, returning to work on the twenty-eighth." He did not allow them time to complain. "Dismissed."

The room cleared quickly, leaving Chris and Vin alone. As the two men walked toward the exit, Chris turned to Vin, "We need a break soon, something, anything we can use to nail this sonofabitch!"

Vin understood that Chris’ frustration was fueled by Bianca’s disappearance and the fact that she fit the victim profile. Although they both feared the worst, the waiting was wearing on Larabee’s nerves due Jesse’s connection to his missing friend. "We do, and we have the best agents on the planet to make that happen." He placed his hand on his brother’s shoulder. "But Chris, it’s gonna take time and patience to see this through to the finish."

Chris sighed. "I’m letting this Bianca thing get to me. You are right, we will find this psycho, and we will find her too, but you know this patience business is not my strong suit."

"Hell Chris, I live with that Larabee impatience. Between Kel and the kids, I’m an expert at readin’ the signs, and I reckon you’re probably at code red level now."

Larabee got the message. "Okay, I’ll channel more Cowboy patience, you Captain Tanner find us an in to the Vampire world."

"You got it, Commander."

They continued to the conference room where Alpha Team awaited their orders.

Chapter 9

MTAC was a cool place with all the state of the art gadgets, digital screens, and assorted bells and whistles, but Alpha Team preferred the ‘old school’ feel of their conference room. With the large round oak table, cushy, but not fancy swivel chairs, and a good old-fashioned white board, it was informal, and comfortable. Michael Langley was beginning to get used to the way the original Team Seven operated, having worked with MCAT for over a year. He had seen firsthand their unique bonds with one another, as well as their individual personal skills. Ramon Hunter on the other hand was new and had a lot to learn about his seasoned teammates. While waiting for their Captain’s arrival, Nathan, Ezra, Buck, and JD mentally reviewed what they knew about their case. Josiah’s graphic descriptions and profile conclusions were disturbing, and all were anxious to continue the pursuit of the monster responsible for so many macabre deaths.

Tanner stood aside allowing Larabee to enter first. Although he would lead this meeting, Chis insisted he wanted to observe. Vin laughed to himself thinking, * Right, as if he could stay quiet.*.

*I heard that. *

Taking the empty chair between Ezra and Josiah, Vin bridled his thoughts. He was glad Larabee’s mind was focused on this case since his brother would be less likely to notice the troubling visions that were plaguing his sleep. It was enough that Kel had to endure a roving Tanner at night, and until he knew more, it was not time to share with his brothers. "Okay, let’s get started. The best place to begin is with the profile…."

"Sorry Josiah, but I think your profile skills are slipping." Buck exclaimed, flashing a grin at the profiler, to take the sting out of his words. "there’s no way in hell you’re gonna convince me that the sicko we’re chasing is an honest to god vampire!"

"Josiah didn’t say he believed this guy is a vampire!" JD argued, "he just stated our unsub believes that."

"Just because the bastard believes it, means we have to take his word for it?" Buck shook his head, convinced that even for them the vampire thing was too far-fetched. "we might as well be hunting for werewolves, mummies, and Bigfoot too. Makes about as much sense."

"Buck, these lifestyles are real to most of the people who participate in them." Josiah tried to explain. "Active Vampirism within the Vampire Subculture includes both Sanguinarine Vampirism, which involves blood consumption and Psychic Vampirism, whose practitioners believe they are drawing spiritual nourishment from auric or pranic energy…. our unsub…"

Nathan interjected, "There are cases throughout history of people thinking they were vampires, Countess Elizabeth Bathory, Nikola Tesla, Vlad the Impaler…"

Buck rolled his eyes at Nathan. "Next thing I know you guys will be telling me this guy sleeps in a coffin, flies, and turns into a bat!"

"That only happens on TV shows and movies Buck," JD exclaimed. "Besides, you know we’ve seen stranger things."

"Enough!" Tanner stood and began to speak, not in his usual style, but as if he was channeling a message out of his control. "WE know this sick sonofabitch is NOT a vampire. Vampires are not real, but evil damn sure is! WE know the ageless battle rages on between good and bad, light and dark, justice and injustice. Century after century that battle is consistent, pushin’, shovin’, attackin’, on and off, one side to another …all in an attempt to tilt the scales of justice to one side’s favor. WE know those battles well. WE know evil misdirects, and manipulates, often disguisin’ itself as an ally, only to stab you in the back. WE know Fate is true, and evil will never give up its quest to prevail...but with our combined knowledge of the past and the atrocities, we’ve seen…. WE know what we face when evil rears its ugly head……"

The collective thoughts of his brothers’ concerns, combined with the slight pressure of both Josiah and Ezra’s hands on his arms, brought Vin back to their reality.

*Vin? *

*Leave it, Chris. *

Taking a deep breath, Tanner forced himself to concentrate on the business at hand. He continued, "Y’all have the facts of all we know in front of you, we proceed and trust the profile to guide us. We need a way to locate this vamp wannabe, and I think the best way to do that is by establishin’ an undercover op. Ezra, choose an agent to go under with you. Josiah, discuss with Standish likely scenarios to flush out our unsub. JD, use CASSIE to project the best places to infiltrate, then tomorrow you and Buck check ‘em out. Nathan, you figure out how our undercover agents can appear to join in without actually drinkin’ any blood. Y’all have one hour to get your preliminary ideas together before our lunch arrives. We will regroup then, and work until we have a solid plan…"

Ezra refused to let Vin dismiss them yet. "Excuse me, Captain, before we depart, I have an imperative inquiry."

Vin was anxious to take a break in order to center himself. Right now, his patience was wearing thin, but he bit his lip and calmly asked, "What is it, Standish?"

"Am I correct in understanding that you want me to establish Goth-like personas for myself and an agent of my choosing for a clandestine investigation within these Vampire subcultures?"

Standish’s words made his head ache. "That’s exactly what I’m sayin’."

"You can’t be serious…" Standish started, but Vin cut him off sharply.

"I gave you an order, do it." Vin stalked out of the room. His brothers exchanged worried glances, before slowly departing.

Hunter and Langley were left staring after their senior teammates in puzzlement.

"What the hell just happened?" Ramon asked Michael.

Langley shrugged his shoulders. "I don’t know, but you’ll get used to it."

+ + + + + + +

Brodie finished his morning work early and spent the rest of his time sitting in the ranch office. From here he had a good view of any vehicle coming to or leaving Larabee 7. Rain and Barbara had made two trips out and back so far. Mallory and Inez also seemed to have an urgent need to leave and return repeatedly. However, his focus was on Kelli and Cait, who having returned from a two-hour outing joined the other ladies at the entrance to the daycare. The seven women appeared to be in deep discussion about something. He fingered the GPS tracking app on his phone, the one which would allow him to find Kelli’s Yukon anywhere she decided to go. Until today he had resisted the urge to use it, but with his gut warning him that trouble was close, he decided that the next time Kelli left the ranch, he would be shadowing her every move.

Standing in the cold outside the daycare entrance was not the ideal place to meet for discussing strategy, yet none of the sisters minded. When the $10.000 offered reward generated an enormous response and the numbers of calls were overwhelming at times, it did not matter. In true sisterhood fashion, the ladies had worked relentlessly to follow up on every lead the tip line produced. Yet, as of this morning, none produced results.

"Okay ladies, we need to probably reassess our course of action. As of today, we have handled more than seventy tips thought to be credible, but unfortunately, still nothing solid. Y’all have been great and we can’t stop now."

Kelli, as well as Mallory, understood how leads from a reward-based tip line worked. Most did not pan out, but occasionally some would at least give more information. All they needed was just one to prove viable to make a difference in their search for Bianca. "We have a couple more tips close by to check on. Barbara, maybe you and Rain could take ’em?"

"I feel like we are spinning our wheels here." Barbara, out of all of them, seemed to have taken the lack of results, the hardest. The unexplained bond she felt with the teenage girl grew each day, making her more determined to find Bianca. "I want to find her now."

Cait, who had known Barbara for years, knew better than the other women, just how lonely her friend’s young life had been. It was understandable that the situation with Bianca hit close to home for Barbara. With more confidence than she actually felt, Cait said, "We’ll keep following the leads until we find her. It is just going to take more time and patience from all of us."

She wanted to find the teenage girl herself, for Jesse’s sake but knew that sometimes wanting was not enough. She remembered all too well the feeling of helplessness she had experienced during the awful period when she lost her first husband and children in a car accident caused by a drunk driver. She had been severely injured and wished more than once that death would claim her, but her wishes had not been granted. Instead, she summoned up the strength to continue to live and was very thankful that she had. But there had been many days she too felt the frustration Barbara was feeling now.

Mallory and Tess exchanged knowing looks, each having been victims of domestic abuse. They too understood, how helplessness fueled disappointment. Rain saw the worst side of life each time she worked a shift in the emergency room, or at the clinic. She also understood the way Barbara was feeling. While Inez had never experienced similar traumas that her sisters had, she remembered how alone she had been before she met her husband. Before marrying Buck, she had struggled to make a life for herself as a bartender, in a place where she knew no one, while her family resided in a foreign country.

Kelli was too aware of how past devastating events in each of their lives had molded them into the women they were today. Each possessed a backbone of steel, born of pain, but forged into strength by determination, compassion, stubbornness, and accepting the power of unconditional love. All of them were women to admire, and she was lucky to have them in her life. She knew that together, the Wild Bunch Sisters could do anything, including finding Bianca.

The buzzing sound from Kel’s tip line phone halted their conversation. She answered it, listening intently to the caller, hastily jotting down directions onto the notepad she kept with her at all times. Ending the call, she looked up from her notes and met six pairs of anticipation filled eyes with her own. "The lead we just got sounds promisin.’ I am familiar with the area the caller was talkin’ about, so Cait and I are goin’ to go check it out. We’ll let y’all know what we find."

The group broke up then, with all the ladies, except for Tess, who had Sally on standby to take over for her if necessary, heading to their vehicles. Kelli and Cait climbed into Kelli’s Yukon, unaware that they were under observation. Brodie knew he was being a paranoid sonofabitch, but he didn’t care. The women were up to something and it was high time he found out what it was.

"Our first stop is going to be in West End," Kelli told Cait as she turned the Yukon onto the highway. "Caller said that he heard through the homeless grapevine that a teenage girl fittin’ Bianca’s description had been roughed up by some wannabe gangsters a couple of weeks ago and was currently bein’ cared for by members of the same community."

Cait was quiet as she absorbed the information Kelli had just shared with her. "Hypothetically, if this is her, do you think she’s been injured all this time?"

"Why don’t we wait ‘til we find out if it’s Bianca before we speculate." Kelli signaled a turn onto the street where West End Junior High was located.

"Isn’t West End the school where Buck taught, and Ezra almost got blown up?"

"That’s the one." Kelli found a parking space across the street from the school. She turned off the SUV and checked the pockets of her coat to make sure she had her taser and pepper spray, before opening her door.

She locked the vehicle and waited for Cait to join her on the sidewalk. "Stay close and keep aware. This isn’t exactly the greatest place to be conductin’ street interviews."

"No, it’s not." Cait glanced around at the dilapidated houses and graffiti-laden buildings around them.

For the next hour or so, the two determined redheads pounded the pavement. Knocking on doors, talking to residents, chatting with a few working girls on the streets, and stepping into the businesses in the neighborhood found most of the people not very cooperative or having no new information to give them. Kelli and Cait were heading back to the Yukon when they heard someone call out, "Hey ladies!"

Kelli and Cait turned to see an older man bundled up against the cold in a ratty coat, faded jeans, and old sneakers amble up to them. "You looking for a missing girl?"

"Yes, we are," Kelli answered, scanning the area to make certain the man was alone.

"Might know someone who knows something about that." The man thrust out a scrap of folded paper to Kelli. "Go here and ask for Miz Sally."

Without waiting for either Kelli or Cait to respond, the man ambled off.

Kelli held up a scrap of paper so that she and Cait could both see what it said. "2546 W. 3rd Street."

"That’s just a few streets over from here, in Purgatorio." Kelli was tiring but wanted to go on. "You up to checkin’ it out?"

"You bet I am." Cait was dragging some too but was not going to let a little weariness stop them.

The two women hurried as fast as their pregnant bodies would carry them to Kelli’s Yukon. Although neither voiced it, both had a feeling that this lead was the one they had been waiting for.

+ + + + + + +

After Tanner shut out him out mentally, Chris planned to corner the Texan during their break to find out what the hell was wrong. However, one interruption after another prevented him from doing so. Glancing at his watch, he noted it was almost time to resume the meeting, and he planned to be there. Captain Tanner could run his meeting, but Brother Vin was not leaving without giving Chris a damn good explanation of his earlier strange behavior. Entering the conference room, the first person he encountered was Ramon Hunter.

Larabee knew Hunter’s hiring was hurried and forming this task force happened only a few days after. He wondered if the young man was feeling too rushed "You settling in okay?"

"Working on it, Sir." Ramon slowed his pace to converse with Larabee. "Work wise I’m good, living arrangements not so much. I did at least find a condo but haven’t had time to move my stuff from Texas yet." He hurried his response when he saw that their lunch had arrived. "No worries though. When I get the time, I’ll take care of it, and find a way to tell Pops where I am and what I’m doing"

Knowing Ramon’s father and his family, he was only mildly surprised, Chris grinned." You haven’t told Teaspoon about the job, have you?"

"I will, it’s just not something I want to discuss over the phone." Ramon muttered under his breath, "or at all if I can help it."

Suppressing a smile, Chris nodded. "Tell you what, family is important. You’ll have a few days over Christmas to take care of personal issues. Make one of those issues having a talk with your family." He held up his hand when he saw the protest forming in the younger agent’s eyes. "I’ll make arrangements with Russo to have the MCAT jet available for you to take a jaunt to Texas over the holiday. Take care of your business there and come back with a clear head, ready to work."

What could he say except, "Yes Sir."

Tanner walked in after everyone was seated and started without delay. "I want this operation up and runnin’ within days after we return from the holiday break. Ezra, we’ll begin with you. Preliminaries?"

Ezra was prepared for the Captain’s request. "After evaluating the possible scenarios available, and conferring with Agent Sanchez identifying our goals, I have produced a presentation I deem worthy of consideration. I have selected Agent Hunter to accompany my new persona as we sojourn the Goth/Vampire world."

Ramon heard his name and his brow shot up. "What did you say?"

Buck patted Hunter on the back. "It means Son, you’re going undercover."

Vin nodded, accepting and agreeing with Ezra’s decisions. Ignoring Chris’ attempt to mentally communicate, he said, "Good choice. Make your presentation Agent Standish."

+ + + + + + +

Brodie using his practiced covert skills stayed out of sight but watched the GPS app continuously. He was not pleased to see Kelli and Cait head to the west end of the city, one of the highest crime areas in Denver, but once they began to move again, he relaxed. Suddenly, he lost his cell service signal, and shaking the phone, he cursed," Damnit to hell, work, you sorry sack of shit." Without service, he had no way of knowing which direction the women traveled next.

Stopping short of throwing his cell against the dash, he tried to focus. Sighing deeply, he counted to ten…then twenty…still nothing. He drove aimlessly down the street trying to reconnect to a signal. Finally, after fifteen minutes, the GPS tracker popped back up and he located the Yukon. "Purgatorio! Kel have you lost your ever-loving mind!!!" Making a U-turn he sped toward their location passing an ambulance on the way. Not an unusual sight for this part of town, he paid it no notice.

Sliding to a stop at the last location registered on the tracking device, his heart raced when he saw a crowd gathered around a yellow tape line. Jumping out of his truck, he pushed his way through to find a uniformed officer in his path. "What happened here?"

The officer gave Brodie the once over before deciding to give him a vague answer. "Woman assaulted... Ambulance just left, headed to Denver Memorial." The uniform turned away, signaling that was all the info he would share.

Memorizing the officer’s name and badge number for future reference, Brodie scanned the area. He did not see the Yukon, but already knew in his gut that his next stop was Denver Memorial. Sliding behind the wheel of his truck he started the engine and hurried toward the hospital.

Making a decision, he was certain would upend life on Larabee 7, he picked up his cell, punching in the number for Vin. Reaching his son’s voice-mail, he then tried the MCAT office, where Gunny answered.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra’s presentation led to two work filled hours in the conference room. Tanner was pleased to see all his team participating without complaint. They may not find this sicko with this op, but they had to try. Without a clue to where he was killing, their only option was to flush him out if possible. He was especially glad that Chris was equally invested in their discussions, which meant Larabee was not locked on to the tumultuous thoughts still roving through his mind.

Vin gained his team’s attention. "Okay, we have two days ‘til we break for Christmas. Enough time to flesh out the op, gather the materials, appropriate clothing, and accessories y’all need. Ramon, you stay close to Agent Standish, he is the best undercover operative, bar none, watch and learn. Also, be ready to hit the ground running on the twenty-eighth. I want…"

Tanner was interrupted when Gunny rushed into the room. "Sorry Sir, but your father is on line one, he says it’s urgent."

Grabbing the phone, Vin pushed the button, wondering what the hell Kel had done now. "Dad… we have a bad connection… what did you say?"

Chris reached over to put the call on speaker, and they all heard the few words that broke through the static. "Kel and Cait…. Purgatorio…. assault…hospital"

The brothers were already in motion as Vin yelled into the phone, "I’m on my way, I’ll call you on my cell."

"Gunny, Captain Michaels is in charge," Chris told Gunny as the seven men rushed out of the room, collected their coats, and raced to their vehicles.

Larabee slid behind the wheel of his Ram, jammed the keys into the ignition, and was already pulling out before Tanner and Standish settled in. The other four brothers climbed into Buck’s Ford crew cab and followed the Ram as it sped out of the parking lot.

"Dad? What? You’re still breakin’ up. Damn it!" Tanner exclaimed, barely resisting the urge to throw his cell through Larabee’s windshield. The reception on his cell was as splotchy as it had been in the office, and it did nothing to alleviate the Texan’s growing concern for his wife and Cait.

* What the hell were they doin’ in Purgatorio? *

*You got me, but you can be sure I’m going to find out. *

Larabee, pressed the gas pedal to the floor, anxious to get to Denver Memorial and find out the condition of his wife and daughter.

Chapter 10

Mallory had arrived ten minutes earlier, but knew what she needed to do. "Hon, you should give it a rest for a while." Kelli had been running all day and should be off her feet. However, her pleas for her sister to get off her feet, fell on deaf ears.

"I’m good," Kelli continued pacing, anxious to hear news from the doctor. "I wish someone would update us already."

"I know you do. So do I, "Mallory said, "we’re just going to have to be patient awhile longer."

"Patient isn’t exactly my strong suit." Kelli ruefully admitted.

Mallory chuckled. "That’s a Larabee trait."

Just then the double doors leading into the inner sanctum waiting room they were in, opened, and Kelli was surprised to see her father-in-law rushing toward them. "What are you doin’ here?"

" Better question is, are you alright?" Brodie growled, "what about Cait?"

Narrowing her eyes at the older man, Kelli sensed that Brodie’s presence at the hospital was not by coincidence. "Why exactly are you here and how did you know to come?"

Brodie recognized the fire in her eyes but decided to risk her ire anyway. "With the way you ladies been acting over the past couple of weeks, I knew something was up, so I…"

It did not take a genius to figure out what he had done. "You tapped into the GPS on my Yukon." Kelli’s voice rose as her Larabee temper flared. "Didn’t you?"

"Yes," Brodie admitted.

"Unbelievable!" Kelli exclaimed, preparing to put her father-in-law in his place, when the double doors swung open and in stormed Vin, Chris, and the rest of the brothers. Her version of the Larabee glare hit Brodie head on, "You called Vin?" She was forced to turn her attention to her husband.

"Kel, Baby, are you alright?" Vin’s primal protective instincts had kicked in and his eyes scanned anxiously over his redhead as he swept her into a fierce hug.

"I’m fine Vin, but Brodie’s gonna need a doctor when I get through with him!" Kelli glared at the older Tanner over Vin’s shoulder.

"Where’s my wife? How is Cait?" Chris demanded, relieved to see that his daughter was okay, but was anxious to see his wife. Surely, if Cait was injured, Kelli would have been acting far more upset that she was, but until he saw Cait with his own eyes, his worry wouldn’t be alleviated.

"Cait’s fine, Dad. If Brodie hadn’t been snoopin’ y’all wouldn’t have been called down here over nothin’." Kelli wasn’t about to let up on her father-in-law. She was more than a little pissed that he had felt the need to trail her and Cait all over Denver. They were grown ass women after all.

Chris was relieved to know his wife was all right, but that didn’t explain where she was, or why both Cait and Kelli were at the hospital. "Well, where is Cait then? Why isn’t she with you?"

"Cait went to get something to drink," Mallory told Chris. Not ready to put herself in the middle of a Larabee~ Tanner tiff. She instead asked, "Josiah, not that I’m not glad to see you, but why are you here?"

Josiah, relieved to find no family emergency, shrugged, "I’m here for moral support." He turned his glance onto JD, Ezra, and Nathan, who he realized were unwilling to add anything helpful, and continued, "We thought our presences were required." Clearing his throat, he said, "I’m assuming you’re here for the same reason so, where is Cait, and what happened in Purgatorio?"

"You’ll have to ask Kelli or Cait. I wasn’t there." Mallory replied, not willing to elaborate.

"I’d like to know that too," Vin said, his initial fear for his wife and their unborn child’s health, switching to anger. "What the hell were you doin’ in Purgatorio? That’s no place for two pregnant women to go into alone!"

"Don’t take that tone with me Vin Tanner!" Kelli snapped. It had been a long day and she was in no mood to deal with two mule-headed male Texans. "I might be pregnant, but I’m not incapable of defendin’ myself if necessary!"

Chris would not be ignored. "Stand down Missy, when the safety of family is concerned, we have a right to use any tone we want! We just had the hell scared out of us! You and Cait should have known better! And if the two of you weren’t assaulted, then who was? Explain now!!"

A soft voice from behind him answered, "Why are you yelling, Chris? Should have known better about what? Why are all of you men here?" Cait spoke, but her companions, Inez and Tess, who carried trays laden down with bottles of water, mugs of coffee, and an assortment of snacks. Inez and Tess caught the identical looks of surprise on Buck and JD’s faces when their men spotted them with Cait. They set the trays down on a nearby table and moved to stand beside Buck and JD, as all four listened in on the heated conversation.

Before Chris could reply, Kelli answered Cait’s question for him. "Seems Mister Paranoid over there called ‘em." She jabbed a thumb in Brodie’s direction as she continued, "he was suspicious about the way us ladies have been actin’ lately, so he tapped my Yukon’s GPS. Then he followed me and Cait today, made some erroneous assumption, and called in the troops, who are over reactin’ as usual." She gestured to the eight men, who were taking up most of the space in the small waiting area. "They think we need protection. From what, I don’t know, but it’s damn annoyin."

Amused, Buck could not keep silent. "Brodie, I think you just got hit with a large dose of pregnancy hormones, no way to avoid them." His comment earned him a blistering glare from Kelli, a frown from Cait, and a disapproving look from Inez. Wisely Buck refrained from saying anything else, not wanting to jeopardize his own sleeping arrangements at home.

"Kel, I asked Dad to keep watch on you, it’s not his doin.’" Vin assumed his explanation was sufficient…he was wrong of course.

That was the last straw for Kelli. "I don’t need a babysitter Tanner, and it damn sure is his doin’! Instead of askin’ what we were up to, he took it upon himself to go covert."

She was just getting started. "For y’all’s information, we, bein’ ALL the Wild Bunch sisters, have been followin’ tips from the hot-line, and the leads they produced, to search for Bianca the past two weeks. Respectin’ the fact that y’all had an important case and a job to do, we did not ask any of you to drop your task force, take time off work, or burden y’all with matters that we were perfectly capable of handlin’. All of us are trained in self-defense, two of us are or have been Federal Agents, we are intelligent, street smart women who don’t scare easily, and collectively have been married to lawmen for …oh hell I don’t know how many years. Point is, we damn sure can take care of ourselves. Yes, today’s leads took us into a couple of bad areas in Denver, but it was more than worth any risks y’all think we took and compared to what that seventeen-year-old girl has been through for the past month, it was nothin!"

"Wait," Chris interrupted, "Are you saying you found Bianca?"

"We did, and it was a group effort by all these awesome women I call sisters, that made it happen." Cait frowned at Chris as she spoke. "Doctor Gilford is in there with Bianca. She took to the street by choice after those awful people burned the art supplies and clothes she paid for with her own money. And although she did not say, I think there was more abuse involved. It appears she was doing okay until a couple of weeks ago when some gang-bangers assaulted her. While recovering from a bad beating she fell ill, and between being weak and the cold, she only got worse. Until earlier today, she’s been receiving some aide, although inadequate to deal with the severity of her illness, from an older woman immersed in Denver’s homeless community. This woman trusted us for some reason, enough to lead the way to where she had been caring for Bianca. We acted fast, getting her the medical attention she desperately needed."

"So, the ambulance was for her?" Brodie inquired, earning him another glare from his fired-up daughter-in-law.

"Yes!" Kelli snapped.

Vin tried to rein his redhead in. "Kel, Dad might have acted a little hastily, but..."

"Don’t even try to defend his actions or yours to me Vin Tanner!" Kelli told him, fighting back angry tears, which threatened to spill over onto her cheeks. She was worried about Bianca, infuriated beyond words with the men in her life, tired, hungry, and her feet hurt. Not a good combination for any woman, much less one who was pregnant.

Understanding that Kelli needed a cooling off period and they all wanted to know more about Bianca’s condition, Vin leaned forward and spoke softly to his wife. "We’ll talk when we get home."

"Like hell we will." Truth be told, Kelli had no plans to talk, to Vin, Brodie, or her Dad until she was damn well good and ready.

Ezra, equally relieved to see that neither Cait nor Kelli were injured in any way, was beginning to find some amusement in the scene playing out before him. Standish knew all too well that once a Larabee was that fired up, it was best to steer clear unless you wanted it to explode all over you. He turned to Nathan, "Considering we have ascertained that the grievous maladies we expected are erroneous, perhaps those of us whose significant others are not present should depart?"

Before Nathan could comment, the closed door behind Kelli opened, and both Barbara and Rain stepped out with Doctor Gilford.

Barbara smiled when she saw her husband and walked over to stand beside him, looping her arm through his. "Ezra, I am so glad you are here, we need to talk." Before he could respond to her, the doctor began speaking.

Doctor Gilford shook his head, any time one member of Larabee’s family appeared at the hospital, it seemed they all did. "Why am I not surprised to see this crowd gathered?" he chuckled before continuing "Kelli asked me to examine the young lady currently in the treatment room. She needed a large dose of antibiotics to combat the beginnings of pneumonia. Although she appears to be a bit malnourished, considering she has been on the streets several weeks, I’d say she is in okay shape, someone took good care with her. She did take a beating a couple weeks ago, but the bruises are fading, and no bones were broken." Gilford recognized the unasked question in their eyes. "After talking with Bianca, I have determined that no sexual assault occurred, and did not perform a rape kit. She does need sleep, and more antibiotics, so I want to keep her here for at least the next forty-eight hours. After that, she should be well enough to be released. Now, if you have no further questions, I have other patients waiting for me."

"Thanks Doctor Gilford," Rain spoke, "I think we can take it from here. I already have a schedule worked out, so Bianca will not be alone." She caught the brief smile Nathan flashed her way, but pointedly ignored her husband. She had heard enough of the heated conversation from within the room where Bianca was being treated, to have already sided with her sisters in thinking the men were acting like Neanderthals.

Tess spoke up, surprising JD. "What do you need me to do?"

JD put his arm around Tess and said quietly, "Babe, you don’t have to do anything, I’m just sorry they roped you into their crazy plans."

Astonished by his words, Tess moved away from his hold on her, "For your information, it was not a crazy plan, it needed doing and we did it. Nobody made me do anything. I volunteered my help and I’d damn well do it again if needed." She wasn’t through either, "May I remind you my dad was a lawman and I learned way before meeting you, how my mother took up the slack at home when a case broke for him. It’s called partnership.

Furthermore, just so you know John Daniel, while I love being special to you, I’m a big girl and don’t need my hand held or you to make decisions for me." She poked her finger at him, "Don’t forget it." She did not miss the stunned look on JD’s face but refused to back down. He needed to understand that she was as strong and capable as any other Wild Bunch Sister.

Silently approving as she watched their new sister stand her ground, Rain decided all the men were underfoot. "You guys have better things to do than hanging around a hospital emergency room causing a ruckus! Go back to work! We can handle things here!" Without waiting for a response, she turned her attention to her sisters.

"Inez and I will take the first shift with Bianca. Mallory, you’re in charge of Kelli and Cait," avoiding any protest she continued. "Doctor Jackson’s orders, the two of you need some decent food, plenty of water, and to stay off your feet for the rest of the day. Tess, please make a list of what’s needed for us to stay overnight. You are also in charge of childcare arrangements while we take our respective shifts here. Barbara, you and Ezra should discuss what we talked about. Let me know how it works out."

Chris did not like the turn of events taking place. Crossing his arms in front of him, he told Rain, "We are done working for the day and in no rush to leave." Six pairs of eyes shot a questioning look in his direction. All wondering why they were taking off in the middle of the afternoon since the emergency that brought them there apparently was not one.

Mallory, Cait, Tess, and Kelli were huddled in a discussion when Vin approached them. "Kel, I’ll leave my truck at work and ride in with Chris tomorrow, so I can take you home."

Kelli reached into her pocket, retrieved the keys to her Yukon and dangled them in front of her husband. "Here, you take these and do what you want. I’m ridin’ with Mallory."

"Damn it Kel, we need to talk about this." The events of the day were starting to add up and Tanner’s patience was almost gone. "Don’t go Larabee on me!"

"No, we don’t, and I am a Larabee, who right now has had about all the overprotective Tanner men she wants or needs for a while." Kelli huffed, "Take the keys, Vin."

He took them, "Fine!" Tanner walked away and joined his brothers who were discussing who was going with whom to retrieve their own vehicles. Vin told them, "Whoever needs a lift, I reckon I’m available to take you."

Buck shrugged his shoulder, "I’ve got my truck here and Ez is going with Barbara to pick up his Jag, so I think only Nathan and Josiah need a ride."

Chris added, "Cait is going with Mallory, too, so that leaves me free."

JD walked up after a short conversation with Tess. "Guess you should include me," he said," Tess is taking her car home." Still reeling from the unexpected exchange of words between them earlier, he asked.

"Any of you have an explanation for what happened here?"

Brodie entered the conversation. "I won’t apologize for concern for my family, but I reckon my paranoia got all this started, sorry I dragged y’all into it."

"No worries, any one of us would have done the same thing," Chris reassured Brodie, then answered Dunne." And JD, I am not sure what the hell happened myself."

Vin watched as Kelli, Cait, and Mallory walked out through the double doors. Tess was right behind them, with a list in hand of what was needed for the women staying the night. Whatever had transpired, and he vowed to get all the details, Bianca was safe and sound asleep down the hall. That was the good news, the bad news, he reckoned it was gonna be a long night for more than just him on Larabee 7.

+ + + + + + +

Having retrieved his Jag, Ezra mused on today’s issues as he followed Barbara home. With the events, which transpired at the hospital fresh on his mind, he did not envy his brothers who had some serious damage control to undertake. Although he was grateful his wife was not angry with him, he could not imagine what they had to discuss that Rain would be privy to first. Then there was the task of planning an undercover op, which hopefully would not take him away from his family for too long, as well as his concern about Vin. The rambling narrative his brother slid into this morning’s meeting was uncharacteristic for Captain Tanner. While he, and he was certain his other brothers did as well, felt the unrest their Heart Warrior was experiencing, he had no clue why their legacy history had spilled over into the workplace without warning. All in all, it had been one hell of a day.

Stopping at the Wilmington home to pick up their daughter, Barbara walked back to the Jag and told Ezra. "Tia Isabella said Pearl was a dream to watch and has her ready for us. This won’t take long if you want to meet me at home. Our dinner is oven-ready in the fridge."

Ezra smiled. "Of course, she is a dream, and yes I will go on ahead and begin preparations for our dinner."

After dinner and the kitchen cleaned, Pearl was finally down for the night. Barbara and Ezra sat together on their couch in front of their beautiful Christmas tree. As he waited patiently for his spouse to tell him her thoughts

Barbara stared at the lights on the tree, collecting her thoughts. Now that the time was here to talk, she was nervous "Ezra, you know I love you and Pearl with all my heart."

Attempting to ease her concerns, he placed his arm around her, giving her reassurance of his sincerity. "I feel the same, love, and whatever you want to discuss I am listening."

Taking a deep breath, she began again, "You know how I was raised with parents who found other interests more important than me. I spent a lot of time alone…" Turning to face him, she sighed before continuing "While I did not lack material things, I know what it feels like to be alone and unwanted. During our search for Bianca, all those feelings resurfaced, and I found myself relating to her and her experiences. Ezra, she has not had many breaks in her short life. She needs a home, with people who care... a family. We have so much to be grateful for and so much to give, I want that to be us."

Momentarily taken aback, a collage of objections raced through his head, Ezra recovered quickly. He more than understood Barbara’s feelings. His own childhood with Maude had been very similar to Barbara’s. It was one of many reasons why they had understood each other so well. The two of them were very fortunate to have found one another, as well create the miracle of their baby girl. And yes, he had certainly thought about adding to their family, although in a more traditional manner. However, the unmistakable open emotions in Barbara’s eyes gave him pause. Why not a family of their choice?

Cupping her cheek, Ezra felt his own emotions rise. "I love you Barbara Delaney Standish, and I think you are a remarkable, caring woman. I believe I shall be late to work tomorrow. Instead, we will be traveling to Denver Memorial, so I can meet Bianca." All that mattered was they be in agreement. Love would handle the rest.

Chapter 11

Vin’s Personal Journal:

As I sit on the porch waiting for daybreak to display its arrival, I figured I should try and organize my tumultuous thoughts. Damn visions won’t let me sleep. Not sure what the message is attempting to tell me, but I do know something evil is coming and it is somehow tied to our beginning … and our destiny. The closer it gets, the more discord we all feel, and I fear we are all in for a hell of a ride during the upcoming months. Sooner, rather than later, I’m going to have to involve my brothers to figure this out, I suppose. Thanks to my off the rail ramblings yesterday, they already have picked up on enough of my thoughts to know something is not right.

If having troublesome visions weren’t bad enough, I’m concerned about the new Task Force. We don’t have a hard target yet, just a lot of dead bodies tied together. I know Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie Teams are the best of the best, but how do we find and fight a sicko, who believes he is a vampire and has been elusive for so many years without one hell of a break? Hell, we don’t even have a crime scene yet, just multiple dump sites. Personally, I’d rather fight terrorists or hate groups, at least with them their motives and methods are clearer. Hopefully Ezra and his undercover op will lead us somewhere. That is if he doesn’t revolt first. He has been a lot of personas before but asking him to become a wannabe vampire is totally different.

As if all the above was not enough to give me a permanent headache, it is nothing compared to my family matters. Maybe it’s the lack of sleep, worry or just plain stress, but I’ve let it get to me enough to cloud my better judgment. Yesterday it all came to a head when I temporarily forgot that my wife is not a timid maiden who needs my protection and guidance. I promised myself to never take her for granted or dismiss the strong traits that make her the women she is, the woman I love beyond reason. But I did.

After Kelli’s surgery, all the old threats to her health have vanished, and we are experiencing, according to Doctor Weeks, a normal pregnancy. Normal is not something we have experienced too often in our years together. The freedom of knowing our baby is safe, with no problems looming in the immediate future, gave my wife a freedom, she has not had since way before she became ill. For the first time in a long while, normal is happening for her. No recovering husband to worry over, no high blood pressure, no daily shots or stat checks, just plain all is okay normal. She took that freedom and did exactly what she is good at, what she is trained to do, and has done well for a lot of years. And what did I do? Reverted to the primitive protective warrior sonofabitch, I knew was certain to piss her off. It did, worse yet, I put my dad right into the crossfire of her Larabee temper.

Speak of the devil, I sense Dad coming this way. Gotta go.

Vin closed his journal and set it aside when saw his father approaching the house with a mug of hot coffee in hand. "Mornin’ Dad."

Brodie walked up the steps and joined his son, not commenting on the journal laying on the table. "Morning, you’re up bright and early."

"Considerin’ I barely slept and have been up since three, early is a relative term." Vin sighed, "I owe you an apology, I should never have asked you to watch out for Kel. She is an intelligent woman who is more than capable of takin’ care of herself. My primitive, protective warrior side forgets that sometimes. I put you into a lot of hot water."

"No apology necessary. I probably should have handled things a bit differently too." His father chuckled. "Son, I watched over you for years without you knowing it. Did, and will do the same for Kel, and any member of my family without being asked. My mistake was forgetting that dealing with loved ones close by is not the same as staying unknown in the shadows. I’m used to people not liking my methods, but reckon I need to practice some finesse when it comes to my daughter-in-law in the future." Making an observation, he continued, "I’m guessing since you are sitting out here in the cold alone, that Kelli is still a bit miffed."

"She was exhausted last night and turned in early, so we didn’t interact much. I’m lettin’ her sleep as long as she needs to. We’ll talk soon enough."

Brodie nodded. "Most of the ranch weatherizing jobs are finished, and the hands can manage the rest for a few days without me. They’re also busy setting up their own holiday shindig at the bunkhouse. I plan to spend time with my grandkids. Since they are out of school for Christmas, I figured I can help keep ‘em busy." He glanced at his watch. "I’m going inside where it’s warmer and prepare for the Tanner chaos. You, Captain Tanner, are gonna be late for work if you don’t hustle your butt into gear."

Vin stood, tossed out the remains of his coffee, retrieved his journal, and turned to his dad. "Right behind you, old man, but do us all a favor, please? Try to avoid any run-ins with my wife, not sure her Larabee temper is unruffled yet."

"Trust me, Son, I’m not that foolish. We’ll be fine." The two entered the house to start their respective days.

+ + + + + + +

Cait was sitting at her vanity table, running a brush through her long hair, pointedly ignoring the covert glances Chris kept casting her way, as they both readied themselves for the day ahead. She had been too exhausted the night before to do anything but drink a bottle of water and eat half the sandwich Mallory had made her, before crawling into bed and falling fast asleep. She felt a little guilty that she had left Chris to tackle getting dinner for himself and all three kids, as well as wrangling Grace and Cody into baths, before putting them in bed. Neither Chris or their children had suffered any ill effects from her leaving them to fend for themselves, so no harm was done, she supposed.

Repairing the current rift in her and Chris’ relationship was another matter. She had been mad at him, and his brothers, when she left the hospital the evening before. All the Wild Bunch sisters were intelligent adults who had survived a myriad of difficult situations in their lives and were now stronger women because of it. Together they had combined their individual skills and talents to tackle the search for Bianca, applying the very same methods and tools she was certain the men would have used if they hadn’t been tied up with their new case. They had done the impossible; they had found Bianca, and though the teenager was ill, she was alive because of their tireless efforts. She didn’t understand why the men couldn’t see that. She sighed.

Chris had had enough of his wife’s silent treatment. Last night he had let things slide because she had clearly been exhausted, but he wasn’t going to leave the house without him and Cait settling things between them. He walked over to stand behind his redhead and gently reached to take the brush from his wife’s hand. Cait’s fingers reflexively tightened around it, preventing Chris from taking it from her. Her green eyes flew up to lock with Chris’ in the mirror. A moment, then another passed, as they stared silently at one another in their reflections before she relinquished her hold on the brush.

"I am ready to listen if you want to talk," Chris said as he ran the brush through her tangled locks.

"The incident at the hospital should have never happened." Cait said slowly, "Brodie’s over-reaction to a situation he didn’t have all the facts about, caused undue alarm for you and the other men. It was also the catalyst for a lot of unnecessary hurt and angry feelings between a number of us."

"Brodie should have verified his facts better," Chris agreed, "but you can’t blame him for how Vin or I reacted. That’s all on us."

"I suppose." Cait murmured.

"You and our children, including my hot-headed eldest daughter, mean everything to me. Any danger that threatens to take any of you from me, triggers my inner warrior. He is an overprotective, lethal sonofabitch who charges into action without worrying about the consequences," Chris told her.

Cait twisted on the stool so she could look up into his face. "Is that a Larabee-style apology?"

Chris stared at her for a moment, then smiled, "Yeah it is."

Cait smiled back at him, "Good. Let’s kiss and make up."

Chris tossed her brush onto the vanity, helped her to stand, and tugged her gently into his arms. They held each other for a few moments in silence before Chris’s lips met Cait’s in a tender kiss.

"Let’s tell Jesse that we found Bianca before you go to work?" Cait suggested when the kiss ended.

"We will right after breakfast," Chris promised.

With breakfast over and Grace and Cody deposited into the playroom, Chris and Cait asked Jesse to join them in the living room.

"Did I do something wrong?" Jesse asked his parents.

"No, Son, you didn’t," Chris assured him. "We asked you in here to talk to you about Bianca."

"She isn’t dead, is she?" Jesse felt dread fill him as he waited for one of his parents to answer him.

"No, Honey, she isn’t," Cait placed her hand on his arm, "but she is sick and in the hospital."

"Is she going to get better?" Jesse hastily wiped away the tears that threatened to fall.

"Yes," Chris said firmly. "She has to stay in the hospital for a couple of days, but the doctors say she’ll be fine."

"I’m glad," Jesse was relieved. "Can I go see her?"

"Not until she’s feeling a bit better," Cait replied, "but as soon as she is well enough, we’ll take you to visit."

"Okay," Jesse stood up, wanting to leave, mainly to hide his emotional response to the news. "Can I go help Willard now?"

"Go ahead," Chris said, as he rose from the chair he had been sitting in, then told his wife, "I’ll drop the kids off at daycare on my way to work if you’ll help me wrangle them into their coats."

"You’ve got a deal." Cait accepted the hand up from Chris and the couple headed toward the playroom to corral the two youngest Larabees into their coats.

+ + + + + + +

Tess stood in the doorway of the daycare, greeting parents and children alike, her eyes eagerly scanning the area outside, for JD and his three little ones. Seeing him each morning always started her day off right, and she expected the same to be true today. Although she had to admit, she felt slightly anxious this morning, since she had not talked to JD after the incident at the hospital the day before. She had firmly bonded with the Wild Bunch Sisterhood, while they searched for Bianca. Never had she felt so much a part of something so special, and she needed JD to understand how important that was to her. She also wanted him to see how capable she was of defending herself in any given situation. She needed him to love, encourage, and support her as the woman she was, and not one who relied on her man to take care of her. She wanted a partner, a helpmate, not a caretaker.

JD parked his red Explorer outside of the daycare and killed the ignition. He could see Tess greeting other parents and children with smiles as they arrived and wondered if she would greet him in the same manner. He was a little uncertain of where they stood after the fiasco at the hospital. They hadn’t talked the evening before as they usually did.

Daisy, Lilah, and JJ’s excited pleas for him to undo their safety belts took him out of his thoughts. JD slid out from behind the wheel and busied himself with freeing them from their restraints. JJ was off and toddling after his older twin sisters as they raced toward the daycare, while JD loped along at a much slower pace.

"How are things going JD?"

JD turned his head at the sound of Nathan’s voice from somewhere to his right. He smiled as he watched Ronesha run after Terrell, the colorful beads at the end of her braids, flying around her dark head.

"Wish I had their energy," JD commented as Nathan joined him on the walk up to the front door.

"Me too. If we could bottle up and sell it, we’d be wealthy men, "Nathan replied.

"How did you sleep last night?" JD probed.

"Good, considering Rain’s been at the hospital all night." Nathan sighed, "Mallory is going to relieve her and Inez for the day. Not sure how things are going to be once she comes home though."

"Yeah, not too sure how things are with Tess and me either," JD admitted, but said no more as they reached the entrance at last.

Tess greeted them both with smiles and JD breathed a little easier. Maybe Tess wasn’t mad at him after all. Nathan bid her hello before continuing inside to help Terrell and Ronesha off with their coats and gloves.

"Tess..." JD said hesitantly, "Are we alright?"

"We are," Tess told him softly. "I said what I did not because I was angry with you, but because I want you to understand that I’m not a wilting flower who needs saving all the time. I am quite capable of making my own decisions and defending myself if necessary. And, unless you have changed your mind about us, I am a part of the Sisterhood of this Wild Bunch."

"I, uh, never meant to make you feel otherwise, and I damn well haven’t changed my mind about us." JD tried to explain. "In our line of work, we see the horrible side of human nature daily, and sometimes that creeps over into our personal lives. I cannot promise that I won’t act like an overprotective ape where you and our children are concerned, but I can promise to try to remember how capable and intelligent a woman you are."

"That’s all I’m asking." Tess reached out and tugged him to her. "I’ll try not to let my independence get so out of hand that it makes you feel that I don’t need you because I do John Daniel. I love you."

"I love you too." JD hugged her, before capturing her lips in a quick kiss, then reluctantly surrendered his hold on her to part for the workday ahead. He was relieved to know that his surprise plans for Christmas would not have to be canceled.

+ + + + + + +

Shifts were changing at the hospital when Ezra and Barbara arrived after dropping Pearl with Max earlier. They wanted to see Bianca before her caseworker showed. While the Standishes agreed about the course they wished to follow, it was important to them that the teen had input in their decision. Rain and Inez had already departed to their respective home. Mallory, who planned to spend the day with the teen, waited in the hallway while the couple was inside with the young girl.

Bianca stared out the window, not thrilled to talk to another set of do-gooders offering her a place to live. In her experience, nothing great came from people saying all the right things but meaning none of their BS. "Why?"

They had spent fifteen minutes attempting to break through to the teen and gotten nowhere. Barbara exchanged a panicked look at Ezra, her eyes pleading with him to find something that would break through the wall Bianca was showing them. Each understood Bianca’s nonchalant attitude because both had worn similar masks of indifference in their own pasts. If you do not show your wants and fears, you do not get hurt. Ezra decided to take another tactic

"We are offering you the opportunity to spend Christmas with us, our daughter, extended family, and your friend Jesse Larabee. Who I may add, is greatly responsible for us finding you. Had it not been for his faith and persistence, we would not have been fortunate enough to locate you."

Bianca turned on her side to face them. "Jesse did that for me?"

"He did indeed, enlisting the aid of his father, who, like myself, is in law enforcement. We then began our search, which included a large reward, tip line access, and hours of following leads. Barbara and her sisters joined in, refusing to give up until we knew you were safe and sound."

That information did get her attention. "So many people got involved for me? Why would they do that? I’m not anyone to any of you."

Barbara saw her opening. "Because Jesse is part of our family, and you matter to him. When one of our own makes a request, it becomes a family mission to honor it. We know about you from his friendship with you, but we all believe what happens to you matters."

Ezra added, "Of course, it is your decision and you are not obligated to come stay if you don’t want to." Sighing deeply, he threw in something he hoped would make her feel needed. "I, however, would greatly appreciate your consideration of our proposal. With your knowledge of Goth dress and behavior, I know I would benefit from your assistance."

She did like the idea that it was her decision, but the mention of her choice of being Goth puzzled her. "IF I agree, how could me being Goth help you?"

"Yes, well, as I said I am in law enforcement and specialize in undercover assignments. One I am attempting to perfect at the moment means me…being Goth as you would say. I could use some experienced input to pull my persona together." Ezra watched as Bianca thought about his words, sincerely hoping he had not overplayed his assessment of the situation.

Bianca looked from Ezra to Barbara. "I suppose. I need to have somewhere to go when I leave here. You’ll have to talk with my caseworker and get her approval."

Relieved Barbara answered, "That is certainly doable. We are already approved as foster parents. I do not foresee having any problems getting your case worker to agree to our request."

Biting at her lower lip, the Bianca nodded her head. "Then I guess you are stuck with me for the holiday." Directing her attention back to Ezra, she had the start of a smile on her pretty young face, "Goth, huh?"

Chapter 12

It was still early, but most of Alpha Team was already at work. Whether it was because they were anxious to get started or the fact a few of them did not sleep well the night before, Chris was not sure. Regardless, the sooner they completed the tasks left unfinished on their list, the quicker they could leave. The office would shut down for the holiday at the end of the day. Larabee glanced over the daily threat assessment reports, saw nothing urgent to address, and set them aside. Leaning back in his chair, he sighed, closed his eyes, and ran the palms of his hands down his face, trying to calm the multitude of thoughts racing through his mind.

Tanner walked into Larabee’s office without knocking, closing the door behind him. "Don’t know about you, but I’m ready to shut this place down for a few days," he said as he sat in his chair, opposite Chris. Attempting to keep things as normal as possible, and not letting his inner turmoil show, Vin wanted to skip over the previous day’s events.

Slowly leaning forward, Chris studied the younger man before speaking. "We need to talk about yesterday."

"Hell, Chris, things got out of hand. I was an overprotective SOB, and set off Kel’s Larabee temper, it’ll all be fine."

"Tanner," Chris growled out his name. "Tell me what I don’t know."

Vin knew exactly what answers Chris was looking for and was not prepared to discuss it, at least not here and now. "Not today…Tomorrow, brothers together at the ranch," he changed the subject, "I checked with our agents, Miles and Langley are the only ones with no close family or holiday plans. They’ll be joinin’ us at the ranch."

Larabee nodded, not willing to push his brother. "Okay, onto business. Ezra called, he will be late, nothing pressing with these threat assessments," he tossed a folder to Vin. "Justin and Lou are on their way in, supposedly with news. And I asked Josiah to join us when they arrive."

"Good," Vin laid out his day. "When Ezra comes in, we’re gonna firm up the details on his op. Think I’ll send him and Ramon clothes shoppin’, there are over thirty Goth shops just in Denver," he grinned, "That ought to be an interestin’ trip. Once they’re set, and the first targeted club is decided, I’ll send ‘em home. I also plan to have a video conference with Sam Cain, ask him to use a couple of Charlie Team agents, and run a mirror undercover op in Texas. If I recall right, at least five known victims were found around San Antonio, and we have three more found here, missing from there."

Chris agreed. "The more undercover agents we have out there, the better our chances are to locate this psycho’s base of operation. I’m damn sick and tired of finding bodies dumped, with no idea about where they were killed."

A knock at the door alerted them it was time for their mini-conference. Larabee said, "Enter."

Captain Michaels, Lou Masterson, and Profiler Sanchez came into Larabee’s office, each finding a comfortable place to sit. Justin laid several folders on his Commander’s desk and waited for Chris to begin.

"First off, Lou, I am pleased to inform you that Bianca has been found alive and mostly well. After a day or two in the hospital, she will be released." It made Chris feel good to see the smile on the detective’s face. None of them had seen much cheerful news pass through the task force yet.

"That makes my day," Lou said before he delivered the bad news. "We still have a number of missing females unaccounted for, but with the help of Bravo Team’s intense scrutiny of cases, and CASSIE, we have more victims to add to our killer’s file. Some with long intervals between missing and found. We also established from autopsy results that our sicko kept these victims alive though sustained IV feedings. That took skill, planning, access to materials, and privacy."

Justin passed copies to his Commander, Captain Tanner, and Josiah." While his early murders were scattered throughout several states, it appears most of his recent kills have been in either Colorado or Texas. CASSIE gave us some interesting stats. According to her projections, there is a ninety percent chance his home base is in Colorado, with some kind of tie to Texas. My team will continue to work on the source of material and try to narrow down the base location."

"Then we ‘re on the right track, which means if we get actionable intel from the club circuit, and a couple of good breaks, we can nail this son of a bitch in our own backyard," Tanner noted in a lethal tone.

"But doubtful we get him today." Chris told Justin, "Your team did excellent work. As of now, Bravo Unit is on stand down until the twenty-eighth. Go home, enjoy your Christmas with Beth and your children. Our killer will still be out there when you come back." He turned to Lou." You too, I know for fact you’ve spent a lot of extra hours on this case. Reacquaint yourself with your family."

Justin and Lou said their goodbyes and departed quickly, not chancing another crisis arising to prevent them from leaving

Josiah picked up the folders and stood. "Since you only said Bravo, I’m assuming Alpha has more to do."

Vin nodded. "Yep, we have to get Ezra’s op together. As soon as he comes in I’m sendin’ him and Ramon shoppin’, have a list of possible clubs to target ready for ‘em when they return."

Laughing, Josiah agreed. "Will do, but does our new teammate have any idea what Ezra is going to do to him?"

Chris grinned, "Not yet."

+ + + + + + +

"What are we doing exactly?" Ramon wanted to know.

"We are going on a shopping expedition to procure the necessary attire for our undercover personas." Ezra remarked as he parallel parked his JAG outside a Goth clothing store called ‘Babysitter’s Nightmare’. He inwardly shuddered at the image the name provoked before his eyes. In all the years of being an undercover agent, he had never dreaded shopping for the proper attire for a persona, as he did right now.

Ramon glanced out the window and blanched. He didn’t know which he found worse: the name of the store or its horrific paint job. He crossed himself and reluctantly started to open his door. Ezra’s hand on his arm stilled his action and made him glance at the other MCAT agent.

"For an undercover persona to work, one needs to become the person he is portraying. We will live, think, eat, and sleep our personas until we capture the psychopath brutally killing these women." Ezra told him. "We will be studiously going over the key points of undercover work, and immersing ourselves in all things Goth, until I am satisfied that we have both become Dante Winters and Vincent Valerian. Ezra and Ramon will disappear in this op." Standish handed him a dossier for him to read and memorize the details of his role.

Opening the folder, Ramon blew out his breath, "Dante Winters," he was relieved to find that at least his name was normal.

The two agents exited the JAG and hesitantly approached the store. As they entered, they were greeted by a mystical song from a group called Astrovamps, before being approached by a Goth girl who reminded Ezra of Bianca. She had shoulder-length jet black hair with Cobalt blue tips, dramatic makeup expertly applied, and wore a black mini-dress with skulls on it, black fishnet stockings, and black leather platform shoes.

"Welcome to Babysitter’s Nightmare. I’m Satin."

"My friend and I need appropriate attire for an event we will be participating in, which requires the proper Goth garb," Ezra told her.

She ran a critical eye over Ezra and said, "I think something vintage for you." To Ramon, she added, "Maybe something Metal or Emo for you."

Ramon had no clue what she was talking about, while Ezra looked oddly pleased by her choice for him.

Satin headed toward the back of the store, with the two MCAT agents following her.

The next twenty minutes passed in a whirlwind of confusion and torture for Ramon. Ezra and Satin teamed up against him in selecting one horrifying outfit after another for him to try on. He had never seen so much black leather, vinyl, chains, fishnet, skulls, pentagrams, reapers, and ravens in his life. In or out of his nightmares.

While Ramon was occupied with trying on the pieces of the last two outfits Ezra and Satin had gathered for him, Standish started pulling together clothing for his own undercover wardrobe with the Goth girl’s assistance. With Satin’s knowledge of Goth attire and what looked good together, along with his skill in picking out materials and cuts of cloth that looked best with his coloring, he soon had everything he needed for his character, without having to try on a thing.

"Ramon, have you assembled your last outfit yet?" Ezra called out to the younger agent when he returned to the men’s dressing area.

"I look like Eddie Munster," Ramon muttered as he exited the stall he had used to change his clothes.

Ezra quickly hid his grin behind his hand as he took in Ramon’s Goth transformation. Gone was the button down Western shirt, denim Wranglers, and scuffed cowboy boots. Hunter now wore a Death Card Tarot T-shirt, black jeans with more zippers on them than actual denim, and chunky black boots with silver chains and skulls on his feet.

Ramon glowered at Standish, catching the smirk on the man’s face. "I feel like I’m in a nightmare that I can’t wake up from."

"Better acquire a taste for what your new attire or learn to mask how uncomfortable you are in them." Ezra told him, "Our team is depending on us come through for them."

"I’ll do my part," Ramon assured him.

He wanted it clear that he was a man to be counted on. While he might not be thrilled with his clothing choices for this assignment, he wouldn’t let it get in his way of doing his job. He was a Hunter after all, and they didn’t quit until they got their man.

While Ramon changed back into his street clothes, Ezra quickly gathered the items of clothing in the pile on a bench that they would be purchasing for Ramon’s characterization of Dante. When Ramon made an appearance once again, adding the last outfit to the pile, the two MCAT agents carried the items over to the counter where Ezra’s clothing had already been placed. Satin had also assembled some accessories for both men, and a collection of dark-colored eye shadows, eyeliners, black spray-on hair paint, nail polish, and lipsticks for the men to complete their transformations. Ezra paid the hefty price tag before the two men departed the boutique and headed back to MCAT headquarters.

+ + + + + + +

Alpha Team except for Nathan, who had left early to run an important errand with Rain, gathered to view the results of the Goth shopping spree. Chris cringed when he saw the large number of purchases his agents brought inside. When Ezra was involved, the price of his ops was always sizable. This one was no exception.

Ramon piled up the clothes bags on one of the desks, separating what he needed from Ezra’s duds. Ezra handed Chris and Vin copies of the dossiers he intended to use, as well as a detailed synopsis of his plans. " I am confident you will find all the information needed from me in these folders, and we are as you say, good to go."

Chris flipped the first one open and began to laugh, "Dante Winters and Vincent Valerian?"

"You picked Vin’s name?" Buck was having difficulty containing his own amusement, especially when he looked over to see Tanner’s brow arch in surprise.

Ezra corrected him with emphasis. "It is Vincent, two syllables, do not forget."

Josiah handed Standish a piece of paper. "The first club most likely to produce results according to CASSIE and our profile is Wreckroom."

"Buck and I did a drive by the club, while you were shopping, and there are plenty of areas close by to set up the mobile surveillance van without being seen." JD already had his lists made and equipment sorted for the job.

Tanner nodded. "Okay then, if we’re set, then all of y’all get out of here. We are officially closed for Christmas."

+ + + + + + +

Vin had a lot on his mind during the drive home. He wanted to have some sort of lucid explanation for his brothers tomorrow. Problem was, he was not coming up with any, which he believed sounded reasonable. Perhaps with the power of seven minds working together, and using their code, they could figure it out. The most pressing matter on mind was family, more specifically his wife. While he had no doubt, their relationship would be okay, his concern was about the underlying reasons that brought things to a head in the emergency room yesterday. Tanner knew why he reverted to primitive male jerk, but Kelli’s reason for being so volatile was more of a mystery to him.

Parking in front of his home, Vin exited his truck and began walking toward the front door. His attention, however, was drawn to the light on in the barn. Curiosity aroused, he changed course, his senses telling him his redhead was inside. Standing in the doorway watching her brush Dancer, he smiled as a sense of déjà vu hit him. Over the years, meeting in barns had played a pivotal role in their relationship. Each encounter affording them some very pleasurable moments, and always resulting in change for the better in their lives.

Vin moved to stand behind his wife, wrapped his arms around her waist, and rested his chin on top of her head. "I have no excuse for goin’ primal on you yesterday. You did nothin’ to deserve my overbearin’ reaction."

Kelli relaxed and leaned back into his embrace. "Reckon I kinda overreacted myself."

"Hmm...Dad did too." Vin started to defend his father, but Kelli stopped him.

"You don’t have to apologize for Brodie. He and I have already talked, and I know he did what he felt he needed to do." She sighed, before saying more, "Just as I did what I needed to do." Turning in his arms to face the man she loved, she continued, "After Doctor Weeks gave us the good news and all clear on health issues, I felt normal again, for the first time in a long while. Searchin’ for Bianca allowed me to do what I was trained to do. It felt good to use my skills, and I did not see any harm in it."

Smoothing his hand through her hair, Vin shook his head. "The past year hasn’t had much normalcy to it at all, and then the scare we had with the baby and you…for me it was like waitin’ for the other shoe to drop. I forgot for a short while that not only are you capable, you are a damn good investigator and profiler, which is why I want you back at work as soon as you are ready."

"I am ready." Kelli gazed lovingly up into Vin’s face, "I would never put our baby or myself at risk, I hope you know that."

"I do, Sassy," Vin was quick to assure her.

Kelli read the remaining questions in Vin’s eyes. "You know I love this Wild Bunch family of ours, but…. sometimes I feel smothered. They all don’t need to know or expect to be told everythin’ about everythin’. You and I should be allowed to have our personal business remain between us. Unfortunately, sometimes it spills over, like when you were injured, and I can deal with that. This time though, there was no loomin’ crisis, kidnappin’, rescue op to plan, or major injury to deal with. Only a missin’ girl who needed someone who knew what they were doin’ to organize an effort to find her.

She raised her hand to touch his face, "It was never my intention to ever make you worry unnecessarily. I love you, Tanner."

"I love you too." Vin decided no further words were needed. He gently cupped her face with both his hands, lowering his head to claim her lips in a tender kiss. Kelli sighed from the pure bliss generated by his touch, pressing herself closer to him, as both felt their souls reconnect on a level only the two of them shared. Lovemaking would come later, for now, it was enough to know they were back in sync.…. that was all that mattered.

+ + + + + + +

Denver- Wreckroom

Something was different tonight. Bass sounds of loud music playing pounded in his ears, while the acceleration of blood pulsing through his veins made him edgier than usual. His frustrations increased when the assemblage of bodies in attendance, bumped against him as he attempted to cross the crowded room to tonight’s target. Louder and louder. The blistering beating sound of his heart increased. Faster and faster. Changing course, he thrust against the swell of bodies in the club and raced toward the exit. Once outside he pulled the hood of his coat over his head and leaned against the building willing his senses to calm to no avail.

Startled when a young girl, with long black hair, and swaddled in leather stepped out the club door, he knew what he had to do. With the speed of a gazelle, he swept her off her feet and carried her around the side of the building, before she had a chance to scream. With one slash of his knife, he sliced through the tender skin of her throat and stared at the blood oozing down the side of her body. A deep burning hunger drove him to lower his mouth to taste the dark sweet nectar he needed to exist. He drank thirstily, clutching the source of his nourishment closer, feeling incredible energy filling his veins.

The sudden scrape of heavy boots on asphalt, followed by the thud of a heavy door, alerted him to the fact that he was not alone. He glanced wildly up at the person interrupting his feeding, his feral eyes narrowing, warm, thick blood running down his chin to drop in rivulets at his feet.

"Hey! What the hell."

Fear laden adrenaline shot through him, as he flung his eerily still, and blood-soaked victim at the unwanted intruder. Rising rapidly to his feet, he raced into the darkness, disappearing into the night, hearing screams of ‘help’ ring out behind him. He licked hungrily at the cooling blood around his mouth, his insatiable hunger nowhere near satisfied, and cursed. Rushing to his van, hidden two blocks away, he slid into the driver’s seat, started the engine and sped off like a bat out of hell. Until he trapped a new prey to give him sustenance, the feeding tonight would have to suffice.

Chapter 13

Reins of Change and its daycare closed for the holidays. When JD asked Tess last night to wrangle his three children with Keira this morning, so he could run an errand, she did not hesitate to say yes. Tess enjoyed having all four children around her, but she could not help thinking that curious things were afoot. All three girls were acting a bit strange. Every time they huddled together, they would burst into giggles, turn to look at her, and laugh without explanation. JD’s behavior the past few days indicated that he was concealing something too. But when she prodded him for information, he would just grin and change the subject. She could only assume all the secrecy had to do with a surprise for the kids or about their planned engagement announcement Christmas day.

JJ banged on his highchair, drawing her attention. "I hear you, little man, you want more." Tess gave him another pancake, which made the baby very happy.

Lilah, Daisy, and Keira were playing in the living room when Tess heard the unmistakable sound of JD’s truck approaching. Retrieving JJ from his chair, she carried him with her to meet his daddy. As she watched from the door for the man she loved to appear, she realized he was not alone…. and then, she began to cry as she hurried outside.

JD was pleased that he had managed to keep his surprise a secret until now. Assisting one of his passengers from his truck, it only took a few moments before he heard Tess squeal. He was, however, able to grab JJ from her as she flew past him.

"Mom! Dad!’ She yelled as she embraced each of her parents before peppering them with questions. "How did you get here? You didn’t say a word when we talked yesterday, why? "Is everything okay? Are Susan and Micah with you?"

Louise and Paul McCall were just as happy to see their youngest child. Her father explained. "Your John Daniel called us and asked if we could come for Christmas. Our plane came in this morning and he was there to meet us. I did not say a word because it was supposed to be a surprise. Your brother and sister are spending the holiday with their respective in-laws, and here we are."

Louise wrapped her arm around her daughter’s waist as the group moved toward the house. "We missed three Christmases with you and Keira. Thanks to John Daniel, this one we get to spend together. Now, we want to see Keira, and meet our soon to be new grandchildren."

JD smiled as he unloaded the McCall’s bags from his truck. Tess would remember to thank him once her excitement worn down. For now, the only thing that mattered was the look of pure happiness on her beautiful face.

+ + + + + + +

Chris entered the back door of the Tanner home and found Brodie sitting in the kitchen with only the family dog for company. Hanging his coat on a hook by the door, he asked, "Is it safe?"

Brodie laughed. "If you mean has Kel calmed down, yes. All good."

Pouring himself a cup of coffee before he sat down, Chris’ curiosity prevailed. "I expected total Tanner chaos. Where is everyone?"

"Vin met Agents Langley and Miles when they arrived and is getting them settled. Said to tell you he was running behind. Kelli and Max are helping the kids wrap Christmas presents, I opted out of that one."

Larabee stepped over a sleeping Tracker and joined the older Tanner at the table. "Wise man." Hesitating a moment before he asked, "Any news from your source?"

Brodie cleared his throat, "Yeah, just haven’t had a private time to discuss it with you." Leaning forward Brodie dropped the volume of his words. "The first flash drive has been deciphered, but was not that informative, it only gave a clue to lead to the location of a second source."

Shaking his head, Chris was not surprised. "I should have seen that coming."

Nodding, Brodie continued, "Don’t give up, some of the best people I know are on this. They will find your answers, but it’s gonna take more time."

Before Chris could respond, Vin walked accompanied by Langley and Miles. Tanner knew, of course, what Brodie was doing, but also knew Chris wanted it kept private, he joined his Dad, and Chris at the table.

Chris noted the laid-back demeanor of the visiting agents and was pleased to provide them a place to disengage and celebrate the holiday. "You two anxious to get started?"

"Yes Sir," Langley grinned "Can’t wait to see all the kids out on the sleds tomorrow."

Miles agreed. "It is peaceful out here. Vin told us about the sled and snowmobile races you all have planned, and I am looking forward to the fun."

"We’re on our way down to the sheds to meet Walter and help clean up the machines before tomorrow’s activities." Langley told him, "We’ll catch up with everyone later."

Vin waited until the other agents left, and then turned to Larabee. "Not lookin’ forward to our meet but reckon it’s best to get it over with."

"Our brothers will join us at Camp Larabee," Chris glanced at his watch, "in twenty minutes."

Sighing deeply, Vin resolved himself to going. He still had no idea how to explain his turmoil-ridden visions, but knew he had to try. "Dad…"

Brodie held up his hand. "I’m sticking around. You take care of brotherhood matters, while I play grandpa."

Chris grabbed his coat and as he put it on said, "Burning daylight Tanner."

"Right behind you Larabee."

+ + + + + + +

When Chris and Vin arrived at Camp Larabee, their five brothers were already there. Coffee was on, sodas were in the fridge, and snacks were laid out on the table. Josiah grinned as he felt the energy level rise in the room and was certain this gathering would be a productive one as soon as he could rid Vin of his burden of stress, allowing the strength of their Heart Warrior to surface.

"Welcome Brothers." Josiah waved his hand toward two empty chairs, "join us."

Chis and Vin exchanged looks. These were not the anxious bunch of brothers they expected. Crossing the room to sit, they waited to see what happened next.

Josiah, who appointed himself as the man in charge continued, "Brothers, we are here to address important family matters and Legacy issues. Individually and collectively, over the course of several weeks, we have all experienced a multitude of traumatic events, which have produced major stress in our lives. So, I feel it necessary to ask if there are any issues relating to our Task Force, Jesse’s formally missing friend, or anything else we need to discuss?"

Ezra nodded, "Bianca should be removed from the stress list. Subsequent to this gathering, Barbara and I plan to pick up the young lady from the hospital. We feel Larabee Seven is the proper place to provide her a secure home, and an abundance of family to ensure any damage to herself esteem is redeemed. We have already filed the paperwork to become her foster parents."

"Well alright." Buck slapped Ezra on the shoulder and grinned. "More Christmas presents to wrap for the new addition to the Standish family."

"Barbara assured me that our ladies already have that detail covered Buck but thank you for the consideration." Ezra accepted congratulations from his other brothers.

"Speaking of our ladies," Buck reported on their activities, "they are amazing. Not only do they take up the slack for us when we’re working, they have our Family Christmas day celebration at Chris’, planned to the last detail. Inez told me that Cait’s parents, Max, Walter, Gunny, and Willard have also been enlisted to contribute their talents of organization."

Chris added, "Langley and Miles will join us as well. In fact, the two of them are actually helping Walter prepare the sleds and snowmobiles for tomorrow."

JD, smiled, "Seems we’ll have a lot of the older generation in attendance. Tess’ parents, Louise and Paul, arrived this morning. My Christmas surprise for Tess."

Buck nudged JD’s side, and whispered, "Bet her parents are pleased with you, too. A good way to start with them." He took the contented look on the younger man’s face, and his silence, as a yes.

Nathan spoke up, "Another good thing happened, too. The person who qualified to collect the reward money for the tip leading to our women finding Bianca, declined, asking only that it be used in the homeless community in West End. Rain and I reached out to the Board of Directors of Denver Memorial, who have agreed to furnish, free of charge, a medical mobile unit to work that area twice a week. If we use the reward money to also stock it with blankets, personal hygiene items, and prepackaged meals, for disbursement, it will help a lot of people."

"That is a great way for the money to go." JD told Nathan, "When you get all the details down, I can design software to use that will keep the program organized."

"Thanks, JD, I’ll let Rain know."

When no one else was forthcoming with comments, Chris addressed the Task Force issue. "I think we all know that it will take time on this case before we find the sonofabitch. All we can do is pace ourselves." He smiled as he recalled the ER incident, "and after our experience at the hospital yesterday, I strongly suggest we make every attempt to not let this case cross over to our personal relationships."

"Amen to that." Vin smiled. "It’s quiet now, and Brodie is out of the doghouse, but I’d rather not have a repeat occurrence, especially since Kel will be comin’ back to work after Christmas."

Josiah observed the relaxed manner of his brothers and decided there were no other obstacles to clear. "Vin, I believe we are ready to listen to our Heart Warrior if you are ready to share."

"Don’t know about ready Josiah, but I spent most of last night thinkin’ about what I need to say." Their Heart Warrior leaned forward in his chair. "These latest visions have been goin’ on a while, but I didn’t say anythin’ because nothin’ specific comes through. It’s only a bunch of unconnected images, and the sense of a greater threat, of what, and to whom, I don’t know."

Chris transitioned into his role of Chief Warrior, his ageless role of leader, and shook his head, "I think you know more than you are aware of Vin. The rambling jag you went on about justice, evil, and battles across centuries may not have made sense, but it hit a familiar chord within all of us. We," he glanced around at the other six men, "can help. Draw on our strength and memories to aid you. Let us share what you feel and allow us to help you translate.

As his brothers concentrated, Vin felt a rise of warm energy surrounding him. Images of collective memories raced through his mind …through time…to the beginning. His breathing slowed, eyes darkened and, steel resolve replaced his earlier unease, as the mixed messages became crystal clear. Sitting straighter, words began pouring out as his inner Heart Warrior took over.

"An evil master of darkness that brought forth the horrid and heartbreaking events, which led to the battle at Rose Field. He attempted and failed to destroy us then and has never ceased in his quest to end our Legacy permanently. Over the centuries, when overwhelming wickedness threatened to extinguish the light of the just, our brotherhood is called together. We have been able to stay further attempts to disrupt the natural balance of light and dark, and good and evil, which humanity needs to exist." He paused briefly to gather his words and take note of the shared memories of their losses that he witnessed through his brothers’ minds.

"We were told that our gatherin’ of seven would face several tests, stronger and more complicated than any our forefathers encountered in their time. Even before the revelation of our Legacy, I believe those tests made themselves known. Think about all the evils we have encountered in the past few years, and the despicable people we put behind bars or in the ground. Men like Samuel Reed, and the deep-rooted conspiracy to prevent our involvement in MCAT. Monstrous adversaries such as Brad Cleaver, Phillip Deverauex, and his loony mother, Paul Madera, Donner, the Ghost, Karl Chambers, Bubba, and Lady Ice to name a few." He felt the shocked reactions from the others as he named off a list of their foes and the realization of their connection sunk in.

"Then as our Legacy unfolded, our old nemesis Ice returned to infuse more darkness. When she did not destroy us, evil turned within. The aftermath of Ice’s damage left me and Kel facin’ the loss of a child, and Kelli’s bout with depression afterward. The emotional turmoil could have destroyed us both, but we didn’t let it. Casey’s illness almost took out JD, and the fallout from the child traffickin’ case almost cost us, Buck. Then Chavez’ kids, Bitsy and William attempted to finish us off as seven. When all those things were unsuccessful, evil switched its target to our homes and families. Mine and Buck’s kidnappin’ by the cartel, Wilder’s physical torture, and the death of our pilot Mike Cole, were all planned to hit at the heart of who we are. Then Montoya sent in Talia. Between the two of them, they showed us how vulnerable our homes and families were. Even the con artist vigilante jerk who fed corruption into our Denver law enforcement, was here to distract us. All these individuals did not cross our paths by accident or coincidence."

Vin stood and paced the room as he continued. "Yet through it all, we prevailed, and our collective strength grew. Now the master of darkness is frustrated, which makes it even more threatenin’. Our most perilous tests are in front of us. The prelude of those challenges is already affectin’ us in our personal lives and relationships. I fear none of us, our families or our hearts will be spared in the comin’ rematch of the battle that started our journey.

"I keep comin’ back to a Bible verse repeated in the background of my visions. ‘Our fight is not against flesh and blood, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places’ according to…."

"Ephesians 6:12," Josiah interjected.

Tanner allowed that to sink in for a few moments before stopping to look into the eyes of each of his brothers. ‘The one thing I am certain about, no more will we allow this darkness to slink off into the shadows to rebuild and return. We have within us, the power to destroy forever this evil abnormally and this ends with us. I do not wanna be one of the old guys comin’ back to reteach these lesson to our children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren."

"Who you calling old Tanner?" A disembodied voice spoke, the energy doubling, moments before Cowboy materialized. "I’ll have you know, I am fit and in my prime."

"Duh, 150 years or so ago." JD quipped.

Rogue joined Cowboy, glaring at JD, "Look, Boy, do I need to show you how to respect your elders?"

"Now, now Brothers, let’s keep it civil." Preacher appeared next, much to the surprise of the present day Seven.

"Thanks, Preacher, I wasn’t planning on patching anyone up today." Healer commented with a smile.

"It’s a good thing Preacher stepped in, cause you guys are a bit out of my jurisdiction." Sheriff made his presence known.

"If I was a betting man, I wouldn’t want to lay odds on a skirmish between us old guys and your children." Gambler stated with a Cheshire grin.

The Heart Warrior of the Old West Seven materialized, adding his intense glare to the other dozen aimed at Gambler.

Gambler shrugged, "I just call ‘em like I see ‘em."

Tracker moved to stand beside Vin and spoke. "Y’all don’t need us to know your Heart Warrior’s words are true. In our day we almost defeated the evil serpent, but he slipped off into the shadows of time to lick his wounds. Now it falls on y’all to finish what we started. We are here only to reaffirm that y’all are never alone in this fight between good and evil. While both are necessary for the survival of humanity, there must be a balance."

"Those that have lived before me also live in me, as I shall live in the ones yet to come." Cowboy took up their message. "Within all of us is the same spirit, passed down from our forefathers and fathers. Fate chose the seven of you to confront and vanquish once and for all the Master of Darkness. The one who stripped us of blood ties, too many times destroyed our families, and has plagued us for centuries. We have faith in all of you to end this reign of evil, which threatens us again."

Moving back toward Cowboy, Tracker added, "Be patient, join your strengths, and stay vigilant. It is comin’ and if you watch the signs, you’ll be ready. Listen to your Heart Warrior, he will lead and prepare y’all for the approachin’ battle."

As fast as they appeared, the Old West Seven were gone.

Josiah was the first to recover and began speaking, while the others absorbed all that had transpired. "Brothers, I believe the message is clearer now than when we began. Vin, it is possible that in our efforts to give one another mind space, we overcompensated, missing the turmoil you were experiencing. I am certain that will not happen again. We are in this together, always have been, always will be. Whatever we must face, with the strength of seven, we have the power of right on our side."

"Amen to that," Ezra said what they all were thinking.

"Yes indeed." Josiah agreed. "Now, I suggest we adjourn this meeting. Go home, kiss your women, and hug your children."

As the present day Seven donned their coats and made their departures, seven unseen observers watched.

Rogue elbowed his brother, "Hey Tracker, did you mean to say we’re not gonna help them?"

" Didn’t say that. Just said they weren't alone." Tracker sighed, "You tell him, Cowboy."

Cowboy told them all, "We will not break any rules, but if we bend a few to help from time to time, what are they gonna do…shoot us?"

+ + + + + + +

When Chris first offered the use of the agency jet for his trip home to Texas, Ramon Hunter did not think much about it. A jet was a jet, right? Now, cruising at 40,000 feet and having checked out all the state of the art gizmos and experiencing the comfort of the deeply cushioned leather seats, he decided that the MCAT jet was cool.

His thoughts turned to home. Not for the first time he wondered if he should have told them he was coming and had no idea what he expected when he arrived. Telling his family that he was using his accumulated vacation time to get away for a while was one thing. Having to tell them he took a new job, and was moving out of state, was a whole other ballgame.

For him, it had always been about making his mark in the world, without living under the shadow of his Texas Ranger father, who was now the Administrative Chief of Operations for MCAT San Antonio, and brother-in-law Sam, who was now Tanner’s counterpart in the same MCAT unit. Hell, even his older sister Emma, was an MCAT agent.

Once he was on the ground, he rented a car and drove to his San Antonio apartment. It felt great to be back in his home state, and he looked forward to seeing his family tomorrow, but he was not too excited about sharing his decision about MCAT. True, he would miss them more than he was willing to admit, but he knew this was a move he needed to make.

After making calls to the moving company, utilities, and rental office, he ordered a pizza. Tonight, he would study the info for his upcoming op with Ezra and start packing for his move. Tomorrow he would finish his Christmas shopping and then would see his family to break the news. He was certain they would keep their reactions below going nuclear level. After all, it would be Christmas Eve.

Chapter 14

Vin’s Personal Journal:

For the first time in a while, I slept through the night and woke feeling rested and ready to take on the world. The meeting with my brothers, which I dreaded, turned out to be the best thing possible for me and my inner turmoil. My mistake was in believing that as Heart Warrior for this bunch, I had to work out my visions before I shared them. Now, I realize that I can only guide my brothers, not work it all out for them. I’m still leery about what we will be facing and when, but I’m confident now, we will figure out together what is required of us to vanquish the darkness.

On the home front, today is all about family, traditions, and fun. While it’s damn cold outside, the sun is shining, and there is enough snow on the ground to build a ten-foot snow fort if we want. Should make the weather more bearable for the kids. I hear the noise level rising in the kitchen, which means our Tanner chaos has begun.

Vin closed his journal, placed it in his desk drawer, and then headed upstairs to join his family.

+ + + + + + +

Tracker laid in his favorite spot close to the twins, anticipating a dropped bite or two of breakfast. Max cooked, while Kelli stepped around the family dog, setting another plate of bacon on the table. The kids were winding down until Grandpa entered and then the chatter began again.

Brodie enjoyed his role of grandpa and spoke to each child before hitting the coffee pot. "Morning all," he said as Vin joined the chaos.

"Mornin’ Dad," Vin walked up behind Kelli and placed his hands on her hips, "Mornin’ to you, too, Baby," urging her forward. "Reinforcements have arrived, you, Mama, get off your feet, sit and eat. I’ll take on the rest."

Jason observed and figured he would help his dad. "Here Mom, biscuits are hot, and Dad’s right, you need to rest." He was, after all, a male and a Tanner. His remarks had her sighing with Vin and Brodie suppressing smiles.

Kelli did begin to protest, however, after seeing the looks of agreement on Vin, Max, and Brodie’s faces, she figured she was outnumbered, "Alright, but don’t plan on me bein’ docile all day." She sat with the children and observed Vin and his father as they worked in sync with Max to get breakfast finished and served.

Once the kids had changed into their outdoor clothes, The Tanner family would join the rest of the Wild Bunch for the sledding and snowmobile activities. Certain that building a snow fort and subsequent snowball fight was on the agenda.

+ + + + + + +

The huge shed, which housed the snowmobiles, served as base operation for the morning fun. Chris, Ezra, and Vin stood beside it watching Brodie, Buck, Nathan, and JD dodge snowballs thrown from behind the huge snow fort they helped build.

Chris glanced at his brothers and told them, "Josiah called to say he and Mallory were running about thirty minutes late. Their visit with Hannah this morning at Centennial Peaks, evidently was a good one."

"Their holiday trek apparently coincided with a good day for his sibling, I gather." Ezra cringed when he witnessed Buck take a direct hit from Caleb’s aim.

"Yeah," Chris turned to address them both, now as agents. "I was hoping to wait until Josiah was with us to tell you, but we can fill him in later. Our psycho killed again. This time though, it was not using the MO we have established for him. It was a strike outside the club Josiah said was a likely target…damn, forgot the name…"

Ezra remembered, "The Wreckroom."

"That’s right," Chris continued, "Anyway, it was brutal, ugly, and he was almost caught in the act before he ran off into the night and disappeared."

Vin exchanged a look with Ezra. "Reckon, he’ll lay low for a while or at least stay the hell out of Denver ‘til he feels it’s safe again. Probably need to rethink our next move on your undercover op."

"Most assuredly," Ezra agreed. "Yet, we could use the unexpected turn of events in our favor. Patrons of these establishments will certainly be discussing this murder. Perhaps they will openly disclose their suspicions to Vincent and Dante."

"This nut job could be anywhere, but according to CASSIE, Texas, particularly the San Antonio area, does appear to be his second favorite hunting ground. Which is why, I called Sam Cain earlier to alert him, and have Charlie Team on standby status." Chris shook his head. "I think I’d rather be chasing a terrorist than a sicko who thinks he’s a vampire on a murder spree. That is what I’m more comfortable doing."

"Hell, Chris, you just don’t have any sense of adventure." Vin grinned and winked at Ezra. "You old school law enforcement types just don’t like change."

Chris reached down, grabbed a handful of snow, and began forming it into a ball. "Adventure this, Tanner." He laughed as Vin and Ezra avoided a face full of snow by running off to join the others.

+ + + + + + +

Traditions are important. On Larabee 7, one of those traditions was Josiah’s reading of the Christmas story to the children. It had been a fun day filled with sleighing, snowmobile riding, Snow Angels, and snowball fights. When everyone was worn out from all the fun and ready to congregate somewhere warm. The Wild Bunch and their guests gathered late-afternoon at the Tanner home. The sisters had prepared a smorgasbord of coffee, cocoa, cider, chicken and tomato soup, platters of cold cuts, cheese, fruit, raw vegetables, chips and dips. The enticing aroma of fresh baked cookies drifted throughout the house.

Everyone settled in the Tanner living room, the adults positioned on various pieces of furniture, or standing in clusters of twos and threes, while Josiah gathered all the children onto the floor to hear him tell them the story of the first Christmas.

"And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world be taxed. And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria. And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem. To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for him at the inn...."

With Josiah’s baritone voice in the background, Ezra and Barbara stood close together, observing the children. Ezra whispered," Look at that." Both smiled at Bianca where she sat beside Jesse, with a contented Pearl, sitting up in her lap. They were pleased to see her enjoying the reading.

JD wrapped his arms around Tess’ waist and leaned close to her ear, "You happy?"

"Yes." Tess looked around the room, her parents, sat close to Keira, JJ, Lilah, and Daisy. Observing the rest of this wonderful family she was soon to belong to, she sighed, blinking back happy tears. "If you had told me a year ago that Keira and I would be in the mists of such an incredible, loving family, I would have laughed." Placing her hand over his, she squeezed tightly. "John Daniel, you are my knight in shining armor and I love you.

"… and all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them." Josiah finished reading and set his Bible aside.

" Why is it important for us to understand the real reason we all celebrate Christmas?"

"To honor baby Jesus," Caleb answered first.

"That’s right, Caleb," Josiah said, "we also need to thank Jesus for washing our sins away, and for giving us our family."

"Our family is awesome," Jason exclaimed.

"I couldn’t have said it better Jason," Josiah beamed at him, before glancing at his wife.

"Before we depart to our respective homes, to make Christmas Eve preparations, Josiah and I want to wish you all a pleasant evening. We also have something to hand out to the children." Mallory stepped forward with a basket in her hand and began doling out cross ornaments with their names inscribed on them to each child, including Bianca.

A chorus of ‘thank you’ rang up around Mallory from the kids, as they scurried to put their coats, gloves, and hats on under their parents’ supervision. Christmas Eve was the one day that none of the children argued about leaving each other’s house’s. They understood that the quicker they went home and finished the day, the sooner they would get to open their gifts from Santa in the morning.

+ + + + + + +

Ramon spent the morning hour finishing up the last of his packing. Then with a trip to the largest mall in San Antonio, he finished his Christmas shopping. Once he was done, he tossed his bags and presents inside his rental. Then he headed to Hunter Acres, his family’s home in Schattel, Texas, south of San Antonio in Frio River County. It felt great to be back in his home state, and he looked forward to seeing his family, but he was not too excited about sharing his decision about MCAT. True, he would miss them more than he was willing to admit, but he knew this was a move he needed to make.

+ + + + + + +

"Has Ramon told you any more about what he’s doin’?" Sam Cain asked his father-in-law, Teaspoon Hunter, as he sliced an assortment of raw vegetables at the island in the Hunter kitchen.

"No, Sam. He’s bein’ a bit elusive on the details of his trip," Teaspoon replied as he drained potatoes in a colander at the sink, "You know Ramon. When he’s ready he’ll say."

"True," Sam acknowledged.

"Is he comin’ home for Christmas?" Emma asked while she stirred a large pot of Pozole on a back burner of the stove.

"I don’t know Sweetheart," Teaspoon added butter, milk, salt, and pepper to the steaming bowl of potatoes he was mashing.

"I hope so, Christmas won’t be the same without him," Emma said as she opened the oven door to check on the progress of the turkey. "Bird looks done Pop. Want me to take it out?"

"Yes," Teaspoon said.

Emma reached for the oven mitts, but Sam beat her to them, "I’ll heft it, you hold the door."

"I can…" she started to say but heard all three of her father’s dogs excitedly greet someone outside.

A moment later, the back door opened, and Ramon entered, his arms laden down with festively colored packages, "Feliz Navidad."

"Merry Christmas," Teaspoon and Sam said together, while Emma hurried over to greet her younger brother.

He barely had time to set his packages down on a nearby chair, before his sister threw her arms around him. Reverting to his childhood nickname, she whispered, "Feliz Navidad Rami. I missed you."

"I missed you too Sis," Ramon kissed her cheek, before turning to hug his father.

"Glad to have you back home Son," Teaspoon boomed.

"Good to be back Pop," Ramon replied.

Sam, having successfully set the turkey onto the counter, was next to hug Ramon, "So where did you take off to and why?"

Ramon chuckled. His brother-in-law was as direct as ever, "Later."

He peeled a piece of hot turkey off the top of the bird, and popped it into his mouth, "I’m starved. When’s supper?"

"In about fifteen minutes," Emma said, "Go join Marion and the kids in the livin’ room."

"You don’t need my help here?" Ramon asked.

"Nope, everythin’s about done, you have perfect timin’ as usual," Teaspoon grinned, "We’ll call y’all to the table in a few minutes."

Picking up his packages he said, "First, I think I’ll stow these and run out to the car for the other Christmas goodies I brought." Ramon’s appearance in the living room, a few minutes later, was welcomed by delighted shrieks from the Cain children. Emma blinked back tears, her heart swelling at having her family all together for Christmas.

Two hours later found Ramon sitting around the dining room table with his father, sister, and brother-in-law. Supper was over, presents handed out, and now the kids were settled down watching a Christmas movie before going to bed. Marion Cain had bid them all goodbye a short time earlier, as she headed off to exchange gifts with a few of her friends.

Ramon finished off a second slice of Caramel Flan, aware of three pairs of eyes on him. He knew that his family members were waiting for him to fill them in on his mysterious trip.

He set down his fork, wiped his mouth with his napkin and sighed. "I know y’all are waiting to hear about my trip. Truth is, I didn’t tell you it wasn’t a vacation because I didn’t want to answer a bunch of questions until I was certain about what I wanted. I went to Denver, Colorado to meet with Commander Chris Larabee about a position on his MCAT Team. I didn’t expect to be hired so quickly and thrown into a major case almost immediately, but that’s what it happened."

"What was all the secrecy for Son?" Teaspoon said.

"If you were interested in workin’ for MCAT, why didn’t you talk to me?" Sam inquired.

"It’s not that I was trying to be secretive," Ramon started, "It’s just that I didn’t want to say anything until I knew for sure if I had the job. I know I could have come and talked to you and Pop about a position with Charlie Team, but Sam, you know I’ve always gone my own way."

Both Teaspoon and Sam gave him understanding looks. They not only understood Ramon’s reasoning but respected it.

"You’re movin’ away?" Emma asked softly.

Ramon saw the tears standing in his sister’s eyes and inwardly winced. He never wanted to be the cause of pain for his older sister. He adored Emma, "Yes Sis, I am. But I’ll come down to Texas often, and you guys can come up and see me. But I won’t be able to visit again for awhile because I’m about to go undercover for a spell."

"Undercover?" Teaspoon asked. "What do they have you doin’?"

Ramon hesitated, wondering if he should disclose details about his assignment, but all four of them were MCAT, and Charlie Team was a part of the task force.

"I’m going under as a Goth to try and get a lead on this sicko killing women in Denver, here and a few other states."

Emma burst out laughing. "You’re kiddin’?"

"I wish I was," Ramon told her with a wry grin.

"Ezra Standish set this up?" Teaspoon asked his son.

"Yes sir. I’m going under on his op," Ramon told him, "I brought my dossier with me to study while I’m down here."

Sam listened intently, "I was informed yesterday that I need to plan a similar op with my unit and after a conversation with Larabee earlier, I’d like to read that dossier."

"It’s in my car, I’ll go get it," Ramon left the house and was back a few moments later with the dossier in his hand. Handing it over to Sam, he grinned," Whoever you choose to go under, better warn them, this Goth world… is worse than anything in or out of their nightmares."

The Hunter family spent the remainder of Christmas Eve together, talking about an array of subjects, about MCAT, and about helping Ramon plan his move. Ramon leaned back and observed. He had worried over nothing. Denver was 936 miles away, but it didn’t matter, family was family, no matter where you were.

+ + + + + + +

Grace was sound asleep in her bed as Cait tucked Cody in, while Chris stood behind her, then both quietly backed out of the room. "Two down," she said as they walked down the hall. Joining Jesse in the living room, the three of them set out presents, which had been concealed until now.

Chris watched his son, then asked, "You feel better after seeing Bianca today?"

"Oh yeah, she and I talked a lot. She is having a problem understanding why so many of us worried about her though. I know where she gets it…until you and mom came along, I felt sort of unimportant too."

Cait knew Jesse felt secure now, but it saddened her to know it had not always been that way. "Bianca will soon realize not all foster situations are as bad as hers were."

Jesse nodded. "I really hope she decides to stay with Uncle Ezra and Aunt Barbara. It would be nice to have another cousin closer to my age."

Chris and Cait exchanged looks, both thinking the same. Now that Bianca was safe, their son was ready to make her a full-fledged member of the Wild Bunch. While they both understood his desire for her to be happy, like him, there were still several personal decisions to be made before that became a reality.

"Now that Grace and Cody are asleep, best we finish their gifts from Santa and bring them in here," Chris suggested.

"Most of them are already wrapped," Cait said, "except for their stocking stuffers, Cody’s tricycle, and Grace’s new dollhouse. If you, two, haul the larger items in here, I’ll grab the bags with the stocking stuffers in them."

"Sounds like a plan, Mama," Chris, with Jesse following him, went outside to the barn, retrieving the two larger gifts. While she headed to her and Chris’ room to get the bags of stocking stuffers.

She beat Chris and Jesse back into the living room and was able to slip the small trinkets she had for both into their stockings, before she heard them enter the house. A few moments later, all three, stood back to admire their handiwork.

Jesse said "Oops, we forgot something. Be right back." He ran out of the room and disappeared.

"What do you think he’s doing?" asked Cait

"Don’t know but reckon we’ll see soon enough." Chris took note of her tired looking eyes and the way she held a hand to her back. "You okay, Baby?"

Slipping her arm around his back, she sighed, "It’s been a long day, that’s all."

Jesse reentered the room carrying a plate of nibbled on cookies and a half glass of milk, setting them on the small table beside the tree. "Now, it’s perfect."

"Good catch, Son. Now I suggest we all get some rest, Grace and Cody will be up before dawn I’m certain, and we have a big family day tomorrow."

"Night Mom," Jesse hugged his mother and then Chris, "Night Dad."

Once Jesse departed, Chris turned off the lights and led his wife to their bedroom. Once inside, they prepared for bed and then he took her into his arms, placing a gentle kiss on her lips. "Have I told you today how much I love you?"

"Hmmm…. let me think." Cait laughed at the expression on her husband’s face and became serious, "You tell me all the time. The way you worry about me and the baby. When you take delight playing with Cody or Grace. When you make sure our teenager has a great dad. When you take time to include my parents in our life." She kissed him back. "I don’t always have to hear the words, Chris, although I do like hearing you say it. I feel your love all around me every minute of every day."

"You do have a way with words Missus Larabee." Chris lifted her into his arms and carried her to their bed. Tonight, he would make certain she rested, tomorrow they would tackle Christmas day.

Chapter 15

Christmas Morning

Outside, the snow-covered ground sparkled like diamonds as the sun’s rays beamed down. The air was crisp and cold, and apart from an occasional horse whinny or the sound of ice breaking, it was eerily quiet for Larabee 7. All the noise and activities centered around Christmas trees, and presents from Santa, inside seven Wild Bunch homes.

Tanner Home

The Tanners shared their morning with Max and Walter. Grandpa Brodie sat on the floor allowing the twins to stick bows on his head before the little ones burst into a fit of giggles. Jason was in awe of the delicate arrowheads his parents brought back from Texas. And Andi, she loved everything, especially the baby doll her grandpa gave her.

Vin sat next to Kelli on the couch, letting his dad experience the fun with the children. "We have some happy kids today, Kel."

"That we do," she said watching the array of delighted expressions on the faces of Max and Walter. Turning toward Vin, she asked, "You think everyone is really okay about waitin’ to make our announcement about the baby?"

"Yep," Vin nodded, "When we talked to the kids, they agreed, and I’m sure Dad, Max, and Walter can wait a few more hours." He smiled, "Although I think Andi suspects, every time we mention the baby she gets a pleased look on her face and says she trusts Tracker."

"I’ve noticed." Kelli told Vin the baby’s name was his choice but waiting for him to reveal it was hard on her Larabee patience. She smiled, "Don’t suppose you’re ready to tell me the name you picked yet."

"Nope. You’ll know later today with everyone else unless you changed your mind about me choosin’."

She shook her head, "No, I said you choose. Since you were undercover you didn’t get to tell anyone about the twins, and the kids told the family they were boys, so I’m good with whatever you do."

Grinning, Vin settled in closer to Kelli. "I think you’ll be pleased."

Standish Home

"I am a fortunate man to have three beautiful females to share my Christmas," Ezra remarked as he glanced from Barbara, with Pearl in her arms, to Bianca.

Barbara beamed, and Pearl smiled hearing her daddy’s voice, while Bianca flushed at his praise. Ezra sat down beside Barbara and held out a bankbook to the teenager.

"We have another gift for you."

Bianca glanced around at the collection of art supplies, clothing, makeup, CD player, and CDs that she had received as Christmas presents from the Standishes. "Thank you, Mister Standish, but you’ve already given me so much."

"Call us Barbara and Ezra, if you like," Barbara said softly, "and this present is from the Wild Bunch, too, not just us,"

"Twenty-five hundred dollars?" Bianca exclaimed, her wide eyes flying up to look at her and Ezra. "For me?"

"We know your former foster parents destroyed most of your clothes and supplies out of pure meanness. While we tried to replace what you lost and hope we matched your taste in those things, we may have missed some items you need." Barbara explained, "Even though Vin managed to retrieve your journal and a few items for you, it didn’t seem like enough. You lost so much of what makes you, you. The family wanted to give you an opportunity to carry on your studies and graduate without having to worry about working unless that is what you want."

Bianca fingered the little book. "It’s mine, only if I decide to stay right?"

Ezra said softly. "It belongs to you regardless of your decision to stay or go." He and Barbara understood this teenager better than she thought. "Both of us have been in your position, maybe not monetarily but certainly emotionally. We believe that family of choice is for us more satisfying than the one we were given by birth. You can take this money and stay, walk away or have your caseworker assign a new foster home to you. The choice is yours. Although, in some circles, I am considered a bit of a gambler, and that side of me says you will make a good decision."

"In that case, I don’t have to think about it, Ezra. I know what to do. I want…"

Dunne Home

"John, we want to thank you for inviting us to your home, and for making our little girl so happy." Paul McCall said, his gaze never leaving his daughter’s shining face as she played Candyland with his wife and grandchildren.

"I love your daughter and making her happy pleases me." JD reached over to corral JJ who escaped the game and was running for the tree. He laughed, "Although playing sheriff to this bunch means I have to stay on my toes."

Paul grinned at JJ’s antics. "I do appreciate your consideration about including us in your plans. Have the two of you set a date yet?"

"We have, and we will be announcing that later today, along with another decision we made but I do have something I need to do first. In fact, Paul, I could use your assistance if you don’t mind."

"All you have to do is ask, Son."

JD leaned over to whisper his request.

Paul leaned back, "That’s doable, on one condition."

"Okay, what?"

Paul looked at him, "Instead of Paul and Louise, you call us Mom and Dad."

JD choked up hearing the elder man’s words. He never knew his father, and his mother had been gone a long time. Even with Casey, there were no parents, it was Aunt Nettie. Suddenly realizing that was all about to change was an emotional jolt. Swallowing hard, he managed to utter one word, "Deal."

Wilmington Home

It was a lively and happy group of kids at the Wilmington household. Sarah was pleased with her new riding gear, while Maria and Tannis stayed busy with new Shopkin sets. Caleb gained new Denver Bronco gear, while Isabella was busy playing with her play food and dishes.

"Good selections for our brood, Mama." Buck leaned down to kissed Inez, wearing a roguish grin. "Sorry so much fell on you to do."

Inez elbowed him in his side, "No, you’re not, you hate shopping," she then smiled, "but it’s okay. You love and work hard for our family. You’re our protector and our strength and …I love you for it." She returned his kiss and snuggled closer to her husband. "I do have news…"

Aunt Isabella interrupted, "We need to feed these babies and finish up our share of today’s dinner."

"In a minute Tia." Inez tried again, "Buck…."

"Mom," Caleb drew her interest. "Can I call Jason and tell him what I got?"

"It’s too early, Son. You can tell him when we go to Uncle Chris’."

Buck drew away from her to take a cup of imaginary tea from baby Isabella. "Thank you, Sweetheart." Pretending to drink, he said, "Yum, that’s good.

"Dad, will I be able to ride today?" Sarah gave him her pleading eyes look.

"Too cold today, Honey," Buck answered just as Tannis pulled on his shirt for attention. He glanced at Inez when Maria came over to join her sister. "Inez, what did you want to tell me?"

Inez sighed as the noise level in the room grew louder. The moment had passed. "Later, Buck, I’ll tell you later." She went to assist her aunt with breakfast.

Jackson Home

Nathan and Rain cuddled on the couch, while they watched Terrell and Ronesha play with some of their new toys. Ronesha had a new baby doll to add to her collection, while Terrell had his own doctor play set.

As the older Jacksons’ watched, Terrell used his new stethoscope to listen to the heart of Ronesha’s new doll.

"She’s alive!" He exclaimed happily, earning him wide grins from his parents, and a hug from his sister.

Nathan laughed, "Another Jackson healer in the making."

Rain smiled and then asked, "When are we going to share the good news we received yesterday evening?"

"Might as well tell everyone today at Chris’. News like this is what Christmas is all about, right?"

Sanchez Home

Joann was in heaven, holding a copy of Black Beauty in her hands, the rest of the books she got for Christmas piled beside her. "Santa knows I love to read!"

Mallory knelt to look at the other titles and chuckled, "He might have picked that detail up in one of the ten letters you wrote him, Honey."

Adam sat next to Josiah, enthralled with the learning tablet Santa brought him. He stopped for a moment, looked up at his dad with a thoughtful gaze and said, "Daddy, you sounded just like that preacher on TV when you read the Bible verses yesterday."

"Thank you, Son, I think." Josiah thought about the unexpected statement and decided to take it as a compliment.

Rising to check on the stuffing in the oven, Mallory asked her husband, "You still want to tell the family our news today?"

"Absolutely," he told her, "we all need good news in our lives, we see too much of the bad."

Larabee Home

Chris watched Cait flutter around, tending to small details for today’s family gathering. They both were up early with the kids for presents unwrapping, playtime, and breakfast. His wife had been on the run ever since and an intervention was overdue. "Slow down, Mama. Your mother, father, Jesse, and Willard are here to help, and…." he slid his arm around her waist, "you have me."

Cait sighed, "I know, but there is so much to do."

"You, only have one job, take care of yourself and our baby girl." Chris knew Doctor Weeks said she was fine, but she also warned them that any pregnancy with an older woman had its risks. "The Wild Bunch women have most of the dinner covered, and you don’t need to worry," Leading her to a chair, he urged her to sit, "We will eat a delicious meal, with all the Christmas favorites, the family will share a few announcements, and no one will leave you with a mess to clean up. It’s Christmas, relax and leave some of the work for the rest of us."

"Okay Cowboy, you win," she sat back, closed her eyes. She promised herself only a minute or two of rest…. she slept for twenty minutes instead.

+ + + + + + +

Mid-afternoon found the Larabee home full of sated and happy family, the mixed aromas of Christmas dinner still lingered throughout the house. Babies napped, while younger children nestled with their parents in the huge den, which also served as a family meeting place during the year. Today, it was a haven for the Wild Bunch to enjoy one another’s company on this special day.

Chris gazed around the room, smiling at the various positions taken by his brothers, who along with their spouses, sipped on either glasses or wine or bottles of beer. He stood to address them, "Christmas is a time to reflect, to share love, enjoy time with our children, and celebrate the season. With our bunch, we have learned to expect the unexpected," he grinned at the chuckles heard round the room and acknowledged the reason for their reactions, "which we certainly have experienced on a few occasions. We also have witnessed the impossible become possible time after time. So, I…" he corrected himself, "we want to start this celebration with an announcement."

Taking Cait’s hand, Chris helped her rise and pulled her close. "Most of you probably noticed that we’ve both been a bit preoccupied whenever one of you asked about our baby. We did have a test of faith and had to wait for more test results to be certain but" he looked at Cait, "we passed. Mother and baby are doing good, and our baby girl will arrive late April. As for her name, we decided to give Cait’s parents a head’s up and the honor. Donald, you want to tell them?"

Donald Kerr stood with a pleased look on his face. "Indeed, Lillian and I did not take this task lightly, but after recalling a conversation with Chris the morning after we met, we had the perfect name. "Chris, don’t know if you remember, but after meeting Grace and your second headstrong daughter, Kelli that day, you commented something like ‘thank heavens it was only two sassy girls you had to deal with and you had two boys for balance’…"

Chris nodded and said, "I remember."

"Well, since God has blessed you with one more, we feel Tempest is a proper name, with Kerr as a middle name of course," he raised the glass he was holding for a toast. "To Tempest Kerr Larabee, may she be kissed by the angels and live a long healthy life." A round of toast, and congratulations, followed.

Vin waited until Donald sat down and then stood. "Y’all know I was not around at the time to announce our last babies. And Jason and Andi took care of tellin’ everyone they were boys, so Kel said it’s my turn. After a rocky start, which you all supported us through, Mama and baby are doin’ great. Our baby girl will arrive about a week after Tempest Larabee." He nodded to Chris and smiled. "I also get to pick her name. I thought about it for a while because there are so many names I’d like to include, but…I decided to mix letters from the names of three people I wanted to name her after, my mother Rebecca, my Dad, Brodie, and the love of my life, Kel. Also, after another woman who holds a special kinship with my wife. So…Rebel Anne Tanner it is." He looked to Kelli, saw her eyes glisten with unshed tears and a brilliant smile on her face. His father was not far behind in the emotional department either.

Chris lifted his bottle and proposed a toast. "To Rebel Anne, who already has proven herself a fighter, may she live a life filled with health and happiness."

Ezra stood when Chris and Vin rejoined their spouses. "Today, I recall a conversation we had at the hospital the day we waited to hear news about Kelli’s surgery. It is as true today as it was then." He looked directly at Bianca when he spoke. "All of us have taken different roads to arrive here, but …it is my humble opinion that Fate knew we all belonged together…maybe not by blood, but without a doubt by choice. All of us have experienced dark periods in our lives, resulting from the void of 'family', be it through death, or other circumstances. We understand how it feels to be alone, even in the midst of a multitude of people. That is but one of the reasons for the unique bond of our 'Wild Bunch', and simply put…means that none of us need ever walk through any crisis of life unaided. If not accompanied by a physical presence, then we at least take a spiritual one with us wherever we go." Turning to his siblings, he continued, "Barbara and I, too, will be adding another female to our family. Bianca has decided to stay with us and we are certain her Wild Bunch family will be there to love and support her, as we will."

Jesse could not contain himself as his fist pumped the air and yelled, "All Right!"

Once the laughter died down and Bianca received more than a few hugs from her new family, Josiah stood. "As most of you are aware, Mallory and I went to visit Hannah yesterday. What we did not get an opportunity to share was her prognosis. The doctors put her on new medication and she is doing well… so well, in fact, we expect to bring her home with us for weekend visits to start, but, eventually, with God’s help, fulltime residence by the end of next year. After the state Ice left her in, this for us, is truly a Christmas miracle."

All the brothers were quiet at first, reflecting upon that dark time when Ice tried to bring them all to their knees. Chris spoke for them all, "We know it has been a long hard road for you and Mal with Hannah, and we look forward to you bringing her home where she belongs."

Nathan took a turn to speak. "I don’t have any baby news, but Rain and I received an email last night that truly shows that Christmas is a time for miracles. I told most of you yesterday that the reward money we posted for finding Bianca would be used in the homeless community. The board of directors of Denver Memorial approved the donations of a mobile health unit to aid our cause. The email informed us they also agreed to match the ten thousand dollars we have with a donation from the hospital and they were working on a fund-raising idea to collect more."

‘That deserves another round of toasts." Buck raised his beer bottle to do just that.

Nathan relinquished the floor and Inez took the opportunity. She stood, bringing Buck to his feet with her. "Husband, I tried to give you this earlier, but in a house with five children, and an aunt, who I love dearly, by the way, it was difficult to find the right time. Here surrounded by family in a room filled with love, I want to share." She handed him a small gift wrapped in festive paper, then waited for him to open it.

Buck looked at her and then the gift in his hand. He had no idea what she was up to but reckoned the only way to find out was to open it. He made quick work of tearing off the wrapping paper to reveal an envelope inside. He slid his finger through the flimsy paper and peeked inside. A wide smile appeared on his face as he exclaimed, "Is this for real?"

Inez nodded, smiling back at him.

"Woohoo!" Buck grabbed her around the waist and swung her happily around.

The family looked on in bewilderment wondering what could invoke that kind of reaction from Buck. Once Inez regained her footing, she explained, "I found out this morning we have our own Christmas miracle in the making. The newest Wilmington should arrive sometime in August."

Chris yelled, "You old Son of a Gun, you said you were going for your own Seven, but I didn’t believe it."

"You’re one away, reckon the rest of us have some catchin’ up to do," Vin interjected, ignoring the icy glares of the other five wives in attendance.

Once the congratulations died down, JD figured it was his turn. Signaling Paul and Louise to take over with the children, he pulled Tess to her feet. "I know we’ve done this once already, but after talking with your dad, and gaining his permission, I wanted to do this proper."

JD pulled out a ring box, opened it, and dropped to one knee. "Tess, would you do me the honor of becoming my wife?"

Tears filled her eyes, as she extended a shaky hand to the man who had changed her life, and said, "Yes."

JD slipped the ring on her finger, stood, took her hand, and explained, "It may not be a traditional engagement ring, but with our children’s assistance, we feel it’s right. If you notice, it has six birthstones representing each member of our family, and the diamond in the middle is for our commitment to one another."

"It’s perfect, John Daniel," Tess whispered.

"We’ve set the date., March 31st. You all are invited. It will take place here on Larabee 7. Details are coming." JD took a moment to gaze at his future bride and concluded, "We also have decided with Barbara’s assistance, if she’s willing, to file for joint adoption of our children. "

Barbara nodded to the young couple, as Tess’ parents, pleased with their decision, hugged their new grandchildren tightly.

Once it was semi-quiet again, Chris stood, gazing around the room. These men were not only his brothers, they were warriors, lawmen, husbands, friends, and fathers. Clearing his throat, he spoke from his heart, "We choose to be together. Stand with one another. We draw from each other’s strengths. And live by a code instilled deep within us. Because we do, we have formed this exceptional group we call the Wild Bunch. And I want you all to know that I’m damn proud to be a part of it. The seven of us stand as brothers, and always will, but the backbone of our lives is entwined with our families… Embracing our past, cherishing our future, and fighting like hell for today... When all is said and done the only thing that matters…is family.

Finis

To be continued in: "Ties that Bind"

March 2018

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